The potluck dinner on the deck of the new house Harold had procured in the suburbs had been Root's idea. "It's time we took a vacation," she'd announced upon her arrival in John's hospital room. "After everything we've been through, we could use a break."
"As long as there's food," Shaw had said, ripping open a second bag of potato chips.
"Of course there will be food. Plenty of food. We'll have a potluck. Everyone has to bring something."
It turned into a rather large affair...
Zoe arrived shortly after Harold had instructed Lionel to put the potato salad in the refrigerator, to keep it away from the glare of the hot summer sun until they were ready for it.
"Hey, I need some help. My back seat is full of alcohol."
"I'm on it," Lionel said with a grin.
When Lee asked if he could help, Lionel shooed him off to join Taylor having a romp with Bear in the backyard.
Harold met John at the grill, a glass of water in one hand and a pill bottle in the other. "No arguments," he said. "Or I'll have Detective Fusco take over grill duty."
"Yes, dear." John took the offered pain medication and swallowed it down with the water.
Harold's hand came to rest on his opposite hip. "I'm so glad to have you home."
"Mmmm, me too."
"Are you all right out here or shall I have the detective bring out one of the kitchen stools for you?"
John thought about his injuries for a moment. His abdomen still hurt. Would hurt for awhile yet. His back too for that matter. Hell, his entire torso. It was a miracle he was standing without more pain as it was.
"I'll take the stool whenever he's free." Not only would his torso be happy if he accepted it, Harold would be happy, and today of all days he did not want to upset his partner.
Harold gave him a kiss on the cheek and disappeared back inside with his empty water glass.
"Okay, where do you want this?" Joss asked, returning from her car with several grocery bags worth of corn on the cob.
John instructed her to leave it on the nearby table. He couldn't wait to grill it, unable to remember the last time he'd had corn on the cob. Just the thought of it made his mouth water.
Taylor and Lee ran across the grass yelling Shaw's name and John turned to see her bringing multiple large bags around the side of the house. She began setting out bags of chips, candy, and store bought cupcakes at the other end of the table, as the boys fell on the feast.
Lionel arrived beside John with a tall kitchen stool. "Harold said you wanted this."
"Cake's done," Root said from the sliding glass door leading into the kitchen.
"Cake?" Lionel asked.
"In case you couldn't tell from the frosting covering her face," John dead panned.
Root glared at him.
"What? It's not my fault you've got chocolate on your nose. I certainly didn't put it there."
"You made a chocolate cake?" Lionel asked again. "Is it edible? Do I dare eat it? I'm not sure I trust you in the kitchen."
Root laughed at him, punched him in the arm, and went to find Shaw.
"A great bunch of friends you've got here." Lionel rubbed at his arm.
"Yeah, I can't say I picked any of them. Not really. Except maybe Shaw, though she did try to kill me once. Or twice."
"Shaw's a good person." Lionel stared into the middle distance, lost in his thoughts, and John went back to turning the hot dogs on the grill.
"You look right at home," Zoe commented on her approach, two beers in hand.
John nodded. He felt at home. Of course, it had probably helped that during his hospital stay Harold had sat beside him plotting and planning the purchase and minor renovations on the home. They'd made every decision together. Harold had even gone so far as to give John a virtual tour while he was on the property with the real estate agent. Not only that, both their names were on the deed. Co-owning a house with Harold felt domestic and permanent in a way almost nothing else ever had.
He smiled at Zoe and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand.
"Are you allowed one of these?" She held up one of the sweating bottles.
"I can do one, sure."
She handed it over and he took a swig, the cool liquid gliding down his parched throat.
"No, thanks for what you did for us. I know Joss threw you for a loop when she called you last minute."
"I'm just glad I could help out in a moment of crisis."
"Crisis is an understatement. Harold almost..."
"Yeah, well, he didn't. And you can bet he said the same thing about you. But you're both still here and the bad guys are gone, so it's all good."
John took a deep breath and let it out. "Yeah, it's all good."
"Hey, you," Joss came over, picking up her own bottle of beer from the cooler.
"Hey," John and Zoe both said.
"You look good dressed down," Joss commented.
John grinned. "I didn't think a suit was right for the occasion."
"It would be a real crime if you got ketchup on one of your suits."
"Not like I haven't done worse."
"Point. But no, you look more relaxed than I remember ever seeing you. Happy. You look happy."
Zoe was nodding. "He does, doesn't he?"
Bear had worn out the boys, playing in the yard for a good portion of the afternoon while the adults spent their time on the deck, chatting, or cooking, some of them playing card games abandoned by Taylor and Lee.
Once, John had caught Harold's eye while his partner had been having a conversation with Zoe on the other side of the deck and his heart warmed for a moment. They smiled at each other across the distance.
"Make sure you don't burn my steak!" Shaw's voice brought him back to the present and he made sure not to burn her steak.
Now the sun was almost gone and John had gotten the fire bowl started. Just beyond the deck, the fireflies had come out of their hiding places, blinking on and off in the growing darkness.
"That's us," Root said, gesturing toward them. "Samaritan's gone. So we've turned ourselves off for awhile. But the moment trouble pops up again, we'll be there, lighting up the night, won't we Harold?"
Harold was just coming back out through the sliding glass doors with a steaming mug in his hand. "Of course we will."
But John could see Harold's exhaustion through the joy on his face. Fighting Samaritan, ensuring they lost no one, for as long as they had, had taken it's toll on all of them, most especially on Harold. John held out an arm in welcome and Harold came to him, heavily favoring his bad hip. He sat close beside John, leaning into his embrace. It had been too long. John had only just gotten out of the hospital that morning. He'd missed the feeling of holding Harold in his arms.
There were things he needed to tell Harold, important things he should have said a long time ago, things he couldn't say in front of their friends. He would tell him later, once everyone had gone home for the night. For now, he settled on a brief kiss just behind Harold's ear, to say what he couldn't out loud.
"How's your hip," he asked. "Are you ready to turn in yet?"
The two boys were already fast asleep on one of the other benches surrounding the deck, Bear snuggled between them.
"I'll be fine for awhile yet," Harold murmured to him. "How are you holding up?"
"You're cold. If you won't have any of my tea, we should get you to bed soon. You still need your rest."
"Yes, doctor," John teased, though heading to bed was starting to sound like a good idea. The afternoon and evening spent with friends had been good, but exhaustion was creeping in.
When he tuned back into the general conversation, John realized everyone had gone silent and was staring at them. He froze. They'd both relaxed a lot in the few weeks since the death of Samaritan. Harold had talked about visiting the library, for heaven's sake. John should have known better. Samaritan might be gone, but her agents might not be.
Harold's hand gently slid over his, in a quiet plea to loosen his tightening grip.
"I'm sorry, I-"
"It's okay, John. We're okay. I think-I think it's time."
In front of them, Root's mouth hung open and Lionel's eyes were wide. Joss had a small smile on her face and Zoe was smirking like she'd known all along.
"Time for what?" Shaw asked with a straight face.
"How long?" Root shook herself free of her slack jaw, but she still seemed in shock or maybe she was just devastated. She had been flirting with Harold on and off for years now. Maybe she'd always thought he was attainable. If she had, then they'd done a good job of hiding the truth.
"It was safer if none of you knew," Harold was saying as he sipped his tea. "We didn't want them knowing."
Shaw nodded, even as she reached for the last bag of chips. "They could have used you against each other." She crunched down. "No way we would have won that battle."
"And now that it's over?" Joss asked.
Harold glanced up at John, his eyes big behind his glasses, questioning.
"You're not thinking of retiring, are you?" Zoe swallowed the last of her wine.
"Maybe," John finally spoke up.
This time Shaw's expression did change to one of surprise. "You? Retire?"
Harold smiled. "Why do you think we bought this house? It's nice and peaceful out here, away from the city."
And private, not a neighbor in sight with the privacy fence as high as it was. Never mind that the pool, when they got it filled, would be great for Harold's injuries.
"Despite the weapons cache John plans to stock the basement with," Harold added and everyone laughed.
Shaw's eyes flashed. "I'm jealous."
John grinned in her direction. "It's temperature controlled. 6 gun cabinets, one for my knife collection, and two for everything else."
"And I'm sure you've got permits for all of those," Joss said.
Lionel gave a snort.
"Peace and us don't go together in the same sentence," Root commented.
"You don't think so?" Lionel asked. "This guy," he aimed his thumb at Harold. "Has always asked that no one get hurt."
"I just mean-"
"Harold could use some peace," John said.
"So could you," Harold admonished. "Stop cutting yourself out of the equation."
John rested his forehead against Harold's shoulder and closed his eyes. "Yes, Harold." The truth was, as long as he could spend it with Harold, he'd take all the peace in the world just then.
"My God," Root said. "You really are happy together."
The group burst into laughter again and Shaw hit her with a throw pillow.
When Harold had finished his tea, John made the announcement that their night was coming to a close. Harold was starting to fall asleep against his shoulder, and he knew he wouldn't be far behind him.
"Hey, you take care of each other, you hear me?" Joss asked, as she guided a sleepy Taylor toward her car.
"And keep in touch." Lionel was close behind with Lee. "You need anything, you call."
"Thank you, Detectives. We will," Harold called from the front porch.
"I'm glad it wasn't just me," Zoe said. "I thought you two were obvious from the very first time I met you, but I was starting to wonder if I was the only one who could see it."
"Maybe back then," John admitted. "But we caught on pretty quickly, I think."
"I should have seen it," Root admonished herself.
"Yeah, you should have," Shaw said. "These two have been extra comfortable around each other in a way no two straight guys ever are. I'm really surprised you didn't see it."
"So am I!"
Shaw sighed. "She'll calm down soon."
"I was really looking forward to a nice long vacation."Root pouted.
"You are on a nice long vacation. It's going to start at the motel up the street."
"You can't have everything you want, sweetheart."
"But at least I get you, right?"
"Do you see what I have to put up with?" Shaw asked.
John grinned at her. "I'm just glad she's your problem and not ours."
John wrapped his arms around Harold from behind as Harold shook his head. "I don't share. Sorry, Root."
She frowned at him and Shaw shoved her toward the last car in the driveway.
Bear joined the two men on the porch, sending a whimper after Shaw.
"John," Shaw turned. "I'm coming back for him."
"Oh, Ms. Shaw, I forgot to give this to you." Harold dug into his vest pocket and produced a business card.
She came back up to the porch and he handed it to her. "What's this?"
"There's a Belgian Malinois in the next town over that just had puppies a few weeks back. I took the liberty of procuring you an appointment tomorrow afternoon to go pick one out."
Shaw looked up at him and her eyes were impossibly large. "Are you sure I'm fit for a puppy?"
"Training it will be a lot of hard work, but I wouldn't have done it if I didn't think you could handle it."
John took a step away from Harold as Shaw hurried forward for a quick, one armed hug. "Thanks Harold," she whispered.
Then she was back down the drive, in the car, and she and Root were pulling away, tires nearly screeching on the pavement.
When it was blissfully quiet again John leaned back in and gave Harold a kiss on the cheek. "If you're ready for bed, I vote we clean up the mess tomorrow."
Harold turned and pecked him on the lips. "I am and I second that motion."
John rolled to face Harold in their new bed, taking him in his arms. "I love you." John brushed the back of his long fingers along Harold's cheek. "But I feel like one of these days I'm going to wake up and realize all of this was a drunken dream. Or I'll wake up to Kara still sleeping beside me." A shudder ran up his spine
"It's been five years, John." Harold cupped his face, running a thumb over his cheekbone.
"I know. Believing is hard, even when it's something good."
Bear jumped up onto the end of the bed and curled up at their feet.
"Do you remember the first time we ever slept together?"
"I'll never forget it," John murmured into the dark. "You were in shock from Root having kidnapped you, shivering and frightened, coming down off that drug she'd given you, and I couldn't get the damned heat to work in that motel room that night."
"I needed to know you were real." Harold wrapped an arm around him to pull him closer. "I hadn't wanted you to come for me, hadn't expected you would, and it didn't entirely feel real after everything I'd been through, when I saw you at the train station."
"Good things don't happen to people like us." It was what John had believed for most of his life, what Kara had cemented with a dead sort of passion, and what being homeless had hardened further. How could it all change so late in his life?
"No? What about taking down Samaritan and saving lives? What about us? If you're dreaming, then I must be sharing in that dream." Harold's voice softened, "what can I do to help you believe?"
John hid his face for a moment, bowing his head and closing his eyes before he looked up into Harold's earnest face. He swallowed the lump in his throat and said, "You could kiss me, for starters."
"With pleasure." Harold smiled and pressed his warm, soft lips to John's. "I love you too, by the way."