“I’ve got to tell you, Finch,” John says, snagging two champagne glasses off the nearby waitress and handing one to Harold, “This is not how I planned to spend my evening.”
For one, the New York Art Appreciation Annual Gala is not the kind of party John would attend given a choice. For second, the only party he wants to attend right now is between his 800-threadcount Egyptian Fairtrade cotton sheets and despite the way it sounds, it’s a party that would mostly involve his brainwaves settling into a Delta pattern of deep, dreamless sleep.
“Agreed, Mr Reese,” Finch says, sipping his champagne and not even bothering to suppress his grimace. Clearly, the beverages here are not to his exacting standards. There was a time when John would have thought Finch’s occasional snobbery obnoxious but now he just finds it kind of charming.
Harold deposits his half-full glass on the nearest table, straightening the sleeves of his immaculate tuxedo. “I must admit that the last few days have been…” He glances at John from the corner of his eye, mouth pursed together unhappily like admitting any kind of weakness is even more distasteful than the subpar fizz, “…somewhat tiring.”
Suppressing the urge to roll his eyes at Finch’s understatement, John shifts his attention to the crowd. Despite his dismissive words, Harold is leaning on his cane far more than usual. Of course, the mere fact that he’s using one is telling on its own, although the black, silver-tipped walking stick is clearly mostly for show. John has to admit that the overall impression is… Well, impressive. The only thing Harold is missing is a top hat. “It is not a wedding, Mr Reese,” he’d said indignantly when John had suggested it earlier.
Harold’s snappier-than-usual attitude was probably another symptom of the fact that they’ve spent the last week running three simultaneous and unrelated numbers, which even with the help of Shaw and the good detectives of NYPD, has been more than ‘somewhat tiring’. The last one was tied up only this morning and despite the three-hour nap Reese managed to grab afterwards, he’d felt less than in optimal condition when Finch had woken him up with determined knocking in the late afternoon, a garment bag slung over his arm. Another number, another opportunity to feel sartorial inferiority in the presence of his employer. All in the night’s work.
Speaking of… “There she is,” Reese says, catching sight of their mark by the buffet table.
“Mr Reese, you better…”
“Shrimp puffs,” John says, moving off, “Coming right up.”
Harold allows himself a small smile, watching the way the crowd parts in front of John’s tall form, instinctively ceding ground. He’s tired enough to let himself enjoy the not insignificant pleasure of observing all of John’s skill and power in action.
In action as directed by him. “Mrs Martinez has a seafood allergy,” Harold murmurs, trying to ignore the little curl of smug satisfaction as John says right on cue:
“I think those have salmon in them.”
“Oh! Oh goodness!” Mrs Martinez snatches her hand away from the canapés like it’s burned, which Finch can’t really blame her for. Anaphylactic shock is no laughing matter.
“Allow me,” John is saying, deftly manoeuvring Mrs Martinez’s plate off her and engaging her in the kind of meaningless small talk these types of parties are full of.
Harold listens with a half-an-ear, confident in John’s ability to keep their number occupied and safe. They’re pretty sure she is the intended victim and either her philandering husband or about-to-go-bankrupt business associate is behind it. And since all three key players are in attendance at tonight’s gala…
Harold sighs, trying to relax. The last week has left him sleep-deprived and tense. The numbers have taken their toll and he’s had to juggle some actual business meetings for various aliases too. John’s constant presence has been exhausting in a different way though. The man has more than proven his loyalty and trustworthiness, getting further under Harold’s skin than anyone since Nathan. And yet somehow he is completely willing to allow Harold exactly the amount of space he needs – which, Harold admits ruefully, is sometimes less than he wants – to only push this much and no more.
Harold is painfully aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and the limits of his control. John has turned out to be both of the former, and to test the latter in ways Harold has not anticipated. Right now the man looks like – Harold grimaces slightly at the crassness of the colloquialism, apt as it is – sex on a stick in his new suit which Harold had chosen, then watched him get fitted with and finally helped John into earlier this evening, adjusting a bowtie here, brushing the lapels there…
And now that the suit is encasing John’s body, beautifully accentuating every long line and angle, Harold finds himself using a lot of his self-control to not reach out and touch. To claim.
Determinedly, he tears his eyes away from John and their number, tapping at his phone. The GPS confirms that both Mr Martinez and Mr Sciulli are in the building but he can’t see either of them in the hall…
“My, my,” a voice says somewhere behind him and Harold startles, turning stiffly around to see a young man standing close-by, a snifter of brandy hanging from his fingers in a deliberately careless manner. “I must compliment you on your purchase,” he says, smiling like he’s in on a joke at everyone else’s expense.
Harold dislikes him instinctively.
The man only grins wider. “You clearly have impeccable taste, Mr…?”
“Crane,” Harold answers, shaking the proffered hand perfunctorily. “And you have me at disadvantage Mr…?”
“Simon Norton,” the man says and then immediately ruins any illusion of manners by adding: “But do call me Simon. Having my elders call me ‘Mr’ anything seems so… disrespectful.” His eyes flick to Harold’s walking stick in a way that speaks volumes and none of it flattering.
“Mr Norton,” Harold says, willing his face to stay impassive. In his ear John is talking about opera of all things and Harold would much rather hear his thoughts on Wagner, even if made up, than deal with whatever idiocy young Mr Trust Fund here is about to subject him to.
“I’m curious,” Simon says as if on cue, leaning closer conspiratorially, “What is the going rate nowadays?”
Later, Harold will blame the tiredness for the fact that for a few long seconds he has absolutely no idea what the man is referring to. He takes a step back, blinking in confusion as Simon tilts his head toward the buffet where…
“…hopefully return soon,” Mr Reese is saying in Harold’s ear; an innocent comment to Mrs Martinez with a question meant for Harold. ‘Do you need me back?’ John is asking, and Harold uncurls his fingers from around his cane, holding his hand flat at hip level and murmuring “Everything is fine,” for good measure.
Across the room John catches his eyes briefly over Mrs Martinez’s shoulder. He doesn’t look happy about it but stays. They both know that protecting the number’s life is more important than protecting Harold’s reputation.
Especially since Harold doesn’t give a flying fuck, to use a common vernacular, what some spoiled kid barely out of diapers thinks of him. He does, however, care about Simon’s use of schoolyard bully tactics, the ease with which he employs them suggesting this is not the first time.
Never let it be said that Harold Finch – or Crane, Partridge, Swift, Kingfisher – lets a teachable moment slip by. In fact, he is suddenly and viciously glad for the opportunity.
“Let me get this absolutely correct, Mr Norton,” Harold says, smiling in a way that is not friendly in the least. “Are you implying that I couldn’t get a man like him,” he nods in John’s direction, “into my bed without financial compensation?”
Mrs Martinez is a perfectly pleasant woman, if a little naïve, and any other day John would have been happy to have a number whom he didn’t actively loathe. Today, however, he is just frustrated and tired, idly wondering if simply finding her husband and business partner and shaking both until one of them confesses is not the more efficient, and quicker, way of ending this. Hell, if they manage to wrap this up soon, they’ll still have time for dinner and maybe this will be one of those nights when Finch will steer the two of them into some hole-in-the-wall place with delicious food and a little booth where they can just…
“…and the director!” Mrs Martinez is gushing, “Such artistic vision, don’t you think?”
“Oh I do,” John says, more distracted than he should be because in his ear Finch is talking to someone else, the tone of his voice less than happy.
John glances over, seeing a blond pissant in his twenties making Harold’s acquaintance. Mrs Martinez is still waxing lyrical about the new production of the Ring Cycle so John lets himself focus on Finch and his new companion for a few seconds.
Harold is annoyed but uncharacteristically slow to catch on to what the guy is implying. John is torn between amused, mortified and plain furious. They’ve played those parts before but it’s not the cover this time and distantly he’s concerned because something must have bled through, some hint of his own inconvenient feelings that…
Norton is asking about the going rate and John grinds his teeth, angry at the man and himself too because there was a time when, had he been the one looking at them from the outside, he’d have probably jumped to the same conclusion. It shames him now, bitterly, but when he’d first met Finch he too had seen only the fussy suit and the limp, and dismissed him as a bored rich guy looking for thrills.
Of course, nothing had been further from the truth and it hadn’t taken John long to realise that. This guy though…
“I’ve heard rumours that he will hopefully return soon,” John says, in reply to Mrs Martinez’s continued praise of some opera director or another, asking without asking if Harold needs backup.
The hand gesture is clear enough, and Harold’s murmured reassurance feels a bit like rebuke, as if John was silly for thinking Finch couldn’t handle this on his own.
And oh, oh he was, yes, because from over Mrs Martinez’s shoulder John watches Harold's 'wealthy donator' cover drop like a curtain on a murder scene as everything about him goes still and cold and hard. He’s turning to Norton now, asking a question, but John pays little attention to the words, caught in the look on Harold’s face, the one that says someone is about to lose all their assets in the near future and it’s going to hurt.
All of John’s instincts are on red alert, and he’s painfully aware of the way he too has gone still. And hard. Except in a somewhat different way.
Because witnessing the rare occasion when Harold’s carefully cultivated cover cracks enough to let someone see just how dangerous he is… Well. John Reese has always enjoyed danger.
He wouldn’t be in the line of work he is otherwise.
“…insulted. We’re all men of the world here, isn’t that…” Simon Norton is rambling, cocky still if a little unsettled, and making the cardinal sin of paying no attention to the way Harold’s fingers are flying on his smartphone.
John grins, knows it probably looks feral but doesn’t care enough to curb it either.
“Are you… alright?” Mrs Martinez is asking, sounding nervous.
John forces his attention back to the number. He weighs his options briefly and then just asks: “Tell me, is either your husband or Mr Sciulli around? I’d like a word.”
Mrs Martinez blinks at him in confusion and then tells Reese the best news he’s heard all night: “Oh no, they were on their way out. Something about a business deal… I don’t really pay attention much, my husband handles most of that.” She shrugs, taking a sip of her drink. “I can pass on your card if…”
“That would be fantastic,” John says, getting out his phone and confirming that yes, GPS indicates that both Mr Martinez and Mr Sciulli are moving away from the gallery, probably in a car judging by the speed. Which means that they are not an immediate threat.
Which means John can focus back on Harold and the damage he’s about to inflict on Mr Norton with undoubtedly devastating precision. “I'd appreciate a call when you see either of them,” John says, handing Mrs Martinez John Warren’s business card before making his excuses.
“Is that right?” Finch is saying when John tunes back into the conversation. He doesn’t attempt to interrupt though, simply stands by the buffet and pops one of those ridiculous mini-quiches into his mouth. Better than popcorn.
“Well, look at you,” Simon the asshole-Norton answers, and John’s hand tightens around his glass dangerously. Slowly, he puts it down, just in case he’ll need the full range of movement in the imminent future.
“No,” Harold says then, his voice quiet and sharp enough to draw blood. “Let’s look at you instead, shall we, Mr Norton?” He takes a step forward then, right into Simon’s personal space, and then another and another, forcing him to back down, crowding him right against the wall, until they are partly sheltered by a large fern. For a casual observer it will just look like they’re having an intense conversation.
There is nothing casual about John’s anything when it comes to Finch. He wanders down the buffet table, slowly drifting closer and managing to keep a half-way decent line of sight while at it. This, it turns out, is a good thing because what happens next rather needs to be seen to be believed and John is glad for the visual confirmation because otherwise he might have thought his sleep-deprived brain had finally flipped.
And because without it he would have missed the sight of Harold pressing the round, silver tip of his walking stick right against Simon Norton’s jugular, hard enough to get his undivided attention.
“Tell me, boy,” Finch says to the intruding little brat, the words smooth like silk over steel blades, “Do you know how to put a man on his knees with just a look?"
By the vol au vents, John Reese, who has faced assassins, terrorists and mobsters without twitching an eyebrow, chokes on his own tongue.
Because Harold Finch definitely does.
Dispassionately, Harold watches the way Simon’s throat works against the silver knob of the cane, Adam’s apple sliding against the metal almost caressingly. He feels… removed, disconnected; playing an old part but not fully feeling it despite the genuine anger and frustration boiling under his skin.
“What the fu—?”
“Quiet now,” Harold says, almost absentmindedly, pressing his walking stick harder into the soft underside of Simon’s jaw. He makes a noise half-way between a cough and a whine, but it is quiet so Harold lets it go.
“That is what we call a rhetorical question, Mr Norton,” he adds.
It’s been years since he’s done this, well over a decade. He… dabbled when in college, in the clubs within an easy travelling distance, too shy and unsure to do much, quickly disillusioned by the scene and its pretensions. It wasn’t until Nathan had looked up at him, genuine affection and hunger on his handsome face, that Harold had felt like he’d always thought it would, like he had something to give.
Nathan had wanted it all; Harold’s mind first, but his company too, undeterred by his lack of social graces, and then later, astonishingly, his body. If Harold closes his eyes now, he can almost see Nathan the way he’d looked that first time; strong and sure, sliding to his knees in Harold’s cluttered dorm room, his large hands coming up to bracket Harold’s hips, his smile…
Harold had missed that smile, years later when it had become rarer and more strained. They’d gone on to build an empire together, achieved every dream they’d ever talked about during those long nights at MIT, drunk on cheap booze and their own brilliance. The physical aspect of their relationship had faded eventually but it never turned into something either of them regretted or resented, and in a way it had only cemented their friendship more. Nathan met Olivia and Harold got more and more consumed by the work, and after 9/11… Well, none of that seemed to matter anymore, in the grand scheme of things. The Machine took over and making it listen, making it learn and obey, took all of Harold’s attention.
Grace had been an outlier; their physical relationship gentle and deeply satisfying and while Harold had thought he could ask for this, he’d never felt the need. It didn’t seem fair somehow either, not when he was already asking so much of her without her even realising it.
Harold had honestly thought that part of his life was over. And then…
“You may want to let him breathe,” a voice says from behind him, close enough that there is a slight stereo from the earpiece.
Harold de-activates the comm with a press of his finger and glances behind him. John sounds amused, looks it too, although there is also something else in his expression, in the way his eyes flicker between Harold and Mr Norton, who could have brushed Harold aside if he’d wanted but who instead seems frozen in the spot, face turning a delicate shade of purple.
John is deliberately blocking the rest of the room from sight, ensuring the three of them have relative privacy. “That is,” he comments, straightening up, feet slightly apart, hands clasped behind his back – at perfect parade rest, Harold realises – “if you wish to. Entirely your choice of course,” John says, and the amusement laced through that is clear now, though shaded with something darker, something serious.
Harold eases the pressure on Simon’s throat but doesn’t move his walking stick entirely. “Do keep still, Mr Norton,” he says, dismissive and cold even to his own ears but most of his attention is on John now, in the careful stillness of his body, the way he is not asking questions, not demanding explanations, and not making any move to stop Harold.
“If you wanted to,” John continues, his voice falling even lower than usual, the barely there rasp tugging at something deep in Harold’s chest. “I could handle this for you.”
Harold gets a distinctive impression that the ‘this’ John is referring to is about something more than getting rid of a cocky trust fund kid. His suspicion is confirmed a few seconds later when John drops his gaze to the floor – a brief but deliberate move – before lifting it back to meet Harold’s eyes. “Sir?” he tags on to the end of the sentence, and it’s a question and a declaration, all wrapped in one.
Harold inhales sharply, and whatever distance and disassociation he was feeling earlier crumples to dust with that single word. It’s not the title – in fact Harold would very much prefer to hear his own name instead, said in that tone of voice – it’s what it signifies. John knows exactly what is going on here and beyond that, there is understanding in every line of his body that speaks of more than the abstract knowledge Harold would have expected a man of John’s background to possess anyway.
This is not just John saying he gets it, or signalling amused tolerance of yet another of Harold’s quirks, this is John asking if… If Harold…
This is John offering. And not out of some misplaced loyalty or gratitude either, Harold thinks, hopes. It’s there in the way John looks at Harold’s hands on the cane, like he wants them on himself.
It takes all of Harold’s self-control not to give it to him. “Thank you, Mr Reese, but no,” he says, hating the way John’s face goes blank, the way he draws himself up like he’s been slapped. “I’ll handle Mr Norton myself… But perhaps there is something you can help me with later on,” he adds, willing John to understand that this is a not a ‘no’, only a ‘not yet, not here’.
John exhales slowly, his breath coming out shuddery despite his best efforts to control it. The relief coursing through him is sweet and pure like the first lungful of fresh air after hours underground and his whole body wants to just fold down and yield. John locks his knees and wills himself to stay standing, to focus, because that’s what Harold needs him to do right now.
For a second he’d thought Harold had turned him down, that he’d seen what John had to offer and found him wanting. Getting shot in the gut had nothing on that; the pain tinged with resignation, because both outcomes had seemed inevitable at the time. But while Finch was many things, predictable was not one of them, and just like then he’d caught John before the final fall, uncaring of whether or not John thought he’d deserved to be saved.
“Sure,” he responds, when he can trust his voice again, “Whatever you say, Harold.”
Finch blinks at him and for a moment John thinks he screwed up already, dropping the ‘sir’ when he’d barely gathered the courage to use it in the first place, but then the corner of Harold’s mouth curls upwards and there’s nothing but approval in his eyes. He’s pleased, he’s pleased with John, and if John hadn’t wanted to drop to his knees in front of the man since… fuck, since maybe that day in the café with the Eggs Benedict, that would surely do it.
Harold looks like he knows it too now, like he’s seeing it for the first time, and it’s with a visible effort he breaks eye-contact, turning back to Simon who is still plastered against the wall. “Mrs Martinez?” Finch asks whilst studying the man and John quickly fills him in.
“Good,” Harold says after John is finished with the report. “Now then, Mr Norton. I did promise we’d have a little chat, didn’t I?”
“Fu-fuck you!” Simon spits out, sweaty and nervous and – John notices with disdain – turned on.
Harold doesn’t even blink. “No,” he says, lowering his walking stick finally. “I don’t think I will.”
The smile John flashes at Mr Norton is full of sharp edges. ‘Mine,” he thinks, vicious and triumphant, ‘Back off.’
“Simon Gregory Norton, Junior,” Harold is saying, scrolling through his phone screen. “Birthdate 23 of January, 1988. Living off your father’s investments, though rapidly dwindling both his funds and patience judging by the email correspondence between him and his financial advisor.” He doesn’t stop there, rattling out Norton’s social security, home address, credit card number and his preferred brand of lubricant – John raises his eyebrow at Harold’s choice of product for his little demonstration of omnipotence, but rather enjoys the way Simon’s face blanches bone white.
“How did… Who are you?” Simon asks, visibly scared now, which… Not a total idiot then. He should be.
“I’m your lucky break, Mr Norton” Finch says, glancing at the phone screen, “or should I call you Leatherslut1?” He flashes the phone at Simon long enough to show a profile on a well-known fetish site. “Regardless, you are playing a game you are not equipped to handle. Planning on meeting up with… Master Predator here?” Harold taps at his phone, his contempt a tangible thing, hanging heavy between them. “You know it’s not just a pompous alias, the man has a conviction for an assault.”
Simon, if possible, pales further. John would add ‘Master Predator’ onto his shit list but he guesses Finch has already dealt with that particular piece of human scum with extreme prejudice.
“I didn’t, I… I’m sorry!” Simon blurts out, beseeching. “Please don’t tell anyone. It’s private, I don’t want…”
“And yet with everything you do you’re asking for it,” Harold interrupts coldly. His face is impassive but John knows he’s grinning wide enough for two, like a shark watching the waters grow bloody.
“Do you have any idea what would have happened if you’d mouthed off to a wrong person tonight?” Harold asks. “Someone like me but with less scruples about pushing the point I’m making, someone who would delight in taking you down and leaving you there. Even I…” Harold shakes his head, tight-lipped and angry, and the look he casts at John is somehow wary, like he expects whatever he says to shock him, to make him reconsider his offer.
As if anything could. As if John doesn’t already know, or guess at, the worst of Harold’s sins and hasn’t made his peace with them a long time ago.
“I could tear you apart,” Harold says and it’s no empty threat; he’s stating a fact. “I could have you on your knees right here in the middle of the party and shred every single piece of your life, of you, into little pieces like so much tissue paper.”
It probably says something profound and not altogether healthy about his psyche, but John is undeniably, ferociously turned on.
Which is of course when his phone rings.
“Mrs Martinez,” John’s voice is perfectly even but his eyes stay on Finch. “I didn’t expect to hear back from you so quickly.” He listens for a while and then says: “Did he? Oh, very fortunate indeed. Thank you for letting me know.” With that he casts a quick, regretful glance at Harold and then he’s gone, slipping into the party.
Harold reactivates his comm unit and a few seconds later John’s voice is in his ear, explaining: “Her husband just rang, said he’d gone back to the office but forgotten his briefcase. Mrs Martinez thought I might like an opportunity to meet him away from the party and wondered if I’d like to tag along.”
“How thoughtful of her,” Harold says. “I’m sure he’ll be delighted to make you acquaintance.”
John snorts softly at that, and Harold can hear the ambient noise increasing as John steps out on to the street. “Do keep me posted, Mr Reese. I’ll head to the library once I’ve… wrapped things up here.”
“Roger that, Finch,” John says, and the smirk in his voice is audible. “Do try to leave Mr Norton standing.”
Harold hums noncommittally but makes no promises, listening to the sound of car door being opened and the pleasant chatter of Mrs Martinez as she greets John, before turning his attention back to the matter at hand. He turns to look at Simon Norton, suddenly tired of the game they’re playing even if he was the one to start it. This had hardly been the first time someone had made such assumptions and implications of him and Mr Reese and just because tonight they’d touched a nerve exposed more than usual by exhaustion and having John nearby all week, close but not close enough…
Well, it was no excuse. He should have just let it go.
Problem is, Harold’s learned the hard way what can happen when you did that.
“Mr Norton,” he says, sighing. “Here’s what’s going to happen next.”
Twenty minutes later, it’s done. Simon Norton has an email for a dom whose former partners vouch for being strict but fair and a hundred percent safe, and instructions to use it. Master Predator’s current address is being raided by the NYPD on a suspected parole violation thanks to an anonymous tip. And by the sounds of it Mr Reese is persuading Mrs Martinez’s husband and her business partner what a bad idea killing her would be. He’s left the comm open and Harold listens while collecting his coat and hailing a cab, but none of the audible grunts of pain are John’s so there is no need to worry.
Of course, nothing about the current case, or even Simon Norton, is the cause for the nervous jittery feeling at the bottom of his stomach.
“That about wraps it up, Finch,” John says in his ear as if on cue. He sounds slightly out of breath. “Literally. Perhaps you could call Detective Carter and let her know she’s got presents waiting.”
“Certainly, Mr Reese. I’ve taken the liberty at compiling a neat little file of the relevant paperwork for her too. It seems Mr Martinez and Mr Sciulli had used up rather more of Mrs Martinez’s funds than they were actually supposed to. Cashing in on her brand new life insurance was apparently the back-up plan.” Harold zips the relevant documents and emails them off to Carter, cc’ing Fusco for good measure. The metal gate of the library bangs reassuringly as he closes it behind himself, the sharp click of Bear’s claws approaching already as the dog races to greet him.
“Neer,” Harold says, with a hand gesture that is uncomfortably similar to the one he’d given John earlier.
Bear subsides obediently though his tail is still going mile a minute as Harold gives him a thorough ear scratch in greeting. “Good boy,” he says absently, straightening up finally and heading toward the computers only to be brought to halt by John’s low chuckle in his ears.
“Glad you approve, Harold,” he says, the smile evident in his voice.
Harold swallows, mouth suddenly dry, because John must know he was talking to the dog which makes his comment deliberate innuendo and he isn’t… Harold doesn’t know what…
“You must be tired, Mr Reese,” he says, one hand groping for the chair as he slowly lowers himself down to it. “You should go home to rest.”
There’s a beat of silence at the other end, heavy with tension, and then John says: “Harold…” like he can see through all of Harold’s walls and still wants what’s behind them.
“I’ll call you tomorrow if we have a new number,” Harold says, in a last ditch effort but John rolls right over it with “I’ll be there in twenty,” and then promptly disconnects.
Harold stares at the computer screens, at his hands automatically curled over the keyboards though he has nothing to type. His fingers are cold and when he presses the keys he feels the faint tremor in them, emotion rattling against the space bar like rain on a tin roof; relentless and telling.
He doesn’t know if he can do this.
Earlier, at the party, it had been easy, inconsequential. It didn’t matter because the rich brat squirming at the end of his cane didn’t matter.
John is anything but easy. And there definitely will be consequences.
Harold is afraid because this matters, John matters and… He, he doesn’t know if he can, if he should…
Bear leaps up from his bed where he’d settled, running toward the door, his sensitive hearing picking up approaching steps well before Harold’s. It seems he’s about to find out.
John is somewhere between annoyed and resolute; irritated at Harold’s poor attempt at deflection, of trying to avoid seeing this through, but equally determined not to let him. It’s not a place beyond fear – no, that’s definitely still there, coiling in his chest and sending tendrils of doubt to his heart – but it is a place that allows him to set the fear aside and do what needs to be done.
Especially, as he suspects that the same fear is what is behind Harold’s hesitation.
There’s a sense of calm, not unlike one he used to get before a mission, that descends on John at the same rate as the old lift ascends between the floors. The gears clank, turning with an audible effort, the doors finally opening to reveal Bear’s enthusiastically wagging tail.
“There you go, settle down now,” John hushes the dog, giving him a scratch behind the ear and trailing a hand along his back in a soothing gesture. He directs Bear toward his bed and he goes with surprisingly little fuss, perhaps sensing that he is better off out of the way of human affairs. John watches while Bear turns around in a circle a few times before curling on his blanket with a sigh. Only then he lets himself look across the room.
Harold is sitting in front of lit monitors, reams of code running across the screens, flickering on his glasses and over his features. His hands are still though, curled into tight fists and drawn close to his body; every relentlessly right angle of his body singing with tension.
It’s nothing more than what John expected. Harold had let him see something earlier he probably never meant to reveal and now he was in full defence mode. The key was to stop him before he retreated so far he’d become unreachable.
Well, there was something John could do that might work; prayed would work.
With deliberate slowness, every move telegraphed, every intent plain on his face if Harold would just turn to look, John crosses the floor. And then, a few steps away from Harold’s chair, he drops to his knees.
That gets a reaction. For a second or two Harold’s face is as honestly startled as John has ever seen it and he’s both smug for managing to surprise Harold for once, and sad that this is what does it, when John himself has suspected that he’d end up on his knees in front of the man since the first week of their acquaintance. What’s surprising to him, is that Harold might not just tolerate but welcome it, which is why John is not prepared to pretend like tonight’s events weren’t exactly what they seemed.
“John,” Harold says and then pauses like he doesn’t quite know how to finish the sentence. His hand hangs in the air between them for a split second before Harold withdraws it again.
On the floor, John straightens his spine, sitting down on his heels, as he brings his hands behind his back, clasping his own wrist as much for the sake of the posture as for something to hold on to.
Harold’s eyes flicker over him in a way that is half hungry, half apprehensive, and John shivers.
“You don’t have to do that,” Harold says. He’s facing John fully now but apart from that he hasn’t moved, holding himself still with the kind of control that makes John want to roll over and show his belly, makes him want to push… But no, not now, not when Harold hasn’t yet made up his mind about whether he’ll let himself have this.
“I know,” John says, keeping his voice even, calm, sure. “I want to.” And then, taking a risk, he adds: “You want me to.”
Harold draws a sharp breath at that, air hissing through his clenched teeth as he rears back as if slapped.
“You don’t need to… You don’t owe me anything,” he spits, angry now though not at John.
John shakes his head in denial. “I owe you everything,” he says, “but that’s not why I’m doing this.”
Harold looks set to argue, but John is not going to let him, not about this. “No, listen! This isn’t… That’s not…” He takes a deep, shuddery breath, forces himself to calm down, pushing down ruthlessly the panic of ‘what if Harold won’t, what if, what if’.
Still, it seems that his momentary crack of composure actually works in his favour because Harold is reaching out now, eyes full of worry behind his glasses and hand hovering near John’s face.
With a sigh, John lets himself lean into the touch, pressing his cheek into the dry warmth of Harold’s skin. The position is awkward; both of them leaning toward each other, Harold clearly in pain, and so John shuffles forward on his knees, keeping the contact. “I want to,” he repeats, the words a hushed confession that falls on Harold’s open palm like a gift, like an atonement John could finally give because there finally was someone to accept it. “And you want to. Don’t lie to me, not about this,” he pleads, voice breaking because despite his earlier resolve, fear is gnawing at him now, pushing him toward a cliff edge and over. “Please, Harold,” he says, open and raw, his whole body shaking with the force of it, falling, falling…
But like the last time John was spiralling out of control, there’s Harold; catching him right before he crashes.
“Yes,” he says, “yes, it’s alright, John.” His hands are on John’s arms, his shoulders, guiding him down with a gentle press to the back of his neck. He says: “shh” and “thank you” and “I got you,” and John presses his face against Harold’s legs, breathing hot and fast against the wool of his trousers as he lets himself believe it.
John’s strength makes Harold ashamed of his own weakness, of his doubts. And in the face of it he finds there are no other options except to rise to it. In this too, like in all other things, John Reese makes him be a better man than Harold ever thought himself capable of.
Harold doesn’t ask if John is sure, because for all his faults he’s never been stupid, nor blind, and every line of John’s body, every word and action, lets Harold know just how sincere John is in this. Indeed, Harold suspects it had all been there since the beginning, certainly since the first time Harold chose not to leave John to die alone as he so clearly expected, if only he had known to look for it, if only he had dared.
Well, John Reese doesn’t just make him a better man, but a braver one too.
Harold’s grip at the back of John’s neck is solid and unwavering as he gathers him as close as he can like this, into the shelter of his body, frail as it is yet clearly something John wants and values. Harold never thought this would be something someone would still desire from him, and that too is a gift.
He will not turn it down.
So when John’s breathing evens out, the fine tremors of his body ease, and he lifts his head enough to look up, something a lot like hope in his eyes, Harold cups his face without hesitation and pulls him up into a kiss. John sighs shakily, his mouth open and warm, eager against Harold’s, his hands suddenly frantic and scrabbling for purchase, fingers tangling into the smooth silk of Harold’s shirt.
He lets John take what he wants, needs, at first, spreading his legs for John to push in between, meeting every demanding slide of his tongue, consciously open, open, open in every way, trying to make up for each lie and obfuscation, each necessary evasion and withdrawal of their past.
It takes a while until John’s kisses slow down, until the unconscious whine at the back of his throat eases down to a more contended hum and his hands uncurl from desperate fists to rest against Harold’s heart.
“That’s it, there you go,” Harold says, pulling off to stroke the skin under John’s eyes with his thumbs, smoothing out the faint lines. “Good boy.” Then he grips John’s hair firmly in one hand and jerks his head back sharply, bending down to bite the side of his neck, hard, just on the curve of the shoulder.
John keens, sharp and beautiful, and the sound of it goes straight to Harold’s cock. He doesn’t bother to hide it, pressing his erection against John’s stomach as he bites him again.
“Fuck, fuck, please, Harold, please!” John is babbling now, his hips stuttering forward, cock rubbing against the side of Harold’s leg.
Harold thinks that if he asked John would bring himself off like that, dry-humping against Harold’s trousers like a dog in heat. And yes, maybe next time, or the time after that, but for now John clearly has other ideas. His hands are tugging at Harold’s belt, fingers careful on the buttons as he scoots back and drops to sit on his heels. “Please,” he says, “let me,” and Harold has no intention of denying John anything he asks for right now.
John’s hands are shaking and Harold helps, lifting his hips, awkward and clumsy but beyond caring, because John has never looked at him with pity, not once, and right now the expression on his face is pure hunger. When he takes Harold into his mouth, his eyes close, lashes fanning over the fragile skin under them, and Harold feels something inside him break and be made anew.
John sucks him off with the same focus and skill he does everything else, moaning around Harold’s cock like it’s him being blown. “John, John, so good,” Harold says, “yes, like that, fuck,” and he feels John shudder at the profanity, sinking deeper until the head of Harold’s cock bumps at the back of his throat, which ripples around him as John fights his gag reflex.
After that, it doesn’t take long. Harold would be embarrassed but the moment is beyond that, and faced with the naked need on John’s eyes, the way he whines and swallows, curling over Harold’s lap, he sinks fingers into John’s hair, the orgasm crashing over him in waves of pleasure.
John keeps at it until Harold tells him to stop, breathless and sated, and then he drops back onto his knees, hands going behind his back; perfect, perfect, waiting despite shaking with need, and Harold cannot help but reward him with a kiss, licking the bitter taste of himself out of John’s swollen mouth.
“Up, up, come on,” Harold urges until he can cup John through his trousers, tracing the shape of his hard cock with his fingers, while John throws his head back and hips forward, groaning like he’s in pain. “So beautiful,” Harold says, “so good, you’re so good for me,” and it’s perhaps the truest thing he has ever told John. He unzips him slowly, enjoying John’s restraint and already thinking of ways to test it, but not now. Now he wants to see John come apart for him.
“Come on,” he says, grasping John’s cock in one hand, using the other to guide his head onto his shoulder. “Come on, you can.”
It’s the permission John was clearly waiting for because his whole body shudders and with a loud groan he fucks into Harold’s fist, slow at first but then faster and faster, his mouth dragging wetly against the underside of Harold’s jaw. “Please, Harold,” he pants, “sir,” and it’s that what does it because Harold’s grip tightens instinctively at the word, and John comes over his fingers, over both of their clothes, sobbing into the curve of Harold’s neck.
There’s a moment after where John could tense, where Harold could withdraw, but this matters too much, enough to fight their base instincts, and so John stays slumped over Harold’s lap and Harold keeps running his hand over John’s hair and the back of his neck, steady and sure. And then the moment passes and it’s no longer a fight, but instead something that feels natural, something that feels right.
“Well,” John says as he finally straightens up, tucking both of them back into their trousers with the kind of casual intimacy that makes Harold’s chest tighten for a second or two, “I think my initial statement still stands.”
“And what is that, Mr. Reese?” Harold asks, unable to keep the smile out of his voice and unwilling to try.
“This is certainly not how I expected to spend my evening!” John answers and the joy lurking in the corner of his mouth blossoms into a wide grin, and Harold laughs and laughs, kissing his own happiness into John’s mouth like a gift that is theirs to share.