“You’re closer than our nearest safe-house. John’s on the way up. Open the door for him.”
The call ended.
Fusco wasn’t sure if he was still asleep and dreaming or if Shaw really had just called his cell at 3:07 a.m. with such bizarre instructions. Like Wonderboy couldn’t get into his apartment as easy as getting into a wet paper bag.
Still. Fusco shivered as he got out from under the covers, rushing to put on his threadbare, brick-red bathrobe over his flannel pj’s. He hoped his son had picked up on his dropped hints that he would love a new robe for Christmas. If not, well, he’d get himself one at an after-Christmas sale.
He turned on a lamp in the living room and made his way out the apartment door. The hallway was cool, empty and half-dark, as he would expect at that time of night. But footsteps echoed from the open stairwell. Heavy and hurried. That didn’t sound like Reese. Hell, Reese didn’t sound like anything-- The guy could walk quiet as a cat.
Lionel was tempted to shut the door and go back to sleep. Maybe the phone call had been a dream, after all. He didn’t like the idea of standing in the hallway, half-dressed like this, staring like a creep at some random stranger coming upstairs, and giving whoever it was a heart attack. Good way to get a reputation in the building as a weirdo.
He looked up from his thoughts as the footsteps reached his floor.
It was Reese, all right, in his shirtsleeves on this freezing night, his long black overcoat wrapped around the figure he carried. Bare, blood-crusted feet were the only visible part of whoever it was.
“Oh geez! Get in here,” he hissed unnecessarily, holding the door open for them as John breezed inside. What was Wonderboy getting him into now? Lionel followed him inside and locked the door.
Reese was kneeling on the floor and leaning over the man laid out on the sofa, examining him so closely under the lamp light that Fusco couldn’t even get a look at the guy. “Can you make it any warmer in here?” Reese asked.
“On it.” The radiator valve was already open, but the building’s boiler was a giant piece of shit, and the place never stayed warm enough on winter nights. He pulled a space-heater fan from out of the closet and set it up to blow warm air in the general direction of the sofa.
“I’ll get you some blankets,” Lionel said. Reese didn’t respond.
Fusco silently retrieved a full-size blanket and some towels from the hall closet, then thought to duck into the bathroom and grab the first-aid kit. He set the kit at Reese’s side and set the blanket on the arm of the sofa near where the figure’s bare feet lay. Up close and in better light, he could see that the bare feet were heavily bruised, and bore lacerations that made Fusco wince just looking at them.
He carefully lifted the bird-skinny ankles and slipped the towel underneath, to keep the bloodstains on the upholstry to a minimum. Last thing he needed was to explain that to his kid on Christmas Eve. Geez, and the blood was still oozing from some of the fresher cuts. Someone had gone to town on the guy’s feet. Trying to get information? Fusco sighed. He really didn’t want to know what was going on.
A thought occurred to him. “I don’t think I’ve got anything bigger than a band-aid in the kit anymore. I haven’t restocked in a while. Should I go get some gauze or something?”
Reese sat back on his heels and turned to spread the blanket, revealing the supine figure that lay mostly wrapped in the long coat, only his upper torso and head showing. The collarbones were what caught Lionel’s attention first. On top of having been beaten to black and blue, this guy was emaciated—So close to mere bones that the guy’s eyes looked freaking huge, even though they were barely open. And his nose—
Lionel felt his heart lose rhythm for a moment and his stomach turn.
Then, in the silence following his stunned exclamation, Fusco heard it: A wet crackling as Finch inhaled and exhaled weakly. Pneumonia. Shit, shit, shit.
A thousand questions battled in his head but none made it to his mouth.
Reese didn’t look much better than Finch, frankly. He wasn’t beaten up and he was better-fed, definitely, even though Fusco knew for a fact that Reese hadn’t been eating much. But his face... Oh man. Fusco had known that something had been bothering and distracting Reese and the others for months now. All that frustration and worry solidifying in his face to the exclusion of any other expression. Of course, far be it from Reese to tell his ol’ buddy Fusco what was wrong.
Now he knew. Harold Finch had been taken and held captive (and apparently starved and tortured) since mid-summer, probably. And none of them—not John, Sameen or even Koo-Koo Puffs—had let their pet detective in on the situation. Whenever Fusco had asked why he hadn’t heard from or seen Glasses in a while, they’d said he was unavailable, like he was just taking care of business somewhere else.
Unavailable was not supposed to mean being held by torturers.
Reese had already turned to face his seriously-ill partner again. “Supplies are on the way,” he said softly, although Fusco wasn’t sure if Reese was talking to him or Finch.
Fusco was at a loss as to his next move. So, supplies, and hopefully Dr. Psycho Sameen, would be there soon. Now they needed light-light-light, so that she could see what the hell she was doing when she got there. He turned on every light in the room, including the pathetic, plastic, two-foot, discount-store Christmas tree he’d put up on the little-used two-seat dining table. Its multicolored lights twinkled like all was right in the world. It didn’t contribute much in the way of brightness, of course, but what the hell.
Okay, light taken care of. Warmth? Heater-fan on max heat. Blankets.
An idea struck the detective and he grabbed his sock full of quarters and another blanket from the hall closet. “I’m gonna heat up this blanket in the dryer downstairs. Be back ASAP.”
Reese didn’t react, but Fusco was already out the door, anyway.
Fifteen minutes later, Fusco came back into his apartment, after having run up the stairs with the hot blanket balled up in his arms. Shaw was there now, kneeling at the sofa, trying to insert an IV into Finch’s arm. Reese crouched nearby, hand resting on Finch’s bare shoulder.
“Hey, I got this blanket all hot in the dryer.”
Shaw didn’t look up from trying to find a vein. “Good. Uncover him and put it directly on him.”
Fusco did so, reaching around Shaw to pull aside the other blanket and open the folded-closed overcoat that cocooned their friend.
Finch was nude, bones prominent from beneath the thin, heavily bruised, scabbed and dirty skin. It was almost like someone had shrink-wrapped a damn skeleton, and Fusco tried not to stare as he spread the hot, thick polyester fleece across his bare body, then replaced the top blanket.
A slight moan escaped Finch’s throat on his next exhale, fluid still crackling in his lungs.
Fusco froze for a moment, scared he’d caused Glasses pain, somehow. Then he realized that it must have been a moan of pleasure at the warmth. Perhaps the first slight moment of comfort he’d had in months.
Lionel turned away, his eyes watering. The depressing little Christmas tree kept on twinkling, almost like it was laughing at them. Everyone in the city was happy happy happy, living their merry little lives as they bought presents and rich food and had parties with family and friends. One night from then, most kids, his son included, would be leaving out milk and cookies for Santa and then going to sleep in their warm beds.
Finch had been in misery, agony, for months. And from John’s demeanor, Fusco didn’t place a lot of hope in Finch making it.
“There. It’s in.” Shaw stood and watched for a moment as the IV fluid dripped steadily from the bag hung on the side of a floor lamp, then went into the kitchen and began opening cupboards.
“Uh, can I help you with anything?” Fusco asked. “I could heat up a can of soup or something.”
“That would be a bad idea, unless you plan on eating it,” Shaw sighed as she took out two large bowls, one tackily personalized with LIONEL’S POPCORN. “He’s gonna need to be fed intravenously for a while. Putting food in him right now could kill him.”
Shaw started the hot water running in the sink, waiting for it to heat up. Meanwhile she looked in the cabinet under the sink and found a bottle of dish soap.
A knock at the door and Reese drew his gun, seeming to stand and silently cross the room in the blink of an eye.
“Land shark,” announced the cloying voice from the other side of the door.
Reese unlocked the door without cracking a smile, and Koo-Koo Puffs strode in, a tall, green oxygen tank on a dolly, in tow.
“It’s about damn time,” Sameen spat, as she continued to gently wash the grime from a section of Finch’s arm with a soapy rag.
Root paid no attention to the remark and proceeded to tear open the wrapping of a new plastic oxygen mask. After hooking up its attached hose to the tank, she stepped toward their patient and, pausing as a look of horror flashed across her face upon seeing Harold, put the mask to his mouth and nose, and gently put the elastic band around the back of his head.
“Where’d you get that?” Lionel asked as she turned on the flow of oxygen.
“Mrs. Bitterman, down the hall.”
“Wait, you took that little old lady’s oxygen tank?! Look, I know Glasses needs it, but what is she supposed to be breathing right now?”
“Dirt, I suppose,” Root sighed, perhaps genuinely sad about Mrs. Bitterman, but more likely concerned only about Finch’s well-being. “She died in the hospital on Monday, and the home health people hadn’t picked up the spare tank yet.”
Fusco frowned. How the hell had she known about Mrs. Bitterman? And anyway, this wasn’t the time for morbid humor, what with Finch’s life hanging by a thread.
Root put a comforting hand on Finch’s shoulder for a moment, though perhaps it was more to reassure herself that he was really there, then reluctantly stood and began to leave.
“Where the hell are you going?” Fusco asked.
“We need a pulse oximeter.” With that, she stepped out and closed the door behind her.
Shaw and Reese carefully rolled Finch onto his side so that Shaw could tend to his back. Fusco tried not to stare, but part of him couldn’t look away. Mr. Prim-and-Proper Suit-and-Tie was naked under the blankets, skinny as fuck, sick as shit, hurt to hell, and they were giving him a sponge bath on his damn sofa.
Then Lionel saw it. He thought he must be imagining it at first, but no.
Harold was smiling. Fusco could see it through the oxygen mask.
On his side, Finch was facing the shitty little Christmas tree on the other side of the room. Even without his glasses, the older man could, apparently, still see the colorful, blinking lights. His exhalation had a trembling quality, as though he was holding back deep emotion.
Lionel’s throat suddenly ached. Of all the TV Christmas-special, Charlie Brown, syrupy-sappy holiday schmaltz...
Well, fuck. If Christmas tree lights could make the professor smile under these circumstances, then they'd sure as shit have Christmas while he was still alive to enjoy it.
Fusco went to the kitchen and switched on the 80’s-era radio that sat next to the toaster. He fiddled with the dial until he found the Christmas music station, and turned up the volume.
Reese and Shaw looked at each other as ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ flooded the apartment. Shaw shrugged and finished up with the sponge-bath. She dried her hands, then opened her bag and dug through it to find what she’d need to suture and dress Finch’s wounds.
After digging through the hall closet, Lionel was able to locate the scented candles his ex had left, way back when. Some of them had to be close to ten years old, but they still smelled pretty strongly of gingerbread, pine trees, and that sort of junk. He set half a dozen of the damned things on the entertainment center, next to the cable box, and started to go look for a lighter.
“Hey, we’ve got oxygen in here,” Sameen hissed. “You’d better not even think about lighting those things!”
Oh. Duh. “Sorry. My brain don’t work until I’ve had coffee, ya know?” Coffee. He filled the reservoir of the coffeemaker and scooped a generous mound of his finest Folgers into a fresh paper filter.
He grabbed the non-dairy creamer out of the fridge, then saw the tube of store-brand sugar cookie dough. He’d planned on baking those with Lee on Christmas Eve, but he could buy some more. The dough came out with the creamer, and he turned on the oven to preheat. By the time he’d greased the sheet pan, sliced the dough into boring circles, and sprinkled them with red and green decorative sugar, the oven was ready. And a few minutes later, the place began to smell delicious.
He second-guessed himself for a moment, when he remembered that Finch wouldn’t be able to eat any cookies. But to Lionel, the smell was enough to make it feel like Christmas. They always smelled better than they tasted, anyway.
Root knocked once before letting herself back in, with some medical device in her arms. "Honey, I'm home," she cooed. With the sweep of her hand, she quite rudely cleared the magazines off the end table and plopped the machine onto its surface. Shaw clipped the pulse oximeter's probe over Finch’s finger, while Root plugged the thing in and turned it on.
Sameen watched the machine’s readout for several moments, her face inscrutable. Finch’s steady breathing continued to crackle from the fluid in his lungs. Damn, that really didn't sound good.
The egg-timer rang and Lionel pulled the first batch of cookies out of the oven and used a pancake turner to transfer them to some waiting paper towels.
More cookie dough was put in the oven. Warm cookies were arranged on a stupid plastic platter decorated with cartoon Santas. Little-used mugs were taken from the very back of the cabinet, as Fusco really needed to do dishes. Coffee was offered and accepted.
At least Fusco felt useful, this way. There was a whole lot of just sitting around with nothing more that could be done, and it was driving him nuts.
Shaw alternated between watching the pulse oximeter and watching Finch, who continued to smile in his sleep as John held his hand.
By the time 'Oh, Holy Night’ ended and the radio went into a commercial break, the egg timer sounded again.
“How’s he doing?” Fusco asked after taking the second sheet of cookies out of the oven and turning it off.
“Surprisingly well.” Shaw slurped from the COFFEE MAKES ME POOP mug that Lee had given him last Christmas. “He’s not completely out of the woods, but he’s making good strides in that direction.”
Root dunked a cookie into her NYPD mug and tried to hide her annoyance when a large chunk broke off and sank into the coffee. “You’re awful quiet, big guy,” she commented, looking to Reese.
“Just thinking,” he replied softly after a moment, not looking away from Harold or releasing the older man’s hand. With a grim expression, he sipped from the Pokemon Squirtle mug that Lee had given Fusco two Christmases ago. (Although the boy had clearly wanted it more for himself.)
They sat quietly for several minutes, all of them mentally tuning out the radio commercials and listening to Finch’s breathing, lost in their own thoughts. An annoyingly-long ad for a car dealership came to an end, and, after a brief station identification, ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ began.
After just a moment, Harold started to hum along. He paused to cough a few times, the painful-sounding convulsions wracking his entire body, but he soon resumed, and even began murmuring the words, muffled beneath his oxygen mask. John broke into a wide grin, his eyes shining.
When the song ended, Harold was quiet again, still smiling.
John sniffled and wiped his eyes, not seeming to care that the others saw. “Harold told me once that when he was very young, that was his favorite Christmas carol, because it sounded like his name was in it—‘Harold’ angels.”
The others smiled and softly chuckled.
Fusco noticed that sunlight was beginning to peek through the curtains, and checked his phone. “7:32?! Aw, Jesus, I gotta get to work!” He ducked into his bedroom to get dressed.
He re-emerged several minutes later, unshowered, but at least dressed, bundled-up and ready to go. No one had moved an inch. Not that he’d wanted them to. “You guys stay as long as you need or want. If I need to, I can take Lee ice skating or something when I pick him up from his mom's tomorrow afternoon. We can open his gifts over hot chocolate at Starbucks, or someplace. He don’t even have to come here at all over Christmas, if you need it. I can just tell him the toilet’s backed up, or something.”
“I'm hoping we'll be able to move him to the safe-house later today,” Shaw said.
“No hurry on my account, is all I’m saying,” Fusco assured them. He knelt next to Finch, who opened his eyes sleepily. “I hope you feel lots better real soon, Harold. I’m... real glad you’re alive. And since I probably won’t see you for a while, Merry Christmas, okay?”
Harold smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling with genuine delight. “Thank you, Lionel,” he whispered, barely intelligible through the oxygen mask. “For everything.”
Fusco smiled in return and patted him on the shoulder as he stood. “I’m off, guys. Captain'll have my balls for being late. Keep me posted.”
“We’ll text you,” Root said softly as she followed him to the door and locked it behind him.
Lionel put on his gloves and hummed 'Deck the Halls' to himself as he went downstairs.
He made a mental note to buy more cookie dough.