The problem is, Finch set the bar too goddamned high. Sure, so finding out John's birth date was business as usual for him, and a million dollar Manhattan loft was just pocket change, but it's not about the price tag. Like they say, it’s the thought that counts.
John spends a while digging for Harold’s birth date before throwing in the towel, at least for the time being. Not that he wouldn't love to see the look on Finch’s face when he gets it right. But he’s more likely to hit on it by guesswork than fieldwork, which is just depressing.
Fortunately, it’s easy to figure out Harold Wren’s birthdate.
On February twenty-third, John sets a take-out cup of tea and a pastry box down on Finch’s desk and looms over him until he opens the box. Finch looks down at the cupcake with its unlit candle, then raises his eyebrows at John.
“Happy birthday, Mr. Wren,” John says.
“Mm. Been engaging in a little light industrial espionage, have we?”
“Universal Heritage Insurance needs to give their HR department some remedial training on employee data security.”
“I’ll pass that recommendation along, Mr. Reese.”
John pulls the lighter out of his pocket and lights the candle.
Finch says, “Mm,” again, but he does blow the candle out.
* * *
It takes more work to dig up Harold Crane’s birth date; he’s not a full cover like Wren, just a name Harold reuses now and then. But he’s got investments, which means he has accounts, which means he has personal information. And John Rooney, asset manager, is a useful enough cover for John that it’s easy to persuade Finch to put some work into solidifying him.
On April sixth, John arrives at the Library to find Finch pinning up photos related to their latest Number. The package John left on his desk is still sitting there untouched.
“Good morning, Mr. Reese,” Finch greets him with an actual smile, which has been happening more frequently lately.
“Happy birthday, Mr. Crane.”
“I take it this explains your recent insistence on shoring up Mr. Rooney’s background and account access,” says Finch drily.
“It’s a good cover. We get a lot of rich Numbers.”
“Slightly over thirty-two percent, since I hired you. However, I doubt that either Mr. Rooney or Mr. Crane’s services will be required for today’s Number.” Finch carefully unwraps the package and examines the contents. “Which. . .is perhaps just as well.” He lifts the necktie between thumb and forefinger like a used condom. “Space Invaders, Mr. Reese? Really?”
“Don’t tell me you’ve never played, Finch,” John drawls.
“I did promise never to lie to you,” says Finch. “I maintained the high score on the three machines in my neighborhood throughout 1981.”
“What happened after that?”
“Arcades. Business ventures. There’s more to life than video games, Mr. Reese.”
The Number turns out to be one of the organizers of a science fiction convention running over the weekend. She’s not setting foot outside that hotel any time soon unless it catches fire, so Finch subs John onto the security staff and gives himself a con membership.
“I’m not a fan, but I do read the stuff," Finch explains. John doesn't get why that's particularly funny, but Finch's eyes are definitely twinkling as he puts on the tie.
* * *
“Hey Finch, what would Harold Partridge would like for his birthday?”
“You don’t know Harold Partridge’s birth date,” Finch says, his eyes glued to his screen, his fingers never missing a beat in their typing.
“Want to bet on that?”
“Harold Partridge has expensive tastes," he says after a little while. "Which is not to say good taste.”
“You really want me to get you a gold-plated briefcase?” John asks, just to see him cringe.
Finch obliges. John kind of loves the way his eyebrows arch and his mouth flattens into a disapproving line.
“Okay,” says John easily. “What would you like, then?”
Finch’s hands pause over the keys.
“Mr. Partridge has been known to enjoy dinner at Chez André. Of course, one generally needs to make reservations. . .some time in advance.”
John knows a challenge when he hears one.
* * *
He’s a little worried that Harold will actually show up at Chez André in character as Harold Partridge. Which would be entertaining, but John doesn’t particularly want to spend the evening with a stuffy investor. More than that, the idea of Harold putting on a mask with him—the idea that Harold might think John wants him to—makes him weirdly anxious.
But when Harold arrives precisely on time, wearing a dark three-piece suit, a burgundy tie and a rose exactly the same color in his buttonhole, he’s so obviously himself that John can’t help grinning in relief. Harold’s answering smile is startled but warm. It makes John feel suddenly warm, himself, inside his own tailored suit.
“Shall we?” He offers Harold his arm with mock-courtliness, throwing up the joke as a smoke screen to cover his confusion at his own reaction. Harold doesn’t miss a beat. He takes John’s arm with perfect solemnity and allows John to usher him into the restaurant.
The meal is expensive, extremely good, and not at all ostentatious, despite Finch’s threat, and when it’s over, John couldn’t say what he’s been eating. He’s got more important things on his mind, like the way Finch keeps smiling at him, relaxed and enjoying himself and letting John witness him enjoying himself. Like the way warmth spreads through John every damn time Finch smiles.
He pays the bill and holds the door for Finch on the way out. Finch accepts all this like it’s perfectly natural. Standing on the sidewalk in the muggy summer evening, John’s not sure what to do now. He’d offer to walk Finch home, but he’s afraid Finch will take it as an attempt to pump him for information, or as John playing bodyguard, and neither is what he means. He doesn’t know what he does mean.
“Call you a cab?” he asks when standing there gets too awkward.
“Please do,” Finch says.
John flags one down. He opens the door for Finch, who turns back to look up at him before getting in.
“Happy birthday,” John tells him.
“Thank you. I must say, I’m looking forward to celebrating the next one.” Finch reaches over the cab door, pats John’s lapel, and then lowers himself into the cab. “Good night, Mr. Reese.”
John looks down to discover that Finch’s rose is now decorating his own jacket.
* * *
Norman Burdett’s birthday is December third. Harold Crow’s birthday is March twenty-eighth. Harold Swift’s birthday is January ninth. Most of the other aliases John’s seen Finch use have been spur of the moment covers, no paper trail that would require a birth date.
December is too damned far off.
Finch must have other established covers; the question is, how to track them down and get access to their records? Normally that sort of work is Finch’s job, but John wasn’t trained by the CIA for nothing. He’s chewing over possible approaches to the problem while Finch briefs him about their latest Number: trust fund kid, suspicious packages, chauffeur.
“You’ll find everything you need in that packet: security badge, driver’s license—”
“Harold Widgeon?” John reads the name off the license.
“Oh, my mistake, that’s mine. This one is yours.” Finch swaps the license John is holding for another, but the text is already imprinted on John’s brain. DOB 8/13/1957.
August 13th. That’s two days away.
Finch is imperturbably rattling off logistical details as he packs a bag of tools, which, coincidentally or not, means he’s not looking at John. His cheeks are pink and he’s licking his lips more than usual.
They’d better get this Number wrapped up in good time.
In fact, the Number turns out to be an easy one. John has plenty of time to visit three different florists. Plenty of time to second-guess himself, too, but he’s got training to help him deal with that. He leaves Fusco to make the arrests, picks up the flowers while Finch is wrapping up the loose ends online, and arrives at the Library just as Finch is taking down the pictures.
John holds out the bouquet, feeling slightly absurd. They just thwarted a badly-planned pyramid scheme and an even less-well-planned kidnapping attempt; three hours ago, Harold was listening over the radio and making ‘helpful’ suggestions while John punched out a couple of idiots. And now. . .
Now Finch is coming around the desk with a pleased, shy smile, taking the flowers from John’s hand and lowering his face to sniff them. Now Finch is looking at John the way Bear does when he’s hoping it’s time for a walk.
“Happy birthday.” John’s voice comes out even hoarser than usual.
“Thank you.” Harold’s cheeks are definitely pink again. His eyes are shiny behind his glasses, his lower lip is shiny, too, and John can’t keep eye contact any longer. He looks down at the flowers in Finch’s hands, blue and lavender and white, almost a perfect match for Finch’s tie.
“About your present.” He clears his throat. “The thing is, if you don’t like it, I can’t take it back.”
“I’m not worried about that,” says Finch softly. “I trust your judgment.”
When John gets up the guts to look at him, Finch's eyes are still on him. They're standing so close, Finch has to tip his face upwards to see John’s, which puts his mouth right there, just at the right angle for John to duck his own head and kiss him.
“Hm,” Finch sighs when their mouths part. “I like it very much indeed.”
“Good.” John’s trembling inside, from his gut to his knees and up to his throat, but his hands are steady as he cradles Finch’s waist, the back of his head. “You want to see the rest?”
* * *
“Don’t.” Harold’s hand on John’s wrist stops him from getting out of bed. “That is, I mean, don’t get dressed yet.”
“We need to get to work. Don’t we?”
“There won’t be a Number today.”
“You sure?” John asks. Finch sounds sure, but the Machine normally spits out Numbers every day, and as far as John knows, it's still sending Finch Numbers only. Not forecasts.
“Yes," says Finch. "And if I’m wrong, the phone will ring. Come back to bed.”
“Don’t have to ask me twice,” John says, stretching out next to Harold again.
“Actually. . .I wonder if I might ask. . .”
“Would you indulge me in, well, I suppose you might call it a fantasy. That I’ve had for. . .for quite some time.”
John's brain starts scrolling through a catalogue of things Harold might fantasize about—but it doesn’t actually matter, because he’s already saying, as sincere as he’s ever been in his life, “Anything you want, Harold.”
“Don’t put your clothes on.”
Which is how John ends up loafing around naked all day in Harold’s unremarkable little apartment, cooking eggs over easy, getting solidly beaten by Harold first at chess and then at a card game he’s never heard of, where all the cards have special powers and the goal is to assemble a deck optimized for your chosen play strategy. They make out on the couch in front of a Marx Brothers movie; John goes down on Harold to the accompaniment of Groucho and Chico rattling on about The party of the first part. They shower together, after which Harold puts on a sleeveless undershirt and baggy sweatpants, which is weirder and also somehow more intimate than seeing him naked.
“What about me?” John asks, gesturing to his own newly clean and dry, still naked body. Harold’s eyes follow the motion of John’s hand, tracking appreciatively up and down.
“Feel free to get dressed, if you’re chilly,” he says. “Or. . .”
They order in Szechuan for dinner, and afterwards, Harold makes popcorn and cocoa and holds out a book to John with the self-deprecating but hopeful look that’s accompanied every request or suggestion today.
“The Martian Chronicles,” John reads the title. It rings a bell, but he’s never been a big science fiction reader. “Never read that one.”
“It’s an old favorite. I thought, if you don’t mind, we could read it. Together.”
They stretch out on the bed, John still stark naked, Harold resting between his legs, leaning back against his chest, his head tucked under John’s chin. Harold has the bowl of popcorn in his lap; his knees a little bent so they’re just the right height for John to rest the book on.
“January 1999: Rocket Summer,” John reads. “Real far-future setting, huh?”
“Well, it was written in 1950, but even so, Bradbury must have intended his audience to think about space colonies happening in their lifetimes. Of course, when I first read it, twenty years later, 1999 seemed impossibly far away.”
“Seems pretty far away now, too,” says John. Before 9/11, before Jessica, before the CIA and Kara and Ordos. Before the Numbers and the Machine. Before Harold.
“Indeed.” Harold nods. His hair tickles John’s mouth. “Go on?”
John reads about rocket heat and telepathic Martians and misguided colonists—or maybe that should be, colonialists. Harold is a comfortingly solid weight against his chest, warm and relaxed and slowly crunching popcorn.
When John pauses at the end of the fourth story to take some popcorn for himself, Harold murmurs, “August fourteenth, 1960.”
John wraps his arms around Harold and kisses the top of his head.
“Happy birthday, Harold.”