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In the Absence of Solitude

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It wasn’t normal for Martin to be late. Jon reasoned that he had probably just missed the tube or overslept. Obviously, Martin was now on his way, minutes from walking through the door while he scrambled desperately to get his folders and notes together for another long day at the Archives. 

“Just forget about him,” Jon muttered, readjusting his glasses. It was easy enough to distract himself with the tower of unread statements. He was barely able to peek over the top edge of the papers. Jon began to slowly and deliberately thumb through them, licking his thumb lightly to flip through the crinkling sheets. He reshuffled a particularly disjointed stack, wincing at a cut on his thumb from a sharp corner of paper. 

Carefully, he pushed the reorganized pile onto the edge of his desk. Jon reached to the left for a sip of tea to calm his growing annoyance, when his hand waved through empty air. Where a mug of tea usually was, there now was nothing, save the water ring on the desk.  He never thought he would miss the sound of a tea kettle boiling as much as he did now. 

He tore his thoughts back to the pile of papers on his desk, his eyes absentmindedly tracing the woodgrain in the dark mahogany table. Drumming his slender fingers next to the papers, Jon cleared his throat to begin a new statement, and startled as the tape recorder neatly clicked itself on.

“Ah, that’s... weird,” Jon examined the tape recorder, turning it over softly in his palm. The tape recorder’s round spools stared back up at him.  Almost like eyes, he thought, a slight discomfort rising in the back of his throat. And yet the tape didn’t move or blink: a perfect picture of innocence. 

 “I could’ve sworn that I didn’t press the-'' He shook his head, dismissing the thought. Just another example of frantic thoughts and paranoia in a high stress work environment. Even after half a year as Head Archivist, he still swore that he heard the distinct sound of tape recorders clicking on and off while he worked late into the night. Uncanny, sure, but not unheard of. 

He cleared his throat again and began, “Statement of Danielle Romano, regarding her experiences in the Fairview Shopping Mall, and the disappearance of her…” he squinted at the page. “Gucci faux fur jewel studded handbag,” Jon could barely get through the rest of the statement. He audibly scoffed at the end, mulling over the ridiculous nature of endless store display windows and mannequins apparently reaching out from behind window grates. 

Jon took a deep breath as he turned off the recorder, reaching over to pick up a new statement. Just as he did, his phone buzzed in his desk drawer. He jostled the old drawer open with a grunt of frustration. The table shook slightly, and Jon watched in horror as the towering stack of carefully organized statements teetered off the desk where they had been balanced. 

“Shit!” He lunged forward to try and grab the last sheet as it fell, but only succeeded in throwing himself against the desk. Massaging his sternum where it had bashed against the drawer, he furiously flipped open his slide phone. “This message better be worth something for all the trouble that I’ve gone to-”

He turned over the cracked screen of the phone to reveal 18 unread texts. And, of course, they were from the one person who could cause disorganization and chaos without physically being in the Archives.

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:32 am 

good morning jon

sorry but i can’t come into work today

i’m not feeling well

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:35 am 

i hope u understand- i don’t want to get anyone else sick with what i have right now

i think i might have the flu???

 i'm not completely sure i think i passed through the symptoms of flu already into something worse

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:40 am 

haha maybe i’ll become a new statement

Haha

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:42 am 

wow that was really not funny

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:44 am 

i’m not really thinking straight right now

Haha

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:45 am 

please ignore all above messages :)

they were part of a social experiment

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:47 am 

...no they weren’t

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:49 am 

what am i saying 

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:50 am 

i’ll be back later this week to catch up on the missing reports 

see u soon X

 

Martin Blackwood (Archival Assistant)/ 8:54 am 

no wait 

shit 

 

 Jon’s eyes widened as he read the mess of texts and scrambled letters, scrolling slowly through the barrage of words. “Good lord,” he murmured. “What is this man saying?”

 


 

After much consideration, Jon decided that the best course of action would be to call Martin and make sure that he was okay. Jon took a deep breath, and pressed the green call key on the keyboard. 

It rang twice, three times. Jon started to feel relief with the realization that he would be able to leave a voicemail, which was his preferred form of communication. He was about to slide the phone closed when- 

“Hello? Uh, Martin Blackwood here.” 

To say Martin’s voice sounded bad was an understatement. His normally clear intonation was now ragged, like his voice was being dragged across cement. Instead of his bright chatter and sudden quips, there was a slowed dissonance in his sentences, and he seemed to struggle to even get a few words out. Jon narrowed his eyebrows, leaning forward in his seat.

“Martin? This is Jon. You sound awful,” Jon replied. 

Wow. Thanks,” Martin’s voice dripped with familiar sarcasm, and Jon imagined a dramatic eye roll.

Was Jon supposed to comfort Martin? No, no, of course not, that would be extremely unprofessional. Best to get right to the point. 

 He cleared his throat. “Erm, I got your texts. I felt that it was prudent to check on you; seeing as the quality of your health impacts the overall effectiveness of the Archival team as a whole, not accounting morality of this team and-” 

Jon paused at the sound of a dry and raspy laugh on the other end. It dissolved into heavy coughs by the end, and Martin took a minute to recover before fully responding. 

“Well, that’s considerate of you...sort of. I’m fine though, really. It’s not even that bad-” And with that, Martin’s voice dissolved into another round of heaving coughs, this time ending with a resounding honk of him blowing his nose. “Ah. Like I said-” he sniffed. “-totally fine.” 

Jon, holding the phone away from his ear, slowly brought the device closer, hoping that Martin wouldn’t blow his nose so close to the speaker again. “No, Martin, you are most definitely not fine,” he stated objectively. Then, without a moment of hesitation: “I’m coming over.”

“What?!” Martin’s voice pitched up, still not nearly as high as his normal tone. “Er, Jon, there’s really no need. As I said, I’m-”

Jon set his jaw. “You’re obviously in no position to take care of yourself at the moment. After all, your absence from the Archives only will delay our investigative projects, which is not conducive to the-” 

“Yeah, yeah. Archival team effectiveness, I know. Of course.” Martin sniffed and Jon heard the rustling of a coat, as if Martin was pulling something heavy around him. “Um, do you know my address?” 

“From the Archive employee records, yes.” Jon cleared away the mess of statements on his desk, crouching down to gather the sprawling sheets on the ground. Tilting the phone against his shoulder, he attempted to stack the statements back on the desk, before shoving several into his messenger bag. “I’ll be there in an hour.”

Martin didn’t respond for a moment, and Jon wondered if he had finally passed out right there over the phone. But then Jon heard his ragged laugh, soft with a hint of amusement. “Well, alright then, I guess. I’ll see you then. I can’t really, um, get up without falling over at the moment, so I’ll ask my neighbor to buzz you in.” 

Jon nodded his head and was about to hang up, when Martin coughed one more time and said, “And um, thank you, Jon.”

The call clicked off, and Jon busied himself with gathering his statements and getting ready as if to leave for the day. Anything to ignore the sense of heat that rose to his cheeks. The phrase replayed itself like a tape in his mind. 

“Thank you, Jon.” The words held an air of vulnerability and consideration that made Jon’s heart ache slightly. 

While Jon was not known as the most ...caring... person in the archives, he knew that no one deserved that hollow feeling of helplessness while sick without someone there to help. Growing up, despite his grandmother being a mostly closed off caretaker, she always made sure to care for him when he would get sick. She would sit by his bedside, reading aloud when his shivers didn’t allow him to focus his eyes on a page, and together they would traverse through book after book. He was grateful to her for that, as she taught him how to care for others, even if he was slightly out of practice now. 

Better to be stoic and distanced, he reasoned, then to let his emotions get involved with the efficiency of his team. If he admitted how much he cared, then his failure would be even more painful. 

And yet here he was, attempting to ditch work, checking his phone for the tube schedule to Martin’s flat.   

 


 

Jon poked his head out of his office, gauging the distance from the door to the basement exit. If he timed his sprint just right, he could make it past Tim and Sasha’s desks without them knowing he had left. He had put a note on his desk, assuring them that he was completely fine and taking care of field research. 

He counted the seconds until Tim looked back down at his notes, and Sasha turned around to refill her coffee. Clutching his bag, Jon took a breath in and mumurmed, “On the count of 3. 1...2...3...GO!-”

“-Hi, boss!” 

Jon startled, halfway across the hallway. He considered ducking underneath a desk, before Tim sauntered over to him and smiled brightly. 

“Ahhh, playing hooky, are we?” Tim’s eyes crinkled. “Quite the action after my encounter last week! I was barred from trying to leave early...but now of course you decide that cutting work is okay for you, huh boss?”

By now, Tim’s wide smile had shifted into a crooked grin, and he laughed lightly. “So why are you going out then? Got something special to do? Someone?” He winked. 

Jon shifted his weight and tapped his fingers together. “No, most definitely not.” He considered just flat out lying to Tim, while making up some excuse about research follow up or interviews. As the words formed on his lips, Sasha walked over, leaning on Tim’s shoulder. It was common knowledge that no one could get a lie past her, especially not Jon, whose lying skills were minimal to none. He sighed. 

“I’m actually going to go visit Martin. He’s currently feeling sick, so I’m…” Jon searched for the proper word choice that would still suggest a semblance of professionalism. “...checking up on his moral integrity and physical wellness.”

Sasha blinked. “So...you’re leaving in order to take care of him.” Jon reddened, twisting his hands. 

“No, no, it-it’s not like that, you see, I’m only going with the intention of preserving our workplace morality and-” Jon could feel his whole face heating up as he tried to explain. It didn’t help that Tim wouldn’t stop nudging Jon’s arm with his elbow (which was bony and painful), and he kept winking at him saying, “Ooooh I see how it is…” and “Field work, you said. Real believable.”. 

Sasha shoved Tim aside. “Jon, ignore him. I think it's wonderful, if not slightly surprising, that you’re leaving to go take care of Martin. We’ll see you tomorrow.” Tim turned to Sasha. 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait! Who said he’s allowed to leave work willy-nilly, but I can’t? That’s just not-” Sasha elbowed him in the ribs and he shut up with a grunt. 

“I said,” she repeated, a tight smile shot at Tim, “that we’ll see you tomorrow, Jon.” 

“Ah, thank you, Sasha. See you tomorrow,” Jon replied stiffly, and ducked out of the archives into the stairwell before he could understand the chatter between Tim and Sasha. 

His cheeks were still burning when he stepped out into the cold October air. The morning sky was heavy, with dark clouds hanging overheard. The clouds seemed like at any moment they would drop out of the sky and hit the ground like rocks. Jon wrapped his wool cardigan tighter around his shoulders, wishing he had remembered to grab his coat during his escape route earlier. 

 At the very least, he was grateful that Elias hadn’t spotted him leaving, as that conversation would have been very uncomfortable. Honestly, any conversation with Elias was unsettling. Jon couldn’t shake the feeling that Elias’s tone had always felt slightly condescending, even when congratulating him on a recent investigation. 

There was no need to get the other assistants wrapped up in Elias’s unnerving smiles and cold eyes; they already had enough going on with trying to reorganize the archives. 

Rain started to pour down in heavy sheets, and Jon ran the last four blocks. Trying not to slip on the dark London streets, he was breathing hard when he ducked into the station. He caught the tube towards Martin’s street, all the while wringing out his sopping cardigan.

 He attempted to redo his hair, which had been messed up in the rain. Although he tried to smooth his bangs back, they remained damp and disorganized in front of his eyes. His fingers curled into his cardigan as he stepped back out into the heavy rain after the tube let him out. “Just perfect,” he grumbled. “Stupid rain, stupid archives, stupid Martin for getting sick…stupid, stupid, stupid!”

Finally, Jon arrived, cold and sopping wet, at Martin’s apartment complex. He rang the doorbell, and a young woman buzzed him in. She met him in the lobby, her bleached locs stark against her dark skin. She wore a red vintage dress with lace sleeves running up her arms, and if Jon squinted, the patterns in the lace almost resembled spider webs. 

She smiled at him. Jon got the weird gut feeling that she knew something about him. He shook off the nerves and let her lead him through winding hallways to Martin’s flat. 

Jon found himself peering up at the door, feeling unprepared for what he was about to do. Before he could give himself yet another professional pep talk, the neighbor leaned over and unlocked the door. She turned back to Jon, and he could’ve sworn he watched a small spider crawl across her cheek. 

“Don’t worry, Martin gave me his spare key yesterday to let visitors in. You’re the first person to come see him,” she said, and gently squeezed Jon’s shoulder. Jon felt a weird sensation, like something had wriggled under her skin. “I’m so glad that he has a friend like you to care for him.” 

Jon tensed, trying to ignore the feeling of tiny legs crawling down his cardigan where she kept her hand. “Ah, well. I'm not really his friend- I don’t even know him, not really. I’m his boss, you see, and I have a duty to-” The woman tilted her head slightly and softly her smile widened once more. 

“Perhaps,” she replied, and then gestured to the door. “Better open the door then. Your...friend... must be getting quite lonely in there.” 

“Yes, yes, ah- thank you, for the help.” Jon started to turn the doorknob before turning around to face her. “And I’m sorry- you said your name was-” 

The woman in the vintage dress was gone. Jon sputtered at the empty hallway, and then shook his head. He opened the door and walked into the flat, closing the door behind him.

 


 

Jon took his shoes off at the door, surveying the room when he stood. The flat was small, opening directly into a space containing a kitchenette and a side room with a bathroom. There was an old couch on the other end of the rooms, propped against the window and a canopy of plants. “Good lord,” Jon murmured, “how can one man own so many plants?”

Ivy snaked up the little wall space there was, and hanging plants with macrame netting framed the top half of the large window on the wall. Little clay pots of succulents were covering nearly every table surface where there wasn’t a dirty dish or cup. 

Jon stepped gingerly around the clutter on the ground, careful not to trip over pots of house plants lining the wall. He glanced around the studio for a glimpse of Martin, and spotted a slightly open door that he hadn’t noticed before.

“Martin? Um, this is Jon,” he called out, carefully pushing the door open. Inside was a small bedroom, dark except for the dim morning lighting shining in through a curtained window, golden from after the heavy rains. A low bookshelf ran along one of the side walls; the shelves contained a sparse amount of books. Near the bed was an old desk, covered in yet more plants and a mess of papers. Jon could barely make out an old record player tucked under the flood of papers. More pots of succulents lined the dresser, amidst the clutter of Martin’s archive keys and his Magnus Institute ID card. 

Jon’s eyes scanned over to the bed on the other side of the room, where he located a Martin sized lump curled up in the blanket. He walked over, damp socks squelching slightly on the wood floor. 

“Martin? Martin, it’s me,” he approached the blanket, where he could now see that the covers were pulled up above Martin’s face. 

Jon wondered how long Martin had been curled up under that blanket, alone and shivering, wishing that someone was there to help him. His chest ached. 

He brushed the top of the blanket with his fingertips. “I’m here, Martin. Do you mind if I move the blanket? I want to make sure you can breathe under there.” 

A little “mhmm” emerged from the covers, and Jon folded the blanket over. Martin peered up at him, his eyes bleary and his dark skin beaded with sweat. He sleepily looked up at Jon, and coughed. 

“Hi Jon. Good to see you,” he rasped. Jon could now tell that Martin’s dark brown eyes were slightly glassy, and that he was shivering slightly. 

“Hey,” Jon replied, smiling softly. “I’m here.” He felt the urge to brush Martin’s curls from his glistening brow. He wanted to hold him and tell him “it’s going to be okay,” over and over again. But he quickly pushed those thoughts down, instead clearing his throat and turning away. 

“Um, if you want to, I can help you out of bed if you want to take a lukewarm shower or bath. The water vapor will help to clear your sinuses, and you might feel slightly better afterwards. Does that sound okay to you?” he asked, immediately hoping that Martin wasn’t overwhelmed by the amount of questions. Martin blinked. 

“Yeah, a bath sounds good actually,” he replied. “Could you, ah, help me get up?” 

“Of course,” Jon said, and paused. In a split second, he thought of all the work place regulations, the emphasis on research effectiveness over emotional care. Then, the only thought in his mind was “Fuck it,” and he wrapped an arm around Martin’s chest. Martin shifted his weight off the bed with a grunt, and leaned on Jon in order to get his feet on the ground. 

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Jon asked. “If you’re dizzy or unsteady on your feet, it’s not safe to take a shower or bath.” 

“No, no, I’m okay,” Martin replied. “Just - ah - weak. I guess. I haven’t gotten out of bed in...a while...so I just have to adjust to being back on my feet.” 

“Alright. But if you feel unsteady, tell me, okay?,” Jon said, and he wanted nothing more than to hold him where he stood, to support him as he recovered bit by bit. He shoved that thought down with the rest. “I’m going to go draw your bath. Just sit tight, okay? I’ll be right back.” 

Martin nodded, and Jon walked to the bathroom to start preparing his bath. The minute he walked in, he was hit with the familiar scent of coconut and peppermint. It was Martin’s smell, and as Jon noted, the main scents of his hair products. He neatened up the shampoo and moisturizer oil on the counter where they had been lying sideways, before snapping his thoughts back to the task at hand. 

Jon ran the bath at a lukewarm temperature, and set out a towel from the side closet on the counter. He admired his work for a moment, and then went back to the bedroom to let Martin know it was ready. 

There, before walking in, Jon peered out from the slightly ajar door at Martin, who was sitting on the side of the bed in his shorts and t-shirt where Jon had left him. He had his chin in his hands, and a small smile on his face. Jon cleared his throat. 

“Um, the bath is ready. I’ll just- I’ll just wait in here,” he said. Martin mumurmed a soft “Thank you,” as he shuffled past, and his and Jon’s eyes met for a moment before Jon tore himself away. 

While Martin was gone, Jon cleared away the clutter on the bedroom floor, placing the clothes on the floor in a hamper in the closet. He opened the curtains, letting the golden morning light shine in. He then went to Martin’s bed, and changed the sheets with a new set from the closet. Making sure to switch out the silk cover on the pillow case for a new one, Jon surveyed the room one last time. By then, half an hour had passed, and he went to the kitchen to prepare a cool compress and new mug of tea for himself and Martin. 

He shivered once, feeling the pressing weight of the still wet cardigan around his shoulders. The button up underneath wasn’t much better off.  Just suck it up, he thought. I’m supposed to be thinking about Martin’s wellbeing, not- 

“Jon? Um, are you okay?” Martin’s raspy voice filled the room. He was wearing a tank top and flannel pajama pants, leaning against the doorway. Jon noted that the smell of peppermint hair oil filled the room. “Did I just see you shiver? Are you cold?” 

Jon gaped at him. The person with a high fever and racking cough was checking up on him? 

“I’m completely fine, Martin. The real question is why you aren’t back in bed resting.” he replied, wrapping his soggy cardigan around him. 

“To be honest, I came in here to check in when I heard the tea kettle. No offense meant, of course, I’m sure your tea making skills are...more than subpar.” Martin said, the side of his mouth turning in a small smile. 

“My tea making skills are, in fact, extremely admirable if I do say so myself,” Jon huffed. “Here, try for yourself.”

Martin took a sip from the offered mug, and pretended to mock gag, which turned into a series of coughs. “Well, Jon,” he laughed, recovering from the coughing, “I think you succeeded in making me feel even more sick with this tea. Congratulations.”

Jon rolled his eyes with a smile spreading across his face. He had a soft spot for dramatic acting, and couldn’t help but laugh at Martin’s reaction to the tea. 

“Anyway,” Martin said, pushing the cup across the kitchen counter. “I’m not really in the mood for tea. First order of business: you have to change out that wet cardigan.” Jon’s smile dropped. He crossed his arms, feeling an uncomfortable squish where the cardigan pressed wetly against his arms. 

“Really Martin, I’m fine. You’re the one who should be relaxing and-” Martin held up a hand, and Jon tightened his lips. He’d never seen this side of Martin before, who was now direct with a biting sarcasm. Sure, he’d seen slivers of this Martin show through occasionally at the Archives, but never before had he seen him act so forward.

“Honestly, Jon, this request isn’t even about me worrying about you catching a cold or anything like that. It’s um, well-” Martin held in a laugh. “You kind of smell like a wet sheep.” 

Jon self consciously sniffed his shoulder, and sure enough, Martin was right. He had been so focused on taking care of Martin that he had overlooked the consequences of his wet wool cardigan. In addition to being uncomfortable and cold, he also smelled exactly like a sheep caught in a rainstorm. He went beet red. 

“Ah. So I do. Um, what should I do, do you have a hair dryer I could borrow or should I-”

“If you want, you can borrow one of my jumpers. From the closet,” Martin replied, and a warm blush spread across his cheeks. “It may be a bit big.” 

“Alright,” Jon said, looking down and ignoring the warmth in his face. “That sounds good. I’ll- um- I’ll let you know when I’m changed.” He handed the cool compress to Martin, and walked into the bedroom. 

He ran his fingers across the jumpers hanging in the closet, feeling the textures of the different wools and materials. The ridges on the cable sweaters felt especially nice. He rubbed the different colored cable sweaters between his fingers before settling on a dark grey one. When he switched out his old cardigan and pulled the new sweater over his head, it hung loosely around his chest. 

The neckline draped over his shoulders, exposing his collar bone, and the sleeves were chunky and covered his hands. He felt enveloped in the sweater, and flapped his hands slightly, smiling at the comfortable weight of the sleeves. Somehow, he felt...safe. 

 


 

“Jon?” Martin called out from the other room, breaking Jon out of his trance. “Did you find a sweater you like?”

“Ah, yes- I did!” Jon opened the door to Martin, whose eyes lit up when he saw him. As Martin stared at Jon, his mouth gaped slightly and Jon heard a sharp intake of breath.

 Jon shifted and kneaded his hands together. He had always known he had a smaller frame and height than most adults, so he worked extra hard to be taken seriously when others towered over him. Here, his frame was practically swimming in the sweater. Do I look stupid? The question raced through his mind.

He wrung his hands tighter. This was a bad idea, he thought. I shouldn’t have- this whole thing was a mistake from the start-

Martin coughed, a small interruption to the frantic voices in Jon’s head. “Um, sorry about that- I just- with your bangs down and the sweater- you…” He cleared his throat, averting his eyes from Jon. “You-you just look a lot more… I don’t know how to describe it… comfortable? Like you look more like yourself, somehow.” He looked up. “Is that weird to say?” 

Jon ruffled his hand through his bangs. He had forgotten to restyle his hair when he was running through the rain, and now his bangs hung slightly in front of his eyes. Usually he would gel them back, so that they would be out of the way when he was working in the Archives. But now, he did feel more calm; more himself. 

“No, no, it’s not weird. I- how did you put it- I feel more like myself as well,” Jon looked up to meet Martin’s eyes. “Guess I’ll have to borrow your sweaters more often.” He paused as the implications of that phrase flashed through his head. “I mean, hypothetically speaking! In the theoretical situation where I wanted to feel more safe- I mean comfortable!- I could borrow your sweaters. Er- if you wanted to lend them to me. Ahh I- I’ve been blabbering, I’m sorry, you don’t have to-” 

Martin leaned into the doorframe, his shoulders braced against the frame. 

“Hey,” he replied, a coy smile on his face, “You can borrow my sweaters as much as you want: as long as you keep your hair down like that.” 

Jon’s eyes widened. He definitely could get used to this snarky, blunt Martin. “Alright,” he laughed, “Your sweaters for my bangs. It’s a deal.” He held out his hand, and they shook on it. 

“And now,” Martin announced, “I’m going to pass out. Excuse me.” He staggered, and Jon caught him, hoisting him to his bed with both his arms. 

Martin’s eyes fluttered, and he pulled the blankets higher up to his chin. Jon gently took the cool compress out of Martin’s hands and placed it on his forehead. 

“Get some rest,” he said, smoothing down the towel. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

 


 

“Hey, Jon? Jon? Um, Jon, do you have the time?”

Jon jolted awake from his rest on his chair. He had pulled up a kitchen chair next to Martin’s bed, remembering the reassurance of seeing his grandmother sitting there next to him as a child. Martin was awake next to him, propping himself up to look at Jon. 

“I-I’m awake,” Jon stammered. “I’m sorry, what was the question?” Martin repeated the question. 

“It’s three now,” Jon answered, glancing at his wrist watch. “You’ve- we’ve been asleep for about two hours.” He glanced at Martin, who was taking a sip from the water that Jon had set out on the bedside dresser. He gestured to the two Advil pills on the counter. “Do you want to take some ibuprofen pills? The advil will help to relieve any throat pain, chest pain: general fever symptoms. You probably should eat before taking motrin though-” 

Martin coughed, putting the water back down. “Sorry, some what pills? You said a bajillion different types.” 

Jon leaned forward in his chair. “Ah well, that’s what confuses most people, but there are actually three different clinical names for the same anti-inflammatory drug. The name Advil is the brand name for the drug, whereas the name Ibuprofen is the actual drug, and motrin is another term for the actual substance. Isn’t that fascinating? The non-brand names of ibuprofen are less expensive, but both generic and brand name drugs offer the exact same active ingredients. The capitalization of Big Pharma is a whole other discussion; I can explain that later. Anyway, all 3 names signify the same medication, which is used to help treat pain, inflammation, or fever. With this medication, you can take up to 600 mg of Advil every six hours, and they come in two different types. There is a Regular Strength pill, which is 200 mg, and there’s an Extra Strength pill, which is 400 mg. I brought you the regular strength pills, so you’re going to take three 200 mg pills every six hours. Don’t worry, I’ll keep track of time for you. Oh! I read this great article on Big Pharma and the capitalist monetization of the medicinal industry, in which they-” 

Jon took a breath and glanced over at Martin. Martin was staring right back at him, his face a mix of amazement and confusion. He had laid his chin in his hands, and had scrunched his thick eyebrows while he was listening. Jon curled his fingers around the edges of his sweater, turning away. 

“Sorry, um, sorry about that. The info dumping, I mean. I didn’t even realize I was-” 

Martin sat up quickly. “No, no- ah, don’t apologize! I- I loved listening.” Jon glanced up, loosening his grip on the soft sweater sleeves. 

“Really?”

“Really,” Martin smiled. “I wouldn’t lie about that. It makes me happy to see you excited about a topic you’re passionate about.” He nudged Jon’s elbow softly. “It made me just as happy last June to learn about emulsifiers.” Jon let go of the sweater sleeve, instead rubbing the pads of his fingers together. 

“Huh. That’s...that’s nice to know, Martin. Thank you,” he said. Martin wrapped the blanket tighter around himself, nodding. 

“Of course. As much as I would genuinely love to learn more though, I’m getting pretty hungry. It's past three and we haven’t eaten any lunch.” He rubbed his chin. “Actually, I don’t think I ate breakfast this morning either.” 

Jon reached for his phone. “Right. Er, I forgot to eat breakfast as well.” Martin raised an eyebrow, but Jon knew they had gone down this road before. No use arguing again about Jon’s work habits when Martin’s voice was already shot. “Do you want me to call for takeaway, or should I just make some broth? You should stick to plain foods today-” 

“Actually, I have an idea,” Martin replied, reaching for his phone on the desk. “If you could order in some matzo ball soup from the Jewish deli a few blocks down, that would be amazing. I loved having matzo ball soup as a kid; it’s such a comfort food for me.”  He sat up higher and flapped his hands slightly on his knees. “My family used to make it all the time-” Jon had his finger to his chin, eyebrows scrunched together. 

“Oh! Ah, I’m sorry,” Jon said. “I just- I didn’t realize that you’re Jewish-” 

“Ha, you’re probably thinking that I don’t ‘look’ Jewish, huh?” Martin laughed dryly, but there was no humor behind his laugh. “I get that a lot. But yes- Black British Jews exist. My mum brought me up with Ashkenazi Jewish traditions and holidays.” 

Jon nodded. “Got it. Sorry again, I shouldn’t have assumed-”

Martin waved his hand. “You know now.” Jon nodded once more, and Martin handed the phone over to him. He scrolled through the menu, trying to decipher the names of the dishes. 

“Um, is there any specific plate that you recommend?” Jon asked. Martin leaned over. 

“Yeah, their homemade bagel and lox spread is really good. Or you could try their potato knish, which is a pastry with potato filling inside. Ohhh, actually, the kasha varnishkes are amazing! It's a mix of kasha, which is toasted hull buckwheat, and bow tie noodles with caramelized onions.” He closed his eyes and sighed softly, seemingly imagining the taste of kasha varnishkes. 

Jon squinted at the screen, adjusting his glasses. “What is…” He paused because reading out the word. “...gah-feel-tay fish? It sounds interesting.” Martin’s eyes crinkled, and he coughed into his arm before continuing.

“Ahh, you found the gefilte fish, didn’t you?” Jon mentally noted that he pronounced it ‘geh-filt-eh’.  Martin continued. “Gefilte fish is definitely a more...adventurous Jewish dish, in my opinion. It’s- how do I describe it without grossing you out- um, it's a poached fish cake that sits in a jar of fish juice. We usually eat it for the holiday Passover, but it's fun to eat on its own.” 

Jon raised his eyebrows at the description, and then smiled. He always loved trying new foods, especially if they were important to other people’s families. It was a fun experiment for him, and he liked gathering new data about his own food interests. 

He confirmed the online order for one quart container of matzo ball soup for Martin, and a potato knish and gefilte fish platter for him. 

“Alright. The order will be here in an hour,” he said, placing Martin’s phone back down on the bedside table. “One matzo ball soup for you, and a knish and gefilte fish platter for me.”

Martin’s eyes lit up, and he smiled wide. “I can’t wait for you to try it, Jon. Eating gefilte fish for the first time is an experience, trust me. A lot of people don’t like it, but personally I have a soft spot for the weird grey mush.” 

He lied back down, and closed his eyes. Jon could see Martin’s individual eyelashes against his eyes. He breathed softly, and Jon breathed out with him, enjoying the content silence that had fallen between the two of them. 

“Jon?” Martin still faced the ceiling, his hands resting folded on his chest. Jon tilted his head towards the soft raspy voice. 

“Yes?”

“Um, this may be a strange request, but I don’t want to fall asleep again. I- I keep having disturbing dreams -I guess fever dreams- about…” Martin scoffed lightly. “Spiders of all things. I don’t know why- I usually love spiders.” He shifted his body sideways facing towards Jon, the bed creaking under his weight. “Could you, um, could you read to me or something? So I stay awake.” 

Jon’s heart practically melted as Martin gazed into his eyes. “Of course,” he replied. “It’s the least I can do. Let me get you a new cool compress while I’m at it.” He scooped up the cool towel from Martin’s forehead, his fingers lightly grazing his skin. 

He returned with a new towel and sat back down in his chair, clutching his satchel to his chest. “Um, should I just start reading? Or do you want to give me...a countdown or something?  Sorry, I’ve just never done this before. I mean, reading aloud to someone.”

Martin smiled sadly. “It’s been a long time since someone has read aloud to me. I mean, since I was so young that my memories aren’t clear. My mum didn’t want to...” His smile faded, and his eyes seemed to go cloudy, a light fog filling them. Or was that just Jon’s imagination? He nudged Martin’s shoulder. 

“Hey, it’s never too late to start,” he replied, and Martin settled back into the pillow and nodded. He closed his eyes and Jon took a breath to start reading. 

He paused, realizing that he had brought nothing with him to read. Martin was still waiting, and Jon started to pull the tape recorder and a statement out of his bag. He clicked it on and started to speak into the recorder. 

“Statement of Elliot Farell, regarding the creature in their attic that is not, and was never, a doll-” Martin opened one eye. 

“Are you seriously about to read me a statement?” he said. Jon fidgeted, rustling the statement sheet in between his fingers and clicking the recorder off. 

“They’re- they’re calming to listen to!” he stammered. “Sort of.” 

“No, Jon, definitely not,” Martin laughed, coughing into his hand. “Why don’t you grab a book off the shelf? I don’t own too many books, but those are some of my favorites.” He pointed over to the low shelf covered in books and succulents. Jon noted that there were more plants than books, and he crouched down to read the titles. 

There was a mix of poetry and fiction books, mostly high fantasy. John smiled when he saw Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke. He slid it out from the shelf. 

“Oh, this was one of my favorite books in uni. I always loved to imagine that I was just like Jonathan Strange, a witty genius at the forefront of mystery and magic,” he said, turning back towards Martin.

“If anything, you’re most like Mr Norrell,”  Martin replied. Jon crossed his arms and Martin threw up his hands. “What?? It’s true, sometimes at least, you have to admit that. You like to be the de facto leader of the Archives, and you’ll sacrifice sleep, food, and -um- friendship to go after the pursuit of knowledge. Just like Mr. Norrell with his pursuit of magic. And um, you dress like a librarian grandpa.” Jon raised an eyebrow and rolled his eyes. 

“Doesn’t matter,” he said. “At least Mr. Norrell was intelligent.” He bit back laughter. “Unlike some people…” he murmured under his breath. 

Martin sat up, laughing. “Hey, hey, hey! Who’s the sick one here- you or me? You’re supposed to be taking care of me,” he laughed, and sat up straightening an imaginary tie. “I don’t think those hurtful words are benefiting my moral and physical integrity and sustaining the effectiveness of our Archive team as a whole…” Jon burst out laughing at Martin’s impression of him. 

“Then let me take care of you, Martin! Lie back down and be quiet so I can read to you,” his face burned as he turned back to the shelf, covering his smile with his sweater sleeve. He glanced over more of the books. Maya Angelou, Terry Prachett, John Keats, JRR Tolkien… his hand hovered over The Lord of the Rings, and he picked it up from the shelf. 

“Huh. I never actually read this. Always seemed like a bit of a slog when others described it. I’ve never been into the whole ‘epic fantasy quest to save the world’  trope,” he said, glancing up at Martin. “Um, do you want me to read this to you though? You get to choose.” 

Martin nodded sleepily. “Yeah, actually, that sounds perfect. It's one of my comfort books. Just go to any of the bookmarks and start reading from there.”

Jon cleared his throat. He opened to a random bookmark, and began to read aloud. 

“In western lands beneath the Sun

the flowers may rise in Spring,

the trees may bud, the waters run,

the merry finches sing.

Or there maybe 'tis cloudless night

and swaying beeches bear

the Elven-stars as jewels white

amid their branching hair.

 

Though here at journey's end I lie

in darkness buried deep,

beyond all towers strong and high,

beyond all mountains steep,

above all shadows rides the Sun

and Stars for ever dwell:

I will not say the Day is done,

nor bid the Stars farewell.” 

 

He blinked when the poem ended, shaking himself out of a trance. He shook his bangs out from in front of his eyes, turning towards Martin. 

“That-that was..” he said. “That was beautiful. What was the context of that poem?” Martin breathed in deeply, seemingly shaking himself out of a calming trance as well. 

“Ah, sorry -um- I got a bit lost in your voice there. Haha, gotta get my thoughts back together...er, can you repeat the question?” he said. Jon asked again for the context behind the poem, and Martin fiddled with the edge of the blanket. 

“Er, it’s basically about how Sam is mourning the death of Frodo- but he isn’t really dead!- at the Tower of Cirith Ungol. Then, there’s this orc-” he covered his face in his hands. “Ahh, no matter how I try to describe it, this sounds so nerdy-”

“No, no, it sounds cool!” Jon interrupted, his chin in his hands. “Please continue.”

“Ah ok- um- when the orc finally hears Sam’s song, he accidentally reveals that Frodo is actually alive as a prisoner. Sam, being the love stricken hobbit that he is, immediately runs in to rescue him. And then the adventure continues; Frodo and Sam reunited,” Martin paused and rubbed his thumb against the palm of his other hand. “Huh. Out of all the bookmarks you chose, you happened to choose my favorite. Fate’s a funny thing sometimes, isn’t it?” 

Jon nodded slowly, sliding the book back into the shelf. At that moment, the door buzzed, and he stood up to pick up the food. 

In the kitchen, he washed his hands. After retrieving the takeaway from the door, he prepared a bowl of matzo ball soup and set out his own gefilte fish and knish on a plate. Jon heard a creak of the floorboard, and looked up to see Martin shuffling across the hall towards the table, holding a knife.

“Hey! No, Martin, you have to rest. Go sit down; I’ve got this,” Jon said. He gently pushed Martin to a chair, where he sat down without resistance. Jon gingerly took the knife out of Martin’s hand. 

“What did he need a knife for?” he murmured to himself as he put it away and set the table. He sat down across from Martin. 

“Cheers...to your speedy recovery,” Jon said, holding his cup up in the air. Martin rolled his eyes.

“You sound like a cheesy Hallmark card. But you know what...sure, I’ll make one too.”  He held his cup up. “Cheers...to you,” Martin opened his mouth as if to elaborate, but then closed it and smiled. “Yeah, that’s it.” 

Jon raised an eyebrow with a confused smile. They clinked cups, Martin looking away the whole time, unable to meet Jon’s gaze. 

“Alright,” Jon said, clapping his hands together. “Let’s see how this gefilte fish really is.” Martin laughed again, his shoulders visibly relaxing. He watched as Jon went through the five stages of grief as he took his first bite of the fish, and cracked up when Jon finally took a gulp of water. 

“Um..” he said, clearing his throat as Martin wiped the tears of laughter from his own eyes. “I didn’t expect it to be so sweet. But...I think I liked it?” 

“Ah, Jon, you can be honest,” Martin gasped from laughter and coughing in between words. “You don’t have to lie if you don't like it.” 

“I would not!”

 


 

After both Martin and Jon had finished eating and cleaning up, Jon took his seat back at the chair beside Martin’s bed. Martin had snuggled back under his covers, curling up facing Jon. The sun was beginning to dip below the London skyline, and the late afternoon light was starting to dim. It burned a deep umber through the windows as it faded beyond the clouds. There was a stillness in the room, as if even the world outside was resting. 

Jon leaned over to Martin, sliding his glasses off his face where they had squished into the pillow. Martin hummed in appreciation, and Jon hovered his hand next to the pillow. Just for a breath. 

Then, despite all the voices screaming in his mind, he gently brushed a curl from Martin’s forehead. Martin’s forehead was warm, but Jon could tell that his fever had finally broken. Jon lingered his hand on his forehead, and he heard a small sigh from Martin. Martin leaned into his hand, and he cupped his palm to fit the curves of his cheek as he turned. 

Time seemed to stop as Jon observed the dips of Martin’s cheeks, the ridges of his skin, the birthmarks surrounding his mouth. How had he not seen the softness of his face before? The dimming light shone across the room, casting a warm glow on Martin’s skin, and Jon breathed in the timelessness of the scene. 

“Hey,” Jon whispered, not wanting to break the stillness of the moment around him. Martin hummed again softly, raising a hand to hold Jons. He melted into it, forgetting anything and everything he was about to say. Except for the steady beat of Martin’s pulse in his hand, everything else was still. He breathed in again, trying to refocus his thoughts. 

“Martin,” Jon said, and the word ‘dear’ flashed in his mind before he pushed it away. “Do you still want me to make sure you don’t fall asleep?” Martin stirred, and slowly nodded. 

“Yeah, actually, just for a little more. I’ll probably turn in early tonight, but for now I still want to stay awake.” He nodded his head towards the desk table on the opposite side of Jon, where an old record player sat. “Can you play some music?”

“Any requests?” Jon asked. He was able to keep one hand held in Martin’s, while leaning over the other way and shuffling through some papers to uncover the record player and albums. 

“You can just play whatever record album is closest,” Martin murmured. “I- I don’t want to fall asleep just yet. I still want to be awake- with you.” Jon nodded. 

“I know, Martin, I’m here.” He turned towards the record player. “I’m here.” Jon had remembered working his grandmother’s record player as a kid, and he easily took the record out its sleeve and placed it gently on the turntable. He switched the turntable on, and positioned the tonearm above the record. Sticking his tongue slightly out his mouth, he dropped the stylus on the start of the record, and sound filled the room. 

Jon was enveloped in the music of a soft guitar pattern, interwoven with the tap of a tambourine.  He smiled, recognizing the soft instrumental of the song I’ll Be Your Mirror. He glanced at the album cover in his hand, which was the 1967 debut album The Velvet Underground and Nico. 

He began to nod his head, and then the vocals began with a voice that sounded high and textured.

I'll be your mirror

Reflect what you are, in case you don't know

I'll be the wind, the rain and the sunset

The light on your door to show that you're home

 

Jon had closed his eyes, mouthing the words. His hand was still holding Martin’s, and he startled as he heard a raspy low voice join in on the next verse. He opened his eyes and glanced over at Martin, who was singing along. 

When you think the night has seen your mind

That inside you're twisted and unkind

 

While Jon knew there would be many questions from Martin after this, he joined in with a harmony on the next lines. 

 

Let me stand to show that you are blind

Please put down your hands

 

Just as expected, Martin spun his head towards Jon. He mouthed silently, “You can sing???”. Jon smiled knowingly, swearing that someday he would tell Martin about The Mechanisms. For now though, it was more fun to keep his history a secret. 

He looked Martin in the eyes and sang out the next line on his own. 

‘Cause I see you

They sang the next verse together, Jon layering in harmonies throughout. 

 

I find it hard to believe you don't know

The beauty you are

But if you don't, let me be your eyes

A hand to your darkness so you won't be afraid

They repeated the last chorus together, and then transitioned into the outro.

I’ll be your mirror (reflect what you are)

 

After repeating the line five times, the music and vocals faded out. Jon removed the stylus from the record and switched the turntable off. After putting the record back into its sleeve, Jon breathed out and turned back to face Martin, whose hand he was still gently holding. 

Jon gazed at his face as the evening waned, gently squeezing his hand when he saw him start to drift off. When Martin asked him to further explain the consumerism of Big Pharma, Jon talked about the corrupt intricacies of the systems within it, and the “detrimental corruption of its exploitation”. The whole time, Martin gazed into Jon’s face. He would occasionally wipe his eyes or squeeze Jon’s hand back, still facing him and nodding along with his explanation. 

The light burned darker orange into dusk. As the sky darkened, the clouds became brushstrokes against the canvas, further dispersing across the skyline. Jon stood up to close the curtains, letting go of Martin’s hand. 

His silhouette shone on the floor from the dimming light through the thin curtains. He breathed into the heaviness of his borrowed sweater, wrapping his arms around his elbows. He felt the pressure of its weight on his beating heart, and sighed deeply. 

“Jon?” Martin whispered. His voice was like a song, and Jon turned to face him. “Can- can you stay? Just for a little longer?” 

Jon walked back, the light melting around his feet as he stepped. He took Martin’s hand. 

“Of course I will, Martin,” he replied, the light enveloping around his shoulders as he leaned his face closer towards Martin. “I will.”