Well, this is it. The end. Thank you to everyone who has stuck around for the last 5 months. To those that reviewed, I extend a "thank you very much" - comments are always appreciated. I do have another story in the works, but I'm not sure if it will reach the stage of publication. I'm not... 'feeling the love' toward this story as I did the one that's about to conclude. We'll see. Until then... Enjoy.
A raspy, almost wet snuffling was the first sound John became aware of as he slowly returned to consciousness. Although vaguely familiar, he still couldn't identify it. Inexplicably tired, he started to doze off again, but the noise just wouldn't go away. With a huge effort, he dragged open his eyes and stared blankly up at the ceiling.
John could feel his other senses slowly coming back online. His vision was the first to clear, followed by touch. He could feel the weight of the blankets covering him and a cold dampness pressing against his sides. He noticed the faint scent of plastic next, and then the obnoxious tickle of air being forced into his nose. His throat was dry and it ached dully when he swallowed.
The snuffling sound came closer and grew in intensity. Unable to ignore it any longer, he turned his head on the pillow and came face to face with Bear, his mouth full of tennis balls.
John instantly regretted the snort of laughter that escaped him when a sharp jab of pain cut through his side. "Ow…ouch…damn it."
"Mr. Reese?" There was the scrape of a chair and a scuffle of footsteps as Harold hurried across the room. "Mr. Reese, are you all right? Do you need the doctor? Let me get him…"
"I'm fine, Finch. Calm down."
The hacker stopped and looked at his friend, not quite believing what he saw. Gone was the disoriented daze of fever and infection, replaced with an expression of alert interest. Although clearly fatigued, John looked more like himself than he had in days. "But…you…aren't you in pain?"
"A little." John looked backed to Bear and grinned. The dog had six tennis balls clutched in his teeth – three clamped along each side of his jaw. "You did it, fella. You broke the record."
"He and Dr. Maxwell have been practicing," Harold explained, offering his partner a small amount of water in a glass. "How do you feel, Mr. Reese? Are you sure you don't need me to get the doctor?"
"I'm all right, Finch," he assured him, eagerly drinking the water. "Maxwell really did this?"
"He feels guilty, John. I think it's his way of making amends."
"It wasn't his fault," the former agent replied, prying the slimy tennis balls from Bear's mouth. "And it wasn't yours, either."
"I should have taken you to a hospital."
"I could have used an alias."
"Those need to be saved for the Numbers."
"Don't you understand that this could have been prevented, John? Not necessarily the initial injury, but the infection. An x-ray would have shown the fragment and you would have never gotten sick. If I had just taken you to a hospital instead of being so selfishly paranoid…"
"You were protecting me, Finch," John insisted. "And yourself and everything you've worked to create. You did what you had to do. Besides, if you hadn't found Dr. Maxwell, he would have never been reconnected with his purpose."
Harold shook his head incredulously. "You nearly died and you're still more concerned about the welfare of someone else."
"That's my purpose. And yours too, last I knew." John paused and regarded his employer. He could tell there was something weighing heavily on the other man's mind. "Having second thoughts, Harold?"
"About The Machine? Heavens no. But it's difficult to put things into perspective while watching a close friend nearly lose his life not once, but twice inside of a month." The hacker sighed. "Mr. Reese, John, I had to make the call."
"The call you entrusted me to make if you ever became…incapacitated and there was no hope. It was a decision I hated to make, and one Detective Carter didn't agree with. But you were so sick and your chances were so bleak…I just couldn't allow Dr. Maxwell to put you back on the machines. I…I didn't think it was something you would have wanted."
"You're right. It's not." John struggled to think of something else to say. Something that would ease the hacker's mind and reassure him he'd made the right call. When nothing profound came to his still hazy mind, he said the only thing that made sense. "Thanks."
Harold huffed. His friend's response was so underwhelmingly simple, that it could have only come from him. It gave him the confirmation he needed to know he'd done the right thing and, even though he didn't need it, another reason to be glad his call turned out to be unnecessary.
"Watching over you these last couple of days, I've had a lot of time to think. I've been trying to decide when we'll know that the personal risks simply won't be worth it anymore."
"When the expectations change."
"Expectations? The Machine really doesn't have expectations, save for acknowledgement of its messages. And mine are pretty much inline with yours, although our ideals may differ now and then. So unless you mean…oh…" Harold's face went serious as a random thought suddenly occurred to him. "Oh, that's very interesting."
"You're suggesting a societal paradigm shift."
John blinked. "I am?"
"Yes. Imagine a society that has become so used to being protected from violence they come to expect it. They stop looking out for their own interests and become reproachful when that protective force isn't there to save them. Good thinking, Mr. Reese. It's not something I had considered myself."
That was a jump… There was no telling what would cause the hacker to geek out, and John had found himself wishing on more than one occasion that the man had come with a warning label about what topics to avoid. "Call it what you want, Finch, but I'd rather risk my life for someone who appreciates the second chance, not one that feels entitled to it."
The door opened to admit Steve. The doctor's crestfallen expression notably brightened when he saw John was awake. "I thought I heard two voices."
"He woke up a few minutes ago," Harold said.
"That's terrific. How do you feel?"
"That's going to be the norm for the next couple of days. Your body's been through the wringer. We've spent the last seventy-two hours chasing your blood pressure and temperature. For awhile there, it looked like we were going to lose you."
"It was late yesterday afternoon when we noticed that things were starting to change for the better," Steve continued. "Your blood pressure stabilized and the abnormalities in your heart rhythm corrected themselves. Your fever broke early this morning and your temperature has been slowly coming down ever since."
"Thanks for the save."
A flicker of emotion played across the doctor's face, vanishing as quickly as it appeared. "You're a very lucky man. Most people don't survive the type of infection you had."
"I have a good support team," John replied, looking over at Harold.
"I think you got help from a number of sources this time, John," the hacker admitted. Although he was still on the fence about the whole religion debate, he was at least willing to consider a greater power had had a hand in his friend's recovery.
"So did Bear show you his new trick?" Steve asked, going to the sink to wash his hands.
"He did." John took one of the tennis balls and flicked it across the room. It was a weak toss, but the dog eagerly chased it down just the same. "I'm glad you two made amends."
"He reminds me of one of the Shepherds we had as a kid; high play drive, stupidly protective. While you were sick, he refused to eat and it took two of us to drag him outside. I knew it was something you were working on together, and figured it was the least I could…" Another flicker of emotion crossed his face and he cleared his throat.
Harold was right; the man was definitely feeling guilty.
"I know you're pretty tired right now, but I'd like to give you a once over before I leave you to rest. Is that all right?"
John nodded and allowed him to make his checks without interruption. As with Harold, he felt he should say something to help ease the doctor's guilt. It was an emotion he was familiar with, and he knew there was little he could say that would make a difference. All of the reassurance and forgiveness in the world would amount to nothing until the guilt was first assuaged from within and the person holding it was willing to let it go.
"Your temperature's still elevated, but you certainly don't need these anymore," Steve said as he pulled several bags of partially melted ice from beneath the blankets. "Hopefully the fever will be gone completely by tonight." He moved down to check John's incision. "Oh, I also taught Bear to balance meatballs on his nose. He's up to three before he loses concentration and eats them."
Steve paused in removing his bandage. "If you're going to tell me this wasn't my fault, please don't. It won't do any good."
"But it was your fault." John saw an expression of absolute horror cross Harold's face. "Your mistake nearly killed me."
The doctor shook his head. "No, Harold. Let him finish – he has every right to be angry."
"Why would I be angry?"
"But…you just…how can you not be angry?"
"You didn't do it on purpose. Your resources were limited – you did what you could with what you were given."
Steve looked confused. "You just told me it was my fault and now you're telling me it's not?"
"I had to get your attention."
Harold's eyebrows rose. Very clever, Mr. Reese…
"But the infection…"
"It was a complication of surgery, Doctor. There was no maliciousness behind your actions."
"That still doesn't make it acceptable."
"Only to you."
"I don't believe this," Steve muttered, removing the bandage with a quick tug. "You sound just like Harold, you know that?"
"Then maybe we're right, Dr. Maxwell," the hacker replied. "Save the guilt for where it's truly due and accept that you had no control over what happened. Believe me, I have my regrets too, but the choices I made were based on our unique situation and the urgency of the matter. We all learn to work with what we're given. The results may not always be what we intend, but as long as we can say we did our best, that's all that really matters."
The doctor frowned. They both made his mistake sound almost acceptable. And John, who had every right to be angry, didn't seem to be harboring any hard feelings at all. By all accounts, the other man's forgiveness should be a blessing. It was his own conscience that was holding him back.
"Doctors aren't supposed to make mistakes," he said quietly. "We're supposed to fix them."
"You fixed me," John replied. "Twice."
"And only an honest doctor would own up to their mistakes and attempt to set them right," Harold added. "As you have done."
Steve looked down at John. Although pale, bedraggled, and visibly exhausted, he was also awake, alert, and looking worlds better than just twenty-four hours before. Realistically, he knew he'd done the best he could with what he'd been given. Even state-of-the-art hospitals made mistakes – minor, major, and fatal – and they were on the cutting edge of technology, education, and staffing. He'd literally been recruited off the streets, given an ambulance, a makeshift infirmary, an eccentric hacker, and a couple of detectives to try and save the life of a man already a foot and a half through death's door. Maybe… he thought with a faint glimmer of optimism. Maybe I didn't do that bad after all…
His epiphany was broken by an explosive sneeze. All eyes turned toward the far corner of the room where Bear was lying on his bed, a tennis ball clutched between his front paws. He was systematically stripping the felt from its surface, covering himself and the floor in green fluff.
"Oh dear. Not again," Harold uttered and hurried over to the dog. "No, Bear. None of that – not in here."
Grinning, Steve turned his attention back to John. His incision wasn't as healed as he would've liked to see, but fighting the systemic infection had taken an immense amount of his body's resources. Now that he was on the mend, the doctor was confident it wouldn't be long before the wound was healed over entirely.
"You're incision is looking good. How's the pain?"
John shrugged. "I'm a little sore."
"There's still some inflammation that needs to go down. I'll take the drain out in day or two; that'll help speed things up. You should be back on your feet in no time." By the time Steve was done cleaning and bandaging the wound, Harold had finished picking up after Bear.
"I will never understand his insistent need to shred and chew," he muttered, picking clusters of fluorescent green fuzz from his suit coat. "You should see what he did to a squirrel he found in the woods the other day. I do hope that poor creature was already dead before he got to it."
John smirked. He was glad to see both men seemed to be feeling better about the decisions they'd made. Guilt could be difficult to overcome, but not impossible. There were events that stuck with you for life – haunting your dreams and sneaking up on you in moments of inattention. Luckily such demons were rare, and experience taught coping skills could be used against them whenever they tried to break free.
"What time is it?" he asked, unable to see the room's clock from where he lay.
"Nearly noon," the doctor replied, collecting the cleaning materials he'd been using.
"Good?" Harold echoed, a little bemused by his friend's response. "You just spent the last three days in a fevered coma. Why is noon good?"
"Lunch," he replied as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. "I'm hungry."
Completely stunned, Harold and Steve looked at each other. Had they really just heard what they thought they had? With three simple words, he had quelled the worries that had preoccupied them ever since he'd taken ill. There was no doubt that John was going to be all right.
Tossing a black duffel bag full of clothes into the trunk, Steve slammed the lid closed and made his way around to the front of his car. It was a beautiful summer morning with warm air and blue, cloudless skies – the perfect conditions for striking out on a new adventure.
"Are you all set with the arrangements I made, Doctor?" Harold asked, limping over to join him.
"Two days to get my affairs in order and then it's off to California. A new house, a new life, a new job…" Steve shook his head. "Stanford. You know, that still doesn't sound right."
"It's highly deserved. You're a highly skilled surgeon and there's no reason why your unfortunate past should keep you from doing what you enjoy."
"Well, I can't thank you enough."
"It's the least I could do for all you've done for myself and John."
Both men turned to look at the side yard. The ex-op was stretched out in a hammock strung between two large trees, trying to persuade Bear to jump up and join him. It was a place he hadn't ventured far from over the past few days, preferring the mild temperatures beneath the shady trees to the over-cooled air of the house. He seemed to be taking his recovery more in stride this time around, and hadn't once challenged the doctor's orders to rest. Everyday marked an improvement, and he was quickly becoming the formidable, yet likable man that Harold had insisted he was.
"Promise me you'll keep him lying low for at least another four weeks?" Steve asked.
"I can assure you he'll get no strenuous work from me. What he may get into while on his own is an entirely different matter."
"He's done quite a bit of healing this past week. He's gaining weight, the infection is gone, and his wound looks really good. He just needs to rebuild his strength and give his ribs a little more time to mend. It won't be long before he's fighting fit again."
Harold raised an eyebrow. The doctor had no idea just how literal his statement was.
Steve opened the driver's door and slid in behind the wheel. He had mixed feelings about leaving. While eager for the chance to start anew, he was also reluctant to leave behind all that had developed during the few weeks. The old farmhouse, the routine, Harold, John, the two detectives, and even Bear would be missed. There was still so much he didn't know about the two men, but he could tell they were good people. They both had a strong passion for helping others – a trait that was rapidly disappearing in today's egocentric society.
"It's going to feel strange working in a hospital again. No more dodging traffic on a bike or throwing belligerent drunks to the curb."
"Do you think you'll miss it?" Harold asked.
"Nope," Steve replied without hesitation. He glanced in the rearview mirror in time to see John precariously lean over and haul Bear up into the hammock. The dog looked alarmed by the swaying motion beneath him, but was quickly reassured by his master's words. He'd said his goodbyes earlier, wishing John the best and insisting he be more careful in his future endeavors. He'd also shaken Bear's paw, and endured a sloppy, wet lick across the face.
"You'll settle back into things soon enough," the hacker replied. "As will John and I."
"You know, you never did tell me what it is you two do."
Harold smiled. He wasn't surprised by the question. In fact, he was surprised the doctor hadn't broached the topic sooner. "We protect people by and large."
"So you're government?"
"To some extent."
Steve frowned. Harold's persistent vagueness made it difficult to piece things together. "You protect people – from what?"
"Various threats. Mostly external sources, but there is the occasional…client that needs protection from themselves."
"How do you know these people are in trouble?"
"That detail is classified, I'm afraid."
"I see… So John was injured protecting someone?"
"A young woman was targeted by her own family. I sent John in to warn her of the impending danger and he inadvertently thwarted an attempt on her life."
"It's admirable work that you do."
"As is yours, Doctor."
"Hardly. You're out there risking your lives everyday. I just make educated guesses as to how to piece people back together again."
"It takes a unique person to handle the pressures and high expectations that are placed on frontline medical professionals. Take some credit where it's due."
Steve conceded with silence. If he'd learned one thing during his time with the two men, it was the ability to realize when arguing wasn't worth the effort. Both John and Harold had strong personalities and when they'd made their mind up about something, it was usually for good reason. Accepting the praise, the doctor started the car and stuck his hand out the window. "Harold, it was nice to meet you. Good luck to you and John, and thank you for the opportunity at a second chance."
Harold took the doctor's hand. "I must say the same to you, Dr. Maxwell. I know life would have gone on if our paths hadn't crossed in the way they did…" He looked over his shoulder. Both man and beast were lying side by side; Bear with his belly turned to the sky and John using one long leg to gently rock the hammock. He smiled. "But I much prefer this outcome to what may have otherwise been."
"Take care, Harold."
"You as well, Doctor." Harold watched with a pang of sadness as Steve put the car into drive and slowly trundled down the driveway. There was a single honk before it rounded the first bend and disappeared from sight forever. Most of the people he'd worked with over the years had come and gone with little emotion spared. Whether it was the duration of their time together or the hellish circumstances that they had endured, Harold couldn't help but feel some regret as he watched the doctor go. Steve would have been a useful resource to have around, both for his medical skills and pragmatic approach under pressure. And a steady supply of those dark chocolate salted caramel cookies would've been nice to have on hand too…
He turned and slowly made his way across the yard toward the grove of trees where John was resting. The lawn was freshly mowed and he found the smell of the cut grass appealing. Although not a stipulation of the usage agreement, he'd spent the last few days cleaning the house in preparation for their departure. Steve had volunteered to take care of the yard, and spent the better part of two afternoons on the riding mower he'd found in the shed. The place looked better than when they'd arrived, and that was just how Harold wanted it to be.
"Dr. Maxwell just left," he announced as he approached the hammock.
John didn't look up from the sheet of paper he was reading. "We should be too."
"I was thinking this afternoon." He gave Bear's exposed belly a rub, prompting the dog to thump his hind leg. "If you're feeling up to it, that is."
Harold watched as John became absorbed in the paper again. "What are you reading?" he asked when he saw the distant look in his eyes.
"A letter from Maggie," he replied. "Carter brought it the last time she was here. I'd forgotten about it until this morning."
"Mrs. Barton is doing well, I hope?"
"Says she is." The letter was largely an expression of gratitude, but she had included several notes about herself and the horses too. John passed his friend a photograph that had come with the correspondence. Shown were two mottled brown horses standing in the middle of a small corral. On the back, the words "Count and Raven: After the storm" were printed in black ink.
"I thought you said Raven was black?"
"She is. That's mud. Maggie said it took several hours to clean them up after they'd been rolling in the rain."
The hacker frowned in distaste. "And here I thought horses were reasonably clean animals." He noticed the date stamped on the photo. "This happened the day you took ill. I don't know what was more frightening: having lightening strike so close to the house or the rate at which your temperature was rising."
Harold sighed as he returned the picture. "Don't worry, Mr. Reese. I won't venture down that road again. It's been a difficult few weeks for all of us and I'm as anxious to move on as you." John's gaze had slipped back to the letter in his hands, but that didn't mean he'd stopped listening. "Just know that I'm glad you're all right and I'm grateful to have you back."
"Maggie wants me to come ride with her again."
"Really?" Although he hadn't replied directly to his sentiments, the subtle flash of emotion that played across John's face told Harold he'd heard everything. "Are you going to go?"
"I might. It was kind of fun."
"For what it's worth, I think you should do it. An extra curricular activity that doesn't involve firearms would do you good."
"She wants you to come too."
The hacker was taken aback. "Me?"
"She said she recently acquired a gaited mule," John said, referencing the letter. "He's smaller than the horses and quiet on the trails. She's been using him to give rides to children and thinks his studious nature would suit you perfectly." He regarded his employer for a moment before nodding his approval. "I can see you on a mule, Finch."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
John merely shrugged.
"No. I don't think so. What with my disabilities and all…"
"They've been using horses in therapy for years. It might do you good to use your muscles in a different way."
Harold shook his head. "It's more complicated than that. You understand. It's more of a…a comfort thing…"
John frowned. He wasn't used to seeing Harold at a loss for words. 'A comfort thing?' What does he mean by…oh... The significance of his friend's ramblings suddenly became very clear. "It really wasn't that bad."
"How would you know? You were heavily medicated in the days following your experience. You never felt a thing. The prolonged abuse of underutilized muscles would undoubtedly result in severe discomfort that I would rather not…" John's small grin had grown into a rare, full-blown smile. "What?"
"You could use the cushion, Finch."
Harold bristled when he realized he had become a source of amusement for his friend. "For someone who had his own initial misgivings about riding, you have surprisingly little sympathy."
"I'm only offering you what you offered me. And…" he said with a teasing twinkle in his eyes. "It is a really nice cushion."
Harold had had enough goading. "I suggest you get some rest, Mr. Reese. We have a long drive ahead of us this afternoon."
As the hacker stalked away, John couldn't help but chuckle. He knew Harold wasn't really angry, and their banter was all in good fun. He doubted he'd ever be able to change his friend's mind about going for a ride. Smooth gaited or not, the resulting stress on his body would make it even more difficult for him to get around. It was still fun to tease him about it, though.
Tucking Maggie's letter back into its envelope, John reached over and gave Bear a quick scratch. With his feet and belly toward the sky, the dog looked about as dangerous as a wet napkin. An epitome of comfort, the large animal knew how to take relaxation to the extreme.
He settled himself more comfortably in the hammock. He had no intention of falling asleep, but his eyes quickly grew heavy and dropped closed. The last month had been fraught with difficulties, but they'd all managed to come through. Whether it was luck, sheer stubbornness, or the work of some greater power, it was apparent his journey wasn't over yet. He had found his purpose in life, and as long as his expertise was needed, he would continue to do whatever it took to overcome the challenges and persevere.
Nestled next to his dog and surrounded by the warmth of the mid summer morning, John slowly descended toward sleep. They would be returning to the chaos of the city soon, resuming their roles as servants to The Machine and saviors to the Numbers. For now though, he was content to enjoy the moment of peace and let his mind drift toward the future and the unlimited possibilities that it promised.