"Time to wake up, Harold."
It couldn't be, not really, he was still exhausted. It was just Nathan messing with him. He pulled a pillow over his head. "Just thirty minutes more."
Nathan. He sat bolt upright, gasping against the sudden pain in his side.
"Easy there." A hand on his shoulder, Nathan's cherished hand, steadied him back against his headboard.
He blinked slowly against the light streaming in through their dorm room window, Nathan slowly coming into sharper focus, perched on the edge of the other bed, a glass of whisky in his hand.
"Do you have one of those for me?"
"Not in your condition."
"My condition?" He could just make out the edge of bandages where his faded MIT T-shirt was riding up on his stomach. "What happened?"
"You were shot, Harold."
It didn't make any sense. They were safe in their room. From his bed he could see the computer parts for his mid-term project scattered across his desk and in their open closet the pile of dirty clothes he could never quite get Nathan to put in a laundry basket.
"What's the punch line?" It had to be the set-up for yet another one of Nathan's endless practical jokes.
"You weren't punched, you were shot."
He didn't have time for this, Dr. Webber was expecting him for his office hours and— he couldn't move. He tried to swing his legs around to get out of bed and he couldn't move. Something wasn't right.
Nathan. Nathan wasn't right. The Nathan sat across from him was middle-aged, graying and wearing a bespoke suit that must have cost at least five thousand dollars... and how did he know it would have cost Nathan that much? "Am I dead?"
"No, but I am." Nathan drained his glass and put it down on his bedside table. "Thanks for making it Macallan by the way." Nathan slowly looked around the room. "Interesting you'd imagine us back here." He gestured at the room's doorknob. "You even remembered that ugly tie."
The ugly tie that Nathan had bought in Atlantic City for a joke was hanging where it always had when not in use. Never intended for wearing just for signaling purposes, it was emblazoned with a brightly stitched hula dancer.
He'd been in love with Nathan back then, in their first year at MIT, and when Nathan had kissed him he'd been ecstatic. Nathan had only been his third lover but for one glorious week he'd imagined their whole future together. But then he'd come home from the library and found that damn tie hanging off the outside doorknob, Nathan's usual way of letting him know he was fucking someone in their room.
Nathan hadn't made him any promises and had seemed genuinely surprised that Harold wasn't interested in continuing to be his fuck buddy. Much as it had hurt, they'd salvaged their friendship which had been one of the most precious things in his life.
And then Nathan had died. He'd died far too young in the ferry bombing and all because of Harold's hubris.
"Don't be a damn fool, Harold."
He knew he hadn't said anything out loud.
"I can read it on your face." Nathan crossed the small room to perch on the edge of Harold's bed. "It was my choice, my decision to do the right thing as I saw it. You tried to make me stop but I wouldn't and then I had to drag you into it." Nathan held his hand. "I'm proud of the work you've done with the Machine, how you've devoted your life to it but you shouldn't be alone, Harold."
"I'm not alone."
"Don't be obtuse, it doesn't suit you." Nathan reached to caress his face. "You deserve happiness. Your Mr. Reese—"
"He's not mine."
"—but he wants to be and you know it, you just won't give him the chance."
"I can't take any more losses, Nathan." He clasped Nathan's hand to his cheek. "And I don't have to if I just stay here with you."
"But we're not really here and you're not really dead yet and won't be for a good long while if John has anything to do with it."
The pain when it hit was excruciating. "Please, don't make me leave."
"Goodbye, old friend."
"Harold? Please wake up."
He knew he was in a hospital room before he even opened his eyes, the chemically created 'clean' smell overwhelming and all too familiar. "You took me to a hospital?"
He hadn't realized John was holding his hand until he let go of it.
"Sorry, Professor Whistler. You were collateral damage in a drive-by shooting. Luckily my partner and I were able to get you to safety in time."
John was making it clear he hadn't blown their cover by bringing him to the emergency room and, now fully awake, he remembered everything that had happened.
Benson had shot him in the back when he'd turned towards John in the alley. He vividly remembered John's expression as the bullet had torn through his side, the pain etched in every line of his face. No, John couldn't take any more personal losses either and no drug induced phantom, no matter how beloved and obligingly forgiving of Harold's sins, could convince him to seek his own selfish happiness at John's expense.
It was better to keep his distance. "I'm rather tired, Detective Riley."
John's mouth narrowed into a thin hard line. "Then I'll leave you to sleep."
John stood up and was turning to go when Harold spotted it, draped across the hospital bed table. "Where did that come from?"
John picked up the tie. "The nurse said they found it when they had to cut your clothes off. I told her it wasn't yours but she insisted."
"It's mine. A gift from an old friend."
A rare grin broke out on John's face as he ran his thumb across the hula dancer.
Harold patted the side of the bed and when John sat back down he reached out to take his hand, running his own thumb caressingly across its back. John's grin grew exponentially before he carefully leaned in closer to kiss him for the first time.
Thank you, Nathan.