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Litmus Test

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July 25th, 2014

Martin isn’t entirely sure why he chose to make dinner instead of ordering out. He’s considering calling for delivery in spite of being in the middle of chopping vegetables for a salad. It’s unusually hot, even for the summer, and turning on the oven is out of the question. In any case, he puts the knife down for now, his focus fractured. He sighs and clicks on the kettle. Ideally, some tea will soothe both him and his husband.

Martin’s lived with Jon long enough to know how wound up he gets about the end of July, and for good reason. As the 28th draws nearer, as the Ethereal Realm begins to permeate the Physical Realm, Jon can’t help but absorb at least some of those energies. Most of the time, it gets processed as nightmares. And most of the time, Martin has been able to comfort Jon and help him get back to a more restful sleep. But it looks to be building up particularly bad this year. Maybe it’s too romantic of an idea, but he kind of hoped the joy of being newlyweds would help buffer some of that, would make it easier. No such luck, it seems.

The kettle clicks off, and Martin goes to the living room. “Jon? What kind of tea would you like, love?”

Jon is curled up on the sofa, hugging his knees to his chest. He lifts his head and says, “Don’t know. Not sure I can really drink any tea right now.” He unfolds one of his arms, trembling slightly as he moves, and holds out a hand. “Could you come here, please, Martin?”

“Of course,” Martin answers, slowly stepping towards him. “What do you need from me?”

“I’m not sure,” he answers. “It’s… it’s like it’s prickling all over me. Like the heat. Like I’m about to catch fire at any moment. And I need to be pulled out, but it’s not like I can be pulled out of myself.”

Martin reaches out with his own hand, but he stops short of actually touching Jon. “Do you want me to hold you?” he whispers.

Jon looks at how close their hands are, enough to feel the heat between them but still not making contact yet. “Please?” he whispers back.

Martin gently takes Jon’s hand in his own, but he nearly pulls it back when Jon makes a soft, wounded sound. The only thing keeping him from doing so is Jon’s vice-like grip. “Jon?”

“I- I don’t understand it,” Jon tells him, getting to his feet. “As soon as you touched me, it’s like a hunger opened up in me. And your touch starves and sates it in equal measure. I don’t know what to do.” He makes a breathless little laugh. “It’s such a strange way to be scared.”

Martin’s breath catches, and he resists the urge to squeeze Jon’s hand as he doubts it would be reassuring at this time. “Are you afraid of me?”

Jon hurriedly shakes his head no. “Of course not. You’re the one thing I’m sure I’m not afraid of.” He reaches up as though about to cup Martin’s cheek. “Are you afraid? Of me? Or anything?”

“I guess,” Martin answers, “in that I’m worried for you and don’t know what to do.”

“I still want you to hold me,” Jon says, closing the distance and pressing his hand to Martin’s cheek.

Martin gasps at Jon’s burning touch, so hot he’s surprised Jon hasn’t combusted. “You might have a fever, love,” he says, and he checks Jon’s forehead with the wrist of his free hand.

“I don’t know if I’m sick,” Jon tells him, leaning into the touch. “Maybe? I’ve never been sick like this before. Please, please just hold me.”

“I don’t know if that will help,” Martin says even as he gingerly places his hands on Jon’s shoulders.

“But I can’t think of anything else for it,” Jon protests, wringing his hands into Martin’s shirt and pulling himself into his husband’s arms.

Martin sets his hands on Jon’s back when he presses in close, gently rubbing his shoulders. “H-hey, okay, it’s okay, I’ve got you,” he murmurs. He cradles the back of Jon’s head and gives him a soft kiss on his fevered brow.

Jon shudders and claws at Martin’s upper arms, gripping tight. “Martin,” he half-gasps, tipping his head and leaning up for a proper kiss.

Martin tentatively meets the kiss, and when he does a new understanding rushes through him. The heat that has built up over the day strikes him with a strange ache. The kiss smashes through him, makes him burn stronger, brighter, hotter. He doesn’t know when it will end. All he knows is that he needs to feed it.

 


 

Gertrude is not an unreasonable woman. If there’s a solution that doesn’t involve explosives, she’s willing to hear it out. Especially because she’s not even sure blowing up Stonehenge will work in this case. It’d make her feel better to blow up Stonehenge, something about the finality of destruction. And if it does the job, it’d be worth the loss of such a historic landmark. But for now, she has to put the idea aside.

“If you really want to blow yourself up to stop an invading Ancient, I won’t stop you,” Gerard promises. “But we do have a serviceable banishment ritual for once.”

“Which is all well and good if we know which Ancient is invading,” Gertrude says. “C4 is the great equalizer.”

“Because setting DeFoe Manor on fire took care of the Chzo problem,” Gerard points out. “Besides, you always like waiting until it gets underway, make sure it can’t get started again anytime soon. It could give us some time to find hints about which one’s trying to get in.”

“Probably not Chzo,” Gertrude guesses. “Not unless he’s making an early start of it. But if he is, the C4 might not work out anyway. Knowing him, he’d probably enjoy it.”

The two start their investigation of the landmark, vigilant for any signs of cult activity to go along with the creature activity. Some try to wear a human face or vocalize the way a person might. But the illusion shatters when a buzzer makes a startled cry of pain or a face morphs into a huge fist. Gunshots ring out, those of the world of magick still vulnerable to the perils of technology. More are sure to come, but they clear out the worst of the lot to buy a brief reprieve.

There are some crudely painted runes and scattered papers with writings dedicated to their gods. It doesn’t take much reading for either Gertrude or Gerard to figure out it’s not Chzo. Half the documents read like worshipful medical journals. The other half read like someone decided the Marquis de Sade was a prophet.

“You think Jack Frehorn and the Marquis de Sade ever met?” Gerard wonders aloud.

“I try not to think about that at all,” Gertrude answers. “So, disease and lust.”

“Sound like Gnix and Byarla working together.”

“But which rune to complete the banishment ritual?”

Gerard lifts up some pages and says, “We can probably find the runes in these. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out which one’s doing the invading.”

“That should be relatively easy to figure out,” Gertrude answers, getting out her phone. “The Ministry has the perfect litmus test by pure coincidence.”

Gerard’s eyes narrow in confusion before it clicks. “Which one are you calling?”

“Trilby seems like the best place to start.” Gertrude holds the phone up to her ear.

“Trilby here,” Trilby answers on the other end, the volume up high enough that Gerard can hear.

“Gertrude Robinson,” Gertrude returns. “Anything going on in London?”

“Yes, I can read my phone’s screen, Robinson,” Trilby retorts. “Not that I know of.”

“And you? Are you well?”

“No, actually,” Trilby answers. “I seem to be ill?”

“You seem to be ill,” Gertrude prods. “How?”

“Some kind of fever. And a strange sort of… itching is the only way I can think to describe it. It’s making me pretty nauseous.”

“Any boils, blisters, things of that nature?”

There’s a moment of static-y quiet and the rustle of clothes as Trilby apparently examines himself. “Not that I can see,” he says, though his breathing becomes more labored. “Fever’s weird, though. No chills. Just hot. Like I’m on fire.”

“Keep us posted with anything else you learn,” Gertrude says.

“Why?” Trilby asks. “Where are you?”

Before Gertrude explains, she puts the phone to her chest and turns to Gerard. “Call Jonathan or Martin. I’m not getting enough information from Trilby alone.”

Gerard gets out his own phone, shaking his head. “Should have called them first,” he says as he pulls up his contacts.

 


 

Martin isn’t entirely sure how he and Jon ended up on their living room floor. It started with a kiss, and that turned into kissing, but he can’t pinpoint the when or how of losing balance and pinning Jon beneath him. It reminds him of the first time Jon told him he loved him.

 

It was the first birthday Martin had after he and Jon started dating. Jon had invited him over and made him a simple but delicious dinner and a cake. (The last was under Claire’s guidance after she tried his ok-not-great test cake. Both Jon and Martin later thanked her for the help.) They had been exchanging kisses on and off all day, but once they finished dinner and a slice of cake each, they found themselves cuddled together on the futon sofa.

Jon had pulled Martin on top of him, and the two were kissing more consistently, alternating between sweet, languid kisses and more heated making out. Even then, Martin knew he would never forget the feeling of Jon’s fingers tangling in his hair or the delight that Jon’s stubble was starting to grow into a soft beard when he felt it against his neck. It was, without question, the best birthday he had up to that point.

In the actual moment of it, everything seemed to be moving so fast that it was a nigh-incomprehensible emotional crash. But looking back on it now, Martin could trace every single second of it as if it happened in slow motion. Jon had leaned up to him, placed a brief kiss on the shell of his ear, and whispered, “I love you, Martin.”

Martin abruptly pulled back and stared at Jon, who mostly looked confused at the sudden stop. When Martin could speak, he said, “That isn’t funny.”

It’s not supposed to be?” Jon said, and he had slowly resumed caressing the back of Martin’s head and neck.

Martin remained still as he inspected Jon, trying to gauge his sincerity. “Do you know what you said?” he asked.

Yes,” Jon answered, and he frowned when he understood what happened. He cupped Martin’s face in his hands. “I had been thinking it for a while now, wondering how to actually say it. I didn’t expect it to come out like that, but I mean it.” He brushed his thumb along Martin’s cheekbone. “I love you, Martin. I truly do.”

Martin’s breath hitched, and he squeezed his eyes closed to try to hold back the sudden tears, tried not to think about how Jon’s already smeared a tear against his cheek with his gesture. But it was a lot to take in all in one terrible moment, not only being unable to recall the last time anyone told him they loved him but the awful realization that he had conditioned himself not to trust love offered to him. He buried his face in Jon’s neck, and he shuddered in spite of his efforts to contain it.

Oh, Martin,” Jon sighed, holding him tight. “Oh, my love...”

That was all it took for the dam to break. Martin cried so hard, harder than he could remember crying in front of another person. Jon held him the entire time, whispering his words of love punctuated by the occasional tender kiss. It ended up being the first time Martin stayed the night at Jon’s, the first time they shared a bed, and the last time Martin cried on his birthday.

 

But this moment, this almost feels like reliving it but without the unexpected sorrow. Just this perfect moment with his husband. “I love you, Jon,” he whispers, breath hot and hands sliding up Jon’s sides. He grazes his teeth along his jaw before pulling his shirt out of the way and biting his neck.

Jon makes a broken cry in response, dragging his nails down Martin’s back and writhing beneath him. “Martin,” he whimpers. “Martin, please…”

Martin props himself up on his arms, groaning at the friction. There’s a strange, cold trickle in the back of his mind, something reminding him that this is unusual, but it vanishes at the feel of Jon’s fingers brushing against his chest as he unbuttons his shirt. He returns the gesture, ripping Jon’s shirt open and sending buttons scattering across the floor.

Jon leans up, bare skin touching as he does, and he crushes his mouth against Martin’s. He pulls Martin’s shirt away as he bites his lower lip.

“Ow!” Martin yelps, half-jumping back and touching his bitten lip. His fingertips come back bloody, and the cold awareness trickles in again.

Jon sucks in a breath. “Oh, I’m sorry, my love,” he whispers, taking Martin’s hand in his and kissing the fingertips before softly brushing his lips against Martin’s in repentance.

Martin eagerly kisses back, the feeling gone just as fast and replaced by that all-consuming heat. He takes hold of Jon’s leg, pulling it up and over his hip. He caresses his palm down Jon’s thigh as he leans forward again, coming down against Jon in a grind.

Jon reaches between them as they resume their frantic kissing, making a muffled whine as he fumbles with undoing his and Martin’s trousers. “I can’t-” he tries to explain.

Martin groans and takes Jon’s hands in his, pinning them above his head. “Oh fuck,” he ardently whispers before diving in for another kiss, teeth clacking together so hard he might have chipped one.

Jon arches up, gasping into Martin’s mouth as the two try to match each other’s thrusting, the urge to move stronger than the desire to remove the clothes in their way. Just as Jon hooks his other leg around Martin, they’re both stopped by the buzz of a phone on vibrate going off.

Martin asks, “What?” at the same time Jon asks, “Your phone?”

Martin reaches for the phone as Jon resumes peppering his face with kisses. “It’s fucking Gerry?” he asks aloud and accidentally swipes to answer.

“Martin!” Gerry says on the line the moment the call connects. “Are you and Jon alright? He’s not answering his phone.”

“Yeah, yeah we’re fine, Gerry,” Martin answers, not realizing how out of breath he was until he started talking. “Look, is this important?”

“Potentially stop the apocalypse important,” Gerry answers.

Martin doesn’t hear the very next thing Gerry says, accidentally letting out a moan when Jon bites his earlobe.

Gerry pauses a moment before asking, “Martin, are you and Jon fucking?”

Martin sputters and gently pushes Jon back on the floor so he could stop being distracted for the moment. “Why are you even asking tha-”

“Byarla. Lust elemental trying to invade,” Gerry cuts him off. “We think. If we’re right about that, stop fucking. Or if you weren’t, don’t start or you might never stop fucking.”

This time the cold trickling feeling crashes through Martin like being hit by the wave of a flash flood, and he pulls himself off of Jon completely.

Jon trembles, his shirt falling off his shoulders and pooling at his wrists as he sits up. “Martin?”

Martin looks at him, taking in the confused passion, the undercurrent of fear that had been channeling itself through the physical. During the pause, he can hear Gerry and Gertrude exchanging words on the other side of the phone followed up by a gunshot. Martin and Jon flinch at the sound, which is abruptly cut off by the call dropping.

“What the hell is going on?” Jon asks, his words steadier now than they had been all night.

As Martin tries to gather the words to explain everything, the noises of their building filter in. Either their neighbors had been quiet before or they had been too caught up in their own activities to notice it until now. They’re surrounded by the sounds of beds creaking, bodies scrabbling on the floor, and moans and cries caught somewhere between pleasure and pain.

Martin swallows and decides simple is best for now: “Probably a lust elemental?”

“Right.” Jon gets to his feet. “That, th-that explains some things.” He fixes his trousers and hunts for his phone. “Ah, I- I’m going to get some fresh air at the window and check my messages.”

Martin nods and follows suit, trying to block out the noises from the other side of the walls. He focuses instead on the sound of Jon’s footsteps, of putting his voicemail on speakerphone, and of the window being pushed open.

“Good lord,” Jon breathes.

“What is it?” Martin asks, going to join him. But then he sees it.

The foot traffic on the streets below has come to a complete stop. Couples and groups are stripping and embracing, moving in frenzied thrusts and scratches and bites sinking into flushed skin. Some are touching themselves, tearing at their chests and clawing at their crotches to overstimulation and bloody rawness. And there are huge insect-like creatures scrambling into the pornographic display with the humans. Buzzers and scuttlers penetrate the writhing bodies and lay their eggs until their impregnated victims are so weighed down they must crawl on their bellies, their moans of pain muffled from their faces crushed against the pavement.

They’ve seen enough. Jon shuts the window as his messages go on, member after member of the STP and the Ministry asking if they’re okay or if they’re aware that London’s descending into a terrifying orgy. The only blessing is that awareness of the situation is lending their coworkers some measure of control, though it’s hard to tell how long that will last. More than one voice wavered with barely restrained arousal.

“We need to barricade ourselves and try to get back in touch with Gerry,” Jon says, already looking for anything he can move to block the windows. “And now that I know what we’re actually dealing with, I need to try countering it as much as I can until they can complete the banishment ritual, assuming they’re still able to do that. Will you be able to block the door?”

Martin nods, head clearing thanks to the point of focus. “Jon?”

“Yes, Martin?”

“What do we do if Gerry and Gertrude fail?”

Jon opens his mouth a moment, closes it, then says, “I don’t know. I could go to Stonehenge, try to complete it myself? I have no idea how much time I’d have if that’s the case. I’m assuming not much if London’s already falling.”

“Jon, I won’t let you go alone,” Martin insists. “If you go, I go. That’s what I promised you.”

Jon cups Martin’s face in his hands, no longer feverish. “Martin, it won’t be safe.”

Martin returns the gesture, brushing his thumbs over Jon’s cheekbones. “It’s not safe here, either. If we can’t be safe, we might as well be together.”

Jon stares at him, mirroring the same soothing act of smoothing his thumbs over Martin’s cheekbones. He then leans up like he’s about to give him a kiss, but stops and reconsiders it, a fair assessment considering the threat of Byarla. Jon then takes one of his hands back, presses a kiss there, and then places his fingertips on Martin’s lips.

Martin takes Jon’s hand in his, knowing they have to hurry but grateful for this moment they have. With his other hand, he returns the gesture, his fingertips carrying a kiss to his husband’s lips. No other words need to be spoken, not right now.

With that, they pull away and get to their work.

 


 

“Fuck!” Gerry calls, looking over his shoulder at the remains of the entity Gertrude shot, the fat man’s humanoid shape melting away to a formless blob with a final deep, unsettling chuckle.

“You need to stay aware of your surroundings, Gerard,” Gertrude admonishes.

“Yes, thank you, by the way Byarla’s invading and with any luck I stopped Jon and Martin from fucking to death,” Gerry says.

“Thanks for the valuable contribution.” Gertrude holsters her gun. “Shall we press on?”

The two move to cover each other. Gerry takes in every breath around him, every shift, every tiny hint of a sound. If Gertrude hadn’t been here, the fat man would’ve gotten the drop on him. He can’t afford any other lapses in focus or coordination.

Gerry turns back to Gertrude when he hears her cock her gun, but only after he’s sure his side is clear and only for a splitsecond. She makes a gesture with her free hand, some kind of sign language? She moves her thumb this way and that over her lips before moving her hand outward as if bracketing something with her thumb and forefinger. He turns after another check just as she lowers her gun, finding a man already waiting at the bottom of the steps and likewise holstering a firearm.

“Friend of yours?” Gerry asks Gertrude.

“Professionally speaking,” Gertrude confirms.

The old man eyes Gerry, but he doesn’t take up his gun again. “Don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure.”

“Dangerous words when a lust elemental’s invading,” Gerry counters. “But I’ll pass, thanks. Gertrude can confirm: only professional interest in Ancients here.”

“Gerard, this is Adelard Dekker,” Gertrude introduces, glossing over Gerry’s retort and continuing her descent. “Dekker, this is Gerard Keay.”

Dekker gives him a shallow, professional nod.

Gerry’s phone buzzes. He glances at the notification and finds two texts from Martin, one with an attachment and one begging to know if he’s still alive. “Our contacts have sent me an update on the situation and asked for one in return.”

“We’ll cover you,” Gertrude says, arming herself once more.

Gerry checks the attachment, a photo of the streets of London. Yeah, that’s pretty undeniable proof that it’s a lust elemental. He sends a quick reply that yes, he and Gertrude are still alive and yes, they’re still on it. He shoves his phone back in his pocket. “Well, now we’ve got photographic evidence just to get rid of any lingering doubt. London’s busy playing Fuck-Marry-Kill only they forgot ‘Marry.’”

Gertrude hums. “The Ancients might be beyond our comprehension, but apparently subtlety is beyond theirs. At this point, the question is who’s going to banish Byarla?”

“I’m not about to miss out on the fun,” Dekker says. “But I wouldn’t mind comparing notes before I go.”

Gerry stands guard while Gertrude and Dekker talk logistics, going over the banishment ritual and the rune needed to fill it out. The agreement is Dekker will carry out the ritual, practicing each rune until he’s certain he’s got them individually and in sequence. There will be a fight beyond that with something as powerful as an Ancient, but the ritual makes it possible and keeps the fight out of the Physical Realm. If he fails, Gerry is next to attempt on the basis that he’s more capable in a fight. (Gerry mentally calls bullshit, but he doesn’t have a better counterargument and somebody has to be next in line.) If he fails, Gertrude is using the C4.

Once everything is set, Dekker gives his farewell.

“Try not to die,” Gertrude says.

“I either will or won’t,” Dekker replies. “I have no intention of experiencing a little death right now.”

Gerry snerks at that. “Won’t Byarla be disappointed: inviting you to a worldwide orgy only to find out you won’t come.”

Gertrude arches an eyebrow and says, “You’re the one who turned him down.”

Dekker cocks his gun in preparation. “Now that I know you actually have a sense of humor, I’ll have to come back.”

Gerry wasn’t expecting all the jokes, but he appreciates them more and more as he and Gertrude sit in their vigil. There is the occasional creature to destroy, and at this point it’s just a matter of waiting for them to either run out or, in the case of catastrophic failure, overwhelm them. He can’t imagine things being much better for Dekker. Everything they see here is a limb of the Ancient reaching out to them, but it’s a forced manifestation, a glimpse that does no more to tell of the whole than a square might convey the shape of a cube to a flat world. There’s only so far the human mind can bend. Even if Dekker is able to return, he might spend the rest of his life trying to convey upward but not northward.

It is quiet and still for long enough that it’s a miracle when Gerry doesn’t shoot at the first sign of movement. He hears Gertrude likewise ready herself to shoot, but both of them pause just in time.

Dekker has clawed his way out of the depths of Stonehenge, injured but alive.

Gertrude makes the same sign she did before.

Dekker returns it with a two finger salute.

“Glad to see you’ve still got your mind,” Gertrude says. “And Byarla?”

“Done,” he answers. “For now.”

Gerry gets to work helping Dekker up. The worst of his injuries is a broken leg, but they don’t have the means to splint it. It’s going to be a considerable walk to the car and then a trip to what will likely be a crowded hospital, but at least these concerns are human matters.

 


 

July 26th

Martin checks the clock, rubbing at his bleary eyes. 1:13am, a day closer to one of the most dangerous days of the year but one less threat on the horizon. Those who had been under Byarla’s sway are returning to their senses, the obscene cacophony of the streets replaced with cries of pained realization and the sirens of emergency services. Martin is able to spot some STP and Ministry people out there, and he doesn’t envy the job they have ahead of them. He’s not looking forward to taking down the barricades, either, but that can wait.

Jon is curled up on the living room sofa, desperately trying to sleep. In the end, about all he could do was draw their fellow tenants out of the grip of Byarla’s otherworldly lust one by one. Some had already caused injury, but many were pulled away from dangerous precipices just in time. There’s much to resolve, much to heal.

Martin clicks on the long forgotten kettle and picks out an herbal tea they both like. While he waits, he joins Jon in the living room.

“Jon? Are you asleep?” he softly asks.

“No,” Jon answers before sitting up, making space. “Too much to think about.”

“Can I sit?”

Jon nods.

Martin sits down next to him, careful not to touch anywhere that might be considered questionable. “I’m sorry for not stopping until Gerry called.”

Jon shakes his head, a hand pressed to his eye. “It’s not your fault. Neither of us were in full possession of our faculties.”

“Still, part of me could tell something was wrong.”

“I could, too, but I couldn’t stop it, either.” Jon leans his hand closer to Martin’s, loosely letting their fingers knit together. “Th-that was the worst of it when I came to my senses, worse than anything you did with me. I could have hurt you. I did hurt you.”

“Yeah, but it was nothing serious. You even apologized right after. I knew you couldn’t have meant it,” Martin says. “I could have hurt you, and looking back maybe I did?”

“No,” Jon assures him. “That was actually pretty… confusing?”

“‘Confusing?’”

Jon makes a brief sigh, the sort that often comes before one of his explanations. “Sometimes, especially when you’re psychic, it’s very easy to think of yourself as just a mind. That the body is just something that houses your real self. But the body is still you, and the body and mind work together. So to have these foreign physical desires mapped out in ways that sync with my romantic feelings for you, to have my mind trying to reconcile this while dealing with the memory that my body was enjoying what we were doing…”

“It’s confusing,” Martin agrees.

Jon gingerly takes Martin’s hand in his. “And you?”

“Kinda the same?” he admits, lacing their fingers together once more. “I mean, dunno if I want to do that again, definitely not anytime soon if ever. But if it had been anyone else, I’d probably be more messed up about it than I am?”

“I feel the same,” Jon tells him. “No matter what, I trust you, and I trusted you the entire time.” He gives their joined hands a squeeze. “I love you.”

Martin smiles at him. “I love you, too.”

The two hear the kettle click off, and Martin gets to his feet but doesn’t let go. “Want some tea, love?”

Jon nods and joins him. But before they move on, he kisses his fingertips and passes it to Martin like before. “In case we still don’t want to be too physical yet?” he explains.

Martin smiles under Jon’s hand before returning the gesture. “It’s a good idea, yeah. But I don’t mind just doing it anytime.”