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A Comfortable Distance

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Life had been difficult, before. Technically it still was, but the fog put a comfortable distance between him and his problems.

(Sasha, who he couldn’t remember. Tim, who had barely even been himself by the end. Elias, smugly sitting in his jail cell, watching as everything unfolded. Jon, lying still and silent in that cold hospital bed. His mother, who had refused his visits right up until the end- this list went on.)

 At the beginning of his time as Peter’s assistant it had been difficult to cultivate that space; to coolly avoid Basira and Melanie’s question, to hurry past the greetings at the doors of the institute, to carefully time his trips to the break room to ensure he didn’t get caught in conversation. Now, it was easier that breathing.

Now, it was difficult to remember why he had ever been hesitant to let the Lonely in.

Now, he tapped away at Elias’s computer, in Elias’s office, sitting in Elias’s chair while Peter Lukas occasionally swept in to tell him how special he was. How important. He nodded along seriously, and managed to stop himself from rolling his eyes at how poorly Peter hid his sickening self-satisfaction, how proud he was of pulling the wool over poor Martin’s eyes in this pathetic attempt to one up his husband. Peter’s hands were cool and heavy when they patted his shoulder, and when Martin shrugged them off, repulsed by his closeness, his eyes fluttered shut for a moment, savouring how deeply Martin wished the office was empty once again. When he faded from sight, Martin let out a breath and got back to work.

He got much more done nowadays.

“Goodness, Martin, isn’t it cold in here! How about we close this window?”

He raised his eyes from the screen to watch as Rosie bustled in to pull the window closed, fussing with the blinds for a moment before turning to face him. Rosie was one of the only employees of the institute who still seemed able to find the office: most people found themselves on the top floor with no idea why they’d come up the stairs at all, shaken by the knowledge that they really ought to get back to work and away from the horrible quiet. Emails were much easier to deal with anyway.

“I tried to call up, but that phone of yours must be acting up again,” she said, smiling wearily at him over the rim of her spectacles. Martin hummed in vague agreement and wondered if working at the institute so long had somehow rubbed of on her. He could think of no other reason she was even able to still see him. He turned back to the draft of the latest email of condolence to a mysteriously vanished employee’s family and waited for her to get to the point.

“Jonathan’s back from the hospital, can you believe? I saw heading down to the archives: thought you might want to welcome him back yourself. Still looks awfully unwell, the poor dear.”

Martin’s hands stilled. The room’s temperature plummeted.

“He’s back?”, he managed to ask. His lips felt numb. Rosie smiled again, oblivious.

“Oh yes! He came around last week, I still can’t imagine why he’s being allowed back. I told Mr. Lukas to pass on the word- Did he forget?”

“Must have.”

He felt his heart pound nauseatingly in his chest, and reconsidered his earlier encounter with Peter. He had seemed cheerier than normal. A real twinkle in his eye. Martin’s hands clenched, and he let out a careful breath.

“I think you’ll be going now, Rosie”, he said. She opened her mouth, brows furrowed, to ask what he meant, but when he blinked, he was alone. Fog lapped at his ankles as he carefully set his glasses aside and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Of course. Of course it couldn’t be easy. Of course he wouldn’t be able to peacefully surrender himself to the lonely, bit by bit. He struggled to keep his breathing under control – Jon was in the building. Jon was downstairs. Jon was alive, properly alive, and Peter had kept it to himself, like it was all some kind of game, like it didn’t matter-

No. This wouldn’t change anything. He still needed to assess this emerging power. He still needed to keep his place at Peter’s side. If anything, knowing Jon was back should make his task easier to shoulder. To justify.

He took a deep breath and focused on the stillness in the office. At the edge of the Lonely, the streets outside were quiet: it barely even felt like London. With his next breath, he drew the swirling fog into his lungs and held it there: it curled around the ugly, aching feelings torn up by Jon’s reappearance; not quite soothing, but numbing, until he felt able to push them neatly to the back of his mind. After a moment, his heartbeat slowed to its usual cold, sluggish pace, and the heat that burned in his eyes ebbed away.

He slipped his glasses back on and turned back to his computer. Usually he tried to avoid spending too much time in the Lonely when he worked: the cold usually made it difficult to focus. Right now, that chill felt like a balm.

He’d have to have a word with Peter later. Right now, he had things to do.