Actions

Work Header

With Words Strung Together

Work Text:

Her head was swimming.

Grace gripped the cup of tea in her hands more tightly, drawing it to her mouth. It was cold when she took a sip, unsurprisingly—she didn’t know how long she’d been sitting here, just thinking.

Harold was alive. That was the biggest shock. He’d been injured in the explosion, yes, but not killed—and he’d let her believe that he had been, had let her go on thinking that for three years.

She didn’t know what happened next. Was she supposed to be angry with him? Maybe she was, a little. She didn’t like being angry; she never had. Being angry was exhausting and took up energy she could use to do other, better things. But maybe sometimes it couldn’t be avoided.

Sighing, she took another sip of her cold tea, setting it aside after that. Her phone rang, an unknown number, and she answered without thinking. “Harold?”

“Hello,” he said, sounding everything and nothing like himself, like he didn’t know how to be her Harold anymore. “I was wondering if—I understand if you need more time—perhaps you might accompany me to lunch this afternoon?”

“That sounds lovely,” she said, because it did, going to lunch with Harold, who was here, who was alive.

“Wonderful,” he said, and he meant that, she could tell. “I’ll pick you up at eleven-thirty.” There was the tiniest pause on the line, like he was thinking about saying something else, and she’d noticed that every time they’d talked in the past two days. Two days. She’d had him back for two days, but there was still a gulf between them, one she wasn’t sure either of them knew how to cross. “Does that sound all right?”

It took her a second to get her head back in the conversation. “That sounds perfect, Harold. I’ll be here.”

She looked at her phone for a second before adding Harold’s number in as a contact, and she wondered how she could go about getting the numbers of his—friends. He’d called them his associates, but there’d been that same tiny pause before the word, and she couldn’t help but wonder what word he’d almost chosen instead.

Whatever it was he wouldn’t say, she thought maybe that had something to do with it.

---

“You want me to be your bodyguard on your lunch date?” Shaw asked, flatly. “Well, at least you realized you couldn’t ask Reese.”

Harold flinched, which, good—she’d meant for him to flinch. She liked Harold, maybe more than she liked Reese—he was more precise in ways that she appreciated—but that didn’t mean she had any intention of letting him off the hook for any of this. All of it, every part that she’d been able to piece together, it was just sloppy.

It wasn’t like she couldn’t understand his thought process. Keeping secrets from certain people to keep them safe—everyone did that, people in her line of work especially. Except Harold’s secrets had done the exact opposite, as far as she could tell. Distancing himself from Grace hadn’t made her safer because he hadn’t actually distanced himself from her, and the fact that Root had found her was proof of that. Leave someone if you need to leave them, she thought, but actually leave, don’t haunt them with the ghost of your presence for the rest of your life.

If there was one thing that annoyed Shaw more than anything else, it was half-assed effort.

“I do plan to tell her about myself and John,” he said, pointed. “I’m trying to let her become acclimated to all the other information I unceremoniously dropped in her lap.”

“Have you let Reese in on this plan of yours?” she asked, because given the way Reese had been walking around with the serene look of a man who’d made peace with his martyrdom, she had serious doubts about that.

“I don’t know how to—I was never very good at this, if you must know. The addition of another person hasn’t made the process any easier.”

She snorted. “No kidding.”

“I am still concerned for her safety, however, so I was hoping—”

“You can lay off the guilt trip. I’ll babysit.”

“Thank you, Ms. Shaw. I appreciate it.”

---

Grace smiled when she opened the door to Harold, and her eyes widened when she saw the woman who had introduced herself as Sam Shaw a few yards behind him. Maybe this is it, she thought. Maybe he’s finally going to tell me.

“Is Sam joining us?” she asked.

Harold smiled back at her. “In a manner of speaking. I asked her to come along just—in case. What we do, and the people after us—I want you to be protected.”

She nodded. He’d stressed that, the danger, how he’d wanted to keep her safe. She wasn’t sure that made up for what he’d done, but it was, at least, very Harold. It was familiar. “Of course,” she said. “Thank you,” she called over his shoulder, offering her a smile.

Sam nodded back, her expression a careful, blank mask, and Grace had to wonder about that. Harold had that ability—she’d seen glimpses of it even before, and now, it would be hard to miss. She couldn’t imagine keeping every thought, every feeling, so tightly controlled, locked behind her eyes; it seemed lonely, more than anything. Had that been what had drawn her to Harold, or Harold to her?

“Are you ready?” he asked, and she smiled and nodded again.

“Let’s go.”

---

Grace had insisted that she sit with them, which chafed at Shaw as far as proper procedure went—but she had to admit, the entire situation chafed at proper procedure.

It was also incredibly awkward. She didn’t know if her presence made it more awkward than it would have been otherwise, or if it was just the fact that Harold obviously didn’t know how he was supposed to act now, or if it was that Grace obviously hadn’t figured that out yet either. She wondered briefly if this was how people felt at high school reunions.

The Machine saved them, about halfway through, with a call. “I’m sorry,” Harold said to Grace after he hung up. “We have to go—there’s someone who needs our help.”

Shaw was already on her feet when Grace glanced between them and asked, “Can I come with you? I guess I probably wouldn’t be able to help, but…”

Just what they needed: a civilian underfoot, and one who would distract Reese even while he stubbornly pretended nothing was distracting him. Harold, of course, took one look at her and said, “You could stay at the library with me. It’s not terribly exciting, but—”

Grace beamed. “That’s fine. I’ll stay out of the way, I promise.”

It figured. Harold obviously hadn’t worked out how to deny anything to the people he loved.

---

Harold called Reese from the car, so he was waiting for them when they got to the library; Bear must have been ordered to stay put because he only looked up at them curiously from his bed. Reese’s mouth twisted briefly when he saw Grace; he slapped on the world’s worst poker face half a second later. Shaw really needed to have a talk with him about that.

“Hi,” Grace said to him, and he nodded at her, forcing a smile.

“Hi,” he said, and for fuck’s sake, this was going to get old really quickly if he was going to keep pulling wounded Bambi eyes every time he spoke to her. Glancing back at Harold, he asked, “A new number, you said?”

“Yes, just give me a moment,” Harold said, moving to his computers. A few moments later and there was a picture printing, which Shaw retrieved and taped up to the glass board. “Alan Dietrich. He’s a philosophy professor at CUNY.”

“What kind of trouble could a philosophy professor get into, I wonder?” Reese said, studying his picture.

“I’m bringing up his financials now,” said Harold. “They look stable. No large withdraws that I see, nor unexplained deposits.”

“I’ll call Carter, see if she can dig anything up,” said Reese. “Want me to take the tail this time, Shaw?”

Actually, no, she wanted to get the hell out of here and focus on something at least semi-productive, but she also didn’t want to have to deal with a-more-miserable-than-usual Reese. “Better you than me,” was what she said, but she made damn sure he heard what she actually meant: You fucking owe me. His sharp nod in response confirmed it.

“It looks like you’ll find him in this building and classroom,” Harold said, pulling up the information on his screens.

Reese took note of it and nodded, leaving the library.

“I can take care of checking out his place, see if there’s anything there,” she said, turning to Harold.

He nodded briefly. “Just a moment. I’m going to see what else I can find.”

Grace wandered over to the glass board while Harold worked rapidly, studying the picture. “He looks nice,” she said quietly. “And he’s in danger?”

“Probably,” Shaw said, walking over to her, since Harold was busy. “He might be the danger—we’re never sure this early on.”

“You’re all so…competent,” she said, a trifle bashfully. “I mean, it’s impressive. You work well together.”

Shaw shrugged. “Harold and John have been working together a lot longer than I’ve been around.”

“Oh?” she asked, and Shaw thought she detected more than just casual interest in that one-syllable question.

“Yeah. I had another job,” she said. “It’s only been a few months for me, though I guess I’ve known them a little longer than that.”

“I guess, doing something like this, a few months can still seem like a long time,” Grace said. “You’re risking your lives, after all.”

“Yeah, that’s accurate,” she said, considering, although she still wanted to know what exactly was behind these questions. Had Grace maybe picked up on Reese’s beyond-unsubtle distress?

“All right, Ms. Shaw, I’ve got some more information for you,” Harold said. “Here’s his address—it looks like Mr. Dietrich doesn’t live alone. His partner, Jason Whitaker, is an aspiring novelist, and he works from home. We’ll need an excuse to get him out of their apartment.”

Grace turned toward them, away from the board. “How aspiring? Does he need an illustrator?”

Harold’s mouth snapped shut for a second; it was actually kind of funny. He recovered a moment later, with, “I’m sure we can think of any number of good excuses—”

“Yeah, but why bother when we might have one ready-made, Harold?” Shaw cut in. “It’s convenient.”

The look he leveled at her was downright hilarious. She thought it might even have given Reese a moment’s pause.

“I’d just have to talk to him for a little while, right?” Grace asked.

“Twenty minutes,” Shaw said. “Half an hour, tops.”

“If we’re talking about books and illustrations, I can do that easily,” she said with a smile.

“We don’t yet know the threat posed in these circumstances. If Mr. Dietrich’s partner is the one behind it—”

“He’s still not going to go after some random, unrelated illustrator,” Shaw said impatiently.

“I just want to help,” Grace said, and Shaw smirked. That made it a given.

---

Grace was actually surprised to find that she wasn’t nervous, and she became even less so when she actually started talking to Jason.

He was funny, enthusiastic, and very flattered by her interest; she couldn’t see him plotting to murder anyone, but then, her mother had always told her that she tended to see only the best in people, often to the exclusion of their lesser qualities.

Perhaps that did explain parts about her relationship with Harold, looking back.

They were only halfway through their conversation when Sam’s voice filtered through the earpiece she’d been given: “I’m clear. You can wrap it up any time.”

Grace kept talking to him for another ten minutes. She really hoped he wasn’t the one behind the danger.

---

Sam was the one to find her, afterward. “I’ll take you back to the library,” she said, and Grace smiled at her.

“That’s fine,” she said, and then added, “But actually, before we go back—could I talk to you for a second?”

Sam glanced at her out of the corner of her eye, clearly weighing the decision. “Sure. Want me to stop?”

“Yes, please,” she said. “Do you know a good place we could go?”

She looked like she was considering that. “Yeah, I think so.” She tapped at her ear. “Grace and I are taking a little detour, Harold—we’ll be back at the library shortly. Call me if something urgent comes up. Yeah, yeah, whatever you say.” She tapped at her ear again.

“Is he being overprotective?” Grace asked, amused.

Sam smirked. “Harold, overprotective? Never.”

They spent the rest of the short ride in comfortable silence. When Sam stopped the car at a parking meter, she nodded up the block. “There’s a pretty good café on the corner. We can talk there.”

“Sounds perfect,” Grace said, following her out of the car. They fed the meter and walked the distance to the café, which turned out to be a quiet, unassuming kind of place, not terribly crowded. For New York, the prices even seemed reasonable. “I like it,” she said, glancing around, and Sam sent her the tiniest of smiles. It somehow seemed almost blinding.

They found a table to themselves near the back. “You’ve been wanting to talk to me for a while,” Sam said, regarding her curiously.

“I have,” Grace admitted. “I think, maybe, there’s something Harold still hasn’t told me, and I think you probably know what it is.”

She heaved a deep sigh. “Yeah, I do. I’m not sure if I should be the one to tell you—Harold’s planning on it. He told me he was.”

“I understand that, but the way things have been since he’s told me—well, everything else—I’m trying to get back to a place where we’re comfortable, if that’s possible. I’m not sure I can wait for him to tell me himself.”

“Fair enough,” she said. A server stopped at their table for their orders, and after she departed, Sam said, “Where do you want me to start?”

Grace frowned briefly. There were so many questions she wanted to ask—where should she start? Maybe with the question that had been nagging at her the most, ever since her world had been turned on its head three days ago. “Harold told me—when he reached that decision—it wasn’t because something unfortunate happened between the two of you, was it?”

Sam, who had been scanning the café—not out of boredom, but instinct, Grace could tell—snapped her head over, meeting her eyes. “Wait, you think—do you think there’s something going on between me and Harold?”

“I—isn’t there?” Grace asked, now unsure. “I know he’s not telling me something, and the way he’s been—somewhat conflicted? It seems to increase whenever he’s around you.”

“You mean whenever he’s around me and John,” Sam said, and Grace shrugged.

“Yes, I guess, but…”

“You’re on the right track, don’t get me wrong,” she said, shaking her head. “You just got the wrong retired spook.”

It took a second. “You mean—”

“Harold and John, yeah. That’s why you haven’t seen a lot of him lately. He’s been keeping a low profile on purpose.”

“Oh, that’s awful. Did they—did something happen between them?”

She shrugged. “Only that John asked Harold to tell you he was alive, and I don’t think Harold really knows how to say no to the people he loves.”

Grace smiled, almost ruefully. “No, he really doesn’t.” Their server returned with their drinks, and Grace studied hers for a second, thinking. “So I was right, sort of. Harold does have serious feelings for someone else. And they're reciprocated?”

“You haven’t really talked to him much, so I’m not surprised you don’t know, but—yeah. Let’s just say they're always going to be reciprocated.”

“So why did he ask Harold to tell me?”

“A number went bad,” Sam said, blowing lightly over her coffee to cool it. “We ended up thinking Harold had died. It turned out to be faked—the group just didn’t want anyone to come looking for him. But we thought it for a good week. If it’d been a week and one day, John would be dead now.”

Her eyes widened. “He wouldn’t have—he would have killed himself?”

“He as much as told me he was about to when we got the information that Harold was still alive,” she said, shaking her head. “From what I’ve managed to piece together, Harold found John, pulled him out of some deep, dark place within himself, and gave him a reason to live again. John’s his. In any respect Harold will allow him.” She shrugged. “So part of the reason was because of the week versus three years thing, as far as thinking Harold’s dead. But part of it was because I don’t think John thinks he’s allowed to be happy.”

Grace took a sip from her cup, trying to digest this new information. She’d known this, some of this—or at least strongly suspected it—but having it laid out so plainly was another thing entirely. “I’d assumed it had to be serious,” she said at last, “given how hard it’s been for Harold to tell me. I guess I just didn’t think about exactly how serious.” She looked into her cup, sighing. “Does Harold resent me now, do you think?”

“No,” Sam said immediately, and her eyes narrowed. “He’d better not.”

She smiled a little at that vehemence. “And John?”

“That’s not John’s style,” she said. “If anything, I’m sure he expects you to resent him.”

“My life was so much simpler four days ago,” Grace said, and then winced. “Is that a terrible thing to say?”

Sam snorted. “Absolutely not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, John and Harold always complicate your life when they barge into it. Or back into it, in your case.”

Grace shook her head. “You know, the funny thing is, even back when it was just me and Harold, it still really wasn’t. I knew then that I only had part of him—not quite to this extent, but I could tell, and I actually told him that was okay. Now I know more about him than ever, and even if we pick up right where we left off, I’ll still only ever have part of him.”

Sam watched her carefully. “Is that good enough?”

“I think,” she said, and smiled slightly, unevenly, “I need to talk to Harold.”

---

Shaw tapped on her Bluetooth as soon as she and Grace were back in the car. She didn’t even get a word in before Harold said, “May I assume you finally deign to return to us, Ms. Shaw?” Well, that answered the question she’d had at the back of her mind for the entire conversation, because the ice in his voice could only mean one thing: he’d been listening.

“You could’ve patched through if you needed me. Reese get into some trouble he couldn’t handle?”

“No,” he said sharply. “In fact, he’s delivering the threat against Mr. Dietrich to Detective Carter as we speak. It turns out that one of his exes was apparently deeply unhappy about the recent announcement regarding his engagement.”

“Some people really need to learn how to let go.” She could do barbed, pointed banter with the best of them.

“Please bring Grace back to the library, if you think you can manage that,” he said stiffly, before closing the line.

Shaw rolled her eyes. “Harold has to be one of the most dramatic people I know, and I know Reese,” she said, and Grace laughed.

“You know, he does have a penchant for grand gestures,” she said, grinning.

---

When they got back to the library, Grace was surprised to see John still there, now knowing what she did. It occurred to her a second later that Harold must have convinced him to stay; she couldn’t miss the way it was written on his face.

“Okay, I’m out of here,” Sam said, which was fair. She’d been tossed into the middle of so much of their lives, and none of it even affected her. Before she went, she handed Grace a small slip of paper with a phone number written on it and call if you need to scrawled underneath. Grace took it and gave her bright smile of thanks. One last nod and she left.

Grace turned to Harold, considering him for a moment. “Were you listening to the conversation I had with Sam?”

Harold nodded briefly.

“We might have to talk about that,” she said, with a slightly rueful smile. “Do we need to bring you up to speed?” she asked, looking at John.

It was funny, now that she knew where to look and what to look for, how easy it was to see what she’d missed before: the way he glanced between her and Harold, the pain buried in his eyes, that slight twist of his mouth.

“Harold filled me in on my way here,” he said, and stopped, clearly wanting to say something else.

“Yes?” she prompted.

“I don’t know why she told you. That’s—over now. I’m not trying to—I know how much you mean to each other.”

Grace took a second to process that. “But it’s not over,” she said carefully. “That’s why she told me. I’m sure Harold would have managed it eventually, but I suppose I got impatient. I think I should know that the man I love is also in love with someone else.”

She hadn’t meant it as an accusation, and she didn’t think her tone of voice was anything but careful and matter-of-fact, yet there was simply no imagining that the expression that briefly flashed across his face was anything other than stricken.

“That’s not—” he said softly, but didn’t finish the sentence. “You have to believe me.”

Grace suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to give him a hug. She looked at Harold, who had retreated behind his impassive expression, locking up tight every secret, every revelation. “Harold, how can he possibly think that’s true? What haven’t you been telling him?”

“Very many things,” he said at last, in a deeply sorrowful tone of voice, tinged with pain.

“I guess we should be used to it by now, huh?” Grace said with a sigh, glancing at John. John was still looking back and forth between the two of them, seeming almost trapped, so she moved closer to him and gently laid a hand on his arm. “Harold loves you, John, and he loves me too. I knew he was feeling conflicted over something, and I’d guessed it was along these lines—though I admit I got a lot of the details wrong.” She smiled slightly. “Sam told me that Harold found you? He found me too, you know—and he understood me, in a way I didn’t think anyone ever would. I knew he had secrets, I knew there were things he wasn’t telling me, but it didn’t really matter, not compared to that. You know what that’s like, don’t you?”

John’s eyes were nothing like Sam’s or Harold’s, she noticed—he could hide his emotions if he needed to, she supposed, but it seemed like it went against his nature, not along with it. They expressed everything for him, enough that his nod in answer to her question was superfluous at best.

“I’m not mad,” she said. “I don’t blame you. I don’t think I could if I wanted to, having been there.” She turned back to Harold. “I don’t blame you either, Harold. I’m not sure I’ve completely forgiven you just yet, about the lying by omission, but I know myself enough to know I will.” She took a step back and glanced around the room, pausing at the corkboard, the glass, Bear sitting up, watching them attentively from his bed. “I don’t know where this leaves us. I don’t think happiness is worth much if it comes at the expense of someone else.”

“I’m sorry, Grace,” Harold said, after a long stretch of silence. “I don’t think I’ve said that enough, for as true as it is—I’ll never be able to express it completely.”

“I don’t want your apology, Harold—I want you to talk to me. I want you to talk to each other. I want to know what you want, from me and from John. And, yes, I want you, because I’ve missed you, dammit, and I want those three years back.”

Harold averted his eyes, mouth twisting. “I know what I want, Grace,” he said, so quiet she almost didn’t hear it. “I can’t have it.”

“Why can’t you?” she asked.

“Because I want both of you,” he said abruptly, “and selfishness is not, as a rule, considered a virtue.”

She thought, maybe, that was the most frankly, starkly honest thing he’d ever said to her.

In any case, it was a start.