"Let go, Mr Reese."
Harold's voice is steel-soft, that quiet implacability John hears when they have passed the point of no return. There's pain in it, a remorseless sort of sorrow, that stops him not at all. Harold's weapons are double-edged. They always have been. It's never stopped him. Will never, John thinks distantly. Harold's past is a map of scars where he has bled himself, over and over, to cut a world open, deeper than anyone else dared go. He has a heart made of scar tissue, the core of a terrible strength that only a Machine would dare emulate. All the pain in the world wouldn't stop him. Not now. Not anymore.
"John," Harold says, remote and pitiless. Distantly gentle. "Let go, John. Let me see."
John pants raggedly, gulping air as his body strains upwards, as it struggles uselessly and desperately against itself. Stars burst silently against the darkness behind his eyelids, his back bowing upwards as he writhes on the cusp and stalls, snarling, before the fall. He can't. On his own, he can't. Something inside him holds back. Something inside him always holds back. A dark, desperate thing, entrenched as deeply as only survival can demand, something that knows full well the cost of letting go. Something that knows what will be done to him when he does. Something that cannot, that will not, let it happen.
Surrender is beyond him. It always has been. It's why they wanted him so badly, why they trained him so very, very well. He was made to be abandoned, made so they could trust that part of him to survive. He's a feral thing. They'd never meant him to be tame.
"... I can't," he rasps. Keens, maybe. Panting, half-crying. It's not weakness. Not in the sense it might have been to them. Everyone breaks, past a certain point. The thing underneath is the guard for when that happens. The thing underneath keeps you safe, keeps you going, claws its way out and fights in your stead. It's not weakness as it would be to them. But here, now, it's weakness to him. Because here, now, he doesn't want to fight. He doesn't want to win. He doesn't, perhaps, want to survive. "Harold," he says, a broken-edged plea. "Harold, I can't."
There's a hitch of breath above him. A sharp inhale, bleeding in its turn, and Harold stutters for a second. Terrified, John thinks. That mass of scar tissue in his chest staggering in protest, desperate, refusing. For one second, refusing. Harold doesn't enjoy pain. He doesn't enjoy breaking. He doesn't want to see John fall.
But then. Oh, but then. That silent, implacable strength. That core of steel that once flayed the shadows from the world, the better to guard it against the future. The thing that has taken every blow since then, turned it sideways and made it, doubled-edged, into a weapon to further that goal. There's no pity in Harold. Compassion, mercy, a strained and desperate empathy, all of that, but not pity. Even his Machine is, in certain ways, more gentle than he.
Harold swallows, carefully, in the darkness where John can't see. He breathes, hard and shallow, and steadies himself in the silence. And then, with a dry, precise sort of care, he reaches out. Rests his hands gently at John's temples, dry fingers burning across raw nerves, easing damp hair carefully out of the way. Harold bends forward, curls stiffly over the taut, desperate body beneath him, and takes John's head between his palms.
"... You can," he says, stiff and careful and immovable. "I think you can, Mr Reese. I think you will. Because ..." He swallows again, dry and pained, a faint tremor in the fingers against John's cheek. He shakes, for only a second, but does not stop. "Because I want you to," he says, a bright and bare-faced lie. "You will, John. I want you to, and you will."
And then, soft, while John shakes himself half to pieces, while John keens right on the edge, he presses his lips to John's forehead, and whispers please.
It feels like fire. The shattering edge of John's release, the peak that savages through him. Like fire, like being gutted, like being torn apart on the howl of something that had never failed him before, a feral, battered thing that did not understand its annihilation. John arches, roars, a hoarse, snapping thing that breaks out from under him before he even realises that he's let it out. Harold shouts, distantly, tumbling backwards a bit as John slams back against him, but it's only barely there, something on the distant edges of awareness, beyond the edges of a torrent that seems to tear loose every wound and scar inside him. Something gives, permanently, something tears, and the peak of its pain is a pleasure so deep he's never felt its equal.
He's crying, when he makes it back. Silently, tears tracking steadily and carelessly down his cheeks, and Harold's there. Careful fingers brushing them away as they come, the tremors through them steady and unceasing. He's shaking. John can feel him, feel the chest behind his back heaving, hear the soft, sharp pants of restrained tears. There's probably pain, he knows. They're tucked together back against the headboard, Harold's legs spread wide to accommodate John between them, his bad hip most likely screaming at him as pain spikes through it. Harold doesn't make a sound, the only sign of weakness the constant tremble in his hands, and John thinks that maybe that's more for him than for Harold.
Pain has never stopped Harold. It never will. They'll be dead first, and only more dangerous for it. It's more strength than John has ever seen, more power than he's ever wanted to face, and it's all the better and more terrible for it.
He sighs, muscles lax and near-torn, easing back against the man behind him. Limp, loose, his head lolling sideways to nuzzle gently into the palm of Harold's hand. The palm that cups his jaw in turn, that spasms closed with almost biting strength for half a second, then calms. Then soothes, slow and desperate. Shaking, even still.
"I don't understand," Harold admits, very softly. Cleaning John's cheeks, lifting the blindfold carefully and mopping gently at the tearstains beneath it. "Anything you need, Mr Reese. John. But I don't ... I'm afraid I don't ..."
John stops him. Reaches up, more clumsily than normal, limbs reluctant to obey him, and fumbles a thumb against Harold's mouth. He doesn't quite poke the man in the eye. Almost, but not quite. Harold blinks down at him, pale and strained and uncertain, and John feels a tremble in his newly-freed chest. Feels something stir in that darkness newly torn.
"Sometimes ... I need someone stronger than me," he manages, wincing at the pain in his throat. It feels like he's been chewing glass. Or screaming. Harold's eyebrow wings up, incredulous and almost angry, and John catches his hand quickly. Quells him, silently, until he can continue.
"I'm sorry," he says at last, quiet and careful. Harold shakes in silent anger, lingering terror, and John presses gently back against him, curls his hand tight in the other man's. "It's not normally like this. It's ... It's never like this. I didn't ... I hoped. I should have told you. I'm sorry."
Harold closes his eyes, his lips thin and hard where he's pressed them together. His other hand is gentle still on John's face, careful and controlled and so very desperate. There's something knitting in John's chest for the sight of it, a soft scar closing over the wounds he's just lanced, a calm, dry ache where he's healing. He doesn't smile. They're both too raw for that. But he thinks he will, later. When there's time.
"Explain, please," Harold asks. Orders. It's sharp, it's angry. Not the cold, immovable command of before. Just exhausted, and desperate, and just shy of pleading. John winces, and manages to lever himself upright, scooting sideways over Harold's good leg to sit beside him and meet his eyes more earnestly. Gathering himself for a minute, working out how to explain. Harold just glares tiredly, and pulls the bad leg in to start massaging stiffly at its damaged muscles.
"... I've never been owned before," John starts, carefully, and Harold jerks like he's been shot, a muffled cry escaping where he's stabbed himself in a sore spot. John catches his hands hurriedly, pulling them clear while Harold splutters at him in shock, and continues right on over the horrified protests. "Harold, wait, listen. Don't panic before you've listened."
"I have not," Harold interrupts, uncaring, his eyes wide and wild. "I don't ... I don't own you, John, what--"
"Stop," John barks, the hard edge he uses in the field, when Harold's out of his depth and the matter is life or death. Instantly, instinctively, Harold freezes in the face of it, years of experience now demanding nothing less. John winces again, pained, and folds the man's hands gently in his, tucking them back against his chest. He strokes the back of one carefully, Harold's tongue flicking out unconsciously at the tiny motion, and tries to hold Harold's gaze as calmly as he can before he keeps going. Harold flinches, minutely, but he holds steady. He listens.
"I don't surrender," John tries again, slowly and carefully. Willing the other man to understand. "It's trained out. You give them what they want, if you have to, but you keep something under it. Something separate, something that isn't theirs. Something that won't ever be theirs. Something that remembers how to fight. After a while ... after a while, sometimes that's all that's left. Sometimes you don't remember anything else. You understand? When you found me, I didn't remember anything else. I didn't have anything else. Just the thing that doesn't die, the thing that doesn't belong. That's all I was. And then ... there was you. And you changed that."
"... John," Harold whispers, horrified, and John sees it then. Understanding, yes. Peeling the shadows back, looking where no-one else dares. Harold stares at him, horrified realisation in his eyes, and John smiles despite himself.
"It's not bad," he says gently, smiling crookedly for the strength with which Harold doesn't believe him, for the horror that refuses to abate. "No, Harold. Trust me. I ... I would have fought you if it was. Do you understand? I always fought. Every time. They burned me because of it in the end, I think. I would have fought, and probably I'd have died, but I wouldn't have given it to you. I wouldn't have let you in. Not unless ... not unless I wanted to."
Harold shakes his head, tugging futilely at his hands, sharp little jerks of motion. Denial, pain. A broken terror at what he thinks he's done. Guilt comes easily to Harold. Has for years now. It runs underneath everything he does, the fuel by which he drives himself onto the blade, the heart of all his power. It's why he is what he is, what makes him as strong and terrible and pitiless as he can be. It's terrible, and it's beautiful, and John understands it more than anything. Better than anything else that lies between them.
So he stops it. This once, this one place where he has the power to. He reaches out, tugs Harold close, and stops that horror in its tracks.
"I don't like power," he whispers, while he tucks the man against him, while he curls the smaller man into his chest. "Never have. I know what it costs. I know what they'll take from you with it. I don't surrender, I don't stop fighting. I'd never have given them, any of them, what I've given you. I wouldn't have asked them for what you've given me. I wouldn't have let them break me. Not like you. Never like you."
"... Why?" Harold chokes out, a bleeding rasp of terror. He'd done what John asked. He hadn't understood, hadn't known what he was doing, but he'd done it anyway. Because John asked. Because John needed. He'd carved himself up from the inside out, and he'd done it for John's sake. He's shaking now, blind and terrified in John's arms, because he'd let himself do that.
And that, in the end, is why John asked him to. Why John wanted him, and only him, to break that thing inside him, that feral thing that had survived so much and for so long. Harold. Only Harold. No-one else.
"Because I trust you," he says, soft and simple, and when Harold keens, when Harold breaks open in John's arms as John had done in his only minutes before, John knows exactly what he's feeling. John knows exactly what he's done.
Yes, he thinks, rocking Harold gently in his arms. Yes. There are times when the Machine, as remote and pitiless as it is, is ever so much gentler than them. There are times when all the power in the world cannot match the doubled, killing edge of a man's compassion. It is, perhaps, the price of being human. The price of being alive.
Strange, then, how hard they fight to stay that way.
Or perhaps ... maybe not.