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It Don’t Pay to Live Like That

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The archives were quiet when Martin decided it was probably safe to head home for the day. Not that he liked hanging about the institute after dark — plenty of bad memories associated with that, at this point. But it had been over thirty degrees again this afternoon, and the past month’s heat wave had made him regret choosing a flat with only a few small windows when he moved out of archival storage. At the time, he’d been thinking in terms of worms — easier to seal off if the windows were never meant to open in the first place, right? It was only after the he’d set off the smoke alarms with his cooking for the first time that he also realized that the same highly-defensible window configuration made the flat impossible to air. Meaning, come summer, it transformed into a nice, worm-resistant oven.

So he’d taken to lurking around the archives late, using the excuse of catching up on whatever Jon might need from them, or just being on hand in case Jon called from an inconvenient time zone, or … actually, at this point he could probably admit he’d spent two hours playing sudoku until his phone informed him that the temperature outside had dropped to something liveable. Jon was back, after all, and they had plans — a plan, at least, and outside the tunnels he didn’t even dare think about the other one too hard. Jon was back, was the point, so he didn’t even have that much of an excuse to keep hanging about the archives, save that it was far cooler down here in the air-con than in his heat-trap of a flat.

So what, he thought, folding his laptop into his bag. It was hardly the weirdest reason any of them had even hung around the institute after hours, including himself. It just felt a little … weak, though, hiding from something as mundane as the heat in a place that was so much worse in so many ways.

Martin started his usual last-minute check before locking up for the night, mostly from force of habit. Lights off, no dirty dishes left in the kitchenette, that sort of thing. Basira and Melanie had escaped hours ago, Tim hadn’t even put in an appearance that day, and Jon…

He frowned to himself. He hadn’t actually seen Jon since early afternoon, when he’d shut himself up in his office to record a statement. He’d been looking a bit peaky, but then again, that might’ve just been the jetlag, right? He’d only been back for a few days. Martin didn’t actually know how long that sort of thing usually lasted.

Martin checked Jon’s office and found it locked, though, with no light escaping under the edge of the door. So hopefully he wasn’t asleep at his desk with the tape still running. Nothing else for Martin to do, then, but turn out his own desk lamp and surrender himself to the muggy embrace of London in early July.

Except—

Halfway between his desk and Jon’s office was Archival Storage, Martin’s gold standard of worm-proof architecture and the quasi-official spot for on-the-clock napping. Humidity-controlled, at least in theory, which meant it was nearly air-tight as well as sound-proof.

So how could it possibly smell like an alpha in rut was standing right on the other side of the door?

Martin rubbed his nose, like maybe that was the problem. Sure, he didn’t have the most active sex life, but — no, it wasn’t just him being over-sensitive, the smell really was that strong. Maybe that was why Tim hadn’t come in? No, it was too fresh for that, and anyway surely Martin would’ve noticed it before now if it had been there since yesterday. Melanie, maybe, but she hadn’t been acting like a rut was about to come on — had she? Martin had to admit he didn’t really know her well enough to judge, and she was such a bundle of edges on a normal day…

Then again, there was another alpha who had been in today, and had definitely been acting out of sorts. And whom Martin hadn’t actually seen leave the archives.

Very carefully, almost agonizingly so, Martin turned the handle. He held his breath as he eased the door open, and tried not to inhale too much as he asked, quietly, “Jon?”

The storage room was dark, and he thought he could hear heavy breathing for a moment. Then something slammed into the door from the inside, level with Martin’s ear, making him gasp involuntarily. He registered two things, then: first, the room absolutely reeked of rut, pheromones thick enough to practically taste, to make him flush from ten feet away, almost overpowering the more familiar scents of Jon’s cigarettes and deodorant.

Second, Jon had just thrown — he looked down. A shoe. Jon had just thrown a shoe at him.

“I — I was going to ask, but...I take that to mean you’re … not … okay,” Martin stammered.

In the dark of the storage room, Jon heaved a sigh. “No,” he ground out. “I am not okay.”

That tone of voice was just … not fair, honestly. On one hand, it was exactly the kind of acidic contempt that usually sent Martin (and anyone else Jon aimed it at) into a hasty retreat. Or would have done, at least, before all of them had abruptly realized they had bigger concerns than their annual reviews.

And on the other hand, that kind of hoarse growl was the sort of thing that usually only featured in Martin’s most shameful fantasies, ever since the flashbulb realization that his fussy, exacting boss was also the most buttoned-down, tightly-wound alpha in London, and possibly the history of the world.

Martin racked his brain for a response that wouldn’t sound like something out of a terrible porno. “Um. Can I … bring you anything?” There, that was nice and non-suggestive. Right?

Jon groaned, and Martin could just make out movement in the dark of the room; he could definitely make out the familiar creaking of the cot. “A cup of tea is not exactly going to help at the moment, Martin,” Jon bit out.

“Well of course not,” Martin said indignantly. “I meant, like … medication?” Jon had to be on industrial-strength suppressants, considering how faint his scent usually was. And considering the cloud of pheromones pouring out through the crack in the door, something must’ve gone really, really wrong with them.

Jon sighed, and confirmed Martin’s train of thought. “Too late. I’ve been...sloppy about taking it on time. What with the kidnapping and time zones and…”

Right. And if alpha suppressants worked like omega birth control, once the rut properly started there was no switching it off again. Martin leaned away from the door for a minute, trying to get a breath of fresh air before he asked the next, even more embarrassing question. “Can I...is there someone I could call...?”

“No.” The cot creaked again, worrisomely. “Just leave me alone, Martin.”

And that should’ve been the perfect end to the whole awful, awkward conversation. Martin should’ve been able to respectfully bow out, scurry home, and sweat to death in the peace of his stuffy flat. Maybe have one very guilty, shame-filled wank, now that he knew what Jon’s rut smelled like. And Jon could just spend the night stewing in his own hormones in Archival Storage, until the rut ended, or...or…

Damn it. Martin pressed his forehead against the edge of the door, willing the tunnels to just open up and swallow him after he said this next bit. “You shouldn’t...actually...be alone, you know. In case of … complications.”

The tunnels did not cooperate. Jon made a sound between a groan and a growl, which sounded like it was muffled by a pillow. “I am … I’m not interested, Martin,” Jon eventually snapped.

“I didn’t — I wasn’t offering — “ He needed to take another deep breath, as all the blood in his body seemed to be settling either between his legs or in his face. “I don’t want to — to take advantage. But, um. Fever. Your temperature shouldn’t get above—”

“I know what my temperature should be,” Jon snapped again. “I know I’m at risk of seizure, aneurysm, et cetera, et cetera. Do you want me to sign a god damned waiver for you?”

“I don’t want you to end up in hospital because of your own bloody stubbornness!” Martin blurted, and then flinched. Had Jon compelled that, or was it just his natural verbal diarrhea at work? Who could even tell? “I meant—”

“I know what you meant,” Jon said, but surprisingly the fight seemed to have gone out of him; he suddenly sounded more tired than angry. After a long moment, he added, “I believe Basira’s outfitted us with a much more substantial first-aid kit than we used to keep.”

Martin took the hint, though he dithered a bit about whether or not to shut the door for the thirty or so seconds it would take to fetch the first aid kit. Which, true to Jon’s comment, had grown to include far more than just the sticking plasters and packets of aspirin that Martin remembered keeping in there. (Where did you even buy scalpels if you weren’t the NHS? Did Melanie know about this?) He poked around gingerly until he found a digital thermometer, and a packet of disposable covers for it. No reason to be unsanitary, after all.

He brought the thermometer back to the storage room, where the door had not stayed propped despite his best, fumbling efforts. He knocked, just to be polite, before opening it again. “I’ve — er — I’m going to have to turn on the lights.” He took Jon’s vague grunt as permission.

Jon was loosely curled up on his side on the cot, arms folded tight across his chest. Most of his clothes had migrated into a pile underneath it, except for the shoe he’d thrown earlier; he was wearing just some threadbare boxers and a t-shirt that was already saturated with sweat. He’d also shed his glasses, which somehow made him look more vulnerable than his state of undress did. It might’ve been sort of cute, if not for the thick scent of arousal in the air. Inside the enclosed space, there was no way to escape it, or the way Martin’s own body reacted on a purely biochemical level.

Martin pressed the start button on the digital thermometer and held it out at arm’s length. Jon snatched it and shoved it into his mouth with a look of furious determination that would’ve been hilarious under any other circumstances. “Don’t — you’re not supposed to bite it,” Martin said, only to have Jon glare at him. Right. Jon must’ve taken his own temperature at some point.

For several seconds, Jon lay on his cot, and Martin kept his distance. It was … not the most awkward pause of Martin’s life, but Christ, it was probably in the top five. He folded his arms across his chest for the lack of anything to do with his hands, realized he was mirroring Jon’s posture, and unfolded them again, which left with with the same problem—

The thermometer beeped. Jon peered at it. “Thirty-eight point two. Not dangerous.”

“Not great, either,” Martin said, even though he should really just should’ve left already, just stopped trying to insert himself where he so very clearly wasn’t wanted. “You should — I’m sure Basira’s got paracetamol in that thing, she’s got half an A&E in there, I think.”

“Apparently Daisy isn’t overly fond of hospitals,” Jon said. He offered Martin the thermometer, which made it very obvious how much his hands were shaking. “Taking something shouldn’t hurt, at least.”

So that gave Martin an excuse to flee the storage room once again and dig up a blister pack of paracetamol from Basira’s substitute hospital box. He also broke into the pallet of bottled waters he’d hidden away before Prentiss, back when he’d rather stupidly thought that a siege of the building was the worst she could do to them. Lucky thing he’d never bothered to get rid of them.

Jon had propped himself upright by the time Martin got back, though all the hunching over in the world couldn’t hide the very (very!) obvious tent in his pants. Martin did his best not to look at it while also not looking like he wasn’t looking at it; he doubted he was very successful. “Thank you,” Jon said in that unfairly gravely voice as he took the tablets. He tried to take a water with his other hand, but it was shaking so badly that he could barely grip it; Martin, unthinkingly, folded his free hand around Jon’s to steady it.

Jon’s eyes went wide, and he inhaled with a hiss. Oh, Martin thought, a little deliriously, and then his capacity for rational thought returned and he actually said, “Oh!” and pulled his hands away. Fortunately for both of them, the bottle didn’t fall to the floor. “Erm. Sorry.”

“Fine,” Jon croaked, which could’ve meant just about anything, and then he started drinking the water as fast as he could..

Martin made himself wait until he was done, and then took the half-empty bottle and set it aside. “Okay,” he said, which seemed like a nice, businesslike way to start a sentence, but then he didn’t have anything to follow it up with. He tried again. “Okay.”

“You don’t,” Jon said, then swallowed. “You don’t have to stay, Martin. I’ll...I’ll manage.”

The fact that he sounded so miserable about the prospect made something in Martin twist — something above groin-level, even. “You don’t have to manage it by yourself, though,” he said, then, “I mean--god, sorry, I know what that sounded like, I’m not, I’m trying to seduce you, I swear.”

“I certainly hope not, because you might actually be worse at it than I am,” Jon muttered.

Martin … had no idea how to interpret that. “Was…” he asked cautiously, “was that a joke?”

Jon’s shoulders hunched up even more somehow, and he pulled his knobby knees into his chest. “A self-deprecating one, I suppose.”

Okay. So Jon did make jokes. So Jon… “Are you trying to say you…?”

“I’m. Not. Interested.” Jon pressed his face into his legs. “In anyone. Ever. Full stop.”

Oh. Oh! “Oh?” Martin said, frantically trying to rebuild his mental model of Jonathan Sims for the third time in half an hour. “Not even...I mean, the rut’s just…”

“Annoying as shit,” Jon finished emphatically, “but not providing any convenient exceptions to my usual orientation, no.”

So now was probably a good time for Martin crawl off into a hole and die of shame. “I’m sorry,” he blurted, gathering the cup and the thermometer. “I’m such an idiot, I’m probably just making it worse, aren’t I, just by being here—”

“Stop that,” Jon sighed. “You’re not...I appreciate that you....that you’re concerned.” A very noticeable shiver passing through him, and he added, very quietly, “You’re not making it worse.”

For the first time all evening, Martin’s brain-to-mouth filter functioned the way it was supposed to, and he paused to pick at what exactly Jon meant by that. He’d never really considered how asexuality would intersect with the biochemical baggage of being an alpha or an omega, what it would even mean to have all the urgency of a heat without anywhere to focus it. But if it wasn’t directed towards a particular, well, end — if it was just hormones and neurotransmitters, reactions and responses, molecules snapping together ...

“Can I,” Martin asked, paused, reconsidered. If he was as vague as humanly possible, then Jon had plenty of room to say no. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Jon shut his eyes, and the pause before he answered was an actual contender for the most awkward ever.. “I don’t want to impose on you,” he said, which wasn’t a no but also wasn’t anything else, either.

“Jon, I’m offering—” Martin didn’t actually know what he was offering, if Jon wouldn’t bloody ask for it. He looked at the tight, miserable line of Jon’s shoulders, the way he clung to himself like he might fly apart otherwise. “Would it … can I hug you?”

He would’ve known the answer without words: Jon twitched, rocking ever so slightly in Martin’s direction and then immediately away. But he waited until Jon actually said, “I would … yes, that would be helpful,” before taking a seat next to him on the cot. It creaked and groaned, clearly not meant to support the combined weight of two adults, but when it didn’t outright collapse Martin put an arm around Jon’s back and urged him a bit closer.

Jon awkwardly scooted over, and then he … he melted. Martin really couldn’t describe it any other way. The very instant his back made contact with Martin’s front, he let out a small, low sound of relief, and gradually he let more and more of his weight go until he was lying nearly flat against him, his head tucked into Martin’s shoulder. Martin didn’t quite know what to do with his hands — the one that was holding Jon upright ended up splayed across his chest, and god, it was unnerving just how easily Martin could feel the contours of his ribs. He used his other arm to brace himself in a half-reclined position, taking some of Jon’s weight so he didn’t just slide off onto the floor.

“You know,” Jon said after a while, works sounding thick, almost slurred. Like the mere proximity of another person was literally intoxicating. “I can’t actually remember the last time someone touched me without the intent to harm me?”

Martin swallowed. “That’s...not a good thing, Jon.”

“No,” he agreed, and then showed his first initiative of the whole night by reaching across Martin’s chest to grab his free hand, weaving their fingers together. “Not exactly normal for an archiving job.”

Martin tried to remind himself that this wasn’t really personal; Jon would probably be reacting the same way to any omega at the moment, any source of the right chemical signals to take the edge off the rut. And this was not the time to let his own tangle of emotions around Jon and the Institute get even more tangled with hormones. This was...he was performing first aid, here, because Jon was medically impaired. This shouldn’t be any more emotionally significant than performing CPR.

And if Martin kept telling himself that, he might actually believe it.

“Is this okay?” Jon asked after a significant delay, as if he’d just noticed that they were pushing the boundaries of the term hug rather severely.

Martin calculated the odds that he would ever get this close to Jon again for the rest of his life, versus the likelihood that he would die of embarrassment and blue balls if this kept up. He tried not to let the little tremors that still ran up Jon’s body periodically tip the scales too far. “It’s fine,” he declared, deciding it as he said it. “But can we—turn, a bit? Just so I’ve got something to lean on…”

The cot squealed and threatened to flip over entirely, but they eventually settled into a slightly better position, for certain values of better. Martin ended up wedged into the corner against a stack of boxes, only half-sitting, and with Jon basically draped over him from the waist up. (From the waist down, well, they each had their own problems there.) On one hand, there was no way for him to get up now without Jon’s active cooperation; on the other, well. Jon was heavy and sweaty and mostly made up of bumps and angles, but he was also utterly relaxed in Martin’s arms, possibly the most relaxed Martin had ever seen him. It was ridiculously endearing, in a way that was entirely orthogonal to the pervasive smell of his rut. Cute, even — not that he would ever say so where Jon might hear it.

Then again, that might not be a problem because — Martin realized with a sudden stab of alarm — Jon had fallen asleep.

“Jon?” Martin prompted quietly, because … surely this couldn’t be happening. The only response was a slightly raspy inhalation that might’ve been on the verge of a proper snore. Carefully, he shifted one arm enough to feel Jon’s forehead, which was still flushed from the fever; it didn’t seem dangerously warm, but without using the thermometer he couldn’t actually check.

Maybe Jon was just that exhausted; he certainly looked it. Maybe he’d finally crawled out of the black hole of paranoia had been eating at him for so long, or maybe now that they knew about the actual monsters, Martin no longer rated concern. Maybe he was just close to a warm body that didn’t want to hurt him, giving off the right pheromones to signal mate and safe and yours regardless of whether those were strictly true.

(Well, one of them was — two, if Martin was being honest with himself — but that wasn’t the point.)

He realized he’d gone from checking Jon’s temperature to brushing the sweaty curls of hair off his forehead, and quickly put his hand back into neutral territory. Jon stirred again without fully waking, turning his face to one side so that his nose was almost touching Martin’s neck. So Martin could feel each warm exhalation against his skin.

Under any other circumstances that would’ve been enough to send a shiver down Martin’s spine. Under present circumstances, when he’d been wet and half-hard basically since opening the door…. Either Jon needed to move or Martin needed some kind of distraction, immediately, before he exploded from unresolved sexual tension.

He reached blindly into the boxes behind him with the arm that wasn’t pinned under Jon, and came up with some old case files and a tattered paperback about the history of Scandinavian witchcraft trials. It was at least fifty years old, full of untranslated Swedish, and probably not a Leitner, so. Perfect.

Martin propped the book open against one knee, and let Jon sleep.

XXX

He wasn’t sure when he himself dozed off; with the light still on in the windowless room, there was no way to gauge the passage of time. Martin blinked, disorientated, and realized that at some point he had shifted until he was properly stretched out on the cot, and also basically spooning Jon from behind. Who knew where the Swedish witch book had got off to.

Jon was still looking a bit flushed, but he was no longer radiating heat like a person-shaped furnace, so presumably his fever was down. He had also gotten a death grip on Martin’s arm, the one that was wrapped around his chest from below. Even without that, Martin was pinned between Jon and the wall; there was no way to escape the cot without disturbing him.

He should probably have disturbed him, woken him up and made his apologies and left for the night. It would be the respectful thing to do, he thought. A lot of awkwardness up front, sure, but less awkwardness overall later. Keep the whole thing in the domain of a casual, if slightly too personal, interaction between coworkers. Probably. Somehow.

What Martin did instead, because he was only human, was toe off his shoes and use one foot to snag the blanket from the bottom of the cot. He pulled it up over their shoulders — Jon’s shoulder, at least — Martin had never really processed before that Jon was shorter than him. He’d always seemed bigger than he really was, through sheer force of personality. Jon huffed a bit when the blanket fell over him, but showed zero signs of waking.

Martin let his head fall back to the cotton canvas of the cot, his nose just brushing the cropped hair on the back of Jon’s head. They were going to have to fumigate the whole room later, to clear the smells of him and Jon and rut, but for now it had passed the point of arousing him and mellowed into something both comfortable and comforting. He smoothed the blanket over Jon’s flank, and let his eyes fall shut again.

The second time he woke up, Jon was gone, and the door had been propped open. Martin emerged into the archives proper to find all the lights on; his phone, which he’d left on his desk, cheerily informed him that it was ten past five in the morning. He assumed the sounds coming from the kitchenette were Jon-related, and he decided, with only a bit of guilt, to pre-emptively text Daisy.

Can you come pick Jon up at the Institute? He

(Here Martin dithered as to how much detail to include. Daisy was, as far as he’d been able to tell, a beta, but there was also no doubt in his mind that she’d be able to smell Jon’s rut on him because Daisy was just … like that. )

slept here again and he’s feeling poorly.

There. Technically accurate without being invasive.

He waited until Daisy texted him back a thumbs-up — why waste time with words when there were emoji, after all — and then there was no reason not to poke his head into the kitchenette and face Jon himself. Amazing how awkward a morning-after could be when the night before hadn’t even involved sex.

Jon was mostly dressed, though his shirt was only buttoned halfway. He was brushing his teeth in the kitchenette sink with a look of grim determination utterly unsuited to the task. When he saw Martin slinking in, he straightened up abruptly and shoved half the toothbrush into his mouth as if that would stave off the conversation.

“How do you feel?” Martin asked, because that seemed the safest gambit.

Jon spit out a mouthful of foam. “Better. I think that … I think the worst is over, now.”

Martin nodded, and tried to casually lean against the wall. He wasn’t feeling very casual. “You should, erm. Should still probably rest.”

“I’m fine.” There was moment when their eyes met in the mirror, and then Jon looked away, skittish as anything. “We still have a lot to do here, and I—I’m fine.”

“At least clean yourself up,” Martin said. “In a proper bathroom, I mean. Isn’t that one of the rules for living in the archives?”

“I’m not—” Jon glared at him, which would’ve been more effective if he’d been willing to make proper eye contact, and if he hadn’t had a blob of toothpaste clinging to his lower lip. “I’m simply waiting until the cleaners have been through.”

If Jon was being this stubborn, there was no choice but to play his last card. “I already called Daisy to drive you home. She’s on her way.”

The look on Jon’s face was equal parts indignant and betrayed, and might’ve been funny under other circumstances. He didn’t say anything, though, just went back to his overly-aggressive dental hygiene as if Martin wasn’t even there.

Martin went back to his own desk, and started to get his laptop out. He’d have to go home as well, of course, at least to change clothes, but he could wait until he’d actually seen Jon out the door to do that. Besides, he wasn’t sure if the Victoria Line was even running yet this early in the morning…

“Come on, then,” Jon said crisply, startling Martin out of a half-doze. “Daisy’s waiting for us outside.”

“Us?” Martin said stupidly.

“It’s not too far out of the way to drop you off as well.” Jon had buttoned his shirt properly, but his tie was dangling out of his breast pocket. He still wasn’t making eye contact with Martin, but one hand drummed nervously along the top edge of his laptop bag.

Martin cringed a bit at the thought of Daisy seeing him — smelling him — like this, and the obvious conclusion she’d draw if both of them turned up together. “I was just going to take the Tube,” he mumbled.

“I...would prefer if you didn’t.”

He’d expected Jon to retreat, to go off and hide, since that seemed to be his usual response to anything he couldn’t verbally eviscerate on the spot. The thought that Jon might be going pushy-possessive alpha on him instead was…Martin had no idea what to think of that. Or rather, he had several contradictory feelings about that, and no time to explore them. “It’s really not a big deal,” he tried again, even as he started gathering his things.

“Martin.” Jon’s voice went low and strained, as though forcing the words out cost him something. “You smell like me. And there are … a lot of things that want to hurt the Archivist right now. I don’t want you to become more of a target than you already are.”

“Oh.” Of course. Martin swallowed, caught between the intensity in Jon’s voice and the reminder that this wasn’t really personal. Jon would be showing the same concern for anyone he might’ve exposed to the scrutiny of the circus. It didn’t mean... it was just Jon being cautious and their lives being weird and horrible. “Okay.”

Daisy smirked a little at them when they climbed in the back seat, exactly as Martin feared she would, but she didn’t say anything as she drove through the early morning shadows. Jon must’ve texted her Martin’s address, because she rolled right up to his building without having to ask him anything. “I’ll, erm, see you later,” Martin said he got out, and then mentally kicked himself for the banality of it — but before he could correct, before Jon could even respond, Daisy had reached back to pull the door shut.

Martin spent a long time in the shower, scrubbing every inch of his body even though he hadn’t— they had barely even touched, really, and almost none of that had been skin contact. He left his hair wet while he dressed, and stuffed yesterday’s clothes to the bottom of the hamper so he wouldn’t have to smell Jon around his flat until the next time he did laundry. So no monsters might smell Jon’s presence here and try to use Martin against him.

There were two texts on his phone when he picked it up again. One from Daisy: He’s staying home. Get your own ride back. Which, yeah, that was probably wiser than having Jon around the archives all day, even with the peak of the rut past. The lingering scents on their own would be bad enough, though with any luck the cleaners would be through before anyone else came in, and the air-con would help disperse the worst of it...

The other text was from Jon, and Martin hesitated to open it. Maybe it would be wiser to just put the whole thing out of his mind, forget it even happened…then again, Jon texted once in a blue moon, so it might be important…

It was just three words, though. I trust you.

Martin sat on the edge of his bed, starting the message, trying to parse it and coming up utterly blank. It...was not the sort of message he would’ve expected. Maybe it was just a non-sequitur? Maybe he shouldn’t read too much into it. Maybe Jon was hinting that he wanted to keep this a secret, like Martin would ever in a million years tell anyone he’d spent the night snuggling his boss through a rut in the cupboard...

And maybe Martin was going to be late if he spent too much time obsessing over it.

He stuffed his phone in his bag, and headed out the door. The heat was finally supposed to break today, and if they were lucky, there might even be rain.