"Something doesn't taste quite right about this duck." Harold pushes the half-empty takeout container away.
John looks up, surprised. It's unlike Harold to criticize something so directly. Usually, if what John picks up for them to eat isn't up to Harold's standards, he puts it aside so subtly that John doesn't notice until hours later, when they've chased down all the leads that can be chased inside the library and all that's left is to clean up and catch a few hours of sleep while they can.
"What's wrong with it?" John asks.
"It's no -" Harold starts, then purses his lips. "Is it from our usual place?"
"They were closed for remodeling. I got this down the street. Would you like me to go back and ask them to remake it for you?"
Harold purses his lips again, and then says, "Yes, I would like that very much." John had expected him to refuse.
It's starting to drizzle outside, but John barely notices, suffused in the warm glow of being allowed to do something for Harold beyond the strict requirements of a number. Still, it takes John three trips around the block to accept that somehow, the tiny walk-in takeout joint he'd picked up their meals from just isn't there.
He comes back still holding the half-eaten carton of duck, for lack of anything better to do with it, and sets it on the counter apart from the rest of their meal. Harold is back at his computer, but he tracks John's movements with a sharp eye as he takes off his coat and hangs it on the hook. "No luck?"
"No." John wants Harold's eyes on him like that forever, wants to keep taking off layers until Harold has looked his fill, but - they aren't like that. Harold had made that clear. "Feeling better?" he asks instead.
Harold raises an eyebrow. "I never told you I was feeling ill."
He didn't have to; John watches Harold as closely as Harold watches him. "Maybe not. But something's been occupying your attention. Want to talk about it?"
"I'd really rather not," Harold says, strained. "But it appears I have little choice. I suspect there was some psychoactive agent added to my food. Its effect seems to be that I am compelled to be....more forthright. Than is generally prudent."
John frowns, mentally tracking back through their day. There were few other opportunities to drug Harold aside from in the food, and little about their current number that would explain a motive. "Any other symptoms?"
Two pink spots appear, high on Harold's cheeks. "There is a - tingling. It started when I took a bite of the duck. At first I attributed it to the hot peppers, but then it - persisted. Further along in the, ah. Digestive path. It is not entirely unpleasant."
John feels the corner of his mouth twitch. Whatever effect the drug is having on Harold, it clearly hasn't left him unable to choose his words. "So what you're saying is, you've got butterflies in your stomach and you like it?"
"Yes," Harold says, then makes a pained expression. "In a manner of speaking."
John's smile fades. It isn't hard to see why someone might have wanted him in this state - unable to evade a direct question, compelled, as far as John can tell, to give an honest answer - and the only questions remaining are who, how they had found out that Harold had secrets in the first place, and when they would arrive.
It's only while John's checking the exits (all secure, so far) that it occurs to him that all the months of fruitlessly tailing Harold, trying to fish up the slightest scrap of information - his real name, his birthday, where he sleeps at night, whether he grew up alone or with siblings - could end tonight. It feels like holding a live grenade. He takes his time making his way back to their work area, and sits a careful distance away from Harold when he gets there.
Harold watches him sit, and John realizes that he must have been braced for those very questions since John got back. Maybe while John was out he'd taken that time to test out his hunch, see how far he could bend the truth.
"Do you want me to leave?"
Harold blinks, owlish. "No. I would like very much if you stayed."
John pushes down the warmth that rises in his chest at very much. It isn't like that. Harold relies on John for his physical safety, and now, ensuring Harold's physical safety ensures his privacy as well. Of course he would like that to continue.
"Is it getting any worse? You sure you just want to ride it out here?" He's not sure who he thinks needs the out more; him or Harold.
Harold pushes his lips together so tightly that his mouth is outlined in white, and turns back to the windows full of code on his monitor. Eventually, when John thought he isn't going to answer at all, he says, "I'm fine. I promise to tell you if anything changes."
John notices that it is conspicuously only an answer to half of his question, but he doesn't push it. Silence falls between them, tense and leaden. There are so many things John wants to know, may never get a chance to ask, but it feels like foul play, uneven in a way that tracking Harold from half a block away never does.
He gets up and eats a piece of cold duck, then another, and a third. His lips tingle, and then his tongue, and with each bite he swallows, the sensation of having a small buzzing generator lodged under his breastbone grows.
Harold looks up from his work, alarmed. "John, what are you doing? You shouldn't - one of us should be -"
John puts down the flimsy plastic fork. "I want to ask you a question."
"I'm not sure that's a good idea right now."
"Just one more question. And then you can ask me a question. And then we never have to talk about it again. I just have to know."
Harold swallows. "That's - the least of what you deserve. Very well."
John lets himself enjoy one last moment of not knowing, not for sure, and then asks. "That time. The other day."
It was three weeks ago, un-talked-about for so long that it's on the verge of never having happened at all. John, on his hands and knees, retrieving an adapter that had rolled underneath the desk against Harold's protestations that really, he needn't trouble himself. Harold's hand on his shoulder, warm through the thin material of his dress shirt. The bright hope that maybe now, finally - and then, just as fast, Harold's desk chair rolling away, his hand gone, his decision made before John even had the chance to turn around.
"That's not a question," Harold says, his face carefully still.
John can feel the drug, or whatever it is, really taking hold. Responses crowd behind his lips, clamoring to be let out, each one more revealing than the last. "Why didn't you want me?" he hears himself ask, finally.
"I can't answer that," Harold says, and for a long moment John thinks that's all he's going to get. "It wouldn't be appropriate," Harold continues, inexorable. "You're my employee. You depend on me for too much already. I should never have taken advantage."
Like he suspected, knowing is a hundred times worse than not knowing. He waits for the apology, the regret, but minutes pass and Harold adds nothing. Impossibly, that kernel of hope flares back to life. He chances a glance up and finds that Harold won't meet his eyes.
"Ask your question, Harold," John says softly, keeping himself rooted on the spot by sheer force of will.
"There's no need," Harold says.
"That wasn't the deal, though." When Harold still doesn't speak, John says, "Ask me if I mind."
Harold, who sees everything coming from ten miles off, looks surprised. "Do you?"
"No," John says, glad that for once, the power to deflect has been taken out of his hands. "None of that matters to me. If it happened again, I wouldn't want you to stop." He doesn't ever want Harold to stop; the closest he can get to saying so is to meet Harold's eyes and hope he gets the message.
Harold holds his gaze this time, and the color returns to his cheeks as his breathing speeds up. Very deliberately he gets up, moves the chair aside, and crosses the dozen feet to where John is standing.
"I'll trust you don't need me to tell you that it should make a difference," he says, and places his hand on John's shoulder.
It's like a circuit connecting. John melts under the touch, lets it take him to his knees, easy as anything. Harold's hand trails up the back of his neck as he goes down, comes to rest in his hair as John leans his head on Harold's hip. Up close, Harold smells like cedar and the ozone smell of computer fans.
"Oh, John," Harold says.
John feels like he could have waited any length of time, if only he knew this approval could eventually be won; but the fact that Harold would have denied himself forever feels like a crime. He can smell Harold's arousal building, can feel his pounding heart at every point their bodies are touching. "I want to get you off," he admits into the crisp material of Harold's expensive suit. "Let me?"
"You can have anything you want," Harold says, and carefully guides them back to the chair. It seems easier not to get up, so John doesn't.
Harold repeats John's name several more times as John works open his belt and fly and the excess of buttons on the placket of his boxers, then lets out a wordless sigh when John sucks him down. His hand never leaves John's hair.
"I see I made some assumptions without having gathered all the relevant information," Harold says, after John has stroked him through the last aftershocks and tucked him neatly away. "Thank you for correcting my course before it was too late."
John's brain is still catching up with him; only about every other world filters through to him, but he but basks in the approving tone. When Harold asks him what he wants, he raises his head slowly from where it had been pillowed on Harold's thigh, vaguely aware that Harold was repeating the question.
"Just this. Just to be good for you," he says. The buzz has filled all his limbs, making them feel light and heavy at the same time. Admitting things is a pleasure, and he's not sure if it's because of the drug, or because Harold is the one asking.
"You're always good, John," Harold says. He squeezes the back of John's neck. "Can you stand?"
John finds that he can. He shakes out his shoulders and plants his feet, settling into a comfortable stance. "I've thought about this," he admits. "Being on display for you. Letting you look all you wanted, or listen in on the comms. Doing whatever you told me."
"An intriguing set of possibilities," Harold breathes. John can feel Harold's eyes on him, as hot as his hand was earlier. He lets Harold see him watching back.
"Unbutton your shirt." Harold's voice has slipped into the calm, implacable tone he uses to guide John through a mission. John does what he asks, and gets to watch Harold tracking every new inch of skin that's revealed. Harold doesn't tell him to take it off right away, just drinks in the sight as if it's the most beautiful thing in the world.
He takes his time with the rest of his directions, talking John through each item in minute detail, making small noises of satisfaction when John follows his instructions to the letter.
By the time Harold has him in just his open shirt, feet bare and his pants and briefs pushed down around his thighs, John feels like he's been hard forever.
"Touch yourself," Harold instructs, and John curls his hand around his cock with a moan of relief. "Do exactly as I say," Harold says, and then talks John through jerking himself off exactly the way Harold likes to touch himself, late at night when he lets himself think about things he's not allowed to have. It's far too much.
Harold has John work himself to the edge and then back again twice, and then talks him through a blinding orgasm. He's by John's side, shaking out a handkerchief to clean him up, before John has blinked the stars out of his eyes.
"You can have me any time," John says after a while, when he can form thoughts again. The unnatural buzz in his limbs has all but dissipated, but it seems important that Harold know.
"I think I'd had you for a lot longer than I realized," Harold says, and presses a kiss into the damp skin at the hollow of his throat. "I don't plan on letting you go."
John dips his head and lets Harold brush a kiss across his open lips. "Sounds perfect to me."