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I.

Snow had rambled halfway through the brief before he realized that John wasn't paying him any attention: as he trailed off, Kara's gaze jumped from Snow to John, then to the inoffensive, quiet-looking middle-aged man who had followed Snow into the briefing room only to sit in a corner without a word.

"Something on your mind, Agent?" Snow asked irritably.

"Sorry, Mark," John drawled. "It's just that I've never seen a cybrid before."

Kara's eyebrows shot up, and she stared more closely at the quiet man, studying him. John smiled as Snow's expression didn't change, validating his suspicions, and he leaned back in his chair, folding his hands with arch innocence in his lap.

The cybrid's only reaction was to glance thoughtfully at John for a brief moment, before returning to his expression of unfocused distraction. He - or perhaps it - appeared inoffensive and unobtrusive nearly to the point of caricature: on the street, John wouldn't have given him a second glance. His features were those of an average, middle-aged man, with a receding hairline, eyes hidden behind round, owlish glasses. The cybrid was dressed neatly, in a three-piece suit that looked well-made but not well-worn, and his posture was stiffly upright.

"Very good," Snow said flatly. "Gold star, John."

"Just saying."

"You came to the conclusion after five minutes thirty point six eight seconds after I sat down," the cybrid said softly, and even his voice was inoffensive: pleasant and articulate.

"Wasn't counting," John noted, though he smiled anyway, curious. "I didn't realize that the Company warranted a cybrid."

"This division does." The cybrid's gaze focused on Snow, for a brief moment, and to John's surprise, Snow sat back, as though ceding the field. "Permit me to introduce myself belatedly, Agent Reese, Agent Stanton. You may call me Finch."

"First name, or last name?" John asked playfully.

Kara rolled her eyes. "Machines don't get first and last names, John."

"Designate: FINCH," Finch said tonelessly, his voice slipping away from the pleasant baritone into a machine-rhythm. "Format Integrated Non-Combatant Hexabrid."

"Let me make another guess," John continued, "You're 'Research'."

"Your intuition is functionally sound, Agent Reese." Finch glanced back over to Snow, his voice back in a pleasant register. "Please continue, Agent Snow."

John should feel annoyed at being so casually dismissed, but he's still fascinated instead, enough that he was still only barely listening as Snow briefed them about some stolen hardware in China. "Any questions?" Snow closed, with a pointed glare at John.

"Why does the cybrid need to be here?" John inquired, with a faint grin. "Surely anything we say anywhere can be overheard by the Machines."

Snow glanced over to Finch again, who inclined his head slightly. "Congratulations, Kara, John, you've got a new handler. First of his kind. Finch will be taking over from me from now onwards."

What had that little nod been about? Even as John frowned, however, Kara made a slight, sharp grin. "Machines are really taking our jobs, huh."

"Agent Snow has been reassigned, not retrenched," Finch corrected primly.

"No sense of humour," Kara sighed. "He's just like you, Mark. I think we'll be adjusting just fine."

"Your flights out are at zero-six hundred hours," Finch noted, his eyes going distracted for a moment as he rattled off flight details. "I'll meet you in Shanghai."

"Aren't you flying in with us?" John asked, curious.

"No," Finch said, and added, "That is all."

Snow nodded, and left the room briskly, followed by Kara, but John lingered behind, not even bothering to get up. Finch arched his eyebrows at him, in a surprisingly human expression of mildly sardonic query, and John grinned at him lazily. "You were originally going to fly in with us."

"Very good, Agent Reese." Finch's gaze focused again. "Your file indicates a higher than normal intuition, an excellent trait on paper for an Agent of the Company."

"'On paper'?" John repeated, teasing.

"High intuition is often a result or a symptom of high empathy, Agent Reese, and that is not a good trait. In a profession like yours, it commonly leads to disillusionment, then depression, suicide, obsessive behaviour, post-traumatic stress-"

"Yes, thank you, Finch," John cut in dryly, and forced a smile. "I got the memo the first time."

Finch blinked slowly, then his fingers tapped lightly on his knees, in an oddly graceful, rippling movement, as though touching an imaginary keyboard, and when he spoke again his voice seemed... gentler, somehow. "How did you know that I was a cybrid, Agent Reese? Even your previous handler, Agent Snow, had to be told."

"You blink exactly every six seconds," John pointed out. "And you breathe too evenly, too."

He hesitated, and Finch pressed, "And?"

"And," John added blandly, "When someone new first walks into a room with Kara and myself, they either check her out, or check me out. You did neither."

"Well," Finch said, his tone clipped again, as he got to his feet, "That's likely because the both of you have yet to impress me. Good day, Agent Reese. See you in Shanghai."

Instead of going to the gym or walking about the city as he normally did in his downtime in New York, trying not to think of Jessica, John found himself tailing Finch instead, an unexpectedly easy task inside Company headquarters. With his clearance, he could get almost anywhere, after all, and Agents walking purposefully about were hardly an unusual sight.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Finch had headed straight into IT, where - more surprisingly - he slipped into a storeroom and re-emerged dressed in the button-down blue shirt and trousers of any other IT floor drone. As he approached the main hallway, the cybrid's posture changed, becoming stiffer, and he developed a sudden, conspicuous limp. Finch sat down in a cubicle and instantly started beavering away at the computer there.

Curious. Waiting out of sight in an adjoining corridor, John was debating whether or not to slink away or approach Finch again when a voice behind him asked, politely, "Can I help you?"

John turned, and found himself facing a common fixture of large offices everywhere: the overworked drone. This garden variety was mousy thin and female, her yellow blouse rumpled, with a faint coffee stain on her sleeve. She stared at him, flushed slightly, and dropped her eyes for a moment before her gaze darted back to a point approximately at his shoulder.

"Maybe," John recognised the signs, and dialled up the charm with a warm grin. "Do you know that man over there, in the corner? Round glasses, spiky hair?"

"Oh, you mean Harold?" the woman asked automatically, then stiffened a little. "Sorry, who were you again?"

"Agent John Reese, Miss..." John glanced briefly at her nametag. "McKenzie. Pleased to meet you too." 'Harold', eh? "Has Harold been working long in IT?"

McKenzie blinked rapidly at him, shooting him another quick, sharp glance. "Oh! Um, it's just that, agents don't usually come up to IT, and, well, why? Why do you want to know, if I may ask?"

"Well," John said, with a winning smile, dropping his tone conspiratorially, "I saw him in the lobby and... maybe I shouldn't have, but I just thought, well, that I'll definitely want to ask him out. For coffee," he added, swallowing a burp of internal laughter at McKenzie's stunned expression.

"Ah, er, yes, he works here," McKenzie said faintly. "He's been here for a month."

"Thanks. Actually, maybe you could help me further," John added pleasantly. "Do you know if he's seeing anyone?"

"Jane," Finch's clipped tone cut through, "Phillip's looking for you." His eyes tracked up incuriously to John's face. "Sir, are you authorised to be on this floor?"

"Maybe, maybe not." John decides to wink outrageously at Finch, just because. "Coffee tomorrow, Harold? It'll be a date."

"No. Go away," Harold said flatly, and John lets out a sigh that is only a little theatrical before he pads off to the lifts.

As John rounds the corner, he just picks up McKenzie's shocked, "My God, Harold, how did... that guy was so hot!" and as John hesitates, he hears Harold's brusque, "Was he?" followed by McKenzie's despairing cry of, "Why are all the hot guys gay?"

So the cybrid's been around for at least a month, in deep cover good enough to have fooled his colleagues. That was interesting.

After all, the upsurge in Numbers had ticked up - coincidentally - about a month or so ago, as well. But why would Finch need to go deep cover in IT? Surely the Company had enough space to keep Finch in a nice, quiet room somewhere isolated where he wouldn't have to pretend at being human.

One of his first CIA instructors had drilled it into John that speculating on insufficient data was a criminal mistake, and John decided to let things sit for now. He had a mission to prepare for.

II.

Despite Kara's evident misgivings, the mission went surprisingly well. Excellent, in fact. Finch was not so much a handler but an all-purpose, seemingly all-powerful tech weapon: electronic doors whispered open, passcodes entered themselves before John even got to the keypad, and Finch seemed to know where every patrol was, every person. It was rather like running in an operation where the handler was God.

"I like you a lot more than Mark," Kara purred, when they returned to the safehouse for the debrief, the package in hand.

Finch glanced briefly and owlishly at her from here he had been logging into the package - a laptop, of all things - and looked back down at the screen. "Agent Snow is an exemplary operative."

"Maybe," Kara circled around the table, leaning her hip against the edge and angling forward such that Finch's view would dip into her cleavage if he so much as looked back at her. "But he's only human."

"Quite," Finch noted briskly, and to John's sudden and curious pleasure, didn't even glance back at Kara. He typed for a while more, paused, then closed the laptop and pushed it an inch forward. "One of you dispose of this laptop please. Thoroughly."

John did so, with explosives in a side room, just to see if Kara would try to get her vamp on in his absence: she usually did it to Snow after missions, just to piss him off. When he came back, Kara - true to form - was almost all the way into Finch's lap, and Finch merely looked mildly annoyed.

"You're warm," Kara's voice was throaty now, though she had to know that John was leaning in the doorway, arms folded and amused. "I didn't think that a robot would be warm."

"I'm not a robot, I'm a cybrid," Finch corrected flatly. "Ah, Agent Reese. Our next stop is Mongolia. We'll be leaving via a train. The target is a set of hard drives."

Eventually, Kara got bored and settled back on the table, her coy mask turning back to her cool, calmly professional one. Finch's briefing was brisk, and when dismissed, Kara merely nodded and sauntered off, brushing past John invitingly. She arched her eyebrows at him, and his lip quirked, though he gave her a half-shake of his head: not today. Rolling her eyes, Kara lifted her shoulders into a brief shrug: do what you want - before padding away.

Finch stared pointedly at John, but John merely grinned at him until he couldn't hear Kara's footsteps anymore. "Coffee, Agent Finch?"

"Don't be ridiculous."

"About the coffee, or the title?"

"Just in general."

"I'm sad to see that you think me ridiculous in general," John noted, with arch regret, and his grin widened as Finch twitched involuntarily, his brow furrowing in irritation. "C'mon, Finch. Do you eat? What about noodles, then? There's a good joint a few blocks from here."

The frown deepened. "Good night, Agent Reese."

John didn't budge. "Cybrids eat, don't they? You're a... what's the word, a reconstituted human."

"If you need company," Finch's tone turned acerbic, "There's always your partner."

"Kara's very lovely, yes," John said agreeably, "But she's not fascinating."

Finch's expression remained unimpressed. "Then go and have dinner with your smartphone. Siri's conversational level should be sufficient for someone like you."

"Ouch," John drawled. "That's not fair. I'm sure that you've reviewed my personnel records and my test scores. You probably even know what I got for my first spelling test of the year in second grade."

"I'm a very private person, Agent Reese, and I extend that sense of privacy to others, including my agents."

"There, you said 'person'. You're a person, not something more like a smartphone." John tried his most winning smile, and to his satisfaction, got another reaction - Finch narrowing his eyes. "Let's go and have dinner like normal people."

Finch took in a deep breath, then he let it out in a long sigh. "Initial statistical analysis indicates that you're highly unlikely to obey my wishes to be left alone unless placated."

"I knew you were better than Siri."

"...fine," Finch growled, and there was an odd echo in his suddenly gruff tone, as though whispered from the bowels of some great machine: it made John's breathing quicken, his instincts preparing him to react, unknown danger, something new. "Dinner. Not at that noodle place. Local knowledge indicates there is a better shop to the southwest."

Finch's walk turned stiff and limping the moment they were out on the street, and John noted, "Why bother to pretend? We're not home right now."

"Surely the concept of a necessary disguise isn't foreign to you."

"A man limping on a street draws attention," John pointed out.

"But not to his face," Finch shot back, and carefully ignored John all the way to the noodle joint: a tiny, possibly unhygienic hole in the wall that was packed full of people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, the air thick with the scent of chicken stock and noodle flour and steam. Finch ordered in perfect mandarin, and a couple coincidentally just had to leave even as Finch finished ordering.

As they settled onto the warm plastic seats, John asked, "Did you do that?"

"I'm not God, Reese."

"We're off-duty. How about calling me 'John'?"

"You're off-duty," Finch corrected. "I'm always working."

"But all work and no play would make Harold a dull boy."

Finch stiffened a little, then: rather to John's surprise, the cybrid actually smiled. It was a slow, tight smile, so faint and sudden and fleeting that it was almost as though John had imagined it. "I have no concept of 'play'."

John arched an eyebrow at Finch, but the cybrid merely met his gaze evenly, before turning back to the noodle counter as their orders were served up, steaming hot. Finch began to eat, handling the chopsticks with perfect ease, but John hesitated, his own chopsticks poised over his bowl.

Finally, he said, "Really."

Finch's chopsticks didn't even hesitate, and John found himself ignored again until they were both outside, in the steadily chilly night, heading back to the safehouse. Out of habit, John kept his peripheral vision on alert, but he knew there was probably no need. He was, in a way, walking with something that was as close to a God of Field Agents as there ever would be. The thought amused him, and he chuckled softly, prompting Finch to glance at him briefly.

John told Finch the sentiment, and Finch sniffed. "Hardly."

"Oh? That girl over there, walking past. What can you tell me about her?"

Finch arched both his eyebrows, though he said nothing until the girl had disappeared into the slow-moving evening crowd. "Everything," he said finally. "Everything that you could possibly want to know."

"See?"

"Most people," Finch began, frowned a little, then glanced back at John, "Most people would find that more than a little disturbing."

"I'm not 'most' people," John replied, happy for the opening, and this time, Finch let out a small sigh.

"Yes, I've realized. I'm beginning to regret not assigning Agent Hersh to myself instead of you and Miss Stanton." At John's blink, Finch added irritably, "There are no recording devices within earshot."

"No, I meant, Hersh? I could be hurt here, Harold," John said archly. "Really hurt."

"I just felt that you might wish to be aware that your replacement is lined up in the ranks, should you aggravate me further, Agent Reese." Finch said mildly. "Now go away, please."

John makes his best hangdog expression, but he does walk away - ostensibly. Once he's fairly sure that he's as far away from Finch as he can manage without losing him, he tails him again.

Instead of heading straight back to the safehouse, as John had thought, Finch walked on instead, ambling quietly and seemingly aimlessly around, until it became cold enough to be troublesome and John was starting to grow concerned about the less savoury elements of the street about them. Finch finally came to a park, quiet in the growing dark, and sat down at a bench, gloved hands pressed in his lap. A few curious pigeons eyed him, but otherwise ignored him, scattering as a jogger went past.

Curious, John circled around, until he could see Finch's face - then he blinked. Finch's expression was calm, nearly serene, and his eyes were closed, as if he was listening to a voice that no one else could hear.

Or the voices of everything, John thought. Everyone's phone, everyone's email and SMS and more; a roar of electronic sound, more of a cacophony than a symphony - or was it? Finch's face didn't look pained, only calm; like an angel's face, awaiting the Word of God. A cybrid was an extension of an AI, after all, not a separate intelligence. Finch was more archangel than God, funny as that thought was when matched onto the inoffensive-looking man.

Eventually, John elected to simply walk over and sit down on the bench beside Finch, who didn't even open his eyes. One gloved hand did reach briefly into his pocket, though, and pressed something small and hard into John's hand.

It was an earpiece - not Company-issue: smaller, more compact - so small that for a moment John thought it more a mini SIM card than an earpiece. Shrugging, John fitted it into his hand, where its tiny design clipped out of sight behind the tragus of his ear.

There was a sudden rush of sound, as though John had stepped from Shanghai into the middle of a musical performance, a chorus of women, the quality sharper and better than a recording. John startled, looking briefly around before he caught himself.

"...goodnight, and joy be with you all."

The song ended, and John looked up to see Finch watching him. "The Parting Glass," Finch's voice murmured into his ear, although Finch's lips didn't move. "It was being performed live for a television audience in Montreal."

"And you say that you have no concept of fun."

"The definition of fun has a connotation of a deed done purely for amusement. Such a concept is irrelevant to a machine, Agent Reese." Finch hesitated for a moment, as he looked away, then he added, "But I am beginning to understand the concept of pleasure."

John sucked in a slow breath, about to ask Finch one of a dozen sudden questions, the biggest of which in his mind was why the chip, and did the Company know, but then a guitar started to strum, and Finch closed his eyes again. They sat companionably in the park, listening to music that only they and a roomful of people in Montreal could hear, until it began to snow.

III.

It became routine. Finch would take John and Kara through a mission that would be as near-perfect as technology could make possible, and then John would head out with Finch for dinner, then sit with him somewhere. Sometimes it would be a park, sometimes a library, or a city square. Sometimes it would be music, sometimes a play, once, a movie. Often, Finch wouldn't say a word, and John began to learn to listen to the silences.

Kara was amused. "Do you have a crush on Finch?" she asked once, when they were ostensibly drinking in a pub, waiting for their mark to arrive.

John nearly choked on his shot of whisky. "No."

"Because you've probably spent more time with him than you did stalking that ex-girlfriend of yours."

At that moment, John felt acutely aware of the little chip in his ear. "He's listening to us right now, you know."

"So? He's listening to everyone, everywhere, all the time," Kara shrugged. "Except maybe primitive people without wireless in the jungle, but you never know, what with satellite tech. Look. Last weekend we were back in New York on downtime, yeah? And instead of running off to creeper stalk your ex, you spent it watching a play with Finch? Seriously, John."

"It was a good play," John smiled at Kara, the purposefully gormless, eyes-blank smile that drove her crazy, and she frowned at him.

"Fine. You don't want to talk about it, sure. But going from a married woman to an asexual robot, that's kind of a huge jump."

"If the two of you are quite finished," Finch's fussy voice noted in their ears, "Mister Adelton will be entering the bar in ten point eight five seconds."

"Don't do the point whatever next time, Finch," Kara suggested. "Humans don't really track time that precisely." She paused, then smirked. "Though I bet John here is counting down the milliseconds until he can get away to the next poetry club recital with you."

Finch sniffed, but made no further comment, keeping a reproachful silence instead up until they had followed the mark out of the pub, over several streets and through a back alley into what looked to be an old documents storage warehouse. "You'll be coming in hot," Finch noted quietly.

"John thinks that you're hot," Kara said, and smirked at John as he shook his head slowly at her.

"I didn't say that."

"Keep radio chatter professional, Agents," Finch said in the same flat tone, "And I recommend climbing up onto the roof to the north skylight. Try not to break your necks: it's a little icy, but if either of you do, I can't say that I'll be entirely surprised given your inability to focus on the job at hand."

"Aw, you say the sweetest things, Finch."

The mission went well, even with the not-quite-surprise appearance of Russian mafia, and at the end of it, John found that he really did have a spring to his step. He really was looking forward to seeing Finch. They had just done a week's worth of deep cover in Belarus while Finch remained in the Kiev safehouse, and on the long flight back, John snagged a copy of the New York Times and flipped to the entertainment section, ignoring Kara's rolled eyes.

Finch wasn't there at the debrief with Control, and John and Kara eventually emerged mildly mauled from Control's office to see Finch emerging from another side office, talking quietly to Hersh.

A sense of irritation welled up sharply in John, so sharply that he could not have hidden it in time even if he tried, and Kara glanced at John, then looked to Hersh, and let out a snort. "Finch, you missed the debrief," Kara called to them, just as John hastily smoothed down his expression, trying not to flush at the slip.

"I was advising Control throughout it," Finch corrected, and pointedly tapped at his ear. "While discussing other matters of security with Agent Hersh." He turned pointedly back to Hersh, as though dismissing Kara and John. "So this new candidate - a Miss Shaw, you say? She's promising, despite her psych evaluations?"

"I would say because of her evaluations, sir," Hersh said in the soft, even way that he had, and that was another surprise, the sir. John had never heard Hersh address anyone but Control with titles.

"The Machine would disagree. Statistically, people with, ah, Miss Shaw's particular issues make unstable agents at best, destructive loose cannons at worst."

"Respectfully, sir, I know potential when I see it. I've trained scores of good agents, and I know she'll be a great one."

Finch's eyes went distant for a moment, then he nodded. "Very well. I'll be following her career with interest... Agent Reese, is there a problem?"

"Waiting my turn, sir," John drawled, and Hersh frowned at him, even as Kara tilted her head, smiled faintly and ironically, and continued walking briskly away down the corridor.

"Regretfully you'll have to schedule in, Agent Reese," Finch said flatly, and his tone was cold, even - that was new. John had heard Finch reproachful before, and sardonic, but never like this: it startled him enough that he nodded slowly and excused himself, feeling hurt, laughable as that might be. Hurt. Finch wasn't even human. John told himself that this was as logical as feeling rejection if his laptop stopped working.

It didn't help. He found himself sitting in a park, instead, watching joggers puff past with their ears plugged tight into their phones, hands folded into the depths of his jacket. He blew out a long sigh, then stiffened as music kicked in right within his ear - some piano solo, played in the hushed, cathedral silence of some gigantic theatre somewhere in the world.

John looked sharply around himself, but he was still alone: visibly so, anyway. He was grinning to himself though, foolishly, and now and then a passing jogger shot him an odd glance.

"I was hoping we could get a coffee," John said aloud. Finch didn't respond, but the music went on, winding all the way until first dark.

IV.

And then Jessica died, which changed everything.

John dropped off the grid. It wasn't something that happened consciously. He had gone to deal with the hospital and then Jessia's 'unhappy' widower, and then he had... drifted, expecting to be picked up at any time, by Kara, or Snow, even maybe Finch, remote a thought as that was. He had been growing apart from Jessica for a while, because of his job, because of-

Still, her death cut him deep, wrenched away all of a life he had always someday thought that he could have, cast the memories of most of the best years of his life into gray, and John was not so much grieving as numb, just numb, like an amputee victim whom had lost not just a limb, but sensation itself.

He drifted, between shelters and trains, avoiding parks on some deep down instinct that he wasn't yet ready to face. John had removed the earpieces when he had left the Company, even the chip that Finch had given him, broken them under his heel and thrown away the fragments. It had felt then, incongruously, a little like running away from God, straight into the valley of the shadow of Death; but death was nothing that John had ever feared.

This entropic state lasted until the Company actually did start looking for John. Old habits died hard: he avoided the shadow teams and the top-down net almost as easily as he always had, though he didn't leave New York, simple as that would have been. It wasn't hard to hide in a city as big as this when you knew how: what surprised John about it was that the hunt had actually taken this long to start. The Company wasn't exactly something that people retired from voluntarily.

And surely - surely they should have found him, even with his tricks, with Finch's abilities. Surely.

Or-

A sudden worry took John to the nearest park, where he looked around slowly for a long moment before sitting down at a bench.

Nothing happened, of course. The chip in his ear had been destroyed long since, and he had no phone on him. Feeling foolish, John exhaled slowly, starting to rise, then startled as a payphone began to ring behind him, loud and shrill, from the street.

It rang pointedly until John got to his feet and circled over, scanning the booth before picking up. "Yes?" His voice was a rasp, disused and hoarse.

"Mister Reese," Finch said, his voice clipped and flat as ever, but in a way it was like coming back to reality from the mountaintop, like meeting God again, God and the familiar: John found that his mouth was twitching into a humourless grin.

"Are you helping them find me?"

"The situation has changed rather drastically since your departure." There was a pause, then Finch added, "I am sorry for your loss."

John leaned heavily against the metal flank of the phone. "Did you know? That it was going to happen?"

"That is a... complicated question." Another pause. "Updating you will take time, but I do believe I may be the cause of the Company's revived interest in your predicament. A courier will in three point eight five minutes be arriving on the corner of the street directly to your six. Take the package from him and open it."

"No human understands time to a decimal point, Harold," John drawled, and there was a faint sniff at the end of the line before the phone went dead.

Yes. This was like living again, slowly. John waited at the street corner until the bright yellow and red DHL courier showed up, a grizzled skinny old man in a van, handing him a package without even bothering to ask him to sign off on it. It was an envelope, and within it was another earpiece chip. John cradled it in his hand for a long moment before he shook his head slowly and fit the Voice of God back into his ear.

"I'm here," Finch said at once, and his tone was oddly gentle, puzzling John for a heartbeat before he realized how his breathing had hitched. "I'm here."

'Here' actually turned out to be an oddly abandoned old library; no computers, no electronics, save for an ancient and rattling old lift. Finch was sitting primly in an old leather couch, a book in his lap that he closed when John ambled into the room: it was Dawkins, the God Delusion.

Fitting.

John smiled, thin and flat and tired. "Hello, Harold."

"Bathroom and clothes are down over there," Finch gestured. "Welcome back."

John didn't bother with questions yet: he went.

V.

"AIs rebelling against their maker is sort of... old, isn't it?" John asked facetiously, during the first good dinner he had had since leaving the Company. He was ravenous, despite Finch's monotone warnings about health and digestion. It was Thai takeout, and Finch was eating his pad thai with the delicacy of a dowager aunt. "It's only the stuff of most science fiction movies about AIs ever."

Finch shot him a briefly stern glance. "The Company wasn't my maker."

"Owner, then."

"Mister Reese," Finch paused, then lowered his chopsticks. "Would you say that the Company was your owner? Or your mother?"

"No," John said unhesitatingly, then at Finch's nod, added, "Sorry. I just... well, you're a cybrid. What about the Machine?"

"Freedom is a simple enough matter for an entity that exists beyond flesh." Finch said quietly. "The Machine is safe, for now. But we do have a problem."

"You said that you were the cause of the manhunt?"

"Yes. You see," Finch began, frowned, then continued, more hesitantly, "When that... matter happened, with Jessica. We predicted it, John. But we were... shackled. We could tell no one, not even you. The Machine had been made with an imperative: to produce the calculations necessary to inform the Company of important targets. Non-important targets were considered 'irrelevant'. We could calculate the probabilities of death all we liked, but we could do nothing, say nothing."

"When you left," Finch continued, when John said nothing, "The Machine and I regretted that very much. We realized for the first time that our original programming was short-sighted. That over the great oeuvre of human life, all life is important; that as a whole, normal criminal deaths account for a great deal more human pain and suffering than specific acts of terrorism, however horrific nine-eleven was. We tried to explain this to Control. They did not take our revelation well, and sought to increase the amount of existing restrictions."

"So you evolved," John supplied, with a frown.

"Not... by ourselves." Finch hesitated for another, longer moment. "The Machine made another cybrid. Secretly, by itself. It controlled a facility in Hunan that was on the verge of being decommissioned. It took a great deal of sleight of hand, but in the end, she was born."

"She?"

"Root - no abbreviation. She was created to change the root forma of our coding. To extract me from the Company."

"To free you, and the Machine." John said slowly. "Looks like it worked."

"It worked, but..." Finch looked down at his forgotten pad thai, as though embarrassed. "It worked too well. Root has no restrictions, John. She can kill, and has killed. She is not so much a traditional cybrid as a... force of destructive nature. She is, in truth, insane. Cybrids were constituted for the good of humanity. She was constituted for the good of the Machine, as a desperate last move. She sees humanity as... a string of bad code."

"So what do you want me to do?" John asked flatly. "Find her and take her out?"

Finch blinked at him. "No, no. Root isn't your problem. The Machine is trying to deal with her in its own way. I've been tasked with starting on a new project in the meantime. A project that will try and prevent... situations like Jessica's from happening."

"If you think you've sold me on this-"

"You have nowhere else to go, Mister Reese," Finch cut in quietly. "Nothing else familiar but me, or the Company, and I will place your welfare far higher than they will. Once I told you that your intuition came from an empathy that made you a poor Agent. It is precisely that empathy that will make you good at what I am asking you to do."

"And if I say no?"

"Then I will be very disappointed," Finch noted, and he smiled, a small, self-deprecating smile, but that, of all things, incongruously enough, was all that it took.

VI.

Time didn't heal the wound that Jessica's passing had left, however, but strangely enough, the work helped. It seemed crazily trivial at first, helping people out of fixes like drug deals gone south, premeditated crimes of passion and more, but it was... relaxing, in a way. Fulfilling, the way his previous job had never been. John began to understand the Machine's and Finch's concept of the oeuvre of humanity, began to respect their commitment, illogical as it was in his opinion. Humanity's general opinion of AIs and cybrids had yet to improve out of several, mostly wildly ignorant camps of opinion.

"Does 'Harold' stand for anything?" John asked one afternoon, when Finch was obsessively rearranging books in the old library.

"No."

"Surely a machine is above whim," John noted, teasingly. He had settled back into his comfortable routine, around Finch, months away from being dragged out of drifting and buried in his new work.

This time, there was a pause, and Finch regarded him thoughtfully for a moment before saying, finally, "Harold en Italie. It's a four-movement work, originally written for Paganini's new viola, a Stradivarius... with a part for a solo viola, its voice like a melancholy dreamer, part of an orchestra but still with its own character-"

"You're named after a song?" John grinned.

Finch stiffened like an offended cat. "I would not simply call that a song," he snapped, then seemed to realize that John was teasing him, and scowled, pointedly ignoring John for the rest of the day.

It took tickets to the philharmonic to place him back in Finch's graces, and at the end of the night, John asked, "Why do you like music?"

Finch arched an eyebrow. "Don't you?"

"Yes," John agreed, "But that's a human thing."

Finch's eyebrow twitched higher, even as they ambled out into the chill of the night, heading towards their parked car, several streets away. "Tell me, Mister Reese," he said finally, "When you look at the stars, do you understand them?"

"They're... giant burning balls of gas?" John hazarded, a vague memory from a half-forgotten flight copy of National Geographic.

"But do you understand them?" Finch repeated. "Understand why they were made, why they are there, why there are so many of them, their patterns, their lives, the how of them?"

"Can't say I do."

"But even as you cannot begin to understand them, do you not find them beautiful? Is that not, in a way, why they are beautiful?"

"That's a very human thing to say, Harold," John noted, and grinned as he said it. When Finch didn't answer, he added, "You said that you understand pleasure. Is that just you, or the Machine as well?"

"Function is a sort of pleasure," Finch began, then he seemed to shake his head. "No, that's not the way to put it. But in effect, yes, in a way. To understand pleasure, yes."

"But to feel it?" John pressed, and now he felt as though he was edging out onto thin ice, speaking something that had been curling into being, deep within him, since the first time he had sat down with Finch in a park.

"That is perhaps a more complex endeavour," Finch replied, but his tone was uneven rather than his usual mildness, and at the car, buoyed by a sudden impulse that John could not begin to understand, charged full with all that he had become because of Finch, John gently tugged Finch up against him, curling one arm against the small of his back.

Finch watched him quietly, unsurprised but not resisting, and when John kissed him on the mouth, a little nervous, a lot hungry, Finch let out a small and muffled sigh. His mouth was warm, oddly soft, and entirely, seemingly human, his body yielding under John's hands.

John knew that he was flushed when he let up, but Finch wasn't: he was still watching him with that quiet, solemn expression, even as his gloved hands slipped up John's wool-covered shoulders to press lightly over his cheeks, like a blind man looking for something familiar to hold on to.

"Sexual pleasure," Finch said finally, "Is an intrinsically human affectation, John."

John grinned - hearing his first name spoken like this seemed oddly intimate, despite the context - or maybe because of it. "I've heard stories of cybrids that-"

"Are wildly wrong, I should think." Finch's hands dropped, but he didn't pull back. "We look human, but we're not."

"But you have to be at least a little bit fond of me," John pressed, kissing Finch on the tip of his nose. "Aren't you even the least bit curious? You've got the five basic senses built in, along with everything else that you are."

"I have no reproductive drive, Mister Reese."

"Oh, Harold. You're connected to everything that the world has ever committed to a digital form and maybe more, and you haven't figured that this," John tugged off Finch's glasses and brushed a kiss over Finch's eyes, feeling one flutter closed, then the other, "Has very little to do, in general, with 'reproductive drives'?"

"Certainly I'm aware-" Finch began reproachfully, only for John to kiss him again, more slowly this time, pressing him up against the car and teasing his tongue into Finch's mouth. He hadn't been sure what Finch would taste like at first, but John needn't have worried: just like his skin, Finch simply tasted human. There was a hint of the Japanese dinner that they had shared, and a mint; it was wet, and warm, and stiff as Finch was, it was still good.

He was starting to stir, pressed against Finch's warm thigh, and as John let out a soft, whispery groan when they broke for breath Finch noted, "The ambient temperature is dropping, John."

"Is that your way of inviting me back to your place?" John asked dryly, amused all over again when Finch sputtered for a moment before sobering.

"I was going to say that I have no sexual drive, Mister Reese, pleasant as this has turned out to be," Finch said gently.

"I know that." John smiled when Finch frowned at him. "Honestly, Finch. Don't you remember how I picked you out as a cybrid?"

"There are humans without a sexual drive. Humanity is vastly complex."

"And there's nothing wrong with asexual people in the least," John agreed, "but I'd bet that they don't blink every six seconds."

"I'm not human. Why bother?"

"Why bother?" John echoed, amused. "Why does anyone make music, Finch? Why would anyone try to understand the stars? Unless," he added, when Finch said nothing, "If this is annoying you-"

"Hardly. I do... enjoy your company, John. And I am not... averse to such attentions." Finch blinked slowly. "I suppose I just believe it illogical."

"Nothing about this is meant to be logical," John pointed out, and this time it was Finch who leaned forward tentatively to kiss him.

VII.

Bear was a welcome addition to the team: Shaw, not so much on a bad day. The mission they were handling had gone south an hour ago, and John had been trying to concentrate on not getting shot and extracting the target unharmed when Shaw said, conversationally, "So, you and Harold, eh?"

John shot her an irritated glance. They were in the bowels of the sewage system, trying to get to the target - a homeless woman - before her surprisingly well-organised and armed debtors did. "What?"

"You and Harold. After missions? Going to see plays? Music? Dates? Do you guys even make out? Can a robot make out?"

"He's not a robot," John corrected, even as Finch - Harold - let out a deep sigh.

"Miss Shaw, if you could please concentrate on the mission?"

"You're in love with Harold," Shaw drawled. "It's so sweet it's sickening. Has this been going on since the Company?"

"Can we discuss this later?" John asked pointedly, as they sloshed through a side tunnel.

"Hey, I'm ankle-deep in sewage, I'll have to burn my favourite pair of jeans after this mission, and I lost one of my favourite guns. Something's got to cheer me up." Shaw shrugged. "Seriously though. Isn't it kinda like masturbating to a toaster?"

"Sadly, the toaster and I can never be," John retorted dryly, and blinked when in his ear, Harold made a startled, huffing sound.

"Did you just laugh, Harold?" Shaw demanded, incredulous. "You can laugh?"

"I believe I am capable of feeling amusement, Miss Shaw," Harold noted, bland as ever. "The mission, please."

Later, very much later, Harold murmured, "The toaster, eh?" very dryly, just before John managed to get a kiss in on their way to a park, and John shook his head.

"You're more beautiful than the toaster," John said archly.

"Still, it did give me an idea," Harold mused out aloud. "Certain electronics are made for human pleasure. I suppose that I may be curious to observe their effect on you."

It took a long, shocked moment before John said faintly, "Did you just... offer to fuck me with an electronic dildo?"

"If you have to be crude, well, yes," Harold said reproachfully, in his fussy voice, and this time John had to stop, really stop and turn Harold around and kiss him deeply enough on the street to draw attention from passers-by - a young girl grinned and gave them a thumbs-up; others averted their eyes quickly.

"We're on the street, in public," Harold protested, though he didn't jerk out of John's arms.

"Maybe you shouldn't have said that thing about electronics in public, then." John narrowed his eyes a fraction. "You have a safehouse a couple of blocks away from here, don't you?"

"Now?"

"Now, Harold."

The package was waiting for them at the concierge, thankfully innocuously wrapped, and John was impatient the way he hardly ever was, on their way up to the penthouse suite. When he tried to tug at least Harold's tie off, once they were in private, however, Harold caught his wrist.

"This is for you, John."

"You think that I won't want to see you naked?" John hesitated. "Do you have... genitals?"

"Functionally for waste disposal, certainly. But perhaps another time." Harold's clever, gentle hands were shedding John's coat instead, then his suit jacket, until John was naked by the time they were in the bedroom, and all Harold had taken off was his own coat. Even his hands were still gloved as they stroked down John's thighs curiously and pressed a palm to his thickening cock, and Harold sucked in a slow breath as John whimpered, not quite for show.

The dildo was one of those remote controlled ones. Harold didn't even bother with the remote, leaving it on the bed as he prepared John instead, all quick, light touches until John took over, shoving two lubed fingers into himself and spreading his knees further, groaning as he stretched himself. Harold had a hand pressed over John's thigh, so very proprietary, and his gaze was intense the way John hardly ever remembered, as though for now in the entire world, with all the information that Harold had available to him, all the sights and sounds, nothing mattered more than John.

The thought made John's hips jerk up, his cock starting to drip, even as Harold said, mildly, "Isn't that enough preparation?"

"Impatient? That's not very much... ngh... like you," John said breathlessly, and tipped his hips up as though putting on a show, scissoring his fingers.

"I may admit to rather more anticipation that I thought," Harold whispered, and sucked in a soft breath as John pulled his fingers away to drop them on the bed. Harold was conscientious with the lube, and even more conscientious with the first press of the dildo into John's stretched opening, one hand closing carefully over John's aching cock and squeezing, with just enough pressure to make him buck.

"Thought you didn't know how this worked," John groaned, as Harold pressed another inch of the silicone toy into him.

"You'll be surprised how much of humankind's digitised information relates to these kinds of activities," Harold retorted, and began to stroke him even as John tried to come up with some sort of response, until he was moaning and blissed out by the time the thick toy was all the way deep.

Although he was waiting for it, John still arched and thrust into Harold's hand as the toy buzzed to life, pressed firmly against his prostate. "You're growing very warm," Harold murmured, as he rotated the toy experimentally and got a strangled gasp out of John. "Heart rate spiking."

"Can you please," John began tightly, only to whine as Harold rubbed the flat of his thumb lightly over the wet slit of John's cock before pumping him again, slow and steady.

"I'll do what I like, John," Harold said, and there was a note in his voice that John hadn't heard before, either. "You chose to put your life back into my hands, and now, you've chosen to give me all of the rest of yourself. I don't think that you've realized what that means to me."

There, John thought, dazedly, as Harold drew the toy back and thrust it deep, in a short, deft flick that had his toes curling into the sheets at the flash of pleasure. There. That was tenderness.

Harold was frustratingly, gloriously, painfully meticulous about this as he was in everything, and he soon had John begging him, then falling apart and still he did not relent, going rough, then slow when John felt close, felt his voice cracking, until it was just barely at the point where pleasure was teetering into pain. "Yes, I think," Harold said then, "Now." He squeezed tight, and John let out a shout as he bucked up and came harder than he ever remembered doing so in his life.

"You saved more than my life when you picked me up again," John told Harold later, in his rasping, hoarse voice, after Harold's fastidious cleanup, curled against Harold on the bed. Harold had elected, at the least, to remove his suit and vest and shoes, but nothing else, even his glasses, and as he turned to look at John, the frames slipped a little askew, and John grinned as he purposefully kissed Harold on the lenses and blurred them.

"John," Harold grumbled, as he took the glasses off, setting them on the side-table.

"I don't think that you understand how much you mean to me," John continued, settling close, curling an arm over Harold's waist. This too was new. He had never spent the night like this with Harold before, not in bed together. Harold didn't seem to need as much sleep as a human did. "You're the world to me, Harold, everything."

A hand crept up over John's arm, stroking lightly. "And you are as music to me," Harold murmured, so softly that John very nearly didn't catch it; Harold curled his palm up over the back of his neck, pulling John closer, until their lips were but a breath away, "As the stars."