It started with the statements, with—
No. Of course it didn't start then; it started much earlier than that, when Martin heard about a new research assistant personally hired by Elias. It started, probably, when Martin was a lonely teenager gobbling up charity-shop romance novels, the sappier and sillier the better, and imagining what it would be like to have a soulmate. Someone who knew him perfectly, who loved unconditionally, who would never, ever leave. Someone whose heart beat in time with Martin's own.
It started when he met the new guy, Simm or Singh or something, and his heart jolted painfully in his chest.
He hadn't been sure, at first; what was he supposed to do, ask a near-stranger if he could take his pulse? There were tests for it, a whole thing where the NHS gave you a piece of paper — but that wasn't exactly a fun first date activity. And speaking of dates, that probably needed to happen at some point, right? Before worrying about any kind of metaphysical bonds?
The problem was, Jonathan Sims was a stranger, even if his heart had also skipped a beat. The problem was that Martin was, on his best days, a mob of anxieties in the general shape of a person, and Jonathan Sims was—
"Can I help you?"
Martin jolted back to attention and realized that, yet again, his attention had wandered and his eyes had found Jonathan from across the researcher assistants' bullpen. Now Jonathan was standing at his desk, glowering down at him like something he'd found on the bottom of his shoe. "Sorry," Martin muttered, and desperately searched the clutter of his desk for something to distract himself with. "I — I mean no."
"If you need something to occupy your time, you might consider doing your job," Jonathan said acidly. "Unless that's too difficult, in which case I'm sure they'd appreciate your help in Artefact Storage."
Martin blurted out the only thing he could think of, which was, "No, I'm — I'm fine!"
Jonathan sighed, and stalked away, mumbling something under his breath that sounded a lot like idiot. If his heart was pounding in time with Martin's, he certainly didn't show it.
Martin watched him go, guiltily, and tried not to despair. The problem was that Jonathan Sims was brilliant and driven and fastidious, and Martin was pretty certain by now that he hated him.
Nina, who had the desk over from Martin and had watched the whole exchange, made an exaggerated sympathetic noise. "It's fine," Martin told her, because of course it was. Because soulmates were for films and novels, not real life, and he should be focusing on his work instead of mooning over a person who didn't even like him, who might not even be gay. They probably weren't even soulmates, really; Martin had probably just imagined it.
Except there were … incidents.
It was a stupid way of thinking about it, Martin told himself, because it made them sound like something out of a statement. But he didn't know what else to call it when his heart started pounding out of the blue. It didn't happen often: maybe once or twice a month that he really noticed, if that. A jolt while he was getting ready for work, or a sudden hammering while he was watching Netflix in bed, or digging through an old filing cabinet in some rural council's records room. Sometimes he could ignore it, or write it off as something else, like a panic attack. And they happened so rarely he could almost — almost — ignore them altogether.
After six months, though, he made an appointment with his GP, just to be safe. She ordered a few tests and then asked slyly him if he'd met anyone special recently. Martin blushed and stammered, even though he was technically telling the truth.
All of the tests came back normal. Of course they did.
After six months Jonathan — Jon — had already been promoted to full researcher and moved out of the bullpen. After two years, he was a senior researcher with a private office, despite (or perhaps because) of his reputation as the most aggressive skeptic in the Institute. Martin, who had not been promoted for the entire time he'd worked there, spent the same period time trying unsuccessfully to flirt with him.
Well, maybe not flirt flirt. Was friendship-flirting a thing? At least Martin wanted to atone for the terrible early impression Jon had of him, with the staring and the stammering. (That moment they met, when Martin had gone a bit wall-eyed while his heart skipped a beat.) At barest minimum, he was trying to raise the tenor of their interactions to something better than outright hostility.
And if he could get close enough to ask a few personal questions, to find out if those occasional moments of pulse-pounding something were really their two hearts beating in time…
Unfortunately, Jon only ever seemed to have one of two reactions to any of Martin's overtures, which were suspicion or contempt. Take a certain October morning, when the sky was already low and threatening as Martin descended into the Stockwell Tube station. By the time he emerged at Pimlico the rain was gushing down, and he had to wrestle his tiny collapsing umbrella out of his bag and fumble it open, then huddle under its meager protection as he waded through the morning-rush crowds. So it took him a moment to realize that the pounding in his chest was more than his own frustration — that his breath was coming short like he'd run up a flight of stairs, instead of just walking briskly along a city street.
He stopped in the Institute's foyer, partly to wrangle his umbrella back into its compact form, partly to try to calm himself. Which meant he was there to see Jon come stalking in a few moments behind him, no umbrella in sight and dripping rain from his glasses and the tip of his nose. Jon didn't look like his own heart was racing unnecessarily, but then again, he mostly looked like a half-drowned cat, so Martin wasn't really sure he could judge.
With a sudden surge of boldness — possibly combined with a breathtaking lack of common sense — Martin managed to slide onto the lift next to Jon just before the doors closed. "Morning," he offered, brightly, no longer certain if the fluttering against his ribs was his own fault or someone else's.
Jon gave him a jaundiced look; his glasses were starting to fog up. "It is one, yes."
Ouch. Martin fiddled with his umbrella and tried to rally himself. "Rough commute, then?"
"I've had better," Jon bit out.
The doors of the lift opened, and a thought crossed Martin's mind; he had no time to consider whether it was a particularly good thought, however, as Jon was already stepping through them. He held out his umbrella, managing in his haste to smack Jon's arm with it; at least Jon was already so thoroughly soaked that Martin couldn't make it worse. "Here," he blurted, as Jon jumped away from him. "For, erm, for later?"
Jon looked at the umbrella, then looked at Martin like he suspected this was some sort of prank. The doors began to close around him and Martin threw out a hand to stop them, willing Jon to say something, even if it was something awful, instead of just staring at him like he'd lost his mind. "In case it's still raining later?" Martin prompted. "Since, er, since you don't...have...one…?"
"Thank you," Jon finally said, far too loudly, as the lift began to beep in protest. "But that won't be necessary." He turned and marched stiffly towards his office, leaving a trail of wet footprints on the parquet floor. Martin was left holding out a drippy umbrella until the doors of the lift attempted to close on him again.
It was better than being insulted, sure, but not by much.
Four years on, and Jon was promoted to Head Archivist, which did strain credulity even in light of his previous achievements. "Who do you think he blew to get that?" asked Tim, who'd only recently been promoted to researcher himself and kept hanging around the bullpen to gossip.
"Don't be crude," Martin scolded, and not because the resulting mental image was at all a problem for him.
"It's been ages since Gertrude left," Preethi pointed out. "They had to fill the job eventually."
"Not like she ever did anything while she was here…" Tim frowned. "Wait a minute. If there's been no archivist since March, what the hell's been happening to all the closed case files we send down there…?"
Martin shrugged; he vaguely remembered Gertrude having an assistant at one point, but that had been years ago, and if there had been anybody else recently he couldn't imagine them not getting the head position. Then a horrible thought occurred to him. "Were we — we weren't supposed to file them ourselves, were we?"
Tim gave him an underwhelmed look. "If we were, then who needs an archivist?"
"It's a punishment," Preethi said in awe. "Sims finally called the wrong person a credulous idiot and he's being exiled to the archives before he kills again."
"Couldn't happen to a nicer person," Tim said, bone dry, then rolled his eyes at Martin's disapproving expression. "Oh, come on, you know how he gets…."
"I know, just—" But Martin couldn't think of anything to say except I sort of like him anyway? He wasn't sure if he'd just become desensitized to Jon's personality or if he'd actually softened somewhat. (Or perhaps, he thought in stolen, guilty moments, maybe Jon had only softened towards him, turning outright cruelty to a sort of resigned tolerance. That was progress, wasn't it?)
He finished with, "No reason to be unprofessional about it," which made Tim snort into his coffee.
Then again, Tim was the one who went out to lunch with Jon a few days later, while Martin ate half a cheese sandwich at his desk and tried to ignore his oddly juddering heart. If he was a bit short-tempered the rest of the day, well, he could blame low blood sugar or something.
It was nearly a week after the big announcement that Elias Bouchard called Martin into his office; or rather, the appointment materialized on his calendar without him noticing, and Martin scrambled in five minutes late. "Sorry," he gasped, hovering awkwardly at the door. "Sorry, I, er—"
"Quite all right, Martin," Elias said graciously. He glanced up from the papers he was filing and gave a bland, perfunctory-looking smile. "Come in, have a seat."
Martin sat, thought he was unable to bring himself to get overly comfortable in the chair before Elias's desk. The last time he'd sat here had been his interview before being hired, and he'd escaped that feeling lucky to have fooled the other man for as long as he had.
"You...wanted to see me about...something?" Martin hazarded, when it seemed like Elias wasn't going to speak.
"Obviously," Elias said — not like Jon would say it, with exasperation and contempt, but in a dry, amused way like he found Martin's tongue-tied stammering entertaining rather than obnoxious. He produced a folder from his inbox and began to glance over it. "You've been with us for … goodness, it must be nearly ten years now, haven't you? And in all that time you've never quite managed to achieve a promotion from research assistant."
Martin felt his face going bright red, and he groped for words. "I, er, I like the bullpen, actually. I mean, I get to work on a lot of different projects, and I don't mind the, erm, the time-consuming stuff — it's sort of soothing, actually, being able to focus on just one specific thing and—"
"Yes," Elias said, just when Martin was beginning to fear he'd run out of air. He flipped through a few pages in the file. "Your last three reviews have all mentioned that your work, while not particularly ... inspired, is nevertheless exceedingly thorough. A quality we perhaps fail to appreciate as much as we really should."
"Th-thank you?" Martin guessed.
Another thin, meaningless smile. "I'm afraid that, at our current funding levels, we won't have another opening for a full researcher this fiscal year. But there is a current opening at the same pay grade, if you're willing to transfer…?"
"Transfer...where?" As much as a pay rise would help — and it would help a lot — he also wouldn't transfer to Artefact Storage for, well, anything. He'd heard the rumors, and in a couple of cases, seen the scars.
"The board has approved a budget for more staff in the archives," Elias explained, and Martin's heart — already racing from nerves — did something funny in his chest. "The new Head Archivist is interested in taking things in a new direction down there, and many hands make light work. It would be a rather substantial departure from your current duties—"
"Yes," Martin blurted, and then he wondered if it was actually possible to die from blushing too much. Was there any blood in his body that wasn't in his face? "I — I mean, I, that sounds great. Great! I'd love to transfer."
"I had hoped as much." For a moment, Elias's smile turned genuine, and did Martin dare hope that was approval in his voice? He passed over a sheet of paper from the folder in his hands — a contract, not too terribly different to the one Martin had signed when he was hired, though the numbers in the gross compensation box were higher by a nice margin. "If you'll sign here, please, I'll get this over to HR for you, and let Jonathan know about his newest direct report."
Martin almost botched his own name when those words actually set in for him. "Jon...doesn't know?" he asked warily.
"I don't think he's heard about the final budget numbers," Elias said; his expression was inscrutable. "So I took it upon myself to fill the last remaining open position."
Oh. Martin supposed it was foolish to have hoped that Jon would suddenly volunteer to work with him. At the same time, he couldn't imagine Jon taking well to surprises of any sort…
"Problem, Martin?" Elias prompted.
On the other hand, maybe this was finally a chance to improve on his bad first (and, well, all subsequent) impression.
"No," he said quickly, and finished his signature. "No, nothing at all."
What could possibly go wrong?
Many things, as it turned out. Many things could go wrong, and most of them did.
Martin was trying, was the thing. He was trying harder at his job than he had in years, if not to impress Jon then at least to prove he wasn't an utter waste of oxygen and payroll. (That was a direct quote, though it was a couple of years ago and he wasn't sure Jon ever knew he'd heard him.) He'd never been ambitious — couldn't afford to be, given how he'd got hired in the first place, because if anyone scrutinized his CV for long enough they'd see through it. But if ever he'd wanted to exceed expectations, it was now, when he and Jon were working out of each other's pockets in the dusty warren of the archives.
(The dog, in hindsight, had been a bad idea, but he was making the effort. He was.)
Jon, at least, hadn't returned to the direct insults he'd favored when they first met. Maybe he felt it wasn't the proper way to treat a subordinate. (Oh, Christ, Jon was Martin's boss now, that definitely made this weird, didn't it?) But that didn't stop him shouting, or snapping, or sighing deeply and rubbing the bridge of his nose like he despaired for all humanity whenever Martin failed to live up to his exacting standards.
If his heart was racing in time with Martin's in these moments, he certainly never let on. If there was a pattern to the times Martin's heart thundered out of turn, it wasn't obvious.
Martin just tried harder, and hoped that somehow, at some point, he'd finally find a way to impress him. A man had to have dreams, after all.
This chapter contains passages quoted directly from "Anglerfish" and "A Father's Love."
So. The statements.
Jon's grand design of digitizing and indexing the entire archive quickly degenerated into "achieving some bare minimum of consistency from one file to the next, if that's not too much to ask." Some of the files included full audio, a transcript and detailed follow-up research; most of them contained nothing but the statement itself, which if they were lucky was legible and coherent enough for following up on.
As much as Tim grumped about "pointless busywork," Jon was adamant that they did need to follow up on every one of them, and make transcriptions for the ones that had been recorded directly. They were also to make recordings of any statement without accompanying audio; when anyone asked Jon the point of that, he muttered vaguely about standards and Elias and the Equality Act, and then changed the subject.
A lot of the recording was foisted off on Martin, initially. He assumed that, however low an opinion Jon had of his research abilities, he recognized that he was capable of reading aloud. That lasted right up until Martin opened Statement #0122204 and began reading about Nathan Watts and his problems in Edinburgh.
"'I picked myself up as best I could, checked I hadn’t seriously injured myself, no broken bones or anything, and decided to roll a cigarette to calm myself.'" Martin read into the USB microphone. On one hand, this was better prose that most of their statements, which made it easier to read. On the other hand, it being better-written also made it far more creepy; he almost felt like he was there, walking the streets of Edinburgh himself. "'That was when I heard it. "Can I—"' Shit!"
A sudden squeal of feedback from his headphones made him drop the file, the unstapled pages flying every direction. He hastily paused the recording so he could collect the statement and put it back in order (and knock his head into the underside of his own desk in the process). Then he checked the microphone's connection to his laptop and the settings in Audacity — not that he'd done anything different from any of the other recordings he'd done. He tried playing back a few seconds of audio, to see if he could figure out what had caused the feedback.
The whole recording was a soup of digital static.
"Sasha?" Martin called across the office. "Could you — er — d'you have a minute?"
(He asked Sasha for help for three reasons. One, she was very good with computers — it might've even been her degree, he wasn't sure he'd ever asked. Two, she was just nice, and would answer Martin's stupid questions without Jon's irritation or Tim's teasing. And three, Jon seemed to like her best out of the three of them, so if there was an actual problem she was probably the best one to break it to him. Martin wasn't even jealous of her. Much.)
She took her own ear buds out and turned her chair around. "Hmm? What's wrong?"
Martin waved at his laptop. "I'm, er, having a bit of computer trouble."
"I'm not the IT department," she said, but she still came over and checked all the same settings that Martin had, plus something to do with the sound card. Then she bit her lip. "Everything looks normal."
"Doesn't sound normal, though."
"I wonder what happens if I do this…"
Three hours later they hadn't finished recording Nathan Watt's statement, but Sasha had rebooted Martin's computer twice and done something to the microphone that she said probably voided the warranty. "We tried it on my computer, too, and Tim's Mac," she told Jon, when they brought the problem to him. "I wanted to try one of the library computers, but Diana won't let me."
"And you're suggesting, what?" Jon asked acridly. "Statement 0122204 is haunted?"
Sasha bit her lip and looked at Martin. Martin looked at her, and braced himself. "We haven't had trouble recording anything else with the same set-up…"
Jon rolled his eyes (and gave no sign if his heart was pounding). "They're words, Martin. A story about an encounter with a homeless person distorted by alcohol and an over-active imagination. There's nothing here."
"Actually," Sasha piped up, "I looked into the police records for the missing student Watts mentions, John Fellowes? And it turns out he wasn't the only person to disappear near Old Fishmarket Close around that time."
For a moment, Jon paused, as if actually considering this, which was frankly probably proof of Sasha's superpowers. "There are such things as coincidences, you know," he ultimately blustered, though. "Leave the statement here, Martin, I'll get it sorted. It's not as if I have anything else meaningful to do, after all."
Martin cringed, and slunk out of the office. Sasha followed him — it was her office, too, of course, but she followed him all the way to his desk and gave him a sympathetic squeeze on the arm. "Cheer up, Martin. I don't think he means to be that harsh. He just needs to loosen up a bit."
Martin snorted. Part of him wasn't sure it was actually possible for Jon to be anything but a relentless, type-A terror. But there was still a part of him that wondered just what a relaxed Jon Sims would look like, and what it would take to get him to relax, and whether Martin could be the person to do it…
Yeah. Soulmates or no soulmates, Martin had a problem.
Weeks later, Martin was writing a letter to his mother. He liked letters: they were calming, they had a nice tactile quality, and he could pretend she was reading them even if she didn't respond. He tried to send one a week, to make up for the phone calls she wouldn't take, though as of late he'd mainly been complaining about Jon, and that was starting to bore even him.
He was trying to come up with something to write besides it's not fair that he is both cute and mean when he felt his pulse flutter in his chest. Another Incident. Jon had still been at his desk when Martin left work, fussing over the Watts statement: he'd had to admit that he couldn't record the file either, and was now fixated on it like a dog on a scent. (Two more statements hadn't recorded on Martin's laptop, and Jon had accepted these with nary an insult.) Surely Jon wouldn't be getting palpitations from a story he didn't even believe in. Surely it was someone else's heart that Martin's was beating with. Or maybe he was just having a heart attack.
He put down his pen and took deep breaths. Calm thoughts. The problem was that he really didn't know what made their hearts beat out of time — anger, fear, excitement? Was someone, somewhere, jerking off? He could try to calm himself, calm them, but it didn't always work, and when it did he worried that perhaps he'd stolen some positive feeling rather than soothing a negative one.
(He wondered if J— if whoever was on the other end of this connection ever bothered trying to soothe him.)
It didn't work this time; his pulse stayed high and thready, and after a few minutes the rest of his body decided that meant the rest of the fight-or-flight reflex ought to kick in. Martin groaned and threw himself onto his bed, pressing his knuckles to his sternum. "What are you even doing," he asked the ceiling, which of course didn't respond.
The first wave wore off after ten or fifteen minutes, and Martin was able to wrap up the letter — a short one — and change into his sleepwear. The rest of the night, though, his heart kept kicking up unexpectedly, and it was a long time before he got any proper sleep.
In the morning, Jon looked like shit, but he brandished a hand-held cassette recorder at them like a trophy. "I've worked it out," he declared. "Tape works perfectly. We can resume recording the backlog."
"Tape?" Tim echoed. "What's next, stone knives and bearskins?"
"What's the difference between a laptop and a cassette tape?" Sasha asked, looking thoughtful. "Why would that even matter?"
Jon waved the question away. "Whatever the reason may be, we can get back on track with sorting through Gertrude's files. No more delays."
"For now," Tim muttered into his coffee.
Martin found the idea of working with cassettes oddly charming; he'd always like the warmth of them. "D'you want me to go back and do the others I gave you?" he asked Jon. "The bin men and—"
"No," Jon said swiftly. Then he cleared his throat. "That is. This is the only tape recorder we have, at the moment, so I'll take personal responsibility for any statements that don't record digitally from now on."
Martin frowned, and if he'd been less tired he might've ignored the implication that he couldn't be trusted to operate a tape player that was probably older than he was. But fatigue had put an edge on his nerves, and he couldn't stop himself from saying, "I'm not going to — to break it."
Jon flinched slightly. And Martin's heart kicked at his chest.
"I didn't say you would," Jon muttered. "But in any case, I'd rather you kept trying to follow up with Kieran Woodward about the Lancaster Road statement."
Martin was too dumbstruck to answer as Jon flounced off to his office. Because — that. That had been proof, right? He's seen Jon's face, he knew what he'd felt. What they'd felt? That had to have been Jon's fluster making their hearts jolt in time.
"Earth to Martin," Tim said, waving a hand in his face. "Jon really will kill you if you just keep sitting there like a lump."
"Right," Martin muttered, and turned back towards his desk.
He knew now. He knew it.
Every time Jon taped one of the unrecordable statements, Martin knew, because he could feel their heartbeat like a kick-drum in his core. Which was a bit weird because, well, Jon had been recording the regular kinds of statements too without issue — unless you counted ranting loudly about how obviously fake they were to be an issue. He did that with the tape statements, too, but when he was actually taping one, their heartbeat gave him away.
But Martin didn't know what to do with the knowledge other than stew on it. It wasn't like he could get Jon alone to bring it up, not easily; in fact, Jon had started sending him out of the office as often as possible, to interview people or snoop around specific locations. Like he was trying to minimize the chance that they'd accidentally have a conversation or something. (Was he?)
And even if Martin had managed to corner him, at this point? How do you even bring something like this up after four years of suspicion? (Had Jon ever suspected?) He didn't have any friends he could go to for advice, and the Internet … well. He imagined posting about it on Reddit. I [28M] think my boss [??M] might be SM but also he hates me?
(Did Jon already know?)
There were a few properly cold days in November when Martin was glad he didn't have to go out; he got to stay in his office and make calls instead, mostly to people who'd been too stoned at the time to remember they even gave a statement. In the middle of one of those awkward calls, Martin felt their hearts start to pound again, and when he leaned back in his chair he could see Jon's office door was shut.
At least he was doing one in broad daylight this time. (Even if they didn't get much daylight in the archives.) Last week he'd waited until everyone had left the office for the evening, and Martin hadn't been able to get to sleep until well past midnight.
"I'm going to, erm, take a walk," he announced; Sasha had her ear buds in, though, and Tim was out flirting with a records clerk on the pretext of getting some police report or another. Martin headed for the canteen, for lack of any other destination, and when his hands began to tremble he stuffed them in his pockets.
What are you so afraid of? he wondered, breathing deep and slow. Or if it's not fear, what is it?
Making a cup of tea gave him something to focus on besides their racing pulse, and Martin decided he might as well make two. Jon prefered a builder's brew, no sugar, strong enough to climb up out of the mug and bite you. He drank his own cup while Jon's was still steeping, made some small talk with Hannah and Declan from the library (who asked why he looked so flushed — "You're not coming down with something, are you?")
Jon's office door was still shut when Martin got back downstairs, he could hear his voice, low and even, on the other side. On one hand, he didn't want to spoil the recording — god help them both if Jon had to start over from the top — but on the other, well, the tea was getting cold. He tested the doorknob and found it unlocked; if he was very, very careful, he could ease it open almost silently.
"'The first thing I saw when I opened that door was my father,'" Jon was saying, "'bathed in the pale blue light. I couldn’t see any source for the glow but it was so bright.'"
It was strange; his face was rapt, and he read the words with such feeling Martin could almost believe Jon had been there, had seen the whole horrible scene he was describing. The tension in his voice matched the pounding of their heart, and his fingernails were going white where he clutched the statement page too tightly.
"'In front of him lay a man I didn’t know, but he was clearly dead – his chest had been cut open and still gaped and bled feebly. In one hand my father held a wicked-looking knife, and in the other he held the man’s heart.'"
Maybe he's just a method actor, Martin thought blankly.
He listened to the final words of the statement, and then Jon paused the tape. His entire demeanor changed instantly; he shook himself a bit and then shut his eyes, and took several deep breaths, shoulders sagging. It looked, oddly, like someone waking up from a nightmare.
It also looked like a moment Martin shouldn't have been allowed to see, but apparently Jon had been too engrossed to notice him. He cleared his throat, and Jon jumped back to attention like he'd be sacked if Elias caught him slouching. "Martin! What are you doing here?"
The waspish tone didn't really work when Martin could still feel their heart racing. "Just thought I'd bring you a cup of tea," Martin said, raising the mug at him.
"Oh. Yes." Jon busied himself sorting his notes. "Recording is thirsty work, isn't it?"
Of course he wasn't going to talk about it. Of course he wouldn't open up to Martin of all people. "Right," Martin said awkwardly, and came just far enough into the room to set the mug on the corner of Jon's desk. "There you are."
"Thank you," Jon said, but he wasn't meeting Martin's eyes. As Martin slipped back out of the office, the recorder started up again, and Jon assumed a declamatory tone that made him sound like a bored professor. Or at least what Martin imagined a bored professor would sound like. He gave no sign that their hearts were still rattling against their ribs. "There’s not much more to be added here. The police reports on Robert Montauk are predictably thorough…"
It was all so weirdly normal: they picked through Gertrude Robinson's maze of cabinets and files, re-filing in chronological order as best they could determine and swelling the ranks of the Discredited section. Martin tried to put up some Christmas decorations and Jon ranted for half an hour about professional decorum. Elias came down to offer a few vacuous compliments on their progress while Tim pulled faces behind his back, and Sasha discovered a truly ancient package of biscuits in a filing cabinet and insisted on sending them to Artefact Storage "just in case."
And once every week or so, Jon would record a statement to tape and act like it didn't bother him, while Martin acted like he their hearts weren't both pounding wildly. You know, normal stuff.
Christmas fell on a Friday, so the Institute closed up early on Thursday. "Fancy a trip to the pub?" Tim asked as they packed up their jackets and laptops. "Start the holidays off right?"
"You mean drunk?" Sasha said. "Yes, please."
Martin said, "Sure," even though he suspected the only thing that could make a phone call to his mother worse was adding a Christmas morning hangover to the mix.
Tim trotted down the call to Jon's office and knocked loudly on the door. "Jon! Pub! You coming?"
Martin's heart jolted; a moment later, Jon stuck his head out, looking irate. "I am recording, thank you," he snapped, though it couldn't have been a tape recorder statement or Martin would've felt it.
Tim waved off Jon's ire. "It's Christmas Eve, boss. The spooks can wait until next year."
"Not if we want to finish organizing this place during our lifetimes," Jon shot back.
"Just one round," Tim pled. "Then you can go back to being a cave troll."
Jon sniffed at him, and with a sharp "Good afternoon, Tim," he snapped the door back shut.
Tim, undeterred, shouted "Happy Christmas, Mister Scrooge!" through the door, and spent the walk to the pub misquoting A Christmas Carol at length.
Martin tried to keep in a festive mood, but his thoughts kept going back to Jon, alone in the archives, working through the holiday. Didn't he have anyone to celebrate with? Or, well, maybe he wasn't a Christian, Martin shouldn't make assumptions. And it wasn't like Martin's holiday was shaping up to be a lot better: a likely futile call to the care home, followed by a microwaved lasagna. Still. Jon worked a lot of nights and weekends, and he was starting to develop dark circles under his eyes, and the tapes made his heart pound and his hands clench. If he hadn't made it so very clear that he didn't want Martin around him — which, honestly, was a reaction he ought to be used to by now —
"Oi, Bob Cratchett, slow down before we have to carry you out of here!"
Tim was leaning too close and speaking too loud, or possibly Martin had just gone through his pint in two swallows. He'd always been a lightweight, in spite of his size. "Sorry," he said, pushing the empty glass away from him.
"Everything okay?" Sasha asked, with a little wrinkle between her brows. Her glass was still two-thirds full. "You look like you're thinking deep thoughts over there."
Martin should've brushed it off, changed the subject, tried to lighten the mood the way Tim was obviously doing. Instead, he found himself blurting out, "Soulmates."
Tim leaned back, eyebrows raised. "Oh, well, that is profound. Put one of those on your Christmas list, did you?"
Martin snorted louder than he'd intended to. "That's not — no. Just." He dragged his finger through a ring of condensation on the tabletop. "It's supposed to be this fantasy, y'know? Soulmates and happily ever after. But in real life it's always the soulmates who … I don't know, murder each other, or who married other people, or they didn't figure it out until one of them died. In real life it always seems like a tragedy."
He was mildly surprised that, instead of just telling him to lighten up, Tim reached out and squeezed his arm in a friendly way. Sasha said "Oh, Martin," in the same tone that his teachers and neighbors used to adopt when he had to admit that his mum was in hospital again, and took his hand even though he kind of wished she wouldn't. "That's what's got you down?"
"It's stupid," he muttered, pulling his hand back. "Sorry. Didn't mean to be such a wet blanket—"
"You're not a wet blanket," Tim said, and ruffled Martin's hair. "And you realize movies and tabloids aren't exactly a representative sample, right?"
"I was actually just reading an article about the correlation between news coverage and perceived versus actual crime rates—" Sasha said, but Martin must've made a face because she quickly course-corrected. "I mean, 'Couple argues sometimes but mostly don't' — doesn't really work as clickbait, does it?"
"I know, I know," Martin said. "Just forget I said anything."
"No, no," Tim said, sliding out of the booth. "We're cheering you up. Even if Sasha has to start singing carols to do it."
"I know it's a sacrifice, Sash, but it's one I'm willing to make…"
By the time they left the pub, Martin had at least managed to push uncomfortable thoughts about Jon from his mind for a few hours, and he'd paced his drinking enough to be pleasantly buzzed, but still able to navigate a bus home. Sasha called herself a Lyft — "My present to myself this year!" — and while Tim needed an entirely different bus to get back to Bromley, he offered to wait with Martin at his stop for a while.
His motive became evident when he asked, light but still entirely serious, "So. Those deep thoughts you were having earlier. Any particular reason soulmates are on your mind?"
Martin coughed on reflex. His first instinct was to lie, mostly because he lied about everything personal. Also because … well, it wasn't just about him, was it? Jon still deserved privacy, especially given how close they all worked together. But that same closeness meant there wasn't much point in dissembling; Tim would surely suss it out eventually, if he hadn't already.
"Maybe?" was what he offered up, limply, and he couldn't bring himself to meet Tim's eyes.
"Anyone in particular?" Tim asked. "If it's not too personal, that is."
"It is, actually," Martin said, though it came out harsher than he'd meant it to. Then again, it worked so often for Jon…
Tim raised one hand, palm out, in a show of surrender. "Sorry, sorry. Not trying to pry."
"It's fine," Martin told him, though he wasn't sure it was. "Just … why are you even interested, anyway?"
"What, I can't worry about my friends?" Tim asked with a jaunty smirk that looked somehow false.
Martin tried to ignore the little spark of warmth in his chest at the word friends. Instead, he turned Tim's own words back on him. "If it's not too personal?"
Tim sighed, and it was cold enough that his breath came out in an opaque plume. "You know the other thing nobody ever talks about?" he said, apropos of nothing. "Soulmates don't have to be a romantic thing. Your soulmate can be your best friend, even family. Anyone you're close to."
Martin would readily admit that he wasn't clever, not in the way Jon or Sasha were, so for a moment he really had no idea what Tim was talking about. Then he thought about Tim's never-ending parade of dates and hook-ups and casual partners, which he was always a little bit too eager to boast about. Martin realized, with a jolt, that outside of his sex life, he didn't know very much about Tim at all.
"Have you got a — ?" he blurted, unthinking, and then went red when he realized how inappropriate it was.
Tim didn't call him on it, but he also stared up at the streetlights instead of looking Martin's way. "Used to."
Oh. Oh. "I — I'm sorry," Martin stammered, but before he could shove his foot any further into his mouth, he saw his bus round the corner. "Erm. Thanks for waiting with me."
"Any time," Tim said. He finally met Martin's eyes again, and offered a wan smile. "Happy Christmas, Martin."
At home, Martin fell into bed and stared blearily at the ceiling. He thought about soulmates, about love and loss and friendship and family, until his eyes grew heavy and his thoughts grew fuzzy. Happy Christmas, Jon, he thought to himself, and then buried his face in the pillows.
This chapter includes sections of dialogue taken directly from "Arachnophobia" and "Colony," though I've paraphrased in some cases.
Normally, Martin found Jon's aggressive skepticism a bit odd, but mostly harmless. They did get a lot of nonsense statements and pranks, after all. He could be a bit unnecessarily cruel about the ones that were just mistaken or overreacting, but, well, Jon was unnecessarily cruel about a lot of things. But Martin had heard a lot of stories over the years, and seen a lot of things go into Artefact Storage that never came back out, and he felt there was a bit of a difference between healthy skepticism and willful obliviousness.
"He was encased in webs," Martin repeated, tapping the relevant line on the coroner's report. "That is not normal spider behavior!"
"That is exceedingly normal spider behavior," Jon said mulishly. "Spinning webs, wrapping up prey—"
"Prey like bluebottles, not — not a person!" Martin challenged.
"He was dead for over a week," Jon continued, undeterred. "Plenty of time for insects to infest a corpse."
Martin goggled. "Okay, one, spiders aren't even insects. Two, they don't normally have anything to do with carrion, and three, the amount of silk it would take to wrap up a person like that—"
"I don't care, Martin," Jon snapped, slamming his open palms on the desk. "I don't care how unlikely it is, it's the only possible explanation, because there is no such thing as a ghost spider."
"Well, he was seeing something," Martin started to say, but Jon interrupted him.
"The address Mr. Vittery gave us with his statement matches the details of the report. Go have a look around there if you're so eager to confirm the statement. If any of the neighbors can corroborate, I might," he stressed this very hard, "be willing to consider that the entire statement isn't an elaborate hallucination."
And pigs might fly out of my arse, Martin thought, but he resisted the urge to voice it. He didn't have the same appetite for verbal sparring that Tim did (he and Jon could go for hours) and anyway, it wasn't like it was going to do any good. Jon was sending him to Boothby Road, and if Martin came back too soon he'd get told off for not doing his due diligence, and if he didn't come back soon enough he'd get told off for wasting time. And no matter what he brought back, short of catching the actual spider in a jam jar, it wouldn't be enough for Jon to change his mind.
So what Martin actually said was, "Fine. Just need to finish up a few things at my desk first." Then he hid in the assistants' office until their heart rate had settled down a bit. At least, he told himself, it wouldn't take long — not like hunting through all of Bexley for anyone over fifty named "Angela" had. He'd probably be back at the Institute in time for lunch.
He was partly right: his first visit to Boothby Road didn't take very long at all, and he picked at his lunch while Jon recorded the Vittery statement and their hearts scrabbled against their ribs. What was it about the statements that didn't record to a computer, Martin wondered, and why did they scare Jon so badly? More importantly, why didn't Jon just stop? No one could possibly be that stubborn—
"...so there is very likely a perfectly natural explanation for the fact that his body was completely encased in web," Martin heard as he passed Jon's office on the way to the canteen. Scratch that. One person could be that stubborn, and Martin was apparently his soulmate.
Although. Now that he thought about, there had been cobwebs in the basement when he slipped inside. He'd been too preoccupied with getting upstairs at the time, but if there was anything spooky and spider-related going on in Boothby Road, the basement would be a better place to look that the flats. Maybe he ought to go back, just in the interest of completeness. And maybe he'd find something that Jon wouldn't be able to just ignore...
He went back to Archway a second time after work, just to check it out.
This time, he ended up being away rather longer.
The door was locked. The windows were locked. The vents were stuffed with socks and towels. Martin was trapped and Jane Prentiss was waiting and this couldn't go on forever. Between boredom and bursts of terror, when she was knocking and in the silences when he listened for her knock, one thought kept coming back to him:
Sometimes it was a comfort; sometimes, with his eyes shut and hands pressed to his ears, it was as close as he'd ever gotten to prayer. Sometimes, in the silences, it came tinged with its own dread. It wasn't like Jon knew what had Martin trapped — hell, Martin didn't know what she was, not really, aside from what they'd looked up for Timothy Hodge's case. Jon might end up trapped here with him. Jon might end up … worse.
But it had been … days? He'd covered the windows; he couldn't be sure. It had been a while, and Martin hadn't rested for more than a few hours at a time. Had jumped at every noise whether or not it was a knock, had choked down canned fruit and half-thawed ready meals, had read and re-read the same book without retaining anything to stave off the urge to peek.
Martin's heart had been in his throat for days, and Jon couldn't not notice, which meant that at some point, Jon was coming.
(Maybe he'd already come. Maybe that was the panic that roused him from his last doze, maybe Jon was already—)
He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes and tried not to cry.
He has to.
Finally Martin awoke to silence, to air that didn't reek of earth and rot, and when he finally got the nerve up to open the door...there was nothing. Just a few dark stains on the concrete stoop. No sign of—
No, wait. Martin glimpsed movement in the trash and dead leaves that had accumulated against the side of the building. He leapt back, and his first reflex was to lash out, to crush any vestige of the vile little creatures, but then his sleep-addled brain caught up to him.
Proof. I need proof. I need to show—
He dashed into his kitchen long enough to find a jar with a screw-top lid. The solitary silver worm was quick, but not quick enough. Martin jammed the lid in place and then, just for added security, went around the entire edge of the thing with a triple layer of sellotape. The worm inside just sort of … lay there. Wriggled a bit. Didn't look terribly threatening without the rest of its hive, or the woman hosting them. But it was proof, he thought furiously, they had to believe him if he brought proof. Jon had to—
Martin couldn't tell if his juddering heart was his own or Jon's or if it even mattered. Days of fear suddenly morphed into a crystal-clear knowledge of what he had to do next. He threw on a hoodie and bolted for the Institute.
The main doors were locked — was it the weekend already? Which weekend? — but the side door was propped open with a brick, which usually meant someone had come outside to smoke on the sly. Martin ran down to the archives, taking the steps so fast he almost fell, but the idea that had seized him wouldn't go away. He had to find Jon, had to see him, because if Jon had come to his flat while the worms were there—
The door of Jon's office was shut, but there was a strip of light visible under the jamb. Martin threw it open, and remembered how to breath. Jon was sat at his desk, a statement in front of him and the tape recorder at his elbow, and he looked up with wide eyes as Martin staggered up to him. "My god," he blurted, standing up so quickly that his chair tipped into the shelf behind him. "Martin?"
That was fair; Martin hadn't been brave enough to properly shower with the worms looming, and there was only so much to be done with a tea towel in the sink. Days of rationed meals and sleep deprivation caught up to him all at once, and he threw his hands out to brace himself on the desk — oh. He'd almost forgotten about the jar (almost managed to forget). It clattered on the desk, and the worm inside lashed its body violently, making a faint, wet noise that was all too familiar.
"What - what the hell is - ?" Jon said, fumbling for the tape recorder. "What is that thing?"
"The worms," Martin panted. "I brought it for you. I mean, not for you but — I know I've been scared and I wanted to prove it —"
For a moment they stared at one another. Martin's pulse filled his ears, and he searched Jon's face — dark circles under his eyes, an ashy undertone to his complexion — searched for any proof that his heart was thundering to the same dizzy beat, and had been for days and days and days—
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Jon said, and Martin was lucky that, when his legs folded, he landed in a chair.
Thirteen days. That was how long Martin had been trapped in his flat, waiting for—
Well. It didn't really matter what he'd been waiting for, did it?
Jon, to Martin's faint surprise, fetched him a cup of tea (black and strong and awful) while he calmed himself down. Jon let him record a statement, as the worm in the jar stopped wriggling and finally went still. He listened intently, without interrupting (much), and Martin tried to be factual and detached and professional about it all. But he still asked, when Martin was done, "You're sure about all this?"
"Look, I'm not going to lie to you about something like this, Jon. I…" thought you knew, thought you felt it too, but he couldn't say that, could he? Factual and detached.. "...I like my job. Most of the time."
Jon gave a small, firm nod. Then, as briskly businesslike as if he were handing out research assignments, he declared, "Very well. In which case there's a room in the Archives I use to sleep when working late. I suggest you stay there for now. I'll talk to Elias…"
Martin barely processed the rest of the sentence. Surely this was some kind of sleep-deprived hallucination, or perhaps there had been something in the tea. Soulmates or not, he wasn't used to Jon actually being nice to him. "Okay... thanks?" he said, when he realized Jon was waiting for him to say something. Jon frowned. "To be honest I didn't, didn’t expect you to take it seriously," Martin admitted.
Jon looked away from him, towards the battered smartphone sat on the edge of his desk. "You say you lost your phone two weeks ago?"
"Thereabouts? When I went back to the basement."
Jon nodded. "Well, in that time I have received several text messages from your phone, saying you were ill with 'stomach problems'." Martin blinked, not comprehending, because the only person who might have his phone was — oh. Oh. "My calls trying to follow up were never answered. So, if this does involve Jane Prentiss, then I take it deadly seri—"
Jon's phone buzzed, cutting him off. He mumbled something as he picked it up and tapped in the password. "What?" Martin asked, feeling his (their?) heart racing all over again.
"I just received another text message. From 'you,'" Jon announced grimly. Martin tried to lean over the desk to see it; Jon hesitated, angling the phone away from him, but then read it aloud. "'Keep him. We have had our fun. He will want to see it when the Archivist’s crimson fate arrives.'"
"What does that mean?" Martin asked, when his brain refused to process the words.
Jon set his phone aside with a clack. "It means I ask Elias to hire some extra security."
The storage room was small, an inconspicuous door further past the assistants' office. The cot was wedged in among some cardboard banker's boxes and filing cabinets, a lumpy pillow at one end and a scratchy brown blanket bunched up at the other. It wasn't anything special. It was Jon's own bed.
"As I said," Jon said stiffly, keeping a conspicuous several inches between them. "It was humidity-controlled at some point, so the door seals quite tightly. Not much of a view, but—"
"No, that's — that's fine," Martin assured him.
Jon nodded, and raised his hand as if he was going to pat Martin on the arm. Martin was fairly sure if he did, he would collapse into tears on the spot. Fortunately, Jon aborted the gesture, turning it into an awkward rap on the door frame instead. "Get some rest," he said. "I need to make some calls."
Jon shut the door behind him, and Martin sat down gingerly on the cot. He ran a hand through his greasy hair and took a few deep breaths. He had made it. He was alive.
Jon hadn't come, though. Jon hadn't known. Jon hadn't even guessed.
He didn't … he didn't know what he was supposed to do with that.
The Institute had a shower — it looks like something you'd use after a chemical accident more than anything, but Martin was able to wash up properly, and there were no worms. Jon loaned him a bit of cash to buy a hot meal, and there were no worms. The Institute was quiet over the weekend, and he slept in the storage room with Jon's keys clutched between his fingers like a terrible, useless claw, and there were no worms. He wondered how long it would take to believe that.
(He wondered how it was Jon didn't know—)
Monday morning, Tim and Sasha didn't remark on the fact Martin was wandering around the office in sweats, so he guessed that Jon must've called them or emailed or something. Tim seemed vaguely irritable and unusually gloomy, though it was hard to tell if that was directed at Martin personally or the general situation. Sasha gave him a few overly wide smiles, and coincidentally went out to get takeaway for everyone at lunch, but otherwise didn't treat Martin any differently than usual.
So, near the end of the day, as she was gathering her things, Martin steeled himself and turned to face her. "Erm, Sasha? Can I … can I ask you a favor?"
"Of course," she said, looked up from her bag. "What can I do?"
Martin swallowed the shame that welled up in his chest, though he couldn't quite make himself meet her eyes. "Can you … it doesn't have to be tonight, but … I … I need to get some things from my flat."
"Oh, Martin," she said, in the way he wished she wouldn't, but she followed it up with, "Of course. I can go for you if you—"
"No," he said firmly, "no, I can get them myself, I just …" Couldn't be alone there, not right now. He would've asked Tim, if Tim hadn't been so cranky all day, and Jon… well. Jon hadn't known.
"I get it," Sasha said, and shouldered her purse and laptop bag. "Come on, lead the way."
In his mad rush to the Institute on Saturday, he hadn't even properly locked the door behind him; small wonder no one had come in and stolen everything, not that Martin had much worth stealing. "Sorry about the mess," Martin muttered as he scrambled to stuff his things into a rucksack — laptop, clothes, some proper toiletries —
Sasha gave a short, incredulous laugh. "Martin, trust me, you have nothing to apologize for!"
"I know, I know." He knew that, but it didn't stop his hands shaking or his heart jittering (and Jon didn't know, why didn't Jon know) or his eyes from darting after every phantom movement. When he came back out of the bedroom, Sasha had set her things down and was negotiating with the over-stuffed bin bag in the kitchen. "Oh! Oh, no, Sasha, you don't—"
"I know I don't," she said. "But since I wasn't exactly helpful in the moment, I might as well start now."
"You—" Martin had to clear his throat. "You didn't know. She had my phone and all."
Sasha gave an exaggerated shudder. "Don't remind me. I texted you a few times, when you'd been gone a few days — Tim, too. And she actually replied! We were all talking to a stranger and had no idea —" She cut herself off and offered him another weak smile. "I'm sorry it happened to you, is all. Sorry we weren't more help."
Maybe he was just too tired. Maybe he was just too scared. Maybe he'd worked so hard on keeping everything together in front of Jon that he'd forgotten about the others. Martin's throat felt like it was closing, but he managed to push out words: "Sasha, can I — can I ask you a question?"
She stopped wrestling with the bin bag and gave him her full attention. "Of course."
"Do you—" He felt the tears welling, and tried to choke them down. "Have you ever heard. If it's possible. T-to be someone's soulmate. If they're. Not yours?"
Sasha's eyes were huge behind her glasses, and she crossed the kitchen to put a hand on his arm. "Oh, Martin, no."
He didn't even care, in that moment, that she pitied him. He didn't care about keeping it together. He stood there in his filthy, awful flat with a rucksack full of his earthly possessions, and he cried on Sasha's shoulder, and she let him.
This chapter contains a few lines quoted or paraphrased from "A Distortion" and "Boatswain's Call."
The thing was, it didn't actually change anything.
Because (as he reasoned during sleepless night after sleepless night) there were two possible explanations for Jon's behavior. One was that, somehow, he really hadn't known Martin was terrified — that Martin's heart followed Jon's but not vice-versa. He'd never heard of a one-sided soulmate situation, and there was surprisingly little actual research on soulmates outside the field of cardiology. But, well, the world was strange enough for a woman made of worms to be in it, why not an unrequited soul bond? (Wouldn't that just be his luck…?)
The other explanation, of course, would be that Jon just didn't care. That he'd known, for weeks, that Martin was suffering and just...allowed it. But as often as Martin had been accused of viewing him with rose-colored glasses? It just didn't fit. Jon had given up his bed (okay, his weird secret napping cot) when Martin told him what had happened. Jon had believed him, with only token argument, and interceded with Elias so Martin could stay safe in the archives. He wouldn't have just left Martin alone with the worms. He wasn't that cruel.
Either way, it wasn't like Martin could just ask about it. Not after four years of awkward flirting and unspoken suspicions. Not when he was literally living in the archives, and the mere thought of going back to his flat still made him queasy. He didn't have enough savings for just quitting to be an option, not without something else lined up right away. If it blew up in his face, he'd have nowhere to go.
What he could do, though, was ignore it. Put his head down and keep working. God knew he had plenty of other things to worry about. And (he thought, despairing) it wasn't as if Jon was going to notice anything different. Because nothing was different, really. Martin was still obsessing from afar, and too afraid to say anything, and Jon was either oblivious or … not oblivious.
The fact that Martin was living in the document storage room, and thus seeing more of Jon than ever before, was … immaterial, was what it was.
For the first few days, things were relatively quiet, except for Jon's terrifying work habits. Martin had woken from a nightmare of silver one morning and wandered out of the storage room to find Jon was already in his office and recording. (If there was any upside to this horribleness, Martin thought, it was this: before Prentiss, he would've likely died of humiliation if Jon caught him in his pants. Now it hardly even registered.) Jon even came in on the weekends, though he kept his distance from Martin while he did so. "It wouldn't be very fair of me to take advantage of your situation to make you work overtime," he said stiffly.
"Right," Martin said, though his brain was temporarily overloaded because Jon wasn't wearing a suit. Of course he wasn't wearing a suit, it was a Saturday and he'd theoretically been home overnight, why would he put on a suit — but Martin was used to Jon dressing like a fusty 1950s stereotype, even though lately his creases hadn't been quite as pressed as usual and his tie was loose more often than not. Seeing Jon in jeans and a faded Radiohead t-shirt was a revelation. "Right. I'll just — stay out of your hair, then."
(What he'd actually done is sit by the cracked door of the document storage and listen to Jon record some normal statements, the kind that didn't scare him. He didn't put as much gusto into his performances on those, but the sound of his voice was still reassuring. Even when — maybe especially when — he started grousing about the obvious inconsistencies before banishing the statement to the Discredited section.)
Martin was lulled into such a false sense of security that he volunteered to run out for sandwiches in the middle of the week, taking down Tim's and Sasha's orders on the back of an envelope. "Don't bother asking Jon," Sasha advised him, fishing some cash out of her purse. "A book's got him. I tried to ask him something about the Silvana statement earlier and he barely looked at me."
"I wonder how many post-its we could stick to him before he notices," Tim said in a tone that boded trouble. Martin decided to flee before he was implicated.
He made it out of the Institute's back door, and wasn't thinking about anything more dangerous than Jon's reaction to being covered in post-its while he was trying to work. Not until he caught a whiff of something earthy and rotten, and his heart leapt into his throat before he fully registered why. (Didn't they say smell was the strongest link to memory?) Martin froze, and looked around frantically for the source of the odor, because the last time he'd smelled something like that—
There. Glinting in the sun. A fat silver worm, barely an inch long, oozing its way towards a storm drain.
For a minute Martin stayed paralyze, sick with fear and revulsion. Then something inside him, some tenuous thread of control, finally snapped, and he strode forward and stomped on the worm with all his strength. Again and again, until it was obliterated, nothing but a smear of black slime on the concrete, less than that—
He spun around, half-expecting to see Prentiss herself behind him. It was Jon, though, looking alarmed and holding out his hands as though he'd been able to grab Martin's shoulder. "Worm," Martin said; he wasn't sure when he'd started hyperventilating, but it felt like he couldn't get enough air into his lungs. "I saw — I swear, it was the same sort, I saw it —"
"I believe you," Jon said, glancing down at the smear on the pavement. "Just the one?"
"Y-yeah." The smell was faint, really, and if he hadn't had it lasered into his memory by a thirteen-day siege he probably wouldn't have registered it.
Jon nodded grimly. "Right. We should go back inside."
Right. Yes. Back where the doors were locked and sealed and safe. Martin all but ran, though Jon was on his heels, almost herding him into the building. Why had Jon even been outside? "Did you want a sandwich?" Martin asked, because it seemed like a reasonable deduction.
"I think we'll all get by without our regular infusion of Pret a Manger, Martin," Jon grumbled, completely missing the point.
Martin went straight to document storage to lie down until he felt less shaky, but Jon stopped at the door of the assistants' office, presumably to inform Tim and Sasha. There were two post-its stuck to the back of his waistcoat.
Martin could tell they didn't quite believe him, no matter what they said, until Tim brought in a black smear on his shoe and blurry photo on his phone of something silver. Then Sasha saw two of them vanish into a crack in the pavement. At this point, Jon admitted he'd seen one, too.
"And you didn't say anything?" Martin asked, appalled.
"I wasn't sure," Jon said without making eye contact. "And I didn't want to cause any unnecessary alarm. In hindsight, though…"
"How much alarm is necessary, exactly?" Tim asked warily. "I mean, so it's a couple of worms…"
"That we know of," Martin pointed out.
"If there's any chance Prentiss is in the area, the police and the ECDC need to be informed," Jon declaimed. "And I have a meeting with Elias this afternoon to discuss our security arrangements, to ensure she doesn't get into the building."
(Martin winced; meeting with Elias was not good for their blood pressure.)
After Jon left the office, Tim turned to Martin. "How are you holding up?" he asked.
"Oh, you know," Martin sighed. "Just the usual, being followed by a … what's the collective noun for a group of worms, anyway? Is it a swarm?"
"Not what I meant," Tim said, and when Martin frowned at him, he tossed his head in the direction of the door. Martin had no idea what that was supposed to mean, and his confusion must've shown on his face because Tim rolled his eyes. "You and Jon. That whole … situation."
Oh. Oh, shit. Martin glanced at Sasha, who made no attempt to hide the fact that she was listening in; she offered him a small smile. He went with the first response that popped into his head, which was "I - I don't know what you're talking about," though he sounded more strangled and less confident than he'd hoped. He turned back to his desk and groped for his ear buds.
Before he got them in, he heard Tim say, "All right," in a conciliatory tone. And then, softer, "Christ, you two deserve each other." Sasha hissed something at him, and then Martin turned his music up as high as he could stand. He and Kylie Minogue did paperwork for a couple of hours, and Tim didn't raise the question directly again.
Martin's personal security arrangements were thus: He locked up the archives at night, and then locked himself in the storage room. He kept a supply of rags and tea towels in a box, to plug up the air-con if he had to. He started carrying a knife, just a little folding penknife a few inches long — it was pathetic, he knew it was pathetic, a dinky little knife against a horde of worms (a colony? A plague?) but it was better than nothing. He started touching it in his pocket throughout the day, just for the reminder that he wasn't helpless, not completely.
He also nearly hit Sasha with a broom, when she came stumbling into the archive one night after dark. In his defense, she'd jarred him out of sleep — not that he slept very deeply these days — and he'd grabbed the broom when he realized he'd left the knife in his trousers. All he heard was the clatter of someone moving through the assistants' office, and all he saw was a dark shape that didn't seem like Prentiss (and certainly didn't smell like her). But he couldn't be sure, so he got a firm grip on the end of the broom and swung it overhand, shouting as he did so.
The head of the broom came down in the middle of Sasha's desk, having missed her entirely. Martin, recognizing her voice, immediately abandoned his weapon. "Sasha? What on Earth are you doing back here? It's nearly midnight."
"I, erm," she said, voice shaking. "Bandage? I was looking for a bandage."
Martin switched on the overhead lights and yelled again. Sasha's complexion was too dark to really show a pallor, but her eyes were glassy and she was clutching her chest with one trembling hand. She was wearing the same outfit she'd left work in, except her right sleeve was now ripped and blotched with blood. "Oh my god, what happened?" Martin blurted.
She swallowed. "Bit of a long story, that."
"Is it—" A knot of dread abruptly coalesced in Martin's stomach. "It wasn't a worm, was it?"
"S-sort of?" Sasha said. "It's fine, though. It's gone."
"How do you know that?" (Martin's voice might have screeched a little.)
"A - a monster pulled it out for me."
For a minute they just stared at one another, her dazed and him incredulous. Eventually, however, the practical part of Martin's brain kicked in, and he set the broom aside. "Bandage. Right. I've got the first-aid kit in the storage room. I'll be right back."
"Okay," Sasha said, uncharacteristically passive. Then she followed that up with, "I like your pants, by the way."
Martin bolted from the room, wondering how many of his coworkers were going to see his underwear before this was over.
Armed with the first-aid kit and some trousers, Martin insisted on cleaning and bandaging the wound for her — "It'll be easier with two hands," he told her, when she protested. Her blouse had those little cap sleeve things, and the wound was just under the edge of that: a neat, round hole where the worm had gone in, bisected by a long, thin slash across it where … well … "You said a … a monster did this?"
"Yeah," Sasha said. She seemed more coherent now that she'd had a chance to sit down and catch her breath. "He — it called itself Michael, and it looks human, but … isn't. Really, really isn't. It pulled the worm out with its fingers."
Martin grimaced as he placed butterfly strips on the edge of the cut. It was very clean, almost surgical, and had just gotten much more unsettling. "It didn't follow you here, did it? Is it still outside?"
She shook her head. "No. No, I … I don't know where it's gone. It left, and I … I guess I walked back here?" A little crease appeared between her eyebrows. "That doesn't seem right. The cemetery is miles from here. It's all a bit of blur, though."
Martin taped a piece of gauze over the worm hole, then peeled off the nitrile gloves from the kit. "Okay. Erm. D'you want to take the cot?"
Sasha blinked at him. "What?"
"Well, you can't go back out there," Martin said. "It's the middle of the night. There could be worms anywhere."
"I didn't see any when I arrived … " She didn't sound very sure, though.
"Anyway, you need to tell Jon what happened," Martin pressed, "and he's going to be here in like an hour anyway because he's Jon. So there's not much point in going home and then turning right back round, is there?"
"I'm not putting you out of your bed," Sasha protested.
"I'm offering! And anyway, I think at this point it's archives property, so … ?"
He tried a smile, but Sasha's eyes went soft around the edges and he worried she was going to oh, Martin him again. She didn't, though; just stood up and kissed him on the cheek. "You're a good person, Martin."
"Oh!" He looked down at the first aid kit, trying to busy his hands. "I mean. I'm just worried about you."
"I know. I suppose I will lay down a bit." She paused at the door. "Wake me in an hour or two?"
As soon as he heard the door of the storage room close, Martin also closed the office door. Then he found Jon's number in his phone. He hated the idea of waking him, because Jon didn't get enough sleep anyway, but he also had a feeling Jon would want to know about this sooner rather than later.
To Martin's surprise, Jon answered almost immediately. He even sounded alert. "Hello?"
"Jon, hi. Erm, it's Martin?"
"Yes, I got that, seeing as I've saved your number. What's the matter?"
Right. Get straight to the point. "Sasha just showed up back at the Institute. She wasn't really coherent about some of it, but … she said she was attacked by worms, and something called Michael saved her, I guess? She was pretty insistent on the thing part, too."
A long, tense beat of silence, during which Martin's heartrate ratcheted up for no reason on his end. "She's sure it was a worm?"
"I just bandaged her up, I saw the hole."
"And you're sure she's…?"
Martin realized what Jon was asking. "She's fine. I mean, I'm pretty sure she's fine, because she said it was just the one worm, but I supposed she could've been hiding other bites under her clothes—"
"I'll take that as a yes," Jon said, before Martin could keep thinking out loud. "Does she — well, I suppose she'll want to give a statement."
"Can it wait until morning? I gave her the cot, she's really shaken up."
"I suppose so," Jon said, but he didn't sound happy about it. "I'll try to be there early."
Of course he would, because he wasn't human. Martin wasn't sure if he felt more fond or more irritated. "All right. I'll see you then."
"Right. Er, try to get some rest yourself." Jon hung up before Martin could respond to that.
Martin got his coat from the hook by the archives' door and checked to make sure Sasha had locked it behind her. He thought about peeking in the storage room to make sure she was okay (and not infested) but it felt a bit creepy. So he sat down at his desk, leaned his chair back as far as it would go, and spread the coat over himself like a blanket. He supposed it wasn't the worst place he'd ever tried to sleep....
Jon arrived before six, a new personal record for him, startling Martin right out of his chair. He almost immediately roused Sasha (who was not pleased that Martin had let her sleep even that late). Martin contemplated grabbing a few more hours of sleep, but decided instead to go out for breakfast; Sasha could probably use something to eat, and if they were both eating something, he might be able to get Jon to join them.
By the time he was back with a selection of bagels and pastries (and had made a circuit of the building to verify no active worm presence) Sasha was deep into her statement, from the sound of things. Martin almost knocked on the door to let them know he was back with the food, but he hesitated when he made out what they were saying to each other.
"Come on," Sasha was saying, "it’s not his fault he’s being stalked by some … weird living hive."
"I know, but … it would have to have been Martin, wouldn’t it?" Jon said resignedly. "I mean, anything goes wrong around here, it always seems to happen to him. The one person I can't—"
Jon hesitated here, and Martin strained to listen, not sure how he wanted Jon to finish that sentence. He still wasn't sure about Jon's end, but his heart was in his throat.
"...anyway, we're getting off topic," Jon mumbled, and they were back to talking about the Michael-thing.
Martin didn't bother knocking. He left food in the kitchenette, and then went to lay down on the cot for an hour or two before he was on the clock.
The atmosphere in the archives took a turn for the worse after that; they knew, now, that they were all being targeted. Elias provided the extra fire extinguishers, and a team of workmen knocked around with the sprinklers for a few days and got in everyone's way. Martin started stockpiling — bottled waters, toilet roll, those protein bars that were about a thousand calories a piece. After one too many nightmares about the puncture left in Sasha's arm, he ditched the pocket knife and bought himself a slender corkscrew, which he kept under his pillow. Just in case.
Tim and Sasha mostly came and went as normal, though they did (reluctantly) keep Martin updated on worm sightings. Always at the Institute, thank goodness, never at their homes. Only not, because now Martin wasn't sure if it was safer for him to keep living in the Archives or to finally go back to his own flat.
(The safest thing would probably be to quit, and he'd had plenty of time by now to start looking for a new job, a new flat — maybe somewhere closer to his mum? Except something kept him from focusing much on any of the job postings, kept him from handing in any of the resignation letters he composed during sleepless nights. Not Jon, or rather not just Jon — if anything, it would be easier to deal with the whole situation, from an emotional angle, if they weren't in each others' faces all the time. He couldn't just abandon the others to the worms, though. To the Archivist's crimson fate, whatever that meant. Even if he'd wanted to, something wouldn't let him, closing around his throat when thought about it too hard. So the letters went in the recycling and the job listings stayed bookmarked till the links went dead.)
As for Jon — well, Jon did what he always did, which was work even more. Maybe he thought he'd find more misplaced statements about Prentiss if he kept digging, or maybe he just wanted a distraction. As the days got longer, he stayed later and later, shut up in his office: I won't take advantage of the situation apparently translated, in Jon-speak, to I won't acknowledge your presence after five o'clock and expect you to do the same to me. Martin supposed it was good to set a boundary, though Jon often seemed to be nothing but boundaries, laid precisely for Martin to blunder blindly into.
There finally came a morning that Martin stumbled into the kitchenette (with trousers, this time) and found Jon blinking blearily at the kettle, without his usual jacket or tie. "You're here early," Martin said with a yawn.
Jon jumped like a startled cat, heart hammering. "Oh! Oh. Yes." He yawned as well, and then made a face, as if he was annoyed at himself for such a show of human frailty. In his rumpled clothes, it was actually kind of cute.
Martin had to look away to get his own face under control; when he glanced back, he finally realized that said clothes looked awfully familiar. "Did you … sleep here?" he asked warily.
Jon scratched at his hair, which was sticking up all on one side. "Fell asleep at my desk," he muttered in the general direction of his shoes.
"Oh." Of course, Jon had said when he showed Martin the cot that he sometimes spent the night. And here Martin had taken it over. "Erm. I could — if you want a nap before the others get here, I'll just—"
"No," Jon said quickly. "No, I'm — it's fine."
Martin frowned. Was Jon just embarrassed, or was there some other reason he didn't want to use the cot? "Okay, if you're sure." He pulled a box of cold cereal from the filing cabinet where he'd started storing his kitchen things, to keep them out of the way. "Er. You want some Shreddies?"
"No, thank you," Jon said with a little huff. He finally remembered to actually switch the kettle on.
After that, Martin tried to keep better tabs on Jon's hours; if he hadn't left before dark, Martin made sure to offer to share his dinner and/or the cot. Jon never accepted, and at the beginning of May he wrestled a new cot down the stairs and into his office. After that, Martin gave up asking him anything.
In Martin's nightmares, worms burrowed into him while he slept: crawled into his mouth, burst his eyes, made a hive of his brain. He spent half the morning telling himself he'd just bitten his tongue in his sleep before finally asking Tim if it looked infested.
"No," Tim said, and added, "I promise," before Martin could ask if he was sure. "Now please get your tongue out of my face."
"Sorry," Martin muttered, feeling foolish for even needing the reassurance.
Tim sighed, and set his pen down. "You know, I bet Jon would be happy to look at your tongue for you," he said in an odd tone of voice. "I mean, you two are practically roommates these days…"
He trailed off, obviously inviting Martin to … something. Vent? Confide? Christmas felt like a thousand years ago now. "We're really not," Martin said, turning back to his computer.
After a few minutes of silence, Tim said in a softer tone, "You know, if you want to talk about it, I'll listen. Sasha, too."
Martin took a deep breath and tried to ignore the feelings that curdled in his stomach. It wasn't like talking about it would change anything, after all. He'd still be trapped, and Jon still would be … Jon. "There's nothing to talk about," he said firmly, and put his ear buds back in.
Here we go ... significant amounts of dialogue taken directly from "Infestation," though I did my best not to reproduce the whole episode.
When the worms finally came, Martin's only warning was a faint crashing sound from the direction of Jon's office. He'd been working at his desk, background checks for another nonsense statement. Jon had been recording, and it was one of Those Statements, so Martin wasn't getting very far.
He pushed his chair back, to peer into the corridor, and saw Sasha slip into Jon's office. When she didn't come out after a minute, Martin shrugged. Probably just helping him clean up … whatever. Nothing important.
Except their heartbeat didn't settle, not for long. After a minute or two he heard raised voices from behind the cracked door, though he couldn't make out the words. He hesitated for a moment — Jon had been in a particularly beastly mood lately, even by his usual standards, even since that weird table had shown up. If he was suddenly shouting at Sasha, Martin didn't want to get in the middle of it. They didn't sound angry, exactly, though, and so Martin steeled himself and went down the hall to knock. "Guys? Is everything — oh Christ."
Worms. Worms everywhere. A writhing, seething carpet of worms spilling out the wall (the wall?) in intertwining clumps and clots. The same moldy, choking worm-smell filling up his mouth and nose, and this was every nightmare he'd had since March, this was it, this was the end—
Jon was shouting something at him. "What?" Martin asked, unable to tear his eyes away from the silvery morass for long.
"The CO2!" Jon snapped, as he and Sasha crowded towards him, and the door. "Get the goddamn CO2!"
"Right," Martin blurted, running for the nearest can of gas. "Right, right, right…"
He pulled the pin on the extinguisher and directed the spray at the leading edge of the...swarm? Mass? Brood? (He was going to die trying to work out the collective noun for what killed him, oh God.) Just as Sasha had said, the worms sprayed by the gas shriveled and died almost instantly. But as soon as he turned the spray away from one area, more worms simply overran their fallen fellows, a seething wave of silver. "There's too many!" he yelled, half-glancing over his shoulder.
"Just keep spraying!" Sasha called back. She'd gotten her own extinguisher, but there were worms coming up through the floorboards, now, threatening to separate them. The worms had been there the whole time, he thought sickly, in just the place they'd thought they were safe. The worms had been waiting for this.
"We need to go!" Jon shouted. He hadn't found an extinguisher, but he was clutching his tape recorder to his chest like that might protect him.
"Where?" Sasha asked, but Jon's face went utterly blank. She turned to Martin. "Do you see Prentiss? If we could get her—"
Martin shook his head, backing away from the onslaught so he could keep near the other two. "I don't see her...I don't see her…"
His extinguisher ran empty. A moment later, so did Sasha's. "Jon?" she prompted, but Jon was still glassy-eyed and paralyzed. Honestly, Martin could relate.
Except Martin had also been planning for this, or something like it, since the worms had returned. They were cut off from the archive's only exit, but the path to the storage room was still clear. "This way!" he said, and grabbed Jon's arm to shake him out of his stupor.
It was only a few yards to the door, but the worms were coming up everywhere, there wasn't time to grab another can of gas—
"Look out!" Jon suddenly shouted, and side-checked Martin to the wall. He dropped the tape recorder, and both of them almost fell; Martin had a feeling if they had, they wouldn't have gotten up again. Not as themselves, anyway.
But he kept his feet and clung to Jon, focusing all his attention on just keeping their forward momentum. Jon made a small, strangled noise, and limped the last few steps; Sasha slammed the door behind them, and stomped vigorously over the few worms that made it over the threshold. "Were you hit?" Martin asked, while frantically patting himself down. "Are there any on you?"
"I don't think so," Sasha said, "I didn't feel — oh, Jon."
Martin's head snapped up. Jon was leaning against the wall, clutching awkwardly at his calf, where a blood stain was starting to spread. He met Martin's eyes for a moment, and then asked, with a frankly bewildering level of calm, "Did you get the tape recorder?"
"The tape—" Jon fell back on the cot when Martin pushed him. "I dropped it. We need that tape."
Martin looked to Sasha, to determine whether she was also hearing this. She ignored Jon completely. "Have you got a knife or something in here?"
"Yeah, I — wait, hold on —" He retrieved the corkscrew from under his pillow and held it out to her. "Do you want to — to —" Jam a kitchen implement into our boss's leg to save him from horrible worm-filled death?
"To what?" she asked blankly. "What do we need a corkscrew for?"
"To dig the worm out!" She and Jon both stared at him blankly; he mimed turning the screw a few times, as if that would get his idea across.
Sasha looked dubious, but she took the corkscrew and crouched next to Jon's leg. Jon's eyes went wide when he realized what she was going to do. "Surely there's another method—"
Sasha shoved Jon's trousers up over his knee; the fat end of the worm was still just protruding from the wound, twitching as it burrowed. "Sorry about this," she said, and jammed the tip of the corkscrew in.
There was nothing Martin could do to help her, and nothing he could to stop Jon's agonized screaming and moaning as she worked. He went digging for the first-aid kit instead, but his hand closed on something else first.
"I have a tape recorder," he blurted out, stupidly. "That we could, erm, use."
"Good," Jon gritted out through clenched teeth, though it came out more like gaaaAARGH.
Martin fumbled for a blank tape, picking at the cellophane and tossing aside the plastic case. "Just give me a second—" It took him two tries to get the tape in the right way round, but eventually the door closed and the record button came down. "And...there we go. Recording again." There was a moment of silence from Jon, and Martin looked up. "Did you get it?"
Sasha jerked her arm back, and Jon cried out one more time. The end of the corkscrew was covered in gore, but mixed in with the red blood was the black slime of the worm and chunks of silvery chitin. "There," Sasha said, setting it aside. "And I just want to point out that I didn't make this much of a fuss."
Jon was panting for breath, and a few tears of pain had run down his face. "I think your removal was substantially cleaner," he croaked.
Martin found the first-aid kit, and gave Jon a wad of gauze to press against the wound while he explained the corkscrew and his overall worm strategy. "Look, you guys got to go home every day, okay. I didn’t!" he added, when they stared at him like he'd lost his mind. "I’ve been thinking for a long time about what to do when... well, y’know, this happens."
"Well... thank you," Jon rasped, after a slight pause, and Martin almost smiled, before he remembered that this was not the time to go cow-eyed over his … whatever Jon was.
Tim came back. Sasha left.
They were probably both dead.
"We don't know that," Jon insisted, when Martin started to spiral into panic.
Right. Right. Try to think positively, he told himself. "Maybe … maybe he found the spare CO2?"
"Spare?" Jon asked sharply. "What? Where? I never saw any."
"Oh, I, er…" He realized the absurdity of what he was saying even as he was saying it. "I, I hid them in old casefile boxes. So the worms didn’t know they were there? I know it’s stupid—"
"Yes," Jon said incredulously. "Yes, it is! They’re just... they’re just unclassified parasites. They don’t have consciousness, they can’t plan, they’re just an unthinking infection."
Martin stared at him. He'd learned to pick his battles when it came to Jon's skepticism, and most of the time he did tend to defer to his judgement. Jon was clever, after all. Jon was accomplished. Jon didn't have to make up his CV.
But they were probably going to die horribly any second now, and Martin was just done.
"Why do you do that?" he demanded.
Jon scowled at him. "Do what?"
"Push the skeptic thing so hard!" Martin sat down across the narrow room from the cot. "I mean, it made sense at first, but now? After everything we’ve seen, after everything you’ve read! I mean, for god’s sake Jon, we’re literally hiding from some kind of worm... queen... thing, how, how could you possibly still not believe?"
And Jon snapped back, "Of course I believe!"
Jon sighed, and lowered his voice. "Of course I do. Why do you think I started working here? I’ve always believed in the supernatural. Within reason. I mean." He rolled his head back, thunking softly against the wall. "I still think most of the statements down here aren’t real. Of the hundreds I’ve recorded, we’ve had maybe thirty, forty that are ... that go on tape. Now those, I believe, at least for the most part."
"Then why do you—" Martin started to ask.
"Because I'm scared," he admitted, snappish as a wounded animal. "Because when I record these statements it feels... it feels like I’m being watched." He hunched up in on himself, arms wrapped around his uninjured leg. "I... I lose myself a bit," he confessed. "And then when I come back, it’s like... like if I admit there may be any truth to it, whatever’s watching will... know, somehow." He couldn't quite seem to look Martin in the eye. "The skepticism, feigning ignorance … It just felt safer."
Martin thought about how Jon's voice transformed when he read a real statement, the whitened nails and their thundering heart. Christ, no wonder they scared him. And yet his stubborn arse kept on doing them, pressing ahead, pretending everything was fine … "Well, it wasn't," Martin said lamely, when he realized Jon was waiting for a response to his admission.
"No," Jon agreed miserably. "No, it wasn't."
There was a short, awkward pause. Martin had an idea what it had cost Jon to admit this to him, and if they were going to die today anyway … "There's something I should probably tell you," he said, before Jon could try to change the subject.
But Jon flinched, and curled in on himself even more. "I know, Martin."
That pulled a grim little laugh out of him. "I really don't think you do."
"I do," Jon said softly, and rubbed at his chest with one hand. "Of course I do."
Martin stared at him, but Jon still wouldn't meet his eyes. Just sat there, the picture of misery, while their hearts pounded together. "You...knew." Jon nodded. "The whole … I mean, from when? How?"
"How do you think?" Jon growled, then cringed. "I imagine the same way you did. Suspected it from the first. Confirmed it … more recently."
"But…" Martin felt sick, unreal, dissociated. The ground he'd been standing on for the last five years had abruptly shifted. "You knew, then. When I was trapped."
"I thought you were ill," Jon protested weakly, as if he knew full well what a ludicrous excuse it was. "And I — I recorded six statements to tape in two weeks, so I blamed—"
"You knew for five—" There wasn't enough air in the room, and Martin simultaneously wanted to get up and pace and felt like he would faint if he tried. "Why, Jon? Just, why?"
"You were a stranger," he told his knee instead of meeting Martin's eyes. "I knew nothing about you, and what I initially learned — I thought it must be a — a coincidence. My imagination. I didn't want to be ... hasty."
"'It felt safer'?" Martin echoed, incredulous.
Jon grimaced, but didn't deny it. "Eventually it was too late to say anything without ... awkward explanations," he continued. "And then — you're my subordinate, Martin, I can't exactly ask you on a date now—"
"You could've said something!"
"So could you!"
"I thought you hated me!"
Martin realized he was angry: transcendently, incandescently angry. Two weeks, two weeks, he knew and he didn't come because it felt safer for two weeks. Never mind the literal years before that, of sneering and snobbery and caustic comments, when all the time he knew, he knew—
The fire alarms suddenly began to sound, startling Martin out of his fury. He ran to the door, but the worms weren't reacting to the noise; Prentiss was drifting serenely through the archive in her ruined dress, picking up boxes seemingly at random and belching a dark fluid into them. They should probably burn those.
"That'll be Sasha," Jon said with uncharacteristic timidity. "Or Elias, I suppose. Getting everyone out."
Except for them, of course. They were trapped. So it didn't really matter what Jon had or hadn't done either way. It wasn't going to be a problem for much longer.
Martin put his back to the door and slid down to the floor. Jon picked at the bandage around his leg and didn't look at him. Jon, who had known they were soulmates for five years and done nothing but push him away. Jon, who Martin had sworn couldn't be that cruel. Who Martin, apparently, never really knew at all.
He had a million questions, and none of them mattered. If the worms didn't get him, the humiliation probably would.
When the pounding came, and the wall began to tremble, Martin leapt to his feet. Jon scrambled for the tape recorder. "I thought that wall was meant to be solid?" Martin asked.
"So did I." Jon craned his neck, and for a moment Martin thought he was staring at him — but no, he was trying to see through the window. "How many of them are outside the door?"
"I don't know," Martin reminded him testily. "I can't see, because the window is covered in worms."
"Right. Damn." Jon swallowed. "Martin, for whatever it's worth, I'm—"
His last words were swallowed by a shower of tile and plasterboard. Even after Jon's revelation, even with rage and betrayal burning hot in his chest, Martin's reflex was still to try to shield Jon from whatever was coming through the wall, be it worms or Prentiss or—
He was covered in splotches of black slime and grey dust, clutching a fire extinguisher, which he'd apparently used to bash through the wall — but he was alive, flushed and grinning, not devoured by worms or hollowed out into another hive. "You made it," Martin sighed, slumping with temporary relief.
"Funny story, really!" Tim said brightly, clambering over the remainder of the wall. "I ran into the office, worms everywhere, horrible death and everything, tripped and fell in some boxes and there were like 20 cans of gas in there!"
Martin wanted to be pleased that his plan for hiding the spare extinguishers had helped somebody, but — on closer look, Tim was covered in sweat, and his hands were shaking as he clutched at the can in his hands. "Are, are you alright? You seem a bit…"
Tim waved him off. "Fine! Fine! Gas... bit light-headed. Not a lot of ventilation in the tunnels." He turned and started kicking down the last bit of drywall. "Come on!"
"In — into the tunnels?" Jon asked, dubiously.
"Yeah! Actually, not that many worms in there anymore. I think they’ve mostly gone into the Archive. Although the ones down here are faster for some reason. And quieter."
This did not sound like a good plan to Martin — they didn't even know where the tunnels went — but he supposed they didn't really have another way out of the storage room. And now that the wall was breached, the worms had a potential way in. "Can you walk?" he asked Jon.
"No," Jon said, but started pushing himself off the cot anyway. "I can limp, though. Could — could you pass the tape recorder, please?"
Right. Martin was furious with him. He just hoped Tim was too high to notice Jon's tentative politeness. "Sure. Tape's running out, though."
Tim adjusted his phone, which was tucked in his shirt pocket so the torch shone out in front of him. "Why do you have a second tape recorder, Martin?" he asked.
But Martin had already been humiliated once today, and he wasn't in a sharing mood. "No reason," he said, switching on the torch from his pocket.
Jon limped a few steps, and Tim offered him an arm for support. Martin couldn't begin to parse out how he felt about that. "Let's go," Jon said, switching off the tape. "Before the worms realize there's another way in."
Martin's torch was brighter than a mobile phone, so he took the lead; Jon and Tim were right behind him, through every twist and turn and worm assault.
Until, quite suddenly, they weren't.
He'd never had a great sense of direction, but he was pretty sure he could follow a straight line and a single curve — but when he peered back around the corner, he didn't see their fallen bodies, didn't see anything. Just more dark, cold tunnel that reeked of worms. Had he taken a wrong turn? Had they?
"Jon?" he tried calling, clutching his torch in sweaty hands. "Jon? Tim?"
Whatever the dark stonework was made of, it swallowed the sound. There should've been an echo in a passage that long, he was sure of it, but — no. Nothing. No sound of them calling after him, either.And if he kept hollering he'd just attract worms.
Martin pressed a hand to his chest, but he couldn't tell if their racing heart was him or Jon or both. He'd know though, right? He'd know if Jon was really … was gone.
(What would losing your soul mate feel like, and would it hurt less than knowing he didn't want you?)
He took a few deep breaths and tried to school his thoughts. They still needed a way out, and if Martin found one he would probably find Jon and Tim. Or he could get help to come back and look for them. But first he needed out of these tunnels, and away from the worms, and the only way to find that was to keep going. There had to be a door or a ladder or something eventually.
He pushed off the wall and headed further into the dark.
He did find a door, in the end. There was even a Head Archivist behind it.
Bits of dialogue here and there are taken from "Human Remains." Thanks SO much to everyone who's been reading, commenting, and sharing these links on Tumblr! I hope you enjoy the ending!
Once Martin stopped screaming, the hazmat team made him strip. People in bulky plastic suits sprayed him down with disinfectant and checked him for worms; they gave him a set of blue scrubs that were slightly too small, and took his clothes with their black-slime stains off for some kind of "processing." Then the doctors checked his pulse and his eyes, gave him a few huffs from an oxygen tank and a couple plasters for his scrapes and scratches. Then he talked to the police.
"What was the condition of the body?"
"Erm...dead?" The constable gave him an underwhelmed look. "I mean, I didn't — didn't hang around, when I realized it was her."
"Could you find the room again?"
"Maybe?" Martin tugged on the scrub top where it kept threatening to ride up over his stomach. "There aren't exactly a lot of landmarks down there, but — well, I ran all the way back, and I'm not exactly the sporting type, you know? So it must be nearby. Near-ish, anyway."
The constable scribbled in her notebook a bit. "I think that's all for now, Mr. Blackwood. We'll be in touch."
"Erm—" Martin stood up at the same time she did. "Can I — it's just, I've been sleeping in the Archives for a — a while, and I was kind of wondering if I could go get my things?"
"You'll have to take that up with the ECDC people."
He did, and they told him the archives had finally been cleared, but cleared apparently meant something different than cleaned up. Martin tried not to tread on too many dead worms (or breath through his nose, really) but he had to shift a small mound of them to get into the storage room. The wall still gaped into the tunnels, and everything had been tossed around haphazardly by the hazmat teams rooting out the remaining worms. It seemed ridiculous now that he'd ever thought this place was safe.
He changed out of the scrubs, and hastily stuffed the rest of his clothes into his rucksack. He'd shake out the plaster dust later. For now he'd just … have to find a hotel or something, for the night. Maybe by now he'd be able to go back to his old flat — after all, it was no longer the scene of the worst thing that had ever happened to him…?
When he exited the storage room, he immediately saw another figure in the corridor, so swaddled in gauze that at first Martin thought it was Jon. His heart leapt into his throat, and on reflex, his hand flew to his chest … but the figure didn't react. And, now that he thought about it, he was too tall, anyway. "Tim?" Martin called.
Tim stopped his slow shuffled through worm corpses and looked up. He might've been trying to smile, but there were so many bandages taped to his face it was hard to parse his expressions. "Hey," he said hoarsely. "Look who made it out of the labyrinth. Glad they let you have your stuff."
"I figured you'd be gone as soon as they let you out of quarantine," Martin stammered. "How …?"
"Been better." Tim tossed his head in the direction of the door. "Jon's taking statements. I guess one of the tapes got lost, or something. Sasha's in there now."
Martin nodded, stomach sinking. "Did he … did he want me to…"
"He said you could come by if you wanted?" Tim scratched at where the medical tape pulled on his cheek. "Honestly, I would've thought he'd have already found you. Had a proper meltdown when we got split up down there, you know."
Good, thought a small, vicious part of him, but Martin was too exhausted and guilty to indulge it. "I've been busy," he mumbled. "And, erm, I'm … I'm sorry about..."
Tim huffed out something approximating his usual laugh. "Nothing to be sorry for, Martin. I'm glad one of us made it out in one piece." He offered a vague pat on the arm. "Don't let the idiot stay here all night, okay?"
"Sure." Martin forced a smile. "Get some rest."
He waited in the corridor outside the archives proper, where the worms were fewer and the air didn't taste like decay. There was blood on the floorboards, dark and dried — from Tim and Jon, when they'd been dragged out, worm-riddled and suffocating. Martin had been miles away at that point, lost underground in the labyrinthine tunnels, but he'd still heard the death screams of millions of worms.
And he'd felt when his heart skipped a beat.
Sasha emerged from the archives next. She hadn't been made to change into scrubs, but then again, she'd always been more put-together than the rest of them; if anyone could wade through a worm invasion and come out spotless, it was her. "Oh, hello, Martin," she said. "I didn't realize you were still here."
"Yeah, I, erm," Martin swallowed the lump in his throat. "I need to talk to Jon."
Sasha nodded. When Martin had emerged from the tunnels in full hysterics, she'd been the one to calm him down, to assure him that Jon wasn't dead, to parse his babbling about a body. "He's in his office," she said, voice gone flat with exhaustion. "I'm going to go home and get some rest."
"Yeah. Thanks." Martin braced himself, and ventured back into the archives.
He didn't know which of them was responsible for their pounding hearts. He could hear Jon's voice, low and intense, on the other side of the door, and for a moment his courage failed him. But they'd already proven that this wasn't going to go away just by ignoring it. He carefully turned the handle and easy the door open.
"... given their track record in this matter I am not optimistic," Jon was saying into the tape recorder. He was in scrubs and bandages, just like Tim, but he'd thrown a stretched-out cardigan over the top that made him look even smaller and thinner than normal. "There is something in these files, in these statements. I know that now, some deeper mystery. I think Gertrude Robinson found it, and I think that is why they killed—"
He broke off when he noticed Martin in the doorway, and looked up with a comically wall-eyed expression. For a moment they just looked at each other in silence. "Hi, Jon," Martin finally said, and Jon fumbled to switch off the tape.
"I — I thought you were still with the police," Jon stammered. Suddenly he was looking everywhere but Martin's direction, like it would turn him into a pillar of salt to try.
"They said they'd call if they had more questions." Martin dragged himself one step into the office, but couldn't quite bring himself any further. "Are you … okay?"
"Fine," Jon said quickly. "Painkillers are starting to wear off, but... It’s fine."
As if Martin was going to believe that. Or anything else Jon said, really. Not for a while, at least. "Tim said you were collecting statements about today…?"
"Er...yes." He started picking on one of his bandages. "But … I didn't expect you wanted anything to do with me, at this point."
Martin sighed, and dragged himself to the chair opposite Jon just so he didn't have to hold himself upright any longer. "Wanting doesn't much enter into it, does it?"
Jon flinched. "Of course. You don't — I know I've treated you very badly, Martin. I won't presume to ask your forgiveness."
"Does that even matter to you?" Martin blurted. He didn't know what he'd been expecting when he walked in, but this skittish, fragile version of Jon wasn't one he was familiar with. "Do you — it seems like you've been trying to get rid of me all this time."
"That's not true," Jon mumbled.
"Then why—" He realized he was raising his voice again, and forced it back down. "Then tell me. Tell me what you thought this was."
Jon gave a small, breathless laugh. "A statement? All right." He leaned back slightly in his chair and folded his arms tight across his chest. "I am not a — sociable person, which I assume you've noticed by now. I don't — interpersonal matters are not as easy for me as they are for you."
"You think they're easy for me?" Martin asked, baffled. Jon had met him, right?
Jon glanced at him, just a brief flick of the eyes, and one corner of his mouth turned up; it wrinkled a bandage. "You know the name of every librarian, every research assistant, every janitor in this building, Martin. You'd try to strike up small talk with a store mannequin. I don't know how to do that, I don't—" He cut himself off with a deep breath. "I have never been good at forming or maintaining friendships, much less.... Anyway. I suppose, at some point, I accepted solitude as my lot in life. I'd even persuaded myself I preferred it. And then … well, then there you were. A perfect stranger."
"And an idiot?" Martin put in, flatly.
Jon cringed. "I wasn't — I was scared, which I realize is no excuse for my behavior. I was scared you'd turn out to be an awful person, or you'd think I was awful, or there would be some vast, irreconcilable difference to deal with. I was also … angry, I suppose, that something so important could just … happen without my control or consent. So I told myself it wasn't true. I sought out every excuse I could find to dislike you so I could prove it wasn't true, that I had a choice in the matter."
Martin tried to parse this. "You shut me out all this time because you were angry at … what, the concept of soul mates?"
"Not...not the whole time." Jon sighed wearily. "But by the time I had resigned myself to the whole business, I had become...comfortable with the distance, I suppose. Any repeated action can become a habit, if you let it, and once when we started discovering the real statements I worried it might … carry over, or something. Affect you through me. I thought I was keeping you safe, which, well, Prentiss showed me the idiocy of that, and I thought … "
He paused again. "Thought what?" Martin prodded, uncertain if he really wanted to know the answer.
"I ruin every relationship I'm in anyway," Jon said quietly, gazing at his gauze-wrapped hands. "So I thought I might as well skip ahead to the end, and save us both the trouble."
There were too many potential responses to that, and most of them involved swearing. Martin finally settled on, "That's not a decision you get to make for both of us."
Jon's looked up, eyes huge and dark behind the sweep of his mussed-up hair. "Then...there is an us?"
"This isn't going away, Jon," Martin said, weary down to his bones. "I'm not going away. I don't know if I even can."
"What do you mean?"
"Why haven't you just quit, if this job scares you so much?" he asked, instead of answering. "Why didn't Sasha quit? Why can't I?"
"I…" Jon hesitated, frowning, like he suspected this was a trick question. "I assumed you were staying because of — me, actually."
"I mean, a bit?" Martin admitted. "But I've thought about quitting, since Prentiss. Even typed up a few resignation letters, but… I just couldn’t bring myself to hand them in." He took a deep breath. "I’m trapped here. It’s like I can’t... move on, and the more I struggle, the more I’m stuck."
Jon frowned, leaning forward over his desk. In the face of another mystery, some of his shame seemed to have melted away. "I've seen you leave the building…"
"Not literally trapped," Martin said. Christ. How on earth had he ever thought Jon was clever? "It’s just that, whatever web these statements have caught you in? Well, I’m there too. We all are, I think."
Jon shut his eyes. "I don't … want to quit," he admitted. "I know I should, I know it would be safer, but I can't … I have to know what this place is. I have to know what's in this archive that was worth killing for."
Martin thought about Gertrude's body, and the constellation of holes in her chest, bloodstains long gone brown and dry. It was far, far too easy to transpose the faces, to imagine those holes in one of Jon's ugly suits instead. But if he couldn't leave the Institute, and Jon wouldn't…
"Then I guess I'm helping you," Martin sighed.
Jon grimaced. "That's not — this is dangerous, Martin. Some in this institute is a murderer—"
"So I should let you get murdered, too?" Martin asked, unable to completely rein in his anger. "Like I did today? Because I felt that. You almost died and I could feel it and I don't ever want to feel that again."
He was aware of tears sliding down his face, but in a detached sort of way, like they were happening to someone else. Jon looked properly horrified, like the idea hadn't even occurred to him until now, and his mouth opened and closed without any words escaping it.
Martin removed his glasses to rub the tears away with his sleeve. "Sorry."
"No, I — it's all right," Jon finally said. "We've both had a long day, and Lord knows I deserve it..."
"No, I mean…" Martin tried to calm himself with a shaky breath, but it turned into a sob. "I'm sorry I left you."
"Oh, Martin…" Jon somehow managed to make comfort sound like a scold.
"It was an accident—"
"It's fine, Martin, everybody's … everyone's fine." The fact that he was saying that while wrapped up like a mummy dragged an ugly laugh out of Martin. Jon grimaced a bit. "It's over, at least. It's finished."
Such easy absolution, first Tim's and now Jon's, was a bit much for Martin to take in. Not that he could've changed anything, he supposed, but they were almost killed and he wasn't and it didn't feel right that Jon was trying to reassure him instead of the other way around. Then again, he supposed, on the balance Jon couldn't really fault someone else for—
No. No, if he kept thinking like that they'd never get anywhere. Jon was right. This was finished.
Martin swiped his face with his sleeve again, and asked in the steadiest voice he could manage, "C-can we just start over?"
Jon blinked. "I'm not sure I understand."
"Just. With us." Martin sniffled a bit. "You were a p-prick and I was an idiot and we can't change that. But if we're going to — to do anything together, to figure things out, we have to be able to go forward. So let's just … make it a clean slate."
Jon leaned back in his chair, picking a bit at one of his bandages. "How can you possibly trust me after everything I've done?" he asked quietly.
Martin shrugged. "Dunno. I'll figure something out, thought, if you … if you want that." Because Jon hadn't yet said exactly what he wanted. If he still resented this link, if he still preferred solitude … Martin would figure out how to be all right with that. It wouldn't be the first time he'd been abandoned, after all.
"Come home with me," Jon blurted.
"Elias was rather … firm about my going home to recuperate," Jon explained, and he was definitely nervous; their hearts were pounding, and there was a fine tremor in his voice Martin never expected to hear directed at him. "And it's not as if you can keep sleeping here. I don't know if you've been keeping up with the rent on your flat all this time, but … but we both need rest, and I …" Jon swallowed. "I will rest easier if I know you're safe."
Martin knew he was gaping and couldn't help it. It was only the sort of thing he'd been waiting for Jon to say since they met, and the whiplash — after everything else today — was dizzying. Was Jon just saying it to please him? Did he actually care? Was he reading too much into a friendly gesture, born of shared trauma?
Did it matter?
"Okay," Martin said, and Jon relaxed immediately, the line of his shoulders going soft. "Do you — are we going now, or—?"
"Yes, I'm — I'm done here for now." He ejected the tape in the tape recorder and fumbled it into its case, then shoved it and the tape recorder into his bag. His hands were shaking.
Martin picked up his rucksack, and took Jon's bag from him once it was packed. Jon tucked an aluminum crutch under his arm to keep the weight off his corkscrewed leg. Together, they made their slow way out of the tomb that was the Archives, locking the door behind them.
They took a cab to Jon's flat in Mile End. It was a newish building, sort of blandly pleasant and generic; the flat was much the same. Very clean, probably because he'd been spending so many nights at the Institute, with Ikea furniture only just starting to show some wear and tear. It could almost be a catalogue photo if not for the decorations — vintage postcards, carefully matted and framed, hung on nearly every wall that wasn't taken up by a bookshelf. It wasn't quite the aesthetic Martin would've expected for Jon, but it did add a touch of humanity to the space.
"I can make up the sofa for you," Jon said as he limped inside. "Or — I have an air mattress around here somewhere, I think, if that sounds more comfortable—"
"The sofa's fine," Martin said. Jon was definitely flagging, moving carefully as if he might shatter, and he didn't want him to push himself too hard. "I can make it up myself, if you want to get to bed."
Jon looked like he wanted to protest, for a minute, but then nodded. "Yes, I — all right. Erm. Make yourself at home, I suppose."
Martin laid out the sheets Jon offered him, and then helped himself to a shower. Maybe he was just imagining the clinging smell of death and worms and fear, but it still felt good to get clean; if he cried a bit, it was masked by the pounding spray. Five months of terror, and five years of uncertainty, didn't wash away easily. Maybe they never would.
He peeked into the bedroom when he came out of the bath. Jon had changed out of the scrubs and was sprawled on his face on top of the bedclothes in a t-shirt and pajama bottoms. Even in sleep, his forehead was creased, and the dark shadows under his eyes seemed all the darker. But his breathing was deep and even, and their heartbeat was steady, and in spite of everything Martin did still feel a touch of fondness for this stubborn, prickly bastard. Maybe that was enough to work with.
He tried to tug a fold of the duvet up over Jon's back without disturbing him, but either he wasn't careful enough or Jon wasn't as deep a sleeper as he seemed. "Mmmtn?"
"Sorry," Martin said, stepping away.
One of Jon's arms flailed out towards him, lazy and imprecise. One dark eye opened just a slit, gleaming in the light from the hall. "Don' go."
That was just...unfair, was what that was. Martin had to look away for a moment to gather his resolve, and his eyes fell on the strip of blister packaging on the bedside table. All but one pill had been punched out. "Did you take painkillers on an empty stomach?" he asked warily.
"Mmm-hmm." Jon's hand groped toward him again, and this time it found his.
Martin sighed, but he let himself smile, fairly confident that Jon wouldn't remember this in the morning anyway. "I'm not going anywhere," he said, giving his hand a very careful squeeze.
Jon mumbled something unintelligible; it might've been promise and better, or Martin might just be projecting. Gradually, his grip went slack, and after a few moments Martin was free to slip out of the bedroom.
He went into the kitchen, but Jon didn't have much food in: instant noodles, freezer-burned chicken, a couple of suspicious tomatoes. Martin considered doing a shop in the morning, just so Jon could rest his leg. Might as well fill his prescriptions while he was out, too, and stock up on bandages and dressings. And then...
Maybe they could talk, then. Make up for lost time.
Martin curled up on the couch under a scratchy afghan, and slept, and mercifully did not dream.