At the noise behind him, Harold stiffened, for just a second. Then he told Mr Reese that he would get back to him on that, and, very carefully, pulled out his earpiece and laid his hands flat on the keyboard.
"You're helping people," the man behind him said, softly. Almost, but not quite, a question. "Why?"
Harold turned slightly, angling the whole chair around. The intruder shifted first to keep himself in the shadows, a flash of movement in Harold's strained peripheral vision, and then ... Then, seeing the stiffness in Harold's movements, divining its cause, the intruder stepped back into his field of vision. Let himself be seen. Harold, carefully maintaining as much of a poker face as possible, and equally careful to make no sudden movement, twitched his shoulder with a faint smile.
"Because that's what we were meant to do," he said, as quietly. "What we were designed for. Isn't it, Jarod?"
The other man went utterly, frighteningly still, a sudden, unvocalised threat that would have done Mr Reese proud. Harold masked his flinch. He was good at that.
"How do you know me?" Jarod asked, calmly, but with a razored edge.
"Knowledge has never been my problem," Harold answered, somewhat ruefully. "Though I don't, actually. Know you. At best, I'm afraid I simply know of you." A small, self-depreciating twitch of his shoulder. "The first natural, successful Pretender. One of the Center's first genuine successes." He smiled, without much mirth. "News got around."
Jarod ... paused, rolled on the balls of his feet, thoughtfully. Then, he rocked forward, prowled closer, the threat suddenly so much more obvious in him, so much more present. If Harold hadn't spent so much time lately around Mr Reese, hadn't endured those rather nervous early weeks of their partnership, he might have been considerably more worried. But he recognised the same quality in Jarod as he had in John, the same mediating factor running underneath the threat of violence. Control. Iron and inviolate. He had time to talk. Time to explain. He knew that.
"You're Center?" Jarod asked, lightly, and paused. "You don't act like it." A wry, bitter twist of his mouth, a flicker of darkness. "You seem to be helping too many people to be one of them."
Harold snorted, his own bitterness flashing briefly to the surface, echo of that first, and surprisingly undramatic, realisation. He'd understood John so well, his disillusionment. Had felt so protective, of Nathan. Unlike them, he'd never really had any illusions. Never trusted much of anyone, really. He'd been 'born' in 1976, sprung to life at the age of 22, and no-one in all the world to know differently. He'd created his first name, first alias, created his first life, all those years ago, the first among many. Because of the Center. Because knowledge really had never been his problem. At least, not getting access to it, anyway.
"No," Jarod continued, watching him, thinking it through. The lightning-fast tracery of a Pretender's intelligence, that the Center, and everyone else, had coveted so much, and paid for so dearly. "You said 'we', didn't you. We." A frown, a tilt of the head as he stood over Harold, looked down at him. "Pretender?"
Harold almost laughed, black and perhaps a touch ironic. Almost. "No," he said, perhaps some edge of real humour in his voice. "Not quite. I don't have ... your range, your natural talent. I can't become someone else, the way you do." A small dismissive wave of his hand. "I was ... an early experiment. An ... unsuccessful one." A black, black curve of his mouth. "And I was smart enough to realise what the Center did to experiments that weren't successful on their own merits. Smart enough to disappear. Rather thoroughly."
Jarod flinched. Tiny, but there. The Center's most successful experiment ever. Harold wondered who he'd met, to know. Wondered which of them Jarod had seen, to understand the consequences he himself, through no fault of his own, would never have had to face.
"You're ... helping people," Jarod said again, a moment later. Once he'd recovered. No questions about Harold's escape, no questions about when or where, or how he'd managed to elude the Center for so long. No need to, really. Harold wasn't a Pretender, not the way Jarod was. But he'd had his own resources, his own skills. Jarod would know that. "I'm not sure how. The mechanism ..." The Pretender waved a hand, almost frustratedly, and Harold almost grinned, feeling a sudden, rather absurd bubble of pride. It wasn't many who could do something beyond a Pretender's understanding. "But you're helping them. How. Why?"
Harold frowned at him. Stayed silent, for a long moment. Jarod was still ranged above him. Still towering over Harold's seat, and there was still some edge of threat, in that. And Harold had never trusted. Not anyone, save one, now perhaps two exceptions. There could be ... any number of reasons for Jarod to want to know this. Among them, perhaps, reasons for the Center to know it, if the echoes of their hunt for this man over the past decade were, in fact, a very long and elaborate set up. If all those times Harold had caught the cybernetic echoes of Center agents pursuing an unknown, and very clever person, all those hurriedly hushed and incomplete law enforcement reports, stretched out across states and years, were falsified. It would be a lot of trouble to go to, to fake that. But it would not be beyond the Center's power. Or mentality. Harold had not survived as long as he had by blindly trusting, had not stayed free, stayed invisible, for so many years by offering the first person who asked the right questions a free answer.
However ... He knew the look, in Jarod's eyes. He'd never been much good at people, never been able to see, the way a Pretender would, what drove them, what made them tick. Never been able to trust, knowing anyone at all could be an alias, a face, a cover. But he knew that bitterness. That desperation. That controlled violence. He knew the desperate, almost inaudible weight placed on the words help people.
He knew what the Center had promised. What the CIA had promised. What so many organisations had promised so many people, over so many years. How many had gone willingly, and been disappointed. How many had gone unwillingly, and been used until there was nothing left.
He knew Jarod. He knew John. He knew himself.
"They designed us for it," he said, softly. "That's what they promised. That we were going to help people. That we were going to help keep them safe." A small, so bitter smile. "All those simulations. You remember? Not just preserve, but predict. Can you track this disease vector? Can you see how someone would kill this person? Can you figure out how to protect this plane against assault?" A low, soft chuckle, watching the darkness in Jarod's eyes, watching the raw pain of him. "We were supposed to keep them safe. We were told to find a way. Remember?"
"I remember." Rasped, raw, bleeding. A genuine Pretender, designed to slip inside any role, understand any job, predict any variable. Designed to infiltrate, understand, protect. To be the most capable agent ever created. To preserve freedom, to preserve safety, to preserve people.
Until the Center revealed their true purpose, and all of that was made a lie.
"I did it," Harold said, very quietly. "I couldn't before. Not by myself. I'm not a Pretender, not the way you are. Not enough data. I needed something ... else. So ... I made it. A way to predict violence. A way to put something in front of it, ahead of it. A way to protect." A slow, dark smile. "And a way that no Center, no government, not even another Pretender, can interfere with. A way none of them can stop. A way none of them can understand."
"Anything can be reverse-engineered," Jarod interrupted softly, but there was something almost hesitant in his voice. Something almost hopeful. "Anything can be corrupted."
Harold nodded. "Yes. But not without starting from scratch. It's a black-box. Unworkable. Even an attempt to study it will cause it to self-destruct. And it can protect itself. Even from me." He disguised the flinch, at that, the dark suspicions that sometimes ... sometimes near crippled him. He put that aside.
"I gave it to them," he continued, softly. "I let them have it, so they could stop the big things. The acts of terrorism, the acts of war. I gave them that, so they wouldn't ... so they wouldn't look for more people like us. To protect us. I gave them what they needed. But ... it predicts so much more. So many ... So many little people. Unimportant people. People that ..."
"Need protecting," Jarod finished, and finally stepped back. Finally eased off the threat, the humming promise of violence. "Like Mr Swarovski."
"Yes," Harold nodded. "I can't ... I can't interfere, not the way you can." He gestured down his body, vaguely frustrated demonstration. "I needed help. I couldn't ..." His face twisted. "I couldn't watch one more, and do nothing. I couldn't ..."
"I know," Jarod interrupted, very gently, and for the first time, there was something real in his smile, as he looked at Harold. Something genuine, like the flash of simple pleasure in John's eyes when they'd saved someone, like the honesty of a murmured thank you. Harold didn't much understand that either, no more than he did John. "And your partner? He agrees to this ..." A flickered smile. "This crusade?"
"He does," a soft, graveled voice answered, behind Jarod, and Harold stiffened, head snapping up in some disconcertion, as John stepped into view from one of the access corridors, his gun pointed calmly and steadily at Jarod's back. Jarod was much calmer, nothing but a slow, rolling tensing of muscles as he turned to keep both of them in view. As he turned to look at John. "You okay, Finch?"
"Perfectly fine, Mr Reese," Harold assured smoothly, half-moving to stand as John paced slowly into the room, keeping the weapon on Jarod. He sat back down when not one, but both of them, waved a quelling hand in his direction. "Jarod is ... an old friend."
Jarod smiled at that, a flicker of raw amusement and a flash of cynicism. John's mouth curved in that so-predatory smirk of his at the sight of it.
"The kind of 'old friend' who has snipers on the opposite rooftop?" John asked mildly, finally settling into position at Harold's side. Jarod was too close for John to actually physically step between them, but the sentiment was certainly there. Harold blinked up at him, opening his mouth to disagree.
"Nah," Jarod got there first, still smiling faintly at them. "I'm more the up-close-and-personal type. When I need to be."
John smiled like a shark. "Really?" he rasped, light and casual, his free hand coming to rest lightly on Harold's shoulder, ready to forcibly shove him back out of the line of fire if need be. "What a coincidence. So am I. When I need to be."
"Gentlemen," Harold started, frowning as the situation appeared to deteriorate around him. "Mr Reese. I'm sure there's no need ..."
"Oh, there probably is, or at least was," Jarod smiled, gently. "That's why you went out of contact with him. So he'd realise something was wrong. Right?"
"Right," John agreed, squeezing Harold's shoulder gently. "He's getting better at that sort of thing, these days." A broader smile, the implication that Harold hadn't been very good at it, until quite recently. Which ... was admittedly true, but, Harold thought with a vague snap of temper, through no real fault of his own. He'd a) never been on the sharp end himself before, and b) never before had anyone to warn or call for aid. Nathan had called him, not the other way around. He would never have put him in danger. John ... was different. And Harold really could not be blamed for initially not knowing how to deal with that.
Jarod just looked at them, smiling. "And what did you think he was going to do while you were on your way here?" he asked, curiously. "He's not armed. Or," he said, with an apologetic glance at Harold, "very capable of physically defending himself."
"Obviously," Harold murmured blackly. This was not something he was unaware of, thank you.
But John just smiled, his hand warm and solid on Harold's shoulder, and there was something flashing between him and Jarod, some undercurrent of knowing or humour that Harold couldn't quite quantify. Again, he was suddenly struck by the similarity of them. The ... familiarity. "I figured he'd think of something," John murmured, still predatory, almost proud. "It's surprising how dangerous a smart man can be. Isn't it?"
Jarod laughed. Outright, delighted, over the shadow of darkness at the words, against the echoing shadow in John, even Harold. "Surprising," he agreed, with a flash of black humour, and there wasn't any of the three of them that didn't understand. That didn't know the reasons why. A smart man with a cause could be the most dangerous weapon in the world. Had been, in fact. And they had, all of them, so much to make up, because of it.
"What are we doing?" Jarod asked, finally. Balancing on the balls of his feet, loose and ready and wary. "Going to capture me? Kill me? Turn me in?" A dark flash, dangerous. "I can tell you a group or two who'd be happy to take me off your hands."
And that's pointed at Harold, right at him, though it was John who's pointing the gun, John who's turned the tables. John who, depending on how much he heard before he made himself known, still didn't know quite what was going on here.
But Harold did. And Jarod did. And at that question, that statement, Harold found himself quietly, bitterly smiling. Old anger, old pain. Old guilt. And a newer and more startling sympathy, that never before John, before Nathan, would he have risked.
"We give them nothing," he said, quietly. Shocking in his calm vehemence, if the twin startled looks sent his way were anything to go by. "Not ever again." He looked up, ignoring the flare of interest in John's eyes, the raw curiosity, and looked to Jarod. Smiled, a little smugly, a little blackly. "I decided twenty years before you did that their interests were no longer mine. What makes you think I'd give them the satisfaction now?"
Jarod said nothing. Smiling faintly. But he relaxed back onto his heels. Settled out of his loose readiness.
"The real question," Harold went on, watching him with something a little like amusement, something a little dangerous all his own, "is what you are going to do about us." He raised an eyebrow, questioning, challenging. He wasn't sure how much chance they'd have against a Pretender, wasn't sure how much hope they'd have against the most perfect agent the Center could create, if it turned out Jarod wasn't so freelance as he seemed, or wasn't so moral as he said. But they'd gone into this knowing it could kill them. And Harold, failed experiment or no, fused spine or no, was not without resources of his own.
Not least of which, the quiet, deadly man at his side, who believed, as much as he did, in second chances, and doing what was right by whatever means presented themselves.
Jarod watched them, for a long minute. 'Old friends', or at least familiar souls, and he had to recognise the desperation in them, the determination, as much as he recognised it in himself. If he really was a Pretender. If he really believed in what they had been meant to be. He had to recognise it, and act accordingly.
If not, Harold was more than ready to fight him, to fight the Center, with every last weapon he had. Like Elias, like Snow. Like everyone else who had and would come for them.
Harold wasn't an agent or an operative, wasn't trained to be dangerous, hadn't the raw talent to be untouchable. He wasn't a Pretender. But he was a very rich, very secretive, and very well-connected man. He was the creator of something the Center would have torn itself apart to obtain, would have chained him to them for eternity had they known he could create it. He was someone who, at the age of 21, had successfully emancipated himself from a very shady and very powerful organisation, and managed to keep himself free ever since, despite doing things for the government that, at the very least, drew attention in certain circles.
He could take Jarod down, if he had to. He could find a way.
But he didn't want to.
And Jarod, it seemed, didn't want to either.
"Nothing," the Pretender said, very quietly. Watching them, the flash of steel in Harold, the violence held under iron control in John at his side. Watching them, remembering Mr Swarovski, maybe. Detective Carter, perhaps. Harold knew he'd talked to her. Whoever else had drawn a Pretender's attention to them. Jarod watched them, and smiled. "I'm going to do nothing. Except ..." He grinned, a remarkably childish expression for a man who had to be approaching his fifties. "If you ever need a hand ...?"
And Harold wondered if it should surprise him that it should be John who answered. John, who made his gun vanish between one breath and the next, and smirked at Jarod, a shared flash of predatory intent that really should have worried Harold, should have surprised him. But it didn't.
Because, for some reason he thought he might never quite understand, despite all those decades of knowing it was a luxury he could never, ever afford ... He trusted John. At least a little. At least enough.
"Oh, I think we can work something out," John murmured, casually dangerous at Harold's side. Jarod grinned back, boyish and deadly. And Harold wondered, in that moment, if the Center had known what they were creating, if they had known what it would come to, if they could have predicted it as his Machine predicted things ... would they have risked it? Would they have dared?
He didn't know. But he thought, maybe, he might like the chance to ask them. If they should stray too far. If they should come under the aegis of his Machine. If they should cause, as they must have, so many times already, a number to flash on his screens.
He thought he might like to ask them. And, like Jarod, he thought he might like to give them a more appropriate answer, too.