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Unseen Things

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John, Elias, Harold, and Nathan -- and the Book

The headache was, thankfully, subsiding; Harold paused in his typing and rubbed at his temples. A moment ago, he’d felt so rushed, almost panicked, but… honestly, there wasn’t much left to do today; he’d just let himself get overwhelmed. One more side effect of having to survive in a city so thoroughly under the thumb of the Foundation.

Around him, the subway station was dark and calm, a place of refuge despite its proximity to a Foundation hot-spot. Even the soft clatter of Nathan climbing the shelves and knocking over books was more of a comfort than a disturbance; the man was always researching something these days.

But, really, what else was he going to do with his time? As a human, Nathan had enjoyed two vices -- alcohol and women -- but now, he didn’t have the equipment for either. He couldn’t get high (he’d tried), and couldn’t even leave their hideout except in Harold’s laptop bag. If he’d still had muscles, Harold would’ve set him up a little gym or something, but exercise wouldn’t even give him a dopamine rush, and it wasn’t going to do anything useful to cotton stuffing.

Operating a laptop was slow enough that Nathan had given up on trying to code; he could barely use a mouse, and being reduced to hunt-and-peck (while trying not to step on the spacebar) was almost insulting. Harold had picked him up a Kindle, too, but Nathan found the stylus awkward and frustrating -- and his felted mitten-hands were useless with any kind of touchscreen.

(Come to think of it… Harold set up a quick reminder to buy Nathan a compact USB keyboard. Maybe a split keyboard. Something small enough to balance on his lap.)

One afternoon, Shaw had done her best to find some sort of game that he could play, but the active ones were out of reach: He could no more operate a controller than use mouse and keyboard at the same time, and the Kinect refused to recognize him. He didn’t care for the more cerebral fare. In the end, he’d accepted passive entertainment: Netflix, YouTube, and his newest obsession, nik.bot.

The rest of the time, he got to know Harold’s reference collection -- or as much of it as was left after they’d had to flee the Library. The majority of their resources were digital, of course, but, when it came to anomalous phenomena, it was hardly surprising that the useful texts weren’t published through traditional channels.

As Harold got back to work, he wondered what Nathan was looking into tonight. Aside from the ever-present need to stay a step ahead of the Foundation, there weren’t any long-term research projects on their plate right now… not any that he could think of. Of course, he was pretty tired; Nathan might be immune to sleep deprivation, but Harold wasn’t so lucky, and trying to balance the cases with his current alias was leaving him a little short on resources. Already he was looking forward to heading home, back to Professor Whistler’s apartment, to clear his head with a good night’s rest.

Of course, that was after he’d closed down his workstation for the night. With a sigh, he started to sort through his open tabs, carefully bookmarking the useful ones for later. Most of the tabs weren’t relevant anymore, now that the day’s investigations had come to a close. In fact… huh. A lot of the sites didn’t even seem relevant for the case in the first place. Some construction company… a worksite in Queens… the Metropolitan Hospital? None of this seemed related to the wedding they’d just gotten back from, and he couldn’t recall any reason to be looking up a hospital, not at this time of night.

Maybe he’d been looking up something else and been interrupted by the case? Hmm.

Shaking his head, he went through the tabs a little faster, barely paying attention to the contents as one tab after another went down. click. click. click. If any of them turned out to be important, they’d still be in his history until he cleared his cache in a day or so.

tick
tick
tickticktick

The alert startled him; he glanced at his phone, knowing full well that it read 36/41.

So much for going home early. Harold paused to stretch, and then settled back into the chair, closing down more pointless tabs. Honestly, he should have thought… but then, they’d all had a lot to think about, what with the Foundation’s grip on the city drawing ever tighter. It wasn’t surprising that it had slipped his mind; too bad John had gone home for the night.

Half the tabs were down when sudden footsteps on the stairs startled him from his reverie.

“Hey, Fin--oof” John said as he went sprawling at the foot of the stairs. Huh. Usually he was more graceful than that.

“Mr. Reese,” Harold said disapprovingly, turning back to his monitors, “the safety and security of this location depends primarily on the Foundation not realizing that there’s an anomalous location directly beneath one that they’ve already deemed a contained non-threat. The more frequently we make use of the entrance, the more likely we are to call attention to our presence.”

John strolled toward the subway car, rubbing a hand over his face. “Funny, Harold, given that you’re here at midnight. Find a replacement for your cufflinks?”

Harold’s gaze fell to his cuffs; he missed those cufflinks. It was nice to have people ignore you, to watch their eyes slide off like they didn’t even realize you were there. They’d let him move about in plain sight without any fear of being noticed or remembered. But two years ago, before turning himself over in exchange for Grace, he’d left them at the Library, in the hopes that John could continue using them to work the missions -- a very sensible plan that had backfired when The Order had stormed the place, just hours after Harold had been forced to reveal its existence.

Since losing them, he’d felt much more exposed; he had to rely on a variety of other anomalous objects, none with quite the same benefit. Tonight, a scarf that offered a small variety of visual disguises. The effect worked on the mind; it couldn’t spoof camera footage any more than it could fool the sense of touch. Still, it had managed to let him mimic the missing uncle, who was close enough in height and build and wardrobe that no one had seemed to notice the disparity, even when he’d had to endure a few hugs.

The more troubling detail, though, was that if the cultists had laid hands on the cufflinks, if they even realized what they were, what they did… then some agent of The Order was likely using them. Not Greer, he didn’t think, but still… someone who went completely unnoticed, except to those who were taking at least mid-level mnestics, the kind that Harold had been getting through Elias. With Elias holed up in his best safe house, they no longer had a trustworthy supplier… which meant no protection against the cufflinks’ effect.

Still, he wasn’t entirely helpless. “The replacement, Mr. Reese, is caution and prudence. And knowing how to avoid Foundation cameras. Plus,” he admitted, getting back to his task, “the glasses I was wearing make me aware when anyone is looking in my direction or paying any attention to me. Quite handy.”

John snorted. “Get me a pair.”

“I believe they’re one of a kind. Though, of course, if I ever happen across a similar item… I should also point out that they may or may not pick up on people who are using anomalous effects to hide in plain sight.” Not something he could easily test.

“No worse than usual, in that case.”

“I suppose not.” He yawned, and rubbed at his face. “Anyway, I have to clean up the rest of the case… get things ready for tomorrow. I thought you had gone home for the night.”

“I did,” John protested. “But then I… uh…” He chuckled, tossing a tennis ball to ricochet off the far side of the subway car and out the door. The throw knocked down Harold’s neon purple disguise scarf; John went to retrieve it.

“…Yes?” Harold queried.

John picked up the scarf. “What?”

Harold swiveled to look at John. “Did you come down here for a reason?”

Halfway to hanging the scarf up, John paused. “I dunno, guess I forgot something?” he offered with a half-shrug. As he hung up the scarf, he noticed Nathan struggling to move some books; he carefully reached in and pulled them out for him, laying them on the wide shelf. Nathan looked up at him and tapped a hand to his mouth: thanks.

Besides the books -- what was left of Harold’s reference collection -- the shelves held a variety of anomalous items. When the Library had been compromised, Harold had lost the majority of his collection, but he’d never been foolish enough to keep everything at one location. Among the remnants were a few forms of protection, along with different ways to spy or to get into places he didn’t belong. One piece worked like a supernatural energy drink, pushing back exhaustion, clearing your head and sharpening your memory as though you’d had a good night’s sleep -- although once the kick wore off, it left you with about ten hours of nearly crippling déjà vu.

Most, though, were ways to hide: various disguises, glamors and other illusions, even some temporary transformations (the permanent ones were generally too dangerous to use on a person -- not that that stopped the Foundation from testing them out on Theta-class prisoners -- and they hadn’t yet found anything that would let Nathan regain his human form).

“What was it that you forgot?”

Startled, John glanced over at Harold. “Huh. You know, it’s totally slipped my mind. Guess it can’t have been that important.” He sauntered over, surveying the all-but-incomprehensible code scrolling by in one window, and the various surveillance footage playing in several others. “Don’t tell me the Book has a new case for us already.”

Shaking his head, Harold turned back to the workstation. “I would have called you.”

“This late?”

“I don’t usually check the Book at night, Mr. Reese.” He glanced at his phone, noted the time. “But yes, if a case had come up, I would have called you this late, unless the anomaly seemed trivial to deal with.”

“Harold…”

“You’re running yourself ragged, John. I’m not going to call you in over trivialities. Going without sleep is going to get you shot. More than usual,” he quickly amended.

“Been doing all right so far,” John protested, mildly.

“Yes, well, I’ll feel much happier when the precinct finally sets you up with a partner. I’m surprised that the captain has let you go it alone so long.”

John huffed. “Didn’t realize you were so concerned about me, Finch,” he said, and tossed the ball out through the other door.

“I’m concerned about all of us. Equally. The Book’s predictions may keep us from stumbling headlong into anomalous phenomena, but I still haven’t found a way, anomalous or technological, to keep us fully aware of the Foundation’s movements. And, unlike me, Mr. Reese, you’re frequently going up against armed criminals without any backup. Of course your safety concerns me. Deeply.”

John leaned on the back of Harold’s chair, careful not to put too much weight on it. “That why you’re watching the precinct when I’m not even there?”

Harold blinked at the screen: several views of the precinct, inside and out. “I was just keeping an eye on…” He stopped short. “I guess I forgot to close down the feeds; I’ve been rather busy.” He closed them now; the only views remaining were some streets in Queens, a random construction site, the hospital, and the cameras around the entrance to their subway hideout.

“You know, Finch,” John said slowly, thoughtful, “we got into this knowing that we wouldn’t have a lot of support from local law enforcement. It was surprising enough to get Carter on our side.”

The bittersweet memory of their friend brought a smile to Harold’s face. It’s not the same without her, he didn’t say, because that truth wasn’t restricted to Carter; they each had loved ones they’d left behind, and it did little good to dwell on the loss, except as motivation to keep moving, to keep helping others. “She was a valuable ally, and a dear friend.”

“With all the corruption that spread through the department, she somehow managed to stay pure. True to her values despite all the pressure to give in. Willing to stand up to even the Foundation, when it overstepped its bounds.”

“And clever enough to set the Foundation and The Order against each other -- clever enough to manage it without getting caught. She truly was a marvel. Who else could have pieced together the source of our information the way she did?”

“That’s another thing,” John said. “We could trust Carter. Let her in on a few of our secrets. She had integrity, but she could also think outside the box, see that our mission was doing good and mostly leave it alone. Sometimes even help us break the law. That’s the only reason we were able to bring her into the Library after that--”

“Yes, the case with those Theta-class fugitives.”

“So do you really think we’d luck out and find a second cop we could trust with our secrets?”

Harold sighed. “Mr. Reese… we don’t need to share our deepest secrets with someone just to get you a partner on the force.”

“With all the crazy stuff I get up to? The way I need to rush off at a moment’s notice to save a life without being able to explain how I knew they were going to be in danger? Anyone smart enough to help us would figure out that something’s up. No, it’s better that I stick it out alone, like always. Besides, Finch, I’ve got you to watch my back.”

Frowning, Harold turned to look at John. “Not as thoroughly as I used to,” he countered, as if it were some personal failing. “I’ve got my own balancing act to manage.”

John rooted through one of the drawer for a moment before putting the ball away. “Yeah, aren’t you a little late to get to bed yourself, Professor? Nine AM classes.”

“Oh, I’m just… finishing up for the night. Not much left to do, really. I suppose it’s good that you’re here, actually; should take just a few minutes.” John grinned.

Harold rubbed his forehead. “In the meantime,” he said, getting back to his work, “maybe you could figure out if Nathan needs any help over there.”

The sound of rummaging had stopped; John headed over to the far side of the car. Nathan was standing on the second shelf down, holding up a book that was actually taller than his soft muslin body -- even counting the unruly tuft of bright yellow yarn up top.

Picking up the book, John looked it over. “What’s this?” he asked, pointlessly, since he wasn’t going to get more info from Nathan’s rudimentary sign language than he could from reading the title. "Anomalous Entities in Urban Areas (Non-Mammalian). Been looking up urban monsters tonight?”

“Anomalous entities aren’t merely--” Harold cut himself off; they’d had this discussion before, and that was John yanking his chain again. “Ah, no. I don’t recall anything related to urban creatures, anomalous or otherwise. Maybe he’s researching something more long-term?”

Shaking his head, Nathan tapped his wrist -- time -- and then extended both hands, palm up, folded the mitten part over, and dropped them a couple times. Now.

“Researching something for right now? I thought the Book didn’t have another case for us just yet.”

“It doesn’t,” Harold confirmed. “At least, last I checked.”

Setting the book down, Nathan tapped on John’s arm, then motioned for a lift. John set him on his shoulder and, at his direction, brought him over to Harold’s desk, where the Book lay. Nathan slid down his arm, quickly hobbled over to the Book, and, with some difficulty, pulled open the heavy cover. He flipped through a few pages and gestured at the image.

John glanced at it, but it didn’t seem like anything useful. Weird monsters, nothing new… nothing he cared to look at for very long. He started idly flipping through the pages, pulling up an assortment of memories as the images shifted, displaying various cases.

Leon Tao, in one of the many, many times he’d crossed their path. They hadn’t seen him in months; John could only hope that the flighty changeling was keeping himself off the Foundation’s radar.

Zoe Morgan, looking quite vulnerable before they’d found out her true nature. The fact that they’d tried to help her that day had endeared them to her, giving them a powerful ally as their cases got harder to pull off with a two-man team.

Charlie Burton, bleeding from the shoulder as John tried to patch him up. Of course, the fact that he’d fallen victim to his own black-market items was a tidbit they didn’t learn until it was almost too late. Still, although they’d started off on opposite corners, it hadn’t taken them long to find some common goals, such as fighting the Foundation’s control over every possible anomalous phenomenon. Until recently, they’d relied on Elias to direct certain objects their way, reciprocating by letting him know when the operatives started nosing too close to his operation.

Of course, since they’d rescued him from The Order’s clutches just a couple of months ago, he was currently camped out in Harold’s best safe house, doing some research of his own while keeping out of the public eye. John had no doubt that he’d soon find some way to get an advantage out of the situation, if he hadn’t already; Elias could bide his time for years if he felt it was necessary, but he wasn’t the type to simply surrender.

The next page showed Jiao Lin, pulling a glowing substance out of a man in a hospital bed. That had turned out to be what some called ‘souls’ -- the jury was still out on how much it overlapped with the common understanding of the term -- and Lin had been borrowing, rather than stealing. Not that it was entirely harmless, but she hadn’t turned out to be a killer. With the help of the detective who’d been chasing her, they’d managed to track down the black-market group that was threatening her daughter, and then whisk mother and daughter both away before the Foundation could get their hands on a person with a gift that powerful.

Genrika was on the next page, partially obscured by a man affixing something to the back of her neck. As they’d found out later, the men who’d been after her had access to anomalous objects, including interrogation devices meant to cause pain when you lied -- thankfully, they’d gotten to her before that scene ever played out.

Then there was Control, along with four others, held paralyzed before a winged statue of Ma’at; the Book hadn’t shown it, but Harold had gotten dragged along with the rest of them. Whatever he’d been expecting at the time, he’d thought that he could handle it, could resist -- for a while -- whatever sort of tortures they subjected him to. Could hold out until John found him. But there, strapped to the platform under the giant stone wings, he’d found himself spilling every detail like a heartfelt confession, like a weight he’d longed to get off his chest and was finally able to set free: the Book, the Library, the Foundation’s mission, his own powers, his team…

It had been the biggest security breach they’d ever had to face, and the reason they’d had to flee the Library and establish a new base of operations, hiding under new aliases as the Foundation and The Order vied for power over the city at large and both sides tried to lay their hands on Finch again. Because until that night, none of them -- not The Order or the Foundation or the little upstart group that The Order had ended that night -- had known exactly what they were dealing with. What Harold could do for them, if they got him under their control. A man who could identify on sight the anomalous properties of any item… Harold was practically the Holy Grail.

The only reason Harold was walking free was that John had managed to get there before Greer could arrange for a domination collar to be brought over. John didn’t doubt for a second that they had one; more than one had gone missing from the Foundation labs back while he was still a field operative. Put that around Harold’s neck, and his powers would be theirs to abuse.

Shaking off the horror of that scenario, John flipped the page.

Shaw, face dispassionate as she tried to save her partner, already beyond help -- a spiral wiggle had bored a hole straight through his brain. Harold and John had tried to find them in time, but their late arrival only convinced Shaw that they’d meant for him to die. Her lack of emotions didn’t prevent her from nursing grudges; it had taken them quite a few meetings for her to get over that initial mistrust.

John flipped yet another page and had to blink back tears at the sight of Jessica, banging her fists against the inside of a TV screen; that had been a case before he’d joined Finch, before he’d even come home. Before he’d escaped, unexpectedly alive, from the mission the Foundation had expected to kill him. He hadn’t even realized, at first, that she’d been trapped inside an anomaly; he’d learned that from Harold, eventually, and at a bad time for Harold to be telling him that there was absolutely nothing that could be done. None of Harold’s tricks could bring her out again.

He’d walked out after that revelation. Briefly, but he’d walked out. Couldn’t handle it, not when he was still reeling from Carter’s death. (He still had to think of it as a death, because the reality was too much for him.)

And there she was, on the next page… being pulled through a mirror as gunshots shattered the glass. Finch had been horrified to see that one, since he knew the consequences of breaking the conductive element mid-transfer. He’d gone off to see to her safety personally -- all the more urgent since it was a case they’d already set her on, so anything that happened to her would have been their fault. Thankfully, that shattered mirror was another vision that had never come to pass.

They wouldn’t have even seen the warning if Shaw hadn’t been idly browsing the Book while waiting for Finch to dig up some info. Sometimes -- rarely -- something they did changed the circumstances enough that it generated a second prediction. It had taken them a while to figure that out. Part of Nathan’s job, now, was to periodically check the Book during cases, just in case; it was the most useful thing he could do other than research.

tp tp tp tp tp

Nathan was tapping his foot, standing there on the desk, his crossed arms and crumpled expression conveying impatience better than John himself could pull off.

“What?”

Without lungs, Nathan couldn’t sigh, but the slight collapse of his body conveyed that pretty well, too. He flipped back through a few dozen pages, then pointed firmly at the image.

John rubbed his forehead and closed the Book -- right on Nathan’s outstretched arm, the heavy pages pulling him down, knocking him off his feet. Struggling a bit, Nathan pulled himself free before John could think to open the Book again; he looked up at him, his garish burlap face crinkling into a frown.

“Sorry, Nathan,” John said. “Did I hurt you?”

Nathan tapped his chest with the side of one mitten-hand -- fine, fine -- which was the sign they’d worked out for “I’m okay.” It wasn’t like little felt mittens were designed with articulation in mind; Nathan had to resort to a small collection of obvious signs and, when he wanted to convey a more complicated message, typing or (even slower) scrawling it out on paper.

“What is it?” John asked.

After a pause, Nathan tapped fine again, then folded his arms and tapped one hand against the other elbow for a moment. Then, as the Book closed, he shook himself, patted his yarn-hair while doing his rag-doll best to glare, and stalked off to his laptop.

The last of the windows went down, and Harold sighed, glad to have nothing more to handle tonight. For a moment, he sat silent, hands on his thighs; then he pushed his chair back and carefully got to his feet.

Turning around, he rested one hand gently on the back of the chair, closing his eyes as if to listen for something. John waited, patiently.

“I’m certainly ready to call it a night,” Harold said, one of his rare smiles gracing his face.

For a long moment, though, they stood there, the only sounds being the whirr of the computer fans and the slow, laborious tapping of Nathan's typing.

Then John grinned, stumbling a little as he headed for the stairs.

Harold glanced over at the desk, where Nathan was busily browsing. “Nathan, will you be coming with me tonight?”

Not even looking up, Nathan waved him off.

“All right. Good luck with… whatever you’re researching. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

John frowned. “Oh, and don’t forget that we're almost out of--”

Harold smiled at him. “Thank you, Mr. Reese. I’ll remember.”