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the midnight hour is close at hand

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A sharp gust of wind sliced through Martin’s jacket and he shivered, shoulders stiff. It was only October. It should be illegal for it to be this cold already. Jon had his hands locked on Martin’s arm in a death grip– but that might have had more to do with their destination than the weather, as his grip got tighter and tighter with each step they took.

“If you want to just take the whole arm,” Martin said, “all you need to do is ask.”

Jon startled, nearly dropping Martin's arm entirely. “S-sorry.”

“You’re okay.” With blood circulating in his arm again, Martin took the opportunity to readjust his grip on the small pumpkin they had picked out at the grocery store. It was surprisingly heavy for its size, making the distance from the bus station to the house that much more bloody annoying.

“I am …” Jon started, then breathed a nervous laugh. “I am starting to reconsider this whole venture.”

Slowly, Martin stopped; Jon, whose fingers were already starting to dig into the flesh of Martin’s bicep again, was drawn to a halt.

“Talk to me,” said Martin, and Jon sighed.

“I just don’t … know anyone there. What’s the point of going to a party if you don’t know anyone?”

“I’ll be there,” Martin said with a reassuring smile, but it was a wasted effort– Jon’s eyes had slid down to the payment. “It’s not like I know much of anyone either.”

“That’s different. People like you.”

“People like you, too.” That earned him a scoff and Martin frowned. “The point is to meet people. Make friends. You were just saying the other day you wanted to know enough people to start that old person’s movie club, yeah?”

A black-and-white film appreciation get together, yes,” Jon said, snobbish, and Martin snorted. “What am I even supposed to talk about?”

“We’re going to a Halloween party. On Halloween. With other people who, presumably, also like Halloween." Martin smiled. "You’ve already got at least one talking point baked right into the setting.”

Jon chuckled, haggard. “You always make it sound so easy.”

“Hey,” Martin said, touching Jon’s chin. He waited until Jon dragged his eyes back up from the pavement. “Worst comes to worst, we’re going to carve our little pumpkin, and we’re going to drink our hot apple cider, and we’re going to have a good time.”

Jon stared at him for a long moment, eyes distant, before, at last, he let out a long breath, his stiff posture unwinding. Believing Martin, if only a little. “Yes. Yes, you’re right, of course. I’m just … being silly.”

“You’re fine. It’s okay to be a little nervous, you know.” Martin pressed a kiss over his chapped lips, finally coaxing out a small, albeit shaky, smile.

“I am looking forward to the cider,” Jon murmured as they continued walking down the pavement. “I’ve never understood the appeal of pumpkin carving, though. It’s so much effort and it’s just … gross. And it never turns out well.”

 “Well, I guess it’s up to me to show you how to properly gut a pumpkin. If you toss some cinnamon in afterwards, it smells like pumpkin pie.”

“Nothing like masking the scent of a violent disembowelment to get in the Halloween spirit.”

Martin pinched his side, earning himself a giggle. “You're a sassy little man, you know that?”

"It's been brought to my attention once or twice."

They continued their light, amicable conversation, with Jon seeming to hold himself together. His back was straighter, his shoulders relaxed. But, as the house started coming into view, Jon’s fingers started tensing again. But, when they rang the doorbell, Sasha James answered, and Martin relaxed. Jon, for his part, looked as if he could have sunk to the ground in relief.

“Hello, Sasha,” said Jon.

“Where have you two been?” Sasha asked, squeezing them both in a tight hug before ushering them inside.

“Sorry,” said Martin. “Got a bit held up picking out this little guy.”

“Ah, of course. You can go ahead and leave it in the living room, if you like– we’ve got a few stragglers we’re waiting on. Open bar, if you're interested.”

Saying their thanks and see you laters as Sasha re-joined the crowd, the two of them hung their coats on the rack before wandering further inside. Classic Halloween music was playing on some unseen speakers, the sound mingling pleasantly with the low drawl of amble conversation. Pretty decent turn-up. Martin recognised a few of the others already here, although he wasn’t on friendly enough terms to warrant a greeting.

“The decorations are good,” said Jon, eyeing the paper bats and bowl of foggy punch. His voice was even, betraying none of the nervousness from before. The hand still clutching Martin’s elbow, though, gave him away.

“Yeah,” said Martin. “We’ll have to pass our compliments onto the host. I think it's one of Sasha’s friends from the photography club.”

“I’ve met him,” said Jon, much to Martin’s surprise. “Trevor. He’s nice.”

Martin tried to hold back his pleased grin. That was good; maybe Jon could have a nice conversation with this Trevor guy later. Leading them through the crowd, Martin had just barely let himself believe that tonight would be smooth sailing, until, bursting through the doorway–

Heeyyy , welcome to the–!” Tim paused at the sight of them, and they all froze. “Oh.”

Whatever façade Jon had managed to make cracked ever so slightly, and he subtly tucked himself closer to Martin’s side. Out of all of them, Tim recovered the fastest, his blazing smile returning.

“Sasha mentioned you guys were coming. Glad you could make it.”

“Um, yeah,” Martin said. “Glad to see you, too, Tim. It’s been a hot minute, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah,” Tim said, his smile firm. Jon was silent, eyes trained to the paper bat trail. Tim rubbed the back of his neck, before clearing his throat. “Right, well. See you for the pumpkin carving, then. Me and Sasha have got this absolutely knock-out design, you’re gonna love it.”

“We’re probably going to keep it simple–” Martin gently elbowed Jon’s side. “Jon hasn’t carved many pumpkins.”

Swallowing, Jon finally looked up. “Um, hello, Tim. Nice seeing you.”

Things got awkward again. “Yeah. Nice seeing you, Jon.”

With an awkward little wave, Tim vanished back into the ground, leaving Martin and Jon the hallway. Jon brought a hand to his face, what little confidence he had long gone. “You didn’t tell me he was going to be here.”

“Sasha’s here, of course Tim’s going to be here, too,” Martin tried, before giving up with a sigh. “I didn’t even think of it, honestly. But, look, I know what you think, but he clearly doesn’t have any hard feelings, yeah? Just try not to worry about it.”

Jon groaned, looking as if he wanted to meld into the dark little corner of the hallway and stay there for the rest of the night, and Martin’s heart squeezed with sympathy. He took hold of one of Jon’s hands, pulling it away from his face, and smiled gently. “Come on, let’s go sit down, my feet are killing me. Get some snacks while we're at it."

Jon let himself be led into the living room, barely able to bully his face into the calm, neutral expression he wore just a few moments ago. There was already a sizable crowd gathered there, but they were able to secure a spot on the couch.

“I’ll grab something from the snack bar,” said Martin. “What would you like?”

“Cider,” Jon said, quickly. “Please.”

Ah, as if it even needed saying. He smiled, and then deposited the pumpkin into Jon’s lap. “You take care of him now, you hear?”

Jon arched a brow. “Pumpkin vines that bear fruit are female, but if we’re already committing to the absurd act of assigning gender to an inanimate object …”

Martin rolled his eyes and kissed the smirk off of Jon’s mouth. At least the man was feeling well enough for his usual snark. He then mad his way across the house, going to the bar first and flagging down the bartender. “Two cups of hot cider, please.”

She winced. “We’re waiting till the carving before we start passing out the cider.”

“What? Why?”

“Our drinks guy messed up the order, so it’s a bit limited. Sorry.”

Oh, come on. Who doesn’t stock enough apple cider for a Halloween party? Shaking his head, Martin instead turned to the snack table– they were just going to have to wait a little bit longer. At least, in the meantime, they could tide themselves over with a slice of a cake shaped like a happy little ghost. The eye looked like it was made out of cookies– Jon was definitely going to want some of that.

He was halfway through carving the second slice for himself when another person approached the table. Martin glanced reflexively out of the corner of his eyes, and then nearly dropped the knife.

“Georgie?”

Georgie looked up at him, and her expression reflected his own dawning horror. “Oh. Hey, Martin. How’s, uh … how’s it going?”

“G-good.” Martin stood there awkwardly with his cake slices. If Georgie were here, then that must mean … “Um. I didn’t know you and Melanie would be here.”

“Fancy that,” Georgia said with a weak chuckle. “I didn’t know you and Jon would be here.”

They both grimaced and the silence was thick enough to choke on. Too desperate for niceties, he turned back towards the living room. “Well, I hope you guys have a nice time tonight!”

Georgie, at least, looked relieved. “Yeah, you too.”

When Martin entered the living room again, he could have groaned. The circle of people had gotten a bit bigger, with a relaxed, smiling Melanie having joined in, currently leading the conversation. On the outskirts of the circle was Jon, looking very much like he was sucking on something intolerably sour. Skirting the edge of the circle, he held out the cake slice. Jon stared at the plate,  brow furrowed in confusion.

“No cider?”

“Sorry. They said they’re going to serve it later.”

Jon groaned, lowering  his head. “Melanie’s here.”

“Saw that,” said Martin with a wince. “Promise you won’t pick a fight?”

She’s the one that insists on escalation–”

“Jon.”

Grumbling, Jon crossed his arms and looked away, which Martin gracefully interpreted as a concession. “Georgie’s here, too,” Martin added with a wince.

Jon groaned again, curling until his forehead pressed into the pumpkin. “I am … beginning to think there might be some otherworldly force conspiring against me here.” With a slow sigh, he straightened up, accepting the cake and slicing off a piece. “Thank you.”

Smiling, Martin took his seat. “Of course.”

They nibbled on their food, Martin’s attention half on the conversation and half on Jon. The circle was starting to grow wider as everyone filtered into the living room– Georgie appeared not long after, passing a drink to Melanie, who accepted it with a smile. Jon’s shoulders hunched ever so slightly, making himself smaller.

Occasionally, people walked up to them and made polite conversation, which Martin engaged with and Jon made a bracing attempt, but more often than not falling back into monosyllabic answers. That was, until, a man Martin only vaguely recognised approached them.

“Hey there, I’m Trevor,” the man said, shaking Martin’s hand. Host Trevor? “Hope you’re having a good time. You’re Sasha’s friends, right?”

“That’s us,” said Martin while Jon made a stiff nod. “You have a lovely home– Jon and I were just talking about how nice your decorations are.”

“Oh god, thank you so much for saying that,” said Trevor, shoulders sagging. “We spent hours cutting up those little bastard bats. But, hey, tis the season– you have to go all out for the best holiday, right?”

Jon made a soft noise of agreement, drawing Trevor’s attention. His brows crinkled, before his eyes brightened.

“Hey, I think know you. You're the guy that helped Sasha with our presentation on early American film history a few months ago, right?”

“Oh, uh,” Jon straightened, looking terribly lost. “Y-yes, I suppose that was me.”

“The guys in multimedia loved it. I can’t believe Sasha never introduced us!”

“She, uh, I imagine she's been very busy lately."

Martin perked up. “You know, Jon is looking to start a black and white film club.” That earned a panicked glance from Jon, but Trevor lifted a brow, leaning forward.

“Yeah, that sounds pretty cool. I’m not much of a movie buff but go ahead and keep me in the loop, okay? I'll find you on Facebook later."

Slowly, Jon nodded, and Trevor clapped his hands together.

“Alright, I’m gonna start rounding everyone up for the carving. See you guys after.”

“Thanks for dropping by,” Martin said as Trevor left, threading himself back into the crowd. He turned back to Jon, letting a smile overtake his face. Jon rolled his eyes, but couldn’t hide a small, pleased smile himself.

At the front of the room, Trevor was waving his hands. “Alright, everybody, we’re going to take the party outside now! We’ve got a fire pit going but grab your jackets anyway, it’s a bit chilly.”

Following Trevor’s directions, the party shuffled their way outside, taking their seats in the blanketed grass. Though the chill was still very much present, they had found a seat close enough to the fire that it was actually quite nice. Even Jon, with his too-thin spring jacket, looked comfortable. Someone handed out their carving tools, and Martin had just drove his knife into the back of the pumpkin–

“Go on, guess how many people have died there since 1994.”

It was Melanie and company, set up not too far from their own spot. Georgie was holding a piece of tracing paper with a spooky black cat on it. Oh, that’s a way better design than what Martin and Jon had planned– they were just going to make a goofy Jack-o-Lantern face.

Don’t, you’re freaking me out!” said one girl, pulling Martin out of his musings. “My parents take their boat on that lake all the time!”

“50,” guessed another, and Melanie shook her head.

“160,” she said, earning a murmur of astonishment and one low whistle. “That’s about 5 drownings or missing persons reports per year. It’s one of the most haunted lakes in the UK.”

“Well, you know why that is, right?” Jon asked, sudden. The crowd turned to the both of them, Melanie’s eyebrows lifting, and Martin tensed.

“It’s bad construction,” Jon continued. “The lake was originally made for floodwaters and conservation, not recreation. So, the waters are murky and the bottom is mostly vines and tree roots– that's why so many people drown. I wouldn't go so far as to call it haunted.”

“Right. Thanks,” said Melanie, eyes glazed, and Martin could have brought a hand to his head. “I do tend to put in a little research into the sites my crew and I visit, but, yes. Thank you.”

“Oh. I didn’t …” A touch of heat crawled onto Jon's face, and he cleared his throat. “But … but then why waste your time going there when you already have such a banal explanation?”

“Look, you know what my channel is about by now, so just, you know,” she shrugged, turning back to the others, “forget about it.”

There was a muttering through the crowd as the conversation picked back up, some of them side eyeing Jon distastefully, and Jon's flush deepened.

“I …” he murmured. “I feel like I've made a misstep."

“You didn't–” Martin started, then sighed. “You shouldn't worry about it. You know how the both of you get, yeah? Now, come on, they’re going to start serving the cider soon."

“But I was just sharing a fact,” Jon said, fidgeting with the paring knife. “If she didn’t insist on being fanciful, she wouldn’t have to keep wasting her own time like this.”

Martin let out a long breath, because how should he explain it? Because Jon was just sharing a fact, something that interested him, and voicing his concerns in his own Jon-way. But, sometimes … that Jon-way had a tendency to–

“I’m sorry, do you want to run that by me again, Sims?”

Martin cringed– Melanie was staring right at them, looking entirely out of patience. Jon huffed through his nose.

“I just don’t understand why you put in all this effort and energy following up these sightings–” he said with finger quotes “–and hamming it up for 12-year-olds on the internet when you could be going through the proper channels and act like a proper scholar. Why not put your talents and intellect into something more productive?”

“Jon,” Martin whispered, frantic, but Melanie’s eyes were darkening with anger. She took a long, slow breath, fighting to keep her shoulders relaxed.

“Look, Jon, I know you and I don’t really see eye to eye on a lot of things, but there’s just a point where you have to leave the books behind, you know?” For a moment, the anger broke a bit, and a gentle sparkle lit her eyes. “That’s what makes it so exciting because you just never know. There’s always the chance of discovering something new, in the field–”

“You really think you and your YouTube crew are going to find and prove something no one’s ever been able to?”

Martin winced, and Melanie cooled.

“Oh, give it a rest, King,” said Tim from across the way, sipping from a can of beer. “You’re never gonna get through to him. One time, all of us went on a haunted house tour in Winchester and he got into a spat with the tour guide because her 'deductions were flawed'. Nearly made the poor thing cry.”

Tim ,” Martin hissed at the same time Sasha smacked his arm, earning a baffled look from Tim, but it was too late. The crowd twittered around them, some laughing, and Jon's face was dark with humiliation.

“See, this is why you can’t do stuff like me and my crew, Sims,” said Melanie. “You’ve got no imagination. Or a sense of adventure, at that. You never just let go and have a little fun.”

“I …” Jon swallowed. “I do fun things.”

“I bet your boyfriend had to drag you here tonight, didn’t he?”

Jon bristled, nerve-struck, and Martin held out a hand. “Guys, please–”

“Anyone with a camera can prance about some lake and call themselves a ghost hunter,” Jon snapped. “It doesn’t make you nearly as interesting as you think it does.”

“Are you kidding? Do you have any idea how much time and effort we put into filming and editing? Not to mention needing to have a drop of charisma.” She turned to Martin. “How do you put up with him?”

Jon flinched as if he’d been hit.

"Hey," Martin snapped at Melanie, because that had clearly been too far–

“Is everything alright over here?”

The crowd all looked up at once to Trevor, who had entered the folds with a concerned expression. A flash of realisation lit Jon's eyes, as if he'd suddenly remembered where he was.

Georgie reached for Melanie’s arm. “Melanie–”

“What? He started it! He always starts it!” She surged towards Jon. “Why don’t you go to the lake and film an episode, if it’s so easy? Do something cool and exciting for once instead of acting like a smarmy arshehole.”

All eyes were on Jon, including a bewildered Trevor. Jon, stiff with panic, shot his eyes towards Martin, and Martin shook his head. They could still fix this if they just–

“Look, I don’t know you guys or your history,” said Trevor, holding out his hands. “But if it’s going to be a problem, I would really appreciate it if you took it somewhere else.”

The crowd erupted in muttering, and Jon’s face only grew more, impossibly flushed. Martin was entirely unprepared, then, when he dropped their little pumpkin, got to his feet, and stormed back into the house.

Jon,” Martin said, lurching to his feet.

Melanie– ” Sasha hissed, and Melanie’s eyes were indignant.

“I didn’t think he’d actually go–

Martin closed his eyes as the sounds of an argument started swelling up. He took off after Jon, pausing for one moment as he reached the baffled Trevor. He opened his mouth, but, God, what did he even say? Hope we’ll still see you at movie club!

“Sorry,” he managed finally, and Trevor, at least, didn’t seem angry; only confused. Martin hurried into the house– Jon was halfway down the pavement by the time Martin made it outside.

Jon ,” he called, rushing to catch up. He clapped a hand on Jon's shoulder. “You don't need to leave. I promise it's not that bad.”

Jon’s lips thinned, and Martin knew he hadn’t been believed even before Jon shook him off and continued marching down the pavement, arms wrapped tightly around himself.

“Where are you going?” Martin asked, answered with silence. He hissed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “You’re not actually going to the goddamn lake, are you?”

“You’re welcome to stay behind,” Jon snapped, shoulders tight and defensive, and Martin dug the heels of his hands into his eyes.

Forget it. Martin wasn’t about to try reasoning with Jon when he got like this. Maybe in a few hours, after he’d calmed down, but certainly not now. Hell, he was half-tempted to take Jon up on his offer; go back to the party, apologise on his behalf, maybe, oh, I don’t know– have a good time?

But it was a temptation based entirely on spite. Of course, he wasn’t about to let Jon go to the bloody lake alone; with his luck, the man would fall in and drown. Would it kill Jon to take these sorts of things into consideration, though? Take Martin into consideration?

So, Martin fell into Jon’s pace, tucking his hands into his pocket. Jon said nothing, and together they made their way down the pavement in silence.