The bus stops at Penn Station, and John decides to get off here. He doesn't know why, really. He just needs some air. He's suffocating in that bus and people are looking at him sideways. Not that he cares, really, but he'd rather not draw too much attention. So, as the back doors of the bus open, he slides out of the vehicle and starts walking. He doesn't know where he's going. It doesn't matter. He has nowhere to go. No one to go back to.
You have no family.
That wasn't true before, but it is, now, and it hurts. Like a hole in the heart. He had a family. He had Jessica. It didn't matter that they weren't together, as long as he knew she was out there, somewhere. She was his family. That one person who was still connecting him to the world, beyond the darkness he has lost himself into. His lighthouse. And now she was gone. Because he failed her. She asked for his help, she called him. Because he, too, was family to her. No matter who she was married to, she knew John would be there for her. She expected him to be there for her.
And he wasn't.
She called him, and he didn't come. He didn't save her.
The one person that mattered the most in the world.
He didn't save her.
As he walks, lost in his thoughts, through Manhattan, someone bumps into him, violently bringing him back to the present. It's a tourist, with a big backpack and a Yankee cap, too busy looking up at the skyscrapers to look where he's going. John darts him a dark look and groans as the contact has awoken the pain of his injury. That murderous idiot Peter had managed to stab him with a kitchen knife. John feels the rage of anger boil in his veins all over again. He wants to kill him all over again.
You know, you were right. In the airport, the last time I saw you. You said that in the end we were all alone.
And she was alone. He let her die alone.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry…" he murmurs.
He can feel the tears rising. He doesn't care. He doesn't hold them back. He let them roll down his cheek, bitter, cold, desperate.
He continues to walk, aimless. He doesn't know where to go, but he doesn't know where to stop either. He doesn't even have a job anymore. He sacrificed everything for it, he sacrificed his dream of a life with Jessica for them. And they sent him to his own death. Without even a single hint of regret. Feeding him lies that Kara was compromised all the while feeding her similar lies that he was compromised.
He doesn't know what to do with himself. He wants to curl down in a hole, disappear. He wants the pain to stop. He feels hollow, useless.
And he hates himself. He hates who he has become. What they made of him.
We're not walking in the dark. We are the dark.
He doesn't want to be the dark anymore. He has kept telling himself, for five years, that it was a necessary evil. Someone had to do what other people couldn't do. Someone had to kill the bad guys. And since he was good at it, he seemed to be a natural choice. It made sense. But every single life he's taken has, in turn, taken away a little piece of his soul. And now he's left with the dead weight of his empty shell, and it suddenly feels too heavy for him to bear.
Now that they've trashed him away, how does he go back to the light?
Somehow, this is night time now. Exhausted, eaten with despair, John shivers in the cold night. His jacket is not enough to protect him against the brisk gusts of winter. And the blood loss from his injury makes it worse. He doesn't care. But he should probably take care of it anyway.
He spots a Walgreen and walks in. Quickly striding through the aisles, he picks up the necessary medical supplies – gauze, bandage, disinfectant, sewing kit – and a couple of bottles of whisky. He also needs to replace his blood stained shirt which is gaining him some wary looks from people in the store. He finds some souvenir t-shirts full of New York City imageries. Jaded, he picks up a black t-shirt with the skyline sketched on the front, before heading to the checkout.
"Can I see an ID?" the cashier asks.
John shots him one of his most deadly look.
"For… For the alcohol," the cashier tries to explain, turning white.
"I do not have an ID," John replies, low and cold, as he drops some cash on the counter. The cashier, trembling like a leaf, bags everything as fast as he can and takes the money without a word.
John checks in into a cheap and discreet Midtown hotel that accepts cash and doesn't ask names. He should be safe here. At least for the night. It's not a CIA approved hotel, so in the unlikely case they'd be looking for him, this hotel is probably not on top of their surveillance list.
More by habit than by conviction, he stills tours the floor, checks all the potential exists and looks through the window to make sure there's no suspicious activity. Then, he locks himself up, sits on the bed, takes off his jacket and shirt and takes care of his wound.
It's only a matter of a few minutes. He's fixed himself up more than he can count. Gunshots, stab wounds, dislocated shoulder, you name them. Once it's done, he puts on his new t-shirt. Looking at the incongruous cheerful cityscape drawing makes him think of Kara. He can just picture the ironic look she'd be shooting him if she was there. But she's not. Because she's dead. They're all dead.
He grabs a bottle of whisky. The alcohol should help numb the pain. All his pains. Before he knows it, he's drinking himself into oblivion.
- Then ask me to stay. I will. I'll quit.
- Okay, then quit.
- I already did.
John wakes up in a jolt and as reality comes crashing, his heart shatters in his chest. Those sweet memories of Jessica used to be his safe place. Whenever things were becoming too hard for his soul to bear, he'd think of her, of his dream of a life with Jessica. But now that she's dead, it won't ever happen, and his dreams suddenly taste bitter and cruel.
Angrily sweeping away his tears, he grabs what's left of his second bottle of whisky and switches on the TV, hoping that the combination of booze and noise would numb his mind enough.
It does not.
So, instead, he starts plotting all the dozen ways he could kill Mark Snow. And Alicia Corwin, too, for good measure. It's their fault. It's all their fault. They should pay for it. It would only be justice. After all, isn't it what he is meant for, kill the bad guys? And those two sure qualify.
"Revenge is not the answer. I thought I taught you better, son."
John jumps off the bed, highly distraught. His heart is pounding against his chest and it takes him a moment to calm down and catch his breath. He must be seriously wasted, that he's hearing his father's voice.
He throws the two bottles in the trash, though it's more symbolic than anything as they're both empty. Some fresh air would do him some good, but it's still the middle of the night and he prefers to wait for daylight before venturing outside. Of course, it's not that he's scared of petty criminals, but the last thing he wants is to attract attention by getting himself into unwanted trouble. So, instead, he decides to take a shower to sober up. He stays there for a long time, letting the scalding water wash away the blood, all the blood that is on his hands. He feels dirty to the bones, and there will never be enough water in the whole world to wash away all his sins. How does one clean their soul? Fix their soul?
Will he ever feel whole again?
At least feeling a bit more relaxed, if not more at peace, he puts his clothes back on, lies down on the bed and quickly falls asleep again.
The sun is already high in the sky when he wakes up again. Before leaving the room, he erases all traces of his stay, wipes the bathroom, cleans the bed and burns the trashes.
He stops by a pastries food truck to buy a couple of donuts as a late breakfast. As he is waiting in line, he gets the distinct feeling that he's being observed. Instantly on alert he scans the street, looking for anyone looking suspicious. He spots a couple of businessmen, deep in conversation, a group of Japanese tourists, a man in a wheelchair, a young student with her arms full of books, a panhandler at the corner, but no one that would suspiciously stand out.
"You're getting paranoid, John," he mutters to himself.
He bites into his donut and goes on his aimless journey through the Big Apple. He explores the city for hours, without really seeing anything. It's a blur of streets, crossroads, tall and small buildings.
His walk takes him to a small park in Chinatown and he decides to settle there. He sits down on a bench and studies the people walking by. They seem so innocent, almost aliens. Kara was right, he's not the same species anymore.
He wonders how she managed to live with that. It has always seemed so easy for Kara. Always doing what she was asked to, without question, without hesitation. She's been such a good soldier, giving herself 100% to the cause. And they got rid of her just the same. It was clear now that they had lied, Kara wasn't compromised. He should have known. He should have trusted her. Except she did shoot him. Without question. Without hesitation.
After everything they've lived together, travelling to the end of the world and back, saving each other's lives more than he could count, she just shot him like that, simply because they told her to. He bet she didn't even ask why, didn't even question their words.
What a fucking twisted world, where you can't trust anyone, where the one person closest to you could shoot you in the gut without second thought, where no one cares about you. This is not the world he wants to live in. How did he end up there? How fool was he to think it was the right thing to do, that he was making a difference? How could he think they were the good guys when they were all so horrible human beings?
Lost in the darkness of his mind, he doesn't see the day passing by. The sun is already setting and the crowd of the park clears out gradually until he's left alone. He lies down on the bench and falls into a dark and restless sleep.
He wakes up in a jolt when he feels someone's presence close to him. He springs up and darts a cold eye at the intruder. It's an old woman, dirty and disheveled. She jumps back, visibly scared by his assassin stare. Oddly, for the first time, John feels ashamed of his instinct reaction. She doesn't seem much of a threat. She's just one of the many anonymous homeless in the city and he doubts she's hiding a rifle in that big cart full of crap she's pushing.
"Hey, easy there, Blue Eyes," she says.
He forces himself to relax and tries to smile. "Sorry," he mumbles. "Didn't mean to scare you."
She shrugs it off. "I was just checking you were still alive. This is not a night to sleep outside in the cold," she says.
John shrugs and remains silent.
"You're new in town," she continues. "What brought you here?"
Even if somehow he could tell anyone, he is in no mood to talk. Once again he just shrugs.
She gives him a long stare down. Her gaze lingers on his face. She tries to read him but he locks himself down and looks away.
"It's okay, Blue Eyes," she says finally. She's kind, friendly, and somehow seems to understand. "We have a bon fire in that old warehouse down near the Brooklyn bridge. It's not a palace, but it's a little warmer."
John shakes his head. He's just fine here.
She looks at him and sighs. She ruffles through the stuff in her cart and pulls out an old filthy blanket that once must have been pink.
"There, at least take this," she says, handing it to him. "Name's Joan, if you ever change your mind."
He takes it mechanically and mumbles a thank you. He looks at her as she walks away, pushing her heavy cart in front of her.
As exhaustion wins him over once again, he lies back down on his bench, puts the blanket under his head, crosses his arms around his torso, and falls back into a restless sleep.
John wakes up at the crack of dawn. He's so cold that he has to clench his teeth to prevent them from clattering. At least the cold seems to have managed to numb his pain a little. He briefly considers staying there, on his cold, windy bench, until death comes to deliver him from his burden, but something holds him back. It just feels wrong to leave it to Joan to come and find him dead, her blanket under his head. He should at least give her the blanket back first.
Numb from the cold, he gets up from his bench and goes on wandering around Manhattan. The walk warms him a little and he can feel the heat gradually returning to his cheeks and the fog dissipating from his mind.
Suddenly, as his CIA training finally kicks back in, he feels like he's again being watched. Once again on high alert, he looks around. Could his former employers be after him after all? Could they know he made it out?
He knows he left a lot of finger prints as Jessica's house. He didn't bother erasing any evidence of his presence there. It doesn't matter anyway. It's not the first time. But he's a ghost. He doesn't exist. His finger prints lead to no one.
Still, he can feel someone is watching him. As he turns around, his gaze crosses the one of a middle-aged man in a wheelchair. He's wearing an impeccable suit, and thick glasses. The man looks back at him from under his hat, with surprise – and a hint of terror. He does look like he's been caught the hand in the jar, but John doubts the CIA would send a crippled man after him.
Discarding the rich guy in his wheelchair as any sort of threat, John continues to scan his surroundings but he doesn't see anyone suspicious, only people minding their own business, living their own normal, innocent lives. Still John's sixth sense is never wrong. Someone was watching. He needs to disappear, go deeper into the darkness. He doesn't want the CIA – or anyone – to find him. Ever.
With regret, he pulls out of his pocket the old cellphone, with inside the SIM card whose number he had only given to one person: Jessica.
No point in keeping it now.
Three months that message she left had been his lifeline. Struggling to survive in the middle of China, he had been listening to the sound of her voice over and over, hoping with all his heart that she would have, indeed, waited for him.
But he had been too late. The line will now be silent forever. With a heavy heart, he takes apart the phone, bends and breaks the SIM card and throws everything away in a trash nearby.
He arrives shortly before noon. He hesitates for a second on the threshold. He scans the entire space, studies the place, and the people. He's quick and efficient. He's like no one Joan has ever seen around here. From his suit to the way he holds himself, everything in him screams that he doesn't belong here. She's actually surprised that he took her invitation. She wasn't really expecting him to come.
He spots her quickly in the crowd and walks directly to her.
"I wanted to give you this back," he says in a low voice, handing her the blanket.
Joan notices it's folded exactly the way she had. He probably hasn't even used it. She shakes her head.
"Keep it, it's cold out there this time of year."
He doesn't argue. He looks exhausted and hollow. A man at the end of his rope if she's seen any.
"I need a place to stay the night," he says. His voice is barely more than a murmur.
With a wave of the hand, she encompasses the whole space. "Find yourself a spot, son. Everyone's welcome. Just don't walk on anyone else's space."
He nods and walks away, effortlessly maneuvering among the little crowd as to not disturb anyone. He finding himself a spot in a dark corner, aside from the main group of people. His back on the wall, he sits there and doesn't move all day, gazing into the distance.
At first, Joan is a little concerned that the stranger might be source of trouble. But he turns out not to be. He keeps to himself, barely moves from his corner.
As night comes, she approaches and crouched next to him. He startles lightly, as her presence pulls him out of his torpor.
"What's your name?" she asks softly.
He looks up at her but doesn't answer. His gaze his dark and painful. Now that she's close, she can see the marks left by the tears on his cheeks.
"What happened to you?"
He swallows and looks away.
"Have you eaten anything?"
He shrugs. He's not making it any easy. But he isn't rejecting her either. He simply doesn't seem to care one way or another. Joan sits next to him and pulls out a piece of bread and what remains of an old tablet of chocolate. She breaks both in two pieces and hands him a half of each.
"Come on, Blue Eyes, you gotta eat something," she says encouragingly.
He looks up at her and gives her a hint of a smile. "Thank you."
They eat together, in silent. He eats with appetite. He probably hadn't eaten much lately.
"Name's John," he says finally, as he finishes the last bite of his chocolate.
Joan smiles at him. "Nice to meet you, John."
Over the next few days, Joan keeps an eye on John, making sure he eats enough, keeping him company from time to time. He doesn't talk much, and doesn't share a single thing about himself. All she can gather is that, whatever happened, it has left him in ruins.
He doesn't cause any troubles, but he doesn't make any friends either. Solitary and essentially mute, his presence feels vaguely menacing to the other members of the little community living in the abandoned warehouse. Joan can feel he doesn't mean any harm, but people can't help but feel wary about him.
Until an incident changes everything.
There is among their community, a young lady named Lily. She has fled an abusive relationship and is hiding from her boyfriend, Tom. But that day, he has finally caught up with her. He shows up in the warehouse late at night. Joan, Lily and a few others are sharing a frugal meal by the fire. Tom is angry and clearly drunk. Poor Lily is instantly petrified. She tries to protest as he grabs her, but her 100 pounds are of no match to his 200. Faster than anyone else, John suddenly materializes between them.
"Don't," he says in a cold voice, grabbing Tom's hand and forcing him to let go of Lily.
In two quick and precise moves, he knocks him to the ground. He blocks Tom by weighting his knee on his ribcage and holding his forearms against the man's throat.
It is dark, and it's hard to see around, but Joan is close enough to see John's face, lit by the flames of the fire. What she sees chills her to the bones. His eyes have the same cold and murderous look as that first time she saw him, in the park. For a few scary seconds, she's convinced he's going to kill the man right there. It wouldn't be hard, all he needs is to keep his hold just a little longer, suffocating the man. But John seems to snap out of it at the last second. He releases his hold and grabs Tom by the collar, forcing him to stand up. He pulls him close, barely two inches from his face.
"If you ever come near Lily again," he breathes menacingly, "I'll kill you. That's a promise."
He briskly releases Tom, who stumbles back and runs away.
And this is when Joan witnesses something extraordinary. Once he's sure Tom is gone, John turns back to Lily, who has remained hunched and listless on the ground. John crouches next to her, and offers her a hand. Very gently, he helps her sit up. He puts a protective hand on her knee.
"Are you hurt?" he asks softly.
She shakes her head. Lily leans forward and buries her head in his shoulder, her whole body is still trembling.
"It's okay, you're safe now."
His voice is barely more than a whisper. He's gentle and reassuring, keeping her in his arms until she calms down. The contrast with the monster he has let shown a minute ago is so striking that Joan doubts her own senses. It's like there are two men – a monster and an angel – living in the same body.
Completely oblivious that he's the center of all attentions, John only cares about Lily. Sitting by her side, he pulls out of his pocket a piece of chocolate and offers it to her.
She gives him a small smile and he smiles back at her.
This event seems to break the ice. John is now considered a true member of the community. It doesn't make him any more prone to open than he was, but when they offer him to join a game of cards, or a place near the fire to share a frugal dinner, he accepts. Little by little, he finds his place in the community and it seems to do him some good.
But his demons are never far, and come back to haunt him when he's alone. He doesn't seem able to find sleep without knocking back a full bottle of whisky and there are days where he doesn't move from his dark spot at all. Other days, he wanders off and takes long walks around the city. More often than not, he comes back with bruises on his knuckles and though he refuses to say anything, Joan suspects he's been looking for troubles in some filthy bar. There's a condensed rage in him that he seems to need to let go every now and then.
Early one morning she comes sit next to him and shakes him up. He grumbles and laboriously sits up. By now, his thick grey beard is eating his face, but under his unruly shock of hair his eyes shine from a friendly fire as he recognizes her.
"You know, stealing a poor man's booze, it's really low," she says, pointing at the empty bottle lying by his side. "I've heard complaints…"
John shrugs and looks down. "I'll repay them."
He shrugs again.
Joan stands up. "If you're gonna drink everyone's booze, you'll have to do your share for the community. Come on."
She goes get her cart and together they go touring the various parks around the city. They stop by a shelter that collects all sort of donations and go and distribute them to the many people who are reluctant to go to such places, giving here a loaf of bread, there milk, or some change of clothes. Officially, it's so that he'd do his share for the community – and repay for the booze he keeps stealing – but mostly, Joan wants to keep him busy, give him something to take his mind off his own misery. Anything, really, that would give him something to do with himself.
One day, as they're wandering Columbus Park, they pass by old Han playing Chinese chess with a young man and John stops to watch them. The teenager has obviously very little clue what is he doing, and as he's about to make a wrong move, John shakes his head and discreetly signals him to play a different piece.
"D4," he announces, and John silently nods his approval.
They play that way for a few minutes. The blind man is surprised by the turn of the game, but it isn't long until he breaks into a large smile and tilts his head.
"Stranger," he calls John, "why don't you sit and play a game with me, instead of helping my grandson cheat?"
Blushing, the young man slides aside on his bench to let John take his place. John hesitates a moment and sits down at the table.
The old blind man holds his hand out. "I'm Han," he says.
John shakes his hand. "I'm John."
"So you know how to play xiangqi?"
"I've spent a couple months in China," John says.
Joan leaves John to his new friend, and goes back to her distribution tour around the park. When she passes by them again an hour later, both men look totally absorbed in the party. As Han comments on the move his opponent just announced, John laughs. Joan doesn't know a thing about xiangqi but that is the first time she has ever seen John so relaxed. It looks like those two have found the perfect partner.
Satisfied, Joan takes her cart and rolls it back to the warehouse.
Days morph into weeks, then months. Summer rolls by. With his tousled beard, his heavy bangs falling on his eyes, and the random rags that have replaced his old suit, there seem to be nothing left of the tall and dark stranger. John is just one among the thousands of homeless shadows living around New York City.
His life is rhythmed by the collect and distribution of food, the games with Han, and, sadly, dark and drunken nights. Joan has tried, time after time, to make him stop drinking so much. But there seems to be a stronger, irresistible force, eating him from the inside, consuming him. Joan is worried that ultimately, it'll kill him. And the worse thing is that it seems to be precisely what he's waiting for.
One day, Joan finds her old blanket, clean and properly folded, deposited next to her during the night.
John is gone.
For months, she wonders, worried, where he went, why he left, where he could be.
Until that day, some six months later, where he stops by, asking to hide a young man on the run. They cause quite the chaos in the warehouse, when some heavy armed men come looking for the young man.
But that doesn't really matter. The warehouse can be cleaned, and naturally, John and his protégé make sure to help and repay for the damages. No, what really matters to Joan is the noticeable change in John. He's back in his suit, which seems to be a much more natural choice of clothes for him. He's in good form, clean shaven and seems to be taking good care of himself. All of those changes are good signs. But most importantly Joan can see in his confident demeanor and in his clear blue eyes, John has found what to do with himself.