“I wanna tell you all my secrets, Harold,” John said, his head tipping sideways to rest against the car window. He rubbed his hands over his face, and then dropped them to his lap.
“You know,” John said, hunching his shoulders and tucking his neck into his chest, “this is really different than what they trained us with at the Farm. I’m not exactly a connoisseur, but I can--”
Finch swerved to avoid yet another pothole. Judging from the disgruntled noises from his right, the motion had caused John’s head to thud against the glass. Harold made a mental note to check the city council’s email chains for news about road maintenance projects. Perhaps he could nudge the stalled funding along, if only to make these hectic night drives a touch more bearable.
“Just try to relax, Mr. Reese,” he said. He glanced in the rear view mirror for any pursuers, but there were, thankfully, none. “Try not to speak.”
“You know,” John continued immediately, “I’ve had a lot of alcohol and drugs in me the last ten years. That, um, can’t be good for me. Maybe one of these days my heart will explode,” John mimed an explosion with his hands and a brief sound effect, “or I’ll turn into the Hulk. Oh, wait, more like the guy the Hulk fought in that one movie, the one with Edward Norton. Kara dragged me to see that with her in Bangladesh.”
John shifted restlessly in the passenger seat, his mouth twisted in a moue of distaste.
Finch watched from the corner of his eye, frowning. John put an exceeding amount of energy toward projecting a calm, still demeanor in every situation, whether he was ordering a sandwich or jumping off a roof. For him to show any visible distress indicated the severity of the mess from which Harold had just rescued him.
Underneath spatters of blood, either his own or someone else’s, John’s face and neck were pale and clammy. His suit jacket was nowhere to be found and his white button-up, missing several of its buttons, was drenched with sweat.
Sirens sounded several blocks away, and John, eyes wild, shoved himself up to sit straighter. He promptly went limp and tipped forward into the dash.
Finch squawked. He took a hand off the wheel to push John back into his seat. “Mr. Reese, please, try to sit still. We’re almost to your apartment. Here,” he said, pushing a bottle of water into John’s hands. “Drink that, please.”
John was trembling. Harold supposed it was too much to hope that he was merely cold. More likely it was a combination of adrenaline and the mystery drug cocktail still in his bloodstream. Finch turned up the heater and pointed all the air vents he could reach toward John anyway.
“Hmm. I could never sit still in grade school. I was always getting in trouble for fidgeting. The teachers called my dad a lot to complain about me. I overheard Mr. Browning tell him at a parent-teacher conference that it wasn’t Dad’s fault, that I was just born stupid.”
Finch’s frown deepened. Browning. That meant John had been in second grade, only seven or eight years old.
John pawed at his seatbelt, sighing in annoyance when Harold smacked his hands away from the buckle. “Harold,” he sighed out on a long breath. “I wanna tell you my real name, but I don’t know which one to pick and you know ‘em all anyway. They all feel...real. They’re all me, you know? I’ve been too many people, I’ve--”
“John, please, stop talking. You don’t have to tell me anything,” Finch interrupted.
They came to a red light and Finch leaned over to check John’s pulse, which was too fast. John’s glassy eyes struggled to focus as he stared out the windshield, and Finch bit his lip. He wondered if they dared risk finding an emergency room.
“Light’s green, Harold, and no, no emergency rooms because I know you’re thinking about it.”
Harold drove on.
John propped a knee on the dashboard.
Harold pushed it back down.
“Ugh, don’t you hate when a bloody nose run downs your throat?” John asked, sinking in his seat to put both feet on the dashboard. He sipped some of the water, spilling most of it.
“It used to make me nauseated, but I got used to it in the army. I got punched a lot. Still do. I wish I could stop talking. I hear myself talking but I can’t make myself stop. It doesn’t feel good. I don’t feel good. I don’t feel real. I don’t feel like a real person. Sometimes I do, when I’m with you, when I’m helping people with you. But then I’ll hear a gunshot, or an explosion...or I’ll shoot someone and they’ll scream, and for a second I won’t know where I am.”
John’s matter-of-fact tone grated. If he insisted on divulging all his secrets via stream-of-consciousness he could at least have the decency to sound miserable about it. Finch was quickly losing his patience with the situation. He wanted to beg John to shut up, for God’s sake, but that would hardly help either of them.
Perhaps a different tack would help. Harold pushed John’s feet off the dash. “Now, Mr. Reese,” he said in his sternest voice, only to be interrupted.
“I’ve known for a while that I’m messed up and I’m not gonna get better.” John groaned and turned to hide his face in his shoulder. “I don’t feel good, Finch,” he said, breaking Harold’s heart.
“I...I know, John. It’s going to be all right. Whatever they gave you will wear off eventually and you’ll feel better. Until then, just lean back. Take some deep breaths. Drink the water."
“That’ll help?” John asked.
“It certainly can’t hurt,” Finch said.
John spent three blocks breathing quietly before the words came again.
“I was going to kill myself,” John said to the window his face was smashed against. “You already know that. I was on my way to meet a guy about a gun in Queens when those kids messed with me on the subway. A gun was my second choice. I tried to do it with some stuff I found. Plastic shopping bags I tied together. Some of the other guys pulled me down. Joan was mad at me. I still feel bad that she had to see that. But it’s hard to get privacy to hang yourself when you’re homeless.”
Harold’s skin went cold and tight during this confession, starting at the top of his head and traveling down his back and shoulders. His arms turned heavy and numb. It was the familiar way his body reacted when someone pointed a gun at him.
“No, hey, I’m sorry, Finch. Don’t make that face. I’m glad I didn’t off myself,” John said. He flung out an arm to pat Finch’s shoulder. There was dirt under his nails. “I’m glad I stuck around.”
He sighed and fidgeted again, turning toward the window, limbs tangling in the seat belt. “But it’s good to have an escape plan. Whenever you walk in a room, you’ve gotta find a way to get out,” he said, trying to clap his hands together and missing.
“So if things get bad again, I’ve got a way out. Hmm.” He closed his eyes, smiling as if thoughts of his inevitable suicide gave him comfort.
John rolled his head against the headrest, moaned, and went finally, blessedly silent.
Harold put on his turn signal and changed lanes. He made a quick phone call to Detectives Carter and Fusco, letting them know that he had recovered John and dodging their questions about the smoking crater in Queens. He resisted the temptation to honk at a Lexus that cut him off. He arranged for groceries to be delivered to John’s apartment.
It wouldn’t help John for Finch to finally have that mental breakdown he had been gearing up for the past few decades, so Finch did his best to keep his face blank and his breathing steady. He might not have been trained by the CIA but he was no slouch as far as lying went. He could keep it together until he got John settled.
The remainder of the drive was spent considering if it was worth the time it would take to destroy a certain second grade teacher’s credit history.
“Ms. Shaw, I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
A grunt and a distant scream sounded before Shaw replied, out of breath. “Nah, just some extracurricular mayhem here, Finch. Whaddaya need?”
Harold shifted his weight onto his other foot and closed his eyes. His neck and hips were aching. Perhaps he should affix a rope-and-pulley system for the next time John couldn’t make it into his apartment under his own power.
“Uh, Finch? You there?”
“Yes, Ms. Shaw. I apologize for calling so late, but...there were some complications earlier tonight. I request your assistance with a matter.”
There was a pause. “Yeah, sure Harold. I can be in the city in about two hours. Meet you at the library?”
Finch considered giving her John’s address but thought better of it. John was stable, as far as Harold could tell, and could be left alone for an hour. Also, Harold wanted to keep this apartment and its tenant secret, hidden from the world as much as possible.
“Thank you, yes that will be fine. Have a safe journey.”
“Wait, wait. Are you okay? Oh shit, is Reese okay?”
Harold tightened his jaw. “Just get here soon, Ms. Shaw,” he said and hung up.
“So, as you can see, I’ve dismantled their finances thoroughly and alerted the proper authorities to their international accounts.”
Shaw raised her eyebrow even higher before finally lowering it. She pursed her lips and nodded from her perch on top of Harold’s desk. “Thanks for the econ lesson, Harold. I take it this is the part where I find the ones that got away and kick all their asses?”
Finch nodded. “Yes, if you wouldn’t mind.”
Shaw waited for him to continue. Finch stayed silent, staring out the window at the pink dawn clouds. As far as brooding went, it was more dramatic than Finch usually opted for.
Shaw blinked. “What, that’s it? No helpful suggestions to not kill anyone?”
“No. You have free reign, Ms. Shaw, so long as you make sure they can no longer hurt anyone else. You may take the car if you’d like. I believe the trunk is stocked. Oh, minus a few grenades. And one of the rifles. And one or two pistols. I might have been a bit overzealous in John’s rescue last night.”
Holy shit, Shaw mouthed to herself. “Wow. Well, John’s gonna live, right? What does ‘resting comfortably’ mean?”
Finch opened his mouth to give another sterile directive but lost the energy halfway through. He turned to look at Shaw for the first time that morning.
“They had him for approximately three hours, and I don’t know what exactly they did to him. We knew they were conducting illegal drug trials, getting their subjects from VA rosters. We underestimated the number of men there, and John… It was some sort of truth serum. It was highly effective and something that Mr. Reese had not encountered before.”
“A guy like John is bound to have some secrets he doesn’t want told. Did they get anything about our operation here?”
“No,” Finch said, walking from the window to his desk. “Mr. Reese was sure of that. Just in case, it would be best if you determined if they made any recordings or notes during his time there and dispose of them.”
He shuffled papers and put several cables in his laptop bag, only to take them out again and stare at them with his brow furrowed.
Shaw hopped down from the desk. “I’ll take care of it. Give my regards to Reese,” Shaw said, trying to use her gentle voice, the one Gen was coaching her on.
She had only taken a few steps when something made her stop and turn back to Harold.
“Let him know that if he wants to compare notes on torture, I’m available to chat. Or if he wants someone to sign his cast, if his mysterious injuries include a cast, I’ll bring my colored Sharpies.”
Finch turned to her and he was so obviously proud of her, like she’d done something amazing, and Shaw’s fight or flight instinct kicked in. She’d leapt out of windows to escape much less fraught emotional displays.
“Okay, yikes , don’t look at me like that. Gonna go punch some people, tell you about it later. Go give John a hug,” she muttered and then hurried out of the room.
She would remember Harold’s wet eyes and kind smile hours later and hide her own smile with a scowl.
Finch peered over his laptop to check on John from his perch at the kitchen island. He was careful not to alter his typing speed lest he attract John’s attention.
He needn’t have worried. The man in question had fallen asleep since Harold had last furtively checked four minutes and fifty-nine seconds ago.
John was dozing on the couch, a paperback book resting on his chest. Aside from a black eye and very nasty bruising on his ribs, John was outwardly unharmed from last night’s ordeal.
Harold had needed to enlist the doorman’s help to drag John from the car to the elevator. Mark had witnessed enough of their prior nonsense to not bother asking if he should call an ambulance, and was kind enough to ignore John mumbling non sequiturs about Prague stakeouts into Harold’s neck. Harold made a note to raise Mark’s Christmas bonus another thousand dollars.
Somehow they had managed to limp and stumble through the dark apartment and avoid tripping over Bear, who had been lying in wait for them just inside the door. John awoke from his daze when Harold lost his grip and dropped him onto the bed.
Had he not been drugged, John’s defensive thrashing would have severely injured Harold. But John was very drugged, and Harold found it easy to dodge his kitten weak punches and back away from the bed.
Luckily Bear had a better grasp on the situation than Harold did. The dog leapt onto the bed and planted two paws on John’s chest. Harold sighed when John lay flat and tugged the dog into his arms, stroking Bear with clumsy hands.
Finch sat, pulled John’s feet into his lap, and picked at his boot laces. He wondered if John had hidden any razor blades or tasers in his shoes, and decided to proceed with caution. After carefully setting the boots by the wall, he collected a glass of water and some buttered toast from the kitchen.
John dutifully ate the toast and drank the water when prompted, one arm wrapped around Bear and looking at Harold with open suspicion.
Leaving Bear in charge, Harold took a few minutes to use the bathroom and scrub the gunpowder off his hands. It might have been his imagination, but he thought his eyebrows might be slightly singed.
When he returned bearing the frighteningly large first aid kit, John was back to muttering a mix of recollections and observations about his surroundings.
Once Bear was convinced to lay beside John instead of on top of him, Harold helped John change into pajamas. John was roughly as cooperative as a newborn horse, and Harold was panting with effort by the time he had wrestled his patient into the t-shirt and sweatpants. It was like solving a Rubik’s cube made entirely of elbows that wouldn’t stop talking about the best shawarma restaurant in Mosul.
Harold had never seen this graceless version of John before, not even when they first met and John was all sharp corners and wide eyes. That John had been thin and hunted, like a wild animal backed into a corner, ferocious. This John before him was toothless, dismayed, yawing in and out of lucidity.
John had been vulnerable in front of Harold before, but never defenseless.
Harold had long entertained elaborate dreams of being allowed to care for John in ways that went beyond their current relationship. He wanted to learn John’s secrets from the man himself, not from stolen records and hacked files. He wanted to facilitate a space where John could lay down his burdens.
One of Harold’s longest running fantasies starred John lying in bed next to Harold, reading a book before going to sleep. In his fantasy, John would turn to Harold and smile, sweet and sleepy.
John was an open book tonight, and Harold hated it. He hated that these secret parts of John had been dragged into the light, rather than offered freely. This was a violation of John’s body and mind, and it had happened while John was in Harold’s employ. Under Harold’s care. It was unacceptable.
The toast plate clattered to the floor, startling Harold. John moaned and rolled onto his side, burying his face in Bear’s fur.
Harold sat. His hand hovered over John’s tensed shoulders. “John? Are you in pain?”
“Yes,” was John’s muffled answer. “My chest hurts, my head aches, my knee’s acting up from my old football injury, and my eye hurts. I’m dizzy. My back is sore, too. And I’m cold. And my wrists are cut up from the handcuffs.”
There was a brief, surprised pause.
John rolled away from Bear and onto his back. He clutched at his face. “I didn’t mean to say all that,” he said, beginning to pant and shiver again.
Bear whined when John tried to sit up only to crumple back onto the bed. Finch put a hand on John’s shoulder, trying to will calm into John. With his other hand, Harold sifted through the first aid kit, wondering where to start.
“John, it’s okay. I far prefer it when you’re honest to me about when you’re hurting."
John rolled toward Harold and curled into a ball. He shuffled until his forehead butted up against Harold’s thigh, gasping with his eyes screwed shut. “It doesn’t matter when I’m hurt or tired. The only thing that matters is the mission.”
He sobbed out a breath and looked up at Harold. “Make me stop talking, please, Harold. I don’t wanna remember. Hit me over the head with something or sedate me, please, I can’t …”
This was turning out to be an even worse night than Finch had anticipated. “I don’t want to give you a concussion, and I don’t know if a sedative would kill you or not right now. I would offer to fetch a doctor but I know you don’t want that.”
John groaned in frustration as soon as Harold said the word “doctor.”
This was uniquely awful. Harold’s partner, his dear friend, was in pain and Harold could do nothing to stop it. All the money in the world wouldn’t take John’s anguish away.
Another bout of trembling sent John twisting against the sheets in a way that made Harold dizzy with a bout of horrified arousal that thankfully went away as quickly as it had come on. In another context Harold would be overjoyed to have John sweaty and straining against those same white sheets, panting in pleasure at what Harold could do to him with his hands, his mouth.
Instead John was begging Harold to help him, biting his own arm to try to stop talking. When John spoke Jessica’s name and began weeping, Harold leapt up from the bed. His aim was to leave in order to spare John from any more embarrassment, but John shouted before he had taken two steps.
“Please, don’t leave me, please,” he said, reaching for Harold.
“Okay. It’s okay, I have an idea, just hold on,” Harold said, crossing the room to John’s dresser.
Harold opened two drawers of assorted weapons before he found a thin undershirt and folded it into a strip. He rushed to John’s side and sat. Gently, he pried John’s hands away from his mouth and pushed the soft white fabric between his teeth.
He had never had to gag anyone before, but he knew to be careful that John could still breathe and that the fabric didn’t cut into John’s lips. John went limp with relief, and Harold blushed red under John’s effusive and incoherent thanks.
John’s hair was damp with sweat as Harold cinched a knot snug around the back of his head. He helped John lie down, cradling his head in his hands until he alit on the pillow.
They were great pillows. Harold’s interior designer had assured him they were the best.
“Don’t fight it, John, it’s all right. I can’t understand what you’re saying anymore, and I’m not going to leave you. Is that too tight?”
John shook his head. He said something and groaned, turning his face into the pillow.
Harold stroked John’s hair and dabbed his tears away with a Kleenex. “You’re doing very well, John. Very well. As always, I am in awe of the depth of your strength and your compassion. I am so very pleased to know you.”
John looked up at him with blank red eyes.
“It’s true. Bear agrees with me. Don’t you, Bear?”
The dog whined and pawed at John’s arm, nosing at John’s ribs..
Harold draped cool, damp washcloths over John’s forehead and listened to his muffled, garbled confessions long into the night. He stroked the graying hair at John’s temples until John finally fell asleep under his hands.
Harold had left to meet Shaw soon after.
Now it was the next afternoon, and although John was making a swift recovery, Finch was still reluctant to leave.
“That was stupid, Finch.”
Harold startled at John’s quiet voice. He straightened up and turned back to his computer, chiding himself for being caught staring.
"Well," he said, miffed, "I admit the incident with the power lines was an...unfortunate...setback. But overall, I thought it was a fairly decent diversion."
There was a loud, long sigh from the couch.
“Not that. I liked that part. Although we will be driving out of the city tomorrow so I can teach you the right way to handle a grenade."
"So what was it that I did that was so stupid?" Finch asked, distracted with downloading policy analyses of potential city road maintenance projects.
John shook his head. "I was completely out of control last night. I could have hurt you, or someone else.”
Finch stared John down.
“So I should have handcuffed you to the car door and waited for the effects to wear off? Left you on Shaw’s doorstep? Or maybe I should have dropped you off at a police station? No, don’t answer that, please.”
The kitchen stool was digging into his thigh and his tea had gone cold hours ago. Finch shoved himself up and stalked to the microwave to heat up the mug. He jabbed at the buttons and breathed deeply until the flare of irritation passed.
When he turned back, John was looking at him balefully from the couch.
“I will admit that I did not handle the situation well at all. I could use the excuse that I was out of my depth, but I won’t, because doing this job means I have to...adapt. I need to do better, because that is what you deserve. You cannot afford for me to fail you when you need support.
“It has always been in my nature to plan ahead. When we began this venture, I planned for a lot of things. Death, capture, stock market failures, and the like. You’ve seen many of them. I planned for situations like last night. But I couldn’t, I, I just.”
Finch took a deep breath. “I should have done more.”
He wanted to look away, or stare down at his hands like he had done as a teenager when he was uncomfortable and trained himself out of by college.
“You can’t arrange everything before it happens, Harold,” John said. “I’ve been hurt before, you know. I always bounce back.” He tossed his book aside and stood up. “See?”
“This was--” Harold had to look away. “I never wanted you to be hurt like that again. That should not have happened.”
The microwave dinged and Harold retrieved his tea. He heard John walk through the living room and into the kitchen. John was always kind enough to make his footsteps audible so he wouldn’t startle Harold by appearing and disappearing silently like a ghost.
“Finch. Harold, look at me. I’m good as new. You got me out of there, see?” John rubbed his hand across Harold’s tense shoulders. “It’s okay,” he murmured.
It was absurd that John would be the one giving comfort now. Harold wasn’t the one who had been stripped of all filters and control, kicked, spit on, lost all his borders and edges and defenses.
“I’m so sorry, John,” Harold whispered.
“Shit happens in the field, Harold. But I gotta say,” he wrapped an arm around Harold’s shoulders, “this is the first time any of my handlers has been this broken up over me getting captured.”
Harold stiffened under John’s arm and turned to face him, ruing the loss when John stepped back from Harold’s glare. “I don’t want to be your handler, John. I want to be your friend. Your partner in this job.” He swallowed down the urge to list all the things he wanted to be for John, with John.
John was smiling at him. He was consistently unimpressed by Harold’s glares. “I know. I want that, too. And we are partners, Harold. You’re stuck with me.”
He picked up Finch’s hand and touched the delicate bones of his wrist, stroked the lines of his palm. Finch stood very still, his heart lurching in his chest.
John spoke in starts and stops, uneven bursts of words. “I worry about you. I’m, uh, I’m afraid that I’m gonna hurt you one of these days. I don’t want to, but what if I can’t help it?”
Finch didn’t answer. He exhaled hard through his nose when John gathered up his other hand.
John firmed his jaw and continued staring at Harold’s smaller hands cradled between his own.
“You don’t trust a lot of people, and that’s good, that’s safe. But you trust me. You have this picture of me in your head as someone safe and…consistent, but I’m not,” John whispered, telling Harold these secrets. “I’m messy, and I don’t want to mess you up. You’re too important for that. You’re so important. You’re so good, Harold.”
Kissing John was as much of a revelation as Harold had expected it would be. He couldn’t stand it for another moment to not be kissing him, so he leaned up and in to press their mouths together. John met him halfway, gentling Harold’s desperate lunge into something graceful, as always.
Their hands were caught between them, John’s grip tightening to the point of pain before he released Harold’s wrists to tug Harold’s body against his broad chest.
Harold moaned a startled and pleased noise against John’s lips, and repeated it, louder, when he felt the touch of teeth to his bottom lip.
John pulled back for a sip of air and kissed Harold again, deeper and wetter. Stubble scratched Harold’s palms when he cupped John’s face, tilting it to an angle that didn’t strain Harold’s sore neck. John understood at once and cradled Harold’s skull in one large, warm hand, allowing Harold to relax further into their kiss.
They worked so well together, in this as in all other things.
Another strong hand stroked down Harold’s spine to rest at his lower back. Their hips nudged together and Harold moaned, too overwhelmed to censor himself. John bit Harold’s lower lip again, harder, and then licked into his mouth, and Harold grabbed John’s shoulders to stay upright.
Finally Harold was shaking too hard to kiss any longer. John held him in an embrace while Harold panted for breath and hid his face in the crook of John’s neck. The clock on the microwave over John’s shoulder told Harold that five minutes had passed, though it had felt three times longer than that.
John kissed the side of his head, and all remaining tension ran out of Harold like sand from an hourglass. “I like that shampoo, Finch,” he murmured.
“It’s from Italy. $10,000 a bottle, but it’s worth it.”
John leaned back and studied Harold’s face with narrowed eyes. “You’re shitting me.”
“Yes, I am. It’s Pert, actually, and the bodega near one of my safehouses--"
John kissed him again. It was the easiest thing in the world. It was gentle and quiet, and Harold would die before John was taken from him again.
“--was having a sale,” Harold finished when they broke apart. John beamed at him, always delighted whenever Harold joked with him.
A shockingly inefficient amount of time that day would be spent kissing on the couch.
Later that afternoon they will take Bear for a short walk, and John will link his arm with Harold’s. They will stop by a boutique and buy several scarves and hats for Joan and the others at the homeless encampment. Harold will insist on paying and John will kiss his cheek. They will bring home banh mi and spring rolls and fall asleep in front of the tv.
There will be no numbers from the Machine for a week, and everything, for that night at least, will be gentle, and soft, and quiet.