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Gift of the Magi

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"It's cruel, don't you think, Harold?" Ms. Groves said.

He was determined to think of her as Samantha Groves, even in the privacy of his own head. Of course he was the last to dispute anyone's right to choose their name, but Root wasn't a name; Root was a role, the possession of omnipotent force. He refused to grant her that much power. "I'm afraid you've made it untenable to place you anywhere else," he said, without looking up from the food tray he was preparing. She'd leaned against the other side of the metal grate to watch him. "Considering the degree of damage you caused at your last institution — "

"I wasn't talking about this," Ms. Groves said, with a wave around her current situation. "Or me, either. It's not like I've earned any special consideration from you. But after everything John's done for you — " She trailed off and shrugged. "Not that you're doing it on purpose, I guess. It's just sad to watch."

Harold paused. He knew better than to let Ms. Groves plant hooks in him. But she was too good at finding the soft flesh to catch them on. He looked up. Her head was tilted slightly, the corners of her mouth turned down in false sympathy; her eyes were bright and fixed on him. "If you're threatening harm to Mr. Reese — "

Her quick smile flashed. "Oh, Harold," she said. "I'm not hurting John. You are."

That didn't score even a glancing blow. He was too well-armored with his private catalog of satisfaction: the brightness in John's eyes, the smile that came easily, even the creeping waistline; so different from the hollow, guarded man he'd first met, wolf-savage and hurt. Yes, of course he put John in harm's way, but John wasn't a display piece to be shown behind glass; he was meant to be in use, happier so than he could ever be otherwise. One day age and physical pain might shift the balance, and Harold meant to watch for the occasion, but that wouldn't be for some time more.

He went back to the tray and opened the microwave. "You'll have to permit me to disagree," he said comfortably, and then he frowned a little as he registered his own lack of distress. That had been a remarkably clumsy blow, and Root — and Ms. Groves was rarely clumsy.

"Well, not hurting exactly," she said. Then she said, "You're not ignoring it on purpose, are you? You don't even know." Her quick smile flashed. "Hm."

He put the bottled water and the apple on the tray, quickly did a final check — protein, starch, vegetable, fruit, sufficient calories — and gestured for her to move back to the table. She did so. He opened the grate just wide enough to admit the tray, relocked the chain in place, stooped to put the tray on the floor, and then stood again to close and secure the grate tightly once more. She watched him, smiling the entire time, waiting. He finished closing the lock and looked at her, braced.

"You don't even know he's in love with you," she said.

#

Harold didn't know at first what to make of it. Why had she said it? The idea seemed baffling, absurd. John hadn't ever shown the slightest inclination towards men at all, much less for him in particular. Or — well, that wasn't entirely true. Certainly John was attached to him — certainly John was willing to die for him, and perhaps more to the point John was willing to have dinner with him on a regular basis. They were intimate friends. But in love was a narrower, more specific feeling; implying — a quality and degree of passion that Harold was sure John didn't feel. Although —

He glanced at John, who was sitting across the room in an armchair, frowning down at a book. He'd moved the chair to that position three days ago, after Root — after Ms. Groves had taken up residence in the library. It put him halfway between her cell and the computer desk.

His long legs were propped up on the nearest bookshelf, and the fingers of his free hand were resting lightly over his mouth. His head was bent slightly forward to read. A thin slice of bare skin showed at the back of his collar just below the small point of his hair, and the shirt gaped at the hollow of his neck. A particularly nice suit today, one of his own favorites: John sensibly preferred the anonymity of more conservative colors, but Harold had turned up this fabric, a navy with a very subtle pinstripe of light blue that if you looked closely had a slight iridescence, and John had approved. John wore it more frequently than most, and at his request Harold had replaced the pants for him once already when a back-alley chase had destroyed one of the thigh seams: they were cut slightly snug.

John's eyes were about to lift and meet his. Harold jerked his eyes away and stared at the screen. John seemed perfectly himself, perfectly content. He didn't at all appear to be — pining or lovelorn — that sounded even more ridiculous when Harold put the thought into words in his own head. It had to be a lie. But why had she said it?

#

He worried at the problem in the back of his mind over the next few days. Ms. Groves didn't pursue the conversation further when they spoke; she made bright, inconsequential conversation when he dropped off her meals, about whatever books she'd read that day. She was making a pass through the Russian literature section: she'd had quite an interesting insight into Dostoevsky's Filippovna, and immense scorn — which Harold couldn't help but admit he shared — for Eugene Onegin and his fellow superfluous men.

Unfortunately, her deliberate avoidance of the earlier subject only served to keep him more unsettled than if he'd had the chance to refute her statement to her face. And yet he didn't try to bring it up himself, either. Unease gnawed at him when he opened his mouth to speak.

John's face rarely showed his feelings. Happiness occasionally betrayed itself, but unhappiness, regret, sorrow — for ten years, those had been a default state. If John were longing, and he chose to conceal it — Harold tried to tell himself that he would have seen it, certainly before Ms. Groves would have.

Then he looked at his reflection in the library window and dismally admitted, no. He wouldn't have.

Still, it was far more rational to assume the absence of desire, than to assume the existence of desire with no evidence whatsoever. Then he circled around back to the original problem: why would Ms. Groves have tried to convince him otherwise? All right, back to basics: what did Ms. Groves want? To get out of the library and back to her unsettling and dangerous communion with the Machine, and secondarily, to wound them and amuse herself. It was reasonable to assume she wanted to disrupt their work and partnership. She would certainly have liked him to send John away; that would markedly increase her chances of escape. But she surely couldn't imagine that he would have done so in a fit of homophobic panic.

Harold glanced over and caught John's eyes darting back to his page, an instant too late. John had been looking at him. Was there something — was John's neck particularly tense? Harold drew breath to say something, and then let it out again as he stared at his computer screen. What was there to say? Do you want me? A grossly intrusive question, and what if the answer was yes? What possible good could it do to force John to answer it?

The terrible conclusion was creeping unwanted into his head. John would never leave him. And Root — And Ms. Groves knew that. She knew that John would silently endure misery to stay with him and their mission, even if Harold unknowingly was hurting him all the time. Harold had been in that position himself, once; he hadn't even recognized how distressed and lonely he'd been, until he'd met Grace, and the long-running sorrow of being permitted to share only a part of Nathan's life had gently faded. If John were caught in just such a trap, wishing he could go, imprisoned by duty and obligation — the only way John could get out of it were if Harold set him free, deliberately. But their lives were entwined past any hope of separation, except for the worst and most painful kind of severing. Harold's chest felt taut with distress even imagining the possibility. And yet if John was quietly, endlessly unhappy, concealing it —

Harold shook his head, irritated with himself. He was imagining John and himself into misery for no reason. And that was why Ms. Groves had told him, undoubtedly; just a small bit of spite, wanting to feel powerful despite her imprisonment and disconnection from the Machine. He opened half a dozen unfinished code projects and started to bang away at them.

They had no number that day. He was extremely productive for the next eight hours: he wrapped up every one of the lingering projects, did four new risk assessments for United Heritage Insurance, tidied his folder system and his various email feeder accounts, even changed his ten master passwords and regenerated all the other random ones. He finally stopped only when fatigue began to knot his back too painfully for even work to medicate.

He pushed his chair back; John's head came up. Harold belatedly registered that John had been there almost the entire day. He'd only gone in and out of the room a few times, silently. Harold opened his mouth to suggest dinner, perhaps at the good Korean barbeque place —

John's book was open in his lap; Harold could measure at a glance the ratio of pages read and unread. It was unchanged from that morning. Harold closed his mouth and said, uncertainly, "I — I think — I'll say goodnight, Mr. Reese," wondering what on earth he was going to do.

#

"I told him," Root said.

She was sitting on the table today, perched on the edge watching him. John kept putting the apples in the fruit bowl without taking his eyes off her. For his part, he'd have thrown a week's worth of MREs into the cage every Monday and called it done, but Harold had said, "I entirely understand if you prefer not to assist with Ms. Groves' caretaking, John," which meant that Harold was going to buy apples and make all her meals himself if John didn't, and he didn't want Harold spending that much mental time on her. Harold was already acting —

He closed down that line of thought, and he didn't respond to Root. She was looking for weaknesses. Any interaction gave her an opening.

"What I mean is, I told him that I told you," she added, clarifying, and the muscles at the base of his neck tightened. "I'm sorry, I just felt guilty, afterwards. Harold's so private. Of course I didn't realize you didn't already know how he felt about you, but since you didn't — " She paused and frowned thoughtfully at the ceiling. "I felt that he had a right to know that I'd blown his cover. So if he's been acting a little strange — "

Three days now of Harold going eight, nine hours at a stretch at his computer without so much as looking up, even when it was causing him physical pain; Harold jumping like a deeply awkward live wire when John put a hand on his shoulder; Harold pretending he wasn't looking at John when he had been.

John still didn't let himself react. He finished loading up the fruit bowl and stacked the bottled water. He put out the tray and started loading it up. A sandwich out of the fridge and the fruit and water and a yogurt. She stayed perched on the table while he brought it inside.

"I wouldn't worry about it," she said as he put the tray down. "I'm sure he doesn't want you to feel uncomfortable, or that you — owe him anything. He'd hate that, wouldn't he? He's just embarrassed right now, but he'll get over it. He'll figure something out — he'll make sure you can keep ignoring it. He won't ask you to spend any more time with him than necessary — "

John gently and thoroughly shut off her voice, his hand closing around her throat, thumb pressing down on the trachea. She stopped talking in a rasp and just smiled at him over his hand, lifting a single eyebrow: are you really going to kill me now? She flicked a look past him, towards the main room of the library. Where Harold was, working himself to agony again. John knew that trick: finding the balance and the drug that would numb you while it lasted and make you sick enough when it was done, so you never had to think. He preferred liquor; Harold preferred work.

If Harold came back here and found Root dead — even quietly, hung in her cell with her own scarf — Harold would know John had killed her over this. There wasn't another reason to kill her right now. Harold would think —

"Don't talk to me again," John said, but it was empty. He let go of her throat.

"Whatever you say, John," Root said.

#

John came back to the library a few days later after clearing a case and saw a torn packet in the trashcan: Harold had broken out the painkillers. He usually didn't need them except for days after physical situations, when he'd overstrained himself. John sat down in his chair heavily, elbows braced against his knees to take his weight. He didn't know what the hell to do.

Harold was the one who suggested things. There were always at least six thoughts going in Harold's head at any one time; John occasionally enjoyed gently flipping him from one to another and watching Harold go without missing a beat. One of them had been chugging in the background steadily for more than a year now, since a night when John had taken Harold out for a beer and had ended up with sushi and hundred-year-old sake instead: what should we do after work? Apparently that had been switched off now.

John had been more than glad to let Harold take over the rest of his life. It had been like letting go of a stale breath John hadn't known he was holding. Before then, he'd only had routines he'd built because they seemed like something to do. Morning off, go to the park, play a little chess or go or xiangqi. Afternoon off, catch a movie alone. Evening off, pick a bar he hadn't been to in at least a month, get one drink, talk to at least two people. Harold had put him on a new diet of concerts and street performances, noodle joints and $300 restaurants, art galleries and obscure museums, but the real thing was Harold had been there with him.

John didn't need a lot of people; he never had. He'd made do most of his life with just one, and he hadn't even talked to her for years. But then she was gone, and he'd understood in stark clarity just how stupid he'd been, stupid and cowardly. It wasn't that he'd blamed himself for her death; he'd blamed Peter for that and dealt with it. But his misery had been his own fault. He hadn't been any use to the person who mattered, who needed him.

There hadn't seemed a lot of point in anything, afterwards, until Harold had given him an endless list of people who mattered with his own name at the top. Except Harold didn't mean for his name to be on there. Harold hadn't wanted John to spend the effort to save his life; he'd gotten into a car with Root herself, the woman who'd abused and tortured him, on the theory that John would stay behind and carry on taking care of the numbers without him.

Root was right. Harold wouldn't want him to feel obligated. The idea would have revolted him. If Harold thought John felt anything like that, he'd —

He'd stop asking him to dinner. He wouldn't suggest a movie, or a play; he wouldn't tell John about the latest exhibition at the MOMA. He wouldn't even ask John if he wanted to come out for Bear's walk. He'd stop talking about the books he was reading, and he wouldn't ask John what he thought about his own latest — which was just as well, since John hadn't managed to get through more than five pages since Root had started in on her latest mind game. Harold would stop asking for anything. He'd pull as far back as he could, keep busy. Like he'd been doing the last week now.

And John didn't know what to do but go along with it. If he tried to say, Harold, anything you want — He didn't need Root to tell him what Harold would look like, the way his face would go still and utterly blank and his shoulders would stiffen; the way Harold would say, without inflection, "Thank you, Mr. Reese, I'll keep it in mind."

Whatever Harold had wanted, it was too late to give it to him; Root had closed the door. Now all that Harold wanted was to avoid him as much as possible. Maybe Harold even wanted to — Shaw was working out great; Harold had been talking about spinning off a second team. Maybe Harold would want him to — John's stomach clenched up, hard and helpless.

#

Another three days crept by. Root didn't say anything to him, but she smiled at John every time he came in range, as if she could see straight down to the knotted misery in his gut. Harold was barely speaking to him at all, withdrawn and serious. Shaw had even noticed. "What's going on?" she'd demanded flatly.

"Leave it alone," John said, bleakly.

"If you two assholes are letting her get in your heads," Shaw said, and stopped, because there wasn't a good answer to that. If killing Root now would have made things anything but worse, John would already have strangled her and dumped her body in one of the freshly-poured concrete slabs in the water main project down on Madison. He'd made a note of it in passing the other day.

They couldn't go on like this. Whatever equilibrium Harold had found before that had let him work with John, be with John, he couldn't seem to get back to it, and John didn't know if he could let Harold go back to it even if he did. If he knew, every day, that Harold was over there wanting something from him — John didn't know if he could live with that. He'd never imagined going to bed with Harold, but the idea he could make Harold happy, just by handing himself over, except Harold wouldn't take it —

He locked the grate up and went back to the main room silently, his shoulders bent. There wasn't a new number on the board, and it was late in the day. Shaw was playing with Bear in the corner; Harold was at his keyboard. He looked up. "Is Ms. Groves seen to for the evening?"

"Yeah," John said. "She's fine."

Harold nodded slightly, and then — and then he turned and said, "Ms. Shaw, would you be so kind as to take Bear for the night?"

Shaw paused and glanced up, looked between them. "Sure," she said, and stood up to take the leash. She clipped it onto Bear's collar, threw John a hard look that said, don't fuck this up, and left. John was too rigid with fear to give her a look back to tell her exactly how useful that advice was.

Neither of them said anything while Shaw and Bear's footsteps went downstairs, while the door closed behind them. The echoes died away. Then Harold heaved a deep breath and stood up. "John, I hope you'll forgive me these last few days — I, I confess that I'm — I'm not very good at this sort of thing, and so — I've worried at the situation instead of addressing it — "

John wanted to break in, wanted to say that's fine, you don't need to, don't, don't, because anything was better; he'd take anything over a solution. Except if Harold wanted to — if Harold needed —

"And I've given Ms. Groves considerably too much influence over my thoughts in the matter," Harold said. "I permitted the fact that she — " He grimaced slightly, " — that she had a certain degree of insight, to make me adopt her interpretation of the situation. But the truth is — "

Harold paused. "The truth is," he said, slowly, "that I love you. And I am neither afraid nor ashamed to say so. And, John, I — I trust you to believe me that there is nothing you might want from me that I would not want to give you, and — and — nothing I would want that you preferred not to give — "

John couldn't speak. He was shaking with relief, with something more. He took a step instead, another. Harold stopped talking and looked up at him, anxious, furrowed, and John said, helplessly, "Harold, you're the bravest man I know," and cupped his face and bent to kiss him. And it wasn't a gift at all.

They were both clumsy, at first; but Harold made a small startled noise when John kissed his throat, and shivered, and John stopped noticing. He got Harold into the back room, on the couch, and stripped him. Harold kept making maddening surprised noises, so John kept going, with mouth and hands and finally settling across his hips, and then Harold was staring up at him, wide-eyed, shocked, like he'd never seen anything half as remarkable. He said feebly, "John — John — you're, oh, but, there's, we," and then he stopped talking and frowned as if he realized he was incoherent but couldn't pull himself together enough to make sense. John groaned helplessly and slid down onto him.

He was expecting the long slow burn, the jolt of pleasure; he wasn't expecting the heavy sweet feeling of Harold deep inside him, pressing him open. "Huh," he said, faintly. He moved, experimentally, and Harold hitched a small gulping breath. John leaned over and braced on the arm of the couch and rode him in slow rolling strokes, steadily, while Harold's breath trembled and rose into high short desperate gasps and his hands gripped tight on John's thighs. Harold was squeezing his eyes shut, holding on, holding on, and then he abruptly opened them and said, hoarsely, "John — John — " He wrapped his hand around John's cock, tight and stroking, and John couldn't last any longer; he spilled jerking in Harold's hand, Harold's thumb sliding over the head of his cock, and then Harold groaned softly and shut his eyes. Harold was — oh, fuck, Harold was coming, inside him.

John slid off and fell back against the other arm of the long couch. He was — wet. He stared up at the ceiling, panting. "Oh," Harold said after a moment. "That was — " He stopped talking.

After a little while John managed to lever himself back up. Harold was still flat on his back. His face was bewildered and dreamy at the same time. "Come on," John said. "We'll go to my place."

"All right," Harold said dazed and pliant, and let John help him up.

#

Harold woke with the broad pleasant consciousness of being in a good place: warmth, the satisfying gentle soreness of extensive physical activity, and deep security. John's arm was around his waist, and his nose was nuzzled up against the back of Harold's neck. He still slept, breathing in soft regular puffs. The sun was slanting in through the windows from over the top of the building across the park; it was quite late. The Machine hadn't called, however. Harold contemplated falling back to sleep. The idea recommended itself highly, and yet he had the vaguely itching sense of something he'd forgotten. He would ordinarily have had to walk Bear, of course, but —

"Oh, dear," Harold said.

"She can miss breakfast for once," John murmured against his neck, and kissed his nape, meaningfully.

"We have an obligation," Harold said, but rather weakly.

"Harold, just think about how helpful she was in making this happen," John said, false-earnestly. "I can't imagine she'd mind." John kissed him again.

"Perhaps a slight delay," Harold conceded, and turned in John's arms.

#

He did feel somewhat guilty at the advanced hour when they finally reached the library: it was nearly noon. John made coffee, and Harold went to heat some oatmeal and get out a sandwich as well. Ms. Groves was lying on her back on the table. She sat up when Harold came into her view. "Busy morning?" she said, and then she blinked and smiled, looking at him. Harold eyed her back warily, and then he caught sight of his reflection in the microwave's chrome: there were several highly noticeable marks on his throat. John was, was, enthusiastic. Harold blushed hotly.

Ms. Groves gave a spurt of laughter, hiding it behind her joined hands, and dropped them. "Oh, Harold," she said. "That's so sweet." She looked at John, who was coming with the coffee mug. "You're both so adorable." She was laughing again, bright and mocking.

"Glad you're happy," John said, very mildly. Harold put a gently restraining hand on his arm. "Neither of us is going anywhere, in case you were hoping."

She shrugged easily. "It was worth a try," she said. "Although really I expected you'd just compare notes and figure out I was telling you both the exact same thing." She leaned in, confidential. "I was lying."

Cold protest seized him, but he couldn't voice it; everything was immediately clear. Of course. He hadn't been wrong. John hadn't wanted — neither of them had wanted. They'd both simply wanted to give the other — Next to him, John had stiffened up, the same unwanted comprehension rolling over him. He turned and stared at Harold, helplessly. Harold looked at John's stricken face. He was aware of Groves watching them both, full of malicious delight.

Suddenly he laughed, startled, and John blinked.

"No," Harold said, without looking at her. John was beginning to smile at him. "You weren't."

# End