“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.
After much deliberation, Martin decided that he would not be making tea that morning for anyone but himself. The thought of taking a cup to Jon after last night filled his stomach with thick, syrupy dread.
Even then, overdue reports were piling up on his desk and it took all his concentration to tap the keys on his computer one at a time. Just the idea of walking all the way to the breakroom and flipping on the kettle drained him utterly.
So, no tea. Martin would just have to carry on.
However, the clock at the bottom of his computer bored holes into the side of his head. He tried to focus on penning notes onto drafts and outlines, but the ticking of the analogue clock was much harder to ignore.
How had he thought any of this crap was any good? He tossed an entire stack of reports into the paper shredder, only to watch it jam. Great.
Tim and Sasha would be in the breakroom right about now. Had Sasha told Tim about the entirely new way Martin had managed to embarrass himself yesterday? He didn’t think Sasha would be the type, but, hey, it had been pretty funny, hadn’t it?
That wasn’t very fair of him. Sasha would take his shame to the grave, he knew that.
His glasses were drooping down his face, and he pushed them back up with a jerk.
Has Jon gotten his own cup by now? He’s a grown man. If he wanted tea, he could make some. Whether he would, determined to draw sustenance entirely from dust and statements, was an entirely different question. Martin would put money down on the answer being no.
With a groan, he pushed himself up from his chair. Fine. One cup. Not like these reports were getting any less abysmal, anyway.
Just as he was about to round the corner of his desk, however, there was a rapping at his door.
“Sorry,” Jon said. “I assumed you weren’t coming, and I didn’t want … I wasn’t sure if you thought …”
Martin blinked, his entire world narrowing down to the steaming cup of tea cradled in Jon’s hands. He could see how badly chewed Jon’s fingernails were from here, and Martin stared, fascinated.
Sheepish, Jon began backing away, the teacup rattling in its saucer.
“I’m sorry, this was— You probably don’t want to see me right now—”
“Wait.” Oh, God, Jon was really standing in his doorway and Martin was just staring at him. “I wasn’t expecting you, is all.” He laughed, rubbing the back of his neck. Yes, that was one way to describe it. “Actually, I was just on my way to make you a cuppa myself. Great minds or … yeah.”
“Really?” Jon glanced down at the cup. “I was pretty sure you couldn’t stand me after last night.”
I could never hate you. But Martin very much did not say that.
Jon placed the cup on his desk before straightening, fidgeting with his hands. He seemed agitated in a way that Martin hadn't seen before.
“I wanted to tell you that I ...” Jon let out a slow breath. “That I thought about what you said.”
Having been half-hopeful that Jon would suffer a momentary lapse of amnesia while he slept and had forgotten every stupid thing that had slipped out of Martin’s lips, this was, in fact, the exact opposite of what Martin wanted to hear.
“I’m sorry,” Martin said. “I didn’t mean to ruin your evening.”
“No,” Jon said, impatient. “I mean— I’m—” He scrubbed a hand through his hair, knocking his already unkempt strands out of place. “I wanted to tell you that you were right.”
Martin struggled to think up a response. Jon continued trying to fix his hair, inadvertently making it worse, before giving up with a frustrated sigh.
“I had assumed I knew the kind of person you were and used that to justify my mistreatment of you, when, in actuality, I had made no effort to know you. And I did mistreat you.” Jon lowered his head. “Quite abhorrently. That was wrong of me.”
So overwhelmed by Jon's nervousness, which seeped out of him like a treacly miasma, Martin could barely even process the fact that Jon was apologising to him.
It didn’t seem right, although Martin couldn’t place his finger on why, exactly. Martin was just always apologising for things. That’s how things were. He’d gotten quite good at it, after all.
The only thing he could manage was a timid, “It’s fine.”
Jon stood there, eyes flitting between Martin’s desk, his computer, the wall, anywhere that wasn’t Martin himself. His mouth opened, emitting a disorderly array of ‘I, um, uh’s, before, eventually, he said, hesitant,
“How was the tube ride this morning?”
Like a record player being knocked by a wayward elbow, Martin’s brain stuttered to a halt.
“The tube. The Underground? I mean, I’m within walking distance of the Institute, but I figured since you lived further away, you would need to take the tube?”
“Oh.” Of course. Duh. Why wouldn’t Jon be asking about Martin’s morning commute? “It was good?”
“Not too busy?”
“It’s always busy. For me, at least. You know, rush hour.”
Jon stared at him, then he jerked his head, muttered, “Very good”, and left.
Just. Left. Just like that.
Martin gawked, half expecting someone to jump out and exclaim it was all a prank. In his frazzled state, it was the only explanation he could think of, even though he couldn’t imagine why Jon would go along with it. Maybe he owned Tim a favour?
Well. Touch of insanity aside, he supposed this was a good sign. If Jon was willing to put up with whatever this was, that meant he wasn't angry at Martin, right? That was something, at least. The anxious twist in his stomach loosened, just a bit.
Sitting down, he brought the teacup closer to himself, enjoying the warmth as it spread through his fingers. Jon had made him tea. That was also something.
He took a sip, and just barely managed to stop himself from spitting it back out.
It’s the thought that counts, sometimes.
Jon didn’t stop by again, and when Martin went to deliver some more reports, he seemed back to his usual self, if radiating less impatience than before. At the very least, when Martin turned in the report that Jon had asked for last week, he only lifted a brow, instead of grumbling passive-aggressive barbs under his breath.
Hopefully, things would be back to normal soon enough. Martin couldn’t handle all this uncertainty.
It was the end of the day when he had just finished packing up and was locking the door to his office, that his phone rang. He recognised the number with a nauseous jolt.
“Is this Mr. Blackwood?”
“This is the Devonshire Winter Park care facility. We have a few more questions about your mother’s upcoming stay with us if you’re available.”
It was only a few questions, short and to the point, and all over in about a minute. Yet, time stretched on, and Martin’s nausea only became worse and worse.
The person wished him a nice day and the click and dial tone snaked through his ear and into his mind until an achy chill had spread throughout his entire body. He hung up and sighed, shoulders sagging.
A small sound drew his attention. He turned around.
Jon jumped, his face blanching. His mouth was half-open, but no noises came out, looking as startled as Martin felt. How long had he been standing there?
Martin was about to ask, but Jon, frantic, said, “I need something from you."
“Right. Yes, I, uh—” He cleared his throat. “Do you happen to have the Clerkenwell notes with you?”
“What? Like, right now?”
Jon nodded. Martin rifled through his backpack before handing over the crumpled stack of papers.
“Thank you.” Jon took the report draft and flipped through it, far too fast to possibly glean anything from its pages. “So, uh, did you have the roast beef or ham sandwich?”
“Lunch? Sasha said the three of you went to Charlie’s?”
“Well, yeah. Why?”
“I mean, why? Don’t tell me Charlie’s has some kind of evil butcher’s knife artefact or something and we’ve been eating, I don’t know, toes or something.”
“I, uh, was just curious.” Jon closed the papers with a snap. “Thank you, that will be all.”
He walked away so fast that, if it were anyone else, Martin would have called it fleeing. He was half-tempted to call it that anyway, but why would Jon be running from Martin?
Shaking his head, he continued down the hallway.
He needed those notes.
He looked back, but Jon had already rounded the corner.
Okay, fine, whatever. He needed to wrap up the Harrison case, anyway. With a sigh, he readjusted his satchel and made his way out of the Institute.
Jon continued acting weird as if Martin hadn’t already had enough things stressing him out.
Every day, around lunchtime, he’d burst into Martin’s office with some random question about his reports, and then follow it up with some random question about nothing at all, such as; Martin, which city was it where statement #0960702 occurred? Also, do you have any recommendations for lunch spots around here?
And Martin would answer, “Brighton. And I don’t know. Tim or Sasha pick the places when we go out. I usually pack my own lunches.”
Was it an experiment? Was Jon trying to suss out ways to improve employee morale? That would be a pretty out of character thing for him to worry about, though, and Tim and Sasha weren’t mentioning any similar experiences, anyway. Perhaps Martin was the guinea pig, then.
It only became more confusing when Jon had begun axing questions about work entirely and would ambush Martin with things like, Do you think it’s going to be cold tomorrow?
And Martin, scrambling, would answer, “Probably.”
And, Do you know any interesting travel spots out of London?
Have you read anything interesting recently?
“I haven’t had much time for reading, lately.”
What’s your opinion on today’s weather?
Martin didn’t mean to be so reticent, he really didn’t. He just didn’t know what Jon wanted from him. It’s not like he was interested in what Martin had to say, right? Martin wasn’t interested in what Martin had to say. So, what else could it be?
One day, nearly a full week into what Martin had dubbed ‘Jon’s-Slow-Descent-Into-Semi-Sociable-Madness', Martin was walking back from the archives on his way to the breakroom, when he heard,
“—don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
“I think he’s just like that. Even Sasha and I can barely get anything out of him.”
Martin stopped, dread coiling in his stomach.
“What am I supposed to do if I can’t even get him to say more than one word about the weather?”
“Look, I don’t know what’s got you finally yanking that stick out of your arse—”
“Could you please talk to me like I’m your boss, for once?”
“You want my advice or not?”
“Right. So, if you’re trying to get personal or whatever, break the ice, or something. Tell him something crazy about yourself. Oh, tell him about that one case where you and I had to go to that farm with the goat milk—”
“Thank you, Tim.”
Footsteps, and Martin’s heart lurched, but Jon walked the other way, not noticing him at all. Not giving Tim the chance to find him standing there like a slack-jawed moron, Martin stumbled back to his office.
What the hell was that? Get personal? What the hell was Tim playing at? What did that even mean? His stomach churned with anxiety; he could only pick at his lunch and made little to no progress in any of his reports that day.
When his shift was over and as Martin was packing up, Jon strode in, startling him, even though he had been half-expecting it. Jon cut a path through the room and sat down in the chair opposite Martin’s desk.
“One time, when I was about 9 years old, I broke my arm while I was climbing a tree. It ended up only being a hairline fracture, but at the time, I was hysterical. My grandmother called a cab, gave them the hospital address, and told me to be back before supper.”
Blindsided, Martin couldn’t help but ask, “What did you do?”
“Well, I went to hospital. Cried the whole way there, but the staff was lovely. Nurse gave me a lolly.”
A vision came to him of a young Jon, difficult as it was to imagine, sobbing his heart out only to be instantly pacified by a grape lolly. It was such a charming image that Martin snorted.
“Your grandmother sounded really, uh, hands-off.”
“Oh, most definitely. I wouldn’t call her neglectful, but she had the utmost confidence that I could take care of myself.”
“Um, yeah, that’s one way of looking at it.” The story tickled at a memory of his own and he chuckled. “You know, that actually reminds me of when—”
He stopped. Jon didn’t want to hear him ramble on about some stupid anecdote from his childhood.
But Jon was looking at him. Meeting his eyes.
Heart fluttering, Martin swallowed.
“It reminds me of this one I was in primary,” he said. “I ran headfirst into this mirror and shattered it. Messed up my whole face. My mum scolded me for breaking a perfectly good mirror and gave me a first aid kit and left.”
“Good Lord,” Jon said, half delighted, half horrified. “Those two may as well have been the same person, for all we know.”
“I suppose we’ve never seen them in the same room together, have we?”
“Do you think they would have been friends?”
“Oh, God no,” Martin said, and was about to go on about how the only people Mum could barely tolerate was her bible study group, but he bit his tongue.
It didn’t seem right to go on about things like that. Not when he would be spending most of his evening boxing up his mother’s things for the upcoming trip.
Seeming to sense his shift in mood, Jon's mirthful eyes dimmed, and Martin chastised himself for spoiling things.
“Well,” Jon said, rising from his seat. “I’m glad you found it amusing. I’ll let you get back to work.”
Martin took a deep breath. Before Jon could leave, he said, softly,
“All that stuff last week? It’s fine. You don’t need to keep trying to make me feel better.”
Jon narrowed his eyes, but quickly schooled his expression into something more neutral. “Right. I, uh, understand.”
He left the room, and Martin thought that would be the end of it. Against his will, a pang of regret sprung up in his chest. Yes, Jon’s strangeness had been stressing him out, but at least the office had been feeling a little less lonely, lately. He'd had enough of empty silences at home, after all.
It was for the best, though. Jon had better things to do than worry about his feelings.
But, the next day, the same time as all the other days, there was a tapping at the door, and Jon was there.
“Can I sit down?”
Martin couldn't move, having been caught halfway through sorting out his desk. Jon continued hovering in the doorway, however, and so Martin was compelled to nod, and Jon came in.
“So, I was wondering if you could help me with something,” he said, sitting down. His expression soured. “Sasha insists my movie tastes are half a century out of date, but it’s not like she gives me any suggestions. I was hoping you could assist me in this regard.”
“I’m sorry,” said Martin, holding up a hand. “You’re asking me for movie recommendations?”
“Yes. Also, a method of watching them. I don’t know if I even still own a DVD player. I’m pretty sure it got lost in the move to London.”
So, Jon had gone insane. That’s fine. It’s fine.
Martin was just going to have to entertain Jon until he snapped out of whatever whimsical madness this was, and, then, it would be fine. Martin could roll with it. He’d have to, if he didn’t want to go insane himself.
“First of all,” Martin said, grabbing a pen and stack of Post-Its. “Only cinephiles use DVDs anymore. Just use Netflix like every other normal person in your generation.” He scribbled onto the note and tore it off, handing it to Jon. “Check it out. As for suggestions, I don’t know. I guess those superhero movies are pretty popular.”
Jon considered the Post-It, thumb rubbing the space underneath Martin’s information.
“Have I ever told you about the time I accidentally walked into a screening of the Exorcist? I had been 8 years old at the time.”
Martin shook his head.
“ Absolutely traumatic.”
At home, Martin was stacking a box with the word Miscellaneous sharpied onto the side when his phone rang. This time, when he recognised the number, his stomach swooped, not with nausea, but something far more pleasant, if not nerve-wracking.
“Your account isn’t working.”
“Do I really need to repeat myself? The information you gave me isn’t right!”
“You’re typing it in correctly?”
“Yes. Martin Blackwood, one word, all lowercase, at gmail, and Florence 12, no spaces, all lowercase—”
“The password has an exclamation point at the end.”
“Oh.” There was a hurried clicking sound and an annoyed grunt. “Well. There it is. I thought you were just being emphatic.”
At Jon’s mollified tone, a series of giggles bubbled in Martin’s chest, which he had to actively try and squash. “There we go.”
“So, where do I start? If I recall correctly, it was down to either the, uh, ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe ’,” he said, tone dripping with derision, “or Princess’s Bride.”
“It’s the Princess Bride. And I don’t know, it depends if you’re just trying to catch up on what’s popular or not.”
“I suppose so. What’s it about then? The second one.”
Martin didn’t know why he had recommended the Princess Bride. It’s not like it was an international smash hit box office phenomenon, but, well, it was one of his favourites and it just so happened to be on Netflix right now, so why not?
“Okay, so, a grandpa is reading a storybook to his grandkid, and it’s about this farm boy, who becomes a pirate, and is trying to be with the woman he loves. But there’s this evil prince who wants to marry her instead, and it’s all about the farm boy trying to rescue her and, you know, other shenanigans.”
The silence dragged on long enough that Martin was beginning to think the call had failed when Jon said, surly,
“Are you trying to get me to watch a rom-com?”
“No!” Martin frowned. “Well, sort of. Look, the plot isn’t anything crazy, but the screenplay is ingenious.”
“Fine. Better than a musical, at least.”
Martin couldn’t help himself and he laughed, just a little bit too loudly. Then, from the living room, a voice said, testy,
“Martin, please, I’m trying to read.”
Martin sobered, just barely able to stop himself from flinching. Right. He still had a lot of boxes to get through tonight. He shouldn’t be letting himself get distracted.
“Sorry, Mum.” Then, he said to the phone, in a lower voice, “Sorry, Jon. I’ve got to go.”
“Oh. Of course.” There was a heavy pause, then, “Is everything alright?”
“Everything’s fine. See you at work tomorrow.” After a moment, he added, “Enjoy the movie.”
He hung up and then reached down to fold another box shut. The thick silence dragged on as he continued to work, broken only by the sounds of crackling cardboard and rustling pages, until, finally,
“I think I’ll spend the next few nights with Patrice,” she said. “All this packing up has been doing nothing for my migraines.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
Mum looked up from her book, and Martin tried to tell himself that the downwards twist of her lips was because she was sad.
“I think it’s for the best.”
That night, the glowing numbers of the digital clock stared at him well into the next morning, before his sore eyes finally drifted shut.
“I watched your movie. ”
Martin jerked up and Jon flinched back. A puddle of drool had trickled out of his mouth and onto his desk and he hurriedly tried to wipe it away. He hadn’t remembered deciding to fall asleep at all.
“Um ..." He tried brushing the wrinkles out of his shirt. “Yeah, that’s good. What did you think?”
Jon sat down, staring at Martin the way one might stare at a spooked, wild animal.
“Right,” he said. “Well, like I said. Better than a musical.”
“You didn’t like it?”
“I never said that,” Jon said quickly, face colouring. “Most things are better than musicals.” He leaned back in his chair, picking at his fingernails. “It was actually rather charming.”
Martin blinked, shocked, then his chest warmed with the praise. He’d completely expected Jon to burst in and shred him to pieces for wasting his time on such a foolish love story.
“You don’t think it was too sappy?” he asked, pushing pens around his desk. “The power of true love, and all that?”
“I think there’s value in stories like that.”
Jon then eyed him curiously, long enough that Martin was beginning to feel self-conscious. Was he just now noticing how crinkled Martin’s shirt was? He didn’t mean to look like such a slob, but he’s fallen so far behind on laundry.
Jon took a breath.
“Hey, Martin, you got—?”
Tim paused in the doorway, mouth half-open, and Martin froze, having the irrational sense he’d just been caught trying to smuggle a cookie out of the grocery store.
Recovering swiftly, Tim waved.
“Tim.” Jon got to his feet, stiff in a way he hadn’t been a moment ago. “I’ll let you get back to work, Martin.”
Tim stood aside as Jon passed, his mouth twisted in a gleeful curl that spoke of nothing but future hardships for Martin. Martin scrubbed his tired eyes.
“What do you need, Tim?”
But Tim just asked for notes on one thing or another.
The smile never abated, though.
It was when Martin was doing the washing up in the breakroom that Tim stormed in, closing the door behind him with a purposeful click. Sighing, Martin turned back to the sink. Strategic, really, getting Martin while he was cornered and alone with no chance of a polite escape.
“Been chatting up the boss then, have you?” Tim asked, leaning against the counter. “Schmoozing your way up the corporate ladder?”
Martin washed the rim of the mug until his hands started to prune, but Tim was patient. Something told Martin nothing short of outright fleeing the scene would get him out of this conversation, and even then, he had a vision of running circles around the Institute, hands clapped over his ears, with Tim trailing behind him, shouting, ‘ You liiiike hiiim! ’
Best just to get this over with.
“He’s just kind of been showing up to chat, lately. I don’t really know why.”
“You know he came around asking for advice the other day, right? From me. Just how long has this been going on, anyway?”
“I don’t know. A week or two?”
Tim’s jaw dropped with astonished delight.
“I know what you’re thinking, you stop that. He’s just trying to be nice to me to make up for, well …" Martin placed the mug on the dryer rack with more force than necessary. “He’s just being nice.”
“Hmm, yes, that does sound like Jon. Hey, Sasha,” Tim said as Sasha entered the breakroom. “You remember what Jon said that one time I asked if he could stand to be a little nicer to us?”
“Piss off, Tim?”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“It isn’t like that,” Martin repeated, softly, more unsure than before. Because Tim was right, wasn’t he? Jon didn’t care if people thought he was a complete and utter dickhead. He had his own idea on how things needed to be done and damn what the rest of them thought. It was one of the qualities Martin admired most about him.
Just the other day, the Institute had received a complaint from a client who had taken considerable exception to ‘ the unpleasant disposition of its Head Archivist ’. The complaint had been so cutting and so personal that if Martin had received such a complaint about himself, it would have left him in tears.
‘Mrs. Coulson should be more concerned with the police’s opinion on the matter than mine. I have no patience for liars. ’
So, if Jon had never cared what people thought about him, especially not what Martin thought about him, why was he still coming around to his office every day for these random, amiable chats?
It was during the next day, just at the start of lunch, that Jon came in wearing his greatcoat, which immediately drove Martin’s tired brain to distraction. Martin had always liked that coat; it was sharp and sleek, and hugged Jon’s slim body in a way that—
His own coat hit him in the face, and he snapped out of it.
“We’re going out.”
“It’s a nice day out and I know for a fact Tim is going to come harass us again and I think that’s a fate to be avoided, in general. Come on, my treat.”
He was already walking out before Martin could even process what had been said, much less formulate a response. Helpless, Martin could only pull on his coat and follow.
They went to the café with the nice madeleines and Jon ordered coffee and sandwiches for both of them. Martin tried to protest, but Jon wasn’t having it.
“I invited you out, I pay, that’s how it works,” Jon said as he fished notes out of his wallet. “You can cover the bill next time.”
By the time they finished their sandwiches and were wandering through the park, Martin’s head had yet to stop spinning.
Jon had insisted on taking the long way back, because the weather was lovely today, why not enjoy it? Martin had sipped on his coffee in amenable agreement, too afraid of what might slip out of his mouth wasn’t otherwise occupied.
They were rounding the corner when Jon cleared his throat.
“Forgive me if it seems like I’m prying,” he said. “But you've been looking rather distracted, lately.”
“Sorry. I’ve been trying to keep up with the casework, but—”
“Your work performance has been fine. I’m not worried about that.”
Oh. Martin didn’t know exactly how to respond to that. Why else would Jon be worried about whether he was distracted or not?
Jon stared down at his coffee.
“I just wanted to say that, if there’s anything you wanted to talk about,” he said. “I’ll listen.”
It took Martin a while to realise, with an embarrassed jolt, that he was crushing his paper cup. He took a rushed sip and almost choked.
“That’s okay,” Martin managed, eventually. “Thank you, though.”
“If you change your mind …” Jon said, trailing off.
The unsaid words bounced around in Martin's head, triggering an almost vertigo-like reaction that stayed with him until they reached the steps of the Institute.
“Why are you doing this?”
Jon looked back at him and the gentle confusion in his eyes just shook Martin that much more.
“Doing what?” Jon asked.
“This. All of this. The chatting, the movie recs, this.” He held up his coffee and laughed, although it sounded a little deranged. “You know Tim and Sasha aren’t going to let us hear the end of it if they see us coming back together. They’re going to act like we were on a date.”
Instead of the embarrassed outrage Martin had been expecting, however, Jon eyed his drink, thoughtful.
“You think so?”
The energy drained out of Martin in one long sigh.
“I already told you that you don’t need to keep trying to make me feel better. You remember that, right? So why are you acting, like,” like you actually like spending time with me “like a loon?”
A light of quiet horror entered Jon’s eyes. “I’ve been imposing, haven’t I? Martin, just because I’m your boss, that doesn’t mean you have to—”
“No. Are you kidding? I’ve loved having you around. I just don’t understand why you’re doing it.”
“Do I need a reason?”
“Honestly? Yeah. I’d really appreciate it.”
Jon stared down at his feet. A sharp wind swept through the square, jostling his scarf.
“I’ve treated you so terribly,” Jon said, voice almost lost to the wind. “For almost as long as we’ve known each other. But you said I should still get a cup of tea in the morning, anyway.”
His scarf was knocked well and truly out of place and Martin had the insane feeling that, if he reached over and tried to fix it, that Jon would let him.
Martin waited for more, but Jon didn’t look up again.
“Is that it?”
Jon kissed his teeth, some of his old impatience rearing its head.
“I apologise if my coming to Jesus moment wasn’t dramatic enough for you. Can we go now? Elias won’t let me hear the end of it if I allow us both to be late.”
And Jon continued climbing up the stone steps and that was it.
Stunned into silence, Martin could only climb up after him, feeling as if he were walking through a dreamlike molasses.
When they reached the front doors, however, Jon grabbed the door handle but didn’t open it. Martin couldn’t see his expression, but his shoulders were stiff.
“You said that I didn’t care about you,” he said. “That I didn’t want to know you. I just want you to know that that isn’t true.”
Jon went inside, leaving the door open for him.
Taking a deep breath of the crisp, brittle air, Martin followed.
The door to Martin’s flat creaked as it closed behind him. It was pitch black. Usually, Mum would have flicked on the lights and been watching TV by now, but Mum had left for her friend’s last night.
This is what he would be coming home to, from now on. This dark, empty silence. Best start getting used to it.
He was halfway through brushing his teeth when his phone chimed.
> If I’ve been bothering you, just tell me and I’ll leave you alone
Martin stared, toothbrush dangling out of his mouth. Fingers wobbly, he slowly typed his response.
> no, it’s fine
> i just weren’t sure you were doing it because you felt like you had to
> Rest assured I am acting entirely under my own volition
And Martin finally permitted himself to wonder that, perhaps, he had been making this whole thing out to be far more complicated than it actually was.
With that realisation, Martin was beginning to feel brave. Brave enough to walk into Jon’s office for once, at the end of the day, to find him scrounging through a box of tape recorders, and say,
“You, uh, planning on wrapping up anytime soon?
“Hmm? What?” Jon glanced up from the box before just as quickly turning back to it. “Yes, have a nice day, Martin.”
Martin clenched and unclenched his hands, waffling at the doorway.
“So, what are you thinking, 10 minutes? 20?”
“Just after I confirm my suspicions about this case.”
So, not for another several hours, at least.
“ Please go home, Jon.”
“I will. After I find—”
“Jon.” Martin put both hands on the box of tapes and waited until Jon looked up. “Please. Go home.”
The resolute glower in Jon’s eyes wasn’t wavering though, and Martin despaired.
“Can you at least get something to eat? You barely had any of your lunch today.”
Jon glanced to the side, fingers tapping the edge of the box, and some hope flickered in Martin’s chest. Finally, Jon let out a long, haggard sigh.
“Okay. Fine. I’ll get something to eat. Quickly.” Stashing the box under his desk, he plucked his coat off his chair. “There’s this Chinese place nearby, the lo Mein is quite good. We can get a discount if we bring cash—”
“Oh, you—You want to go together—?”
Jon paused, coat half on. “I thought …?” His face coloured. “I’m sorry, I made an assumption—”
“No, no, it’s fine.” Martin futzed with his satchel, trying very hard not to look overly pleased with himself. “I mean, yeah, I could eat."
Jon smiled, relieved, as he pulled on his coat all the way.
“Good. As I was saying, we can get a cash discount …”
They took their seats in the back corner of the small Chinese place, the room illuminated by the dim lights of the paper lanterns.
“I was trying to hunt down the sister from statement #0020612,” Jon said over his chicken. “I know it’s in there somewhere. I’ll never understand why Gertrude left things in the state that she did.”
“You’ll get everything properly organised someday.”
“I find your optimism admirable.”
“Well, if you keep going at the rate you are, you’ll be done by the end of the year.” Jon snorted. “Seriously, you live in those archives. When was the last time you took a break?”
“I’m taking one right now.”
“Eating doesn’t count. I mean, when was the last time you took a break? Like a vacation? Leisure time?”
“I stay home every Sunday. Elias insisted.”
“Okay, and what do you do on your Sundays?”
Jon took a large bite of his chicken. Martin crossed his arms and waited, pleased as the damning flush in Jon’s face became darker and darker.
“Work on statements I bring home.”
Martin shook his head, stirring his noodles. “You are a hopeless addict.”
“What else am I supposed to do? Watch telly?”
“You could join a class. Go hiking. See a movie. Oh, you could—” Martin started and then held back.
“There’s, uh—” Oh, wow, this was going to sound stupid. “There’s actually this poetry slam group that meets nearby.”
“Poetry slam.” Martin was right. It did sound stupid, especially in Jon’s dry tone. “And that’s something you find interesting?”
“I don’t know. Maybe? Not to perform, I’d be rubbish. But it would be kind of cool to watch. I’ve never had the time to go.”
Jon finished off the last of his chicken and wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Well, next time we both have some free time, you can take me there.”
“Jon, there’s no way you’re actually interested in a poetry slam.”
“You’re absolutely correct.” Jon grabbed their containers. “If I must take a break, however, I’m sure I’d find it much more bearable in good company.”
And Martin was glad Jon had turned to the bin because he needed the full eight seconds to pull himself together. When they said goodbye at the door, Martin bound for home, Jon bound for the Institute, Martin turned to watch him go.
When Jon turned, too, Martin jumped, glad Jon was too far away to see the besotted affection that was doubtlessly plastered onto his dumb face.
Jon waved back.
Martin would have been happy to have never brought it up again, but during lunch, Jon asked, what time did the poetry thing meet again? And Martin said oh, Tuesdays and Fridays, I think, 6 o’clock, don’t quote me on it, though. Jon scolded him for not knowing in this great age of easily accessible information, but that he thinks he can finish work on time tomorrow and is there a dress code?
And suddenly they were there.
Jon was sitting next to him on the graffitied and torn sofa, ridiculously out of place in his posh suit (“You had said to dress nice,” Jon had snapped after Martin had erupted with laughter). He didn’t look overly uncomfortable, though, surveying the coffee shop with a reserved curiosity. So, there was that.
Martin explained what all went into slam poetry and Jon listened patiently. The premature age that lined his face seemed to have relaxed a bit, and under the hazy lights, the colour of his eyes had melted to a warm caramel brown. It distracted Martin something fierce, and he lauded himself for getting through the explanation without his tongue tying up once.
“I don’t understand,” Jon said, suddenly. “Why poetry slam? Why not just recite the poem normally?”
“I don’t know. I guess people find it refreshing.”
“I see,” Jon said, in the tone of one who certainly did not see. The lights dimmed as the show was about to start. “Well, let’s have at it.”
And it was …
Martin understood that the main goal of a poetry slam wasn’t to be good, necessarily. That it was about being a cathartic release of pure emotion. But a lot of the performers seemed to possess wildly different, unorthodox ideas on how best to convey their messages to the audience, and the overall effect was … jarring.
The first performer would intermittently stomp her feet, making Martin jump and nervously eye the trembling spotlights that surely weren’t appreciating the disturbance. The second performer just yelled. The third spritzed people with a shot of seltzer water. Didn’t even have a poem. Just water.
Oh. Oh, no. This was quite bad, actually. What had Martin done? Jon wasn’t going to want to share the same building with him after this.
He avoided looking over, too apprehensive of the disgust he knew he'd see, but the water then scored a direct hit on his forehead and he flinched back. Jon was already looking at him, propping his head upon his arm.
“Aren’t you watching?” Martin asked, weak.
“In the beginning, but then I found your reactions to be far more entertaining.”
“Look, this isn’t indicative of— it’s not about being good —”
Jon laughed and he dropped his arm, clapping a hand on Martin’s far shoulder.
“Don’t worry. I’ll pick something suitably embarrassing for next time. Then we’ll be even.”
There it was again. Next time. Martin’s stomach wriggled with hopeful anticipation at all the promise that next time held, and then, quickly, with horror, as the fourth performer was already halfway through a monologue about her mother’s vagina.
Jon never pulled his arm back, though. Occasionally, Martin could feel his thumb brush the sharp bone of his shoulder, driving Martin to distraction so badly that, when he came to, the show was already over, and he was blinking at an empty stage. They applauded politely, gathered their things, and then they were both outside under the soft glow of the streetlights. A light snowfall had begun.
“That wasn’t so bad,” said Jon as they wandered down the pavement, no specific direction in mind. “I think once the initial volunteers ran out and the performers with more …”
“Let’s go with that. The second half was much stronger. Have you ever thought about performing?”
Martin swallowed back the initial oh, God, no response and gave it some thought. “I don’t know. Probably not. Like, it’s an interesting idea, but the poetry I like, I don’t know, I don’t think I’d get the same reaction if I performed it, or something.”
“Like, okay, written poetry, it’s just you and the words on the paper, right? And I like that. It feels more intimate. You don’t have as much to work with, but when it does work, well, I just find that more satisfying, I guess.”
They had stopped at the zebra crossing and Jon still hadn’t said anything. Martin looked over and found Jon was already staring at him. A small smile curled his mouth and his eyes were far away, and Martin wondered if Jon had even heard him at all.
“Hmm?” Jon blinked, slowly. “Sorry, I was just thinking.”
“Must have been interesting, you were a million miles off.”
“Yes.” He drew his brows together as if he were pondering a question, and his eyes flicked downwards. “Actually, I was wondering if you would be …”
Jon didn’t elaborate, though. Instead, he placed his hands on Martin’s shoulders and leaned in close enough that his breath warmed Martin’s lips, a sharp contrast to the chill of the winter air. From here, Martin could see the flecks of amber in Jon’s eyes. Gravity tilted on its side.
“Is this okay?”
Martin nodded, too quickly, too far gone to care about being embarrassed. He knew his face must have been giving everything away again, the longing, the deep, aching hunger, but, for once, he didn’t feel too bad about it, because Jon’s eyes were giving away everything, too.
And then Jon pressed his mouth to his. Their lips were too dry, and out of sync and hesitant. Jon’s were badly chapped, and Martin desperately wished he still had that strawberry lip balm. But then, Jon held Martin in place by his scarf and tilted his head deeper into the kiss, and Martin sucked in a sharp breath through his nose, his toes curling in their boots.
“Can I walk you home?” Jon said as they parted, voice low, and a shiver worked its way down Martin’s spine. Then, the question sank in and he blinked.
“Wait, what? Jon, you said it yourself, I live on the other side of London.”
Martin scrambled for a reply, but it was hard to think up a good argument when Jon was looking at him like that. Like he could stare at him for the rest of the day and that would be a perfectly fine way to spend his Friday night.
There was only standing room on the bus, and when Jon slipped his hand into Martin’s, that was when Martin decided that he had, in fact, been killed at the poetry slam and that this was his 7 seconds before dying. It’s not so bad, really. Not if it got to be like this.
As they approached Martin’s flat, Jon asked, “Want to do something together tomorrow? Grab lunch?”
“Yeah, I’d love to,” Martin said immediately. Perhaps he could show Jon the nearby coffee shop that always had the best scones. His enthusiasm extinguished itself, however, when he remembered that he'd already had plans. “Wait. No. Not tomorrow.”
“Oh.” Jon frowned, eyes flitting around Martin’s face. Self-conscious, Martin turned towards the door, patting around for his keys.
“Are you okay?”
“What? I’m fine. Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” Unlocking the door, he slid inside his flat and turned with what he hoped was a cheerful grin. “See you at work.”
And he closed the door, right in Jon’s face, and everything was so much colder than it had been a moment ago. His hand tightened around the door handle, trembling.
No. No, that was bad. This isn’t how he wanted to end the night. But he couldn’t open the door.
Finally, footsteps clicked on the pavement outside and faded away, and it was quiet.
He let go of the handle.
It was so quiet.
The trip to Devon had been far, stretched even longer by the heavy stillness in the car. Martin tried to spark a conversation once or twice, but it would just trail away, only serving to make the silence seem that much louder.
He helped unload Mum’s things and walked with the staff as they walked her towards her new room. When they reached the edge of the visitor’s centre, though, they politely asked him to leave.
Martin said his goodbyes, trying to smile, trying to be happy for her.
Mum thanked him for the ride.
Then, she rounded the corner, and she was gone.
During the drive home, Martin turned up the radio to the highest volume he could tolerate.
It was over with, at least. Martin could start moving on with his life. First time living all alone. That was supposed to be exciting, right?
It was dark by the time he made it home. While he was still in the car, he called the care facility, but the nice front desk lady told him Mum wasn’t taking any calls right now. Tired from the drive, you understand. Try again some other time.
He stared at the steering wheel for a long time after that.
When he eventually made his way inside, he collapsed onto the couch. Nothing good was on TV at this time of night. He tried browsing his phone for a bit, but he quickly grew bored with that, too.
A deep, biting urge crawled deep inside him and began gnawing at his bones. What he really needed right now was a drink.
Martin didn’t really like alcohol. Getting drunk felt terrible and alcohol itself just tasted awful. He’d only ever drink enough that could be considered polite during work outings and that was about it. But now? A bottle of Captain Morgan's sounded bloody fantastic right now.
The mart would still be open. Tying off his boots and tightening his scarf, he braced himself for the winter's night and swung the door open, only to completely freeze.
Jon was standing there, a hand half tangled in his hair, the way it did whenever he was agonizing over something. At the sight of Martin, his eyes widened to comical saucers before he snapped his hand back to his side.
Martin’s mouth fell open, the image still not quite sinking in.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was just … around.”
Jon swallowed, having developed a sudden fascination for his neighbour’s door knocker. As the silence stretched on, however, a weighty sigh made his shoulders slump
“I was worried about you,” he admitted. “You were acting a bit strange yesterday, and I thought it might be a good idea to come over.”
“You could have called,” Martin said. What would he have done if Martin hadn’t been home? Usually, Martin would find that sort of on-brand, ill-conceived impulsiveness charming, but he was just so tired tonight.
A flush coloured the tips of Jon’s ears, but Martin couldn’t tell if it was from embarrassment or the chill of the night. Jon lowered his head.
“Would you like me to leave?”
Martin bit his lip, fighting back his irritation. God, why did Jon never think these things through? It’s not like he wanted to turn Jon away after he trekked all the way out here on a cold winter’s night, but Martin didn’t want to be seen like this, skulking out into the dark for a bottle of rum.
The fabric of Jon’s gloves rustled as he curled his hands into fists.
“Right. I’ll just—”
“Wait.” Christ. What was Martin doing? Jon was freezing on his doorstep and he was about to just turn him away? “It’s okay, come on in. Have you eaten? I can whip something up.”
Hesitant, Jon walked into his flat, chin low.
“That’s alright,” he said, pulling off his gloves. “I’m not hungry.”
They hung their coats on the rack and Martin led Jon over to the dining room table. Hopefully, Jon wouldn’t mind how slovenly the place was. Martin hadn’t had a chance to clean up after all that packing.
Jon sat as straight as a rod. He may as well have been sitting on a set of spikes. Martin couldn't say he was particularly comfortable himself. Had the chairs always been so hard?
“So,” Jon said. “How was your day?”
Martin closed his eyes, drawing a deep breath through his nose.
“It was fine,” he said on the exhale. “Nothing too exciting.”
“Anything you want to talk about?”
“I see.” Jon futzed with his gloves, and Martin had the mad urge to snatch them away. “It’s just, I was hoping since you seemed … interested … in seeing each other …”
“Of course, I’m interested,” Martin said, the mere memory of the kiss warming him even in the middle of all this anxious tension. “But that doesn’t mean I want to talk about every single thing that’s been happening to me lately, okay?”
“I just think that you’ll feel better if you talk about it.”
“And what if it’s you that’s been stressing me out? Hmm?"
Jon’s eyebrows flicked up as if the idea had genuinely hadn’t occurred to him, which Martin felt was rather bold, considering he had just randomly turned up on Martin’s doorstep in the middle of the night without even a text.
“Have I been stressing you out?”
“I mean, a little? You’ve been really confusing, lately, anyway. One minute you’re talking about me behind my back, and the next, you go with me to a poetry slam and, and kiss me.”
Crossing his arms, Jon leaned back in his chair. A resolute light had entered his eyes.
“I’ve apologised for my past behaviour. There’s nothing else I can do about it. Would you rather things go back to the way they were before?”
“Of course not.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Nothing is the problem. You’re the one who seems to think there’s a problem.” Feeling his control slipping from him, he stood. “I’m going to make some tea—”
Jon grabbed his wrist.
“Martin, please. I just want to help.”
The touch was gentle, but Martin found it as binding as a steel trap. Breathing sharply, he sat back down.
“Why is this so important to you?”
“You’re obviously distressed about something, of course, it’s important to me.”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Don’t be stupid,” Jon snapped. “Why do you think I’m asking?”
“I just spent the day driving my sick mother to a nursing home all the way in Devon,” Martin said viciously. “But it’s fine, because, honestly, she couldn’t wait to get out of here fast enough. There. Are you happy now?”
Jon flinched back, and Martin relished both the reaction and the fact that Jon had been wrong. He didn’t feel better saying it, at all. If anything, as Jon’s eyes slowly narrowed, the thick, anxious knot in his stomach only became worse and worse.
“This is that mother that terrorised your schoolteachers and peers, correct?”
Is that all Jon knew about Martin’s mum? God, he really was a lousy son, wasn’t it?
But Jon just shrugged.
“Frankly, I don’t understand why you aren’t glad she’s gone.”
The callousness of his tone made Martin’s throat seize, and he had to squeeze his burning eyes shut.
“She’s my mum, Jon.”
“So? She sounded like an absolute wretch of a woman.”
“You could at least try to understand.”
“I don’t see why I should. You’re being ridiculous. She disrespected you, she belittled you—”
“Right, because you’ve never done anything like that. What, I should just throw you out, too?”
Jon’s face lost some of its colour.
“How is it possibly different? You’re doing it right now.”
Struggling, Jon looked at his hands, then the table, then the kitchen, as if the answer he needed was hidden somewhere nearby. Martin watched, caught in a loop of savouring the fact that he had finally scored a hit, and hating himself for it because he had clearly hurt Jon and he had enjoyed it.
Jon reached for his hand, but Martin flinched back. Whatever colour Jon’s face had drained away. His expression was a portrait of horror, and Martin could only imagine the face he himself was making.
Suddenly, Jon stood.
“This was a mistake,” he said. “I shouldn’t have come here tonight.”
Panic squeezed Martin’s throat until it had blocked it entirely. He knew he shouldn’t have said anything. Jon had insisted, but Martin knew better. Why doesn’t he ever learn?
The taste of copper spread throughout his mouth and he realised with a sort of removed interest, that, oh, he had bitten straight through his lip.
“Martin? Martin? ”
Jon touched his shoulder and bright pain flared in his chest. He hadn’t been breathing. He sucked in quick, shallow breaths, trying to compensate, but that just made his head swim, and the world began tilting to its side.
“Martin, what do you need? What do you need me to do?”
Martin reached up for Jon, but his legs wouldn’t support him, and Jon caught him. Martin’s hands were shaking, and he curled them into fists, his fingernails biting into his palm.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry …”
Jon led them both over to the couch and Martin collapsed in an unceremonious heap. Any other time, Martin would be embarrassed by the way he clung to Jon like a weeping octopus, but the twisted roots of fear were still coiled deep in his chest, still tight around his throat, and it took all of his concentration to just keep breathing.
“I didn’t mean it,” he managed. “Please don’t leave. I didn’t mean it.”
“I’m not going to leave you,” Jon said. “You were right. You were right about everything.” A breathless laugh escaped him. “If anything, I should be begging you not to leave me.”
Martin shook his head, burying his face into Jon’s chest. Jon had taken to rubbing small circles into his back, his gentle breath jostling Martin’s hair. Eventually, his heart returned to its normal, steady beat. As his awareness came back to him, however, the barest stirrings of humiliation began colouring his face.
He’d only just went and had a breakdown right in front of Jon, just because Jon had wanted to leave after Martin hadn’t even wanted him there in the first place. He really was a ridiculous thing.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, again.
“You haven’t done anything wrong,” said Jon. “Don’t be sorry. Not for that.”
Martin curled up deeper into Jon’s arms, inhaling the familiar, lemony scent of his clothes. It had been a long, long time since anyone had held him like this. Who knows when it would happen again?
Jon gently brushed his lips against Martin’s forehead.
“Can I be honest with you about something?”
“I am … so scared."
Martin looked up, surprised, but Jon had closed his eyes and couldn’t see his reaction.
“I’m absolutely terrified, actually. Of messing this up. Which I have already so masterfully succeeded in doing.” Jon chuckled, but it broke, ever so slightly.
“It’s not your fault.”
“It is, ” Jon hissed. “I want to be better. I want you to feel like you can share things with me. Even unpleasant things.”
“Because that’s already gone so well so far.”
“You don’t owe me anything. I’m not going to push you, not again. I just want you to know that that’s how I feel.”
Martin considered that. Being honest about his feelings didn’t usually end well, not for anyone and especially not for Martin. Just look at the last five minutes. Martin had let go for a split second and he almost had Jon sprinting out the door, stopped only because Martin had had to go and have a panic attack. Why would he want to try that again?
But Jon had admitted to him that he was afraid, something he’d never, ever share with anyone else. Not Elias, not Tim, not Sasha. No one.
But he did share it with Martin.
Martin didn’t know how to feel. Honoured? And a little bit touched. Jon trusted him enough to share something so personal with him, and, now, he just wanted Martin to take his hand, and respond in kind.
Martin wanted to make Jon happy, so much, with such a ferocious intensity that it scared him. If it really would make Jon feel better, though, to listen to the banalities of Martin’s petty fears and anxieties, maybe Martin could be honest, too, just a little?
“Okay. Yeah,” he began, hesitant. “I mean, you weren’t wrong, before. My mum wasn’t …” He trailed off, tracing the pattern of Jon’s jumper. “It’s complicated.”
Jon hummed but said nothing.
“No, she wasn’t always the nicest, but she’s had a hard life, you know? My dad left when I was a kid. Did I ever tell you that? So, she was stuck raising me all alone, and it’s not like I made it easy. Never did my schoolwork. Then she got sick and that made everything worse for us.”
Martin looked up.
“Promise you’re not going to think I’m stupid?”
Jon nodded. Slowly, Martin lowered his head back to Jon’s chest.
“I got the feeling that she couldn’t stand me, sometimes,” he said, faint. “Even when I was really little. I know she loves me. I know she does. But sometimes she had this look in her eyes and I … Anytime I tried to fix it, I feel like I just made it worse.”
He glanced back up, trying to smile. “Stupid, right?”
Combing a hand through Martin’s hair, Jon pressed his lips to the side of his head. Martin’s smile slipped.
“It’s for the best,” he said, trying desperately to squash the wobble in his voice. “I was pretty bad at taking care of her. I’d forget to do the shopping all the time and it’s not like I’m a great cook or anything. And she’d be alone all day. No wonder she couldn’t wait to go.”
The wobble was getting worse, and he tried to swallow it back, but something was caught in his throat.
“It would have been nice if she had said goodbye, though.”
Jon tightened his grip and Martin buried his face in his shoulder. Stupid. Stupid. And now he was getting Jon’s nice jumper all wet. Why did he have to be such an idiot?
But Jon’s hand resumed its slow circling into his back, soothing his quiet tremors until he slumped into Jon’s arms like a boneless puppet.
“Please stay tonight.” Then, hearing how pathetic he sounded, he said, quickly, “It’s just, it’s been so quiet here. I hate it so much.”
“I don’t think I have a spare toothbrush or anything …”
“I can run to the store later.”
Martin's arms tensed around Jon, the thought of Jon leaving filling him with dread. Chuckling, Jon ran a hand through Martin’s hair.
“Later. Right now, I think I could use a bit of a lie-down.”
Reaching over, he scooped up the remote.
Too exhausted for anything else, Martin just nodded.
There wasn’t anything good on, but Martin was more concerned that Jon had shifted around until they were both sprawled lengthwise over the couch. It couldn’t have been pleasant for Jon to have all of Martin’s weight pressing down on him, and he squirmed around, trying to find a better position.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh. I was just— I wasn’t sure if you were comfortable—”
“Rest assured,” Jon said, fisting Martin’s jumper. “If I’m ever uncomfortable, you’ll be the first person I tell.”
Jon turned back to the TV, grumbling to himself about crap late night telly, and Martin settled back down. Mindlessly, Jon carded his hand through Martin’s hair, and when he gently scraped his nails just behind Martin’s ear, Martin’s eyes fluttered shut.
Dull sleepiness pulled him down into the warmth of Jon’s body. He drifted, the lights of the television flickering behind his eyelids.
“Let’s go to Whitstable.”
Martin’s eyes shot open.
“Next weekend. You and me.” Jon’s voice sounded calm, but his fingers fidgeted with the remote. “Now that we’re, um, seeing each other and everything …”
“You do know it’s barely been a day since you kissed me, right?”
“It’s just,” a dark blush stained Jon’s face, “while I maintain it was out of place in a work report, you did make it sound rather nice. Is it not a good idea?”
“I mean, I guess so.” Trust Jon to just blurt out whatever wild idea took his fancy. Was Martin going to have to be responsible for reigning in the wild romantic gestures? “Perhaps we can save that for the one-month anniversary, though, at least?”
Jon was clearly not satisfied with that compromise. But when he looked down at Martin, his mouth curled with something soft and affectionate.
“As you wish.”
A snort ripped through Martin’s nose and he clapped a hand over his mouth. Jon frowned, and that only made the giggles worse.
“Wow, uh,” he said when he managed to pull himself together, although it continued to be difficult under Jon’s outraged scowl. “That was kind of lame.”
“It was— I was quoting the movie—”
“I know what you were doing.”
Jon pouted, looking like a child being denied an extra scoop of ice cream, and Martin just couldn’t help himself after that.
Crawling up Jon’s chest, he pressed his lips over his, soothing that adorable little pout with a gentle brushing of his tongue. Jon sucked in a sharp breath, surprised, and Martin was about to pull away, but then Jon slid his fingers through his hair and held him in place. The message couldn’t be clearer; Martin was to stay put.
A smile curled Martin’s lips, and Jon took advantage, licking into Martin’s mouth with a single-minded doggedness as if he were trying to devour him. The intensity startled him. Jon kissed like he was running out of time. Like all of this was going to be ripped away from him at any moment.
That wouldn’t do. Clearly, Jon needed to be reassured that Martin wasn’t going anywhere, not without him.
Pressing a hand to his chest, Martin pushed him further onto the couch until he was flat on his back. Cupping the back of Jon’s neck, Martin pulled away slowly, earning himself an incensed growl. But Martin only hummed, holding himself just out of reach, and when Jon surged, he was stopped by the firm hand woven through his hair.
With a frustrated huff, Jon slumped, staring up at Martin with an indolent glare.
Smirking, Martin sunk for a kiss, although it still was no more than a gentle slide of his mouth or the occasional nibble on Jon's bottom lip. He wouldn’t press any deeper, not until he was sure Jon knew, and, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before Jon’s impatience got the better of him again.
Something about Jon’s frenzied energy, though, inspired glacier-like patience within him. Every time Jon would start getting carried away, Martin withdrew. He never went far, just enough that Jon’s lips would barely brush his even as Jon strained up to meet them.
Martin would savour the small, breathless sounds he managed to elicit, until, finally, Jon would calm down again, head sinking into the plush armrest, and Martin would relax his hold, thumbing in small circles just under Jon’s ear.
And then, because Jon was being so good, Martin rewarded him with a proper kiss, fervent and tender, until, at last, Jon relaxed, melting into Martin's touch. His limbs were loose, looped around Martin’s neck as he let himself be kissed.
Tilting Jon's head up, ever so slightly, Martin coaxed open the seam of his mouth with a languid, indulgent drag of his tongue, and Jon obediently parted his lips with a moan and, oh, if that wasn’t a wonderful sound.
Sensing things were about to spiral out of Martin’s control, Martin pulled away again, pressing a thumb to Jon’s swollen lips to stem the immediate protest.
“We should probably go out and buy your things,” Martin said. “Before it gets too late.”
Jon’s drowsy eyes slid open with visible effort, staring at Martin’s lips as if entranced. He leaned up, but Martin pressed his thumb deeper, and Jon sunk back down with a light chuckle.
“Yes,” he said. “That might be for the best.”
It took some effort to disentangle themselves from the warm, comfortable couch, and Jon had managed to sneak in several more quick kisses before they finally managed. They dressed, occasionally glancing over to the other, only to just as quickly look away whenever they were caught, faces impossibly hot.
When Jon went to fix his own scarf, Martin knocked his hands away.
“If you fold it like this,” he said, wrapping the fabric around Jon’s neck, “it won’t keep getting knocked off all the time.”
“Do it again," Jon said, eyes warm, "I missed it.”
Martin shoved him. With a pleased grin, Jon leaned in, and Martin had to turn his head away.
“You’re trying to distract me,” Martin said. “It won’t work.”
“It’s so cold outside, though.”
“I’ll keep you warm, drama queen.”
With a sigh, Jon backed away, allowing himself to be pulled outside. They braved the cold night air, feet crunching the frozen grass as they made their way down the street. Martin stared up at the cloudy night sky. It must have only been an hour or two since he had first come home, but it felt longer than that.
He glanced at Jon out the corner of his eyes, thankful that Jon was distracted by the lights of the zebra crossing. He’d really gone and told Jon everything, hadn’t he? He must have. It was only because he’d broken down like that that Jon had wrapped him up in his arms and let himself be kissed senseless into Martin’s tattered couch.
For almost his entire life, Martin had believed telling people about his concerns, petty or otherwise, would just drive them away. Bad things would happen, and he’d lose them in the end, anyway, so what was the point in burdening them?
But Jon was still here, right?
“How do you feel about pancakes for breakfast?”
Martin blinked, pulled out from his musings. “What?”
“Pancakes. For breakfast? What do you think?”
Jon waited, patient, unaware of the thoughts spinning in Martin’s head. Not only was he staying, but he was also pondering breakfast plans for the next morning. They were off to buy Jon a toothbrush because, maybe, Jon would be coming over more often. Jon wanted to go to Whitstable next weekend, the mad bastard.
“Yeah. Haven’t had pancakes in a while.”
Squeezing his hand, Jon led them across the street and towards the light of the mart.
Perhaps, if Martin had spoken up, they could have had all of this sooner? Wasn’t that an interesting thought? But still, as he threaded his fingers through Jon’s, he decided that this was still a pretty good way to end the night.
He only hoped that Jon liked blueberries in his pancakes.