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Self Defense

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Part One.

So this was death: like a machine breaking down. The knife in Edward Grady's back shuddered, vibrated, then went still. The whole world seemed to stop when Grady's breathing did; Harold's own lungs felt like twin slabs of concrete and refused to draw air. He'd always known, of course, about the terrible fragility of the human body, but to feel the ebbing away of life, the cease of the electrical hum…

Harold's vision blurred as he snatched his hands away. Grady's body tilted and then thudded down on the sidewalk, carelessly knocking askew the knife Harold had forced between his shoulder blades. But there, half under him, was John Reese, gray-faced and choking but definitely alive, batting Grady's body away with one hand while scrabbling to loosen the rope around his throat with the other. Harold stared for a moment in dumb, helpless horror and then lurched forward, his trembling hands going to Reese's neck. The cord had dug in. He had to peel it away.  The ugly red graze disappeared under Reese's chin as he bent forward to gasp and cough and wheeze raggedly: the most beautiful music Harold had ever heard.

"I killed him," Harold heard himself saying.  "Oh my God. I.  Mr. Reese, I—"

Reese looked up and reached out with one hand, other pressed to his throat. "It's," he scraped, and then coughed, swallowed, tried again. "Harold," he managed, "it's—"

But Harold seemed to have lost some essential control. "I killed him. I had to. He was killing you. Would have. It was self-defense," and then he was blinking rapidly, because that was wrong in some way he couldn't put his finger on. 

Reese was up on his knees and holding Harold's elbows to steady him as if he'd been the victim. "It's all right, Harold," Reese said steadily, voice a scrape but growing stronger with each word. "Breathe," and Harold realized he was hyperventilating. 

"Yes," Harold said, and made an effort.  "But I killed him. Do you think the police will--?" but Reese wasn't listening: he was peering up and down the street. There weren't many people around--not at this hour, not in the meatpacking district--but there were people, Harold saw. Two women at the end of the block saw them and slowed: they weren't close enough to make an identification, but they had the New York horse sense to know they were bad news.  Harold looked in the other direction: a black-clad jogger was coming back from the river. And then a car turned up Tenth: no siren, but the revolving blue light was visible all the way up the street.  

Harold stopped, paralyzed. He was going to be caught.  Not even Carter would--  "Come on," Reese said roughly and tugged at his arm. Harold blindly let Reese tow him away from Grady's body.  But where could they go? There were industrial buildings on both sides, security gates down and locked.  The shuttered boutique of a British designer, white plastic models clutching hideous handbags. Further down, the flashing colored lights of a nightclub, heavy bass shaking the air around them.  But he and Mr. Reese were far too old to blend into such a scene with any plausibility. It was impossible—but Reese was steering him somewhere else, a place he hadn't noticed. The Candle Bar, a sign carved in wood said.  There were heavy velvet curtains over the windows.  Reese's hand slid from Harold's arm to the small of his back as they stepped through the door, gently but firmly directing him through.

The atmosphere inside was surprisingly congenial. Heavy oak tables and, as advertised, numerous candles.  A floor to ceiling wine rack took up the entire back wall. The place was full, but not crowded: there were seats at the bar, and a few tables available, but the room had the pleasant buzz of active conversation.

"Come on," Reese murmured, guiding Harold toward the bar. Harold numbly followed, shoving his still-shaking hands into his pockets and resisting the urge to look over his shoulder. Reese slid between two couples and got the bartender's attention with his most charming smile.  He ordered two tumblers of single malt whisky and handed one to Harold, and then clinked them together with unexpected clumsiness.  Harold started as whisky sloshed over their hands, and then Reese compounded the error by trying to wipe it away, getting whisky on Harold's cuffs and wrist and then unthinkingly touching Harold's shoulder and the side of his neck. The smell was suddenly overpowering, and in his panic, more than a bit nauseating.

"Have a drink," Reese said, and drained his own glass so quickly that it was dizzying.

Harold held his tumbler away. "To be honest, John, I don't particularly care for—"

"Drink it." The murmur was clearly a command. Harold nodded and gingerly took a sip. This seemed not to be good enough. "All of it," Reese added, and so Harold took a deep breath, steeling himself, and forced the rest in a series of shuddering gulps.

He felt sick by the time he tried to set the glass down, and ended up waving it around in the hopes of finding a surface. "Good," Reese said and took it from him, awkwardly turning it and his own glass upside down as he placed them back on the bar.  "Another round," he told the barman, and Harold was about to protest that he would really most sincerely rather go to prison, but then the glass was in his hand and Reese was saying, softly, "For me."  Harold stared at him for a moment and then drank. And then Reese was tugging at Harold's sleeve and leading him toward the back of the bar, holding his own tumbler of whisky out before him like a lantern.

Behind them, blue light leaked around the edges of the velvet curtains.

The room shifted and tilted in the candlelight, everything the amber color of whiskey, but then his hand was on an iron railing: a spiral staircase, curving down through the floor. Reese was taking the stairs ahead of him gracefully, going down and down, as Harold thunk-clunked behind him. "I'm going to—" fall, he thought, be sick. I've killed a man, but then they were stepping into a second room, more or less the same as upstairs.  Candles, oak tables, fewer people. The bartender glanced at them, bored.  "Can I get you something?" Reese lazily lifted his glass, but when the bartender turned away he hustled Harold through a set of velvet curtains on the left.  Vestibule, payphone, restrooms: two of them, not distinguished by sex.  It was clean, verging on fussy: candle-lit, fresh-cut flowers, moisturizer as well as soap.

It wasn't an unpleasant place to hide, but Harold couldn't see how Reese thought they wouldn't be discovered. They were the only recent comers to the bar. Reese had made sure that both bartenders had seen them. All the police had to do was--

"Harold," Reese said, before Harold could get his bearings.  Harold immediately turned to look at him, and Reese drank down half of his second scotch. "Do you trust me?"

"Yes." It was a question that didn't require thought.  "Limitlessly."

"Then trust me," Reese said unhappily. He set his whisky down next to the vase of flowers and loosened his tie. "And forgive me," he said, and then he was gently pressing Harold against the paneled wall and sliding his hands down over his vest, his chest. Then Reese himself slid down to his knees and deftly unbuckled Harold's belt. For long seconds, Harold was too shocked even to understand what was going on, and Reese ignored his clumsy belated protest. John had him pinned, pants unbuttoned, his mouth—

Harold inhaled raggedly as John's mouth touched his cock through his silk boxers. "John," he said, hands scrabbling for purchase on Reese's shoulder, his hair, "you can't—" but Reese was leaning in, gripping Harold's thighs and working him through the silk with lips and breath and tongue.  Harold couldn't get a grip on Reese's suit, so he made fists in Reese's thick, soft hair and tugged.  But the sound Reese made—the ragged, gasping moan of pleasure, breathed out warm against his cock—made him instantly, achingly hard, and all at once he was pulling instead of pushing, desperately trying to rub himself all over Reese's face. Reese let him, turning his face so that Harold could slide his silk-covered erection across his cheek, his lips, his chin, and then he hooked his thumbs in Harold's boxers, pulled them down, and pulled Harold's cock into his mouth.

Harold groaned and sagged backwards, grateful for the wall behind him; he was clutching Reese's hair more not to fall over than for any other reason. He was gasping like he'd run the hundred meters and felt too weak even to thrust. But he didn't have to: Reese was sucking and licking, sliding him into and out of his warm, tight, beautiful mouth. He closed his eyes; he was spinning surreally on a cloud of scotch, unexpected pleasure breaking over him, breaking him open. He dimly heard the thump of boots on the stairs, they seemed very far away. He felt a sudden hitch of ecstasy.  Heard the low murmur of voices: "seemed to be in a hurry." Then he slid deep into Reese's mouth and cried out as Reese's hands stroked down, gently, over his buttocks: a caress. He came then, hips helplessly shuddering, cock jerking with the force of his release. Reese's arms slid around him—his hips, his thighs—holding him up even as he nuzzled him through the—

The bathroom door crashed open and Harold gasped and cringed away from a searchlight, blinded. "Get up," a voice commanded. "Yeah, you." Reese didn't listen; instead, he pulled up Harold's boxers, fastened his pants, and tugged down his vest before slowly swaying back up to his feet.  Harold, peering through the purple dots in his eyes, thought he looked thoroughly debauched: tie askew, skin flushed, lips shiny and slightly swollen. Harold didn't know that Reese could bend like that.

"Hey, come on," Reese said in a low, louche voice, deliberately standing in front of Harold, blocking the police's view of him. "Give a guy a break." He cringed as the police shone the searchlight first in his face, then back at Harold's. Harold felt a surge of nausea - pinned like a butterfly—and covered his mouth with his hand.  Reese didn't seem bothered; he reached, with relaxed shoulders, for his abandoned glass of whisky.  "Aren't there, like, terrorists or something?" he asked.

The searchlight went back to Reese's face.  "Lemme see some I.D."

Reese looked at him.  "Strangely, I came out without it."

The other policeman muttered, "We're wasting time," but the officer with the searchlight didn't move. "What happened to your neck?" he asked Reese.

Harold froze, but Reese's shoulders stayed relaxed.  "Occupational hazard," he replied, and then added, as an afterthought, "Not him," and laughed at the idea.

The other policeman said again, "We're wasting time," and this time the officer said, wearily, "Yeah, yeah," turned off his flashlight, and shoved it back in his belt.  He looked a warning at Reese.  "I tell you, buddy, if I had time…"

"Perfectly consensual," Reese replied, sounding bored. He straightened one of the drooping flowers almost offhandedly.  "We're model citizens."

The other policeman was already gone. The remaining officer glared daggers at Reese, then turned and left.  They heard him muttering darkly to the bartender, who barked out a laugh and said, "Hey. I just said they were in a rush," and Harold understood what Reese had evidently understood all along. They were guilty. So they had to be guilty; Reese had just made them guilty of something irrelevant.

All that whisky on an empty stomach was fuzzing his head. He reeked of it—they both did—which of course was the point. Reese guided him upstairs and into the street, then stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Promise you won't think about this again," he said, and Harold bit his lip and looked away, because he didn't think he could do that. He didn't think he could ever forget the sweetness of Reese's mouth, the kind strength of his arms. "He was a bad man, and he would have killed me," Reese said, and dear God: he meant Grady, he meant—the murder.  "The way he's killed others. It was the right thing to do, do you understand?" 

"Yes," Harold answered.  "I understand," and his sincerity must have been palpable, because Reese nodded and turned to flag down a cab. He held the door open for Harold but didn't get in himself; instead, he ducked to peer through the window. "About the rest of it… I'm sorry, Harold. I had to." He looked down for a moment, struggling for words, and then shrugged and flashed the mere ghost of a smile. "It was self-defense," he said, then straightened and thumped the cab's roof, twice.


Part Two.

Harold was drunk and exhausted and didn't sleep at all; instead he lay among the pillows with his eyes closed and relived those moments with Reese again and again, rolling the images in his memory back and forth like a strip of film. He couldn't remember when he'd last felt such pleasure, and such a complex pleasure: physical gratification leavened by the hard, bittersweet knowledge that Reese had been forced to it by his love of him. A better love, Harold told himself, one more meaningful and profound than that of physical attraction, and yet he could not stop thinking about those moments of superficial pleasure: cheap tokens that signified the greater gold of Reese's friendship, loyalty and affection. Harold touched himself through his silk pajamas and shivered, feeling Reese's mouth. There could be no harm, surely, in treasuring those few accidental moments, given to him not from desire but from what was a great and generous love nonetheless, so Harold stroked and teased himself till it was nearly unbearable, wanting it to last. Finally he lay shuddering and gasping against the sheets, and into his mind floated the fantasy, the indefensible liberty:  kissing Reese's soft, whisky-wet mouth. The kiss he hadn't been offered, that was beyond the terms of even this most generous performance.

The next morning, the phone rang just as Harold arrived at the library.  Frowning, he sat down at the desk before answering.  "Yes?"

"Good morning, Harold," Reese said in his ear. "Do we have a number?"

"No," Harold replied; it was a blessing, a moment's respite. "Not yet, anyway."

There was a noticeable pause before Reese spoke again, as if he were waiting for something. "In that case," Reese said finally, "I might take the day off." There was another pause, shorter this time, before Reese added, "If it's all right with you."

Harold cringed; Reese had been waiting for Harold to tell him to take the day off.  Which he occasionally did, but today...well, he had wanted to see Reese today.  So Reese had been forced to ask. But Reese never asked, hadn't ever asked; in fact, most times when Harold told him to take the day off, Reese turned up at the library anyway, coffee in hand, and went to read in a corner.  But today—  "Never mind," Reese said awkwardly, and Harold realized he still hadn't replied. "I'll come in."

"No, no," Harold said quickly.  "My fault, all apologies.  I was woolgathering.  There's no need for you to come in.  I'll be in touch if something happens."

"Are you sure?" Reese asked.

"Yes," Harold replied: immediately this time.  "Absolutely."

Now it was Reese's turn to be silent. Then he said, "Thank you, Harold.  I'll see you tomorrow," and hung up. Harold booted up his computer to engage his typical surveillance protocols. The window was divided into four subsections: the front of 80 Baxter Street; the service entrance; the park at Baxter and Bayard; and, just barely visible, light reflecting off the glass, the wall of windows fronting Reese's apartment. Reese, to Harold's surprise, rarely pulled the blinds down: possibly he couldn't bear to close himself up again, having finally been given a decent view; possibly he surmised (correctly) that with a park occupying the entire block opposite and no decent vantage point available, the only one likely to be spying on him was Harold himself. Harold set his facial recognition software to patrol the camera watching the door and, thus reassured, forced himself to attend to his own work, wanting to drown his undisciplined emotions in the formal logic of technological syntax.

Harold slid into the familiar rhythms of the code, and so it was several hours later when he stopped to consider what he hadn't heard. Not a single alert had sounded, so Reese either hadn't left his apartment or he had deliberately done so in such a way as to avoid Harold's scrutiny. A few minutes investigation eliminated the latter possibility: it seemed that Reese just hadn't left the apartment.  Strange, if only because John typically used his days off to run errands—to shop, or drop off the dry cleaning—or to indulge in the occasional pleasure: take in a movie, play a game of chess in the park.  Harold scrutinized the footage of John's window: there was no movement inside that he could see.  He considered this, chin in hand.

He could call, of course; that was much the easiest thing.  It lacked subtlety, of course, and he'd need a pretext that didn't seem like a pretext, but it was certainly the most direct—and least invasive—way of getting the information he wanted.

But Reese's phone was off.

Harold activated the three microphones and two cameras in Reese's apartment before his superego could tell him not to, knowing he had to do it before he talked himself out of it.  Reese was—and Harold was up, out of his chair, and headed for the door at the first glimpse, because Reese was slumped down face-first on the round mahogany table that served him as a desk and dining table, one arm hanging down.

He made it to Baxter Street in a little under four minutes, beating his previous record of five minutes and twenty-five seconds.  Harold flung the door open and blindly grabbed the first aid bag on his way to the table; among the amenities he had been sure to provide (emergency generator, EMP-proof electronics) were enough medical supplies to meet the needs of a combat medic or small local hospital. 

Harold came to the table with arms extended and immediately slid his hands into Reese's hair, searching for the wound, the lump, the bruise. It was a strangely arousing sensory assault: Reese's soft hair twining round his fingers, the smell of whisky, the clink of-- Reese's head rolled in his hands and Harold looked down and saw the flat whisky bottle.  Reese had passed out on top of it. It was empty.

"Oh," Harold said aloud. "Oh," he said again, more softly. He gently eased Reese's head back down on the table, then bit his lip and took Reese's pulse, just in case. It was fine - strong - and Harold set Reese's hand carefully down beside his head. All the tension had drained from Reese's body, and his skin was lightly sheened with sweat. His mouth was slack, and he was drooling a little. The smell of whisky was everywhere, nauseating and somehow arousing at the same time, and Harold was suddenly sick with regret: he'd been reliving last night as a pleasurable fantasy.

Reese had taken a vacation in a bottle of scotch.

Harold's vision blurred for a moment, and then he pulled himself together and tried to figure out how to move Reese to the bed. The table had left a red mark on Reese's face, and his body was bent at an unnatural angle, shoulders uneven, feet twisted behind the chair, toes down and heels up. Harold couldn't leave him like that:  he had to make him comfortable, take his jacket and shoes off--

Reese's eyes were open, though he hadn't lifted his head.  He blinked at Harold with bloodshot eyes, and Harold was about to convulse into apologies when Reese showed him a dopey smile. "Hi, Harold," he said. "I'm sorry, this is a bad time for a hallucination. I'm not at my best." He tried lifting his head, but closed his eyes and immediately put it down and went still. Just when Harold was sure he had fallen asleep, Reese mumbled, "I'm sorry, Harold; I had to. Say you forgive me?"

Harold stood there for a long moment, horrified and dumbfounded, before lurching into speech: "Yes, of course I forgive you. There's nothing to forgive. "

Reese opened one eye. "I wouldn't ever have...not unless I was sure. But I had to. Didn't I have to?" He looked up, almost pleading, at Harold, who clasped him reassuringly on the shoulder and said, "Yes. You absolutely had to." Reese exhaled in relief and closed his eyes again, going utterly limp.  This time he didn't wake up again, and Harold watched him sleep for a long time before letting himself out.


Part Three.

The next morning Reese strolled into the library, looking a little tired around the eyes but otherwise his usual self. Harold kept his eyes on his computer, determined to follow Reese's lead. He had violated Reese's privacy by going to his apartment: it was up to Reese to decide if they were going to talk about that, or anything else.

Reese was sipping a large cup of coffee, and he set tea and a small white paper sack in front of Harold. "Antonio's experimenting with crostata," he said. "He sent over a couple for you to try," and Harold opened the bag and smelled apricots and the sweet-tartness of raspberries. Interesting, and peculiar. "Do we have a number?" Reese asked.

"We did," Harold replied, "but it didn't require your expertise." He carefully tore the pastry bag along its sides: yes, one raspberry with basil, one apricot topped with pignoli nuts; he'd enjoyed them many times. A lie; but what was he to make of it? He looked searchingly up at Reese to find Reese looking expectantly back at him.  Watching to see his reaction to the tarts?  He blinked; no, of course: Reese was waiting to hear more about the number. 

"Marie Cherney," he explained, "aged seventy-two: a widow living alone near Lincoln Center. Her husband was an oboist. My preliminary investigation," Harold continued, revealed only a single living relative: a nephew. Said nephew was also the beneficiary of a life insurance policy in his aunt's name—at his bank, not hers."

"Oh dear." Reese parked one hip on the side of the desk and took another sip of coffee. "So what did you do?"

"I called her," Harold said, and smiled in response to Reese's smile. "Well, I thought it best to be direct," he explained. "So I pretended to be an employee of the bank, and asked if she knew her nephew had insured her life for a substantial sum."

"Which she did not," Reese surmised.

"She did not, no," Harold agreed. "Mrs. Cherney also seemed to have no difficulty grasping my suggestion that her nephew was something of a deadbeat. The idea had clearly crossed her mind more than once. She's on her way to the bank now, and I advised her also to make a new will and file a police report immediately.  She needs to remove any incentive her nephew might have to end her life prematurely."

Reese nodded. "I suppose he's been doing something stupid like buying products with arsenic in them," he said, going to sit on the leather sofa, "and the machine's been keeping tabs on his receipts." He set his coffee down and picked up a book.

"Hm, that's a good thought," Harold said, turning back to his computer. "I'll have her doctor run some bloodwork, just in case." He finished and looked up: Reese had relaxed into the sofa and was deep in his book. Antonio hasn't been experimenting with crostata, Harold thought. He's been making these for years.

So why lie—obviously it had been an impulsive lie—about something so insignificant?  Reese was often considerate enough to bring Harold breakfast along with his own. Harold took a bite of the tart: delicious, best in the city. Reese's small acts of thoughtfulness had become so commonplace as to provoke no notice. So why the need to abjure the gift, this morning of all—oh. Harold jerked to look at Reese, and heard Reese's voice in his head. I wouldn't ever have...not unless I was sure.  

He had everything backwards. He couldn't follow Reese's lead here: Reese had declared himself as much as he dared to. More so, in fact; and if his pulling back this morning was any indication, he feared possibly too much. Reese was waiting on him; it was up to him to decide—

Heart hammering, Harold got up and came around the desk. Reese glanced up and then closed and set aside the book, watching his approach. Harold sat down beside him on the leather sofa, and for a moment they both just stared out together across the library.  Then Harold reached down and covered Reese's hand with his own.

Reese let out an audible sigh and sank even deeper into the couch, visibly relieved; after a moment, his hand turned in Harold's and squeezed. They sat there awhile, hands clasped and staring at the painting across the room: The Burning of Troy.

Finally Reese rolled his head toward him.  "I was worried," he said.

"It never occurred to me that you'd want to," Harold said. 

Reese let out a little huff of surprise. "If I'd want to? Yes, Harold. I'd want to," and Harold found himself sliding sideways against the leather, Reese long and lean and flowing over him. Reese paused for a moment to gently take Harold's glasses off and set them on the edge of the bookcase. And then Reese's mouth was on his, and Harold was fervently grasping Reese's arms, his shoulders, his suit, clutching to pull him close. Reese's mouth was generous, and he kissed intently and thoroughly, almost as if he understood that he was fulfilling Harold's deepest needs and desires. 

That was a disturbing thought; Reese's generosity surely could not extend so far, could it? It was as well to be certain.  Harold twisted his face away and said, "You do, don't you?  For yourself, not for me." He pressed his hands against Reese's lapels and made a last stab at preserving his dignity. "Because I would rather not, if not."

Above him, Reese's expression teetered between fondness and exasperation.  "Harold," he said gently.  "Pay attention," and Harold realized Reese was sprawled on top of him, erection digging into his hip. Reese waited until Harold, breathless, nodded his understanding. "I know you like hard data," Reese said.

"Well, it is wonderfully clarifying," Harold admitted, and pulled Reese back down. Reese landed on top of him with an awkward oof, and Harold cupped the back of his neck and smothered his laugh with kisses. He wanted more kisses, now that he knew they were freely given.  Reese settled down on Harold - his body long and hard and deliciously warm - and deepened their kiss, turning his head and working Harold's mouth open so their tongues met.  Harold let himself drift, blanketed in sensation. He'd never felt so much. Certainly not all at once. 

And then he became aware that Reese was rocking insistently against him, breath coming in irregular hitches. Pay attention, he thought, and yelped, "John. Wait--" Reese muttered, yes, Harold, yes, and then he was moving, fingers twisting between them, unbuttoning their pants, their shirts, pulling cloth away with surgical precision. Harold gasped as his erection slid against the warm, smooth skin of Reese's abdomen.  Reese's cock throbbed softly against his hip.

"I want—" Harold wanted to kneel before Reese the way Reese had knelt before him in the Candle Bar; he wanted to show reciprocal worship; he wanted Reese's cock in his mouth; he wanted:  "Please, John— Let me— I want to—"

Reese's lips skittered across Harold's neck. "I want that too," he said softly, showing more self-control than even Harold would have given him credit for, "but right now, please, just..." Reese's hand grasped his, moving it until Harold felt the silky warmth of Reese's erection. He smoothed a thumb across the tip, then gently squeezed the head, blinded by this new intimacy between them.  "...touch me, kiss me," Reese said in a low voice, and for the first time, Harold really let himself believe that this was about Reese's deepest needs and desires, too.

"Yes," Harold said, and they lay there for a long time, kissing and pushing into each other's hands until Reese suddenly convulsed in his arms. Harold abruptly lost interest in his own orgasm, taken instead by the joy of holding Reese while he shook and shuddered.  But Reese pressed his forehead to Harold's and, closing his eyes, brought him off within seconds, leaving him a breathless puddle on the couch.

They lay gasping and sticky in each other's arms. Harold stared up at the library's high ceiling, fuzzy without his glasses. His life seemed to have taken another of those abrupt turns that it was prone to. "Well," he said. "It's a good thing we both have a change of clothes—"

"Shh." Reese had curled around Harold. "Don't spoil my afterglow. I'm happy."

All Harold could do was breathe. Then: "I am too," he said, and clutched Reese tight.