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i'll pretend my heart's not on fire if you steal my true love's name

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Detective Carter seems like a nice lady, and John supposes if he has to be arrested for thrashing some punks on the subway, it could be worse. Jail means a place to sleep, food, shower. Maybe he should beat up people more often.

“You know I can smell it on you,” she says after her speech about helping hands and self-punishment. “You’re an Alpha.”

John is impressed, distantly. “You can smell anything past the—“ He dips his nose into his collar, winces and snorts. Alcohol. Dirt. Sour, dried flop-sweat.

“I have a very good nose,” she says, tapping the side of it. “Which is why I’m not downwind of you right now.”

He pushes the corners of his mouth up for her, not sure if she can see it through his beard, and waits for the inevitable question.

“Why don’t you have a job? You and I both know all you have to do is find an Omega with hiring abilities. There have to be some doing service work, labor even.”

She seems genuinely concerned for his welfare, which is why John is willing to ignore her casual prejudice. He knows she’s a Beta—probably grew up surrounded by other Betas who don’t know better and Alphas more willing to abuse their power than John.

It’s always been his problem.

“Not cut out for it,” he says finally, and hopes he doesn’t show too many teeth.

It’s only after her expression shifts that he realizes she’s smarter than he gave her credit for. That it was a test.

Strangely enough, he thinks he passed.

~*~

In John’s specialized line of work, his “coworkers” were mostly brutal Betas and a few rare Omegas with chips on their shoulders deep enough to mirror the Grand Canyon (Kara was one of the Omegas, so bitter and disillusioned that she’d laughed like swallowing glass at John being assigned as her partner). Alphas with his skillset should have been perfect for his line of work—should have, but there’s that little evolutionary hair-trigger that says Alphas don’t want to take orders from fucking anybody, even superior officers. They either bumped down the ladder fast or got promoted.

John holds the record for longest Alpha operative in his division. Sometimes it sat well with folks—perfect little soldier, they called him, Alpha strength and near-Omega obedience. But the longer he stayed, the longer the higher-ups looked at him, stared at him, wondered what the fuck was screwed loose in his head. Wondered when he was going to snap, how many men he’d take with him when he self-destructed.

He feels like a bag of loose screws these days, wrapped with skin and the scraps of his will to live. Lots of little metal bits, nothing for them to dig into. Not even needed for spare parts.  

When John leaves the precinct, he thinks that his unfortunate predilection for following orders is why he follows the man who is obviously not a lawyer out into the street, into the car filled with men who are obviously hired guns. Later, when he’s drinking himself past the point where he can’t be anything but honest to himself, he knows it’s because it doesn’t matter if they kill him, his skin going translucent with wear.

He thinks he dreams of owlish eyes blinking at him behind a pair of glasses, but he couldn’t say for sure.

~*~

Mr. Finch, the man called himself. Maybe he’d decided to capitalize on the bird resemblance.

The air reeked of Betas when they met—all the bodyguards, probably not by accident, and Finch himself—anxiety carrying with it a chemical tang as the gunmen realized they were dealing with a rogue Alpha. Not Finch, though. His scent was steady, as unwavering as his gaze when he said, “You don’t owe me anything, Mr. Reese.”

It hadn’t been nearly long enough since John last heard that name. It’s not as dangerous as his real one, but it’s dangerous enough. Brought John’s hackles straight up, kept them bristling as Finch offered him a job, a…purpose.

Kara used to call John an “attack dog” in and out of his hearing. A “loaded gun,” once. But you have to point the gun and fire, she’d whispered in his ear, you have to tell the dog what to bite. After that it’s just a dumb animal, or a lump of metal. Useless until you say the word.

Maybe she was right. But this attack dog doesn’t need another leash and shock collar, not as broken down and crippled as he is. John would rather bite the hand that feeds. His Alpha-born pride, maybe, or the fact that he’s been thrown into the ring too many times and come out bloody.

He uses the wallet he swiped from the fake lawyer to buy a motel room and a bottle of whiskey. Uses the shower and the cheap razor someone left under the sink to scrape at his skin. He isn’t making an effort; he just can’t stand his own stink anymore.

~*~

Coming to with his hands fastened to the bed is a wake-up call in more than one way. He has to fight back panic and the urge to puke until the whiskey is wrung out of the lining of his stomach—how could he let someone sneak up on him, a untrained Beta? He’s swallowing snarls when Finch calls, lets them tear free when he hears the fight in the other room. He’s trapped, he’s trapped, he’s an Alpha, he will not be tethered.

But Finch is in the next room alone, and through the pounding blood in his ears John finally hears the tell-tale tinned noise overlapping the fight: a recording. He was fooled by a—

“You were too late for her,” Finch says. “Just like you were too late for your friend, Jessica. You were halfway around the world when she got killed.”

Finch looks shocked to be slammed into a wall, John’s lips pulled back over his teeth, not so much growling as letting out a low, feral roar. John feels Finch’s legs buckle—could be fear, could be the limp. The chemical scent is sure stronger, though, enough to itch at the inside of John’s nose, make him snort.

It displaces his anger, sneezing on the guy. Finch’s own features go rigidly blank, blinking behind his spit- and snot-speckled glasses. John reaches up with the edge of his sleeve, ready to wipe them clean.

“You’ll scratch the lenses, Mr. Reese,” Finch says, wriggling out from between John and the wall and somehow making it look graceful. He pulls a soft blue cloth from his pocket, and when he removes his glasses to clean them he looks startlingly…vulnerable.

John’s Alpha instincts have always been strongest when it comes to protecting people. If what Finch says is true, he’s offering John an opportunity to keep that part of himself sated.

“You left the Government because they lied to you,” Finch says, settling his glasses back onto his nose to fix John with a startlingly clear grey-eyed stare. Not many people look John in the eye, even fewer since he took to the streets. “I never will.”

Well. It isn’t like John is doing anything better with his time.

~*~

“I overheard your conversation with Detective Fusco,” Finch says. It’s already easier than John thinks it should be to soothe the unsettled part of himself that hadn’t known Finch was listening in on that conversation; John is beginning to suspect that some part of Finch is always tuned in. It’s starting to rankle a little bit, yet another omnipresent employer, but John hasn’t yet had time to indulge in research.  

Finch seems to be waiting for a response. John looks up, and catches the slightest twitch of his mouth, more a glitch in coding than human expression.

“You don’t seem to care for him,” Finch says finally, tone and features balancing on the knife’s edge of a tease.

“I don’t,” John agrees.

“Is it because he’s an Omega?”

John’s look is sharp, but Finch doesn’t flinch, just blinks a little, mouth pushed into the blandest of smiles.

“Fusco is spineless,” John says. “Pretty Alpha growls at him and he rolls right over, bares his belly, betrays his honor as a cop and an Omega. They don’t have to roll over,” John says, letting his voice drop hints of a growl. He understands that Finch isn’t socially intelligent—hell, John is no master of human interaction himself—but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn.

“You’re quite right, Mr. Reese,” Finch says. John quickly hides his surprise. “Today’s society gives too much power to our born assignations; too often we let it dictate who we are, what we want.”

John watches him, sidelong. “It doesn’t seem to have stopped you from becoming one of the most powerful men in the world, as a Beta.” A survey of the entire United States shows that 89% of the highest paid and most influential jobs are held by Alphas. The statistics don’t shift much in other countries.

Still, John expects his observation to be shrugged off like most of his casual fishing, but Finch replies, “No, it hasn’t. Because I never wanted power if I had to steal it from someone else.” He pauses, then adds while John is still reeling from the insult, “I wouldn’t wish to be an Alpha for the world.”

John’s teeth lock together for a long moment, guard back up where it belongs. “Is that what you think of me?” he asks, as blandly as he can. “That I steal power?”

Finch doesn’t seem too bothered by the edge in John’s voice, or maybe he can’t hear it. “I think everyone has power within themselves,” he says; his eyes seem to be peering inward. “No matter how small or seemingly insignificant. What they choose to do with that power—well, that determines the kind of person they are. Man, woman, or child; Alpha, Beta, or Omega; we all have a choice to abuse that power or use it to help those around us.”

Finch’s phone blips with new information that sends John across town before he realizes Finch never answered his question. Maybe he doesn’t really want to know.

~*~

Finch might slip him the first couple times, but John’s always been a fan of that old saying: if at first you don’t succeed, try until either they’re dead or you are.

The office building is dull verging on the edge of quaint—neat little cubicles, splashes of color where people try too hard to pretend they aren’t part of a faceless corporate conglomerate. Finch has a calendar of island beaches that’s never been written on, and a stack of rainbow post-it notes. Paperclips, none of them in a chain. A username and password written on a piece of paper that John is sure opens up a perfectly boring  proxy and alerts Finch immediately, if it does anything at all.

The elevator dings, and John’s nostrils twitch. Omega on the floor. Slightly unusual, but not unheard of in an office setting like this. The Alpha John’s been keeping track of for no reason other than being the department manager stands and moves out of John’s line of sight.

“Morning Harold.”

John goes still. Harold is a common name.

“Listen, that database you’re coding? We’re going to need it…a little faster. Okay? You’ve gotta keep up.”

The Alpha’s condescension is palpable. John notices several Betas responding to it, even if the most they do is try to shrug off the sense of unease, settled when the Omega keeps his head down.

“’Kay.” Harold Finch’s voice is low, but John hears it as clearly as if the words were said against his ear. “I’ll see what I can do, Dave.”

John has five seconds to compose himself before Harold enters his cubicle and stops in his tracks. “Well,” John says, not sure at all if he’s managed it, “not exactly what I expected.”

He had a plan; he’s holding Harold’s Software Engineer of the Month plaque in his hand, but he can’t remember why.

The Beta scent chemicals—stupid, John has been trained in covert ops, how had he not figured it out—have been washed away, leaving the soft, clean spice of an unremarkable Omega. John wants to lean in close and inhale, just to see if—but no, he knows a real scent now that he’s paying attention. The cologne must have been hellishly expensive to have fooled him for this long, but since when has money ever been a problem for Harold?

“You’ve worked here seventeen years and only been promoted twice,” John comments, and raises his eyebrows.

“And you think it’s because I’m an Omega,” Harold snaps—or as close as someone can snap barely moving their lips, rigid with indignation and…disappointment.

“I think it’s because you own the company,” John says, letting his voice carry the significance.

“Oh.” Harold’s shoulders give a quarter of an inch; the rest of him doesn’t move.

“How many people know?” John tries to sound teasing but this is important; none of what he’s found explains Finch’s seemingly unlimited wealth. It’s important because John needs to know if there are other people Harold trusts to keep him safe.

“No one,” Harold says. Something feral in John’s belly uncoils with a pleased growl, and John smothers it. Just his Alpha instincts reacting to a new Omega; they’ll settle down once he’s used to the idea. “The best place to hide, Mr. Reese—as you well know—is in plain sight. And no one suspects me as I am.”

He isn’t quite looking at John, keeping his gaze always just a little diverted. It’s proper Omega-to-Alpha behavior, but John finds it annoying more than anything else. “I’ll make it quick then,” he says, “The girl is alive. And, well, kicking.” He shows Finch his bandaged hand and Harold’s nostrils flare, possibly in distaste, even though the wound is clean and well-wrapped. “Seems she has some trust issues,” John says, and waits for Harold to dart a look up to his eyes to read John’s unuttered thought: She isn’t the only one.

John includes himself, of course. If this is going to work, he needs Harold to trust that John won’t ever make him roll over. And John needs to know that Harold won’t throw him away when he’s done with him.

~*~

Fusco gives a side-eyed double take so big John’s surprised the Detective doesn’t sprain something the first time he sees Harold and realizes the even bigger, badder Alpha he assumed was holding John’s tether is just an Omega like him. But, to give the Detective the barest bit of credit for meeting the criteria of a decent human being, he doesn’t say anything to Harold’s face. Harold is borderline curt with him, but no more than he is with anyone new, and when he leaves John can’t tell if his shoulders are stiff from chronic pain or something else.

“So is that what your deal is?” Fusco demands the next time he and John are alone. “You can’t get him to roll over so you take it out on me?”

John stops, turns, and stares at him hard enough that Fusco trips and stumbles into a chain link fence. “I realize this might be a difficult concept for you to grasp, given your history with other Alphas,” John says, using small words, “but I don’t actually want every Omega I meet on their knees for me.”

“Thank God for that,” Fusco says, forcing out an uncomfortable laugh.

“As for the other thing, the way I treat you?” John says, taking a step closer. Fusco tries to take a step back, but can’t because of the fence; his eyes are suddenly low and to the left, proper deference. John would feel bad about it except for one thing: “You’re a dirty cop. You’ve been doing some good things for us lately, but that doesn’t change the things you did. This is something learned in grade school, Lionel; if your friends jumped off a bridge would you do it too?”

“It’s different for you,” Fusco spits, head still down. “You don’t know what it’s like, every instinct in you screaming to show your throat.”

“No,” John admits after a moment of heavy silence, “I don’t.”

Fusco is shocked enough by the admission to meet John’s eyes for a second, but not for longer. “Stills was my friend,” he says, quieter now, “He was an Alpha, he looked after me in the bullpen, all through the academy. You think many Omegas make it in the NYPD, even with equal hiring opportunities? I would’ve been a desk jockey if it wasn’t for him and the rest of the crew.”

“Real friends don’t ask you to go against your oath and break the law. And I don’t think he forced you—you smell too guilty for that.” All the time, Fusco reeks of it; the scent makes John irritable, at least part of the reason he’s short-tempered with Fusco, though not all of it.

“I think he gave you a choice, and you chose wrong,” John says, ducking his head to catch Fusco’s wary, shocked-wide gaze. He smiles, and doesn’t put too much effort into making it look friendly. “If I snap at your heels—think of it as a reminder to make good choices.”

“You snap at Mr. Glasses’ heels too?” Fusco dares ask, jut of his chin proving that not all is lost; he does have a spine, he just tends to remember it at the worst possible times.

Still.

John leans in until Fusco is forced to pay very close attention. “My relationship with Finch is none of your business.”

Fusco backs down fast—“Okay, okay, okay, just asking, can’t blame a guy for being curious.”—but John finds himself thinking about it as he strides away. He can’t imagine Harold needing herding. Nudging, maybe. Brushing against his leg to guide him around an obstacle, offering unspoken support. Whether Harold might want or accept the gesture is another thing entirely.

John thinks and listens to his ear-bud, wondering if he can hear the slightly different kind of silence that means Harold is listening in.

~*~

It’s mildly surprising how well the urge to earn Harold’s trust sits with him. About as surprising as how often he indulges the desire to check in with Harold, brush noses in a manner of speaking, something to say I’ve found you here you are hello.

It’s not ‘proper’ Alpha-Omega behavior—he should be demanding Harold give him his undivided attention when in a room, should put him down every so often to check he knows his place—but John likes drifting in and out of Harold’s line of sight. Likes catching Harold off-guard as much as he likes being caught off-guard by Harold.

Harold starts to join him in the diner, after their first few rocky starts, and after that they share more meals, or coffee, or casual information. Once John stops digging for the unimportant things—a real name, an address, detailed information on the machine—and learns to trust that Harold will give him all the information that he needs.

Harold’s Omega status seems largely insignificant—though once in a while he uses different scents when going undercover, it always makes John sneeze and leaves him unsettled for days. Most of the time John’s natural scent is camouflage enough; with John around the assumption is that Harold is claimed, and even less interesting than before.

But equilibrium is found, especially when John is wheelchair-bound and still doesn’t growl at Harold to be lower than him. It isn’t even a struggle to keep his Alpha instincts in check; John likes the attention Harold pays him in the details—his clothes, his food, even that ridiculous pillow. Balance is found, yes, but more than that—friendship. Ever-so-tentatively pack.

And then Leila happens.

~*~

John stares at her, crouched down on his haunches, watching her burble happily in an enclosure of books. He can feel Harold’s tension at his back, but he only has himself to blame for not telling John what to expect before coming in.

“Ah,” says Harold shortly, “I should have thought— I’ve heard of Alphas being displeased by unknown children in their territory—“

“This is your territory,” John dismisses, distracted; in the back of his mind he notices that Harold goes very still. Leila shrieks and claps her hands. She smells like baby, soft and pink, and Harold, from holding her, from letting her chew on his tie. John gets his legs beneath him and scoops her up, settling her in his lap as he sits cross-legged on the floor; she makes more noise, grabbing at his chin.

“Yes, I can see my concerns were completely unfounded,” Harold says, dry. “You realize we can’t keep her, Mr. Reese.”

“Of course.” She belongs to a pack, even Harold should be able to tell. John presses a kiss to her head where her hair is silk-fine and her scent is purer, less dizzyingly mingled with Harold’s.

He keeps himself curled around Leila while he and Harold talk about her predicament, and fights down a spike of irrational jealousy when Harold mentions she kept him up all night and John realizes he took the baby home. It makes sense that he would, but it still grates a little that Leila has been where John will never be invited.

“I need to speak with Detective Carter,” Harold says after a pause John hadn’t been paying attention to until it was over. “Leila was just changed and fed, but if need be I have all the supplies here.”

John blinks up at him. “You trust me with her?”

Harold stares at him a moment, but John can’t think why. “I can honestly think of no safer place for her than in your arms,” he says, and John thinks he sees him swallow after, as if his throat is dry.

John knows his smiles are often more unsettling than reassuring, but he can’t help the one tugging at his mouth now, beaming up at Harold while Leila gurgles in his arms.

~*~

Carter doesn’t share Harold’s belief in him, but John can’t find it anywhere in him to care.

“Are you sure you’re not the Omega?” she asks when they meet her at the waterfront. “You look like the proudest new mommy on the block.”

“Somebody’s jealous,” John sing-songs to Leila, swaying her a little in the carrier strapped to his chest. She tips her head up, beanie almost falling in her eyes. It’s one of John’s old hats; now she smells like both of them.

He can’t tell what Harold feels about the implication that he’s not maternal enough. Offense, maybe, in the corners of his mouth. John lifts one of Leila’s hands where it’s wrapped around his thumb to give Harold a little wave.

“One cute happy family,” Carter drawls.

John refuses to let the ache in his chest expand. He can’t quite shake it, even later as he’s watching Bradley Petrossian settling a hand over the swell of his boyfriend’s belly, Harold crooning nonsense to Leila in his ear.

He knows this is temporary, a fleeting indulgence cut short by Leila finding one of John’s tear gas grenades and sending Harold into a panic. This isn’t working, one of us always here minding the baby, and John knows, he knows, this is something they can never have. Either of them. No mates, no families of their own.

He’s always known this. It shouldn’t be something he has to relearn.

He thinks Harold would have made a good mother. Maybe he is a mother, some voice whispers in his head, Maybe he was and something bad happened. John shifts his expression until it’s blank. He watches Harold walk back to the office with Leila in his arms and wonders, and wonders.

~*~

Leila is gone. Harold is injured and Leila is gone.

~*~

“Mr. Reese. John. John.

John looks at him, but can’t stop pacing. Her scent is gone. His whole body is shaking. He failed.

“I’m sorry we have to move you again,” Harold tells Claudia’s parents. “Please go get your things.”

Mr. and Mrs. Cruz are just two Betas already rattled by events and ratcheted higher by John’s frantic behavior. They have every instinctive right to look to John before obeying the Omega in the room, and they do, and it still grates onhim, makes him want to pull his lips back from his teeth.

“Now, please,” Harold says, eyes down, chin down. They flee.

“If we don’t recover Leila tonight she’ll be out of the country. Gone for good.” He can’t stay still. No, that’s not true. He can. He won’t.

“John. Please look at me.”

The please throws him, but what makes him stop is the way Harold keeps his eyes down and his head—his head tilted just a little, the slightest baring of his throat.

“What are you doing,” John demands, voice strangled.

“I need you calm.” He’s playing submissive but his voice is all control, barely wavering at the edges to show he’s feeling the same strain. “What can I do,” he starts, wincing as he shifts to kneel on the floor, “to—“

“Get up,” John growls, “Get up now.

He doesn’t mean it as an order, but Harold obeys like it is one, on his feet as quickly as his leg allows. John is already moving to help him, grips Harold’s shoulders when he arrives too late.

“It’s alright,” Harold says before John can unclench his jaw. “It’s alright. What can I—what should I do?”

John makes himself stop, and think, hindered by the tremors he can feel jittering down Harold’s frame. God, he hopes they’re not because of him.

“Here,” Harold says after a moment, “come here,” voice as gentle as his hands as they guide John’s head down. For a moment John is sure it’s for a kiss.

But then Harold tilts his head again and offers up his scent where it’s headiest at the base of his throat. John breathes in hungrily, desperately, swallowing the anxiety he tastes until it’s just Harold. He can feel both their heartbeats slowing down, almost synching up. Calming, to the point where John doesn’t flinch when Harold asks, “What do we know about the men who took her?”

“Albanian.” The chain is still clutched in his hand. “And I have their scent, from the car, from where they hurt you.” He wants to nuzzle the growing bump on Harold’s forehead, where his scent is sharp with copper, but he refrains, and pulls back.

“Good,” Harold says. His eyes are grey and blue, and meet John’s perfectly. “That’s a start.”

In the end all roads still lead to Elias.

~*~

Giving Leila to her grandparents is fractionally less painful that John anticipated, but since John was braced for being knifed in the side it isn’t saying much. They’re her family, her pack. John and Harold were just looking after her for a while. She doesn’t look back. She’s still so little, she won’t remember them.

“It would be nice to have kids,” John says, half-surprised to hear the words outside of his own head. It isn’t until Harold goes very still at his side that John realizes how it might sound, coming from an Alpha to an Omega, a presumably childless, unclaimed Omega at that. “I didn’t mean,” he starts, but Harold cuts him off.

“It’s quite alright, Mr. Reese.” He doesn’t sound alright—his voice is stiff, blunt, but John senses whatever problem Harold has it isn’t with him. Harold gives an indecipherable look to his own shoes. “I’m afraid children are outside the realm of possibility for me, even disregarding the dangerous nature of our work. Tried, once. Didn’t take, never took. Found out there’s a fault in my own genetic coding. The Alpha in question soon lost interest.”

John deliberately doesn’t stare. He usually has to pick up scraps of information Harold scatters like a trail of breadcrumbs in his wake. Maybe he has Leila to thank for this, exhaustion wearing down their guards to raw emotional honesty. It still feels like a burning coal he’s being offered, but it’s tangible this time, something he can wrap his hand around.

“Your partner? The one you built the machine with?” he asks, careful to keep his angry indignation out of his tone. It doesn’t feel like such a big thing to admit he knows this much—How could anyone toss Harold aside?

“No, not Nathan,” Harold scoffs, in a way that suggests Never Nathan. “But I was wary to trust other Alphas for some time afterward. Nathan was the first to show me that a relationship between an Alpha and an Omega could be beneficial, when built on mutual respect.” He tilts his whole body instead of just turning his head to look at John. “I suppose you have him to thank for my willingness to give you a chance.”

“I’ll add it to the list,” John says. He watches Harold push out a breath, absently tugging his collar away from his throat, and asks, “And the other Alpha?”

“Your interest in retribution on my behalf is noted and completely unnecessary,” Harold says, guards back up so fast John almost gets whiplash.

“Are you alright?” John asks, shifting his weight away from the car.  

“I’m fine,” Harold says, waving him off, “Just a little warm.”

“Warm?” John repeats. “It’s freezing out here.”

“I may be coming down with something,” Harold admits, worry furrowing his eyebrows. “I hope I didn’t give it to Leila.”

“She’ll be okay,” John says, and hopes it’s true. He’d gotten to her as quickly as he could, bundled her up and rubbed her tiny fingers to keep the circulation going, but it had been terrifying when her wails turned to hiccups and she’d stopped crying.

He shakes off the memory and the itch under his skin, looks more closely at Harold. “You do look a little flushed,” he says, “Come on, let’s get you home.”

“Oh, you know where I live now, do you?”

Finch’s tone is light, but it’s also the first time in a while that John has called Harold by his assumed last name in his head. John does his best to smile, but he’s fallen out of practice, giving so many real ones to Leila. “Just a figure of speech.”

“I’m sorry, John,” Finch—Harold—says, brusquely dusting his hands against his coat with a sigh. “That was rather snappish of me.”

“It’s okay.”

“No, no it isn’t.” Harold’s lips thin, gaze stuck on the middle distance in front of him. Then he blinks, and busies himself limping around to the passenger’s side of the car. “The truth is I’m between homes at the moment. One is being remodeled, one in escrow, and I recently burned an apartment thanks to Carter’s inquisitiveness. The others are simply too far.”

“So which hotel can I chauffer you to?” John asks when Harold seems stuck on how to continue.

Harold fiddles with the door handle. “Hotels have such an impersonal feel to them,” he begins, and stops when John’s eyes widen.

“You’re sleeping in the library?” Another thought occurs. “With Leila?”

“I turned a side office into a sparse bedroom some time ago, it’s quite sufficient,” Harold defends, looking even more flushed than before, though John suspects this time it might be something less viral, like embarrassment. “And there was more than enough room to fit a crib.”

“It can’t be very cozy,” John points out, thinking of how drafty the library gets at night. When Harold says nothing, ducks his head and opens the door, John mirrors his actions and follows him into the dark interior of the car. It gives him just enough time to think of a plan, and not enough time to reconsider his offer. “What if you stayed at my hotel room tonight?”

“I’ve set up at least three of your aliases with more than enough financial means for an apartment,” Harold mutters, then blinks as if he’s just now processed the rest of John’s sentence.

He must really be not feeling well, John thinks, shifting his stance until Harold can see him speaking too, if he needs the visual. “I don’t mind taking the couch. It’s closer to the door, anyway.”

It’s a gamble, instinct. Harold’s apartment was burned months ago; if he hasn’t found a new one it’s for a reason. If that reason is because he hasn’t felt safe—well, providing safety is the entirety of John’s job description.

Harold stares at him behind his glasses. “I might get you sick!”

John tries his best not to smile. “It’s a risk I’m willing to take, if you are,” he says, and turns the key in the ignition to get them wherever they’re going.

“The library please,” Harold says after a long moment of idling. “I, I need to wrap up some work on Leila’s case.”

John nods, not letting it sting too badly. He thought—especially recently—that they were closer to trusting each other. John should be used to being left several steps behind.

~*~

John doesn’t sleep well. He’s restless, and he keeps snapping awake from a light doze with all the covers on the floor, shivering and just a little bit sweaty. Twice he feels his stomach lurch—not nauseous, but like he missed a step, or an entire flight of stairs. It seems Harold was kind enough to share his flu.

He gives up early, paces, wants to go for a run; his head feels clear, but with bugs like these it’s usually only a matter of time before everything gets foggy. He should go out while he still has the energy, stock up on easily reheated food and liquids, tea, maybe, medicine, should call in and let Harold know he’s—Harold.

John curses under his breath. Apparently already a little foggy. Harold showed the symptoms first, he’s probably worse off; and there are many things the library provides but sustenance beyond hot pockets? Not likely.

The street air hits John like a wall, too many smells at once. New York is usually scent-noisy but not like this, not sharp and clear—he knows immediately which people are Alphas in a crowd of Betas, which Vietnamese restaurant uses the freshest beef on each block, which wallstreet suit has cocaine on the cuffs of his dress shirt. The Alphas on the street go out of their way to steer clear of John, furiously texting or giving wide-eyed non-committal answers to a dial tone—John can hear the dial tone.

John ducks into the best smelling Vietnamese place—a shop called Pho Sure, a name John recognizes from a take-out menu he found being used as a bookmark in the library—and gets two orders of pho to go, stands there dizzy with ginger, onions, lime. Not quite chicken soup, but he doesn’t think Harold will mind. The containers scald his hands but he doesn’t carry them by the plastic bag handles—he doesn’t want them to spill, he wants to keep them safe for Harold.

The army taught John to think in simple steps: go through the door, go down the stairs, disarm the bomb. Easy, manageable steps. Harold would call it ‘coding.’ John makes his list and sticks to it, uses it to muffle his heightened senses, but his mind keeps catching on the mid-game: go to library, open doors, see Harold. See Harold and then— It skips back, broken record. See Harold see Harold see Harold.

He’ll worry about it after (he sees Harold), John thinks as he strolls into the library, pho cradled to his chest, still too-warm through the thin fabric of his t-shirt—oh no. John frowns in dismay, letting his feet keep walking him through the list. He isn’t dressed right; Harold always looks upset when John isn’t in the clothes Harold buys for him.

John takes a breath to announce his presence—and stops.

Very carefully, he lowers the pho down to waist height, then bends and sets it gently on the floor, elevating himself by inches until he’s just past the threshold of the soup’s spices to something…stronger. John grips the bottom of the second shelf of books and uses it to gauge how far out of his crouch he’s risen, so he can’t stand up straighter without noticing, without identifying the source of that Other Smell.

Smells like Harold, John’s hindbrain whispers. John applies pressure to the thought’s external carotid arteries and lowers its limp body soundlessly to the ground. Middle Eastern countries have been using Omegas in heat to distract enemy Alphas for thousands of years; Europe and the United States only started training for it in their covert operations within the last few decades, after a near-scandal with North Korea. Manufactured heat scents have been on the black market since modern chemistry invented them—the most expensive ones are engineered to amplify whichever Omega scent is most prevalent in the area where the vial is crushed.

And if it isn’t. If it isn’t a trap. Harold will want John to leave. John has to make sure that he’s able to leave.

The restaurant included the standard handful of onions, peppers, lime wedges, sprouts, and fresh basil in separate ziplock bags, meant to be added to the soup or not depending on the consumer’s preferences—John fishes out the limes and squeezes them into one hand, wipes the juice under and on his nose, over his mouth. The rest of the bag he tucks into his pocket, if he needs it.

John backtracks to the Modern Warfare section to retrieve the handgun he has stored there, lime stinging in his nostrils, then makes his way to the main office. “Harold?” he calls—the library is old and despite John’s best efforts, the floorboards are too prone to creaking for real stealth. It also means his enemy can’t sneak up on him either. “Are you still here?”

There’s a squeak—a human squeak—and then, to John’s right, the passage beyond their break room, there’s a sound like twenty books toppling over. “J-John?”

Harold’s voice. Still doesn’t mean there isn’t a trap. John flows the wall, gun up, moving slowly. “I came to see if you’re feeling any better,” he says, steady and calm.

“I’m afraid not, Mr. Reese. You should—should—” Harold cuts off with a sneeze, a curse, and another sneeze.

John blinks, but carries on with the plan. “Did you get the paper this morning?”

Harold makes a strained noise, not quite a laugh. “I’m fine, Mr. Reese, no need for code phrases. It’s my…” His next words come out through his teeth; John can hear the stress. “It’s my, my time. My heat. Such a blunt but fitting word…” He trails off.

John puts his shoulder to the wall to make sure his body stops when he tells it to. So far so good, the lime is doing its job; he can’t smell anything beyond it. “Is your door locked?”

“What?” is Harold’s distracted reply. “Yes, I, yes it is.”

“Good.” John’s legs carry him too quickly around the corner, to the door with Harold on the other side, in heat. Harold might already have a hand on himself, is almost certainly wet. John shakes his head, bites back a growl. “Is there something else you can move in front of it? A bookshelf, a dresser.”

There’s another surprised yelp on the other side of the door at John’s first word, Harold stumbling back from the door. “John—M-Mr. Reese,” Harold snaps, or tries to snap, “You shouldn’t be so close, you’re an Alpha and I’m—you can’t be in your right mind—“

“Do I sound like I’m not in my right mind?” John asks, projecting genuine curiosity. “I’m asking you to put more things in front of the door—for your peace of mind. I’m okay.”

There’s a pause. “You’re unaffected?"

John can’t read Harold’s tone, beyond the fact that it’s still unsteady. “I’m okay,” he says again, because it’s easier, because he needs Harold to stay calm. His blood is running a little hotter than it should, but it’s residual adrenaline and all the things he isn’t thinking about going on a door’s breadth away. He tucks the gun onto the shelf; he doesn’t need it in his hands. “Are you okay?"

“I’m. I’m underprepared,” Harold says. He’s upset; John’s ribs pull a little tighter in his chest. “There’s enough food and water in the library to last me but my—supplies are in storage. It isn’t ideal, but I can manage.”

John closes his eyes. ‘Supplies’ can only mean ‘dildos.’ The plural suggests multiple kinds, variations on size and shape. Knowing Harold, at least one steeply-priced, discreetly-mailed item that comes as close as possible to simulating a knot.

“I will manage,” Harold insists over John’s searing thoughts, “So you should go before you do something you’ll regret.” The last is said in a rush; John would bet every dime in his bank account that Harold is biting his lip now.

John rocks back on his heels, blinking at the shape of his hand splayed on the door. “Harold,” he says slowly, “I’m an Alpha.”

“Yes, we’ve established this,” Harold snipes, confused but not—not befuddled, not dizzy or foggy like Jessica was the one heat they had together. Or even the time Kara tried to trap him with her during her heat, as a bonding experience. “That’s why I’m telling you to get away while you still can—“

“You shouldn’t be able to tell me to leave,” John says. He drops to a crouch, then onto his belly, but there are only the blurry shapes of Harold’s feet on the other side of the door, no one else. It still isn’t a trap. But how—? “Can you smell me?”

“No, I can’t,” Harold admits, “but it’s only a matter of time. I spilled some of Leila’s baby powder when you announced yourself, there’s still a faint cloud of it in the air.” He sneezes.

John stays very still, counting his breaths, breathing in lime. Harold is always so careful with his words; if John has miscalculated this could go very bad very quickly. But there was that moment, his hindbrain whispers, You were so sure he was going to kiss you.

But he didn’t. John clenches his jaw. The likelihood that he’s projecting his own feelings onto Harold is…high. He needs to hear Harold’s true disdain for the idea to keep his armor up; he can use the hurt to make sure he leaves, and stays away.

And if—the smallest of ifs—if Harold wants…

“Would you regret it?”

“What?”

“You told me I should leave before I do something I regret.” John stands, feeling his vertebra align. “Would you regret a heat with me?”

“Mr. Reese.” Even braced for the inevitable, John recoils; the only time he’s heard Harold this disgusted is when John offered to kill someone on their first job together. “I’m afraid I have to not-so-graciously decline your offer of a pity fuck, but especially since you’ve already stated you’re not attracted to me—“

“Unaffected.”

“What’s the difference?” Harold sounds so disgruntled.

John laughs a little, weakly. “I brought you pho. I used the lime to block your scent when I realized you were…compromised. I can’t smell you either.”

There’s silence from the other room. Then, “From Pho Sure?”

“Of course.” John hopes Harold can hear him smiling. “It’s your favorite.” When Harold doesn’t say anything, John takes a deep breath. “I didn’t offer out of pity, and I won’t hold anything against you, Harold, not ever. If you want us to go on as we always have, I can make that happen. If you want me to wait, I’ll wait.” He has to swallow twice to get past the sudden sharp taste of hoping for too much; that Harold might want a someday if not a right now. He rests his forehead against the cool, indifferent oak paneling separating them. “Just tell me what to do.”  

“I,” Harold says after what feels like an age, “I want you very much to be on this side of the door.”

John blinks, Harold’s words ringing in his head, and doesn’t move. He’s always tested high on his auditory recall, but right now he doesn’t know if he should trust his own ears. “You do?” he asks, voice nearly airless.

“Yes, I, yes.” He sounds so flustered John has to wonder if he’s blushing, if John could reach out and feel the heat on his face. “But. That’s precisely why I can’t let you in. I refuse to let you think I only want you for your—for what your body can do.”

“Harold,” John says, has to close his eyes and listen to his own words too, listen and remember that they’re true, “You once promised me you’d never lie to me. And I trust you.” His palms push flat against the door as he levers himself back a little. “I can wait. I will wait. But I can still, I can get you new supplies, food, whatever you need. Please, Harold, tell me what you need.”

His hearing isn’t impeded—Harold’s ragged inhale at the word please feels like it’s against the shell of his ear. Maybe some people would gasp at how wrong it is, an Alpha asking something of an Omega—one in heat, no less—but Harold doesn’t sound disgusted.

The lock turns, and John’s breath catches.

“You can come in,” Harold says.

A strange shiver runs through John’s frame at the symmetry—since the start of their relationship Harold has done nothing but present John with doorways, always giving John the choice to open them and walk through.

~*~

Harold has baby powder in his eyebrows, dusted along the rim of his glasses, smudged on the tip of his nose. His face is flushed, goes downright ruddy as John takes in Harold’s state of disarray—no socks, bare toes peeking under the hem of a pair of slacks held up by Harold’s hand clutching at the waist. His white undershirt is clinging to his torso with the light sweat he’s already worked up. John can almost smell him now, almost. But Harold hasn’t said anything else, so John holds his breath.

“I, ah, I forgot to remind you that I’m damaged goods,” Harold says, shifting his weight further off his bad leg. “And not, not just my injury, though that’s not inconsiderable,” he stammers before John can get his objections in order, “but my biological—abnormalities. The doctors don’t even know why I continue to go into heat so far into my, er, prime.”

“You’re hardly a senior citizen,” John points out, dry. “And for the record, the Alpha who made you think of yourself as ‘damaged goods’ should probably bid bon voyage to his kneecaps.”

“John.” He likes the way Harold says his name, even with his lips pursed in a little scolding moue. “It’s factually accurate that I am, by society’s standards, a faulty Omega. I don’t take kindly to orders, I don’t appreciate being brought to my knees, my heats usually only last a day—“

“A day?” John repeats, taking one step closer; if Harold shows any signs of being uncomfortable he’s still fully prepared to leave. But Harold just…melts a little bit, relaxing a fraction of an inch, and John realizes he was interpreting John’s maintained distance as a change of mind. “I’m sure you know the average is three to four.”

“Yes, well.” Harold licks his lips like he doesn’t even realize how it looks; his eyes are dilated wide and fixed on John’s. “This one feels decidedly—stronger. It’s not even supposed to happen for another two weeks.”

“You’re remarkable,” John murmurs, barely a step away now, “right down to your DNA.”

“Mr. Reese,” Harold says, near-breathless, and then, “John. Under normal circumstances I’d be floored by your self-control, but if you could—?”

“What, Harold?” John asks, smile curled in the corner of his mouth held just out of Harold’s reach.

“Kiss me,” Harold tells him, and John does.

When John idly wondered how Harold would kiss—when he couldn’t stop himself, when the thought would creep into his head just before he fell asleep—he imagined gently coaxing Harold to part his lips, leading him into something deeper. No one has ever accused John of being over-imaginative.

Harold pushes into him immediately, taking control the moment their lips touch; John opens for him and lets Harold’s tongue seek his out with a passion that turns almost sweetly tentative before Harold realizes John isn’t fighting him. No need; Harold is exactly where John wants him to be, here and protected and safe and warm, so warm.

“You taste like limes,” Harold mumbles against his mouth, not quite a complaint, more like he wants John to taste like something…else. Arousal hits John hard enough for him to huff a breath, baby powder dusting up and away from Harold’s face. He wants, god, he wants—and he cangive this to Harold.

John drops to his knees.

Harold makes a loud, strangled noise and clutches John’s hair—not tight enough, still a gentleman even as his pants slip down his hips. John gladly helps them disappear along with Harold’s shirt, too eager to press his face against Harold where he can finally—finally!—smell Harold without anything else. He spits in his hand and scrubs at his face to try and rid it of the lime, fighting to ignore Harold’s sharp whine and stammered, “G-God, John, what are you—“

“You must have some idea,” John says, giving him a grin, but unable to tear his eyes away from where Harold is straining hard in his underwear—underwear which is clean, barely even a damp spot on the silky fabric. “Haven’t you come yet?” he asks with a concerned frown, dragging the back of his nails along the shape of Harold to watch him shiver. “When did your heat start?”

“Yes. Twice. This morning,” Harold gets out, already sounding a little more muddled. “I was—naked, I cleaned up with spare wipes from…threw them in the sealed diaper trashcan when I heard you coming, I—“

“Fastidious,” John comments, nuzzles Harold’s stomach and licks past the antiseptic alcohol taste to Harold’s skin until he’s sweating again. There it is, finally, and John breathes in deep, the scent he was trying to fight washing over him in a wave of need. His cock, hard for so long he’d all-but forgotten the ache of it, suddenly throbs, low and insistent; John is more captivated by the blurt of precome dampening the front of Harold’s boxers, probably worse further back where John can’t see.

“Do you like to stay clean?” John asks, looking up at Harold through his lashes.

“How,” Harold starts, incredulous, as if he means to ask how John is managing full sentences before he gives up on his own.

John doesn’t know how to tell him it’s a façade, that he’s barely holding on by his fingernails to the control he needs to make sure Harold is alright. To make sure he gives Harold what he needs. His hands are shaking even with their grip on Harold’s hips, and even if Harold can’t feel that he has to hear how fast John’s breath is coming, how ragged it’s turning with each new lungful of Harold’s scent.

“John…” Harold wets his mouth again, drags his nails through John’s hair down to his nape. “Please,” Harold whispers, and John’s control fractures. Harold should never have to beg him for anything.

His tongue hits the silky fabric first—not real silk, not anything as tacky as that, but it tastes expensive and like salt, like Harold—too impatient to yank them down until the front is soaked with his spit and Harold is near-keening. His cock springs free, blood-hot and red and impossibly hard, precome smeared over the head; John holds him still and licks him clean, presses his tongue to Harold’s slit to catch the fresh blurts, thumb dragging just under the head nearly dry skin on skin.

For a moment he thinks Harold’s bad leg has given out and John moves instantly to catch him; but Harold’s grip gets tighter in his hair and he takes another trembling step back, pulling John with him toward the bed. It’s on the small side, but sturdy, and the mattress is new—John has no idea who Harold got to move it in here for him but he doesn’t care, when Harold collapses on the edge John’s angle is infinitely better to suck him down to the root.

Harold cries out, something half curse and half John’s name. When John can make himself open his eyes past the haze of bliss at Harold’s weight on his tongue, Harold’s taste, Harold’s scent—when he looks up Harold looks wrecked, glasses askew and almost sliding off his nose, nipples peaked beneath his thin undershirt. John wants to strip it off him, but his hands are occupied, one lightly rolling Harold’s balls, the other slipping lower, gently coaxing open Harold’s slick thighs.

“Will you talk to me?” John doesn’t remember the thought process involved in pulling away, just that he needed to ask even more than he needed Harold in his mouth.

“I’m…f-finding words rather di…nngh…difficult. At the…” Harold strangles back another groan.

“That’s okay,” John murmurs, lips brushing the length of Harold’s cock to see if it makes him shudder; it does. “Just…let me know what you’re feeling as best you can. If you can. I like listening to you.” He nuzzles in close again, careful of the stubble he forgot to scrape away this morning. It’s almost too telling, how much he enjoys having Harold’s voice in his ear on a job, knowing that Harold is safe when John’s life is in danger.

Harold stares down at him now, and John can’t read his face beyond amazement, but Harold gives a jerky nod and John swallows him back down.

“I like this,” he says, almost surprised. “You’re, you’re very good,” Harold tries again, vowels stretched and sometimes half-forgotten as John rewards him with a rolling lave of his tongue. “I didn’t know you… It wasn’t…in your file.”

Some men might have sounded jealous—Harold sounds nothing more than thrilled to have discovered something new. John pulls off to work him with his fist, answer, “I haven’t done this in a while. Apologies if I’m a little rusty.”

“I never thought,” Harold says, press of his fingertips behind John’s ear an unconscious suggestion John put his mouth to better use. John smirks as he takes him in, lick-lick-licks just under the head. “Never dreamed you’d be on your knees for me, never thought anyone would, oh oh—

John shoves a hand down to his own dick, presses hard at the base where his knot is threatening to swell—no one, no one has done this for Harold, jesus, how—and with his other hand slides back behind Harold’s balls, touches him where he’s slickest. His hole clenches and unfurls against the pad of John’s middle finger as he circles the rim in slow, clockwise circles, winding Harold up. Focusing on that so he doesn’t lose his mind.

Harold scrabbling at his hair seems distant, contradictory to the mission, which is to get Harold to come, spill in his mouth, and Harold wails when he does, hips shoving into John’s grip like he can’t help himself; John loves it, senses flooded with Harold’s spunk in his mouth, thick and almost bitter across his tongue, the taste nothing like the sour saltiness he remembers from furtive blowjobs in boot camp. It could be the pheromones talking; John feels like he’s high, like he’s falling, surrounding Harold and being engulfed by him all at once.

The splay of Harold’s legs shifts wider as he shudders through his orgasm, Harold’s panting breath reduced to, “John, John, John.” His flush arches down his chest, whole body writhing under the arm John gets across his hips just in time.

“That was.” Harold has to stop to breathe, dazed. His limp fingers pet at John’s face, the parts of him they can reach. “You are.”

He’s still hard in John’s mouth though his dick has stopped jerking with aftershocks; now does not seem like the time to let up. Harold hiccups a groan at John’s first purposeful suck, but he doesn’t say stop, and his hole clenches greedily around John’s finger as he starts to slide it in, watching Harold’s face for approval. He slides in so easy, so easy, slick and searing hot, and Harold doesn’t look anything other than hopelessly astounded, then sharply aroused.

“Oh,” he says, as if he’s just catching on, “Do you think…? Yes, I, oh.” He rocks his hips down into John’s fingers, back into his mouth; the movement is stiff, makes him wince, and John glares and pins him better, remembers Harold’s injury better than Harold at this moment, it seems. Harold makes a sound somewhere between disgruntled and yearning, but he does his best not to wriggle. John hums his approval.

“I could take more,” Harold says, shaky fingertips touching the crow’s feet at John’s eyes, his own eyes soft and gently pleading. “Will you—would you—“

He’s avoiding the word ‘please,’ and John doesn’t know how to feel knowing Harold’s picked up on that already, that he could use it as weapon and is refusing to use it at all. It’s a shocking flush down his chest, hundreds of pinprick sensations on his skin.

“John,” Harold says, hand shifting up to grip his hair just hard enough to shake him out of his own skull. “More.

John gives him more.

Two fingers, then works him up to three—only once does Harold try thrashing again and John gently drags his teeth over Harold’s shaft in warning, bringing him back to a quivering standstill. Harold comes again on the stretch of the third knuckle; John swallows that too, load almost as big as the first, just as heady.

“Fuck, fuck,” Harold hisses. It’s beautiful; John would blow Harold every second of the day if it meant hearing him curse like this. “Up, fuck, up, I can’t—“

John pulls off but doesn’t go far, admiring his handiwork. He can still feel the aftershocks rolling through Harold’s body in the clench of him around his fingers.

“You look very smug,” Harold comments, wryly amused, once he has better control over his breathing. John twists his fingers just to watch Harold’s mouth drop open on a gasp. “Yes, alright, yes, with reason.”

He doesn’t know how to say that he isn’t pleased with himself—not entirely anyway; he’s pleased that Harold is pleased, and that he was able to give that to Harold. It was easier when he had an excuse not to talk.

Harold’s smile goes kind, watching him. He seems to be thinking a little clearer with two orgasms in quick succession under his belt; it probably won’t last long. He taps a finger under John’s chin. “You didn’t have to swallow. I couldn’t string the thought together, but I would have understood.”

“Less mess.” John’s voice sounds wrecked enough to make him blush right along with Harold, though John thinks it probably doesn’t look as endearing as it does on his dear friend.

“I really don’t mind a mess.” Harold bumps him with his knees, a clear enough message to move—but when John removes his fingers to Harold’s unhappy sigh and stands on creaky legs Harold fights dirty, grabs his shirtfront while he’s off-balance and yanks him down onto the bed. John barely manages to brace himself without crushing Harold, and then Harold’s mouth is on his and he almost forgets to brace himself at all.

He flinches at the first touch of Harold’s tongue, reminded what he must taste like, but Harold just kisses deeper, rolling John onto his back. He doesn’t clamber over John, try to pin him; he stays on his side, leans into John, tilts his head to get a better angle. John’s fingers are clumsy when he holds on.

When Harold pulls back, it’s just far enough to wonder, “How are you still clothed?”

He sounds so bewildered John would laugh if he could figure out how to make the sound come out right. He strips instead, out of his shirt, shoving his pants and underwear off in one go. “Better?”

“Infinitely.” Harold’s pupils are blown wide behind his glasses, which are starting to fog. He scrabbles one hand up, knocks them askew then knocks them off, frames clattering on the bedside table. It’s a shock to see his face unadorned, naked in a way he wasn’t before. He doesn’t squint to try to see John better, and John’s stomach swoops—but he might be far sighted, John might be close enough it doesn’t matter—and Harold kisses him again, knocking loose the tremors John’s been keeping at bay.

Harold’s hands chase the shivers down his spine to the small of his back. “How do you want me?” he asks, breathless again, eager to please, to play. “On my back? All fours? I could just turn over and—or I could try on top but I don’t know how long—”

What John wants is a minute—five minutes, ten—to relearn how to breathe.  He tries to duck his head against Harold’s shoulder but Harold follows him down, presses kisses to his mouth before he can work up the coordination to respond, murmurs, “I want you to, I want you,” and doesn’t say anything about John’s knot.

It’s a nice change, John thinks, half-delirious—thoughtful, even—but even with everything pounding in his hindbrain to fuck in and damn the consequences he has to, he has to know. “Do you want my—do you want me to knot you?” he rasps out, near desperate. He can try to—he can make himself pull out if Harold doesn’t want it, doesn’t want all of him.

Harold’s grip on him goes white-knuckled. “I want you to let yourself fuck me.”

John has him on his stomach in the next blink, one hand pinning Harold down at the shoulder and unsure how he got here, when he moved. Harold moans and arches into him as best he can, rubbing his ass against—against—John grabs his hip on reflex, stops him, but Harold whines his name, pushes back, and John is lost.

He slides in too fast, but Harold opens for him, welcoming like an embrace, squeezing him tight. He’s so hot inside John can’t speak, sends a jagged shock through him hard enough to make his hips jerk against Harold until they’re as close as they can get.

Harold’s whimpers stay wrapped around a constant thread of, Yes, oh, there, yes, and Again, John, again, and John doesn’t know if he’s complying or obeying or if he doesn’t have a choice anymore, if he’s just lucky Harold is asking for what John can give him, fucking in without control. He feels like his skin is on fire, body throwing him mindlessly toward a lake to drown the flames. He’s holding on too tight to Harold, his life raft. John feels his knot start to swell, pushing at the rim of Harold’s hole, and there’s no metaphor that can save him from this, from the way Harold bows his back and drops his head and keens, bearing down as John paws uselessly at his hip, drags his teeth over the surgical scars at Harold’s nape.

He almost misses the signs of Harold’s third orgasm, snaps his eyes open and fumbles a hand down in time to catch the first spurt and work him through the ricocheting aftershocks of coming untouched. Harold clenches almost unbearably tight, then relaxes, and oh, John is, John is in.

“There,” Harold says on a ragged breath, tugging John’s hand away to press it to the mattress near his face, tangling their sticky fingers together. “Oh, there. There you are.”

John starts to come.

Time and sight falls away, it’s so intense; he can’t hear much beyond the roar of blood in his ears except Harold’s quiet murmurs of, “Good, good, John, you’re so good.”

He feels Harold shudder with the first few spurts, jerk of his hips aborted by John’s knot locking him in place. John feels stripped of everything beyond their bodies, the fractional slide of their skin and the way Harold turns his head and scatters slack-mouthed kisses over John’s fingers. John ducks his head to Harold’s nape and breathes him in, and in and in and in.

This is going to be a long one, John thinks when he can rub two brain cells together again; his knot is showing no signs of going down, and every minute or so he shudders out another spurt of come as deep in Harold as he can grind them together. Careful of Harold’s hip, they manage to maneuver onto their sides; John slips one arm under Harold’s head as a pillow and touches the tip of his nose to the fine hair at the back of his neck.

“So much for keeping you clean,” John says after a long moment, voice hoarse as he watches Harold idly playing with their entwined—increasingly sticky—fingers. The sheets are wrecked and clumped under them, and Harold has come drying on his stomach, some all the way up to his collarbone.

“I told you I don’t mind a mess,” Harold humphs, no heat to it; John thinks he can hear him smiling. “Especially not one we make together.”

It’s an oddly poignant thing to say, but Harold smiles and John thinks he understands—they smell like each other now, mutually claimed.

His hand slips low over the soft skin of Harold’s abdomen, pressing a little; he just means to check, maybe say Can you feel me inside you? But Harold makes a soft noise, says, “John, you should know I—I would, if, if I could—”

It takes too long to understand what Harold’s saying. A baby. Harold would make a baby with John.

John takes a deep breath, trying to steady himself and mostly breathing in the faint acrid scent of Harold’s building worry—then he nuzzles close under Harold’s ear up to the edge of his sideburn, wishing he’d picked a position that was better suited to seeing Harold’s face. “You don’t need to say that.”

“But—”

“I don’t need a nebulous third person who doesn’t and might never exist,” John says, stilling Harold’s attempt to speak with a thumb against his lips. “I want you. I just want you.”

Some small part of John is braced for the hurt of giving up the chance at a family, but there’s no hurt, nothing there to lose, and everything to gain with Harold in his arms. Another quiet noise pulls free of Harold’s throat, but it sounds sweeter, needy for something; he tries to twist his neck around—for a kiss, John realizes, and presses him forward instead, covering Harold as much as he can. Harold’s arm reaches up and back, hand fitting to John’s nape as John kisses his shoulder, shows him he’s loved.

~*~

“How are you feeling?” John asks some time later—after they’ve separated, after John wobbled down the hall on legs that would barely hold him up to retrieve their lukewarm pho and microwave it. They probably don’t have much time before the heat starts up again; John wants to make sure they’re properly fed and hydrated before that happens.

It’s a little hard to remember things like food when he comes back to Harold bent over the bed, tucking in the corners of the fitted sheet. The view is…pornographic. John almost spills the soup.

“Pleasantly sore,” Harold says as he straightens quickly, blush turning his cheeks ruddy; an unintentional show, then. “Is that for me?”

They sit on the bed with their backs against the headboard, elbows occasionally brushing, Harold with the sheets pulled up to his waist. John doesn’t see the point, but he likes the domesticity of it, likes stealing glances and finding them preemptively returned.

There’s obviously something on Harold’s mind, but he seems content to eat and mull it over, so John follows his lead. He takes inventory instead—of Harold’s ruffled hair, his well-kissed mouth, the faint red mark John left on his shoulder with his teeth. He’s put his glasses back on; John is less certain about their authenticity, far more sure of his own unfortunate tendency to find Harold’s mysteries charming. He smiles into his pho.

When he looks up, Harold is watching him. “I’m curious,” he starts to say, then stalls a bit, poking at the basil dregs in his soup.

“That makes two of us,” John prompts, offering a crooked smile.

Harold frowns, but it seems to be directed at himself. “It may be… too soon to broach this subject.”

John swallows, then leans in for a kiss. “Hey,” he says, and kisses Harold again because he enjoyed it so much the last time. And because it’s infinitely more difficult to break up with someone while being kissed, as long as they kiss well. Somewhat underhanded, but John is prepared to fight a little dirty to keep Harold now that he has him. “You can tell me.”

Harold breaks away to put their empty containers on the bedside table, and doesn’t shift back into John’s space all the way. “I want you to know,” he starts, not quite meeting John’s eyes, “that there is no right or wrong answer. I’m wondering about—someday.”

“Someday?” John repeats; the word tastes foreign.

“Yes,” Harold says, drawing out the word like he’s stalling for time. “I’m wondering if you would… If it might be something you’d entertain the possibility of—someday. If there was a child who needed a home. If, if raising that child would be something you’d be interested in doing. With me.”

“I’m not very good at picturing ‘somedays,’” John rasps, when he can gather the air to speak.

“You should work on that,” Harold says with such earnestness that John starts to laugh before he realizes it’s heartfelt, too; realizes that Harold has already given him so much, and now he wants to give him a future, something beyond the machine. John can barely fathom it.

“I’ll try,” he whispers, words soft against Harold’s fingertips, his knuckles, before Harold tilts his head up, and kisses him, wholly.