this fic is basically one long jonmartin road trip but with depression and angst and yearning!!!!!! here’s the link to ao3: https://archiveofourown.org/works/30788036. or you can read it below the line!!! <3
Content warnings: depressive episodes, disassociation, panic attacks, discussions of death and mortality, grief, emetophobia, economic anxiety, intrusive thoughts/images, very brief allusions to transphobia and xenophobia (in the context of UK politics), swearing, passive suicidal ideation, food, disordered eating, mention of hospitals, smoking, addiction, arguments, brief references to coercive relationships.
Martin has been sitting at his desk, shivering in his coat, for over half an hour. Still enough that the automatic lights have switched off for the night, one by one in an imploding cascade down the corridor he can see from his desk. Tim and Sasha left a while ago, and Martin had put his coat on and promised he would been right behind them, he was just going to check his emails one last time, when he’d seen Sasha had sent her part of the report on Naomi Hearne’s statement to him. He doesn’t know how to explain why he opened the document and scrolled through to Evan Lukas’s death certificate. But here he is. Stuck and staring.
He doesn’t want to be here. He doesn’t want to be staring at the death certificate of a man he doesn’t even know. Since Naomi Hearne’s statement two days ago, Martin has been—well, off. He wishes he had a better explanation, but his creativity has jumped ship, apparently, and either a wall springs up every time he reaches for a way to name what he’s feeling or it is energy he doesn’t have to waste, forcing his mind into forming words.
It feels like there’s a balloon inside his chest and no matter how much he expands his lungs, no matter how many deep breaths he takes, he can’t make it smaller. He’d vomited, when he got back to his flat on the day of the statement; yesterday, he had opened the cupboard and stared at the ingredients but been unable to make himself make anything. On the Tube to work, when a stranger looked at him, just in passing, Martin had wanted to cry, and that feeling lingered with him but nothing came of it except an odd sort of internal tension, like a headache.
Yet at the same time, there’s something so dull about it all. He can feel the boredom in his teeth. The blunt edge of a knife, never drawing blood. Why does it matter? Why does it need to be a big deal?
It isn’t, as far as Martin’s concerned. No one else has noticed, and sometimes he doesn’t either. Sometimes it just slips his mind that this isn’t how he feels all the time. Even now, staring at the computer screen, he almost forgets that he’s cold, that it will be dark outside. That it’s Friday, and he usually calls his mum on Friday because the care home gets fish and chips delivered, every week, a whole event, and it’s easier for them both if she has a proper excuse not to answer.
“Martin,” Jon says.
Martin jumps, but his movements are slower than he expects. His shoulders lift enough that the waterproof lining of his coat makes a high-pitched scraping noise, but he can’t move the hand that’s on the mouse to close the document in shame he knows distantly he should feel.
“Martin,” Jon continues, looking somewhat confused, as if he’d already said his name a number of times. There’s a hint of defensive disapproval in his expression. “You’re still here.”
Martin tries to talk, but his voice croaks as if from disuse. He clears his throat and tries again. “Yeah. Just, um… finishing up.”
“It’s after seven.”
“You’re also still here,” Martin points out.
Another time, he thinks he’d be embarrassed by the remark. He should be feeling that hot, sharp lance of fear that this might be the fireable offence. But there was nothing in his tone except the monotone stating of a fact, and the phantom embarrassment is so vague he doesn’t even feel guilty about its reason for existing.
There’s a short, soft huff of laughter. Martin drags his eyes to Jon’s face, just in time to see his expression of defeated amusement before it disappears.
“Yes, well, I have my reasons.” Jon averts his eyes and doesn’t elaborate.
Martin turns back to the computer. It should be simple, moving the mouse to the corner of the document, pressing the red cross, shutting down the computer for the weekend, off-off, at the wall and all, not standby or Rosie would moan about the Institute’s already-failing green initiative. But he just can’t do it.
“Is… something wrong?” Martin manages to ask.
“I need to lock up,” Jon replies, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He lifts the small ring of keys in his hand as if in justification, a supply of proof. “Unless you would like to spend the weekend in the Archives, I suggest you leave in the next five minutes.”
“Oh. Right. Yeah, I—I’ll just—let me just…” He moves the mouse to the corner of the document, hovering, but he can’t bring himself to click off it. Suddenly, he doesn’t want to go home. He desperately doesn’t want to go home.
“Sometime today, please, Martin,” Jon presses.
Martin forces himself to close the document. The balloon in his chest feels very big. In his mind’s eye, he can still see Evan Lukas’s death certificate. The clinical recital of the cause, the dates echoing around in his mind. He feels like he might, at any moment, abruptly blurt the words out loud.
“Yes, well,” Jon bristles, “I do have somewhere to be.”
Martin wishes dully that Jon wasn’t here. He could just pull the computer plug out of the wall and be done with it, although his fingers feel numb and he’s not sure he has the strength. Or rather he does have it, it exists, just not within reach.
Martin goes through the motions of small talk, nonetheless. A kneejerk courtesy that reminds him of all the commutes home he can’t remember, the familiar going-through-the-motions, arriving at your destination unharmed, but having done so on muscle memory alone.
Jon lifts his eyes to the ceiling, as if he had considered rolling them and thought better of it. He takes a moment before he speaks again. “Actually, I had planned to drive to Wormshill this evening. There is a detail in Miss Hearne’s statement that I would like to check myself.”
“You’re going to Kent?”
“Yes,” Jon answers defensively. “It’s not far. A two-hour drive, at most.”
“But it’s—you just said it’s after seven.”
“Because I have an obligation to ensure my employees are not in the building after hours. What you do with the rest of your evening is none of my concern.”
Martin nods. The motion carries him away for a moment, and he gets lost in the gentle repetitiveness of it. He’s definitely nodding for longer than is acceptable—everything is taking longer than acceptable, today—and he should be embarrassed, but its vaguely soothing, a blip in the otherwise flat, linear trajectory of his mood.
Jon sighs. Loudly. “Is there anything unsaved on this computer?”
“No,” Martin replies, “Don’t think so.”
“Good,” Jon snaps, and then promptly switches it off at the wall.
Martin stares at the blank screen. He can just about make out his hollow reflection. “Oh.”
Jon is still standing there. “Martin…”
Martin hums in acknowledgement.
“There is—well, there’s the matter of the Institute’s health and safety guidelines, which stipulate that any employee conducting research in the field after seven p.m. must be accompanied by at least one other person,” Jon says, rushing but still somehow managing to keep the deep, unimpressed tone. “Ordinarily, I would disregard such bureaucratic nonsense, but I, uh, I rather suspect I’ll be receiving a complaint from Miss Hearne, and I’m—reluctant, I suppose, to attract any further attention from Elias.”
Martin doesn’t understand what Jon is trying to say.
“What I’m trying to say, Martin,” Jon continues, “Is that while I would much rather conduct my investigation alone, it might be pertinent to have company. If only to share the burden of driving.”
In the computer screen, Martin’s reflection doesn’t react to Jon’s statement. His eyes are cloudy, out of focus behind his glasses.
“Fine,” Jon huffs, “I’ll be direct, since nothing else seems to be getting through: Martin, will you come to Wormshill with me?”
Martin must say yes, because the next thing he knows, he’s still shivering in his coat but he’s outside, standing next to Jon on the steps of the Institute while they wait for the taxi that’s going to take them across the river to the car hire place in Croydon, apparently the only one willing to loan a vehicle on such short notice and at this time on a Friday. In his own coat, jaw set against his own shivers, Jon keeps stealing sideways glances at Martin as if expecting him to bow out of the bizarre excursion at any moment.
It occurs to Martin that maybe he should give Jon an out. A reason to go alone, since that’s what he seems to want. Now that Martin’s outside, at least, he thinks he can make it home. He can drift through the weekend, try to sleep off the feeling sitting heavy beneath his skin so that he can plaster on a smile again for Monday.
“Jon,” Martin says, “I can’t drive.”
Jon’s face snaps fully to Martin’s. “What do you mean, you can’t drive?”
“I mean I—I never learned how?”
The car was one of the first things they’d sold, when they could no longer afford to top up the meter, and when he’d turned seventeen, it had been too much money and too much time away from his mum to take lessons, even though so many jobs stipulated—illegally, he’d been told by one disgruntled employee at the Job Centre—that he needed a licence to apply. He knew his mum resented the lack of transport. She would complain about the tins getting dented or the fruit bruising on the bus journey back from the supermarket. Martin would take on extra shifts to cover the taxi costs to and from hospital appointments. But otherwise, they were stuck. There was no way around it.
Moving into London had helped with getting around, but not so much with money, and it had been a sort of comfort to Martin that mostly no one expected you to own a car or even drive here. Until now.
“Why didn’t you say something—?” Jon begins, but at that moment, the lights of the taxi slice through the darkness and a white Prius jolts to a stop in front of them, the driver giving an impatient toot of the horn to get their attention.
“I—I’m sorry,” Martin says. “I thought you knew.”
“How on earth would I—?” Another blare of the car horn. Jon makes a disgruntled sound and starts off down the steps. “Just get in the taxi.”
Martin stares down at him. “What—but I—are you sure?”
Jon, with his hand around the door handle, looks expectantly back at Martin. “Yes, Martin, just—come on.”
In the taxi, Martin sits on his hands as his mind lists restlessly between the vivid, intrusive image of opening the car door for no reason and the worry that he should be making conversation, before settling back into familiar numbness. Jon doesn’t make conversation either, which Martin supposes is a relief. The driver fields a number of calls during the journey and ends up doing enough talking for the both of them.
Jon pays the taxi driver with the Institute credit card when they reach Croydon. Martin stands on the pavement and watches the back lights of the Prius fade into the distance, the way you might watch to check someone gets into their house safely after you walk them home, because he can’t really think of what else to do until Jon demands, “Are you coming?”
Martin jogs after Jon, catching him up just as they reach the car park of the hire place. Jon tells Martin to wait outside, so he waits outside with his hands tucked into his pockets and wonders idly if Jon has picked up on his quietness. And if Jon has noticed, does he think it’s a relief, not having to suffer Martin’s small talk, his stammering inquiries and useless observations?
About ten minutes later, Jon emerges with a set of keys and a collection of paperwork. He barely glances at Martin, making a beeline for the car parked nearest the door, a yellow Citroën.
When Martin stops beside the car, waiting for Jon to unlock it, Jon snaps, “It’s all I could get on short notice.”
Martin stares over the roof of the car at Jon. Is Jon embarrassed because the car is yellow? Because it’s a Citroën? Martin feels like he’s missing something. “I didn’t say anything.”
Jon just huffs and climbs into the car. After a moment, Martin follows, ducking inside and settling into the passenger seat. Jon hands him the paperwork, somewhat unceremoniously, and Martin takes it and places it in his lap and doesn’t say anything about the fact that Jon has given the hire company a false name. Which likely means he has a fake ID. Which is a can of worms that Martin isn’t sure he’s ready to open.
They drive for a while in complete silence. Jon’s driving is a little shaky, at first. He stalls three times in the space of five minutes, and at one point gets flipped off by a teenager hauling Deliveroo via bike. Martin laughs, despite himself, a small huff of air through his nose—it’s a start, he supposes.
“Would you prefer to take the wheel?” Jon snaps and when Martin’s face drops, he adds. “I thought as much.”
Martin sinks back into his seat, the laughter forgotten. He stares out of the window at the other cars and wonders where their occupants are travelling—back to their families for the weekend? When Jon has to merge onto the M25, he clings to the steering wheel so tightly his knuckles turn white, and Martin wishes he hadn’t laughed earlier.
On the motorway, at least, Jon seems to settle into the familiar motions of driving and eventually reaches for the radio, tuning into Radio 4. They’re broadcasting a political debate, and Martin tries to watch without being caught as Jon’s face twists or he snorts at a particularly egregious comment from one of the participants.
“Who’s that?” Martin asks, surprising himself, when Jon rolls his eyes for the fifth time—he’s counting—at the same voice.
Jon blinks, turning momentarily from the road before returning to his eyes-ahead vigil of the motorway. He rolls his lips, like he’s pushing down a retort about Martin’s ignorance of politics. After a while, and a sixth eye roll, he says: “That’s Ann Widdecombe.”
“Oh,” Martin says, “She was on Strictly.”
Jon once again looks like he wants to launch into a lecture about Martin’s witlessness. Instead, he says, in that dry voice of his: “Yes. She has also been a particularly insidious member of the Conservative Party for forty years.”
“Right. Of course. I know that.”
“I should hope so.”
“I didn’t vote for her,” Martin tells him, “On Strictly.”
Jon doesn’t say anything.
“Or in the general election,” Martin adds.
“Not least of all because you don’t live in her constituency.”
“I mean I didn’t vote for the—”
“Yes, Martin, I understood what you meant.” Jon pauses. “And for the record, neither did I.”
There’s a very long stretch of silence after that. Martin wants to point out that he used to watch Question Time with his mum, before she moved into the care home, plus he’s trans and what little family he has left are Polish, so it’s not like he can be ignorant about the UK’s political climate, and just because he’s not some Oxford-educated prick who listens to Radio 4—but what’s he trying to prove, really? It’s a waste of energy, and the lull of the car and the cold pressure in his chest quickly extinguish the flare of indignation.
A radio drama about wartime Britain replaces the debate, and Martin tips his head against the window. He can make out the sound of the words, but not what they mean, and the inside of his mind feels like the road ahead: a blur of sharp asphalt and red-white light, the kind of place where it’s not safe to stop. He feels vaguely sick.
Martin thinks about the weekend again. He wishes he could sleep through and wake up feeling better, feeling real. He wants so badly to pause this feeling and pick it up when he’s ready to deal with it. A break. He just wants a fucking break, so badly that the tight-throat tension of tears he knows he can’t shed is back. He closes his eyes, in case Jon notices, and plays with the paperclip holding the contract for the hire car together.
He doesn’t know if he falls asleep fully or just drifts, but the next thing he’s really aware of is the slam of a car door as Jon climbs back inside. Inside? Martin squints at him through the sickly light of the streetlamp outside the car as Jon manoeuvrers his way back into the driver’s seat while holding a cardboard tray of drinks and two greasy paper bags. He hands one of the bags to Martin. It’s warm in his hands, almost burning, but he doesn’t think to let go.
“Where are we?” Martin asks, detached from the question, uncaring of the answer.
“Just outside of Maidstone,” Jon replies, balancing the drinks tray on top of the clutch with meticulous precision before gesturing with far less accuracy in the general direction of the service station. There’s a glowing sign indicating the presence of a Costa and a number of other chains. “Do feel free to use the, uh, the facilities.”
“I’m fine,” Martin mumbles, “But thanks.”
Martin realises he can’t remember the last time he used the facilities, as Jon so delicately put it, even back at the Institute. It should be embarrassing, but even this is hard to care about. There were plenty of opportunities, at work, to get up and make a cup of tea, or to reach into his rucksack and pull out the water bottle he’d bought with the markers specifically to remind him to drink at regular intervals. But he just… didn’t. And he’s dehydrated, clearly. And he doesn’t care.
“Right,” Jon says, looking like he would rather be anywhere else, “If you’re sure.”
Martin has no idea what to say to that. Jon saves him the effort by clicking the radio back on without starting the engine, and the midnight news drifts from the speakers in a deep, sombre voice that makes Martin feel intensely tired.
Jon clears his throat. “I hope you like cheese and tomato.”
Martin blinks Jon’s shadowed face back into focus. The lights are strange, transient—the orange glow of the streetlights interspersed with violent flickers of white as new arrivals pull into the car park.
“Cheese and tomato toasties, that is,” Jon adds, “That’s what’s in the bag.”
“Oh. Oh.” Martin blinks again, almost dizzy. “Thanks. I—I do. Like cheese and tomato toasties. What do I—how much were—?”
“You really don’t need—”
“It’s fine, Martin.”
“I bought it with the Institute credit card,” Jon interrupts, blunt. “If you would like to thank Elias for the cheese and tomato toastie on Monday, be my guest.”
It’s not really funny, but Martin finds himself giving one of those pathetic, half-formed laughs again. Jon looks momentarily surprised before he smiles and turns away.
Martin eats by rote because what else is he supposed to do? There’s an odd safety to mirroring Jon, following his lead. And so Martin does just that. He doesn’t taste the cheese and tomato toastie, and he can’t even tell if there’s sugar in the tea Jon hands him from the cardboard drinks tray, but it sits warm in his stomach, reminding him he hasn’t eaten anything other than crackers for nearly two days.
When Jon begins to drive again, the radio is playing a reading of a book about a Spanish painter Martin has never heard of. He feels like he owes Jon, in some way, for the cheese and tomato toastie, no matter who actually paid for it, and so he decides to remedy his previous disregard for Radio 4’s programming.
“This book sounds interesting,” Martin announces. There’s not much in his voice—no confidence, no real presence—but at least he’s saying something. “I can’t believe I’ve never heard of this Velázquez guy.”
“It’s Velázquez,” Jon corrects, although his pronunciation sounds no different to Martin’s.
“It’s a shame it’s the final episode,” Martin presses on, even though it’s painful. “Would have been nice to have a bit of context, you know?”
Jon hums in disinterest. “I suppose.”
This brief attempt at conversation is uninspiring, to say the least, so Martin instead resorts to an even more ridiculous line of inquiry. “Did we just pass a sign for Leeds Castle?”
“Yes,” Jon says, although he seems somewhat more engaged this time.
“But we’re in Kent.”
“So why is it called Leeds Castle?”
“Well, there’s actually some debate as to why. In the Doomsday Book…”
Martin’s not watching the clock, but if he was, he would know Jon talks for a full twenty-three minutes about the etymology of Leeds Castle. It’s oddly soothing. Like a repeat of the emulsifiers at the ice cream parlour, except they’re not sitting across from each other, they physically can’t make eye contact, and there’s distance and darkness enough between them that they can both drop the performance. Martin doesn’t want to be looked at, to be seen, but he feels grounded by Jon’s voice. And Jon doesn’t stop every few minutes to make sure he isn’t being a nuisance, that he isn’t stealing time that others will resent the loss of.
They’ve made it to the Kent Downs. Martin supposes he should ask what it is they’re here to investigate. He manages it, and watches with something adjacent to despair as Jon’s open, almost excited expression falls away.
“Miss Hearne mentioned a chapel in her statement,” Jon says. His voice has dropped down an octave again, into the tone he uses in the Archives. “I can’t find any record of its existence, but I would like to be sure.”
Martin feels suddenly, impossibly cold. Like he will never be warm again. He shivers, and Jon turns up the car’s heaters. “I remember.”
Jon’s hands tighten around the steering wheel again. “You listened to the statement?”
“You—you asked me to transcribe it.”
“No, I asked Tim to transcribe it.”
“But Tim—well, he has an ear infection, he’s on antibiotics and everything, and Sasha’s the only one with access to the hospital records so she was cross-checking those, and I—I thought it was only fair if I transcribed it instead,” Martin says, the words falling out of his mouth in a blurred rush.
Jon deflates, just slightly, with a tired sigh. “Of course. I must have—I didn’t—I’ll apologise to Tim on Monday.”
Martin sits on his hands again. If he was feeling better, he might wonder if Jon has ever considered apologising to him. But perhaps he’s more truthful, when he’s in this place; perhaps he’s right when he thinks he doesn’t deserve it.
Jon sighs again. “So you heard…?”
“Brilliant,” Jon mutters, clearly meaning the opposite.
“Do you really think she’s making it up?”
“Of course I don’t—‘making it up’ would imply some kind of fault or, or blame, which is not at all what I was suggesting.” Jon’s jaw is set, tense, even as he spits out the words. “There is nothing made up about trauma and the very real impact it can have on a person’s life. I think Miss Hearne’s experience was significant and, as I told her, she should certainly seek out help from someone more qualified to address the grief of her fiancé’s death. As for empty cemeteries and chapels hidden in fog, well, I’ve read enough statements to know that the point at which they start to sound like an overdone ghost story is the time to deploy a reasonable amount of scepticism.”
Martin stares at the dashboard. The car’s heating is on its highest setting, the warm air blasting from the vents drying out Martin’s eyes, but he’s still shivering. Still so deeply, immovably cold.
“He was…” Martin whispers, but he can’t finish the sentence.
“He was very young, yes, and his loss was unspeakably tragic. That is not what I am seeking proof of, and that is far from Institute’s area of expertise in any case, but—”
“No,” Martin interrupts. His voice still so quiet, but Jon stops to listen nonetheless. “That’s not what I… I was going to say that she sounded lonely.”
Jon’s mouth opens, but he doesn’t seem able to form words. His teeth click as he shuts his mouth and turns back to the road, driving on in silence as the radio idly broadcasts the shipping forecast.
“I—I don’t mean the part with the empty cemeteries and chapels hidden in fog, although I believe her. I do.” Martin pauses, letting himself linger in that realisation. “The loneliest part was when she spoke about him.”
Jon takes a deep breath. He frowns, as if he wants to say something, but he keeps quiet.
The tightness is sitting in Martin’s throat and behind his eyes again, and he wishes he could cry. Maybe if he cried, it would leave him be, he’d be emptied but in the right way.
“They only got two years,” Martin whispers.
“They were…” Jon says, his voice a feeble imitation of comfort. And when his voice fails, his jaw tightens and the defensiveness flashes back across his expression. “Does it matter how long they got?”
“Yes, it matters. Of course it matters,” Martin snaps. He surprises himself with the vitriol behind his words.
“The length of their acquaintance doesn’t change the extent—”
“Their acquaintance? They were in love.”
“They were going to get married.”
“I don’t know what you want me to say, Martin,” Jon hisses. “I’m not unfamiliar with grief.”
“What do you mean, why?”
“Why didn’t you tell her what to—how to—to move on, or—I don’t know, couldn’t you just have humoured her? Couldn’t you have dropped the act for one day to help someone experiencing the worst thing that’s ever happened to them?”
Jon stares at the road ahead, exhaustion sitting in the lines of his shoulders, the twitch of his jaw. He hardly moves, aside from occasionally checking the mirrors, and Martin doesn’t expect an answer. The silence is cloying and choking and Martin lets it fester.
“If I knew how to move on,” Jon says, very quietly, after an indeterminable amount of time, “Well, let’s just say that’s not information I would withhold. And as for humouring Miss Hearne’s experience, what would you have me say?”
“You could have told her you believed her,” Martin presses.
“That would be a lie.”
“It would be a comfort.”
Jon’s lips twist humourlessly. “Aren’t those synonymous?”
“Then why are we here? Why drive around the Kent Downs in the middle of the night if you think it was all just a trick of the mind?”
“Because I need proof.”
Jon doesn’t answer the question. Instead, he snaps: “I shouldn’t have bought you.”
“Probably,” Martin agrees, falling back into his seat.
“I’m pulling over,” Jon announces without preamble, as if this is a natural continuation of their argument. “I need to check my notes. I’m sure we’ve passed that sign for Bredgar at least twice already.”
Martin doesn’t say anything. Jon pulls the car into a cramped passing place on the side of the road and then takes his phone out of his pocket. The radio drones, and Martin stares out of the window at the darkness of the stretching rural road, the few specks of light in the distance where the sparse houses state their presence. He thinks about the process of lighting torches in order to send a warning. Smoke signals.
“No signal,” Jon mutters in frustration, and then he opens the driver’s door, climbs out and slams it behind him with enough force that the body of the car shakes.
Martin curls into his coat. His face is wet, he realises, and when he lifts his hand to his left cheeks, it’s cold with tears. Jon is a silhouette caught in the car’s headlights, shoulders up, body tensed. To Martin’s surprise, he seems to have abandoned his phone in favour of lighting a cigarette. Martin recalls Tim mentioning that Jon had quit, a while ago. He considers getting out of the car, too, and trying to convince Jon not to lift the cigarette to his lips. But he can’t move. He’s frozen in place, shaking with a chill that doesn’t belong to him.
In the silvery-grey plume of cigarette smoke, Martin thinks he sees the outline of the chapel they’ll never find.
Leaning against the car hood, outside a service station near Preston, Jon sneaks a cigarette while he waits for Martin. His hands are restless, twitching, and if he’s being honest, he has played hard and fast with the meaning of ‘quit’ ever since—well, ever since he started working in the Archives. And he needs a distraction because, for the first time since they left the Lonely the day before, Martin is out of his line of sight.
It hasn’t been long. Five minutes, at most. But Martin had insisted on going alone, had told Jon he was feeling car sick and needed a moment to himself to get cleaned up. To brush his teeth, which he had said with an odd smile, like this was a novelty. So Jon had let him go, and regretted it almost immediately, and began smoking soon after to take the edge off his gnawing anxiety.
Now that he’s alone, Jon finds himself thinking about the journey beyond the heart-pounding panic of getting out of London and the slower-burning worry over Martin’s drawn silence.
His lips curl into a humourless smile around another drag of the cigarette, and he huffs a small laugh. When Jon had turned on the radio after they’d finally made it onto the M6, it was already tuned in to Radio 4. He didn’t have the heart to change it, not least of all because he would have to explain to Martin, after all this time, that he doesn’t particularly like Radio 4. It’s not his station of choice by a longshot. The last time they’d been in a car together—a lifetime ago, it feels like—Jon had still been trying very hard to appear older than he was and, in a moment of panic, decided the only way to do this was to listen to a radio station that didn’t even play music, for god’s sake.
Ironically, he has been listening to Radio 4 recently, if only because Daisy insists they both stay appraised of The Archers. Insisted. Jon’s smile falls. Only a few weeks ago, while Jon had been attempting to organise his office while Daisy complained at the latest pastoral plot point, he had found an old, half-folded Post-it note. A jumbled collection of words in Jon’s handwriting: Martin Secret Santa. Velázquez - The Vanishing Man??
“What’s that?” Daisy had asked him. “I can’t read your handwriting.”
Jon had slipped the Post-it back into the drawer, although this time with his rib rather than the jumbled collection of paperwork it had been coexisting with before. “Then I’m not going to tell you.”
“Oh, come on, Sims.”
“It’s nothing important.”
“I don’t think I believe you.”
The Eye had informed Jon that The Vanishing Man was the name of the book reviewed on Radio 4 on January 16th 2016, in the early hours of the morning, when Jon had been driving with Martin around the Kent Downs. Jon had written the name of the book down so that he’d know what to get Martin, if he drew his name for Secret Santa.
In the car park, Jon’s throat tightens with grief. There was never another Secret Santa after Prentiss. It seemed a silly thing, with everything that had happened, to care about. They’d never been a normal workplace, not really. And yet Jon still craves that brief glimpse of ordinariness, of a pointless tradition everyone rolls their eyes at and complains about but which is still repeated every year.
Jon is just about to walk to the bin and put his cigarette out in the tray resting on top when he notices Martin’s slow, almost unsteady approach. He quickly disposes of the spent cigarette and tries to look as nonchalant as possible, like he is perfectly capable of spending five minutes away from Martin without falling apart.
Except that as soon as Martin’s face catches the light and his expression became visible, Jon has no hope of maintaining the act.
“Martin,” Jon says, stumbling forward to meet Martin before he reaches the car fully.
“Jon.” Martin recognises him. It should be a relief, but there’s a dull echo to his voice that reminds Jon far too much of the Lonely.
Jon can see that Martin shivering, even in the too-big knitted jumper Jon had guided him into when they’d woken up sometime after midday, after sitting together on the sofa all night, Jon crying softly against Martin’s shoulder while Martin slept. He remembers the way Martin’s curls had sprung out of the jumper and how Jon had felt like crying again with how much love he felt in that moment, staring at the crown of Martin’s head, wondering what it might be like to kiss him there.
When Jon takes Martin’s hand, it’s so cold Jon feels a bolt of ice shoot up his own spine.
“You’re freezing,” Jon murmurs, pulling gently on Martin’s hand. “Come on.”
Jon places his other hand on Martin’s back, making small, soothing motions as he opens the passenger door as wide as possible and gently encourages Martin back into the seat. He pulls up the fleece blanket in the footwell up so that it covers Martin’s legs, where the worst of the shivering seems to be concentrated, and squeezes Martin’s hand until Martin’s eyes move to his.
“I’m just going to walk around to the other side of the car and get in, alright?”
Martin nods. Jon squeezes his hand again, one last time, before standing up and jogging around the car to the driver’s side. He climbs in quickly, kicks on the engine so that he can start up the heaters, and then re-takes Martin’s hand. Martin stares straight ahead, his eyes cloudy and fixed on a faraway point Jon can’t identify.
“Martin,” Jon ventures, trying to keep his voice as soft as possible. “What happened?”
“N-nothing.” Martin shudders violently. “It was nothing.”
“It doesn’t look like nothing.”
“Jon,” Martin sighs.
“We don’t have to talk about it now,” Jon agrees, trying to keep the reluctance from his words. “But it might… maybe it would help?”
“To see what we’re up against?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the Lonely, it…” Martin laughs, a hollow, humourless sound. “It’s not just going to let me go, is it?”
Jon doesn’t know what to say. They sit for a while in silence, the only sound the rumble of the engine and the whir of the heaters. In a moment of desperation, Jon almost considers turning Radio 4 back on, and he nearly laughs at his own ridiculousness.
“I—I was in Costa,” Martin says, at last, disrupting the quiet. “I was going to get you some coffee, since you’d been driving all evening. I’m sorry. That I can’t—that I don’t have a—”
“Martin, it’s fine.” They’ve already had this conversation. Jon brushes his thumb over Martin’s knuckles and tries not to well up because Martin thought to get him coffee, when he knows for a fact that Martin despises coffee as a point of pride and refuses to even keep it in his flat.
“I always wanted to learn. To drive, that is.”
Jon smiles, but it fades quickly. “Maybe you can. When we get to…”
Martin hums. “I ordered the coffee, that was… it was fine. A bit awkward, I guess. Haven’t talked to strangers in a while, you know? Or anyone, really. But I got through it. It’s just that when—when the barista called my name, she just—she looked through me, like I wasn’t there.” A brief, bitter twitch of Martin’s lips. “Maybe I wasn’t.”
“It’s fine. It’s—it has to be—I’m fine.”
“I just stood there, while she was calling my name. Looking at me, but not,” Martin continues, still staring out of the window. “In the end, she gave the coffee to the person who was cleaning the forecourt.”
“Oh.” Jon tips his head back against the seat. “I can—did you order anything else? Are you hungry? I can go back inside. Or we can go… t-together.”
Martin shakes his head minutely.
“We’ll eat when we get to the house,” Jon says, like it’s already decided. “I can make soup.”
“What kind?” Martin asks, so quietly Jon almost misses it.
“Whatever kind you like.”
“I don’t know. Is that something I—should I know?”
“We can find out.”
Martin doesn’t say anything else.
“Are you ready to move on?” Jon ventures.
At Martin’s minute nod, Jon reluctantly untangles their hands and retakes the wheel. He pulls out of the service station, and once they’ve navigated the helter-skelter of roundabouts and made it back onto the motorway, Jon lets his hand drift towards the radio. Would it be so earth-shattering, to listen to something other than Radio 4? Surely it wouldn’t shake the foundation of their relationship more than everything else that’s happened in the last two years. And yet he feels an extraordinary amount of pressure, like he’s about to expose some vulnerable part of himself to Martin by revealing what sort of music he enjoys.
“Jon?” Martin murmurs.
Jon retracts his hand. It’s ridiculous, it really is, but he’s not ready. “Sorry. Just, uh, just checking I know where the—the hazard lights are in this car.”
Martin doesn’t seem to be in any position to question him. Jon returns his hand to the wheel and stares at the straight, sparse road ahead of them. There’s not a lot of traffic, late at night and mid-week, and Jon loses himself quickly in the motions of driving. It’s strange, he thinks, the way skills stay with you after so much time dormant and unpractised. He wonders if he could remember the cords he used to play on his grandmother’s piano, if he sat down in front of one now, or the lyrics of the song Georgie taught him, his voice matching the gentle strum of her guitar. He wonders if the Eye would let him be bad at it, let him rediscover these half-realised skills or supply him with the unearned knowledge of how to perfect them.
Instead, he thinks about teaching Matin to drive. If the Eye is going to insist on perfection, Jon might as well share it with the person he cares about most. The Scottish Highlands aren’t the easiest place to learn, and they probably shouldn’t attract the attention of anyone nearby by hiring an instructor, but it would be something to do. A reason to spend time together. They’d argue, almost certainly. He can hear it: yes, Jon, I know the highway code and Martin, you’ve missed the turning again and well, maybe your instructions should have been clearer and I resent your tone and I resent your directions and—he smiles. Petty arguments, of course, the kind that don’t hurt, not really. They would laugh about it when they got home.
He turns to Martin, as if this is already a joke between them, already spoke out loud, only to find him fast asleep against the window.
The suspended moment of surprise lasts far longer than Jon would admit to anyone, even himself, and he has to force his eyes back to the road just in time to avoid a large lorry with smiling cartoon produce on its flank. He takes a moment to breath around his pounding heart as he settles back into the speed limit. And then he can’t stop stealing glances at Martin’s sleeping form.
Martin’s head is tucked between the headrest and the window, a position that will likely give him an aching neck later, but Jon can’t bear to wake him. The fleece blanket—yellow with white flowers, Jon remembers, although he can’t see it in the monochrome lights of the motorway—rests atop Martin’s gently rising and falling belly. One of Martin’s hands is hidden beneath the blanket, curled around his knee; the other lies half-up in his lap, fingers twitching every so often. His mouth is open slightly, top teeth just visible. During one stolen look, Jon notices Martin’s nose curling slightly in sleep, his eyelashes twitching. It’s so endearing that Jon has to smothers the urge to cry.
Once again, Jon thinks about the last time they shared an unfamiliar car to traverse unfamiliar terrain. Martin had seemed to sleep then, too, although looking at Martin now, Jon isn’t sure it was actual rest. More just closing his eyes, because there was no real difference between that and keeping them open, staring absently at the road ahead.
When Jon had dropped the hire car off in Croydon around eight a.m. that Saturday morning, Martin bid him goodbye with a hollow smile, assured Jon he could would be fine getting home, and walked—purposelessly, somehow, even though he had a destination—towards the nearest station. Jon had gotten another taxi back to the Institute, weekend be damned, he needed to write up his notes, and picked up his phone at obsessive fifteen-minute intervals, beset with the need to text Martin to ensure he’d gotten home safely.
He never did text. And he still regretted it, even when Martin came in on Monday—still pale, still withdrawn—and assured Jon his weekend had been fine. Even now, two years later.
Worse still, he knew something wasn’t quite right with Martin that week. Tim and Sasha had been worried about Martin, and had come into Jon’s office before leaving for the night and asked that he ensure Martin wasn’t still there when he locked up. Jon had no real issue letting Tim or Sasha stay in the Archives after-hours; he trusted them, and they were experienced researchers, and they both worked best in their own time. Martin, not so much.
But he had noticed that Martin’s quietness in the days since Naomi Hearne’s statement, the way he drifted distracted through the Archives and sometimes seemed to be somewhere else entirely. Perhaps that’s what compelled Jon to invite Martin with him to Kent. To this day, he’s still not sure why he extended the offer. Why he made that decision over and over again, even when opportunities to turn back presented.
He does know how different he feels now. How sorry he is, that he tried so hard to avoid this. How angry he is, that it took him so long to discover this feeling. And he knows exactly why he invited Martin with him to Scotland.
He supposes it’s good, if Martin didn’t—couldn’t—sleep back then, that he is managing to rest now. Jon makes himself focus very closely on the road, on driving gently so as not to disturb the sleep Martin so clearly needs.
It’s not until they’re about half an hour away from the Scottish border that Martin begins to stir, a deep sigh followed by a more discontented murmur. Jon tries to keep his eyes on the road ahead, tries not to think it’s only been an hour, please let him rest just a little longer, but his gaze keeps wandering to where Martin is curling in on himself against the window, beginning to shudder again.
The car’s heating system is already on its highest setting, which Jon discovers when he reaches to turn it up. Perhaps he’s also running cold from their encounter with the Lonely, and the shivery anxiety still gripping him after their escape from London. Jon thinks about reaching across, waking Martin, but just as he wills his hand away from the steering wheel again, Martin sits up with a noise of confusion, the rasping outline of Jon’s name.
Martin stares at the darkness in front of the car, cut through with the white glare of the headlights. He’s stock still, the only movement the rise and fall of his shoulders at pace with his frantic breathing, and the small quivers running through him at merciless intervals. It’s almost reminiscent, Jon thinks, of the time they drove to Kent, except there is something visibly uncalm about Martin’s posture this time.
Martin just keeps staring.
Jon reaches across the car towards him. “Martin?”
Martin draws a sharp breath, flinching away from Jon’s outstretched hand so quickly he thumps his head against the window. The impact seems to wake him fully, but his breathing gets quicker, if anything, and he hides both his shaking hands beneath the blanket, gathering it up to his chin as he attempts to stop his teeth from chattering.
“S-sorry,” Martin murmurs, “I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for,” Jon replies, trying to match Martin’s voice for gentleness, although his does not shake or warp with almost-tears. “Bad dream?”
Martin hums, but says nothing more.
“Would you like to stop? I think we’ll be coming up to another service—”
“No,” Martin interrupts, a new sharpness to his voice. He takes another breath, slower but still unsteady. “No, thank you. I’m—I’m fine. I’ll be fine.”
Jon tries to smile, as soothingly as his can, but Martin won’t return eye contact when Jon glances his way. “Alright. We’re not far from the border now.”
Jon drives, trying very hard to focus on the road rather than Martin in the passenger seat. Every time Jon looks Martin’s way, the shivering seems to get worse, accompanied by a blurring at the edges of his figure that Jon attributes, at first, to the late hour, to the fuzziness of the light and the growing exhaustion behind Jon’s eyes. When he tries to focus on it, it gives him an odd, momentary headache—not dissimilar to when he attempts to Know something too big or too abstract.
It’s then that Jon realises this is the Lonely, clinging to Martin like heat haze to the road, except there’s something distinctly sinister and chilling about it. A claws-out, cloying presence in the car with them.
“I’m fine,” Martin replies, voice as tense as his jaw as he fights down another teeth-chattering chill. “It’s—it will pass.”
Jon swallows around the ache in his throat. “Can I help?”
“You’re not,” Jon snaps, not meaning to sound so harsh, but the worry explodes out of him sounding closer to anger. “You’re not fine, Martin, and I—I can’t just sit here and watch—”
“Then don’t watch,” Martin hisses back. “Would that be so hard? To just. Not watch. For once in your life just stop—stop looking, stop asking to know things that will—that will—”
“That will what?”
“That will destroy you, okay? Stop throwing yourself into—into the eldritch version of staring directly at the sun!”
“Already been there and done that, I’m afraid,” Jon mutters, with no small amount of bitterness.
“Oh, great! And how did that turn out? I’m not some—you can’t—I didn’t ask for this. I’m not a statement, I’m not—you can’t just Know me, Jon, that’s not—not fair. It’s not—” Martin is gasping now, almost gagging on his words, on the tears threatening to implode his facade of distance. “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.”
When Jon turns to look at him, there is still something blurred and unspecific about Martin, like he is both here and somewhere else. Like half of his image is being left behind by each forward movement of the car. But he is crying, fully crying. And by some cruel twist of fate, Jon can see this more clearly than everything else around them.
“I know what you’re going to say. I know nothing’s fair. I know that’s the—it’s the way our world is now, right? Nothing’s fair, and nothing’s safe, and everything…” Martin coughs miserably, his voice stolen momentarily by the tears. “Everything ends.”
“Don’t, Jon. Don’t say my name like that.”
“What would you have me say instead?”
“I don’t—I can’t. Not yet.”
So Jon says nothing. He drives. He tries very hard not to look at Martin, who curls against the door, crying in such a quiet, self-contained way that Jon wants to weep with the intensity of grief Martin seems to be denying himself.
By the time they’re nearing the border, Martin is even quieter. Jon risks a glance at him and finds that he is still crying, but sporadically, just tears now, falling silently onto the blanket he’s still holding beneath his chin. His face shimmers when it catches the headlights leeching across the road from the southbound side. The glassy look has returned to his eyes, and Jon wonders if he even knows that he’s still crying.
Up ahead, Jon spots a sign for Gretna Green. It twists a wretched, tearful laugh from his throat.
“What is it?” Martin rasps.
Jon turns to him, not caring if he misses the moment they cross the border—which before had seemed such an important milestone to him, a prerequisite of the journey. Martin is still crying those silent, ignored tears, but his gaze has moved from that absent nothingness to Jon’s face instead.
“I was just—Gretna Green,” Jon says uselessly. “We’re near Gretna Green.”
Martin takes a shuddering breath. It sounds like it could have been a laugh, too, if they were somewhere else, someone else—a perfect twin to Jon’s. “Oh?”
“Did you know that you can no longer get married at Gretna Green without at least twenty-nine days’ notice? In 1856, a law was passed requiring one member of the couple to have resided in the local parish for at least twenty-one days in order to be eligible to marry there. That has since been repealed, but the longer notice period maintained.” Jon didn’t know this until just a moment ago, when the Eye supplied it to him. “The tradition of Gretna Green marriages dates back to at least 1754, although the practice didn’t become commonplace until a toll road made it a more accessible location to those travelling from England. At the time, Scottish law was guided more by Celtic rather than Catholic tradition, and so allowed a couple to be married by anyone so long as there were witnesses, which gave rise to so-called anvil priests—local blacksmiths willing to perform wedding ceremonies.”
Martin swipes at his cheek with the back of his hand. He seems sturdier, more present. “I didn’t know any of that, actually.”
“The most famous anvil priest is Richard Rennison, who was recorded as having performed five-thousand, one-hundred and forty-seven wedding ceremonies before ‘irregular marriages’ were outlawed by the Scottish government in 1939.”
“That’s—that’s a lot of weddings,” Martin murmurs, a hint of humour in his voice. “He must have seen a lot.”
Jon frowns. “Of what?”
“Well, love, I guess. But it can’t all have been good.”
“I mean, I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, for a start.”
“Yes, but Mr Wickham is not a particularly helpful example of a potential husband. Would you hold his entire character against the integrity of Gretna Green?”
“I guess they never actually went to Gretna Green, in the end. But I bet there’s a lot of real-life examples of people manipulating their partners into a shotgun wedding across the border and then—”
“Goodbye happily ever after.”
“I never had you down for a hopeless romantic.”
“I was agreeing with your last point.”
“Yeah, but none of the points before that.”
“Yes, I was.”
Martin makes that noise again, something adject to a laugh that warms Jon’s heart. “No, you weren’t.”
“Yes, I was.”
“No, you—” Martin stops, shakes his head. “This is ridiculous.”
“Fine,” Jon says, lifting his hands momentarily from the steering wheel in a gesture of surrender. “I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a hopeless romantic, thank you very much. But is it so terrible to imagine that some of those marriages were—well, happy or exciting or—or fairer? Than somewhere else? That there was a great deal of love here for a great deal of time, and that makes this place—unique. You’re right: not all of it could have been happy, or good, or honest. But—”
“But you’re a little bit in love with the idea of this place,” Matin says, and it takes Jon a moment to realise he’s teasing.
Jon feels heat rush to his cheeks, and he’s glad that it’s dark inside the car, that they’re between streetlights and passing vehicles. I’m a little bit in love with you, too, Jon thinks, and feels his blush deepen even further. The thought is so vivid that for a moment, he’s convinced he actually said it out loud. But Martin is just looking at him, his expression still somewhat distant, but there’s something like a smile sitting on his lips. No hint that Jon might have just confessed his love.
“Yes, well.” Jon clears his throat. “Sometimes it’s nice to…”
“Have a little hope?”
Jon nods, just once. When he looks at Martin, his smile has disappeared and there are tears in his eyes again.
“I’m sorry,” Jon whispers.
“For everything. For—”
“Jon, you can’t be sorry for everything,” Martin cuts in. “It will eat you alive. God, you—you don’t have to be sorry. Not for anything you think you’ve done to me.”
“No, Jon, I’m the one who should be sorry.”
“What an earth for? You haven’t—”
“I have. We’ve both—we’ve both made a lot of mistakes. And that’s… probably why we’re here.” Martin sniffs, curls his hands tighter around the blanket. “But I…”
Jon waits. He thinks they must have crossed the border into Scotland now, with little fanfare. Too absorbed in each other’s words to notice the transition.
“Can we stop soon?” Martin asks at last, breaking the silence.
It’s not what Jon is expecting, but he nods nonetheless. “Of course. We’ll stop at the next service station.”
True to his word, Jon stops at the next service station—which just so happens to be Gretna Green. He asks Martin if he wants to keep going, to bypass this service station for another, but Martin simply shakes his head and doesn’t say anything as Jon finds them an empty space.
They walk inside together, only splitting off into separate cubicles when they reach the toilets. Martin says very little, but allows himself to be guided by Jon through Waitrose, which is open despite the late hour. They’ll have to sacrifice affordability for practicality this time, since they’re only two hours away from Daisy’s safehouse and it seems like a bad idea to risk stopping again. Jon fills their basket with tea bags, powdered milk, custard creams, bread, bananas, baked beans and pre-grated cheese. None of it particularly glamourous, but it will tide them over, and he’s not sure either of them is in a state to do more than microwave what they have available.
Just before they reach the check-out, Jon notices the chocolate Martin likes. He remembers, because Tim had once returned from his lunch break having bought the entire box from the nearby supermarket when Martin had been staying in the Archives. Caramel Cadbury, the contrasting purple and yellow wrapper always showing up in the bins after that, and Jon feeling an odd sense of jealousy that Tim had so effortlessly, it seemed, made Martin’s unexpected stay more pleasant.
Jon places two bars into the basket with the rest of their goods. With the hand not holding the basket, Jon reaches for Martin. Martin closes the distance, taking Jon’s hand, and they cling to each other through the transaction and the return to the car.
“Are you hungry?” Jon asks Martin.
Martin shakes his head. Jon adds this to the list of things to address later, when he isn’t so sleep-deprived he’s sure to say the wrong thing, push the wrong buttons. He places their shopping bags in the boot of the car and reluctantly relinquishes Martin’s hand so they can both climb back in.
Jon doesn’t start the engine.
“I can’t stop thinking about Naomi Hearne,” Martin announces, after a long stretch of silence. “I had a dream about her statement. Earlier. It was… different, though. I think it might have been—I think maybe I was—I belonged to that house.”
Jon doesn’t know what to say. His own silence is choking him, and he knows now is not the time to cry, but it’s a difficult thing to wrestle down the onslaught.
“I was so stupid,” Martin hisses. He’s crying again, so suddenly Jon feels like he must have missed something. “I should never have gotten involved with the Lonely. I’m—this is—it’s all my fault. I did this.”
Jon swallows his own tears. “Martin, I don’t understand.”
“The Lonely won’t let me go.”
“It will. It has,” Jon says, quick, desperate.
“No.” Martin shakes his head with a mirthless laugh. “No, it hasn’t, Jon. You remember Evan Lukas.”
“Of course,” Jon replies, although it wasn’t a question.
“He escaped. He escaped, and it took him back in the end.”
“No.” Jon leans back, as if struck. This is—why has he never thought about this? But no, it can’t be true, it can’t be a possibility. “No, that’s—Martin, you aren’t like him. Evan Lukas was—he was born into it. The Lonely was with him for longer than it ever was you.”
“I think the Lonely always had me.”
“Don’t say that. Not again. Not now.”
“But it’s true, Jon! When I listened to Naomi Hearne’s statement—”
“I should never have let you—”
“You didn’t let me. I chose to.”
“It wasn’t a choice.”
“No, it—it compelled you, somehow. The statements, they can do that, they can—”
“I wanted to read it.”
“No, I wanted to read it because I was doing my job, because I was helping Tim and Sasha. I didn’t know it would—it just seemed like a normal statement. Until I listened,” Martin continues, voice growing in strength. “It called to something inside of me. I recognised so much of myself—”
“My life is—was—it was just like—”
“Stop,” Jon snaps, “Stop. Please.”
Martin stops, but only momentarily. “We have to talk about this at some point. I know I’ve been putting it off, too, but… we have to.”
Jon drags a hand over his face, suddenly so exhausted he could fall asleep. But his heart is pounding and his hands, he realises as he’s lowering them from his face, are shaking. There’s no rest to be had yet. “Alright.”
“Being cut off from the Lonely might kill me,” Martin says, “Like it killed Evan Lukas.”
“I’ll be cut off from the Eye, too. I’ll—”
“Basira is sending you statements,” Martin interrupts, “And you’re going to read them, okay? You have to read them.”
“Then you’ll have to—to find a way to feed the Lonely, too.”
“I won’t do that.”
“That’s the only deal I’m going to make.”
“I won’t sacrifice anyone to that place,” Martin spits. “You saw it, Jon. You were there. How can you think I would ever send anyone there just to save myself?”
“Oh, and you think feeding the Eye is without its sacrifices?” Jon demands, fury rising to meet his grief in a perfect storm. “Is it okay to subject people to nightmares, to reliving their trauma again and again with me drinking it all in, just so I can survive?”
“At least they’d be alive!”
“Martin, this is ridiculous. You can’t—”
“Stop trying to find a way out of this.”
“Stop acting as if this is the only way!” Jon shouts, loudly enough that Martin flinches back.
With a shuddering breath, Jon tries to contain his anger, to hide it until it’s not so raw. He thinks about the last time they were in the car together. The argument then, and how he had pulled over and gotten out and smoked to avoid finishing the confrontation, to avoid letting his true feelings show.
He won’t do that again. He can’t. Not this time.
“Evan Lukas didn’t—it might not have been the Lonely that killed him. We don’t know for certain that it was,” Jon continues. “And if it was the Lonely… did Naomi Hearne’s statement give any indication that he lived his life differently because he knew it might happen? No. He got a job that he cared about. He surrounded himself with friends. He fell in love. You can have all of those things. You deserve all of those things.”
Martin’s tears drop faster and faster, an unstoppable flood, and Jon wants nothing more than to reach across and wipe them away with his thumb. He would, except that Martin is holding himself so tightly, curled with his back against the car door, and he looks so devastated, so far away, so unwilling to be reached.
“He died,” Martin sobs. “He died, and he left the person he loved behind.”
“No, Jon, I—I know what that feels like.”
“Martin,” Jon murmurs. Afraid of what’s coming next. But he knows he has to say it. He has to keep going. “Can I ask you something?”
Martin hesitates, wiping at his eyes, digging his fingers into his sockets. After a protracted moment, he nods.
“Do you think Naomi Hearne wishes she never met Evan Lukas?” Jon asks.
Martin stares at him, still crying. “I don’t know.”
“I think you do.”
“I don’t…” Martin takes a shuddering breath. “No. I don’t think Naomi Hearne wishes she never met Evan Lukas.”
Jon almost smiles. “Neither do I.”
“But she was lonely again, afterwards.”
“Maybe she wasn’t. Maybe she reached out to Evan’s friends. Maybe she realised they were her friends, too.”
Martin stares at him with red-rimmed eyes. “Do you know that?”
“No.” Jon sighs. “No, but I—I can Look.”
“No, that’s not fair.”
Jon steadies himself. Across the car park, he watches a young father bounce a little baby, pacing the length of his sedan as he does so. In the car, the faint silhouette of his partner is just visible; they look peaceful, at rest. Jon’s heart aches.
“Can I ask you one more thing, Martin?” Jon whispers.
“Yes,” Martin rasps, reluctance replaced with resignation.
“Do you wish you had never met me?”
Silence. Jon forces himself to keep watching the father, murmuring now to the fussing baby, giving Martin time to consider the question, all of its sharp angles, its gentle core. He wishes, more than anything, that he could reach for Martin’s hand and hold it. Hold it tight, kiss his knuckles.
At last, Jon turns to look at Martin. Their eyes meet and then, in a blur of movement, Martin reaches for him, his hands pausing on Jon’s shoulders for just a moment, giving him time to pull away, but Jon reciprocates in full, grabs hold of Martin’s jumper and pulls until they’re a tangled mess, holding each other, crying and clinging and trying to move closer than the small car will allow.
“No,” Martin says into Jon’s shoulder. “I don’t—of course I don’t regret meeting you. God, Jon, I—please don’t—never think that, okay? I don’t want you to ever think that.”
Jon lifts his hand to Martin’s hair, runs his fingers through the tussled curls where they’re fuzzy from sleeping against the door. “Martin, meeting you—it was a gift. It’s always been a gift.”
Martin sobs, his face wet against the seam of Jon’s jumper. “I wish I’d never agreed to Peter’s plan.”
“I understand why you did. And I forgive you, if you need to hear it.”
“But I’ve ruined everything.”
“Nothing is ruined beyond repair, Martin.”
“What if the Lonely calls me back?”
Jon holds tighter, as if the Lonely is already at their backs, creeping closer. “We’ll deal with it.”
“You said yourself…” Martin sobs again. “You said—when we went to Kent—you said—”
“I said it didn’t matter how long Naomi and Evan had. I remember.”
Martin is shaking against him. “Did you…?”
“I meant it. Not because—it’s not because I didn’t care, although I know I was trying very hard to give that impression, at the time. I meant it because no amount of time would have been enough. Love is… it’s outlasting. It makes its own time.”
“No, please, Martin, I—I need to say this. No matter how long we get, whether it’s days or—or years. It won’t be enough. I’ll always…” Jon laughs, a small, fragile thing. “Well, I’ll always want more. Perhaps you don’t believe me, or you—you can’t, right now. But you, Martin, you are enough. Always. I will spend every moment we get together ensuring you believe that. If you’ll have me, of course. There’s—of course, there’s no obligation, and I would—I’d understand if—but it’s true. It’s all true.” Jon laughs again, feeling giddy. “I want to spend all of my time with you, Martin. For as long as you’ll have me.”
Slowly, they pull away from each other, but not far. Jon moves his hands up Martin’s arms, over his shoulders, until they rest on his cheeks, and he finally allows himself the privilege of wiping away Martin’s tears with his thumb.
“I wish it hadn’t taken—well, all of this—” Martin makes a vague gesture with his hand, which still somehow encompasses everything: tea stains on statements, worms at the door and shoulder-to-shoulder against the wall, trips to the café heavy with paranoia, quiet goodbyes, missed moments. “To get here.”
Jon rubs his thumb against Martin’s cheek. “We can’t go back.”
“Will you…?” Jon takes a steadying breath. There are so many questions, but only one matters, in this moment. The rest will follow, one day. “Martin, will you take it day by day with me? And if that doesn’t work—hour by hour, minute by minute. Together.”
There’s a breathless pause. And then Martin laughs, a genuine smile splitting his face for the first time in—well, Jon can’t remember how long. It’s small and tentative, but it’s there. And it means everything to Jon.
“Yes,” Martin tells him.
Jon smiles, too.
“I’m scared,” Martin murmurs, smile wavering slightly.
“But I—I want to try.”
Jon feels his smile grow. “That’s enough. Always.”
Martin’s smile finds its feet again.
“Are you ready to keep going?” Jon asks.
Martin lifts his hands to Jon’s and squeezes. “I’m ready.”
In the silvery-grey headlights on the tarmac ahead, Jon thinks he sees the outline of the words he is still looking for the strength to share.
I love you.
Soon. He’ll say it soon. He has time.
The sun is just rising when they reach the safehouse. It welcomes them like an old friend, worn stone bathed in newborn sunlight as if to say hello, as if to smile at their arrival. Jon insists they are safe here, though his heart is unsure. Martin can’t shake the feeling that this is won’t be forever, though his heart wants to hope this might be it.
Maybe they will have a lifetime here. Maybe not.
Love makes its own time, Martin thinks. And Jon smiles and leads them both towards home.
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