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The Great Friendship Caper

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Prologue: The Plan

“No,” Reese says.

Finch sighs and begins cleaning his glasses with swift, precise movements. “It’s a logical solution, Mr. Reese. Mr. Tao’s penchant for getting into trouble is beginning to be problematic. There are enough people in need of our aid without him as well and, quite frankly, as a two-person team even our resources are limited. Studies show that a positive social influence can be a powerful factor in discouraging irresponsible behavior.”

“What studies?” Reese says, crossing his arms.

Finch points to a stack of printouts. “I’ve included an index and a summary if you’d prefer not to read them all yourself,” he says generously.

“Finch,” Reese says patiently, “I’m not a good influence.”

“Perhaps, but you’re what we have,” Finch says, replacing his glasses. “Mr. Tao has already demonstrated an affection for you and referred to you as his ‘buddy’ several times. And if nothing else, some knowledge of Mr. Tao’s habits and methods might help us to resolve his problems more efficiently in the future.”

Reese sighs. “Couldn’t we just arrange to have him locked up and monitored somewhere?”

“That would be using our powers for evil, Mr. Reese,” Finch says primly.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

1. The Pool Hall

“John, my man!” Leon says. “I have to admit, I was surprised when you called. I didn’t think you got bored.”

“Yeah, well,” Reese says uncomfortably, keeping a tally in the back of his head of all the things he’d rather be doing instead. Walking Bear. Fighting. Shooting kneecaps.

“So, what’s on for tonight?” Leon asks. He looks disturbingly perky and energetic. Reese calculates the odds of him wanting to cut the night short and turn in early and comes up with ‘no’. “Saving people? Saving damsels?

“I thought maybe we could do something...” Reese searches for the word. “...Fun.”

Reading one of Finch’s most boring books. Getting kneecapped.

“Wow!” Leon says, eyebrows climbing. “Uh, sure, sounds good. Did you have something in mind?”

“Finch made me a list of suggestions,” Reese says, handing it over.

Leon reads it through. It takes a while.

“This is, um... thorough. Is it annotated?

“Yes,” Reese says, hating everything unilaterally. “There are also color-coded map references.”

“No need to thank me,” Finch says cheerfully in Reese’s ear.

“Well, this first place is pretty close by,” Leon says, shrugging this off. “Want to start there?”

“Sure,” Reese says, and then gets distracted by a crunching sound in his ear. “Finch, are you eating popcorn?” he asks in the most dangerous undertone he can manage.

“Goodness, no, that would be crass,” Finch says. “I have pretzels.”

The first place is a pool hall, but since Finch chose it it’s a classy one with wood paneling and a top-shelf bar.

“Have you ever played pool before?” Leon asks, racking up the balls.

“I’m familiar with the basics,” Reese says, hefting a pool cue. “Bludgeon with the thick end, skewer with the narrow end.”

“And the balls?” Leon asks faintly, staring.

“Oh, distance,” Reese says, absentmindedly calculating the relative densities of thermoset resin billiard balls and the average human skull.

“Mr. Reese,” Finch says admonishingly. “Teaching him to murder people with sports equipment is not being a good influence.”

Reese sighs. “All right. Yes, I have played pool before.”

An hour later, Reese has won money off of most of the pool hall’s inhabitants and Leon’s gotten them both kicked out for trying to get a betting pool going.

“I bet if we chose a seedier place next time we could really make some cash!” Leon says excitedly.

Reese mutes Finch before he has a chance to reply to this. “No more pool halls.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

2. The Strip Club

“A strip club, Finch?” Reese hisses into his earpiece.

“It’s a fairly traditional venue for male bonding,” Finch says, unconcerned. “Do you think pretzels or party mix would be a more appropriate snack, under the circumstances?”

Reese waits until he hears Finch take a bite of something and then says “Weiners.

“That was very immature,” Finch snaps when he’s finished coughing up whatever it was he just inhaled.

“Can’t talk, Leon’s here,” Reese says innocently. “Evening, Leon.”

“Let’s go ogle some girls!” Leon cheers.

Reese lets himself wait for thirty whole seconds before following Leon in, on the off-chance that a number will come up or something will explode or Leon won’t notice he’s gone.

When nothing happens except Leon turning back to look for him, he sighs and goes in. There is absolutely no way that this won’t be a disaster.

“That actually went better than I thought it would,” Reese admits later, when he’s finally poured Leon into a cab and made his way back to his apartment. “After I had a talk with that grabby asset manager some of the women asked me if I wouldn’t mind giving them a self-defense lesson this weekend, which given the neighborhood and their clientele would be a good idea. And before you ask, Leon enjoyed himself too. He even made a social friend.”

“You got him a date with a stripper?” Finch asks, horrified.

“I tried to warn her off, but she thought he was cute,” Reese says, shrugging. “Nice girl. Archaeology major. She wants to specialise in pre-Mesopotamian burial practices.”

Finch sighs. “Well, I suppose it takes all kinds. I’ll run a background check. Make sure there’s no history of insanity...”

Reese tunes out Finch’s mutters and starts planning out the weekend’s combat lesson.

Would starting off with eye gouges be too much?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

3. The Sporting Event

“All right, explain it to me again,” Carter says wearily.

“Well,” Finch says with the dry air of a professor explaining historical economic trends or listing off taxonomies in Latin, “it would seem that Mr. Tao has, in the past, acquainted himself with a subset of sports fans who have perhaps become over-focused on the numerical side of the pastime.”

“Bookies,” Carter translates, her voice muffled by the hand she has over her face.

“Bookies, yes,” Finch says. “It does make a certain amount of sense - as a former accountant, Mr. Tao would be uniquely suited to -”

“Just explain to me how Matty DeScalora’s chief enforcer ended up hanging upside down from the away team’s net,” Carter interrupts.

“Ah,” Finch says. “Well. Tyson Chandler owed us a favor. And they had just interrupted the game in a fairly spectacular fashion.”

Carter evaluates and discards a series of responses with the speed of long practice and decides on “What was John even doing at a basketball game?”

“What one usually does at a sporting event,” Finch says. “He was watching it.”

The level of Carter’s disbelief could be measured on a global scale.

“All right,” Finch allows, “he was mostly watching the exits and the other spectators, but he was not there for our usual purposes.”

“And Mr. Tao?”

“He was an... innocent bystander,” Finch says, as if he can’t believe he’s saying it.

Carter gives in; even though she knows Finch is probably watching she allows herself the dubious comfort of resting her head on her desk. “Well, since they weren’t there by the time the uniforms showed up and both the security and the broadcast footage have been mysteriously corrupted, I suppose that’s the end of the matter.” And boy, isn’t she having conflicting feelings about finding out how Finch pulled that little stunt.

“If it helps, John did get you Mr. Chandler’s autograph.”

It does, actually, which is annoying. “Tell John his apology is accepted.” That will annoy him, which is as much satisfaction as she’s expecting to get out of the evening.

Sure enough, a moment later her phone receives a text from an unknown number.

He really is that handsome in person.

And she’s back to irritation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

4. The Karaoke Bar

“Absolutely not,” Reese says.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

5. Clubbing

Reese is three steps into the club when he begins, as subtly as possible, to panic.

It’s not that Reese can’t dance. Dancing shares a lot of basic principles with fighting, only set to a beat, and Reese is very good at fighting. It’s clubbing he doesn’t like; between the strobe lights and the myriad sudden movements the visual cues he normally relies on for detecting impending violence are nearly useless, and with the earsplitting level of the music the aural cues are completely so.

He’d tolerated the experience while he was guarding Sofia because he’d been there as a bodyguard. He was supposed to stand back and watch and go off on people he perceived as threats. But here, he’s supposed to... blend. And Reese has a high degree of control over his own reactions, but he’s well aware of the fact that if he’s on edge and feeling twitchy he might easily overreact to something innocuous.

He needs a way to keep himself and Leon out of the middle of the crowd. At a minimum, he needs to find some way to keep his own back to the wall.

He checks on Leon - by the bar, out of danger for the moment - and reaches up to cue his earpiece. “Finch, I’m calling in reinforcements.”

“Is everything all right?” Finch says alertly, and John’s sure he’s already cycling through the security camera feeds from the club.

“No danger,” Reese says, and pulls out his cell phone.

In club. Must avoid dancing.

Sofia, bless her, is still awake even though it’s one AM in Brazil. Send pic.

Reese does so.

OF YOURSELF, Sofia writes back.

Reese winces - he must be more rattled than he’d thought. Of course Sofia wouldn’t be interested in the club’s potential lines of fire.

No tie that’s good, Sofia says. Now muss up your hair & get a drink to hold & if someone looks at you imagine beating them up & then smile.

Reese frowns. What will that do?

Attract women, Sofia texts patiently, and then adds after a moment & probably some men.

Reese sees a light at the end of the tunnel. Leon loves women. If Reese is surrounded by women, Leon will stay nearby in the hopes that one of them will like him. It’s perfect.

Thx, he sends back.

Sofia’s tactic works brilliantly. As soon as a few women start to gravitate towards Reese (and a few men, as Sofia had predicted), Leon sticks to him like a limpet. And Leon’s more than willing to cover Reese’s side of any conversation that comes up, so Reese is able to stand quietly and eye the crowd in a way that comes off as aloof and cool instead of paranoid and hostile.

Eventually, of course, Leon comes on a little too strong to the wrong woman, who punches him, and then the whole thing turns into the kind of dance that John actually enjoys.

“That was fun,” Reese says, generously buying Leon a cold can of soda to hold to his swelling eye.

Leon sighs. “I really want to think you mean the part where gorgeous women were eyeing you like you were candy, but I just know you mean the part where you made that bouncer cry. Which was kind of awesome,” he allows.

“Thanks, Leon,” Reese says. Leon sighs again.

He drops Leon off at home and goes back to the apartment. Finch had fallen silent pretty early on in the night, probably because it was frustrating to try to hear anything over the pounding thump of the music, but Reese is unsurprised when he reveals himself to be still awake.

“I’m starting to think I should ask Mr. Tao to keep you out of trouble,” he says. Reese can hear the smile in his voice, though, so he smiles back into the camera he knows Finch has tucked into the control panel on the microwave.

“What was tonight’s snack?”

“Ice cream,” Finch says contentedly. Reese nods and helps himself to some from his own freezer. His phone buzzes as he sits down.

How did it go? Sofia asks.

Ended with fight. Very satisfactory, Reese says.

:D, Sofia texts back.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

6. Bowling

“Bowling?” Leon says, sounding confused. “Okay. I mean, I wouldn’t have thought it was your thing, but why not?”

Reese glances around the crowd at the bowling alley -families, a few couples, one group of intense older gentlemen with matching shirts - and evaluates the potential threat level as low.

“It’s exactly my thing,” he says. On top of being Leon’s new best friend this week, the numbers have come just as frequently as ever and the strain is starting to show. Reese had arrived at the library this morning to find a Finch so exhausted that he’d worn a mismatched tie. Finch had given him one long look, taken in the circles under his eyes and the fact that he’d cut himself shaving for the first time since he was a teenager, and then suggested bowling. During the day.

Reese had been so grateful he’d patted Finch on the shoulder.

Leon is still eyeing the bowling alley dubiously. “Can you kill someone with a bowling ball?”

Reese makes a face. “They’re too unwieldy to be practical. The bowling pins -”

“John,” Harold says pleadingly in his ear.

“- are also useless,” Reese lies. He actually hasn’t ever used a bowling pin on anyone before, but they would make for a decent bludgeoning tool if the need arose.

“Huh,” Leon says. “I’d never really considered the fact that you might like normal things.”

“I like plenty of normal things,” Reese says, surprised. “Maybe next time we should go to a shooting range. That’s fun.”

Leon gives him a sideways look.

“I also like board games,” Reese tries.

Leon laughs. “You do not!”

“Sure I do. Have you ever played xiangqi?”

Leon’s eyes start to gleam. “No, but they have an arcade here. Let’s skip bowling and go there. They probably have a shooting game.”

The arcade is mostly populated by teenagers. Teenagers don’t really bother Reese much; he knows most people consider them to be entitled and obnoxious, but as far as Reese has seen those traits are hardly restricted to one age group. Teenagers tend to be smaller and less well-trained than adults and that’s pretty much where his interest ends.

Leon’s attention is riveted to a sign over a doorway on the far wall.

Laser tag,” he breathes. “John, oh my god, do you have any idea what a killing you would make at laser tag? Wait, bad word choice. No killing. Pretend killing!”

Reese sighs. “Look, Leon, I know I enjoy my work, but it isn’t actually a toy...” he trails off. There’s a group of boys over by the sign. “Hey Finch, access the security cameras for the arcade. Is that Mickey? Fusco’s kid?”

“Yes,” Finch says slowly. “Is it me, or does it look like those other boys are being... unkind?”

Reese drifts closer.

“- get slaughtered, Fiasco,” one of them is saying. He’s looming over Mickey and not, Reese notices with professional detachment, doing too bad a job of it. He’s bigger by about four inches, which helps. “You and your friends don’t have a prayer. We’re gonna dominate you here and by Monday everyone at school will know just how much of a loser you are.”

“Oh, God,” one of Mickey’s friends says as the bullies swagger off to get their equipment. “Mickey, we’re gonna die. I don’t want to die. He has the highest score ever recorded, Mickey!”

“We’ll be fine,” Mickey says, but he sounds a little worried. “Come on, guys, we can do this. We back down now, when’s it ever gonna end, right? Sometimes you have to stand up even when you know you’re going to get knocked down. That’s what my dad says, and he’s right.”

Reese doesn’t like bullies very much. And Fusco’s practically a friend.

“Finch,” he says, very calmly, “get me on Mickey’s team.”

“Already done,” Finch says. “I’m accessing that bully’s scores and data and running an analysis now. By the time you’re in the arena I’ll have the cameras up and I’ll guide you over the earpiece.”

“Hey, Leon,” Reese says, turning away. “Great idea. Want to play some laser tag?”

Leon takes one look at Reese’s smile and shakes his head. “Oh, God. Um, no, I think I’ll just watch. Maybe later.”

Reese collects his equipment, positions himself near the bully’s team, and starts putting it on as badly as possible. It doesn’t take long for the snickering to start up behind him and when he manages to clock himself in the ear with his own fake gun there is outright laughter.

“Okay, Mr. Reese,” Finch says. “Each team will be in charge of a base. The object of the game is to defend your own base while successfully attacking the enemy’s. I’ve hacked the operator’s system, so once you get in there the targeting lights on your equipment will go dark, which should give you an advantage. Any successful shots you make will be reallocated to one of your teammates and I’ll make sure the data shows you were knocked out of the game early on so no one will suspect you of being a ringer.”

“Here, mister, you’ve got it backwards,” Mickey says, and reaches out to help Reese with one of his straps.

“You recruiting for your team?” one of the bullies hoots. “He does look like he’s a step up from the losers you’ve already got!”

Mickey’s mouth thins. Reese winks at him. “Don’t tell those yahoos,” he says quietly, “But I’m ex-Special Forces. What do you say we take them down a peg or two?”

Mickey blinks at him, then smiles.

The game is laughably easy. Reese draws it out as much as he can, partly for fun and partly to give Mickey and his friends a chance to enjoy themselves. With Reese picking off opponents from the shadows Mickey’s able to lead a very successful attack on the enemy base. The one kid who’d looked like he was going to cry at the beginning even turns out to have some useful berserker tendencies, which is a nice surprise.

The bullies do not take kindly to the results of the first match.

“Rematch,” their leader says curtly.

Mickey shrugs, his expression angelically innocent. “Okay, if you want one.”

The second match is even better. More confident now, Mickey and his friends do most of the work themselves. Reese’s main duty is to relay the intelligence that Finch is feeding him through the earpiece and occasionally take out an enemy player or two.

By the third game they’ve gathered a bit of a crowd, mostly due to the temper tantrum the lead bully had thrown by the equipment station. From the expression on Mickey’s face, a decent number of the people waiting to see the results of the match are classmates.

After they emerge victorious once more, Reese leaves Mickey and his team to the congratulations of their friends and goes off to find Leon. He actually feels a little guilty that he’d gotten so carried away with the game and abandoned him.

Leon, it turns out, did not mind at all. Leon is beaming at him and counting money.

“That was amazing. Everybody kept betting against you guys, it was great!”

“You just fleeced a bunch of high school students?” Reese asks slowly.

“Yes I did, and it was awesome!” Leon crows.

“It’s possible we’re not a very good influence,” Finch says reluctantly.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Epilogue: The Payoff

“Mr. Reese, you’re not going to believe this,” Finch’s voice says tiredly. “Mr. Tao’s number has come up again.”

Reese puts down his spatula and seriously considers pretending he hadn’t heard this correctly. “You’re joking.”

“Unfortunately, I am not. Do you know what he might have done?”

Reese sighs and begins putting ingredients away. “No. I would have thought we were keeping him too busy for anything.”

Fourteen hours later, Leon is safe again. The bookies from the basketball game, on the other hand, are not, and the archaeology student from the strip club has relocated with some haste to Chicago.

“That man would find a get-rich-quick scheme anywhere,” Reese moans. He’d made it back to the library and let Bear knock him over just so he would have an excuse to lie down on the floor for a little while.

“It would seem that our resources really are best used in a responsive rather than a proactive capacity when it comes to Mr. Tao,” Finch says, digging through a cabinet for his spare glasses. He hasn’t noticed the huge rip up the back of his waistcoat yet and Reese hasn’t said anything. He doesn’t have the emotional energy to spare for Finch’s reaction once he finds out.

“I owe you an apology, Mr. Reese, I have wasted your time,” Finch says stiffly.

“Well, it was educational,” Reese says, shrugging.

There is a moment of silence. Finch finds his glasses and sits down, laying out the tools necessary to mend the old pair. Reese rubs Bear’s belly thoughtfully. Parts of the last week had been fun. Not so much the activities themselves, but the little bit of normalcy they’d afforded had been kind of nice. Plus, Finch could provide a wickedly funny running commentary when he was in the mood.

“Hey Finch,” Reese says after a moment of silence. “Want to grab a beer sometime?”

Finch considers this. “There’s a new exhibit at the Met I’ve been meaning to check out.”

“Works for me,” Reese says agreeably. “Want to go tomorrow?”

“Very well, John,” Harold says. “Go ahead and shut your eyes - I’ll wake you if I need you.”

Reese smiles, and falls asleep to the sound of Bear’s tail thumping rhythmically against the floor.