At one of the Magnus Institute's annual holiday parties a few years ago, Tim, against all odds, managed to convince Jon to join him for a round of karaoke.
It took him the better part of an hour and Martin remembers hovering nearby, watching it happen in mild panic as Sasha solemnly topped off his champagne. Tim, however, with several feet of tinsel draped around his neck like a glittering scarf and a crooked santa hat perched on his head, seemed immune to Martin's discomfort. His alcohol intake had reached the fateful point that tends to inspire clumsy physical affection, and Martin remembers feeling his face flush anew in a mix of secondhand embarrassment and envy every time Tim would rub his cheek against Jon's, or tighten the arm he had coiled around his shoulders.
But that's beside the point.
The point is , eventually, Tim wore Jon down and led him by the wrist to the front of the breakroom. He pressed a little plastic mic into Jon's hand, rosy cheeks dimpled in a triumphant grin. Jon rolled his eyes. Martin tipped his head back and drank.
And there, in front of the entire Institute faculty, Jon performed a straight-faced but pitch-perfect rendition of All I Want For Christmas Is You.
Martin wasn't sure what was more surprising: the fact that Jon could sing, or the fact that he didn't even need to look at the monitor to know the lyrics.
Martin nearly spit up his drink then, and he nearly does it again now, eyes snapping wide open as he gapes at Jon across the kitchen table.
"You were in a band? "
Jon schools his face into neutrality, but Martin knows him well enough by now to recognize the amusement twinkling in his eyes. He wipes the wine Jon brought back from the shop earlier from his lips with the back of his hand.
It's been a while since he's been so pleasantly buzzed, and he wagers the same goes for Jon. They've yet to cross the threshold into uncoordinated touching (though Martin remains hopeful), but they have been reaping some of the subtler rewards of dulled inhibitions, private little confessions and clumsy attempts at flirtation passing comfortably between them as the pale Scottish sun goes down outside their kitchen window.
Which is how it's come to this.
Jon sets down his wine glass with a faint clink.
"I was young once, too, I'll have you know," he says, lifting his chin. It makes the line of his jaw stand out nicely, drawing Martin's gaze along it for a moment before he remembers himself. He makes a show of squinting in disbelief. A smile breaks through on Jon's face then, and he shoves his foot into Martin's shin under the table. His diminutive height means he has to slouch deliberately and stick his leg out all the way to make contact, and Martin is so endeared by it that he nearly forgets he's trying to tease Jon right now, not fawn over him.
"Alright, funny-man. I'll prove it to you," Jon huffs, struggling upright.
Martin grins back at him, leaning forward in his chair in anticipation.
Jon tugs his phone out of his pocket and begins to thumb through what Martin assumes is his gallery. While Martin waits, he sips his wine and thinks about the pictures he already knows are there. There's the one of him posing in front of a fenced-off field full of dozens of grazing highland cows, another of Jon's first successful knitting project - a nice navy blue scarf. This might be wishful thinking, but Martin swears he once even caught Jon taking a snapshot of him mid-yawn and still curled up in bed with messy hair and a pillow-wrinkled cheek.
The thought makes him have to bite back a dopey smile. It's not that Martin thinks that it would make a flattering picture - far from it - but the idea that Jon would want to take it in the first place...Martin's allowed to be pleased about that, isn't he?
"Aha," Jon says, snapping his fingers and startling Martin out of his thoughts. Then he squints at his screen, bringing it closer to his face. Under the glow of his phone, Martin can just barely make out a pretty flush on his brown cheeks and wonders if it's the wine or the photo.
Then Jon's mouth twists. "I look...more embarrassing than I remember."
Well, now Martin has to see it. He nudges Jon's foot with his own. "Show me."
Jon scratches the stubble on his jaw in thought for a moment before sighing and offering Martin his phone. Martin swipes it from his grip before he can change his mind.
"That's from my second year in uni, I think," Jon says, and Martin can hear him drumming his fingers against the table in a clumsy rhythm. "Georgie - she was in the band, too. She sent me that after she dug up her old camcorder. I forgot about it until now."
It's a video, Martin realizes then, and his eyes go wide when he looks at the thumbnail. He hits play.
Martin already knew, of course, that Jon didn't come out of the womb looking world-weary and prematurely grey, but it's still a shock to see him quite so young, even in the grainy quality of the footage.
"Oh, look at you," he mumbles, and his mouth stays open for a long while.
On screen, Jon's ears are more piercing than they are flesh and he's sitting with his scrawny legs - clad in ripped maroon skinny jeans, incredibly - dangling over the edge of what appears to be an old wooden stage. There's a faded Ramones album cover print on his shirt and a bass guitar balanced in his lap. His fingers, tipped with chipped black nailpolish, absently tune the instrument, pausing now and then to thumb at the strings.
What endears Martin the most, though, is that even if Jon hadn't told Martin this was him once, Martin still would have recognized him, if nothing else, by the pinched look of concentration on his face.
There are idle chatter and shuffling feet in the background of the video, but the only intelligible words come in Georgie's static-fringed voice as the camera zooms in on Jon's bowed head.
" Hey, Jon ."
The boy on screen looks up, brow creasing further when he appears to notice he's being filmed.
Then Martin hears Georgie giggle behind her camcorder. " Make that face I hate ."
Martin's stomach does a flip when uni-Jon's shaggy, dark hair falls into his eyes as he shakes his head and laughs at what must be some kind of inside joke. After a few more seconds of Georgie whining, however, he lets out a resigned breath that Martin recognizes all too well.
He's thinking about the strangeness of hearing something so familiar from a version of Jon he never knew, the poetry of life, when the boyish grin disappears from Jon's face and is instantly replaced by a horrendous approximation of a come-hither look unfit for even the most cringeworthy of poorly-acted pornos.
Georgie erupts into tinny, hysterical cackling, demanding he both stop and never stop, and every time she gets herself under control enough for Jon's face to come back into focus, he immediately begins making exaggerated kissing noises at her - and the camera. The video ends in the middle of one of her laughing fits, Jon's motion-blurred face wiped across the screen.
Across the table, Jon runs a hand through his hair, laughing under his breath. "We called it the douche face."
Martin's cheeks sting from how hard he's grinning. "You named it. Brilliant."
As discreetly as he can manage, he taps the menu at the top right of the screen and sends himself the video. There's a small part of him that feels a little jealous of Georgie, even though he knows he shouldn't. Still, Jon looks so happy in that recording that Martin knows he'll want to see it again, even if it's a bittersweet reminder that Jon had - and still has - a life completely outside of their relationship. Outside of Martin.
He tries not to let it get to him, still smiling as he hands the phone back to Jon. He's just uninhibited enough to add, "You were very cute, you know. When you weren't making the douche face."
He catches Jon's furtive smile just before he tucks it behind a scarred hand. "You think?"
"Oh yes," Martin tells him, heart tripping in his chest when Jon squirms in his seat. He decides to show them both mercy and pivots. "So, um, you played bass then?"
Jon's bashful expression slips away as he snorts. "In the loosest possible sense of the word." Then he pauses, considering his wine glass, twisting the stem between his elegant fingers. Martin watches them, and doesn't realize he's wetting his lips until the taste of wine touches his tongue. "But I...I sang, too. That was more my forte."
That breaks Martin out of his stupor and he meets Jon's eyes again. "Do you remember that Christmas party, when you and Tim sang Mariah Carey?"
Jon huffs a laugh. "Christ. I almost wish I didn't."
"You sounded really good," Martin tells him. "You should sing for me sometime."
Jon shifts, his chair creaking under him. He lifts his glass, smiling around the lip of it. "Maybe," he says, "If you really want."
Martin nods with vigor, and it makes him a little dizzy. "I really want."
He's fantasized about Jon's voice a million different times in a million different ways. Sometimes, he hears Jon humming to himself as he's elbow-deep in dish soap suds or folding laundry. What he wouldn't give to hear him actually sing - outside the context of an alcohol-fueled round of Mariah Carey-oke.
Jon meets his eyes then, a charming flush on his cheeks. Martin rests his chin in his hand. He knows he must be making a beyond goofy face right now, but he doesn't care. He's fuzzy with fondness and wine, and with the way Jon's looking at him, it's easy to let himself think the feeling is mutual.
"You're unbelievable, you know that?" he murmurs, unthinking, his voice thick with affection. He goes hot at his own honesty, but still can't seem to get the smile off his face.
Jon offers him a wobbly grin in return, as awkward as it is sincere. Then he sucks in a breath with a quick shake of his head, almost like he's snapping himself out of some kind of trance. He clears his throat, the spell broken.
"Well," he says, and Martin can tell by his posture that he's resting his hands primly in his lap, "I'm sure you're full of surprises yourself."
Martin hums, leaning forward on the elbow he has resting on the table and tilting his head to one side.
"It's hard to say what'll surprise you, what with your whole," he makes a vague gesture in Jon's direction with his glass, "Archivist thing."
Jon pouts, insofar as Jon is capable of such a thing, and Martin giggles, lifting his glass to his lips before realizing it's empty. He pours himself some more wine from the glossy green bottle between them before holding it out to Jon. He lifts his eyebrows in question.
"I don't try to Know things about you, Martin," Jon grumbles, sliding his glass within pouring range.
A sardonic little smile curls Martin's lip as he tops Jon off. "I know, Jon," he says, setting the bottle back down.
Jon leans forward. "Go on, then. It's your turn. Tell me something about you I don't know."
Martin can't help but snort at that. "If I start with that we might be here all night."
He relaxes into his chair, closing his eyes and sipping his wine. When several moments pass without an answer from Jon, Martin glances back at him across the table.
Jon is looking at him strangely, his newly-full glass still untouched.
"What?" Martin asks, the heat of his skin beginning to fester. He was aiming for levity. Apparently, he missed the mark.
The crease between Jon's brows deepens like a cut, his dark eyes still fixed on Martin's.
"I don't think that's true," he says, clear but quiet. "I think that I -- " He stops then with a withering breath, scrubbing a hand down his face. When he removes it, he’s pressed his mouth into a tight line, and there's a protective look in his eyes that does funny things to the pit of Martin's stomach.
"I don't think that's true," Jon repeats at length.
The highlands are quiet, especially after sunset. There's the occasional gust of wind in the trees or ringing church bell, but they don't even come close to being as loud as London. Martin expected that; was counting on it. He and Jon came to the highlands to disappear. But the country has never seemed so loud as it does right now, and Daisy's safehouse has never seemed so quiet.
Jon cuts through the deafening silence like it's been choking him. "I don't -- I have trouble saying it," he starts, "but you know how I feel about you, don't you?"
Martin feels a blush splash across his face like hot wine. He looks Jon in the eyes; sees the desperate honesty in them. He knows in his head what Jon is trying to say. His heart has always been harder to convince.
He shrinks into his chair, blood beating in his ears as he stares down into his glass and does the same thing he does every time someone tells him they care about him, as rarely as it happens: he scrambles for reasons why they shouldn't.
It's not hard to do, considering everything that's happened. Considering who he is as a person and who they are as a unit. Not for the first time since they ran away together, a camera reel of all the things they don't know about one another whirs behind Martin's eyes, and he can't help but look at all the sprawling magnetic tape and wonder if they’re going to wind up a romance or a tragedy.
"The thing is," he begins before he can second-guess himself, "I keep thinking about what Peter said. About how maybe...maybe we don't really know each other."
And he hates it. He hates that the thought won't leave. Hates that he still has doubts. Because they were having a nice time, for once . Because things are far from ideal, but at least they're finally together and there are no swathes of worms beating down the doors, no wax figures or circus music, no choking fog curling like beckoning fingers. Just them and a little too much wine. But Martin is still Martin, and, in more ways than he'd like to admit, those months he spent isolated aren't over yet. Peter Lukas may have wanted to die alone, but he has a funny way of sticking around, invisible but nasty like sea-salt in your eye. Martin is sick of the sting.
He chances a timid look at Jon, feeling a stab of guilt at the frown his eyes find. "Sorry," he mumbles on instinct, tipping his head back down. That stings, too.
Jon sighs like it's been wrung out of him. "Don't apologize. It's - It's alright."
Martin bites his bottom lip. "Is it?"
"Yes." The decisiveness in Jon's voice startles Martin into looking back up. He sees the moment determination softens into reassurance on Jon's face. "I don't want you to be afraid to talk to me, even if you think I won't want to hear it."
Martin looks away again. "So you don't want to hear it."
Jon makes a garbled, agitated noise. "I -- No, alright? I don't, because it's nonsense. But now that you've said it, I can tell you why. "
Oh. Martin's gaze slowly drifts back to him. He opens his mouth, but closes it again when he realizes he doesn't actually know what to say.
Jon huffs quietly. "I've been thinking about what he said, too," he admits. "Almost constantly. But Martin…"
He falters, lips forming minute, soundless shapes as he struggles for words. His eyes close and he makes a face like he's counting to ten in his head. Then he breaks.
"Peter wasn't there for it all," he blurts out, throwing his hands up in the air. Martin jolts. "How could -- he's the one who doesn't know us, Martin."
Despite everything, the "us" makes something light and feathery flutter in Martin's chest.
Jon runs a hand through his hair, pressing on with the momentum of a freight train. "I think the only reason he even said that was -- Well, what's more terrifying to an avatar of The Eye than to insinuate there's something they don't know? He was trying to get a rise out of me. And I suppose it worked. But he was wrong ."
Jon pauses just long enough that Martin could interject, if he wanted to. He doesn't.
Jon rubs his temple. "Not that I wasn't -- I mean, I know that I wasn't always... nice to you, to put it generously. And I spent a lot of time taking you for granted." His voice drops low, until it's gone.
Martin bites the inside of his cheek. Jon's apologized for this before, and though Martin understands it - appreciates it, even - it's one more box checked off the list of reasons why maybe they don't make sense, after all. Martin doesn't want to believe that, but sometimes the fog clouding the bathroom mirror is too cold to be steam and when he wipes it away the only reflection he sees is the shower curtain behind where his body should be.
It's hard to argue with The Lonely when it sounds so much like you; when it fits so seamlessly into the life you lead. He'd never go with it willingly, but he can still feel it, when he has a moment alone, trying to find purchase on his ankles; trying to pull him under.
Jon's fingers drum against his temple, face scrunched in concentration. He stares down at the whorls in the wood of the table.
"But even then," he goes on, "Even then, you were...you were Martin . I knew you. Parts of you, if nothing else." His breath is shaky when he exhales. " Peter didn't see us. The late nights in the archive, the cups of tea, the idiotic holiday parties - "
Martin finds himself smiling, just a little, into his palm.
" - Those weren't nothing to me. They -- You weren't nothing."
Jon looks at him then, and his expression is so wild and open and desperate that Martin can't believe it's directed at him; that Jon wants something from him so badly he looks sick over it. That Martin has anything to offer in the first place.
Jon squeezes his own hands.
"I'll never be able to apologize enough for how awful I was at first, but I knew you. Even before I --" and he can't help but stumble here, it seems, "Even before I loved you, I knew you."
The knot in Martin's chest is tugged loose, just an inch, but it's enough to let him breathe.
Jon's gaze softens as if he can see it. "I knew you were always losing track of your USB sticks, and that they'd only turn up again after you'd bought a replacement. I knew you were fiercely territorial about that cow mug - with the horns, you remember - the one you kept in the archive kitchenette. And I knew your handwriting. I recognized it on all those post-it notes you'd stick on case files, or notes you'd scribble in the margins." He smiles. "It’s the way you write your capital t’s."
Martin had forgotten about those notes. It's so strange how things that were once part of your daily routine can feel so far away. He's surprised Jon even remembers them. They were messy, trivial little things, full of half-formed thoughts and idle speculation. They helped Martin think, but he'd always gotten the feeling they'd annoyed Jon. But he doesn't look annoyed at all.
He looks wistful, that whisper of a smile still touching his lips. "I always thought it was nice," he says. "Your handwriting."
Martin's not sure why that's what does it, but he feels pressure build behind his eyes, hot and fizzy. He sucks in his lips, trying not to cry.
"And maybe those things are trivial, but they're real. They're a part of you." Jon nods to himself once, curt. "So they're important to me."
Before Martin can even begin to respond to that, realization flashes on Jon's face.
"Which isn't to say that's all I know about you. I -- Christ, I'm bad at this -- here - " He straightens in his seat, clearing his throat. When he speaks again, his fingers keep count. "I know you bite the inside of your cheek when you're nervous. I know the kind of deodorant you use -- I mean, I couldn't name it, exactly, but if you changed it, I'd know. I - I know how you smell. I like how you smell."
Martin lets out a laugh and is surprised at how wrecked it sounds. He's still not quite crying, but at this point it's only a matter of time. He really, really wants to blame it on the alcohol.
Jon seems encouraged by this, somehow, the flustered edge to his voice smoothing out. "I know that you have a freckle, right here," he taps a finger against the inside of his wrist next to his pulse point, his gaze like a magnifying glass, "that's bigger than the others. And, God help me, I know you're the only person alive who can be so - so charming when talking about spiders, of all things."
The hot pressure in Martin's sinuses swells and he folds his hands over his face, fingertips meeting just above the bridge of his nose. It's too much, it's too lovely, but Jon is relentless, running a hand through his disheveled hair and looking at Martin like he's been wandering for so long and Martin is home coming into view from around the bend.
“I know you’ve always been kind to me, even when I didn’t deserve it. I know that you’re brave and clever and too often underestimated. I know you mutter in your sleep. I...think it’s sweet, actually. And I know that that’s far from all, and - and, fine, perhaps there are things about you I might never know," Jon says, his voice thick with something Martin doesn't dare put a name to, "but, Martin, isn't that okay?"
He bites his lip, glancing away for a moment. When he looks back, his eyes are shining.
"Isn't that the point?" His voice is suddenly very small.
Martin feels tears drip onto his fingertips. "Jon," he chokes out into his palms.
"W-Wait." Jon quickly lifts a finger. "I - I'm not finished," he says through the distressed waver in his voice. "Please don't cry until I am. And afterwards I promise I'll - I'll climb over this table and kiss you and we can get drunk and I'll sing, whatever you want, just - "
Martin laughs wetly before croaking, "Okay."
Jon nods, his finger curling back into his palm. "It's just," he breathes out, "We don't need to know everything about each other, Martin. We know enough, I think. We can take our time learning the rest. You're not some mystery for me to solve, or, or a buffet of trivia for me to pick at. You're so much more. More than everything I just listed, even. You're a person who's dear to me. I know that. I feel that. And I really think we're going to be okay."
His face is twisted up and pleading, and it's the loveliest he's ever looked. "Does that make sense?"
"Please come over here." Martin is not ashamed to beg.
Jon's chair squeaks against the tiled kitchen floor when he all but leaps to his feet. Martin shifts, arms reaching out. Jon clambers into his lap. They look at each other for a moment, a long and longing look, and then they kiss.
A muffled cry of relief dissolves in the back of Martin's throat, his trembling hands reaching blindly for whatever part of Jon they find first. One settles on the angle of his jaw, the other on the small of his back. Jon's fingers curl into the wool of Martin's jumper, pulling him closer for one brilliant moment before jerking him out of the kiss. He takes Martin's head in his hands.
"You're everything to me," he rushes out. Martin blinks at him, wet, ruddy cheeks squished between Jon's palms. Jon swallows visibly. "You're you."
Martin lets the choked sob that comes out of him speak for itself. When Jon leans back in, Martin can feel his heart hammer against his chest, like it's trying to knock down every last barrier between them.
They start to kiss at cross-purposes. Jon tries to soothe, sweeping his mouth over Martin's slow and steady. It feels like a balm that Martin isn't ready for just yet. He claws at the back of Jon's shirt, more interested in the pure sensation of Jon's teeth and tongue and everything than any sort of rhythm. He hears the rumble of Jon's muffled moans; feels them in his mouth. They rock back and forth between the two extremes, the turbulence of it making Martin's head spin. He could drown like this and love it.
When they break apart, the first thing Jon does is go, "Martin," dazed and breathy. It's the nicest thing he's ever said.
Martin sticks his head under Jon's chin, arms tight around his waist, and it's -- a little odd, actually. Jon is such a slight man, Martin's anatomical opposite in almost every way, but his arms come to rest around Martin's shoulders, his cheek warm on the crown of Martin's head, and Martin has never felt so enveloped by love. He almost starts crying again when Jon kisses his head once, then twice, before letting his lips linger there as he takes a deep breath in. Martin holds him a little tighter, trembling in Jon's embrace, riding out the aftershocks of his tears.
"I used to do AmDram in uni," Jon says.
Martin stops shuddering at once. "Um."
"And," Jon goes on, smoothing the chunky wrinkles in the fabric covering Martin's back, "I'm allergic to strawberries. They make my tongue all itchy and numb."
Slowly, Martin leans back and blinks at him, still at a complete loss. He frowns, sniffling.
Something about it must endear Jon, because he looks at Martin the same way he looks at the videos of kittens learning to walk he watches at the internet cafe in the village. Martin's not sure how to feel about it until Jon bends to give him another kiss, soft and open.
He draws back too soon, glancing into Martin's eyes before squeezing his own shut.
"Err." His shoulders arch up toward his ears, his nose scrunching. "I also really like those awful paperback bodice-rippers. The ones with shirtless men on the cover?"
He's close enough that Martin can feel the heat radiating off his face in waves. Jon's eyes crack open just slightly, the same way they do after he squashes a spider with a book and peeks underneath it to see if it's dead. "I...may or may not have a collection."
Okay, well. Martin is definitely going to demand access to it at some point, but for now - "Why are you telling me this?"
Jon relaxes somewhat, fingers hooking into the front of Martin's jumper, as if trying to pull him just a little bit closer. He's looking intently somewhere under Martin's chin, shrugging.
"Just...some Jon-trivia," he says, picking at a loose thread in the collar of Martin's jumper. "In the spirit of covering all my bases vis-a-vis Peter Lukas's unsolicited, wrong opinions on our relationship."
Our relationship, our relationship, our relationship. The corner of Martin's mouth twitches up. "Jon-trivia?"
"Whatever you want to call it." Jon leans forward, resting his cheek on Martin's shoulder. He nestles into him with a content little sigh, wedging his arms between Martin's back and his chair so he can hold him. It can't be comfortable; Martin waits for him to pull back. But he doesn't. He keeps holding him tight. "Peter Lukas, the Lonely -- I won't have any of it upsetting you anymore. I won't have it. Even if I have to share my embarrassing affinity for trashy romance novels to reassure you."
Martin grins. "You know, you volunteered that information all on your own," he points out, giving Jon's waist a squeeze.
Jon sighs. "I know. Please validate my guilty pleasures."
"You are hereby validated," Martin announces. In fact, if it were possible, Martin would say this makes him love Jon even more. "But, for the record, I don't want to hear any more bitching about me liking Keats."
Jon lets out a groan so loud it's comical and Martin can't help but laugh, forehead dropping to Jon's bony shoulder. He thinks he feels Jon smile into his neck.
"I suppose there are worse poets," Jon concedes. "Romantic and otherwise."
Martin lifts his head, enlightened. "Rupi Kaur."
Jon swings upright so fast Martin has to grab onto his shirt to keep him from falling out of his lap. His eyes are wide in outrage.
"Rupi fucking Kaur," he spits, raw malice twisting his face, and Martin starts laughing again, that giddy feeling from earlier settling back in his chest like it was always meant to be there.
"Finally, poetry we can agree on," he says.
"That's not poetry," Jon scoffs, "That's a violation of the Geneva convention."
And Martin's not sure why that , of all the things Jon has said tonight, makes him blurt the words, "I love you," but it does, and he means them with every part of himself. Every cup of tea, every post-it note, every freckle. He doesn't stop smiling.
The disdain on Jon's face withers away, timid delight blooming in its place. It makes him look desperately young. Martin says it again: "I love you, Jon."
Jon's warm, calloused hands rise to frame Martin's face, fingertips leaving behind streaks of heat on his skin when Jon has them follow the soft swell of Martin’s cheeks. His gaze is like firewood, dark and warm, and when he looks down, Martin doesn't realize where his eyes have landed until he feels Jon's thumb brush his lips.
His hand dips below Martin's chin, fingers curling in a gentle grip and drawing him forward. Martin's heart flutters like a hummingbird; Jon's mouth is lily-soft. When they kiss, Martin feels full.
Jon is smiling when they part.
"I love you, too," he says.
Martin puts his hand on Jon's chest, feeling his heart ready to leap out into his palm. He nods with a little grin.