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Finch wasn’t at the car.

After Zoe’s call, John had rushed to Finch’s last known location, but the area around the car was deserted -- no people, no obvious threats. The car started right up and had gas, which made it unlikely that Turing had taken Finch by foot. He popped the trunk -- empty. A quick jog around the area eliminated the hiding places within range; that left the water treatment plant itself.

From the moment John understood that Turing had played them, his focus had become laser sharp: Find Finch, make sure he was safe, get him back home.

Revenge against Turing was a less pressing goal, but part of him did hope he’d get a chance at that, too.

He checked the water (just in case Finch had fallen in and was clinging to the dock), and considered possibilities. The most likely scenarios, and those he could quickly do something about, involved the water treatment plant. The others, which would be harder to deal with, involved a second car -- perhaps Turing had arranged a kidnapping, or some third party had caught them both. If that were the case, he’d have to head home and hunt through surveillance footage to track them down.

I think I’m going to be a little held up.

I'll get Miss Turing to safety, and I'll come back for you, John.

They’d only been out of contact for twenty minutes. John didn’t want to think of what all could happen in twenty minutes.

 

Gun at the ready, he entered the plant, ghosting along concrete walkways. The air was thick with the scent of chemicals, but John also picked up on another all-too-familiar smell: blood. He moved faster, more alert, eyes darting everywhere to pick up on threats before they could strike.

Ahead, on the floor, was a crumpled body -- a woman. Size, clothes, and hairstyle said it wasn’t Turing. He walked up slowly, the blood spatter already telling him that the head wound had been fatal. From the way she was lying, the gun in her hand, it seemed self-inflicted… and once he got a good look at what was left of her face, the expression frozen there was one of unrestrained revulsion and horror.

On her cheek was a line of circular marks, the largest about the size of a quarter, all of them red and raw as though etched there by acid. John couldn’t think what might have caused that sort of wound, but it gave him another rush of adrenaline.

He moved on. There was no sound of humans -- not so much comforting as eerie. The open vats of water held no sign of anything amiss; there was nothing to indicate that Finch had even been in the area. If Turing had brought him in here… had she taken him back through the service tunnels? Was she hiding in here, maybe keeping Finch silent somehow? Had she managed to double back past John and get out to the car while he was looking for them in here?

But then he heard it: weak, rasping breaths from just ahead. Rounding a corner, he found another body, lying on a metal grating -- a body in a perfectly tailored grey suit.

In an instant, he was at Finch’s side, giving their surroundings a quick survey for threats before he knelt and started checking for wounds. But Finch was squirming away from his touch, whimpering pitifully. There was no blood, nothing broken that he could tell, no head wounds, and no holes in Finch’s wrinkled suit.

“Stop -- stop--” Finch whispered breathlessly, and two bleary blue eyes squinted up at him. Where were his glasses? Nowhere in the area; perhaps they’d fallen off the walkway. No matter: Finch had plenty of spares.

“You okay, Finch? What happened?”

Finch sucked in a couple quick breaths. “Shawn?” he asked finally, voice a little slurry. Not “Mr. Reese,” John noted, and ran through the possibilities: He’d ruled out a head wound, although not a concussion, but it could be a stroke, or dehydration… or drugs. Were there dangerous chemicals in the area -- maybe in the air? Hallucinogens? Was that what had driven the woman to kill herself?

They could worry about the other possibilities later -- he had to get Finch out of there now.

“Finch, can you stand?” he asked.

Looking up at him, Finch blinked a few times, and then his eyes grew wide and a smile spread across his face -- the widest John had ever seen from him, and a relief because it reduced the chance that this had been a stroke. But just as quickly, Finch’s face crumpled and he broke into wrenching sobs that shook his whole body.

Mood swings could be chemically induced, or something to do with the brain -- probably not dehydration, it wouldn’t have that strong of an effect. Had Finch changed medications recently? Could be a side effect if he had, but that was less worrisome than the collapse. John wasn’t privy to Finch’s medical history, but all of a sudden he wondered if Finch had epilepsy, or diabetes, either of which could trigger an unexpected faint.

“It’s okay, Finch,” John said. “It’s okay, I’ve got you. We’re gonna get out of here.” He couldn’t wait for Finch to pull himself together, not if they were breathing in chemicals that might start affecting him, too, at any moment. And where was Turing? She was still a threat: insane enough to put a hit out on herself, and cunning enough to create a plan to lure Finch into the open. That wasn’t even counting the FBI who might still be in the area; they wouldn’t be out of danger until they had managed to hole up in a safe house.

Carefully, John hoisted Finch up, but Finch didn’t seem to want to put weight on his feet; his knees buckled, and John could feel him trembling. Making a quick decision, John lifted Finch into his arms, hoping he wouldn’t have to use his gun while carrying his employer. But speed was of the essence, and Finch’s neck wouldn’t withstand a fireman carry; a piggyback carry would leave John completely unarmed, while a two-armed carry at least left his gun pointing forward and seemed the least likely to injure Finch further.

Far from protesting, Finch curled into John’s chest and continued to sob, his trembling body wrenching at John’s heart.

They made it out of the plant and to the car. After confirming no obvious dangers either around them or inside the car itself, John put Finch in the passenger seat, then carefully closed the door and hurried around to slide into the driver’s seat.

Finch was scrunched over, his sobs subsiding, but he hadn’t made any move to put on his seat belt. Time being of the essence, John stretched over him and grabbed the belt, his elbow brushing Finch’s chest.

The flinch was unexpected -- Finch jerking both arms out of the way, squirming as though he didn’t like the feel of the belt, his breath coming faster. But John didn’t let it stop him from buckling Finch in. At least Finch still had strength in both arms -- another sign that it probably wasn’t a stroke.

Whatever was going on in Finch’s head, John couldn’t do much about it here in the open. He pulled out and headed toward a safe house. Not the nearest one, because it would be too easy to track. As he merged into traffic, he kept an eye out for anyone following them, and hoped Turing hadn’t planted a bug on the car.

“She’s still there,” Finch murmured. “They let me go, but they’ve still got her.”

“I don’t really care about that right now, Finch,” John said firmly. “We’re going to get you to safety, and then we can figure out what to do about Turing.”

“They took us apart. They wouldn’t listen -- I begged them not to, but they just… they wanted to understand.”

Maybe the Turing problem had already been solved. Had Simmons managed to hunt her down? Could the FBI have had better surveillance than he’d expected? He’d have to ask Carter to look into it, later, see if they were in deeper trouble now. At least separating Turing from Finch had let Finch escape -- somehow.

“Who’s got her?” he asked.

“They’re scientists,” Finch said. “They have names, but we couldn’t pronounce them. I didn’t expect them to have names when they can’t even speak. They get into your head and everything comes out; I couldn’t help it.”

Trying to process this, John was hard-pressed to keep watching the road. “Did they drug you?” he asked urgently. “Finch, did they give you anything?”

Finch shook his head, slightly, as though his neck was stiffer than normal. “Not at first. They didn’t know -- she had to… explain. She’s very good with science. Botany. Chemical structures. They made food in the lab, and she helped them figure it out so they wouldn’t kill us.” He shuddered. “I know what my body tastes like, Shawn. We needed protein and she couldn’t explain how to make it so they cloned my arm. I didn’t want to eat it, but after a while I got too weak. She held me down and fed it to me, chewed it up herself so it was easy, and after that… I learned to eat it on my own.”

A chill ran down John’s spine. Finch wasn’t slurring his speech anymore, but he wasn’t making sense -- and that “Shawn” was definitely not a slurred “John,” either. Drugs were much more likely at this point. If it was a brain problem… aphasia, he knew that term, the inability to make sense, and there was a type of aphasia where you thought you were using the right words and it came out fluently but you weren’t communicating what you thought you were. A stroke, a tumor, some sort of degenerative disease… God, he hoped it was just drugs.

If Finch was talking about actual things, using some of the wrong words -- what had he been through, in less than an hour? They get into your head and everything comes out… interrogation drugs? Maybe that was the thing messing with his speech right now. She helped them figure it out so they wouldn’t kill us -- maybe they were interrogating Turing as well. What could Turing possibly know? Something about the Machine? Had she tried to get in touch with Finch for self-preservation? I didn’t want to eat it… I got too weak… she held me down and fed it to me… maybe a description of being forced to swallow pills? Who was “she” in that case -- Turing? a female captor?

Horns blared, and he realized that he’d just run a red light. His mind was whirring with possibilities, making it difficult to focus on the task of safe driving.

“I didn’t think you’d save me,” Finch said softly. “You had to work the cases, and anyway, they wrapped us up and pulled us in and I couldn’t even make myself believe that you could find us again. But I kept thinking of you. Years and years and I kept thinking of you. I’d dream of you when they let us sleep, before my dreams got… corrupted. I think you were the last thing I could remember, when everything else was gone.” His voice was so low by the end that John could barely make it out over the sound of the traffic around them.

Not knowing what he could say that might help sort out Finch’s brain, John drove on in silence.

Finch rubbed at his arm, his shoulders tight with discomfort. “Is this real, Shawn?” he asked finally, his voice catching. “Am I… real?”

“You’re real, Finch,” John said firmly. “And my name is John. John Reese, remember?”

It was a moment before Finch replied. “Mr. Reese,” he said, hesitantly. “You-- you can call me Mr. Finch. Except you never do; you call me just… Finch.”

“Well, sometimes I call you Harold.”

Harold,” Finch said slowly, as if trying out an unfamiliar word. “My… my father gave me that name. All the kids wanted to call me Harry, but I never let them.”

“Yeah, Harry doesn’t suit you,” John said, filing away the tidbit that Harold was a name Finch had grown up with -- not an alias.

“I had to leave him behind. They were going to arrest me, so I made up a new me. I tried to tell him, but… his mind was already gone. I was only seventeen, and he’d forgotten me.” Glancing over, John took in the sorrow on Finch’s face, still fresh after all these years.

The image of a young Finch filled John’s head -- a teenager, on the run from the law. He’d never imagined that Finch had formed his aliases so early in life; he wondered if they had always been birds. But beyond the sympathy he felt, beyond the parallels to his own life -- leaving behind loved ones, giving up the possibility of staying connected to family -- he caught one detail of the story.

His mind was already gone.

Dementia? Alzheimer’s? Was Finch going through early-onset Alzheimer’s? Surely it wouldn’t affect him this quickly -- Finch had been perfectly understandable earlier in the day, had managed to rig a cellphone tower in a feat of technological wizardry that John still found astounding.

No, this was something that had been done to him, something that had happened in the short time they’d been out of contact. Drugs was still the most likely explanation. He could get ahold of Tillman once they were at the safe house, and see if they couldn’t rule out some of the nastier possibilities -- sometimes there was a window of opportunity to treat something before it had permanent side effects.

Finch leaned his head into his hands. “I-- it-- it’s all scrambled in here, John. They took it from me. They took me apart and they put me back together and-- and I don’t think they knew how to do it. They tried, but they didn’t do it right.”

“I know,” John said gently. “Look, we just get you home, let you get some sleep -- more than likely it’ll be better in the morning.”

“They’re scientists. They wanted to know -- to understand us. All the little parts of us, that’s why. They put us together and… they wanted us to make more, but I couldn’t do it. Not for years. I think that’s why they kept her, because she still could.” John glanced over again, in time to see Finch frown, his brow furrowed. “They’re not trying to be cruel. They just don’t understand.”

Ahead was the parking garage; John whipped in and got as close to the elevators as he could. Finch’s babbling was starting to unnerve him, all the more because he couldn’t pick out which parts were important to pay attention to. Was he talking about Turing again? Their captors? What word did he mean instead of “scientists”?

Or perhaps he really meant scientists, but was talking about a different subject altogether. Was it some commentary on the Machine? But if their captors had wanted access to the Machine, surely they wouldn’t have let Finch escape so easily… unless Finch was superfluous once they had Turing. Maybe they didn’t realize that Finch was the one who had made the Machine.

Then again, maybe Finch was discussing his past, or history, or current events, any topic that had nothing to do with their situation and that John could easily dismiss. But what if he wasn’t? This was the most frustrating kind of intel, the kind where you didn’t know which parts were important, which parts actually meant something vital to the mission. Which meant that he couldn’t really ignore anything Finch said, not yet.

After parking, he jogged around the car and opened Finch’s door. Looking up at him, Finch frowned.

“You’re so much taller than I remembered,” he said. “Or maybe I’m shorter than I was? Maybe they didn’t get that right, either.”

“You’re as tall as you’ve always been,” John said. “Maybe it’s because you’re sitting down.”

Finch looked down, and toyed with his cufflink. “It feels… weird. I’m not supposed to feel this way. I should be wearing clothes, not… I’m not supposed to be the clothes.” His face crumpled up, like he was on the verge of crying again. “The clothes aren’t supposed to be me.”

“Let’s worry about that stuff later,” John said firmly. “We need to get inside.”

Finch cast him a dubious glance. “We are… inside,” he asserted, brows drawn together as he looked around the garage, making no move to get up.

“Into the house, Finch. Come on.”

Still looking confused, Finch took John’s hand -- clumsily -- and got out of the car. Before he was even standing, he looked supremely uncomfortable, and was breathing strongly through his nose. John led him to the elevator, noting that Finch’s limp was… different. He picked his feet up more than usual, and shook them a little while they were in the air, reminding John of nothing so much as a horse just getting used to horseshoes. Finch didn’t seem to be in pain, though, so it might have been a side effect of the drugs, some odd sensation in his feet or legs. At least he didn’t seem to have any trouble balancing.

When the elevator started to rise, Finch startled, and clutched at John’s hand. Hoping to comfort him, John turned toward him and patted his shoulder, but Finch shied away from the contact -- without letting go of his other hand.

Once they were in the apartment, with the door triple-locked behind them, John gave the place a quick once-over -- his usual pattern to ensure that no dangers were in the house with them. He came back to find Finch still standing by the door, looking about the room cautiously, as if he wasn’t quite sure of things.

With any sort of drug, dehydration was a potential complication, so John went to the kitchen and poured a glass of water. When he handed it over, Finch took it, but just stared at it for a while.

“Drink up,” John said finally. “You need to stay hydrated.”

“They fed us through tubes,” Finch said, “until they found the right formula. A lot of it was clear like this, but it-- it hurt.” His chin trembled. “They had to fix the burns, afterwards. Make sure I could breathe.”

“This is just water, Finch. Not gonna hurt you. I promise.”

Nodding shakily, Finch licked his lips and took a sip. An expression of pleasure spread across his face, relaxing away the worries as he slowly enjoyed the rest of the glass. When he’d finished, he looked at John. “I’d like some more of this, if we have any.” He frowned. “It’s-- not too expensive, is it? I quite enjoy it.”

John let out a strong breath, took the cup, and refilled it at the sink. Finch followed him into the kitchen, glancing around dubiously.

“The thing is,” he said, after a moment, “it feels like I should know this place. But it’s been so long, and… this isn’t what I remember. There aren’t any shelves, any… things you put on shelves. Colorful things with words inside, boxes that smell nice when you open them… you know.”

“Books?”

“Books.” He smiled fondly. “That’s what I missed the most. We had to explain writing to them; they don’t use it. I told them stories, but… they didn’t really see the point.” His smile faded. “Sometimes, when the pain got too strong, I’d try to remember my favorite stories. When they were plugging things into the holes in my brain, or pulling my pieces apart. When they had to pin my arms so I wouldn’t struggle. I’d think of Jean Valjean, or Iphigenia, or Sergeant Bluntschli. Sometimes I thought of Dante, because it seemed like-- it seemed--”

His face crumpled up again, and he pulled in a couple desperate breaths before starting to sob, head bowed, shoulders shaking. Not knowing what else to do, John set the cup on the counter and gathered Finch into his arms, an action he’d done with Jessica a few times: One hand hugged him tight across the shoulders while the other rubbed his back, hoping it would calm him down.

“It’s over, isn’t it?” came Finch’s anguished voice, muffled and hard to make out through the sobs. “Tell me it’s over. I dreamt it so many times, waking up and being home and then I’d wake up and still be in pieces. But the dreams never felt like this. I think-- I think I’m home, but I-- John, I don’t want to wake up and be back there.” His knees buckled, and only John’s support kept him upright.

“Hey,” John said, “the water felt real, didn’t it? You’re here, Finch. It’s not a dream. You’re here at the safe house, and we can go back to the library tomorrow and see all the books. It’s gonna be okay.” God, whatever that drug was, it had done a number on Finch. John wanted to find the person who’d given it to him and drill holes in her head. “Let’s go sit down, all right?” He guided Finch toward the sofa, and they sat down together, Finch curled into him, slowly calming down, sobs gradually turning to sniffles.

“You’re so warm,” Finch murmured. “It was never warm in there. They’re scared of heat. When there’s heat, the bad shadows come. They tried to get rid of our heat, at first, until they realized that we needed heat to live. So they made a place to keep the heat from getting out, and kept us there.”

John grabbed a fuzzy blanket from the armrest and covered Finch with it, snugging it in around his neck; Finch gave a surprised “Oh!” but then a quiet sigh of pleasure. With one arm, John hugged Finch close -- with the other, he tapped out a message to Dr. Tillman. Finch acting very strange. Babbling. Suspect drugs but would like to rule out trauma or brain damage. He added the address and Please drop by ASAP, and sent it off.

As Finch seemed to be dozing off, with John debating whether or not to let him, the reply came: Did he actually hit his head?

No idea. Found him on a hard floor, but no visible signs of head trauma.

Was he unconscious?

Not at the time. Kinda out of it at first.

You check for a stroke?

Smile, arms, speech. He was slurring a bit right after I found him but that didn’t last long. Now he seems to be speaking fine, very talkative, understands me fine… but he’s disoriented, says weird things. Like memories of things that didn’t happen, or maybe describing real events using the wrong words. And mood swings, almost like PTSD.

Black eyes, bruises behind ears?

Surely he would have noticed those -- but he gave a quick check anyway, trying not to disturb Finch while doing so. No.

Weakness? Trouble walking? Loss of balance?

No more than usual, but his gait’s a little odd. Still could be drugs, affect the way things feel.

Seizures, vomiting, persistent headache?

No to the first two; I’d have to ask about the headache.

She didn’t answer right away. Studying Finch, John typed out Should I be letting him sleep?

Does he have trouble staying awake? Trouble keeping his eyes open?

More like he’s exhausted, or tired out from fear. He was alert during the car drive. I think he just feels safe now.

Her answer came in several pieces, slightly out of order, but he managed to piece it together:

Amnesia and abnormal reflexes can be signs of head trauma, but so far you’ve ruled out a lot of symptoms. If he’s been lucid, he’s probably okay. The general rule is that a concussion needs rest to heal, but a very small percentage of them might cause brain bleeding, and one of the key signs for that is lethargy or sleepiness. The crucial time window is six hours. So you can let him sleep, but maybe check on him now and then, make sure you can wake him up. If you can’t, he needs ER ASAP.

A moment later, another message joined the rest: My shift is almost over. I’ll head your way once I’m done. If you want to check one more thing before I get there, make sure his pupils are the same size, and shine a flashlight in his eyes -- not a super bright one! -- to see if they react to light by immediately closing up (getting smaller).

Good. When Tillman got here, John would turn Finch over to her, and go on the hunt for Turing -- not to rescue her, but to find out what the hell they’d given Finch, and what Turing’s plan had been. But he wouldn’t leave until he was certain that Finch was in good hands.

Finch took in a deep breath and let it out as a sigh, snuggling into John’s side. John hated to rouse him, but knew that the sofa wasn’t going to do good things for his back or neck. Reluctantly, John put a hand on his shoulder and shook him, gently. Finch’s eyes blinked open.

“Hey,” John murmured. “We should get you to bed, okay?”

Finch sighed again. “All right.”

Getting up from the sofa, John lifted the blanket off Finch, but Finch recoiled, curling up as though trying to hide himself. His eyes were wide and suddenly frightened.

“What?” John asked. “What is it?” Finch swallowed and shook his head, but John noticed that he was trembling again. “Come on,” he said, “let’s get you to bed.”

Once Finch had timidly gotten to his feet, John wrapped the blanket around his shoulders again, and Finch relaxed a little, though his chin was still trembling. John led him to the bedroom, and helped him sit down on the edge of the bed. Kneeling at his feet, John pulled out his cell phone and turned on flashlight mode.

“Hey, Finch, look at me,” he said. Pupils normal -- and when he flashed the light at them, they contracted like they were supposed to (and Finch flinched, but only a little). John let out a sigh of relief.

“Go ahead and get ready for bed,” he said, tucking his phone away. “You should probably drink some more water, though -- I’ll go get some.”

After retrieving the glass from the kitchen, John wondered briefly if he ought to find out about Finch’s medications. He knew the older man took regular pills, and they weren’t mere supplements or painkillers. Given the amount of stress Finch dealt with, he’d guess that blood pressure meds were part of it. But then again, if Finch couldn’t even make sense about what had happened in the last hour, would it be safe to take his word about medicine, or dosages? Better to just let it lapse for a day, take it in the morning.

Pushing open the door to Finch’s room, John found him sitting there on the edge of the bed, no longer wrapped in the blanket, but still thoroughly dressed -- staring at his sleeve. When John’s footsteps caught his attention, he looked up, expression forlorn.

“What’s wrong, Finch?” he asked, setting the glass on the dresser.

“They tried,” Finch said softly. “I don’t think they knew how.” He looked up at John, as if vaguely hoping that John had some way to solve the problem.

Well… Tillman would be here soon enough, to rule out any other medical explanations. And the way to get drugs out of your system was to sleep it off. Briefly, John considered helping Finch undress, but he doubted Finch would appreciate that come morning, and John didn’t feel right invading his privacy -- especially given the way he’d been reacting to touch. Let the suit get wrinkly.

Still, the shoes could go. Kneeling, he picked up Finch’s good leg, sliding one hand back to slip the shoe off; Finch stiffened in his grasp, eyes wide, breath coming fast.

The second he started to pull, Finch jerked and cried out in pain.

John froze.

Oh god. He’d checked for obvious wounds, tried to pay attention to signs of pain -- but what if the drugs had made Finch insensitive to pain for a while? Or what if Finch’s odd language had been an attempt to tell him about the pain? He should have been more thorough, should have checked, made sure--

“Take it easy, Finch,” he said. “Did you hurt your foot?”

Finch blinked at him. “It’s on the inside. It shouldn’t be, but that’s where they put it. They didn’t understand. It’s all very new to them.”

“I… I have to take the shoe off,” John said. “I’ll try to be gentle, but it’s probably going to hurt. I’ll go slow.”

Starting with the laces, he carefully untied the bow -- Finch shivered, his breath shaky. When John began pulling the laces through the holes, Finch tried to jerk away again.

“It-- it’s wrong, it feels wrong. John, please--”

“Harold,” John said calmly, “I need to see where you’re hurt. It’ll be over very soon, okay?”

Stiffly, Finch nodded, and let John take his foot in hand again. He bit his lip as John eased the laces through the rest of the holes, leaving the shoelace attached only at the bottom of the tongue.

Swallowing his nerves, John took the tongue and slowly began to pull it toward him. Finch whimpered, and there was this wet, gooey sound, like pulling the wrapper off a package of raw meat. Beneath the leather, the sock seemed to have been eaten away; its edge stuck to the tongue until John pulled them apart, causing Finch to jump and gasp in pain.

The skin there was red -- no, not even skin; it was as though the layer of skin had been removed, leaving only the flesh beneath it. It hadn’t scabbed over, but somehow wasn’t bleeding, and John was stuck staring at it in horror, unable to breathe.

“God, Finch, what in the hell--”

Acid. It was the only thing he could think of that could do something like this. No wonder Finch had been walking strangely. And then he had another horrified thought: What other parts of Finch might have touched the acid? Was he wounded in other places, under his clothing?

Was the acid in his bloodstream? Was it the thing that was affecting his brain?

Forget propriety: that suit had to go. With a frantic sort of calm settling over him, John reached up and began undoing Finch’s tie.

Finch sucked in air and caught at his hands -- “John, please” -- but John kept going. When he pulled the small end free, Finch shivered violently. The tie seemed to be stuck beneath the collar, so John simply let it hang there, and got to work on the buttons of the vest. Seconds later, the buttons were open and he carefully pulled--

That same sickly sound, and Finch pulling away, shielding his chest with both arms, panting with pain or alarm or both.

His feet and his chest, both. Had Finch fallen into a vat or something? How could it have hurt so much of him, yet done nothing visible to his suit? Had he been naked at the time, put the clothes on afterwards?

Had his captors… tortured him? Opened his clothes and coated his skin with acid? It could explain his reaction to being touched.

But if the acid had already bonded the fabric to his skin, there was no telling how much more damage the acid was doing, even now. Finch wasn’t going to like it, but John had to get those clothes off of him. Clothes first, brush off any powders, then get him into the shower -- there wasn’t time to be nice.

That suit had to go.

A quick search of the bathroom medkit turned up a pair of bandage scissors -- he was glad for Finch’s compulsive need to be prepared for any eventuality -- and he was back at Finch’s side in under two minutes. Finch was still curled up, still trembling, and John hated having to cause him greater pain in the next few minutes -- but there wasn’t any choice.

“I’m sorry,” he breathed, and slid the scissors along the cuff of Finch’s shirt and suit jacket together, hoping they were sharp enough to make this fast.

At the first quick snip, Finch screamed.

He yanked his arm away and cradled it, panting and shuddering, leaving John to stare at the blood on his scissors -- and then at the blood welling from the cut.

Welling from the fabric.

Finch’s

suit

was

bleeding.

“You can’t-- you can’t just--” Finch gasped out, doubling over. “It’s not--” His chin was trembling as he looked at John beseechingly. “It’s not supposed to be like this, but we can’t undo it now. We can’t do anything….”

“God, Finch… what the hell--”

“I told you,” Finch murmured. “I think… I think I could take it off. But I can feel it. It’s like skin now. They didn’t understand the difference, so it’s all I have left.”

He sucked in a quick breath, grasped his vest with trembling hands, and, holding John’s gaze, slowly pulled it open -- gasping and shivering as that same sickening sound filled their ears.

Frozen with horror, John could only stare at Finch’s bare chest. Just like with the shoe, the shirt stopped short where the vest began, as though it had been eaten away; the edge stuck to the vest itself. The inside of the vest didn’t look like fabric at all: It was red and raw, like the inner layer of skin peeled away. And beneath the exposed flesh on Finch’s chest -- now all but transparent -- John could see Finch’s ribs expanding and contracting with his lungs, and, behind them, his rapidly beating heart.

“Oh, god…” John choked out. “Oh, god…”

When he was finally able to meet Finch’s eyes again, he didn’t see horror, or even fear -- Finch just seemed kind of bewildered, as if the reality of it hadn’t quite sunk in.

“They tried to put me back together,” Finch murmured, his brows drawing together. “They just… they didn’t know how.”