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Tea and Absolution

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When you pick up your tea for another sip, your hand pauses in mid-air, and starts to tremble. You can feel -- there’s a weakness there, a lack of energy as your body starts to shut down, and you -- you know this feeling, you’ve been overcome by it before, not once but twice. Both were faster than this, but… it’s the same process, the same…

--and as the world is tilting and you’re tumbling toward the floor you fall into strong arms, holding you up, keeping you from getting hurt. Dillinger just, he just let you fall, he didn’t care, but Reese… he’s holding you now, and you struggle in his arms, weakly trying to get away, just-- just let go--

As the darkness is folding in around you like a blanket, you look up into his eyes (so close, too close) and try to give voice to a single word:

“Why?”

You can see the outlines of John's face in the darkness. "I've got you Harold," you hear as if through a tunnel, and soft shadows fold over you.

~~~

The fog lifts, if only momentarily. A wheelchair.  I'm sitting in a wheelchair, you think, panicked. It's Root, she's got me again. And John. John did this. You try to struggle against the restraints. "I've got you, Harold," you hear him say again. You slide back into unconsciousness, overwhelmed by despair.

~~~

The lights are so bright. Your glasses are gone, there are dark shapes hovering overhead.

"Jesus, John, you didn’t give him near enough."  Ms. Shaw. She's in on it too.

"I put the entire envelope in," John replies.

"He's coming to. Hold him down, he's gonna hurt himself," says Shaw. Hands clamp down on your upper arms. Strong hands, implacable, inescapable.

"He must have decreased the dose of one of his pain meds. The stuff I gave you should have put him down completely."

There is rustling beside you, then a needle in your neck. Where is Root? She must be here somewhere. The darkness takes you again.

~~~

... beep

... beep

... beep

Your hearing comes back first, then your sense of smell. Antiseptic. Hospital laundry. The sweat that comes from fear. Opening your eyes, the first thing that comes into focus is John. He is lying back on an industrial style brown couch, legs stretched out and hands clasped over his stomach. His head is back, and he appears to be asleep. You blink against the fog in your mind.

I can see, you think to yourself. My glasses, I’m wearing them. But everything’s sideways. Carefully you try to tilt your body down, wanting to see more.

You feel your muscles clench and stop. My head. It’s restrained. You can't prevent gasping aloud, and suddenly John is awake, one hand behind his back, half crouched and scanning the room.

You try to recoil away from him, but your hands are tied in front of you, tied to the railing of the bed. John turn his gaze to you. Expressionless.

Wriggling desperately to free yourself, you find that you're strapped down by your head, your hips, and your knees, and both your hands and feet are tied to the bed railing. Fear floods you, closing off your throat and sending a cold rush of sweat over your entire body.

Meanwhile, John has settled back on the couch, still watchful.

"Harold," John says after a moment.

A lifetime's worth of caution keeps you silent. You look back at him, breathing fast through your nose.

John's eyes flicked up towards the door.

"Shaw," he says neutrally. "You smell like cow. Again."

Just at the edge of your sight, Shaw leans against the door frame and bites off a chunk from a half-eaten strawberry ice pop.

" “Like cow” is fine," she says. " “Like a cow,” not okay."

John's nostrils flare. "The canteen isn't serving steak today."

"I know you don't want anything around that might upset Finch's stomach, but this is ridiculous. I'm pretty sure he can't smell me from here."

"He's awake," John said, and jerked his head towards you, lying helpless on the bed. Dropping her pop in the trash, she walks over to stand at John's side, licking her fingers.

"Huh. Welcome back, Harold." She looks at him flatly. "The doctors say you're gonna be fine, and I agree with them."

You remain silent, your eyes flitting back and forth between them.

Shaw waits a moment, then says, "You know, John here has refused to eat anything except the slop the nurses bring for the past two days. He thinks that if you are around anything else, you'll vomit from the smell. And that would make him feel bad."  You blink at her, not sure what to make of that piece of data. You don't say anything.

Shaw licks her fingers again, then says, "He's all yours, John. Good luck." They both watch her walk back out the door.

John leans back.

"You know," he says meditatively, "the surgeons who put your spine back together the first time were going for speed, not accuracy." John stretches out his arms across the back of the couch like a large panther.

You lay there, looking at him, feeling the most helpless you have in a long, long time. This is what they had to do after the ferry accident, you think. Propped up on my right side, bandages all up and down my neck and back. Completely restrained, to keep the vertebrae still. Drugged, but floating back and forth into consciousness. He remains silent under John's gaze.

After a moment John says, "I got a copy of the x-rays Dr. Tillman had taken. Got second, third, and fourth opinions. Went all over the United States. There’s a general consensus that your original surgeons were damn good, but they were so busy trying to keep you alive they didn't spend much time thinking about the long-term effects. And afterward, you never went back for corrective surgery."

John was quiet for a long, long time, watching Harold. Eventually John said, "So I decided. I flew in the best spinal surgery team I could find, and when everything was ready, I brought you here. And they reconstructed your spine."

John blinks at you with those ice blue eyes, and doesn’t appear to have anything else to say.  

You suddenly feel a rising tide of anger and burst out, "What right do you have to do this to me?"  Your body quivers with rage, but it is too closely secured to move much. You don’t feel any pain, but you can hear the creak of the restraints.

John smiles sardonically.  "I thought you might ask me that." Leaning over he picks up a worn paper bag from the floor.

From it John pulls out a paper cup, the same kind that holds Harold's tea, then with the other hand brings up an empty whiskey bottle, covered with dust.  He holds both of them up in the air, shakes the whiskey bottle, and raises his eyebrows at Harold.  "So I drugged you, like you drugged me, years ago." He puts the cup and bottle on the couch next to him.

John gestures to the hospital room. ""Then I moved you, without your knowledge or consent, like you moved me to that hotel room."

John continues, "And I bound you to a bed," first holding up a padded hospital restraint, then a clear plastic zip tie. "Like you bound me."

John smiles wryly and leans back in the couch. "Then you changed my life for the better, though I didn't appreciate it at the time. And I hope that you will someday see that what I have done here changes your life for the better, too."

John cocks his head to the side and continues. "The lead surgeon has told me that the level of pain you feel from now on will be infinitesimal compared to what you suffered these past few years."

John shifts in his chair, and lets that soak in. "So, just like I did in that hotel room a long time ago, you can make your decision. If you want, we can go our separate ways."

John looks steadily at him. "Or, we can still be partners, still help save people."

You are silent for a long, long while.

"John, what is it that you think you have done to me? To my life?" you whisper.

John hesitates, then says, "I have absolved you, Harold."

He leans forward and put his elbows on his knees. "You have endured your pain for long enough. And at this point, the only thing pain does is prevent you from doing your job the best that you can."

John lets the silence stretch out between them, Harold's eyes locked on his.

"But-" you stop to clear your throat. "But all of it was my fault, my guilt, John. Mine.  My responsibility, my failure. All those people at the ferry, the dead, the disfigured. The crippled. Men, women, children. All the years of collateral damage done by Northern Lights, all of the abuses of its power. Mine." You look up desperately at John. "Can't you understand that?"

John lays a hand on yours and smiles with infinite gentleness. "Yes, I can. I was in the thick of it. And just like you gave me a way to walk out of the darkness into light, now I give it to you."

You slowly relax and close your eyes. John’s hand is warm on yours. I could help more people, you think. I could let go of my own stubborn pride, let it stop distracting me from helping the numbers. Perhaps it has been selfish, to make pain to be my penance for things I’ve done, and let that selfishness prevent me from doing what good I can.

Quietly, you whisper, “I accept your absolution, John,” and the sounds of the hospital fade into gray. Not fading to black, not now, but to gray. I can work with that, you think to yourself. The gray.