“Martin,” Ms. Williams said as the other kids were dismissed for recess. Her brown eyes were soft and kind, but it did nothing to put off the sick twist of dread in Martin’s stomach. “You didn’t turn in your homework again.”
He fiddled with the eraser on his desk, rubbing it over some smudges, before looking up. She was still smiling.
“Is there anything you want to talk about? Something going on at home I can help with?”
Martin didn’t think Ms. Williams was all that keen to help him with Mum. Although, it would be nice if she knew he was usually just too tired for homework, instead of being too stupid. Mum didn’t like him talking about it, though.
But this was his teacher, and you’re supposed to trust your teachers, right? More importantly, it was Ms. Williams. If anyone would understand, she would, right?
So, Martin told her. At first, he thought he did something wrong because Ms. Williams’s eyes grew less kind and the corners of her mouth tightened. He must have made a mistake, though, because she was still smiling and, when he was finished, said he could join the other children outside.
“Am I in trouble?”
“Oh, of course not, sweetie.” She placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. “You’re a very good boy, Martin.”
Martin still thinks about how that made him feel; surprised and confused, but with a breathless warmth ballooning in his chest.
The next day, when Mum was picking him up from school, Ms. Williams requested if the two of them could talk in her classroom and asked Martin to wait outside.
He had never heard his mother so angry before. He could picture it, though; the bulging veins in her neck, the spit flecking from her lips as she blew up on Ms. Williams, asking her where she found the gall, telling her that he was healthy and fed and what more could they want from them.
When he heard her start storming towards the door, fear twisted his heart and he almost bolted. He didn’t, and when the door opened, he let Mum seize his arm and pull him away.
He had one look of Ms. Williams. She had collapsed into her chair, hand covering her mouth. He still saw that image under his eyelids sometimes, years later, when he’s tossing and turning in bed.
Mum went to the principal after that. The other children were more than happy to tell him all about it in the hallways. After that, Mum took away his books and toys so he could focus on his homework. He would get them back when his grades went up.
Ms. Williams transferred schools at the end of the year. It was almost a relief. Her eyes had been so sad.
Martin never blamed her. Why would he? She was young and far too kind and had just wanted to help. He didn’t blame his mother either, not really. He had known better, after all. They were living in a tough situation. If she didn’t stand up for them, they would have been torn apart, and he never wanted that.
No, if Martin had just kept his mouth shut, the whole thing could have been avoided.
Martin woke up, and then regretted every decision he’s made in life that’s led him to this point.
Clicking off his alarm, he stretched, wincing as the pain shot down his back. Yep. That’s what happens when you crouch over your desk proofing reports until 3 AM, you git. At least he didn’t have any nightmares this time. That’s a win.
Mum was already up by the time he entered the kitchen, watching one of her soaps. He could hear it as he started assembling breakfast. Oh, Jack was confessing to Elizabeth, was he?
He turned to watch as the actor on screen held his co-star close, listing all the things he adored about her, how he wanted to spend the rest of their lives together, before pulling her in for a sloppy, but satisfying, kiss.
It was schlop, but it was entertaining schlop, at least.
Shit, the eggs were burning.
“Oh, good grief,” Mum said, tsking at the television. “I am rapidly losing patience for this rubbish.”
“I think it’s sweet,” said Martin as he salvaged their breakfast. She made a noise that made clear what she thought of that particular opinion. “Food’s ready.”
She straightened up and he laid down the tray. Her upper lip curled.
Martin sat down with his own plate, which held most of the burnt bits. “Sorry. It’s all we had.”
“Oh, and I suppose that’s my fault?”
“Of course it’s not your fault. I just forgot to do the shopping last night. I was up late.”
“It’s fine,” with the tone of it most certainly being not fine but children are so easily upset, best just to let this one go. “What on Earth kept you so busy last night?”
“Just finishing another report.”
“For that dreadful Institute?”
Here we go. He shovelled a forkful of egg into his mouth in place of an answer.
“Martin, I wish you wouldn’t work at that ghoulish place. You should hear the way Martha and Patrice twitter on about it. Nothing but scam artists and psychotics. It’s embarrassing .”
“It pays the bills, Mum.”
“That nice little corner store paid well enough, hadn’t it?”
It absolutely hadn’t, not to mention that Martin had absolutely hated working there, but he conveniently was running late for work, anyway. He gathered up the dishes, grabbed his backpack, and dropped a kiss on Mum’s head, trying very hard to ignore her flinch.
“Have a nice day, Martin,” she said, and it almost sounded like an apology. Martin liked to think so, anyway.
“You too, Mum.”
“Jesus, were you hit by a train on the way in?”
“Ha ha,” Martin said as he entered the breakroom.
“I’m serious,” Tim said with a big grin. “You seriously look like you got knocked in the face by a train the very same moment you were walking into the building. You okay?”
“‘I’m fine ’, reports man who is definitely not fine.”
Martin didn’t answer, rubbing the back of his neck. Yes, he hadn’t gotten a lot of sleep last night, and the tube ride had been cramped and he spilt his coffee and someone had knocked his backpack out of his hand and it had started raining when he was halfway to the Institute and he had forgotten his umbrella, but that’s hardly unusual. That was just a mundane morning in London, right?
“Oh, leave him alone,” Sasha called from the refrigerator. “You’re not exactly operating at peak capacity, yourself. Did you even brush your hair?”
“Hey, that’s just my look, alright?” Tim swivelled back to Martin. “So, late night, huh?”
“Yep. Just wrapped up the Baker case.” He deposited the file, satisfied with the small thud as it hit the table. Tim whistled.
“Didn’t hold back, did you? That was a good case, though, proper spooky. If I was even a teensy bit more morally unhinged, I’d make a book out of it.”
“That the one with the ghost dog?” asked Sasha.
“That’s the one,” Tim said. “Oh, and you got to go to Whitstable, lucky bastard, how was that?”
Martin fought the urge to wax poetic, but he couldn’t hold back a wistful sigh. “Gorgeous.”
“Always wanted to take a date there, try some of those oysters.” Tim winked. “Aphrodisiacs and all that.”
“Ugh, too far,” said Sasha. “There’s a perfectly good oyster place a few blocks from here.”
“Yeah, but that’s not romantic. Just picture it; Friday night, you’re just getting off work, I come in, boom, train tickets, dinner and hotel reservations. Tim Stoker’s All-Inclusive Whitstable Weekend Getaway.”
Sasha shook her head, but Martin privately agreed with Tim. There may have been a fantasy or two he’d indulged during the train ride over involving long walks on the beach and fancy restaurants and, well …
That’s when Tim reached for the report.
“Right, let’s take a look—”
Martin’s hand snatched the report away before Martin’s brain gave it the go-ahead. “Don’t, that’s not—”
Tim froze, eyes wide. Even Sasha had turned all the way around to stare at him. Face burning, he futzed with the edges of the paper and very firmly told himself to stop, as he had put a lot of work into making the report look neat and presentable and the effect would be certainly dampened if he went and crumpled it.
“It’s not—” He cleared his throat and tried to sound like a proper adult with all his wits about him. “It’s for Jon.”
Based on Tim’s slowly creeping smirk, he failed.
“Oh, yes, don’t want to sully it for Jon.”
“You know that’s not—”
“No, no, don’t want to get my secretions all over it. Fussy bastard would honestly probably have a heart attack.”
Knowing full well it would only make the ridicule worse, he said, softly, “He’s not fussy .” He wilted ever so slightly under Tim’s quirked eyebrow. “He’s just organised.”
Sasha, mercifully, came to his recuse by poking Tim’s shoulder. “Would you stop bullying Martin and help me carry out these packages?”
“Fine. But only if you agree to marry me.”
“Fine, but you carry the big one.”
They hefted up the boxes and stumbled out of the room, although Tim couldn’t seem to help himself throwing a smirk and eyebrow waggle over at Martin. Martin fought the childish urge to stick out his tongue and then decided that life was short and did it anyway. Tim puckered his lips.
After they were gone, he flicked on the kettle. He opened the box and huffed when he saw how few tea bags there were left. He’d have to get more on his way home.
The kettle was only just beginning to whine when someone called his name. Rosie was standing in the doorway.
“Sorry, Martin,” she said, “but there’s a nice young man out here who wants to give a statement and Mr. Sims is otherwise occupied. Could you take it?”
“Oh, of course.” How peculiar. Martin had only ever taken a statement once or twice before, certainly not enough to be the second (or even third) choice. Needs must, he supposed. “Just send him to my office.”
Rosie beamed and when Martin returned, the nice young man was already waiting for him. He smiled shyly at Martin, a smile Martin returned in kind.
“Hello,” he said as he took a seat. “My name’s Martin. I, um, guess I’ll be taking your statement today?”
The nice young man smiled again, and he seemed to relax a bit into his doubtlessly uncomfortable chair. “Hi. Yeah, my name’s Stephen. Stephen Fisher.”
“And what brings you to the Magnus Institute today?”
Clearing his throat, Stephen straightened up. “Well, uh, it happened a few days ago at my grandpap’s birthday. There was this,” he picked at his cuticles, “guest.”
Martin hummed and began the recording on his computer. “Statement of Stephen Fisher regarding a guest encountered at his grandfather's birthday. Statement recorded directly from subject December 4th, 2016. Statement begins.”
Stephen let out a deep breath. “Right. So. I’ve been helping my dad prepare for this for months. 70, you know, it was a big one. We’d organised a hunting party. So, you can probably imagine how I felt after what happened that morning …"
While he didn’t do it often, Martin liked to think he was a good fit for taking statements. He didn’t like to brag, but he put a lot of effort into making the people around him feel comfortable, which helped when someone was recounting some horrible trauma or another. All he had to do was listen and commiserate, which he was happy to do.
It was certainly easier than reading the statements, all alone. He didn’t have Jon’s flair for it, anyway.
It didn’t hurt that Stephen was also very funny.
“... so after I wrangled the damn thing with one of those beer rings, we were able to get things under control, but I still don’t think grandpap’s recovered.”
Martin had to bite his lip because laughing would be unprofessional, and Jon was almost certainly listening to these tapes. “I’m sorry, but did you say you wrangled a demonic turkey with a plastic beer ring ?”
“You heard me,” said Stephen, blue eyes wide with the knowledge that what he was saying was ridiculous, but you were just going to have to deal with it. “Almost took my head off, look.” He unbuttoned the top of his shirt to reveal savage scratch marks leading up his neck. Martin ‘ oooh ’ed as reverently as he thought was appropriate.
“I’m sorry that happened to you,” he said. “But, while it’s, well, highly unusual, what makes you think it was supernatural?”
“You wouldn’t be asking that if you had seen that bird. That look in its eyes? Pure evil. Could smell fear, knew exactly who to go after.”
“I think birds are just like that.”
Stephen chuckled, even though Martin was only half-joking, but it still felt nice. Martin turned to the computer. The fact that they were able to take a digital statement with no trouble already hinted at the true nature of the turkey, but Martin still said, “Well, we’ll look into it. I hope your grandparents are doing all right.”
“Nah, they’re fine. Tough as boars. Gram was hoping to have it for Christmas this year.”
Again, laughing would be unprofessional, so he just said, “Statement ends,” and closed the program. Stephen smiled. It was a nice smile; he must have worn braces as a kid.
“So,” Stephen leaned forward with renewed purpose. “So. I may actually have had an, ah, ulterior motivation. For coming here today. Besides the crazy bird story.”
“Oh.” Martin made to stand. “Well, let me go get Jon. Um, he’s my boss—”
“No, no. It’s, um. I actually wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh.” Well, that’s a bit nerve-wracking, isn’t it? But he sat back down.
Stephen took a deep breath and continued, staring down at his hands, “Okay, so. Um. I—” Sighing, he fell back into his chair. “Wow, there’s no way to make this not sound creepy. I see you a lot in the, uh, café. Just across the street. I work in one of the offices nearby and I see you. A lot.”
Martin’s eyebrows narrowed. What, did he have an issue with how often Martin got a madeleine? Oh, God, Martin thought with a sinking feeling. Did he see that one time he had accidentally dropped his muffin on the floor and kept eating it anyway? It had only been a few seconds, and it was a really expensive muffin! He must have looked like such a pig—
“So I was wondering if you wanted to go get coffee, sometime.” Stephen had finally looked back up. “Together.”
Oh. Martin could have slumped over with relief, his dignity still intact. But then his brain caught up with the rest of it and everything stuttered to a halt. The two of them sat there, staring at each other. Stephen’s eyes were really startlingly blue.
“Well,” Stephen said, “if you’re trying to intimidate me, it’s working.”
Martin blinked, and then he frowned. “Did Tim put you up to this?” He groaned and massaged the bridge of his nose. Really, Tim? Really? It was bad enough he ribbed him all the time about other things and he knows the dolt means well but he knew Martin didn’t —
Another full system shut down. He recovered faster this time, though, only for his face to become blisteringly hot. “Oh. Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I—” He stood up, only to change his mind and sit back down again. “I’m sorry—”
“No, it’s fine, it’s okay. This was, it was a pretty dumb plan. I shouldn’t have— not while you were at work— I thought—”
“No, it’s not that, it’s—” Taking a long, slow breath, Martin spread both hands on top of his desk. “Honestly, I actually think that’s pretty cute.”
Stephen made a pleased noise, blushing. He really was quite attractive, which only made this whole thing more baffling for him.
“So …? I mean, no pressure, you don’t have to answer now or anything—”
“No, that’s not— I mean, thank you, really. I don’t really get asked out often. Ever, really.” He chuckled, embarrassed by his sudden candour. “Um, I’m really flattered—”
Stephen groaned, rolling his head back. “ Noo, anything but flattered .”
“Sorry,” Martin said. Stephen shook his head, still smiling, though it was sad now. “It’s just. It’s not really a good time—”
A knock on the door startled them both and Jon walked in, head buried in a file. “Tim said you had finished writing up the Whitstable— oh.” He paused at the sight of Stephen. “I apologise, I didn’t realise you were taking statements.”
“Oh, no,” Martin shot up so fast his chair knocked the wall. “Um, it’s no problem, we were just wrapping things up.” He rifled through his desk. When did everything get so messy? Clearing his throat, he held the report out. “Here you go.”
Jon’s eyebrows ticked up ever so slightly as he took the report. “Very good,” he said, and it almost sounded like he meant it. Martin let himself savour the little pinprick of pride. “And how was the girl? Any more repeat sightings?”
“No, not at all. She’s at her grandparents right now and is making a full recovery. They even got her a new pup. Golden lab. They’re getting on like a house on fire.”
Jon looked up and it was so, so slight that anyone else could be convinced it wasn’t there, just a trick of the light or his usual sneer, but he smiled, and Martin knew it was because he was relieved little Alison Baker was okay.
“Right,” Jon said. “When you’re done here, I need you to find any statements that mention Gretchen O'Connor, I have a feeling she’s important to understanding case #0140912.”
“Of course, I’ll get that for you right away.”
Jon turned and nodded to Stephen, who awkwardly waved back. His shirt was still unbuttoned, and Jon’s brow quirked, and Martin couldn’t remember a time where his face hadn’t been on fire.
Jon left the room and Martin slumped into his chair, boneless. Why did turning in the reports always feel so harrowing?
“So,” Stephen said. “Yeah. Not a good time.”
Stephen gestured towards the door.
If Martin stabbed the tip of his pen into his neck, he would probably be able to bleed out before anyone called an ambulance. Instead, he pushed papers around his desk, trying to appear organised and aloof. “I don’t, uh— I don’t know what you mean.”
“No, no, I get it. I can kind of see it. If you like, you know, the strict English professor type.”
Martin didn’t, but he wasn’t about to explain it to this stranger, as nice as he was. “I should really be getting back to work.”
Stephen nodded, resigned. “Sorry for wasting your time.”
“It’s fine. Not many laughs around here, generally. We’re, um, probably not going to do a follow-up, though. Was there actually a demonic turkey or did you just make that up?”
Stephen paused, pursing his lips. “I mean. There was definitely a turkey. It’s possible it was possessed by my Great Uncle Jeremy. He’d be the type.”
They weren’t being recorded anymore, so Martin let himself laugh and laugh hard. He promised he’d contact Stephen if he ever changed his mind, even did a cursory exchange of phone numbers, and then Stephen was gone.
Martin sat at the desk for a bit, arms crossed, and breathed. Then he heard the words “ nothing but delays ” in his mind and stood up, sucking in a deep breath as his back cracked like bubble wrap. He really needed to stop hunching so much.
Right. First thing’s first: tea.
Despite what a lot of people might think (probably already thought), Martin wasn’t an idiot.
Well, he was a bit of an idiot, but he liked to think he was the kind of idiot that was always so bright and optimistic even when he had no right to be, and although people acted annoyed, they actually secretly admired his resilience.
But not an idiot idiot. The kind of idiot that would hope a silly little crush on his boss could ever be reciprocated or that it would even be a good thing if it did. That kind of idiot.
He just … liked it. He liked being in love. He’d never really had the chance to experience the butterflies or the swooping stomach or idle daydreams about hand-holding and strolling through the park in the rain. He was writing poetry again, even if it still wasn’t great. He wasn’t hurting anybody.
The point was, he could enjoy himself without being delusional, and it didn’t matter if Tim or Sasha teased him or Jon acted like his existence was a burden to the world at large. He would let himself have this one thing. Nobody else needed to understand.
It wasn’t some great struggle, though. Despite what Tim said and what Jon might have believed about himself, it was very easy to love Jon.
Stephen said he looked like a strict English professor, and that was true, but it was moments where he unwound, where he relaxed just a bit, that would catch Martin’s breath. Slicking back his hair only to make it messier, chewing on pen tips, humming some pop song Martin thinks he heard on the radio earlier that morning only to viciously deny everything when Sasha asked. Those little glimpses.
And he cares. Martin doesn’t think he’s ever met someone so self-destructively empathetic. The way his voice softens when talking to a distraught statement giver, even if he’s terrible at doling out comfort. The way he seems to just be there as he’s reading statements, experiencing the fear and terror of the people alongside them. Tearing through the archives, a manic look in his coal-black eyes as he hunts down leads and quietly telling himself to “stop being so stupid and think ”.
Martin remembered when he had reported back from the follow up on the Mannings file. Jon had asked if Joycelyn was able to shake the shadow of her dead mother that had been stalking her. Martin said she had died two weeks ago.
That look of quiet devastation on Jon’s face almost shattered him.
“It’s not your fault,” Martin had been compelled to say. “You couldn’t have known.”
He expected a deflection or a cutting barb, but Jon had just stared at his hands.
“Thank you, Martin,” was all he said, and dismissed him.
And Jon would always stay at the Institute so very, very late. The bruises under his eyes darkened and his already half-starved figure was almost fading away before their eyes. Jon cared so much and so deeply. The only thing he didn’t seem to care much about was himself.
So, Martin made tea. The good stuff, because everyone deserved a little spoiling sometimes. And if he felt a little bit pleased, a little bit happy, when he would come back and find the teacup drained, well, that was nobody’s business but his own.
As he prepared the tea (splash of cream and two sugars today, although he still hadn’t figured out the ideal ratio yet) he knew he was grinning. He must have looked like an utter dope and tried to wipe it off.
But, well, he was in a good mood.
While he felt bad about Stephen, it was nice to be noticed. Appreciating a little ego boost never hurt anyone. And although he was sure Jon was never going to provide direct feedback on his report, probably just skim through and bin it, he knows he put a lot of work into it and can find satisfaction just in having completed it.
Enjoying the little clink! as he placed the cup in its saucer, he made his way down to Jon’s office. He’d quickly drop it off and then begin working on Jon’s request. Gretchen O’Connor, he thinks she may have been mentioned somewhere in the early 00s—
“—been doing a lot better lately.”
Sasha was there.
Martin sighed. Sasha, at least, kept her knowing looks to herself, unlike Tim. For the most part.
Just get in, drop the tea, get out. No need to make a song and dance about it.
“Yes, if by ‘doing a lot better’, you mean turning in the report three days after I asked for it, by all means, call it an improvement.”
“Give him a break, it was all the way in Whitstable. Hardly an afternoon’s trek.”
“Lack of time management is not my concern. For God's sake, have you even read this?” Paper was shuffled around. “‘ The ocean’s surface was like unbroken glass as I explored the coast that night. It’s the perfect scene for a haunting, which is why I believe the townsfolk were so quick to run away with Mr. Baker’s ghost stories. Researcher's notes: The restaurants are lovely here. ’ Perhaps the reports wouldn’t take so long if he didn’t waste time writing dreck.”
“He’s just trying to make it a fun read.” Sasha’s voice was soft as if she couldn’t summon a proper argument.
“This is the Magnus Institute, not a creative writing course at university. If that doesn’t agree with him, he can leave.” There was a thud and the sound of rifling tapes. “He can take his bloody tea with him.”
Martin’s fingers tightened on the saucer. Oh.
“You know, he never makes tea for me and Tim. Just you.”
“I didn’t ask to be coddled. If he were to quit wasting time and focus on more important things, he could make a half-decent researcher instead of just getting in everyone’s way.”
“Right. I’ll just get these to artefact storage.”
And suddenly she was there, and she saw him, and then she saw him.
“Oh, shit,” she said.
“Before you leave, can you take—” Jon appeared in the doorway, shuffling through some papers, and he looked at Martin and stopped. “Ah.”
It was too late for anything, to flee or even pretend he had only just walked up because his ridiculous face must have already given him away. Martin acted on pure instinct. He smiled and handed over the tea.
“Um, hi, sorry this is so late.” Jon received the teacup, still looking. “You know, um. Busy. So,” he clapped his hands together. “Gretchen O’Connor, right? I’ll just— yeah. Get that to you right away. Already said that before, didn’t I? Yeah, um. Bye.”
He scurried away, trying not to run too fast because at least pretending not to be an absolute fuck-up held back the tightness in his throat.
He spent as much time down in the archives that he thought he could reasonably get away with. As tempting as it was to curl up in some dark corner somewhere and have a good sulk, he’d promised Jon he’d get those files to him right away, and he didn’t want to contribute to any more delays.
There was at least one entity looking out for him, though, as he had run into Tim on his way back to his office and he was happy enough to deliver the files for him. If Tim noticed anything wrong, he hadn’t said anything, and Martin couldn’t have been more thankful for small favours.
That was until Sasha came back. He hunched over his desk a little further, his fingers hitting the keys a little harder.
“Hey,” she said. There was a cup of tea in her hands. “I’m … Yeah, that was—” She cleared her throat. “I’m really sorry.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
A mad twitch jerked his mouth into a smile. “About what? I mean. I didn’t hear anything or,” he swallowed, cursing himself, “anything.”
“Made you some tea.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” he said, although he didn’t stop her placing it on the table. “Thank you.”
She clasped her hands in front of her, and then said in the softest voice, “He’s an arse, Martin.”
He turned back to the computer. “Yeah.”
She sighed and left, and Martin could finally breathe. In the hallway, Tim mouthed ‘ What’s wrong? ’ but Sasha just shook her head like she had just put down a fussy toddler for a nap and it wouldn’t do to have them wake up.
Martin tried to ignore it all and worked.
It still hadn’t stopped raining and Martin still didn’t have his umbrella.
The café had been out of madeleines and the tube was packed and someone had stepped on his foot and his back was really starting to ache from crouching over his reports all day and it was fine. It’s fine. It was just another day in London. Something over a million other people were putting up with, too. Nothing special.
He shouldered his way into the flat, juggling the paper bags of groceries. He had tried tucking in the bread, but he thinks it had gotten wet anyway, and a little crushed.
“You’re home early,” said Mum as he deposited the bags on the kitchen counter.
“Yeah. Slow day.”
“They didn’t send you halfway across the country to hunt down a spectre on the ramblings of some drunkard?”
The flat was silent, broken only by the sound of the television. Putting away the groceries offered, at least, small, routine oblivion. He was putting away the eggs, when Mum said, “I noticed that you started writing poetry again.”
“Yes. I found some of your journals. It was quite,” a pause, “interesting.”
A muscle twitched in his jaw and he lowered his head, trying to breathe. Asking Mum to stop reading his journals had long since been a wasted effort.
“I don’t understand your fascination with all that romantic nonsense.”
He closed the refrigerator and grabbed Mum’s bottle of medicine from the counter. “I don’t know. I guess I just like it.”
“Are you going to bring me a cup of tea, or aren’t you?”
He flicked on the kettle. “Sorry.”
“That lovely care facility in Devonshire wouldn’t keep me waiting this long.”
Martin closed his eyes, clicking the teacup into its saucer a bit harder than was necessary. He poured the tea, measured the medicine’s dosage, and brought over the tray.
“I looked up their staff, you know. They’ve won awards.” She glanced into the teacup with one eyebrow lifted. Her nose crinkled. “They wouldn’t leave me to myself all day and forget to do the shopping—”
“ I’m doing the best I can. ”
He clapped a hand over his mouth, horrified. Mum stared up at him before her face started flushing, eyes bright with anger.
“How dare you talk to me like that?”
“Do you think I want this? Do you think I want to be trapped in this tiny flat all day with you? Serving me burnt food and forgetting to buy the groceries? Only for you to leave me alone for hours while you’re running around for that ridiculous Institute?”
“Get out of my sight.”
Martin was breathing heavily, mind racing with desperate thoughts of how to fix this. He had learned long ago, though, that there was nothing he could say that would soothe the fierce, disgusted twist of her lips.
He closed his eyes, counted to three, then grabbed his jacket and closed the front door quietly behind him.
The rain was nice. The sounds of falling water soothed him and he liked the way everything smelled afterwards. Even being caught right in the middle of a storm could be pleasant, in its own way. It was easy to focus on how miserable you were because you were cold and your socks were wet, rather than how miserable you were because of anything else that was going on.
He hadn’t meant to snap. He’d just wished she’d lay off a little bit.
A car drove past, sloshing the puddles of water clogging the grate. He stared, hypnotized by the lamplights reflected on the wet pavement.
Who could blame her, though, when all she had to depend on was him? He wouldn’t want to depend on him, either.
He wandered the park, kicking rocks and thinking about his wet socks. He walked for a long time until his feet were aching and the shivering was starting to make his muscles cramp. Sometime later, he stumbled across a café. The lights were warm and inviting.
Walking inside, he cringed as rain splorshed through the entryway, immediately soaking the welcome mat. He wiped his feet to the best of his ability, but his shoes still squeaked as he lumbered in. There were only a handful of patrons and Martin could feel all of their eyes on him.
“One mocha, please,” he said to the cashier. She was staring, eyes glazed, at the trail of water behind him. “Um. Sorry.”
His wallet was drenched and the notes were sticking together. The cashier’s mouth curled as she took them, got his name, and handed him his receipt. He took a seat in the far corner by the window, his back facing the store. Another employee plopped down a Wet Floor sign.
Raindrops slunk down the window, blurring everything outside as they crissed and they crossed. He needed to think about what to say to Mum. There had to be something he could do to make it up for her. Make her want to stay. Because he had a gnawing fear that if she left for Devon, something terrible would happen.
Maybe it was for the best. After all, the lovely care facility in Devon wouldn’t have ungrateful sons who shouted at their sick mother because she had wanted tea.
Martin shot up. In the window’s reflection, goddamn bloody Jonathan Sims was pulling out a credit card and readjusting his coat. Groaning, Martin pulled his hoodie further over his head and waited.
The waitress held his mocha high in the air. “Martin?”
He bit back a swear. No, no, no.
“Martin? Looking for a Martin? ”
Shut up, shut up. Shut. Up.
Eventually, she let up.
Martin counted his breaths, waiting for the chiming bells to signal someone exiting the store. Instead, a café mocha with his name on it appeared at his elbow.
“Your coffee’s ready.”
Martin jumped and knocked his chair to the ground. Jon stared at him, eyes narrowed.
The tips of Martin’s ears were hot.
“J-Jon, what are you— I mean, what—?”
“Is there any particular reason you look like you’ve just been swimming through the ocean?”
“I, uh. Left my umbrella.”
Jon rolled his eyes, the face of a man unsurprised and deeply disappointed by that fact. “Of course. Grab your drink. I’ll walk you home.”
“I’m not about to let one of my assistants catch their death because they were too irresponsible to bring an umbrella. Where do you live?”
“Um. Near Croydon.”
“ Croydon? ” Martin flinched. “That’s damn near on the other side of London. Did you walk all the way here?”
Martin wasn’t sure which answer would make him sound less stupid, and so refrained from answering at all.
Jon sighed, massaging the tight knot between his eyes. “My flat isn’t far. You can dry off properly there.”
“Jon, it’s fine. I can just take a cab home.”
“There’s not a London cab driver alive that would accept you in that state.” Jon lifted his umbrella and started for the door. “Come on.”
Martin sighed. Yeah. Okay, maybe he could stop by Jon’s just for a moment. Just to satisfy his curiosity, as it had been the subject of many idle wonderings. He grabbed his coffee and followed Jon out. Jon opened up the umbrella and looked at him, waiting.
Right. He huddled as close to the edge under the large, black umbrella as he could, and still their arms occasionally brushed. Jon made no sign he noticed or cared.
They reached Jon’s flat, third floor, just off Albert Bridge, and it was … definitely a flat.
Well, Martin hadn’t really known what to expect. A Victorian-style mansion in the suburbs, maybe, where there was wall to wall bookshelves, like that one scene in Beauty and the Beast. Tim thinks he lived in an old coffin in a cellar underneath Westminster Abbey. But no, it was just a flat. Normal.
The only thing that really struck Martin was the lack of personal items (no family photos, knickknacks) and how incredibly dusty it was. There were clear cut paths on the floor that Jon must have travelled to the exclusion of all else, one to the kitchen and one to what he can only presume was the bedroom. The place could have otherwise been abandoned.
Well, outside of the dust, it was tidy. Martin had been right about that part. He sneezed.
“Wait here,” Jon said, hanging his coat and depositing his umbrella and walking to the far back room. There were noises in the back, thumping and clattering, and then Jon returned, carrying a truly obscene number of folded towels and one plush blanket.
“Is that enough?” he asked.
“Um, yeah. I think so.”
“You can sit down. Have you eaten already?”
“Well, no, I guess, but it’s only—” he checked his watch and gawked, “—oh my god, is it really midnight?”
“Astute. Sit down.” Jon opened his fridge and the stark whiteness was blinding. “I have—” he straightened up, examining an egg by his fingertips, “an egg. No bread.”
But Martin’s eyes were still on his watch. “Were you only just now getting off work?”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business. But, no, I was just on a coffee run. I was planning on going back, and, well …” He shot Martin a look and Martin shrunk away.
“I’m sorry, it’s just, Sasha said you promised you wouldn’t stay so late.”
“Much as I appreciate my assistants gossiping about me—”
“It wasn’t gossip, I asked— I asked her to—” Sucking in a sharp breath, he pushed his hair out of his face. “Never mind.”
Jon stared until Martin wanted to crawl out the door. Sighing, he slammed the fridge door shut. “I’m going to the mart. Feel free to entertain yourself.” He gestured to the television as he swept past Martin to the door. He turned back. “ Sit.”
Martin sat, sneezed again, and Jon was gone.
If this head archivist business didn’t work out, Jon certainly had a future as a churlish old librarian.
Despite the invitation, the television remained ignored, as Martin felt that he was transgressing enough as it was. He did wrap the plush blanket around himself, though, stunned at the idea that Jon even had a blanket like this. It seemed outrageously decadent for him. Leaning in, he took a good whiff. He couldn’t tell how fresh the detergent was.
He decided not to think about how it was the same lemony fragrance he occasionally noted when Jon shouldered past him in the breakroom.
Fifteen minutes later, Jon returned with a staggering amount of groceries. The only way he could have gotten that much in the allotted time frame is if he had charged through each aisle and grabbed things at random. Which, judging by the baking soda and jar of minced garlic, was an idea worth considering.
“I wasn’t sure what you ate.”
“So, you went ahead and bought the entire store?”
“Is it too much?”
“I mean, you probably were due for a proper shopping trip, anyway. I’m glad I could be your source of inspiration.”
“What do you want?”
“Uh, I don’t know. Anything’s fine. Let me help—”
“ You are to sit and focus on not dying of hypothermia.”
“ Hypothermia? ”
“By the look of things, you’ve just spent the last several hours in the freezing rain.”
“Martin, what did I say?”
Glaring at him for a moment, as if making sure he was well and truly sat, Jon grabbed a handful of nondescript ingredients and went into the kitchen. “Help yourself.”
Having already been quite bored with sitting in silence in a dark apartment for near a half hour, Martin tweaked the edges of one of the bags, before slowly dragging it over.
“Hmm. Siracha sauce. Marshmallows. Oh, chocolate pudding. Good, that’s a good one. Canned duck fat. Part of a balanced breakfast.”
There was a long, haggard sigh. Martin grinned. He opened the marshmallows and popped one in his mouth before resuming his exploration. He withdrew a familiar box of Twinings.
“Oh, you like Earl Grey?”
“What?” Jon poked his head out and saw the box Martin was holding out. “Oh. I don’t know. I guess so?” He disappeared back into the kitchen.
“So, um. Do you, uh, do you know what kind of tea you do like?”
“I don’t know. What’s the kind they have in the breakroom?”
“Oh. Oh. You know, I’m actually the one who suggested that brand to Rosie. And, um, I’m also the one who, uh, buys it. From the store. Standard English Breakfast, but, well, Yorkshire is, I think, you know, just the better brand, blends better. You know. Malty.”
“Um. Yeah. I like it with, uh, two creams, try to avoid the sugar, although I’ll indulge a bit if it’s just been that kind of day. Do you—? I mean, how do you—?” Martin licked his lips, and then pressed onwards. “Well, in the café you ordered an Americano, but, I mean, I can also see you as a splash of cream and five sugars kind of guy—”
“Do you afflict all of your acquaintances with inane questions or is it just me?”
And Martin remembered that he was sopping wet and freezing.
Jon returned with a plate of food, and Martin’s stupid face must have given him away again because Jon looked embarrassed, said, “Ah,” and it was the second time that day that Martin wanted to die in the exact same way.
When was he going to get it through his thick head?
Jon set down the plate. Baked beans and instant rice. The housewife in Martin wanted to wail at the fact that Jon considered this a proper meal, but even Martin could learn a lesson if he was hit in the face with it enough times.
“I hope that’s enough,” Jon said.
Martin pulled the plate towards himself, just wanting the night to end. The beans were far too hot, but he shovelled them down anyway. Jon sipped his coffee, staring somewhere between the marshmallows and the floor. He sighed.
“Don’t. Just don’t worry about it, okay?”
“I apologise for my tone. You’re my guest, that was improper of me. I also apologise for what happened today at the Institute—”
“Look, I really think it would be for the best if we both just pretend it never happened. Okay?”
Jon stared at him. He set his coffee down. “I don’t think so.”
“Of course you don’t.”
“I regret that I hadn’t taken my issues with your work performance to you sooner. You’re a talented researcher, Martin, but you allow yourself to be so easily distracted by utterly pointless tripe.”
“For instance, you go to Whitstable and write about restaurants and starry oceans. I send you out on the Rentoul file, you’re out for three days and when you come back, the only information of substance you have is an incoherent rambling about jigsaw puzzles .”
Martin remembered that follow up. Angela Denson had called him a bright young man and told him the story of how she inherited her puzzle collection. He had thought Jon would enjoy it, too. Those were the early days.
“I don’t know, Jon. Those are just the kinds of things I care about.”
“Why are you even working at the Magnus Institute?”
“Oh, good Lord,” Martin said, finally looking up. “What exactly is the point of all this? You don’t care about that. You’d ship me off to artefact storage if Elias would let you.”
“What makes you think—?”
“I listen to the tapes, Jon. We all do.”
Jon pulled back, face draining of colour. The sight satisfied something deep in Martin’s chest, only to be quickly snuffed out by a twist of shame. He lowered his head.
“You are … so nasty to me. All the time. So, don’t act like you're doing this to help me. You don’t care about me. You barely even want to know me.”
Jon stared into his coffee. Martin polished off the last of the food.
“You’ve been listening to the tapes this entire time,” said Jon, slowly, “but you still bring me tea.”
“Yes, well." He took a deep breath. "You may be an arse, but you still deserve to have a cup of tea in the morning.” Despite everything, Martin tried smiling. “It’s probably the only thing you eat all day, anyway, right? Couldn’t stop even if I wanted to.”
Jon didn’t smile. He stared at Martin, lips parted.
“Yes,” he said. He blinked, and his mouth softened. “Yes, I suppose so.”
Jon hadn't denied any of it, though, and Martin had no one to blame but himself for being so bitterly disappointed by that fact.
“I should probably get going.”
“Yes. Of course. Let me—”
“No, that’s fine. I’ll find my own way back.”
“At least let me walk you to the cab stand.”
“Jon, it’s fine. It’s not even raining anymore.”
Jon looked to the window and the night was clear. He frowned. “That would appear to be the case.”
“Good night. Thanks for everything.”
He left Jon glaring into his coffee and closed the door behind him. He gripped the handle for a moment and sighed.
Tomorrow was going to be awkward.
Mum had already gone to bed by the time he got home. Just as he was tucking himself into bed, his phone pinged.
>Did you get home safely?
The number wasn’t saved, but it was easy enough to guess.
Martin stared at the screen for a long time after that.
The alarm pulled Martin awake and he shut his eyes tight, pained.
Mum was already awake by the time he got to the kitchen. She made no acknowledgement of his entrance. He took a deep breath, bracing himself.
“I’m really sorry about last night—”
“I’ve called the care facility in Devon.”
All the breath left Martin’s lungs, but she didn’t turn around.
“This is not a matter up for discussion.”
Martin closed his eyes. Swallowed. Counted to ten. He turned to the kitchen and started on Mum’s breakfast and tea.
He went without anything that morning. He wasn’t hungry.