John’s team has been watching Ingram for several months before they work out that there’s a silent partner, and it’s another couple of weeks before they identify him for sure: Harold Wren, alias Harold Sparrow, a mousy little guy with round glasses, who jogs, gets take-out, works, and that’s basically it. On paper he has a low-level position as a software developer with IFT, and for a while they think Ingram’s screwing him over. For the first few weeks of observation, they are working towards approaching him with the opportunity to take credit for his own work. Then they discover the Wren alias - doesn’t seem to be his real name, but it’s an older identity than Sparrow - and his high-level position with an insurance company, for which he wears fussy, expensive suits.
Wren basically owns the company - although his co-workers don’t know that - and he’s able to work from home a lot and keep flexible hours, but even so, he’s holding down two full-time jobs. He’s a hermit. He has no family that they can trace, no friends except Ingram, who’s also the only person he sees socially, and only in public, well-frequented, open places where it’s almost impossible to listen in, or in Ingram’s home, where they never talk business. He’s not only actively avoiding recognition for the work he’s doing for Ingram, he’s leading a double life with such skill and commitment that even Kara’s impressed.
Money is obviously a no-go; he has plenty and doesn’t seem to spend any of it, except on suits. Blackmail is the next option, but so far as they’ve been able to discover, the work he’s doing for Ingram isn’t illegal - it isn’t even, to Kara’s disgust, a violation of his employment contract with the insurance company, which is worded with such care that John feels sure Wren wrote it. In lieu of better options, they move on to sex, and for a while it doesn’t seem like they’ll get anywhere with that either. The guy doesn’t seem to have a sex drive. Although their people haven’t been able to break open the security on his personal computer, so far as they can tell from the bugs and the cameras in his apartment he never even watches porn. But they’re watching him jog through Central Park one morning - alone, as usual - when Wren slips up.
John has joined the river of morning joggers every day for the past few weeks, keeping to Wren’s most frequent timeslot whether or not Wren shows up, since they’re following what Mark calls the ‘PF protocol’ for ‘Paranoid Fucker’. He’s got half an eye on Wren’s place in the crowd, but is enjoying the misting of his breath and the smell of early morning when there’s a burst of sound in his ear as Mark laughs out loud and Kara hisses, “Oh, this is too good.”
“What?” mutters John, careful to keep his face turned forward so Wren doesn’t see his lips move.
“He’s checking you out!” Mark crows.
John nearly misses a step, but gets back into stride quickly, and Kara’s laugh is low and triumphant. “Looks like you’re on. Hope you’re up to it, Reese.”
Later, John looks over the tape. It’s pure chance that their guy’s camera caught Wren’s face at the moment that he paused to drink some water and John passed him on the track. His gaze moves up and down John’s body with a deliberation that there’s no mistaking. John shrugs. “The guy has good taste.”
He’s always kind of had a thing for nerds. He should have been on his guard from the get-go.
John takes it slow. He keeps showing up for their jogging dates and catches Wren looking a few times, lets Wren catch him looking back. When he thinks that he’s become Hot Jogging Guy in Wren’s mind, identifiable enough to be a possibility, he steps it up. He jogs up beside Wren on the track one morning, keeps pace with him. Wren darts little glances over at him. “Hey,” John says, smiling. “Can I buy you breakfast?”
Wren blinks at him, and for a moment John thinks he’s screwed up already.
“All right,” Wren says, and John breathes out, keeps running.
They have breakfast together. Wren orders eggs benedict and an orange juice, after a conversation with the waitress about whether or not it has pulp. As per the PF protocol, John isn’t wearing an earpiece or a wire - Wren might look for it - so John’s free to find Wren’s finickiness charming without listening to Kara’s comments about it.
Wren tells John he works in insurance. “Are you new in town?” he says. “I don’t recall seeing you at at the track until quite recently.”
“Yeah,” John says, remembering to add a smile. “Got back from our office in Saudi a few weeks ago.”
“Oh?” says Wren. “I’ve never been. Were you out there long?”
It’s polite small-talk, okay for a first date, but John is uneasy. It’s not going the way it should between a guy like him - John can say that objectively - and a guy like Wren; Wren’s courteously interested, but John can feel his attention wandering. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy to tolerate boredom easily, even when it’s wrapped in a nice-looking package. John takes a gamble, leans forward.
“Listen,” he says. “Do you want to… go somewhere?”
Wren takes a sip of his coffee, but his attention is sharp and on John again, and John feels warm, triumphant. Later he’ll think that was the first warning sign, but now he’s into the situation, feeling the adrenaline of the hunt.
“You seem like a busy guy,” John says. “I’m a busy guy too. I’d really like you to fuck me before I go to work. What do you say?”
Wren pushes his plate away. “I do appreciate a man who knows what he wants,” he says.
Wren doesn’t take John to his place, of course, even though it’s close by; he’s a paranoid fucker, and that would be too much to ask for. He takes them straight to the Ritz-Carlton instead, where he has an account - has an account, how had they missed that? - and the front desk staff don’t bat an eyelid at their workout clothes. John hangs back, lets Wren do the talking, and he leads John unerringly to an opulent room on the sixteenth floor.
“Would you like to shower first?” he says, pulling off his jacket.
“Not really,” John says.
“Good,” Wren says. “Strip.” Despite himself, John shivers.
John hadn’t intended to move this fast, and he hasn’t prepared himself, but Wren preps him with the contents of a discreet bottle from the bathroom cabinet, has two fingers inside John before they’ve been there a quarter of an hour.
“You don’t do this often,” Wren says, his eyes raking over John as he breathes and tries to hold himself together.
“Saudi Arabia,” John grits out. “Six months. My employers are kind of strict about breaking the law.”
“Still,” Wren says, and twists his fingers slowly. John’s eyes fall closed of their own accord. It really has been a long time, and he was expecting to have to do all the work, here. It’s a nice surprise.
“What’s so special about me, John?” Wren says softly. “What made you pick me out? Aside from the fact that you thought I would say yes. Or is that all there was to it?” He adds a third finger. Belatedly, John is cautious.
“You looked… expensive,” he says. He manages to open his eyes, and sees Wren watching him, a curious look on his face. He frowns a little.
“What gave it away? These clothes are perfectly ordinary.”
It’s a Breguet, and probably cost more than John makes in a year. Wren’s frown deepens. “But I don’t - oh.”
Wren doesn’t always wear it, but he wore it once last week, and checked it several times; he was meeting Ingram early that day. Another slip. John took a risk, showing that he’d been watching that closely, but Wren isn’t annoyed. He seems… intrigued. He pushes his fingers into John, a slow, controlled thrust, and John tries to stay relaxed while keeping his mind on the conversation. “Do you have an income threshold for your sex partners?”
“I don’t fuck anyone who makes under six hundred thousand dollars a year,” John says with a straight face. “I like nice hotel rooms.”
“You’re very observant, Mr. Warren,” Wren says. He has a complicated look on his face, like he can’t decide if John’s joking.
“Not much else to do when you’re jogging,” John says, and smiles, showing his teeth. Engage his interest. Make him wonder. Wren twists his fingers again, and it’s good, better than John had remembered, and he’s suddenly really looking forward to this, impatient for it. “You going to fuck me now, or am I going to be late to work?”
“I don’t want to hurt you,” Wren says, then gives John a narrow-eyed look that shoots a jolt of heat to his stomach. “Or would you like that?”
John swallows. “I’d like that.”
Wren’s mouth quirks. “All right. Turn over.”
Wren fucks like he knows what he’s doing and is invested in doing it well. John’s rarely had to pretend to enjoy sex - he’s easy that way, one of the reasons he’s good at this kind of mission - but Wren takes him just the right side of rough, finds his good spot immediately and has him clawing at the sheets before he lets him come. Wren gasps and presses his forehead against the centre of John’s back, and comes inside him.
Afterwards, John lies boneless on the bed as Wren disposes of the condom and takes the first shower. Once the water has started, John drags himself up and searches Wren’s bag and coat pockets, but there’s nothing there except his wallet and phone, which they’ve already tried and failed to crack; Wren has security on it which they think he wrote himself. John plants trackers in his shoe, the hem of his pants, his coat. He’s done well before the water shuts off, so he gets a five minute nap into the bargain.
“I have to go,” Wren says as he comes out, towelling his hair. He tosses his key onto the bed. “Stay as long as you like. Return both keys when you leave, please.”
“Could we do this again?” John says carefully, keeping his posture easy. If all Wren wants is a quick fuck, he’s played this wrong. He pulls the sheet back and stretches casually, lets Wren refresh his memory on what he’s getting. Wren’s mouth twitches.
“Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten how attractive you are,” he says. Wrong-footed, John feels himself flush, and he turns it to his advantage, gives Wren a shy little smile. Wren smiles back, bright and kind of cute, if John’s honest. “I suppose there’s no harm in a little stress relief,” he says. “I think I’d like to do this again, Mr Warren.”
“Hooked?” says Kara, as John slides into the van, holding two lattes.
“Hooked,” John agrees, and sits down gingerly, shifts a little to feel the ache. He feels great. Kara gives him a look.
“We are talking about the mark, right?”
John rolls his eyes, and pulls up the video footage of the insurance building. He’s just in time to catch Wren come out of the subway for work, a neat dot on the overlaying screen, followed by Hammett, who’s on point for today. John thinks Wren is swaggering just a little, and he smiles to himself as he drinks his coffee.
That sets kind of a pattern for the next few weeks; every couple of days they jog together, then they go to a hotel, order breakfast, and fuck. John goes from being intrigued, to amused, to frustrated and kind of infatuated. They never go to the same hotel room twice, which presents some challenges for gathering blackmail material. Plus, frankly, the stuff he and Harold do puts John in a more compromising position than Harold, if John were the type to give a shit. Harold gives John his phone number, and it’s not the one they have on file as the cell he uses with the insurance company; they think it’s a break in the case, until John searches Harold’s bag and finds the second phone. There’s minimal security on it, but it turns out that it only has one number on it - John’s. Forcing a pair gives them nothing except the occasional texts Harold sends John to tell him when he’s going to be at the track.
“Jesus, who is this guy?” Mark scowls over the paired phone, while John tries not to feel special that he gets his very own dedicated Blackberry.
Harold never brings any work into the same room as John - no laptop, no hard drives, no USB keys - and they’re getting no further with the rest of the surveillance. The man’s a closed door.
John’s building up a little more of a personality profile, but Harold’s so totally compartmentalized that he’s not sure it’s much more than could have been gathered from the surveillance alone. He’s fussy about his personal appearance. He has discriminating taste, and is rich enough that he doesn’t care how much he spends. He’s considerate, and a good tipper, but John suspects that his default state is to be rude, that Wren finds most people annoying most of the time. He’s come to expect that from really, really smart people whose work focuses on the non-human or corpses - explosives experts, forensic pathologists, data analysts, anything tech - but he hasn’t known many who’ve put in the time and effort to learn to be polite.
Harold likes to watch. He doesn’t like pain. He has a sweet tooth. He likes being fucked, but prefers to be on top. He likes to be in control, but he doesn’t have a sadistic bone in his body, which is both inconvenient for the mission and slightly disappointing on a personal level. One day, John tries a little experiment, and while Harold is fucking him, scoots himself up the bed far enough to hit his forehead on the side-table as if by accident. He doesn’t manage to make himself bleed, but Harold still insists that they stop everything so he can check John’s scalp and his pupils, with John insisting that, Jesus, he’s fine, Harold. Another time, he twists his hands enough in the cuffs Harold’s put on him to abrade his wrists quite a bit, get them kind of scratched up. When Harold notices, he purses his lips, climbs off John, takes the cuffs off, and cleans up the cuts with a first-aid kit from the bathroom.
“That shouldn’t happen with these cuffs,” he says. “Why on earth didn’t you tell me they were hurting you?” He throws the cuffs in the trash. He’s not hard anymore, by that time, but he sucks John off, more carefully than usual. Afterwards, he looks at the covers and says, “I’m not averse to administering pain if we agree on it beforehand, you understand. But I won’t be an accomplice to self-harm, John.” It’s not what John expected. He doesn’t try anything like that again.
Usually, Harold tells John what they’re going to do, and his commands get more peremptory and more creative as the weeks go on. One day he showers, dresses in one of his fancy three-piece suits, then talks John through jerking off with a vibrator in his ass. Then he eats his breakfast with his plate resting on John’s naked back (with a folded napkin underneath it so as not to burn him), occasionally feeding John a forkful of pancakes loaded with syrup and fruit, and telling him, in a conversational tone, how attractive he looks, how much Harold enjoys his body, how he wants to buy John a suit, how much easier it is to get up in the morning when he knows he’s going to get to see John. John just lies there, dazed and blissed out, and lets Harold’s voice roll over him. That morning, he procrastinates instead of going back to the command centre right away. He goes for a walk instead, lets the cold leach out some of the glow of well-being that’s suffusing him. He has the uncomfortable feeling that he’s lit up like a fucking Christmas tree.
The other marks John has fucked have either been embarrassingly grateful for his attention, or have got their rocks off on displaying him in public and humiliating him in private. Harold just seems to like finding ways to make John feel good. Neither John’s training nor his experience have prepared him for this. It’s unsettling.
“We could just bring him in for interrogation,” Kara says idly. John knows she’s watching him. He keeps his shoulders loose with effort, counts backwards in his head. “John, what’s your assessment?”
“Kind of a waste of a potential asset,” he says slowly.
“We all know you’re happier for having some dick in you,” she says. “But are you getting close to him? Really? Seems to me he sees you as a casual fuck.”
“Give me some time to step things up, okay? I don’t want to spook him. The guy has serious trust issues.”
Kara waves a hand. John knows she’s not really going to call off the operation just yet; it was a test, just like all the others, but that doesn’t make it any less real a threat. It’s a wake-up call to him. He’s been taking the scenic route, but he’s got to take some risks, find a way to get to Har- to Wren. Staring at the ceiling of the CIA-funded apartment (rented under his Warren alias) later that night, John forces himself to drag his feelings out into the open and examine them, like he should have done weeks ago.
Part of him is afraid he won’t find Harold’s weak point in time (John doesn’t believe he doesn’t have one - everyone has a weak point) and Kara will lose patience with the long game. He’s afraid that he won’t be able to stomach it, if she brings Harold in, or, worse, that he will, that he’ll think he can’t do it and then he will, like he always has before; that Harold won’t be any different from any of the others, after all. And yet, part of him is also afraid he will find Harold’s weak spot, and break him, like he’s supposed to. He feels a rush of embarrassment as soon as he allows that thought to surface, and he hears Kara’s cold laughter in his head. Are you afraid he’ll disappoint you, Reese?
John likes Harold. That’s permissible. It’s better if he does, in fact - more convincing. He doesn’t have to burn that out of himself, which is lucky, since he isn’t sure he could. And it’s fine that Harold likes - that Harold thinks he likes John. It’s the warm spark John gets when he thinks about Harold that John needs to extinguish; that’s the one thing that might fuck him over, stop him from doing his job. He doesn’t like you, he tells that small, hungry part of himself. He doesn’t even know you. He likes Warren, not you. He imagines Harold’s face when he finds out John has lied to him, has been whoring himself to steal his secrets. It’s a nauseating process, like cauterising an open wound. John feels dull and heavy afterwards. He drinks half a bottle of whiskey before he falls asleep on the couch at last.
When John comes out of the hotel shower the next morning, Harold is fully dressed, watching the news with the volume off. A patrol in Iraq blew up a house full of civilians, including kids. John isn’t ready for his worlds to collide in that way, and he flinches away from the TV footage, shot from a chopper.
“How could they do it?” Harold murmurs.
“They were following orders,” John says, harsher than he means to.
“When you were in the military, did you always follow orders?” Harold says, not looking away from the TV screen. John’s back goes rigid.
He says slowly, controlled, “How do you know I was in the military, Harold?”
Harold does look at him, then, his eyebrows raised. “Where else would you have acquired such a range and variety of scars? You could have been involved in some kind of ridiculous underground fighting ring, I suppose, but you don’t seem the type. You’ve seen several tours of active combat, I’d wager, and doing something quite dangerous.”
He’d never mentioned the scars. John had been waiting for it, had almost wondered if he hadn’t noticed them, although he knew that wasn’t really possible. Eventually, he’d worked out that it was some weird form of courtesy. It was… nice.
“Maybe I was in a car accident,” he hedges, partly to see what Harold will say.
“I’m hardly an expert, but some look years older than others, and I’m fairly sure that the one on your shoulder is a bullet wound,” Harold says gently. “Are you ashamed of having been in the military, John?”
“No,” John bites out.
“Well, then,” Harold says, as if the subject is closed, and he turns back to the TV. John wants to walk away from this conversation, but it’s the best opening he’s had so far. He also feels like he’s on firmer ground than he was the previous night. He needed this reminder that Harold isn’t just a civilian.
“You have to trust your orders,” John says slowly. “You have to trust that the intel is good and that the people giving the orders know something you don’t.”
“Mm,” Harold says. “And how often would you say your intelligence was accurate?”
“Not as often as I would have liked,” John gambles, his mind racing. What does Wren want to hear? What’s the best chance of steering the conversation towards the project with Ingram, the project for the government that has John’s bosses freaking out? “Plus, you always know there’s a cost, but you don’t know how much it’s going to be.”
“Innocent lives,” Harold says, turning back to the TV. Stock market numbers are scrolling across the bottom of the screen. “Yes, I’m aware of the algorithms the government uses to evaluate targets.”
“I thought you worked in insurance,” John says, not quite a question, as he buttons up his shirt slowly.
“I do,” Harold says. He looks at his watch. “I have to go.”
Never push the mark further than they are ready to go. John doesn’t push it.
At the door, Harold looks back at John. He looks as if he’s about to say something, but instead he half-smiles, a strange, almost wistful expression.
He says, “Sometimes the real world is an unpleasant interruption.”
John swallows. “So don’t go,” he says, on impulse. He feels like it doesn’t sound as lighthearted as he means it to. He gestures down at his half-buttoned shirt, and smiles. “I can take this off again.”
Harold hesitates, and for a moment John thinks he’s genuinely tempted. “I really do have to go,” he says softly. Then, after another pause, “Are you free tonight, by any chance?”
John’s adrenaline spikes. It’s the first time Harold has suggested they meet outside of their post-jogging breakfast-and-fucking dates.
“I have plans,” John says. He raises an eyebrow. Keep him interested. “You could make me a better offer.”
“Promising you a good dinner is the best I can do at such short notice,” Harold says, with only a hint of an eyeroll.
“Maybe I only eat breakfast food,” John says, not really trying to hold back his grin.
Harold definitely rolls his eyes this time. “I’ll get us a reservation at a 24-hour diner.”
As John writes up his report later that day, he can’t entirely hide from himself that his relief at the step forward isn’t all about the mission. It’s progress, but also buys him a little more time to - to pretend he’s John Warren. Just to be an okay guy for a little while. Someone close to himself, but not quite; someone Harold could like. He’s allowed to enjoy that. As long as he knows he’s doing it, it’s fine. He’s fine.
Harold takes him out for a nice dinner. A very nice dinner. John gets a haircut and wears a tie in a blue that brings out his eyes, and he’s rewarded with Harold’s sharp once-over and his open appreciation for the rest of the evening. His attention is like a warm beam focused on John, and although he’s far too jaded to blossom under it like a goddamn flower, the hell of it is, he wants to. It would be so easy just to let Harold make him feel good. But he does his job, and takes advantage of this new opportunity to win Harold’s confidence. He is charming, asks questions about the insurance business, smiles and listens to Harold’s answers, even tells him a little about his time in Afghanistan - a little truth mixed with a lot of fiction - but doesn’t try to move the conversation towards the question of military intelligence again yet. Slow and steady.
Harold listens quietly to John talk about his service, and asks the kinds of questions a courteous, interested, sensitive person would ask - is he still in touch with any of his fellow soldiers, would he ever consider re-enlisting, did he find it difficult to re-adjust to civilian life. It’s all bullshit. John decides to roll the dice.
“I get it, you’re a nice guy,” John says. “What do you really want to ask me?”
Harold raises an eyebrow, but he doesn’t deny it. He looks at John levelly for a few seconds before he says, “Do you enjoy killing?”
If he’d asked if John had ever killed anyone, John would have had to say yes, or lie; Harold doesn’t make him do either. Instead, it hangs between them, the fact that Harold knows what John is.
It’s oddly shocking, to have it out in the open like that, with a civilian. It’s not something John has ever talked about with - with anyone, really, who hadn’t been there when it happened, or given the order to do it. He finishes chewing his steak and swallows with difficulty. Then he takes a sip of wine, because his mouth is dry. Harold waits patiently.
“Not really,” John says at last.
“Do you consider citizens of other countries worth less than citizens of the United States of America?”
John wasn’t expecting that one. “No,” he says slowly. “But it wasn’t my job to protect them.”
“Hm,” Harold says. His gaze is piercing; John’s sweating under it the way he hasn’t under most interrogations. “Do you have post traumatic stress disorder?”
“What symptoms have you experienced?”
John takes another sip of wine. A gulp, if he’s honest. He’s lost his appetite. “Nightmares, mostly. I don’t sleep so well.”
He sees a gun in every bulging pocket and a bomb in every kid’s backpack. Every room is a map of sight lines seen through a rifle scope. But that’s not PTSD. It’s his job. “And sometimes I - miss it. Being back there.”
“The violence?” Harold asks gently. John shrugs, fighting the urge to hunch his shoulders, make himself small under his scrutiny.
“The rules,” he says.
“Hm,” says Harold. He sits back, and sits quietly while the waitress pours them more water. John feels slightly less like he’s being flayed. He stabs a piece of potato, puts it in his mouth and chews, but it’s an effort.
“I’ve made you uncomfortable,” Harold says, after a moment. “You’ve answered some very personal questions that I had no right to ask. Thank you.”
John shrugs. He’s still fighting the powerful urge to disappear - to excuse himself to the men’s room, go out through the kitchen, and just be gone. There are too many people around, people listening; probably Kara has someone watching them inside. When did the restaurant get so crowded? He takes a slow, measured sip of water, and rides it out.
“I feel I should offer to answer any questions you may have,” Harold continues. “Is there anything you would like to ask me?”
John is rattled, and for a terrible moment he can’t remember who he’s supposed to be. He’s choking on secrets, unable to think beyond What are you building for Ingram? and it’s too early to ask that, it’s all wrong. He shoves another lump of steak into his mouth to stall, and tries to come up with something Warren might ask, but Reese and Warren are all mixed together in his mind. What’s your sign? Have you ever been married? Does Ingram know your real name?
“When did you lose your virginity?” he blurts out.
Harold looks so appalled, John can’t help it - he laughs out loud.
“Are you serious?”
“It’s really important to me, Harold,” John says.
Harold opens and closes his mouth a few times, then says, “Twenty-four. I suppose you would say I was a late starter.”
John can’t keep the grin off his face as his shoulders loosen, all the tension exploded out of the conversation.
“I suppose I deserved that,” Harold says wryly. “Would you like dessert?”
“Depends,” John says. “Are we going back to your place?”
Harold’s told John he lives on the Upper West Side, which is not, in fact, where he lives - or at least, it’s not the place they have under surveillance.
“I’m having my kitchen remodelled,” Harold says. “I thought we’d stay at the Ritz. Unless you’d like to take me to your place.”
“Are you married?” John says.
“No,” Harold says, tilting his head to look at him. “You are the only person I’m seeing, romantically or sexually.”
“Okay,” says John easily. “Let’s go to my place.” He knows that’s the right thing to do - the textbook next step. Make the mark think they have your trust. Offer them intimacy. He still almost says they should go to the Ritz-Carlton. He doesn’t want Harold to see the CIA-owned furnished apartment, the neutral art and slick, colour-co-ordinated rooms that feel even more impersonal than a hotel. Warren’s only just come back into town, he reminds himself; it’s ok for him to be somewhere like that. It still feels like showing Harold too much about himself.
“I can see why you might have thought I was - compartmentalizing,” Harold says, as they put on their coats. “I realize that I’m not particularly forthcoming about the details of my life. There are reasons for that, but please don’t think they have anything to do with you.”
“You’re a very private person,” John agrees.
Harold gives him a hard look.
“What would you have done,” Harold says abruptly, in the cab, “if I’d said I was married?”
“I don’t know,” John says. It’s the truth.
After a moment, Harold puts his hand on John’s knee, a warm, forgiving weight. John fights the urge to touch him for a few minutes, then slides his palm over Harold’s and intertwines their fingers. Harold twitches, maybe with surprise, but John holds on and holds on, his heart pounding. When Harold strokes his thumb over John’s wrist, tentative and proprietary all at once, John closes his eyes against a flood of shivery happiness, and is glad that the car is dark enough to hide his face.
Harold is strangely passive, when they reach John’s apartment, and it’s so unlike him that John doesn’t know which way to jump. He offers him tea; he bought some of the fancy kind Harold likes this morning, and Harold smiles slightly when John brings it to him, but doesn’t say a word. John takes a beer out of the fridge, but doesn’t open it. He takes off his tie, and feels better without it around his throat.
Harold sips his tea quietly, looking out of the window at the skyline. The view is the only thing John likes about this apartment, and Harold went right to it. John goes to stand next to him.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” Harold says. “How many people can live in such a small space.”
“I didn’t used to like the city,” John says.
He used to hate the crowds, but now he knows better; crowds are the best place to hide. Sometimes, looking out of this window at night, he makes plan after plan to sink softly down into the cracks between those huge, glowing islands and disappear. He thinks about them now. Strengths, weaknesses, contingencies. It’s a mental routine he finds relaxing.
Harold sips his tea. The cold bottle of beer is numbing John’s fingers, so he puts it on the side table, unopened. They just stand there, and look out at the city together, but John doesn’t feel like he needs to be doing anything else just now.
“The implication being that you like it now?” Harold says at last, long after John has forgotten what they were talking about in the first place.
“I like you,” he says, as raw and honest as he knows how to be, and Harold puts his tea down and reaches for him.
They kiss for a long time. It’s not the first time John has ever kissed anyone who knows he’s a killer, but it feels new and strange, all the same.
After a little while, Harold takes him to bed - takes John to bed in his own apartment, which makes him smile - and they lie down together, and keep kissing, until John feels drunk from it. They don’t turn on the lights, and they don’t take off their clothes.
“I like you too, John,” Harold whispers, at some point, as John sucks at a place on his collarbone that he’s decided he wants to leave a mark on, so Harold will see it and think about him tomorrow. John wonders if, somehow, he is drunk, or Harold is, or they both are. This isn’t what’s supposed to happen. He feels light, unmoored. There are cameras and microphones in here, of course - John installed them himself today - but they won’t be getting much right now. He doesn’t care.
“It’s a little inconvenient, if I’m honest,” Harold murmurs, although John isn’t really listening. He’s undressing Harold at last, each shirt button revealing skin he hasn’t tasted. He’s never had to work his way through one of Harold’s full three-piece suits before, and it’s proving the kind of challenge he enjoys. “In fact I’m not really sure what - what to do about you, oh, for heaven’s sake, let me take this off -”
They have slow, dreamy sex. John burrows under the covers and sucks Harold’s dick in a warm, stifling cocoon until Harold tugs him up by his hair, saying, “Are you trying to suffocate yourself?”
John was kind of thinking that it might be a nice way to go, but he wouldn’t do that to Harold, so he goes docilely, and lets Harold climb on top of him and rub off against him, sometimes using John’s thigh, sometimes his hand. It’s slow, and a little clumsy, and when Harold comes, he drops his head onto John’s chest and makes a soft, broken noise that makes John ache. He comes a moment later, into Harold’s warm, slick palm.
And then Harold says, “May I stay?” and John says, “Sure,” and neither of them has anywhere else to be, so Harold plays with John’s nipples until John’s sweating and hard again, then blows him, slow, slow, bringing John to a shaking orgasm that takes forever. Harold doesn’t want John to try and get him hard for a second time, so John gets him to turn over and rubs his back, getting lost in Harold’s sighs of pleasure as he massages the knots out of the tight muscles in his neck and shoulders.
“You’ve missed your calling as a masseur,” Harold mumbles into the pillow, after he’s done. “Have you ever considered a change of career?”
“I’ll quit my job and come work for you,” John says. “I’ll be on-call 24-7.”
“That sounds ideal,” says Harold, and John closes his eyes as Harold runs his fingers through his hair. “John? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” John says, trying to make his voice sound normal. “Just thinking about what time I have to get up tomorrow.”
“I have to get up quite early too, I’m afraid,” Harold says, “I have a jogging date with a man I’ve been seeing. He’s very attractive, but he only eats breakfast food -”
John smiles, despite himself, but it feels awful on his face.
The next day, John sits on his couch after Harold has left for work, and thinks about what it means to burn out. He wonders if this is what it feels like. He thinks about his plans to disappear, and for a moment, he lets himself seriously consider it.
The thing is, John knows he’s the thin end of the wedge. The longer Harold is in danger from him, the longer Harold is safe from everyone worse.
He gets up, goes to work, and writes a report on everything Harold said and did.
After she’s read it, Kara comes and sits down next to him, too close. She’s trying to unsettle him, to remind him that she was there first and she’ll be there again. Just because he knows what she’s doing, doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.
“Tell me honestly, John,” she says. “Are you in over your head?”
“I don’t know,” John says. She’d never believe a flat denial. He lets some of what he’s feeling bleed through, only enough to make her think she’s getting something real.
“I believe you can do this,” she says. She looks him in the eye. “But you have to step up your game. Unless you convince me in the next twenty-four hours that you’re close to getting anything on this guy, we’re moving to the next stage. Do you understand me?”
“Sure,” John says. He shrugs.
The next day, Harold has a conversation with Ingram about him. They still haven’t managed to tap Harold’s phone, but they’ve tapped Ingram’s; they rarely speak on the phone, but today, Ingram has called Harold to ask him if he can meet him for dinner. “There’s something we need to discuss,” he says. They have another team on Ingram now, but John knows Ingram met with one of their Washington contacts yesterday. The project, whatever it is, is wrapping up.
“I can’t tonight,” Harold says stiffly. “I’m - meeting a friend.”
There’s a brief, disbelieving pause on the line.
“Are you seeing someone?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Harold says, sounding stung. Ingram bursts out laughing.
“You sly dog! Were you ever going to tell me? Well, come on, who is she?”
John can practically see Kara’s ears prick up. She raises her eyebrows at him.
“Her name’s Joan,” Harold says stiffly. “I met her jogging. She’s very nice.”
“Well - what does she do? What’s she like? When am I going to - oh, hell, Harold, I have to take this. Don’t think you’re going to get away from me, though - I want to know everything. Breakfast tomorrow? Or, ha ha, lunch? Bring her, if you like.”
Harold snorts. “If you think I’m letting you get anywhere near her -”
“I’m not going to steal her away from you,” Ingram says, voice bubbling with amusement. “Ok, I have to go. Have fun.”
John feels odd, like his ears are burning.
“Good news, Reese,” Kara says. “Your little romance just got another lease of life.”
“If he’s not out to Ingram,” Mark says, “Maybe -”
John tunes out the sketching out of approaches, the initial offer, the deal package.
“It’ll be up to you to put it out there, John,” Kara says. “We need more material, or this won’t work. Get him back to your place, or to his place. I don’t care how the fuck you do it. I want a nice, clear picture.”
Harold takes John for another nice dinner. After, he suggests they go back to his place.
“Your kitchen’s all done?” John says.
“I haven’t been entirely forthcoming with you,” Harold says. “I own a few places around New York. I thought I’d take you to another of my properties. I rent it, usually, but it’s between tenants at the moment.”
John raises an eyebrow. “You’re not doing much to convince me you’re not secretly married, Harold. In fact, I’m beginning to think you might be married to a few different people.” When you have the mark’s trust, make them work to retain yours. If you express suspicion about their intentions, they are less likely to doubt that yours are genuine.
“You’ll just have to trust me,” Harold says, a little primly, and it makes John smile, despite himself. Part of him is wondering how he’s going to work this. He’s hoping at least to hear the address Harold gives to the cab driver, but they don’t take a cab; a car is waiting for them at the door. They haven’t used a private driver like this before; it’s a limo, driver’s partition closed, blackened windows, leather seats, and a minibar. He’ll have to trust to the trackers in his clothes for the team to keep up with him, and then they’ll have to rely on external surveillance, unless he can get one of the little cameras he has in his bag into the room without Harold seeing. It’s a big risk.
When the driver takes the turn for the bridge, he gives up on the (very) faint hope that they were going to the place where they already have cameras installed, the first apartment they had identified as Harold’s back at the beginning of their surveillance, where Harold still spends almost every night sleeping and working. John’s been there, of course, but never by invitation.
They pull up outside a brownstone in Park Slope. John doesn’t know much about property values, but he figures it must be worth a couple of million at least. Harold walks them through two separate security systems, then unlaces each of his shoes, takes them off, and puts them on the shoe rack. There are several sets of shoes there - it looks like Harold comes here often. John wonders if this is where he keeps his fancy suits. There hadn’t been many in the little apartment, from the brief look John had in his closet.
“Wow,” he says, looking around at the wood panelling, the old mirror, the rich, wine-coloured carpet in the hall.
“Shoes, please,” Harold says. “Yes, it’s a little much, isn’t it? But my agent assures me that furnishing it like this raises the market price considerably, and the rent is already astronomical.”
John toes off his shoes obediently, then lets Harold take his coat.
“I think I’d like you naked,” Harold says. “Would you like a drink first?”
“I can drink naked,” John says, because the idea kind of appeals to him - besides, if he’s in the living room, there’s more chance he can control the sightlines so they’re visible from the street. He strips while Harold clinks glass around and turns on a few lights. He hears water running, and then Harold’s phone chimes.
The leather couch is a little cold on his bare skin, but John likes the way it looks. He feels a little outside of himself, like he’s on autopilot; it’s a relief, more than anything else, although he suspects it’s going to hurt, later, whenever it stops.
Harold’s jaw actually drops a little when he stops in the doorway, which is pretty flattering.
“Goodness,” he says. “What a picture you make.” He swallows. “That couch must be freezing. Would you like a blanket?”
“I’m okay,” John says, but Harold fusses and gets a blanket from the bedroom anyway, lays it on the couch under John and takes the opportunity to run his hands over his chest. It gets a little out of hand, and they make out for a little while, Harold touching him everywhere, until John is breathless and Harold is smiling. Then his phone chimes again, and Harold sighs and climbs off him.
“Forgive me if I go to answer the door; I’m expecting a package,” Harold says, and hands him a drink. John lifts a shoulder in agreement, and then sits down to better appreciate the whiskey, which, like everything Harold gives him, is a whole order above anything he’s ever tasted. It’s lucky he knows nothing about this is permanent, he thinks. He could get used to having nice things.
The door opens and shuts again. John feels cocooned, warm. He’s hard, a little, but it doesn’t matter. Harold will take care of him.
Harold comes back and sits beside him. He puts his hand on John’s thigh and rubs up and down, meditatively.
“Will you come to bed, John?” he says, and goes, without checking to see if John will follow. But John does follow, of course. He tweaks the curtain, first, to see if he can see anybody outside. He can’t, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Harold lays him down in the bed, and John undoes his tie for him, and unbuttons his shirt. Harold kisses his face, and lies down next to him, and touches his cock lazily, but doesn’t seem to be in any hurry. Then he says, “I just sent your shoes and clothes with a courier back to the Ritz-Carlton. The tracker was in the left heel, wasn’t it? I sent them both, just to be sure. I sent all of mine too, of course. Your colleagues have been caught in traffic across the bridge for a while now. I’m sure they’ll be very happy to see that we’ve completed our errand here and have gone back to the hotel.”
He strokes idle circles into John’s chest. John lies there, frozen.
“I had the house swept yesterday, and I just searched you rather thoroughly, so unless you have a subcutaneous tracker that I missed, we’re all alone here.”
John doesn’t answer, but feels naked in a way he never has before with Harold, self-conscious, totally known. His mind has gone into a tailspin, a full-on choke. He doesn’t know what to do.
“There are new shoes and clothes for you by the door,” Harold continues in that same gentle voice. “They should be in your size. There really is a room waiting at the hotel. If you want to leave, you’re free to leave.”
A horrible laugh tries to claw out of John’s throat at that, but his jaw is locked tight. Harold’s palm is still now, over his heart.
“I don’t know what they told you about my work,” Harold says. “It was probably true to the letter of the law but misleading in its essence. If you ask me, I’ll tell you as much as I feel is safe for you to know, and I will never lie to you. I have never lied to you, John. I just needed a little more time.”
John closes his eyes, the past few weeks flashing past him. The watch, the hotel rooms, the conversation with Ingram - Harold doesn’t make mistakes. He heard everything. Saw everything. John doesn’t know how he did it, but he did.
In that same terrible, gentle voice, Harold says, “Do you want to tell me how much the CIA know about me, John Reese?”
John forces himself to look at him. Harold is watching him, pale and unblinking. He looks sad. John doesn’t want him to be sad.
“Oh, John,” Harold says helplessly. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Forget I asked.” He reaches for him, and John curls into his arms to hide his face against Harold’s throat, and knows, with the inevitability of falling over a cliff, that he’s going to tell him everything, everything.
Two days later, the operation is packed up.
“Above your pay grade,” Kara says, when John asks. “We have another assignment.” John is left to wonder just how Harold did it, how far Ingram’s reach extends, but he can’t ask; he doesn’t think Kara knows, and if he makes her reveal that, she’ll find a way to punish him for it. So he thinks, and he wonders, and he waits. He’s relieved that their new assignment is off home soil, the other side of the world from New York. He doesn’t think he could have resisted going to Central Park just to see if he could catch a glimpse of Harold.
Three months later, Nathan Ingram is dead in an accident that isn’t an accident, and Harold is gone - the Wren alias reported dead in the same accident, the Sparrow alias moved to an IFT office in Anchorage and quietly removed from circulation. John looks for him and looks for him, as best he can with stolen passwords at a terminal in Beirut, and can’t find him. He doesn’t think Harold is dead. He knows Harold is very, very good at hiding. But it claws at him like panic regardless, a beast on his back that he can’t shake off.
He calls the number Harold gave him, once, when he’s drunk. It goes to a speaking clock.
“Call me back, Harold,” John says. “I’ll buy you breakfast.”
“At the third tone -” a woman’s voice says, and John hangs up.
Six months later, John is in China with Kara, in a courtyard full of dead software engineers, when he gets a text on a phone which is supposed to be locked to a closed channel.
Your partner has been told to kill you, it says.
The idea slots quietly into place with all the other weirdnesses about this mission, with all the little details making John uneasy, now adding up to a clear whole, and as if he’d planned it, he hand-signals to Kara that he’s going to check out the other side of the building, gets out of her sight, and then he puts down on the floor his earpiece, radio, phone and bag, drops all the weapons that could be traced back to him except for his handgun, and just - walks away.
It should be harder. But in his head, he’s already been gone for a long time. He’s three miles down the road before he hears the airstrike, and the dull whump behind him as the building goes up in an orange roar.
He walks for a long time. The office complex was more than fifty miles from the nearest city, and the road is long, straight, and empty, with flat fields on either side. He’s a very visible target, but on the other hand, the land and sky are empty around him for miles, and it’s a dark night, so he won’t make much of a silhouette. No worker buses at this time of night, moving between the huge factories; just the quiet sounds of the countryside. He hears the payphone before he sees it, just a landline on a stubby pole at the side of the road at an emergency roadside stop, ringing for a good fifteen minutes before he reaches it. With a sense of distance from his own body, he answers it. For a moment the line is silent except for the clicks and hums of a bad long-distance line.
“Hello?” he says, feeling stupid.
“John,” Harold’s voice says. “Oh, thank god. I realize it may be a shock to hear from me -”
John’s heart thumps into his throat. It’s painful, like coming back to life.
“I’m coming to get you,” Harold says. “Stay where you are. Are you injured?” He sounds clipped, distracted. John thinks he can hear typing.
“No,” John croaks. “Not - no.”
“Good,” Harold says. “That makes things easier. Hang on, John, it won’t be long.”
“You should have called me back,” John says.
“I had my reasons,” Harold says.
The second-to-last thing Harold had said to John was, I’m going to have to go away for a while. You realize that current circumstances make it impossible for us to see each other again.
Circumstances change, John had said, and Harold kissed him, hard, once, on the mouth. The last thing he said to John was, Take care of yourself, John. I’m very much afraid that no-one else will.
“I have to hang up now,” Harold says. “The car will come from the north. The driver doesn’t speak any English and he thinks you’ve been robbed.”
“All right,” John says.
“John,” Harold says abruptly, “You said once that you’d like to work for me. I wondered if you meant it.”
“I did,” John says, his mouth dry. “I do. Plus,” he adds, “I’m kind of out of a job.”
“We can discuss it when I see you,” Harold says. John can hear that he’s smiling, and he wants to smile too, but he can’t, yet. Adrenaline is thumping through him and his heart’s pounding. He hasn’t hoped for anything for a long time, and it’s hard, harder than anything he’s ever done. He sits on the ground next to the payphone, and waits to be saved.