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A More Subtle Trap

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Harold has been busy at his computers. He's trying to understand what would make a professional hitman target a seemingly-average young man who works retail; the options he hasn't ruled out yet include prince in hiding and thwarted love affair, but he's sure it will be something banal.

Still, no time to waste, even on the first day of summer, even if the world outside the library is full of sunshine and blue skies. Perhaps he and Bear will be able to get a walk in before bedtime. If the night holds a hint of the day's pleasant warmth, it will be worth the effort.

He's bent over his keyboard when John puts an iced tea down at his elbow, much to his surprise.

He sits back in his chair, the movement stiff. "I wasn't aware that this little tradition of mine was so obvious," he says, an eyebrow raised. He's torn between being disquieted and quite pleased.

John shrugs. He rubs Bear's ears as the dog comes to lean against him. "Not so obvious, Harold." He's using that sing-song murmur he gets when he's being especially difficult and enjoying it. "I suppose we could say it was just a lucky guess?"

Not entirely, Harold thinks, watching him. In his own way, John is a good complement to the Machine. He sees the unexpected; he absorbs patterns and processes them almost instinctively, he predicts with great accuracy. It was part of his training, no doubt.

And part of his nature, or he'd never have survived the training.

Harold takes the tea and sips it. Unsweetened, crisp and clean, well-brewed and fresh. The spirit of summer.

Harold has spent the entire day inside, his one concession to the change in seasons a lighter suit. Normally he'd have spent an hour walking in the park, then ordered a tall glass of iced tea at his favorite cafe. It's a summer ritual that is very old now, one he's enjoyed more years than not.

"Predictability is vulnerability," he murmurs. He'll have to change his routine.

John looks up. "Is it?" he asks, but of course he knows the answer; that too would have been part of his training. He signals Bear back to his bed with a quick hand gesture. Without the dog between them, he suddenly seems much closer. "I know more of your habits than you might think," he says, voice even softer than normal. "But I would hardly say you're predictable."

The iced tea sits between them, palpable evidence of the lie.

John smiles, radiating innocence and sarcasm in equal measure. "Well, to anyone but me, and I'm really just an employee."

Harold rolls his eyes. John only pulls that card when it benefits him, which is admittedly less and less often these days. If he was ever just an employee, that time is very far gone.

"I'm well aware of my vulnerabilities where you're concerned," Harold says dryly, and turns back to his monitors.

John goes still. Harold has felt more exposed before, though not by much--but a gift merits some kind of thanks, and each sip of the tea John's brought him is somehow more delicious than the last.

Harold lets his words lie between them, lets John take from them whatever he will, and tries not to be too smug when John huffs out a pleased sound. He says, "By the way, I think I've solved it, Mr. Reese. Our killer isn't the hitman at all; Mr. Retail is looking for revenge."

John raises his eyebrows. "A dish best served...khaki?" he says, and Harold stares at him until he shrugs. "Call me with the details. I'll go out and find him, make sure he gets his revenge the right way."

He whistles for Bear to come to heel, pauses by the gate. He looks over his shoulder, smile half-shadowed. " And Harold--enjoy your tea."

Then he leaves Harold alone with his monitors and old books, and the first iced tea of summer.

~

After that, John is more likely to acknowledge his awareness of what little routine Harold maintains.

"Hello, dear--how was the office?" he murmurs one afternoon. Harold has just returned to the library after the monthly meeting where he must be Harold Wren, to keep that cover strong.

"Fine," Harold says, unperturbed. "I'd be more inclined to elaborate if you had readied two fingers of whiskey and a broken-in pair of house slippers."

John just grins, and slinks off into the darkness of the stacks. He returns with two fingers of whiskey and Keynes's A Treatise on Probability, which is, indeed, as old and familiar as a pair of slippers.

His eyes gleam as he presents these gifts; his strange sense of humor, the way he enjoys amusing himself, is oddly charming. So Harold rewards him with a story about the ungainly threesome between Harold Wren's office manager, the copy machine, and a stapler labelled MINE in bright red Sharpie.

There are other small reminders. He brings Harold Indian for lunch on Thursdays, though never from the same place twice, and never from the place where Harold had frowned over the chicken tikka masala.

He joins Harold midway through a few of his and Bear's favorite rambles through the neighborhood. Eventually he shows them a shortcut to the bodega whose owner loves dogs and always has treats on hand. He and Harold stand back and let Bear soak up the attention; Bear is remarkably polite but eager to make friends. Harold, to his own surprise, is happy to let him.

"Socialization is important," he explains to John as they walk back to the library.

"For him or for you?" John asks, and Harold shoots him an unamused glance, but the small smile on John's lips quells his irritation. In reality, small talk with friendly strangers is good for them all, and Harold has come to appreciate it, be grateful to the dog for providing this avenue of light connection to the community around him.

John knows about the two television shows Harold torrents, although Harold is sure he's never mentioned them. For several days in the early fall, he delights in referring to Harold as a pirate. This loses its charm for Harold the fifth time John delivers him a pastry on a Jolly Roger paper napkin he dug up from some unknown source. After he makes his opinion known, the napkins disappear, but John does still call him Captain Kidd when the mood strikes him--

And Captain Bligh, when a mood strikes Harold.

John is, in short, more there than he ever was before. Harold shouldn't like it, but he does. It should be menacing; it should feel like John is crossing boundaries deliberately and meaningfully placed between them. It doesn't.

The difference is, he thinks, that it feels like John is telling him something. More, that he's reinforcing something; the idea, perhaps, that it is all right for him to know these things.

Harold might be misreading him--unlikely; possible--but he'd thought he trusted John as absolutely as he is capable of trusting anyone, yet he feels a growing ease around him. And the further he relaxes, the warmer John becomes; like to like, trust for kindness, a positive feedback loop that stretches on and on.

Sometimes, Harold looks at John while they're out walking, or while John is throwing sticks in the park for Bear, or reading up on esoteric subjects in the library. He examines the shadows cast by John's lashes, the deep lines bracketing his mouth, the breadth of his hands on the spine of a book.

Perhaps it is all right for John to know him, to understand some of the more mundane and ordinary aspects of his life.

But that relaxation of boundaries reveals a deeper problem, a more subtle trap. There is a danger here, although it isn't John himself--it's what John's closeness makes Harold want.

~

Harold has added physical therapy back into his routine. John picks up on this very quickly. Harold supposes it isn't exactly secretive, the way he comes in limping more than usual some mornings, freshly groomed.

"Rough night?" John asks the third time this happens.

Harold snorts at him. "Hardly." He hesitates. John is watching him with patient eyes; he could move on, refusing to give more information, but why bother? He sits with a sigh of relief, and begins to clean his already spotless glasses.

"This work takes me into the field more often than I expected," he says. "My strength, flexibility, reflexes--well, I supposed that, if possible, they ought to be improved."

John raises an eyebrow at him. "If you want more training, you only have to ask."

Harold's instant, gut reaction to that suggestion is shockingly base. He wants to have John's attention--and hands--focused on him in that very intense way John has. He wants to accept the offer, and to find out if John will permit him to twist it, turn it into something more.

He really thought he'd trained himself out of wanting almost anything at all.

What he says is, "No, thank you--I need a different kind of expertise now." John nods at that, accepting, though not pleased.

On the fourth morning, when Harold comes in even more stiff and aching, freshly showered and impeccably dressed--his grooming an act of control over pain, a denial of its existence; a refusal to acknowledge this vulnerability this time--John's eyes darken. His mouth is a hard, straight line. He says nothing, but he isn't happy, in a way that is strangely gratifying to Harold.

And then ice packs and heating pads take up residence in obvious places, which is even more gratifying and slightly more helpful.

Most helpful of all is the warmth of John's hand on his shoulder, close to the crook of his neck. It's a touch that comes more and more regularly as Harold continues to permit it--a firm, steady press that, if Harold allows it long enough, releases the knots of tension.

And Harold does allow it, allows it to linger well past when his muscles relax. A part of him that was long-dormant needs this closeness. For a man absent of human affection for so long, skin hunger is perhaps a predictable reaction, and desire is a predictable response to someone caring.

~

The physical therapy, as distasteful as it is, has positive impact. Harold moves faster than he has in years when John, who has gone up against a pair of very large, very angry men in what sounds like a raucous but winnable battle, suddenly gasps. He falls silent for too long.

"John," Harold says, standing. Bear comes to his side and watches him intently, alerted to danger by the sound of his voice. Harold gestures for him to go get his leash. "John." Then, commanding, "Mr. Reese."

No response.

He grabs his coat, though to do what, to go where, he isn't sure. Any trouble that John is in is too distant now for his assistance. He can't even be entirely certain his help is needed or would be welcomed. Perhaps John is just more involved in this altercation than is conducive to reassuring Harold; perhaps it is too late.

"Harold," John says suddenly, breaking the silence. It's the strained steadiness of his voice that has Harold moving even faster, throwing himself down the hall at a reckless pace. "I hate to ask, but do you think you could come with the car?"

"What happened?" Harold is proud of the steadiness of his own voice; he is hiding his panic as thoroughly as John is hiding his pain.

"It's almost embarrassing," John says, and he sounds embarrassed. "One of them got in a good kick to my knee before I managed to drop him. Nothing is broken, nothing is torn, I don't think--but I could use a lift."

"You have one," Harold promises. "I'm on my way," and if the brusqueness of his voice now hides a world of relief, well, that's nothing unexpected, not anymore.

~

John is waiting at the gates of the warehouse where he'd confronted Big and Bigger, and Harold doesn't like to think of how he got so far. He's too pale and unsteady on his feet.

Harold parks the car, hurries around to the passenger side. It worries him that he beats John there.

"Are you certain you have nothing broken? Nothing torn?" he frets, taking John's elbow and helping to steady him. "We do have a surgeon or two now--"

"No, Harold," John says. The way that he tries to smile makes Harold's supportive hand on his arm clench a little harder. "I think it's just sprained. Really, asking for a lift is just a sign that I'm getting soft--too used to living an easy life. One phone call and I've got a ride wherever I need to go."

"Where you need to go is straight home and into bed," Harold says, stern and no-nonsense. He helps John stretch out in the back of the car, his injured leg up on the seat.

Bear leans in from the front, sniffing John's hand worriedly when John offers it to him. "I can go straight to bed," John tells the dog. His voice holds a hint of almost giddy pleasure, which should be odd coming from a man with a newly-sprained knee, and a swelling under his eye that promises to bloom into a shiner.

He looks up at Harold through his lashes and he's flirting, in his way; the way that Harold hates to love. "This is a life of luxury."

Harold gets back behind the wheel, meets John's gaze in the mirror. "One to which I hope you are becoming accustomed," he says, and then looks away. There will always be a ride, a bed, a rescue for John, as long as he is alive to manage it, but there's no need to be obvious about it.

John says, slowly, considering, "I think I am becoming accustomed to it, Harold."

Harold starts the car. He only meets John's gaze again in the mirror for a heartbeat, but it only takes that heartbeat to see the gladness, the awareness, the acceptance in John's eyes.

The words Harold had left unsaid did not need to be said. It took only two summer days for John to pick up on the first iced tea of the season. He's had two years to learn to anticipate, to predict that help would be there for him, should he need it. That Harold would be there, should he need him.

Predictability is vulnerability, Harold thinks again; what if John expects help when he can't give it? Will he be more reckless, careless, than if he believed he must go it alone?

But he wants John to have learned to expect this, and much like John's deliberate exposure of Harold's predictability had come to feel like caring for him--

Well, Harold cares too.

"I'm getting spoiled," John says, content lying across the back seat of a speeding town car with an injured knee and swollen eye, and Harold hopes he's right.

~

Back at the loft, he gets John comfortably settled. It only takes a few minutes, then there are painkillers in his system, a pillow under his knee and a bag of frozen peas on top of it.

"I used to have ice packs," he says, almost gently, and Harold tips his head down to hide his eyes.

John suffers the rest of his fussing with tremendous patience. Then, when Harold has straightened the covers for the third time and offered him yet another book from the small pile he's liberated from the library, he says, "Harold. I'm fine, thank you. But what about you? Would you like a cup of tea? I have that roobios you like."

Of course John knows what tea he's favoring these days.

Harold hesitates. The painkillers were nothing out of the ordinary, just ibuprofen, nothing intoxicating; but the tension between them now is. Something about the look in John's eyes says that the issue of their mutual caring is about to come to a head. The mixture of lust and panic pounding away in Harold's veins says that's a terrible, beautiful idea.

He bluffs. "Offering me tea is the least you could do, after I rode to your rescue." He goes to the cupboard to dig it out, grateful for the opportunity to turn his back to John's clear, intense eyes.

"It's a good reward for the average parfit, gentil knight," John says. Harold can hear in his voice that he's smiling; it makes him close his own eyes and take a deep breath, tea forgotten in his hand. "Of course, you're far from average. I could offer you something better, if you'd like to come here."

Harold shakes his head, on the precipice of the ultimate vulnerability. He's not sure he can move either towards it or away, until John says quietly, in that rough-soft voice of his, "Harold, please."

All hope of resistance disappears--and why hope for resistance? what good has it done him; what has it brought him?--so he goes. That was an entreaty, and John Reese deserves to have his plea met with the fullest possible measure of Harold's devotion.

He leaves the tea on John's spotless counter, and he crosses the open space of the loft in careful, measured steps, under John's patient gaze. John pulls the covers back--the softness and down that Harold had so neatly tucked over him--and Harold settles his own sore bones into John's bed.

Harold sees the danger here, the certainty of being hurt; but faced with John's fearless eyes and softened mouth, a life without predictability seems boring, and a life without vulnerability seems hardly worth living.

He takes a deep breath, then takes John's hand in his. John's palm is broad and warm, and he holds on with a firm, gentle grip.

"This isn't strange to you," Harold says. John is relaxed against his pillows, lines of pain bracketing his mouth but less deeply now. While Harold stares at him, the corners of his mouth turn up just a little more. He squeezes Harold's hand, and Harold, experimentally, squeezes back. "This isn't the least bit unexpected?"

John's expression lightens, amused. "Unexpected? Harold. It isn't like you to be willfully obtuse. If you think this is unexpected--"

And Harold leans forward to kiss him. It isn't the best angle, with John flat on his back and Harold trying to protect his neck; really, what would be best is if--ah yes, that's better. Half-draped over John's chest, John's hand on his arm to help support him, Harold kisses John again. He's careful and thorough, delighting in John's surprise and in the softness of his mouth, offset by the scrape of his stubble.

When supporting himself propped up becomes uncomfortable, Harold draws back reluctantly. John helps him resettle himself, firm touches here and there urging him close.

"Now, that I wouldn't have predicted." John strokes his hand gently down Harold's side. "I imagined I'd have to do a lot more talking first."

Harold smiles. "Well," he says, and leans in to kiss John again. "You'll learn."