“Right,” says Jon. “Well er…”
They’re both standing at the door of the storeroom, unsure what to do. At least, Martin assumes Jon is as unsure what to do as he is. There’s not exactly a protocol for having to camp out in your spooky place of work because you got attacked by worms.
Jon is trying again though. “You’ll need, er. Can I send someone round to your flat?”
“No!” says Martin, more forceful than he’d intended but the thought of anyone having to go there… “No, thank you, no I – I’ll go out and get some things later.”
He’s not entirely sure he’s up to leaving the Institute at present, much less shopping, but eventually he will presumably want to do things like brush his teeth and change clothes.
“If you, ah,” says Jon, “if you say so.”
He’s not the aloof Jon that Martin has gotten used to ducking around, all rolling eyes and snide comments. It could be due to the worms that Martin had dumped on his desk or the story he’d dumped into the tape recorder, or it could just be that this is Jon trying to be nice. The idea seems is faintly startling.
“Well I should go talk to Elias then,” says Jon. “If you’re, er…”
“Yeah,” Martin says, “I’m fine. Thanks.”
Jon glances briefly at him, then leaves, managing to almost look as though he isn’t fleeing.
The room that Jon has brought him to – that Martin will be living in for the foreseeable future – is cramped and dark, all metal filing cabinets and cardboard boxes. Into this someone has squeezed a small cot, with a couple blankets and a bare pillow. There’s an empty mug on one of the cabinets, and cobwebs sway gently from the ceiling. In short, it looks like every other out-of-the-way nook in the Archive. Even the old wool blankets seem to be a natural extension of the place.
Martin sighs and goes to make himself a cup of tea.
He doesn’t even have a phone, he thinks as he pours boiling water over the tea bag, some of the anxiety that the adrenaline had kept at bay starting to gnaw just below his sternum. He doesn’t like to think of some thing texting Jon from his phone, maybe looking through his contacts (admittedly, sparse) and his pictures (mostly things for work) and notes (poetry fragments and grocery lists).
“You look awful,” says Tim from behind him, and Martin nearly leaps a foot in the air. Thankfully he’d put the kettle down and it’s this that saves him from drenching himself in piping hot water.
“Jesus,” Tim continues, “it’s just me.”
“Sorry,” Martin says, turning and willing his heartrate to return to something approaching normal.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Tim, “I’m glad to see you back but you’re not…contagious, are you?”
“What?” says Martin, then remembers might be a parasite. “Oh, no I wasn’t er. I wasn’t sick I was…”
He’s not sure what to say. I was holed up in my apartment being stalked by a rotting corpse filled with worms. You know, the usual.
Tim waits for Martin to say more, but then when he doesn’t says, “Well, boss wanted me to let you know we’re having a staff meeting in ten. Is the kettle hot?”
Martin silently gets Tim a mug from the cupboard, then, for good measure, gets two more for Sasha and Jon.
“So,” says Jon, “you’ve probably noticed that Martin is back.”
It’s an entirely inane thing to say, but if Martin were in Jon’s shoes he’d probably be dawdling over the inane too. Martin blows on his tea and avoids Sasha’s and Tim’s eyes.
“Martin,” Jon continues, and Martin looks up slowly. “Would you like to tell Sasha and Tim what happened?”
No, I wouldn’t really, thanks, Martin thinks. Jon’s tone is making it sound like Martin’s done something wrong again and he’s about to ream him out again and Martin knows that that’s just Jon being Jon, probably, but still, he wants to duck his head and apologise.
“I-I…er,” he says instead, stumbling, fixing his gaze at a point just over Jon’s shoulder. “I met Jane Prentiss? Well, sort of.”
“What?” says Sasha at the same time as Tim curses softly.
“Well, er, when I was out, I wasn’t actually sick? Which is I guess what I – what my phone – what you thought, er,” he toys with the hem of his shirt. It had been so much easier to tell this to Jon, somehow. Maybe he just doesn’t want to relive it again.
“Jane Prentiss,” Jon takes over, and Martin could nearly weep in relief, “had Martin trapped in his flat for nearly two weeks. So, we’re stepping up security around the archive, and Martin is going to be staying here for the time being. All of us are going to need to be extra vigilant. Keep an eye on your own homes, and when you come in to work. Don’t take any unnecessary risks. And if you see anything, tell me.”
He sweeps his gaze over all of them, and they all nod.
“Are you okay?” Sasha asks Martin as they leave the office.
“Sure,” Martin says, shrugging weakly.
“Who wouldn’t love living at work, eh?” Tim jokes, jostling Martin.
Martin tries to think of a comeback but can only manage a half hearted, “Yeah.”
“Chin up,” Tim says, cuffing Martin on the shoulder before peeling off into the stacks.
“Well, if you need anything,” Sasha says.
“Actually,” says Martin, “can I ask a favour?”
“Of course,” she says, “what’s up?”
He hesitates, feeling like a coward, but then says, “Er, I kind of…I’m kind of worried about going out…. and I don’t want you to go out of your way or anything… and you can say no if you can’t or don’t want to but er, I don’t have any… well I was wondering if you maybe could – ”
Sasha cuts him off. “You want me to pick up some stuff for you,” she says. “Of course I can.”
“Not from like,” Martin starts, relieved, “I don’t think you should go to my flat or anything, but I’ll give you some money and I just need like, a toothbrush and a change of clothes and things.”
“It’s not a problem,” says Sasha, and then she hugs him, quick and tight, her hair tickling his nose. “You’re gonna be alright, okay?”
“Okay,” Martin says. “Thanks, Sasha, I – ” He feels like he may cry, and he squints up at a light, trying to will his tears back with gravity.
She cuffs him on the shoulder, more gently than Tim had. “It’s nothing,” she says and grins at him.
And Martin tries valiantly to grin back.
Sasha gives him another hug when she heads out at the end of the day, and Tim grasps his shoulder and give him a little shake and says, “see you tomorrow”, but neither of them really linger, which, really, is fair and normal and Martin hasn’t asked them to stay or anything so he shouldn’t be feeling the dropping in his stomach as they leave. He tries to do some more work, because he’s here, after all, might as well make use of it, but he can’t concentrate and his head is kind of throbbing gently and maybe he should have asked Sasha to pick up some Tylenol too and he decides, okay, maybe he’ll just go get dinner.
Except the canteen is closed ‘cause of course it is, the Institute is closed and why hadn’t he thought of that. He puts the kettle on to boil and resigns himself to a dinner of an old packet of biscuits that he’s found in the back of the breakroom cupboard. He thinks he may have a granola bar in his desk drawer too, but maybe he should save that for breakfast.
The obvious solution to this, he thinks, is to just leave and go to a restaurant or a grocery store. There’s a cafe right on the corner that has sandwiches and it’s like a two-minute walk and he just has to stop being stupid and leave the goddamn Institute.
He hears footsteps above the sound of the kettle and his heart jumps, which is ridiculous, but his hands shake and he has to press them against the counter, has to press himself against the counter so his back’s not to the door and there’s a pair of scissors in the drawer beside the sink and maybe even a knife –
It’s Jon, holding a white plastic bag and looking thoroughly unthreatening. Martin stops reaching for the drawer handle.
“Hi,” he says, trying not to sound sheepish.
“I er,” Jon says, “brought supper?”
He says it like a question, and it is maybe the most unsure Martin has ever heard Jon sound which is vaguely disconcerting. But the smell of whatever is in the bag hits Martin then and it smells good and okay, he was maybe a bit hungrier than he’d let himself admit.
“It’s Thai, if that’s okay,” Jon says, and begins systematically taking Styrofoam containers out of the bag and lining them up on the table, placing chopsticks on top of a pile of serviettes beside.
Martin is still catching up to the idea that Jon has apparently brought him supper. He’s not entirely sure what to say or do, so he says, “Would you like some tea?”
Which is not really a thank you but.
“Ah, yes,” says Jon, glancing over then away.
So Martin makes them both green tea and they eat the Thai food together in the small break room and when Martin thinks back to waking up this morning in his flat he had not pictured his day progressing like this.
“Thank you,” Martin finally says, carefully avoiding Jon’s eyes.
Jon waves a hand, “It’s the least I could do.”
Which is just blatantly untrue because the least Jon could have done would have been to shout at Martin for wasting his time with made up stories or to just ignore him and frankly that had been what Martin had expected. Letting Martin stay in the Archive and talking to Elias about extra security and bringing supper is a lot more than the least he could do but Martin doesn’t say any of this, just picks up a piece of tofu with his chopsticks and absently scuffs his foot against the ground.
“Is there anything else you need before I, er, head off?” Jon asks when they’re done. They’ve scraped the leftovers into one container which Martin suspects he’s going to end up having for breakfast tomorrow, and Jon washed the mugs with the air of someone who isn’t quite sure what to do with himself, which Martin can relate to.
“No, no,” Martin says. “Sasha, er, picked up some things for me and you-you’ve already done… Well, you’ve already…”
He doesn’t know how to articulate how grateful and also bemused he feels, can’t make himself speak with anything approaching fluency.
“It’s not,” says Jon, “that is, I-I don’t mind…”
What a pair they are, thinks Martin.
“Well, if you think of anything…” Jon says, and Martin nods like he’s at all likely to ever ask Jon for anything.
And then it’s just Martin and the Archive which is fine because it’s just the Archive but the lights buzz faintly and he keeps imagining he hears soft rustling just at the edge of his hearing. He makes his way back to the – his – room, chewing nervously on a knuckle.
“You’re being ridiculous,” he whispers to himself. The Archive is so much bigger than his flat and he imagines that his voice is being eaten up by the space.
“Okay,” he says at a normal volume, “okay, we’ll just…we’ll just try and get a proper sleep then? It’s incredibly safe, right? So, we can just…” he trails off.
The shopping bags Sasha’d brought him are sitting on the cot, and he pulls out the toothbrush and toothpaste. He glances over at the door and now he’s in this small enclosed space he really doesn’t want to leave because in he can see everything in here but out there is just space and shadows and
“Stop it,” he scolds himself, and walks to the bathroom.
He glares at himself in the mirror as he brushes his teeth.
Back in the room he kicks off his shoes and sits on the edge of the cot and wishes he’d made himself another cup of tea.
“Remember when we were talking about sleep?” he asks himself, but he doesn’t really want to sleep because for the past two weeks sleep has meant not knowing what is happening and has meant nightmares. He wishes he had his phone. He’s going to need to get a new one now, he supposes. He wishes he weren’t alone in the dark Archive.
He wraps himself in the scratchy wool blankets, and eventually, exhausted, falls asleep.
It’s Elias who ends up getting Martin a new phone which is – weird? Sure, they have laptops provided by the Institute but those tend to stay in the Archive and Martin has never used his as a personal computer. But Elias just says that he likes to keep tabs on his employees. Given that Martin is literally living in the Institute this doesn’t really make sense, but he guesses he appreciates having a phone again.
Except it turns out that reception – already spotty in the Archive – is entirely non-existent in the storeroom. It’s not like he can’t just step outside to make calls, and the Archive wifi reaches inside, but, a part of him says, what if he can’t step outside.
He wishes he weren’t so jumpy. Even after over a week he’s still twitching at sounds and walking around with an expanse of dread in his gut. Sasha and Tim have tried to joke with him about it, which he kind of appreciates, but he can’t really bring himself to joke back and he can’t help but feel that maybe they just think he’s overreacting.
Which, maybe he is.
Except, no, he still has a visceral sense-memory of what she was like. But on the other hand, he is safe, so shouldn’t he have stopped being so scared by now? And for that matter, shouldn’t he have plucked up the courage to actually leave the Institute?
It turns out that no amount of berating himself can unclench the fist of terror in his stomach, so for now he supposes this is his life – collecting dust in the Archive with decades of statements.
“That’s extremely melodramatic,” he mutters to himself.
“What’s that?” asks Tim, looking over from his desk.
Martin feels his face heat. “Nothing.”
Tim points a finger at him warningly. “Don’t start going stir crazy down here, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Martin mumbles.
“I’m serious,” says Tim. “Have you been outside at all?”
Sure, Martin thinks, ten days ago when I was running for my life.
He shakes his head, tries to concentrate on the police report he’s reading. He really doesn’t want to have this conversation.
“That’s probably not healthy,” Tim continues.
Martin hums noncommittally.
“Come out for lunch today,” says Tim. “Get some fresh air. See the sun.”
“I see the sun,” says Martin.
“Through windows doesn’t count,” Tim argues.
“It’s still March, is the sun even out?” says Martin and, damn. He didn’t want to get pulled into this.
“Only one way to find out!” Tim says brightly.
There are several ways Martin can think of to find out, actually, but he’s also shutting up now.
“C’mon,” says Tim, not giving up, “what’s the worst that could happen?”
Which is a ridiculous thing to say and now Martin’s brain is helpfully supplying him with an entire itemized list of worsts.
“I just have a lot of work…” he says.
“You literally live at work!” says Tim.
“Just,” says Martin, “not today alright?”
Tim sighs, big and theatrical. “Fine,” he says, “but don’t come crying to me if you die of vitamin D deficiency.”
“I’ll eat more carrots or whatever,” says Martin.
“I’m not entirely sure that carrots have vitamin D,” says Tim, but lets the conversation drop.
If only, Martin thinks, the Archive were hermetically sealed against nightmares. He wakes in a panic, feeling the too familiar crawling against his skin, and kicks off the blankets in an exhausted panic that has become all too common.
He is fine. There is nothing on him but his sweat.
He grabs his phone off a filing cabinet. 2:26, accuses the digital clock. He doesn’t want to sit here in the dark and he doesn’t want to go back to sleep and he doesn’t want to be so so scared and he doesn’t want the racing of his thoughts and his heart and the pounding of his head and the gooseflesh creeping up his limbs.
Tea, he thinks. Tea will make it better. Tea makes everything better.
As he walks barefoot to the breakroom, he sees light spilling from a room just ahead. Jon’s office. He slows, unsure. Perhaps Jon had just left his light on or perhaps someone (or something, he tries not to think) has broken into the Archive and is lying in wait and –
Although, Martin takes his spiralling thoughts firmly in hand, it would be pretty idiotic to turn on a light if you were lying in wait and anyway, Occam’s Razor and all.
He creeps to the door, desperately wishing he had something other than his phone to hand.
It’s Jon, head bent low over his desk, one hand tangled in his hair, the other tapping thumb to each finger, one-two-three-four-one-two –
Martin coughs. Jon’s head jerks up.
“Hullo?” says Martin, uncertainly.
Jon blinks. “I’m sure I’ve talked to you about wearing trousers,” he says. He sounds distant, tired.
Martin feels his face heat. “In my defence,” he says, “it is half two.”
Jon looks startled. “It is?”
Jon pushes his fingers up under his glasses and rubs at his eyes. He looks like a spectre in the lamp light. He looks like Martin feels.
“So much for leaving before dark,” Jon mutters.
“I was going to put the kettle on,” says Martin, “if you want…”
Jon stands, scraping the legs of his chair across the floor. “Good idea.”
Underground as the Archive is it could just as easily be two in the afternoon as it could two in the morning, and as Martin pulls a box of Barry’s and two mugs from the cupboard it almost feels like a normal day at work except he’s in his boxers and Jon is leaning against the edge of the table looking blearily at his hands. He looks vulnerable in a way that Martin feels distinctly uncomfortable with.
“Why didn’t you go home?” Martin asks, dropping two tea bags into the mugs.
“Didn’t realise,” Jon says. His voice is the slightest bit raspy and Martin feels something in his chest at the sound of it. “Got caught up…”
Martin wonders how many times Jon has got caught up to a two-in-the-morning extent. He thinks of the cot ready and waiting in the Archive.
Jon looks up at Martin, head tilted minutely to one side. “Still can’t sleep?” he asks.
Martin is surprised the Jon remembers, that he cares. Although maybe he is just making conversation.
“No,” he says, sighs.
“Could be the late-night tea,” Jon says, gently ribbing.
Martin is not used to this Jon who teases and who asks after Martin’s sleep and he looks intently at the kettle which, true to the adage, stubbornly does not boil.
“I think at this point,” Martin tells the kettle, “my system kind of expects a base level of caffeine.”
Jon hums softly, maybe agreement, maybe just acknowledgement. Martin gets the milk out of the fridge. He wishes there were more he could do with his hands, and settles for tapping his fingers against his opposite wrist.
“My grandmother,” says Jon, “used to make me chamomile tea to help me sleep.”
“Chamomile tastes like death,” Martin says without thinking, and then feels his face heat again. “Sorry,” he says.
But Jon puffs out a laugh. “If you say so.”
The pitch of the kettle’s rumble drops as the water comes to a boil and Martin fills their mugs. He isn’t quite ready to look at this unfamiliar early-morning version of Jon yet, and busies himself adding milk to his own tea. He can’t stall forever though, and hands Jon’s mug over while looking steadfastly at the floor. He notices that Jon is in sock-feet, wonders where his shoes have got to.
“Ta,” Jon says.
Martin sits on one of the chairs, cradling his mug between his hands. Jon perches on top of the table in a way that strikes Martin as very un-Jon-like. It’s weird, but so is the two of them in the middle of the night without shoes and without the structures of the daytime holding them and maybe, Martin thinks vaguely, this is just how normal works now.
They don’t say anything as they drink their tea, and when they’re done Martin takes the mugs to the sink and asks Jon, “Are you going to go home now?”
“You should,” says Martin. “Try and get some sleep.”
“So should you,” Jon says.
“I will if you will,” Martin says.
“Alright,” says Jon.
CW for minor injury, not described in any great detail.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Your worms are outside,” says Tim conversationally one morning and Martin jerks his head around to stare at him.
“What?” he says, thinking he must have misheard and knowing with a sinking in his stomach that he hasn’t.
“Little silvery buggers,” Tim says. “I must’ve stepped on a couple dozen this morning. They’re all over outside the Institute.”
Martin’s skin crawls and he suddenly wants to be anywhere else.
“They’re not my worms,” he says. The sinking in his stomach feels something like guilt now because hasn’t he brought them here?
Tim glances up from the file he’s been thumbing through, and his brow wrinkles. “I shouldn’t have told you, eh?”
“What?” Martin says again.
“Don’t worry about it,” says Tim. “It’s just been wet out, and anyway we’re fine in here.”
“I-I-I’m not worried,” says Martin, lying, hoping his voice isn’t quavering.
Tim nudges him with his shoulder. “Chin up.”
“Yeah,” says Martin.
He finds Jon a couple hours later.
“What is it?” says Jon. He sounds irritated, which isn’t exactly unusual but still makes Martin feel about two feet tall.
“Tim told me about the er, worms?” he says. “Outside?”
Jon sighs. “As I said,” he says, “the Archive is sealed, you’re not in any – ”
“That’s not,” Martin interrupts him, then stops, embarrassed. “Sorry.”
Jon waves a hand at him, “No, go on.”
“I just, er, feel like – like maybe my being here is why… why they’re here?”
“Martin,” says Jon, “just because you seem to have had some… particularly bad luck doesn’t mean that you are at the centre of some supernatural conspiracy.”
Martin tries not to flinch, stung.
“But,” he starts.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jon says, his words sounding like a clear dismissal.
It’s not, Martin thinks angrily, as though he can just switch off worrying and he wishes people would stop recommending it to him. He stalks away from Jon’s office and goes to get lunch.
He runs into Sasha on the way to the canteen.
“You okay?” she asks.
“Fine,” he says.
She raises a skeptical eyebrow. “Tim thinks he upset you about the worms.”
“He didn’t,” says Martin, who at this point is thoroughly wishing that Tim hadn’t mentioned them, “upset me.”
“It’s just a few bugs,” Sasha says, clearly trying for reassuring.
Martin declines to be reassured.
“Worms aren’t bugs,” he says, grumpily pedantic.
She snorts. “I just mean that there’s been no sign of Jane Prentiss at all, I don’t think you need to be so concerned…”
Martin laughs. “Did you spend two weeks cooped up hearing her knocking all the time and not being able to breathe without smelling that and just – not being able to leave or do anything. And now they’re here and everyone just thinks ‘oh, stupid Martin, worrying about a few worms, how silly.’”
“That’s not what I meant,” says Sasha.
“It’s fine,” Martin snaps. “I mean, I’m safe down here aren’t I? Doesn’t matter that I’m just as trapped as before, it’s fine because at least now I have people to tell me not to worry.”
“Martin,” says Sasha, and he’s really getting tired of the sound of his own name in that tone, like he’s a child who’s scared of monsters in the closet.
“Sorry,” he says, not feeling particularly sorry. “I’m just tired.”
He turns around, appetite well and truly gone.
He doesn’t sleep that night; every time he closes his eyes he sees silver shapes wriggling behind his eyelids, so he grabs his laptop and tries to get some work done.
He can’t concentrate, tough, and his head is pounding in a way that at this point is extremely familiar and his eyes feel like there’s sand in them.
Jon’s office is dark when he passes it on the way to the break room. He feels faint disappointment, ridiculous because aside from the supper weeks ago and that one weird night it’s not like Jon has ever been particularly pleasant to Martin and anyway it’s a good thing that Jon is getting rest, it’s good that he and Tim and Sasha can go home and sleep and not worry and not taste the stench of decay in the back of their throats and not feel phantom creeping along their limbs.
The next day he swears he sees a silver worm in the Archive and by the time they’re done looking everyone is frustrated and Martin feels like an idiot and he just wants to leave but the only place he can go is to the tiny store-room with the cot. He can’t tell if the pickling tears are from exhaustion or shame or fear or some combination of the three.
He starts to avoid the others, not wanting to pester them. He wishes he could escape himself, but he figures the best thing he can do now is make sure that no-one else has to deal with him. The hours he spends alone in the Archive seem interminable, and how had he never noticed that days contained so many hours.
He hasn’t written in weeks, but every time he opens his notebook words like silvered and squirm come to mind, and he has to shove it away and go pace around the stacks. He finds a book of war poetry that he’d brought in when he was researching that one statement about Wilfred Owen, but it doesn’t really make him feel better, just useless and insignificant.
Oh Life, Owen writes, Life, let me breathe.
Let me breathe, thinks Martin.
There is someone in the room with him, and Martin comes awake in an instant, heart in his mouth.
There’s a muffled crash and the someone says, “Shit,” and Martin recognizes the voice and reaches over the flick on the lamp.
It’s Sasha looking pale and terrified and there’s blood on her arm and Martin scrambles out of bed as she sways and grabs the top of a filing cabinet.
“What happened?” says Martin, grabbing the arm that’s not bleeding and what time is it and the bandages are in the first aid kit in the breakroom but will Sasha be able to get back up there or should he leave her here…
“Martin,” she says vaguely, almost like she hadn’t expected to find him.
“What did you do?” he asks. Under closer inspection the blood looks mostly dried, but there’s a tear in her shirt up by the shoulder and he can’t quite tell in the dim lamplight if those are scratches or gouges.
“Can you walk?” he asks.
“I walked here,” she says, and she still sounds distant, as though she’s not entirely present.
“We should get you cleaned up,” he says. He wants to ask her again what happened, but she doesn’t seem up to answering any questions right now.
He keeps a hand on her arm and she leans on him as he guides her first to the bathroom where he pushes up the sleeve of her shirt and rinses the blood from her arm and gently from the cut on her shoulder. He can’t tell what’s made it, maybe a piece of jagged metal? Maybe a knife? He tries not to shudder, tries to be solid and strong for her.
The microwave clock in the breakroom says it’s 4:57 AM, and Martin gets gauze and medical tape and antibiotic ointment from the first aid kit as Sasha sits in a chair, staring into space. She hisses a little as he squeezes the ointment onto her shoulder.
“Sorry,” he says.
“You were right,” she says.
The statement is completely incongruous, and he says, “About what?”
She shakes her head. “About Prentiss,” she whispers.
Martin tries not to recoil. “You saw her,” he says.
“No,” she finally meets his eyes. “It was Timothy Hodge. He was…” she drops her gaze back to the table.
Martin’s hands tremble, and he tries to still them as he lays a square of gauze over the cut on her shoulder, tapes it down.
“Did he...” Martin starts.
She shakes her head. “This happened after…”
“I’m calling Jon,” Martin says, and only then realizes he’s left his phone in his room.
“Stay here,” he says. “Do you want something to eat?”
“No thank you,” says Sasha, voice small.
“I’ll be right back,” says Martin. He doesn’t want to leave her, but he flicks the kettle on and then runs back to grab his phone.
He dials Jon on his way back.
“Hullo?” says Jon, voice groggy with sleep.
Martin doesn’t even apologise for the hour, just says, “Sasha’s here, she’s been hurt I think she – ”
“What?” says Jon, speaking over him. “Martin, what’s – ”
“Can you please just,” says Martin, and his chest feels tight now that he’s not working on autopilot, “can you please get here. She – I don’t know, she’s not – not really telling me what happened but she mentioned Timothy Hodge and she–she–she was – something cut her I don’t – I don’t know…”
“Okay,” says Jon, “is she okay? I-I’m on my way just give me – just…”
Martin has arrived back at the breakroom now and Sasha is right where he left her, staring unseeing at the tabletop.
“She’s,” he says, “I mean I-I got her a bandage it’s – it’s not – she’s…”
He can hear movement on the other end of the line and Jon says, “Will you two be okay until – until I get there?”
“Ye-yeah,” says Martin. “We’ll be…”
Please hurry, he wants to say, but it’s going to take Jon as long as it’s going to take.
“I-I’ll be there soon,” says Jon softly, like he can read Martin’s mind, and then he hangs up.
Martin makes both of them tea because that’s all he can think of to do. He adds honey to Sasha’s, and then to his as well. They can both use the sweetness right now, he figures.
“Thanks,” she says dully as he sets the mug in front of her.
“Can I get you anything else?” he asks, feeling useless.
She shakes her head at the mug.
He sits on her uninjured side.
Jon arrives at 5:40, takes in the breakroom, Sasha’s gauze covered shoulder, the empty mugs on the table.
“What happened?” he asks.
“I,” Sasha says, “I have a statement.”
The Owen poem I quote is "A Terre". Like all of Owen's poems it's very beautiful.
Martin immediately appropriates one of the fire extinguishers for his small room, which, they belong to the Institute and so does he, in a way, so it’s not that big a deal. He takes to checking his tongue in the mirror, looking for any signs of infestation. He feels ridiculous as he does it, but he also feels a little better every time there’s no trace of worms.
Sasha is taking some time off and Martin tries very hard not to feel jealous because she’s been through a shit time and he’s happy for her, that she has somewhere to go to recuperate. The Archive seems quieter without her and Martin realizes how few of them there are down here.
Has the Archive always felt this isolated? Its own remote island of muffled sound and dust and incandescent lights. He’s lonely, Martin realizes. It’s not as though he really had many – any – friends, but at least when he could leave the Archive he’d see other people on the tube and in his building and on the streets… Down here it’s just him and Jon and Tim and boxes of people reduced to information on intake forms.
Maybe Tim is right, and the lack of sunlight is getting to him.
He tries to leave, once, just for a short walk, maybe out to a shop or something. He gets to the entrance to the Institute, sees the doors, sees the street through them. A couple of cars drive past, splashing through puddles. The reflection of the light of the wet street makes it look silvery and the sun isn’t even out and Martin can feel his breath starting to come faster and someone walks past him, give him a quick look but doesn’t stop, walks out the doors like it’s nothing and it is nothing and he can do this.
At least Rosie is out on lunch or something so no-one has been here to observe him rooted to the spot, unable to move, staring at the doors like they’re the gates of hell.
“C’mon,” he mutters to himself. “Stop being so. Bloody. Terrified.”
He’s clenching his hands into fists and he can’t do this.
He goes back down to the Archive and shuts himself in his room and has a good cry and hates himself, and then he goes and makes tea for himself and Tim and Jon.
That night he drafts up a resignation letter. Maybe, he thinks, if he can just quit he can get out of here. It’s not like he’s offering anything, he shouldn’t even be here in the first place. His eyes blur as he types and he dashes the tears from them with a bit more force than is strictly speaking necessary. He just. Needs to leave. That’s it. It’ll all be okay if he can just leave this all behind. Tomorrow he’ll print out the letter and hand it to Elias.
The next day he opens up the draft, but as he’s giving it a final pass it starts seeming…wrong, somehow. He’s just being stupid, cowardly. He can’t leave, not with everything that’s going on, especially not now that Sasha is away, that wouldn’t be fair to Tim or Jon. He deletes the document and gets back to work.
Martin is so used to the nightmares by now he almost expects to sleep through them. He never does.
Instead he wakes shaking or sobbing or gasping. One memorable time he wakes just as his body hits the floor, jarring his shoulder. He curses through clenched teeth and swipes angrily at streaming eyes. He’s exhausted and he’s sick of this half-existence he’s stuck in, a living ghost eternally haunting the Archive.
He goes to see if Jon in still here.
It’s not that he wants Jon to stay at the Archive into the small hours of the morning; he should be glad that Jon is taking care of himself, he thinks when he finds Jon’s office empty and his stomach twists in something approaching disappointment. It’s just that when Jon is here they can get tea in the break room and then Martin can badger Jon into going home and they can agree, together, that they are going to try and eke what little sleep they can from the remainder of the night.
So when he sees the yellow light spilling into the corridor his heart swells happily. Which, come to think of it, is a little embarrassing.
He can hear Jon’s voice, soft and intense, as he approaches the open door. He must be recording a statement. Martin hesitates before the doorway, not wanting to disturb him.
“The walls were lined,” Jon reads, “with portraits of past prime ministers and they seemed to stare at me as I walked past them. The yellow brick was sickly in the dim light, like how the sky is bruised before a storm.”
Martin thinks he could sit here on the floor and listen to Jon speak all night, but that’s also a vaguely embarrassing thought, so he knocks tentatively on the doorframe.
“Martin,” says Jon, glancing up.
“Sorry,” says Martin, “I didn’t mean to – ”
“No it’s,” Jon says, speaking over him. “It’s – what time is it?”
“Midnight,” Martin says.
“Christ,” Jon breathes, running a hand through his hair.
“Sorry,” Martin says again, almost a whisper.
Jon shakes his head. “Not your fault. I just need to, er, finish this.”
Do you? Martin wants to ask.
“Okay,” he says instead.
“Do you want to, er,” says Jon. He gestures at the chair across the desk from him.
It feels weird to sit across the desk from Jon, where he sat when he gave his statement about Jane Prentiss, so he drags the chair around the side of the desk.
Jon starts reading again. “It was the first news item the next morning…”
When he’s done, he shuts off the tape recorder and looks over at Martin.
“Are you okay?”
Martin isn’t sure what he means until he realizes he’s been absently rubbing his shoulder where he hit the floor.
“Oh,” he says, “er, yeah I just…” It seems embarrassing to admit that he’d fallen out of bed, so he just says, “I bruised it.”
Jon wrinkles his brow.
“It’s fine,” Martin says.
“If you’re sure,” says Jon.
“Tea before you head home?” Martin asks, moving the topic off himself.
“I-I,” Jon starts, stops, worries a loose thread on his jumper, starts again. “I don’t – ”
For the briefest instant Martin thinks he’s going to say that he doesn’t want tea, doesn’t want Martin here. His stomach clenches and he feels a tightness behind his eyes.
“I don’t think I’m going to go home tonight,” Jon finishes. He doesn’t look at Martin as he says it.
“What?” says Martin.
“There’s so much,” Jon says, and he sounds wrecked, his voice low and scratchy as though he has to force it out. “I can’t – can’t sleep much I-I. I just keep.”
And Martin knows what he means, knows exhaustion and overload when he sees it because it’s what he’s been wading through for a month-and-a-half and he wants to cry which isn’t helpful at all but Jon’s voice sounds like he’s feeling the same.
“Sometimes,” Martin says, coughs, tries again. “Sometimes I try to sleep but I feel like I’m too tired. It doesn’t make sense.”
Jon nods at desk, still not looking at Martin.
“It’s just going to get worse if you don’t sleep,” Martin says gently.
Jon looks over at him now, eyes pleading, and something feels like it’s kicked Martin in the chest.
“I know,” says Jon. “But I – ”
“Wait here,” says Martin, and gets up.
It feels a little like running away but he can’t sit in Jon’s office and cry so he walks quickly to the break room and tries to ignore the tears running down his face. It’s partly the exhaustion, he knows, and partly Jon’s own feelings getting all mixed up with his. It’s always been like this, Martin unable to completely separate what are his feelings and what he’s picking up from those around him.
The act of making tea calms him down a bit, and when he returns to Jon he feels stronger.
“You need to sleep,” he says, handing Jon a mug.
Jon shakes his head. His leg is bouncing and he’s gnawing absently on one knuckle.
“Jon,” says Martin, more forcefully. “You’re exhausted. You’re burned out.”
“I’m fine,” Jon snaps, and Martin flinches.
Jon clenches a fist. “Sorry,” he says, “I’m sorry I – ”
He squeezes his eyes shut and knocks his fist gently against a knee.
Martin watches him uselessly. He wants to take Jon’s hand, to uncurl his fingers, to press out the tight lines of his face.
“I don’t know what to do,” Jon whispers.
Me either, Martin thinks.
Neither of them mentions anything the next day, and it’s like the previous night had never happened. Jon has always had dark circles under his eye, and maybe they’re a little darker, but he’s always been distant and grouchy.
Martin sets a mug of tea on the corner of Jon’s desk and doesn’t say anything and Jon just says a tired, “Ta,” and it’s how it’s always been and Martin is astounded at Jon’s ability to muscle through as though the night before he wasn’t at the point of shattering with burnout.
Martin just has to show everything he feels and he feels so much and everyone knows and he desperately wishes that he could stuff everything down and pretend that things are fine and normal when they are very much not.
How do you do it, he almost asks Jon, but instead he murmurs something about some bit of research or other he’s doing and Jon suggests he consult with Tim and Martin says he will and it’s all terribly banal and he wonders if Jon is really doing alright.
He’s probably not, but what is Martin going to do about it? Martin’s never been able to do anything.
“You look wrecked,” says Tim, more gently than Martin is used to. “More so than usual, I mean.”
Martin raises his eyebrows, but doesn’t trust himself to say anything.
Tim shrugs. “I mean, I know you’re not,” he laughs humourlessly, “having the best time. But you look really – ”
“Okay,” Martin says through clenched teeth. He’s not going to cry.
“Just wondering if something happened,” says Tim. He sounds defensive. Somehow Martin has managed to fuck up another human interaction.
“No,” he says. “I just… couldn’t sleep.”
“Okay,” says Tim, and turns back to his laptop.
He’s probably glad that he can file this away as just another peculiar Martin-ism and stop having to pretend to care.
But, no, that’s not fair. Tim does care, he’s been nothing but kind to Martin, trying to cheer him up and running errands for him and keeping an eye on him…
“Sorry,” he says, his voice small and defeated.
Tim looks back at him, brow furrowed. “What for?”
Martin just shakes his head. For everything, he thinks. For me.
“Maybe you should take the day,” Tim suggests.
And do what? Martin thinks. Sit in the storeroom and cry some more? Go stand in the lobby unable to leave? Sharpen his pocket knife?
“I’m fine,” Martin says.
Tim looks skeptical, but doesn’t say anything, and they both get back to their work.
There is a tape recorder in the top of a box in Martin’s room and he doesn’t think it was there before but it’s not like he’s gone through every single box of detritus that he’s sharing space with so it’s possible he’s just missed it. It has a cassette in it already, and when he hits the playback button it’s just the slightly staticky hiss of a blank tape. He stares at it for a moment. The spinning reels of the cassette seem to stare back.
Suddenly he thinks of his notebook, sitting hopefully on a box next to his cot. He picks it up, flips to a random page. His own words, scratchy and cramped, struck through and nestled on top of each other. He looks back at the tape recorder.
“Er,” he says, and great, he’s off to a great start. He looks down at the notebook. “I am dashed –” Wait, no. “Thought,” he starts again. “by Martin, er, Blackwood. Martin K Blackwood.” That’s better. He starts again. “I am dashed lines of thought…”
It’s early evening and everyone has gone home already, even Jon for once, and it’s just Martin and the tape recorder and his poetry and over the weeks he’s felt so alone and trapped and scared but now he feels a sense of being seen – or heard, at least – wash over him as he reads aloud to the empty Archive. It’s – not exactly comforting, but it’s also not the emptiness that seemed to have enveloped him in a thick fog.
He keeps the tape recorder in his room, on top of his notebook beside his cot, and grabs extra cassettes the next day.
It’s…nice. He hasn’t really written anything new in weeks, other than disjointed lines and half-thought out images, but it’s nice going through some of his older poems, returning to those places, those feelings. He doesn’t really want to listen to them or anything, but having them enshrined in magnetic tape gives him a sense of permanence. Something to show that he was here, that Martin Blackwood lived and took up space.
The more time he spends in the Archive, the more he feels like he’s vanishing into it.
Martin doesn’t want to vanish entirely.
Maybe being a voice on a tape isn’t much to aspire to, and Martin would never dare say any of this out loud to anyone, but. Still. He’s going to grasp for any comfort he can down here.
“I’ve asked Elias about changing the fire suppression system to CO2.”
It’s 1:27 in the morning and Jon and Martin are in the breakroom, sat at the table, mugs of tea in front of them.
“Hmm?” Martin says. He’s…so tired. His eyes feel like they’re filled with sand and his hand is trembling where it lies on the table.
Jon is looking at his tea like it’s a particularly puzzling problem he has to solve.
“I thought,” Jon says, “that if something…if Prentiss–”
At Prentiss’s name Martin flinches violently. The legs of his chair squeak on the floor and Jon looks up sharply at him.
“Martin, are you…?” Jon makes a movement like he’s going to reach over, then lets his hand fall to the table. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah,” Martin says blearily. His heart has started to pound and it hurts. He’s exhausted, too exhausted to properly panic but his body is trying to have some kind of reaction.
“You’re not a good liar,” Jon says. “Have – how have you been sleeping.”
Not well, Martin thinks.
“Yeah that’s… fairly obvious,” Jon says.
Oh. He’s said that out loud then.
“I’m,” Martin tries. His hand is tapping against the table now, shaking harder and his head feels like it is going to split in two and he might be crying?
“Oh, Martin,” says Jon and somehow he’s beside Martin, kind of crouching down and he has a hand on Martin’s shoulder, tentative and light and the touch, not quite there, is maddening and Martin pushes him away.
Jon grabs his hand back as though he’s been burned. “Sorry,” he says, a little defensive, a little hurt.
Martin closes his eyes and buries his face in his hands. “It’s not,” he says, “it’s. I’m.”
He’s definitely crying.
There’s a hand on his arm again, firmer, and he wants to lean into the pressure, and Jon is pulling him to his feet and Martin sways, shoots out a hand to grab the table, and Jon puts his other hand on Martin’s other arm and steadies him.
Martin blinks at Jon, one hand still covering half his face.
“Bed,” says Jon.
Martin shakes his head. He can’t handle being alone with his terror.
“Yes,” says Jon, beginning to lead him out of the breakroom.
“I can’t,” Martin says, dropping his hand from his face and trying to pry Jon’s fingers off his arm, “I can’t, Jon, I can’t be, I just, I can’t sleep every time I close my eyes I just, I can’t stop thinking about, I, Jon, please.”
Jon stops and turns to look at Martin. “If I let you go are you going to fall over?”
Martin shakes his head, stops uselessly picking at Jon’s fingers. Jon drops his hand to his side. Raises it as though to rub his face. Drops it again.
“Martin, you need to sleep.”
“I can’t,” Martin whispers.
“What did you say to me a couple weeks ago?” Jon says. “It’s going to get worse if you don’t sleep?”
Martin drops his eyes. “I feel like, if I close my eyes…I’m going to open them and she’s going to be there.”
Jon hums. “C’mon.”
Martin follows him back to his room, too tired to argue.
“Okay,” Jon says, gesturing at the bed.
Martin sways in confusion. Jon… hasn’t been in here since Martin had started living in the Archive. Aside from Sasha, no-one but Martin has been in here. The room is small, there’s not a lot of space for two people to stand and Jon is kind of in the way.
“I,” says Martin, “can I...” He gestures past Jon.
“Oh, yeah, sorry,” Jon squeezes himself against a cabinet.
Martin edges past him, sits on the side of the bed. Jon is absently staring at a box, as though he’s trying to decipher its contents through the cardboard. The light though the door casts half his face into shadow, making him look even sharper.
“I can er,” Jon says, “I-I don’t know if you.” He stops. Sighs. “If you want I could stay while you fall asleep.” The words come out in a rush and it takes Martin a moment or two to process them.
“I,” says Jon, “I know you’re, I know the nightmares are, you’re having trouble…I just thought maybe if I were here, you wouldn’t have to worry, because er, if I see anything I could let you know.”
Martin is staring at Jon, who is still looking at the box.
“It’s, just, forget about it,” Jon mutters.
“N-no,” Martin says, voice cracking. “That would…that would be really nice. Actually.”
“Oh,” says Jon, and finally looks over. Martin can’t really make out his expression, just the glint of light off his eye.
“I mean,” Martin says, “you should also go home and get sleep I don’t want to keep you here…”
He really, really does want to keep Jon here.
Jon clicks his tongue, “I offered. I’ll. Head home after you’re asleep, okay?”
“Okay,” says Martin.
He wakes bleary from sleep and… alone. He tries not to let the loneliness sink deep into his bones and checks the time. 1:17 PM.
Martin scrambles upright, stumbling into a filing cabinet as he stands. He’s still wearing his clothes from yesterday, his trousers and shirt wrinkled, but he just throws a jumper on and rushes out.
It’s only when he reaches the assistants’ office that he realizes he’s forgotten to put on shoes. He debates going back but Sasha has already looked up at him, is smiling at him with an edge of sympathy.
“Jon said to let you rest,” she says. “Did you sleep well?”
“I- Jon said…?” Martin is frozen in the doorway, still kind of thinking about his shoes, still slightly anxious over missing the entire morning. Sure, Jon had seen how tired Martin was, had seemed concerned, but also Martin is used to night-Jon being a very different person than workday-Jon.
And then Sasha’s question registers and Martin is forced to admit that he feels better. Still exhausted, but not like he’s barely holding on to consciousness. He can see clearer, his head isn’t pounding and he doesn’t feel so much like his chest is going to crack open.
“I slept alright,” he says.
“Good,” she says, “I’m glad.”
“What- what did I miss?” Martin asks.
Sasha shrugs, “Not a ton. Tim’s gone out to talk to er, Dylan or… Derek. Lacey. The meat thing. Jon is,” she waves vaguely, “doing whatever he does.”
Martin wonders when Jon finally left, if he got any sleep. He fiddles with the cuff of a sleeve and tries to resist to urge to go check up on him.
“I should,” says Martin. He’s not sure what he should do. Get shoes, maybe. Although, its not like he’s going anywhere.
“I should tell Jon…” he tries again, “should, er, apologise for…”
“He’s the one who said to let you sleep,” Sasha interjects.
“Yeah,” says Martin, “but…”
“But nothing,” Sasha says, “d’you want some lunch? Or breakfast, I guess.” She grins at him.
Martin is hungry, so he nods. “I’ve just gotta grab my shoes.”
It’s only when the reach the lobby that Martin realises that they’re not going to the canteen.
“Sasha,” he says, stopping, letting her continue to the double doors.
She looks back over her shoulder. “What?”
“I can’t…” he tries.
Sasha doubles back, stops in front of Martin, fixes him with a stare.
“When was the last time you went outside?”
“Er,” says Martin.
“Look, it’s one of the first properly nice days of the year,” says Sasha. “Let’s go to the café down the street and if it’s terrible we can come right back, okay?”
Martin has pulled the cuffs of his jumper over his hands and is rubbing them nervously between his fingers and his palms. “I don’t –”
Sasha grabs his hand, prying his fingers apart so she can interlace her fingers with his. “I promise it’s going to be okay.”
And Martin lets her pull him outside.
The sun is shining April-weak but warm, and the first thing Martin is struck by are the smells. The street smell of petrol and asphalt, the faintly earthy smell of the lawn in front of the Institute, something like rotting fruit on the breeze… He has to stop again, overwhelmed. Sasha stops beside him, still holding his hand.
“Alright?” she asks.
Martin nods. Cars whoosh past and people chatter, and he can hear a faint siren in the distance and it’s all so much but he is, he finds, alright. He squeezes Sasha’s hand, a silent thank you, and lets go.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay. Let’s go.”
Martin: I thought the tapes had a kind of lo-fi charm
Me: okay but what if it was also a vaguely spooky thing
Grad school kind of ate all my spoons but hello hi have a chapter after long last.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I’m not leaving,” Jon says, stubborn and tired, and sometimes, Martin has found, when Jon is tired enough he can be convinced to get in the cab Martin calls for him and go home but there is a glint in his eye tonight that says the stubbornness is outweighing the exhaustion and Martin sighs and says, “Where are you going to sleep?”
It’s been nearly two months that he’s been living in the Archive now and its – it’s not comfortable but it’s familiar in a spine-tingling way that Martin tries not to think too hard about, like when you’ve been sitting on a hard surface for too long and you think that it’ll leave a permanent imprint on your body.
“In my office,” says Jon like it’s obvious and upon closer inspection, okay, that’s a blanket and pillow and apparently Jon has been sleeping on his floor, speaking of hard surfaces.
How long has Jon been sleeping here, Martin thinks, and as though Jon can read his mind he says, “You can’t bundle me off every night.”
Martin had kind of hoped he could.
“That’s” Martin says, and his voice sort of squeaks in that annoying way it does when he’s overwhelmed, “that’s ridiculous, Jon, you’re going to destroy your back, aren’t you cold?”
Jon levels him with an exasperated look and Martin had kind of hoped he was past the way it makes him feel like shrinking into himself but apparently not.
“I just,” says Martin, his need to be useful warring with his desire to apologise for...existing.
“I’m fine,” Jon says, soft and reassuring and…
Martin has had a lot of time alone with his thoughts over the past two months and it has become increasingly clear that his feelings for Jon are becoming…mildly problematic. Because Jon is his boss, and also until quite recently had seemed to more or less actively dislike Martin and also he’s his boss and, Christ, Martin does not need to deal with this right now.
So he defaults to, “Tea?”
And Jon gives a wry kind of smile and Martin scolds his heart, which has leapt into his throat in a not altogether unpleasant way.
“Okay,” says Martin after he’s flicked the kettle on, “so, you can’t sleep on the floor obviously.”
Jon opens his mouth to protest, and Martin cuts him off.
“I’m not saying I’m going to force you to go home. You could have kicked me out of the Archive anytime so. I get it. Kind of.” He doesn’t really get it, he thinks if he had the choice there’s nothing that could keep him in the Archive past end of day, but maybe that’s it. Maybe Jon doesn’t feel like he has a choice either.
“Where did you get my – the cot that I’m using?”
Jon hums, “It was actually already in the Institute… In a storeroom on the second floor. I moved it down one night because it didn’t look like anyone was using it, other than to pile stuff on.”
“Okay,” Martin says, thinking that it’s far from the strangest thing in the Institute. “There wasn’t another one was there?”
Jon shakes his head.
“Okay. So we just need to get like, a cot or at least a mattress. Er. Probably not right now. Tomorrow, I guess. We’ll figure something else out tonight.”
Jon is peering at him, head slightly cocked in that listening posture of his. Martin looks away, afraid that Jon can read every one of his thoughts in his eyes. He has to focus on figuring out where Jon can sleep that is not a cold basement floor. Then he can go curl up in bed and nurse his stupid crush.
“Oh,” he says, “there’s, there are some sofas, I know there’s one in the reception, and in the breakroom off the library. I don’t. They’ll probably be harder to move then a cot. But. We could take the cushions off them? If they come off. Or, you could take the cot and I could go. Sleep on one of them. I mean. I think everyone pretty much knows I’m living here by now.”
The kettle clicks off and Martin turns towards it, grateful he doesn’t have to look at Jon yet.
“I don’t want to take your bed,” Jon says as Martin pours water into their mugs.
“It was. Yours first,” Martin says to the steeping tea.
“We’ll see about the sofa cushions before we decide anything,” Jon says.
“Okay,” says Martin, handing Jon his tea.
Jon is still looking at him and Martin hurries to get the milk from the fridge.
It turns out they can pull the cushions off the sofas, so Jon and Martin both bring an armful back down to the Archive. It reminds Martin of being a very young child, making pillow forts with his father.
“Are you okay?” Jon asks.
“Hmm?” says Martin. “Yeah, of course.”
“I probably could have managed on my own,” Jon says.
“Would you have?” Martin asks. “Or would you have just gone to sleep on your office floor again?”
Jon doesn’t answer.
Martin has somehow managed to accumulate about five blankets, so he figures he can give a couple to Jon, and soon enough they have a makeshift bed set up behind Jon’s desk. It still doesn’t look particularly comfortable, and Martin taps his fingers against his leg anxiously.
“Are you sure you don’t want to take the cot? Just for tonight?”
“No,” Jon says. “This is fine. Better than fine. Better than I’ve been…used to.”
“Okaaay,” says Martin. “If you’re sure.”
“I am,” says Jon, voice low and calm and Martin’s fingers still and his heart clenches.
“Alright,” he says. “Alright. Er, goodnight, then.”
“Goodnight, Martin,” says Jon.
Martin is not entirely sure how he ended up on the floor, surrounded by papers and boxes and probably at this exact moment forming a very nice bruise on his shin but it fits with the day he’s been having.
It’s the 12th of May, and Martin is trying very hard not to think of this as some kind of anniversary, but he’s been jumpy and irritable all day, his head pounding dimly and his throat tight. Tim, fed up, had finally snapped, “Why don’t you take a break, Martin,” and Martin, eyes prickling, had stalked back to his room – no, not his room, the fucking storeroom where he was shoved like so much rubbish – Sasha’s reproachful, concerned, cloying, “Tim,” following him.
But instead of curling up miserably on the cot like he’d planned, he’d somehow found himself and the contents of an entire rickety stack of boxes strewn across the floor. If he’s honest, he’s surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. The room is a mess.
Martin allows himself to indulge in a few curses, and then begins gathering the papers from where they’ve slid, under the cot and into every corner of the room.
Some of them are old and yellowing, feeling like dried leaves and he almost worries they’ll crumble beneath his fingers. He tries to figure out which go in which boxes, but he’s made a proper mess of things, and ends up mostly refiling them higgledy-piggledy. Someone – probably him – is going to have to go through and sort these out at some point but that’s a job for the future when he’s not so –
Martin stills, breath catching as a familiar name peers up at him from a sheet. He gasps in a shaky breath, heart pounding. It’s an intake form, stapled to a statement, the paper grubby and slightly wrinkled, incongruous with the relatively recent date, only two-odd years earlier.
Name: Jane Prentiss
Martin snatches his hand back, not wanting to touch it, as though it will turn to a mass of wriggling filth, as though the words will squirm their way under his skin. He’s being ridiculous, he thinks, even as his shaking hands put the rest of the statements back into the boxes as though on autopilot. He’s should bring Prentiss’s statement to Jon, he’s been looking for it, and here it is, appearing today like some kind of message.
Martin shudders, and goes to make himself a cup of tea.
When he returns with two mugs, the statement is still on the floor, exactly where he left it because of course it is, it’s not likely to just spontaneously move. He takes a deep breath, trying to ignore the way it shudders into his lungs, and picks it up.
Jon’s door is closed, his voice spilling from the crack beneath it. Martin pauses, listening.
“…but there are more each week,” Jon says. He sounds defeated. Tired. “What is she waiting for?”
Martin glances at the statement in his hand, somehow knowing who the she Jon is talking about is.
“End recording,” says Jon, and Martin straightens, knocks on the door.
“Yeah?” Jon says, distantly.
Martin nudges the door open. “Hi Jon.”
“Oh, Martin.” Jon looks just how he sounded, utterly worn out. Martin wants to just leave the tea, take Prentiss’s statement away and… burn it or something. But that’s not going to help anything, ignoring and hiding aren’t going to help anything.
“I,” says Martin. His voice comes out barely a whisper. “I found Prentiss’s statement.”
Jon blinks up at him, “You what?”
Martin puts the statement in front of Jon, glad to let go of it. He resists the urge to wipe his hand on his trouser leg. “It was in one of the boxes in my – in the storeroom. It er,” he feels his face heat slightly, “I knocked some of them over and while I was clearing up I…”
Jon is flipping through the pages of the statement, clearly sharing none of Martin’s trepidation at touching it. Martin puts the mug of tea down on his desk as well, wondering if he should even have bothered. Jon’s got that all-absorbed look, ready to steadfastly ignore everything else for the next several-to-many hours. He reaches a hand towards the tape recorder, drums his fingers on it.
“Are you going to er, read it now?” Martin asks.
Jon looks up at him as though he’s entirely forgotten he was there. “Might as well. Do you want to er,” he furrows his brow, “would you want to stay to…hear it?”
Martin supresses a shudder. “No. No I should. Get back to.” He grabs his wrist with his opposite hand, trying to ground himself.
“Alright,” says Jon, already looking back at the statement. “Can you shut the door behind you?”
Martin tries not to flee too obviously.
Martin is sitting on his bed trying to make himself focus on deciphering a scanned court document. He’s not been hiding, exactly, but he’s not ready to face Tim and Sasha yet after earlier and after… His eyes stray to the boxes he’d knocked over. He reaches for his tea, finds it empty just as he has the last five times he’d checked.
Martin closes his eyes and lets his head fall back against the filing cabinet at the end of his bed.
“Oh,” says Jon, “I thought…”
Martin opens his eyes. Jon is standing in the doorway, one hand tangled in his hair, the other hidden by the sleeve of his jumper.
“I’ll, er,” says Jon at the same time as Martin says, “Can I do anything…”
They both stop. Jon looks even worse than he had earlier.
“Are you…” Martin starts again as Jon says, “No, I just…”
“You go,” they both say.
Martin laughs. It sounds strangled.
“I,” says Jon, “finished the statement…”
Martin nods. He doesn’t want to talk about it. He feels ill.
“I just, I was just feeling a little…”
“Yeah,” says Martin, “you look terr- er, not – not to. You just look tired.” His face heats.
Jon huffs, something that could be a sigh or a wry laugh or a breath of derision.
“I thought you’d be in the office,” he says, “I was going to…”
“I am working,” Martin interrupts, “I just didn’t want to be… Sorry, you were talking.”
He wants to pull the blankets over his head and vanish.
“No, it’s okay, I get that, not really wanting to be around the others right now… I’ll just go back…” He starts to leave.
“What were you saying, what were you going to do?” Martin says, not wanting Jon to leave, to retreat because of him.
Jon looks back at him, and he flushes just a bit.
“I was going to have a lie down,” he says, “but I’ve, I’ve got the er, the new mattress in - in my office, it’s fine, I just wanted to…well, it’s fine, you’re working in here.”
“Oh,” Martin is surprised for a split second, then scrambles to get up, nearly dropping his laptop in the process. “Oh, you can, I can go to the office, it’s fine, you look like you could use the rest…”
“No,” says Jon, half raising his hands, “no, it’s, I mean it’s your room…”
“Technically it’s storage…”
“And you don’t have to go back out…”
“Jon, it’s seriously not any fuss…”
“It was stupid anyway I have more work to do…”
“I don’t want to put you out of your way…”
Jon shuts up.
“Lay down,” Martin says.
Jon blinks at him. “But…”
“You look wrecked, we both know you’re not going to go home tonight and you’re going to stay up way too late working or worrying or whatever so just,” he runs out of steam.
“Okay,” says Jon, voice small.
Martin hadn’t expected him to acquiesce so quickly. He just stands there, and Jon is already moving towards the cot and there’s not enough room and Martin tries to make himself as small as possible and clutches his laptop to him like a shield but still he feels the points of contact, Jon’s arm brushing the side of his chest, his leg bumping Martin’s knee.
“Sorry,” Martin says, trying not to breathe too much with Jon so close.
“’Sokay,” says Jon, climbing onto the cot. He’s not, Martin notices, wearing shoes again.
It’s as though now that he’s agreed to lie down all his energy has melted away completely, and he seems even smaller.
“I’ll just,” says Martin.
“You don’t have to,” Jon says, flipping a pillow over, pushing the other to the side, “go out there. You could go to my office or…”
Martin does not want to go to Jon’s office. It’s just some paper, he knows, but still.
Jon clear his throat, looks at the bed, “Or you could er, stay here. And keep working. If you…if that would be more…” He stops, looks up at Martin, “I mean, I took your bed so…”
Martin can’t hold eye contact with Jon for too long and looks down at his feet. When he looks back up, Jon is staring at Martin’s empty tea cup.
“Okay,” Martin says, and sits on the floor. The cot is high, but he can still see Jon, who is giving Martin a confused look.
“The floor is good,” Martin says, a little defensively.
“And yet not good enough for me to sleep on,” Jon says dryly, then ruins the effect by yawning.
“Exactly, you get on a real bed and already you’re about to fall asleep,” Martin jokes.
“Hmm. We’re sure a cot counts as a real bed?”
“As real as we’re gonna get,” Martin says. “D’you want me to turn out the light?”
“That’s okay,” says Jon.
“Alright. Get some rest.”
Jon closes his eyes and curls himself into a comma, lying on top of all the blankets. Martin wonders if he’s cold. Wonders if he should put a blanket over Jon. Wonders if he could reach up to Jon’s clenched fist, let him know its okay to loosen his grip, to let himself go…
Martin watches Jon as his breath evens out and his fingers relax, and breathes out himself, slow and long, his laptop untouched beside him.
We only write the finest of yearning here at Alex J. Spencer enterprises.
Content warnings for this chapter include: panic attack, mentions of hospital, and questionable invasions of privacy.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Fancy a walk?” Tim asks at noon late in May.
Martin’s head is throbbing gently and he’s out of acetaminophen so… “Why not,” he says.
He’s been leaving, sometimes, picking up groceries and sundries, relieved he doesn’t have to have Sasha or Tim running errands for him anymore, but he never goes out alone, and he’s trying very very hard not to look at the ground outside the Institute, looking up at the sky instead, or the trees across the road. It is kind of an imposition, he supposes, having to still ask Tim or Sasha to accompany him whenever he wants to get something and there’s a nagging voice in the back of his mind that says they’re just going along with him to be nice, but no, it’s Tim who’s asked him this time, who’s looking at him expectantly as he fumbles distractedly for his wallet and phone.
The sun is peering from behind soft clouds and some of the trees are flowering – apple and hawthorn and horse chestnut… If he were with Sasha he might go across the street and stick his nose in their sweet scent, but Tim would probably laugh at him, so he says, “D’you mind if we stop at the chemist’s?”
As they’re standing in line to pay, Tim scoops up a magazine wrapped in plastic, the current issue of Simply Knitting, with a set of circulars as the cover gift.
“I’m pretty sure knitting his witchcraft,” he says, pointing at an intricate lace shawl. “Like, there’s no way someone could actually make that, right?”
Martin thinks about his bags and baskets of yarn sitting abandoned in his flat – except, no, there’s no way he still has his flat because he definitely hasn’t payed his rent since March and even though he’s on a lease surely the landlord has discovered that there’s no-one living there and tossed all of Martin’s stuff out and someone else is renting and oh, god, he probably had to deal with all the filth and the worms and Martin hasn’t got any mail since March and he’s probably missed so many bills and what if his mother wrote or the home wrote his mother’s payed up there ‘till the year’s end but
He’s pressing the cardboard corners of the acetaminophen box into his hands and the lights of the shop are too bright and Tim is putting the magazine back down on the wrong shelf and saying “Martin, you alright?”
And Martin says, “Lace isn’t that tricky once you figure out the pattern.”
And someone behind them coughs loudly and Martin realises it’s his turn but he can’t move and Tim wheels and glares at the person behind them and Martin’s eyes are prickling and Tim takes the acetaminophen from him and says, low and calm, “D’you want to wait outside?”
“No,” Martin says, a breath, a plea –
“Okay,” says Tim, and hooks an arm through Martin’s and pays and then guides them gently out the door and across the street to a tiny roadside garden and a bench.
Martin can’t sit, can’t look at Tim, can’t stop feeling like his chest is going to burst and he wants to flap his hands and pull at his hair and scratch out his eyes but he can’t he’s here where anyone can see him and he has to just try to pretend you’re normal, Martin, Jesus Christ.
“Did I trigger some kind of knitting related trauma,” Tim jokes, then winces. “No, that was. Sorry. This isn’t the time.”
“I’m sorry,” Martin whispers.
“No,” says Tim, “what’s up?”
Martin tries to explain, tries to make it into something that’ll make sense but it’s ridiculous that in months he hasn’t even thought about all the shit he’s going to be in if he ever gets out of this – no, it’s not that he hasn’t thought about it, its that whenever he does he pushes the thought away, like maybe if he ignores the problem it’ll vanish – all the bridges he’s decimated because he’s been hiding. Because nothing else feels real except the stink of rot and the writhing of thousands of tiny, silver bodies.
“I thought,” he says, “I thought – I didn’t – didn’t think ‘cause I thought it wouldn’t matter but – but I’m – I haven’t even…” He takes a shaky breath and he’s definitely crying and his gut clenches with hot shame and he hates himself and he grits his teeth and says, “I thought I’d be dead and it wouldn’t matter but I’m not and I’ve…”
“What wouldn’t matter?” asks Tim.
Martin can only shake his head.
“Martin,” says Tim, “we’re going to deal with Prentiss okay? It’s going to be okay. You’re not – no-one’s gonna die.”
“I haven’t paid my phone bill in months,” Martin whispers. It’s stupid and inane and he has a new phone anyway but it’s all he can manage.
Tim laughs, once. “Martin your phone got stolen by a worm monster you’re not on the hook for whatever charges she managed to rack up before Jon called the phone company.”
“Before he what?” says Martin.
“Didn’t he say?” says Tim. “Yeah, it was during that day or so of very heavy hyperfocus when he got all your mail forwarded to the Institute and squared things away with your landlord.”
Martin finally sits heavily on the bench beside Tim.
“I told him it was lowkey creepy and he should probably talk to you but he said he had and you said you didn’t want to deal with all of it.”
Martin blinks at Tim.
“He never talked to you about any of this,” Tim guesses.
Martin shakes his head.
“But you know that he and Sash and I moved all your stuff into storage, right?”
Martin shakes his head again. His heart is starting to slow a bit, and he wipes his eyes with the cuff of his jumper.
“Christ,” says Tim, “now it’s definitely creepy. You sure he didn’t talk to you and you just like, blocked it from your memory?”
“No,” says Martin.
“’Cause I definitely zone out when the boss is talking sometimes,” says Tim.
“I didn’t,” says Martin, a little forcefully.
“Oh,” says Tim. “Well, you should probably talk to him then,” He pauses. “Or HR.”
Martin knocks tentatively on Jon’s open door, and Jon looks up from his laptop, brow creased.
“Martin,” he says by way of greeting.
There’s an empty mug next to his elbow and what looks like the remains of a packed lunch and Martin wonders if he should have brought tea but also he’s not entirely certain he’s not angry with Jon at the moment.
“Were,” he says. His voice is raspy and high. He tries again. “Were you planning on telling me that you…” He gestures, a motion that means nothing. He takes a breath. “You moved all my things into storage but didn’t think I might want any of it?”
His voice is still higher than he’d like but he’s managed to get something out and Jon actually blushes which is… kind of gratifying if Martin’s being honest.
“I ah – ” Jon seems to be at a loss for words.
“Or maybe I’d want to know that you talked to my landlord so I wouldn’t have to panic about it in the Boots?” he feels his face heat as he admits this and he still can’t decide if he’s actually angry but the pretending to be angry seems to be working for him so far. “And where is all my mail anyway?”
At the last Jon’s face relaxes into something like relief that this, at least, he can answer simply, and he opens a drawer and pulls out a stack of envelopes – smaller than Martin would have expected from two months and change but he’s never really received much mail anyway – and hands it across the desk.
Martin snatches it a bit more forcefully than is probably strictly necessary.
“I’m…” says Jon, “I’m sorry. I should – should have told you about, er, about everything I. You.” He sighs, pushes his fingers up under his glasses and rubs his eyes.
Martin’s instinct is to soften at the apology – Jon shouldn’t be apologising, and besides he’s done so much for Martin and… Martin thinks of what Tim would say, and crosses his arms, tucking his stack of envelopes against his side.
“When you. When I offered to go round to your flat back when – back in March,” Jon continues, “you looked so… Well, I knew you didn’t want – didn’t want anyone going there and I didn’t want to worry you and – well, I though maybe you’d come to er, to someone about getting your mail forwarded here, but Rosie said you hadn’t – and it had been a while and I thought. Well, I wondered if maybe you had any plants that might need looking in on? And while I was there I started putting some things together to bring to you but then I thought you’d – you’d be upset that I’d gone. And your landlord was asking after the rent and –”
Jon is looking at his desk, twisting the sleeve of his jumper between his fingers. “I kind of. Just started er. Doing things. Trying to take care of things.”
He finally glances up at Martin. “But. I know I should have talked to you. I’m really very sorry.”
Martin lets his arms drop, taps the stack of envelopes against his leg. Stops.
“It’s,” he says, “it’s fine. I – thank you. I didn’t want to. Er.”
It’s harder, somehow, to be frank in the light of day – he wants to hide behind politeness and deference.
“I didn’t really want to deal with any of it,” he gestures again, sweeping, indicating the abstract everything. “So. Thank you.”
Jon nods, “It was nothing.”
Martin knows that’s a lie. He glances down at the envelopes, flicks through them for something to do with his hands.
“None of them looked very pressing,” Jon says, his tone trying for conciliatory.
“They’re not,” Martin says softly.
There’s one from the home his mother’s in but it’s got the look of one of their periodic fundraising requests. Still, he puts the others down on Jon’s desk and slides a finger under the flap.
Sure enough: We Need Your Help! written across the top in friendly blue letters.
“I still get those from the hospital my grandmother was in and out of,” Jon says.
Martin glances up. He suddenly doesn’t want to be seen anymore. “Sorry,” he says, “I should let you get back…”
“It’s okay –” Jon starts.
“No, I’ve got,” Martin picks up the rest of his mail. “I need to get back to it too.”
“Alright,” says Jon. His head is turned ever-so-slightly to one side, a gesture that Martin is so used to, used to find mildly endearing, but right now it makes him feel studied. “If you want, sometime, we can go by the self storage, pick up some of your things.”
Martin nods, “Alright.”
He barely makes it into the corridor before he feels tears, hot and wet on his cheeks.
Jon and Martin are next to each other in the breakroom and Jon is saying something, a grin in his voice, looking down at the sink and Martin reaches around behind him for a mug and Jon turns towards him and they're face to face and the entire world is this bit of space that they occupy and Jon looks up at Martin and kisses him and it's...
It's a bit awkward, like neither of them are entirely sure what to do and Jon's lips are slightly chapped and Martin doesn’t know what to do with his hands and Jon lays a hand on Martin’s chest and
And his mouth is parted and he's alone and he can still feel the pressure of Jon's mouth against his but he's in the storeroom in the cot and he's alone and it was just a dream.
You idiot, he thinks even as his heart pounds away.
It’s a Friday, and after work Sasha is taking him to get some of his things out of storage but that’s after work and right now he mostly wants to hide under his blankets and…
And what? he asks himself. And think about the way dream-Jon’s hand had felt? His stomach drops and he shakes his head.
“Up and at ‘em,” he mumbles to himself.
The day is long and slow, and Martin finds himself almost glad he doesn’t see Jon – he sends tea to him with Tim, going anyway to clarify a point in a statement, and if that’s a little cowardly well, he’s allowed.
Finally, Sasha sighs and pushes back from her desk, raising her arms above her head in a stretch. “You ready?”
Martin looks up from the whorl on his desk he’d been tracing absently with his finger. “Oh. Yes. Okay.”
The self storage isn’t too far from the Institute – a short bus ride that Sasha spends the entirety of talking about the upcoming Star Trek film. Martin finds himself grateful that she is filling the silence that would otherwise let his thoughts wander. It’s only when they’re standing in front of the unit, the key pressed tight in Martin’s hand, that his heart begins to speed up. It’s ridiculous, he tells himself, but he can almost smell rot and he’s terrified when he opens the door millions of tiny silver bodies will come tumbling out.
Sasha bumps her shoulder against his and when he looks at her she’s got that concerned look which is maybe fair but… He stands up a little straighter and unlocks the door.
The first thing he notices is boxes – all neatly taped up and labeled in blocky capitals that are nonetheless recognisable as Jon’s. Then he sees the furniture – stacked and in some cases taken apart to fit better. There’s a tower of chairs that looks vaguely precarious and his bare double mattress leans against the wall from atop his kitchen table.
He’s struck by how neatly all his things fit into this relatively small space.
“It was a bit like playing Tetris,” Sasha jokes, “getting it all to fit the best. So what do you want to grab? That god for Jon’s organizational fetish eh? He’s labeled everything.”
She’s already stepping past him into the locker but Martin can only stand, overwhelmed.
“How – ” he starts. Breathes in. Out. Wishes it didn’t sound so trembly. “You did this in one weekend?”
She nods, not really looking at him, scanning the boxes. “Tim knows a bloke with a moving truck.”
She glances over, grinning, but her smile drops as she sees Martin’s face. She steps back towards him.
He nods, “It’s just…”
She makes a small sound of agreement, even though he hasn’t said anything. “Is this why you’ve been avoiding Jon?” she asks softly.
Martin is nonplussed, then feels his face heat. “I haven’t – it’s –”
She’s still looking at him so gently and he knows if she knew the real reason he’s been avoiding Jon she’d be laughing in his face. But when he thinks of it maybe it is a bit that he still isn’t entirely sure how he feels about Jon taking care of things.
“I wish he’d just told me,” he says.
“Yeah,” she says. “Tim and I always assumed he did… I mean, what if you’d tried to get in touch with your landlord or wanted to pick up some of your things? That’s our Jon though,” she chuckles. “He may be a brain, but he doesn’t always quite think things through, eh?”
“So,” Sasha says, clapping her hands together. “D’you want both boxes of poetry books or will one do?”
Her eyes twinkle, and Martin can’t help but smile.
Here's a fun fact: Star Trek Beyond came out like 5 days before the Prentiss attack.