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Needles and Document Storage

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It's eleven o'clock when Martin knocks on Jon's office door. Jon doesn't know it's eleven o'clock – the last time he checked, it was five thirty and Sasha had just stuck her head in to say bye for the day and chide him for working late – but the fact remains. It's eleven o'clock, and Jon is ten pages deep into an online archive search, and Martin has just knocked on his door, creaking it open from where it has stood faintly ajar since Sasha left.

“Um – Jon?”

It is the first time Jon has worked this late while Martin has been sleeping in document storage. He doesn't raise his eyes from the bulky old monitor.

“Hm?”

Across the room, Martin takes a very small step in, sidling through the door without opening it any further, hands on the wood. He's been like this for the past week, since his triumphant, panicked return from Jane Prentiss's siege: hesitant and careful, even more nervous than usual, visibly trying to make himself ever smaller (an impossible task). It makes Jon bristle.

“I'm – er – going to sleep now,” says Martin, keeping his voice down in deference to the deathly stillness of the archives at night, the hum of Jon's computer notwithstanding. The domesticity of the statement is completely alien to this space. “I know,” Martin goes on – “I mean, I know we don't actually use document storage for much, but – are –” Jon glances up in time to see him frown slightly, his voice gaining strength. “Are you planning on going home tonight?”

Jon shrugs, not taking his hand off the mouse.

“Probably not.”

Martin stares at him, that frown still frozen between his brows and at the corners of his mouth.

“Right,” he says. Is that... sarcasm that Jon hears? “Well, if you do need anything from – Just knock, all right? I don't – I'm not sleepi– Just knock, okay?”

“Noted,” says Jon, and goes back to scrolling down through the newspaper facsimile on his screen, glancing over the highlighted portions. “Good night, Martin.”

Martin stammers and sighs. “O-okay,” he finally lands on. “G'night.”

 

The problem is – the problem is –

This statement. This statement from 1837, this strange, cracking letter in a near-incomprehensible, looping hand, it mentions a serving woman called Charlotte Pawar, which makes absolutely no sense for the social circle of a white gentleman in London, least of all one with such explicitly imperialist ambitions in India, and explicit distaste for anyone browner than the French. It also talks about her as if the recipient of the letter will know of her, except why would another white London gentleman have any prior knowledge of someone else's Indian staff? If she was notorious, there's nothing in the letter to explain why, except for some possible connection to the persistent smell of smoke and scorched floorboards which even the writer seems hesitant to attribute to either accident or disgruntled servants. Jon skipped lunch to try and find references to a Charlotte Pawar in online newspapers and periodicals in relation to house fires, then he drank a mug of tea brought by Martin while he looked for mentions of a Charlotte Pawar in late 1830s London, then he wolfed down some leftover takeaway in the break room fridge as fast as possible so he could get back to investigating reports of house fires in Mayfair in the 1830s and 40s, and...

Still nothing. Jon is certain the woman must be important – she wouldn't be mentioned otherwise, however obliquely – but the archives are far from digitised, and what indexing has been done is in such a state of disarray in the corner drawers of his office as to be useless.

Jon would know. He checked them around nine PM. Nothing.

Statements.

With the lack of organisation in the archives themselves – Jon still hasn't forgiven Ms Robinson for Staff Sergeant Berry – there's little hope of knowing whether or not Charlotte Pawar has gotten herself lost somewhere in the 1890s, or 1960s, or early 2000s. But even if he can't check everything, he can at least go over the boxes for the right time frame, whether or not they reflect reality.

The earliest statements are kept right down in the depths of the stacks, where the fluorescent lights have flickered persistently since before Jon first stuck his head down there as a researcher, no matter how many reports are sent to maintenance. He can feel a headache building as he takes down box after box, flicking through the folders inside in search of the right decade. He finds a handful of statements from before 1820, and there are two whole boxes of folders which, though they're not in order, range from 1850 to 1910 (with one 1949 and one 1981 mixed in for good measure). Three statements from the relevant decades, upon skimming, yield absolutely nothing about Charlotte Pawar, unsolved fires, or mysterious smells of burning.

Jon shoves the last box back on its shelf with a thump and a scowl, and trudges back through the shelves to put 1949 and 1981 back in the right sections. At least the boxes are now in order.

Out of the stacks, Jon pauses amongst the assistants' desks and pushes his glasses up into his hair, one hand on his hip, one digging his fingers into his eyes. There's nothing for it. If Pawar is anywhere in these archives – anywhere sensible – it must be one of the more fragile documents.

With a sharp nod, Jon knocks his glasses back down onto his nose, pushing the bridge up with one finger as he marches over to document storage. There's a new smear on the left lens.

In front of the door, Jon huffs a breath, forcing himself to calm down from the jittery energy of futile midnight searches. Martin may be acting strangely, but Jon doesn't actually want to surprise him out of a nightmare and induce a panic attack, least of all because he would be at a loss as to what to do about it.

He raises his fist – pauses – and knocks. Three firm but gentle raps, in quick succession.

There is silence from the other side. Jon steps right up to the door, turning his ear to the wire glass covered over with printer paper from the inside; still nothing. He pitches his voice low, turning it to the seal between door and jamb.

“Martin?”

Silence.

Jon lets his breath out in a thin, steady stream. He clenches and releases his hands, and shakes them out, before knocking again.

“Martin, are you awake?”

No response. Jon releases a breath; there's nothing for it.

The click of the latch is quiet and banal in the darkness, and the door hushes against the floor with the faintest squeak as Jon eases it open, craning his neck to see inside. The familiar mess of boxes and shelving has been tidied since last he saw it, one box held together with tape and labelled 'RETURN TO LIBRARY' pushed up next to the camp bed and topped with a notebook and pen, a half-empty water bottle, and Martin's charging phone. And next to it – …

Next to it, Martin is twisted up on the cot in a position that can't possibly be comfortable. Bundled up half on his right side, half on his front, he's pressed his back to the wall and shoved his left arm, for some reason, under his head, the right sticking out from underneath him and over the edge of the bed so that his broad fingers dangle in the air. He's shifted down somehow, so that his bare, outstretched foot rests on the piles of books at the end of the cot, while his left leg is tucked up against his broad stomach, knee digging into the wooden frame. His dark hair is pressed into a lopsided quiff by the terrible pillow, a far cry from its usual short, neat fro, and his face is almost obscured between pillow, shoulder, and his squashed-up cheek. He seems warm: his ankles and feet are bare where they stick out from under the blanket, which is pushed down to his waist, exposing the swell of his arms and a patch of pale brown skin, stretch marks, and dark hair between the bed and where his shirt has ridden up almost to his chest.

He's fast asleep, for which Jon is very grateful. He doesn't know for how long he stood in the doorway and just... looked.

That's not normal. That's definitely not normal.

It's the incongruity of it, Jon decides, as he squeezes into the room and takes out his phone, using the faint glow of the screen to check the labels on the boxes by the door, and scan the shelves opposite the bed. This is the archives, an office, his workplace. It's one thing to know, theoretically, that Martin has been living here – for God's sake, he was the one to suggest it, and it's logically the best solution – but to actually see the man curled up and sleeping, deliberately, changed into comfortable clothes and as at ease as possible, given the circumstances... It seems wrong. Martin, in Jon's head, is associated with jumpers and woollen vests and ill-knotted ties, not thin grey t-shirts and bare feet. He is tense and nervous, a hard but unsure worker who relaxes into laughter around Tim and Sasha, and offers tea and complications with the same tentative air which only makes Jon distrust him all the more. He is not... this. Not a bundle of a person at their most vulnerable, having survived thirteen days of Jane Prentiss knocking at his door.

Jon taps his phone screen to keep it lit. There are a handful of unlabelled boxes on the floor, revealed to hold loose papers for which Jon does not have the patience. Some stray manila folders have been tidied into piles, but none of them, on inspection, seem relevant. Loathe as Jon is to have his back to an unknown agent in the dark, he turns to the shelves with a quiet sigh, scanning the labels: 1899, 1871-4, A-E 80-90, 1941 FRAG... No, no, nothing, irrelevant, no...

In his frustration, Jon doesn't hear the shifting of breath and rustle of cloth behind him. The squeak of the cot frame registers just in time to be of no use whatsoever as a warning, before Martin mumbles:

“Jon?”

He all but jumps out of his skin, gasping as his heart leaps briefly to beat in his throat. He swallows it down with a growl, and doesn't compose himself out of his shock and ire when he spins around.

In the light from the archives outside, and the pale glow of Jon's phone screen, Martin has rolled up onto his side, both arms thrown before him in a tangle. He squints up at the brightness through which Jon has been struggling to read, frowning faintly.

“Martin,” Jon says quietly, as the remorse starts to sink in. He presses his mouth together and sighs through his nose. “I didn't mean to wake you. But I did knock.”

“S'all right,” Martin slurs out, hoarse and a little nasal, as he closes his eyes again and relaxes back against the bed and wall, lashes dark against his darkly freckled cheeks. His breathing is heavy and audible, still struggling against consciousness. “D'you need som-ing?”

“No,” says Jon, and the thought is correct, but that's not what he means. He squeezes his eyes shut and flaps his free hand. “I mean – yes, but – not from you, it's – it's fine.” When he opens his eyes again, his phone has gone dark, and he turns it back on without thinking.

“What-is-it?” Martin blinks, looking up at Jon with – God – such sleepy candour, this is too weird, too wrong, too unbearable.

“Just – statements,” Jon says, the urge to explain himself fighting viciously with the drive not to over-explain. “I was looking at something from 1837, there seemed to be an implication of related events – there's nothing online, the stacks haven't got anything, I thought maybe – 1830s or possibly 40s, they might be in here with the – it doesn't matter.”

Martin hums in acknowledgement, as his eyes slip shut again and he takes a deep breath, the whole bulk of his body shifting with the movement.

“Top right,” he says through the sigh, voice coming from deep in his chest but still recognisably light. Jon twists around to turn his phone on the top right of the shelves, and scowls.

“Martin,” he drawls, “that box is labelled 1950 to 59. And it's F to J – I'm looking for Charlotte or Pawar.”

“S'not though,” says Martin from the bed, and Jon turns back to send his scowl to him instead of the offending box.

“Martin,” he starts, but gets no further in the reprimand before Martin – Martin, of all people – overrides him.

“S'mislabelled, isn't it?” he explains with an air of long-suffering patience, cracking one eye open. Curiously, his accent is more pronounced like this, less effort being put in to reign it back and make it sound more... London. “I've had way too much time in here, Jon,” he continues. “I know where things are, trust me.”

It's the order or request that Jon has always been least able to fulfil. Unfortunately, he also has the stubborn urge to prove Martin wrong; so he taps his phone again before setting it down on a lower shelf and reaching up until his fingertips catch on the corners of the box, edging it forward until he can drop it into his arms, set it down on the nearest surface, and lift the lid and sift through the files.

1829, 1830, 1844, 1831, 1835, 1880, 1835, 1920, 1840, 1836...

Huh. Jon sets his mouth into a disappointed line.

“Right,” he says, and then, begrudgingly: “Thank you, Martin.”

Behind him, Martin huffs a tired laugh, and the cot creaks mightily as he rolls back onto his front all at once.

“See?” he mumbles through a smile, as Jon sets the lid back on the box and heaves it up, turning to leave. “I'm not completely useless.”

The words send an icy needle into Jon's chest, hitching in his lungs and arresting his movements. Halfway to the door, aghast, he looks back at Martin; but the man is asleep once more, breath easing back into regularity, face almost obscured again, his body slumped into the paper-thin mattress with the kind of relaxation that only sleep can bring.

Normally, Jon would hear the bitterness of such a statement, passive-aggression and the hint of an insult at his managerial style. A Head Archivist should know his staff better, treat them better, shouldn't underestimate his assistants, should stop being such a dick about it, though no one would say it to his face. But this – this... – this is guileless, casual confidence, muttered into Martin's arm and the too-thin pillow, with nothing but the lilt of a light self-deprecation. It's an off-hand fact that means nothing but what it says, and the faint implication of what he knows Jon thinks of him.

It's all wrong, again. Martin is stammers and fluttering, he's apologies for his translations, and looking up terms that he should know by now... isn't he? He's conciliatory offers and the intonation of a question in sentences that should be statements, not this. He's not thin t-shirts and brown skin and lying on his front, he's not one squashed-up cheek and lazily-flung limbs, and he is definitely not casual certainty in his own knowledge, or nonchalant self-effacement without an apology attached, or teasing reproaches to Jon's face. The needle in Jon's chest presses deeper as he stares at Martin's sleeping body, puncturing something which sends a dribble of warmth, and sympathy, and respect, and oh, God, fondness, eking through Jon's sternum and towards his stomach, where butterflies are beginning to stir. An image comes to his mind unbidden, of going over to Martin and sitting by him, feeling the warmth of him, bending over his back and putting his arms around him and apologising for thinking that he's useless (and explaining that, yes, sometimes he does seem so, he has a tendency to bumble, and that puts Jon's hackles up, but if he can be like this, too, why doesn't he do it more often, why can't he just – why won't he just –). He wants to put his face to that thin grey t-shirt stretched over his shoulder, and kiss him, kiss him, kiss him, kiss him –

Oh, God.

Jon elbows back through the door, smothering his panic. He sets the box down on the nearest surface and darts back inside for his darkened phone, not looking at Martin, then shuts the door behind him as quietly as possible. Pocketing his phone, he takes up the box once more, and heads for his office, taking a deep and deliberately steady breath.

Charlotte Pawar. He needs to look for Charlotte Pawar.