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The man in the wind...

John slumped against the parapet, too weak to stand. A missile roared incredibly close over his head before blowing the hell out of the satellite dish on the rooftop above and across from him. Chunks of burning debris and metal shrapnel clattered to the roof, making the guys shooting at him duck and yell. The afterburn of the flames left black spots in John's vision, or maybe that was all the bullets he'd taken. He'd already dropped his empty weapon, and Decima's attack dogs recovered and stalked over to see what he'd been up to.

But it was too late. The missile was too late as well—The Machine's code had already been transmitted to Samaritan's satellite to do its worst. John's work was done. And now he had to sit here listening to the three guys who'd shot him discussing what to do next as if he weren't bleeding out in front of them.

It was a little off-putting.

"You call the senator," a blond guy waving an M4A1 was saying. "I'm not sure I have the number."

"Nuh-uh. You're next in line. You call him," the brunet with the leg wound said irritably.

"And here you said I'm not your boss anymore now that Greer is toast," the blond said, and he pulled out a cell phone and consulted a ragged sheet of paper.

Real tight chain of command. John would offer a comment but he had another priority. With the tiny bit of strength he had remaining, he sneaked a small, blood-soaked photo from his suit pocket and crumpled it until it was a tiny, unrecognizable ball. He let his hand flop to the rooftop in a natural motion, and the ball dribbled away to land next to the rubble, unnoticed.

"Sir, this is Oscar-Bravo-Charlie twenty-two. The Tango is down. It appears he transmitted something before, uh, some kind of ordnance destroyed the dish at the top of the building. Was that us, sir?"

The third guy knelt down and started treating his buddy's leg. His side-arm was accessible, if John were capable of moving. He couldn't even blink the sweat from his eyes.

"No, sir, the tango's not dead yet; almost though," Blondie said, and John coughed derisively, copper hitting the back of his throat. The blond child said, "Are you sure, sir? He's near enough dead meat already. Not sure he'd survive exfil."

Insolent pup. If John could pull his knife, he'd hamstring him.

"If you say so, sir." Blondie pocketed the phone and turned to his pals. "Boss wants him alive if we can do it." He kicked John's leg with one steel-capped toe. "Hey, you still breathing?"

It seemed like the perfect time to check out. John had hopefully saved the world, after all. The whole damned world, and he'd finally paid Harold back in the process. That was a pretty full day for anyone.

He closed his eyes and let the black push him under.

:::

Dr. Tillman was there when Harold woke up, her blue eyes tinged with the red of exhaustion, but her smile warm as always. "There you are," she said. "Any nausea from the anesthesia?"

"No, Doctor," Harold said. "Dr. Li has a very deft touch."

"She does, indeed," Tillman said. "I don't know where you found her, but we're lucky you did." Tillman's forehead creased, as it always did whenever she pondered the illegality of their efforts on Harold's behalf. But Harold hoped today wouldn't be the day she decided to wash her hands of him. He couldn't bear yet another loss.

His breath shook on a silent sob. I left him to die.

"Harold? Are you in pain?"

"No, Doctor. Thank you. Is Ms. Shaw nearby?"

"She's just outside." Tillman lifted an eyebrow. "Is the arsenal really necessary? Or the guard dog? I'm concerned about maintaining aseptic conditions."

"I imagine the dog gets bathed more often than Ms. Shaw does," Harold muttered.

"What was that?" Dr. Tillman's hands were gentle as they checked Harold's dressing.

"Nothing." Harold turned his head and stared out the window of their new accommodations, an old police station on the upper West side. John was gone; gone, and they didn't even have a body to bury, just a debris-scattered rooftop as a memorial of his passing. Decima had even policed their bullet casings.

"Harold." Tillman's hand rested on Harold's shoulder. "Where's John? He's usually the one guarding the door."

Harold's throat burned and his eyes blurred. "Ms. Shaw can...fill you in. Thank you so much for your help, Doctor." He cleared his throat. "I will arrange the usual to recompense you for your time and difficulties."

Tillman sighed. "And I'll be back tomorrow to check in on you." Her voice was firm.

"All right, Doctor."

Harold listened to her leave, waiting until the bedroom door closed before he allowed a few hot tears to spill down his cheeks.

:::

The hands that hauled John from the dark comfort of wherever he'd been were rough and cold. His wounds throbbed sharply with each breath, but he breathed evenly despite, pretending sleep.

"Nah, you're awake all right. You've had two weeks in a coma, sleeping beauty. Time for a conversation."

John blinked his eyes open and recognized the bulldog mug of Ross Garrison, the senator who'd somehow escaped the mock trial Vigilance put on.

Two weeks explained the nightmares. They must've drugged him to keep him under. "You here to fluff my pillow?" John rasped out as the head of his bed rose.

"Depends." Garrison sat back and dropped the control by John's arm.

"On?"

"How much you've got to say, now that I've got you as a captive audience," Garrison said. "You were half-dead when our people dragged you here. They tell me you did die a couple of times, at that."

John gave a brief glance around the room. One door with a narrow window, thick security glass, and a deadbolt. Otherwise, bare, pale green walls. He was the only occupant. John stared up at the bland, acoustic tile in the ceiling.

"Where am I?"

"This place? Used to be an abortion clinic. Well, a women's health clinic. A lot of those have shut down lately; they make for cheap real estate." Garrison leaned over him. "So, needless to say, no one is going to come barging in to disturb us."

"Pity."

Garrison nodded. "You've caused a lot of trouble for the project over the years. I think you were driving Greer to distraction toward the end there." He shrugged. "Well, sayonara to the creep. I never liked him anyway. No hard feelings."

Establish commonalities. Earn the prisoner's trust. It seemed like the senator had read his CIA interrogation handbook.

"He was an asshole," John rasped out. "Just like you." He paused and waited while Garrison's expression hardened, then added, "We have that in common."

Garrison rolled his eyes. "Well, it's time for your friends to come in from the cold and settle up." He pulled out a cigar and cutter. John thought about inhaling the heavy smoke with his lung in this condition and came up with six alternate uses for the cigar cutter. "Shall we get started?" Garrison said. "Tell me what you know about the guy in the glasses. Harold."

John closed his eyes and came up with a seventh.

:::

"You're healing up well," Tillman said. "I need you to start getting up and around, Harold."

"If you say so, Doctor," Harold said listlessly.

"I'm serious." She rested her hands on the arms of his wheelchair. "Do you want your bowels to move again this century? Then stand up and move around. That's an order."

"Yes, ma'am." Harold reached slowly for his briefcase and withdrew a thick envelope. "For your troubles."

"Very generous. I'll drop half as an anonymous donation toward the pediatrics wing as usual," she said, taking the envelope and then gathering up her supplies.

"Thank you for the visit," Harold said. "It's always good to see you."

Tillman made a face at him, her nose scrunching attractively. "Well, one of you tends to be bleeding, so I can't say the same. But I'll see you in a week."

"See you, Doctor."

Tillman left, and Sameen almost immediately popped her head into his bedroom, her dark eyes assessing him.

"You're making that face again," she said finally, and took a seat. "Did you have another dream where you went to see your ex?" She propped her boots up on his workbench.

Harold hated that dream. Grace always smiled at him just the same as she always had, as if he'd never destroyed her life. It was irrational and pathetic, and he always awoke even more aware of how dismal his reality had become. "Be careful," he admonished. "Those logic boards are pricey." He took a slow breath before adding, "No. It was Reese this time."

"Ah." Sameen nodded sagely. "The one where you stop the bullets with your mind? Or the one where you had to watch what happened?"

Harold ducked his head. "I blame the Matrix. Idiotic premise, really. The human brain doesn't generate that much electricity, and if you diverted it, there wouldn't be enough to take care of basic bodily functions—"

"Yeah, okay," Sameen said, her cheeks hollowing in dark amusement. "The stopping bullets one. Cool trick."

"I'm still so angry at him. He didn't give me a choice," Harold said.

"Well, to be fair—you planned the same thing. He just got one over on you."

Harold glared.

Shaw stood and slapped a palm on her thigh. "I'm taking Bear for a walk. You've got my number." Bear followed her out.

Shaw was right. Harold had taken for granted he could outsmart Reese—after all, Harold was the gamer, the strategist. Reese was the asset. How could Harold have forgotten, after all their Numbers, that Reese was an operative first who used every resource available, including The Machine.

The ache was getting quite bad. He should have asked Dr. Tillman to double-check his wound. This hollow feeling couldn't be normal, this cold throbbing and clutching anguish at the center of his being.

Harold pressed his hands to his face and wept.

:::

John still wasn't dead when he woke up again.

His nurse was a big bald white guy in burgundy scrubs, and his hands were deceptively gentle as he changed John's dressings. John tried to reconnect his memories but all he could dredge up were murky dreams featuring pained struggles against drowning, against being restrained, and hushed and garbled voices saying ominous things. He didn't remember getting here. He didn't know where 'here' was, or how bad the damage was. He had a foggy memory of Senator Garrison asking him questions, and faking sleep until he fell asleep again.

From his aching chest and the tubing poking out of him, his bet was he'd punctured a lung. No doctor had been in to see him to discuss his injuries, but his side and leg throbbed in time with the beat of his pulse.

He had to get free and find out what had happened to Finch, Shaw, and Fusco. Bear was with Leon and should be safe until someone retrieved him. But if Greer really was dead, then what the hell was the senator doing controlling some of Decima's people? Had Samaritan beaten the Machine? Was Big Brother still in charge?

Maybe the Senator was just covering his ass.

Regardless, John's situation was the same—he had to get the hell out of here before they could apply enough pressure on him that he betrayed the others. Everyone broke eventually. Shaw had told him things, in small fits and starts, enough to make John fear what Decima had to offer in persuasion techniques. The pain from his wounds was bad enough even without additional knocks.

John waited until his nurse left and then inspected his wounds. The zig-zag of the surgical incisions on his chest, the drainage tube, the multiple wounds stitched on his side and leg left him feeling more helpless than usual. He wouldn't be able to mobilize, not like this. It would be a few days before he could get to his feet.

And the pain itself was debilitating. He looked over at his IV, wondering why the pain seemed to be increasing.

The door to his room swished open. "Good morning. Nurse Smith mentioned you were awake."

Great. Garrison again.

"Bet you're wishing right about now for some pain medication."

So that was the game. How childish. John tilted his head back and examined the holes in the ceiling tiles.

"I'd be happy to get you some in exchange for just a little information."

There was a small cluster of holes that made a clown face. But when John tried to figure out where the pattern began and ended, he got a little lost.

"Are you listening to me, suit man? Reese? That's your name, isn't it?"

"I respond to it, yeah."

"Hmph."

"Far as I know, I was the last one standing. And then, not so much."

Garrison's mouth pouched up like he'd sucked a lemon. "That the way you're playing it?"

"Can't tell you what I don't know."

"Let's just see how long you can hold out without any pain meds."

John would've laughed, if he could. Really.

Child's play.

:::

Sleep was all there was to do, so John did a lot of it, in between wondering about Finch, about Shaw, and Fusco. Mostly, about Finch and the expression on his face when he'd realized what John had done; the location switch John had pulled with The Machine's help. But thinking about the heartsore expression on Finch's face, the sound of betrayal in his voice, only made the time go achingly slow. John couldn't bear to imagine that would be the last interaction they'd ever have.

And John was tired. They'd kept him under for two weeks straight, but he still felt exhausted. He had no TV, no source of news except his night and day nurses, who weren't talking. Without news, there was no way to know what had happened in the battle against Samaritan's control, and no way to safely make contact even if he had some way.

Around and around his mind went in circles.

There was something eerie about being tended to by medical technicians who didn't really mean him well. Their hands were gentle but not trustworthy; John tensed whenever they touched him, which didn't help when they were already doing painful things. And he felt even more helpless during the personal things, the changing of bedpans, or getting the occasional sponge bath.

Whatever professionals Sameen had encountered appeared to be long gone. This facility was cold and quiet and attended by just a few guards who passed by the window of his door in shifts.

John did his best to be quiet, charming, non-threatening, and the best little patient his two nurses could ask for. Garrison got his way, though, when it came to the pain medication.

At night, alone in the dark with his beeping machines for company, John let his face contort, pulled at the sheets with his fists while he panted in silent agony.

But the image frozen in his mind's eye was Harold's face before he left the roof.

Good bye.

:::

The morning saw Garrison taunting John about his pain levels.

"Sure you don't want something? Not even an aspirin? All I want is to talk to Harold. I'm a nice guy, he's a nice guy..."

"Yeah, you're swell. But like I said, Decima was pretty thorough taking us out."

Something flashed in Garrison's eyes that John couldn't interpret. What they hell did he want with Finch, anyway? If Samaritan had beaten The Machine, they were hardly a threat anymore. They were mice under the hawk's gaze.

"Maybe you'll change your tune when they come to take out that tube." Garrison made a face at the jars next to John's bed. "Lord, that looks nasty. I wouldn't want to be you when they pull that thing out."

"And I wouldn't want to be you," John said, baring his teeth. "Think of all the ex-wives."

Garrison scowled and stomped out.

A good guess, then.

:::

The first Number after Dr. Tillman released Harold from her care was a teenage girl by the name of Sharlotta Freeman. It was impossible to look into her big hazel eyes and see anything but an innocent, but they had to account for all possibilities, so Shaw immediately broke into her bedroom.

"She attends the New York City School for the Arts," Harold told Shaw. "I've sent you her class schedule."

"Copy that," Shaw said. "From her emails, it looks like she and her boyfriend have uncovered a cheating ring and they're planning to turn in the culprits. Her boyfriend is a bit of a hacker and just found some proof."

"Oh, really?" Harold said, intrigued. "I'll investigate the boyfriend. You stay on the girl."

"I've got a picture; sending."

Harold's texting app popped up a window with a photograph. Harold squinted, then reeled in shock when he recognized the face. It was none other than Darren McGrady, the boy who had hired Reese as a mercenary. McGrady's features had filled in; he looked more mature, but with the same cocksure expression and wary eyes.

"That's Darren McGrady," Harold said, tears filling his eyes. "I...I have to go."

"Harold?"

Harold typed quickly. "They both have drawing class right now, Ms. Shaw. 440 West 53rd Street. You can catch them after class."

"Copy that. Bear and I are on our way."

Harold hung up and made his way to the box of things in his bedroom. It gave him comfort when thinking of John became too painful. This was the box he'd refused to let Sameen get rid of, even though she'd remonstrated with him, saying, "Look, I'll admit I didn't do that well on my psych rotation, but even I know it's not healthy to hold onto a dead guy's," she grabbed something out of the box and made a face, "'Mennen speed stick.'"

"Give that back."

She tossed it back into the box. "The only really personal effects John had, he took with him."

"And what were those?" Harold asked breathlessly.

She shot him a look. "His gun, Harold. He loved that thing like a baby. And...he had a photo of you teasing Bear with a ball. I saw him stick it in his pocket when he had to change suits after a shootout. Boy, was he embarrassed." Sameen grinned wickedly. "I threatened to tell you about it, but he said you already knew."

"I did know. I remember when he took it. I asked him to delete it for security, but he said we were past that." They were; they were long past that by then, hopelessly compromised, their lives intertwined. "I didn't realize he'd printed it out. Thank you, Sameen."

Harold looked down at the box now and remembered the photograph. Deodorants and T-shirts were meaningless when he could have the one thing John had on his person when he died.

Harold went back to his computer and, in between tracking Sameen's progress, started searching his backups. When he explained the issue to The Machine, the search went a lot faster, her algorithm weeding out the thousands upon thousands of photographs from their cases and any photos later than the destruction of the library, then restricting the remaining shots to photos with Harold and Bear as the subjects.

There were still at least a couple hundred shots of Harold and Bear on the screen to sort through, and Harold's eyes filled again as he absorbed this blatant evidence of John's affection for them both.

"There it is," he said, mousing over it. "This is the one. Thank you."

The Machine acknowledged him with a pulse of light around the photograph that made Harold close his eyes. After a moment, he expanded, cropped, and printed out the photo. He would frame it and put it by his bed, so he had something John had with him when he died.

It was something, at least.

:::

Garrison was right about the tube removal. John wouldn't put it on his list of vacation activities. But afterward, John felt a hundred percent better and started to improve rapidly. He could make his way to the bathroom and back, and breathing was fun again. His leg was getting better fast, too, although he still couldn't lift his left arm. But being ambidextrous had its perks.

He had a small window here and he knew it. Now that he was healed enough, it wouldn't be long before Garrison started engaging in more rigorous persuasion techniques. John had counted four guards total in addition to the rotating nurse on watch and the doctor who stopped by occasionally. John needed to implement his escape plan quickly, before they damaged him again and he lost any ground he'd gained.

He had to get free so he could find out what happened to Harold and The Machine. To the rest of his team.

The next time his nurse came in and leaned over him, John used his pickpocket skills to palm the guy's phone, then hobbled into the bathroom after he left to examine it. He hadn't seen any cameras in evidence but it paid to be careful. Making like he was taking a piss, he looked down at his prize.

The phone was a cheap burner, flip-style, with no internet service. Not very useful. It did call out, though, so John dialed the only number it was safe to use right now, with Samaritan maybe still out there, and the Machine possibly gone forever.

He dialed Bear's mini-pager.

Long ago, so long ago, it felt like, he'd told Harold of his plan to stick a pager on Bear and train him to be a rescue dog, to have him respond to the buzz and signal the nearest ally for help. It was a last ditch protocol, really meant to protect Harold when John could not. Now, hopefully, it would save John when nothing else could.

This antiquated pager network was outside Samaritan's purview. Bear was with Leon right now, or possibly Fusco had him, in which case John hoped Fusco would take one look at the pager's 911 message and track the originating cell number to this location. With any luck he'd bring the cavalry.

John completed the call, erased it from the history, then tucked the phone back into his scrub pants. Once he was back in his room, he let it slide down one leg and kicked it into the tangle of cables by the heart monitoring equipment. Hopefully, it would look like it slipped out of the nurse's pocket during his last visit.

Then John curled up in his bed to heal and wait.

:::

"Harold. Get out of that bed and come for a walk. Dr. Tillman said you need to keep moving around to stay flexible."

Harold rolled away in negation. He'd been enjoying his nap. Napping was the superior life choice; he had nothing else to do, nowhere to go, and since Sameen had saved Sharlotta, and incidentally, kept Darren from experiencing a second terrible tragedy in his young life, with no other numbers on the docket, Harold was free to sleep as much as he wanted.

Idly, he pondered changing out of his day clothes and into some pajamas and under the covers for a dedicated nap. No more pretending to be human.

"Harold...don't make me do this."

"Do what?" Harold said, mildly curious. Sameen wouldn't use force on him; despite her iron demeanor, she was surprisingly tenderhearted when it came to the people she cared about, though that circle was small and had grown painfully smaller of late.

Harold winced and stuffed his head under the pillow.

"Don't say I didn't warn you." Sameen's words arrived in conjunction with a cold wet nose that snuffled into the side of his neck with disgusting accuracy.

"Bear! Foei!" Harold said, trying to push him away.

Sameen laughed. "No, Bear. Reveiren!"

"Augh! What did you hide in my bed?" Harold said, trying to squirm away from Bear's searching snout.

"I'll never tell," Sameen said. "But if I were you, I'd get out of there. I don't think it's safe to stick around while he tries to find it."

Sneaky. Sneaky and mean. But clever, Harold would grant her that as he sat up.

Bear suddenly jerked to attention, his head cocking sideways, ears perking up. He whined for their attention and pawed at his neck.

"What is it, good boy?" Sameen practically cooed. Harold gave her a look, but her attention was on Bear. She put her hand on his neck and ruffled his fur.

Suddenly, she startled too, giving Harold a surprised look.

"What?"

"He's buzzing."

"Buzzing?" Harold put a hand near hers on his collar. Sure enough, a subtle buzzing tickled his fingers, and a memory came rushing back. "Oh, my god. It's the pager."

"Pager?"

"We forgot to tell you about it. But who would be...? It must be a wrong number." Harold gently turned Bear's collar to reveal the clever Velcro pocket, subtle and tiny, nothing to chafe at Bear, nothing to draw suspicion. It looked like the collar's design.

"Before you joined the team, John set up this pager number on the dark network. Detective Carter," Harold cleared his throat, "Detective Fusco, Zoe Morgan, and Leon Tao were the only ones we told about it. But I imagine this is just a wrong number."

He popped out the tiny pager and pressed the button to read the number off the miniature LCD. The pager was so tiny and rudimentary it could only transmit a code and callback number, but this one was easy to decipher.

911314

Ice rose to Harold's throat. This was no wrong number.

"Call Detective Fusco right now," he said as he got up to rush to his desk. "I'll contact Ms. Morgan and Mr. Tao."

Zoe sounded delighted to hear from him. Harold didn't realize just how long it had been since they'd spoken.

"Ms. Morgan—as pleased as I am to speak to you, I have to cut this short. I just needed to confirm you were safe and secure."

"Not a problem. I can't believe that old pager still works. John was such a sweet, overprotective noodle, wasn't he?"

"Yes, yes, he was," Harold said, breathing through the knives in his chest. "Goodbye, Ms. Morgan."

"Until next time, Harold."

Harold hung up and turned toward Sameen, who was just finishing her call. "Fusco says nothing is going on with him. He wants in on any action."

"That leaves Mr. Tao." Somehow, Harold wasn't surprised Mr. Tao had run into problems once again, although why The Machine, herself, hadn't warned them he was in trouble was another question. Perhaps the danger wasn't deadly, just inconvenient. Harold wouldn't put it past Leon to call them in an effort to avoid being roughed up.

Harold tried Leon's cellphone, his other cellphone, his last known place of work, and finally, as a last ditch effort, his grandmother's house. He had no luck in tracking down Leon's whereabouts, and Mrs. Tao told Harold to remind Leon he promised to help her with her taxes.

"I will, Mrs. Tao."

Harold hung up and looked at Sameen. "I think it's safe to assume Mr. Tao is in trouble again. The question is, where is he?"

"Can't we track the number?"

"Of course. The Machine is already working on a location. Assuming he's still where he called from, it shouldn't be too difficult to find him."

"Then I'll go get my gear."

Harold sighed at her eager tone, imagining the small arsenal she planned to strap to her person.

Bear licked his hand, and Harold looked down at him. "I suppose you'll want to come, too."

Bear barked.

"Honestly. You're both ridiculous." Harold rubbed at the painful tightness in his chest. How was he supposed to do this, ride to Leon's rescue—probably some absurd situation to be solved by Sameen breaking a few kneecaps—without John beside him?

"Hey, you got that address?" Shaw said.

"What? Oh, yes," Harold said. "Hmm. It appears to be a women's health clinic. No longer operational." He typed rapidly. "No cameras, internal or external."

"Oh." Sameen nodded. "I'm not surprised. Back alley docs use places like that as underground hospitals. And then they get robbed for their drugs."

"Then we'd best exercise caution, Ms. Shaw. Please give Detective Fusco the address."

"Will do." Sameen continued stuffing her arsenal in her duffle. "You think this might be a trap or something?"

"I don't think so. No one knew about the emergency pi code except our small circle, and Detective Carter and Mr. Reese are dead." If Harold's voice wavered a little on that last, Sameen was too gracious to point it out.

"Even so, Leon is one of ours. Even if he feeds Bear HotPockets."

Bear made a questioning sound.

"Then I suppose, with due caution, we are going in."

Shaw shouldered a grenade launcher with a smirk. "Let's go get our boy."

:::

Detective Fusco drove their innocuous white cargo van up the street toward the location in the Bronx, an industrial park on a block lined by tall trees, with long driveways leading to short, blocky buildings. There was enough of a chill in the air to threaten snow, and Harold buttoned his coat up to his chin.

"There. Right there," he said, pointing to an innocuous-looking sign. "Montflores Women's Health Center. 1302 Industry Row."

"All right, all right," Fusco said, pulling to a discreet stop. "Don't get your shorts in a knot."

Harold couldn't help his slight nervousness as he looked into the back of the van where Sameen sat on the wide floor arming herself, tucking multiple pistols and magazines on her person and a particularly wicked-looking knife into her boot sheath. The Machine could give them no real data on the location. They had no raw surveillance, no live cameras, and except for the incoming deliveries of medical supplies, no hard data to work off of.

"All right. I’ll scout the perimeter," Sameen started to say as she cracked the side door, but Bear took the opening to jump out and immediately start moving, his nose hugging the ground.

"Bear!" Sameen whisper-shouted. "Foei! Blijf!"

Bear ignored her. His trajectory aimed unerringly toward the facility in the distance.

Sameen gave Harold a look and rolled out to go after him.

"I guess that's our cue," Fusco said, barreling out the driver's side, and Harold climbed down with some difficulty, his hip giving a painful shout as his feet hit the cold ground. Fusco waited patiently, one hand out as if to assist him, but not going so far as to touch.

They made their way down the street, Bear and Sameen already disappearing up the drive.

:::

It occurred to John a little too late he might be compromised by the pain, by the infection, and by the exhaustion inspired by rooftop Blondie's interrogation techniques. He wasn't on top of his game.

"Your name is 'Todd'?" John had asked upon learning his name, smiling involuntarily.

"Yeah, what's it to you?"

"Nothing. Nothing." John knew he shouldn't do it, but he couldn't help it. He really couldn't. "It's just, in my head, I've been thinking of you as 'Toad' for all the ass-licking you're—" Ow. Really, punching a hospital patient right in the face? What a toad.

Garrison was obviously a little squeamish; he'd left when the real persuasion started. Todd pulled out a military knife and gave John some deep cuts on his arm and then poured rubbing alcohol over them.

It was...bracing. Honestly, it made John miss the good old days with Ulrich Kohl. Now there was a professional.

Meanwhile, Todd hit John with questions: where was Harold, the guy in glasses? Where was Sameen Shaw? Who else worked for the Operation?

But he only lifted John's spirits. Because the questions meant Harold must still be alive, must be safe. Sameen and Fusco had to have escaped. His little family of degenerates were all right. They had to be. Maybe The Machine had won.

But hope was a dangerous drug, because it only now occurred to John, after he'd already made the phone call, that he'd possibly played right into Garrison's hands. John couldn't know. His night nurse had returned, spotted the phone by the monitor stand, cursed quietly, and pocketed it without looking at John. It was difficult to know whether it was an act or not.

Todd, the slacker, went off on another cigarette break, leaving John alone with his uncertain thoughts. He was floating on the high of pain endorphins, everything feeling just a bit surreal, when he heard the distant sound of a barking growl followed by a masculine scream.

John's heart soared into his throat. He knew that bark. He loved that fierce growl.

He tossed aside the sheet and stood on shaky legs.

It was time to dance.

:::

Harold and Det. Fusco passed through some blown open doors—no doubt Shaw's work—and caught up to her just as she was subduing a large man dressed in maroon scrubs. She had him on his stomach, arms hauled behind, and the curses burning the air made his displeasure known.

"I'll take 'im," Fusco said, already kneeling down. "You guys go ahead and make sure the hound doesn't kill anybody."

"He wouldn't," Sameen said, flashing a sharp grin. "He'll only maim until he gets the word."

"Oh my God," Harold said, moving toward the howling and screaming. Then he heard gunfire, and his heart stopped in the silence until he heard more growls.

"Which way?" Shaw said at the next junction.

It was difficult to determine; sound echoed confusingly down the white hallways.

More gunfire rang out. Staccato bursts this time, evenly spaced in pairs. The hair rose on the back of Harold's neck.

"This way," he said, gesturing, and Shaw prowled in front, ever protective.

More screams. Closer now. Another two shots.

They turned a corner, then Harold had to jimmy another set of electronic doors while Shaw waited impatiently.

"Stealth seems indicated at this point," Harold explained quietly, and Shaw nodded as she slipped through, Harold right behind her.

The hallway was cold and dark, some of the lights either knocked out or burned out, no telling. They crept cautiously past open patient rooms, Shaw checking each one, and then paused at the next corner. Shaw raised a hand to her ear and then pointed.

Harold heard it—a strange shuffling, and then a jingling sound, faint but familiar. Bear's collar. Shaw dove around the corner and Harold followed quickly, his heart pounding in anticipation of, he wasn't sure what.

Not this.

John Reese. John Reese shuffled toward them, a gun at the ready, Bear bounding around his legs in a happy dance to-and-fro. Reese saw them and stopped, raised his other hand, palm up, narrowed his eyes, and fired his gun.

Harold startled. Behind him, he heard a thud and a scream.

"Well, shit," Shaw said, and spun around to handle the man on the ground behind them.

Harold stared at John, unable to speak at all. A white veil rose to cloud his vision, and his breath grew short.

"Harold," John said, his voice like gravel, suddenly somehow right in front of him, alive. Alive and spattered in blood, and almost as pale as the white hospital scrubs he was wearing.

Harold opened his mouth but again, words failed him. Instead, he reached out, clutching at any part of John he could touch—his bloody arm, as it turned out. Harold's eyes were strangely blurry.

"John."

John winced but gamely put his hand over Harold's. "Right here," he said in answer to Harold's choked gasping. "Thanks for bringing the cavalry." His eyes were red-rimmed and wet, but his smile was true. The ghostly half-smile that Harold so dearly loved to coax free at every opportunity.

"I can't-I don't—"

"Yeah, me neither," John said. "Harold. Harold." He squeezed Harold's hand. "Just tell me—did The Machine make it?"

Shaw's voice piped up as she came to join them. "Oh, yeah. She kicked Samaritan's ass all right. You couldn't stay dead, huh?"

"Nope," John said roughly. "Guess they had a use for me."

"Well, so do we," Sameen said. She gave his shoulder a light punch. "I'm glad."

"I am as well," Harold said, understating the situation somewhat a lot. John smiled and swayed. Harold grasped for him again. "We have to get you to medical care."

"No kidding," Shaw said. "And this really isn't the place for a reunion."

They made their way back the way they'd come, this time with John and Bear covering the rear, despite Harold's insistence John was too injured. It was slow going at John's gait, but Harold didn't mind, despite his increasing tension that someone or something would snatch John away again now, at the very moment Harold was readjusting to the reality—John was alive. John was alive. John hadn't left him after all.

Harold could hardly see for the tears constantly threatening.

"Hey, you guys, look what I found," Fusco said, looking up from a prisoner as they came through the double doors. Then he did a double take. "What the hell? Jesus Christ, it's Wonder Boy!" Fusco lunged over and, no doubt to both their surprise, gave John a big bear hug. "I can't believe it." He pounded John's back a couple of times and then stepped back.

"Ow," John said, but he was smiling.

Fusco dashed tears from his eyes. "So, I guess that solves the mystery of who sent the Bat Signal."

"Indeed it does," Harold said, fulsome in his delight.

Fusco turned back to the blond man he'd left cuffed belly down on the floor. "I found this jerk smoking out back. Had to chase his ass down."

"Oh, Fusco. You're a good friend," John said, kneeling down slowly. "Hiya, Todd."

"Fuck you." The man turned his head away.

"Say, Bear: I want you to meet my pal, Todd," John said, his voice mild as milk.

Bear came up and sniffed Todd, then started growling low, teeth bared.

"Uh-oh. I think you got some of my blood on you, Todd. Bear's not happy about that."

"Oh, hell, no," Todd said, trying to roll away, the whites of his eyes showing.

John covered his smile.

"Detective Fusco, I think you should take Todd back to the station in a separate vehicle," Harold suggested.

"Aww," John said, getting up slowly. "Party pooper." Shaw made a disappointed sound.

"We should be going anyway," Harold said. "You need medical attention."

"I'm going to stay," Fusco said. "If I bag up the controlled substances as evidence, I can book all these guys for running an unlicensed medical clinic along with kidnapping and false imprisonment. I'll call in some beat cops to help out."

John waved back toward the hallway. "You'll find there are some more guards back there who are going to need some knee surgery. Also, they have a few bite marks."

"Oh, yeah. I'll call in a bus."

"Of course there are," Harold said, shaking his head. "I knew I recognized that rhythm of gunfire."

John quirked a smile at him. "You recognized my shooting pattern? I'm touched, Harold."

Fusco snorted. "How many?"

"Four, not including Todd, here. Thanks to Bear."

"Got it."

"Thank you, Detective Fusco," Harold said, heartfelt.

"Thanks, Lionel," John added heavily. "I owe you a drink."

"Then I'll see you soon, John," Fusco replied, a ridiculous grin on his face.

It was a fairly long walk back to the van, and halfway there, Sameen gave Harold the keys and started supporting John, who was flagging fast. Bear made anxious sounds, circling the three of them and running ahead as if he could pull them forward by sheer force of will. Shaw kept looking behind them, gun in her left hand, right shoulder under John, who limped and stumbled, and whose soft grunts made Harold's stomach twist.

Finally, they reached the cover of the van. Relieved beyond words, Harold hurried the last three steps to unlock the sliding door.

"That's as far as I'm carrying you, Timmy," Shaw told John.

John smiled weakly and got into the van by simply sitting on the floor and slipping back, then let Sameen pick up his legs and turn him so he faced the rear, bare feet sticking out of his scrub pants. Harold got into the passenger seat and started up the engine, wishing he could sit beside John on the long ride to their new safe house in Manhattan.

"Are you all right, John?" he said, as Shaw climbed in the driver's seat and got them moving down the road.

"Yeah, I'm good. Just...it's kind of unreal, you know? Bear is right here, you guys are okay, The Machine made it...I was delirious with a fever for a while, so maybe I'm still dreaming."

"If you were dreaming, I'd have put you in a seat, maybe added a pillow," Shaw said.

"Nah. I like you mean, Shaw."

Shaw barked a laugh. It was as close as she came to real laughter, and Harold's heart ached. He wasn't sure it could contain this much happiness.

Shaw and Reese bantered back and forth for a bit while Harold listened, a ridiculous smile on his face. Eventually, John fell asleep. Harold got on the phone and called Dr. Tillman, giving her the incredible news and asking her, begging her, to drop everything and come tend to John as soon as possible.

"I will. Of course, I will, Harold," she said. "Dr. Triantafyllos and I will both be there. I can't believe this isn't a prank."

"No prank," Harold said, trying not to burst into embarrassing tears. "Please, just come. Just come."

"We'll be there."

"Thank you, doctor."

Harold hung up the phone and looked back at John.

He was still there, lying peacefully with one arm curled around Bear, Bear's head on his chest, which rose and fell steadily with each strong breath.

Harold buried his face in his hands for a moment, just a moment before he turned once again to look.

He felt Shaw give him a sympathetic glance as she drove them home in silence while Harold made plans, so many plans, and stared at John's pale face.

:::

No more may gulls cry...

John awoke to the faint scent of lemongrass and sage, rubbed his fingertips against 1000-count Egyptian cotton sheets, and knew he was safe. He had to hold his breath for a moment at the thought.

Bear got up from his bed in the corner and came over to sniff John's hand and accept a head pat before trotting out the door.

John assessed his situation. Either Dr. Tillman or Dr. Triantafyllos must have been to visit sometime while he was asleep. He had a fresh I.V. and clean, tidy bandages. He could tell the doc had him on the good stuff, because shifting to raise the head of the bed only produced a dim pain. His breathing was clearer, too—no more dull ache. But he was thirsty as hell. Reaching over, he swung the side table closer to get at the bottle of water waiting on top.

"Oh my God, you're awake. I wanted to—" Finch rushed into the room and plucked up water bottle to crack it open and hand it over. "Do you need the bed higher?"

"I'm good, Finch," John said rustily and sipped at the water. "What day is it?"

"It's..." Finch choked on something, and John eyed him warily. Maybe it wasn't fair, but he needed Finch to keep it together or John would lose it himself. "Today is November 16th. You've been gone twenty-five days."

"Huh. Feels like a lot longer."

Finch made a sad sound and turned away. John tried to think of something innocuous to say, but his brain was stuck on "twenty-five days."

"I'm so sorry, so sorry, Mr. Reese. If we'd even had the faintest idea that you were alive—"

"Hey, it's not your fault."

"—we never would have left you in their clutches."

"Clutches? C'mon, Finch. I made the arrangement. It was my choice."

"I just can't believe we left you with them..." Finch's shoulders moved, and when he turned back, he had his pocket square clutched in his hand and his eyes were red. John stared at him.

"It wasn't that bad, Finch," John said.

Finch's face twisted incredulously.

John rushed to say, "Anyway, it wasn't your fault. You thought I was a goner."

Finch turned away again, and John fiddled with his ridiculously soft blanket. What was this, cashmere? A cashmere bed blanket. John tried to feel it with his toes, but the sheets were tucked in. He hated having his sheets tucked in.

When he looked up, Finch was staring at him. "What are you doing?"

"Can you untuck my sheets?"

Finch blinked and then rushed to the foot of John's bed. John hid a smile. As soon as his feet were free, he dragged the blanket underneath his toes so he could feel it.

"Thanks. That's a really soft blanket."

Finch rested his hand on the side of the bed, his fingers stroking the gray cashmere. "Yes, it is, isn't it? But I thought you deserved something soft."

John shifted. "What did the doc say?"

"Dr. Triantafyllos said you were ill-advised to exert yourself with your leg still healing from a gunshot wound. It will take longer to heal now. Three weeks at least before you start therapy. Fortunately, it's muscle damage for the most part. The same can be said about your side. Not, however, your left lung. He did say you were, and I quote him directly, "One lucky son-of-a-bitch bastard."

John grinned. He loved that guy. "Okay if I walk to the latrine?"

"Yes. But you have to use your crutches." Finch pointed beside the bed.

John eyed the crutches with distaste. Well, at least he wasn't bed-bound.

"John. I hope you don't mind, but as I am your medical proxy and Drs. Tillman and Triantafyllos had to discuss your prognosis with me, they also mentioned the lacerations on your forearm." Finch pushed up his glasses, his gaze on the blanket. "Those lacerations were definitely not caused by the firefight."

"Yeah, Todd got a little creative. Not a big deal, Finch. The kid is a tyro."

"A tyro," Finch said.

"Yeah. An amateur, a beginner—"

"I know what a tyro is, Mr. Reese."

"A hobbyist, a mere...dilettante."

"A dilettante of torture," Finch said, his mouth puckered sourly.

John shrugged.

"I still think, for your mental health, you might consider speaking to a professional about it. Perhaps your Miss Campbell."

Oh, hell. Iris. "I've been missing for a month. She probably thinks I'm dead. And she'll have heard I'm the Man in the Suit and will think I'm a terrorist to boot." John bit on his lip. "I'll write her a note. Post-dated, I think."

Finch screwed the cap back on the bottle. "Well, I suppose it's for the best."

"Oh?"

"We're only a danger to them."

John didn't need Finch to point that out, but he didn't bother saying it. Or how hard he'd been trying to believe in fairy tales.

"When's Fyllos coming back?" Fyllos usually took care of John. Tillman tended to be a little iffy around him since he'd stopped her from committing murder one.

Finch frowned at the nickname. Or maybe he just enjoyed saying the doc's full name. "Dr. Triantafyllos will be back tomorrow. He's concerned you're developing an infection."

"Nah." John was on the downslope. He could feel it. He just needed to be a little careful for the next week or so. "Hey, do you have something for me to read?"

"Do I—" Finch put his hands on his hips. "Just name it. Fiction? Non-fiction? Science fiction?"

"Yeah, that. Asimov," John said, feeling a little nostalgic. "The Foundation series."

Finch looked a little emotional. "Original trilogy, or...?"

"Of course."

Finch nodded in satisfaction. "I'll be right back."

"Finch, wait—"

But he was already gone, his uneven gait echoing down a wooden hallway.

Good job, John. Next time, try saying, 'Thanks for coming for me. You saved my life.' He still couldn't believe he was here and not in that medical cell waiting for Todd to come back and inflict more damage. Damage that John's tired bones would be complaining about come winter. He smiled as he remembered Todd's squeal of terror when Bear drooled on his cheek.

"What're you grinning about, you goofball?" Shaw leaned in the doorway, a bowl in her hands.

"Is that Shonella's beef stew?" God, he could smell it from here. John reached for it then dropped his arm with a grimace.

"Gonna be a while before you're back to shooting shape. And yeah, Darren's foster mom says hi and get well soon. How come you didn't tell Harold you were still in touch?" Shaw shoved the rolling tray in front of him and dropped the bowl on top, plopping a napkin next to it.

John shrugged. He'd believed keeping in touch with ex-Numbers wasn't exactly kosher. Or maybe it was just that Finch encouraged distance.

"How'd you happen to find out? "

"McGrady's girlfriend popped up as a Number."

John dropped his fork. "What?"

"It's fine. He's fine, she's fine, we got the prep school fucker who'd hired someone to take care of her." Shaw paused and stole an oyster cracker. "Darren's a smart kid," she said, popping it into her mouth.

John smiled. "Yeah. He's going places. Hope I'm around to see it."

"Speaking of which, what the ever living hell, John? Why didn't you just call us?"

John stared at her evenly. "Samaritan was still out there for all I knew. Finch was wounded and trying to hide it last I saw him. I didn't know if you and Fusco had made it. The only asset I was certain of was Bear."

Shaw rolled her eyes. "You think we wouldn't want you to call us anyway?"

"Yeah, and how long after you escaped Decima before we heard about it?"

"Hmm. That was different." She tapped his arm near the bandage. "That guy deserves a modern ass-kicking."

"Fusco is working on it." John smiled again.

"He's not the only one. Eat your stew or Ms. Shonella will give me shit."

"Yes, ma'am." John ate slowly, finishing long after Shaw left. He pushed the table away and lowered the head of the bed, letting his eyes close. Shaw was on the job. They were all safe here.

He jerked awake anyway, the flash of a knife at the edge of his vision. The stew bowl was gone and a pile of books sat on the table in its place. Not just Foundation, but The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner, Kindred by Octavia Butler, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Synners by Pat Cadigan. Curious, John flipped open the Brunner. It was a first edition, and Finch had put a note on the leaf page. John couldn't believe it. Finch read his first editions so carefully he might as well be wearing white gloves.

To John, who saved us from a worse fate. Best, Harold.

"Jesus," John said under his breath, flipping through the others to see they were also firsts, also inscribed. He knew a guilty gesture when he saw one. He just wished Finch had stuck around to talk.

He wasn't feeling the dystopia and he'd never read The Left Hand of Darkness, so he started there. He was deep into page fifty when he heard a knock on the door frame and a broad, swarthy man with bushy white hair stuck his head into the doorway. John grinned.

"Hey, Doc Fyllos! C'mon in."

"John! You sonofabitch bastard! I told you to stop with the getting shot. Why you don't listen to me?"

"I do listen; I do, doc. Sometimes it's just plain unavoidable." He waved the doctor in. "Thanks for the patch job."

"I did almost nothing. A little touch up here and there where you tear your stitches." He took John's pulse and temperature and listened to his chest. Then he started to unwrap John's leg bandages to peer at his wound. "As any smart person can tell you—it is not the best approach to healing, running around on an injury like this. Hmm-mmm." He reached for fresh bandages from his bag. "Now, if you want to try a dip in the ocean, my mother always argued for the healing properties of salt water. She called it the ocean cure."

"Did she, now?" John smiled disbelievingly.

"Oh, yes. I mitera mou always said a dip in the ocean could cure anything from a hernia to a yeast infection."

John chuckled.

Fyllos raised a palm. "I might have been listening in on the women as they shelled peas in the kitchen. But the principle is sound, I'm sure."

"I'm sure."

Fyllos moved on to John's arm and rebandaged it, then took a look at his chest. John craned his head to see the stitches there had already been removed. Fyllos left the wounds uncovered.

"Now, for the fun part," he said, and tapped the control that made the bed recline. John had avoided looking at his side since the staples were removed back at his cell. The bullets had entered his abdominal cavity but not his organs, and they'd removed the shrapnel but at the cost of much suturing of his muscles and stapling of skin. It was a bunch of ugly wounds, but they were mostly superficial.

Fyllos tested his side now, and John winced, but was pleasantly surprised to find it wasn't more painful.

"You heal well. Perhaps we won't need to send you to the ocean." He grinned, his gold tooth glinting. "These butchers were not careful, using many staples. Mr. Finch will provide plastic surgery?"

"That's not necessary." God, Finch had paid enough for John's fuck up.

Fyllos made a moue. "Necessary, no. Needful is a different thing. In my profession, we understand the difference."

John shrugged.

"However, you are healing as hoped." He picked up the clipboard on the nightstand and made some notations. "How much pain are you in?"

"I'm all right."

"And yet, this is not what I ask you." He shook his finger at John. "Do not make me fetch my mother and her wooden spoon."

"Oh, is that what she used?"

Fyllos nodded head ruefully. "She'd say, "'Tha fas xilo.' 'You're gonna eat wood.' It was surprisingly effective." He crossed his arms. "So, pain?"

"Uh. It aches a little?"

"Ha! My friend, such a confession I have dragged from you." Fyllos reached into his backpack and came up with a prescription pad. "I will make your script out to Mr. Carton. That is the name Mr. Finch provided."

"All right. Thanks, Doc."

"It is no problem," Fyllos said. "I owe Harold so much." He patted John on the foot then paused and peered at his soles and grunted. "Hmm. You take it easy and I will return in one week to remove the rest of your sutures, eh? Then therapy. And be gentle with yourself. I will leave you my card, and you call me if there's a problem or should you need anything. Anything at all, understand me? You are like family."

"Yeah. Okay." John fiddled with the edge of his blanket. "I promise."

"Bravo sou." The doc gathered his things together. John started to drift off, surfacing a bit as the door opened and he heard Fyllos speaking softly with someone. A jingling sound alerted John to Bear's approach, and he patted the bed beside him; a moment later, Bear hopped up and whined softly, nosing at John's bandaged leg.

"It's all right, buddy. Almost better." He buried his hand in Bear's ruff and scratched him absently, calming him.

When John awoke, the sunlight had faded, his IV was gone, and someone was...washing his feet?

John looked down with an effort. By the low light of a small lamp, Finch had a basin and towel out and was using a hot washcloth to clean John's left foot. His right foot felt warm and tingly.

"Finch, what're you..." John swallowed, his foot twitching at the sensation. He fumbled for the control and raised the head of the bed.

"I apologize," Finch said softly, "but due to Andro leaving for the end of his shift after getting you cleaned up, none of us noticed the injuries you'd acquired walking around barefoot in that abandoned clinic until Dr. Triantafyllos examined you. He suggested I use this dilute Epsom solution to debride your wounds before bandaging your feet."

"Okay." John suppressed a sound as Harold took his ankle in a firm grip and pressed the warm cloth against his foot with the other, gently rubbing it across his sole and between his toes. John didn't have a foot fetish, so there was no explanation for the shivers traveling up his spine. Then Harold's gloved fingers scratched at the arch of his foot. "That's...are you...what?" John gasped.

Harold looked up. "I'm sorry. I know it's painful. I've got almost all the gravel out."

"No, that's fine," John said, teeth clenched. "I'm fine."

Harold sighed. "Yes. I realize, short of death, you're fine. And, apparently, even dead, you're just peachy." His face was drawn and pale, and John's stomach hurt.

"I'm sorry—"

"Please do us both the favor of not wasting words on meaningless apologies," Harold said, heat tinging his tone. "We both know you're not sorry for the choice you made."

"No, that's fair."

Harold bowed his head.

"Harold..."

"You..." Harold voice broke. "You had no right. That wasn't the way it was supposed to go."

"I owed you."

"You owed me nothing," Harold said tightly.

"I think I did."

Harold's hand tightened on his ankle. "Why?"

John sighed silently and shifted, wishing he could move. The pain in his torso ballooned suddenly, either from the tension or because the painkiller Fyllos had given him earlier was wearing off.

"I'm sorry," Harold said, releasing his foot. He reached for the bandage. "We can discuss this later when you've recovered. Let me finish up and I'll give you your medication."

John nodded silently and turned his head away.

Later, after Harold left, John watched the shadows creeping and pondered his inadequacies. If he still were speaking to Iris he could ask her about the void in him, the missing gears between his heart and his mouth.

"What do you think, Bear? Is it a hopeless case?"

Bear's sage advice was to nap.

:::

Morning saw John fiddling with the card Fyllos gave him, flipping it over smoothly with one hand while he rubbed Bear's ears with the other. Bear's pager was back in place with fresh batteries—the first request John had made after the books was a fresh pair of lithium batteries—and John had given Shaw the number and codes.

Then Fusco stopped by to see how John was doing and give him shit about not calling him directly.

"Look, I get it, you didn't want to draw heat."

"No kidding."

"But it's not like you haven't destroyed my career a couple times over, so what's once more between friends?"

"Oh, is that what we are?" John brushed a hand over his smile.

"You better believe it, Wonder Boy. Hey, I named you right, didn't I?" He gave John a clap on his good leg. "You definitely owe me a couple of beers after those hijinks, though. That place was Cuckoo's Nest creepy."

"What happened to Todd?"

"Todd Schafer, alias Karl Schiffer, is going down for a good long time, buddy. Guy had priors the length of my arm, along with two outstanding warrants. He's turning evidence on Garrison, and the Feds are having a party. I'm getting lots of pats over the whole thing."

"Way to go, Fusco."

"Guess that proves the dangers of smoking."

"Ha. Bet you made that joke a couple of times."

"Hey, it's worth repeating." Fusco creaked to his feet. "Back to work. Text me if you need anything, yeah?"

"Sure. Thanks, partner."

"Not anymore, thank God. I might actually make it to retirement." Fusco grimaced a little.

"You might, at that," John said, holding out his hand for a shake.

The card was still tucked in John's left hand after Fusco took off, a little bent at the edges now from John worrying at it. John sighed at last and reached for the phone Harold had gifted him with the day before, so shiny new the protective film hadn't yet been removed.

"Dr. Triantafyllos, this is John. John Carton. I wondered if you have a moment to talk."

"John! My good friend. Of course, my time is yours if you let me call you back in twenty minutes. I have one more patient before I take lunch."

"Sure thing, Doc." John let the doc hang up and then waited, his stomach sinking a little in anticipation. He grabbed one of the bottles of water Harold had left for him and cracked it open. The cool water helped a little.

Bear showed his usual preternatural ability to sense disquiet and jogged into the room to jump up on the bed and lay his head on John's good leg.

"Hey, Bear. You have a nice walk with Shaw? Make any new friends?" Bear smelled like damp dog and fresh snow. John suddenly longed to get outside, away.

His phone rang.

"Hello?"

"John? How are you, my friend?"

"I'm all right."

"Of course, I need more detail than that. Don't let my appearance fool you, John—my wife can tell you how annoyingly exacting I can be."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Ba, she tells me not everyone is a walking computer and can remember every little thing. I tell her that is what her smart phones is for."

John chuckled. He could see why Harold had been drawn to Dr. Fyllos.

"You laugh. I think maybe you are on my wife's side."

"I wouldn’t say that." John took a breath. "Harold calls his computer his auxiliary brain."

"Evge! That is exactly how I feel. He is a good fellow, Harold."

"Yes," John said quietly.

"He was quite emphatic I give you the best possible care," Fyllos said carefully.

"Are we...can I..." John paused and blew out his breath in frustration.

"John. I am your doctor. If you need to talk to me about anything, it is purely to you I will speak of it. No one else."

"You know...a little bit about what we do."

"I know you and the others help people. I know, until recently, there were forces at work in the government who were infringing the rights of the common people. Ms. Shaw explained she used to work for a group in the government that went bad, but that you fought against them and in doing so, were gravely injured."

"Harold didn't explain?"

"Mr. Finch was...unavailable at the time. He wouldn't leave your side until you had been treated and regained consciousness. Dr. Tillman brought the necessary supplies."

"I see." John adjusted his bed to sit more upright. "He's acting strange. I guess it's my fault for making the switch."

"The switch?"

John sighed. "We had only one opportunity to insert a piece of computer code into a satellite transmission that could...fix the problem. But agents were on their way to the location. I arranged a switch on Finch, so he was sent to the wrong rooftop, giving me the opportunity to get there instead. I knew it was a deathtrap."

"Ah. I begin to understand. You feel guilty."

"Me?" John sank back on the bed. "Why should I...? Oh. I feel guilty."

"Yes. You must apologize."

"But I already did. He told me I shouldn't apologize if I'd do the same thing all over again."

"And would you?"

"Yes, I—" Tears popped into John's eyes. "I owed him."

"If that is so, it is no longer true—you have paid your debt, neh?"

"I..." John paused. "Huh."

"Ah!" Fyllos chuckled. "Xairomai gia sena. Good for you. Not so difficult a puzzle. Fixing my network was much harder. Tell Mr. Finch thank you; I now have a working firewall thanks to him."

"I'll...pass on the message."

"Oreo. How are your feet?"

"Better. They don't burn anymore."

"And perhaps next time you might mention to me when something bothers you?" Fyllos said archly.

"I didn't notice, honest. The other stuff was pinging for my attention."

"Mmm-hmm. This one time, I accept your excuse. Now listen to your pings and tell me if any of them need my assistance."

John gave it a second. "Nope. All good."

"No secret infections I will have to address while you linger on the edge of death?"

"You're a funny man, doc."

"So says Sophia, my wife. And she is right in all things, I have come to learn. Okay! I will see you next week. Call me again, any time, John."

"Thanks, Doc."

John hung up and looked at the phone for a moment. It was a perfect clone of his last phone, the only difference being no scratches on the screen from the time he'd dropped the old one during a gunfight. But it had all his old apps and data, restored meticulously by Finch.

All the things Finch did for him, including washing his feet.

John shivered again at the memory and rubbed his clean toes against the soft cashmere blanket. Guilt, or something else?

He pulled the soft blanket over his shoulders and tried not to think about it as he fell asleep.

:::

When he awoke, Finch was sitting beside him reading a book. Austen's Persuasion. John forgot Finch was a fan of Austen. As soon as he noticed John was awake, he put down the book and leaned forward.

"How are you feeling?"

John tried to answer. "Thirsty," he said.

Finch rushed to uncap a bottle of water and hand it over. It was nicely cool, and John swallowed some carefully, wary of his queasy stomach.

"You look terrible," Finch said.

"You'll make me blush."

"No, I—stop it," Finch said. "You know you're very good-looking."

Now John did fight the heat rising in his cheeks. "I know I'm hungry," he said, regretting it almost immediately when his stomach turned at the thought of food.

But Finch seemed to have a preternatural sense about that kind of thing, because he brought in some light spring rolls, white rice, and chicken broth, and all of it went down pretty easy.

"Your fortune?" Finch said, handing over a cookie.

John gave him a wry look. "Not sure I want to risk it." But he took the cookie and opened it. "'A very powerful friend will smooth your path.' Hah."

Finch ducked his head, a small smile on his face. "I don't know if 'powerful' is—"

"Don't be modest, Harold." The low, flirty tone to his voice surprised John, and he almost bit his tongue when Finch's blushed. Oh, God, it wasn't guilt after all. For either of them. John felt foolish, blind. He remembered Finch's hand on his ankle, and for the first time in too long, heat flashed through him.

Harold met his eyes, and John looked down. "My lucky numbers are 42, 28, 7, and 18."

"Seven was my favorite prime growing up," Finch said. "Next to one, of course."

"Of course. One is a pretty lonely number though." John refused to look up. What the hell was the matter with him?

"Yes. Seven is a bit much, though." Oh, the wry humor of the man. John relaxed and dropped the crumbs of his fortune cookie onto his plate, brushing off his fingers. "Allow me," Finch said, and moved the table away to gather the remains of their meal.

"Thanks for dinner, Finch."

"My pleasure. Dr. Triantafyllos originally said if you made good progress, he would remove your sutures by Wednesday."

"Uh-huh."

"I hope you don't mind, but as your medical proxy, he informed me of certain things while you were still unconscious and needing treatment. Now that you're better, he's stopped informing me, so I hoped you might answer a few questions."

"Oh?" John slipped his hands under the blanket, gathering the soft material together between his fingers.

"Yes. Please don't think it too forward of me, but as you are still my employee of sorts—not that I don't consider us equal partners, because I do—but I still feel a responsibility toward you that is undeniable—"

"Finch."

"Yes. I suppose I am rambling. Dr. Triantafyllos mentioned to me your surgical staples were botched, to put it bluntly. He thinks you would benefit from plastic surgery."

"You're talking about my Frankenstomach."

"I beg your pardon?" Finch looked appalled.

John shrugged. "The stitches kind of look like Frankenstein's head. Minus the bolts."

Finch's eyes widened, and John could tell he was about to let loose with a rant, so John cut him off. "It's fine, Finch. It's not like there's—" Anyone to see. He flushed miserably. "Not like there was a lot of untouched real estate before." John popped a smirk.

He knew it failed to impress when Harold just looked unhappy. John's insides twisted, seeing it.

"I'll think about it," he said quickly. Anything to get that expression off Harold's face. Maybe Harold wouldn't want to see John's Frankenstomach if he had to change shirts around him. John couldn't focus on the other thought hovering.

"Thank you," Finch said sincerely, and John clenched his fists. Now he really did have to think about it.

"How about a game of rummy?" John said. "Give you a chance to win back some markers."

"I still maintain that series of runs you put together so fast was mathematically impossible."

"Uh-huh. Keep telling yourself that." John watched while Finch went to retrieve the cards from his briefcase. "How are the Numbers?"

Finch paused with his back turned. "Ms. Shaw and Detective Fusco are handling things."

"That's not what I asked, Finch."

"Well, as you are currently on the DL, it's the answer that will have to satisfy." Finch turned back, cards in hand.

"I've worked a Number on the disabled list before."

"Before, we weren't alone," Finch said, raising his voice. "Now we have Sameen and Lionel."

John shifted restlessly. "They could get in a jam."

Finch made a pained sound. "And you could split your stitches and bleed out for the Numbers' amusement!" He dropped the cards on the blanket covering John's lap. Finch blew out a slow breath. "Besides," he said, more calmly, "we have even more resources we can call upon in an emergency."

"Oh?"

"Yes. The Machine has...expanded her assets, remember?"

"Oh, right." It felt strange—they were obsolete, in a way. Not that Finch would ever be less than The Machine's creator. But John was just...a broken-down cog.

Finch sat down by his left leg and took the cards from John's limp hands. "Less than a week before your stitches are removed and you begin physical therapy. You'll be back out there injuring unsuspecting knee caps before you know it." He removed the jokers and started shuffling. "Just, please, please promise me this is the last time I have to..." Finch's voice broke into a thread.

John swallowed. Not guilt at all. How stupid could he be. The weight of his transgression was all too evident in Harold's reddened eyes, his pale face, and the trembling of his hands. John's chest ached in reaction.

"Finch. Harold." He reached out and stopped Finch's frenzied card shuffling. "Seven shuffles, right? Isn't that all you need to randomize a deck of cards?"

"It depends on the shuffle," Harold murmured, still staring down. "Of course, the overhand shuffle isn't adequate, but with the riffle shuffle, at seven shuffles, every configuration is equally likely. The math proof is quite beautiful."

"I bet it is," John said, his throat tight. His tone made Harold raise his head, made him stare directly into John's face.

Harold's eyes were wide, swimming in blue behind his thick lenses. John tensed, wary as always of that keen discernment, but at his movement, Harold's face softened, a sad smile curving his lips.

"You are a miracle to me, John."

John's heart did something utterly impossible.

Harold shook his head helplessly. "When you were gone—dead—there were so many things I wanted to say to you; I was so angry at myself for so many reasons. I should have tried to save you. I should have been with you. And now, here I am making the same mistakes, all because I fear pushing you away."

Finally, John found the words. "It wasn't your fault, Harold. Please forgive me. I'm sorry I left you alone." He felt tears fill his eyes. "I never will again."

Harold sobbed out a breath, his face crumpling, and he rested his forehead on John's shoulder. Tentatively, John curled his arms around him, caging him in gently, afraid he would fly as soon as he felt the trap. But Harold just trembled and clutched him tighter, silently dampening the shoulder of John's hospital shirt. Eventually, Harold quieted, and John coaxed him to rest beside him.

"You are my miracle," John whispered, and Harold raised his head and, God, John shook when he realized that Harold was about to—but Harold smiled the sweetest smile and kissed him. Kissed him. "Please, please," John murmured against Harold's lips, as Harold kissed him so softly, as Harold's careful touch hurt John in that tender space behind his ribs. That he might call his heart.

It hurt, but John felt it should hurt, even as the pain was very real, too, from his wounds, from stiffness, from healing. But if it was bittersweet, it was only what he deserved, and he wouldn't trade it for anything. He marked every single kiss, every whispering touch, every happy sigh Harold made as he caressed some new patch of skin. Also, every frown of displeasure at a scar or bruise or cut.

And John memorized every soft fold of skin he was allowed to explore, every moan he elicited, every wide-eyed look.

"Mr. Reese!" Harold said once, and John smirked. "Maybe you could downgrade to 'John' in this context, Harold."

"John. John. John."

It was simple pleasure simply given, but still John's heart pounded, his skin ached unfamiliarly, and his climax was too intense. Harold soothed him, touching only his brow, brushing his damp hair back while John shivered and panted.

"Oh, dear. Dr. Triantafyllos will bring out the wooden spoon, I'm afraid," Harold said, and John laughed weakly.

"He told you about that?"

"Yes." Harold continued to comb his fingers through John's hair, making him feel drowsy. "Honestly, I think he might be a little too fond of that spoon."

"We'll have to tell Sophia," John joked.

"What makes you think she doesn't already know?" Harold said archly.

"You know, you're right. He's a pretty jolly fellow."

They shared a smile.

"I know how he feels." Harold kissed John's forehead, and John closed his eyes, almost unable to bear such a shining moment.

"I love you, Finch."

Harold sighed. "Oh, John. I hoped that was the case."

John coughed a laugh, opening his eyes. "Did you have any contingencies?"

"Well, I could try to woo you, of course." A tiny smile played about Harold's mouth. John loved that smile. "The Machine has restored my former assets, so I could...purchase you lots of guns? As much as I abhor them, I hear they're the way to your heart."

"I have the means of acquiring my own guns," John reminded him primly. "What else?"

Finch seemed to flounder. "I could tailor you into some very nice suits."

"Hmm. I do enjoy a good fitting."

"Do you?" Finch's eyes widened. "Huh... Oh. Oh! You like it...um. I think I still have my knee pad around here somewhere."

John grinned.

"Degenerate," Harold muttered. "I suppose it's evident that I...that I love you, too."

John swallowed dryly. "I'd hoped that was the case," he said when he could speak again.

They lay for a moment in silence, Harold's fingers still dragging slowly through John's hair before he slid down and rested his head on John's shoulder.

"Rest now," Harold said, and John nodded and shifted his pillow, getting comfortable before letting himself slip away, one hand clasped with Harold's.

He'd never leave him behind again.

:::

They shall have stars at elbow and foot...

A few days after John got his stitches out, Harold took him, Fusco, and Shaw out to dinner in a private room at an exclusive club, leaving Bear behind in Andro's unkind hands.

"He never gives him any treats!" Shaw complained. "The guy has no heart."

"I know, right? I'm not saying the Dutch are cruel, but they did invent butt thermometers." Fusco gave an exaggerated shiver.

"I don't want to know why you know that." "How on Earth—?" John and Harold spoke simultaneously.

"Andro told me. Bragged, more like it."

"He bragged about butt thermometers," Sameen said.

"Not with those words exactly, but the implication, sure."

"Right."

"The Dutch are also responsible for CDs and cassette tapes," Harold said, delicately forking a grilled shrimp and cutting it neatly in half before popping a piece into his mouth. John watched his eyes roll with pleasure and hastily sipped some wine.

"Now that, I can get behind," Fusco said. "CDs were great. But using phones to play music? It's all mixed up."

"Whatever you say, gramps." Shaw reached over and stole the last piece of garlic bread from under Fusco's nose.

"Hey!"

"Snooze ya lose."

They bantered some more and ate the excellent hors d'oeuvres, John having only a few, still not trusting his stomach.

"I would like to propose a toast," Harold said, lifting his glass. The others followed suit, Sameen a little mockingly. "To our Mr. Reese, the reports of whose demise were decidedly inaccurate."

"Hear, hear," Fusco said. "To Wonder Boy, long may he be a pain in my tuchus."

"I'll drink to that. But I'll drink to pretty much anything," Sameen said, tossing back a shot.

"Thanks, Shaw, Harold. Fusco, right back atcha." John saluted them all and sipped his wine.

There was a knock as the door to the room opened, and a woman said, "Hey, can we get in on this gig?"

"Oooh, free booze!"

"Ms. Morgan, Mr. Tao, welcome," Finch said, waving them toward two empty seats. There were still a couple more remaining, and John wondered what other surprises were waiting.

"Hey, Zoe, Leon."

"Hey, yourself, you big lug. What, no phone calls, no dropping me a, 'Hey, I'm not dead after all, how about lunch?' text?"

"Yeah. What if I got in a jam?" Leon piped in.

"You know me and texts," John said, smiling helplessly. Zoe had already forgiven him. She always forgave him his inept interactions and his failures to communicate, mostly because she didn't allow herself to invest too deeply, but it was nice that she let herself care enough to stop by to say, "I'm glad you're still alive." He didn't have so many friends that he didn't value that.

Or Leon, for that matter, showing up with a semi-wilted bouquet he'd quite obviously liberated from either a florist's dumpster or a busy hospital ward.

"Congratulations on not being dead, bro," Leon said, shoving the bouquet at John. "I'm pretty impressed how long you lasted. I had a friend once faked his own death to avoid a loan shark but turns out it's really hard to fake your death. There's like, paperwork you need? And people recognize you if you go anywhere near your old hangouts. Then word spreads and it's, like, all over, man."

"This 'friend.' He wouldn't bear any close resemblance to you, personally, would he?" Harold asked, his lips pursed in disapproval. For all that Harold burned through fake IDs like toilet paper, he seemed to get pretty testy when other people did it. Especially if they were incompetent about it.

"I don't know what you mean," Leon said, entirely unconvincingly.

"Thanks for the compliment, but I didn't really do it on purpose," John said.

"Oh. Maybe that's the trick."

John shook his head in bemusement. Shaw barked a laugh.

"I've left some seats for absent friends," Harold said, pouring two glasses of whiskey and setting them down, one next to Shaw and one next to Fusco. They shared a glance, the four of them, Shaw, Fusco, John, and Finch, and toasted Carter and Root.

A moment later, Shaw was on alert, spinning with her hand held low and close to her weapon. John reacted in kind, remembering only then he wasn't carrying, on Harold's insistence.

"I got this," Fusco said, stepping in front of him and Harold.

"Pretty cold reception, bitches!" Oh great, it was Pierce sneaking in the server's entrance.

"Call me that again," Shaw said through her teeth, "and you'll be singing it soprano."

"Ah, a threat I take very seriously." Pierce bowed. "Sorry. Sometimes old habits smack me in the ass. Logan Pierce, ma'am." He offered to shake.

Shaw examine his hand as if it were crawling with bacteria. After a very long moment, she took it and shook, very briefly.

Pierce turned his attention to Finch. "Fincher! Thanks for the invite. I wouldn't have missed this for anything. What a crowd."

"Yes, well. We're trying to keep it clandestine, so if you wouldn't mind a little discretion?" Finch shook Pierce's hand and stepped back.

"Of course. Of course." Logan lowered his voice. "John, my man, how's the afterlife treating you? You look pretty fine." His eyes traveled over John's new suit—a gift hand-tailored by Harold—and back up again to his face to meet his eyes. Then Logan winked slowly and licked his lower lip.

John sighed. "Doing fine. Thanks for asking."

"Have a seat, Mr. Pierce," Harold said, sounding snippy.

John smiled to himself, his heart full. Suddenly, John couldn't bear the thought of having to sit through another two courses and listening to anyone but Harold Finch.

God, John was pathetic.

"Finch, you never told me how The Machine did it," John said, reaching for a tiny quiche.

The side-talk halted as if cut by a knife. Everyone there knew about The Machine, of course, not that they spoke of it openly. But John had seen Harold carefully place his jammers upon entering the dining room and do a check for any windows vulnerable to laser microphones. The room was as secure as it possibly could get; Harold had chosen its location for that very reason and had paid for the discretion of the wait-staff.

"I'm pretty curious about that, myself," Logan said, taking a seat next to Shaw and pouring himself a beer. "I know you acquired a boss new compression algorithm right beforehand."

"Yes. Ms. Groves..." Finch coughed and took a sip of wine. "Ms. Groves was instrumental in acquiring the necessary algorithm and chips. Without them, even as lean as The Machine was, it couldn't have transferred itself up to the satellite and unpacked itself in time to beat Samaritan." Finch waved his hands, uncommonly expansive. "You see, every motion of retreat The Machine had made against Samaritan was nothing but a feint. The Machine appeared to diminish, when truly it was paring itself down until its core algorithms were as tight as it could possibly be. And then, it had us make our final assault."

"The ICE-9," John said, realizing.

"Yes." Harold gave him an approving look that warmed him to his toes. "The Machine knew the threat of ICE-9, and our attempt to blow up Samaritan's final back-ups, would drive Samaritan off-planet to the satellite, where it would be at a devastating disadvantage. Accustomed to robust hardware and expansive memory, Samaritan could not possibly instantiate itself in time to compete with The Machine." Harold smiled proudly. "The Machine had already brought itself up and destroyed Samaritan before it managed to load to a paltry twenty-two percent."

"It was a rout!" Fusco pumped his fist.

"Indeed."

John couldn't stop staring at Harold, awed and amazed all over again. Harold must have sensed him looking, because he stared back, their eyes caught for a long moment before Harold blushed and sat down abruptly. Under the table, John took his hand.

"To the Machine!" Fusco said, covering the pause, and everyone echoed him, raising their glasses. "The undefeated champ!"

"Hear, Hear," John murmured, still looking at Harold's face, at the pinkness of his cheeks, thinking, yes, to The Machine, and to the man who created it.

:::

The mood of the evening was unlike anything Harold had ever experienced, and with a sense of unreality, he watched his friends—how extraordinary, but yes, his friends—joking, laughing, and trading stories as they ate and drank well into the night.

Harold's eyes drifted once again over to John, who'd grown increasingly relaxed over the course of the night and now sat slouched in the corner of the booth, one hand toying with a squared off tumbler of whiskey, his long fingers twirling it round and round. He had a faint, quizzical smile on his face. Harold understood his emotions exactly. Just a few weeks ago he'd been in hell, himself.

Narrowing his eyes, Harold noted that Pierce, that fink, had eeled his way over and was encroaching on John's space. Harold made a murmured apology to Ms. Morgan and hastily joined them.

"...wearing the watch I gave you," Pierce said, daring to brush a finger over the cuff of John's shirt.

Harold saw red, but John gave him a glance of hidden amusement.

"Oh, in my line of work, you know, things break easily."

"You broke it?" Pierce's voice warbled. "That was a two million dollar watch."

John shrugged and lifted his glass to his lips, taking a sip of his whiskey before answering. "I think there was already something wrong with the mechanism."

Pierce scoffed. "Right. You just don't know how to treat nice things," he said, turning away to talk to Leon.

"Oh, I think I do," John said softly, his eyes still on Harold's. "Or, I can learn." His hand other found Harold's.

"Yeesh, you two. Stop with the making eyes and get a room," Fusco said.

"I think we'll need an entire hotel," Harold said, feeling a little tipsy, and John laughed soundlessly.

"Come on, Harold." John got to his feet, seemingly without pain, Harold noticed with relief. His cosmetic surgery was scheduled for the next week. "Let's walk."

They said their good nights to everyone's cheerful protests, Harold making his discreet arrangement to cover the bill and tip with their waiter, and they gathered their thick coats and left. Then they walked north on Broadway at their usual slow pace, Harold's arm curled into the crook of John's elbow, John's gloved hand resting warmly atop it.

"It was a good evening. I doubt we'll ever be all together in a group like that again," Harold said after a while.

"Now, see, why are you trying to jinx us, Finch? We'll all be fine."

"I'm not trying to jinx—that's not really a word, by the way—I'm just pointing out the vagaries of—"

"Nope. No vagaries."

"But life is uncer—"

"Nothing's gonna happen to anybody."

"No?"

"No."

"And your line of reasoning for this is?" A smile tugged at Harold's mouth.

"Don't need one." John squeezed Harold's arm closer for a moment.

"No logic, no reason. I'm...shocked at you, Mr. Reese. Appalled, really."

John tilted a smile, breathtakingly broad before it was gone. "That's nothing new, Finch."

"No, no, it isn't," Harold said, grinning ridiculously. Oh, his heart would surely burst.

"I'm glad we have that settled." John gave his hand a smug pat.

"And I, as well, Mr. Reese."

They walked on.

 

...........................
October 11, 2018
San Francisco, CA