When he was younger Jon had taken a brief foray into spy literature - le Carré and Forbes and Fleming - and read about espionage and subtle manipulations. He knew, in theory, how spies conducted themselves in hostile territory, coaxed detail from informants, strung together their web of hypotheses into credible theories and decisive action without ever being suspected of espionage themselves. Jon knew that even in infinite and multitudinous universes, there was not a single one where he was a passable spy.
He’d been doing his best, of course. Keeping close to the walls of the Archives, replicating Gertrude’s rather esoteric filing system for the statements he deemed important so that they’d stay hidden, utilising that loose floorboard in his office. He was keeping things hidden while he investigated, doing his utmost to feign normality. Alright, yes, he’d not been subtle enough judging by the way his assistants avoided his gaze, the looks he could feel burning on the back of his neck, but he wasn’t doing this to be friendly. If his assistants decided that he wasn’t worth the pretence of cordiality then so much the better - he wasn’t going to make nice with those that might be out to kill him, and he could search through the facade of hurt feelings for evidence of genuine malice. He was subtle where it counted, he liked to think, slow and methodical as he gathered his information and drew his conclusions, but today-
Today Tim had been shifty and restless. Jon had passed through the little office the assistants shared on his way to make a cup of coffee (ignoring, as was his habit these days, the cup of tea that Martin had left on his desk) and seen Tim’s leg bouncing under the desk. He was chewing his pen - the wrong end, too, moron, lips streaked dark blue with ink - kept shooting little glances at his phone where it seemed to be charging on his desk, tapping the fingers of his free hand restlessly against the desk. He looked like he was in danger of vibrating out of his skin and when Jon’s foot had caught a floorboard and made it creak he’d snapped his head around, suspicious and wary. Martin had looked up at that, glanced between them, asked Jon if he needed something. Jon had muttered some half-hearted refusal, tucked his head back down and hurried on his way.
Tim’s reaction to a creak behind him, his twitchiness and his restless fidgeting, that could just be paranoia, of course. Perfectly reasonable in the aftermath of Prentiss’ attacks, and certainly Jon still felt shaken. He was still sleeping in the Archives since the cot was vacant now; Martin had a new flat, new-build too which had - so he’d told them - saved him the trouble of bleaching every surface and searching for infestations. Tim had looked down at his hands that Jon had only then noticed were a little rougher than he remembered them being, cracked and reddened and irritated. Was he scrubbing down his flat with caustic chemicals every night? Or was that just a convenient excuse for something else? There were lots of things that one could do with those sorts of supplies, and Jon shuddered to think what might be hiding-
What might be hiding anywhere. In the Archives, in the tunnels, in the statements as yet unread. In Tim’s flat, in Martin’s, in Elias’ office. Anywhere that he couldn’t see. At least wandering the literal darkness of the tunnels felt simpler than the blindness he was stumbling through every day, literally stumbling, limbs still unsteady and healing from whatever flesh and tendon and nerves Prentiss’ worms had seen fit to feast on. The scars itched, and he’d watched Tim brush the flats of his fingertips over the round, white marks against his darker skin, obviously trying to soothe the sensation without giving in to the urge to dig in his nails and tear in. Jon’s ignorance itched worse than any scar. He wanted to dig through it to the truth beneath no matter the pain and the blood and the noise, he needed to know. But he was operating blind with few credible leads, nothing but the overwhelming buzz in the back of his mind that told him that something was wrong.
His assistants were the most obvious place to start. He told himself that it was because they’d come over with him, they each had their histories in the Archives but they all seemed benign enough, and so once he’d proven their innocence he could trust them and engage their assistance. The advantage of being at least one minor tier of management was that he had access to their CVs and their details, emergency contacts, where they went to university, could trawl social media for further corroborative detail in the small hours of the morning, black coffee making his tongue feel thick and awful in his mouth, silently cursing that he hadn’t asked Sasha for more instruction on this before she’d been a suspect.
They were all suspects, of course, from Elias down. And logically Jon knew that constraining his suspicion to the Archives was absurd - why shouldn’t somebody in research or Artifact Storage have as much motive to murder Gertrude as an archival assistant? - but he had to start somewhere. At least for the illusion and comfort of feeling he was doing something of any use, he had to start somewhere.
He watched Tim shift and fidget his way through the day, finding excuses to pass through the assistant’s office and note that, yes, Tim was still tense, still antsy. At the end of the day Martin left, and then Tim, and Jon was left waiting for Sasha. He couldn’t leave before her, that would be - out of the ordinary. Suspicious. She knocked on his door before she left and Jon scanned her face for any sign of wariness, but - no. The same cool, affable smile as ever. Reliable as always. Every time Jon spoke to her he felt ashamed of his suspicion. Something in her eyes seemed to know his doubt and judge him for it, find him wanting, leave him feeling childish and insolent. Of course she was innocent, it whispered, of course. What else would she be? Why would he doubt it? It made him conciliatory, scrubbing a hand over his face before bidding her goodnight with a little less sharpness than he’d been affecting with the others lately, feeling the scar tissue on his face catch strangely against his fingers.
He wasn’t avoiding mirrors. He refused. He stared into the mirror in the men’s room, gripped the edge of the sink, mapped the new scars against his cheek and his neck and dared himself to look away. He wasn’t going to shrink away from his own face - that, at least, was going to be known to him.
The plan - such as it was - was impulsive and idiotic. Jon knew it even as he conceived of it, grabbing his coat and patting his pockets to be sure he had everything, but the buzzing in his brain would not be dissuaded and if he could prove one point of normality or find a credible lead, then perhaps that would mute it enough for him to sleep. According to the personnel files Tim lived in Clapham, in what Google Maps and Zoopla told him was a one-bed flat in a larger building, down by the south side of the Common. Nice enough, a good area, and whilst it was probably expensive it wasn’t quite so expensive that somebody with a publishing background and a half-decent salary wouldn’t be able to manage it. Jon supposed it was too much to hope that Tim might have lived in a mansion he couldn’t have inherited, easy proof of some compensation package for the assassination of an Archivist. Worse luck.
It was an easy enough journey from the Institute, a stroll over Vauxhall Bridge and then a bus. The sun was setting, catching pink on the edge of the green-glass SIS Building, and Jon watched the other late commuters on bikes and huddled in their coats, wondered how many of them might have been working for MI6, fellow spies. He hated himself for the thought immediately (stupid, self-indulgent, ridiculous) but there was no point pretending he hadn’t thought it. There it was. Jonathan Sims, amateur fucking detective, huddled on the lower deck of the bus and glowering at an abandoned cardboard box on the seat opposite him that had once held chicken and chips, grease-spattered paper flapping out of its side. How long had it been since he’d eaten? He’d lost track, was losing track. Food didn’t seem as important. Martin had a stash of biscuits in the kitchenette but Jon didn’t trust those anymore.
It was getting dark by the time the 88 dropped him at Clapham Common and Jon fished his phone out of his pocket, following the line of the park towards Tim’s road. He didn’t have a plan, really. Finding Tim’s address was easy, locating him in London easy, but then what? He wasn’t going to demand any manner of confrontation, wouldn’t dream of doing so without some manner of proof or at least a decent suspicion of motive, so - well, for now he’d satisfy himself with trying to ascertain the reason for Tim’s twitchiness. If he wasn’t home, Jon could wait somewhere until he was. There was a bar not too far from the corner of Tim’s street, it had outdoor tables, he could huddle there and smoke and wait for Tim to return, try to make his judgements on what he observed there.
As it was, the lights were on, curtains open at the ground floor window showing a sofa and a television and no sign of Tim. Jon fumbled in his coat pocket for a cigarette and lit it, phone casting pale light upwards where he held it, able to shift his gaze to the screen if he needed to, for all the world someone caught out on a stroll, checking a text, checking their way home. Plausible deniability. He didn’t live in Clapham but he could be out to meet a friend at a bar if he were a different sort of person in a different sort of world.
It took ten minutes of waiting before anything happened. In that time Jon had cooked up all manner of objections for himself, deconstructing his plan the way he tore apart statements - Tim might be on the second floor, or the third, might be out and have left the lights on (careless, flippant, he was like that sometimes, it was plausible), he might be elsewhere in his flat and Jon was staring through the ground-floor windows from across the street uselessly, wasting his time and his energy chasing a futile lead. He saw a shadow on the wall, Tim’s silhouette, tall and lean, chased into the room by the man himself. He’d changed, clearly, since getting home, was wearing soft grey sweatpants and a navy shirt that Jon was reasonably sure - couldn’t be certain from this distance - bore the Trinity College crest. University merch. Predictable. Jon was absolutely certain that if he were to confiscate Tim’s phone his lock screen would be some classic gap year shot, Tim shirtless and silhouetted against a sunset or a waterfall or the Chocolate fucking Hills. He was such a bloody cliché.
Even here, alone, Tim still looked tense, shoulders hunched nearly up to his ears, casting his eyes around the room before his shoulders dropped briefly in what looked like a sigh. He turned to face the window and Jon scrambled backwards out of what he thought Tim’s likely eyeline might be, burrowed into his jacket, hiding half of his face behind his clenched hand as he took a drag of his cigarette (his second, burned down almost to the filter, acrid and burning at the back of his throat), just someone walking down the street. By the time he risked venturing into the line of sight again the curtains were closed but they were thin, light things, and Jon could make out Tim’s silhouette given the lights were on in the living room and the street was dark. There was sufficient contrast for him to at least see that Tim was still there.
That was enough, wasn’t it? Tim was at home, mooching around in his pyjamas. He still looked unhappy but there were any number of potential explanations for that. Perhaps he’d had bad news from home, perhaps some date had been cancelled, perhaps he was just stressed, God, Jon would understand that, they were all stressed. He was ready to turn and leave when he saw Tim move again, settle in front of where Jon thought the coffee table was and roll his shoulders back before - inexplicably - dropping down to his knees. Jon squinted, trying to see what Tim was doing - searching for something, perhaps? - but he remained maddeningly still, kneeling, arms apparently behind his back.
Five minutes passed. Jon considered lighting another cigarette, decided against it, fiddled with his phone, watched Tim’s unmoving silhouette. His arms were definitely behind his back, clasped loosely at the small it seemed. Jon ran through a few ideas - prayer, perhaps? Did he have a camera that he was addressing? Meditation? Some sort of spinal exercise off the back of the physiotherapy he’d been sent for? - before there was movement and he shoved his phone in his pocket, cover forgotten. If one of the neighbours called the police on him for peeping at windows he’d cross that bridge when he got to it, but for now -
For now, there was somebody else in the room. Taller than Tim, broader, softer. Jon couldn’t see their face, just the contrast in tones that suggested that - like Tim - they were still clothed. Tim didn’t move when they walked in, crossed past the coffee table and stood next to him, reached out to run fingers through his hair. Jon could see the barest suggestion of movement that said they might have been speaking to one another and this-
Jon wasn’t naive. Not that naive. Tim kneeling in a room with the curtains drawn and somebody stroking his hair, Tim tilting sidelong to nuzzle into their hip, he could read between the lines of that well enough. He was unlikely to learn anything of practical use watching this; it was (of course) a gross invasion of privacy, something he oughtn’t see, something he didn’t need to know.
Except, of course, for reasons that he couldn’t fully articulate to himself, he needed to know. There were mysteries here, unfamiliar faces, that strange tension in Tim’s shoulders, and Jon needed to know.
He didn’t leave. The curtains were closed, now, and he was quite sure that Tim and his mysterious guest would be occupied enough not to notice if he slipped closer, crossing the road to stand by Tim’s gate, watching as the stranger dragged their fingers through Tim’s hair rather more roughly this time, tugging his head back. Tim’s back arched and Jon’s scalp tingled in sympathy. Georgie had played with his hair sometimes, pulled his head into her lap when they were watching telly to comb her fingers through and leave him boneless and melting. More often than not she’d done it to shut him up when he was carrying on a fervent commentary on whatever they were watching, either its salience (rarely) or its idiocy (significantly more common). Sometimes she’d added a drag of nails over his scalp to make him shiver and, a few times, had tangled her fingers and pulled. The sensation had been absolutely singular, liquid heat rushing down his spine, making his knees weak and his jaw drop and from the looks of things it had a similar effect on Tim. That was - that was totally useless information. Still. Information, nonetheless. If he had to choose quantity over quality to make this evening’s excursion worthwhile then he would.
Hovering at the gate he still couldn’t even begin to hear what might have been being said, but he could see the stranger tugging Tim up (by his hair, still) and giving him a little nudge backwards towards the wall. What had been there? Jon searched his memory until the answer threw itself up for him - a mantelpiece, he remembered, over a presumably now-defunct fireplaces, the whole thing scattered with nick-nacks and photographs and memorabilia. Now Tim had his back pressed to it and the stranger was - Jon couldn’t quite tell, at this distance, the silhouettes were blurry and he couldn’t tell where Tim’s body began and the stranger’s ended. If he had to guess at a structure for the amorphous blob against the curtains, though, judging by the angle of Tim’s head (that ridiculous hair of his providing a good idea of which way he was facing at any given time, quiffed and styled as it was) Jon would have guessed that the stranger had one hand at Tim’s jaw, holding quite tightly from the looks of things, and the other-
And the other at his hip, maybe, curled and possessive. Perhaps at the small of his back, to pull them closer together. Perhaps toying with the waistband of his sweatpants, perhaps slipping within it to give Tim a stroke or a squeeze or rake nails across his thighs. The possibilities flashed through Jon’s head lightning fast, purely clinical - any of those things could be ongoing. Why was he still here ? Tim’s spine was bowed in a way that suggested whatever was being done to him he was enjoying it, head falling back when the stranger released his jaw (definitely his jaw, Jon could see the brief suggestion of fingers against the gauzy curtains), now staring at the ceiling. The stranger moved quickly and Jon watched as Tim’s shirt was tugged over his head, a clumsy mass of shapes that resolved themselves into his lean torso again. He was athletic, Jon remembered him mentioning something about gymnastics and diving before university, vividly remembered the last Christmas party when he’d demonstrated a backflip from a standing fucking start, landed it and then stumbled backwards nearly into the table with the punch on it. Jon’s breath caught and he swallowed thickly, staring at the gate for a second and then lifting the latch to slip through.
The ground-floor window jutted out slightly from the brick walls of the house. Jon slipped to the side of it, looking in - the curtains were pulled in a shade too much, overlapping at the middle, leaving a tantalising sliver of uncovered glass, but he couldn’t see any faces, could only see the edge of Tim’s hand when he reached up to loop his arms around the stranger’s neck and kiss him. Tim wasn’t a small man but he looked small like this, crowded up to somebody else’s body. He looked smaller still when he was abruptly spun, arms caught behind his back again, and this close to the window Jon heard him laugh. He made some comment that apparently earned him a pinch to his arse, had him yelping as he was steered towards the sofa. The angle was awful here, forced Jon to move around the front of the damn window to watch from the other side and he didn’t know why he was watching, only that now he was here he felt intent upon it.
He’d never cared for pornography. Watching strangers do acts that held limited appeal for Jon in his own life didn’t fill him with anything bar a detached sort of exasperation, thoughts like God, that countertop’s going to be ruined and I hope one of you is actually going to handle the plumbing after this because you’re definitely going to need to shower. Not conducive to any sort of relaxation. This was different. He wasn’t aroused but he felt hot and cold all over, breath stuttering in his throat as the stranger guided Tim to his knees, sat down on the sofa and unbuckled his trousers and slipped their cock into his mouth. Tim took it with almost nonchalant ease, arms still behind his back - had he been told to keep them there? Was he capable of doing as he was told? These weren’t the sort of games that Jon had expected from Tim. Not that he put much thought into it, just that Tim spent so much time flirting and preening that Jon had been forced to assume he was a lights-out-missionary sort of man and just felt the need to compensate. But here he was. On his knees and sucking somebody off and Jon could see the tension leaking out of his silhouetted shoulders like a miasma into the air.
He could hear the stranger letting out soft moans muffled through the glass, murmuring something. Tim pulled off to make some sort of response (of course he did) and the stranger laughed, bright and easy and so instantly familiar that Jon’s brain was halfway through the thought oh, shut up, Martin - before he could even process it properly, screeching to a halt mid eye-roll and blinking rapidly, mind fizzing and smoking like a broken computer.
Martin. Martin was here. Martin was steering Tim around with his arms behind his back and had him on his knees sucking him off and- and-
And that was information so contrary to Jon’s view of Martin that it took him a moment to confirm that, yes, that was roughly Martin’s height and build and of course they knew each other, were friendly, and really it ought to have been Jon’s first assumption except Martin stammered and fussed and made tea and blushed at eye-contact, for fuck’s sake, he wasn’t the sort of man who put someone else on their knees. Except, apparently, he was. Not only that but he reached out to grip the back of Tim’s head and pull him forward again, tone gone chiding as he pushed his hips forward, rolling them in a slow rhythm that had Jon’s mouth gone dry.
He should go. Tim was making muffled whining noises, shoulders twitching - Jon didn’t think that his wrists were bound but perhaps he was struggling anyway, fidgeting, either because he wanted to touch Martin or to touch himself. He was still wearing his sweatpants and Jon found the sudden image of soft, grey fabric distended by Tim’s erection as vivid as it was startling. He’d never given any particular thought to how well-endowed Tim might be. He couldn’t stop himself from thinking about it now. He was tingling like he’d been dipped in snow and boiling water, pins and needles rushing up the whole of him, blood roaring in his ears as Martin pulled himself from Tim’s mouth to let him catch his breath and murmured something else that had Tim standing, divesting himself of his sweatpants and - ah - Jon had his answer in the silhouette of Tim’s cock. Somehow that particular image was so obscene that it crossed into absurdity, almost slapstick, bouncing as Tim walked over to drape himself over the arm of the sofa. Jon bit down desperately on the back of his hand so he wouldn’t laugh.
Martin had a hand on the small of Tim’s back and was passing it up and down in soft, soothing motions, slid it down to the curve of Tim’s arse and then reached and- God, reached and twisted and pulled and Tim groaned long and low as Martin slid what looked like a plug out of Tim. Jon’s cheeks felt so hot he swore they were steaming the air. Had that been in all day? Was that the source of Tim’s tension, something inside him shifting each time he moved, leaving him chewing his pen and fidgeting and waiting out the hours stretched and filled and open-
Or perhaps that was a recent development but Tim had just been anticipating tonight, nervous for whatever this was with Martin. Perhaps the plug had gone in before Tim had entered the living room, kneeling for some sort of centering moment to collect his mind and breathe and feel-
Or perhaps tonight was a response to all of Tim’s tension, Martin helping him work out whatever was buzzing in his brain, giving him something else to focus on.
Jon could understand wanting sensation. He didn’t feel especially physical these days, floating on tides of sleep-deprivation and hunger and stress. Every so often something would break through that cloud, steam from a mug of coffee on his face, a pen nestled snugly between finger and thumb. It had been clean sheets, last time he’d been home. Jon had stretched himself out on cool, fresh-smelling cotton and felt his skin do something that felt very much like shrinking before the world reoriented itself back to normal. He couldn’t imagine what the stretch of a plug would feel like, much less Martin’s fingers as he pressed them into Tim - he was making noise, now, hands tangled in his own hair, rocking forwards against the arm of the sofa until Martin put pay to that with a sharp slap to his hip that echoed even through the window.
God, Tim was making a spectacle of himself, squirming and gasping, the noises he was making rising in pitch and desperation and Jon couldn’t breathe, couldn’t do anything but watch and listen and feel electricity under his skin, prickling like pins and needles. The minutes drew themselves out and Martin brought Tim up, right up to the edge, let him settle back, did it again, and each time the sounds Tim was making got more ragged. Martin’s voice was steady, soft murmurs of words Jon couldn’t make out, and why the hell was Martin so calm like this when he couldn’t handle a simple research report? If he was capable of coping with Tim (undeniably attractive, no sense ignoring that) bent over and begging - presumably begging, by now - for him with no obvious external strain, then why did his hands shake on mugs and biscuit tins and papers?
An act? A facade? Jon looked at Tim and Martin, thought the word partners , shook it off, replaced it with accomplices , felt bile rise in his throat. Tim was definitely begging now - Jon could hear his voice cracking a little, high and desperate, ‘please, please, I’ll do anything’ - and he huffed out a hard breath, blinked behind his glasses, wanted-
Oh. He wanted. That was - unusual. Not impossible, but unusual, especially now when he was weary and hungry and half out of his mind with fear. Jon wanted to see Tim come. Perhaps as a closure to this whole thing, something to release him from whatever mysterious urge kept him trapped here watching them. Perhaps just to see it. Martin’s voice was still steady, still light and teasing and mild even while he built Tim up to the point of distraction and Jon rather suspected that Martin could do this for hours, if he had to, if he wanted to, and Tim would probably let him. Tim said something else, tone a little sharper, and Martin laughed and delivered another sharp smack to his arse - whether it was a rebuke or encouragement Jon couldn’t guess but it was loud and he jumped at that, startled, lost his balance and stumbled and the sound of a ceramic flowerpot falling and shattering when his heel caught it was deafening and awful.
Tim and Martin stilled instantly. Jon felt icy, numb, frozen to the spot with fear, considered running but found that his legs wouldn’t move him, could only watch as Tim pushed himself upright and brushed past Martin, two quick steps from the sofa to the window to throw the curtains aside and meet Jon’s terrified eyes. Tim’s expression went from shock to confusion to alarm to fury all in one go, and in the tense and simmering silence, Jon could hear his heartbeat like gunshots.
Jon opened his mouth to say something - anything - some excuse for why he was here lurking outside of Tim’s window, watching him with Martin - Martin who was relocating his clothes, apparently, something Tim didn’t seem overly concerned about, still staring at Jon like he might be some sort of apparition, like he couldn’t believe he was here, like he might kill him for it (oh, God, like he might kill him for it) and Jon could feel panic clawing its way up his spine. He was choking on it. His head snapped around at another noise, the click of a latch, and he met Martin’s eyes, expecting blushing or stammering or excuses, instead seeing something more like - resignation? He couldn’t tell.
“Jon. Do you, ah- would you like to come in?”
Jon stared at Martin. He’d thrown some clothes back on, shirt untucked and rumpled, buttons mismatched, cheeks still flushed and hair in disarray but he looked steady and sure and Jon didn’t have words, wanted to run, to hide, to pretend that none of this ever happened, to huddle back in the safety of the Archives and try not to think about how two of his assistants may well be cooperating to plot his death. That those two assistants were here, together, doing- doing things that made Jon react in ways to which he really wasn’t accustomed.
“Jon?” Martin prompted quietly and Jon gave a jerky little nod, glancing at the window to see that Tim had left, apparently, slipped out of the room. Jon sucked in a sharp breath through his nose, huddled himself in his coat and followed Martin into the lion’s den.