st_aurafina: Harold Finch's face (POI: Harold)
[personal profile] st_aurafina
Title: Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, Chapter Four
Rating Teen


2010

In the days after the explosion, Harold flew into pieces too, breaking apart like the ferry dock, losing functionality in pain. There were so many things to do, and yet all he could do was hide in the library and filter footage from the explosion searching for an explanation.

He started with film from weeks before the bombing, moving through it frame by frame while his own bones healed. Each face he captured was pushed through facial recognition, each licence plate identified, each financial transaction tied to an identity. He was left with a handful of sand, thirty or so inexplicable events, and a swell of nausea every time he saw his own shoulders move towards the terminal before the screen went white.

One face bounced out of the usual sieving of identification: a man caught on a delivery dashboard cam, ushering the suicide bomber from one car to another in an underpass. Harold focused his attention on him, chasing him through various aliases and across borders, until he had a reasonably solid name to put to the face: Robert Hersh, known familiarly as George. The name was familiar; he'd seen it on the lists of personnel attached to Project Cascade. Hersh had been the first of the identified Guides, discovered accidentally to have some inexplicable ability to prevent the Sentinels from losing their minds.

When he recognised the connection, it was the middle of the night, though he only knew this from the cold at his ankles and the lack of light. He stared at the man's face as he calmly manhandled the bomber. Harold should have expected a link between the ferry bombing and Project Cascade; after all, Northern Lights and Cascade had grown up together, had always been intertwined. So Hersh was a Guide. Was Harold one also? Would they be able to recognise the ability in each other?

This search for identity and a new definition of himself was a welcome respite from the unfamiliar burn of vengeful anger fuelling him as he stalked Alicia Corwin. He kept a careful track of Agent Hersh's movements. In January after the bombing, he appeared in Manhattan for some ridiculous, furtive task, the details of which Harold didn't even bother to scrape from the ISA database. Harold was there, though, when Hersh alighted from a cab at the United Nations. From behind a newspaper, he observed Hersh going about his business, and saw nothing of himself in the man, felt nothing particular, none of the reported connections described in Project Cascade. It frustrated him, sitting on a bench in the cold, feeling his muscles contract – something he'd pay for later – and still knowing nothing of what made Hersh different from other people, or how Project Cascade had led him to work for people who would bomb a public place to kill one person.

He didn't understand so he kept moving, step by painful step: trying to make up for the mistakes he had made, trying to continue Nathan's secret work, all the while knowing that his research had been suborned into Cascade, a project that built killers and their handlers, then released them on the world to wreak havoc. To misuse the Machine that Harold had built to save the world. To kill Nathan, and to destroy Harold's life with Grace.

Eventually, though, the numbers overwhelmed him. There were just too many people in immediate danger. The work was enough to drown out any non-essential concerns.

He didn't know exactly why he kept the photo of Jessica Arndt's ex-boyfriend, John. At first, he was an obvious danger in the woman's life: an ex-Special Forces, CIA wetwork specialist. As Jessica's number came up again and again, the nature of John's work meant that he posed little immediate threat, not when he was currently in London or Nairobi or Tallinn. He didn't discard the photo – there was something compelling about the man's expression – he simply left it on his desk, picking it up from time to time as he cleared away clutter.

It was a number that brought the man's face into focus again.

"Can you do some kind of online face matching on these two?" The repugnant Mr Dillinger had only the barest grasp on what Harold was able to do. Harold sighed, and pulled up the photos he'd been sent, then the sigh caught in his throat.

It was Jessica Arndt's ex-boyfriend again, the same face as on the grainy capture from Hamburg Airport. The resolution was better, though, and Harold could see every plane on his face. He could have sworn he knew what Reese was thinking; his female partner, too. To him, they were transparently predators, terrifyingly calm about it, and yet nobody around them could tell.

"That man is CIA," he told Mr Dillinger. You idiot, you idiot, he said to himself with rising dread. "Take great care not to be seen." There wasn't much point to the warning, even if Dillinger was too foolish to listen. Dillinger's cover was certainly broken, though there was no way to explain how Harold was so certain. While Dillinger bragged, Harold reached back to rub his neck, and found all the hair there standing on end.

Later in the afternoon, while the newly rescued Daniel Casey dozed, Harold worked on altering the sample of code the man had lifted from the Machine's operating system. Daniel had made quite the coup in snatching the data. Harold shot a fond glance across the table to where Daniel was curled in an armchair, exhausted from being on the run. If this was the caliber of coding coming up through the ranks, perhaps the future would not be as bleak as Harold had predicted. Still, it was going to be a neat trick avoiding the CIA team on their tails. Without realising it, his hands had brought up the image of John and his partner, and he examined the expression on his face, the erect posture and focused body language. Weary and deadly, like a thing in a cage. Rilke's Panther, he thought, suddenly. A thousand bars, and back behind those thousand bars, no world.

After Mr Dillinger's attempt to steal the laptop, Harold raced through the city, tracking Daniel Casey's phone while trying to negotiate with him. The phone led him to Red Hook, where Lester Strickland, the forger, kept his shop.

Harold meant to park a safe distance from the pier, but somehow he ended up facing it. He found himself craning his neck, which complained vociferously, to see. Something was happening there, something that made his brain twitch for more details.

In the shadows by the pier, he saw two figures. One was certainly Daniel Casey: even if they'd only met today, Harold recognised the sloped shoulders of a coder. The other was tall, and held a gun with the same ease with which Harold used a keyboard, as if it were simply an extension of himself. That would be John Reese, the CIA agent. Harold slid down as low as he could comfortably get, and tried to look like someone too drunk to handle the drive home.

It was astonishing to actually be close to him. The little frisson Harold felt whenever he saw John's photo was candlelight to the experience of being in his presence. It was difficult to look away from him, standing there in the half-light, about to kill an innocent man.

Look at him, look at him, look at him. The primal part of his brain urged him on, told him to get out of the car, to walk over there, to put his hands on him, to help him. Harold gasped in his seat, trying to understand what was happening. What was so remarkable about John Reese?

There was an itch in his head, an odd sensation, like hearing a distant whisper, the words undefined. Harold raised fingers to his temple, confused and straining to catch what he was missing.

He lost the battle with himself; John Reese was too compelling for Harold not to look. He edged upwards, glanced over the rim of the windshield, and was lost in a wave of sensation. It was tangled and vivid and patently not Harold's own as it washed into his mind. He lost his grip on the wheel, slid back against the seat, and not even the pain of that unexpected movement was enough to break the flood of… of… of data.

So much information, and all of it pouring from John Reese.

Harold's throat went dry as information piled down on him in a great mess, the upending of a library, images raining down on him in full colour and sound. He had tiny glimpses of knowledge: heart rates, chemical analyses, proximity. Once, in vertiginous double vision, he saw himself sitting slumped in his car, heard his own heartbeat; the image was labelled 'white male, glasses, threat level minimal.'

Three seconds into the onslaught, though, Harold could pick out patterns in the stream of data, and with that understanding he could reach for more input and faster flow. Not long after that, he unlocked the code to the patterns: low blue/green notes were muscle memory (slide safety off, slip finger against trigger, one gentle squeeze, absorb recoil, seek target, repeat); the brilliant but distracting scintillations of colour around him belonged to sensory awareness (cold sea air from the docks, a terrified, fluttering heartbeat, the interplay of shadow and light from the buildings, the sickly-sweet breath of the homeless man asleep by the wall); and then, curiously, a crude wooden palisade, poorly built and clearly imposed on John by another person. Someone like Harold, perhaps, who could see this incredible mental vista. The fence was ugly in its function, unlike everything endogenous to John's mind, and it held back a bundled mass of glass shards, richly coloured and deadly sharp. Harold's mental fingers twitched to repair or disassemble that fence – if they wanted people to stay out, they should build it better – but a lesson learned early in his chosen profession was not to tinker until you understood the system. He imagined himself backing away, step by quiet step, until he was separate from John's being. The excess of data assaulting him receded accordingly, though he could still sense John thinking. It was a strange thing, to feel thought divorced from one's own, like the wings of a bird against your palms as you gently held it.

He sunk lower in the driver's seat, despite the complaints from his back and neck. Don't see me, don't see me, he willed the man, and John stepped a little closer to Daniel, raising his gun. Harold drew a panicked breath then held it, so he didn't attract more attention. Somehow Harold had been responsible for that, had put Daniel Casey in even more danger.

At the same time, he knew that John's pupils had widened to admit more light, to increase his focus and accuracy, and with it, John's reflexes sharpened. In front of him, Daniel Casey was terrified, sweating and dry-mouthed, exuding confusion and fear like an animal on the dissecting table. Harold saw what John saw, Harold stood with John as he weighed up his orders against Casey's reactions. He was trying to find a good decision, one that would leave both Casey and Reese alive. John was reaching for a familiar feeling, something he believed lost to him. Suddenly, Harold understood what the paling fence must stand for, and why it had been put in place.

John Reese was part of Project Cascade, probably the same generation of the experiment that had used Harold's data to identify the need for Guides. John was a Sentinel. Harold was the other half of the equation, a Guide. What had happened with Grace had not simply been empathy with someone he loved, it had been this, only in a gentler, natural form. The mental landscape Harold had encountered had been anything but natural: Project Cascade had enhanced John's abilities to sense, and had also compartmentalised the acts his government asked of him.

Harold turned the engine over, and swung the car around slowly on the empty street, as if he had decided to turn tail and drunkenly head home. He picked a wavering path that took him slowly past the edge of the pier, and in the moment that John swung a lightning fast glance over his shoulder, Harold reached into his mind. Somehow he understood what had to be done, so with fingers nimble and knowing, Harold plucked one glass shard that pushed hardest against the fence holding John's emotions in place. It was warm to the touch and burgundy in the clear light that illuminated John's inner world. Harold held it carefully and it became faceted and whole. When he released it, John's compassion flew spinning from his hands, spreading crimson light across the surgically precise light of John's mindscape.

As he drove, he heard a gunshot, felt a muted, feverish triumph that was only partly his own, and he knew that even if things would not be all right, that Daniel Casey was at least safe now.


2013

The vest took the bullets but as he fell, John appreciated the art of Shaw's targeting: three shots close together above his heart, which stuttered under the impact. He could stop a heart with a punch, but he'd never seen someone do it with bullets. His shoulders hit the ground, and he watched the dust billow up around him. The motes sparkled and danced in slow motion, hypnotic as ocean waves, and he slipped away into a warm, foetid darkness from two years ago.

The air in the subway burned the back of his throat, and added to the rawness carved by the cheap whiskey in the paper-wrapped bottle he clutched to his chest. People assumed he travelled up and down the line for the warmth, but it was the catastrophic assault on his senses that he craved, like standing by a giant bass speaker until there was nothing but numbness inside his head.

He'd come to New York for no particular reason. He'd handed money over at train stations, drunk and with his ears plugged, and he could have ended up anywhere. When he disembarked at Grand Central, there was a finality to his steps, and he understood he wouldn't be leaving this city again.

It was never meant to be a long-term solution. John could feel his life subsiding beneath him without a Guide to keep his senses collated, but the only Guides were part of Project Cascade, and there was nothing but a bullet waiting for him there. Besides, cleaving to a Cascade Guide was like sliding along a razor: surgical and so precise that you didn't feel the sting till later. He was done with all of that: all he needed was enough time to collect his thoughts, and then he'd find his own way out of the world. He didn't know why he hadn't done it in New Rochelle. It honestly hadn't occurred to him until he was at a bus station deciding what direction to take. New York had always seemed oddly welcoming, a place that cushioned him somehow from Mark's control and Kara's poison.

He'd tried once already: slipped over the outer railing on the George Washington Bridge, stood there leaning out over the water, watching the reflected lights ripple and sway. He waited for a long time, for that inner voice to tell him to let go, but he mustn't have been drunk enough, because there was just silence. And eventually, the decision to climb back over before the police found him.

He'd get there, eventually, he knew. Things had to align: the right level of intoxication and motivation, getting on the right train at the right time to bring him to the right place to end everything. Then he'd do it. It hadn't happened yet, but he was ready.

He rocked with the movement of the train, a gentle back and forth that would have lulled him to sleep if it weren't for the thugs making their way through the carriages. The problem was that that one of them had a touch of the Sentinel gift themselves, probably activated with drugs or some long gaming session. It was a quality the kid subconsciously took advantage of, lording it over his friends, strutting down the train carriage with his chest puffed out, certain of his own strength. John eyed him through half-closed eyes: the enhanced senses didn't seem to be Sentinel-strong, but they were enough that the antagonistic instincts between two Sentinel-types riled him up a little. He couldn't not come and give John a poke.

John sat still for a moment, since this kid was nothing, reeking of expensive clothes and liquor with an edge of fear desperately concealed behind his swagger. Then the kid swung into his field of vision, and the fight was on. John blurred into action, ending the fracas before it began. Then, ankle-deep in moaning bodies, he zoned, right back to the rigors of Gilgit's underworld, with Mark's mental fist clenching tight around John's senses. Outside of the hallucination, there was a feeling of movement, of people gently guiding him this way and that, but he didn't come up out of it for a long time. When he did, he was in a quiet room, close to a space filled with people. John heard a dozen conversations in five languages, felt the metallic clink of handcuffs against plywood desks, and smelled a rich and soup-like mix of sweat, drugs, cheap shirts and bad breath. It had a distinctive sour tang, the bullpen of a police precinct in a major metropolis, but somehow the thin glass window kept the hubbub at bay. He didn't know why, until his hearing pulled in closer and he picked up the slow, even heartbeat of the woman standing beside him. She wasn't a trained Guide, but the absolute calm in her posture and breathing extended in his direction. Natural talent, he realised in a panic. Don't let her know, don't let her see how much power she could have over him.

"I figured it would be better for you in here," said the woman. Her voice was firm but kind, and with it, a little of the sensory turmoil pulled back. Despite his promise to himself, John's shoulders settled a little lower, though he still crouched forward in his seat.

She was armed, but she didn't wear a uniform, and her expression was unafraid and open. "I worked with some of you guys, over there, and I know that glazed expression means you're kinda overloaded." The way she said 'over there' with a little shrug was enough that John felt a ghost of desert wind brush his cheek. She'd served, and in the Middle East. She'd worked with Cascade soldiers, and they somehow hadn't killed her. That pinch of natural talent was probably why; she wouldn't have tracked as a threat to any of the Sentinels, and thus the Guides wouldn't have known she was aware of the nature of their charges. He rocked forward onto the balls of his feet, still sitting but ready to act.

"Easy, now," the woman said. "I figured back then it was best to leave you guys be for as long as you need it. You all seemed to come out of it eventually. But I've never seen one of you without your little sidekicks, you know? I guess that's why you've been spaced out since the patrol unit brought you in here." She put a plastic glass of water in front of him, replacing the empty one he'd been toying with.

John took the cup, sipped slowly, and looked around him while he waited for words to form. His visual focus jumped forward and back; first a microscope (her pants were wool, there was a little mud worked into the weave of the fabric at the hem,) then a telescope (she was far away, tiny and determined, the glass of the door a halo around her head.) Her voice, though, was warm and close. For a moment, John longed to lean into it, let her take care of everything, teach her how to keep his senses in check without the bloody noses and the migraines. Then he saw the way she was holding the cup: fingers braced inside, so that she didn't smear the prints on the outside surface. She was going to run his prints. There was no way his data wasn't flagged. Mark would be here, sooner or later, and then he'd… he'd… He would not go back to the Project, he'd never let another Guide take hold of his mind. And Mark would not be merciful with this woman, or anyone else John had encountered while he was on the run.

He had an urge to check his watch, though he'd sold his watch weeks ago. Something was odd about that impulse, and he closed his eyes to chase the idea down. He was expecting something to happen, looking forward to it, even: a well-dressed, impeccably coiffured lawyer would appear to escort him from the precinct, to that place by the bridge, where a man waited to meet him, to change everything. This had all happened already.

Damn it. He'd zoned, and deeply. John concentrated on Harold and the stability that came with hearing his voice. If Harold were here, he'd know not to touch him, he'd sit awkwardly on the floor close enough that John could reach for him if he wanted, and he'd say… He'd say something like…

"John! John, please. John, there's a van outside the apartment building; they're going to be sending in a clean-up crew. John, can you hear me?" There was the tell tale squeak of Harold's computer chair, clumsy footsteps over the library floor, and the rattle of rarely-used car keys.

John blinked himself awake, and gasped, a deep, painful breath. He heaved himself up, sitting, legs splayed on the dusty wooden floor, and tapped his earpiece.

"I'm here, Harold. Stay put – I don't want you out here when the crew comes in. I can make a graceful exit. I'll be back to the library soon."

Harold's sigh of relief would have been obvious even to someone without enhanced hearing. "I was worried, John. I'm so glad to hear your voice."

John smiled, and gathered himself together, ready to evade the agents clattering up the stairs. "Me, too," he said, and slipped out a second floor window, climbing easily down the fire escape, despite the bruising in his chest. He was going home, and that was a sense of relief that overcame a lot of pain.

He limped back to the library a few hours later, once he'd picked himself up out of the dust and evaded the clean-up crew that the ISA had sent to Mercer's building.

Harold, who'd had a frightening time while John was lying stunned and breathless on the ground, was waiting at the top of the stair with Bear just behind him. He reached for John and pulled him close, ostensibly to check the Kevlar vest for wear and tear, but John felt Harold's thoughts interweaving with his, soothing himself as he soothed John's thoughts too. He was suddenly very glad to be alive, and he found himself grinning like a maniac.

"You're remarkably cheerful for someone who took three – three! – shots to the chest," said Harold. He eased his hand inside John's shirt and put his fingers through the holes.

"I was there, Finch, I know how many hits I took," John said, still smiling. Harold was right, though, he was feeling unexpectedly buoyant, considering they'd lost one of their numbers.

Harold cupped John's face. "What is it?" he said, wonderingly. Harold leaned into John's consciousness and when he touched the ebullient joy there, broke into a smile himself.

John bent and kissed him, despite the bruises on his sternum and the way his ribs ached from the impact. "She's a survivor," he said. "I think, if we can get her through the next couple of days, she's going to be okay."

To be honest, he didn't really understand why this fact made him feel so pleased, but it did, despite the territoriality, and the fact that Shaw had shot him without even pausing. He didn't need to think about the why, though, because Harold knew him better than he knew himself. In John's mind, Harold filtered the thoughts with curiosity and care, and John leaned into his palm, heart clenching at the gentle ease of their bond.

"Oh, I see," said Harold, softly. "You're happy because you won't be alone."

John looked at him, trying to determine if Harold was pleased or worried about this development, but Harold smiled, and kissed him, too. "I'm glad," he said. "You shouldn't be the only one with these abilities, it's a lot to bear." He took John's hand and led him into the library. "Now, get changed. The smell of gunpowder puts you on edge, and I think we'll all manage better in this fraught situation without any excess aggravation."

John slipped a finger between two buttons on the ravaged shirt, with a sly sideways look at Harold. Harold made a face of mock-horror, that John would desecrate the sanctity of the library with such licentious behaviour, then laughed, and went back to his terminal.

When Harold had pulled John from the police precinct, John had been raw and open, barriers worn to nothing from hauling himself out of rural China, from discovering that Jessica was dead. Rational thought was a thing long lost, and his days had been bleak and filled with static, much like those early days in the quiet cells of the military hospital. On top of that, the absence of a Guide, even one as brutal as Mark, meant the noise of the world and the hurts from his past eroded what was left, a river of sensation on a limestone bed.

Then suddenly there had been Harold, who touched his mind with gentle awe, often so softly that John sensed nothing. Harold had stopped the press of the city, quieted the voices of the dead, and gave him space to think for the first time in months. It had taken time to build what they had together. Mark's work had left scars, and when Harold went past those places at first, they screamed raw and painful. For a long time John had resisted what Harold was, had struggled to work the numbers without a Guide. All that time, Harold had been little more than a cool and distant presence in his earpiece.

Now, though, the damage had been healed, the bond between them was stronger than anything John had ever experienced, and he found he desperately wanted Shaw to know this feeling of satisfaction and security. He poured water into the tiny sink in the bathroom, and washed the scent of gunpowder and blood from his skin as best he could.

An uncomfortable idea occurred to him: would Harold try to bond with her, as well? Mark had kept two Sentinels on a leash, but he had done so shabbily, grasping tightly to compensate for lack of ability. Could Harold form two bonds and not lose control like Mark did? If anyone could, Harold would be the one; his data processing abilities were phenomenal, and he was never overwhelmed by the information that John could feed to him through their link. Still the thought of sharing this with another Sentinel itched at him, enough that it caught at the edge of Harold's awareness.

"I can hear you fretting from out here," he called to John. "Come and talk about it."

John padded down the hallway in his socks, still shirtless, and leaned on the desk, bumping the screen.

"There's no need to be obstreperous," Harold said. "We'll find a way to make things work."

"But there's only one of you." John felt ridiculous saying it, like a child at a birthday party being asked to give back a gift.

Harold shook his head. "We don't know that – we have very little data on natural talent Guides. Detective Carter is one, for a start. I wasn't certain about my own abilities until I met you. It's reasonable to assume there's more people with no idea about their potential." He brushed his fingers along John's hand. "Not everyone is as lucky as me," he said, and John felt the wonder and love in his own mind.

"Judging from the data I acquired from Michael Cole's computer," Harold said. "It seems that the ability lies hand in hand with a good mind for programming. That's one place we can investigate, when we have the luxury of time."

"But in the meantime," said John. "She'll have lost a bond, she'll be raw and unhappy, with nobody to help her." This twisted him on a primal level: he wanted Shaw to be free, but the innate territoriality of the Sentinels made him think idly about ripping out her throat with his teeth if she went near Harold.

This close, Harold could pick that up verbatim. He shuddered. "Please do not," he said. "If at all possible."

John gave him a miserable look. "You know I'd never," he said. "It's just a knee-jerk response."

Harold reached out and took John's hands, pulled him to his knees in front of him. He stroked John's damp hair, kissed his forehead and held him tight. "You are the one I love, John," he said. "I can care for Ms Shaw without compromising our relationship or our bond."

John leaned hard into Harold's arms, and hoped that he was right.


Chapter Three /Chapter Four/ Chapter Five

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