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Dangerous If Unbound

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The Texas sun beating down was merciless, almost a physical weight on his shoulders. John couldn't move even to change the angle: the collar was tight, the cuffs were tight, and the chains had been pulled to their limits. It was almost like Marco was afraid of him or something. He could enjoy that, at least.

Nobody had tried to buy him since the morning. He could enjoy that, too. Marco had brought over a buyer from some kind of mining operation, a big beefy guy more than a foot taller than John, with a silver-handled leather crop hanging from his belt.

"I'm telling you, he's a steal," Marco had said. "If you can push him, you can have him for twenty grand, and," he dropped his voice, "the court ruled him straight-up DIU, no chance of parole. You know what that means. No questions, no limits — "

"Oh, I can push him," the man had said. "Question is whether he's worth even twenty grand." He'd stepped up onto the podium and grabbed John's chin and looked him in the eye. John lifted his head slowly and looked straight back at him, flat and without deference. The man was strong by any normal standards: he had a presence like a bulldozer, power simmering, and a hard, satisfied confidence that meant experience. But John didn't have normal standards.

"Not to you," John said softly. He let his mouth twitch. "Ask Marco for my charge sheet before you hand him a check."

The man squeezed John's jaw hard in his meaty hand and leaned in. "You got a mouth on you," he said. "Maybe I'll take you home and teach you a few lessons how to use it before we throw you down a shaft."

Then he made the mistake of shoving his thumb into John's mouth, so the sales pitch ended with screaming and paramedics, and blood dripping down John's chin. John spat as best he could.

"Listen you stupid fuck," Marco hissed, dumping a bucket of water over John's head to wash him off, after tightening the chains to his collar, "do you get that if you stay on the market for another week, you're going straight to the labor camp? I get it, you're too strong to be dominated, are you too much of a moron to pretend?"

John licked at the trickling drops of water. "Too bad you'll be out the ten grand you paid that judge under the table to let you sell me instead of putting me in the camps to begin with," he said. Marco flushed and his eyes darted to either side, guilty; then he stomped away over to his chair under a small tent.

John just didn't care enough to pretend. He was headed to the camps anyway, as soon as the CIA noticed that their discard hadn't ended up in the right trash heap. He was happy to screw Marco while he was at it. A guy who dealt in DIU convicts and bribed judges to put ones on the market that didn't belong anywhere near people deserved to lose more than money.

The story the judge and Marco had about him wasn't the real story, but John included himself in the ones that didn't belong near people anyway. He'd killed so many people by now he'd lost count: too many to tell himself he'd never made a mistake, never taken out an innocent. He'd told himself he was serving his country, the only master he could ever have.

If it didn't want him anymore, nobody else would either.

The sun was getting low. The water Marco had dumped on him had burned off a long time ago. John's mouth was parched again, cracked and dry. He drifted. The tourist groups — the ones who came looking for the real Texas market experience — were slowly vanishing. The bargain hunters were fanning out, but they knew their business, and word had spread. None of them came by him even for a look.

"Sure we can't interest you in a take-home present? Maybe one of these little brunette numbers over here?"

"Tempting, but no thanks." The voice answering was a genial drawl, warm and apparently cheerful, but what made John rouse enough to look up was the undercurrent of flat-out rage. It was being kept under wraps, not the kind of thing most people could pick up on, not even most submissives. The man was big and tall and blond; his face was vaguely familiar. John thought maybe he'd seen him in a newspaper at some point.

The guys with him were low-level assholes, barely more than flatliners and pushing out hollow arrogance: the kind of guys who couldn't dominate anyone without money and manacles backing them up. They had expensive suits and expensive watches and anxious expressions. John watched them with some pleasure. He was pretty sure that whatever deal they'd wanted to make with the blond guy, they weren't going to make.

"Something more exotic?" one of them tried again, a guy wearing a fancy Stetson. "Hey, here's something you can't get in New York," jerking a thumb at John. "Dangerous if unbound — they put them into institutions up there, right?"

The blond man had good control, considering how badly he wanted to rip the guy's throat out. He stopped and glanced up at John with distaste. Taking that as a sign of interest, the other guy lifted a Rolex-adorned hand and beckoned Marco over peremptorily. "What's the quote on this one?"

"Fifteen," Marco said, obviously getting desperate.

"What?" the blond man said, incredulous. "You're selling a human being for fifteen thousand dollars?"

The other guys still didn't notice. Rolex actually grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. "The wonders of Texas, what can I say."

"Jesus," the blond man muttered.

"Look, Nathan, let us get him for you," cowboy hat said. "Try him out. You don't like him, send him back — no reason not to have a night's worth of fun. Hell, you'd be restarting his clock."

"His clock?" the blond man — Nathan — said.

"Yeah, look at those restraints, he's headed for the camps for sure," Rolex said. "How many days has he got left?"

"Twelve," Marco lied: it was six.

"Sure he does," Stetson said, with a snort. "Let's see his charge sheet." Marco handed it over reluctantly: even the cowboy hat paused, looking at it. The market overseers had already added on the morning's attack despite Marco's pleas to keep it off: they didn't like buyers getting hurt on their turf.

"What the hell was the victim's rating?" Rolex said. "Hundred thirty? Jesus. What's his level?" he demanded from Marco, jerking his head at John.

"We don't know," Marco said. "Gave a false name, court didn't want to pay for testing — "

"Bullshit," the cowboy hat said, shoving the charge sheet back at Marco. "No wonder he's going for fifteen. Forget it — "

"Wait a second," Nathan said abruptly. "Let me see that." He looked at the charge sheet, frowning, and then he stepped up onto the podium. The two guys exchanged worried looks and edged closer, as reluctant now as they'd been eager before.

"Listen, Nathan, let's look around a little more. Plenty of choices going," the cowboy hat said.

Nathan ignored him and looked John squarely in the eye. John looked back at him, giving nothing, wondering a little. He was completely sure this man wasn't turned on by the idea of a helpless unprotected slave, but he was thinking about buying — and he wasn't naïve enough to be a random do-gooder planning to waste charity on a DIU up on a Texas block.

Nathan's eyes seemed to get more blue, and the world fuzzed slightly. He was pushing with everything he had, John could tell, and that was a lot — Nathan was stronger than the miner had been; he would probably rate nearly two hundred. The pressure of his mind was palpable and faintly cool, as if John were fanning himself with a newspaper on a hot day. It was bittersweet. In another time, another life, Nathan could have become one of the handful of people John had pretended for, pretended with. He could have kneeled to Nathan and made the right noises and even felt a little bit like he really was yielding, at least until morning; he could have left Nathan feeling satisfied and powerful.

Another life. John didn't lower his head. "There's nothing on that charge sheet I haven't done," he said, quietly, and then he drew in a breath and shoved back — not with everything he had; he didn't want to knock the guy backwards off the podium. But enough to stop that cool pressure, as nice as it had felt.

Nathan didn't flinch, but he raised an eyebrow, and the pressure stopped. He turned and stepped down off the podium. "I'll take him," he said, and took out his wallet.

The two other guys tried to talk him out of it, and then tried to offer to pay. Nathan just kept smiling, easy and relaxed, and refused to let them. He handed his credit card over and signed the twelve forms and waivers required for taking a DIU sub into custody, and made a phone call while Marco was still filing the transfer on his creaky old laptop. By the time the transfer was final, four big men in suits, all of them flatliners, had shown up, along with an airline-certified neck-and-wrist containment unit, with ankle cuff attachments.

Nathan stepped back up onto John's podium when they showed up. "I'm betting you have a lot of reasons not to trust anyone, and none to trust me," he said, "so I'm not going to ask you to. But I will tell you that you're not going to be hurt and you're not going to be used, not without your consent. You have my word on that. Do you believe me?"

He was telling the truth, or at least what he believed, but John didn't say anything. If Nathan imagined he was going to bind John by playing nice, he was stupider than John had thought. John had wanted to yield to Jessica more than anything he'd ever wanted in his life. He hadn't been able to.

Nathan waited for an answer that didn't come; then he said, "All right. Well, either way, we're going to transfer you into this, and it's going to have to stay on until I get you to New York. Are you going to fight us?"

John glanced at the unit. It was a good one, police grade. He'd need some kind of tool and at least five minutes unobserved to get out of it. "No," he said finally. "I won't fight you."

#

Though the restraint stayed on, it was waterproof, and Nathan — Nathan Ingram of IFT, it turned out, which was why John had vaguely recognized him — told the guards to let him take a shower. John stood under the cool spray for a long time, soaping as best he could, and by the time he finally got out, Ingram had gotten clothes sent up, a smock and loose pants that buttoned up the sides. The guards helped him put them on and didn't grope. They handed him a room service menu and let him order whatever he wanted, and then they showed him to a private bedroom, with air conditioning, a bed of his own, and a nice view of the Dallas night skyline.

The whiplash was dizzying. John sat down on the bed and looked out at the lit-up skyscrapers. There was a pen on the table and he could get a sharp edge by breaking the mirror in the closet. He could run now. But New York was big and messy and deep. Easy enough to slip Ingram there, lose himself in the city's guts. Find a better way to die.

He hadn't thought much about escape — he didn't really have anything to keep going for. Nobody wanted him or needed him, and his hands were red with blood. Ending in a labor camp hadn't seemed worse than he deserved, and he hadn't seen better options. Just getting loose and living on the street wouldn't last long. He'd get picked up, and either end up right back in the camps, or somewhere worse. Being bought here, he'd figured that would qualify as worse. There were still limits in labor camps. The officials who worked there were monsters, but they were monsters who followed enough rules to get a job with a pension. The kind of person who would buy a sub for cash, much less a DIU sub, had no rules at all.

Of course, Ingram had done just that, but John didn't even need to work at it to know Ingram wasn't a threat. He could feel Ingram on the other side of the wall without even trying: still savagely angry, emotion radiating out of him. John closed his eyes and breathed out and pulled, and Ingram's thoughts came easily: going to destroy those distorted sons of bitches, loud and clear, and the confidence that he could do it, a pleasure to pull. There were details of business deals already working themselves out in the back of his mind. John could have probably gotten names and numbers of the people Ingram was going to talk to if he'd pulled harder.

But in the foreground was something else — some kind of software, John thought, although Ingram's mental image was a lot fuzzier than John would have expected. He'd worked technical people before: challenging as hell, trying to pick out designs that you didn't understand yourself, with enough detail to pass along to someone who would. Ingram didn't have nearly the same level of detail and complexity in his thoughts, though: it felt more like someone vaguely sketching out an idea.

John abruptly realized Ingram was planning out a replacement for whatever the guys he'd met with today — the name Summertime jumped into his head — were selling. Something that would run twice as fast, do five times as much, cost less. They're sick, Harold, Ingram was — saying: it wasn't just a thought; he was talking to someone on the phone. They took me there like it was a scenic pleasure jaunt. Every submissive there was scared, miserable — no decent person would set foot in the place. I'd have liked to get them called up on charges, but since that's not an option —

Ingram stopped talking and listened, his anger cooling and calming as the conversation went on. John couldn't pick up the other guy directly, not over a phone line, but indirect was often just as good. Ingram's mental picture was getting more specific, more detailed — he was being given an explanation. The guy on the other end of the line was working out the idea, turning it into a concrete plan. But Ingram's conception stopped at a certain point, before the real guts of it started to appear. Good, he said. That's perfect. I'll be back tomorrow, I'll stop by your place. A sudden sly amusement crept in, alongside the rest of his thoughts, but he was hanging up, and John abruptly lost the thread of his thoughts completely. Ingram had probably moved away, gone into the tiled bathroom.

John didn't make the effort to keep pulling. It didn't really matter, and he was tired. Ingram wasn't a danger. He lay back on the bed and closed his eyes.

#

Ingram had a private jet, and the security check was perfunctory, once they made sure John was in an approved restraint and Ingram had the right paperwork to transport him. A car was waiting at the airport; it took them straight into the heart of Manhattan, to a towering apartment building, where John was ushered by the four unsmiling guards into a penthouse apartment on Nathan's heels. Then they closed the door and stayed outside.

Nathan strode off into the apartment, calling, "Harold?"

John shuffled after him at the pace enforced by the ankle cuffs, looking around for the kitchen. "I'm at the dining table," a voice answered Nathan, absently; John went towards it. The kitchen was an open plan, an island overlooking a sunken dining room: a shorter, nebbishy-looking man in glasses was sitting at the dining table working on three laptops at once. "I've solved the data-bandwidth issue Summertime have been limited by, which should allow us to undercut their — " and then he broke off and stared at John over the island, then gave Nathan an astonished look.

Nathan gave Harold a wide innocent smile. "I forgot to mention, I brought you back something from my trip."

"What?" Harold stared over at John again and then back at Nathan. "Are you — why is he in that horrifying thing?"

"He's certified DIU," Nathan said. He pulled out a chair across from Harold and sat down. "His charge sheet was truly appalling."

John only gave the conversation half an ear, quietly shuffling across the island and rummaging in the drawers. He found a screwdriver and a handful of paper clips and started working on the right wrist unit. Out at the dining table, Nathan was apparently trying to sell Harold on the idea of John as some kind of bodyguard, which was such an obviously bad idea that John half wondered if he meant it as a joke.

"Look," Nathan was saying, "that's the third time in two months someone has come at our early records."

"And they failed," Harold said pointedly.

"I'm worried about the fact that they're trying," Nathan said. "And why am I having to persuade you? You're the paranoid one."

"Which is why I've taken sufficient precautions that I don't have to worry unnecessarily," Harold said. "And in any case, plucking a — " Harold picked up the charge sheet, " — six time murderer out of a Texas slave market would hardly make for the ideal bodyguard."

"Come on, Harold, it's not a real charge sheet," Nathan said. "Look at him! He may be a lot of things, but he's not a murderous derelict. I've spent enough time with inside-the-Pentagon types to recognize he's got military all over him. He was being dumped."

Through the first wrist cuff and onto the second, John paused and glanced up: apparently Ingram was smarter instead of stupider than John had given him credit for.

"And as I can't imagine that ordinary soldiers get dumped," Harold snapped back, "what you're saying is that he's almost certainly a former intelligence operative, which makes him even more ludicrous as protection. This isn't about my safety at all, this is like that time you tried to foist that dog on me — "

"Except he's a person," Ingram said sharply. "Harold, if someone didn't buy him, he was going to be shipped off to a labor camp. Do you know how long a submissive lasts in a labor camp in Texas? No matter how strong or well-trained he is, he still has to sleep. He'd be dead in a week, and it wouldn't be pretty."

Harold paused, and then he said quietly, "Bad things happen, Nathan. And it seems to me we've been over this before."

Nathan didn't answer. The whole room seemed suddenly darker. John blinked at his reflection in the toaster three times before he realized he'd stopped working on the neck unit. He glanced up warily. Harold and Nathan were sitting across from each other, very still, and Nathan wasn't meeting Harold's eyes: he was staring at the top of the table, mouth unsmiling, a finger tapping up and down.

"That said," Harold said abruptly, and the moment passed as quickly as it had come, "I'm perfectly happy for you to have saved him, but no, I do not want a bodyguard. He's yours, Nathan, not mine."

"The thing is," Nathan said, relaxing slightly back into his chair, "there's a small problem with that. You see, he's too strong for me."

"You should probably have taken that into consideration before bringing him home," Harold said.

"And aside from the legal issues with him being DIU," Nathan went on, ignoring him, "there's also probably a reason the government was dumping him, even if it's not the reason on his charge sheet. That means I can't so much as let him walk around the house without a full police-grade restraint unit."

"If you don't mind," John said, and they both looked over. "Let me spare you the problem." He dumped the restraint unit on the bar. "I appreciate you taking me out of there," he said to Ingram. "And I hope you'll understand I'm doing you a favor by getting away from you. Thanks."

He headed for the door. Behind his back John heard Ingram say blandly, "Well, I can't stop him."

"I can't believe you!" Harold was saying back.

John rounded the corner into the foyer. Ingram had left his coat, a long blue wool trench, tossed over a chair; John picked it up and shrugged into it and buttoned it over his smock-like clothes. He figured it wasn't going to add a lot to the fifteen thousand price tag. He turned to the door and looked through the peephole. Two of the guards were standing against the opposite wall of the hallway; the other two were probably to either side. John picked up a round chunk of marble that was playing paperweight on the entry table, holding down mail for Harold Wren, and took a heavy gold-topped walking stick out of the umbrella stand by the door.

He opened the door, threw the marble chunk at the man across the hall. It hit his kneecap with an audible crack and he toppled over, groaning. John whirled through the doorway and took out the the guy next to the door, the handle of the walking stick thumping into his stomach, then down on the back of his head to club him to the floor. The other two were jumping for him. John ducked under one, levered him up and into the other, and drove on, slamming them both hard into the wall. They gasped for breath as they fell. He backed up down the hall so he had all four of them in view: they looked up at him, various degrees of hurt and dazed, and John took a quick deep breath, centered, then looked at them hard and said, "Stay down," with a solid shove behind it.

The popular idea was a submissive could only pull, not push; the truth was it just didn't feel good going the other way. You lost some strength, too, but in John's case, he had strength to spare. More than enough, especially working on flatliners. If they'd all been up and whole, it would have been dicey, but once they were hurt enough that on some level they wanted to stop — that was different. The guards all slumped back, eyes glassing over. One of them had a hand sliding off a handgun in an armpit holster.

John was bending down to pick it up when Wren and Ingram appeared in the front doorway: apparently the commotion had been enough to interrupt their conversation. Wren stared around at the guards with an appalled open mouth; Ingram raised his eyebrows. "Well, that's impressive," he said.

John straightened up with the gun. "Please don't give them a jump-start," he said. "I'd just as soon not shoot any of them."

"Is that supposed to be funny?" Wren said, incredulous, still looking around at the wreckage. "Good God, you just incapacitated four people!"

John shrugged. "Incapacitated is better than dead," he said. "Let them stay down until I'm clear." He slid the gun into the back of his waistband.

"We can't just let you wander away into the middle of Manhattan with a gun!" Wren turned to Nathan. "And since when do your bodyguards carry guns?"

"Since that third attempt on our records," Ingram said pointedly. John didn't bother sticking around for the rest of their debate. He turned towards the elevator and pushed the button. It made a soft ding and opened immediately.

"All right, that's far enough," Wren said, sounding deeply irritated. "Stop."

John's hand dropped to his side. He didn't really notice. The world had dropped away, into soft and dark and quiet. His muscles were all unwinding, knots that were decades old coming undone, an endless grating background noise suddenly gone. It wasn't pleasure exactly, it was relief: like suddenly being able to take a deep breath, suddenly being able to rest. His whole body felt heavy, liquid.

"Why don't I let you two get acquainted," he heard Ingram say from somewhere distant as the next galaxy, and equally unimportant. "Come on, gentlemen, why don't you all get up and come with me." There was a push behind his words, but it didn't come anywhere near touching John.

"This conversation isn't remotely over," Wren snapped. His voice rang in John's ears like church bells. John was vaguely aware of Ingram and his limping bodyguards going past him, into the open waiting elevator. Only vaguely. Wren was right there, only a few steps away, dragging in all the light like a black hole. The elevator closed. They were alone.

Slowly a few coherent thoughts started to surface, the conditioning kicking in. John slowly groped for the rules. Don't think about the dom. Fixate on some other details around you. The problem was, there weren't any. He was suspended out of the world, wrapped in a perfect warm cocoon, utterly sheltered. He couldn't even make out what was in front of him, the color of the carpet on the floor. Try to disobey just a little bit. If you've been told to hold still, try to wiggle your nose, twitch your finger, something on the edge of involuntary. If you've been asked for your name, try to give your cover name, or a nickname, or a backup.

He'd move his foot, John decided. He'd move a finger. He'd sneeze. In a second. In a minute. Any minute now. Soon.

Then the sweet blanketing pressure vanished, as fast as it had come, and the elevator door resolved itself in front of his face. John stared at his dull blurred reflection in the stainless steel. The low grade hum of thoughts and feelings that was always there, the mix of hungers and pains from the world outside, flowed back in. He still felt better than before, quieter. His whole head felt clearer. He shut his eyes. If he looked at Wren right now, he'd probably throw himself across the hallway, drop to his knees, beg him for more, again, please

The thought of it almost made him whine in the back of his throat. Don't think about the dom! John thought at himself savagely, and then Wren heaved a breath and said, "Will you please come back inside?"

There wasn't even the ghost of a push behind it, not even the default pressure most doms couldn't help but put behind anything they asked for. John squared his shoulders, braced, and turned around, but Wren was just — there, blinking at him from behind his round glasses. There was no sign of his strength; he felt more like a flatliner than a dom.

John stared at him. "How are you doing that?" he said, harshly. It occurred to him he'd barely even registered Wren sitting at the table. It seemed impossible now he knew what was under the hood.

Wren made a small annoyed face. "I prefer not to compel people," he said. "Well?"

John hesitated. He was loose, and he still had the stick in his hand. If he threw it at Wren fast enough — his gut clenched, recoiling from the idea, but he could get past that. If he threw, and went for the stairs — but he'd have to take Wren out. Wren wouldn't even have to speak to hold him. Anything less than a knockout, anything less than a blow strong enough to kill him, wouldn't be good enough.

Wren stood there in the hallway, straight, his mouth thin, no satisfaction in his face. I prefer not to compel people, when he could do it without even trying, when he could crush anyone who didn't want to go along. He didn't have a sub at all. John was sure of that. He'd know if there was someone else — if you had competition, his treacherous lizard brain supplied. He pushed the thought away hard, but he knew he couldn't kill this man.

John took a deep breath, calming himself. He didn't have to. Wren didn't want to compel — didn't want to hold him. He'd leave John to himself at some point, there would be another chance to get away from him. He certainly wasn't going to go for a binding.

He walked past Wren, back inside the apartment, and turned to watch him come in and close the door. Wren finished locking up and turned to frown up and down at him with a baffled, half-helpless expression.

"You know, are you sure you want me to stick around?" John said, raising an eyebrow.

"If the alternative is setting you loose to wander the streets of New York, armed and dangerous, yes," Wren said.

John kicked himself, hard, because the small helpless curl of satisfaction in his belly told him he'd asked the question wanting that yes. He had the grim feeling he was in trouble. He'd never had to deal with any of this before. Even before his resistance training, he'd never met a dom strong enough to hold him. He'd felt the urge to give in, to yield; he'd even gone through the motions sometimes, but he'd always known underneath it was a lie. This was something completely different.

Wren had an odd expression on his own face, sour-lemon-pursed, a man who'd bitten into something he didn't like. "I could wring Nathan's neck," he muttered. He shook his head slightly and looked at John. "All right. You look half-starved, and those clothes make you look like you've escaped a mental ward. Tell — what are your measurements?"

John didn't miss the rewording. Wren was trying not to give him orders. "Not really sure," John said, deliberately not giving him back a real answer, even though the numbers were on the tip of his tongue, ready to jump off. "It's been a while since I've had a fitting."

That turned out to have been a spectacularly bad idea, since Wren went for a measuring tape. John found himself taking off the coat without him even asking, and then he had to stand there while Wren moved around his body, in too close and not nearly enough, fingers brushing against his shoulders, his wrist —

John fixed his eyes on the windows and tried not to pant, and then Wren knelt in front of him: intensely, deliciously wrong, a deliberate tease, a reminder that this was the wrong way around. John tried not to let himself look down, but he couldn't help it. Wren's forehead was furrowed. All his attention was on John, his hands were on him, his mouth was — his mouth was right there, and if John asked, if he begged, maybe —

Wren stood up and backed away abruptly, flushed color in his cheeks. He turned away to the table, groping for a notepad to scribble numbers on. John dragged in a deep breath and ran his hands over his face before Wren turned around again.

"I'll get some things sent up," he said. "Go and — if you'd like to take a shower, there's a bathroom at the end of the hall."

"Thanks," John said, already moving, trying to pretend to himself it had nothing to do with knowing Wren wanted him to do it. He hadn't been able to wash up very well the night before, with his hands cuffed; he'd been on a plane since then. A shower would feel good. A shower would keep him away from Wren. He could even take the opportunity and slip past him, afterwards —

"One thing," Wren said abruptly, as John reached the hallway. John paused and looked back at him; Wren was staring down at the table, his expression irresolute, then he looked up and said, reluctantly, "I'm sorry." Then he added, a flat, implacable order, "Don't leave the apartment."

The push hit like an ocean wave a hundred feet tall, clear and blue and dazzling, even better than the first time. John swayed on his feet, drunkenly, and he couldn't help it: he dropped his eyes and said, low and purring, "Whatever you say," and opened for it like a well.

Wren gave a small gasp that didn't help at all, and choked out, "Go." John threw himself down the hall fast, blindly, his hand groping at the wall to guide his steps. He got to the end of the hallway, staggered through the bathroom door, and threw it shut behind him. The door and the tile helped — a little. He could still feel Wren out there, like the sun on his back.

He leaned back against the door and stared at the ceiling and tried to think about getting out. He couldn't. His brain just slid away from anything that involved going out of the apartment. Down the hall, he tried instead. Walking back down the hall.

Wren's bedroom was probably somewhere along the hall. After John showered — like he wants me to — he could go and find it, turn the sheets down, stretch himself out waiting, inviting —

He had a hand inside his pants. He hadn't meant to do that. He was hard. John shook all over and made himself squeeze down painfully. It didn't help much. He turned on the shower and climbed in, bent his head under the spray.

I'm not leaving, he thought, and shuddered all over, breath stuttering out of him. He'd known as much already, but the explicit thought, that small deliberate yielding, still felt phenomenally good.

He made himself linger in the bathroom. He stayed in the shower a long time, dried off slowly, brushed his teeth and shaved off the two weeks of beard; he cut his nails and trimmed his hair with the nail scissors. And then while he was running the electric razor over his chest and belly and groin, he looked at himself in the full-length mirror and realized, too late: he was trying to show himself off. He shook his head, angry at himself.

There was a bathrobe on the back of the door. He put it on and went outside. Wren was back at his computer, staring at the screen determinedly, and there was a pile of clothing waiting: underwear, socks, pajamas, folded shirts, even a suit draped over the back of a chair, with three ties. "I hope they'll do," Wren said, carefully chosen words, and then he glanced at John. His gaze caught, widened, and then he jerked it away, sitting up stiffly.

John wanted, longed to strip off the robe right here, to try on the clothes one after another. They were gifts, Wren had bought them for him. John wanted to feel them on his skin, show his appreciation, put himself on display in them. "Mind if I get something to eat?" he said instead, grasping.

"No," Wren said, tightly, and went back to typing.

John stayed in the kitchen, put together a pair of sandwiches and ate them standing, pretending he was in another room. There had been times he'd been tempted to skip the weekly refresher on the conditioning, sitting down with the tape and repeating the words. Now he was grateful he never had. Even so, it was hard to think about getting loose. If you can't wiggle free, then go the other way. Pull as hard as you can, as much as you can. Look for something that turns you off, that makes you angry, that you can fixate on.

He finished eating and cleaned up, slowly, washing the dishes by hand carefully before he put them in the dishwasher. It was avoidance. He didn't want to find anything in Wren that turned him off. Finally he put the last spoon in the basket. He closed the dishwasher. He took a deep breath and forced himself to reach — and hit a wall. Wren was closed up like a box, impenetrable.

"I prefer not to share my thoughts," Wren said from the table, turning to glare.

"I noticed," John said, fascinated and starting to figure out how Wren did his disappearing act: he'd learned how to pull, and he was using it on himself. "How did you come up with that?"

Wren paused and said, "Necessity."

They didn't keep talking after that, but the exchange had broken the illusion of being in separate places. John gave up avoiding the clothes and went out to take them. "The guest bedroom is the second door on the right," Wren said without looking up.

John got dressed fast, not letting himself look in a mirror this time. It was hard. The suit was expensive, good wool, and a better fit than any he'd ever had before in his life, as close to tailored as anyone could possibly have gotten without actually fitting it to him. The lining was cool silk, the shirts in a pale blue that was probably a coincidence but did suggest that maybe Wren had noticed his eyes. He certainly had to have spent a ridiculous amount of money to get it all sent over this fast.

John did fifteen minutes of breathing exercises to try and cope with that thought, then he braced himself and went back to the dining room. He figured it would be easier to just jump straight into the deep end. He walked to the far side of the table and sat down across from Wren and looked at a spot over his head, letting Wren get through looking at him.

Or he tried to. But he couldn't help it: he heard Wren's typing stop, registered his sudden stillness. Wren's wall cracked, just enough that John could taste his intense, helpless satisfaction. The worst of it was that his pleasure was pure dominant: he was pleased by how much better John looked, clean, comfortable, relaxed, in fine clothes, properly cared for —

It was unbearable. John looked back. He leaned back in the chair, sprawling, his whole body going relaxed and open and inviting. Wren put his hands flat on the table, shoulders tensing. He was going to get up. John felt dizzy with anticipation. Wren was going to get up, come around the table to him — or maybe he'd order John to come to him, even better. John had a brief dazzling fantasy of walking to Wren's chair, leaning on the armrests, sliding gracefully to his knees...

"No," Wren said — but it wasn't a command, he was speaking to himself. "No. It's — grotesque. I'm keeping you here involuntarily. I'm not going to — oh, dear God." He leaned his face into his hands, and John had to grit his teeth to keep in his own whine, thinking about all the things Wren could do.

Wren kept his face in his hands, breathing, while he bit by bit pulled himself back into his turtle-shell. John shut his own eyes and held on through it, half relieved and half disappointed. Finally Wren sat back up with a grim expression. "Apparently I should have listened those times Nathan harangued me about being deprived," he muttered. "The situation is obviously impossible. I dislike doing even this much, but under the circumstances — I'm going to ask you some questions. If I can let you go — what's the matter?"

"This is pretty much what they condition us for," John said, trying to keep his voice mild, but his hands were tight on the arms of his chair. Wren could blow through the conscious conditioning without even trying; that would be when the unconscious conditioning kicked in. Even John didn't know exactly what was under there; he'd been doped at the time. But he knew a military-grade dom had put it on him: one of the ten or so most powerful doms in the world. If Wren asked about anything classified —

"All right," Wren said, took a deep breath, and took down his walls again. "As a precursor," he said, even as John tried not to groan out loud, "if I ask you anything that you're not permitted to reveal, you're to tell me so instead of answering. I'm not interested in ferreting out government secrets, and if I were, I wouldn't need to do it by interrogating you."

John closed his eyes and pulled, hungrily: not just the command, but Wren's sincerity, a cool wash of relief. Wren really meant it; he didn't want to know anything dangerous. John was sinking deep into Wren's voice, the caress of his power. The surface conditioning faded into a distant scratchy track bleating in the background.

Wren's voice came through it clear and utterly commanding, perfect. "Tell me honestly: do you enjoy hurting other people?"

"Not really," John said. "Sometimes it beats the alternatives."

"When those are?"

"Letting them hurt other people," John said. "Innocents — civilians." He shrugged.

"Well, I suppose Nathan would approve," Wren muttered. "If I let you go, do you plan to commit an act of violence against anyone?"

John hesitated, a vague wariness trying to break through the comfort of Wren's grip. "No," he said, but he couldn't make himself stop there. "Not against anyone else."

Wren paused, and then he said, with a sudden peremptory note that wiped out John's wariness like a hand swept down across a chalkboard, "What are you planning to do?"

"Not sure," John said, easily, unthinkingly honest. "I'd thought about the Brooklyn Bridge — seemed kind of nice," and straightened up abruptly as Wren let him go. Wren was staring at him in dismay, and John wanted to apologize, to promise something stupid: I won't if you don't want me to, when that was about the same as committing to a slow death in a labor camp.

"I can't let you go," Wren said blankly.

"You said yourself this isn't going to work out all that well," John said, trying to keep his voice calm, but he wasn't feeling calm at all. Wren wasn't going to let him go. John could feel it as clear and certain as daylight: Wren wouldn't let him walk away, knowing John was planning to die, any more than he would pour himself a Drano cocktail. It felt perfect and horrible at the same time. John wanted to reach across the table and shake Wren: did he think he was going to save John? "Not to be blunt, but sooner or later, some very dangerous people are going to notice that I'm not dead, and they're going to take steps to remedy the situation."

"Yes, thank you, that had occurred to me," Wren snapped. John could feel that he was worried, and that the worry didn't alter his intentions at all; he'd taken responsibility. John put his head down in his arms on the table. "I'll make arrangements," Wren said above him. "In the meantime, I hope the guest bed will be comfortable."

#

That went about as well as could be expected.

John locked himself into the guest room. The view looked out over the night skyline, millions of lights glittering, and he spent two hours working out, even though he was already tired, worn down by three weeks of pain and physical abuse. He showered again, he tried to lie down for a while. It didn't work. He stared at the ceiling. He was hard, but he didn't want to jerk off. He wanted to open the door and go back out to Wren and kneel beside his chair and beg for orders.

Wren didn't want him, John reminded himself savagely. Wren just had an overdeveloped sense of duty to go with his overdeveloped well of power. Wren would have done the same for any sub at all. Wren was looking for a way to get rid of him —

That kept him in his room. It didn't let him sleep. Another two hours ticked endlessly by, numbers changing on the clock. Another one. He faded in and out of consciousness, exhausted, only a handful of minutes disappearing each time. Eleven. Midnight. One.

A knock came on the door. John staggered off the bed and nearly ripped the door open. Wren was outside wearing pajamas and tired around his eyes, still rigidly wrapped up. But he said stiffly, "You're welcome to sleep in my room if you'd care to."

John followed him back into the bedroom, relieved and angry at the same time, at himself, at Wren. But being angry didn't stop him feeling better as soon as he lay down in Wren's bed. Wren didn't push at all. He lay stiffly on his side, a wide gap separating them, but it was enough, hearing his soft breaths, feeling his presence. More than enough.

John fell asleep almost instantly, heavily. Then one of the nightmares uncurled in his head, one of the new ones: Kara smiling at him, offering him her gun, saying, "You have to kill her, John," and then he was standing in front of the car, Jessica looking out at him from the passenger side, saying, "Why couldn't you stay with me? Why couldn't you give in?" and he was lifting the gun, aiming it between her eyes —

"Stop that," Harold muttered, and the dream fell away instantly. "Come here."

John didn't remember anything else but falling asleep again, dreamless, happy. He woke up briefly in the early morning with his head tucked into Harold's shoulder, Harold's hand buried tight and possessive in his hair. Everything was perfectly quiet. No buzz of thoughts and feelings scraping against his head at all. He felt clear, peaceful, rested — no gritty dry heavy feeling in his eyes, no grogginess that wouldn't go until after the second cup of coffee and thirty pushups. He already felt like he'd slept enough, for the first time since — for the first time in —

He fell back to sleep.

He opened his eyes again, bathed in sunlight and something even better. Harold was newly awake and unguarded, his instincts and not his brain in control, and he was just absently reaching out, the sweet pure wash of his power like being a cat on a lap drowsing under a possessive, proprietary stroke. John stared at the ceiling, helplessly drinking in everything he could get. The conditioning was a staticky crackle in the back of his head, almost gone.

He knew he couldn't stop himself, so he tried to make a virtue out of necessity. He pulled hard, the way he'd tried to the night before, reached deep. But he didn't get anything that could have worked as a wedge to pry himself loose. Instead he got code, visualizations, a dozen problems working themselves out in a dozen directions, crisp technical images so complex he couldn't hold on to more than a piece. Not much with emotional weight to it – only Ingram and a web of connections spreading out from him: Ingram's son, more distantly his wife, and the vast golden outline that was IFT.

The company was Harold's, more than Ingram's: Ingram had his name on it and half the stock, but that didn't matter. It was Harold's, stamped with his possession. Most companies were numbers in their owners' heads, but not this one. Harold didn't know about the money, didn't care about the money; in his head it was just something clean and beautiful, making the world work better.

And from the golden cloud, from Ingram, there was another line to follow: long and silver and stretching to something — to something even bigger, something more important than IFT; something perfect, and John got just a hint of it, a glimpse: something with endless eyes looking back at him.

Then Harold was fully awake and shoving him back out, slamming the vault door shut, and John fell out through his head, snatching and grabbing at anything that came by him: Harold's alarm and irritation, the long list of ways in which he planned to yell at Ingram at the next opportunity, a flash of John himself, and then how Harold saw him: misery and stoicism and ferocious strength, and oh, oh, Harold did want him. He was like no one Harold had ever felt before, strong enough to stand up to his full strength, and Harold wanted to own him —

John moaned and pressed his face into Harold's throat; he shoved his hips up against Harold's thigh. He was panting, ready; anything Harold wanted, anything, anything, please, and he was saying it out loud, offering. "Anything," he said, "Harold, anything — "

Harold made a small, startled noise. John pushed up against his thigh: not a demand, just letting Harold feel how much he wanted it. John didn't hesitate. There was nothing to worry about. Harold had him. Harold was going to take care of him. A warm sure swell of certainty washed over him, obliterating everything else. "Please," he murmured, and kissed Harold's throat. "Please."

"Oh, God," Harold groaned, deep and shocked; another wave of pleasure. John nuzzled at Harold's throat, behind his ear and shoved back the voice in his head trying to warn him: you're too open, if he takes you now you'll never get him out. He didn't care. He didn't care.

Harold made a short pained huff of breath and then said, in despairing tones, "Stop."

John dropped his hands away and rolled away from him, gasping, and spent in a single convulsive rush in the sheets, his whole body shuddering and letting go. "Oh, fuck," he said, panting — because Harold had stopped it. Harold hadn't taken him even though Harold had wanted to, and he hadn't done it because it hadn't been right. He'd stopped it for John

John came again, groaning, still sprawled facedown and limp in the sticky mess. He stayed there.

"I'm going to strangle Nathan," Harold said after a few moments, next to him. He sounded badly strained.

"You might not want to say things like that around me," John said without lifting up out of the pillows. His head was clearing, but in the throes of the rush, he'd cheerfully have strangled any ten people to get Harold to take him.

"I'm quite certain you'll be able to tell when I literally and not figuratively want someone killed," Harold said peevishly, and John shuddered all over, because you'll be able to meant he was staying.

He wanted it more than anything else, and it was impossible. He pushed himself up from the bed and swung his legs over the side, rubbing his hands over his face. "You can't keep me," he said harshly, without looking around. "If you don't let me go — "

"We both know precisely what would happen if I did let you go," Harold said. "And as that's unacceptable — "

" — you're going to keep me here until we both roll the dice wrong at the same time and end up bonded," John said. He tried to make it a snap, except what it wanted to be was a plea. There were ten million trashy novels about what it felt like to be claimed, bonded, to lock into the perfect balance of push and pull with a dom strong enough to match you. John had read them like travel books for another planet, something that could never happen to him.

Bonding wasn't just about strength, but he'd just seen enough in Harold's head to know that everything else was there, too. Harold wasn't just powerful, he was — clean. He was cold fresh water in a desert at a hundred twenty degrees in the sun. John wanted to drink, to plunge his face in. He wanted to hand himself over, he wanted to put himself into Harold's hands. He wanted to let go.

He took in a breath, deep. "If you haven't got the picture yet," he said, "I used to kill people for a living. I've killed — "

"Yes, thank you, I don't need the details," Harold said. The bed creaked behind John's back: Harold was getting up. John wanted to stand up and follow him. He wanted to be in arm's reach, just in case; if he stayed close, Harold might want something, might touch him — John clenched his teeth and stayed where he was, with an effort. Harold added, "While I grant you our circumstances are — awkward, I'm not going to lose all control of myself and force you into a bonding."

John snarled under his breath. "Who said anything about force," he bit out, and heard Harold's steps come to a halt. John couldn't bear it; he looked around. Harold's face was locked, frozen. He was staring at the wall, at nothing, rigidly. There was color in his face.

Finally he said, stiffly, "I am — I've never wanted to bond. I'm a very private person. I won't — "

"Won't you?" John said, silkily, and uncurled from the bed. Harold stared up at him wide-eyed as John came in close, pushing into his personal space. "Because you know, Harold," John murmured, letting his voice sink low and intimate, "I will. Anytime you want, anytime you push just a little — " and he leaned in deliberately and brushed his lips along Harold's cheek, nuzzling under his ear.

Harold jerked back. "Stop that!" he said, and John surfed the bliss of the push for a long white-out moment before opening his eyes again and finding Harold glaring at him in outrage. "You did that on purpose?"

"Just making things clear," John purred. He had his fists clenched tight, and his stomach was in a desperate, hungry knot, but he didn't let it show on his face. "Don't lie to yourself about what you're getting into. You keep me around, there's only one way this ends. And you know," he added, putting on an innocent look, "if that's what you want, then we could just skip ahead to the good parts — "

He leaned in again, and Harold jumped back and squawked, "Out!"

John sighed with exaggerated regret that he would've liked to be completely fake. "If you want," he said, and made sure to saunter away slowly at the right angle to keep the reflection of his bare ass in Harold's bathroom mirror as long as possible.

He showered fast and got to the kitchen in a hurry, while Harold was still getting ready, and put together the most obnoxiously subservient breakfast he could on short notice. A single place setting, linen napkin, too much silverware, mimosa and tea and toast with the crusts cut off, bacon and sausage and a perfect omelette. He finished and set the plate on the table just as Harold came out of the hallway. John had already dragged the ottoman over next to the chair, strategically, and he sat down on it with his eyes downcast, darting one deeply wistful look up at Harold.

Harold took in the spread and gave him a speechless and indignant glare. John just dropped his eyes and did his very best demure.

"If I'm supposed to be impressed — " Harold said, before sputtering out. Flat-out rejecting a formal gesture was pretty harsh on a sub. Of course, that was why pushing a formal gesture on an explicitly uninterested dom was more than a little inappropriate, but if Harold wasn't interested, he shouldn't have been keeping John around. The sooner Harold got the picture and cut him loose, the better. John ignored the hard tight knot across his shoulders that didn't want Harold to reject the gesture.

After a moment Harold sighed and sat down. He even put the napkin in his lap and ate with every piece of the silverware and tried everything. He paused and frowned at the teacup, then shot John a look. John smirked inwardly while he gave Harold his best limpid expression. Harold was buttoned down too far to pull his taste preferences, but the coffee in the cabinet was old, and the sencha tea box had been the one with the furthest expiration date.

The apartment door opened before Harold had finished. "Do I smell bacon?" Nathan called, striding in, and paused on the steps down to the dining table with a stare that took in the whole spread, John sitting on the ottoman by Harold's side, and transformed slowly into a dazzling, beatific grin. The tips of Harold's ears went red.

"So, I guess I don't have to ask how things have been going," Nathan said, gleefully, as he came down. But then he reached over towards the bacon, and John's shoulders went rigidly hard and tight without any decision, an irrational wave of no: he'd made that for Harold

"No," Harold snapped out at Nathan. The room went ice cold, dark: the looming pressure of a dominant displaying, willing to fight, but like nothing John had ever felt before; a thunderstorm about to make landfall. Nathan's hand stopped in midair, frozen. He and Harold stared at each other, both of them looking equally shocked. After a moment, Nathan straightened up and drew back his hand. Harold packed all the power back inside, crimson.

John was only distantly aware of the negotiation. He was almost floating, dizzy with terrible satisfaction. Harold had just warned Nathan off him. John shuddered. He'd played subservient plenty of times: the worst kind of dom liked that sort of thing. It was an easy way in. But it had never touched him before.

"Sorry," Nathan said after a moment, too gently; the kind of understanding people gave you when they knew you were — bonding, John's head finished for him, traitorously. In the early stages of bonding.

Harold made a stiff, barely-there nod. He slid his utensils onto the plate and pushed his chair back, and led Nathan down to the living room windows, and now it was John's turn to get maneuvered: he couldn't exactly leave the table in a mess after his grand gesture had been accepted. On the other hand, that wasn't a bar to eavesdropping. Harold had turned himself back into a blank wall again, but Nathan was still readable.

John banged plates and forks together into the sink, listening in while Nathan said, "Harold, isn't this a little fast?" Harold gave him a speechlessly indignant look, and Nathan raised both hands. "I thought you could do with some companionship! I didn't mean you had to start bonding after less than twenty-four hours."

"I haven't — !" Harold said, and then stopped as Nathan threw him a dubious raised eyebrow. His face stilled. After a moment he said, harshly, "I have, haven't I."

"Looked like it back there," Nathan said after a moment. "Harold, if you want, we can put the restraints back on him — "

"Because that worked so well."

"They'll last long enough for us to get him to the max security confinement facility at Bellevue," Nathan said. "We've given them a lot of money. He'd be well-cared-for — "

John felt his shoulders clenching up. If Harold told him to put on the restraints again, if Harold told him to ride quietly along — if Harold ordered him to stay in a confinement pen —

"No," Harold said.

"The longer you keep him around, the harder it's going to be not to claim him," Nathan said.

"I'm aware of that," Harold snapped. "As you'd already deduced, he's not a criminal. He's been exploited and betrayed by everyone he trusted. I'm not going to join that list by throwing him into an oubliette."

"Harold, you don't owe him — "

"You brought him to me!" Harold said. "Did you think I would treat him as disposable the way those men you met down there did?"

Nathan blew out a breath and looked away. "No," he said. "But dammit, Harold, I didn't mean to get you into this. Look, at least let me take him to my place. If you give him instructions — "

"If he's staying on my orders, and remaining in my immediate sphere of influence, that's not going to attenuate the bonding," Harold said. "And in any case, I wouldn't trust it to work. He's enormously strong and his resistance techniques are highly effective. I imagine if he were any less wretched, or had anything like a real motivation, he'd be able to wriggle out of my instructions even here. What I need to do is let him go. But I can't do that until we've solved his immediate problem. Your contacts in the government — can you reach out to them? We need to have him cleared. I don't believe for a moment that he's a fundamental security risk."

"Those contacts who don't know about you?" Nathan said dryly. "The ones you don't want knowing about you?"

"As far as the world is concerned, you're John's legal owner," Harold said. "It's entirely reasonable for you to approach them on your own behalf."

"They know his strength, Harold," Nathan said. "They'll know I can't be dominating him."

"Let them think he pretended to let you dominate him to escape a labor camp," Harold said. "You don't need me to tell you that: why are you really reluctant?"

"Because I'm pretty sure that as soon as I hint that I've got him, they're going to come looking," Nathan said. "These aren't good people, Harold. They're good government agents. There's a substantial difference."

"That's a risk we're going to have to run," Harold said. "And if they're at all skillful, they'd come looking shortly anyway."

"And what do you do when they show up on your doorstep and demand him back?" Nathan said.

"Whatever's necessary," Harold said. It had the hard final ring of a heavy door closing.

Nathan got it too, loud and clear. He stopped arguing, although John read loud and clear that he wasn't any more happy about the situation. "Fine," he said. "If you won't put him in confinement and you can't leave him alone, what are you going to do with him in the meantime?"

John's hindbrain immediately supplied a variety of things Harold could do with him, of varying degrees of obscenity. John wasn't paying attention, because he was pulling something more shocking and deliriously good than all of them. Nathan thought they were already bonding. Nathan was sure of it. He'd never seen Harold like this in the thirty years they'd known each other. His certainty was like a shot of heroin.

And Harold might be talking a good game about letting him go, but every word out of his mouth, every decision, was about keeping him. Harold was ready to face down the entire CIA for him. John kept his hands braced against the counter, his head down, fighting to hold still; fighting not to cross the room to Harold and kneel at his feet and beg.

"I believe you were saying something about my needing a bodyguard," Harold was saying. "That will have to do for now."

#

"You know, if you can work out a pardon for me, you can do it even if I'm not around," John said, following Harold out of the apartment, the new suit moving easily around his arms and legs, the crisp high-threadcount shirt soft against his skin. He'd managed to leave the tie off, ignoring the implicit suggestion of its presence, but he knew it was only because he'd convinced himself he looked better unbuttoned. Harold's eyes had darted to the hollow of his throat and darted away again, the hot glow of that one look still churning in John's gut. "Without any chance of landing yourself a bonded you say you don't want."

"Yes, I'm sure your former employers would be delighted to say they'd pardoned you in absentia," Harold said without looking over again. "And I'm sure you would believe that as much as I would. Less."

John blew out a breath. He didn't have an argument for that.

"There's no cause for worry," Harold added. "I am not going to bond you while I'm holding you against your will."

Like hell he wasn't going to. "Who's worrying?" John murmured, pitched deliberately low, and the back of Harold's neck flushed.

"Stay close to me," Harold snapped, and stepped into the elevator. John rode the sweet high of the push all the way down to the waiting car on the street below, feeling like the junkie and the dealer at the same time. He crowded in deliberately close in the car, pressed his thigh up against Harold's and put his arm across the back of the seat, claiming personal space. Harold sat rigidly upright the whole way.

Oddly enough, the car didn't go to IFT. It took them to a company called United Heritage Insurance on the thirty-fifth floor of a nondescript Midtown office tower. There were a couple of hundred people working there — and they were really working; John pulled absently here and there, sampling, as he trailed Harold across the floor. It wasn't a front as far as any of them knew, including the secretary who smiled at Harold as he came into the executive hallway and said, "Welcome back, Mr. Wren. Did you have a good trip?"

"Yes, thank you, Ms. Rosen," Harold said. "Is there anything urgent?"

"Your mail is on your desk, sorted according to my best guess," she said. "Nothing jumped out at me. You have a Richard Greer coming at 10, from Decima International."

"Yes, thank you," Harold said. The secretary looked at John with enormous interest. Harold looked at him too, blankly.

John just smiled at the secretary and leaned over to offer her a hand. "John Reese," he said. "I'm with Harold."

Ms. Rosen looked wide-eyed and inquisitive at Harold, who managed to look everywhere else. "I'll let you know if there's anything I need, Ms. Rosen," he said, and fled into the office. John gave her a last smirk and sauntered after him.

"I have to admit, this is pretty committed of you," John said, closing the door behind him. He wandered around Harold's office, poking into corners, being as intrusive as possible. The office was a suite with a conference room attached and views from all the big windows, loaded bookshelves and a big desk. Almost none of the things scattered around were personal: the few that looked personal were fakes. Harold was sitting behind his desk eyeing John warily. "How many of these people know this entire company is a setup to cover your actual work?"

"None of them," Harold said. "It isn't a false front, Mr. Reese," stressing the name, as if formality was going to save them at this point. "United Heritage is a successful insurance company."

John raised an eyebrow. "Which you own." Harold didn't deny it, although he pressed his lips together in annoyance and started pretending to work. "How did you manage that?"

Harold flicked a hand. "I captured several inefficiencies in risk assessment common to the rest of the marketplace. It's all automated."

"Hm." John strolled around the desk and perched himself at Harold's side. His thigh was next to Harold's arm, about two inches away. He picked up the picture of Nathan's son off the desk, the one real thing in the whole place, and studied it. "So what are you working on?"

"Work," Harold said. He was staring at his computer screen. There were half a dozen files of code open, but not a lot of typing was happening.

"That's a nice couch there," John said. "Long. Looks comfy." He shifted his weight, let his leg brush against Harold's wrist —

"Please go into the next room and stay there," Harold said, another sweet, heroin-rush hit to the back of John's skull. "With the door closed!"

"Whatever you say," John said, and he meant the words with every molecule in his body until roughly halfway across the room. But by the time he walked into the adjoining conference room, he managed not to close the door all the way behind him. He left it resting against the doorframe instead and started doing pushups to help him pretend that he just hadn't noticed the crack.

He'd gotten to a thousand when Harold's 10am appointment arrived. A hundred pushups later, John abruptly stopped, standing in one move, hand reaching automatically for the gun that wasn't there, because Harold was getting angry, angry enough for it to leak out past his walls.

John ghosted to the door, eased it open just wide enough to let sound through. Greer was saying, "Now, Mr. Finch, if need be we can do this very messily, but for the sake of that charming secretary outside — "

John let the door ease back. He pulled up the memory of the layout outside: the secretary's desk, the heavy doors out to the offices, the hallway going left to the other executive offices, right to the restroom and the stairs. Almost certainly they had a three-man team: one guy on the stairs, two guys flanking the doors and keeping an eye on the secretary.

He looked around the room and picked up a nice heavy fountain pen left on the table: it said Harold Wren in gold letters. John clicked out the point and palmed it. He went to the hallway door at the far end of the conference room and eased it open in a single smooth quiet pull. He walked out like he wasn't sneaking. The man by the stairwell door tensed anyway, looked at him. "Is there a line?" John said. "What happened, was there bad chili in the office cafeteria today?"

The man glanced at the bathroom door automatically. John had him by the skull and was driving the pen into his throat, ripping. "Quiet," he said, pushing. "It'll be over soon." The man's mouth had started to shape a yell. It slackened again without a sound coming out. John pushed the stairwell door open and got the man down to the floor, body already going limp in his hands. He slipped the earpiece into his ear, took the gun with the silencer, the knife, the keys, the phone. He wiped his hands mostly clean on the man's shirt and buttoned his own jacket to hide the bloodstains.

He went back out into the hallway, gun held easily by his side, relaxed body. The two men by the door were standing like the heavies they were, making the secretary frown at them, puzzled. She glanced over at John.

"Get down behind your desk," he said, shoving, and as she dived he shot the men, two soft taps to the head apiece, and turned just as the door to Harold's office opened and Greer came out, smiling thinly, only to come up short facing the silencer. Behind him, Harold stopped and stared at the corpses, his eyes wide.

Greer glanced towards Harold. "It seems I've underestimated you."

"Where is Ms. Rosen?" Harold said, still staring at the bodies with the flat, shocked expression of someone who hadn't seen a lot of dead people.

"I'm here," the secretary said faintly from under the desk. "Mr. Wren, are you all right?"

"What do you have downstairs?" John said to Greer. "Tell me."

Greer twitched but didn't speak: he was a dom strong enough to resist John's push. But John didn't need a dom to talk to get what he needed from them. For one clear bright moment he could pull all the details: one smoked-window SUV out by the front doors waiting for Greer to gently escort Harold out, the primary; a backup car in the building's garage below in case they had to go out messy. Three men in each one, armed —

John clocked Greer across the temple, dropping him to the ground, and bent down for his earpiece and phone. He straightened up and got Harold's arm and started towing him down the hallway. Harold, still staring at the bodies dazedly, didn't resist. He looked up at John with a puzzled crease in his forehead. "How did you even get out of the conference room?" he asked, but even though John was braced for it, there wasn't any disapproval behind it.

"This morning you said I was your bodyguard," John said. "I figured that took precedence. Stay behind me," he added. "We're going down three flights, then we'll cut across to the elevator bank. We'll go out the garage."

"You just left two corpses on the floor of my office!" Harold said, head craning around to look back at the bodies.

"Three," John said, kicking open the stairwell door and stepping over the body.

#

John got Harold down to the garage level in the elevator and stowed him in a corner of the concrete room, between the wall and a metal trash can. "Stay here."

Harold was still occupied with being shocked, but that woke him up. He stared up at John. "Where are you going?"

"To get us a ride," John said.

"I don't have a car here," Harold said.

"That's okay," John said. "The guys out there won't be needing theirs much longer."

"What?" Harold said, and his eyes widened. "You're not going to kill more people?"

"Harold," John said patiently, "they were trying to kidnap you. They're not very nice people."

"They're still human beings!" Harold said, and John gritted his teeth because they weren't, they didn't count, they'd tried to hurt Harold — but it didn't matter. What Harold wanted was what mattered.

"Fine," John said. "I'll do my best not to kill anyone. Okay?"

"I don't want you killed, either!" Harold said. "Why don't we simply call the police?"

"And when they get here, what exactly are you going to tell them about why a well-funded terrorist organization is trying to kidnap Harold Wren, mild-mannered insurance executive?" John said. Harold was still looking mulish. "And the second they run my prints — "

"All right," Harold said, interrupting, flatly. His mouth had gone to a thin hard line. They both knew what would happen: the cops would take one look at John's official rap sheet and throw him into a holding pen. After another moment, Harold said, "All right. Do as you think best. Please do minimize the loss of life if possible. Prioritizing your own," he added.

The wide-open command ran through John's spine, almost unbearable. Do as you think best. Doms didn't say that kind of thing. He'd had handlers and COs who'd worked with him for ten years who'd tried to give him narrow orders, even though they knew and he knew they couldn't enforce them. He still remembered the taste of Mark's leashed resentment the time John had come back from a clusterfuck mission alive and with the desired intel, all because he'd done it by jettisoning the plan and improvising.

"You never let me have any fun," John said mournfully, trying to cover how it made him feel, and fled into the garage from Harold's annoyed look before he made a spectacle of himself.

He left all three men on the concrete floor of the garage, disarmed but alive after six perfect kneecap shots that would probably put all of them out of the goon business permanently. He smashed their phones, threw the guns in the back seat — waste not, want not — and pulled the car up to the elevator room. Harold came out and climbed into the passenger seat, one glance back at the groaning men before he yanked the door shut.

"Thank you, Mr. Reese," he said formally, staring straight ahead, as John peeled away.

Harold's gratitude wasn't like a drug, it was the opposite. Everything went crisper and brighter, even the fluorescent lights and the flat dull concrete grey of the garage, the whole world in Oz technicolor. He'd pleased his dom. His dom. John gripped the wheel with white-knuckled hands, trying to tell himself he'd lived without this before, he could live without this again.

He wasn't buying it.

#

John drove to the Museum of Natural History: it had a self-parking lot. He pulled up next to an SUV and hotwired it. Harold regarded the process with some dismay. "Is it really necessary to steal some poor tourist family's car?" he said.

There wasn't a push behind that, either. He was just asking. "Chances are there's a tracker somewhere on this one," John said. "Even if not, I don't want to be in a car they have the license plate for."

Harold grimaced and got in. He took out his phone. "I need a computer," he muttered, his fingers poking at the screen. "This is just painful."

"What are you doing?"

"Transferring three times the value of the car into the owner's primary checking account," Harold said. "And sending an anonymized text to inform her, asking her not to report the theft."

"What are the chances she can have that traced back to you?" John said. Harold slowly lifted his head and gave him a deeply indignant stare. "Never mind. Where can I take you? Assuming these guys know you're involved with IFT, and they've got any properties associated with the Wren identity."

Harold was silent. "Take us to Madison and 37th," he said finally. "I own a building on the corner."

"There's no connection they could trace?" John pressed.

"As far as the real estate records of the world are concerned, the building scarcely exists," Harold said. He was already working on another message. "I have to warn Nathan. These people might go after him as well."

These guys clearly already knew better than to want Nathan, John thought. The interesting question was how they knew that. "Have him meet us at this place," John said. "How long will it take him to get there?"

Harold was typing. "Twenty minutes," he said finally.

John drove around in loops for thirty minutes, then ditched the SUV six blocks from the address and left Harold with the car while he ducked into a drug store and came out with a cheap tote bag to carry the guns in. Harold led him down beneath dark scaffolding and inside the building: an abandoned public library, half derelict, with books and ancient computers everywhere.

John did a quick sweep on the way upstairs, but he was already relaxing. He could tell there wasn't anyone here except Nathan, a bright worried presence on the second floor — with a faint thread of guilt underneath.

"Harold!" Nathan said, turning as they came in. "Dear God, are you all right?"

"Yes, I'm fine," Harold said. "Thanks to — " They both turned and saw John aiming the gun at Nathan's head, high and braced. Harold stared. "What are you doing? John — "

"Please don't tell me to put it down," John said, fast, and used everything he had, made it a plea, and Harold's mouth stopped, open in a round O, frozen. "He's involved."

"Excuse me?" Nathan said, anger rolling out of him like a wave. But that thread of guilt was getting easier to pull with every second the gun was in his line of sight. It usually had that effect.

"What?" Harold said, incredulous. "That's absurd."

"Are you sure?" John said. "It sounded like the two of you had a pretty serious disagreement over it."

"Over — ?" Harold stared at him. "What are you talking about? How do you — "

"It, Harold," John said. "The thing you built. The one that these people are after. The one you did your very best not to let me pull anything about."

"Jesus," Nathan muttered.

"For good reason," Harold snapped. "The people running it would certainly want you dead if they thought you knew anything about it — "

John said, "I'm pretty sure they already do."

They both stared at him.

John shrugged with half a shoulder, never letting the gun waver. "About three years ago our operational intel changed almost completely. A lot more limited, but what we got was a lot better. A lot better. Intelligence work is ninety percent running into dead ends, but after the switch, we stopped hitting any of them at all. I guess me and my partner asked a few too many questions about it, because that's why they sent us to get the laptop."

Harold had been looking more and more dismayed, but at that he frowned. "Laptop?" he said, and even though his walls were still up, John could tell it was sincere. The clenched knot inside him let go. It hadn't been Harold.

"A laptop containing some of the source code," John said, keeping his gaze straight on Nathan's face, meeting his gaze head on, deliberately challenging. "Somebody in the government sold it to someone in the Chinese government — "

"But that's impossible," Harold said. "No one could have sold the source code. I encrypted the drives before I gave it to them. Literally no one in the world had access to the source code except — " He stopped and turned. The look on Nathan's face was enough.

"Still sure Nathan's not involved with these people?" John said.

"Yes," Harold said, instantly, although his face was still stricken. "Nathan, what have you done?"

Nathan blew out a deep breath. "Harold — "

"What have you done?" Harold said.

Nathan's shoulders hunched hard, taking the hit. "I had to do something," he said. "I had to, Harold. All those people, when we knew, Harold, we knew something bad was going to happen to them — "

"Oh, God," Harold said, his voice breaking. "Nathan, we didn't know, we mustn't know. That's why I took away your access — "

"You took away my access, but you didn't take away the list!" Nathan said. "Do you think that made it any better, knowing all those people were just being erased every night, no one even knowing their names?"

"And your answer was to try and give access to — to Decima International?" Harold said.

"No!" Nathan ran a hand over his face. "No. It wasn't the real source code. Just some of your early work, the stuff you showed me when you started working on it. Not enough for anyone to reproduce it, just enough to convince someone that it existed, if they looked at the rest of the evidence."

"Why?" Harold said.

"Well, it wasn't exactly my first choice," Nathan said. "I was going to talk to that reporter from the Times, remember? Until we had our little chat on the subject."

Harold flinched. "Nathan — Nathan, I didn't — "

"You did," Nathan said. "I know you didn't mean to, but you did. You stopped me."

John was getting enough from Nathan to fill in the blanks of the conversation: glimpses of a vast server room and Harold's hands moving over the keyboard while lights flickered in his glasses, bringing forth the Machine, capital letter even inside Nathan's head; and the screens full of faces, irrelevant faces, so many of them subs. Nathan's helpless, miserable need to protect them, unable to share Harold's certainty of the need for the Machine's limits.

"I meant for the code to get to the press," Nathan said. "I passed it through a long list of intermediaries to a tech writer good enough to figure out what he was looking at — "

"Except when he figured out what he was looking at, he figured out that it was worth a lot of money," John said.

"He disappeared two months ago," Nathan said. "Without printing a story."

"And that's why you've been pressing me to take on bodyguards," Harold said. "Why you brought John to — " He stopped. "This isn't a coincidence, is it," he said after a moment.

"No," Nathan said heavily. "After the CIA retrieved the laptop, Alicia came to me to find out how much someone could get from the contents. She let slip they'd that they'd disposed of the agents who got it back." He looked at John. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen to you. I tried to make it right."

The guilt was still there, layers of it vivid to the mental taste, but there weren't any more secrets tangled up in it. Nathan hadn't betrayed Harold.

John lowered the gun and tucked it back into his waistband. Harold was sagged back against the table, his face drawn, misery breaking through his walls. "The people who tried to grab you today aren't amateurs," he said to Harold, "but they aren't military, either. Probably an underground criminal organization — I'd bet a core of old-school MI-6, judging by your pal Greer. I can set up protection for you, but I'm going to need a lot of money, and I'm going to need secure communications and darknet access."

"Yes," Harold said vaguely, still stricken. Then he stirred and straightened up. "I have a bitcoin account. It's mostly a toy, but I should have enough in there to get a few servers delivered. Then I'll be able to establish access to the rest of our funds. Nathan, perhaps your bodyguards — "

"No," John said. "I want them gone. From now on, only people I've personally vetted, face to face. And don't give out this address," he added. "Get things delivered to a place in walking distance. To multiple places."

"All right," Harold said. "Did you bring the laptop?" he asked Nathan.

Nathan jerked his head towards the table in back. "Harold, a word with you," he said.

John didn't follow them. He headed to the ground floor and started going over the building, finding the exits and the wiring, making a mental catalogue of vulnerabilities and escape routes. He didn't even need to pull from Nathan. He knew what Nathan would be telling Harold, because it was the same thing he'd tell Harold. You're putting your life in the hands of a trained killer you met yesterday. This isn't safe. There's only one way you can be sure of him. There's only one way you can trust him. And it was true.

He spent an hour securing and blocking most of the doors, and moving bookcases to screen the way to the two exits he'd picked to keep. The windows had good, heavy iron bars, legacy of the seventies' crime wave, and dusty old drapes. He pulled them all. The library got darker, safer, and nobody showed up while he worked. That was good news. If Greer and his people had known where Harold was, they'd have tried for him again as fast as they could, before he had a chance to strengthen his position. That meant for now, he'd gotten Harold off the grid.

He went upstairs. Nathan had a grim expression. Harold's face was unreadable, his walls up high; he was working on the laptop, fingers moving rapidly and his eyes behind his glasses darting back and forth around the screen. Harold paused to look at John. "Is it safe for us to go out and bring in the equipment?"

"Nathan goes," John said. "With a phone in his pocket with a live connection."

Harold hesitated. "Is that safe?" he said.

"As safe as we get right now," John said. He looked at Nathan. "Take off your tie. Ties are memorable. The first chance you get, buy a ballcap without a logo, dark color, and pull it low over your face. Don't make eye contact with people on the street and keep your face neutral, but don't try to hunch. Got it?"

"Yes," Nathan said. He looked back at Harold. "I'll be back in a couple of hours."

"Be careful," Harold said without looking up. His fingers kept tap-tap-tapping away, steady clicking beat.

John stood listening to Nathan's footsteps going down the stairs, the heavy creak of the metal door, the bang as it shut behind him. John breathed out. "Do it," he said harshly.

Harold paused and turned slightly to look at him. "I'm sorry?"

John didn't look back. "There's no reason to put it off," he said flatly. Adrenaline was running high and fast through him, his heartbeat making solid thumps against his chest wall. "You need me, and that means I'm not going anywhere. Even if you told me I could go right this minute, I couldn't walk out on you."

Harold was still. "I'm — I never meant to put you in this position," he said after a moment, almost whispered. "I could — I could order you to — "

"No," John said, and had to stop and swallow down the instant, unreasoning panic. "That's not the point. It's not like I had something better to do, and these guys need to be stopped. The point is, there was only one place this was going anyway, and right now, we can't afford the hesitation."

"What hesitation?" Harold said, sounding baffled, as if he didn't see for himself.

"Right now, you don't know you can trust me — "

Harold looked even more bewildered. "You've saved my life twice today alone, despite the fact that I've been effectively keeping you prisoner, and did so in the face of an order I gave you, which couldn't have been comfortable in the least. I do believe in a degree of healthy paranoia, Mr. Reese, but doubting you at this point would seem fairly irrational."

John stared at him.

Harold's mouth pinched in. "And that," he added, "is beside the point as well. You've just finished telling me that I have, however accidentally, placed you under even more compulsion than I intended. I am not going to bond — "

"You are," John snarled, taking a step towards him. Harold stopped and stared up at him. "You are going to, so stop lying to both of us and just get it over with!" John didn't want it to sound like he was begging, but it did; his voice rising involuntarily into a whining twist at the end that made Harold jerk like John had stuck him with a live wire.

Harold twisted his chair away to the screens so he wasn't looking at John. His face was rigid, but John could feel how much Harold wanted to, how badly Harold wanted to — wanted to reach out and close his fingers gently around John's wrist and say yes, you're mine, just that simply. That was all it would take. He'd tug, and John would slide to his knees, and Harold would stroke his head, let his fingers brush over John's neck — John's beautiful, elegant neck, which would look lovely beneath a simple collar, a thin discreet band of the softest leather —

John put a hand up to his own neck blindly, half expecting to find the collar already there, wanting it there. He took a step towards Harold. "Go ahead," he said softly, the last desperate anger peeling away despite everything he could do to hang on to it. He was going to beg in another moment. "Say it."

Harold shut his eyes and breathed out and in, three times, and then he said, stifled, short, "My parents were submissives."

John blinked. The hunger ebbed back a little, enough that he could process the words. Harold breathed in and out again. After a moment, he went on, "Deep submissives — they were both unrateably low, well below thirty." He was making small gestures while he talked, hand fluttering like a nervous bird. "That might seem counterintuitive, but I've done a little research: it turns out that's not uncommon for the parents of extreme dominants.

"I imagine you know what can happen to such submissives, if they're not lucky. My parents were — not lucky."

Harold hadn't managed to get his wall back up, but desire wasn't coming through anymore. Tight unhappiness instead, old but still sharp, and a deep reluctance to talk about this, to think about it. John couldn't stop pulling every drop anyway, despite the bitter taste. He wanted this part of Harold, too; he wanted everything.

"They were both coerced into bonding," Harold said. "Their owner, and I call him that quite deliberately, liked to say he caught them on fishing trips. He found them separately, while traveling far from his home — both of them young and poor and alone, without family. I don't know his exact ranking, but he was certainly over a hundred and fifty. More than enough to push them them into coming back with him. He bonded them and installed them in his home, a large isolated house in the country.

"That much — a distorted dominant who forces submissives into personal slavery — that much happens often enough not to make the news when they're caught. His more unique feature was long-term planning. You see, he was a pedophile. But most submissive children are under various levels of protection and observation until they reach the age of consent, and if one of them disappears, people notice. So he developed the idea of arranging for a supply in-house, as it were.

"He forced my parents to have sex with one another until I was conceived. He treated me kindly at first, while I was very small — I think it amused him. I remained wary of him because my parents were so afraid of him all the time. The technique you see me use wasn't one I consciously developed. I formed it on instinct. My parents had learned to fear domination, by then, and I reacted by concealing my own dominant nature. And their owner, as you might imagine given his intentions, concealed my existence from the outside world completely. My mother was forced to give birth alone at home with only his equally cowed housekeeper to help her, and I never saw a doctor. I was never rated. So they didn't realize — none of them realized — what I was.

"I was five years old when he decided I was old enough to enjoy. He ordered my parents to bring me to his bedroom, and then he ordered them to leave me alone with him." Harold's brow crinkled in slightly, thoughtful, but his voice stayed unnaturally calm. John's hands worked involuntarily, wanting violence. "I remember my mother begged him not to. She prostrated herself. She kissed his feet. She offered to cut off a finger or a hand if he'd leave me alone, to demonstrate her devotion. He refused, smiling.

"I had no model of domination. I'd barely even seen any other person but my parents and their owner. But I understood instinctively that he was behaving in a distorted way — that he was deliberately pushing my mother to a place she didn't want to be. And so, being five years old, I told him he was a bad man, and we all hated him, and he should go away and die. And then I pushed.

"He died instantly. An aneurysm brought on by enphatic shock. After my parents got over their surprise and relief, they were afraid all over again — what the police would think, what they would do with me. It was obvious that I had to be dangerously strong. So they snatched up as much in the way of cash and valuables as they could find, took me, and ran for it.

"No one came after us. I looked the case up afterwards — the autopsy didn't even find the enphatic shock, most likely because the coroner didn't look for it in a dominant that strong. He was simply assumed to have had a natural aneurysm and died.

"My parents found some menial work in a small town and sent me to school, telling me over and over I had to hide my dominance. I did so, well enough to fool teachers, doctors, and my classmates, but we still had to move six times while I was a child. You see, anytime we stayed too long in one place, it was almost guaranteed that a distorted dominant would come across one or both of my parents, and I would have to push off an attempt to coerce them again. I didn't kill any more of those dominants, but my parents would still have to spend whatever small savings they had managed to scrape together to get us somewhere new, where no one knew what I was.

"So, no, Mr. Reese," Harold finished. "I will not coerce a bond. And that's exactly what this would be. I've coerced you into remaining near me, and now — " He stopped and swallowed, his throat working. "I will not bond you. Not — not under these circumstances."

Harold stopped talking. The laptop fan whirred softly, the screens went on flickering. John stood silently beside him in the dim room, sifting through the complicated mix of Harold's regret and lingering anger, and feeling the iron-hard determination beneath.

His own fear and adrenaline were running out of him like water, leaving his arms and legs heavy. Like the aftermath of a long hard operation: days on high alert with no more than fifteen minutes of sleep at a time, and then finally coming in from the cold, alone in a secure location with the door closed behind him. Knowing it was over, knowing he was safe. Harold wasn't going to bond him.

John choked down a half-hysterical noise. Funny how the relief felt a lot like disappointment.

Harold said in a thin, unhappy voice, "Perhaps I should — "

"No," John said, fast. "Don't tell me to go. Please."

Harold stopped again. He sank back deep in his chair, his hand resting on the edge of his keyboard, fingers tapping against the keys lightly without pressing them.

John stared at the bookcases. After a moment, he said, "If the circumstances were — different — "

Harold said, "I think we'd better not talk about that."

The strain in his voice was enough answer. "Okay," John said. The inside of his head was smoothing out completely now, into perfect calm. He was going to get Harold out of this. He was going to use everything he had to make sure Harold was safe. He was going to be very good. And after it was over, after Harold could let him go, he'd get on his knees and ask for that collar, after all.

He knew he wouldn't get to wear it a long time. The CIA would find him sooner or later. But a few days, a few weeks, a few months, however long he had left — he'd put them in Harold's hands.

The decision rolled the last tension out of his shoulders. John leaned back against the desk, folding his arms, and edged a little closer. Harold leaned away, darting a wary look up at him. "So," John said, "how do you feel about Thai for lunch?"

#

It turned out that Harold's definition of a toy account was good enough to cover several twenty-thousand-dollar servers plus accessories. "It'll do for now," Harold said, in mildly dissatisfied tones, and it took four hours of coding before he was satisfied with the setup and the security. Then he set John up with access to half a dozen darknets in about five minutes.

John spent that night on interviews, sliding in and out of the back booth in a dozen midtown bars, having quiet conversations with hard-faced men and women, all doms. Some of them had issues reporting to a sub, which crossed them out right away; one of them actually tried to put a hand on John's wrist. John lifted a contemptuous eyebrow.

"We could have a little fun before we get down to business," the guy said. "Since you're not taken."

John suppressed the urge to throttle him with both hands.

The good ones, the ones worth hiring, didn't care. John asked them leading questions and pulled the real answers he wanted: would they flip too easily? Did they have a lot of vulnerabilities? Families, kids — the kinds of thing that Decima International could get to. He settled on five loners, all of them ex-military and three ex-intelligence, doms with clean records who had gotten tired of taking orders and gone freelance.

John made one more stop before heading back to the library. Nathan had sacked out on an air mattress in the back room, but Harold was still up and still working when John climbed the stairs. "Which ones did you hire?" Harold asked, stiffly, without looking around.

There was something prickly in the question. John slowly grinned and said, "Not the one who hit on me, if that's what you're asking." Harold's visible ear went pink just at the tip, and he didn't deny it. "I also brought you a new friend."

"What?" Harold said, then stared down in dismay as the dog padded forward to sniff over his legs and around the desk.

"Meet Bear," John said.

"I'm not really very fond of pets," Harold said, leaning away.

Bear circled around him one more time and sat down on his haunches at John's side. He looked up at John and whined.

"Trust me," John told him. Bear lay down and put his head on his forelegs to stare at Harold, radiating doubt. Harold stared back at the dog with a similar expression.

"He's retired military himself," John said. "His former handler ran into some problems with a gambling debt, and he was being sold on the black market. Sounded like the kind of thing you'd feel sorry about."

"When it's people," Harold said.

"Dogs have enphatic senses too, Harold," John said. "Here. He speaks Dutch, but I'm pretty sure you'll be able to get across. Apport means fetch." He handed Harold a ball. "Open up and give him a taste."

Harold eyed John narrowly, but he took the ball. He said to the dog, "Apport," with a push behind it. Bear's ears shot forward instantly. He was up and springing even before Harold had let go of the ball: he caught it midair barely out of Harold's fingers and delivered it back to him immediately, tail wagging furiously. Harold frowned down at the wet ball in his hand and then sighed and reached out and petted the dog's head. Bear half closed his eyes with a small yip of satisfaction.

John made the rapid executive decision that he was not going to be jealous of the dog. He tossed the dossiers of the operatives he'd hired onto Harold's desk. "I've found the replacements for Nathan's bodyguard. It's going to take me a week or so to nail down people for you. You'll have to stay off the grid until then."

Harold held a small manila envelope out to John in return. "I've set up a few new identities for you," he said, as John spilled half a dozen passports and debit cards into his hand. "The accounts will automatically be replenished as needed."

John looked at the familiar passport photos, bemused. "How did you get this picture?"

"I hacked the CIA," Harold said absently; he was leafing through the dossiers. "Oh, and I've corrupted most of their records about you while I was at it, in a way which should be indistinguishable from accidental damage."

"They'll be a little suspicious if it's just mine," John said.

"That would make it quite distinguishable. I corrupted the records on several other former agents as well. And I inserted a bug into the database front end which will appear to be responsible. They should discover the problem and repair it within a few weeks, but the data won't be recoverable — what?" Harold frowned at him. "In case you haven't noticed," he said, a little stiffly, "I'm good at this."

John didn't try to stop smiling. "I have noticed," he said, packing insinuation into it. Harold pressed his mouth shut. "We should get some sleep," John added.

"Yes, all right," Harold said after a moment, and pushed up from the desk. Then he hesitated, darting a look at John. John just smirked back at him.

Bear got the left side. John got the right, curled up around Harold's back, nose buried at the base of Harold's head. Harold made faint half-hearted protests, but he didn't send John away. "You know, an orgasm always helps me sleep," John murmured warmly against Harold's ear, pushing his luck.

"I'm sure you'll manage without," Harold said tartly. But as he was falling asleep, he covered John's hand with his.

#

Nathan nearly stumbled over them in the morning. John and Bear both put their heads up, on either side. Nathan raised eyebrows looking down at them both. John returned it with a look of wide innocence while Bear whuffed and showed his teeth. Harold stirred, the sleepy uncurling of his strength like a hand laid protectively on the back of John's neck, warm and heavy and perfect. John felt his eyes heavy-lidding involuntarily, and Nathan's eyebrows went up even more.

Harold pushed up with a puzzled expression that went to embarrassed almost immediately. John sighed as Harold packed himself away. Bear put his head down on his paws with a whine. Harold glared at both of them and climbed off the air mattress with as much dignity as he could manage. "I believe Mr. Reese has found you some people," Harold said, tugging futilely at his rumpled shirt.

"Mm-hm," Nathan said blandly. "I'm sure he's done his very best."

Harold scowled at him, too, and stomped away to the desk.

John got up and stretched. "They'll meet you at Grand Central," he told Nathan. "Five people in rotation, three on at all times. Photos are in the folders on the desk. Don't mention Harold to any of them. If you need to get in touch with him, you call me first and say you have to discuss plans for summertime. I'll ask you if you can hold. If you say no, you can't, I'll assume you're under duress and act accordingly. Got it?"

"Yeah," Nathan said. "Do you know, I've always thought this kind of cloak and dagger stuff was a joke? I've had top-secret clearance for more than eight years, it was always just a more confidential business deal."

"You were a cooperative asset," John said. "People like me only show up when that changes."

Something about his own words stuck with him the rest of the morning. John worked through candidates next to Harold's steady metronome typing, frowning at the page. He was confident Decima weren't going to go after Nathan, not anytime soon. Nathan wasn't the prize, he was their one last fishing line, and they were too smart to start by giving it a hard yank. Grabbing him would be a last-ditch option — too many unpredictable variables, and if it didn't work, they'd have lost Harold completely. They'd give Harold a good long chance to stick his head out, first.

But the gut feeling he'd missed something kept scratching at the inside of his head, with the kind of urgency that meant he didn't have the time to let it percolate. Harold frowned and looked up at him. "Is something wrong?"

"Yes," John said shortly. "I don't know what. You took care of all Wren's bank accounts?"

"Yes, and the apartment's been cleared out and listed for sale," Harold said. "Could Will be — "

"No," John said. "They might try that, but it's not ideal. It would be tough to even track him down, and local help is thin on the ground when you're going after someone in Doctors Without Borders. No, it's — "

He stopped and shook his head, frustrated. Harold was silent a moment and then said, "Relax and let it come to you."

The push rolled over him. John sighed out as everything went loose and easy. His clenched jaw unlocked, his shoulders came down, his head eased back against the chair. The world fell away into that beautiful silence. The laptop in his hands didn't matter, the names didn't matter. He was floating. Snatches of conversations replayed in his head, drifting in and out.

"Alicia," John said. "Alicia Corwin."

"She's Nathan's contact at the NSA," Harold said.

"She doesn't work for the NSA," John said slowly. Pieces were drifting into place one after another. "She works for the ISA. She's the one who gave me and Kara the mission. She's the one who had them take Kara out, and dump me."

"John, I promise you, I'll handle — "

"That's not it," John said, and then he got it. He sat up abruptly, reaching for the gun. "Get Nathan. Tell him to come back in, right now."

"What?" Harold said.

"Nathan said she let it slip that I was dumped. Corwin doesn't slip," John said. "She wanted to know if he was responsible for selling the laptop. She wanted to see if he'd feel obligated to rescue me. That's why they dumped me instead of putting a bullet in my brain along with Kara." A short laugh jerked out of him, mirthless. "Waste not, want not."

Harold was already trying to call Nathan. "He's not answering," he said. He looked over at the other screen, where the four glowing dots tracking Nathan and his bodyguards had been sitting in the IFT building for an hour.

"Give me the address," John said. "Tell me not to tell anyone anything about you."

Harold stared at him and didn't say anything.

"Harold."

"No," Harold said. "I am not going to give you orders that are going to result in your being tortured — "

"Harold," John said, "they're going to torture me for the information no matter what. This way, I get to relax and get high. The other way, I have much less fun. Tell me."

He realized his mistake one second too late. Harold stood up and took his face in his hands and said, as irresistible as a bulldozer, "If you are being interrogated, tell them anything whatsoever that has the most likelihood of resulting in your safe escape," and kissed him. John slid to his knees pulling Harold's hands to his mouth, kissed them helplessly and pressed them to his cheek, shuddering.

#

But there was no one left at the IFT building by the time John got there. He found the four cell phones scattered around the top level of the parking garage. All of them had been wiped. He tapped his earpiece. "Any chance you can get the security camera footage from the IFT garage?" he asked.

"I already have," Harold said. "It was compromised. There's a gap in the footage."

John went back to the library and found Harold silent and slumped in his chair. "I'm sorry," John said softly. "I can't find him."

Harold looked up at John. "What are the chances he's still alive?"

"Pretty good," John said reluctantly. "Harold, if you're thinking of making a deal — "

"No," Harold said, and he meant it; that wasn't what he was thinking about at all. He wasn't distraught, either; he was — tense, as if there was a decision he was half scared to make. John slid involuntarily towards him and put his hands on Harold's shoulders, let his fingers find the knotted lumps. Harold drew a nearly pained breath and shut his eyes.

"Let me in," John said.

Harold let the walls down. John pulled, endlessly thirsty. He got Harold fearing desperately for Nathan and at the same time yearning in a palpable, helpless way for John, wanting more than ever to claim, to possess; and a spoked wheel of connected thoughts turning between them. A vivid memory of Nathan saying, everyone's relevant to someone, and how fiercely Harold had refused to let himself hear it. How he'd been able not to hear it, because he'd been so alone himself, pulling in his own instincts all the time.

"You can't save everybody," John said.

Harold said softly, "But you see, John, I can."

And the brilliant silver complex of the Machine opened up for him in Harold's thoughts. The sheer vastness of it almost hurt to take in: like flying through galaxies in a planetarium. The Machine was everywhere, watching everyone, every minute of every day, listening, observing, analyzing. It was watching him and Harold right now from the camera on the monitor, hearing their voices through the shut-off cellphone on Harold's desk, collecting every keystroke Harold typed. It watched the IFT parking garage, it watched every traffic camera in New York City.

"It knows where Nathan is," John said slowly.

"Yes," Harold said, and all the reasons Harold had locked that information away felt dusty and distant next to that knowledge, next to Nathan's life.

John left his hands resting on Harold's shoulders, for comfort, and didn't say anything. In Harold's place, he'd use the Machine, the tool, without a second thought. What was funny was how easy it would be to accept whatever decision Harold made. How easy it was to trust Harold, the way he'd never trusted any of the others: not Alicia, not Mark, not even Kara.

Harold sat still a moment longer, then his mouth quirked briefly to one side, and his hands moved on the keyboard. Decision made. John let go and started checking his weapons, getting ready to act.

"I'm coming with you," Harold said, even as he typed.

"Harold," John said, but he knew it was impossible even as he spoke. Harold's determination was a solid wall, impenetrable.

"I'll keep back if at all possible," Harold said. "But I won't send you to face this alone."

#

Even after Harold cracked it open, the Machine wasn't exactly chatty. All it gave them was a single social security number. That turned out to belong to an apparently random woman from Idaho who had no immediately obvious connection to Nathan at all. But Harold's background check on her turned up a real estate investment, a pied-a-terre loft in a converted industrial building down in Tribeca. Harold managed to hack into a security camera with a view of the block: an unmarked black SUV was parked out front.

Harold drove. John cleaned and reloaded the four guns he'd collected. Harold had put his walls back up, but this time John could still pull a little bit from him, getting a thin faint thread of dismay at the guns. Harold understood this was the world he'd walked into, and he didn't expect miracles and didn't want John killed — especially didn't want John killed, which left a hot satisfied glow at the base of John's neck — or Nathan, or himself. However, that didn't mean he couldn't register a complaint.

"You know, Harold, they're just tools," John said. "Like your Machine."

"Tools have a purpose," Harold said grimly, without taking his eyes off the road. "The purpose of the Machine is to protect people. To save lives."

"Guns can do that too," John said. "It's all about who's carrying them."

"Unfortunately, Mr. Reese, the people holding Nathan are undoubtedly carrying them as well. And there are more of them than you."

John looked thoughtfully down at the guns in his lap. "Maybe we could use a few helping hands at that."

"We're a little short on time for hiring more bodyguards now," Harold said.

"I wasn't thinking bodyguards," John said. "Pretty much the opposite, actually."

The security systems on the building were in two layers: a cheap indifferent one on the outside, then a top of the line setup for the basement. Harold barely stopped for the first one and ripped through the second one in ten minutes. John shook his head a little. He remembered the security briefing on the system: it was supposed to take six hours with specialized hardware required.

"Yes, well," Harold said, his hands flying over the keys, "it does, if you try to break the actual software, but the input module relies on a system library with a small vulnerability discovered only six months ago which — as I suspected — hasn't been patched on this hardware." The lights next to the door flickered over to green, and the lock clicked open.

John led the way down the stairs, Harold staying close and quiet on his heels. The stairs let into a wide bare hallway under fluorescent lights, faintly greenish, full of crates and a forklift. John managed to get the first whisper of Nathan's thoughts: pain, fear, worry, determination — and then he brushed just barely against another familiar mind. He stopped and put out a hand to catch Harold, and moved them right back into the stairwell.

"Nathan's here," he said. "He's alive."

"But — " Harold said, even as he moved with John's hand.

"There's another sub here," John said grimly. "Another one like me." Chances were Hersh was focused on pulling from Ingram and had missed them, but he'd notice if John stayed close enough to read him. And by now Hersh knew about Harold, too — there was no chance Nathan could have kept that under wraps from him for long.

"Is Nathan all right?" Harold asked.

"He's not having the best time of his life, but he's okay. I should get some warning before they do anything permanent," John said. In the back of his head, he was half exploring ways to get Harold to get out of here after all, but even as he did, he knew it was too late: up above he could feel the pressure of several minds approaching, full of eagerness, hunting. "Looks like that phone call worked," he said. "The cavalry's coming."

"I'm not entirely comfortable considering Decima the cavalry," Harold muttered.

"I'd rather have the NSA shooting at them than at us," John said. "Get around behind those crates. I'll lure the NSA team out, then duck back to cover you. We'll let them argue it out for a while. When I give you the signal, get into that room and get Nathan cut loose, then wait for me to give you an all-clear."

Harold nodded.

John slipped up to the door and gave Hersh a deliberate mental shove through the crack at the bottom. He heard a short curse and then footsteps; he dived for the crates, a couple of rows behind Harold's own hiding spot, with a clear line of sight to the stairwell. One of the NSA agents looked out of the room, just as the Decima team came cautiously down the stairs in two-by-two formation.

Five minutes later, three NSA agents were down along with the Decima advance team, but Greer had arrived upstairs, his mind familiar and identifiable, and he'd brought a second wave with him. He and his people figured this was going to be their last chance to get hands on Harold, and they were going all in. Hersh could probably pull that much himself, and he finally came out of the room with another couple of agents. John jerked his head to Harold: go, go!

"Perhaps we might have a conversation," Greer was calling down the stairs to Hersh, with a hard push behind it. John could have told him to save the effort. Hersh didn't bother. He just took aim up the stairs and fired. More shots got traded.

Harold had already darted inside the room. John kept his gun steady and watched the firefight from his half-hidden vantage point. He could feel Harold's outrage and horror, sour and vivid. I'll have you out of here soon, Nathan. I'm sorry — I'm so sorry. The wire cutters he'd brought were slicing through the bindings on Nathan's wrists.

"I'm afraid we have you at rather a disadvantage," Greer called again. "Several more of my associates are on their way as we speak."

But Hersh didn't answer, except with another carefully placed bullet. He wasn't worried, John realized belatedly. Hersh wasn't worried at all, and then John understood why — too late.

There was another entrance to the hallway somewhere behind them — from a garage below, probably. And someone was coming up towards them. Someone with a presence like an oncoming storm, black-clouded and impossibly powerful, full of thunder. Military dom, John realized, in horror.

Greer had fallen silent. He could feel it too: the oncoming dom was putting on a threat display, a warning loud and clear to any dom or sub in the area: danger coming. Abruptly the Decima team were pulling out, pulling back. John ran for the door to the cell. There wasn't much time if there was any time at all, any chance at all. Nathan was limping on bare, bloody feet, leaning heavily on Harold's shoulder. "We have to move!" John said.

"Oh, I think you all have to stay exactly where you are," a woman's voice said, and the casual push behind it hit John between the shoulderblades. Nathan gave a choked gasp, wincing away from the force. Harold steadied him. John turned around in despair as she came into the room ahead of the remaining agents: a tall heavyset woman in a good suit, her long hair pulled back and her face wearing a parody of a smile, nothing in her eyes to match. Hersh took her right flank, the bonded position, and that meant — that meant this was Control.

John had heard whispers about her, gossip. The black hole hidden deep inside US intelligence, one of the country's handful of military-grade dominants, the kind who could kill not one person but ten, who could crush minds like walnuts.

"Well, well," she said. "This is certainly turning into an interesting day. So, Mr. Ingram, Hersh here tells me that you didn't build my Machine after all. And this, I presume, is the mysterious Mr. Finch who did?" She looked Harold up and down and smiled again. "I'm very glad to meet you." She looked at John. "Really, John, you've been better bait than I could have imagined."

Harold was staring at her, still bracing Nathan. "So John was right," he said. "How could you do this? — all of this." He looked at Nathan, at the marks of torture and pain, at John, and back at her. "Why?"

"You're really asking that question?" She snorted. "We've been taking numbers from your Machine for three years now without getting so much as a glimpse under the hood. We only put up with it because Nathan here was too much of a public figure — it gets messy to make them disappear, and the politicians get upset. When it looked like he'd actually handed us an honest-to-God treason charge as an excuse, I thought it was my birthday and Christmas rolled into one."

"So you just — threw away a sub to try and get to him?" Harold said. "One who'd done nothing but serve you loyally — "

She lifted an eyebrow. "So you are a dom, then. I almost couldn't tell," she said. "And of course I did. I wouldn't be in this position if I couldn't make calls like that when necessary."

"If you weren't distorted, you mean," Harold said, an edge of horror in his voice that John felt in his head, amplified, one thought bleeding through bright and clear and terrible: I gave the Machine to these people...

She didn't bother trying to argue. "To be honest," she said, looking down at Harold, "John here has always been a little bit of a problem. I appreciate power, but who really wants a sub to have a mind of his own? Or a Machine, for that matter."

"I do," Harold said flatly.

"Oh, has John been pretending for you?" she asked, low and false-sweet, mocking. "He's very good at that — we trained him, after all. It does feel good to have a sub that powerful getting on his knees for you, doesn't it? But you see, Harold, when it comes down to it, what really matters is power."

She leaned in close. "So when I tell John to take you downstairs and put you in the car, he's going to do it for me. And when I tell him to take Nathan back to his apartment and shoot him, just like a dangerous unbound sub, he's going to do that, too. And when I tell him to put the gun to his own head afterwards, he'll do that, also."

John could tell there was a tiny, vicious push behind every sentence, sadistic prep for the real commands. But none of them reached him. They slid away to either side like they'd hit glass, a wall put up around him. Harold was staring up at Control, and behind his walls revulsion was changing into something else. Into rage.

She kept smiling down at him, for a moment longer, and then the smile wavered. She frowned a little. She couldn't get past Harold's walls yet, but behind her shoulder Hersh was straightening up, going tense. He could feel it, part of it.

John watched him distantly. His own fear was melting away in belated understanding. He almost wanted to laugh, or maybe throw his arms wide to catch the sunlight of a supernova power uncoiling itself overhead. Harold wasn't in danger. Harold wasn't in any danger at all.

Harold was military grade, too. Harold was stronger than her.

"Ma'am," Hersh said urgently, hoarsely. But her face was already changing. She'd started to realize it now, too. She took a step back from Harold. The other agents had all dropped to their knees. Even the doms, covering their heads. A wolfish grin curved John's mouth. That wasn't going to do them any good. Harold was going to obliterate them —

John took one jerky step and got to Harold's side. Harold's eyes were glassy, the pupils wide. He was already past killing strength and still going, his mind locked in pure dominant rage. Control had just threatened his people, John and Nathan; she'd even threatened him, too — and she was a dominant strong enough to be a real threat, strong enough to trigger every protective instinct. Harold was going to pull everything he had, and everything he had was almost unimaginable, so much power John was shuddering from it just standing in the backwash.

Harold was going to kill her, and not just her. He was going to kill Hersh, and all five of those agents behind her, and the two Decima agents in the hallway who'd gotten pulled up in the overflow of her command to stay where they were. He was going to kill all of them, and afterwards, Harold was going to look at what he'd done —

It was hard to reach out to him. John could tell that Harold wanted to kill, right now. John's hand shook. He only managed to make himself barely brush his fingers against the back of Harold's hand, the smallest plea for attention. But Harold's head turned, slowly, even deep in rage; Harold looked at him, and John said softly, "You know she's wrong. You know I wouldn't."

Harold stared at him, face still blank, and John swallowed. This wasn't how it worked: he knew it wasn't how it worked. Terror was fighting longing for space in his gut. But he couldn't think of anything else, anything that had a chance of prying Harold loose. John slid to his knees at Harold's feet. He reached up and took Harold's slack unresisting hands, one at a time, and put them on his own wrists. He dropped his eyes and said, "I'm yours."

It shouldn't have worked. He was shoving himself at Harold like a man jumping at a sheer glass wall, already sliding down, down, even as he hit. And there was nothing down below there, just a bottomless pit where he'd have given away everything that made him, a permanent blankness. The dom had to ask, the sub had to yield, because this was what happened the other way around, and John was falling, the whole world narrowing in —

Harold's hands tightened on his wrists. "Oh," Harold said. "Oh, you are," and the full force of his strength came roaring up from the bottom of the pit, filling it up, catching John up and floating him into a dazzle like sunlight on the ocean.

It was impossibly even better than everything else had been. It wasn't just relief, or pleasure; it was the promise that they would never be taken away again. It was shelter, a blanket lifted invitingly, a fireplace crackling against the cold, but even as John crawled into the warmth, the door was still right there behind him, going out into the crisp fresh air. He knew without words that Harold wasn't asking for a permanent yielding, everything surrendered; Harold didn't want that any more than John could give it. John could step outside and come back. He was welcome. He was wanted.

Tears were running down his face. He couldn't stop them, ecstatic. Far away, John vaguely registered Control grunting, a choked-off noise. She had her face averted. Harold's rage had turned away, transmuted, but his walls were tumbling like Jericho and all his strength was on full display for bonding. The other doms were cringed back against the walls trying to keep themselves together.

"Harold," Nathan said, in a strangled voice.

"Oh, I beg your pardon," Harold said absently. He tucked in a little corner around Nathan, but he didn't feel the need to do anything about the others' comfort. He stroked John's cheek with two fingers, tenderly. John smiled up at him, still dazzled. Some part of his head was tracking the other people and the other guns in the room, but without much worry; they were all crushed, thoroughly under control.

What mattered right now was Harold looking down at him, full of appreciation, and his fingers just resting at the edge of John's jaw. John tilted his head back a little further to display his throat better, inviting, and reached up to slip an extra button free. Harold sighed, low, and his fingers trailed down along the line of John's neck, raising shivers that wracked John's whole body. He licked his lips. Oh, Harold liked that, too — his mouth.

"Harold," Nathan said, touching Harold's shoulder. "We should get out of here."

"Mm," Harold said, vague, still looking down at John's mouth, but Nathan added, "You don't want his first time to be here," and that made Harold blink around and register where they were, easing slowly down off the heights.

John sighed a little and let his hand drop from the buttons of his shirt. He rose to his feet in one move, turning, before Hersh could pull himself back together, and beat him to it, getting his gun aimed at Control before Hersh could manage to get his aimed at Harold.

"That doesn't really seem like a good idea, does it?" John said. Hersh paused, wary, his eyes darting towards Control, looking for instructions.

She'd uncoiled, too, and now was staring down the barrel of John's gun, furious: a sub daring to hold a gun on her, and she couldn't even make him put it down. John could feel her simmering anger and humiliation, being flattened like that in front of her own people, but there was a deep thread of fear going along with it. She had training Harold didn't have, and when he wasn't in all-out rage that might give her a bigger edge, but she'd never gone up against someone with more raw power than her.

Harold had already turned away from her, to reach out and help Nathan, removing the immediate threat. She was starting to talk herself out of fighting. If Harold wasn't going to force the issue, she could let them go — for now. This wasn't an ideal time and place. There would be better ones —

John kept himself carefully between them as Harold supported Nathan towards the door. Hersh's eyes followed the two of them, but his hands on the gun had already relaxed, fractionally. He couldn't pull a trigger if Control didn't want him to, even though he knew damn well he wasn't going to get a better chance at Harold than right now.

John couldn't resist giving him a smirk and a last finger-waggle wave as he backed out, knowing Hersh wouldn't have any problem reading him: my dom is better than your dom! Then he pulled the door shut behind them.

#

They got Nathan settled in at his place, called in a medical team, and got out again. "I'm calling in his other bodyguards, but that's just taking precautions," John told Harold. "She's not going to send anyone after him — she's not going to be able to stand admitting that kind of weakness for a long time. If she does make a move, it's going to be to try to kill you, and it'll be long-range, using only people she doesn't mind getting rid of afterwards."

"If you're sure," Harold said. He was still anxious, but it did seem Nathan was out of danger for the moment, and that left him with the very pressing desire to get John — home.

John swallowed hard, feeling all the implications of that desire: Harold imagining a place where John belonged, too; a place John was part of.

"I'll be fine," Nathan said, lifting the icepack off his head. "Go on, get him out of here, Harold. You've made the poor man wait long enough. He's practically vibrating."

"Oh — " Harold said, turning worried eyes on John, and John seized permission and his wrist and towed him for the door. Harold craned around as they went. "Nathan, I'll call you tomorrow — "

"Day after," John said.

"— the day after tomorrow," Harold called, as they went through the door.

John left the car abandoned out front and flagged down a taxi straight back to the library. He went on ahead, taking the stairs two at a time, and gave Bear food and water as fast as he could, while Harold followed him up saying, "We could surely get a hotel room — "

But Harold didn't really want to stop this time; he liked the library, the library was his. It wasn't a showcase penthouse apartment, but the mattress was big enough for two, and the tall bookcases stood all around them, shadowing and muffling, a small secret private place carved out of the world.

So John ignored him and just started ripping off Harold's clothes on the way to the back room — well, Harold, now he knew that the shirt was 400 threadcount imported silk, and he still didn't care — and pushed him down to the mattress. Bear raised a grumpy howl from outside the door John had kicked shut. John ignored him, too.

He wanted to do anything Harold wanted, but Harold wanted everything, an endless catalog of possibilities turning over in his mind even as he lay back watching John strip with delighted appreciation. Any other dom John had ever had, they'd wanted — they'd wanted to fuck him, brutally, as if they could take with their bodies what he couldn't give them, but Harold — Harold wanted all of him, and it wasn't just lip service: he wanted John's strength on him, the power of his body, moving, just as much as he wanted to take.

"Huh," John said, panting, as he wrestled out of his own shirt. "Really? I've never — "

"Never?" Harold said, his voice rising, and oh, yes, that, then; he wanted to see John's face, to claim that first —

John groaned and climbed on top of him.

It didn't matter that he'd never done this before; he could feel every spark, every shiver when he moved his hands and his body the right way. Harold made dreamy encouraging noises, sighing with pleasure beneath the steady rocking of John's hips, relaxing: all his walls coming down completely, all his strength uncoiling. John gasped: it was like standing naked beneath the pounding of a waterfall, a rainstorm, somewhere deep and secret in a hot jungle, dark green wet leaves nodding around him, his head flung back and his skin woken up, tingling and alive.

"Oh, my," Harold said, heavy-lidded, sliding his warm cupped hands up and down John's sides. "John, it's not too much — "

"No," John said, arching beneath it. "No." And oh, Harold hadn't ever done this with anyone; he'd never let go all the way before, he'd hated the feeling that he was smothering — John bent down and nipped Harold's ear, made him flinch with surprise. "Trust me," he purred in Harold's ear. "It's perfect." Harold groaned and sank his hands into John's hair, gripping tight.

John braced himself on the bed and took Harold deep and slow and steady, each stroke jolting them both. John didn't have to ask if it was good for Harold; it was good, very good. John pushed deep and rolled his hips luxuriously. It wasn't every fantasy he'd ever had; it was the ones he hadn't had, the ones he'd never been able to convince himself to believe in for long enough to get off. It was better than perfect; almost unbearable. Tears were gathering in his eyes, and he almost couldn't breathe, the pressure of Harold's strength still building up around him.

"Yes," Harold murmured. "Yes, now, I think," his thumbs brushing over John's wrists, a command without words. John shuddered blissfully and opened, pulled, and Harold — Harold came crashing down onto him, into him, a torrent like Niagara, tumbling John head over heels laughing, breathless, swept away and out of himself, on and on and on.

John fell off and landed next to Harold like bursting through the water and crawling up onto the shore, shaking and still laughing, his chest straining out to fill his lungs. He'd come at some point in there; he didn't even know when. His arms and legs were trembling too much to hold him up anymore. "Oh, God," he said, his voice high. "Oh, God. Harold." He rolled onto his side and buried his face against Harold's neck. Harold put an arm around him, cuddling him in.

"John, my dearest," Harold said, his own voice husky and satisfied. He was so deeply pleased with everything John had done, with John's body, and most of all his magnificent response, how gloriously he took it — John moaned and shuddered all over again with aftershock.

Harold stroked his head some more, easing him through it. The bright heady glow of climax was fading, the first wild storm of bonding smoothing out into a level ocean. The connection between them was still there, though: a cable made of titanium thick around as John's arm, running deep to a permanent anchor.

John rested his head on Harold's shoulder and tried to convince himself he'd done the right thing. But he remembered the terror of falling, the pit yawning beneath him. There was no way Harold would have let him fall into it. Harold couldn't have done it. Even if he'd wanted to.

"What is it?" Harold said quietly.

John swallowed. He'd taken something Harold deliberately hadn't offered him; something Harold had chosen not to give. He made himself say it. "I know you never wanted to bond. I know — " His throat was trying to close on the words. He made his eyes focus on the title of a book in the shelf behind Harold's shoulder, Stress Fractures In Titanium, separating one letter from another, trying not to think about what he was saying. "Once I get you settled under a new cover somewhere, if you want to cut me loose — "

Harold's hand clenched down hard on the base of his neck. "Never," Harold said, with a glittering a little bit like rage around the edges of the word. John went limp against him, panting with relief.

Harold took several deep breaths underneath John's cheek and said, more calmly, "My concerns about your consent ended at the point where you did everything in your power to force yourself on me. I don't think that's entirely unreasonable?"

"No," John agreed meekly.

"Good," Harold said. "Then that's quite enough of that."

"Okay," John said. "Just checking."

Mollified, Harold relaxed again, thumb gently sliding along John's throat, rubbing away the pressure. "In any case, you're wrong," he said. "I'm going to need you more than ever."

John raised his head, startled, and then he understood. "Harold, you're not responsible — "

"But I am," Harold said simply. "Nathan was right all along. If I'd use the Machine to save him, I can't refuse to use it to save others." He reached up to cup John's cheek, gently. "And I think you'd be glad to help me."

John felt his mouth trembling with a helpless smile, almost dizzy with happiness, and bent to kiss him instead of answering. Harold did need him. Harold had no intention of going back to his cloistered life again; better than that, John could tell he didn't want to. He'd been afraid of exercising his own strength, afraid of becoming the thing he loathed; he wasn't afraid of that anymore. Harold hadn't even packed himself away completely again: he was poking at his own strength, exploratory, thinking about how he could use it.

"We should probably put in some shielding," John said, stretching out to bask in the warmth. "And I'll want to recruit a few assets. Nathan will be useful as a front man, but we could use a hand or two in law enforcement."

"As you think best," Harold said, and John had to press his forehead against Harold's shoulder again: work he was made for, being trusted to do it, by a dom worth dying for; a dom worth living for. His breath gasped out once almost in a sob. "John," Harold said, lovingly, drawing him close. Harold was half wishing he were younger, that he could —

John shivered. "Please," he said involuntarily, he wasn't sure if he could handle another round this soon, but he couldn't help but want to, he wanted, he wanted to so much.

Harold groaned and said, "I don't think," but oh, John — "Maybe just once more..."

"Yes," John said. "Yes, Harold." He could do it. He could do anything Harold wanted him to.

# End