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After the world ended

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“Look at the sky, Martin. Look at the sky. It’s looking back.” And Jon laughed, a horrible, manic laughter that turned into sobbing while he clung to Martin, who buried his face in Jon’s sweater and just held on.

That was maybe an hour ago; it’s impossible to know exactly, since all clocks stopped working when… well, when the world ended. After he finally let go, Jon locked himself in the bathroom. Martin can hear he’s being sick, and he doesn’t answer when Martin asks if he’s alright.

“Well, that was a stupid question”, he muttered to himself and spent the next fifteen minutes pulling all the curtains closed and hanging blankets over the windows without any. Then he waited, but when Jon still hasn’t come out after what feels like an eternity, Martin can’t take it any more.

Armed with a cup of sweet tea and a table knife, he knocks on the bathroom door.

“Jon? Jon, I’m coming in”, he says, ignoring the thick Go away, Martin he receives in response. Fortunately, the lock is old and it’s five seconds’ work to unlock it from the outside with the knife. As he turns it, he hears the thump of the toilet lid and the sound of flushing. He opens the door, the tea held out in front of him. “I made you a cup of tea. I thought you might need it.”

Jon is sitting on the floor, looking pale and sweaty. When Martin steps inside, he curls in on himself, like he’s trying to hide by pressing himself into the wall.

“I did this”, he whispers with his eyes firmly on the floor. “I did this. It’s – it’s all my fault. All the fear in the world… I can feel it all.” He holds out his hand, and Martin can see it’s shaking. He drops the knife with a clatter and sets the tea down with more care. Then he kneels down and reaches for the trembling hand.

“Jon? Jon, what happened? What did you do?”

Finally, Jon looks up. His eyes are red-rimmed and bloodshot, and when he gestures to a crumpled ball of paper on the floor, two tears escape to mingle with the sweat on his cheeks. Martin picks up the ball and smooths it out. It’s a statement, written on the Institute’s stationary, a few pages stapled together in the corner. Puzzled, he begins to read.

“No. No”, he says when he gets to the part where Jonah fucking Magnus declares that this is his statement about Jon. Jon himself groans and buries his face against his knees, looking impossibly small in Martin’s jumper. Martin keeps reading, and for every second he hates that man more and more, something he didn’t think possible an hour ago. He shivers when he gets to the end, and crumples the paper again before throwing it into the corner. “He did this, Jon. He did this, not you.”

“I should’ve tried harder to – to stop reading, to – to not – not… The world is gone, Martin! Because of m-me.” He dives for the toilet again, and Martin leaves him to it.

He creeps back to the window in the living room and peeks under the curtain for a moment, drawn by something he can’t resist. It’s – he can’t describe it, he doesn’t think there are any words to describe it, not yet. He whimpers and drops the curtain again, fear twisting his insides into knots. He wants Jon to hold him and tell him it’s going to be alright, but knows that would be a bigger lie than they could handle.

After a while – how long? Is there any way to tell any more? - he hears soft footsteps behind him, and Jon wraps his arms around him from behind.

“Don’t look”, he whispers. He rests his forehead between Martin’s shoulder blades, and Martin can feel he’s still trembling. For the record, Martin probably is too. He turns around and hugs Jon, hard enough to still them both.

“You don’t have to look though, do you?” And he feels Jon shake his head against his chest. He sighs and tightens his arms even more.

 

*

 

Eventually, Martin falls asleep. Jon can feels his fear drain away as he drops off, his head resting on Jon’s thigh, with Jon softly carding though his hair with his fingers, just the way he’s learnt that Martin loves. He leans back against the headboard with a slow exhale, closing his eyes. He is so very, very tired, but something tells him sleep won’t come. Ever again, most likely.

Then something… touches his mind. The initial onslaught of terror and pain had faded eventually, and settled as a dull, throbbing ache in the back of his mind, but this is something new. He looks down; Martin is frowning in his sleep, mouth twitching slightly and eyes moving rapidly under his eyelids. Jon smiles and places a soft hand on his cheek to calm him. Then his stomach turns as the flood of Knowledge hits him.

Martin is dreaming. He’s dreaming – he’s dreaming about the field where they used to go cow spotting; it was a huge green meadow, dotted with the fluffy highland cows Martin adores. Now it’s dark and empty, the grass burnt and blackened, and here and there sticky with stains Martin-in-the-dream really doesn’t what to know what they are. He’s calling out for their favourite cow, and Jon wrenches his mind away before he finds her.

It doesn’t help, though. Before he can fight it, or even try to slam the door in his mind on it, the questing tendrils of hunger for Knowledge reach the village, the picturesque little village with its huge, towering church and kind inhabitants. Jon tries to pull back, but he can’t – he can’t breathe, and he’s dimly aware that he’s biting into his hand not to cry out, but most of him – most of him is in the village, Knowing what’s happened to everyone who lived there.

The old lady who spotted them when they forgot themselves and walked into the supermarket hand in hand, and smiled hugely at them and said “Och, bless ye, on yer honeymoon, are ye?” in a broad Scottish accent. Martin had blushed and stuttered something, and the old lady patted his hand and winked at Jon, who firmly said “Yes” and squeezed Martin’s hand. Now she’s wandering through endless corridors, despondently calling out for her husband, for her sons, for anyone, but only ever finding more and more doors, more and more warping corridors…

The middle-aged gentleman who owns the pub they only ever visited once, and who started talking with Martin about cows. Jon had thought he might die of boredom until he discovered that watching Martin’s animated face was possible the least boring thing in the world, though he bartender’s dry, strong cider probably helped too… and now he is trapped in a tiny cellar, the earthen walls closing in and in and in…

The single mother of three who worked in the school, loved by children, colleagues and parents alike, is crying in an empty room, filled with icy, grey fog… The grumpy old sergeant who glared at them and muttered something about bloody sassenachs but pointed them in the right direction of the payphone kindly enough, he is cowering in a blood-soaked trench with guns rattling and soldiers dying all around him… The cashier at the supermarket, who always chews gum and nips out to have a cigarette as soon as there is a lull between the customers, is falling, falling, falling, trapped in a lift torn free of its moorings…

Jon can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, he’s going to be sick, he wants to scream, cry, take it all back, undo it… He eases Martin’s head onto the pillow, some part of him still conscious enough not to want to wake him, and half-crawls out of the bedroom, desperately trying to choke down the sobs – screams? – that are clawing at his throat from the inside.

The young lady who’s just taken over the little bookshop from her mother; the young couple they overheard having a blazing row in the village square once; the siblings who run the tiny clothes shop on the corner; the long-suffering minister and his rebellious goth daughter… he Knows it all, Knows what they all fear the most, can feel their unending terror in this new world made of horrors.

Jon whimpers, curling into a ball on the living room floor. The floorboards are cold and hard against his cheek, and he clings to the sensation: an anchor to – to – he doesn’t know what to call it any more, because reality feels sickeningly wrong.

At last the tidal wave of fear and horror dies down, once again settling down in the back of his mind; not gone, never gone, but not acutely swamping him with Knowledge of all the suffering he’s caused, is causing…

Jon lies on the floor, shaking and gasping for breath, his insides feeling like they are trying to rip themselves apart in anguish. I did this I did this I did this oh god I did this – The scream building up inside him comes out as a choked wail and when he accidentally brushes his cheek, his fingers come away wet. Somewhere, deep inside his mind, he can hear Jonah Magnus laughing.

Then soft fingers touch his hair, and Martin is there.

“Jon? Jon, I woke up and you weren’t there.” His voice trembles and Jon feels like an arse. He drags himself up and pulls Martin close.

“I’m sorry.” Martin is warm and solid in his arms, a better anchor than the floor could ever be. With his face buried in Martin’s neck, Jon can breathe again, so he wraps himself around Martin as much as he can, nearly trying to burrow into him.

“O-okay”, Martin says with a tiny, shaky laugh. “Okay.” And he hugs Jon back, their breathing gradually slowing and the trembling subsiding in the embrace.

 

*

 

Martin doesn’t know how long they stay like that, clinging to each other on the floor. Long enough for both of them to calm down, at least, and then some more because it feels good. Jon is the only normal thing he has left, and he needs that, needs that tiny sliver of normality to ground him.

They go back to bed afterwards. Martin doubts he’ll sleep any more, and Jon is wide-eyed and strung tight as a bowstring, but it’s not like they really have anything better to do. Not right now. Not yet. Eventually they’ll have to talk about some kind of plan, he supposes, but – not yet. Instead they hold each other, still and quiet in the darkness.

Jon’s eyes are closed, but Martin knows he isn’t asleep; he isn’t breathing right for that.

“Jon?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m scared.”

For a few moments, there is silence. Then, so softly it’s hardly even a whisper, more felt against his cheek than heard:

“Me too.”

Eventually they get up again. Not because anything has changed outside, because day and night don’t seem to exist any more, but because – well, they can’t lie there forever, can they? Jon looks like he wants to give it a serious try, but Martin is… restless. He wanders around the cabin while Jon rifles through the rest of the box Magnus sent them.

He’s glad he’s in the kitchen when Jon plays the first of the tapes.

Surprise!” he hears himself, Tim and Sasha, the real Sasha, yell, and the tinny voices makes his throat close up and his insides clench. He hears a bang that must be the tape recorder crashing to the floor and realises he’s sitting on the floor, his forehead resting against his knees and arms wrapped tight around himself.

He remembers that day. It was – it was nice, in the end. They had cake and wine, and after Elias – no, Jonah , fucking Jonah Magnus , Martin has never wanted to kill someone with his bare hands before, but he sure wants to kill him – left, they even managed to coax a few genuine laughs out of Jon. That was before everything started to go wrong, he thinks. When his biggest worries were his mum’s ever-declining health and his persistent crush on Jon, paired with the fact that Jon – well, that Jon didn’t like him one bit.

For a minute, he tries to imagine how life would’ve been if – if everything that happened didn’t. Tim and Sasha would still be alive, for one thing. And he would still be pining after Jon, who only thought of him as an annoyance he unfortunately had to put up with. On the other hand, there would still be a world. He thinks back on the past three weeks, that in many ways have been the happiest in his life. He’s got to be with Jon, and Jon loves him, Jon really, truly loves him, as much as Martin loves him back. Would he trade that for the world?

Then he feels sick at his own selfishness. Of course he would, if being doomed to a lifetime of not being Jonathan Sims’ boyfriend would keep the world from ending, that would be a price he paid gladly. Of course he would.

 

*

 

For a long while, Jon stares at the tape recorder on the floor. It’s unharmed, which doesn’t surprise him, and he knows he will have to pick it up again. He Knows he will listen to all of the tapes, because he needs to know what they contain. Even if it will hurt. It’s just – it’s just he doesn’t know how much more hurting he can take right now. He feels raw, like all his nerves are on the outside, like he could be shattered by the slightest blow.

But he needs to know. Needs to hear. Needs to listen.

So he picks up the recorder and presses play again, this time knowing what will come, the memories he thought he had forgotten, but merely had hidden away somewhere.

And yes. It does hurt.

 

*

 

Time passes. How much, they can’t tell. Time doesn’t exist any more, Jon says, and Martin believes him.

He goes to sleep when he’s tired, and often Jon comes to bed with him, but Martin knows he doesn’t sleep. He is rarely there when he wakes up again, and when Martin allows himself to be selfish and petty, that is probably what he misses the most: waking up with Jon draped all over him, sleeping peacefully like a huge, affectionate cat.

As it is, he’s only thankful he never remembers his dreams. It’s bad enough that he wakes up cold and shaking, gasping for breath; to remember why would be… unbearable.

If Jon hears him wake, he’s usually there within a minute, and they cling to each other until the quiet terror of the unremembered dream has faded into the never-ending background fear that never goes away.

More often than not though, Martin will go looking for Jon once he’s calmed down a bit, and usually he finds him listening to the tapes from the box over and over again. Martin has only heard snippets of them, doesn’t want to listen to the voices of their dead friends, and Jon usually pauses when he notices Martin. But he always goes back to listen again, and again, and again.

Martin is – well, Martin is terrified. Since that horrible morning the world ended, he has been afraid every single second. Jon though… He’s scared too, Martin knows, but it’s more than that. He radiates pain and grief so harsh and unforgiving that it sometimes hurts to be near him. It nearly makes Martin run away, occasionally. He doesn’t, though, because there not being anywhere to actually run notwithstanding, this is Jon. His Jon, who is in pain and needs Martin.

Martin only wishes Jon would actually talk to him, instead of just listening to the tapes over and over and over again. Sometimes, Martin hears him weep. Sometimes, he lets Martin hold him, but far too often he shies away from any comforting touch, and that hurts Martin more than he cares to admit.

 

*

 

Martin keeps making tea out of habit, until the tea runs out. Jon finds him at the kitchen table, reverently sipping the last cup.

“Hi”, Martin says when Jon drags the around the table so he can sit down and rest his chin on Martin’s shoulder. “Feeling any better?”

Jon begins to shake his head, because nothing will probably feel better ever again, but instead he drops his forehead onto Martin’s shoulder and breathes him in.

“A little”, he mutters at last. “I’m sorry I – I’m sorry I pushed you away.”

“It’s alright.” Martin rests his cheek against Jon’s hair, and Jon wishes he could let the lie slide. He can’t though; he doesn’t even need his Beholding powers to hear how small Martin’s voice is, or notice its slight tremble. Reluctantly, he sits up straight and pushes the hair out of his eyes.

“No, it’s – it’s not alright. I – I – I’m sorry. How – how are you doing?”

Martin snorts, a sharp, bitter sound that bites deep into Jon’s core. He must’ve flinched, because Martin’s glare softens immediately.

“I’m… I’m alright, I guess.” He shrugs, avoiding Jon’s eyes. Then he holds out the cup of tea, like a peace-offering. “You want some?”

“It’s the last we have.” Suddenly his eyes are full of tears and a lump in his throat makes his voice crack. Martin loves tea, and he’s the kindest person Jon has ever met in his life, and he is trapped in this never-ending hell because of Jon. He bites the inside of his cheek to choke back the sob that desperately wants out.

“Yeah”, Martin says, so softly Jon has to lean closer to hear him properly. “Yeah. And I want to share it. With you.”

And Jon breaks down again, sobbing into Martin’s jumper. It’s so unfair, he thinks, it’s so unbelievably unfair. And Martin strokes his back and pets his hair and holds him, because he always, always, always takes care of Jon and no one ever takes care of him. He pulls back and sees silent tears running down Martin’s face as well.

“Martin”, he murmurs. “Martin.” He wipes the tears away with shaking fingers, and Martin catches his hand and kisses his fingers, and it’s all just too much.

Silently, they share the last of the tea, while the winds of fear howl around their tiny haven.

Outside, the Eye watches, and delights.