John held the door to the penthouse suite for Zoe, smiling slightly as he inhaled her subtle perfume. She smelled good. He had surprised himself when he’d invited her to his room; it had been a long time since he’d done anything like that. He might flirt a bit, but he hadn’t followed through with any woman in… it was years now, he realized. Yeah, he guessed it was time. And why not? Zoe had made it clear she was available and willing. And he was feeling good. He and Finch had helped another number, Harold had bought the hotel and was having fun overseeing it, though how he would really have time to be very hands on, John didn’t know. But it was good to see Finch happy and able to help their number achieve success after they’d helped save her life. So, with Finch occupied, John figured, why not, when Zoe had conveniently shown up.
She wandered around the large room, glancing out at the view of the city afforded by the floor to ceiling windows and then, noticing the bar, asked John if he wanted a drink. He watched her handle the cut crystal decanter, wondering how her fingers would feel lightly trailing down his chest. But he declined the drink.
“No, I’m good.”
“You sure?” Zoe tossed over her shoulder as she poured one for herself. John flashed on Kara telling him he needed to start drinking on the job the first night he met her. He shook his head, annoyed at the image of his late partner rearing its head at this moment. The conflicting feelings he’d always had for Kara had been bad enough; now that she was dead – again – the circumstances of their reunion and her death had kept him awake too many nights recently.
Banishing the image of Kara, he strode over to where Zoe was adding ice to her glass. “Maybe I will have one,” he smiled, meeting her eyes. He liked her, liked how straightforward she was, how she had seen so much and expected nothing from people. Where Kara had been completely amoral and made worse by training and experience, Zoe had her own moral code and, even if some of the people she helped in her work might not necessarily deserve to get out of the jams in which they found themselves, she didn’t kill people. John found that refreshing in a woman and smiled at the ridiculousness of that conclusion.
“What?” Zoe asked, noticing his grin. She handed him a glass.
“Nothing,” he replied, making his voice silky and teasing. As he took the glass from her, he let his fingers caress hers for just a second.
She looked up at him from under her eyelashes and he took the opportunity to lean in for a kiss.
An hour later they lay under the covers in the king size bed. Zoe was curled close to him, resting her head on his shoulder. Despite the soft smile on Zoe’s lips, John was staring at the ceiling, feeling stressed. Things hadn’t worked out the way he’d hoped.
“It’s all right, John,” Zoe whispered, a finger trailing over his chest. “You made me feel wonderful.”
John was nothing if not a gentleman. He grimaced but didn’t reply.
Zoe pushed the sheet down to his waist. “I heard you had a bit of a rough time the last couple of weeks,” she said, still speaking softly. Her fingers gently traced one of the fading bruises over his ribs, then moved on to an abrasion that he knew had been made by the rubbing of the bomb vest he’d been forced to wear for close to twenty four hours.
“You could say that,” was all he chose to reply.
“So… “ Zoe went on, “that could be why.”
John didn’t really want to talk about it. He shrugged, then slipped his fingers under her chin, intending to lift her face up to kiss her.
“How about a hand or two of poker?” Zoe said, forestalling the kiss. She smiled understandingly, then climbed from the bed and went into the bathroom to get dressed.
John ran a hand through his hair, trying to fend off the mortification. He hadn’t been with anyone in a long time, but the last thing he’d expected had been failure. He probably should have kept things strictly on a friendship basis between them. Zoe was a good sport and would never make any disparaging remarks, but this was the kind of thing a woman didn’t forget. John wasn’t particularly happy about becoming something out of a bad comedy, but as with so many other things he’d done – or not done – in the past, he would do his best to push it out of his mind.
Taking his cue from Zoe, he got out of the bed and pulled on his suit pants, then slipping back into his white shirt and buttoning it up, even up to the next to the top button, as if he needed to cover up as much as possible. He was tying his shoes when Zoe emerged.
She gave him a look that was more appraising than fond, then smiled gently. “Maybe I should just go,” she ventured. “Rain check?”
Grateful, John nodded. He was really up to playing any more games tonight. So far she hadn’t been judgmental or, worse, pitying, but he didn’t want that moment to come. He walked her to the door and she gave his hand a squeeze as she made her exit.
He leaned his head against the closed door for a moment after she was gone, then turned to stride purposefully over to the bar. He’d just downed a stiff drink when a light knock on the door sounded.
A voice in his ear spoke almost simultaneously. “I’m not disturbing anything, am I, Mr. Reese?”
John sighed, feeling defeated. He turned to go open the door for Finch. “No, I’m alone,” he said.
Harold ambled in, looking around a bit curiously. “Oh. I thought… “
“Yeah,” was all John said.
Finch favored him with a strange look, then went on. “I wasn’t listening, you know.”
“I thought you listened all the time,” he all but snapped. He regretted his tone, thankful that at least Finch hadn’t heard what had – or rather, hadn’t – happened with Zoe.
He returned to the bar and poured himself another. He knew Finch was watching him, but he gulped it down anyway, then poured again.
He decided there was no point in answering.
Finch didn’t take the hint. “You seemed to be in much better spirits when we were in the bar downstairs.”
“Very observant, Finch.” Now that he thought about it, John saw no reason to pretend he wasn’t extremely out of sorts. He gulped down the contents of his glass, then went to sink down on the white leather couch near the windows. Finch, never one to be put off by someone else’s bad mood, followed him.
“Is there… something I can help with?”
John rolled his eyes. “I don’t think so.” He rubbed his hand across his forehead. “You know, every time you think things might be okay… “
When he didn’t continue, Finch asked, “What?”
“That’s when you find out they aren’t. That they probably never will be.” John said the words without inflection or expression. No use emphasizing the fundamental truth. Better to just let the words out there the way he would shoot a grenade into an oncoming car.
Finch didn’t answer. His lips pressed together in an unhappy frown. He wasn’t one to offer platitudes under most circumstances and he and John were usually honest with each other.
At last he sighed. “I know, John. We help people, but there is a cost.”
John let his head drop to rest against the back of the couch. “Nothing I didn’t already owe.”
Again, Finch let the silence linger before he spoke again. “We can’t change the past, John. We can only go on and try to do better.”
The gentleness in his voice nearly broke John. He looked at Harold, at the man who had created the most sophisticated computer system in the world and thought despite everything, he was still so sweetly naïve. Trying to do better wasn’t enough. It never would be.
John had been naïve himself, he realized. Only a few weeks ago, he’d been smiling, telling Harold he felt happy. Then he’d walked into a bank basement and into Rikers and from there into a bomb vest. He should have felt euphoric when Harold freed him from it, at the realization that together they’d cheated death once again. But he didn’t.
He was even trying to hurt fewer people when he had to fight. It had crossed his mind that the operative he’d left wounded in the hotel kitchen might come back to cross his path again but he’d been in the mood not to kill that night, having set himself a goal after the rooftop where he hadn’t blown up, when Harold had saved him yet again and he’d gotten… what? His third or fourth chance?
But tonight had proved to him that he wasn’t making up for his past sins, wasn’t changing. Good people deserved happiness, they deserved love. It was more than clear that the man who called himself John Reese didn’t.
Harold let the silence stretch out, but he shifted slightly so that he was sitting just a fraction closer to John. After what felt like an eternity in which John tried to keep his mind blank so as not to torture himself with recriminations, Harold spoke again.
“We’ve been so busy,” he began, “that we haven’t had time to… deal with some of the events of the past few weeks.”
“You’re trying to get me to talk?” John asked, unable to keep his eyes from rolling.
“I thought of suggesting we go for a beer,” Harold answered, “but considering you seem to have… started without me, I felt a more direct approach would be more appropriate.”
John just closed his eyes and shook his head.
“You were incarcerated, John. Interrogated.”
“Old news, Finch. Been there, done that, many times before.”
“But not since starting our work. And then your old partner, someone you thought dead and buried appeared out of nowhere, put a bomb vest on you and forced you to follow her orders which ended up doing something which may compromise our entire operation. And you could have been blown up, I might add.”
“I told you on that roof, Finch. My past was bound to catch up with me.” John sat up and glared at him. “Nobody gets an unlimited number of second chances.”
“John.” Finch’s voice dropped to the softest, kindest timbre John had ever heard from him. “My Machine assures second chances. For everyone. Especially for you.”
Abruptly, John realized he was being ungrateful. He of all people knew you couldn’t have everything you wanted in life. Harold had given him so much.
“I’m sorry,” he grated out. “I don’t mean to be unappreciative.” He couldn’t have sounded more sincere if he’d opened a vein. And he still felt like he was bleeding inside. “I wouldn’t even be alive if it weren’t for you.” He gasped, started again, “I… “
Finch held up a hand. “I understand, John. And I didn’t think you were being ungracious. I just don’t care to hear you berate yourself.”
Unable to take the kindness in those insightful blue eyes, John turned away. He swallowed hard. “I’ll try not to.” He knew he was drunk if he’d allowed Finch to see that much of his personal pain in the first place.
“But if you do want to talk,” Finch responded softly, “I’m here. Always.” His hand slid close to John’s where it rested on the couch.
The wound in John’s soul stopped bleeding, just for a moment.