Irregular by manic_intent

Non-Canon Awards; Mythical Creatures

Title: Irregular

Pen Name: manic_intent

Rating: R

Genre: Fantasy AU

Word Count: 5k

Pairing: John Reese/Harold Finch, Person of Interest

Summary: A newly Fallen angel finds something unexpected in the middle of the wastelands.

Disclaimer: Characters are obviously not mine

 


I.

“Really,” said a fussy voice behind John. “This is highly irregular.”

John turned, a faint spark of surprise actually filtering through his fatigue. Filthy and thin as his mortal shell was now, he should still be invisible to humans – and the shorter, stocky middle-aged human with as fussy a face as his voice looked and felt human. He was impeccably if unassumingly dressed, in a three piece dove gray suit and a pale blue tie, knotted under a shirt collar pressed to razor edges. Wire-rimmed spectacles perched high over the bridge of his nose, behind which sharp, pale blue eyes regarded John with disapproval. Had John run into him on a street, he would’ve walked by without a second glance.

“Go away,” John said, in Seraphic, too weary to speak in the human language. The stranger, however, didn’t even flinch, for all that the tonal dissonance from the Divine Word, spoken aloud, sent a ripple through the grass at John’s feet, and tipped loose gravel from the riverbank into the murky water. Behind them, raised high on sturdy concrete pillars, cars rumbled by, indifferent.

“You must have Fallen two weeks ago,” the stranger continued mildly. “Count me sympathetic, but you really should’ve left the city by now. There’s nothing for you here, and besides, if you’d spoken in Seraphic before one of the humans, you’d have damaged his or her eardrums.”

John narrowed his eyes, studying the stranger again, rocking back on his heels. Without his grace, he couldn’t tell if the stranger wore a glamour… or if he was a Gifted human. A warlock. He shifted one foot back, to spread his weight, combat-ready, and the stranger let out a deep sigh. “I’m not here to hurt you. But you should leave, before you hurt someone. If you go into the mountains… others like you have gone into the wilderness. There’s enough residual grace left in the quiet places of the world for you go peacefully into the dark. I’ve been told that it’s painless.”

“… Who are you?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, it matters,” John growled. “You said ‘one of the humans’. So you’re something else. You understand Seraphic, but you’re not… not like me. Fallen. And I know that the Children no longer guard mortal earth.”

The stranger folded his arms with a faint, disapproving scowl. “I see that you plan on being difficult.”

“You’re not Forsaken, either. You don’t have the stink of that around you.” John prowled closer, but as the stranger stood his ground, he stalked in a slow circle around on the grass, hunched, fingers curled. A veteran of the Eternal War on either side would have instantly known John’s poise for what it was, like a raptor coiled to leap, the silent war-warning of one of the Children. “What are you?”

“Go away,” the stranger repeated, not unkindly. “You’re starved of grace here. It’ll be an ugly death, for one of the Firstborn. You watched the stars spun into light, the seas seeded with life. To die here like this would be a waste.”

John blinked at him, dully startled. What the stranger was wormed down at the forefront of memory, muffled down by exhaustion and pain and hunger. Stubbornly, John tried to concentrate. He was close. He knew this. Indecisive, he stopped circling, and the stranger stared unhappily at him, then checked a slim black phone from his pocket, lighting up the surface with a flick of his thumb. Whatever he saw on it made him sigh, and the stranger pulled a black leather wallet from his inner suit pocket and tossed it over to John, who nearly flinched away from it.

“If you must persist in staying, find a hotel and get cleaned up. There’ll be enough money on that card. I trust that you’re familiar enough with the mortal world not to cause trouble?”

“What makes you think that?”

“You’ve bothered with clothing,” the stranger pointed out, with a thin smile that flashed by so quickly that John would’ve missed it if he’d blinked.

“And then? After that?”

“I’ll get in contact. But first, before you collapse,” the stranger stepped close, with a strange, stiff-legged limp, and even as John moved to back off, he grabbed John’s chin with thumb and index finger with surprising firmness, tugging him down.

“Wha-” John began, then gasped, as the stranger breathed out a wisp of pale gray smoke that crackled in the air before John breathed it in greedily; raw magic tasted like lightning on his tongue, like fire in his throat, cold freshwater in his belly. It burned in his veins and made the stumps on his back ache afresh. It clawed grateful tears to his eyes, that stayed thankfully unshed. His hunger ebbed to a background whisper.

“Dragon,” John named the stranger, hushed. Here was an incarnation of magic itself, impossibly – improbably – self-contained.

“Don’t follow me,” the stranger warned him, letting go, and burst into a fitful cloud of blue fireflies, a chaotic swarm that scattered outward like a heaving wave before flickering to nothing, leaving only the trace of lingering magic in the air, like the thickening smell of rain.

John checked the wallet. There were two cards in it – one was a in white thick paper stock, with the words ‘Machine Library’ stamped in black foil on the front, and the name ‘Harold Swan’ printed beneath it, with nothing on the back. The other was an American Express black credit card, to the name ‘Harold Finch’. Other than the cards, the wallet was empty, and smelled like new leather, stippled in a wavelike pattern under fine stitching. Like his fine clothes, this particular dragon seemed to appreciate human-made luxury. Another oddity.

As John watched, the printed name on the black metal card seemed to stir like restless worms, uncurling, until they spelled ‘John Reese’ in the same neat blocky type. He ran his thumb over it, tracing the grooves, scratching over the text with dirty nails, then he replaced it in the wallet. Briefly, John was tempted to throw the whole thing into the murky water, but on an afterthought, defiance now felt a trifle petty. He shoved it into his pocket instead, and turned around, trying to get his bearings. He’d have to find a hotel, and he would need better human clothes.

II.

John took his time in the hot shower, scrubbing out dirt, teasing out tangles from his hair. The water that eddied down his legs and to his feet ran a grayish brown for a while before it finally read clean, and John hacked his hair short with the hotel scissors, then shaved with a plastic razor and a small tube of shaving foam, awkwardly going through the motions. He’d never had to do this before. But like all the others, he had observed humanity now and then, over the centuries. He had context.

Now conscious of how his old, stolen clothes stank, John dumped them in the sink, grimacing at the stain that they had already left on the tiles, washed his hands, and wandered out into the bedroom, not bothering with a towel. He sat on the bed, his back to the hotel wardrobe, and twisted around, looking into the mirror set into the wardrobe door. The stumps were but pale, thin humps now, like fins that jutted out from under his shoulder blades, running down to his ribs, already covered in scar tissue. Only hours before, they’d been bleeding steadily into filthy cloth.

Twisting back around, John ran his fingertips slowly over his mortal shell, no longer hungry enough to be incurious. He was taller than most humans, though not tall enough to draw notice. The hair, now hacked short and spiky, was a dark charcoal, graying at the temples. His eyes were a dark blue under an intense brow and a sharp-cut jaw, pink from the shave and only nicked here and there. His shoulders were broad, his frame thin but serviceable, long arms, long legs, with a killing strength in his fingers that hadn’t yet faded. Perhaps naturally, his divine function had translated into a mortal form closest to his original purpose.

Conscious now of how tired he was, John curled up under the heavy sheets. Unable to avoid sleep any longer, he closed his eyes.

Just like before, the mortal act of sleeping terrified John. Some humans called it the Little Death, and John could see why: it was his consciousness switching off, only to be reborn again after a seamless period of helplessness, like thrashing on the precipice. The first time he had fallen asleep, John had woken up afterwards shaken and crawling on the gravel, dry heaving over the dirt, and the drifters who had taken him in and clothed him in what little they could afford had woken, startled, as he had wept, and had tried in their fumbling way to comfort him. Where were they now? John had stumbled away, fleeing them blindly. Their sympathy had felt unbearable. Once, he had watched the stars paint themselves awake. Now he was nothing but stardust.

III.

The panicked relief of waking was derailed abruptly. There was someone else in the room. John sat up, disoriented, and blinked sleep out of his eyes, the nausea and vertigo. Sweat plastered the sheets to his knees, and he twisted to get free, sucking in harsh and fractured breaths. By the window, the curtains twitched back for sunlight, the dragon didn’t even glance up at him.

“Ah, you’re finally awake.” Harold Swan, or Finch, or whatever his name truly was, wore a navy suit today, legs crossed, revealing dark brown socks tucked into black leather shoes. His spectacles were starting to slide down his nose, and he was reading a paperback book, its corners well-turned.

“Were you enjoying the view?” John rasped. He hadn’t worn mortal flesh long enough to understand shame, but Harold’s presence unsettled him. He hadn’t expected the dragon to return so soon.

“I presume that you’re trying sarcasm, well done,” Harold retorted acidly, glowering at him. “There are proper clothes for you in the closet. In the coat, there is also a box with a set of keys and an address of a safehouse that you may use.”

John made no move to get up. “What’s your price?”

Harold pursed his lips, comically dainty. “I think you should leave my city. As I said, there are quiet places in the world where-”

“Yes, I heard you the first time,” John interrupted, impatient. “If you wanted to be rid of me you could have trapped me somewhere and left me to fade. Wouldn’t have taken long. A dragon could’ve done that without even breaking a sweat.”

“… Why did you Fall?” Harold asked, after an uncomfortable pause.

“How did you know my name?” John countered.

Harold smiled, suddenly wry. “It was a guess. Looking at you. Yəhôḥānān, I presume you were called before. Called, not named – all of the Soldier-Children were referred to the same way, by a word that meant ‘YHWH Has Been Gracious’. His crusaders.” Harold glanced down, back at his book. “He has always loved a certain degree of cosmic irony. So above, so below, transliterating into ‘John’.”

“And ‘Reese’?”

“I needed to add a surname on there, and ‘Smith’ would have been patently fake. I can change it to another word, if you prefer.”

“No need,” John said gruffly, trying to hide his pleasure. It had crept in upon him and ambushed him with its warmth. It wasn’t as though he even knew the dragon, let alone well enough for his naming to mean something like this. But. John had never had a real name before. Not one that he did not share with his entire legion. “Reese,” he murmured to himself, testing it on his tongue. The dragon ignored him, and John got up from the bed, hauling himself over to the bathroom to take a quick shower, then drying off and dressing from the clothes he found in the wardrobe: a black suit and a white shirt, no tie, shoes, belt and underwear and cufflinks all provided. He struggled a little with the cufflinks, but managed them after some patience. Through it all, Harold had not moved, seemingly absorbed in his book.

Narrowing his eyes, John stalked over, looming over Harold, tense, but even as Harold flicked his eyes up in acknowledgement, he was back to his book again, just as quickly. Twisting his lip, John sat down pointedly on the carpet, by Harold’s feet like a supplicant, and smiled mirthlessly as this made Harold recoil.

“John?”

“What do you want?”

“I’ve told you.”

“There’s something else. You wouldn’t have fed me if you just wanted me gone. And you found me fairly quickly.”

“Not really,” Harold confessed. “I found you immediately, actually. I just… hadn’t really wanted to interfere as yet. I was hoping that you would leave on your own. But it had been two weeks, so I thought maybe I should nudge things along and… Could you sit up on the bed? This is really awkward.”

“Stand up.” When Harold didn’t move, John added dryly, “You can’t, can you? Not easily. You were limping, before. What could have hurt a dragon? Was it one of the Children? The Forsaken?”

Harold sighed, and closed his book. “All right, you’ve proved your point. Can you please sit up on the bed?” When John complied, edging up onto the bed, Harold added, “I know it wasn’t the Forsaken. I don’t tolerate their presence in my city, and I’ve set the appropriate wards.”

“The quiet places of the world,” John said slowly, “That’s where dragons like to sleep. And yet you’re here, wearing a mortal skin, a wasteland of no magic. It wasn’t one of the Children either, was it? We don’t usually bother your kind. Not that we could even if we wanted to. We tried it at the start.” Eden had been a bit of a learning curve.

“The Children and the Forsaken are still absorbed in their endless war,” Harold nodded cautiously. “Or that’s what I think.”

“So who was it?”

“That’s the problem,” Harold said wryly, “I don’t know.”

“How can you not know?” John demanded, incredulous. “How bad is it?”

“Before I tell you that…” Harold trailed off, then he swallowed convulsively, and exhaled, as though nervous. “I would still prefer you to leave. But if you… if you wanted to stay. If. I’m willing to keep, ah, feeding you. Whenever you need it. But like I mentioned before. You are – or were – Yəhôḥānān.”

“You want me to find out who hurt you.” John concluded grimly.

“Yes.” Harold picked at the corners of the book, then set it on the table. “I… recognise that this will be dangerous. Whatever had the capacity to hurt me, could quite possibly, to you-”

“Fine,” John interrupted curtly. “All right. I’ll do it.” Better this, than to have to find somewhere to lie down and die. To face the horror of sleeping again, with only empty days to follow.

“There’ll be a box of things in your apartment,” Harold said, brisk now. “Acclimatise yourself with their use, particularly with the earpiece and the phone. Until you need to be fed, they’ll serve as our sole avenue of communication. I’ll contact you once I’ve settled some other matters.”

“Why,” John drawled, with a lazy smirk to match, testing the boundaries, as all trained Yəhôḥānān learned to do. “I’ve Fallen. What’s a dragon afraid of?”

Harold stared at him, unflinchingly sober. “What is every living thing afraid of?” he noted quietly, and this time, as he faded, it was in a slow-fading shimmer, like a distortion reflected in a mirror of brilliant scales.

IV.

It took Harold two days to ‘settle matters’, whatever that meant, and John spent it trying to get used to being mortal. Living as a drifter had simply needed him to exist in a barely-functional state of entropy. Living as whatever Harold needed him to be, however, required John to learn how to use human weaponry. The loft had not been so equipped, but John had been watching humanity long enough to know where to get some on the quiet. Knives were easy enough, but guns were a bit more puzzling, even though he knew how they worked. He was stripping down a revolver when Harold finally rang.

John managed after a couple of tries to nudge the phone onto speaker, and left it on the table as he disassembled the revolver. “Harold.”

“Any reason why you’ve armed yourself sufficiently enough to take over a small country?”

“If whatever I’m hunting can hurt a dragon,” John laid out the pieces carefully on the cloth over the table, “I think I should be prepared.”

Harold sighed, but seemed to concede the point. “I need you to do something for me. There’s a lady by the name of Kirsten Shane. I’ll text you her address. She’s in some sort of danger. Figure it out and make sure it goes away.”

This surprised John enough that he paused, hands frozen in the air. “Why? Who is Kirsten? Something to do with what happened to you?”

“Not particularly. But I’m not very mobile right now, and I can’t exactly tail her easily. Keep your phone and earpiece switched on and I’ll be able to track your progress.”

Puzzled, John quickly reassembled the gun, wiped down his hands, and dressed to go out. Kirsten Shane turned out to be a seemingly normal human female, embroiled in banal human problems involving an angry ex and a trafficking scheme gone south, and John resolved it with equal applications of patience and non-lethal violence. At the end of it, still puzzled, he reported in, when he was back in his apartment.

“Kirsten’s safe now.”

“Yes, I see that. Good work.”

“What was that all about?” John asked out aloud, but from the dead silence at the other end, without even a hint of Harold’s soft breathing, he knew that he was alone.

V.

The pattern persisted. John would be sent out with a name and a location, either to save a normal human or to stop said human from murdering one of his/her many, many fellow humans. Given no explanation, the moment an issue was resolved, Harold would log off without a further word. It was amusing, at first. For creatures with such short life spans, humans could get into so much trouble, the murderous things. At the end of two weeks, John had saved six people from themselves and stopped two from murdering others, and returned to his apartment to find Harold waiting for him, sitting on the couch, upright and tense.

“Good evening,” John said, raising his eyebrows.

“You need a… don’t you?”

“A drink? Yeah.” John tried not to lick his lips. He had been feeling a little drained, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to ask. It was still… strange. Drinking what was effectively the essence of Creation itself. The dragon’s breath, magic. John sat close, on the couch, and tried to stay calm, his fingers fidgeting in his lap.

“I’m sorry. I should have come earlier,” Harold had noticed.

“Doesn’t matter. I’m still functional.”

“I… here. I’ll give you a bit more than what you need. Just to make up for it.”

“Wait-” John began, but Harold was already pulling him down, and if his first taste of the draconic before had seemed intense, it was nothing like this, like a jolt of adrenaline, like some lethally purified drug, white noise, as though Creation itself was washed away in a torrent of pure sensation that blinded and deafened him, the world and even his sense of self scorched away-

John came to with his head raised on a pillow and Harold fussing worriedly around him. “I’m sorry. Sorry. Are you all right?”

“Too much,” John croaked. Harold pressed a cold glass of water into his hands, anxiety making ferns of frost creep up in a twisting spiral from under Harold’s fingers. The air was still so thick with the smell of magic that for a moment, as John glanced up into Harold’s grave eyes, he was disoriented to see human-coloured irises.

“Sorry,” Harold repeated unhappily, and sat down when John managed to get his fingers wound tight around Harold’s wrist, tugging him over. John’s skin felt prickly, his blood energised; warring with disorientation and nausea. He opted to stay where he was, trying to calm his breathing.

When he had himself under control again, John said wryly, “Warn a guy next time.”

“Sorry.”

“No harm done.”

Harold dropped his gaze to his lap. “I… I’m out of practice.”

Ah. “So I’m not the first stray you’ve picked up.” When Harold made no answer, John asked, “Where are the others?”

“They… they usually opt to leave. Eventually.”

“When did you get hurt?”

“Two, ah, two decades ago now, by human time.”

“That’s some coincidence,” John murmured. Right before the latest civil war, that had broken out after a millennia of peace. The one that he’d accidentally ended up on the wrong side of.

Harold pursed his lips. “I don’t think that it was a coincidence at all.”

“Yes, Harold,” John said patiently, with a sharp smile. “That’s what I meant. I’ve been practicing sarcasm, remember?”

Instead of letting out one of his sighs, and saying something sardonic in return, Harold looked away, still embarrassed. “Ah. Yes of course.” He seemed panicky again, as much as a manifestation of Creation magic could be panicky, feet flat on the thick tan brown carpet.

“Harold,” John said gently, and managed to push himself up, shaky at first before he reoriented himself. “Hey. We’re good.”

“All right.”

“So what’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong. You’ve been a great help. Exemplary.”

“All right,” John said dryly, “So do you mind telling me why I’ve been saving all those people instead of doing what you fished me out here to do?”

Harold couldn’t hide his grimace, though he tried to lie anyway. “It’s all part of the plan.”

“I call bullshit on that, dragon,” John noted mildly. “Humans can’t hurt your kind. Hell, I’m not even sure if I could’ve, when… before my Fall,” John amended awkwardly. What could cripple a creature that had no real need to wear flesh?

Harold made no answer for a while, looking out of the window, at the lazy sunrise, the sky tinting in brilliant pastels over blocky rooftops, tainted by human aesthetics. “All right,” Harold murmured, as though to reassure himself, then he cleared his throat. “I chose this land before there was even a city upon it. I used to sleep in the high grass, dream a slow memory of Creation. Some of the First People gave me names. I never took human form then.”

“Horned serpent,” John supplied, and Harold nodded slowly. Wistfully. “Things changed. The city was built. And you stayed?”

“It had always been my land. I stayed, for a time. I learned human form. Sometimes, the First People. Sometimes, the newcomers. I watched the humans soak the ground in their blood and…” Harold shook his head. “I found a quiet place to sleep. Buried myself in. I wanted to wake when it was over. But each time I woke things seemed to have gotten worse. So for a time I decided to stay awake,” Harold concluded. “I learned the land again. I tried to intervene for the better, rather than stand aside. But nothing seemed to work very well. Humans are fragile and complicated.”

“So you went to sleep again,” John concluded. “And woke up crippled.”

“Yes. That’s why I don’t know what happened.” Harold admitted quietly. “Only a year had passed. And someone, somehow, had found me, gotten past my wards, and tried to kill me. I fought them off, somehow, I don’t remember much of it. I fled, frightened. I spent some time away, trying to recover the best I could. Then I returned.”

“What about the other dragons?” John asked, thinking it over. “Did you try reaching out to them? I know there’s more of you out there, even if you’re neutral in the Eternal War.”

“The others. Yes. I tried.” Harold said, pensively. “And either they’ve hidden themselves so well that I can no longer find them, or…”

“Or someone’s been busy.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“The place you chose to sleep in. Where you were found. I want to see it.” When Harold said nothing, John added, “It’s important evidence.”

“I know.”

“Surely I’m not just here to spend my time saving humans from themselves,” John said facetiously, and when Harold was silent again, he stared. “No. Really?”

“The Children – your people – need a solid sense of purpose. Not just sustenance. In truth I’m… I’m not that sure I want to meet whatever attacked me again. Not when it nearly killed me the first time. And I’ve mentioned, I’m not very good with humans, while you’ve managed very well and…” Harold trailed off. “John?”

“I don’t like being lied to.” John said flatly.

“I didn’t lie to you. You are here to find whatever did this to me. It’s just… I have other priorities as well.”

“This is why the others left, isn’t it? When they found out?”

Harold seemed to deflate further. “Yes. Your kind don’t actually like humans very much. You see them as only a step ahead of animals. Sometimes worse. But they deserve better than that.”

“You’re in the business of second chances,” John said sardonically.

“Er. Yes. In a way. Sorry.”

“Stop saying that,” John snapped, and this startled Harold into flinching back, flailing, then he fragmented into a swarm of blue dust motes that faded away quickly. Blast. “Harold? Harold, I didn’t mean to startle you. Harold?”

Alone again. John groaned, and rubbed a hand slowly over his face.

VI.

The names kept coming, but Harold stayed radio silent save where absolutely necessary, and when John had to be fed, Harold made it quick and impersonal. The state of affairs lasted uncomfortably for months, even as John started reluctantly to enjoy what he was doing, and Harold seemed to start getting less and less stiff around him. Which was, of course, the cue for John’s past to catch up with him as rudely as possible.

“There’s another dragon,” John gasped, as he lay bleeding on a cot, Harold’s cot, in a poorly-lit room within some sort of private library, while Harold cursed and tried to cut his clothes off him with a scissors. “Calls itself Samaritan, it’s allied with the Fallen, not just the Fallen, some of the Children, too-”

“Yes, John, hush,” Harold said distractedly, which John felt was really not the appropriate response to earth-shattering intel. “How on earth did you get yourself so hurt? You really should be more careful!” John blinked, subsiding. as Harold stripped away his shirt and the remains of his suit jacket, tossing the belt aside.

“I said there was another dragon,” John said, a little belligerently, as Harold nudged gentle fingers over the great gash of his wound, that ran from his flanks up to his ribs.

“Yes, I heard you.”

“You don’t seem to care,” John marvelled, as Harold bent with some difficulty, breathing magic right onto the gash, a whisper of it, just enough for John to shiver and jerk, his mortal shell stitching itself back together, slowly.

“Of course I care. Now, your leg please.”

“Harold,” John began, but then he gave up, as Harold got his shoes off. It wasn’t as though Harold didn’t care about the new intel, John realized now, slowly. It was just that Harold now, somehow, cared far more that John had been hurt while acquiring it. “Harold,” John started again, blinking. “It’s just flesh.”

“Fallen can die, if damaged enough.”

“Goes the same for everyone. It’s minor,” John protested, but subsided as Harold shot him a steely, unhappy stare, and he watched as Harold healed stab wounds into pale pink scars, watched as Harold got him cleaned up, with a basin that turned quickly ruddy under the rinsed cloth, watched as Harold finally sat in a chair by the cot, exhausted and drained. Harold cared.

John had nearly forgotten what that had felt like. “Thank you,” he whispered, his voice thick, overcome, but Harold didn’t respond, his head tipping to the side, asleep.

In the morning John was playfully obsequious. He had dressed himself in fresh clothes, cleaning up while Harold had been asleep, and he brought Harold hot sencha and donuts. Harold had seemed mildly suspicious, as they sat on opposite sides of a small desk, having breakfast, but John said nothing until Harold cleared his throat, awkward all over again.

“So. ‘Samaritan’.”

“You didn’t need to get so upset before,” John said mildly. “Those kinds of flesh wounds can’t really kill me. Same way they can’t kill you.”

Harold flushed slightly, and stared fiercely at his tea. “No. I suppose not. It was all very startling.”

“And it’ll be ‘startling’ for a long time more. I may have gotten rid of some of its agents, but it has more.”

“Yes.” Harold let out a deep sigh. “Dragon eating dragon… I’ve never heard of it. But I suppose. Now I know what I’m up against. So. Thank you,” he said stiffly. “You’ve fulfilled your end of the bargain.”

John felt all his playfulness leak away, breached. “What?”

“It’s what I wanted you to do at the start, remember? Find out who crippled me.”

“And get rid of them,” John reminded Harold.

“You’re not capable of taking on a dragon. You’ve said so yourself.”

“I do fine with Samaritan’s minions. Harold,” John added cautiously. “You’re… are you trying to get rid of me?”

Harold stared at him, thin-lipped. “It’s clear that I’ve gotten you involved in matters far out of your depth after all. You are free to leave. There are certain areas to the northwest where-”

“I’m not leaving.”

“You have to.”

“I’m not leaving you,” John said fiercely. “You’ve said it. The Children need a purpose. You’ve given me one. You saved my life. More than that, you gave me something to live for. I can’t ignore that. Or walk away from it. And besides. If you hadn’t picked me up, I would’ve faded away in a week. Less, probably. So. I’m already on borrowed time. Time that you gave to me.”

Harold seemed to flinch back at John’s words, and for a moment, John thought that Harold would try to flee. Fade away, and go into hiding, somewhere beyond John’s reach yet again. But he stayed where he was, nervously tapping his fingertips on his cup, and he sighed. “Oh, John.”

“So I’m not leaving,” John repeated again, just in case Harold needed to hear it, and he rose from his chair, leaning across the bench. He kissed Harold over his forehead, the skin soft and cool beneath his lips, and as Harold shivered instead of jerking back, as Harold let out a breath and closed his eyes, John dared to lean further down, tentative, to press his lips firmly against Harold’s mouth. When he pushed himself back for air, Harold’s eyes burned golden.

VII.

“Once, you must have been magnificent,” Harold touched his fingertips to the stumps on John’s back. They were naked in bed, John on his flank, allowing Harold to inspect him with his usual meticulous attention to detail.

“And now?” John chuckled. They’d fought Samaritan to a wary standstill for now, each side taking stock. It wasn’t a victory by any means, but it was still something to celebrate.

“Mortality has a different sort of beauty.” Harold shifted down, a little painfully, to press his mouth to the scar tissue, kissing, licking until John groaned and twisted around, hauling Harold up, pressing him against the sheets. As he licked into Harold’s mouth, he could taste magic, the embers of it, knit into Harold’s assumed flesh.

Harold was cool to the touch, always only fractionally higher than room temperature, and John kissed his way reverently down, trapping heat against Harold’s hip, against his knees, rubbing lazy circles with his own palms. Under John’s fingertips, Harold’s skin would sometimes ripple and fade, revealing the faint metallic sheen of dark scales. Whenever Harold moaned, he breathed out strips of dragonlight, pale puffs of tiny flames that faded quickly to nothing.

At the beginning, John had been vaguely concerned about fire hazards, until Harold had rolled his eyes and told him acerbically that dragons burn only what they want to burn. And here. John was being burned, rubbing his cheek playfully against Harold’s cock, grinning as Harold cursed and grabbed at his shoulders; burned, as he kissed up the thickened flesh and licked it wet; burned, as he took Harold into his mouth, oblivious to his own arousal, sucking Harold greedily all the way down his throat.

Harold lay still, trembling, whatever injury meted on him making him too stiff to buck, but John was fine with doing all the work. He liked choking himself on Harold, liked forcing the mortal flesh of his jaw wide until it ached, liked the taste of Harold this way, musky, bitter. The smell of the rain was so thick that it was getting hard to breathe, but John drove on, desperate, Harold’s thighs slung over his shoulders. When Harold finally gave John what he wanted, with a hoarse cry and a tingling touch of frost, John drank it down, greedy to the last, indifferent to his own arousal.

“Thank you,” Harold always said, prim and fussy even when well-fucked.

As before, John laughed, the sound rusty through his abused throat, gathering Harold carefully by, closing in for a kiss. The world and its problems seemed far away, when they were together like this, with no secrets between them, just flesh. The world and its problems could wait. Now John could taste the lightning, and as he breathed, he drank a gift of frost and storms.

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