Chapter 1: John's Plan
John’s new boss was a conniving, withholding, manipulating bastard with too much money and time to know what to do with, so he started his own crusade. To help people. John distrusted him immediately. What was in it for Finch? No one was that altruistic, even a bored billionaire.
Government surveillance, supercomputers… It was the stuff of science fiction, but not too far off that John didn’t believe it. He knew the government spied on the populace. This was just a high-tech version. An Orwellian State, so to speak. He’d liked Orwell as a teen, when he’d had to read 1984 for school.
He found out soon enough that Harold’s crusade was personal. He’d lost his best friend in the ferry bombing last year and it was easy enough to guess that Finch acquired the limp at the same time. He wondered what happened to Ingram’s son, Will, and looked him up. Medical school, Doctors Without Borders… just your average rich kid who wanted to do something with his life, unlike Daddy. Only Will Ingram had no idea what his father had really been doing, had he?
Joking with Finch about finding him a new job after deliberately blowing his cover was a calculated move. He wanted to see what would happen when he pushed Finch’s considerable boundaries and ‘made a mistake.’ Would Finch blow up? Fire him? Let him have the info with minimal fuss? Or do what he did, abandon the cover and disappear from anywhere but the Library?
It made tracking Finch more difficult, but he still had some clues to follow.
Not questioning Finch when he was high on ecstasy thanks to their number was another calculated move on John’s part. He wanted Finch to trust him, and by deliberately avoiding the opportunity to get Finch to talk, he hoped to cement the man’s faith in him. There would be other times when Finch was vulnerable, John knew, and probably other times when Finch got drugged, which would be when he would try for information. His instincts were telling him that Finch didn’t trust him quite enough.
Besides, he already knew Finch’s true vulnerability and didn’t need to use this first opportunity to get information. He could wait and seduce his boss into friendship and trust. He was good at being patient.
Come to think of it, he wouldn’t mind seducing his boss, full stop. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’d used his body that way, and with Finch’s $5000 suits and prissy attitudes, he was bound to be a little gay.
Or so John thought at first.
From the moment Grace Hendricks opened the door and let him into her apartment that morning in October, and he saw the picture of her and Finch on her table, John knew how it would end; she would be his leverage against the elusive Mr. Finch. He developed the plan over several days of watching, stalking and skulking. She was Finch’s weak point, and John planned on exploiting that.
No need to seduce the boss if the boss’s ex was around and he still pined for her.
“Closing the gap of knowledge, indeed,” he thought one afternoon as he settled on a bench in Washington Square Park with a book he’d seen Finch reading the first month he’d worked for him. He had the day off, according to Finch, so he was in jeans, a flannel shirt and a leather jacket, wanting to give his target associations that didn’t involve him in a suit. He also didn’t want Finch to be able to notice him as easily if Finch happened to be scanning CCTV feeds of the park. He only wore suits around Finch for that very reason: It was his working uniform, and the only one his boss would know. He had a carefully folded suit with him in case Finch called him in despite the day off. It had been known to happen, and more than once.
Three chapters later he heard the sound he’d been waiting for.
“Hello? Detective Stills?”
He looked up to see an attractive redhead standing near his bench. He smiled disarmingly. “John, please,” he said, getting to his feet and offering his hand. “I’m off-duty.”
“John,” she replied, her smile widening in response to his as she shook his hand. “I’m —“
“Grace Hendricks,” he supplied. “I have a good memory for people.”
“You’d have to, being a policeman,” she said. Her eyes traveled to the book in his other hand. “What are you reading?” John held the book out.
“It Can’t Happen Here,” she read. “By Sinclair Lewis. My fiancee Harold was always on the lookout for a first edition of that book.”
“I’m sorry,” John said, frowning slightly and putting the book in his satchel. “You said you’d lost him when we met. I don’t want to bring up unpleasant memories.”
“No, no, it’s ok. It’s just that he had odd tastes in literature, you know? He liked all that doomsday political stuff.” She indicated the bag.
“A friend recommended it to me a while ago,” he said, motioning her gently to a seat next to him with another smile and a tilt to his eyebrows to tell her he knew he was being forward to suggest such a thing. She sat almost immediately. It was clear to him that she was lonely, and that made her an easy mark for someone who could be as charming him. She had almost no male friends or relatives, no boyfriend or cousins, according to his researches. Harold and her father had been the only men in her life other than colleagues, and for a young, attractive woman like her, there was an air of sexual frustration about her he picked up on immediately.
Seducing her would be a cake-walk. He’d barely have to put any effort into it, though he would. He had a plan, after all.
“I’ve never read anything like it,” he continued, deciding to continue the topic of her choice rather than push his own. Another skill for flipping assets: Let them think they’re in control. “But it certainly has bearing on the political climate today, just as it did when it was written.”
They talked for over an hour, and John learned a few more details about Finch’s persona with Grace. Very mild, unassuming, like the Harold he sought out in a cubicle, but with a passion for books that meek little IFT-Harold wouldn’t have shown. He shared enough of his cover story to make her feel comfortable that he was a real person — and the detail about having a cousin who was also a detective would prevent her from asking questions if she ever happened to find out there was a missing Detective Stills. He thought of another rule he’d learned over the years: Always think seven steps ahead and pay attention to details. (It was certainly conceivable that she’d find herself in a police station at one point in her life, more so now that he was forcing himself into it, and as Detective Stills was a missing cop, his picture might be floating around there.)
He felt safe making this contact, because he’d ‘dropped’ his official working phone into a homeless man’s hands earlier in the day — after erasing it back to factory settings, of course. Given Finch’s paranoia, he figured the man was tracking the phone, and he didn’t want him to know he was stalking his ex-fiancee.
He’d been careful about his other movements, too, either removing the SIM card and battery to ‘go dark’ temporarily, or by breaking his phone. Finch had commented that he seemed to lose/break a phone at least once or twice a week, and John joked that it was a hazard of the job and wondered if Finch’s unlimited finances could handle a few cell phones or if it would break the bank.
Thus disarmed by humor and half-truth, and bolstered in the knowledge that he actually saw John break and lose his phone when helping the numbers, Finch would slowly lose his suspiciousness of John’s movements when not working. John was deliberately developing a pattern for Finch to see — though he varied it often enough that Finch wouldn’t realize it was a pattern.
This was one of his best skills: Patterns within patterns within patterns until it was so convoluted that no one, not even a paranoid genius like Finch, could follow.
Grace gave him her number when they ‘ran into each other’ at a gallery downtown. He was working, so he couldn’t stay to talk, and suggested they get coffee. She agreed readily, and he was grateful that he’d been correct that Finch was busy and not listening in for a change. He could see patterns just as well as make them, and though Finch’s patterns were subtle, it was that complete lack of a pattern that was the pattern itself.
He waited two days instead of three to call her, going for eager but not stalker-eager. She accepted his invitation and they met three days after that. He couldn’t give her a phone number of a phone he carried around all the time, he explained, apologetic. But naive as she was, she accepted that his phone number would change frequently on account of work. It wasn’t even a lie, though he had no problem lying to her about whatever else that seemed appropriate. It was the sprinklings of truth that would win her over, especially when he told her about his ex and leaving her to reenlist. A lot of former-army guys told that story, so it didn’t identify him or make him stand out. And actually talking about Jess would allow him to use his real feelings to simulate what he wanted Grace to hear.
She kissed his cheek goodbye on their second date, and on the third she invited him into her apartment and they made out for about ten minutes before he decided it was time to stop. He wanted to be respectful of her and her boundaries, he said. He didn’t want to rush into sex. She kissed him harder after that, though it only lasted a few more minutes. Good enough. He hadn’t expected her to trust him so quickly, given her alcoholic father and how raw Harold’s ‘death’ still was for her.
He chalked it up to sex. Women thought men were governed by their dicks and only interested in sex, but women were just as interested. They just didn’t like to talk about it or admit it for fear of being called a slut or whore. They also didn’t have a visible indicator of arousal the way men did, and that perpetuated the myth that women didn’t need sex as often as men.
In his experience, women wanted sex more often than the men they were with, but what man would dare tell his buddies something like that? Especially when the woman just wanted to be eaten out and wanted nothing to do with a dick that night… Jess had loved when he went down on her, and he’d gotten very good at it.
When they finally had sex on their seventh date, Grace turned out to be a firecracker in bed. Extremely sensual and giving, she also had a demanding streak he appreciated. She knew what she liked and she told him. It was refreshing, actually, because unlike Kara and her demands, Grace was genuine in what she wanted and liked. She wasn’t trying to manipulate him. She didn’t have a hidden agenda. All she wanted was for them both to feel good.
There was no way he could’ve predicted that he’d get shot three days later and be unable to contact her for fear of Finch finding out. Fortunately, Finch left his side long enough for him to steal an orderly’s phone on the second day. He had to see Grace in person and show her the still-healing wound before she believed that he hadn’t decided to walk out on her after getting her into bed. (Harold was the only other man who hadn’t done that, she explained tearfully.) Once she saw the wound, however, she was horrified for ever doubting him and rushed to apologize.
As weeks turned into months, Grace continued to trust him more and more. They had sex, often, and the regular outlet settled him into his role as her new boyfriend. He genuinely liked Grace. At first he’d been suspicious of her seemingly blemishless life, but she was the real thing. He couldn’t find a single skeleton in her closet. He couldn’t find anything to prove she had a dark side.
Other than her addiction to coffee and her unwavering faith that Harold wouldn’t be dead until she saw his body, but that wasn’t likely to happen any time soon.
This was the most dangerous time for an operative, John knew. This was the time when he would be lulled into acceptance and safety. This was the time when the shit would hit the fan and he’d be unprepared.
He kept his guard up. It was vital to his plan that Finch not know about his relationship with Grace, so he obfuscated. He slept with Zoe Morgan a few times and made sure Finch knew about it. (She was fun and able to separate sex from a relationship or feelings.) He had a few dates with women for more of the same — he acted as if he didn’t want Finch to know, even as he planned ‘accidental’ ways for Finch to find out. He even went out with a few guys, just so Finch would know he swung both ways... Though he suspected Finch already knew.
By spring, he could read Finch’s moods as well as he needed to — especially once he figured out that Finch was jealous of his liaisons. He couldn’t tell if it was about the sex or not, though, so he tried stepping up his flirting. Finch had begun subtly flirting with him ever since Mark Snow shot him, but more in an ‘I’m lonely and you’re my only friend’ way than anything romantic. Now John needed to know if there was a sexual element. (He’d exploit that weakness, too, if he could. He was good at sex, and between the loneliness and his skill, he’d have Finch wrapped around his little finger reasonably soon after they had sex.)
When Finch handed him a small box on his birthday that contained a key to an apartment for him, John knew he had Finch hooked. Sex or no sex, Finch felt possessive of him. Finch wanted to know where he was. Finch wanted to provide for him.
Finch had no idea that he was sleeping with Finch’s own ex-fiancee.
He added up all the factors, found the cameras in the apartment, found the other cameras in the apartment, found the microphones and the other microphones. He bought shades for the windows and chose not to have them glazed to keep spying cameras out. He disabled the first level of monitoring but kept the second level. He made a show of masturbating in bed the first few nights in the place, knowing that the cameras and microphones were there and acting like he didn’t know. Finch had to trust that he trusted Finch not to spy on him more than necessary.
He was under no illusions that Finch wasn’t watching.
He made it a plan to sleep somewhere else at least three times a week. Sometimes he’d stay with Grace, but not often. He’d established a schedule with her that his shift started at 12am some weeks. She believed the lie that there always had to be a detective on-duty at the station, and why shouldn’t she believe that? It certainly seemed plausible to a civilian.
He’d gone so far as to rent an apartment in Stills’ name when he was in the dark from Finch, just so he’d have a place to bring Grace. She liked staying over with him, even if it was once every other week or so. He liked the morning sex.
He liked knowing that he had so much power over Finch that Finch didn’t know about.
Then Root kidnapped Finch and everything went to shit.
Chapter 2: Finch Missing
Months later, when he had a chance to reflect, alone in a cell in Riker’s, John would come to the conclusion that he lost his mind a little bit when Finch disappeared the first time. In the moment, however, there was only the adrenaline-calm of emergency ops and a suppressed rage and desperation that he could barely keep under wraps.
Months later, when he had a chance to reflect, alone in a cell in Riker’s, John would come to the conclusion that he lost his mind a little bit when Finch disappeared the first time. In the moment, however, there was only the adrenaline-calm of emergency ops and a suppressed rage and desperation that he could barely keep under wraps.
He lost sight of everything except finding Finch.
Nothing else mattered. Not the numbers. Not the job. Not the lives of others. Not even his own life.
He had one goal: Find and rescue Finch.
Finch was his! John snarled to himself when he found Alicia Corwin's body where Finch and Turing were supposed to rendezvous. How dare someone take him from John?
He recognized Corwin. Of course he did. She was the one who sent him to China with Kara after the damned laptop. Whether she worked for the Company or they worked for her didn't matter. She was John's enemy, and probably Finch's, too. Either way, she was dead, and Turing wasn't who she said she was, and Finch was gone.
She had an hour's head start on him, he figured after a cursory examination of the body. Not that bad, but he didn't have many leads. He went back to the Library on the off-chance Turing made Finch give up the location.
No Finch. No Turing. But someone had been there, as evidenced by the broken lock. He frowned. The computers were untouched, unless she was better than Finch, and he seriously doubted a better hacker existed. Not even the mysterious ‘Turing.’
He needed more information. He needed an ally. The detectives wouldn't be much help without an actual lead, and even though Fusco knew the name Harold Wren, and several of Harold’s other aliases, John wasn’t willing to give them a picture or permission to look through official channels. He almost laughed when Carter suggested it. Besides, he had access to something far more powerful than two New York detectives who were more assets than allies.
It took hours to decode the message from the machine. Too long. He was losing time. The first 24 hours were critical in kidnapping cases. If he couldn't find Finch...
He'd never stop looking, not until he had a body or was a body himself.
There was a moment when he figured out Finch’s code — the Dewey Decimal System, they were in a library, after all, he should’ve thought of it sooner — when John felt a fierce pride in Finch’s ingenuity and intelligence and forethought. He wanted the man back so he could tell him, so he could push him against the stacks and kiss him, so he could —
Sex had no place in his head when he finally had a lead.
Leon Tao was next to useless, and the Aryan Brotherhood made him want to murder the lot of them. He settled for a few gunshots and kicking ass.
He didn't have time to waste on this — this irrelevant nonsense.
Leon. Fusco. Carter. Corwin. Leon again. Fusco. The Aryans.
At least now he had a dog that would take care of Finch when he was in the field.
He stood in front of the camera for the second time that day and threatened the Machine. Not just a quick conversation to ask for info, he stared up into the camera and let it see the rage that boiled underneath the surface of his carefully crafted facade of indifference.
Did he have enough of a sense of the Machine to get it to help him? Did it care that he would give up the numbers if he didn’t have Finch? Did it realize how serious he was, that he would abandon everything he’d gained in his time with Finch as quickly as he needed to?
He’d already shot 23 people since Finch went missing, and not all of them made it as far as the hospital.
Who needed humanity when Finch was in danger?
Not John, who felt his killer’s instincts blossoming under the pressure of finding his missing — boss.
Carter got a glimpse of his rediscovered lack of compassion when he confronted her at her apartment and seeing him slipping encouraged her to join him in Texas. 26 hours down and still no Finch. He needed answers, and the investigation was moving too slowly. He hated police work when busting heads was an option. Too slow. Too slow.
Why else would he get into a senseless barroom brawl that he knew wouldn’t lead to much useful information? In his sane moments, he’d be able to stop himself, get the information without violence, but who had time for sanity when time was of the essence? At least he knew Cody hadn’t killed the girl.
36 hours and the only lead was still a missing girl from 16 years ago.
He felt the case break open when he found the receipt in the book at the librarian's house. Now he had to play the police detective and make phone calls. Goddamned phone calls.
His training helped him bank the anger and worry and he must have sounded official enough because he had a credit card charge from three hours ago in Maryland and access to enough money through Finch to charter a plane and he needed another gun and some more ammo, but maybe his new friends could help him out?
“Hannah’s in the ground, John,” Carter said, as if it mattered that Turing was Hannah Frey or not. He didn’t give a rat’s ass who she really was as long as he had a lead that he could actually follow on foot rather than through phone or paper or 16-year-old missing person’s case.
There was no car in the driveway at Weeks’ girlfriend’s house, but that didn’t mean Finch and his captor were gone… But they were gone. Dead end. Again.
He thought about shooting the body just to let out some of his frustration, but he knew a ballistics report would be done, and he left his fingerprints too many places as it was. He’d started trusting Finch that his fingerprints would no longer trigger an FBI or CIA investigation, that Finch had managed to hack all the databases and have them removed.
But training was still training, and he’d used the gun in New York against the Aryans, and he didn’t need another trail for the CIA to follow, because he was under no illusions that they wouldn’t come looking for him again if he made himself too conspicuous.
And in his current mindset, he didn’t care if he was conspicuous or not, so…
He let his gaze soften as he assessed the location, looking for small details, anomalies. There: A cufflink discarded next to a phone. He knew that cufflink. It was Finch’s, one John had seen three or four times in the time they’d worked together. Ridiculously expensive and probably worth more than the car John was driving, it was a symbol of everything Finch. Elegant, expensive, rare. He picked them both up, letting the feeling of the cufflink in his fingers ground him. Finch had been here, and recently by the state of the body. He was closing in.
He looked at the phone and had another flash of pride at Finch’s ability to cope with a situation he’d never expected to deal with. Tap Code — easy enough to decipher.
There was only one train station in range that would be appropriate for her use. He got in his car. Fuck defensive driving, he had to get there yesterday. Offensive driving it was. He clipped at least five cars on the way and caused two accidents that he was aware of, but he still didn’t care. He was close. He could feel it.
When he saw Finch — in a wheelchair! — time slowed to a sluggish, muddy consistency he recognized from some of his most deadly missions. He saw Root raise her gun, saw Finch struggle to a standing position to knock her aim off, saw Finch fall to the ground and her run, his own bullets whizzing by her. He hadn’t realized he’d fired until then, but his gun was in his hand and he was flying over a bench and pushing people out of the way and there was Finch, on the ground and —
"Am I hit?" Finch asked, confused, and before John could think through the possibility he was patting Finch down and finding nothing. He barely noted the brief conversation where Finch told him he hadn’t expected rescue, too focused on getting him to safety. Finch was... drugged, hurt… Alive.
Alive, and safe, and back in John’s possession.
He got them to the plane he'd left at the airport, ready to fly again at a moment's notice. Having access to Finch’s funds was a definite plus for easing the exit path.
"When did you last sleep?" Finch asked at one point while they were in the air.
"The night before we got her number," he answered.
"That's over 72 hours ago!" Finch exclaimed.
"I caught an hour or two on the plane to Texas," he informed him.
"Long story. Her name is Samantha Groves."
"How do you know that?"
"The Machine gave me the number of her long-dead best friend."
Finch closed his eyes. "I don't feel well," he admitted. "I haven't slept much either."
"So, sleep. I'll —“
"I want a bed," Finch complained — the first time John ever heard him complain about his physical needs.
"I know a place," he responded.
Chapter 3: Finch Found
John's rescued Finch from Root. Now Finch has asked for a bed...
John's being a dick in this story, and I doubt you'll like him in this chapter...
The next chapters, on the other hand... well, they're quite different. ;-)
Warnings for thoughts of past non-con.
John knew that to go back to New York immediately wouldn’t be good for Finch, or for avoiding Root. He took them to a mid-sized chain hotel in Charlotte, North Carolina and checked them in, daring the receptionist to say anything about two men staying in a single room with one bed and no luggage with his stony expression. Though she made a disapproving look in the direction of her computer, she didn’t comment as she ran his credit card.
John placed an unasked-for $50 bill on the counter. “To make sure there are condoms and lube in the room,” he explained, once he had her attention.
The woman looked over his shoulder at Finch, who sat across the lobby, stiff and visibly jumpy. He put a second bill on top of the first.
“I’m sure you can understand why he’s nervous,” he added.
“Sir, I think you’ve come to the wrong—“
He slapped a $100 bill on the counter, making a sound loud enough that Finch looked over, his brows knit in concern. “Do you really want to try my patience today?” John asked in such a mild voice that she widened her eyes in fear, sensing in some primitive part of her brain that he was a killer. That every so often he enjoyed it.
The woman swallowed audibly and snatched the money. “If you and your — friend would like to have a drink at the bar, I’ll handle your request myself, sir.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he replied, producing his polite, now-I-don’t-have-to-kill-you smile and went to collect Harold. A drink or two was probably a good idea. And some food. He doubted Harold had eaten much when in Root’s custody.
Harold protested the food, though he swallowed a shot of bourbon easily enough. John could be persuasive when he wanted to be, however, and he made sure Finch ate enough that the second and third bourbons wouldn’t knock him out. He wanted Finch aware, not drunk.
To be honest, he didn’t even want Finch tipsy for what he had in mind.
He’d manipulated people into bed before, seduced them into thinking they wanted it, into believing that they wanted it and asked for it, but he didn’t want that feeling of coercion between himself and Harold.
Things had changed.
He wanted Harold. He knew that now.
And he wanted it to be more than sex. He wanted Harold to trust him with his body, with his mind, with his secrets and lies and everything else. He wanted Harold to willingly give himself up, to put himself in John’s care and circle of protection and life. He wanted Harold to be unequivocally his.
Just like he was Harold’s.
To get that, he’d have to tread carefully.
“Should we, um, debrief, Mr. Reese?” Harold asked as John pushed the slice of chocolate cake towards him. “I don’t want this,” he protested.
“It’s full of endorphins to help calm you down,” John replied.
“I am calm!”
“Your hands are still shaking. You’ve been high on adrenaline for days. Believe me, Finch, I know what that’s like. Eat the cake.”
Harold picked up his fork and tried a bite. He took another, then a third.
“Alicia Corwin got into my car when I expected Ms. Turing,” Harold began. “She’d been watching me for weeks. She found the Library, and figured out that I’d built the Machine, but she hadn’t put together the pieces that there was an irrelevant list.” He ate another bite. “I’m not sure exactly what she wanted, but I think her main goal was the shut it down.”
“Could she do it?”
Harold laughed. “No. But we didn’t get that far.”
“Root shot her,” John supplied.
“Yes.” Harold scraped the last crumbs onto his fork. “I didn’t speak more than a dozen words for the first 12 hours. I wanted to see what she knew.” He paused. “She knew far too much.” He leaned back in the booth, picking up his water glass and draining it. “We ended up at Denton Weeks’ mistress’ house.”
“She wanted something from him?”
“She tortured him. Palestinian hanging. Then she staged his escape attempt to force him to admit that he knew of the program, since he hadn’t broken. He was going to kill me when I told him she couldn’t access the Machine. So she killed him.” He sighed. “After getting a clue as to where the physical plant with the Machine’s servers was located.” He set down the glass. “Do you think we could finish later?”
“More like I’ve been wearing this same suit for three days and I want to wash some of the accumulated grime off myself,” Harold corrected.
John made a show of looking at his watch, though he knew the receptionist would have been long gone. “Our room should be ready,” he said. “Come on.”
Chapter 4: Is it greed?
John's taken Harold up to their hotel room. He's feeling possessive.
Warnings for graphic sex in this chapter.
“John, I hate to ask this of you, but…” Harold trailed off, his voice tight with exhaustion and embarrassment. “There’s no safety bar,” Harold continued, motioning to the bathroom.
“You want help washing your back, Harold?” John asked, teasingly. Now that he had Finch back, it seemed absurd to keep from flirting. He’d learned something while he looked for Finch — for Harold —and he wanted to keep the door open. He thought of kissing Harold in the stacks at the Library, of praising him for the clues he’d left, of holding Harold’s naked body against his own, of pleasuring Harold so much that he forgot about the kidnapping, forgot about Root, and danger, and that John had killed to get him back and was willing to kill again just to keep him.
Harold’s face became slightly pink. His eyes slid away from John’s, and John immediately categorized his expression as one of humiliation — no, shame.
“I’m just a little dizzy from the drugs, I think, “ he said. “If you don’t —“
“Tell me what you want me to do,” John interrupted, not wanting to hear Harold suggesting it was John’s choice to help or not. It wasn’t a choice. He would always help Harold, no matter what. “I won’t say anything and we don’t have to talk about it.”
Harold nodded miserably. “I’ll, um, I —“ He stopped, still turned away. He made another vague gesture, which John interpreted as needing help undressing. He got to his feet.
“What temperature do you like?” John asked as he helped with Harold’s shoes and socks, as well as giving him his shoulder to balance on so he could step out of his pants and boxers. Harold had managed to do everything else, but bending seemed beyond him.
“Hot,” Harold replied. “It helps loosen the muscles. I’ve been clenching everything for two days, trying to stay ahead of her.”
John shut out the image of Harold clenching and turned on the water to let the steam fill the room, giving the illusion of not being able to see each other. He suspected Harold would need the illusion, at least until they’d started. He accepted Harold’s glasses and folded them neatly, placing them on the counter. “Any muscle spasms?”
“Not yet, though I won’t be surprised if a charley horse wakes me in the night.”
“I’ll rub you down after this,” John told him. “Get some of the worst kinks out.”
Harold stepped into the shower and stood under the water, letting it roll over his shoulders and back. He gave a small groan of enjoyment. John’s dick twitched in his trousers in response. He took the time to hang up and fold Harold’s clothes, then stripped down and joined him in the shower, taking a wash cloth and soaping it up. He worked silently, as he’d said he would. Harold remained tense, vigilant.
“Here, face the wall,” John said, moving Harold around. He started rubbing Harold’s neck and shoulders. “Use the heat to relax,” he continued, reinforcing what Harold said earlier.
“I really don’t think this is necessary,” Harold protested, his arms out to support him with the wall even as he leaned into John’s touch. John watched a flush crawl up his neck and wondered if Harold was about to come on to him.
He wasn’t. He seemed content with, or at least accepting of the massage, not moving for more.
But his dick was half-hard, and John had just noticed, and he suddenly understood the wild rush of adrenaline coursing through him — different than when he was under attack or fighting. This was — need, pure and simple. He needed.
It wasn’t just desire or want. It was need. Vital. Necessary.
He wasn’t sure of the specifics, but the general idea was Harold. He needed Harold. Just Harold.
And if Harold wasn’t going to come on to him…
He placed a kiss on the back of Harold’s neck over a surgery scar and heard him gasp. He felt momentarily stupid, dumb, childish. What a cliche thing to do, to kiss the scar? It was like something out of those horrible romances his mother used to hide under her mattress that he found one summer when he was home alone. He tried to banish the thought with more action. He stepped forward, pressed himself against Harold’s back and reached for his dick to give him a few experimental tugs.
It felt good to have Harold’s dick in his hand. It felt good to show Harold he was willing and aroused already.
“Mr. Reese —“ Harold’s breath caught.
“You want this, don’t you, Harold?” John purred, continuing his onslaught. He needed this. Harold needed it. He was sure of it. He kissed behind Harold’s ear and nibbled at the lobe. “You’ve been thinking about it this whole time.” Harold shivered in his arms and his dick continued to harden. John chuckled. “This can’t be all, though, can it? I bet you want more.”
He dropped to his knees, not noticing the jarring thud or the spark of pain as his knees hit tile. Harold turned on his own; John didn’t need to say or do anything to make him do it. He took Harold’s dick in his mouth, relaxing his jaw as it expanded on his tongue. He hummed in pleasure, closing his eyes.
Time seemed frozen again, like it had been at the train station. Just him and Harold, alone in the world, no one else important enough to bother thinking about.
God, this was just what he wanted!
He took Harold deeper, gripping Harold’s thighs to hold him in place.
More. He needed more.
“John,” Harold whimpered, just loud enough to be heard over the water, stepping away, pulling his dick from his mouth, his back hitting the wall. John felt the loss immediately.
“Please, Finch,” John said, shuffling forward on his knees. “Please.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. John shook the water out of his face and wiped his eyes. “Please,” he repeated. “Harold, please. Harold. Harold!” He had no words, only need. He needed Harold. He needed and needed and needed and please, Harold, please give me this! Harold must have read the desire in his eyes because he gave a quick, short nod and relaxed. Permission granted. John wanted to do a jig in triumph.
Instead, he started sucking as if his life depended on it.
“John, stop!” Harold barked, tugging painfully on his hair. “Slowly,” he said at a regular volume. “Slowly,” he repeated, softer, gently running his fingers through John’s hair.
John looked up past Harold’s erection to see the man’s face.
“If —“ Harold stopped, closed his eyes, took a breath, let it out, then opened his eyes again. “If you’re going to do that, I want us both to enjoy it, ok? Can you do that for me? Can you enjoy it?”
John nodded, feeling a burning in the corner of his eyes at the caring in Harold’s expression, at the tenderness in the way he held the back of John’s head, at the fondness in the way he stroked down John’s throat. He swallowed and broke eye contact, lowering his head and resting his forehead against Harold’s stomach. His breathing hitched. He was about to cry, and damnit, he didn’t want to cry when he was about to get everything he wanted!
“Stand up,” Harold murmured, and John did, letting Harold hold him and kiss him as much as he wanted. He belonged to Harold, Harold could have everything.
After a few minutes, John returned to his knees. Harold put a hand on John’s head and held his erection with the other, offering it. John kissed the head.
Sucking Harold this time felt like worship rather than greed.
Harold’s head made a hollow thunk as it hit the tiles. John glanced up to see Harold’s eyes closed, his mouth wide. He let go of his cock to scramble at the shelf next to him. Small plastic bottles rained down on John’s head and shoulders.
“I — I — I th — think there’s — there’s soap —“ Harold stuttered. He widened his stance slightly. “It might b — b— be slick enough —“
John released Harold's erection to find the appropriate bottle, coming away with a 0.5 ounce bottle of lube instead of the body wash he expected. The receptionist had earned her tip. With a wicked grin he slathered some on his fingers and pressed one against Harold’s opening.
“Slowly, I know,” John interrupted. He held Harold’s injured hip with his other hand. “I won’t let you fall,” he promised. He nuzzled at Harold’s balls, then took his cock in his mouth again.
The closer he got to orgasm, the quieter Harold became. His breath was coming in short, sharp bursts, followed by low moans. John massaged his prostate, making him gasp.
“Oh, God, John. John. John!”
John buried a second finger in Harold’s ass.
Without warning, Harold grabbed his head, pulling tightly on his hair, forcing John to move when his hips couldn’t. John relaxed his jaw, his throat, his tongue, letting Harold do whatever he wanted. He closed his eyes again and pressed on Harold’s prostate and gave up everything.
Who needed to breathe when Harold was so far down his throat he couldn’t even taste it when he came?
Chapter 5: Massage
John gives Harold the promised massage.
I'm going on vacation tomorrow and will be without computer and internet access, so I wanted to leave you with another chapter to enjoy. And, yes, warnings for sex, as if I'd give you anything else right before I head away. ;-)
Harold’s muscles remained tight, even after an orgasm, so John had him lie on his stomach while he worked on the knots in his back, legs and neck. He interspersed kisses and caresses as he massaged, responding to Harold’s sighs and twitches. Twice he rutted against Harold’s ass for a few thrusts, wanting to remind Harold that he was still hard, though he didn’t need orgasm the way he needed to make Harold happy. He could go without an orgasm if he had to, if Harold didn’t want to give him one, if Harold wanted him to wait, or not have one, or whatever Harold wanted.
Though Harold seemed appreciative of the reminders and squirmed deliciously beneath him when he did it.
By the time he was done with the massage, Harold was dozing, his back and neck as loose as John could make them without drugs. Neither of them wanted Harold on drugs after the treatment by Root.
“You know what I’d really like right now, John?” Harold murmured after a few minutes. John had lain down next to him, curled up to his side, running his hand back and forth along Harold’s back, occasionally dipping lower to grope his ass. He thought Harold was asleep for a moment, until he spoke. He’d even been content to just let Harold sleep — now that he’d sucked Harold off, there was no question in his mind that Harold would want more, and he could wait to get that more. And Harold needed the sleep.
“You inside me.”
John felt suddenly light-headed by the desire coursing through him. He cleared his throat, a little raw from sucking Harold off — he hadn’t been with a man in months, and it took some getting used to.
“I think I can manage that,” he replied in a husky voice that seemed to make Harold shiver. He reached over to the nightstand where he hoped for lube and condoms. They were right where he expected them — $200 well-spent! He warmed some of the liquid between his hands and started stretching Harold slowly. He was still a little loose from earlier, and he could start with two fingers instead of one. “Feel good?”
“Mmm, yes,” Harold agreed sleepily, yawning.
“Are you going to fall asleep while I’m fucking you?” John asked, twisting his fingers and making Harold’s hips jerk. He hoped his voice sounded as amused as he felt — wouldn’t it be just his luck that Harold fell asleep the first time they were together? Still, if it was what Harold wanted…
“Maybe,” Harold answered, not sounding contrite or embarrassed or offended by John’s language. “Would you mind terribly? It’s not a commentary on your skills or technique,” he added. “It’s just been such a long few days…”
“It might be hot,” John mused, imagining the possibilities. All he wanted was for Harold to feel good. That’s why he blew him earlier. It wasn’t for his own desire, but Harold’s. His pleasure was a mere side-effect of pleasing Harold. And if Harold wanted to fall asleep while being fucked… Who was John to deny him that? Who was he to deny him anything?
“Are you sure?” John asked, needing the confirmation. Fucking someone while they slept wasn’t standard operating procedures, by any rulebook he’d ever seen or heard about. Some people considered it rape. “It’s hard to believe you trust me enough to let me do you while you sleep…”
“You came after me,” Harold replied. “I practically told you stay away and you came anyway.”
“I told you, Harold. I’m not leaving you behind.” He started pressing more vigorously against Harold’s prostate. “You left me clues.”
“I suppose there was a small part of me that hoped you’d come,” Harold allowed, moaning at the increased intensity. He shifted so John could arrange a pillow underneath him to ease the strain on his back and give John a better angle to work with.
“I’ll always come for you,” John murmured, leaning over to kiss Harold’s temple.
He plastered himself on top of Harold, pulling his fingers from Harold so he could rut against his ass with his dick. He thought about just pushing into Harold, but stopped in time. Condoms. He’d gotten condoms for a reason. And while they weren’t talking about safe sex or STIs or anything — and he didn’t want to ruin the moment by bringing it up — he also didn’t want to sully Harold with his cum if Harold didn’t want it, even though he’d managed somehow to defy the odds of his life and remain STI-free. He reached for the packet and tore at the foil.
“Please, John,” Harold begged. “Give me this,” he added, echoing the desperation in John’s own desire. “I want to sleep knowing you’ve been inside me. I want to dream of you instead of her.”
John froze. “She didn’t —“
“Oh, God, no! Of course not!” Harold interrupted. He shifted his head on his arms to help his neck. “I just meant I’d rather sleep to this than thoughts of her.”
John breathed a sigh of relief and kissed Harold’s ear. “Thank God,” he murmured. “Thank God.” If she’d touched Harold like this… John doubted he’d be able to stop himself from searching her out and murdering her. Harold was his!
Reassured by Harold’s words and gasp of pleasure at John’s touch, John pushed off Harold to hold himself up so he could slip into Harold’s body. Harold’s every muscle still loose from the massage and stretching, he opened easily to John’s cock. Harold sighed happily and John let go of any lasting reservation. Harold wanted this. Harold would have it. And it felt so damned good! “God, it’s like… like…”
“Taffy?” Harold suggested, yawning again, already over the brief interruption of mood. “Warm saltwater taffy, right off the machine…” He shifted slightly and groaned, squeezing around John and relaxing again. “I love having you inside me,” he murmured, encouraging John. “You know just what to do…” He trailed off into another yawn. He sounded extremely pleased, and John felt a burst of pride. Harold liked what he was doing. Good. Good.
John kept his strokes slow and deliberate and deep, responding to Harold’s body and his desire for something tender. His hands on Harold’s hips were gentle, giving himself guidance, rather than trying to control Harold. He felt himself relaxing, tension draining away. He caught himself yawning.
“Maybe I’ll fall asleep, too,” he wondered aloud.
“You’d come in your sleep, still inside me,” Harold whispered. “Oh, that sounds lovely. Like a dream,” he added, sounding even more tired.
John’s cock twitched and he gave a sudden, hard thrust against Harold’s prostate. Harold squeaked. John thrust again.
“Gentle,” Harold said, tensing slightly. John switched back to the lazy, languid strokes. “Yes, that’s it. I like that. Slow and gentle.” Harold relaxed and shuddered beneath him, coming almost silently with a long sigh a few thrusts later.
“Mmmmmm,” Harold breathed, and John felt him fall asleep, John still inside him.
John kept to the easy thrusts Harold preferred, even after he was sure Harold was deeply asleep. He had all the time he wanted to do this. He could come inside Harold and fuck him again a few hours later. He could fuck Harold’s sleeping body until he woke up in the morning, if he wanted to…
No, he’d wake Harold with a blow job. He’d time it so that Harold came just as he was rousing, opening his eyes to a new day with an orgasm already behind him.
Lulled by the image, John let his eyes close. Exhaustion flooded him, and he lost some momentum. He just needed a few more thrusts… but his body was so heavy… he didn’t want to hold it up any more… He didn’t want to move… He allowed more of his weight to settle on Harold.
The angle had become awkward, just the tip of his cock in Harold now. He shifted, trying for that last thrust.
John slipped into sleep as he released into the condom.
Chapter 6: In the Night
John and Harold are still holed up in the hotel after Root's kidnapped Harold. They've had sex, and now they're napping. Whatever will happen next?
I'm back from vacation and have a new chapter or two ready to go. First, more sexy times. Next chapter will re-start the angst.
John woke when Harold got up in the middle of the night to pee. Harold returned after a few minutes and sat down, not saying anything, not moving to get under the covers. John rolled over, extending his arm to reach for Harold. He opened his eyes and gave Harold an unpracticed smile. Even as he did it, John knew that he’d never given Grace such a smile. Oh, they’d looked the same, but they’d always been calculated with her. His tone of voice, too. Grace was an asset. Harold was a friend, and that was the difference.
Harold was more than a friend. Harold was his everything.
Harold’s return smile was tight and his eyes were overly-large and shining with wetness. He wasn’t happy. Wordlessly, Harold handed him a warm washcloth to clean himself.
“Harold?” he asked, sitting up when he was done with the impromptu wash. Harold started shaking. John inched forward and wrapped his arms around Harold, holding him against his chest as he cried, the stress reaction he’d been putting off, probably.
It went on for a long time, and John started to feel concerned, even as Harold clung to him. Had he done the wrong thing? Had Harold not wanted sex? Had he been misreading the situation? Had it just been adrenaline and John was a convenient body?
He closed his eyes and concentrated on holding and comforting Harold. Harold was the most important thing right now. Harold.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Reese,” Harold said later, wiping his eyes with his fingers. “I find that I’m a bit overwhelmed by it all.”
“It’s ok,” John responded, offering a tissue for his nose. “It’s a physiological response.”
They sat still for another few minutes until Harold shifted. He ran a hand down John’s arm, stroking gently. John felt the hairs stand on end, and Harold must have felt it, too, because he repeated the motion. He leaned in and kissed John’s neck, his hand moving to John’s chest. He played with one of John’s nipples. It was John’s turn to shiver, though it was for arousal rather than emotion.
Harold took John’s wrist and placed his hand on his hardening dick.
No, he hadn’t been misreading the situation.
John was more than happy to oblige Harold, eager, even. It wasn’t about obligation. It was about desire. Real desire, not simulated. He hadn’t felt like this in — a long time.
As Harold pinned him down, moved his hands over his head and wrapped his fingers around the bottom of the headboard and told him to stay, John let go of the constant planning and thinking and scheming. He let go of his need to be in control and five steps ahead of Finch, because right now Harold was sucking his dick and all he wanted to do was lie back and feel it.
Harold was sucking his dick —
He could barely believe such a wonderful thing was happening. It was certainly more than he deserved. More than he’d earned. More than he’d ever expected when he set out on the wild journey with his enigmatic boss to save people one by one.
Thank God Harold brought the washcloth so he wouldn’t be tasting lube on John as he sucked him.
Harold was sucking his dick!
Was there anything better? Yes, he’d fucked Harold earlier, but that had been for Harold. He’d given Harold pleasure. He’d used his dick to make Harold feel good. This… this was about Harold giving him pleasure…
There was nothing in it for Harold. No ulterior motives, no reason for doing it… It certainly wouldn’t get John to do more.
Well, giving John such a reward might sweeten the deal, certainly, but was Finch thinking that far ahead? Was he planning on keeping John as his creature the rest of his life?
John found that he didn’t mind. He was already Harold’s.
He closed his eyes and allowed a groan to escape his lips as Harold lapped at the slit of his cock to taste his precum. God, this was better than he ever would have expected to be allowed to feel. Harold’s lips around his dick… Harold’s tongue teasing his balls… Harold’s nose and hair and eyelashes and teeth and fingers and —
Harold was surprisingly strong when he held John’s hips down when he would have thrust up.
“I said, don’t move,” Harold hissed, squeezing his hands around John’s waist to emphasize his point, digging his thumbs into John’s hipbones. Then he swallowed John’s erection almost to the hilt and it was all John could do to force himself to wait for further instructions, biting his lip to keep the wanton whimper from escaping.
“Inside me, now,” Harold ordered, pulling off John’s dick and rolling to his back. John didn’t hesitate, finding the lube and condoms where he’d left them earlier. “I don’t need any prep, just do it,” Harold said when John reached between his legs to test how loose he was. It had only been a few hours, but John had no idea how quickly Harold would tense up again.
It had been a long and stressful few days; he wouldn’t be surprised if he’d have to start all over again. Fortunately for both of them, he didn’t.
Harold cursed him colorfully as John stretched him, but broke off with a moan when John pushed into him with little effort a moment later, the praises pouring out of him like rain. Harold wanted to be kissed this time. He wanted John’s lips on his and on his neck and shoulders and throat. He wanted John’s back under his hands and John’s weight on top of him and one of John’s hands in his hair.
He wanted deep, hard thrusts, a complete contrast to earlier.
“John, oh, John,” Harold chanted as John thrust, interspersing John’s name with moans and hiccuping gasps of pleasure. John loved hearing his name on Harold’s lips when he was lost in sex. He loved Harold’s hands on him, Harold’s ass squeezing around him. He loved being able to serve Harold like this, to give him everything he wanted. “John!”
“Say my name,” John begged as he panted onto Harold’s sweaty neck. “My real name.”
Harold did, whispering the name that John was given at birth — the name he’d only had for five weeks before it’d been changed the first time, the name it had taken John ten years to find, the name that only they two knew, in the entire world except for a semi-sentient AI, because everyone else was dead.
Harold knows, his mind whispered as he came. He knows.
He knows me, he sees me, another part answered.
Chapter 7: Misunderstanding
Harold and John wake up in the morning with slightly clearer heads...
“Stop that, it tickles,” Harold protested, swiping half-heartedly at John’s hand where his fingers stroked up and down his inner thigh. John grinned and nibbled his ear. He wanted Harold to make that gurglely purring sound he’d made earlier, and he had some research to do to find out what worked. God, he loved this kind of research!
“Maybe I want you to do me,” he suggested, letting Harold hear his desire and letting his fingers explore farther.
Harold snorted through his nose. “Despite my Herculean first showing, I haven’t managed more than a single orgasm a night in years,” he informed John.
“Why do I doubt that?” John wondered, coaxing a twitch from Harold’s dick, quickly followed by another.
Harold groaned and allowed the activity for a few moments, then sighed and stopped John’s hand. “I’m serious, John. This won’t happen every time.”
John nodded and removed his hand, then responded verbally. “I’m just glad there’ll be another time,” he admitted. Harold frowned. “I didn’t want to assume,” he explained. “I mean what if this was a one-time —“
“I could never do that to you,” Harold breathed, moving to kiss him again. “But you need to know I’m not a young man anymore. You already know I can’t bend as much as I’d like.”
“Whatever we do is fine, Harold. I’ll take whatever you give me. Everything you give me.”
“Yeah,” John agreed. “Everything.”
“Would you take my love?”
“Every bit,” John replied, his throat closing over the happiness that threatened to choke him. He rolled them over so he could kiss Harold from above and press their bodies together. He felt Harold begin to stir again. “I love you. I love you so —“
John woke with a gasp, startled out of his dream by Harold moving next to him. He was on his stomach, head turned away from Harold, but that didn’t matter. Harold would touch him, tease him, kiss him. Harold loved him, and he loved Harold. He didn’t need the words spoken aloud to know it. He knew it in his bones.
He kept his eyes closed, basking in the knowledge that Harold knew him at the deepest levels possible. Harold knew him and still wanted him, loved him, despite who he was, despite his darkness, despite all the repulsive and horrible things he’d done in his life.
Shame rushed over him, nearly drowning him with its potency.
He hadn’t thought of Grace in days.
Had he even remembered to tell her he’d be out of town? Probably not, considering how out of his mind he’d been trying to find Harold. Shit, she deserved better than that. She deserved better than his half-hearted attempts at pretending to care for her the way she deserved.
He had to break it off with her. He couldn’t go on deceiving her, deceiving Harold. He was treating her like an asset, and that wasn’t fair to her, nor was it the right thing to do. He was a different man than the one Harold had hired. Hell, he was a different man than the one he’d been last night.
Harold sat up and reached for his glasses. He groaned softly in pain.
“Oh, dear,” Harold whispered, sounding distressed. “Oh, what have I done?” he asked himself, now sounding heartbroken. His hand hovered briefly over John’s back, close enough to feel the heat of his skin, but he didn’t move to touch him. “How will you ever forgive me?” he added, and John knew he was talking to him, not himself.
Harold got out of bed before John could think of an answer, and he listened with growing concern as Harold skipped a shower and pulled on his clothing from the day before — the clothes he’d been wearing when Root kidnapped him! — and rifled through John’s jacket for his wallet and phone. He felt frozen, unable to move by the weight of Harold’s misunderstanding.
Harold thought he’d manipulated John into bed.
But John had been the one to initiate. John had been the one to get things rolling. John had been the one to kiss him after that first orgasm in the shower.
How could Harold possibly blame himself?
“Yes, this is Harold Crane. I’ll need a car at —“ He gave the hotel’s address. “Yes, and a computer and phone. The specifications should be in your files. Will that be a problem?”
John pushed himself to a sitting position in time to see Harold at the door. “Harold,” he croaked, needing to clear his throat. “Harold, wait.” Harold froze and turned back, their eyes meeting briefly. John saw shame in Harold’s eyes, too. Fear. Sadness. Tears. “Wait for me. Please,” he begged. “Wait, please.”
Grief took over Harold’s expression. He shook his head and left the room without a word, his shoulders slumped.
“Don’t leave,” John choked out, tears spilling over his eyelid and down his cheeks. “Please don’t leave me.”
John thought of Jessica and an airport terminal and wondered if this soul-crushing hopelessness was how she felt when he couldn’t get the words out in time for her to believe him. She’d been turned away by the time he spoke, far too softly to be heard, just like Harold had turned away. Though Harold heard him and left anyway… He’d begged, and Harold left anyway…
No! He couldn’t let it end like that. He had to try. He had to fight for Harold, for what they could be.
He knew Harold wouldn’t appreciate being chased down a hotel hallway by a naked man, so he took the time to pull on his slacks and undershirt, though he didn’t bother with shoes. He arrived at the lobby in time to see a black car pulling away, Harold’s silhouette in the back window. Harold was gone.
Fuck him and his billions of dollars that got him near instant compliance with his every whim! Fuck his instinct to run! Fuck him for abandoning John just when he needed him!
He glanced at the reception desk, but the woman from the day before was absent, replaced by a different woman. Good. He wasn’t sure what he’d have done if she’d been there to witness his humiliation.
Cursing his stupidity for not saying more, for not reassuring Harold that he’d wanted every moment of their lovemaking, John returned to the room and got himself cleaned up, not rushing so he could give them both a little time before he tried contacting Harold again. He didn’t want to push too hard when he was already being rejected — at least in the short-term.
He hoped it was just the short-term.
He dialed Harold’s number, expecting — and getting — voicemail. He felt a moment of panic. What should he say? What should he admit to?
The phone beeped.
“You’re not responsible, Harold. I took advantage. It’s my fault. I’m sorry.” He paused, at a loss for what else he could say. “I’ll be back at work by the end of the day,” he promised.
Two hours later, he got a text while he was standing in line at the airport to buy a ticket to New York. Harold had appropriated the charter, as John expected.
I’ll be out of touch for a few days. We’ll talk when I return.
He wondered how long it took Harold to compose the message, how long he dithered over the simple wording, how long he he waited to send it. It wasn’t the clear break-up it could have been, and it indicated that Harold would at least talk to him in the future, so John had to take that as a small victory. The bridge wasn’t burned yet…
Thus dismissed, John knew he had three objectives until Harold wanted to see him again: (1) Get back to New York and the numbers, (2) Clean out the library of any traces of their research into Caroline Turing, aka Root, aka Samantha Groves, and (3) Break up with Grace. Nicely.
He didn’t want to hurt her any more than he already had by lying to her. He had to come up with a reason John Stills would leave her. Family emergency? Accident? Moving for work? He didn’t want to be a jerk to her, though before he’d figured out what he wanted from Harold he might not have considered it and just disappeared from her life — ghosting away into the dark. But he couldn’t do that, not now. He wouldn’t. He owed her a decent break-up, after all the bad ones she’d had.
He’d have to spend time on figuring out the proper way to break things off. At least Grace hadn’t said she loved him yet. It would make that small part of the next few days easier.
He couldn’t risk his newfound position in Harold’s life, however in the air it was at the moment. Harold loved him. He just had to make sure Harold realized it.
Chapter 8: Breaking Up
Harold's run and John has an important conversation to have with Grace.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
John spent six hours getting the library organized and cleaned for Harold’s return. He filed away anything that had to do with Root. He wrote a field report about his involvement with Leon Tao and the Aryans. He reshelved the books he’d needed to find Leon and Hannah Frey’s numbers. He checked the security feeds and watched Alicia Corwin break into the library five minutes after Harold left, watched her look around, study the board with the numbers Harold couldn’t save, watched her try and fail to access Harold’s computers.
He came up with his plan to break up with Grace while he swept the floor and dusted all the surfaces and bookshelves in their workspace. He’d tell her he was gay, that he was just now coming to terms with it, that he wasn’t out because he worried about being a gay officer on the force, that stereotypes and discrimination were alive and well despite legislation to the contrary. It wouldn’t be a quick break-up, he decided, but it would be better for her to lose him to being gay than an angry fight or him disappearing.
She’d want to talk about his feelings about being gay. He’d apologize for ‘using’ her when he hadn’t been out to himself yet. She’d forgive him because that’s the kind of person she was. She might want to stay friends, to help him find a boyfriend. He’d even allow her to set him up on a few dates, just to say he tried before slowly drifting away, claiming he’d found someone.
He estimated it would take between two and four months. Not bad, considering. He could hide it from Harold that long.
He’d have to hide it from Harold.
And if he and Harold ever ran into her when they were on a date, well, he’d say he’d forgotten Harold’s involvement in her life, and they’d be dealing with Harold’s betrayal and pretending to be dead anyway.
If he and Harold were on a date?
He frowned to himself at the thought. It wasn’t possible, not the way things were.
Well, probably wasn’t possible.
Did he want to date Harold? Was it more than sex?
Of course it was more than sex, he reminded himself. They’d made love. Under slightly compromised circumstances, yes, but that had definitely been lovemaking.
Probably. On his end, at any rate. Who knew about Harold when he pulled his disappearing act?
John picked up his new dog from Fusco and returned to his loft for a few hours of sleep. He’d need it if he was going to have the conversation with Grace in the morning. Better to give them time to talk, give him the evening free if Harold showed up again wanting to talk.
The curtains of Grace’s apartment’s windows were drawn closed when he arrived. Grace never closed her curtains or blinds, preferring the natural light during the day. John tensed, sensing danger.
He didn’t bother knocking, as he’d usually do. Instead he jimmied the lock and slipped in, gun raised. He heard movement in the kitchen and stalked over, pointing his gun into the room first and —
Harold sat at the kitchen table with Grace, a teacup halfway to his mouth, his other hand clasped in both of hers, his eyes wide and startled behind his glasses at seeing John. They narrowed into angry slits.
At least he’s wearing a clean suit, John thought stupidly. Though that hickey on his neck is huge. I don’t remember doing that. I wonder how he explained it to her?
“Are you following me?” Harold demanded, setting the cup down with a clatter. “I was very clear that I wouldn’t be available —“
“Harold, do you know John?” Grace asked, and John felt his carefully constructed world collapsing in on itself, just as he’d suspected it might when he started this whole thing. He lowered his gun and shoved it in his waistband behind his back. He was screwed. He knew it. Now he had to wait through the fire storm and see how badly he’d been burned and whether there was anything left to salvage.
Goddamn it! He’d been trying to avoid a confrontation like this.
Not that he’d ever actually expected to. He knew his luck was piss-poor when it came to relationships.
“Of course,” Harold answered, keeping one eye on John while addressing Grace. “Mr. Reese and I met in September.” He paused, realizing what Grace had said. “Wait, do you know him?”
“John’s the boyfriend I was telling you about,” Grace answered tightly. She turned her attention on John. “Only he said his name was Stills, not Reese. Detective John Stills.”
“Remind me, how long have you known each other?” Harold asked, dropping into his seat again, exhaustion flooding his features.
“We met in October,” she answered, her voice far colder than it had been. John suspected it was directed at him, rather than at Harold. She was suspicious, as she should be, given the situation. “He was doing a neighborhood house-by-house check. Then we ran into each other in the park, and at a gallery downtown, and…” She trailed off.
“October,” Harold repeated in a dull voice. “A few weeks after I hired him.”
“You’ve known Harold was alive this whole time and didn’t say anything?” Grace demanded angrily as she approached John, her eyes flashing. “You knew he was alive when you met me? When you saw his picture that first morning? You know how I feel about him! You let me think he was still dead when you knew —? I trusted you! I slept with you! How dare you —“
She slapped John across the face.
“Get out of my house.”
“I can explain —“
She slapped him a second time, then motioned towards the front door. “I don’t care! Get out!”
John glanced over at Harold. He sat in the chair, his face more of a mask than it had been at the beginning of their association. “I suggest you do as she says, Mr. Reese,” Harold said coldly. “I’ll arrange for a severance package to be sent to your loft.”
“Are you firing me?” John blurted. “Over a little —“
“Grace’s feelings are not little things to me, Mr. Reese. I’ve made my share of mistakes around them, granted, but —“
“For God’s sake, Harold, I was coming here to break up with her!” John exclaimed. “I was going to do it nicely. She’d never have known I was anything but who she thought I was.”
It was the wrong thing to say. He knew it as soon as it was out of his mouth, but he couldn’t take it back. Grace burst into tears and backed away from him. Harold got to his feet and pulled her into his arms. She went far too willingly for John’s liking.
He went far too willingly for John’s liking.
Goddamn it, Harold was supposed to be his!
“It seems I’ve greatly underestimated the depths of your —“
“I’m not a monster anymore, Harold. Because of you. I realized I was doing the wrong thing and I came to correct it.”
“This is you correcting your mistakes?” Harold asked, his voice dripping with incredulity. “You’re just hurting all of us!”
“You were gonna be away,” John protested. “I wanted to do it before you came back.”
“I hardly see how my presence —“
“You made me rethink everything about my life two nights ago. When —“
“Get out,” Harold interrupted.
“Do I need to repeat myself?”
John stiffened at the steel in Harold’s voice, correcting his posture. He felt like he was a green recruit again, back in Basic being called out in front of everybody. He’d fucked up and he knew it, but he didn’t want to let go. He couldn't let go. And yet the fields had been burned to the ground. Might as well salt them himself before Harold got the chance.
He knew Harold. He knew what would hurt him, what would stick.
He knew what would hurt her, too.
If he couldn’t have Harold, why should she get him?
“Was I such a bad lay that you had to run back to the little woman?” John asked, pitching his voice to drive the pain home as far as it would go. Grace raised her head to look at Harold’s face. It was as white as a sheet. He clenched his jaw, instinctively pulling Grace away from the source of his pain and tighter to his body. John felt jealousy unfurl in his gut, a dark, poisonous thing that took over whatever little rational thought he had left. He went for broke. “You sure didn’t mind me sucking your cock or fu—“
“Get. Out.” Harold snarled, his anger so huge and powerful John could see a vein in Harold’s temple twitching with the effort it took him to keep it leashed and under control. He’d never seen Harold so emotional before, except the other night in bed in Charolette, though that had been passion rather than rage.
He thought of Harold kissing him, caressing him, sucking his dick because he wanted to give John pleasure…
That Harold was gone, buried underneath this new version of pain and anger and sorrow. Good. He should be sorry he was rejecting John, leaving him for the woman he’d spent four years lying to and the past 18 months avoiding and hurting beyond measure. Who was Harold to hurt them both? Who was he to hurt John when he’d finally opened up, when he’d finally found someone he thought he could trust? Maybe even love?
Can’t trust anyone, John reminded himself in a voice that sounded like Kara Stanton at her most bitter. They’ll always screw you and cast you away. They’ll always fuck you over until you don’t know right from wrong. They’ll always leave you just when you realize you can’t live without them.
John turned and left the apartment, sending the parting shot back over his shoulder. “I guess you’re like the rest of my bosses after all; throwing me away once you get what you want. You surprised me, though, Harold. I didn’t think it’d be a fuck.”
Kudos to Julia_oliver for guessing Harold's whereabouts.
Chapter 9: Overheard Conversation
John's just left Grace's apartment... He needs to know what Harold's really thinking, so he does what he does best: Spy.
Ah, yes. We've finally gotten to good angst-y bits. Enjoy!
John got as far as across the street before he activated the bugs he’d planted around Grace’s apartment. He bought a newspaper and found a bench from which he could watch the front door. In his ear, Grace was crying.
“— don’t understand.”
“I know it’s a lot to take in,” Harold said.
“Did you sleep with him?” she asked hesitantly.
“I took advantage,” Harold whispered, and John felt a moment of regret for his hasty words at hearing the pain in Harold’s admission. He didn’t have to make it worse for them, and yet… Harold was his, and Grace didn’t deserve peace of mind if she was taking Harold from him.
Hurting Harold had never been on his agenda.
“He tried to tell me it was him taking advantage of me, but he works for me,” Harold continued. “There’s no question of fault, ethically. I — I wanted what I wanted and he gave it without question. I shouldn’t have asked, but…”
“You did,” she finished for him when she realized he wouldn’t say it. “Was it what he said? You throwing him aw—”
“No!” Harold exclaimed vehemently. “I care very deeply for him. I was ashamed of what I did. I was scared. I didn’t want to lose him but I didn’t know what else to do. I told him I’d be unavailable for a few days but that we’d meet soon. I just needed to get out of there and clear my head. I needed to find a way to apologize. I needed to — I needed to find you and try to make up for my mistakes.” Harold paused.
“I shouldn’t have fired him,” he said very softly, giving John a modicum of hope. Maybe he hadn’t fucked up too badly after all? “I was acting on hurt and anger. I’ll have to get in touch with him.”
“Later,” Grace said. “We need to work on us, first. You can start by telling me what really happened in 2010 and how you’re alive,” Grace declared.
“It’s a long story.”
“We have time,” she snapped, her voice a venomous imitation of its usual sweetness.
John heard the clatter of Harold’s glasses hitting the kitchen table. “My friend Nathan had a contract to produce some software for the government. He called me in to work on it. Once they had it and had proof it would work independently of him, they decided that if he were to ever go public about the project, it would be shut down. That was too big a risk for some of the individuals in power and they staged the ferry bombing to mask an assassination.”
Grace gasped. John could picture her putting her hands to her mouth, the widening of her eyes. He heard shuffling. They must be leaving the kitchen. He activated the living room bug, suspecting they’d head for the sofa. Harold was still talking.
“They killed dozens of innocent civilians, just to take him out. They didn’t know about me, but if they had, I’d be dead as well,” Harold continued. “I let you think I was dead so that they wouldn’t find you, because if they found you, if they tortured you or threatened to kill you, I’d have given them everything they wanted.
“When I woke up yesterday and realized what I’d done with John — to John —, I realized my life had gotten out of control. To hurt a friend by coercing him into sex? I couldn’t believe I’d done it. And yet, I had. I’d done it and enjoyed it and I wanted to do it again, no matter the ethics involved. I despised myself for wanting to do it again, for doing it at all, for even thinking of it. So I decided — I changed my mind about being dead for you. I wasn’t ready to confront John and I didn’t know what I wanted from him anyway, or how to talk about it, but I —“
He stopped, and John wondered what was going on. He should’ve planted a camera, too. Why hadn’t he? It all seemed so blurry, now, his time with her, his time before knowing Harold’s scent and taste and feel.
“I was in pain and I needed you, so I came here. I know how selfish that sounds. I know how horrible a person I am to leave his bed to come crawling back to you, but I’ve missed you terribly, and I’ve never stopped loving you. It’s been a year and a half of me letting you suffer when I could have taken the pain away by walking through that door. All I can say is that I was scared for you. I was terrified of what they’d do when they found you. But that makes me a coward and cruel as well as selfish, and I know it.
“I wasn’t faithful. I wanted to be, but I wasn’t. I don’t expect you to take me back. I know that’s too much to ask, but I wanted to at least talk to you, to reassure you that I’m alive, even if you never want to see me again after this.”
“Where does John fit in to all of this?”
“I’ve been attracted to him for a long time,” Harold admitted. “But I’d promised myself I wouldn’t act on those feelings. Both for ethical reasons and because I wanted to remain faithful to you.” He paused. “Darling, I’ve been lying to everyone since I left home. My name isn’t Harold Martin. It isn’t even Harold Finch, the name John knows.” He paused again, and John wondered if he was about to reveal his name.
“I can’t tell you, or him, or anyone. If the wrong person hears…”
“What changed two days ago that you’d give up on yourself like that?” she asked softly when he didn’t finish his sentence. John pictured her touching him, holding him. He wanted to throw something, break something, shoot something.
Harold was his, goddamn it!
“I was kidnapped. The woman who did it, she— she killed someone sitting in the car next to me. I watched her torture a man for nearly 24 hours while tied to a chair a few feet away. Then she killed him in front of me. She cut my hand to distract a pharmacist to steal drugs. She threatened unarmed, innocent people if I made a scene when we were in public. She drugged me to keep me from trying to escape. She effectively tortured me.”
“John saved me. He took care of me: Got me away from her, made me eat and sleep. He gave everything I asked sexually…” There was silence for a long time. John thought about moving, but decided against it. He didn’t think he’d be able to pay attention to anything other than Harold’s voice in his ear.
“He’s a good man, despite his actions today,” Harold continued. “So many people have tried to turn him, to make him into the monster they wanted, but he’s still good underneath it all. Somehow, there’s a tiny piece of his soul that’s clean and pure. I’ve been trying to nurture it, help it grow. I’d thought it was working.”
Harold gave a little sob. John pictured Grace holding Harold’s hand. He crumpled his newspaper. He got to his feet and sat down again and thought about who he could get away with shooting, even if it was just the kneecaps.
“It was wonderful,” Harold whispered, startling John out of his fury. “To touch him like that, to be with him so intimately, to simply kiss him. I wanted every moment. I wanted it to go on and on for days. I wanted so much…” He stopped.
“He must be so hurt by what I did, what I said, and he lashed out at us, and — And I had no idea he was — dating you,” Harold finished with a cough that John would bet masked another sob. “I should’ve known something was wrong with the way he managed his off-hours so precisely, the way he kept losing phones and going dark. The others…”
“What others?” Grace asked, and John felt a moment of fear. Would Harold out him as having slept with other people? Would Harold —
“It’s not important,” Harold whispered.
“Harold, I know that look. Something’s wrong and you’re worried it’ll upset me. Tell me.”
Harold sighed. “I’m not worried it’ll upset you,” he said after a long moment of silence. “I know it will.”
“Tell me,” she repeated, and John knew he was in for a world of hurt. If there was one thing Grace valued, it was honesty, and he’d told her she was the only one he was sleeping with.
“John has made a point of making sure I’m aware that he’s having sex. Women, men, an associate of ours. Everyone but you,” Harold finished. “Looking back, now, the pattern is so easy to see. That gallery you mentioned, was it October 17th?”
“Yes, how did you know?”
“And your first date? The 22nd?”
“And after that…” Harold rattled off a series of dates that matched John and Grace’s meetings perfectly. He shut his eyes in pain. Harold was an even better puzzle-master than he was to find and remember the dates within all the other times John went dark for various reasons.
“I’d have to check my datebook, but that sounds right,” Grace said, her voice strikingly matter-of-fact for the circumstances. There was the sound of movement. John guessed they were shifting on the couch. “He seemed so nice. He kept wanting to slow things down, to respect my boundaries. To talk. We dated for almost two months before we had sex. I thought there could only be one man for me, but he was so much like you in so many ways, and I was lonely, and…” She trailed off. “I thought I was falling in love with him,” she said, her voice hoarse from crying. “I felt so guilty. I felt like I was betraying you and your memory.”
“Darling, you thought I was dead. If I were, I’d have wanted you to move on. Even now… I wouldn’t have wanted you to spend your whole life alone. And that it was John…” He paused for a moment. “I told myself that loving him wouldn’t take away my love for you…”
“I love you, that’s never changed, but my feelings for him… I don’t have the words yet… It’s so complicated, and now this…”
“I’m not sure what to think, or what I feel,” Grace responded, her voice muffled, probably by Harold’s shirt. Even so, John could hear upset and potential for more tears in her voice. “It’s kind of ironic that he seduced both of us,” she added with a forced chuckle. “A threesome in the making, you know? Made us have feelings for him…”
Harold sighed. “I thought he was my friend,” he said. “I thought he — never mind what I thought. He proved to be far more broken than I suspected, to do this to you. To me,” he added softly. “Was he telling the truth in that voicemail?” he asked with the certainty of sudden insight. John cringed at the tone. He knew what was coming.
“Is it possible he seduced me the other night and manipulated it so that I thought I’d done it and would become upset for hurting him? Was he going to use that guilt to try to control me? To coerce me into bed? Hold his relationship with you over my head like a guillotine to get his own way?”
Grace started crying again.
Harold made a new choking sound, different than when he’d been holding back tears. “I think I’m going to be sick,” he said.
John pulled the earwig out of his ear and went to find a bottle to crawl into for the day. He couldn’t listen to any more of Harold’s disappointment in him.
He couldn’t listen to how much he’d hurt Harold… or Grace, but mostly Harold…
All he’d wanted to do was protect him, help him, please him…
Would he ever be anything but a fuck up?
Chapter 10: Consequences
John must face the consequences of what he's done.
A payphone rang next to him as John walked Bear the next morning, hungover and miserable. He didn’t remember much of yesterday once he started drinking, though he had a sense of vomiting in an alley before getting into a bar fight. He woke in a strange motel bed, covered in vomit and blood, though none of the blood was his own, he found out quickly enough. Small blessings, he thought, adjusting his baseball cap to hide from the sun.
The phone continued to ring, digging sharply into his brain like a pickax made of red-hot iron. He squinted up at the camera on the corner and the little red light blinking at him. He snatched the phone from its cradle and held it to his ear. The first beep screeched too loudly for his comfort, but he considered it penance for drinking so much.
Harold didn’t answer when John called, not that he’d expected him to after what he’d said the day before. He left a voicemail, indicating there was a number and he was on his way to the library.
The library was empty when he arrived ten minutes later. Not just empty of Harold, but empty. No computers, no books, no card catalogues or furniture. Not even his stashed guns and weapons. Anything not nailed down was gone, disappeared into the ether by Harold’s billions.
Harold must have convinced himself that John had planned the seduction. Must have decided not to give John a second chance…
He couldn’t think about that yet. He had a number.
He tracked down the number at the public library, his thoughts working sluggishly, then had to go to his loft for the laptop Harold had given him to find the number’s name. Without Harold’s software, he would have a much more difficult time locating the name. He could do it, but it would waste valuable time that the number might not have.
The laptop was gone. So were his spare phones. On the coffee table was an envelope full of money, IDs and credit cards, mostly the ones he’d already used for cases, but a few new ones. There was no note.
The only bright side was that Harold left his closet arsenal.
He bought a laptop and found the number the old-fashioned way. Carter helped him locate the girl, the daughter of a diplomat, temporarily in the States with her father. She skipped out on bodyguards frequently, but even his most detailed, security-cleared alias couldn’t pass the security screening for the consulate.
He thought of Harold again, how Harold would have found a way to get him an in with the consulate magically or with money, how he could have stalked his competitors and swiped their wallets to show off. Harold would have complained at the showmanship but enjoyed the spectacle nonetheless.
With no in at the consulate and no Harold to impress, he’d have to stalk the girl.
He saved her life, earned a place on her security team, but it wasn’t enough. Without Finch’s backup, he was too slow to know what was going on. He needed more information, and he couldn’t be in two places at once. She was headstrong and in love, and she slipped away when he wasn’t looking and got herself killed at the hands of her boyfriend’s drug-dealing friends.
John found the man at his apartment and gave him flying lessons for costing the girl her life. Without Finch in his ear telling him to be cautious or to think through his need for justice and revenge, he didn’t have the same stops as he would have had. He felt a moment of regret, but he couldn’t change what he’d done, merely atone. Just like with Harold.
There were police swarming around the body by the time he got to the ground floor. He found a place to hide and wait them out, opening his laptop and making a collection of the pictures he’d taken over the past few days. He emailed the files to Carter, anonymously, of course.
“What do you know about all this?” Carter asked when she found him in the back of her car several hours later.
“I couldn’t save the girl,” he replied.
“And the boyfriend?”
“Drug deal gone bad.”
She sighed. “Thanks for the pictures. How’s Finch doing? I’m surprised he hasn’t asked me to break the law for you two yet.”
“He’s — adjusting,” John perseverated.
“You tell him he can call me if he wants, ok? Though I doubt he will. Just make sure he knows he can.”
“Sure.” John got out of the car.
He drank himself to sleep again and woke up to the feeling of Bear’s tongue on his cheek. He hadn’t gone out, which was a plus, and he hadn’t trashed his place, so he had clothes and food and a shower that beat the motel hands-down.
Cursing to himself about the dog he’d gotten for Harold, he went over to Grace’s apartment to stalk her and Harold only to find it empty, a ‘for sale’ sign conspicuous on the window.
God damn it, but Harold could move quickly!
He pulled out his phone, frowning to himself as he scrolled though his contacts. He wanted to call Harold, to hear his voice and try apologizing again. He paused with his hand on the button, an idea occurring to him.
Why would Harold have cleared out the entire library if he was rethinking his decision to fire John? Wouldn’t he have left him the resources, even if he wasn’t ready to see him yet?
A hazy memory floated to the front of his head: Sitting in a bar, already three sheets to the wind even though it was barely dinnertime, watching his phone light up and vibrate across the counter. He looked down. The screen read: Finch.
Scrolling to his call history, he felt his stomach falling when he saw the incoming and outgoing calls from that night. He closed his eyes to try to bring up more of the memory.
“Mr. Reese,” Harold said, his voice soft and serious. John scowled irritably.
“Finch? D’we have a numb’r?” he slurred.
“No, we — have you been drinking?” Harold’s voice switched to concern, making John screw up his expression even more. “Are you all right?”
“N’ver better,” John declared. “What d’you want?”
“I thought I had perhaps been a little hasty this morning, so —“
“You’re a f’ckin’ hypocrite!” John blurted, unable to stop himself. “You been lyin’ t’me f’r months!”
“John, I’m going to call back when you’re sober,” Harold said softly. “We can’t have a productive conversation right now.”
“An’ now you’re runnin’ away?” John growled. “F’ckin’ coward! Can’t even face me, can you? Can’t face how I made you feel!”
“Well, fuck you, Finch! Fuck you and your Machine and your martyr complex and your —“
“John, please don’t —“
“We would’a been great, you know. Would’a helped people. An’ now you’re leaving me for that holier-than-thou bitch who still hasn’t gotten over you even though I’ve been doin' her for months? I’m good at my job, Finch, and I could’a had her as putty in my hands but I left her some dignity ‘cause I didn’t want her sniffin' after me when I had you to manage. She loved it, you know. Loved what I did. Better’n you, she said. Likes variety, she said. You were too vanilla for her, too predictable. She’d a been mine if I wanted her, an’ you couldn’t’a done an’thing about it!”
Harold made a pained sound into the phone and hung up. John stared at the phone for a moment, the display blurring in front of his eyes. He pressed redial.
“I’m gonna find you, Finch, an’ I’m gonna —“
Harold hung up again. The next call went directly to voicemail.
“I’m gonna find you, an’ I’m gonna fuck you, an’ I’m gonna make you pay for ev’ry damn’d lie you told, starting with wantin’ t’help me an’ wantin’ t’save me, an’ wantin’ me t’like it, an’ wantin’ t’fuck me, an’ wantin’ me t’fuck you, an’ —“
A beep cut off the rest of his sentence, indicating he’d said all he could on the message.
God damn, he was stupid! No wonder Harold disappeared, him spouting all that shit at him.
As he was considering breaking into the apartment look for clues, just to find Harold, to apologize, not to make good on his drunken threats, of course, a payphone rang. He frowned at it but went to pick it up.
The numbers never stop coming, isn’t that what Finch had said at the beginning?
And… I hired you to do a job, Mr. Reese. I never said it would be easy.
Chapter 11: Passing Time
John attempts to make up for his mistakes and pass the time until he can find Harold.
The story's been pouring out of me lately, and I thank all my wonderful readers for commenting and encouraging me! Enjoy!
John dedicated himself to the numbers. He abandoned the already abandoned library. He controlled his penchant for killing people who hurt women and children. He went back to shooting kneecaps.
Harold would want it that way.
Harold might not be here anymore, but he could work the way Harold wanted. It was the only thing he could think of to do. The only thing that might convince Harold he wasn’t total garbage.
Yes, he’d made a mistake killing the last number’s murderous boyfriend, but that was a momentary glitch. He’d do better, save more people, keep up the crusade. He’d make up for the pain, too, he promised the missing Harold. He’d find a way to apologize for his harsh words. He’d learn to be a better man.
Finch had given him enough money over the months they’d worked together that he had quite a nest-egg stashed in an offshore account, and he still had most of the covers Finch created for him, as well as safehouses, weapons caches, and bank accounts, though every single bit of technology was gone. He started using the money to recruit assets to help him help the numbers. And he needed the help. By himself, he could do only so much, and he’d always been better with a handler in his ear feeding him information and orders.
Now he was the handler, telling the others what to do. At least he managed to hire a hacker or two to do that part of the work, holed up in one of the safehouses he converted to a new base of operations. Neither of them had Harold’s skills, but he’d take what he could get.
He returned to his CIA methods, needing the structure. Thorough research before engaging with the target. Post-mission reports he saved to a cloud drive he hoped Harold would access. Avoiding direct contact with the numbers or their associates until the endgame. Disappearing into the dark when he could. Not leaving fingerprints.
Every so often he stared into his laptop camera and simply talked, sharing his shame, his heartbreak, his emptiness. He wasn’t sure if Harold would ever see these confessions, but he didn’t care. He needed to grieve what he’d thrown away before he knew he needed it, and the Machine was good at listening.
The men and women he hired weren’t as good as he was, but they got the job done. He never used anyone for more than three numbers, and never in a row. He had standards for who he’d hire, and he developed an extensive knowledge of all the mercs in the city and their histories, picking and choosing based on the need of the individual number.
He didn’t tell his assets about the Machine, or how he picked his targets.
One asset decided to go rogue and killed a number’s boss for his crimes, so John found a way to get him arrested. He made sure the case went to Carter, who figured out the real story relatively quickly. She was a good cop, a good detective. She appreciated his efforts, even as she tore into him on account of his less than legal methods.
He became known as a force to be reckoned with. Avenging, rather than capricious. He took justice into his own hands and kept the gangs in line as much as he could, tracking them and sending messages when their behavior went too far. He wasn’t arrogant enough to think he’d be able to stop gang violence or drugs or crime, but he could keep the most egregious malefactors in line.
Carter and Fusco became even more valuable assets, even though he didn’t always like the messages they preached. He often wished for Harold’s skilled interference between himself and the detectives. Especially when they were on his case about something out of his control. Harold would have found a way to smooth things over.
“What the Hell’s wrong with you lately?” Carter demanded as dawn broke over the Brooklyn skyline.
John, leaning against her car resting after a case, replied softly to keep from aggravating his headache. “Nothing.”
“Don’t give me that bullshit,” she countered. “You’ve been off the rails since Finch left, and it’s not pretty.”
John’s head snapped around to glare at her.
“Yeah, yeah, I figured it out,” she said more gently. “It’s not hard when I realize he hasn’t called about one of your cases in three weeks,” she explained. “That, and you’re drinking on the job. You’d never have done that with him around.”
“I don’t like what you’re implying,” he growled.
“Too bad. You’ve got a problem and I’m worried. You’re gonna end up dead if this keeps up.”
“I’ve got it under control.”
“You and every other alcoholic out there. Go to a meeting, John. You might not like it, but it’ll help.”
“She means AA, dumbass,” Fusco said from behind him. “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
“What would you know?” John snarled, turning on the detective.
“I know there’s a meeting in 20 minutes three blocks from here in a church basement,” Fusco said without rancor. “The coffee sucks, but the meeting’s lead by volunteers, so no priest to deal with.”
“Listen to me, you arrogant son of a bitch,” Fusco barked, advancing on John and poking him in the chest. “I’ve been sober six months thanks to AA,” he continued, less angry but more intense. “You’re gonna hate it at first, but it helps!”
“Oh, you want to be my sponsor, now?” John sneered.
“I’m not touching that with a ten-foot pole,” Fusco replied. He looked John up and down quickly. “You smell like a distillery,” he added nastily. “I’m not risking my chip to be around you more than I have to be. I’m just saying it’s obvious you need help, and the meetings can help.”
John muttered something angry and uncomplimentary under his breath and left them. He didn’t want to look at the reality of what they were saying.
A week later he walked into a bar to find a number and discovered Zoe Morgan instead. She smiled and greeted him.
“Busy?” she asked.
“On the clock,” he replied, though he slipped onto the bar stool next to her and ordered a drink. “Have you seen —“
“He’s gone,” she answered before he could finish the question. “Both your guy and Harold. He doesn’t want to be found. Not by you. He said you were on your own.”
“He wouldn’t tell me what happened,” she continued. “But I got the impression that it was personal rather than professional.”
John shut his eyes for a moment. “Yeah,” he breathed. “I fucked up.”
They sipped their drinks in silence for a few minutes.
“It sounded more than personal,” she said, hesitating over her words in a way that she never had before. “It sounded like you broke his heart.”
John hung his head, feeling the now-familiar rush of shame that overtook him at least three times a day and every single night when he wasn’t working or too drunk to feel anything. Maybe Carter and Fusco were right? He had to get a handle on the drinking. Fuck.
“I probably did.” He sighed. “Then I trampled on it for good measure.”
“You want to talk?”
“Is there a point if I’ll never see him again?”
“Sounds like you need to talk.”
John turned his head away and stared off into the distance. “Working for the Company, bad habits are drilled into you,” he said softly. “They make you think of people as — objects, assets, targets. If you think of people as people, you can’t do your job.” He turned back to her. “I was still thinking like that when I met him. I found his biggest vulnerability and treated her like an asset. Then I did the same to him.”
Zoe nodded and motioned for another drink for him. He drank gratefully, glad he wouldn’t have to explain what treating them like assets entailed. Zoe was smart enough to get it. And she didn’t complain about his drinking. Tomorrow was soon enough to sober up. He wasn’t too drunk to help the number, whenever he found him.
Not yet, at any rate.
“He helped me be a better person, but I learned the lesson too late.”
“And now he’s gone,” she concluded for him.
“I was just figuring it out!” he exclaimed, pounding his fist on the bar. “If I’d had another day or two, maybe… if he hadn’t run away…”
“Hindsight is 20:20,” she commented, and got to her feet. “Call me if you need something, but we’re going to have to keep it professional,” she added.
“I understand. Thanks for not —“ He broke off, deciding against mentioning the alcohol and his supposed problem. “Just, thanks.”
She gave him a sad smile and walked out. He didn’t bother turning his head to watch as he ordinarily would. His sex drive had completely disappeared, subsumed into self-hatred, anger and alcohol.
He limped along with Fusco, Carter and his ever-changing ad-hoc crew until November when FBI Agent Donnelly captured him and three other men in a bank when he’d been trying to help a number find justice for veterans. John hadn’t been able to resist the temptation to help other vets, and once they had the papers, his hacker could work the appropriate computer magic.
Now he was covered in concrete dust with John Warren’s ID in his pocket and a handgun somewhere on the floor that had his prints. The only consolation was that the other guys were in a similar situation, and it would take a while for Donnelly to sort everything out. At least he’d thought to show up at Warren’s office a few times recently, meaning his assistant wouldn’t rat him out to the FBI. He felt a moment of pride for thinking that far ahead. He’d been losing his edge recently, and without Finch’s reminders to keep up his clean cover, he’d let it slip for a few months.
Then the reality of his situation hit him.
It was off to Riker’s Island. The hunt for the ‘Man in the Suit’ was about conclude and he knew where he was likely to end up: Six feet under.
At least he was sober for a change.
Chapter 12: Inside Riker's
John's been captured and is spending some quality time in Riker's.
Elias didn’t seem surprised to see John in the rec yard that afternoon. John’s first thought was to beg or barter for a drink, but… no. He was 16 days sober after a three-day binge — brought on by losing two assets, the number, and the number’s five-year-old son, all because one of the assets disobeyed a direct order and made contact with the jackass who was trying to blackmail the number. He didn’t want to waste his newfound — again — sobriety just because he’d been made. He could kill himself just as easily with his clothing, after all, if things got that bad. If they were close to getting him to betray Harold.
That was the one thing he wouldn’t allow.
“My chess partner tells me you were a bad boy,” Elias said in greeting, smirking like his second-in-command.
“I got captured.” John replied, hiding the surprise that Elias had heard from Finch when he himself hadn’t heard from him since May, despite his many efforts to find/contact the man.
“He also says he’s noticed your efforts to atone,” Elias continued.
“Is that so?”
“My men tell me you’ve been cleaning up the streets. I should thank you.”
“Just doing my job.”
“He hasn’t been paying you for months,” Elias pointed out. “It makes me wonder how you’re funding you little operation.”
“If you know what I’ve been doing, you know how I’m getting money,” John barked, feeling defensive of his methods. They weren’t sterling, but they weren’t the worst, either, and who was mob boss Elias to judge? Unlike when he had Finch’s finances behind him and he could ignore the random bags of cash the mobsters and drug dealers tossed around, now he appropriated them. Leon Tao proved useful as a money launderer, and though Harold might not have approved, he only took from criminals. It seemed less wrong that way.
God, he hated all the gray areas he’d have let Finch handle for him if Finch were here calling the shots. He hated being in charge. He was a soldier, after all, a grunt, not officer material. He’d known that from the beginning and accepted it.
“Do you have a message for him?” Elias asked, breaking into John’s thoughts. He knew Elias meant Harold.
John contemplated his answer for a moment. “Tell him: I’ll die before I give him up.” Elias nodded in acknowledgment. Loyalty was something Elias appreciated. It was a given between John and Finch. It didn’t need to be spoken aloud, but it gave John a good feeling to say it. “And tell him: I’m sorry. I tried.”
“Very good.” Elias turned to go, then turned back in what seemed like a deliberate hesitation to make a point. “John? Try to have a better apology ready for when you see him.”
“You think I’ll see him?” John blurted, feeling hope for the first time in months. He knew his face lit up, softened. He could feel it in the uncomfortable stretch of his muscles. It was months since he’d really smiled.
“I told him to consider a meeting, given what you’ve been up to,” Elias offered. “I have no idea if he’ll do it.”
The only upside to this whole fiasco was that Donnelly put Carter in charge of the interrogations. She knew what she was doing, and she knew John well enough to help him maintain his cover as Warren. He didn’t see much of Donnelly, himself, though he knew the man was watching through either the one-way glass or the video feeds. He wondered if Donnelly suspected him more than the others.
The questioning went on for hours, with breaks for Donnelly to pull Carter to talk to the other prisoners or do some recon on Warren and the others’ identities.
He spent a lot of time in his cell thinking, going over his actions, evaluating himself and finding himself wanting. He’d fallen in love with Harold without realizing it… and he hadn’t had the time to fix his mistakes with Grace before the shit hit the fan. More than that, he shouldn’t have done it in the first place, but as Zoe said all those months ago, hindsight was 20:20.
And he hadn’t made many changes since, he noted. He had a list of assets he worked with, Leon, Carter and Fusco, the hackers and mercenaries, Zoe. He tried to treat Zoe and the detectives as more than assets, but friendships had always been difficult, and he didn’t think he was doing a good job of it.
He kept the kills to a minimum, though. He gave as much as he could to charity. He tried to control his drinking and he’d given up sex entirely.
He’d even gone to confessional once, telling the priest about the manipulations and sex and how he’d hurt those he should’ve been closest to. He hadn’t liked it as much as talking to the Machine, but he’d needed a response that day, and the priest’s forgiveness had felt like a balm on his burnt skin even as he sat in the church crossing himself and saying Hail Mary’s as penance.
God, he missed Harold with his calm presence and subtle grooming of John towards personhood. He even missed Finch, calculating as he was, dedicated and obsessed with the numbers as he was.
He wondered what Harold was doing and if he’d care that John was hours away from discovery. He wondered if Harold would care if he died.
No, scratch that. Of course Harold would care. Just not the way John wanted him to. Not the way he might have, if John hadn’t fucked everything up.
In the middle of the night, a guard stopped by his cell and dropped a balled-up pair of socks into it. John didn’t acknowledge the gift until the guard was long gone. He hoped for a key, but a basic cell phone wasn’t something he’d throw away. As he turned it over in his hand, it rang silently, the light flashing. He opened it, noticed that the number was blocked, and pressed the send button. He held it to his ear.
“I’d change a lot of things about my past,” he said softly and sincerely, knowing with a ferocious certainty who had called. “Using her is one of them. Sleeping with you isn’t. Yes, I took advantage of you when you were vulnerable and upset, and I’d change that part, but I’d still find a way to be with you. An honest way. You changed me for the better, and I didn’t know it until that night. Whether I die here or in some black site lost in the middle states, I owe you a debt. I owe you my life. There’s no way to make up for all the things I’ve done, but you’ve given me a start in the right direction. Thank you.”
He paused, listening to Harold’s breathing on the other end of the phone.
“I’m sorry for everything. I’m sorry I wasn’t the man you thought I was. I’m sorry I couldn’t become him as quickly as you wanted. I want to change. I want to make it up to you. And her, because I know how much it must have hurt her to be betrayed like that.
“I need help. I need help if I’m going to fix any of this. I don’t know how. I’m not good enough on my own. I’m sorry.” He shut his eyes and took a chance. “I love you.”
“And that’s the problem, isn’t it?” Harold asked in a hushed voice. “For I love you, too, and the feeling hasn’t waned in all this time, with all the distance and pain between us.”
Neither spoke for a moment.
“Grace is willing to see you again,” Harold continued with a more measured tone. “We’ve discussed bringing you into our lives as we’ve watched you the past six months. You would still have to earn our trust, but we want you to try and prove to us that you can. I — I realize that you do better with direction, and that it’s been… unsettling for you since I left.
“We’ve talked of returning to New York, to give you a stable base again. There would have to be a trial period…”
“Of course,” John blurted. “Whatever you need. I’ll avoid the place if you want, I’ll —“
“I hope that we wouldn’t have to avoid each other,” Harold muttered. “The whole point is for us to see if we can… reconnect in an appropriate manner.” He paused. “I’ve seen your attempts to find us. The voicemails, emails, searches. The field reports you sent after each number.” He paused again.
“You never responded,” John said when the silence got to be too much for him. He thought of the video confessionals to the Machine, but decided against asking. Harold would tell him, or not, and asking might push him away from honesty.
“No,” Harold said with a sigh. John thought his voice sounded a little guilty. Maybe he wasn’t the only one rethinking his words and actions of that day? “I needed to forgive you before I could contact you. When I heard that Agent Donnelly captured you, I realized that I had.”
“I don’t deserve to be forgiven,” John responded. “I don’t deserve a second chance after the way I treated you both.”
“And that’s why we forgive you. That’s why we’re giving you the chance.”
John lowered his head, feeling unaccustomed hope. “Not much frightens me,” he said. “But that I could have another opportunity to fuck it all up again…”
“We’ll remind you when we see it happening so you can stop doing it.” There was another long moment of silence. “Would you like to come home?” Harold offered gently. To John it felt like when they’d been in the shower and Harold asked him to go more slowly, to enjoy sucking him off, to be with him, not just with him.
“Yes,” John whispered in a voice that broke.
Chapter 13: Seeing Harold
John and Harold have spoken. Now it's time for an in-person meeting.
Here's a short chapter to whet your appetites for the drama coming down the road. Enjoy!
One of Harold’s cars waited outside the prison twelve hours after the phone call from Harold when Donnelly released him, convinced, somehow, that John wasn’t the man he was looking for. He would learn later that Harold discovered the real identify of one of the other men and blackmailed him to admit to being the ‘Man in the Suit.’ As he left the prison, John half-expected Harold and Grace to be inside the car, but neither were. He closed his eyes and let the driver take him wherever Harold wanted him.
The hotel was luxurious and understated, perfect for Harold with his Old World tastes. He accepted the key from the concierge and found his room — suite. Harold had outfitted it with everything he’d need: clothing, toiletries, cash, ID (John Wiley), phone, laptop and, he was startled to see, a gun and tactical blade. The gun was even one of his favorite Sig Saurs.
He shut his eyes, listening to the inner voice that told him to be worthy of Harold’s trust. Worthy of Harold’s concern, to give him weapons to help him feel stable and grounded again after being in prison. Worthy of Harold, full stop.
It was more about Harold than Grace for him, and he suspected they knew that.
Harold sat at the bar waiting for him when John came down at 7pm on the dot, per the instructions left in the suite. He didn’t see Grace.
Harold got to his feet as John approached, his eyes traveling up and down John’s body in an assessing manner. The suit fit perfectly, of course, black with a crisp white shirt like his usual uniform, though the cut and fabric were slightly different. More luxurious. He even wore the blue and silver striped tie, though he wanted to tug at it and loosen it every other breath. But he trusted Harold, trusted that this wouldn’t turn into a field exercise where the tie would be a liability.
And with the way Harold was looking at him, he knew he looked good.
John felt a tingle of desire at the heat in Harold’s gaze, quickly masked behind a bland expression. He banked his own fire at seeing Harold for the first time in six months, dressed to the nines in a charcoal checked suit with a striped shirt and red velvet vest. His tie was a shade darker than the vest and patterned with black diamonds. Harold held his body stiffly.
“John,” Harold murmured.
“Harold,” he replied, stopping in front of him.
“Would you care for a drink?” Harold asked, motioning at the bar.
“No, thanks. I’m trying to cut down.”
Harold nodded to himself and reached over to finish his own drink in a quick swallow. “Is today seventeen or eighteen days?” he wondered, leading John towards the dining room and a table that was already prepared for three people. It wouldn’t just be him and Harold, then, which accounted for at least some of the stiffness. Having all three of them together might get tense.
“Seventeen,” John answered, unsurprised that Harold would know. He noticed Grace joining them from another direction and smiled hesitantly at her. Wearing a dark green dress with a simple gold chain and gold hoops in her ears as her only jewelry, she was a refreshing sight for John’s eyes, so starved for gentleness and beauty. She allowed him to embrace her briefly, though she drew back when he moved to kiss her cheek.
Harold hadn’t touched him yet.
John desperately wanted to hug Harold, to touch his hand, even just pat his shoulder, but he restrained himself. He had to respect the boundaries Harold set. Right now, that included the absence of touch.
Just seeing them in person, sitting with them, being in their presence relaxed him. After so long on his own, there was a comfort in knowing he had his — well, he didn’t know what to call Harold, let alone Grace — friends? — back.
He wanted to drop to his knees and grovel for them to forgive him and give him the second chance they already seemed to be giving him.
They started with small talk: the weather, the food, the traffic in New York, an art exhibit Harold and Grace had been to recently.
“Where have you been?” John asked, looking from one to the other, not ready to deal with feelings or emotions or the shame that wanted to swallow him up every time he thought of how he’d hurt them. A waiter placed salads in front of them. Harold must have chosen the menu beforehand, John decided. Or Grace could have done it, but he suspected Harold’s influence.
“Italy, France, England,” Grace answered. “A scattering of other European countries. We just got back to the States yesterday.”
Harold looked away from John. He picked up his fork and started pushing chives off the top of his salad and putting them in a small pile to the side. He took a deep breath, clearly preparing himself to say something important. John leaned forward slightly, attentive.
“We know how you’ve been occupying your time,” Harold began, looking up. “And don’t worry,” he added quickly. “Grace knows about the numbers and the work we did together.
“When I saw that you were still working the numbers, I nudged a few assets I thought you’d be willing to recruit in your direction,” Harold added, and John immediately knew which ones. He shouldn’t have been surprised, but he was. He thought Harold had written him off. “That’s why I left the safe houses and covers for you. I’ve been in contact with the detectives and Mr. Elias and several other parties in New York who could keep me informed.”
“None of them told me,” John said. “Not even Zoe. She just said you were gone, that you didn’t want me to find you. They knew where you were, and none of them said?”
“I informed them that their silence on this matter was required. Ms. Morgan was quite clear that she wanted me to attempt to restore our relationship, especially after you spoke that evening in July.” Harold paused, and John suspected that Harold had heard the conversation, though by Grace’s expression he figured she might not have.
He nodded, glad he’d had one ally in Zoe and not feeling as if he deserved her. “You wanted to see what I would do,” he stated.
“Yes,” Harold said. He sipped his wine. “Detective Carter called me herself to let me know you were being taken to Riker’s, and why.”
“I wasn’t careful enough,” John said, answering the unasked question of whether or not he understood why he’d been captured.
“You were doing the best you could,” Grace offered, reaching over to rest a hand on his arm. He blinked, noting the absence of her engagement ring. His eyes flickered over to Harold, who was systematically scraping the tiny dots of goat cheese from his salad into a pile separate from the chives. He seemed even more nervous and intent on distracting himself with deconstructing his meal.
“Did I do… ok?” John asked, feeling his throat tighten in anticipation of the answer. He never did good enough. Not when he was a child, not when he was in the army, and not when he was with the Company. They wouldn’t have retired him, otherwise. How could he possibly be good enough for Harold to take back?
Harold looked up and met his eyes as he spoke. “Better than I would have expected,” he said sincerely, and John felt a rush of dizziness at the relief that spread throughout his body. He swayed in his chair. Harold was on his feet and around the table to hold John to his chest as John shook, soothing him with a hand in his hair.
John broke down, clinging to him and trying to bury his face in Harold’s expensive tailoring.
Chapter 14: Serious Talk
John and Harold have a lot to talk about.
John returned from the bathroom to see Harold and Grace whispering with each other, their heads bent close. Their expressions were calm enough, so maybe John hadn’t messed up too badly when he’d asked Grace about her artwork and gotten a stern reprimand from her to not give her a fake smile.
Harold’s response: “Darling, he’s trying to overcome decades of training. We can’t expect him to be perfect all at once.”
John had retreated before he heard her response.
So far, he hadn’t touched the wine on the table through all three courses, nor the port that went with dessert. He didn’t want to screw up, and seventeen days sober wasn’t very long. Harold had offered the alcohol, though, as if there was nothing wrong, simply nodding in acceptance when John declined. He knew what John had been up to as he indicated earlier. Harold wouldn’t keep him from alcohol, but he also wouldn’t judge him too harshly if he drank. As long as he didn’t blow up the way he had on the phone in May.
He felt humbled by Harold’s trust yet again, tentative though it seemed.
Watching them from afar, he couldn’t help picking up on the subtle cues of their body language. Harold was nervous, had been all night, and Grace seemed to be holding it together but was also anxious. No, upset. Resigned? Sad? Maybe angry? He couldn’t read her well enough to decide from this far away. Not after so long.
He thought again of the missing engagement ring, of how Harold and Grace hadn’t touched each other very often during dinner — in fact, she’d touched him more than Harold, and Harold hadn’t touched either of them, with the exception of holding John briefly to help him calm down. He thought about the banked heat in Harold’s gaze when they first saw each other, and how quickly he’d shut it down.
Were things going well between Harold and Grace? he wondered. It sure didn’t seem like it, despite the fact that they’d been traveling and living together for the past six months. He sighed, realizing that if they caught him watching they might accuse him of casing them like marks.
Well, he had been, to a certain extent. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath to center himself and let it out before gliding over to the table. He should probably go back to yoga, he decided, to help him keep his center.
Both Harold and Grace smiled at him when he sat down. He wondered if it was a show.
“I’m sorry for snapping at you,” Grace said, putting a hand on his arm briefly for the third time that night.
“Harold’s right. I’ve only had half-a-dozen expressions that weren’t thought out in the past year,” he answered. “I’ll keep working on it.”
“Do you know the common factors in those moments?” Harold asked, leaning his chin on his hand.
“You,” John said simply.
Harold pulled back, startled.
“Well, I guess that’s my cue,” Grace said with a light laugh. She whispered something in Harold’s ear that had him turning bright red, then patted his chest and gave him a lingering kiss on the temple. Maybe things weren’t as strained between them as they seemed?
John stood, accepting the hug she offered. “If you hurt him again, all your decades of training won’t keep me from destroying you,” she hissed in his ear.
“If that were the case, I’d help you,” he replied in his darkest voice. She backed away a step involuntarily and looked into his killer’s eyes.
“You know, I think you would,” she murmured.
“I’m telling the truth,” he said. “I hurt you and Harold and I won’t let myself do it again.”
She nodded quickly and kissed the side of his mouth. “Have fun, boys. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
John and Harold both watched her leave. When John turned back, Harold was ordering them a round of 30-year-old scotch. He wondered if Harold would be upset if he declined, and decided, like with the wine, that Harold would respect his decision. Harold had respected him when he’d first hired him and John had been drying out, making sure he had access to alcohol to keep the shakes away but not encouraging or discouraging the behavior. At the time, it was the most respect for his own choices that an employer had shown John in fifteen years. John had felt suspicious of the trust, which is how he’d started the whole mess of following Harold and finding Grace.
He knew better now.
If he was going to drink tonight, it would only be the one drink, he promised himself.
“How much does she know?” John asked. He fiddled with his glass, still not sure if he would sip or not.
Harold, his chin in his hand gazing across the table at John again, blinked a few times. He seemed more relaxed now that Grace was gone, as evidenced by both his posture and voice. “Oh, not everything, of course. She doesn’t know about the Machine, but she knows I have access to information to tell me when someone is planning something lethal.” He sighed and shook his head. “I’ll never be able to tell her everything, but she knows that, too.”
“What does she know about me?”
“She knows you used to be a CIA operative, that you had to do some horrible things, and that you began to have doubts about your orders and retired. She assumes that you’ve killed people, but accepts that you’ve changed how you operate once we started working together. I showed her portions of your confessionals.”
John felt his skin tingling. Harold had seen him baring his soul to the Machine? All of the times, or just a few?
Of course he had. He’d be stupid to think Harold hadn’t seen them. All of them.
“I’m sorry if that makes you feel uncomfortable, but at the time I thought showing her your regret and sorrow would facilitate conversation.”
“What kind of conversation?”
Harold glanced towards where Grace had disappeared, then sipped his drink to buy himself time to compose his answer. “One where she acknowledged that maybe you cared about what you’d done and regretted it,” he answered. “One where she wouldn’t get that pitying look on her face when I talked about my mixed feelings towards you,” he added.
Harold shook his head and pushed his glasses up to rub his eyes. “I don’t know how to do this, John. I don’t know how we can make this right.”
“Neither do I,” John admitted. “Does she know my real name?”
“That would be your secret to tell,” Harold replied, fixing his glasses.
John breathed a sigh of relief and raised his glass to his lips. They sipped their drinks in companionable silence for a few minutes. John felt surprisingly at ease. He’d half-expected this meeting to turn pear-shaped within minutes and now they’d finished dinner and dessert and were still talking.
“How are things between you two? She’s not wearing her ring.”
Harold froze briefly. “I shouldn’t be surprised that you noticed that,” he murmured. He rubbed his eyes again. “Things are… strained. We’ve been traveling and living together, though in separate beds. She returned the engagement ring but hasn’t broken up with me.” He glanced up at John. “She’s trying very hard to forgive the lies, the omissions, the deceits. That’s more the problem than that I had sex with you, although that is an issue. She knew of my history with men, of course, but we’d never considered that I might fall for someone else while still being with her.”
John nodded. “How do you, uh, how do you feel about that?”
“Conflicted,” Harold answered. “You were right, you know. She did find me boring, sexually,” Harold mumbled, lowering his face. “But we connected in so many other ways she’d been happy to ignore it.” He swished the last of his drink before swallowing it. “Not so much, now that she knows what’s out there.” He sighed sadly. “Who’s out there,” he added.
“Harold, I just said that because I was hurt and angry,” John declared, taking his hand. “I never thought that of you.”
“How would you know? We had one night!” Harold snatched his hand away. “Grace and I… Her tastes evolved over time, while mine… didn’t. We’ve had sex half a dozen times since we reconnected, and it hasn’t been particularly satisfying for either of us…”
“I’m sorry,” John whispered.
“Part of the problem is that I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind. Grace and I, we’ve spent six months talking about it,” Harold responded. “I was — devastated by what happened and how you treated me. And at the same time, I was awake to a new possibility with you that I craved desperately. But when we tried that particular act — it just had to be you. I couldn’t do it with her.”
“That tells me it’s not just about the sex, then,” John commented.
“Indeed.” Harold frowned slightly. “We had to decide if there was a way to fit you into our lives, if there was a way I could be with you again, if you made enough changes. If you cleaned up your act and meant it when you apologized.
“Mind you, we were also discussing our relationship and whether or not we were going to stay together. The answer, as you can infer, is that yes, we’re still together, though we’re struggling. It’s not a sure thing, by any means.
“Eventually, we decided it would be worth a try to bring you in. But she needed to see you again to make her final decision.”
“One meal with me and she’s made a decision? I doubt that’ll be the end of the conversation.”
“True, but she’s indicated that she’s willing to try. She’s willing to let me have sex with you, if you’re still interested. She’s willing to make ours an open relationship with you for my sake.”
“I don’t understand,” John blurted.
“She’s thinking some sort of V,” Harold explained, demonstrating with his hands. “Where I have the option of being with both of you.”
"Like that ever goes well," John grumbled. He finished his drink and pushed his glass aside. “I didn’t come here expecting to sleep with you,” he said.
“To be honest, neither did I,” Harold answered. “I thought we’d just talk for a while, try to see how we all feel. I didn’t expect her to leave us alone, either.” He trailed off, his expression darkening briefly before it lightened again.
“I’d hoped the possibility for sex might still be open.” John interjected. “But I don’t deserve it. Not this soon. I haven’t done anything to earn it. I’m just grateful you’re willing to see me after what I did.”
“The possibility is open,” Harold assured him, sounding more confident about that than anything else, though his voice was far from reassuring. He reached out and put a hand on John’s arm. “I have missed you.”
“Really?” John asked, his voice skeptical.
“I told you yesterday that I love you,” Harold answered. “That night we shared in Charolette, I’ve never experienced anything like it. I’ve been with men before, as I said, and enjoyed it, but with you… I trusted you so much. Even after everything I’d been through with Root, I knew you wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Only I did,” John replied. “I’m sorry. For everything.”
“I know. Me, too.”
They stared into each other’s eyes for a long moment. John shifted so he could take Harold’s hand, and Harold squeezed his fingers and smiled hesitantly.
“So… you want to stay talking some more, or should I head out, let you get back to Grace?” John asked, letting himself hope that he’d do better this time by Harold, by Grace. Hell, even by himself.
“Let’s go somewhere more private,” Harold answered. “There’s more to discuss.”
Chapter 15: More Conversation
John and Harold continue their talk.
Sorry it's been a while since updates. I have a nice long chapter for you to win you all back. Enjoy!
It felt strange, following Harold to his own hotel room, watching Harold produce a keycard and leading the way in. Once they were inside, Harold flitted around the room, nervous again and willing to show it more openly. He’d never had a problem staying still before, John remembered, except when he’d been drugged by a number and after he’d witnessed the explosion that killed one of their numbers the day before John himself was shot by the CIA. It unnerved him to see it now.
“You’re walking better,” John said, no longer able to keep the observation to himself and slightly desperate to rid himself of his worried thoughts.
Harold paused in his examination of the suit John had been wearing when he’d been taken at the bank, hung in the closet because John hadn’t wanted to leave it on the floor, despite how dirty it was. He’d gotten much better about taking care of his clothing since meeting Harold. Not nearly as nice as the suits Harold had gotten him at the beginning of their association, and many steps below the bespoke creation he now wore, the suit was a tailored off-the-rack special. Kara would have laughed at how willingly he’d put it on.
“Regular physical therapy,” Harold explained. “Grace was insistent upon it, and without the numbers, I had time.”
John moved past him to the sofa, settling down and stretching out like he used to do at the Library when it was just the two of them and he wanted his body language to help Harold relax. Of course, he wanted to relax a bit, too, so it wasn’t a complete lie, he reasoned. He’d been tense and on-edge since he woke up from his nap before dinner. Sleeping had been impossible after Harold’s call, of course, until he was safely at the hotel in Harold’s sphere of influence again instead of the FBI’s.
“That’s good. You don’t deserve pain,” John said with sincerity.
Harold let go of the jacket sleeve and wandered for a moment, touching things, picking them up, putting them down, then went to the mini fridge. John felt himself tensing up again. He didn’t want alcohol. He didn’t want either of them impaired, no matter what else happened tonight, and Harold was two glasses of wine and a glass of port ahead of the one scotch they’d both had. Oh, and the before dinner drink…
Fortunately Harold simply produced two water bottles and joined him on the couch, handing one over.
“Would you mind if I leaned against you?” Harold asked tentatively. Already moving when Harold asked because Harold’s face had paled and he wanted to comfort him, John scooted over and put an arm over Harold’s shoulders, holding him close. “Thank you.”
“Talk to me. Why are you spooked all of a sudden?” John wondered, feeling the change in the atmosphere and Harold’s mood intensely. “I’m not here for anything but talking unless we both change our minds. I thought I’d made that clear.”
“I know. You have. You’ve been a perfect gentleman, and we already spoke about expectations, but I’m not sure I want to be here,” Harold admitted. “But I like this,” he rushed to add when John stiffened, placing a hand on his thigh to keep him in place. “It’s complicated. I don’t know how to explain. I should’ve told you earlier, but wanted us to be truly alone, not in the restaurant. I don’t know what to say, how to make it sound anything but awful.”
“Try,” John suggested, squeezing Harold’s shoulder gently. “I’m in no position to judge anything you might say.”
Harold rolled his water bottle from one hand to the other for a moment before taking a drink. “Grace informed me that I’m not welcome in our home until I’ve had sex with you,” he said bluntly in a voice that sounded more broken than when John had confronted him in Grace’s kitchen.
“What?” John barked, feeling anger and outrage fly through his body. How dare she —
“She thinks I need to get you out of my system before we see each other again,” Harold continued, his voice now resigned more than anything else.
“What does that even mean?”
“I told you. I can’t get you out of my head. I’ve been tracking you, watching you, following the numbers, the cases, sending you help so you won’t know it was me. She says that part of why sex hasn’t worked between us is because your ghost is there, taunting us. She says that part of why we can’t communicate fully and truly get close again is because I’m always thinking of you.”
John got to his feet and started pacing, unable to keep his agitation inside. Harold was feeing upset, true, but so was he, God damn it! One step forward and eight steps back, it seemed. He wanted another drink and squashed the urge. That would only make things messier.
“She said all that, just now?” John heard himself fume.
“Well, no, all she said tonight was to have sex with you before I came home, but she’s said the other things over the past months.” Harold took another sip of water. “As if it’s so easy to have sex,” he muttered. “As if there’s no history between you and I. How she thinks telling me to do it will make me do it is beyond me, but…”
John rubbed his face and the back of his neck, Harold’s words fading out of his hearing. He felt his skin tingling and tightening. He felt the heat of anger on his cheeks. He tasted metal in the back of his throat and knew his adrenaline was spiking.
He hadn’t touched his water yet and twisted open the cap viciously, gulping half the contents. It didn’t help his agitation, so he tossed it aside, ignoring the small puddle forming on the carpet where it landed.
He needed something to calm down. He needed to get control of his emotions. He couldn’t let Harold see his anger, his pain. He couldn’t ruin their first meeting in six months. He couldn’t fuck up again, not this soon, even though he knew it would happen eventually. He was a fuck-up, after everything was said and done, but he didn’t want to destroy everything so soon. Not so soon. Not when Harold had allowed them to touch. Not when he had a chance at understanding Harold again, at maybe winning him back, or at least not pushing him away…
God, he wanted a drink! He tore open the door of the mini-bar.
“…And that’s not even considering how you might feel about the matter…” Harold continued, too engrossed in his own pain to be aware of what John was doing. “She practically ordered me to have sex with you! You don’t order someone to have sex. That’s like rape, and that’s abhorrent, and how she thinks —”
Confronted with the tiny bottles of liquor, John felt his control snap. He slammed the door closed so hard the table shook and the bottles inside rattled. He grabbed the mini-bar and toppled it and the table it sat upon to the floor, breaking glass and cracking wood not loud enough to cover his pained cry. He turned in a circle, his arms flung out like a dancer’s skirt before collapsing to sit on the bed. Tears burned at the edges of his eyes. He put his head in his hands.
“Goddamn it!” he cursed. “I shouldn’t have had that drink! I shouldn’t have —“ thought there was possibility that this would ever work, he moaned to himself.
He tugged on his hair painfully tightly, trying to interrupt the cascade of emotions crashing over him. Why couldn’t he have a break for a change? Why couldn’t he have a victory? One where he did the right thing?
But, no, that was too good for the likes of him — He schemed and plotted and blackmailed and broke anyone who cared about him and —
“John!” Harold exclaimed, rushing over.
He raised his head to look beseechingly up at Harold. “Is this what it’s like?” he demanded angrily. “Is this what it’s like to feel like an object when you actually care?” He let go of his hair and balled his hands into fists, rubbing them into his eye sockets. No tears had fallen yet, but it would be close.
“John?” Harold asked gently, resting a hand on John’s back between his shoulder blades. It felt soothing and irritating at the same time.
“If this is how I feel — it must be 10 times worse for her!”
“You mean Grace?”
“When I first met you I clocked you as probably gay,” John whispered, wanting to confess his crimes, even though he knew it probably wasn’t the time. What else could he do? How else could he make this right? He had no idea.
Harold sat next to him and leaned in to be able to hear his explanation, not seeming thrown by the abrupt shift of topic. He’d always been able to follow John’s leaps of logic, and it seemed that skill hadn’t changed in the intervening months.
“When I found Grace, I gave up on the idea of seducing you, for the most part. I figured I’d have more power if she were in the mix.” John rested his forehead on Harold’s shoulder, his own shoulders slumping, his hands falling open into his lap. “I played her, Harold.”
“You don’t understand. I stalked her and researched her and dug through every scrap about her I could find. I designed John Stills to be the perfect man for her. I scripted out whole conversations and planned for what to say if she went off the script she didn’t know she was reading. I calculated everything. I picked the day she’d see me in the park and spent over two hours waiting for her, just in case she broke pattern and was early. I spent hours choosing the book I’d be reading based on the two-dozen I’d seen you with. I thought about how to make her trust me and how to use that trust to make her think of me positively, sexually. I —“
“I hurt her so badly, and she didn’t deserve it, and I don’t know how to make it better. I don’t know if I can make it better. I made her feel like an object and now she’s done the same to me.”
“I hardly think she intended to —“
“Whether she did or not, it doesn’t matter,” John interrupted. “Hurt is hurt.”
They sat in pained silence for a few minutes.
“Hurt is hurt, and I did it deliberately. In her kitchen, I picked my words to hurt. I didn’t have to tell her about us, of course I didn’t, but I felt so angry, so alone, so bereft, I had to strike back in whatever ways I could, and I knew you valued fidelity and threw what we did in your face to fuck up your relationship with Grace because I was jealous. I was jealous, Harold. I wanted you and I couldn’t have you, so I wanted you to feel hurt, to feel abandoned, to be alone.” He closed his eyes again.
“I shouldn’t have said any of it. I should’ve just let you go, let you make your own decisions, let you have some comfort after what happened with Root. I took advantage of you, and hurt you, then did it again. I don’t know why you’d even be willing to trust me again after that.” He paused. “And after what I said in those messages…”
“You didn’t mean it,” Harold murmured.
“In the moment I did,” John countered. “I meant every word, even if I changed my mind and regretted it later.”
Silence stretched again, leaving the sound of John’s harsh breathing the only counterpoint to the buzzing of the broken mini-bar’s refrigerator.
“Maybe we shouldn’t have rushed into meeting like this,” Harold muttered.
John felt numb with shock for a moment before he remembered to breathe. “Okay,” he said, letting go of Harold. Harold clutched at his hand and kept him in place. For the second time that evening, Harold didn’t want him backing away. John wasn’t sure what to do with that. “Harold?”
“I have regrets, too, you know. Maybe Grace and I shouldn’t have left you on your own?” Harold continued. “Maybe I should’ve let you explain? Maybe —“ He sucked in a breath. “Maybe I shouldn’t have left Charolette so precipitously? Or let one drunken rant make up my mind about you?” He turned his body to look in John’s face. “What would you have done, if I’d stayed?”
It was John’s turn to look away. Truth time. Again.
“I would’ve made love to you again. I would’ve gotten us back to New York and made sure you were somewhere safe. I would’ve gone to Grace and given some excuse to break up with her. I had it planned out by the time I got to her place that morning. I knew what I was going to say, how to do it.” He looked back. “I’d have given up on Zoe, on the one night stands, on the casual sex. I would’ve been yours, wholly yours.” He paused. “Eventually, I think I’d have told you what I’d done and begged forgiveness. I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t have.
“I was so — controlled in my inability to restrain myself from violence. I was willing to risk my life, the Machine, the world, anything, just to get you back. Anything. Things so horrible you can’t imagine… But I was willing to do them.
“I’d fallen in love. I didn’t know it until much later, but that’s what it amounted to. I was in love, and desperate, and what restraint I had was crumbling with each hour I couldn’t find you. I’m not proud of that, of losing the humanity you’d spent so much time helping me find. I’m not proud of how I treated you. I said that already, and it’s true.
“I saw you were getting aroused and I reacted. I’d just figured out on the airplane that I wanted you sexually, genuinely wanted you, my own desire, not just some plan or contrived seduction to gain power over you. So when we were in that shower and I saw you there like that, there was nothing else to do. Instinct got me to my knees and I kept following it.”
“You weren’t calculating —“
“I stopped calculating when I realized Root had taken you. I didn’t start again until — Until I sobered up a week after you disappeared with Grace. I didn’t fully understand how deep I’d gotten into the deception until I woke up in Charolette and felt ashamed.” He closed his eyes.
“You have to understand, I didn’t care enough about other people or what they thought of me to feel shame… The CIA took care of that… but suddenly I cared about you and what you wanted and how you felt and how you saw me…
“I didn’t trust you at the start,” John said after a moment. “Why would I? Sure, you pulled me out of the gutter and kept me from offing myself, but I didn’t know a thing about you and you admitted to hiding things from me and lying. Training took over.”
“Training includes seducing innocents for their strategic value?”
“According to the CIA.”
“We’re all so broken,” Harold whispered. “Grace is probably the healthiest and she’s so angry all the time, feeling betrayed by both of us. But she also has hope that we can work it out. That’s what she says, anyway, and I don’t doubt her.” He paused. “That’s not true. I doubt her all the time. I doubt myself. I doubt you. I doubt this love I feel, one moment convinced it’s real, the next telling myself it was a reaction to being kidnapped and tortured and being treated kindly afterwards. That it was just a reaction to the sex, that you didn’t love me, that you were just using me, that —“
He broke off, staring into the middle distance. He plucked at the creases in his pants. “Never in my life have I been that relaxed during sex, that open, that… receptive,” Harold finished. “I felt protected, cared for…”
They sat in silence for ten minutes, simply holding each other.
“I’d been attracted to you for months,” Harold whispered.
“You hid it very well,” John replied. “I was actively looking for it and didn’t see it.”
Harold bent his head. “That day… perhaps I was a bit overwhelmed by it all,” Harold added. “To demand what I did from you the second time isn’t like me. I don’t demand things in bed. I never have.”
“I liked it,” John admitted. “I liked that you could be both receptive and demanding.”
Harold curled in tighter against his side. After a while John scooped him up and dragged him onto his lap, cradling Harold against his chest. Harold made a soft sound of approval and wrapped his arms around John’s neck. He kissed his cheek, his jaw, behind his ear. John felt a warmth suffuse his body. This wasn’t about sex. Just comfort.
“Are you going to stay here for the night or find somewhere else to sleep?” John asked, returning the kisses, though he avoided Harold’s lips the way Harold avoided his. He didn’t want to press too far, didn’t want to make Harold run from him again.
He never wanted Harold to run from him again.
“You’d let me stay?”
John paused, trying to think of the proper words to explain himself. He trailed his fingers over Harold’s cheeks and considered tipping his head up. He decided against it, not sure if he could continue if they were looking into each other’s eyes.
“I want you to stay,” he decided upon. “I’d be honored to sleep next to you and wake up with you,” he added.
Harold huffed. “Honored? Really?”
“I just want to be near you, Harold,” John said earnestly, and it was probably the most truthful he’d been since his father died and he stopped allowing himself to cry. “I want to fix this.” He paused for a moment. “And it feels good to hold you after so long. To hold anyone,” he added after a moment.
“Hmm,” Harold hummed. He took off his glasses to rub his eyes. “I suppose we could sleep together without incident,” he allowed finally, exhaustion seeping into his voice.
“Sex, John,” Harold replied tartly. “I’m not ready to have sex with you.”
John felt himself go cold at Harold’s words and tone. Anger bubbled in him again. “Well, now that we’ve cleared that up, I’m changing,” John declared, getting up to hang his suit jacket in the closet, his movements stiff and unyielding. How had he gotten to the point where Harold’s moods effected him like this?
An hour and a half later they lay side-by-side on the bed, on their backs, eight full inches between their bodies. Neither moved. Neither slept. John suspected Harold’s thoughts were whirling as much as his own and tried to close his eyes and find calm.
“Oh, for God’s sake, come here!” Harold exclaimed, rolling and reaching over for John even as John said, “I haven’t been with anyone since you.”
There was nothing tentative about the kisses they shared. Rather, they were hungry and needy and desperate. John savored every one, wanting to remember when he was alone again. He had no doubts that Harold wouldn’t stay. Of course Harold wouldn’t stay. He had Grace, and no matter how strained their relationship might be, John would always be second-best.
Harold’s hand insinuated itself under John’s t-shirt and they both gasped as skin met skin. Harold tweaked one of John’s nipples. Harold shifted again, pushing a thigh between John’s legs, giving him something to rut against. John groaned at the relief of friction on his dick and splayed his hand over Harold’s lower back. John felt overwhelmed by sensation, by desire, by greed and possessiveness and hunger. He wanted this, desperately, but he had to be sure.
“I thought you didn’t want —“
“I changed my mind,” Harold huffed, kissing him harder.
John was lost.
Chapter 16: Complications
John and Harold run into some complications where their reunion is concerned.
The familiar click of a gun being cocked had John moving before he even woke up, grabbing the knife from under his pillow and throwing it in the direction of the sound. There was a grunt of pain, a flash of a gun muzzle going off, and the sound of a suppressor. Pop. A bullet tore through the wood above Harold’s head.
John scrambled for the gun on his nightstand, cursing that Harold hadn’t allowed the gun in bed.
“Who’s the mark, John?” a familiar voice sneered, and John unloaded three bullets into Kara Stanton’s chest. She staggered for a moment, then fell face down to the floor with a dull thud. She didn’t move.
“John?” Harold asked, sitting up and flicking on the bedside lamp. His hair was rumpled with sleep, though he sounded alert. Being shot at would do that to a person.
“We’ve got to move,” John replied, throwing off the covers. He pulled on his pants without letting go of the gun, not bothering with underwear in favor of getting them out of the room more quickly. He tugged on a t-shirt.
Harold got up more slowly, but moved to get dressed. Already in an undershirt and boxers from after their shared shower, he had a head start over John’s nakedness. He frowned down at the body on the floor. “Is that…?”
“Kara,” John answered. “Guess she didn’t die in China.” He quickly cleared the rest of the suite, real adrenaline making his senses tingle with alertness. This was nothing like meeting Harold and Grace in the restaurant. This was battle. This was danger. “We’ve got to assume she’s not alone,” he added.
“There’s a service elevator at the end of the hall to the left,” Harold said, shoving his cell phone into his trouser pocket after a quick look and typing something. John, already at the door to the hallway, paused and looked back, instinct for danger niggling at the back of his neck. Forgot to check Kara’s pulse! he growled to himself. What’s wrong with me?
It was too late.
Kara crawled to her knees and grabbed Harold’s ankle, pulling him roughly to the floor. She had John’s brand-new knife to his throat before John could move. She plastered herself over Harold’s body, making it so that if John shot her, he’d hit Harold, too. Using a body as a bullet-shield rarely worked in the real world, and he was surprised he didn’t get hit himself as often as he tried it. With his luck, the bullet would go through Kara and injure Harold. He didn’t need that. Not when he’d just gotten him back.
“Drop it, lover boy,” Kara barked. John set down the gun without hesitation, raising his hands behind his head without needing to be told.
“What do you want, Kara?” John asked, assessing her mood by the lines on her face and the way she grabbed Harold’s hair to tug his head back and expose more of his neck for her knife. “Let him go.”
“Now, why would I let my mealticket go?” she replied, shaking her head briefly. With the light on, John could see the bullet-proof vest she wore, and the three perfectly placed holes where he’d shot her. “If you’re sleeping with him, that means he’s worth something to you, and you’re worth something to me, so…” She trailed off, shaking Harold’s head casually to keep him in place as she reached up to press the earbud in her ear. “Come on in,” she said.
Moments later, Mark Snow walked into the room, closing the door softly behind him. “John,” he said, glancing at his former employee before taking in Kara with Harold. She sat on his back, and John couldn’t imagine how painful it was for him with his injuries.
“You know the drill. Get him ready for transport,” Kara ordered, tilting her head towards John.
Mark grabbed John’s hand and pulled it behind his back, snapping handcuffs on him. He reached for the other arm. John twisted, but a pained gasp from Harold froze him. Kara had drawn a bloody line down Harold’s cheek. Harold’s eyes were wide and frightened, but his expression was cooling rapidly into the Finch persona with whom John was so familiar.
“I’ll be fine, Mr. Reese. I’m sure Ms. Stanton will learn that holding my life over your head will get her no farther than, say, Queens.”
John recognized the code, remembering the plan he and Finch had in place all those months ago for if Finch were kidnapped to be used as leverage against John. Before it had actually happened, of course. John hadn’t enacted the Queens plan back then because Root hadn’t been a traditional kidnapper and John had gone berserk, but now, with Finch meeting his eyes and giving him instructions, he knew he’d do it.
John was good at taking orders, and taking them from Harold — from Finch — felt like coming home even more than the pair of hasty blow jobs earlier. That was still new, while obeying Finch had been hardwired to his brain.
He allowed Mark to shackle him, put a black hood over his head and march him out of the room. The plan was based on Harold’s ability to talk his way out of captivity, or, failing that, to give John or their allies enough time to find him. Harold would give Kara a run for her money with his ability to avoid interrogation techniques. John figured he had six hours to break free and another six to find Harold. Kara didn’t tend to hang around torturing people longer than that unless she needed the leverage.
“How do you know that name?” John heard Kara demanding of Harold as the door closed behind him and Mark.
John came to still under the hood, though he was tied to a chair. He felt groggy from the tranquilizer Mark used, but by the casual sound of typing and the distance it was from him, he suspected Mark didn’t think he’d be awake this soon. He closed his eyes in the dark and focused on figuring out his situation.
The room was musty and damp, with long echoes, telling John they were probably in an underground location with an open floor-plan, perhaps a basement. There were no sewage smells, so they were probably indoors, and he didn’t smell decay to indicate a crypt.
He twitched experimentally against his bonds, finding that Mark had replaced the handcuffs with zip-ties and also zip-tied his ankles to the chair. His feet were cold, naked against concrete, and his fingers were numb. He considered the other signs from his body and judged that he’d been out for an hour or two, no more.
That meant that he had an hour to assess and escape before Mark or Kara thought he’d be awake.
Being a semi-alcoholic certainly had perks when he was drugged: His body dealt with the toxins faster because they weren’t as strong as the alcohol it had gotten used to dealing with.
A door scraped open farther away from him than the typing and he heard Kara’s heels on the floor.
“He’s still not talking, so I stashed him,” Kara said.
John felt a moment of hope. Harold was alive! For the time being, anyway. He thought of where Kara would hide a prisoner when they worked together, where she’d hide him to throw John off the scent, where she would never think to hide someone, and where she’d think John would and wouldn’t look. He needed more information to narrow down his choices. If they were currently in a basement…
“You find anything?” Kara continued.
Mark stopped typing. John waited, concentrating on every sound he could make out, however small.
“Harold Wren,” Mark reported. “His digital footprint is smaller than anyone’s I’ve ever seen. Facial recognition can only find him over the last four days. We picked him up at Charles du Gal, then again at JFK, then checking into a hotel with a redheaded woman, and then going with her to the hotel where he met John. She left alone two hours later, and he went upstairs with John.”
“He’s an insurance adjuster, on sabbatical from his job for a year. The HR department says he won’t be back until June and that he checks his email once or twice a month. The woman, on the other hand, is an artist with her own website and blog. She’s been traveling around Europe painting, and though she never mentions Wren, it’s clear she’s not traveling alone."
“Address?” Kara barked.
“Hasn’t had one since she left for Europe. Just a PO box. Wren, too.”
“Any connection between them and John?”
“As far as I can tell, they ran into each other last night. There’s no mention of him in either of their emails or phone logs. John left Rikers before we could get to him, and a limo picked him up and took him to the hotel. The limo was rented by a shell corporation that’s the front for another shell corporation that owns a microbrewery in Detroit and has stakes in another company which controls a prostitution ring here in New York. The room reservation was under James Tiptree, Jr,” Mark reported.
“Is the name significant?”
Mark typed for a moment, then sighed. “A female science fiction writer’s pen name,” Mark reported. “She died in the ’80’s.”
“Here’s something interesting. Wren took out $10,000 cash right before he met with John, so he could be buying his services.” John tried not to react. He knew about the money, of course, Harold had left it in the room for him, but that Mark could hack one of Harold’s alias’ bank records didn’t bode well.
“John’s not that cheap,” Kara declared. “Unless he was bending over. No used condoms I could find, but the place smelled like spunk.”
“Wren didn’t say anything?”
“Offered me $25 million to let him go. Didn’t say a word about John.”
“You gonna take it?”
Kara didn’t answer, but John could hear her voice in his head. After I’ve had some fun. He held down his gorge at the thought of Kara having free rein on Harold. He’d get him out of there first. He could beat Kara and Mark. He had to.
John heard Kara begin walking in his direction. He relaxed his body, feigning unconsciousness. She prodded him in the chest with what felt like a lead pipe. She jabbed at his stomach, then thwacked his arm powerfully. He let his body move with it and kept his grunt of pain to himself. She pushed him with the pipe until he tipped over, landing on his side with a whoosh of air and a groan he couldn’t keep inside.
“Wake up!” Kara demanded, tugging the hood from his head. He blinked and looked up at her in the dim lighting, too bright for his starved eyes. She smiled maliciously at him. “Tell me about Wren,” she demanded.
John smirked at her, his eyes giving his answer. You think asking will get you anywhere?
“No? Perhaps I’ll get you ready to talk.”
She raised the pipe and John blinked slowly, meeting her eyes and refusing to flinch as she brought it down on him with as much of her considerable strength as she could.
John came to for the second time to find himself on a bus, next to Mark, with Kara across from them. He felt bruises all along his body, but Kara had been careful. He didn’t have any broken bones.
“Perhaps this will motivate you,” Kara declared when John acted indifferent to finding out that he and Mark were wearing bomb vests. She held up her phone, showing a video of Harold strung up by his wrists, his toes just barely touching the floor. Naked except for his boxer shorts, there was blood dripping down his neck, arms and legs. He was in another underground basement. He also wore a bomb vest.
John couldn’t keep his eyes widening in surprise and horror. Kara had him by the balls, and they both knew it. She’d always been eerily accurate when reading his poker face, and he hadn’t tried to hide his feelings this time. Harold was his weak spot, and Kara was nothing if good at manipulating and making use of one’s weak spot.
“Now if you do your job well, you might get a chance to say goodbye before I blow him up,” Kara said. John swallowed thickly.
“What do I have to do?”
Chapter 17: Doing What Needs to be Done
Harold has been captured by Kara, and John has to save him... except he's in a bit of trouble himself.
Hello again! I'm so sorry for the wait between chapters, but mental health is a tricky thing, sometimes. Please enjoy this latest chapter.
John knew as soon as he watched Mark dig in to the lunch Kara provided that he would be no help to John or his cause. Kara had him under her thumb, and John was realistic enough to know that he wouldn’t be able to influence the other man.
He spent the time trying to reassert his dominance over his emotions and figure out a plan. He couldn’t find Harold while he was physically with Kara, but if he had a few moments away from her…
No, she’d keep Mark on him. He wouldn’t be able to do much with Mark there, though he had a few ideas of ways to distract him. Maybe he could get a message to Carter? He’d need a phone.
He resisted Kara in very measured steps, first by not talking, then by not eating, evaluating her with every bit of skill he had. As he stood in the room facing the hackers with Kara’s voice in his ear telling him to kill them, he thought about Harold.
“…No farther than, say, Queens…”
Why had Harold said Queens? Why not Brooklyn or the Bronx or even Long Island? Why Queens? He thought about the differences between the plans, the ways he was supposed to act in each…
Queens meant — Harold had a way out.
Queens meant Harold went into the kidnapping knowing he had a way out!
What could it be? Grace? Carter?
No, think! Harold chose those words deliberately. He picked each and every one. His tone of voice told John so.
He thought back to the video Kara showed him. Harold in boxers and a t-shirt, nothing else. Harold in the bomb vest. Harold… wearing his glasses!
John wanted to kiss Harold for his brilliance. Harold put a tracking device in his glasses. Just what John would have done as soon as he’d had the chance when they got back from Charolette all those months ago.
Harold had used his phone before they’d been captured, which meant that he’d activated it. Harold knew there was a possibility that there was someone on their trail besides Kara and activated the tracking device!
He knew the frequency Harold would use. He knew the megahertz. Now all John had to do was get a message to Carter to tell her to look for Harold.
Once she had Harold safe, John’s fate didn’t matter.
All he had to do was get her a message, which meant he needed Kara to trust him more than she did. He shot the men between the eyes.
In the end, John couldn’t wait for Carter to somehow get him a message. Kara was reaching for her phone to arm the bombs yet again, so John shot her.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Forehead, heart, lung.
He turned his gun on Mark. “You gonna give me trouble?” he demanded.
Mark tossed his own gun as far from himself as he could in the confined space of the clean room. “Not risking it.”
“Do you know where she left him?”
“Wren? Not a clue,” Mark replied, taking a seat on one of the rolling chairs and backing away further from John. “You going to kill me?”
John picked up both Kara’s phone and the disk she’d been about to upload to the DoD servers as he considered his options. Harold would want to look at the disk. He had to call Carter… He glanced at Mark, seeing resignation, acceptance.
“If I see you in this city again, I will,” he told his former boss. “I’ll send up paramedics and the bomb squad.”
John left the room without another thought. He raised the phone to his ear and dialed. Carter answered her phone with her name, as usual.
“We’ve got him, John. My people got the vest off him and he’s on his way to Mercy General.”
“There’s some cleanup here,” he began.
“He asked for you,” Carter interrupted. “Said to tell you to come to the hospital.”
John smiled to himself. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he told her, hanging up. He didn’t feel the need to tell her anything more about the conditions up here. Either they’d send paramedics or they wouldn’t.
It took only minutes for him to free himself of the bomb vest, and he set it down next to the two bodies in the main hallway. He stripped one for his clothes and weapons, then decided to take the stairs and avoid any potential run-ins with the cops. At least the building had been evacuated so there was no extra loss of life.
John arrived at Mercy General Hospital relatively quickly. He raided the laundry room for some scrubs to better fit into the atmosphere, deciding that coming in looking like a military professional might reduce his ability to see Harold, despite Carter’s assertion that he wanted John present. He kept his guns and knife, as well as Kara’s phone and the disk drive. He knew Harold would want to look at both of them to see if he could figure out who sent her after John and why.
He picked out Carter from all the way down the hall and sidled up to her on silent feet.
“How is he?”
Carter startled, turning to him with a glare. “I should put a bell on you,” she grumbled. She pointed into the room, where John could see the outline of several people standing by a hospital bed behind the curtain, as well as Grace’s heels peeking out under the chair.
“He’s out of the woods now, and they don’t think he’ll need surgery, but we have no idea how hanging like that will affect his back and neck,” Carter said. “Or how long he was like that.” She glanced up at him. “All he said to me was to make sure you made it here when you were done with whatever you were doing. You have any pertinent details to all this?”
“They took us between two and three in the morning. Saw a video around noon that he was hanging by his wrists with the vest on. I can tell you more once I’ve debriefed with him.”
“It took you three hours to get in touch with me once you saw him?” she demanded, as if it were John’s fault Harold had to suffer.
She’d be right, though. It was his fault. If Harold hadn’t been with him…
“Wait a second. Were you with him?”
John shrugged. “We’re trying to talk again,” he offered, knowing now that she’d been aware of more than he’d suspected the past six months, if she was giving Harold regular reports on his activities.
Just then the doctors filed out of the room, nodded to Carter and John, and went down the hall to their next patient. Grace got to her feet and moved to pull the curtain back, clearly looking for someone — probably Carter. Her eyes lighted on John and she scowled. She swished the curtain back into place, blocking John’s view of Harold.
“What do you think you’re doing here?” she demanded of him, her anger hissing through thin lips.
Carter answered before John opened his mouth. “Finch asked for him.”
Grace ignored the policewoman and rounded on John, poking his chest with her finger. He held in the grimace of pain as she hit one of his bruises.
“You couldn’t even keep him safe six hours!” she snarled, closing her hand and punching him where she’d just poked. “He promised nothing would happen, and you —“ She broke off, hitting him harder. Carter stepped forward but John shook his head. Grace hit him again, then slapped him across the face.
Unlike six months ago, she curled her fingers and John’s cheek tore, leaving four bloody trails down to his mouth. Carter grabbed Grace and pulled her away. She struggled, but eventually calmed down. John hadn’t moved, standing stoically and accepting his punishment. He turned his head, noticing the change in the rate of the heart monitor in Harold’s room. “He’s awake,” he said, staring over her head.
“I never want to see you around him again!” Grace spat, shrugging out of Carter’s hold and disappearing behind the curtain.
John met Carter’s eyes. Before either of them could speak, they heard Harold ask where John was.
“You — you want to see him?” Grace wondered hesitantly. “After everything that happened?”
“Of course. Especially now. I need to know he’s ok.”
“Oh, uh, the detective said that he’s all right.”
Harold let out a sigh of relief. “Good. Did she say when he’s getting here?”
“N-no,” Grace whispered. “I can check if he’s here,” she offered, sounding to John as if she didn’t want to suggest it. Which, he figured, she didn’t, blaming him for Harold’s injuries as she did.
“Please, darling, seeing him would greatly help in my recovery.”
John heard the scrape of Grace’s chair, the resigned sigh of her breath.
“You have five minutes,” Grace declared when she approached John. “Don’t upset him,” she ordered. “And don’t think I’m letting you alone with him,” she added, narrowing her eyes to glare at him. “I think this is a bad idea, and I want you gone as soon as possible, but he wants to see you for some reason, so don’t overstay your welcome.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” John responded, bowing his head. Beside him, Carter rolled her eyes. She produced a bandage and some medical tape to hold it in place on his cheek. He gave her a grateful smile. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it,” she replied. “Just be ready to explain yourself at some point.”
He nodded, not answering with words and moved to open the curtain so he could see Harold.
Harold sat up in his hospital bed, an IV in his arm. He had huge dark circles under his eyes. When he saw John, his face transformed into one of relieved happiness. One of his hands twitched and John rushed forward, dragging the chair so that he could sink into it and take Harold’s hand in both of his. Harold squeezed gently. They stared into each other’s eyes for a full minute before Harold spoke.
“Ms. Stanton?” Harold asked in his Finch voice. John appreciated his need to get the mission details out of the way before they turned to anything personal between them.
“Dead,” John answered flatly.
“He’ll be in a wheelchair for a long time if he doesn’t bleed out,” John reported. “He was under her orders,” he explained at Harold’s drawn brow. “He and I also had bomb vests.”
“And you’ve seen to your own injuries, I presume?” Finch wondered, indicating the bandage on John’s cheek. John looked away.
“Show me,” Finch ordered, waving his free hand at John’s upper body.
With a grimace, John pulled off the his shirt, revealing the patchwork of bruises, lacerations and scrapes that covered more than two-thirds of his torso. The bandage on his cheek, lightly secured by Carter, caught on the hem and tore off, revealing the scratches. Harold’s eyes widened in alarm. Behind him, Grace made a gasping, choking sound. Carter shifted on her feet but didn’t say anything. She’d seen John even more broken down.
“John?” Harold whispered, reaching up to touch John’s face.
“Don’t ask,” John replied in a stiff voice, refusing to let his body or eyes track over to where Grace and Carter watched their exchange. Grace’s reaction to him was her own business. He didn’t want to broadcast it to Harold and make things even more complicated between the three of them.
“What happened?” Harold demanded, hardening his expression.
“It doesn’t matter,” John barked, knocking Harold’s hand away. He fished around in his shirt for the bandage and reaffixed it to his cheek, hiding the evidence of Grace’s anger.
There was a small pause where John sat, uncomfortable in the silence but unable to move or say anything to break it.
“Oh,” Harold murmured, and John didn’t need to meet Harold’s eyes to know he’d seen Grace over John’s shoulder and come to the proper conclusion.
“I should go,” John continued in a more gentle voice, remembering Grace’s ultimatum. Five minutes. He only had five minutes, and he’d used four of them. He gave Harold’s hand one last squeeze and stood.
“Sit back down right now!” Harold demanded. John dropped into the chair. “We’re going to have to talk about this,” Harold added, pitching his voice lower. “All of us.”
“Come on, Harold, we both knew this would never work,” John replied, not meeting his eyes. “I’m gonna get our of your hair, let you go on with your life.”
“I don’t want that,” Harold protested.
“I make your life more dangerous. You wouldn’t be here if not for me.”
“That’s preposterous and you know it.”
“It’s not. Kara wouldn’t have gotten to you if she hadn’t been looking for me. But once she had you… Wren’s cover’s blown. Mark hacked one of his banks. They had photos of you at Charles du Gaulle. They know about Grace. I don’t know who Kara was reporting to, but she had to have given them Wren and Grace’s info, just as leverage against me for their next plan.” He shook his head angrily.
“This is what they were after,” he said, pulling free of Harold’s hands to pull out the disk drive. “There’s something on here that they wanted Kara to upload to the DoD servers. I don’t know what it is, but I stopped her. And I brought her phone, though I can’t vouch for anything important being on it.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” Finch replied, taking the two items. He turned the disk drive over and over in his hands a few times, examining the markings.
“You can’t think me staying is any good for you,” John insisted. “You’re gonna get killed, and it’ll be my fault.”
“You joined me on my mission knowing you would die in the line of that duty,” Harold countered. “I plan on continuing that work, whether you’re by my side or not,” he snapped. “I’d prefer you here. With me,” he added for emphasis.
“Grace is right,” John muttered. “We weren’t even together six hours and this happened. How can you possibly expect me to keep you safe?”
“For one thing, you’ve set up a team of hackers and mercenaries to help. For another, I don’t expect you to keep me safe. Your job is to help the numbers, not babysit me. I’m fully capable of —“
“She had you strung up by your wrists wearing a bomb vest!” John shouted, getting to his feet.
“And I gave you a clue find me!” Harold shouted back. “Which you used! Detective Carter told me you were the one who told her how to find me. You were in even more danger than me and yet you managed to save us both! So don’t think for a minute that I’m letting you go just because it’s dangerous. Everything we do is dangerous! That’s the point! We’re helping people, and that’s a dangerous business. Now, I’ll look into whatever’s on this disk, and you’ll keep recruiting more assets, and we’ll expand our resources so it’s not just the two of us against all crime in New York. We can do this, John. We just have to have faith in each other.”
“We’re not the only ones in the equation, Harold,” John pointed out. Harold’s eyes flickered to Grace again, then back to John. “I —“
“We’ll figure it out,” Harold promised, his eyes bright and earnest. “Go home, write up your report, take a few days off, and I’ll talk to her. We’ll figure it out,” he repeated.
John felt regret and anxiety swirling in his stomach as he stepped up to the bed and bent down, cupping Harold’s cheek and kissing his forehead. “Maybe it’s my turn to disappear,” he murmured against Harold’s skin. “I think Grace would prefer that.”
“Don’t leave,” Harold begged softly, making John suddenly aware of how precarious things were with Finch, just rescued, again, from being kidnapped. His mental state couldn’t be very good. Too bad John wouldn’t be able to help him put himself back together.
“Promise me you’ll stay in the city. Promise you won’t leave until we see each other again.”
John felt his mask of detachment settle on his face as he regarded Harold’s wet eyes. He straightened, his fingers trailing over Harold’s cheek. “I can’t promise anything.”
He stalked from the room, ignoring Grace’s angry look and Carter’s side-eye. He paid no attention to the medical staff trying to question him about his bruises. Somewhere along the way to the front door he acquired a shirt and some cash and a prepaid cell phone so that when he got to the taxi stand he could pay his fare. It was time to disappear, time to give Harold the freedom to be with Grace.
It was the only thing he could do for the man, no matter how he broke his own heart doing it. Harold came first. Harold always came first.
Chapter 18: Grace Visits John
John has a visitor at his loft.
So, interesting chapter......
My characters decided to do something completely different than what I had planned for them..... Maybe they seem a little OOC, maybe not. I haven't decided, but since they were insistent on this path, who was I, the author, to protest?
Hope you enjoy!
John got back from his run sweaty and ready for a shower. He took the stairs out of habit, even though he was tired, enjoying the extra pull of his muscles. Bear paced him, tongue out and panting but not exhausted. They’d been out a long time, longer than was probably wise, given John’s condition. He hadn’t been able to do any cardio exercise while he’d been at Rikers or when Kara had him, so he’d felt the need to push himself.
If he was tired enough, he could force himself to stop thinking about Harold being in the hospital because of him, and the scratches on his cheek, and Grace’s anger.
Bear tensed as soon as they got to John’s door. He glanced down at the dog, noting the on-alert posture. He frowned.
“What is it?” he asked. Bear bumped his nose against the door and whined. “You smell something that’s not supposed to be here?” Bear’s tail wagged, indicating John guessed correctly.
Feeling adrenaline pump through his tired body made John conclude that someone was inside his apartment. It wasn’t Tuesday, so the cleaners wouldn’t be there, and no-one but Harold had a key…
Harold had never once stopped by his apartment, and he doubted he’d start now.
Besides, Bear knew Harold’s scent. He’d made sure to grab the pillow Harold used when they were in Charolette so that he could introduce Harold’s smell to Bear before they met.
Before they were supposed to meet. It still hadn’t happened, but he felt confident that Bear wouldn’t warn him about Harold.
In just a t-shirt and running pants, the only weapon John had to hand was a knife in his shoe. That wouldn’t be enough to fight off an attacker who had time to case his apartment and was probably armed with one or more of John’s own guns, but he’d make due. He had an advantage the intruder wouldn’t know about: Bear.
John gave Bear a few hand signals and unlocked his door. The deadbolt wasn’t fastened. He slipped the door open a crack, feeling for the panel in the wall just inside. No one had shot at him yet, so he still had an advantage. They weren’t watching the door closely. He removed the gun from the hidden alcove and loaded a bullet into the chamber.
“Bear, vasthauden,” he whispered, ordering the dog to grab and hold the person inside.
He threw open the door, giving Bear time to charge into the main room with a bark, intent on his mission. Before he could clear the entryway, he heard a feminine shriek and the sound of breaking china.
Goddamn it! He knew that voice.
Turning the corner, he saw Grace lying on the floor on her back, Bear standing over her threateningly, growling. There was a crushed teacup and saucer to her side.
He lowered his gun and relaxed.
“Bear, heil,” he called. Obediently, Bear trotted over to John’s side. He accepted the treat and praise from John for executing his commands correctly, then went to lay in his bed at John’s hand gesture.
“Grace,” John said, extending a hand to help her up. “Where’s Harold?” he asked, looking around and not seeing the man.
“Home,” she answered, rubbing her arms nervously. “He doesn’t know I’m here.”
John raised an eyebrow. “You should have told me you were coming,” he said, brandishing the gun. “It’s never a good idea to sneak up on an ex-spy.”
She turned away to look out the picture windows, still hugging herself. “I’ll wait while you get cleaned up,” she declared. He frowned at her tone but decided to see what she wanted. If she was visiting him without Harold, there was clearly something on her mind.
“Make yourself at home,” he muttered, allowing her to hear the sarcasm in his voice in a way he’d never done with her before. He was tempted to resort to the kind and considerate John Stills persona, but changed his mind at the last moment so he could be himself. Harold wanted him to be himself with them, so he was going to do his best to try, even if Harold wasn’t there to see. Especially when Harold wasn’t there to see.
He wondered if either of them would like the real him… he certainly didn’t.
Grace turned back just in time to see him whip off his soaked t-shirt. She gasped loudly, but he didn’t let it bother him. He didn’t give a damn about her sensibilities right now, and they’d certainly seen each other naked when they were ‘dating.’
John put on one of his work suits after his shower. Might as well be in work-mode when he confronted her. Or when she confronted him. He had nothing more to say to her after the blow-up at the hospital yesterday. He’d wait for Harold to contact him.
Neither of them spoke for a long time. John watched her every movement and expression, making no secret of his evaluation. She twitched and fidgeted and tried to avoid his eyes when she wasn’t staring at her new cup of tea. She’d cleaned up the broken china, he was glad to see.
“You have a lot of bruises. They must hurt a lot,” she offered into the silence.
John shrugged. “I’ll be fine in a few days.”
“Where did you get them?”
“The first batch I got in prison,” he answered. “Then Kara wanted to know who Harold was. I didn’t tell her, so she thought some incentive might make me talk. It didn’t. Eventually she got bored and stopped so we could do something her boss wanted her to do.”
“Incentive? She hit you?”
“More like a systematic tenderization of all the major muscle groups,” he explained. “She wanted to hurt me without losing function to any of my limbs.”
“That’s so brutal!” she exclaimed.
“Not really,” he replied nonchalantly. “I’ve endured worse for Harold.”
Silence reigned again. He crossed his legs and relaxed back into the cushion of the couch, still blatantly watching her.
“He’s home from the hospital,” she said. He nodded. “Do you want to come over and see him?”
“I thought you didn’t want me around.”
“You don’t want me near him, but you’re asking me to visit?”
“He’s barely talking to me,” she admitted in a rush. “I thought you could snap him out of his mood, get him to open up to me again. It worked last time.”
John frowned. “I doubt trying to manipulate him into talking to you by dangling me in his face is a healthy form of communication in an intimate relationship,” he responded.
He wasn’t sure where all those words came from, but they sounded good in his head. He’d read a few psychology books the past six months, and there had been an interesting chapter about the triangulation that occurred between parents and a child. He supposed the same thing could happen when three people were negotiating a relationship.
“Maybe you should keep trying to talk to him,” he suggested when she didn’t answer. “Choose different topics.”
“It’s not that easy,” she muttered.
“Why are you really here?”
She looked up sharply.
“I used to like you,” he added matter-of-factly.
“You don’t anymore?”
“I’m not sure. You’ve changed, but then again, so have I and so has Harold.”
“How much of the John I knew was real?”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” he told her, leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, trying to go for earnestness rather than intimidation. “The truth is that I don’t know. I told you at dinner last week that there have only been a few times in the last twenty years when I’ve been truly myself, and Harold’s been a part of all of them. I don’t know who I am, Grace. I might never know.”
“So you’ll never be real with me?” she pushed.
“How can I be something I don’t know or understand?” he countered.
“Are you even trying to win me over?” she demanded. He saw a sparkle in her eye. Last year he would have thought she was teasing him, but all those signals were crossed and misfiring.
“Why are you here?” he asked again, hoping that if he kept asking he’d get the truth. It was an interrogation technique, sure, but the psychology books he’d read all seemed to indicate that therapists did the same thing.
She turned her face away. “I was worried about you,” she whispered. “When I saw the bruises at the hospital, I thought: He got all those bruises for Harold.”
“And I’d do it again,” he insisted quickly. “In the greater scheme of things, I don’t matter as much as Harold. He’s more important. Of course I’d protect him. Of course I’d let myself get beaten up for him. Of course I’d give my life for him.”
“I hate you for that,” she declared firmly. “I hate that you would so easily sacrifice yourself. You’d leave him behind, you know, and then who would protect him? Certainly not me! The way things are going, I’ll be lucky to share an apartment with him.”
“How important is the sex?”
She stared at him at the unexpected question, her mouth hanging open. “Excuse me?”
“How important is it that you have sex with him? Does it have to be him? Could it be me instead? Or someone else?”
“He’s my boyfriend! Of course it has to be him!”
“So that’s a ‘no’ on you and me?”
“What are you trying to say?”
“If your biggest issue with him is that you’re not having sex, why not have sex with me instead so you can work on your other issues with him? You used to enjoy it.”
“Are you insane?” she demanded, getting to her feet. Across the room, Bear stood and growled. She glanced over and dropped back onto the couch. “Why would you ask something like that?”
He shrugged. “Seems like a logical solution.”
“Nothing about this is logical! You’re — you’re trying to take one of the most emotional parts of a person’s life and turn it into — what? — a military maneuver?”
“If it makes you feel better, I’d be having sex with him, too,” he offered. “If he wanted, of course.”
“I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” she said, her eyes flickering to Bear as she thought about getting to her feet. He motioned the dog back to his bed.
“Look,” he barked, rushing to his feet, looming over her. “You come into my house, uninvited, ask me to intervene in your love life and berate me for my suggestion? I’d rethink your priorities if I were you.”
“You want to be with Harold? Talk to him! Tell him what you want. Tell him what you don’t want. Tell him you’re jealous of me! ‘Cause I’m jealous of you, and I sure as hell don’t plan on keeping that from him.”
“You’re jealous?” she asked as if she couldn’t believe it.
“You see him every day,” he said. “You talk to him every day. You get to touch him every day. You get everything, while I’m here begging for scraps. Not only that, but I have your hostility to deal with. Your anger, your moods. Do you have any idea how upset he was when you told him not to come home until we had sex?”
“But you’re all he’ll talk about!” she shouted back, on her feet, butting into his personal space. “Everything is John-this and John-that! ‘Oh, darling, what do you think John’s doing right now?’” she continued, imitating Harold. “‘I wonder if John would like this restaurant. We should bring him with us next time.’ And that’s when he’s in a good mood. Otherwise it’s all ‘John betrayed me’ and ‘I thought he was my friend’ and ‘why is everything to do with him so painful?’ He’s been a complete mess since we left New York, and seeing you is making it worse!”
“So leave,” he said, motioning to the door. “Get him away from me, if that’s what you think will help.”
“It won’t,” she snarled. “He’ll just start hating me instead of just resenting me.”
John snorted and crossed his arms over his chest. “That’s not my problem.”
“I don’t know why I ever liked you,” she said haughtily. “I have no idea what he sees in you.”
“He likes my dick.” John paused. “Pretty sure you’re both in agreement over that one.”
“Sorry, sweetheart, that train’s left the station.”
Pressed chest to chest, breathing each other’s breath, John felt the tension between them crackling like lightning, like a storm about to burst, like him and Kara, about to fuck on the floor next to a corpse…
He felt out of control, not himself, unbalanced and unbound and unmoored.
He needed Harold.
He bent his head to capture her lips in a searing kiss. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him back, pressing her entire body against his.
“Harold’s gonna kill us,” he mumbled between kisses. He ran his hands down her back, cupped her ass, pulled her even closer.
“I don’t care,” she hissed, slipping her small hand down the front of his pants to grasp his dick through two layers of fabric. “God, I’ve missed this,” she breathed, writhing against him, urging him on. “This power, this strength, this need.”
He stumbled back, landed on his ass on the couch. She followed, straddling his lap, rubbing herself against him, grinding down. He felt the thrill of heat, lust, sex. He’d felt it with Harold the other day, but softer. It hadn’t felt as angry with Harold. It hadn’t felt as mechanical. He tangled his fingers in her hair, pulled her head back to get at her neck, kissing and lapping at it, ever mindful of her pale, tender skin.
She had his shirt open, his undershirt rucked up to show off his abdomen. She ran her nails down his chest, harder than she used to, scratching, breaking the skin. He grunted and pulled away, but she followed, bending her head to take one of his nipples in her mouth, sucking and licking before biting extremely hard.
His arousal dampened as quickly as if he’d been doused in icy water, he grabbed both her arms and bodily picked her up off him, setting her aside.
“This is a bad idea,” he said after clearing his throat. “We can’t do this now.”
She stared at him, blinking. He could see the moment she came back to herself.
“Oh my God!” she exclaimed, grabbing at her blouse to hold it closed.
“I’m sorry,” he answered, pulling at his own clothes. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m sorry.”
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I think we both played a part,” she acknowledged. “I should go,” she added.
He nodded, feeling seventeen again, caught necking behind the bleachers, embarrassed and humiliated by his actions and desire.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
The door clicked closed behind her. He dropped his head into his hands and groaned.
Chapter 19: Avoidance
John's avoiding Harold.
Thanks for all the comments about last chapter! You gave me lots of writing mojo.
Warnings for mentions of (past) suicidality and alcohol abuse.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"Hello, John. Grace told me over lunch that she went to your apartment and you argued. Would you call me when you have a moment so we can talk about it?”
“John, I’d really like to hear your side of the story. She says you attacked her? I doubt that’s the whole truth. Call me.”
“Are you avoiding me? I’m concerned that I haven’t heard from you. Please call.”
“John, I just found out that she took the key to your apartment. I’m so sorry. I should have kept it in a more secure location. No, I shouldn’t have kept it at all. I just didn’t think she’d take it and violate your privacy the way she did. It’s my fault. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry about the key. I never intended to use it, not really, just have it for an emergency. It gave me a modicum of comfort while in Europe knowing you had a place of your own. I suppose I kept it out of misplaced sentimentality. I’ll be sure to get rid of my copy.”
“I understand that you’re angry, John. Please call me anyway.”
“John, are you ok? I still haven’t heard from you.”
“I’ll arrange to have the locks changed if you want. No, I’ll get you a new place. Or give you the money to pick your own. Just tell me what I can do to make it up to you. I’m sorry! Call me.”
“John, I — no, never mind. I shouldn’t be giving you excuses.”
“I’m trying to restrain myself from searching for your GPS coordinates. I don’t want to violate your privacy again after what Grace did. I just want to know you’re ok. Or alive. You don’t have to say anything. Just text me. Just let me know you’re ok. Please.”
“I’m sorry, John. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen. I’m sorry.”
John stared at his phone, frowning at the increasingly agitated and depressed tone of Harold’s voice in his messages. He knew Harold tended towards anxiety, but all this in two days?
He rubbed his hands over his face.
He still wasn’t ready to deal with this level of emotion after the interaction with Grace.
Been working a number, he texted, which was the truth. That’s why he hadn’t checked his messages. He’d think Harold would pick up on that, since he constantly monitored John’s movements and spied on him and everyone else they knew. Don’t worry about the key - that’s on her, he added as an afterthought to put Harold’s mind at ease.
He turned off his phone before Harold could call or text back.
In the six months that John lived in the apartment Finch bought him, the doorbell never rang once. Tonight it rang three times, three quick bursts of sound that startled him out of his meditation where he sat on the floor on a yoga mat. Groaning about getting older with a body covered almost entirely in bruises thanks even a week after the incident with Kara, he got to his feet.
This would be his second visitor. Ever.
He hoped it wasn’t Harold.
He hoped it was Harold.
He knew they were in the middle of a stand-off of sorts. He knew he was being stubborn and probably unnecessarily petty. He knew Harold would continue freaking out as long as he didn’t call, but he wanted privacy. He had so little of it in his life, and he needed time to think about the situation, to figure out what he wanted.
Every time he thought of Harold, of Grace, of their mixed-up relationship that somehow now included him he felt more confused and lonely and angry.
He didn’t want to see either of them.
He wanted to see both of them.
He wanted it to be Harold.
Still, in his line of work it was better to be cautious when answering the door. He clicked off the safety of his gun and opened the door.
Zoe Morgan stood in his doorway holding a bottle of 30-year-old scotch that he recognized from his evening with Harold before everything went to shit yet again.
He reengaged the safety and stuck his gun in the back of his pants.
“Hello, John. Mind if I come in?” He motioned her into the apartment, watching as she took in the made bed, the spotless kitchen, the seating area, and the yoga mat in a patch of sunlight on the floor. “Nice place. Do you actually live here, or is this just another elaborate safe house?”
“Did Harold send you?” he countered, accepting the bottle and moving towards the bar set up by the window. He didn’t look at her as he poured, returning to the seating area with a single glass filled with an inch of amber liquid that he handed her. “I’ve had one drink in twenty-four days,” he explained when she raised a questioning eyebrow and sat. “I’m trying to keep up the pattern. And it’s eleven in the morning.”
“It’s five o’clock somewhere,” she answered, accepting the glass and toasting him before sipping. “He doesn’t need to be worrying as much as he is, it seems,” she replied.
“He told you to make sure I wasn’t drinking myself into a stupor again?” John wondered, slightly amused at the irony. Harold hadn’t shown the same concern six months ago when he left John. A lot had happened in those six months, and even more the last week. He settled himself next to her.
“Not in those words, but I could read between he lines,” she said. “You had a few close calls, as I remember.”
“And still you brought the scotch,” he mused.
“Harold was insistent. He said it was a peace offering.”
John nodded to himself.
“You want to tell me what’s going on?”
John ran his fingers through his hair and sighed. Zoe had been helpful before, and Harold clearly trusted her enough to have her check on him… Maybe talking to her wouldn’t be too bad?
He decided to try it since he wasn’t getting anywhere spinning in circles in his own head.
“I’ve been avoiding him. He wants a vee with me and his girlfriend. I’ll take him any way I can have him and can live with that, but she wants me to stay as far away as possible. She probably also wants to sleep with me, so it’s more of a triangle?” He kept his hands still, not wanting to rub his still-tender nipple. Grace hadn’t been gentle, and he’d never liked mixing pain with sex, which she knew damn well. “I don’t know what to do about the whole thing. She thinks I’m dangerous, and she’s right. He got kidnapped because of me,” he concluded.
“That’s not how he tells it,” Zoe murmured, sipping again.
“No? What does he say?”
“He says that you spent several days strapped in a bomb vest because of a mistake he made years ago. He says that he’s lost almost everyone he’s ever cared about because of his work and he’s worried you’ll be the next in line. He says you take on too much guilt for things that aren’t your responsibility in the first place.”
“It’s still dangerous to be around me,” John protested.
“He seems to think it’s more dangerous to be around him.”
“I’d be dead a dozen times over if not for him,” John admitted. “When he found me a year ago, I was going to kill myself. With booze, probably, but I was thinking of ending it faster.”
“I wouldn’t do that to him.”
“So you do care?”
“Of course I care! That’s the problem! I care too much. I can’t be objective around him.”
“He’s not asking you to be objective.”
“He tell you that?”
Zoe set down her glass on the coffee table with a decisive click. She deliberately leaned into his personal space and held his gaze. “He’s willing to give you all the time you need, John, but you have to throw him a bone now and then. Tell him you need space. Tell him you don’t know what you want. Just tell him something. He’s tearing himself apart worried about you.”
John felt a sense of deja vu. He’d told Grace something very similar. Damn it, how was Zoe always right about everything? he thought to himself.
“It’s only been a few days… and I don’t know what I’d say if I talked to him.”
“You said it was your turn to disappear,” she declared. “He’s worried that’s what’s happening.”
“He told you that?” John demanded, suddenly angry and on his feet.
“One text in five days, John, that’s what he told me, and a cryptic one, at that. Call him. Don’t break his heart a second time.”
Listen to Zoe, John... You know she's always right... *wink wink nudge nudge*
Chapter 20: Nighttime Conversations
John gets off his ass and calls Harold.
“Hi, Harold. Sorry for calling so late.”
“No, no, you can call any time. Any time at all,” Harold reassured him quickly, the relief in his voice making John wince with guilt and shame. He deserved to feel bad for avoiding Harold and making him worry like he had.
“Did I wake you?” John asked, wondering at the softness of his own voice. He’d rarely sounded so concerned about another person without deliberately putting it on. It felt strangely natural, talking to Harold like that, even as it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up.
“No. I haven’t been sleeping well lately,” Harold admitted with a small grunt. John heard the sounds of him shifting.
“Not more than usual. I’ve been worried about you.”
“Yeah, Zoe said,” John muttered.
“You weren’t returning my calls.”
“I know. I was being an asshole,” John interrupted, hating the hurt in Harold’s voice. “I should’ve called you earlier. I should’ve called right after she left, not fifteen hours later. I should’ve called after Grace left. I keep doing the wrong thing.”
“So do I, it seems.”
“You know I don’t care about the key, right? This isn’t about you invading my privacy. I signed up to have no privacy when I agreed to work for you. I knew you’d have a key. I knew you’d probably use it at some point. That it was her doesn’t change anything, except how I look at her.”
“So what’s it about, if not the key?”
“I used to know where we stood with each other, but I don’t anymore. There are so many options. Are you still my boss? Are we dating? Are we even friends?”
“I used to think we were friends, before May,” Harold whispered. “And I already told you I’d like to be in a romantic relationship with you. That hasn’t changed, even though we’re going through a rough patch.”
“This is just a rough patch that we’ll get over?”
John waited for more.
“Why did you tell Zoe the thing with Kara was your fault?” he asked after a minute of silence. He figured he’d get more from Harold if he kept changing topics. That’s how it used to work, keep him guessing. Or he thought it worked back then. Harold was a far better manipulator than he’d given him credit for.
Harold sighed, and John recognized the sound as Harold preparing to reveal something he expected John to reject him over.
“The disk that Ms. Stanton was going to upload to the DoD? I recognized the data. There was a virus on it, developed to target the Machine and destroy it, using pieces of its own code that Daniel Casey managed to acquire in 2011. I believe you’re familiar with that name?”
“Kara and I were sent to eliminate him as a traitor,” John replied. “I didn’t kill him, though. I let him go. I know how to sniff a traitor, and he didn’t stink.”
“He wasn’t a traitor,” Harold agreed. “He was just a young man sent to hack my Machine, to test its defenses, to burrow in through a backdoor and gain control of it for the government’s use.”
“You must have liked him,” John murmured, awed, though still confused about Harold’s tone and expected rejection. Sometimes he wished Harold would just get to the point of his stories more quickly.
Sometimes he liked listening to Harold ramble for hours…. Even before he realized he had feelings for him.
“When he discovered that he was hacking into a secure government program, he tried to blow the whistle. He knew too much, so he was scheduled for elimination. That’s when you got involved.”
“So you’re telling me that this bit of the Machine’s code that Casey managed to get ended up on that disk?”
“No, it ended up on a laptop in Ordos, China.” Harold paused, and John realized he’d gasped, that Harold was waiting for him to say something.
“Go on,” he whispered in a choked voice.
“Before the laptop went to China, I had a chance to alter the code minutely, to add my own string of processes so that if the laptop were discovered, and I knew it would be, I would be able to control, or at least limit, the damage it caused to my creation.”
“You allowed it to go. You let it go,” John accused. “You were behind me getting sent to China!”
“I was unaware that you had been assigned to terminate Casey until after the fact,” Harold continued, speaking over John’s protests. “I didn’t know you yet, aside from a background check to see if you’d be a possibility as a partner. I was trying to save Casey, but the associate with whom I worked wasn’t as, moral, shall we say, as you. He stole the laptop and sold it to the Chinese. Not who I would have chosen, were I to sell it, which I’d planned on doing. I wanted to control where it went. I found out later, however, that you were then sent to Ordos to retrieve the laptop. Or, rather, be destroyed along with it. You and Ms. Stanton were loose ends.”
“They wanted us dead,” John said. “It didn’t work.”
“And I am forever grateful for that,” Harold answered. “You arrived too late to get the code. It had already been taken and was in the process of being modified. This week the virus was finished, put on that disk, and Ms. Stanton was ordered to deploy the virus.”
“We stopped her.”
“You stopped her, Mr. Reese. You corrected the mistake I made years ago.”
“Does this mean we’ve come full circle?” John blurted. “We’ve gone all the way around and can start over? All previous sins washed away? Both of our consciences clear?”
“What are you saying? The virus is still out there. There had to have been more than one copy. The Machine will be compromised again.”
“But we’ll stop it again. You send out your anti-virus, and we’ll find the enemies and eliminate them. We’ll do a preemptive —“
“I still don’t condone murder,” Harold interrupted.
“— was threatening your life, my life, and the lives of hundreds or thousands of people,” Harold rationalized. “Not to mention all the people who would be harmed if the virus destroyed the Machine.”
“All I cared about was you,” John said, his voice lower than usual with his emotion. “I go crazy when you’re in danger, Harold. I stop being able to think. I can’t be objective. I can’t control myself half the time. I don’t want to, because if I did, you might not make it, and a world without you isn’t worth living in for me. Killing the people behind that virus isn’t murder. It’s self-preservation. It’s instinct to protect my own. You.” He paused to let his words sink in.
“I’m too dangerous to have around, Harold, like Grace says. I’ll go off the rails when you’re threatened. I’ll put you in more danger because you’ll want to stop me. I’m not good for you.”
The sound of their breathing remained the only connection between them for a long time.
“I need you, John, danger be damned.”
“Grace doesn’t want me around,” John said. “I’m not sure I want to deal with her anger, jealousy, and potential hatred.”
“I — I don’t care. I’ll leave her. If that’s what you need, I’ll leave her,” Harold begged.
“No,” John barked, horrified that Harold would be so desperate. “You don’t have to do that. I don’t want you to do that. You love her. You shouldn’t have to leave one person you still love to be with another.”
“You’re not letting me make a choice!” Harold exclaimed. “You’re deciding everything on your own! You don’t like Grace. You don’t want her around any more than she wants you around. What else am I supposed to do but leave her if I want to be with you?”
“I’m not deciding anything,” John protested.
“No, you’re just cutting me off whenever you want to and not letting me have a say in what’s supposed to be a relationship. Do you have any idea how much that hurts?”
“I don’t want to hurt you! I never want to hurt you! I don’t want anyone to hurt you!”
“I would willingly put myself in harm’s way if getting you to rescue me were the only way to see you,” Harold choked out, crying. “Leaving Grace would be simple, compared to that. I’ve done it before.”
John felt tears on his cheeks, silently echoing the sobs he heard over the phone.
“Why do you need me so much?” John asked, pitching his voice soft so as not to startle Harold. “What could I possibly give you that you can’t get somewhere else? Why would you be willing to give up Grace for me? I’m nothing. She’s perfect.”
“She’s a manipulative, jealous bitch,” Harold barked. “She hates you just because I like you. She can’t see any of the good I see in you.”
“The only good in me is there because you put it there,” John countered. “I’m a bad man, Harold. She’s right to want me gone.”
“No, no, no, you’re not.”
“I just told you I’d kill people for threatening you,” John pointed out. “Not even for harming you. Just threatening you. How is that in any way good? I’m a stalker waiting to happen. I’m one shot shy of being an abuser. I kill abusers, Harold.”
“No, you send them to Mexico,” Harold corrected, though his voice had changed again and John wasn’t sure how to interpret it. “Even Detectives Carter and Fusco know that.”
“I scare myself with what I’m willing to do for you,” John admitted in a whisper.
“That’s why you’re still a good person,” Harold replied, just as softly. “You want to get better, to do better.”
“Yeah,” John said with a huff. “And we can see how well that’s going,” he grumbled to himself.
“God, we’re so fucking broken,” Harold added, startling John with the profanity.
“Why did you pick that other guy instead of me?”
“Mr. Dillinger? He was available when I needed someone as you were still employed by the CIA.”
“If it makes you feel better, I thought you more attractive than him,” Harold said with a hint of teasing in his voice.
“I’d hope so.”
“Is that a hint of jealousy?” Harold continued, now flirting. “Put your mind at ease, Mr. Reese, you’re the only man I’m interested in being with.”
“Did Grace tell you what the argument was about?” John wondered, wanting more information and unsure how to get the answers to questions he didn’t have words for. He knew he was the only man... was Grace the only woman? Would it ever be just him? Did it matter?
“Jealousy, mostly,” Harold answered. “But I knew that without being told. The two of you are at odds for my affections when I’d rather have you both. I’m not making it easy on her. Or you. Or myself, I suppose. No one tells you that it’s difficult to love more than one person at a time.”
“That’s why there are so many affairs,” John pointed out. “She tell you we kissed?”
“Kissed?” Harold exclaimed, obviously startled.
“I take it she didn’t,” John muttered. “It was angry. I didn’t plan it. We were arguing and I kissed her, and I’m sorry about it. I stopped it from going too far.”
“This is part of why you were avoiding me,” Harold decided. “You were worried about my reaction. I’m not jealous, merely surprised. I thought neither of you were interested in being sexual with each other, given your history.”
“I’m not. At least, not the way things are now.”
“Would you be in the future?”
John paused. He rubbed his eyes. “I liked being with her before, physically. But I was a different person then, I was being a different person. As John Stills, yeah, I’d want to be with her again. As John Reese… who knows?”
“Thank you for being honest.”
“Being honest is the only way to try to fix this,” John said. “It’s all I have left and I haven't been very good at it.”
“I haven’t been inclined to touch her since I came home from the hospital,” Harold interrupted. “I was furious with her for hurting you, for sending you away like that.”
“She’s just trying to take care of you, like I am. We have different methods.”
“I don’t want to lose her, John, not now that I’ve spent so much time trying to reconcile. We’ve had our struggles, but I truly believe we can move forward.”
“Even with me in the picture? A few minutes ago you were ready to leave her.”
“There are ways of making these kinds of relationships work,” Harold said. “I’ve been doing research. There’s names for it: polyamory, non-monogamy, some others.”
“I’ll send you some literature on the topic.” Harold paused. “Speaking with a therapist familiar with this sort of relationship might be something to consider.”
“All three of us?” John demanded.
“I know it’s not your first choice of activity, and it’s certainly not mine, but it might help us communicate better.”
“How would we even do that, given our secrets?”
“We’d focus on the feelings, on the emotions.”
“I don’t like the idea.”
“Will you at least read some of the books I send?”
John thought about it for a moment. What would Zoe say? She’d tell him to read the damn books and talk to the damn therapist. He groaned softly to himself.
“Send the books. You wouldn’t be you without making sure I had ‘adequate reading material,’ would you? How many books did you bring when I was shot? Six? More?”
Harold laughed gently. “I do enjoy furthering your literary education.”
John chuckled with him, imagining himself there next to Harold, leaning over to kiss him. He wondered if Harold thought about the same thing.
“When we were together the other day, did you — did you mean it when you said you had regrets?” John asked.
“Of course I did! So many,” Harold answered. “So many,” he repeated. “There were so many things I would’ve done differently. With you, with Grace.”
“I hate to ask now, but we’ll need to talk about it at some point,” John began after a moment, not sure where to go with the conversation. Harold seemed lost in his own thoughts, and John was tired enough that he’d fall down that rabbit hole soon enough. “Are you really going to help with the numbers?”
“Yes. I’ll set up a new headquarters like the library. The safehouse you’ve been using doesn’t meet my specifications for security.”
“I don’t want you to interact with the assets, only our detectives. I’ll pass on your orders and information to the others.”
“Can I vet them? Help choose which ones we’d want for a particular number’s situation?”
“I want you protected. I don’t want you in the field. Do whatever else you want.”
“There may be a time when I have to go in the field again,” Harold persisted. “And if I’m bankrolling this endeavor, I’ll expect a certain level of control over the proceedings.”
“We need time to adjust,” John said. “Find our rhythm with the new system I worked out.”
“I suppose I’ll allow it,” Harold grumbled sourly.
John heard the sound of Harold typing.
“Are you working on it already?” he demanded, feeling upset though he couldn’t pinpoint why.
“I had a few plans sketched out in case you wanted me back. I’ll need to meet with your finance person to go over the books and shuffle funds around. You needn’t be paying the assets from your own paychecks. I’ll reimburse you for the expenses, of course, and pay you for the last six months.”
“Leon Tao,” John reported, surprised that he was startled that Harold would want to pay him for the work he’d been doing. He knew Harold had a lot of money, but he’d been spending hundreds of millions… not all of it legally obtained.
“You said you were obsessed with me and my work,” John ventured. “And Grace said the same thing. How much time do you actually need to be ready to go?”
“I’ll be ready by the time the next number comes.”
“That could be any minute!”
“The morning, then. I doubt I’ll be able to sleep. Might as well make use of the time.” He paused. “Goodnight, Mr. Reese. I’m sure we’ll speak in the morning.”
“Goodnight, Finch,” John replied, disheartened at the clipped, formal, ‘Finch’ tone of Harold’s voice as he dismissed him so suddenly.
Chapter 21: Breakfast Out
John needs breakfast after a number.
Thanks for the lively conversation in the comments on last chapter! I love it when we can talk about our obsessions.
It was one full week (and four numbers) before John saw Harold in person after their middle of the night reconciliation call. They spoke daily, of work, mostly, though there was the occasional wry commentary by Finch on the state of crime in the city and other topics that caught his interest while he monitored John, their assets, and the numbers. Once Finch went on a 15-minute long tangent about the history of the postal service, which lead to a discussion of the public library system, which turned into a dissection of the Dewey Decimal System and Finch’s choice to use it as a way to obscure the numbers from detection by unwanted parties, were anyone to gain access.
John hadn’t been able to stop smiling that whole conversation, and the asset he was sitting with as they surveilled the latest number gave him an odd look. He hadn’t been privy to the conversation, and John wasn’t ready to let his assets know that Finch was (back) in charge. For all the asset knew, John was chatting with a friend about library science to pass the time on a stakeout.
Not that John had ever done something like that when an asset was around before, though he’d occasionally spoken with Carter or Fusco about their children.
He also hadn’t smiled so much around an asset, or anyone, in years.
The relief at having Finch in his life again and behind the helm at work made John weak in the knees sometimes, and he wished things would start getting better between them on a personal level so he could tell the man, or even kiss him. He’d really enjoyed the kissing that night in the hotel. He wasn’t even thinking of sex most of the time, just kissing Harold and holding each other and being in each other’s presence without fighting and without Grace watching over their shoulders.
Thinking of kissing Harold kept his mind off the clusterfuck of their actual relationship, and the added complication of Grace.
He’d glanced at the pile of books Harold sent, but hadn’t been willing to open them. He was still too angry about how Harold dismissed him so casually over the phone.
He wondered if he was overreacting. He had a habit of doing that where Harold was concerned.
“Does this kind of thing work?” he asked Zoe when he had a break between numbers. "This vee thing?"
“Sometimes,” she replied. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it for you, John. You and Harold have a long way to go. Neither of you are good at talking or sharing feelings.”
“I wasn’t good at that before the CIA,” John admitted. “Now I’m worse.”
“The first step is figuring out what you’re feeling. Then you tell him.”
“What if it’s me being jealous or angry?”
“Tell him,” she advised.
John finished up the most recent number in a warehouse district near the seaport and jumped in a cab, handing the cabbie $50 and telling him to drive in a straight line for $40 and stop at the first diner after that. Timed between the third-shift dinners and first-shift breakfasts, the diner shouldn’t be be too crowded. Fortunately the place the cabbie found was the kind of nondescript diner John preferred, where he could get coffee and eggs before heading home to shower and run and debrief with Finch over the phone.
“Have a seat anywhere,” a cheery female voice called as he walked in. There were three patrons at the counter nursing coffees, a couple as far away from the door as possible having an intense conversation, and Finch, sitting in a booth with one hand on his closed laptop and the other cradling his chin as he stared vacantly out the window. Vacantly and sadly, John thought, interpreting the fact that he didn’t look up when the bell above the door jingled at John’s entrance. Usually Finch was more paranoid than this.
They hadn’t spoken in twenty minutes, not since John handed over the number to Fusco, called in by Finch to apprehend the man. He hadn’t expected to hear from Finch until that afternoon when he called in his report.
He’d thought Finch was working from home.
What that jealousy? he asked himself. Was it relief that Harold was away from Grace and available to have a meal with him?
He slipped into the booth across from him.
“John!” Harold exclaimed, looking up.
“Hello, Harold,” John purred, turning on the charm. Yes, jealousy, he decided. Damn it, now he’d have to tell Harold.
A waitress appeared at their elbows, setting a black coffee in front of John and replacing Harold’s mug with a new one filled with hot water. Harold offered a distracted twist of his lips that approximated a smile and made himself busy avoiding John’s eyes and putting his laptop away.
“You want milk, Hon?” the waitress asked.
“No, thanks,” John answered, wrapping a hand around his mug.
She gave Harold a wide grin and a wink. “Told you you wouldn’t be stood up, Sugar,” she said to him, patting his shoulder. “I’ll be back with your food in a minute.”
John felt like he was in freefall, about to hit the ground hard.
“Stood up?” he blurted. “Is Grace coming?”
Harold cleared his throat and dropped a teabag into his hot water. “I ordered for both of us,” he explained uncomfortably. “You and me. I told her that if my companion hadn’t arrived after an hour to just bring my food.”
“I’ve never been here before. I didn’t even know I’d be coming here until I arrived. How could you plan ahead like that?” John wondered, puzzled, even as he let out a relieved breath knowing that Harold wasn’t expecting Grace. “A new algorithm?”
“I’ve been doing it ever since I’ve been back,” Harold mumbled, his head down, still not meeting John’s eyes. John reached across the table to touch Harold’s forearm, the contact making Harold raise his head. “I’ve wanted you to come, to join me for meals, to spend more time with me,” he admitted. “I didn’t know how to ask so I thought I’d plan for it, if we happened to see each other.”
John’s eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed, sadness making his face feel tight.
“I miss you,” Harold continued before John could speak. “More than when I was away, because then I knew there would be no interaction between us. Talking only of work this past week has been surprisingly painful.”
“You could’ve said something.”
“You avoided my calls for five days because of an argument you had with Grace when I was clearly upset at your silence,” Harold pointed out, angry. “How was I to expect you’d answer for something as insignificant as asking you on a date?”
“Dates aren’t insignificant.”
“They’re not work,” Harold countered. “That’s all you’ve been willing to talk about for a week, despite me trying to engage you on more personal topics.”
John lowered his eyes. They sat in awkward silence until the waitress returned with their meals. Eggs Benedict for John and sunny-side up for Harold.
“You’re right,” John admitted. “I was pissed that you turned on the Finch voice so abruptly and wanted to punish you. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
“Apology accepted,” Harold replied tightly. John wondered if he meant it.
“I didn’t like that you were suddenly all business,” John persisted, thinking of what Zoe advised: Telling Harold how he felt.
“That’s who I am, John, who I’ve become over the course of my life. I jump between aliases, between personas, often very quickly. You know that!”
“I don’t like it when we’d been talking about personal things,” John muttered to himself. Harold sighed, sounding exasperated.
“Let’s start this conversation over,” John suggested, giving up for the moment. “Do you have plans later?”
Harold poked at an egg yolk with the point of a piece of toast. Yellow moved across his plate, slithering sluggishly over the whites of the eggs and pooling towards the hash browns and the rest of the toast.
“I have physical therapy at one,” Harold said, staring down at his food. “If there’s no new number and I’m not too tired afterwards, I thought I’d go to a museum for an hour or two. Other than that, no plans.” He broke open the other yolk. He took a breath and looked up, letting it out. “Would you like to join me?” he asked hesitantly.
“I’d love to,” John answered. He tried to smile.
“And dinner after? Or is that too soon to spend so much time together?”
John shrugged. “We’re having breakfast together. We’ll be apart for half the day. I don’t think dinner would be too much. We used to spend all day, every day with each other or in each other’s ears.”
“These are new and unusual circumstances for us.”
“Is it different, do you think, dating someone you already know?” Harold wondered aloud. “With Grace, dating was how we got to know each other.”
“I haven’t dated much, to be honest. I say we see how it goes.”
“Hmm,” Harold hummed, turning to his breakfast.
“How are things with you and Grace?”
“She’s looking for work, now that I have mine to occupy me. She’s happy you don’t want me in the field.”
“That doesn’t tell me anything.”
“I confronted her about kissing you. She admitted to it and apologized. I’ve been trying to touch her casually, and she likes that, though it feels stilted to me. She’s willing to consider therapy.”
“With all of us?”
“I haven’t touched the books yet,” John admitted. “I’ll get to them eventually, but…”
Harold pushed his plate away. “We’ve been busy with work,” he suggested. “And you don’t want to read them, do you?”
“This is all new to me.”
“These books talk about that! There are a lot of people in similar situations. Why not learn from their experiences?”
“I just don’t understand why you’re so ok with the idea,” John said.
“I selfishly want you both,” Harold replied. “I want it to work out, for all our sakes.”
“You said you weren’t jealous of me and Grace kissing.”
“I’m not,” Harold assured him, and John believed him. He had to believe what Harold said if he expected Harold to believe him. “Though I’d prefer we talked some more if it were to become a regular occurrence.”
“I doubt we’re anywhere near that,” John said. “It feels strange to think about going on a date,” he blurted. “I’m not used to it. I haven’t been on one in years. I don’t know what to say or do or wear.”
Harold chuckled. “I feel the same way. I’m sure we’ll figure it out.”
“I want to kiss you.”
“What, now? Here?” Harold asked, confused. John let his face relax into a real smile as Harold glanced around the diner. Harold was adorable when he was flustered.
“Not a fan of public displays of affection?” John drawled, modulating his tone to sound mildly disappointed. Harold’s eyes bugged out of his face a bit and he made several aborted efforts at talking. John grinned. “Relax, Harold, I’m teasing. I’m not much for it, myself. Being anything other than straight is a bit of a hazard, professionally,” he added.
“Do you know of any gay spies? It’s safer for everyone to believe I’m playing a mark or turning an asset than actually enjoying myself,” he explained. “The Company made it very clear that sex was a skill to be used for their benefit. Now’s the first time since I joined up that I have an opportunity to be with someone simply because we both want it.”
“But those men and women you made sure I found out about…”
“I was still working,” John said. “You were the mark, Harold. You were the one I was performing for. I hadn’t realized I didn’t need that pretense with you. I hadn’t realized you’d respect my privacy within your range of acceptable boundaries.”
“You used them,” Harold accused.
“Yeah,” John agreed, feeling ashamed at his behavior. “And I wish I had a life where I hadn’t felt like I had to, but what’s done is done. The Company threatened Jess, even though I’d broken up with her years before. Kara threatened Jess after I ran into her in the airport. It wasn’t safe for me to express an interest in someone, not a real interest. They’d become a target. But now Kara’s dead. Mark’s as close as. The Company won’t come after me anymore, so I can finally be free of all that. I can actually try to have a relationship.”
“You used me. And Grace.”
“Yeah,” John said again. “All I can do is apologize and try to do better.”
Harold pulled his plate back into position in front of himself, slipping into silence as he resumed eating. John finished his food and accepted a coffee refill from the waitress. Once she was gone, Harold took a breath in preparation for speaking again.
“How do you identify your sexuality, if I may ask?”
John shrugged. “I’m open to just about anyone, depending on what I’m looking for. I like women. I like men. I wouldn’t say no to someone in between. I don’t think I need to label myself.” He cleared his throat. “You?”
“I also don’t feel the need for a label. Until you, my romantic interests had been solely focused on women, though in my twenties I spent some time exploring physicality with both men and women.” He paused. “You should know that I rarely bottom,” he added softly, his eyes flickering around the diner to see if anyone was paying attention to them. There was a slightly bigger crowd, but no one on either side of their booth.
“Really?” John asked with a raised eyebrow. “That surprises me.”
“Because of how I was with you? As you might remember me saying a few weeks ago, Grace and I weren’t able to perform such acts.”
“Because she wasn’t me?”
“It’s been rare that I trust someone enough to be intimate in that manner, for a variety of reasons. And apart from the night we shared, I’ve been celibate since the accident. I trusted you with my injured body. You could and did work around my limitations, either through your own instinct or skills learned on the job. Grace and I — She’s very hesitant to hurt me and treats me as more delicate than I am. You’ve never done that, even that night.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” John said, startled by Harold’s response.
“I do trust you that way,” Harold assured him.
“I still want to kiss you. Not now, but soon,” John said, touching Harold’s hand to get his attention. “I thought you should know.” He paused a beat. “You should also know I’m happy to switch.”
“I… appreciate the information, Mr. Reese,” Harold allowing himself a smile, and the way he spoke John’s name felt very much like flirtation though the words could be a mask for work. “I’ll be sure to keep it in mind for later,” he added, indicating with his voice that he’d take John up on his offer.
Just like that, John landed on his feet, freefall averted.
Chapter 22: First Date
John and Harold go on a date.
This is a quick chapter to tide you over while I work on the next complex one... Enjoy!
“He didn’t tell me you were coming here,” Grace said sourly when she answered the door. She gave John a slow once-over, noting the shined shoes and quality suit — one Harold had provided upon his return to New York. John hadn’t bothered with bespoke tailoring without Harold, but he enjoyed the sensuality of having handcrafted clothing against his skin again.
“I can wait in the car,” he replied, forcing his face to remain impassive. He didn’t want to start his date with a frown.
She rolled her eyes and gave an exasperated sigh. “No, he’d be upset if I let you do that. Come in.” She led him down the entry hall to a comfortable living room. “You’re a bit overdressed for the museum,” she added over her shoulder.
“I didn’t want to disappoint,” he answered.
“Sit. I’ll tell him you’re here.” She disappeared into the apartment.
John glanced around, cataloging the light, airy decor that was familiar from the old Washington Square address, though this was a penthouse apartment rather than the ground floor. There weren’t as many windows as at John’s loft, probably because of Harold’s paranoia. He wondered if it was Grace’s style or Harold’s to have the light walls and pastels. One of Grace’s landscapes hung framed above the mantlepiece. Giverny, France, where Monet lived and painted, if he didn’t miss his guess. He spent a few minutes wandering the room, examining the books on the shelves and the golden pocket watch ticking away inside an ebony box with a glass lid.
“Harold sourced original parts and fixed it himself,” Grace said from the doorway where she leaned against it with her arms crossed over her chest. “It was my great-grandfather’s.”
John looked up, not expecting to see her again. “It’s lovely. He did a good job.”
“He’s a man of many talents.”
“That he is,” John agreed, smiling slightly. “We’re lucky to know him.”
She opened her mouth to respond, then closed it, glancing back over her shoulder. Harold appeared behind her, dressed in a forrest green suit with a navy vest and blue-checked shirt. He wasn’t wearing a tie.
John blinked. Harold wasn’t wearing a tie? Did that mean he was overdressed? He started raising his hand.
“Oh, John, don’t take that off,” Harold said, rushing forward to grab his wrist and stop him before he undid the knot. “I couldn’t decide which tie to wear, so I thought I’d see what you thought,” he explained, holding up a pair of ties with his free hand. One was black with green diamonds, the other was blue and silver paisley. “Grace said she likes the diamonds, but I think the blue would work better. You’re the tie-breaker. What do you think?”
John glanced first at the ties, then at Grace, who remained by the doorway. He resisted the urge to tug at his hair in frustration. He knew enough to dress up when he needed to, but the intricacies of male fashion were beyond him, Harold’s eccentric tastes even more so. He preferred it when Harold picked out his clothes for him for a special occasion, if he were honest, even as his outfits were simpler to look at than Harold’s. He searched his mind for an appropriate response.
“The diamonds,” he declared. “They’re not as visually distracting as the paisley.”
“Really?” Harold asked, going to a mirror in the corner and holding first one up, then the other.
“I don’t know, Harold,” John grumbled, allowing bit of his annoyance to seep into his voice. “I said that to agree with Grace and get in her good book again.”
Grace held up a hand to stifle her giggle. “I picked the diamonds because I thought you’d like them better,” she admitted to John, finally looking at him with something other than discomfort. “I actually prefer the paisley.”
They shared a smile that they were both thinking along the same lines while Harold watched them, a bemused expression on his face. “Paisley it is,” he murmured.
Harold tasted like the Irish coffee he had with dessert. John held his head, stroking his cheek with his thumb, enjoying the contact. Harold shuffled closer along the leather of the car seat, settling a hand on John’s waist. They kept kissing slowly, gently, in no hurry. John felt himself relaxing into the moment, into the leather, into Harold’s embrace.
There was something so calming about kissing for the sake of kissing, he reminded himself, and they had all the time they wanted to get accustomed to it again. Not that they’d done it all that much before, but this felt natural, not forced and rushed the way the desperate kisses in the hotel had nor out of touch with reality as the kisses in Charolette had.
The car slid smoothly into a parking spot two blocks from John’s building. He pulled away from Harold’s mouth reluctantly.
“You want to come up and meet Bear? I promise he’ll be on good behavior.”
Harold laughed warmly. “Is that anything like asking me to come see your etchings?” he asked in an amused voice.
“Etchings, Harold? You should know by now that I don’t bother with excuses to get my hands on you,” he continued, rubbing his free hand up and down Harold’s leg.
Harold pressed his hand on John’s, stopping the movement. “As much as I’d enjoy that, I promised Grace I’d come home at a reasonable hour tonight,” he said regretfully.
“It’s barely ten! She gave you a curfew?”
“I gave myself one,” Harold corrected. “If we’re to do this properly, I don’t want to get carried away too quickly.”
John nodded, accepting Harold’s limit. He was still smiling, still felt light after their date. He’d had a single glass of wine with dinner, and didn’t miss drinking more than that. He thought Fusco would approve, if he told him. Maybe he should?
“Thanks for taking me out.”
“It was my pleasure,” Harold responded.
John leaned in for another kiss. “Come to my place next time,” he murmured against Harold’s ear. “I’ll cook.”
“I’ll bring the wine,” Harold agreed. “Or would you prefer something else?”
“Dessert,” John suggested. “And plan to stay a little later.”
“You have something in mind?”
“Wait and see,” John promised in a low, sultry tone.
Chapter 23: Back to Work
Unfortunately for John and Harold, the numbers don't stop so they can go on dates.
At least Harold waited until I was dressed, John thought as he inserted his earwig into his ear and pressed it to establish the connection, cutting off the ringing phone. “Good morning, Harold,” he murmured, pocketing the phone.
“Mr. Reese, how long will it take you to do a thorough security assessment of a four-story building with six first-floor exits, no balconies, and an approximate staff of 250?”
“That depends, Finch, on how thorough you’d like me to be,” John replied, annoyed that he’d gotten Finch, his boss, first thing in the morning instead of Harold, his boyfriend. He didn’t let the annoyance show in his voice. He was too professional for that.
“I can give you the projected schedule for the security guards for the week,” Finch offered. John heard him typing and his phone beeped to indicate a message received.
“I’ll leave that in your capable hands for this exercise, Mr. Reese.”
“I’ll have a report for you by the end of the day.”
“Do we have a number?” John asked quickly, wanting to hear Harold’s voice just a little longer. He’d missed him, and the work they’d been doing lately wasn’t quite satisfying his need to be near and connected to him. His dick took that moment to remind him that it’d been unsatisfied with John’s solo efforts and wanted Harold. He tamped the desire down with a thought.
“I’ve already allocated assets to deal with the situation. I’ll let you know if you need to join them. For now, please focus on your task.”
John held back the sigh of frustration. “I thought we agreed you wouldn’t contact the assets without —“
“As you weren’t available yet, I picked brand-new assets, dealt with them over the phone or via email, and am monitoring their progress. As far as they know, I’m the one in charge.”
John ground his teeth, angry that Finch had gone around all of his arguments for keeping Finch out of one of the more the dangerous parts of the work: Dealing with their assets. It didn’t involve Finch being physically in danger, but the men and women they hired were mercenaries, and they were prone to bribery and betrayal.
“I know you don’t like it, but I’ve been back long enough to do this, Mr. Reese. I’ve been paranoid and overly concerned with my own safety since you’ve been in grade school. I can handle a few phone calls as an anonymous buyer of certain skill sets.”
“Fine,” John bit out.
There was a moment of silence.
“And John,” Harold added, his voice more gentle, more genuine, switching effortlessly into boyfriend mode. “I enjoyed our date last night.”
“Me, too,” John whispered, letting out a sigh.
“I’ll text you the address for the assessment. If you’d like to submit your report in person, I’ll be at Wren’s condo tonight to keep up the alias.”
“She doesn’t want to be a part of this aspect of our lives. Nor do I want her there. I’ve only just convinced her that I need to be out of the house overnight a few times a week, and that I’m not using it as an excuse to spend more time with you.”
“But you are,” John pointed out, moving to his closet arsenal to choose weapons for his assignment. “This’ll be the second night in a row.”
“She knows you’ll probably come by for an hour or two,” Harold admitted. “That’s why I’m calling so early. I’m hoping to take part of the afternoon off to spend with her in exchange.”
“Not until tomorrow. I’m on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, and my therapist comes to the apartment unless I’m being someone else.”
John decided it was better to pick his battles than protest getting to see Harold two days in a row for the sake of staying in Grace’s good graces. “Take care, Harold. Say hello to Grace, and I’ll see you tonight.”
The building Harold assigned him to investigate was a former New York City Public Library, most likely owned by Harold himself. Unlike their original library headquarters, which had been shrouded in scaffolding and seemed unoccupied to the average pedestrian, this library was recently restored and in obvious, daily use. Not as a library, however. It seemed that there were several companies that worked out of the building.
John had done his research before leaving his loft, and he knew that a private security company occupied the first floor, a software company occupied the second floor, and the third floor was split between an accounting firm on one side and a law firm on the other. No matter how far he dug into city planning and architectural websites, he couldn’t find a single scrap of information about the fourth floor Finch referenced.
To John, it meant one thing: This was their (potential) new headquarters and Finch himself occupied the fourth floor. He probably owned the building, the land underneath, and all four companies, through various other companies and business ventures. That he couldn’t trace the companies back to Finch didn’t matter. Having him do a security evaluation of their new headquarters was a good idea, John allowed, especially since he would have done it anyway. Finch knew that, which meant there was more to this request than simply the evaluation. John just had to figure out what.
He grabbed a newspaper and parked himself half a block away from the building, watching the comings and goings for a few hours before deciding to approach.
The security staff were well-trained, and there was a metal detector and x-ray machine before one could get past the foyer of the building to the elevator bank. He tested their readiness by paying and sending in a college student with a packet of marijuana, a lighter, and a pipe in his bag, as well as the knife John slipped into the outer pocket. The security team found all of it, as well as the other knife the kid had in his boot that John ignored on purpose.
When it was John’s turn to penetrate the building, he avoided the front and side doors. He examined the roof from the next building over and couldn’t find an access point; the one vent fan was barred and locked. Plus, there were an excessive amount of cameras around the building. How Finch. He figured that if he were to make it inside, there would be a scant few parts of the building not under surveillance, if there were any at all. He wouldn’t put it past Finch to put cameras and/or microphones in the restrooms, given how often John had needed to confront numbers or their friends/enemies in them.
He decided to go in the front door after all. He used one of Finch’s hacking programs to insert himself on the schedule of one of the security firm’s managers for an interview, and walked in.
“Sir, would you please come with me?” a voice asked at John’s elbow even before he reached the metal detectors. He turned to find one of the security guards standing a respectful few feet away.
“Something wrong?” he asked mildly, feigning innocence.
“I apologize, sir, but we have a policy on outside firearms,” the man, whose name tag read ‘Maskowitz’ said.
“Yes, sir, if you’ll come this way, we have a secure room where you can lock your pieces. We’ll return them to you on the way out, of course.”
John followed the man to a small office off the main foyer. Maskowitz produced a gun lockbox and key. “How could you tell I was carrying?” he asked, curious, as he handed over his Sig Saur, ID and the associated gun license for the man to go over.
“Educated guess,” Maskowitz replied, examining the paperwork. “You walk like military, and your suit’s too expensive to show a bulge.”
John nodded to himself, impressed.
“And the other,” Maskowitz said, holding out his hand.
“Your other firearm, Mr. Rogers,” Maskowitz continued.
“I don’t have another gun,” John explained, shrugging.
John shook his head. “Sorry, don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m going to have to insist. If you won’t relinquish it and still plan on entering the building, I’ll have to call in someone else to do a physical search.”
John straightened his shoulders and glared at the younger man. Maskowitz reached for his walkie talkie. With a sigh, John bent down and unhooked the gun, holding one hand up to stall Maskowitz’ call.
“Don’t knock a guy for trying,” John told him, handing it over. “I’m applying for a job in security.”
“You’d be surprised how many guys, and a few women, try it,” Maskowitz said, putting the gun in its box and handing John the key. He hadn’t glanced at the second ‘license’ John gave him, otherwise he’d have seen that it was registered to John Lahey instead of John Rogers, like the first one. “If you’d have shot me, the emergency doors would fall and an air-suppression system would be activated to suck all oxygen from the room, knocking you out,” Maskowitz explained.
“What about you? Maybe I wouldn’t shoot to kill?”
“This is the best job I’ve ever had. I’m willing to face violence and possible oxygen deprivation to keep it.”
Getting into the building was child’s play after that. Employees had biometric cards, and John was given a visitor card once the main desk confirmed his appointment. There were two people at the desk, just like there were two at the metal detector and x-ray, and the floating Maskowitz. John knew from the schedule Finch sent that the men worked on staggered six-hour shifts, never more than four guards changing places at any one time. That included the men and women who prowled the halls of the companies and looked in on the stairwells and elevators. Once inside, he watched them coming and going on their rounds a few times, then went to go where he wasn’t supposed to.
They caught him impressively quickly. He made it as far as the third floor (he’d skipped the second) before security caught up with him and informed him that he was in the wrong place for his appointment. Apparently each visitor pass was programed with the wearer’s destination and a few public spaces such as the restroom and main hallway to look at the art hung on the walls in a mini-gallery. The art was expensive and tasteful, but nothing too extravagant that would invite theft. John gave Finch a point on the tally for that detail.
Once he had his interview, John ditched his visitor pass in the restroom and started using his skills to avoid detection. Neither of the stairwells went to the fourth floor. He checked each exit for hidden doors, but he couldn’t find any. The basement was a similar dead end. Standing in the elevator, avoiding the camera, he considered his options.
He tapped out the first few bars of Harold’s current favorite classical piece on the metal surrounding the buttons. A panel slid open at eye level, displacing the inspection form, revealing a fingerprint reader and a retina scanner. John chuckled and put his left hand in the reader and his right eye to the scanner. The light in his eye switched from red to green and the elevator started moving.
John scouted the library stacks of the fourth floor doing recognizance, even though he was sure Finch had been alerted to his presence. He found two weapons caches and three sets of fake IDs and cash for both him and Harold, though one of the stashes also included Grace. Finch’s workstation — empty of Harold — had six monitors, three keyboards, and an entire wall of glass where pictures and information was posted. Glancing over the papers, John immediately realized there were three numbers, two of them connected to each other. He tapped his earwig.
“You there, Finch?”
“Always, Mr. Reese,” Harold replied, his voice smooth and gentle in John’s ear, the boyfriend voice.
“Three numbers?” John asked, moving to the computers and sitting in Harold’s chair, jiggling a mouse to wake up the system. He considered what password to try, since he knew Finch wouldn’t give it to him.
“Ah, you’ve found your way to the workstation, I presume?” Finch asked, not needing an answer, boss voice in full swing. “The situation with Mr. Rahanja and Ms. Scott has been resolved. Embezzlement and blackmail. Mr. Fieri is still at large, though I have two assets going through his home and place of work even as we speak. Detective Fusco has an APB out for him, since it seems he’s assaulted his boyfriend, who’s pressing charges.”
“Maybe you don’t need me, after all,” John mused, allowing his fingers to type on their own. The system opened with a small burst of fanfare.
“Bite your tongue!” Harold exclaimed.
“Relax, Harold, I’m kidding. I’ll go search out Fieri when I’m done here.”
The far left monitors showed four four-camera security feeds, two on each screen: John’s loft, Grace’s (and Harold’s?) apartment, the new library, and the main IFT building. The top right monitor held a dozen open windows full of scrolling code. The bottom right showed a vaguely circular graphic John didn’t understand; multi-colored, always moving, and with a countdown of some kind. The top middle monitor had a map of New York with assets and allies and the current numbers’ locations marked. The bottom center monitor had web browser windows open filled with information about the numbers. As he watched, two windows closed, the focus moving to the remaining number, Fieri.
“I think I know where Fieri will be tonight,” John said.
“The nightclub his cousin owns, yes, I thought so, too.”
“How about I write up my report, bring it over to you, then go to the club?”
“Do you have something appropriate to wear, Mr. Reese?” Finch asked. “I don’t think your usual suit would pass the dress code, with what I see of the club’s online presence.”
John clicked through the club’s photo gallery. He felt himself smiling.
“Think you can acquire leather pants in my size?” he wondered.
Harold paused before answering. “I — I’ll have something for you to change into at Wren’s condo,” he said softly.
Chapter 24: Leather Pants
Harold buys leather pants for John for a mission.
Yes, in this chapter we have John wearing leather pants. Leather pants. Need I say more?
“This isn’t going to work,” John protested.
“Of course it will,” Harold replied, slipping his hand down the front of John’s absurdly tight leather pants to adjust the lay of his dick for him before carefully zipping the fly. “There. Being partially erect is the point of this outfit, I believe,” he continued, giving John an entirely unnecessary and affectionate squeeze. “It keeps the focus exactly where we want it, just like your CIA training manuals suggest.”
“I can barely move, and there’s nowhere to hide a gun.”
“Darling, you’re the bait of this mission,” Harold explained patiently, repeating what he’d said half an hour before when he produced the pants for John to try on and John had balked at how small they looked. Harold’s hands were proprietary as they ran up John’s chest. He smoothed the simple studded harness to make sure the leather wasn’t pinching and gave John’s nipples a careful tease. “Mr. Mohammed, Mr. Ancion, and Mr. Reynolds will apprehend Mr. Fieri.” He stepped back and gave John a complete once-over. “Besides, you were the one who suggested leather.”
“I’d rather be naked. I’m not wearing underwear!”
“I should hope not. That would ruin the line of these rather expensive custom trousers.”
John rolled his eyes and forced his muscles to relax. He hated the harness. Too much like being tied up, and he’d had more than enough of that for work to want it during sex. Not that sex was really on the table right now. He considered telling Harold, but he was still on the clock. This was his uniform for the evening, and if being mostly bare-chested with bands of leather around his body was the order of the day, he’d be bare-chested and wrapped in leather for the assignment.
Harold slipped an ID and some cash in the small pocket on John’s left leg, then a condom and lube packet in the right pocket. For appearances, he’d explained. John had no problem with that if he and Harold got to use them together later… The pants were supple, smooth, skin-tight, and already warmed by his skin.
He’d have no problem with the pants if it were just him and Harold. He allowed himself a small moment of fantasy. Being billionaire Harold’s arm candy at a fancy function, daring in his leather and a silk shirt… later that night, sinking to his knees… Harold sinking to his knees…
“What about a —“
“No collar,” John interrupted. “Nothing around my neck,” he continued.
“Hmm, I suppose not. Watch?”
John accepted the watch Harold handed him, settling it comfortably on his left wrist while Harold put a matching leather cuff around his right wrist. He stepped back to give John another appraisal.
“No, this won’t do,” Harold murmured, removing the items from John’s pockets and motioning John to turn so he could remove the harness. “You’re far too uncomfortable in this. Let’s try something else.” He reached into the closet and drew out a black leather vest, soft and silky like the pants, and held it open for John to slip into. He put the ID, cash and safer sex paraphernalia in the inner pockets of the vest, then buttoned it. “How’s that?”
“Still no weapon,” John said, crossing his arms to test the movement of the vest. It was perfect, as he’d expect from Harold. “I might be playing the honeypot, but I’m not going in there unarmed.”
Harold cupped John’s dick through the leather and moved up against him, pressing kisses to his throat. “You’ll have to wear these for me at a later date,” Harold whispered, his lips brushing John’s ear. “I find myself rather taken with this outfit on you.”
John groaned and bent to capture Harold’s lips in a real kiss. They kissed passionately, Harold’s hand slowly driving him mad, until Harold pulled away with a sigh. “Back to work,” he muttered, patting John’s arm. “There are jeans in the closet,” he said with a motion.
John stared at Harold, wide-eyed, not moving. “Harold?” John purred, reentering his personal space. “If you’re going to peel me out of these pants, don’t you think I deserve a reward for putting up with your teasing right before a mission?”
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake,” Harold exclaimed, grabbing John’s hips to steady himself as he dropped to his knees. He didn’t sound at all put out.
John rode the buzz of his orgasm right up until he arrived at the club and fell into character, mission on. Now in jeans with a studded leather belt, steel-toed boots and a gun at his ankle, he was ready for anything the number could throw at him in a small, confined space with several hundred dancing, sweating men. He kept the vest, though, enjoying how it showed off his collar bones and arms for Harold’s benefit. He didn’t even mind the eye-liner and mascara Harold applied right before he left the apartment, strange though it was to have makeup on his face.
He wandered the club for a few minutes, getting a feel for the place, noting the positions of their assets, establishing several exit strategies, should he need them. He danced a little, just to get his blood pumping. He winked at a security camera as he allowed a hot, young man to rub his ass against his groin for a song.
“Are you trying to make me jealous, Mr. Reese?” Finch demanded in his ear, perturbed.
“Just enjoying the mission while we wait for the number,” he replied, grinning at the pair of men across the bar from him. He ordered a drink and cased the area with the help of the mirrors above the bar. So far, no Joshua Fieri. No Justin, the boyfriend, either.
The plan was simple: Attract Justin’s attention (he was into silver foxes, according to his friendczar.com account, as well as all three of the dating/hookup apps he regularly used), confront Fieri when he showed up in a jealous rage, and take Fieri into custody. Justin wasn’t the first boyfriend he’d beaten up, but he was the first to press charges, according to Carter. From the animosity of their phone calls the past day and a half, it was clear Fieri was out for blood. The black market gun he’d purchased this afternoon seemed to indicate he wouldn’t be satisfied with simply scaring off Justin.
They had it all so very wrong.
By one in the morning, their assets Ancion and Reynolds were dead, John was zip-tied in the trunk of a car, and their last asset, Mohammed, was in the wind after setting off a riot at the club by pulling his gun and threatening Fieri prematurely. Racial profiling being what it was, they didn’t expect to hear from him anytime soon.
“I’m not a terrorist!” he’d shouted at Finch.
“I know, Mr. Mohammed. And I have certain influence with —“
“A Saudi man with a gun in a packed gay club, that’s the only thing they’ll think!”
“As I was saying, I have influence with the police officers assigned to the case,” Finch had replied. “But if you leave now, they’ll think you’re running and have something to hide, and you’ll end up behind bars because then I won’t be able to protect you.”
Mohammed had destroyed his phone before Finch finished speaking.
John didn’t find out about that until the next day after he managed to escape the kidnapping ring Justin was forcing Fieri to help manage. (Justin wasn’t the only one with a fetish for silver foxes, and there were men who would pay a lot of money to own one.) They learned the hard way that John had quite a bit of resistance to the usual drugs and that one man could take down and dismantle three years of work in a single night.
He didn’t even have to blow anything up, to his dismay, once he hacked their computer and sent the info on to Harold.
Harold, like John, had been up all night, monitoring the situation, following the GPS tracker he’d put in the hem of the leather vest (as the watch had been discarded by their perpetrators), figuratively biting his nails as he waited for John to wake up in the trunk of the car so he could talk him through his escape plan. Though Justin and Fieri took John’s phone and gun, they hadn’t noticed the earwig or destroyed the phone, which was a great relief to both of them, since the phone and earwig paired over 100 meters.
He staggered home a little past eleven the following night, confident that John was safe, the perpetrators were in the care of the NYPD, and he could now sleep. He didn’t think, he just crawled into bed next to Grace and let go of as much tension as he could. Seeing John for a quick meal and debriefing made all the difference. They’d even taken a few minutes to kiss before he sent John home to sleep off the ill-effects of the drugs and subsequent escape. That he fell into a complex coding project for the next eight hours instead of returning home himself wasn’t anyone’s fault but his own.
He made a mental note to schedule a visit to his chiropractor.
He felt Grace shift as he drifted off, snuggling up next to him and putting an arm around him. It felt good to have another body with him in bed, he mused sleepily. He had a wild wish that John were there with them, all three in bed together, all of his most important people safe and accounted for.
“Did everything go all right yesterday?” Grace asked over breakfast.
“Yes. Why do you ask?” Harold responded, reaching for the butter for his scone.
“You came to bed with me,” she said softly, as if she were hesitating to name the behavior lest it not happen again. “We haven’t shared a bed in months.”
“Oh, I — I wanted comfort, I suppose,” he admitted.
She reached across the table, taking one of his hands in both of hers. “What happened?”
“Nothing catastrophic,” he demurred. “John was in danger for a few hours, but everything’s fine now.”
“In danger, how? Can you talk about it?”
“Tied up in the trunk of a car, drugged. Nothing we haven’t dealt with many times before.”
“Oh, my God!”
“He’s fine,” Harold reassured her, patting her hands. “I’m fine. Nothing’s happening right now. In fact, he’s due to check in at eight, so you could talk to him yourself, if you wanted.”
“No, I trust you,” she replied. “But you’re sure you’re ok?”
“Fine,” he said again. “I wish the two of you got along better,” he admitted.
“I’m not sure that’s possible right now,” Grace said softly, regretfully.
“I don’t trust him. I don’t like what he did to you, to me.”
“He’s trying to make up for it. You know that.”
“Maybe I just need to spend time with him,” she offered. “Do you think he’d be open to that?”
“I think so. I’ll ask him, unless you’d like to?” Neither said anything for a moment. “He’s invited me to meet his dog, go for a walk. Perhaps he’d be willing for you to join us.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Harold sighed and returned his attention to his breakfast.
Chapter 25: Second Date
John and Harold's anticipated date at John's loft.
Harold arrived at John’s loft with a huge bouquet of red roses and a pastry box from one of John’s favorite bakeries. John greeted him with a peck on the lips and ushered him inside.
“Roses, Finch?” John asked, amused. “I should have suspected you were traditionally romantic,” he added, reaching for the crystal flower vase that came with the apartment and he’d never used. Bear wandered over to them, snuffled at Harold’s pant leg, then returned to his bed after receiving an awkward pet from the hand still holding the roses. John and Harold had taken him on several walks together, some with Grace, most without, and the dog had taken a liking to Harold’s quiet nature.
“We’ve never had occasion to discuss preferred romantic gestures, Mr. Reese,” Harold replied. He set the box on the kitchen island beside an array of cut vegetables in individual bowls, three kinds of greens in separate bowls in the center, and two handmade dressings in small pitchers. “Have I arrived early?”
“No, you’re right on time,” John replied. He took the flowers and began clipping the ends so they’d fit in the vase.
“It seems you’ve yet to put together what I can only assume is to become a salad,” Harold observed dryly.
“You spent a lot of time taking apart your salad when all three of us had dinner,” John explained. “I wanted to give you options in case I guessed wrong.”
“That was nerves, John, not any commentary on the items in the salad,” Harold said with a huff of humor. “The only vegetables I won’t eat are the canned variety. Too many of them growing up,” he continued, offering up a hint of his past.
Harold removed his overcoat and went to hang it in the hall closet.
“Are you nervous now?” John murmured once Harold returned to the kitchen, sidling up beside him to lean into his personal space. Harold took a deep, shuddering breath and shifted closer.
“Anticipatory,” Harold whispered, turning to face John, his eyes alight with desire.
Something loosened in John’s chest. He took Harold into his arms and kissed him. Harold returned the embrace, chasing the kiss, deepening it.
“What are you anticipating for tonight?” John asked when he pulled away, squeezing Harold’s hand as he let go.
“Something a little more involved than what we’ve been able to do since we started dating,” Harold murmured, watching in fascination as John turned the forrest of vegetation into a pair of picturesque salads in moments. He followed John to the table and accepted the dark cherry pomegranate juice John poured into a wine glass. “Something more along the lines of our experiences in Charolette, if that suits you. Grace would like me home by one,” he added, his voice turning sour briefly.
“She set a curfew this time?”
“She did,” Harold confirmed. “I’d like to honor it.”
“Given your expectations, how long after dinner do I have to wait before I invite you to my bed?”
“That depends on how long I’m supposed to pretend to hesitate before accepting your offer,” Harold replied coyly.
“I don’t want you hesitating about this.”
“I enjoy the direct approach you’ve adopted recently.”
“Do we have to wait until after dinner?”
“Yes,” Harold said, picking up his fork. “We’ll need the calories for later.” He winked and John flushed at the heat of Harold’s implication. His eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled.
Harold removed his jacket, vest, and tie and rolled up his sleeves to do dishes after dinner, donning bright yellow gloves John remembered watching his mother use in his childhood kitchen, before his father died. He hadn’t known they were under the sink, but he wasn’t surprised that Harold would find them. Harold stocked the entire apartment, after all, and he’d noticed a few additions (especially in his closet) since Harold returned. He picked up a dishtowel to dry things when Harold handed items over.
“I’d like for us to be especially cognizant around taking our time with each other tonight,” Harold said as he pulled off the gloves when they were finished.
“What do you mean?”
Harold opened his mouth to respond, then closed it, turning away. “I apologize if this isn’t what you were expecting.”
“You haven’t explained yet,” John pointed out.
“It’s not something I’ve done with a man before,” Harold continued, drifting towards John’s bed. John followed silently, waiting patiently. “I’d like to —“
John stepped up behind Harold and kissed the side of his neck.
“— Cuddle,” Harold finished. “Naked. And talk.”
“I think I can manage that,” John answered, reaching around Harold’s body to begin undoing his buttons. “What do you want to talk about?”
“Sex. What we like and don’t like.”
“You’ve never had that talk with a guy?”
“Not in detail, no.”
John considered that statement for a moment, going over his own experiences. “Thinking about it, I guess I haven’t either,” he said.
He ran his hands down Harold’s arms to help settle him as he started twitching with nerves. He captured both of Harold’s hands and intertwined their fingers, then wrapped their arms around Harold as he pressed up against him from behind. They stood together watching the lights of the city for a few minutes, each lost in his own thoughts.
“I don’t like mixing pain with sex,” John whispered, deciding that he’d go first to help Harold be able to say what he felt he needed to. “It makes it feel like work, and I don’t want that between us.”
“I don’t like being tied up, blindfolded or ordered around.”
“For similar reasons, I imagine?”
John nodded. “I like kissing.”
Harold let out a breath, relaxing slightly.
“I like making my partner feel good,” John continued. “I like giving head. I like rimming. I like using my mouth, my tongue.” Harold relaxed even more so that John took more of his weight.
“I like using my voice to arouse my partner,” John purred, lowering his voice to breathe on Harold’s ear. Harold groaned softly and squeezed his fingers. “I like enjoying the afterglow, not having to get up immediately, so I’d rather have a cloth nearby than have to go get one. I don’t mind mess, or swallowing, or sleeping on the wet spot.” He paused. “I have nightmares, flashbacks. It’s not a good idea to wake me by touching me.”
“I require cuddling afterwards, if at all possible,” Harold admitted. “I like the feeling of safety and comfort. The relaxation. I suspect it’ll be more vital now that I’ve been injured.” He paused. “My mother died when I was a young child and my father wasn’t physically affectionate. I suspect those are possible reasons why I enjoy it so much.”
“I’ll be as affectionate as you want,” John promised, kissing him behind the ear.
“Sometimes, my medications…” Harold whispered, trailing off. John tugged at the hem of his shirt and pulled it from his pants, rucking up his undershirt so he could stroke the soft skin of Harold’s belly. Harold sighed. “Oh…”
“What do you like about being with women?” John murmured, continuing his assault on Harold’s clothing.
“The softness,” Harold answered. “The beauty.”
“I like big, strong men. Tall. I like that when we have sex, they willingly submit to me, willingly allow me to enter them, willingly give me control.” John removed Harold’s shirts and started working on his belt and fly. “Aside from coding, I’ve never felt more powerful than when I’ve had a man on his knees or when I’ve fucked him.”
“What do you like about being with me?” John murmured, allowing Harold’s pants to pool at his ankles, leaving him naked except for burgundy silk boxers. He cupped Harold’s erection through the silk.
Harold gasped, thrusting into John’s palm. “I liked — I liked how you leashed all your considerable power to give me pleasure. How you used your killer’s hands to touch me, how you controlled yourself just for me. How you — treated me as if I wasn’t broken.” John mouthed at his neck, pressing kisses to his skin. “That you would give me that — that you would restrain yourself for me, for my needs, my desires —“
Harold broke off, pressing back against John, finding his erection and rubbing his ass against it through John’s clothing.
“— When you entered me the first time — when you — I — there are no words…” Harold shoved at the waist of his boxers. “Get these off!”
John spun Harold around and kissed him fiercely, holding him close. “What do you want?” he growled.
“Ride me,” Harold pleaded. “I want to watch you use me for your pleasure this time.”
John had Harold completely naked and on his back in seconds. He didn’t bother with a strip-tease, just shucked his own clothing as quickly as he could. He crawled over Harold, turning so Harold had a perfect view of his ass as he lubed his fingers and started stretching himself.
“Oh,” Harold sighed. “So lovely,” he murmured, raising his hands to stroke John’s ass and hold his cheeks apart. Leaning up to kiss or lick was too much for his neck, but he wet his thumbs and moved to help. John couldn’t hold back the groan as he pushed back on Harold’s fingers.
It didn’t take long enough and it took far too long all at once for John to be ready. As he turned around to face Harold again, Harold busied himself with the condom, rolling it over his erection and adding some extra slick. John sunk down slowly, savoring the extra stretch of an actual cock inside him. He locked eyes with Harold and started moving.
As he moved, John stretched his arms over his head to show off his muscles, tossing an amorous look Harold’s direction. Harold responded by grabbing his hips and trying to thrust up. It wasn’t the most fluid of motions, but it got the point across and John began moving with more intent. He found the best angle and went for it, trusting Harold to tell him if it was too much for his body.
Harold’s orgasm happened first, startling a gasping cry from his lips. He went limp, breathing hard, eyes closed, his face soft with bliss. John allowed himself to stop and watch Harold’s face for a moment. Harold was breathtaking; sweaty, debauched and trying to hold a smile that seemed almost too much of an effort to keep.
“You mind mess, Harold?” John asked, a hand on himself, pumping, teetering on the edge of his own orgasm.
Harold’s eyes snapped open. “Do it.”
John arched his back and came.
Neither of them spoke for a long time, lying in each others arms, basking in the afterglow. They came back to their surroundings slowly, kissing and caressing each other, then murmuring softly back and forth.
“Do you really have to go back?” John asked at one point, his lips moving along Harold’s neck.
“I’d rather not,” Harold answered. “But I promised Grace.” He ran his fingers through John’s hair. “Eventually I’ll be able to stay the whole night,” he added.
“I feel like a goddamned mistress,” John complained.
“I’m sorry,” Harold whispered. “I don’t know what else to do.”
“I’m not blaming you,” John hurried to say. “I just wish there were a solution that didn’t make us all feel like shit.”
“Fortunately, we have time. I think our relations will improve as it passes.”
“I hope so.”
Harold shifted so that he faced John more directly. He rested his palm on John’s cheek. “I promise you, John, we will find a way to make this work.”
John closed his eyes and rested his forehead against Harold’s. Harold sighed and burrowed his face into the corner between John’s neck and shoulder.
Harold’s phone woke them from a doze several hours later, telling him it was time to shower before going home. John stayed awake long enough to kiss him goodbye, then fell into a deeper sleep than he’d had since — since before he joined the army.
Chapter 26: Life in a Vee
Grace discovers something -- and life as part of a vee becomes extra complicated.
The first time it happened, Grace would swear it was an accident. She was just going to turn on Harold’s computer so she could finish writing an email after her laptop died unexpectedly. It wasn’t her fault that he had the security footage of John’s apartment on the desktop. Or that it was open and she had a perfect view of the entire loft. Or that in said view Harold and John were having sex.
It wasn’t her fault that she froze, her eyes locked on the screen.
It certainly wasn’t her fault that they seemed to be enjoying themselves so much that she watched to the end.
Then they had to go and start talking, and she had to turn on the microphone.
It was one of the most mundane conversations she’d ever heard between them. They didn’t talk about sex. They didn’t talk about work. They didn’t talk about her, or their relationship, or anything relating to it.
All they talked about was various cultural experiences they’d had overseas and where they might like to visit again if work permitted. Then John mentioned food in the Middle East, and Harold brought up his tailor in Italy, and they dozed off, curled around each other like any regular couple.
Sex, pillow talk, and sleep. Just what she wanted with Harold.
The second time it happened, Grace had been lonely, keenly aware that it was Harold’s night at John’s loft, and curious about how they’d spend their time.
They weren’t having sex. John sat at the dining table cleaning guns while Harold sat on the other end of the table on his laptop. John finished up while she watched, then disappeared into the bathroom, presumably to shower off the stink of metal and gun oil. Harold looked up from his work, his expression fond as he gazed in John’s direction. He sat there for ten minutes before closing his computer and getting ready for bed. John joined him soon after and they kissed and talked softly for a few minutes before shutting off the lights and going to sleep.
Just like any normal couple.
She cried herself to sleep at the easy comfort between them that she still didn’t have with Harold, though it was a little better than the last time she’d inadvertently spied on them.
She didn’t sleep well, so when she couldn’t pretend to try any longer she pulled up the feed of John’s loft again, not bothering to question her action.
John and Harold were awake, though still in bed. Naked now, their sleep clothes from the night before tossed in a pile on the floor, they were kissing, John’s hand working on Harold’s erection under the sheet. She turned on the sound in time to hear John’s low, gravely bedroom voice asking Harold what he wanted. She couldn’t hear Harold’s answer, but John chuckled warmly. She couldn’t see his face, but she suspected he was smiling.
She remembered that chuckle, that smile. He’d turned it on her often enough when they’d been together. It didn’t sound any different now with Harold. Was John playing Harold? Manipulating him like he’d done her? Or was it possible John had been more genuine with her than he’d thought? Could he have liked her, enjoyed being with her the way he seemed to enjoy being with Harold? That he’d called it a game and a job but it hadn’t been, in those soft moments when they’d been together like this?
She opened her eyes, not realizing she’d closed them. On the screen, Harold was on his stomach, propped up on pillows, with John kneeling behind him, bending over to —
She couldn’t see what he was doing, of course, not with that particular camera angle, but she could imagine. Harold certainly sounded like he was enjoying himself, and she knew exactly how skilled John was with his mouth and tongue.
The pattern was easy enough for Grace to see, once she realized there was something to notice.
Sleeping with John made Harold feel better.
Sleeping with John made Harold feel better towards her.
Sleeping with John made Harold feel better about sleeping with her.
It started slowly: Harold would come home from dates with John, freshly showered and smelling of John’s shampoo, and sleep in bed with her for the remainder of the night. Then he started sleeping in bed with her whenever he was in the apartment, regardless of whether he’d been with John.
Genuine, affectionate gestures started reappearing in their interactions. Little touches, kisses, those random, thoughtless signs that things were going well between them. He complimented her haircut and noticed when she got paint on her shirt where the smock didn’t catch it, neither being something he’d ever commented on in the four years they were together before. He made a point of doing his work in whichever room she occupied when he needed to do something at home, though he tried to keep it to a minimum. She suspected he only brought home certain non-secretive projects.
They made love one Sunday morning, paying attention to each other’s signals in a more deliberate way that seemed to increase the passion between them. She hadn’t felt that connected to him in months.
All that was well and good, but… it reminded her of what she’d seen on Harold’s computer, when she’d watched him and John make love… Had their relationship really impacted hers and Harold’s so much that it was bleeding into their own activities?
“You must have had a good date yesterday,” Grace said jokingly as Harold moved to cup her breast under her nightgown late one night.
“Why would you say such a thing?” he asked, pausing in his ministrations.
“You’re always more interested in me after a good date,” she answered. “I can practically tell if you had sex or not based on whether you want to be intimate with me the next day.”
Harold stared down at her, his eyes wide, the line of his lips drawn and unhappy.
“You’re more relaxed afterwards,” she continued. “More open.”
He blinked slowly, not speaking.
“I’m getting used to the pattern,” she added. “I just wish it weren’t as one-to-one. That being with him gives you permission to be with me, or something, you know? Like you have to keep it even, equal. Balanced.”
Harold let go of her and sat up.
“If you’ll excuse me, I have to go,” he said in a soft, broken voice. He got to his feet and moved towards the bathroom.
“It’s not an equation,” he hissed, shutting the door behind him.
John looked up from his book in surprise, turning to look over his shoulder as Harold hung up his coat and made himself at home in the kitchen by putting on a pot of water for tea.
“Something wrong, Harold?” John asked, setting down his book. He approached Harold warily, both their bodies tense.
“It’s nothing that won’t pass,” Harold replied, leaning his hands on the counter, his back to John.
“Do we have a new number?”
“Something going on at home?”
“It’s past midnight, Harold,” John persisted. “Those are the only reasons you’d show up here unannounced.”
“Maybe I just wanted to see you?”
“While I appreciate the sentiment, you’ve never just shown up here before. You always text.”
The kettle whistled.
“Grace said something that upset me,” Harold admitted as he watched the tea leaves steep. “I suspect she wants me to cut back on the nights I’m away from home,” he added softly. John nodded placidly, accepting the tea Harold handed him. As one they sat on the sofa. Harold cradled his tea for a few minutes, staring out into the night. “That’s not really what the argument’s about,” he said. “What she said… it spoke to an insecurity I’ve held my entire life.”
“Want to talk about it? Let me convince you she’s wrong?”
Harold’s lips twitched briefly into a smile, then his expression sobered. “I’d like to go to bed and have you hold me,” he replied.
“Hello, Grace,” John said, appearing beside her without warning as she waited in line for a coffee. She jumped slightly, glad she didn’t have it yet.
“John. Hi. What are you doing here?”
“Haven’t seen you in weeks. Thought I’d remedy that while work’s slow.”
She glanced up at him, seeing a hard edge to his expression that she didn’t expect from hearing his voice. She moved up in line. He followed, a silent shadow.
“I haven’t seen Harold in three days,” she blurted, suddenly uncomfortable in his presence. “He said he had a lot of work and hasn’t been back home. But if you’re telling me that work’s slow…”
They reached the counter and before she could say anything, John ordered for them both, handing over a twenty. He gazed down at her, daring her to contradict him. That he’d ordered exactly what she would have gotten didn’t completely reduce the desire to correct him to spite his arrogance, but she refrained.
Once they had their coffees they settled at a small table in the back of the cafe, out of the way of the foot traffic. John remained quiet.
“Things were going really well,” she said, hearing herself start to babble, justify herself. “We were talking about our feelings. He was opening up more. We were sleeping together…”
She took a breath and let it out slowly.
“I said one wrong —“
“You made him feel like shit,” John interrupted, his voice as soft and pleasant as usual. Only his eyes gave away his anger.
“He won’t talk to me about it,” John continued, talking over her. “He says it’s between you two, and I respect that, but you need to know that whatever you said hurt him deeply.” He finished his coffee in two long swallows and stood. “Fix it.”
Grace watched him slip effortlessly through the crowd and out the door.
“I don’t need you to fight my battles for me, Mr. Reese,” Harold complained as soon as John joined him at the new library.
“No, but you’ve been avoiding her, and I wouldn’t be a conscientious boyfriend if I didn’t kick you in the ass about it,” John replied in his calmest voice.
“How is going up to her kicking me in the ass?”
“Remember that I’m a fairly good tactician, Finch. I know how to plot battles to win the war.”
“The battle being the argument and the war being…?”
“Our vee,” John finished for him. “You promised you’d do your best to make it work and avoiding her isn’t doing your best.”
“I still don’t understand why you sought her out.”
John shrugged and wandered over to the glass board where the information on their current number waited for analysis. “Custody battle,” he declared. “He’s going to kidnap the kids, only he doesn’t know about her new gun-wielding boyfriend. One of them will end up dead. I’ll go get eyes on the kids. Send someone to tail him and the boyfriend, just in case.”
“I’m already sorting out appropriate assets,” Harold said, his fingers flying on his keyboards.
“Go home tonight,” John recommended, stopping by Harold on his way to the exit to drop a kiss on the top of his head. Harold paused his typing and sighed.
“I can’t promise a quick resolution,” he muttered.
“All I’m saying is to try,” John assured him.
Harold closed his eyes and nodded. “I’ll try,” he whispered to the empty room, though he knew John heard him through the earpieces they always wore.
Chapter 27: Feelings and more Feelings
Harold and Grace talk feelings...
Harold and John talk feelings...
John and Grace talk feelings...
It's a feeling fest!
*get out your tissues*
Harold arrived home at half-past nine when he could no longer justify his procrastination and avoidance. John would start hounding him again, he figured, if he didn’t start trying to fix things with Grace. He hated emotional conversations, though, and he hated ones where he could be seen in the wrong even more. Somehow, he knew Grace would spin things so that their fight was his fault, that she was hurt far more than him, that his avoidance made everything worse. At least with John, he knew where he stood when they argued: They each blamed themselves and had to convince the other that it wasn’t all on one of them.
But this wasn’t his fault! He’d run, yes, but she’d hurt him.
Tell her your feelings, John would have said, had he been there. She doesn’t know what she said to hurt you, and you can’t solve a problem if one of you is working with incomplete data.
He hated when John was right.
The apartment was dark, and Harold had a fleeting hope that Grace was either asleep or staying somewhere else that night.
No luck. When he arrived in their bedroom, she was sitting up in bed, her arms crossed over her chest, book discarded, her eyes flashing with anger. Every inch the wronged party.
“Darling…” he began.
“Don’t ‘Darling’ me,” she interrupted. “How dare you send John to —“
“He did that on his own!” Harold protested. “I’ve already spoken to him about it.”
“He threatened me!”
“He did no such thing!”
“Oh? How do you know that? Were you there?”
“I know what he sounds like when he’s making a threat,” Harold explained. “All he was doing was asking you to —“
“Were you listening?”
Harold pinched his lips together and frowned, rubbing at his forehead. “We’re almost always listening to each other and what we’re doing,” he said after a moment. “It’s about work, about security.”
“You mean he’s listening now? He’s listened when we’ve had sex? That’s an invasion of —“
“Like you watching me and John having sex is any better,” Harold snapped. He turned his back on her and started undressing, pulling off his suit jacket and hanging it in the closet. “Talk about a violation.”
Grace’s angry posture relaxed into surprise, confusion and pain. Guilt.
“You — you know about that?” she whispered.
“Darling, I know everything that happens with my computers.” He hung up his vest and tie. “John or I turn off the connection when you and I have been intimate,” he offered after a moment.
Grace sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “Is he listening now?”
Harold pressed his earbud. “John, are you there?”
The line crackled. “Do we have a new number?” John asked. In the background there was the sound of people, movement, a busy bar.
“No, no new number. What are you doing?”
“I’m out with Zoe so I’m not tempted to listen to your talk with Grace,” John replied matter-of-factly.
“That’s rather thoughtful of you,” Harold murmured. “I’ll see you tomorrow at work.”
“Night, Harold. Tell her as much as you can. She’ll appreciate it.”
Harold nodded to himself and removed the earbud, setting it and his phone on the nightstand on his side of the bed. “John’s out with a friend and hasn’t been listening,” he reported to Grace. He sat down to take off his shoes and socks. He gave a little start when he felt Grace’s hand on his shoulder. “Grace?”
“What did I say that upset you so much?”
Harold got to his feet. “You implied that I was keeping score of our intimacies and mine with John, that my affection for you was solely based on a response to my affections for him.”
“That’s true,” she said. “That’s exactly what I was saying. That’s how it feels to me.”
Harold removed his belt and hung it up. He put his cufflinks in a box on his dresser with several other pairs. He started undoing his shirt.
“I never intended that,” he admitted. “I apologize.”
“That’s not all, though. Why did you leave so suddenly?”
Harold closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He’d planned a speech on the way home. Might as well try it and see if it was enough.
“As a child, I was different from my peers. More intelligent, less socially adept. I was teased and bullied for much of my youth, until I arrived at MIT and met other young men like myself.” He took another deep breath, letting it out slowly. “They called me a robot,” he whispered. “They said I didn’t know what feelings were, that the only way I could be in a relationship was to study one and do exactly as my partner did, one-for-one. That I would never learn to be human like the rest of them. That I might as well marry one of my computers.”
“Oh, Harold,” Grace said, pity and compassion warring for control of her voice. He felt himself withdrawing from her tone.
“I’ve studied human behavior, human psychology, social psychology. I know how I’m supposed to act, but it’s not instinctive to me. Social relationships require much more thought and effort than they do for the average person.”
He held up a hand when she opened her mouth to respond. “You never expected me to act the way others do. You accepted that I was strange and socially awkward. John, for all of his own natural charm and social skills, had most of that nature drilled and trained out of him, so that he must also think and act his way through many social situations. In that we are alike in that way, it has made our connection stronger than if one of us were more normal. We don’t require pretense between us.”
He paused again, looking over to meet her eyes for the first time that night. “When you accused me of maintaining an equation to manage our intimate encounters I felt as if I was young again, as if you no longer accepted me as I am.”
“Harold, of course I accept you as you are!” Grace exclaimed, throwing off the covers to move to his side of the bed and reach for him. “I was just commenting on a pattern. I know you like patterns.”
“But you didn’t like this one,” he replied, not moving towards her. She dropped her arms. “You didn’t want to feel secondary to John in my affections.”
“I don’t feel secondary…” she protested, her eyes shifting away from his. He didn’t believe her.
“What if this is the only way I can maintain a sexual relationship with both of you?” he wondered.
“What about an emotional one?” she asked.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“You ran to him when you were upset,” she declared. “Don’t try to deny it. You were upset with me and you ran to him.”
“He doesn’t ask for things he knows I can’t give,” Harold said.
“And I do?”
“You barely tolerate me spending time with him! I had to beg for you to allow me to spend the whole night with him.”
“That’s because you’re always with him! You work together! You see each other every day! I hardly get any time, and of the time I could have, you’re gone at one of your other houses most nights! Don’t think I don’t know he joins you there.” She backed to her side of the bed and crossed her arms over her chest again.
“I find it interesting that he made the exact same claim not so long ago.” They glared at each other for a long time. “I’m sleeping in the other room,” Harold declared, grabbing his phone.
“Running away again?” she taunted.
“I suppose you’ll be happy to know I’m not running to him,” he barked over his shoulder as he slammed the bedroom door closed behind himself. He rubbed his hand over his face and shuffled off to the guest room.
John wasn’t surprised to get a phone call early the next morning. After having Harold check in on him when he should have been talking to Grace, he suspected the talk hadn’t gone smoothly. “Hello, Grace.”
“We need to talk about Harold,” she said without preamble.
“What happened last night?”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“He sent me out on a mission with barely a good morning. I’d say he’s still upset, though I’m glad he went home like I suggested.”
“You told him to come home?”
“He confronted me about talking to you, said I shouldn’t have done it. I told him that the vee wouldn’t work if he kept avoiding you.” He paused. “I shouldn’t have spooked you like I did.”
Grace let out a loud breath. “Thanks for that. I was feeling pretty intimidated.”
“Old habits die hard,” he said. “I’ll call next time.”
“Thanks,” she said again.
“I wish there were something I could do to help you guys,” John said. “But he hasn’t told me anything.”
“I accused him of running to you when he’s upset at me,” she admitted. He frowned to himself. “I know that’s not fixing things, but he agreed with me. Then he slept in the other room for the first time in a month.”
John considered what he’d seen of Harold that morning. There’d been the quick peck on the lips, then an address shoved into his hand with an order to go stakeout the newest number. Harold hadn’t met his eyes. He glanced at the number’s house again, seeing her in the window with her children. According to the information from Finch, she’d take them to school and go to her job at a coffee shop.
“Meet me for coffee,” he suggested, and gave the address.
As soon as the connection to Grace closed, he had Finch squawking in his ear, as expected.
“Mr. Reese! I don’t think —“
“Relax, Finch, today’s just about surveillance,” he interrupted.
“I shouldn’t have to remind you how quickly surveillance can become a firefight,” Finch grumbled.
“I’ll keep her safe,” John promised. “And you need to give us some privacy.”
Grace was already at the coffee shop when John arrived, as he’d tailed the number to her kids’ school and then to work, including the quick stop at a convenience store for garbage bags, plastic wrap, and nitrile gloves. It made him pause to see just those items in her basket, especially considering her Netflix tastes, but there were many reasons a person would buy them, and murder wasn’t always one of them.
“I thought you weren’t going to come,” Grace said in greeting. She stood and accepted the socially acceptable kiss on the cheek he offered before taking his own seat.
“Sorry, got tied up,” he replied.
“Not literally, I hope?”
John chuckled. “No, I’m sure Harold would have called if that were the case.”
“He says you’re always listening to each other.”
“I told him to give us privacy.” John accepted the coffee his number brought to him with a smile, then returned most of his attention to Grace.
“How much does he talk about me?” she blurted.
“Not much,” John answered, sipping his drink. “I think he tries to keep his relationship with you and his relationship with me separate.”
“He seems very good at it.” She sighed and looked around the cafe for a moment. “When we were in Europe, after things went down with you, you know, he told me all about your work. He said he had over a dozen aliases, that he lived over a dozen lives. I don’t think I believed him, not really. But now I see it every day and it's real.”
John waited, seeing the number at the cash register taking orders in the reflection of a glass lampshade. Grace responded very well to the technique of silence, he reminded himself. She often revealed much more than she might have if he asked questions.
“He’s less sad,” she continued. “But he’s more distant. In some ways,” she hurried to explain. “Not all. We’ve been getting closer since you two started dating. I think he trusts me more. But also less,” she said. “I feel like I only have a part of him.”
“I doubt that anyone could have or know all that is Harold,” John interjected. “Even his best friend Nathan only knew him so well.”
“Did he know about Harold’s false selves?”
“I think so. Harold never said, but they met when they were young. Harold might not have been as guarded then. He might have needed someone to confide in.”
“What’s it like to live another life?”
John paused, considering how to answer as he watched the number get into an argument with her manager about her hairstyle. He didn’t like dreds, it seemed, and though she wore them, she’d pulled them back into a high ponytail, well out of the way.
“For this job, and for much of my work with the CIA, I took on a role for a few days, a week, maybe. It’s like acting, but all the time. I know I’m not the people I’m pretending to be. I know it’s a game, a show.”
The manager stalked back to the kitchen, leaving the number flustered but otherwise unharmed.
“When I’ve had to go into deep cover, it’s different. I have to become the other person so completely that I believe it myself, even as I maintain my awareness of my overall goal and mission. I have to be able to react seemingly instinctively as this new person would, not as I would.”
“I don’t understand.”
“My own response to gunfire is to find the source and take out whoever’s endangering innocents,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “I know how to use a gun, and I’m very familiar with all aspects of caring for one. A while back I had to play the part of American tourist in a foreign country. I had to respond to gunfire by cowering and running, so that the people with me would categorize me as a coward, as exactly who I said I was. And it had to seem real.”
“You had to go against all your instincts and make it real?” she clarified. He nodded. “How do you do it?”
“What about —“ She hesitated, looking away, her eyes slightly vacant, seeing the past. He knew she was about to ask about John Stills. “What about when you were —“
“I tried to be as much of myself as I could,” he interrupted. “I tried to be the man I might have been if the CIA hadn’t gotten their hooks in me.” He reached out and touched the back of her hand. “I’ve been thinking about it,” he admitted. “How much I actually lied to you. May name, yes. My background, some. My job and how I spent my time, definitely.”
“I liked you, Grace. If I hadn’t had my alternate agenda, I would’ve enjoyed dating you.” He paused to glance over at the number who was still at the cash register. “You were a breath of fresh air in my life back then,” he continued after a moment. “In my line of work, there’s not much down time, not much relaxation. With you I could enjoy the occasional lazy Sunday morning. That was a gift.”
Grace took his hand, clasping it in one of hers. “Why couldn’t it have been real?” she whispered. “I sometimes wish this were all a dream, that you really are John Stills, that Harold isn’t —”
John waited, letting her squeeze his hand.
“Not that he was dead, but still missing, maybe? I don’t know. That sounds horrible, doesn’t it?” She looked up, her eyes watery, beseeching. “I was falling in love with you,” she confessed. “And Harold isn’t the Harold I knew… Is it wrong to want things to be the way they were?”
John pulled her to her feet and embraced her, sensing an imminent outpouring of emotion. She rubbed her face against his chest and burst into tears. John found himself hugging her tightly, murmuring nonsense words in her ear as he stroked her hair, just like he’d done the few times she’d cried when they were ‘dating.’
“I’m sorry,” she said after a few minutes. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t cry on you like this.” She tried to pull away and wipe her eyes with her fingers, but he held on and gave her a handkerchief. “You don’t need to hear all this,” she continued.
“Seems like you needed to say it,” John offered.
She gave him a soggy, hesitant smile. “I think I did,” she agreed. “I should probably go, let you get back to work.”
He covered her cheek with his palm and used his thumb to remove a stray tear. “Go get cleaned up. I’ve got to stay here, but I can have one of our security guys take you home.”
She sniffled, touched the back of his hand where it rested against her face. “I feel like I should be kissing you right now,” she said.
John’s mouth twisted unpleasantly. “Not this time, Grace,” he replied. “Maybe some time in the future, but not today.”
She nodded and slipped away towards the restroom at the back of the cafe.
Chapter 28: Lunch at the Safehouse
John comes by the safehouse one afternoon in between tailing a number.
Thanks for your patience with my (long) process of writing. Here's another chapter that will continue our heroes' path towards the eventual goal of *threesome*
Look out for a sneak-peek at another new AU that's taken over my brain the last few weeks.
“Just me, Finch,” John called as he pushed open the safehouse door. Harold stood up from his workstation and approached, reaching for John’s neck to pull him down for a kiss as John embraced him.
“How bad is it?” Harold asked, flattening his other hand over John’s chest and the neat spread of three bullet holes in his shirt.
“Nothing broken,” he reassured his boyfriend. “I’ll be bruised for a while, but the vest caught them all.”
“Good,” Harold murmured, kissing him again. “Thank goodness you agreed to wear it this time,” he added crossly.
John sighed and let go of Harold to walk into the main room. “Yeah, yeah, I need to listen to you more often,” he agreed peevishly.
“I’m being serious, Mr. Reese,” Harold snapped.
“Me, too,” John protested. “There’s a reason I went out to contact the number myself rather than send one of our assets. I knew she’d shoot first, if she even bothered with questions after.”
Harold accepted John’s overcoat and hung it in the closet while John began taking off his suit jacket, shirt, kevlar vest and undershirt. He turned back to see the three large bruises on John’s chest and made a sound of dismay. He rushed forward to run his fingers over the tender patches.
“Grace, darling, would you mind bringing the first aid kit, please?” he called into the other room. “John’s hurt.”
John felt his whole body tense. “What’s she doing here?” he snarled, stepping away from Harold.
“Bringing lunch,” Harold replied unapologetically.
“I thought neither of us wanted her involved in this!” John growled.
“I don’t want to be involved, either, but Harold’s been skipping meals, and you probably have been, too, so I wanted to do my part,” Grace said, appearing with the first aid kit.
John whipped around, his eyes narrowed with suspicion.
“I’ll have the food ready in ten minutes. Perhaps we can all eat together, or do you have to leave immediately?” John shrugged at the mildly disapproving tone of her voice. She handed the kit to Harold and returned to the kitchen after giving John’s chest a quick, speculative glance like she used to do when he was playing John Stills and she was considering seducing him.
“Harold?” John asked.
“It’s not like we’ll be using this safehouse after this number,” he mumbled. “I thought the risk of her coming over was minimal.”
“I can’t protect both of you if I don’t know where you both are!” John exclaimed. “She was supposed to be downtown with Samuels guarding her.”
“You don’t need to worry so much about us,” Harold replied. “Mr. Samuels did his duty and delivered her here without incident. He’ll take her home in a few hours when she’s ready to go, and I won’t leave until you return after the number’s situation is resolved, unless we decide otherwise.” He extracted a tube of analgesic cream from the kit and set the rest down. John sat at the table and Harold dragged over his desk chair so he could sit in front of him.
“I’m not upset that she’s here,” John said once Harold began rubbing the cream across his chest with gentle fingers in one of their new rituals since they started dating. Before, John would have done it himself and not bothered to tell Finch. “Well, I am, but I’m more upset that I didn’t know she’d be here,” he amended.
“Perhaps you should tell her that,” Harold murmured, leaning forward to place a kiss over John’s heart where he hadn’t put any of the cream yet.
“You spoil me, Harold,” John replied, lifting Harold’s chin so they could kiss again.
“You deserve to be spoiled.”
They kissed for another minute until Harold finished with the cream and John left to find a new shirt in the apartment’s bedroom.
“Sorry about my tone earlier,” John said as he joined Grace in the kitchen, the sounds of Harold typing in the other room telling him what his boyfriend was doing.
“No, I understand. I forgot how much you don’t like surprises,” she replied. “Will you stay for lunch?”
“All right, would you set the table?”
As John set out silverware and plates, he considered Grace’s presence at both the safehouse and in their lives. She was right: He and Harold had been skipping meals — usually lunch or dinner, as John brought breakfast to the new library every morning he didn’t wake up with Harold, and cajoled his partner to a diner on the mornings they did wake up together. Meals just never seemed important enough with numbers to save, especially if they had to go out to eat. Neither had time to cook, after all.
“Harold, time for lunch,” Grace called when everything was ready.
“One minute,” Harold protested, raising a finger but continuing to type with his other hand.
“You’re being rude,” she grumbled after a little while of sitting silently with John, waiting.
“I just have to finish this line…” Harold responded. John knew from experience that letting Harold do as he asked could roll into hours instead of minutes. He assumed Grace knew, as well, but she seemed resigned to wait, looking away from him with her arms crossed over her chest.
“Finch!” John barked. Harold’s back straightened. “Get your ass over here and eat the lunch your girlfriend made. I didn’t let her father disrespect her, so I’m not going to let you do it, either.”
Harold slunk over to the table, chastised. “You met her father?” he asked, clearly unaware of the fact.
“And her mother,” John answered. “May 13th,” he added. “They had an eight-hour layover and wanted to surprise Grace and meet the new boyfriend she kept talking about.”
“We weren’t even dressed,” Grace said, giggling at the memory, much happier now that Harold was at the table. “John answered the door in just his pants! You remember the look on Dad’s face?” she asked John, tapping his arm playfully. She turned to Harold and made a sour face to imitate her father. She glanced back at John and smiled. “That was a nice morning,” she said, sounding pleasantly surprised that she was willing to acknowledge the positive feeling. After their conversation a few weeks ago, perhaps she’d gotten out some negative associations and was more accepting of their shared history.
John nodded, thinking of that day and the days following. “Everything fell apart a week later,” he mused. “What did you tell them?”
“That Harold came back from the dead and you were a cheating bastard.”
“I deserved that,” John admitted.
“Yes, but you’re trying,” Grace said. “You haven’t sounded fake in weeks.” She paused. “And you helped me and Harold talk last month when we needed to.”
“I do what I can.”
Chapter 29: Greater Organization
Having Finch back in charge provided more organization for John's life. He liked it.
Being in open/poly relationships takes effort and communication. Harold and John are not used to being forthcoming about things... Also, denial.
Life felt more organized with Finch back in charge, John thought one morning as he stood in line at an artisan bakery, deciding between the sage butter almond croissants and the honey rosemary cranberry muffins. They both seemed too finicky for him, but Harold liked the complexity of flavors. Finch managed details extremely well, and he kept things with the numbers and their mission moving efficiently.
More efficiently than even John could have predicted, with the increased frequency of numbers — two at a time was the standard, now, in fact, the next number usually arriving an hour or two after one was finished up so that there were almost always multiple teams out. Harold explained that the Machine had started increasing its output to match the number of assets John and Harold employed. As their pool of employees continued to grow, Harold speculated that it wouldn’t be long before the Machine started encouraging them to create a base out-of-state in its subtle way.
If John were a betting man, he’d suspect that Harold and Elias discussed more than chess at their weekly visits.
“Are you becoming an anti-crime boss?” John joked one evening, lying in bed with Harold in Harold Crane’s apartment, lazily tracing the line of Harold’s chest hair as it trailed off towards his groin.
“Anti-premeditated murder boss, perhaps,” Harold admitted, nuzzling at his neck. “Mr. Elias and I have been negotiating a truce, of sorts.”
“I’ll tell you more once it’s fleshed out a bit,” Harold replied.
“Speaking of flesh,” John murmured, moving his hand lower.
Harold rolled his eyes, chuckling. “You’re horrible.”
“You love it.”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
The added organization Harold provided had given him and John an ability to predict their work hours more accurately, as they had assets to assign overnight surveillance shifts and other activities that didn’t require John or Harold’s personal attendance or skills. All three of them approved of this new development, even Grace, who had agreed after much conversation that she was willing to bend her idea of a live-in relationship so that Harold slept in their apartment three days out of the week while he spent three nights at various safehouses and aliases’ apartments and the one shifting night a week at John’s loft. That John often found his way to wherever else Harold slept was still a sticking point, but neither of the men were willing to let Grace into the lives of Harold and John’s work and aliases. It didn’t happen every night, Harold argued, and usually they were too tired for sex.
No one discussed how often John and Harold managed to have sex during work hours. They had a silent agreement that everyone understood it wasn’t to be talked about, especially once Harold began sharing Grace’s bed again when he stayed at home. They were back to having sex more often, and Grace stopped tracking Harold’s liaisons with John — it was just making them all too upset.
John was of the opinion that the more time he had with Harold the better, but that he couldn’t expect too much with Grace in the picture, so he went in to their scheduling meetings relatively calm, ready to agree to whatever the others wanted as long as he got his time with Harold. The when and where didn’t matter — there was no social obligation or plan (other than a number) that couldn’t be moved or cancelled if Harold’s presence was on offer.
Grace knew that no matter how much time with Harold she got, she’d be dissatisfied. She often felt combative at the start of the meetings, not a feeling she wanted to have, but one she couldn’t seem to shake, nonetheless. That John was reasonably amenable to most of her suggestions left her with a sense of hopefulness. She’d have as much of Harold’s time as John, so she didn’t have to worry too much about losing him.
Harold, with his spreadsheets and algorithms and printouts, never felt good about the meetings but accepted their necessity with resigned tolerance. He always spent far too much time thinking about and tinkering with the possible schedules, running them through his algorithms for unpredictability that would keep their actions more covert and thus safer, and arrived with a computer, over a dozen options, and a headache. The headache didn’t go away until that night when he allowed himself a proper bath and a few hours to himself with classical music and a book before slipping into bed beside whichever partner who’s night it was.
Shaw took one look at the tableaux of John, Grace and Harold chatting with coffee and donuts while they went over schedules for the week and burst into laughter.
“Just have John move in,” she declared when she’d calmed down. “That way all three of you can fuck and be done with this nonsense,” she added, indicating the top spreadsheet, color coded for each of them, the aliases, and the various legs of the vee.
“Don’t have a coronary,” she interrupted. “I’m sure your bed is big enough for three, and even if it isn’t, you have the resources so each of you could have a bedroom to yourself. Do the math. This doesn’t have to be complicated.”
“That’s not —“ Harold tried again.
“Come on, Finch, can’t you see the sexual tension between them? Let them fuck it out so you can all stop worrying.”
John shut his eyes for a moment. “Grace and I aren’t —“
“I’d consider it,” Grace blurted, startling all of them.
“Darling, don’t feel like you have to —“
“I mean it. I’ve actually enjoyed spending time with John lately.”
John frowned, suspicious. He’d tolerated the times they had coffee while waiting for Harold, and the uptick in flirtation and speculative glances from Grace, and the dozen or so times all three of them had a meal together had been fun and relaxing lately, but he wasn’t sure if he a) believed her or b) wanted to go there again.
As a former spy who used sex to get information or his own way, he couldn’t shake the conviction that Grace would use an increased intimacy with him to blackmail him into giving up Harold or at least giving up some time with him. Then he cursed at himself for the uncharitable thought that probably wasn’t true.
“Do what you want,” Shaw said, grabbing a pastry from the coffee table. “You know how to reach me,” she added, sauntering out.