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Daylight Is Waiting For You

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Daylight Is Waiting For You

Most of the information that came the Institute’s way was totally bogus. People came with tales of pale men with slavic accents and sharp teeth, telling spooky stories about fairies and werewolves that didn’t get the first detail right. It was very rare that they compiled evidence of an actual vampire, so Jon had little hope that his first month in the new position would come with a kill.

Peter Lukas was a vampire, of this Jon was certain.

They’d made a whole file out of statements of befuddled victims describing a pale old man in the uniform of a boat captain who’d taken their blood. The Lukas family owned a manor that was pretty much the stereotype of a vampire’s abode, and Naomi Hern’s statement was chock-full of details that any trained vampire hunter would recognize.

And yet.

Any mere suggestion of further investigation was rebuked by Elias in the strongest possible terms. After all, the Lukas family gave considerable sums of money to the Magnus Institute, which researched and hunted the things that stalked the dark. Why would they donate to such an Institute, Elias asked rhetorically, if they were vampires?

Precisely because of this, Jon had told him a thousand times. To buy immunity.

But it did no good. Elias was Jon’s boss, and there was to be no investigation of the Lukas family.

Well, not on Institute time, at least.

The donations the Lukas family made weren’t public record, but with Sasha James on staff, that wasn’t a huge obstacle. She was perfectly happy to help once Jon explained the situation.

So that’s how Jon found himself sequestered in his office after the Institute was officially closed, poring over stacks of financial records.

It took him several days to sort through them all. Most were the standard affair: lip service donations to all the charities billionaires usually considered worth their time. There were a few outliers, though.

First, the Magnus Institute. Obviously. Then there was the London Skeptics Society. Unsurprising that a family of vampires would want the public to be skeptical of their existence. A few donations to a cult called the People’s Church of the Divine Host, which Jon suspected was affiliated with the Darklings.

Then there was a record of a massive donation to some place in central London called Blackwood Bookshelf. The donation wasn’t the interesting part, though. What was interesting is that the proprietor, one Martin Blackwood, had returned it.

“Over seven thousand pounds,” Jon muttered. “Why not take it, Martin?”

The address listed on the record was within walking distance of the Institute. Jon took a picture with his phone and resolved to go there the following day.

The following day saw Jon standing outside Blackwood Bookshelf on his lunch break. The board above the door was plain: the words “Blackwood Bookshelf” written in simple handwriting, and below that, “Used Books, Library, Apothecary.”

There was a display of antique cookbooks in one window, and in the other was an absolute forest of potted plants. The displays had no view of the rest of the store, and there was no window in the door.

Jon entered, one hand tightly gripping the strap of his leather satchel. A bell rang pleasantly as the door opened.

The store appeared totally empty, but it was hard to be sure in the dim light. The rows of bookshelves were tight and cozy, and wherever there weren’t books there were stacks of crystals, amulets, artifacts, and herbs. It took Jon a moment to locate the actual counter, cluttered as it was with things for sale. The counter bore an old computer, but given how well-maintained it was, its age seemed to be a choice rather than a burden. There was no one behind it, but there was a door marked “Employees Only.”

A closer look revealed what Jon had suspected. Every single crystal, amulet, artifact, and herb was the real deal—that is to say, it had a use in the arcane. Nothing dark, which put him at ease. Tim would have a field day here—he was always complaining about how the grocery store never had what he was looking for.

He picked up a fire agate carved roughly into a star, the price scrawled on a sticker attached to it. He was no witch, but he could feel the faint buzz of protection from its center. Not that that meant anything; plenty of people sold arcana without knowing what it was.

“Oh, sorry! I was just sorting through some stuff in the back!”

Jon turned to see a man appear from the back corner of the store. He was a big man, especially compared to the small size of the bookstore, yet seemingly had no problem moving through the tightly spaced bookshelves. Despite his size, though, there was nothing even remotely intimidating about him. He smiled apologetically upon seeing Jon, and quickly went behind the counter.

“Can I help you find anything?” the man asked.

Jon scanned the man closely. He was soft, no sharp edges and no aura of danger that Jon had learned to detect from years of hunting dangerous things. No black sclera or pointed ears even when Jon knew what to look for, so not fae or darkling. Just a man who ran a bookshop.

“Are you Martin Blackwood?”
The man nodded.

“Does the name Peter Lukas mean anything to you?” Jon asked.

If the question surprised him, he didn’t show it.

“Yeah, why?”

“What can you tell me about him?”

Martin shrugged. “Not much. Just what’s public record, I guess.”

Jon held up the sheet with the donation record on it. “And he donated to this place.”

“Yeah, I turned it down. Let’s just say he was very rude to me once, and I don’t take apologies in cash.”

Jon made a noncommittal noise. Martin didn’t seem like he was lying, and it was certainly true that you didn’t need to be involved in the paranormal to hate the Lukases.

“Anything else?”

Jon took another look around. Many of the books bore titles he didn’t recognize. Perhaps there were some useful ones. The Institute library was full of lore on all sorts of creatures, but there was one area where information remained maddeningly muddled.

“Do you have any books on vampires?”

Martin’s eyes lit up.

“What are you looking for? Romance, lore, stories, YA…unusual ones?”

Jon had no idea what “unusual ones” meant, but he requested them. Unusual books were either very useful, very useless, or very dangerous, and the Institute was interested in all three categories.

Martin disappeared into the depths of the store—impressive, given the store was tiny—and returned with three books. One self-published and spiral-bound, one old and leather, one tiny paperback novella.

“These ones are just for loan,” Martin said, “so you’ll have to get a card.”

The card, as it turned out, was just as old-school as the computer. It was just a piece of paper with Jon’s name and an identification number Martin wrote down in a giant ledger along with the books Jon was checking out. Once he had finished that, he grabbed the fire agate Jon had been looking at and passed it to Jon.

“I didn’t—“

“On the house for a new card. For protection.”

Jon’s hand closed around the star-shaped gem. It thrummed pleasantly.

“See you in two weeks, Jonathan.”

“It’s just Jon. And…thank you.”

“My pleasure. Jon.”

 

*

 

The man who had just walked into Martin’s shop was probably a vampire. Newly turned, too. His face was dignified and handsome, but carried a gaunt exhaustion. His hands were skeletal and clutched the strap of his bag with suspicious desperation. His eyes were fierce and burning—clearly he hadn’t mastered his mask yet. Most telling were the bags forming under his eyes. Every newly turned had them. It wasn’t anything unique to vampires, just the stress of a life upturned.

So Martin was about 60 percent sure the man was a vampire.

That number went up to 70 percent when the man asked about Peter Lukas. The patriarch of the Lukas manor, a place crawling with nightstalkers that had rejected their humanity. The man so well known among the denizens of the dark that “knows Peter Lukas” was practically code for “is a vampire.” The thing who’d left Martin poisoned and empty of blood in an alleyway. The vampire who’d probably turned the fidgety customer.

Martin gave him a cautious answer, and the man’s eyes gleamed. It was the eyes that were the strongest evidence, really. Hungry, intense, scrutinizing. Captivating.

The man’s next question bumped Martin’s confidence in his suspicion up to 80 percent.

“Do you have any books on vampires?” he asked with practiced disinterest.

“What are you looking for?” Martin asked, and he didn’t just mean the books. “Romance, lore, stories, YA…unusual ones?”

The man’s eyes lit up. “Unusual ones.” 90 percent.

Martin went to an easily overlooked (by design) corner of the bookstore and pulled out three books, his curated crash course for the newly turned.

The man stared in awe and ravenous curiosity at the books, and Martin felt his heart swell with pride at piquing his interest.

The man signed the library card with enthusiasm, and Martin passed him a protection icon. Nothing too strong, but it should keep him safe from hunters long enough to get on his feet and off their radar.

I’ll see you again, Jon, Martin vowed as Jon left. He was sure of it.

Chapter Text

As Jon took the bus to his apartment, he took out the three books for further examination. He had little hope that they would prove useful: many books were full of vampire lore, but none of it seemed to be correct.

Jon quickly discarded that thought as soon as he saw the first book. The self-published one. “Children of the Night” by Trevor Herbert.

The late Trevor Herbert was a legend in the hunting community. People suspected he’d written a book, and the Institute had a statement from him implying as such, but no one had ever actually found proof of its existence. And yet here it was. Jon held it with reverence. If this was real, it contained information on vampires from the most successful vampire hunter in the modern era. Such data would be invaluable.

If it was real.

Jon put it back in his bag, suddenly incredibly aware of how many people were in the bus. He would try not to get his hopes up; it was entirely possible some prankster or monstrous trickster had written up a pamphlet of total misinformation to plant in the closest library to the Institute. He pulled out the next book.

“Monstrous Tales,” read the embossed gold lettering. No author.

Jon opened the book. The piece of paper on the inside cover didn’t list any of the previous people to rent it. But the paper had clearly been placed over a different bookplate. Jon shined his phone flashlight on it and saw the telltale traces of a J and an L on the covered-up bookplate.

He slammed the book shut. Leitners were informative at best and deadly at worst. No way was he reading this book without getting Artifact Storage to take a look at it.

What on earth was a Leitner doing in a small bookstore? There was definitely something unusual about Martin if he could keep a Leitner in stock without consequences.

The last book was new, published two years prior. It was a novella entitled “Heartbeat” by Tracy Kraner. He read the back.

Felicity is a vampire, a bloodsucker of the night. But she’s also a human, and doesn’t want to hurt anyone. How can she keep a heart that no longer beats?

Seemed mediocre, and certainly not unique or even unusual. Still, the other two books were sufficiently relevant that he’d give it a try once he got home.

His thoughts drifted to the librarian. The man who had picked out these books. There was no way Martin Blackwood was just a random citizen, coincidentally involved in the world of the monstrous. His books were relevant and his merchandise was full of the kind of things Tim spent hours scouring the internet for. Martin Blackwood could be an invaluable asset for the Institute’s operations, Jon decided. There were certainly worst assets to have. Martin’s smile was warm and nonthreatening and his hands were soft and quick. He seemed level-headed enough. A must for their field.

He made a mental note to give Tim and Sasha the address for the place. London was low on decent arcana stores: plenty existed, all full of half-baked misinformed spiritualists at best and malicious fae at worst.

He would see Martin Blackwood again, and this thought made Jon happier than he cared to admit.

*

Daisy was late, and it made Martin very nervous.

The full moon was tomorrow. Usually, she came by to pick up her medicine a week in advance. Daisy was always prepared for everything, even if all the preparation she needed were her own two hands, so her absence made Martin very nervous. Perhaps she’d been caught in a mess. Something not even a wolf could escape. Or, worse, she was perfectly capable of coming by, and she’d chosen not to. Daisy was a ruthless lone wolf, but she’d never gone off the rails, and Martin shuddered to think what Daisy unhinged would do.

By noon, Martin was a jittery mess. He barely paid attention to his few customers. He fumbled a soft pax flower restlessly between his fingers and tried to leaf through the ledger to distract himself.

His eyes fell on the most recent name. Jonathan Sims. The twitchy vampire with the burning eyes and the sharp cheekbones. Martin realized, with some consternation, that he found Jon quite handsome. Not that that meant anything. Plenty of people were handsome.

Jon seemed…dangerous. Most vampires did. It was always a gamble: would they walk the path of Martin or Peter? Would they decide to live like a human? Or would Martin find Jon’s teeth marks in a drained corpse?

What had happened, Martin wondered. It was a question he asked every time a newly turned walked through his door. He didn’t always get the answer. Most of them drifted away as soon as they were back on his feet. One became his landlord, but even they didn’t talk much.

With Jon, though…Martin had the feeling his story was more than the standard bloodsucking. His eyes already shone with a hunger, a hunger that was more than a thirst for blood. His eyes didn’t just light up at the books because they were to do with vampires.

Martin decided to ask Jon for his email. He had a monthly book recommendation list that he had a feeling Jon would like. Different authors every time.

The bell rang and a disheveled woman crashed through the door. Daisy. Her eyes were dark and pissed, and her clothes were stained with brown and red.

“Daisy!” Martin cried. “So glad you’re okay. What happened? I—I was worried, I thought—“

“Not in the mood, Martin,” Daisy growled. She was on edge—clearly, she was feeling the moon’s proximity.

“Right. Right.” Martin passed her the thermos full of the brew he’d concocted. “Do you want to stay for tea?”

Daisy grimaced. “Not tonight. Just coming back here was hard enough, and I don’t have time.”

She downed the brew, and Martin winced. The stuff was disgusting. At least, it smelled awful.

“Sure you can’t make it taste any better?”

Martin shook his head ruefully. “Took me ages to get the formula just right. Sugar or honey or whatever’ll knock it all out of sorts. I did put in some lavender.”

Daisy sighed and handed him the thermos back. “Anyone new?”

“N-no,” Martin stuttered.

Daisy glared at him with a baleful yellow eye. Martin crossed his arms.

“Well, yes, but I don’t have to tell you.”

“I thought we were past this.”

Martin merely stared at her.

“Fine, fine. Keep your secrets.”

“It’s nothing you need to worry about,” Martin assured her. “Just, well…I have to keep people safe. Same reason I don’t tell any of my customers about you.”

“And because I’d beat you to a pulp?”

“And because you’d beat me to a pulp.”

Daisy gave him a thin-lipped smile. “I have to go.”

“Good luck!” Martin called as she left.

He pitied whoever she was after. He hoped Jon hadn’t fallen afoul of the law this soon.

Chapter Text

Jon handed the Leitner off to Artifact Storage to be researched, emphasizing that the book was due back at the library in two weeks. It wouldn’t do to raise suspicions—he’d get the book back to Martin unless they found out it was dangerous. Tim and Sasha were out shopping for the night’s hunt, so Jon sat down with Trevor Herbert’s book and a cup of tea.

The book was fairly rambling, and a lot of the lore within was stuff Jon had never even heard of. Some, though, was established stuff. The transformation, for instance. The fact that sun didn’t hurt them, and the garlic thing was just a myth like the crucifix thing. Apparently they didn’t have to live off strictly human blood, but they did need it from time to time. And the more human blood they drank, the stronger they got. According to Trevor.

Jon took very diligent notes—the book was only about 50 pages long, so it only took an hour or two. He sent the notes and photocopies of the book’s pages off to the research department.

He’d see exactly how useful Martin’s library was

=

“Tim, component pouch?” Jon asked.

“Check.”

“Sasha, you have your knife?”

“Check.”

“Jon,” Tim said, “you got your diviners?”

Jon neatly ruffled a pack of altered tarot cards between his hands. “Of course I do.”

“Anything else we need?” Sasha asked, tucking her knife into her long coat. “For a big spider?”

Tim patted the trunk of his car. “I got a bunch of bug spray.”

Jon gave him a long, judgmental look. “Bug spray?”

Tim elbowed Jon playfully. “Hey, you just keep to your info gathering and let Sasha n’ Stoker figure out the killing. Bug spray for us, Raid for it.”

Jon rolled his eyes. He was tempted to chide Tim for not taking the hunt seriously, but he knew that wasn’t true. Tim might make light, but Jon had seen firsthand how seriously he took monsters, and he was sure that Tim had some very nasty magic prepared for the thing they were hunting.

“All right, Jon,” Sasha said. “Find us a spider.”

Jon knelt down and laid the cards in neat rows on the asphalt of the Institute parking lot. It wasn’t a normal deck—he’d altered them himself, erasing the names and numbers with white-out and drawing in the symbols that made them actually useful for divination. It had taken him quite some time, so he treated the cards with great care.

Tim and Sasha kept talking as Jon did his reading. Jon spinning a location out of thin air was far less impressive to people who knew that the readings only every worked after a lot of research. The cards could be quite precise in the hands of a skilled diviner. Jon was not a skilled diviner.

Once the cards were in a compass rose, Jon closed his eyes, opening his mind to the little buzz at the back of his head. He reached into his pocket and mindlessly fidgeted with whatever clutter he could find. That always seemed to help.

His fingers traced the rough edges of Martin’s fire agate, and knowledge speared him through the head.

He sprung to his feet, and the three of them clambered into the car, Jon driving. No one said a word as they raced to the foreclosed apartment Jon had seen. Holding onto that knowledge was like grasping water. Even if Jon hadn’t needed to focus, Tim and Sasha were obviously on edge. Even Tim’s charming humor wouldn’t be able to mask that anxiety. They were going to kill a big spider, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

Jon put on his glasses as they pulled up to the apartment.

“This the place?” Tim asked, hushed.

Jon nodded. His glasses showed the dark, warped cobweb that coated the apartment. The lair of a creature that had killed three people and traumatized five more.

They got out of the car. Sasha pulled out her knife. Tim snapped his fingers a few times until a sputtering ball of fire appeared in his hands. Jon always took a moment of fascination when Tim did magic. It just came so easy to him. Like breathing. Not at all like how Jon felt with divination. Jon’s magic always felt like trying to sip water from a firehose.

Jon didn’t have anything to help. He used to carry a weapon with him, but he was far more of a danger to his teammates than any monster. So he would stay a few paces behind, looking for vital information.

Well, at least once the door was open. Jon was the best at lockpicking. He’d learned it in middle school in hopes of impressing a cute boy. It didn’t work at the time.

Jon switched on his torch as they entered the dingy apartment. There were cobwebs everywhere, and he was suddenly very grateful for Tim’s bug spray. He could see skittering legs in the darkness. God, Jon hated spiders. They bore unpleasant associations.

Raid in one hand, torch in the other.

“Where are you?” Tim muttered. The whole building had been gutted, and it was dead silent. They had no idea even what floor the spider was on.

“Jon,” Sasha said, “a little insight?”

“Okay, okay,” Jon said. He set down his torch and his spray and fished his cards out of his pocket. “Just give me a moment to—“

“Jon!” Sasha cried.

Jon whipped around just as Sasha tackled him to the ground and Tim sent a blast of fire roaring over their heads close enough to singe the hair on the back of Jon’s neck. The spider screeched as the fire hit it in the eye—how had it snuck up on them? Its pincers were inches from where Jon’s neck had been.

Jon and Sasha both scrambled to their feet. Sasha readied herself for a fight, her knife glowing in the darkness, while Jon darted for the hallway. It wasn’t cowardice that motivated him: Sasha and Tim had made it quite clear that any attempt at bravery on Jon’s part would only get in the way. Jon reached for his cards and found nothing. He turned around to see his cards tattered and ruined, stomped beneath the spiders legs or burned by Tim’s fire.

He cursed. It would take him forever to remake them.

He looked at the spider, hoping to See something useful. All he saw were the staring eyes of that huge spider, and his heart skipped a terrified beat.

God, Jon hated spiders. He hated the way the giant thing’s legs moved. Hated the way its tiny servants scuttled in the dark. Hated the way its glistening pincers tasted the air.

Sasha rushed the thing and stabbed it in the leg. It screamed and tried to bite her, but Tim hit it with a blast of Raid followed by a stab of glowing energy.

Just another day at the office, really. They’d fought far worse. Tim and Sasha were an excellent team.

The spider fell to its knees, spitting and frothing and clearly losing. They were starting to figure out the spiders. In the dark, when they had the element of surprise, they were very deadly. But in an all-out fight, the thing stood no chance.

Sasha stabbed up and into the spider’s gut. She gagged as green goop dripped onto her arm.

“Jesus!” she yelled. “I think some got on my face.”

“That’s what she said,” Tim laughed.

He made a clean upwards motion with one fist, and Sasha’s knife caught fire, burning the spider from the inside. It gave a horrible scream and its legs scuttled wildly over the floor, leaving deep gouges. Jon winced. Sasha gritted her teeth and kept pulling the flaming knife through the abdomen of the spider until it finally gave a pathetic cry and collapsed. On top of Sasha.

“Oh, gross!” she spat, wriggling out from under the thing.

The spider was dead. All in a good day’s work. No casualties save for Jon’s cards and Sasha’s spider-gut-covered clothes.

Jon sighed and rubbed the agate absentmindedly. He really didn’t want to have to make new cards.

He thought he remembered some decks in Blackwood Bookshelf. Well, he was already looking for an excuse to bring Tim and Sasha there.

The next morning, then, they would go to Blackwood Bookshelf.

=

Something was sucking people dry and leaving them in alleyways, and Martin had tracked it to this apartment. If it was one of the newly turned, it was his responsibility. If it was something else, something more dangerous, well—better he face it than some hapless human. Daisy might chase criminals, but it was Martin’s responsibility to keep track of London’s bloodsuckers.

There were scratches around the door, like the lock had been picked. Martin opened the door with caution.

Total silence. There were scorch marks in the corners of the hallways and rooms.

It didn’t take him long to find the room. The corpse of a giant spider lay in the middle of an empty living room, its pincers removed and its body burned.

“Huh,” Martin said aloud.

So that was what had been draining people. Giant spiders didn’t normally come into the city, but it was routine enough.

The real question was what had killed it. Perhaps the fae or some rival creature. That was the best case scenario. The alternative was that it was the Magnus Institute. If they’d gotten there before Martin, that meant they were getting better at tracking “monsters.” And that meant that they’d become more dangerous.

Martin had hoped the Institute would be left defanged after Gertrude’s death. But maybe he was wrong. There was no sign of blood, human or otherwise, and the kill seemed clean. Whoever had killed the spider was dangerous.

As he thought about the Magnus Institute, his thoughts turned to Jon. He’d have to warn Jon about the Institute if they were getting more savvy. He really didn’t want Jon to end up burned in an alley with his teeth in a trophy case.

Chapter Text

Martin looked up as the bell rang cheerily. For a moment, he was very irritated: the shop was minutes from closing and he’d had a long and stressful night. That irritation quickly vanished when he saw who it was. Jon with two friends in tow. A man and a woman.

The woman was wearing a very cute yellow jumper that seemed to complement her personality, but it also suggested a figure that could bench press Martin’s considerable weight. Her eyes brightened at Martin’s retro computer. Martin got the nagging feeling that he’d seen her before.

The man wore a thousand-watt smile and a Hawaiian shirt that Jon clearly found offensive. He was dressed for the boardwalk, even though the forecast promised snow that night. He gave Martin a wink and a wave. Jon slapped the man in the arm.

Neither of them looked like vampires. The man, though, was rather handsome, and smelled like smoke and charcoal. A fae, perhaps?

“Hello, Jon,” Martin greeted. “Who are your friends? What can I do for you guys?”

“Sasha,” said the woman.
“Tim,” said the man, and he insisted on shaking Martin’s hand. He had a firm handshake. “Quite a store you’ve got here. I can see why Jon talked about it so favorably.”

Martin would have blushed if he was still capable of doing so, though he couldn’t tell if it was because of Tim or Jon.

Jon was sorting through Martin’s decks of tarot cards with the clinical air of a man who knew his stuff. That suggested Jon was involved in the occult and arcane before he was turned. That made sense, if he was friends with a man who smelled like magic.

Tim was leafing through Martin’s extensive collection of fresh and dried herbs. He showed particular interest in the wolfsbane and the forget-me-not.

“Martin,” Jon said, “what can you tell me about your tarot selection?”

He said Martin’s name like “Mahtin.” It was terribly endearing.

“Depends what you’re looking for,” Martin said casually. “Games? Divination?”

Jon worried his lower lip, clearly on the fence. Martin waited expectantly, palming under the counter the deck he knew Jon was looking for because it was a deck that worked in a way few people actually looked for. Hand-painted by Martin with looping arcane symbols, the names and numbers covered in white-out.

“You seem to specialize in the unusual,” Jon said. “That’s what I’m looking for. That’s what I’m always looking for.”

Martin grinned, and it didn’t escape him how Tim’s eyes lingered on his smile. Nor did it escape him how Jon’s voice seemed to suggest he’d liked the last unusual thing he’d purchased. He slapped the deck onto the counter and lay the cards out for Jon to see.

Jon’s eyes lit up like the Fourth of July. Clearly, this was exactly what he was looking for.

“Anything else?”

“No, no, this is all fine.”

Martin hesitated for a second. He wasn’t very good with confrontation, and he was afraid Jon didn’t want to speak any longer, but he had to warn him.

“So,” Martin said cautiously, “a man so interested in arcana as you…you must have heard of the Magnus Institute.”

Jon’s whole body tensed, and he was suddenly paying far more attention.

“I’m…familiar with it.”

He was guarded now. Cautious.

“People go there if they need help…killing vampires and such. Just something to keep in mind.”

Jon smirked, amused. “You think I’m going to kill a vampire?”

He sounded incredulous, but not at the suggestion that vampires existed. He was incredulous at the suggestion that he would hunt them. Which he obviously wouldn’t.

“Be careful, okay? Plenty of scary things out there.”

“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Jon replied, glancing over his shoulder at the sulfur man and the woman with strong arms. “I’ve got scarier friends.”

After all, why would a monster be afraid of monsters?

“All of these, please,” Tim said decisively, dumping an armful of herbs and gems on the counter along with a ratty old grimoire. “Man, this place has everything!”

Tim clearly knew what he was doing. Martin was happy to sell him the arcana he needed.

Jon was turning out to be a regular. Martin was very encouraged by that fact, especially considering Jon’s interesting and attractive friends. They were captivating, even beyond how vampires and the fae naturally were.

And that Sasha…he was certain they’d met. Where had they met? Perhaps at that Seelie ball Martin had made the mistake of attending: he’d certainly been wasted enough to forget any introductions that might have happened.

Well, he’d probably remember the more she came back. It gave him quite a pleasant warmth in his stomach to think of seeing them again.

=

As they exited the shop, Jon ruffled through the tarot cards. They were obviously hand-marked, in a very rough and homely and obviously Martin way. He’d only ever used his own marked cards before, but he would be happy to use Martin’s art in his magic. The cards gave him the same warm buzz as the fire agate in his pocket.

“What did you find?” Sasha asked.

Tim grinned and pulled out some anise and barberry. “Some anti-worm stuff for our Prentiss problem. I’m working on learning some new cleansing spells.”

Sasha sighed. “Wish we had an actual reliable way to kill those things.”

Tim scowled. “My magic works just—“

“I said we, Tim. Not all of us are flamethrowers!”

“Maybe we’ll ask Martin next time,” Jon said, already accepting that there would be a next time. “He may know something.”

“Speaking of Martin,” Tim elbowed Jon in the ribs, “specimen of a librarian, huh?”

Jon frowned. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, come on,” Tim chuckled. “He’s hot! Admit it!”

“He’s right,” Sasha added. “And you haven’t gone on a date in…in…Tim, has he ever gone on a date?”

Tim shook his head ruefully. “Not since I’ve known him.”

“I don’t—we’ve—both of you, stop it!” Jon ordered.

Tim put his hands up in a mock gesture of surrender. “All right, all right! But seriously, if you want me to set you up—“
Sasha lightly smacked him. “Let him do it at his own pace. You know he’s…”

Jon and Tim took another few steps before realizing they had outpaced Sasha. They turned to see Sasha staring at a cafe across the street.

“Jon, Tim,” she said, voice strangled, “remember the distorted man I told you about?”

Jon looked through the window of the cafe, and there he was. He looked ordinary: long and curly blonde hair, a pink turtleneck, coffee held in totally normal hands. But the cards buzzed as Jon looked at him, and his limited Sight let him see flashes of what the man really was. Long fingers. Twisted torso. Eyes that escaped comprehension.

Tim frowned. “Which man? I don’t see anything unusual.”

“The blond one,” Jon told him. “Trust me. He’s…not human.”

Tim folded his arms, and Jon started to smell smoke. “So what do we do?”

“He’s probably dangerous,” Sasha said.

“Come on.” Jon walked up to the crosswalk. “I’m not going to let this man just stalk my employees.”

Tim shifted his two bags to one arm, leaving his other hand ready for casting.

As they walked through the door of the cafe, the distorted man looked up at them expectantly, like he’d been expecting them. The three of them lingered in front of the door for a moment, unsure, until a barista gave them a dirty look and they made for the distorted man’s table.

The man gave them an unpleasant smile. Not unpleasant in its intent, but unpleasant in its execution.

“Hello, Archivist,” he hissed. “Mage. Hunter.”

The Archivist, the Mage, and the Hunter. The composition of every Magnus Institute team. Some documents suggested an old role called the Liason, but Elias claimed to know nothing about that.

“Who are you?” Sasha demanded.

The man laughed like a bell tolling for the dead. “But I forget my manners. Please. Sit.”

Tim, Jon, and Sasha glanced at each other, then sat at the strange man’s table.

“I am not a who, Hunter,” the man continued. “I am a what.”

“That’s not helpful,” Jon told him.

“I meant,” Sasha added, “why are you following me.”

The man looked politely shocked. “You seem to think I want to hurt you.”

“It’s a fair assumption, yeah,” Tim said.

The man laughed, a laugh that went on and on and grated horribly on Jon’s ears. The smell of smoke grew stronger. Sasha squeezed Tim’s wrist.

“I am here to help,” the man said. “I have information you want.”

“Information?” Jon leaned in, one hand on the table and one hand on his new cards. “Okay, then. Let’s start with your name.”

The man took a moment to consider. “Michael. Michael is a name you can call me.”

“Is it your name?” Tim asked.

“It is a name you can call me.”

Jon sighed and forced himself to lean back. “All right, then…Michael. What information do you have that you think we want?”

With a flourish, Michael pulled a slip of paper from his—its—pocket. He slapped it onto the table, and Jon read an address.

“Tomorrow at 7:45. There is something there you have been looking for.” He looked at Tim. “Bring your cleansing magics.”

The man got up and walked out the door. Tim got up to follow him, but Jon grabbed his arm.

“What?” Tim snapped.

“The door,” Jon told him. “It wasn’t there before.”

Tim looked at the door with narrowed eyes and sat back down.

“Where does it lead?” he demanded.

“Give me a second.”

Jon started laying cards down on the table. The new cards weren’t broken in, and they were stiff and awkward between his fingers. He swore more than a few times as he couldn’t get the layout right, and the reading wasn’t nearly as precise as he’d like.

“Well?” Sasha asked.

“Somewhere bad,” Jon told them. “That…thing…is a distortion. I don’t know quite what that means, but it’s not Fae. Probably a Dreadchild, like the Darklings.”

“Great,” Tim groaned. “Just great. Because we needed more of those to deal with.”

“So…” Sasha said, “we’re going to this address, right?”

“Yes, yes, I think we have to,” Jon sighed. “It’s not like we’re getting any leads on the Prentiss situation.”
“Are you two,” Tim demanded, “completely out of your minds?”

“Not completely,” Sasha defended.

“We are not following some—some—distortion to some shady bar at night just because he said we might find something! He’s probably going to stab us as soon as we show up!”

“Yeah, but we can take him,” Sasha argued. “We just have to go over, check it out, and run or fight like hell if it goes bad. Collecting information and acting on it is our job, Tim! We don’t have much of a choice.”

Tim threw up his hands. “Fine! Fine! But if we die, I’m making sure whoever’s writing my obituary writes in that it was your fault.”

Jon packed up his cards, and as he put them back in his pocket, he felt the contours of the fire agate. At first it had seemed like an oddly shaped star, but now he wondered if it was meant to be a crude opened eye. Whatever its intended shape, he felt oddly invincible while he held it. It certainly gave him the bravery he needed to commit to going to that address the following night.

“Well,” Jon said decisively, “let’s all meet back up at the Institute at 7:00 tomorrow.”

“You’ll be working that late anyway,” Sasha muttered.

Jon glared at her and continued, “Sasha, bring as many weapons as you can. Tim, prepare some cleansing spells and something for seeing past distortions. I’m going to go through our library and see if I can find out what that thing is.”

He thought about going back to Blackwood Bookshelf that night, but remembered it was closed. He’d have to go back the next day.

Chapter Text

The day seemed to fly by, much to the dismay of Jon, who was very much not looking forward to the night’s activities. All he had to occupy his mind were the books. Research and Artifact Storage had just gotten them back to him—they’d archived a copy of the Herbert one, which appeared to be genuine, and the Leitner was uncharacteristically benign. They were going on the assumption that they contained accurate information, so now Jon was assigned to refine their hunting strategy based on the books. Which was going to take him a while. At least whatever they were going after that night probably wasn’t a vampire.

7:00 came far too soon. Jon groaned a tad melodramatically as Tim and Sasha walked in all kitted out for a hunt. He always felt woefully unprepared next to them. It wasn’t like he had any specialized equipment, just some cards and his two eyes. And the protection charm in his pocket. He did feel a lot safer with that, even if it was just a buy-two-get-one gimmick.

“Ready?” Tim asked.

“As I’ll ever be,” he sighed. “Hang on, let me see how this shakes out.”

He set his half-eaten bagel to the side—it was a better dinner than he got most days, at least—and started laying out the cards in a basic forecast pattern.

“I still never understand what he’s doing,” Tim muttered.

“The theory’s pretty simple,” Sasha commented. “I read about it. Can’t do it myself, though, it’s apparently really hard…”

“Will the two of you please shut up? I need to focus.”

Tim and Sasha whispered and tittered while Jon finished the reading. He leaned back on his heels to examine the cards.

“Well,” he announced, “I’m not getting any high risk of death, but it’s dangerous, and…we’ll lose something.”

“Like, a limb? Or, like, a watch?” Sasha asked.

Jon shrugged. “You know I can’t clarify like that. All I know is we have a decent chance at this, it’s not a trap, and it’s important.”

Tim sighed. “Whatever you say, Xanathar.”

“Am I supposed to know who that is?” Jon asked.

Tim stared at him. “You’re telling me that you, awkward nerd supreme, have never played Dungeons and Dragons.”

Jon shot him a vicious glare. “I am not a nerd, and I don’t appreciate—“

“Boys,” Sasha interrupted, “we have a weird distorted man to meet.”

“Oh, one more thing,” Jon said. “Tim, do you have any Raid left?”

=

The address Michael had given them was that of an abandoned bar. It looked filthy, its windows so grimy that Jon couldn’t see inside. He tried the door and found it unlocked.

“Weapons out,” he whispered.

He saw a flash out of the corner of his eye as Sasha’s knife appeared in her hand. Tim started to smell like smoke.

Jon opened the door very slowly, but his attempt at stealth was rendered irrelevant by the horrible squeal released by the hinges. Michael was sitting at the abandoned bar, and smiled pleasantly as they entered. He waved. His fingers were just a bit too long.

“I’m so glad you decided to join me,” he purred. His voice was like old wood, halting and splintered and probably unsafe.

Jon heard squirming below him. He looked at his feet and saw scattered silver maggots. He yelped and jumped backwards.

Michael pointed a bony finger—was that an extra joint?—at the back corner.

“I found a…what is the phrase? Person of interest,” he said proudly.

One of Tim’s hands burst into flame, while another clutched a can of Raid. Sasha took a look at the maggots, and her knife flashed out of her hand to be replaced by a hammer.

“Lead the way, Jon,” Sasha whispered. Jon always led the way. That was the job of an Archivist.

He inched forward, Sasha and Tim right behind him. There was something in the corner, a dark lump. It twitched. Jon took the fire agate out of his pocket and ran his fingers over its bumps and spikes. It was warm.

It was a human in the corner. They turned to look at Jon, face creased in agony and pockmarked with worms. It was a man, by the look of it. One of Prentiss’s victims, the first one Jon had ever seen up close. He forgot to breathe, and once he remembered, he didn’t want to. The man stood slowly, mouth opened in a silent scream but his vocal cords eaten away, writhing and wriggling shapes falling away from his body and squirming slowly but inexorably towards Jon.

“Tim,” Jon breathed, “set that thing—“

Without warning, the man leaped forward, worms spewing from every orifice. Someone screamed—Sasha—and fire sliced through the dark air. Jon tried to stumble backward but slipped on a slimy worm corpse and fell, defenseless. The worms came closer. He couldn’t breathe.

White fog started spewing. Jon turned to see Sasha holding a fire extinguisher and spraying it over the worms. It seemed to be working: the man fell with an agonized scream and the worms shriveled in the spray. Some of them wriggled away. Soon, all the worms were gone.

Except one, Jon realized, and with that flash of magical insight he started to feel it. His hand went to his stomach and found the hole the worm had chewed through his shirt and into his skin.

“Sasha,” he said, his voice far higher than he was comfortable with, “get out a knife, Sasha, one of them’s in me.”

“What?” Sasha yelled.

They’d never dealt with this. They didn’t know how to get the worms out. They barely knew how to kill them when they were outside the human body. God, Jon was a useless Archivist.

She knelt by Jon’s side, a thin stiletto blade in her hand. She peeled back Jon’s shirt and looked at the hole with obvious horror and disgust. Jon clutched at her wrist.

“Kill it,” he pleaded, “I don’t want to become like—like that.”

“Michael!” Tim yelled. “You brought us here, now get that worm out of him.”

Michael simply laughed, a horrible echoing sound that bounced off the walls and rang in Jon’s ears.

“Oh, no,” he said, “I cannot wait to see what you come up with to remove it. I could get it out, but…where’s the fun in that?”

Jon felt the thing wriggling inside him and tasted acid bile in the back of his throat. Sasha positioned the knife over the hole and prepared to stab.

“Wait!” Jon stayed her hand. “It won’t work. There’s…something in the way. Something important. Unless you’ve got surgical precision…”

It was either sliced organs or squirming innards. They needed a third option. Jon reached for the agate and realized he’d dropped it. He glanced around wildly, but saw no sign of it on the bare floor. He felt oddly bereft without it, but he had far more important things to worry about.

“Blackwood,” he realized suddenly. “We don’t know anything, b-but maybe he does. He’s got all those herbs, right? If there’s a magical solution…”

“Okay. Okay,” Tim said decisively. “Let’s go.”

=

By the time the car screeched up to Blackwood Bookshelf, Jon was in agony. He was sure it had only been one worm that pierced him. He was also sure there was more than one worm currently inhabiting his gut. He clutched his stomach and tried not to whimper, mostly unsuccessfully. Tim and Sasha had to carry him to the store, and Jon could tell how much his helpless cries bothered them, but he couldn’t stop. The store was closed, and for a moment Jon knew he would die, until he saw light pour from under the door.

Tim hammered on the door. “Open up!” he yelled.

The door opened a crack, and Martin peered through.

“Tim, isn’t it?” He seemed befuddled. “What are you—“

“Worms,” Jon told him through gritted teeth. “Do you know how to get worms out? From Prentiss, do you know, ah…”

“Prentiss?” Martin repeated incredulously. “How did you run across—“

“They’re in me, Martin,” Jon interrupted in a tone approaching a wail. “The worms. Can you get them out?”

“Worms? In you? Oh no, oh no.” Martin swung the door open and plucked Jon from Tim and Sasha’s grasp like he was picking an apple. “How long ago?”

“Ten minutes, give or take,” Jon groaned.

Martin carried Jon behind the counter and kicked open the door labelled “Employees Only.” Jon got a glimpse of the room within—it looked like an apothecary, but with crates of books everywhere—before Martin laid him down on a workbench.

Martin snapped on some leather gloves and pointed at Tim and Sasha.

“You two. Out.”

“We’re not leaving—“

“And I’m not risking dealing with three victims! Out!”

He didn’t wait for Tim and Sasha to answer before pushing them out the door and slamming it. He returned to Jon and deftly removed his shirt, then probed experimentally at the skin around the entry hole. Jon cried out in pain.

“Sorry, sorry! Just finding them!”

Martin disappeared, and Jon heard the hasty sounds of shaking and mixing.

“You’re lucky I had a batch of worm stuff prepared,” Martin told him. “I’m giving you a sedative.”

“A sedative? Why? What sedative?”

“Um. So. I’ve never, ah, uh, you know what? It’s actually probably better if I don’t tell you.”

“Fine,” Jon grumbled, trusting that Martin wouldn’t hurt him. He’d been sedated before, so he knew what to expect.

What happened next was not what he expected.

Martin placed a leathered hand over his eyes, and Jon felt two sharp pricks in his neck. He’d never tried heroin, but the feeling that emanated from the dual syringe approximated about what he thought it was like. A tantalizing, intoxicating relaxation that spread through his veins like sleep. He was floating, even as he felt the dull presence of the table beneath him. The worms kept moving, but they didn’t hurt.

He felt amazing.

“All right,” Martin said. His voice wasn’t far away. It was the most present thing of all, like Martin was all that existed. “I’m going to put a mix on your stomach. Might sting a little.”

He trusted Martin. Martin would take care of him. He felt Martin’s hands on his stomach—despite the sedative, he felt Martin’s hands down to the ridges of his fingerprints. If this was what it took to get those hands to touch him, he’d get eaten by worms any day. They were deliciously cold.

“Um, yeah, I run a bit on the cold side,” Martin said, sounding a bit awkward.

Had Jon been talking? Oh dear. Hopefully he wouldn’t say anything about how adorable Martin’s voice was, or how his smile was like sunshine.

“Oh, um, thank you?”

Well, shit.

Martin’s strong, sure hands started rubbing something into Jon’s stomach. He felt the effect immediately: the worms started wriggling frantically, hungrily, writhing towards the surface. He felt the entry hole expand as they emerged from his stomach. It didn’t hurt at all. Jon was aware of his body only incidentally.

“Got you,” Martin muttered.

He swept the worms off of Jon, and then slammed something several times very hard against the workbench. Jon heard little squelches with every slam.

“All right,” Martin declared, his voice trembling, “let’s fix up the wound.”

The entry wound was bleeding, Jon realized. Had it been bleeding this whole time? In his addled state, he could barely hold on to the question, let alone find the answer.

All thoughts were pushed from his mind as soon as Martin started dressing the wound. He just felt sure hands and delicate gauze. Martin murmured inane reassurances throughout the entire process, his voice almost as soothing as the sedative. Jon felt suddenly very guilty about losing the agate, but managed to hold his tongue on the topic.

“There,” Martin said decisively. “All better!”

“Thanks,” Jon muttered. It must have been a fairly quick-acting sedative, because he already felt his lucidity returning.

He tried to sit up and his vision swam with black. So maybe he wasn’t totally lucid. He heard the door creak open.

“You guys can come back in, he’s fine,” Martin called.

Footsteps rushed to Jon’s side, and he soon saw the faces of Sasha and Tim peering down at him.

“You all right?” Sasha asked.

“Of course he’s all right,” Tim said decisively. “Would take more than a few worms to kill our Jon, isn’t that right?”

He affectionately elbowed Martin. Martin crossed his arms.

“How did you run across Prentiss?” he asked.

“We didn’t run across Prentiss,” Sasha corrected. “Just…her worms. Some of them. In a man.”

Martin pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Why,” he demanded.

“Um. Accident?” Jon offered.

What else was he going to tell Martin? That they’d taken the advice of a creepy distorted man to come to an abandoned building at night?

“Please be more careful,” Martin sighed. “I worry about you.”

“You do?” Jon muttered. The sedative still held onto him like a soporific cloud.

Martin awkwardly smoothed the tape around the gauze. “All right, you guys need to get him home and in bed.” He looked at Jon. “Bed rest for three days, do you hear? Eat a lot, you need your nutrients.”

“Good luck with that,” Tim muttered. “Pretty sure the man never sleeps or eats.”

“Yeah,” Martin sighed, “yeah, that…tracks.”

What the hell was that supposed to mean? Was he really that obviously decrepit?

“Don’t worry,” Sasha said, “I’ll make sure he doesn’t come into the office.” She gave Jon a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “I’ll bring you some soup! Would you like some soup?”

Jon grabbed her hand lazily. “Yeah, yeah, I’d like some soup.”

“He seems pretty out of it,” Tim said. “I’ve never seen him this chill. What’s your secret?”

“Heavy magical sedatives.”

“Any chance you could get me some of that?”

“Absolutely not.”

=

Martin watched as Tim and Sasha deposited Jon in the back of their nondescript car. He cursed himself a thousand times for forgetting to check if Jon was a vampire. He had been right there, too, his teeth in Jon’s neck. His skin felt warm enough, but that could have been a mask. It certainly was hard to maintain a mask while in that much pain, but Jon seemed tough.

There was one thing Martin did know for sure: despite himself, he had a crush on Jonathan Sims. He’d had every opportunity to quash that feeling, and he’d chosen not to.

Being a vampire wasn’t a fate he’d wish on anyone, so Martin felt horrible for hoping Jon was one. Because there was no way Martin could be loved by anyone who wasn’t a monster like him.

He’d had plenty of crushes over the years, all of them ending in disaster even before he was turned. Martin was too needy and yet too distant, too clingy but needing too much space. He had long since resigned himself to loneliness. He tried to give up as much of himself as possible, and yet no one reciprocated—clearly, there was something wrong with him. Something that potential partners saw and fled from. Some shameful legacy from his parents, something he couldn’t even blame on Peter Lukas.

Vampire or no, Jon wouldn’t go for a man like Martin Blackwood. That made him safe, a crush distinct from Martin’s history of horrible dates. It was fine to just look at a man and find him attractive, to look forward to his visits and his smile, without ever doing anything about it.

(Even if he wanted to do something about it and wanted Jon to love him).

(Even if he hated himself for the way his heart skipped at Jon’s voice).

(Even if he was beating himself up for the way his stomach swooped sickeningly when he saw Jon in obvious agony, his only desire to erase that pain even if it meant risking exposure).

=

The next day passed in relative peace. Martin hoped that Jon had gotten home safe. He was glad Jon had Tim and Sasha. The newly turned tended to be weak.

Good thing he had that agate. A weak new vampire like him would be easy prey for the Magnus Institute.

He started cleaning up a bit early, as business was almost nonexistent. Just a few fae buying party supplies and a confused woman looking for directions that Martin was fairly sure was a selkie.

He was just about to close up when the bell rang and an all-too-familiar woman walked—shambled, more like—through the door.

“Prentiss,” Martin said, his voice far calmer than he felt. “What are you doing here?”

His hand crept towards the corkscrew he kept by his computer.

“Blackwood.” Prentiss’s voice was sibilant and echoing, like a thousand tiny voices spoke with her. Which they did. “How is business?”

“Cut it out,” Martin ordered. He was not in the mood to play games with Prentiss after the worms he’d had to coax out of Jon. “Why. Are. You. Here.”

“Your goods found their way to the Institute,” she hissed.

Martin blinked. He didn’t sell anything to the Institute.

“If they did,” he said, “I didn’t sell to them directly.”

“Maybe,” Prentiss sang.

She threw something onto the counter, and Martin caught it. It was spiky, rough.

The agate he’d given to Jon.

He looked back up at Prentiss, ready to bare his fangs and lunge.

“What did you do!” he yelled. “If you hurt him—“

“A hunter dropped it,” said Prentiss. “An Archivist, they told me. That’s what they saw.”

Martin’s blood ran cold—well, colder than it was already. Prentiss was many things, but she wasn’t a liar, and she didn’t have the subtlety for elaborate deception. If her worms had found Jon’s agate in the hands of an Institute Archivist, that could only mean one thing.

Jon had been too weak last night, and the Institute had got him. Captured or killed, Martin didn’t know.

“No,” he breathed.

“You know what needs to happen,” Prentiss purred. “The Institute must fall. Bare your fangs, Blackwood. Let them see what happens when they cross us. Let them be the hunted.”

For several long moments, Martin was on the verge of saying yes. It was so tempting, to march up to the Institute and demand recompense for the man they’d hurt.

But Martin knew he couldn’t. Because the Institute might be misinformed, but they didn’t all deserve to die. He couldn’t just go on a revenge spree because of one man. There were people who needed him, people he had to keep serving.

And he couldn’t prove Peter Lukas right.

He clutched the agate and tears burned behind his eyes. He knew he was doing the right thing, but he still felt like a miserable coward.

“I—I can’t,” he told Prentiss. “You know I can’t. I’m not a fighter.”

Prentiss’s expression turned ugly.

“You’re a coward, Blackwood,” she hissed. And then she lunged.

Martin screamed and waved the corkscrew wildly. He stabbed her in the arm, she recoiled, and Martin had just enough time to bolt for the back room and slam the door. Prentiss’s weight slammed against it, and Martin heard the squelching sounds of worms trying to squeeze through the cracks.

He started piling boxes of books against the door and stuffing towels and bandages into the cracks to block out the worms. Fortunately, with his strength, it didn’t take long before he’d barricaded himself in the workspace.

Unfortunately, he was now barricaded in the workplace.

He looked around. Nothing in here but books and an apothecary. He had mixes for small batches of worms, but nothing that could help him against the Hive Queen. If Jon was still alive, there was no way Martin was getting out in time to save him.

He slid to the floor, clutched the agate so tightly his hand hurt, and started to cry.

Chapter Text

Much to Jon’s chagrin, Tim and Sasha were true to their word and refused to let him come in to work. After Jon had stayed in bed for three days—torture all its own, even with his friends’ frequent visits—he tried to sneak into the Archives. Tim immediately scooped him up and drove him home.

“I stayed in bed for three days!” Jon protested. “Like Martin said!”

“Nope. Your stomach got eaten by worms. At least another week.”

Since then, Tim and Sasha had taken it in turns to do their research in his flat. They insisted Jon lie down as much as possible.

It made Jon very antsy. There were things to hunt, research to do, secrets to find! He had to keep working. He had to keep keeping London safe.

By day 5 stuck in his house, Jon felt like he’d been pumped full of bees instead of worms. He had to do something. He was anxious and jumpy.

“Just one more day,” Sasha capitulated. “One more day and you can go back to work. If you chill. And no hunting for a while.”

“Sasha,” Jon groaned, “I’m going stir-crazy in here! I have to do something!”

Sasha thought for a moment, then perked up.

“How about we bake something?”

Jon almost brushed off the suggestion, then took a moment to reconsider. He had been thinking about getting Martin a thank-you gift.

“Can we give it to Martin?” he asked. “As thanks for his assistance?”

“Oh, that’s an excellent idea! I think we should make brownies.”

“Frosted ones?”

“Frosted one, and then you can write ‘Thanks for saving my life’ on them?”

Jon rolled his eyes. It was a corny idea, but he secretly wanted to do it very much.

“I’ll get Tim to pick up ingredients,” Sasha said, already looking up a recipe on her phone. “We can all make brownies together! It’ll be like a team bonding exercise.”

“You know, we can just use a mix—“

“Jon, you’re a heathen and a coward.” Sasha clapped her hands together. “This is going to be so fun!”

Jon got up and started getting out some bowls, brushing off Sasha’s objections. His stomach was fine. It still ached, but had healed extraordinarily fast. Whatever Martin had used to treat it had worked like a charm. Really, he could have gone to work the day after if he kept movement to a minimum. Grumbling, Sasha got up and insisted on getting things out of the top cupboards.

Tim turned up with the ingredients as the afternoon sun started streaming through the windows, and the three of them set about making the brownies. Jon owned no aprons and few baking tools, so they made a big mess and had to improvise most of the process. Tim wasted no time “forgetting” his hands were covered in flour and clapping Jon on the back. Sasha scolded Tim for jostling the wound. Tim winked at her and snatched a handful of chocolate chips.

It wasn’t the smoothest result by any means. The brownies were slightly overcooked and the lettering was clumsy. But Jon was still proud. He’d actually helped make something potentially edible. He just hoped Martin would like it.

“Now to deliver it,” he said.

Sasha frowned. “Nope, you’re still supposed to be—“

“Oh, come on,” Tim relented. “Surely we can make an exception for this. It’s for a good cause—getting Martin a thank you gift and maybe even getting Jon a date.”

“Now hold on—“ Jon objected.

“No, you’re right,” Sasha conceded. “What nobler cause is there than getting Jon a date?”

Tim slung an arm around Jon’s reluctant shoulders. “C’mon, Jon. You think he’s cute, right?”

“Yes,” Jon grumbled.

“And he’s super nice…”

“Yes.”

“And he saved your life!”

“You know what?” Jon said decisively. “Fine. I’ll ask him out.”

Tim and Sasha cheered.

“Oh, stop it, you two,” Jon muttered.

Tim jangled his keys. “Not a moment to lose! Grab that pan and let’s get this twink a man.”

“I’m not a twink!” “Let’s get this manlet a boyfriend!”

What did you just call me?”

As they kept teasing each other on the ride to the Bookshelf, Jon felt hope and pride, because it had been so long since he’d even tried to let a new person into his life.
=

Martin was bored.

He had plenty of books, but the squelching and squirming distracted him. It sounded like there were less worms, but he still heard Prentiss’s footsteps in the store. It was stupid to keep up his mask with no one there. A waste of energy. But if Martin was going to die, he was going to die holding onto his humanity. Even if it meant he trembled with hunger and exhaustion.

He didn’t have any blood in the workshop. He hadn’t had anything fresh in two weeks, so his stamina was flagging.

He’d tried bargaining with Prentiss, but his knocks and yells went unanswered. She heard him—he heard her pause when he spoke—but didn’t say anything. The worms were the worst. Martin cursed his enhanced hearing for letting him hear their every movement.

Then someone knocked at the door to the shop.

Oh, no.

=

Blackwood Bookshelf was closed, which was odd, since it was 1:00 on a Wednesday. Jon handed the brownies to Tim and rapped on the door.

“Hello?” he called.

“Must not be in,” Tim said. “Weird.

Jon frowned. The cards in his pocket buzzed. Something was wrong, and Sasha spotted it before he did.

“Um, guys?” Sasha’s voice was high and careful. “Below the door.”

Familiar writhing silhouettes curled and curdled in the dim light. There were worms in the store.

“Oh, no,” Jon breathed.

Without missing a beat, Tim ran for the car. He threw the brownies into the backseat and pulled out a pair of fire extinguishers. Tim passed Sasha an extinguisher and gestured for Jon to unlock the door. Normally, Jon would have done a reading, but he wasn’t thinking straight, and he certainly wasn’t about to wait a moment longer. He clumsily picked the lock and let Tim kick the door open.

Jon scanned the bookshop. There were far less worms than expected, but Prentiss was there, a specter standing in front of a rack of greeting cards. It sent a chill up Jon’s spine to see her in a place he’d come to view as safe. She turned in surprise and hissed as Tim slammed the door open. The worms started squirming feverishly towards them. Tim and Sasha let loose with the extinguishers, and Jon prepared for a fight.

There wasn’t one.

Prentiss turned tail and darted for the back door, her few living worms following behind. Running wasn’t her MO, but Jon didn’t have time to think about it. He looked wildly about for Martin, dreading that he might see that beautiful man turned to a huddled hole-filled shape in some corner. There was no sign of Martin, though. Jon wasn’t sure whether to be terrified or relieved at that. What if there was nothing of Martin left?

“Martin!” he called. “Martin, are you here?!”

“Jon?” came a muffled voice.

“Where are you?” Tim asked the empty air.

Something shuffled from behind the “Employees Only” door. Jon rushed to it and knocked.

“Martin? Martin, are you in there?”

“Jon, is that really you?” Martin sounded close to tears. “Is—is she gone?”

“She’s gone,” Jon reassured. “Don’t worry, it’s safe. It’s safe out here.”

“Oh, thank God. Jon, are you okay?”

More sounds of shuffling boxes—Martin must have barricaded the door. Finally, it burst open, and there was Martin, haggard and panicked with bags under his eyes.

“Jesus, Jon, I was so worried! I thought—“

You were worried about me?” Jon laughed incredulously.

Martin hesitated for a moment, then his hands clasped Jon’s forearms, and he leaned into Jon like iron to a magnet. Jon could feel the trembling of his hands through the thick fabric of his jacket, and desperately wanted to be closer. It had been so long since he’d actually wanted to be so close to someone.

“I was so worried about you,” Martin kept babbling. “You left, and you were weak, and then Prentiss came in, and then she said you’d come across something dangerous, and then I thought you—“

Jon gave in to the hunger in his chest and pulled Martin into a hug. His chin didn’t even reach Martin’s shoulder. Martin’s breath was shuddering, and he clutched Jon with desperation. Martin’s embrace was comforting and safe and smelled like sage and iron, and Jon wanted to stay there forever.

It was funny, really. He hadn’t known Martin for very long at all, yet felt like he’d known Martin for years. The same sort of thing had happened with Tim and Sasha. Nothing made people bond like facing death together. Well, no—it wasn’t quite like what happened with Tim and Sasha. He’d never wanted to date Tim and Sasha.

“Thank you,” Martin muttered into Jon’s shoulder, “for saving my life.”

Jon chuckled. “Guess we’re even.”

“Hey, it wasn’t just Jon who saved your life, you know,” Tim complained jokingly.

Jon and Martin broke apart, suddenly remembering there were other people in the room.

“Thank you,” Martin said to Tim and Sasha. “I’ll have to bake you something…do you guys like brownies?”

Sasha giggled. “We actually made brownies for you. That’s why we’re here.”

Martin looked surprised. “Oh! Oh, you did?”

“Yeah,” Tim said. He elbowed Sasha. “C’mon, Sash, let’s go get them.”

“Can’t you get them y—oh! Oh, yeah, I’ll help you get them.”

Once they were left alone, Martin let out a shuddering breath and slid down to the floor.

“Seems like London gets more dangerous every day,” Jon sighed, sitting down beside him. “Martin, how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine,” Martin laughed nervously. “More than fine, really. Good thing I’ve got you, huh?”

Jon smiled. “I was just going to say the same thing.” He really was so lucky to have Martin. “Seriously, though, do you need a hospital? You don’t look so good, and I imagine that was a traumatic experience—“

“Jon.” Martin rested a hand on Jon’s knee, and his cold palm sent delicious tingles down Jon’s spine. “I’m okay. Really. I keep food back there, I had plenty of books…it was fine.” He looked down, a bit self-conscious. “I’m fine now that you’re here.”

Jon’s breath caught in his throat. His presence didn’t often make people feel better. It made no sense that a man like Martin would have his emotional state improved by a man like Jon. Maybe it was some sort of joke or disingenuous flirting.

He took the plunge and placed his hand on top of Martin’s. Hand on hand on knee. Martin’s hand was cold. Jon’s hands always tended to run hot, so holding his hand was extremely nice. He took a deep, steadying breath. It had been a while since he’d been close to someone like this. He had to say something, because suddenly Jon couldn’t bear the thought of a life where he didn’t get this. Where he couldn’t be close to Martin.

“Martin,” he said, “I wanted to ask you a question. Well, bring something up. And it’s totally okay if you don’t want to talk about this right now, I just…wanted to talk about it. For whenever you’re ready.”

Martin gave another of his sunshine smiles. “Go ahead.”

Jesus Christ. Jon had thought he was keeping it together, but then Martin whipped out that smile and he was holding his hand and Jon was blushing. His cheeks were hot. He was a mess—his heart was pounding.

“Would you like to go get coffee sometime? With me?”

Martin’s face lit up in surprise. “Are…are you asking me on a date?”

Jon’s face was burning. “Y—you don’t have to give me an answer. I just thought, well, I wanted to tell you how I felt. Sorry, I know it’s selfish, I just…well…”

Martin grinned even wider. “Jon, I’d love to get coffee with you.”

Jon realized he was smiling like a dope. “Oh! Okay, then. How does Sunday sound? 10:00, maybe, at that little cafe across the street?”

“Hot Shots?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that one.”

“I’d love to,” Martin said softly. “I’d really love that.”

Right on cue, the bell rang, and Tim and Sasha came back in with the brownies. They had taken a very long time, and Jon had a sneaking suspicion why.

“Here you go!” Tim said proudly, offering the brownies to Martin. “Jon did the icing.”

Martin peeled back the foil and gave a surprised little laugh at the crude lettering spelling out “thanks for saving my life.”

“You guys are too sweet,” Martin said fondly. “Hey, we should share this! You guys did just save my life, after all.”

“Well, if you insist,” said Sasha, eyes already fixed on the treat.

Martin grabbed a blanket from the back room and spread it out on the shop floor. The four of them sat on the blanket around the pan—Martin didn’t have any utensils, so they just ate chunks of brownie with their hands. Martin seemed particularly ravenous, despite his reassurance that he’d had access to food.

Jon’s hands were covered in chocolate and still held the memory of Martin’s skin. As Tim laughed at some rude joke and Sasha teasingly threw a chunk of frosting at Martin, Jon felt warmth and love swell in his chest.

Was this what it felt like to have a family?

Chapter Text

Jon was finding it hard to focus on his work. Jon never found it hard to focus on his work. He was taking ages just to read research notes, and trailed off in the middle of reading statements. It was honestly embarrassing. He just kept counting down the days to Sunday. It had been so long since he’d had anything going on outside the Institute—it was a very weird feeling. He was actually looking forward to something.

Tim and Sasha were as excited as he was. They constantly mentioned the date, and were obviously very eager to hear how it went. Jon always preferred to keep his work and romantic life separate, but it was hard to be irritated. Tim and Sasha really liked Martin, and that was nice. It was always nice for significant others and friends to get along.

God, Jon was already thinking of Martin as a significant other. He reminded himself to take it slow. He still didn’t know the exact nature of Martin’s involvement with the supernatural, even if he was confident it was benign.

Finally, Sunday rolled around. Jon woke up early and spent far too long getting ready. He hadn’t been on a date in ages. Was a button-up too formal? He didn’t want to wear his work clothes—those were clothes made for sewers and bloodstains. Jon was suddenly aware how ratty he usually dressed.

Jon sighed and conceded that he had no idea how to dress fashionably. He called Tim, who enthusiastically agreed to help and was at Jon’s flat far faster than strict adherence to traffic laws would allow.

“All right,” Tim announced, rubbing his hands together. “If anyone can make you presentable, it’s Timothy Stoker.”

“Don’t go overboard,” Jon grumbled. “It’s just coffee.”

“Just coffee! Jon,” Tim admonished from within Jon’s closet, “Martin is a gentleman! He’s one-of-a-kind! You’re going to try to reel in that catch, so help me.”

He emerged with a button-up, some maroon pants, and a red scarf.

“You don’t give me much to work with, but try this.”

Tim left the room, and Jon changed into the clothes. He’d forgotten he owned them. His neck felt strangely vulnerable without a turtleneck. He had to admit, though, that he did look quite sharp. It felt…strange. It had been a long time since he’d cared about his appearance: monster hunting left little room for vanity, and there wasn’t anyone he really wanted to impress. Until Martin, that is.

He opened the door, and Tim wolf-whistled as he strolled back in.

“Oh, shut up.” Jon rolled his eyes.

“Hm. You’re looking sharp, just needs a few more touches. First, tuck in your shirt. Makes your legs look longer.” Jon did so. “And one more thing…” Tim deftly undid the top two buttons of Jon’s shirt. “There we go!”

Jon swatted his hand away and did the buttons back up. “I can’t pull that off, Tim.”

“Yes, you can! Confidence, Jon. You are going to saunter into that coffee shop and get yourself a man.”

“It’s just coffee! It probably won’t go any further after he talks to me for more than five minutes, anyway.”

Jon had had very few relationships, because most people found him insufferable. He’d resigned himself to Martin feeling the same: it was easier if he set himself up for failure, so the inevitable rejection didn’t come as such a shock. If he didn’t guard himself, being shot down by a man like Martin Blackwood would probably kill him.

“Don’t talk like that. He’d be lucky to have you. You’re sexy! In a professor sort of way.”

“Thanks,” Jon sighed.

He squared his shoulders in the mirror and tried to feel as confident as Tim. Staring back at him were gaunt cheekbones and a tangle of sharp joints, A body that yelled at people to go away and a face that didn’t argue with it. Sexy like a professor—the kind of professor that everyone hated, because he was dry and distant and a total bastard.

He undid the top button. He had to try. Martin deserved so much more, but the least Jon could do was try.

=

It was only when he was getting dressed that Martin realized he’d been subconsciously planning for this date. He knew exactly what to wear. Also, he couldn’t stop smiling. He felt like his heart was glowing. Someone had asked him on a date! A very nice and attractive someone, no less!

Slow down, Martin, he reminded himself. He still didn’t really know the first thing about Jon, and rushing headlong into a relationship without thinking could get him killed. Still, he was confident that Jon had no dangerous secrets, maybe unreasonably so. After all, everyone in this city had dangerous secrets. He just couldn’t ever envision Jon hurting him.

The agate was still on his nightstand. He wondered whether or not to return it, then decided against it. Given what had happened to Jon’s stomach, it was obviously a pretty bad protection charm. He’d make sure to get Jon a new one. Something with really potent magic—maybe he could call in a favor from Annabelle or Oliver.

He took a deep breath, and his phone dinged.

It was Daisy.

Daisy: date today, right

Martin: yes! i’m really excited!

Daisy: be careful

Martin: yeah yeah i know, i’m sure you’ll kill him if he’s a creep or whatever

Daisy: damn right. text me how it goes

Martin was confident he wouldn’t have to call in Daisy for support. This date was going to great. He just knew it.

Even if he was feeling a little faint. Really, he should have eaten something—someone—fresh a week ago. He was already behind schedule when Prentiss trapped him in his back room. He’d planned on hunting as soon as he got out. But then Jon asked him on a date, and Martin just couldn’t. He couldn’t face Jon as anything less than human. Even if Jon was a vampire, which he almost certainly was, Martin couldn’t handle the shame of facing him with blood still on his lips. The taste always took days to leave his mouth when he fed from someone. If he was going to make this work, he had to try his very best to hold on to the part of him that could love like a person. And he really, really wanted to make this work. It had been so long since he’d hungered so much for something that wasn’t blood. He wasn’t chasing food for a dark passenger. He was simply following the light of the spark he’d felt as Jon’s hand touched his.

So he drank about five glasses of blood meal dissolved in milk. He’d need to feed soon, but he could hold out a while longer.

=

Jon’s heart fluttered as Martin walked into the coffee shop. He looked absolutely adorable in a sweater vest and bow tie, and his face lit up when he saw Jon. Suddenly, the cafe seemed more sunlit than the outside. Jon waved unnecessarily.

“Jon!” Martin greeted, sitting down in the chair Jon had pulled out in anticipation of his arrival. “Um, hello! You look really nice.”

Jon grinned. Chalk one up for Tim. “You, too.”

He looked closer and realized that Martin’s bow tie had little cows on it. God, that was the cutest thing Jon had ever seen, and he told Martin so.

“I like your bow tie.”

Martin fidgeted with it, surprised. “Oh, thank you! I like cows.”

“Cows are very good,” Jon agreed. “Have you seen Highland cows?”

With that, the conversation really got off to the races. Talking with Martin was so easy. Even the pauses were natural and comfortable. There was no pressure, no smothering expectations. He supposed that, after he’d writhed and rambled on Martin’s workbench, it was kind of hard to feel self-conscious about small talk.

They were about twenty minutes in and discussing the merits of different cow noses when Jon realized they hadn’t actually ordered anything.

“Oh, um, we should get something to drink,” Jon said.

“Oh, right!” Martin laughed. “I totally forgot about that.”

Jon ordered a hot chocolate with a half-shot of espresso—he wasn’t really a coffee drinker—and Martin got a pumpkin spice latte. Martin cheerily greeted the barista by name. Jon simply watched the exchange with a smile.

The rest of the date was perhaps the best date Jon had ever been on in his life. Martin was a perfect mix of charming and awkward. He was endearing in an honest way and looked at Jon like the sun, which was funny because it was Martin who shone the brightest. Jon felt like he could take on the city—no, the world—with someone looking at him like that.

Martin wasn’t just cute, though. He was tough and witty, and Jon wasn’t surprised how quickly he’d bounced back from Prentiss’s attack.

Unfortunately, it had to come to an end. Jon offered to walk Martin home—apparently, he lived above the shop, which was terribly quaint and also had the advantage of being near Jon’s work.

They paused on Martin’s doorstep, and Jon worked up his courage to ask a question.

“Martin,” he said, “I really had a wonderful time today.”

Martin smiled, gentle and warm. “Me, too. I really felt a connection.”

Jon rubbed his scarf nervously between his fingers. “Can I kiss you?”

Martin’s eyes lit up. Jon loved it when they did that.

“Oh, o-of course! I’d love that.”

Jon had to go up on his tiptoes to kiss Martin. Martin’s lips were soft and cold, and his hands were firm at Jon’s back. He was large and safe and beautiful. It was only a quick kiss, a first-date kiss, but it left Jon craving more. There was a soft, honeyed hunger in his chest, a hunger for love and touch and the beautiful man with the sunshine smile. His heart purred from Martin’s kiss as he settled back down on his feet. Martin’s eyes were impossibly green and shining, and Jon knew that kiss would be the first of many.

Patience, Jon reminded himself. They had plenty of time. One date at a time.

“It’s good that you live so close to where I work,” he commented. “For next week.”

They’d scheduled the second date, of course. Jon felt the exciting flutter of something between them within the first ten minutes. Electric potential.

“Where do you work?” Martin asked, and Jon was filled with fantasies of them dropping in at each other’s offices, delivering treats and flowers and maybe even kisses.

Jon’s profession wasn’t something he waved around, considering how derisive most people were towards the paranormal, but Martin wasn’t most people.

“The Magnus Institute, just five blocks that way.”

The joy drained completely from Martin’s face, and Jon saw sheer terror in his eyes for a moment before Martin’s expression settled into a cold mask. Jon frowned. What had he done wrong?

“The Magnus Institute,” Martin repeated carefully. He took a step back.

“Is…that a problem?” Jon asked.

He already knew the answer. Martin’s body language had changed from “lovestruck” to “cornered animal." Jon cursed himself a thousand times. He’d messed up somehow. He didn’t know how, but he’d made a mistake.

“You’re an Archivist,” Martin breathed. “That’s why Prentiss…”

He took another step back and put a hand on the doorknob to the shop. Jon thought for a moment he saw tears in his eyes.

“Martin,” Jon said, baffled, “what’s going on? I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?”

“Institute employees aren’t welcome in my store,” Martin told him with vehemence. Jon recoiled like he’d been slapped. “And they certainly aren’t welcome in my life.” He opened the door. “I’m sorry, Jon.”

Jon’s stomach dropped, and he felt like he was going to faint.

“Martin, what?” Jon stepped forward. “Listen, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you had a problem with the Institute, if we can just talk about it maybe I can explain and we can figure something out, I really want to see you again—“

“Jon,” Martin cut him off, his voice strangled. “Don’t do this.”

He entered the shop and slammed the door behind him. Jon heard the lock click.

He stood there, shocked and alone, for several moments. What had just happened?

Martin had dumped him in the strongest terms possible. He never wanted to see Jon again. Or Tim or Sasha, for that matter.

Was he skeptical? One of the arcanists the Institute had offended over the years? Or was it something more sinister? Did Martin have a reason to fear the Institute?

No, no, that couldn’t be it. There was a simpler explanation: Jon had done something wrong, committed a horrible faux pas, and hadn’t even noticed. He’d messed up hard enough to push away someone he really cared about, someone he wanted to form a relationship with.

He moved his hand to knock on the door, then let it fall back to his side. Martin had made it very clear he didn’t want to see Jon.

The numb shock started to fade, and the full weight of what had just happened settled on Jon like a boulder. He was suffocating under the weight of his failure, Martin’s words stabbing into him like serrated knives. They wouldn’t stop echoing.

He didn’t actually remember or process the trip back to his flat. He just was suddenly standing in his living room, keys dangling numbly from his fingers.

He didn’t want to eat. It was noon, and he just wanted to go to bed. Maybe he would wake up and it would be Sunday, the conversation on the threshold just a dream brought on by nerves. As soon as he had the thought, he knew it wasn’t true. The pain was too real, too sharp to be a dream.

What had happened? The question howled like a hurricane in his brain, whipping and tearing at the inside of his skull, sharp with the knowledge of his failure. He’d tried to prepare himself for this, but even that padding barely did anything to break his fall. What he had planned for had happened. Usually, that was good. He could deal with that.

Except he couldn’t.

He decided to make some risotto. He got about as far as putting the rice in a pot before he gave up.

He thought about calling Tim and Sasha, but the thought of their pity and their words made his head spin. His head and heart were already turbulent enough.

God, he had to come in to work tomorrow!

Jon realized he’d been crying. He wasn’t sure when the numbness had given way to this deep, aching pain, and he also wasn’t sure which was worse.

Get over it, he told himself. You’ve been rejected before, by people you’ve known far longer.

But this pain was unique, because Martin was like the sun, and without the sun there was no possibility for light except for the dim stars of reassurance that Jon tried to grasp.

Chapter Text

As soon as Martin closed the door behind him, he collapsed against it and slid to the floor. He heard Jon’s footsteps walk away, and as soon as he was confident the man wasn’t in earshot, Martin started crying, a quiet, choked cry that shook his shoulders almost painfully.

Jon was an Archivist.

That was the thought that kept pounding at the inside of his skull with doleful finality. Jon was an Archivist. Jon had dedicated himself to hunting down and killing things like Martin. Monsters like Martin. Things that drained people in back alleys, leaving them baffled and bloodless.

The worst part? It was all Martin’s fault. The hurt on Jon’s face and in Martin’s heart wouldn’t have to exist if it weren’t for what Martin was. If he was just a normal person, maybe he could have been happy with Jon. But he was a monster.

What was the point of masquerading as human, pretending that drinking dry cow blood somehow made him less of a vampire? He still felt the same swooping fear when met with someone who was just trying to make the world better.

Martin clutched at his wrist, digging in his fingernails until they left a circle of red half-moons around the eternal bruise Peter Lukas had left there.

There was an uncharitable part of Martin that was mad at Jon. That was the monstrous part. He was angry at the Magnus Institute for making him afraid, for not practicing moderation in who they hunted.

He got up, grabbed the agate from the counter, and threw it in the trash. He stood there, chest heaving, for a moment, then desperately cast his hand into the trash can to find the stone again. He held it like a talisman, clutched it close to his heart. No wonder it hadn’t kept Jon safe. He could only do so much for someone intent on throwing himself into the worst kind of danger.

God, Martin was stupid. He had wanted so badly to believe that Jon was a friend that he’d ignored all evidence to the contrary. Suddenly Jon’s profession seemed glaringly obvious, and Martin wondered how on Earth he’d missed it. He’d gotten blinded by a pretty face, and now he was on the Institute’s radar. Daisy joked sometimes that Martin’s soft heart was going to kill him. Turns out she was right.

Right. Daisy. He had to text Daisy, or she’d get worried. He opened up his messages and just stared at his screen. What would he tell her? The truth? No, she’d kill Jon if she knew he was from the Institute and posed a danger. None of this was Jon’s fault. Martin didn’t want him to die.

Eventually, he just typed a quick message.

Martin: Date didn’t work out. I’m fine.

He took a deep breath and put his phone back in his pocket. This was fine. It had to be fine. This wouldn’t be the first time this would happen, so he had to get used to it.

He had to get over Jon. Sure, the man’s fleeting smile and piercing eyes were burned in Martin’s vision now, but that would pass. After all, he hadn’t known him long. It shouldn’t take long to forget him, to turn that longing into indifference. Martin had a bleeding heart, but surely it didn’t bleed that much.

=

ARCHIVE THOTS (name changed 7 hours ago by Timothy Stoker)

Tim: jon

Tim: jon

Sasha: jonathan

Tim: jooooooonnnnnn

Tim: JON

Jon: What is it.

Tim: your date!

Sasha: you have to tell us Everything!

Jon: I’d rather not talk about it.

Tim: that well or that bad?

Tim: did you get dumped or laid?

Jon: I said I’d rather not talk about it.

Sasha: shit

Sasha: that bad
Tim: or maybe it went fine, and he’s just being his normal self

Jon: If you must know

Jon: He said he didn’t want to see any of us again, as Institute employees are apparently not welcome in the store.

Jon: …I think I said something wrong.

Tim: ….shit

Tim: sorry, man

Sasha: what

Sasha: that makes no sense

Jon: Really? It makes no sense that I would totally fuck up a social interaction?

Tim: i mean not THAT badly

Jon: In any case, I don’t want to talk about it.

Jon turned his phone off and tossed it onto the couch. He hoped Tim and Sasha would stay away from the Bookshelf. It was Jon’s fault, after all, and he didn’t want his friends leading an ill-conceived attempt at vengeance.

Jon’s stomach grumbled. He ignored it.

He’d joined the Institute for a myriad of reasons. He’d been warned that socializing would be hard, but he didn’t think it would be a problem. He’d made friends with Sasha and Tim, after all, which was two more friends than he’d had for most of his life. He’d been content with that.

And then he just had to go and want. He had to want someone beyond the Institute, and he’d crashed and burned in spectacular fashion. It was tempting to blame it on the Institute, but that would be…disingenuous, somehow. After all, the Institute fit Jon like a glove. If Martin had a problem with the Institute, he’d probably have a problem with Jon even if he didn’t work there.

Jon’s insatiable curiosity started to stir in his chest, asking why Martin had reacted so dramatically to the mention of the Institute. He tamped it back down. The answer to that question would probably burn him even more.

Still, he couldn’t help but wonder, because Jon was insufferable like that. Maybe Martin was mad because Jon had led Prentiss to his bookshop. Would Prentiss had gone to Blackwood Bookshelf if an Archivist hadn’t dropped merchandise from it? God, that was probably it. Jon had gotten Martin trapped and terrorized, and Martin understandably fled once he connected the dots.

He paced the flat for at least thirty minutes before finally settling down with his laptop. He still had a few statements to categorize. He didn’t want to focus on work, but he pushed through anyway, ruthlessly shoehorning his brain into doing what he wanted. He’d made the mistake of letting his mind wander, but his work was too important for that.

He decided to let the date be a lesson.

Chapter Text

Worms were starting to show up at the Archives, and Jon found this extremely concerning. He stomped out every wriggling maggot he could find, but even when he was sure there were none left, his stomach still twinged. He was on edge.

All in all, the week was not going well for Jon. Prentiss wasn’t letting him catch a break after the disastrous date on Sunday. The days just blurred by, a mess of heartache and silver maggots. Jon was getting grumpy—that is to say, Jon was returning to his natural state.

On Thursday, after stomping a significant amount of worms, Jon stomped into his office and moved some books aside to put down his laptop, then froze. He recognized the shape of those books. One leather, one spiral-bound, one small and paperback. And he’d gotten them two weeks ago.

Shit.

The books were due back at the library. The library him and his friends had been instructed to never set foot in again. And these books were obviously unique and valuable, so neither his conscience nor Martin would let him just…keep them. Not that he wanted such a tangible reminder of Blackwood Bookshelf. He had to get the books back to Martin. Maybe return his library card while he was at it.

He thought about walking through that door and slapping the books and the card on Martin’s counter, and cringed. Partially because of how bad it would go and partially because of how badly he wanted to. He couldn’t go back to Blackwood Bookshelf. That much was very clear. He had to just forget about it. He’d barely known Martin at all!

He just stood there, books in hand, wondering what to do. As if sent by an angel, Tim walked in.

“You’re in late,” Tim remarked.

“It’s 7:30.”

“Late for you.” Tim noticed the books. “Wait. Isn’t that the Leitner?”

“Yes,” Jon sighed. “And they’re due back at Blackwood Bookshelf.”

Tim crossed his arms. “I say we keep them. That’s the price he’s gotta pay for being a total dick to you.”

Jon shook his head. “It wasn’t his fault. And what if he comes by looking for them?” He waved the books. “This is a Leitner, for God’s sake. He’s not just going to let it go, unless he knows a lot less than he lets on, and—”

“Yeah, I get it,” Tim sighed. “So, what do we do?”

“Well, I obviously can’t return them.”

“Good morning!” Sasha cheerily peeked her head into Jon’s office, bag in hand. Her attitude was discordant, but welcome. “I picked up some day-olds from Hot Shots, you guys want anything?”

“Obviously,” Tim said, sticking his hand in the bag. “Hey, Sasha, you wouldn’t happen to know how to return a library book without going to the library?”

“I’m assuming it’s not an e-book?” Sasha took a bite of a scone.

Jon shuddered at the thought of an electronic Leitner.

“Leave it outside the door?” Sasha suggested.

“In the snow?” Tim said. “No, that’s not going to work.”

“Hm.” Sasha looked at the books. “Why can’t you just—oh. Oh, those are from Blackwood Bookshelf, aren’t they.”

Jon nodded sheepishly. Sasha gave him a look of pity, which he did not appreciate.

“Tim and I can take them back,” Sasha offered.

“He doesn’t want to see any of us,” Tim reminded her.

Sasha shrugged. “Tough for him. It’s just dropping some books off, anyway.” Tim still looked skeptical. “Tim,” Sasha wheedled, batting her eyelashes, “it’s just a few blocks.”

“All right,” Tim sighed. “We’ll return them.”

“Hang on,” Jon objected. “I don’t want to cause trouble.”

Tim glowered at him. “Since when? Pretty sure Elias has written you up for rudeness five times in the last week.”

“Fair,” Jon grumbled. “It’s just that—well, I messed something up, and I don’t want to disrespect his boundaries.”

“How is returning library books to a library a violation of a librarian’s boundaries?” Sasha asked.

“Well, when you put it that way…”

“Exactly.” Tim elbowed Jon lightheartedly, and Jon leaned into the contact. He used to flinch away from Tim’s casual touches, but he’d learned to enjoy them. “C’mon, boss. We’ll just pop these over for you after work.”

“Thank you. Really. And you don’t have to call me boss. It’s weird.”

“Whatever you say, boss.”

=

“That bad, huh? You’re really not over a guy you went to coffee with once?”

Martin looked up as Daisy entered the shop.

“What are you talking about?” he sighed morosely.

Daisy pointed to the tinny speakers in the corners of the ceiling. “You’re playing Queen. Just like you were when I popped in two days ago. Aren’t you tired of ‘Somebody to Love’ by now?”

“I’m fine,” Martin insisted. “It’s just a good song.”

“Sure.” Daisy roughly paged through a used book on meat curing with total disinterest. “Martin, if he didn’t want to date you, that’s his loss. Play some Lizzo or something.”

Daisy thought it was just a normal bad date. Martin hadn’t told her what Jon was—he wasn’t ready to get Jon killed, after all.

“Are you going to buy anything, or are you just going to stand there and mock me?”

“I’m definitely going to stand here and mock you.”

“Figures,” Martin muttered.

Daisy’s phone vibrated. She looked at the screen and sighed.

“Well, I guess I’ll have to stand here and mock you later. Basira needs me down at the station.”

She left, as usual, without saying goodbye. Martin used to find it rude, but now he found it comforting. A silent guarantee that she would return.

Martin watched the other patrons of his store. One of Osinov’s crew was looking through a manual on taxidermy. A woman he didn’t recognize was selecting some herbs. He watched the third person particularly warily: Annabelle Cane. He didn’t like her. Her eyes were unnerving.

He’d been keeping an eye out for worms, but none had shown up. Prentiss was planning something. She might even attack the Institute. But Martin wasn’t going to warn them. He might feel guilty, but ultimately, he valued his life, and he certainly wasn’t going to risk it for an Institute that wanted him dead.

It was easier now to think clearly about the Institute. He’d eaten, for one thing.

It had been the night after the date. The effort to stay human for Jon had exhausted him, so as he was locking up outside, he hadn’t been able to resist when a lone, slightly drunk college student wandered past the door. It was business as usual. Follow him into an alley, sway him into compliance, suck his blood. Maybe a bit more blood than usual. After all, why pretend to be human when it was impossible to be anything more than a monster?

So now his muscles were strong and his senses were sharp. He felt amazing. He felt horrible about it.

The bell above the door rang. Martin took a languid moment to glance at the door, and every muscle in his body immediately tensed as he recognized the two figures. Sasha and Tim. The Hunter and the Mage. Both of which would kill him and shouldn’t be here. Tim, as usual, was dressed for the beach despite the snow. Martin had thought this was due to fae endurance, but now he suspected this man was the cause of those burnt cobwebs. A mage specializing in fire. A vampire’s worst nightmare. Sasha looked fairly normal, but Martin knew that beneath her long wool coat were black lines of intricate, twisting, sharp ink. An Institute Hunter. Another vampire’s worst nightmare. All things considered, as bad as the implications of that date had been, he’d been lucky choosing Jon out of the three of them.

“Please leave my store,” Martin told them flatly.

Tim simply raised an eyebrow and slammed three books onto Martin’s counter. Martin flinched from the noise before looking down at the books, half expecting them to be some sort of threat. It was the three books he’d rented to Jon. The vampire’s survival kit. He had to admit, he was glad to have them back. He’d already beaten himself up plenty for sending a Leitner and a vampire hunting guide into the Institute.

“Oh,” he said, opening the ledger to note that they were returned. He felt a little pang seeing Jonathan Sim’s crossed-out name. The same pang he’d felt the last twenty times he’d opened the ledger since he’d taken a vicious pen to it. “Thank you. And good day.”

“Not so fast,” Tim said. He leaned on the counter, and Martin took an involuntary step back from the smell of smoke Tim carried with him. Could Tim smell the blood on his breath in turn? “I think you owe us an explanation.”

“Especially for Jon,” Sasha added. “He’s really sad, you know. He was actually excited for that date. Do you have any idea how rare that is?”

Martin kept his eye on the exit and gripped the corkscrew. Of all the bookshops for Jonathan Sims to walk into, he had to choose the one that would get him hurt.

“What’s with the ‘no Institute’ rule?” Tim asked. “And what did Jon mess up?”

Martin blinked. “Mess up?”

“Yeah,” Sasha said. “He’s convinced he messed something up on your date, and that’s why you rejected him.”

Well, that certainly twisted the knife. Martin had hoped that Jon would get over him. Apparently not. God, why did Jon have to be a romantic?

“Listen,” Martin said, voice low. “It was nothing to do with Jon. It wasn’t his fault, it’s just…” He took a deep breath. “The Magnus Institute brings trouble. And I really, really don’t want trouble. I’ve had it in here before, and…I just can’t afford to deal with the Magnus Institute.”

“So you’re a coward,” Tim summarized.

“Well, I wouldn’t say—“

“Yup, coward,” Sasha agreed. “You know, Jon’s a really nice guy. Shame you’re too scared to date him.”

Tell me something I don’t know, Martin thought. Tim and Sasha’s gazes, full of contempt, were painful to bear. Martin consoled himself: at least their dismissiveness meant they were taking his words at face value.

“If that’s all,” Martin said, “please leave. And don’t come back. I’m sorry.”

“One more thing,” Tim said. “You know about the worms.”

It wasn’t a question, so Martin didn’t answer.

“They’ve started showing up at the Archives,” Tim continued. “We need a way to kill them. You have a way to kill them.”

“Do I, now.”

“Martin,” Sasha said. “Tell us what you know.”

God, Martin was glad Jon was a new Archivist. He didn’t think he could handle another Gertrude. At least for now, whatever he told them he did so of his own free will. He tried to hold his tongue, but he thought about those worms twitching beneath Jon’s skin, and he caved.

“I—listen, it’s just a brew I whipped up. I don’t know anything useful besides that.” He sighed and reached under the counter for a small jar of anti-worm poultice he’d taken to keeping close at hand. Hopefully this small peace offering would keep them away. He handed it to Tim. “Here. It lures the worms to the surface of the skin. You’ll have to kill them immediately once they’ve emerged.”

Tim took it, looking a bit surprised. “Well, thanks.”

“Goodbye forever!” Sasha said cheerily.

Martin watched them leave. They were dangerous and would kill him without hesitation. So why did he feel a little pang in his chest as they walked away?

Chapter Text

Martin’s uncle had been a race car driver. Martin had gone to a few of his races, and enjoyed none of them. Every time, his eyes followed that car, unblinking, terribly conscious of the small and fleshy frame of his uncle speeding around far faster than humans were meant to go.

And afterwards, he always asked his uncle why he kept doing something that would kill him.

“It’s about the love of the sport,” his uncle said. “You find something like that, something that fills you with adrenaline and joy…well, there’s no way you can stay away, even if it might kill you.”

When his uncle had died in a crash a year later, Martin wasn’t surprised. He knew it was uncharitable to think ill of the dead, but he couldn’t help but criticize his uncle in the dark corners of his mind. There must be something wrong with a man drawn to death like a moth to a flame.

That was his attitude towards smokers and skydivers and soldiers. Surely life was the most important thing. He never understood people who proclaimed love for something dangerous, who said they couldn’t stop doing something with the ultimate cost.

Well, at least he didn’t understand before he met Jon.

Jon would kill him if he knew the truth, that was undoubtable. Jon was death. There was no other way to put it. And yet Martin couldn’t stop thinking about him. Jon’s hands might clutch a vampire-slaying stake, but Martin couldn’t stop wanting to hold them. Jon’s eyes might scour London for monsters to kill, but after a month they still burned like stars in Martin’s memory. His voice might be the last that Martin ever heard, but damn, what a way to go.

He had put the agate on a cord, and he wore it around his neck. He tried to convince himself it was just practicality, that he may as well wear a protection charm now that he was on the radar of the Magnus Institute. It was just coincidence that the agate had a glimmer of that warmth Martin had felt when Jon kissed him.

=

Jon passed Blackwood Bookshelf sometimes on his way to work, and every time he tried to look away, and every time he failed. He saw Martin unlock the door one morning. They pretended not to see each other.

The worms were intolerable at this point. Jon kept a fire extinguisher on hand at all times. Tim had divvied up the balm into three little vials, one for each of them. Just in case Sasha’s knives weren’t enough. Jon took the balm with him everywhere he went. It smelled like anise and chokecherry. It smelled like that night when the worms had burrowed into him. It smelled like soft hands and morphine and a smile that sent away pain.

The balm didn’t help when the shelf hit the wall and the worms started streaming through. And it was a reality check—mooning after Martin would do him no good, besides filling his nostrils with anise and chokecherry as he ran.

=

The Bookshelf didn’t have windows, but Martin recognized the sound of sirens. Ordinarily he wouldn’t investigate, but there were no customers in the store and he was on edge, so he opened the door and stepped out into the snow.

At least five ambulances and ECDC vehicles streamed by at a very urgent speed. Martin felt dread creep down his spine as he followed them with his eyes. They were headed in the direction of the Magnus Institute.

He knew he should just step back inside and mind his own business. He knew he had to silence his curiosity. But Prentiss had been planning something. And they were headed in the direction of the Magnus Institute. He didn’t know how to feel about that. Happy that she was striking at his enemies, probably. But he couldn’t make himself feel happy. He just envisioned worms wriggling into Jon’s flesh.

It was fine. The vehicles might not be headed for the Magnus Institute. He just didn’t know, and he didn’t have to know. He went back inside, then stepped back outside.

“Shit,” he muttered. He really didn’t have a choice. He had to know.

He posted the “Closed” sign on the door, stepped into an alley, and transformed. He didn’t do so often: he far preferred being a human to being a raven, and the transformation was extremely painful if he hadn’t had fresh blood recently. But he had, so it was barely an issue, and how else was he going to get close to the Institute covertly?

He leaped into the sky with a ruffle of black feathers, and quickly confirmed that the emergency vehicles were pulling up outside the Magnus Institute. The Archives, to be exact. People in hazmat suits streamed from the vehicles.

Brandishing fire extinguishers.

Uh oh.

Martin swooped down and perched on a railing outside the front door. He didn’t dare try to fly inside, but he was able to snatch flashes of conversation. From what he could tell, they’d been called in to deal with an “unknown parasite.” At this point, denial of Prentiss’s involvement was useless. If Gertrude was still the Archivist, he’d have taken it for granted that the Archives would be fine, no matter how mixed his feelings on the matter. But Jon was the Archivist, and Martin had no idea how competent he was. Jon had no idea how to deal with worms, Martin knew that much.

If he had nails in this form, he would have bitten them. He wanted them to be okay. He wanted Jon to be okay.

Sasha was the first to emerge. She was on a stretcher, but seemed conscious, if hazy. She was wearing a t-shirt, and Martin could see her sharp tattoos spiraling down her arms. No injuries, though. Her eyes were frightened. From what the attending EMTs said, it was just too much carbon dioxide.

“We got two more in there,” one of the EMTs said. “The worms got ‘em bad. I’m gonna need some help and some tools. We need to get them to the hospital as soon as possible, but...I’m not quite sure how to move them.”

Martin’s blood ran cold. Figuratively, of course. His blood was always cold, even when he wasn’t in a bird’s body. All he could do was wait.

A few minutes later, Jon and Tim were wheeled out. They were both unconscious, with desiccated worm corpses languishing in holes in their flesh. Their skin was pockmarked and starting to turn blue. Jon was already gaunt, and with the worms he looked like a man dead for weeks. This observation turned in Martin’s gut. He’d never seen Jon look actually alive. Like he already had one foot in the grave.

Maybe if he’d been honest with them, they would have been more prepared.

He shook the thought away. If he’d been totally honest with them, he would have died. That wasn’t much of a choice, even if London would be better off without him.

He followed the ambulance down the streets. It didn’t feel like he had a choice. Like he was tethered to Jon. The flashing lights mirrored the beating of his heart. The wind bit through his feathers—it was horrible weather for flying.

God, he hoped Jon didn’t die. Tim, neither.

He transformed back into a human—well, back into something that looked human—behind a dumpster. He had a clear shot to run into the hospital, but no doubt people would notice him and kick him out—it was a quarantine area. If he wanted, he could pull threads of compulsion around himself and pass unnoticed. Just disappear into the crowd, eyes sliding over him as he did whatever he needed to do. It was a shameful legacy from Peter Lukas and the reason he didn’t hire others to staff the Bookshelf: it was too easy to vanish if he could depend on someone else to deal with customers. Sometimes he still did it without thinking about it, and every time he hated the old man and himself in equal measure. Martin vacillated on the asphalt. He was starting to get weird looks from doctors.

Finally, he took a deep breath and bit the bullet. The weird looks slid away. Martin hated how good it felt to be unnoticed, to not have to worry about prying eyes.

He would just stay until he knew where Jon’s room was and what his condition was. So he could keep track of a possible threat.

He got the answers to those questions pretty quickly by eavesdropping on doctors. Jon and Tim were seriously injured, but stable. Martin hadn’t realized how much tension he’d been holding until he heard those words.

Jon would live. Those bright eyes would open again. Even if they wouldn’t look at Martin, knowing they were out there would be enough.

Dropping the disappearance act was like drinking sparkling water with his whole body. The attention of others hurt sometimes.

He flew home preoccupied and nearly had an unfortunate encounter with a power line. Once he got back to the store, he started collecting tea herbs before he even realized what he was making. A recovery brew for quick healing.

He sighed. Two roads diverged before him. He could choose to mind his business and stay safe, or have some care for these people.

He knew which one Peter Lukas would tell him to take, and that was what made his decision.

Life was more than safety. Life was watching bright eyes from a distance, and appreciating the warmth of a flame he could never touch.

So he made two thermoses of tea and took the bus back to the hospital. He felt kind of stupid doing it. Like he was running errands. It was easy enough to sneak back in to the quarantine rooms. Too easy. Jon and Tim weren’t supposed to have visitors, but he was sure the doctors wouldn’t mind if their wounds healed a bit quicker.

He was going to help the doctors. That was all this was.

As Martin entered Jon’s room, Jon stirred in his sleep. He was resting fitfully, it seemed. He was supposed to be sedated, but the medical units that dealt with paranormal phenomena were always wary about using any more medication that necessary. It was smart, really. Magic and medicine didn’t always mix well. But Martin still winced at Jon’s pain.

After a moment of thought, Martin took off the agate and left it by Jon’s tea. Maybe bad things happened to Jon when he had it, but worse things happened to Jon when he didn’t have it. Maybe Martin was Jon’s bad luck charm. Either way, maybe it was selfish, but he just felt better knowing Jon had it. Knowing Jon hadn’t left Martin totally behind.

A peace offering. He still couldn’t afford to have contact with Jon, let alone a relationship, but he didn’t want Jon to hate him either. Martin cursed himself. His feelings about the Institute were complicated enough without him swooning over the Archivist. Peter was wrong about so much, but right about one thing: the Institute was dangerous. Especially its Archivists. That’s why Peter stayed away. Which, in turn, was why Martin stayed close.

As Martin adjusted the tea for easy reachability, Jon stirred and his eyelids flickered open. Martin froze, terrified. What if Jon recognized him? He pulled the disappearance around himself like a cold, wet blanket. As soon as Jon’s eyes were open, he tried to move, and immediately groaned in pain. His hands curled, his fingertips trying to scratch the bandages on his palm.

“Don’t move, Jon,” Martin whispered.

He gently placed a hand over Jon’s eyes, closing his eyelids. Jon didn’t try to open them again.

“Hurts,” Jon groaned. “They’re still in me…”

“Jon,” Martin told him, trying to make his voice lower so Jon wouldn’t recognize it, “you’re fine. The worms are gone. Go back to sleep.”

“Who are you?” Jon muttered.

The question was a bit too clear and a bit too direct. Jon should have already forgotten Martin was there. A chill went down Martin’s spine. It felt too much like the encounters he’d had with Gertrude and that one unfortunate meeting with Elias Bouchard.

“A doctor.” An easy lie. It sprang readily to Martin’s lips, and tasted bittersweet.

“I need more painkiller,” Jon moaned through gritted teeth.

His muscles were tensed in discomfort, and his fingers fidgeted. He seemed to be waking up more and more every second. That wouldn’t end well.

Seeing Jon in pain was like being in pain himself. All Martin wanted to do was make it go away.

“Okay,” Martin said. He lifted Jon’s right wrist, the one without an IV in, delicately to his mouth. “I have an injection I can give you. Is that okay?”

Jon nodded desperately. It didn’t really feel like informed consent, but...well, it was just to help ease his pain.

He slid his fangs gently into Jon’s veins. He didn’t take any blood—that would be just cruel, considering the state Jon was in. Instead, he let what Peter called “tranquilizer” (he hadn’t come up with a better name yet) seep into Jon’s blood for the second time. The long-acting kind this time—Jon was going to be in bed for a while, and he wanted the effect to last until he got another dose of medical sedative.

The effect was instantaneous. Jon’s eyes fluttered closed, and he moaned in pleasure. His arm was limp in Martin’s grasp, and the rest of his body seemed equally pliable, all the tension gone in an instant. Martin wanted to take that body in his arms and just hold it until it stopped hurting. He shoved the traitorous thought from his mind.

Jon’s mouth opened to say something, but all that he managed was a whine. His hand nuzzled against Martin’s cheek, and Martin’s eyes closed for a moment. Jon’s hand was hot with fever, and it was rough and dry and so tantalizing that it was physically hard to place the arm back on the hospital bed.

“Go to sleep, Jon,” he murmured. He wanted desperately to brush a lock of Jon’s hair from his face, but that would be creepy.

Jon complied instantly and was snoring in seconds. Martin winced in guilt. He hadn’t meant to compel Jon, but perhaps it was for the best.

“Good night,” he whispered.

He went to the hallway window, cracked it open, and leaped into the night, transforming into a bird mid-fall. If he was stuck with vampirism, he may as well be overdramatic about it.