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Ask a Compelling Question

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“What are you thinking about?” Jon asks, his voice edged into a snap.

Martin startles where he’s sitting at his desk, staring blankly at the wall over a file of police reports. He doesn’t remember Jon opening the door, doesn’t know how long he could’ve been standing there.

Martin’s mouth opens and, entirely without his permission, words spill out. “I was thinking about what it would be like to kiss you.”

Jon’s expression goes confused, then blank, then confused again, then flustered. A red flush rises on his cheeks, so faint that it could just be a trick of the light. “Right, well, I need you…I need you to interview a Kamila Maly. Confirm the whereabouts of her daughter—” Jon squints down at a sheet of paper in his hand. “—Josilyn on the night of October the 8th.”

Martin stands, reaching without looking to grab his coat from the back of his chair. Embarrassment burns every inch of his skin and he’s sure that his face is bright red. Literally anywhere would be better than staying here. “I will…I will do that right away.”

Martin bolts past Jon and out the door, and has to come back for Kamilla’s address. He doesn’t look Jon in the eye as he takes it and runs, once again, out of his own office.

He could hail a cab right outside of the Institute but instead he starts to walk. A light rain is falling but it’s still early enough in the day that the chill hasn’t quite set in yet. Martin pulls his collar tighter around his neck and walks with his head down.

Why would he say that? Why would he tell Jon that he was thinking about what it would be like to kiss him? It was true; in the moment, it had been exactly what he was thinking about. But it wasn’t like he had any intentions of telling Jon. Probably ever.

Jon had made it perfectly clear that he thought Martin was useless and incompetent. Besides, it wasn’t like Jon had ever shown any indication of any sort of romantic relationship with anyone, Martin or otherwise.

No. He’d decided long ago to keep his feelings for Jon to himself. And now here he’d gone, answered a simple question with the secret he’d wanted to keep.

Maybe he shouldn’t bother with interviewing Kamilla. Maybe Jon was going to have him fired. Maybe he could just go back and get it over with, start looking for a new job this very afternoon.

Martin goes to Kamilla’s house. He knocks on the door, accepts her offer of tea. He confirms that Josilyn went out at eight o’clock sharp on the evening of October the 8th to a new club that just opened—she couldn’t recall the name—and didn’t return until the following morning, rambling about halls of neon lights. Martin finishes his tea, thanks her for her time, and goes back to the Institute.

Jon’s door is closed, the light peeking out from underneath confirming that he’s still in there. Martin thinks about knocking, giving Jon the information directly, but that would mean facing him again. Martin turns tail and gives the notes to Sasha instead. He doesn’t hear from Jon the rest of the day.

One day passes. Then two. Then three. Then a whole week. Jon keeps giving him assignments, although Martin swears that he hasn’t looked him in the eye since that afternoon. Martin isn’t avoiding Jon but he isn’t actively seeking him out either. It’s a little weird but it’s not a problem.

After ten days without bringing Jon a cup of tea, Martin decides that he’s had enough. If Jon is going to pretend that it never happened, then so is he. It’ll be easier if they ignore it. So he brews Jon a cup of green tea and brings it to him in his office.

“Tea?” Martin announces, nudging open the door.

Jon closes a file and clicks the button on the recorder. He looks up, meeting Martin’s eyes for the first time in over a week. “Yes, yes, fine, thank you,” he says, waving Martin inside. “I actually have something I need you to do.”

Martin sets the tea on Jon’s desk and waits for whatever research task he’s about to be set next. He hopes this one doesn’t have anything to do with disease or underground caves. Jon stares at the tea cup, the steam softly wafting from the surface. “What is it?” Martin asks.

“Oh.” Jon startles and sorts through the files in front of him. He sits up straighter in his chair and uncovers a paper scrap with an address scrawled on it. Jon shakes off a layer of dirt before handing it to Martin. “Statement claims that they saw a series of open graves at this address. I want you to confirm or deny.”

“And if there are?”

“Don’t fall in one.” Jon stacks the files again and removes the tape from the recorder. “Don’t go near them, Martin.”

“I won’t.” Martin tucks the paper into his pocket and turns to go. “I’ll be back soon.”

“Martin,” Jon calls. His voice sounds weird, at the intersection of awkward and hurried. “Did you mean it? What you said? What did you mean?”

Martin turns around slowly. He can feel the burn starting to run down his cheeks. “Did I mean what?”

“When you said you were thinking about kissing me,” Jon says, frustrated now. “Were you just having a laugh?”

Martin does laugh at that and it’s too loud, too breathless, in the confined space of Jon’s office. “Did I…was I laughing…” He shakes his head, trying—and failing—not to look at Jon. He runs an exasperated hand down his face. Jon is staring at the tape recorder, a flush rising on his cheeks. “Jon, did you think I was wondering what it would be like to kiss you because I thought it would be awful?”

Jon looks up at that. His forehead creases, the fresh wrinkles making the gray threads in his hair stand out. “It wouldn’t…it wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Jon.” Martin’s feet are moving almost before he realizes. He stops himself on the opposite side of Jon’s desk, palms flat on the surface, before he can do something really daft.

“I was wondering what it would be like to kiss you because I want to do it.

Jon still looks confused, and a little bit startled. He glances at the tea cup and then back at Martin. His lips part but no sound comes out.

“I don’t know why I said it in the first place,” Martin says, almost whispering. “You caught me off-guard, I guess. Why don’t we pretend that it just never happened? I’ll go see about those open graves.”

Jon doesn’t stop him as he goes to leave.

Martin returns to the Institute feeling more than a little unsettled by the amount of fresh earth on his shoes. At least he didn’t fall into any graves—empty or already occupied. Indeed, there hadn’t been any sign of a cemetery or open graves at the address Jon gave him.

Still, the fresh earth. That place wasn’t quite right.

After making an effort to clean his shoes and brewing himself a cup of tea to calm his nerves, he goes to Jon’s office to deliver his report. He tells Jon about the open plot of land, the lack of gravestones or holes in the ground, but also about the churned up earth and the weird chill in the air. Jon nods, takes notes, and thanks him—just like always.

“I found this filed out of place again. I need you to file it properly,” Jon grouses, rising from his chair and rounding the desk. One moment Martin is taking the file.

The next he’s being kissed.

Jon’s lips are dry and Martin’s eyes are open and it’s awkward and all wrong and…Martin’s brain is having trouble processing quite what it is that’s happening. Jon is kissing him. After years of suppressed feelings and fantasies, and days of anxiety, Jon is kissing him. It’s almost enough for Martin to wonder if he’s not trapped in that empty plot, buried beneath the ground and dreaming of another world—a strange world where the Archivist kisses his assistant.

Martin is still panicking when Jon pulls away, the crease back in his forehead. He cocks his head as he looks at Martin. “Is that what you thought it would be like to kiss me?”

“Not quite,” Martin admits, stepping closer so Jon has to tilt his head back to keep looking him in the eye. “Can we try again?”

“I suppose.” Jon doesn’t move away as Martin cups his face in his hands and leans down. This…this is a kiss. The warmth of it soaks all the way to Martin’s toes. Jon’s lips feel softer this time, more willing to follow along with the strokes of Martin’s.

Jon kisses like an experiment.

Martin kisses like he never wants to breathe again.

Jon’s hands come up, cupping around Martin’s elbows. It’s a light touch, barely there, but it’s still enough to keep Martin rooted in place.

It’s not what Martin imagined. For one thing, his fantasies failed to account for how much shorter Jon is, the way Martin has to bend his head down to reach. He also never considered the press of Jon’s cheekbones against his palms or the faint hint of aftershave that might be hidden underneath the constant smell of dust and old books.

Martin feels like his heart is going to explode out of his chest—weirder things have happened, in this place—and wouldn’t that just be his luck, finally getting to kiss Jon only to die like a cartoon character. Martin opens his mouth, gently guiding the kiss deeper, but Jon doesn’t take advantage and Martin doesn’t want to push it.

It’s Jon who breaks away at last. His hands slip away from Martin’s sides and he takes a step back. Martin lets his hands flop back down and he resists the urge to touch his lips.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Jon admits, back to his typical straightforward Archivist demeanor. He glances over his shoulder at the cup of tea, cold now. “I thought I might give it a try.”

“And?”

“It was nice.” Jon shrugs, the corners of his mouth turning up into something that might be a real smile. Martin hopes he gets to see it again, as many times as Jon will allow.

Martin laughs at that. “I was going to go down the street to that cafe with the sandwiches you like. Do you want to come?”

“Let me get my coat.” Jon looks down, frowning at the floor. “Did you track this dirt in here?”