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Sides of a Coin

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"I just have one, er, unusual requirement, Mr Crieff."

Martin's heart sinks, because that is never the kind of thing one wants to hear from a prospective client, but they've just come off a week on standby at MJN and he's got rent to pay, so he says gamely,

"Yes, Mr Montague?"

"Well, it's, uh, it's a bit embarrassing. You see, I'm" - Jim Montague lowers his voice as though confessing to something horrific - "a bit agoraphobic? It's a fear of open spaces. And I mean it's just a mild case, I can go out sometimes, but not for very long. Certainly not as long as it takes to move house. So I'm going to need to take a little something to take the edge off? And I know babysitting a stoned client isn't part of your job, but I'll pay double. And I won't be completely useless, you know, I'm not going to incapacitate myself, just - take the edge off."

Martin is already envisioning the long list of ways this job will inevitably go very, very wrong. He is also envisioning himself writing his rent check in a timely fashion.

"I'm sure we can manage, Mr Montague," he says, then tips the phone away from his ear as Montague exhales a long sigh of relief directly into the receiver.

"Thank you, Mr Crieff. That's a tremendous load off, you've no idea. Tuesday at seven, then?"

"Tuesday at seven." If nothing else, it's bound to provide such prime fodder for Douglas that he might leave off all his usual favorite Martin-related targets for as long as a week in favor of milking this one dry. It's almost a cheering thought.

*

Much to Martin's astonishment (and what he knows will be Douglas's bitter disappointment) the Montague move has gone off nearly without a hitch. Whatever Jim Montague took before Martin's arrival made him very relaxed and very chatty, but, as promised, not completely useless. He's insisted on helping - "Keeping myself busy, that's the ticket" - and they've dropped a couple of things, but he's promised not to deduct them from Martin's pay.

He's also been staring at Martin, none too subtly, but - Martin finds he doesn't mind as he usually might. He doesn't catcall or anything, which people do sometimes when they see a man with a van at work, especially on hot days, and anyway Martin feels he ought to be given a little leeway under the circumstances. Perhaps Jim ("Please, call me Jim, Mr Montague's my dad") is better at keeping his eyes to himself when he's sober and not having to deal with his phobia. And besides, he's rather nice-looking; Martin's stolen a glance or two himself.

"Right," Jim says as they deposit the final load of boxes on the floor, "there's just one last thing in the boot of my car - no, sit down, I'll get it."

The one last thing turns out to be a cooler, half-filled with tepid water and a floating six-pack.

"It got a bit warmer in there than I thought it would," Jim says ruefully, "but they should still be cold enough."

"Anything under boiling is cold enough for me right now," Martin says. "Thank you." He is genuinely touched by the gesture. Not many of his clients think to treat him.

Jim smiles. The next thing that happens is such a cliché that Martin can see it coming right before it does - Jim passes him a can, and their fingers touch, and their eyes meet, and the room falls silent.

Then Jim clears his throat and says abruptly, "Your - check. Money. I haven't paid you yet. I've got the . . ." He trails off and puts his own beer can down, pulling his wallet out of his back pocket.

"Drink your beer first," Martin begins, "I don't mind -"

"No, no, it's just, well, I'm about to come on to you, rather strongly in fact, and I don't want you to think you have to say yes to get paid, because -" He extracts a check from his wallet and holds it out to Martin. "You don't," he finishes softly.

"I. Yes. Well." Martin clears his own throat and takes the check. He holds it up to look at it, though it takes a few long seconds before he can focus on it enough to read the amount. "Yes, yes, that's, uh, that's what we agreed on. Uh. Yes." He doesn't even want to try to fumble with his own wallet right now, so he just pushes the check into his pocket. "Um. Thank you."

"You're welcome. Good. Now that's sorted, and you are under absolutely no obligation to me whatsoever, financial or otherwise, I just want to say . . ." He steps forward and puts his hand on Martin's chest. "I have a serious weakness for ginger men who can sling furniture about like it's nothing."

Martin swallows, his heart pounding under Jim's hand, but doesn't move away. He also doesn't move closer.

". . . and that that sounded much less ridiculous in my head," Jim adds after a beat. Martin relaxes a little and laughs, because god does he ever know that feeling. "If you're not, um -"

"No, no, I am! I am very. Um. I just, you're not quite sober yet, are you?"

"Not even close. I'm even less good at this when I am."

"I, then, you've set something of a bar here, you know, morally, and." Carefully, he puts his hand over Jim's and moves it away. "I don't want to take advantage either."

For a split second, Martin could swear that Jim - but no, he must be seeing things, because then Jim sighs wistfully. "Ginger, fit, and noble. Well, what if I ring you when I am sober? Will you say yes then?"

Martin answers almost before Jim is done speaking. "Definitely. Yes. I - yes."

Jim grins at him. "Then it'll be a date."

*

Martin convinces himself that Jim won't call, because the disappointment will be easier to take if he doesn't get his hopes up. He does such a good job of convincing himself that when his phone does ring, and the voice on the other line says, "Hi, Martin, it's Jim, you remember, from the other day?", he drops the receiver. He winces at the loud crack it makes when it hits the floor, swooping after it to grab it.

"Hi! Hey, sorry, uh, I dropped the phone. I can be a bit clumsy sometimes, which, I mean, I try to save for off the job, of course, but, yes, yes I remember you. Hi."

Jim laughs softly. "Hi. So. I'm sober now."

"Good. That's good."

"Yes, I seem to recall you thinking that was important. So I was wondering, now I'm sober, would you still like to go out sometime? Well, by 'go out,' I mean, 'stay in,' I don't really go out on dates, but we could still have dinner and a film, you'd be surprised how many nice places will do takeaway if they know the situation, and you saw how many boxes I needed for my film collection, I'm sure there's something you'd like, and, uh. Anyway, would you?"

"I would. Yes. I'd love to." Martin leans back in his chair and beams up at the ceiling.

"Great." Jim sounds like he's beaming, too.

MJN have a flight tomorrow, so they make plans for the day after. Martin goes into work with vague plans of playing it cool, but any possibility of that evaporates the second Douglas gets a look at him. Normally, of course, Martin would be itching to brag that he's got a date, secure in the knowledge that nothing Douglas could say could ruin it - he has, in fact, fantasized about this very eventuality. The problem is, while Martin doesn't mind people knowing he's bisexual per se, he's thus far managed to conveniently omit this little fact in conversation with his first officer. It's easy enough; the vast majority of his admittedly not-wide-ranging experience has been with women, so he just sticks to talking about that and juggles the occasional pronoun when he has to. Douglas has enough ammunition to use against him. Martin has never had any intention of making a present of that as well.

So at first, he intends to keep the news of his date with Jim to himself. Then when it becomes clear that isn't going to pan out, he falls back on playing with pronouns instead. The difficulty there is that he can't bring himself to explicitly lie - what if he jinxes it? - so he tries to leave the pronouns out altogether instead, which unfortunately leads to some awkwardly choppy sentences.

"You're staying in?" Douglas asks. "Oh, don't tell me she's embarrassed to be seen with you already."

"No," Martin says, "Just - agoraphobic. Doesn't like to go out. Wants to stay in. Which I don't mind, it's more relaxed anyway, and I even know where - where to find the house. For. Parking." Oh god. He stares intently ahead, praying that Douglas will mistake everything he just said for his usual awkwardness, but he can feel Douglas looking at him in that way he has.

"Does . . . she have a name?" Douglas asks after an agonizing silence.

". . . Yes." Why does he ever think he can have secrets? "Yes, it's Jim, and he's not a she, he's a he." So there, he refrains from adding, still not looking at Douglas.

"So what you're saying -" he begins, and Martin braces himself. "- is that you've managed to land a date with someone who, quite literally and not at all figuratively, does not get out much."

. . . what? Confused, Martin does turn to look at him.

"Well done," Douglas finishes with his trademark patronizing emphasis.

Oh. Martin sags back into his seat in relief. "Agoraphobia is a perfectly legitimate condition," he says, and if Douglas happens to notice that Martin waited a few seconds too long to reply - which of course he must do, because he is Douglas - he doesn't say anything.

*

As it turns out, it hadn't been the drug that had made Jim so chatty. He just - naturally is. He even warns Martin about it as they sit down to the meal he ordered in: "You may have noticed the other day, I do tend to go on a bit, I know I'm not one hundred percent fascinating at all times, so if you'd like me to pipe down, just say so, I honestly won't be offended."

Martin doesn't mind, though. Jim's chatter spares them both from the misery of strained small talk, and it saves Martin from having to decide what he should come clean about now and what he should save for later (or, more accurately, what he should keep to himself if he wants any chance of there being a later). He may not have extensive experience with first dates, but he knows that an unpaid pilot who lives in student housing and is one van breakdown away from homelessness isn't exactly a catch. He is more than happy to let Jim ramble on about whatever topic occurs to him. Jim has a knack for it, anyway, encapsulating his anecdotes in bright, engaging storytelling and obligingly saving his punchlines for when Martin doesn't have a mouthful of food. And Martin likes his voice, with its warmth and light London accent.

(It won't occur to him until much, much later that, for all the talking Jim does, he never actually says anything.)

Jim insists that Martin choose the film; Martin picks something he's seen before, because he has a feeling Jim is a movie talker and anyway, the film is hardly the point of the evening, now, is it? But Jim is surprisingly quiet once the opening credits start, limiting himself to the occasional comment on an actor or one of the more obtuse plot points.

That doesn't mean he's not a distraction. They're sat close together on the sofa - not quite touching, but close enough that he can feel the warmth of Jim's body and the subtle vibrations of motion through the cushion each time Jim moves. He begins to feel increasingly foolish as the movie unspools. This is a date, and Jim has made his interest abundantly clear. Jim has, in fact, been the one to make every move thus far. What, exactly, does Martin think would go wrong if he himself made the move to close the gap between them?

Nothing, except that it would open up a whole new range of options, and from there it wouldn't take long for Jim to discover Martin's woeful dearth of experience in general, especially recent experience, and especially especially recent experience with men, and from there it's only a small step to the fact that Martin has very little to offer. If he has anything at all.

"Will it help if I tell you how it ends?" Jim asks.

"What?"

Jim nods toward the television. "You're getting more wound up by the minute. Are you one of those people who needs to know how a movie turns out before you can enjoy it?" He glances at Martin with a gently wry smile, letting him know that he can take the out if he wants it, and that's when Martin decides that he really, really likes Jim and he desperately wants this date to go well so there can be another.

"I'm sorry," he says. "It's just that it's been a while since I've been on a date and I've sort of - forgotten how they go."

Jim laughs. "I'm agoraphobic," he reminds Martin. "I guarantee you however long it's been for you, it's been longer for me. The Internet is a social godsend, yes, but it's amazing how few people are willing to go to a complete stranger's home for a date."

Martin laughs, too, feeling both more and less ridiculous at the same time. "Then we'll just . . . make up our own rules?" he suggests, and finally lets himself reach over to run his fingertips over the back of Jim's hand.

"Perfect," Jim says, and turns his hand over to twine his fingers with Martin's.

A minute after that, Martin leans in to kiss him. Jim makes a satisfied little sound against his mouth, pressing his free hand along the line of Martin's jaw.

When the film does reach its end, they don't even notice.

(And if Jim is a more forceful kisser than he had expected, and he goes home with his lips bruised and bitten and sore, well. Martin supposes he could learn to like that, given time.)

*

There is a second date. Jim asks Martin to pick up dinner from a place that won't deliver. Martin does some hasty calculations, decides there's enough left of the double fee from Jim that he can afford to do so as long as he orders from the appetizer menu for himself, and agrees, only to arrive and discover that Jim has already ordered and paid over the phone. He's relieved and embarrassed at the same time. Jim knows what he charges for Icarus Removals, after all, and he's seen the state of the van for himself. He must have taken a guess at what Martin's financial situation looks like.

The only comfort is that he can't possibly have worked out just how dire it is. Which, really, is not much of a comfort, because Martin is going to have to tell him. He doesn't want Jim paying for everything, but he'll have to be realistic about how much he can afford to contribute.

He hopes to at least take advantage of Jim's chattiness to pick his own words and try to convince Jim that he is still somehow worth keeping around, but that doesn't work out, either. About five minutes after they sit down to dinner, Jim pauses in the middle of the story he's telling and asks,

"Don't you like it?"

When Martin looks at him blankly, Jim gestures toward the plate of food that Martin has only managed a couple bites of. "I know it was a bit rude to order for you, but I thought you'd appreciate not having to wait around - oh god, you're not vegetarian, are you? I didn't even think -"

He sounds so anxious that Martin jumps in, eager to reassure him. "No, no, it's fine, it's delicious, it was very thoughtful of you, I just, uh, you paid last time as well and I've been trying to work out the best way to say that I don't want you to have to pay for everything but I can't really afford to - well, I don't actually make that much and, and restaurants are expensive, even the cheap ones are beyond my budget."

"Oh," Jim says. "Well. I don't mind - no, hear me out. I." He pauses, glancing down at the table for a few seconds before he looks up at Martin again. "I've lost a lot of friends and the few boyfriends I have had over the years because of my condition. People get tired of not being able to go out anywhere and always having to come to see me because I can't bear to make the journey to theirs. It gets - lopsided. So I look for ways to overcompensate at the start and buy a bit of extra time. Literally in this case, I suppose. And I don't want to be overbearing, I don't want you to be uncomfortable, but it's an exchange, isn't it, of a sort? You tolerate my issues, I spare your budget. If anything, you're getting shortchanged." The corner of his mouth quirks in a brief half-smile. "I just hope it takes a while for you to decide you've had enough."

Well. How can he possibly argue with that? "Yes, well, I. When you put it that way, I suppose it seems reasonable." He feels rather foolish now for not having taken Jim's problems into consideration. "I'm sorry, I'm just so used to worrying about money and what people think. My situation is. Well. What I never actually got round to mentioning about the airline job is that I, I don't get paid. I love it, it's amazing, it's the only thing I've ever wanted to do with my life, but I don't make a penny off it. Icarus is how I make my living and - well, you know my rates."

Jim blinks at him, then lets out a sudden laugh. "We are a bloody pair, aren't we?"

Martin can't help but laugh a little himself. "Yes, I suppose we are. Honestly, though, I don't want you to see where I live, ever, I'm a bit relieved I'll never have to take you there. So, really, we're closer to even than you think."

Jim laughs again, warmer and more relaxed this time, and Martin's tension dissipates at all once. "You must love flying, then, if it's worth all that."

"I do. God, I really do."

Jim's eyes fix on his. "Tell me," he says.

Martin does.

*

He doesn't go back to his little attic room that night. In fact, between MJN and Jim, he scarcely lays eyes on it for the next two weeks, which prove to be two of the best weeks he's ever had. Jim is wonderful, and actually likes him. He listens when Martin talks about flying - really listens, not just faking it to be polite. The MJN stories are his favorite.

(Jim stopped talking quite so much after they cleared the air on their second date, admitting it was a habit he had cultivated to keep people from getting bored with him. "Boredom is one of my great fears in life," he said. Martin assured Jim he wasn't bored, adding as an afterthought that he'd try not to be boring, either. Jim smiled at that without answering, just looking at him, until Martin's gaze dropped and he had to shake away the feeling that he was being studied. Then Jim kissed him and he forgot all about it.)

That sense of - of wonderfulness permeates everything else, too. Flying gets even better; none of Douglas's attempts to fluster him can touch him; a few passengers even address him as Captain.

Then Carolyn drops the bomb: next week it's Birling Day.

Birling Days are just about the only MJN story he hasn't told Jim at this point. All the other ones, even the polar bears, strike him as funny now, improved like everything else is with Jim in his life. But thinking about Birling Days makes him feel cheap and dirty in a way that not even Jim can polish away. Of course, when he goes to Jim's that evening, Jim notices right off that he's drooping, and of course Martin tells him why.

"Well," Jim says when he's done. They're on the couch, Jim's head resting on Martin's shoulder. "Doesn't sound like anyone will be crying at his funeral." Martin laughs, then claps a hand over his mouth, appalled at himself.

"Don't say that, Jim, that's awful."

"Sorry, love," Jim murmurs; he's developed a tendency to shower Martin with random endearments during conversation. "My sense of humor getting a bit ahead of me there." He raises his head to kiss Martin, soft and apologetic. Appeased, Martin touches his cheek.

"It's all right," he says. "God, I just keep thinking, he always asks about our love lives. I can just imagine what he'll have to say about me seeing a man, and believe me whatever he comes up with will be worse than anything I could invent. And I'll have to hear it every Birling Day until the end of time."

Jim frowns. "Surely Carolyn won't put up with that kind of harassment aimed at her employee."

"Carolyn can't afford to chase him away. We're deep enough in debt as it is."

Jim sighs, long and slow, then shifts position to draw Martin's head down onto his shoulder. Martin does not protest. "I'll tell you what, then, sweetheart," he says. "You come right home to me after Birling Day is done and I'll see what I can do about making him disappear."

*

Inevitably, on the one day Martin needs to have as little time to work himself up as possible, Mr Birling is late. At first, he'd been glad that Mr Birling no longer insists on being picked up by the entire crew; now he just wishes he could have it over with, not least because the more anxious he gets the worse Mr Birling will be. People like him can smell blood from a mile away. He'll know immediately that Martin is a vulnerable target, and he will pounce, and there will certainly be no chance of inventing something with which to pacify him. Even if there were, Martin wouldn't. He will not lie about Jim, not to Mr Birling or to anyone else. Jim is the best thing to happen to him since MJN and he won't cheapen that.

No one else seems to notice Martin's agitation. Carolyn is occupied with glaring at Douglas, bottle of Talisker whiskey held in a death grip in her lap, Douglas is occupied with looking thoroughly nonchalant as only he can, and Arthur is in the galley with a list of chores and strict instructions to ignore anything and everything Douglas might say, up to and including "The plane is on fire."

And eventually, of course, they're all occupied with the passage of time.

"Where is that man?" Carolyn exclaims about two hours in. "He's going to miss his precious match entirely at this rate."

About ten minutes later, the door to the portacabin opens and a uniformed police officer steps inside. Frowning, Carolyn (after shoving the Talisker into Martin's hands) goes over to see what he wants.

She looks a bit stunned when she comes back.

"This flight," she announces, "is cancelled. It would seem that Mr Birling has gone to the great rugby pitch in the sky."

*

"Apparently it was some kind of freak accident! Something in his car gave way. There's an investigation on because so many people hated him, we were held up for hours in questioning, they said it was just a formality, but I don't know." Martin puts down his wineglass and covers his face with both hands. "Oh my god, and last night we were joking about his funeral."

"I think you'll find I was joking about his funeral." Jim refills Martin's glass, then reaches up to tug one hand away from his face. "And you quite properly told me off, so this is very clearly in no way your doing and you've nothing to feel guilty about, so stop it." He runs his thumb gently along Martin's cheekbone. "All right?"

Martin nods, letting his other hand drop. "But the thing is, I don't feel guilty. Or sad, or anything except relieved. And horrible about being so -"

"Human?" Jim suggests.

"Ugh." Martin reaches for his wine. "At least I'm not as bad as Douglas. He was going on about throwing a party and I think he meant it. He even offered to furnish me with your substance of choice so you could come."

Jim shudders. "That's a once-per-decade event, I'm afraid, darling. But I know, why don't we have it here? Well, not as a 'good riddance, Mr Birling' party, of course, but just a friendly get-together. I'd love to meet them, I feel like I know them already just from listening to you, and they must be curious about me. Why wait any longer?"

Martin thinks, or tries to, but his head is spinning a little from the wine and the chaos of the day. "When?"

"How about tonight? It may be a bit last-minute, but at least we know their schedules have opened up." Jim grins at him, unrepentant. Martin can't stop himself from exhaling a laugh.

"All right. Why not? Tonight."

*

They decide to make the get-together a dinner; Martin invites the rest of MJN, who are every bit as curious and interested as predicted, and Jim arranges for delivery from his favorite restaurant.

"They're lucky this is last-minute," Jim remarks as they finish up setting the table, "or I might have got really inspired and tried to cook."

"You never cook," Martin says. Jim smiles and leans into him, slipping his arm around Martin's waist.

"There's an astonishingly good reason for that," he murmurs just before he kisses Martin. It's slow and sweet, the kind he usually saves for right before Martin goes out the door in a bid (always successful) to make him stay a few minutes longer. Martin, wanting his head to be clear, stopped drinking after they agreed to have the dinner, but there's still a trace of wine lingering in his brain and casting a hazy warmth over everything. He melts into Jim with an utter lack of self-consciousness.

"I -" he breathes against Jim's lips. "I -"

"Mm?" Jim moves his attention to the line of Martin's neck. Martin is more than happy to tip his head back to oblige.

He knows better, of course, than to so much as think the L-word less than three weeks into a relationship. It would be absurd. It's far too soon. He can't see the harm, though, in saying instead,

"I am really, incredibly fond of you." He doesn't even bother with feeling ridiculous about his phrasing. Jim never makes him feel ridiculous.

Jim chuckles low against his neck, making Martin close his eyes in pleasure at the vibration of it. "And I you." Jim kisses the hollow of his throat, then starts working his way up, talking between kisses. "You are - hardly - ever - boring." He licks Martin's neck, then speaks softly into his ear. His voice seems to change as he does, a cold Irish twist squeezing out the Londoner. "Do you know how rare that is?"

Martin's eyes open. "What?" he says, then gasps as Jim bites down on the corner of his jaw, just below his ear. (He was right before - he did learn to like that, and he learnt very quickly indeed.)

The doorbell rings. Jim groans. "Do we have to?" He sounds like himself again. Martin blinks a couple of times. It has been a very odd day, he thinks. He must have been hearing things.

"It was your idea," he says.

"I hate my ideas," Jim sulks, but he's smiling a bit as he lets go of Martin and steps back. "Right, go ahead and get that, love, I'll go open the wine. And the grape juice."

It's Douglas at the door. The first thing he does is flick a pointed glance at the bite mark Jim left.

"Oh, dear," he says, "am I interrupting something?"

"No," Martin says, gritting his teeth as he feels his face heat up. "No you are not, shut up, come in."

"You must be Douglas." Jim emerges from the kitchen with a wineglass of dark liquid, which he offers to Douglas. "Grape juice," he says. "Proper gourmet blend, too, not the crap they fob off on kids."

"Ah." Douglas sounds surprised and pleased. He takes a sip, makes a show of rolling it around in his mouth, then nods thoughtfully as he swallows. "An excellent vintage."

"Been a good year for grapes," Jim says. "Hi, I'm Jim. Come have a seat, it's lovely to meet you. You know, put a face to the name."

"Talks about me often, does Martin?" Douglas asks as they sit.

"You've come up in a story or two, yeah." Jim reaches over to take Martin's hand and give it a subtle squeeze, not missing a beat in his answer to Douglas as he does so. "I like the one where you worked out what Carolyn's ex was up to and sent him packing. That was very quick thinking."

Now Douglas looks positively smug and not a little flattered. Martin grins. He's never seen anyone charm Douglas before Douglas had the chance to turn on the charm himself. He sits back, letting Jim handle the conversation whilst they wait for Carolyn and Arthur to arrive.

*

Arthur is every bit as exuberant as Martin warned Jim he would be; he's been ecstatic for Martin's sake over "Skip's brilliant new boyfriend," and while Martin didn't get to hear his reaction to the invitation when he spoke to Carolyn, he can only imagine she must have had to talk him down quickly before he actually exploded with joy. Jim takes him in stride, clapping him warmly on the shoulder as if they've always known each other before greeting Carolyn.

"Interesting," Douglas murmurs as he and Martin watch them. Martin flicks him a wary look.

"What?"

"Oh, nothing," Douglas says airily. "But he's certainly socially adept for a shut-in, isn't he?"

"He's not a bloody hermit," Martin snaps. "It's spaces he has a problem with, not people."

"As you say," Douglas says, and sips his juice. Before Martin can do much more than glare at him, the doorbell rings again.

"Ah," Jim says, "that'll be dinner. Martin, darling, do you mind? I'm going to show Carolyn where she can put her handbag since she won't let me take it there myself." He smiles at Carolyn as he speaks. Martin's annoyance with Douglas dissolves in his amusement at the conflicted look on her face - she knows she's being blatantly played up to, but knowing it doesn't make her any more able to resist.

Arthur offers to help put the meal out on the table. Martin firmly refuses. Twice. Jim comes over the second time; he isn't much more helpful than Martin would have expected from Arthur, just fussing nervously with the placement of dishes, but at least he doesn't drop anything.

"Relax, Jim," Martin says in an undertone, gently batting his hands away from the bowl of fruit Jim likes to have as a centerpiece. "You've got them eating out of your hands. They love you."

"I'm not coming on too strong? It's just, it's a bit like meeting the family, isn't it?" He smiles at the awkward look Martin gives him. "I just mean, they're not here to meet me, they're here to make sure I'm good enough for you. Even if none of you would ever admit it."

"Yes, well." Martin clears his throat. "I think we're ready, shall we call them over?"

*

Dinner is going well. Admittedly, it's just getting underway, but after his years with MJN, Martin knows the danger signs by now, and none of them are present. Even Douglas seems inclined to keep whatever was brewing in his head earlier to himself, at least for the time being. Jim's anxieties, Martin decides, are unfounded. Everything is going to be just fine.

Which is about when the door to the flat bangs open and in stride two men Martin has never seen before. Except that one of them - the one in front, all dark hair and dramatic coat - looks so familiar that Martin has to stare for several seconds before it clicks into place.

Aside from the hair, and the clothes, and the stance, and - well, basically everything important, aside from all that, he looks like Martin.

"Moriarty," he says. Even his voice is Martin-but-different, carrying a dark authority Martin couldn't manage if he tried.

"Sherlock!" Jim exclaims. "You finally made it." He gives a delighted gasp. "And you brought the puppy!" That Irish chill, the one Martin convinced himself not a half hour ago that he'd imagined, is back, along with a change in pitch that brings his voice half an octave higher. Martin doesn't look over at him just yet, though, still can't tear his eyes away from his not-quite-twin.

"There's a puppy?" Arthur twists round in his chair.

"Arthur, be quiet." The tension in Carolyn's voice is new to Martin too, low and coiled with an urgency that finally drags Martin's attention away from Sherlock. Arthur quiets instantly, also looking to his mother in a way that suggests that this voice from Carolyn is not new to him at all. Then he follows her frozen gaze, and Martin realizes he's the only person in the room who is not watching Jim.

Slowly, he turns to look.

Much in the way that Sherlock is Martin-but-not, Jim has become . . . someone else. His charm and warmth are gone, his eyes are flat, and something in the curve of his mouth suggests that the best thing to do is to hold very still and hope those eyes pass you by.

"Jim?" Martin says, faintly. "What's going on?" Jim - no, not Jim, what was it Sherlock called him? Moriarty looks at him, and Martin wishes immediately that he'd kept quiet.

"Darling," he says, drawing the word out into something Martin wants to shrink away from, "do you remember what I said before about you hardly ever being boring? Really, really don't make me change my mind about that now."

Unable to speak with that alien gaze turned on him, Martin nods. A sudden, bright smile appears on Moriarty's face.

"Good boy," he coos.

Then he turns his attention back to Sherlock, reaching forward casually to snag an apple from the fruit bowl. The man with Sherlock tenses at the motion, hand going to his pocket. Moriarty winks at him and starts tossing the apple back and forth from hand to hand.

"You took your time, didn't you? Really, Sherlock, it's sweet that you thought Jim Montague was too flimsy a disguise to be one I'd bother wearing, but I did think you'd catch on a bit sooner. The suspense has been killing me."

"You seem to have survived intact," Sherlock says. "It's a pity I can't say the same for Aloysius Birling."

"Is it? You're the only one who thinks so, then." Moriarty shrugs, giving the apple a spin in the air. "I owed Martin a favor for keeping me entertained while you swanned uselessly about, and I soooo hate to be in debt." He looks over at Martin again, pulling a sympathetic grimace. "Sorry, love, I lied. Turns out that was your doing, after all."

"Hardly," Sherlock says with tremendous disdain. "You did it to get my attention. Not too many blatantly rigged car accidents in Fitton."

"Very true! But if you'd been doing your job right, I wouldn't have had to," Moriarty singsongs. "Do you know, Arthur was right about apples, this is quite nice. D'you want to try?" He tosses the apple in a neat underhand toward Sherlock. Sherlock's companion reacts instantly; Sherlock's eyes go wide in a sudden look of comprehension.

"John, no!" he cries, but it's too late - John has stepped forward to place himself between Sherlock and the projectile, apple already in his hand.

"No one move," Sherlock orders. "Stay in your seats, do not fidget, do not put down anything you might have in your hands."

"I'd do as he says if you all want to live through the next ten minutes," Moriarty advises, then, "Well, that's not true, I don't have to. The rest of you reeeeeally should, though."

"Small words, please, Sherlock, for the non-genuises in the audience," John says tightly. He doesn't turn to address Sherlock. His mouth is the only part of him that moves.

"Pressure-sensitive plates wired to an explosive," Sherlock says. "We're each right on top of one."

"Does that mean I've missed my chance to shoot him?" John asks.

"I'm afraid you have."

"Damn."

"You activated them when you stepped up to protect Sherlock from the big scary apple," Moriarty adds helpfully. "He really should have taught you to heel by now."

"I don't see where that does you any good," John says.

"What, me?" Moriarty points to himself inquiringly. "I'm not on top of a plate, what would the point of that be?" He stands up, kicking his chair back. It hits the kitchen island standing a few feet behind it. Everyone except Sherlock startles at the sound; Douglas swears under his breath as he narrowly avoids dropping his fork.

"Oh, now, don't do that," Moriarty says to him. "I've set this up very carefully and I'll be really quite cross if it goes all pear-shaped because a sad little bully of a first officer couldn't hold on to his silverware." He shakes his head, tutting. "You do have a halfway decent mind, too. What a waste you've made of it. You didn't even get the Talisker today."

In spite of everything, Douglas bristles indignantly. "I did."

"Hmmmm. By the way, Sherlock, you've got eight minutes forty-seven seconds before the mechanism locks and you're all dooooomed. You'll need two of those minutes for coordination and execution, if you'll pardon my word choice, so I'd get started on those calculations if I were you."

He looks at Martin again, for the first time since he threw the apple. The look, a distorted inversion of the affection he's seen in those eyes so many times, makes Martin's stomach turn over.

"I'd give you a proper goodbye, sweetheart, but those plates are -"

"Stop it," Martin says. Moriarty raises his eyebrows with an astonished moue. Martin should shut up, this would be an excellent time to shut up, but he's too numb or maybe too angry to be as afraid as he should be, so he plows forward. "Stop calling me those things when you don't mean them."

Sherlock gives a sudden, short laugh. "Doesn't he? 'Hardly ever boring,'" he says, and smirks at Moriarty. "People do get so sentimental about their pets."

Moriarty smirks right back at him. "Oh, but I'm leaving mine in good hands. Don't worry, I'll be back for him someday." He steps up onto his chair, and from there up onto the kitchen island. "If only for the added bonus of getting round the security detail your brother will have on him for the rest of his life now that I've said that." He slides gracefully off the other side of the island onto the floor. "Just one more thing before I go," he says, opening a drawer. "Carolyn?"

". . . yes?" she says, cautiously. Moriarty smiles and holds up a bottle of Talisker whiskey.

"I believe this is yours," he says. His voice slides back up into a singsong as he continues. "Your first officer is good, but I am ever so much better. I do hope you haven't sold that other bottle on, Douglas." Moriarty winces audibly, sucking air in through his teeth. "You'd hate to think of what would happen to anyone who tried to drink what I put in it."

He puts the bottle down with a thump. "I suppose I better leave you to it. I think I will leave the country this time. Or maybe I'll hide right under your nose again. So many choices!" He saunters around them to the flat door, singing out, "Byyyyye!"

He doesn't shut the door behind him. Martin closes his eyes and listens to the sound of his footsteps fading down the hall.

*

The solution, despite Sherlock's shout of triumph when he hit on it, was too complex to feel anything other than somewhat anticlimactic, involving a redistribution of weight in a precise pattern Martin forgot before they finished performing it. Shortly after that, the flat filled up with many official-looking people, some of whom were police or bomb squad and some of whom - were not.

That was hours - and, for Martin, hundreds of questions about Jim - ago. He was at the Fitton police station for a while, then Sherlock and John took him somewhere else to answer the same questions again, only this time they were asked by people who didn't seem to have any official affiliation.

They're done with him for now. Martin is outside, watching the first streaks of sunrise appear in the sky. The one positive thing about the hours of interrogation is that it's left him beyond exhausted. He can't think, or feel, much of anything. That won't last, so he clings to it while he can.

The door opens behind him. He glances back to see John coming out.

"Hey," John says. "We're about ready to get out of here. We'll be taking you out to Mrs Knapp-Shappey's house. She insisted, and honestly I'm a little afraid of getting my ears boxed if we don't."

The remark dimly registers as a joke. Martin doesn't laugh. John makes a rueful sound and continues.

"Don't worry, we're not putting them in danger. There's going to be plenty of security, not that we expect him to try anything any time soon." He shrugs slightly. "Someone'll come round to talk to you about that, it's not really my area. Don't be surprised if phoneboxes start ringing at you, though."

Martin glances at him.

That, apparently, was not a joke.

". . . thanks," he thinks to say, eventually. John nods.

"Listen," he says, "you're not the first one he's done this to. The fake relationship thing, I mean. There's someone we know in London, very nice woman, he pulled it on her, too. I was thinking, it might help you both to talk to each other. To, uh, commiserate."

"About being idiots," Martin says.

"About being made to feel like idiots," John corrects him. "I doubt she'd appreciate my giving out her number, but would you mind if I gave her yours? I can't promise you'll hear from her, but." He shrugs again, letting the sentence trail off.

Martin is too tired to summon up any kind of argument against it. "All right. Why not."

*

Three weeks later, Molly Hooper does call.

 

END.