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Someone to Carry You

Chapter Text

The Machine's comm systems came to life with a moment of static crackle, before the calm, even voice of his friend and employee filled the cockpit of Harold's beloved ship.

“You there, Finch?”

He smiled. “Always, Mr Reese.”

Beyond the thick window separating the small and cluttered but comfortable cockpit and its current occupant from the endless, cold void of space, the other ship the Machine was floating next to filled the view. A cargo ship, much larger than the Machine, which wasn't that much of a feat, and most likely used to ship cattle between the border planets or perhaps transporting settlers to a newly terraformed moon on the Rim. He had hacked the ship's log, but as was so often the case in this part of the 'verse, to call the log incomplete would be an understatement and if the records simply didn't exist, there was only so much he could do.

Harold hoped it was indeed livestock. It had taken them almost two days to arrive here after his ship's systems had intercepted the distress call and if he could trust the sensors – and he could, he had in large parts built and subsequently calibrated them himself – the other ship was dead in the water and had started to cool out. Not so much that it would be lethal just yet, but enough to indicate that the life support systems had failed at least twelve hours ago, yet the several bright spots the thermal scan had shown him gave him hope.

Of course, Reese' only reaction to those news had been to simply grab two more of his guns, merely giving Harold's disapproving frown one of his small, infuriatingly flirty smirks in return, this interaction just as much a ritual between them as their customary greeting over the comms had become.

A movement in the corner of his vision drew his attention to the lone figure of the very man who was occupying his thoughts gliding along the visible side of the cargo ship. Even though he was well aware of how big a man the former Browncoat was, he seemed as tiny as an insect in comparison to the large vessel. It reminded him just how small and insignificant humans were in the vastness of space.

“Please go on in that vector until you reach the secondary buffer panel, which should be approximately 37 metres in front of you, it's a dark grey...”

“Approximately? My, Harold, not down to the millimetre? You're losing your touch.”, the soldier teased with a chuckle.

Finch suppressed his own laugh, only a small huff escaped him, which he hoped – although he knew it didn't – would sound indignant rather than as terribly fond as he felt. “If you'd please focus on the task at hand, Mr Reese. Now, as I was saying, you are looking for a dark grey panel that stands out six centimetres and four millimetres above the hull and has a diameter of eight metres, two centimetres and six millimetres. Shall I go on?”

This time, his dear friend outright laughed. Hearing this, a gentle warmth flooded Harold at the awareness that he was able to draw this sound more and more frequently from the once sombre and hopeless man he'd hired years ago, when the wounds the war had left on the entire 'verse were still fresh. Despite not being a Browncoat himself, Samaritan's victory had stung him deeply, but at least he'd had the Machine...

John's smooth voice pulled him out of his thoughts before they could take a turn into an even darker realm. “I've never doubted you, Finch. Okay, I'm at the panel now.”

“To your right will be an access hatch to a maintenance shaft.”

“Got it.”

“Good. Now please do not shoot it open, I am sure the survivors inside would appreciate it if they could keep what's left of their atmosphere and to ensure that, having a functioning airlock at your point of access would be quite practical. The access code is 324821.”

“That was only that one time.” John grumbled faux-irritatedly while Harold watched him key in the code via the monitor that showed him the footage of the camera that was mounted on the helmet of John's EVA suit.

“And yet it is worth the reminder. The code for the inner hatch is 776902.”

The next minutes were spent in silence, the static of the comm and John's breathing the only sounds filling the bridge aside from Harold's own. He could have shut the comm off, the specs he'd found in the log had shown him the most of the doors inside wouldn't require any more access codes. Usually, he'd guide John through a ship by using the internal surveillance systems, but without power the few cameras installed on the other ship wouldn't function, so he wouldn't be of all that much use to his friend. Nonetheless, leaving the comms on at all times had become a habit for them and to him, few sounds were as soothing as John's breathing.

Sometimes it felt to him as though the other man was an extension of himself – albeit a very attractive one. Hearing him breathe and watching from Reese' perspective through the camera allowed him to imagine he was standing next to him in person even if he himself rarely left the Machine. He probably shouldn't even feel the desire to be physically there with him, space was a vast and lonely place, so they already spent most of their time together.

In the time spent flying to the origin of the distress calls they picked up, they usually found themselves reading next to one another on the bridge or in the common area. Other times John would be cleaning his weapons in the engine room – probably just to make Harold uncomfortable and then smirk in that subtle, flirty way of his about it, but he no longer cleaned them on their kitchen table so Harold counted it as a win – while he himself tweaked one thing or another, interrupted by friendly banter over shared meals. Most days, they only separated to sleep in their quarters, which were of course located next to each other. More often than not, the line between them remained open even then.

And that was the main reason that Harold was determined to never let his friend know that his feelings for him had taken a turn that was decidedly beyond the bounds of the platonic. Because space was indeed vast and lonely and even the thought of the inevitable awkwardness following John's rejection, no matter how kind it'd undoubtedly be, filled him with dread.

“Talk to me, Finch.”

A glance at his monitors told him that Reese had now climbed out of the maintenance shaft and into a hallway.

“There's no sign that anyone may have noticed your entrance. You're on the third of four decks, the kitchen, common area, sickbay and two storage rooms are on that level. If you follow the hallway to the left, you can get to the bridge, about 23 metres to your right is a staircase to the lower decks.”

“Which way am I going?”

“Right. I'm reading a heat signature on deck two. Once you've reached that deck, go straight ahead, then take the second turn to the right, that's where you should find the potential survivor. The internal cameras are down and the ship's log wasn't particularly helpful, so I have no way to tell if they're hostile. Please be careful, Mr Reese!”

A subtle tilt of the camera's footage showed John's nod and on the edge of the monitor he could see the gun John had drawn. Another item on the very long and ever growing list of things Harold appreciated about him: Despite their usual banter, his reckless moments and playful flirtation, if necessary, John could be absolutely professional. Add to this his kind heart, loyalty, sense of justice and protective nature, combined with his physical prowess and ability to think on his feet, John had turned out to be a more perfect partner than Harold could have ever imagined or wished for. Truly, he didn't deserve him.

But he did need him and so did others, after all this far from the Core the ships of the Samaritan Empire didn't answer any distress calls. Almost no one did and someone had to, so Harold had taken it upon himself, a chance at redemption for his role in the war.

On the wall next to the winding staircase, a streak of red flashed up for a moment in the light of the two torches that were mounted next to the camera on John's helmet. They were currently the only source of light on the other vessel, limiting Harold's field of vision in the camera footage. John may not have noticed it, but it made Harold frown. He considered asking his partner to step back to take another look if it was merely a word or sign painted on the wall, or something more sinister, but the other had already walked out into the main hallway of deck two.

“The heat signature is approximately 18 metres from your current position so far and hasn't moved.”

John didn't reply but raised his weapon. Harold tensed on his safe, comfortable chair in the Machine's cockpit as his partner passed the first turn to the right, held his breath as he stepped closer to the second, his grip tightened on the arm rests as he watched the other quickly round the second corner, ready to defend himself from whoever...

“Baaaahhhhh!”

Harold blinked at the picture on the monitor. It didn't change. He blinked some more.

There it was, John's gun raised and pointed in its direction, only now lowering slightly: A disgruntled and sleepy looking sheep. He cleared his throat.

“Well. I suppose at least this solves the question of this survivor's hostility.”

John let out a quiet laugh, sending the pleased warmth through Harold again. At least he wasn't here to see him blush, John would tease him endlessly about it. “Oh I don't know, sheep can be vicious creatures. And you know what people say about...”

“If the rest of this sentence has anything to do with wolves, please do refrain from saying it. Clearly, this is a perfectly ordinary specimen of the Ovis family.”

“Fine. You know that your every wish is my command, Harold.”

Oh, and if that tone, full of teasing promise but with a core of deep sincerity, didn't send an entirely different kind of warmth through Harold... He didn't need to see John to picture him saying this, to know that his muscles had infinitesimally relaxed now that there was no immediate threat but that didn't diminish his alertness. He could perfectly envision the small stretch of his lips into a fondly-smug smile, said smile much more evident in Johns blue yet warm eyes than on those lips... And that was a train of though he should stay away from, lest he ended up picturing his partner saying those words in an entirely different context and stoking the longing he kept locked up tightly in a corner of his mind. He needed to focus.

“Thank you, Mr Reese,” He said in the driest tone he could muster, “I will keep that in mind.”

“I live to please.”, came the answer in a possibly even more suggestive tone.

He was saved from replying in turn by a sudden flicker of the monitors and the overhead lights. A power surge? Just as quickly as the disturbance had occurred, it was gone again. The usual low, warm light was illuminating the room softly and steadily again from above, contrasting with the cold and equally steady glow of his monitors, but Harold frowned. This wasn't supposed to happen. He had done large parts of the wiring himself and he took great care to keep the Machine in absolutely pristine condition.

Keeping half an eye on the output of John's camera as he continued to cautiously explore the other ship, his dear friend's breathing once again a source of reassurance, he set to work, running every diagnostic scan he could think of, the previous conversation almost forgotten. It took him no longer than a few minutes to locate the problem, dread filling him as he pulled up the feed of the Machine's external cameras to confirm his suspicion.

As the video indeed confirmed what he'd feared, he couldn't help the quiet gasp leaving him. Instantly, John stopped walking and the slight change of angle of the feed showed the tension that had now taken hold of the former Browncoat's body, both of them finely attuned to every change in the other's breathing.

“Finch?”

“I'm afraid we have a problem."

 

Chapter Text

On the video feed showing the prow of the Machine, coinciding with the power surge, its cause was plainly visible. Four metallic vines could be seen extending themselves from the cargo ship and reaching for the closest part of their own vessel. A section that he knew to be close to the engine section. He frowned, heart pounding as he watched them winding themselves into the external mechanisms and further into the Machine, probably right in this very moment slinging themselves further into his carefully set up wiring.

And he knew exactly what those metal vines were, knew exactly what would happen if they were to try to detach the Machine from the larger vessel now.

“You okay? What happened?”

Loyal, caring John, always making Harold his uppermost priority. “I'm fine, Mr Reese, but the Machine isn't. We've been snared.”

He could hear John's sharp intake of breath, not quite a gasp but startled nonetheless. His partner knew just as well as him what this meant.

“Are they...?”

“Rigged to explode the moment we try to detach? Yes, I believe so. The camera's angle isn't ideal, but from what I could see, it is very likely that the snare contains enough charge to if not destroy, at least heavily damage both ships, and it got us far too close to our engines for my liking.”

“Do you want me back on the Machine?”

Harold considered for a moment, finishing up more scans to find the best way of removing the snare. It wouldn't be quick, but even if the location of the snare was extremely inconvenient, it should be easy enough to dismantle it by himself. He was a rather skilled mechanic after all.

“Negative. Please continue to look for human survivors, though I may need you to give me a closer look on the snare later.” He hesitated for a moment before continuing. “You know, there's always the possibility that it was set as a precaution by the crew.”

This time, John's even voice was noticeably tense. “No, I'm pretty sure that's not what happened.”

The gravity his words carried made Harold look up from his scans and over to where the footage of the suit's camera was still running, showing him that his partner had now arrived in what was presumably deck one's main cargo hold. Caught in the helmet's light was what the soldier had found and bile rose up in Harold's throat. He must have made some noise or John simply knew him well enough, so his dear friend quickly tilted his head away from the part of the cargo hold's ceiling he had been looking at. His discovery quickly vanished beyond the edge of Harold's monitor, but the image had already burnt itself into his memory. The vessel's missing crew, or rather what was left of them.

He had to close his eyes for a moment. The red shine of light reflected on raw flesh flashing behind his eyelids made him nauseous. From the blessedly brief glimpse he had gotten, many of the bodies were barely recognisable as human, parts missing and skin stripped away, bent and broken, strung up at the ceiling and the faint dripping of blood onto the hold's metal floor was only just audible over the comms. Broken limbs were held together by rope and chains, bodies tied together in small groups connected by more chains. A picture not dissimilar of a crude spider's web with helpless flies caught inside.

There was only one thing that could have done this and the knowledge hung heavy over their connection despite neither him nor John having to say it out loud. His throat clicked as he swallowed several times, willing down the knot of terror and nausea that was quickly building in his chest.

Reavers.

And the snare meant that they would come back.

“Harold? Breathe.”

He felt a wave of gratitude at John knowing exactly how he felt without having to be told. Rationally, he was all too aware that the Browncoat had seen things like this many times in the war in addition to them finding such scenes occasionally after intercepting a distress call, but in moments like this it struck Harold just how much in control of himself John must be. He took a deep breath.

“I can dismantle the snare, but I fear it will take me at least half an hour and unfortunately, it seems like it runs along the wiring of our external sensors, which means I will have to cut the power to them until I am finished. We will be effectively blind for the duration of the repairs and given the situation, that is not exactly a comforting thought.”

“Do we have a choice?”

Another deep breath. “No. No, we do not.” He swallowed. “Right. I should get to work then.”

“Sure you don't want me back on the ship?” His friend's concern was audible and as much as he wanted to say yes, he knew Reese wouldn't be of much help. He'd be fine once he could lose himself in the problem at hand, figuring out the exact workings of the snare and picking it apart.

“That's quite alright, but thank you. Your time would be better spent looking for cargo other than livestock. These poor souls won't have need for it anymore.” He'd lie if he were to claim that taking from the dead didn't weigh on his conscience, but with being cut off from most of his fortunes after Samaritan's victory, they were largely reliant on trade like other scavengers.

With a sigh and a last look to the screen where he could see John stepping around the spreading blood, keeping his head turned away turned away from the bodies as long as he knew he may be watching, Finch stood up with a wince, – his hip and back didn't take well to his tension – put one of the earpieces in, and grabbed the small box of his finer tools. He was glad that he kept most of what he needed already in the engine room.

Limping, he made his way through the narrow, winding corridors of the Machine. Past designations written on doors, down latticework staircases, along countless bookshelves lining the walls, filled to bursting with actual paper books, many of them priceless. John frequently joked that they were living in an Earth-That-Was library, prompting Harold to smile, because little did he know that Harold had at one point seriously contemplated opening a public library.

When the 'verse had had other plans, he'd found himself unable to leave his precious books behind. He'd been delighted when he realised that despite his teasing, his partner genuinely appreciated – even if not quite on the level of himself – and enjoyed reading them, which had been the start of all their days spent in quiet companionship.

“So far I've found five crates of provisions and as far as I could see, their sickbay is pretty well-stocked. I'm sure Joss'll find some use for this stuff.” John's voice sounded quietly over the earpiece.

With a small groan at the flare of pain his damaged hip protested this movement with, Harold crouched down to access one of the floor panels in the engine room, opening a view to a mess of gears and wires that made sense to him alone. Spotting the silvery vines he'd seen on the camera footage behind them, he sighed and patted the wall to his left absentmindedly. “Good. I will contact Magistrate Carter as soon as I fix this mess. I trust you'll be able to transfer the cargo onto the Machine without my assistance?”

“I got it covered, I'll be done around the same time you are. And Finch? If you need me over there...”

“I'll be sure to let you know, thank you Mr Reese.”

He set to work, physical discomfort, inconvenient feelings and Reaver threat pushed to the back of his mind as he did what he did best – with the exception of programming, perhaps. As he had feared, he would indeed have to cut the power to the external sensors in order to even access the snare. It wouldn't do to accidentally electrocute himself.

The paths of the different wires recreated themselves in his mind's eye. Hands working almost from muscle memory, piece by piece, electronics and mechanics were stripped away to free the edges of the Reavers' snare. The sound of John working as well transmitted via the earpiece served as soothing white noise in the background. Soon enough, it was only a matter of opening the vines and carefully overcharging them so that they stopped functioning without setting off the explosives.

Little did Harold know that he'd cut the power to the sensors just before another ship came within range. And as focused as he was on planning how to best reattach everything now that he's disabled the snare, he didn't notice the smell until, with another groan, he drew himself up from where his torso was dangling into the hole underneath the removed floor panel to grab yet another wrench, so he could begin setting the sensors back up now that the snare was taken care of.

The smell was coming from a dark, ragged figure standing on the other end of the engine room, a sickly sweet stench of fever, infection and putrefaction. He had never seen one in person before – he was still alive after all – but there was no doubt about exactly what was standing in the heart of the Machine.

The stories of their appearance weren't exaggerated. The creature – he couldn't bring himself to consider it human – was dirty, its clothes were torn and he was pretty sure that there was human skin sewn into them. Its face was cut up, large parts of its skin simply cut away or instead pierced together with scraps of metal, the flesh underneath raw and infected.

Pure terror raced through him and for a few precious moments, Harold found himself unable to do anything, frozen in fear. It felt like a moment outside of time as he stood in the place where he had always felt the safest – except for at John's side maybe – and stared the 'verse's worst nightmare in its ghoulish face.

The Reaver snarled at him and then he could finally move. Adrenaline allowing him to forget the pain, he jumped to his feet more quickly than he'd had since long before his injury, stumbled back, trying to get around the engine so that it'd be in between him and this living nightmare but he wasn't quick enough.

John's alarmed “Harold?!” barely registered as the creature's dirty, misshapen hand grabbed his arm with surprising strength.

John! Reavers!” He manages to shout as he struggled uselessly against the bruising grip before remembering the wrench in his other hand. As he brought it down onto the Reaver's arm with all the force he could muster, he didn't expect the Reaver to actually snarl in surprise and let go. Since he'd been trying to pull away with all his weight, he couldn't catch himself as he stumbled back. He fell. A sharp pain raced through him as his head connected with some part of the engine.

The last thing he registered was John's lovely but no longer calm or even voice shouting his name, then darkness dragged him under.

 

 

Chapter Text

Focusing on Harold's breathing – occasionally accompanied by some clanking and the quiet muttering of words John was sure the genius wasn't even aware of saying – was the anchor he needed to keep the memories of other Reaver attacks and similar pictures he'd witnessed during the war against Samaritan at bay. He smiled as Harold's soft, gentle voice launched yet another barrage of technical jargon John wouldn't even try to keep up with.

He probably shouldn't find this even closely as endearing as he did but then again, he also shouldn't have fallen head over heels for his friend and employer and it wasn't like that had stopped him from doing just that. Enjoying every given chance to hear him talk – and luckily there were many – wasn't such a big deal in comparison.

Harold fell silent again while John cleared out the last of the drawers in the cargo ship's sickbay and poured the contents into his bag. His last task after having brought the provision crates and two more bags worth of medicine and bandages home over the cargo line he'd strained earlier between the ships, which enabled him to transfer everything worth taking into the Machine's airlock on his own.

He probably ought to take another look around the ship to see if there was anything else of value, but he was reluctant to do so. The awareness of the bodies strung up in the cargo hold was weighing on his mind. He'd much rather be ready to leave as soon as Harold had disconnected the snare, he didn't want to be anywhere near Reaver activity. More importantly, he didn't want Harold anywhere near the Reavers.

Back in the early days of the war against Samaritan, his platoon had been attacked by the Reavers once. The screams and pleas of his men had remained with him for months, their terrified faced haunting him whenever he'd closed his eyes. And still, even after all these years, every now and then, they were the focus of some of his nightmares, accompanied by images the creatures' shredded skin.

Such a thing was something someone like Harold, someone that good and kind and caring, should never have to witness. There was a twinge of guilt at having been unable to prevent his friend from seeing the bodies of this ship's crew. The soldier knew his gentle, neat employer was tougher than he looked and could handle it, but that was beside the point. These were the kinds of things John was for.

John admitted to himself that he'd already made the decision to do without an extra tour of the ship and stalling because he possibly should have decided otherwise was rather counter-productive. The sooner he got back to Harold the better, and with every minute they remained here the chance of another Reaver attack grew.

As he made his way back to the staircase that would lead him to the lower decks and the bigger airlocks – with the bag full of loot, he couldn't climb through the maintenance hatch he'd used to enter – Harold started muttering again, though this time John paid more attention to the words rather than just letting Harold's pleasant voice wash over him. It sounded like the genius mechanic was almost done cutting them loose from the trap.

On deck two, he startled as the sheep from before – or maybe it was a different one? – suddenly appeared in his way. For a moment, he wished Harold would be sitting in front of his monitor watching this because the sheer absurdity of this situation was striking, but now wasn't the time for idle fantasies. He did feel a bit bad about having to leave the animals behind. To get them onto the Machine would take considerably more effort and especially time than they both knew was prudent to spend here, so they would most likely succumb to the decreasing temperature within the next one or two days.

A year or two ago, feeling guilty about such a triviality would have surprised John since he wouldn't have thought himself still capable of that compassion. By now he was well used to the way Harold thawed a bit more of John's long frozen heart every day, slowly but surely chasing away the deep depression he'd fallen into after the war. Giving him a purpose again.

No wonder that John loved him.

In the beginning, Harold had seemed almost too good to be real, treating John with so much more kindness than the soldier had ever experienced or knew what to do with. So he'd teased and flirted, doing everything he could to make him uncomfortable, anything to get a rise out of him. All of it to see how he'd react, but Harold had risen to the challenge, stubbornly patient, responding to each of his innuendos with that clipped, dry tone John had come to adore. And soon enough, with the realisation that Harold was indeed as good and kind as he seemed, his teasing had become warmer and genuine, a part of their usual banter, friendly entertainment rather than an attempt at pushing buttons.

To one day find that he was falling for his employer had come as little surprise to John and he accepted it easily, welcomed it even. Loving Harold felt as right, as simple and natural as breathing. It didn't matter that Harold didn't return his feelings, he was more than content to spend the rest of his life in the status quo, being around him every day, enjoying books in his quiet company, cooking for him, watching him repair and improve the Machine, following his orders like he'd never done anything else in his life. Harold cared about him and that was enough. It was so much more than John deserved.

Just when he'd arrived at deck one, his heart clenched up at hearing one of the small, pained sounds Harold made whenever he'd spent too much time in a position that strained his old injuries. After a second of silence, a sharp gasp came from his earpiece. This must have hurt his friend more than his usual repairs did. A spike of guilt rose in him. Maybe he should have insisted to go back on board the Machine right away to assist him.

Except, Harold's breathing didn't calm down as usual, instead it got faster and shallower. Fear. There was a sudden loud noise that seemed almost-but-not-quite human, followed by footsteps. Something was wrong.

“Finch?”

No answer. John set off, running through the corridors as fast as the bulky spacesuit allowed him, this time paying no mind to the dead crew or their pooling blood. He only stopped once he'd reached the airlock and even that pause was forced by the time the mechanism took to open and depressurise properly. On the other end of the comms, Harold was breathing even faster now and John's heart sped to match it, from fear rather than exertion. He was seriously tempted to shoot his way through the thick steel door when he heard his friend yelp. He swallowed down the rising panic.

“Harold?!” He needed to hear him, hear that voice he loved so much, that accompanied and grounded him every hour of every day now, to prove to him that the wonderful, brilliant man it belonged to was alright.

He wasn't. When Harold finally did answer, the alarm and terror he couldn't hide, the fact that he was shouting – something Harold very rarely did – made his blood freeze even before the words fully registered.

John! Reavers!

Luckily, the airlock opened in this very moment, otherwise he really would have ended up shooting a hole in it. Yet the hiss couldn't quite hide the dull thud via the comms of something heavy hitting a metal floor.

“Harold? I'm on my way! Answer me, gorramit! Are you...”

He winced as the shrill screeching of the comms' feedback rang through his helmet before dying down. Harold's earpiece had just been destroyed by something. John was about to call out for him again regardless, just on the off chance that he was wrong, but the words died in his throat.

Above his head, slightly smaller than their ship but not by all that much, a Reaver vessel was docked to the Machine, hideous as the monsters it housed with metal spikes welded irregularly to the hull, the hull itself dented and fixed over and over again with different metal plates. Charred human bodies were strung up in groups of three to four between some of the spikes.

One thing everyone in the known 'verse – with the exception of the most sheltered Core worlders – knew, was that the only possible way to survive a Reaver attack was to get away, as quickly and far as possible and hope they won't follow you.

Even if he hadn't known before just how much he loved Harold, he would definitely have realised it in this moment. Because despite being confronted with the horrific sight of a Reaver ship and having witnessed the unspeakable atrocities they were capable of with his own eyes, every instinct he possessed was screaming at him to get closer, to get Harold far away from them and make sure he was safe and unharmed because if he wasn't...

John couldn't afford this now. He didn't allow himself to think of what they might do to Harold or what he'd do if he lost him, because he couldn't lose Harold, he just couldn't! He needed to focus. He had to think, because every second he took to get to him was a second Harold might be suffering at the Reavers' hands and that was a fate he wouldn't wish on anyone, much less the sweet, kind, gentle, pacifistic man who'd saved him after the war. The man who had taken the shattered pieces of John's mind and heart and fixed them with the same brilliance and patience he displayed when working on the Machine's engines or programming, oblivious to the fact that in doing so, he'd irreversibly claimed everything that John Reese was as his own until the soldier's last breath.

Finally he had drifted close enough to grab onto one of the spikes. Like this he could see that the docking was done properly, sealing the ships closely together and offering no point of weakness. There was no way to access either the Machine or the Reaver ship via the main airlock. He would have cursed, but he didn't have time for that, he needed a way in, maybe...

Harold!

His eyes widened, tears stinging in them as he caught a glimpse of the other man through the viewing ports on the edge of the Machine's airlock. His heart was pounding inside his ribcage like it was trying to rip itself out of his chest to join its owner. For a moment, panic threatened to overwhelm John because that was undeniably Finch, without his thick glasses, bleeding from a head wound and – hopefully only – unconscious, being dragged by his bad leg by a Reaver onto its ship.

The small part of his mind still capable of rational thought told him that this was a good thing. Like this, the Reavers' sadistic nature was working for John, since they wouldn't attack an unconscious victim right away, preferring to wait until consciousness was regained to start torturing them. It bought him and Harold at least a few, precious minutes.

Swallowing thickly, he focussed on that hope and tried to restore a semblance of calm to his mind, his old life's training finally kicking in.

His next problem was access. Since the main airlock was used for docking, his next best option was a service hatch like the one he'd used to enter the cargo ship. One on the Reaver ship would be closer, but while they tended to be in more or less the same location on most ships classes, there was no guarantee that it wouldn't be blocked by one of the patch-up jobs on the hull. Also, he'd have to crack it open, which meant there was a high chance of endangering the integrity of the atmosphere, something that usually may not have bothered him, but Harold was by now on that ship! No, the better option was to take one of the Machine's hatches, he knew the access codes and the interior.

Even though it took him less than an minute to get to the nearest hatch, that was still too much time for John's comfort but he couldn't move faster in the inert suit without risking to lose his hold and drift off. It took another for the airlock to seal and pressurise. At least this gave him time to cut off the nearly forgotten bag of goods from where it was attached to the spacesuit and to think about the next step.

Like he'd predicted, this maintenance shaft led him into the main cargo hold. On the plus side it was close to the airlock, however, they didn't store any weapons in there. John resolved to rectify this as soon as he got Harold back safe and patched him up. Just in case.

There was no way for him to tell how many Reavers he was up against. On a ship this size it could just as well be only the one he'd seen or it could be three dozen. Even if he took the time to remove the spacesuit first in order to move faster, it would take him at least two minutes to get to the weapons' cabinet and back. His two handguns, the rifle and the knife in each boot would have to be enough.

Unwilling to waste another moment, he climbed out into the thankfully empty cargo hold and crossed the area as quietly as he could in his thick, heavy boots. The Machine's airlock slid open smoothly, only to reveal the closed airlock of the other ship. It didn't matter. Sealed doors had long ceased to be an obstacle to him.

The moment he pried the ship's heavy doors open, he could hear the screaming, the bloodcurdling, inhuman snarls and groans that could sometimes be intercepted on long range communication channels if one inadvertently flew too close to Reaver territory. Even considering all he'd seen and been told, John wasn't – couldn't have been – prepared for the sight that revealed itself as soon as he stepped foot inside the Reavers' ship.

It vaguely reminded him of some visions of hell the authors of the more morbid ones of Harold's beloved antique paper books had painted with carefully chosen words. There wasn't much light, many of the overhead lights were broken, loose wires sparking in the remnants of some and had set off small fires that flickered eerily, most of their light absorbed by the soot that covered large parts of the dented metal walls.

The latticework floorboards – so similar to the ones in the Machine – were discoloured with a thick layer of what could only be blood, dry and cracked in some places, still wet in others. Debris of different sizes was strewn along the corridor along with pieces of bone and bodyparts in various stages of decay. A scene taken straight out of his worst nightmares, the sheer senseless brutality of it unmatched even by the battlefields John had fought on. He wanted to throw up, partly because of the sight, but mainly because he knew that Harold was in here somewhere!

Swallowing down the bile in his throat, John stepped forward with determination. The remaining light from the Machine was soon swallowed by the soot, the Reavers' screaming growing louder with every step.

 

Chapter Text

The Reaver ship was as disorienting as it was horrifying. Larger pieces of debris were blocking the way and their blurry shadows danced on the soot-blackened walls in the fires' light. With his nerves stretched like tightrope and every sense hyperfocused, he more then once mistook them for living creatures moving around just beyond where his field of vision was cut off by the helmet. Every few seconds he jerked around, anticipating a fight, only to stare at an oddly shaped piece of metal.

In irregular distances, plates of the wall panelling were missing, giving the appearance of doorways into darkened rooms or corridors, but looking into them he only found a few centimetres of space in front of the other side of the wall, damaged wiring running along it.

Once, when he was a child, his adoptive parents had taken him to a funfair. His memories of that early, simpler time in his life were sketchy, but he did recall being led into a 'house of mirrors' – a form of entertainment that still had its origins on Earth-That-Was. He had been lost and terrified and this ship with its dancing shadows, blocked halls and fake entryways was oddly reminiscent of it.

Except, it wasn't himself he was fearing for. Even having seen what they were capable of, he found himself oddly unafraid, so long as he could make sure Harold would be safe. Once he got Harold back, he wouldn't be lost anymore.

He ducked, startled, and raised his arms to protect his head instinctively when a torn electrical line on the ceiling sprayed him with blindingly bright sparks.

He had made it two corridors down into the bowel of the metal beast – stepping over human remains and ducking under the debris, trying his best to keep a sense of direction in the low, flickering light and the winding, narrow hallways – when the first attack came. He had turned off the lights on his helmet – better not announce his presence by shining brightly wherever he went – and his eyes still weren't fully adjusted to the dark. Trying to keep a minimum of orientation and to blend out the constant snarls and screams that seemed to come from everywhere around him and kept making him flinch took up the majority of his ability to focus.

He didn't notice the Reaver until it hit his arm with a club studded with nails as long as his fingers and if it hadn't been for his suit, surely those would've torn bone-deep into the muscle. As it was, he would have nothing but an impressive bruise. Nonetheless, he couldn't suppress a small grunt in a mixture of surprise and pain, but he retained the full mobility of his arm for now. And being up against an unknown number of Reavers, he'd need every advantage he could get if he wanted to have any chance of getting Harold out of here alive.

The Reaver lunged out, but this time John saw it coming. He stepped forward, acting on muscle memory years of training in the war had drilled irreversibly into him. He had broken its neck before he would have been hit again.

The soldier's instinct in him wanted to draw his gun, but he knew from experience that the sound of a shot fired would only attract the others on this nightmarish version of a spaceship. John was all too aware that – even with the suit providing some protection – while he could take on two or perhaps even three, going up against more than that at once would be suicide.

Reavers didn't feel pain like normal humans did, or at least they didn't care about it. They didn't fight like normal humans did. John would tire out, would lose strength through injuries, but they wouldn't. And he wouldn't be of any help to Harold if he died before reaching him, before making sure Harold had a safe way out.

Looking around to check that – for now – there wouldn't be any more attackers, he bent down and picked up the dead Reaver's spiked club. The blood made it slippery in his glove, but it'd do. As crude as Reaver weapons often were, they were frighteningly effective. When in Rome, do as the Romans do the imaginary Harold quipped in his head. The absence of his partner's breathing felt like the phantom ache of a missing limb.

The next two – one standing and one crouched over a rotting leg he didn't want to look too closely at in an actual doorway with their backs turned to him – John managed to surprise and dispatch easily enough. The third however proved to be more of a challenge.

He – it was usually hard, almost impossible to tell with their cut up faces and ragged clothes stitched together of human skin, but this one was certainly male – was considerably taller than John, a centimetre more and he would have had trouble standing up straight in the smaller corridors. Packed with muscles, his reflexes were surprisingly fast despite his size, especially with the suit slowing John's own.

Some of his better hits with the club tore chunks of flesh away, leaving deep, ragged wounds where he blocked John's attacks with his arms, but the Reaver didn't show even the slightest reaction to them. He kept advancing while John made sure that even if he was backing away, he did so further into the ship.

With his back turned, he didn't see the piece of scrap metal – possibly what had once been a brace – stuck diagonally between the walls and too late John noticed that he didn't have the space or time left to at least dodge enough that the angle might lessen the next blow. When the giant of a Reaver hit him with full strength, he was sure the cracking of his ribs was audible even over the unnerving, relentless screams that were filling the air around him. The sheer force of it sent him stumbling into the fallen brace, the full weight of his own body impacting on his new injury.

He couldn't breathe. Doubling over in pain, he only just managed to avoid a blow to his head, the club clattering uselessly to the floor when he clutched his ribs instinctively. Ramming his knife into the Reaver's knee merely resulted in him losing said knife when it got stuck there, not slowing his opponent down in the least. Dropping underneath the brace, chest aching in feeble protest, he knew he had no choice but forego his earlier plan. Dead, he wouldn't be any good to Harold. He reached for his gun.

The shot rang out loud and clear, reflected and carried by the narrow metal walls and for the fraction of a moment afterwards, there seemed to be silence. The screaming returned, taking on a different tone John couldn't and wouldn't try to interpret as he watched the huge Reaver sink to the floor, a small hole perfectly centred between his eyes.

Footsteps. He had to get away before they reached him, had to find Harold and hope the Reavers would lose sight of them long enough to get him out. Pain was pulsating through his body but there was no time to catch his breath.

Pulling himself up by the metal that had caused his critical mistake, he swayed for a brief second before stumbling forward, deeper into the ship. John fell into a light jog that sent manageable stabs of pain through his chest. The footsteps came closer, five or six, he'd guess but he didn't dare to turn around and look. Cluttered as the floors were, he surely would've stumbled and fallen and that was not something he was willing to risk.

He almost did fall when the charge of an energy gun charred the tarnished wall just next to his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the metal glowing red-hot for a moment before he took a sharp turn to the right at the nearest corner, hoping to get out of their line of fire. Taking the next one left afterwards, he let himself pause for a moment until the first two Reavers appeared. Shot them. The third he hit in its chest, but his aim was too low for the bullet to be instantly lethal.

The next charge of energy impacting on the wall again – closer this time, close enough for it to burn through the suit at his arm and damage the already bruised skin underneath – forced him to retreat, taking off once again, dodging rubble and more decaying bodies – Reavers or humans, it was impossible to tell.

The air burned in his lungs and his injured ribs protested his quickening breaths, but he had to keep moving, only ever stopping for a second or two when he had an opportunity to take out one of his pursuers. He had to find Harold, and soon! John had lost track of how long he'd been in here but however long, it was too long.

More footsteps from the side, joining his pursuers – there had to be at least seven of them now. Another weapon's discharge from behind him, this one too burning through the spacesuit, melted synthetic fabric eating into the skin of his calf, but it barely registered. He merely stumbled for a moment and soon caught himself, but not before his helmet impacted on a pointed piece of steel protruding from a half blocked door, shattering the visor. The true extend of the smell – burnt flesh, putrefaction, smoke and old blood – made him gag.

He swallowed down the bile in his throat. It didn't matter. Maybe, if he kept running, it would distract the Reavers from Harold who was somewhere in this nightmare of a ship – hopefully still unconscious – after all, they preferred for their prey to fight back and oh, fight back John could.

The soft click of his gun told him that he'd run out of bullets. Only now did he notice that somewhere along the way he'd lost his rifle and the pocket containing his spare ammunition had ripped wide open. He would have cursed, had he had the time for it. This left him with his spare handgun and the one knife still in his boot instead of a Reaver's knee, but if it came down to it, he would make do with a piece of scrap metal. He'd make do with his bare hands if he had to. Beggars can't be choosers, he imagined Harold comment in that fondly disapproving – and really, that was a combination only Harold could manage – tone he used on John so often, particularly in response to his incessant flirting. God, how he missed Harold's voice!

A moment later, his lack of sufficient weaponry turned out to be the least of his problems. The corridor he'd just run down made a sharp turn left – and ended, blocked by a sea of flames.

 

Chapter Text

John cursed. He should have paid more attention to this surroundings, should have noticed the thick, black smoke curling under the ceiling where the ventilation shafts didn't work fast enough to fully clear the artificial atmosphere. He should have recognised the roaring of the fire for what it was as soon as his helmet had broken.

Strips of insulation and large blocks of what may have once been furniture were ablaze. Leaning against the wall within a complex structure of debris, they were blocking his way and most of the view into what he guessed to be a larger room at the heart of the ship. At least if he could trust his admittedly fading sense of direction.

He skidded to a stop while the thundering footsteps behind him kept nearing, drew his spare handgun, turned around and aimed. Any moment now the Reavers would appear around the corner. Seven or eight. Nine rounds in his gun. Hopefully he would be able to pick off the first four or five of them before they got too close and he would have to resort to hand-to-hand combat. That meant he would be left to face four at once in case the numbers played out to his disadvantage, two if he was lucky. Hardly the worst odds he'd ever faced, but he found odds didn't matter so much in this case. Failure was not an option, not when it was Harold's life on the line.

He took a deep breath. He could do this, he could fight them off and then find Harold and...

A scream made his blood freeze and his heart skip a beat, only to resume its pounding twice as fast as before. Because while the screaming had been his constant companion on this vessel, this scream was different, it wasn't the inarticulate hollering and snarling of the Reavers. This was a cry of pain. And it was made by a voice John would have recognised anywhere.

Harold!

And of course, a small voice huffed in the back of his mind, of course, because this beautiful, angelic, brilliant genius of a man couldn't ever make things easy on John, the scream had undeniably come from the room at the end of the corridor, from beyond the flames.

But did John have a choice? He'd already run into a Reaver ship for this man, something anyone would agree amounted to little more than suicide. He didn't even hesitate with this. There was no other option and he wouldn't fail Harold. He couldn't. Even if he were to fight the Reavers who were chasing him and keep running from them, how long would it take him to find another way to that room behind the fire? The one with Harold in it, who had just screamed in pain? How could he possibly turn around and run the other way, away from his everything?

No, there was no choice and no time for hesitation. So he took off his broken helmet and ripped out the inner lining. He would have preferred to have some water for this, but if he was being honest, he would have done this naked if he had to.

The first Reaver appeared around the corner while he wound the fabric around his head to cover his mouth and most of his hair, but his first bullet found its target. The second Reaver fell just as easily. Before the third one could even reach the corner, John had already finished tying the cloth and taken the remaining steps back, heat scorching the exposed hairline at the back of his neck. He turned around, light stinging in his eyes and stepped forward. Taking a deep breath and holding it, he was swallowed by the flames.

The heat was indescribable. His way wasn't blocked entirely, there were spaces without flames in between and the fabric of his spacesuit as well as its inner lining was resistant to a large range of temperature, but even so this was painful. When he blinked, trying not to stumble over the debris, he could barely see anything beyond the light. His eyes were dry and teary and every time he closed them again, it felt as though the inner side of his eyelids had been lined with sandpaper. The skin around them and on his exposed neck felt like it would simply peel away from the searing heat.

On the parts on his arm and leg where the suit had been burnt away from the Reavers' weapons the pain was increasing exponentially with every second. His lungs were burning with the desperate need to take a breath. His heart was filled with relief at finally having located Harold and dread at what state he might find him in, his very soul crying out for him.

Half-blind with tears, he felt and stumbled his way along, pure luck allowing him to pass through without knocking something off-balance and being buried underneath the burning furniture. If the infuriated snarl was any indication, the Reaver behind him wasn't so lucky. The way behind him was now effectively cut off.

He hadn't even noticed that he'd finally left the miniature inferno behind him when a body slammed into his side, a hand tearing the cloth from his face and leaving bright red scratches on his face. Another hand was digging its into the exposed, burnt skin on his arm, and momentarily distracted by that, he didn't feel the first one leaving his face until a knife was buried in his shoulder. He struggled for long seconds, his own hands clawing at infected skin before finally, he got a hold on the creature's head that allowed him to snap its neck before it could do any major damage. Coughing, rubbing his burning eyes, he shakily climbed to his feet and...

“John! Two o'clock!”

His body turned, following this voice's orders a reflex anchored so deeply into his subconscious that he simply acted without thought or hesitation, drawing his gun and shooting the charging Reaver, twice, before his vision had even quite restored itself.

“Eight!”

Even pained and shaking as it was – making John's heart clench because that wasn't what it was supposed to sound like, he should've been there, should've prevented him from ever falling into the Reavers' hands – the sound of Harold's voice was more invigorating than any breath of fresh air after the flames ever could have been.

In that moment, Harold made another, this time half-suppressed noise of pain and John whirled around before the now dead Reaver had even hit the ground, taking in the sight in front of him. His friend was strung up at the wrists by coarse rope that forced him to stand on the tips of his toes. His usually so pristine clothes were bloodied, the tie lost, ripped waistcoat lying next to him on the floor, and the left shirtsleeve torn off. Like he'd seen before from outside the view-port, the collar of his shirt was stained red from a head wound, his blue eyes wide, looking so much bigger without the thick glasses, and tear tracks were shimmering in the flickering light of the fire.

Another Reaver, the last one currently in the room was focused on him and then John saw what had made Harold cry out. Blood was running down his left, exposed arm, a patch of skin missing just behind his wrist. Half his arm's circumference and running almost halfway up to his elbow, raw and vividly red. A patch the Reaver was widening, cutting the skin away with a crude, ragged knife, making Harold whimper quietly. It then lifted the knife, biting into the removed skin and John saw red.

He didn't feel his cracked ribs or the stab wound, the burn on his own arm or the melted plastic in the one on his leg. The Reaver never stood a chance.

“John.”

Looking up, he came back to himself. Priorities! Swiftly, he came to stand, stepping over the dead creature without a second glance and drew his own remaining knife, wordlessly – unable to bring himself to speak just yet – cutting the thick rope, making sure he was there to catch him when Harold slumped with a groan of pain.

And finally the relief hit him. Harold was hurt, but alive and breathing, his body warm and soft leaning against his own as he held him, slowly and carefully lowering them both to the floor.

After a moment he made himself pull back to observe the smaller man. The head wound and the one on his arm John refused to think about for the moment seemed to be all, though the position he had been in until a moment ago must have really exacerbated his chronic pain. The only somewhat worrying thing was that he appeared to be dizzy and to have some trouble focussing, but considering whatever had caused the injury hidden by soft brown hair clotted with blood had been enough to knock him out, John wouldn't be surprised if he had a mild concussion.

A gentle hand on his cheek pulled him out of his thoughts. Harold's beautiful voice was a bit hoarse and still shaking, but just as gentle as his touch. The sight of his mild, reassuring smile made his heart soar. “John. I'm alright.”

The breath he hadn't realised he had been holding left him in a whoosh because he was, wasn't he? He was alright. In pain and concussed, but that was nothing a few days of rest wouldn't fix. The wound on his arm was large but shallow, a simple bandage and some antibiotics would be enough. None of the injuries were life threatening, he was alright, John hadn't lost him, hadn't failed him, Harold was alive and alright and right here with him. He was alright.

Overcome by an irresistible impulse and fuelled by relief, John bent down without thinking and pressed his lips to Harold's smile in a firm but chaste kiss, over before he even had time to realise what he had just done. For a moment, big blue eyes met his own, a question he didn't have time to discern in them, before their gaze flickered to the side to something beyond his shoulder, widening, startled.

 

Chapter Text

When Harold regained consciousness, the first thing he noticed was the stench of blood and decay, strong enough to make him gag. Instinctively curling into himself, the second thing he noticed was the pain. Red hot agony shot through his body from his old injuries and his head was throbbing, making him groan.

As soon as the noise had left his lips, rough but slippery hands grabbed him and yanked him back. His eyes flew open, took in his surroundings and an icy shiver of fear chased the stabs of pain. Even with his vision blurry, his glasses nowhere to be found, he instantly realised the predicament he found himself in – the state of the ship that was most certainly not the Machine, the unnerving screaming all around him, accentuation by the occasional sounds of gunshots.

The sudden change of position left him dizzy and disoriented, the world spinning around him and the nausea increasing to the point where he could only just swallow back the bile rising in his throat. A small whimper escaped him against his will and desperately he wished to fall back unconscious, to hide inside the safety of darkness. Spots danced in his vision. A safe guess that he was concussed. His own harsh, shallow breaths and the rapid pounding of his heart were almost enough to drown out the horrifying noise surrounding him. He could practically see his already negligible odds decreasing further.

He was roughly pulled to his feet and for a moment the hands almost lost their grip on him but as soon as any weight was transferred onto his bad leg, it gave out from underneath him and he sank back down to the floor with a cry of agony. A hoarse, hissing imitation of laughter was his answer and he watched in horror as one of them bent down to him, vision clearing with the reduced distance. It tilted its head just centimetres away from his in a mockery of contemplation. Its mouth opened into an inhuman grin – revealing rotting teeth sharpened into points – and hissed. It was the smell of its breath just as much as the sound that made him shrink back.

He didn't notice another Reaver's approach until a harsh kick into his stomach made him lose his breath. A second kick, hitting the epicentre of the agony radiating from the old wound on his hip, drove fresh tears into his eyes. It left him helpless when he was yanked back up and dragged further into the room, away from the flickering fire burning in one of the corridors leading into the room he was caught in.

Physically, there was nothing he could counter an opponent with, so if he found himself in trouble, which was admittedly something that happened a lot more often than he'd like, he always opted to reason, lie or bribe his way out of the situation. But away from the Machine and faced with Reavers, his mind, his biggest and truth to be told only asset would have been of little use to him even without the concussion.

Except, that wasn't entirely true. He swallowed thickly. There was one more asset at his disposal, the one he knew would never fail him because John Reese was unwaveringly loyal and no matter what the situation or its odds of getting out of it unharmed might be, he would always come for Harold. It was that thought that lit an ember of hope in the terror swamping his mind, even if it was one he was ashamed of. He shouldn't hope for John to come for him while he was trapped somewhere on a Reaver vessel of unknown size, he had seen the pained fear in his eyes after he'd woken up from night terrors and here he was, essentially hoping for the man he... his dearest friend to face the cause of those dreams for him. But this was more than just hope, this was certainty.

After all, wouldn't Harold do the exact same thing for him?

So he closed his eyes to picture John's face, his soft smile he longed to see again, and tried to collect some of the soldier's bravery as coarse ropes were tied around his wrists, doing his best to suppress the instinct that told him to struggle. For when John would come for him, he should do his best to keep his injuries to the possible minimum, even if all he was capable of was trying to ensure he wouldn't hurt himself beyond whatever the Reavers were about to do to him.

What he couldn't suppress was the full-body flinch when he heard and felt his shirt sleeve being ripped away. One of the four Reavers in the room stepped away and picked something up. Only when it was almost upon him again did his eyes allow him to recognise the object as a makeshift knife. He tried to lose himself in memories of John's still too-rare laughter, but nonetheless tears stung in his eyes and spilled over with the first bite of dull metal into the skin of his arm just behind the rope, unrelenting until a patch of it was cut away, bile rising in his throat as he helplessly watched the creature devour his bloodied skin before raising the blade to cut anew. This time, Harold screamed.

His attention was drawn away from the throbbing of the exposed nerves by a lout crash from the burning corridor. Even with his vision blurred by tears and the lack of his glasses, it didn't take him more than a few seconds to identify the dark silhouette stumbling from the flames.

For a moment he was almost sure that he was hallucinating, but after the hours upon hours he'd spent monitoring John during their rescue missions from the safety of the Machine's bridge, the way his partner moved – controlled strength combined with an almost feline elegance – was as familiar to him as the lines of his own face. So much that even with his sight this impaired, he could recognise that John was injured and disoriented. But he missed the movement in the corner of his eyes until it was too late and he could only watch as his dear friend was tackled to the ground, could only watch for breathless seconds as he was being clawed on.

But when John was stumbling to his feet, blinking rapidly, he saw the second Reaver step away from himself in time.

“John! Two o'clock!”

His partner reacted to his command instantly, shooting the Reaver before it had the chance to reach him.

The knife was back on his arm, but that didn't matter. John needed him, so his voice barely even shook as he called out “Eight!”. Still, he couldn't quite suppress a small noise of pain escaping him as he was cut deeper.

It only took John a second of observing him before the tilt of his head showed his focus on the Reaver that was now finally lifting the knife away from his arm again to... Harold really did not want to think too closely on what it was doing with his flesh.

This time, John didn't even to bother with his handgun, the weapon clattering to the floorboards not too far from where Harold was pinioned without John noticing, opting instead to fight the Reaver with his bare hands, now finally close enough for Harold to see him clearly. The bulky spacesuit didn't come as a surprise, neither did what he guessed to be a developing second degree burn on his neck. He was bleeding from the shoulder and two large holes in the suit at his arm and calf. But what worried him most was that by the way he'd held himself, Harold was certain that his ribs must at least be bruised. Not that John seemed to notice in this particular moment.

It was the expression on his face that surprised Harold. It was one he'd seen on him only very few times. To someone who didn't know him as well as Harold did, he would look as calm and composed as ever, but John's emotions rarely truly showed on his face. To no other he'd ever met the phrase that the eyes were the window to the soul applied as much as to John.

Normally when he looked into them, their grey-blue depths were filled with a gentle amusement, combined with warm affection and an ever-present, old pain. During a mission they took on a sharp, determined focus. Now though, now all control and gentleness was missing from them and even the pain was hidden. Now they burned with white-hot fury as John unleashed a storm of violence onto the Reaver, skin and bones giving away easily under his blows even after it had stopped moving.

Harold softened his voice as much as possible under these circumstances. “John.”

That was all that was needed, John's body froze and he looked up at Harold, captivating eyes wide and vulnerable, the storm having abated as quickly as it had risen. His friend didn't speak as he crossed the remaining distance between them, only averting his gaze to bend down and draw a knife from his boot to cut the ropes with.

His spine and hip had protested the position the ropes had kept them in, but now that their support fell away, the sudden movement and transfer of weight sent a flare of agony through him and just like earlier, his leg gave out instantly. Dizziness was clouding his mind again.

Unlike earlier however, he didn't fall. Instead it was with an utter lack of surprise that he registered the larger body holding him upright, John's arms steadying him as he let them sink to the floor with the utmost care, where he allowed himself to keep leaning against John for a moment, soaking up the warmth and safety he provided so freely. To feel safe was an odd sensation to a man who had spent the majority of his life on the run or in hiding, changing aliases like others changed their socks. Yet with John, even here, in the middle of a Reaver ship, it felt like the safest place in the 'verse.

Once they drew back, he watched silently as John's gaze roamed his body frantically, cataloguing every visible injury even as he avoided looking at the one on his arm, eyes still so large and vulnerable, desperate even. It tugged at Harold's heartstrings, partially because he hated to see John this upset. However, he had to admit himself that there was another, much more selfish part of himself that felt honoured at being permitted to see him in such a state and – to his shame – relieved over the reminder that John cared so deeply about him that he'd be driven to this point, even if that care was not of the same nature as the one Harold felt for him.

The urge to comfort him easily won out, so Harold brought his hand up to lightly cup his cheek, careful not to touch any of the bright red scratches, the beginnings of stubble tickling pleasantly at his palm. He smiled at him, trying to project the calm and reassurance his dearest friend needed in this moment. “John. I'm alright.”

Tension seemingly bled out of John at his words, even though they had come out sounding less steady than he'd intended. The relief that flooded him was mirrored on the other's face, then suddenly John was impossibly close.

Lips covered his own, rough and chapped to the point of bleeding as a consequence of both neglect and the fire he'd walked through for him. Closed and not moving, more of a peck than a kiss, nonetheless over much too soon, not even giving Harold the chance to react before they were gone already, leaving his own lips tingling and strangely cold with loss.

For just a moment, he met John's eyes, still burning with intensity and the sudden, unexpected hope in his chest was at war with the sheer surreality of the situation. Perhaps, and oh how much he yearned for this to be the case, he'd been wrong in simply writing off John's loyalty – devotion even – to him as gratitude and friendship? Was it possible that his feelings might run deeper than that?

Before he could find an answer in John's gaze, a movement behind John's shoulder caught his attention. His eyes widened in shock as he saw yet another Reaver rushing towards them from the other corridor, a hand-held energy firearm aimed at John. A spike of panic shot through him.

There was no time to warn him and knowing he would be unable to push him away, Harold opted for John's fallen gun. He might have disliked guns, but he was no complete stranger to them and the mechanism was simple enough. Nevertheless he severely lacked practice and his near-sightedness wasn't exactly improving his aim as he fired three times in rapid succession and blind hope,

The first two shots missed entirely and embedded themselves in the tarnished wall instead, the Reaver approaching unfazed and finally, his third bullet hit its arm. The energy discharge it had fired in that moment went wild, harmlessly scorching yet another part of the ceiling. He flinched as he saw John's remaining knife lodge itself in its skull before the creature could attack again.

“Nice shot, Finch.” Although John's voice was rough and his expression still retained most of the earlier intensity, the moment from before was gone. He found himself torn between regret and relief at them being back on more familiar territory.

His answer was honest, if a bit rueful. “I was aiming for its head.”

John's answer was a playful smirk, so familiar and achingly beautiful it made his pulse speed up, but tension was quickly seeping back into both of them, the Reaver having been a rather effective reminder that they were far from safe yet. Their brief respite was over and by the short nod John gave him, they both knew it.

 

Chapter Text

“Can you walk?”

He had to consider that for a moment, carefully shifting his weight to test the durability of his leg. The throbbing that had still been present even while sitting still sharpened somewhat, but it was bearable.

“I believe so, or at least I can certainly try. But I'm afraid I may need some assistance getting up first.”

John's arm went around his waist without a moment's hesitation, gripping him firmly and lifting him to his feet with him as John stood up from where they'd been crouched to the floor together. Embarrassingly, Harold found himself having to clutch at his shoulders for a couple of seconds as he waited for the dizziness to abate. John's arm never left his waist and he was more than glad for it once he dared to try taking a step, only to find that his leg still buckled underneath him.

The few minutes of rest had proven helpful but not nearly enough, he estimated he would have needed at least an hour for his muscles to relax and the worst strain to fade. And a full night's sleep to return to his usual level of pain. Again, his partner caught him safely, this time supporting some of Harold's weight when he tried to walk again. They both knew it was highly unlikely that he would be able to walk without assistance any time soon, even if the movement loosened some of the cramps. No, he'd need his partner's help. John's arm gave a gentle squeeze around his waist, conveying his wordless understanding. It was definitely less than ideal – they wouldn't be able to move very fast and surely John would have preferred to have both his hands free – but it would be serviceable.

Halfway through the room he bent over to pick up the energy weapon and Harold couldn't resist getting a closer look at it. He almost regretted doing so when he realised that he was passingly familiar with that model or more specifically, the energy cell powering it, and the damage it could cause.

“Mr Reese, you do realise that if you shoot at one of the outer walls with this, the probability of a hull breach is at a minimum of 40%?” His alarm was clear in his voice.

John had the audacity to smirk at him. It would forever remain a mystery to him how that man could appear to be winking without actually winking. Or, for that matter, how he could always tease him so light-heartedly, regardless of the situation. “Good thing then that it's not the walls I intend to shoot. Don't worry so much, Finch, or it'll give you wrinkles.”

Surely his eyebrows had to be almost at his hairline. He would have shaken his head in exasperation, if it weren't for his concussion. He had to settle for side-eyeing him instead.

“We are inside a Reaver ship, if you recall. I believe worrying is the very least of appropriate reactions to finding oneself in such a predicament. And do you even know where we're going?” He chose not to dignify the wrinkles part with a retort, although suppressing that urge was harder than he'd ever admit to John.

His friend shrugged, but Harold could see – feel even – the tension running through him. “We'll figure it out. And it's not like we can take the way I came in.”

He didn't need to turn around to be reminded of the flames John had stepped through to come to his aid, their flickering being the main source of light in this improvised holding area. A confounding mix of gratitude and worried irritation at John's recklessness welled up in him, because truly, even for John's standards, which didn't set that particular bar all that high, that had been beyond reckless! Taking a deep breath, he pushed those thoughts firmly aside. Pondering his feelings as well as lecturing his dearest friend on the necessity of taking greater care of his own well-being was currently rather low on his list of priorities.

“No, I suppose not. But it might help if you could keep your eyes open for any sort of computer panel or access point to this ship's systems. Unless someone deleted them, and I sincerely doubt anyone has, it should be easy enough to find its schematics, that way we can find the quickest route back to the main airlock.”

It didn't take them all too long to settle into a rhythm that allowed them to move quicker that he'd expected, without stepping on each other's toes. And for once things finally going according to their skeletal structure of a plan. The ship did seem somewhat quieter than before, the screams and growls their perpetual, horrific companion. But if he paid attention to them – rather when he couldn't quite ignore them – they did seem slightly more scattered and infrequent, no doubt due to John's involvement. Hopefully that meant the number of Reavers inside had been lower than feared to begin with, a theory supported by only four of them having been in the room with him before John had come to his rescue.

Two corridors down in a random direction, Harold felt his sense of direction already fading, but finally he spotted what appeared to be forcefully opened but still semi-intact crew's quarters. He steered John towards them as best as he could while leaning heavily onto him, not that it took more than a slight nudge, as attuned to one another as they were.

Looking around, even without his glasses he found what he had been looking for within a few seconds. It was a reassurance that even on a Reaver ship, some things were predictable. Answering John's questioning look with a small smile, he reached out to the wall, brushing the ever-present soot away with his palm. As he'd hoped, the small monitor fused into the metal may have had remained unused for a while, but with his touch it flickered to light, undamaged.

Calm encompassed his mind. At last he was of use to their escape and John was right beside him. The ship's systems' firewall presented so little challenge to him it was almost laughable and it took mere seconds before he was able to pull up the schematic he'd been looking for.

“It appears we are on a B32 Silkmoth class.” He couldn't help but scoff, the Silkmoths were infamous for their abysmal engineering and chronically buggy operating systems. A downright embarrassment for the whole trade of software engineering but just this once, that actually made his life easier.

“The main dock should be to our current nine on this deck. Do we have enough time for an internal scan?” he continued and pulled up the program before he'd even finished his question. With it being extremely likely that more corridors were blocked, knowing beforehand which ones were open would be an indispensable advantage.

Slowly, John relaxed his grip on him, letting Harold take more and more of his own weight, only stepping away and towards the door once he was sure Harold could safely stand in his own. His hip gave a twinge of pain, but at least, with most of his weight on his healthy one, his legs didn't buckle this time.

What in reality had to be no more than a few seconds seemed to be aeons the screen spent loading and he almost regretted his momentary gratitude for the abominable coding. On the edge of his vision he saw John who had taken a guard position at the door, weapon poised and ready, his back turned to him, but Harold didn't need to see his face to be warned the moment the soldier saw something, the smallest shift in his posture more than clear enough.

“We need to go, now!” Just when John was about to grasp his waist again, the screen finally showed the scan's results and the picture made his blood freeze.

“No! Close the door, they're in the vents above the corridor!”

Reliable as always, his partner didn't waste any time before following his order, heaving the bent but otherwise intact, thick steel door closed, then turning around, obviously scanning the room for something to jam it with, while Harold scanned the door itself. The lower half was extremely damaged – although charred and dented and not actually open – and a small piece of the upper corner was missing, looking as though it had been melted away, but the midsection was barely even tarnished. Fingers flying over the touchpad, his hopes were confirmed and with a scraping noise, the locking mechanism came to life, sealing them in, just as the sound of the corridor's overhead vents' maintenance hatches crashing to the floorboards could be heard from outside.

Mere seconds later, he flinched as the impact of blunt force weapons made the door rattle, flashes of light beyond the missing piece and the rift underneath the door telling them that that wasn't the only form of attack being used. His eyes met John's, grey-blue shining with anguished worry.

“Finch, this won't hold them for long. We need a way out."

 

Chapter Text

The only other door in the quarters was the half-translucent door to the shower cubicle tucked into a corner. He swallowed, gaze drifting around the room and to the grid covering the vents in the here, barely 30cm wide. They were effectively trapped. Pushing aside the encroaching fear, he returned his focus to the results of the internal scan and the blueprints, searching for any possible alternative. “Working on it.”

A particularly loud crash from outside made him flinch, sending another wave of pain and dizziness through him, making him reach out to steady himself on the wall, hands finding the coarse material of the spacesuit covering John's arm instead where he was once again safely caught by him.

On the scan, a small warning flashed up, informing him of the decreasing structural integrity of the only thing that separated them from the creatures. And at the rate the door's structural integrity was weakening, it would be just a matter of minutes until it would give way under the onslaught. Whatever escape route or plan he would come up with, he would have to do so fast.

John's gloved hand covered one of his own, giving it a reassuring squeeze and instantly he could feel his heart rate slowing and his focus returning. It shouldn't have been so successful in calming him, considering their current situation, but he had long since stopped being surprised about the effect his dear friend had on him.

“How many are out there?”

Harold zoomed in on the scan until the blur of heat signatures separated into individuals, occasionally covered by a bright flash that coincided with the weapons' discharges. A suspicion regarding the reason for John's question started to form, bringing with it a bubble of panic even the hand holding his couldn't fight. “Eleven, no, twelve, and there already are more on their way. Surely you can't suggest...”

“It's our only way out.” Those five words were all he needed to say, they carried all the implications Harold wanted to desperately deny and ignore and he looked up at him, finding the final confirmation on John's beloved face. Obviously his friend was indeed suggesting what he'd feared. The expression John wore was grave, eyes sad but determined and the sight made his heart clench painfully.

He found himself swallowing again, eyes burning and grip tightening on the other's arm, unable to keep the shaking out of his voice. “John, that's suicide! Even you cannot possibly fight twelve Reavers at once, especially not while you're already injured! You will die!”

John shrugged, still looking at him with the same determination and it struck Harold that his friend truly, utterly lacked any sense of self-preservation when it came to protecting him. With it, he was struck by the urge to shake him or slap him or to hold on to him and never let go, anything that might make him see reason. How could he even suggest such a thing and delude himself into thinking that Harold would allow it? Like he had no idea that his life was the most precious thing in Harold's own?

“But I can hold them off for a while,” the soldier argued, an edge of desperation creeping into his lovely voice, “maybe make enough noise to distract the others. You know which way to go and you can run scans when you come across more terminals, you'll be able to avoid them until you're back on the Machine. You'll just need something to use as a crutch...”

He couldn't help but envision it for a moment, John stepping outside to face them, fighting them back with everything he had, just so Harold could escape, being dragged off... He shuddered, tears making their way down his cheeks again. “No! That is unacceptable, Mr Reese!”

His partner huffed humourlessly. “What are you gonna do, Finch? Fire me?”

“No,” He stared into John's eyes, letting him see every ounce of his own determination. He would not leave him behind, he would not return home without John by his side where he belonged. “I merely refuse to leave without you.”

Harold...” His voice was now as pained as his own, pleading, but even though the tone tugged at his heart Harold refused to let him finish.

“No, there has to be another way. Now, if you could be so kind as to not distract me with this pointless argument...”

It took more effort than he was willing to admit to break their eye contact and he couldn't muster up enough self discipline to remove both his hands from John's arm. John wouldn't be able to leave and go through with his insane, self-sacrificial plan without Harold unlocking the door first and he was well aware that physically, he would be unable to stop John from doing anything, but he found himself needing that bit of reassurance. After all, he could manipulate the schematics just as easily with one hand. He would find another way, he would get them both home. A sudden flash of recent memory begged for his attention, one of dry lips touching his own, dream-like and out of place amongst flickering fire and fallen Reavers, a piece of beautiful fantasy.

A particularly bright flash sent sparks flying through the hole in the door's corner, making the thick metal groan and shudder and another alarm flash up in the corner of the screen. John's arm twitched underneath his hand, but he didn't remove it.

Frantically, his eyes were skimming over the blueprints, following the electrical grid and the water pipes, the ventilation system and fuel lines, the rooms' layout and... There! He could feel the corners of his lips twitch upwards in triumph. It wasn't perfect, far from it, but a much better alternative to facing the Reavers – losing John.

“Got it!” Instantly he had the soldier's full attention. “Could you please remove a piece of that unfortunate choice of carpet from the middle of the room?”

Picking up a sharp-looking piece of scrap metal, John sent him a smile, not the teasing half-smirk he wore so often but one of his rarer, genuinely affectionate ones and Harold found himself smiling back, even as he raised a questioning eyebrow at him. John didn't answer his silent enquiry until he knelt down in the middle of the room after having received a small nod in confirmation that he was in the right position. Only after having averted his gaze to start cutting did he speak.

“Well, it's just that only you would criticise the interior design choices on a Reaver ship.” His voice carried so much fondness that Harold wished John would look back up, so that he'd be able to see the same reflected in his eyes.

Watching and hearing the carpeting tear – and really, it was a monstrosity in yellow, orange and olive green – he mentally shook his head at himself. Once they had escaped he would really need to find a way to keep his inappropriate feelings for his employee in check before he'd wind up making John uncomfortable – or worse, leave. Though in all likelihood he was doing him an injustice thinking he might leave. John would be more likely to suffer his discomfort than be willing to hurt Harold by leaving, and he really wasn't sure which scenario was worse. To lose him entirely or to feel their friendship fade into a hollow shell of what it had once been, his heart's greatest desire always close and in view but hopelessly beyond his reach.

However, a small, traitorous voice in the back of his mind whispered that maybe, there could be an entirely different outcome, whispered of endless flirtation and affectionate smiles and reminded him again of the briefest press of chapped lips against his own. Whispered that maybe, despite the surreality of it, his concussed mind combined with wishful thinking hadn't played tricks on him...

More tearing reminded him that now really wasn't the time for this.

“That enough?” the object of his internal conflict enquired.

There was now a sizeable hole in the carpet freeing the view onto the floorboards and right in the middle of it, the edge of two boards, fused together with thick bolts.

“Yes, perfect. If you aim at the bolts, if they don't get dislodged by the charge right away, the heat expanding the metal should be enough to loosen them. After all, the B32 Silkmoths aren't exactly known for a high-quality craftsmanship.”

“What's below us?” John asked between shots, as predicted some of which punched clean through the metal, others denting it, leaving it red-hot in some places.

“The former mess hall.” His eyes flickered back to the screen, rechecking the results. “The scan indicates that there's only a small fire at the portside wall and it's free of unpleasant company. At least for now. However, it is a four-and-a-half metre drop.”

The soldier holstered his stolen weapon and crouched down to dislodge the hot metal, pausing only to give him another small smile. “Don't worry, I'll catch you.”

Harold nodded, swallowing an inquiry regarding John's injuries. He knew he wouldn't get an honest answer anyway, just like he knew that with his own old injuries, he couldn't fall from even this height without doing himself irreparable damage. To do so would mean quite possibly severely limiting what was left of his mobility for the remainder of his life, if not something worse, and he knew that John was equally aware of this. As much as he wanted to spare him any additional pain, his friend would never let him.

“From there, we should be able to make out way aft ward, where we'll find a maintenance shaft that will lead us directly into the main cargo hold and therefore to the docking station.” he continued.

With a last groan of protest, the latticework surrendered to his partner's strength and just a moment later, John's arm was back around his waist, supporting him the few metres to the hole. The space underneath was shrouded in darkness, a dim orange flickering the only light. John smirked at him, but there was warmth in his eyes, his voice soft.

“Sounds like a plan.”

Then he stepped away, lowering himself into the opening until all Harold could see of him was the tips of his gloved fingers clinging onto the edge and the light reflected in his salt-and-pepper hair. He watched those fingers slip as if in slow-motion and heard the dull thud of boots hitting metal plating, followed by a soft groan that made alarm wash over him.

“Mr Reese? Are you alright?”

The answer sounded somewhat strained but not overly so. “Fine, Finch. Come on down, I've got you.”

He swallowed. His heart was pounding and he cursed the darkness and his near-sightedness for preventing him from seeing for himself that his friend was alright. The pounding and impact of various projectiles on the other side of the door suddenly seemed so much louder and oppressive now than they had a moment ago. There was no time to waste. As quickly as he could given his condition, he lowered himself down to sit on the edge, hissing as his palms – unprotected by a spacesuit's gloved like John's were – made contact with the metal, blisters already forming, but there was nothing for it. A small groan escaped him as he touched his burnt skin to it again to push himself off.

A heartbeat later, John's arms were around him again, breaking his fall safely, except there was John's voice, letting out a sharp cry of pain and his body crumbled beneath Harold like a marionette with its strings cut and pure panic shot through him. He barely noticed the pain in his hip as he twisted to the side, rolling off him. The soldier wasn't reacting, wasn't moving.

“John?!"

 

Chapter Text

Eyes not yet adjusted to the lower light, his hands fumbled uselessly on the suit until finally his fingers found skin, carefully seeking out his dear friend's pulse point, barely breathing out a sigh of relief when he felt the strong and steady heartbeat. But now he was starting to see the cold sweat glistening on his partner's forehead, how unhealthily pale his skin was even in nothing but the orange glimmer of the burning chair leaning against the portside wall. Unconsciously, he brushed the droplets of perspiration away, smoothing over the frown lines that had started to take permanent hold of his dear friend's face. He swallowed thickly.

And that scream... Their mission as well as their trading had put them into all kinds of unpleasant situations over the years. With a resigned kind of horror, Harold had listened to the rush of breath leaving the soldier when someone threw a lucky punch, had watched knives being pointed at him and occasionally finding their aim, had listened to the explosion of gunshots and patched up the wounds they sometimes left behind. All that and worse, too many times over those precious years, but he still could count on one hand the times he'd heard John scream in pain. To think that this time, he had been the cause...

No, he couldn't afford to think about this now. The rattling of the door of the room above them was still audible, any second now it might give in to the abuse and the big hole they had left in the floor-now-ceiling was far from subtle. The moment they broke that one barrier down, this room would be swarmed with the Reavers and there was nothing he could do to protect himself, let alone an unconscious John. They had to get out, Harold had to find a way to, if nothing else, put distance between them and the creatures.

Tearing his gaze from his unconscious partner, he scanned the room for anything that might be of use. A dirty table cloth lying long abandoned on the floor caught his eye. It would be impossible for him to even lift – let alone carry – the larger man, he could barely even walk on his own, but dragging him? The floor here was even, smooth aluminium plating instead of the corridors' latticework.

He reached out and drew the table cloth to him, satisfied to find it long enough for his purposes before carefully lifting John's left arm, dragging one corner of fabric underneath it before repeating the process with the other one, then tying the two ends together over John's chest in an improvised sling. Hopefully it would be positioned high enough to not injure his ribs further, though it definitely would aggravate the stab wound in his shoulder. The knowledge that John's endlessly forgiving nature would not even let it occur to him to blame Harold for his pain did surprisingly little to soothe his conscience, but there was nothing for it.

Settling the other, broader end of the loop around his own shoulders and upper back so the weight would be distributed evenly, he set to work, dragging himself sitting backwards towards the mess hall's door using both his hands and feel, pulling John with him metre by painstaking metre, the mad yelling and rattling coming from above drowning out his panting breath and groans of pain.

Eyes fixed on John's slack face, he ignored the flares of white-hot agony from his hip, the sting of the patch of raw, exposed flesh on his arm, the burning of his palms and the strain in his fused neck, pushed aside the throbbing of his head and the dizziness and nausea that came along with it. Sweat was running down his body, burning sharply when a bead of it dripped into the open wound. His harsh breaths hurt in his parched throat, only now he realised how thirsty he was.

By some miracle, the damaged entrance to the room above was apparently still holding when he finally reached his destination – the door on the other side of the mess hall – where he was faced with another problem. While unlike in their previous hideout this door could also function as a temporary airlock – installed throughout most ship classes for years now, even the Silkmoths being no exception, to be sealed in case of a hull breach so that only a part of the vessel would be affected, buying the survivors valuable time, he and John had come across many of such cases – and was therefore thicker and would provide a much more effective protection from the Reavers, it also meant that the seal – or more specifically its hydraulics – took up space. Enough space to warrant stairs just to step up to the doorway and then back down into the corridor, three steps over which he'd have to drag the unconscious body of an injured man substantially taller and heavier than himself.

Discarding the re-purposed table cloth, he lowered himself next to John and replaced it with his arms. As gently as he could with the strength he had to exert he lifted his torso until the soldier was half lying on top of him. Wishing there had been time to catch his breath, he gripped him tight, cradling John's upper body against his chest, soft salt-and-pepper hair tickling his neck where John's head rested against his shoulder. Blood ran down his arm and onto the spacesuit when the way he held onto John pulled at the skinned patch. His hip pulsed agony with every heartbeat.

Harold closed his eyes and braced himself against the pain. Stemming himself upwards with his legs, even his healthy one trembling under the effort, his bad one nearly entirely useless, he managed to lift them both up two stairs.

On the third, if felt like someone had stabbed the thigh of his good leg with a blazing hot knife and for a moment he couldn't move, couldn't do anything but clutch John's reassuring weight to him and breathe through the worst of it, barely aware of the soft whimpers that escaped him. It hurt. For a moment, the sharp pain overshadowed all the his other aches, burned away every capacity of thought.

Once he didn't feel like he too may pass out at any second, he tried again. The imaginary knife twisted and he let out a frustrated, agonised scream, but he could feel the edge of the highest step scratching along his back and he didn't let up, not pausing even as he finally had dragged them both to the highest point. The dizziness made the room spin around them like a carousel and he found himself staring at John, his fix point, the one anchor for his injured brain. The mere thought of dragging them further made the nausea increase, but he knew if he stopped now, he wouldn't be able to move them again.

Thankfully, pulling them through the doorway to the descending steps on the other side and down those was if not necessarily easier – he did have to minimise the amount of jostling to his partner's injuries – at least it required less physical strength. Soon enough he lowered them onto the hallway's floor.

Now there was only one task left before he'd be able to catch his breath. His abused muscles trembled, but in this moment, there was a loud crash from above, immediately followed by trampling footsteps. The Reavers had finally broken down the door. Adrenaline raced through him and he grabbed onto the stairs pulling himself up onto his trembling legs that threatened to give out from underneath him any second. But a few seconds were all he would need. All he would have, regardless.

Finally able to access the computer panel next to this door, – luckily finding it functional despite the crack running through the screen, because if it hadn't been... – his fingers had never flown across a keypad this fast, again subverting the Silkmoth's pitiful excuse of a firewall in no time at all and activating this door's emergency protocol wile pounding footsteps drew closer, crossing the space he'd spent painful minutes dragging himself along in seconds.

He watched in muted horror as a bloodied, festering arm appeared in the doorway the very moment the door slammed shut with a sharp hiss of hydraulics. He couldn't summon the energy to react as he saw that arm being severed at the elbow by the crushing force of the heavy emergency airlock, falling limply to the floor and tumbled down the stairs beyond his sight. The wall's coolness seeped through the thin fabric of his ruined dress shirt where he sagged down along it, only to muster the very last of his strength to reach out and lift John's feet unto the stairs to elevate them, then shuffling forward until he could pull his still unconscious partner's head into his lap.

Coming down from the adrenaline high, another wave of dizziness hit him, some nausea with it and that was the last of his composure. Pain racing through every inch of his body, limbs shaking from over-exertion, tears started to run down his face again. Tangling his fingers carefully in John's hair, feeling its impossible softness, his small sobs would no longer let themselves be suppressed either.

For the at least fifth time now, they had narrowly escaped the most gruesome death the 'verse had to offer and if they were to be attacked now... He should have remained standing to run another scan, to see if aside from the bloodied fists pounding against the viewing port from the other side of the door they were really as alone as they seemed to be. If they were attacked now, they would be utterly vulnerable. So far, John showed no signs of waking and the weapon he'd taken from the Reaver was holstered beyond Harold's reach, the decimetres might as well have been kilometres, it was just as impossible for him to reach. And even if, he would be as good as useless with it, unused to handling such a weapon and missing his glasses. There was nothing he could do to protect them, he was so weak he could barely even move.

Another sob shook him and he ran his hand over John's forehead, wiping away the sweat and smearing the soot. It should have been him! He should have insisted that John would not catch him with his broken ribs, causing the person he cared for most in the 'verse so much pain that he had passed out from it. He should have gone first and damn the risk of crippling himself further. This way, both their lives were at risk, but had he been the one to make the jump first, he would now be unconscious and John awake, able to protect them both.

John should not have come at all. He should not have followed Harold into this waking nightmare, he should have stayed on the Machine, should have stayed safe. Harold should have been more careful, should have prevented himself from being caught, if he had, John would be safe and alright now instead of this...

He was sobbing freely now, no one but those creatures there to witness his weakness and they wouldn't tell. Harold closed his eyes and tried to ground himself in stroking the salt-and-pepper hair even as he failed to make out the sound of the breaths he could so reassuringly feel against his arm over the futile pounding against the door.

“I'm so sorry, John.” he whispered between hitched breaths of his own, “It should have been me. You shouldn't have caught me and hurt yourself like this. I should have paid more attention so they wouldn't have taken me. Please, I need you. I'm too weak to keep us safe so I need you to wake up. Please. Just be alright, John. Because I will always need you and if you aren't...”

Pure terror raced through him. What if it hadn't been the ribs? What if John had sustained some head injury Harold had failed to notice that had been aggravated by him breaking his fall? What if he wouldn't wake up before the Reavers found them once again? Or if by some miracle, Harold were to manage to get them back to the Machine but he just wouldn't wake up at all, would spend the rest of his days wasting away under some alias in a hospital, his beautiful mind and big heart forever closed away from the 'verse, from Harold?

No matter how much he wanted to, he couldn't stop his thoughts from spiralling into this direction, dread filling every fibre of his being. He had lost so much to the war and after it, to varying degrees of his own fault. He refused to let go of John. It was almost comical, he had meant to find himself an employee and had done so by giving him a purpose, but he could never have predicted that he'd end up finding the one person he more than anything wished to spend the rest of his life with, the one person he couldn't lose. The mere thought of a 'verse without John seemed so bleak to him that he couldn't imagine finding a way to go on in it. And if losing him was his fault...

The sobs were now rattling his exhausted body hard enough to make him whimper in pain. There was so much he had yet to share with John, so many books he wanted to hear his thoughts on, a lifetime of companionship and shared laughter, of irritatingly flirty banter and conversations until late into the artificial evening, of picking those conversations back up in the middle of the night when neither could sleep, the comm line always open between their quarters.

The chance to find out if he really had merely hallucinated the split second of chapped lips pressing against his own.

Ordinarily he may have flinched, but now his body was too fatigued to do so as unexpectedly, a large hand cupped his face, a rough glove stroking over his cheekbone, wiping away his tears and his eyes flew open, meeting darker blue ones.

 

Chapter Text

“What's wrong? You hurt?” John's raspy voice asked, looking up at him, pale with exhaustion and pain and eyes filled with concern. He had never beheld a more beautiful sight.

Harold wanted to laugh in relief, but all that left him was another small sob, fresh tears falling from his face. Unashamed of them, he allowed himself a moment to lean into John's touch – John who was awake and talking. He was safe with him, John might tease him endlessly about every blush he managed to bring onto Harold's face with endless innuendos, but he knew he would never tease him about this. He was always safe with John.

He had half a mind to yell at his partner for his question but he was all too aware that it would be a pointless waste of energy, energy needed to forcefully squash the impulse to kiss the palm of John's glove. He tried to smile reassuringly instead.

“Merely exhausted, that's all. How are you, is there anything I can do?”

John carefully shook his head. “I'll be fine in a minute or so. Sorry for passing out on you.”

A peculiar coldness replaced his hand when he let it drop away, reminding Harold that his own was still stroking John's hair. He must have jostled him somehow when he took it away because John let out a small noise of discomfort.

“It is really not necessary to apologise Mr Reese. I am the one who owes you an apology, I shouldn't have asked you to catch me.”

“You didn't a-...”

“Do you think you could stand yet? I'm afraid that while we seem to be safe for now, there is no telling how long we will remain that way.”

Letting his interruption go with just a hint of a frown, John nodded, slowly sitting up with a pained groan, face still sickly pale and swaying slightly, prompting Harold to raise his now-free hand and place it against John's back, taking some of the man's weight while he caught his breath. The discomfort from the coarse suit's rasp against the burnt skin of his palm was a small price for the relief of being able to help when he felt his partner lean into his touch ever so slightly.

He watched John take in his surroundings; the thick door the Reavers were still attacking and – judging by the mixture of astonishment and disgust on his face – the severed arm lying somewhere where Harold's view was blocked by the stairs. His friend raised an eyebrow at him.

“Do I want to know how that happened?”

“I managed to activate the emergency protocols for the mess hall just in time. It's designed to close the doors as quickly as possible in case of a hull breach in this sector and eventual limbs being caught in their way have a low priority when the system believes the atmosphere to be compromised.”

That seemed to satisfy him for now. “And how did we end up here?”

“I pulled you, using an improvised harness made from a table cloth.”

John's expression shifted from confused to concerned but genuinely impressed and suddenly, the various aches throughout Harold's body seemed so much more bearable.

Actually standing up took John much longer and unable to stand up himself – he had tried moving his normally good leg, but undamped by adrenaline, the same twisting-hot-knife sensation felt exponentially worse than before – he could do nothing but watch him climb painfully to his feet, little of his usual feline grace left in his movements. For a short while, the soldier simply leant against the wall, face drawn and eyes closed. His features relaxed slightly before he opened them again and held his still gloved hands out for Harold to grasp. Neither of them could hold in a sound of discomfort when he pulled Harold to his feet and manoeuvred him into the same position as before, side by side, arm around his waist.

After a few steps it became apparent that this would no longer suffice since now both his legs refused to carry his weight. He didn't need words to convey this to his partner, his apologetic look enough, receiving an understanding one in return. Then John's lips drew upwards in a tense version of his usual smirk. That, and John's quiet – playful-flirty – “Hold on.”, was the only warning he received.

Suddenly his legs were swept out from underneath him and he found himself cradled safely against John's chest. That John was leaning against the wall again, his face paler than before and more pain mixing into the smirk being the sole reason he kept himself from struggling against suddenly being carried bridal style.

It did not keep him from exclaiming in a shocked voice “Mr Reese! What are you...?!”

John had the audacity to chuckle! But at the same time, he was regarding Harold with immeasurable warm fondness and Harold didn't have it in him to be truly irritated. “Well, tell me if I'm wrong but I think taking you in a fireman's carry wouldn't be the best idea for your injuries.”

Heat rose in Harold's face and he let out an indignant huff. John was right, but the petty part of his nature whispered that he didn't have to admit it. Of course he might as well have, John understood him anyway.

“You know, back in the war we had that saying, no idea who started it but we all knew it: If you can't run, you walk, and if you can't walk, you crawl, and if you can't crawl, if you can't do that, you find someone to carry you.

“I would probably still manage to crawl.”, he pointed out. Merely a token protest, of course.

John's only response was to raise an eyebrow at him in a terrible imitation of the look he directed at him so often. Telling him non-verbally to stop arguing. With another huff, Harold resigned himself to his fate and the confounding mix of feelings it stirred up in him. There was an undeniable pleasure at being held in the arms of the man he cherished so much and the profound feeling of safety he experienced constantly in his presence seemed magnified, yet there was also annoyance at being so helpless, frustration at his own weakness and a wave of guilt swept through him when after only a few steps, some movement caused John to wince, something that given their closeness, Harold could physically feel.

He had half a mind to ask John to set him back down again, to give himself another moment of rest, but the soldier was too aware that there was no time to waste. His eyes flickered to the Reavers behind the blast door, to the access panel and then back to his dear friend.

“They seem to be quite busy for the moment and there doesn't seem to be any more unpleasant company in close vicinity for now. If you don't mind, there's something I'd like to try, while we have the time.”

John tilted his head in response and crossed the small space back to the panel, leaning against the wall again and eyeing Harold in gratitude and fond suspicion even as he breathed a small sigh of relief. Harold couldn't help but smile with his own relief and amusement at just how well his partner knew him before returning his attention once more to the computer panel. The angle was somewhat awkward, but his chances of convincing John to set him down were slim. At least his stoic friend was allowing himself the support of the wall.

Yet another scan confirmed that they would have several more minutes until facing the threat of detection again. And soon enough, if became apparent that he would need every minute he got, becoming increasingly frustrated with the Silkmoth's software as the seconds mercilessly trickled by and he found himself forced to work around bug after bug.

Behind the window of the emergency airlock – its surface now smeared with blood, speckled with bits of rotting, necrotic skin that had lost its hold on the still living tissue after repeated impacts – he could still see the Reavers futilely attacking the door, though they were now noticeably fewer in number, some of them undoubtedly seeking other ways to reach them. It was just a matter of time until they did, time that was running out. He barely even noticed the tension creeping into his muscles until John's thumb – on the hand supporting his back – began to rub small circles into them and the tension bled away.

He briefly glanced at his friend, smiling gratefully, and sighed. “This would go much faster if the programs interlinking the individual terminals weren't so...”

“Shit?” John finished with an audible smirk.

“It is said that profanity is the effort of a feeble brain to express itself forcibly, Mr Reese. Though I admit, in this case I'm inclined to agree with your assessment.”

John's soft chuckle vibrated through his body, a much nicer sensation than feeling him wince.

“Did you just language me, Finch?”

“Now whyever would I do such a thing?” he quipped back, drawing another huff from his partner, getting briefly distracted by the sensation of warm breath caressing his hair before finally, the terminal in front of him flickered and displayed once again the image of a thermal scan. From the corner of his eye, he saw that the terminal at the end of the hallway had flickered to life as well and the distant clang of metal on metal cut through the incessant screams. Judging by the questioning look John threw him, of course it hadn't escaped his notice either.

Harold nodded carefully, affirming the completion of his work and unhesitatingly, John's grip tightened on him as the soldier pushed himself off the wall with an undulating motion. Instantly, Harold wound his arms around John's shoulders – avoiding the burn on his soldier's neck and the stab wound to the best of his ability, even as the shallow wound on his arm was stretched and stung, fresh rivulets of blood seeping into John's suit – holding on just as tightly to take as much weight as he could off John's ribs.

“I set the terminals to run scans in 15 second intervals and display the results, so we won't have to stop for individual scans. Hopefully that should give us a little more warning. I've also closed some of the still functional airlocks and although I couldn't seal off this section entirely, it should reduce the likelihood of discovery significantly.”

John looked at him with warm astonishment and pride, and a tendril of smug pleasure wrapped itself itself comfortingly around Harold's heart.

The arms holding him gave him a gentle squeeze. “I'm glad you're with me, Finch.” his dear friend said quietly.

Harold knew his answering smile was too soft, too affectionate, too revealing. “Always, Mr Reese.”

Focussing on the sound of John's breathing and the minute shifting of his ribcage where he was held securely against it, he had long lost any perception of time and the damaged corridors with their never ending metal latticework, malfunctioning lights and electrical fires were beginning to blur into one. The mad screaming relentlessly coming from all sides keeping them on edge and added to the nightmarish feel, but it seemed to remain fairly distant and finally, without running into unpleasant company again, they made it to the maintenance hatch that would lead them to their escape.

Looking up at it, Harold swallowed. There was a small ladder fused to the wall leading up to the access hatch, its steps protruding barely more than a few centimetres, the whole ladder maybe 50 centimetres wide. The hatch itself – and therefore the maintenance shaft behind it as well – had a diameter of perhaps 70 centimetres. Carefully, John set Harold's legs down, still holding most of his weight.

“How bad is it?”

Instead of answering, he concentrated on remaining upright as his friend let him take more and more of his own weight. It was no use. Mere seconds after John had mostly let go of him, only keeping his arm loosely around his waist again in anticipation of having to catch him, the same sensation of a white-hot stab raced through his leg. The throbbing of his permanent injuries was something he had learned to handle, but this was different and he found his usual defences to be nearly useless against such an unfamiliar type of pain.

A new wave of guilt rolled over him as the pressure of his own body against his ribs made John groan, but the strong arm around him wouldn't let him move away even as he murmured a quiet apology. Only when he had walked them both over to the ladder did John lower him to the ground, wasting no time to climb up and open the hatch before climbing back down to help him stand again.

“I take it you have an idea regarding how we are going to get up there? While I did appreciate it, you carrying me might be somewhat problematic now given the size of this thing.” He hoped that his frustration at being unable to do so much as simply stand didn't reach his voice, knowing John he would find a way to believe it to be his fault.

“Yeah. Are you okay to take some of your weight?”

“Yes.”

“Good. As long as you'll help a bit with the actual climbing part, I can carry you with one arm”

The look he shot him only made his friend shrug, customary half-amused half-flirtatious smirk firmly back on his face.

“What? It's like a bird fluffing its feathers, your suits make you look bigger than you are. You're actually pretty lightweight, Finch.”

For a moment he could only stare at John – though he did admit to himself that it was an immense relief to see this familiar expression and hear the warm teasing in his voice. He made sure that his reply contained every ounce and then a bit of his usual exasperated indignation. “I do not fluff!”

Now John's rough voice was directly in his ear, warm breath tickling the thin skin behind it. “Don't worry, I think it's adorable.”

Distracted as he was, an admittedly rather embarrassing squawk escaped him as he was gripped tight and lifted off his feet, leaving him to sling one arm around his shoulders and latch with his other onto the ladder. The sudden impact of cold metal on his burnt and blistered skin almost made him hiss. John immediately paused after lifting them both into the first step.

“Okay?” he asked, concern back in his voice and now, pressed more closely into him than ever before and head leaning against the crook of his neck, Harold actually feel the vibrations of him speaking. He could only nod in reply, focussing on bringing his own feet to the rung. Supporting as much of his weight as he could, he held on for the both of them so John could quickly grab higher and then start the process anew.

Once they were actually inside the duct, it got considerably easier since he didn't have to hold them both to the ladder with one – by now shaking – arm. Now they could simply lean against the wall that kept them so tightly encased that Harold's front was plastered slightly off-centre to John's, head to toe. It should have been claustrophobic, feeling unforgiving metal all around him where he wasn't touching his partner, but the fact that it was John kept the panic he might have otherwise experienced at bay. It was by no means a comfortable situation to be in, but it was a constant reassurance to hear the racing of John's heart in synch with his own and to feel his breath caressing his hair in small puffs. He closed his eyes – it was dark anyway. John's skin smelled of fire, sweat, iron and gunpowder and hidden underneath that was a scent he could only describe as safety and comfort. Home.

At one point, he almost slipped from the narrow rung and John gripped him tighter. He didn't loosen his hold even after Harold whispered assurances that he was alright – his breath must have tickled his neck because he could feel John's minute shiver – and he selfishly decided not to complain. His relief at finally reaching the hatch that would lead them into the cargo hold a few moments later was tainted by a touch of disappointment, followed by the long familiar frustration at himself.

John was in all likelihood completely unaware of his inappropriate feelings and his enjoyment of their enforced closeness had the bitter aftertaste of taking advantage. He wasn't sure if it was made better or worse by the certainty that even if he had known, he probably still would have had no qualms about holding Harold this way if necessity dictated it. Perhaps, if only he dared to ask, he would even be willing to hold him if they were safe. Harold swallowed and did his best to silence the treacherous voice whispering to him of dry lips and what ifs.

The hinges of the hatch groaned their protest at being moved and they both held their breath in the seemingly drawn-out seconds of climbing out of the relative safety of the maintenance tunnel, only breathing out in relief when they found the cargo hold empty. Apparently, none of the Reavers were near enough for the noise to have attracted their attention.

He felt his face heating up when as soon as they were inside the room John once again lifted his legs onto his now freed other arm, carrying him bridal style.

There was a tension in the air – or perhaps that was just his concussed brain playing tricks on him again? - while they crossed the last few metres that separated them from finally leaving this nightmare behind, an anticipation for something to happen, to go wrong at the last second. Maybe it was his pessimism and the paranoia John liked to tease him about despite his own matching Harold's evenly.

Miraculously, nothing did. The unnerving screams and the distant thudding of ill-fitting boots kept them on edge, but none appeared to get closer as Harold overrode the locking mechanism of the main airlock. They weren't followed when they stepped into the retractable docking tube.

They were alone when their own airlock hissed open, the Machine recognising their bio-signatures, and John carried him home, warm light and the smell of books, engine grease and yesterday's cooking embracing them comfortingly.

John set his legs down but kept him held upright against him, Harold's back to his chest, as he checked the damage to their locking mechanism via the computer terminal next to them before sealing the thick steel doors.

They were safe.

 

Chapter Text

Once again John's solid body was the only thing keeping him from simply sinking to the ground. The Machine's familiar systems reacted to his manipulations as naturally as he could move his hands and a deep, proud satisfaction warmed him as he observed the elegance of his life's work, especially in the recent comparison to the Silkmoth's crude factory-set coding. It didn't take more than a few simple commands, some adjustments here and there, then the programs would run their course automatically.

As soon as he lifted his hands away from the terminal, John picked him back up, the motion itself as fluid and easy as before, yet this time executed with a small groan. Guilt settled heavily in his stomach, churning there when he carefully turned his head and saw the tight expression on his partner's face.

“You can set me down, Mr Reese. We're safe now, there's no more need to hurry, I'll manage.” he said softly, hoping that John wouldn't argue.

His friend looked at him as if he'd asked him to pour ketchup over his arsenal. Like the thought of not carrying Harold was the height of absurdity. “It's fine, Finch. I told you, you're a lightweight.”

“John, from the way I saw you holding yourself, you've broken at least three ribs! You don't need to help me, not when it's hurting you!”

John paused for a moment, most likely considering to claim that he was fine again – an obvious lie. Instead, Harold could watch a mask of stoicism settle over his handsome features, hiding the pain, staring resolutely ahead. He knew that expression as the one the soldier wore when he was at his most stubborn.

“Sickbay isn't that far.” Harold had just taken a deep breath, ready to argue, but then he watched the stolid mask crumble to reveal a deep weariness, and he found himself unable to. Finally John did look at him again and Harold's next breath caught in his throat as he looked into those expressive eyes, finding a deep, pained warmth in them, a world of fondness and affection. The same warmth was infused in his rougher-than-usual voice as he simply begged “Please.”

And he wished he could argue more, wished he'd find the right words to convince the other to take care of himself, but in the face of such a plea, what else could he reply but “Thank you, John.”

A strangely charged silence settled over them, not tense or awkward, but humming with something unspoken. For most of the way to their small but – for a good reason – well-equipped sickbay the only sounds accompanying them were John's heavy footsteps and, if he concentrated on it, the sound of John's heartbeat, just slightly faster than his own. It wasn't until he had to pause so Harold could open the doors that his friend spoke again, with an air amused curiosity.

“What did you do to that ship?”

Recognising it as the distraction it was, Harold raised an eyebrow at him, glad when it made the minuscule smile playing around John's lips widen.

“Come on, I know you. It wouldn't take you almost a minute just to lock our door. And you seem pretty confident that they won't break in here again.”

“Earlier I left a backdoor in their systems, although what someone had the audacity to consider a firewall was almost a massive backdoor all on its own. Anyway, I ran a program that I had written in case of a large-scale fire breaking out on the Machine, with a few modifications, naturally. Here, it would automatically seal off the affected area and then open the closest external maintenance tunnels, draining the atmosphere and suffocating the fire. I created a clone of that program, disabled the subroutine that prevents it from taking effect if life signs are still within the affected area, and attached one that deactivates the emergency protocol closing the internal airlocks in case of a hull breach. Simply put, by now that ship will have lost its atmosphere. I figured that, given both our physical states at the present moment, a wild chase with a Reaver ship may be ill-advised.”

John let out a chuckle, quickly broken off and followed by a wince he couldn't quite hide. “Shiny! Though I'm not sure if I should be impressed or creepified. Hope you deleted the modified one?”

He couldn't help but regard his partner with a faux-innocent smile. “Of course. After all, I can re-write it easily enough, if need be.”

And really, he shouldn't feel this relieved about what he had done. Reavers were – at least biologically speaking – human. Technically, even if one could argue self-defence, he had just killed who knew how many human beings. Except, he couldn't find it in himself to view them as human. Not when he could barely suppress the uncomfortably vivid memory of those creatures. The way one had attacked John, had dug one of those crude shivs into his shoulder and scratched at his face while he had hung there, tied and helpless and having been too slow in warning him. The way one had cut pieces out of Harold and devoured it right before his eyes.

He darted a quick glance at his exposed arm and the place where it had been skinned. The bright red flesh wasn't bleeding all that much anymore, but it was weeping, the serous fluid running in rapidly cooling streaks towards his fingers. At least the throbbing in it had died down to a more constant burning by now.

He looked away. Seeing the exposed tissue reminded him of their faces where they'd cut their own skin away, leaving bright red patches just like the one on his arm or worse, the older ones crusted and yellow with infection. The remains of his clothes smelled like acrid smoke and rotting meat.

Sensing his growing distress, John squeezed him tighter to his chest for a split-second, grounding him in the present moment. Harold's grateful smile was answered with one of John's tender ones, the one he'd only ever seen directed at himself. The sharp tang of disinfectant perpetually lingering in the med bay's air drowned out the stench that had settled into his shirt.

He fought the ridiculous, childish impulse to cling to John when his dear friend carefully sat him down onto the main examination table and found himself helpless against the fact that he instantly missed the embrace. John stepped away to the other side of the room, tugging off his gloves on the way and carelessly letting them drop to the floor. Harold watched him open a drawer there, pulling out – judging by the colour – two water packs along with an an object he couldn't recognise from this distance. Apparently seeing his curiosity, John kept holding it strategically out of Harold's sight until he was less than half a metre away.

John set the water down and unfolded one of Harold's spare pairs of glasses and, with nearly unbearable gentleness, placed them onto his face. He blinked as his partner's affectionate smile came into focus.

John coughed quietly, the slightest flush of pink appearing on his sharp cheekbones, smile turning a bit more flirtatious yet still remaining absolutely genuine. “There you go. As much as I like seeing your pretty eyes without these in the way, they make you look more like yourself.”

Harold felt heat rising to his face as his partner's hands lingered on his cheeks for a moment and inwardly cursed his pale complexion, intensified by the usual pallor one acquired when spending sufficient time in space. It distracted him enough that he didn't even comment on that ridiculous adjective John had just used to describe his eyes. “Thank you, Mr Reese.”

For a few seconds, neither of them moved, then John cleared his throat – and yes, there was definitely a blush on his face as well now, even if Harold couldn't quite fathom why – and let his hands drop, warm, calloused skin caressing Harold's cheeks in the process. He wished he'd let the touch linger just a little while longer.

He was glad for the water John handed him. Not only because of how thirsty he was and the lingering taste of smoke and decay clinging to his dry mouth that he was desperate to wash away, but also for the way he could hide behind the pack and wrap his hands tightly around them, so they couldn't reach for John. When he gripped a little too tight and spilled the water, he welcomed the coolness as it ran down his chin and throat, though not as much as John's calloused hand that gently wiped an errant drop from his jaw. He snatched the hand away before Harold could be all too tempted to lean into the contact, hesitating before meeting his eyes. There was a barely hidden vulnerability once again in those stormy blue depths and Harold found himself mesmerised.

“I... I'll just go, fly us out of here to a quieter sector. Like you said, wouldn't want to get into any more trouble. I'll be back in a minute to patch you up, okay?”

“Yes. Yes, thank you, I suppose that would be... quite sensible.” he replied once he had finally gotten enough of a hold on himself to let John's words register. He really needed to improve his self-discipline! It was one thing to quietly long for him in the privacy of his own thought, but this...

Yet he couldn't quite bring himself to break their eye contact and apparently neither could John who lingered for a short while longer in the doorway, looking at Harold as if he was afraid he might disappear as soon as he'd turn his back. As if he longed to cross the distance and lift Harold back into his arms. And while battling the urge to ask – beg – him to stay, Harold knew he must be wearing the exact same expression.

Another small cough from John broke the oddly tender moment and he found himself able to move again. With a curt nod and a last look, his partner left their sickbay, slightly uneven and heavier than usual footsteps distancing themselves until all he could hear was the sound of his own breath and heartbeat, and the distant hum of the Machine's engines.

 

 

Chapter Text

He caught himself straining to hear other noise, listening for any inhuman screams and the crackle of electrical fire even though he knew there were none. It should have been comforting, but all of a sudden the almost-silence felt oppressive and overwhelming instead of safe, his ears were ringing with the absence of noise. He felt alone.

Berating himself for being irrational he shifted on the bed, trying to find a slightly less uncomfortable position for his aching body, and took a deep breath to calm himself. Underneath the bite of antiseptic he smelled that godawful stench of putrefaction again and a wave of nausea hit him, driving tears into his eyes. Now that he'd caught it again, he couldn't seem to stop focussing on the smell. It seemed to get worse with every breath he took until he could almost taste the decay.

The wound on his arm throbbed in tandem with his head and he shuddered as another drop of serous fluid ran over undamaged skin, reminding of the slippery grasp of bloodied hands. The silence was rushing in his ears. The tears made his vision blurry despite wearing his glasses, blurry like it had been on that ship and feeling as weak and vulnerable as he did, somehow this was just too much and he had to close them.

Except, the redly-tinged darkness behind his eyelids didn't offer him refuge, on the contrary. He barely noticed the hot, salty liquid spilling over and running down his face. Before his mind's eye, images of a cut-up face flashed. A mouth like an gaping wound, opening to reveal brown, rotting teeth sharpened to points. Coarse rope digging into his wrists, keeping him even more helpless as he watched those teeth tearing into a bright red flap of skin, skin that had just been cut off of his own body.

A shudder raced down his back, sharpening the throbbing in his head to stabs. The phantom sensation of infected hands grabbing at him, lifting him harshly and tearing off his sleeve, only to now return to touch bared skin to find the best place to make the first cut, made him gag. Now he was certain he could taste the decay, a nauseating mixture of iron, heat and sweetish sickness that had hung in the air and was now clinging to him.

He wanted to run, get somewhere clean and safe, find John. John would keep him safe, he would come for him, he always did. Where was he? Shouldn't he be here? What if they had gotten him, were now cutting into him too, eating him alive while Harold was unable to help even himself, let alone John?

A part of his mind – his rationality perhaps – was pointing out the wrongness. The wrongness beyond the thought of John being hurt. The tang of antiseptic mixed into the putrefaction, the way the light filtering through the delicate membrane of his eyelids was too bright and constant to be originating from the burning corridor of his memories. It pointed out how his arms were lying uselessly along his side instead of being strung up by the rough rope he could feel cutting into his skin, how he could feel the slight, familiar pressure of his glasses on the bridge of his nose and behind his ears. How the mad screaming was missing. But it was drowned out by the panic that had overcome him so suddenly.

He wanted to scream, yell in the hopes that John would hear him, but his mouth remained closed. The silence was so heavy he would have sworn he could feel it press down physically on him, keeping him immobile more effectively than any rope could ever have.

And then, just like that, the silence was broken by the sound of breathing, interrupted by his name being called softly by a rough, beloved voice. The scent of apocrine sweat, gunpowder and home chased away the stench, leaving only the remainder of it that had settled into his ruined clothes. He could breathe again.

“Harold? Harold, please look at me. I'm so sorry I left, I shouldn't have left you here alone. You're safe, Harold, I promise. We got out. You got us out. We're both safe. Please open your eyes.”

It was impossible to resist the pleading. The bright white lights of the sickbay stung his vision for a few seconds before he could focus enough and his gaze settled on John. His friend's eyes were wide, shining with worry and guilt he longed to soothe, corners of his chapped lips – Did he really know how they felt on his? Had that been a figment of his considerable imagination or an extraordinarily surreal moment in reality? – pulled down in a small, unhappy frown he wanted to kiss away.

Absent-mindedly, he noticed that this was what had been missing and in its absence had made the silence so overwhelming – the sound of John breathing and moving around, sounds he had been living with near-constantly for several years now. Sounds that reminded him that he was not alone. That he had someone who cared about and helped him, whose company he enjoyed and who enjoyed his in return. It also occurred to him that this was the third time in a matter of what couldn't have been more than a few hours that John had seen him cry and that if he hadn't been so exhausted, he would most likely be suffering acute embarrassment now.

He took a shuddering breath. His voice shook, but that was hardly surprising to either of them. “I apologise for my state, I...”

“Don't.” Whatever John had wanted to say was interrupted by another light cough.

Instead of speaking again, his friend met his gaze as he raised one hand towards him, waiting for Harold's permission before touching him. He didn't even think to hesitate before he nodded. John's warm hand settled on his shoulder, the weight heavy enough to feel grounding while still keeping the touch light enough for Harold to shake off should he desire to do so. He didn't. All of his attention was directed to his shoulder when John's other hand settled on it, making skin contact where the sleeve had been ripped away. Warmth seemed to seep from that single point of contact right into him and settled soothingly in his chest, chasing away the last tendrils of his panic attack. Feeling returned to his cold and tingling extremities.

The slightest tug of John's fingers was enough to allow himself to slump forward, leaning into his chest as well as he could given his injuries. Seated as he was on the hip-high bed with his dear friend standing next to it, it was an awkward and somewhat uncomfortable position, but John didn't seem to mind so neither did he, letting out a barely audible sigh of relief and contentment when arms wound themselves gently around him, one settling on his shoulder blade, the other in the small dip of his waist, thumbs rubbing small circles through the thin fabric of his dress-shirt.

He had no idea how long they stayed like this. At one point, John's grip on him tightened and, husky voice barely more than a whisper but carrying more emotion than Harold could analyse, murmured “It's good to have you back.” into his hair.

Both found themselves somewhat reluctant to do so as they drew back from their embrace, his partner's hands still lingering on his shoulders. Again, he heard John clear his throat before speaking.

“Let's get you patched up.”

Only when he fully stepped away did Harold see the fresh clothes that had been dropped carelessly just beyond the doorway. John quickly detoured to retrieve them, setting them onto a free counter, then walking over to the drawer containing bandages, returning to his side with several, plus antiseptic and an ointment to aid the healing process. Neither of them spoke as he held out his hand for Harold's arm.

He had half a mind to protest, insist that they'd tend to John's more extensive injuries first, but he found he didn't have the energy left. It was an argument he was bound to lose anyway. It was the way things were, John put him first the way water was wet. To insist he'd look after himself first would have been to make him go against his very nature and even if his selflessness – self-sacrifice even – could be worrying at times, it was also one of the things that made this beautiful man who he was, shaped that heart he so cherished. So many had attempted to change him, forcefully shape him to their liking and Harold would do anything before joining their ranks.

Resting his hand in John's, he watched as a hand that he was well aware had hurt and killed many cleaned the rope-burn on his wrist with so much gentleness he barely felt the swab. Had he closed his eyes, the only indication that it was being treated at all would have been the slight, cool sting of the antiseptic on his irritated skin. The same care was shown when John applied the ointment and finally wrapped the bandage around his wrist, tight enough to stay in place but not putting on undue pressure.

Harold let his arm sink back down once John had let go after running his thumb feather-light over the edge where the bandage ended and skin began. He was about to offer his other arm up for treatment, but the sudden frown his friend directed at him made him pause. This time John didn't wait for him to lift his arm, instead he reached out himself, gently taking Harold's hand back into his own. Only now, he turned it around.

A stripe of skin on his palm was reddened and blistering. Clearly a mild second degree burn. When he looked back up again, John's expression was one of intense concern again.

“When'd you get that?”

“The jump into the mess hall. The metal was still quite hot when I unwisely touched it.”

Instantly – predictably – John's look of concern morphed into one of guilt. “Sorry. Should've thought to give you my gloves.”

Harold had never considered himself a particularly hateful person, so the sheer intensity of the loathing he felt for all those people who had tried and tried to twist John into something that could not be further from who he was, who had only succeeded in hurting him to the point that he found a way to take the blame for nearly any troublesome situation they encountered, was surprising.

War was inevitably messy, and as honourable as some of their intentions may had been, it left no innocents. Some of the splinter factions of the Independents had been just as bad in their methods as Samaritan and he desperately wished he would have known John then – known him beyond a picture and a service number on a computer screen – and prevented him from falling into the clasp of one such faction. One that hadn't hesitated to dig their claws into John's generous heart to turn him into their weapon.

He settled his free hand over John's, cradling it gently between his.

None of this is your fault.” he said with conviction, hoping against hope that the strength of it would be enough to convince his friend. “You have done everything in your power to keep me from harm and words cannot possibly express how grateful I am. For the things you have done today and even more so for being fortunate enough to have the privilege of knowing you.”

A warm satisfaction settled around his heart at observing the light dusting of pink rise to John's cheekbones. The visible bobbing of his Adam’s apple around a thick swallow confirmed that even if he couldn't believe them just yet, at least his words had been heard.

His heart sped up when their eyes met and he found John's shining with wetness. But the look in them appeared much lighter than he'd seen in too long and they were positively radiating incredulity and affection. The beginning of a shy smile was playing around the corners his lips – lips that still looked rough and chapped.

John's thumb wound itself around Harold's hand to trace delicate circles over his knuckles before gripping his fingers lightly, always careful to stay far from the wounded areas, to avoid causing pain. He never broke their eye contact, even as he bent his head and upper body lower while slowly pulling Harold's hand upwards.

Chapped lips were pressed against Harold's skin at the juncture between his fingers and knuckles, and John was still holding his gaze. His breath caught at the sight. John's eyes, the windows to his soul wide open, laying it bare and vulnerable, entrusting it to Harold and for a moment, the sensation of those lips against his skin felt achingly, impossibly , familiar. John's gaze spoke of trust and devotion and fealty.

Long seconds passed before John lifted his head until only the barest hint of contact remained. He could feel their movement accompanied by warm breath ghosting over the delicate skin on the back of his hand. John's lovely, quiet voice was filled with raw emotion.

“Thank you.” It was all he said, all he needed to say. The rest of the words hung between them, so clear to Harold as if his... John had indeed spoken them out loud. Thank you for forgiving me. Thank you for giving me a job, a second chance, for believing in me. For taking care of me. For caring about me. Thank you for saving me.

Chapter Text

His heart raced as if to imitate the fluttering of his namesake's wings. Too overwhelmed to speak, all he could do was give John's hand a quick squeeze, signalling him that he understood. Receiving an achingly tender smile at this, he couldn't help but return it even as he could once again feel the heat rising to his face.

John lowered their hands again but didn't let go, even as he had to stretch to reach the drawer containing their burn salve. Neither of them spoke as he turned Harold's hand around to apply the salve to it, keeping his touch as light as a whisper, before wrapping another bandage around it and repeating the same process with Harold's other wrist and palm.

Their eyes met again. The next one would be the one where the Reavers had cut and eaten. He was grateful to John for leaving this a few seconds longer and cleaning the others first, allowing him to direct his attention elsewhere and fully calm down from the panic attack. The antiseptic made a swashing noise in its bottle.

“This is gonna hurt.” His heart clenched at once again hearing the guilt and remorse in his friend's voice. He smiled in what he hoped to be a reassuring way.

“Yes, but I can assure you, it's nothing I can't handle.”

John sighed. “Yeah, I know you can. Doesn't mean you should have to.” A cough. “Do you need something to bite on?”

Giving John's hand – still in his own – another squeeze, Harold tried to will him into believing him. “No, but thank you, Mr Reese. It's quite alright, let's just get this over with.”

It stung. It more than stung. The clear fluid of the antiseptic was almost soothing in its coolness at first, before his exposed nerves registered the substance, then it may as well have been molten rock that was being poured over his arm. It felt as though flames were licking at the wound, burning away any potential for infection, and he held on tightly to John's hand but he didn't make a sound. No tears fell this time. John was forced to do something that caused him pain and he refused to show any to the man who would blame himself for any noise of discomfort. He refused to give John any more reason to add to the irrational burden of guilt he carried.

The wound continued to throb with any heartbeat even once his partner had finished cleaning it, but the fond-impressed-proud look John regarded him with proved a good distraction. He finally loosened his death-grip on the hand in his, only to tighten it briefly again. This time, John smiled shyly.

The throbbing finally died down when John gently spread the wound gel over the skinned patch – it would simultaneously seal it and keep it sterile, acted as a mild analgesic and would stimulate cell regeneration. Calloused skin brushed against his own as he covered it with the dressing and wound another bandage around it. Harold was surprised how relieved he felt now that that ugly injury was finally out of sight. An additional relief was of course that now that the last of his wounds had been seen to, John would finally allow himself to be taken care of too.

He let his relief show when he smiled at John, who looked increasingly exhausted but still alert.

“Do you require my assistance with getting that suit off?”

Too late he noticed the potential suggestiveness of that sentence. His friend was already smirking, tired but real, warm and teasing, and the sight was like a soothing balm to his heart.

“That's pretty forward of you, Finch, I would've thought you'd take a guy out to dinner first. But you know, if you want to take my clothes off, all you need to do is ask.”

A sudden rush of daring overcame him. They had faced an entire crew of Reavers and came out on the other side with what given the circumstances were barely more than bumps and bruises. For once, he could allow himself to enjoy a bit of playful flirting with the man he loved. He couldn't help it, he smirked back. In for a penny, in for a pound, he made a show of playfully running his gaze slowly over John's body, head to toe.

“Oh Mr Reese, I will definitely be sure to remember your generous offer.” Seeing John stare at him in surprise, clearly having expected one of his usual dry remarks, he winked for good measure.

A surge of triumph and pleasure welled up in him when John opened his mouth for a second, then closed it again. It was a rare thing to make him speechless and, unable to keep the smugness out of his expression, he was determined to fully enjoy it. This round, Harold was the clear winner.

John was still staring at him with a mix of pleased amazement and a strange intensity. Unbidden, the image of him being impossibly close, close enough that their lips almost touched, rose to the forefront of his mind. Harold knew it hadn't happened, couldn't have, but what if...

Luckily he was distracted by John's cough before he could blush – could be tempted to reach out and pull him close, make his wishful thinking combined with concussion induced fantasy reality and give himself away. A moment later he was out of reach anyway, turned away and walking towards the sink in the corner.

But there was no missing the “Yeah, you do that.” muttered by a hoarse voice. And this he had definitely not imagined courtesy of a brain injury. John's ears – and cheeks, once he had turned back towards him – were once again tinged in a rather lovely shade of pink.

What if...

There was now a wet flannel in John's hand. Harold gave him a puzzled look.

“Still gotta clean the one on your head.”

“The one on... oh.” Indeed, at the back of his head, a hand's breadth above his hairline – the epicentre of the nauseating throbbing – his hair was crusted with blood. He flinched when his fingers brushed the swelling, the movement making him dizzy again. While he closed his eyes and willed the vertigo away, he heard John step around him before the bed's padding dipped slightly under his weight behind him. A few seconds after that, he felt John's hand running through his hair. He didn't touch his scalp just yet, all Harold felt was the warmth radiating from his skin at this proximity and the movement in his hair.

His voice seemed to chase the path of his fingers, brushing through his hair in a wisp of warm breath. “Already stopped bleeding. Looks like you won't even need stitches.”

Harold breathed out a small sigh of relief. “Small mercies. I fear I would look rather ridiculous with an undercut.”

The puffs of breath from John's chuckling caressing the sensitive skin of his neck made him shiver. “You know,” he rasped, “on second thought, maybe we should stitch this after all.”

With the vertebrae in his neck fused, he had to twist his entire upper body to be able to glare at John. Both his abused hip and neck protested the strain of this position, but it was well worth the sight of his dear friend grinning at him, blue eyes warm with fondness and a hint of mischief. How could anyone ever have thought of turning this golden hearted man into a weapon? How had anyone dared to hurt and damage him to the point that he had killed and tortured by command? And how had he managed, through all the abuse he'd suffered, to keep that heart Harold so admired – and a shameful part of him yearned to possess – intact?

Harold raised a disapproving eyebrow at him, prompting John to adopt a faux-innocent expression and shrug.

“Fine, whatever you say, Finch. It's a bit high for an undercut anyway.”

“How reassuring to know that you decide medical procedures by taking the aesthetic consequences of each option into consideration.”

Turning back to let him work, John's amused snort provided a nice counterpoint to focus on to push aside the pain. He put only the barest hint of pressure on the swelling – Harold knew what he was capable of, what he had done, but those hands that had hurt and destroyed were never anything less than careful and gentle with him, he was safe with John – and while it didn't hurt as much as cleaning the larger wound on his arm had, it did intensify his headache and still-present dizziness. The burn of the antiseptic was almost a relief compared to the necessary minimum of pressure while cleaning it.

“There. All done. Let's get you changed into something more comfortable.”

Harold wished his neck had allowed him to shake his head now with the familiar frustration. He knew and had accepted that John would always put him first, but this was unreasonable! “Thank you, Mr Reese. But please let me see to your injuries first.”

His partner looked as though he was about to argue, only this time Harold managed to speak before the stubbornness could settle over those handsome features again. “Please, John. It would put my mind at ease.”

And of course. Of course John stepped around to meet his eyes and when he saw the honesty Harold offered up in them, he nodded without hesitation. Because if it was Harold asking, phrasing his request in a way that this course of action would benefit himself, of course John would agree right away.

“Thank you. Do you need help with the suit?”

John shook his head as he stepped aside to drop the now bloodied flannel in the sink. “Thanks, Finch, but I think I'll manage.”

He didn't. Harold had half a mind to turn away for a semblance of privacy, but John started peeling off the suit with a soldier's typical disregard for modesty and he was glad he hadn't when he saw him unable to suppress a wince. Harold wanted nothing more than to reach out and hold him, to be able to take away his pain, but it wouldn't do for either of them to take painkillers just yet. He needed to remain alert to tend to John and with his mobility limited as it was, he would need his dear friend awake for this too. But that didn't mean he couldn't still be of assistance.

“Please, John, you're hurting. Let me help you.”

It was probably a combination of the pleading in Harold's voice and him being in more pain then he outwardly let on that lead John to whisper “Okay.”

Both of them working together significantly reduced the amount of movement necessary for John, hopefully preventing putting further stress on his broken ribs. At one point, John retrieved a large pair of scissors at Harold's prompting. Being able to cut through the more clingy parts of the suit's tough fabric – even if it did pull at the burns on his palms rather uncomfortably, though he wouldn't tell him that – sped up the still rather slow process even more.

Guiltily, he did have to admit to himself that at least as much effort as the cutting itself required, he spent on trying not to let his hands linger against the skin that radiated tempting warmth through the tight undershirt John wore beneath the suit. Even so, he was letting his fingertips brush against lean muscle more than he ought to.

Soon enough, the soldier was left in the shirt and his underpants, the pale skin of his arms and long legs on display littered with silvery scars. The cold light of their infirmary and sweat covering it gave it an unhealthy sheen. Wordlessly, he handed Harold the scissors again and he couldn't bring himself to speak either. The air between them was filled with a strange sense of unspoken anticipation.

Cutting the thin cotton shirt off him starting at the sleeve, he could feel the minuscule tremor running through John's body where he couldn't – didn't want to – avoid his knuckled grazing his collarbone, when the cool metal of the scissors dragged against his friend's skin.

Peeling away the damp fabric bared even more scars to his gaze – along with a bruise that covered most of the left half of John's torso. The skin there was painted in deep blood-red darkening to purple in its centre. It looked immeasurably painful and John had carried him around despite it, not even just on even ground but over fallen debris and up a narrow vent. Had caught Harold's full weight after a four-metre fall... No wonder he had passed out.

Swallowing down the sudden lump in his throat, Harold took in his other injuries. There was the stab wound in his right shoulder, the skin around it crusted with dried blood. The wound itself was still bleeding sluggishly, its edges rugged and in need of stitching. A line of additional bruising ran along high on his chest – the place Harold had tied the makeshift harness to pull him to safety when he'd been unconscious.

The burn on John's right upper arm was about the size of Harold's hand, raw and red on the edges with the skin charred and white in the middle. Uneven black sport clung to the wound, sunken into it at some places. The synthetic fabric of the suit, melted right into the remaining skin. The other burn on his left calf presented a similar picture, though it was nearly double in size.

“I'm afraid that there is some of the suit's material has melted into the wound that I will have to remove. I advise that you'd allow me to administer a topical anaesthetic first?”

John shrugged with his uninjured shoulder. “Don't bother with it, Finch. It's a third degree, I can't feel anything there anyway, not enough nerves left intact. It'll only mess with the salve.”

He sighed. Of course, third degree burns were often numb, yet knowing this on a rational level and looking at the injury on his the one he cares most about and believing it didn't hurt him were entirely different matters.”If you're sure?”

“It's fine, Harold. You won't hurt me. Promise.”

Reaching over to the counter, he held out a pair of tweezers and the antiseptic to him. Harold accepted them, willing himself to believe it.

“But please, at least sit down, Mr Reese.”

For once he didn't argue, instead carefully lifting himself up onto the bed next to Harold. They spent the next few minutes in silence, only interrupted by Harold asking John to retrieve their medical scanner. Pulling the molten plastic out of his friend's damaged skin left it open and bleeding freely again in places, but John didn't appear to feel it. Only once he did shift his arm – making Harold lose his grip on one of the trickier pieces. But all he did was carefully settle his large, warm hand on Harold's closest knee. Matching his breathing to the slow, regular caress of John's thumb, cleaning the burn suddenly seemed significantly less difficult.

Every once in a while he raised the scanner, detecting yet another piece he would have to remove to prevent infection. Once he had finally managed to pry them all out of the wound, there was still the matter of disinfecting it. John was leaning minutely into his touch when he placed his hand flat on his arm to tilt it into the best angle and although it would have been much easier to keep his own bandages clean if he'd just taken his hand back, the undamaged part of John's skin felt like the finest silk to him.

He applied the burn salve generously and covered it with the dressing. Winding the bandage that would keep it in place, he discovered that the skin on the inner side of John's arm was even softer and apparently, he was ticklish there, if the minute shiver was any indication.

“I believe we should take care of your leg next. With the amount of manoeuvring you will have to do for me to be able to reach it, you would probably only pull the stitches again, if I were to see to your shoulder first.”

“You know,” John offered sincerely, “I could just clean that myself.”

There it was again, the familiar urge to bang his forehead against a wall in frustration. For so long now he'd been trying to teach John to take care of himself, or, at the very least, allow himself to be taken care of, but it was times like this that made him feel he'd be more likely to succeed in talking Samaritan into taking over their job so they could retire on a tropical island on a Core planet.

He huffed. “Of course you could. If it has escaped your notice, might I remind you that you currently have several broken ribs, an injury which of course would not be exacerbated at all by the contortions necessary for you to do so?”

“Yeah, okay, I see your point." John admitted sheepishly. Then, before Harold had time to properly worry about the implications of John giving in this easily, his small, flirty smirk made a reappearance. “How do you want me?” he said, suggestive as ever.

It made him suddenly realise how easy it was to fall into their usual banter, no matter the circumstance, because even earlier on that ship, it had taken no effort at all. How comforting and reassuring it was – to both of them, judging by the hint of relief mixing into John's smile when Harold side-eyed him fondly. John fluttered his eyelashes at him and he couldn't help but grin, shaking his head as much as he was able to.

“You, my dear, are absolutely impossible.”