sideways: [o] flowers on a window sill (►other upper echelon)
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Title: When the Bough Breaks
Rating: G
Series: Person Of Interest - Foster AU (Harold Finch, Nathan Ingram, the Machine)
Wordcount: 2594
Summary: When a college-aged Harold decides to take responsibility for the consequences of youthful indiscretion, he knows it's going to be a challenge - single parenthood usually is. Fortunately, Nathan takes his role as auxiliary support seriously.
Remarks: I wasn't even done with watching POI before I was commenting to the enabling wretch who got me into it that this show was begging for a foster home AU - aka my most favourite kind of AU, as you can possibly guess. So naturally the first thing I manage to write on the subject is a oneshot set 30 odd years before any foster-homing takes place. I suppose there's merit in starting from the top. (Why Aurora? Because Northern Lights.)

It is perhaps one of the most poignant signs of the change that Nathan raps his knuckles in a quick, light pattern against the door instead of pounding against it and shouting some good-natured threat through the wood. He can’t hear anything from within, however, and if Harold has finally gotten the baby settled then he’s not going to be the monster who upends that fragile peace all over again.

The door two down opens first, and Nathan turns to tip a friendly wink to the neighbour who emerges, hoping to look like your standard visitor and not someone who has just sprinted up five flights of stairs rather than wait for the creaky elevator. The suspicious squint he receives does not suggest he's very successful, but in that moment the door at his side opens and he swings back around to meet wide blue eyes.

“Nathan?” Harold says with such a profound mix of bewilderment and relief that Nathan feels less like a friend showing up by request and more like he might have been delivered directly to the doorstep in a chorus of trumpets and song.

“As promised,” he says, and crouches a little to flash his most charming smile. “And hello to you too, beautiful.”

Aurora Finch is quiescent in her father’s arms, but there are clear signs this is a recent development. She regards him solemnly with puffy red eyes and round face still slicked wet, and then abruptly breaks into a crinkly, gaping smile that shows off the gleam of white newly poking through her bottom gum.

Nathan grins back and tilts his head to share it with Harold – only to be pulled short and cold by the look of wretched despair etched deep into his friend’s face.

“Oh Nathan,” he says. “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”

He staggers away from the door before Nathan can do more than blink. The door is left swinging open, however, which seems to be as good an invitation as he’s getting; Nathan closes it gently behind him as he crosses the threshold.

The tiny apartment is a mess, though Nathan’s not in a position to judge and he doesn’t have the excuse of all the detritus babies seem to bring with them. He has to step over a familiar plastic caterpillar almost immediately, lying belly-up on the ground in wait of unwary intruders. A quick glance shows the pile of dirty dishes and bottles by the sink is starting to look precarious; the single overstuffed armchair has a grubby towel draped over one arm and seems to have acquired a few more direct stains as well. The table is perhaps the most symbolic of the two lives duelling for space: Harold’s computer crammed at one end with a padded change-mat taking up the remaining space. Nathan hopes it’s just a temporary placement. It’s a little too easy to picture the man trying to change a diaper with one hand while typing code with the other.

Harold’s standing motionless in the middle of the room when he joins them, and jumps slightly when Nathan touches his shoulder, as if he’s already forgotten there is someone else in his home. He doesn’t resist when Nathan eases the baby out of his arms; she scrunches her face up alarmingly during the transition, but is quickly pacified by the discovery of Nathan’s apparently very chewable shirt collar.

“That can’t taste as good as you think,” he tells her, and she gazes up at him with those eerily familiar eyes. They call them baby blues for a reason, but somehow Nathan suspects they won’t be changing too much as she grows.

Normally, Harold would be rearranging things, making space to sit and talk, offering a drink. Now, he drifts sideways to pick a cup off the table, stares at it with a blank lack of recognition, and then places it back slightly to the left of where it was.

“So,” Nathan says, trying to sound encouraging and not at all amused in the face of his friend’s obvious suffering. “I gather things have been a bit hectic.”

Harold blinks at him, owlish and somehow still disbelieving. “You came.”

“Of course I came.” It’s a waste of good feeling to be offended by the doubt. Harold seems to be under the impression he hallucinated the entire phone call. “That would be the intention behind saying ‘call me whenever you need a hand’.”

“She stopped crying.”

“I noticed.”

“It won’t last, though. It never lasts. She just won’t settle for more than an hour or two at a time.”

“She’s teething, Harold.” Nathan gently flips a lip down to re-examine the tiny ridges of teeth, the redness of the surrounding gums. Watches tiny fingers grab at the intruding digit in indignant protest as a tiny foot kicks at him. “And it wasn’t that long ago that you were doing the same, if I recall. Ruined a good pen and a better shirt. Surely you can have a little sympathy.”

For a second he thinks Harold might snap at him for the subtle reprimand, but his friend surprises him with a crooked smile, eyes glinting behind his spectacles with the first hint of real life Nathan’s seen so far. “More than you think. Apparently fussiness is in the genes.” The smile fades again, gaze going distant. “She’s not interested in birds, though. She likes…crowds. Public places.”

“A people-watcher, eh?” Are you sure she’s yours? would be the obvious joke to follow, but Nathan learned early on that such implications fall spectacularly flat with this audience. Instead he says, “Well, that’s not so bad. It’s a lot easier to find flocks of humans in the middle of Massachusetts.”

If the joke would have fallen flat, his optimism lands like an anvil; the last traces of the smile vanish completely, replaced by a pinched unhappiness. In the grey light from the window, Harold looks even wearier than he had at the door. No, not weary, Nathan thinks, conjuring some sympathy of his own – exhausted, plain and simple. The shirt he’s wearing is as rumpled as his apartment, and there’s a sunken look to his eyes.

That doesn’t prevent a certain wariness from sparking when Harold slides his gaze away and down, tucking his chin closer to his chest. It’s a posture he knows all too well.

“Nathan,” he says quietly. “I made a mistake. This isn’t working.”

Nathan eyes him. Tries not to come across judgemental when he says, “You knew it was going to be hard.”

“It’s not that it’s hard, it’s that it’s not working.” Harold suddenly shoves away from the table, a surge of energy recognisable as the worst kind of second wind. “If you’re not aware, I haven’t slept the night through in weeks. I’m missing classes, barely staying on top of my coursework – I’m not even halfway done with this week’s assessment and I haven’t had a moment to work on it today, I have no time in general, I have no money, I have no space in my own life…”

Instinct or experience is keeping his voice to a fierce undertone rather than a shout, but Nathan glances down quickly to check Aurora is still peaceably gnawing at his clothes. “You’re hardly failing-”

“Aren’t I?” Harold sounds so hopeless that Nathan looks up again, startled. “If I’m not letting things slide there, they’re sliding here. It feels like I never leave home anymore, but that can’t be true because at the same time I never seem to be home enough. She spends half her time with a complete stranger.” He rubs at his face, bumping his glasses up. “I have no idea what I’m doing. I honestly don't.”

“All new parents feel that way.”

“And some new parents are right.” Harold walks to the armchair like an old man, shoulders hunched – perhaps in defensive reflex against Nathan’s narrowing gaze. He slumps into it without a shred of grace, barely seeming to notice his arm landing in whatever the dark patch across the towel is. “I can’t give my all to my studies, and I can’t give my all to- to being a father. If that’s the case, then am I really doing the right thing by either of us?”

This is the kernel of concern Nathan has been nursing since the call, since hearing the tight edge of frustration running through Harold’s voice as the baby screams ceaselessly in the background; the concern that brought him at a run instead of something more measured. No child should be regarded with bitterness by their parent. Nathan knows, all too well, that it happens anyway.

“What’s your better path, then?” he asks, sharper than he means to be, his grip tightening on the warm body in his arms.

Harold still won’t look at him directly. “The options haven’t changed. Just the weighting.”

“Just the weighting.” Nathan draws in a slow breath through his nose. “That’s it, then? You’d give her up? After all the reasons you laid out why you couldn’t – why you shouldn’t – do that to begin with?”

“Don’t make it sound like I want it to happen,” Harold says, and now there is snapping, the angle of a glare. “That’s not fair, Nathan. You’re still out at parties, getting blind drunk every other weekend, you have no idea what this takes-”

“I’m here, aren’t I?” he says, struggling to keep it nothing more than a growl.

“But it’s not about a few hours here and there, it’s about my entire life. More to the point, it's about her entire life.” Harold’s face abruptly crumples, the stiffness of his anger giving way to the raw anxiety beneath it. “Nathan, do you truly understand what’s at stake? The amount of development that happens in a child’s first year, the foundational parts of her that are being shaped by everything said and done in these very months? She’s growing and learning, every single day, every single minute, and good intentions aren’t enough. A moment’s carelessness could leave her with scars that last a lifetime! She, all children, deserve the best chance at life, the best chance at happiness and health, and I don’t think I’m- I don’t...I don't think I can...” His voice wavers, and Nathan watches silently as Harold squeezes his eyes shut, folds forward, elbows on his knees, pushing his hands up underneath his glasses to bury his face in them.

His own anger ebbs away as quickly as it has crested, leaving a sort of exasperated fondness in its wake. For this man, the one behind the reclusiveness and the rationalisations; for his best, brilliant, deeply stupid friend. “Now that’s strange, because she looks perfectly happy and healthy to me.”

“I’ll ruin her,” comes the response, muffled and wretched.

Right, Nathan thinks, and hefts Aurora a little higher on his hip. “Harold,” he says, “you’re catastrophising. That’s what happens when you don’t sleep for 72 hours and then attempt to consider your place in the universe.” The fingers shift enough for a single, baleful blue eye to stare out, but he doesn’t give his friend a chance to interrupt. “So here’s what we’re going to do instead. Aurora and I are going to spend a lovely evening together raiding your refrigerator and discussing who her favourite uncle is. You, my friend, are going straight to bed before you end up deciding you’re also responsible for the fate of hostages in Iran or something equally preposterous.”

There is a gut-deep groan; Harold rocks back in his seat, one hand still clasped over his eyes. “Nathan- I can’t, you know I can’t, the deadline tomorrow-”

“Is still hours away,” he says firmly. “Which gives you plenty of time to recover some semblance of sanity before waltzing through whatever’s left of your project.” The body draped across the chair doesn’t move, just looses a shuddery exhale. Nathan drops his tone to something more cajoling. “Come on, Harold. Worst case scenario, you hand in something that’s merely competent instead of exceptional and make Arthur’s day by settling for second place for once in your life.”

“No,” Harold says, sounding petulant now, and Nathan knows it’s his victory. “The worst case scenario is I lose my scholarship, lose my place in the school, and wind up a destitute single father on the streets of Boston, singing for our respective suppers.”

“Then it’s a good thing you can carry a tune, and a great thing you know the best free babysitter in town.” He grins; he can’t help it. His voice is soft, though, when he says, “I don’t envy you the task you’ve taken on, you know. But I think you made the right choice. And you’re not in this alone.”

Harold finally drops his hand away and rolls his head towards him. Behind the slightly shellshocked glaze to his eyes – which Nathan is going to charitably chalk up to the emotional outpouring and severe sleep-deprivation, because otherwise he really is going to have to be offended at how stunned Harold looks at every affirmation his friends aren’t abandoning him to life in the Bostonian gutter – there is a very real gratitude.

Nathan nods pointedly with his head in the direction of the bedroom. “Go. Begone. Exit stage left.”

“Pursued by bear,” Harold mutters, raising his arms in brief surrender - finally - before pushing himself up. There is a moment where he actually wobbles, and Nathan inches closer – he’s not about to drop his current armful, but he might be able to cushion Harold’s head with a well-placed shoe. It’s a false alarm, though; Harold catches himself against the table, and pauses there. Frowns a little.

“The assessment,” he says. “That’s your class too, isn’t it. Don’t you still need to-”

“Already finished and ready to go,” Nathan says breezily, and doesn’t feel the slightest twinge of guilt at the lie.

A more alert Harold would catch it by simple token of the fact Nathan has never finished anything early in his life, but here and now he just nods tiredly and reaches over to brush a finger against Aurora’s cheek. She brightens immediately, finally loosing her gummy grip on Nathan’s shirt in favour of beaming magnificently at her father. Nathan’s pleased to see the echo of a smile, small but sincere, cross Harold’s face in response.

That delight doesn’t survive his departure, however. Almost before Harold has made his plodding, increasingly semi-conscious exit, Aurora starts to squirm, arching her back and kicking her feet and making burbling noises of protest that threaten to string together into something much more disruptive. She only settles when Nathan starts bouncing her lightly, starting a slow pace around the room, and even then he senses a certain resentful compromise to the whole arrangement.

“I know, I know,” he tells her, keeping his voice low and crooning. “But your da needs to rest, so you’re just going to have to deal with second best for a little while.” She likes crowds, Harold had said; it’s not so cold out that they can’t go for a wander if she starts truly growing restless. Find a bench to lounge on for a while, see who watches back. He’s seen the looks an oblivious Harold has drawn out in the park, dandling a chirpy three-month-old on his knee. Of course, that sort of thing had gotten them in this position to start with.

Aurora blows a messy string of spit-bubbles down his neck, and Nathan half-grimaces, half-laughs, and wonders if he might not manage envy after all.

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