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i’m almost me again, you’re almost you

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For all that Martin’s been adamant for the last year that he’s capable of doing things on his own, it’s a relief to let Jon lead them both home.

It means he can concentrate on the most important things: putting one foot in front of the other and trying very hard not to think about anything else. Although, Jon's making it hard. He's still holding Martin's hand, his grip firm and strong. Martin can almost see the determination coming off Jon in the way that he moves – confident, almost unassailable, like he’s come to some kind of new knowledge or power.

The aftermath of Peter, most likely, Martin supposes. The kind of power that’s enough to get them both out of here. After that kind of - he refuses to think of it as feeding – transference, he’s probably far more powerful now than when he walked into this place. And, Martin thinks, maybe – maybe less human for it. In all honesty, the issue of Jon's humanity has been weighing on Martin's mind for longer than he really cares to think about.

But when he sneaks a look sideways at Jon, ploughing determinedly forwards along the shore, he doesn’t notice anything different. Same Jon: still permanently tired-looking, those same grey hairs and dark circles under his eyes. He just seems - gentler than Martin’s used to. The set of his eyes and mouth are soft, almost vulnerable, and instead of barrelling ahead at his usual pace, he seems comfortable in letting Martin dictate how fast they go. Which is good, because Martin’s drained enough that even just walking is a chore.

They pass quietly along the beach without talking for a long, long time. Martin, exhausted and absorbed in trying not to think about anything at all, zones out on the rhythmic pace of their feet and doesn’t really notice when the sand under their feet has turned to tarmac. It’s not until he hears Jon’s intake of breath that Martin looks around to realise that the fog is darkening and thinning. Around him he can see the shapes of buildings looming high out of the mists, against a cloudy night sky.

Dimly, he recognises where they are: the middle of Canary Wharf.

He looks up. It should be a relief to be out, but this place has a similar feel to the beach. He's always thought so. It's heartless. All that cold glass and steel, towering and impersonal, shut against the darkness - it must be after midnight, now. Nobody lives here, and there’s nobody around, except the few financiers high above still working late into the night. Martin looks at the sparse illuminated windows. How small their little pools of light must be in those massive, dark buildings. How - removed they must feel.

No wonder the fog led them out here, he thinks, and he shivers.

God, he is so tired, he thinks. Tired to his bones. Enough that when he watches his feet slow and stop like they don’t even belong to him, he’s so distant that he doesn’t really register it. Somewhere ahead of him, he sees Jon turn back and face him.

After a second Jon steps in towards him, close enough that Martin flinches, but all Jon does is put two fingers under his chin with his free hand and raise it until Martin can’t duck away. Jon has never touched him so casually before – at least, not until today, and it raises a lot of thoughts and feelings that Martin is trying very hard not to process. Much like a lot of other things that have happened, he thinks. Not that it’s horrible or terrifying or numbing like everything else has been: it’s just another thing on the list of things he doesn’t have the capacity to deal with.

When he does finally drag his head up to meet Jon’s gaze, Jon tilts his head and narrows his eyes a little, like he’s asking whether or not Martin is ok. If he’s being honest with himself, Martin wouldn’t even know how to begin to answer. He tries to keeps looking at Jon for as long as he can, but there’s something so vulnerable and so open about Jon’s expression that he can’t look at it for too long.

But that in itself seems to be a kind of answer, and Jon seems to understand – or at least, he doesn’t push it. He just slips his arm around Martin, and then turns towards the Wharf underground sign, illuminated faintly in the last dregs of mist. Together, he walks them towards the station.

They catch the night tube home towards Martin’s flat. Martin doesn’t ask how Jon knows where he’s going, the same way he doesn’t ask how they got out of that fog, the same way he doesn’t ask what exactly happened to Peter. It’s not that he doesn’t care; they just seem like the kind of questions that can wait. Everything feels dreamlike, removed, like he’s seeing the world through the bottom of a glass. 

The Tube is horrible the whole way, all crowds and bright yellow light and fevered drunken noise. In the carriage, Martin mostly keeps his eyes closed while Jon angles himself bodily between Martin and the other passengers, a gesture for which Martin is fervently grateful. It’s a relief to disembark at Essex Road; more so when they turn off the main road for the residential streets, and it’s just them and the dim streetlights until they reach Martin’s flat.

When they get to his door, it takes a long time for Martin to fish the keys out of his jacket. Jon doesn’t seem to mind the wait; he just huddles close to Martin in the cold night air while Martin tries several times to get the keys in. His hands are so cold he’s having trouble moving his fingers.

For the first time all day, Jon looks a little nervous as they finally step inside. He jerks his head towards the kitchen but Martin shakes his head minutely. He’s not hungry, just – exhausted.

All the same, when Jon starts hesitantly towards the door of his bedroom something inside Martin baulks. Behind that door is a horrible, dimly lit and nasty little room, which has, over the last year especially, seen some of the most isolated and depressed moments of Martin’s life so far. He does not want to get into that cold bed again feeling like this: like the duvet that has been witness to so many long, numb nights could swallow him up this time.

He thinks at least some of this shows on his face when he pulls them both to a halt again. Jon seems to get it, anyway. He only looks at Martin a second before giving a little sad smile and squeezing his hand.

‘Wait here?’ he says, tipping his head to one side slightly.

They're the first words that either of them have spoken in hours. Even though he’s still using the new, soft voice he had at the beach, they fall very loud in the dark silence of his flat and Martin winces. He still doesn’t really trust his own voice but he nods, and Jon just touches his cheek - soft and fast, like he can’t quite help himself - before he moves off into Martin’s bedroom.

He emerges carrying a load of blankets, duvets and pillows. Martin just stands and leans against the wall as he dumps them on the sofa and then rummages through Martin’s airing cupboard and spare room, collecting sheets and throws, before beginning to make up a bed on Martin’s sofa.

It’s a nice thing to watch, Martin thinks, watching Jon frown as he tucks the hem of the sheet under the sofa seat cushions. It always has been. Jon is something of a marvel to watch when busy: his single-mindedness, even at the smallest task, is almost reassuring. Like there’s nothing that can really stand up to it, if Jon sets his mind to it.

That’s just part of the way Jon is, he supposes. Driven. Focused. About everything he does, really. Martin knows what it feels like to have the full force of that attention focused on him, but it’s not bad. Mostly, it’s gratifying. Regardless of how Jon thinks of him, whenever Jon looks at him, he always feels - seen.

There’s a very horrible irony in that he tries not to think about.

Jon sets a pillow at the head of the sofa and stands to open the living room blinds. It’s still dark, probably only just edging into early morning, and Martin’s flat is high enough that he can see out over a fair distance of his borough, all the lights spreading out far below him. It hasn’t been a very reassuring sight, these last few months. All that life on the other side of the glass.

It doesn’t feel that way now. It’s reassuring, the glow of all those cranes and houses and buildings twinkling back at him. Like an ocean of lights.

While Martin’s looking through his windows, Jon comes back to stand by the bed, looking between Martin and the made-up sofa with a proud, nervous look. He gives the pillow a kind of decisive pat. It makes Martin’s heart hurt in a way he can’t really quantify.

They stand for a moment in silence, just looking at each other, until Jon starts a little. Flushing, he gives Martin a small smile and pointedly turns around.

Martin takes a second to catch on. When he realises, he doesn’t bother getting undressed; just shucks his shoes, belt and jacket and climbs onto the sofa. Jon doesn’t turn back until Martin’s settled under the duvet, hem pulled up to his chin. When he sees Martin under the covers, he comes to sit on the floor by his head, tugging one of the spare blankets around his shoulders, and leans back against the sofa with his knees against his chest. After a second, he pulls out his phone and starts to type something.

Martin pushes most of his face into the pillow and, after a second, opens one eye to watch the back of Jon’s head. He can see just a little of Jon’s profile, illuminated by the light of Jon’s phone. How dear he is, Martin thinks, tiredly. How stupidly, impossibly dear.

He reaches a hand out from under the duvet to touch the back of Jon’s head, as gently as he possibly can. As if he was waiting for it, Jon tips his neck back without hesitating and lets out a quiet hum of acknowledgement. He clicks his phone off and sighs once, long and deep.

Martin shuts his eyes and falls asleep.

 


 

When he wakes up in the morning, he rolls over to see Jon stretched out on the floor, nested in the rest of Martin’s spare blankets. He looks – exhausted, Martin thinks, but very peaceful in sleep. It’s not often he gets to see Jon resting. It looks well on him.

Carefully, so as not to wake him, Martin climbs over the arm of the sofa and goes to take a shower and make breakfast.

The shower is wonderful, but his cupboards are frustratingly bare. He carefully avoids thinking about how much he used to look forward to making a meal, and instead checks a jar of instant coffee he’s found in the bottom cupboard. It smells fine, and since he's got nothing else, it's going to have to work as breakfast.

When the coffee’s ready, he goes to wake Jon. He’s still sprawled out on Martin’s floor under his mother’s old blankets, breathing deeply. Martin thinks about the state his back is going to be in and almost feels bad for waking him, but the kitchen clock is telling him it’s ten to ten and Martin’s already worried about how late Jon’s sleeping: as far as he can tell from those months of living in the Archives, Jon is a habitual early riser. Disgustingly early.

Martin reaches out to touch him, and thinks twice. Then he thinks again, and settles for touching him gently on the side of the face, trying not to startle him.

Jon wakes slowly, blinking like an owl. When he registers Martin’s hand on face, he seems to rub against it without even thinking, pushing his cheek into Martin’s fingers. It is a very nice feeling.

Martin flushes deeply.

’Hey,’ he says simply. It comes out a lot quieter than he’d anticipated. Jon gives him a sleepy little smile, eyes crinkling at the corners.

’Good - uh, good morning,’ he says, scratchily. He blinks and stretches.

‘I made coffee,’ says Martin, sitting back on his heels. ‘I. um. I don’t know what you usually like to eat for breakfast. I don’t really have a lot in.’

‘Oh – just coffee is fine, thank you,’ says Jon, a little awkwardly. He sits up. ‘That would be great.’

Martin goes to fetch it for him, but then Jon gets up and pads across the floor with him to the kitchen, so they both end up settled together at the table. Martin pushes a cup across the tabletop to Jon and wraps his hands around his own, and they sit.

Martin half-expects and half-dreads Jon getting down to business – they have, after all, between Elias and Peter and the Archives, probably got a lot to talk about – but Jon doesn’t seem interested in saying anything at all. He doesn’t really seem interested in doing anything, really, except for looking at Martin. He takes a few cursory sips of coffee, adds a spoonful of sugar from the jar that Martin’s left on the table, but mostly he seems content to sit with his head propped onto his hands, yawning occasionally, and just - looking at Martin.

If he’s being entirely honest, Martin isn’t sure what to do with this. But the silence isn’t awkward, and if he’s being more honest, he loves to look at Jon, so it’s not uncomfortable. When he gives Jon a little grin and Jon answers with a little smile of his own, he feels happiness bloom in his chest.

They sit like that in companionable silence for about five minutes until the knock at the door comes. Both of them straighten instantly.

’Don’t,’ says Jon, still a little husky from sleep, as Martin rises, gripping the table edge with both hands. ‘Not until I’ve –‘

Basira’s voice comes from the other side of the door.

‘I can hear you,’ she says. ‘Not that I’m not proud of you both for not immediately opening the door to what could be anyone – seems like it would be pretty on track for you both – but if you could please let me in?’

Martin opens the door a little mulishly. Basira looks up from where she’s tapping at her phone and gives him a small, tight smile.

‘Great,’ she says. ‘Jon said I’d find you both here. Good to see you both look ok.’

Martin steps aside wordlessly and lets her in. She pulls out a seat at his tiny kitchen table and sits down opposite Jon. After a second, Martin drops down into the seat next to him and pushes the coffee pot and a spare mug towards Basira, who gives him a tired smile but otherwise ignores it.

‘Are you alright?’ Jon says to her, all traces of sleepiness gone. 

Basira laughs, but there isn’t a lot of mirth in it.

‘It’s been a busy 24 hours. I’ll feel better once we’ve got a plan, so...’ she says.

Martin snorts. Basira has never really been one for preamble.

‘Peter?’ she asks.

‘Er,’ Jon says. He looks equal parts ashamed and proud. ‘Not a problem any more. For anyone. I don’t think. The exact specifics I don't, uh, want to get into, but I can assure you that you won't have to worry about finding a body.'

When Basira smiles at that, it’s like she’s baring her teeth.

‘Perfect,’ she says. ‘Elias?’

Martin watches Jon shiver and instinctively moves to touch one of Jon’s hands with his own where they're curled around his coffee mug. He is gratified when Jon shoots him a small, grateful smile.

‘Still out there somewhere,’ he says. ‘God knows where – and god knows what he’s doing. You and Daisy haven’t run across him since?’

‘…No,’ says Basira, after a barely noticeable pause, but Jon is already looking at the door, frowning.

‘Come to mention it,’ he says, ‘where is Daisy?’

Martin can tell instantly this is a question Basira does not want to answer. The look that flashes across her face only lasts for a second– it is Basira, after all – but it’s enough. She doesn’t say anything.

‘Oh,’ says Jon, after a second. ‘Oh, Basira, God. I’m so sorry. You didn’t say.’

‘It’s fine,’ says Basira tightly. ‘She made her choice. I just have to find her now.’

Martin, non-plussed, looks to Jon, who just looks sorrowful. Belatedly, he remembers that it's not just Basira: Daisy and Jon are actually friends.

‘Ok,’ he says gently, when it seems like no explanation is forthcoming. ‘Can we – can we help? What can we do?’

He'll be the first to admit that he doesn't exactly like Daisy, but even he has been able to tell that she’s been changing recently, or definitely trying to. And he does like Basira, who is capable of having a laugh, even if she is almost as stubborn and self-sufficient as Jon used to be.

Basira takes one breath in, one breath out. She smooths her hands across the tabletop.

‘I appreciate the offer,’ she says. ‘But the best thing that you both can do for her right now is leave, as soon as possible. And not just the Archives, I mean leave London.’

‘Now hold on,’ says Martin, drawing himself up, at the same time as Jon says, ‘If you think –‘

‘What I think,’ says Basira loudly over both of them, ‘is that you need to trust me to deal with this by myself.’

‘It’s not about trust,’ says Jon, frustrated. Martin makes a noise of agreement. ‘You are my friend. Daisy is my friend. If I can help you find her – I want to help you find her.’

Basira closes her eyes. For the first time, Martin really notices how tired she looks: he doesn't think she's gotten any sleep at all since yesterday.

‘Jon,’ she says. ‘I appreciate it. I really do. But firstly, I don’t think you should be using your powers unless you can help it, especially until we can find out what Elias wants. And secondly, Daisy is my – partner. My responsibility. It’s personal. What you can do for me is stay out of my way unless I find a way that you can be more useful, preferably as far away from the Archives as possible.’

Jon frowns deeply.

‘It’s not just that,’ he says, quietly. ‘I don’t want to leave you to deal with this by yourself. Like I said. You’re my friend. I don’t want you to have to do – whatever you need to do – alone.’

Basira seems a little taken aback; Martin watches her pass a hand very quickly across her face.

‘Ok,’ she says eventually. ‘Thank you. I appreciate it. But it doesn’t change things. You still need to leave – both of you. The Archives are an active crime scene –‘

Of course. The thing that had taken Sasha’s place. Martin feels a dull, leaden horror in the pit of his stomach: all those people. Rosie. Hannah, with her new baby. The Artefact Storage receptionist, who always makes Martin sign in in Polish. The PhD student who’s usually hanging out in the library, the one who complimented Martin’s Day the Earth Stood Still t-shirt –

‘How bad is it?’ he says, cutting across Basira.

Basira purses her lips.

‘Could have been a lot worse,’ she says, gently. ‘Those two hunters scared most of the people out of the building before that – thing – really got going, and Daisy – she – not long after. A lot of injuries, only a few deaths.’

Martin decides to let a lot of that slide so he can focus on the last part, but Jon takes pity on him anyway.

‘Two hunters I met in America entered the building while you were in the tunnels,’ he explains. ‘They, um. They take a rather dim view of the things we do in the Archives. Perhaps understandably. And Daisy,’ he says, and his eyes flick to Basira, who nods. ‘She’s, uh, hunting them now. In the realest sense of the term. Them, and the Sasha thing.’

‘So between all of that and Peter, this is not a good place for either of you to be right now,’ says Basira quickly, before Martin can say anything. ‘No offence, Jon, but you are prime suspect material, and Martin is too well-connected to Peter to be here either. You’re going to be asked a lot of questions you can’t answer. But, this brings up some issues.'

She shrugs and looks at Jon.

‘As far as I'm aware, you still need those statements, right?’

‘You should be ok for a while, though, right?’ says Martin, looking at Jon. ‘I mean, after Peter. It seemed like it, uh, gave you a lot of power. Enough to get us out of that place, anyway. Maybe enough to last you a while?’

‘That – ah – wasn’t Peter,’ says Jon slowly. He looks a little flushed, and he doesn’t make eye contact with either of them. ‘I mean you’re right, I should be satiated,’ he bites off this word like it offends him, ‘for some time now, but it wasn’t my power that led me out. Us, out. Or it was, I suppose, but it wasn’t, uh, because of Peter.’

Martin looks at his hands and tries very hard not to think about what exactly Jon means by that.

‘Oh,’ he says. Jon gives a delicate little cough.

‘Regardless,’ he continues. ‘The point stands. I should be alright for a while. Long enough to last until we can get back into the Archives, at least.’

‘And I don’t want you around until that happens,’ says Basira. ‘Maybe even after that happens. I don’t trust Elias with you. We’ve got no idea where he is or what his plan is. As far as I’m concerned, the further away you are, the better.’

‘Yeah, about that, where-’ says Martin, but Basira’s already rummaging in her bag. She drops two sets of keys on the table, along with a sealed envelope with an address on it.

‘Car keys, house keys, money,’ she says. ‘Daisy is – prepared. I don’t think she’d mind. Just – look after them, and go as soon as you can. Listen, I should get back. Is there anything else you think I need to know?’

‘…No,’ says Jon, after a moment of thought, as Martin shakes his head. ‘Just that I think you’re right, about Elias. I think he’s up to something.’

Basira grimaces.

‘Ok,’ she says, and she looks at both of them. ‘Well, on that reassuring note. Take care, and I’ll let you know if anything else happens.’

‘Basira - if you change your mind,’ says Jon quickly as she rises, ‘we’re just a phone call away. I mean it. We’re here. Please don’t wait too long to call.’

Basira hesitates long enough to bump her knuckles against Jon’s head, and then she leaves.

As soon as the door closes behind her, Jon leans sideways to drop his head onto Martin’s shoulder. He lets out a breath. Martin holds very still, like Jon is some kind of rare specimen that he’s afraid of startling away. Which he supposes, in some fashion, Jon is.

‘God, what a mess,’ Jon says into his jumper. ‘I don’t feel good leaving Basira like this.’

‘Neither do I,’ says Martin, fighting to keep his voice even. ‘But she’s right, and she can handle herself.’

‘That just makes it worse,’ grumbles Jon, but he pulls himself upright to reach for the envelope on the table, while Martin straightens his jumper self-consciously. ‘Alright, let’s see where she’s sending us. Oh, God.'

Scotland?’ says Martin, reading over his shoulder. ‘Christ.’

 


 

It doesn’t take them very long to pack and leave – Jon takes a quick shower while Martin scrapes together anything he thinks might be useful and packs it into a few ancient suitcases he retrieves from under his bed. They don’t stop at Jon’s flat – there’s nothing there he needs, Jon argues, and the longer they hang around in London the more chance there is for the police to find them – so they’re out of London and onto the M1 within the hour.

It is, by all accounts, a peaceful drive. While he's flipping through some maps he finds in the glove compartment, Martin admits that he’s never really travelled too far outside of London before and Jon surprises him by telling him the few stories he’s got of the overseas trips he and his grandmother used to take, and the fewer he has of his brief and disastrous international expeditions. Jon is a good storyteller - dryly funny and concise - but when he thinks about it, Martin reckons he shouldn't really be surprised: after all, Jon's job is, or was, reading stories for a living. Martin's read a few in his time, and although lot of them are awful, some of them are really quite gripping. Presumably, something had to sink in. Aside from the obvious.

When it gets quiet, Martin searches through the glove box for any tapes to go in the busted-up tape player, but comes up with nothing. On his request, Jon switches on the radio, and scrolls through the stations one-handedly, but he's incapable of staying on a frequency and he pulls a face whenever he hears a pop song. Eventually, after they've bickered their way through all available stations, Jon switches it off, and they both sit in comfortable silence while the car eats away the miles under them.

Jon is a conscientious but uneasy driver and mostly keeps his eyes on the road, so Martin is free to look at him as much as he likes. And he does so. Jon looks reassuringly comfortable; he seems more real in Daisy’s tiny, ancient car than he does in the Archives, more solid.

Seeing him like this makes him feel a way he really doesn’t want to think about; Jon's both more gentle and just a little more animated than Martin has ever seen him, and for the first time Martin wonders at the kind of person Jon might be if he’d never joined the Archives. It’s a cruel thought to have, in a way – Jon’s in this whole mess so much deeper than he is, and it feels uncharitable to be wondering who Jon might be when the person that he is, especially after everything, is one Martin admires so much. Mostly. Stupid, reckless decisions aside.

It’s more that it occurs to Martin that he’s never really seen Jon approaching relaxed before. It’s not like he’s seeing a completely different person, not after watching Jon crisply kill the radio after about five seconds of what Martin thinks is Iggy Azalea. It’s just – a different side. More gentle. Like when he catches Martin staring once, as he leans over to fiddle with the radio buttons: as soon as he catches Martin’s eye he smiles a very small, very pleased smile that Martin hesitantly returns. And when he turns his attention back to the road, he looks happier. Gentler.

Around Sheffield, they take a break to stretch their legs, grab a bite to eat and swap over. Martin gets a cup of nasty services tea to go and for the next hour as he drives, Jon conscientiously offers it up whenever Martin takes one hand off the wheel and motions for it. Martin thinks he disapproves, but he doesn’t say anything. He’d had the idea that Jon might be a terrible backseat driver and there are a couple of instances where Jon sucks in a very tight breath when Martin overtakes or switches lanes, but for the most part he is quiet.

And Martin loves that he gets to learn these things now about Jon now: the kind of facts that he would never have learned back at the Institute, that Jon is a careful driver who hates overtakes and liked Switzerland and would rather have silence than the radio if given the choice. It’s a strangely bittersweet kind of happiness to be able to think about Jon outside of the context of the unending series of apocalypses that just are their lives now, given that they've got no idea how short this reprieve is going to be, but that’s good enough for Martin. And Jon seems – well. He’d like to say happy, but at least content. He's not frowning, anyway, and Martin doesn't think he's maybe ever seen that before.

When they finally pull up to Daisy’s safehouse, the sun is firmly behind the hills. It turns out to be a tiny and ancient little cottage, tucked way back into a valley so small that in the dark Jon almost misses the turn. Martin feels suddenly nervous for no reason he can really put his finger on as they park outside the door, and Jon seems the same: he takes the bags and suitcases from the backseat without looking Martin in the eye, leaving him to open up.

To Martin's relief, the door opens easily: it is what he can generously describe as a historied building and he'd been having visions of tumbling beams and falling stone. Or worse: booby traps. Daisy is the most paranoid person he's ever met, although he's willing to admit she's got more than enough reason, and he would not put it past her to booby-trap her safe house. But it's fine. As he enters, he fumbles for a light switch and flicks it on: the electrics are working, and the wall sconces illuminate a tiny stone corridor with a little kitchen and living room off to the side. At the end of the hallway, there’s a set of stairs leading to the next floor. The whole thing is furnished in hangings and carpets and knickknacks, making the tiny space seem even smaller, but charmingly cosy.

It is, in a word, surprising. Jon seems to think so too: when he cranes around Martin on the doorstep, dropping the suitcases onto the mat, he just says, ‘Hm,’ in a thoughtful tone of voice.

‘Not very Daisy, is it?’ says Martin.

‘I don’t know,’ says Jon, darkly. ‘Seems about right for someone who listens to the Archers.’

‘She doesn’t,’ says Martin in disbelief. ‘No way. Knife-to-your-throat Daisy? Full-operational-discretion Daisy? I-have-four-guns-on-my-person Daisy – she listens to the Archers?

Jon laughs at that, his usual sarcastic bark.

‘Trust me,’ he says. ‘God knows, I’ve had ample enough exposure to that bloody programme thanks to her to vouch for her passion for it. All the same, we should check out the rest of the cottage. If I know Daisy, I don’t think it’s all going to be this, uh - quaint.’

They split up for a brief reconnaissance: Martin takes the bottom floor while Jon heads upstairs. It speaks to something very strange about Martin’s life that when he finds the knife stash while checking out the fuse box and the revolvers under the sink, he feels both validated and relieved.

‘You were right, it’s definitely Daisy’s,’ he says, when he re-joins Jon upstairs in the bedroom. ‘I mean, all clear, but nobody else I know keeps their heavy-duty firepower with their cleaning sprays. Not very Monarch of the Glen, except maybe the shooting rifle mount in the living room. Oh, the heating’s on now, by the way, but I couldn’t find much food. I put everything we bought away in the fridge: it’s a good thing we stopped off by the border.’

Jon’s just finishing unpacking the suitcases on the bed, pulling out their clothes and stashing them in the room’s rickety wardrobe.

‘That’s fine,’ he says, kneeling to shove the empty suitcases under the bed. ‘If there’s anything we need, tomorrow we can stop by that village we passed through. But, um,’ he says, standing and turning to face Martin, and he rubs the back of his neck. ‘There’s just the one bed up here. I don’t know what you, uh –‘

‘I don’t mind taking the sofa again,’ Martin offers easily, even though he’s seen it already and it’s laughably tiny. ‘You can take the bed, I don’t mind.’

Jon looks him straight in the eye.

‘Would that actually help?’ he asks bluntly. ‘Or are you just saying that to be polite? Because once is probably fine, but you are half a foot taller than me, and I don’t know how long we’ll be staying here. I don’t want to be responsible for sending you to the chiropractor.’

‘I am definitely being polite,’ admits Martin, with some relief. ‘God, I would have crushed that thing. Are you sure you’ll be ok on it?’

After a pause, Jon waves him off.

‘Easier than you will,’ he says evenly. ‘Come on. We should eat.’

The kitchen in the cottage is somehow smaller than the one at Martin’s flat, and they have to wash up all the crockery and utensils before they’re safe to use, but Martin finds the promise of having something simple to do with his hands almost embarrassingly relieving and sets about peeling and chopping straight away. Jon begs off helping almost immediately on the grounds that he’s never been much of a cook, so Martin delegates him to the washing up and together they work in silence until Martin quietly judges that the rice is done.

When they sit together at the table, Martin will not admit to watching Jon’s face when he takes the first bite of curry, and he will definitely not admit to being very pleased at the look of cautious enjoyment that Jon gives him. After all of the gigantic, nebulous things he has been wrestling with for so long on his own – fear about Jon, fear about the others, the end of the fucking world – it feels so uncomplicatedly nice to make something tangible and to have it be good. Even just a little something, in the grand scheme of things.

After dinner, Martin helps Jon haul a load of blankets down from the bedroom’s cupboard to the sofa. Jon stands aside and watches Martin make it up for him with an expression Martin can’t really place. But he looks grateful enough when Martin stands back, holding a spare blanket.

‘If you need anything, I’ll be upstairs,’ Martin says to him, holding the blanket tightly against his chest. ‘I, uh. There’s a toothbrush for you in the bathroom, and some of my old clothes for you to sleep in – they’ll swamp you, obviously, but they should be comfortable enough.’

Jon looks very much like he’s going to say something or do something, but when he takes a step towards Martin, Martin flinches without thinking, his heart in his throat for no reason he can tell. Jon’s shoulders drop and he just gives Martin a soft, tired smile.

‘Goodnight,’ he says. ‘Sleep well, Martin.’

 


 

Martin does not.

To be honest, he is almost disappointed at how predictable his nightmare is. He’s standing on the beach, and then the sand starts to move under his feet. When he looks down, his feet are already covered up in a mass of tiny, wriggling worms, and like quicksand, the more he struggles to get out of them, the further he slips into them. In the distance, he sees Jon and Tim and the only Sasha he remembers: as the worms reach his torso, they all turn and leave, even when he starts to shout. He’s still yelling when the tide comes in over him and he drowns.

The room is bitterly cold when he wakes up, even with the heating, and he huddles miserably in the blankets for a good minute, shaking, while he tries to get his breathing under control. The light coming in from the crack under the door dimly illuminates the whole miserable bedroom, small and mostly empty like his one back at home. And it's quiet, so quiet. Martin is used listening to the nighttime noises of London as he slips off - traffic and people and sirens - but there's nothing outside his window that he can hear, except the wind in the trees outside. And that slow sigh and rustle makes him - uncomfortable.

Before he can think too hard about it, he slips out of bed and onto the freezing floorboards. Gathering up as many of the blankets as he can fit in his arms, he pads downstairs as quietly as the old floorboards will let him. It’s warmer down here, and brighter. Jon’s left the living room door mostly open and the one dying bulb they’d left on in the hallway streams through into it.

For a long minute, Martin just stands in the doorway and looks at Jon’s sleeping form on the sofa, or as much of it as he can see under the covers: his mess of dark hair, threaded with silver. The delicate bones of his hand. Martin's still on edge from his nightmare and for the first time since they came out of fog, he lets himself think about it – about Jon. Really think about him. His stubbornness. His loyalty. His surprising kindness. His terrifying fragility and stupid self-endangerment. How fucking much Martin loves him.

He squeezes a fist against his eyes before slipping through the doorway and dropping his pile of blankets on the floor next to the sofa.

When he bends down to sort out the sheets, Jon catches his wrist. Martin hadn’t realised he was awake: he’d been trying to be as quiet as possible. Jon’s face is hidden in the shadows of the sofa, but in the dull light, Martin just can see his fingers, thin and dark over his own pale wrist.

‘Are you alright?’ Jon whispers quietly into the darkness.

‘Yeah,’ says Martin. Before he can think about it, he puts his other hand on top of Jon’s. The lump in his throat is so big he doesn’t know how he’s speaking around it. Jon’s hand is so warm. ‘Yeah. Fine, sorry. Go back to sleep.’

After a second, Jon drops his wrist and turns over. Martin takes one very long, very deep breath and starts to make up the blankets on the floor. When he’s settled under the duvet, he listens to Jon’s deep breathing above him until he falls asleep. He doesn’t dream again.

 


 

When he wakes the next morning, he can feel that Jon is kneeling next to him, and he’s gently pushing his fingers through Martin’s hair. Martin keeps his eyes closed, just for a few seconds, and tries to ignore all the different ways it makes his chest hurt.

When he opens them, Jon is smiling down at him, softly.

‘Good morning,’ he says, and there’s a thread of happiness in his voice that Martin really doesn’t know what to do with. He settles for smiling back at Jon, which seems to be enough: Jon presents him with a gently steaming mug of coffee.

Martin sits up and takes it gratefully.

‘What did you want to do today?’ says Jon, settling next to him on the floor with his own mug.

Martin blinks.

‘Oh, uh,’ he says, eloquently. ‘Honestly, I hadn’t really thought that far.’

‘Me neither,’ Jon admits. ‘This would be my first – day off, I suppose – in more time than I’d care to admit. To tell the truth, I don’t really remember what it feels like. How did I used to have two of these every week?’

Martin shoves his shoulder gently, careful of the coffee.

‘Uh, you didn't,’ he says, smiling. ‘You never did. You forget, I used to live in the Archives. I don’t think I saw you take a whole weekend off once.’

'At least I worked,' says Jon immediately, flushing and shoving him back. 'I was always impressed as to how you could live in your workplace and still get so little done.'

'And how did I come to be living in the Archives?' says Martin. He is unspeakably entertained. 'Oh yes, endangered by my exemplary work ethic.'

Jon gives the most eloquent and disdainful snort that Martin has ever heard another human being make, and mutters something into his coffee about juvenile conjugations. Martin decides to let it slide.

Eventually, after breakfast, they decide on a trip to the village. While Martin stocks up on groceries, Jon grabs some clothing from the village’s clothing store, and then they pick a direction and walk while they eat lunch. After Martin gets tired, Jon follows him wordlessly back to the cottage. They spend of the rest of the afternoon in the living room, where Martin tries and eventually succeeds to build up a fire in the fireplace while Jon paws through the few battered books that Martin had tossed into his suitcases.

If he's being entirely honest, it's a strange feeling to be spending so much time with Jon with no threats or emergencies or apocalypses hanging over them. There's a part of Martin that just keeps waiting for Jon to say that he’s bored or tired or busy and drift off, but he seems content enough to sit in silence together, or to make some comment about the books Martin’s brought. When Martin gets up to make dinner, Jon follows him and leans against the counter next to him as he works, and they chat as Martin makes a simple pasta dish.

There's something about just looking up to see Jon standing next to him that breaks his heart, just a little. It's the same way it's always been - sometimes when he looks at Jon he sees Jon as he used to be, cold and snappish, or Jon in the hospital, or Jon covered in bandages or whispering frantically into a tape recorder. And in some ways Martin's used to it, how he feels about Jon - the miracle he sees when he looks at Jon still standing, after everything. He doesn't think there's anyone else in the world so grateful for someone else's existence, because there's no possible way anybody else could be reminded so often of all the different ways they can lose someone. That dubious honour is all Martin's. 

But it's different here, somehow, because here Jon is undeniably a person, not just a thing that Martin wants to protect. And it means that everything that Jon does - flipping through Martin's books, laughing at a joke Martin made that wasn't really that funny, double-dipping a spoon into Martin's pasta sauce - just makes him a little more real to Martin, a little more there. Martin wants to reach out and touch him, just a little, just to prove that he's truly there, but the flipside of knowing so many different ways of losing someone is being terrified for when it actually happens. If he just says the wrong thing, Martin thinks, or makes the wrong move, Jon could be gone. Especially because Martin can't say he's entirely sure what's keeping him here.

So when Jon follows Martin up the stairs that evening, Martin doesn’t say a goddamn word.

Mostly, Jon avoids looking at him while they move around, getting ready for bed – he comes out of the bathroom already changed when he’s brushed his teeth – and Martin, for his part, does his level best to act like they do this every night. But when Jon’s about to slide under the covers, he looks at Martin and holds the corner of duvet up like a question. He looks - nervous.

Martin nods once, silently, and gets into bed. He sticks very close to his own side: they do not touch. He spends a very long time awake in the darkness after Jon turns out the light, trying and failing not to think about the weight and shape of Jon in the bed next to him. When he falls asleep, his dreams are disturbed: over and over he watches Jon drop Peter's body onto the beach and walk away.

But Jon's still there when he wakes the next morning, and he gives Martin a little embarrassed smile when he climbs out of the bed. Watching Jon turn down the covers, something inside Martin relaxes, just a little.

After that, their days fall easily into kind of a routine much like the first. Jon is very conscious of the fact that they’d told Basira they’d look after the house, and he spends a lot of his time cleaning, while Martin finds he's rapidly rediscovering his love of cooking. Occasionally, they go to the village. Jon says, apologetically, that it’s probably for the best if they don’t spend too much time in the village or chatting to the people who live there – Jon’s scarring is, after all, fairly distinctive, and at 6’5 Martin is also not an inconspicuous presence – but it comes as kind of a relief to Martin.

The relief worries him, a little. It’s not who he used to be: two years ago, and he would have had most of village gossip within the first few days, if they were friendly enough, but he still feels so uneasy around other people that he’s happy to follow Jon’s lead on this one. After a day or so, he decides that the worry itself is better than nothing and he’ll work on it later, whenever they get back to London. There’s no deadline on it.

After a few days, Martin manages to get through to Basira on the village’s pay-phone. She sounds ok, and fills him in on the Archives, which seem very far away and unreal on the other end of their terrible line. Nevertheless, he reports it all dutifully to Jon when he gets back. It’s mostly neutral news, but Jon goes worryingly stiff when he hears that there’s no sign of Daisy and Martin has to make good on his promise to Basira that he'd make Jon swear that he won’t start looking for her.

When there’s nothing that needs doing, Jon will follow him over to the sofa and they’ll spend a few hours sitting together quietly, Jon occasionally brushing a hand over Martin’s arm. Jon races through whatever Martin’s managed to raid from the village’s second-hand book shop at an unbelievable speed – Martin can’t tell whether how fast Jon’s reading is an avatar thing or whether it’s just Jon – and Martin tries and mostly fails to get some poetry done. Sometimes they take walks into the countryside, although the midges are awful enough that the woman in the corner shop rings through a tub of insect repellent for him without a word when she sees how badly he’s bitten. And they talk, a lot, about all sorts of things, which Martin loves – until they go to bed at night, where they lie next to each other in excruciating silence and say absolutely nothing until they eventually fall asleep.

At least, Martin lies awake at night next to Jon and doesn’t say anything, but he’s sure that Jon is sleeping just as badly has he is: he lies just as stiffly and awkwardly as Martin does in their shared bed, and every now and then he will give a quiet sigh. Martin knows why he can’t sleep with Jon so close, even if he doesn’t like thinking about it. But why Jon’s not sleeping – Martin doesn’t know. Maybe it's avatar business, or nightmares, he thinks, but he doesn't wake in the night the way Martin does when his dreams get bad. And he seems relaxed enough during the day. Happy, Martin would maybe say, and it makes him stupidly, almost painfully pleased to think about.

Sometimes when they're sitting or walking or working together Jon will open his mouth like he’s going to say something, then he’ll look over at Martin and just close it. Martin wonders if maybe that’s it. But if he's being honest, he doesn’t really want to know. More and more often Martin feels like the little peace that they've got is balanced on a knife edge of things Martin doesn't want to think about or speak about. And it's enough for him - waking in the morning to see Jon there, face buried into the pillow, or bickering gently with him over the best way to build a fire, or watching him try and wrestle with the safehouse's ancient heating system - god, it's more than he ever expected he would get. If there's something Jon wants to say that he hasn't felt comfortable enough to bring up already, Martin can't really imagine that he wants to hear it.

 


 

After two weeks, Jon lets Martin know he’d like to be of use in the kitchen, and Martin happily goes recipe hunting. He decides on fajitas, which are fairly easy and fall under Martin’s rapidly increasing range of meals where the meat can be substituted: after everything, he doesn’t think any of them in the Archives eat meat any more. And Jon seems happy enough with the suggestion, although Martin gets the feeling, as he does so often these days, that Jon is happy just to let Martin pick whatever he thinks Jon would like best, which makes Martin warm in a way that he tries not to look at too closely.

When they set up in the kitchen in the evening, Martin isn't exactly sure where to start given that he's not sure how comfortable Jon is with cooking: in his experience, 'never been much of a cook' covers a multitude of sins ranging from 'can cook a few basic meals' to ‘doesn’t know how to boil an egg’. But in the end, Jon seems happy enough chopping onions at Martin's suggestion and his grip is safe enough that Martin just leaves him to it, even if his idea of what makes a slice of onion is hilariously tiny and precise.

When Martin absent-mindedly passes Jon a pepper to slice, Jon briefly covers his fingers before taking it. Martin, despite himself, flinches just a little.

‘How long are you going to keep doing that for?’ says Jon conversationally.

He knocks his shoulder against Martin’s and Martin freezes.

‘Doing what?’ he says.

‘Doing that,’ says Jon, and he sounds playfully frustrated. ‘Every time I, I touch you, you flinch or freeze up or – and I don’t know if it’s still the Lonely, or – but I, uh, I’ve been waiting for you to bring it up.' He sets down the pepper. 'I don't want to push you, I suppose I'm just - worried. I just - I wish you would talk to me.’

About halfway through this little monologue, Martin starts to hear the words coming out of Jon’s mouth as if they are coming from very far away. Please don’t, he thinks numbly. Not this.

‘I don’t- I, uh-‘ he says.

‘I just – unless you really don’t, uh, don’t want me to touch you,’ Jon says, looking nervous, ‘and that’s fine, I just thought – I thought that we were, on the same page, as it were. I just – I need you to tell me what the issue is. Unless…’

Jon scrutinises him – really scrutinises him, even as Martin tries to squirm away. He can’t tell whether or not Jon is looking at him or looking at him, but it still feels – raw, too much for Martin to keep a handle on, to just stand under Jon’s scrutiny like that and bear it. He shrinks back.

‘Don’t you – don’t you think you deserve it?’ Jon says, and that’s when Martin has a panic attack.

It’s one of the worst one’s he’s had in a long, long time. One of the few benefits of Peter’s particular patronage was that it blocked a lot of Martin’s – worse – feelings and experiences, and it’s like all those months of never panicking, of sliding through all those awful situations like a ghost, have all built up and exploded.

He can feel the breaths ripping out of him one after another. Jon, shocked, flinches back before lunging forward again to grab Martin’s hands, which are already going numb as the blood leaves them. He can hear Jon saying something urgently, but the words themselves don’t register – they’re blurred and inconsistent, like they’re coming at him from underwater.

When he finally gets his breathing under control, Jon is beside him, moving his hands on soothing circles across Martin’s back. They stand for several minutes until Jon speaks.

‘I am so sorry,’ he says. He sounds absolutely gutted. ‘Martin, please forgive me. I had no intention of – I am so sorry.’

Martin knows he should be angry, and maybe he will be later, but mostly he just feels tired. Because now that it’s out, it’s a thing, they’re going to have to talk about it, and he doesn’t want to. To be truthful, in that moment there’s a lot of him that wants more than anything else to climb right back inside the fog where Peter had left him, because everything was so much simpler there: muffled. Numb.

But when he sees one of Jon’s hands dart out towards his and pull back, like he’s unsure, something inside him breaks a little. He very purposefully reaches out and takes Jon’s hand, even though he can't look at Jon when he does it, and he’s gratified when he hears Jon let out a deep, rattling breath.

‘You don’t, uh, seem to be getting any better,’ says Jon in a small, careful voice, looking at Martin’s fingers over his. ‘I mean, yes, you’ll laugh and joke around like you used to but, I-I notice, you know. Every now and then it’s like you shut down inside, just for a second. And I don’t know whether it’s because of the Lonely or-or whether it’s always been like this and I just – I never knew you well enough before.

‘And we’re supposed to be-’ he says, and then closes his eyes and shakes his head a little. ‘I mean, I thought you wanted – as, uh, as much as I did, but you won’t talk to me about it and… like I said, you don’t really seem comfortable with me touching you, either, and I, uh, never really knew how to bring it up. I wanted to, but I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable. Which is why, of course,’ and he gives a short, harsh laugh, ‘I did it in the worst possible way.’

‘It’s okay,’ says Martin automatically, and then winces. ‘I mean, yeah, it’s not. But I know how hard you try to avoid – that, and I’m not angry at you. You’re still – god, I was going to say only human. But it’s true. And I mean, you’re right. It is harder, now. Talking about things, even thinking about things. Wanting – things.’

He squeezes his eyes shut. This is worse than he could have imagined.

‘It, uh. It hurts. Since the fog – the Lonely. Anything, any kind of connection, any kind of emotion – this, this is difficult for me. So it’s not that I haven’t – noticed the touching, I guess. I just, it’s – difficult for me to talk about it. And Jon, I-I didn’t want to just assume.’

‘Assume what?’ says Jon, and he sounds honestly confused.

‘You know,’ says Martin, and he leans forward to prop his elbows on the counter and rest his head in his hands. ‘God, Jon, please don’t make me spell it out. That you liked me.’

‘You’re joking,’ says Jon, and then he sounds equal parts apologetic and horrified. ‘Sorry. Oh, God, Martin, I am so sorry. I thought – on the beach, when I tried to make you see me, I’m sorry, I just thought – I thought we’d come to an understanding. That we were on the same page. God, Martin, I was just – trying to let you set the pace. I really thought that you knew.’

Martin rubs a hand across his eyes.

‘Oh,’ he says, trying very hard to keep his voice even and his thoughts steady. 'Oh, Christ, Jon. I just – I never thought you would. Like me, that is. That honestly was kind of the point. My feelings were, and I have to emphasise this, none of your business. I mean, I absolutely never thought you were gonna know. You were a very convenient crush for me because it was very clear that you were never going to like me back.’

‘I did like you,’ Jon blurts out, and then slaps a hand across his mouth. When it seems to become clear to him that he can’t pull those words back inside, he continues, falteringly. ‘The whole time. Um. Literally since we met. I have liked you the whole time, so. I. Um.’

Martin looks at him, scandalised.

‘You didn’t,’ he says, and he doesn’t mean to sound so dismissive, but he thinks he can be excused. ‘Uh, not to be contrary, Jon, but you have been very, very clear about your feelings, for me, since we met.’

‘I know,’ Jon says. To his credit, he sounds quite miserable. ‘ I know I probably gave you that impression. And I am so, so sorry. I was unprofessional –‘

Unprofessional-?’ starts Martin, strangled, but Jon holds up a hand to cut him off.

‘Wait. I just. Of course I liked you,’ he says, sounding less miserable and more exasperated, more Jon. ‘You were friendly and, um, tall, and outgoing and, and – enthusiastic, and I was starting a new, very stressful job and was your boss and it was very, uh. Inconvenient, shall we say. For me. But I always liked you, I just didn’t – not until after I got out of that coma, and then you weren’t around anymore, I realised –‘

Martin is silent now, waiting for Jon to finish wading through the mess of half-sentences he’s swamped himself in.

‘Well,’ Jon concludes lamely. ‘I realised, I supposed. And I thought that – well, at least I’d heard the others say that – you might – feel the same way too-‘

The others?’ says Martin in horror, and he buries his head in his hands.

‘But by the time I – got back – it was too late,’ Jon continues. ‘And honestly, it’s funny how much takes a backseat to saving the world.’

Martin’s got his head buried on the kitchen counter like he’s trying to burrow into it.

‘Oh, God,’ he says. ‘This is the stupidest conversation I have ever been part of.’

It takes a few seconds for him to realise that Jon is laughing. He has never – never – heard Jon laugh like this – deep, real laughter, right from the core. Martin raises his head just to watch him, hands on his stomach, head thrown back and his whole body shaking, and feels – warm. It suits him.

When Jon stops, Martin watches him wipe his cheeks.

‘You’re right,’ he says. ‘God, what a mess. So this whole time, I’ve been trying to give you time and waiting for you to tell me what you want, and you’ve been waiting this whole time for me to – what, pull the rug out from under you?’

‘Something like that,’ Martin mumbles, shamefacedly.

‘What did you think this all was?’ Jon says. It would sound mean, coming from anyone else, but Martin knows him well enough now to tell he’s just genuinely curious. ‘What I showed you on the beach? All the – touching?’

‘Honestly, mostly I tried not to think about it,’ says Martin. ‘I guess… I guess I didn’t want to get my hopes up?’

Jon is silent for a few seconds. When Martin looks over at him, he sees Jon’s shoulders are shaking again.

‘Sorry – sorry,’ Jon chokes. ‘I am so, so sorry, I’m not laughing at you, I swear, I just – get your hopes up? Martin, what on earth did you think that I was doing in that place when I came for you? Rescuing a co-worker?’

‘Uh, it’s not like there wasn’t a precedent,’ says Martin defensively, hunching his shoulders. ‘Unless you’re telling me you also have an understanding with Daisy?’

‘Well – that’s fair, but Daisy was different,’ says Jon definitively. ‘I mean, yes, she is my friend and I care about her, but I didn’t ask Daisy to run away and leave the institute with me – and I didn’t pull myself and Daisy out of some horrendous fear dimension on the strength of how much I loved her.’

Instantly, Martin goes numb and folds over at the waist, like his body and his mind are both trying to protect him from hearing Jon’s words. Stupid, he tells himself, and squeezes his eyes shut. So stupid. When Jon is saying everything that he’s stupidly, desperately been wanting to hear for so long, but now it’s here and it’s real and Jon is really saying it, it sparks up a real and deep panic in Martin’s gut, so powerful it’s difficult to touch the edges of it.

He rests his forehead against the counter again and just breathes.

‘Martin?’ says Jon, alarmed, and puts a hesitant hand on his shoulder. ‘Is - are you alright?’

‘Fine,’ Martin says, through gritted teeth. ‘I’m sorry, I am, it’s just – a lot. You know I said – since the Lonely, some things – emotions – are difficult to talk about? Some things are also – difficult to hear.’

‘Oh,’ Jon says, so quiet that Martin has to strain to hear it, and then he asks, ‘Will you ever want to? Hear it, I mean. Because I – uh – I mean, at some point, I do have a lot that I want to say to you. And I think that you need to know it.’

Something about the simple way that he says it kind of takes Martin’s breath away.

‘Oh,’ Martin says. He finds himself suddenly trying very hard to hold back a wave of tears. ‘Yes, I will.’

Jon lets out a kind of relieved breath.

‘Ok,’ he says. ‘I can wait. I suppose – where would you like to go from here?’

‘Just - keep trying? I don't want you to stop,’ Martin says quietly, like he's admitting something shameful, and he gives a nervous, disgusted little laugh. ‘Sorry. I’m sorry. About all of this. I know, I know this is a lot, I’m trying to figure it out the same as you are. I know there’s no easy way through this, I - I’m sorry.’

For the first time in longer than Martin can remember, Jon shoots him a disgusted look.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ he says, and then he seems to remember himself. ‘Sorry. I just meant – God, Martin, you don’t have anything to be sorry about. We are all trying to do this without the easy way through. And it’s not like, even with all this worrying about you, that things haven’t been – good. That I haven’t been, uh. I haven’t been. Happy.’

He keeps an eye on Martin as he says it, like he’s ready to take it back if necessary.

‘Yeah,’ Martin whispers after a moment. ‘Yeah. Me too.’

‘And, about the, hm. About the panic attack,’ says Jon, and he sounds ashamed of even bringing it up. ‘What I said –‘

‘That's off limits,’ Martin says, firmly, feeling panic spike up in his ribcage. ‘At least for the moment. And anyway, that’s – you can’t fix that. And I’m not expecting you to.’

‘Can’t I at least help?’ says Jon, and Martin loves him – loves him – for sounding so utterly sincere.

‘I don’t know,’ Martin says, carefully. ‘I think – maybe. Ask me again in a week. I’m sorry. Like I said, it’s just going to take time.’

Jon gives one very decisive kind of nod. Then, slowly, telegraphing every action, he comes to stand very close against Martin and reaches up to put his arms around Martin’s neck. There’s a second where Martin freezes, the same way he usually does whenever Jon touches him, but then he forces himself to consciously relax and just focus on the sensations. Jon, touching him; his thin, wiry frame. How warm he is. How soft his ridiculously long hair is against Martin’s cheek. When Martin hesitantly slides his own arms around Jon’s ribcage, how Jon settles into his chest with a little huff of breath.

‘Is this ok?’ Jon says quietly, against his ear.

Martin pushes his face down into the fabric of Jon’s shirt. It smells like Jon in a way that he can’t put a name to – not the old papery smell of the statement files, or the stale smell of the cigarettes he thinks he does such a good job of hiding, but something more comfortable, more quintessentially Jon. He closes his eyes.

‘Yes,’ he says on an exhalation, like he’s passing on a secret. ‘This is good.’

They’re quiet after that for a while until Martin breaks away, and Jon gives him the same heart-breaking little smile that he’s been sharing every day for weeks before picking up the pepper again.

They don’t talk a lot over their meal. It’s good and Martin says as much to Jon, who flushes a little, but mostly they’re comfortable enough to sit and eat quietly. Afterwards, they usually relax in front of the fire for a while and talk or read, but when Martin puts the fire guard up and heads straight for the stairs, Jon follows him.

After Martin’s done in the bathroom, Jon takes his turn. He seems a little nervous when he comes back into the room: as he approaches the bed, he’s fussing with the bottom of his pyjama shirt.

‘I feel like we should get something out of the way,’ he says, and Martin pauses midway through getting under the sheets. ‘Following our earlier conversation, I mean. I have my own – things that I won’t do, things I’m not comfortable with, and they aren’t going to change. If we’re going to – uh, have an understanding, as you so eloquently put it, we’re going to need to have a conversation about that, at least somewhere down the line.’

 ‘Oh,’ Martin says, and feels himself blush. ‘Oh, I know already. Or I think I do. The others, you know. And it’s fine, it doesn’t bother me at all. I mean yeah, we should probably talk about it at some point, figure out where your boundaries are, I guess, but we can do that whenever you like.’

‘Not now,’ clarifies Jon.

‘Not now,’ Martin agrees.

Jon shoots him a relieved smile and slips under the covers.

When he turns out the light, they lie in bed the same way they always do, until Martin cautiously pushes his hand over the sheets until he finds Jon’s. Instantly, Jon’s fingers curl around his, and then silently, they both shift onto their sides to face each other. In the bare light coming in under the door, Martin traces the line of Jon’s profile with his eyes, and smiles. He squeezes Jon’s hand.

After a brief second, Jon curls towards him in the bed, like an invitation. When Martin shifts a little closer, Jon rests their foreheads together. He lets out a little sigh.

It’s more than enough, Martin thinks, warm in all the places they’re touching. He doesn’t pull away.

 


 

The next week is both one of the happiest and most frustrating of Martin's life. There's a little part of him that's disappointed that he's not - fixed, after getting everything out in the open, that the next time Jon touches his hand he can't turn his palm over and take it without that little spike of panic. But it helps, the things that Jon had said to him. And Jon, for his part, seems to have an endless supply of patience for him: he touches Martin with a purpose and stops when Martin asks and generally does whatever Martin needs to make it easier. So in fits and starts, it gets better. Martin learns a trick to it, of leaning into the sensations instead of trying to find the meaning behind it, whenever Jon brushes his arm or holds his hand or touches his hair.

But Martin knows it shouldn't be like this, that he shouldn't have to switch off thinking about it to be able to enjoy Jon taking his hand. He loves Jon so much, enough sometimes that it makes him dizzy and Jon - has said that he loves him. It shouldn't be this hard. It feels like there's something fundamental that he's missing, a piece to the puzzle in his brain that he just needs to find. But it's like trying to find the key when he doesn't even know where the lock is, and the search hurts. 

'Do you - uh, do you really want this?' Jon asks Martin once, quietly. They're sitting outside at night with cups of tea, watching the stars. Martin can't believe how bright and clear they are here, away from the light and pollution of London. It tickles him a surprising amount that the Milky Way really does look like that, like a whole spillage of stars across the night sky. Jon's got one arm slung across Martin's shoulder, and Martin is trying very hard to relax into it. He makes a little noise when Jon starts to pull away.

'Yes,' says Martin, upset that he's even made Jon think like that. 'God, Jon, of course I do.'

Jon blows out a breath, looking upset.

'Sorry. Sorry. Please believe me, it's not that I'm trying to pressure you, it's just that I'm - worried,' he says, and he frowns into his tea. 'It feels like I'm pushing all this on you. I know you said keep trying -'

'I asked you to,' says Martin, looking straight at him. 'I asked you to, Jon. Please, please don't blame yourself. And I'm trying.'

'I know you are,' says Jon into his tea, so gentle it starts up that same old hurt at the bottom of Martin's chest. 'It's not that I don't think you are. It's just that, I suppose - I would like for you not to have to. I don't want for you to feel like this forever.'

After a moment, Martin leans over and carefully cups Jon's jaw in his hand. Jon sucks in a very sharp breath and looks right at him. Martin, caught in his gaze, loves him so much that he thinks he might cry.

'Trust me,' he says, feeling the strong beat of Jon's heart under his fingertips. 'I'm - happy. Even though it's - difficult. Every time, I'm happy. I'll get there.'

 


 

Later that night, after the nightmare, Martin wakes. The moonlight’s coming through a gap in the thick curtains, bright enough to make him squint. He rolls over, panicked, but Jon’s still lying next to him a couple of inches away, his head pillowed on his hands and his chest moving as he breathes.

Arms folded over his chest, Martin takes a minute to just look at him while his heartbeat quietens. The light of the moon washes him out, makes him look pale and still and ghostly. Even like this he is so beautiful, Martin thinks. He looks at the thick, scattered scars over Jon’s cheekbone and thinks about touching them wistfully before he remembers: that he can do that now. If he wants to, he's allowed.

As soon as Martin’s fingers touch Jon’s cheek, he stirs, squinting in the light. When he looks at Martin, his whole face softens, and at his unguarded expression something inside Martin falls into place.

It’s trust, he thinks. It doesn't just take love, it takes trust. He's been looking at Jon this whole time like someone with one foot out the door, even if he won't admit it to himself, not really trusting that Jon really means the things that he's been trying to say to Martin. Whether it's because of the Lonely or just some deep, dark part of Martin himself, that's a shitty thing to think about someone Martin truly loves - to believe, even just a little, that Jon doesn't mean the things he says. And it disregards how hard it must be for someone as naturally reticent as Jon to even try to open up to him in the first place.

No matter how hard it is, he has to trust Jon: when Jon looks at him and touches him like he loves him, he has to believe that Jon means it, no matter how much it hurts, or they’re never going to get anywhere. And – and he has to trust himself, to be able to ask for the things that he wants and needs, because Jon believes that he should have that much. No matter what he thinks of himself, he needs to trust in the image that Jon has of him, what Jon sees when he looks of him. Someone good, someone worthy of love. Someone brave.

‘Martin?’ says Jon softly and sleepily. ‘Wha-?’

‘I love you,’ Martin says, half-terrified but completely sure, before he can regret it.

Under his hand, Jon goes completely still. His eyes are very wide.

‘What did you say?’ he says hoarsely.

‘You – uh, you heard me,’ says Martin stubbornly, but Jon’s already starting to smile, open and big and bright like Martin has never seen him smile before, and Martin feels his own answering grin bloom across his face. With a burst of happiness so strong it's almost painful, it occurs to Martin that he’s been the one to do that. That he can make Jon look like that, smile like that. Happy like that.

Jon fists two hands in the front of Martin’s pyjama shirt and drags himself across the mattress to bury his face in Martin’s chest. Hesitantly, Martin puts his arm around Jon’s back and lays his hand on the sharp edge of Jon’s shoulder-blade. Jon feels - god, exactly the way that Martin would have expected him to feel against him, if he'd ever let himself do so. Warm and small and solid, and furiously real, his head under Martin's chin, his elbows pressed up against Martin's stomach. Martin gives himself permission to sink into it. Gently, he tightens his arm.

‘I know it took me a while, and I’m sor-‘ he starts to say, choking up a little, and then Jon looks up wildly and physically slaps a hand over his mouth. Shocked, Martin starts laughing: a little, high laugh that seems to surprise Jon as much as it surprises Martin himself.

‘No!’ Jon says, and Martin thinks he can see him beginning to laugh as well. ‘God, Martin, I can’t believe - you’re not going to do that now!’

‘I just meant I’m so-‘ Martin tries to continue, but Jon climbs over him like a spider to shove his hand further over Martin’s mouth.

Stop it, Martin!’ Jon hisses, but he's shaking with laughter, and Martin’s laughing loud enough now that it comes out around Jon’s fingers: he can’t help it. He’s never seen Jon act stupid before, like maybe for five seconds he’s not carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. If pressed, he wouldn’t even say Jon was capable of it. He tries to picture the Jon he’d first met laughing like this – severe and short-tempered, worried about everything, no time for anything but the mess of the Archives. How fucked up it is that after three almost-apocalypses, Jon’s more happy now, Martin thinks.

When Martin stops laughing, Jon pulls his hand away and just looks at him.

‘You’re happy,’ says Martin, simply. Without even thinking about it he pushes away a lock of Jon’s hair where it’s fallen over his eyes. ‘Here. Um. With me. You’re happy.’

Jon’s smile softens instantly and his hands go to Martin’s face. When Martin doesn’t move away, he moves his thumb gently across Martin’s cheek: cautiously at first, and then he lifts a hand and smooths back Martin’s hair and just looks down at him. Martin leans into his hand.

‘Yes,’ Jon says. ‘God, Martin. Of course. I’ve been trying to tell you.’

'It's not going to be this easy,' Martin warns, trying hard to keep the quiver out of his voice. 'This isn't the end - I didn't fix it, I'm going to have bad days and get worse again; it's just going to happen. I'm sorry.'

At that, Jon rolls his eyes in an expression so fond and so deeply familiar that when Martin laughs, he is very surprised to discover that he’s crying.

‘Oh - are you alright?’ Jon asks quietly, taking his hands off Martin’s face.  ‘I'm sorry, I thought-‘

‘Yeah. Yeah. I’m ok, I just, uh. Give me a moment.’ he says, and then he closes his eyes briefly. When he opens them again, he tilts his head and looks at Jon. How dear he is, how fucking dear, Martin thinks, and reaches out to touch Jon’s cheek again, the scars smooth and cold under his fingertips. He can do that now, he thinks. He doesn’t have to worry any more. He can ask for what he wants to hear. He can ask for what he wants, full stop.

‘Do you… love me?’ he says. He puts his thumb against Jon’s lip and watches Jon’s eyes go wide again.

‘Yes,’ says Jon, and then, ‘yes,’ and surges down to kiss him.