They earn their ending. A happy-ever-after beyond the gaze of any eyes.
Jon endures his abdication. This world has no Archivists, has need of none, the thankless crown of Knowing finally unburdened from his shoulders. The blood washes off Martin’s hands with soap and scrubbing and scalding water. They live.
The end. In conclusion. Fin.
Jon’s new scar, the packaging of his skin split ragged from collarbone to sternum, fades like sun-caught paint. A maw of red pursing to a gummy primrose pink, settling into a rough cartography of white.
The first few months are hard. Brimstone flare-up silences and ice-pick shouting, open-handed forgiveness and closed-fist weeping. They drain themselves to husks with anger and worry and grief until there is enough space for better things to grow there in their stead. Jon’s nightmares were a nightly stormfront to bear, sweated sheets and dawn fanfares of panic and dread, but he is learning now, with the space for his ribs to expand, that it is ok for them to breathe here.
Jon digs up the garden with a rusty trowel until it is a bumpy canvas of mulch and soil, dirt tucked under his fingernails and decorated with smudges up to his elbows. He hums while he irons their shirts in front of the television, thoughtless and senseless with tune.
Martin has tried to, but the sound goes down the wrong way.
Martin is happy.
It isn’t the sight as such, that might sit as a film over his vision to tinge his waking sepia. The reddest thing they own is a terracotta plant plot brimming with raggedy thyme that lives a precarious cliff-top existence on the kitchen windowsill. He observes Jon’s face in all its variations, even pained – when he snags splinters in his fingers, when he stubs his toe on the stone front step and swears damnation – and his response is sympathy tempered by admonishment.
It’s not the sensation, not really, that might tremble on his skin. Martin’s palms tend to dryness inside their homely bubble of creaky central heating, hemmed in by boisterous coastal winds. He handles bread knives and butter knives and steak knives and carving knives without the muscle memory of other blades, and he thinks he might be getting pretty handy with his oven experimentation.
It’s the sound. It wakes him, the noise lingering like the echo of a slap.
The slick punch of metal into muscle. A tooth-bared, tense-jawed gasp.
Resurfacing to shocked consciousness, he would be seized by a frenzy, to know, to check. His scattering hand scrabbling for the lamp with such force he hit it off the nightstand to roll in a giddy clatter, throwing off the covers to rapidly pollute both of them with the outside air. Jon would be rocked from sleep, groggy, panicked, and Martin’s words would not come, a train of thought trying to race full steam where no one had laid tracks, so it would be just the two of them, exhausted and upset and amping the other up in misery.
Now, upon his rousing, Martin knows not to turn on the light. He does not check. The aftermath of punch-gasp curls in his ear, and he inhale-exhale-inhales with the ferocity of mantra, and clamps the threatened tears in the clench of his teeth.
He does not wake Jon.
“How did you sleep?”
“Oh, you know me. Like a log.”
He is happy. He is. Why wouldn’t he be?
Jon rumbles like a rusty mechanism with snoring whenever he drops off on his back, and he mumbles accusatory when Martin coaxes him to his side. Martin finds black hairs on his pillowcase, in the shower plug. Jon is a vista of experience since the Eye left him, who gets hungry and tired and grumpy and drunk and silly and fed-up and giggly. Jon searches him out with the surety of magnets, and loves him, loves him, loves him. He seals kisses to Martin’s new landscape of extensive scars. Their disagreements, when they surface, are as meaningful and lasting as stones skipped on water.
Martin wanted this. He wants this. The rhythms of domesticity fading to foam on an untroubled shore.
He is out of practise with happiness, that’s all. It doesn’t come to him like breathing. He needs to till the earth of it, shelter its seeds from a thousand circling crows until it bears harvest.
He just has to try harder.
An episode or two of something simple, Jon nodding off like a capsizing ship before the credits. Encouraging him up in grousing, unwilling increments, rubbing out the nettle sting of pins and needles up his own arm. Check the locks, the light switches. Brush teeth. Pyjamas. Put his phone to charge, read until Jon succumbs to sleep. Click the light off, pushing Jon onto his side so his mouth doesn’t dry. Jon squirming around like a fastidious octopus until he has at least half his limbs hooked over Martin.
The dark creating shadow play. In the absence, Martin colouring in the gaps with lurid shades of disaster.
A creak – the rattle of a door downstairs, an intruder unfastening the back door, transferring their weight upon the staircase. A unfamiliar scent – the recollection of smoke-stench in his nostrils, the acrid promise of gas, the ferrous pungency of blood. The rain will flood their house to drown them. The wind will blow their roof in. Jon hooks his leg around Martin, the skin void of hair where Daisy’s mouth had almost torn it off, and all he can envision is the ways this could be destroyed as he watches.
Bundle Jon close. Ignore the rain, the itch at the bottom of his stomach, the queasy roil of his fear. Drift into unkind sleep populated with its garden of earthly terrors.
Martin is… not happy. Not exactly. And that’s fine. It’s fine.
Jon is happy.
Jon, rubbing at the compression lines around his hips, the accusatory splay of the top button refusing to budge closed:
“I can’t fit into my jeans.”
Martin enfolds him from behind, planting his palms over the slight paunch of Jon’s stomach, filled out through sensible eating and small indulgences and a hunger that will never be ravenous but has restored its human qualities.
“Hmm. It’s a good look on you. Healthier.”
“Or it’s middle age.”
“Or it’s eating things that aren’t tea and meal-deal sandwiches.”
“Or other people’s terror.”
“Oh yes, you’re right, I completely forgot about your subsistence diet of eldritch and unbidden horrors in a luscious wholegrain wrap, forgive me.”
Jon laughs at that. The sound has not yet lost its novelty for either of them.
He shifts, turns, his arms a buoy around Martin’s stomach.
“You’ve lost weight.”
“Must be all the clean air,” Martin quips. “All this healthy living.”
Punch. Gasp. Exhale.
Martin wakes up.
When his heart has wound down from the pace of its gallop, he extricates himself from Jon’s grip. It is a laborious task to find the places where they’ve joined in the night and pull them apart, like separating fabric snagged on rosebushes.
He gets some water from the cold tap in the kitchen. Sits heavily on the sofa, the room cossetted by the gloom.
Punch. Gasp. Exhale.
His hands shake.
He doesn’t go back to bed.
He isn’t happy, but he could grow to be. He could. He could. He just isn’t trying hard enough.
Some days, he feels like he’s waiting for the ice to give under them.
Check the passers-by as they walk. Anyone familiar, any teeth filed too sharp, anything animal or blood-shot, any eyes that glance too deep.
Check the oven. The gas knobs are angled to off but a leak is not impossible in a house this old, their alarm might malfunction, they might fall asleep and some spark from a plug socket could catch and incite a conflagration.
Check the window latches. The opening wide enough for a body to squirm through, the claws of a Hunter marring the sill. Wriggling infestations that invade through the letter box, the keyhole, the gap under the door where the wind can whistle through.
Check. Check. Check.
Jon is happy. Jon has a job, work friends, a hundred small luxuries that he has struggled to earn. Jon is happy, so why can’t he be? He went through so much less, the blood washed off easily with soap, what the fuck does he have to cry over –
Martin has always crafted his masks from scrap, tongue out in concentration, piecing things together in low light, a make-do-and-mend of his own devising. His early efforts, the paper mâché and glue easily cracked before he learned to shore up his constructions. He has a small collection garnered over years.
The quiet-voiced, muffled-stepped, muted-smiled creation of a Good Son.
The zipped-mouth, no-refusals-no-complaints-yes-of-course-how-high earnestness of the Good Employee, the desperation sanded off the edges so no one could see.
The I’ll-get-the-first-round friendliness, the open-handed, open-hearted, too-naïve Good Colleague.
This new mask forms in increments, in the same way a rising mound of dirt marks the extent of a grave being dug.
He doesn’t mean to. It’s just he’s better at not talking about things. He always has been. And it is an ugly, easy comfort, to slip back into bad habits.
And Jon is happy.
All the things Martin does not wish to permit the light to touch he compresses inside like shaken soda. The rot in him deepens structural, the places where he papers over moulds and fungal speckles with the distraction of their new life. His smile parades simple, contented, cheeky, teasing, and there is a meticulous artistry in each. He sketches interest, paints joy, manufactures irritation out of the clay of nothingness that he allows himself to feel instead of the overwhelming rush of everything else.
I love you, his mouth murmurs, laughs, sighs, groans, and that at least is always true.
The mask of a Good Partner slips on tailor-made.
They find their nine-to-fives. Jon’s job is uneventful, boring, and nowhere near an Archive. He works in a registry office for the council, filing and organising and he’s cheerfully lied on his CV in order to get it. He gets the bus and texts Martin grumpy faces and GIFs summarising his mood when he gets suck in the commute or some idiot parks in a bus lane, he has a couple of colleagues he likes and a greater number that he tolerates, he gets a hot chocolate from this universe’s overpriced multinational chain on his lunch hour. When he gets home, he complains with delight at the mundanity of his dissatisfactions, regales Martin with tales of meagre drama.
Martin gets a cleaning job at a school. It is monotonous, dull and safe. Martin loses track of the time easily, quagmired in his musings. The children are wary of him and his visible scarring but it doesn’t bother him as much as he thought it would. The teachers are friendly enough, as well as the other cleaning staff, but he does not make friends. They’ll have to move anyway, if anything finds them here, if the Fears emerge again.
Martin tries not to feel like he’s waiting.
He wants to have a good night’s sleep.
“I’ll have breakfast at the school, don’t worry.”
“There were some leftovers from the canteen, so I’m kind of full.”
“It was one of the teacher’s birthdays, you know, Denise? Heh, might have had a bit too much cake. I’ll pop this in the fridge for later though, it’ll keep till tomorrow.”
“I’m just not that hungry tonight, Jon.”
He feels sharper when he doesn’t eat. It is uncomfortable, a scratched-out, hollowing sensation, but things focus more. He can control nothing else but this, and it feels good, to have this mastery over himself when so much is beyond him.
He drops down notches on his belt and tells Jon it’s all the walking he’s doing.
The world continues to happen to them. He goes to the cinema with Jon and picks at popcorn and encourages Jon’s outraged opinion. He meets Jon’s mildly interesting work friends and plays nice and excels at small talk, and he drinks half a cider that he nurses over the evening because it’s making his head fuggy. His body communicates its sharpness to him and he gains grim satisfaction from ignoring it. He goes to work and goes home and doesn’t sleep and goes to work and goes home and doesn’t sleep.
Martin does his best at living, and his mask doesn’t slip.
“You seem tired,” Jon pries his words out carefully, picking them out of his teeth as one would scraps. “Is… is everything ok?”
“Yeah, sure it is. Why?”
“… you seem a bit down today. Recently. Is anything… is there anything you want to talk about?”
“I’ve just been working too hard. Been a while since I had to do double-shifts, heh, I’m not as young as I used to be.”
“If you’re sure?”
Jon shifts to a different position where he’s sat on the sofa, his legs tucking up under him. Martin endures his questioning gaze with practise.
“Yeah, I’m all good.”
Martin delivers a hand-crafted smile that’s gilded heavily with guilelessness and reassurance. He watches as Jon believes him and hates himself.
“You know… You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but you can – you know you can talk to me, Martin?”
Martin’s eyes focus on Jon’s chest at the point where a knife once sunk in, and doesn’t reply.
Punch. Gasp. Exhale.
Martin wakes up.
Jon has twisted over onto his back again, rattling like a chain-smoker’s cough with his snoring. They were quiet that evening, tangled up in their own thoughts, but there is none of that distance in sleep. During the night, Jon’s wormed himself out of the covers with a single-minded determination, his restless legs squashing the duvet to the bottom of the bed on his side, encouraging Martin’s to follow suit.
He’s shirtless, his top chucked off to pile unceremoniously on the floor. The temperature is ripe with a burgeoning summer heat, and Jon tosses and complains if he’s overwarm, and Martin didn’t think he’d get to feel the drudgery of another lived summer. He’s shirtless, and the room is palled in sweltering dark that softens the vague shapes of the wardrobe, the chest of drawers, the knickknacks of the life they’re building together. He’s shirtless, and Martin cannot see where the scar is, the only scar of Jon’s he has ever thought ugly, but he knows it is there. That he put it there. That he could just as easily be waking up alone.
His body pains him to live in it. His stomach tight and bottomed out empty.
He is so so tired.
Martin’s heartbeat does not slow down. His chest constricting, and he swallows, a sharp sound hiccupping in his throat. He stifles it with a forceful sniff but more come as a painful spasming wave, and he has to sit up if any air is to dribble into his lungs.
He should get up. He has to get up, do this in the bathroom, doubled-over the sink, stifling his weakness where it cannot be witnessed. He cannot do this here.
His burning face is soaked as he bunches up his sleeves against his reddening eyes. A calming exhale drains out shaky, moulds itself into another loud sob. He plants his hands over his mouth, screwing his eyes closed, and this will pass, he’s fine, this will pass…
I’m sorry to wake you, he thinks to say. It’s nothing, go back to sleep, stop looking at me Jon, I’m fine, I’m fine, it’s nothing, it’s nothing…
His shoulders start to shake.
“Martin?” Jon repeats slowly. And the ice creaks and cracks and Martin gasps and then it breaks, and the force of his damned-up grief is tidal, catastrophic and he sobs into his hands.
“It’s… it’s alright – it’s… it was a nightmare, that’s all, ‘s alright…”
“It’s not!” Martin bubbles out, the words mashed to a wail in his hands. “It’s not, it’s not, it’ll ruin this…”
“Hey.” Jon brings his arm around Martin and he buries his head in the bony crook of his shoulder because he does not want to meet Jon’s eyes. “What do you mean? Martin?”
Jon rubs at his back. Martin’s body betrays him in a hundred ways as it collapses around him. His weeping wrings him out, dry-mouthed and headachy and trembling when he subsides into shivery breaths.
“Talk to me,” Jon says. “Please.”
“You’re so happy,” Martin sniffs out. “I-I want you to be happy, god, o-of course I do. Things are, they’re good, they’re good and we won, s-s-so why does it feel like I’m still holding my breath? I-I go to bed and I’m frightened of every noise, and I wake up and I’m terrified that someone somehow could take this all away, and I can’t sleep, and I-I’m tired, Jon, I’m tired of holding my breath, and it’s all – it’s all so much a-a-a-and I can’t – ”
“Oh, Martin – ”
His words fail him then. Jon holds him up and his arms do not loosen.
“We-we’re going to fix this,” Jon says after a long while. “I promise you, together, we’ll – we’ll talk to someone. You aren’t alone in this. Together, alright, we’ll do this together. We’ve survived – everything else, we can get through this too.”
“I don’t know if I can believe you,” Martin says, too drained to avoid honesty.
“…Maybe not yet,” Jon says after a pause. “That’s OK. I can wait.”
I’m sorry, Martin attempts to say but Jon presses a kiss to his forehead.
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Jon says. He strokes Martin’s sweat-soaked hair.
“… Can we talk? Tomorrow? You don’t have to tell me everything, but… I’d like to be there for you, if you want me. If you’ll let me.”
Martin nods because he doesn’t trust his gummed-up throat. Jon takes that as an answer enough.
Dawn comes slowly enough but they see it in together.