Author’s Note: Thanks so much to my betas, Medie and Sabaceanbabe! Title is taken from a monologue/speech by G’kar of Babylon 5. Written for scribblinlenore for Yuletide 2011.
November 3, 2011
It isn’t what he said in so many words, but the intent is the same: “Think of the numbers.” May as well admonish a failing marriage to “think of the children.” In both cases, the argument is only as valid as the odds of greater harm coming from the dissolution of the partnership than the maintenance of it. Finch remains convinced they still do more good than harm. He’s no longer certain Reese would agree.
Offering to shoulder half the blame doesn’t seem to have worked either. Apparently Reese has blame enough to go around.
He contemplates chasing after the man. While unlikely to catch him on foot, he did have car and driver at the ready to whisk them both to safety before the remainder of the police arrived. That Reese would prefer to depart the scene under his own power, considering the circumstances, is hardly surprising. And that considered, perhaps it would be unwise to pursue him as well. It might be taken as attempting to belabor the point, and could have the opposite of the desired effect.
Better that Reese come to his own conclusions about whether or not to continue their joint venture.
Of course, merely the possibility that he may not causes Finch’s stomach to seize with anxiety. He does not relish the idea of finding another partner, not the least because it seems unlikely there could be another man with Reese’s skills whose temperament is so uniquely suited to his own. And he would have to find another partner, for it is inconceivable to him now that he should abandon this private crusade. If the numbers haunted him before, it would be impossible now to endure their chastisement having once had the power to act and lost it.
No. Wise or no, this is too delicate a balance to leave to chance.
Climbing into the rear of the vehicle, he curtly orders the driver in the direction where Reese was last seen. For such a tall man, Reese is surprisingly skilled in the art of becoming invisible, so finding him should not be easy, especially since long, angry strides will have taken him as far away from this wharf as humanly possible. Soon enough, though, the car draws up alongside him and slows. Finch lowers the window and speaks. “Mr. Reese.”
Reese stops. He doesn’t turn, but the fact of his stopping seems to imply at least a willingness to listen. “The machine may be infallible,” Finch reiterates. “But you and I are not. We’re only human, Mr. Reese.”
He can read nothing in Reese’s posture. The man may be about to bolt, for all he knows.
He doesn’t, though. Instead, he strides to the car, opens the door and climbs inside. Finch scoots across the seat to give him room. They drive in silence for several miles.
“Your … friend. Jessica. Her number came up. A long time ago.” Finch is surprised by the words even as he speaks them. It was always a confession that would have to be made sooner or later, but he would hardly have thought to be doing it at a time like this. “Before I had the power to do anything about it. Before I …” he stumbles.
“–before you cared,” Reese answers quietly.
There’s no point in denying it, even if he hadn’t promised Reese never to lie to him. “You don’t sound surprised.”
Reese’s lips twitch in what is nearly a smile. Surprising, considering how angry he was not so many minutes ago. “Come on, Harold. It’s not like there aren’t other guys out there who can do what I do. Maybe even a few who weren’t doing their best to flush their lives down the toilet. There had to be another reason.”
Not that he has ever thought Reese was anything less than intelligent–he’d hardly have taken the man on as a partner if he were–but it’s still disconcerting to realize how transparent his motives must have been, or how well Reese knows him already. “Do you blame me? For her death, I mean.”
The smile twists into something both wry and rueful. “You failed to save a stranger. I failed to save the woman I loved. It’s not the same.”
Finch thinks of Ingram and looks away. Outside the tinted windows, New York rolls by. Even after ten years, the holes in the skyline remain as glaring as ever, as if the city, like them, still feels its loss. Reese is right: it isn’t the same. And all the strangers saved can’t make that failure go away. Maybe they should just stop trying.
But then he remembers a judge who doesn’t have to live with failing to save his son. It’s not atonement, but it’s something worth achieving regardless.
Reese draws a deep breath and lets it out in a long, low sigh. “I should’ve known there was more to Burton than a simple school teacher. He reminded me of you.”
Finch doesn’t know how to respond to that. He twists his body to look at the man beside him. “Mr. Reese, did you just compare me to a criminal mastermind?”
“Well,” Reese drawls. “I guess that depends on who you ask. Detective Carter might say yes, but I was thinking more that you’re polite, mild-mannered and pretty damn dangerous to underestimate.”
Finch doesn’t answer. To tell the truth, he’s a little speechless, considering he would hardly consider himself the dangerous one in their relationship.
Reese really smiles then, and the sight of that smile is surprisingly like breaking the surface after nearly drowning. He can breathe again. Everything will be all right.
“Glad at least one of you is on my side.”
“You didn’t seem so glad an hour ago,” Finch points out. “I was beginning to think you’d decided to walk away.”
The smile fades and Reese’s expression turns as grim as he’s ever seen it, which is saying something. “I might have, if you hadn’t come after me.” He leaves Finch to stew on that for a moment while he visibly mulls over his next words. “I’m still not happy we saved the life of a man who’s turning this city into a war zone. But I think that makes it our responsibility to stop him.”
He looks at Finch and just like that, the partnership is restored as if it had never come close to breaking. “What do you say, Harold? Think we’re up for it.”
“Mr. Reese, I’m beginning to think that you and I are capable of anything.”
December 15, 2011
As he pulls out of the parking garage, Finch finds himself unexpectedly verging on hysteria. He ought to take the man to a hospital, he knows, but the one he’s leaving is clearly out of the question. If he takes Reese in for care anywhere else, even as a John Doe, the men who shot him might find him. Finch can’t allow them to take Reese away from him, or to take Reese away from himself.
The solution that comes to him is as surprising as it is natural, but that doesn’t stop his hands from shaking as he searches for the number. When she picks up the phone, he blurts out, “Doctor Tillman, I need your help.”
He can almost hear her frown. “I’m sorry, who is this?”
“That’s not important. I’m calling regarding our mutual friend, John. I believe he gave you a hand with a patient, Kate Lehman, some time ago?”
She sucks in a breath. “How do you know about that?”
“I told you, through our mutual friend. A friend who presently requires some rather urgent medical care, and I’m not in a position to bring him to a hospital. Please, help me.”
There isn’t even a moment of hesitation before she says, “Where are you?”
He gives her the name of a motel far enough from the hospital that, hopefully, it won’t be the first place they look, but close enough that Reese isn’t likely to die before he can reach it. The next several minutes pass in what can only charitably be called a blur. It might more accurately be described as an emotional hurricane. Finch continues to drive while Reese, incredibly, bandages his own wounds. The argument about whether or not he should have come after him will come later, he suspects. Right now survival is priority.
Nevertheless, it takes all Finch’s self control–and the knowledge that even now the CIA is using his own weapon against him–not to stop the moment Reese slumps over, unconscious, in the back seat.
It may seem like hours, but in reality it’s only minutes before Dr. Tillman arrives. When he opens the door of the first-floor room he’d reserved under a false name en route to St. Joseph’s–just in case–she gapes at him for a moment. “You! How do you–?”
“No time,” Finch cuts her off. He leads her to the bed where Reese is lying and to his relief, she follows without further probing. Thankfully, he’d managed to staunch the bleeding at the scene before even trying to move Reese–even registered under a false name he doesn’t relish the questions that would raise with even the seediest motel staff–but still unconscious.
Dr. Tillman peppers him with questions–how and where the injury was sustained, how long he’s unconscious–all the while carefully examining Reese. When she realizes she’s going to have to perform emergency surgery without a trauma team or an ER, she pinches her lips together until they turn white, but briskly drafts Finch as a surgical assistant and sets to work. So much for keeping Reese’s blood off the hotel sheets, but if the choice is between a few questions and losing his partner, the former becomes a great deal less important.
When the bullets are safely removed, Reese is stitched together inside and out as best possible under the conditions, and she’s satisfied that he isn’t going to die, Tillman puts her coat back on and admonishes Finch to call her immediately if Reese doesn’t awaken in the next few hours. Finch is too afraid to feel relieved just yet, but he’s grateful nonetheless. More grateful than he would have believed.
Tillman pauses in the doorway. “I don’t think I realized until…after…what he did for me. But you–you were part of it from the beginning, weren’t you? That scene in the hospital, that was just to draw me out.”
Finch grimaces a little in recollection. He can’t help but speak up in his own defense. “My reasons may have been fabricated, Doctor Tillman, but I assure you the pain was real.”
Tillman smiles wryly. “I saw the x-rays.” She glances at Reese’s still form, watches his chest rise and fall a couple of times, then turns back to Finch. “You have my number. If you…if he ever needs help again, call me. Any time.”
Finch barely hears the door close behind her. He perches himself on the edge of a chair as lightly as if he were his avian namesake and watches his partner breathe. The fact that he’s only able to do so because of two of the people they’ve protected over the past few months is not lost on him. That one of them was also responsible for Reese being in the line of fire in the first place is only marginally relevant. If he lives, the scales will be balanced. The alternative doesn’t bear contemplating.
They’ve created an army, Finch realizes some hours later, long after Dr. Tillman has gone. An army of people from all walks of life, none of whom could do what he and Reese do, but all of whom owe them their lives in one sense or another. That sort of gratitude demands repayment even when the savior in question does not. Even, perhaps, when it goes against a law-abiding detective’s better judgment. It’s not something he intended, but that won’t stop him from taking advantage of it. He may have acknowledged from the beginning that this enterprise would probably end with both of them dead, but that doesn’t mean he has any desire to hasten that conclusion. Quite the contrary.
He’s beginning to understand that it’s not just about finding a new partner anymore. Finch doesn’t want a new partner. He wants the one he’s got.
It’s going to be a long night.
December 16, 2011
When Reese opens his eyes, it’s daylight. The drawn curtains in the dingy motel room are heavy enough that the room is still mostly dark, but he can see enough places where the sun is trying to get in that he knows it’s been hours since he passed out in Finch’s car. How many is harder to ascertain, though the pain shooting through his abdomen tells him it hasn’t been long enough for his injuries to start to heal. Maybe a day at the most.
He’s endured worse. Still, the stitches tightening draw a sharp breath from him.
Finch looks up, and the relief on his face is obvious despite his efforts to remain implacable. “Welcome back, Mr. Reese.”
So they’re back to Mr. Reese, are they? He’s not surprised. The formal address is an essential part of Finch’s armor, and after the ordeal they went through last night, he’s bound to need that armor more than ever.
Names are funny things. It’s no surprise to John that people of ancient times believed they had power. They do, though not of the magical variety. He’s seen the effect the right name can have in the right circumstances. Hell, he was trained how to wield words just as much as weapons during his time with the Agency, and a person’s name is the most powerful type of word in his arsenal.
Surnames and titles are one thing, but there’s an intimacy implied in a person’s given name, even in this more casual age. In the right circumstances, use it without permission and you unsettle your quarry enough that your job is half done. Drop enough other intimate details of a person’s life into the conversation and the untrained will tell you just about anything you want to know.
That was how it had begun: not that Harold was his partner’s real name, anymore than Reese was his, but it was still familiar enough to have the desired effect of knocking Finch off balance. He had been so damned determined to remain an enigma that John had started digging just to enjoy the disconcerted look on the man’s face when he tracked down another one of his haunts. Well, and Finch seemed to expect it of him. He didn’t want to disappoint.
He’d be hard pressed to pin down when it stopped being a game, but it had definitely been different in that staircase. For all that he still didn’t know about his partner in crime prevention, there had only been one thought in his mind and it wasn’t getting himself to safety. Someone would catch up to him eventually; he’d known that before Stanton’s body was cold. Whether that someone was Mark or Carter or both didn’t matter anymore. But Finch couldn’t carry on if they caught him, too. As long as he stayed away, then at least the good work they’d done wouldn’t all be for nothing.
He knew the chances of that happening from the minute Finch called him “John.”
They regard each other for a long, pregnant moment before Finch speaks again. “You really should be more careful, Mr. Reese. I have no desire to break in a new partner just when I’ve gotten used to the old one.”
Smiling doesn’t involve abdominal muscles so John allows himself that small luxury. “Why, Harold, I didn’t know you cared.” Their banter is as easy to slip back into as a well-worn shirt, and if it’s a little softer than it was yesterday, who’s going to notice?
Finch, apparently, because the look he turns on John then is as earnest as the panic in his voice the night before. “I do. Probably a great deal more than I ought to, if we’re going to persist in this venture.”
It’s a revelation that’s shocking, but not as surprising as he would have thought. That’s been the flaw in the system all along. They can’t afford to care too much about each other because necessity dictates that at least John will continue to put himself in the line of fire. But at the same time, they are each other’s only tenuous connection to the rest of the human race. How could they not care?
It suddenly bothers John that Finch is sitting so far away. He wants to reach out to him, to remind him that he’s real and alive and they’re going to make it through this. “You’re not thinking of quitting on me, are you?”
Finch laughs nervously. “No. Merely that … perhaps you’re not the only one who ought to be more careful.” Then, lest John mistake his meaning, he adds, “I knew what you were running from. Knew what would happen if they ever found you. I should have–”
“Hey.” John struggles to sit up, ignoring the pain. Finch springs to his feet faster than he’s ever seen him move before, his hands going automatically to restrain his recalcitrant patient. John grabs him by the wrist. “You saved my life. You came after me when you should have run the other way to save your own neck. No one’s ever done that for me before.”
Finch stops and looks at him, floored. Well, what do you know? He finally found something Finch doesn’t already know about him. He knows a lot about the numbers his Machine spits at him, but for all that, John suspects Finch doesn’t know what it’s like to be a number to someone. He’s never been expendable.
It explains a lot. Only someone who didn’t know what it was like to be irrelevant could’ve created the Machine in the first place, let alone taken it so personally when one of the lives his program deemed unimportant turned out to be relevant to him.
“Mr. Reese, I–”
John cuts him off. “What I’m trying to say, Harold, is ‘Thank you.'”
It takes a little while, but slowly Finch relaxes. He smiles hesitantly. “You’re welcome. John.”
December 24, 2011
It’s been quiet. Crime hasn’t ground to a halt in New York City, far from it, but the Machine seems to have at least temporarily lost interest. John has appreciated the downtime, but he knows Harold well enough by now to know it’s a lot more disconcerting for him. He’s been sitting in front of his computer for days now, waiting for it to spit out a number, probably wondering if the government found his back door and locked him out.
John’s approach is more philosophical, if also perhaps a bit more fanciful. If the Machine sees everything, then maybe it knows that its champions needed a little time to recover. Maybe it knows how much Harold hates feeling helpless in the face of the numbers, and how little other choice he would’ve had while John was still too weak to play his usual role. It’s also possible he’s giving their electronic number cruncher entirely too much credit, but intentional or not, he’s grateful that a number hasn’t come up while he’s been down for the count. He may worry about Harold obsessing over it, but not half as much as he would if there were numbers for him to obsess over.
He finds Harold right where he expected to find him, even though it’s close to midnight. It doesn’t matter that it’s nearly as cold inside the abandoned library they’ve made their lair–for lack of a better word–as it is outside. At least he’s wearing the overcoat he probably never took off, but the fingers flying over the keyboard are starting to turn blue. He never even hears John come up behind him, which normally wouldn’t be surprising, but they’ve become a lot more in tune with each other over the last couple of months. To the point where Harold is one of the only people John can’t sneak up on.
“Maybe the Machine decided to take the holidays off.”
Harold startles, executing the awkward full-body twist that his injury demands of him just to look over his shoulder. His voice is brisk, unhappy. “Unlikely. Statistically, crime rates tend to rise this time of year, not fall. No, something’s wrong. I just can’t seem to figure out what.”
John shakes his head, unable to completely conceal a fond smile. “Maybe you should take some time off. C’mon. The Machine will still be there tomorrow.”
“You’re my employee, John, not my wife,” Harold answers irritably, this time without turning around.
“Then fire me.” John pulls up a chair and sprawls in it, but not before setting a package on the keyboard in front of his partner.
The object blocking half the keys forces Harold to stop typing, but he doesn’t look or sound happy about it. “What’s this?”
“What does it look like?”
The wrapping is functional, not fancy: plain brown paper like the Post Office once used to wrap parcels, with only the minimum amount of tape and no ribbon or string tied around it. To most people, it probably wouldn’t look like a gift at all, but they’re not most people. Harold doesn’t say anything, just stares at the shape in front of him as if he suspects it of being a bomb.
John doesn’t take it personally. “Happy birthday, Harold.”
“It’s not my birthday,” is the automatic response. He looks at John, then does a double take without actually moving his head. “Oh, don’t tell me it’s yours,” he adds incredulously.
“Is it so difficult to believe I could share a birthday with Jesus?” John quips in response, still smiling. He’s enjoying this entirely too much and they both know it. It’s also not his birthday, but Harold ought to know that if he really dug as deeply as he said he did.
“If Jesus was an actual historical figure, he was most likely born in the spring. December twenty-fifth was an arbitrary date presumably chosen for its proximity to the Winter Solstice and resultant pagan festivities such as Yule or Saturnalia.”
John can’t help but laugh, low under his breath. “It’s a Christmas gift, Harold. You do celebrate Christmas, don’t you?”
Harold grimaces. He still hasn’t touched the package, although he’s stopped regarding it as poison. “Not really, no. Not for any religious reasons, I just never … saw the point.”
Most likely meaning he never had anyone to celebrate with. Nevertheless, if there’s one thing John learned in his years traveling the globe for Uncle Sam, it was a healthy respect for just about any belief system that didn’t threaten to blow up his own, be it a culture’s or an individual’s. “Well, then, consider it a ‘day’ gift.”
It was the right thing to say. Harold’s body uncoils as much as it’s ever able to as he visibly relaxes. He lifts the package off of his keyboard and hefts it for a moment or two as if testing its weight. Then he sets it down on the desk beside the keyboard and begins meticulously removing the tape. The paper falls open and he stares unblinking at the contents.
“So? What do you think?”
“I think I’m paying you too much,” is the slightly awestruck answer. He touches the right-hand petal of the pink orchid on the book’s cover. “This is a first edition.”
The fact that Harold knew that at a glance confirms John’s conviction that he made the right call. He doesn’t point out that there are other ways of obtaining such a thing than paying the $25,000 price tag. Occasionally it pays to be owed a favor. But the currency doesn’t matter. He would’ve paid it, if it had come to that. “You said you collect rare books.”
“Yes, but this …” The man whose eloquent tongue is rarely at a loss for words appears to be speechless. “Why would you … ?”
He’s thanked him twice–once for his purpose and once for his life–but Harold still doesn’t get it. “Because you gave me something a hell of a lot more valuable.”
John stands. If Harold really wants to work himself to death waiting for the Machine to spit out another number, much as he might wish otherwise, there’s not really anything he can do to stop him short of hitting him over the head and dragging him home. He might turn on the heat on the way out, though. It’s the least he can do.
He’s surprised when Harold stops him with a hand on his arm. “Wait. I … it would be nice to have company tonight.”
John smiles and takes his seat again. Keeping his voice deliberately casual, he gestures towards the book. “You know, I’ve never read that. Any good?”
Harold returns the smile. He touches the title, Fer-de-lance, and then opens the cover. “Yes, I think you’d like it. It’s about a reclusive genius and the street wise young man who does his legwork …”
There’ll be other numbers. John knows the Machine won’t stay silent forever, no matter what Harold thinks. But maybe, just for tonight, the lives they’re meant to save are their own.