Huge thanks to Frost Deejn for all help.
He has a vague memory of his mother advising him against taking in strays.
Walking into his office and finding Reese sitting in his chair, eating his Thai leftovers and reading the book he'd left open by his laptop he can appreciate the wisdom of that adage. Feeling not too unlike the bears must have upon finding Goldilocks he clears his throat and crosses his arms over his chest.
Reese raises his head, looking, of course, neither surprised nor abashed.
"I read these books as a boy," he murmurs, sounding as amused as Finch has ever heard him. Tilting his head to the side and offering one of his half-smiles he then adds; "I guess, for us, this is life after Reichenbach."
There's nothing in that which isn't completely unprecedented and Finch finds himself, once again, rendered speechless by the man. Rather than try to figure out the rules of whatever new mind-game Reese has come up with, Finch falls back to what he knows best.
"We have a new case," he says, launching straight into work.
Paul Becker has lost a few pounds since he had his passport photo taken, but that still leaves his face round and his body more solid than can be considered flattering. He's smartly dressed though, ironed shirt and pressed pants underneath the winter coat. Dark hair falls around his eyes and ears, making him look younger than thirty-five.
John learns the little things firsts: that he takes his coffee black with one sugar, that he prefers walking over public transport or taxis, that he carries a notepad and pen in his pocket instead of a cell phone.
"Our man's not a fan of technology," he tells Finch. "How's that for irony, Harold?"
Then he grins at the telling silence that follows.
"So Becker migrated to Germany back in '99?"
Finding Reese's low murmur much too quiet over the speakers, Finch leans forward to adjust the sound. The light stretch should be within his everyday range of motions but, no rule being without an exception, this time the gesture has him biting back a curse. Instinctively he jerks back, elbow knocking into a cup of freshly brewed tea.
Reese's voice rings clear in the room now, the higher volume amplifying his alertness.
"Yes," Finch answers, filling Reese in from memory as he rescues his laptop from the ocean of spilled liquid. "He moved to Munich in his twenties to study but ended up staying. He's a published poet now, making a living as a teacher."
"Still living here in New York; parents are both retired, older brother's unemployed."
Grabbing a handful of napkins, Finch begins to mop up the worst of the mess. As the thin paper soaks through and disintegrates in his hand, it strikes him that five years ago this would have been a real source of irritation. The thought leaves him recalling Reese's comment.
Life after Reichenbach. Hah.
There had been a time when John had let crowds bother him. Of course, that had been long before he'd learned how to navigate and make use of them. These days he sees them for what they are; a diverse tool providing him, depending on the situation, with protection, camouflage or, on occasion, both.
He takes advantage of the surge of people now, careful to keep enough distance between himself and his subject not to attract attention. Following Becker requires little actual skill though, and John's left with more than enough time to take in his surroundings.
Even without him consciously deciding to, his eyes seek out the dead spots in the morning crowd. Those little gaps which, in his experience, always form around the unwanted: an old woman with gnarled hands and unwashed hair, a bearded man sitting on a bench with a bottle hidden inside a paper bag, a dog tied to a lamp-post with a fraying rope.
In their own ways they've all been judged and sentenced to invisibility. John knows how that works too. It s a weapon as useful as the gun he carries. Doesn t mean he likes either.
His employer's voice makes for a welcome distraction.
"Found something," Finch continues, briskly efficient despite the early hour. "One of Becker's students arrived at JFK late last night. Her name's Susanne Fischer."
"Coincidence?" John suggests, even as his eyes start scanning the crowd for younger faces.
"She travelled alone and has no family in the US. I'm sending you her picture."
John's phone vibrates some seconds later. The girl in the passport photo is plump, with dyed hair and anxiety lurking in the twist of her glossy lips.
"Do you think...?" he begins to ask, only to be instantly interrupted.
"I'll get back to you on that."
John shifts mental gears, making Becker front and centre of his attention.
Finch sits down to translate Becker's poems the old fashioned way.
He's been able to acquire three volumes; all thin with cracked backs and printed on the cheapest of paper. Armed with a notepad, a pen and the library's thickest German dictionary, he starts with the earliest work. It dates back to Becker's first couple of years in Germany and Finch finds many of the poems to be about just transition and change.
His fingers trace the rows of stanza while he scribbles down translations, flashing back to German lessons taken decades ago. Near the middle of the second volume the theme and imagery begin to shift. His fingers tighten around the pen, scratching against the paper with more force than necessary.
He can't quite put his finger on what he's stumbled across yet, but he s already sure that he doesn't like it.
Becker, John finds, does look at girls, but no more than any other man and his eyes doesn't linger in that way that John has come to associate with predators. Still he sticks close, bare hands free and ready rather than shoved deep into his pockets for warmth.
Still he has to keep a respectable distance between them and, as such, rounds a corner first thirty seconds after Becker. He finds his subject by a market stall for knitted clothing and approaching quickly, dressed for weather much colder than they'll get in New York, is Susanne Fischer. Spotting Becker she smiles, moving easily with one hand in her pocket and the other brushing back her hair. Not, John thinks, like someone who's planning an attack.
"She's here," he murmurs, counting on Finch to be listening. "And I think Becker's been expecting her."
As John watches the two greet each other, shoulders touching as they both turn to admire a lacy scarf. To John's surprise, Becker doesn't offer to buy it for her though but rather treats her to a cup of hot chocolate from a stall down the street. She laughs and thanks him in German, the cadence of their words rising above the murmur surrounding them.
They walk close but not unusually so and Becker's hand stays by his side instead of wrapping itself around hers. There's something about the girl though, John thinks. Something about the way her body follows Becker's, her face turning with him as if he's the sun and she a wilting flower.
"Maybe," he tells Finch later, "it's not so much an affair as it's a one-sided crush."
He's been following them for hours now and, to him, Becker reads as more paternal than romantic. The man's indulgent, yes, but not possessive. The way Susanne keeps raising her hands to her face or to play with her necklace a child's simple jewellery, not a gift from a lover has him thinking that perhaps her feelings are less than filial though.
"You think she's pursuing him?" Finch asks, sounding less open to the suggestion than John would have expected. Treating the question as theoretical John doesn't answer and the silence stretches on between them.
"I managed to locate copies of some of Becker's work," Finch eventually adds. "He writes predominantly in German with none of his earlier work available in English. I just finished translating his first volume."
"And...?" John prompts.
"I'm no literary critic, Mr. Reese, but to me there seems to be a recurring theme of cruelty in his work. He speaks endlessly of needles, scissors, broken glass... there are several references to scalding hot water, of all things."
John glances over at Susanne, her cheeks and nose flushed and her eyes bright. The cold makes her look sweet, even pretty. The back of her neck, glimpsed in the gap between her coat and scarf, is pale and undamaged.
If it's at all up to him, it'll stay that way.
Becker sleeps at a hotel, even though his parents' apartment has a spare room.
John breaks into an office building across the street, settling into a plastic chair by the window with his camera and a bottle of tepid water. Dust tickles his nose and the trash can in the corner's overflowing with paper and food wrappers.
"Lazy security guard, no cleaner," he says. "It's like Christmas come early."
When the only forthcoming answer turns out to be the humming of the air conditioning he glances at the clock on the wall. Perhaps Finch has drifted off while sitting by his desk again. Might be just as well, he concedes. Not much to be gained in both of them staying up all night.
Becker, meanwhile, shows all the classic signs of insomnia. The small hotel television set flickers away in its corner and John would bet on the man to eventually just nodding off, still dressed, during the small hours. Not that John's judging; he's had his share of sleepless nights himself.
Rather than fall asleep though, Becker gets to his feet at around three in the morning. Frowning, John lifts his camera and shifts his weight forward in the chair. The girl, he's been told by Finch, had taken into a hotel near Penn Station and, jet-lagged as she's bound to be, should have long since fallen asleep.
As John watches, Becker first rummages through his bags, then heads into the bathroom. John doesn t have a clear line of vision into the room, but from the way the mirror's fogging up it's not hard to deduce that Becker's drawing himself a bath.
Unbidden Finch's comments about scalds flashes through his mind. John knows the kind of damage boiling water leaves on the skin. Would never bother hurting anyone that way himself - too messy and impractical compared to electricity or chemicals - but he knows all the same.
"Finch," he says, the name echoing loud as a bullet in the empty room. "You find anything new?"
"And a good morning to you too, Mr. Reese," Finch snipes, sounding alert but not startled. Not asleep then. "To answer your question, not much. The man has no Facebook account, nor has he signed up to any other sites or forums, popular or otherwise."
There's a hint of sourness in Finch's voice, Becker's Luddism obviously taken as a personal affront.
"Email account?" John suggests. "Online banking?"
"I've been able to access the first, but not the latter. Not much in the way of private correspondence, mostly confirmations of purchases. There's a highly admiring site dedicated to him and his work though. Care to guess who the web administrator is?"
"So, how much do we know about her?"
The edges of the world become hazy as he takes off his glasses to rub his hand over his eyes. Becker's books are piled next to his translations, his own handwriting nothing so much as black chicken scratching. It's been hours since he put the books down yet he's still left unsettled by what's hinted at between the lines.
"No boyfriend, small circle of friends, focused on her studies," Finch rattles off, not bothering to look at the screen. "She hasn't mentioned her trip to New York at all. The cover story appears to be that she's visiting her parents in Bremen."
"How did she-"
Reese's voice breaks off abruptly and Finch freezes, glasses gripped hard in his hand. One day perhaps he'll grow used to this part of the job, but for now the responsibility weighs heavily on his shoulders. Whether Reese gets hurt or someone else gets hurt by Reese, it's all on him and his numbers.
"Reese?" he finally says, breaking the stretching silence. "Still there?"
"I'm here," Reese confirms, frustration bleeding through the usually so mild tone. "Finch, you were wrong. Becker's poems, they're not about him wanting to hurt other people."
"They're about him having been hurt."
He snaps the photos without thinking; Becker's back, legs, arms.
The injuries are old, the scars stretched thin and white rather than pink. They make for an ugly picture but, to John's way of seeing things, Becker's been lucky all the same; the damage is all where it can easily be hidden under trousers and long-sleeved shirts. He'll still be able to blend into the crowd.
"This just won't do, Mr. Reese," Finch finally says. "Cell phone or not, we need audio."
John couldn't agree more.
After all these years, he still despises the cane; the very shape of the handle in his hand enough to sour his mood. Even now, with the hateful thing gripped in his clenched fist, he refuses to put his weight on it, preferring the dull pain in his hip and back over the dependence on such an obvious crutch.
It does the trick though; its effect undeniable as it brings out simultaneously the best and worst in people. A stranger's shoulder knocks into his without resulting in as much as an apologetic backwards glance, only for an equally anonymous gloved hand to grab his arm to keep him from falling. Some people stare, others refuse eye contact. Most who meet his eyes smile, though he's yet to wrap his head around what prompts that particular brand of insanity.
Closing his free hand around the token in his pocket, he peers into the crowd until he finds Paul Becker. Finch grimaces, wondering if perhaps he should have taken Reese up on his offer to plant the bug. But, no, the plan is simple enough. Just bump into Becker, then apologize and drop the bug into one of the over-sized coat pockets.
He limps through the crowd, no need for him to exaggerate the unevenness of his slow gait. Luckily, Becker's not moving; either unaware or uncaring of the fact that he's forcing impatient city dwellers to detour around him. Probably the first, Finch decides. There's something distinctly distant in the man's eyes.
"You ready for this?" a voice murmurs in his ear, but Becker's too close for Finch to answer. He's close enough to touch now, only a foot between them and Finch exhales and steels himself... only for Becker to turn, choosing that exact moment to begin to walk away.
Acting on instinct he lets the cane slide out of his hand and, flashing back to a dozen other bad decisions in his life, shifts his weight to the bad side of his body. Becker grabs hold of him before Finch can fully hit the ground but, even expecting it, the pain sends his mind reeling.
"Are you all right?" Becker asks, pulling him back up with surprising strength.
"Yes," Finch lies, digging his fingers into the man's arm as a distraction while dropping the bug into Becker's jacket pocket. "I'm fine, thank you. I'm so sorry, my cane, it..."
Becker bends to pick it up, wiping wet dirt from the polished wood. Finch mutters a few more tired phrases of gratitude before limping away. Mission accomplished, he thinks, though the grim satisfaction only half makes up for the shooting sensation making its way up his spine.
It doesn't hit him until later that Reese had stayed quiet throughout the entire event.
Becker and Susanne meet up for dinner.
They both order steaks, while John stands outside with his hands wrapped around a cup of rapidly cooling coffee. With the bug which Finch had planted, at such an unnecessary cost, he can hear them as clearly as if sitting at the table next to them. They speak German though, the words flowing too quickly for him to catch more than a third.
"How's your German, Harold?" he asks, chugging the coffee and crumpling up the paper cup in favor of pushing his hands into his pockets.
"Better than it was this morning," comes the dry answer. "Don't I pay you enough for gloves?"
John raises his head, peering around until he spots the most likely camera. He grins and waves cold fingers at Finch, not bothering to mention what Finch must already know; that John's been outside for longer in far worse weather. Instead he listens to Becker ordering a beer and Susanne laughing as she complains about the strict alcohol laws in the US.
"You'll have to get used to it," Becker says, abruptly switching languages. "And to speaking English."
"Yes, yes," she replies. "If I get accepted."
Outside John straightens, cold hands and feet forgotten.
"Already on it, Mr. Reese."
He's sweating despite the insufficient heating of the library; the back of his shirt clinging to his back and damp patches spreading under his pits. As Reese contacts him he manages to keep his voice calm and collected but his eyes, the traitorous things, keep straying to the drawer where he keeps his pain medication.
The case has him feeling doubly useless; not just his body but his mind letting him down as well. His right screen displays what little he has found on Becker's childhood; two hard-working parents, two sons with good grades and attendance, a lower middle-class family on their way up in the world. For all that the system can tell him, Paul Becker had a good childhood.
The stack of photos by his mouse, showing scarred and burnt flesh, proves otherwise.
On the left screen he's running searches on Susanne Fischer. This task is harder than it sounds. Laws and regulations for storing private data are different in Europe and, on top of that, what little information he does find he has to translate from German to English.
She'd spoken of being 'accepted' though so he runs her name through hundreds of lists of applications; universities, internships and agencies. The searches return with the same two words over and over again: 'Not Found'.
It wears at him, he can't deny that. It wears at him until he finds himself with a rattling bottle in his hands and a decision to make. Stay on the fruitless search or swallow a couple of pills. Stay on hand as Reese's back-up or numb the pain to the point where he can get some rest. Stay vigilant or drift off to sleep.
It shames him, just how difficult he finds it to make the right call.
That night, John falls asleep in the dusty office building.
He dreams of never-ending hallways, all doors locked and his service gun a heavy weight in his hand. The vibration of his cell phone has him jerking awake, nearly knocking over the chair. Checking on Becker through the lens of his camera, he finds the man still asleep on top of the bed covers.
Digging out his phone he then finds a text message from an unknown number: "Found a second email account. S.F. applied to internship at agency in NY. Has second interview in the morning, flying back directly afterwards."
"So, Becker's her adviser?" he asks out loud, words coming out rough enough that he reaches for his water bottle. "And she's just-"
"Someone with a crush on teacher," Finch immediately replies. "I thought perhaps you were asleep."
"Not at all," John says. "Don't you know? There's no sleep for the wicked."
Then he settles in to wait for dawn.
He keeps an electric blanket on a shelf and he plugs it in now, draping the blanket over the sofa cushions as if it were a sheet. From a fire safety perspective it's absolutely objectionable, but the prospect of a fire scares him less than the thought of remaining in status quo. Sleep, he imagines, is too much to hope for but, no matter what Reese believed, surely even they could afford themselves a small measure of comfort at the end of a long day?
Come dawn, John watches Becker head inside a well-lit breakfast diner. He hesitates for a moment, eying first the gray sky above and then the gray-faced morning commuters on the street, before pushing open the door himself. He's had enough of the cold to last him a good long while.
Ten minutes later he's by a table with a cup of sweet, milky coffee and a bowl of oatmeal in front of him. The warmth spreads from his belly to his face, hands and feet. At a table opposite him Becker s pale eyes flicker to take in each new guest. Waiting for someone, John decides, but who...? Susanne Fischer should be at the airport by now.
Eventually Becker jumps to his feet, right hand outstretched in a greeting. Putting down his spoon, John discreetly snaps a few photos. He sends them to Finch even though that man s face unknown but familiar all the same already has him guessing at the man s identity.
"Guten Tag, Tom," he hears Becker say. "Wie geht es dir?"
"English," comes Tom s curt reply. "German is dad's language."
Becker looks away, lips thinning and hand hesitating before he pulls out a chair for the man who can only be the brother that Finch hasn't been able to find much on in the system. And for good reasons, John imagines, as he takes in Tom Becker's appearance. Even just showered and in clean clothes and new shoes, the man's body the ragged nails, the lank hair, the yellow tinge to his skin speaks of both poverty and, he forces himself to acknowledge, a fondness of the bottle.
Flipping his cell phone over in his hand, he types a one-handed message for Finch; "Brother here. Need background.
"Mom said you wanted to talk to me," Becker says.
"And here you are," the brother answers. "I've wanted to talk to you for years, but it takes mom begging for you to speak to your own brother. Did she tell you that I lost my job? Or that Karen left me?"
"She talks about you all the time, do you know that? How good you're doing, how much money you're earning, how many books you've sold..."
John tunes out the actual words, attention narrowing instead to the two men's body language. Becker s fidgeting, cheeks reddening as his brother s tirade continues and his eyes flickering longingly towards the exit. Meanwhile his brother's sitting still, hands serenely folded in his hands and his entire body relaxed. For all his bitter words, Tom Becker seems oddly like a man at peace with the world.
Warning bells start going off in the back of John s mind. He can't put his finger on exactly why any more than he can explain why his spine prickles whenever he's being watched or how he knows to duck an incoming blow. It's biology, he supposes. Survival instincts left behind from their cave man days.
His body moves without waiting for his brain to process what's happening. He's on his feet and across the floor just as Becker's brother reaches the end of his speech. And here's the thing, John knows dozens of way to disarm a man but sometimes - whether due to the skill of one's opponent or just unfortunate circumstances - the only available course of action is also the one that comes at the highest cost.
The knife leaves a trail of fire in its wake, spurring John to put a bit more weight than necessary behind his sucker punch. There's a moment of silence as Tom Becker's chair hits the ground, followed shortly by his body. As John straightens up, one hand pressed against the wetness near his ribs, he finds Becker staring at him with eyes which are as terrified as a child's.
How, John wonders, could he ever have thought that this man was a killer?
"Oh mein Gott," Becker murmurs, swallowing heavily. "Oh mein Gott... are you all right? Did he...? Oh, my God."
And then just as John turns to leave, he hears Becker say, whether to him or the gathering crowd:
"That s my brother."
Finch sees the text ten minutes after it's sent and sinks down in his chair to run some searches.
Out of the corner of his eye, on the map on the second screen, he can see the red dot marking the GPS tracker in Becker's audio transmitter. He has just enough time to hope that Reese has not been left standing in the cold again when a pop-up alerts him to police activity in the same area. An attack at a breakfast restaurant; one man knocked unconscious, another man stabbed. The latter had fled the scene.
Finch's stomach rolls with sudden nausea and he fumbles, fingers numb and clumsy, with the microphone.
"Reese?" he calls, only to be met with silence.
He taps into the security cameras surrounding Becker's location, the little video player showing a restaurant with uniformed police gathering outside and a man being carried out on a stretcher. Too short to be Reese, he thinks, but no relief follows the thought. Becker steps outside, a blanket over his shoulders and a police woman by his side, and with a few clicks of his mouse Finch has audio from the bug.
"There was a man," Becker's saying. "A stranger. He saved me. Why would he do that? Why would he... And my brother... my brother he... He just, oh God..."
Having heard enough, Finch turns off the audio.
Finch has his cell phone pressed to his ear when John walks into the room. For a heartbeat or two the eyes behind the glasses widen, only to then narrow dangerously. As John comes to a halt in the doorway, Finch mutters something to wrap up his conversation before flipping the phone shut.
"Mr. Reese," he says, "you're a hard man to get hold of this morning."
As welcomes go, John's had both better and worse. Mostly, he admits as he pushes himself away from the wall and steps inside, worse though. Shrugging off his snow-damp coat, he lets it fall onto the already cluttered table. The blood on his hands has dried, coming off in crusty flakes, but his shirt's still stiff and sticky.
"First aid kit?" Finch asks, far more aplomb in his voice than there had been the first few times that John had come back hurt. As the other man shuffles out of the room, John begins to unbutton the ruined shirt. Glancing down, it's easy to see where the knife has scraped across his ribs. It's not deep enough to worry him but, like all cuts, it hurts, constantly tugging and pulling at the surrounding skin.
"Just a scratch," he tells Finch, whose eyes are wide and dark as he takes in the blood. Those eyes make for a grim contrast against the gray skin and John notices, for the first time since his return, just how haggard Finch himself looks.
"You all right?" he asks, remembering all too clearly the man's ugly fall from yesterday. Remembering too, the sour taste the incident had left in his mouth and the flash of fear as he'd seen Finch fall. Fear not just for the man, but also for himself and his own future. Hope, it would seem, made for a double-edged sword.
"I'm not the one who's been stabbed," Finch snaps, words precise and clear as if he suspects that the shallow cut has impaired John s ability to think clearly. "Though I will admit to having succumbed to a certain level of alarm after failing to reach you."
Reading between the lines, John smiles. The vaguely pleased feeling melts away though as his eyes fall on the stack of photos by Finch's computer. Blown-up and printed in color, they tell an even darker story than his glimpse through the camera's objective had.
"It wasn't his parents," he tells Finch. "They didn't do those things to him."
"No, they didn't," Finch agrees, neck bent and hands busy unpacking what John will need from the first aid kit. "Paul's been on the phone with his mother. From their conversation, I got the impression that Paul, whether out of fear or loyalty, has never been entirely forthcoming with his parents about his brother's cruelty."
John grits his teeth, the antiseptic hurting nearly as bad as the knife had, and focuses on Finch's calm re-telling of a child's private hell.
"Hard to hide those kind of injuries," John forces out, leaning forward to grab the butterfly band aids only for the box to slip from his fingertips. For a moment they're both staring down at the floor - Finch with his fused spine and John with blood trailing down his chest - before Finch kneels, his entire body at an awkward angle, to pick up the box for him.
"Two parents working hard for the American Dream, two highly clever and independent children, a large and busy city. Finch looks away, then shrugs. I imagine far worse things have been missed for far less of a reason, Mr. Reese."
Rather than ask more impossible questions, John looks over at the photos on the wall; Paul Becker with his pen and note pad, Susanne Fischer caught mid-smile, and there, the photo John had taken in the diner with Tom Becker staring at the world through red-rimmed eyes.
Even with several pieces of the puzzle missing John can see the picture all too clearly.
"Stay," Finch prompts, the words out of his mouth before he can think through the consequences.
Reese stops, sinking back down into the couch and looking up at him with curious eyes. Dressed in a new shirt and with his hand scrubbed clean, he still looks awful; lips too pale and movements too stiff. Tired too, Finch thinks, the way that he himself is tired. Miles past sleepiness, and well beyond the border of exhaustion.
"There's food," he says, soldiering on past his natural reluctance. "I didn't eat yet. I don't expect you did either."
"You don't need to feed me, Harold," Reese replies, but he's already relaxing back into the cushions.
"The size of take-away portions these days is ridiculous," he replies. "You'd be doing me a favor."
At that, Reese laughs.