Just because the man to John’s left has his head bowed low doesn’t mean he’s afraid for his life.
John watches the man spin a whisky glass in a listless circle on the bar top, stiff blond hair haloed in the bar light. He’s classically handsome, broad-shouldered—if John were in a different sort of mood he’d think about practicing his rusty flirting skills, try to brighten the guy’s day. As it is, he’s not really feeling it; recent events have left him…unsettled. Tonight is for settling.
“Do you ever wonder how your life would be different,” the guy says, only slurring a little bit as he leans into John’s space uninvited, “if you just. Weren’t such a complete fuckup?”
He looks at John, grey eyes searching, framed by thick blond eyelashes. There’s something in the way he holds himself—even drunk and slumped over—that hints at a military background. Maybe it’s that, maybe it’s the witching hour, maybe it’s the loneliness, but John finds himself opening his mouth and giving an honest answer.
“Sometimes,” John says, telling himself he’s only throwing the guy a bone. “But then sometimes I think about how other peoples’ lives would be a lot worse if I’d made better choices.”
The searching look shifts to considering as the man quirks the corner of his lips in a smile. “I don’t know. I could stand to have my life be a little better. People could appreciate me more, you know?” He watches John, lashes lowered, trailing his finger through a puddle of condensation on the bar; his suit is upscale, pricy, not bespoke but high-end off the rack. “What about you? You get appreciated?”
“Enough,” John says and doesn’t know he really means ‘be quiet’ until he hears the word drop from his mouth.
His companion doesn’t seem to hear it that way, regardless. “Lucky,” he mumbles into his beer, “Lucky, lucky, lucky.”
John pulls out a twenty to settle his tab, patience vanishing into thin air and leaving nothing in its place besides a sick, hollow feeling. So much for settling.
“Hey,” the man says, stopping just short of grabbing John’s arm; as drunk as he is, he must have some self-preservation instincts left. It’s still enough to stall John’s momentum. “Do you—“ He clears his throat, head lolling where he’s propped himself up on one hand. His neck is long and bared, cheeks flushed rosy. “I know I’m…” He waves a hand at himself. “But do you wanna? Sometime? I have a number—card,” he corrects, fumbling in his pocket. “We could…hang out.”
John gently stills his hand, and the guy lets out a long, miserable sigh. “Do you need someone to call you a cab?” John asks.
“Bartender did,” the guys mumbles. “I’m just waiting.”
John gets the man’s uncooperative limbs into the jacket thrown over his chair, helps him out to the curb, and pours him into the cab when it arrives. Not another word is exchanged between them, and John watches the cab leave, sifting through the possibilities of this man being a threat. Well, he can always ask Harold to run facial recognition in the morning, if this niggling feeling in the back of his skull hasn’t gone away.
The plan works fine, until he comes in the next morning to find the man’s face already on Harold’s computer screen.
“New number?” John asks as his heartbeat kickstarts, stuttering before he can get it back under control. Harold…Harold wouldn’t care that John had the opportunity to go home with that man. Doesn’t care. About any of it.
Harold startles at the sound of his voice, snapping out of whatever train of thought had kept him too absorbed to look up when John entered the room. Bear bounds over to say hello, tail wagging, and John drops to a crouch to give him the attention he deserves.
“Sorry,” John says, attempting a smile as he flops Bear’s ears back and forth. “I didn’t mean to surprise you.”
It’s been five days since Root kidnapped Finch for the second time, four days since the machine by all intents and purposes became incorporeal, taking one more step towards becoming an omnipotent, omniscient deity. Four and a half days since John saw Harold in the park and called out to him, and Harold got into the car with Root.
He understands now why Harold did it—he needed to stay ahead of John to lead him to the warehouse. But it had left John gut-punched when it happened.
“No need to apologize,” Harold says, stilted and distracted. John looks up as best he can once Bear calms down enough to lean against his side; Harold’s expression is odd. “You’re going to spoil him.”
John makes an effort to do what he’s always done—he rolls his eyes, cradling Bear’s head in his hands. “He’s had a hard week,” John says, holding up his own hangdog expression for Harold’s comparison; Bear ruins the effect by licking his chin, and it should be normal, but it feels half a beat off and jarring. John’s heart is still beating too hard.
Harold clears his throat. “Did you have a good night?”
John looks up from his crouch, wonders at the sudden strangled note in Harold’s voice. “Yes,” he answers, carefully. Does Harold know John brushed elbows with their number last night? Is it a problem?
Harold nods before John can talk himself into offering more information, turning back to his screen. “Evan Gully,” he says, standing stiffly to limp over to the printer as it whirs to life. “Military out of high school, then CIA, black ops. Specialties include diffusing violent situations—often with violence of his own.” Harold gathers the pages as they spit out and hands them in a gathered sheaf to John, without looking at him or the papers. “Not much family left—at least, none that he sees any more. No romantic relationships that I can tie him to, no social life to speak of.”
John is listening with one ear while he reads the details, so his words aren’t as calculated as they should be when he says, off-hand, “Sounds like we have a lot in common.”
Harold twitches, quickly removes his glasses to clean them against his shirt where it peeks beneath his vest. “Regardless,” Harold says, “Mr. Gully’s case is going to require more delicacy than a run-of-the-mill number.”
“His training makes him extremely dangerous,” Harold says. His eyes are wide behind his glasses, mouth pursed with concern.
His worry tugs John forward a step, though Harold is quick to turn away; a low, concrete feeling settles in John’s stomach. Now would be the time to tell Harold about the bar. “We’ve dealt with dangerous numbers before,” is what he says instead.
“Mr. Gully is my former employee,” says Finch, fingers splayed over another stack of printouts, Gully’s blank-smiling face lurking in the upper left corner.
“Oh.” John waits, but Harold doesn’t add anything, doesn’t move except where his fingertips are twitching against the paper. "Forgive me for saying so, Harold, but that seems like the kind of information you’d lead with.” He keeps his tone light and dry, and just in case follows up with, “Do we need to worry about him being a disgruntled former employee?”
“What?” Harold blinks at him. “No. Evan and I parted on excellent terms.”
Evan, John’s treacherous mind repeats. “Not so excellent that you’re convinced he couldn’t be the perpetrator,” he points out.
“I said he’s dangerous because he is,” Harold says, limping around his desk with a small stack of books in his arms. “Mr. Gully’s primary source of income when I knew him was as a bodyguard—though he mostly stuck to above-board security details I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s since branched out.”
John watches the tightening in Harold’s jaw, wonders if it’s physical pain from his leg or something else.
“What do you want me to do?”
“Trail him. Discretely,” Harold stresses, from the far side of the room. “We don’t know yet if Mr. Gully needs our help or our interference—our one advantage is that he doesn’t know we’re looking into him.”
It shouldn’t sting, shouldn’t feel like Harold is pandering to him. So it doesn’t. “Sure,” John says, starts shedding his weapons.
“What are you doing?” Harold asks as John’s gun and hostler clatter on the table. He sounds alarmed.
“He’ll be looking for clothing bulges,” John shrugs. Harold’s mouth snaps shut. “Also, the probability of me being able to tail him is slimmer than you know.”
“He’s good, but he’s not untrackable,” Harold says, baffled.
John takes a moment to steady himself, and meet Harold’s gaze head-on. “There’s a distinct possibility that he’ll recognize me from last night.”
Harold’s expression goes through several complicated maneuvers before settling on a blank canvass. “Oh?”
“Yes,” John says.
Silence. Harold’s fingers flit over the lid of the tea John brought him, and John can’t tell if he’s searching or waiting—either way, there are no words, and no movement beyond the soft brush of his fingertips against the lid.
After a long moment Harold clears his throat. “Do what you can,” he says, distant and dismissive.
Five days ago, John stood on the sidewalk with Harold and tried to remember how he used to breathe. How he used to stand, what his hands did, where his eyes were supposed to linger if not on Harold’s face.
The world wasn’t ending, just shedding its skin. A new age of the machine, omniscient and now independent. John felt like his own skin had gone translucent—what was the point of hiding anything when it could be written down in ones and zeroes? If the machine knew, then Harold knew, and there was no hope—no point—in pretending that John only cared for Harold as a friend. He felt the declaration written out clearly in his frame, as loud as if he’d shouted it at the top of his lungs.
Harold had looked away. He hadn’t commented. Which, John knew then and knows now, is its own response.
John tells himself he wouldn’t mind so much if Harold had kept up his end, playing oblivious. If he’d only kept pretending things were always as they had been, instead of tripping over silences, careful to keep distance between them physically and in the tone of his voice.
When John imagined being rejected by Harold—which is natural, being prepared, figuring out an exit strategy for multiple scenarios—he hadn’t braced himself for this slow death of their previous relationship. He thought Harold would be kind enough to tell John definitively no, not leave him to see his refusal in every facet of their stilted conversation.
Leaving Harold with the chance to assume John had slept with his ex-employee—a bodyguard, like Harold said, like the handful Harold had surrounded himself when he found John on the streets—is petty and a little bit vengeful, but it feels like a handhold, too.
Evan Gully is tripping out of the lobby door of the six-story walk-up in his name when John catches up with him. He looks badly hung-over, shielding his eyes with one hand when his path takes him out of the shadows, worn grey coat buttoned to the neck. The grimace on his face is so tired it pulls a pang of sympathy from John’s chest; the only thing that could force a man like Gully (a man like John) onto the street in this condition—defenses stripped, reflexes shot—is duty. Or desperation.
“He doesn’t look good,” is what he tells Harold, careful not to touch his ear.
“Hm,” is the only noise Harold makes, a quiet, distrustful hum.
Gully walks five blocks south, occasionally touching the walls to catch his balance. The buildings are more and more familiar, darker, looming, tightening John’s shoulders, hunching them in. His breath must be shortening too, though John only knows because Harold gives a sharp, “Mr. Reese?”
“He’s stopping,” John says, keeping his voice steady with effort.
“Has he seen you?” Harold asks, urgent.
“No.” Gully only has eyes for one person, a huddled bundle of rags across the street clutching a cardboard sign. John watches Gully’s haggard face, asks Harold, “What do his finances look like?”
“Not good,” Harold says, then more to himself, “Very not good. He’s in debt up to his ears—not poor investments, it looks like…a lot of steeply frivolous spending. Gambling debts. He’s behind on his rent and most of his bills. It looks like ten thousand dollars were deposited into his account three weeks ago under ‘independent contracting’; just last week fifteen thousand went out to that same corporation—Miguelian Management—devastating the last of his savings.”
“That sounds like a penalty fee,” John tells him. “Someone paid him half to do a job, took fifty percent and their money back when the job wasn’t completed.” Gully leans heavily against the building at his back, dragging a shaking hand across his face. “Seems less and less like our guy is a perpetrator. Someone might be after him for not finishing what he promised.”
“The job could have been to murder someone,” Harold protests, loudly disbelieving. “He could be trying to make up for his mistake now.”
“I don’t think so,” John says.
“Oh really?” Harold asks; John hears Bear bark over the com, distressed by Harold’s tone. “What makes you so sure?”
John grits his teeth and tries to remember— No, he can’t, snaps, “Because I know what a man looks like before he runs out of options,” and pockets the earpiece, striding toward Evan Gully.
Only half of it is so Harold can’t call him right back; Gully is trained to look for espionage equipment, and John’s spur-of-the-moment plan doesn’t involve starting off on the wrong foot.
“Hey,” he says, sliding on his warmest smile; Gully still jumps, but John is careful to keep his body language non-threatening, half-turned away as if he’d really been walking by before Gully caught his attention. “Didn’t I meet you last night at O’Flatterly’s?”
“Oh.” Gully stares, back still to the wall. He has nice eyes, John thinks idly, flat grey and unwavering. “Yeah. Oh man, I remember you.” Gully drags a hand over his face, embarrassed.
“Really?” John smiles brighter, but it seems to have an adverse effect, so he dims it a little. “You seemed to be having a bad night,” he says, kindly.
Gully makes an effort to straighten up, arranging his face in a reciprocal smile. “It’s looking a little better now. I’m Evan,” he says, and offers his hand; his grip is warm and firm, lingering a fraction of a second. Huh. Maybe not so adverse after all.
“John,” John says. “Listen, I know it’s a little strange—“ He looks up through his eyelashes, shifts his smile into something shy. “—but I’m kind of new in town and I was just about to grab a bite; do you want to join me? My treat? You seem like an interesting guy.”
“Oh really?” Evan laughs; it’s a nice enough sound, if a little strained. “You can tell I’m interesting because I slobbered out my sob story and you put me in a cab?”
Evan’s throat works after he finishes, a dry click that makes John realize affording a cab probably hadn’t been in Evan’s budget for the evening—though it should have been, the way he was drinking. John shakes off the thought.
“You seemed kind of down. I didn’t want to take advantage,” John promises with an awkward shrug. “I only got half the story; trade you lunch for the other half?”
His flirting is more than rusty—he has to focus on it hard enough that for a moment he forgets Harold is in his pocket. Remembering, in the end, only sets his jaw.
Evan looks up to the sky, hands in his pockets and a smile that looks closer to genuine on his face. After a moment, he sighs, shoulders slumped but relaxed. “Sure, why not. I’d have to be crazy to turn down an offer like that, huh?”
“Crazy is relative,” John says as they start to walk, companionably brushing shoulders. He touches the earpiece with the tip of his finger and smiles at Evan, manages not to falter when Evan smiles back.
Lunch is fine. The sandwich shop caters to eclectic tastes and light wallets, wrapping everything in brown paper bags they then take to a sturdy table with an ideal line-of-sight. John lets Evan put his back to the wall, even though it leaves John more exposed.
“So you mentioned last night you’re in some kind of trouble?” John asks, halfway through their sandwiches.
“Me? ” Evan scoffs, not too convincingly. “Nah, just a rough patch. I’ll get by, always do.”
“You did promise me the story,” John reminds him, leaning forward to snag his own bag of chips; the movement knocks his feet against Evan’s under the table, just for a split second. Evan looks surprised, then quietly pleased, and John nudges his feet a little closer.
“Yeah,” he says, scrubbing at his blond hair. His coat is a little worse for wear; underneath, John thinks he sees last night’s suit, though Evan doesn’t smell like he slept in it, at least. “Yeah I did. Okay, well. A while back I had this…really great job—I mean, great job in that the pay was fantastic. The job itself was a little…” He pulls a face, wobbling his hand. “Shitty hours, no set schedule, and the boss—Jesus. Real piece of work.” He shakes his head, and John thinks he sees a muscle ticking in Evan’s jaw. “Anyway. Got fired. Ex-boss made sure I had a hard time finding work afterward. Everything just went downhill.”
It isn’t exactly a detailed history, but it’s somewhere to start in finding out why Miguelian Management withdrew so much money from Evan’s bank account. John returns Evan’s wincing smile with a softer one. “No jobs since then?”
“Oh, yeah, this was years ago,” Evan says, shaking his head. “I’ve picked up the odd job here and there, but slim pickings for the kind of work I do.”
Not a reason for Miguelian Management to withdraw funds from his account, then. “Which is?” John prompts.
“Bodyguard, mostly. Don’t worry about it,” Evan says; his grin is sharp, and doesn’t reach his eyes. “I’ve got a plan.”
“Well, just in case,” John says, and pulls Carter’s card from his wallet.
“A cop?” Evan says, startled when he reads it—other than that, John can’t get a read on him.
“She’s good people,” John assures. “And she knows a couple guys if you’re looking for work.”
“What, ah, construction? Labor?” Evan sits up straighter, dragging his hands down the front of his shirt. There’s clear disdain in his voice, and John understands that, for some, pride is the hardest thing to let go of.
“No one there will judge you,” John starts, but Evan’s smile has vanished completely, hand up to scratch at the back of his neck.
“Oh,” he says, after a moment. “Um. Yeah.” He looks up at John, lets his hand drop to the table. “Shit, man, I really appreciate it. I mean, you’re buying me lunch and everything…I just figured I’d had my share of luck and, like, basic human kindness for the day. Thank you,” he says, meeting John’s eyes. “I really appreciate it.”
“No problem,” John says easily. “Someone did the same for me, once.” Resting his hand over Evan’s feels like the right move, properly choreographed. At first Evan goes very still, but when John rubs a thumb over his knuckles and says, “Just trying to help,” Evan seems to relax, letting his lashes fall low.
“Sorry,” Evan says, gripping John’s hand. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember I’m out of the military. And,” he adds, scowling to hide the flush creeping up the back of his neck, “though some details are fuzzy about last night, some really…aren’t.”
John idly wonders if Harold has hacked the sandwich shop’s security feed yet. Or not so idly, because he almost misses Evan saying, “You want to get out of here? My place is kind of a dump, but if your place is close…”
“I’d love to,” John says, projecting regret as he gives Evan’s hand a squeeze. “But if I don’t leave soon my boss is going to kill me. I’ve got a meeting in twenty minutes.”
“I remember that feeling,” Evan says, turning his hand over, fingers trailing the inside of John’s palm. It tickles more than anything. “Like he’s always watching you, looking over your shoulder, right?”
John looks at him, but there’s nothing at all in Evan’s expression that says he’s hinting at knowing who John works for—he’s only given the security cameras a cursory glance since they walked in, and relaxed the instant he had his back to a wall.
“Right.” John gives him another regretful smile and doesn’t turn around, even though he’s sure he can feel the pulse of a red recording light beating at the back of his neck. “Something like that.”
Harold is pointedly absent by the time John returns, though he has left a note that he’s out walking the dog. John sighs and settles in to wait.
The sound of the door shutting and the click of Bear’s claws make John sit up; the look on Harold’s face stiffens his spine.
Harold’s anger broadcasts loud and clear. He stops at the edge of the room, still holding tight to Bear’s leash; Bear doesn’t tug because he knows better than to threaten Harold’s balance, but he prances and whines, trying to urge Harold closer.
“Please don’t do that again,” Harold says, voice very quiet.
“Take out my earpiece?” some petulant part of John says. “I’ve done it before.”
“And it’s needlessly dangerous, every single time you do,” Harold snaps. “Especially with a number as potentially dangerous as Evan Gully. What if something had gone wrong? What if I’d had vital information that could have saved your life? Do you think you would have had time to answer a phone call?”
John closes his eyes, very briefly. Harold cares, it’s obvious that Harold cares. It should be—it has to be—enough.
“I was safe,” he says. “Evan Gully isn’t a threat.”
“You don’t know that,” Harold says, voice loud as he steps forward, every line in him tense. Bear barks at John, loud enough that Harold drops the leash; he looks horrified at himself.
“He’s just anxious because you sound upset,” John soothes as he slides out of Harold’s chair into a crouch, holding out a hand to calm Bear’s worried jitters. Bear moves quickly under his arm, pressing his body alongside John’s to lick under his chin.
“I am upset,” he thinks he hears Harold mutter, but when he looks up Harold’s eyes are closed, and he seems to be making an effort to calm himself down.
“John,” Harold says, and it’s been so long since he’s heard anything but ‘Mr. Reese’ that John goes rigid, tense even before Harold continues with, “there’s something I should tell you—“
Cold panic hits John’s chest like a fist. Every bitter feeling of Harold dragging this out vanishes—he can’t. He thought he could brace himself to hear Harold say the words, I’m flattered but. He doesn’t need—can’t bear to hear the whys.
“I know,” he says quickly, forcing his lips into a smile. He’s grateful Bear chooses that moment to nose at his chin; he’s not sure how long he could’ve kept up the expression. “I figured it out.”
He doesn’t mean to sound as reproachful as he does.
“It’s fine,” he adds when Harold only stares at him. Then, “It’s not going to be a problem.”
John isn’t going to let it be a problem.
“Did you hear what Gully said about a plan?” John says, a bit obvious for a change of subject, but it’s what he’s got. “You could be right about him if his plan involves killing someone to get his reputation back. Or it’s possible whoever was displeased with his services wants him dead for messing up the job.”
“Actually,” Harold says, crossing to the desk, “I did find something while you were out on your lunch date.”
He hits the consonants just a little too hard, slowing John’s movements to join him. “Oh?” he asks finally.
“Two days ago the CEO of Migeulian Management was killed,” Harold says, handing John a printout with two pictures of an older man, white, with drooping eyes and ears; in one photo he looks tired but serene, in the other he looks unmistakably dead. “Carl Russell,” Harold continues, “was shot in his car in the company parking lot. According to the police reports, Mr. Russell had received several threatening messages from an eco-terrorism group angry with the company’s recent acquisition of wetlands they intend to turn into a strip-mall.”
Several photographs of type-written letters pull up across Harold’s screens—John catches a number of all-capitalized words describing ways the author would like to see Carl Russell dead; all of them sound more painful than one gunshot wound to the chest.
“Where does Evan come into this?” he asks, prompting, not doubting the connection. Harold still glances at him.
“He was hired to be Carl Russell’s bodyguard.”
John takes a breath. “You think he shot the man he was hired to protect?”
“For what it’s worth, no, I don’t.” Harold keeps his eyes on his computers, mouth pinched down in the corners. “Regardless, the man under his protection was murdered and Migeulian Management demanded a refund on Evan’s services. The extra five thousand dollars as penalty were written into his contract.”
John doesn’t ask how Harold got his hands on a copy of it. “That sounds like a terrible contract,” he says instead.
“We already knew he was desperate,” Harold points out, disdain blurred but still hiding in the edges of his tone.
“Company car lot means they would have to know the building,” John says, fingertips moving restlessly against his thigh, “They’d need a gun, and they’d need to know where all the cameras are. This really doesn’t sound like a crime of opportunity. Why didn’t we get this guy’s number?”
Harold exhales very quietly. “When Carl Russell was killed the machine had…other priorities. It was the same day Root had administrative control, when…well, yes. You couldn’t be everywhere at once, especially not that day. The machine likely prioritized the numbers you could reach at the time.” He starts typing something, looking intently at the monitors. A twist of fondness grips John by the throat, fondness and something like exasperated kinship—self-blame for something impossible to control is usually John’s job.
Bear chooses that moment to nudge into John’s hand, drawing his attention down to his watch and the time. “We need to hurry,” John says, quickly petting Bear before gathering his coat. “Gully has a meeting with Miguelian Management in an hour.”
“We—” Harold stops, visibly swallows and busies himself with gathering his own coat, following John’s lead even when he doesn’t know the specifics. The fondness in John’s hearts swells until he feels like he might choke. “When did he tell you that?”
“He didn’t. I lifted this off him.” John holds up the thin business card that had been protruding from Evan’s pocket as he stood; the card is for a soap store in the village, but on the back is scribbled ‘MM 2:30 S. Russell.’
“Oh,” Harold exclaims, eyes widening at the name. “Scott Russell is Mr. Carl Russell’s son. Now acting-CEO of Migeulian Management.”
This feels closer to normal, closer to what they used to have. Or John tells himself it does. “Mr. Rooney can’t get an appointment on such short notice.”
“But Mr. Krane can,” Harold finishes, already setting his shoulders into the stance he uses for one semi-pretentious multi-billionaire. John hides his smile.
“I doubt anything dangerous will happen at the meeting, unless Evan Gully is more reckless than I think he is.” After speaking to Evan over lunch, John saw desperation, yes, but nothing that suggested he was on a suicide mission. Whatever his plan is, he genuinely believes it will work. “Still,” John shrugs, “there’s a faint possibility that Scott Russell might be in danger.”
He meant to come down on Harold’s side, offering what he hadn’t before: that Evan Gully might be their perpetrator. But Harold buttons his coat up to his neck, a look of determination fixed to his face. “So might Mr. Gully.”
John tilts his head as he opens the door for Harold. “I thought you were convinced he couldn’t be the victim.”
“I…well.” Harold waits until John is at his side once more, gaits matched as they move through the library toward the exit. “I may have implied a more amicable parting occurred than what actually took place.”
“Why Harold,” John says, allowing his tone to turn teasing, “could you have been the hellish employer who ruined poor Evan Gully’s life all those years ago?”
“You know very well he was talking about me,” Harold huffs, but his posture seems more relaxed as he steps into the chill, clear air of the afternoon. “Though I hardly think it’s fair of him to blame me for his frivolous spending and gambling debts. And I absolutely did not try to ruin his chances finding other gainful employment.”
“You did say you parted on excellent terms.”
“The terms were excellent,” Harold says, blinking at him, “I gave Mr. Gully quite the severance package, and in return he left with the intention of never letting our paths cross again.”
“The machine is usually a much better judge of character,” John comments, not paying attention to his hands as he opens the passenger’s door on their black town car. “It couldn’t predict Evan Gully wasn’t suited to be your bodyguard?”
Harold goes still—at first John assumes it’s the question, and then he realizes he can feel Harold’s tension against the palm of his hand, where it’s lingering in the small of Harold’s back. He forces himself to withdraw the touch naturally, not snatch it away; he steps back, puts the car between them with as much calm as he can muster.
“At first he seemed quite suited,” Harold says after a moment, swallowing like his throat might be dry. “But ultimately we had…conflicting interests.”
John lets him duck into the car first, only partly to give himself time to control his expression; his knuckles are white where he’s holding onto the door too hard.
“Security’s on high alert,” John comments, eyes scanning the lobby and finding four guards with their hands lingering on their hips, close to their guns. “Jumpy.”
“You would be too if your boss was killed on the premises,” Harold points out under his breath. John fights off the image of Harold bleeding out in the library, John not knowing until it was too late. “Oh, poor choice of words,” Harold realizes belatedly, pulling a face.
“I think I’d be a little bit more than jumpy,” John says, careful to keep his tone light as he ushers Harold along with a last nod at the front desk employee who’s caught their eye, waving them up now that she’s confirmed their appointment with Scott Russell. “But let’s avoid testing the theory.”
All of the offices are walled with glass; some of the larger conference rooms have etched lines at seated-eye-level for a semblance of privacy, but the whole décor screams We Have Nothing To Hide. Scott Russell’s office at the far end of the corridor is easy to spot, and his receptionist sees them immediately. Not many places to take cover, if they need it.
“Mr. Krane,” his receptionist starts, worried frown pulling her immaculately sculpted eyebrows together, but Russell pops his head out of his office to cut her off.
“Mandy, stand down,” he laughs, patronizing and dismissive. John carefully doesn’t narrow his eyes as Russell waves them into his office—the room is half-packed up, and a thick-necked bodyguard lurks in one corner with his beef-slab hands folded at his waist. “Mr. Krane, a pleasure to see you,” Russell says grandly. “I’m afraid you did catch us at a bit of a bad time—“
John hopes so—they’re only fifteen minutes before Evan’s appointment.
“That’s quite alright,” Harold assures Mr. Russell, all smiles. “Traffic was astonishing! I really don’t mean to throw your whole schedule off; please, allow my associate and myself the use of one of your conference rooms until our appointment. It would mean so much to me.”
John watches the thought of doing a multi-billion dollar investor a favor dawn across Russell’s face. “Are you sure you don’t mind?” Russell says, as John discreetly slips a bug and video camera onto the handle of the door. “I’m sure I could rearrange my schedule.”
And make Mandy bend over backwards trying to juggle everything last minute, yes of course he could. “No, no, please,” Harold says, voice suddenly brimming with pity. “I’d hate to put you out. Your father was a good man; I’m sure everything has been hectic enough without me making a mess out of your day. The conference room with be fine.”
“Thank you for your kind words and understanding,” Russell says, stretching out his arm. “Please, this way. I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name,” he adds to John.
“Rooney. Asset Manager,” John says with his own faint smile.
“Ah, I’m glad I asked. At first I wondered if you might be like my associate Mr. Arsenault,” Russell says with a nod to the thick-necked man in the corner. “His profession is keeping me alive.” He chuckles easily, and Arsenault scowls.
Russell settles them in the conference room next door—one with enough opaqueness in the glass to shield the details of their bodies, if not their shapes, from the outside—even being so kind as to give Harold with the password for the guest wifi, and afterwards he disappears back into his office with his bodyguard.
“The whole building is terrified about an unidentified shooter and he laughs about having a bodyguard,” John murmurs once they have the place to themselves.
“Yes, I noticed that too.” Harold’s laptop screen pulls up footage from John’s bugs instantly; the audio is piped directly to their earpieces. Miguelian Management’s security footage appears next, and Harold plugs in his facial recognition program to alert them when Evan enters the building.
“Now we wait,” Harold says.
The time passes slowly—mostly Russell taps away on his computer or shuffles a few more things into boxes, and Arsenault practices different variations of scowls in the corner where he’s been banished.
Evan doesn’t disappoint. Not ten minutes later, while Russell pokes his head out to tell Mandy to get coffee for Krane and Rooney, the laptop blips with Evan’s identification in the front lobby. John looks at the way he walks, the way he holds his coat, the way he keeps his head down and angled away from most of the cameras.
“He has at least one gun,” John says. “Probably more.”
“If he’s not here to kill Mr. Russell he’s definitely here to intimidate him,” Harold says, sounding worried.
“Or,” John says, “he’s afraid someone is after him next.”
Evan looks visibly spooked to see Mandy’s desk abandoned, but John watches him set his shoulders through the security feed, leaning in too close over Harold’s shoulder. Evan doesn’t even glance toward their conference room, eyes only for Russell in his office.
“Come in,” Russell says, flat and ominous even over the live feed.
Evan steps inside, presses the door shut. For a moment, they have no eyes inside the office besides the hallway security, which is skewed to show them only Evan’s feet and Mandy’s desk. It’s a horrible angle to have a camera, unless it’s been tampered with. Then Evan shifts to one side, and they can see again.
“Alright, Mr. Gully,” Russell says, making no move to sit or offer Evan a chair. “You have the ten minutes you begged for.”
All John can see of Evan is his hand, which curls into a fist. Ten seconds pass by on the clock, and Russell only looks bored. “I want to know,” Evan says, voice steady, and quiet, “why you did it.”
“Why I did what?” Russell says. “Hire you? I can only say that it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Scott Russell hired Evan,” Harold says, mentally recalibrating. “Not Russell’s father?”
“It looks good to juries if you need to prove you cared about keeping your dad alive,” John points out, just as soft.
“It wasn’t my fault,” Evan growls. “You know that. Why are you telling the lawyers something different?”
“You were charged with my father’s protection, were you not?” Russell advances, almost casually, halting only when it’s clear Evan doesn’t have anywhere to go. “And he’s dead. Under your watch.”
“It wasn’t my watch.” John shifts, hand on his gun; nothing good has ever come from a tone like Evan’s, scraped raw and furious. “You called me, you told me to leave early.”
“When?” Russell scoffs. It’s almost convincing. “Do you have proof? It better be pretty convincing to make a jury take the word of a degenerate gambler.”
“He’s practicing for the courtroom,” John gets out, just before Harold’s sharp inhale and the view of the camera brings him up short.
“He’s drawn his gun,” Harold says. “Evan’s drawn his gun.”
John doesn’t have time, but he drops a hand on Harold’s shoulder as he moves past him toward the door. “Excuse me while I go diffuse the situation,” he says, aiming for levity. “Evan won’t shoot; he’s desperate, not stupid—“
The gunshot seems impossibly loud next to the sound of an entire wall of glass shattering.
John shoves Harold out of his chair and under the table, more bullets snapping through the air only one room over. Through the din John hears Harold say, “It wasn’t Evan, the bodyguard, he fired first—” but John knows, can see Evan scramble for cover behind the secretary’s desk through the broken glass of the door and surrounding wall.
“Stay here,” John orders, shielding Harold’s body as he moves for the door.
“Did he miss?” Harold yelps but he goes to the floor under John’s hand. “What kind of bodyguard misses at that range?”
“Trying to draw him into a shoot-out,” John says, “Stay down.”
Evan sees him just in time not to shoot him, barking out a startled, “John?” before leaping up out of his crouch, providing John unnecessary cover-fire to join him behind the desk. In the commotion John gets the distinct impression Evan thinks he came from further down the hall, not from the conference room. “What the hell?”
“I told you I had a meeting,” John says, ducking as Arsenault sends another volley over their heads, splintering the wood of Mandy’s formerly immaculate desk. “Oh, I wish you hadn’t returned fire,” he adds, under his breath.
“What?” Evan shouts over the noise, Arsenault pausing long enough to bring a filing cabinet crashing down for better cover.
“They’ve tampered with the security feed,” Harold calls. John closes his eyes, as briefly as he dares. “They’ll try to say you fired first!”
“Mr. Sparrow?” Evan hisses, furious disbelief shocking his eyes even wider open. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“I should think that’s fairly obvious,” Harold says, and if John can tell that despite the tremor of panic Harold is attempting to joke—it’s clear Evan doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t need your fucking help,” he snarls. Then he turns to John, hands him one of the small guns tucked into the back of his waistband. “Take this, stay low, follow my lead.”
John very carefully doesn’t look at Harold. “I’d really not rather shoot anyone.”
A spray of bullets over their heads delays Evan’s barked response, but only by a second. “Does it look like you have a choice, soldier?”
It’s on the tip of John’s mouth to say no, to write this situation off as a lost cause and get Harold as far from danger as possible, with Evan or without him. But Evan—despite everything—yells, “Alright, Sparrow, on three you run to us. One—“ and before John can suck in a breath he shouts, “THREE.”
John’s training takes over, following Evan shoulder-to-shoulder out of their crouch, high enough to fire just as Arsenault starts shooting through the thin wall separating office and conference room. He’s too well shielded behind Russell’s overturned desk and the cabinet to get a good shot, but John manages to shoot a cupful of pens toward his head just in time for Evan to clip the barest curve of a shoulder he shows over his fortress. Arsenault’s cursing becomes steeply more creative, and Harold is—
Harold is safely behind the desk, Evan braced to cover him from the worst of the possible gunfire. Still a bodyguard, through and through.
“Mr. Gully.” Harold is cut off by Arsenault returning fire, chunks of desk raining down on their heads. Harold hasn’t been trained for this, hasn’t been trained to watch what he says when he’s being shot at. “It would be in your best interests to let us help you!”
“Us?” Evan says, voice sharp with something like unlearned possession.
Some ugly thing John has been ignoring far too long starts to click in his head.
“He works for you?” Evan gapes, eyes wide as he gestures at John. “Wait. Is he your new—me?”
John feels his ears start to ring. He tries to keep his tone bland. “Now isn’t the time—”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Evan snarls as Arsenault starts swearing at them in German, now. “Mysterious numbers, victim or perpetrator, playing God with the whole fucking world—any of this ringing a bell?”
John looks at Harold, watches his annoyance with Evan fade to deep confusion when he takes in John’s expression. “John?”
Arsenault either has more than two guns or he’s reloaded again, firing another spray of bullets over their heads.
John drags Harold further down, arm across his chest to make him stay. They’re unbearably close, Harold’s breath puffing against John’s cheek. Distantly, John can hear glass shattering, gunfire, Evan cussing up a storm.
“How much time to we have before all this noise brings reinforcements?” John asks, not sure who he’s talking to.
Evan gives an unamused huff; Harold’s the one who answers, hesitantly. “I—the doors all lock electronically. I’ve set up a program to block the building’s calls to the police long enough to buy us some time, but—“
“I can get us out of here,” John says, and starts to stand.
“I have so many fond memories of not eating with you in this diner,” Evan says once the waitress leaves with their orders. John taps his knife, feels his arm brush against Harold’s. The booth is small enough they can excuse the closeness—or Harold can, because John honestly doesn’t care that he’s plastered himself to Harold’s side.
Evan’s eyes flick between them, looking like his coffee has turned sour in his mouth. “Really?”
John taps the butter knife again, eyes snapping a warning.
It hadn’t been that difficult to escape the Miguelian Management—out the fire escape, down three floors then joining the funneling of people outside to safety, just as the Security Guards realized they were able to connect with 911 much better on their cellphones than the building’s landlines. Arsenault kept firing long after they’d gone. Russell immediately started calling for a press conference; John figures they have an hour to eat while Russell sits with a sketch artist, since all video footage of Evan has mysteriously vanished along with most of his online footprint.
Evan really shouldn’t be so cranky. He has plenty of time to eat his eggs. If John doesn’t stab him first for talking about things he has no business talking about.
“Mr. Russell tried to kill you today,” Harold steps in, carefully controlled. “And us. We can help you take this to the police—”
“Oh, really?” Evan takes his time stirring another packet of sugar into his coffee. “You can take on the CEO of Miguelian Management now that he has a good dozen bullet casings proving I tried to shoot him? Legally, without hacking the government to dance to your fucking tune?”
“Evan,” John tries. He feels Harold flinch beside him, though there’s no movement in his peripheral vision. “Let us help you.”
“Well, what did they teach you in black ops, soldier?” Evan’s eyebrow arches. “Because they taught me to be self-fucking-efficient.”
“They also taught us to trust good, solid intel.” John spreads his hands. “You won’t find anything more solid than this.”
“All he does is predict,” Evan says, spitting the word. “Congratulations, you’ve informed me that I’m in danger, which I already knew. And I can handle it.”
“The machine gives us names of people who are in way over their heads,” John presses.
For a moment John glimpses what Evan was before—a man on hard times, who flirted badly and gave John his pickle at the sandwich shop—but then it’s gone, hard soldier, angry. “Jesus Christ,” he grumbles, rolling his eyes. “Is that some puke-inducing nickname you’ve given him? He’s not a machine, he’s just good at math. He makes his fucking list and then he doles out names like he’s God himself, and expects me—expects us—to grovel at his feet.”
“I expected you to care about saving people more than your own profit,” Harold says, eyes down and voice very quiet around the hard shape of his mouth, angry. “Excuse me, I think I might take a quick trip to the restroom,” he announces, turning abruptly. John doesn’t move. Harold clears his throat. “Please, John. Mr. Gully will be more receptive outside of my presence.”
“I’m never ‘outside of your presence,’” Evan growls as John starts moving out of Harold’s way. “You’re inside my goddamn head.”
“That’s enough,” John says. Harold stands stiffly, limp more pronounced as he makes his way across the restaurant. John sits down, scanning the room for anyone too interested in Harold, aware that Evan is trying to stare holes into the side of his head.
John makes him wait before he turns back to look.
“Why?” Evan demands the second John meets his wide-eyed gaze. “The sex cannot be that good.”
Something unknots in John’s chest, a half-thought he hadn’t let himself complete; if Evan and Harold had ever… John shakes his head. “It isn’t like that,” he says.
Evan scoffs. “Well, the two of you have lying in common, at least.”
There’s an ache building in John’s jaw; he has to work not to clench it. He waits.
“Well?” Evan crosses his arms, reminding John of their age difference. Five years shouldn’t feel like an eternity. “Where’s the big sell?”
“You know the sell,” John says, pulling his own mug of coffee closer. “I’m sure you gave it to enough people who needed your help.”
“I don’t need your help,” Evan counters, but it sounds less poisonous. He looks up at John, half-askance. “He never even told you about me.”
John doesn’t answer that. “What did he mean, you cared about your own profit more than protecting people?”
Evan shakes his head in disbelief. “Like you care. Like you’re going to take my word over his, when you’re practically his lap dog.”
“Try me,” John dares, fighting not to show his teeth.
Evan’s grey eyes flash. It takes a while for the words to work their way out. “I. I don’t know what he’s like now, but. Man, when I first met him he was a mess.” There’s genuine empathy in his gaze, no matter how he looks away to try and hide it. John tries not to picture it, Harold still freshly twisted by Nathan’s death and Grace’s loss, bruises not even faded from the ferry explosion, wounds barely healed. “He’d just gotten out of a wheelchair; I only know because I saw it in a closet once.”
So he did snoop, wasn’t passively accepting the amount of information Harold was willing to dole out. John had wondered. Some of what he’s thinking must show on his face; Evan huffs a breath, scrubbing briskly at his blond hair. “You’re looking at me like I didn’t try to figure out what the fuck was going on. It’s like trying to get information from a dead rock. He knows all the tricks.”
And probably learned a few more watching you try so hard, John thinks, but doesn’t comment.
“There was this rich guy, his number came up,” Evan says, fingernail tracing a faint pattern onto the worn table top. “Sparrow overheard me offering my services—saving his life—for a fee. He lost his shit. Turned out the rich guy was the perpetrator all along, which I knew—or I had pretty fucking good suspicions, and I also knew the quickest way to get close to this guy would be as a paid body guard.”
John nods, even though his neck feels a little stiff. “Guess Harold didn’t know that trick.”
No kidding, Evan’s expression says. “It’s not like he trusted me before, but he was just waiting for me to fuck up after that. And I…man, John, I really don’t have his crazy batshit Batman vendetta thing to save the whole world. You know what I mean?”
John doesn’t move, but his stillness must be enough of an answer. Evan looks—shocked first, then an angry kind of pity and understanding clouds his features.
“Did you?” John asks. When Evan tilts his head, he clarifies, “Fuck up.”
The corners of Evan’s mouth twitch down. “I fucked…sideways,” he says. “I fucked around. I was still saving people, but I just…I couldn’t make myself care. I was lonely. All the time. You’ve got to feel some of that,” he insists, leaning forward. His hand creeps a little closer, across the table. “You’ve only got one person in your life and it’s your boss.”
John opens his mouth to say no, he hasn’t felt that loneliness—he has Carter too; and Fusco, even, if he’s desperate; Bear and maybe Shaw—but the last week sticks in his throat.
“And after?” John gets out, eventually.
Evan winces. “Thing about gambling debts—you figure, gambling got me into this mess, right? Should be able to get me out.” He shakes his head. “And the people I worked for—they want you to look like them, to blend, not be that Mall Cop bodyguard in the knock-off suit. They don’t take you seriously if you don’t show up in Armani. Or better.” His mouth twists, eyes cutting across the room to where Harold had disappeared. “I bet he called it irresponsible, or wait, no, frivolous spending. It was supposed to be an investment.”
John thinks about Evan’s apartment—the six story walk-up, wearing the same suit—the things he skimped on out of everyone’s sight. It certainly fits his story.
“Where’d your friend go?” the waitress asks as she swoops in on their table, arms laden with food.
“Oh he’s,” John starts, but Harold materializes and answers for himself.
“Just freshening up. This looks wonderful as usual, thank you,” Harold says, smile shared between their waitress and his eggs benedict, and John remembers his own struggles to share a meal with Harold in this diner in the beginning, the way he fought to earn Harold’s trust inch by inch. It hadn’t seemed like a hardship; more like the most elaborate game of chess John had ever played, with a better payoff.
Evan’s mouth is shut, but his eyes are wide like he’s never met Harold before in his life. In a way, it’s possible—if Harold never let his guard down enough to let Evan see him as a person.
“Mr. Gully,” Harold starts once the waitress is gone, then softer, fiddling with his napkin, “Evan. I behaved very poorly towards you when you were under my employ. The truth is…much more than I felt I could trust anyone with at the time, and quite a bit more than you’d care to know now, I think. I demanded your loyalty and trust without offering anything in return. It was cruel of me. And very thoughtless. I won’t ask for your forgiveness because I truly don’t deserve it. But I want you to know I am sorry.”
Evan is very still, grip loose on the fork he has buried in his scrambled eggs.
“Tell me one thing, Mr. Gully, and I’ll let it go,” Harold says, his tone somewhere between pleading and grim. “Did I ever give you the number of someone who could handle it on their own?”
Evan looks at his coffee. For a moment, all John can see in him are soft edges, the boy who walked into basic with no idea what twists and turns his life would take. He had no idea what he was getting into when he signed on to be the city’s lone defender. This job gave John a purpose—it looks like Evan needed so much more than that.
“Well?” Harold asks, and John feels his own throat go tight with hope.
Evan walks up to Scott Russell in the park and gets shot.
Well, John amends, it’s slightly more complicated than that.
Evan walks up to Russell wearing a wire; he won’t risk a Kevlar vest, too bulky and easily spotted under his clothes. He demands Russell cut him in on the insurance pay out from Russell killing his father, or he’s got things in place that’ll make sure Russell never sees the outside of a cell. Russell, in a display of sheer stupidity, pulls his gun, calling Evan’s bluff. A little girl behind him screams. Russell starts to turn with his gun still up and his finger itchy on the trigger.
Evan tackles him as the gun goes off.
It’s loud enough to almost hide the sound of a second shot, taking Russell out at the kneecap. They both go down in a tangle of limbs and blood-streaked clothes—for a moment, John can’t tell if he fired in time.
Then, as he runs and Harold hobbles over to them as quickly as their legs can carry, Evan rolls off of Russell with a groan, hand pressed tight to the graze on his arm. “Trust you, you said,” he moans pointedly, nowhere near the amount of vitriol he would’ve shown this morning. “Legendary marksman, you said.”
Russell keens in pain.
“I had him,” John says, crouching at Evan’s side. He’s surprised to hear the smile in his own voice, but Evan matches it with a pained quirk of his own lips. “You’re the one who stepped in the way.”
“Wait, did you shoot me?” Russell gurgles, eyes wild. “You, the asset manager—“
“No,” Evan says, “I shot you. Definitely.” He winces, leaning into the grip John already has on him. “Come on, help me up.”
“Evan!” Harold cries as he reaches them. “Are you hurt?”
“Just a graze, boss,” Evan says, grunting when John hauls him to his feet. He doesn’t seem to notice the slip, but Harold looks stunned, then awkwardly shamed.
“Carter and Fusco will be here shortly—ah, there they are,” Harold says, spotting them as they screech up to the curb in flashing cars, though it’s hard to miss Carter’s demotion in the white and blue vehicle.
“Stay down, stay down!” Fusco barks, and Russell’s groans turn incredulous. My knee, he starts, but John tunes him out.
“John, we’ve had this talk about shooting people in public,” Carter drawls, walking up with her hands resting on her belt.
“Didn’t mean to,” he says with his best innocent face. “This was supposed to be a very simple recording of a man admitting to killing his father for the insurance money. Which was successful, actually.”
Evan unbuttons his shirt with his good hand, holding his injured side still as he peels the collar back to show Carter the wire. “There’s a bodyguard in on it too,” he says, “Jonas Arsenault. He probably did the actual killing of Russell Senior.”
“Might win you back some brownie points, bringing this in,” John prompts.
“Of course.” Carter sighs, but she looks like she’s biting back a grin. It’s not much to counter the sadness lingering in her eyes, but John figures it’s a step in the right direction.
“Every little bit helps,” Fusco grunts as he drags Russell upright on the man’s good leg. “I’m sick of doing all the heavy lifting around here.”
“I have to call in an ambulance, for both of you,” Carter says with a pointed look at Evan and his shoulder. “You look like a guy who can handle himself. What are you doing getting mixed up with these two, huh?”
“Well,” Evan says, grimace shifting into something like a grudging grin as he looks to John. “Guess it’ a good idea to have somebody watching your back.”
“Yeah,” Carter says, “especially when your front makes stupid decisions.” She holds out her hand for the recording, and Evan does his best not to hand her the end where he bled on it; Carter rolls her eyes like she’s trying not to be charmed. “I’m calling the ambulance now. You boys might want to wrap this up.”
“Thanks, Carter,” John says; some of what he’s feeling—gratitude and relief that they’ve made it through this relatively unscathed—must show through on his face, because she blinks, glances between the three of them, like they’ve done something strange. But she backs off, hands up in a clear message of You fools deal with this mess.
The park is quiet—just Fusco loudly reading Russell his rights while Russell shouts over him that he doesn’t care, he just wants to confess before anyone else tries to shoot him. A few New Yorkers pause to sip their lattes and take in the scene, but most have places to be, and what’s another guy in a business suit getting arrested at the end of the day? John takes a deep breath, smells coffee and cigarettes and the pretzel vendor down the way, wet concrete and grass. He loves this city.
Evan sighs, and when John looks he finds Evan watching him—and Harold. “Well,” he says, “you heard her. Time for you two to find somewhere else to be.”
He says it like it’s goodbye.
Harold clears his throat, and John can hear him getting ready for another apology.
“Mr. Sparrow,” Evan cuts him off. He rolls his eyes. “Or—whatever you go by, these days. Since we’re doing this, I just want to say I could’ve been…less childish about it. Everything, at the end. Throwing tantrums until you fired me instead of manning up and quitting isn’t very mature.”
It isn’t entirely an apology, but on the other hand Harold looks like he might be sick if he has to hear one.
“Besides,” Evan shrugs a little helplessly, wincing when it jostles his arm. “I’m not really cut out to be a super hero. At least not in a big way. But I’m glad you two are.”
He shakes Harold’s hand—a little too firmly, John thinks, or it’s possible Harold is too startled to respond in time—and gives him one solitary nod, a brisk but sincere duck of his chin. Then he looks to John.
“So what’s next?” John asks only a little hoarsely, when Harold looks too overwhelmed to speak, “For Evan Gully?”
Evan takes a breath that puffs out his chest, releases it on a sigh. “I don’t know. It might be a good idea for me to get out of the country for a while. Russell’s plastered my face all over the news, no one will hire me as a bodyguard anymore.” He swallows—John can see his throat move—but his face is brave, jaw set. “Maybe I’ll go into retail, or something. Labor,” he adds with a nod to John. “Need to get over my pride sometime, right?”
“Maybe not.” John half turns, inviting Evan to walk with him. Harold doesn’t make a move to follow, though John’s body language wasn’t meant to be exclusionary. Evan’s strides match John’s almost instinctually as they stroll toward the sound of the approaching ambulance siren. “I happen to know a young woman in Brazil who’s been looking for a bodyguard…just like you.”
“Really?” Evan says, grey eyes blinking wide and hopeful.
“Really,” John nods. “Her name is Sophia, and if you hurt her I will find you.”
Evan laughs in a way that says he understands it as a serious threat, and doesn’t mind. “You know, you could find me just for fun, sometime. If you wanted,” he says, lowering his eyelashes in an obvious flirtation. He leans in too close, still playing coy.
They’ve hardly moved twenty feet from Harold, barely out of hearing range. “Evan,” John says, pointless; Evan knows what he’s doing.
“One kiss for the road,” Evan wheedles, smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, the lines around his eyes. “Come on, then, he’s watching.”
John doesn’t know what to call the hot feeling in his stomach, but he doesn’t like it. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he tries; Evan doesn’t look persuaded.
“Maybe,” Evan allows, dropping his voice as he leans even closer. “But I do know he’s never looked at me the way he looks at you.”
Evan’s kiss is warm and brief, a closed press of lips. John can feel him smiling, and then he’s gone.
Evan winks when he pulls back, walking backwards a few steps before he turns into the waiting arms of the EMTS as they spill out onto the sidewalk. John watches them buzz around—two peel off to tend to Russell, at Evan’s nod in his direction—because super hero or no, John can’t find the strength to look at Harold just yet.
But he is one of only two heroes Gotham’s got, so he has to look eventually.
Harold looks…very human. Small and inconspicuous, and still the only one in this city John has eyes for. Even when Harold is still looking away.
“Mr. Russell gave a full confession to Carter and Fusco,” Harold says when John reaches him. They turn together, and even though their strides shouldn’t match John finds the pace as familiar as slipping into a well-made suit. “Though I’ve heard they already arrested Russell’s bodyguard for the murder of Russell Sr.; I wouldn’t hold out hope for him protecting his employer at the expense of a shorter prison sentence. Mr. Gully won’t have to worry about being dragged into a long court case.” He shifts a glance at John, side-long. “Of course, that doesn’t mean he has to leave right away.”
John shakes his head, faint mile pulling at his mouth. “He’ll be a good fit with Sophia. We’re practically the same person, aren’t we?”
Harold stops in his tracks. John stops with him, confused, scanning the area for something that would bring Harold up short.
“This isn’t the ideal location for this discussion,” Harold says after a moment. “But. If you are somehow under the impression that you and Mr. Gully are in any way interchangeable, you couldn’t be more wrong.”
He doesn’t once look at John, but there’s a distinct rosy glow to his ears as he stares ahead, tucks his hands into his pockets, and starts walking as if he’d never stopped at all.
John has to drag a hand over his mouth to dislodge the smile there, and it still keeps creeping back all the way home.
“Dinner?” John suggests as they near the library, bumping elbows quite by accident. They hadn’t eaten much at the diner with Evan, letting their food grow cold as they formulated a plan. Now, John has long stopped fighting the grin, the happy, bubbly feeling in his chest. When Harold blinks over in surprise, it’s all John can do not to wiggle his eyebrow—he feels like a little kid.
“I don’t know about you, Mr. Reese, but I could use a night away from people.” Harold shudders a little, and before John can feel disappointed he says, “Take-out Indian?”
“Sure,” John says, and clips Bear onto his leash. “My place?”
“Sounds fine.” If Harold seems slightly wary of John’s mood, John doesn’t mind. They’re going to his apartment, which Harold chose for him with precision and care, and he will have curry.
Harold’s own mood seems a little down, for all that he’s putting on a cheery face. He walks a little slower, then seems to catch himself and speed up, pushing at the limits of his injured leg. John can’t find a way to bring it up in their conversation, which is about nothing—the history of South Indian food, the invention of Chicken Tikka Masala in Scotland—Harold keeps up a stream of light chatter all the way to the apartment. And John can’t bring himself to break it.
They pick up food quickly at a little hole-in-the-wall saturated with red and gold and Bollywood music; the smell of garlic naan tangles around their legs as they walk, Bear’s tail wagging happily between them as soon as he spots the apartment building. If John had a tail he’d gladly be wagging it too—a night in with Harold, a meal and a few friendly hours of conversation, settling in a way he’s been hungry for, for over a week now.
Bear makes a bee-line for his favorite toy as soon as he’s unleashed, paws slip-sliding across the polished wood floors. “Should I find something on TV?” John asks, depositing food on the table before shedding his coat and jacket. His gun goes in the closet with the rest of his weapons—most of them, anyway—set to one side so he knows to clean and check it before using it again.
“Before you do,” Harold says, pausing in pulling dishes from the cupboards. “Well, maybe we should talk while we’re eating, save television for later.”
“Okay,” John says, easily biddable. He takes the silverware when Harold hands it to him and sets it out, after ushering Harold into a chair—it isn’t a conscious decision to pull out the chair for Harold and help push it back in, but it doesn’t feel like a wrong choice either. If Harold feels startled by the gesture he’s schooled his features smooth by the time John comes around the table to take his own seat.
“What did you want to talk about?” John prompts when Harold stays silent a moment; he starts opening containers, dishing out a heap of rice on both their plates to cover in the curry of their choice.
Harold picks up his fork but doesn’t use it, distant frown tugging at his eyebrows. John adds a bit of tikka masala to his rice and takes a bite, smiling encouragingly.
“Why were you so caught off guard when Evan said he used to have your job?”
The question doesn’t seem so huge—until John thinks about it.
“I tried to tell you,” Harold says before John can even start to formulate an answer. Harold’s eyes are so confused behind his glasses. “You cut me off. You said you knew. But you were so—thrown off when Evan talked about it.”
Talked about it. Shouted it in the middle of a gunfight, that John was only a replacement. What had Evan called it? Harold’s “new me.”
It shouldn’t have thrown him so much. Knowing that he had a predecessor—and it was such a petty thing to get hung up on, but. He’d somehow convinced himself it was alright that he wasn’t first in Harold’s affections, as long as he was first in his life.
“I don’t know why,” John admits quietly, shamefully and bewildered. “I should have realized.” He hadn’t…wanted to realize, lied so thoroughly to himself he hadn’t even noticed. All because it would have been unpleasant to think about the possibility. What happened to considering situations from every angle?
It comes crashing down around his ears, and so much farther to fall when moments ago he’d been so happy. Fierce realization sinks its teeth in him and shakes. He’s been compromised. Thoroughly.
“John? What’s wrong?” Harold leans across the table, eyes wide and worried and his hand outstretched.
“You need to do it again,” John says, pulling back. His ears are ringing. “Find someone else. Shaw might do it if you let her shoot people occasionally.”
“What are you talking about?” It’s been a while since Harold sounded this combination of scandalized and horrified.
“Her instinct isn’t kneecaps.” John feels lightheaded; he thinks he might be smiling, but it feels awful. He only—he never expected to fail Harold so completely.
“John.” He feels the bruise before he realizes Harold has a vice-like grip on his forearms, that Harold is half-standing, leaning over him. “Do you—do you want to leave?” Harold’s voice wavers on the last word, and John’s skin feels hot.
“I messed up,” John hears himself say, “Rookie mistake. I fell for my boss.” He laughs soundlessly, looking at the ceiling, inviting Harold in on the joke.
Harold’s grip goes suddenly slack. “You what?”
John gives him a reproachful look; Harold’s face is shocked, but it isn’t kind, what he’s doing. “You knew,” John says, frowning.
Harold shakes his head.
John tries to stand, tries to take a step back but Harold’s grasp tightens, and he follows John’s movement with a stumble; John moves to brace him without a thought, both of them on their feet now and John’s chair balanced precariously against the back of his knees.
“I knew no such thing,” Harold says without pausing. “When did you tell me? Was I asleep?”
His indignation is rising with every syllable and John can’t move to get away. He can’t speak.
“I don’t know how you would think—if presented with an offer from you in a clear, audible way—that I wouldn’t…respond in some way.”
“You’re right, I—” John’s throat feels endlessly dry, he has to swallow before continuing. “—I didn’t say anything. I didn’t think I had to.”
“I thought,” Harold starts, then stops, dropping his head with a soft groan. “We’re quite a pair. I thought you were angry with me for running from you in the park, for keeping secrets from you. I thought you wanted the distance.”
“I’ve always known you would keep secrets from me,” John says, confused. “I trust you to tell me when those secrets could imminently hurt you.”
Harold’s fingers spasm on John’s arms as a steep flush races up Harold’s neck, as though John has said something unbearably erotic. John wonders if he could feel the heat of it, if he reached up to touch.
“When I said we were a pair,” Harold gets out after a moment, “I also meant—I thought you knew how…deep my affection for you runs.” His face crumples a little helplessly, as if he understand he sounds like a Regency Era novel but doesn’t know how to express himself any other way. “It did occur to me that our sudden awkwardness might have occurred because you had…discovered that fact and reacted…unfavorably. For me, my…favor.” He winces. “I used to be—“
John’s hands shift along the top of Harold’s shoulders, as close to cradling Harold’s head in his hands as he dares. Harold’s voice disappears, which is for the best—from what John has learned Grace was wooed within an inch of her life; John loves this unpolished, stammering confession, all their rough edges fitting together.
“Can I kiss you?” John asks, warmth filling his chest to the bursting point.
Harold blinks at him, reluctantly wary. “Will you leave if you do?”
John takes a breath, makes himself consider the risks of staying compromised and protecting Harold. The risks of tearing them apart. Losing Harold and the job. Losing purpose and happiness, and wrecking Harold’s in the process. Weighed against everything to be gained—their sure-footedness when they’re on the same page, the warmth of Harold in his arms—
“I’ll stay,” he croaks out. “As long as you’ll have me, I’ll stay.”
Harold kisses him before the last syllable is out of his mouth, catching John’s burst of laughter on his tongue. He kisses like no one who has ever kissed John in his life—like he’s happy, like he wants to be exactly where he is, kissing John. His mouth moves over John’s thoroughly, sweetly, completely, tasting the curry on John’s lips and chasing it deeper inside.
John’s hands—he has one at the juncture of Harold’s shoulder and neck, and the other curled around his ribs. It’s that traitorous hand that tugs Harold closer, almost hard enough to unbalance him, caught by the brace of John’s body. He isn’t hard yet, but he’s well on his way; and John has him matched, their breath hitching together. God, John could kiss him forever, and he starts to, rolls his hips against Harold’s and feels him gasp.
Harold pulls back from the kiss, despite John’s discouraging nibbling. “Wait,” he says, gratifyingly short of breath already, and John stops, makes himself stop and hold still. “This is,” Harold licks his lips, eyes wide and dark, “It’s only that— You don’t feel this is moving too fast? No, of course you don’t,” he chastises himself before John can open his mouth. “I only mean to say, then, that it’s been some time since I last—and with a man, even longer, I—”
John kisses him, soothingly, until Harold gives a little sigh and relaxes a little into John’s arms. “Me too,” John murmurs when he thinks Harold will listen, pulling back just far enough to say it.
Harold blinks at him. “But you,” he starts, “and Evan—”
“He hit on me in a bar, I poured him into a cab,” John says.
“Oh.” Harold’s expression, rather than clearing, clouds over. “What the hell was he doing kissing you goodbye, then?” he demands, and John can’t help but laugh.
“He wanted to make you jealous,” he says; it does seem ridiculous now. “Jealous enough to do this.” John takes Harold’s mouth again, and even though it takes Harold a few moments to respond because he’s thinking too hard, it’s still crazy and wonderful when Harold kisses back.
Especially when he starts tugging and John’s clothes.
“I wouldn’t have minded,” Harold announces, as he divests John of his suit jacket, letting it crumple to the floor when John does the same for him with considerably less grace. He’s already working on the buttons of Harold’s shirt when the words even register.
“I wouldn’t have minded,” Harold says again, then shakes his head like he means to clear it, which seems like a terrible idea. John kisses him again, and Harold only gets out in between kisses, “You could have slept with a hundred Evans, I wouldn’t have stopped—“ But he buried his hands in John’s hair and silences himself this time, surging up even as John brings them both onto the bed, conveniently located only ten feet from the dining room table.
“What do you want?” John says, already hopelessly breathless.
“Anything, anything,” Harold says, pulling him down again.
John groans against his throat, worries the skin there with his teeth and lips until Harold is gasping, hips bucking up into John’s hold on them. “Do you want to fuck me?” he asks, wishing he didn’t sound so desperate, so eager.
Harold curses, barely audible, before he looks up through his askew glasses and says, “I’m very much afraid I wouldn’t be able to do you justice at this point in time.”
John laughs against the skin of Harold’s stomach as he works his way down, divesting Harold of clothing as he goes. “I get plenty of justice at my day job,” he points out, leaning up to let Harold pull his shirt off.
“Do you really?” His tone is teasing, but when John meets his eyes he finds serious concern mixed in too, as if Harold’s been worried John hasn’t been given a purpose and a life beyond his wildest dreams, and it’s so impossible John has to move over him, kiss him again.
“Yes,” he says into Harold’s mouth, “I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
“You certainly could,” Harold starts, and another laugh bubbles out of John’s chest.
“This, then,” he says with a roll of his hips. Harold’s hands snap down to his waist, to hold him and encourage him, showing him how to move. John’s vision stutters at the tight clutch of his fingers, at knowing he’s exactly where Harold wants him to be. He groans, lets his head fall low, says, “Please.”
Harold rolls him onto his back—John has always loved this bed that Harold chose, the space he has to sprawl in it, and now with Harold joining him, it’s perfect. John sheds his pants and socks, drops his watch over the side of the bed, waits to see where Harold wants him.
Harold looks caught on the sight of John naked—his cock is jutting out, obscene—and it isn’t until John tugs open his bedside drawer that Harold snaps out of it. “On your front, I think,” he says, and John hands him the lube and a condom from his drawer with a grin, hurries to do as Harold says. A pillow under his hips and Harold between his legs calls to mind the start of so many fantasies that John shivers, and Harold’s hand chases it down his spine in a soothing sweep.
“This tube is almost half finished, Mr. Reese,” Harold notices with a smile in his tone. John hears the snick of the cap and tries not to tense out of anticipation, or shudder all over from Harold calling him Mr. Reese now.
“There are,” John tries, swallows on a dry throat, “several discreetly purchased items in that drawer which require lubrication.”
“They must be very discreetly bought if I didn’t know about them,” Harold says, indignation warring with something that sounds a lot like pride. There’s a slick sound of lube, and then Harold’s free hand curves around his left cheek, spreading him a little wider. “Next time,” he says, and kisses the small of John’s back when he shakes, murmuring into the skin there, “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” John barely gets out, voice deserting him.
Harold doesn’t move away as his finger slides in—so easy, John is so relaxed for him, he’s doing so well until Harold pushes in again angling for his prostate, and John clenches on his knuckle, chokes out a stammering moan. “More,” John gets out, and Harold says, “Easy, John, easy,” keeps working in his first finger for long enough that John’s thighs are shaking before slides another inside.
Two is harder to take, but he feels less like he might fly apart at the seams. The bed isn’t much to hold onto, hands clutching at the thin covers while Harold stretches him open, murmuring things that John can’t quite process. Things like, Good, you’re so good, and that’s it, and oh John, encouraging him to rock his hips back onto his fingers, down onto the pillow.
When he starts to add a third something fractures in John’s chest—he throws an arm back, reaching desperately for Harold. “Please,” he gasps, “Please, please, please.”
“John.” Harold moves over him instantly, covering John’s body as much as he can with his fingers still buried inside. He kisses the back of John’s neck, kisses each of the knuckles on their entwined hands, and John still has to stifle a cry of loss when Harold pulls free and leaves him empty. “Are you sure?”
John nods as hard as he can, hiding his face against the bed until he feels Harold’s lips against his cheek, coaxing him to turn his head. Harold kisses him—half sideways, half missing—but for that moment he’s the only thing John can see, or hear, or taste.
He has to pull away to get the condom on, and John absolutely doesn’t make a noise of protest when Harold’s lips leave his. John holds himself very still as he hears the crinkle of the condom wrapper, terrified he’s going to break the spell or wake up, or worse. It’s bad enough he doesn’t even notice Harold’s hands on his shoulders until they start working at the muscles there, stroking down over his arms, pulling until he has them folded over John’s back.
“How’s this?” Harold says, squeezing John’s hands until he holds onto his own wrists. John can feel his pulse points hammering against each other. It takes a moment and another squeeze to realize Harold is waiting for a response.
“Good,” he gets out, guttural and half a word. It is good. The position puts his weight on his chest, not making it difficult to breathe but making him aware of his breathing in a way he wasn’t before.
Harold nuzzles in close again. “Hold on,” he says, “and I’ll hold onto you.”
John whines in the back of his throat when Harold pushes inside, the blunt head of his cock popped in past his ring and held there. He doesn’t have much leverage with his arms behind his back, but he works was he has to try to get Harold in deeper until Harold makes a warning noise and grabs his hip.
“I’ll get you there, John, I promise I will,” Harold breathes to answer John’s questioning moan. He soothes the hand not on John’s wrists from his hip down to his thigh. “But you have to let me go my own pace.”
John nods into the bedding to show he understands, head turned to get the best glimpse of Harold he can over his shoulders. A delicate flush trails down his throat to his sweat-sheened collarbone, and his eyes are brighter than John’s ever seen them. “I trust you.”
Harold makes an impossible noise—impossible because he can’t not know John trusts him with everything, his life, every life in this city. He trusts him with his whole heart.
Harold leans forward, filling John until he feels like he could burst from it, one hand tight on John’s crossed wrists and the other bracing himself so he can lean down and whisper against John’s shoulder blade, “Thank you.”
He withdraws and pushes in, and again, deep and steady, dragging out John’s pleasure with every slow push to the hilt, every pull along his prostate. The pressure of Harold’s hand on his wrists is just enough incentive to breathe from his chest rather than his abdomen, urging his hips up and back into every thrust. The drag of John’s cock on the pillow beneath him feels like nothing, maddeningly light, and he only knows he’s leaking from the way the skin beneath his bellybutton feels slicker than sweat.
And it’s amazing. Harold is here, Harold is fucking him. He’s leaving his fingerprints all over John, incriminating evidence.
The hand near John’s head shifts, sliding under his face, and John nuzzles into his palm even as the pressure on his wrists increases to compensate Harold’s balance. It’s a question, and John whispers yes against his fingertips a hundred times before Harold pulls his hand away, slides it down under John’s chest, stroking down his belly until he finds John’s cock. John’s hips jerk forward, and Harold says, “Oh goodness,” in such an honestly surprised voice it makes John laugh.
“You’re very close, aren’t you?” Harold asks, slightly breathless as he keeps up the steady grind of his hips.
“No rush,” John promises between thrusts. He feels like he could be fucked all day. He wants to be fucked all day. As long as Harold’s the one doing it.
Harold’s clever fingers circle John’s cock and give it a tug, quicker and rougher than his thrusting. John’s whole body bucks forward into the touch, back onto Harold’s cock before he can get his slippery grip back on his usually iron control. Harold’s thoughtful “Hmmm,” shivers up his spine before he does it again, and again, fingers slicking with John’s precome on each stroke.
Harold fucks him faster in between strokes, the hammering of his prostate only ceasing when Harold gives him a few exquisite jerks of his cock—John presses even harder into the mattress, shameless and obscene curve of his spine to give Harold room to work. Breathing seems impossible and useless, and John keeps doing it, only aware because he needs air to make noise.
“You can,” Harold says, “John, you can—” but John doesn’t want to, not before Harold. “Now, John, for me,” Harold says, and John comes, explosively, devastatingly, soaking Harold’s hand and his own stomach with slick. He’s shaking all over, convulsing inside, and John hears Harold say his name so sweetly he could die from it.
Through the aftershocks he feels Harold’s warm, wet hand on his hip, feels him start to withdraw, and John can barely talk but he gets out, “No,” and then, “In me, Harold.”
He feels Harold shudder, feels the kiss at the back of his neck, and then feels Harold lose himself in John’s body. Feels him thrust a handful more times, feels him tense, feels him spill—even through the condom he thinks he can feel it when Harold fills him up.
The bed shakes when Harold gently pulls out and collapses by John’s side, breathing hard. His glasses are almost fogged and he looks—looks like someone ran him over with a very pleasant truck. John grins, and starts stretching his arms, moving them carefully from behind his back.
“Oh, let me,” Harold starts, and then remembers the condom, ties it off, throws it away. But then he sits up and starts working the muscles in John’s shoulders down his arms, pulling them straight and letting them bend. “Too much?” he asks at one point, and John shakes his head, smile not quite hidden in the bed covers.
When Harold seems about finished John rolls over, scratching at the mess on his belly. “Your leg?” he asks, but it takes several seconds for Harold to answer.
“Fine,” Harold says, sliding easily into the space John has made for him in his arms. “It’s more my hip, actually.”
John lets his hand rest on the hip in question as they drift off, warmth of his palm working gently to soothe any ache.
Bear’s cold nose nudges John awake an hour later, and when John blinks blearily at him the dog just wags his tail, dancing in a way that means it’s time for a walk. John scritches his muzzle as he carefully sits up. “Thanks for giving us some space last night,” he whispers, wincing at the inevitable aftermath of using lube. Bear licks his face.
“I’ll take him,” Harold says, voice sleep-gruff as he fishes for his glasses on the bedside table. “You shower. If you get out before we get back you might pop our food in the microwave.”
He leans over to give John a closed-mouthed kiss, which John makes not-so-very-closed-mouthed by the end. He can barely stop smiling; asking him to stop kissing Harold seems like an impossible request.
But eventually he pulls away, leaving Harold flushed and a little less sleepy-eyed, and heads into the shower.
He washes efficiently, taking time to let the hot water linger on the faint but pleasant ache in his shoulders. He tries to remember a time when he’s felt this good and gives up, easily.
Harold and Bear aren’t back yet when he drifts out, wearing an old pair of track pants and a T-shirt that’s a little too big, hanging wide at the neck. The food reheats quickly and John digs into his share, certain in the knowledge that Harold will be home soon and he won’t begrudge John the meal.
John hasn’t managed a single bite without smiling by the time Harold opens the door, even running through practicalities in his head—Harold has an eye for details and John has a knack for making things work; they’ll figure it out. Even Harold’s slightly uncertain expression isn’t enough to knock him off kilter, not when Harold is wearing John’s jacket, put on in a post-nap haze. It’s too long in the sleeves and falls awkwardly over his shoulders, and yet John can’t think of anything Harold has worn that John has enjoyed more.
“I had a thought, Mr. Reese,” Harold says, face briefly obscured as he leans down to unclip Bear’s leash.
If he means to remind John of their business relationship with the formal address it doesn’t work—John remembers what his name sounded like in Harold’s mouth on the bed, which is only a few feet from them and completely disheveled. Still, John tries not to be too obvious about not being sobered by it. He takes a bite and swallows. “Oh?”
“It’s about Mr. Gully,” Harold says in a rush. “I know you noticed—how similar you two are in your career history and—“
“Harold, it’s okay,” John says, because Harold looks so worried. “I know I was your second choice.”
“It’s fine,” John starts to backtrack—because he is fine, as long as he’s Harold’s last choice too—but Harold moves toward him, reaching out until his knuckles brush against John’s arm.
“It’s not,” Harold says, shaking his head. “I’ve made some desperately stupid decisions in my life and that still ranks in the top five.” He swallows, and John gently puts his dish on the table, hands free and ready if he needs them. “I was grieving Nathan’s death. I was…badly injured and not dealing well with my own physical limitations. I was missing Grace and regretting everything I’d spent the last nine years of my life working on. All I knew was I had to help people.”
It’s been years, and if just talking about it makes Harold look this lost John can’t imagine what shape he would have been in when the loss was fresh. John touches his arm, rubs a soothing thumb over his bicep through the thick wool of John’s coat. He doesn’t know if it helps, but it does make Harold blink, and really look at John.
“So you found someone to help you,” John says. “That seems perfectly reasonable.”
Harold shakes his head, then takes a breath. “The machine tried to bring me to you. Sooner than it did. I wouldn’t let it.”
John is very, very careful to let his air out slow, and not like he’s just been punched in the chest because…he hasn’t. Harold’s mouth is pinched like he did something unforgivable, and John feels no more injured than if he’d been handed a file folder.
Still, he makes himself think about his response before he gives it. He thinks about being off the street sooner, thinks about what it would have meant, how he would have responded to a strange man offering him a chance to be a super hero before he’d been dragged into a police station and not-so-subtly fingerprinted. If Harold had waited any later the agency would have met him outside with a bullet. If he’d come sooner—
“I wasn’t…in good shape, after Jessica died. Believe it or not, you and Carter came into my life on an upswing.” He tries a dry chuckle, but Harold still looks stricken. “I wouldn’t have been any good to anybody,” John admits—assures, though Harold doesn’t look comforted. “I had to hit rock bottom first.”
“The machine had also brought me to Grace,” Harold continues after a beat, each word painfully extracted but easily given. “Even though I doubt the machine meant for you and I to become romantically involved, I couldn’t bear the thought of having a connection with another person as strong as the one I used to have with her.”
There’s a feeling John has only ever experienced when discovering a bomb in the room, a sharp disconnect from reality. One inch out of alignment with his body.
“And now?” John tries to say between lips that feel sluggish and numb.
“And now,” Harold repeats, then he pulls back a little, back straightening as he blinks. “Well, there was something you said. When we were no longer sure whether we would ever see another number. You mentioned reducing your salary.”
He pauses and John stares at him, wants to shout Go back to what you were saying, it has to be more important. “It didn’t hit me until Bear and I were on our walk that you didn’t…you never mentioned ending our relationship. Even though…without the numbers I would be of very little use to you. Apart from, of course, my money, which you were attempting to decline.”
“Finch,” John says, a full-on stop. If they aren’t—if this is Harold’s long way of saying they can’t be what John wants, they’re still friends. They see films together, share meals, take Bear on walks; these are not things John ever wanted to give up for the sake of a paycheck. Even when he offered to leave he didn’t mean he wanted to remove himself from Harold’s life. If Harold doesn’t understand that…John has no idea what to do. He stresses each word: “My loyalty—to you and to this job—is not something you need to question.”
“You would have stayed,” Harold asks, eyes clear and wondering, “a low paid bodyguard to an eccentric billionaire with no purpose in life beyond spending time with me.”
“Yes.” John feels like the word falls out of him. And Harold catches it.
Harold moves closer, until it feels impossible not to put his arms around him; Harold’s hands find John’s waist and hold on, almost too tight. “But not once you realized you were in love with me.”
“I’ve known I was in love with you,” John says, voice low. “I didn’t realize just how much being in love would affect me. Or put you in harm’s way.”
Harold hums, considering, sounding so much calmer than the grip Harold has on him suggests. “Do you have it worked out now?”
This doesn’t seem like saying goodbye. In fact, it feels as far from goodbye as the moon.
“I think bringing Shaw in on cases every so often would help me keep some perspective,” John says, warmed to his toes with how close Harold’s standing, and the way Harold tips his head up to squint at him before he sighs.
“If you really think she might take non-lethal shots under advisement,” he says; his grips loosens a little, and then his hands slide gently up to frame John’s ribs. “John, I am sorry for waiting to know you.”
John leans down until their foreheads are touching, thumb brushing over the pulse point in Harold’s neck, peeking over the collar of John’s coat. “Harold,” he says, “I’m very glad to know you now.”