"You're sure about this case?" John asked, not for the first time. At this point, Harold could hardly blame him.
"Quite certain," Harold assured him. He'd double-checked an hour ago, but yes, the machine was still, inexplicably, insisting on Mr. Donovan's social security number.
John sighed. "He sleeps, he researches, he has a beer, he goes to bed. If there's a danger, I'm just not seeing it."
They'd never had a case drag on this long. Usually, the danger revealed itself within a day or two. By now, it had been over two weeks of John following Donovan from his apartment to his lab to one of the many bars surrounding his apartment, with nothing unusual happening whatsoever. No death threats, no suspicious meetings, no large financial transactions in any of his accounts. His colleagues didn't like him much, but no one seemed to hate him enough to want him dead, and his research was hardly worth killing for, either.
"He's doing some behavioral experiment with dogs," John said, shrugging his shoulders. He was sitting with one hip on the desk, long legs crossed in front of him. "He's got all these really well-trained dogs, you know, former guide dogs, police dogs. He tells them to stay, and then he puts a treat in front of them and times how long it takes them to give in to temptation. I don't know what the point is." He shrugged, leaned down to give Bear an absentminded scritch behind the ears. "As far as I can see, he's doing nothing but ruining some perfectly good obedience training."
"Patience, Mr. Reese," Harold said, even though he was close to running out of patience himself.
Harold was idly paging through Mr. Donovan's old publications, hoping that maybe this time something would jump out at him, when his terminal beeped a soft warning. Detective Fusco's cell phone signal had just abruptly cut off, the phone not just turned off but destroyed.
No reason to worry, he told himself. It was really rather unlikely that anything had happened to him right in the middle of the police station.
But that wasn't true, was it? With the precarious situation they'd brought him into with HR, the police station was the most likely place for him to get hurt. There was more than one interrogation room with the camera conveniently broken. He sighed, told himself he was overreacting, picked up the phone.
"Not a good time," Detective Carter said, instead of a greeting. She sounded frazzled, distracted, and from the muffled sound of her voice and the clacking of keys in the background, Harold judged she was holding the phone clamped between her shoulder and cheek so she could keep typing while she talked.
"Ah. Another murder?" Harold tabbed over to the front page of the Times. It wasn't any of their cases, but he'd been idly following the coverage in the mainstream press - a string of seemingly unrelated murders, connected only by the fact that several previously entirely unremarkable citizens had suddenly snapped and killed someone in gruesomely violent ways.
"Yep. Some tiny five foot nothing girl just beat her boyfriend to a pulp with her bare hands. It's got to be some messed-up new designer drug."
"I don't want to keep you from your work, Detective," Harold said. "Is Detective Fusco with you? His cell phone signal just cut out rather abruptly."
"Fusco? Sure, he's fine. Dropped his phone in the toilet - be glad you couldn't hear him. He was cussin' up a blue streak."
"Oh," Harold said. It wasn't irrational to feel relieved. Fusco was a valuable asset. "Well, thank you."
"I'll tell him you were worried about him, shall I?" Detective Carter said, and although Harold didn't have a camera trained on her just then, he imagined he could see her sly grin.
"Please refrain," he said dryly, and ended the call.
John came in around midnight, soaked to the skin and irritable, although his mouth twitched up into a faint smile when Harold handed him a towel and a steaming cup of coffee. It had been drizzling all day, and the best vantage point on Donovan's lab was a windy rooftop. Bear was dancing excitedly around John's legs. He knelt down, patted the dog's side, his grim face brightening. Harold looked back at the pictures on his screen.
"New number?" John asked, sounding hopeful.
"No. One of Detective Carter's cases." It wasn't technically any of his business, but she'd sounded so tired on the phone. He'd been hoping he could find some connection between the perpetrators, some hint the police had overlooked, but so far he wasn't making much progress.
"Hey, wait, I've seen her before," John said, coming up to lean over his shoulder. "Him, too - oh hell, and that guy." He took the mouse from Harold's hand, their shoulders pressing together as he rapidly flicked through the images. "Finch, a whole bunch of those people were at the bars when Donovan was."
Even with four pairs of eyes on Donovan, they almost missed it, he was that good at being subtle about it: crushing a small capsule between his fingers and then brushing them against a woman's wrist on his way to the bathroom. Finch certainly didn't notice until it was too late, and neither did anyone else except Fusco, who said, with rising indignation in his tone, "Hey, I think he just drugged that woman!"
John, moving with his usual speed, had Donovan separated from the crowd and immobilized before anyone else could even blink. It was a quick, almost soundless struggle, over in seconds. Practically no one in the crowded bar even seemed to notice anything unusual was going on.
"There, you see?" Fusco said, pointing out a smear of faintly green-tinged fluid running down the woman's wrist. "It's all right, ma'am, we're police," he added, which hardly made her look any less dubious.
"Whatever it is, it must be absorbed through the skin," Carter said, and it was only because Harold was watching John so closely that he saw it, the sudden stiffening of his posture, the look in his eyes: panic.
"John? What is it?"
John absently transferred Donovan's wrists to a one-handed hold, but he wasn't paying attention to Donovan anymore. He was staring down at his arm, at the smear of translucent green fluid glistening on the skin.
"You should probably scrub that off," Harold said, keeping his voice level with an effort. He couldn't stop thinking of the horrible autopsy pictures he'd seen. An unassuming five-foot-nothing woman had beaten her boyfriend to death with her bare hands under the influence of whatever this drug was. What would it do to John, who was deadly and nigh-on unstoppable at baseline level?
John wasn't listening to him. He twisted Donovan's arm high behind his back until he was howling with pain. Now people were staring at them, but he plainly didn't give a damn.
"How long until it takes effect?" he whispered, his mouth so close to Donovan's ear he must be able to feel John's breath hot against his skin. Donovan struggled weakly, whimpered, stilled again. John wrenched his arm a little higher, made him scream again. "How long?"
"Thir- thirty minutes," Donovan gasped, and John dropped him all at once, shoving him roughly in Detective Carter's general direction.
"Come on," John said, reaching for Harold's arm, stopping himself before he actually made contact. "Come on, we've got to hurry."
Harold followed him into the bathroom, where John scrubbed at his skin until it was bright red, and then out into a cab.
"Step on it," John told the cab driver, pushing two folded bills into his hand. He was pale, his face set in hard lines. Finch rather thought he was thinking about those autopsy pictures too.
"Tighter," John said, twisting his hand in the cuff. They'd shoved the library's camp bed up against the old radiator, and John had laid down on it, spread-eagle. He'd tied his own legs, cuffed his left hand to the thick radiator pipes, and then made Harold chain his other arm.
"Of course," Harold said, carefully tightening the cuff another notch, and then one more when John glared at him impatiently. It was only prudent to be cautious, of course, but pressing the metal into the soft, unguarded flesh of John's wrist, he found himself worrying more about the immediate danger of blocked circulation and nerve damage.
John gave his wrist a critical look, pulled it gently from Harold's grasp, and then gave his chains a violent yank. Harold flinched at the loud rattling sound. John strained and fought against the restraints for a long minute, twisting his wrists back and forth inside the cuffs. The old radiator creaked, but didn't budge. John relaxed all at once. "That'll do," he said, shifting to get comfortable on the bed, his arms and legs spread wide by the restraints. His wrists were already reddened, the skin abraded and beginning to swell. Tomorrow there'd be bruises there. "Now get out," John said.
Harold blinked, belatedly forced his eyes away from John's wrists. "I'm not leaving you alone while you're chained to a bed and suffering from the effects of an unknown drug," he said, altogether sensibly, in his opinion. Anything might happen. A seizure, allergies, some other adverse effect. A fire in the library. Any of the uncountable emergencies that might befall a man who couldn't escape from his bed.
John grit his teeth. "Finch -" he snapped, and then stopped, took a deep breath, calmed himself with visible effort. The first stirrings of violent urges, already? If so, the drug was working faster than expected. When John spoke again, he did so with a thin veneer of calm covering something dark and tight in his voice. "I don't want you anywhere near me right now. It's too dangerous. Go home, get some rest. You should probably ask Carter to check in on me tomorrow. I know it'll mean exposing the library, but in this case I really think -"
"Nonsense, Mr. Reese," Harold interrupted him. "You're not going anywhere, I think you've made quite sure of that -" he gave a pointed glance to John's poor maltreated wrists. "- and neither am I. I'll give you your privacy now. Should you require me, I'll be right next door. I'll make sure to check in on you in fifteen minutes."
He gently closed the door on John's yells of "Finch! Goddammit, Finch!"
As promised, he checked in on John at the fifteen minute mark. John was obviously tense and angry, but this looked more like intense annoyance than unrestrained rage.
"Any violent urges yet?" Harold asked.
"I'm fine, Finch," John snapped through gritted teeth. "Now would you please get out of here before they start?"
"Indeed I will not, Mr. Reese," Harold said primly, and closed the door between them before John could start in on him again.
Time passed. Harold checked in at thirty minutes, forty-five, an hour. John failed to start raging, or indeed to do anything but lie there and glare at him balefully. By the ninety minutes mark, he'd stopped even doing that.
"Maybe we're in luck this time," Harold suggested, when John was still as calm and collected as ever after three hours had passed. "We don't know how many people Mr. Donovan used the drug on. It may not affect everyone the same way. For all we know, he dosed dozens of people who never showed any effects at all. And no, I'm not untying you until we can be sure of that," he added, when John opened his mouth to protest.
Nothing happened. Harold read a book, had some coffee, ate a yogurt. At the first spoonful, he discovered that he was ravenously hungry, and remembered that neither of them had eaten all day. He took a second yogurt with him when he went to check in on John.
"Still don't feel like killing anyone," John said, before he could ask.
"Do you think it would be safe to untie one of your hands for a little while?" Harold asked, holding up the yogurt. John hesitated for a moment. That seemed like a good sign, that he was still being cautious with Harold's safety. No evidence of any loss of control, no visible signs of rage. Not that it was very easy to tell with John, who could look quite calm while beating someone half to death, who went quiet when he was angry, and was coldly, terrifyingly efficient in his more dangerous moods. But Harold knew John very well by now, and he knew what John looked like in a rage. This wasn't it.
And Harold really didn't want to spoon-feed him.
"Yeah, go ahead," John finally said.
Five hours inside the handcuffs hadn't done John's wrists any good. Harold fumbled a little, trying to ease the cuff off the battered skin without hurting him further.
He left the cuff dangling from the pipes, looked up, and instantly realized his mistake by the sudden triumphant gleam in John's eyes. He froze for a crucial fraction of a second, and then it was already too late. John's hand shot out to grab him by the upper arm, quick as a striking snake.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, he thought, too angry at himself to even be scared of what was probably going to be a very messy and painful death. This was entirely his fault. He'd been arrogant, thinking he knew John too well to be deceived, and now his arrogance was going to get him killed, and John was never going to stop blaming himself. He tossed the handcuff key to the other side of the room - at least he could try and make sure the killing was going to stop with him - and then John was pulling him inexorably off balance.
Harold braced himself for the pain of falling, of his back twisting. But John was leaning up as much as his restraints would allow, bracing his shoulder against Harold's chest, and his free hand was firm on Harold's arm, guiding him down. Harold landed sprawled half on top of John's body with no more damage than he'd done himself by tensing up so badly.
He flailed, tried desperately to yank out of John's hold, and found that for all that the position wasn't painful, he was trapped as neatly as a turtle on its back. He had one arm caught beneath him, the other still trapped in John's grip. His legs were sticking into the air over the edge of the bed, and there was no way to even shift his center of gravity without bending his neck in a way it just physically couldn't go anymore.
John slung his arm over Harold's shoulders, pulling him a little further off balance and pinning him firmly against John's chest, still with that incongruous care. He wasn't even squeezing, wasn't hurting him, but Harold could feel his strength regardless, subduing Harold's struggles as effectively as a steel bar across his back. Harold dragged in a shaky breath and went still. There'd be no getting away.
John stroked his back, rewarding his compliance. He'd seen John do things like this to marks, making them uncomfortable by getting into their personal space. He was shaking, he realized distantly. This was going to kill John as surely as it would him. John had never even forgiven himself for the death of a woman who'd been half a world away at the time. What would this do to him, waking up tomorrow with the memories of killing Harold with his bare hands?
"Shh, it's okay. I'm not going to hurt you," John said. He trailed his hand up Harold's shoulder until he could grasp his chin. Harold squeezed his eyes shut, let it happen. He wondered whether the pins in his spine would prevent John from snapping his neck. Probably not. Still, it would be a faster, cleaner death than he'd expected.
John tilted Harold's head a little, held him at a very deliberate angle, his face twisted towards John's, not yet straining the limits of his spine. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," Harold whispered. "If you remember this… I sincerely hope you won't blame yourself. I should have listened when you warned me away." His voice was shaking.
John was stroking his cheek. He was smiling, and not that cruel predator's smirk he sometimes aimed at his enemies. This was his real smile, soft and affectionate, the one Harold got to see so rarely he could still remember every single instance. It was unbearable, obscene, that the drug had so thoroughly twisted him, that this was the face John was going to wear when he...
And then John's lips pressed against his, and Harold found himself entirely dumbstruck. For a moment, he couldn't move, couldn't think. It was a gentle kiss, slow and tender. He could feel John smiling against his lips.
John shifted underneath him so he could nuzzle Harold's neck. He loosened Harold's tie, started undoing the buttons of his shirt. Harold shuddered. He felt dizzy. He was experiencing a paradigm shift, and John Reese was mouthing his collarbone.
"Oh dear," he said weakly. "I'm afraid we had it all wrong." He puts a treat in front of them and times how long it takes them to give in, he remembered John telling him, and really, he should have put it together earlier.
"The drug… It doesn't induce violent urges. It lowers inhibitions," he said. He'd been holding himself too tensely for too long. His leg was starting to cramp, burning pain radiating out from the twitching muscles. It was almost as distracting as the fact that John had started sucking on his neck. That's going to leave a mark, he thought numbly.
"No, no," John said, lifting his head. He was starting to slur his words a little, and his eyes were growing unfocused. He looked drunk. "It's not the drug, it's not - I always want to do this," he whispered. He was shifting, gently nudging Harold around until he was lying stretched out along John's side, his bad leg curled over John's. John spread his big, warm hand over the aching muscles and then started massaging, carefully digging his thumb into the knots. For a moment, it made the pain spike to almost unbearable levels, and then it eased all at once.
He couldn't help the sound he made, and John's smile went wider.
"Do you like that? Let me, let me make you feel good, tell me what you want." His voice was urgent, breathless. He picked up Harold's hand, pressed a reverent kiss to the inside of his wrist. "Anything you want, anything."
The look on his face was completely open, tender, stripped bare of all his usual defenses. Finch recoiled. He'd spied on John at his lowest, seen him drunk, desperate, crying; had once tuned in at the wrong moment to thirty seconds of heavy breathing and a long, contented sigh. But this, he had no right to see this.
He tugged his hand out of John's hold and braced himself with a hand on John's chest, heaved himself violently backwards. John reached for him, too slow, his hand closing around empty air. Finch landed hard on the floor, twisted, awkward. He barely felt the pain. He scooted backwards like a crab, pushed laboriously to his feet as soon as he was out of reach.
"Wait!" John said. He was reaching out, palm up in supplication, the chains rattling when he strained forward. "Wait, please, don't go. Tell me what you want - anything you want, please, just don't -"
John was begging. John Reese, who hadn't begged under torture, was begging for him. Harold lurched desperately out the open door, slammed it shut behind himself before he could hear any more of it.
His body was a mess, panting, queasy with the adrenaline crash, shaking. Confusedly, miserably hard. He didn't touch himself, not even to adjust the painful way the zipper dug into his erection.
John woke slowly, muzzily. Drugged, he thought. Eyes closed, don't move, stay calm, assess the situation.
His wrists throbbed. He'd been chained up, but he wasn't anymore. Nothing else hurt, although his limbs felt stiff and his joints ached. He must have been bound for quite a while. There was a cot beneath him, thin mattress, springs poking through into his back, strangely familiar… Familiar, because it was the library's shitty camp bed, the one Finch kept telling him to just throw out. He'd been bound to a bed in the library because, because…
Memory returned in a nauseating rush. He slowly got to his feet, stood for a moment. Ran his fingers through the ruffled hair on the back of his head until it was more or less lying flat. Smoothed down his rumpled jacket. And then he was all out of excuses to stall.
His heart was hammering in his chest when he opened the door to the library's main room. Finch was sitting with his back to John, not typing, just staring at his computer screen. He didn't move at the sound of the door opening, but his stiff shoulders went a little more rigid.
John stood there, motionless. His tongue felt stuck to the roof of his mouth. He wanted to apologize. He wanted for the floor to open up and swallow him. He wanted to yell at Finch for untying him, to throw himself at Finch's feet and beg forgiveness. He wanted to go back in time and make this night not have happened. He wanted to kneel behind Finch's chair and kiss the bristly little hairs at the nape of his neck.
In the end, it was Finch who broke the silence. "Mr. Reese. I trust you are well?" he said. He still wasn't looking at John, but that was his normal voice. Polite, professional, distant. Suddenly, John felt like he could speak again.
"I'm sorry," he said. His voice rasped out low and grating.
"Don't," Finch said. "You were quite right, yesterday. I should have stayed away. I was… careless. Feel free to tell me so."
He waited a moment, and when John just continued standing there, silent, he finally turned around to face him. His face was blank, unreadable, as distant and professional as his voice. "If you're feeling up to it, we have a new number."
The relief was so great it left a raw, hollow space in his chest. They could still work together. They could pretend that awful night had never happened, that John had never…
Finch braced his hands flat on the table and pushed himself to his feet with a grunt of effort. He hesitated for a moment, closing his eyes for a long, controlled breath. When he finally moved, his limp was as bad as John had ever seen it, and he had to reach out to steady himself on his chair. "Thomas Baxter -" he started, awkwardly turning his entire body when he reached to tape the picture to the wall, like he didn't want to chance even the limited range of motion his spine usually allowed him.
"You're hurt," John said, taking a hasty step closer and then freezing when Finch flinched. I hurt you.
"I'm stiff. I've been talking about getting a proper bed in here for months. I didn't do it, I had to sleep in a chair, and now my back aches. It happens," Finch snapped.
"I'm sorry," John said again, helplessly.
"Your sympathy's much appreciated. Now, Mr. Baxter's one of the founding members of a team of venture capitalists that generally operates out of Silicon Valley. As I understand, he's here to meet with a group of young entrepreneurs to discuss a possible investment in their startup."
The Baxter case was another slow one. No obvious danger to or from his person, and no reason to even send John out for surveillance, considering that he had yet to leave his hotel room or move more than a few feet away from his laptop and its webcam.
John spent most of the day prowling the library while Harold did research. It was rather obvious that he'd have preferred a case involving, say, breaking and entering and a shoot-out. Bear was following him hopefully from room to room, but had yet to get more than a cursory scritch behind the ears. It wasn't like John, who always found time for the dog.
"Wouldn't you rather take Bear for a run?" Harold asked, looking up from Baxter's IRS files just in time to see John flinch.
"Sorry. I'll give you some space," John said in a low voice.
"You're not bothering me," Harold said. He honestly hadn't meant anything by it except to suggest that the both of them might feel better for working off some of that restless energy. He'd worked in a cubicle farm for years, and gotten perfectly good at ignoring other people if he needed to concentrate. The pacing hadn't bothered him at all, except for what it signified: John feeling anxious, restless, trapped.
John gave him space. John gave him no less than three feet of space at any time. Harold hadn't quite realized how much John had used to touch him until it stopped. Oh, it had been a little startling at first, after so much time alone; a hand on his arm, accidental brushes of their fingers when they exchanged a file, John's shoulder knocking against his as they walked. But he'd gotten used to it so quickly. More than once, he caught himself stepping away from the desk in a sort of half circle, automatically walking around a man who wasn't actually standing behind him.
There weren't any touches at all anymore, accidental or otherwise. Even when he hovered, watching Harold's monitor from over his shoulder, John hovered from a careful distance.
Harold found himself wanting to reach out, to breach that space between them, except he wasn't at all sure whether it was meant for his benefit, or John's. He kept looking at John, searching his face for traces of the man who'd smiled and stroked his cheek, and found nothing there but careful distance. Did you mean it? he wanted to say. But he'd had no right to any of that knowledge in the first place. What possible right could he have to ask John to expose himself even further?
They'd finally decided their best way to get close to Baxter was the start-up. Harold tracked Andrew Miller, one of the young founders, into his favorite internet forum and got himself into a passionate discussion about the relative merits of Haskell versus Lisp. It ended with Andrew accepting his offer to mentor the group sometime around four am. Harold stretched his aching back, satisfied. He probably could have wrapped that up two hours earlier, but by then he'd gotten invested in the argument. He didn't get to talk coding much, these days. He leaned his forehead on his wrist. Job well done. He'd take a cab home in a couple minutes, but he really needed to rest his eyes for a moment first.
He came half-awake to someone gently easing him out of his chair. John was supporting most of his weight so his cramped, aching back didn't have to, holding him up him when his stiff leg buckled beneath him. A part of Harold bristled with injured pride. He didn't need John seeing him like this - sluggish with exhaustion, his cramped, battered body failing him, and, he was reasonably sure, with a line of drool drying on his chin. But he was so tired, and no one at all had touched him for a week, and it was so easy to lean against John's warm shoulder and let himself be led to bed.
They had an actual bed in one of the side rooms, now. John had brought it in, assembled the solid wooden frame, lugged the ergonomic mattress up two flights of stairs. He hadn't looked Harold in the face that entire day. Harold had felt it, too, the vaguely uncomfortable intimacy of knowing that John was building a place for him to sleep with his own two hands; the knowledge that they'd finally thrown the camp bed out, after months of complaining about it, because neither of them could stand to look at it anymore.
John eased him down and pulled the comforter over him. Harold's pride cringed at letting John tuck him in like a child, but actually acknowledging what was going on and telling John to knock it off would be infinitely more awkward at this point. And now that he was lying down, comfortable and warm, exhaustion was quickly dragging him under.
"Man, you're out of it. You work too much, Harold," John said, and for a moment Harold thought he felt John's hand brush feather-light over his cheek. The next morning, he couldn't have said whether he'd dreamed it.
These kids weren't going to trust a guy in a three-piece suit. He'd bought himself a pair of second-hand jeans, threadbare and frayed at the cuffs, and unearthed a faded old t-shirt from the back of his closet, the first thousand digits of pi printed on the front. He'd used to wear it to go running. Harold looked at himself in the mirror and winced. No, that wasn't going to work. He looked like an old man trying too hard to dress "cool". That was, of course, the truth, but not exactly the image he wanted to project.
John's suit jacket was hanging abandoned over the back of the desk chair. It was too big on Harold, fabric that had been tailored for John's broad shoulders sagging awkwardly over his own, making him look smaller, unassuming. The sleeves came halfway down his hands. He left it open over the pi shirt, took another critical glance at the mirror. An aging nerd who still hadn't quite figured out how to dress the part of the grown-up. There, that would do.
"That's my jacket," John said, in a low voice Harold couldn't quite read. Harold startled a little, turning to face him. He hadn't noticed John coming up behind him.
"Yes," he said, nothing more. He had a perfectly good explanation for wearing it. He didn't feel like explaining at all.
John was looking him up and down, his eyes catching on the patch of worn fabric just above his knee, the t-shirt's crumpled collar. "Looks good on you," he said, in the sardonic voice that made it completely impossible to guess whether he was teasing. His hands came up, reaching out as if to straighten Harold's lapels, and then dropped without making contact. The moment hung in the air between them for a few increasingly awkward seconds, and then John abruptly turned and walked away.
When Harold had founded his first start-up, he'd been younger than these young men were now. He'd felt so grown-up at the time, an adult, entirely on his own in the world. Looking at them now, they were nothing more than kids.
They were smart kids, though, and the fraud detection algorithm they'd developed was going to make grown men weep for joy at the banks and credit card companies. This was the kind of programming work Harold had always loved best, sifting through huge amounts of data for unusual patterns. He'd been planning to advise them on the business side of things, which they were hopelessly naïve about, but got completely lost in their demonstration of the code instead.
"Man, you know this shit cold. You should come work with us," Andrew said after what felt like a very short while, and turned out to have been hours.
"I do have other demands on my time," Harold said with a smile, but he let himself be persuaded to stay for dinner, and then for a round of video games where the youngsters beat him quite thoroughly, and even managed to give some sorely-needed advice for their first meeting with Thomas Baxter and the rest of the VCs, which he hadn't been able to get himself invited to. Afterwards, Andrew taught him a useless but amusing programming language called Brainfuck, mostly, Harold suspected, to see whether he could get him to say "fuck" out loud.
When he left, it was late enough that he could have called it a day and gone home in good conscience. He went to the library instead. John was sitting in his chair, feet up on the desk, all seventy pounds of Bear's weight sprawled over his lap. That couldn't possibly be comfortable.
"Learned anything new?" John asked.
"Oh, yes," Harold said. "Nothing related to our number, unfortunately." He told John about Brainfuck, just for the pleasure of seeing his eye twitch every time the profanity passed Harold's lips.
Not a bad day, all in all.
"A million dollars," Andrew said, holding the term sheet in his hands like someone unexpectedly handed the Dead Sea Scrolls in Paul's original handwriting. "They're offering us a million dollars," his voice hushed with awe. Harold felt a terrible pang, remembering Nathan, the day they'd made their first big sale, holding a contract with the same sort of awe in his eyes, mirroring Harold's own. It was hard to believe that he'd ever been this young and naïve.
Andrew was reaching for a pen, wide-eyed, like his fingers were itching to sign the contract right there on the spot. Dear God. Harold firmly tugged the contract out of his resisting fingers, sat down on the table, and started reading. He got to page three, sighed, and slapped the stack of papers down on the table-top. The kids had been standing around him, twitching impatiently while he read. At the sound, all of them startled to attention.
"No one's signing this contract," he said, holding up a hand to forestall the inevitable objections "- unless you want to be diluted out of a multi-million dollar company with a total of 30.000 shares of non-preferred stock, estimated market value - oh, a hundred thousand dollars, I guess?"
He looked around. All three of them were looking at him in wide-eyed incomprehension. He sighed. "Sit down, gentleman. I'm afraid we have a long night ahead of us."
It was getting light out by the time he'd managed to teach the trio at least the basic concepts of not getting entirely screwed in negotiations with investors. A lot of it was advice learned from painful experience. He probably shouldn't be getting involved in this at all. The machine hadn't picked Baxter for writing unfair contracts, and even if any of the kids were the kind to take violent revenge when they found out about his plans, which he didn't think was likely, without his interference they wouldn't have found out in time to be responsible for whatever acute danger the machine had warned them about. Still, it was unexpectedly satisfying, getting to protect them from the same mistakes he'd made at their age.
They called Baxter in for an eight am meeting. Harold felt sore and exhausted, but the youngsters were bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and burning with indignation, and hadn't wanted to wait. John was going to be watching this meeting, too, so he thought he could probably get away with not being at his best for it.
Baxter seemed likable enough at first glance, a thick-set, balding man with a genuine-looking smile, but after spending all night taking the kids through that mess of a contract, Harold wasn't taken in by it. He leaned back in his chair with his legs crossed and let the kids have at him. They'd been listening, he thought with some satisfaction. They almost sounded like they knew what they were doing.
Baxter's smile got tighter and tighter, and then disappeared entirely. "Well, that's not the way I wanted to do this. You're going to sign the contract now, gentlemen," he finally said with a sigh.
Given the machine's warning, Harold probably should have been better prepared when Baxter pulled a gun out from under his jacket. But he'd been tired, and not paying as much attention as he should have. Alex cowered in his seat, while Jim and Andrew shouted in alarm and jumped to their feet, freezing when the gun tracked their movements. Harold sighed and slowly stood, too, hands held out in front of him.
"Don't do this, Mr. Baxter. You're about to make a terrible mistake," he said. Baxter ignored him.
"So how do you think this is going to work?" Andrew said angrily. "You gonna hire someone to keep a gun pointed at every single one of us for the next couple of years?"
"Ownership of the company goes to the investors in the event of your death," Harold said. Just one of the many things that had been wrong with that contract. "I assume he's going to make you sign the contract and then -" stage an accident, he'd been about to say.
"He's cut the brake lines on their car," John cut in over the earwig. Finch breathed out slowly, his knees suddenly a little weak with relief.
"Sorry for the wait," John said. "You're doing fine, Harold. Keep calm, keep those kids from trying to play the hero if you can. I'll be with you in a moment."
"I'm not signing anything if he's just gonna kill us after!" Jim yelped. He squared his shoulder and crossed his arms, looking every inch the petulant teenager that he was. "You can't make me do anything!"
Harold sighed. John had been right, they were going to try and be heroes. But John was almost here. Harold just needed to stall a little longer, keep Baxter's attention off the boys until rescue arrived. "None of you are signing anything," he told the trio firmly, taking a small step forward, inching in front of Jim.
Baxter's eyes - and his gun - shifted to him. "You're the one who told them not to sign the contract, aren't you?" he said. "This would all have gone a lot easier if you hadn't stuck your nose in. You know, I don't need your death to look like an accident for this to work."
The gun was pointing right at his heart now. Harold's palms were sweating, and he was breathing hard, but oddly, he found he wasn't as afraid as he probably should have been. The certainty that John was right there was a steady, comforting warmth in the pit of his stomach. John would have a plan. They just needed to give him a little more time.
"Wait -" he was going to say, but at the same time, Andrew snarled "Don't you hurt him!" and launched himself at Baxter. The sound of the gun going off was deafening. Harold stumbled backwards, his leg buckling beneath him to drop him hard on the floor. The door exploded inwards with a bang, and then there were more shots, John flying into the room like an avenging angel, and a few confusing seconds of flailing limbs and screams before silence abruptly descended. The kids were staring wide-eyed at Baxter, who was clutching his bloody knee. All of them seemed unharmed, thankfully.
John crashed to his knees beside him, frantically running his hands over Harold's chest, pushing his jacket to the side and crumpling his t-shirt up. "Are you hurt? Finch! Did he hit you?" And there it was, that wide-open vulnerable look he'd only seen on him once. This was the guy who'd stroked his cheek and murmured endearments into his ear.
Harold had almost gotten shot a minute ago. Suddenly it seemed ridiculous that he'd been so scared of this, of putting himself out there for John to see.
"Where did he come from?" Andrew was saying in the background. "Seriously, dude, thanks for the rescue and all, but who the hell are you?"
"Mr. Reese is my -" Bodyguard. Associate. Friend. "-partner," he said, without taking his eyes off John's face.
He stood, laboriously; took two steps before he realized that he still had his hand clenched in the front of John's shirt. He didn't let go. "If you'll excuse us a moment," he said.
The room next door was dark. Harold slapped his hand against the wall, missed the light switch, and decided he didn't care. He pushed John firmly up against the window, and finally let go of his shirt. His heart was pounding. John was watching him bemusedly, waiting patiently to see what he'd do. Faint light from the streetlamps outside was casting his face into dramatic shadow. Harold took a deep breath.
"It has come to my attention that…" his voice broke over the words. He made himself go on. "I've been a coward. I apologize." He bunched his hands in the front of John's shirt and kissed him, letting it all show through, the fear and the affection, his unending gratitude, and the… love, it was love, he couldn't say it but he could think it inside the safety of his own head, and maybe he could let John taste it on his lips.
John made a low, desperate sound and kissed him back, his hands spreading wide over Harold's shoulder blades.
The door banged open, bright light spilling into the room. Harold startled backwards and was brought up short by John's hands on his back, still holding him tight. Andrew was talking before he even got through the door. "Harold, could you - oh, um, uh. That kind of friend, huh. Way to go, dude! Uh, never mind. But when you guys are done, we could use a hand out here?" The door banged shut again.
Finch stepped back with a self-conscious little laugh. This time, John let him go. "Sorry," he said. "A slightly awkward choice of venue on my part, I admit."
"That's okay," John said. He sounded dazed. "We should probably get out of here before the cops arrive. Someone must have heard those shots."
"We should," Harold said, and then, feeling reckless, or maybe just bold - what the hell, Andrew had already seen them - he tangled his fingers with John's, and tugged him out into the light.