John wakes to the sound of hoofbeats. Bile rises in his throat as he comes to consciousness - he drank himself to sleep again - but he forces himself to open his eyes. He feels for the knife he took off the kid on the subway, and shuffles down into the sleeping bag they gave him at the Mission. There’s no sign of any horse, and he can’t hear the voices that would mean a mounted guard patrol. At least they won’t be looking for him; the CIA don’t use horses. His breath mists in front of his face; there’s a hush in the sound of carts and carriages outside that means it’s probably snowing. He wonders, vaguely, if he’ll die tonight.
You most certainly will not.
John jerks, is on his feet before he knows what’s happening. His stomach lurches from the movement. He spins, sees Josie’s alarmed face, several prone, sleeping bodies.
“Did you hear that?” he rasps.
“John?” says Josie. She looks frightened.
Please don’t run again. It’s been extremely difficult to find you.
John shuffles, as fast as he can without making any noise, towards the back of the building. He hears what sounds like a sigh in his head as he breaks down the wooden boards blocking the old back entrance - bloody scratches reopen on his knuckles, but he hardly notices - and he’s through the door and over the wall, moving silently, mind racing, half convinced he’s going crazy - and finds the alley blocked by a huge, white shape. He stares at it, disbelieving. It turns his head and looks back at him, the long, animal face at odds with the blue eyes, unnatural in a horse. But this isn’t a horse, not really.
“You’re not here for me,” John says. His voice sounds rusty, disused. “This is a mistake.”
We don’t make that kind of mistake, the voice says. It’s in his head, but now he can see the horse speaking, its intelligent eyes watching him. John feels a wave of - despair, tiredness, maybe, it makes him dizzy. His legs feel weak under him. Everything he once thought he wanted, everything he’s done since, washes over him, leaving a foul taste in his mouth.
“You don’t know anything about me,” he says.
I know precisely everything about you, John Reese, it says, then it - he - looks into John - and John feels - he feels -
- acceptance - love -
- alone, he never has to be alone -
- John, oh, John, at last, thank goodness -
- Harold? Is that -
- yes, Harold, my name’s Harold -
- chosen, wanted, perfect -
- you’re safe now, John. You’re mine.
When John comes back to himself, he’s sitting in the snow, but he feels warm all over, his back against the Companion’s - Harold’s - warm, solid flank. He shifts a little with the rise and fall of Harold’s breath. He feels as if there are new spaces inside himself, new rooms to explore; walking into them is like coming in from the cold.
Harold? he thinks, experimentally.
Yes. Do you think you might be able to get up soon? I’m concerned for your wellbeing.
I’m fine, John thinks. He feels better than fine. Great. He could stand up. Probably.
That’s a side-effect of the bonding. Your body temperature is lower than I’d like, and your personal hygiene is appalling. You also could use a good meal. And a shave.
John turns and looks at - at Harold. It’s startling, somehow, to see a horse’s face. Harold meets his eye solidly, and tosses his head a little, in a gesture that, to his surprise, John has no trouble interpreting as the equivalent of a raised eyebrow.
I think you have fleas, Harold adds.
“Okay, okay,” John says. He leans on Harold to lever himself up, then freezes halfway, suddenly realizing what he’s done. He snatches his hand away from Harold’s warm, solid back, and feels a piercing pain in his chest, like loss. He’s cold all over, now he’s not pressed up against him.
What - he thinks, bewildered. His instinct is to touch Harold again, but now he’s come back to himself, the taboo against touching a Companion is too strong.
It’s all right, John, Harold says gently, and John feels an inner nudge, not as powerful as the first rush, but a reminder. He’s chosen. Wanted. John cautiously puts his hand back on Harold, and immediately the pain in his chest loosens.
That will pass, Harold says. It’s often like this for the first couple of days.
John thinks he can hear - or feel? - some stiffness, or reservation in Harold’s words, but he can’t quite gauge the gradations of tone in Harold’s inner voice yet. He lets his hand rest on Harold as he pulls himself up to his feet slowly, front legs first, then back legs. He favours his left side, and moves less smoothly than John expects from Companions, although he’s never seen one this close before. Some kind of accident? He gets a sudden glimpse of fire, screaming, incredible pain that shuts off the second he’s aware of it, like a door slamming. Harold was hurt, Harold shouldn’t ever - John should have been there -
That’s quite enough of that. Harold butts John with his shoulder, a little roughly, and John grabs him round the neck and clings on until the wave of neediness recedes and his legs can hold him up again.
I’m sorry, Harold thinks. Bonding can be quite a strain, and you’re in worse shape than I realized. The CIA has a lot to answer for.
John’s hand clenches automatically into a fist in Harold’s mane, even though he knows it’s ridiculous; he’s so used to hiding. He feels a wave of disorientation, and presses his face into Harold’s neck, damp and silky-soft, then suddenly he finds he’s up on Harold’s back, and they’re trotting out of the alleyway and into the throughfare.
I can walk, he thinks, but when Harold ignores him, John doesn’t push it, because he genuinely isn’t sure if he can walk right now. He’s dizzy, hungry, and so bone-deep exhausted that it overwhelms his anxiety at standing out in this way. He needn’t have worried, though; even though a filthy homeless guy riding a Companion should cause a sensation, people’s eyes just slide over them, occasionally going a little glassy.
How are you doing that? he thinks after a while.
Suggestion, Harold thinks. You’d be surprised how easy it is to fade into the crowd in New York.
I’d be surprised at you fading into the crowd, John thinks, and yawns. The shifting, rocking motion of Harold’s walk, exacerbated by his slight limp, is odd at first, but increasingly comfortable.
People in big cities are already desensitized to extraordinary levels of stimuli, which makes it easier. Right now anyone who looks at us will see a city guard on horseback, if they notice anything at all. You can go to sleep up there, I won’t drop you.
John’s sure of that. He’s not ridden a horse since basic training, but he feels totally stable, Harold’s broad back and wide shoulders as good as a bed. As far as John can gauge, Harold’s a little on the small side for a Companion, but he’s still bigger than the cart horses they used with the log wagons when John was a kid. Without his little nudge - suggestion? or something else? - John wouldn’t have been able to mount him without a block.
Hush, Harold thinks. Goodness, are you always this noisy?
John feels quiet cover him like a blanket. He dozes.
When Harold nudges him awake, they’re in a stable.
“Where are we?” he croaks, before he remembers he doesn’t have to speak out loud.
New Jersey, Harold thinks, just off the 78.
John dreamed he was running, moving like wind across the ground. He guesses it wasn’t a dream.
I thought we’d do better somewhere fairly anonymous. This is a waystation, of sorts, but I’ve made sure we’re the only ones using it today. There are showers upstairs, and I’ve had some food delivered. We’ll stay here for a day or two, until -
After hesitating over the mechanics of it, John puts his hand in Harold’s mane, swings his leg over and just slides down off his back. He lands on his feet much more lightly than he should from that height.
Until the bond is settled, Harold says, although John is sure that wasn’t what he was going to say before. He figures he can push at it later. He hesitates, when he has to let go of Harold, but Harold puts his nose between his shoulderblades and pushes.
Go on. I’ll be here. I really would prefer it if you showered. I have quite an acute sense of smell.
Snorting, John goes upstairs. He has a picture in his mind of the place, even though he’s never been there, but he checks the security regardless, every entrance and ground floor window, the fire escape, the door to the roof. It’s some kind of hostel - for Heralds, he guesses, testing that word in his head now it maybe applies to him, even though he’s never heard of a Companion Choosing a grown man before. Just like Harold said, there are showers, even a steam room, little bedrooms, a kitchen with cutlery, plates, bowls, mugs, a hearth and coal stove, pans and a kettle, even a bowl of fresh fruit. There’s a covered dish in the pantry filled with what looks like stew. John sniffs it, and his mouth waters. Next to it is a basket filled with rolls.
Although I approve of your dedication to security, you really should just sit down and eat something. I told you, it’s quite safe.
John jumps. You can still hear me?
Harold sounds - put out. John sits slowly, and takes a forkful of stew. It’s delicious, even cold.
How far does the link stretch?
I’m honestly not sure, Harold says stiffly. This is outside of my experience. My prev- … that is, few people are able to sustain such a clear and strong telepathic bond. As I said, we’ll know after it settles.
That’s not what you said, John reminds him, but hearing Harold’s voice, feeling him close, is settling the last of his jitters about this place, and now he’s eating, he doesn’t seem to be able to stop. He does stop himself, though, before he feels completely full. He showers and shaves, and tosses the rags he was wearing in the trash, after checking that he does not, in fact, have fleas. There are clothes in his size laid out in the bedroom nearest the kitchen, well-made and soft. Once he’s clean and dressed, he feels sleepy again, but he goes back to finish the stew, then eats two apples.
Belly full, warm and languid, he wanders around the building again, looking in the bedrooms, going through the closets. Everything’s clean, although some of the linens have been changed more recently than others. It has the feeling of a university dorm during the vacation; a few personal items left behind here and there, a t-shirt fallen behind a bed, a cup that says Heralds Do It With Gifts in the kitchen cabinet. He’s fascinated. He guesses there’s got to be far more security than is visible to the naked eye; some magical shielding, probably, although obviously it doesn’t cut off the building from the stable, or he wouldn’t be able to hear Harold. With that thought, he finds he’s drifted towards the corridor that connects the building to the stables. There’s a yearning in the pit of his stomach that he can’t think about too closely.
He hesitates in the doorway, but then Harold says, are you coming?
The very slightly plaintive note in his voice, more than anything else, compels John forward. As soon as he steps into the stable, into Harold’s line of sight, he feels something shudder over the link - surprise and something else that he chases but that shuts down at once, that slamming door again.
What? John thinks, confused and upset. Now he’s back close to Harold, though, there’s no hiding; he hadn’t thought their link was dimmed by the distance, but now he feels stripped open by their closeness, all the terrifying intensity of feeling crashing back into him like a wave.
You look - better, he hears Harold say. He sounds oddly strained. They didn’t tell me you were so -
John feels upset, confused. Has he done something wrong, something to -
Shh, John, come here, Harold murmurs, so John does, wraps his arms around him again and buries his face in his mane. It’s surprisingly soft, and smells like rain, and coalsmoke, and the city. Mm, Harold says, and John feels a rumble in his throat at the same time. You smell much better.
“You’re fussy for a horse,” mumbles John into his coat. “Do you need anything? Did you eat?”
I ate, thank you, Harold says, and hesitates. John feels the movement of his thought, and starts looking around for a brush. He finds a grooming kit on the wall.
Oh - Harold thinks, you don’t have to - but John can feel how much he wants it, and it’s a rush, suddenly, getting a hit of their bond from Harold’s side, how pleased he is that John looks better (unexpectedly, startlingly handsome), how worried he is about overwhelming John, impressed at his resilience, and, most importantly, Harold is feeling the same deep, piercing joy that’s resonating through John, the same craving for warmth after years of being cold.
Now who’s noisy, John thinks, and quickly assesses the grooming equipment. He picks out a flat, toothed iron comb with a handle, and gets to work on Harold’s back and flanks, working out the dirt of the highway, then uses the stiff-bristled brush to rub him down, learning the circular pattern of hairs on his side, the way his leg twitches when John runs the brush over his belly. He can feel something uncurling in Harold’s mind, almost shy, the remembered pleasure of being cared for. Daring, John runs his hands over Harold’s rump, locates the scar tissue and stiff, unyielding muscle by feel and digs his fingers into the muscle, tries to rub out the pain a little. He leaves it when Harold starts to get uncomfortable, and settles for brushing him again and again, combing out his mane with his fingers and rubbing his legs down with the soft cloth from the grooming bag.
Could you - my hooves, Harold mutters blurrily, and John turns up each of his hooves in turn and settles them in his lap, picks out the tiny stones from the road and trims off the horn. He becomes conscious of an odd ache in his face, and realizes it’s because he’s been smiling for the past half hour.
Oh, that was nice, Harold sighs. I think I’ll sleep, now.
John has been resting his forehead against Harold’s side, dozing happily. He feels cold the second he pulls away, and the link is still so open between them that he feels Harold’s unhappiness at him sleeping out of his sight - so hard to find him, what if they take him back, what if he runs again - and he can’t bear it.
“I’ll be right back,” he whispers, and jogs the two flights of stairs to gather blankets, a pillow, a bottle of water.
John, Harold says gladly, as soon as he’s back, and John basks in his closeness. He lies down on a pile of straw, his back against Harold’s side. He remembers that when he woke up this morning, he’d thought he might die of hypothermia by nightfall. Now he’s warm, warmer than he ever remembers being, inside and out, and Harold’s love closes around him, protective, almost angry. John sighs, and squirms closer.
It won’t always feel like this, Harold murmurs sleepily. I think. We should be able to string two thoughts together tomorrow.
John doesn’t care. He’s vaguely aware that there are probably questions he needs to ask, that all the reasons he was hiding haven’t actually gone away, but he doesn’t care about anything except the fact that Harold is here, Harold has him now. He sleeps, mindlessly happy.