Jon has a memory of the last time his mother hugged him.
He doesn’t know with any confidence that it’s a real memory. He was four years old when she died, and he mostly remembers her in vague sketches of warmth and comfort. It seems a little much to hope for, that his child's brain had picked up on the significance of that moment above all others. The memory could just as well be something he dreamed later, or an impression gleaned from a book or a film. Some fictional memory that he stitched her face over, something momentous and unearned.
It feels real, though. The way her arms folded him into her, soft and loving. Her long hair falling around him in a curtain, the vanilla and spice smell he’s not even sure was hers. The way she kissed his cheek and told him she’d see him very soon, and that Gran would take care of him in the meantime. That she loved him more than anything in the world.
It is a hazy memory, and there’s nobody alive who could tell Jon if it’s real or not. He lets himself believe that it is. Sometimes it’s the only real thing he has to cling to.
He doesn’t say much when Georgie breaks things off with him. She’s oddly kind about it, like it isn’t really anyone’s fault. (It’s his, of course, he knows that because he always ruins things.) She holds his hand in both of hers while she tells him, not looking him in the eye, like someone breaking the news of a death.
“I just need someone who’s present,” she tells him. “And you’re always so much in your own head - there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s just - it doesn’t work.”
“Right, okay,” Jon says, because there isn’t much else he can. He looks down at the hands cradling his, which are small, fingernails bitten to the quick because it’s the middle of exams and she always chews them when she’s stressed. Her skin is very warm.
“We’re still friends,” Georgie says hastily. “I mean, we’ll both need a bit of space, but after that - there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be.”
“Of course,” says Jon, though he doesn’t trust that to be true. He’s never been any good at giving people a reason to want to be around him.
Georgie gives him a sad sort of smile, her mouth quivering a little at the corners, and then throws her arms around him. She’s always been a fierce hugger, the sort of person who seems to be proving something with her affection, though Jon’s never figured out quite what. She squeezes him tightly, and Jon’s arms go around her without thought.
It is achingly familiar: her small, compact frame, the smooth slide of her jacket under his fingers, smelling of leather and the oil she scrupulously treats it with. Something inside Jon hurts, and he doesn’t want to let go. But after a few moments she pushes him carefully away, and stands up.
“Bye Jon,” she says, “I’ll - see you around. We’ll get coffee.”
Jon nods, not trusting himself to speak, and knowing that they won’t. He's never known how to fight for the things he wants from other people.
There is a span of years where Jon doesn’t touch anyone other than the occasional hand shake. It’s not so bad. He’s never been someone who’s needed physical affection, even as a child. His grandmother raised him with kindness, but she never went in for the touchy-feely stuff, and neither did he.
(At seven he fell out of a tree and fractured his arm. She didn’t pick him up off the ground or hug him, but she sat beside him for two straight hours in A&E. He didn’t cry.)
At the Institute Jon has colleagues but not friends, doesn’t see the point of after work drinks or the Research Department’s squash team. He maintains the same professional distance when they move him to the Archives, despite Tim’s overly-familiar ribbing, and Martin’s fussing, and Sasha’s tendency to lean belligerently into his space when she’s keen to get her argument across.
He hangs on to his academic detachment even as the world gradually stops making sense around him. Even as fear creeps, pervasive and horribly corporeal, up his spinal column. Even as wriggling, silver shapes invade his periphery, making his skin crawl with disgust and anxiety. Right up until he can’t anymore.
(When the worms start burrowing it hurts more than anything ever has. But somewhere in the back of his mind he hears them singing of love and home as they nestle into his flesh, and in a sick way it is almost comforting.)
Sasha doesn’t get into his space anymore after the Prentiss incident. For the longest time, Jon thinks that the scars are the reason she’s keeping her distance. He’s sure they’re unpleasant to look at.
There comes a point where you just sort of accept that everything is going to hurt.
Jon is staying at Georgie’s flat, and it’s awkward, because they never did get coffee in the end, and they’re both uncomfortably aware of all the time that’s passed since then. They sit on the sofa together with a hundred miles between them, and even if Jon wanted to bridge that gap, he can’t think of any way to do it.
It isn’t that he’s - interested, in that way. It’s been far too many years, and they’re both different people now, even if he wasn’t a fugitive with a whole collection of supernatural scars and a mess of paranoia. But he misses how comfortable things were between them, back then. How Georgie used to casually touch his arm, or ruffle his hair, or hug him for no reason.
Jon is afraid, and he thinks he might be losing his mind, and something deep inside him aches for the familiarity and comfort of a simple touch. But he knows Georgie can’t be that person anymore, not for him. He has nobody he could dare to ask, and no words to do it in any case.
(“You should talk to them,” Georgie will tell him later, but it’s not that simple. Maybe he needs people, but he’s never known how to do it properly. He’s never had anyone need him back.)
He meets with Jude Perry, and that night he lies in bed failing to sleep, his hand throbbing with hot pain and his nerves strung out like razor wire. He’s so tense that he startles upright when the Admiral nudges the door open, miaowing inquisitively.
“Come here,” he says soothingly. “There’s a, uh, good cat.” The Admiral jumps onto the bed and climbs into his lap, purring like a motorboat.
“You don’t mind me, do you?” Jon says to him, a lump rising in his throat. Because he’s turning into a monster, something that needs to feed his god before it feeds on him, something scarred and horrifying, and he can’t imagine anyone else who would want to be this near to him.
The Admiral places both paws on his chest and bumps his head up under Jon’s chin, firm and insistent. Jon feels something fracture inside of him. He curls his arms around the Admiral, presses his face into the soft fur as silent sobs shudder through him.
By the time the Circus takes him he’s almost not afraid anymore.
That’s not right, of course, he’s still terrified. But he feels strangely detached from the fear and pain, as if it’s happening somewhere else. As if this body doesn’t really belong to him, something separate from him that is experiencing all this while he watches from a distance.
It’s probably not healthy, but he’s going to die soon, so he doesn’t worry too much about it.
He doesn’t die, though. He walks through a door, and somehow after a month of madness and terror, he is just - back at the Institute again. Like nothing had ever happened. Like he wasn’t abducted by monsters and nearly skinned alive. He feels unreal. Numb. His senses jagged with residual fear but everything else muted and dull. It takes...some time, before he feels like he’s back inside his own skin again.
His first day back he is standing in his office, reorienting himself to the surroundings, when a knock comes at his door. He turns, and sees Martin with an anxious crease between his eyebrows and a look on his face like he can barely believe Jon’s here. Before Jon can say anything Martin is rushing across the room and hugging him, his large arms enfolding Jon, pulling him clumsily against Martin’s rough woolen jumper. His hair tickles Jon’s cheek.
Jon...freezes. Martin is warm and solid, squeezing him close. His rib cage moving against Jon’s. His fingers curling into Jon's shirt, as if trying to prove that he’s there beneath Martin’s hands.
“I’m so glad you’re okay,” Martin says, his voice thick with emotion, and Jon has no idea what to do. It’s too much, after everything. He hasn’t been held like this in so long, he didn’t have anyone or any way to ask and now it’s just happening, and he can’t - he can’t -
After a few seconds, Martin loosens his arms and clears his throat awkwardly. Starts to move away. Too late, Jon raises a hand and pats clumsily at Martin’s shoulder, and even as he does it is aware that it comes across more dismissive than appreciative. Martin steps back into the doorway, his face red and flustered, and he won’t meet Jon’s eyes.
“Sorry,” he says softly. “I, I just - umm. Welcome back.”
“Thank you, Martin,” Jon says, his voice hoarse. Martin departs rapidly, and Jon stands there for a long time, his heart racing in his chest and his eyes stinging. He can’t quite figure out why.
It’s odd, getting used to your body again after six months of being dead. Not that there’s anything wrong with it: it works the same way that Jon remembers it, which is pretty remarkable, all things considered. But it still feels like he’s having to settle back into it, somehow. Like a house he’s been away from for half a year, well maintained and undamaged, but cold and musty and with cobwebs in the corners. Odd is the best way he can put it.
Getting used to the Archives again is another matter. Everything’s wrong here. The Archives have always been a grounding point for Jon, the one place he knew he belonged, even if the knowledge of why was deeply unsettling. But he feels adrift here now, with Melanie bristling rage and Basira treating him like a suspect, and Martin...absent.
Jon spends a long time standing by Tim’s empty desk, grief and guilt washing over him in waves. He spends almost as long at Martin’s, which still has some papers and sticky notes gathering dust on it, a desk calendar from last year and a wilted spider plant.
It’s - almost worse, really, because at least he can mourn Tim. At least he knows what happened. Martin is just gone without explanation, a gap so yawning and painful that it takes Jon’s breath away. Leaves him wondering how he could possibly have overlooked the importance of Martin’s presence before.
He thinks about the way Martin hugged him, the last time he came back from almost dying. The first human contact Jon’s had in a long time that didn’t hurt, that just meant I missed you and I’m glad you’re okay. He should have done something differently, back then. Maybe if he had, things would be different now. Maybe Martin wouldn’t be lost to Peter Lukas’ designs. But Jon always ruins these things.
To think, it only took Martin disappearing completely for Jon to appreciate how much he meant. He would laugh, if he trusted himself not to cry.
He finds a spray bottle in Martin’s desk drawer, and waters the spider plant.
Jon sits at his desk, looking at his rib. The bone is pristine as an anatomical model, now he’s washed off the blood. He’s surprised at the cleanness of the break: it had hurt so much, he’d expected a jagged, snapped end, shards left floating in his chest cavity. He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised. The Boneturner knows his business.
He reaches across the desk for pen and paper, wincing as he does. His torso is mottled with dark bruises under his shirt, a reminder of Jared’s ungentle treatment that won’t leave him alone. Sick anxiety rolls through him every time he remembers the hands plunging into his abdomen, the wrenching violation, the pain. He feels cold, but sweat is prickling across his forehead. He thinks he might be on the verge of panic, and swallows it down.
(His body isn’t important. What’s important is the knowledge of what needs to be done, and the will to do it. If he has to give pieces of himself away for that, then so be it. What’s another scar?)
His hand is trembling as he sets pen to paper. Melanie knows what he’s doing, she’ll tell Basira. Even if he doesn’t make it back, they’ll understand that he tried. He won’t do Georgie the disservice of an explanation. It wouldn’t be fair, when she’s made it very clear that she doesn’t want to be involved. Better if she just stays away, never knows the details. So really that just leaves one person he needs to explain things to, because Jon owes him that much, even if he promised not to find him. He doesn’t think this counts.
Dear Martin, he writes.
On further reflection, his lack of attachment to his own body parts probably should have been a clue that this wouldn’t work.
(Stupid, Jonathan, stupid.)
He is unable to move, crushed and drowning and buried all at once, and he tries desperately to remember some time he’s felt connected to his body. Reaches out for a tether to cling to, to take him back to himself, and finds -
- his mother, the falling curtain of her hair as she pulls him close, smelling of vanilla and spice -
- Georgie, hugging him with a ferocity born of affection that her body is too small to contain -
- Martin, holding him warm and wanting and gentle, nothing but honestly happy to see him -
Something tugs behind his rib cage. A physical pull, sure and strong as gravity. Jon lets it have him.
Nobody is happy about Elias returning, but at least he comes with a pronouncement that Peter Lukas will be leaving the Institute, effective immediately. Taking his management style and everything else with him.
“What about Martin?” Jon asks darkly, because he doesn’t trust Elias any further than the Lukases. Elias gives an oily smile.
“I expect Martin will be leaving us,” he says. “Peter’s very keen to hang onto him, and he’s settled well into his new role. I’m sure it will be a singular opportunity for him.”
Jon turns and walks out of the room without another word.
It isn’t even difficult to find Martin, after everything. Jon’s not sure if it’s a sign of the Lonely’s influence being displaced from the Institute, or if it’s his own desperation that leads him to an office on the second floor. He pushes open the door without knocking, and Martin turns towards him, setting down a stack of files on the desk.
“Hi, Jon,” he says without affect, as if it’s not a surprise to see him. As if it hasn’t been months. As if he wasn’t leaving. He looks tired and washed out, like he hasn’t seen the sun in a while, his normally fair skin gone pale. Still the sight of him makes Jon’s heart skip a beat.
“Martin,” he says, his breath catching in his throat, and then stalls helplessly. He can feel himself trembling, his heart pounding, his entire body thrown into fight or flight desperation by the thought of losing Martin entirely.
How do you tell someone that you’re sorry, for all the things you didn’t appreciate? For all the times you didn’t do better? How do you say that you’ve missed them like oxygen, and that the thought of getting them back gave you more hope than you’ve had in a long time? That they don’t owe you anything, but if there’s anything you can do to make them want to stay, you’ll do it. Whatever it takes.
How do you tell someone the very thought of them saved you, when you were the most lost you’ve ever been?
How do you say I need you, and if there’s any chance at all -
Jon swallows hard. Doesn’t let himself think about it, just takes three quick steps forward, and wraps his arms around Martin. Holds him as tight as he can. Martin is big and solid and still warm in his arms, not cold, not absent. It can’t be too late.
“Please don’t leave,” he says, his voice rough and cracking at the edges. He lets everything he feels bleed into those words, because he can't find all the others he wants to say.
Martin stands rigid in the circle of his arms as the seconds tick by, as Jon unravels. It’s too late, he’s ruined things again, he’s never known how to fight for the things he wants and so he always loses them. He doesn’t let go, though. He can’t, not until Martin makes him, not until -
“Jon...” Martin says, quiet and wondering. His hands come up to rest on Jon’s back. Tentative at first, then slowly curling into the fabric of Jon’s shirt. Every nerve in Jon’s body is alive with awareness, shaking and desperate to hold on, to not lose this. He presses closer, pushes his face into the crook of Martin’s neck.
“Please, Martin,” he says again, his voice muffled against Martin’s jumper but he doesn’t care. “Don’t leave. Stay with me.”
Martin lets out a sound like a choked sob, and his fingers clutch at Jon's back.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
Martin’s arms tighten around him, pulling him closer. Jon's not sure he's ever felt so much in his life, but it's good. It's real. Jon leans into it, holds onto Martin, lets it ground him, lets himself feel every moment of this.
He’s here, he’s here, body and mind, right where he wants to be.