The blackened husk of the wax museum still smells like a campfire, though it’s been weeks since there was anything still burning. Martin grips his torch and swallows uneasily, hiking his bag further up his shoulders. He ducks under the tattered line of police tape and makes his way to the empty door frame; even in the beam of the torch, he can only see a couple meters into the building. He shores up his nerves and pushes inside.
The smell of the smoke settles over him in a thick haze, clogging his nostrils immediately and making his eyes water. He gasps on instinct, and descends into coughing for a minute before he has the wherewithal to pull his shirt up over his nose. The torch beam skitters this way and that, poking over damp rubble and gelatinous pools of multi-colored wax melted down into a tacky, muddy coating that clings to his shoes as he walks. The scorched steel frames loom out of the dark like the bones of soldiers poised for battle.
“Hello?” Martin calls out, and wonders immediately afterward if that was a mistake. No one else should be here, but then again, he’s here. He kicks aside a pile of velvety fabric and wades through the soggy ash it disgorges. The torch alights on a - well, it’s really just a hole, perfectly circular and off-center on the floor. The edges of a ladder, streaked with ash, protrude. The police reports after the explosion mentioned no such thing, so this must be what he’s looking for.
It takes some awkward fiddling but he manages to get the strap of his backpack wound around the barrel of the torch, so he can pin it under his arm and have his hands free for climbing. He kicks an egg-sized chunk of pavement down, trying to gauge the distance in the impenetrable black, but the whole building suddenly shifts and groans, straining against its weight, and the noise is masked. Right. Message received.
The cold shocks Martin’s foot, raising gooseflesh even through his trainers and socks when he steps onto the first rung. The dark air is perfectly still and dry to his eyes, but it feels like eddies of water swirling around his skin, prodding through his clothing as he descends. He grips the rungs so tightly his hands ache and concentrates on the block of light cast by his torch on the wall in front of him. The stone is ancient, and it seems to be getting older as he descends.
It takes a few minutes of careful climbing before his foot swings down through air where he’s expecting a rung. It startles him enough he jerks himself closer to the ladder, dislodging the torch as he does so, and the metal casing clatters on the floor just an arm’s length below him. For a moment the beam flickers, rolling side to side before it settles in a beacon of lukewarm light pointing the way. Martin scrambles down the rest of the ladder and retrieves the torch with trembling hands.
Ahead, the passageway narrows, and he follows it with his free hand pressed against the wall and tries not to shudder too badly at the slick feel of the stone.
He steps through a doorway that looks like it’s been blasted open from the inside and finds himself ankle-deep in more brackish water, impenetrably dark and slightly too viscous where it worms its way through his clothing to skin. “Hello?” he asks again. His voice is muffled, for all that the space feels open and large, heavy with smoke and clinging ash on every surface the torch beam touches.
He’s walked a ways and the wax museum above wasn’t large; he must be below a different building entirely at this point. Or maybe not. Maybe this whole place has bent in on itself and wound into a tight little knot that will crush him between its fibers as soon as he tries to leave.
Either way, this blasted, burned-out cavern is big enough to have drafts of its own, though he can see no light seeping through any openings. Martin swings the torch from side to side and ducks below a familiar piece of armature. The images he dredges up from his memory begin to piece themselves together as he moves. There’s the remnants of the Angler Fish in a pile on the scorched stage, and something that stinks like an animal carcass, and blocks of stone and concrete forming unnatural shapes in his dim vision. His foot catches on something, sends it spinning through the shallow water, and he sees a charred axe head in the torch beam.
He stops - stops moving, stops breathing entirely. The hair on his arms prickles, as tense as the rest of him.
“Martin?” The voice comes again, scratchy and hoarse from disuse, a dreadful moaning undertone. Martin swings his light around and can’t keep himself from crying out when he sees the dark figure.
Tim flinches away from the light and the noise, bare feet smudged with black yanking into the shadows. Martin quickly adjusts the light so it only reflects on the rubbled wall beside Tim, nothing hitting him directly, and after a moment Tim’s lean arms unwind from his knees and he crawls to his feet.
Even in shadows, Martin can tell he looks terrible. His hair is choked with ash and his skin is sallow - all of it, bare, because he’s naked where he sways. Martin would be blushing in any other circumstance. Tim just stares at him like he can’t comprehend what he’s seeing in front of him.
Fair. Martin probably wouldn’t believe it himself, if he hadn’t been shown already. The images ground into his head had been few but they’d been clear enough, and Basira’d confirmed their origin. It’s the whole reason he’s down in this damp, dead cavern of a building. There’s also a decent chance it’s all a ruse to get him eaten.
The thought makes him proud, in a sickly morbid way, that Elias might think he was a significant enough piece to bother knocking him off the board.
He clears his throat to speak. “It’s me,” he says, and Tim’s eyes focus for a moment. He edges towards the light, faltering before he’s in the beam directly.
“You can’t be here,” Tim says.
“It’s - it’s alright, I’m here to get you out.”
“No. You can’t be here, which means it’s fucking with me by making me see impossible shit again.” Tim’s face twists into a familiar snarl, the same way he’d looked at Jon in the last months before - well. Martin raises his empty hand and has the panicky thought that he’s trying to placate Tim like a wild animal.
“Tim, it’s me. I’m - I was sent here to get you,” he says.
“Yeah? By who? Jon decided he wasn’t done ruining my life, had to go another round?” Tim spits. Martin’s eyes are adjusting to the shadows, slowly. Tim’s painfully familiar, but there’s a thinness to him that’s new. How long has he been down here? Hysterical bile rises in Martin’s throat.
“Jon’s - it wasn’t Jon. Elias. He showed me where you were,” he says, a lame admission even to his own ears.
“And you trusted him? You’re either more of an idiot than I thought or a bad fake,” Tim spits.
“I had to see. What if it was you, and I left you down here, where it’s cold and, and dark and wet and probably going to cave in one of these days? I couldn’t, not after - everything. I had to come, if there was a chance I could fix it.” He knows he’s pleading now, unable to keep the edge of pathetic whining out of his voice. Can’t stop it, can’t tamp it down, his hand is starting to shake around the torch and Tim’s watching him warily like of the two of them, Martin’s the one who can’t possibly be alive.
Martin drops his hand so the torch only illuminates his feet and Tim moves, suddenly, crashing into him. Martin’s arms wrap around him without thinking. Tim used to be happily tactile, always slinging an arm around Martin’s shoulders or sitting too close at the pub. He didn’t realize how much he’d missed it.
Tim swallows hard against his throat and his fingers tighten in Martin’s shirt. “I’m - cold.”
“Right - right. Of course you are, christ, here,” Martin says. He shuffles his backpack off and fumbles out the spare set of clothes. Trousers, and a jumper, and a spare pair of trainers Tim had left in the office once. Except for the shoes, nothing fits right, too big in some places and too small in others, but Tim looks better with the clothes on. Less potentially rabid. He swipes the sleeve over his face in an attempt to clear some of the grit and sweat off, and looks at Martin.
“You have a way out?” Martin gnaws at his lip and glances uselessly at the dark way he came. Should’ve brought some kind of marker, made this a proper fairy tale with a bread crumb trail or a ball of yarn. But the twisting disorientation Basira described is long scoured from this place; there’s no need.
“I thought we’d just go the way I came? It shouldn’t be too long. Here.” He offers the torch, but Tim grimaces and shakes his head. He’s still avoiding the light. That’s - that’s not good, but Martin can worry about it later, when they’re above ground.
The walk back is quiet. Martin’s braced for something to hit him out of the gloom, Tim or another monster or the disassembled corpse of Nikola Orsinov, but it’s just their footsteps splashing in the muck and his own breathing. He climbs the ladder and finds himself comforted by the off-rhythm clanks of Tim following in his shadow.
It’s still dark outside when they step out of the wax museum, but the dark of the city. Martin’s never been so grateful for light pollution. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and sends a text off to Basira.
Is it him
Near as I can tell? It’s not like there’s a test
This late? And how will we know if he’s telling the truth?
Martin’s rented car is where he left it, a mid-range vehicle generously paid for by the Magnus Institute’s new Head’s credit card. He climbs into the driver’s seat and Tim follows after him, bringing a smell of mildew and damp and smoke. It’s fine. Lukas can afford to have it cleaned, and Martin - Martin can’t really bring himself to care, right now. He’s still all over numb and braced for the blow. Tim ducks his head down against the window and closes his eyes.
It’s almost three hours back to Martin’s flat, and they crawl by compared to his manic drive up to Great Yarmouth. Tim doesn’t say a word, but Martin’s pretty sure he’s not sleeping. He sneaks glances out of the corner of his eye, tracing the rivulets of black mud on Tim’s neck and the sharpened angles of his cheekbones and the deep shadows under his eyes.
Hell. Some witless part of him hoped he’d just know, as soon as he laid eyes on him, what he had in his hands. He supposes he should be thankful he’s not knowing things or Knowing things out of the blue, but, wryly, it’d be useful right about now.
The sun’s yet to start crawling over the horizon when they get back to Martin’s flat, so he’s able to nudge Tim out of the car and up into the building without protest, or really any reaction at all. Tim stands in the center of the room and Martin’s hand pauses over the light switch. He thinks better of it.
“Bathroom’s over there. You clean off, I’m going to get us a takeaway.” He digs up another spare change of clothes to replace the mud-stained ones Tim’s got on and waits until he hears the water start up to slip out of his flat, locking the door behind him.
It catches up to him on the walk up the street to the kebab that’ll still be open. His hands shake as he pulls his phone out, and he ends up staring at them uncomprehending on a street corner. What did I just do?
He runs it over in his head a moment. It wasn’t, it couldn’t be an outright fabrication - and he’s got firm proof of that, now, living and breathing and currently using up all his hot water. There’s Tim, or a Tim-shaped something, in his flat. Elias was right. Not exactly a sentence that pleases him.
Basira’s left him a couple more messages, in the last few distracted hours. He thumbs them away and presses the phone icon instead; it rings through immediately.
“How is he?” she greets him. Martin exhales shakily and tries not to feel so pathetically grateful to hear the voice of someone he’s fairly confident isn’t a dread terror made flesh.
“I don’t know. Bad? Probably should be worse? What did Elias say?”
Basira makes a noise of pure exhaustion into the phone. “Says you’ve got what you came for and he’s ‘ours now’. Wouldn’t explain what that meant and the guard was watching so I couldn’t persuade him. I don’t like this, Martin.”
“Not exactly keen myself.”
“Mmm.” Her voice is unimpressed, but after a moment she sighs and says, “Just be careful. You weren’t there for the Unknowing. Whatever you’ve got in your flat...I still think this was a bad idea.”
“And I still think it was a risk worth taking. You would’ve done the same.” She doesn’t agree - she doesn’t have to. Her voice is brusque when she speaks again.
“Be careful. I’ll text if I find anything else.”
“You too.” She’s already hung up. Martin shoves his phone back into his pocket and continues up the road. The streetlamp across from his flat gutters and dims for a moment before going out entirely.
The flat is dark when he pushes the door open, steaming kebab dangling from a bag on his arm, but he expected that. What he wasn’t expecting is the rolled up towel shoved against the threshold. He nearly trips over it on his way in and ends up catching himself on the doorframe and blinking in disorientation. The faint light that normally seeps in through the blind is gone, and when he steps close enough to touch it he realizes Tim has thrown a blanket up over it. The door to the bathroom is ajar, and the water is off.
He sets the kebab on the coffee table and opens the door to the yawning black void of his bedroom.
Tim’s shoved another blanket over the window and crawled under the duvet. Not hungry, apparently. He should stow the kebab in the fridge for later, but suddenly the idea of stepping back out into his flat makes his palms sweat. He crowds the bundled up shirt back against the gap below the door and strips down to his underwear.
The other body in the bed shifts aside as he crawls under the covers. Tim’s got them pulled up over his head, an extra layer he must’ve dug up from the closet that Martin only ever uses when it’s the depth of winter and the heating’s out again. Right now it’s stifling. He slips his own head under and breathes in the hot, damp air.
He can’t see a thing, which he supposes is the point. Tim’s breathing is even, but not slow with sleep. Just steady and rigid. Martin tentatively bridges the gap between their bodies and circles his fingers around his wrist.
The question’s been hanging over him since the first paralyzing daydream about a body choking back to life in a hole in the ground. He runs his thumb over Tim’s rapid pulse and lets it loose.
“How did you get back?”
Tim inhales as if he’s been hit and surges into movement.
He presses Martin into the mattress, heavy and warm and smelling like Martin’s own soap. The covers shift, nearly sliding off their heads, but Tim winds a hand in them and pins them down so they can’t fall before he ducks to mouth at Martin’s throat.
Martin chokes on a whimper. He’s blanketed - literally, yes, but Tim’s overwhelming besides, a nearly crushing weight on top of him, and his eyes blink uselessly, trying to snag on some light, any light, in order to see. He wraps his arms around Tim’s waist and tries to rein in his heartbeat. “Tim, talk to me.”
“I don't want to talk about it. Can we not talk about it?” Tim says, into the stale black air trapped under the covers with them. His voice is harsh but his hands on Martin’s skin are careful, and his knee slots in between Martin’s thighs.
“Okay,” Martin folds, and kisses him.
He’s kissed Tim before, twice even. On the way home from the pub one night when Sasha dragged them both out and then ditched them for a handsome bloke with a cleft chin, Tim and Martin stumbling home half tipsy and Tim had crowded him up against the wall next to an alley that smelled like piss. Too drunk to go further, and in the morning Martin had been too embarrassed and cowardly to bring it up again but Tim had grinned at him like nothing had changed and they’d slipped back into their rhythm.
The second time, after Tim told him about Danny, he’d been brittle and angry and crying silently and he’d bitten Martin’s lip hard enough to scrape the skin off. Never really had time to deal with that one.
This third time, he’s navigating by touch alone, and Tim pants into his mouth and shakes apart against him and Martin keeps kissing him.
After, Tim presses up against Martin’s back, hiding his face in his shoulder. The air under the covers is humid and thick and smells like sweat and sex now, and even with time to adjust Martin can’t see a thing. Nothing seeps through the edges. He shoves his head out of the covers and it helps, with breathing at least. He’s not used to his flat being this dark. When Tim speaks, Martin’s halfway suffocated to sleep.
“I don’t remember much after the blast,” Tim whispers. “It was quick, and then it wasn’t. I remember not being able to see anything. I thought, my eyes must have been destroyed, except they didn’t hurt, at least not any more than the rest of me. But I remember I wanted to die, I was ready for it even, and then when I had my chance I - grabbed a lifeline. Whatever it was. Pulled me out. And then I was in the dark.”
Martin’s eyes strain to make out something, anything, the cobwebs in the high corner of his room or the heap of laundry he hasn’t done or the books stacked on a chair. He knows they’re there. He can’t see them.
“And it kept me alive, down there. Did you know algae can grow in pitch black caves? Maybe that’s what I am.” A Tim-shaped creature, skulking in the dark, making Martin’s flat into a black cave of its own. Or his friend, traumatized and scared and miraculously alive. They don’t get many miracles, if they ever did. In the stillness of the room, he can’t bring himself to push further. He doesn’t know what he’ll find.
Martin curls his fingers around Tim’s, and waits for a morning he’s not sure will come.