"Do you ever wonder ...?"
The voice was soft, and unthreatening, but it came from nowhere, and the books tumbled noisily onto the floor before Daniel could help himself. He felt his heart trip, a burning in his chest, pain and old, familiar fear.
"J-John," he gasped, turning to face his visitor. Trying to force calm back over himself, trying to summon a casual smile.
John, watching him, shook his head ruefully, and offered up an apologetic one instead. "Sorry," he said, holding carefully still. Non-threatening. Not that John, much as those who had come before him, would need to move to be threatening. But Daniel put that aside. That was done.
He hoped. Oh, he hoped it was done.
"No -- problem," he managed, debating for a second whether to move towards John, which would be polite, and possibly show he wasn't as terrified as he was, or to pick up his books, which would be casual, and more immediately painful. Eventually, he decided on the latter, kneeling stiffly and awkwardly. "Do I wonder what?"
John stared at him. Daniel was used to that -everyone stared at him- but there was something odd about it, now. Something strange, in John's eyes. Confused. Thoughtful. None of the anger or desperation Daniel was used to seeing.
That, at least, he understood.
"... What do we do now?" John asked, eventually, and Daniel looked up quickly, ignoring the flash of pain in his neck, at the softness of his voice. The lost confusion. John met his eyes, head on, and Daniel ... had no idea what to do with the hope, there. The pain, the warmth.
He looked away. Looked down at his books, a half stack of empty titles he couldn't remember the origins of, a leather-bound tome held in his shaking, scarred hand. Remains of an empty life, a false life. So much fear, and confusion, and the loss of all he might have been, once upon a time.
The same for all of them, of course. All across this city. The same for each and every one. But in all this city, he and John were the only ones left, who knew it.
"I don't -- know," he said, at last. Inexpressibly tired. "I'm sorry, John. I wanted them gone, but -- that was all I -- thought of."
He looked up, into those dark eyes on which he'd hung his every last hope. The man he had manipulated, the man he had frightened, the man he had forced into this fight. He'd had no other choice. Neither of them had. But John had been forced. And Daniel had done the forcing.
And now, when all was done, here was John. Lost and confused, looking for the man who'd given him answers. Looking at the man who had none left.
"They were my life," he explained, quietly. Tried to, at least. "They were -- all I knew." He smiled, a twist of lips in a damaged face. "I did not -- believe I would survive -- to see them gone. So I did not ..."
Plan. Hope. Let himself. He had never planned for himself, beyond their fall. He hadn't planned for anyone, beyond that. It had been ... too much to hope for.
He looked away. Looked back down at the books, at the floor, at the shaking in his hand. Trying to think around the ache in his chest that had nothing, for once, to do with the physical scars they had left threaded through him. This ache, these scars, were from a different kind of wound.
He didn't look up as footsteps sounded, as he felt John come to stand over him. His heart tripped, old fears, ignorable, and he didn't look up. And then ...
John knelt, carefully, before him. Reached down, and took the book gently from Daniel's shaking hand, to put it in the pile. He could have tuned the book into place from across the room. He didn't. Instead, he reached out, human hands, and ... piled the echoes of Daniel's life back into some small semblance of order.
"We can plan now," John said, quietly, when Daniel looked up at him. Dark and tired, a god among men, who hadn't wished to be. "Will you ... will you help me?"
And there, in those dark eyes. Some echo of that old desperation, that old fury. Tempered, now, by the warmth Daniel still didn't understand. The warmth that had no analogue anywhere in the tattered, scarred remains of Daniel's memories. Something dark, and tired, and gentle, as John held out a human, questioning hand, and asked no more than that.
Daniel dropped his head, looked away from the heavy thing there. He couldn't look, not at that. But he raised his hand, forced strength over the shaking of it, and gripped it tight to John's.
"Y-yes," he said, softly. "I will, John."
In this city of false choices and empty dreams ... perhaps that, this, was the first real thing he could do, that was not of them. His hand, John's hand, and a hope he'd never dared dream could exist.
Perhaps that ... could be the first memory that was his, and his alone.