kudos to Frost Deejn for her beta work


a way which leads home

It starts with one drink. (It always starts with one drink.)

xxx

Instead of the gutter, John wakes up in a soft, clean-smelling bed.

Barefoot and shivering in his underwear, he pads over to the window. The American dream stretches out in front of him: well-kept lawns, white-painted fences and strictly pruned shrubbery. As he stands there a sprinkler goes off and he flinches, hand going for the gun he's not actually carrying.

The only door leads to a hallway. He peers first into a bathroom, then into a second bedroom where the air is stale and the bed still made. Returning to the bathroom he finds his clothes, freshly laundered and neatly folded on top of a thick, pristine towel. That leaves only his shoes and gun still MIA.

It's quiet, in that way that the city never quite manages, but he still picks up on a few sounds: the humming of a computer and the irregular tap tap tapon a keyboard. It startles him, the effect those sounds have on him.

Shaking off the lure of complacency, he pulls on his trousers and shrugs into his shirt. Turning on the shower, he slides the door open and moves softly down the hallway. He stops by the corner and takes in the challenge that the house provides: all bright light and open spaces. Not a place made for skulking or hiding, he thinks, while lingering in the hallway to button up his shirt.

He finds Finch sitting by the dining room table, ramrod straight on a wooden chair. A cup of tea stands, still steaming and seemingly untouched, on a coaster next to the laptop. His isn't a body easily read and it's hard to tell if the stiff back and clenched jaw is disapproval or just badly managed pain.

Unwilling to find out quite yet, John turns and heads back to the bathroom to turn off the shower. There's a toothbrush still in its plastic wrapper and he brushes his teeth, spitting out the taste of bile and whiskey. The medicine cabinet yields nothing but plasters, aspirin and antacids, and he promptly rules out the possibility of this being one of Finch's private residences.

It goes against years of training to make a noisy entrance, but he hopefully makes enough of an effort to get the point across to his host.

"There's coffee in the kitchen," Finch says in lieu of a more traditional 'good morning'. His voice is clipped and gives away as little as his body language. "There should be eggs in the fridge too, if you're up to it."

The kitchen, John finds, is as bright and clean as the rest of the house. He makes and pours himself a cup of coffee, staring out through the window at the neat row of houses while pondering whether or not to prepare the eggs. The thought of eating has his stomach rolling, but he pushes that aside as irrelevant to the decision.

In the end he makes scrambled eggs, opening and closing doors and drawers until he finds a loaf of bread, plates and cutlery. He butters the toast generously but, flashing to a memory of Finch pushing the salt and pepper across a diner table, is careful not to over-season the eggs.

The smell of food makes his mouth water for all the wrong reasons. Swallowing down the rising nausea he picks up the plates and carries them into the living space. He plays with the idea of offering a new cup of tea, but settles for just placing the plate next to the coaster. Finch, he has to admit, doesn't look particularly impressed by the housewife routine.

"Shouldn't take your pills on an empty stomach," John reminds him, not playing a hunch as much as making an educated guess. He's halfway through his own eggs, eating on auto-pilot the way perhaps only soldiers can, before Finch pushes away the laptop. He drags the plate a few inches closer, the rigid movements grudging enough that it can surely be counted as a win.

He misses Finch conjuring up his pills from out of thin air but glances up just in time to catch him dry-swallowing them with a barely noticeable grimace. Looking away, John shovels another forkful of eggs into his mouth. The silence that wraps itself around them isn't exactly unfriendly, but it's hardly comfortable either. He scrapes his plate clean, and then waits for Finch to finish. Only Finch doesn't, but rather pushes the plate away half-full before pulling out a paper handkerchief. He wipes at his mouth, the kind of fussy motion that hints at an overbearing mother.

"You prefer them over-easy?" John asks, keeping his voice mild and quiet the way he learned to a long time ago.

"My breakfast preferences are neither here nor there," Finch answers, looking straight at John for the first time that morning. He looks much the same as always, no messy emotions marring his pointy features. The realization comes as more of a relief than it should, leaving John to wonder just what he had been expecting.

"Regardless of what you might think, Mr. Reese, this is notan intervention," Finch continues, voice as crisp as his dry-cleaned shirt and his observation so spot-on that it's unsettling. Staring pointedly at the eggs, he adds, "Nor is it a social occasion. I have a job for you."

John pushes away his plate and straightens up in the hard chair.

"Someone's plotting murder in suburbia?" he asks, glancing out through one of the many windows again. Finch follows his glance, his face a little blank as if he's taking the question under careful consideration.

"Not that I'm aware," he finally says. "No, this time we're doing something different."

xxx

After hearing Finch out, John spares a second to acknowledge to himself that there's nothing stopping him from refusing the assignment. But, at the end of the day, pride isn't part of his professional toolbox and, to be fair, he's been asked to do far worse than dismantle a home. (Dismantling bodiessprings to mind.)

He starts in the far end of the house and works methodically onwards, towards the dining room where Finch still sits perched in front of his computer. Packing and cleaning makes for mind-numbing work except for when it doesn't; he finds a gun taped to the bottom of the bedside table, a heavy safe in the bathroom, a photo album stashed behind the books in the bookshelf.

Finch looks young in the photos; he smirks at the camera, wine glass half-empty and his body slouched with the carelessness of youth. Some other faces recur as well: men with the pale skin of office dwellers and a woman with a shy smile. John can think of half a dozen ways to misappropriate at least one of those photos, but even in the scenarios where Finch would never be able to prove anything he would still know, so John settles for just memorizing each one.

There are no names scribbled on the back of the photos, no inscription penned down inside the books, not as much as a bus ticket or receipt from a favorite coffee shop used as an improvised bookmark. The books themselves are mostly fictional works, titles he recognizes as classics mixed with thin volumes of poetry and some heavy tomes on political science. He can maybe imagine Finch reading the latter, but the complete works of Jane Austen... not so much.

Filling yet another cardboard box with books, he thinks perhaps it is an intervention after all.

Either that or a punishment.

xxx

An engine comes to a halt just outside and he stops to peek out from behind the flimsy curtain.

Outside, a man — mid-twenties, tall but thin, baseball cap pulled low and a bulky jacket — saunters up to the door. He's holding a pizza box, which means less than nothing, and John moves without thinking. His own gun is God-knows-where, but there's the gun he found under the table, and the cardboard boxes had come with a box cutter. Pocketing both he leaves the room and jogs down the hallway.

"Finch," he says, pitching his voice so that the warning will carry.

Finch, hand already on the door handle, does turn to look at him but still opens the door. There's a twenty already in his hand though, so John relaxes the grip on the box cutter somewhat.

"You're not usually so easily spooked," Finch comments, after the delivery man is paid and the door once again closed and locked. The hallway smells of pepperoni and cheese now and John's stomach rumbles hungrily. At the sound there's a flicker of amusement behind the glasses and Finch turns to lead the way into the living room.

John follows, taking the time to brush dust and cobwebs off his trousers. Walking past Finch he heads into the kitchen, picking up plates and glasses, but no cutlery. If Finch wants to eat his pizza with a knife and fork, he can fetch those himself.

"If this is a job," John says when he gets back, "then let me get the door. Please."

There's no answer. Picking up a slice of pizza, he ponders how there's truly no dignified way to eat pizza, grease slicking one's mouth and fingers. For all that he's already seen Finch nap by the computer and gulp down mug after mug of black tea while working late in the night, this is new and not without a certain amusement value.

"I always imagined you as more of a steak man," he finally says, unable to keep from prodding his dinner companion.

Finch grabs a handful of paper napkins, then slides the remaining pile across the table to bump against John's plate.

"How interesting," he then says, wiping grease from the side of his mouth, "you see, when I first read your file all those months ago, I imagined that you'd be a far more taciturn man. I guess we're both wrong on occasion."

John swallows down his laughter.

His head has stopped aching and his belly is full and warm in a decidedly pleasant way.

"I'll work on that," he promises.

xxx

The sun sets and the atmosphere in the house changes; the shadows deepen in the corners and the silence becomes a little bit more palpable. The nearby houses mostly have their curtains drawn, but here and there John catches the flickering light of a TV or computer screen.

Taping up the last box of clothes—all belonging to a man; someone taller than Finch, all broad shoulders and slim hips, maybe in his thirties—he tries to remember a time when his evenings had been spent watching television. It's like sticking his head into a bucket of muddy water, and leaves him feeling cold and in need of a shower. Putting down the box cutter he pads down—still barefoot, as Finch hasn't seen fit to return his shoes—to the living room.

"We staying here overnight?" he asks.

Finch looks up, studying him with eyes that make John think of windows painted black. He stands perfectly still under the scrutiny, wondering, not for the first time, what kind of man it is that Finch has convinced himself that he's hired.

"I hope I'm not interrupting your evening plans?" Finch finally says, answering John's question with one of his own. His voice is smooth and pleasant, the words polite and spoken like the perfect host. Not at all like someone who'd tracked down and kidnapped a trained CIA agent at some point between midnight and dawn.

And to think that Finch had somehow managed to keep a straight face when claiming that this wasn't an intervention.

"Just need to know if I should strip the beds or not," John says, impressed against his will.

xxx

Finch creaks when he finally stands up, the sound loud and unexpected. All colour drains from his face, leaving it gray and the soft hiss of air exiting Finch's lungs has John thinking of men he's watched die. He considers moving closer in case Finch falls, then ponders leaving in case Finch wants privacy. The inability to make a decision leaves him standing frozen, like a soon-to-be-dead new recruit in a war zone.

After spending too long watching Finch stand unmoving, fingers clenched around the table as if it's the only thing keeping him on his feet, John leaves. He goes to the kitchen and prepares tea, giving himself the time between turning on the kettle and the water boiling to feel... whatever it is he feels. Angry, maybe. Or sad. Or like he needs a drink. It's always been hard to tell those three apart.

When he goes back, a cup of steaming tea in his hands like a peace offering, Finch has sat down again. The color's back in his lips, if not his face, but his hair's spiky with sweat and the hands which accept the cup shake. It would be cruel to comment, John thinks. In fact, it seems wrong to even notice.

"You sleeping in here?" he asks instead.

"Second bedroom," Finch says. "If I need to; this will keep me busy for a while longer."

John just nods, reading between the lines. With nothing left to do himself he sinks down into the couch, peering over at the black television screen. Wonders, again, if this is what normal people do, even tries to imagine himself watching a game with a wife reading next to him and their children asleep upstairs.

"You can turn it on, if you want," Finch eventually offers. He's started typing again, but slower than previously.

The remote's on a pile of scientific magazines by the table, the top one still glossy despite the date printed in the corner. A press of a button and the screen flickers alive. John find that he balks at the thought of watching an actual game though, so channel jumps instead until he comes across a twenty-four hour international news station. Eventually he falls asleep to a movie reel of the dead, starved and displaced.

That, and the sound of Finch typing.

xxx

John wakes up every once in a while, mind clear enough to take stock of the couch, the television and the typing. Each time he feels for his borrowed gun and looks for Finch before, finding the first tucked safely underneath the couch and the later still in front of the laptop, falling back into a light sleep.

xxx

At some point he wakes up, his gun under the now familiar couch but Finch missing.

Gray morning light has found its way in between the gaps in the curtains. The laptop is closed and left abandoned on the table. The house is quiet: no water running, no floor boards creaking. John moves easily, pausing only to notice that someone's turned off the television.

He finds Finch upstairs, behind the closed door of the second bedroom. The man's asleep, stretched out on his back with pillows under his knees and a folded towel under his neck. The suit jacket hangs neatly folded over the back of a chair, but the feet sticking out underneath the blanket are still clad in shoes. Too hard to lean forward to undo the laces, maybe.

John closes the door and sneaks down the stairs again.

xxx

His own shoes are stashed in two different drawers, the left shoe next to a collection of old coins and the right one on top of a collection of tourist guides to Paris, Rome and London. His gun is inside a giant ceramic pot, underneath the long dead remains of a house plant. The ceramic pot comes as no surprise—the dry plant skeleton had obviously been moved recently—but he can't help but grin as he comes across his shoes.

There are no eggs left in the fridge, just butter and the loaf of cheap supermarket bread. On the counter there's nothing but the tin of stale tea leaves and a jar of instant coffee. Kneeling down and peering into the cupboards he finds tins and non-perishables though, and soon he's serving himself a breakfast of toast and sardines in tomato sauce.

As he eats, he ponders the mystery that is the house. Clearly, Finch wants it gone. Not simply burned to the ground—something which would have taken little more than a thug with a lighter—but professionally cleared of anything which might connect it to its previous occupant.

Yet there would be other ways—better and more efficient ways—to achieve that goal. There's no need for Finch to linger here, no need for him to supervise John so closely, no need for him to stay the night at such an unreasonable cost to his own well-being. Mind clearer now that it's no longer 'the day after', John acknowledges that there's more to it than just Finch's reaction to John's own lapse.

Whoever had lived here—read those books, collected those coins, picked out those towels—had been someone Finch had once known. Someone who wasn't coming back to reclaim his home. Someone who had been gone for quite some time and who Finch had found it within himself to let go of first now.

It's a piece of a bigger puzzle, which means that John can't let it go. But, mind dredging forward a hazy memory of Finch murmuring "Go back to sleep now, Reese,"he decides to let it rest.

For now, at least.

xxx

He's mostly done packing up the living room when Finch starts moving around upstairs. The shower runs for as long as the warm water lasts and it takes Finch several minutes to navigate the stairs. John keeps the water boiling and toasts a few slices of bread.

"Good morning," he says, not glancing over his shoulder even though he's heard the steps come to a rest near the doorway.

"More like afternoon," Finch says, voice gravelly and tired. "Is that for me?"

By way of an answer, John picks up the plate and cup and carries them out to the table. Finch follows, wet hair plastered against his skull and the wrinkled shirt carrying the sour scent of dried perspiration. John's smelled worse though, has himself spent days holed up in tiny, hot rooms while waiting for orders to move in for the kill.

"Guess we're pretty much done here," he says, sitting down opposite Finch and stretching out his legs so there's no way the other man can miss the shoes. Eventually even catching his eyes, John gives in to the urge to wiggles his feet and is rewarded by a look of mild amusement.

"A truck will be here later to pick up the boxes."

"Back to normal tomorrow, then?"

Finch carefully chews and swallows a mouthful of toast before answering.

"Yes, Mr. Reese," he confirms. "Back to normal tomorrow."