Walking in the Dark
We're all walking in the dark. Kara Stanton had told John Reese that, right before she'd ordered him to mutilate the bodies of the men she'd killed, so that the corpses would be unidentifiable. They were probably the only true words she'd ever said to him. He'd certainly been blundering in the dark from the moment he'd agreed to join her team. Nothing she'd ever asked him to do had come easy to him, but he'd done it, out of love for his country, to protect the innocent. He'd always played straight and fair, by the rules, following orders, but, in the end, he'd ended up in the same place as those two hapless agents Kara had shot that day. Funny thing was, that whole Ordos debacle hadn't even surprised him. Disappointed, maybe, but not surprised. He'd seen what Kara and the agency were capable of. Hell, he usually did the killing for her. More often than not over his years in service, the person on the other end of his gun ended up being a fellow American. Somewhere, deep inside, John had questioned the morality of what he'd done for the agency from the start, but he still followed orders, because that's what a good soldier did. If his orders meant working with a bunch of mako sharks to keep America safe, that's what he'd do. His team in the Rangers had had a motto about no man being left behind, but Kara Stanton, Mark Snow, and their lot had never been long on loyalty. John couldn't count how many times he'd had to make his way out of hostile territory alone and injured because Kara and the rest of the team cleared out when the mission went critical. If you weren't an asset, you were a liability in that world, and liabilities were expendable. In retrospect, John supposed he was lucky that Kara or Mark hadn't put a bullet through his head when he was injured. He'd certainly seen both of them do it to others.
Bottom line was, you get betrayed by the people you're working for often enough, and you come to expect it. So, after Ordos when he was presumed dead, John just stayed that way. With Jessica gone, there wasn't much to live for. It wasn't a far trip from walking in the dark to being a homeless person. At least on the streets, he didn't have to kill for a living. The booze made the indignities bearable. Left on his own, he would have died there. But . . . .
Against all odds, he hadn't been left on his own, with nowhere safe and no one coming to save him. Whether he deserved it or not, someone had rescued him and, by so doing, shaken every cynical belief the agency had instilled in him. Nearly every day, his unlikely savior proved to John that there was still goodness in humanity.
John glanced over at the man whose intervention had given him a second chance on life. Harold Finch. Harold was busy working his magic to pull up the details of the latest number on his computer monitor. John watched him work.
With his thick, dark-rimmed glasses, receding hairline, big ears, cleft chin, and unnaturally stiff carriage, Finch didn't look like anything special. Definitely, an unlikely candidate for a superhero. Just another aging geek who didn't get enough sun or exercise, but eighteen months had passed since they'd worked their first case and the man was still a complete enigma to John. That was something special. In his former line of work, there hadn't been many mysteries he couldn't figure out. But after a year and a half of his best efforts, he'd uncovered embarrassingly little about Harold's private life. Hell, he still didn't even know where the man slept at night.
At first, John had been obsessed with discovering Harold's secrets because he just couldn't accept that the guy was for real. Reclusive billionaires fighting injustice and saving lives were the stuff of comic strips, not real life. If a man who had spent the better portion of his life accumulating wealth was working this hard at something, everything in John's experience told him that there had to be something in it for him, some financial reward, power, or public recognition, something to justify all the time and money Harold spent doing good. But Harold truly was as anonymous as he seemed. He helped people simply because they needed help. It didn't get more simple – or beautiful – than that.
"You're very quiet today, Mr. Reese," the object of his attention commented as a line of numbers passed across the monitor too fast for John to even try to absorb, but which Harold's fingers were busily responding to on the keyboard with lightning speed. "Are you becoming bored with our arrangement?"
"What?" John realized he had committed a cardinal error in letting his attention wander as it had. Finch never missed a thing. "What would make you say a thing like that?"
"You don't seem as . . . engaged in the details of this particular number as you usually are," Finch answered.
John realized that he normally was asking a dozen questions at this point, while Finch scrolled through their client's life. Unsure how to respond, he took a moment to think. Every instinct he owned was warning him to fabricate and cover his tracks, but Harold never lied to him. There was something in him that wanted to give Harold back as good as he got. So, instead of throwing up the smokescreen that was called for in their unspoken rules of verbal engagement, he answered in that near-flirtatious tone that seemed to get past Harold's shields, "Maybe I'm working on a bigger mystery."
Harold's fingers stilled for a heartbeat. Those intelligent blue eyes flashed his way, seemed to absorb where John's attention was focused, before returning to the screen. A more wary tone entered Harold's voice as he gave an innocuous sounding, "Oh?" that was anything but.
"Can I ask you something personal, Harold?"
Finch must have been hell in the corporate boardrooms, because his expression gave nothing away to the casual observer. But John was anything but casual when it came to Harold these days. He saw the nearly invisible tightening of the skin around Harold's mouth and eyes. He could almost hear Harold's heartbeat skip a little faster as he responded, "If I said no?"
Hearing the legitimate concern, John dropped the silky tone and answered in as earnest a voice as he could manage around the disappointment ripping through him, "Then I won't ask."
Of course Harold would say no. Harold always said no.
The silence that followed felt like the longest pause in history before Harold finally asked, "What's your question?"
John didn't know who was more stunned by Harold's reply. He could see that Harold was regretting his decision as soon as the words were out of his mouth.
There were a million things John wanted to know, but he could almost touch the other man's fear. That being the last emotion he wanted between them, John backed off from the hard questions and asked in as normal a tone as he could manage, "When we're through with this case, will you go to the Mets game with me tonight? Providing the case is over by then and we're both intact enough to sit through the game?"
Visibly braced for the worst, Harold's expression suggested that he didn't understand the question. "All you want to know is if I'll go to a ballgame with you?"
"We both know I want to know a lot more than that, but I'll settle for contact over content," John joked, his own heart racing. For all intents and purposes, he'd just asked Finch out. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this nervous about an invitation. Jessica, maybe, but even with her, if she'd turned him down, it would have just been a beautiful woman with whom he was slightly infatuated deciding not to get involved with a soldier on leave. No big deal. Harold refusing to spend time with him . . . that would hurt. A lot.
"Contact?" Harold questioned.
"In our line of work, it isn't as if either of us has tons of casual acquaintances to socialize with," John replied, hoping he didn't sound as defensive as he was feeling. No one had a clearer picture of the kind of life he'd lived than Harold Finch. Who in their right mind would want to associate with someone like him outside of work?
John was also aware that he might be operating under a major misconception here. Everything he knew about Finch indicated that the man was more comfortable with computers than people, a virtual recluse, but John didn't know that for sure. In that secret life Harold lived, he might have dozens of friends and relations.
As he waited for a reply, John's eyes dropped to where Bear was sleeping in the bed by Harold's desk.
"I thought that you rather enjoyed your solitude."
John's gaze shot back up. Harold hadn't prefaced his response with the formal Mr. Reese, nor had herefused him outright. The words were filler, meant to buy time to evaluate the situation. He met Harold's gaze. Shocked, he saw his own uncertainty mirrored there. His mouth suddenly dry, John swallowed hard and offered Harold a little more truth, "Even the most self-sufficient loner eventually craves a bit of intelligent conversation."
The moment stretched. They both knew that John would never repeat this invitation were he refused. John could see Harold considering taking that easy path. The one thing he'd learned about Harold Finch was that the man guarded his privacy. They were closer now than they'd been in their early days. They occasionally ate out together and they'd gone to the movies once, but it was always during a case and always at Harold's invitation. This was the first time John had asked and, doing so, left him feeling strangely exposed.
"I haven't been to a baseball game in way too long. Providing the case is finished, it sounds like fun." Harold appeared fully as terrified as John had felt a moment ago.
There was no controlling his face when he finally realized Harold had agreed to join him. He felt himself grinning the way he had when the teething Leila had tried to chew on his nose. It was just that kind of simple joy. "Good . . . that's good."
Part of him was braced for a sarcastic comment about it just being a baseball game and not worthy of all the anxiety, but Harold never lied to him.
With an almost curt nod of acknowledgement, Harold returned his attention to his screen.
"So who's our new number?" John asked, hoping to return things to normal. A picture of a plump woman with curly blonde hair and a stunning smile was centered on Finch's monitor.
"Karen Morrissey. Recently divorced from James Romero. Lives in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. Works as a legal assistant with Gray and Windham on West 3rd Street, Manahattan."
"Not far from here. Her ex giving her grief?" John guessed.
"Looks like," Harold answered absently as the blonde woman disappeared from the screen and a line of data trailed across it. "Ms. Morrissey has a restraining order out on him. There were a couple of emergency room visits prior to the divorce. Mr. Romero could very well be the threat."
"Sounds like a real charmer. What do we have on him?"
"Out of work plumber. Two arrests for aggravated assault. Charges dropped in both cases."
"Best contact point for Morrissey?" John asked.
"Credit card records indicate she regularly frequents a Greek restaurant on MacDougall, the McDonalds on Sixth, and a Chinese place on Bleecker at lunch."
"It's nearly lunch time. I better get on her," John said, rising from his chair. He looked at Harold, waiting to see if he'd get the warning to keep things in perspective that Finch sometimes gave him when the case involved an abusive husband, but all Finch said was, "Stay in touch."
The May afternoon waiting outside the library was sunny, mild, and just about perfect. Enjoying the breeze blowing through the gingko trees, John hurried down Sixth Avenue towards West 3rd. The Village and its inhabitants were awash with color. The clothing the students and tourists were wearing vied with the shop fronts and graffiti on the walls John passed. The only islands of black and gray in that rainbow sea of humanity were the businessmen out on lunch break. John was hoping to pair Karen's phone as she returned to her office building after lunch.
John's steps faltered as he caught sight of an ambulance and a couple of cop cars parked in front of the Sixth Avenue basketball court across from the McDonald's closest to Ms. Morrissey's office..
"Uh-oh," John said. "I got police action here, Finch."
"Is Ms. Morrissey all right?" Finch's worried, nasal voice questioned through the ear bud.
Finch was always at his touchiest during the time before they paired cellphones with their client. Harold never enjoyed being off line in any situation.
"Don't know that she's even involved. Give me a minute." John joined the crowd of spectators. From his vantage point, he could see the cops cuffing four young black men dressed for the basketball court. John tensed when he saw another pair of uniformed officers zipping a body bag closed. "I got a body bag here, Finch. Could be gang related."
Scanning the crowd, John's gaze stopped on a tousled blonde head he could see through a police car window. Karen Morrissey was sitting in the front seat, not the back, holding a tissue to a bloody nose with her head tilted back. She looked shaken, but unharmed.
John touched the arm of a nearby businessman who was gaping at the scene. "Do you know what happened here?"
The graying banker type answered, "Some loser assaulted his ex right out here in the middle of the damn street. Talk about stupid. Bunch of kids jumped the guy to get him to leave her alone. Looks like they got a little over-zealous. No great loss."
"Mr. Reese? What's going on?" Finch's voice impatiently demanded in his ear.
"Looks like I'm too late."
Realizing what his words must have sounded like, John quickly reassured, "Ms. Morrissey is safe. Romero got rough with her on the street. A gang of kids came to her rescue."
"Romero isn't going to be bothering her anymore. This was a close one, Finch."
"I know. We usually get better warning than this. Do you think he was the only threat or could there be others? I'm not seeing anything else in her social media or financial records to suggest another threat."
"I'll follow her down to the station, see that she gets home safe."
"Stay in contact."
Right up until the moment Harold and he sat down in their orange plastic seats in Citi Field Stadium, John kept expecting Harold to bow out on him. He didn't know why it was so important to him that they do something outside of work together, but it was and he wasn't going to question the need too closely. Finch seemed just as nervous beside him.
In his loose gray sweatshirt and blue jeans, John himself was blending seamlessly into the crowd, but Harold . . . Glancing over at the other man, John gave a soft smile at his companion's idea of casual. Finch had lost the suit jacket, but still wore his crisp blue button down shirt, a vibrant blue vest on top of it, and black tie under a navy windbreaker.
"You okay?" John quietly asked, noticing how Harold kept turning his upper body around in that stiff way he had to see the fans taking their seats around them.
"I'm just not used to being part of a crowd without a purpose," Finch said. "I feel a little like a sitting duck just being out in the open like this. I don't like the waiting."
Understatement of the century. Finch appeared moments away from a panic attack. Not that John could blame him. While a person could easily disappear into a crowd like this, it was also one of the easiest places to take out a target.
"Me, neither." John shifted a bit in his seat to the left, stopping when his arm pressed up against Finch's on the armrest between their seats. When Harold awkwardly turned his upper body towards him, a question in those bright blue eyes behind their heavy frames, John leaned in close and whispered. "I have your back."
A series of fast changing emotions flashed through Harold's eyes before he gave a slow nod and seemed to relax a bit in the uncomfortable plastic arena seat. "I suppose you do."
Normally, John would have made an attempt at small talk to pass the time, but he knew Harold often viewed any casual questions from him as interrogation, so he kept quiet and watched the seats fill up for as long as he could. They'd already discussed the closing of the Morrissey case coming over in the car, so work wasn't even a viable option. The party in the row behind them was good-naturedly arguing over who had bought the last round of beers, while the seats in front of them were unoccupied as yet.
"I got it last time," the potbellied dark haired man sitting behind Finch claimed.
"No, it was George," the light-skinned black man at his side corrected.
"George wasn't even at the last game," their third companion, a graying slender man insisted. "Remember. Mannie and Al were there. I bought the last round."
As the discussion became more lively behind them, the quiet between Finch and him seemed to thicken. Feeling the urge to make some kind of contact in the awkward silence, John said in a voice just loud enough for Finch to hear him, "It shouldn't be this hard."
"Two guys going out to a game." John tried his best smile and offered as inoffensively as possible, "I can't make small talk with you without you accusing me of interrogating you. We can't talk about work in a crowd."
For a moment, Finch looked as if he might take offense, but then he leaned his whole upper body into John and said in that low, dry tone of his, "We could always debate who bought the last round."
John wasn't expecting the humor. He exploded into laughter. Delighted, he saw Harold smile beside him. When he calmed, he said, "That we could. But that would assume we'd actually done this kind of thing before."
"We did go out for beers that night," Finch reminded.
"We started out for beers. It ended up being wine and cheese," John corrected. "And you got the tab. So that means tonight's meal is on me."
John took another chance and said, "Dinner, after the game. You choose the place."
Finch didn't even pause before responding, "Somewhere new to us both."
Surprised that he was really enjoying himself, John nodded and gave a playful, "Paranoid."
"I once heard someone say something about rocks and people living in glass houses not throwing them."
"Paranoids like us don't live in glass houses –" John was about to say more, but the Star Spangled Banner started below and the crowd came to their feet.
The next three hours passed in a blur of deafening applause and boos, depending on who was scoring. There were nearly as many Phillies fans in the stadium as there were Mets fans, so it was a lively game. Throughout it, John couldn't tell if Harold were rooting for the home team or the Phillies. When Matt Harvey aced a home run in the 9th inning, that was all she wrote. Mets won 8 to 6 and the happy fans started to make their noisy way out of the bleachers.
They were milling towards the exit after a brief pit stop when a surprised voice called out, "John?”
Finch and he both froze, shooting each other an alarmed glance. They both had so many covers that being recognized in a crowd could be a traumatic or deadly experience.
Wondering if he could get to the piece strapped to his ankle in time if he needed it, John turned to meet the threat, only to feel a relieved grin take his features as he identified the tall, athletic brunet heading their way. "Mike!"
While John wasn't happy about being recognized in public, this casual acquaintance was about the most innocuous encounter he could have picked.
"I didn't expect to see you here, man," Mike Thompson said with a grin, shaking John's hand with his right hand while his left pounded John's back. "Great game, huh?"
"Yeah," John answered.
Mike's laughing brown eyes turned curiously to the man at John's side. John picked what he thought would be the least dangerous of Finch's aliases as he quickly introduced, "Ah, Mike, this is my good friend, Harold Swift. Harold, Mike Thompson. Mike and I work out at the same dojo, Harold."
"Pleased to meet you," Mike said, offering Finch his hand and a friendly grin.
"You two work together?" Mike asked as they shook, obviously trying to make sense of Finch and John’s unlikely association.
No," Finch instantly denied. "I teach high school math. I'm temping right now."
"You're not going to try to tell me you're a teacher, John, are you?" Giving Harold a conspiratory wink, Thompson explained, "John here is always showing up at the dojo looking like Guerrero after the Mayweather fight. He won't tell us what he does for a living. The guys have a bet running. You wouldn't know, would you?"
"If I did and told you, he'd probably have to kill us both. However, while I know for a fact that he isn't a teacher by profession, I'd wager John has taught one or two people a lesson in their time," Harold joked, making them all laugh.
"You're okay, Harold," Mike said, reaching out as if to thump Finch's back the way he'd just greeted John.
Without thinking, John moved between them, intercepting the reaching hand. "Harold's got a bad back, Mike. Car crash a couple of years ago."
Even though John made the accident up on the spot to explain Harold's injuries, he still felt like he was volunteering way too much information.
"Sorry, man, I wasn't thinking," Mike quickly apologized to Finch, stepping back.
"No harm done," Harold answered.
John couldn't help but wonder if he was going to take some heat for being so overprotective. Chances were, Mike wouldn't have hurt Finch, but John didn't want to take that kind of risk. He didn't know the exact nature of Finch's injuries, but he knew Harold was in a lot of pain most days. Not that the man ever complained. Harold was as close mouthed about his discomfort as he was everything else.
"So how's it going at the firehouse?" John asked Thompson.
"You know how it is this time of year. Weather gets warm and people start barbequing on their fire escapes and balconies. You'd think someone was paying them to burn themselves out of house and home," Mike said.
"Nothing like New Yorkers, huh?" John grinned, playing his role.
"Still the greatest city in the world, farm boy," Mike sassed back good naturedly.
They both laughed. John was very aware of Harold watching Thompson and him with a small, bemused smile on his face, like he didn't have a clue as to how to shoot the breeze with other guys. Having experienced that kind of isolation a time or two himself, John laid his hand on Finch's shoulder and offered, "You might have to deal with New York's Darwins, but no one's got it as hard as Harold here. He has to try to pound algebra into their offsprings' heads."
"Ouch. You win, Harold." When the resulting laughter calmed, Mike looked around at the passing crowd and said, "I better go see if Angie's out of the Ladies. See you in class on Thursday, John?"
"If work allows," John answered.
"Good to meet you, Harold," with handshakes all around, Mike left them to go find his wife.
"We should find the car," Finch said.
"Before someone else recognizes us. What are the odds?" John mumbled as the elevator taking them and a couple of dozen other people down to the parking lot level closed behind them.
"Citi Field holds approximately 42,000 people. The odds of a single man being recognized in a crowd of that size – "
"That was a rhetorical question, Mr. Spock," John joked.
The elevator doors parted and they followed the throng out to the parking area. John regulated his stride so Harold wouldn't have to rush to keep up with his longer legs as they headed towards the silver Audi John's tamest cover identity owned.
It was nearly twenty minutes later before they were in the car and crawling along Northern Blvd. with the game traffic. The sun had set during the ballgame. The busy avenue was a sea of brake lights and frustrated drivers. Deciding it might be faster to just take Queens Blvd. down, John swung over that way at the first opportunity. It was the right choice. Traffic was steady, but moving there.
Stopped at a red light in front of the fortress-like stone walls of Calvary Cemetery, John glanced over at the passenger seat. He couldn't tell whether Finch's silence was simply the result of a long day or something more.
"Sorry about Mike," John said into the quiet, picking the most probable cause of the silence. "I wasn't expecting to run into anyone at the game."
"No harm done. Even we are entitled to private lives, Mr. Reese." After a pause, Finch asked, "You take martial arts classes with Mr. Thompson?"
"Like you don't know?" John tried to keep his tone light, but the inequity of this situation sometimes got to him.
Apparently, he wasn't as successful as he hoped. When Finch replied, his voice sounded strained, "I haven't monitored your off duty activities for some time now."
"Why not? I know you still keep tabs on Carter and Fusco." If it were anyone else, he would have thought that Finch was lying to him, telling him what he wanted to hear.
"I suppose . . . no, that's not true. There's no supposition involved. I . . . I trust you."
It was clear those last three words hadn't come easily to this man who'd spent his entire life hiding. They hit John hard. Not knowing how to acknowledge the unprecedented disclosure, he was quiet a moment. He wanted to tell Finch how much those three words meant to him, but he knew Harold wouldn't be comfortable with that kind of emotional scene, so he decided to just skip it and give his information-hungry friend the details Finch had actually asked about. "Mike and I study jujitsu in a rather exclusive dojo down in Chinatown."
A glance at the passenger seat was enough to reveal how relieved Finch was for the change in topic. "Exclusive?"
"You have to audition to get in," John said, not quite joking.
"I see. Mr. Thompson seemed like a good man."
"He is," John said.
"He didn't look at me the way men like you usually do."
"Men like me? You mean killers?" John's fingers tightened on the wheel.
"No. I meant strong men who are physically active. Most times, they can barely disguise their contempt. Even the ones in my employ look at me like I'm . . . some kind of joke."
Remembering some of their earliest encounters, John hesitantly asked, "Did I ever look at you like that?"
"No, that's how I knew you were the right man for the job." Harold answered, then questioned, "Do we even know where we're going for dinner?"
As far as conversational segues went, Finch was about as subtle as a heart attack. But John had never thought Harold would volunteer anything of a personal nature, let alone something as painful as the situation he'd just described. "I thought we might park the car, swing by the library, pick up Bear, and then head over to that new sidewalk café over on Mercer that opened up last week. Have you eaten there yet?"
"No, it's a good choice. John?"
John, not Mr. Reese. Pleased, for all that Harold sounded nervous as hell, John asked, "Yeah?"
"I . . . haven't been to a ballgame since my accident. I really enjoyed this. Thank you."
"Nothing to thank me for."
"No, there is. Human interaction has never been easy for me. It's something to be grateful for."
Ambushed by a burst of nearly overwhelming affection for this frighteningly intelligent loner, John playfully teased, "It might help if you didn't call it that, Harold."
Finch froze beside him, the response so extreme that it drew John's gaze from the road for a moment. "What?"
"I know you've said that to me before, but someone else used those words to me a long time ago in almost the same tone you just used." Harold was looking at him as if he'd just seen a ghost.
Remembering the only other person's name with whom any of Finch's aliases had been associated in that slender police file Fusco had shared with him more than a year ago, John gently questioned, "Your partner – Nathan?"
Finch gave a tight nod and offered, "You remind me of him sometimes."
"Really?" John had read Ingram's unofficial biography and didn't see how he had anything in common with the late charismatic billionaire.
"Not personality as much as . . . attitude."
Not liking the pain in those bespectacled eyes, John softly questioned, "Nathan was a bad ass?"
Relieved, John saw Finch's face brighten with amusement. "He could be at times. Though, he was a little easier on his adversaries' knee caps than you are."
John suppressed a smile as he returned his attention to the traffic in front of him.
They were close to the library now. Seeing a parking space open up within walking distance, John quickly grabbed it before anyone else could stake a claim. Getting out, he walked to the passenger side and opened Finch's door for him. It was hard not to offer his friend a hand out as Finch struggled to attain the vertical, but he knew Harold wouldn't care for that.
Side by side, they walked the short distance to the building that John always thought of as Finch's Bat Cave.
"What are you smiling at?" Finch asked while working the locks on the security gate at the back entrance.
About to say 'nothing,' John reconsidered. "Well, I always think of this place as your Bat Cave. Since you really are a reclusive billionaire, that makes you Batman. Which makes me – "
"Delusional, if you think for one minute anyone is going to cast you as Robin."
"What? You don't think that yellow tights and a green Speedo suite my style?" John joked as they stepped into the elevator.
"The Speedo, perhaps. The yellow tights, not so much."
John's chuckle died away when he noticed a rush of color filling Finch's cheeks. "What's wrong?" Because something was. He could feel it the way he'd sense a gun targeting him.
"I . . . ."
The elevator doors parted, and 70 pounds of exuberant Malinois interrupted whatever Finch was about to say. They'd been gone for less than four hours, but Bear was carrying on like it had been four months.
John grinned as he watched Bear bathe Harold's face with slobbery licks as Harold knelt down to attach his lead, Finch's back as straight as a telephone pole. He remembered how when he'd first left Bear here with Finch, how his germaphobic friend hadn't been able to even touch Bear's tennis balls without a handkerchief between him and the ball. Now, Finch didn't even blink when he ended up covered in slobber.
After a couple of stops on the way for Bear to do his business, John finally slid into a chair at a table outside the Time Warp Café on Mercer, completely famished.
The Off-Broadway theatre crowd was just letting out, the clubs up and down the nearby streets starting to fill up, so Mercer was still abuzz with passersby even though it was close to eleven. Bear settled down under the table, resting his head on top of Harold's feet. John couldn't help but smile at the picture they presented, oddly content.
"Hi, I'm Martha. I'll be your server tonight," a pretty blonde woman with an infectious smile said, passing them a couple of menus. "Nice dog."
"Thanks," Harold said.
"What can I get you to drink, besides water?" Martha asked.
"I'll have a glass of pinot grigio," Harold ordered.
"I'll have whatever's on tap," John decided.
"Be right back," Martha promised as she hurried into the restaurant.
"Looks like fairly standard fare," Harold said from behind the colorful menu.
Less than five minutes later, their orders were in, and they found themselves once again sitting quietly in a sea of animated people. Despite the late hour, the tables around them were filled, mostly with college kids from their look and conversational topics, while a nonstop stream of people passed on the street beside their table. He looked over at Harold, who was sipping his wine and watching the late night crowd stream by them.
"Nice night," John commented.
Harold nodded. "Yes, it is. "It's been a long time since I just . . . ."
"Me, too," John said.
That gaping quiet fell back between them.
Clearly, it wasn't his imagination that the silence was strained, for Finch said in a confused voice, "We don't usually have trouble finding things to talk about when we eat together."
"We're usually discussing a case," John reminded him. "I don't think our work lunches and dinners count."
"Count towards what? Harold questioned.
"Towards nothing. Just relaxing. Enjoying the company," John tried to explain.
"I'd think you'd find this company somewhat . . . dull," Finch said, sounding completely serious.
"If you had any more sharp edges, you'd be a diamond. Why would you say something like that?"
"Because it's true," Finch said. "Would you be sitting here with me if it weren't for our work association? We both know you'd be more comfortable passing time with someone like that young man we met at the ballgame."
"You mean a stranger who doesn't know anything about me? Someone I have to lie to with every word?" John challenged. "Or are we not really talking about me being more comfortable in other company?"
"Monsters can be useful tools, but there aren't many people who want to spend time with them once the job is done." Unable to believe that he'd just said those words out loud, John picked up his beer and hid behind it as he took a long swig.
"Are you insane?" Finch snapped.
"Jury's still out on that verdict, Harold."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"How many sane people do the kind of things I've been paid to do in my life?" John didn't lift his gaze from the patterns in the foam on top of his beer.
"John, look at me," Finch ordered in a voice John had never heard before. "You're not insane, and you're certainly no monster. You know my skills. You know there isn't anything anyone can hide from me. I've read your files, every one of them, including those with clearance so high that your handlers couldn't even access them. Shall I tell you what I found in them?"
John wasn't sure he wanted to know. He knew what he'd been, what he'd done – who he'd killed. He couldn't imagine how it would read on paper, couldn't conceive what this gentle man who despised guns would think of the cold facts of his past. Still, he might be insane and he might be a monster, but he wasn't a coward, so he gave Finch a tight nod.
Harold leaned across the small, round table, speaking so low that only Bear might have overheard. "I saw a man of honor. A strong man who came to the aid of his people in their time of need. The kind of hero that you read about in comic books, but never meet in real life because they're so rare. I saw how unscrupulous forces took that man of honor and tried to turn him into a monster. I saw that loyal man do terrible things that went against his nature, things that he did to protect his people. But although he was flawless in his performance of his duties, his heart wasn't in it. He could not be the mindless killing tool they wanted to make him, and when those unscrupulous forces realized they couldn't transform this man of honor, they did everything in their power to destroy him. But they weren't strong enough to defeat him. That man survived, and, even though he used to do terrible things that he regrets, now, he does good deeds that save innocent people's lives." Although low, Harold's voice was passionate, the raw emotion in it nearly hypnotic. "That's what I see when I look at you, Mr. Reese. So, I would appreciate it if you wouldn't berate that man in my presence, because I owe him my life more times than I can count."
There were no lies in those fierce blue eyes. Harold believed every word he was saying.
John's own eyes were stinging, his throat so tight he could barely breathe. Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to break that fiery gaze. He stared at the weeds growing up from the cracked sidewalk around a parking meter a few feet away, trying to get a handle on his emotions.
"Who gets the steak?"
They both jumped as their waitress' voice shattered the moment.
Finch recovered first. "I do. My friend gets the turkey."
"Do you need anything else?" Martha questioned.
"No, we're good. Thank you," Finch answered. Once the waitress left, Finch took a deep breath and said in a sardonic tone, "Maybe there's a reason we don't do this very often."
Their gazes tentatively touched, nearly shy in the contact.
John searched for something to say, something other than the four words thundering through his soul. Somehow, he didn't think that I'd die for you, while true, would return things to a normal footing.
Finch broke the eye contact and reached for his silverware. "Like I said earlier, human interaction isn't my strong suit." He sounded apologetic, of all things.
John watched Harold's deft fingers direct the knife and fork as he cut up his steak.
"John, are you all right? I, er, probably shouldn't have said any of that."
Taking a deep breath, John nodded and reached for his fork. When he thought he could speak without betraying the maelstrom of emotions raging through him, he softly said, "Just to set the record straight, you're as good at human interaction as you are at code."
Finding his appetite, John started on his hot turkey sandwich. The silence between them as they ate no longer felt awkward.
Swallowing the last bite of his dinner, John took another swallow of his beer and announced with near triumph, "I believe I've thought up a conversational topic that won't be viewed as an attempt at interrogation."
"I haven't accused you of that in a long time, Mr. Reese."
"Only because you choose to humor me. Your eyes still say it."
"So what's your safe topic?" Harold asked, not denying John's assessment.
"What was your favorite television show growing up?"
"While I believe some psychological conclusions could be drawn by this line of inquiry, you're right. It is a safe topic. To answer your question, you've already made reference to my favorite show tonight."
"Not Batman," John denied.
"No, of course not. The plot holes in those scripts were big enough to sail a starship through."
"Star Trek." John was surprised by how pleased he was by just this small exchange of information. It didn't take much to picture what Finch would have been like as a teenager – a socially inept braincase with thick, horn-rimmed glasses. For some reason, John found that image strangely appealing. "I wish I could have known you then."
"You weren't even born then," Finch countered, exaggerating a bit. "What about you? Your favorite childhood show?"
"Promise not to laugh?"
Those too-clever eyes studied him for a moment. Then Finch smiled, gave a negative shake of his head, and said, "No promise."
Loving the playful air in this too serious man, John smiled back and offered, "Starsky & Hutch. I couldn't get enough of that show."
"It was the Torino, wasn't it? I suppose we should be grateful you didn't covet the General Lee."
Hiding another smile, John denied, "I didn't covet the Torino or the General Lee. Though, both were very cool rides."
"If not the car, then what? Those scripts were only a step up from Batman's."
"Most kids don't judge their shows on the quality of the scripts, Finch. For the record, Batman had the car I coveted."
"And Starsky & Hutch? What was their appeal? If I remember right, their firepower wasn't anything out of the ordinary for television of that period. Please tell me it wasn't the clothes."
It was sort of fun to watch this genius try to figure this out. Almost chortling at Finch's last plea, John shook his head. "Nope, not the clothes, not the guns, not the car. The appeal wasn't something you're going to be able to figure out using your brain."
Abruptly unsure if this had been the wisest conversational topic, John hesitated for a second, and then finally decided, what the hell. It wasn't like Finch didn't already know the facts. "You know from my file that I was an only child, an army brat, that we moved around almost every year until my folks were killed in that car crash."
All humor fading from his face, Finch gave a tight nod.
"All that moving around made it hard to keep friends. It may sound hokey as hell, but when I was ten and watching that show, I wanted the kind of friendship those guys had – someone you could count on to be there and come through for you, no matter what went down. I searched for it my entire life. Never imagined I'd have to die to find it."
John could almost touch Finch's shock.
Finch was silent so long that John was beginning to regret his candor. Finally, sounding like it was taking every bit of discipline he had to control his voice, Finch asked, "So which one am I – Starsky or Hutch?"
"Neither, I think we should stick with the better scripted show. You're definitely Spock."
"Which makes you Captain Kirk?"
"Well, it sure beats being the Boy Wonder, don't you agree?"
Finch's laughter flowed over him like cool water on a thirsty throat. Smiling, John added, "And their wardrobe was so much more dignified than the yellow tights and green Speedo."
"Indeed," Finch said in a tone that was so reminiscent of the character John had told him he resembled that John couldn't help but think Finch was intentionally aping one of Spock's favorite expressions, but when he grinned over at his friend, John found those familiar features unexpectedly tight.
Remembering that he'd received a similar reaction the last time he mentioned Batman's sidekick's outfit, John opened his mouth to question what was up and then decided against it. Finch was being unusually forthcoming tonight. He didn't want to do anything to change that.
"How was everything?" Martha questioned. This time, John had seen their waitress approach. It was only Finch who started. "Would you like to see the dessert menu?"
"Harold?" John checked.
"No, I couldn't eat another bite. Thank you."
"Check, please, Martha," John said.
A few minutes later, their bill was paid and they were slowly making their way back to the library, with the prerequisite stops for Bear to christen the fire plugs and parking meters they passed.
"We should do this again," John said as Finch worked the lock on the gate to the library's side entrance. "I had a great time."
"As did I. Did you leave something upstairs?" Finch asked.
"It's getting late."
"Just wanted to see you home safe," John said. He'd just automatically accompanied Finch back here, not thinking that it made more sense for him to go straight to the car, which was closer to the restaurant than the library.
"Well, as you can see, we're home safe."
"No, you're at the library. And you're still on the street, not inside, so – not safe yet. Here, give me that key," John said, leaning over to try to help with the recalcitrant lock.
Even when he'd been languishing in an alcoholic stupor after New Rochelle, he wouldn't have missed how Finch's entire body seemed to freeze at the increased proximity. The near panic that flashed through those bespectacled eyes was louder than a shout in the dark, deserted alley.
Anyone else, and John would have thought that the other man was afraid he was going to hurt him. But Finch knew him better than that. About to ask what was going on, John bit back the words. It wasn't fear, at least, not fear for his safety. So, what the hell else would Harold possibly fear from him? The only thing his paranoid friend truly worried about was discovery, John knew. But what kind of discovery did Harold think John would make while leaning over him? The brand of aftershave Harold favored?
The dumb joke John was about to voice died on his lips as his CIA training kicked in and he analyzed the unexpected nuances of the abruptly tense situation. His brain took stock of the way he was standing in Harold's personal space, his hands over Harold's on the recalcitrant lock, his upper body leaning against Harold, their faces positioned inches away from each other.
Absolutely floored, John recognized that it wasn't fear Harold had been attempting to hide from him. His breath stuttered to a stop in his chest, his heart thumping like it would burst. Finally, he put a name to the elusive emotion that had been whispering around them just under the radar tonight and, well, probably for months now – not fear. Desire.
Harold Finch wanted him.
Evidently, all those voyeuristic years Finch spent studying other people's lives had given him some insight into the human interaction he claimed not to understand. The instant John defined what was going on, Harold seemed to read it in his face and Finch's tension transmuted into true fear. Finch looked as if he were waiting for the world to explode around him.
Stunned, John didn't know what to think. There were only two options to a situation like this – retreat or advance. Both were fraught with danger. He hadn't a clue which was the best course, because he hadn't seen this coming at all and was completely blindsided by it.
But, while his mind might be frozen in shock, John's heart wasn't. That particular organ had been asleep for so long that John had simply assumed it dead. If he heard from it at all over the past seven or eight years, it was only to grieve. He knew the things he'd done made him . . . unworthy of love. Men like him were normally sociopaths. Abandoning all claim to the tenderer emotions usually wasn't a problem for most of his kind. While he'd never fit in with the born killers, his actions while working with them made him a pariah to decent humans. He'd accepted that. Jessica had been the single thing that tied him to the normal world. When she'd died, so had all hope. But here was this gentle, kind man, standing before him, clearly embarrassed by his desire.
He'd never seen the kind of despair in Harold that flashed through those expressive eyes. That emotion stabbed through John's every defense and reserve, clutching his newly awakened heart, squeezing it, nearly crushing it.
Harold Finch was meant for better than him, John knew that. The best thing he could do for his friend was to walk away right now. From the expression in Harold's face, he was expecting just that. Yet, even though John knew a complete and instant withdrawal was called for, he couldn't move. That inconveniently conscious heart was holding him in place, begging him for more contact. All he wanted to do was melt against Harold and hold on, to let Harold connect him back to what he'd lost when he'd chosen to walk in the dark all those years ago.
John was overwhelmed by how much this man meant to him, on so many levels. Harold had led him out of the darkness, given him a purpose, a job, a home, friendship, and now . . . now Harold was reminding him what it felt like to trust his heart to another . . . to love.
Love. The word scared him. He'd forced himself to forget how to love, but somehow, Harold Finch had managed to slip past all his guards, the same way his partner circumvented firewall. Harold had gotten into John's atrophied heart and made it his own, easy as if that neglected organ were one of their client's computers. And John had never even noticed it happening. He was nearly overwhelmed by the tenderness that rushed through him. He just wanted to hold on to Harold, to get as close as he could, and never let go.
John wished he were clear about what Harold might want from him. Sex, for sure. The degree of embarrassment told him that much. But there were as many levels to sex as there were types of men. Still . . . did it matter what Harold might want? He cared for this man more deeply than he had any other person in his life, including Jessica. When he'd been a breath away from slipping into insanity with the gates of Hell beckoning before him, Harold Finch had bought his soul back for him, and now Harold was offering his heart back.
John's mind and training made a last ditch effort to restore sanity, but John gladly let his heart overrule them. Before that fear in Harold's eyes could take substance and become flight, John lowered his head and covered those parted lips with his own.
The small, shocked sound Harold made, half gasp, half cry trembled between their mouths.
Though frozen with shock at the moment, the lips beneath John's were incredibly soft and pliant.
John wasn't expecting the sheer, carnal heat that flashed through him. His time with the CIA had ensured that he was always in complete control of himself, even while making love. The sensations that crashed over him felt like they'd wash him away if he didn't find something to hold on to. His hands gripped almost frantically at Harold's shoulders through the expensive windbreaker, his hips instinctively pressing into Finch's body as his hungry heart demanded more contact.
A loud metallic clatter sounded as the keys slipped from Finch's fingers. Bear gave a confused whine from Finch's side.
Realizing that they were standing in the relatively open alley, vulnerable to all attack, John forced himself to unhand Harold's shoulders and move back a bit.
Harold's eyes were so wide with shock that they looked as if they would pop out of their sockets.
John stooped down, retrieved the keys, and undid the lock with a deft motion. Grabbing Harold's arm, he ushered his companion and Bear to the correct side of the security fence, redid the lock, then moved them through the dark alley as quickly as Finch's gait would allow.
More doors, more locks, then they were in the brightly lit elevator, with Finch watching him like he were a venomous snake.
John could almost feel the inquisition that was percolating in his paranoid friend.
As soon as the elevator discharged them into their headquarters' main room, John knelt and removed Bear's lead, tossed the leather leash to the floor beside the dog's bed, then turned back to his companion before Finch had even stepped into their operations room.
John's hands found those shoulders again.
"Mr. Reese . . . ."
John lowered his mouth and cut off whatever Finch had been about to say. Harold's shock was as palpable as the heat pouring off him. And, god, was there heat. It drew John like the proverbial moth to the flame. His whole body surged closer to Harold.
The other man felt so good in his arms, right in a way that nothing had felt right in more than a decade. John breathed in Harold's scent – traces of his expensive aftershave; the subtler, clean smells carried on the fabric of his clothes; a hint of sweat; and the sweet, addictive skin of his neck.
Harold made that same helpless sound that slid right through John's defenses, arousing him like a hand over his cock would.
When they parted for breath, Harold gave a confused, breathy, "What . . . what are we doing?"
His mouth homing in on the tender flesh under Finch's left ear, John whispered, "What's it feel like we're doing, Harold?"
"Mr. Reese, please . . . I . . . ."
The Mr. Reese stopped him cold. John dragged in a shuddery breath and tried to get a hold of himself. Harold appeared as frightened as he was aroused, and, while John was delighted by the latter development, he couldn't ignore the former. Harold had never treated him like the Neanderthal killer the agency had tried to make him. This wasn't the time to go cave man.
John unclenched his grip on Harold's shoulders and ran his palms down the windbreaker till they rested loosely on Harold's elbows. "Yes?"
The gaze that met his own was wide with panic and uncertainty. "I'm not . . . I . . . ."
"You're not going to try to tell me you're not interested, are you? This part of you is saying something different." John canted his hips forward until they just brushed Harold's groin.
Finch hissed and stepped back from him, the motion clumsy and stiff.
"That and my brain are the only two parts of me that function anymore. They don't seem to be communicating with each other right now." Harold's right hand rose to push his glasses back up his nose in a nervous gesture.
"What are you trying to say, Harold?" John questioned. Normally, he had some vague idea where Finch was headed, but he couldn't think straight right now. He knew when someone wanted him. Harold had been as into the kiss as he was. The withdrawal was confusing – to his heart. His brain fully understood why Harold was pulling back.
Harold's gaze broke away from his own. John watched those eyes move from his face, to his chest, sweeping lower before moving back up. He heard the gulp Finch gave, then the long drawn out breath. "I've got three vertebrae that are fused together. I can't bend or turn or even lie down like normal people. My left hip is so damaged, even the replacement barely helped. The thigh and knee aren't much better. I can't thrust. I can't –"
Before Harold could finish his list, John softly interjected, "What we were doing before – was that hurting you in any way?"
Harold blinked in surprise, and shook his head. "No."
"Okay. The minute something hurts – you tell me and we try something different. All right?"
"Why would you even want to try? Look at me. I'm not . . . . ."
"You're not just fused vertebrae and a bum hip. Do you think that's all I see when I look at you?"
"It's all anyone sees."
"Not me," John denied.
He knew Harold was normally confident, that his friend was probably as overwhelmed by what was happening between them right now as he was, but John also sensed that there was some truth behind the words. Harold was confident when it came to his intellect and his computer abilities. But his friend openly admitted that human interaction bewildered him. There wasn't any human interaction that was more intense or overwhelming than the first time two people had sex together. And Harold had the added complication of those injuries. Who could feel sexy when they were in as much pain as his partner was every day? This entire situation had to be scary as hell for Harold.
"What is it you think you see? I'm nearly fifteen years older than you. I – "
Before Harold could make another disparaging comment about himself, John quickly interjected, "I see the smartest, bravest man I've ever met. A man who followed me to certain death on a rooftop and stayed with me as the seconds counted down to zero on a bomb that should have killed us both. A man who faced a CIA hit team alone and unarmed to save me –"
"That doesn't equate to desire, John," Finch softly denied, regret touching his features. "I was sloppy tonight. I revealed something that was best left buried in the dark. You're loyal. You . . . I know you're fond of me –"
"Fond? Harold, look at me. You lit me up like a Christmas tree. Do I look like I'm faking this?"
"I don't know what this is! You've never showed any indication of being attracted to me before ‑"
"Haven't I? I think I've been unconsciously flirting with you since the day we met," John protested, seeing it for himself for the first time.
"You've been teasing me since that first day," Harold corrected.
John could hardly deny the accusation. They both enjoyed highlighting the peccadillos of each other's characters. "And you gave me back as good as you got." The ensuing silence felt like a stalemate. "Harold?" Those barricaded eyes reluctantly met John's. "We don't lie to each other."
"You seriously expect me to believe that you want me? The idea is absurd."
"Why? Because you're a few of years older than me? Because you had an injury? You're not making any sense."
"We both know that I'm more than a few years older than you. And that injury you refer to left me all but crippled."
"You're not a cripple. I know you're in pain sometimes. And that makes it hard for you to take me at my word."
Harold's mouth opened, clearly about to demand what he could know about it, but then his mouth closed and he just stared at John for a long time before saying in a quiet voice, "The pain issue aside, I do own a mirror."
"Men like you and me, we're not attracted only by window dressing."
"By window dressing you mean someone marginally physically attractive? If this were a fairy tale, we both know who the frog or Rumpelstiltskin would be."
John relaxed a bit at the return of Harold's usual sarcasm. "If this were a fairy tale, you'd be the wizard that all the women and half the men want to take to bed."
"I was thinking more along the lines of Gandalf. Except, you're nowhere near as old as Gandalf and you're certainly a hell of a lot smarter. Men like us, it takes something . . . extraordinary to capture our hearts."
"Our hearts?" Harold repeated, seeming startled.
"Mine's been sleeping a while. You woke it up in that alley before," John explained.
"You said our hearts. What do you know of my heart, Mr. Reese?" Harold quizzed, clearly curious.
John stifled a smile at the way-too-late attempt to restore sanity here with the formal address. "I know you've got the biggest heart of anyone I've ever met. I know you care about people and will do anything you can to help them when they're in danger. I know that you loved a woman with all your soul and walked away from her to keep her safe, the same way I did with Jessica. So, I also know how you're hurting." When Harold didn't deny anything he said, John voiced his more dangerous observations. "And, I know, well, hope, that you have feelings for me that extend beyond the platonic and that those feelings . . . confuse and frighten you. I suspect it's more than just sex you want from me."
John didn't know if his words would work. He wasn't used to so much talking, but he knew he needed to make Harold understand how he felt about him.
The stillness that claimed Harold made him utterly unreadable. It might have been shock. It might have been horror. When Harold finally spoke, it was in his best player's voice, which John always found completely inscrutable. Whenever Finch used it, he knew Harold was deeply upset and trying to hide something from him, but he never knew what. "And your basis for that final observation?"
"You're a billionaire. If this were about scratching an itch with a muscle-bound pretty boy, you could buy what you wanted elsewhere and be done with it. This is more complicated than that – for both of us."
"How is this complicated for you? Unless you really are simply humoring me."
"We're both careful men, Harold. We don't jump unless we know ahead of time where we're going to land. You know everything about me – and I don't even know where you lie your head down at night."
"Not for want of trying," Harold snarked.
"Exactly. Despite my best efforts, I still don't know much about you. If you decided to stop helping the numbers tomorrow and just stopped coming to the library, I probably would never see you again. And we won't even mention the fact that I work for you. Is that complicated enough for you?"
"A less trusting person might suggest that you were interested in pursuing this liaison to close the gap in your knowledge base," Harold pointed out, watching him like a hawk.
"It wouldn't be the first time I've done something like that," John admitted before Harold could dredge up some of his more unsavory assignments. "But that's not what's going on here."
"And I'm just supposed to believe that?"
"It isn't any more of a stretch than me believing that the most decent, gentlest man I've ever met would be turned on by a cold blooded killer."
"You're not a cold blooded killer," Harold instantly protested.
"Not anymore. Thanks to you. " Seeing the near-grimace Harold made, John asked, "What?"
"That's gratitude, John. Not – "
"Oh, for – " John ran a hand through his hair and tried to think. "Why would I seduce you to close the gap in my knowledge base? Last year, when the fake Jordan Hester dosed you with Ecstasy, you were dying to tell me your secrets. If information was all I wanted, I could have interrogated you then, and done it in such a way that you'd never remember me asking." Only after he finished speaking did John recognize that he'd undoubtedly opened up a whole new avenue of mistrust by bringing up that night. However, there was a subtle change in the expressionless mask Harold was wearing. When no inquiry emerged, John tiredly questioned, "Or is 'How do I know you didn't?' your next line of inquiry?"
His heart pounding at the mess he'd made of this, John almost missed the subdued, "I know you didn't."
"How? Are you filming everything we say here? Is this conversation going to be preserved for posterity?"
"I remember because when you walked away from me that night, it . . . hurt. I was crushed. I'd never been under the influence of a drug like that. I needed to talk to someone that night more than I'd ever needed human interaction before in my life and you just walked away from me."
"Harold . . . ." John didn't know how to respond to the eerily unaccusative accusation.
"It wasn't until I crashed the next morning that I recognized that you left me like that because you really were my friend. The only clear memory I have is of you telling me that I was a very private person."
"So we can agree this isn't an interrogation attempt?" John checked.
Harold gave a reluctant nod.
"Which leaves what?"
"Pity is at the top of the list right now," Harold admitted.
At a loss, John took hold of Harold's right hand. For a moment, he worried that all the arguing might have made this physical demonstration impossible, but the instant he felt how hot Harold's hand felt in his, he went hard as a rock again. Tightening his hold, he pressed Harold's palm to the erection that had been trying to poke its way through his zipper when he'd kissed Harold downstairs. "Does that feel like pity?" The heat of Harold's hand made him grow even harder and bigger. He held that hand tight against his surging flesh and tried to ignore the sensation that burst through him.
For a terrifying moment, it seemed Harold might pull back and abandon him. His partner looked that panicked, but then those clever fingers almost seemed to act without Harold's conscious volition as they curled around him and gave a tentative squeeze.
In that instant, everything changed.
John gasped in reaction, his eyes sinking shut as desire rocked him.
Praying that they were done arguing, John wrapped his arms around Harold and leaned in for another kiss, half-expecting his friend to push him off.
He still had Harold's right hand pressed into his groin. Harold's left came up between their chests. John braced himself for the worst, but after knotting the gray cloth between them, those fingers dug in like claws, pulling him closer. Harold's right palm squeezed his sex again, and John just melted.
His whole body hungering for Harold's taste, his tongue flicked out. He was surprised by how eagerly Harold's lips parted. Soft and lush, their tongues tentatively touched and he got his first blast of Howard's flavor. Drowning in the unexpected sweetness, he groaned into the kiss.
John was pressed so close to Finch that he felt the shudder that swept through him, like that sound he made were having the same kind of effect on his partner that Harold's hand on his groin was having on him.
Pressing closer, they swayed dangerously. John knew in another thirty seconds getting horizontal would no longer be a conscious choice. There was a room with a bed two floors up – Harold had nursed him there for a couple of weeks after Mark Snow's hit man had tried to take him out before they moved house to surveil that super. John wanted to suggest moving up to the room, but he feared if he gave his partner time to think, they'd end up in another senseless argument.
They broke for air and stared at each other in nearly identical astonishment. Harold's hand was still holding onto John's cock through his pants. John was highly aware that Harold didn't release him as their gazes locked.
"I'm afraid that the days of my making love on cold floors and desktops are long gone," Haroldbreathlessly offered.
"Is that bed still upstairs?" John checked and backed them towards the elevator with surprisingly little resistance.
"Unless you moved it or Bear ate it."
Harold released his hold on his groin as John turned to summon the elevator. Since they were the only two people in the cavernous building and no one had gone anywhere since they'd arrived, the elevator doors parted with a merry brrrrring as soon as John pressed the button.
"Bear, stay," Harold ordered as the dog moved to follow them into the elevator.
Clearly, Bear had Harold trained well because the dog's subsequent whine brought a flash of regret to those expressive features.
"It's okay," John said. "He can come. Unless he makes you uncomfortable?"
"This entire insane idea is making me aggressively uncomfortable," Harold testily answered, but since he stepped towards the elevator as he said it, John didn't take the words personally. "Come on, Bear. You may as well join us. You can be a witness for the prosecution at the sanity hearing."
The elevator was nearly a hundred years old. Though John pushed the fifth floor button as soon as they entered, it took a long time for the doors to close and the lift to start to rise. John slipped his arms back around Harold as the doors finally shut behind them. "You feel amazing."
Harold released a shaky breath and looked up at him, every doubt still visible in his expression. With a strange air of deliberation, Harold rested his hands on John's shoulders. "You feel . . . safe." As soon as he'd spoken, Harold added in a nervous tone, "I . . . that probably wasn't the most complementary assessment. What I meant was –"
"Ssssh," John soothed, rubbing his hand over Harold's stiff shoulders. "It's not like either of us has had a lot of feeling safe in our lives, especially lately. Safe is good."
"You should know that I'm hopeless at this," Harold sounded frustrated and more than a little worried.
"You're thinking too much, Harold. The thinking part is over," John whispered, leaning forward to deposit a soft kiss on that high, intelligent brow below the receding hairline.
"Aren't you the least bit concerned that we could destroy our working relationship if things do not go well with this?" Harold questioned.
"No," John answered, trailing a line of soft kisses down to Harold's left eyebrow and the rim of his glasses. He loved this man's skin.
"Just no? How can you not be worried?"
"I know my partner. He's a capable guy. Once we get past the small stuff, everything's going to be just fine."
Because he could, John placed a kiss on the tip of Harold's nose.
Harold's hand lifted to touch John's cheek. "What do you consider the small stuff?"
John turned and buried his face in that sweaty palm, placing a kiss on the base of the thumb. Lifting up a bit, he replied in a playful voice, "Anything that makes my partner aggressively uncomfortable."
The elevator doors brrrringed open.
John rested his arm across Harold's shoulders as they stepped out into the dark hall that was lit only by the red exit signs over the stairwell down the hall.
Bear obviously had been up here before because he went bounding down the hall to where John remembered the room being.
When he was recuperating from that gunshot, Harold had told him that the room used to be the library staff's break room. Before John had joined Harold in helping the numbers, Finch had turned the room into a rest room with a bed and a couple of end tables.
Harold reached out and opened the door, turning on the light. Like the windows in their HQ, this room looked out over an alley between the library and a number of windowless warehouses behind it. Even with the slim potential for discovery, Harold had equipped the windows with blackout shades so no one would notice the light in the supposedly deserted library should they pass through the alley.
John smiled as he got his first look at the room in more than a year. It had changed from that stark, utilitarian place Harold kept for nights he worked too long to make it home. For one thing, the small dresser hadn't been here back then.
The other new additions included a huge, fluffy dog bed on the floor beside the queen size bed, numerous squeaky toys, a toiletry bag on the dresser top, and a couple of prescription bottles. A deep brown, expensive looking fleece blanket covered the neatly made bed and there was a huge stack of Dickens novels on the right night table, beside a lamp that was also new. Obviously, Harold had been spending some time here since they'd adopted Bear. There were a couple of suits visible in the open closet. Not enough for Harold to be living in the library full time, but enough to show he stayed here on a fairly regular basis.
"I take Bear home with me on the nights when the job doesn't keep me here. I don't leave him alone," Harold said, sounding defensive.
"How can you know?"
"Because you take good care of the people you care about." John watched those blue eyes flicker to the bed then quickly away.
Bear gave them both a curious look that seemed to question human intelligence, then moved to lie down on his fluffy bed.
Harold didn't tense up nearly as much as before when John turned to face him, stepping completely into his personal space. Their lips found each other. Harold's mouth met John's hungrily as his arms slipped around John's waist.
Ridiculously pleased, John pressed his hips closer and breathed in his partner's clean scent, his hands exploring Harold's back, careful not to press too hard. Taking hold of the open windbreaker, he slipped it from Harold's shoulders and let it drop to the floor.
They parted for air a long, breathless time later.
"I guess this is the moment of truth," Harold said, his gaze still hot, despite the worry that had crept back into his tone.
All John could manage was a less than brilliant, "Huh?"
"I don't suppose we're going to do this completely clothed."
Finding some language skills, John managed to answer, "I hope not. But if you want to, I'm game."
"Seriously?" Harold seemed surprised.
"We're here together, making love. That's all that counts. Anything more is icing on the cake."
John could sense that he'd deeply startled the other man.
Harold stared up at him for a long moment and then gave a shy, boyish smile as he admitted, "The icing was always my favorite part of the cake."
"I think I want to see you naked, Mr. Reese."
The Mr. Reese was playfully voiced, so John answered in kind, "Likewise, Mr. Finch. Will it make it easier if I start?" Not waiting for an answer, he shrugged out of his gray sweatshirt, then the black tee shirt he was wearing beneath. Long years of experience had him toeing off his black leather boots before they got tangled in his pants. His socks took only a second, which left him only the jeans. Glancing up, he found Harold watching him with helpless hunger as his hands moved to the button of his blue jeans.
John took his time opening them and sliding the zipper down over the bulge that was trying to break through it. "He likes you, Harold. A lot."
Giving the visibly captivated man before him a playful smile John shucked off his jeans, taking the briefs below them with them. It had been a long time since he'd gotten naked with someone who mattered. John felt more than a little nervous as he met Harold's gaze. He knew Harold wanted him, but sometimes reality failed to live up to fantasy. Harold wasn't the only one whose body testified to the injuries it had suffered. John's skin was a frightening collection of bullet holes, knife wounds, and burns, not to mention the fading bruises he had on any given day.
"My god," Harold uttered in a tone John had never heard and couldn't place.
"Is that a good 'my god' or a bad 'my god'?" John tried to joke.
"You're . . . Magnificent is the word that comes to mind, but I know it will embarrass you," Harold said.
Blushing a little, John straightened up, allowing his partner to look his fill. Harold's eyes seemed fixed on the part of him he'd never seen before, the part of him that was growing larger under the steamy examination.
When the observation started to feel awkward, John gently asked, "What next?"
"Do I get to see you or do you want to keep the suit on? Either way is fine with me," John added. Sensing that his voice was calming whatever stress Harold was experiencing, inspiration struck and he started talking, "I have to say, though, that, while that suit of yours is perfectly tailored, totally proper, that impressive bump in the front that's trying to poke its way out is anything but buttoned down. I want to see the color of your desire, Harold. Are you a blushing pink? Or wine colored like me? Or, maybe you're purple."
Harold's face was flushing from each of the shades he'd mentioned to the next. "That's very refined dirty talk, John."
One of the few things John was grateful to have gained from the Agency's training was the ability to quickly analyze a situation and employ whatever means necessary to achieve his goal. Right now, that goal was relaxing Harold and making him comfortable being close to him. John wasn't a talker by nature, but Harold loved books and words. Clearly, the dirty talk had worked. Pushing past his own reticence, John forced himself to voice all the things he felt for Harold, to let this man see how important he was to him.
"That's because my lover's very refined. But know one thing, Harold Finch, refined or not, before this night is through, I'm not only going to know the shade of your desire; I'm going to know its flavor."
John heard the gasp Harold gave. Stepping closer, John slowly unbuttoned the soft blue vest and slipped it off, "I love these vests on you. All those buttons make you look like a present, like you're all wrapped up, just waiting for someone to open you. Every time I see those buttons from now on, I'm going to want to undo them." John reached for the black tie and undid it while his partner stared up at him with a nearly mesmerized expression. "Do you know what a mystery you are to me?" The tie hit the floor. John reached for the top button on Harold's still crisp, light blue shirt. "And I'm not just talking about the gaps in that information base we were discussing earlier. I've never met anyone as completely good as you. I know bad things have happened to you, that you've lost people you love," the second and third shirt buttons were undone without protest, "I know that you've been hurt and that you're afraid of people and human interaction in general, but you still keep putting yourself in the line of fire to save innocent lives. I've never seen that kind of courage before." The rest of the buttons came open and John eased the shirt off his friend's motionless body. The undershirt beneath it was almost blindingly white under the overhead light.
"You are the finest man I've ever had the honor to call my friend," John said as he took hold of the bottom of the undershirt, gently eased it out from where it was tucked under Harold's waistband and pulled it upwards. Harold raised his arms up to assist in removing it, but didn't bend down. Remembering that list of can't dos his friend had rattled off earlier, John smoothly eased the warm cotton up Harold and off him, and tossed it to floor near the discarded shirt.
John reached out to smooth the spiky hair that was crackling with the static electricity generated by the moving undershirt, greedily surveying the chest he'd never seen before while Harold looked up at him in obvious self-consciousness. So different from his own nearly hairless smoothness, Harold had a healthy dusting of hair that tapered off as it arrowed down the center of his stomach to disappear beneath the waistband of the gray suit pants.
"I'm betting you're pink down there," John said with a smile as he caught sight of the pink nipple nestled in the silver sprinkled chest hair. He couldn't stop himself from fingering that distracting bud.
John couldn't define the sound Harold emitted, but it was almost as desperate sounding as the hands that clutched at him to stabilize the sudden sway.
"I got you," John murmured, stepping in and wrapping his arms around his trembling friend. They both gasped as their bare chest settled together. A million nerve endings sparked to life, leaving John shaking with need.
Harold's hand slipped behind his head and guided him down into a deep, open-mouthed kiss that went on forever. While Harold's seemed intent on exploring his tonsils, John reached between their bellies to undo his partner's pants.
"Mmmmm," John purred as their mouths reluctantly parted. "Let me take care of your shoes and then we'll get comfortable."
"My shoes?" Harold echoed, his tone suggesting he didn't understand the language.
John smiled. "You'll thank me later. Take my word for it."
John slipped to his knees on the brown carpet. Harold's hand landed in his hair and stroked through it as John lifted his partner's left foot up and eased the expensive leather shoe off.
"You've got the most wonderful hair," Harold commented.
"I like yours better. The spiky part –"
"Tries to hide the receding hairline. Not well, I might add." Harold's fingers combed through John's dark hair as John worked on removing the left sock, which was the same deep blue as the vest by John's knees. From the feel of those fingers in his hair, it felt like Harold was trying to urge John's hair to stand up straight as Harold's did.
"Your hair is really sexy," John corrected.
"Not an appropriate adjective, but I appreciate the sentiment."
"I find a lot of things sexy about you, Harold." Not moving from his knees, John looked up and met Harold's gaze. "Take that chest for example."
"You mean the one with the gray hair covering it?"
John snorted at the prissy tone. "Yeah, that one. Makes me want to do this." John leaned up just far enough to rub his cheek through the thickest part.
Harold's hands clutched at his shoulders.
John leaned back on his heels and met his partner's passion-dazed eyes. "I also find your intellect irresistible."
Remembering what he was supposed to be doing down here, John lifted his friend's left foot and peeled the slightly damp sock off. The skin on top of Harold's foot was some of the palest flesh John had ever seen.
As he guided Harold's foot back down and reached for the other, he was struck by how much smaller it was than his own size thirteen foot. Abruptly struck by the difference in their sizes, John was once again reminded of his partner's raw courage. In the course of his duties, John had bedded at least a dozen male assets. None of them had been as different from him as Harold. What must it be like for Harold, to be with someone who'd killed for a living and had the kind of training John did? When you added Harold's injuries into the mix, the knowledge that there was nothing Harold could do to physically resist anything John might want from him, Harold's continued uneasiness made a lot more sense.
When John lifted Finch's right foot to remove the shoe, Harold's whole body stumbled and he clutched John's shoulders to keep from falling. Realizing that his partner's bad leg was now supporting all his weight, John quickly removed the shoe and sock, then guided the foot back down to the carpet.
John glanced back up at Harold's face, His friend's expression told him the near fall had undone all the progress they'd made in the last few minutes. Before either embarrassment or fear could overshadow the moment, John reached out to the zipper of the gray suit pants that was right in front of his face and unzipped it. He felt the flesh beneath the metal tracks fill out and press up against his hand as Harold gasped at the sudden action.
John hooked his thumbs over both the pants and boxer shorts' waistband and lowered them together. As the last barriers between him and Harold's body were removed, John hungrily eyed the revealed flesh, only to find the breath catching in his chest and his eyes widening in instinctive shock.
The beautiful pink cock John had been hoping for was there, poking up over silver-speckled pubic hair. But John barely saw them.
Harold's left hip, thigh, knee, and calf were a mass of puckered, ugly red scars and suture tracks. The hip was the worst of it. There was barely any intact skin left there at all. Harold hadn't simply been injured by whatever had caused these marks; he'd been mutilated and all but crippled. Viewing the damage, John recognized that it was a miracle Harold hadn't lost the leg entirely. No wonder Harold hadn't wanted to get naked with him.
The fingers gripping John's bare shoulders dug in painfully.
His mind quickly cataloguing what he was viewing, it took John a minute before he could trust his voice. "This isn't from an accident. Those are shrapnel wounds."
"Yes, they are," Harold's voice sounded dead as he confirmed John's appraisal.
John watched Finch's erection shrink under his gaze. His mind was spinning, a maelstrom of questions, but he knew if he voiced a single one of them, this moment would slip through his fingers forever. Harold was already so withdrawn that all it would take was one bumbling inquiry to send the man running. John didn't have to ask to know that this was the first time Harold had tried to be intimate with someone since he'd suffered these injuries. If this encounter ended in a painful inquisition, who knew if Harold would ever trust someone enough in the future to try again.
John sucked a sharp breath in between his teeth and got hold of himself. Gently placing his hand on Harold's uninjured hip, he softly stroked down Harold's flank. "I was right, you're pink."
"Is that all you have to say, Mr. Reese?"
John could nearly touch the pain in that brittle question. Meeting those visibly mortified eyes, he quietly answered, "Someday, you'll trust me enough to talk about what happened. Tonight, I just want to make love to you. Is it all right if I touch you, Harold?"
Looking up from where he knelt naked at Finch's feet, John didn't attempt to conceal his emotions as Harold's gaze dug into him. Whatever happened here, it had to be Harold's choice.
Harold appeared stricken. "I . . . never should have allowed things to go this far. I . . . John, I don't even know how we could make love. That hip can't take any pressure and –"
John reached up and placed his hand on Harold's right elbow. He rubbed his fingers over the rough skin there. Watching the resulting shiver Harold gave, he asked, "Yes or no? I won't force you in this. You say yes, and I promise, you won't regret it. Don't worry about how, Harold. I'll take care of everything. So what's it going to be? Yes?" He stroked the outer thigh beneath where his other hand was resting and then lifted it away as he questioned, "Or no?":
Harold reached out so fast for John's retreating hand that the other man nearly tumbled over.
John grabbed hold of Harold's waist with both hands and steadied him. "Is that a yes?"
All of the hardness was gone from Harold's face as he nodded. What was left was as raw and vulnerable as his injured hip.
John didn't think about his next action. He collected that growing erection into his palm. It nearly doubled in size at his first squeeze.
The only men John had ever had sex with in the past had been targets, men he was using to gain required information, men who were using him for their own purposes. The actions he'd performed in those encounters were some of the most difficult his country had required of him. But touching Harold like this, it had nothing in common with his past. The moist organ blossoming in his hand felt like a precious gift and when John lowered his head to suck that impressive cock into his mouth, it was with true hunger.
Harold's groan shook the room as John deep-throated him.
Mindful of Harold's injuries, John slipped his hands around Harold and took hold of his butt. Then he began to move, up and down, sucking that salty, hard flesh for all that he was worth, making sure his tongue found that special spot behind the cockhead whenever he came up for a breath.
His nose became intimately acquainted with the springy hair at the base of Harold's cock. Harold's musky scent was all around him.
Harold's taste spread through him like a potent narcotic, going straight to John's own pleasure center and bringing him up hard and fast. Anytime he'd performed this particular action in the past, his emotions had been so disengaged from the proceedings that he'd felt like a robot. But giving head to Harold Finch was the most erotically engaging event of his life. His heart wasn't simply awake right now, it was on fire. John wanted to melt through his soft-skinned lover's flesh and fuse with the man.
It was probably too much to hope that this could go on for long. While Harold gasped in breaths between groans, that amazing cock in John's mouth grew to capacity and then exploded.
John hung on tight, drinking down the bitter gift as Harold shot bolt after bolt deep into his throat.
Harold staggered as his orgasm shook through him.
That amazing cock still deep in his mouth, John just folded himself around his partner's lower body and held him up. All he could taste was Harold's seed, salty as seawater, thick and potent. This was what life tasted like and, John suddenly realized, this was what love tasted like to him now. He was almost disappointed when Harold grew soft against his tongue and withered down to normal size.
John gave the saliva slick cock one last kiss and raised his mouth from it. Abruptly, self-conscious, he looked up at Harold. He needn’t have worried. Harold appeared completely blasted away by sensation. His partner's cheeks were flushed as if with fever. His eyes clamped shut, attention obviously focused inward. Harold looked completely transformed by pleasure.
As he watched, those dark lashed eyes fluttered and opened behind Harold's glasses.
Their gazes touched and held.
Harold drew a noisy, shuddery breath and said, "If there's a wizard in this room, it's not me. You just raised the dead."
John grinned up at this irrepressible spirit. "You're not dead. Neither am I. In fact, there's a part of me that's very much alive and eager to make your acquaintance."
Harold's gaze left John's to sweep down his body. As little as fifteen minutes ago, Harold might have been unnerved by the visual evidence of John's need, but being able to successfully make love with him had apparently restored some of Harold's confidence. Instead of questioning his ability to please or worrying over possible hurts, Harold simply said, "You're going to have to come up here to me, 'cause I can't come down there to you, at least not if you want me to be in any condition to do something about that."
John was on his feet before the playful words were finished. He couldn't have resisted kissing Harold at that moment if there had been a gun to his head.
Their bare fronts nestled provocatively together as John did his best to fulfill his goal of melting into Harold's flesh. The eager hands clutching him didn't seem opposed to the proposition.
Lost deep in that addictively sweet mouth, John's fingers swept over the warm expanse of Harold's back, stopping as they encountered some bumps in the velvety skin. He didn't need to check to know that he'd just discovered the scars from the spinal fusion Harold had mentioned earlier. Lessening the pressure, John stroked carefully over the harder skin. From the neck joint to about six inches down the spine, Harold's skin was covered with little bumps that John knew would be suture scars. He let his fingers catalogue each of them, then brushed his palms past them.
Needing more contact, John pressed his hungry erection into Harold's body.
Something in the quality of the hiss Harold made penetrated John’s passion-dazed brain. Abruptly, he remembered what Harold had said about his bad hip not being able to stand any pressure. The last thing it would need was to have John pounding against it. He was surprised Harold didn't pull away or warn him, but when John froze his lower body's movement, Harold gave a tight sounding, "It's okay. Don't stop."
Hearing the pain in his partner's voice as the meaning of Harold's words penetrated the sensual haze, something in John seemed to break. He loved this man so much, so much.
Quaking with need, John nonetheless forced himself to take a step back from Harold, and shifted a bit to his partner's uninjured side. Before the protest in those eyes could be given voice, John took hold of Harold's right hand and wrapped it around his pulsing cock. John buried his face in the crook of Harold's neck, his mouth latching onto the perspiration damp skin as his hand guided Harold's. One perfect stroke, two, three . . . and he came on four, exploding in Harold's hand, bathing Harold's right hip with what felt like rivers of ejaculate.
Harold's left hand slipped around John's back guiding him into a hug as John's universe rocked around him. Helpless and lost, John clutched at Harold, and, as always happened whenever John found himself experiencing those particular emotions in this incredible man's company, Harold found him, held him up, and lent John his own strength until John wasn't helpless anymore.
It was a long time before John stopped shaking and longer still before he raised his face from where it was pressed against Harold's neck. He could feel Harold rubbing his back in wide, reassuring circles.
Harold looked as blasted away as John felt.
John gave the nearby bed a questioning glance.
Harold nodded and gave him that shy, boyish smile he'd seen before.
John slid under the covers, slipped over to the far side of the bed, and lifted the covers in invitation.
Harold moved to the bed, his gait as pained as usual. But instead of climbing in, Harold bent stiffly past John to grab a pillow from behind him. It was only then that John realized there were five pillows stacked at the top on the bed instead of two. When John had crossed the bed before, he'd apparently commandeered the side Harold normally slept in. He watched Harold put the third pillow on top of the two already on the side he was standing near. The pillows stacked to his satisfaction, Harold sat down on the edge of the bed and then awkwardly swung his legs up, his back ramrod straight. Lowering the blankets over his lap, Harold carefully eased back onto the pillows. When he was done, he was nearly sitting up straight.
Harold's cheeks filled with color as their gazes met.
"I'm afraid this is as graceful as it gets," Harold said, the words nearly as stiff as his posture.
Recognizing how difficult this had to be for this very private man, John turned on his side to face his friend and rested his head on the corner of Harold's pillow, so that they were both elevated to the same level. John was grateful to see that Harold's right, uninjured side was closest to him. He laid his hand on the center of Harold's chest, and stroked through the sexy hair there. Pressing a kiss to Harold's shoulder, he slipped his right leg over Harold's and curled up against him. "We'll work it out."
"You . . . you would want to do this again?"
Harold couldn't be as stunned as he sounded.
"As often as you let me," John answered. "Good night, Harold."
Harold's left hand covered John's where it rested on Harold's chest and twined their fingers together, squeezing tight. "Good night, John."
John closed his eyes, breathing Harold's scent in with every breath. He could almost hear the wheels in Harold's brain spinning as they lay there trying to adjust to sharing their personal space like this.
Someday, John hoped there wouldn't be so much uncertainty in Harold's voice when they were close like this. Providing Harold gave them those days. He knew he probably shouldn't say anything, that he should just let sleep ease the tension and awkwardness away, but, while John knew he himself would be asleep in minutes, he sensed that Harold might have more difficulty relaxing in this new situation. "Love always finds a way."
"Love?" There was no mistaking Harold's complete shock.
"Yes, love. There's nothing to worry about here. You set whatever boundaries you need. I'll abide by them. Just . . . give me this once in a while, okay?"
Harold's fingers squeezed his so tight that John thought they might crush them. "Love by definition surmounts all boundaries. You taught me that. Good night, John."
This time, Harold's thoughts weren't nearly as loud.
Unable to believe how good it felt to lie here just cuddling this complicated man, John smiled, pressed his mouth to Harold's shoulder, and let sleep take him. While he didn't know for sure what the future would bring them, one thing he did know. He wasn't walking alone in the dark anymore. Harold Finch would be right there beside him.