Harold Raven wakes up, Grace’s warmth at his back an old familiarity he still hasn’t become accustomed to. Perhaps it is the incongruity of it that sets his teeth to their edges. Or, perhaps, it is the quality of the slanting light—a bit greyer than a morning in Santorini usually is; a bit more filtered.
Either way, Harold Raven sits up in bed and stares straight into the eyes of a dead man.
The word John sticks in his throat. He makes an undignified noise, akin to choking, frozen there with Grace asleep beside him and what must surely be (could only be) a ghost standing at the foot of the bed.
“Hey, Harold,” John says softly, but his lips don’t quite move. “Sorry to barge in on you like this. Not really sure…” John spins; takes in the room; a wicker dresser and bare floors and gauzy curtains. “…How I got here.”
Harold pushes back the sheets carefully and sets his feet on the floor. In order to keep his balance, he has to focus on the ground as he stands. He half-expects John to be gone when he looks back. He isn’t. He puts on his glasses—but he’s farsighted; it doesn’t make much difference anyway—and he’s still there. It terrifies him. It makes something ugly and selfish rear up in his heart.
Again, he tries to speak. “John,” he manages, in a horrible approximation of a stage whisper. “Are you…”
He can’t say it. Grace has no idea who John is. Grace has no idea who John was. Harold has hoarded that memory so close to himself, sucked it so deep beneath his skin and into the marrow of his bones that to speak his name aloud to another living creature would be to crack himself open, and the pain of that is not something he can face, when he has only so recently learned how to walk again on his fractured soul.
“I remember dying,” John says, coming to stand hear Harold, turning his hands this way and that before his eyes. They’re semi-opaque. “I remember the roof.”
“Not here, John,” Harold says, standing up; he goes to take John’s arm and steer him out, but his hand falls straight through, nearly over-balancing him. The small O of his mouth hangs in shock. He feels sick. He must be dreaming still, and this is only a cruel nightmare. Soon he will wake. He hopes it will be soon.
They go quietly onto the terrace. Its concrete melds into rocky beach, the sun just rising over the waves, terribly beautiful and just a bit chilly. Goosebumps stand out over Harold’s arms, clad as he is in merely a t-shirt and sleep pants. But John looks exactly as Harold had last seen him: that semi-legendary suit, slightly rumpled, a few errant bloodstains. It’s almost painful to look at. Harold takes off his glasses and rubs them absentmindedly on his shirt, to have something else to focus on.
“Am I dreaming?” he seems to ask the ocean. In his periphery, John comes to stand by his side.
“I don’t think so.” He looks at him. John always had a way of looking at him that seemed as if he could pierce through his skin and his suit and his secrets and see all his inner thoughts. Of course, he couldn’t—never even saw as much as he thought he did—but it didn’t take away the vague uneasiness of his pointed regard. “I’m sorry,” he breathes. “I shouldn’t be here.”
And what can Harold say to that? He shouldn’t be here. He should be—he should be— in the afterlife? Heaven? Six feet under in the pine box that Shaw and Fusco put empty into the ground? Surely not here. Grace and John had never been meant to overlap. Error statements pop up in his mind, but there is no debug option, just line after line of red code.
The waves continue to whisper against the beach. John shifts his weight; making no sound. “I don’t think I can leave,” he admits. “Any more than I can figure how I got here.”
“That’s alright, John,” Harold mutters, distracted. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll—“
Grace slides the bedroom door open and steps onto the terrace. “Harold?”
Harold turns his entire torso to look at her and smiles, a slightly rigid and forced smile, but a smile nonetheless. “Yes, dear?”
“Come on back to bed. It’s so chilly out here.”
“Just a moment,” Harold says, but when he turns back around, John is gone.
A couple hours later, over a breakfast of flat bread and goat cheese and delicious Italian coffee, Harold manages to convince himself that it had all been a dream. A nightmare, he corrects; because dreams linger sweet on waking, and nightmares hang sour.
Harold clings tightly to his silverware and focuses as intently as he can on the grains in his bread, eating with methodical determination, as though he could eat up the memory of the dawn. But John refuses to be banished from his mind. He’s there—out of the corner of his eye when he looks up to Grace’s inquiring face; in the reflection on the back of his spoon, the split instant in the dark behind his eyelids when he blinks.
His chest aches. Nightmare, nightmare, he reminds himself; count to ten and let it go, but the morning light can’t fade it, like it usually does, and there is a small, treacherous, self-destructive streak at the back of his mind that clings as tightly as it can to that semi-transparent apparition.
Grace takes her bike to the mainland in late morning to run a few errands. Harold finds his way back onto the terrace; kneels laboriously to the beach and picks up a stone, clutches it so tightly in his fist that his knuckles turn white.
And John is there again.
“Are you alright, Harold?” he asks. The concern in his voice is enough to make Harold weep. He closes his eyes as tightly as his fists, counts to ten; waits until he can speak without sobbing.
John shouldn’t be asking if he is the one who is alright. John already made sure of that, hadn’t he? He died for him. He tricked him, and took his place; sacrificed his life so that Harold could have this, Santorini and Grace and at last a place to rest his head and mind, grown so old and weary in a mere decade that he had never realized how deep he’d sunk until he’d laid eyes on the unpolluted ocean for the first time in as many years and breathed.
But now John was here and the only thing that Harold could think, over and over, was that he didn’t deserve a single damn second of his reprieve.
“I’m so sorry, John,” Harold says, “I am so, so sorry—“
He makes the mistake of looking straight into John-not-John’s eyes. They are bottle-green, like sea glass with its edges worn away. They pin him like a butterfly to cork. The rock falls from his fist.
“Don’t be sorry. I didn’t do it so that you’d be sorry. I did it so that you could have… this….” John sweeps an arm around himself, encompassing the beach and the surf and the sky.
“Is it why?” Harold asks, before he can help himself.
John looks hard at him.
There’s a word hovering unsaid between them, but to John it means one thing, and to Harold, another. So to save them the misunderstanding, Harold swallows it. “Nevermind,” he says.
Silence stretches out between them. Harold is the first to look away.
“I could go.”
“Can you?” Harold asks, something like hope in his voice before he can temper it, and he is given the bitter reward of John’s throat bobbing with his harsh swallow.
“I could try,” John amends. “It’s hard, when—“ He fiddles at a bullet hole in his shirt. “When most of me doesn’t want to.”
As coldly as Harold can, he declares, “I need to move on. For my own sake, and for Grace’s.”
Her name shutters John’s delicate eyes more firmly than storm hatches, corroded copper replacing sea-glass. “You’re right. Grace doesn’t deserve this,” he says, and what this is, Harold fancies is another thing they both disagree on. Distraction or delusion or—or that other thing—whatever it had been. Whatever it had been stopped from becoming by Samaritan’s intervention.
“She doesn’t,” Harold agrees.
But this time, when he goes back inside, John follows.
John comes to bed with them that night, Harold curled around Grace and John curled around him, and the devil of it isn’t that he can’t feel him, it’s that he almost can—like an old scent on the edge of recollection, or a song whose melody is familiar but whose words won’t come. And it isn’t as if he can protest, with Grace right there in hearing range; and nor can he reply, when John begins to whisper in his ear:
He tells him that he is safe, and how happy he is that he is safe. He whispers news of Shaw and Fusco and Bear, all happy, all good; and the former POI’s that are still out there, running the numbers like an inheritance; the Machine’s very own Second Coming.
Harold doesn’t want to know. Harold wishes he could shut his ears the same way he shuts his eyes, and block out that old life so that he can fully experience this new one, but John’s voice is inexorable. The recesses of his memory are too fragile a dam to hold back the river of hours upon hours of open comm lines. Like the tide. Like life; like death, always and forever and ever John.
“No regrets, Harold,” he whispers, a while after all the rest, and Harold finally falls asleep.
In the morning, John eats breakfast with them. He makes a slightly off-color comparison between the locally raised oblong chicken’s eggs and the shape of Harold’s head, and Harold raises a disparaging eyebrow in his direction—an empty chair—before he can stop himself, and checks with immediate chagrin to make sure Grace hasn’t noticed.
Her paper is unfurled in front of her face. She’s teaching herself Greek. Occasionally, she’ll read him the headlines and slaughter the pronunciation. Harold smiles slightly at the thought of it, looking between the newsprint and John’s smirk and his egg, and feeling himself begin to stretch like an elastic band.
“I hope you’re keeping yourself busy somehow,” John says while Grace clears the dishes. He’s pawing through the books that completely line the living area’s walls. Or—not pawing, but running a skeletal finger along their spines; just barely not touching. Not even dust motes rise at his fingertip’s passage.
Out of the corner of his mouth, Harold murmurs, “I am,” and offers no more elaboration.
The truth is that he hasn’t touched a computer in three months and it feels as though he’s missing a limb. Samaritan is dead—that much he knows to be true, because John is dead, too—
He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, he repeats in his head, staring and staring and staring at the ghostly man before him, so like the one he’d known in life that it feels as though if he squints, his and Grace’s secluded villa might fade away into the mist and out of its dissolution might rise the disused subway station, or maybe even the old library, with its plastic-covered windows and the yellow light whose warmth pierced nevertheless undimmed.
Nevertheless undimmed, Harold thinks, as John shoots him a grin that says that he doesn’t believe a single word he’s saying. A shorthand between them that was as rich in vernacular as the one he and Grace are rediscovering, day by day on their beautiful island that was just them together, except now there is John, too—
It doesn’t fit. They don’t belong together. John and Grace, Grace and Harold, Harold and John—an irreconcilable equation, return invalid, recursion broken.
The problem, as it occurs to Harold when he takes down a book from underneath John’s phantom fingers and settles with it in his customary chair, which John sinks onto the arm of with nary a divot in the upholstery, is that he can’t give his life to both of them at once. Only one at a time. And now, John has come back from the dead to make him choose.
That night, he and Grace cook dinner together, falling into one of their newer rituals: dancing around each other in the bare-bones kitchen, making do with what they have (always something local; Harold has no taste for preservatives; Harold wants the things he consumes to taste as though they’re still bleeding their life out onto his tongue, so that he can start to feel again, feel anything except a gun in his hand for the first time in his life and a terror in his throat so all-consuming that he thought it would kill him before his gut wound, except John had both caused and taken care of that, hadn’t he?)
Grace steals kisses between popping bites of olive between his lips, and exactly once, Harold’s eyes dart to the side and land firmly on John’s when her mouth meets his.
When they part, the only thing John says is, “Looks delicious, Harold,” and it’s really quite terrible of him, but also quite terribly perfectly John. He doesn’t believe he’s dreaming anymore because he remembers trying and failing to recreate John in his mind on the plane to Italy, wounds barely scabbed over; scraping by a doctor’s clearance to fly as soon as he could. The John in his mind had been a pale and glancing shell of the vibrant man who had looked the Devil in the face and said to hell with you, and Harold had stopped trying soon after to recreate it.
After dinner, Grace starts to show signs of being amorous, and Harold panics. John is nowhere to be found—having disappeared sometime during the dessert course; his mouth pulling ever-downward with frustration at being unable to taste what was in front of him—but Harold can’t bear to think of his wife (wife, wife, wife, he reminds himself) in a state of undress without the thought’s edges blurring over into John undressed, too.
There are memories of that: his ever-present unbuttoned collar. A shirt shed after a shooting, so that Harold could bend over him and tut and apply first aid that John could have just as capably, and perhaps more quickly, administered himself. Once, John had stripped like a military man in a barracks in the subway car, and he had failed to look away, like he’d made sure to do for Root; and there’d been skin and legs and scars seared into his retinas for days afterwards. They’re back again: more scorchingly real than they’d been in the moment, and Harold knows how memories work—rewritten over one another in the brain until you’re not remembering the moment itself, but rather the last time you remembered the memory—yet the MIT-educated intellect in him refuses to consider that at this moment.
“Grace,” he says, playing with her blouse’s shoulder seam. “There’s something I… need to tell you.”
She sits up, immediately alert, flirtation forgotten. Grace was always so perceptive. She read him like he read his favorite books; comfortably and accurately, and Harold had missed it like a war wound aching in bad weather right up until he’d realized mid-way through a number of no consequence a couple years back that John could read him in the same way. Then, he’d just missed it in the way he missed things like his childhood home and the days when he didn’t have to use a pseudonym.
“We talked about this, Harold. You don’t have to tell me anything until you’re ready.” She takes his face in her hands with unbearable tenderness. “I don’t care.” She kisses his temple. “I don’t care.” And then, the other.
Root had once asked him: How badly did you have to break it to make it care about people so much?
Badly, he wishes he could tell her; but he can’t, because she’s dead. I broke it just like I broke myself. And then I never bothered to fix either.
Do damaged people seek their ilk?
But there was nothing damaged about Grace. Grace was whole and pure: sunshine through Venetian blinds, fresh vanilla bean, a wooden sphere.
Which would make John a tarnished penny, perhaps, or the splash of a car through a puddle, or—
A sudden image of John as he knew him best rises at once in his mind: turning towards him, on some street in the city, just as they’re about to cross at the light; a soft look of wonder in his eyes and a half-smile at his lips.
Harold always knew. Harold always ignored. Harold was always faithful to Grace, ever, ever faithful, and it occurs to him, here at the end, that in being faithful to one, he had been unfaithful to another.
(If Grace was a wooden sphere, then John was a mirror shard; a piece of a whole, sharp and cold and shimmering.)
So Harold doesn’t tell Grace about John that night, nor the next; and they don’t have sex, that night nor the next. Instead John curls up behind him like all the evenings before, and this is what is different now: Harold lets go of Grace halfway to three a.m. and lets John’s ghost, or hallucination, or soul, or whatever he is envelop him, and sighs in absolute contentment. He dreams of fingers through his hair and the smell of gunpowder.
For the first time in three months, Harold feels normal.
Grace notices. Over lunch, Harold’s distraction becomes apparent; the way his eyes cling to John’s mouth as he talks and Harold responds with pointed looks and discreet movements of his fingers; a silent dictionary they’re rapidly refining and adding to. They’ll need a second edition soon.
“Yoo-hoo,” Grace says, waving a hand in front of Harold’s eyes. “Anybody home?”
Harold huffs a laugh. “Sorry,” he says, “Just thinking.”
“Thinking about what?”
She asks it so innocently. It goes straight to Harold’s gut with a punch of guilt. She doesn’t want to know, he reminds himself. She told you so herself. “Old friends,” Harold says at last, managing not to choke as he swallows a last bite. His eyes move inexorably to John’s, and linger there, a warm shared pool of understanding.
Grace doesn’t understand.
“You have to tell her,” John says to him. A hand cradles his face; a finger brushing over an eyelid that Harold can-but-can’t feel.
“I can’t,” he whispers.
“You can’t have both.”
And this is the thing that Harold has been trying to forget. The wrongness that he had subsumed under the sweet balm of John’s face, and the sound of his voice, and the shape of him looming by his side once more. “What if I want you?” he asks, minutes or perhaps hours later.
It is John's turn to strike a killing blow. “Should have said so sooner, Finch.” He gets up from the bed and walks straight through the walls and onto, presumably, the beach; perhaps into the surf, down and down until hitting sea bed.
Harold curls his arms around himself and sobs as quietly as he can.
In the morning Harold wakes Grace before first light and sits with her in the pre-dawn dark, a week to the day that John had first appeared like his own personal conscience at the foot of their bed. He gives no warning and no preface. “There was a man I loved,” Harold begins.
Grace’s eyes go wide and her hands go still. The gauzy curtains part as though by a breeze, but the terrace doors are firmly closed and locked; an old paranoia. Harold carries on: can’t stop himself now for anything short of a second Mount Vesuvius. “He sacrificed his life for me,” he continues; or perhaps he gasps it, as the weight of that falls onto his shoulders like a yoke with an anvil on either side. “He loved me back.”
John smiles, soft and sad and rueful. “I did,” he says. “I do.”
Harold says goodbye.