Martin’s new flat is… Well, it’s decent. It’s just fine, in fact. No holes in the walls, no mysterious stains on the carpet, a functioning loo, even laundry in the basement. And no worms to be seen. It’s just not very homey, is all.
“I’ve never had much of an eye for interior design,” he explains to Melanie. He tugs his earlobe, smiling nervously. She’s peering at his bare walls and beige couch and the mismatched dishes in his sink with a sort of aloof curiosity that makes him burn with shame. She’d helped carry the mattress from her car to his spare room without any indication she’d even noticed his flat existed beyond the brief difficulty of managing the hallway corner, but he'd felt instantly obliged to justify his domestic sensibilities. Or lack thereof. “I just haven’t had the time, really, you know? There’s been a lot more… well. A lot more happening than usual. Haven’t had the opportunity to spruce it up, that’s all.”
“It’s fine.” She smiles tightly, although he’s fairly sure that’s just how she smiles. “It’s all Greek to me, that business.”
She waves. “Decorating, or whatever. It’s functional. It’s fine.”
Martin nods. He gnaws his lower lip. “Do you think he’ll - I mean, do you think it’ll be…”
Her smile becomes a little less of a grimace. She claps his shoulder. “Martin. It’ll be fine. It’s only temporary. He’s not moving in.”
Martin chuckles. “Yes. Of course.”
Jon is… different. He’s papery, exhausted, in a way Martin hasn’t seen before. He’s seen Jon tired, of course, more often than not. Asleep on his feet, or at his desk, bags under his eyes, face pale, snappish and drawn. But this is a different sort of tired. A deeper, vaster sort that Martin glimpses when he finds Jon staring sightlessly out the kitchen window, or sat at the table with his head drooped into his hands, or when Martin notices the way he walks, like his body weighs thirty stone and his bones are made of lead. It scares him.
“Can I get you anything?” Martin asks, for what feels the eight-hundredth time, hovering in the doorway to the spare room Jon has taken over with papers and cassettes. It was just an empty bedroom before, one corner piled with boxes of old computer parts and some sports equipment Martin hasn't used in nearly a decade, but Jon has spread into nearly every nook and cranny. None of the clutter seems structured or curated in any way Martin can detect, as though it has seeped organically from the central point Jon inhabits with his person and his recorder. It gives Martin the impression of a bird layering a nest around itself, or an anthill’s ever-widening circumference.
“No, thank you,” Jon murmurs. He doesn’t look up from the sheaf of papers in his lap, lips moving silently as he scans them. He doesn’t seem to realise Martin is physically present.
“I’m making tea,” Martin offers. “I could bring you a couple biscuits?”
“No, thank you,” Jon says again. It’s the exact same tone as the first time.
Martin nods. “Right,” he says under his breath. He pats the doorframe awkwardly as he leaves.
“It just seems awfully suspicious, doesn’t it?” Jon had panted, wild-eyed, pacing the hall outside Melanie’s office. He clutched his tape recorder in one hand, and although it was quietly whirring, he didn’t seem to notice he held it. “Fumigators? They could have at least tried to be subtle, they could have attempted some kind of subterfuge. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate the warning, believe me, I do, but it’s nearly insulting, the hamfisted crudity of it! Like they don’t think I’m possessed of the requisite three brain cells to see through it, or - or that -” He reeled, clapping a palm to his sweaty forehead. “Although perhaps it’s worse than that, perhaps I’m supposed to realise, perhaps this is what they want, to -”
“To drive you into a senseless frenzy?” Melanie interrupted. “To knock you completely off what little rocker you had left?” She sighed. “Get it together, Jon. Sometimes fumigators are just fumigators.”
Jon shook his head. “No. No, that’s just what they want me to think.”
Martin, who had heard the beginning of this tirade the moment he stepped through the upstairs door ten minutes ago, and been drawn like a suicidal moth to flame, held out his phone. “Look here, Jon. It’s a real company, I’ve just Googled it.”
Jon rolled his eyes. “Oh, please, Martin. Google.”
“Yes, Google!” Martin sputtered. “What do you mean, ‘Google’?”
“I mean -”
“He means,” said Melanie, “that he’s a paranoid maniac with a not particularly well-concealed Luddite pathology lurking beneath that terrible jumper and spats combo.”
“Luddite?” demanded Jon.
“Terrible?” whispered Martin.
“But,” said Melanie. She held up a hand. “But. Considering what we’ve all seen and been through lately… You might not be wrong.”
Jon made a dramatic gesture of vindication. “Thank you!”
“I’m not saying you’re right, either!” Melanie speared him with a gimlet eyeball. “Better safe than sorry, though, yeah?”
“Yes.” Jon nodded. “You’re completely right. Absolutely. I’m moving out of my flat.”
“Well, hang on -”
“You can stay with me.”
The hall fell silent. Even the tape recorder seemed to grow hushed.
Jon turned around slowly. “Pardon?”
Martin, whose mouth had spoken without his brain’s consent, pried his lips into something that was probably a smile. He wished the floor would open and devour him. Maybe literally. “I said, um...” he stammered. “That you can, well, if you wanted to, uh, get away from your place for a while, if that was, er, something that you, that is to say -”
“Excellent idea, Martin.” Melanie clapped her hands briskly together. “Good thinking. Just give it a couple days, right, Jon?”
Jon frowned, swaying slightly. The wind had departed his sails. “Er, yes,” he murmured. “That would be…”
“Great.” Melanie looked between them both, her smile fixed. “Glad that’s settled. Top notch. Now, I’ve got work to do, so if you’ll excuse me…” She stepped backward into her office and swung the door shut with an efficient motion that may or may not have included a gesture unfit for the workplace. Martin wasn’t paying attention. He was staring at Jon with a feeling in the pit of his stomach like he’d just taken a short step off a long drop.
Martin brings Jon a buttered scone and a cup of Earl Grey anyway. Jon doesn’t seem to remember he hadn’t wanted either.
“Thanks,” he says, as Martin sets the tray on the floor next to him.
Martin had offered, the day Jon arrived, to drag in the desk from the living room if Jon didn’t want to work out there, but Jon had firmly demurred. “No, that will be quite alright, Martin, I can work just fine on the bed,” he’d said. ‘The bed,’ however, is only Melanie’s borrowed twin mattress on the floor, much to Martin’s embarrassment, and nowhere near equal to the task of Jon’s extensive and mysterious research.
“Can I help with anything?” Martin asks, watching Jon ignore the tea.
“No, thank you.”
Martin grits his teeth. He feels that familiar cadence, the same words over and over, snag like a hook behind his eye. Jon’s said it repeatedly, day and night, no matter what Martin offers or asks. It’s begun to lose all meaning, like a song sung too many times.
“I’d really,” Martin begins, then loses his nerve and has to start over. “It’s just that you work so hard, and I know how the statements take it out of you. I’d like to…” He trails off, swallowing.
Jon blinks at the document he’s holding. He shudders slightly all over. When he looks up, his eyes are bloodshot. “You’d like to what?”
“Help.” Martin sinks down to kneel on the carpet, careful not to crush the piles of papers stacked hither and yon. “I want to help. You shouldn’t have to do this alone. Whatever it is you’re doing.”
Jon stares at him. For the first time in days, he appears fully aware there is another person in the room with him. “Why?”
Martin opens his mouth, then shuts it. He’s surprised into silence. Of all the questions. “Well… You know why. Don’t you?”
Jon frowns. His thumbnail catches a loose thread on his thigh. He picks at it with an absent, repetitive motion. “I…”
“We’re all in this together,” Martin hastens to explain. “All of us, you and me and Melanie and Basira and Tim, we’re…” He stops, struggling for the proper words. “We’re a team. None of us should have to go through this alone, not when we can share the burden. Right?”
One corner of Jon's mouth tips up. It makes Martin’s stomach clench. “I think Tim might have something else to say about that.”
Martin nods. “Yeah, probably.” He points at the recorder, which is humming away next to Jon’s elbow. “Let me do a statement for you. Whichever one you want, I don’t care. If you don’t want me to know what you’re working on, I understand, it’s just…”
Jon sighs. He reaches up to rub the bridge of his nose. “No, no, it’s not that.” He presses the heel of his palm between his eyes. “I’m not spiralling off into sinister madness again, I promise.”
Martin keeps his mouth firmly shut.
Jon drags his hand down his face. “If you really want to.”
With a nod, Jon selects a pile of stapled and crumpled papers and hands them over. “Here, try this one. I’ve skimmed it, it’s… Well, it’s not too awful.”
Martin takes it. “Thanks.”
Jon makes a rueful expression. “Don’t thank me just yet.”
“I know what it’s like,” Martin says. “You’re not tricking me into biting off more than I can chew. I know what I’m doing.” He clutches the papers. Just the weight of them in his hands makes his heart beat faster with anticipation of the dragging, miserable exhaustion he knows will follow. He catches Jon’s eye. “I know.”
Jon stares back at him. The room is very quiet, apart from the recorder’s quiet hissing. “Thank you, Martin,” Jon says at last. “I mean it.”
Heat rushes into Martin’s cheeks. He drops his eyes. “Of -” He clears his throat. “Of course. Yes.”
Jon turns toward the recorder. “I suppose you’ll be needing - Oh, for the love of God, why is this thing always -”
It was only supposed to be a couple nights, while Jon’s flat was fumigated.
Martin’s ninety percent sure it was a legitimate company doing a legitimate job because of legitimate bugs, but he, of all people, can understand Jon’s concern. The very thought makes his skin crawl, one way or another.
Two nights became three, which was reasonable, and then four and five, which was not. By the time ten days passed, Martin decided he wouldn’t be the one to bring it up. If Jon didn’t want to go, well, Martin didn’t want him to either. He would rather that Jon hunch in his spare room rooting through obscure books and heaps of cassette tapes and making strange noises in the bathroom late at night than be doing all of that alone in his own flat, too far away for Martin to be any help. And Jon’s not a bad houseguest, either. He’s usually quiet and keeps his bedroom door shut, but when he does come out for air, he does the dishes and tidies Martin’s sparse possessions and sweeps and goes out for groceries without complaint or even any apparent awareness he’s doing it at all. It bothers Martin that he doesn’t know if this is regular Jon behaviour, or the symptom of some burgeoning maddened craze. It can’t be healthy either way, can it?
“Let’s go for a walk,” says Martin on a Saturday evening.
Jon scowls at him over a file folder of what appears to be old receipts. “To where?”
“Just out.” Martin shrugs. “Get some fresh air, feel the sun on our faces. You know, that sort of decadent thing I hear people do sometimes.”
“Very funny.” Jon shakes his head, ducking back into the folder.
“I’m serious.” Martin makes himself sound very serious.
Jon lifts one eyebrow. “Are you?”
A moment passes. Jon appears to be considering it, staring into the middle distance. “Now, where,” he mutters, “did I put that copy of the estate sale notice, I swear I just had it…”
Martin sighs. “There’s a shop just down the road that serves ice cream. My treat.”
Slowly, Jon’s eyes regain their focus. “Ice cream,” he says. “Frozen yogurt?”
Martin nods. “I think so, yeah.”
Jon sets aside the folder. “I’ll fetch my coat.”
Jon buys the frozen yogurt, in the end, despite Martin’s protests.
“It’s literally the least I can do,” says Jon gloomily, forking notes out of his wallet. “Considering I’ve completely moved myself into your home like a -” He breaks off, but Martin thinks he was about to make an unkind and ironic comparison to some sort of infesting insect.
“I don’t mind,” Martin says. “Really. I don’t.”
Jon doesn’t seem to believe him, but doesn’t say any more about it. They walk home slowly, eating their yogurt. The sun is sinking over the skyscrapers to the west, but it's still warm. Jon’s hair, Martin notices, is getting unusually long, beginning to curl round his ears. It lights up with reddish highlights where the sun hits it. He looks sort of generally unkempt all over, forgetful of himself. It’s a gentle sort of forgetfulness, though, as if his body is a comfortable, slumping cottage with flowery weeds growing from the window boxes. Even his brown jacket, frayed at the collar and cuffs, looks soft and well-loved. They don’t talk. It’s a good silence, as comfortable as the jacket.
Martin desperately wants to take Jon’s hand, but of course he doesn’t.
“I think he’s doing better,” says Martin into the phone. His legs are dangling through the balcony railing, out into space four stories above the street. When he looks down between his knees, his head swims and he has to shut his eyes. “Maybe he’ll come back to work soon, that would be nice.”
“I don’t care, ” says Tim, teeth audibly clenched. “Christ, Martin, I don’t. Just tell me where the key for the lockbox is, or I swear to God I will take your office apart with a sledgehammer to find it.”
“Alright, fine.” Martin sighs. “Under my desk, about knee-height, there’s a key ring on a nail. The one you want says three on it.”
“Great,” says Tim in a tone that implies the opposite. “Enjoy your honeymoon or whatever.”
Martin sputters, but Tim has already hung up. He stares at the phone for a long moment. It takes every fibre of control he has not to chuck it straight off the balcony into traffic below. The thing is, Tim knows. He knows. And he’s being deliberately cruel, which is no less than Martin expects from him these days, but it still stings enough to bring a flush to his cheeks, a tightness to his breathing.
Tim had kissed him once, in the Archive stacks, back when they’d both been new to the job and still cheery about being there. He’d backed Martin against the section marked G - guardian angel reports and ducked in with a sly grin that said This is just for fun, be cool. Martin had not, of course, been cool. He’d been overwhelmed and shocked and uncomfortable and enormously, cripplingly excited. And Tim had known it, had clearly seen it written all over his face and in the yearning curve of his body, eagerly turned toward Tim’s attention like a flower opening at sunrise.
It had been a very good kiss, objectively, Martin figured. He didn’t have an especially comprehensive database to check against, but it stood to reason Tim would be a good kisser. His hands were firm and coaxing, his mouth hot, the teasing touch of his tongue artful. Martin had nearly lost his balance to nerveless knees. But then he’d heard Jon’s voice passing in the hallway outside, chatting with Sasha, and the warm roil in his belly turned to ice. He’d whipped his head away so fast their teeth banged.
“Sorry,” he’d whispered, squirming out from between Tim’s arms. “Sorry, sorry, I - sorry, I’m just, I can’t, I -”
Tim let him go, stepping back with a frown, but then caught the guilty direction of Martin’s gaze, the blush on his face, the chagrin Martin could feel etching itself, tattoo-like, over every inch of his body. Tim’s expression had slid sideways into a good-natured leer. "Ohhh,” he said. “Oh, I see. Is that an actual thing, or…”
“No!” said Martin quickly. “No, er. I mean. Is what a thing?”
Tim had laughed. He really was excruciatingly handsome - unbelievably so, and more unbelievable for the fact that he’d just been kissing Martin. On purpose, no less. In that moment, teetering between helpless embarrassment and confused arousal and awful, unwarranted shame, Martin had hated himself.
“Sure,” Tim said. He’d winked, reaching to touch his thumb to the corner of Martin’s wet mouth, wiping away the imaginary evidence of what they’d done. “No harm, no foul, right?”
Neither of them mentioned it again, but Martin knew that Tim knew. And Tim knew that Martin knew that Tim knew, and, well… Well, it was all just a big mess, wasn’t it?
In the middle of the night, Martin gets up to use the loo. He leaves the light off while he does his business so the fan won’t kick on, and because of that, when he steps back into the hallway, his night vision is clear enough to see Jon standing in the living room. It startles him terribly at first, a gut punch of panic and adrenaline freezing him solid in his tracks. If Martin has learned one thing about himself over the past year, it is that he is neither a fighter nor a flier, he is a freezer.
He recognises Jon’s silhouette a moment later and deflates with a trembling exhale. “Jesus, Jon,” he says, voice loud in the darkness, “you scared the shit out of me.”
Jon doesn’t answer. He doesn’t move, either. He’s standing near the balcony door, facing the view he sometimes likes to watch over (late) morning coffee. The glow of London after midnight is enough to illuminate the angle of his profile, but not enough for Martin to make out his expression. Martin steps into the living room.
“Jon? Are you alright?”
Still no answer. The fear comes creeping back, crawling icily up Martin’s spine, squeezing the back of his neck. Too many scary movies. Too much imagination and not enough common sense. That’s what he would have told himself, wagging a mental finger, not very long ago. Now, he can hardly make his feet move across his own rug toward the shape of his boss standing, motionless, in the dark. He does, nevertheless. Monsters may be real, but last time Martin checked, Jon wasn’t one of them. When he gets close enough, he reaches to touch Jon’s shoulder. It’s warm and solid beneath his hand, something he hadn’t realised he’d been nervous about expecting. “Jon?” he says again.
Jon starts. He twitches under Martin’s touch, a violent shudder that startles Martin in turn. He jumps back at the same time Jon does, in opposite directions, with mirrored yelps.
“Sorry!” Martin gasps, clutching his chest. “I didn’t mean to startle you, Christ, I just -”
“What the hell are you doing?” Jon demands. His voice sounds frayed, like rough wood. “What are you…” He stops, looking around. “Oh, what am I…” He hesitates. “How did I…”
“Oh, erm.” Martin forces himself to take a deep breath. “I think maybe you were... sleepwalking? I didn’t realise. You were just standing there, I thought you were looking out the window.”
“No, I was…” Jon trails off again. He shivers. “I thought I was in the woods.”
“The woods?” Martin tugs at the collar of his sleepshirt. His heart is pounding. “What woods? Were you dreaming?” He feels stupid as soon as he says it. Of course Jon was dreaming.
Jon doesn’t seem to notice. “I think so. It was winter. I was... looking for something…” He turns, slowly, peering at the window. He shakes his head. “I don’t know, I can’t recall.”
“I’m sorry,” says Martin again. “You gave me a fright, standing there like that. I thought you were… Well.” He swallows. He doesn’t want to say anything about mannequins, or meat puppets, or crawling filth shaped like men. Not at this hour of the night.
“That’s quite alright.” The roughness of Jon’s voice is easing. He sounds more like he used to back when Martin first met him, generally polite but brusque, an absent sort of solicitousness to whatever rote question basic civility demanded he ask. “I’ll, um.” He gestures toward his bedroom. “I suppose I’ll just go back to bed.”
“Yes, of course.” They stand motionless for a long moment, until Martin realises he’s in Jon’s way. He leaps aside. “Er, sorry. I’d best be getting back to it myself.” He scrubs his damp palms down his pyjama pants.
Jon still doesn’t move. “Would you like,” he says slowly, “um, to watch some telly with me? Just for a while? I don’t think I can… I just don’t think…”
“Yes,” says Martin. “Yes, alright.”
They watch some kind of late-night travelogue with the volume turned almost to nothing. Martin couldn’t pay attention if his life depended on it. Eventually, Jon falls asleep, his head dropped onto the curve of Martin’s shoulder. In the morning, Martin wakes first, because everyone on God’s green earth wakes before Jon. The living room is bright and warm, a blue cloudless sky glowing beyond the curtains. It’s almost silly to remember how threatening the darkness had been last night, but Martin knows better these days. Very little remains in the realm of the truly harmless.
Jon is still slumped against him, but they’ve both slid down so that Martin is bent nearly in half against the arm of the couch. His back hurts abominably. His first thought is to get up and stretch the pins and needles from his legs. His second thought is to hold very still, so as not to wake Jon. He looks sideways at Jon’s face pressed into his ribs, the slack pink of his mouth and the spot of drool he’s left on Martin’s shirt. His eyes are moving beneath the tender blue-veined skin of his lids. His hand is curled loosely against Martin’s leg, the wing of his collarbone showing through the V of his shirt’s neck. He looks unspeakably vulnerable, unbearably dear.
Martin holds very still.
Jon apologises profusely when he wakes, pink-cheeked with either the good rest or acute embarrassment, Martin isn’t sure which.
“It’s fine,” says Martin, who’d pretended to be awoken by Jon’s sudden lurch upright. “I don’t mind, really.” He sketches a smile in the direction of Jon’s white-knuckled hand-wringing. “I’ll make us breakfast, shall I?”
“Yes, yes, thanks,” Jon blurts, where usually he would say No, thank you, and drift toward his bedroom.
Martin is taken aback enough to hesitate, but Jon is already heading for the bathroom, saying something about a shower over his shoulder. When the door shuts after him, Martin slumps onto the couch again. His back is terribly sore.
They eat hashbrowns and eggs, fried up quickly because Martin has to leave for work in less than an hour, and he still hasn’t shaved or changed his clothes or washed. Jon talks an irregular amount while they eat, almost too much for Martin to get a word in, which is such a bewildering reversal of roles that Martin hardly bothers responding to most of what Jon says. The majority is babble that doesn’t require or leave space for reply, anyway. Martin is further surprised when he gets up to clear the dishes and Jon says, “Let me do that, you get dressed and we’ll go to work.”
“We?” asks Martin, with a fork in each hand. “You’re coming too?”
Jon nods. “I’m not getting much done here, I’ve hit a dead end.”
“Oh.” Something sinks in the pit of Martin’s stomach. Not getting much done here. He tries to affect a casual tone. “Thinking of heading back to your own flat soon, then?”
Jon looks up at him quickly, then away. He’s still strangely flushed, like the shower he’d taken had been hotter than usual. “I suppose, yes.” He stands, stacking their plates together. “I have been taking advantage of your hospitality to an egregious degree.”
“Oh, no, that’s -” Martin begins, but then Jon lifts the forks from his hands, and his brain short circuits at the touch of Jon’s fingers on his, the soft uncalloused pads of them against Martin’s knuckles.
“Go get dressed,” Jon says.
Although Elias’ car is parked out front when they arrive, Elias himself is nowhere in sight, for which Martin is obscurely grateful. Much as he does not approve of Melanie’s frankly psychotic attempts to assassinate their employer in cold blood, nor does he understand Basira’s nonchalant cheer about their indentured professional servitude, he bristles with protectiveness at the thought of Elias prowling around Jon. At any time, really, but especially now. On the tube, Jon’s mood had shifted from the talkative lightness of breakfast to a wan withdrawal, and as they come through the doors of the Institute, Jon glances around like he expects rabid wolves to lunge from the shadows, or a murderous clown to materialise from the cleaning supplies closet.
Without thinking, Martin reaches to touch Jon’s hand where it is clenched on the strap of his messenger bag. Jon starts, glancing aside at him. Martin feels himself begin to blush, his mouth already opening to apologise, but Jon smiles a very small, very grateful smile. The sensation of panicked embarrassment rising in Martin’s chest transforms instantly into a blossoming happiness. He smiles back.
Then Tim says, “Oh, wonderful, ” from the door of the print room, and Martin is right back to bristly protectiveness.
“Leave off,” he snaps.
Tim’s eyebrows rise.
Jon slows just enough as they pass to nod and say, “Tim,” in a sort of resigned but cordial tone.
Tim says, “ Jon, ” in that same nasty drawl, but nothing more.
Martin’s heart begins to belatedly pound. He lets out a quiet, shaky breath as they continue down the hallway. “Sorry,” he whispers.
“For what?” Jon whispers back.
Martin hesitates. “I don’t know.”
They part ways at the entrance to the Archive, Jon to his office and Martin to his. They don’t make any plans to meet up later or travel together, but at the end of the day when Martin looks at the clock and realises it’s after seven, he heads to Jon’s office without even thinking about it.
Jon is hunched at his desk, a book in one hand and what looks like a dried cactus in the other. The recorder is blinking quietly on the desk in front of him. He breaks off mid-sentence as Martin opens the door, a burst of irritation crossing his face like a storm cloud. Martin is accustomed to that expression. It doesn’t deter him.
“Time to go,” he says, tapping his wrist where he hasn’t worn a watch in years.
Jon shakes his head. “I’m in the middle of something, Martin. You go ahead, I’ll finish up and be along shortly.”
“I’ll wait,” says Martin, who is also accustomed to and undeterred by that excuse.
Jon’s annoyed face becomes even more pinched. “There’s no need for that, I’m perfectly alright on my own.”
“I know you are,” Martin lies. “But I don’t mind.”
“Well, I mind.” Jon scowls at him. “I don’t need to be fussed at, you’re not my mother.”
It hurts. It shouldn’t, because Jon has said much worse to him on many occasions, but something small in Martin’s chest clenches painfully. He lifts his chin so it doesn’t show. “I don’t need to be your mother to care about you. I’ll wait upstairs. Please don’t take too long, I’m starving.”
He leaves before Jon can refuse again. Perhaps guilt and the threat of behaving impolitely will prick Jon’s conscience into re-emerging from whatever cave it’s toddled off to. It must, because Martin only waits eighteen minutes before Jon appears. He doesn’t make eye contact and his stride is stiff, but he says, “Shall we?” as he heads for the door, so Martin falls into step behind him.
They don’t speak for most of the tube ride, but Martin watches Jon relax by increments the farther away from the Institute they get, an almost perfect reversal of the transformation that had come over him that morning. By the time they’re walking from the station to Martin’s flat, he’s downright tolerable again.
“I apologise for my tone earlier,” he says, as they turn into the parking lot of Martin’s building. “It was unwarranted.”
“Oh,” Martin says, surprised. “That’s… It’s alright, I understand.”
“Do you?” It’s not a sarcastic question, or even one of those fatalistic, rhetorical ones Jon is so fond of. It sounds genuine.
“I think so.” Martin frowns down at the cracked concrete. “I know what it’s like to be… hunted, I suppose, for lack of a better word.”
Jon snorts, humourless. “No, I think hunted is exactly the right word.”
Martin nods. “I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, but I know it’s different because you’re the Archivist and, well, I suppose these… people, these creatures, they’re harder on you because of that.”
Jon mutters, “Yes, well,” under his breath, like Martin has just paid him an embarrassing compliment.
“But,” Martin continues, “I do know how it is to read statements, how it affects you. How it affects me, anyway, and Melanie.”
Jon hmms. “Yes, I suppose,” he murmurs. Then, as though shaking off an unpleasant chill, he jogs up the steps ahead of Martin to key in the door code. “After you,” he says, holding it open.
Martin heats up canned soup for dinner. It’s certainly nothing fancy, but he decides he’s not going to feel chagrined about that. Food is food, after all, and he’s fairly certain Jon is no marvelous cook either, if his diet of peanut butter sandwiches and dill pickles straight from the jar whenever Martin fails to intervene is any indication.
They eat, and their knees touch under the table while Martin is reaching for the toast, and after that they go to bed.
Jon accompanies him to work again the next morning, but texts halfway through the day to say that he’s heading out on an errand and will be home late.
Martin stares at the text with a peculiar array of emotions all trying to make themselves known. Is he pleased that Jon thought to text him such a specifically domestic sort of message? Is he annoyed that Jon is taking off on his own again? Frightened for Jon’s safety? Frustrated by the lack of detail? Upset that he wasn’t invited? Resigned to the inevitability of Jon eventually and permanently abandoning him one way or another? Elated by the use of the word ‘home’?
He decides it’s alright to feel all those things at once.
Jon does not come home late that night, or at all. Martin waits up for him until nearly 3am, having sent four unanswered texts and made one unreceived call, and ends up falling asleep on the couch with his phone in his hand. The next morning, at a loss, he goes to work. When he sees Elias’ car in the parking lot, he realizes, grimly, what he must do.
“Come in, Martin,” Elias calls through the door, just as Martin is raising his hand to knock.
Martin obeys. Elias is behind his desk, hands folded atop it as though he’s been sat there waiting patiently for Martin to arrive. It’s an unnerving effect, paired with Elias’ sharp gaze and a smile so bland it appears painted on his mouth.
“Would you like to take a seat?” Elias gestures toward the empty chair across the desk.
Martin would not. He clenches his fists to give himself strength. “Where’s Jon?”
Elias blinks. “I beg your pardon?”
“Jon. Where is he? I know you can see him, I know you’ve got your eyes, or whatever they are, all over the place. You watch all of us all the time, you’ve always known when he was in trouble before, so tell me. Where is he?”
Elias leans back in his chair. “My, my.” He regards Martin over steepled fingers. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you quite this fired up, Martin. What’s the occasion?”
Martin makes a gesture he intends to be sharp and no-nonsense, but is fairly sure comes out frantic and wild. “I just said Jon is missing! Again!”
“Hmm,” says Elias. “Is he? Or do you just not know where he is?”
“It’s the same thing!”
Elias laughs. “Hardly. If Jon knows where he is, then he’s not lost, is he?”
Martin sputters. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Then what did you mean?” Elias drops his hands and the mild amusement all at once. His voice hardens. “You come barging into my office demanding I violate the privacy of one of your coworkers, despite, I may note, vehemently protesting similar involvement on my part in the past, and you expect me to comply instantly, because you feel out of control?” He shakes his head. “Please, Martin. Leave the big picture to people qualified to handle it. Go back to your paper stapling and let Jon do his job.”
“But what if he’s in danger?” Martin insists. “There are all kinds of - of creepy monster things stalking him, he was kidnapped and almost flayed alive like a month ago!”
“And he came back to us safely, in one piece, didn’t he?”
Martin snorts. “No thanks to you.”
Elias spreads his hands. “Then why are you asking for my help now?”
Martin opens his mouth to reply, but finds he can’t. Elias has a point. The only thing worse than a useless tool is a deliberately obstructive one.
“Fine.” He knocks his fist against his thigh, a little helpless gesture of frustration so he won’t cry instead. “Fine, but please, just. Keep an eye on him, if you can. I know we’re all disposable cogs in your grand, evil machine, but Jon is -” He stops. His throat is tight.
“Jon is a special disposable cog, yes.” Elias sounds almost sympathetic. “I understand. Now please go back to work, Martin. I have a lot to do.”
Martin goes. He doesn’t stop in the hallway outside Elias’ office, because, even though he’s fairly certain Elias can see the whole of the Institute with equal ease, having a cry directly outside his door seems worse than doing it down in the Archives.
Jon is sitting on the kitchen floor when Martin gets home from work.
“Good grief!” Martin yelps, skittering back.
Jon peers up at him. He’s wearing his jacket, unzipped and rain-spotted. His hair is damp and dishevelled, even though it’s been sunny outside for days. “Hello,” he says.
Martin drops his keys in the dish on the counter, his other hand still clamped to his chest. Jon's habit of appearing suddenly in unexpected places is almost certainly reducing his lifespan. “Where have you been? I was so worried, I asked Elias to look for you.”
Jon squints. “And what did he say?”
“No, of course.”
“Hmm,” Jon murmurs. “Interesting. Probably can’t see me with the… Well, at any rate.” He doesn’t seem to be speaking entirely to Martin. His eyes are unfocused, staring across the living room toward the balcony door. His pupils are huge.
“Are you on drugs?” Martin blurts, then feels idiotic. “Sorry, of course you’re not.” He hesitates. “...Are you?”
“Don’t be absurd, Martin.”
“Right.” Martin clenches and unclenches his fists at his sides. He feels off-kilter, that first rush of indignant excitement already giving way to embarrassment at what must have been an entire day of rampant overreaction. Plus, the relief of seeing Jon whole and alive has effectively ruined his higher brain function. He latches onto the first concrete thing to cross his mind. “Can I make you dinner? There’s takeaway in the fridge, I can heat it up?”
“No, thank you, I already ate.” Jon doesn’t look like he’s eaten in days. He looks like he slept in a ditch.
“Did you? When?”
A little tick appears between Jon’s brows. “You know, I’m not quite sure.”
Martin nods. “I’ll heat up the takeaway.”
It takes Jon a while to realise he’ll need to get off the kitchen floor for Martin to do anything. He clambers up with a mumbled apology, swaying on his feet. Martin catches him under one elbow when he sags. Up close, Jon smells like rain and ozone. Martin can feel how cold he is even through their clothes.
“You’re frozen!” He touches Jon’s forehead with a reflexive instinct to check for illness. “Where the hell have you been?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. “Let me run you a bath, you need to warm up.”
For once, Jon doesn’t protest. His voice is soft as a breeze through grass. “Yes, thank you, that would be lovely.”
Martin gets the tub going, fetches towels, puts the kettle on, and chivvies Jon into the bathroom in under five minutes. It’s so nice to be doing something proactive for what feels like the first time in months, to see a need and be able to fill it, that he realises with a guilty rush he’s almost enjoying Jon’s limp acquiescence. He heats up dinner while Jon’s in the bath, and makes tea with lemon wedges on the side, and turns the TV on low in the background. Jon emerges from the bathroom, pink and scrubbed, just as Martin is putting a pitcher of water on the table. He comes to sit without protest, sinking slowly into the chair like his joints are rusted.
Martin sits across from him. “Feel better?”
Jon nods. “Yes, actually.”
Martin pushes the dish of lo mein toward Jon. It’s vegetarian, because the first night Jon stayed over, Martin offered steak for supper and Jon turned so green Martin thought he was going to keel over on the spot. “Haven’t been eating much meat,” he’d explained faintly. Martin has heard a few of the statements Jon’s been dealing with. He hadn’t protested.
“Where did you go?” Martin asks, while Jon is scooping noodles onto his plate. “You said you’d be home, and…” He trails off. He sounds yet again like an overbearing mother, which is the theme of a tattoo a college friend once proposed he acquire.
“My apologies if I worried you.” Jon reaches for the fried rice. “I lost track of time.”
Martin pushes teriyaki vegetables around his plate with his fork. “Was it something to do with the Archives? I mean, of course it was, but something more… corporeal?”
“Something actively malicious, you mean?” Jon arches a brow, self-deprecating, or perhaps just cosmically resigned. “It was something…” He pauses, staring down into his rice. “You know, Martin, I’m honestly not sure.”
“Ah, one of those.” He intends it to be a bit funny. It doesn’t come out that way.
“Yes,” Jon says. “One of those.”
They don’t talk over the rest of dinner. Martin tries a couple times, pressing gently for more details, but Jon’s responses are mostly grunts, or the beginnings of sentences that meander off into half-formed mumbling, his gaze drifting into the distance over Martin’s shoulder. The one cogent thing he does say, as Martin is squeezing a soy sauce packet over the last of his noodles, is, “I’ll be heading back to my place now.”
Martin looks up, alarmed. “Now?”
“Tomorrow,” says Jon. He gives a faint, self-deprecating smile. "I'm sure it's safe there, now. If it ever wasn't."
“Oh.” Martin feels like an errant plastic bag that has just been run over by a shopping cart. “Alright, well, I suppose, if you think that’s best.”
Jon nods. “I’m sure you’d like your spare room back.”
“Oh, no,” Martin says, “I never use it. Don’t know why I bothered looking for a flat with two rooms anyhow, no one ever - That is, it just accumulates junk.”
“Nevertheless.” Jon picks at his teriyaki. He hasn’t eaten much. “You’ve been very generous and I appreciate it. I’ve overstayed my welcome.” Then, quieter, “I seem to do that a lot.”
“No,” says Martin again. “Not at all, I’ve - I’ve enjoyed -” He stammers into silence. His face is hot.
Jon is staring into the middle distance again, mechanically chewing a shred of celery.
“Tomorrow, then,” Martin mumbles.
Jon seems much recovered in the morning, although he declines to accompany Martin to work. He’s cross-legged on the floor in the spare room, papers all over his lap. When Martin knocks and pokes his head in the door, the recorder clicks on. He doesn’t mention it, because there isn’t much point. He says, “I’m heading off. Is there anything I can get you while I’m out?”
Jon glances up. There’s a tightness around his eyes that Martin interprets as annoyance at being interrupted, although his peaky smile appears genuine enough. “I don’t think so, thank you. I should be out of your hair by the time you get home, anyway.”
Martin nods. He doesn’t quite trust himself to respond otherwise without tipping his entire pathetic hand. Rather than make eye contact, he looks around the bedroom Jon has made his own. The stack of clothes (mostly sweater vests, Martin’s pretty sure) toppling out of Jon’s suitcase, the water glass on the windowsill, the house slippers next to the bed, the tangle of cords for Jon’s laptop and phone piled in one corner. It’s borderline disastrous, but it looks… homey. It’s going to be terribly bare once Jon is gone. He almost says so aloud, but then he thinks about guilt complexes and overbearing mothers and Jon’s skittish introversion. He makes his mouth perform a smile. “Well, I’m off!”
He’s almost out the front door, pulling it shut behind him, when he hears Jon call his name. He whirls back inside so fast his foot catches the threshold and he nearly trips into the coat rack. Jon is standing outside his bedroom door, the recorder clutched in one hand.
“Yes?” says Martin. “Yes, what is it?”
Jon opens and shuts his mouth. “I just…” He swallows. “I noticed you’re almost out of laundry detergent. That’s all. Might want to pick some up.”
Martin stares at him. “Oh. Alright.”
Jon nods. “Yes, well. Have a nice day.” He gives an awkward wave and steps back into his room.
Martin takes so long walking to the station that he ends up missing his train.
Jon is indeed gone when Martin gets home that evening. He peers into the spare bedroom, which is empty but for his own small stack of boxes in the corner and the twin mattress tipped up against the wall, the sheets and blankets folded neatly next to it. He says softly, “Hello?” just to hear it echo back at him. He goes inside and sits down where Jon had liked to sit, right where the light from the window is best during the afternoon. It’s very quiet. He pulls his knees to his chest and puts his forehead on them.
Martin keeps two notebooks on or around his person at all times. The first, a stern blue one with a hard cover, is for work. Taking notes when he’s out on a case, jotting down reminders and phone numbers, sketching directions for areas where Google Maps inexplicably won’t function, and so forth. The second is green, spiral-bound, and dedicated to poetry. He scribbles bits of verse as they occur to him, copies lines he’s read or wants to remember for later, practices his penmanship with satisfying words like ‘coriander,’ and ‘minimum,’ and ‘prestidigitation.’
Lately, it’s begun filling with a very specific sort of content. Lines like In the curve of your sleeping throat, and The shuddering drum of my heart.
He keeps that notebook crammed into the very bottom of his messenger bag.
“Hey, Martin,” says Basira, “d’you have a moment?”
Martin turns around, arms overflowing with recycling. He peers at Basira over the top of the stack. “Uh, not really?”
“Great.” Basira is looking down at a book in her hand, distracted. “I was wondering, do you know where I might find something called… Hang on.” She flips a couple pages.
Martin leans a little sideways to keep a box of flattened cardboard packets from sliding to the floor. “Can this wait like five minutes?” he tries, but Basira is already talking again.
“‘The Five Levels of Protonic Inference’?”
“Er, is that a book?”
Basira shrugs. “No clue. If it is, I can’t find it in the library, but a rather vague note in acquisitions implies it’s at the Institute somewhere.”
“Probably down in Artefact Storage, then? I’m sorry, I really don’t know.”
“Ah, well.” Basira shrugs. “Worth a try, anyway. Hey, do you need a hand?”
“Uh,” says Martin, just as a cascade of old yellowed cardstock begins tumbling from his arms. Basira leaps forward to catch most of it.
“Whoops! Hang on.” She bends to gather the dropped ones. “Dewey decimal system, huh?”
“Yes, we’re in the process of digitising. As you might have noticed.”
Basira stands. “I didn’t, actually.” She reaches to free Martin of a box of magazine clippings. “And these?”
“No idea, to be honest.” Martin shrugs. “They’re all scanned and filed in the database now, and Jon said to throw them out, so. Here I am.”
“I see.” Basira gestures. “After you.”
They head upstairs.
“Have you seen Jon lately?” Basira asks.
Martin takes a quick breath. “Not really. Not since he went back to his place.”
“Oh, did he? When was that?”
Three nights ago. Three interminable nights. Martin hmms. “Couple of days back?”
“Right,” says Basira. “How’d he seem, was he…”
Martin’s stomach sinks, tightening into a hot knot. “He’s fine. Good, yeah.” The back of his mouth tastes sour, that old helpless jealousy curdling up through him, possessive, reactive. He swallows hard.
“That’s good.” Basira sounds genuinely relieved. “I heard he was… Well.”
“You know.” Basira chuckles. “Sort of… being Jon about things.”
Martin wants to say No, I don’t know, thanks very much, but of course he does. Jon is always excessively Jon about things. “Yeah,” he admits. “I don’t know, he’s kind of… He’s got good reason, don’t you think?”
“I guess so.” There’s a moment of silence as they reach the landing. Basira matches stride with him. “It was probably good for him, staying with you.”
The heat in Martin’s stomach rushes to his face. “Do you think so?”
Basira tips a shoulder. “He needs to be around people. Keeps him a little more even-keeled, doesn’t it?”
Martin nods. “I think so, yes. I’ve always told him so, that’s what -” He breaks off. He doesn’t want to pour every last one of his feelings on the floor at Basira’s feet. Not today.
“Yeah.” A pause, then Basira continues, her voice dropping in a way that instantly sets Martin on alert. “I think it’s good for him to be reminded who is. Rather than what he is.”
Martin looks at her sharply. “What do you mean?”
She glances sideways, meeting his eyes. There’s something worried in her expression, a cautious seriousness that makes all the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. “Nothing,” she says. “Just something to think about.” She smiles. “Here, let me get the door for you.”
Three more days pass. Martin squares his shoulders and gets on with things. Basira’s cryptic words aside, he can take a hint when the universe throws one at him. Jon needs and deserves his own space, without anyone hovering over him; he’s a grown man who can (probably) (mostly) take care of himself. And if Martin’s green notebook starts spending more time out of his bag… Well. No one needs to know. He hasn't returned Melanie's mattress yet, either.
In a fit of cavalier masochism, he records two statements in a row on the second day, and is so exhausted afterwards he nearly cries on the tube home. The people standing near him must think he’s a drug addict with his shaky hands, pale face, and bloodshot eyes. He swears off statements for the rest of the week, but the next day a nervous woman with dreadlocks and a Versace watch that probably cost more than Martin’s monthly salary arrives with a tale of a snake monster accosting her in a fitting room. It sounds like a dead end, at best unrelated to anything Jon has been working on, but Melanie is out on an errand and the woman looks so upset Martin can’t bring himself to turn her away. He makes her tea, takes her statement, and sends her off with a promise to contact her if anything turns up. It won’t, but he promises anyway.
After, he puts his pounding head down on his desk and groans. He wants to go home, crawl under his covers, and never surface again.
“Is this a bad time?”
Martin lurches upright. “Tim! Hi, sorry, didn’t hear you come in.”
“So I see.” Tim squints at him from the doorway. “Are you alright?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, I’m fine, just. Tired, you know.” He tries a sunny smile. To cover its dismal failure, his hands move jerkily of their own accord, shuffling papers, straightening a pen, touching the recorder where it’s still merrily humming away.
“I do, actually.” Tim doesn’t sound nearly as brittle as usual, less of a belligerent sneer to his words. He’s not, for once, scowling like he’s recalling every last thing he’s ever disliked about Martin in lurid detail. He knocks one knuckle against the doorframe, a sort of belated announcement of his arrival. “You should be careful with those statements. I hear they can be very…”
“I know.” Martin rubs at his eyes. “Trust me, I know. But someone’s got to do it.”
“Yeah, well.” Tim’s lip curls. “Speaking of which, I came to tell you that Jon’s rummaging around in Artefact Storage. I don’t know what he’s looking for, but he’s making a mess. Don’t much care, to be honest, but it’s quite the racket, and I’m not going down there to tell him off.”
Martin stands so fast his chair screeches back. “Jon’s here? He’s downstairs?”
“That’s what I said.”
Martin grabs his glasses from the desk and then, after a pause, the recorder. “I’ll just, um. Do you think he needs help?”
Tim shrugs. “Like I said, I don’t know or care, I just want him to be quiet. I’m trying to nap in the library.”
Martin decides not to comment on that. “Thanks. I’ll go talk to him.”
Tim gives him the most sardonic pair of thumbs up Martin’s ever seen. “Cheers,” he says, and backs out of the office.
He finds Jon kneeling behind a shelf overflowing with ancient cardboard boxes. He’s cradling a music box on his lap, quietly humming along with the rickety tune it’s producing.
Martin hesitates a few paces away. “Jon?”
It takes a moment for Jon to respond, his head dipping slowly left and right in time to the music. Finally, he looks over his shoulder. “Oh, Martin. Hello. What are you doing down here?”
Martin clutches at the recorder in his hands, fiddling with the buttons. “Tim said you were here. He thought you might need a hand finding something?” Not, strictly speaking, true, but Jon doesn’t look entirely cogent, his eyes soft and unfocused. Martin doesn’t want to upset him.
“Have you ever thought about music, Martin?” he says. “It’s a code, full of information. A language all its own.”
Martin considers that, and the dreamy texture to Jon’s voice. “I suppose that’s true.”
“I’ve never been good at music,” Jon goes on. “I did take piano lessons briefly, as a boy, but I got annoyed and quit. I was a wretched child.” He smiles, looking down at the music box. There’s no edge of self-recrimination to his words, only an indulgent amusement. “I’ve never read music in my life, never bothered to learn, but… I can understand this.” He lifts the music box. “I can understand what it’s saying. The notes, the - Oh, I don’t know the words.” A hint of frustration, a tightening of his fingers on the box. “But I think I could reproduce it, given an instrument. I think that’s something I can do, now. If it was important.”
“What do you mean, ‘now’?”
“Now.” Jon makes a circular, expansive gesture. “Now that I’m the Archivist, now that I’m… Whatever it is that I am.”
Martin stares at him. “Jon, when’s the last time you slept?”
Jon tips his head to regard the ceiling. “Difficult to say. Sometimes it seems all I do is sleep. Sometimes I don’t know if I ever have.”
“That can’t be healthy,” says Martin aloud, although he means to say it to himself. He winces. “Listen, can I help you find anything?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Jon glances back down at the music box. “I had been searching for something, but…” He trails off. He looks entranced by the box. Martin steps a little closer, peering at it. It doesn’t seem to be anything special, not like the carvings on that weird table, but he knows better than to trust anything down here at face value. Nothing ends up in Artefact Storage without good reason.
“Why don’t you put that back and come upstairs, I’ll make you tea.”
Jon’s face twitches, shifting from dreamy to irritated. He makes a noise so dismissive Martin almost steps back automatically. “Martin, I realise what this probably looks like, me scrabbling around in the basement like - like -”
“Like Gollum after his precious?” Martin suggests.
Jon frowns. “What?”
Martin sighs. “You know, Jon, sometimes I wonder why I…” He stops. “Never mind.”
“But,” Jon continues, “I actually am in charge of my own faculties and I don’t need to be taken care of. ” He puts such scornful emphasis on those last three words that Martin does recoil this time. A wave of guilt washes over him, but hot on its heels comes the anger he’s been carefully ignoring for weeks, now. Or maybe it’s been months. Maybe years.
“Well, alright then,” he snaps. “Fine. Stay down here rolling in the dirt and messing around with God knows what. Get your eyeballs cursed out of your head for all I care. Obviously you are perfectly capable of handling everything on your own. Hell, since you’re doing so great by yourself, why not get a start on the rest of the world’s problems while you’re at it?” He throws up his hands, which is awkward while still holding the recorder. “I’m terribly sorry for inconveniencing you!”
He’s halfway across the room, back toward the stairwell, when Jon calls after him.
Martin’s feet, damn them, instantly stop. He grits his teeth and turns around. “Are you compelling me?” he demands.
Jon has gotten to his own feet. He’s still holding the music box, hanging loose at his side. His face creases into a chagrined frown. “I’m not sure.”
Jon makes a muddled gesture, perhaps intended to be supplicative. “I’m sorry! I can’t - I don’t think I can help it.”
“I think you could try !”
“I am, I’m -” Jon puts a hand over his eyes, drags it down his face. “I’m just not quite... with it today.”
Martin almost - almost - says something cruel. He bites his tongue instead.
“Please, don’t go. If you don’t want to. Go if… if you do want to.” Jon grimaces. “Was that - Is that better?”
Martin checks to see if he can head for the exit. He can, but whether he’d really been trying before is another question. “Fine,” he says, crisply, because he’s not done being mad just yet. “Great. Decent of you. Now, were you looking for something specific, Mr Sims? I've moved things around since whenever you were here last, I don't want you making a mess of it all again.”
Jon's eyebrows rise. “You have?”
“Yes, of course.” Jon’s expression of tentatively pleased surprise, damn it, lights Martin up inside. He swallows. “You told me to keep digitising the archives, and Artefact Storage is, unfortunately, inextricably linked to the archives. Can't reformat one and not the other.” By the end of the sentence, he's fidgeting, still angry, but embarrassed by his own stroppy tone. As usual, the fight has already begun to flee him, only brave enough to present itself and get him into a difficult situation before immediately abandoning him to the wreckage.
“Oh.” Jon's fingers pluck sightlessly at the lid of the music box. “Well, I - Thank you, Martin. For continuing on. In my absence. As usual.”
Martin looks away, into the shadows of the stacks, so Jon won't see any hint of the embarrassed, frustrated tears prickling the back of his eyes. “Of course,” he mumbles. “‘S what I do. I'm a bloody professional.”
Jon sighs. “I suppose you are. Which is more than I can say for myself.” He looks down at the music box, turning it over in his hands. “I don't even… I don't know what I was looking for. It seemed so clear a moment ago, so urgent, and now…” He frowns.
Martin waits for him to continue, but when the silence stretches, he offers a weak smile. “Now it seems like you were in some kind of dissociative haze, digging through unlabeled boxes of arcane, evil objects in a dark basement, muttering to yourself?”
Jon returns his smile, just as wan. “Something like that, yes. Things of that nature have been happening… more and more lately.” He sounds so exhausted, as miserably on the brink of tears as Martin, that Martin takes a lurching step forward without meaning to. He catches himself, clasping his hands together around the recorder to keep from reaching.
“I… I know things have been hard for you lately,” Martin blurts. “I've seen how this place takes it out of you, how you're… slipping, I suppose. I want to help, Jon, we all do. Well, some of us more than others, but we're all here for the same reason. Because we have to be. And we have to help each other, if we're going to get through this. We have to.”
Jon stares at him. His voice trembles. “Do you think we can, Martin? Do you think getting through it is even an option anymore? Or are we just getting deeper every day, with no hope of going back?”
Martin balls his fists. He's abruptly losing the battle with his tears. It was over the instant Jon's words wobbled like that. “Whatever it is,” he says, “we're in it together. That's all I know. We're together, and that's important.”
Jon nods. He sniffs, looking away. His hands are clenched on the music box. A moment passes, the blood pounding in Martin's ears. He reaches up to dash at his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt. He says nothing when he sees Jon do the same.
“Alright,” says Jon at last. He sniffs once more, then clears his throat. “You're right, Martin. I've been wasting time and valuable assets, and leaving myself vulnerable in the process. I can't do this alone.”
Martin holds his breath. His head is swimming, although whether because of the stifled tears or what Jon's saying, he’s not sure.
“Things are getting rapidly out of control,” Jon says. “I don't know whether I'm coming or going most days. I'm - I'm waking up in strange places and doing bizarre things, I barely know who I am anymore. I'm scared that - that I'm not anyone anymore. That I'm turning into something I can't control. I don't know what to do. I don't even know where to start.”
Martin swallows. It tastes like tears. “Come home,” he says.
Jon blinks. “What?”
“Come back home. To my home.” He takes a breath. “It's been awful without you. I’m sorry, I didn't want to be demanding or - or clingy, or pushy, but I need you there and I think you need to be there.” He squeezes his knotted fingers together. “I think it's better for both of us when you're there.”
He lets it hang between them, thick and heavy in the air. He bites his tongue to keep from babbling on, retreating or redirecting, muddying the water with his own uncertainty. It feels like he's removed his armor and handed Jon an axe.
A beat passes.
Jon says, “Oh. Well. Yes. Alright, then.”
Martin lets out his trembling breath. “Alright, then,” he repeats. His eyes feel swollen. He clears his throat and lifts his chin. “Come upstairs, please. I'll make you some tea.”
Jon nods. “Thank you, Martin,” he says. “That would be lovely.”
They go home together. On the tube, they stand close together, even though the train isn’t crowded. Under the jaundiced lighting, Jon’s exhaustion is painfully evident, his eyes shadowed by deep circles. He stands slumped, shoulder pressed to Martin’s, his chin tucked down. Martin can’t look away from him. There are conflicting forces roiling within him; a heavy worry and a soaring elation at odds in his chest. He can’t quite figure out how to suppress them, so instead, he reaches down and takes Jon’s hand in his.
Jon twitches, his head lifting. He looks at Martin, brow furrowed with what appears to be honest confusion. Martin smiles softly, reassuring, and squeezes Jon’s cold fingers. After a long moment, Jon squeezes back.
They hold hands the whole way home, not letting go even to exit the train. Martin’s heart thunders, adding to the confusing symphony of sensation within him, but he feels curiously calm nonetheless. Confident, even. Jon, walking quietly at his side, his thumb tucked into the warm hollow of Martin’s palm, seems as accepting of Martin’s newfound certainty as Martin. When they stop at an intersection to wait for the light, Jon leans against Martin’s side and, for the briefest moment, drops his head onto Martin’s shoulder as though he is too tired to hold it up any longer. A new feeling adds itself to the fray in Martin’s heart - or rather, an old one returning with a joyful face: fierce protectiveness. Martin realises all over again that he would fight literal monsters for Jon, and, if no monsters are to be had, then he will fight the more mundane threats of loneliness, sadness, exhaustion, and fear. He would do anything for Jon, and for the first time, he wants Jon to know it.
When they get home, Martin has to let go of Jon to find his keys. The moment Jon’s hand parts from his, Martin wants to snatch it back. He steels himself and works quickly to open the door. Jon follows him inside, sighing as they cross the threshold. It’s a relieved sound, grateful even. Martin chances a glance back. Jon sees it, and smiles. The dim light of Martin’s entryway is more forgiving of Jon’s fatigue, but Martin thinks it doesn’t matter either way; he would love Jon’s face regardless of what it looks like. He opens his mouth to say so, all that elation and worry and protectiveness rising within him at the cost of his good sense, but Jon speaks first.
“I’m so glad to be back,” he murmurs. He drops his eyes, apologetic. “Thank you for inviting me.”
Martin stares at him. He wants to speak, to tell Jon, Of course, and You’re always welcome, and I don’t know why you left in the first place, but can’t. He flaps his mouth, glad Jon isn’t looking at him, then makes a decision that is less a decision and more a helpless inevitability. He steps forward, ducking his head, and takes Jon’s chin in two fingers. He sees Jon realise what’s about to happen only a half second before Martin kisses him. It’s just enough time for Jon to shut his eyes and tip his face up.
In Martin’s fairly limited experience, there are a few kinds of kisses: terrible, awkward ones (the majority); drunk ones (a runner-up); incidental ones in the process of lovemaking; and passionate ones that preface lovemaking. This, however, is none of those. It’s gentle, beginning tentatively, then becoming sure. Martin’s hands cradle Jon’s jaw and Jon’s mouth opens slowly beneath his. Even when their tongues touch, it’s almost chaste. A caress for its own sake, rather than a box to be ticked on the way to bigger and better things. Martin moans, and would have been immediately embarrassed if not for the way Jon’s hands clutch his sides in response, a little answering gasp going from his mouth into Martin’s. His teeth close on Martin’s bottom lip, then slide away, as though losing his nerve. Martin chases after him, saying as best he can without words, You can do anything you want. He holds Jon close, sliding one hand around the back of his neck, his thumb stroking into the notch behind Jon’s ear.
When they pull apart, it’s only a couple of inches. Martin whispers, “Alright?”
Jon nods. They’re both breathing hard, although Martin thinks perhaps for slightly different reasons. “Yes,” Jon says, and then, nonsensically, “Sorry.”
Jon shrugs. “I don’t know.” He laughs, sounding self-conscious. “Everything, I suppose.”
“Don’t be.” Martin kisses him again, briefly but firm. “There’s nothing to be sorry for.”
“We both know that’s not true.” Jon rests his forehead against Martin’s, shutting his eyes. “But maybe we could talk about that later. I’m… I’m very tired.”
Martin nods. “Of course.” He doesn’t want to let Jon go, but he doesn’t want to stand here by the front door in his shoes and jacket all night, either. He kisses the corner of Jon’s mouth, then his cheek, and steps back. “I’ll make dinner, then we can go…” He swallows, cheeks heating. He doesn’t want to say ‘to bed,’ not with their mouths still wet from each other, not with his heart hammering this fast.
Jon, undoing his jacket, seems to understand, his face also colouring. “Oh, yes,” he says. “Right. Er. I should probably… Perhaps we should talk about…” He fiddles with the zipper. “I don’t really like - That is to say -”
Martin holds up a palm. “It’s okay. You don’t need to - I mean, I know. Or, I think I do. I just meant we should sleep. Is that -” He stammers, unsure all of a sudden. A moment ago, it had seemed so obvious. “Would that be okay? Do you want to?”
“Just sleep? Together?” Jon’s peering at him, a hesitant hopefulness brightening his eyes.
Martin smiles, awash with relief. “Alright, brilliant.” He kicks off his shoes and quickly hangs up his coat. Scrubbing a hand through his hair, he watches Jon do the same. He is brimming with exhilaration. He knows he’s grinning like a fool. “What would you like to eat?”
Jon glances at him, sees Martin’s grin, and mirrors it with a slow shyness that turns Martin’s stomach to jello. “Anything that’s not meat,” he says.
“I’ll see what I can do,” says Martin, and goes to the kitchen.
He heats up a frozen spinach lasagne, because he doesn’t have the patience for cooking, and keeps himself busy while it spins in the microwave by tidying the kitchen and making tea. Jon excuses himself to the loo, so Martin takes that opportunity to do all the embarrassing things he doesn’t want Jon to see, like punch the air and do a victory lap around the living room and bury his face in his hands to remember the way Jon’s tongue had felt against his. He wonders if Jon is doing anything similarly juvenile in the bathroom, and decides probably not.
They eat together at the table, knees touching on purpose this time. Martin pours Jon’s tea, fixing it how he likes, and when Jon takes it, he rubs his thumb over Martin’s knuckles. By turns, they avoid one another’s eyes and stare at each other ravenously. Martin almost suggests, when they’re finished dinner, that they watch telly for a while, just so this silent dance of deferred, flirtatious pleasure can go on a little longer, but he can tell how genuinely tired Jon is.
He’s still nervous, despite Jon’s agreement earlier, to lead Jon to his bedroom. Jon hasn’t set foot in here before, although he’s spoken to Martin through the open door once or twice. As he looks around, Martin bites down the insensible urge to make excuses for the rumpled sheets, the bare walls, the stack of books on the sidetable. Certainly it can’t be anything Jon wouldn’t expect, nothing so catastrophic as to make him turn on his heel now.
“Oh,” Martin says, as realisation dawns. “You didn’t bring anything.”
Jon looks embarrassed. “Just myself, more or less.”
Martin touches the back of his hand, gratified when Jon turns his palm up immediately in response. “That’s alright, you can wear something of mine.” He rummages quickly in a drawer, passing Jon a t-shirt and a pair of shorts. “You can change in the loo, if you like.”
Jon glances at the door, beyond which the hall is already dark, and shakes his head. “It’s fine, I don’t mind. If you don’t, that is.”
Martin shakes his head furiously. He knows he’s going red again. “Not at all.” He turns his back while they both change, giving Jon what privacy he can, and then there are no more excuses. They get in bed together and Martin shuts the lamp off. There’s a moment of quiet stillness in which neither of them move, a foot of mattress empty between them. The sheets are cool, and muted traffic outside is the only noise. Finally, Jon lets out a trembling exhale and rolls over. Martin does the same. They touch, beneath the blankets. Martin’s hand on Jon’s side, Jon’s fingers curling over Martin’s shoulder.
“I’m glad you came back,” Martin whispers.
Jon says, “I am too. I’m - Martin, I’m -” His voice cracks.
Martin moves closer, sliding his hand around to Jon’s back, then up between his shoulder blades, drawing him in. “Shh, it’s okay. You don’t need to say anything.”
“I do,” Jon protests, but weakly. He tucks his face beneath Martin’s chin, muffling his words. “I need to say so much, and apologise for so much, but I don’t even know where to begin. I can’t explain what’s been happening to me. I don’t know if I want to. I’m worried that - I’m scared of so many things, and not scared of so many others when I know I should be, and I don’t know where to start.”
Martin squeezes him. He kisses the top of Jon’s head. “How about,” he says, “we get a good sleep, and start in the morning. Does that sound okay?”
Slowly, Jon lets out a breath. It’s hot on the base of Martin’s throat. His arm, curled beneath Martin’s, tightens for the briefest of moments. “Yes,” he says finally, resolutely. “That sounds good.”
They go to work together the next day. Martin protests, with Jon curled against him on the couch, that they should take the day off, or that at least Jon should. But Jon, his feet tangled with Martin’s beneath the coffee table, shakes his head. “I can’t,” he says. “I need to be there. I have things to do. I can’t just…” He trails off, but Martin thinks he understands. Jon needs the Archives, the way they need him. It doesn’t make Martin happy, but then again it’s not his choice.
They’d talked for hours when they woke up, over breakfast and then coffee. Jon, haltingly, trying to describe the things that have been happening to him, the bewildering tableau of forces and knowledge arrayed against him, the labyrinthian enormity of something terrible he is only just beginning to spy the shape of. The tone of his voice, sometimes chillingly bleak, sometimes frighteningly heated, had scared Martin most of all. More than he worries for the fate of humanity, or even the universe, Martin is concerned for Jon. It isn’t reasonable, he knows that, but it is true. The rest of it can burn, so long as Jon is safe and whole.
“Are you sure?” Martin asks, already knowing the answer.
Jon nods. He tips his head against Martin’s shoulder so their eyes meet. “It only gets worse if I don’t go, I’ve been learning that the hard way.”
Rather than reply, because there aren’t words to convey how that makes him feel, Martin leans down for a kiss. They’ve been kissing a lot this morning, like taking greedy hits of a new and thrilling drug. They could hardly stop touching long enough to make breakfast and take their respective turns in the loo. “Whatever you need,” he says, and means it.
They hold hands on the walk, and on the tube. Jon, bundled in his frayed jacket with one of Martin’s scarves around his neck, keeps beginning to look grim and distracted, only to glance sideways at Martin, or accept the stroke of Martin’s fingers on his, and noticeably relax. Martin is trying not to let it go to his head.
They’re late arriving, which is neither unusual nor troubling, but what is both those things is Elias waiting for them at the top of the stairs to the Archives. Martin, spotting him first, tightens his grip on Jon and angles himself so Jon is mostly behind him. He sees Elias notice, and raises his chin at the look that crosses Elias’ face. It’s an expression somewhere between exasperation, amusement, and a grudging kind of fondness, the way someone might look at a tiny kitten trying to defend its food.
“Good morning, Martin,” says Elias. “Jon.”
Martin stops, because the hall is too narrow to push past. Despite his angling, Jon steps out from behind him.
“Elias,” Jon says. He sounds wary, but not afraid. Martin does his best to make sure his face mirrors the sentiment.
Elias regards them, his posture composed, his button-down and slacks impeccably creased, his shoes shining. He looks like a lawyer taking a casual lunch break. His gaze slides between their faces, down to their joined hands. “I see you two have reached… a resolution.”
‘Resolution’ does not sound at all like the word Elias wants to use, but Martin can’t tell what it’s standing in for. Jon, on the other hand, seems to understand perfectly. “Yes,” he says, firmly. “We have.”
Martin braces himself. He can’t imagine Elias is going to be pleased. Historically, things haven’t gone well for him when the Archival team works together, much less (and here Martin’s brain supplies an adolescent emphasis) works together. But Elias smiles. “Excellent,” he says. “That’s one less thing off my plate.” He steps aside, opening the way to the stairs. “Have a lovely day, the both of you.”
Martin blinks. He stares at Elias, baffled into immobility. “That’s it?”
Elias raises a brow. “Of course. I don’t want to keep you from your work. As you were.” He gestures toward the stairs.
Martin’s skin crawls at the thought of moving any closer to that Cheshire smirk, but Jon steps forward around him and Martin can only follow. His spine wants to slither out of his body as they pass Elias, but he forces himself to keep his head high and his sweaty hand tight on Jon’s. Just as he’s about to take the first step down, Elias touches his arm. Martin jumps, turning. Elias leans in. Martin leans back.
“Good job,” Elias says, sotto voce, as though Jon isn’t two feet away. “I knew you’d figure it out eventually.”
His eyes are even more arresting than usual, glimmering with a cruel approval that sends gooseflesh racing up Martin’s back. He feels trapped, like a fish pinned by a stork, until Jon tugs his hand and the spell breaks. He turns away without responding, following Jon down the stairs. They don’t stop until they’re around the corner and down the corridor.
“What the hell was that?” Martin hisses.
“I don’t know.” Jon’s voice is tense, his grip on Martin like steel, towing him along. “But I don’t like it.”
Jon halts them outside his office. He glances up at the ceiling, then down the adjoining hall. Both are empty, but that doesn’t stop Martin from shivering. It feels like a thousand eyes are on them. Jon uses Martin’s hand to pull him closer. Martin takes the implicit invitation, like a comforting reflex, to slip his arm around Jon’s shoulders and draw him into kissing range. It feels as natural as breathing, simultaneously as easy as if they’ve been doing it for years, and as thrilling as the first time.
“We need to be careful,” Jon whispers, when they part. “I don’t know what Elias is planning, or what he meant by all of that, but I can’t imagine it’s any good.”
“No, you’re right,” Martin replies. He brushes his knuckles against the curve of Jon’s cheek. His chest is clamouring with feeling again, fear and excitement and confusion and love banging like a drum to an ancient and vital beat. He would fight literal monsters for Jon, and he thinks that Jon finally knows it. “But whatever it is, we’ll handle it together. Won’t we?”
Jon looks up at him. His brow is stitched with worry, but slowly, his eyes soften. He smiles, and leans in to say his next words against Martin’s mouth. “Yes, Martin. We’ll handle it together.”