"Mr Reese, I have good news and I have bad news," Harold says. He keeps his voice low. His captors are mostly arguing among themselves at the moment. They are not a cohesive team.
His earpiece squeaks and thuds as John pulls his considerable frame through a very narrow space. "I really hope the good news is that the heating ducts open up a bit ahead."
Harold winces. "That's part of the bad news. There's no need to get to the server room."
There's a studied pause, then John says, "Finch, I can't exactly pull a U turn in here."
"I'm sorry," Harold says.
"The good news better be pretty damn good," says John.
Harold watches the men with guns argue with each other. "The good news is that these men aren't terrorists," he says. "They're in Fox Plaza to rob it. This is not, in fact, a relevant number."
John makes a strangled noise, and Harold hears his shoes squeak terribly.
"Are you all right, Mr Reese?"
"Yeah," John says. "Trying to corner backwards. Cornering backward is slowing me down. If they're not terrorists, we need to figure out if they're perpetrators or victims. Think about that, and keep your head down till I'm out of here. What's the bad news?"
Harold glances up at the gunmen who have taken him hostage. He's fairly sure these men will be perpetrators, but here's no need to make John worry, not when the poor man is trapped. He'll make it up to John later in bed, he tells himself.
"We can talk about that later," he says.
Harold is glad he disabled the elevators. It will buy John time to extract himself. The henchmen – these are definitely henchmen – are bringing Harold to speak with their boss.
One of the men presses the elevator button, then again when there's no response. Then again, angrily, with enough force to crack something behind the panel.
The other men spread out, trying the other buttons, with equal lack of response.
Behind Harold, the oldest man radios in. "Boss, the elevators are down – you want us to walk up?" They speak German, and have assumed Harold does not, which is foolish.
When he releases the button, there's nothing but static. The man shakes his radio and tries again, but there's no response. The other two check their phones.
"Kein Signal," one says and holds his phone in the air as if he can catch connectivity.
Harold frowns. He hasn't done anything to block communications. He tentatively taps at his earphone.
"Mr Reese?" he says, quietly. Then, "John?"
There's no answer.
The two younger minions heave the elevator doors open and lean out into empty space.
"I see it!" one says, in German. He points up. "One floor away."
There's a sudden thud from behind them, and the two younger men draw their guns.
That's a wonderful sound, and Harold turns expecting to see John there in all his debonair glory.
It's not John. It's a cowboy. That's the only way Harold can describe the man: well-worn boots, well-worn jeans, long brown hair tied back with. Harold doesn't know the man, but there's a familiarity to the face: the cold eyes, the set of the jaw. It's a coiled expression Harold has seen on John.
The man toes the older henchman, flips him over onto his back. The unconscious man's chest rises and falls.
One of the other henchmen cocks his gun, but before he can pull the trigger, the long-haired man grabs the weapon by the muzzle and throws it behind him. His other arm strikes outward without looking and the young man crumples down in a neat pile.
Harold watches the weapon skitter over the carpet. It travels a long way.
The remaining German puts the gun to Harold's head. "You back off!" he barks, in accented English.
"Don't do it, man," says the stranger with the long hair. "Come on. Don't shoot the hostage. Let's sprechen this out." Harold hears Oklahoma in that voice, but from a long time ago.
Nobody moves for a long moment. Harold hopes coms are cut, because he would hate for John to hear any of this standoff.
He attempts to edge sideways but the remaining German grabs his arm. This throws Harold off-balance, just as the long-haired stranger launches himself bodily at them. There's a struggle, and Harold is momentarily terrified the gun will go off somewhere between the three of them.
He doesn't need to worry. Someone slams into Harold, and he topples down the elevator shaft.
Falling is strange and slow. Harold wonders about Alice and her rabbit hole, and how Lewis Carroll knew that adrenaline grabs at your mind and slows your perceptions of time passing.
He sees thick steel cables and makes a grab for them. He feels the weight of his body as momentum catches up with him: shoulders, neck, spine. He doesn't scream, but his mind sends him outside of himself, as it does when pain becomes overwhelming.
His earpiece is trying to come back to life, and it's full of crackly shouting: no words that he can make out, just an endless stream of panic. It seems an odd reaction for John to have, but then again, Harold has never fallen down an elevator shaft before. Perhaps it's a perfectly rational response.
He blinks, and grips around the cable tighter, feels the metal cut into his skin. His feet can't find purchase against anything. He's strangely calm for a man poised above death.
At least he can talk to John. There's nothing but static on the line right now, but that means the channel has been left open.
"My palms are bleeding," he says. "The cable is getting slippery. John, I'm so sorry. If you can hear this, please forgive me. I don't think I can hold on for long."
His mouth won't stop, which is a bad sign.
"I wish I were stronger. It feels shameful to know I'm going to fail. I don't want to give up, John. You've never given up on me."
Blood trickles warm down his wrists into his shirt cuffs. His arms burn under the weight of his body. His grip on the metal cable is loosening. It won't be long now.
"John. Thank you. For the time we had, for the love you've shown me – thank you…" Harold doesn't know if John will get the message. He hopes the Machine will see it through. He hopes that it conveys everything he wants to say to John before he hits the ground: that he loves John, that being loved by John was the most wonderful and unexpected privilege, that he hopes John survives.
He hopes he passes out before he falls.
The earpiece crackles to life, and Harold's heart leaps.
The voice is not John's. It's young, male, panicked.
"Kick off your damn shoes, dude!"
Harold obediently sends his double-soled bespoke oxfords to their death, and suddenly finds he can worm his sock-clad feet into miniscule cracks between the cables. His screaming arms are no longer bearing his weight alone, and the respite is bliss.
Now that he's not facing imminent death, Harold looks around the shaft. There's plenty of light from the open door. There's a maintenance ladder to the left of him, he can probably reach.
His stomach lurches as he swings for it. A memory flashes up of the school playground, back in Iowa, of that moment of terror between one rung and the next. Then he's safe, clinging to the ladder with one elbow locked around a metal strut. He relaxes the tiniest bit. That's better. Not safe, but more secure.
"Who are you?" he says into open air. "How did you hijack this feed?"
There's studied silence over his earpiece.
"No point in being coy now," Harold says. "You've listened to my dying declaration of love."
"I didn't ask to hear that! Can't I just pretend I'm not here?" The man's voice is hopeful. And embarrassed. "I will never learn. I see a scrambled channel, I gotta try and crack it open."
Harold peers up at the open elevator doors, then down into the darkness below. I "Yes, about that," he says. "You must be fairly competent with computers." He makes it as non-committal as possible. He might be about to die, but he's still a very private person.
"Well," says the voice, failing to hide his preening. "Whoever put your coms together knows his stuff. It took me a while. And a couple of favours to some truly scary Russian pre-teens, whiiiiich kinda tanked all comms in the building except this channel. Blame the dude who shut down the elevators. It's his fault I needed something to occupy the time."
Harold rests his head on the cold metal of the access ladder, picturing the devastation wrought by something from the seething mess of Russia's malware factories.
Please, not Sanddwyrm. Not even Root would use Sanddwyrm, he prays to the non-existent gods of computers. He was going to have to wipe absolutely everything now.
The voice went on blithely. "Walk without rhythm, man. You ain't never gonna escape that wrym."
Harold cannot hide his sigh, but the man takes it as an admission of despair.
"Don't you worry, man. You're only two floors from ground. I'll find you some help. Hang in there. You're in good hands, I promise."
As much as Harold would prefer to be in nobody's hands but John's, rescue is a necessary evil at this point.
His optimism lasts until bullets ping down the elevator shaft. The older German man appears at the open doors. He holds a machine gun and has a clear line of sight to Harold.
Priorities swiftly rearrange themselves and he lets go.
He doesn't feel the impact.
Harold blinks at the light, which is far above him. It shimmers and warps, like looking up at the sun from the bottom of a swimming pool. Is he underwater? He puffs out an experimental breath to see if there are bubbles, but there are no bubbles.
Instead, there's a sharp stab of pain at his side, searing and knife-like. A sound escapes his lips that makes him think of gulls, and he blacks out again.
There's dust in his throat when he wakes. He coughs, and his body answers with red-hot pain all over. How long has he been sleeping? He reminds himself for the millionth time to go home before he falls asleep over his keyboard. Mr Reese will look at him with that sad expression, the one that makes Harold want to wrap them both in warm blankets and stay in bed for a week. The two of them are perpetually exhausted. It would be lovely to just sleep.
It's so dark. Did he refuel the generators this week? Harold can't remember. He can't remember what he was working on. He can't see his desk. He must have been sleeping for a long time, because his legs feel wrong, painful and numb at the same time. And it's so dark. He'll just rest a moment before he creaks his body back into movement. He closes his eyes.
"Just a few more minutes," he says to himself, his voice stern.
A voice answers out of the darkness. "Oh, no," it says. "Pretty sure you're supposed to stay awake with a concussion. Don't make me poke you where it hurts. You know I will."
It's a woman's voice, a familiar voice. Harold runs through memories, though they're hazy through the pain. Not Grace – Grace would never poke him where it hurts. Ms Shaw would definitely poke him where it hurts, but it's not Ms Shaw. Not Ms Groves, either.
"Who are you?" Harold says the words softly, scrabbling for the memory.
Sudden blinding light hits him in the face and he recoils. Squinting, he realises that the person opposite him is wearing a headlamp. He can't make out the face.
"We've had this conversation already, Mr Byrd. Twice. It's Parker." She says this last name slowly and clearly, as if speaking to an elderly person.
"Parker?" Harold says. "How?" When he considers it further, though, it strikes him that this is the perfect place to be reunited with Parker.
She leans in close with a blue harness. "Some idiot shut down the elevators so I came down on a rope. You should try it some time. Or you're going to end up right back in that wheelchair." Her face brightens. "I got to kick a guy in the face though," she says. "He was really surprised. And now I have a machine gun!" She holds the weapon by the muzzle and grins with Parker-like enthusiasm.
Harold tries not to cringe as she drapes the harness over his shoulders, because she's helping him. He'd forgotten Parker's strange relationship with personal space, how she could be too close and prickly about that closeness within the same conversation. The two of them were overly wary. It had been a very difficult time, that awkward period after Nathan and before Dillinger.
Then, out of the blue she took off mid-mission, to rob a Russian oligarch with an unbeatable security system and a Fabergé egg.
"That's what they said about the Titanic," she had told him, as she packed her bags. "Unsinkable."
"How did it go with the egg heist?" he asks. He keeps his voice conversational to distract himself as Parker pulls the harness tight. She's as heartlessly efficient as he remembers from before, and has no apparent shame about threading those straps hither and yon.
She snorts as she clips the harness together. "That jerk was real handsy. And get this: there were no Russian dolls inside that egg!"
These are the kinds of conversations you have with Parker, Harold remembers.
"What are you stealing right now?" he asks. He needs to keep talking, or he'll pass out again. Every movement lights up sparks in his vision, and every breath is a red-hot poker in his side.
Parker tests the rope attached to Harold's harness. "We're stealing a bank robbery," she says, with terrifying enthusiasm. Then she takes up the slack on the rope.
Harold's poor addled brain moves slowly over that horrifying statement.
"Bank robbery?" he says, and then, with growing alarm, "We?"
All Harold can see though the bright halo of the headlamp is a wide enthusiastic grin.
"Yeah!" says Parker. "I have a team now. Teamwork is great, you should try it."
She pulls on the rope and though she's being gentle, the harness snaps tight against his broken ribs. Harold has never been so relieved to pass out in his life.
Harold wakes up to carpet pressing into his face and the metal grille of the elevator not far away. He hears Parker's voice, tight and afraid.
"I'm not telling you anything about anything," she says. The words come out one at a time, unwillingly. Harold can picture her mouth, clenched hard around her fear, lips as pale as her hair.
Fear sends Parker into fight mode, which is why she stabbed Harold the first time they met. Harold still has a small blue mark on his thumb knuckle where the pen nib had broken the skin. It represented a rocky start to their relationship, though now he thinks of it as Parker's tattoo.
Harold wonders what has frightened her, and then John speaks with the silky tone of gentle calm he uses for interrogations.
"Yes you will," John says, simply. "You will tell me what happened to my friend."
John will feel terrible if he hurts Parker. Harold can't let that happen.
"Mr Reese, please wait," he says. His mouth is very dry. He hopes that the strangled sound of his voice does not lead to Parker's own strangulation. Then he thinks of all the times he yearned to strangle Parker, and he laughs.
John doesn't appear at his side, which means he's got a gun on Parker and doesn't want to take his eyes off her. Harold can't blame him for that. Nobody should ever take their eyes off Parker.
Instead, John says, light and easy, "Did I miss a joke?" His voice is still calm, but Harold knows him well enough to hear the relief in it.
"Mr Byrd's not very good at jokes," says Parker. "He makes them too clever for other people."
There's a brief silence. Then John says, "So you two do know each other."
Harold can't quite muster the strength to push himself off the floor, but if he did, he knows he would see John's eyebrow quirked up just a little. The immediate danger for Parker is gone.
"Parker is a former employee," he says, with as much dignity as he can, while industrial carpet prints a pattern into his cheek.
Parker gives a rude snort. "Employee," she says, her voice mocking Harold's. "We worked together."
"I paid you a salary so you were, therefore, an employee," Harold says. He doesn't mean to sound so prissy, but he really is in a lot of pain.
"You needed to," Parker's retort is equally rude.
Harold takes a breath and hold it, then pushes himself upright. The pain is incandescent, whiting out his vision, forcing that breath out as a hiss between his teeth. He's going to pass out, he realises sadly.
"Please don't shoot Parker," he says as the dark rushes in again. He doesn't manage to get out, "Even if she drives you to violence." He hopes John gets the intention.
When he wakes again, he's in a chair and it's so much more comfortable. John is crouched down in front of him, and his wrist is warm against Harold's collarbone. Two fingers press into Harold's throat, taking his pulse.
"Welcome back," John says. "I think you're going to be okay. Broken rib, and your palms are pretty cut up but you're alive."
Harold tilts his head gently, trapping John's fingers in place. It's good to see him, even if streaked with dust. There's cobweb in his hair.
"I take it you didn't kill Parker?" Harold's voice is still raspy, and when John holds a bottle of water up to his lips, he swallows gratefully.
John smiles, wry. "Not yet," he says. "But I understand how it would be tempting."
Harold stretches out to touch John's chest, then stares at the bandage wrapped thick around his own hand. Only the fingertips are visible.
"I can't type like this," he says, despairing. He wonders if the other hand is as bad, but the rib hurts too much for him to lift his arm.
"They'll heal," John says, with the blithe attitude of a man who gets shot far too often.
Harold holds his white-wrapped hand up between them. "John, I look like a Muppet!"
John takes the hand and kisses the bandage. "You're my favourite Muppet."
"Are we doing favourite Muppets?" says Parker, appearing beside them.
John jumps and pulls the gun then swears under his breath and holsters it. Harold gives him a sympathetic smile.
"Mine is the Count." Parker seems untroubled by her near-brush with death. "Because he loves to count. And he sleeps upside down. Harold's is Big Bird, that's obvious. Your turn, John."
John stares at her, unreadable, as his breathing settles.
Harold answers for him. "John's is Miss Piggy," he says. When John glances back at him, startled, he shrugs. "It's easy to guess, John. You have a soft spot for determined women."
John shakes his head then turns to Parker. "Find anything useful in the locker room?"
Parker upends a shopping bag on the floor in front of them. Pills scatter over the carpet like Halloween candy.
"I got Vicodin, I got Percocet, I got Motrin. I got half an edible. I got Adderall." After a moment, she snatches the Adderall back. It disappears up her sleeve.
John picks over the pills and selects a couple, then holds them up for Harold.
"I don't need…" Harold begins.
John puts a finger on Harold's lips. "Take them," he says, gently.
Parker helpfully holds out a sports bottle.
Harold sighs, and swallows the pills, washing them down with warm Gatorade. He tries not to think about someone else's mouth on the rim of that bottle.
"There," he says. "Happy?"
"Yes. Now we're getting out of here," John says. He eases an arm under Harold's shoulder and lifts carefully onto his feet, then leans Harold's body into his.
Under his breath, mouth against Harold's ear, he says, "And you're never leaving the library again."
Harold can't disagree.
The floors around the locker room are very well polished. Harold's sock-clad feet slip over linoleum like he's ice-skating. That could also be the Vicodin, but at least his ribs are no longer screaming.
John keeps his arm around Harold's shoulder as they walk.
"So, where'd you two meet?" he asks.
Parker, walking ahead of them, laughs out loud. "He broke me out of prison," she says. "It was fun."
Harold is pressed so close he feels John's surprise as a wave of tension through his body.
"I can arrange a jailbreak," he says, defensively.
John kisses the top of his head. "I believe you."
"When I first started working the numbers, I was hesitant to employ violence," Harold says to John. "At the time, Parker had an interesting set of skills and she rarely used weapons."
"Hah!" says Parker. "I sure used one on you."
Harold speaks quickly before John can exact a terrible revenge.
"She stabbed me with a pen."
"Anything can be a weapon, if you use it with intent." Parker says this as if she is reciting a lesson.
John nods, philosophical. "She's got a point," he says.
"I had a point that day," Parker agrees. "But me and Mr Byrd, we pulled some great cons back then."
John is silent beside him. Harold can feel the questions hovering.
"I told her we were pulling cons," he tells John, the Vicodin or maybe the reduction in pain making him chatty. He squeezes John's arm. "That's what kept Parker interested."
He's very surprised when John shoves him forward with a forceful motion that tears at his broken rib. He slams against Parker with a gasp, seeing stars. Behind him, there's scuffling.
Then John shouts, "Finch! Get out of here!"
At almost the same time, a voice with an Oklahoman twang bellows, "Parker, take cover, this guy's a killer!"
Parker is busy holding Harold up, but she says, "Huh."
By the time Harold has gathered his senses again, he's leaning hard on Parker's shoulder, and Parker has both hands against his ribcage as if she's holding him together.
On the linoleum floor, John and the long-haired man tussle, rolling side to side like Tasmanian devils. Neither can get a solid grip on the other.
"Think my guy can take your guy?" Parker says.
"Yes," Harold says, buoyed by loyalty and Vicodin. "And since your guy started the fight that got me tipped into an elevator shaft, I hope John makes him pay."
Parker punches him in the arm, which is fortunately his good arm. "He was trying to rescue you," she says. "And I did rescue you, so you can't blame Spencer."
"Well," Harold says. "He is trying to save you from John, I suppose his heart is in the right place. And the man on the coms with the penchant for Russian wyrms?"
"Hardison is banned from Russian wyrms!" Parker says. "He knows that." She stares up at the security camera in the corner with a ferocious expression.
Harold watches her, amazed. This expression is light years from the Parker that Harold knew: she looks righteously outraged, as if she has personally been let down by Hardison's behaviour.
"They're your team!" Harold says to her, in wonder. "You're running this team."
Parker scowls, and it's such a Parker expression that Harold laughs.
The idea that Parker found a group of people that she obviously cares about is wonderful. Weird, but wonderful, which for Harold represents the best of working with Parker. He feels a glow, and it might be the Vicodin, but he's going to call it pride. They've both come a long, long way when it comes to trusting people.
A short distance down the corridor, John and Spencer's fight is winding down. The two of them lie flaked out on the linoleum, arms and legs spread like starfish, chests heaving. Spencer's nose streams blood, and one of John's eyes is swelling shut. There does not appear to be a victor.
"Do you work cons with these men?" Harold asks. "Is it about money?"
"Don't get me wrong, money is great," Parker says. She wraps her hands around his forearm, above the bandages. Her face is incredibly earnest. "But it turns out there's something even better."
Harold smiles at her. He'd forgotten that when Parker feels something, she feels it absolutely. "What could that be?" he asks.
"Helping people," Parker says in wonder. Her voice is quiet, as if she doesn't want the secret to get out. "We help people. People who don't have anywhere else to turn."
Harold feels himself smiling. The Parker he knew had rejected that idea out of hand, caring only for the money from the "cons" Harold had arranged around the numbers he'd received.
On the ground, Spencer and John are playing a familiar game. Harold has seen this between John and Ms Shaw.
"Cairo?" says John. His head is only a short distance from Spencer's, though their bodies are angled carefully away.
"Nah, I think that was the Chinese," says Spencer. "Hamburg?"
John nods, his damp hair leaving streaks on the linoleum. "Yeah, that was me. Uruguay?"
Spencer is silent.
John scoffs. "Come on. A death squad goes down, and the only weapon is piano wire? We call that a Spencer Special."
Spencer grins up at the ceiling. "It's a very distinctive wire," he says.
"Hey." John props himself on an elbow so he can see Spencer's face. "Were you at that mafia wedding? With the Butcher of Kiev?"
"Lemon juice," says Spencer. "Works every time."
Harold puts a hand over Parker's. "We could work together," he says. "Your team and mine. Let's stop what's happening here."
Parker grins her wide, enthusiastic smile back at him. "I think that would be fun."