In the Lonely, Martin Blackwood walks. It’s not so bad, at first. Peter had left him as soon as they broke through, so he’s alone on a beach and it’s wide and endless, black iron sand and a grey sky and the sound of waves even though there’s no water in sight. It’s kind of beautiful, actually, but the air feels damp and thick and it clings to his wrists and his cheeks and the back of his neck. He feels slightly nauseous. His hands are shaking. He tugs at the hem of his parka, pulling the jacket straight across his shoulders, and he walks.
After awhile he becomes aware of something starting to pull at him. It’s a hollow feeling, a little like a toothache except he can feel it everywhere. Under his fingernails and against his palms. There’s no one who would follow him here, he thinks, aching. There’s no one who would even notice he was gone. His eyelids grow heavy with mist and he can feel his chin dipping lower, his feet dragging in the sand. The ache gets worse, emptying him out, leaving only his body, heavy, pulling him further down. It hurts . It hurts, but it also feels like it’s nothing to do with him at all, just something happening to a stranger. He’s blurring at the edges. There’s never been anyone who has loved him the way he loves everyone . He stumbles against the thought and then stops. He holds out his hands and they aren’t shaking anymore, but his fingers start to split, like double vision, like his shadow is pulling away, and then there’s this half-air echo of himself moving over his skin, overlapping the boundaries of his body. He feels smudgey and sick and then he feels nothing. He wonders if he’ll fade away until he’s gone or shatter first, into one thousand pieces. His feet stick as he starts to walk again, the damp sand threatening to throw him off balance.
When Peter dies, he feels it. He’s not sure if death is really the right word, but Peter exists and then he doesn’t. Perhaps he is unmade. Perhaps he is swallowed by something. Martin doesn’t care. He turns away from the hole his absence has made in the world and ignores the ripples of it, travelling outward over sand. If he were to die in the same way, he doesn’t think he would even stir the water. His death would make no change in the world. He starts to move again, wanting to distance himself from the remains of other people. Jon is... Jon is here somewhere, pretending he... pretending he might have come to this place for more than just to compel Peter to speak to him. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because Martin is cut loose and drifting.
Somehow, though, Jon finds him. He calls Martin’s name and then touches him, holds his shoulder with one hand and his elbow with another. Martin thinks that would have meant something to him once. It would have meant everything to him once. His hands are warm and there’s no other warmth anywhere, but it’s painful too, to be touched in this place, like your bones might break under it. Martin pulls back, movements slow, dragging on the thick air, and Jon’s hands fall to his sides. He looks scared and desperate. Sharp at his edges, like he means to break apart the beach with his hands. A long time ago that would have meant something to Martin too. He’s speaking and Martin can hardly hear the words.
“We need you- I need you,” he’s saying, and that’s an echo too, something Martin’s already said. Recycled. Impossible. He wants to laugh. He drifts. He thinks he’s saying something too but his voice is so removed from his body he can’t be sure. Jon’s expression twists. His eyes are sad and dark and hollow. Martin doesn’t want to look at him. He looks at the ground instead, the black sand, and it glitters coldly and it’s almost a comfort, that there are inhuman pieces of rock all around him.
And then Jon says, “look at me,” and there’s something... it’s so much sharper than everything else, so much realer. His voice, the way it... the way it breaks through the fog and... and into him , into-. Martin looks at him. Martin looks at him and he... he knows that face, the lines at the corners of his mouth, the grey at his temples, the tired slope of his shoulders, and he loves that face, that voice, that-. He blinks and he loves him and he inhales, shakily, and he loves him and he laughs and he’s in love and Jon... Jon followed him. Martin comes back together, whole again
“I was on my own,” he says, breathless.
“Not anymore,” says Jon.
Martin doesn’t know how they get out, just that they’re walking together and their shoulders are touching and the air is grey and then they’re in the tunnels again, damp with mist. Everything is quiet. Martin feels exhausted. He fidgets, pushing shut the snap button of one of his jacket pockets, then tugging it open again. Before Peter had taken him it had been... loud here. Violent. He pushes the edge of the button under his thumbnail, until it hurts a little, and then he presses his palms to his thighs.
“Martin,” says Jon, voice gentle, tired, half-air. “I don’t know what’s up there, are you... are you alright?”
“I’m okay,” says Martin, which isn’t really true but is true enough. “I don’t... I don’t think there’s anyone here.” Somehow he knows that’s true. There’s nothing dangerous anyway, he can feel the emptiness of the place, like an open wound. A scar, maybe. Leftover loneliness. He shivers, hugs himself, and Jon’s expression becomes something unreadable, softer than Martin is used to.
“Come on,” he says, and he reaches across the space between them and tugs gently on one of the cords from the hood of Martin’s jacket, and then turns away.
They make their way up, through offices and hallways, empty of life. One of Martin’s shoelaces catches and unravels and he pauses to kneel down and tie it again. Jon puts a hand on his shoulder to steady him and then helps him back to his feet when it’s tied. His hands are dry, still warm, smaller than Martin’s own. He lets go when Martin’s standing and Martin wonders if this is going to keep happening, Jon touching him, because he’s not sure if... he’s not sure if he understands what that means but if he does... if he does, then what? His heart aches. They keep moving.
They find Basira in one of the offices. She’s sitting on the floor, in the corner of the room, knees hugged to her chest. Her eyes are red-rimmed, like she’s been crying, and her fingertips are stained black and smudged, like she’s been burned. There is a tear in one of her sleeves. Jon crouches down next to her, speaking quietly, and Martin looks at his feet, knocks the heel of one shoe back against the toe of the other. He wants to go home. He... obviously he wants Basira to be okay, and Daisy, but he could... he could leave on his own if he wanted. He could, but what if... what if he collapses on the tube or has a breakdown in the middle of the street or is... what if he’s zapped straight back into the Lonely as soon as he’s more than an arm’s length away from Jon. The thought unsettles him far more than worms or rituals or Extinction. He rolls his knuckles along the laminated wood of the desk and then shoves his hands into his pockets to keep them still.
Basira decides she’s going to go home. Daisy is gone and will stay gone until the Hunt leaves her, if it ever does. If that’s even possible now.
“There’s nothing I can do for her,” she says, voice small. “She... I know she’ll come back to me.”
They leave the building together and it’s early evening outside, the same pale grey as the Lonely’s beach, but closed and close as only London streets can be. Martin keeps his hands deep in his pockets and his eyes on Jon’s back, sloped shoulders, his hair made wild by the wind and by his hands. Martin used to linger in his office just to see it, the way he would wind curls around his fingers and tug, sharply, thinking on some problem of classification or crawling dread. He would notice Martin watching, eventually, and wave him out with a flick of his fingers, and Martin would file it all away, to think about in idle moments. This is the way Jon’s hands move through his hair and this is the way he presses his lips around a problem and perhaps I should buy him a hairbrush, since he obviously doesn’t have one.
“My flat is close,” says Martin, kicking out at the pavement, swinging his arms, holding his breath. “I mean, if you... I don’t even know if you live anywhere anymore or if you’re just kind of... embedded in your desk chair, but I... I occasionally leave the archive.”
“Are you inviting me?" Jon asks, glancing at him sideways, unreadable as ever. “I’d like to stay with you, if you don’t mind.”
“Mind? I-.” Martin laughs. “I want... yes, I want you to come.”
“I’m leaving,” says Basira, cutting through everything. “One of you should call a cab before you hurt yourselves with... whatever’s going on here.”
“Thank you, Basira,” says Jon, tripping a little over the words in a way that makes Martin’s throat ache, and he has to turn away to hide the way his cheeks are burning.
So Basira leaves one way, in an Uber, telling Jon she’ll call him in the morning to figure out what has to happen next, and Jon and Martin wait for their cab, on the sidewalk, under grey. Martin rather desperately wants to hold Jon’s hand, actually thinks that he might let him if he asked, or if he just... just took it, turned it over in his, matched up their palms and overlapped their fingers. An echo. Double vision. Instead, he tries to remember when the last time he cleaned his flat was. He isn’t... he’s not messy, generally, but he also hasn’t really spoken to anyone in over half a year, let alone invited them over. Does he have any clean mugs? How many random pieces of his clothing are strewn across the back of his couch, or hanging on the corner of a door? He fidgets. Jon takes Martin’s arm, curling his fingers against the inside of his elbow, squeezing gently and then letting go again. Martin stares at him.
“I... I’m sorry, but I’m not sure-.” And the cab arrives and Martin is startled back into silence.
In the cab, Jon tilts his head back against his seat and closes his eyes and Martin stares at him, and at their legs touching, and at his own hand, balled up on his thigh. He's beginning to think that maybe, maybe , there is more to all of this than he had dared hope. He wills his hand to move, to maybe gently touch Jon's knee or curl around his wrist, but nothing happens. He sighs. He grinds his knuckles into the hollows of his eyes and then rubs feverishly at his cheeks and then he sighs again. And Jon, without opening his eyes, takes him by the wrist, fingertips against his pulse, and holds him still until the journey's over.
Martin likes his flat. He’s had it since after Jane Prentiss attacked and he’s attached a particular feeling of safety to it. His tiny flat with the curtains drawn and yellow milk crates full of old records under the windows. He fumbles with the switch by the door, flicks it, and the room fills with dusty light. There's a scarf draped over the back of the couch, cream wool threaded through with pink and grey, and there's a sweater crumpled up on one of the seats, but otherwise it all looks reasonably normal. An old-fashioned stack stereo, with a tape deck and a record player, a jade plant in a terracotta pot, looking hopeful, a flock of smaller succulents at its base, a mustard yellow cocktail chair he bought at a vintage market because the old lady selling it had told him he reminded her of her grandson.
“This is... this is it,” he says, stepping aside so Jon can follow him in and toeing off his shoes. “It’s not much, but... would you like... I can make tea? Or-or there’s probably some bread in the freezer if you want toast, but there’s not- I doubt there’s much in the fridge. I could run down to the shop and get us... um... actually do you eat ? Anymore? Like, food I mean, I know you... but you have to eat, right? So I can uh...” He trails off, uncertain, twisting one hand around the opposite wrist like a cuff. Remembering Jon's hand, much softer.
"Yes, I eat," says Jon. He's smiling. Martin chews on his lip. "Sit down, Martin. I can make us tea, alright?"
"Right," Martin echoes, uncertainly. "Right, okay."
So Martin sits on the couch, picking up his scarf and balling it in his hands, and Jon heads into the kitchen. Martin can’t really take his eyes off him. Jon is in his kitchen, hunting for tea. Jon is opening every single one of his cupboards, frowning, trying to find the mugs (even though they’re stuffed into the cupboard above the sink, all ten thousand of them, which is definitely the most logical place for mugs). Jon is staring, wide eyed, at the open tea cupboard; a patchwork wall of coloured boxes and tins. Martin grins, buries his face in the scarf to stop himself from laughing.
"Why do you have forty different kinds of tea?" He hears Jon call. "Which... which is the normal kind?"
"Blue and white tin," calls Martin, voice muffled. "Can you make me chamomile? It's in the yellow box."
"There are three yellow boxes, Martin, I don't-."
"It's like... it's not quite mustard, but... but not lemon yellow either, it's in between."
"In between mustard and lemon yellow." Jon sounds dubious, like he hadn’t been aware there could be more than one shade of yellow.
"It will say chamomile on it,” says Martin, trying to be helpful but also kind of trying to make him roll his eyes.
"Right... thank you," he mutters, voice flat, and Martin does laugh at that, and drops the scarf into his lap.
"Don't put milk in it," he says, teasing now, and Jon shoots him a withering look over the bench and doesn’t reply, just pointedly pulls the right box from the cupboard. Martin settles back against the couch cushions, satisfied.
Jon comes back to him some time later, wreathed in steam. He has chosen matching mugs, painted with faded watercolour flowers, blue and yellow, and when he hands one to Martin their fingers brush and Martin flinches and only narrowly avoids scalding himself with hot water. Jon raises an eyebrow which Martin ignores and then he takes his place on the couch, not at the other end of the three-person seat, but warm against his side. He holds his mug between both palms, bows his head over the steam. Martin imagines a different version of himself, braver, putting his arm around Jon’s shoulders, pulling him to his chest. He sips his tea instead, lets the warmth coat his tongue and fill his chest and closes his eyes to feel it deeper. He feels loose-limbed, tired, unmoored. It’s not the empty drift of the Lonely, though. It’s a comfort, to be able to be relaxed at all. Peter is dead and he's... free. As free as he's felt in a long time, anyway. Until the morning, maybe, when reality sets in again. Elias is still alive. Or... or Jonah Magnus is still alive, Martin can't really even... think about that without his skin crawling. But all of it can wait. He's busy. He's drinking tea and falling asleep on a couch with... with Jon.
"I didn't... I didn't think it would end this way," he says, voice barely above a whisper.
"It's not an end," says Jon and then he sighs and shuffles back in his seat a little, tucking his feet up under himself, and then puts his mug on the coffee table and he rests his head against Martin's shoulder and he sighs again. "I'm sorry it took me so long to... to follow you."
"What?" Martin's voice comes out in a squeak this time, embarrassingly shrill.
Jon pulls away slightly, expression... not unreadable, but open and pained. "What do you mean, what ?" he asks.
"I'm going to need you to, in-in simple language, explain to me what's going on."
"Oh," says Jon. He sits up a little straighter. "I... I'm in love with you."
Knee-jerk, Martin shuts his eyes. It's something to do with knowing that it's real and being frightened of it. It's something to do with the expression he knows must be spreading across his face, a dopey smile and flushed cheeks, and how embarrassing that is. It's something to do with wanting this for so long, but never ever thinking it could actually be his.
"Martin," says Jon, voice soft, and Martin opens his eyes and Jon is smiling too.
“Sorry, I-I’m not sure... I’m not sure what to do... now,” says Martin, quietly, all a rush.
“You don’t have to do anything.”
“No, I.. I know that, but I’ve also been... been... confessing to a tape recorder for... I mean for forever and I’m kind of convinced that this will be much easier if you let me record it instead and I’ll just give that to you, because... because that way...” He sighs. He hadn’t meant to say any of this, not really, but now he’s started, he can’t stop. “Because that way, if this all goes wrong or you... or you change your mind, it’ll be easy to convince myself it was never real. Just. Just voices on tapes.”
“And don’t, don’t say Martin that... that way you do, because I can’t. I can’t bear it.” He’s still holding his tea and he presses his fingertips hard against the warm ceramic and he shakes out his hair, so it falls more heavily over his eyes.
Jon is silent. Martin fidgets. He wonders what the fuck is wrong with him, to be questioning this in any way, and then he thinks... well, he’s always questioned love because it was never given to him easily, and then he thinks, fuck, fuck but hasn’t he also always taken whatever he was given? Even when it wasn’t anything at all. A look. A touch. When his mother would sing in Polish and he would pretend it was for him. Fuck .
“This isn’t... this isn’t even about you, Jon, don’t... it’s’ just... I’ve been alone for a long time and I love you,” he says, voice raw. “I love you,” he says again, more firmly. “I love you,” looking at Jon finally, trying to pull his mouth back into a smile and failing.
Jon kisses him. He is slow about it, but not hesitant. He gives Martin the time and space he needs to turn away, if he should want to, but he doesn’t and Jon presses his lips carefully to Martin’s own, hand at his jaw, and everything seems to fall back into place. Martin doesn’t drop his tea, but it’s a near thing. And then they sit together on the couch and finish their tea and they kiss some more and Martin pushes his hands through Jon's hair and Jon touches Martin's face and they talk about everything they've missed about one another, in the time they've been apart. Their voices overlap and trip up and tangle, but all of it is full of warmth and ease and there's nothing under it, no fear or worry, and Martin keeps thinking he's going to burst into tears, but he doesn't. And the evening stretches on and it gets dark outside, darker still, and their voices dip into muddled syllables, clumsy with exhaustion, and then they fall quiet and Martin shuts his eyes and drifts.
"As much as I... as much as I could sit here with you and... forever, I... I think we should go to sleep," says Jon, eventually, pulling Martin to his senses.
"You can take the bedroom," says Martin, automatically. It's been on his mind for awhile now. Boundaries. Clarity. He doesn't want to.... push anything. Jon... Jon loves him, he said so, he said it himself, out loud, and he’d made him tea and followed him into another world, but that... that’s the easy stuff.
“Only if you’re there too,” says Jon, through a yawn. His voice is so quiet now, so imprecise. Martin thinks he sounds beautiful, unwound like that. They're both half in dreams already.
So Martin heads to his bedroom and Jon follows, slower, cleaning his glasses on the hem of his shirt. The bedroom is plain, far less hectic than the rest of the flat, no overflowing tea cupboards or weird thrift store portraits of strangers or half-finished candles he refuses to throw away, even though the scent is years gone. His bedroom is just his bed, the quilt striped grey-green and white, and an old set of drawers he's had for his whole life, and a cupboard, painted white, that's the same. A mirror on the back of the door that he always forgets is there, because it's mostly covered up in scarves. A shoe rack with the same pair of shoes three times, in different states of wear. A pair of cowboy boots a high school friend had bought him as a joke that he'd been reluctant to part with. A place to sleep and not much else.
“I have... a lot of pajamas," he says, frowning at his drawers. Jon steps up beside him, leans against him heavily. "If you...I mean they won’t...they'll be too big but it'll definitely be better than sleeping in trousers, so...” He trails off, still frowning. "I... do you-."
"Yes, thank you,” says Jon. He sounds like he’s fading away, like he sometimes does after statements, half-gone. Martin feels a little bit like that too. There are still the edges of an endless beach in his head.
He tugs open a drawer and pulls out what he'll wear, grey flannel, well-worn, and leaves it open for Jon.
"Take anything you want," he says. "I'm going to... I'll go and get changed in the bathroom.”
He hears Jon make a faint noise of protest, but he’s gone before he can think on it, flying back down the hall and to the bathroom. He gets changed and brushes his teeth and washes his face and pokes at it in the mirror and combs his fingers through his hair. It’s weird, he thinks, that he’s instantly comfortable when he’s at home, even though he’s spent so much of the past year away from it. This is his bathroom with the weird crack in the bottom of the shower that he’s convinced is going to break under him one day and send him plummeting, naked, into the downstairs neighbours living room. This is his bathroom with the seahorse sticker on the mirror, left behind by whoever lived here before him. This is a place that he knows and a place that he’s glad he’s brought Jon to, even if it isn’t forever. Even if it’s just tonight.
Jon is rumpled and scowling when he gets back, in dark red flannel that puddles somewhat at his feet, glasses folded up on the side table by the bed. Martin, quite charmed, grins at him.
"There’s stuff in the bathroom, if you want to wash up. Spare toothbrushes are under the sink."
“Toothbrushes, plural? Martin I... I mean this in the nicest possible way, but are you a hoarder? The tea was one thing, and the... the mugs, but spare toothbrushes?”
“Just in case,” says Martin, shrugging. “In... in case people visit or... you know you should change your toothbrush every three months, so... it’s sensible, actually.”
“Right,” says Jon, faintly. “I love you.”
“Oh. I... I love you too.”
While Jon is gone, Martin just throws himself into bed and pulls the sheets up and over his face and then pushes them off and then rolls onto his side and then flops back onto his back and then sighs and shuts his eyes and just tries to hold himself normally, not rigid as a corpse, not like he’s absolutely terrified, because he isn’t. He’s just... tired and a little bit hysterical. He’s just... happy. And then Jon comes back and climbs, unceremoniously into bed, and throws an arm around Martin's waist, and presses his face into Martin's shoulder, eyes already closed.
"G'night," he mumbles, against Martin's arm, and then something else inaudible.
"Good night, Jon," says Martin, quietly, and he shuts his eyes.
In his dreams, Martin Blackwood walks. His whole body is aching, hollow, cold, and he knows for a certainty that he will never be touched again by another person. He walks along the black sand beach and the sky is grey above him and the sound of the ocean roars in his ears like nothing he's ever heard before, this eerie hollow groan that fills the world. It's kind of beautiful, he thinks, in an abstract way, like steel can be beautiful. He thinks there's supposed to be someone with him. He thinks he used to love someone who loved him too. His hands are shaking. He doesn't want to be here. He needs to find a way out. He kneels in the sand and starts to dig and the black sand gets wet and liquid, like tar, sick and poisonous. It's so loud he can't think and it takes him a long time to realise that someone is calling his name. He stands up and someone is calling his name. He looks to the sky, wide and open and endless, and he wakes up.
"Martin," says Jon again, hands on his face, unfocused without his glasses. Rumpled. Worried. "You were dreaming," he says.
"I was... I was all alone," says Martin, voice scratchy and raw.
"Not anymore." Jon brushes the pad of his thumb across the ridge of Martin's cheek, pushes back his hair, and Martin turns his face and kisses his palm. His heart beat slows. His breathing evens out. He is in his house, in his bed, with Jon. He rolls over to face him, can't really speak but touches his shoulder, the top button of his pajama shirt, the hollow of his throat. And Jon smiles, gentle, tired, and he takes a handful of Martin's shirt in his hand and bows his head against his chest and together, they fall asleep.