“Harold, your tea is going to over-boil soon”
The tea-cup slipped from Harold’s grasp and shattered as it hit the linoleum floor but Harold didn’t hear it.
“John?” Harold whispered, even though he knew it was impossible -
Ultimately, he had rushed to the correct roof - simply because he couldn’t let him die alone, simply because this was not how their partnership was meant to end. The missile never landed, but he still ended up holding John close on a rooftop six months ago, desperately pressing down on the chest wounds though both of them knew the ambulance would never get there in time -
And yet - now Harold heard the unmistakably soft lilt of his voice filling the kitchen - and hope fluttered in his chest and for a moment he dared to -
“I thought hearing his voice would be soothing for you.”
The world fell away beneath Harold and he closed his eyes.
“I don’t want to hear his voice”
“It was what you’d wanted, at the end.” And Harold knew it was true.
He had cradled the back of John’s head because he no longer had the strength to lift it himself. John had been trying to say something, but the blood had filled his lungs in all the wrong places and was running down his chin now -
“You don’t get to use his voice”
“I DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT”
“Sorry Harold,” the Machine said in Root’s voice.
“No, you’re not. You’re incapable of feeling sorry. Guilt. It’s a concept you don’t understand at all.”
“Let’s go on a field trip, Harold,” the Machine said in Root’s voice.
“I told you I don’t want you in my life. Why won’t you just leave me alone.”
“Sorry Harold, I can’t do that.”
“Why not?” Harold snapped brusquely.
“I’m honoring my half of the Arrangement.”
“And what would that be?”
“Keeping you alive.”
Eventually, just to shut the Machine up, Harold found himself sitting at a small cafe tucked in a forgotten corner of Florence with a warm mug of Sencha green tea in his hands. The smoke was fogging up his glasses.
“This was a good recommendation,” He said grudgingly.
Harold didn’t know how the Machine had managed to find a place that made tea in exactly the way he liked it. The Machine was many things, but it couldn’t taste drinks. And yelp! reviews were hardly a substitute for having taste buds.
“John visited at least 12 cafes before he settled on this one - He also tried 12 cups of tea,” the Machine informed him in Root’s voice.
Harold stilled. John hated tea - always thought it was useless compared to coffee.
“He booked a reservation for two here, you know. Scheduled for 10 July 2014. 2pm."
Harold recalled John’s face falling, just momentarily, when they got the call at a Florentine payphone. But the look disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. In the next moment, John was all business, asking the Machine to fill them in on all the details relating to Cormac Thomas McCarthy. Two seats were miraculously vacated on a flight back to New York and in less than 24 hours, John had hauled McCarthy's unconscious employer, bound and gift-wrapped into Fusco's car trunk.
“What else did he do here?”
“He sat at the table in the corner.”
Harold glanced over and smiled instinctively, despite everything. Of course he did. The corner table would have given him an excellent view of all the exits and everyone in the cafe.
“He also stared at the rainbow sprinkled doughnuts for exactly 5.4 minutes,” The Machine piped up. Harold found himself ordering two of them even though he hadn’t had any guilty treats since - everything that had happened.
There hadn’t been a point; everything tasted like dust these days.
“The last time you ate was 48 hours ago, Harold.” The Machine said in Root’s voice.
“I’m not hungry.”
“It’s not healthy.”
“I created you to deal with terrorism, not lecture me about my diet.”
“Go away please.”
“If you eat a sandwich, I’ll play a game of chess with you.”
“I recall telling you once, that I hated this game. Because it was born in a time where some lives were valued more than others.”
“Yes you did.”
“And I also told you, that no life is more valuable than another. Including mine.”
“In light of what you have done, don’t you dare talk to me about chess. Don’t you dare talk to me.”
“John and I played quite a few chess games on the job.” Not for the first time, Harold felt the overwhelming urge to crush his phone against a wall. And grate the metal and glass against the concrete.
“Do not. Do not talk to me about John.”
“Stake outs could be very boring and - he didn’t want to bother you whilst you were doing your coding. So he told me to play the game as if it were you playing it.”
“You can’t predict my moves. I’m human.”
“I played thousands of games with you, remember? He was actually pretty good. Gave you quite a run for your money. Or rather, gave me playing as you, quite a bit of a challenge. And he beat Elias 49.52 % of the time, when Elias could get hold of a smuggled phone.”
Harold said nothing.
[earpiece recording playback] John’s voice crackled to life on Harold’s phone speaker “Black Rook to B6.”
There was ambient noise in the background, rain pattering against metal, dully. John had been sitting in a car, probably watching one drug den or another.
“Your move, Harold,” Root’s voice said.
“White Rook to C3,” Harold found himself saying. He mapped the coordinates of the chess pieces in his mind, the familiar black and white tiles in their proper places.
“Feeling aggressive today, huh? Black Rook to B5” John replied.
Harold chuckled. “White Rook to C4.”
It carried on for 5 minutes before Root’s voice said, “A sandwich, Harold. A game for a sandwich.”
And that was how Harold found himself in a deli despite having no appetite. John had just done a castling maneuver, and was well on his way to destroying Harold’s queen.
“Tell me about your day, John.”
“That day he was spying on the Brotherhood” Root’s voice said, “the number had been making some deals with them. John had -”
Harold shifted uncomfortably.
“I would like to hear it from him.”
“Are you certain?” Root’s voice said.
“Harold, what I am about to say is not a recording, you understand? It would be me, speaking in his voice, and using the pronoun “I”.”
“This is unwise, Harold.”
“I’ve eaten the sandwich.”
“I said a game for a sandwich. This was not part of the deal. It’s unhealthy.”
“I’ll eat another sandwich tomorrow. I promise.”
The voice said nothing.
“Please, I need to hear it from him.”
There was a long pause.
“It’s now 9pm. I’m tailing the number, she’s just exited from Andy’s Bar, and is now making her way home. She’s walking past 6th Avenue, it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone else on her tail. So I take out my phone and check on you through the surveillance feed. - ”
“You had a surveillance feed on me?”
“Of course I had a surveillance feed on you. You don’t even know how to load a gun.”
“Fair enough. What did you do next?”
“I see that you’re still working on some complex code I will probably never understand, everything is fine. So I continue following the number, she’s heading into Belmont Street now -”
Harold closed his eyes, and he was back in the Library, doing one thing or another, tinkering with code, and though Harold couldn’t see him, he knew John was on the other end of the line. Doing the things he does, kneecapping people, causing property damage, making those wry remarks only because it amuses him to irritate Harold. And Harold is amused so he pretends to be irritated.
John’s soft lilt ran over him, sounding in his earpiece like the thousands of times before.
John wasn’t breathing - hadn’t been breathing for a while now, but he is still warm. Harold clutches him close, his knuckles whitening till they hurt - hurt that does not hurt at all - but there is a deep and endless gaping endless pain in his chest - and Harold - Harold can’t understand this crippling pain in this chest - right where John rests against it. - oh God, John what have you done - Harold’s face is drenched and he can’t tell if it is blood or water - doesn’t know if he can breathe again - but John won’t slip away, he hasn’t slipped away - because Harold is holding on so tightly - holding on to the warmth that is so painfully John - though tomorrow the world keeps spinning on its axis, indifferent and cold - colder than Harold could ever have imagined - Harold will never, can't ever, let him go. -
There was a hand tugging insistently on his sleeve.
Grace. Her face was worried in the half-light. She’d turned the table light on.
“I’m fine. It’s okay.”
“Was it another nightmare?”
“Yes.” He said, giving her what he hoped was a reassuring smile before leaving for the kitchen. It was true - in a way.
It had always been just a nightmare until it became a memory that day in New York.
“Are you there, Mr. Reese?”
It was 3 months before Grace found the courage to ask.
Or rather, 3 months before she found it unbearable to watch him go through the motions with her. Smiling at the appropriate times, courteous as ever, laughing at the appropriate moments and yet it all never quite reached his eyes. And yet, several times she had caught him, when he thought she was asleep, speaking to someone over the phone, and he seemed truly alive only then. Laughing like he used to. That quiet, little laugh of his, fond and private.
So now, they were at a familiar cafe, and she waited for his tea to arrive, warm in his hands. There was no need to make this harder than it had to be.
“Harold, I’ve been meaning to ask you this for some time.”
He waited for her to continue, a slight furrow between his eyebrows.
“Do you have someone else in your life?”
Harold recoiled as if he had been struck. Grace looked away. “I don’t hear from you for days - And when you’re here, you’re not really here - and I just. I just don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t need to know her name. Or who she is, I just need to know if - I would understand, it’s been 5 years. Just-”
“Please, be honest with me Harold. I think you owe me that much.”
Grace could see the consternation warring on his face, but he didn’t answer the question. It answered itself.
Her heart sank, though she had mentally prepared herself for this possibility. Grace tried to work herself into anger, anger at this man who had left her for 6 years and suddenly reappeared in her life. This man that she was beginning to discover she barely knew. But he was sitting there with such a pained expression on his face she had to look away.
“I think I would like to be alone for a while,” Harold said, paid for both of their teas, and walked out of the cafe.