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Point of a Pistol

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In a shady bar in a shady neighborhood, Leon gets drunk and meets a beautiful woman, really gorgeous, like, top-shelf hotness; after a couple more drinks she leans in and says, “I would really, really like to go home with you right now,” with a look that promises a night like Leon’s never had.

So of course that doesn’t end well.

In fact, it ends with Leon tied to a kitchen chair, gagged and miserable. His head hurts from whatever she knocked him out with, and his self-esteem hurts because hot girls never pick him up, and when one does, it’s for criminal purposes.

The woman is crouching down in front of him, watching him. She smiles when she sees that he’s awake. “Leon,” she says warmly, like they’re friends and she doesn’t have a really big, shiny knife in her hand. “You’re finally up, huh? I thought you were going to be out forever, sleepy-head.”

Leon grunts.

She says, “What’s all this about, you’re asking? It’s about a lot of things, Leon. Power and technology and money—the usual.” She rises gracefully and leans over him, getting in his face. “Remember your missing money?”

Leon’s eyes widen. He makes a panicked noise; the last thing he needs is for this woman to be an angry white-supremacist, out for money some dog fucking ate.

She shakes her head and says, “That wasn’t really a question,” then smacks his cheek with the flat side of her knife when he doesn’t stop trying to explain. “Leon, I told you to shut up.”

He does. He shuts up, and eyes the gleam of the knife very, very nervously.

“I’m here to give that money back to you,” she says, smiling, white teeth gleaming. Leon swallows. Her smile is like a shark's grin; too many sharp edges, designed to draw blood.

She tilts her head, watching the knife as she draws it up his cheek. “In fact, if you do something for me—a small favor, you understand? You can’t get anything for nothing, these days—I’ll give your money back to you triplefold. If you don’t help me—“ the knife flashes, and the point is against his eye. Leon whimpers and tries not to blink, but she doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ll have no choice but to kill you.”

She leans in even further, her cleavage enhanced by the deep V of her shirt. She smells awesome. Leon whimpers again; life is so unfair.

“I don’t want to kill you, Leon,” she whispers into his ear. “So please don’t make me. Nod once if you understand.”

Leon almost nods, reflexively, but the knife is too close and shiny. He makes a pleading noise he hopes will count as a nod, and the woman laughs.

“Sorry about that.” The knife is gone and she takes a step back, but she doesn’t look any less menacing or insane from a distance.

Or less hot. So unfair.

She takes a USB stick out of her pocket, holds it up so it glitters in Leon's dingy yellow kitchen light. “Now tell me, Leon--how do you feel about the Russian mob?”

~

John’s just gifted Fusco with custody of one bad neighbor (a man who'd plotted to kill the woman next door if her dog relieved itself on his lawn one more time) and a bag of truly disgusting dog feces.

"Evidence," he'd said, with a cheerful quirk of his lips, enjoying the bewilderment and disgust on Fusco's face.

He's walking back to the library, feeling pleased with himself--the aggravation of collection was, in this case, well worth the reaction--when his phone chimes. He's been half-expecting Finch to send a reference for a lawn care company, or a forwarded receipt for the steady delivery of a good quality dog food, so he looks down with a smile. Then the message stops him in his tracks.

Bad dogs deserve what they get.

The number is blocked. It doesn't matter--John doesn't get a lot of anonymous messages. If he did, he'd forward them to Finch to be traced, which is what he should do here. But he hesitates instead. He’s got a gut feeling about this that he can’t ignore. Finch is recovering well from his ordeal; very well, really. But some surprises hit harder than others. This one John will deliver in person, as carefully as he can.

In the meantime--

There are no bad dogs, he texts back, only bad owners.

His phone chirps at him: Message Failed (undeliverable). Retry?

John hits cancel instead of trying again. The message may have bounced back, but he's sure that somehow, somewhere, Root received it.

~

He enters the library quietly. Bear greets him with a thump of the tail, but doesn't move from his comfortable sprawl across the floor. A mangled toy lies nearby, tucked under one of the dog's paws. Bear has clearly had a busy afternoon.

Finch is pulling down photographs from the board. His shirtsleeves are rolled up and his hair is slightly mussed. He has dog hair on his waistcoat. It looks like he's had a busy afternoon, too. John takes a moment to feel the satisfaction of that--the satisfaction which comes of having brought them together, Bear and Finch, for the good of each other. It feels...right, he thinks, in a way that so few things did for so long.

He puts his hand in his pocket, wraps his fingers tight around the cufflink Finch had dropped in the faint hope that John would find him; he's been carrying it like a totem ever since. He feels the shape of it in his hand and hesitates, then sighs. He straightens up and ambles over to Finch’s workspace.

He says, "How much dog food should Ms. Turner be expecting?"

"Twenty pounds every two weeks, for now," Finch says, smoothly pulling down another photograph. John takes another moment to be pleased--it feels good to have Finch not startle at his sudden reappearance. It seems like progress. "Along with a good dewormer. Poor Dixie could use one, judging by the stool sample that you gave Detective Fusco."

John snorts, amused. "He actually had that tested?"

"You've got him well trained," Finch says wryly. He turns, photographs in his hands. "Perhaps you should offer Ms. Turner a few tips of your own."

John shrugs. "Unfortunately, everything I know about dog training, I learned in Dutch." He takes a step closer to Bear, nudges the dog gently. Bear looks up at him, alert, and John says, "Bravy, bravy." Bear thumps his tail against the floor again, puts his head down. He's relaxed, but his eyes are keenly tracking Finch.

John looks up, watches Finch too. "I suspected as much, so I took the liberty of sending along a card for a good trainer," Finch is saying as he crosses the room, settles in front of his monitors. He taps the edges of the photographs together and sets them aside. "And, I must acknowledge, an absolute pile of dog toys." He looks at Bear over the tops of his glasses, frowning, but his eyes are fond. "Sans squeakers."

John smiles. He'd expected as much. It's good to think that in some ways he knows Finch well; that he knows the man, if not his history. But there's something else that he knows, now, and as much as he'd like to keep talking about Dixie the Dalmation, it really shouldn't wait.

He strips off his jacket, settles in the chair next to Finch's. He's aware that Finch is aware of his every move, in the cautious, vigilant way that Finch has, but neither of them acknowledge it. John pulls his phone out of his pocket instead, turns it over and over in his hands. How does he broach this topic? If it were up to him, Finch would never know; he's confident of his ability to protect Finch. Catching her, though? For that, he'll need help.

"I have a message that I need you to track," he says, and hesitates. "I think...it came to me from Root."

Now Finch flinches, startled. John is sorry to have done that to him; he knows it isn't his fault, that it's necessary, but he still feels a flash of regret. Finch looks at him, hands frozen over his keyboard, eyes wide.

John puts his phone down on the table, slides it over. Finch watches it like he might watch a rattlesnake that is threatening to strike.

"It came to me today," John says. "I wanted to forward it to you, but I thought my phone itself might be more useful than just the message."

"Oh, it will be," Finch says. He hasn't taken his eyes off the phone. "But what happens if I say I have no desire to find its origins?"

John leans forward, puts a hand on the back of Finch's chair. The goal isn't to make Finch feel trapped, although that is a potential outcome. John is willing to risk it; he wants to draw Finch's attention, to remind Finch that he is protected. He wants to offer Finch a physical reminder that John will stand between him and Root, quite literally if it comes to that. He wants to offer Finch comfort--however unwelcome that offer might be.

Especially when what he has to say sounds so cold.

"I just don’t care, Harold. She was watching me today, and we need to know from where." He keeps his voice low, steady, a thread of command in it that even stubborn geniuses respond to, in times of crisis.

Finch's mouth thins and his already stiff posture becomes more defensive, but he reaches out for the phone under John's hand. John lets him take it.

“I don't like this," Finch says.

"I know," John murmurs. He weighs the risks and consequences quickly, then touches Finch's hand, light and comforting, a gesture that Finch doesn't acknowledge. This time John says what he's thinking out loud--"I'm sorry."

~

There's no point to him hovering while Finch works his magic on the keyboards. John takes Bear out for a quick walk, then brings him back in and offers a quiet command to watch, to guard--Bear would do it anyway, but John feels better having warned the dog that there might be something unusual to watch for--and then he goes for a quick patrol of the neighborhood. He stays alert for changes, hints of Root's presence, the smell of trouble on the wind.

He brings back take-out, and no news, unless Finch wants to hear about Mr. Nguyen's latest granddaughter. Finch is absorbed in his work, eyes steady on his monitors as information flashes across them, almost faster than John can process. He sets a plate at Finch's elbow and retreats into the stacks with his own meal.

It's very late when Finch sighs and sits back. Reese had long ago fallen into the quiet, still state of watching which had marked many long stakeouts over many long missions, but he stirs as Finch takes off his glasses, pinches the bridge of his nose.

"I might have found something," he says. He puts his glasses back on with a wince, pushes his chair back and rises slowly. "I can't find her but I can find where she started monitoring you--here's the last time I cleared your phone--" Yesterday, late evening-- "And here's her message." This afternoon.

"I could have told you that much," John says. "What else."

Finch gives him a tired glare. "And here is a glitch, a quiet second of fragmented time, into which Root inserted herself. A tiny bit of code to keep me from being able to track her when she contacted you." Almost midnight. John had gone for a walk to clear his head, and then taken a taxi the rest of the journey home. Finch smiles a little as John understands what happened.

"I'm afraid so," he says. "Your cab driver was not all that she seemed."

"She seemed to be a man, for starters," John says. "Passable makeup job."

"Something like that," Finch agrees. He pulls up the driver's license photo and John squints at it, can't be sure--is that him, or Root in thorough disguise?

"That's him, all right. And unfortunately--" A new photograph appears, and John sighs. Finch echoes it. "He's not taking passengers anymore. Unless, of course, there's a job opening across the River Styx."

"Can we prevent her from getting in again?" John asks, voice deadly soft. He closes the picture of the driver and then flattens his hands on the table top for a moment, staring down at them.

"I can prevent her from getting in the same way. And you can make more use of the cars, avoid cabs. But I can't guarantee that I can keep her out entirely." Finch turns to him, and John stands straight, waiting. Light from the monitors catches on Finch's glasses, hiding his gaze from Reese, but his mouth is thin, his shoulders slumped. He's fighting defeat, John realizes, and takes a step closer; they can't give up now.

"The question is, should I keep her out?" Finch asks quietly. "I know what I want the answer to be, but I'm afraid my instincts are wrong, Mr. Reese. It pains me to say this, but might it not be in our best interests to let her in?"

John watches him. "You think you'll be better able to track her."

"Yes." Finch tilts his head back, raising his chin a little. John fights the sudden urge to smile at him--that's it, Harold. Fight back. "At the very least, better the devil we know--or the devil we can locate, anyway--than the devil we don't.”

John reaches out, grasps Finch's shoulder. He's not a big man, but under John's hand, he feels steady and solid. John stops fighting his smile and says, "Harold, I like the way you think."

Finch eyes him but makes no move to shake John off. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a back door to build."

"A trap door," John says, smile widening, and he lets Finch go. But first-- "Which you can build after you eat, Mr. Finch. Waste not, want not."

"You have a lot of grenades for a nanny," Finch complains, but his mouth softens into something almost like a smile, and he picks up his plate as he settles back into place in front of his monitors, so it’s good enough.

"I think I'll go now," John says, while Finch is busy making up for lost dinner-time. "Unless you'd like me to stay and walk you to your door." Teasing, both because he enjoys it and because it disarms Finch--who, he thinks, enjoys that too.

"Not necessary," Finch says, and yes, John thinks that's amusement hiding somewhere in his starchy voice. "The dog's company should suffice."

"How quickly I've been replaced. All right--" and he rests a hand on Finch's shoulder again, quickly, nonchalant, another reminder that he's here-- "Good night, boss. Don't stay up too late."

With that, John slips out of the library. He feels Finch's gaze on him, contemplative, even when he's out on the street, and the only reminder of Finch's steady eyes is the red light of a traffic camera.

~

He doesn't go home, of course. John doubles back and triples back, then settles into the shadows. He watches the library until the small hours of the morning, when Finch finally appears, wearing his dark topcoat and a scarf, Bear beside him on a leash. The air smells like snow. John hadn't realized he was cold, but looking at Finch done up so warmly drives the ignored discomfort home.

Finch has no hesitation in his steps as he leads Bear down the street, and John takes a moment to be proud of him. It couldn't have been easy for him to leave the safety of the library behind, knowing Root could be right there, anywhere, but Finch doesn't look like it bothers him a bit.

Bear's closeness to his side tells John a different story--the dog senses anxiety that Finch won't show--but they move off at a slow, steady pace that is commendable.

And the convoluted path they take isn't easy to follow.

John manages it, of course. Finch has nowhere near his level of training. John could have followed Finch to all of his hidey-holes by now, with Finch none the wiser, were it not for his grudging respect for Finch's boundaries. Well, and the knowledge that Finch could track him right back and find him out--although really, that awareness is a kind of respect, too.

This is different. He doesn't intend to be spotted, nor does he intend to leave Finch with the edgy sense of being followed, but he needs to make sure Finch finds his way safely to whatever location he's chosen to spend the night.

Up ahead of him, just outside the glow of a street light that illuminates the snowflakes which are starting to fall, Finch hesitates for the first time since he'd left the library. John pauses too, watching. Then Finch says something to the dog, who grins up at him, tail gently wagging.

At the next intersection they turn left, decisively. John wonders what had stopped Finch. What had caused that moment's doubt.

At an apartment building a few blocks down, Finch holds the door for an older woman wearing scrubs, says something to her that makes her laugh. And after she's gone, he stands just inside the closed door, silhouetted--John winces, watching him watch the street outside.

Then Finch bends down, unhooks Bear's leash from the collar, and opens the door.

John closes his eyes with a sigh--he hadn't considered this possibility--as Bear makes a bee-line for him. The dog effortlessly finds him in the dark.

"Oh, Bear," John murmurs when Bear sidles sideways against his legs, looking up at him with hopeful eyes. John fishes out a treat and Bear watches his hand closely. Like most dogs who make it through police or military programs, Bear is very food-motivated. John tosses the treat up in the air, and Bear catches it with a white flash of teeth on the way down. "Pfallow," John says, and Bear comes to heel, follows him up the street, casting him eager glances all the way.

Finch holds the door open for him. John enters the building's lobby, quiet and deserted at this late hour, only a few of the really-early shift stirring.

"Bear and I thought it was too cold for you to be out all night," Finch says to him, dryly. He clips the leash back to Bear's collar. The two of them stand there looking at John, the dog with bright, happy eyes; Finch a little more guarded, but not displeased. He has snowflakes beading into water on his collar, and his cheeks are flushed.

"It's not that bad out there. I've sat through worse." Gunfire instead of snowflakes; desert heat instead of the city's plunging winter chill. He has stayed out in much, much worse.

Finch quirks a smile at him. "I'm sure you have. Still. Consider this a reward for following me so faithfully."

"I didn't know this job came with treats," John says, teasing and pleased; not so much by the gesture as by the fact that Finch is making it. This is a man whose favorite breakfast is a closely-held secret. Being invited inside one of his safe places is a reward indeed. If John had known how much so, the first time Finch had brought him to the library, he'd have had no doubts about taking this job at all.

"What can I say." Finch's lips are still curved. He turns, Bear falling into step with him. "Perhaps the dog is training me. Rewards for persistence--whatever will we come to next."

John has some ideas about that, but he keeps them to himself and follows Finch closely, silent and amused.

~

"This is cozy, Harold," John says, standing to the side of the door as Finch settles in--pulling off his coat, putting down food for Bear. Overstuffed couch and armchair, but not expensive ones; a large TV, but not huge; a good rug, but not Persian. Photographs on the walls that appear to be amateur work, inexpensively framed. It's a nice apartment and could belong to anybody, although it seems out of place with Finch’s brilliant billionaire persona.

"I was not always very wealthy," Finch says. He doesn't look at John, takes off his jacket and disappears down a hallway--the sound of a door, door, hangers on a rod--and Finch comes back, pushing his sleeves up. He has strong-looking forearms and long hands.

"Are you hungry?" Finch is heading to his kitchen now and John follows him in there, although the room is small. There's something about being in this comfortable, anonymous space--so perfectly Finch, so no one at all--that is making John feel rough and odd and out of place.

It might have something to do with the way Finch is bustling around, which feels like avoidance to him; John doesn't like it, and it rasps against his own mood.

He opens the fridge door, closes it, pokes at the toaster. Four slices. Who does Finch feed in this apartment?

John crowds Finch at the counter. "I'm not hungry," he says, voice very low. "Tell me, Harold. Are you nervous because Root's out there, or because I'm in here?"

Finch's mouth tightens. "Your sudden lack of regard for personal space is a bit unsettling, but that's a problem easily solved." He's not quite glaring, but it's close.

John considers him, then steps back and takes another thorough look around. The kitchen is homey, for all that it's tiny--it looks like someone cooks here.

John looks back at Finch. Thinks about the comfortably crowded living room, the neighbor in the lobby, Finch's hesitation on the street. He's brought John here on purpose--led him to this place for a reason which goes beyond security.

This is being led into the library, this is being told something Finch keeps closely guarded. This side of him, which likes thick cheap rugs and black and white prints of amateur photographs, is a secret, now shared.

Sudden irritability wiped away, John takes another step back. "I'm not hungry," he says, a hint of apology in his tone. "But I would take a coffee."

Harold relaxes just a little; John only sees it because he's learned to see it. "You'll get tea at this time of night," he says, turning away. "As you well know by now."

"I live in hope," John says, and then he heads back into the living room to give them both some space. He prowls from window to window, notes the basic but effective home defenses in places; a laptop on the desk and another on the small kitchen table tucked in a corner; wonders just how much of the building is wired for Harold's safety and convenience.

A short hall off the living room takes him to two bedrooms, left and right, almost equal size. One follows the theme of comfortably crowded--in this apartment, Harold has knick-knacks. And, John realizes, spotting a doily on a side table, hand-made lace. Nothing fussy, but the stuff a man might collect while living a normal life and receiving normal gifts from long-dead great-aunts. The other bedroom is a little more bare--a guest room. They share a bath. Nothing remarkable at all.

When John is done reconnoitering, he returns to the living room, where Harold is waiting with their tea. John accepts a cup, takes an appreciative sip, and murmurs his thanks.

"What now, Mr. Reese?" Harold asks, sipping his own tea, eyes careful, voice steady.

"Sleep, Harold." John smiles a little. "I'll keep watch."

Harold frowns. "That hardly seems fair. We should take shifts."

"We can take shifts, sure," John says. "And then I'll sit up for both of them and you'll have to deal with me for four hours of silence, when you'd rather be asleep."

They stare at each other for a long, quiet moment. Harold turns his teacup between his hands. "I don't like this plan," he says abruptly, eyes narrow. “But I'm tired and I'm certain that if I insist, you'll sleep tomorrow." It's not just a statement, it's a command.

"I'll sleep tomorrow," John agrees. He'll need it, but he'll wait until they're somewhere he's a little more sure of than this comfortable old apartment.

"Then I'll wish you a good night, again--and trust that this time, I won't be followed."

"Not this time," John says, smiling.

"I hate when you make agreement sound like a threat," Harold says with a sigh, then he whistles for Bear and heads down the hall, cup in hand, not looking back.

John watches him go, then takes another sip of his own tea. The urge to poke around is strong, but he needs to focus on other things tonight, and one of those should be to not abuse Harold's trust.

Much.

He does take a book off a shelf. For a man who owns a library, Harold has surprisingly few books, at least in this place. Then he turns out the light and settles into a chair by the window.

The book is for focus, not reading. John watches the street and turns pages, studying by feel. This one is a little dog-eared, this one has a small tear. This entire section feels soft and worn, like it's been read more than the rest. The book is probably 40 years old, and feels every day of that.

James Bond, John thinks, and smiles. Harold is a fan. Who would have guessed?

~

The night passes quietly. If Root is out there, perhaps she’s gone to ground; vicious sociopaths are only human after all, and need to sleep as much as anyone else.

John stays awake. He’ll sleep too, eventually.

In the early morning, Harold emerges from his bedroom looking rested. He is as precisely dressed as ever. In the golden, warm light of day, he seems both out of place in such a middle-class apartment and completely at home.

"Omelet?" he offers and John says, "Yes, please.” He feels like he'll learn something from Harold's ordinary-life omelet.

What he learns, watching Harold bustle around the kitchen, is that the man ought to be a short-order cook. Also, that his arteries are probably hard as rocks. Butter, cheese, bacon--no fat is spared.

Harold notices his attention and sniffs. "I am allowed to indulge," he says, haughty as hell.

"Never said you weren't." John murmurs, and hides the curve of his lips behind his coffee cup. Harold glares at him, Bear leans against his knee, and the smell of frying egg fills the kitchen. All in all, tired and worried as he is, John hasn't had many better mornings.

~

They walk back to the library side by side. "If Root is watching this closely, what's the point of hiding," Harold says, staring straight ahead. Bear crowds him and John takes his elbow for a minute, says, "Steady, Harold," even though he knows that Harold is fine.

Harold checks the library security and, satisfied by what he sees, nods at John. "Safe enough," he says. "Rest if you can."

John absolutely can. He sits, crosses his arms over his chest, ignores Harold's tsking-- "You can't sleep like that--" and drops off almost instantly. He's tired, and the library has become a restful place, after all this time.

He dreams, and he doesn't, going easily from one sleep stage to another. There's a train coming, a car on fire, a raging river of books, a quiet peace when he rouses a bit. He's used to the dreams, but the half-waking peace is new. It's almost enough to drag him completely awake once or twice, but as he surfaces, he hears Harold talking quietly to the dog, or the steady clicking of keys that is Harold organizing the world, and that is enough to settle him under again.

They're safe here, he thinks fuzzily, all of them; the train comes on time, the car drives away, fishing in the river of books nets him a bright paper fish, the quiet peace settles gently against his more unsettled, restless edges. Harold and Bear are here, safe and sound, and John...just sleeps, somehow content.

~

When he wakes up, it's early afternoon. The light in the library is dusty and warm. Harold is sitting at his table, his chin on his fist, his eyes focused on Bear, chewing away at a red rubber toy whose shape had made Harold raise an eyebrow when John first took it out of the bag. John watches him for a moment through half-closed eyes, knowing Harold is lost in his own world and probably doesn't realize he's awake.

When watching Harold that way starts to feel unfair somehow, John shifts. He yawns noisily to signal that he's up now.

"Very subtle, Mr.Reese," Harold says, not looking away from the dog. His eyes are wide behind his glasses and his mouth curves into a frown.

John feels rested, surprisingly at ease, and he regretfully shakes that off. He stores away the memory of it though--of the light, and the room, and the surprising man he's sharing them with--for another time.

"What's happened?"

"Nothing," Harold says, still lost in his own thoughts, distant.

John stares at him. He knows how to wait a man out.

"Oh, no, truly--it's nothing," Harold says after a long, silent moment. He blinks and sits back, turns his clear grey eyes to John's. "No news, no activity--not even a new Number."

John waits.

"Silence is not as effective a technique as you think, Mr. Reese."

John cocks an eyebrow, then smiles slowly. Silence is the most effective technique, as Harold surely knows. Especially for dealing with reclusive, paranoid billionaires.

Harold scowls at him. "I liked you better when you were asleep. But oh, all right--I liked New York better before I knew Root was back in it. She frightens me, Mr. Reese. I'm not ashamed to tell you that much. And to be honest, she makes me sad. All that beautiful potential, lost."

He sighs, then gives John the hint of a smile. "I hate to see a perfect talent go unused, as well you know."

"Mine isn't a perfect talent," John says steadily. "If it was, you wouldn't have to be afraid of Root."

“Don't oversimplify the matter. She and I have been on a collision course for a long time, that much seems obvious to me now. I was just lucky I had you to minimize the damage. The damage to me, that is.” He raises an eyebrow at John. “The Machine is another issue.”

John keeps his gaze even, mild.

Harold tilts his head, sighing. “I think that if you were any better at what you do, you'd have damaged something important to this city in your attempts to get me back. You could have convinced the Machine to bring it to ruins.”

"I would have if I'd had to, Harold. Make no mistake about that. It wasn't a lack of ability that kept me from tearing everything apart." John smiles. Harold doesn't know--although perhaps he has an idea--what John was like when he was gone. What John could have done. "What held me back was knowing how unhappy you'd be about the mess."

Harold blinks, then looks away. "I shouldn't find that reassuring," he says, mostly to himself.

"Yes, Harold. You should." John stands, stretches, pretends not to notice when Harold stares at him with considering eyes. "But--that's perhaps a topic for another time. After I've eaten. If there's nothing new, and nothing to do, what would say say to a walk? Lunch, perhaps, somewhere nice and public?"

"Let's go out and bait the tiger?" Harold asks, half-joking, half-nervous, but he climbs to his feet, takes the leash that Bear hops up and brings him.

"No. Let's go out and tear her down," John says, smiling, and he rests his hand on Harold's shoulder as they venture back out into the fray.

~

Harold does very well for the first half-mile of their walk, but gets more anxious the further they go from any of his known safe places.

"She might be underground again, you know," he says, as they amble slowly through the park. "Root--her mind, damaged as it may be, is designed for the long con. The short-term satisfaction of tormenting us is nothing compared to the long-term triumph of accessing the Machine."

"It's true," John says, patient, agreeable. "She's very intelligent, very cold. Used to operating from the shadows."

Harold angles towards him, eyebrows raised. John looks back at him, waiting.

"I sense a but in that statement," Harold says, giving in; he's calmer now, his focus shifted.

"But she's unhinged." John scans the crowd around them--the light dusting of snow doesn't seem to have kept people indoors on a sunny Saturday afternoon. "She's no longer operating under her old constraints. Killing the taxi driver, alerting me to her presence--that's desperation, under a thin layer of what looks like planning. Not to worry you or anything, Harold," he says. "But I think she's cracking."

"Well, one of us had to," Harold murmurs. "Nonetheless--"

"Harold." John stops, draws Harold to the side of the path, out of the way of traffic. He rests his hand on Harold's shoulder and looms over him, eyes on his. "The thing to think about here is, does it make a difference? If she's watching, then we're drawing her out. If she isn't watching--well, we've had a nice walk, we'll get a bite to eat and a cup of something hot, and we're ready to go back to work. Win/win, wouldn't you say?"

Harold looks up at him unhappily. "It's difficult to see you as an optimist, Mr. Reese."

"A confident realist," John corrects. "Look--" he hesitates, searching the sharp grey of Harold's eyes. "Caution is useful, and we'll be careful." His voice softens. "You know that I'll be careful. But you can't let fear run your life."

Harold sniffs but doesn't look away. "I'd rather suffer an overabundance of caution than abduction and possible murder at the hands of a madwoman."

"I understand if you've got cold feet," John says, and he does. "But just last night you told me, maybe it's better if we draw her in. If you've truly changed your mind, then all right, we go back and you try to find me a way to get to her. I'll do it, Harold--you find me the thinnest thread, and I'll follow it all the way to hell and back--"

"There is no thread, or I'd have found it already--" Harold interrupts, face tightening with anger.

John tightens his grip on Harold's shoulder, leans closer. Harold doesn't back away, stubbornly holding his ground. Good, John thinks, and he says softly, "Then help me create one."

After a long, tense moment, Harold pulls away. He straightens his coat, coils Bear's leash more tightly around his hand and starts walking.

"You're bossy, Mr. Reese," he says as John catches up with him. "But I suppose you aren't wrong."

John smiles and tucks his gloved hands into his pockets, brushing Harold's arm with his. "Just trying to help."

"Yes, well." They walk in silence until Harold sighs. "Surprisingly enough, for all my complaining, I do know that." He casts a quick glance at John. "And...you do help."

"Why, thank you, Harold," John says and his tone may be quietly teasing, but he's pleased too. Judging by the way Harolds color rises, a quick flush over his cheekbones and the tips of his ears, that must be obvious.

"Don't get smug," Harold says. "Locks also help, and they don't try to give the orders around here."

"I'll keep that in mind," John murmurs, and he gently guides Harold out of the park.

~

Harold's moment of hesitation is a moot point. She hasn't gone underground. She was out there in the park, somewhere, and she's not afraid for them to know it.

John's phone chimes as they settle into the back of the towncar for the ride to the library's block. Harold had called for the car without asking John about it; he's tired, the skin around his eyes and mouth drawn tight. John would have done the same if Harold hadn't already taken care of it. But at the sound of John's phone alerting him to a message, Harold's tired face goes white; he meets John's gaze with a hint of panic in his eyes.

John mouths it's okay to him, then checks the phone.

It's an image file--the two of them entering the park, Bear trotting happily at Harold's side, John looking almost directly at the camera without seeing it.

She was well-concealed, he notes, unsurprised.

A second chime.

Hanna's memory is the reason you're alive right now. Next time, you might not be so lucky.

He replies, saying out loud for Harold's benefit, "You'd have pulled the trigger if you had the shot." His phone chirps: Message Failed. "Try harder," he sends. Message Failed.

Silence for a moment. Harold is watching him and he watches his phone. He knows she won't let him have the last word.

Then, in a rush:

I won't risk Harold.

I don't want to hurt him.

You should tell him that.

Tell Harold that if he comes to me peacefully, this will all be much faster and involve a lot less bloodshed.

Tell Harold that maybe none of it will be yours.


"We're not interested," John sends back. "See you soon."

Not if I see you first.

"Juvenile," Harold says, taking John's phone from him. He pops the battery out, looks over the hardware of the phone with feigned interest, as if he hadn't seen it a hundred times before; as if he hadn't had a hand in its design.

"Not juvenile. I told you, Harold. She's unhinged." John shakes his head. "I know this is hard to believe, but trust me; I think we got lucky. Something happened. She's going to snap--and we're going to be there when she does."

"I can't wait," Harold says dryly. He pockets the pieces of John's phone then spends the rest of the ride tugging Bear's ear, much to the dog's satisfaction.

John watches him, taking note of the signs of stress; the tight mouth, the raised chin, the eyes restlessly tracking. Harold is looking out the car's tinted windows, searching every face for one that might be hers.

John shifts in his seat, knee coming to rest against Harold's. Bear happily resettles himself to make room, his head still on Harold's knee. Harold doesn't seem willing to pay them any more attention than he has already done, but he doesn't move away from them, either, silently taking the comfort offered.

He sits still, watching Harold's tense profile, feeling the warmth of him through layers of wool. He sits and watches and thinks of Root's offer--give Harold up, in hopes of less bloodshed? How stupid of her. How careless. What a bad, short-sighted, desperate move.

And this is what he won't tell Harold, because it's not reassuring, because it's not optimistic or realistic or even, necessarily, sane, but John knows it's true. She'd never have made that offer if she was paying enough attention. If she was truly focused on the situation at hand. If she knew--

If she knew what she was up against, she'd know that it would take so much more than the threat of bloodshed for John to lose him now.

~

There is still no new Number.

"I could use a distraction," Harold tells his monitors, but nothing happens. He's checked on all his various sources; he's traced the newest Root-created glitch on John's phone, plugged that hole and created a new one very carefully; he's checked his own phone and all his security systems without finding any flaws or breaches; he's used every distraction he's got.

He's made tea. Lots and lots of tea.

"You could use some sleep," John says. "Which safehouse will you go to ground in tonight?"

Harold sits back and tsks at him. "I'm not going to just tell you these things, Reese."

"I promise not to think less of you for failing to maintain your air of mystery, Harold." John leans against the edge of the table, crosses his arms over his chest, but Harold watches him with a look of wide-eyed stubbornness.

"All right--how about this. Use your skills to book us the nicest room you can find, as anonymously as you can manage. Bury the details so far down that it would take a team of investigators a hundred years to trace it to you."

"I'm not here to play games with security," Harold says, but he's already turning back to his computer. "And I'm certainly not going to spend an indecent amount of money entertaining you for the night."

Reese grins at him. "You certainly shouldn't," he agrees. "Especially since I'm...so easy to entertain. But for safety's sake, and because you're bored, and because I'm not leaving you alone, find us something nice. Show me what you can do."

Harold doesn't seem to be listening, but tab after tab is opened on the screen, Harold creating and forwarding and destroying information as he goes.

Reese leans down, close to his ear. "And when you're done, when you've erased all your tracks--go back and leave a trail, Harold. Make it look like a mistake. Give Root something to do, too."

Harold’s hands stumble on the keyboard. "And then we'll stay somewhere on the opposite side of the city, correct?"

"No, Harold," John says. He takes a deep breath, watches Harold watch him from the corner of his eye. "And then we'll go see what she does."

~

They walk into the lobby of the Plaza Hotel, and John can't help but hide a smile behind his hand. "Really, Harold?" he asks, again.

Harold is getting defensive. "You didn't exactly give me much notice," he snaps. "I can't help it if our best option turned out to be so mainstream."

"You're right," John says. He tucks his hands into his pockets. His tie is undone, his hair slightly mussed; Harold looks every inch the rich, fussy businessman, and John knows he looks like easy trade, if you're not watching his eyes. Of course, half the people here wouldn't care if he was an escort, he thinks, looking around; at worst, they'd be pleasantly scandalized. The other half would want his contact information.

The person he's looking for, though--either isn't here, or is getting better at hiding in plain sight every time.

"Come on," he says, tugging Harold along when he seems disinclined to move, mouth curled in a moue of distaste for how low he's sunk; a five-figure suite in a five-star hotel. Last night he'd slept in a room with a handmade doily on the bedside table; this morning he made John an omelet in a galley kitchen. He'll cope. "Check us in, Mr. Swan-Oliver. Hey, do you think there will be a chocolate on my pillow?"

Harold looks up at him. "If there isn't, I'm taking ten entire dollars off the price of the room," Harold says, and the reluctant curve of his lips makes John grin too.

"You don't get to be a billionaire without being cheap," he says with a shrug, and then he sits back and watches Harold turn his crabby money aura all the way up as they're deferentially guided to a lovely, and very expensive, suite.

~

Harold dismisses the butler irritably. His performance of entitlement and wealth has gone extraordinarily, and somehow charmingly, over-the-top.

John huffs out a near-silent laugh.

"Well, he'll certainly give us up now," Harold says, satisfied, as soon as the man closes the door behind him. John raises an eyebrow, and Harold adds, "Well, faster, and for less money anyway." Then his eyes widen. "Oh--you don't think--"

"I planted a bug on him," John says, shrugging. "We'll know in time."

"Just when I start to relax." Harold sighs, then pulls a laptop out of his bag. "Well, Mr. Reese--shall we check and see if she's following our trail?"

"With pleasure, Harold," John says and sits beside him.

~

An hour later, bored into restlessness, John makes Harold walk him through the Plaza's security measures, its more clandestine security measures, and the security measures under those.

"Swiss cheese," Harold says, lip curled.

An hour after that, John walks himself through as much of the security as he can without rousing more than passing interest. "Swiss cheese," he says on his way back through their door. "I wish we'd been able to bring Bear."

"Fusco does too," Harold murmurs, glow of the laptop screen reflected in his glasses. "You really ought to teach him how to get the dog to mind his basic commands."

John shrugs. "He minds you. He minds me. That's enough."

"And in one voice, babysitters across the nation cry out." Harold leans back against the overstuffed arm of the sofa and sighs. “Nothing yet. I can’t believe the trail I left her was too difficult to follow--speaking of Fusco, he could probably manage it--but not one hit at all.”

“Maybe she’s busy.”

Harold eyes him. “Root being busy is hardly good news.”

“Good news isn’t the point, Harold. Getting some rest while you’ve got some decent defenses up and plenty of time--that’s the point.”

Harold sniffs at him, but doesn’t argue. "You should get some sleep yourself," he says instead. "You look tired."

"I don't," John says, comfortably assured.

"No," Harold says. "But I am tired just thinking about your nap in that chair, so you must be exhausted whether you look it or not, and you have a gun. I would feel better about that combination if you rested. And for the moment, I feel confident that if Root tries to come to us here, we will have plenty of notice."

John hesitates, but Harold's confidence seems sincere. If they'll have warning, then he shouldn't waste the opportunity to rest. Harold is right. It will be better for his brain, and his reflexes--and, he thinks, his control.

He slips off his suit coat, unbuttons his cuffs, watches Harold watching him. When he pulls the tail of his shirt out of his waistband and starts to undo his buttons, Harold looks away, swallowing heavily. John grins, shrugs out of the shirt and drapes it over the arm of the couch. He's wearing a white undershirt but is aware that it doesn't exactly make his look of the moment modest.

He crosses to his bag, left by the coffee table when Harold was harassing the butler. He pulls out a toiletry kit, makes sure to stand just within Harold's line of sight. "I'll sleep," he says, and Harold looks up at him, eyes careful behind the shield of his glasses. "But if you need me, I'll be right over there--don't hesitate, all right?"

"All right," Harold says, irritably, with a forced kind of casualness--Harold doesn't do casual--and turns back to his laptop.

John watches him for a moment, then turns to go, but Harold stops him with a sharp, "Mr. Reese."

John turns back, slowly. Harold's hands are poised on the laptop keys. He looks at John and tells him, imperiously, "Don't forget to hang your shirt and coat."

"Of course." John doesn't bother to hide his amusement. "How could I?" He scoops them up and drapes them over his arm. "Good night, Harold," he says, and turns away again, pleased with Harold's softly murmured, "Good night."

~

Root doesn't trip any of Harold's alarms that night, but the next morning, when they get to the library after picking up Bear, John's phone chimes again with an anonymous message.

Pictures--some city buildings John recognizes but doesn't know for any particular reason, townhouses, a few huge old buildings. Night shots, the light edging towards day.

Did you think I wouldn't know where you were, John?

A last image: the Plaza.

I knew when my little bird had flown the coop.

"My safe houses," Harold says, when John shows him. "Well then. What used to be my safe houses."

"I'm sorry," John says, thinking of Harold bustling around his tiny galley kitchen, wondering if he’ll go back for any of his old, flea market treasures.

"No matter," Harold tells him, although it clearly does matter. "Just real estate. I've been looking to make some ownership transfers anyway. May I have your phone, please?"

John hands it over, and Harold plugs it into one of his computers, begins tracing the time of the glitch in John's system that let Root get through this time.

He's frowning. “Hmm,” he murmurs, and switches to another monitor.

“Hmm?” John comes to stand behind his shoulder.

"Yes, hmm. This is interesting, Mr. Reese--she doesn't appear to have used the last glitch I left to let her in.” Harold looks up, mouth thin, his shoulders stiffening with tension. “It seems to me...the only way she could have gotten in this time is if she was already there."

John freezes. "What does that mean, exactly?"

"I'm not sure, but nothing good. Here." Harold digs in his pocket, takes out his own phone. "Do me a favor," he says, holding it out. "Take my phone today. I'll keep yours here. Be careful, but public. Go into some crowds if you can. Give her an opening."

"She can't get through your phone," John murmurs, taking it. "But that's the point?"

"Indeed. I thought I knew what she was doing, Mr. Reese, but I appear to have been partially wrong. Go out, give her a chance to try. We'll see how she reacts when she fails."

"Can I play games on it?" John asks, twirling the phone before sliding it into his pocket, where it bumps up against the cufflink Harold probably doesn't know John kept.

Harold raises an eyebrow at him, dismissive, then turns back to his monitors. "Just don't wipe out my high scores."

~

John takes a walk, runs a couple errands--their cache of snacks was getting low on things that weren't leftover Hot Pockets--and has lunch alone in a crowded diner.

He checks in with Harold perhaps too often, but his last check-in, on the walk back, is with a Harold who sounds tense and angry.

"I thought you didn't eat in the field, Mr. Reese," he says. "But here I am, looking at a photograph of you taken from an interesting vantage point--behind the counter, if I'm not mistaken--enjoying what appears to be a very fine club sandwich."

"A man has needs, Harold," John says. He isn't quite shoving through the crowds around him, but being tall and lean and long-legged gives him some advantages. He's moving fast. "Was there a message?"

"Yes," Harold says grimly. "'Cat and mouse is so much more fun with a brilliant bird.'"

John curls his lip.

"I know," Harold says, and at least now he's judging Root harshly enough to not be anxious for a moment. "I'm tracing it now. If this is the message that helps us find her, I'm afraid I don't know if I'll be able to let her hear the end of it. Oh--"

"What is it, Harold?" John puts a little extra reach in his step at the worried note in Harold's voice.

"I can't trace this message any further than the others, but John--" and it's the rare use of his name that has John breaking into a run, "It might be best if you hurry back."

"Harold? Harold!" But Harold has cut the connection.

It's only a few more blocks to the library, even along the circuitous route that John prefers to use for security. He covers the ground as quickly as he can, hoping that their cat and mouse game with Root hasn't just gotten deadly.

~

All their security measures appear to be in place as John charges up the stairs. When he reaches the gate, it's unlocked, but Bear is standing in the hall wagging his tail. John quickly greets the dog, then looks at the desk--

Harold has his phone plugged into the USB outlet still, and is furiously typing away. All is well, although Harold is not happy.

"She got in. She hacked back into my own damn system."

"How is that possible, Harold?" John asks, displeased, prowling closer. "I'd have figured you for a guy who would learn from his mistakes."

Harold doesn't even bother to stop typing when he looks up and gives John a brief glares. It's almost disconcerting, the way his fingers fly across the keys, typing one thing as he says something entirely else. "I did. I closed the holes in my network, I strengthened the firewall; she's not coming in through another Trojan. She'd have to have been here to do this.” Harold shakes his head. "She found our physical location, John. She was in the library.”

He pauses, looking up. His eyes lock on John’s, realization dawning on his face. "Or she found--created--an inside man."

John stops in his tracks, thinking for one terrible second that Harold is questioning him. But he dismisses that idea. Harold isn't looking at him with the expression of a man whose faith in him has been betrayed. John has seen that look before; memories burned into his mind, painful in their clarity. This is something else, but who--

Only one other person has been in the library recently.

Understanding dawns, and it pisses him off.

He stands still, wanting to pace, wanting to go out and fix this, wanting to blow something up. Not his wisest options, he knows, and takes a slow, deep breath. The plan he's already formulating is a better idea--and perhaps more satisfying.

He puts his hand on Harold's shoulder and grips it gently, says, "Can you find the door she's using?"

"Yes." Harold is distracted, fingers flying again as he tries to track Root down. "I'm on to it already. She's an elegant coder, but not flawless."

John says, "Get rid of it. Get rid of it, take a laptop, and let's go."

Harold ignores him, frowning as he works. Lines of code scroll across his screen, which abruptly goes dark. John tightens his grip, worried, but Harold makes a satisfied noise. Then he looks up and seems to register John's words. "Go where?" he asks. He pushes back his chair. "If the location of the library is compromised--well, nowhere is more safe than the library, Mr. Reese."

"Oh, I think there might be one place," John says, and smiles.

~

John puts on his FBI windbreaker, grabs a badge from his stash, considers it, ditches it, grabs another. And then he gets out his handcuffs.

"Come on, Harold," he says, smiling crookedly. "Got to make it look real."

Harold cocks an eyebrow, but holds out his hands. "Is this quite necessary, Mr. Reese?" he says, as John carefully handcuffs him, leaving plenty of room. He doesn't want the handcuffs to be an irritant--they're just for show.

Harold twists his hands, testing the limits of the cuffs, a considering look in his eyes. "First time, Harold?" John asks, voice silky and amused. There isn't really time for this, but Harold looks like he could use the distraction.

"A gentleman never speaks of his history as a political activist and minor arsonist," Harold says absently. If there really is a history there, by God John wants to hear about it; another time, perhaps. Harold is looking up at him, faintly worried. "How long will you be gone?"

John hesitates, then closes his hands over the cuffs, wrapping them around Harold's wrists. Comfort offered; under his grip, Harold's hands relax. "I'll be back shortly, and then we'll get to the bottom of this--we'll get to her. But for now, this is the safest option I can think of. Do you trust me?"

"The man asks after he applies the handcuffs."

"Harold," John says quietly.

"Oh all right, Mr. Reese; if you must insist." Harold looks uncomfortable with the admission but says, "Yes, I trust you. Now, are you going to remand me into custody, or are we going to stand here and chit-chat all day?"

"Well, as much as I like talking to you, I do have plans for the afternoon," John says, deeply satisfied, and reluctantly he shifts his grip to Harold's elbow. He reaches into the car, grabs the laptop Harold deemed clean enough for use, and whistles for Bear to hop out. Together they head into the police station, to seek safety only a breath away from the threat of being revealed.

~

John flashes his stolen ID as needed to get them through the precinct without being questioned, and he marches them directly to Carter's desk. She looks up, surprised.

"I've been arrested," Harold says loudly and terribly; he's no actor, but he usually does a smoother job than this. John sighs. Harold might trust him but this plan makes him nervous, and it shows.

“So I see," Carter says. She leans back in her chair, arms crossed over her chest, eyeing Harold and then John.

John nods, just a little. "I need to find...a rather dangerous former associate of his. One who’s causing us all a bit of trouble. Can I trust you to keep him safe for an hour or so, Detective?"

Carter's eyes are kind. "You know you can, Agent." She stands, comes around the desk. "Come on, Mr.--"

"Swift," John says. Beside him, Harold sniffs.

Carter's lips quirk. "Come on, Mr. Swift," she says, taking Harold's other arm. "Why don't we make you a little more comfortable."

Go, she mouths to John. He nods, gives Harold as brief a reassuring glance as he can manage; this isn't the time or place for a deeper conversation, but he doesn't want Harold to worry unduly. This isn't the dangerous part. This part is going to be fun.

He calls Bear to heel, and walks away.

~

It isn't actually hard to find Leon. There are only so many shady bars in the city, really; John knows enough of them to have a good idea of where to start.

It takes a couple hours and a little networking with some of the more gregarious of his friends from the streets, but eventually he is looming behind Leon Tao. The guy sitting next to him vacates his stool silently, but Leon doesn't seem to notice. If he is an operative, he is a terrible operative.

"Leon," John says quietly, and Leon startles. He turns to look behind him, his eyes going wide and panicked when he registers that yeah, it's no case of mistaken identity, that's John standing there. He tries to jump up, and manages to fall out of his chair.

Terrible operative.

John waits him out, patiently, having expected about as much. Leon lands on his wounded arm, which is unfortunate. Not that unfortunate, of course; he took advantage of John's good faith and Harold's kindness. John doesn't offer him help up. He looms instead, and Leon, wisely, stays on the floor.

The other patrons clear away. No one here wants trouble. It's convenient, but Leon should really learn to choose friendlier places.

John watches impassively as Leon struggles to sit, cradling his wounded arm against his chest, saying, "How did you--" and then his face crumples. "Is your friend--"

"Not dead," John says, then cocks his head. "Though not for your lack of trying, I suppose. Tell me, Leon. How did she get to you? Or were you a plant all along?"

Leon hesitates, clearly thinking about his options. Lie? Partial truth? John shifts his weight just a little, threatening, and Leon says, "Uh. Okay. My money."

John raises an eyebrow. "Your money?"

"The money, the money," Leon clarifies hurriedly. "The money--she promised I could have it back. She told me, if I just got into your friend's system, I could get it all back. I could get, uh, double back."

Why is it always so easy to turn people with something as simple as money? For the sake of a kidnapped child, for the safety of the nation; there are reasons John could understand, if not respect. But never money. "So you made a deal with the devil."

Leon nods. "I thought I was helping her stalk an ex--I figured your partner was like, some hot bisexual guy or something--no offense," he adds, "I figured that you'd be there, you'd keep things with her from going too far."

"And hacking his system wasn't too far?"

"Well," Leon rests his head against the bar, looks up pleadingly. "Well, when I saw the guy--uh, no offense, really--I knew I must've had it wrong. There must've been more to it. And then I worked with you guys that day and I thought, nah, something's off here. So I uploaded the software, left a message for you guys to find, and figured you'd handle the rest."

"Harold helped you," John says, angry; that is the part of Leon's betrayal that has him so infuriated, on top of the basic disgust with the lack of honor--it's the thought of Root using Harold's own innate decency against him.

"And I left a warning." Leon held up his good hand. "He found it, didn't he? My note? I left it three Hot Pockets down from the top of the stack, I thought that wasn't too far, but it was safer than trying to leave something on the computers."

"The Hot Pockets." John says, then crouches down and whispers into Leon's ear, cold with rage, "They were for you."

Leon flinches away from him, and then deflates.

"I never have figured out how to do the right thing," he says sadly.

John reaches out and twists his hand in the collar of Leon's shirt. He picks him up off the ground, twists his good arm behind him, and pushes him out the door. He stalks off toward his car with Leon frog-marching beside him, Bear waiting with wide eyes in the passenger seat. The dog pants happily as John shoves Leon into the small, cramped space that pretends to be a backseat, then leans in close and whispers, "You'll learn."

~

He marches Leon into the police station, too.

“Look at you,” Carter says when he stops in front of her desk. “You gonna leave anyone out there for me to arrest?”

John shrugs. “Maybe a few people. No one interesting. Can I have my other prisoner back?”

“You want to trade?” Carter asks, rising and heading off down the hall.

John pushes Leon to follow her. “No, I need them both,” he says. “But I may need your help too, Detective. Do you know where Fusco is?”

“In my back pocket, where I keep him in case you come here to ask me that.” Carter opens the door to an interrogation room. At the table, Harold looks up, eyes wide and tired.

“Ah, Leon,” he says, and sits back. “You certainly do know how to return a favor.”

To his credit--what scant credit John is willing to give him--Leon looks miserable. “I’m really sorry,” he says to the floor, not looking any of them in the eye. “You have to believe me, I never meant like, for you to get hurt, or anything.”

“Yes, well,” Harold says. His voice is cold enough, sharp enough, to make Carter look at him in surprise. John is only surprised that Harold hasn’t unveiled a plan to destroy Leon yet. “Be that as it may, Mr. Tao, you have set us all down a path which leads to someone getting hurt. I trust your reasons were important?”

“Money,” John says. “Only money.”

Harold’s lip curls. “Always money. All right. Well, the gang’s all here now, Mr. Reese. What’s our next step?”

John tilts his head. “How do you feel about a trip upstate, Harold?”

“Not my favorite time of year for it,” Harold says. He’s still watching Leon, who is resolutely not watching him. “But I do have a nice house in Skaneateles, as it happens. We could be there in oh, five hours or so, if that fits with your plan.”

“Let’s say ten,” John says. “I have a few preparations to make. Oh, and Carter?”

She raises an eyebrow at him.

John smiles, slowly. “I’m afraid you’ll need to drag Fusco out of your pocket, Detective. He’s got some more babysitting to do.”

~

“You want your handcuffs back?” Carter asks John as they make their way out of the building; she’s pushing Leon ahead of her and John is shepherding Harold with a hand on his elbow; Bear is on Harold’s other side, looking up at him with every step.

“Not necessary,” John says, and is amused by Harold’s sidelong, dubious glance. “I have other sets.”

Outside, Fusco is waiting with a car. “I have things to do, you know,” he says as they come down the stairs towards him. “I have cases of my own to solve. I have--”

“Nothing pressing, Detective,” Harold says. “I’ve seen your assignments. They’ll keep.”

Carter and Fusco both look at Harold, unhappy. He frowns back at them. “You left me alone with a laptop and a pitifully weak firewall. What did you expect, that I would play FreeCell?”

“I expected you’d be working on your own problems,” Carter says. Fusco opens the back door of his car and she guides Leon in, telling him, “Watch your head.” Leon slumps into the seat, looking miserable.

“I still don’t think I can be a big help,” he says. “I mean, I’m a wimp, you must’ve figured that out by now. I’m not that great at this crime-fighting thing. My favorite superhero was absolutely not Batman. I have 800-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets that I hide under when I get scared at night, you know what I mean?”

“It’s not the thread count,” Harold says, only a trace of snobbery in his tone. “It’s what you do with it.”

John hides his smile, then takes a step closer to the car, leans down to look at Leon. “You don’t have to be brave,” he says. “You just have to survive for a few more days. You do want to survive for a few more days, don’t you, Leon?”

“Ask me tomorrow,” Leon says, closing his eyes and sighing.

“If the detectives do their job correctly, maybe I’ll have a chance,” John says. He closes the door and walks back to Harold and Bear, waiting on the curb; he can tell by Harold’s posture that he’s anxious, and Bear has leaned up against his leg, protective and comforting. John moves to Harold’s other side, stands close behind his shoulder. He’s aware of the fact that he and Bear have similar missions, and he’s not bothered by that knowledge; nor, he thinks as Harold casts him a considering glance, is his partner.

Carter is standing by the car, her eyes on the busy streets around them, nodding at cops and other passersby who hail her. She has her arms crossed over her chest, ponytail dancing in the stiff, cold breeze; she looks sharp and smart and professional, and John appreciates that her looks are not deceiving. She’s not happy about this plan, but he can trust her to execute it correctly.

Fusco, on the other hand....

Will you do your job correctly?” he asks, and Fusco scowls at him.

“I don’t deserve that,” he complains. “I do everything you ask--hell, I do everything everyone asks--and do I get any respect out of it? No, it’s ‘Fusco, I don’t trust you,’ this, it’s ‘Fusco, you’re a moron,’ that. I should tell you to fuck off and handle this yourselves, but I’m here, aren’t I, with everything you wanted?”

“Your attitude is not reassuring,” John says, but Fusco is at least partially correct; he has turned out to be a much more reliable and essentially trustworthy player in the Machine’s game than John would have predicted. “But good enough. Now, get going. We’ll connect with you again when the time is right.”

Carter nods and goes to get into the passenger seat; Fusco grumbles to himself and rounds the car to the driver’s side.

“And Fusco,” John says, waiting until the detective looks at him again, then offering him a faint smile. “Thank you.”

~

They start off in one of Harold’s cars. John makes a few quick stops--to grab weapons, clothing, supplies.

“Hot Pockets,” he says, getting back into the car after piling bags in the trunk. Harold is sitting in the passenger seat, Bear in the backseat, nose on his paws. John tosses the dog a toy; it’s hard to entertain the kids on a road trip, but that doesn’t mean he won’t try. “I know how much you like them.”

Harold looks at him. “I’ll eat them if I must, but I don’t suppose there’s time to stop and grab something...more like actual food?”

“I want you to call ahead and have some groceries delivered,” John tells him. “Wine, cheese, food that’s easy to pick at and can be set aside. Pretend you’re planning an indoor picnic. Make it nice--and make it hard for Root to find.”

“I thought the goal was to draw her out,” Harold says, but he’s already at work on his tablet. “I can have the caretakers go in and warm the house, drop off food before they take their unexpected weekend off; that’s no trouble. But shouldn’t I make it obvious?”

“I don’t doubt that as deep as you bury the hints of our destination, Root won’t be far behind us.” John sees Harold’s mouth tighten unhappily. He reaches out, gets Harold’s attention by touching his knee, a light warm press of his hand. Underneath the tidy pinstripes of his suit--he’d never really expected Carter to talk Harold into a prisoner’s jumpsuit, but it would have been fun--Harold is warm and stronger than he seems. He looks at John and John holds his gaze, waits silently while Harold stops fiddling with the tablet and fully focuses on him.

“I want you to buy us some time to set the stage,” John says. “I’m not worried about what happens when she finds us, Harold. But the further off the edge she goes, the easier our work is; the sooner we come home. I hope that makes sense to you. If it doesn’t, I hope you’ll trust me anyway.”

Harold eyes John’s hand on his knee. John moves it away, in no hurry; he resists the urge to give him a comforting squeeze mostly because he thinks Harold is in no mood to find that comforting. “I think I’ve made it amply clear that I trust you, Mr.Reese; as much as I have ever trusted anyone. I certainly trust you with my life. I’m just afraid that whatever plan you’re working on--and don’t make the mistake of underestimating me, I’m fully aware that I have only been told half your plan--it won’t have the effect on Root that you would like. With a few more details--”

There isn’t a lot of light in the car; the glow of Harold’s tablet, a few instruments on the dash, the street lights shining faintly in through the window. John looks at Harold in that light and thinks about his plan. Maybe he’s misreading the situation, he thinks. Maybe this won’t work out the way he’d like.

But he sees something in Harold’s eyes that makes him think it might.

“Details later, Harold,” he says, and starts the car. “Picnic planning now.”

Harold sighs, but a moment later, he’s back at work on his tablet. “Wine, cheese, dried fruit and jam, some staples because grown men certainly can’t live on picnics alone; done. What else would you like?”

“Chocolate,” John says, navigating the city streets. “You know, the kind with--”

“I know what chocolate you prefer,” Harold says, snidely, as if John is insulting his intelligence by explaining his preferences in chocolate. “What else?”

“Cherries,” John adds. “Oh, and a box of condoms.”

Harold looks over. “Should I be afraid to ask?”

“No,” John says, smiling to himself just a little. “The kind with the--”

“Done,” Harold says hastily, and John’s smile widens. It should bother him, that Harold has filed away details such as these. It doesn’t, because Harold knows almost everything about him--sometimes John thinks Harold might know more about him than he does himself--but has never used that information to harm John in any way. He’s pushing Harold for trust, but it’s not a one-way street; Harold’s faith in him is returned, with a sense of rightness and acceptance that grows stronger every day.

“Oh, and maybe a board game,” John says, merging onto the highway. “What’s your favorite, Harold? Monopoly? Life?”

“Twister,” Harold says. “I appreciate a challenge.”

John looks at him quickly. He grins at the wry quirk of Harold’s mouth, his tousled hair. elegant hands adding a board game to their list of hiding-out requirements, and he thinks, this plan is going to work out perfectly.

~

They stop a few times on the way. First, they take Bear for a walk to relieve himself and stretch everyone’s cramped legs, and have a quick meal in a restaurant off the highway; they pay in cash, but John trusts that Root will find it. Then John steals a car from the parking lot of the auto dealership next door.

“Do you habitually carry a spare set of plates?” Harold asks as they settle on the new vehicle, smaller than his towncar but also more common.

“Yes,” John says.

Harold huffs as John breaks into the car, gets to work on hotwiring the ignition. “Is this meant to be a stealthy maneuver? Because I feel as though I’ve heard before that stealing a car generally makes an impression on someone, somewhere; stealing a car from an auto lot seems likely to generate quite a bit of paperwork.”

“Well then, why don’t you get to work on having one of your aliases buy it?” John asks him. He stands, tosses their bags into the backseat. “Bear, come.”

“Wouldn’t that leave more of a trail than just stealing the car?” Harold settles into the passenger seat with a sigh, settles his tablet across his lap, then takes off his glasses to polish them. They had fogged in the cold.

“Yes, but it will entertain you,” John says calmly. He puts his hand on Harold’s shoulder as he backs the car up; he doesn’t really need to brace himself for such a simple maneuver, but it makes Harold focus on him, sliding his glasses back on. John doesn’t meet his gaze, but smiles a little as he pulls the car out onto the road and puts it in drive. “Go ahead,” he says. “Make some sales guy’s day.”

“Make some salesperson’s head spin, you mean.” Harold sighs again but goes to work, and it’s long enough before he makes a small noise of triumph that John knows the distraction was warranted.

“Congratulations, Mr. Reese,” he says. “You’re the proud owner of Toyota Camry--well, rather, a Mr. John Richards is the owner of a lovely new Camry with fifteen miles on the odometer.”

“Twenty now,” John says. “I bet the car’s worth a thousand less for every mile.”

“They do lose so much value once you drive them off the lot,” Harold agrees.

“I’ll probably get a replacement soon. I don’t like to drive them into the ground. Get a new one while the old one still has resale value, that’s what my father taught me.” His father had taught him no such thing; his father had only had time to teach him that raised voices often lead to raised fists, and then he was long gone.

But there’s no need to tell Harold that; Harold probably already knows. John wonders if Harold could find his father for him, or if that would prompt the Machine to give out a number Harold would feel obliged to protect.

“This one probably has a few more good miles in it,” Harold says, dubious now; he really hadn’t liked the car-stealing part of their stop. “When were you thinking you might need something new?”

John smiles to himself. “Oh, not for a while yet. Say in an hour or so?”

Harold is quiet for a moment, then says mostly to himself, “I never expected a life of crime.”

“Give yourself some credit, Harold,” John says. “Crime never expected you.”

~

They walk the dog and steal--stealth buy, Harold starts to call it--a new car every hour.

“This isn’t to confuse Root anymore, is it?” Harold asks. This far from the city, there are wide patches of open space; they found a nice park and are wandering a narrow but well-cleared path, Bear bounding ahead of them through the snow, deeper here than the dirty slush at home.

John is quiet. He keeps his hands in his pockets, but his elbow brushes Harold’s every now and again. Their breath is clouding the air, and the stars are shining. Bear finds the knotted rope John had thrown for him and dashes back to them, the toy hanging from his mouth, doggie grin in his eyes.

“Stealing the cars, I mean,” Harold says, as if he thought it might need clarification. “Is it just for fun, or to keep old skills from getting rusty?”

“Oh, it’s to confuse Root,” John says. He takes the toy from Bear and tosses it again, watches it arc through the star-lit night and fall into a snowbank, sending a puff of flakes out in its wake. “The fact that it’s fun is just a bonus.”

~

“I could drive,” Harold offers, two hundred miles into their journey. “Don’t look at me like that, Mr. Reese. I know you know I drive quite well, and I know the way from here.”

John looks at the GPS; less than fifty miles until they reach their destination. It’s late, and it’s been a trying day, but he feels all right to finish the drive. “It’s a little late to offer now, don’t you think?”

Harold asks, “Are you implying a degree of rudeness, perhaps selfishness, in my failure to offer until now? The reason behind my reluctance is neither: I simply didn’t want to get in the way of your crime spree. It seems unlikely you’ll want another car between here and there, and it’s never too late to offer.”

“It’s all right,” John says quietly. “If you’re bored, you should sleep until we’re there.”

“I’m not bored,” Harold says. “In fact, in spite of all the danger, walking the dog in the cold, and stealing a car every seventy-five miles, I’m rather enjoying myself. It’s been a long time since I went on a road trip, you know.”

John smiles to himself. “And in spite of all those things, I’m not tired,” he says. “But we could play a road trip game, if you’d like?”

Harold snorts. “I Spy?” he says dryly. “I spy with my little eye, something that is dark and full of trees.”

“That covers everything for the rest of the trip.” John shifts, resettles his hands on the steering wheel; he is pretty ready to get out of the car. “50 Questions?” he asks, idly pushing his luck.

“Now you’ve only got forty-nine left, and if you think forty-nine questions is enough to get me to reveal anything of interest--”

It never hurts to try. “Where did you go on your last road trip?”

Harold hesitates long enough that John casts a look at him. Harold doesn’t look back but he says, “Somewhere very warm.”

John hesitates. He hadn’t actually expected that much of an answer to his question. If Harold is in the mood to talk--and isn’t drugged--he should take advantage of that, but something about his tone makes it...difficult. Not impossible; John’s curiosity is too strong for that. But his voice is more gentle when he asks, “And who were you with?”

“Someone I loved very much,” Harold says, a few miles later. “And that’s all fifty of your questions, I think; tell me, Mr. Reese, can you play the place name game? I’ll start: Portland.”

“Denver,” John says dutifully, and lets himself be distracted.

Harold isn’t wrong, he thinks, as they idle away the last hour of the drive. That was fifty questions worth of sadness in five little words.

~

“This is it,” Harold says, and he gives John the code for the gate. They wind their way up a meandering drive, brightly-lit with spotlights, to a stately old house that gleams with good care. It’s nice, not too fancy but old-fashioned and beautiful.

“This is really nice, Harold,” John says, surprised and pleased despite himself; Harold’s wealth doesn’t often faze him anymore, but sometimes his taste does.

Harold is quiet. John pulls the car into the middle stall of a 3-car garage, empty but for a riding lawn mower and some gardening supplies, and gets out; he opens the back door of their new Mercedes and Bear jumps out with a happy bark, his nails skittering on the clean concrete floor.

John goes to the trunk to get their supplies as Harold gets out of the car, limps across the garage to the door of the house; the long ride was not kind to him, even with their frequent breaks. John follows him through a laundry room into a kitchen that glows with warm light when Harold flips a switch.

It’s a wide, spacious room with all the most modern appliances done up in vintage styles, copper and brass and tile gleaming everywhere; it’s lovely, but almost sterile from lack of use. It’s a showplace. John is surprised to realize that there’s nothing of Harold here at all; there’s no trace of anyone’s personality, except a decent interior designer’s.

It’s nothing like Harold’s small kitchen in his ordinary apartment, which had felt so homey and odd all at once.

When John turns to look at him, he’s clearly focused inward, still a little sad. He meets John’s gaze and smiles faintly, but that doesn’t change the fact that something about this hurts him; John steps forward and Harold holds up a hand, shakes his head. “I forgot how boring this house is,” he says. “I meant to sell it a long time ago, but, well. I suppose a man’s dreams are harder to shake than he realizes.”

“What dreams would those be?” John asks, watching him.

Harold’s smile widens, becomes more genuine. “Boring ones,” he says. “Now, come along, Mr. Reese, Bear; I’ll give you the very grand tour.”

~

They pass from one showcase of a room to another. Everything is clean and smells fresh, and the rooms are pleasantly warm. Bear sniffs around curiously--on John’s quiet command--but the only thing of interest is a plate of cookies left on a small table by a gleaming black baby grand piano.

Harold takes one, offers a second to John. “The caretakers are lovely people,” he says. “I think they’ve wanted to live here as long as I’ve owned the place; possibly longer. They would run a marvelous B&B.”

“When we’re done here, you should sell it to them,” John says. The cookie is soft and full of chocolate chips. If he was guaranteed another one of these cookies with every visit, he would probably be the B&B’s most loyal customer.

Harold sighs. “When we’re done here, it it isn’t full of bullet holes and debris, perhaps I will. Assuming, of course, that I am also not full of bullet holes and debris.”

“Everything will still be standing,” John says. “I’d stake another one of these cookies on it.”

“Oh now, serious terms,” Harold says, sarcasm in every syllable. “I hesitate to take that bet.”

“You should,” John says, and smiles.

~

The last room they visit is the master bedroom. “It’s the most secure room in the house, I suppose,” Harold says, looking around it. “I always was paranoid.”

John prowls, examining every corner of the room, the study and bath that are attached. Too many windows, but otherwise well-situated. “We’ll stay here tonight.”

“We?” Harold says, and when John looks at him, his brow is raised.

John smiles. “We, Harold.” He crosses the room, draws the shade open; Harold makes a questioning noise but John ignores him to check the view. Across the wide expanse of snow-covered lawn is a stand of trees. It’s a perfect vantage point.

"I'm not suggesting we confine ourselves to this room for the rest of our natural lives," John says, turning back to Harold. "But it suits my purposes."

"I would like to be let in on what those purposes are, exactly," Harold says.

John watches him. Harold looks relatively calm and at ease, standing in this perfectly-decorated bedroom, where nothing looks like it belongs to him, and everything belongs to him; he somehow seems more at home here than at the library, or in his startlingly ordinary apartment, or in the light-washed grand expanse of a parlour at the Plaza. This understated, deeply beautiful room suits him in much the same way that carefully controlled anonymity suits him. He’s comfortable here.

John is glad to have a chance to see this, and wishes, with distant regret, that what they had gone somewhere else to draw Root out in relative privacy. It’s somehow tragic to consider taking the peacefulness of this place away from him.

And that is what decides John; the fact that Harold didn’t hesitate to offer this place up, the sadness in his eyes as they walked through the door, the assured way he stands lit in the glow of a lamp that’s probably worth more than he pays John in a month. The knowledge that whatever else happens, this place will never be wholly his boring dream home again.

If Harold is going to lose so much, he should be given something as well.

“I’ll let you in on the most important details,” he says. “After I take the dog out.”

Harold watches him for a long moment, then nods. “All right--but be careful. I’d prefer my answers to come before any shots are fired.”

“A healthy preference,” John says, smiling faintly, then he takes a step back and whistles for the dog; Bear could always use a little more exercise, and John could use a little time to plan his next move. Of all the other benefits to keeping Bear around, the fact that he’s a handy excuse for many other things is certainly not low on the list.

~

The dog does very well being cooped up and patient, but he loves to hurtle through the snow like a dumb puppy. John uses the time to walk the perimeter of the house, noting all of the cameras and sensors that are obvious; knowing Harold has a layer or two of security that is much more refined.

When Bear comes panting back to his side after the tenth ball chase, John clips the leash to his collar and they go into the house through the garage. John shakes snow off his boots, brushes the dog’s paws and legs--and belly, and chest, and muzzle--then dries him quickly with a towel. He knows better than to let a wet dog roam Harold’s house and he thinks, smiling, that it is probably his turn anyway.

In the kitchen, he grabs food for the dog, then quickly makes up a plate of cheese and crackers for himself and Harold. It’s been a long time since dinner, and although he isn’t hungry, they both need the fuel.

Upstairs in the master bedroom, Harold has his laptop out; the camera feed on display shows a corner of the yard covered in Bear’s tracks. The security monitoring station in the office is probably still devoted to its set tasks, but he’d expected that Harold wouldn’t resist the urge to watch John and the dog patrol, and play, outside.

Harold glances at him, quickly, before rising and taking the plate of food, setting it aside. John goes into the bathroom and puts down Bear’s bowls, fills one with food and the other with water from the tap. When he goes back out into the bedroom, Harold is fiddling with the zipper on his bag.

“Have you avoided the topic long enough?” he asks dryly, casting a quick glance at John before going back to his bag.

“Not avoiding. Just preparing.”

“And now you’re ready?

“Ready enough.” John takes a step closer, puts his hand over Harold’s to draw his attention. When Harold looks up at him, John gives him a little space and says, "You've noticed that Root's messages get more and more desperate? She went from a carefully elaborate plan to sending five or six in a row almost overnight."

Harold nods. "You've said you think she's come unhinged."

"I do. I think that started before she ever hacked into my phone the first time. But I also think that she's been getting progressively worse--and why? What's changed?"

"Nothing I can think of," Harold says carefully, wary.

"When she started this, she was thinking of you as hers, Harold.” John shakes his head at Harold’s raised brow; this is the truth, and he’s known it since Root resorted to threatening him to upset Harold; since she missed a step and alerted Harold to the fact that it wasn’t just John’s phone she’d accessed. Since she overplayed her hand, out of desperation and spite.

He takes another step forward, close enough to reach out and lay his hand on Harold’s shoulder. “She could afford to take her plan slow and steady when she was simply collecting something that belongs to her,” he says, certain. “When this was only a question of getting to you, and I was not a real concern, she could take her time and be careful. But now she’s realized that I'm in her way."

"You were in her way before."

Not when you really needed me, John thinks; he will never stop regretting the fact that Root got her hands on Harold to begin with. He says, "And I will always be in her way now,” with all the weight of a promise. “But it's the difference between knowing I am capable of getting to you in time and seeing me out on the street standing next to you. And then again it's the difference between seeing me standing next to you, and seeing me spend entire days protecting you.”

“As any hired muscle would; hired muscle would never qualify as a valid threat to Root,” Harold says. His shoulders are back, straight as they ever get; his chin is up.

“I’m not just hired muscle,” John says, holding Harold’s gaze. “Not in my own view, not in yours, and certainly not in hers.” He smiles. “Especially once she saw me spend entire nights with you."

“I fail to see your point," Harold says stiffly, taking a step back.

John follows him. "Don’t play that game with me, Harold," he says quietly. "You see my point, you understand it; what I'm saying here is that Root is jealous, and it's making her sloppy."

“You haven't done anything that a bodyguard might not do," Harold says. "Your concern is not unreasonable; your methods are not the sort which would give her cause for jealousy."

John closes the last of the space between them and says, softly, "That's simply not true."

For a long moment, they stand and stare at each other. John waits, because what else can he do; either Harold will see the truth or not, believe it or not, accept it or not. That's up to Harold.

But John sees it, believes it, accepts it; Root knows what's been building between them since Harold had offered him this job, this opportunity to redeem himself, this chance to change his fate. When Harold became a link to the real world, for him; when he returned the favor. The slow build of interest and affection; the surprising strength of protectiveness and attraction; Root sees it, and that means John can't deny it, not any longer, not if he wants to keep Harold safe.

"You surprise me, Mr. Reese," Harold says, looking just slightly away from him. "I would have thought you'd feel threatened by her assumptions."

“I'm not, Harold."

"Nor surprised? Baffled, perhaps? This development you think you perceive is not offensive to you?"

"No." John smiles a little. "It's not a surprise."

"Well, I'm surprised to hear that." Harold straightens his shoulders, meets John's gaze. "I know myself quite well, Mr. Reese. I know my depths, and my limits. You'll be flattered to hear that I'd considered drawing your interest to be quite beyond me."

"I'm not flattered," John tells him. "I'm surprised you think so little of yourself. Or is it me you think so little of?"

"Never," Harold says. "Not from the day we met."

"I can't say the same, because I was so far lost in myself that I could hardly think at all." John shrugs. Those were dark days, and he doubts either of them will ever forget that; it does him no good to pretend otherwise. "Still, it didn't take me long to consider you a friend, Harold."

"And it took a madwoman's obsession to lead you to considering something more?"

“No," John says. "But I suppose it took a madwoman's obsession to lead me here," and he settles the palm of his hand lightly against Harold's cheek, waits while they both adjust to this, to the feel of touching so gently, of being touched.

Then he leans down and kisses Harold; a light, almost tentative brush of lips to lips; a first kiss for cautious people who have gone too long without throwing caution to the wind.

When he draws back, John smiles. "Do you still doubt that I know what Root is seeing?"

Harold tilts his head, considering this. His lips are slightly pinked from the pressure of John's lips against them; John thinks the color suits him. He would like to deepen that flush, see if he can get one to rise on Harold's cheeks.

"You've asked me to trust you," Harold says, "And I do. If you tell me you're sincere in this--"

"I am."

"Then I believe you," Harold says, and John rewards him with another kiss, more assured than the first, but no less careful; this is new territory, and he knows better than to rush into new territory without careful reconnaissance.

But when he draws back, Harold murmurs a soft protest and pulls him in again, hand on the back of his neck. John smiles and let Harold deepen the kiss, more confident now, offering so much more than John could have expected; it's a pleasant surprise, and he takes that for what it is; Harold telling him something in a way they're both much more comfortable with than words.

Harold is the one who ends the kiss then, taking a step back and a deep breath at the same time. He straightens the lines of his vest, touches a hand to his mussed hair with no hope of tidying it, and sighs. "An interesting development," he says.

"I thought you might like it."

Harold's smile at that is quick and mischievous, more real and less guarded than anything John has seen from him in days. "So we play to this jealousy you think she feels?"

"We play to it," John agrees, smiling back at him. "And we see what happens next."

~

What happens next is a few hours sleep.

“You should get some rest,” John says, leaning against the frame of the bathroom door. Harold looks tired; no surprise. It has been days of revelations and movement, a type of intense activity than neither of them are exactly used to anymore. Still, “I got more sleep than you did last night. I’ll keep watch.”

“I doubt she’ll find us so soon, and the security here is much more elaborate than that of the Plaza,” Harold says, moving around the room, unpacking his overnight bag and fussily finding everything its proper home. “No reason we can’t both get some sleep.”

John tilts his head, wondering. “There’s only one bed here, Harold.”

“And it’s large enough to share comfortably.” Harold turns to him, raises an eyebrow. “The dog can sleep between us if you’re worried for your virtue.”

“No more than I’m worried for yours,” John murmurs. “But all right. If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure.” Harold smiles faintly. “You should know I wouldn’t offer if I weren’t.”

John raises an eyebrow at him. “Telling me things I should know? Harold, at this rate, you’ll have completely lost your air of mystery by the morning.”

“I think you’ll find that is not the case,” Harold says, and even watching him carefully place folded black socks into a drawer full of folded black socks, John knows it’s true; Harold will always, in some ways, be wrapped in enigma.

John wouldn’t have it any other way.

~

It’s quiet. They lie on their own sides of the bed, still, neither of them asleep. It had been surprisingly comfortable, getting here together; John had changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt while Harold was washing up in the bathroom; Harold had come out in soft cotton pajama pants and a well-washed long-sleeved top. They moved around each other silently, John pulling back the blankets and sheets on the wide, soft bed; Harold checking monitors and gathering a tablet, closing his laptop.

“Right or left,” John asks.

“Oh, left,” Harold says, turning to him. John smiles; he likes the look of Harold in his sleepwear, with his hair tousled and his eyes wide behind his glasses. Harold smiles back at him. “It only seems fair that you be at my right hand, doesn’t it?”

“Fair is one word for it,” John says, and slides into the bed. It’s as soft as it had looked, and the sheets are as fine. Harold hadn’t been joking when he told Leon that it wasn’t the thread count, it was what you did with it. He sighs softly and tucks his hands behind his head.

Harold is still looking at him.

“You should come to bed, Harold.”

Harold considers him, eyes tracking from John’s across the spread of blankets. “Something else you should know,” he says, then hesitates. John waits. “It’s been...quite some time since I shared a bed with anyone.”

“Does it make you nervous?”

Harold shakes his head, but he’s holding the tablet protectively to his chest. “No, but it does make me wonder if I quite know how, anymore.”

John thinks about that for a moment. It’s not like he’s spent a lot of time companionably sleeping with anyone, either. It’s been years, really; he’s had sex with several people, most of them far from the comfort of a safe and dark bedroom; he’s trusted none of them enough to let down his guard, let alone close his eyes. But now is a good time, in a place that won’t be getting any more secure. And Harold is someone he trusts, likes, and respects; someone he harbors certain bad intentions toward, all of them enjoyable.

“Let’s find out,” he says, willing to take another step forward if Harold wants to try.

And eventually Harold takes off his glasses, sets them on the bedside table, and comes to bed.

John watches him settle, arranging pillows under his head and one under his shoulder; he must be sore. When he’s done, he gives John a small nod, and John turns out the light.

Aside from a few soft rustles and slow breaths, neither of them makes a sound. John finds it strangely soothing to match Harold exhale for exhale until, before he lets himself fall asleep, he reaches out and rests his hand against Harold’s.

Harold stirs. "Do you suppose I could have my cufflink back?" he asks quietly, amused. His fingers curl loosely against John's.

"No," John says, and smiles into the dark.

~

It’s snowing when John wakes up. The morning light is soft and grey and when he looks out the window, there are puffy flakes falling. The bed is warm. Harold is still sleeping, flat on his back, peaceful.

This is the kind of thing John had thought he’d given up. The last time he’d felt this way, the person sleeping beside him had been gentle and kind and beautifully female. The world had been a safer place; at least, it had felt that way, even to a soldier who had seen more of it than he’d even dreamed existed when he’d signed up. It’s funny to recognize what he’s feeling now in what he’d felt then; it’s difficult to consider that by the next time the sun rises, it could be taken from him again.

Not going to happen, he thinks, and despite the hot rush of certainty and protectiveness that floods his system, his hand is steady when he touches Harold’s cheek. Then he pushes back the covers and rises from the bed.

Nothing interesting on the monitors. Nothing he hadn’t expected to see, anyway.

Bear scrambles to his feet when John opens the bedroom door. His tail is wagging slowly. His ears are held back. He’s unhappy. John scratches his chin and his collar jingles; John looks back over his shoulder and sees Harold stirring, a frown just beginning to tighten his face.

“Shh,” John tells Bear, a finger to his lips. He tugs lightly at the fur on the back of Bear’s neck and they walk quietly down the hall, leaving Harold to wake at his own pace behind them.

~

“Tea?” John offers when Harold comes into the kitchen. “Black, one sugar.”

“Four sugars, please,” Harold says. At John’s look of surprise, he raises an eyebrow. “Well, I’ll need at least three more cups to get through the morning. I’m going to find a larger mug.”

John casts him a glance, concerned. He looks all right--rested, at least. “You didn’t sleep well?”

“Too well.” Harold quirks a frown at him, but there’s a smile in the corners of it. “Since I blame you, I suppose that the least you could do is keep that tea coming.”

“Can do,” John says, pleased. “And eggs?”

“Oatmeal, I think,” Harold says, moving around him at the counter. John takes in a deep breath when Harold brushes past, pleased by the warm laundry and sleep smell of him. “Would you like some?”

“Yeah,” John says. He hesitates, then reaches out and rests his hand on Harold’s shoulder. “But after that, we have to talk about Root.”

Harold pauses, his hand on a cupboard door.

John sighs, softly. “About the fact that she’s here.”

~

Back up in the bedroom, John points out her position. “You see? There, in the trees. No--relax. Drink your tea.”

“Do you think she knows we know she’s here?” Harold asks him, his lips barely moving. He fakes a sip of his tea. John sighs, watching him.

“Let’s find out.” John takes the mug from his hand, sets it down carefully on the desk. Harold looks up at him with wide eyes, confused until John draws him forward just a little, positioning them to the side of the window with the curtains half-open; it will look accidental, like they were trying to stay clear of her line of sight but miscalculated the angles.

John stands close, too close; Harold tilts his head back stiffly. He moves to take a step away but John says, “Shh, stay here.” He lightly touches the side of Harold’s face, leans down to whisper in his ear, “I have a hunch.”

He has a hunch, but he’s also testing the limits; how far can he go? It is, perhaps, rotten timing, but it’s relevant, he thinks, and enjoyable. They could both use the distraction.

“I wanted to do this again last night,” he tells Harold quietly. “Would that have been too much?”

“It’s not like you to ask before you push,” Harold says. His smile is faint, a little crooked, but not unsure.

John takes that as permission, curls his hands around the back of Harold’s head, thumbs brushing his cheeks and fingers carding through his hair. Harold’s pupils dilate quickly, and John smiles. He touches his lips to the shell of Harold’s ear, whispers, “I only push when I know where the chips are going to fall,” then kisses him more confidently, passionately, than he’d done the night before.

Harold responds in kind and it’s somehow shocking to get that urgency back from him. The surprise sparks something in John’s gut, a heat he wasn’t expecting; he’d thought this attraction was more gentle. Instead he finds himself crowding against Harold, forgetting to maximize Root’s angle on them.

Harold puts a hand on his waist, one on his arm, pulling him just a little bit closer; that closeness is the difference between a kiss that’s decidedly not platonic, and one that’s bordering on filthy. John makes a pleased noise and deepens it, his hands curling more firmly against the back of Harold’s neck.

It’s only a sense of determination that things not go too far until the issue of Root is resolved, until this sense of urgency, anxiety, is off their backs, that keeps John from taking it too far. He lightens the kiss, reluctantly, until there’s room for breath between them.

“That was interesting,” he says, pulling back. This time, Harold’s flush is deeper and his mouth looks wet. John is liking this look more and more.

“Mm, and reassuring.” Harold searches his gaze. “I had wanted to know how much of this was for Root’s benefit,” he says. He’s got that same crooked smile, but it’s widened now, pleased.

Root’s benefit? John fights the urge to be irritated by that, to feel defensive. It’s not unreasonable, he tells himself, for Harold to take this change as a potential play for Root’s attention; to take his confession as a lie to make it seem more real. He rakes his fingertips across Harold's nape, fighting the scowl that wants to break through, focusing on the soft tips of Harold’s hair.

“Have you reassured yourself?” he asks, and the faint hint of menace that comes through can’t be helped; he doesn’t mean it, precisely, but it’s hard to fight all traces of irritation and he’d rather it not come through in his eyes or his body language.

Harold’s eyes widen but he doesn’t look surprised. He doesn’t pull away any further, either, or stiffen defensively. He’s not afraid of John, even when John’s tone of voice tells him that he should be.

“I’m...more than reassured,” Harold tells him. “Although I am sorry for any aggravation my momentary lack of confidence may have caused you.”

“No,” John says slowly. “I can understand it.”

“Understanding doesn’t equal forgiving,” Harold says, and it’s the look in his eyes that has John relaxing his hands with a sigh. He brushes a kiss over Harold’s lips, barely touching him, resting for a moment until he feels Harold sigh, breath warm between them.

Then he pulls back. “Forgiven,” he says, meaning it. “And forgotten.”

“Thank you,” Harold says, equally quiet, just as sincere. “I should--I’m going to tweak the security systems. I last touched them more than a year ago; there’s certainly room for refinement now. Nothing that will keep her out, of course--I assume that’s contrary to the plan--but something that will give us a little more awareness of her movements.”

“Do it,” John says, nodding. He steps back, lets Harold step away. He watches Harold limp across the room to his monitors, pull up a chair and settle down, back straight under his pajama top, which had been as soft under John’s fingers as he’d expected.

“But Harold,” and he waits until Harold turns, looks at him. “Next time you kiss me like that, I hope it’s for the sake of kissing me like that.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Harold says, very seriously. “It will be.”

~

He leaves Harold working on the security system, Bear sprawled across the doorway. It’s a big house, and despite all of Harold’s cameras and wires, there are blind spots; even if there weren’t, John would feel better having patrolled it all himself.

And it gives Root a good schedule to work from. John makes it predictable: It takes him that length of time to get from Point A to Point B in the house; he makes that loop this often. He pauses several times just to keep from seeming too regimented, and because they’ll do better if they keep their strength up.

At noon he makes sandwiches, takes two up to Harold; later he makes more tea, some coffee, drinks a glass of water while looking out the window of the formal parlor. He takes a moment to enjoy the snow globe effect of the weather on the peaceful lawn, then goes upstairs again to get the dog.

Bear is much less playful than he’d been the night before. John keeps him close with a steady supply of treats and constant reminders to heel, but Bear wants to be in the woods. He whines, instincts fighting against his training, although he focuses somewhat when John puts a hand on the ruff of his neck.

“Soon enough,” John tells him, and the dog calms.

They turn the last corner of the house and John’s phone vibrates in his pocket. He looks around as he digs it out, doesn’t see a sign of Root’s presence, but doesn’t doubt that she’s there and watching. She could shoot him now--he has no doubt of that, either--but he's been betting that she won’t. Too impersonal. A bonus of his methods and her madness: that isn’t personal enough now. He’s earned something worse from her.

When he looks down at his phone, he has a new message.

When I'm ready, you’re dead.

John doesn’t reply. He whistles softly to Bear, looks up into the woods, and smiles.

His phone vibrates.

If you touch him again, I’ll make him watch.

He turns his back on her and makes his way around the house, back to the garage door.

It will be slow.

John sighs. He lets Bear into the garage, knocks snow off his boots, brushes snow off the dog’s legs with one hand, phone in the other. He has a feeling she isn’t nearly finished yet.

A minute passes. He puts the phone down on a shelf, picks up the towel he’d used on Bear the night before. No need to be hasty and leave a job half-finished, just because he wants to hurry up the stairs and reassure himself of Harold’s safety, keep an eye on him. Better to let Root think he’s overconfident.

Bear patiently allows him to fluff him dry, making the occasional whuffing sound in the back of his throat; he likes being toweled off, as much as he might whine about his baths. John kneels beside him and talks to him, quietly, watching his ears swivel back and forth. The dog is anxious still, alert.

With good reason.

When John is finished, he offers Bear another treat and checks his phone again. Two new messages this time.

When I’m done, he’ll realize that you were nothing but a glitch.

He stands up to bring his phone to Harold; as much as he might not want Harold to see these messages, they’re important.

Errors are meant to be erased.

~

He finds Harold sitting at the piano, the tablet computer braced on top of the sheet music. Harold is playing a Christmas carol while watching the screen in front of him. It is split into several windows, each showing a different security feed.

John leans against the doorway and watches him play. Harold’s back is very straight, his elbows tucked in. His correct posture is one of his few defenses against pain, John thinks. But the more defensive he feels about a given situation, the stiffer his posture gets. It must backfire eventually, stiffness leading to pain leading to stiffness. But if he's sore now, it doesn’t show in the music--he plays beautifully, fingers flying across the keys.

When he finishes, John straightens and applauds.

“I didn’t know you played,” he says, when Harold turns on the bench to look at him.

“This is hardly artistry,” Harold says. “I’m capable of carols, a few old commercial jingles, and a rousing rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ but nothing too exciting.”

“I don’t know, I’m excited.” John puts a hand on his shoulder then slides it to the back of his neck, leans down to kiss him slowly. It’s an interesting punch to the gut, once again, to feel the physical excitement of contact with someone to whom he feels an attraction. He allows himself to enjoy it, appreciates Harold’s enjoyment--the increasing softness of his mouth, the way his neck relaxes a little into the warmth of John’s hand--but they can’t afford to get too distracted.

He pulls back with a sigh. “As nice as that is, it’s not why I came back in. I have a message from Root--well, a few.”

“I assumed,” Harold says. “You knew I was tracking you through the cameras?”

John nods. “Is it odd that I assume you’re always watching?”

“Only if I weren’t,” Harold says, with the hint of a sly smile. “All right, give me your phone and--would you mind running upstairs to grab a USB cord for me?”

“I would, actually.” John doesn’t want to leave Harold alone on the ground floor, not with Root so close.

Harold shakes his head. “Do it anyway, if you please. Think of it this way, it will take you considerably less time to get up there and back than it would take me. And when you come back, I’ll give you a cookie.” He taps the plate the caretakers left, with a few cookies still piled on it.

John looks at him, then leans over him, with a different sort of intent this time. “Don’t mistake me for the dog,” he says softly. “I’m not nearly so obedient.”

Harold watches him with calm eyes, and John shakes his head. He’s lost some of his power to intimidate; he’d trade that for Harold’s faith in him, certainly, and has apparently done so, but he didn’t expect that loss to be so...thorough.

He sighs and stands back up. “I’ll be right back,” he says, and heads upstairs.

Harold had better follow through with that cookie.

~

The bedroom is quiet, lit only by the lamp on John’s side of the bed, which has been neatly made. Harold’s not quite a master of military corners, but the room looks comfortable in the fading afternoon light. John pulls the blanket up a little more neatly, then grabs a cord from the neat pile and heads back downstairs.

The parlor is as quiet as the bedroom. Harold is still sitting on the piano bench, but now has Bear’s head on his knee and is rubbing his ears. They both glance up at John when he enters the room, and Harold looks tired.

“She’s a nasty piece of work,” Harold says. He sits straight and Bear comes to John, tail wagging. He hands Harold the cord and takes a cookie from the plate; still tasty. He stands silently at Harold’s shoulder, offering the comfort of his presence, while Harold plugs his phone in and starts tracking Root’s messages.

“A glitch,” Harold mutters. He jabs the tablet angrily. “An error. I’ll have you know, Mr. Reese--I don’t consider you to be either of those things--and I certainly won’t stand for her harming you.”

“I know,” John says, a bit amused. “What did you find?”

“Nothing we didn’t already know.” Information flashes across the screen; Harold makes an unhappy noise. “Nothing here, nothing there, nothing anywhere accessible to me; therefore, nothing at all.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about it, Harold,” John tells him.

“I’m not.” Harold looks up and his eyes are angry behind the lenses of his glasses. “I’m certainly not blaming myself for her facility with programming. I’m just irritated by her threats, and her presence on my property, and by the fact that she just can’t see people--can’t see you, or I, or cab drivers on the street--for what we are. Human.”

“She’s not as good as you are,” John says quietly. “I don’t mean programming. I mean as a person. She can’t empathize, and she never will. Don’t be angry about that. Just let it help you take her down.”

“Oh, I intend to,” Harold tells him, and John believes him. He smiles and touches Harold’s hand, holds his gaze as he leans in again, just once more before night falls.

And the silence between them is broken by a ringing phone. John straightens and raises an eyebrow at Harold in surprise.

“That shouldn’t happen,” Harold murmurs, rising. “That’s neither of our cells, and the land lines aren’t--”

The phone rings again. John moves out of Harold’s way as he crosses the room to pick up a handset from a table in the corner. John comes and stands behind Harold’s shoulder as he answers.

The voice on the other end of the line is rough, mechanical. Inhuman. Not human; a patchwork of pieces of recorded human conversations. John can make out the sound but not the words; he sees Harold pale and reaches to take the phone from him. Harold shakes his head and puts it on speaker.

“Regular. Unusual. Normal,” the voice says evenly, then comes a pause. “Replace. Unsafe. Nausea.”

John looks at Harold. The hair is standing up on the back of his neck. That voice--it’s not an unfamiliar system, not anymore; he’s spoken to the Machine before. But there’s something more to it than he’s ever heard. Something like worry.

“Rip. Unscrew. Noxious,” the voice says, somehow more urgent now and then coming from multiple locations; it is coming through the speakerphones on every handset in the house, “Romeo. Uniform. November.

“The Machine wants us to run, John,” Harold says; John nods. He knows.

And that is when the lights go out.

~

John holds Harold’s arm in a grip that he’s distantly aware is too tight. Harold doesn’t complain, his breath coming fast and steady in the darkness; it’s not quite night outside, but the evening gloom had crept up on them, and the cloud cover doesn’t help. With the lights off and their eyes not adjusted, they’re helpless for the moment; a fact that doesn’t sit well with John, but can’t be helped.

After a long minute, the generator kicks in. When the lights come back on, Root is inside the parlor.

She is beautiful, not a strand of hair out of place, makeup carefully applied, her jeans tight and her low-cut top showing more than a tasteful hint of cleavage. She looks like a comic book villain who thinks she can draw in her prey with a show of skin, and John is almost amused by how deeply she has misread them both. She has one gun in her hand, and a knife in a sheath on her hip.

“Sorry to come in unannounced like this,” she says. “But I was just so eager to see my Harold--there you are; how are you, Harold? Ready to come home?--I couldn’t restrain myself anymore.”

“He’s not going anywhere with you,” John tells her, low and menacing. He takes a step toward her, puts Harold behind him.

“I’ll shoot you to get to him,” she says. “No question. Not fatally, maybe a shoulder wound. And then when you’re down, I’ll give him a little shot--sorry, Harold, I know how you hate being out of control, but I’ve learned that its better for us all that way--and when he’s down, well. That’s when things get interesting for you, John.”

“Oh, absurd,” Harold scoffs, and John blinks, startled, when Harold muscles out from behind him.

Root’s smile softens. She looks genuinely happy to see Harold, eager to convince him that she’s right; that, more than anything, is frightening. “It’s not absurd,” she says, laughing a little, as if Harold has made a joke. “It’s just what needs to happen before you can be free of him.” She sobers abruptly. “He’s a bad influence, Harold. He’s messy.”

“He’s a human being, a good one, capable of deep feelings and intelligent thoughts,” Harold corrects her sharply. “Things you know nothing about, but which you should take into careful consideration before you say something stupid.”

Root sighs. “This is the problem. You’re all turned around, Harold. I suppose I can see why. He’s not an ugly guy, and it looks like he can at least tolerate you well enough to fool you. But I’m the one who understands you. I’m the one who really sees what you are. I’m the one, Harold, who knows what you need.”

John shifts his weight, ready to dive for her. She cocks her gun and aims it at him, not looking away from Harold, her voice sickeningly sweet. “Let me fix this problem for you,” she offers. "Then we can take on the world together. We could take down the world. It'll be fun! With your help, with your machine, we could be the closest thing to real gods these idiots have ever known."

"I don't want to be a god," Harold tells her, haughty. "And I don't want to experience your idea of fun anymore. I want to do my work with John’s quite capable assistance. I want to help people where we can, and be sure we’ve done our best when we can’t. And I want you to leave us alone while we do it."

"Why?" she asks, and her bafflement seems sincere. "Why limit yourself when you could have so much more?"

"Because I already have more than you could ever know." Harold smiles. He looks at John, briefly meeting his eyes before focusing on Root again, and that look--it shows John what Harold was talking about. It shows him everything.

John takes a deep breath, caught off-guard for just a moment, while Harold frowns at Root, thoughtful. "You’ll never understand that and in a way, I feel sorry for you,” he tells her. "Although--not that sorry."

Root stares at him for a long, silent moment. John readies himself, prepared to take a bullet if he has to; he’ll take whatever he has to in order to bring her down.

Slowly, she smiles. “Poor Harold, you really believe what you’re saying,” she says, sympathetically. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to show you who’ll be
sorry
.”

“Oh, I've about had it with your threats," Harold announces, and now it's he who is moving toward Root, fearless and protective. "I can't allow this to continue, you must know that--we have important work to be doing, and you're getting in our way."

“Harold,” John warns, following him, reaching for his shoulder to pull him back; Harold shakes him off.

“You’re going the wrong way,” Root says. “I’ve told you and told you, Harold--”

“And I’ve told you that I won’t be made to be what you are.” Harold stops only a few steps away from her, draws himself up, imperious and, in his own way, fiercely intimidating. “You’re not the mastermind you fantasize about being,” he tells Root. “And I’m hardly the naive fool you seem to think I am. I’m a genius, a creator; more than that, someone who has loved, who loves, and therefore respects humanity far too much to let you loose upon it any longer.”

He turns to John. “I hate guns,” he says, and John stares at him, as spellbound as Root. “But I would very much like for you to shoot her.”

“I respect that,” John tells him after a long, silent moment. “And I think it’s a fitting end to our adventures here. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m going to have a chance to do that for you.”

Harold blinks at him, affronted. “Whyever not?”

“Because,” John says with a smile, nodding towards the door, “Detective Fusco is going to do it for us.”

~

“I’m pleased you’ve decided to get out of the line of fire,” Harold whispers fiercely as John pulls him behind the meager safety of the sofa. “Oh, of course not, there you go,” as John kneels up and carefully takes aim, trying to target Root without catching Carter or Fusco in the crossfire.

“Sorry, Harold,” John says. “I just feel like I owe her one.” He watches grimly as one of Root’s bullets comes too close to hitting Carter. “Or two.”

Root manages to get behind the dining room wall, and then they’re all out of good angles--she’s outnumbered, outflanked, but John isn’t willing to fire blindly in hopes of hitting her; he wants a sure shot.

“You know, I’d expect better aim out of someone who thinks they’re all that and a bag of criminal chips,” Carter tells Fusco, voice loud and deliberately casual in the sudden silence. “Did she hit you?”

“She didn’t hit me,” Fusco says. “I don’t think she could hit the broad side of a barn.”

“Detectives,” Root says, and she should know better than to help them pin her down by talking. The overconfident ones never figure out what’s in their own best interest; the stereotype of the evildoer who just can’t help but reveal their plan is alive and well.

Alive and well for now.

“I’m not here for you,” she says coldly. “I’m only here to pick up my friend, and then I’ll be going. I suggest you stop this nonsense and let me do what I need to do--or I’ll have to go after everything you hold dear.”

“I’m more scared of the guy who can shoot,” Fusco says.

“And I’m more scared of the guy who can drain any bank account he wants.” Carter’s on the move--John can’t see her, but it sounds like she’s circling around the parlor, aiming for the other entrance to the dining room, the one off the kitchen.

John edges out from behind the couch, mouthing stay at Harold, who narrows his eyes angrily but doesn't move. Then he uses a hand gesture on Bear that will have him staying down. He wishes now that he’d taught the dog a command that meant Bear would pin Harold for his own safety; perhaps that can be their next trick. For now, down will have to do.

Root’s on the move, too. “The thing about my friends here, Detectives, is that they’ve got some weird, flawed idea of a moral center,” she says, closer now to the parlor; John heads for the wall separating the two rooms, moving silently across the thick carpet. “They’re the kind of guys who think, here’s the right thing and here’s the wrong thing, and I’m only going to do the right thing.”

Fusco says, “And you’re the kind of person who’ll do the wrong thing?”

“It’s not nearly that black and white, Detective,” Harold says and damn him he’s standing up behind the couch, not looking at John, looking into the dining room instead. John gestures at him, increasingly frantic, get down; the first thing he’s teaching Bear after this misadventure is when to take down the boss, but for now, Harold is ignoring him completely. “The right thing, the wrong thing; it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? The right thing now would seem to be for Root to give herself up, and for us to let her go to jail--correct?”

“Sounds good to me,” Carter says; she must be on the other side of the dining room now.

“But if we let her go to jail, John and I are exposed. And we do a great deal more good for the world than the justice system is currently capable of--no offense, Detectives.”

“None taken,” Fusco says.

“In light of that, which is the right thing, and which is the wrong?“ Harold asks, holding court in the middle of the room, inviting Root to come for him.

“It doesn't matter, Harold," Root says, sounding frustrated. "Right and wrong, that's a construct of weak minds. Of people who are afraid to do what they want."

"Unlike you?" Harold asks, faintly snide.

"Unlike me," Root agrees, taking his words at face value, ignoring his tone. "I’m the kind of person who’ll do what I want,” and she steps out into the middle of the entryway, aims, and fires.

Harold doesn’t drop the way he ought to know how to do; lesson one, teach the dog to pin him, lesson two, teach him moves which would have helped prevent him from getting shot--

Except that Harold doesn’t get shot, because Leon has thrown himself in front of Root's bullet.

~

For a moment, there is stillness and silence.

Leon stands between Root and Harold, wobbling on his feet, his hand on his chest over his heart. He looks down at himself, then up at her, as if he’s shocked by what’s happening.

“I totally could have loved you,” he says sadly to Root, looking up. “If you hadn’t like, lied to me and hurt me, and tried to make me hurt people who tried to save me.”

Root doesn’t care. She’s moving forward, trying to aim around him at Harold, who is still standing, blinking at Leon’s back, as Leon slowly crumples to the ground, and then is still.

Root just steps over his body. She’s a person who does what she wants.

~

The problem is that Root is wrong about Harold. He doesn’t just see right and wrong, he sees everything in between, and he cares about the differences in every shade of grey.

She’s wrong about John, too. He sees right and wrong, and he sees what he wants. He sees his friends, and he sees Harold, standing brave and alone against the dark.

John knows what he has to do.

He takes aim, prepared to shoot her--

And the only reason he doesn’t is that Fusco gets there first.

~

The detective must have a good line of sight from the other side of the parlor door, and not nearly the same amount of distraction as John’s got; he fires two shots, and the second one tears through Root’s chest with enough force to knock her back a couple feet.

She cries out, wordless rage, and for a moment John thinks the hole in her chest isn't going to be enough.

But then she trips over Leon. She goes down.

John doesn't hesitate. He stalks across the parlor, kicks Root’s gun from her hand. She’s not dead yet. She turns her head to look at him and her hand grabs weakly for the knife in its sheath, but he slaps her hand away and pulls the knife out of her reach. She wouldn’t get far with it--she won’t get much further at all--but better safe than sorry.

Then he leans down and pulls Leon away by the back of his collar. That leaves Root sprawled out flat on Harold’s parlor floor, less of a threat by the second, which doesn't stop him from putting her knife to her neck.

“I told you not to come near us again,” he tells her, only dimly aware that he’s panting a little, furious, now that he has her at his mercy.

He’s not feeling very merciful.

Root is looking him in the eye. Her mouth is welling with blood, but she smiles at him anyway, and somehow her expression still manages to be cold and insane. “I...couldn’t stay away,” she breathes wetly, and when he leans in closer to hear her, he only barely manages to stop himself from slitting her throat. “Surely you...can understand....”

A hand rests on his shoulder. It’s stocky and square; Fusco. “Get up,” the detective says. “C’mon, she’s not going to make it, you don’t have to do anything more. Just let her die alone.”

John looks at Fusco, who shrugs. “You were really awful when she had your friend,” Fusco says. “I’d rather not go through that again.”

“We should call for help,” Carter says. She’s rolling Leon over onto his back, opening his shirt.

“It can only come too late.” Harold has come to stand on John’s other side. He hesitates, and then he is touching the back of John’s neck. John is filled with the sudden fear that Root had hit him after all, somehow, but when he looks up, Harold is watching him calmly. His eyes are pain-free, deeply tired. His earlier burst of leonine bravery has worn him down, but John doesn’t think it’s disappeared; now that he’s seen it once, he’ll always know where to look. Harold smiles a little. “At least, too late for her.”

“Harold...” Root sighs, and the sound of his name on her bloody lips makes John sick, and makes Harold turn his head away. His hand stays tight on John, though, offering steady comfort.

John turns back to Root. “Don’t waste your last breath trying. It was never going to end the way you’d planned,” he says to her, watching her eyes struggle to focus on him; it's not just blood loss that makes her gaze so discomfiting, he thinks. Even now, he doesn’t believe in her protestations that people are bad code, but he can’t doubt that some people are irrevocably broken by something inside themselves. That people like her are born damaged, or become damaged, in ways that can’t be repaired.

He’d believed that of himself, once upon a time. Then Harold had proved him wrong.

No one can do the same for Root. Root smiles at him, then rolls her head to the side, those flat eyes focused on Harold. “Save me,” she says, and somehow manages to make it sound mocking, even through the blood filling her throat. “C’mon...do the right...thing....”

“Look at me,” John tells her, gently. "I'll tell you what happens next." He rises, takes a step back, looks down at her lying beautiful and bloody on the floor. Her eyes are on Harold. She’s still so sure of herself, even as she’s dying. He nudges her with the tip of his shoe, waits until she focuses on him again. He says, “I do the necessary thing.”

And John shoots her again.

~

“Oww,” Leon whines as John enters the caretaker’s cottage, having reconnected the power to the main house and reset the backup generators. Leon is standing in front of the fireplace, frowning at Carter. “Are you sure I’m not dying?”

She scoffs at him. “Leon, trust me, if you were dying? I’d leave you here and let you do it. Quietly.” She helps him shake off his shirt, then unfasten the velcro of the bulletproof vest he’s wearing underneath. John crosses over to them and double-checks but the vest had done its job--there’s an angry red mark in the center of his chest, mottled; it will turn to bruising soon enough, but he’ll be all right.

John pokes the center of the blooming bruise and smiles sharply at Leon’s wince. His brave act of self-sacrifice might have undone a lot of the damage his betrayal caused--but that doesn’t mean John’s quite ready to forgive him.

“Buck up, Leon,” he says, as Leon shrinks away from him. “You’re not in danger. For now.”

The door opens again. John watches, alert, but it’s just Harold and Fusco coming back into the caretaker’s cottage, where the detectives and Leon had spent a long, dark night, waiting for Root to make her move. John has to admit, he’s pleased with their work; he has no complaints with their performance, their ability to follow the plan. They deserve more credit than he was initially willing to give them.

Bear shakes snow off his coat as he follows them into the house, and Harold tsks at him, but then catches sight of John, Carter and Leon in front of the fireplace.

“Leon,” Harold says, faintly pleased. “I’m glad to see you on your feet. How are you feeling?”

“He feels fine,” John tells him. He crosses the living room, holds his hand out and takes Harold’s coat, raises an eyebrow at Fusco when the detective makes to hand his over, too.

“Thank you, John,” Harold murmurs, ignoring their byplay. He’s already got his tablet in his hand. “It’s done,” he says, looking up. “The body is disposed of, the damage is being repaired.”

“Is it,” John murmurs, not so sure.

Harold looks at him. “What can be repaired by an anonymous crew armed with spackle and a steamer, at least.”

“I don’t want to be hearing this,” Carter says. She hands Leon a new shirt; he winces as he shrugs it on. She frowns at Harold and John. “I shouldn’t be hearing this. I’m going to have to answer enough questions about why I took this little vacation--I can’t be thinking about you making one phone call and disposing of a body, too.”

Harold blinks at her, lifts the tablet. “Technically,” he says, “it was one email.”

Carter shakes her head. “That doesn’t help,” she says. Then she grabs Leon’s elbow and hauls him to his feet; he whines at her loudly enough that Bear tilts his head at them, ears pinned back, a low growl rumbling in his chest; that shuts Leon up pretty effectively. “Fusco, you ready to go?”

“Yeah,” Fusco says. He finishes tossing the rest of the debris from their stay in a trash bag, ties it up. “I was ready at two in the morning. You know how uncomfortable the couch is in here?” he asks Harold. “Because if your caretakers live with that every day, every day, they’re either insane or limping as much as you do.”

“I’ll make note of it,” Harold says quietly. “Thank you for your assistance, Detective--detectives. I am in your debt.”

Leon gives him a look. “I owe you nothing,” Harold tells him with a faint trace of amusement. “Go home, Leon. Find a higher class of bar to frequent. Oh, and check your email. I’ve left you a stock tip that, if you’re smart enough to follow through on it, will lead you to a rather sizeable reward.”

“Why does that scare me?” Leon asks, but he lets Carter pull him out of the house, to the small attached garage where Fusco’s car has been hidden. Even Harold hadn’t realized they were there; John’s stolen cars hadn’t just been to cover their trail, but to give the detectives a chance to arrive before them, and before Root.

“It shouldn’t,” Harold tells John quietly. “I’ve given his money back, but it will take him months of following my clues for him to acquire the whole amount. Hopefully that will keep him out of trouble for a while.”

“If it doesn’t, I have some ideas,” John says with a smile. Then he whistles to Bear, follows the detectives and Leon to the garage door.

He stops them there with a hand on Carter’s arm. “Thank you,” he tells them--all three of them. “I owe you all a favor.”

“I know what kind of favors you do,” Carter says, eyeing him, then shaking him off and dragging Leon into the garage. John follows. “Let’s just say, I hope none of us ever needs to call one in.”

“What she said,” Fusco mutters, fishing for his keys. “Christ, I’d probably have to call in the Navy to protect me from your help.”

John shakes his head. “You’d need more than the Navy to stop me,” he says. “But my offer is sincere--and if you need me, you know where to find me.”

“I don’t,” Leon says, raising his hand, then wincing and holding his arm across his chest. “How do I get in touch with you if I need you? Do you have a phone number I can call? An email? Post office box? C’mon, I need help once a week, it would be nice to know where to find it.”

“Don’t worry, Leon.” John opens the door to the back seat, holds it for Leon. Carter lets go of his arm and shoos him away, and Leon walks over to the car, wary. When he’s close enough, John leans in; Leon freezes, eyes darting back and forth between him and Carter and Fusco. John smiles at him and offers, not very reassuringly at all, “I’ll always be able to find you.”

Carter laughs a little, settles into the passenger seat; Leon finally finds his keys and gets behind the wheel. John waves at them, a friendly, easy goodbye, and he watches them drive away.

When the car is gone, he stares into the still-falling snow for a long, quiet moment. The main house is lovely; the flood lights illuminate it, showcasing every artful turn of wood, every gleaming detail, like a photograph in a magazine.

It hardly looks like a place where you’d expect to find a bloodstained rug, evidence of bullet holes in the walls; and you wouldn’t, if you went inside it in the morning. Harold’s team, he has no doubt, will take care of everything; no one will ever really know what happened here. No one will ever really know what became of the woman who had called herself Root. A sad ending to her story--but John wouldn’t rewrite it now, not for anything.

And he’ll never forget it, either.

“Goodbye, Sam,” he says, to the girl she’d been; who had watched her friend disappear without a trace, had tried to help, and had been failed.

Then he turns back to the caretaker’s cottage and goes inside, closing the garage door, leaving Harold’s beautiful, ruined house behind him.

~

Harold is waiting in the living room, standing tense beside the couch Fusco had complained about; it doesn’t look so bad to John, but then again, he’s slept on concrete floors and considered himself lucky when they were dry. John pauses in the doorway. Harold looks uncertain, but John is calm, feeling emptied of a fear he hadn’t realized he was carrying so deeply until the source of it was gone; full of a warmth he hadn’t let himself fully acknowledge until the source of it was threatened.

He takes a step closer.

Harold watches him with wide, cautious eyes, his mouth drawn into a tight frown. “I should say thank you. I know you’re aware of this, but it bears repeating: I couldn’t do this without you.”

“I wouldn’t want you to,” John says.

Harold’s frown tightens. “And I suppose that as much as I owe the detectives for their help, I owe you even more."

John shakes his head, walks slowly toward Harold, feeling a strange thrill in his chest when Harold eyes him warily but doesn’t back away. The last person John had cared about had never seen him as he is now; a man who’ll shoot a threat even if she’s already down; a man who carries a cufflink in his pocket because he can’t bear to let it go; a man who knows his own inner darkness and will use it ruthlessly. Harold knows all these things, and squares off against him anyway, confident of John’s kindness and restraint.

"Because I already have more than you could ever know," Harold had said to Root, with that glance at John, as unreserved and confident as John could have ever hoped he’d be.

But John would be willing to bet almost anything that Harold is doubting him now, or doubting himself. Enduring one last moment of questioning John’s intentions, before John proves them to him.

He stops too close to Harold, looming into his space, watching him closely; Harold is breathing a little harder, trying to control it. His pupils are dilated. His face is a little flushed, and quickly losing its tight unhappiness.

"Once again, I’m in your debt,” he says, a rather obvious attempt to deflect John’s attention, redirect it.

John smiles, and puts a hand on his cheek, enjoying the warmth that flush has brought to Harold’s skin. “Unlike the detectives, I’m happy to collect,” he murmurs.

And he does.

~

EPILOGUE

~

“Do we have a new Number?” John says, coming into the library with a drink tray in one hand, and a bag full of pastries in the other. He sets the drinks down and pulls out a treat for Bear, who devours it eagerly, and gets a Danish for himself.

Harold is bustling around his workspace, picking pieces of paper up, shuffling them, putting them down again. He’s frowning. John picks up his tea, waits until Harold has come close enough, and then he holds it out expectantly. Harold blinks at it, blinks at him, and takes a deep breath.

“No,” he says. “This is something else.”

John waits, hand outstretched. Harold frowns, and then reaches for his tea. “Oh all right,” he says, half to himself. Then, louder, “I’ve found myself in the market for some new real estate. Would you care to take a tour of properties on my list?”

John raises an eyebrow at him.

“I’m sure you’re much better than I at judging the defensibility of these places,” Harold says. “It would be nice, this time around, to have some expert advice.”

There’s something slightly nervous about the twist of his mouth, something uncertain, that would convince John to go with him even if he weren’t interested in what places Harold would choose to replace the ones he’s lost, if he weren’t interested in Harold’s safety. This is Harold offering him an in, something he still doesn’t do very often, maybe in part because he’s never quite sure he’s doing it right.

“Of course,” John says, gently. “Let me get my coat.”

~

The first place they stop is within walking distance of the library. Despite that, John curls his lip. “Too many neighbors,” he says, dissatisfied.

At the second place, he raps on a door on the first level and shakes his head. “Too many entry points.”

The third is a warehouse in a neighborhood that’s too abandoned, sad and neglected. “Too...grim,” John says. He’s made himself something like a home in places like this, in the not-too distant past. He doesn’t want to think of Harold doing the same, even if Harold’s home would be far more secure and comfortable--Harold would, for example, probably not sleep with everything he owns piled on top of him for safety and warmth. Still, his feeling holds--too grim.

The fourth place, though. It’s promising. It’s a warehouse, on the small side, in a neighborhood that’s down on its luck but not deserted. From the outside, the high windows look good--they’ve been recently replaced--and many of the entrances have been bricked in, but expertly and attractively so.

“Worth going in,” John says, and he waits patiently by the main entrance while Harold enters a code into a lockbox to get a key, then enters a code into a lockbox by the door, too. The key turns an amusingly redundant deadbolt, and John smiles as he follows Harold through the door.

The lower level is an open space with creaking hardwoods and nicely-preserved metalwork, large enough for Harold to keep many of the treasures he’d taken from his former safe houses; if he wanted, he could open an antiques shop.

Harold will probably never want to open an antiques shop.

In the middle of the space, there’s a winding staircase to the soaring second level, which causes him a moment’s concern as he stops by the bottom step; most days, Harold handles stairs just fine, but that’s an awful lot of them.

“Elevator,” Harold says, anticipating his question, and so there is, an old elevator set up gleaming under a light in the far corner. It’s open and ornate in a very old-fashioned way, like something built at the turn of the last century, but it looks shiny and rebuilt. John gets in, Harold and Bear following him, and finds the controls very modern. There are buttons for only two floors--no basement level. Good.

The elevator rattles when they take it up to the second level, but in the way old roller coasters rattle; this is a thing that is expertly engineered, and the rattle seems to be a charming quirk of the design, not a threat. John looks at Harold, who looks back at him with a smile curling the corner of his mouth. Harold likes it, probably the same way he likes motorcycles and fighting crime from the shadows. John smiles back.

The second level has more new windows, which are shuttered against the afternoon sun. John pulls back one of the shutters and finds it very heavy, defensively solid. He sets it in its holder and looks out the window--”Are these tinted?” he asks, and Harold nods.

“And quite solid,” he murmurs. “You might say they’re nearly bulletproof.”

“You might?” John asks, but Harold just hums a little, and wanders away, Bear padding contentedly at his side.

John sighs and follows them, taking it all in. There are more walls up here, creating divisions; they open doors to a few wide, empty spaces, and two spaces set apart as large one and two bedroom apartments, with galley kitchens, and beautiful bathrooms.

The shower in the two bedroom is carefully designed to be handicap accessible.

“It’s good,” John says, leading the way back into the foyer shared by the apartment spaces. He raps his knuckles on the unpainted wall. “Some room for improvement, but much better than the others.”

“Yes, I thought so,” Harold murmurs, looking pleased.

John tucks his hands into his pockets. He raises an eyebrow at Harold. “Although you’d rattle around in here, all by yourself. It’s a lot of space for one man.”

“Well,” Harold says, taking off his glasses to polish them with a cloth. “Your apartment was on Root’s list of my known properties. I can’t help but feel it isn’t entirely safe anymore. A bonus: I believe the landlord here says there are no dog restrictions. And it does seem to have more than one living space.”

John pauses. He curls the fingers of his left hand around the weight of Harold’s cufflink, still carried in his pocket every day. “Is that so.”

Harold is quiet.

“You already bought it,” John says, confirming a suspicion he’d had the moment he saw the windows and the lovely design of the bricked-in entrances. “Was this tour all just a ruse?”

Harold shrugs, admitting nothing, but there’s a faint hint of a smile in his eyes.

John looks at him and Bear standing together in the sunlight, dust motes dancing around them, Harold prim and tidy in his suit and vest, Bear grinning. He smiles, and takes his hands out of his pockets. “Well,” he says slowly. “I suppose it would be a shame to let all this space go to waste.”

Harold raises an eyebrow at him, but he’s smiling back. “And I’m sure I can find something to do with it if you’re not interested.”

“Oh,” John says, and begins to stalk toward him through the sunlight, “I’m interested.”