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You've got to carry weapons 'cause you always carry cash

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John paces the office, hands going to his hair, fingers carding through it quickly in agitation. “I don’t need a goddamn escort! I’m perfectly capable of shooting a fucking a gun.” He looks over to his boss and finds no sympathy.

“I did not say you that you are not capable. I know that you are.” Mateo pauses, waiting for John to stand still. “Things are becoming much more dangerous for you. There have been two attempts on your life and I cannot have you compromised. In this matter, you will defer to me, and I have decided you need around-the-clock protection.”

John cuts his eyes across the room to where his new babysitter is standing. He’s not much taller than John, but he’s broader and packed with muscle where it counts. The sides of his hair are held back by a tie, and he has the greenest eyes John has ever seen. His beard and mustache are trimmed close and neat. He’s plainly dressed, dark khaki cargo pants, olive green t-shirt, black boots, and a tan overshirt that is no doubt hiding a shoulder holster. John can tell by the way he stands he’s former military.

John scrubs his hands over his face, he knows this is a battle he can’t win. When Mateo Diaz tells you to do something you don’t question it. John squares his shoulders and approaches the newcomer, hand extended. “John Prata.”

The man relaxes his stance and takes John’s hand, “James Flint.” John doesn’t miss the once over James gives him and when their eyes meet, a spark of attraction arcs between them. John feels like he’s been burned. He pulls his hand away quickly, eyes scanning James’s face for any sign of shared recognition. He gets nothing except the steady stare of a man who is used to hiding his every thought and feeling.

John’s going to have to figure out how to read him, his very life depends on it. He’s spent the last six years working his way up from the bottom of the Diaz cartel, shedding blood, sweat, and tears along the way to end up situated at the right hand of Mateo Diaz himself. Mateo considers John the son he’d never had. John is not going to let a pair of green eyes and biceps the size of small children keep him from getting what he’s worked so hard to accomplish.

John points to the three duffel bags at James’s feet, “That all you brought?”

James nods, just a quick snap of his neck, and John goes to his knees. Once on the ground he can’t help but look back up, gracing James with a lewd smile. James’s only reaction is a single tick on the left side of his jaw. John opens the first duffel. Rifling through it, he sees only clothes, toiletries, and a few well-worn books. When he opens the second he lets out a low whistle at the contents, a complete arsenal of weaponry packed tightly in the small confines of the bag. He looks back up at James with a teasing smirk, “What, the grenade launcher wouldn’t fit?”

James bristles, feet shuffling, “Check the bottom.”

“You’re expecting full scale war?” John asks as he’s digging through the third bag, which holds nothing but ammunition.

“I like to be prepared.”

“We do have the funds to buy bullets, you realize.” When no answer is forthcoming, John zips the bag back up and stands. “Right.” He shoulders the bag with James’s clothes, leaving the other two for James, and turns, “Let’s go.”

John doesn’t look to see if James is following him, he doesn’t have to. He can feel the way James’s eyes are boring into the back of his head.

When they get to John’s Sepang Blue Audi RS7, there are two men waiting for them. Both armed. “Billy, Charles, meet James, my new nanny.”

John dumps the bag in the trunk, motions James to do the same, then slides into the back seat. He watches Billy and Charles shake hands with James, all of them assessing each other. John expects that at some point they may all take their dicks out to compare. James cracks a smile at something Charles says and John’s breath catches. The smile changes his entire face, turning him from attractive to damn near irresistible. It’s open and bright, his eyes crinkling at the corners, cheeks plumped up. John is instantly jealous that the only reaction he’d been able to elicit was discomfort. All three of them sober when they look back to the car. John just barely refrains from rolling his eyes.

It’s bad enough that Billy and Charles have been giving him cow eyes since the last time he was shot at, now they’re going to include James in on their ‘must protect the asset’ cloak and dagger routine. John appreciates the sentiment, but he’s a grown fucking man and he can take care of himself. He’s probably a better shot than all three of them combined.

The ride to John’s house is made in silence. John watches James openly, sees as his eyes move quickly from one point to another, cataloguing possible ambush points along the way. His careful and measured reconnaissance of their route only reinforces what John has already assumed about James’s past.

“Where did you serve?”

James doesn’t look at him, his attention still focused outside the car, but his tone is careful, “What makes you think I did?”

“The way you stand, the way your eyes haven’t settled on a single thing this entire ride. Those aren’t just instincts. Those are habits born of strict training.”

“Kabul, Fallujah, Kamdesh, short stint in Somalia.”

John lets out a low whistle, not just military then, combat seasoned, and no stranger to killing in the blink of an eye. “What was your specialty?”

“Sniper.”

John feels a shiver slide down his spine, he admits to himself it’s not fear. He says nothing more, just nods as they roll through the center of Harlingen, Texas. Harlingen sits less than half an hour from the Mexican border, in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley, and thirty miles from Mateo Diaz’s major production facility. Getting heroin into the US has never been easier.

John lives just outside of Harlingen, on a five hundred acre plot of land in La Feria. There’s nothing around for miles, and any approaching vehicle can be seen from the rooftop long before they’d even get close.

Once they reach John’s house James puts his hand across John’s chest, keeping him from exiting the car.

“Billy, check the house first.” James’s tone leaves no room for argument and Billy doesn’t even hesitate. John barely contains a snort at Billy’s eagerness to please. Charles keeps the car running until Billy’s back with the all clear; only then does James allow John out of the car.

John doesn’t know whether to be pissed or impressed. He refuses to even acknowledge the slight hum of arousal that had shot through him at James’s commanding tone. John firmly tells his libido that he does not have a secret fantasy about being manhandled by someone who could overpower him without even breaking a sweat. He tells himself that James Flint is off limits in every single way.

Once in the house, John shows James to the room across the hall from his.

“The house isn’t that big, but if you want a tour let me know.” James just nods before beginning his unpacking.

John makes his way to the kitchen, plucking a beer from the fridge before heading to the back patio. The temperature is finally beginning to fall as October is swiftly approaching and John can finally enjoy sitting outside without the need to remove half of his clothes first.

He hears the door behind him slide open. The feeling of James standing silently behind him makes the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

“There’s beer in the fridge and I’d prefer if you sat,” John motions to the other chairs situated on the patio. “Having you stand behind me like some hulking behemoth makes me twitchy.”

James comes around and sits catty-corner to John, back ramrod straight, without saying a word. John pulls a pack of cigarettes out of the side arm of his chair. He doesn’t smoke often, usually only if he’s drinking or it’s been a particularly trying day. The nicotine hits him fast, relaxing him. He holds it in his lungs for a long moment before leaning his head back against the chair and exhaling slowly.

John closes his eyes briefly enjoying the peace and quiet. When he opens them again he keeps them lowered, watching James through tiny slits as he studies the horizon. John catches him when he looks back, his eyes tracking over John’s face, down his neck, across his chest. He jerks his eyes back up quickly when they get to John’s spread thighs.

Clearing his throat, he nods at the cigarette in John’s hand, “That shit’ll kill you.”

John snorts, “I run heroin and cocaine for a living and you’re going to lecture me about cigarettes?”

James chuckles and once again John is caught by the transformation a smile creates on his face. “Point.” James pauses before continuing, “I feel like we got off on the wrong foot this morning.” John pulls another deep inhale from the cigarette. “It’s clear you don’t want me here and I’m sorry for that inconvenience but I was hired to keep you alive, so we need to figure out how to work together. And I’d like to set some ground rules you can accept.”

John cocks an eyebrow, “Ground rules?”

James shifts, eyes cutting away from John briefly, “Names of friends, anyone who might visit, girlfriends.” His eyes come back to John’s, “And I need your assurance that when I tell you to do something, you do it, you don’t hesitate, you don’t ask why.”

John blows out a stream of smoke, “I fuck men, exclusively, and no one in particular currently. As for following your orders, we’ll see.” He stands and waves his empty beer bottle at James, “You want one?”

“I don’t drink on the job.”

“Water? Soda? Tea?”

“Water.”

When John comes back, James’s eyes are scanning the horizon.

“Nothing but desert that way for miles.” James only nods as he takes the bottle of water from John.

“Seals?” John asks as James cracks the seal on the bottle and takes a long sip. John doesn’t bother trying to hide the fact that he’s watching James’s throat work as he swallows.

“Twelve years. Took retirement a year and a half ago.”

“You should be getting a pretty nice pension, what are you doing playing gun for hire.”

“I killed two hundred and seventy two men in my career. Men who, they told me, were corrupt and dangerous to society. Men that would do whatever they could to make sure our way of life was forever altered. I believed what they told me. I did what I was asked. When I decided I’d had enough killing and took my retirement, I was ostracised and ridiculed. Told them all to fuck off, and here I am.”

John has a feeling that’s not the entire story, but he has his own closets filled with secrets and he won’t push.

“Do I have your word?” John doesn’t bother asking what James means. John has never been good at blindly following orders, but he understands James’s need for his acquiescence.

“Yes,” he figures a little white lie won’t hurt either of them.

They sit in companionable silence until John’s ready to go in. He’s not used to having a shadow, and if he runs into James more than once because he’s too caught up in his own thoughts and doubles back in his tracks without warning, he can’t be blamed. Each time James’s hands reach out to steady him, and each time John is startled by the electricity that arcs between them. James doesn’t acknowledge it, but John is convinced he feels it too.

***

James tends to keep his bedroom door open, and John has more than once wandered in with an eye toward trying to figure James out. It’s not that they don’t talk, it's that there’s no substance to what they talk about. John picks up the four books on James’s nightstand, reading the spines.

The Art of War, Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Leaves of Grass. Talk about eclectic. As John thumbs through them he notices notations in the margins. John is so engrossed in reading the notes that James had made in The Art of War that he doesn’t hear James returning from the shower.

“Comfortable?”

John jumps a foot and slams the book closed. When he looks up James is in nothing but a towel, shoulders still dotted with water, arms crossed against his chest as he leans against the door frame. John can’t speak. James is breathtaking, his hair is loose and messy, curling over his ears and John wants to run his fingers through it. He wants to put his mouth all over James’s well-defined pecs, taste his tiny pale nipples. He wants to take a marker to the constellation of freckles all over his arms. He’s so goddamn gorgeous that John can only stare at him blankly for several minutes.

“I’m sorry.” John blurts.

James shrugs, “It’s your house.”

“It’s your room.” John fires back quickly.

John blows out a breath. This is the way it always is. They don’t get anywhere. John wants to know him. He doesn’t understand this driving need within himself to figure James out. He’d never felt this way with Billy or Charles when they’d been hired on, but he finds himself unable to let this go. He’s constantly goading James, trying to get him to talk, sometimes to the point of making James angry, and still he pushes.

James moves further into the room, opening drawers, pulling out clothes. John is helpless to do anything but watch him. He feels so out of sorts with James sometimes.

He feels like he’s back in high school crushing on his Civics III teacher Mr. Muldoon. He’d been a senior, and it had been Mr. Muldoon’s first position after college. Every time they’d been in a room together John’s skin had felt electrified. He’d sought Mr. Muldoon out every chance he got, they’d spend hours together comparing World War II theories.

The night of John’s graduation, Mr. Muldoon had found him in the auditorium afterward. He’d backed John into a dark corner and kissed him. They spent the summer sneaking around, mostly meeting at Mr. Muldoon’s apartment, fucking like they were dying, until John left for Virginia.

He gets the same feelings with James, like his skin is on too tight, but now John knows that the only thing that will satisfy him is James’s body against his. As hard as he tries not to acknowledge it, it’s still there, simmering hotly just under the surface. John isn’t completely sure James feels it, but there are days when he catches James’s eyes on him, they’re hot and hungry and John wants to push him down and have him.

But it’s not all he wants. He wants to know James. He wants to know what drives him, what makes him angry and sad and happy. His eyes zero in on the black and gray tattoo on James’s side. It’s a perfect rendition of the fallen soldier tattoo. It takes up his entire right side, starting just under his armpit and ending right above where the towel sits low on his hips. There are more than half a dozen initials scattered throughout.

“How many did you lose?”

James turns and sees where John is looking. “Too many.”

“And how many do you feel personally responsible for.” John knows before James even opens his mouth what the answer will be.

“All of them.”

James lays his clothes out on the bed and stares at John with his brows raised. John swallows hard, “Right.” He intends to leave without a word, but he can’t help pressing his fingers to the tattoo, “But none of them actually are.” James’s eyes hold his eyes, mouth drawn down. John places a single closed mouth kiss to James’s shoulder before he exits the room, shutting the door softly behind him.

***

Their next few weeks together are uneventful, unless John counts the simmering tension between them. John knows that the kiss to James’s shoulder had crossed a line, but it had only been the tip of the iceberg.

A few days later he’d gotten up in the middle of the night, hungry, thirsty, he doesn’t remember, all he remembers is running into James in the kitchen in nothing but the smallest pair of shorts John had ever seen.

Every line of muscle, every freckle, every delicious inch of pale skin was on full display. The light filtering in from the moon had highlighted all the fine hair covering James’s body. John was mostly asleep and he hadn’t been able to keep his hands to himself as he brushed his fingers through the wiry hair on James’s chest before he’d pressed himself against James and whispered, “Come to bed with me.”

John doesn’t know if he’d imagined James’s sharp intake of breath or the way his hands had lingered on John’s hips when he’d pushed him away gently. All he remembers is the slow way James had backed out of the kitchen and the blank stare he’d given John the next morning.

Now they’re on the Diaz family plane heading for Columbia, and John decides he needs to clear the air. He catches James’s eye and nods to the small secluded office at the back of the plane. Once James closes the door, he forges ahead.

“I wanted to apologize for the other night in the kitchen. I was pretty out of it. I understand that my...lifestyle probably makes you uncomfortable, and I wanted to—”

“It doesn’t. I’m gay.” James speaks in a tone so matter of fact that John is at a loss for several minutes, their eyes locked together until it finally registers.

“So, it’s just me, personally then, that’s objectionable.”

“I didn’t say that.” John just stares at him one eyebrow perfectly arched. James relaxes and blows out a breath. “I’m the hired help. I can’t protect you if my feelings for you are clouding my judgement.”

John feels himself smile. “Who said anything about feelings, I’m talking about sex. You can’t tell me that you don’t feel it.”

James actually laughs and shakes his head ruefully, “I don’t do casual sex. I’m not built for it.”

John lets his eyes run the length of James’s body, “Oh, you’re definitely built for it.”

James actually blushes, “John, stop.”

“Come on, one kiss, just to see.” James shakes his head, a small smile on his face. John closes the distance between them, his body almost flush with James’s. “Tell me you don’t want me and I’ll drop it.”

John sees him swallow, watches his eyes drop to John’s mouth when John’s lips open on a puff of air. John knows he’s got him now he just has to reel him in. John licks his lips and James groans before sealing their mouths together.

It’s electric from the very first touch. John had known it would be good, but he hadn’t been prepared for the full out onslaught of sensation. James is laying siege to his mouth, tongue chasing his before tangling them together. John feels himself moving and soon enough the desk is behind him. James is lifting him, his legs open and James slips between them. James presses him back until he’s half reclined. One hand on the table next to John’s hip, the other pulling John’s legs around his waist. James’s hips press forward grinding into John’s. John’s head falls back on a gasp, “Fuck, yes.”

James goes still, head lifting, eyes trying to clear the fog. He starts to pull back, and John closes his legs around James’s hips, his hands clutching at James’s shirt, “Please.”

James starts to shake his head but John surges up, nips at James’s throat, sucking at the pulse point slightly before running his tongue up to James’s chin. He bites at the prickly hair of James’s beard, one hand slipping around James’s waist to pull him closer. John’s hips press up, rubbing them together and James’s eyes fall closed, a huff of breath ghosts across John’s cheek before James’s mouth is back on his. James’s body moves against him, mouth latching onto his neck, teeth scraping. A breathy moan releases against John’s throat and there it is, James’s acquiescence as he ruts against John.

John wraps his arms and legs around James, pulls him in tighter, James feels so good against him. He rubs his cock against James’s, he’s so fucking hard. He wants to lay himself out for James, let James have every part of him. He reaches for James’s pants and then James is gone. It takes John a second to open his eyes.

James is across the room, back against the wall, chest rising and falling with rapid breaths. His hair is loose, mouth red and swollen, pupils blown wide.

“Why—” And then he hears it. Light tapping on the door. John collapses back onto the table, hands smoothing over his face. “What is it,” he shouts.

“Mateo is on the line.” Billy answers, his voice slightly muffled through the door.

John wants to scream in frustration, instead he answers, “Send it through.” They both hear Billy walk away and before John can say anything more, James is heading for the door. “James, wait.”

James turns back, eyes on the floor, “This can’t happen.” He’s gone before John can say anything to stop him. John slams his fist on the table.

By the time his conversation with Mateo is over, they’re on the ground and James makes sure they’re not alone together the rest of the trip.

***

A week after their encounter on the plane, John is drunk out on the back patio, making more noise than any one person should be capable of, when James slams open the sliding door. James’s body is once again on display, basketball shorts this time. They hang low on his hips and end just above his knees. Too many shots of 1800 give John more courage than brains.

“Did you know that just the thought of you makes me hard. I don’t even have to touch myself.” John sways on his feet as he advances on James. He hears the catch in James’s breath as he gets close enough for them to share body heat. John tilts his head back, eyes locked on James’s lush mouth, “Kiss me.”

“John—” He doesn't let James finish as he pushes up into James’s space and seals their mouths together. James only hesitates a second before his tongue is sliding into John’s mouth. One hand tunnels into John’s hair as his other arm goes around John’s waist. He pulls John close and John shudders at the feel of James’s hard body against his. John presses closer, arms going around James’s neck as he goes up on his toes and rubs his body against James.

He’s hard already, just this is enough to send all his blood rushing south. He wishes he’d had the foresight to leave his own shirt in his bedroom; he wants to feel James’s chest against his, wants to feel James’s coarse hair drag over his nipples. John’s hands glide over James’s shoulders, down to his biceps, rock hard muscle under baby soft skin. James’s arms flex as his hand slides down the back of John’s sweatpants.

John knows the second James’s realizes what’s he’s feeling. Soft, slippery satin instead of cotton. James’s pulls back, eyes wide.

“I like the way they feel,” a shrug colors John’s voice.

James just groans as both of his hands cover John’s ass, squeezing and stroking over the delicate material. It’s driving John mad. The way James hands are caressing his ass is making the material shift over his cock, making him leak. One finger slides between John’s cheeks, he rubs gently over John’s satin covered hole making him pant, “Please, yes, please.”

John’s whole body is shaking with how much he wants it, with how desperate he is to have James. James’s hands grab him and lift. John wraps his arms and legs around him as James carries him through the kitchen, and down the hall to John’s bedroom. He kicks the door closed, dumps John on his bed and follows him down. John opens for him, mouth, arms, legs. James’s cock rubs over his and John hisses, back arching, hands clutching at James’s shoulders. James rolls his hips down, moaning into John’s neck where his face is buried.

James kisses him, it’s filthy and wet, tongues twisting together. James slides down John’s body, pushing his shirt up and John leans up to take it off. His tongue drags over the flat of John’s left nipple and John moans, body jerking at the sensation. He works his way across John’s chest, down his stomach, tongue gliding, teeth nipping until John is quivering, nerves on edge, so desperately aroused he can barely think.

He tucks his fingers into the waistband of John’s sweats and slides them down, his eyes taking in John’s satin covered cock. James licks his lips before running his tongue up the length of him. John moans at the heat of James’s mouth transferring through the light material. James mouths over his cock head, sucking him through the panties before sliding them down to get his mouth around John. John cries out at the tight wet suction surrounding him. His fingers scrabble over James’s head, fingers fisting in the back of James’s hair.

James takes him all the way down, throat clenching around the head, John’s hips push up, James chokes, pulls off for a split second before sliding back down. He bobs his head fast, tongue slick on the underside.

Headlights flash through his window and James goes still. John knows before James even moves what’s going to happen. He tightens his grip on James’s shoulder but it’s no use.

“It’s just Billy and Charles. James, please, please don’t stop.”

James pushes himself up and off of John and he wants to fucking scream. He can clearly see the outline of James’s cock, he can see the damp spot over the head. He knows James wants him, the evidence is right fucking there, but James continues to back away from him. He stops when his back hits the wall. He stares at John, eyes wild, face drawn as his gaze lands on John’s cock where it lays against his stomach. John can’t take it.

He wraps his hand around his cock and strokes. He’s still wet with James’s spit and he uses it to smooth the way. John doesn’t take his eyes off of James as he works himself over. The rhythm is fast and punishing. He rocks his hips into his fist, he’s so close already. He sucks two fingers into his mouth, gets them wet before reaching down and pressing against his hole. He plants his feet on the bed, the angle is awkward but it doesn’t matter, he’s already teetering on the brink of orgasm. He pushes inside himself and the burn of it tips him over the edge. He comes quick and hard over his fist in hot pulses, body spasming, a broken moan of James’s name falling from his lips. His eyes slam shut as his body shakes.

Letting himself cool down before opening his eyes, he expects James to be gone. He’s not. He’s still standing in the exact same place breathing hard. He stalks forward. John doesn’t know what he expects but it’s sure as hell isn’t James’s mouth on his fingers, sucking the come off of them. James’s eyes are hot as they hold his. He licks between the webbing of John’s fingers, takes them all the way down to the last knuckle. His eyes slide closed as he swallows the taste of John.

John reaches out slowly with his other hand, lets his fingers brush against James’s trapped cock. His eyes snap open, hips pushing into John’s touch. John cups him, he’s so hot against John’s palm. James moans when John squeezes him. He rubs over James slowly, feels James get even harder under his hand.

He slowly reaches inside, gets his fingers wrapped around the head. James moans around his fingers, John feels the hum of it all the way up his arm. He’s wet at the tip and John collects it with his fingers, rubs them down the shaft. There’s a crash from the living room and then Charles and Billy’s laughter. It's enough to break the mood. James backs away as John sits up.

“Don’t go.” James just shakes his head. They listen as Billy and Charles move past John’s door and down the hall to their own room. There’s silence for several long minutes and then despite the distance they both hear Billy moan.

John is instantly jealous. He pins James with his eyes but James only shakes his head and leaves as quickly and as silently as possible. John wants to howl at the moon. He pulls a pillow over his head and waits desperately for sleep to come.

***

The next day John hosts a party for Billy’s thirtieth birthday. His house and the grounds are filled with family and friends. Billy's sister Gwen is there and her two small children have taken it upon themselves to try and climb James like Mount Everest. For the longest time he stands stoically, letting them tug and paw at him, until suddenly he raises his hands in the air and roars at them, eyes crossed, body hunched over. They scream and laugh gleefully as James lumbers after them in a pretend game of cat and mouse.

He eventually collapses onto the ground and they pile onto him squealing and patting his face. He gives each of them a ride on his shoulders around the house. He swings them up into the air and their happy laughter carries over the property. John is enthralled; he’s never seen James cut loose. His face has smoothed out and he’s full body laughing, eyes crinkled as he helps the kids team up against the adults with super soakers. He’s so beautiful and John wants him so much he aches with it.

Ultimately James and the kids lose their battle and James is soaked through to the skin. John nearly has a heart attack when James whips his shirt over his head to towel off. He can’t take his eyes off the sight of water running down James’s broad back to catch in the waistband of his jeans. His back is solid muscle, the skin pale and covered in a million freckles. His shoulders are so wide in comparison to how narrow his hips are and John’s mouth goes dry. Arousal pools hot in his belly and his palms itch to reach out and touch. He wants to lick down James’s spine, to suck bruises into his skin.

He’s startled out of his thoughts by Charles’s low whistle, “Damn.”

John just turns on his heel and goes into the house. He plucks a beer from the fridge and leans against the counter, his mind still outside.

James walks blindly into the kitchen toweling off his head and stops short when he sees John. He’s still shirtless and John is still turned on. His eyes roam over James’s bare chest, the sheer size of his pecs making John’s mouth water. He feels his breath catch as he looks at James’s tiny pink nipples. John swallows hard and pushes off the counter and backs James up against the wall, leaving him no escape. John lays his palms flat against James’s stomach, and James’s breath stutters.

He slides his hands up slowly until his thumbs are right over James’s nipples, they're already so hard. John rubs back and forth twice before lowering his head and licking over one. James gasps, hands tunneling into John’s hair. John thinks it's most likely to pull his head away but before James can lever John off of him, John takes the nub he’d been working between his teeth and pulls. James’s body arches on a low moan, his head banging against the wall.

John’s mouth moves up, licking across James’s neck. He tastes like sweat and John moans, body molding to James’s front. James turns them quickly, pressing John against the wall, his mouth covering John’s. It’s nothing but the hot press of tongue against tongue, the wet feel of James’s lips moving, a tug on his lower lip before pressing forward again. John loses himself in the taste of James, in the feel of James’s body pressing against his. John circles his hips and James answers.

James’s mouth devours his, licking under his tongue before sucking it, ghosting over the roof of his mouth, so slick and hot. John rakes his nails down James’s back and James moans into the kiss, body pressing harder against John.

They’re broken apart by a high-pitched peal of laughter from outside. James pulls back and John groans at the vision James makes. He looks like the best sex John has never had; his face is flushed, sweat dotting his forehead, mouth parted, lips slick and swollen. John wants to take him to the floor right now, he doesn’t care who could see, he just wants.

He tries to pull James down the hall but James resists, shaking his head, “We can’t keep doing this.”

James untangles himself and goes to his room. He comes back with a new shirt, eyes averted as he passes John. John has never been a diva but it takes everything he has not to order everyone out of his house. He wants to sulk, instead he downs two beers in quick succession. It’s not the answer but it numbs the pain of rejection.

When John goes outside, James is back to cavorting with the children, this time they’re playing hide and seek. The children win every time, if only because there’s nowhere for James to hide his massive body.

Hours later, James gently carries each of them to the car and buckles them into their seats while Gwen says her goodbyes. She winks at John and tells him James is a keeper. John sighs, he only wishes it were so.

***

James manages to make sure they’re never alone for the next three weeks. John isn’t sure how he does it, but every time he tries to get James on his own, John runs into a wall. He figures if he can just get forty minutes with no interruptions, James would be all his. That all comes to a screeching halt the first time James saves his life.

They’re walking to the car when James’s phone rings. It’s Billy, James puts him on speaker, “ETA on Shirley Temple?” Billy’s tinny voice asks.

John feels his mouth drop open. “You code named me Shirley Temple?” The indignation in his voice doesn’t go unnoticed.

James gives him a short laugh before telling Billy forty-five minutes, to John he says, “Come on, it’s not that bad.”

“It’s not that bad that the three of you equate me to a ten-year-old girl?”

James’s hand on his arm stops him from getting away from James, “That’s not why.”

John crosses his arms over his chest, “Then why?”

James reaches up and takes the end of a curl between his fingers, “When you get out of the pool you have the same beautiful curls she did.” James rubs the strand between his fingers before letting it spring back into place. John is speechless as he follows James to the car. He’s silent the entire way to their meeting.

The meeting is with Dufresne from the Cordova family, the Diaz cartel’s biggest competition. John is trying to broker a ceasefire between them on behalf of Mateo.

James is standing just behind John’s left shoulder when, in the middle of a sentence, Dufresne whips a knife out of his belt and lunges for John. James has Dufresne face down on the pavement, face sandwiched between his forearms, before John even realizes he’s been cut. Dufresne’s men make to move on John and James pushes his knee harder into Dufresne’s back. Yanking his head back, James speaks low and lethal, “Call them off or I’ll snap your fucking neck.” The tone isn’t one that John has ever heard before.

Dufresne’s hand goes up and his men stand down. Billy’s out of the car and at John’s side, hand on the butt of his gun as he takes John’s arm and ushers him back to the vehicle, out of harm's way. John can see James speaking to Dufresne, he can’t hear him, but the way Dufresne’s face blanches tells John that he probably doesn’t want to either.

James finally lets Dufresne up and makes his way to the car. He gets in beside John and immediately pulls John’s shirt over his head. It’s a flesh wound, just a thin slice across his abdomen. James wads up John’s shirt and presses it against the wound.

“Thank you.”

James just shakes his head, refusing to meet John’s eyes. With each mile, the tension in the back of the car grows. Billy keeps checking on them in the rearview mirror, and when they get to the house he wisely stays outside.

James storms through the house in search of the first aid kit slamming doors and drawers along his way. Finally locating it, he comes back to kneel in front of John where he sits on the couch. John doesn’t think the cut warrants all this fuss, but he’s not going to discourage James’s hands on him. James pulls the shirt away from John’s abdomen and inspects the thin line. He prods it a few times before he lathers the cut with antibiotic ointment. His fingers are gentle, the light touch causing goosebumps to pop up on John’s arms. He pulls a roll of gauze and tape from the kit. As he’s smoothing the last piece of tape down, John’s hand covers his. James finally looks at him and John is shocked to see guilt.

“This is a prime example of why we can’t happen. I was a second too slow. My mind wasn’t where it was supposed to be, what if he’d had a gun?” The anguish in James’s voice tears at John.

“James—”

“No.” James cuts him off, gets to his feet and paces away. “Whatever this is, it stops now. Is that clear?”

John has nothing to say and James’s tone leaves no room for negotiation so he just nods silently. James retreats to his room. John goes out to the back deck and lights a cigarette. He calls Mateo to let him know what happened. The meeting had been set up in good faith on their part. John knows the retaliation will be swift, Mateo won’t allow the assault to go unanswered. Word will be passed that Cordova’s assurances are worthless, their promises empty. It’s going to make John’s life harder and put an even bigger target on his back.

***

Two days later the entire Diaz clan are gathered at Mateo’s compound in Mexico hosting Jack Crispin and his entire family, who’ll be in Mexico for a month. The Crispins move heroin out of the states for Mateo.

John spends most of the evening with Conrad, Crispin’s youngest son. He’s easy on the eyes and smarter than the goofy grin on his face indicates. John shows him around the compound, James following behind at a discreet distance. Conrad makes no secret of the fact that he’s attracted to John. He flirts outrageously and John sees no reason not to return the interest; he’s attractive, funny, and built well.

A few hours into the evening, Conrad suggests that they send James to bed and John watches as James’s jaw clenches before uttering, “Not a chance in hell.”

John says nothing, just shoots James a look. He spends the rest of the evening splitting his time between Conrad and the rest of the Crispin family, drinking and dancing. John isn’t imagining the way James watches him as he twirls one of Jack’s younger daughters around the dance floor. She stands on his feet, hands clasped with John’s giggling through three songs before Conrad cuts in. The loud music forces them to lean into one another and Conrad’s hands skate possessively over John’s back and hips. John doesn’t stop him.

Later, Conrad corners him in a secluded alcove. John’s had too much to drink to even fathom saying no to his advances, he just wants to feel wanted, he wants someone to touch him. The kiss is slick and too wet, the mouth on John’s isn’t the right shape but he lets it happen anyway. He lets Conrad touch him, and while the kiss may not be as good as John’s had recently, the hard body pressed against him works just fine to take the edge off. John opens his eyes and he can see James just off in the distance leaning against the building watching them, his face a mask of indifference. To anyone else it would seem as if James is just doing his job, watching John’s back, but John knows better. He sees the flare of James’s nostrils, sees the tick in his jaw, sees his hands curl into fists, eyes hard. John wants to scream at him, if you dislike it so much come here and stop it. Come put your hands on me, he thinks. But James stays where he is, glaring disapprovingly.

John pushes Conrad back, telling him that he’s had too much to drink and he’ll see him in the morning. James follows John to his room, standing just outside as John changes his clothes. His eyes track John’s every movement, and John can’t help but practically put on a show for him. He pulls his shirt over his head slowly, lets it drop to the floor as his eyes meet James’s briefly. He rubs his palm across his collarbone, fingers trailing lightly down his chest. He lets his eyes slip closed. He thinks about James’s hands, how big and sturdy they are, how they had looked against John’s stomach when he’d played nursemaid the other day. He reaches down for the button and zipper on his jeans. He pulls the zip down and he hears James’s sharp intake of breath as John parts the placket of his pants. Today the panties are pale yellow and John knows exactly how they look against his skin. He lets his fingers dip underneath the waistband and before he can even begin pushing them down, the door to his room closes with a slam. He opens his eyes and James is gone. John blows out a frustrated breath. He wants to throw something. Instead he just collapses onto his bed.

***

John wakes up with a gasp; heart racing, vision swimming, breathing labored. He’s losing feeling in his legs and when he tries to call out for James, his voice is nothing more than a creak. Frantically, he tries to pull himself out of bed. Flipping over, his arm slams into the night stand sending the lamp crashing to the floor. James comes bursting into the room seconds later, shirtless and shoeless, nothing but a pair of sweatpants riding low on his hips. John wishes he could appreciate the view but all he can do is claw at his throat. James is by his side immediately, fingers finding his pulse.

“Fuck!” James’s voice is just on the side of terrified but he reins it back in as he picks John up and carries him through the compound shouting Mateo’s name.

Mateo comes rushing from his room. He takes one look at John in James’s arms and starts barking orders. Within a matter of minutes, the entire household is up and moving. James and Mateo make it to the car and he gives his own driver an order. James settles John in the backseat, the car screeching away from the house before the door is even closed. John can hear Mateo on the phone speaking in a rapid-fire Spanish that John can just barely make out.

He’s wheezing, every breath feels like it’s his last one as it burns into his lungs. He tries to stay calm, logically he knows they’re on the way toward help. The only thing that keeps him from outright panic is the feel of James, warm against his side, hand soothing through his hair as he whispers in his ear, “Hold on, we’re almost there. Just hold on, John.”

They pull into a gated compound almost as big as Mateo’s. The five-acre plot of land is home to a private mini hospital of a personal physician who serves only the most elite clientele. John feels the rush of relief through his body as they pull up the drive. James is out the door following Mateo before the car is even fully stopped, John cradled in his arms, head resting limply against his chest. James lays him down where the doctor directs him and then James is being led from the room, John’s hand reaching for him. The last thing John sees before he passes out is James’s worried face.

***

John comes to slowly, blinking at the darkened room. Disoriented, he starts pushing at the tube in his throat, panic setting in as his heart rate ticks up until James’s face appears above him.

“Hey, John, hey, settle down, it’s alright. It’s just the ventilator, they’ll take out now that you’re awake, but you have to calm down.”

John’s hand searches for his and James takes it in a firm grip. John lets the machine breathe for him as he settles back into the bed. A small woman comes in and shuts off the alarm on the machine. She smiles at John, “Stay calm, Dr. Howell will be here soon.”

As soon as she leaves John turns his eyes to James.

“Poison. Fortunately for you, whoever tried was inept. According to the doctor, the dosage wasn’t enough to completely paralyze your nerves, the way they’d probably hoped.”

James doesn’t get a chance to say more. The door opens and the doctor sweeps in. He nods shortly to James before he walks to John’s bed and disconnects the ventilator before carefully pulling the tube from John’s throat. James is ready with a cup of water when John starts coughing.

Mateo comes in shortly after the doctor leaves and begins fussing over John. James barely manages to hold his smile at bay as he watches over Mateo’s shoulder. He shakes James’s hand, thanks him. James tries to demur but Mateo isn’t having it. He asks James to take a walk with him. James looks back to John and hesitates.

“I’ve put Charles at the door, no one will enter while we are gone.” John nods and is already half asleep again as the two men walk out of the room.

They’re gone nearly an hour and when James comes back he’s cagey and monosyllabic. John tries to ask him what Mateo wanted but James remains tight-lipped.

“James, either you tell me or I’ll ask him.”

“He wanted to know if we were fucking. And if we were, what my intentions were toward you.”

“Jesus Christ.” John rubs a hand over his face. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, it wasn’t anything you’ve done that stoked his suspicion.”

John feels his brows draw down, “Then what?”

James turns away to look out the window. “My reaction to learning you’d been poisoned may have been...slightly inappropriate.”

“Slightly inappropriate how?” John feels the corner of his mouth start to twitch.

“I may have threatened to find out who had done this, and I may have indicated that I’d gladly rip their spine from their body.”

“How incredibly romantic.”

“Stop, John. For fucks sake, this isn't a joke. Someone, more than likely many someones, are actively trying to kill you and it’s up to me to keep that from happening. From here on out, you’re not to be alone with anyone.”

John doesn’t bother trying to argue. He doesn’t have the energy and knows he’d just lose anyway. He nods and closes his eyes pretending to sleep.

John is cleared to leave the facility several hours later and once he’s back at the compound he’s greeted by a welcoming Conrad. John takes one look at James and puts Conrad off, saying he’ll see him later. James settles him in bed and takes up a post just inside the door of John’s bedroom.

“Is this really necessary?”

“Until we find out who it was, yes.”

John just sighs. He drifts in and out of consciousness for hours, body and mind still tired.

When John wakes slowly, he blinks his eyes open to a darkened room. James is sitting in a chair by the window engrossed in a hardcover book with no sleeve, the late afternoon light filtering in is glancing off his eyelashes, making him look ethereal. John watches him silently until his stomach growls loudly. James looks over, a small smile on his face.

“How do you feel?” James snaps his book closed.

“Better. Hungry, apparently.”

James stands and stretches his back. John goes to stand and sways on his feet losing his balance. James is there in an instant, hands steadying him. John leans into James, lets his forehead drop to James’s shoulder. James’s arms come around him and John feels James bury his face in John’s hair and breathe deep.

“Twelve years of active combat and I’ve never been as terrified in my life as I was watching you gasp for breath.” The words sound as if they’re ripped from the very marrow of James’s bones.

John wraps his arms around James’s waist and holds on. He turns his head and presses his lips to the side of James’s neck. James shivers against him, squeezes John hard once and then steps back.

John tries to reach for him.

“The answer is still no. I can’t, I won’t, risk it.”

John presses his lips into a thin line and walks out the door.

When they get to dinner everyone is up and greeting John, asking after him. He takes a seat next to Conrad and spends the rest of the evening practically being waited on. They manage to give James the slip at the end of the evening and end up back in John’s room. Conrad is frantic, kissing John sloppily before pushing John back on his bed and getting to his knees.

John is splayed across the bed, Conrad on his knees, John’s cock in his mouth, when James busts through the door. James pulls the blond off John and tosses him out of the room, “Get out.”

John sits up, pulling his pants up before standing, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Until we figure out who tried to poison you, you’re not to be alone with anyone. How many times do I have to tell you this? Stop acting like a petulant child.” James’s face is red, eyes boring into John.

“You’re a fucking prick you know that? You don’t want me, but no one else can have me either, is that it?” John spits at him.

James goes still, shoulders going back as he advances on John. His hand goes behind John’s head, fingers curling to cradle John’s skull. He leans in, mouth hovering over John’s.

“I never said I didn’t want you, I said I couldn’t have you. Learn the fucking difference.”

James covers John’s mouth with his. The kiss is an assault; it’s hot and wet, all nipping teeth and invading tongue. By the time James pulls back John is panting, his body flushed. James releases him just as quickly as he reeled him in.

“I’ll send someone to fix the door.” James says over his shoulder as he exits the room.

John can’t do anything but collapse into the chair in the corner of his room. Knowing that James wants him, but won’t have him is no consolation.

***

Since the incident with Conrad, James isn’t letting John far from his sight, going so far as to keeping John in his room most of the time and posting Billy as a guard when James isn’t there. The second fight they’d had yesterday had everyone in the compound steering clear of them. John had screamed at James, telling him he didn’t need to be treated like a child. And James had screamed back that when he stopped acting like one James would stop treating him as one.

After three days of James sitting in his room, practically holding John hostage, John is ready to climb the walls. “I have to get out of this room, James. I need some fucking air.”

“What would you like to do?” John smiles at him lasciviously and James just rolls his eyes, John sighs.

“Mateo has four wheelers. We could take them out.”

James agrees and they head toward the barns at the back of the property. John sees Conrad across the yard and Conrad instantly turns away. John can’t blame him really. He can’t imagine being tossed around by James was all that pleasant, at least not in that instance. John can think of a number of instances in which it would be entirely pleasant.

They ride for half an hour before John comes to a stop. They’re surrounded by desert, nothing for miles, and while most people would think it desolate, John finds it beautiful.

“Mateo thinks he’s got a pretty good line on who tried to poison you. I know you hate this and I am sorry but I have to keep you safe.”

John sighs, “I know it’s your job, James.” He turns to James, “I’m sorry about yesterday.”

James opens his mouth and then pauses, “I’m sorry too.”

John has a feeling those weren’t the words that James had originally intended but he’ll take them. By the time they take the ATV’s back to the compound they’re both relaxed and smiling. That night before James leaves, he takes John by the elbow and draws him in. The room is dark, the only light a small reading lamp in the corner, and James’s eyes glitter as they trace John’s face.

He tucks a wayward curl behind John’s ear saying, “You’re more than just a job, John.” He places a soft kiss on John’s cheek and then turns to go.

John is too stunned to move or even speak, he can only watch James close the door behind him.

***

The next afternoon Mateo announces that he knows who was behind the poisoning, life can go back to business as usual. John knows this means that Mateo has taken the necessary steps for retaliation. Before John and James collect Billy and Charles to head back to Texas, Mateo asks to see James privately.

When James exits Mateo’s office his face is beet red and he once again won’t meet John’s eyes.

In the car John demands to know, “What this time? Does he want you to ask for my hand in marriage?”

James’s eyes cut to the front of the car before leaning over, he turns his head to speak directly into John’s ear. “No. He thinks I should fuck you unconscious, he seems to think my cock will make you behave, and then he proceeded to ask me if I knew about rimming.”

John chokes, breath stopping for a beat before restarting. James goes back to his own seat and John is left speechless.

“He cares for you. For your safety, your happiness.”

“And apparently my sex life. What else?” James hesitates, “Just tell me.”

“He said we remind him of himself and Carina. He thinks we’d be good together.”

John keeps his eyes forward, swallows once and asks, “And you? What do you think?”

“I think he’s not wrong, and I think it doesn’t matter because it’s not going to happen. I can’t be objective if I’m involved with you.”

“Right.” John just turns to stare out the window.

The rest of the ride home is silent. John tamps down the rage that boils within him.

The unfairness of the entire situation eats at him day and night. It’s enough that he finally leaves James alone. No more kitchen visits, no more drunken fumbling. They both stick strictly to business and John tries to convince himself they’re both better for it.

***

It’s a Saturday night, John has given Billy and Charles the night off. It’s been raining for hours and the roads are muddy, barely passable, and the humidity outside is stifling, so John had suggested Mario Kart.

“You’re cheating!” James practically shouts as John’s car speeds around a curve and glides across the finish line.

“I’m not cheating. I won fair and square. I’m just a better driver.”

“The fuck you are.” James tosses his controller onto the couch and stares John down. “Admit it, you cheated.”

John can’t help but laugh at him. He looks so indignant that John is endeared by the way James crosses his arms over his chest. “Rematch?” John offers.

James takes his controller in hand again and gives John a look. Half way through John zooms ahead and James huffs, “Stop cheating.”

John laughs again, “I swear I’m not.”

James drops his controller and reaches over for John’s. John stretches, holding it out of reach. He hops up from the couch and makes a run for the kitchen, James hot on his heels. They race through the house, John just a few steps ahead until they’re back in the living room.

John bends backward, trying to keep the controller out of James’s reach, he starts to tip and in his fight to stay upright he grabs at James’s shirt, effectively pulling him down too. They topple onto the couch, laughing and shouting where James continues to try and wrangle the controller out of John’s hand.

James surges upward, his hips cradled between John’s legs. John’s shorts ride up and the rough denim of James’s jeans scratches against the sensitive skin of John's inner thighs. John freezes, suddenly all too aware of how they’re lying, arousal zips through him. His laughter dies in his throat and his eyes meet James’s. It only takes seconds for James to realize what position they’re in and his eyes go hot.

James’s right hand trails along the outside of John’s left thigh, fingers so light it’s almost ticklish. It's the first time James has touched him since they’d come back from Mateo’s compound. They’d both kept their distance, knowing it was the right thing to do. James wasn’t going to give in and John could only handle so much rejection.

When he gets to John’s knee he flattens his palm, and slide his hand back up just as slowly. When the tips of his fingers reach the bottom of John’s shorts, he keeps going, slides up underneath, pushes under the panties John’s wearing and then he’s tracing John’s hip bone with his thumb, a maddening back and forth that makes John want to scream.

“What color today?” James’s voice is whisper soft.

“Pale green.” The pair he has on today are fairly new, John had bought them because they’d reminded John of the way James’s eyes lighten up in bright sunlight.

James shifts, hips grinding down and John can feel him, he’s already hard and John’s body reacts instinctively, pushing up, right leg falling off the couch to open himself more, his back arches, eyes fluttering closed as he rubs against James.

James gasps, hand sliding around John’s hip, his palm flat against John’s satin covered ass, fingers squeezing. John can’t help the moan, “Please.”

James’s mouth sucks at his throat, teeth digging in as his hips fuck down, John meets him thrust for thrust. The heat builds between them, hot breath, damp skin. John shoves his hands up the back of James’s shirt, feels the muscles move under his fingers. One hand moves down to clutch at James’s ass, to pull him closer. James moans, rears up, eyes meeting John’s as they rub against each other. Even through all their clothes it feels like the best thing John’s ever had. He threads his fingers into James’s hair, pulls him down into a wet, sucking kiss, tongues sliding together as they twist over one another.

They continue to rut against each other, faster with every passing second, sending them both higher and just when John thinks they’re finally on the same page, that this is finally going to happen, James’s phone rings and he stops short, pulls back, eyes wide. John reaches for him and James just keeps backing away. He picks his phone up off the table and leaves the room.

John is left teetering on the edge of orgasm, gasping for breath. He shoves his shorts down and it only takes three strokes. He comes over his fist completely unsatisfied.

***

John jerks awake. He’s not entirely sure why until he hears James cry out. John is up and across the hall in five seconds flat. When he opens the door, James is lying on his back, body jerking and arms swinging, face distorted. James shouts out No, so much anguish in his voice that it spurs John into action.

He climbs onto the bed and lies down beside him. He smoothes his hand across James’s chest, his hand sliding in a light layer of sweat as he whispers to James. “It’s alright, James, shhhh, it’s okay.”

James comes awake with a gasp, his hand coming up, fingers wrapping around John’s wrist where it rests against his stomach, eyes unfocused, breathing heavily. His fingers continue to tighten until John says his name again. James’s head whips around and he stares right through John for several seconds before recognition starts to creep in. James lets his wrist go like he’d been burned as he falls back to the bed, hands scrubbing over his face.

“Fuck, I’m sorry. Did I wake you?”

“I was already awake,” John lies, “I heard you cry out.”

“I’m sorry.”

John props his head on his hand, “Why?”

“For making you feel like you needed to play nursemaid.”

“James, come on. If the roles were reversed would you have felt like you had to do anything?” James doesn’t answer but John sees him shake his head, “Sometimes it helps to talk about it.” John says tentatively.

John waits but James remains silent. The silence lasts long enough that John figures James isn’t going to tell him, so he shifts, makes to get up but James’s voice stays him.

“I told you I retired, I never told you why.”

John settles down again as James takes a deep breath.

“I had a sister, a niece, the only family I had left. Our parents died when we were in our twenties, they’d been on vacation, on their way home, a drunk driver going the wrong way on the interstate hit them head on at sixty. They both died instantly. The only comfort we had was that it had been quick and they’d gone together. Our parents were the typical high school sweethearts, married right after graduation. Dad joined the Air Force, they’d had a perfect life. When they died it left just Eleanor and I.”

James shifts, sits up with a pillow behind his back, sheet draped across his lap.

“I was already in the service by then, Eleanor was just about to graduate college. It was devastating for both of us, but it served to strengthen our relationship. We’d always been close, but after mom and dad died, we never went more than a day without speaking unless I was deployed and couldn’t get to a sat phone.”

Even in the dark of the room, John sees James’s eyes go distant as he stares blankly at the wall across from them lost in memories of another time.

“I was in Afghanistan. I’d decided that tour was going to be my last. I was going to retire, all I needed to do was to start the paperwork and once I got back they’d start the process. I was excited to tell her. I was ready to settle down near her, help raise her daughter, Jenna. I called her on a Wednesday to let her know. She was frantic, she told me she’d gotten a picture in the mail of Jenna with a bullseye on her face.”

John blanches, “Jesus.”

“She’d taken it straight to the cops. There had been a single fingerprint. It had come back to a known terrorist. A member of the group my team was currently tracking. I knew instantly it was a message to me. I’d already taken out three of their top operatives, and we were close to another.”

John knows with absolute certainty where this story is going and he doesn’t know if he’s ready to hear it.

“After our call, I immediately went to my CO. I told him what was happening. He seemed to think it was a coincidence. I begged for a protection detail for them, I asked for leave. When he continued to refuse I used what influence I had and took it up the chain. I was met with resistance at every turn. When the guys in my unit found out, they gave up their own weekly calls to me so that I could check in with Eleanor every day. She continued to get photographs proving they were being watched. No more fingerprints were found, but there was no doubt it was the same person. She was terrified, I could hear it in her voice every time we spoke.”

John sits up cross legged and faces James. He takes James’s hand in his and James doesn’t resist. His eyes are fixed on a point across the room.

“She started keeping Jenna inside. She’d told the school Jenna was no longer allowed to go out to recess. Jenna didn’t understand, she was just a kid. One week I couldn’t get her on the phone. I tried for hours. Same thing the next day. On the third day I was pulled out, sent back to our base camp where I was greeted by they General and the Chaplain. They didn’t need to say it, in my heart I already knew.”

John grits his teeth together until they hurt to keep from making a sound, he tightens his fingers on James’s hand.

“A single round took them both. Jenna had run outside one morning, tired of being confined. Eleanor had run after her, she’d picked her up and was on her way back in when a single round entered Jenna’s right temple, exited the left and lodged in Eleanor’s heart. They both died instantly.”

James’s head drops and John wants to reach out to him. He can see the wet slide of tears down his face as they drop off his chin onto his chest. He takes a huge gasping breath and John gets to his knees, shuffles forward and pulls James into him. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

James’s body shakes against him as he cries silently, the only sound his harsh breathing. Once he quiets, he sits back, rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands. He finally looks at John. “Later they found evidence of a sniper set up on the roof of an abandoned house. I told them I wanted out. They said take some time to think about it. I told them either they figured out how to get me out immediately, or I’d eat a bullet.”

John tries not to make a sound, tries as hard as he can to keep his inner turmoil buried. The thought of never having met James, never have gotten to know him, rips John to shreds.

“They sent me home. I sat through countless meetings with my superiors where they railed at me, they berated me, they told me how disappointed they were. To which I answered that the blood was on their hands, that I’d begged for protection and they’d denied it, told me they were empty threats. When they threatened a dishonorable discharge, I made my own threats. I told them I’d go public with the entire story about how they’d swept a direct threat to a US citizen under the rug for the sake of keeping me in line. I was allowed to retire, honorably.”

John doesn’t know what to say. He knows saying I’m sorry is no comfort. John pulls James down to the bed. He lies on his side with James facing him, slowly he wraps himself around James.

“John—”

John cuts him off, “Just this, nothing more, I promise.”

John feels James relax into him, as his hands stroke through James’s hair and down his back. Eventually he feels James’s body begin to get heavy, his breath evening out, the soft puffs sending a random shiver down John’s back. By the time John gently disentangles himself, he’s already addicted to the slow, deep breaths James takes in his sleep. He’s addicted to the way their bodies fit together and the way James feels in his arms. With a sigh he climbs into his own bed and realizes just how empty it really is.

***

John wakes up with a sore throat and a clogged nose. When he tries to sit up he gets dizzy and nauseous so he just lies back down and closes his eyes. He fucking hates being sick. He sniffles and tries to breath to no avail. Of all the weeks he doesn’t have time to be sick, this is it.

He gives himself five minutes to rest and then he carefully, and very slowly, levers himself upright. He waits for his stomach to settle and then he stands up just as slowly. He makes his way down the hall, shoulder scraping along the wall because he barely has enough energy to hold himself up. He gets to the kitchen where James is making coffee and shuffles to one of the stools at the bar. James turns around with a smile that immediately drops from his face.

Coming to John’s side he sets his wrist against John’s head. “Jesus, you’re burning up. Come on, back to bed with you.”

John doesn’t even protest, he just lets himself be lifted and then carried back to bed. He settles John and pulls the covers up before hollering for Billy. When Billy gets to the doorway James says, “I need you run into town, pick a few things up for me. I’ll text you a list.”

Billy takes one look at John and just nods. James sits on the side of his bed and strokes John’s hair, “Go back to sleep alright?”

John can only nod, sleep sounds fantastic to him. He slides back into unconsciousness with the feel of James’s fingers in his hair.

When he wakes up again his throat is scratchy and his eyes feel like they’re glued together. He finally manages to pry them open, the room is dark and John can see James sitting by the window, book in hand. He tries to speak but all that comes out is a wheeze of breath. James is by his side instantly, glass of orange juice and two pills in his palm.

John washes the pills down with small sips.

“How do you feel?”

He has to swallow twice before he can get the words out, “Like I’ve been run over and dragged.”

James smiles at him as he sweeps John’s hair back from his forehead. “The pills will help with that. I have broth when you think you’re ready to eat something. What you need most is sleep.”

“I have a meeting tomorrow.”

“Not anymore you don’t. I’ve called Mateo, he said to keep you in bed by any means necessary.” James’s cheeks color and John has an idea that perhaps the request was a bit more graphic. Normally he’d give James shit for it, but right now, he can barely manage a smile.

“What are you reading?”

To Kill A Mockingbird.” James gets up and crosses the room, he pulls the chair back with him and sits next to John’s bed. He opens the book and begins to read.

Then she burst into real tears. Her shoulders shook with angry sobs. She was as good as her word. She answered no more questions, even when Mr. Gilmer tried to get her back on the track.

John is lulled back to sleep by the ebb and flow of James’s words. His voice is low, soothing, and deep and John thinks, not for the first time, that he may never get over James once this is all said and done.

The third time he wakes he feels less like death has come for him. His throat is still mildly sore and his nose is still clogged but the weight that had felt like it was holding him down is gone. He stretches his back and groans. His stomach growls and he thinks that’s probably a pretty good sign.

He manages to get up, only a little lingering dizziness. He follows a delicious scent to the kitchen where he finds James elbows deep in a huge stock pot that John has never seen before. John looks around and sees a veritable farmer's market scattered over the countertops. John can’t help but let his face rest in his palms as he admires the width of James’s shoulders. His sigh brings attention to him and James turns.

“How do you feel.”

“Better, thank you. What’s all this?”

“Homemade chicken noodle. My mom’s recipe. It was the first thing she taught us how to make.” James busies himself dishing a bowl out for John. He sets it front of him with a spoon. John doesn’t hesitate.

His taste buds are still dulled but he can just make out the thyme. The broth is smooth as it slides down his throat and the chicken is tender and flavorful, the vegetables still holding just a hint of their crispness. It’s gone before John realizes it.

“Maybe I should hire you as a cook. I never learned.”

“You mother didn’t teach you?”

“I didn’t have a mother. She, at least we assume it was her, left me at a fire station when I was three days old. Ended up in foster care, bounced from one place to another until I aged out.”

James’s face freezes and John smiles at him, shakes his head once, “The social workers were baffled as to why no one wanted to adopt me. I was a cute kid.”

James smiles back and tugs on one of John’s curls, “I bet you were. Was it awful?”

“Not really. I wasn’t a troublemaker, I was pretty easy going. Mostly I studied. I wanted a better life for myself. Most of my foster parents tried the best they could, but generally they had a hard time providing even with the stipend from the state. It didn’t help that I was quiet and a loner. I went to six different high schools.”

“Jesus,” James looks shocked. John just shrugs.

“By then I’d already been in twelve grade schools. Moving wasn’t a big deal to me any longer. Most of the time I never even unpacked.” John can see the sympathy forming on James’s face but it’s not something he wants or needs, “Don’t look at me like that. I had it better than a lot of kids. I always had four walls and a meal. I was never beaten or abused. I had a fairly decent life and then, because I was orphan, I was able to go to school for free. It could have been worse.”

James agrees as he dishes John more soup. It takes John three more days to make a full recovery. Three days of James reading him to sleep. Three days of James feeding him. Three days of James hovering and making John twitchy because James won’t give him the one thing they both want.

***

Two months go by in the blink of an eye. There are no further attempts on John’s life but Mateo is unconvinced that the threat is gone completely, so James stays.

John sets a meet with a Columbian buyer, close to the border, in an industrial park just off the interstate. It’s just John and James this time, John had given Billy and Charles the day off for Charles’s birthday.

They pull up and James stops him from getting out of the car, “You remember the promise you made me? If I tell you to do something you do it?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I don’t like the feel of this place. Stay behind me.”

They’re not in the building three minutes before shots ring out. James tackles him to the ground, they roll three feet and end up behind stacks of pallets, bullets hitting the ground around them. James’s body is pressing him to the pavement, both breathing heavy, hearts thundering.

“On my word, you’re going to get up and run to that door, stay as low as possible, I’ll cover you.” James points to the receiving doors just off to the left.

John starts to shake his head. He’s not going without James. “We go together.”

“Do as I say,” James’s eyes bore into him.

“You’re fucking insane, you don’t know how many there are, give me your extra gun. I’m a pretty good shot.” John pushes against James’s shoulder.

“Absolutely not.” He fights off John’s hands, “You’re going to get in the fucking car and go.”

“James, give me your extra gun,” John hisses at him.

James’s hand comes up to take John’s face by the jaw, eyes intense, “Do you remember the promise you made me, fucking keep it or I’ll knock you unconscious right now.”

“I’ll wait at the car, I’m not leaving without you.”

“Goddamnit, John! Just fucking do as I say.” James practically roars at him.

John stops fighting against him and holds his hands up. James levers himself from John, crouching and instructing John to do the same. Once they’re both on their feet, James looks to John once more, “Ready?”

John nods, heart pounding in his chest.

“GO!” James shouts and pops to his feet, gun ready. He gets off three rounds in the direction that the last bullets had come from as John runs, bent in half, for the door James had indicated.

As soon as he’s outside, he stops to catch his breath. The gunfire inside goes quiet for several beats before starting again. John runs for the Audi. He slides behind the wheel, starts the car and gets the fuck out of dodge. He’s calling Billy before he’s even away from the warehouse. He apologizes profusely for ruining their day off but he has an emergency. He meets Charles and Billy halfway to the house and they follow John back to the warehouse. He’s calling James the entire way but it only goes to voicemail. By the time the three of them make it back, the warehouse is silent. They creep inside and John has to hold in the gasp. There’s blood all over the floor.

They search both floors for James but they don’t find him or the men who’d been shooting at him. They do find a trail of blood leading to a dock door where John assumes a vehicle sat in wait. The way the trail is smeared across the floor makes it clear someone was being dragged. They search the surrounding warehouses but don’t find any trace of James.

Billy eventually forces John into the car and takes him home, despite John’s very vocal protests that they have to keep looking. He’s dialing James every second of the ride, hands shaking as the adrenaline starts to wear off. Billy wraps an arm around him and John does his best to keep himself together until they drop him off. He tells them to go looking for James.

Once inside he tries calling James again; no answer, straight to voicemail. He spends the next hour pacing the living room, phone gripped tightly in his fist, calling James every five minutes. He’s cursing himself for leaving in the first place. When two hours go by, John gets out the scotch. He drinks until his eyes are heavy, dozing on the couch, dreams making his body jerk. The slamming door startles him awake. He gets to his feet, reaching across his body, forgetting his holster is in his bedroom.

James comes striding through the door, face dirty, blood at his temple, shirt ripped at his bicep, fury written in every line of his face.

“We had a deal, John. You do what I say when I say it without hesitation, without question. Do you remember that?” He comes to a stop inches from John, face hard, eyes wild.

“Shut the fuck up, James. Just shut up.” John smashes their mouths together, no finesse, no tenderness just the primal need to feel James alive under his hands.

James only hesitates a second before returning the kiss, tongue invading John’s mouth, taking him over. He sucks John’s tongue, licks over his teeth, pulls at his bottom lip. The kiss is feral, so much unfulfilled want between them.

John’s hands start working the buttons of James’s shirt, his impatience sending several of the bottom buttons flying. He gets it off and down James’s arms. John’s hands run across James’s chest, over his shoulders down his arms until he feels stickiness under his fingers. He pulls back with a gasp, eyes going to James’s left bicep.

“It’s a graze, it’s fine.” James pulls his mouth back and John sinks into another desperate kiss. He pours everything, his worry, his fear, from the past hours into the kiss.

James lowers him to the couch, his body covering John’s. John spreads his thighs and lets James settle between them. He moans at the feel of the hard length of James’s body against his. His fingers clutch at James’s shoulders, pulling him down. James gets one hand under John’s head, the other under his ass as James’s body rolls down, their cocks sliding together through layers of clothing, they’re both already so hard. The hand under his ass moves to his hip, his thigh, James lifts his leg, ruts against John, wraps John’s legs over his hip and fucks down against him.

John hisses out a breath, fire spreading through him. He gets a hand between them, works both of their pants open and down the best he can, until their cocks are sliding against each other. James suddenly pulls back, eyes wide, as if just now realizing what’s happening.

“Don’t you dare fucking stop,” John demands just before pulling James into another rough kiss. James moans into his mouth, teeth catching John’s upper lip in a sharp bite. James’s hand squeezes between them, gets both of their cocks in his fist and strokes. James pulls back, spits into his hand and goes back. It’s barely enough; it’s still rough and dry and the best thing John’s felt in years. James works them fast and hard, just this side of painful but the sting of it only heightens the pleasure.

Soon enough they’re both leaking, the slide becoming slicker, easier. John thrusts up into James’s fist, bottom lip caught between his teeth. James’s breath is ghosting across his neck, eyes trained downward watching his fist as it flies over them both. John can’t stop the high-pitched cries or the way his body starts to vibrate the closer he gets, his hips thrust up frantically into the circle of James’s fingers. James drops his own cock in favor of concentrating on John.

“Yeah, come on, that’s it, take it, take what you need.” James’s voice is raw, gritty. John plants his feet, shoves up faster into the slick channel of James’s fist. James's fingers tighten around the head and John’s body goes rigid, breath stuttering to a stop. James bends down, wraps his mouth around the head of John’s cock and sucks.

John can’t move, body locked up tight with the most intense pleasure he’s ever felt as James swallows him down. John’s fingers grip James’s head as John fucks shallowly into his mouth, coming in thick pulses down James’s throat.

When James pulls off he sits up quickly, hand already on his own cock.

John props himself up, one arm behind him, the other reaching for James. “Let me.”

James just shakes his head, “Won’t last.” Three strokes later and James’s head goes back on a low moan, flush lighting his cheeks and chest, sides heaving as he comes over John’s spent cock.

Before John can speak James is up, buttoning his pants, and collecting his shirt, “That can never happen again.” James won’t look at him as he turns and walks out of the room. John throws his empty scotch glass at James’s retreating back.

***

A week later John wakes in the middle of the night to the signal he’s spent six years anticipating. Two weeks ago, he’d put together a go-bag for James; the extra keys to the Audi, cash, food, and water. He grabs it from his closet and crosses the hall to James’s room.

He shakes James awake, and James is immediately on alert, sitting up in bed, reaching for his gun.

“You need to get out, into the desert.” John puts the bag on the end of the bed, “There’s food, water, and cash in here. Come back in a few days and take the car.” James just stares at him. “James, you have to go, there’s a raid coming. They’ll be here any minute and you have to get out of here.”

James hops out of bed, face still confused but instinctively reacting to the urgency in John’s voice. He’s pulling on a pair of jeans as he says, “They’ll impound the car, it won’t be here when I come back.”

“Not right away, they don’t care about the car.”

“How do you know?” James pauses in pulling a shirt over his head. John sees the suspicion and knows James is starting to put things together.

“I just do. Fucking Christ, James. Hurry, please.”

“Come with me.” James pleads as he ties the laces on his boots.

“I can’t.” John kisses him fiercely, “Please, if you feel anything for me at all, just go.”

James grabs a jacket and the bag and John follows him to the back patio. They share one last desperate kiss and then John is watching James sprint out into the desert.

It's the last time John Prata sees him. The ATF, the DEA and the FBI execute twelve simultaneous raids on the Diaz cartel. No one escapes and several of Mateo’s personal guards lose their lives. John Prata ends up in federal prison, along with everyone else. Three weeks later he loses a knife fight with another inmate. He’s pronounced DOA at the hospital.

***

John Silver goes back to Quantico, his personnel file several commendations thicker. John only gives up James’s name to his superior with the caveat that he will be officially listed as dead by the United State Government. John makes sure the rumor gets to the right ears.

For the next three weeks, John looks for James in Texas, trying to pick up his trail. He spends his spare time reading James’s entire file, including the parts that don’t technically exist. Eventually he resorts to running James through facial recognition every night after everyone else has left. John tells himself that he just wants to make sure James made it out safely, that he’s still alive.

It takes three months, but John eventually finds him working for the royal family in Belgium. He spends his days as part of the guard watching over the Monarchy’s four children. John can’t stop staring at him; he’s traded his khakis and t-shirts for suits and ties, he’s clean shaven, and his hair is a bit longer. John still thinks he’s stunning.

He spends another month covertly surveilling James’s every move just to catch glimpses of him. He tells himself he can rest easy knowing that James is out of harm’s way. Even if Mateo hadn’t believed the rumors of James’s death, there would be no way for him to find James in Brussels without being tipped off. And John knows full well, Mateo never had contacts in Belgium.

John spends most of his days driving a desk, he can’t go back in the field since he’s dead as far as most people are concerned. Day in and day out he runs other people’s investigations from the inside and refines his case files on Diaz. As hard as he tries, he can’t keep James off his mind. He feels like he owes James an apology, an explanation at least. James certainly deserves to know John had him declared dead.

He tells his deputy director he wants a month’s leave. No one says a word and John packs three suitcases and his fake passport. He spends the ten-hour flight trying to sleep and failing spectacularly. When he lands in Brussels, John’s nerves are on edge. He checks into his hotel and goes over the schedule he’d put together based on the surveillance he’d collected. He knows where James will be almost every second of every day. He knows where he lives, he knows where he eats, he knows where he shops. John spends the first few days tailing James, verifying that his information is correct.

On the third day John waits in the restaurant James has dinner at every Thursday. He stays out of sight, waiting, until James is seated. Once the waiter leaves with his drink order, John slides into the chair opposite him. James looks up, startled, and makes to run.

“James, wait, James. I’m FBI.” John just blurts it out, not caring about the stares around him.

James stops and stays in his seat, mouth drawn down, “And you think that makes it better? So you’ll arrest me instead of kill me.”

“No, that’s not why I’m here. Just let me explain, please.” James relaxes back into his chair and motions for John to continue. The waiter appears with another wine glass and sets it for John. “James Flint is dead. After the raid, if Mateo had thought you’d gotten away, you’d be a loose end. I made sure everyone thought you were one of the casualties.”

“How was my funeral?” James’s tone is cold.

“Quiet, but ceremonial. You didn’t have any family there so I managed to commandeer the flag after the fact. I also managed to rescue all your things from the house. Everyone believes you’re dead, including Mateo, and that’s all that matters. You can’t come back to the US, at least not under your given name. I could get you documents if you’d like.”

“There’s nothing there for me. As you well know, I have no family left.”

“There are some things left.” John tries to catch James’s eyes but he just shakes his head and looks over John’s shoulder.

“How long were you undercover?”

“Since I graduated Quantico seven years ago. I spent the first three of those years in Mexico fighting my way up from a street hustler into Mateo’s inner fold. Those days I’d ride out to the desert without you, I was making drops for my superiors.”

“Why are you here?”

John looks away briefly before taking a long drink. “I wanted you to have the truth. I needed to tell you about your death. I wanted to see you again.”

“Why?”

“Why do you think, James.”

“You came all the way to Brussels for a fuck?”

John’s head snaps back like he’s been slapped. “It was always more than that and you know it.”

“Was it? I don’t remember.” James tips his glass back, emptying it and then motions to the waiter. “We won’t be staying.”

James pulls a small wad of bills from his pocket and hands it to the waiter before getting up. John follows him down the street, calling after him, but James doesn’t stop. He waves down a cab gets in and disappears, leaving John standing on the street. James should know better, John always has a plan B.

He hails his own cab and heads to James’s flat. He waits for hours until he finally sees James weaving drunkenly down the street, liquor bottle clutched in his hand. When he reaches his stoop, he stares blankly at John.

“Why are you still here?” The words are barely coherent.

James misses the first step and narrowly avoids falling on his face. John gets his arm around James’s waist and helps him up the stairs. He takes James’s keys from him and gets them both into the flat, James cursing him the whole time. John gets him to the bedroom and onto the bed. He starts taking James’s shoes off and James bats at him.

“Go away, I don’t want you here.” John tries not to let the words sting. He knows James is hurt that John had lied to him about so many things.

He starts on James’s pants and James again smacks at his hands. He gives up a few minutes later, realizing John isn’t going to stop. John gets his pants off and moves on to his shirt. James’s eyes are bleary when they meet John’s.

“I wanted you so fucking much, it nearly killed me to tell you no.” It’s the last thing James says before he passes out.

John sighs and finishes undressing him. He manages to get James under the blankets. For several minutes, John debates whether he should sleep here or on the couch. In for a penny in for a pound John figures, he climbs in next to James.

James looks ten years younger in his sleep. John smiles as he traces James’s eyebrows softly with his fingers. James turns into the touch, his eyes fluttering open briefly. When he sees John, he smiles. After a short moment, he reaches out and pulls John close, bringing their bodies together. James is asleep again within seconds.

***

John wakes up the next morning with James pressed against his back, James’s arm over his side, fingers stroking his stomach. John can tell by the way James is breathing that he’s awake.

“I’m sorry I was such an ass yesterday. I was hurt and angry.”

John turns to face James, hands cupping James’s face, “I’m in love with you.” The words rush forth, unable to be contained any longer.

James lets his eyes close, “It doesn’t change anything, John. You can’t stay and I can’t go back.”

John starts to shake his head, feels the tightness in his throat, the sting in his eyes. If he shakes his head hard enough he can change the outcome that’s staring him in the face. This can’t be happening. He clings to James, one deep breath after another as James’s hands skate down his back, soothing him.

When John thinks he can speak without his voice wavering he says, “I’m here for a month. We’ll make the best of it.”

James kisses him so sweetly it nearly brings the tears back to John’s eyes before he slaps him on the ass and rolls off the bed, walking toward the bathroom, “Come on, I need to get to the palace and ask for an extended leave.”

John leans up on his elbows, calling after James, “I don’t have the appropriate clothes here for going to a fucking palace to meet royalty.”

James pokes his head out of the bathroom, “Who said I was going to introduce you?”

“Fuck you very much.”

James cracks a smile at him, “You can wear something of mine. Now come here.” John rolls his eyes and follows James to the bathroom.

They shower quickly despite John trying everything in his power to get James back to bed. The man has iron fucking will. James tries to get John into one of his suits. John absolutely is not having that. As a compromise, he tucks one of James’s dress shirts into his jeans. Once they get to the Castle of Laeken, James stops at the gate and introduces John to the guard. He stumbles slightly over what John is to him but the guard doesn’t notice. John’s eyes are wide as he takes in the palace, “Jesus, no wonder you don’t want to leave.”

James laughs, “It’s just a house.”

John just looks at him. “Just a house, he says.”

Once inside James is greeted by the three other guards assigned to the children. John recognizes them from the surveillance photos. James tells him to wait as he walks a short distance away and spends several long minutes in conversation with the oldest of the three. The man looks confused for a few minutes before he smiles wide and looks over at John and then back to James. He claps James on the back before walking off.

James motions John forward. “Where are we going?”

“Caleb is going to get me an emergency audience with the King and Queen.”

“James,” John hisses, “I am not dressed to meet the fucking King.”

“You’re fine, King Philippe is incredibly relaxed.”

They stand outside a set of intricately carved double doors with long gilded handles. A bell rings and then the doors are being opened.

The King and Queen are seated across the room. James stops before them and bows slightly, John following as he tries not to fidget. He claps his hands behind his back and stands ramrod straight, eye trained on the window behind them.

“James, Caleb tells me you’d like an extended leave? Family matters?”

“Not exactly, Your Majesty. My...I have a companion from the states here unexpectedly,” James nods to John. “We haven’t seen each other in some time and when he leaves, it may be an even longer time before we see each other again. I’d like to spend the month he’s here with him, showing him what a beautiful country Belgium is.”

John can’t help but look over at James only to find James smiling at him. When John looks forward again, both the King and Queen are watching them closely before they turn to one another, communicating silently.

They both stand, “Introduce us then.”

“Your Majesties, this is John Silver.”

John bows again, not knowing exactly what the protocol is, before the King holds his hand out for John to shake. The Queen simply nods her head and John returns it.

“Well, Eléonore is certainly going to miss you while you’re gone. You’ll come for dinner at least once, yes?” King Philippe asks him. James agrees and the King tells him he’ll have Caleb call with the details.

After they leave, James takes John to a little cafe on a side street a few blocks from his flat. They get lunch and some of the best coffee John has ever had. The longer they sit there, the more aware of each other they become. John can’t take his eyes off the open collar of James’s shirt and the skin that’s on display. James’s eyes continue to stray to John’s mouth and John’s stomach flips over every time. There’s a barely banked fire under his skin and he feels like he’s just waiting for a match to set him completely alight.

James clears his throat, voice low, “What would you like to see first?”

John leans forward in his chair, arms on the table, tone intimate, “We need to go back to your flat. It's either that or I climb into your lap right here.”

James is out of the chair before John is even finished speaking. They all but sprint back to James’s flat and once the door is closed behind them, John is pushing into James’s space. He kisses James hard and fast while walking him backward toward the bedroom. James is peeling his shirt over his head and almost hits the door jamb with his elbow. They both laugh and things slow down.

James presses up behind him, body molded to John. His fingers start slipping the buttons of John’s shirt through their holes as his tongue trails slowly up the side of John’s neck. He bites John’s earlobe. As soon as all the buttons are released he pulls the shirt from John’s pants and guides it off his arms and then they’re skin to skin. John feels the rough scrape of James’s chest hair against his back, he pushes back into James’s space as one of James’s fingers trace the scar on his stomach.

“This is my fault.”

“It’s Dufresne’s fault.”

“No. I was too slow because I was looking at your ass. I took my eyes off of him long enough for him to get an advantage. I’ve replayed it in mind over and over, it's what my nightmares are made of.”

John turns, sees the guilt, the fear on James’s face. “I’m here, I’m fine.”

James kisses him hotly, tongue sweeping into John’s mouth, possessive and demanding. John moans into it, mouth opening, tongue tangling with James’s. James slides his hands down the back of John’s pants, his fingers slipping on the silk peach panties John’s wearing. He groans as his palms rub over John’s ass cheeks. Breaking the kiss, James drops to his knees pulling John’s jeans with him. He unlaces John’s shoes and pulls them off with his jeans, leaving John in nothing but the panties.

“You don’t know the fantasies I’ve had about these.” James licks across the head of John’s confined cock and John’s knees almost buckle. His hands go to James’s shoulders to keep himself upright. James rubs his face over John’s hip before turning and sucking the head of John’s cock into his mouth through the panties. John cries out, hips jerking forward. His fingers tighten on James’s shoulders as James licks and sucks at him. It’s the perfect torture, so good and not nearly enough. The feeling of the damp material sliding against his cock makes him shiver.

James spins him around and pushes him down until he’s bent over at the waist, face first on the bed, legs still on the floor. James licks up the center of him through the panties, pushes his silk covered tongue against John’s hole. John moans, shoving his hips back, “Fuck, yes.”

James dives in, pushing and sucking at his rim. John’s cock is hard and starting to leak, the head rubbing slickly against the inside of the panties as he shifts his hips back and forth, fucking himself on James’s tongue. James hums, and John feels it travel up his spine, raising goosebumps along the way. One of his hands goes back to hold James’s head as he rocks his hips. James pushes the material aside and then his tongue is dragging over John, skin on skin, and John lets out a broken whimper, “Please.”

James licks softly over him, just the flat of his tongue. John can feel the way he flutters under the slick feel of being prodded open. James tongue pushes in with the gentle pressure of a single finger next to it and John pushes back hard, takes as much as he can because, god yes, all he’s wanted is James inside him, fucking him, stretching him, taking him apart.

John loses track of time, buries his face in the bed and lets James have him. When John’s legs start to shake from the strain of the position James pushes him onto the bed and turns him over stripping the panties down his legs. John sits on the edge of the bed, James standing between his legs and John can’t resist all the freckled skin on display. He licks across James’s stomach, hands sliding up to pinch James’s nipples. James’s body rocks forward, a soft moan floating down to John.

When he looks up, he’s struck by how incredibly beautiful James is; eyes closed, mouth slightly parted, a flush working its way down his neck and chest. John wants him so much he’s weak with it.

He pushes James’s pants down, his cock bounces into the open air, and John can’t wait a second longer. He wraps his fingers around the base and mouths over the head. James moans, one hand burying itself in John’s hair. He loves the feel of James on his tongue, the weight of him, the way he stretches his mouth. John sucks him greedily, spit sliding out the side of his mouth as he bobs up and down. Too soon James is pulling him off and pushing him back on the bed.

James comes to rest between his thighs, sitting back on his heels. He rubs his hands over John’s stomach, up across his chest, tweaking his nipples as he goes, before leaning in and kissing John softly.

“Do you know what kind of torture it was for me to know that you wanted me like that. I was devastated by you.” James pauses to ply John’s nipple with the flat of his tongue. “Knowing that all I needed to do was cross the hall and I could have you.” James tongue trails down John’s chest, dips into his belly button, circles it before licking across John’s hip. “I've never jerked off so much in my life. Don't ever think I didn't want you with the same intensity. Don't ever doubt that resisting you was the hardest thing I have ever done.”

James reaches to the drawer next to his bed and pulls out a short bottle and a strip of condoms. He lays both beside John’s hip before grinning wickedly at John. He takes John’s cock in his mouth, sucks all the way down until his nose is touching John’s stomach and then he swallows. John shouts, body bucking, pushing his cock further into James’s throat.

John hears the snick of a cap and then James fingers are back at his hole, slick and hot where they press against him. He slides them in carefully as he pulls up on John’s cock, licks around the head, tongue probing the slit. John’s body opens around him, welcoming the thick feel of James’s fingers. John hums in the back of his throat at the pressure. He lets himself feel the burn of it, loving the stretch, knowing it’s James makes it all the better.

He rolls his hips down, taking more of James’s fingers. James slides deeper, just grazing over that sweet spot inside him. James curls his fingers, presses up, “Yes, fuck, yes.” John ruts down, head pressing into the bed, feet bracing so he can shove himself back against James’s hand.

James seals his mouth around John’s cock, bobs his head, the tight heat surrounding him. James’s fingers work in his ass, pressing up and in, over and over, until John is nearly incoherent, body bucking and rolling, his orgasm fast approaching.

“James. James, wait. I’m—” John breaks off on a sobbing moan, his cock pulses once and then he’s coming down James’s throat, back bowing, hips shoving up, sinking his cock further into James’s mouth. He shudders hard, legs twitching as James groans around him sending an electric shock through him making his whole body spasm, his ass clamping down on James’s fingers where they’re still fucking slowly into him. He’s gasping for breath, sides heaving as his body collapses back down.

James lets his cock go, licks around the base of him, fingers still working in his ass. “I wanted you in me.” John pants, as good as the orgasm was, he’s mildly disappointed.

James chuckles, “I will be, you’ll come again for me.”

“I can’t.”

“You will.”

James rises over him. And John is once again taken aback by the sheer size of James’s arms. He feels his cock twitch at just the idea of the leashed power in James’s body. He doesn’t know if he can get hard again, doesn't know if he can do what James is asking, but god, he wants to.

James kisses him deep, tongue sliding into John’s mouth, and John can taste himself on James’s tongue. He’s never going to get used to the way he loses all sense of time and reason whenever James kisses him.

James’s cock nudges at him and John’s legs spread wider, hips canting. John reaches down to guide James’s cock and the slide is smooth and easy, John’s body relaxed enough that James encounters little resistance. It feels so good, he has to force his eyes to remain open as James slides into him, one slow smooth inch at a time. It steals his breath and makes him tremble. James’s eyes never leave his, and when he finally, finally bottoms out they’re both breathless.

The first few thrusts are slow, gentle, and John feels so full. James is hard and thick inside him, every stroke rubbing along John’s inner walls. John’s fingers ghost over James’s shoulders, over his biceps. He watches goosebumps rise on James’s arms, sees pleasure steal across his face at the way John’s body clutches at him.

James starts to speed up, his cock head slides just right and John can’t help but gasp at the shock of it. James does it again and again, watching John’s face, a small smile on his own. Before John realizes it he’s fully hard again, cock aching like he hadn’t already come once. His nails bite into James’s skin and James’s eyes go glassy. John does it again before raking his nails down James’s back. He sinks his fingers into James’s ass cheeks, pulling him in. He fucks back against him, pushing James faster.

He’s driving into John, pushing the breath from John’s lungs with each hard thrust. John wraps his legs over James’s hip, James slides deeper and John gasps.

“You gonna come for me?” James shoves in hard, pressing in tight, grinding the head of his cock perfectly.

“God yes. Don’t fucking stop.” John chokes on a breath, body starting to shake, it's right there, he can almost touch it, “Harder, yes, fuck me.” James is hitting deep and John’s body seizes, eyes slamming closed, fists clenching, toes curling. He stops breathing completely, mouth opening wide on a silent moan as his cock jerks hard, and he comes without a single touch to his cock. James fucks him through it, hands holding his hips, fucking him hard as John finally finds his voice. He can’t stop moaning at how good it feels, pleasure still rolling through him, everything tingles, and god, James’s cock still feels so fucking good. He reaches for James, fingers sliding in sweat as he runs his hands over James’s biceps. John’s fingers skate over James’s nipples and James moans, hips stuttering before picking up more speed. John twists and pulls at the tight little buds, “Yeah, come on.”

James’s head goes back, mouth open as he slams home, hips undulating, and that’s when John realizes the strip of condoms still lies beside him, completely untouched. He should probably care more, but the feel of James’s orgasm deep inside him, the heat and pulse of it, is so good. He can’t find it in him to care at all. James shudders hard one last time and all but collapses down on John. John strokes a hand down his back as James’s breath ghosts against his neck.

Eventually, James moves off of him and brings a washcloth back to clean them both. He lies next to John on his side, head propped on one hand, his other plays with John’s fingers before lacing them together. Neither of them mention the fact that they’re on borrowed time.

***

Three days later they’re back at the palace, dressed formally for dinner. John had been a ball of nerves at first, uneasy until James had placed his hand possessively on John’s lower back, fingers rubbing soothingly. John had relaxed almost instantly. They’re having pre-dinner drinks when the Queen approaches them.

She smiles at them before asking, “You love him, James?”

John is startled mid-drink; his eyes immediately go to James. The tips of his ears are pink as he ducks his head, “I do, Your Majesty.”

Turning to John, her tone subdued, “And yet you’re only here for a month. I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

James eyes meet John’s, “He’s incredibly important in the states, his career, who he is, he can’t leave. And I am very happy here. I’ve never enjoyed a job quite so much before. I can’t go back, it’s very complicated. We’re both aware this is the only time we have together. As all-encompassing as love can be, sometimes it’s just not enough.”

The moment is broken when Eléonore comes rushing through the door, “Mr. James, Mr. James!”

James sweeps her up into his arms and spins her around as she chatters at him. John can’t look away as James puts her back on her feet and then goes to his knees to listen to her. He nods and hums in all the right places, giving the princess his undivided attention as she tells him a story about her lessons that day.

“She’s never taken to another person the way she has to him. When we told her he was going to be absent for a few weeks, she was nearly inconsolable.”

John feels pride swell within him, James is extraordinary in everything he does, and John is overwhelmed with love for him. He blinks rapidly trying to clear his vision. He memorizes what he sees; this is the image of James he wants to carry with him, smiling and happy.

The Queen presses her fingers to his arm, “There’s no way you can stay?”

John swallows to clear the lump in his throat, “Unfortunately no.”

“I’m so very sorry.” Her tone is gentle and John can only nod, too afraid of what he’d say if he tried to speak.

Dinner is less formal that John had anticipated, all four children curious about John and excited to see James. As they’re leaving and saying their goodbyes, the Queen pulls John aside one last time, “If there is anything I could do to make it so that you could stay, you would ask, yes?”

John looks to where James stands with the King, “In a heartbeat.” John sees the sadness etched on her face, “Don’t worry Your Majesty, we’ll be alright. Take care of him after I’ve gone, won’t you?”

She nods, “Of course.”

When they make it to the car, James stops him from getting in, “I’d meant to tell you a different way. I’ve been waiting for the right time.”

“It doesn't matter when or how, it just matters that it is.”

James kisses him thoroughly in front of the palace guards and most likely underneath a drone that’s broadcasting images across the world. There is no part of John that cares.

***

They spend their month divided between running from one end of the country to the other and hours in bed. They can’t get enough of each other, both of them knowing that this is all they’ll have. They’re trying to make the most of it. They spend several nights in different inns all over the country, christening beds, and in one case a broken elevator.

As John’s departure date looms closer, he refuses to acknowledge it. Every time James tries to bring it up John changes the subject or he kisses him until James can’t think of anything other than getting his hands on John’s body. On their last night together they don’t sleep, they spend the time alternating between huddling together under the blankets and the slowest, sweetest sex John has ever had. It's not even close to being enough.

They don't make empty promises to write or call; they know better. They know it will only prolong the heartbreak. It's better to make a clean break so they can both move on. James doesn’t take him to the airport. Instead, they say goodbye on his stoop, clinging to one another until the cab honks for a second time.

John manages to hold the tears at bay until he’s back in his own house where he collapses onto his couch and lets himself mourn. What he feels for James, what James is to him, surpasses what the word love means. He feels as if his entire chest will cave in and he would welcome it. The pain that sears him is not something he’s ever felt, not something he intends to ever feel again.

He crawls into bed fully clothed and alternates between great racking sobs and staring numbly at the wall, knowing he’ll never be whole again. Eventually he sleeps, his dreams are filled with images of James, images of them together.

When he wakes he’s disoriented, reaching for James until he realizes he’s in his own bed, and James is four thousand miles away. A wave of sadness sweeps over John as his tears come once more. He spends the day in bed moving between fitful sleep and bouts of debilitating grief. He only gets up to remove his clothes and use the bathroom.

The next day he’s woken by pounding on his door which he expertly ignores until he hears the lock click and the door opens. There’s only one person who has a key and John could give two shits about what his deputy director sees or thinks.

Jack finds him huddled beneath a pile of blankets, eyes red and swollen, hair matted and tangled.

“What the fuck, John? You were supposed to be back this morning.”

“I quit.”

Jack huffs out a breath, “I don’t accept.”

John says nothing, just pulls the blankets over his head.

Jack sighs and sits on the edge of the bed, “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

John feels tears gathering at the corner of his eyes again. He wants to stop crying, he wants to stop feeling like this. He hates it. He hates feeling like every second lasts a year. He hates feeling like he’s being cleaved in two. He just wants it to stop. A part of him wishes he’d never met or fallen in love with James.

Jack pulls the blankets back and strokes John’s hair as he cries for what feels like the millionth time. When the tears die down and the crushing weight of loss is the only thing left, he asks Jack, “How did you know?”

“If you’re going to make out with your boyfriend and you’d like to keep it a secret, you might want to consider not doing it directly in front of one of our designated surveillance areas. You knew exactly where they were John, that’s how you found him isn’t it?” Jack waves his hand over John’s prone form, “And I’m going to assume based on all this that it didn’t end well?”

John’s throat aches, “He’s happy there, and it's not as if he can come back. I have a career here, an intricate pending case. Neither of us would have been happy with long distance consisting of a few visits a year.”

“If we had a posting in Belgium, or hell, anywhere in Europe at this point, I’d send you. But we don’t, and I can’t. We need you here to help prep for the Diaz hearings.”

John only nods, he knows it’s all true and there’s nothing to be done for it. John understands on some level that the heartache won’t kill him. That eventually he won’t feel as if every waking moment is the equivalent of shards of glass slicing through his soul. Subconsciously he knows that the pain he feels now will begin to lessen. John wishes desperately his life was a video that he could fast forward through until he got to the part where he doesn’t feel like he’s being torn limb from limb.

“Take the rest of this week, but I want you back on Monday. If you can’t do that, visit the shrink, make the leave of absence official.” John nods and Jack leaves.

He spends the next four days wandering his house like a ghost. James had never been here, but John sees him around every corner. On Sunday, John cleans; himself, the house, his car. He mows his lawn, and pulls weeds, and by Sunday night, he’s exhausted enough to sleep without dreaming. When his alarm goes off on Monday he gets himself ready by pure instinct, his mind still wallowing in a shallow grave.

As soon as he’s behind his desk he deletes all the surveillance pictures and videos he has of James from his computer. He doesn’t look at them first, he just deletes them. He throws himself into prep for the Diaz trial. He comes in early, goes home late, exhausting himself so that his sleep is dreamless, empty. While John won’t be able to testify directly, all his statements, all his evidence, will speak for him. He goes over the case from start to finish nearly every day; correcting, adding, making his case impenetrable.

He finally unpacks his suitcase a month after his return. Tucked in the outer pocket is a small wrapped package. John’s breath catches and his hands shake as he pulls the tissue paper back. John can only stare as tears well in his eyes. During one of their afternoon's sightseeing, they’d wandered into a small jewellery shop. John had immediately fallen in love with an intricately carved jade and gold dragon’s breast ring. James must have gone back at some point and purchased it.

John can’t stop the tears from rolling down his face as he holds the ring in his palm. He wants desperately to call James, to hear his voice, to feel him. When he picks up the ring and turns it in his fingers, he sees engraving on the inside, always is etched into the side in looping script.

On their last night together, James had told him that he would never be able to love anyone else, that his heart, his soul, would always belong to John. John had told him no, that’s not what John wanted for him. That he deserved to love someone, to have someone love him, to share his life. James had only shaken his head despite John demanding a promise that he wouldn’t shut himself off.

John lets himself spend the evening mourning once more. The next day he moves forward again, this time wearing a piece of his and James’s history on his left hand.

The Diaz trials lasts six months and every conviction is satisfaction for John. Every time a guilty verdict comes down it manages to lessen the pain and heartache of losing James.

Every few months John checks the surveillance and sees James with Eléonore. On one of his bad days he prints out a picture of them and puts it in the drawer next to his bed. He doesn’t look at it often, but on the nights when he’s overwhelmed with melancholy and missing James too much to measure, he’ll take the picture out and imagine that the grainy black and white photo is a different life. A life he lives with James by his side.

***

One year later

John sees him through the cafe window. He’s at the counter, ordering breakfast and coffee and the sight of him makes John’s breath catch. It’s been over a year since they’d last seen each other. He doesn’t know if James has moved on, if he’s possibly seeing someone. He doesn’t know if James still misses him, if James even still loves him, but on the off chance that he does, John knows he has to take this opportunity. Just as he’s about to open the door, John hesitates.

He spends all day tailing James from a distance. When James goes home for the evening, John picks the lock on the outside door and quietly makes his way up the stairs. As soon as he’s standing outside James’s door, the door swings open and James has him by the throat, dragging him inside and slamming him against the wall. It only takes seconds for recognition to kick in and then James’s hand is loosening, eye’s clouding.

“John?”

John can only nod before James has an entirely different hold on him. His hands slide behind John’s neck to tilt his head back and then James’s mouth is on his. John moans into the kiss. It’s hot and wet and god he’s missed the taste of James. His hands fist in James’s shirt and he pulls him closer. Their bodies connect and John is already half hard just from the kiss. James pushes a leg between both of John’s and John gasps at the pressure on his cock. James’s mouth trails across his cheek, nipping at his chin before his tongue slides down the side of his throat, teeth catching on the thick pulsing vein. A sharp bite has John’s body arching off the door and pressing closer, fingers scrabbling over James’s shoulder to press himself closer still.

James noses at the base of his throat, up under his ear and he feels James take a deep breath, scenting him the way an animal would. He swears he hears James growl before his hands slide down to John’s ass and he lifts John off the ground. John can only hold on as James marches through his flat. Once they reach the bedroom James drops him on the bed and follows him down.

John’s legs go around James’s hips as James lowers himself to his forearms. He’s hovering over John’s body, searching his eyes and John blurts, “I’ve been transferred. I’m here to stay.”

The smile James give him is equal parts joy and ferocity. John pulls him down into another wet, sucking kiss, tongues twisting around each other. James’s hips rut down, John presses up and it’s so fucking perfect. A shiver races down his spine as he rubs his cock against James’s. The clothing between them doesn’t matter, nothing matters but the feel of James against him.

John shoves his hands up the back of James’s shirt. James skin is warm and sweat is starting to pop up over his spine where John sinks his fingers in. They move against each other, push and pull, panted breath and gasping cries until they’re both sated.

Later, after rounds two and three, as they lay under the blankets, bodies still twined together, neither of them willing to let the other go, James asks, “How?” James is playing with the ring, twisting it around John’s finger.

“I don’t know. I had been watching the postings and nothing. Then a week ago Jack told me to pack, I was moving to Brussels, there was an opening at the Embassy.”

“Jesus, I think I have an idea.” John turns onto his stomach and props his head on James’s chest to meet his eyes, “Caleb’s brother works at the Embassy. A few months ago, he and I got raging drunk and the entire story about you and I spilled out. I told him the only reason you couldn’t be here with me was because of your job and when he asked what it was, in my drunken stupor, I told him.”

John absolutely does not care, he pushes up and brushes a kiss across James’s lips, “The hows and whys don’t matter. I’m here now. They will have to pry this posting from my cold dead hands before I give it up. And even if they try, I’m done, I can’t live without you. I won’t do it again.”

The next morning James leaves reluctantly, his eyes lingering on John’s bare body taking up space in his bed, but John just tells him to go, he has to check in at the Embassy later anyway. A half a dozen kisses and one slightly wrinkled shirt later, James finally makes it out the door.

Several weeks later, once they’ve settled into their new lives, they’re again invited to the palace for dinner. The Queen is so happy to see John that she hugs him on the spot. He stands stiff, nervous, and blushing as he watches James holding Eléonore, both of them laughing at him. John thinks things could be worse.