It was almost a week into their journey across a ruined Earth that Jon noticed the first Eye.
Not the ones that had taken over what used to be the sky. Those had been ever-present since the apocalypse and hadn't changed. Always wide open, unblinking, impossible to escape or to forget.
He and Martin had been walking in between domains, far enough away from the last Avatar's stronghold and not close enough to the next for the danger to be imminent. Jon had let Martin take the lead, walking a few steps behind and keeping a wary eye on their surroundings, just in case.
Jon had been scratching idly at his arm, his short fingernails chasing that itching, prickling sensation up his sleeve until his fingers suddenly skate across something protruding from his skin. The odd growth had been smooth and round, firmer than the thin, wrinkled skin surrounding it.
Jon hadn't wanted to look. Later, he wondered if part of him had known (or had Known) what he would see.
On his arm, just below the elbow, a perfectly round Eye stared back at him. The iris glowed a bright, unnatural green and the pupil was as dark as a black hole with what felt like twice as much gravity. It looked exactly the same as the ones that peppered the perpetually overcast sky, just miniaturized to fit on Jon's rather skinny arm.
Jon looked up sharply, one hand yanking down his sleeve to cover the Eye. Martin was half-turned back to face him, forehead creased in concern.
"Are you ok?" Martin asked.
How was Jon supposed to answer that? No, he wasn't, but neither was anything else, and he couldn't bring himself to tell Martin that something had just changed for the worse.
It had to be worse. Having an Eye suddenly appear in place of one of Jon's old Prentiss scars certainly couldn't bode well.
"I'm fine, Martin," Jon said. He affected an air of nonchalance and slipped his hand into his pocket as casually as he could manage. He gave Martin a smile, but even he knew it had to look strained. "Shall we?"
Martin studied him for a moment, his desire to protect Jon clearly warring with his reluctance to push. Jon tried not to feel guilty about it as Martin's reluctance won out and he nodded slowly.
"If you're sure," Martin said, letting the words linger in the air between them, giving Jon one last chance for honesty when they both knew (and knew the other knew) that Jon was hiding something.
Jon looked past Martin towards the next Fear's domain instead of answering.
"Come on. We should get moving," Jon said. He began to walk again. Martin nodded and looked down, biting his lip. Jon caught a glimpse of Martin's lower lip held between his teeth as Martin turned, dragging his feet.
Jon increased his pace just long enough to draw abreast of Martin. He tentatively reached for Martin's hand, terrified for a moment that Martin would pull away, but to Jon's relief Martin let him twine their fingers together. They walked, hand-in-hand, an awkward silence thickening the air between them.
"I'm fine, Martin. I promise," Jon said, squeezing his hand. It wasn't a total lie, he told himself. It wasn't as if the Eye hurt or anything; it was just there , on his arm where an eye had no place being, but otherwise he was as fit as he had been when they had left camp earlier.
He didn't feel any different now than he had then, and he had been fine then , so he was fine now , even if he could feel the Eye embedded in his arm roll and twitch and blink beneath his sleeve.
Martin squeezed back.
"I just worry about you, you know?" Martin said, voice quiet as if he didn't think the sentiment would be welcome. Years ago, perhaps it wouldn't have been, and Jon still couldn't think about how he'd treated Martin back then without feeling a stab of guilt.
"I know," he said. Martin gave him a small smile that couldn't quite cover up the concern in his eyes. The awkwardness bled from the silence between them, leaving behind a contemplative quiet as both men lost themselves in thought.
As they walked, Jon had one thought and one thought only.
He couldn't tell Martin.
This thing between them, this relationship with hand-holding and soft kisses and laying down cuddled close to rest when they tired of walking, was precious to Jon. Sometimes, having Martin's hand in his felt like the last good thing left in this damned place.
It was horribly selfish of him, but he couldn't bear to lose it.
How would Martin react if he knew? If he saw the Eye? It was one thing to know, in an abstract way, that your (boyfriend? is that what they were now?)- that Jon was a monster who literally ate trauma for breakfast, and quite another to see that truth physically manifest itself.
No, Martin couldn't know.
Jon would simply have to keep the Eye hidden and hope that was the end of it.
Except, of course, it wasn't.
It was perhaps a day or two later that Jon found the second Eye on the same arm as the first, covering or perhaps growing out of another worm-scar. Then he found the third the day after that. The fourth, high up on his arm that 'evening'. The fifth and sixth a few hours later, dotting their way up his arm to his shoulder.
He'd stopped counting after that.
The appearance of the Eyes was quickening the closer they got to what had once been London. Jon knew that couldn't be a coincidence.
Even worse than the Eyes now covering his left arm and spreading across his bad leg like barnacles on the hull of a ship were the other symptoms, the ones that left Jon deeply, deeply afraid.
Ever since he had woken from death after the Unknowing and truly accepted his role as the Archivist, there had been a part of him that belonged fully to the Beholding. The Avatar of the Eye, now an inherent piece of Jonathan Sims.
That was the part of him that delighted in Knowing, in Seeing all the misery that the Fears had unleashed on humanity. That was the part of him that fed on tragedy, the hungry ghoul that needed other people's pain to survive. The part of him that justified hunting in crowds and coffee shops, sniffing out the worst experiences of a person's life and Compelling the story from their unwilling lips.
Jon had done his best to contain it, that creature that was more Ceaseless Watcher than Jonathan Sims, from the moment he had realized how deeply the Eye's influence on him went. It had been a struggle, to be sure, but Jon would fight tooth and nail to cling to what remained of his humanity, tattered and torn as it may be.
However, as he and Martin drew closer to the Panopticon, to the seat of the Beholding's power, Jon could feel himself weakening. The fight to contain his monstrous side was growing more difficult by the day and Jon Knew that someday soon, he was going to lose.
Every time he recorded a statement in this place, when he opened himself up to See all the terror and pain around him, he found it harder to come back to himself. Every time he turned the Ceaseless Watcher's gaze upon one of the other monstrous beings that ruled in this wretched place, he could feel strips of 'Jonathan Sims' being peeled from the Archive like the skin of an apple from the raw flesh of the fruit.
He couldn't help but wonder what would be left of him by the time they reached the Panopticon. Would whatever thing he was turning into even want to change the world back? Or would it be content to watch and see the suffering it had inflicted upon humanity, no longer associating itself with the billions of screaming, weeping, terrified human beings?
What would happen to him, to Jonathan Sims , when there was nothing left but the Beholding's Archive?
More importantly, what would happen to Martin?
Two weeks had passed since the first Eye had appeared on Jon's arm. The Eyes had finally started to spread beyond where his clothes would cover, and the skin underneath was marked all over with Eyes of varying sizes and shapes. It was as if each scar left by the Avatars of the other Fears was in fact a seed, slowly growing beneath his skin until the Watcher's Eyes broke the surface.
By the time the Eyes reached the hand Jude Perry had burned, Jon knew he was out of time. He had felt it the moment the Eye blinked open on his palm and had fallen back from Martin to see, to confirm for himself that he could no longer run from what he was becoming.
Jon stared at the Eye and it stared into him. The Eye wasn't angry, or excited, or exhibiting any sort of emotion that Jon could name; it was just watchful , constantly taking in all sorts of horrors and not reacting at all to any of them, and all the more disturbing for it.
For a moment, Jon could clearly See his own future as an extension of that emotionless voyeur, empty and cold but always, always watching.
He tucked his Eye-covered hand into the pocket of his jacket to hide it from Martin. Just for a little longer, he swore, just until they stopped to rest in what passed for 'night' in this eternal, Eye-ridden twilight.
"Everything all right?" Martin asked when Jon fell into step beside him again. Martin knew something was wrong, had done for some time; Jon didn't need all his extra Eyes to see that, his own two still worked perfectly well. Martin had been sneaking worried glances at him these past two weeks whenever he thought Jon wasn't paying attention.
Martin couldn't know that Jon's attention rarely wavered from him these days, at least not for long. Jonathan Sims clung to Martin like a drowning man in a storm-tossed sea would hold onto a life preserver. Martin was his anchor, his strongest tie to what remained of his humanity, and Jon would fight to hold on for Martin's sake if not his own.
Long enough to ensure Martin's safety, at least.
But they were getting closer to the Panopticon and Jon didn't know how much longer he'd be able to keep Martin safe.
"Fine," he said instead. "Everything's fine."
Martin stared at him for a moment, pleading with his eyes for Jon to trust him, to let him in.
Jon looked away.
"... I can handle it, you know," Martin said. "Whatever it is, I can-"
"It's nothing, Martin," Jon said, a bit more sharply than he'd meant to. He could hear echoes of the old Jonathan Sims in his voice, the man who had considered Martin nothing more than a rather useless assistant.
Martin heard it too. His expression lost its hopeful edge and he seemed to shrink in on himself.
"Ok," he said. "If you say so."
The unhappy flatness of Martin's voice hit Jon like a slap across the face. He flinched, knowing it was no less than he deserved.
"Martin, I'm sor-" he said, reaching out with his good hand to try and grab Martin's, but Martin chose that moment to adjust the pack on his shoulders. Martin kept his hands up after, holding onto the straps like he was worried they'd slip from his shoulders if he let go.
"It's fine, Jon," Martin said. He sounded more exhausted than angry and that was somehow worse.
Jon slowly lowered his hand.
They walked in silence.
Hours later, his feet aching and something that might be London a barely-visible speck on the horizon, Jon called their trek to a halt.
"We should stop here," he said. Martin just nodded tiredly and they moved off the road they had been following to make a sort of camp under a nearby tree. It might not make much of a difference in reality, but the illusion of safety and shelter was welcome. Sleep might have been technically unnecessary in this new world, but 'unnecessary' didn't mean 'impossible', and Jon and Martin both found these periods of rest rejuvenating.
The last few hours of their walk had been especially draining. Jon wouldn't exactly have classified Martin as cold during the journey; they'd chatted a bit as the hours dragged on, but Martin's heart clearly hadn't been in it and neither had Jon's. It wasn't as if Jon could press Martin for details about how not 'fine' things were when he'd been telling Martin the exact same lie for weeks and they both knew it. Martin's usually open, expressive face had been clouded over and dark. Jon hadn't had any idea what he was thinking and he refused to Know, knowing Martin would be rightfully furious with him if he did.
This was already not how he'd wanted to spend what might be his last few hours with the man he loved. He didn't want to make things worse by breaking both a promise and a vital boundary in one fell swoop.
It was difficult to get his pack off his back while having to keep one hand hidden, but somehow Jon managed it. He hesitated when unrolling his sleeping bag, wondering if the distance between him and Martin would translate to dozing several feet apart instead of tangled together.
He could see Martin hesitating too, glancing over to where Jon knelt with his sleeping bag. It was oddly reassuring to see that Martin wasn't so upset that he wanted to set his bag up separate from Jon's for the first time in weeks.
Jon felt warmth and a strange, melancholy longing well up within him as he watched Martin's fingers worry the edge of the sleeping bag.
He would miss this.
"Martin," Jon called softly. Martin looked up immediately and met Jon's gaze with his own. Jon took a deep breath. "I think we need to talk."
Martin nodded slowly.
"Yes, we do," he said, lowering his sleeping bag to the ground and turning to fully face Jon. He arranged himself into a more comfortable seating position. Jon mirrored him, taking the moment to try and get his thoughts in order.
What could he even say? He had to tell Martin not to come with him to the Panopticon, but how would he get Martin to agree without revealing to him just how much of a monster Jon was becoming?
Martin waited, watching him.
Nothing for it; the only way out was through.
"I- perhaps it would be best if..." Jon had to force the words out through a lump in his throat. "If I did this last part alone."
Martin went still.
"... What?" he asked, a stunned expression on his face. Jon steeled himself and pressed on.
"It would be best if you didn't come with me to the Panopticon," Jon said. "I can set you up with a safe house, a proper one. You won't have to worry about the other Fears or Avatars finding you-"
"Jon- Jon, that's not the point ," Martin said, his shock melting into hurt anger. "I'm coming with you. I can help!"
"No, Martin, you're not," Jon said. Inside his pocket, he curled his Eye-covered hand into a fist, as though pressure on the eldritch Eyes would make them disappear. "It's dangerous."
Martin let out a wounded, incredulous sound that might have been a chuckle.
"Dangerous?" He repeated. "More dangerous than going through the domain of every single Fear? More dangerous than the Desolation? Than the Corruption?"
Martin shook his head.
"You and I both know that's not it," Martin said. He turned beseeching eyes on Jon. "Jon, what is this really about?"
Jon had no answer for him. He opened his mouth and then shut it, lost for words.
Martin waited, emotion bleeding from his expression the longer Jon remained silent. Then Martin nodded, sharp and quick, and looked down.
"Right," he said. He gave a self-deprecating chuckle, shaking his head, voice so thick Jon felt it smothering him. "Right, you don't need me mucking things up, do you? Stupid Martin, can't even tie his own shoes, no way he could be trusted to help save the world -"
"Martin," Jon said, voice breaking as a wave of guilt crashed over him. Martin stopped talking for a moment to wipe roughly at his eyes with a dirty sleeve.
"It's fine , Jon, it's fine, I get it," Martin said. He took a deep, shaking breath. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet. "You should have left me in the Lonely. If you didn't want me with you, why even bother coming back for me?"
Jon felt a lump rise in his throat, one he wasn't sure he could speak around, but he had to. He couldn't bear to see Martin so hurt, especially when it was Jon's fault.
"I do, Martin. I do want you with me," Jon said. His good hand twitched with the urge to reach out and pull Martin close, but he didn't dare. If Martin drew back, Jon knew it would shatter him. "More than anything else in this world. But I need you safe. Please, Martin."
"What is so dangerous about the Panopticon that I can't come with?" Martin demanded.
Jon clammed up. He didn't want to answer. What even was he supposed to say?
"Jon, please ," Martin said softly, voice desperate.
Martin might not have the supernatural ability to compel someone to tell him all of their darkest secrets and deepest torments, but Jon found himself unable to refuse. He looked down, not wanting to face whatever expression Martin would make when Jon finally revealed the secret he'd been so careful to keep hidden for weeks now.
He'd hoped that his last memories of Martin wouldn't be full of hurt silences and angry outbursts. He'd hoped to spend their last night together cuddled close, with Martin none the wiser of what Jon was becoming.
He supposed bitterly that that ship had sailed.
"Me," Jon said lowly. " I'm the danger."
Martin stared at him, uncomprehending.
"What?" he asked. Jon swallowed nervously and took a deep breath.
"I'm not human anymore, Martin," Jon said. "This... place, this world of fear, it's changing me. The closer we get to the Panopticon, the harder it is for me to be me and not just an extension of the Beholding."
All the Archive wanted, insofar as a thing like that could want, was to watch. It recorded, it observed, but it did not feel.
"I don't know what's going to happen when I reach the Panopticon," Jon said softly. "I don't know how much 'me' will be left, if any, and I don't want the thing that won't be me anymore to hurt you. It's only loyal to the Eye."
He gestured with his hands as if to say 'there you have it'.
"So it's better to leave me behind," Martin said, like he was just now following Jon's logic. Jon nodded.
"Precisely," he said. "This way, if I don't succeed, if all that's left of me by the time I reach the Panopticon is the Archive... well, at least it won't get you."
They're both quiet for a moment, Martin clearly absorbing the information and Jon waiting on tenterhooks for his response.
"What were you planning on saying to me, if I agreed to stay behind?" Martin asked carefully. "Just... just 'here you are, Martin, nice safe house just for you, don't wait up, off to save the world maybe'? Were you even going to tell me that you might not come back?"
Martin's voice cracked on the last sentence and Jon winced.
"I didn't want you to worry," he said. "Or do something rash."
"Like follow you to the Panopticon to try and stop your suicide mission?" Martin said sharply.
"I wouldn't put it that way..." Jon said, starting to feel a bit annoyed. Why wouldn't Martin just understand ?
"Well, I would ," Martin snapped back. "Listen to yourself! All 'oh, I'm turning into a terrible monster, guess I better take on an evil fear god all by myself before my... my monster -self decides it has a point'?!"
"You don't even want me with you!" Martin said. "Are you that certain you're going to lose?"
"I don't know , Martin!" Jon said. "I don't know what's going to happen, all I know is that the part of me that belongs to the Eye has been getting stronger the closer we get and that, eventually, I won't be human enough to care that I destroyed the world. I'm hoping I'll still be me enough by the time I reach the Panopticon to want to set things right, but that's all it is. A hope. And I am not risking you because I made a mistake."
"That is exactly why we have to do this together," Martin said. He leaned forward and grabbed Jon's hand with both of his, pulling it to his chest as Jon pushed his Eye-covered hand deeper into his pocket, terrified Martin would see. "I'm not risking you either. Remember that... that 'statement' or whatever we're calling it these days, the one about Gertrude? How she didn't trust anybody or have anyone, and that's why she would've just given up? You said she didn't have a reason to fight, but you do ."
Martin squeezed Jon's hand reassuringly, stroking his thumbs up over Jon's palm. The contact was a balm to Jon's soul and he couldn't take his eyes off their joined hands.
"You said I was your reason," Martin said. "So let me help you. Let me come with you, even just as a... a reminder or something. An anchor."
Martin had a point. Jon could admit that, even if he didn't like it. Having Martin with him might actually be enough for Jon to cling to humanity long enough to undo the Watcher's Crown, but if it wasn't, could Jon really risk it?
And even if they succeeded, would Martin ever look at him the same after seeing the Eyes all over Jon's body? He had kept them hidden so far, but that would only work for so much longer.
Jon had never been particularly ashamed of his body, scrawny as he was, but that had been back when his body had been human. No human had eyes growing out of their shoulder, or their leg, or their arms.
"... I don't want you to see me like that," Jon said softly. Martin laughed, weak but fond.
"See, that's what I mean," Martin said. "You're already talking all defeatist, like the second we get there you're going to turn into some monster that's all... all eyeballs or something-"
Jon flinched. Martin went immediately silent, his hands tightening instinctively around Jon's.
"...Jon?" he said after a moment, voice tentative. Jon looked away.
"It's already started, Martin," he said. Reluctant but resigned, he slowly drew his hidden right hand out of his jacket pocket and held it out for Martin to see.
Martin breathed in sharply. The silence that followed was deafening.
Jon couldn't bring himself to speak. He sat there, arm outstretched, waiting for Martin to end it. To finally realize that Jon was a monster, one whose true nature was finally bursting through his human skin.
The tension grew. Jon didn't dare move, though he started to shake with nerves the longer the moment dragged on.
He felt Martin's grip loosen and his heart dropped.
Then suddenly, something touched his outstretched hand. Jon recoiled, yanking his hand back as he instinctively looked up.
It was only Martin, one hand out to touch the air where Jon's had been seconds before. Martin looked at him, expression soft with concern.
"Does it hurt?" he asked, gesturing to the Eyes. Jon just stared, uncertain.
If he'd had to pick the reaction he'd get from Martin, he never would have guessed this. He searched Martin's face, desperate to know what Martin was thinking, resisting the urge to just Know.
Martin's worried expression grew deeper by the second and Jon realized he hadn't replied.
"No," he said quickly. "No, the Eyes don't hurt. They're just... there. More the closer we get to the Panopticon."
"Good," he said. He held out his hand for Jon's. "May I?"
Slowly, Jon lifted the hand covered with the Eyes of the Ceaseless Watcher, as if to ask 'this one?'. Martin smiled encouragingly and nodded.
Jon reached out, hesitant only because he did not know what Martin was feeling. Was he disgusted with the Eyes? Fascinated by them, like a scientist with a new species of particularly warty toad?
Martin took Jon's hand and turned it this way and that gently, so achingly gentle Jon's heart hurt. The Eyes followed Martin, boring into him with their sickly green glow, but Martin didn't seem to notice or care.
He ran his fingers lightly around the large Eye on Jon's palm, tracing the shape of the metaphysical 'socket' of thin skin. Jon could do nothing but watch, suddenly feeling off balance.
"How long?" Martin asked, like it was perfectly normal to find eldritch Eyes on your boyfriend's skin.
"Since the Stranger," Jon said. Martin made a soft 'hmmm' noise but said nothing else. Jon waited, wondering how long this veneer of calm would last, if Martin was about to drop his hand in disgust and ask 'well yes, on second thought please take me back to the Lonely'. When nothing of the sort happened, he worked up the nerve to speak again. "They don't... disturb you?"
Martin didn't speak for a moment, seemingly content to run loving fingertips over Jon's skin.
"Well, it is a bit weird," Martin said, voice light but honest. "But it's you , Jon. And I love you."
Jon's heart stuttered, skipped, the way it always did when Martin said the words.
"Even like this?" he asked.
Martin enclosed Jon's hand with his own large hands, covering the Eyes as best he could so they could pretend for a moment that it was just the two of them, just Jon and Martin, no ever-present voyeur watching.
"Yes," Martin said simply. "And I won't let you go to the Panopticon alone, especially if you... if you think you might not come back."
Martin's voice broke and so did Jon's heart.
"Martin-" he said, but Martin shook his head firmly and looked up into Jon's eyes, his own glossy with unshed tears and determination.
"No, Jon," he said. "Look, you found me in the Lonely, yeah? Twice now, you brought me back."
Jon nodded slowly.
"Well, if you get... Lost, like I was. If you aren't you anymore, I'll bring you back," Martin said. He squeezed Jon's hand, mindful of the Eyes. "I'll find you, I promise."
Jon couldn't help but believe him.
"It won't be easy," he said, mustering up a wry smile.
"Didn't expect it would be, saving the world and all," Martin said with a small, ironic smile of his own. It faded quickly. "I can't lose you, Jon. I won't."
"I can't lose you either, Martin," Jon said.
"So, we're agreed, then?" Martin asked. Jon nodded.
"Yes," he said. "We'll do this together."
Martin relaxed, seemingly satisfied with that, but Jon wasn't finished.
"And you're right," he said. He cleared his throat and continued when Martin looked at him quizzically. "About Gertrude. About me . You're my reason for fighting this, Martin, and without you there... I don't know that I'd try so hard."
"I need you, Martin," Jon admitted, a little ashamed at how desperately true the sentiment was. "I need you to keep me fighting."
"Good thing I'm not leaving, then, isn't it?" Martin asked, but there was no heat in it. He released Jon's hand just long enough to reach for his shoulder and pull him as close as he could. "Just... please don't ask me to stay behind again.
"I won't," Jon said, wrapping his own arms around Martin. "I won't, I promise, just... if things go wrong. Promise me that you'll keep yourself safe, no matter what it takes."
"You don't have to worry about me, Jon," Martin said. It wasn't an answer and Jon opened his mouth to object, but his voice died in his throat when Martin pulled back and lifted Jon's hand to press a gentle kiss just above the Eye. "I'll be careful."
"I'll worry anyway," Jon said. He leaned in, head angled to press a long, meaningful kiss to Martin's lips. In it, he tried to convey all he still had trouble saying, all the love he felt and all the fear. Martin kissed him back, steady and sure and just as loving.
Perhaps they would defeat the Eye and restore the world, Jon thought as the kiss broke. It certainly felt more possible than it had a moment ago.
"Thank you, Martin," Jon whispered against Martin's lips. Martin smiled and tilted his head, bumping their foreheads together gently.
"You won't get rid of me that easily," he said, and though his voice was light there was a promise there too.
Jon had no idea what tomorrow would bring. He didn't know what would happen when he and Martin finally reached the end of their journey.
But for the first time in weeks, as he and Martin zipped their sleeping bags together, Jon hoped.