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Rattlesnake Breaths

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He finds Finch three floors underground, laid out face down on a filthy cot, and John can’t breathe until he has a hand slipped down under Harold’s once-white collar and there’s the steady thrum of blood under his shaking fingers. He’s arranged. That’s the only word for it. His socks and shoes are pulled off and in the corner. Someone’s hooked his left wrist into a looped length of nylon and has it strung so it’s hanging, at a painful angle, next to--

He tears through the nylon and has Finch’s hand cradled in his. There’s a needle in the back, stuck clumsily into the vein and weeping fresh blood over a yellowed scab, and he carefully slides it out. Finch shifts and Reese places a hand on the back of his neck to keep him from moving.

“Harold? Don’t move, okay.”

The hand in his is blueish and he rubs the fingers gently to try and get the circulation back before carefully lowering it back to Finch’s body. The pulse under his fingers is picking up. It’s not a rush: the men outside are dead. But Finch is laying on a dirty mattress wearing day old clothes and still hasn’t woken up fully; his own pulse won’t stop thundering.

“Mr. Reese?” Finch speaks slowly, like he has cotton in his mouth, and it’s slurred. Not good. John pockets the needle of whatever the hell had been dripping steadily into Harold’s veins for the better part of eight hours. “What...”

He’s scrabbling his free hand against the fraying mattress and weakly trying to push himself up. Reese shifts with him, gets an arm under his shoulder until they’re both sitting with their backs to the cinderblock wall. Finch is mostly staying upright under his own power, but he’s uncoordinated and his pupils (easy to see clearly with his glasses crushed on the ground) are blown wide.

“Harold, we need to get out of here.” They need to get somewhere safe, somewhere where Reese can lock all the doors and windows and sit with Harold until this, whatever this is, worms its way out of his system. “Do you think you can stand?”

“Not a good idea.”

“I’ll help you.”

And he slips his hand back down lower across Harold’s back and starts to brace when Harold says, so calmly and serenely, “I had a childhood friend who was bitten by a rattlesnake. He lay on the picnic table and didn’t move because they told him the stiller he was, the slower the poison would spread.”

Reese’s heart is thundering in his chest. This is wrong. Harold is warm under him, hot through the shirt, but his skin is dry. He levers Finch off the bed, but the change in body position after being horizontal for so long has Harold sagging against him. That’s fine. Reese can take the weight.

“What happened to him?” If nothing else it will distract Harold as they start the slow process of climbing the three flights of stairs out of the building.

Finch sways and clings to Reese’s hand, the one that’s wrapped tight around Harold’s back and looped under his arm. “Who?”

He catalogues the symptoms; disorientation, loss of coordination, confusion. “Your friend. The one who was bitten.”

“Oh. He died.” Harold’s eyes roam the hallway in a haphazard way. He probably can’t see anything without his glasses. He doesn’t squint to try, either. “He laid out on the picnic table for half a day and died right there, baked in the sun like an earthworm.” He stumbles a little, and Reese hangs onto Harold tighter. “He didn’t have anyone to come for him.”

It takes them fifteen minutes to get out of the building where it would have taken Reese under five to do it on his own. He doesn’t rush Harold, though; he can see the strain it’s putting on him already just to put one foot in front of the other and remember where he is.

He gets them out, past slit throated bodies of the guards he killed twenty minutes earlier, past the pharmaceutical lab the gang was using as a cover, and into the unmarked black car waiting for them at the curb. He buckles Harold into the front passenger seat, makes sure the belt is snug, and arranges his hands on his lap so he won’t play with the release catch.

“Harold, this is very important. Do you know what they gave you?” He still has the syringe in his pocket, but finding out will take time. Fantasies of spiriting Harold away to the library are disappearing and being replaced with fake IDs and ventilators in emergency rooms. They can’t afford the questions, but Harold is fading. He doesn’t know what to do. He’d thought it was just a sedative, but whatever drug it was, the effects are worsening not slacking now that Harold is out.

“Hmm?” Harold’s eyes, still roaming but now half lidded and with pupils so wide the blue is almost gone, lock onto Reese for a brief second. “John. You came.”

“Just hold on, Harold.” He burns rubber getting the car from the curb and into second gear and he’s got Megan Tillman’s number keyed up on his phone. She picks up on the second ring like he knew she would.


“Unknown drug. He’s disorientated, confused, weak, and getting worse.”

“Who is this?”

He doesn’t answer. She’ll figure it out. “His pulse was steady but now it’s rapid and fading. He’s unable to follow conversations and losing consciousness mid sentence.”

There’s only a second’s hesitation. “Where are you?” She remembers his voice. “Is he experiencing respiratory distress?”

John almost wrenches his neck whipping over to look and nearly crashes, because for a second he’s not sure he can hear Finch breathing. But he is. “Not yet.” He turns the car sharply. “I’m at your apartment,” he says.

It’s four AM, a saving grace, and there’s no one on the street as he parks the car and scrambles to get Finch out. Whatever hold Harold had on consciousness is now almost fully gone and he’s only able to grasp weakly at Reese’s hands as he unbuckles him and slides him out of the car.

Megan Tillman opens the lobby door with bare feet and in a grey bathrobe and it’s four meters from her door that he hears Finch start to gasp.

“Get him on the bed,” she orders, and he takes the direction with relief. He hauls Finch over the threshold of the apartment and lays him down as gently as he can on Tillman’s cream duvet. She’s shedding her robe next to him and rolling up Finch’s sleeve. It’s wrong that his hands are so still like that in her grip. She has the hand with the needle mark in her own and is examining the puncture site: it’s bruising now, the whole back of the hand a bright purple and a little swollen.

She’s ripping the buttons of his shirt off too and he doesn’t know why until he sees, a second later, his blue lips. She has her head to his chest and then says, “turn him. Turn him now,” and Reese is following orders and lifting Harold’s shoulders as she tugs his dress shirt down and presses her ear to his back. She’s off the bed again and pulling things from her kitchen cabinets. “If he stops breathing give him mouth to mouth, but don’t do chest compressions.”

He watches Harold’s chest religiously. It’s three more ragged, shallow breaths before the pause between the third and fourth breath stretches on and on and becomes not a pause anymore. He can see a shadow of Megan behind him but he doesn’t wait. He tips Finch head back as gently as he can because he’s not sure what his range of motion is without Harold awake to tell him, and pinches his nose. It’s been years since he’s had to give CPR, but it’s muscle memory when he sucks in a deep breath and presses his mouth against Harold’s slack blue lips. He forces the air in, watches as Harold’s chest artificially expands, and then pulls himself upright again to take another deep breath.

Megan is back, she’s got two bags of medical supplies dumped out on the bed and is hooking up an IV. “Don’t stop,” she says, as if stopping were an option. He’s on his fifth breath for Harold when he feels the trembling start. “He’s seizing. It’s okay. Just keep going with the CPR and try not to strain his neck.” She’s calm still. He’s not sure how. Four breaths later the trembling stops and he feels a light puff against his cheek. He’s dizzy himself now, and has to put out an arm to keep from falling on top of Harold.

“Is he...?”

She’s breathing hard too. Harold is hooked up to an IV thats wedged against the headboard, but John hadn’t noticed the two epi pens imbedded in Harold’s thigh until now. “That should hold him for a minute. I’ve got an mini O2 tank in the entryway,” and she disappears again.

Reese watches Harold breathe. It’s still shallow and raspy, and he can’t look away. He leans over so he can feel the puff against his forehead, rhythmic, alive. He stays like that until Megan comes back with a small green tank and an oxygen mask.

“Is it standard procedure for doctors to have their homes so fully equiped?” He asks as he holds the clear plastic mask to Harold’s mouth and nose. He can hear the hiss as the oxygen leaks out. The inside of the mask fogs up with every breath and Reese doesn’t look up from it to meet Megan’s eyes.

“No. No it’s not.” She doesn’t elaborate. She kept the lye, he thinks, and everything else too, in case Benton came back. “You’re lucky I am, though.”

“What is it? What did they give him?”

She’s watching him closely now. They’re on the bed together over Harold, a human tent shading him from the ceiling light above. She’s got Harold’s wrist on her hand and is counting out his pulse. Her lips move when she counts silently. Despite it all, she’s young still.

“Next time take him to a hospital.”

He shakes his head. “What did they give him?”

“I don’t know, John.” It’s the first time she’s said his name. He’s surprised she remembers. “I don’t know, and he’s not out of the woods yet. He should be in an ICU.”

They don’t sleep. John listens to Harold breathe, counts each rasp to one hundred and then starts over again. He wishes he hadn’t killed the people responsible already. They deserved slower deaths.

At eleven AM Megan calls in sick to work and drives to the pharmacy to buy four thousand dollars worth of epi pens, benadryl, adrenalin, and prescription drugs she writes out for herself illegally. Their plan is to just keep Harold breathing until whatever they put in him is flushed out. It’s not a great plan, but it’s the only one they have. John spends the forty minutes she’s gone praying for the first time in years and curling around Harold on the bed.

Finch finally wakes up at dinner time, over twelve hours after he first stopped breathing. John almost doesn’t notice. His breathing doesn’t change (his lips had gone back from blue to pink hours ago) and he doesn’t move, but when John straightens to stretch out his back and shoulders he finds Harold’s blue eyes staring at him.

“Mr. Reese. Where are my glasses?” It’s muffled through the plastic O2 mask.

It’s not a conscious decision to drop to the bed and wrap his arms around Harold, to press his cheek to his face. It takes navigation to not get caught up in the O2 and IV lines, but Harold is moving his arms under him, alive and himself, and he doesn’t care.

Harold is prying off the O2 mask and licking dry lips. He doesn’t try to push John away and Reese lets himself hold him for another half second before he hears Megan in the other room.

“You’re awake,” Megan says. Harold looks at her with wide eyes, and then back to John.

He shrugs. “She’s a good doctor.”

She’s got his bruised hand in hers again and is taking his pulse. He hisses at the contact. “You’ll need to tell me all your symptoms. There might be residual side effects from whatever it is that they gave you.” She’s got a penlight out too now, produced from some pocket, and is flashing it at his eyes. “Light sensitivity, okay, noted,” she says when he flinches back. “Sorry, but you’ll have to bear it.”

There’s a tightening around John’s hand and he looks down to find Harold’s fingers tangled up with his own. He doesn’t remember when that happened.

Dr. Tillman gives Harold a thorough examination, takes his temperature, blood pressure, and pulse no less than five times over the course of an hour and a half, and finally, when he eats toast with orange juice and keeps it down, says he’s probably as good as she’s able to make him. “The rest is just time,” she admits. She loads Reese up with epi pens just in case and insists he take most of her supplies. He doesn’t fight her on it even though the library and their safe houses are well stocked, because she wants to get rid of them. He can help with that, even if he can’t with anything else she’s dealing with.

Harold is weak, but in a way that reads mostly of exhaustion, not the fuzzy confusion and terrifying lethargy of before. As Megan helps him pilot Finch back out to the car she says, “If he gets worse again, and I mean at all, bring him back. Or better yet, just get him to an emergency room.” She shushes Finch when he starts to argue. “I’m serious. You came to my ER before to keep an eye on me, the least you can do is go when you’re really in trouble.”

“You remember?”

“You don’t get to be a doctor without some attention to detail.”

Reese drives them around in an evasion pattern for a quarter of a tank of gas before he finally ditches the car four blocks from the library. He’d like to get rid of it farther, but he doesn’t want Finch to have to walk that distance, and he has no intention of dropping him off on the corner, alone and unprotected. So he leaves it parked in an alley and takes Harold’s elbow. He still doesn’t have shoes, so Reese spends most of the four blocks alternating between looking for broken glass on the pavement and whipping his head around to try and keep watch. When they do finally make it to the library and all the way up the damned stairs and Finch finally sinks into his office chair, Reese breathes a shuddering sigh.

Harold sits there in the dim for a long second before reaching into a drawer and pulling out a spare pair of glasses. “You know Mr. Reese. I’m not entirely sure what just happened.”

John folds himself into the chair at the table. It still has one of his guns splayed out on it. He’d run out of the library full tilt when Harold’s cell had gone offline. “Number went bad.”

Finch huffs. He’s bone tired, that much is obvious, and his breathing is still a little rough, but he’s Harold again. Reese has to place both feet firmly on the ground to keep from standing up and putting his hands on Harold’s shoulders to just to reassure himself. “I gathered that much, Mr. Reese.”

“We thought they’d be like the Virtanen Pharmaceuticals job. Selfish, greedy, people who could be bought. We were wrong. I was wrong. They took you, and,” he starts putting the gun on the table back together. It’s a bad habit to ever leave a weapon stripped like this. “And I couldn’t find you.”

Harold watches him and doesn’t say a word until the firing pin is put back in the handgun and John slips the clip into the grip and pulls back the hammer. “Thank you, John.”

Reese slaps the safety back on the gun. “I lost you, Harold.”

“And you got me back.”