“I’m going in.”
Finch wanted to be there, was clawing at the keyboard and gritting his teeth because he should be there. But Reese had calmly pointed out that he was breaking into a high level, maximum security government facility. If things went badly, for whatever reason, he needed Finch on the outside to get him out again. It was weak; Harold could see through the thin layer of concern and make out the truth hidden below. Neither of them were sure what Reese would find down there, and not being on the ground might be a gift.
Twelve hours earlier the Machine had given them Nathan Ingram’s number. Harold had sat in his chair, his legs stiffening and his feet going to sleep, until Bear woofed happily at John’s careful, measured footsteps up the Library stairs. There hadn’t been an argument, just a question of when and how.
“I’m through the main door,” John said against his ear. A red blip, the GPS tracker in John’s phone, plods slowly across the blueprint on Harold’s screen. It’s not the blueprint the city officials have of the suburban town hall, but the one stored in the NSA’s records with three extra basement sublevels. “This place is a prison, Finch.”
Logic overruled other brain functions, and Harold busied himself with figuring out how the town hall covered for the extra food, staff, and energy expenditures that running a secret prison would entail. “And,” words, which never failed him before, were getting stuck in his throat. “How many?”
“The cells are empty.”
Harold’s hands shook and he felt ill. Stupid of him, clumsey, to think Nathan might be alive somewhere. The Machine had given them numbers in the past that weren’t directly in danger as a hint to a larger puzzle. Caroline Turing, Sam Groves, Root. Just because Nathan’s number had come up didn’t mean-
“Wait. There’s someone here.”
John’s GPS marker froze, pressed against a blue line that represented a wall. “Someone where? Mr. Reese?” Harold cursed internally. He was normally content to let Mr. Reese handle the details of their job, but this time it was different. There was a scuffle followed by a grunt. “Mr. Reese what’s happening?”
John’s voice came back, steady and soft. “Everything’s fine, Finch. Just ran into some company.” There was something in his voice, something Harold couldn’t quite identify. Quiet and careful. “I found Nathan Ingram.”
Harold felt the blood rush out of his head, heard it thumping against his ears and leaving the sound of John’s voice tinny and far away. The edges of the keyboard bit into his hands and he realized he was holding onto it in a death grip.
He swallowed, listened to Reese’s voice, and took a deep breath. The monitor swam back into focus.
“I’m here, Mr. Reese. Is,” he licked his lips, “Is he alive?”
“Yeah, and pretty spry. I’m getting him out of here. We’ll meet you back home in an hour.”
John’s connection toggled off. Harold could still listen in if he chose, had done so on numerous occasions. The phone still had battery and he could just remotely access the speakers and... Harold’s hands froze. The enter key to run the command was miles away. What was another hour anyhow, to hear Nathan’s voice. He stood up, stretched his legs, and began to pace.
An hour, it turned out, was an excruciatingly long period of time to wait for a dead friend. He dusted the computer towers, started the electric kettle for tea, and paced endlessly. He tried to read, but Asimov’s words were cold and distant and his gut roiled whenever he sat down, so he paced until his back ached worse than his feet.
The door to the Library squeaked open and Bear leapt up from his dog bed to race to the top of the stairs. Footsteps echoed up the hall, two sets, and Harold’s heart thundered in his chest. John rounded the crest of the staircase, said something soft to Bear and the dog wagged its tail, and then Nathan Ingram was in the Library, sucking up light like a black hole.
He was just as tall as Harold remembered, rivaling John. But his shoulders were hunched and he looked old and tired. His hair, always a dashing dishwater blond, was dirty and greying, and he had lines around his mouth and eyes that Harold didn’t remember. He was wearing off the rack clothing, doubtless procured by John. Jeans and jacket. They looked strange on him.
But the observations were habit, not intentional, and, “Nathan,” slipped out of his mouth like air escaping a tire. He closed the distance between them, aware of his limp more now than he had been in years. John, beside him, smiled deep. “Thank you, Mr. Reese, I...” and the words stopped because there were none that expressed his gratitude with any dignity.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Finch,” Reese said, and the smile didn’t leave his face as he took Bear with him back down the stairs.
Harold hadn’t intended to send John away, but the reunion would undoubtedly be easier without his presence. Nathan Ingram stood before him and Harold found himself at a loss for words. “Would you like some tea?”
“Harold I’ve been locked up against my will in a government asylum for the last three years. I don’t want tea, I want whisky.”
And Harold stopped for a moment, because had it really only been three years? It felt like much longer, but perhaps that was because their friendship had been falling apart long before the rest crumbled. Harold’s own fault. They’re standing at the entrance to the Library, and Harold ushers them in deeper and motions Nathan to sit at his desk chair. “No whisky, I’m afraid. Just tea and enough water rations to sustain two adults for a month.” He pauses and frowns. “We’ll have to increase the storage now.”
The Library was never meant to be an entertaining space. John had never complained, but now it felt inadequate. He dragged a folding chair from the back and sank into. Nathan watched him quietly. He wasn’t used to Nathan being quiet.
“What the hell happened? Where is Will, is he alright?”
“Will is fine. He’s working for the Red Cross. I’m sorry I didn’t get you out sooner. I thought, everyone thought, you were dead. We learned you were alive twelve, no, thirteen hours ago.”
Nathan’s hands were clenched but he didn’t touch the keyboard, didn’t reach for the web on reflex like Harold would after being gone from the world for so long. Instead he just leaned against the table and looked at Harold, his eyes dark. “No, I mean, what happened?”
“It turned out your hesitance about the Machine was quite warranted. You were assassinated. It looked like an accident of course.”
“I was there for that part, Harold.”
Directness had always come easily. “You were right. You were always right. About the Irrelevant List, about the Machine needing an off switch in case...” His hands were shaking again. Why were his hands shaking? He’d remembered to eat before they found out Nathan was alive, but after that food had been inconsequential. “It took some time to get everything in place. And I wasn’t ready to begin work right away. The machine is doing what I designed it to do all along, but it’s also doing what you programed it to do. It sends me the List and we, John and I, help people.”
Nathan was looking at him again, really looking. Harold wasn’t used to being under anyone’s gaze except John’s; most people glanced at him and then dismissed him. It was a level of invisibility he cultivated. It should have made his skin crawl but it was Nathan, so instead of brushing it off he looked up and met his eyes. “Jesus Christ, Harold. I didn’t mean for it to be you.”
It stung more than it should have. “You’re tired. There’s a bed in the back.” Harold busied himself digging out water bottles and bedding and didn’t look up until Nathan’s hand was on his shoulder. It was warm and heavy and suddenly Harold couldn’t think, couldn’t see straight, and when he blinked he was sitting down on the edge of the twin bed in the back and Nathan was crouched in front of him.
Nathan was panicking, he realized abstractly. Nathan hadn’t panicked since Will was born.
“Are you on any medication?” Nathan’s hand waved lazily at his injured body. Or maybe it wasn’t lazy at all, it only looked that way because his vision was still swimming in concentric circles.
“I’m fine, Nathan,” he said. There was a granola bar stashed in a drawer somewhere. He would eat it and he would be fine, so it wasn’t even lying. “Just a head rush. I’ll let you get some sleep.” He eased himself off the bed and grudgingly let Nathan keep a hand at his elbow until he was standing under his own power. “Goodnight, Nathan.”
Nathan Ingram slept like the dead, but he felt it was a well deserved sleep. He woke up, stiff, to sunlight streaming in through the gaps in the bookshelves that marked his temporary bedroom. For three years he’d had only four grey walls, a grey ceiling, and a grey floor to look at. The sunlight, gold and lighting up dust in white streams, was mesmerizing. His captors hadn’t been cruel; he’d been given books to read, newspapers to keep up-to-date with, and even been allowed to play games. His sudoku was getting very good. But comfortable or not, he’d been a prisoner.
He peeled back the bedding and let his bare feet land on the speckled library floor. Harold had apparently done some midnight shopping because a suit lay draped over a nearby chair, complete with new shoes. The suit, light grey and reminiscent of his suits from days gone by, fit like a glove and felt like heaven. The cool fabric ghosted over his skin. He still felt out of touch, but dressing grounded him.
He wandered through the Non-Fiction section and eventually found himself at the circulation area Harold had converted into his office of sorts. A computer was running, the chair empty, and the monitor showed Wikipedia open to his own page. His face, a picture from a promotional gala back when he and Olivia were still together, looked young and fresh. Below it his date of death was written in bold.
He spent hours clicking through the links, catching himself up on events and people. Alicia Corwin was dead, so were others. Olivia had remarried. Harold was conspicuously absent from his web crawl, and so was John Reese, the name of Harold’s friend floating to him in pieces. He spent longer looking for pictures of Will than anything else. One picture showed him in a desert with water rations being handed out of the back of a truck. Another had him somewhere in Eastern Europe. He looked busy. Sometimes that was just as good as happy.
“You’re looking more like yourself.” Harold, for all that he limped now, was as silent as a cat. Nathan hadn’t heard him come in and when he swiveled the chair to face him, Harold was a mere three feet away.
“Thanks. Feeling more like myself too.” Harold just looked at him and Nathan realized, belatedly, he was in his chair. He got up and Harold stiffly folded into it. Harold dressed better than Nathan remembered. He’d always looked the part, made sure to dress professionally, but he’d always been exceptionally careful to look like an assistant. Now he dressed a different part.
Nathan nodded at Harold’s leg. “How did that happen?”
“It’s not the leg.” Nathan blinked and watched Harold’s entire upper body turn to face him. “Damaged spine. You were assassinated when they dropped a building on you. They were simply wrong in their assumption that you were alone.”
“Nathan, I thought you died.” Harold hissed, and this was the Harold Nathan remembered. Venomous when cornered, cruel when tested. A pause marked the end of the conversation thread. “You can’t go back to your life, of course,” Harold said casually. “The people who had you are still looking for you. And,” as if it were inconsequential, “everyone thinks you’re dead.”
Nathan felt hollow. He hadn’t expect differently, but it left him empty. “Of course.”
“We have a number, though.”
“They come in quite frequently. New York is the best place for a team like us to operate. It has the population density for us to be somewhat effective.” Harold was up and walking, limping, to the clear plexiglass board and taping a picture to it. It was a little girl, maybe fourteen years old, with black hair and braces. Nathan replayed the phrase ‘a team like us’ in his head.
“Technology has advanced in the last few years,” Harold continued. “Phones are nearly all on wireless networks now.” He pulled a squat phone with a huge LCD display out of his pocket and set it on the table for Nathan to inspect while tapping something in his ear.
“Good morning, John,” Harold said, and there was a strange smile in his voice that Nathan couldn’t remember ever hearing before. “We have a number.” There was a pause while John, presumably, spoke on the other end of the line. In-ear speaker and receivers remotely connected to a nearby phone. It was remarkable technology. “Yes that would be lovely. Thank you.” He tapped the phone again and looked back to Nathan. “John is bringing donuts,” he said.
Maybe, Nathan thought, this is what normal felt like. Being presumed dead, having spent three years in more-or-less solitary confinement, and being rescued by a very violent man who brought his best and only friend in the world donuts while rescuing innocent people from the world. Maybe, Nathan thought, he liked this new normal.
Donuts, it turned out, were an understatement. John, who Nathan could now look at more closely that his heart rate was back to normal and they weren’t running for their lives, was a handsome man. Younger than he and Harold, but not by too much. He wore his suit well and Nathan had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t a suit of his own choosing. He walked in like a force of nature, the huge dog at his side, carrying two boxes of pastries. The smallest box he held onto. “Doggy danish,” he explained.
“You spoil him,” Harold said, and dove into the large box.
It was extravagant. Three middle aged men did not need a dozen donuts, but Nathan’s mouth salivated. He’d been fed acceptable food in acceptable quantities, but fresh baked pastries hadn’t been on the menu. He selected a brightly glazed donut with what seemed to be cream filling. He lost track of the conversation until the donut was gone and his fingers were licked and John Reese nudged the box closer with a knowing smile. He ate two more donuts before forcing himself to stop.
The Number’s name, Harold told them, was Cecelie Conner, and she was a freshmen at Timber Valley High School. It was her father who was most likely the perpetrator. Her mother had filed a restraining order against him earlier that year, citing physical abuse, but she hadn’t pressed charges. Not evidence for a case, the police report said, but sufficient concern by school officials and other adults to issue the restraining order. Harold rattled off an address and John was loading a pistol and walking down stairs before the gravitas of the situation hit Nathan.
“He’s not taking the dog?”
“Bear stays with me,” Harold said with a strange finality. Bear, hearing his name, looked up at him. “No Bear. You already had your treat.”
Harold put the phone on speaker and they listened while John cornered the father in a gas station bathroom.
“And he does this for all the Numbers?” There was a crack that sounded like a bone snapping but Harold didn’t look concerned.
“Yes. We’ve established a good routine.”
John threatened the father and Nathan watched Harold frown. “It’s not enough, John, we need to remove him from the equation.” The donuts turned sour in his gut. That, Nathan thought, sounded a lot like Harold ordering a hit. But then he said, “I’m calling Detective Carter to your location.”
Afterwards, when the father (Nathan never even caught his name) was in jail for some convinently found child ponorgraphy and John was back at the Library taking a meticulous inventory of his arms collection, Nathan broke out in a laugh.
Harold, who probably thought he was suffering a nervous breakdown, looked at him worriedly. “Sorry, it’s just, I never would have thought this would be how we’d end up. Hiding from the government, saving the world one life at a time.”
It wasn’t, he decided, a bad thing.
“I thought you said the Numbers came in frequently.” Ingram was standing close to Harold and Harold didn’t appear to mind. It was a Sunday and Ingram had been with them for a week. It was the first time they’d had any downtime that wasn’t exhausted sleep and it was taking its toll.
“Lulls in the Numbers happen sometimes. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“Or,” John said as he walked across the room, “the Machine wants you to take a vacation.”
Ingram snorted but Harold just sent him a cool look. Ingram did a double take. “Wait, you communicate with it?”
Harold was quick to placate him. “Of course not,” but the glare he sent John wasn’t angry, rather thankful. John prided himself in his ability to tell the difference. “But perhaps Mr. Reese has a point,” Harold said neutrally. “I believe there is a baseball game this afternoon. Would you like to go, Nathan?”
Ingram sputtered and made worried sounds about cover identities but eventually agreed. John spent the next fifteen minutes memorizing the quickest way from the LIbrary to the stadium and the locations of payphones along the rout.
“I’m sure you’ll be able to entertain yourself in our absence, Mr. Reese?” John unpacked the question and translated it to, ‘do whatever you need to do.’
“Of course, Finch.” He would.
Exactly two minutes after Ingram and Harold left, John hooked the leash onto Bear’s collar and walked them out into the afternoon sun. He stayed two blocks behind the pair, careful to avoid detection. He was certain Finch was aware of him, but it the principle of the act, not the actual deception, that motivated his actions. “Come on Bear,” he said lightly in Dutch, and the dog kept up pace as they turned a corner.
Ingram was a positive development so far. He was learning fast and Harold trusted him. Harold needed people he could trust and John was happy that Harold was happy. He would be useful in the field too (eventually, when Harold felt secure that he wouldn’t be snatched from under them) but they would have to outfit him with glasses or at least some level of disguise. Nathan Ingram was dead, but he had been a public figure and someone might recognise him.
John toggled the earpiece at the next stoplight and let Ingram’s voice flood in. He didn’t feel guilty. If Harold hadn’t wanted him to listen he would have said so.
Ingram: I can’t believe you still like baseball.
Finch: It’s a great sport, the great sport.
Ingram: It’s slow, there isn’t much skill, and-
They are too far ahead for John to make out their details, but a sudden crush of the crowd as they near the stadium has Ingram ramrod straight. They’ve stopped moving and John has no doubt Ingram is staving off a panic attack.
Finch: We can go back.
Ingram: No. You wanted to go to the game. It’s the least I can do to. I shouldn’t be like this.
Finch: It’s perfectly natural, Nathan.
Ingram: (Snappishly) How would you know.
Finch: (A pause) I was kidnapped - only for two or three days. A tiny fraction of the time they had you. I couldn’t go outside for a week. I was afraid she-I was afraid it would happen again.
This, John reminded himself, was good. This was exactly what both Harold and Ingram needed to be functional. The fact that it felt like a punch in the gut was merely a side effect of his failure to protect him from Root, nothing more.
Ingram: How did you get past it?
John’s hand spasmed and he toggled off the ear-piece. They were safe, talking about their situation, and moving past it. That was all he needed to know. The pair started moving again and he watched until they disappeared into the stadium.
He stopped by the donut shop again on his way home, made sure to pick up the cream filled ones Ingram was fond of as well as the chocolate sprinkled kind that Finch insisted he didn’t like but that always disappeared first the moment John looked away. He also picked up a box of loose leaf green tea. They were running low at the Library and it would be a day for comfort food. He’d learned, both in the service and out, that food was the fastest way to calm an asset down and get them into a pliable state of mind. Harold was never an asset and Ingram was fast moving out of the category, but the principle remained the same.
Later, when Ingram and Harold were back from the game and tired from the social exertion of not having a nervous breakdown in front of thousands of people, Ingram stopped him between rows Cr-Ea. Automatically he calculated the nearest exits with the lowest probability of personal injury and the location of his weapons stashes.
“I’ve been locked up in a grey box for three years,” Ingram said. John expected a second clause to the sentence, but Ingram just looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “I’ve been friends with Harold for years. We respect each other. We’ve been through hell together. But Harold genuinely likes you. Harold doesn’t like anybody.”
John waited. Ingram’s assessment didn’t match up with his own experiences. Harold liked many people, often too much.
Ingram sighed. “I’m just saying, Harold likes you. That’s unusual. Don’t waste it.”
It clicked into place and he felt a smile pull at his face, unbidden. “I see. Thank you.”
Nathan grinned and clapped him on the back. “And remember, if you hurt him I’ll kill you.”
“Welcome to the team,” John said.