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Steadfast Like the Sea

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Cover art for Steadfast Like the Sea

New York City. September 26th, 2010.

The last thing Harold remembered was blue.

He remembered being on the pier. He remembered seeing Nathan, and he remembered the explosion. But the last thing he remembered before waking up in triage was blue. At first, he thought it was the blue of the sky or the blue of the water. But when he closed his eyes, Harold saw sharp, piercing, iridescent blue, like nothing he’d ever seen.

The next thing Harold knew was pain. It was shooting down his neck, his back, his leg. He gasped at how sharp the pain was, radiating from the base of his skull. Wincing, he reached up to feel something warm and sticky. When he pulled his hand away, his fingers were dripping with blood.

Harold started panicking. He saw people right in front of him, bleeding and crying, but he didn’t see his friend. “Nathan?” he whimpered. When no one answered, his whimper turned into a desperate cry. “Nathan!”

All at once, a doctor was at his side, holding his wrist. “Don’t move,” she instructed him. You’ve been in an accident.”

Harold knew he’d been in an accident, he’d been there, but more importantly, Nathan had been there, too. “I have to find my friend…”

“Sir,” she said softly, her voice infuriatingly level in the midst of all the chaos, “I just need you to lie still for me. Okay? You’ve sustained injuries to your neck and lower back. Do you understand?”

Harold stared up at her with wide eyes, but before he could ask her anything, her attention was called away by another medic. She glanced up before looking back.

“Don’t move,” she said, “I’ll be right back,” before she stood up and rushed away. He reached out to her, but she was already gone.

Gritting his teeth, Harold used his arm to stabilize his head as best he could. It hurt, his whole right side hurt, but Nathan was too important. When he rolled onto his side, he saw Nathan, strapped to a gurney. Harold’s heart skipped. His friend was there, he wasn’t lost in the water, but he was terribly still and his eyes were closed. “Nathan?” Harold murmured, just as the sheet was pulled up over Nathan’s head.

No. Heart sinking, Harold watched as Nathan’s lifeless body was rolled away. Harold felt his eyes start to well up. Things weren’t supposed to go like this Sick to his stomach, Harold cursed the heavens and then himself. Without Harold and his ridiculous machine, Nathan never would have been at the pier in the first place.

Harold didn’t have time to mourn. The next thing his eyes landed on was a pair of men in long coats with earbuds. They were watching Nathan, too. One of them was on the phone. Squinting, Harold studied them and overheard the one on the phone say, “It’s done. We’ll find out if he talked to anyone and take care of them, too.”

A pit formed in the bottom of Harold’s stomach. He set his jaw as the men walked away. The ferry explosion had been a hit, not an accident or a terrorist attack. Which meant Harold had no time to lose.

As soon as the men were out of sight, Harold threw off the blanket covering his legs. Grasping his neck, he managed to sit up. His head was swimming, but he couldn’t stop. He stood, his leg barely holding him up. Mercifully, there was a crutch in front of him. He took it, taking the weight off his leg. It helped with movement, but not with the pain. He kept moving anyway. He didn’t have a choice.

A familiar voice stopped him. “Harold?” He froze in place behind a divider. Grace. His eyes darted from side to side. “Harold?” She sounded so scared, so frightened, and Harold wanted nothing more than to run to her side, to let her know that he was okay, but he couldn’t. He would risk being spotted and endangering her, too.

Her footsteps shuffled away, and he ducked out from behind the divider with his heart in his throat to see her searching for him. “Harold…” Her voice cracked, and his heart clenched.

Grace stopped an officer crossing the floor. “Help, please,” she said, “I think my fianc é was on the ferry. Do you know where-”

The officer cut her off. “I’m sorry. This is everybody we pulled out of the water.”

The men that had come after Nathan appeared, but Harold couldn’t tear himself away. Grace must have come as soon as she heard, dropped everything to come find him. His loving Grace, loyal to a fault.

“If you don’t see him,” the officer was saying, “the personal effects we recovered are over there.”

Harold watched breathlessly as Grace rushed to the pile of belongings. Almost immediately, she saw the book that Harold had used to propose to her. She opened it with shaking hands, the water-damaged pages falling open to reveal the hole for the ring box.

Harold gasped. Her name caught in his throat. He wanted to call out to her, comfort her, but it was dangerous, far too dangerous.

Grace looked around, helpless and lost, her lower lip trembling. Harold watched, his heart breaking, as she started to cry. Her hands came up to her head in grief. Harold swallowed. Grace…

He was out of time. Forcing himself to walk away, he limped to the door. It was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other. The only thing keeping him moving was the thought of the men coming after him going after her, too. He wouldn’t endanger her, wouldn’t put her life on the line. He’d just lost Nathan. He refused to lose her, too, even if he couldn’t be with her.

There was nothing left for him there, but when he went, he left a part of his heart behind.

  

With a coat he found at the entrance and none of his personal effects, Harold fled. If his belongings were among the items dredged from the water, he would be assumed dead, and the men who went after Nathan wouldn’t come after him. He tried to think about staying alive, instead of thinking about Grace.

Harold limped back to the library, which took him longer than he would have liked, but he had no money to take a cab and nowhere else to go. After a couple blocks, the pain became an afterthought, as did the dried blood on his clothes. Harold focused on moving forward, one line in the sidewalk at a time, until he was safe again.

He slipped out of consciousness in the elevator, the ding jarring him awake when he arrived on his floor. Blinking, he stumbled to the office. He saw the computer on the desk, the Machine’s code running passively in the background. Lips pursed, Harold shuffled to the chair and collapsed into it. He panted a few times, trying to catch his breath. Glaring into the computer’s webcam, he growled, “Did you know?”

The Machine woke up, and the interface laptop whirred to life, displaying the time on the screen. It read 11:59:22 PM.

Shaking, Harold input the command, “resume contingency.” The computer started to hum as the Machine retrieved the data from its memory banks.

LOADING KERNEL

CONTINGENCY ACTIVE

ACCESSING NON-RELEVANT DATA…

The screen filled with a list of blanked out Social Security numbers. Harold scrolled until he saw the one he was looking for, xxx-xx-1860. Heart pounding, Harold clicked on it. Nathan’s face appeared, and a smaller window popped up below it, bearing the words “NON-RELEVANT.”

Harold stared at the photo, swallowing the lump in his throat. Nathan had been the one to program the back-up system and access the Machine’s back door. Nathan had been the one who suggested using the Machine to save people that the government would not. And Nathan was dead because Harold had refused.

The time clicked to 11:59:59 PM. The photo and the numbers all vanished as the Machine’s system reset.

REINSTANTIATING SYSTEM.

DELETING NON-RELEVANT DATA…

TIME 12:00:00 AM.

Harold stared at the now empty screen. He felt hot tears threatening to spill over onto his cheeks. He couldn’t move. The seconds ticked away. His heart throbbed in his chest. 
“What have I done?”

  

Harold started over, when he found the strength to leave his study again. Harold Martin died with Nathan Ingram at the ferry that fateful day, and Harold Finch was born. He created a whole new identity for himself, complete with a driver’s license and passport. He acquired all the equipment he would need to implement his new plan. With Nathan Ingram’s death and Harold Finch’s beginning came a new purpose.

Harold couldn’t save Nathan. He couldn’t change the past, as much as he wished he could go back. But Harold could honor Nathan by following his dying wish and saving as many people as he could. Harold threw himself into his work, learning how to run background checks on the numbers the Machine provided.

When Harold wasn’t working, he was drawn to the sea. He thought maybe he should have been afraid of the water after what had happened at the pier. He wondered why he didn’t panic at the sight of the turbulent waves. But something drew him there, and there was something soothing about the way the water rushed to the shore. Brighton Beach was only a half an hour away. Harold would take a cab when the sky was a muted grey and the beach was mostly empty, save for the occasional dedicated jogger.

Despite the increasingly cold weather, Harold braved the wind to clear his head. He found that he couldn’t stay away even if he tried. Something called him back to the waterfront. So he bundled up in a hat, scarf, and overcoat, and wandered the empty shore.

There were no cameras on the beach. A few hung at places along the boardwalk, but the Machine couldn’t see him when he followed the path along the water’s edge, walking from one dock to the other.

So the hairs on the back of his neck stood up when one day he felt like he was being watched.

He knew the feeling well, having tested the Machine’s programming in all the corners of New York City, teaching it hide and seek and testing its limitations. The sensation of cameras following his every move had become familiar after a while. It had faded somewhat when they’d sold the Machine, but Harold was still aware of its presence. The beach had become an escape from being under constant surveillance. He went on gloomy days when the sandy shores were deserted, and for once in his life, he’d felt like he was alone.

But one day he didn’t feel alone anymore, even though there were no cameras on the beach.

  

New York City. September 26th, 2010.

Something called John to the pier that day.

It was the same force that had called him back to New York City after he woke up on the ocean floor with no memory of who he was or how he got there. He swam until the Statue of Liberty rose above him like it was welcoming him home.

The same pull called him to a place somewhere upriver. He rarely swam so far inland for fear of being seen by humans, but he couldn’t stop himself. With his tail driving him forward, he found himself under a ferry station, and a crowded one at that. Everything in him was telling him to swim as far away as he could as fast as his tail would take him, but the one thing making him stay was stronger than all of his panic. He wondered why he was there, why he had been drawn so far away from his cave.

He got his answer when the pier above him shook. He heard the screams as the columns started to collapse. John barely managed to dodge the falling debris, and he ducked under the approaching ferry for shelter. The boardwalk slid into the water and bodies started falling in.

That was when John saw the man in the glasses.

John was driven from shelter to the man’s side, his heart racing. The man was unconscious and bleeding, but John couldn’t look away. The man’s vest was tattered, but it suited him well. It matched the Oxfords on his feet and the pair of glasses that had slipped off of his face, hooked on his ear.

John carefully took the glasses and put them back in place before dragging the man up towards the sky. They broke the surface, John holding the man up above him so as not to be seen. He swam as close to the pier as he dared. The man was still not breathing, and all of a sudden, John had to save him, not as an act of heroism, but out of a desperation that he couldn’t explain.

John pushed the man’s unconscious body onto a section of boardwalk that was still standing. Looking around, John tried to find a source of help, but the majority of people around were knocked out or stumbling away from the blaze.

Frantically, John hoisted himself halfway out of the water, careful to keep his tail submerged, and pressed down on the man’s chest with both hands, trying to force the water out of his lungs.

To John’s relief, the man coughed, expelling the water and drinking in fresh air in shaky gasps, John sighed, glad that the man was safe for the time being.

The man’s eyes fluttered open for a brief moment and locked with John’s. John blinked, unable to move. The man looked at him, searching John’s face for a just a few seconds before his eyes closed again and his head lolled to the side. For a moment, John wanted the man to wake up again, to look in his eyes, to say John’s name.

His thoughts were interrupted by the approaching sirens, and he dove back under, hiding beneath the boardwalk. He poked his head out from under the water. The man was still above him, breathing raggedly. A few moments later, a first responder walked across the wood above John’s head. He flinched, but the responder was too focused on the disaster to see John peeking up between the boards.

“We got one over here!” the responder called. A few more people rushed over. “Wound to the neck, possible spinal injury. I need a backboard and a gurney, stat!”

John retreated to a safe distance and watched as the EMTs loaded the man up and rolled him away to triage. John felt something in his chest tighten as he watched them disappear. He wished desperately to follow, and the pull was so strong that he almost did. But self-preservation as well as his lack of legs prevented him. So John lingered for a while at a safe distance until they started dredging the water, forcing him to swim back out to sea. As he swam away, he hoped against hope that he would see the man in the glasses again.

  

John liked to people watch. He’d done a lot of it in his time spent roaming the sea. He’d travelled along the cape of Africa and watched the people there. He’d watched the people in Europe, and when he returned to what he could only describe as home, he watched the people there, too. He liked watching the people of New York the most. They called the city a melting pot, a diverse cultural epicenter. All kinds of people came to the beach on sunny days, lounging and playing on Brighton Beach. He watched from underneath the dock as people swam and splashed. The summers passed quickly, but then autumn came and the people wandering the shore were few and far between.

So John was surprised to see someone walking unsteadily down along the sea on a rainy day in October, wearing a long black coat and a matching hat. The only people that braved the stormy winter days were runners, but this person was bundled up and limping along beside the waves.

John couldn’t resist swimming closer. He knew he was being reckless, it was a dangerous and unnecessary risk, but he felt the same call he’d felt that day on the pier. It seemed to pull him forward against his will, and it didn’t take him long to catch up.

John’s heart skipped a beat when he recognized the human as the man in the glasses. There was something different about him, something John couldn’t place. It was almost like an aura, a frame of light surrounding him that drew John in like a moth to a flame.

The man walked closer to the waves, looking pensively out to sea. John wondered if the limp was a result of the blast that had knocked the man into the water.

John’s heart clenched, and he tore his eyes away. He had no reason to feel any sort of pity or camaraderie with the man. And yet John’s tail seemed to ache in sympathy, in the scarred places along his rigid scales and the scratches along his fin. John grit his teeth and dove back under, swimming down, down, down until he reached a rocky overhang under the pier that he called his own. It wasn’t much- just a shelf carved into the land that served as a place to sleep. Not that John slept very much anyway. He was kept awake by the flashes of memory he couldn’t place. The feeling of silky blonde hair between his fingers. The smell of gunpowder. The color beige. Nothing he saw in his dreams made any sense.

But that night, John was haunted by the image of the man in the glasses. John could remember every detail- the way he stood, the way he hugged his coat closely around him. The set of his jaw against the bitter ocean wind. 
John didn’t sleep at all that night.

  

The man returned to Brighton Beach from time to time, and as hard as John tired, he couldn’t keep himself from surfacing to watch. John would watch as the man limped along, his cane leaving little hills in the wet sand. John watched when the man paused and stared out at the ocean, gray and churning. He would watch the man adjust his glasses before walking to the other dock, just like clockwork.

One day, John watched too closely.

At low tide, John was resting on an exposed rock when the man in the glasses came back. At the first sign of movement, John dove back under the water, but like always, he poked his head out to see. Like always, his heart fluttered at the sight of the man’s familiar gait, limping in John’s direction with his head down. John swam closer. Despite never meeting or speaking, seeing the man always felt like coming home. There was something warm about being near him.

Leaning heavily on his cane, the man gazed out towards the horizon. He paused not too far from the rock where John had been resting. John swam closer to get a better look, clinging to the rock for support. The man looked tired. He sighed heavily, his back hunched. He was tilted to the left, weighing on his good leg, his cane clutched in his black glove clad right hand. The man’s lips were set in a hard line as his eyes swept across the water. The lines on his face made him look older.

The lines on his face. John could see the lines on his face. He was too close. Even with his heightened senses, John shouldn’t have been able to see the man’s face in such detail.

Quickly, John flipped back under the water, praying that he hadn’t been spotted. His tail made a loud splash as he swam to the other side of the rock, and he winced.

“Hello?” the man in the glasses called. John sank further down, his tail brushing the ocean floor. The waves carried the man’s voice to him. He didn’t sound scared or confused, to John’s great relief. The man sounded curious, like he might like to meet John, and for a moment, John was tempted to surface. He pressed his back against the rock, the jagged edges digging into his shoulders and keeping him grounded. John waited. And waited. After forever, he surfaced. The man in the glasses was gone.

  

Harold kept going back to the beach, even after imagining he’d heard something in the water. He chalked it up to his nerves, as on edge as he was after the incident at the pier. Like he had before, he got used the sensation of someone or something watching him, even though this time he wasn’t sure what it was. The presence, for lack of a better word, wasn’t malicious, or at least Harold didn’t think it was. It could have been a seagull, for all he knew. He would have been all right with that. Larus argentatus , or the herring gull, was a bird he was quite familiar with. It was the species closest to what most people pictured when imagining seagulls, with the grey and white colouring and yellow beaks. Of course, there were several types of gull the frequented New York’s beaches including larus delawarensisand larus marinus . Harold was the most fond of leucophaeus atricilla , or the laughing gull, with its distinct colouring and unique cry that sounded like cackling- 
Harold was torn from his thoughts by more splashing. He stopped looking towards the sky and stared at the rock that he passed every time he visited the beach. It jutted out of the water several yards away, all black and jagged. He wanted to call out again, but he resisted. He was being ridiculous. 
Shaking his head, Harold started walking again. When he heard another splash, he whipped around as fast as his leg would allow. All he saw was the rock. The rock looked back at him, silently judging him for how suspicious he was. Harold narrowed his eyes. “Don’t look at me like that,” he grumbled.

“Like what?” the rock asked. 
Harold yelped and stumbled backwards a step, his heart racing. He calmed a bit when he saw a face near the base of the rock in the water. His first thought was that he was grateful he hadn’t lost his mind. His second thought was that the man in the water probably had.

Breathing heavily, Harold adjusted his glasses. “What in the world do you think you’re doing?”

The man shrugged one bare shoulder. “Nice day for a swim,” he answered casually, his voice soft, almost teasing. He smiled a crooked grin.

Harold took a few steps forward, and it was only then he realized that the man in the water was totally shirtless, despite the water being frigid. Harold couldn’t fathom what the man was doing in the water in the first place, but he didn’t look cold or bothered by the weather. In fact, he looked perfectly comfortable floating in the water. Something silver dangled around his neck. The end was resting against his chest under the surface of the sea.

“Are you crazy?” Harold exclaimed, “You’ll catch your death out there!” When the man just tilted his head, Harold cleared his throat and tried again. “What’s your name?”

“John.”

John . John was good looking for a crazy person, or at least Harold thought so. Wide eyes, a strong jaw, and salt and pepper hair with water droplets still clinging to it-

Blinking, Harold mentally berated himself for getting so distracted. Whatever was keeping John alive probably wasn’t going to last much longer. “I’m Harold. Why don’t you come back inland, John?” he suggested, gesturing for John to swim towards the shore. “We can get you warmed up and maybe you can tell me what you were doing out there over a hot cup of tea.” And maybe, once he was sure John wasn’t going to die, Harold could leave him for the police to deal with.

John shook his head. “I’m fine right here.” His eyes softened. You don’t need to worry about me.”

Harold was worried, and he was certain he was running out of time. Then Harold had a crazy idea, something so crazy that it just might work. He pursed it was lips. It wasn’t great, but it was the only idea he had. “If you won’t come out,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady, “Then… then I’m coming in.”

John’s eyes widened. “What?”

With renewed determination, Harold began taking off his clothes, starting with his hat before removing his coat. “Nice day for a swim, right?” his teeth already chattering a little, “I think I’ll join you.”

“No, don’t!” John cried, stopping Harold as he was reaching for his right shoe. Harold looked up to see John watching him, hands outstretched. Harold stood up straight, and John swallowed. “I… I’m coming out.

  

Gratefully, Harold replaced his coat and hat. The short time exposed to the bitter wind had left him stiff and shaking. He waited, watching as John swam away from the rock towards the shore.

As John swam forward, Harold noticed two things. The first thing he noticed was that John wasn’t rising. If John had been walking out of the ocean, the incline would have brought him up and out of the water. But John remained oddly close to the sand.

The second thing Harold noticed was the color of John’s eyes. Harold almost didn’t believe it, but as John got closer, Harold recognized the bright and iridescent blue. The same blue that was so familiar and so haunting, littered with flecks of gold.

Harold’s heart skipped a beat before tripping over itself and beating twice as fast. “You,” Harold breathed, and John paused. “You were at the pier that day.”

John nodded, his eyes searching Harold’s face. “Yes.”

“Did you pull me out of the water?” John nodded again. Harold swallowed. “Thank you.”

This time, John stopped, still too far out for Harold to reach out and touch or pull to shore. “This is as far as I can go.”

Brow furrowing, Harold shook his head. “You have to get out of the water,” he argued, “You’ll freeze!”

“No, I won’t,” John said, shaking his head. Harold glared at him and reached for his hat, threatening to go in after John himself. Sighing, John conceded. “All right, fine.” John looked up and down the beach before looking back at Harold. Harold swore that John’s eyes darkened, that the flecks of gold got brighter and his irises shifted and swirled.

Using his arms, John hauled himself out of the water. When he got himself out past his torso, Harold gasped.

Harold couldn’t believe his eyes. Where John’s waist ended and his hips began, his tan, freckled skin melded into blue and gold scales that matched his eyes. Where his legs should have been was a long and muscular tail. It lifted out of the water, still dripping wet.

Staggering backwards, Harold tripped on his cane and fell to the ground with a cry. John lunged forward as if to help, but he stopped, unable to stand. They stared at each other, lips parted, breathing heavily.

Adjusting his glasses again, Harold murmured, “You… you’re a… a mermaid.”

“I would technically be a mer man ,” John said, glaring up at Harold through dark lashes, “but no. I’m a siren.” He flapped his tail as if to demonstrate the point. Even though the sun was obscured by cloud cover, his scales glimmered and winked.

Harold gaped. He couldn’t hold back a dumbfounded laugh. “I really am going crazy.”

Shaking his head again, John replied, “No you’re not. I’m as real as all the other humans in New York. I’m just… less human.”

Human . John used the word so flippantly. Before then, Harold had always thought there was nothing else anyone could be. But clearly, he’d been wrong.

“A siren?” Harold managed, “Are you going to… to lure me into the water and drown me?”

There was that crooked smile again. It looked good on John, and Harold’s heart skipped another beat. “If I was going to do that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Sitting up straighter, Harold stretched out his bad leg, fixed his hat. “I guess that’s fair.” He had so many questions, so many things he didn’t understand. “How can you understand me?”

John raised an eyebrow at him. “I’m American,” he answered, his smile widening. “We’re still part human, Harold.”

“We?” Harold exclaimed, “There’s more of you?”

John shrugged. “I would assume so. I don’t know how sirens are made, but I don’t think we just pop out of caves in the ocean.”

Harold chuckled. John had a sense of humor. And Harold was glad for it, because he wasn’t sure John hadn’t been planning on drowning him before. John’s eyes twinkled, and Harold flushed.

He was about to ask John another question, something about where he had come from if he was American, but something down the beach drew his attention. He looked up to see a jogger all in thermal black coming down the shore. There was a splash, and when Harold looked back, John was gone just as quickly as he had appeared.

Harold cursed under his breath. He waited until the jogger had passed, and then waited a little longer for good measure, before calling out again, “John?” He waited. Nothing happened.

After watching the waves for a bit longer, Harold dragged himself to his feet and dusted himself off. The air wasn’t getting any warmer and his leg was starting to ache. He couldn’t linger.

On the cab ride  home, Harold wondered if the encounter with John had happened it all.

  

John was being stupid.

Not only had he revealed himself to the man in the glasses, but he had almost been spotted by another human in the process.

Harold . The man in the glasses was called Harold. John cursed. It made it harder to distance himself from the man now that he had a name. John swam back and forth in front of his cave, restless and agitated.

He hadn’t meant to get so close. He’d been watching like he usually did, as the man in the glasses looked out to sea, but he’d gotten too close, and then the man had spoken. “ Don’t look at me like that. 

John had known the man wasn’t talking to him. He had been talking to the rock, the way people talk to their pets, or the way John talked to the creatures on the ocean floor.

But John hadn’t been able to stop himself. He’d answered like a fool. And now he couldn’t stop replaying the conversation over and over again.

Harold’s voice. Harold’s suit. Harold’s hands as he unbuttoned his jacket. Harold’s eyes as he looked at John’s tail.

John’s tail . John resisted the urge to bang his head against the rock wall of his cave. He had revealed himself to a human. Not just any human, John admitted, but John could only imagine the consequences of revealing himself. At best, he’d cause fear and speculation, and become an urban legend like the Loch Ness monster. At worst, he’d be dragged from the sea and become a science experiment in a lab.

So why had he revealed himself?

The short answer was because Harold had been willing to risk his life for John’s. The long answer was because Harold had been willing to risk his life for John’s, and John couldn’t think of anybody that would consider John worth saving. While John might have been quite comfortable in the water, exposure could have been fatal to Harold. And yet, even though John was a total stranger to Harold, he had almost walked into the ocean just to pull John out.

John cursed himself for putting Harold in danger. If he hadn’t spoken, Harold wouldn’t have almost come into the water after him.

But as he replayed everything that had happened, he settled on his shelf and felt warmth blossom in his chest. Not only had Harold wanted to save John from freezing to death, Harold had been awestruck at the sight of John’s tail. And Harold had stayed. Harold had asked questions, wanted to know more about sirens, and about John. John’s heart had stopped at the way Harold looked at him.

John knew it was foolish. But he wanted nothing more than to see that look again.

  

Harold returned less than a week later with hopes of seeing John again. He wasn’t sure of the proper protocol for meeting with a siren, but on a whim he brought donuts. He hoped John like donuts. He’d bought a dozen, just to be on the safe side.

With his box of donuts and a hot tea for himself, Harold waited by the rock where John had been the time before. It seemed like a bit of a long shot, especially since Harold wasn’t sure John even existed. But, because he was waiting for the Machine to execute his latest portion of code and because, real or not, Harold wanted to see John again, Harold waited.

His patience was rewarded when a familiar face peeked out from behind the rock. There was John’s salt and pepper hair, there was John’s angular jaw, there were John’s hypnotic eyes. At the sight of those familiar blue irises, Harold felt a wave of what he could only describe as relief.

Trying to refrain from scaring the siren off, Harold smiled as he held out his box as a peace offering. “Do you like donuts?”

Glancing across the beach to make sure Harold was alone, John emerged from his hiding place. After a few seconds without being tackled or entangled in a net, John grinned. Harold’s heart stumbled. “How did you know?” John asked, swimming forward.

Harold shrugged. “Lucky guess.” Limping closer, he managed to settle himself down close enough to the water to set the donuts between them once John had joined him on shore. Opening the box, he gestured at the available options. “I didn’t know what you would prefer,” he offered, “so I… got one of everything.”

Eyes twinkling, John selected the one with pink frosting and sprinkles. Harold picked a cruller for himself, and took a bite as they fell into amiable silence.

Now that Harold’s head wasn’t spinning as his entire world view was rearranged, Harold was able to get a better look at all of John. More specifically, John’s tail. He’d seen it once before, but he’d missed so many details, like the way it extended far past the point where John’s feet would have been, or how the gold scales peeked out from beneath the blue ones like tiny moons, and how the blue scales glinted and shifted in time with the lapping of the waves on the beach. Harold’s eyes widened when they landed on John’s fin. The webbing was tattered and torn, full of holes edged with pale blue scar tissue. The longer he looked, the more scarring he saw, up John’s tail and even along his torso.

Swallowing, Harold raised his eyes as his face flushed. His attention was drawn by the shiny silver ornament around John’s neck. He’d caught a glimpse of it before. Up close, Harold realized that it was a pair of dog tags. Some of the scars suddenly made sense.

“You were a soldier,” Harold murmured.

“Hm?” John looked up from the donut he’d been devouring, a custard filled one. He’d devoured the first one shamelessly. Having forgotten the taste of human food, he’d been distracted by cakey sweetness until Harold had spoken again. John glanced at the spot Harold was staring at- his necklace. “This?” He picked it up with his free hand, the tags resting in his palm. “I don’t know. I don’t really remember. I just figured this was my name. I don’t know what the rest of it means.”

Scooting closer, Harold held out a tentative hand. “May I see?”

John looked at him with those eyes, and Harold stopped breathing. John’s eyes searched Harold’s face intensely, looking for something. Harold wasn’t sure what John was looking for, but apparently he found it because he removed the tags and placed them in Harold’s open palm. John’s fingers were cold for the brief second they brushed Harold’s skin, but Harold felt colder after John pulled away. Harold forced himself to look away and read the tags.

TALLIS

JOHN H.

380-00-0050

O POS

CATHOLIC

Harold took his time reading the information and committing it to memory. He briefly wondered if John knew what he was entrusting to Harold. Then again, Harold had already seen more of John than anyone else probably ever had.

“Thank you,” he whispered softly, returning the tags to John.

John finished his second donut before replacing the tags around his neck. “What about you?” he asked.

“Pardon?” Harold blinked at the siren.

“I was a soldier, or at least that’s what you said. So what do you do?”

Harold sighed. “That’s kind of a big question.” John raised an eyebrow at him. “The short answer, I suppose, is nothing.”

“And the long answer?” 
Harold hesitated. The only other person who knew about his work, as well as the extent of it outside of the law, was dead now. He regarded John for a long moment. John had trusted Harold with his true identity. Didn’t Harold owe him the truth?

“It’s a long story,” Harold warned.

John shrugged, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “I’ve got time.”

Taking a deep breath, Harold let the words tumble out. As best he could, Harold explained what he’d been doing for the past eight years of his life. He told John about the Machine, and he even told John about Grace. He paused at the thought of Grace, alone and in mourning. To his credit, John didn’t say anything when Harold reached up to wipe his eyes before moving on to tell John about wanting to help people.

It was freeing, being able to tell someone about the work he’d done, and the work he wanted to do. Harold believed with all of his heart that he could trust John, and trust John he did.

“It was Nathan’s idea,” he said, after explaining the irrelevant numbers and how he accessed them, “I believe that honoring his wishes is the least I can do.”

After a moment, John reached over to put his hand on Harold’s. When Harold looked up, John was watching him with shining eyes that looked more black than blue. “You’re a good man,” he said.

Harold shook his head. “I let Nathan down. I wouldn’t listen to what he had to say. I was too late.”

Studying Harold’s profile, John said, “Too late is better than never.” His voice was low and soothing. “You could have stood by and done nothing, or you could have given up because you lost everything.”

Raising an eyebrow, Harold scoffed. “Thanks.” 
“What I mean is, lesser men than you would have rolled over and taken the loss. But you got back up and took things into your own hands.” He squeezed Harold’s hand gently. “That’s very brave.”

Harold smiled at John. “I’m glad you see it that way.” He squeezed back and added, “Thank you.”

“Thank you for the donuts,” John replied.

Harold’s eyes flicked back to John’s dog tags. Heart in his throat, he asked, “What don’t you remember?”

John looked away, fingers digging into the sand. “Anything, really. I woke up in the ocean, swam across it, live in it. My life has always been the sea.”

Pursing his lips, Harold shook his head. “You were someone before that.” Their eyes met again. “You used to be someone.” He tilted his head, and his lips parted. “Would you like me to find out for you? To tell you?”

John blinked. It had never been an option before. To find out who he had been, when he’d been human, if he’d ever been human. With the key to his past at his fingertips- or rather, around his neck- his heart began to pound. He swallowed, looking back towards the horizon. He felt just as agitated as the choppy waves, but it didn’t take him long to decide. “Please?”

Harold took a deep breath and nodded. “You saved my life,” he replied, “It’s the least I can do.”

Looking up with eyes of dark aquamarine and gold, John smiled. “Thank you, Harold.”

The way John said his name sent a shiver through him. Clearing his throat, Harold smiled back.

  

Tallis, John H. Missing In Action.

It didn’t take Harold very long to do John’s background check. The story had been somewhat sensational at the time- a talented young soldier vanishing while on leave instead of on the battlefield. John had joined the army to avoid serving a prison sentence. Harold’s lips quirked up at the charges listed and the circumstances of his arrest. How very characteristically John. Harold wasn’t surprised, and he chuckled before reading on.

Impressively, John had made sergeant in only five years. He’d briefly left the army in 2001, only to rejoin in September as many had after the attack on the two towers. He’d done five tours total, four short and one long, all in the Middle East. And then, three months after reenlisting, he’d vanished.

Harold sat back in his chair, processing all the information he’d found. At 35, the only thing John knew was the ocean. It was likely- Harold was tempted to say certain- that whatever had triggered his amnesia had occured around the time of his disappearance in 2001. And with his amnesia came a new home, identity, and way of life.

He didn’t have time to consider the implications. The results for another search concerning a number popped up, and Harold had to set John’s file aside. He would take the file to John another day. For now, someone else needed his help.

He returned to the beach one week later with John’s file in hand. He shivered as he waited for John to appear, the autumn air seeping through his coat and into his skin. He was grateful for the hot tea in his hands, but it did little for his red nose or his mood.

When John emerged, Harold grumbled, “You took your time.”

John tilted his head, lips twitching. As always, he looked comfortable and content to drift around unclothed. “Hello to you too,” he purred, “Did you wake up on the wrong side of the bed today?”

Harold felt himself grow a little flushed at the mention of bed. Sniffling, he answered bitterly, “I can’t feel my face.”

John chuckled. “Cheer up, old man,” he teased, “I got you a present.”

To Harold’s confusion, John ducked around to the other side of the rock. Harold’s brow furrowed. “John?” When the siren didn’t answer, Harold limped after him. He stopped when he saw John, and on the shore, a worn and weathered plastic chair.

John grinned crookedly. “You’d be surprised how long it took me to find a chair at the bottom of the ocean,” he said, “It’s not something people typically lose.”

“You found this… for me?”

“I figured if you were going to keep coming back, you should have somewhere to sit and rest your leg.”

Harold laughed, breathless. He felt the cold fading at John’s thoughtfulness. Trying to contain himself, Harold sat. “Thank you,” he managed.

“It was nothing.” Not very subtly, John inched closer until he was sprawled out at Harold’s feet. Harold’s heart fluttered.

Clearing his throat, Harold opened the folder containing John’s information and handed John a picture of himself in uniform. “Sergeant John Tallis,” he said, tapping the picture, “Enlisted in 1993 to avoid jail time.”

John stared at the photo, lost in thought. He recognized the man in the photo as him. It looked like the face that looked back at him in the surface of the water. But the uniform was completely foreign.

Harold was speaking again. He was reading off John’s service history, from his brief leave of absence in 2001 to his last tour in Iraq.

All at once, images came flooding back. The sound of gunfire, shouting, tactical camo. The images from his dreams, or nightmares, as the case may be. The things he saw when he closed his eyes. 
John stared blankly at the horizon, recalling time spent with the men he’d fought beside- his unit. How had he forgotten such a close bond with the men he had called brothers?

He was pulled from his thoughts by Harold’s hand on his shoulder, and Harold’s voice calling his name. “John?” John looked up into Harold’s eyes. Harold’s eyebrows were knitted together in concern. “Are you all right?”

Sighing, John nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” He got closer. “Thank you,” he murmured tenderly.

Harold realized that John had pulled himself up out of the water using the chair’s armrest. His face was suddenly inches away.

“I-It was nothing, r-really,” Harold stammered, heart racing.

“I mean it,” John breathed, “You’re a good man, Harold.” His eyes flicked from Harold’s eyes to Harold’s lips and back. He leaned closer, tongue flicking out between his teeth. “The best man I know,” he added, lips curling into a smile.

“John,” Harold gasped, unable to tear his eyes away from the curve of John’s mouth. “I certainly h-hope that your… your solitude hasn’t… clouded your judgement.”

John froze. Harold could feel John’s breath on his cheek. When John pulled away, it was like a bucket of ice washed over him. John’s eyes were grey and dim, the gold not so bright as it had been moments before.

“You’re right,” John whispered, clenching his jaw, “My mistake.” And just like that, John was gone.