She was as beautiful as ever, her bright red hair shining softly in the evening light of this warm summer day. As if sensing his presence, she straightened at her easel and looked over her shoulder. Hesitant, unsure of what would be her reaction to his "resurrection", Harold didn't dare to move. Her gaze fell on him, and a soft smile slowly enlightened her face. A warm wave grew inside Harold's chest, radiating throughout his body. He smiled back.
As if they were both afraid to break the spell, unsure that this moment was truly real, they walked toward each other very slowly, without breaking eye contact.
"Harold," she said with her sweet and melodious voice, which he had missed so much. "It's really you, isn't it?"
They fell into each other's arms. Unable to speak, Harold let the wave of happiness rush over him. Finally, after all those years, he was feeling whole again. He was holding Grace in his arms. She was here, with him, gently wrapping her arms around his torso, her hands stroking the small of his back. But as he was overwhelmed by the tenderness of the moment, Harold remembered that it was all thanks to John. His happy ending was at the price of his friend's sacrifice. A price that John knowingly paid, for him.
And Harold finally burst into tears. Unable to hold them any longer, he let the tears fall from his eyes, heavy, painful, bitter. His body was shaken by uncontrollable sobs. The outpouring was unstoppable.
He buried his face in Grace's shoulder and she pressed him more firmly in her embrace. She was speaking softly to him, but he couldn't make out the words. Gently, she pulled him toward the closest bench and they sat, leaning in each other's hold, arms entangled.
After what seemed like an embarrassing eternity, Harold finally managed to get a bit of control over his sobbing. He pulled away, took off his glasses and swept away his tears. He put his glasses back on and turned to Grace, who was looking intently at him, her big blue eyes filled with concern.
"I'm sorry," he said in a raspy voice. "This was probably not what you expected."
She smiled softly. "I wasn't expecting anything, Harold."
Harold's already battered heart brutally sank further in his chest. Of course, she wasn't expecting any of this. He was dead to her. He had been dead for six years. Because he let her believe so. A knot of guilt in the stomach, Harold looked up at her, expecting to read reproach in her eyes. But he only saw kindness and a hint of interrogation. He didn't deserve someone so good.
"Harold," she repeated softly. "I hadn't said that name in so long. I've missed saying it." She tilted her head and smiled cheekily. "And I've missed you, of course."
"I'm so sorry, Grace," Harold finally managed to articulate. "Words simply cannot convey how sorry I am."
He had been dreaming of this moment so many times, despite having the absolute certitude it would never actually happen. He had made his choice and he had accepted it was the right thing to do. But at the same time, he couldn't prevent his imagination from running all the possible scenarios he could come up with. He'd picked different settings, played imaginary dialogues in his head, tried to guess her reaction. He had imagined her crying. Or smiling, or being angry. Disappointed sometimes, to learn that he hadn't trusted her. But he had never thought any of it would ever happen.
And yet, it did.
Because of John.
John, the selfless hero, who was always putting his life on the line so that people could safely live theirs, and who had sacrificed it for his friend. John, who made the world safe again – or at least finally safe enough for Harold to reunite with Grace.
"He saved my life," he said, as if it was enough to explain everything. "It was his final gift. He died so that I could live. I tried to save him. I even locked him up." Harold shook his head. "But they conspired against me. To save me. Just as I was trying to save them. He was such a good friend, and a good man."
He closed his eyes and the memory of John on the rooftop, blurred by the distance but his voice crystal clear in Harold's ear, resurfaced. Good bye, Harold.
Why? Why couldn't John accept Harold's attempt at saving him? Why did he have to outsmart him and go against Harold's will? Harold couldn't believe John and the Machine had had a deal all this time. In a way, it shouldn't surprise him. He should have known. Both John and the Machine were born to protect people and both had grown unreasonably protective of him, despite Harold's best efforts to tell them otherwise.
"Who saved your life? Who are you talking about?"
Grace's voice startled him and called him back to the present.
"John," Harold said in a whisper.
He tried to remember what name John had used with her. "I believe you knew him as Detective Stills. But to me, he was Mr. Reese."
"Oh. Yes, I remember him. Tall, kind eyes…" Her voice trailed off. "It was you on the bridge, wasn't it? They were looking for you?" She said after a pause.
Harold nodded. "Yes, and I'm sorry you got drawn into that. The reason why I let you believe I was dead was precisely to avoid such things. I wanted to protect you."
Grace gently squeezed Harold's hands in hers. "I think it's time you tell me what I need to know about you, and about what you do."
Harold suddenly straightened up and gazed around. With all the emotions caused by seeing Grace again, he had forgotten where he was and had let his guard down. Now he felt terribly exposed. He scanned the area for surveillance cameras, scrutinized the crowd for anyone suspiciously standing out.
"Could we go somewhere more private?"
Grace led Harold to her small apartment in an old building a little outside of Rome's city center. All the way, she held his hand tightly in hers. She could barely take her eyes off him. It felt so surreal, so impossible, that she was afraid to wake up at any moment and realize it was just a dream. But even if it was just a dream, it sure was a lovely one. She'd have to try and remember all the little details.
She didn't really understand the chain of events that had miraculously brought Harold back to her, but it was clear it had been a difficult and terribly emotional journey for him. The few years that kept them apart had taken their toll on him. He seemed older, tired. Grace also noticed his stiff posture and his limp that were new to her. Something had fundamentally changed in Harold.
She let him in, encouraged him to sit down and relax, patting the sofa cushions. "Make yourself at home, Harold. I'm going to make you some tea."
She disappeared into the kitchen and quickly boiled some water. She prepared a small tray with a cup, a box of Sencha green tea and a plate of Italian cookies. She poured the steaming water into the cup and brought the tray to Harold, who was quietly observing his surroundings from his spot on the sofa. Grace noticed his gaze lingering on the small bookshelf and the picture of the two of them displayed in front of it. A small smile, full of tenderness, finally appeared on his face.
He turned his attention back to her. "I kept it too. An encrypted file on my computer. That was terribly unsafe, but looking at it every once in a while brought me an ounce of solace."
She laughed. "Then I feel a lot less foolish about this," she said, pointing at the box of Sencha green tea. "I was keeping a box, which is silly and terribly sentimental, but the presence of that little box of your tea was comforting. That was the one little thing of you that I couldn't get rid of. This and our picture," she added, pointing at it.
She put the tray on the coffee table in front of him and she sat down by his side, snuggling against him and resting her head on his shoulder.
"I've missed this," she said, more to herself than to Harold. She straightened up and looked him in the eyes. "Okay, now tell me everything."
And so he did. It was all confused, and out of order. There was a lot Grace didn't really grasp. He told her about his friend Nathan, and about the machine they built together.
"The ferry bombing in 2010 was my fault. They thought Nathan built the Machine on his own. He was about to talk to the press, they couldn't let this happen. So they killed everyone, to keep the Machine secret. The Machine I built. All those people died because of me."
"No, Harold," Grace said, "this wasn't your fault."
"I tried to talk Nathan out of it. I tried…" Harold's voice broke and his eyes filled with tears again. "First Nathan, now John… Both such dear friends, and incredibly good men…" Harold shook his head. "It's not fair that I'm the one that gets to live."
Harold fell silent and pensively took a sip from his tea. "What I would give to be able to show Nathan what we did. The team. All the irrelevant people we saved over the years. All thanks to his irrelevant protocol. In a way, Nathan is the one who saved all those people."
Grace gently stroked his arm. "Nathan would have been proud of what you accomplished."
He put the cup back on the tray and turned to face Grace. Through the lenses of his glasses, his clear blue eyes locked into hers.
"They killed him because he knew about the Machine. And when I saw you at the emergency shelter, I panicked. I was afraid they'd find out about me and that they'd go after everyone I knew. After you. And I couldn't bear the pain of even risking endangering your life."
Grace's heart ached, remembering that fateful day when she had lost her fiancé. The pain, the months of mourning, everything came back to her.
"I'm sorry," Harold said in a low voice, gently sweeping away the tear that was rolling down her cheek.
She shook her head. "I understand, Harold. You did what you had to do. I'm just grateful you finally came back to me. And I hope I won't lose you again."
He looked up and she saw in his eyes, all he didn't dare to say. That he didn't want to lose her either, but that he couldn't make her the promise not to disappear again.
"Back when I was still testing it, the machine sent me your number. It was like she was playing matchmaker."
Grace laughed. "Now I can see this is a very intelligent machine."
It was funny to hear Harold talk about his machine, almost like it was a friend. A child maybe. He even gave it a gender. Harold talked for hours, mostly about his secret mission with his incredible team of misfits, Lionel, Joss, Shaw, Root – that one sounded plain crazy - but the one person that Harold's thoughts kept coming back to, that seemed to have been the center of his existence for the past five years, was his friend John. There was no one he talked about with more fondness.
"He had such a big heart. And he came so close to dying without knowing all the potential for good that he had in him. There was something heartbreaking in the way he always seemed surprised that I'd keep coming to save him."
"How did you two meet?"
"The Machine introduced us too. I've always thought it was because she saw his incredible skills and the great team we'd make – and we did make a great team. But now I wonder…"
He marked a pause, lost himself in his thoughts.
"What is it?" Grace asked softly.
"I think all along, she just wanted to protect me."
"Of course she did. She's a reflection of you, Harold. And you built this machine to protect people. It's a beautiful thing that you built. I can see why your friends valued you so much."
Harold felt silent again, clearly reliving painful events.
"Do you have any pictures of them, Nathan and John?" she asked softly.
Harold shook his head sadly. "I had an old picture of me and Nathan from college, but I've lost it. And John and I were so paranoid about getting caught, that we never made any pictures. All I had were ID mug shots and I didn't keep them."
Harold's phone beeped. Surprised, he wriggled to retrieve it from his pocket. Grace bent over to look over his shoulder. It was a new email. There was no subject line and no text. Not even any sender information. It only contained three attached files, labelled Nathan, John and team.
Heart suddenly pounding, Harold opened them. The first one was a copy of his lost picture with Nathan from MIT. The second one was a picture of him and John walking Bear near Bryant Park in New York. Finally, the last one seemed to be a capture from surveillance footage, showing the Queensboro Bridge from Brooklyn. In the foreground, he recognized the figures of Shaw, Root, himself, John and Lionel.
"Send them to me," Grace suggested, "I'll print them."
Harold shook his head. "It wouldn't be safe."
"Think the Machine would send you those pictures if she didn't think it was safe enough?"
Harold looked taken aback. But he relaxed and smiled. "You're catching up fast."
He forwarded her the email, and she went to her computer to have the pictures printed. She then collected them from her printer and put them next to their photo on the bookshelf.
"Tomorrow we'll go and buy some proper frames for them," she said.
Harold got up and slid his arms around her waist as they looked at the pictures. "Thank you," he said tenderly. "I love you."