The latest number is Tony Markham, aged 33, a former Army Corporal. He does security work and supposedly lives in a tiny one-bedroom that he hasn't visited in the last day and a half.
John watches Markham enter a building, nod and smile at the doorman. He taps his earpiece. "Markham might be staying with friends."
"Perhaps, but that's not why he's here," Finch says. "If my guess is correct, he's attending a therapy session."
Well, that's handy. Finch should probably be able to get, if not everything they need, then enough to go on with. So far they have nothing linking Markham to violent crime as either victim or perpetrator.
John's about to turn around and go back to the library when Finch bites out, "Please stay where you are."
John halts. "I'm going to need to sit down somewhere less conspicuous if I'm hanging around."
"Do that." Finch usually isn't this curt. And yet, if the therapist - or Markham, who knows - were in physical danger, John's pretty sure Harold would have had John smashing down the door.
Once John has a seat in the lobby cafe and a cup of coffee in front of him, he taps his earpiece again. "Care to clue me in?"
The next words aren't in Harold's voice. Finch must've forwarded the audio off Markham's bluejacked phone right into John's earpiece. "How did last week's assignment go?" The voice isn't Markham's, either. It's older, more authoritative.
"Shitty." Markham sounds exhausted. John frowns and wonders about possible causes for Markham's fatigue. "Look, telling him no is pointless when he doesn't listen."
"You're a grown man, Anthony." The older voice - presumably Markham's therapist - is full of disapproval. "A former soldier. If you're brave enough to venture out under enemy fire, you're definitely brave enough to tell your boyfriend what he's doing to you doesn't feel good."
John feels his frown deepen.
"I did." Markham's voice cracks. "I was tied up, okay? I couldn't exactly haul up and slug him. And," he falters for a moment, "he said after it can't have been that bad if I still got hard. If I still," his voice goes too quiet for John to make out the words.
Presumably the therapist can't, either. "What was that?"
"He said I must have wanted it if he could make me come."
There's a sigh. "Tony," the therapist says, voice low and gentle, "there's nothing wrong about wanting to submit, or be with a man. You don't need to give yourself excuses. If you really didn't want it, why did you let him tie you up to begin with? You know what he's like."
John hears a click, and then Finch says, "I believe you got the point." John blinks. He hasn't heard Finch be furious all that often, but it's unmistakable. "I'm afraid we have no choice but to let the session," Harold all but spits the word out, "continue; but afterwards, I may have a plan."
John leans back in his chair. "Do share."
Markham rushes right past John on the corridor leading to the therapist's office, eyes cast firmly downward. Just as well. John catches the door to the office before it can close and lets himself in.
The therapist's name is Richard Corwell: there's diplomas on the walls featuring it. Corwell freezes when he hears John come in, raises astonished eyes. "Excuse me," he begins.
John cuts him off. "Dr. Corwell. You should check your email."
Corwell goes red in the face. "Who the hell are you?"
Pulling his gun on Corwell would be satisfying, but not all that handy under the circumstances. That doesn't matter: saying, "I have pictures from the establishment on 59th street," turns Corwell pale just as well as having a weapon turned on him.
Knowledge is a weapon, though, or just as good as. "We've made arrangements," John says, "for your retirement to Florida."
Corwell's mouth opens and shuts. "You can't do this," he forces out finally. "I have patients!"
"They'll receive referrals," John says. In his earpiece, Harold adds, bitingly, "To therapists who don't blame their clients for falling victim to assault."
Corwell blusters a bit more, but the issue is done. John watches him wilt, accepting defeat in the least graceful way possible. "But how will I explain this to my wife?" he says, finally, plaintive.
"You'll think of something," John says, smirking.
John returns to the library to find Harold bustling around the whiteboard, pasting a new picture on it. "The boyfriend," Harold says as John approaches, "Matthew Alexander White."
It's not a face John was expecting to see. The sight of Matt strikes a chord in John, has him blinking for a moment before he places the memories.
Matt had a different last name then, but, "This guy was with me in basic training," John says.
The looks Harold gives him is sharp. "How well do you know him?"
"Well enough," John says, because biblically sounds like the wrong answer.
They weren't boyfriends or anything. Matt might not even recognize him, after all this time.
"How well do we know anyone, really?" Harold mutters, more or less to himself. He's slightly louder when he says, "While White seems the most likely perpetrator in this case, I'm loathe to rely on assumptions."
John leans his weight against Harold's desk. "So what's our next step?"
"I go undercover," Harold says, "as Markham's replacement therapist."
"I don't like this," John says quietly.
Harold sighs, the sound fracturing momentarily: even Harold's quality communication systems falter sometimes. "We've discussed the reasons it's necessary."
"Which is why I'm not physically pulling you out," John says. "I still don't like it."
"Your objection is noted."
On the tiny screen ahead of him, John can see the office masquerading as Harold Swan's clinic, spotting the tiny smile on Harold's face. Against John's volition, he finds himself smiling as well.
Markham knocks the next moment, and John goes on alert.
"Mr. Swan?" Markham offers Harold a tentative hand.
Harold shakes it. "It's Harold, please." He gestures for Markham to sit down.
"So I got this referral from doctor Corwell--"
Harold waves his hand dismissively. "Please. Let's start anew." Markham looks doubtful. Harold gives him an encouraging smile. "What brings you into therapy?"
Markham takes a breath. "I have problems establishing my boundaries."
From what John's heard, it seems Markham has an asshole boyfriend, but Harold doesn't correct Markham. Instead, Harold listens, making soft, encouraging sounds, occasionally interjecting a question to keep the conversation running.
Eventually, Markham's flow of words slows down to a trickle. "That's it, I guess," he says, shrugging.
Harold gives him a quiet moment before saying, "Mr. Markham, you said you had a problem establishing boundaries. In an ideal scenario, how would you have acted?"
Markham draws a ragged breath. "I'd've told Matt no."
"You did tell him no." Harold's voice is low, emphatic. "Did that make a difference?"
Markham recoils. "I could've fought free."
For a long moment, Harold considers him. "This seems to be an awfully high bar to put on you, when he could have stopped at your first sign of discomfort."
"I'm not expecting him to read my mind," Markham snaps.
"Neither am I," Harold says. "I'm expecting him to read your body language, and if that fails, listen to what you actually tell him."
Markham's legs jitters. "Maybe he did," he says, stubborn. "Maybe he did read me, and he could tell I could take more and was just being a pussy about it."
Harold tilts his head a tiny bit. "Remind me, again, the purpose for which he was hitting you?"
A flush spreads on Markham's face. "Told you. It's a sex thing."
"For pleasure," Harold translates, waiting for Markham's nod. "There was no reason you should have to do anything you don't enjoy for pleasure's sake: in fact, that entirely contradicts the purpose of the exercise."
"I can take it," Markham says, a muscle jumping in his jaw. "I've taken worse."
"I suppose that when you did," Harold says, "it was for your country. Not for someone else's sexual gratification." Harold halts and takes a breath. "Of course, I can't tell you how you felt. My apologies."
Markham gives him a wary look. "Isn't that what therapists are supposed to do?"
In return, Harold gives him a wry little grin. "Perhaps in some cases. I don't think it's necessary in yours."
"If you say so," Markham says, doubtful.
Back in the library, Harold sits rigidly, fingers tapping against his desk. "I can't expect to undo the damage in a single session, of course." His tense shoulders say otherwise.
John's not sure how to respond to that, so he says, "I've tracked down White. Markham hasn't been to his place today, but as far as I can tell they live together in all but name."
Harold's mouth purses. "Yes. This, of course, complicates things." He exhales. "If the machine gave us his number, then our time must be limited. It would be easiest if Markham could be persuaded to leave." He shakes his head. "But it's never this simple, is it?"
It takes John a moment to form the word, "Yeah." His voice is hoarse when he does.
Harold's eyes focus on John like laser beams. "Mr. Reese, is everything all right?"
"Sure, Harold." John's voice comes out a little too light. Harold's eyes narrow. John tries again. "These sort of cases. You know."
Harold's expression softens, and John abruptly wishes he'd said anything else. "Of course," Harold says. He hesitates, then adds, "If there's anything you need--"
John smiles, then, a genuine expression. "You already give me everything I need, Harold."
The next evening, Markham comes back to Matt's place. John listens to them through Markham's phone.
"Knew you couldn't stay away," Matt says. He sounds smug. This tone, when Matt used it on John, was usually accompanied with a bruising grip on his wrist. From Markham's gasp, Matt hasn't changed.
John had never known how to respond to Matt saying that. He'd kept his head down and taken his punishment.
Markham apparently has no such issue. "Remind me why I came back, dickhead," Markham snaps.
Matt laughs, a throaty sound that makes John's chest ache. "Yeah," Matt says, heavy with amusement. "C'mon, you brat. I'll remind you good and hard."
In the darkness of his car, John swallows, thankful Harold isn't here and can't see his face.
Late at night, John finds himself wondering if maybe it's all right for Markham after all.
He shoves the thought away as soon as it's formed. Markham was assaulted. Matt had been and remained a violent asshole, and if the data they have is to be believed, Matt will kill Markham soon if nothing stops him.
But Markham made Matt laugh, the way John never could. They'd been wrong, before, about what the risk to - or from - a number was.
And when it was good, with Matt, it was so fucking good.
Memories sweep him like a river current. Matt pinning him down, having him. Matt taking John apart with fingernails and teeth, with his fingers and his cock, pleasure so overwhelming it felt violent.
When Matt started using his fists, it felt like the next logical step. Begging for orgasm became inseparable from begging for air when Matt put him in choke holds that John should have been able to struggle out of.
John can breathe now. He forces himself to do that, to focus on nothing but oxygen, moving in and out of his lungs.
He made it out. He paid the price until it was clear the price was too high, and then he'd stopped. He'd walked away. And now, he can only pray they can get Markham to do the same.
"Maybe I did want it," Markham tells Harold, defiant.
"Why do you say that?"
To Markham, Harold's voice probably sounds blank. John can only tell the fury underneath from long familiarity.
"He says he knows me better than I know myself," Markham says. "He makes me feel good."
For a moment, Harold is quiet. Then he says, "I'm sure he does. I'm just as certain that there are others out there who can make you feel just as good without forcing you into things you hate."
Markham laughs, quick and bitter. "Sure there are."
"As for his supposed knowledge of you," Harold says, undaunted, "it's very easy to claim you know when someone can or can't take more, when you presume they always can and every sign of resistance just means they're not trying hard enough."
Markham makes a sound like someone punched him. John can relate.
He makes quick recovery, though, saying, "Well, maybe I'm not trying hard enough, did you think about that?"
"Trying hard enough for what?" Cracks are forming in Harold's composure, John can tell.
"I don't know." Markham sounds smaller. "To be good, I guess. To be who he wants me to be."
Harold draws a breath. "If he doesn't want you as you are," he says, with a force of conviction that rattles John, "he doesn't deserve you."
There is some audible breathing from Markham. Then he says, "Easy for you to say. You don't know what it's like. When's the last time you looked for someone who'd put you on your knees and make you suck his cock?"
"Oh, a good while back," Harold says.
John tries not to choke. By the sounds coming across the comm, so is Markham.
"Mind you, we're in New York City and this is the 21st century," Harold continues, as though he said nothing of note. "There are many men here who are kinky, attracted to men, and more consent conscious than your boyfriend."
John finds himself wondering whether Harold is counting himself among their ranks. If he's counting John.
"It's not that easy," Markham says.
"I know." The sympathy in Harold's voice takes away John's breath. "It needn't be so hard, either."
"Not good enough," Harold says under his breath, hands flying over his keyboard. "Not fast enough."
John can sympathize, and yet. "He's hearing you. That's a lot."
Harold shakes his head and repeats, "Not enough." He taps the table next to his keyboard, fidgeting with frustration. "There has to be something else we can do."
As though to obey Harold's wish, a number of ideas come to John. He disregards the notion of killing Matt; even if Harold approves it now, he'll regret it later. John can't do that to him.
Although. Harold does have some blind spots. Maybe if John told Harold about his own history with Matt...
Harold straightens in his chair. "It seems they're going out tonight," he says. "To, ah, a specialized interest club."
"A kink club?" John says, amused.
Harold swivels to pin John with a glare. "Kink is necessarily consensual, and I'm not sure the proprietors of this club are nearly as conscious of this as I'd like."
Despite his suddenly dry mouth, John manages to say, "Got it."
Harold turns back to the screen, mouth pursed. "They are, however, annoyingly strict about requirements for attendance, and protecting the members' privacy. From other members, at least; the proprietors like to have some leverage over those allowed in."
"They prefer newcomers," Harold says, "to have an existing or former connection to current members; and to," his mouth twists, "demonstrate their interest in the club's main activities, in front of club proprietors. As obviously this is not an accessible venue for us--"
"It's not inaccessible," John blurts.
Harold turns again, narrowing his eyes. "Oh?"
John takes a deep breath. "I know White," he says. "We served together." Okay, time to stop beating around the bush. "We were intimately involved."
For a long moment, John can't read the expression on Harold's face at all. He only knows Harold heard him at all by Harold's hands, clutching onto the chair armrests until his knuckles turn white. "What exactly do you propose?" Harold says at last.
Hell if John knows. "I'll approach White," he says. "Make it look like coincidence. Get him to sponsor me. I can probably get him to agree to demonstrate, too. It's nothing I can't take."
Frozen silence hangs in the room until Harold finally speaks. "Mr. Reese," he says, low and ragged, "like hell you will."
Added some tags for the new chapter, please take a look before reading.
They do go through Matt, in the end, little though Harold likes it.
"He'll probably recognize me," John says for the dozenth time. "We may as well preempt that. Set him at ease. And he's the in we have."
"I'm sure I could arrange something," Harold says plaintively in John's ear, but Matt's approaching, and John needs to pay attention.
It's all in carriage. John breathes deep and lets his shoulders droop, his head bow. Just a little bit. Crosses his legs at the ankle, leans close to the table.
Matt's eyes would've glided over somebody with John's usual posture. Like this, Matt's eyes catch. The scene feels oddly detached to John, like he's watching himself from a distance. He looks down at his feet. Kara taught him those subtle tricks of body language; he hadn't known them, hadn't realized how obviously they applied to Matt.
He doesn't look up as a solid body places itself on the seat next to to him.
"Well, well." Matt sets his glass on the table with a clink. "If it isn't Johnny. Long time no see, man."
John looks up. Not straight into Matt's eyes. He doesn't want to seem like he's issuing a challenge. He looks at Matt's mouth instead, greying stubble around familiar lips. "Matt." He's not faking the slight rough tinge to his voice.
"How's it going?" Matt's smile is familiar. Too wide. "Still in the service?"
John shakes his head, too fast to be causal. "No. Doing other things, now."
"Is that so?" Matt throws back the rest of his beer. "Here, take this." He winks at Markham, who stands silently by his side, and hands the empty glass to him. "So who's your other things?"
John turns his eyes away. Those digs used to get to him. "I'm working security," he says.
Ignoring Matt's asides never did any good. He says, "Yeah, and who's working you?"
John lets his shoulders stiffen, his voice drop a tad. "It's not like that." His body is tense, and it takes him a moment to realize it's not with nerves. It's the tension of the hunt, of a taut string that he's using to reel Matt in.
"Oh, Johnny." Matt leans close, his voice sticky-sweet with sympathy. "He's not taking care of you like you need, is he?"
John's silence is the best answer to that.
"Here's your beer," Markham says loudly, banging the new glass down until it sloshes.
Matt keeps looking at John even as he takes a drink. John's eyes flicker upward, watching Matt's throat working. He doesn't have to fake the little flare of arousal that comes at the sight, but making himself blush takes work.
What the fuck is wrong with you? The voice in John's head is Kara's, taunting. Do you actually still want this piece of shit, knowing what he's done?
"Tell you what," Matt says, leaning closer still. "I can help you out."
The wariness John lets out is genuine, too. "Why?"
"Can't I want to do something for an old friend?" Matt smiles, teeth gleaming. "Or maybe you'll just have to owe me."
John's trying to figure out the best way to orchestrate a scene that won't interfere too much with what he might need to do. Harold could tell him to hold still, rather than tie him up, and of course John can take pain.
Harold interrupts this train of thought by saying, "It seems logical that I should be the receiving party."
That draws John short. "Logical to who, exactly?"
Harold gives him an unimpressed look. "It will help me get Mr. Markham's sympathy," he says. "As well as leave you more able to respond to threats."
"White won't buy it," John says, but even as the words leave his mouth, the gears in his head turn. "He... I wasn't on top, with him."
"I gathered." Harold's voice is entirely devoid of emotion. "Will that compromise our position?"
"No," John admits. "He thinks you're too soft on me. Not giving me what I," his mouth twists, "need."
There's only the minute tightening of Harold's knuckles to say that Harold even heard John speak. "All right," he says, a moment later. "Shall we discuss logistics?"
Usually, John loves watching Harold assume his different aliases. The differences are existent and subtle in a way that John never manages: undercover, he always just feels like a palette-swapped version of himself.
Harold comes to the club as Swan, who wears more subdued suits than Finch: muted colors, the cut not so exquisite. Despite this, Swan seems comfortable in his skin, smiling covertly at John and taking his arm before they enter. "Shall we?" Harold murmurs. He lets John support a tiny bit of his weight, and John tries not to get used to it, or enjoy it too much.
Despite himself, despite everything, John smiles back. "Seems like it."
They're greeted by a large man who might as well have ex-military stamped on his forehead, his hair silvering at the temples. "Nice to have you," the man tells John. He doesn't acknowledge Harold at all. "I hope you don't mind, but we like to know who's joining us."
"Sure." John gives him his undercover smile, the one that's all teeth.
The man introduces himself as Hunt. He leads them to a side room with the complete furnishing, St. Andrew's cross and a whole bunch of implements on the wall. The smell of leather and polish is thick enough John can almost taste it.
"Remember the safe signal," he tells Harold under his breath.
Apparently he wasn't quiet enough, because Hunt chuckles. "Aw, you softy, you."
John ignores him. He takes off Harold's jacket with a heart that beats a little too fast, but at least his fingers are steady.
Harold doesn't seem cowed by any of it: the unfamiliar surrounding, Hunt's unfriendly eyes, being undressed. He takes off his shirt at John's quiet order, and his undershirt.
Hunt gestures at the wall. "Well?"
John brandishes the duffel they brought with them, opens it to show Hunt its contents. "That okay?"
"Sure," Hunt says. "Whatever floats your boat, pal." His smirk is obnoxious.
John takes the gag out first, puts it between Harold's lips, buckles it behind his head. He runs his fingers over the hinges of Harold's jaws, checking for stress, and Harold slightly narrows his eyes.
Time to get to work. John exhales.
It's just clothespins. John puts them on Harold the way Harold showed him, the way they discussed: pinches the skin, puts on the clothespin, slips the string into its grip. Rinse, repeat, until Harold has a line of clothespins down one side, all held together with white string.
Harold's breath is quicker than it was at the beginning. There's color in his cheeks, and he swallows audibly.
"That's the first part," John says, surprised at the hoarseness at his voice. He didn't really get the appeal of this, on either end, when Harold first explained. John still doesn't think he'd enjoy having this done to him, but he would definitely do this for Harold again if he asked.
Of course, Harold has no reason to do that. John shouldn't be thinking about hypotheticals now.
He does the other side of Harold's chest a little slower, taking in Harold's expression, the way his expression goes dreamy and unfocused. Harold's got his hands on the straps tying his handcuffs to the frame: not struggling, but testing, making sure it's holding him securely.
"Now the underarms."
At the sound of John's voice, Harold's eyelids flutter, his head turning a fraction of an inch, like he's almost too far off to hear but makes the effort to pay attention to John even so.
Halfway through the last line of clothespins, John makes the tactical mistake of looking down. After all Harold said about the separation of kink and sexuality, John really wasn't expecting him to have an erection that could be spotted from orbit.
The urge to take it in his mouth is more predictable, although the intensity of it isn't. It hits John right in the solar plexus.
It's just the way Harold looks like this; none of his usual cool distance. Harold is right here in the sweaty, aroused flesh. John could touch him, every part Harold ever hid away under a three piece suit, and Harold would let him.
Good thing that John is used to doing delicate work under stress. He finishes doing the last line. In a voice kept professionally steady, he asks, "Are you ready?"
Harold nods. John grips the string of the first row of clothespins, pulling them off all at once.
The yelp Harold makes is muffled by the gag, but John's tortured trained operatives for information: he can read much, much subtler cues than the way Harold's body stiffens and jerks.
Before pulling off the second string, John hesitates. He puts gentle fingers on Harold's throat, and when Harold yells, John feels the sound, reverberating through skin.
Removing the third line has Harold emitting stifled little whimpers. It makes John slow down, examine the situation, but Harold's still got his hands firmly in thumbs-up position. Plus, he's still hard enough to etch steel.
Suddenly, desperately, John wants to remove the gag. Wants to hear the sounds Harold makes with nothing in the way, open and honest, physical. But it would go against Harold's expressed wishes: not to mention, if he did, John doesn't think he could keep from kissing Harold's red, open mouth.
The last line comes off without a hitch excepting those in Harold's breath. John walks behind Harold. Gives himself a fraction of a second to cherish Harold's weight on him, trusting.
"Good enough for you?" he asks Hunt.
"Great," Hunt says, eyebrows raised. He walks to John and offers him a hand to shake. "Good to have you with us."
John smiles with his teeth. "Time to join the festivities?"
Hunt gestures at the door. "Be my guest."
John dresses Harold up again before they go, quickly doing up Harold's buttons. It wouldn't look good for their cover if Harold dressed himself.
The club itself is pretty understated. The walls are dark, the lighting is dim. There's quiet music, and over it rise smacks and grunts and the whistling of whips.
John directs Harold towards one of the seating areas, a little way away from where public scenes are taking place. "How are you doing?" he asks, voice low.
A moment passes before Harold answers, ruefully, "Rather more affected than I thought I'd be. It's been a while." His arms are crossed over his chest.
John opens the duffel bag, rummages inside until he touches something soft. He pulls out a throw blanket and drapes it over Harold's shoulders. Harold had packed the bag, and John is struck with a pang of shame that it didn't occur to him Harold might need it.
"There's a chocolate bar in there as well," Harold says. "If you would...?"
John does, of course. He settles down next to Harold when his attention is diverted by raucous laughter coming from a few tables away.
Matt's there, holding court. A few of the guys seated around his table have semi-naked people kneeling next to them. Markham is standing, wearing only a frilly apron and holding several beer mugs. John can see his naked legs trembling from where he's sitting.
"Anyway, so then I tell him..." Matt trails off, looking at his empty glass. "Hey, what's this? Where's my beer?"
John can't make out Markham's answer.
"Well, bring it over!" Matt demands. He waits for Markham to bend over, ass in the air and displaying some sort of insertable toy, before sweeping the empty beer mug to the floor with a casual flick of his wrist. He grins. "Oops."
John can't see Markham's face from where they're sitting. Markham crouches to pick up the glass shards while Matt and his friends laugh even harder.
"For goodness' sake," Harold says, sounding more like himself. "Is he a dominant or a housecat?"
John doesn't smile, but he is eased.
From the corner of his eye he sees Markham hiss and flinch.
Matt openly yells: "Can't you do anything right? For fuck's sake!"
John's on his feet before he registers his intent to do so, striding over to where Markham is trying to grab broken glass with blood-slippery hands. He's not sure what he means to do when he gets there.
Hunt is there before John, wielding a broom and an ominous expression. "Goddamit, Matt," Hunt says, low. "We talked about this."
With effort, John stays back. He feels straps pressed into his hands. "Hold the bag," Harold says quietly.
John looks away from Hunt's quiet argument with Matt. Harold has materialized next to Markham, the latter still shivering on the floor. Harold takes cotton pads and gauze out of the bag and cleans Markham's hands. Jeez, is there anything Harold didn't put in that bag?
Finally, Hunt storms off, and Matt fixes his eyes on John. "You." His voice doesn't sound friendly.
John crosses his arms. "Is there a problem?"
"Yeah, I'd say so." He shoves John. Matt's clearly itching for a fight, and by God, John wants to give him one. "Your boy is touching what's mine without permission."
John squares his shoulders, about to issue a challenge, when Harold says, "I apologize."
John tears his gaze away from Matt to look at Harold. Harold looks a little ridiculous here, in his three-piece suit among the leather-harness wearing crowd. He's looking down, voice soft, hands open. Placating.
Matt's not in the mood to be placated, though. John could've told Harold that. "Nobody cares about your apologies, asslicker. Either he commanded you to do it, and my fight's with him, or you did that on your own deadbrain initiative, and he should punish you for acting out of turn."
Harold just lowers his head a bit more. "Of course." He turns to John, head bowed. "As you see fit, Master."
John has to stifle a Don't call me that. He jerks his head stiffly towards one of the stages and starts walking, Harold following him.
"If you want to leave, I can take White," John murmurs into the comm.
"Not at all." Harold's voice is quiet but determined. "Mr. Reese, I must ask you to trust me, and to give exactly the kind of punishment that Mr. White is expecting to see."
Invisible in the club's dim light, John's hand briefly clenches. His voice is light, however. "Sure about that, Harold? He'll be expecting some pretty X-rated stuff."
Harold harrumphs. "Keep it R-rated, then. Violence, no sex. Unless he won't buy that?"
John doesn't stumble, because he is very good at keeping an eye on his surrounding under even extreme distraction. "We'll make it work."
The stage has something that looks like a long, narrow, padded picnic table. A spanking bench. John thinks - hopes - it'll support Harold's back; after undressing, Harold gets on willingly enough, with John's help, so hopefully he agrees.
Harold catches John's wrist for a second as John walks a slow circle around him. "You'll be fine," Harold says, too low to be heard.
John doesn't answer. He takes his place behind Harold.
Bare handed, because the idea of using any of the implements from Hunt's wall on Harold makes him sick.
There's something disturbing about Harold naked in this club. John half wants to stand in front of him, protect him from others' gazes. He does angle himself to hide Harold's body to the best of his ability. Harold doesn't comment.
John starts as gentle as he dares, a ringing blow that doesn't hit as deep as it could. Matt didn't really know the meaning of warmup, back when John dated him, and he definitely wouldn't have used it in punishment. Best not hope he learned better technique since.
Harold says, "I could--" the words lost to a gasp as John's hand lands. "--keep count. Would that--" another hit, "--help?"
Through gritted teeth, John says, "No."
For the next few hits, Harold is quiet. John's not sure if this is better or worse. Then Harold says, "It's okay." The words are rushed, paced to make it out between strikes. "You're fine."
It's bullshit, it's what it is. This isn't okay and John is nowhere near fine. But Harold sounds like he means them, even quick and whispered, and the words fall into syncope with John's working arm.
John keeps going more than he thought he could, until Harold's backside is reddened and his voice is ragged. John's throat aches. He walks back from Harold and says, loud enough to be heard, "Learned your lesson?"
"Yes, Master," Harold says. "Forgive me, Master."
He lets John take some of his weight, walking down from the stage. A bittersweet feeling: trust John doesn't deserve.
Markham's nowhere to be seen. Matt's still sitting with his friends, but he looks decidedly sulky.
John catches Hunt, who's leaving Matt's group. "Everything okay?"
Hunt nods. "Matt's boy took off." He glances at Matt, mouth turning down at the corner, but says nothing more. Reluctant to badmouth an old friend - or customer - to newcomers, maybe.
"That's a relief," Harold mutters at John's side.
Matt's still there when they leave.
Outside the club, it's cold. They wait together for a taxi when Harold blinks at John and grabs his hand. "Oh dear," Harold says. "That must sting."
John doesn't recoil. He feels frozen to the spot. "It's fine."
Harold looks up at him, eyes troubled. He very gently rests his index finger in the center of John's palm, where it's reddened from hitting. "Mr. Reese--"
Whatever Harold was about to say is cut off by a yelled, "Hey!" and someone running at them.
John turns, putting himself between Harold and whoever it is. But it's just Markham, admittedly wild-eyed.
"I thought you went home," John says, dumbly. This is really not his night: Matt might have killed Markham ten times over in the moments John wasn't paying attention.
Markham shrugs. It's angry and sheepish at the same time. He looks at both of them for a moment, then addresses Harold. "Why did you do that?"
"Why did I help you?" Harold says, incredulous.
Markham glares at John, shivering: if Markham had a coat, he didn't take it before leaving the club. John takes off his own jacket. Markham just stares. "I can't take it. Matt would kill me."
Lights briefly blind John. Their taxi is here. Harold is still sputtering, at a loss for words.
"He'll kill you anyway," John says. "Please. I know how it is." He holds Markham's gaze, willing him to remember how Matt treated John. "I know exactly how it is. Leave while you still can."
Markham's chin juts, but his lips tremble. They didn't a moment ago. "What if I don't care if I die?"
John stares at him. "Do it anyway," he says. "There's better deaths. Better lives, too."
Markham snorts, and their car honks. Another one pulls up behind it, and Markham staggers towards it. John allows Harold to tug him into their taxi.
Harold pulls out a mobile device, pushes some buttons. "Here," he says, showing John. "This is Mr. White," a red dot, displayed over a map, "and Mr. Markham is here." A green dot, rapidly moving away. "I've set an alarm to ring if they come within a hundred yards of one another."
John stares outside the window. "Because I was so helpful when I was in the same room as the two of them."
"You were, actually."
John turns to Harold, incredulous.
"Our public scene served to give the violent catharsis Mr. White was looking for," Harold says, calm like he's discussing a museum outing. "And allowed Mr. Markham to make an exit while others were too distracted to question it."
John lets out a ragged breath. It feels like Harold is holding out absolution, but John can't take it. "Good one of us was paying attention."
"Well, naturally it had to be me," Harold says. "You were topping: you were occupied with seeing to my well-being, and yours. I assure you, if physical intervention was needed, I would have redirected your attention." He frowns briefly, and adds, "Of course it's possible for the person on the bottom to be the one monitoring both participants' states, or for each to monitor their own. Usually, however, it's assumed to be the role of the top."
John is just barely paying attention, taken with a vivid mental image of Harold, mid-punishment, telling John to go protect Markham. The idea of leaving Harold naked, his skin reddened from John's hand - it hurts, thinking of walking away from him. But doing that with Harold's voice urgent in his ear, Harold adamant, and another life at risk....
Of course John would have gone. And that's a relief to know.
Please note the changed number of chapters - this is still incomplete. Writing is slow but going on, so I thought I might as well post what I have now.
"Is it normal for people to meet their therapists a few days in a row?" John asks over the comms. He's pretty sure he knows the answer, but it's nice to have Harold's voice in his ear.
"There were many irregularities in Mr. Markham's previous client-therapist relationships," Harold says. His carefully composed disapproval makes John grin. "Apparently Dr. Corwell - or perhaps Mr. White - were hoping to, ah, cure Mr. Markham. While this pattern is far from ideal, as long as there is a risk to Mr. Markham's life I prefer to maintain this level of access."
"Cure him of what?" Now he's just baiting Harold, but it's too much fun not to.
"Having boundaries, presumably," Harold says dryly. "I've typed up a worksheet for today's meeting with Mr. Markham - I'll send you a copy."
Next to John, a printer whirrs to life, and spits out sheet after sheet of paper. John's eyebrows rise. "That's a pretty serious worksheet, Finch."
Harold gives a small cough. His voice, when he talks, is almost embarrassed. "Well, I tried to be comprehensive. The goal isn't to fill every last question, of course: it's best to first leaf through it and linger on whatever elicits the strongest response."
"I'll say," John murmurs. More paper piles up in the printer's tray. It's still printing when Markham walks in.
"Regarding yesterday," Harold tells Markham, "I hope my presence didn't make you too uncomfortable. Of course I'll happily change, ah, my preferred venue."
John frowns. He really hopes they didn't have to go through that whole shebang with Matt just for Harold to back off.
Harold must know something, though, because Markham shrugs and says, "Eh, my old therapist was a member, too. That's why Matt didn't mind me seeing him, y'know?"
There is a brief silence, and John can only read the faint hint of Harold's rage in his carefully-timed breaths. Then Harold says, "All right. Thank you. Please, if at any point you're not comfortable--"
"I'm fine," Markham says, impatient, then, "What's this?" when Harold hands him the worksheet.
Brick might be a more descriptive term, though. The weight of paper is substantial as John extracts it from the printer, which is still going.
"It's a list of possibilities," Harold says.
"Is this one of those kink lists with the yes, no, maybe?" Markham says. "Because I filled out one of those when I started going out with Matt. He made it into a contract and everything."
With a carefully blank voice, Harold says, "Did he." He coughs. "This isn't quite the same thing - it also has the yes, no, maybe parts. Or rather, there's an open-ended response section where you can fill out how you feel - not about every scenario, of course: I tried to be thorough, and I'm afraid I arrived at tedious, instead." He gives Markham an encouraging smile. "Just leaf through it, see what catches your eye, and we can discuss the first few."
Scenario. Interesting. John looks at the first page, eyebrows rising.
Whipped, in private, by a top who does not touch you in any way beside the whipping itself, sexually or otherwise. The whipping goes on for a pre-agreed number of strokes. The following two scenarios are the same, except one specifies, The whipping goes on until you ask for it to stop, and, The whipping doesn't stop unless you say your safe word.
"You weren't kidding," Markham says, slightly strangled. The sound of paper rustling carries through the comms.
John keeps reading, fascinated with the sheer level of detail Harold goes to. Tied, comfortably, fully clothed, without pain, humiliation, or sexual contact. On a whim, John writes, "Yes," under that one.
In Harold's office, Markham says, voice going higher, "Look, nobody's just going to have me walk around in an apron and call me a pretty slut!"
"I think," Harold says, "you'll find they would."
John snickers and leafs forward. He wants to see if that's exactly how Harold put it.
Harold's precise phrasing, as it turns out, is Perform service, while wearing feminine clothes, and being verbally humiliated. John shudders mentally and writes down "No".
The next scenario catches his eye. Perform service while completely ignored. John hesitates, pen held in mid-air.
He's done that, with Matt, a few times. Mostly by accident. There's never been anything as obvious and elaborate as Matt was with Markham at the club: Matt would just tell John to get him a beer and then mock him for not bringing it fast enough - or for bringing it at all.
Sometimes, though, Matt would get distracted. He'd be too busy talking to someone, and just push his empty glass at John without thinking, and drink from the full one when John placed it at his hand. That, and the little unselfconscious sigh Matt would make when he took a sip from the new beer....
John writes "Yes", the s coming out a little skewed.
His eye is drawn to the scenario beneath that. Perform difficult service and receive praise. All of a sudden, his heart starts pounding.
That never happened with Matt. John can't even imagine it happening with him. But he can hear Harold's no-nonsense voice, fresh from yesterday night, explaining to John how everything John did was precisely according to Harold's plan.
It almost hurts to think about, like looking directly at the sun. Harold would never lie to John. Would never offer him meaningless platitudes.
Under that scenario, with a shaky hand, John writes, "Please".
A snarled, "You don't know what I want," comes from the comm. John straightens and fixes his attention back on Harold and Markham.
"Maybe I don't," Harold says. "Perhaps I could tell you my impressions, and you could tell me where I'm wrong?"
For a moment, Markham stews in furious silence. Then he gives a jerky nod.
"This is what I think: I think you want a framework," Harold says. "More than a bed mate, you want somewhere to belong, a community where you are known. Celebrated."
Markham sits frozen, staring at Harold.
"That desire," Harold says, "is entirely natural."
"But I can't have it," Markham says, voice thick with frustration. "You're about to tell me I have to let it go because Matt's hitting me, and I know, okay? I just--"
"I am about to say no such thing," Harold says. "I apologize for interrupting, though. Carry on."
Markham gives Harold a narrow-eyed look. "No, finish what you were saying."
"The desire is natural, and completely achievable," Harold says. "This is New York, Mr. Markham. I can give you the address of three establishments that would accept you, where everyone would be horrified to hear that your dom had a say in who your therapist is." He pauses. "That, in fact, has caused some difficulty for people who... but I digress.
"There are many communities where people are aware that one can consent to and desire humiliation without consenting to handle broken glass bare-handed." A little bit of acid comes out in Harold's voice with the last few words. "Or, indeed, to fetching people's drinks."
Even through the grainy camera, John can see Markham shaking. "It can't be that easy."
"Depends on what you mean by that," Harold says. "Finding a relationship will take time and communication, yes. But it doesn't require you being abused."
"But if I can't find anyone...." Markham trails off.
Harold opens his hands. "Give it two weeks," he says, coaxing. "I understand your concern. But before you worry about complete failure, could you try? For a little bit?"
Harold's phone chimes the end of the session, making both Markham and Harold startle. "You can stay for a while," Harold says. "I have no appointments just now."
Markham shakes his head. "I need to think."
He takes the worksheet with him, and John hopes that's a good sign.
"Do you think two weeks will do it?" John says.
Over the comm, Harold replies, "Two weeks should be enough to give him a new social scene that validates his desires without allowing abuse. I suspect this will give him more patience in finding a suitable partner."
John shakes his head and doesn't reply.
The afternoon is spent in a diner next to White's building. The dots on Harold's tracker are still pulsing peaceably away from one another: this is a stake-out only by the barest possible definition.
It gives John far too much time to read Harold's worksheet, and think about its contents.
Maybe it's John's imagination that scenarios involving punishment and impact are different than the others. Certainly Harold had been as thorough in that area as anywhere else, but to John's eyes, there's something about the tone setting them apart.
He glances at the next page. Wear a diaper. He writes "No" under that one, too. There's a disconcerting number of "No"s scattered throughout the worksheet. John could take any of them, but in a little bordered box at the top of each page sits a disclaimer that seems like a miniature legal contract.
No, that's not exactly it. It's like a Terms of Service document: This document does not stand in place of active consent. The activities therein are meant to give all participants something they find positive. An act being bearable doesn't make it desirable.
John shakes his head fondly. He can hear Harold's careful enunciation behind the words, see his expression.
Like Markham, John had filled lists of do's and don't's before. Those tended to be more act-specific, though. Harold doesn't differentiate between caning and whipping, but he makes separate scenarios for Whipped and counting strokes; Whipped, completely silent; Whipped, crying and screaming, possibly cursing; and Whipped, moaning.
John's pen pauses on the latter. He's fairly neutral on whipping, and the idea of moaning from it hasn't occurred to him.
Before he can stop himself, he wonders if that could be something Harold likes.
There's no question that if Harold enjoyed being hurt, John would hurt him. It wouldn't even have to be for a number. The idea of Harold expressing enjoyment at what John did to him-- it might not feel like John was doing something terrifying and awful at all.
He has a sudden mental image of Harold smiling at him, telling John how well he delivered the strokes.
"#25", John writes under that. Perform difficult service and receive praise.
Just before entering the library, John stalls. The worksheet is heavy in his hands. There's a recycling can not ten yards away, and John is staring at it when his comm buzzes.
"Please come upstairs, Mr. Reese," Harold says. "I have a paper shredder here, if you need to use it."
The first thing John says, once he's up the stairs, is, "You have a paper shredder here?"
Harold gestures at Bear, who is looking up at John, tongue lolling. "Close enough for government work."
John chuckles and bends to scratch Bear behind the ears.
"I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable," Harold says, quieter.
John has to point out, then, "You didn't even tell me to read it, let alone fill it out." He lets out a breath, stands up, and lays the worksheet on Harold's desk. "Can't have things about me that you don't know."
It's supposed to be a joke, a pretty poor one. But John's voice comes out rougher than he meant, the words feel like they ought to weigh as heavily as the paper John just gave over to Harold.
Harold turns in his chair, looking up at John. The lamp is reflected in Harold's glasses and his mouth is slightly open; he looks unnerved, although John can't say by what.
An alert sound, and Harold startles visibly. He sharply turns back to his screen. "Oh, dear. Mr. White--"
"I see him," John says tersely. The address is flashing on the screen. "I'm on my way."
Hurry up and wait has been a fact of John's life for over twenty years. You'd think he'd be used to it by now.
"Give it to me," Markham says from the other side of the wall, low and throaty.
John crouches in the hallway, shifting carefully to keep his legs from cramping or falling asleep. Bursting in on Matt and Markham having sex isn't going to help Markham any, especially since so far Markham has been pretty enthusiastic about the happenings.
(Even when Matt hit him earlier - bare-handed spanking, if the sounds were any indication - Markham kept yelling, then hissing, for more. Harold had been ominously silent.
John doesn't want to think what this signifies.)
He thinks, instead, of Harold staying up late to type that worksheet, frowning at the screen and pushing up his glasses every so often. Perhaps he'd rolled his sleeves back, the way he does sometimes when he does some serious coding. The thought makes John smile: for Harold, showing forearms is practically half naked.
Then John remembers seeing Harold literally naked a few days ago. That wasn't the same, of course. Mission-critical isn't the same thing as unthinking comfort.
I could help take his coat off, John thinks. Roll Harold's sleeves up for him, make sure the fold was crisp and comfortable. Clean Harold's glasses for him and settle them carefully over his nose.
"Marked you up all pretty," Matt growls on the other side of the wall. John doesn't bother rolling his eyes. "Now I'm gonna show you off. Have everyone see how fucking disgusting you are, asking for it." Markham doesn't answer. There's the sound of flesh smacking flesh. "What do you fucking say, cockwipe?"
"Yes, Master," Markham says. John can't decipher his tone.
John tenses, but waits in case it's just dirty talk. He hears Matt moving around, though, the sounds of things tossed into a bag. "Get dressed," Matt says. "Makes me fucking sick to look at you." Fabric rustles.
John taps his comm. Before he can say anything, Harold says, "I'll meet you at the club. I have everything we need prepared."
John is pulling in next to the club when his comm buzzes.
"Potential complication, Mr. Reese:" Harold says. "Hunt seems very focused on our number."
John hesitates. "I'll wait outside for a bit," he says.
He lurks in the alley behind the club. This turns out to be a good idea, since the back door opens and Hunt and Markham come through.
For a moment, John tenses. Maybe they read this entire case wrong. Maybe Markham and Hunt are plotting to kill Matt. It would serve him right, but still.
"He's not going to like me being out here with you," Markham says. He's dressed pretty normally, but his tank top doesn't quite seem sufficient for the weather. He rubs his bare arms.
"Fuck what Matt likes," Hunt says. John blinks. "Look, I've noticed the way he treats you. It's not right."
"Nice to know someone has some standards," Harold comments dryly in John's comm. "Low as they are."
"You've got a mouth on you, and you need discipline, but you're not a bad kid," Hunt says. "There's other guys in town, you know?"
Markham stands straight and looks Hunt in the eye. "Like who?"
"Like me," Hunt says. "I'll treat you better. I'm strict but I'm fair. I've never made anyone bleed unless I meant them to."
"Charming," Harold mutters.
"Thanks," Markham says. "I mean it. I-- don't think that's going to work out. But I appreciate the offer." He walks back inside.
Hunt doesn't follow him: he leans against the wall and lights a cigarette. Hunt's not ugly, and there's power in his shoulders, his stance.
John looks at him and wants. Not Hunt, exactly, but what Hunt can give him: in tiny fragments scattered along everything undesirable and unpleasant, sure, but there. It's more than John's had in a long time.
Just for a moment, he lets himself entertain the thought. Could he...? No, of course he couldn't. Sooner or later, what Hunt asks of him would conflict with working the numbers. It's obvious what John should choose. He's known that since he walked away from Matt.
"I'm coming inside," John tells Harold, because he needs to say it. His voice comes out harsher than he means it to.
There's a brief silence, then Harold says, "Please do that, Mr. Reese."
The man at the door let John in after checking his name against a list, and nobody else notices John's entrance, too focused on a couple performing on one of the main stages. John spares them a look - not the number, not anyone he's seen before, he's not sure the top should be doing that with a stun baton but that's not his focus right now.
Harold is seated in the back. There's tension in the way he holds his wrists, in the line of his lips. John sends another look to Markham, looking sullen kneeling on a pillow several yards away from Matt.
"I have a question for you, Mr. Reese." Harold's voice is quiet, but John can hear him as clearly as ever.
John makes a Fire away shrug.
"Your, ah, relationship with Mr. White. How did it end?"
John's tongue is thick in his mouth. He makes himself answer anyway. "Figured it was going nowhere good. Made myself cut it off."
Harold's eyes are on him, gaze piercing: like ice and mathematics, something cold and pure. "You realized Mr. White's treatment of you was wrong, and negative for your wellbeing?"
Almost, but not quite. Harold wouldn't ask if it weren't important. "I couldn't do my job," John says. "Matt would've killed me, or I'd've gotten myself killed by not being in good condition."
Harold's mouth parts. "One day," he says, "I will stop expecting you to display self preservation."
John can't help but smile at that. "It's not something I'm known for," he agrees.
Abruptly, Harold says, "What is your opinion on Mr. Hunt's proposal?"
John snorts. "Markham shouldn't take it. Hunt's a dick."
Harold tilts his head. "And yourself, Mr. Reese? Would you accept it?"
John's mouth goes dry. "He didn't ask me," he says, trying for a joking tone.
"But supposing he did," Harold says, dead serious.
John has no idea what Harold wants from him. He can't be jealous; the idea is absurd. It would have to mean he wanted John, to begin with, which is-- which is--
"I'd like to propose a change of plans," Harold says, crisply. He takes a jewel case out of the dufflebag at his feet and opens it, displaying a leather collar. "Would you allow me to put this on you?"
For a moment, all John can do is stare. The collar is good, heavy leather, evenly stained. John can imagine what it would feel like: the smell, the weight. He nods dumbly and bows his head to give Harold access.
He did mark "Yes" under #52: Putting on a comfortable collar and a leash.