Clearing Things

(John arrives at the end of "Bad Code" to rescue Harold from Root, but they still have to make it home, and there are a few things they need to clear up...)

Harold was unsteady, and he was unsteady on his feet, but neither of those things mattered because it was impossible to fall down with John's steady hand under his arm. Harold allowed himself to be propelled out of the train station and into the waiting car because it seemed like the most sensible course of action at the time. The drug was wearing off, aided by the burst of adrenaline when he'd managed to surge out of the wheelchair. Not being shot had been a bonus, but an entirely unexpected one, so Harold's volition—both physical and mental—returned in fits and starts as they pulled out of the parking lot and into traffic.

John drove. He didn't chatter, didn't try to draw Harold out. The relief was almost painful. Finch was never short of information, but he was having some difficulty processing everything that had happened. He was grateful (if not content) to just sit with his own thoughts while the tires hummed over the road.

John had done a cursory inspection of his person in the train station when they both had assumed he'd been hit, and John had insisted on a more thorough inspection before he'd bundled Finch into the car, but he'd done it in the least intrusive, most detached was possible, sparing Harold further humiliation. John's eyes had raked over Harold's disheveled state, noting the bumps and bruises, the injection sites-even the faint traces of Alicia Corwin's blood that were not readily visible on the dark wool of his pinstripe suit. John saw them because he knew they were there, and he saw Harold exactly as he was—diminished, but not beaten. Harold was aware of John's assessment because John's body posture changed, relaxing into watchfulness without alarm. John had waited while Harold settled into the seat and fumbled his own seat belt, refusing to help because he knew how much Harold would hate it but making sure it was done without appearing to notice. They were both good at this part, the noticing without commenting. John had shut the door, walked around to the driver's side and gotten in. They were clearing the station just as the first responders and police began to fill the parking lot.

The day was bright with a hint of cloud cover, and the light flooding the car had the same effect as oxygen. Harold's chest unclenched and he began to breathe again; tension rolled off his frame like water and made him feel limp and boneless. This was a different sort of boneless from when he'd been drugged—it was his body surging back to life, not shutting down. It surprised Harold, who had long been prepared to die, how good it felt to be alive.

John drove for more than thirty minutes with his eyes fixed on the road, the other cars, the sky—anywhere but on Harold. This gift of privacy was very much appreciated it, but it was impossible to comment on it without embarrassing them both, so Harold said nothing, and John said nothing and the big tires just swallowed up the road. Finally, almost forty minutes into the trip, John glanced over at him for an instant.

"Alright, Finch?"

"Yes. I'm fine, Mr. Reese." He sounded stuffy and cool, but he didn't try to help it. He didn't have the energy, and John seemed to understand that. John watched the road and Harold watched the road and the miles disappeared with regularity.

When they had been on the road about an hour and 15 minutes, John took an exit. "We're going to stop here and fuel up. I'm starving," John said, so Harold didn't have to ask. They took the exit, scanning the horizon. Harold saw it first and pointed out the familiar sign and John steered the big car into the closest slot and turned off the engine. John turned and rummaged in a bag in the back seat for a minute or two while Harold struggled to get his arms and legs to move. John found whatever he'd been pretending to look for, then got out of the car and came around to haul Finch out of the car with that same impossibly strong hand under his arm. Finch gritted his teeth against the pain in his neck and John pretended not to notice, scanning the parking lot with that same eternal watchfulness he always had. They gained the sidewalk, John held the door open and suddenly, they were sitting in a padded booth with menus in their hands.

The thought of food made Finch's mouth water, but his stomach was roiling.

"Breakfast looks good," John said, as though this was just another breakfast meeting, just another work lunch where Finch might clandestinely slip him their newest number. Their newest number…! Finch started.

"The numbers—"

"Never stop coming, Finch," John said lightly. "Some idiot hacker—no offense—"

"None taken," Finch murmured.

"—tried to rip off a group of white supremacists." John looked at his menu and nodded when the waitress arrived to fill their coffee cups. Finch started to say something just as John did and John subsided at once.

"I'd prefer tea," Finch said. "Please."

"Regular or Earl Grey?" The waitress was cute, and aware of it, and had tilted her body to advantage for Reese's gaze. Reese noticed because he noticed everything, and she knew he noticed and her eyes brightened. Just because human interaction is difficult is no reason not to study it.

"Regular."

They ordered breakfast—John choosing the largest breakfast platter available and adding pancakes and Finch following suit because he knew that John was watching him and expecting him to eat. The waitress smiled and took their menus away.

"How did that go?" Finch asked when she was gone. "I'm guessing that's not a group you want to steal from."

"No—not a group you want to mess with," John agreed. "Lionel got a knot on his head the size of a goose egg—" Here, Finch looked up in alarm, but John waved him off. "He's fine. He's got a head like a rock. I got there in time to handle it."

"Thank goodness," Finch said quietly, and there was a lot of silence that filled up the space between them.

The waitress arrived with a little metal pot of steaming water and a saucer with a teabag and a lemon wedge on it, set it down, smiled rather pointedly at John and left again. Finch started to reach for the tea bag but saw John do the same and stopped. John had pulled something out of his jacket pocket, and he dropped it on the saucer. Finch looked at it for a long moment, then picked it up and put it in his mug.

"I take it you raided my stash," Finch said dryly.

"Well, you didn't pack an overnight so I figured you didn't bring any."

Harold reached for the metal pot and poured steaming water over the sencha green teabag John had provided. He added one sugar and stirred it carefully, then put it to his lips even though it was still too hot to drink. One sip, hot in his mouth, the cup steaming in his hand, and another steel band around Finch's lungs seemed to loosen. John reached out and put a little bottle of extra-strength Tylenol on the table.

"That's the best I could do," he said, his mouth twisting. "I didn't know where you keep your real stash."

"I—thank you," Finch said carefully. There was no need to pretend he wasn't in pain. This would barely scratch the surface, but it was better than nothing. He palmed as many pills as he thought he could tolerate and held them lightly in his hand. He saw John looking at the bandaged hand but refusing to ask, making it Finch's decision about whether or not to acknowledge the unspoken question. Restraint worked where coercion would not have, and Finch began to explain.

"She—it's just a cut. Mostly superficial. It's fine." He had promised never to lie and the effort of keeping that promise plucked at him.

Reese's eyes widened for a picosecond. It was almost too subtle to catch, but Finch was watching for it, trying to gauge how much he had to say.

"Stitches?" Reese said. His voice was neutral—the same voice used to discuss the weather or the kitschy décor of the restaurant, but Finch could tell the words were forced out between clenched teeth.

Harold looked away. "No. It wasn't deep. It was…just a distraction."

If he had been looking, he was have seen the flicker of something truly dangerous in Reese's eyes, but he wasn't, so the moment passed. Reese drank his coffee in coiled silence but managed to smile at the waitress when she came to refill it. Finch drank his tea, then used the balance of the hot water to stew the other teabag. Not his favorite, but the tea had loosened his appetite. He sipped greedily.

When the waitress arrived with their food, he motioned for another and saw a fleeting smile pass over John's face. It disconcerted him and made him self-conscious again, so he attacked the food with more interest that he might otherwise have shown. Harold eyed the food like a strategist and then cut a neat third off his stack of pancakes and cut that into tidy sections before pouring blueberry syrup over it. He downed the pills after a few bites of pancake, then tried the eggs. Nothing to write home about, but adequately prepared. His appetite came to life and he surprised himself by eating most everything he had ordered. John cleaned up the last of Finch's sourdough toast and the waitress poured John more coffee. Harold surprised himself and John by ordering a cup. Coffee was good for your digestion. He admitted to himself that he was beginning to feel the effects of his long ordeal but was unwilling to surrender just yet.

They drank their coffee in quiet. They were both good at quiet, through inclination and necessity and long practice, and Harold imagined he could feel the caffeine flooding his veins like a drug, waking him to half-life. John seemed more-than-usually attached to his own mug of coffee, and Finch noted the lines of fatigue and strain. How much had John slept while he'd been gone? If he'd had to guess—and he knew he'd have to guess—Finch would estimate that he and John had averaged zero hours of sleep between them.

The coffee was gone faster than expected. John smiled and asked for a to-go cup. The waitress hesitated, then smiled and nodded. John handed over on of John Rooney's credit cards absently, smiling, and she took it and practically bounced away.

If this had been a regular outing, an everyday the-numbers-never-stop-coming outing, Finch would have probably said something acerbic about the special treatment John was receiving—like he usually did. He thought tiredly about trying to dredge up a comment but really didn't have the energy for it and knew he didn't have to pretend to be amused when he was really just exhausted and spent. When the waitress returned with a carry-out soup container full of coffee, John rewarded her with a big smile and a huge tip. He tucked the receipt with her phone number on it into his pocket as he stood up, stretched unobtrusively and, without asking permission, put his hand under Harold's shoulder and helped him stand. As soon as Harold could pass for steady on his feet, John walked ahead with the waitress, flirting casually. It gave Harold time to stand, demand his joints and muscles obey him and make his way to the front of the restaurant.

Instead of holding the outer door, John gestured down the short hallway off the front lobby. "You go ahead," John said, and walked back to the front counter to buy gum or mints or something. Harold walked stiffly but independently to the restroom, went inside and locked the door.

It was the first time he'd been truly alone in almost two days, and he staggered against the wall for a second, taking deep breaths. He took care of the necessary, then turned and examined his face in the mirror. Dismal fluorescent light or no, he looked terrible—pale and disheveled and needing a shave. His suit had borne up better than it might have, but his shirt clung to him without shame, all of its crispness evaporated. His tie was slightly crooked and he straightened it, then adjusted his pocket square. Touching the silk, he had a sudden inspiration and, in less than a moment, was holding the fabric under the hot water with his unbandaged hand. He squeezed it out carefully and wiped his face. It was amazing how good it felt. He loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button, then the top two buttons of his shirt, then ran the makeshift washcloth around his neck, up the back of his neck, across his hair. He took his glasses off and laid them carefully on the sink, then rubbed vigorously behind his ears and across his scruffy neck. It was as satisfying as the coffee. Finch put his glasses back on his nose, adjusted his shirt and tie and tucked the damp pocket square into his unbandaged hand. He looked himself in the eye. Diminished, but not beaten. Harold's jaw firmed and he took another deep breath, imposing calm like martial law. He turned, unlocked the door, and made his way out.

John was quicker than he had been and they were soon back in the car. Without accounting for traffic, and accounting for the way John usually drove, they would be back in the city in just over two hours. Harold sat as comfortably as he could, refusing to recline. John refused to make him. Once again, John's refusal to demand anything of him made it okay for him to choose what he should. He settled back gingerly, loosened his tie a fraction, and allowed himself to relax.

John looked over as though surprised. "If you're gonna doze, okay if I play the radio?"

"No Journey," Finch murmured, and closed his eyes.

Traffic was normal, which is to say, terrible, but nightfall was just making introductions when they crossed the Veterans Memorial Bridge into New Jersey. Sleep had been impossible, but Harold had rested, helped along by the surfeit of food and the Tylenol. John acted as though Harold were asleep, even though he knew he wasn't, muttering at other drivers and occasionally singing along with the radio. John's voice was raspy and not completely untuneful. Harold drifted, dreaming up comments he might make if he were awake, but in the end he refused to be baited. They were good at this, too—pretending to annoy each other or be annoyed by each other. It covered up some of the rough edges when the impossibility of what they were doing made itself felt. They were standing on the shore holding back an impossible tide, catching the sky as it promised to fall. It was a suicide mission from the start—no sane person would have even attempted it, and yet….

And yet…they were holding back the tide—not all of it and not all the time, but the world had not been engulfed yet. At least, not all the worlds had been engulfed yet—their world had not been engulfed yet. Harold took a sharp breath and the pain in his neck ripped down his spine, making him gasp and sit up. John's knuckles clenched on the wheel but the car did not swerve and time did not stop their world did not blow up.

"We'll be in Jersey in a bit," Reese said, as though he'd asked. Harold didn't—couldn't nod with this pain, but he made a soft sound of acquiescence to indicate he'd heard. "Lincoln Tunnel seem like the best option?"

He was asking something else, and they both knew it, but they were pretending again and Harold took some time with his answer.

"Yes," he said. "The Lincoln Tunnel works fine."

The half-sleep had helped, but he had also stiffened up, so it came out about even. Finch maneuvered into a better position and they both looked out the front windshield at the growing gloom. The city lights were all they ever were, even in Jersey, and there was no need to mourn them in the dimness of the tunnel because, when they emerged, they would be in the city itself. They would be home.

John drove. He didn't ask for directions. He steered them toward the Library. He knew that Harold would want to go back, to touch base, to reassert normal. After that, they would just have to see.

It was dark but the city never really sleeps. There are always people about, strolling or walking fast or waiting for a taxi or a ride. Harold felt the fine hairs on the back of his neck stand up like they had when he'd washed up, but John walked beside him, exactly at his pace, watching everything and everyone like a silent sentinel. They slipped under the construction awning and gained the doorway to the Library. John used his key and gave Finch a look.

"I can change the locks tomorrow," John said.

"We can change them in a minute," Finch said.

Of course Finch could change the locks on a moment's notice. John had no idea why he was surprised at anything anymore.

"Good idea."

Their arrival had not gone unnoticed. There is a quality to abandoned places and empty ones, but the Library did not feel abandoned. The big Belgian Malinois eyed them alertly as they came into the room. The room felt alive with the dog in it.

"Harold, meet Bear." Harold regarded the dog with interest, which sharpened when he saw what he had in his mouth and quickly turned to dismay. "Unfortunately, my apartment has a strict policy regarding dogs," John said hastily, hoping to ward off Finch's alarm about the book. To his surprise and relief, Harold seemed resigned to what had happened.

"I have a strict policy regarding rare first editions. Namely, don't eat them," Finch said, but there was no real heat in the rebuke.

"Bear, laat vallen." Bear dropped the book at once and smile at them, eager to please. Finch knelt down to retrieve the ravaged tome, his stiffness forgotten in his concern for the book. The bandage on his hand made his hand fat and unwieldy but they both pretended not to notice.

"Asimov," Finch murmured. "He's has expensive tastes. I'm sure we'll get along." Under normal circumstances, Harold might have objected to having a dog—especially a large dog with a taste for literature—in the Library, but John had brought the dog and John clearly wanted the dog. Right now, anything that John wanted was fine. Anything that made the Library feel this alive was more than fine.

John started forward into the room, past him, and Finch found his voice at last. "Mr. Reese."

John turned. Earlier it had been easier not to make eye contact, but this time Finch wanted to see, wanted to make sure his message was plain. "I owe you a debt," Harold said quietly. Some debts were burdensome. This one didn't feel that way, and saying it out loud made Finch feel lighter, not heavier.

John said nothing, but his eyes met Harold's levelly. He did not make light of Harold's statement—did not attempt to diminish it in any way—but his look said, plainly, that they were even. Something had leveled the ground between them, making it easier to traverse. In the days to come, Finch would hear from Detectives Carter and Fusco both how his absence had affected John, but in the moment he was simply aware that John was accepting his statement-and refusing to acknowledge that Harold owed him anything.

John might have said something then—Finch was sure he was about to say something but his phone rang. John took it out of his pocket, his expression making his thoughts obvious. Finch is here, I've already called Carter and Fusco…. Who would be calling me now? John opened the little phone and held it to his ear.

The voice on the other end of the phone sent chills up Harold's spine. "Is this a bad time, John?" John's eyes widened in in sudden surprise and anger, and Harold found himself taking an involuntary step backward. His heart rate climbed and he began to shake.

"I wanted to thank you, for finding my friend Hanna…giving her a proper burial. I won't forget it." Root's voice was sweet, intimate, and John's hand tightened on the phone convulsively. John turned away, putting himself between Harold and the voice on the phone. His response was almost a growl, his voice pinched with fury.

"Come near us again, and you will be sorry," John gritted.

Us. Finch heard it, and something shifted, some invisible barrier crumbled. He might be a wanted man, hunted and in danger—but he was not alone anymore. He did not have to hold back the tide alone. He had done his best to keep everyone out—to keep John out—to minimize the threat he was to others, but he had been outfoxed, thwarted, betrayed—and saved. The Machine had opened the door and John had walked—no, barged—through it. For the first time since Nathan died, Finch had someone on his side. The last of the steel bands around his chest burst free. He got his shaking under control and squared his shoulders.

"I don't think so," Root said. They could hear her smile. "Tell Harold I'll be in touch when I'm ready." The threat hung there in the air.

The phone call ended and John's hand fell to his side. The temperature in the room seemed to have dropped 20 degrees. John turned and looked at Harold, struggling to control his expression, but Finch had managed to eliminate almost all expression from his face. He moved to cover his unsteadiness, worked to control his breathing. They were both thinking the same thing: had Root seen them arrive? Had she waited until they were in this safe place to call, to unsettle their sense of security?

Reason reasserted itself after a moment. "Locks," Harold said simply. John nodded and they moved.

He followed Finch into the historical reference section. While John watched, Finch removed a weathered hardbound book entitled "Two Treatises of Government" and opened it, revealing a cubbyhole with various padlocks and combination locks new in the packages. Finch selected what they needed and put the book back where it had been. John read the author's name and smiled.

"Nicely done, Finch," John murmured, and although Finch didn't outwardly react, John felt his fleeting pleasure in the joke.

"In this modern world, I frequently feel that people don't give historical documents enough attention," Finch murmured. As always, Finch's love of books was juxtaposed with his fluency with modern technology—a symphony of contradictions.

He twisted to look up at John. Some of his stiffness had loosened, whether by activity or the sudden jolt of adrenaline Root's call had produced.

"Autobiographies," he said. "But in the children's section."

John followed him down the dim path until they arrived at the children's section of the library. The bright colors were muted in the glow of the ambient light. Finch leaned over, squinting a little to inspect titles, then pulled out a book titled, "The Fastest Man Alive." Underneath the book was an open space. Finch knelt and reached into the narrow opening. John heard a sharp "click" of sound. The shelf—and the books permanently attached to it—swung open to reveal a cubbyhole beneath. In the cubby were a selection of deadbolts and mortise locks, new in their plastic packaging. Finch looked through them and selected one, then held it up for John's inspection.

"That works," John said.

On a good pain day, Harold could probably have made it back to his feet on his own. This wasn't one of those days. John reached past the proffered lock assembly to put his hand under Finch's elbow. Finch's face blanched with pain but he gained his feet.

Armed with new hardware, they retraced their steps and headed for the familiar entrance to the inner sanctum, working in reverse order. They switched the locks there with dispatch, a relatively simple process. John pocketed the old lock absently; he could always use another padlock at the apartment.

They went to the outer door. Finch had picked up a screwdriver along the way and went to work on the big bolts holding the locking mechanism to the doorframe. After a moment, John reached over and took over for him, not making a big deal about it. Time was of the essence, and John was stronger and faster. It wasn't difficult, but it wasn't a quick job. The adrenaline had long worn off before they were gathering up the bits and pieces and adding the new keys to their key fobs, Finch's stylish and John's utilitarian—one step up from a paper clip.

Their walk back to their central workspace was more of a trudge, but with the expended effort came a level of calm.

Wherever Root was, she wasn't here. John was here, and they had changed the locks and were as safe as they could get for the moment. Finch was no stranger to threat, no stranger to fear, but Root's call had been visceral and came at him with an almost physical punch. He didn't go to his desk, didn't go to his computer. The computer was—somehow—a connection to Root and to his recent experience with her. He didn't think he could bear to sit down, bear to be still, so he busied himself about the room until he felt less shaky. One glance at the board was enough and his eyes avoided it after that. Finch turned at last and looked at John, a pale imitation of the unflappable Finch who had hired John, but a brave one—and a determined one.

"I don't think there's anything else we can do tonight," Finch said quickly. He could here the higher pitch of his voice and he was speaking very rapidly, but they both acted like everything was normal—at least, normal enough.

"No new numbers," Reese agreed. It gave him something to say. They both nodded.

Harold opened his mouth, but John got there first.

"C'mon, Finch," John said. "I'll drive you home." He turned and walked away so neither of them would know how Finch might have responded.

Finch hesitated for a moment, a second, a breath, then followed John out the way they'd come in.

The car was not far, and John walked at his shoulder the entire time, scanning restlessly, but fruitlessly for threats. Non appeared, and they were soon back on the road. John had a general direction, but he was counting on Harold to jump in when it became necessary. Reese hoped it was going to become necessary, because he didn't relish a showdown after the last 48 hours they'd both had. He would muster if he had to—was prepared to muster if he had to—but he hoped he wouldn't have to. It was all up to Harold, as things usually were, as things should be.

"Turn left here," Harold said. His voice was quiet but not tentative. It was the same steady voice that John usually heard in his ear, but this time Harold was with him, was telling him in person. Smoothly, John got into the left-turn lane and turned with the light came on. They drove in silence. John tried mightily to stifle a yawn but couldn't. They both pretended it hadn't happened.

"The next right." John took the next right, skyscrapers flashing by. The traffic never stops. The numbers never stop.

"Take the next left and get into the furthermost left-turn lane."

"Sure," John said, and followed suit. The big car was mostly silent, its tires hissing faintly on the pavement. There had evidently been some rain earlier, and the street gleamed with reflected light.

Turn by turn, John drove as Harold directed. The air in the car felt thicker than before, and it wasn't the rain. Things were coming to a close. Things were going to close—or they were going to open up. Hard to say. John held his breath and waited and tried not to look like he was holding his breath or waiting, following Harold's quiet commands until they stopped, at last, in front of a well-kept townhouse. Harold didn't speak. He pointed instead, and John pulled up to the curb.

This could have been any one of their safehouses. If might have been one of their safehouses, but it wasn't. John sat, hands on the wheel. Harold sat, quiet and pensive. It was a waiting game. Of all the things that they were good at, this was what they were best at. They waited. John waited, wondering if he should wait for Harold or if Harold was waiting for him. The thought that Harold might be waiting decided him.

"I'm going to clear the place before you go in." It wasn't a question. John steeled himself for Finch's response, rallying the last of his resources to plant himself and insist, and then Harold said, "Okay."

John got out of the car, trying to let out his held breath and gather hold of enough oxygen without being obvious, but was certain he failed miserably and couldn't care about it. He walked around to the passenger side of the car and waited. Harold opened the door and unclasped the seat belt and turned. John reached down and hauled him up as gently as he could, that hand still steady under Finch's arm.

They walked to the door. Finch got out a key on a chain from a jacket pocket. Everything on him had been examined but not everything had been taken. He put the key in the lock and the door opened silently. Harold leaned in and touched the keypad swiftly, fingers tapping from muscle memory, then John stepped in front of Harold, sweeping him back into the shadows, and drew his gun. He went in silently, clearing each room as he came, until at last he returned for the final time that he would put his hand under Finch's arm and guide him through the door.

John stopped just inside.

"Everything's clear," John said. "I cleared the whole place."

"Thank you." Harold voice was almost a whisper.

"I'll wait while you change the codes," John said.

"Already done." Neither of them pointed out the uselessness of codes when it came to Root.

"You'll be all right." John refused to make it a question. Harold refused to consider it a question.

"Yes. I'll be fine." Harold's voice had steadied. He had steadied. The pressure had equalized somehow now. It was easier to stand up against threats from the outside now that Mr. Reese was on the inside.

He heard John smile. "Nice place, Finch."

They stood there in the quiet, in the lamplight of the lobby, with a million things to say and no one to hear them but The Machine. Finch turned to say, "Thank you," but John was already gone.