Author's note: Hi! I'm back with a new, longer story. It's already complete and beta'ed, so updates should be fairly regular.
The story is set around mid-season 2; it's a Reese-Finch adventure, with tons of angst, action, bromance and drama and, well, me being me, also quite a bit of Reese-whump and hurt/comfort, like my previous works.
It's rated T due to some swearing and blood/injury; but it's canon-typical violence (John does tend to get shot quite often...) and, well, Fusco swears a lot when he has to put up with Team Machine...
A quick note before we begin. This story has been in the making for a very, very long time (years, no kidding).
It took me ages to write it, and even more time to find the courage to have someone else read it (my wonderful friend and invaluable betareader, DancingInTheDark8 to whom goes my deepest gratitude!). Still, I waited almost another year before I finally decided it was time to share it (and, trust me, I'm still terribly nervous about posting it!). A heartfelt thank you goes to Ninjadevil2000 for her encouragement and help.
I had a lot of fun writing it; and I sincerely hope you'll enjoy reading it just as much.
I'd love to hear what you guys think about it; if you feel like it, drop me a line. It'll make my day.
Disclaimers: obviously, I don't own anyhting. I'm just playing around a bit with the characters, and I promise I'll give them back (relatively) unarmed when I'm done.
The air that morning was cold and damp. The persistent, pouring rain of the previous days had finally abated to some extent, giving way to an icy drizzle, but the greyness of the day did nothing to help Reese's foul mood. Despite the very early hour, the streets were already crawling with people hurrying towards their jobs in the cold morning hours but John paid them no heed. He was lost in his thoughts – sullen and morose as they were.
They had lost a number, earlier that week. A young woman, Martha Ellis, who had found herself in a financially tight spot and had let herself get involved in corporate espionage. But it had taken John too long to figure out the whole situation – they had focused their suspicions in the wrong direction. By the time Reese had realized that Martha's alcoholic ex- husband was actually not the threat and that instead it was someone in the firm she worked for that wanted her dead, it had been too late.
He hadn't arrived in time and now she was dead. Martha Ellis. His brain refused to let go of her name, and it left a bitter taste in his mouth.
It wasn't the first loss since he had begun working with Finch, and John was experienced enough to know very well that it wouldn't be the last. It was inevitable, really; even with Finch's apparently bottomless resources, Reese's skills and the Detectives' help, there was just so much they could do, and they were bound to fail from time to time.
In truth, statistically speaking, rationally speaking, their success rate was remarkable, as a small, analytical part of his brain sometimes reminded him. Even more so, considering the scarce information they had for each number to begin with, and the fact that they needed to lay low while working the cases. They saved most of them, stopped most of the violent crimes, prevented most of the otherwise fated tragedies; some losses along the way were inevitable.
Yet, every life they couldn't save – he couldn't save – was a failure that weighed heavily upon him and, each and every time it happened, he couldn't help but spend hours, or days, wondering whether he could have prevented it. Brooding over it, his old handlers would have said. Of course, back then, the death of the target was nearly always the intended outcome and not, like now, a tragic fatality. But it didn't change the bottom line - mulling over past missions, or worrying about contingent casualties was never encouraged anyway.
But the nagging doubts had always been there, and still were, now more than ever. Maybe there was something he could've done differently, something that might have changed the outcome. Maybe he had failed to notice something relevant that might have saved the number's life. Maybe…
He sighed, pausing in front the usual kiosk to buy breakfast. Kara would have laughed at him, had she seen him now. She would have found his gloomy musing ridiculous and would have wasted no time in making fun of him for that.
With all the lives he had taken, did it make any sense to feel guilty about this? Yet another death to add to his list, more blood on his hands. But did it really matter? John felt it did. He didn't know why – there wasn't a reasonable explanation – but it did.
He handed the vendor a few bills and coins and grabbed the donuts and the steaming paper cups. A familiar smell reached his nose – coffee, tea, pastries – a pleasant, reassuring smell he associated with the mornings in the Library, with numbers, with Finch.
He frowned as his thoughts turned to the older man. Harold had read right into him in the last few days, into his stony silence. He had read into him, yes, and also listened to everything that had transpired in the last couple of days, after he had found Martha's body and realized he had failed to save her. And so, Finch being Finch, he had tried to talk with John. Awkward and circumspect and clearly uncomfortable, but he had tried nonetheless, but what was there to be said? They'd been too slow, he'd been too late and she was dead. Nothing more than that, and so the previous night the ex-op had stonewalled Harold's latest attempt and left the Library quite abruptly, escaping from a conversation that would have been grievous and totally useless. He was sorry now for his brusque departure – it was uncalled for, rude perhaps, and Harold didn't deserve it, but he had no intention whatsoever to talk about that. The sooner Finch understood that, the better for both of them.
He finally turned the corner to the Library side entrance and let himself in, juggling the cups and box in his hands to close the metal gate.
Finch was already there, despite the very early hour, as he discovered as soon as he reached the stairs thanks to the immediate appearance of Bear on the top landing. The Malinois was enthusiastic to see his alpha and hurried to greet him, wagging his tail with a high-pitched whine. A quick pat on the head, a few well- chosen words of praise, then Reese proceeded to the main area of the Library. Harold's welcome was definitely less enthusiastic - it bordered instead on the wary side if the considering scrutiny he was subjected to was of any indication.
The ex-op offered him the tea – as peace offerings went, it was probably a little poor, but Finch accepted it with a small, tentative nod of his head and a hint of a smile.
"We got a new number?"
The older man nodded, taking a sip from the cup. "Two, to be exact."
John leaned back on the wall, frowning. It wouldn't be the first time the Machine gave them more than one number together, but it was admittedly quite unusual.
"Any connections between them?"
"Nothing immediately obvious," Harold replied, shaking his head, "but I've just done a preliminary background check." He got up, pictures in hand, and proceeded to tape them to the glass board.
"Robert Carson," he said, pointing towards the first picture, depicting a forty-something dark-haired man, "software engineer, works in an IT company. His digital footprint is virtually nil." Then he tapped his index on the second photo – this time, a man of indefinable age wearing a camo cap. "Eddie Harper. Switched four jobs in the last six months, ranging from delivery service to bartending, which is his current occupation."
Reese studied the pictures, pondering the problem of having to keep track of two people at the same time. He obviously couldn't follow them both, and he was reluctant to have Finch tail one of them – the older man's previous attempts in the field hadn't been particularly successful. He didn't have the necessary training or experience. Besides, after the kidnapping, he doubted the older man would even consider taking a more active part in helping the number – it was still too soon. Maybe one of the Detectives?
"Who do you think is more urgent?" he settled to ask.
"Hard to say," Harold replied, briefly looking at him, then limped back towards the computer. He sat down and started typing. "We just know that the danger related to the number we're given is imminent, but we don't know how much."
"Right. So? Where do we start?" Reese inquired, discreetly dropping half of his donut on the floor for Bear who happily laid into it without hesitation.
"Well, I'd like to do some more research before we begin," Finch slowly said. His eyes were still glued to the monitor, but a minute tightening of his mouth was a clear sign that the impromptu pastry-based feeding hadn't gone unnoticed and that it was definitely not appreciated. "Maybe there is a connection between the two numbers after all and finding it out would undoubtedly be of great help."
He turned his attention to the stack of papers and folders next to him and extracted an envelope, then handed it to Reese. "It'll take me a couple of hours, probably less. In the meantime, could you bring this to Detective Carter?"
The ex -op accepted the proffered folder. "What is it?"
"Something on one of her most recent cases," Harold replied succinctly. "She might find it useful."
As answers went, it wasn't one of the most informative ones Finch had ever given him, but it was enough. John trusted the older man's judgement.
He slid the envelope in the inside pocket of his coat and left to run the errand.
It wasn't hard for Reese to find Carter – she was at a café close to her apartment, where she sometimes had breakfast with her kid before he left for school and she headed for the precinct. He spotted them at the usual table by the window, talking and laughing, and settled to wait, unwilling to interrupt their daily routine.
Then, as soon as Taylor left the café, he got inside and slid into the booth she still occupied.
"Good morning, Detective," he rasped, and signaled for a coffee refill.
Carter didn't look particularly surprised to see him – by now he guessed she had got used to him popping up uninvited at the most various times and places and took it in stride, definitely more than Fusco did. She did send him a studying look, though, her eyes slightly narrowed, but didn't say anything.
He waited until the waitress brought them coffee, then handed Carter the envelope.
She took it with a nod of thanks, immediately sliding the papers out of the envelope and started reading the content. He let his gaze wander around the café as she perused the file, scanning his surroundings more out of habit than real necessity. The small establishment was packed, almost all the booths occupied and a dozen people at the counter. They all looked so ordinary, so normal. He fleetingly wondered what he and Carter looked like to the casual observer. Colleagues having breakfast together? Friends? Lovers, maybe? He blinked at the unexpected, unbidden thought and turned his eyes back on the Detective, just in time to see her nodding again – this time in satisfaction – and placing the papers back in the envelope.
"I take it it's useful," John commented, fighting the urge to fidget. Sitting down in a café was the last thing he wanted to do right now – he wanted to be up and about and working a new case.
"It is," she agreed. "Thank Finch on my behalf."
The scrutinizing stare was back, and John forced his expression to remain blank and his fingers not to drum on the table.
"You wanna tell me what's going on?" she finally asked, breaking the heavy silence that had fallen upon them.
He stiffened at the unexpected question. "Excuse me?"
"Oh, come on John, do you think I'm blind? Or stupid?" Joss snorted. She kept her voice low, mindful of the fact that they were in a public place where everybody could hear them, but her tone was forceful. "First you ask Fusco to pull a file on a guy, a couple of days later the ex-wife turns up dead, and the day after that the usual, mysterious vigilante goes on a rampage." She gave a pointed look to his right hand holding the cup, the knuckles scraped and so deeply bruised to the point of discoloration. "Are you going to tell me this is all a coincidence?"
He kept his eyes on his coffee, refusing to answer, and she correctly interpreted his silence. "Like I thought."
"So. Martha - she was one of your projects, right?" Carter asked, her tone considerably softer. "What happened?"
He frowned at the kindness in her voice – it was undeserved, misplaced. It sounded like she was somehow sorry for him and it felt wrong. He wasn't the victim here. Not the perpetrator either, maybe, but definitely not without guilt.
"I was too late," he intoned, struggling to keep a blank façade. "When I got there, she was dead. It wasn't the ex-husband, though. He wasn't involved at all."
Silence fell again – Carter was obviously waiting for him to elaborate further, but the ex-op had nothing more to add on the matter. He brought the cup to his lips and took another sip of a coffee he didn't really want, feigning a composure he didn't really feel.
"This is all you have to say?" she scoffed after a while, a mixture of disbelief and outrage coloring her tone, when it became clear that he was done with the subject.
A shrug was his only answer, and it incensed her. She slammed her own cup on the table with such vehemence that some of the coffee spilled out.
"Really, John? This is not a game – I have a murder case to solve! I'm not going to let a crime go unpunished just because you don't want to talk!"
"Unsolved maybe," he quietly corrected her, his voice dark, "but not unpunished." Definitely not unpunished. "And trust me, I know it's not a game."
She closed her eyes briefly, whether in an effort to remain calm or out of despair was yet to be seen. "What did you do? What happened to Martha's killer?"
"I made sure he won't harm anyone again." It wasn't the answer to her question, and it was blatantly obvious.
"You can't – You can't do that! You can't go around and kill people because you think they deserve it! For God's sake, do you even realize I'm a cop?" Carter asked, furious.
"I never said I killed him," he cut her off, apparently unperturbed.
She stared at him, taken aback. He had phrased his denial in a rather ambiguous way and they both knew it. "But did you?" She finally settled to ask.
"As I said, I took care of the matter."
Carter shook her head, annoyed, but accepted defeat and let the matter drop, not before throwing a warning his way, though. "You know I'll have to keep investigating on this, right?"
The ex-op gave a single nod in response but said nothing. He felt his cellphone vibrate in his pocket, signaling him an incoming text, and quickly read it. Then, he looked up to relay the message.
"Finch says he'll provide you with some evidence on the murder."
Another sigh, another shake of her head, but the annoyance on her face had dampened to some degree. "You have to be careful, John."
He forced out a small smile he didn't feel. "Duly noted."
"I'm serious. More careful than this," the Detective insisted, grabbing his wrist and keeping it pinned to the table, the discolored knuckles in plain sight between them. Her grip was tight enough to be almost uncomfortable and her eyes bore into his, intense, unrelenting. Demanding his attention. "We all fail sometime and we have to live with it. You're no exception."
"Yeah, that's rather obvious," he retorted and this time he couldn't keep the bitterness out of his voice.
She didn't reply right away. Instead, she kept her gaze on him, her eyes slightly narrowed, studying him, pondering her next words.
"It wasn't your fault," she finally told him, her tone quiet, soft. The grip on his hand relented, but her hand stayed there, the touch morphing into something gentler, comforting.
He jerked up on his feet as soon as the words left her mouth, clearly intent on refusing to acknowledge her statement, and tossed a couple of bills on the table. "I have to go."
"Yeah, right. Thanks for the file," the Detective said, drumming a finger over the folder. She hesitated, then called him back. "John. Stay out of trouble."
Her concern was plain to see and the openness surprised Reese. It wasn't just the obvious worry about what the ex-op might or might not do, or about the boundaries he had no qualms breaking. No, it was more than that. She was worried about him. His freedom, his wellbeing. It was somehow disconcerting, yet so very Carter.
Reese allowed another smile to pop up – this time it felt a bit more genuine, even if still pained. The first sincere smile in days. "Always."
"You knew she would want to discuss the murder, didn't you, Finch?" Reese asked as soon as he got back to the Library. He tried and failed to keep accusation and annoyance out of his tone.
"Well, as you just said, it's a murder we're talking about, and she works Homicide. It was predictable enough that she'd ask questions," Finch replied stiffly.
Reese frowned. He couldn't shake the suspicion that it wasn't a coincidence that Harold had wanted him to deliver the file to Carter in person instead of sending it to her via mail. It wouldn't be too surprising after all.
It had already happened a couple of times, especially after a particularly gruesome or ill-fated case ended badly. Finch had tried to make him talk about it, apparently under the misguided impression that venting or opening up about what had transpired might somehow help John.
It never did, though, not in John's book at least. Talking only served to dredge up bad memories and awkward feelings and didn't change things anyway. Thinking and analyzing were far better options, for they helped single out and determine what mistakes had been made and which strategy would have been a better choice and what steps could have led to a more satisfying conclusion. Which was more than talking could ever accomplish, in John's opinion.
He had tried to explain it all to Finch, but the older man wouldn't be deterred. And this time, having failed at making John talk, he had probably thought Carter might have better luck with it.
Or maybe he was just being paranoid, he thought.
"It's her job, Mr. Reese, something you already knew when you chose to involve her in our activities," the older man went on, breaking through John's train of thoughts. "She'll always ask questions about our activities I'm afraid, and voice her opinions too." He finally turned towards Reese, pinning him with a piercing glare. "For the record, today I tend to agree with Detective Carter's judgement."
John felt that, after all, a change of subject was in order. Completely ignoring Finch's last statement, he steered the conversation towards a safer direction.
"Did you find anything useful on the numbers?"
A barely concealed sigh, and Harold reverted his attention back to the monitor.
"Mmmh, yes. Mr. Harper, here," he began, pointing at the camo-cap guy. "It hasn't been his best period. He's having trouble keeping a job – alcohol problems, maybe, judging by the DUI charges in more than an occasion. Has several debts, he's been evicted and he's months behind on alimony to the ex-wife who, incidentally, is marrying another man in a few weeks. And," he added, turning to look at Reese, "it seems like he's bought a weapon. Illegally."
"Doesn't sound very promising," the ex-op replied with a grimace.
"Not at all, especially considering the fact that it's not immediately clear who the intended victim is."
"Supposing he's actually planning to shoot someone," Reese objected, earning himself a disbelieving look from Finch. "Maybe he's plotting a robbery, or it's just for show," he shrugged. "The other one?"
"There's not much on Mr. Carson," Finch replied with a frown. "He's very careful with his digital information, which, if you ask me, should be a sound habit for anybody working in the IT, so it doesn't really mean much. Everything is neat and spotless - bank account and emails. No social networks, no fidelity programs, no online shopping."
"Basically, we got nothing," John summarized.
"Well, there is something interesting, actually. There will be a, ah, convention on cyber-security, and he's going to participate. Apparently, attendance to training courses is mandatory every two years in the firm he works for."
Reese blinked, perplexed at Harold's satisfied tone. He couldn't see what Finch's point was. "And so…?" he prompted after a brief pause.
"Well, so we know where he will be for the next three days. It'll be easier to tail him. Besides, it's a closed seminar, invitation-only so to speak, so presumably it should be easy to investigate on potential threats arising there, since all people attending are registered in a data-base I have already hacked."
Well, maybe it was an advantage, knowing in advance that the IT engineer was going to be at the convention all day long. On the other hand, though, John knew he was going to have to multitask since the Machine had given them two numbers. He'd need to keep track of both men at the same time and this might potentially mean that he'd have to come and go from the convention center several times during the few days, at the risk of someone noticing his unusual activity, even more so if the number of participants was relatively small.
Again, he considered the option of involving one of the Detectives, pondering the pros and cons of such a choice. Having one of them tail one of the numbers might make his job easier – but he wasn't sure it was doable. For starters, they both had a day job, and their support was often recalcitrant, especially in case of potentially day-long assignments. Besides, Fusco was deep with HR right now, working on a little side project on John's request. Carter, on the other hand, was going to be busy testifying in Court in the next few days, this making her schedule unpredictable at best. Not a good premise for a successful stake out.
He gave the thought some further consideration, then he decided against involving Carter or Fusco. For the moment at least, the best option was to work on the numbers without the Detectives' help, at least until he figured out what the threat was. Once that was determined, if need be, he would perhaps ask for assistance.
He focused his attention back on Finch, ready to plan their next moves.
"Mmmh. Well, first of all I'll need to be registered into the convention, and I'm sure you'll have no problem doing that," he began, his tone practical and his mind already tackling the next problem. He was about to ask for Harper's address when Finch cut him off.
"Of course adding a participant in the data-base is no problem," the billionaire said, dismissing the problem with a quick wave of his hand. "But I think you should focus on Harper for now."
"Finch, you said it yourself, we don't know how urgent the threats are," Reese objected with a frown. "Harper seems more dangerous, but we can't just ignore the other guy."
"And we will not ignore him," Harold replied. "I'm just saying that we might not need you to go undercover at the convention."
The ex-op stared at Finch, more perplexed than ever. Surely, he couldn't be thinking about asking one of the Detectives to spend a couple of days at an IT meet-up.
"I doubt that Carter or even Fusco could be convinced to-"
Finch turned towards him – swiveling his whole upper body in his typical manner – and fixed his stare on him.
"I wasn't talking about them either, Mr. Reese. I meant me."
John blinked, taken aback. It wasn't what he had expected, and truth to be told, he was less than thrilled at the idea. Necessity had put Harold in the field before – for starters, all the previous occasions in which the Machine had spit out more than one number, but also during other cases when Reese had found himself in a tight spot, Finch had been forced to leap into action. All those instances were clearly etched in John's memory, for the outcome had often been alarming, if not outright dangerous for the older man. That time with four numbers who had witnessed the congressman's son's accident, Harold had been involved in an explosion. Then the identity theft case, when he had been drugged with MDMA. And then the kidnapping by Root, which was, albeit for different reasons, still a sore spot for both men.
No, the more he thought about the prospect, the less he liked it.
"It's not necessary, Harold," he finally replied, careful. "I can take care of both."
"No, you can't," the billionaire retorted, apparently miffed at his denial. "Unless you haven't noticed, you're not ubiquitous."
"It's doable," the ex-op persisted, disregarding his own doubts on the matter. "We'll just monitor both and intervene first in the most urgent."
"And how are you supposed to tail two people at once? Carson will stay at the convention center for hours – I'll be able to hack into his mobile and laptop during the conference while you follow Harper," Finch pressed.
Reese shook his head, annoyed at the other man's apparent lack of concern about going undercover. "It could be dangerous – we don't even know if he's a victim or not! You shouldn't take such a risk. We'll find another way."
Harold turned back towards the monitor, the stiff, defiant set of his shoulders a clear tell of his unwillingness to be talked out of it. "It's the most logical choice, Mr. Reese. Besides," he added, "it'll be an IT conference. In such an environment, I'm more likely to be inconspicuous. You'd stick out like a sore thumb."
Reese rubbed a hand over his face, trying to no avail to keep calm. How could Finch not see it? He nervously paced the room, unable to stay still. The edginess he had felt before at the café was back in full vengeance – and the contrast with Finch's rigid stance was painfully obvious. He made an effort to keep his temper in check.
"This is my part of the job," he insisted vehemently. "You going undercover - that's an unnecessary risk and you know it."
"It's not, Mr. Reese. If we want to help them both, we have to!"
And then Reese snapped.
"What, you afraid I'm gonna lose another one?" The words were out before he could stop them and he regretted them as soon as they were out, biting and cruel as they were. It was unfair, uncalled for. Harold had never blamed him for the people he failed to save or the mistakes he made, not even when he should have.
A heavy silence fell over them, only broken by Bear's high-pitched whine - the Malinois having obviously caught on the tension between his masters.
"I'm sorry," the ex-op finally said, embarrassed by his outburst. He couldn't see Finch's face, for the older man was still facing the laptop, but it wasn't hard to picture his expression – the frown, the tightened lips. "But I still think it's not a good idea."
"Be as it may, Mr. Reese, my decision is taken," Harold replied. His tone was quiet, soft almost, but the firmness was unmistakable. "The conference begins today, I'll go there this afternoon. I'll lay low, find out something more about Mr. Carson and hopefully learn what the threat is. Then we'll plan the next steps."
Stated like that, John had to admit it sounded reasonable enough. Not completely riskless, maybe, but prudent within reason. Yet, as he went back to his nervous pacing around the room, he realized he couldn't shake a bad feeling about it. But arguing was pointless, that much was clear: Finch wouldn't be steered. The best Reese could do was get things done quickly with Harper and take over as soon as possible with the software engineer case.
"Won't you run the risk of walking into some old acquaintance of yours?" John asked, his voice low and even. "It's an IT conference, you might see people you studied or worked with…before."
"Oh, no, not likely," Harold waved a hand to dismiss the thought. "The convention is a minor one, not the kind of event where you might find M.I.T. graduates. It'll be mostly low-level software engineers working in small businesses." He cocked his head to the side and added, "besides, I checked the names of the people attending, and there's no one I know."
"Unless they are using false names, Finch."
"Fair enough. But I'm telling you, it's unlikely. You should see the list of lectures planned – it's short of appalling."
"Either way, keep your eyes open," Reese instructed him. He didn't like Harold's plan, not at all, but if he had no chance to dissuade him, he could at least make sure the older man was as prepared as possible. "Lay low," he went on, "and, as appalling as they might be, always listen at least to a small part of what's being said in the lectures you'll attend, so that should someone ask you a question about them afterwards, you'll manage to come up with something pertinent."
"Mr. Reese, I do know how to keep a low profile," Harold retorted in mild exasperation. "As a matter of fact, I consider myself quite an expert by now. Do I need to remind you that you're not the only one with several false identities?"
But Reese ignored the objection and went on with his laundry list of advice. "Keep track of people getting in and out in and whenever you get in a room, always be aware of all the possible exits and furniture that might offer cover if need be."
At the last statement, Harold turned to gape at Reese. "John, it's an IT convention. I don't know what kind of conferences you ever attended to, but in my experience, these kinds of events don't involve getting shot at or jumping from windows or whatever it is it usually happens to you."
The ex-op merely shrugged, stopping his pacing in front of the glass board where the numbers' pictures were pinned. He absently stared at the photos without really seeing them, his mind busy mulling over the plan. "Better come prepared, Finch. Besides, we don't know if this guy is in danger, if he's a threat, or even if there actually is a connection between the convention and the dangerous situation he's involved in, but we can't rule it out. Where will it be held, anyway?"
"Congress Plaza Hotel. The organizers have reserved the whole first three floors for the talks."
"Mmmh. Download the schematics of the building on your phone-"
"Mr. Reese, I hardly think that-"
"-and keep your earbud on, Harold," John concluded as if he had never been interrupted. "Any problems, I'll get there as fast as I can."
"Don't worry, Mr. Reese, I'll just stay back, watch him and collect some data, and when we'll have sufficient intel, you'll step in."
John nodded reluctantly, unconvinced by what he thought to be a sketchy plan relying on fate far too much, but said nothing. After one last look to the pictures, he stepped back from the glass board, ready to leave. The sooner he got to work on Eddie Harper's case and put an end to it, the less time Finch would have to be on his own.
Aaaand that's it for the first chapter. Thoughts?