st_aurafina: Grace Hendricks from POI (POI: Grace)
[personal profile] st_aurafina
Title: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Chapter Two
Rating Teen


Harold checked in with Project Cascade from time to time, in the same way he kept a stealthy eye on many of the new projects initiated after 9/11.

This time, he picked through medical records, frowning as Cascade scientists switched methodology again and again, with a rising number of fatalities. They moved from surgical to electrochemical activation of the sensory enhancement. They identified (from post-mortem studies of the surgical cohort) an anatomic difference in neural architecture in the successfully activated subjects. They followed that with a genetic tag and an assay to screen for it. This would save funds, a paper claimed triumphantly, since the activation procedure could be performed only on those with the genetic capacity to respond to it. A ninety percent activation rate was reached. A seventy percent mortality rate unfortunately followed.

The deaths levelled out suddenly a few years back, though Harold would hardly call a fifty percent failure rate successful as such. Still, interested in what had brought such an abrupt change to the procedure, he looked at the protocol changes between generation one and two, and was shocked to see his own handwriting and a sketch of two human forms working together. It had been his concept of the two minds, one to gather and one to process, that had kicked off the latest phase of trials in Project Cascade. And now, the hypersensory subjects were assigned partners to assist in the processing of the data flooding through them. Another group of genetic isolates had been identified, apparently designed to operate in concert with the hypersensory group. The evolutionary psychologists were having a field day with that piece of information, as were, Harold read sourly, the political adherents of intelligent design. How could this not be the hand of God, that there were two groups so perfectly suited to collaboration? How could this not be God's will that this country had been gifted such a powerful weapon? It was this faction that brought in the mythological terms of Sentinel and Guide, and it was from them, also, that vastly increased funding came, and so the terminology stuck. It wasn't very scientific, Harold thought, but when has that ever stopped money from speaking and being heard?

He cast an eye down the early screening tests for potential Guides, and paused. Mathematical proficiency, high IQ, introversion, highly ordered thinkers, these were all markers worthy of moving an individual onto the testing phase. Once there, the subjects were assessed physically: did they have the brain architecture that allowed a mental link to form between them and a Sentinel. Harold closed that file and sat back in his chair. He definitely met the initial criteria for being a Guide. What if he was one? Was that why he'd been able to so easily analyse the problems with Cascade at the very beginning, and suggest a solution? It would be easy enough to arrange for an MRI, to look for the physical evidence. Discomfited that his idle scratchings might have led to years of experimentation on human subjects, however voluntary their contribution might have been, Harold put the idea aside. He had his own important project to finish.

Then there was Grace, and Harold lost himself in loving her. Being with her was like nothing he had ever experienced: he felt so close to her, that he'd be in the lab at IFT and know she was hungry or lonely or sad. He had never been in a relationship where it was easy to say the right thing, to allay someone's fears, to share their delight in beauty.

Then, one weekend away from the city, where there were no distractions, he sat with his back to a fallen tree and watched Grace setting up her easel. It was afternoon, and she was hurrying to catch the magic hour of evening light. Harold could see she was worried, about wasting the opportunity, about being too focused on technicality to be truly creative, that she was doubting herself into inaction.

"Hey," he said, pushing himself upright with the easy movement of someone who has spent the night in a feather bed with someone he trusted and loved. He took her hands and raised them to his lips. "Everything will be all right." He wrapped her long fingers around his and kissed her knuckles.

She let out a long sigh and rubbed her forehead, leaving a dark blue smear. "I'm overthinking everything," she said. "It's just that this weekend has been so perfect that I'm starting to believe it's not real. And once you doubt something it all falls apart. Maybe I've never really been an artist, you know? Maybe I'm a fake."

"The last thing you are is a fake." Still holding her hands, Harold looked out over the vista she had chosen, and imagined how it must look to her, how she could break it down into colours and textures, and then project that vision onto the canvas. Grace's mind would be a little like her paintbox, he reasoned: intense and vivid, emotions expressed in shades and colours. He could see from her expression that she was ringing with the richness of colour they were bathed in. All she had to do was take that feeling and translate it into movement.

Red and orange and purple, she wanted, in strata on a background of slate. He could feel the shape of the pastels between forefingers and thumb, with the contours carefully shaped to give lines or fields of colour as he chose. There was a feeling in his chest, a kind of urge to move, to seize those colours and smear them on the canvas.

Grace wriggled her fingers free, a distant expression on her face, and flipped her box of pastels open with a practiced gesture. She gathered a handful of pastels, and in a few movements, the canvas had a rough outline of the hills and the trunks of the biggest trees.

Harold kissed her on the temple and left her to her work. He looked back over his shoulder, watched Grace layer red on sienna on plum, building foliage and shadow and slanting sunlight, and thought that he couldn't ever be happier than this.

Later that evening in their cosy bed and breakfast with Grace asleep in his arms, Harold remembered that list of criteria: the interviews with Guides, how they described their bond, the feeling of processing data flow from their partnered Sentinels. He wondered if he had done something similar this afternoon, whether Grace had some hidden genetic potential, and him along with it.


John woke before his alarm, which was normal for him at the moment; the stockbroker two floors down was operating on international time, and the rattle of the water pipes was enough to wake him. He stretched under the covers, and slid an arm over Harold's belly on the off chance he was up for some morning fooling around.

Only barely awake, Harold made a soft, grumbling noise and batted at John's hand. "Bear! Los!" he said, and turned onto his side.

Bear, lying innocently at the end of the bed, gave John a look of great betrayal, and John laughed softly.

"Come on," he said to the dog. "Let's burn off some of this energy."

Harold was gone when they got back from their morning run, but that was nothing to worry about; even in a relationship, Harold maintained solitary habits, and John knew he preferred to manage his creaky, tender morning soreness out of view. John didn't mind; he'd slept for hours pressed to Harold's back, nose to shoulder, his thoughts and senses wrapped in Harold's. Now he could face the world with quiet thoughts.

The loft may have been empty when John pushed open the door, but his senses saw Harold's movements about the place as easily as if Harold had left a thin line of thread everywhere he stopped this morning: bathroom, chair where he carefully and habitually hung his clothes, bathroom again to hang up the towels, and the side table by the door to collect hat and keys. John followed Harold's footsteps back to the bathroom, holding tight to Bear's collar. Bear had found a dead squirrel at the park, and, perhaps in revenge for this morning's slander, diligently rolled in it. There's no way John wanted to smell that all day while people shot at him.

The street was obligingly quiet this morning and John heard the gentle rapid sound of keys tapping before he set foot in the library, even before Bear cocked his ears in that direction. (Though to be fair, Bear was considerably distracted by the bag of pastries crooked in John's elbow.)

"Mr Reese," Harold said, as if he hadn't pushed John down on the bed laughing last night, as if he hadn't pointedly removed the almost empty shampoo bottle John had been eking out and added it to the shopping list in neat capitals beneath John's left-handed scrawl. Harold's ability to compartmentalise was astonishing, John thought, and John had killed people for a living.

He put the paper cup of tea down beside Harold's wrist, brushed his knuckles with one finger in greeting. "New numbers, Finch?"

"Two." Harold had their faces up on the glass board already. "Michael Cole and Sameen Shaw. Two people with oddly muddy backgrounds; I suspect they habitually use constructed identities, because there are significant gaps in online activity, especially on the part of Ms Shaw."

John couldn't tell much about either of them from headshots: Cole's expression was fairly open, his shoulders a little stooped. Shaw looked straight down the lens with a smile that was more like bared teeth. Something about that smile brought John's hackles up. He took a mouthful of coffee still too hot to drink, and let it burn all the way down. It didn't dissipate the defensive prickle at the back of his neck. If he were Bear, his lips would have pulled back over his teeth.

"Mr Reese?" Harold's chair squeaked on the wooden floor as he stood, moving beside John in two uneven steps. "John. Are you all right? I can feel you bristling from here."

He reached for John, and at John's nod, put a hand to John's nape, his fingers cool and soft as they stroked gently over the hair there. At the same time, John felt Harold's mind in his, a string of wind chimes that sounded with calm, precise tones as he made a methodical path through John's senses, checking and settling. Respectful, caring and competent: it had never been like this with Mark.

John took a deep breath and let his shoulders fall. "I'm fine. Don't know what set me off, but it's settling now." He tilted his head to trap Harold's fingers against his skin for a moment to transform that coolness to warmth, then he stepped towards the computers. "Get me a location. I want to see them. Get a feel for what we're dealing with."

After tinkering with the TSA's facial recognition, Harold pulled a seating allocation for Shaw travelling Berlin to New York under an assumed name and passport. Harold used that to find Cole, who left on a separate flight from Berlin this morning, also with an excellent false identity.

"These are professionally done," said Harold, as he dissected out the details. "I'm not sure that I would have picked them up, had we not received numbers for them under their birth names."

The details were adding up for John, and when he picked up Cole's trail at La Guardia, he found the man's phone unjackable. He had Harold intervene remotely to slow transactions at the car rental counter, which gave him a chance to plant a camera in the plain white van Cole hired. Then it was just a matter of tailing Cole into the city and listening to his conversation with Shaw. After a few moments, John tapped his earpiece.

"Finch, they're operatives. Not sure what agency just yet, but Shaw's definitely ex-military. Cole's a technician. They're planning an execution; Shaw picked up orders last night."

Over the line, he could hear the steady tap-tap-tap of keys. "That would explain the lack of personal data," said Harold. "And the exemplary paperwork on their passports." He paused and in the quiet, John could hear Bear gnawing happily at his chew toy. "Could this explain your reaction to Ms Shaw's photograph? An assessment of her potential danger?"

"I won't know until I see her, Finch." To be honest, despite Harold's help, John still had unease about Shaw. Knowing that she was possibly a trained killer was going to make it difficult to work around her, even if she did need help.

He parked his car and made a pass on foot by Cole's hired van. Inside, Cole was talking very softly into an audio connection. From the conversation, Shaw was tailing their target.

John moved towards the opposite side of the street; distant enough that with his enhanced vision, he'd be able to get a glimpse of her without setting off her defences. He could see where she was in the crowd although she was invisible from above, because she cut through the foot traffic like a pike through a duck pond. People scattered ahead of her, sent dark looks in her direction, and parted in a v-shape. Shaw emerged from a wall of people onto the curb, holding a large coffee as camouflage.

John's body responded before he registered, a skin-crawling, rage-gathering bunch of muscles moving him forward, ready to kill. He set his jaw rigid to stop the shout escaping from his throat. As it was, his posture was threatening enough that she saw him and recognised his interest. She turned sharply in the opposite direction, talking softly to her partner as she walked briskly away.

"Mr Reese?" Harold sounded worried. "What's happened?"

Harold's voice galvanised John. Able to concentrate again, he pivoted on his heel before Shaw turned back to examine him more closely.

"Finch," he said, his voice rough with adrenaline. "I think Shaw is Project Cascade." He didn’t know where he was walking; it was all he could do to do stop himself turning and launching an attack right now in the middle of the street. He was certain she could smell the fury boiling off him. As he walked, the crowd parted nervously around him, just as it had for Shaw.

He walked faster. His shoulders ached, and he had a desperate, gut-wrenching need to punch someone, to force them to the ground and make them hold very, very still. He stepped out onto a crossing too soon, and a taxi screamed to a halt in front of him. The driver screamed abuse from the open window.

"HEY, FUCKHEAD, THE HELL YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?" The horn sounded, the man stunk of sweat and last night's beer, there was a low hiss of air from the right rear tire, and John was definitely going to put a bullet into the car horn if that asshole didn't ease off it right now. Even the colour of the cab made him angry.

"Mr Reese," Harold's voice was clipped and calm, like an air traffic controller. "Listen to me. Pay attention to just my voice, please. I'd like you to return to the library. To do that, you'll need to turn left at the next corner…"

Harold walked him all the way back to the library that way: a voice in his ear as good as a presence beside him. It got him back in one piece, but John was crawling with agitation by the time he set foot on the stairs.

Harold was waiting for him in the middle of the room. John, still caught up in defensiveness and territoriality, batted at Harold's hand with an angry snarl. He was torn between wanting to shove Harold hard in the chest, and at the same time, drag him off somewhere dark and quiet to keep him safe. Bear started up from his bed with a nervous bark, and made a dart for the space between Harold and John, his ears unhappily back and his tail tucked.

"Bear, volg," said Harold, one hand by his side. Bear, glad of orders in this unsettled room, hurried to heel. Harold's fingertips brushed Bear's head, and Bear's hackles settled. It was one less source of anxiety in the room. John managed to pull in a deeper breath. His ribs felt sore and tight, like he'd been breathing shallowly all the way back to the library.

"You want me to heel, too, Finch?" he said, with ten times the calm he actually felt.

Harold hadn't broken John's gaze yet. "I'm here, Mr Reese. Whenever you need help." His voice, soft and calm, was an anchor, pulling John's focus back into shape.

John took another breath, and let it out slowly. This was the difference between Cascade and who he was now: he got to choose. He could probably bring himself out of this on his own, manage the overload and the anger. It would take time and effort, but it would come to heel, just as Bear did. They didn't like him to know that, in Cascade. They liked him reliant on his Guide as much as possible. Harold did not encourage such dependence, but offered help freely, without obligation, but with love and trust. John had never been good at asking for help, but Harold had given him freedom to find a way to do it easily. It made John better: better able to help people, better able to protect his team.

He took a small step towards Harold, with his fingers out to appease Bear. "Yeah," he said, softly. "I think that would be good."

Harold slid his fingers between John's, and pressed one hand to John's face, cupping it, bringing it down slightly to look into his eyes. Inside his head, John heard wind chimes, cool and gentle, a sound he could follow towards calm. It was never painful when Harold sought out the raw, angry places in his mind, not like it was with Mark. Where Mark cauterised or aggravated according to his need, Harold soothed, and he never, ever touched John's decision-making centres, never tried to alter his perception or his emotional state. If he had to describe it, John would have said it felt like someone straightening books on a shelf: a gentle bustling that left behind order, sense and comfort.

"She certainly does seem hyper-aware," Harold said, as he brushed the visual memory of seeing Shaw in the street. "And your response, this is typical of Project Cascade?"

"We're very territorial." John remembered the first time he met Kara and the way he had leapt for her, ready to tear out her throat with his teeth. Mark had let them go at it for a bit; it would make things easier, he said, if they got it out of their systems early. He claimed he didn't have time to manage two sparring Sentinels in the field, not while he was running missions as well. John could keep it under control – Kara was a particularly good teacher when it came to subverting urges – but it was always there, an angry hunger he learned to ignore. Kara, with her toothy grin and snide comments, was always in better control of that particular instinct. The whole time, every mission, she loved watching him snarl and twist against it. Kara was better than John at a lot of Cascade business. She said it was because he let himself care. That was an impediment to the work, in her view.

"I suppose territoriality is a reasonable response: this has become your home, after all." Harold said it casually, as if having a home was something that anyone would expect to have. John weighed up the concept while Harold worked, and decided that he liked the idea of having somewhere so safe and familiar that he'd want to defend it.

It wouldn't have been a home without Finch, though. John leaned his head on Finch's shoulder, breathing in sencha and silk, the almonds from the pastries this morning, pushing away the ghosts of Cascade and his past. Finch was here, and he would help John to not hurt Shaw.

As Harold moved about John's thoughts, soothing and settling, John realised Shaw had probably never felt this, this depth of trust, this sense of safety and respect. Cole seemed like a decent guy, but still, it was like looking at a cage you used to occupy and finding someone new in it. He wanted to tear that cage apart, make sure nobody could use it ever again, but on a practical level, the best they'd likely manage would be to let Shaw out. He'd get her free, he promised himself.

"Yes," said Harold, who had caught the unspoken wish while he hovered in John's mind. "We are going to help them both."

Chapter One /Chapter Two/ Chapter Three
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