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Chapter Six: Harold Helps Out

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It's true, that saying about how New York never sleeps; but the lights in the skyscrapers wink out, the cars get scarce and the people get scarcer in the strange hour between 3:45 and 4:45. It's as close to rest as New York gets, and John will take it. He doesn't sleep much either; the Army drummed it out of him, the CIA peeled it off him, and Finch's numbers push him into long stretches of wakefulness. He catches a few hours here and there during the day and in the night, but every 3:45 he's walking alone down the streets, restless, wide-eyed.

More often than not his feet take him to the library, although he's put rules around his feet: they can only take him up the stairs once a week. So on odd nights he'll make it to the alleyway and slow down at the door with the broken lock, but he won't go in; he passes by and fights his feet until they get to the coffee shop on the corner where Sal rolls her eyes at him and gives him a cup of coffee and a paper.

"You need to quit your habit," she'll tell him, and he says, "I don't have one," and they both know he's lying; maybe it'd be better if Sal was right about what his lies were, if he really was a gambler or an addict or a philanderer. Maybe the habit she's imagined for him would hurt his feet less.

But once a week he gets to climb the stairs, darker even than they usually are, treacherous with books and dust and the detritus of abandonment. The padlock opens, noisy and grumbling, and the gate rattles back and John pads along the library shelves, his feet quiet against the floor and his jacket slung across Harold's desk. He touches the books, carefully; he doesn't pull them out to examine them for evidence of Harold's past, not anymore. Whatever he finds, he wants it to be because Harold offered it to him. Learning secrets was never so much fun as being told them.

On the mornings following these nights, Harold finds John sprawled out on one of the ugly armchairs, asleep, and John never hears Harold come in but he never startles at the touch of a hand on his shoulder. Harold always looks pleased and disapproving at the same time, and asks if John dislikes his bed, and John gets to his feet and the day starts a little bit brighter.

But tonight--
"It's not polite to talk with your mouth full, Chester," he hears. It's Harold. John freezes, listening for the sound of someone else. All he can hear is Bear, tic-tacing as he does the perimeter check John taught him his first month. Any second he'll come down the hallway and sniff out John, so John opens the lock as quietly as possible and slips inside.

Harold's still talking -- no, reading, John's familiar with the cadence from when Harold thinks some article or another will amuse John while he's on stakeout or driving or, once, trying to crack a safe. 

"'Listen,' Chester snapped at me - fortunately letting go of my tail first - 'The book said to use garlic.' 'What book?' I asked. 'The Joy of Cooking?'"

Sure enough Bear comes around the corner, nose working, and spots John; his ears perk up but at John's signal he stays quiet, continues his check. John creeps closer; Harold's not at the desk, but his voice is close.

"'What does that mean?' 'It means they can't go anywhere if there's garlic around.''Well, I've got news for you, Chester, I can't go anywhere either. The smell is killing me--'"

John peers around a shelf and sure enough, Harold's sitting on the couch, the lamp a pool of light around him. He's reading something with a bright cover - a kid's book. John leans against the bookshelf and keeps listening. 

"'But you've got to put it on; it says so in the book. If you don't put it on, I'll put it on for --' Bear? Bear, hier. I'm reading this for your benefit, you know."

Bear trots past and jumps up onto the couch. John rolls his eyes - whenever he's around Harold's pretty hot on Bear staying off the furniture, but apparently Harold's the kind of dad who only enforces the rules when there are witnesses. John's got an image of Harold as a father, suddenly, trying and failing to make healthy lunches for his kids and ordering them pizza when there's no one around to supervise. Bear whuffles and nudges his head into Harold's lap, and Harold scratches the thick fur around Bear’s collar, smiling slightly. 

"'Doe, Chester,' I said as my nose suddenly and involuntarily closed, 'I've leabing dis roob right dow.' And I did."

And John laughs, because he can't help it, because Harold's impression of someone with a plugged up nose is seriously delivered and because John remembers, suddenly, that the hero of the story Harold's reading is a dog named Harold, and together he and his friend aren't sure if they should help or hurt the little creature in their charge, but they try their best, and really, it shouldn't have taken John as long to figure out what story Harold was reading to Bear.

Harold's head snaps up, at least as much as it's able to, but he doesn't look alarmed or afraid. "Mr. Reese," he says, squinting into the dark, where John's still standing. "I thought tonight might be your night. Would you like to do Chester's part?"

And John feels a clench in his gut, just to the left of where he was shot, something like fear hurting him now, but his feet take him into the puddle of light and he sits in the space at Harold's right hand; from across Harold's lap Bear thumps his tail twice.

"I'm not as good as you at voices," he says, and the arm he stretches across the back of the couch feels like a head in a lap, asking, and Harold's smile is a warm hand on the back of his neck, answering.
"Never mind about the voices, Mr. Reese," he says, and turns the page.