Martin forgets slowly at first, and then all at once. One moment he's grasping at memories, desperate without knowing why to retain even a single image of an angry, scarred stranger saying incomprehensible things about eyes, and the next, nothing. He can't even remember what had him so anxious just now. A car alarm, probably, or a dog barking in the distance. He's always startled easily.
It's almost time to go to work, anyway, so never mind all that. No time for fussing about damp palms or the bitter taste of adrenaline when he's got a bus to catch. Wouldn't do to be late to—
For a moment, he draws a complete blank. It's the mental equivalent of putting your foot down on a stair that isn't there. Disconcerting, but nothing to get upset about as long as you can catch yourself, which Martin does. He always does.
It wouldn't do to be late to the bank, after all. The bank where he works, where he's worked for years. The bank where he cheerfully greets customers and helps them with their problems and gets through the day. That bank. Yes.
So, nothing to worry about there. Everyone has little lapses like that — last week, Josh left his keys on the break room kettle! Briefly forgetting your place of work is normal, and not a sign of early-onset anything, and if sometimes Martin feels like he's forgotten whole worlds, like there's an empty place inside him that used to hold something of value, well, that's normal, too, probably.
The bus is muggy. Damp passengers press too tightly against each other, jostling unhappily at each stop and start of the morning traffic. Someone at the back of the bus is sobbing, quietly at first and then louder, until everyone can hear it and everyone knows everyone else can hear it, and still no one does anything, because what is there to do?
Martin's work coat and work shoes are water resistant but not waterproof. The late February drizzle has made that distinction clear: when Martin stands to give up his seat for a heavily pregnant person, his feet squelch unpleasantly.
It's fine. It's all fine. It has to be fine, because what else can Martin do? The bank is a good employer — no prospects, but then Martin never really had prospects to begin with. And once he's paid off mum's funeral—
Another unsettling blank. But that one is definitely normal, just his mind trying to protect him from the memory of standing alone at the grave of a woman who hated him. The care home would have sent a couple of the staff to the funeral, but they'd been dealing with a scabies outbreak, and, well, you understand, don't you, Mr Blackwood dear?
Of course he understood.
Yes. Anyway. Once he's paid off mum's funeral costs, he might even be able to start saving. Maybe next year he could move out of his grotty five-person house share into a marginally less grotty four-person house share. Dare to dream.
He's not late-late to work, but he's not as early as he'd like. There's not time to make tea and change into dry socks before Nadja reads them the bulletin, so he resigns himself to a morning of damp feet.
Josh smiles vaguely at Martin when he accepts a mug of tea, then puts it down on the nearest desk where it will remain, undrunk, until Martin tidies up at lunchtime. Nadja accepts hers with a terse nod, then frowns down at it, as if she's not sure why she has it or what it wants. She'll drink half of it, then leave the mug by the wrong sink with the satisfied air of someone who has done all that can be asked of her.
Karly has a coffee with six sweeteners, which she actually thanks Martin for this time. She might still be feeling guilty about last week, when she did her impression of him without realising he was in earshot. Martin didn't mind, honestly — it was a good impression, very funny. He does hunch his shoulders like that, and it's not like he doesn't know his voice is annoying.
The day goes as days do. He washes everyone's mugs up at the end of the day. Josh makes a half-hearted effort to invite him to the pub after work on Friday — everyone's going, apparently, and there's talk of a quiz — but they both know "everyone" doesn't include Martin.
"Maybe next time?" Martin says, trying to put a good natured laugh in his voice. It probably just makes him sound feeble, but Josh doesn't seem to notice.
"Sure," Josh says, already distracted by something on his phone. "No worries, yeah." He rests his hand briefly on the door handle and for a moment the whole door seems to sag under his weight, as if it just can't be bothered to support him. When he removes his hand, there's still a faint bend to the wood -- it must have been like that already, Martin supposes. Just a trick of the light making it look like it moved.
It's the longest conversation Martin's had all day that wasn't about work.
He has another lapse — no, lapse makes it sound more serious than it is, not a lapse, just a brief moment of blankness, a normal blip of the memory — on the way to the bus stop. His feet take him left when they should have gone right, and instead of waiting opposite Sainsbury's for the 328 to take him home, he finds himself standing in front of a hotel that feels weirdly unfamiliar.
Of course it's unfamiliar. It's a random hotel just off his normal journey to work. There's probably a term for this, some technical way of describing why his misfiring neurons are confused by the presence of a hotel where they think something else should be. Jamais vu, perhaps?
That's pretty good for a B in GCSE French fifteen years ago. If he had anyone to tell about it, they'd probably be impressed. He might even have to explain it — because, see, "jamais" means "never" — and then they'd agree that he can't be losing his memory, not if he can make a pun in French like that.
He imagines receiving a wry, fond huff of amusement for his efforts. Not in an imaginary friend way, he's 33, he doesn't have imaginary friends, but just in a nice way. Like if he was a different person with a different life, maybe he'd have a friend who would be quietly amused by him.
The detour means he arrives at the bus stop just as the 328 is pulling away. The little screen thingy says there's not one for another eighteen minutes, which is fine, he has an article on sheep farming bookmarked that he's been meaning to read.
It's a good article. If he had someone to share it with, he would. Maybe pop it in a text with a little sheep emoji: Saw this and thought of ewe.
That's two puns in one day. He'd better not get giddy. It's nice, though. Feels like a little secret he has, just for himself. Josh and Nadja and Karly, if they think of him at all, don't think of him as someone who makes jokes. And he'd never have bothered his mum with that, even back when she was still letting him visit. So that's something he has that's real, that no one can take away from him, something he can keep for himself.
That's enough to keep him going all the way home. He does the washing up when he gets in, even though technically none of it's his. It's just nicer for everyone if it's done, and it doesn't really matter who does it.
It's almost Aldi time again: he's nearly out of Definitely-Not-Heinz Tomato Soup. He hopes they have those off-brand Definitely-Not-Custard-Creams in stock this time — there's something comforting about them, though he couldn't tell you why.
Oh. That's annoying. Tomasz has put his overspill on Martin's shelf again, which Martin really wishes he wouldn't. Tomasz buys tinned fruit in bulk from the Polish supermarket across the road — which is fine, Martin has nothing against Tomasz getting his five a day — but he always gets too much to fit on his shelf, and he refuses to store the excess in his room. This time round it's tinned peaches, which have always made Martin feel faintly ill. Probably a bad experience with school dinners or something.
Martin doesn't move the tins. Their other housemates would — Colin, who's been here the longest after Martin, would stack them outside Tomasz's door with an angry post-it on each one — but Martin doesn't see the point. No sense in alienating people you have to live with.
Martin goes to bed early. Why not? Tomorrow is another day.
"I love you too," Martin says to Jon, the worst thing that's ever happened to the world. He wants to say something real, something that will get through to this stupid, brave, impossible man. "You aren't just an eldritch chess piece, you know? You're a person. You matter. I love you and I'm glad we got to have this, because maybe you can See Everything or whatever, but I can see you. And I love you."
"Martin," Jon says, fond and soft and a thousand tender things the Ceaseless fucking Watcher never cared enough to remove. He closes his eyes.
Jon was the conduit. Now he's the tether.
Together, they push the knife of stone and cobwebs into Jon's chest. When Jon's grip fails, Martin keeps going. It's the least he can do.
Martin is good at helping older customers get set up with the app. He doesn't mind explaining things more than once, and he likes feeling useful. There's nothing better than the grateful smile of a technophobic retiree who finally feels comfortable checking their balance on their phone. It's probably his favourite part of the job, if he's being honest. One of the very few things he's genuinely better at than most of his coworkers.
He's glad to be doing it today. He had a weird moment with Colin before he left for work this morning, so it's nice to have a comforting role to slip into. Colin's normally fine if you follow the house rules -- written by Colin, pinned on the notice board in the hall next to the fire regulations and the landlord's agent's number -- but this morning there were angry post-it notes on everyone's doors reminding them about Quiet Hours (10pm to 6am). When Martin went into the kitchen he found Colin sitting at the table writing the same note out again. He looked up at Martin's arrival, made direct eye contact, and ate the post-it.
So yes. Not the most pleasant start to the morning. Poor Colin, really. But much better to be at work now, being useful, doing something to help other people with their days.
He's just showing Mrs Byrne how to set up a standing order to her sister's account when he hears Josh say his name.
"No," he's saying, "she wants to wait for Martin." He doesn't hide his confusion at this.
Martin looks up briefly. Josh is talking to Karly -- whatever she says is quiet enough it doesn't reach him. The floor under Josh is weirdly lit or stained or something, so it looks like it's dented, like it's sagging slightly beneath him.
None of the nearby customers are old enough to be waiting for his help. There's a couple maybe a little older than Martin, flirt-bickering as they look at a first-time mortgage leaflet; a middle-aged man typing away on his phone; and a tall woman about Martin's age with horn-rimmed glasses and an air of deep impatience.
"And then you just click here and wait for the bank to send you a text message," he says on auto-pilot, scanning the room for someone else who might be the person waiting to speak to him.
When Martin has finally shown Mrs Byrne all the wonders of the app, she pats him on the arm and thanks him for his patience.
"I know you young things were born with one of these gadgets in your hand," she says cheerfully. "It's very good of you to bear with us old fuddy duddies."
Martin laughs automatically and assures her it was a pleasure.
The impatient woman with the statement glasses is the one who's waiting to speak to him. Her app isn't working, apparently, and her aunt recommended Martin personally.
Her app is really not working. Martin tries uninstalling and reinstalling, logging in with the test account, fussing with the settings, and, well, to be honest, that's the end of his tricks. He's not very good at phones, he's just good at not judging people who are even worse than him.
All the while, the woman — Ms James — talks away, asking him questions about how long he's worked there (six years), his holiday plans (none, but he did go to Brighton in November, that was nice), what he likes to do in the area (there's a bookshop nearby that does poetry evenings). This might be the most interest anyone has shown in him since he made the mistake of being polite to a Mormon missionary last year.
He can't fix the app, but she doesn't seem to mind. "Thank you, Martin," she says, at least as genuine as Mrs Byrne before her. "I really appreciate you trying. You can tell a lot about a person from how they attempt the impossible."
"It's not— Just because I can't fix it, please don't give up on it," Martin says. "I'm not very good at this, honestly. Our helpline really should be able to, um, help?"
She smiles at him, but it's distracted, like she's already moved on. "Goodbye, Martin."
Josh must be the dedicated Martin-wrangler this week. Martin doesn't think they take it in turns as such, but every so often there'll be a week where one of them decides to make the effort to include him in things. It's kind of them, he supposes.
"Was she flirting with you, Martin?" he asks with a teasing lilt to his voice. "Martin Ladykiller Blackwood, at it again."
Martin has never been good at telling whether people are laughing at him or with him. He used to assume all laughter was friendly, until it became painfully clear it wasn't. Then he overcorrected in the other direction, growing silent and withdrawn at what he realised later were genuine attempts to connect. And now he just knows that he doesn't know — and that it's easier on everyone if he pretends they're laughing with him.
So Martin forces a good-natured chuckle and says something bland about his irresistible good looks, and Josh laughs too and it's all fine.
He wouldn't think anything more of it, only after lunch, someone else under fifty comes in wanting to speak to him.
Martin doesn't see the guy come in. He's trying to help an older gentleman -- Mr Derringer -- get set up with online banking, but every time he asks Mr Derringer a question, he gets back a blank stare and a whispered, "No, I can't, don't make me choose."
Martin's as reassuring as he can be, given the givens -- this isn't the most upset he's ever seen a customer when faced with the internet. But when Mr Derringer can't decide on a password, a security question, or a PIN, Martin feels the time might have come to gently suggest just renewing Mr Derringer's chequebook and trying again some other day.
Then comes the second customer under fifty who wants to speak to Martin. He's about Martin's age, with stylishly messy hair and a smile that makes Karly blush. In as much as he's interested in anyone, Martin's interested in men, but he tries to push that part of him down. Not because he's gay, not because he's trans, but because he's him, and who of any gender would want him lusting after them?
The man turns his smile up another notch when he's led over to Martin, giving Martin a look that makes Karly do an actual double-take. It's not like Martin can argue with her, honestly -- no one looks at Martin like that, and he doesn't blame them.
"My colleague Sasha was in here earlier," the man -- Mr Stoker -- says. "She says you were brilliant with her app."
Martin smiles politely. Maybe he means Mrs Byrne? She could be a Sasha. "It was nothing," he says. "I just showed her how to set up--"
Mr Stoker cuts him off. "Can you help me with my app? It won't let me change my overdraft."
Martin takes him through all the steps carefully. Mr Stoker is chatty, asking him about his job at the bank, whether he likes it, if he's going for a promotion any time soon, if it's exciting working around all that money?
Martin answers the first couple of questions politely -- it had surprised him, at first, how many people thought that asking someone at their place of work if they liked their job was appropriate small talk -- but by the third, he's pretty sure Mr Stoker's colleague Sasha isn't Mrs Byrne.
"Sasha James?" he asks, instead of telling Mr Stoker that no, of course it's not exciting, they probably have less actual cash on site than a big supermarket does each evening. "Is that your colleague?"
Mr Stoker laughs. "Yes! Sasha James, yea high, very sexy glasses, gives the impression of being ten times smarter than everyone else in the room when actually she's at least twenty."
"Look, I--" Martin says. "What do you want? You can't just come in here on a, on a pretext. This is my job -- if my boss thinks I told you to do this, I could get in real trouble." He winces. And if Nadja overhears Martin talking to a customer like that, it won't go much better for him. "Um. Sorry. I mean, please don't do this? I need this job."
He looks down at Mr Stoker's phone. The little pop up is asking him if he's sure he wants to extend his overdraft.
"You probably want to press cancel." He gives the phone back to Mr Stoker, tries not to think about how meek he sounds, how pathetic. "Unless you did want that overdraft."
"Thank you, Martin," Mr Stoker says. "Now if you take the phone back and pretend you're showing me how to do something else, I just have to ask you a couple more questions and I'll be on my way."
Martin hates this. "Why should I trust you?"
Mr Stoker shrugs. Even his shrug is handsome. "Why not? For what it's worth, I didn't mean to upset you. And I promise we won't bother you at work again."
"Fine." Martin takes Mr Stoker's phone back from him and stays on the app. Tempting as it is to go to his photos or his texts or something, he doesn't exactly have the upper hand here.
"Have you ever heard of The Magnus Institute?"
"Um. I think so? Were they the ones who had that fire a few years ago?" It hadn't been far from the bank -- not close enough to affect them, but close enough to prompt a few extra fire drills and safety videos.
"Yeah," Mr Stoker says. "It's a hotel now. Word to the wise, I wouldn't stay there if I were you."
"Thanks for the advice," Martin says, tilting Mr Stoker's phone as if showing him something on the screen. "Anything else?"
"Has anything spooky ever happened to you? Anything unsettling? Feeling like you're being watched, or seeing things that no one else can, or losing all sense of time and place? Or--?"
"No." Martin tries to say it firmly, but it comes out almost apologetic. Unless Mr Stoker counts strangers coming to Martin's place of work to ask him intrusive questions.
"Really? Nothing going wrong that you can't explain, no strange compulsions, no monsters lurking under your bed?"
Much as he hates everything about this situation, Martin does Mr Stoker the favour of considering the question properly. All of his unsettling experiences have been decidedly non-spooky -- there's nothing supernatural about having a mum who hates you or living in a shitty house share or not being very good at making friends, nothing that can be blamed on anything but Martin himself. Is that weird? Do normal people have paranormal experiences? Is this just another way that he's out of step with the world?
"No. Unless not ever having had one counts."
Mr Stoker thinks about it for a moment. "Hmm. Not as far as I know, but Sasha might have thoughts." And with that, he thanks Martin, tips a non-existent hat at him, and leaves.
"Two for two on the hotties flirting with you," Josh says to Martin a little later. He's holding his ipad at a weird angle, so it looks almost as if it's sagging in the middle. If Martin didn't flinch when anyone touches him, he gets the impression Josh would have punched him lightly in the arm or clapped him on the shoulder or something. "Legendary Blackwood charm strikes again."
Martin's forced chuckle sounds even more fake than normal. "You know me," he says. "I just can't be tamed."
"You'll forget him," Annabelle says to Martin, then catches herself enough to spit at Jon before continuing. "If you live, that is, which is . . . uncertain. To remake the world you must remove the tether completely -- he will never have existed at all."
Of course there's another bloody sting in the tail. When is there ever not?
"Don't worry," Martin says to Jon. "I'll still do it."
"It might be better--" Jon starts, before Martin slaps a hand over his mouth.
"Don't say that. Don't you dare say that to me." He's angry, now, at Jon as much as Annabelle. "I never want to forget you, not ever, not a single thing about you, not even the --" He gestures at the whole apocalyptic everything. "But I'll do it. Because I have to. But don't think for a moment it's because I want to forget you."
They sit him down in a nondescript office space with one desk, two laptops and several chairs. The walls are magnolia and the carpet is browny-grey. The chairs are not comfortable.
Ms James -- "Sasha, please. And he's Tim." -- makes him tea. He doesn't drink it.
"We used to work for The Magnus Institute," Sasha James says as if that's some kind of explanation. "Before the fire." Her intent expression clouds briefly.
"Now we're paranormal investigators at large," Tim adds.
"James, Stoker & Sons, which is what happens when you trust your cofounder --"
"Your favourite cofounder."
"-- your only cofounder to file the one bit of paperwork that can't just be done online."
Martin nods politely and continues to not drink his tea.
"You really don't know anything about The Magnus Institute?" Sasha checks again.
"Apart from the fire? Sorry. I really don't."
"Presentation time?" Tim asks.
Sasha sighs. "Presentation time."
Tim turns his laptop around to show Martin the screen. It's on the title slide of a powerpoint presentation: "The Eldritch Fear Powers and YOU" in dark green text on a light green background. There's a border at the bottom made up of little dark green cartoons. Martin can make out a knife, a clown's face, a tombstone and a flame before Tim flicks to the next slide.
"THE SLAUGHTER," reads the header, with the same stylised knife image now enlarged and placed next to it.
"I'll do the short version," Tim says, making the first bullet point -- 'War, violence, pain, anger' -- appear with the click of a button. "Given that it's all a little out of date."
Fourteen horrifying slides later, Martin's heart is trying to beat its way out of his chest and he doesn't blame it. This is awful. This is so, so awful. And the most awful part is how true it feels, how the solid reality of it has settled in his bones as if the last 33 years of ignorance had just been spent hollowing him out for this knowledge to fit.
"I believe you," he chokes out.
"Really?" Tim says. "Huh. Was it the icons? They're new." Then, to Sasha, "See, I told you. The right icons can make any presentation pop."
"Where would I be without you?" Sasha says dryly. "But look, Martin, all of this was true. Right up to a few months ago. Some time in October, we think, though with these things it's hard to be precise." She sounds as if she takes this as a personal insult. "But then something changed."
Martin looks to Tim, half expecting another powerpoint, but Tim is just watching Sasha, waiting for her to continue.
"We still get people telling us about their encounters with the powers -- yellow doors, piles of meat, the usual -- but nothing that happened more recently than October. And no one's seen any of the avatars -- the ones we know of, at least."
"Isn't that, um, good?" Martin asks.
"We don't know. Imagine an ocean full of sharks. Dangerous and deadly, but at least you understand them. You know what a shark is. And then suddenly, no sharks. Do you think, 'Oh, how lovely, time for a swim,' or do you ask yourself what could have done this, and what it might do next?"
"Oh," Martin says.
Tim cuts in there. "So right now we're asking ourselves, is this a megalodon situation? Has a bigger, scarier shark come along and eaten all the little sharklings? Or did someone poison the ocean, and if they did, can the poison cross over to us? Or are we facing a Sharknado--"
"We're not facing a Sharknado," Sasha says. "Anyway, I preferred Sharknado 5: Global Swarming."
Tim looks at her, delight written across his face. "You nerd."
"People are still coming to us with statements. At first we thought they were linked to the Lonely --"
Martin shudders. All the fears are terrifying, obviously, but that one has lingered.
"-- but they don't always sound scary. The powers -- the fear powers -- feed off our fear. Whereas some of these encounters seem to be designed to bring out other emotions. Not good emotions. But not fear."
Sasha continues: "We've had a few linked to grief, sorrow, loss. The emotions themselves, not the fear of them. There was someone who could see her family were still alive, could interact with them and understand that they were her wife and her children, but was consumed with the pain of having lost them all in a car crash. She knew she hadn't, but she was experiencing the emotions as if she had. Someone else who, whenever he met someone, would be hit with the knowledge of how their friendship or relationship was going to end, and felt exactly how he would grieve it."
She sighs, looks to Tim.
"Sash is obviously the one who made all the connections. The only one I spotted was boredom."
"Boredom?" Martin asks.
"Or ennui, you could call it? Not good boredom. That numbing, listless kind of boredom that makes you feel like your brain is slowly being crushed to death under the weight of the sheer pointlessness of it all."
"I just call that life," Martin jokes.
Tim and Sasha do not laugh.
"We had one guy," Tim continues, "who found a stick that made him just sit down in the middle of the pavement and wait for death. Every time anyone tried to talk to him or help him they'd be overwhelmed with the same feeling of utter blah and sit down with him. The only reason they're not all still there is that eventually someone came by with a dog that picked up the stick and ran away with it. The dog was fine, and the guy managed to follow him and kick the stick under the wheels of a passing lorry."
"We're lucky it didn't just make a bunch of wood fragments each with the same power," Sasha adds. "Then we've got anger -- but not like the Slaughter, it's not about violence or physical pain. It's more helpless anger? Or sometimes rage turned inwards. There's another one that's close to it, but I think they're different enough to make the distinction -- it's betrayal and unfairness, though you can imagine the two of them bleed into each other."
"Grief, boredom, anger, injustice," Tim says, ticking them off on his fingers. "And then of course there's one that totally throws Sasha's taxonomy into disarray."
"Ignore him," Sasha says. "My taxonomy is flexible and adaptive."
"That's not all that's flexible and adaptive," Tim says with a waggle of his eyebrows. It's unfair that he can make even that look attractive.
"Ignore him," Sasha says again. "This one isn't as obviously malevolent as the others, but it's not good, either. It's hard to explain, but it's come up enough times to get its own category." She frowns at Martin. He gets the impression she thinks the problem isn't going to be with her explanation, but with Martin's ability to grasp it. "It's like-- Okay. Maybe we should just play you a statement?"
Tim already has it up on his laptop. Statement of Yvonne White, regarding an encounter with a childhood friend. Statement recorded directly from subject, 22nd January 2020.
Martin listens to Yvonne talk about buying a Big Issue and accidentally touching the seller's hand, having a vision of him spending the money on a bacon sandwich. Ignoring a colleague at work and later brushing past her, having a vision of the colleague crying in the loos earlier that day because of a problem Yvonne could have solved for her instantly.
Sasha pauses the recording. "If it weren't for everything else, I'd just have attributed this to the Eye and moved on. Being burdened with terrible knowledge about the consequences of your every choice is kind of niche, but it's not the weirdest thing the Ceaseless Watcher has done to someone. Gertrude had a drinking game."
She hits play without explaining who Gertrude was. Yvonne talks about trying to be kinder to people, about finding out that sometimes it helps and sometimes what she thinks is the kind decision ends up having awful consequences. About avoiding touching people and then being blindsided when her mother pats her hand and a month's worth of consequences hit her at once.
And then she talks about bumping into -- literally bumping into -- a childhood friend, and smiling at them, half because she's genuinely pleased to see them and half because she hasn't made any decisions about them since this started, so doesn't have another flash of unlooked-for knowledge. Between one moment and the next something shifts, and when the childhood friend proffers their phone for Yvonne to put her number in, their fingers touch and Yvonne sees a future spooling out in front of her, of love and laughter and loss and pain and too much for her to even begin to process.
"Apparently I fainted," Yvonne says in her dry Scottish accent. "When I woke up, my friend, they'd put me in the recovery position and taken off their coat to cushion my head. And I looked up at them and thought, okay, yes. Let's see where this goes."
"Statement ends," says Tim's voice on the recording. Tim in real life shuts him off.
"Don't get the wrong impression," Sasha says. "They're not all as hopeful as that. Mostly it's people burdened with terrible choices, or terrible consequences of their choices, or terrible choices and terrible consequences."
"Don't worry," Martin says. "I think I've got that none of this is nice. I believe you, by the way. About all of this. It's just horrible enough it has to be true."
Sasha gives him a sad kind of smile.
"But what does any of it have to do with me?" Martin asks.
Martin pokes Jonah's body with a toe. "You're sure he's dead?"
Martin huffs something too small to be a laugh. There are flecks of blood on his face. He can't make himself care. "I suppose we knew it wasn't going to be that simple."
Jon's face does something complicated and sad. Martin loves him so much. "I suppose we did."
"But that doesn't mean we can't enjoy it," Martin continues. "At least for a bit? We killed Jonah Magnus! Ding dong the witch is dead."
Jon doesn't smile, but his eyes soften in that way that makes Martin feel too many things all at once. "Which old witch?" he says. "The wicked witch."
That does startle a laugh out of Martin. "Ding dong the wicked witch is dead," he finishes the verse half-speaking, half-singing. "Never had you down for a friend of Dorothy."
Jon looks pointedly at their clasped hands.
"And don't pretend it was just because you have access to all the knowledge in the world. You knew that already."
"I did," Jon admits. "I may have spent several very tasteless days in 2013 celebrating Margaret Thatcher's death. Some might say to excess."
Martin squeezes Jon's hand. Jon squeezes back.
"I love that," Martin says. "I love you. Right." He lets go of Jon's hand just long enough to mime an imaginary clipboard: "Enjoy Jonah Magnus's death, tick. I suppose we'd better go see Annabelle Cane again."
"Actually," he says, before they can answer him about what this has to do with him in the first place, "could I have a minute?"
They give him a minute. The loos are shared between all the offices on the ground floor, but it's late and there's no one around to object to him locking himself in one of the cubicles and screaming silently into his clenched fist.
He comes back. What else can he do?
"Sorry about that," he says as if his own teeth marks aren't now visible on his knuckles. "You were saying?"
"Can we show him the maps?" Tim asks Sasha. He could easily have asked her when Martin was out of the room, but Martin's getting a feel for Tim now, and he thinks he prefers an audience.
Sasha shakes her head fondly. "After the success of the powerpoint, how can I say no?"
Tim wheels out a poster board.
The map is a standard UK+Ireland map, various small islands in boxes off to the sides. Marked in small red stickers are a smattering of locations, each with a label attached with a date and, in some cases, time. Routes between them are marked with string, distorted with thumb tacks to very roughly follow train lines.
Every red sticker marks a place where Martin has been since October last year. There are large red stickers over central London (the bank) and what looks like Brent (his house). A mid-size red sticker sits over Birmingham, where he went for a three-day training course in January (those dates are labelled clearly next to the sticker), and another sits over Brighton, where he went for a week sometime late last year (1st Nov-6th Nov, the label tells him), mostly so that he'd have something to say when people asked him about his holidays.
"Sasha hacked your phone," Tim says proudly.
"It's only hacking if it takes more than five minutes," Sasha replies.
Martin considers throwing his phone into the Thames.
"Map One: The movements of one Martin no-middle-initial-have-you-considered-making-one-up? Blackwood from October 2019 to February 2020," Tim says.
"Sometimes I add a K," Martin says weakly. "Martin K Blackwood." It beats any of the other things he might say, and he's already taken his silent screaming break.
Tim nods his approval. "Nice. And now for Map Two: The events."
The underlying map is the same, but instead of red stickers and string, the map is dotted with different coloured thumb tacks. There are a few in random places, but by and large they cluster in large blobs centred on the same four locations as Martin's red dots, with a few more in areas served by the same train lines. The London blob is large and amorphous, not obviously shaped by Martin's home and work, but it's hard to deny the pattern.
"Lots of people must live in London and visit Birmingham and Brighton," Martin tries anyway.
"On those dates?" Sasha asks. "There were sixty-three of you. And only two of you who haven't been anywhere else outside London since October."
Martin wonders who the other lonely soul is. He hopes they have happier reasons for not travelling.
"We had both of you watched," Sasha continues. "If you ever need a private detective, we can recommend you a small agency with very competitive rates. They said about you, and I quote, 'He's so boring you should be paying me double not to slit my wrists.'"
"Daisy?" Tim asks.
"Basira," Sasha says. "Daisy was on the architect."
"I liked you more than the architect," Tim says to Martin. "I was hoping it would be you."
"Tim has a thing about architects," Sasha says, as if of all the things they've said since he got back from the loos -- and the map! mustn't forget the map! -- that's the one bit that requires explanation.
"So, okay, what?" Martin says, scrubbing his face with his hands. "Am I the avatar of Being Miserable? Do you have to kill me? Or are you going to make me, I don't know, get therapy for the greater good?"
Sasha looks to Tim. "That wouldn't be the worst idea. The therapy," she adds hurriedly, "not the killing. But no, we don't know what you are, we just know that you're linked to this. After we both spoke to you today, we thought we'd have a better chance of understanding what was going on if we told you what was happening."
"You're taking this all remarkably well," Tim adds, in a voice that might be meant to be reassuring. "Well done?"
Is he? It all just feels so inevitable. Of course the world is bigger and more horrible than he'd ever imagined. The only thing that's surprising is that he's interesting enough to be involved.
"The boredom one I get," Martin says. "I'm boring, being near me is boring, being me is boring. But the others? My mum died, but I didn't-- It was complicated. I was sad, but it wasn't like the kind of grief you described. And I don't think any great injustice has happened to me, and I've never had to make any hard choices apart from maybe, well, things with mum were complicated, I said. And I don't really get angry, I don't think? Annoyed, maybe. But not enough to matter."
Martin can't read either of their expressions.
But Jon hasn't actually said it out loud, and Martin can't bear to say it first, so they're just keeping on keeping on, one awful step at a time.
"It's a bit derivative, isn't it?" Martin says, gesturing with his free hand at the looming tower of dark foreboding with its giant glowing eye on top. "Do you think Jonah Magnus watched Lord of the Rings one too many times and thought, 'What a good idea. I'll have that -- but in green.'"
His bad impression of Elias/Jonah's drawl makes Jon chuckle weakly.
"'Orange is just so gaudy,'" Jon says, playing along with his own impression. Jon's been making a real effort, ever since their last encounter with Annabelle, to play along with Martin's flights of fancy. Then, in his own voice, "It wouldn't do to be bound into the service of a tasteless fear god."
Martin swings their clasped hands up to his mouth, kisses the back of Jon's. "If nothing else, you could always say it has an Eye for style."
Jon groans in protest, but at the same time pulls Martin to him, puts Martin's arm around him so they can walk with him pressed snugly against Martin's side. "Afterwards," he says, "if you ever doubt how much I loved you, just remember that I didn't break up with you for that truly inexcusable pun."
Martin holds him close. They walk on.
Three people are sobbing loudly on the bus the next morning.
Josh isn't in work. Nadja doesn't give them any details, but Karly says he said on the group chat that he was just leaning on a wall by the river and it gave way beneath him. Martin isn't in the group chat, so she shows him photos of Josh's legs before and after the doctors put the casts on.
Martin begins to rethink his claim that nothing spooky has ever happened near him. Fuck.
Now he's worried for Mr Derringer, who yesterday couldn't decide on a password or security question. What if today he can't decide what to eat? Or whether to breathe? And before Mr Derringer, what about Mrs Ali last week, who complained at length about how she'd just recently started tripping over her own feet all the time "like the ground is betraying me"? And Dr Banford, the retired lecturer who'd locked herself out of the app because she knew the PIN was an important anniversary, but now she couldn't remember the anniversary -- "Let me tell you, dear, when you get to my age it hurts a lot more to forget a loved one than it does to forget a bloody number."
He's hesitant to ask for a sick day when Josh is already off, but Nadja takes one look at him and tells him he's got a face like death, go home, he'll scare the customers. It probably helps that he doesn't really take time off -- and, when he catches sight of his reflection in a window, he has to admit Nadja's not wrong. He looks like a stiff breeze might knock him down.
He sits at the bus stop opposite the bank and calls Sasha.
"I don't think--" he starts. Stops. Fuck. "I don't think it's safe for people to be around me," he manages. "Do you have somewhere I can go where I can't hurt people?"
Sasha is silent for a long moment. "No," she says at last. "But if you're willing, I think I might have a lead."
The lead is Alex Irwin. The first thing they said when they met Sasha was, "It's not your caution that makes you unlovable, it's the way you treat people like things, shit, sorry, I'm really sorry, I don't know why I keep saying this stuff, can you help me?"
Sasha tells Martin this over a decaf mocha (him) and a triple espresso (her) in a Starbucks just down the way from Green Park. "I won't share everything they've said to me, but that's representative."
She's just as intimidatingly competent as yesterday, but her voice had wavered telling him that, and her hands are tight around her coffee.
Apparently the things Alex finds themselves saying trigger self-loathing in people. It started out small -- an occasional comment, mostly a jibe they knew or suspected but wouldn't have actually said. By the time they came to James, Stoker & Sons, they were blurting out things they had no way of knowing, unable to go more than a few minutes without dropping some new bomb on whoever they were talking to.
"They mostly keep to themselves now. They work remotely -- it doesn't happen over text -- and they got themselves a dog. Peggy."
"Why are they willing to help us?" Martin asks. It sounds like Sasha didn't exactly fix Alex's problem for them.
"I take Peggy to the vet."
So they get the tube and then they get a train and then they get a bus and then they walk up a winding country lane to a secluded house overlooking the sea. In the house waits a person who tells you things to hate about yourself, whether you know them or not. And Peggy.
"Before everything changed," Sasha says, "we'd go to the Eye for dread knowledge, obviously."
"Obviously," Martin echoes.
"We had centuries of scholarship to build on. Standing on the shoulders of -- admittedly some very fucked up and creepy -- giants. And there was Gertrude, of course. But now we have to work out everything from scratch."
Her voice does something funny on the name Gertrude. Martin suspects it's better not to ask.
"Not everything Alex says is true," Sasha warns him. "They don't lie, as far as we can tell. But they take the worst possible kernels of truth and twist them in the worst possible ways."
Alex comes out to greet them both. "People are dead because you're too stupid and selfish to catch a clue," they say to Martin. "Hello. Pleased to meet you. Alex Irwin. Hope I can help."
Then, to Sasha: "You've found another victim to let down then? You're a sight for sore eyes. Come in, Peggy's missed you."
Peggy is a sweet, energetic collie whose only dream in life is to be petted by all the humans all the time until she gets abruptly tired and goes to sleep under Alex's chair.
"She's a good dog," Alex says. "It's not that no one has ever loved you, it's that one person did and you're so pathetic and faithless you can't even remember him."
Martin blinks. "Was that to me?" It feels true, the same way the fears felt true -- was that only yesterday? -- the same way the last 24 hours have felt more true than all the years before them.
Alex shrugs. "Don't know, sorry. It's not always very directed."
"Didn't make me feel like shit," Sasha says. "So probably, yeah. I am sorry, Martin."
"No, no," Martin says automatically. Then, meaning it, "Really, no. This is very kind of you, Alex. This can't be pleasant for you."
"And it is all your fault," Alex replies. To Sasha they add, "Is it his fault? You just said he was linked to it."
"If he's doing it on purpose, he's a master manipulator playing a very long game," Sasha replies, which is fair enough. Who would pretend to be Martin if they didn't have to?
"Okay," Alex says. Nods to Martin. "She's told you it's not always true-true, right? Just true enough to really make it hurt."
What can Martin say to that? How is he supposed to know what true-true is, when he only learned about any of this yesterday?
"I was a therapist before all this." Alex's voice is wry, a little wistful. "Not my first career. I worked in sales for a long while. Then four years at Citizen's Advice. And would have been eleven years as a therapist, January just been. Maybe I deserved this. Too smugly convinced I could help people better than they could help themselves." They pause. Meet Martin's eyes. "So thank you for letting me help, I think I'm trying to say? I write advertising copy now. Only thing I could find that would let me work remotely and not have to do calls. It's fine. Plenty of people never find a job they love -- at least I had nearly eleven years of it."
Peggy makes a small noise, wakes up just enough to butt her head into Alex's hand.
"Thanks, lovely," they say to her. "That's the nice thing about dogs. Can't be cruel to them. Not like you were cruel to your mother, you ungrateful shit."
Sasha winces minutely.
"You forgot him and you go on living your life like he didn't matter," Alex continues. "You poison the entire world with your grief and you can't even be bothered to remember his name. He wouldn't have forgotten you. Selfish, ungrateful little shit. How soon before you forget your own mother, too? How soon before your poison spreads across the entire world?"
Martin is an ugly crier. Alex makes to get up, to leave the room, but Martin manages, "No, stay, please," in between the sobs and whimpers. It's true. It's all true. Maybe for other people Alex twists the facts, but for Martin? The centre of this? It must just be true. He's never been worth loving, he's never been worth anything, and yet there was one person who did, and Martin's forgotten him.
There's a soft pressure on Martin's thigh. Peggy has put her head on his leg, is looking up at him with big, trusting eyes. He pets her gently. Maybe it even helps.
"You killed him, you know? Did you think you had that in you? To kill the man you said you loved? Who loved you? And you don't even care about the people who've died since then because of you, the people your grief has tortured because you're so pathetic you can't even forget properly."
Martin gets off the chair and sits carefully on the floor by Peggy. She climbs into his lap, warm and soft and kinder than he could ever deserve. She licks his cheeks gently.
"Maybe if you'd been enough for him, none of this would have happened," Alex sneers. "But you're not enough, are you? You could end this, if you tried hard enough, if you were brave enough to hold it in yourself, but you're not. You're a coward. A weak, pathetic, selfish, disgusting coward. You weren't enough to save him, and now you're not enough to stop this. Useless."
Grief, Martin thinks to himself. Listlessness. Impotent, self-directed anger. Unfairness. And the terrible consequences of a terrible choice.
It fits, but it doesn't make sense. Martin's life is small, his emotions are small. Even if someone had loved him, and even if he had killed them (a terrible choice, he tries to remind himself), and even if some previous version of himself could feel things with all the depth and pain imaginable, there's no way that's enough to rewrite the world. He's not the first person who's suffered. He's not the first person who's grieved.
"Do you want to know what kind of person could love you, Martin Blackwood?" Alex continues. "He wasn't a good person. He tried, sometimes, but he could be cruel as often as he could be kind, and he made the wrong choices. Like loving you. Like ending the world. Too curious for his own good. He wanted to know more than he wanted you, Martin. You couldn't satisfy him, so he had to destroy the fabric of reality."
Martin buries his face in Peggy's fur. He has to keep listening. He has to keep going. Alex can't do this without Martin there to hear it.
"You wanted to kill him, didn't you? You were only too willing to sacrifice him so you could return to your pathetic little life. Did you know that, Martin? He had doubts. That last moment, you could have changed his mind if you'd really wanted to. But you killed him and you forgot him and you're still fucking up the brand new world with your own pathetic selfish cowardice. Dying won't help you now, coward. You can't stop it just by giving up, the way you give up everything. Pathetic."
There's a noise. Peggy jerks away, and Martin looks up to see Alex, both hands over their mouth, running out the room followed by Peggy. A moment later comes the sound of someone being loudly sick.
Sasha's phone goes. She reads the text, doesn't look at Martin. She's bitten her lip hard enough to draw blood. "They'd like us to leave," she tells him. "Now."
"Why should we take these?" Martin demands.
"I think we're past that, don't you?" she says, smiling like they're old friends.
From beneath the mask of webbing blocking his mouth, Jon glares.
"Find me when you've killed Jonah Magnus."
After she's left, they get the webbing off Jon. Eventually.
"She's scared," Jon says.
"Yeah, she seemed terrified," Martin replies flatly.
Jon gives him a very Jon glare. "I can't Know her plans, but I can still taste her fear. This is a gamble. The Spider may be the Mother of Puppets, but it's not infallible and it's not omniscient. Annabelle doesn't know if this will work. Or if she'll survive this."
"Taste her fear," Martin repeats. "Never mind. Moving on. I don't know if that makes me feel any better, honestly? Knowing we're taking a gamble even Annabelle Cane doesn't think is safe."
Jon makes a small sound of amusement. "I don't think there is a way to feel 'better' about any of this. Or 'safe'."
"Point taken." Martin sighs. "I suppose at least we can hope whatever happens is as bad for her as it is for us?"
"Ever the optimist." Jon gives him a soft kiss on the cheek. "Shall we?"
Far off in the distance, the tower awaits.
His, what, his boyfriend caused the end of the world? And Martin killed him to put it right, and then repressed it so hard he created a whole new pantheon of evil powers?
"Tim's on his way," Sasha says after a while, gently, maybe a little apologetic. "I've got us an AirBnB nearby. No other dwellings within half a mile -- but that's just for tonight, tomorrow we can get you somewhere properly isolated."
Great. Just great. And he can reinvent the Lonely all on his own, add it to his collection?
Sasha doesn't make him talk about it. When they get to the cottage, she sits him down on the sofa, gives him a blanket and a mug of hot, sweet tea, and tells him she'll be back in half an hour.
It's not the happiest half hour of Martin's life.
Tim and Sasha arrive together. Tim has brought wine.
"Sash filled me in," he says to Martin. "Fuck."
"Fuck," Martin agrees. That gets a quiet laugh from Tim, a ghost of a smile from Sasha.
"We can do this tomorrow, Martin," Sasha says. "It's been five months. Another day won't hurt."
Another day might hurt. Who knows what's going to give way under Josh next, collapsing under the sad pointlessness of existence? Who knows what will happen to Colin's powerless rage, or to Mr Derringer's memory?
Sasha and Tim are settled together on the other sofa. Martin feels like he's known them forever. He feels like he's seeing them for the first time.
"Let's do it now," Martin says. "Do you want to start, or shall I?"
"She wants to start," Tim says fondly, earning himself a punch on the arm.
Sasha leans forward. "Your partner -- husband? boyfriend? -- was working for the Eye. Alex said he was too curious, he just had to know things -- that's classic Eye territory. Trust me."
Tim nudges her gently with his knee.
"After the fire," she continues, "we found out that the Magnus Institute had been serving the Eye all along -- they even found Jonah Magnus's desiccated corpse in the tunnels underneath the ruins, along with Elias and Gertrude's bodies. We think he'd been trying to bring the Eye closer to our reality, or our reality closer to the Eye. Must have been, if Gertrude was trying to stop him. Almost all the powers have -- had -- people trying to do that, but it never worked. But your partner managed it."
"Try not to sound quite so excited, Sash," Tim says.
"Maybe in your original version of reality," Sasha continues, sounding just as excited if not more so, "there was some way to bridge the gap, something your partner saw that no one else did. He ended the world, killing the other powers; you killed him, killing the Eye; and now we're in our reality, all the powers gone, and something has to expand to fill that space."
"You're the megalodon, Martin," Tim interrupts. "You ate all the other sharks. Or you ate the shark that ate all the other sharks. You ate the megalodon."
"Try not to sound quite so excited, Tim," Sasha parrots back at him.
Unlike Sasha, Tim does look a little abashed. "Sorry, Martin. Maybe your boyfriend didn't mean to end the world?"
"The point is," Sasha pushes on, "the sharks are gone but that lovely shark-friendly habit of human emotion remains. There's an ecological niche that needed filling, and whatever you did to move us all from that reality to this one generated enough, I don't know, let's call it psychic energy, that your emotions became powerful enough to fill the gap."
"The old fear powers were the dinosaurs, you were the asteroid, and your trauma is the mammals." Tim pauses. "Which, again, I should not sound so excited about. But we've been trying to make sense of this for months, Martin, and then you come along and crack the case in a day."
Martin doesn't return his smile. "So it's all pointless, is what you're saying? Even if I can stop this -- if I can 'hold it in myself', whatever that means -- all that will happen is a new set of horrible powers come up in their place."
Tim looks to Sasha. "He has a point."
"I'm still working on that bit," Sasha tells them both. "But not all sharks are equally dangerous. The fears hated us -- and most of them had been honing that hatred for millennia. They were really good at torturing us, at killing us. But your powers -- sorry, the new powers -- they're bad, but they're not--" She turns to Tim. "You feel it too, right?"
"I think so," Tim says. "The old powers, they were evil. Really, really evil. And really, really good at being evil. The new ones, we've been treating them like they must be just as evil and just as good at it, but I don't know that they are? Apart from a few isolated cases, they're not showing up outside the UK -- or even outside where you go, to be honest. And they're awful, they're undeniably awful to the people they're happening to, but they're not skin-you-alive-and-wear-your-face-as-a-hat awful. Or not yet, anyway. Maybe they're weaker because they're newer, or maybe they're just different?"
"Exactly," Sasha picks up. "Best case scenario, if we can kill these before they've taken root, we can shape the next ones that spring up, make them less awful, or less evil, or less good at it. And worst case scenario, at least we know how to kill them now. As long as we keep cutting them down before they can fully mature, we can limit their damage."
"Isn't the worst case scenario that we undo whatever I did to stop the Eye merging with reality?" Martin asks. "Or that the next set of powers after these are even worse than the fears and you can't stop them and in a year's time the whole world's being tortured by some unimaginably sadistic nightmare?"
"Again, he has a point," Tim says to Sasha. "Be pretty embarrassing if we unleashed the mega-megalodon. Bet we'd wish we'd stuck with Martin's trauma sharks then."
Sasha holds up a hand. "Okay, there are some kinks to work out. But it's a start, isn't it? Progress."
Even Martin has to admit it is.
Martin thinks for a moment. "Nice," he says finally. "It was-- It was really nice."
Jon hmms a gentle enquiry. It's his way of saying he'd like to know, but only if Martin would like to tell him.
"You slept," Martin says. "More than you ever used to, even before you died."
Jon bumps their shoulders together softly.
"And they had these little buns baked in coconut milk. You really liked them."
"Pani popo," Jon says, pulling the knowledge from the bottomless well inside him. "They sound nice. I like coconut."
Martin smiles. "I know. Why do you think I was always leaving Bounties on your desk?"
Jon gives another hmm, this one pretending to be disgruntled. "You didn't have to feed me, you know. I was perfectly capable of looking after myself."
Martin draws breath to argue, but he catches the twitch of Jon's mouth -- and, like giddy children staying up too late, they both start laughing.
Tim takes him shopping while Sasha re-pressurises the boiler and makes sure nothing's going to disintegrate or explode. The safe house belongs to one of their private investigators -- not the one who said he was so boring she should be paid double -- and it hasn't been used in a while.
"You're sure you'll be okay?" Tim asks, the next morning.
Martin shrugs. Of course he isn't. "Better this than risk hurting other people."
The place is -- deliberately -- in some kind of phone/internet/everything blackspot, but Sasha rigs something up so they can check in with him.
"Daisy won't be happy," Tim says cheerfully, ducking the tube of lip balm she throws at his head.
Martin watches Tim retrieve the lip balm and give it back to Sasha -- who takes it with a severe frown and laughing eyes -- and thinks about what happens to people who are too close to him for too long.
"You should leave," he tells them. "I'm fine here, it's fine. Go and be clever and brilliant --"
"And dashing," Tim adds.
"-- and dashing," Martin allows. "Sooner you're gone, sooner you're back, sooner we can fix this."
He doesn't mean it. He wants to beg them to stay. But Alex Irwin doesn't get a choice, or Colin, or Josh, or Mr Derringer, or Yvonne White, or any of them. So why should he?
Three weeks is three weeks is three weeks. Martin reads the poetry collections he brought up with him, then works through Daisy's shelves. There's not much, and most of it is brutally practical: small-scale farming; nursing and wound care; home economics.
Sasha or Tim checks in every day. They're making progress. And then, three weeks after they left him, they tell him to come back. He can take the train -- either it will be fine or it will be so not fine there's no point in trying.
Sasha tells him to come straight to Milbank Hotel when he gets into London. It's the one built on the site of the place they used to work -- The Magnus Institute, the one that burned down -- and they've had a room there for the last week, putting things together for the ritual.
Tim has pushed back the furniture and chalked lines onto the carpet. "Smirke's Principles," he says, eyes shadowed and bloodshot. "He wanted to balance everything at a stable equilibrium point; we're relying on you being our unstable equilibrium."
"O-kay," Martin says slowly.
He sprinkles some wood splinters along one line. Places stones on one of the others; a mobile phone on a third. He's careful not to touch any of them directly, or let them touch each other.
"The closest we could get to artefacts for the new powers," he says. "Those are some fragments from that stick we told you about, the one that made everyone just give up and wait to die. Some of these stones trigger a weird grief thing, but we don't know which ones and not even Sasha wanted to try it."
A rusty knife goes on another line. Some shreds of yellow paper that might have once been post-it notes.
Sasha comes in. "Mirror?" she asks Tim. "Oh, hi Martin, good to see you, good luck."
Tim points at a small black bag, which she grabs, along with two books wrapped in several layers of clear plastic. One of them looks old and leather-bound; the other one might be an instruction manual?
She storms back a few minutes later.
"Give me the dice." Controlled anger drips from every word.
"What dice," Tim says flatly.
"We discussed this."
"You discussed this," Tim counters.
Sasha's eyes dart to Martin and back to Tim. She raises her eyebrows pointedly, as clear a not in front of the children signal as she could give without just saying it.
"No, Sash," Tim says.
Sasha just stands there staring at Tim. Tim glares back at her. Martin wants to disappear into the floor.
Eventually, after an awkward silence that lasts longer than all three of Martin's solitary weeks, Sasha makes a harsh, frustrated noise and visibly regroups.
"I can't, Tim. You have to know I can't. If this goes right but you lose the throw--" Sasha tails off. "We'd just replace his with mine."
"Fuck's sake," Tim spits. "And you think it's not exactly the same for me? Who died and made you Gertrude fucking Robinson?"
They glare at each other and then, on some cue Martin neither sees nor understands, they burst into laughter.
"Sorry," Tim says when he's stopped laughing and wiped the tears from his eyes.
"Yeah," Sasha replies, looking at his feet. "Sorry."
"I'll make you an offer?" Tim says. "Double or quits. Half the dice for you, half for me."
Sasha nods quickly. "You drive a hard bargain, Stoker." Eyes still on the ground, she walks forward and wraps her arms tightly around Tim's waist.
"Um," Martin says. "What-- You're not going to explain any of that, are you?"
"Nope," Tim says, popping the p. He tightens the hug and then pushes Sasha away gently. From under his t-shirt he pulls out a pouch. Sasha holds out a hand and he tips some yellow-white -- ivory? -- dice onto it.
"Double or quits," Sasha tells Tim firmly.
"Double or quits," Tim agrees. "Now go get your Gertrude on."
Sasha clutches the dice tightly. "Martin. Good luck." She meets his eyes. Hers are wet. "You trust me, don't you?"
Martin makes an expansive gesture. "Yes?"
"So trust me when I tell you you can do this. I don't make mistakes."
With that, Sasha and her dice and her infallibility leave the room.
Yvonne White, of the encounter with a childhood friend, is the first to arrive. She nods a hello. "You'll excuse me if I don't shake your hand."
Tim introduces the next few -- Haneen Ali, Cyrill Poole, Enid Garvey-Long, Ahmed Laghari -- without telling Martin their stories. He doesn't recognise any of the names. Alex Irwin shows up with their mouth taped shut. They're in so much pain they can barely walk.
A few more people arrive. Martin takes in their names, takes in their faces, tries to at least do them the courtesy of seeing them each in turn as individual, real people, not some amorphous mass of misery he's unleashed on the world.
He's surprised how many Tim and Sasha could get here, but then again, it's a chance of ending this for them. Maybe he's surprised Tim and Sasha couldn't get more. Maybe the others are all dead.
They said they'd asked Colin, but Martin didn't actually expect him to be here. Colin has cuts on his face that weren't there before, is twitchy and hides his hands in his sleeves.
"Um, hi?" Martin tries.
"Hi," Colin says. It's not an invitation to talk more.
Finally, everyone's here. Twenty-five people whose lives have been fucked up since whatever happened in October. Twenty-six, if you count Martin. No one makes small talk. A few people cry.
And it's time.
Martin stands where the chalk lines converge. Tim positions the others. On the drab grey hotel carpet, the chalk lines pulse and flex.
"I call on you, who mourn without memory," Tim reads. As one, five people make a cut on the pad of their thumb and kneel to drip blood onto the chalk.
Martin's teeth begin to ache.
"I call on you, who rage without power." Five more cut, kneel, bleed.
Martin's ears buzz. The bones of his hands shift in his skin.
"I call on you, who exist without living." Cut. Kneel. Bleed.
Martin's ribs are too sharp.
"I call on you, who live without justice." Cut. Kneel. Bleed.
Martin bites through the tip of his own tongue. Blood burns like acid in his mouth.
"I call on you, who chose and choose and will keep choosing." Cut. Kneel. Bleed.
There's a high keening noise. It's coming from Martin.
"I call on you to remember."
Moments from the past double up together: Martin applying to the bank; Martin applying to the Magnus Institute. Martin meeting Tim a month ago, learning about the powers; Martin meeting Tim five years ago, making him a cup of tea. Martin being passed over for promotion at the bank; Martin being trapped in his flat for two weeks by a walking flesh hive. Sasha giving him one of her own secrets before taking him to see Alex; not-Sasha watching him spill soup on his jumper and doing nothing to help. Attending his mum's funeral alone; attending his mum's funeral alone.
Three weeks in Daisy's safehouse, isolated and terrified. Three weeks in Daisy's safehouse with Jon.
"I love you," Jon had said, never says, can say, will say, won't not might say. His hands aren't, weren't, are, could be fever-hot around Martin's, which aren't, will be, weren't, were, might have once been clasped in turn around a cold stone blade. "You're the best thing that's ever happened to me."
The unfairness of it all knocks him to the floor. They had three weeks together, three precious weeks, and then, what? The end of the actual world? How is that fair? How is that proportionate? How is that allowed to happen? Every moment of happiness after that tainted by the end of the world, every moment stolen from a jealous Eye that never cared about Jon for who he was, only what he could do. And then Martin even loses that? Nothing of Jon to keep with him, nothing of Jon to bring back with him to the sad, empty little life that waited here.
It hurts. It hurts and it hurts and it hurts and there's nothing Martin can do, no way to fix it, no one to appeal to, nothing he can give, the only way to stop it is to stop feeling it, to reject it, to push it down into blank greyness and let himself be swamped instead by that distant, muffled grief of--
It hurts. It hurts and it keeps hurting and he has to let it hurt, he has to be the one to hold the knife steady, to plunge it into his own heart and keep going. There's no one else to do it for him, no one else who loves him the way Jon loved him, the way he still loves Jon.
He holds it. He holds it in himself. He watches Jon's last breath leave his body. He watches his own bloodied hands slacken around the blade.
It shouldn't have been Martin. There should have been another way for Jon to do it, or someone else to help him. And it shouldn't have been Jon. Whatever was in him should never have been planted by the Spider and it should never have been cultivated by Jonah Magnus and it should never have been harvested by the Eye. It was wrong. It was all wrong.
It is all wrong.
Martin holds it. Martin makes a home for that wrongness inside of him, lets it push past all his barriers and settle where it wants, wrapping its tendrils around his heart and his lungs and his spine. He lives the wrongness, follows it through as it burrows and twists.
They could have been happy. They could have left the Institute and been happy together, building a new life out of the things they cared about, the things they wanted. They could have had a cat. They could have never joined the Institute and been happy together. Jon could have been an academic and Martin could have been a clumsy barista -- it's implausible, but it's no more implausible than this convoluted hellscape they found themselves in.
They could have been happy.
Martin remembers all his other choices, too. Hiding fire extinguishers and buying corkscrews. Trying to talk Jon into therapy, trying to talk Tim out of quitting (ha!). Recording statements. Burning statements. Elias-Jonah. Peter Lukas. Kill Bill.
Jon is at the heart of it all, but Jon isn't all he had stolen from him. He'd faced down monsters. He'd protected people. He'd helped.
Martin feels and feels and feels. He holds every injustice of it, every moment of grief, of loss. He holds himself open to the powerless anger and the self-loathing, to the awful mind-numbing relentlessness of it, to the ennui and to the sorrow and to the rage and to the choices, all the choices, every choice Jon made and every choice Martin made and every choice Martin must keep on making, because he doesn't get to stop, not now: he has to choose this, he has to live this, for it to have any hope of working.
"Martin," Jon will say, didn't say, could say, hasn't won't will have said, is saying, fond and soft and a thousand tender things the Ceaseless fucking Watcher never cared enough to remove. He closes, didn't close, will have been closing his eyes.
Martin holds it all.
Elsewhere: The fabric of reality thins between what is and what is not and what could never be.
Elsewhere: Time stutters.
Elsewhere: Tim takes Sasha's hand.
Elsewhere: They roll the dice.
Martin shudders back into the now, whole body aching. His eyes feel like sandpaper. He can't feel his toes.
It shouldn't be real. Can't be real. He hasn't heard it in six months or maybe he hasn't ever heard it before.
Around him, he can see and hear the evidence of success: Alex Irwin speaking without hurting anyone; Yvonne White hugging Colin, neither of them flinching back. Someone sobs with relief. They all stay carefully on the chalk lines where Tim has placed them.
And there, standing in front of him, flanked by Tim (bleeding from both nostrils) and Sasha (blood crusted around her eyes), is Jon.
What. How. Jon. What.
Martin fumbles to pinch himself, can't make his fingers work.
Then Jon gives him a cautious, hopeful wince of a smile, so perfectly Jon that Martin can't breathe for it.
Jon! Martin hurts all over, inside and out, and he doesn't care at all.
Jon! The awe, the wonder, the joy in Martin is too big for him, a bubble swelling to fill a room, a house, a hotel, the world. It's Jon. Brave, compassionate, impossible Jon, who could have ruled the world but chose instead to die to save it.
Jon! Martin can't— He doesn't understand, but he doesn't have to understand, he just has to open his arms, to walk forward, and it's Jon, he's holding Jon, he's loving Jon. It's Jon.
"Martin," Jon says the way he always says it now, the way that means I love you and thank you in equal measure. He tilts Martin's head down towards him, places a kiss on first one corner of Martin's mouth, then the other.
He knows it's thoroughly inappropriate and probably — definitely — tempting fate, but Martin can't help his smile. "Yeah, you too," he says.
Jon smiles back. "Even though I wouldn't kill Oliver for you?"
"Argh, don't remind me," Martin chides him, heart singing with love.
"It worked," Sasha says giddily, instead of something normal like, What? No! That would be crazy, or Yes, that was foolish of me and I won't do it again. She grins at him, punch-drunk.
"Jon!" Martin appeals. It comes out as natural as breathing, one set of memories convinced Jon has the answers, can do something, even as the other set relishes the unfamiliarity of having someone to appeal to, someone on his side.
"I'm not sure I'm in a position to talk about unwise rituals," Jon points out. His voice is warm and rich and Martin could dive into it and live there, wrap it round him like a favourite blanket or a perfectly fitting winter coat. How could he forget this? How could he forget any of this?
"Tim?" Martin tries. It's strange, having this Tim and the other Tim superimposed on each other. With Sasha it's easier -- his other memories of her are so thoroughly tainted by the not-them. But this Tim could easily be the other Tim, at least before everything started to fall apart.
"Double or quits," Tim says. "And he didn't mean to destroy the world. Told you so."
Tim and Sasha don't remember Jon, but Jon remembers them. He's nudged Martin round so they can both see Tim and Sasha --- from what little Martin can see of his face, he's drinking them in.
Even if they could remember Jon, they wouldn't be as happy to see him as he is to see them. Anyway, Martin's not sure how that would even work. Would their doubled memories continue after they died? Would Sasha's include not-Sasha's? He's pretty sure that once her adrenaline levels are down from whatever terrifying high they're now on, Sasha's going to be genuinely disappointed about this.
"You said it worked," Martin says. He's grateful, but he's not stupid. And he's not new to this world, not anymore. Enough time spent being manipulated by associates of supernatural horrors and you learn to smell it. "Did it?"
Sasha gestures at Jon: "Ta da!" She does a little dance. Tim claps in time.
"Not that. The real reason. There must be one. You've been kind to me, but no one's bet-my-life-to-bring-your-boyfriend-back kind." Martin hopes it's something he can forgive them for. He really, really wants to be able to forgive them. They gave him back Jon. And apart from Jon, they may be the people who've been kindest to him in either lifetime.
Maybe Sasha just did it for the forbidden knowledge? Bringing back a servant of the Eye with all that entails? Or maybe it was something for Smirke's balance, and they had to do it to make Martin's side of the ritual work? Or, more likely, it's for some profoundly awful supernatural purpose that will make Jonah Magnus's little apocalypse look like a walk in the park. And Martin, being Martin, will still forgive them.
Sasha stops dancing and looks smugly at Tim, who sighs, reaches into his pocket to hand Sasha a £5 note.
"In my defence," Tim says to Martin, "it was a bet on when you'd work it out, not if."
"We won't know for a while," Sasha says. "But we thought--"
"Sasha thought," Tim interrupts.
"We thought it was worth a try. Something had to replace your trauma sharks."
Jon, who refuses to be brought up to speed, opens his mouth to ask a question and then closes it. Says instead, "Please never explain this."
Martin places a kiss on Jon's eyebrow. Jon tightens his arms around Martin.
"And maybe it always has to be sharks," Sasha continues. "In which case it'll be sharks, and there's nothing we can do to stop it."
"But what if it doesn't have to be sharks?" Tim says. "What if it could be dolphins or whales or giant turtles that live for a hundred years and make friends with hippos?"
Sasha makes a face. Her eyes are still giddy-bright. "Dolphins are vicious killing machines that delight in finding new, crueller ways to toy with their prey."
"You have no soul," Tim replies, just as giddy. "But for the purposes of --" He stops. Holds up a hand. "For the porpoises of this analogy, let's pretend you haven't just shattered my dreams, and dolphins are in fact lovely, friendly creatures who help lost swimmers and love children."
Martin has had quite enough of this. Jon is here. He has Jon. Here. With him. And Tim and Sasha are wasting valuable reunion time. "You thought because my trauma created the last set, maybe if you raised Jon from oblivion my warm fuzzy feelings would create the next set?"
"Maybe!" Sasha says. "Worth a try."
"'Oh no,'" Tim says, putting on a high pitched voice. "'Not a cursed artefact of Happiness! My arms ache from cuddling all those puppies!'"
"'You've got to help me,'" Sasha continues in a deep voice. "'It's been weeks now, and I just like my life too much!'"
Oh. Oh, okay. Wow. It doesn't exactly seem likely, given the whole 'survival of the evillest' thing previous powers have had going for them. But okay. Martin forgives them.
"And how will you know if it's worked?" Martin asks. He'd almost said 'we' there. How will we know if it's worked.
Sasha grins at him. "No idea. Want to help us find out?"
"Seven letter capital city," Jon says from the sofa. Fudge is sprawled across his lap, occasionally batting at his pen with one lazy paw. "Third letter i. Probably has an l and a t in it."
"Three letter word for 'did you take the bins out?'" Martin replies. Sherbet, draped across his shoulders, purrs loudly and butts his cheek. "Better have a y and an s in it."
"That's today?" Jon holds the pen tip out to Fudge so she can scent mark it properly.
Martin sighs, turning his head so Jon won't see his smile. "Jon. When the bins go out is not forbidden eldritch knowledge."
There's the sound of Jon standing, of Fudge protesting loudly at this callous abandonment.
"Could be," Jon says, wrapping his arms around Martin from behind, dropping a kiss on Sherbet's shoulders. "Starts with the bins, next thing you know I'll be on the bus timetables. Then it's a short step to the unspeakable horrors of —" He pauses dramatically, kisses the back of Martin's head. "— National Rail."
Martin shudders theatrically, earning a protest from Sherbet. At his feet, Fudge taps him with one paw, demanding pettings.
"All right, all right, you've convinced me. Anything but that."
Jon chuckles. Picks Fudge up. Kisses Martin on the cheek. And goes to take the bins out.