Disclaimer: I don't own Person of Interest. Written for fun, not money.
Timeline Note: Chapter 1: Pre-series. Chapter 2: Between "Risk" and "Matsya Nyaya"
"I never said thank you, for looking after me when I needed it."
"Who's looking after you these days?"
John arrived at the camp one night in early spring, drunk, ill, and scared for his life, though it would be weeks before Joan would hear him admit it. That first night she caught him digging through her cart when she returned from visiting with her friend Lucy, three pillars over. It didn't take much to put him in his place-a few angry shouts and a whack from Neon Ted's broken hookah pipe had sent him scampering away quick enough. Staggering, anyway.
From that initial encounter Joan could see that he wasn't right, and it had nothing to do with the whiskey on his breath or the staggering. Around here, someone with a steady gait was a rarity. No, it was more that the body just didn't fit the man. He was handsome, in shape-the kind of shape that only came from serious effort and daily maintenance-but he was far too skittish and haggard for someone of such an appearance. When she caught sight of him the next morning, curled up in a corner beneath some old newspaper pages, she exchanged 'haggard' for 'gaunt'. He could've had a drug problem, but for some reason the neglect looked recent. His hair was neatly trimmed and he had only a few days' worth of scruff at his jaw line. Joan filed the observation away and continued on.
She didn't see him again until two nights later. He crept toward her through the darkness, stealthy as a cat, while she was enjoying a midnight snack of stale peanuts she'd been lucky enough to find. "Didn't you learn your lesson the other night?" she asked crossly, taking up the hookah pipe as one would a baseball bat. To her surprise, he stopped sneaking and held up his hands.
"I don't mean you any trouble. I'm just looking for some medicine, and you seemed like a fair bet. You're sort of well-stocked, comparatively speaking."
Joan snorted. Maybe she'd been wrong and he was just a junkie with a good barber, but the weariness in his soft tone made her ask, "What kind of medicine?"
"Something for a fever? Penicillin, maybe?" he asked hopefully.
She heard shuffling in the darkness and his shadow shifted, but he didn't speak further. She sighed impatiently. "Come out here, kid. What's wrong with you?"
He stepped into the small ring of light cast by the candles burning in a metal bucket on the floor, and Joan let out a low whistle. Gaunt had become ghastly. The dark circles beneath his bloodshot eyes stood out starkly against his deathly pale skin. Sweat drenched his face and glistened in his hair, though the night was chilly, and he seemed to be on his feet only through sheer force of will. "I don't know that I have what you need, kid, but sit down there for a minute." With the hookah, she pointed to the other wooden crate next to her candle fire and then set the makeshift club aside, though still within easy reach.
He tried to do as commanded, but it was more of a controlled fall that brought him to her eye level. She regarded him in the dim light for a few moments as he recovered from his change in altitude, then she nodded.
"What?" he breathed.
"You didn't answer my question, but it's pretty obvious that you're sick. Let's just hope for your sake it's nothing contagious. We've got a fair amount of germophobes here, ludicrous as that may seem, and they've been known to...react poorly...at the prospect of an outbreak."
That got a laugh out of him, which he choked on. Grunting, his arm snaked beneath his jacket and cradled his side as a few more harsh coughs escaped. "I'm not contagious...septic, maybe," he mumbled.
Joan frowned, not sure she'd heard him right until he slowly straightened, lifting his jacket and shirt aside to reveal a long gash across his ribs. The skin was badly discolored around the injury, but it was hard to ascertain the source-infection or bruising-in the dim light. "Well, like I said, I'm not sure I have what you need. There's a free clinic a couple blocks down that might be-"
"No!" He seemed to notice that he'd startled her with his outburst and lowered his voice in volume, if not intensity. "I can't. It's not safe. I...I'm sorry. If you can't spare anything, I'll leave you alone." He stood, but didn't quite make it and ended up on his rump on the floor, having missed the crate on the way back down.
Joan looked at him sharply. "I didn't say I didn't have anything, idiot, but you're right that antibiotics aren't exactly plentiful around here." As she spoke, she stood and began to rummage through her cart. "I'm going to go and talk with a friend who knows more about this sort of thing than I do. In the meantime, I doubt these will do much for the fever you're brewing, but they can't hurt."
With barely a glance he dry-swallowed the two mismatched pills she dropped into his palm, but shook his head no at the slightly-crumpled bottle of water she offered. Sighing again, Joan grabbed his shaking hand and closed it around the bottle firmly. "Drink it. You can lie down over there when you're done since Neon Ted's not with us anymore. I'll get you more water when I come back."
He was either unwilling or too tired to argue with her further, and it was just as well. She didn't make a habit of arguing with people. It tended not to accomplish anything and took too much effort, effort this kid didn't need to be expending right now. With a final admonition for him to stay put, Joan hurried off in search of her friend.
Naturally, Lucas wasn't in his usual spot in the basement, and by the time she located him and explained the situation, nearly an hour had passed. Concerned by her description of the man's condition, the retired Army medic returned with Joan to see for himself what had happened, but all the two of them found was a tattered blanket on the floor next to a water bottle that was mostly empty. "Damn," Joan said, picking up both articles and stashing them back in her cart.
"Damn is right," Lucas said, glancing around nervously at a small group of people nearby who were staring at him coldly but pretending they weren't. He flipped up the hood of his sweatshirt as if to fend off the chill and turned his back to them. "You'd think I was the angel of death or something."
"Can't really blame them considering the flu outbreak a few months back," Joan replied mildly. "Come on, help me find him. Maybe you can turn your reputation around."
Find him they did, and in relative short order, for he hadn't gotten far. He was passed out, sandwiched between a wall and an overflowing dumpster that someone had deemed a good idea to bring inside. It was by far not the most comfortable hiding spot, and nigh on impossible for a man of his size to squeeze into, but squeeze he had. "Wonder what spooked him," Lucas commented, heaving the dumpster out of the way. The man didn't stir and collapsed against the wall without the extra support afforded by the dumpster. Lucas looked up at his companion incredulously. "How on God's green earth is he going to turn my reputation around? Hell, Joan, I've seen dead men that look better than this."
Despite his words, the medic helped drag the unconscious man back toward the candle fire, which Joan stoked into an actual blaze with newsprint kindling until it was burning brightly enough to see by. Lucas ignored her activity and worked silently, examining the deep bullet graze on the man's ribs and pressing his fingers to the side of his neck. He pulled a bottle of Jack from his bag - a bottle likely filled with something stronger and homemade - and poured a generous amount over the wound. The man stirred weakly at the pain of contact, but didn't wake. Lucas frowned and felt his pulse again, before taping gauze over the length of the wound.
"Well?" Joan asked when he straightened from his work.
"Aside from dehydration and a fever high enough to double his forehead as a pancake griddle, he's great," the medic replied dryly. It was the look in his dark eyes that Joan didn't like. Not quite resignation, but not really hopeful either. "He's not septic yet," Lucas went on, "I don't think. Find him more water, and if you get him to wake up, make him take these." He dropped two large pills into her hand, gave her the bottle of Jack and a digital thermometer that had seen better days, then turned and started away.
"Where are you headed?" she called after him.
"He needs more than what I've got on hand. I know a guy, but it may be a few hours." Looking back over his shoulder and meeting Joan's uncertain gaze, he reiterated, "One pill as soon as you can get it down him, the other an hour after that. I'll have another look at the wound when it's light. In the meantime, do what you can to get his fever down."
It proved to be easier said than done, and in the four days that followed, Joan focused on little else. Through antibiotics, a rough surgical debridement of the wound by Lucas, half an hour lying outside in a pouring rainstorm, and her entire stash of ibuprofen, his fever persisted. He was in and out, but mostly out, and Joan was beginning to wonder if it was of any use. Lucas obviously didn't think so. He had declared it out of his hands a day and a half ago and returned to hiding in the basement.
So there she sat, next to a half-conscious man whose name she didn't even know, trying to coax water past his cracked lips, as the infection burned in his body and a myriad of demons in his mind. He tossed and turned, fearful cries escaping between grunts of pain and anger, completely lost in fever dreams. They grew worse throughout the evening hours, and while he wasn't strong enough to cause damage to himself by moving around, Joan worried what the others might do if she left him alone. It was no secret that they didn't appreciate his presence. Eventually, though, she had no choice but to go get more water.
She hurried as much as she could down the back stairs to what had once been a utility room and filled a dozen water bottles, some more crushed than others. Placing them inside a couple of plastic bags, she scaled the stairs back up two at a time, her not-so-young knees protesting the abuse. To her relief, Joan found him still in one piece and undisturbed as she removed three bottles from the bag and put the rest in her cart. He had even calmed somewhat and stopped thrashing in his sleep. Small mercies, she thought as she replaced the damp cloths on his forehead and chest.
The cool against his skin seemed to soothe him further. When an hour passed and he didn't stir, didn't cry out or mumble, Joan's first instinct was to check his pulse. It was stronger and slower than it had been in days, and she thought his face felt marginally cooler, but hope had gained her little thus far so she simply used the minute improvement as an excuse to get herself something to eat.
She knew he was going to be difficult from the moment she returned from her late dinner. He was awake, barely. The wall was holding him upright, barely, and already he had Lucas' mostly-empty bottle of Jack pressed to his lips. Joan easily snatched it away from him as she passed by and swatted the top of his head as he sputtered, booze dribbling down his chin. "Idiot."
He scowled at her and wiped his face with the back of his hand, but Joan ignored the look and stuffed the whiskey in her cart, trading it for a bottle of water. She dragged one of the crates over and sat down, holding out the crumpled, half-full container to him. This time he took it without protest and quickly drained it. "More?" he asked, voice so hoarse it was barely audible.
She stared him down for several long moments before answering, "You don't have to tell me what's bothering you, kid. You can even drink yourself into oblivion if you want, but not until you're better, and not on that," she said, nodding at the bottle in the cart.
"Fair en-enough," he rasped, and promptly fell asleep where he sat.
The next time she caught him with a bottle was a week later. He hadn't been out of her sight for more than ten minutes at a stretch so she didn't know where he'd gotten it, nor did she catch him in time to stop him from draining it, which led to several hours of misery for both of them as he undid most of the work she'd done getting him re-hydrated after the fever. While she steadied his still-weak body through multiple bouts of dry-heaving, Joan briefly considered cracking him over the head with the hookah just on general principle, then thought better of it. Her luck, she'd give him a concussion and then she'd really have a case on her hands. Instead, she ground her teeth in frustration and said little. He said even less, but looked apologetic when she helped him lie down after his stomach finally settled.
The time after that, she figured that keeping quiet wasn't in either of their best interests, considering that the other residents weren't going to tolerate too many more episodes of him waking up screaming at 3 a.m. before they attempted to shut him up themselves. By the time she reached the alcove he'd claimed as his own, he'd stopped yelling and was grappling with the cap on his whiskey bottle with shaking hands. They weren't the only thing shaking, she noticed. His entire body trembled, and his head snapped up so fast at the soft sound of her footfalls that he nearly fell over. He wasn't breathing so much as panting, and he just stared at her with wide, terrified eyes for a few seconds before resuming his efforts with the bottle. The cap finally came free and bounced to the floor, rolling a few feet away. He closed his eyes as the bottle touched his lips and took three large swallows, drinking in liquid calm. When he opened them again, he seemed to register her presence and relaxed slightly, but fear still clouded his expression and he took another, less-frantic drink, letting out a deep sigh.
Joan reflected that her earlier reference to him as a "kid" wasn't that far off. Even though he was a grown man, right now he looked like nothing more than a scared kid...well, if kids drank Jim Beam to calm themselves after nightmares, that is. "We need to talk."
"I'm fine," he said, still a little breathless.
"Uh-huh. Listen, I'm not looking for your life story. Your past is your business, but there are those here who won't hesitate to make it theirs, understand what I'm saying?"
Nodding once, he rolled the bottle back and forth in his hands, letting off more nervous energy.
"We can start small. I'm Joan, as I'm sure you've figured out by now. What's your name?"
He gave her a calculating look and took another swig before answering, "John. You can call me John."
Joan smiled and slowly lowered herself to the floor next to him. "May I?" she asked, gesturing to the bottle. Again, he hesitated, but handed it over. She took a drink and handed it back, chuckling at his surprised look. "What?"
"No lecture?" The corner of his mouth twitched.
"Not unless you make yourself sick again and I have to force-feed you water for the next two days," she said, still smiling, but her tone was serious.
He flinched. "You didn't have to do that."
"Maybe not, but I did, so here we are."
They sat in silence for several minutes before he asked, "Where is 'here', exactly?"
"You don't remember?"
John shook his head slowly. "I remember arriving in New York, just...lying low for a couple of days, getting my bearings. Then I ran out of cash. I knew I was in trouble when the whiskey didn't drown out the pain anymore." He gestured vaguely toward his side and shook his head again. "After that, it's bits and pieces. I was sick, couldn't think or see straight, stumbled in here...you know the rest."
"Well, if you're wanting to lie low, you stumbled into the right place. The geographic location doesn't matter much I suppose. This is just another run-down, abandoned warehouse as far as the city is concerned—nameless, faceless, like everyone here inside."
That information seemed to bleed a little more of the tension from his posture, and she was chewing over how to best ask him what had brought him to New York when he said quietly, "I quit my job."
Joan noted that it wasn't said with regret, or any emotion at all, really. "A wise choice, from what I've seen of the health plan," she observed.
John snorted. "We'll see. This time they were sloppy. Next time, I won't get advanced warning." His voice stayed perfectly monotone, but a flicker of fear still managed to reach his eyes, the memory of his nightmare still too raw, too fresh. Joan sat with him for a while longer, until he started yawning, then left him to rest with his promise that he'd seek her out again should he need to talk-before he resorted to Mr. Beam's lullaby.
As soon as the sun was up, she started discreetly spreading the word to her friends to be on the lookout for anyone shady and not the camp's particular brand of peculiar. She didn't know who was after John, wasn't yet entirely convinced that he deserved protection, but if he was this worried over it, then a little caution couldn't hurt.