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Where Airy Voices Lead

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1.

Martin has always been an anxious dreamer.

He doesn’t have nightmares, exactly. It’s not as though he wakes up shouting or sitting bolt upright in bed (which he’s certain people only do in films, or at least when they’ve done a lot more sit-ups than he has). The number of people he’s spent the night with hardly qualifies as an anecdote let alone a survey sample, but none of them ever accused him of talking in his sleep or tossing and turning. The dreams are just that, dreams, more fretful than frightening. At worst he finds himself relieved when he blearily surfaces at three o’clock in the morning and realizes he was worked up over nothing.

When he was small, the dreams were usually about bears. Grizzlies for the most part, with the occasional polar bear and one instance involving Rupert that he still doesn't like to talk about. They never attacked him, or even tried to. They would just be there, somewhere they shouldn’t, standing in between Martin and something he badly needed. He would try to explain to his mother that he couldn’t go fetch Dad from the garden because there was a bear on the landing, but she would refuse to go see, or else the words wouldn’t come out of his mouth in the right order. Inevitably, everyone would be very disappointed in him.

As he got older, his dreams turned into the clichéd muddle of incomprehensible exams and forgotten trousers. He still sometimes has the one where he’s late with his dissertation and the English department has somehow turned into a tube station with no service to his advisor's office. The disastrous year he spent in publishing added misplaced manuscripts to the regular rotation, which has carried over to his time at the archives. The only difference is that now the boxes he rummages through for missing paperwork are more apt to start bleeding.

These dreams are all normal, for a given definition of normal. They map onto his everyday worries, taking a piece of a bad commute or a snippet of a disappointing performance review and mashing them together in front of a carnival mirror. They aren’t nice, but they’re a fact of life.

The one he’s been having about Jon is...stranger.

It happens for the first time a month after Gertrude’s disappearance and two weeks after Jon takes over as Head Archivist. In the dream, they are both at Martin’s grandmother’s house in Kent. The old place is as huge and tomb-like as it seemed to him as a little boy. The hallway, with its damp and peeling wallpaper, stretches on in twisting catacombs on either side of him as he stands in front of the locked door leading to his grandfather’s study.

The door is made of dark red mahogany. It’s sweating even though the house is cold. Thin rivulets of rust-stained moisture run slowly down its deeply carved geometric lines and drip onto the carpet. He can hear something on the other side, something heavy and soft moving around unpleasantly on the floor.

“Where’s the key?” Jon is asking him.

He pats down his pockets, but the key’s not there. It occurs to him that he ought to ask Gertrude where it is, but she’s downstairs. She’s downstairs, and there is something on the landing...

Martin.”

“I don’t know,” Martin says, “I can’t...”

He can’t think straight, especially not when Jon’s hand slides into his pocket. The contact is embarrassing and exciting.

“Martin, where is it?”

“I don’t know,” he lies as Jon presses closer, pushing him up against the door. The wood is pulsing like something alive. He can feel the moisture soaking into his shirt, and Jon’s breath is hot on the back of his neck as he fumbles for the doorknob, the metal stinging cold as it turns with an awful click and he suddenly remembers—

And that’s when he wakes up.

His eyes open to the dark grey of his bedroom. He isn’t gasping or flailing. He isn’t sweating or panting. He is, however, uncomfortably hard.

A sleep-rusty sound leaves his throat. Still half-asleep, he checks his nonexistent pockets for a nonexistent key. He winces as his hand bumps against his prick. The blood supply is so stubbornly diverted that he can’t even go hot in the face over nearly having a wet dream about his boss. He reaches for his phone on the bedside table and confirms that he’s got three more hours before he needs to get up. He lies there for a while, considering whether to have a wank, but by the time he makes up his mind, the throbbing has already started to die down and he feels a little ill.

He rolls over instead and sticks his head under the pillow. The details of the dream are fading, leaving only the faint impression of doorways in the backs of his eyes. He muzzily hopes he’ll forget about it entirely before he has to face Jon at work.

 

2.

“You must think I’m awfully silly,” Ms. Griffiths says, taking Jon’s arm as he walks her out of his office.

Her voice carries through the archives, big and billowy, and Martin shouldn’t be watching the two of them but he can’t help it. Sheryl Griffiths is good-looking in a daytime telly sort of way, and it’s her third visit to the Institute this month. Martin has already grimly printed out a new cross-reference slip for 0160924. All of her reports are standard spectral encounters, unsubstantiated, no physical evidence. He doesn’t necessarily think that annoying people can’t get haunted, but she’s very cheerful for someone allegedly sharing a flat with the ghost of a murdered 19th century opera singer.

“No,” Jon replies, and Ms. Griffiths starts to smile before he finishes. “Merely mistaken, perhaps.”

Martin hears Sasha stifle a laugh a few shelves over.

Ms. Griffiths isn’t deterred. “Do you make house calls?”

“I understand one of our investigative teams has already conducted an overnight study. And found nothing, I might add.”

“I was asking you.” Ms. Griffiths smacks Jon on the chest playfully and laughs like she honestly thinks he’s being funny instead of a bit of a prat. “You’ve been so patient with me. I just know Catrina will come out and say hello if you come by.”

Jon declines again, visibly flustered this time. He starts trying to steer Ms. Griffiths toward the door, and at the sight of this, Martin's traitorous brain dangles an almost agonizingly stupid fantasy of coming to the rescue. In it, he sets down the file box he's holding and steps out of the stacks. He walks over, cool and casual as anything, and flashes a polite smile at Ms. Griffiths as if he's only just noticed her. Then he puts a proprietary hand on Jon's shoulder and kisses him on the cheek with a breezy "All right, love?"

He blames it on too many sitcoms. That’s not him. Even if he and Jon were really friends, even if they were actually dating, he would never dare do that in a million years. But the idea of it gives him a pang just the same, and he watches helplessly as Jon eventually shakes Ms. Griffiths loose before going back to his office with a huff and slamming the door.

“Someone’s got a crush.”

Martin leaps a foot in the air, fumbling the file box. Thirty years’ worth of reports about a mirror that turns people blind go spilling across the floor. He drops to his knees to gather them up, sputtering a protest: “What? No one’s—what?”

Sasha stoops down to help him, one eyebrow raised. “Sheryl Griffiths? I think she has a little crush on Jon.”

“Oh. Right.” Martin forces a laugh. “Or maybe her opera singer does.”

“Is that a new suit?”

It's official. The day just keeps getting worse. Martin looks down at himself with a self-conscious twist of his lips. He knew wearing the whole outfit all at once was a bad idea. He should have test-driven the shirt first, then the trousers, and then sneaked the jacket into the rotation in a few weeks once everyone stopped noticing the rest.

“Yeah,” he says, hoping that will be enough of an answer, but Sasha holds onto the last few files, looking at him expectantly. “I just thought—well, Jon was saying the other day that we—I—should try to look more professional.”

That’s not exactly how Jon put it. He was in fact blowing off steam about some students wasting their time with a prank report and was grumbling about this being a place of business. At which point his gaze fell on Martin, who as it happened was behind on his laundry and wearing the exact same t-shirt as one of the students. Martin went shopping straight after work.

“Don’t take fashion advice from Jon,” Sasha says, tucking the files back into the box. “I don’t think he even knows what an iron is, and he’s only got the one pair of shoes.”

Martin’s not certain what’s wrong with only having one pair of shoes. He’s also never noticed Jon’s clothes needing any ironing, aside from the odd crooked collar that he always wants to straighten. He usually only notices Jon’s eyes, and his voice, and the way his mouth does that thing when he thinks he’s being funny. “I didn’t—I just had these clothes lying around at home. I don’t usually wear them to work, that’s all.”

“Right,” Sasha says and then reaches out and peels the sizing sticker off his trousers with one swift pull.

“Er.”

“Seriously,” she says, rolling up the sticker and discreetly handing it to him. “Don’t pay him any mind.”

Martin sighs. If only it were that easy.

 

3.

There is something that looks like Jon in his living room.

It isn't Jon. He knows it isn’t Jon. He’s not stupid. He’s been barricaded inside his home hiding from Jane Prentiss for six days. He has stuffed everything he possibly can into every nook and cranny of the place until he’s half certain that he’s going to die of suffocation instead of being eaten by worms. There’s no possible way a human being has got inside without him noticing.

It looks an awful lot like Jon.

The thing has Jon’s hair, his eyes, the lines around his mouth. It’s wearing that green jumper that Martin likes. It most definitely isn’t Jon, and yet Martin—through his sleep-deprived terror—still wants to jump to his feet and put the kettle on. His hands twitch, desperate to gather up the empty tins and sweep his scattered attempts at direct marketing origami into the bin. He has the worst urge to open the window and let in some air.

That’s...not a good idea.

The thing that isn’t Jon smiles kindly and crouches down in front of him. It looks like Jon but it doesn’t smell like him. That’s somehow the most unnerving part. Not that Martin knows what Jon smells like. He’s not some pervert who goes around sniffing collars or anything like that. But Jon is a person. Jon should smell like a person, like soap or laundry detergent or whatever he had for lunch. He should smell like his office, like tea and old paper and the occasional cigarette.

“Open the door, Martin.” The voice isn’t quite right. It sounds like Jon, but not the Jon who sticks his head out of the office to complain that the network’s down again, or the Jon who wishes Martin a distracted goodnight at the end of the day. It sounds like Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute, speaking someone else’s words into a tape recorder.

“I…” Martin struggles to breathe. He was mistaken. The thing doesn’t entirely have Jon’s eyes either. The colour is right, but the pupils are very wrong. “I can’t do that.”

“It’s all right,” the thing says and lays a hand on Martin’s cheek.

“You’re, ah…” Martin feels his face go hot as his voice rises to a squeak. “…you’re very cold.”

The thing’s smile widens like someone turned a crank. Its fingertips press into Martin’s flesh, and that horrifying creepy-crawler itch prickles back to life. “You have so much blood inside you.”

All right. No. Absolutely not. That’s Martin’s cue to shove the thing off him.

He lashes out with all his strength, his hands making contact with something that’s too soft and too heavy at the same time. The thing reels back and Martin scrambles upright, tripping over his feet and only barely managing to right himself as he swiftly puts the length of the room between him and it.

The thing that isn’t Jon only sighs. “If you’re going to be like that…”

It stands by the far the wall for a long time, gazing out the window as if the blinds are open. There is nothing Martin can do but cry a little and keep a wary eye on the thing the same way he might a moth on the ceiling. He is so tired.

Here lies one whose name was writ in worms, he thinks hopelessly, and wonders what Jon and Sasha and Tim will say when they finally find him.

 

4.

Martin supposes that some people might find the archives unsettling at night. The windows are high and narrow, and the room grows long shadows in the waxy yellow light. The place is kept cold to help with preservation. It echoes strangely. Even the lightest footsteps upstairs make the ceiling shudder. The long rows of shelves form a sort of labyrinth, and a person can’t help but be aware that every innocuous-looking carton or binder is full of stories that kept someone awake at night. Tim is always after Elias about the financial opportunity of renting the place out for filming, but Elias has thus far put his foot down and kept the Institute from appearing in one of the spookier episodes of Doctor Who.

And yet Martin feels safer here than he does anywhere else right now. That’s not saying much, but it’s something. The archives are like a ship on an uncertain sea. It’s cramped and dark, but he knows every creak of the timbers, and as long as they keep the holes plugged and the cannons (or fire extinguishers) manned, they might just stay afloat.

Of course, it would help tremendously if their captain doesn’t go Ahab on them.

The place is quiet after Rosie closes up the reception desk and Tim leaves for his date with...well, whoever he’s seeing tonight. Martin transfers the cup of tea he’s carrying to his left hand, carefully tucks the package of biscuits in the crook of his arm, and tries the door to Jon’s office. It’s unlocked. He peeks inside to find Jon asleep at his desk, head pillowed in his arms. His face is relaxed in a way that Martin hasn’t seen for weeks, and there’s a damp patch on his sleeve.

Martin’s chest and stomach conspire to do something wobbly. For an instant, he's overwhelmed by the temptation to just close the door behind him, walk over to Jon, and—

But he doesn’t. Because touching someone without their permission when they’re sleeping is a bit creepy. Even if all you want to do is see what that someone’s hair feels like and maybe put a coat over their shoulders to make sure they’re warm enough. Come to think of it, he would probably be all right with the coat part, but his is all the way in the break room and he’s not one hundred percent certain there isn’t a mustard stain on it.

Instead, he just stands there like an idiot, tongue-tied by everything he wants to say. It’s a funny thing, thinking you’re going to die—imminently, not in the general way you think about dying when you're trying to fall asleep at night, at least if you're Martin. He and Jon have never had a nicer conversation than when they were trapped in the file room together. Not that he in any way, shape or form wants to be attacked by a terrifying witch-corpse and her army of worms, but he wishes they could talk like that again.

‘I could help.’ That’s what he would say. Or, no. He’d have to be firmer: ‘Let me help.’

That was good. ‘Give me a chance,’ he would say, and ‘Trust me.’ If Jon tried to argue, he would point out that all right, he might have barely scraped by with a 2:2 from King’s, and maybe he should have mentioned from the start that he only got this job because his mother’s family is a patron of the Institute, but he’s a damned good researcher. He can help with whatever it is that has Jon so frightened. He knows he can.  

As long as he was on a roll, he would also mention that whatever Tim might have passed along, he doesn’t really have a girlfriend. That’s just a lie he once blurted out because Tim was being Tim, and he knows that Jon probably doesn’t care one way or the other, but just in case he does, there it is. 

He clears his throat.

Jon jerks upright. “Martin!” He glances about wild-eyed and then slams his desk drawer shut. “What are you doing in here?”

The tea nearly sloshes over the rim of the cup as Martin steps back. His drafted words take off like a flock of birds. “I was just...I didn’t…” He raises the cup defensively and finally just says: “Tea.”

Jon stares at him for a moment and then breathes out slowly. He looks at his watch and shakes his head. “You should go home.”

“So should you,” Martin counters, setting down the tea and biscuits on the desk.

“I’ve got a lot of paperwork to catch up on,” Jon says. “Elias is...it’s a budgetary thing.”

‘You aren’t a very good liar,’ Martin wants to say, but of course he doesn’t. He just stubbornly stands there until Jon gives in and helps himself to a few digestives.

“Go home, Martin.” Jon stifles a yawn and dips a biscuit in his tea. “And...thank you.”

 

5.

The emergency services are probably getting very tired of them.

That’s all Martin can think about in a typically over-apologetic English way as he stands around awkwardly under the cloak of a shock blanket, watching what looks to be half of London’s firefighters and paramedics swarming around the Institute. The fire has been put out, but the whole street still smells like a burning battery as the smoke rises in a dark tower into the sky.

He averts his eyes from the twisting shapes in the black column—the screaming mouths, the tortured faces—and herds Jon a little further down the sidewalk, out of the way of a drifting wisp of smoke. From the corner of his eye, he sees Sasha do the same with Tim. It’s probably just the wind, but they can’t be too careful.

Jon blinks and gazes around as if only just remembering they’ve survived. He might actually be in shock, and Martin doesn’t really know what to do about that except hope that the blanket works. He’s not sure what the exact mechanism is, but he can’t imagine they buy those things with public money if they don’t do something.

They’re all entitled to a little shock, and Jon most of all. He looks...well, he sort of looks like the star of an action film in the very last scene, when the baddy’s been vanquished and everything’s lit up in flashing emergency lights, and there’s just one witty quip to go before the credits roll. Except it would have to be an odd sort of indie action film that put out the casting call for someone who could take on the forces of cosmic horror in a cardigan. Which is to say Jon looks very brave, his arm in a sling and his hair in disarray, and the slash on his cheek held together with butterfly bandages.

Martin himself only feels singed and sweaty, his English self-effacement beginning its inevitable turn to private passive-aggression as he wonders whether the emergency responders should be offering them Lucozade or something.

“Jon?” he says.

“Yes, Martin?”

He looks at the crumbled wall leading to the archives, where the scorch marks have come up in the shape of long, jagged fingers. “I was just thinking. What with everything that’s happened…”

Jon turns toward him, and the shadows around his eyes make Martin want to march him into bed, tuck him in, and tell him not to get up until lunchtime.

“It’s just,” he continues, “I was wondering whether you might be able to talk Elias into finally buying Modes? Since we’ll be rebuilding our collections management system from scratch and everything? I know our software budget is nil, but Tim says he knows someone at the ARA who can get us a discount on licenses.”

For a second, Jon just stares at him. Then his eyes crinkle up and he bursts into shaky laughter that only sounds half hysterical.

“Oh, Martin,” he says, and the warmth in his voice is almost enough to make the whole dreadful day worth it.

 

[+1]

Jonathan: Case of Doreen Hill, regarding several encounters with an unusual cat from July to October of 2007. Recording by Jonathan Sims, Head Archivist of the Magnus Institute. Statement begins: "My grandmother was from Ireland, and she used to always leave out a dish of milk for the—"

<Door opens>

Jonathan: —Martin? I’m in the middle of a recording.

Martin: "Moments of competence"?

Jonathan: I beg your pardon?

Martin: You said, and I quote, "In the stress of Prentiss’s attack, I am sure I glanced moments of competence, or even cunning, that are beyond what Martin’s previous work would indicate." Moments of competence? Really?

Jonathan: Ah. So you...listened to that recording.

Martin: You told me to archive it! Of course I listened to it!

Jonathan: Now, Martin. In my defence, I was under a great deal of stress and I—

Martin: You were under stress? I'm the one who got held hostage in my house and then found a body. Yet somehow, despite my—my massive incompetence, I'm the one who closed the portal to an awful nightmare spider-person dimension and then dragged you out of a burning building!

Jonathan: In all fairness, I recorded that before you—

Martin: We’d had a whole heart to heart...thing!

Jonathan: And that was an enriching experience for both of us, but you have to appreciate I was—

Martin: That's not even how you use the word "glance"! I put a "sic" in the transcript, I'll have you know. Just to do my due diligence. I might even go back and add a footnote that says "speaker's error".

Jonathan: I'm sure I wouldn't have said "glanced".

Martin: That's seriously the part you're going to argue with? You’re the worst, do you know that? You’re the absolute worst. I can’t believe I ever fancied you!

<Silence>

Jonathan: You...fancy me?

Martin: I didn’t say—I don't—well, fine. Yes. Okay? But past tense.

Jonathan: Oh. That’s unfortunate.

Martin: The fancying?

Jonathan: The tense.

Martin: Wait. What? You don’t—you think I’m hopeless. I’ve listened to the tapes, I’ve read the transcripts.

Jonathan: Oh, for—I’m your supervisor, Martin! I can’t exactly go around recording that I think one of my direct reports is oddly charming.

<Further silence>

Martin: Oh.

Jonathan: Yes.

Martin: "Oddly charming"?

Jonathan: Or just...charming. As long as we're editing.

Martin: Right.

Jonathan: Right.

Martin: So…do you want to go for coffee sometime?

Jonathan: Martin, I’m not sure that’s a—

Martin: No. Scratch that. Not a question. We should go for coffee sometime.

Jonathan: Is that an order?

Martin: N—yes. Yes, it is.

Jonathan: What's gotten into you, Martin?

Martin: I—I don't know? I was really angry and I had to work myself up to come in here and shout at you, and now I have all this momentum and you don't mind that I fancy you and I sort of want to kiss you now.

Jonathan: I see. Well. That’s...that would be…

Martin: You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you lost for words.

Jonathan: It...happens on occasion.

Martin: Jon?

Jonathan: Yes, Martin?

Martin: Could I…?

Jonathan: Could you what?

Martin: Oh, sod it—

<Clatter>

<Tape recorder hits the floor>

<Silence>

Jonathan: Oh.

Martin: Yeah.

Jonathan: That was…

Martin: ...competent?

Jonathan: I’d go so far as to say excellent. Exemplary, even. You know, I—oh hell, is that still going?

<Further clatter>

Jonathan: End recording.

<Click>