It was dark when Harold got done grading his papers. He hadn’t realized how late it was until he looked out the window as the lampposts around the quad flickered on. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, Harold filed away all the essays before shooting John a text letting him know he was on his way home.
The campus was far from eerie, warmly lit by lamps with students straggling back from the dorms, laughing and chattering away drunkenly. But the lights were spaced farther apart the farther Harold got from the quad, and the trees around the residential area cast looming shadows across the sidewalks and streets.
A rustling noise from some nearby bushes caused Harold to start. Glancing at the darkness, he squinted. He could have sworn there was a misshapen shadow lurking there.
He knew he couldn’t outrun whatever was following him, but he limped as quickly as his leg would allow, hoping that his assailant would think Harold hadn’t made them out, and thus wouldn’t try to silence him. He was only a few yards from the house, if he could just make it back to John, if he could make it inside.
Harold slammed the door behind him, panting heavily. He’d startled John from his seat in the dining room where he’d been waiting patiently for Harold to arrive. “Harold?” John called in a hushed tone, “What’s wrong?”
Harold was breathing so quickly he could barely speak. “I… think… shadow… outside…”
Quickly, John rushed to the window, pressing his body flush to the wall as he peered out through the blinds. But there was no movement, no signs of Harold’s tail outside.
Harold was still backed up against the door, shaking like a leaf. He was clutching. His briefcase to his chest like a shield or a life preserver, breathing like he was drowning. Panicked.
Rushing to Harold’s side, John eased him to the floor to prevent further injury if he passed out. “Harold, look at me,” he said softly. Harold stared at him with wild eyes. “You need to breathe,” John instructed him, “You’re hyperventilating, you need to get more oxygen.”
Harold didn’t appear to be listening, still terrified of the unreal threat outside. His eyes darted from side to side, searching for danger as adrenaline flooded his system.
In a desperate attempt to help, John curled himself around Harold and pulled Harold’s head to his chest. “Can you hear my heartbeat?” he said, squeezing his eyes shut, “Focus on that. Breathe when I breathe and focus on my heartbeat.”
Harold could hardly hear John’s pulse over the racing of his own, but he tried. He closed his eyes and took a breath when he felt John’s chest push against him. He listened to the beating of John’s heart, and John’s whispered reassurances, “You’re safe, I’ve got you.”
After a few minutes, Harold had calmed down considerably, enough to disentangle himself from John and stretch out his leg, which twinged in irritation. “S-sorry,” he managed.
John shook his head. “It’s okay. Are you alright? What happened?”
Swallowing, Harold ran a trembling hand through his hair. “I thought… I thought I was being followed. I thought that… Samaritan, and, and Greer, they…”
“They’re not here,” John assured him, “If our covers had been discovered, the Machine would tell Root. We would know.”
Harold nodded. He gestured for John to help him up and guide him to the living room, where he sank into the couch. He ran his hands over his face. The panic attack left him feeling sickeningly tingly, sweaty, and cold.
John sat next to him, waiting patiently for Harold to break the silence. When he did, he murmured, “I feel rather childish.” He chuckled, but it sounded closer to a sob. “Seeing imaginary foes in the dark.”
“It’s not childish,” John assured him, “It’s our job to find things that go bump in the night. It’s normal.” He paused, furrowing his brow. “Has this happened before?”
Harold shook his head with a sigh. “Not recently.”
John’s face shifted. “You mean not since after Root took you.” Harold didn’t say anything, but John could tell by the shrug of Harold’s shoulders, he was right. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” John said carefully, taking Harold’s hand, “You’ve been through a lot. You didn’t have to hide it from me.”
Staring at the floor, Harold said, “When you helped me after… after I came back… I thought it was over. That it was just an after effect. A… temporary symptom of a traumatic experience.” He swallowed. “But every time you got hurt, or one of Samaritan’s agents pursued us, I felt a tightness in my chest. A fear, bordering on terror.”
John put his other hand on Harold’s shoulder, making Harold look up at him. “You feel like that again,” he intoned, “if this happens again and you need me… you call.”
It was part request, part command, but Harold took it for what John intended it to be- a demonstration of love. Harold nodded silently before leaning his head on John’s shoulder. “Can we stay like this?” he asked hoarsely, “Just for a little while?”
John wrapped his arm around Harold’s shoulder. “As long as you like,” he replied.