“You can’t get to Paris from Lassiter!”
For some reason, Stewart’s words keep echoing in Harold’s ears, as he paces the empty library.
It’s strange; he hasn’t thought about Stewart in years. The night they phoned Paris was the last they’d spent together in a long time; Harold’s studies had taken up much of his time, his father the rest. He’d still managed to snatch a few short moments, but only rarely more than half an hour here or there.
And then, of course, the FBI came after him. They’d gone for his father first, which only made sense - that was the one connection he’d always kept up, and they very nearly caught him there. He really should have kept going, sliding out of his old self and into his new, carefully crafted identity, the second he walked out of the door of the Pines.
Instead, he went to see Stewart.
The trailer wasn’t of the dingy, broken-down sort; Stewart had always kept himself and his room reasonably neat and tidy, his scruffy teenager façade being just that - a way to keep under the radar of both teachers and bullies. The first time Harold had been invited into Stewart’s room, years ago now, when they were both in high school, he’d been stunned and in awe - the first by all the beauty on the walls, and the second by his abrupt realisation of the boy’s amazing skills at hiding in plain sight. Harold hadn’t had as much sense back then; he’d allowed his brilliance to shine. He’d allowed himself to be noticed.
Stewart, though, hadn’t. It was true that he wasn’t brilliant - not even by an ordinary scale, much less compared to Harold. But he had an eye for beauty; the walls of his boy room were covered in colours; posters and pictures, pieces of fabric, wallpaper samples feathers, pressed flowers… It could have been garish, but the skilful placement, the play between colours and contrasts, made the whole visual cacophony oddly restful.
“Come on, let me show you something?” Stewart sat on the bed, patting the space next to him, inviting Harold to sit. He did, leaning back against the wall. They sat silently for a few minutes, Harold’s eyes travelling randomly from object to object. Rose to poppy to cardinal feather to kingfisher to purple mist to blue sky to autumn forest to spring flowers to the next picture, and the next feather, and the next colour and the next object…
And then he saw it. His eyes hadn’t been travelling randomly at all, they’d followed a path laid out for them. There were the pictures, and the colours, and they made up a bigger picture, which in turn was part of a greater one still, which could be broken into smaller ones, which could again be joined up…
Harold gave a small sigh of pure pleasure.
“You see it, don’t you?” Stewarts voice was hushed, as if in awe, or maybe in fear of Harold’s reaction.
“Yes. It’s beautiful. It’s… It’s awesome. Beautiful doesn’t begin to cover it.”
“I knew you’d see it. You do see things that most people don’t.”
“So do you… and I didn’t know. I would never have guessed… What I see, it’s maths, it’s code. I’m not good at seeing people. Or beauty.”
“I am,” Stewart said, in a low tone. “I see you. I’ve always seen you.” Harold turned towards him, startled, and found his gaze caught and held in those startling blue eyes. Slowly, very slowly, Stewart leaned in towards him. The kiss was soft and sweet and the most unexpected and natural thing in the world. Harold felt he could have stayed there, in that lovely room full of patterns that the rest of the world couldn’t see, kissing those lovely lips and drowning in those stunning eyes, for the rest of his life.
It was less than half an hour, though before Stewart’s mother called them down for dinner. Stewart had walked him home. They hadn’t held hands, hadn’t kissed goodbye, or even hugged; Stewart had slugged him on the shoulder the same way he’d always done, and turned away. That was how it was, how it had to be; back in 1979, in Lassiter, Iowa, boys didn’t date one another. They didn’t hug, they certainly didn’t kiss, and they were not dating. They hung out with Mike, way they’d always done. And sometimes… sometimes they’d end up in Stewart’s room, kissing, surrounded by beauty. As Harold’s father’s dementia had taken him further and further away, he’d had less and less time for his friends. He hadn’t seen Stewart for months. He hadn’t planned on doing a fade-away, but now that he had the FBI on his trail, the prudent thing to do would be to take advantage of it.
Harold was not in a prudent mood.
Harold was sure he’d not been followed. He’d taken the small track through the woods; it was highly unlikely that the federal agents would know it existed, even if they did figure out where he was headed. Whatever emotion caused his hand to tremble slightly as he knocked on the trailer door, fear of the FBI wasn’t it.
A sleepy Stewart opened the door, his eyes widening when he saw who stood on his doorstep.
“Can I come in? Please?”
“Sure, come on in, be my guest. You haven’t been here since I moved in, you know, you should see it, it’s really nice, it’s…” His voice trailed off.
It was more than nice; it was Stewart’s room in his parents’ house taken up yet another notch. It was glorious. It tore at Harold’s heart, knowing that this would be the only time he would ever see it. He found himself unable to speak, unable to hurry forward; he stood awestruck and dumb as before a god, or a sunrise.
Stewart shut the door behind them; moved, tentatively, to put his hand on Harold’s shoulder. Harold turned to him, surprising himself by grabbing Stewart in a tight embrace.
“I… I made a mistake. I have to leave now. I just wanted to… To see you, just this once… I couldn’t go, not without…” His voice caught, broken; the words he hadn’t wanted to say crowding and blocking one another.
“Shhh. It’s OK. C’m’ere.” Stewart guided them both to the couch, gently pushing him down, sitting down beside him, holding him close.
“Tell me. What happened? Is it something to do with that computer thing you were messing with?”
“The network. Yes. I… I broke things. Important things. I didn’t mean to, but… And now they’re after me. I have to leave, I have to go, right now! If they figure out where I went, they might come for you to. I shouldn’t have… but I couldn’t not…”
Harold drew a deep breath, trying to steady himself.
“I need to leave; I just wanted to say goodbye to you first. You might get a visit from some people from the FBI. I… I won’t ask you to lie for me; this isn’t like it was when we were in high school - lying to these people can get you in real trouble and I really don’t want that to happen to you. That’s why I won’t tell you where I’m going. If you don’t know, you won’t be lying to them.”
Stewart’s blue eyes, startling under those dark curls of his, looked steadily at him.
“And how are you planning to get out? Without leaving tracks for the feds to follow? I’m guessing you’ve already ditched your car. And they’ll be watching the bus station. Probably the roads too, it’s not like there are that many to choose from.”
“I… I’m not sure. I didn’t expect this, not this soon.”
Stewart thought for a few moments.
“I’ve got a delivery to Illinois. The cab is big enough for you to hide you until we’re a ways away from here. We need to be at the depot in a couple of hours; you ride there in the trunk, then I’ll distract the dispatcher while you get in the back of the cab. I’ll bring a couple of bags - you stack them and pull the covers over you, so even if someone looks in, they won’t see you unless they actually climb in to search, which there’s no reason for anyone to do. You ride with me to Peoria, or I can drop you some place along the road, anywhere you chose.“
Harold looked at him, stunned. He hadn’t had any idea of what to expect when he coming here, but Stewart’s calm acceptance and immediate focus on what he could do to help was certainly not it.
“That’s settled, then. Are you hungry? Have you eaten anything at all today?”
“Yes. I mean, no, I haven’t. I haven’t really had…”
“I gotta get something anyway. The ride is about four, five hours, I usually don’t stop on the way. Just give me a few minutes, I’ll fix us something.”
The next few hours passed in a daze for Harold. They ate, mostly in silence. Stewart made the trunk as comfortable as possible for Harold. At the depot, he stood chatting with the dispatcher while Harold snuck into the cab, carefully stacking bags, blankets and boxes around himself. Stewart got in, threw his coat back to cover the last opening, and drove off. Once they were on the highway, and the engine settled down to a steady drone, Harold finally felt the adrenaline recede, leaving him bone tired.
The next thing he noticed was the sound and vibrations of the engine changing. He tried not to move, but apparently he made enough noise that Stewart noticed his being awake.
“We’re in Peoria now; this is where I drop the trailer off. There’s some staff around, they don’t have any reason to look in the cab, but it’s probably best if you stay still. We can talk once we’re out of here.”
Harold lay back on the narrow bunk, trying to bring his thoughts into some sort of order. While the few hours of sleep had taken the edge of his exhaustion, it had done nothing for his confusion or worry. And he still needed to decide where to go from here, and how to get there. He tried to calmly and methodically sort through his options, but focus kept eluding him. So did relaxation; the cab jolted at irregular intervals as the crew outside unhitched the trailer. He could hear Stewart joking and bantering with the other men before, finally, getting back into the cab and pulling out.
Once they were a ways from the depot, he pulled over and twisted back to look at Harold.
“So, that’s the drop made. Now, what I usually do is I check into a motel somewhere around here for the night. Tomorrow I’m picking up another trailer and heading back to Iowa.”
“You could get out here if you wanted. It’s not that far from the bus station. Or…” He looked at Harold, his eyes steady, mild. A look like that could not be called challenging. Or could it?
“Or?” Harold met Stewart’s eyes with a steady gaze of his own.
“Or… There’s a motel I’ve used sometimes; it’s got a lot of privacy. You could stay the night, catch a bus in the morning. To wherever it is you’re going.”
He’d been wrong; it wasn’t a challenge. It was an invitation.
“I could do that. I’d be less conspicuous getting on a Greyhound in the morning than late at night, anyway.” He could feel the heat under his skin rising even as his lips curled in a half smile, and Stewart turned back to drive them both away, to a place he’d never planned to go.
Harold finally relaxed. The motel did have a lot of privacy; nobody had seen the two of them walk together from the truck. And if they had, it wouldn’t have mattered; Harold with his plaid jacket, duffel bag and untidy hair looked like any hitch hiker staying the night with the trucker who’d picked him up. Neither uncommon nor memorable, Steward said, with a slightly self-conscious look.
The food from the diner had been decent, and Stewart had brought a few beers, too. They’d had a nice companionable dinner, talking inconsequentially of things that mattered to neither of them - movies, books, weather. Stewart had told stories and anecdotes from his months of trucking; he claimed that all of them were true, they had happened to him, each and every one of them, which would have made him a very busy trucker indeed, Harold said.
They were well into their second beers when the talk ran out. Harold looked up to once again find Stewart’s steady gaze fixed on him. Unable to pull his eyes away, despite the blush he felt rising up from his collar, he groped frantically for something to say. Stewart saved him the trouble.
The kiss was soft, gentle; an invitation, not a demand. Harold leaned into it, closing his eyes, inhaling the scent that was so uniquely Stewart - his soap, his hair, his skin… His hands rose to pull Stewart closer, to feel his heart hammering as fast as Harold’s own, the pulse in his throat leaping as Harold’s hands cupped his neck. He felt Stewart’s hands sliding under his sweater, under his shirt, the light touch sparking tiny shivers along his skin as they stroked his back from waist to shoulder, along the spine, as if each inch was a precious discovery.
Harold rose, pulling Stewart with him. He couldn’t say who led and who followed; they were on the bed, dragging their sweaters and shirts off, pushing back together, pressing their chests, their whole bodies as close as possible, never stopping kissing. Harold stroked Stewart’s back, feeling him arch into the touch, while he bent his head to gently nip an earlobe, kiss the proffered neck, slide his hands around to tease nipples. A dazed corner of his mind remembered prom night, with Susan - they’d made out, it was the expected thing, and she was nice, her breasts firm and small, and she had liked it when he touched them. He’d enjoyed it, he certainly wouldn’t have minded going further, but she pulled back and said she needed to get home, and he had let her go, his relief only slightly tinged with disappointment. Now, with Stewart, though… he felt that if he was asked to stop now, his urgent desire would burst straight from his chest.
Or perhaps not from his chest; the jeans were increasingly uncomfortable, and he could feel Stewart’s hard-on press against him through the double layer of denim. He moved his hand down along Stewart’s back, sliding a finger inside his waistband, and drew his head back a little to look at Stewart with his eyebrows raised.
Stewart looked back, his mouth a twisted line of desire and despair. “I know… I know this is just the one night. You have to leave, I know that… But this night, if it’s all we’ve got, let’s at least have it. OK?”
“Yes. Yes, let’s…”
Whatever else Harold had intended to say was lost in another deep and passionate kiss. He lost himself in the sensation of Stewart’s fingers unbuckling his belt, then undoing the button, the zipper being pulled down and fingers stroking the length of his erection through his briefs. He reached down, shoved his own jeans and underwear away, searched with trembling fingers for Stewart’s belt buckle. A few seconds later, the final layers were gone; he put his leg over Stewart’s hip, pulling him close, grinding against him. Stewart slid his hand down between them, gripping them both, stroking; Harold moaned, thrusting into the grip, pressing his mouth against Stewart’s throat to muffle his cry as he came, clutching on to his as if nothing else was real in this world. He felt Stewart buck against him a few more times, then gasp and shudder in his own orgasm.
When he was able to breathe again, he could feel Stewart smiling against his shoulder. He couldn’t help giggling a little himself; all this urgency, this longing, this waiting, for all of ten or twenty seconds?
“I’d actually planned something a bit more… Well, a bit more,” Stewart said, managing to combine smugness with a slightly rueful air.
Harold half rose on his elbow.“You planned this? When did you plan this?”
“In the truck. While you were sleeping. And it was more like hoping, not planning. And also…”
“Yes?” Harold asked, his fingers lazily drawing figures on Stewart’s back.
“Well. Not exactly planning, but I had been thinking. Imagining. For a long time now.”
Harold kissed him gently.
“Me too. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
“Yes. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have… It would have felt like I was taking advantage, like I was trading my help. ”
“I know”, Harold said, kissing him again, before getting up to look for something to clean them both off with.
The rest of the night did indeed turn out to be "more". The next morning, Harold had caught a Greyhound bus, criss-crossing the country until he deemed it safe to slip into the identity he’d prepared for himself. He took up an MIT scholarship; he met Nathan, he followed the road that would eventually lead him to the Machine, to the library. To John.
Leaving his father and Stewart had been the first real heartbreak he’d experienced. The second one, losing Nathan and leaving Grace, had hurt still more. He supposed it was only fair that the third and worst pain came when he was the one being left.
At least he’d known that Stewart and Grace were safe, and that his father was well taken care of. Stewart had stayed with his trucking company. He’d even gotten to Pris, to a conference on transport regulations, for his job. Harold hadn’t even needed to pull any strings as a major shareholder to get him there; his promotions were entirely due to his own talents.
John, though… he knew far too much about staying off the grid. He’d go where not even Harold’s money or the Machine’s information would find him. Harold knows he’ll spend the rest of his life wondering if he’s hurt, if he’s dead, if he’s in pain…
The sound of his phone startles him out of the black spiral. It’s got to be Carter or Fusco; who else would call him on this number?
“Finch.” The cool, irritated voice falls like ice water on his aching despair.
“Mr Reese! Where are you? And why are you calling over VOIP?”