"This is a bad idea," Harold hisses.
"That's the fifteenth time you've told me it's a bad idea, and you're wrong, this is a great idea," Nathan hisses back, readjusting his tie. It's ugly - Nathan has a fondness for ugly ties, but this one is ugly even by those standards.
The plane's touched down and they're taxiing to where — good lord — there's a red carpet that's been rolled out, so it's probably a little late to be having this conversation. Still, Harold's always been stubborn. "We could have signed all these contracts in New York. Coming out here—"
"Is a gesture of good faith and goodwill, Harold," Nathan continues, getting out of his seat and smiling at the stewardess gesturing them out the door. "Now, shut up and pretend we've been talking about IT issues, unless you want our COO hearing me take this kind of talk from my assistant.”
A band strikes up some “Hail to the Chief" type of pseudo-patriotic claptrap as they climb down the stairs; Nathan, because he's at heart a terrible person, grins and waves at the small crowd. Mostly it seems to be military people and a few official delegates from the former East Germany, but beyond the chain-link fence he can see a few people waving signs. Some in protest of the capitalist pigs, some with a large picture of Nathan's face with hearts drawn around it. He winces; ever since getting named 1990's Hottest Man In Business, this sort of thing has gotten more and more prevalent.
Harold is too far away to hear the glad-handing speeches Nathan and his counterparts are making in front of the cameras, for which he's grateful; Nathan practiced some of the remarks before they got on the plane, and his sense of humor is still awful. God only knows how it will translate into German. Instead he looks around, buttoning his coat against the chill. He's never been to West Germany — Germany, now, it's just Germany — but everything seems the same. One of the obscurely disappointing things about travel: you're always under the same sky, amongst the same sort of people.
Which drags Harold's gaze back to the neat, menacing line of soldiers standing at attention behind the delegates and businessmen; Nathan mentioned something about a "precaution," and Harold's got a sinking feeling that they're it. They all look like propaganda posters of themselves, square-jawed and glaring, except for one toward the end, gawky and a half-foot taller than his compatriots, looking back at Harold with undisguised curiosity. When he catches Harold's eye, he looks away, down at the ground.
The wind starts whipping up at that point, so they all hustle into various bullet-proof cars, Nathan smoothly arranging matters so that Harold accidentally gets his own limo and the rest of IFT's officers ride with Nathan. Harold settles back in the seat and opens his briefcase, hoping to get some work done between here and whatever monstrously lavish hotel Nathan's decided on.
But then the car door opens and one of the soldiers slides in, almost braining Harold with the butt of his gun. "Sorry, sir," the soldier says, breathless, "I thought you were in the other car — but you weren't — so I had to jump out and—"
"Who are you?" Harold says, but the soldier's familiar; the tall one who'd looked embarrassed.
And who still looks embarrassed. "Oh. Sorry, sir. Um. John Harris. Private Harris? I'm your um, assigned unit. Sir.” He sticks out a hand.
"Oh dear," Harold says.
Harold was right: it is a bad idea.
Private Harris follows him around like an eager puppy; while Nathan and the other IFT employees take photo ops at the collapsed wall and have long, droning meetings about infrastructure and contracts, Harold works in his room, hoping his uninteresting routine will mark him as too unimportant to guard. But Harris stays with him, curious and friendly, a strange counterpoint to the soldiers that guard Nathan, clearly bored.
“Is this a punishment?” Harold asks on the third day. They’re sitting in one of the humvees, waiting in traffic. Harold is squashed in the back between the window and Harris, who seems apologetic about his legs taking up as much space as they do.
Harris looks at him, wide-eyed. “What, sir?”
Harold ignores the “sir,” since two days of asking him to knock it off hasn’t produced any results. “Babysitting us. Did you and your friends do something wrong to get assigned to this?”
“Nossir,” Harris says, too fast for it to be the truth. He glances around the Humvee and lowers his voice. “Well. There was an incident with a goat. But you didn’t hear it from me.” He settles back a little further in the seat, his shoulder bumping Harold’s and his leg pressed up against his in a way Harold’s fairly confident the Army doesn’t usually allow its young recruits.
And that’s the reason this is a bad idea — because Private Harris is distracting. He’s all eagerness and blue eyes, large hands that touch Harold’s shoulder when he’s going in the wrong direction. Harold’s been friends with Nathan for almost fifteen years now; he’s accustomed to dealing with people who are good-looking and know it. But Harris doesn’t know it, or doesn’t seem to; his smiles are nervous, almost bashful, and he bites back twice as much as he says, Harold can tell.
All in all, it’s a good thing they’re only here for a week.
There’s a pleasant path around the hotel, down along the river, looping back around the other side; he runs every morning, and after the second day Harris does, too. It ought to be intolerable; in New York, Harold runs alone, his mind unrolling like Manhattan under his feet. But Harris is quiet, and after each run he’s got a wild flush up his cheeks and Harold’s not used to lying to himself — it’s hard to resent the loss of his solitude in the face of a reward like that.
Besides, he can still think; this morning his mind keeps wandering back to his mother’s old cookbook stand for some reason, but he’s had enough of these breakthroughs in the past to let it happen. He wonders if he’ll ever get tired of this; he knows Nathan is impatient and bemused with his role as the Great and Powerful Oz; thinks there are more sinister, frightening reasons for Harold’s insistence on staying behind the curtain. There are, but right now Nathan is posing for uncomfortable pictures with dignitaries from a half-dozen countries, discussing infrastructure and technological concerns that might be helped by a relationship with the most powerful and advanced tech company in the world. Harold wouldn’t trade places with him for any amount of money.
From behind him, Harris clears his throat. “So can I ask you a question, sir?”
Harold looks over his shoulder; Harris doesn’t look winded, so it’s probably not a request to slow down. “Yes, Private?”
“How smart are you, sir?”
It’s a surprising question, but Harold knows the answer. “Smart enough to work at IFT, which makes me fairly clever,” he says, reflexively dismissive; he turned off his need to flaunt himself years ago. The assistants and the technicians don’t have people asking questions about them, but in return they need to make sure no one’s ever tempted to ask questions in the first place. Drab and colorless, that’s been Harold’s camouflage, and not even Private John Harris’s potential admiration is going to tempt him.
“I don’t know, sir, you seem — pretty far past clever. I mean,” Harris waves a hand back toward the hotel, “You built an electric current converter yesterday with some tools and that lamp from the desk when you needed to set up that computer in your room. And then yesterday I thought you were going to get into a fistfight with that guy from Czechoslovakia about Descartes.” He shrugs. “You just — I dunno.”
“What?” Harold prompts, because he’s seen Harris hold back too much, and he wonders where that’s been learned: if the Army made him bounce all his thoughts in his head, or if it was a childhood defense, learned in a family that didn’t understand him and didn’t care to.
“I just think you could be — doing whatever you wanted,” Harris stammers out. “Instead of stuck here.”
“I could say the same for you,” Harold says, which is probably too honest.
“I like it here,” Harris says. Something about that is a bit too honest, too.
“Sir? Sir. Um, sir?” There’s a warm hand on his shoulder, thumb trailing down his neck, and Harold wants to arch into it, even in his sleep. But instead he blinks, tries to focus, and sees John, holding out his glasses to him like some kind of peace offering.
“What—“ Harold takes the glasses and tries to put things together. He’s in his hotel room, morning sun shining through the windows, but instead of his alarm clock it’s John, waking him up. “Is something wrong?”
John shakes his head, looking stricken. “Nossir. Uh, Mr. Ingram asked if you could meet him early in the conference room and he said you usually unplug your hotel phone and I had a key so—“ he fumbles in his pocket for the key. “Sorry, sir.”
“It’s all right,” Harold says, and moves to get out of bed. The clock says 5:30; Harold weighs the chances that Nathan just stayed up all night drinking, or, more likely, having sex with one of the more impressionable delegates. He’s going to have to talk to him about that; they’re in their 30s now, and Nathan Ingram, Wild Child Genius persona is starting to make investors nervous.
Private Harris stumbles back from the bed as Harold tries to get up. “I’ll, um.” He hooks a thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll be outside, unless you — I’ll be outside,” he repeats, and is gone so quickly Harold half-expects a soldier-shaped cloud of dust to hang in the air after him.
Nathan’s got one of IFT’s new computers set up in the conference room, bent over it and frowning. “Harold,” he says, waving him in.
Harris (who’s still not making eye contact this morning) makes to follow him, but Harold says, “I hardly think I’m at risk from my own boss. Why don’t you — get yourself some coffee, or something.”
“My guys are playing poker in the hotel bar,” Nathan offers.
“But, sir—“ Harris looks torn. “I mean, if you think—“
“It’ll be fine,” Harold says, not sure at what point he became the one who needed assurance. This was turning into a very strange trip.
“Yessir,” Harris says, and heads off. Harold shuts the door behind him.
“So how’d it go?” Nathan asks, sitting down at the head of the long table. Harold takes the seat next to him, surreptitiously checking to see that everything’s been connected properly. “It’s fine, Harold, you’re worse than my mother when she’s cooking Easter dinner. How’d it go?”
“How did what go?” Harold asks, still checking, but Nathan’s right; everything looks in order.
Nathan nudges him in the arm. “With your admirer back there. I figured maybe he needed a little prompting — did he finally—“ and Nathan makes a gesture that’s baffling but offensive.
“Private Harris?” Harold says, trying not to squeak. “I don’t — why you would think—“
“Because you’ve been looking about ten times happier than I’ve seen you since Carter lost,” Nathan says. “And because he’s got a crush on you.”
Harold hates that he blushes at that, but he says, “No, he’s got a job to do. And so do we.”
“All work and no play,” Nathan warns, but leans forward and pulls up the program they want to show to the delegation.
But before Nathan can do something terrible and predictable like lock Harold into his room with Private Harris (he still has flashbacks of having to help poor Brad Kemblowski, who was very nice and very handsome very not interested in him, escape from Harold’s third-floor dorm room where Nathan had glued Harold’s door shut and yelled, “Condoms are under your mattress, just be a man, Harold!”), someone tries to kill him.
They’re en route to another meeting, one that Harold’s going to for reasons passing understanding; Harris is still by Harold’s side, picking at his nails, and Harold wants to reach over and still his twitching. Instead he stares out the window, but he still doesn’t see the truck until it ploughs into the side of the Humvee.
The next few minutes are a haze; he’s dragged from the truck by rough hands speaking a language he doesn’t know, and his feeble struggles are met with a truly head-ringing blow to the jaw. There are gunshots and someone shouting — it’s English, but Harold somehow still can’t understand it. Someone heaves him to his feet and he realizes there’s a gun to his head; across the street, Nathan and the rest of the soldiers are huddled behind the downed Humvee, guns aimed at whoever it is that’s got hold of him.
“Don’t shoot!” Nathan says, because he’s an idiot. He starts coming out from behind the Humvee, only to get shoved forcibly back by a half-dozen soldiers. Harold’s distantly glad; it’s good to know that Nathan would’ve done that for him. Harold shuts his eyes and—
And there are a half-dozen shots, too fast to be from one gun, and the grip on Harold’s collar loosens, a shot discharging far too close too his face but not hitting him at all. Harold opens his eyes and he’s the only one standing; three are bodies around him, some groaning and some still. He looks back at the Humvee, but the soldiers are all looking just as baffled as him. Except for one.
John’s got a blank expression, one Harold’s never seen before, and he’s standing next to the Humvee, not even pretending to seek cover, holding — good Lord — a gun in each hand, like some kind of Old West gunslinger. But he’s holstering them both clumsily now and running to Harold, pulling him back to the relative safety of the Humvee as the sound of choppers and sirens draw closer.
“Are you okay?” John says, patting frantically at Harold’s shoulders, his sides. “Please, sir, talk to me, did you get—“
“I’m fine, but you are a lunatic!” Harold says, finally getting his bearings. “What were you thinking? There were—“ he looks back, counts under his breath— “Eight armed men. Armed! With guns! What were you going to do if you’d missed?”
“I don’t know, sir,” John says, mouth twitching. “I never have.”
“Don’t give me that jingoistic all-American nonsense! You—“ Harold grabbed him by the shoulders. “You could’ve been killed. Don’t ever do that again.”
“I’m… in the Army,” John says, like he’s talking to a crazy person. “That’s kind of what we do, sir.”
“You’re not cannon fodder, John,” he snaps. “You’re an immensely promising young man, and if you’d died trying to save me, I — you can’t do that again, ever, do you understand?”
But John’s not listening; he’s smiling broadly now. “So you do know my name,” he murmurs, but there’s fresh gunfire coming from the other side of the street — apparently John mostly aimed for kneecaps rather than center-mass, which Harold thinks is vaguely wrong for an Army private — and John shoves Harold down on the ground next to where Nathan’s sitting.
“Look, I know I told you to make a move,” Nathan yells over the sound of shooting and shouting, “But I’m not sure right now was your best moment to pick.”
In the end, they’re only there an extra five days, giving statements and Nathan holding press conferences. The gunmen had been Russian, but hired by a rival company in the US, hoping to make Nathan’s death look like a regrettable punctuation to the end of the Cold War. It all felt very disappointing, in some way; Harold doesn’t dream of dying for his country, but he certainly has no intention of dying for his company, half-ownership or not.
The Army responds to the attack by replacing their guard with a dozen mercenaries, dressed all in black with sunglasses and obnoxious chewing gum; the soldiers who guarded them disappear back into the local base, and Harold doesn’t get a chance to so much as thank John. He tries to put it out of his mind (John’s eyes gone dark, the way his hand curled around Harold’s elbow, as though keeping him close like some precious thing) and work on the projects they’ve secured, ignoring Nathan’s pointed questions. He’s had years of practice.
It’s their last night; the IFT plane will take off tomorrow around noon, but Harold’s already packed, suitcase on the dresser. He’s flipping through the last notepad he filled up before the attack, equations and ideas for code crowded around half-finished thoughts, when there’s a knock on the door.
Harold opens it to his guard, named Moe, glaring at him, but Harold doesn’t pay attention because behind Moe is John, in jeans and a t-shirt, looking sick. “This kid says he knows you?” Moe grunts.
“Yes, thank you,” Harold says. Moe glares some more, and Harold realizes abruptly what this looks like, but he can’t bring himself to care. Instead he shuts the door in Moe’s face the moment John slips in.
“Um,” John says, hands stuffed in his pockets. “They gave us a couple days’ leave. On account of, you know,” he makes some movement with his shoulders. “Anyway they said you were taking off tomorrow so I just wanted to say, um, bye.” He sticks his hand out. “Good luck back in the States, sir. Make sure those guys don’t try to crash into your car anymore.”
Harold shakes his hand. “Yes, well. If you ever get shore leave or whatever it’s called in New York, look me up. There’s a rather nice—“
“Did you mean what you said?” John asks, all in a rush. He’s still got a grip on Harold’s hand. “When we were, you know. After I, um.”
“Shot everyone?” Harold finishes for him. He pulls his hand out of John’s grasp. “I… did, yes. I hope you don’t take it the wrong way, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.” He wants to reach out again, take John by the shoulders again, but instead he smiles, stiff. “I’m very grateful to you, Private. Thank you. It was nice of you to say goodbye.”
But John’s not leaving. “You called me John, before,” he says, and steps a little closer. “Did you mean that, too?”
And perhaps it’s because he’s had guns waved in his face and because he’s on the other side of the world, or perhaps it’s because he’s tired of ignoring things that are in front of him. Or perhaps it’s because John is afraid, more afraid than he’d been in the middle of a firefight, and Harold only ever wants to be the cure for that look, ever again. He reaches up, carefully, and puts his hand on John’s shoulder, pulls him in.
John kisses without restraint, eyes closed and mouth soft, worshipful. "Please," he mumbles, “Please, please,” but his body is more insistent; Harold's backed up against the bed, precariously, grabbing onto John's shoulders when he feels himself about to fall.
"I — we should—" he starts, and John pulls away for a moment to grin down at him. Harold rolls his eyes. "I'm only suggesting it because I'm getting a crick in my neck," he says.
"Can't have that, can we sir?" John says, and pushes him flat on his back, climbing after him on his hands and knees. Harold props himself up on his elbows, trying to keep hold of his bad temper, but it's very hard when John's hovering over him, all eagerness.
"Did you just call me 'sir'?"
"Nossir," John says, still grinning. He sits back and strips out of his T-shirt, twists around to toss them on the floor.
"Yes you did," Harold argues, but he's distracted — John is tanned, lean, breathtaking even with small movements, but when he looks back at Harold his smile is shy.
"Do you want me to stop?" John asks, his hands plucking at his jeans, but Harold tugs him back down, feels him relax by degrees as Harold smooths his hands over his back, his shoulders, fingers sliding under his waistband. "God, Harold," he says, squeezing his eyes shut and rocking down, and Harold can feel his erection, hard and hot against his leg.
"I've got you," Harold promises and presses him down onto the sheets, laying beside him. John is pliant, one hand in Harold's hair, stroking his thumb down behind his ear, but Harold undoes his pants and slides his hand inside and John sucks in a ragged breath, tensing all over again. He's thick and warm in Harold's hand, wet already, and Harold strokes him slowly, watches as John arches underneath him.
"I — I'm going — oh—" and John comes, just from that, jerking under Harold as come spatters his stomach and chest. "Holy shit," he breathes, and looks up at Harold, eyes wide and very blue. "That was—" He seems to give up on words; his hand in Harold's hair tugs him down and he bites at Harold's lower lip, licks into his mouth. "Thank you, sir," he whispers into Harold's ear, and laughs when Harold hunts around for a pillow to hit him with, covering his face. "Sorry sir!"
"You're absolutely incorrigible," Harold says, preparing to hit him, but John grabs the pillow out of his hand and shoves him down, kissing his neck and fumbling at his tie, pulling it loose.
"You like it," John says, and unbuttons his shirt. "Do you have stuff?"
"Stuff?" Harold repeats stupidly, because John's teeth are sharp at his collarbone, warm tongue soothing the sting.
"Condoms," John clarifies, and it's enjoyable, watching the flush spread down his neck. "And other stuff."
"I didn't exactly visit Europe with this in mind," Harold admits, and John heaves a disappointed sigh and clambers off him. "Wait—"
"This is a pretty fancy hotel," John says over his shoulder, one hand holding up his jeans, "I'm sure there's something."
"Do I want to ask how you've gained such intimate knowledge of what sexual supplies fancy hotels reliably have stocked?" Harold asks, sitting up and pulling off his shirt. He can hear sounds of rummaging, drawers being opened in the bathroom, John's cry of triumph. Harold's about to make a remark about that when John comes back out of the bathroom, naked this time, and words die in his throat.
John pauses, his eyebrows furrowed. “What?”
"You're naked," Harold points out.
The smile comes slow and sweet across John's face, and he drops whatever it is he found in the bathroom on the bed next to Harold. "And you're not," he says, unbuckling Harold's belt and urging Harold to lift his hips, yanking his pants off with what Harold can only think of as military precision.
“John,” Harold starts, but doesn’t know what to say after that, and instead reaches for John, who’s all warm smiles and laughter, and it takes Harold a long time to realize that he’s happy, they both are, tangled in the sheets and skimming curious hands along each other’s skin. John fumbles for the lube he’d abandoned and hands it to Harold, biting his lip and Harold urges him up, straddling Harold’s hips; it’s a terrible angle but there’s something in Harold that wants to revere, and John is so very beautiful, pressing down onto Harold’s fingers and head thrown back, as though in the midst of his own rapture.
“I’m — I’m ready, c’mon,” John says at last, and Harold finds the condom, rolls it on and clutches at John’s hips as John sinks down onto him, groaning. “Oh, fuck,” John breathes, shifting his hips. “Fuck, fuck, I can’t —“ He leans down, hands in Harold’s hair, kissing him as he rolls his hips, his cock sliding along Harold’s stomach. Harold spreads his hands across John’s back, tracing his fingers down the curve of his spine, down his lower back. John inhales sharply; Harold notices.
Carefully, he lifts his hand and delivers a slap against John’s left cheek; the sound he gets from John is hugely rewarding.
“Holy shit,” John whimpers, burying his face in Harold’s shoulder, shuddering. For a moment Harold thinks he might have come again already, but after a moment John starts breathing again, and when he moves Harold can still feel him, hard and hot. “Harold, I can’t — can you—“
And somehow they manage to rearrange themselves, John sprawled flat on his back, boneless but still clearly desperate; Harold lifts John’s knees, pressing them to his chest, then slides back in. John keens, spreads himself wider, and Harold has a moment of envy for the flexibility of youth. But he’s pressed inside John all they way now, and John’s gasping, heaving for air as Harold thrusts into him hard. “Come for me, John,” Harold says, and curls his hand around John’s cock.
John comes, clenching down around him, perfect, and Harold closes his eyes and comes too, hollowed out and panting against John’s chest. He doesn’t want to move, but the position can’t possibly be comfortable for John, so he carefully pulls out, disposing of the condom and finding a washcloth in the bathroom. It’s been destroyed fairly effectively; apparently John was pretty serious about finding the lube and condoms.
“I’ll be charging you for any damages,” he says, coming out with a warm washcloth, but John’s half-asleep, sprawled out where Harold left him, and Harold’s not sure what the etiquette is here, but before he can make himself comfortable on the couch John cracks an eye open.
“Take it out in trade, sir,” he says, and holds a hand out to Harold. “C’mere.”
And Harold does.
He never does convince John to stop calling him “sir” in bed, though.