They stay in the library after it happens. Its abandoned lower floors and the single staircase that leads up to their base of operations makes it a defendable position, John tells him in hushed tones as they listen to the chaos outside. Harold sees the cock of his head and is half sure he’s lying, but the comfort of the library keeps him from questioning it. It’s a gift.
“Shaw’s getting more water. She should be back soon,” John tells him. She’d found them almost immediately after it happened. Whereas Harold is crippled by the loss of the machine, by the loss of his computers and phones and radios, Shaw thrives in the chaos. She won’t stay with them long. She isn’t like John, doesn’t have a reason to. She’ll stay just long enough to recoup and hatch a plan.
The sky lit up in a burst of light, the power grid crashed, and anything with an electrical component is now just a useless hunk of plastic and metal. The army rolled in just before it happened. Their tanks are useless now, as fried as everything else, but they form part of the blockade that lines the city and keeps people in as much as it does people out. John barricaded them in the library when the riots started, and he and Ms. Shaw took to thieving supplies in the night.
“They’re salting the earth,” John says after Harold’s computers burst and the the cars stall on the roads and people with pacemakers drop. John counts the grenades they have, the packages of ramen, the butane camp stove cartridges, and the iodine tablets for purifying water. He’s calm. Harold isn’t sure if it’s because he’s been in situations like this before (and he has) or if it’s because he knows exactly how many calories panicking will waste. “Preventing enemies from providing for themselves. The Romans did it with crop fields.”
They don’t know who is responsible, or even how far the damage goes. Manhattan is a sea of gangs and riots and soldiers, but John hasn’t been able to get past the military blockade to see on the other side. No one is claiming the attack, but even if they did, he isn’t sure they’d have any way of knowing. Harold’s fingers itch to scour the web, to hunt down microscopic hints from missile launches and chat logs, but there’s nothing he can do. He’s next to useless now without his computers. He knows it was a non nuclear electromagnetic pulse simply because of its effects, but beyond that, nothing. They desperately need information, and he finds himself relegated to the Encyclopedia Britannica. He keeps record of what they do know on the backs of library catalogue cards and pins them to the board that used to hold the faces of the Irrelevants.
It’s grows dark quickly in the library without the overhead lighting. They have candles but they’re conserving them, steeling themselves for the long haul. The moon is full and rising, and he can see Reese’s face outlined by the window. Neither of them want to give in to sleep just yet.
“What do you think will happen? If we can’t--” Words fail him, and he settles for a sigh where ‘fix it’ should sit.
He can’t see John’s eyes, only his mouth as his teeth gleam in the low light. “Disorganization, food shortages, lack of communication. Alone, I think people could weather the storm. But with the military occupation? It will be a warzone.”
Days later, when gunshots sound through the streets in a never ending staccato, he snakes a hand around John’s elbow and begs him to find Grace. “Please, Mr. Reese?” He’s lost without his computers. They’re just hunks of plastic and metal, fried useless when the power surge rushed through the city, but he hasn’t removed them from his desk. They sit there like grave markers.
“Of course, Finch,” John says, and he disappears down the stairs into the black.
John is gone for over a day. Shaw is surprisingly compassionate during the long night, makes sure Bear unleashes his energy running around the lower levels of the library and not on him.
“I’m sure you have questions, Ms. Shaw,” he gives her in return.
She snorts. She’s taken up John’s customary position peering out the window near his workstation, shoulder against the frame. It’s dawn now, and there’s still no sign of Reese. “If I needed answers to do a job, I would have been a really bad spy.” But she must see the opportunity in his offer, because she follows the brush-off with a real question. He thinks it will be about the army’s unyielding control over the now-dark New York, about their plan of attack in surviving this, but it isn’t.
“This Grace who John’s risking his neck to get - is she worth it?”
“Yes.” He doesn’t hesitate.
She pulls away from the window to sharpen a long knife she produces from somewhere on her person. She has more today than yesterday, and he’s not sure where the blades come from. They’re hunting knives, killing knives, and she hides a few through the library, but most she keeps in a canvas bag by the door. She makes no secret that she’ll leave them at some point. That she’s stayed with them this long unsettles him.
“She thinks you’re dead, right?” He doesn’t expect her to speak again, but Shaw is constantly surprising him.
He is pulling wiring away from his computers, stripping the plastic away from the metal, when she asks. The chance of reinstituting the power grid is slim, but if they are to restore power, they will need whatever components they can get. The task of separating the fried elements that were connected to the power grid when it blew from those few that are intact is long and arduous. His hands hover over a cord. “I beg your pardon?”
“I know your type. You protect people by distancing yourself. It’s a common technique.” A stupid technique, her tone of voice suggests.
He runs a finger down the length of extension cord he’s stripping. The three wires inside gleam, shiny and useless. “Yes, Ms. Shaw. She thinks I’m dead.”
“And John’s bringing her here. How’s that gonna go down, huh?”
He drops the arm with the box cutter, half in exasperation, half in the bone weary exhaustion that has been descending over him since the EMPs. His back aches, more than usual, and he resists the urge to press a hand to the nape of his neck. The discomfort radiates through his jaw. “I don’t know, Ms. Shaw. Badly I presume.”
John comes in near noon and knocks on the tin can they’ve strung down the staircase banister in tap code. Shaw still has her knives out and waits until she can see his tall form before letting Harold out from behind the corner. Bear has his head up and his tail wagging before John even gets to the top of the stairs.
As much as it pleases Harold to see John safely back in the library where he belongs, he’s unable to tear his eyes from the woman behind him. She’s as radiant as he remembers. She makes it to the top of the staircase before she sees him and blanches. She stares at him, frozen.
“You were telling the truth,” she says to John, and he sees him nod from the corner of his vision, but he can’t take his eyes off her. She’s pale and her voice is flat. She’s in shock.
He’s walking towards her with his arms extended before he realizes his body is moving, and Grace folds into him, neatly and completely. They used to fit together perfectly, coming together like pieces of a puzzle. She’s crying and his collar is growing damp, but the feeling of her arms around him is so familiar it’s painful.
She keeps one arm around his shoulders and beats a fist against his chest. It stings, but it doesn’t hurt as much as watching her cry.
“I buried you.”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Grace.”
John leaves, pulls Shaw with him into the back section of the library, and Bear follows. They’re alone now, but Grace doesn’t pull away except to tilt her head back and stare at him. Her eyes are red and her mouth is thin. The three years since he’s seen her up close have added minute lines around her mouth and eyes, a touch of gray beneath her bright red hair, but she looks so much the same it leaves him breathless.
It catches him. He expects her to ask how. He tells her everything, about Nathan, about the machine, about the bomb on the ferry. And he tells her about the Irrelevant list, and Decima, and John. “I wish I hadn’t,” he says, “I wish I’d found you afterwards instead. We could have run away from it all.”
Grace bites her lips. It’s a habit so natural and old it hurts to watch. She bit her lip when he proposed to her, too. “No, no you don’t, Harold. If you’d done that, then all those people would never have been saved.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“We had four years together, and they were wonderful years. But I need time to process this. All of this.” She’s still pale, but she’s stopped crying. Her hands are shaking. They’re on the floor now, like children. She sits with her legs crossed and his own are stretched out straight between them.
“Was any of it real?”
The Harold that brought her flowers, knew her favorite brand of chocolate, who loved to watch her paint, was a relic of a half-remembered self. He thinks of the not-lies, the carefully manicured silences that punctuated their relationship. “I wanted it to be,” he says, even though it burns to say.
Her voice is strong and the wavers are from emotion, not hesitance. “Things can’t ever go back to the way they were. I never asked you to tell me everything about your life, Harold. I loved you. But you made me burry an empty coffin. I can’t forgive you yet.”
His heart doesn’t break because it broke years ago. “Will you stay here? With us?”
“Do you want me to?”
He thinks about the army and the automatic machine guns outside, about the food shortages and the violence still on the horizon. “Yes.”
She takes his hand and presses it against her face, and he feels the wet of her tears. “Then I will.”
John finds him later, after Grace has left to settle into a corner of the library for the night, and helps him to his feet. “Everything alright, Harold?”
He lets John’s body heat warm him, the hand on Harold’s elbow a comfort in so many ways. He leans in. His legs are shaking more than they should be and the ache in his neck, above the pins and around something older, is growing worse. The world outside of the library hums with violence and fear, audible even through the thick stone.
“I don’t know, Mr. Reese.”