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"You really think that's a good idea." Shaw's tone was as flat as ever, but her dubiousness was clear.

Harold shrugged. "Better to have her where we can keep an eye on her, don't you think?" He turned away from his monitors toward both Shaw and John. The processes he'd set in motion were running in the background, little scripts controlling the tiny cameras hidden outside of Ms. Groves' cell. Between them, they offered a reasonable view of her confinement, though naturally from a distance.

He trusted the Machine to let him know if they were in danger, but that didn't obviate his desire to keep an eye on Ms. Groves, just to be certain.

"And you're sure she can't get out of there?" Shaw leaned against the bookshelves, but her posture was carefully affected. She was coiled like a spring, potential energy waiting to explode into motion.

"You're welcome to go and check," John offered. He was slouched in an overstuffed chair next to Bear's dog bed, one hand on the scruff of Bear's neck. His relaxation looked more genuine than Shaw's, though Harold didn't doubt his readiness to snap into action at a moment's notice, either.

"Maybe I'll just go poke her with a stick." Shaw smirked.

"I can't say I think that's wise," Harold began, but John interrupted.

"Don't," he said directly to Shaw. He was sitting up straight now, his lassitude having evaporated.

"Why not?" Shaw asked, head tilted slightly.

"Because at some point we're going to get another number," John said tightly, "and Harold's going to be stuck in here with her, and I don't want her to have extra reasons to hurt him."

Harold felt oddly warmed by John's protectiveness, though he knew it wasn't a sign of his own significance, per se; it was John's nature. John protected his own with intense loyalty, and Harold was part of John's team. More than that, John regarded him as a friend. Harold was grateful for that, even if he couldn't help wishing for more.

"I appreciate your concern, Mr. Reese, but I can assure you, I'm in no danger."

"She plays mind games," John reminded him. "And she may think she has a better sense of your pressure points than most people would; she abducted you--"

"The abduction is irrelevant," Harold said crisply. "Ancient history. You rescued me. End of story."

Shaw, he noticed, was wearing the faintest of smiles, as though she couldn't help herself. "You two," she said. "Honestly. Get a room."

Harold's heart seemed to skip a beat. Was his attraction to John so obvious? Apparently it was, if Shaw thought it appropriate fodder for casual joking. Casual cruelty, more like, though of course she couldn't have known that.

Shaw pushed herself off from the bookshelf, dislodging a volume in the process. She caught it before it hit the floor and reshelved it. The distant part of his mind which wasn't spinning in panicked circles noted the title: Isaac Newton's Method of Fluxions. "All right, I'm out of here. Call if anything comes up."

And in an instant she was gone.

Harold knew he should look at John. John was the only other person left in the room; transferring his gaze to John was the reasonable thing to do. But if there were revulsion in John's face -- no, it wouldn't be revulsion. He knew that John cared for him too much for that. Worse; it would be pity.

Nathan had pitied him, after he had made a clumsy and inept pass late one night. Their friendship had never been the same.

Harold swung back around to his monitors and opened another command window, his fingers typing characters reflexively though he wasn't paying any attention to the syntax of his code.

After a long minute John said "I'm going to take Bear for a run."

Was it Harold's imagination, or did his voice sound strained?

"All right," Harold said, not turning away from his screens. He heard Bear's claws clack against the floor as John led him away. Only once they were both gone did he let himself slump into his chair.

He could have convinced himself that Shaw was only joking -- that John knew she was only joking -- had John not departed so precipitously.

He was suddenly, irrationally furious at Shaw for shattering the quiet pretense which had been at the heart of their strange little family. Harold yearned, because he couldn't help himself; John pretended not to notice, because that way they could be friends; and everything worked just fine. Well: it had worked. He wasn't at all certain what was going to happen now.

Harold threw himself into coding. It had always been the thing he could turn to when the world was too much.

When John and Bear returned, night had fallen. Though that was hardly an indicator of hour of the day, not at this season. Harold queried the NIST servers, which replied that it was 6:03 in the evening.

He heard the rustling of a plastic bag. "I brought Chinese," John said.

Harold inhaled, told himself to be calm, and then turned. John was holding the take-out bag in front of himself as though it were a peace offering.

"Thank you," Harold said. Perhaps this was John's way of saying that he was willing to keep pretending not to know. He felt absurdly grateful; the prospect of losing this was too much to be borne.

"Come on, I'll set it up," John said. Was it Harold's imagination, or was his smile slightly more melancholy than usual? Perhaps things weren't entirely back to normal yet, after all.

Harold winced as he rose, his body protesting the long stillness. By the time he made his way stiffly to the table, John had spread out their repast. Snow peas with ginger, crisp-skinned sea bass, shredded beef with sweet pepper, and duck soup. "You went to the Cantonese place." He was mildly surprised; that wasn't John's usual jogging route.

"Seemed like a good day for soup, and you like their duck soup."

Harold did quite like their soup. It was fragrant with ginger and scallions, and the pieces of roast duck were flavorful. And perhaps the fact that John had taken the time to detour to the place that made his favorite soup was a good sign.

They sat and ate, John passing the occasional bit of beef to Bear under the table, and the silence felt companionable.

Harold was refilling his plate with a second helping of snow peas and sea bass when John spoke and the comfortable mood disappeared.

"I'm sorry," John said.

Harold's heart thumped again like a frightened rabbit. He did his level best to ignore it. "For what, Mr. Reese?"

"For what Shaw said." John blew out a breath. "She shouldn't have --"

"Don't give it another moment's thought," Harold said as firmly as he could.

"I've never let it get in the way, and I'm not going to start now." John sounded determined. As though he were trying to convince Harold.

"I appreciate that." Harold did. John had always been solicitous about not letting on that he knew. That was what had allowed Harold to continue his quiet pining.

"And you've never taken advantage, and I appreciate that."

That was a conversational turn Harold had not expected. "Excuse me?"

John's small smile was rueful. "I wouldn't have minded if you had, but you're a better man than I am."

"If I had what?" It was rare for Harold to be genuinely confused, but he simply wasn't following.

"Taken me up on it," John said, as though that made sense. "But I don't think you do that, unless you -- love someone." Those last words were bitten off tightly. "I admire that about you."

They were having two entirely different conversations.

Unless they weren't. Not exactly. Harold turned every possibility over in his mind, running through every possible interpretation of what John had said. Was it possible that he was reaching the right conclusions? Hope filled his chest.

John was sitting perfectly still. He had said his piece and he was waiting for Harold's reaction with the resigned bravery of a man standing in front of a firing squad.

Harold chose his words carefully. "When Ms. Shaw said -- what she said," he began, looking carefully for any sign of John's reaction, "I assumed she was talking about the torch I've been carrying for you."

Only John's eyes betrayed his startlement. "Torch," he repeated, as though he weren't entirely certain what Harold was saying.

Harold's language was hopelessly out-of-date, wasn't it? There was nothing for it but to speak plainly, and hope he was reading John right.

"I love you," Harold said quietly. "I think it's safe to say I'm in love with you. I had thought that you knew."

Before this moment, Harold would not have said that he'd never seen John's real smile. But this smile was awe. It was wonderment. It was a kid discovering for the first time that everything he wanted was his to have.

That Harold had placed that look on John's face seemed nothing short of miraculous.

"Does this mean," John said slowly, as though he were savoring every word, "that you're going to take me up on my offer?"

Harold suspected that he was beginning to blush. "I don't think I remember you offering anything." He sounded petulant, he knew, but he truly didn't.

John pushed back his chair and stood. Harold couldn't help his gaze, up John's long legs, past his hands, which hung empty at his sides, over his broad chest, to his face. He had permission to look, now. He'd never had that before.

"Every night," John said, quietly. "'Is there anything else you need, Harold?'"

John's parting words to him, on an almost daily basis, for months now.

"I think it's safe to say I didn't understand what was on offer."

John spread his palms. "Everything," he said simply.

Harold rose, because it seemed wrong for him to be seated when John was offering himself in this way. "Yes," he said. "Yes, to everything." He felt giddy.

"I guess the only question now is, your place or mine?"

John's question sent a rush of heat through Harold's body. John was giving him permission to touch. To map every inch of his body with fingers and lips. And he was going to do that, tonight, and if he were lucky he would get to do it again. "Mine," Harold said, decisively.

"Okay," John agreed. As he went to retrieve his coat he gave Harold a private little smile, then glanced away.

"What," Harold prompted.

"Fifteen minutes in a taxicab is going to be torture," John said.

Harold was in the middle of putting on his coat. Anyone who saw him walking stiffly would assume it was his injury, not the delicious discomfort of a well-cut suit under these conditions. Of course, John was correct; fifteen minutes in a cab beside each other, itching to touch and unable to do so, would be excruciating.

"We're not going to the West Side," Harold corrected him. "I have another place that's much closer." And one which he'd taken some pains to conceal, though at this juncture that seemed more than moot.

"You're full of surprises tonight." John picked up Bear's leash and the dog's ears pricked up, alert as always. "Bear, hier!"

"I'll take these to Ms. Groves," Harold decided, picking up two of the takeout containers and placing them on a tray with a set of chopsticks.

"I'll put the rest in the fridge and meet you downstairs in five," John said. "Do you want a cab?"

"It's only a few blocks," Harold said, "I'd just as soon walk."

When he approached the cage, Ms. Groves made an elaborate show of looking him up and down. "Leaving so soon," she said, her voice a parody of solicitousness. "Hot date tonight?"

"Perhaps," Harold said, and unlatched the portion of the door through which he could pass her the food.

"Oh, you're so cute," she said, as she took the tray from him. "That was almost convincing."

"Enjoy your supper, Ms. Groves," he said, and turned on his heel to depart.

When he reached the street, John was waiting with Bear, as usual. They walked together with the ease of long habit, John's longer strides dovetailing perfectly with Harold's crooked gait. John followed his lead, turning where he turned. The doormen here knew him as Mr. Avis; John huffed an almost-silent laugh but didn't comment.

The elevator led directly to his apartment. John followed him into the living room; Bear padded his way to the corner where his dog bed awaited and settled himself comfortably.

Now that they were here, Harold felt an unaccountable spike of nervousness. "Would you like a drink?" He turned. John's face was unguarded. What Harold saw there was hunger.

His own hunger roared back, leaving him weak in the knees. "Or perhaps bed," he amended.

"Bed," John agreed.

They had made it almost all the way to Harold's bed before John placed a hand on his arm. Once they were touching anywhere, it was as though they had to be touching everywhere. Harold only had to tilt his head up a little bit to kiss John. Their arms wrapped around each other easily. John knew not to stress Harold's spine; Harold knew to avoid John's shoulder holster.

John's body felt glorious against his, and John kissed with the same kind of single-minded dedication he brought to everything else Harold had ever seen him do. When they broke apart, John pressed his forehead against Harold's, eyes half-closed and smile shy and intimate. It felt like a benediction.

John's hands unfastening the buttons of his vest and loosening his tie made him tremble. But that was all right, because when he untucked John's shirt and his hands skimmed John's waist, John bit his lip as though he were trying to keep from making a sound. Harold wanted, very much, to hear that sound.

Disrobing took slightly longer than usual, thanks to John's weaponry. Eventually Harold just sat on the bed and watched John stow it all away, reflexively checking the safety on every piece. The thoroughness was admirable, though Harold's body did feel some urgency. Still, he took not inconsiderable pleasure in watching John kneel, naked, even for this purpose.

Once John was finished, he joined Harold on the bed. John lay down on one side, head propped on one hand, and waited. He looked like one of Buonarotti's nudes from the Medici tomb, except that marble had never gazed back at Harold with such intent.

"Can I kiss you again?" John asked, after a long moment, and Harold moved to make that possible. He could have lost himself in just this, kissing and shifting against each other, savoring the drag of his cock against John's thigh. But he wanted --

Harold pushed John onto his back. And then with some difficulty, gracelessly, Harold climbed between John's thighs. John spread them willingly, making room, but even so when Harold's mouth slid over his cock John bit back a groan that sounded almost surprised. As though he could have thought that Harold wouldn't want this.

His cock was as beautiful as the rest of him, of course. As perfect as his hands, as his thighs, as his fine high cheekbones which were surely, if Harold were doing this right, stained now with color.

It had been some time since Harold had done this with -- well, with anyone, much less a man -- but the basic mechanics were surprisingly simple. Surprising given the infinite variability of preferences: speed, with or without the graze of teeth, whether or not the addition of fingers was welcome. And this was, of course, only the first opportunity for data collection. But John was an open book in his hands.

Perhaps it wasn't surprising that John liked a firm grip. What seemed to tip him over the edge was pressure behind his scrotum, on that bit of tender skin adjacent to his perineum. Clearly that was an erogenous zone which merited further exploration.

If pressed, Harold would have admitted to a certain smugness. He had every intention of learning how to take John apart with pleasure and put him back together again, and this seemed an excellent start.

But he hadn't taken into account the likelihood that John had similar designs on him. That John might take as much pleasure in his body as he took in John's.

Somehow that possibility hadn't seemed real until he was lying in John's arms with John spooned behind him, John's now-quiescent cock soft against his ass. John's left arm held him close, and John's right hand pulled at him with a devastatingly exquisite twist in every stroke. John's calluses rasped against the sensitive head of his cock. Harold couldn't have said how long it went on. He felt pinioned by pleasure, trapped and gasping and shamefully never wanting to struggle free.

But it was when John murmured, "You have no idea how long I've wanted to do this," low and dark and right into the shell of his ear, that he flew apart in John's hands.

He fell asleep grinning goofily at the ceiling, soothed by the familiar lullaby of distant sirens and by John's even breathing beside him. When he woke, the room was lit by morning light, and he could hear the shower going.

Harold got out of bed, groped for his eyeglasses and for his phone in the pocket of his trousers (appallingly wrinkled; these were going directly to the cleaners), and returned to bed with screen in hand. Presently he became aware that the shower had stopped and that John was standing at the foot of the bed, wet-haired, with a towel wrapped around his waist.

He had no idea how long John had been standing there. He'd been checking into some of the security feeds from the Library and the world around him had receded. But John's smile was fond. He supposed that if anyone understood his foibles, it would be John.

"Good morning," Harold said.

"Nice shower you've got there."

"I permit myself a surprising number of creature comforts, but that's one of the best among them," Harold acknowledged.

John's grin was positively wolfish. "There's room for an orgy in there."

Harold blinked at him. "I certainly hope you're not already angling for diversions."

"I think I'm good," John said. "But thanks." He gestured toward Harold's phone. "Everything okay?"

"Yes, as far as I can tell," Harold said. "No new number yet today. Ms. Groves appears to have read eleven volumes overnight, but my cameras aren't close enough to let me read the titles."

"I'm sure she'll tell us all about them when we show up with lunch."

"Lunch?" Harold repeated. He checked the time on his phone again; it was half-past seven, later than he usually slept but by no means lunchtime.

Although Harold didn't see any motions to precipitate the gesture, John's towel dropped, puddling 65-gram Egyptian cotton around his feet.

"Unless you were in a hurry to get to work," John offered. He was preening a bit, but it was entirely forgivable, under the circumstances.

Harold set his phone down on the bedside table. "Now that you mention it," he said, "I think perhaps we might dally a while."

"Remind me to bring Shaw flowers," John said absently as he lifted the covers and slid underneath.