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The Invented Self

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You can’t talk about what a thing is without talking about what it’s been. Every oak holds the memory of an acorn. Inside every glacier, water flows. Here are two self-made men: they constructed themselves in every sense aside from the literal. Watch the steady press of bolster to steel skeleton, watch the undergirding rise.

Here is a man called Harold Finch. He was raised on nothing, came to be in the dark cloister of a hollowed out library, among the shadows of hulking shelves and the wreckage of books. But before that, he was Harold Wren, who came of age in a dorm room at MIT, winked into being between one stroke of pen and the next, filling out full name and date of birth.

But before that, there was Harold Lister, born to Ron Lister and Joanne Lister in Middletown, Iowa. Harold was swaddled in a quilt stitched together by Joanne’s mother’s hands, soft and sweet and scented with their laundry sheets. He gripped at their border collie’s long fur, giggling and squealing and kissing her back when she licked at his face. He learned to walk and then run with the gentle, golden sway of wheat fields rolling out behind him.

This is where he came from.

Harold’s legs hold the sense memory of tough jeans, newly bought.

“You’ll break ‘em in,” his dad said when Harold made a face at their stiffness. He ruffled the top of Harold’s hair and knelt down to help him roll the hems that dragged along the ground. “Room to grow,” he said with a wink.

Harold Finch hasn’t worn jeans in years.

Room to grow, he thinks as his tailor measures his inseam, marking a certain spot above his ankle bone with a flat square of chalk. He thanks Ricardo on the way out, signing the necessary papers and tipping generously while stands of wheat sway gently in his head.

And here is a man called John Reese. He was born in a dark meeting room in Budapest, bodies cooling on the floor. His name was pressed into his hand like the butt of a rifle, and he’s used it and cared for it and remembered what it means ever since.

Before that, there was a certain John Talbots, drafted into the military at the age of 18 in the last sort of legal draft available before they ruled that unconstitutional. He was a hellion, born to a sweet, fair-haired mother and a father with serious eyes and serious ambitions. They lived in a house in a suburb, and after that, a house in a different suburb, in a city far away. John got used to the steady rhythms of coming and going from an early age, until everything stopped moving at all.

Two men came to the door, and his father never did again.

“Your daddy was a hero,” said a gruff, highly decorated man at the funeral. He squeezed John’s shoulder so tight it hurt. He smelled like booze, misty-eyed above the tight set of his mouth, and he swayed slightly when he walked away.

Your daddy was a hero, John thinks sometimes now. Dodging bullets, jumping out of buildings. There’s something hero in the makeup of his DNA.


Harold Finch meets John Reese.

No, Harold Finch bumps into John Reese.

No.

Harold Finch ferrets John Reese out from the hole where he’s hiding, sunk deep beneath a patina of grime and the scent of unwashed bodies, hiding deep in a bottle of Jim Beam. Harold Finch stalks him for months, pulling up sealed records and piecing together bits of digital detritus. Harold Finch has John Reese kidnapped.

John Reese gets a new employer, a haircut, a job.

John Talbots peeks out from behind his eyes in the mirror, mouth turned down as he scrapes the cheap razor against weeks of overgrown, coarse hair. He digs too deep and scores a bright line across his jaw. The blood seeps out, stings, turns the cheap shaving cream a pink the color of meat.

A flash of memory, his dad shaving at the sink of a bathroom still muggy from his shower, standing in his undershirt and boxers with a towel slung over his shoulder. John sat on the closed lid of the toilet and watched with rapt interest as his dad scraped away lines of stubble, his cheeks pale and yellow beneath. His dad would let him help pat the aftershave on if he waited, but he would’ve waited anyway.

John remembers the rhythmic tap of razor on porcelain, tap tap tap. He taps it out himself, too drunk to remember to forget.


“Damn it, stay with me, Finch,” John says, his knuckles white as he floors the pedal, speeding through a yellow light and pushing the car faster than it’s really meant to go.

A car horn screams at him, and John ignores it, keeping one eye on the road and one on Finch’s rapidly paling face.

“That really hurts a shocking amount,” Harold murmurs.

“Harold,” John says, a warning and a plea.

He means don’t you fucking dare die on me. He means I’ll fix this, hang on.

John Reese grimly steers the car through New York traffic, breaking half a dozen laws with a gun in his lap because he will shoot anyone who gets in his way. John Talbots remembers the copper stench of blood, how sticky it was on his hands the first time one of his corporals took fire and no matter how tightly he pushed on the wound, he couldn’t keep flesh and soul together for long enough for the combat medic to arrive.

“Mr. Reese, it was a pleasure working with you,” Harold murmurs through barely-moving lips, his eyes closed and his breathing slow.

“You’re not done yet,” John says, palms sweating. He accelerates into a turn that has the car squealing beneath them. “Don’t think you’re getting away from me that easy,” he says, voice deliberately light.

Later, a safe house.

Finch is breathing shallowly, little panting breaths under the influence of fentanyl, but he’s breathing. He’s sprawled out across the back seat, an IV drip strung up from the suit hanger above the door.

John sighs as soon as the garage door closes around them, sitting in the dark with the quiet, rabbit-quick sounds of Finch’s breath as a lullaby. His own breath makes a harsh, staccato counterpoint as he leans his hands and head on the steering wheel and just breathes, eyes closed.

He doesn’t give himself more than a second.

He trusts Finch’s safe houses to be secure, but he does a sweep anyway, gun drawn, flicking on every light in the house and checking every bathroom, every shower, every closet and cranny and nook. Satisfied, he goes to fetch Harold from the car, tucking his gun into his waistband and making his hands go gentle. He unhooks the drip bag from the car and touches Harold carefully, hand on his shoulder, avoiding Harold’s injuries.

“Harold, we’re here. Can you walk?”

Harold rouses slowly, by scant degrees. He makes a heartbreaking, vulnerable sound, sleepy and questioning.

He looks up at John, muzzy and unfocused without his glasses. John feels Harold’s decision to sit up before he sees it—anticipates it—and encourages him to stay down with firm hands on either shoulder. “Don’t try to sit up. You’ve been shot in the stomach, and I promise you don’t want to use those muscles right now. Let me help you.”

He waits, and Harold nods, a tiny twitch of his chin. Soft skin gathers at the side of Harold’s neck from the way his chin is pressed to his chest, and John just wants to bury his nose there.

He settles for scooping a hand under the back of Harold’s head and another below his trapezius. “One, two—”

On three, he levers Harold up, pushing him to sitting and cradling him close. Harold mutters something sleepy and unintelligible, and John holds Harold close to his body for a breath longer than necessary. Harold is still mostly asleep, and John doesn’t expect that he’ll come to any time soon. He half-carries, half-guides him out of the car, supporting him to lessen the pull on his stitches, his ripped and ragged abdominal muscles.

Harold isn’t feeling any pain now, but he will be later, and John wants to make it as easy as he can. He considers depositing Harold on the couch, but discards the idea out of hand. Anything to be gained by a shorter walk will be outweighed by the damage wrought by a night of bad sleep. He isn’t sure sleeping on a couch would be good for Harold on a good day, and he doesn’t want to see what would happen if Harold rolls onto the floor in the middle of the night.

So they make their halting way down the hallway, Harold mumbling blearily into John’s shoulder and John half guiding, half carrying Harold toward the bed. He can’t manage to turn down the covers without dropping Harold, so he deposits him atop the blankets instead, his own muscles straining. Harold settles back against the pillows with a discontent sigh, his face screwing itself up before smoothing out again.

John doesn’t go so far as to undress him. Harold’s jacket, shirt, and waistcoat were sacrificed to Dr. Madani’s operating room floor, and now he’s clothed only in a soft, borrowed t-shirt that will do for the night. John pulls up the hem of the shirt to inspect the bandage, pristine white gauze wrapped around a piece of thin plastic. He’ll need to change that tomorrow, but at least Harold isn’t bleeding through.

John undoes Harold’s pants, giving him room to breathe. He unlaces Harold’s shoes and tucks them neatly under the bed, takes off socks that have gone clammy with sweat and replaces them with a fresh pair found in one of the house’s many dresser drawers. He unpeels the blanket from the far corner of the bed, untucking it from the mattress to wrap it loosely around Harold.

He briefly considers restraining Harold’s hands to keep him from pawing at his stitches in the night but thinks better of it. The psychological toll to Harold upon waking isn’t worth it.

He pauses in the doorway and watches the bed, leaning against the doorframe. His exhaustion catches up with him all at once, the adrenaline of a necessary job fleeing and leaving him in the wake of his own depleted stores of energy. It seems impossible that Harold can be lying there, mostly whole and relatively hale. He’ll mend; the doctor had said so.

The light overhead doesn’t seem to bother Harold, but John is conscious of it all the same. He doesn’t want to disturb Harold’s rest any more than he already has. He turns off the light but leaves the door open, the better to hear any of Harold’s whimpers, or movements, or calls in the night.

He takes out the medication Dr. Madani had given them, bottles of broad-spectrum antibiotics and painkillers. John has the schedule memorized, but he puts the paper full of scrawled instructions beneath the bottles that he lines up on the coffee table, within easy reach.

He takes the couch himself. He’s sure there’s an extra pillow and a blanket or two lurking in the hall closet, knowing Harold, but he’s too tired to bother. He can fall asleep basically anywhere and tonight, his comfort is the furthest thing from his mind. He flops face-down onto the cushions, boneless and drifting off into murky sleep instantly. He doesn’t dream.

He wakes every hour to check on Harold, to make sure he’s still breathing. To make sure he doesn’t wake alone.


Harold is cranky and moving stiffly in the morning, to the extent that John lets him move at all, which he mostly doesn’t.

Harold is allowed to get out of bed to go to the bathroom, a process that John helps with, insofar as Harold needs someone to help lift him up and lower him down onto the toilet seat. Then John waits outside the door until Harold calls him, his cheeks flaming and eyes trained intently on the tile near the corner, or the bath towels, or anything that isn’t John himself.

“I don’t see what the fuss is,” John says.

He’s seen people in much worse condition than Harold. He’d do so much worse for Harold than this. It’s hardly an imposition.

“I don’t want you to see me as an invalid.”

John doesn’t pause in walking Harold to the bed. He doesn’t so much as bat an eye, keeping his arm strong and firm against Harold’s back. “I see my friend. My friend who just got very, very hurt.”

Harold isn’t mollified, but he does let John lower him gently back onto the bed. He doesn’t bring up the possibility that John might see him as somehow less than again, which is unusually gratifying, but it doesn’t sweeten his overall disposition any. John can’t say that he minds. He’s been gut shot before, and if ever a man is entitled to an ill-temper, it’s when he’s leaking fluids through his abdomen.

“You’re a terrible patient, you know that, Harold?” John says cheerfully when Harold snaps at him for making sure he’s taking his medication every four hours.

“And I’m starting to think you’re a closet sadist. You enjoy this entirely too much.”

“Closet?” he asks with a raised brow.

He can’t help it. He’s plainly delighted—with Harold, with everything that Harold does. Even his poor temper is a gift, a wonder. There had been some moments there when he didn’t think he’d ever get to enjoy it again.


John Reese doesn’t come in just one flavor. There are two varieties: before Harold and after.

John Reese before Harold came to an unfortunate end. His heart hadn’t stopped beating quite yet, but he had quite thoroughly counted himself out. Dead man walking.

John Reese after—maybe he’s a good man, a dedicated friend, a fierce and committed lover. Point being, there are shades of him that still remain to be seen.

Maybe the second John Reese and the late Harold Finch can get to know them together.