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Like I Was Inside

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Jon was cutting it rather close.

 

His brief morning reprieve was starting to fade and he felt the itching need for companionship starting to set back in. Sasha was most likely already awake; he hadn’t checked his phone, but he was sure it contained several texts if the buzzing in his pocket was anything to go by. He should just go back in, tell them he needed a quick break and got distracted. It wasn’t unlike him.

 

And yet.

 

He brought the cigarette to his lips and lit it, taking a deep inhale. The acrid smoke flooded his veins in a euphoric hit; he couldn’t help but savor the fleeting, forbidden pleasure of nicotine. God how he missed this. It had taken him so long to quit the habit, he’d been so good for years. Tim would be sorely disappointed; he’d been the one to help him quit in the first place. “Saw you hacking your lungs out on the pavement, Sims. Need a little help?” Apparently he smoked in his uni years, something Jon found hard to believe. But he did indeed help him, said he cared. And sounded like he truly meant it. He used to distract Jon with inane chatter whenever a craving hit, passing something over he could occupy his hands with- a stress ball, a pencil he didn’t mind coming back chewed or broken. There was even a brief lollipop period until Jon grew too self-conscious from the snickers it earned him. It didn’t help that his favorite flavor was blue raspberry, and, well, you could imagine the permanent stain on his lips. Not a great look.

 

He shook himself from his musings, raising the cigarette to his lips again. So easy to fall back into old habits. No cough or clearing of the throat was necessary; it all went down so smoothly, his body welcoming it like an old familiar friend. Jon never considered himself an addict, never wanted to put a label on the vice. But that’s what he was, and it’s hard to kick an addiction-often you just replace it with another. For Jon, that was his work. And now as Head Archivist, the statements and all they encompassed.

 

He flicked the lighter on and off idly, the flame mesmerizing in the cold morning air. When did he get this? Jon didn’t remember buying it, and he would remember buying it- the web design sent a shiver down his spine that seemed to remain there, developing into lingering shudder- though perhaps it was just the lack of touch doing that. He ran a finger over the intricate design, the etching biting into his skin like a-

 

“Mrrrpt.”

 

The Duchess rubbed her head against his arm, demanding attention. He flinched, startled, before giving her head a scratch. How did she get out here?  The back door was quite heavy, and the front door still locked, as far as he knew. Perhaps an open window? 

 

“You shouldn’t be out here,” he said, taking her into his arms and stubbing out the remainder of his cigarette. “It isn’t safe, you know.” She didn’t respond, though she clearly disagreed. He would have to keep a better eye on her; she was turning out to be quite the troublemaker.

 

“Let’s go back inside. I’m sure the others miss us.”

 


 

“Can you please tell us the next time you want to wander off?” Sasha was standing by the door, her relief at seeing him quickly turning into an exasperated glare. “Just a text! I know you want your independence, but...we worry, you know.” Jon flushed, feeling suitably chastised. He was still trying to balance this... “communication” thing, and now that he had the Duchess it was so much easier to wander off like he used to. 

 

“Ah, sorry. Will do.” He watched as Sasha’s face suddenly scrunched up in disgust as she sniffed the air. Shit. He clutched the Duchess tighter to his chest, hoping that she would somehow form a barrier between him and the air. No such luck.

 

“Do you smell that?”

 

“O-Oh, that’s me- sorry, ran into someone on their smoke break. The smell tends to stick.” She seemed to buy it, giving him a pat on his shoulder as he made his way past her. He’d need to wash his coat, or the smell would pervade. He didn’t plan on taking any more smoke breaks, anyway. Just a momentary weakness, is all. 

 

“Ugh, gross. Go change.”

 

He walked back to his office, placing the Duchess on a chair and shrugging off his jacket. He searched through his desk drawer, finding the small sample of cologne he’d stuck there in case of emergency. It was the least cloying he could find, some unisex citrus-based scent with the label long worn off. He spritzed a few times and was about to gather the Duchess to his chest again when he heard a soft knock- Martin, giving him a tentative smile as he cracked the door open. “Good morning, Jon. Tim’s about to run out and get breakfast, was there anything you wanted?”

 

“Ah, no thank you.” He sat in his chair and placed the Duchess back on his lap, smothering his face with her fur as was their morning ritual. When he looked back up Martin was still in the doorway, his face slightly red. “Was there something you needed?”

 

“Oh, um-” he shuffled forward, closing the door behind him. “I was just wondering if there was a case you wanted me to get started on today? Want to be useful, you know.” He chuckled awkwardly. “Do my job!”

 

“Yes, of course,” Jon murmured, looking towards his desk. He’d pulled the Fairchild and the Denikin cases, there were probably a few more in the boxes that could stand looking over. He moved his chair back, ready to grab a few more when Martin began to speak.

 

“I could look into the Vittery case for you.”

 

Jon froze.

 

The Vittery case. It still sat in the corner of his desk, though it was piled under several books and other assorted files. Ever since he confessed to his coworkers he’d kept it hidden, promising himself he would eventually get to it. But it never seemed to be the right time. It wasn’t as if they had to look into it right away. What if Martin investigated, and something went wrong? They should really wait to tackle it when this whole blanket business was dealt with, that way they could do it together, or maybe not at all if it turned out to be a dead end. But if it didn’t- if it didn’t-

 

He jumped at the hand on his shoulder, the cat almost falling out of his lap at the motion. Martin was there, looking down at him with concern etched in his face. “Sorry! Didn’t mean to scare you. Are you alright?”

 

“Y-Yeah,” he replied, stroking a hand through the Duchess’s fur in apology. “I’m not sure if we should get started on that one just yet. I’m- well, it could be dangerous, and I don’t want to-”

 

“I’m not going to go running off on my own, don’t worry.” Martin leaned against his desk, dropping his hand from Jon’s shoulder. Pity. “I just thought it might make it easier on you if I got it started, made a few calls. That way it won’t be hanging over your head all the time, yeah?”

 

Jon considered this. It would be nice to get someone on the case, even if it was just for preliminary background. “No field research.”

 

Martin nodded. “None. Promise.”

 

“That’s fine, then. Thank you, Martin.”

 

“Of course.”

 

He handed over the file somewhat reluctantly, as if the words themselves were dangerous to the touch. He couldn’t help feeling just a bit lighter now that it was off his desk. Of course, that wouldn’t be the end of it. Just the start.

 

He got about fifteen minutes alone to check his emails, though most of the time was spent lavishing his needy cat with attention. Her impatient meows seemed perfectly timed to interrupt every email from Elias. And then Tim came in, altogether too cheerful for the hour. “Mornin’. Got you a muffin.”

 

“I told Martin I didn’t want anything.” A cigarette usually put him off his appetite for at least a few hours.

 

“You did, yeah.” A blueberry muffin was placed in front of him, Tim paying no mind to the crumbs it left in its wake. Jon had to admit it looked appetizing. Tim gave him a toothy smile, leaning against the file cabinet with a practiced ease.

 

“So, uh, what’s on the docket for today? What spooks do you have in store for us?” Tim’s voice was purposefully light, but he eyed Jon’s desk in anticipation, fidgeting slightly on his feet. He could see the two statements on his desk- the Fairchild case, and the Denikin one. He could ask Tim to help Martin on the Vittery case, but the less people involved the better. He didn’t want them to think they could go off on their own. And he hadn’t forgotten yesterday's confession and the intensity with which Tim ripped the statement from his hands. He took it gingerly from his desk, his other hand gently nudging the Duchess from his lap.

 

“I-I was going to start working on the Fairchild case today, try to be useful,” he started, trying to adopt the same light tone that Tim had. “But I could really use some help on the others, if you want to get started on the Denikin case?” Tim nodded, his grin fading.

 

“Yeah, reckon I can handle that.” His voice was gravelly and low as his hand reached out for the statement. “I’ll get to work on it after breakfast.” His eyes were bright in the dim light of the room- Jon hadn’t yet turned the overhead on, preferring the desk lamp. Instead of handing it over with a grim nod, Jon stood up, carefully winding his arms around the man’s waist and burying his head in his shoulder. Some much needed morning affection for Jon, and hopefully a source of comfort for Tim. Tim’s answering squeeze told Jon all he needed to know. He tucked Jon’s head under his chin with a hum.

 

“You smell nice.”

 

“Thanks.”

 


 

Forty minutes and a destroyed muffin later, Jon and the Duchess were situated on the floor, papers strewn around them. It was nice to get back to his research roots, something Jon thought he’d left behind as he was appointed Head Archivist. Over the past few months Elias had been implying that ‘getting out in the field’ was an important part of his job, though he couldn’t imagine why. He was no longer in Research, and wasn’t that what assistants were for? That and the insistence on the recorded statements left him more than a bit confused, but it wasn’t as if he knew much about archiving. And neither did Gertrude, apparently.

 

But considering he’d gotten himself into this mess, he figured he should contribute to the whole ‘getting out of it’ business. While Sasha followed her lead on the Lukas family, Jon could dig in a bit on the Fairchilds, do his due diligence. He had first heard the name as a young researcher looking into a minor haunting in Hackney, remembering it as an alias for a prolific con artist. To then discover that the family were also major donors to the institute came as a shock. He didn’t think the two could possibly be related- perhaps the thief had taken the name of a well-known business owner as a joke. It was fascinating all the same.

 

Open Skydiving. Doncaster was nowhere near London, and neither was Cornwall, where the Fairchild family was based. He was sure they had to have business dealings in London he could look into, from what he recalled they were invested in several other companies. The Fairchilds didn’t seem overtly dangerous, though he would definitely need to tread carefully when it came to institute donors. It would be best to investigate them without drawing too much attention. Ergo, alone. But that of course was an obvious issue.

 

He looked down to the Duchess who was purring away, propped up on one of his legs. He gave her a scratch behind the ear, smiling as she climbed further into his lap and rubbed her head against his chest. “If only I could take you with me,” he muttered, drawing her close. He paused.

 

Huh.

 


 

“Do you think this one would work? Martin, are you listening?”

 

He wasn’t, not at all. He was too distracted by the man in front of him, currently adjusting a bulky harness that he insisted would be a ‘smart and necessary investment.’

 

A call interrupted Martin’s morning research on Carlos Vittery’s various residences, the ID lighting up as Jon. He rarely used the phone, preferring instead to yell Martin’s name at a deafening volume from his office. He immediately picked up, assuming it was urgent.

 

“Martin, please come to my office,” Jon said, all business.

 

“Er, yeah, sure-” He’d already hung up. Martin got up from his desk, ignoring the curious looks he got from Tim and Sasha. Sorry, Jon needs me! He quickly made his way to Jon’s door, opening it up with a cautious hand. “You needed me?”

 

Jon was sat on the floor, papers surrounding him and the cat in his lap, purring happily. He looked up at Martin’s entrance, giving him an excited smile that sent his heart aflutter. “Martin,” Jon said, grabbing the Duchess and holding her in front of him like some sort of shield, or perhaps an infant messiah. “I’ve had an idea. But I’m going to need your help, and your discretion.” 

 

And so here they were, attempting to find the perfect harness so Jon could strap his massive cat to his chest and wander the streets of London. Martin was not fond of the idea, and he doubted the others would be either, but how could he resist in the face of Jon’s enthusiasm? It would certainly make it easier for him to wander around the institute, instead of holding the thing in his arms all the time. And Martin wasn’t afraid to admit that yes, the thought of Jon walking around with the Duchess strapped to his body was too endearing to pass up.

 

There was also the added bonus of holding Jon’s hand as they shopped.

 

“Er, do you think its going to look very...professional, carrying around a cat?” He doubted anyone would take him seriously, especially if he planned to work on cases.

 

“There’s nothing professional about this situation, Martin. It can’t be helped,” Jon sniffed, zipping his jacket over the contraption. “I can always hide her in my coat.”

 

“Sure.” Martin didn’t point out that people were still bound to notice the giant lump under his coat, and perhaps assume it was some sort of explosive device. Might be better to just have the cat out.

 

“It says it can hold up to fifteen kilos. Do you think the Duchess weighs more than that?”

 

“Maybe to you,” Martin teased, getting a scowl in response. “I think you’ll be fine.” They made their way to the counter, Jon purposefully ignoring the indulgent smile from the cashier. Martin balked at the price, but Jon shrugged, whipping out his credit card. 

 

“The Duchess is worth every penny, Martin.” He took the bag from the cashier with a soft word of thanks. “Also, I’m expensing this.”

 

Martin inwardly sighed at the feeling of Jon’s hand in his as they made their way back to the train. It just felt right, like it was made to be there. Jon even swung their hands a bit, though that might’ve just been from his frantic pace as they hurried to the station. Jon suddenly paused in front of the station map, leaning in to study it. “You said you lived nearby, correct?”

 

“Yes…?” Martin wondered where this was going.

 

“Would you like to stop by your flat, get a few things?” Jon asked, looking up at him with inquisitive eyes. “It’s been a while, and I’m sure you’d like some fresh clothes; you didn’t seem to pack much.” It was true; he’d run out the door with a hastily packed bag, and was currently on day two with his light blue jumper.

 

But the thought of Jon in his home, walking around, investigating, judging. It wasn’t much, and Martin had left it in a state of disarray in his hurry to get to the others. Was he willing to reveal all of that to his boss and current obsession?

 

Jon seemed to notice his internal struggle. “Martin, I’m currently living in a basement surrounded by dusty files, sleeping under a cursed blanket. I’m not going to judge you.” That’s true.

 

And so, with only a bit of reluctance on Martin’s part, they were on their way.

 

“It’s not going to be clean,” Martin rambled as they walked the narrow flight of stairs in an awkward sort of tandem. He immediately regretted giving in to Jon’s suggestion. “And it’s really small, and not much to look at-”

 

“You should see my flat, then.” Jon remarked, not at all put out by their struggle of an ascent. “I assure you it’s much worse.” Martin doubted that. He fumbled with his keys for a few moments, attempting to steady his hands. The door creaked open, and Martin tried to imagine the place through someone else’s eyes.

 

He’d tried to make use of what little light the flat had access to, placing his sofa and chairs so they caught it at just the right angle. Several rugs hid most of the scratches in the hardwood, and any holes in the wall were covered by thrift-store art that Martin found pretty, but now looked cheap in the mid-afternoon light. The small table in the corner had a light blue table cloth, and his kettle sat on the stove. Martin remembered with some disgust that he’d definitely left water in it.

 

He rushed over to the sofa, where two blankets were tangled haphazardly. “Really, you can wait outside if you like,” he told Jon, who followed close behind him. “God, what a mess-”

 

A hand reached out to grab his own, taking it in a firm hold. Jon smiled, a gentle, teasing thing. “I can’t really wait outside now, can I?” Martin flushed. Of course.

 

“R-Right, sorry-”

 

“And besides, I like it,” Jon said softly, eyes fixed on the dusty mantle where Martin had placed a few knick-knacks. They looked sad and plain in the dull afternoon light, but Jon was eyeing a chipped vase as if it were a priceless artifact. “It’s nice here. It feels like you. Feels like-” He paused, giving Martin’s hand another squeeze. “It feels like home.” Martin’s heart momentarily stopped as his breath caught in his throat. 

 

Cause of death: Jonathan Sims.

 


 

Martin was still flustered by the time they got back to the institute, his belongings and Jon’s purchase in hand. Jon immediately ran off, ignoring the other assistant’s questions in his quest for independence. Tim eyed him curiously.

 

“What’s the super-secret errand, Marto? A little afternoon delight with the boss?”

 

“Tim-!”

 

“I kid, I kid. Really though, where were you?”

 

“Jon wanted to buy something, and my flat was on the way-” Martin’s babbling was cut off by the shrill ringing of a phone- Sasha’s. She eyed the Caller ID with some confusion before picking it up.

 

“Hello?” she asked tentatively. Martin could hear an odd noise from the other side, a sort of static-y in and out sound, like the caller had a bad signal. “I’m sorry, you’re breaking up. Did you say L-”

 

And suddenly the door to the archives slammed open to reveal one disheveled Elias Bouchard, eyes wide and breathing heavily in exertion. “Give me,” he snarled between breaths. “-the phone.”

 

Jon chose that exact moment to re-enter the room, touting his newest purchase.  “Look, it works!” he said, enthusiasm clear in his voice. The Duchess was surprisingly docile, squished as she was against Jon. He looked ridiculous with that giant ball of fur strapped to his chest. “Oh- hello, Elias. Was there something you needed?” Elias stared. Tim began to snicker. And a strange, booming voice echoed out of the receiver, causing Sasha to almost drop it in alarm.

 

“...My, sounds like you’re having fun over there, Elias!”