That Halo night, Raj had promised to make dinner, so Howard didn't have to bring take-out. They had played for about an hour, with Raj finally besting Howard in Slayer mode three rounds to two. On the couch, Raj was squirming gleefully, gloating over his win in a way that Howard found endearing. He watched him from the floor, head leaning back on the couch, and smirked. Raj laughed, looking down at him. When he stopped, he didn't look away. Howard loved the look Raj got just before he kissed him, and his heart skipped a beat. It started beating quickly. He felt himself blush and moved closer to Raj as Raj moved in closer to him. Howard closed his eyes just before their lips touched. They pressed closer to each other, and Howard rested a hand on the back of Raj's neck. As they broke away, Howard found himself panting.
"That was... unexpected," he breathed to Raj. "I thought you usually liked waiting til after we ate."
"Yeah," Raj said, somewhat bashfully, shrugging, "I just thought I'd shake things up a bit."
"I'm okay with that," he said, and took a deep breath before giving Raj another peck.
Raj grinned at him.
"Hungry?" he asked, sounding seductive.
"Definitely," Howard growled, nuzzling against Raj's cheek.
"No, silly," Raj smiled and pushed Howard an arm's length away. "I promised to make you dinner!"
"Aw, I thought we were shaking things up a bit!" Howard whined. Raj didn’t give in, and he watched him dotingly from the floor as he made his way to the kitchen. Howard closed his eyes for a moment, feeling a bit strange, like he did after he ate something too spicy. For a moment, he thought he would be sick, and his heart raced in panic. He opened his eyes and felt better after taking a few deep breaths. He was confused because he remembered he hadn't eaten yet… there was Raj, standing in the kitchen fixing dinner.
Howard made to get up, but he only got to one knee before he swayed with dizziness. The panicked feeling was back, and he was hyperventilating. The room swam, and he felt his heart beating hard and fast in his ears. Suddenly he couldn't hear anything else, and the room was at a strange angle. He was on the floor. He saw Raj do a double-take over his shoulder, then come rushing towards him, mouthing his name. The last thing he saw was Raj fumbling for his cell phone, and then he only saw black. He felt a heaviness on his chest, and didn’t remember anything after that.
Raj stared at the door for a full four minutes after the paramedics left. When he finally picked up his phone off the floor, his fingers felt numb, and he had to cancel his first two texts before he managed to type:
/Theu just took Howard to rhebhospitql/
Leonard texted back:
/Raj, what the hell are you talking about? Are you sober?/
He tried again:
/Howard hospital stroke/
In an instant, Leonard texted back:
/Oh my God are you there with him?/
Raj typed back simply, not even noticing his mistake:
/Stay right there, I'm coming over./
Somehow, though Raj couldn’t remember anything between his apartment and the waiting room, he, Leonard and Sheldon made it to the hospital. They sat silently under fluorescent lights that seemed simultaneously too bright and too dark. The emergency area was both crowded and lonely, filled with people who were too sterile and others who were too dirty. Raj only half heard the occasional announcements that came over the intercoms, and the other patients being rushed into the ward.
After what seemed like an eternity, a doctor walked efficiently up to the edge of the waiting area and called out: "Rajesh Koothrappali?"
Raj stared at her mute and stood up.
With a puzzled expression on her face, she told him, "Your... cousin... is asking to see you."
The ridiculous thought that either Sanjay, or more likely Venkatesh, was on a videoconference crossed Raj’s mind, and he shot Leonard a confused look. Leonard just shrugged. The doctor was walking away, and Leonard motioned Raj to go after her.
She led him to the room Howard was sharing with a quiet elderly man who appeared to be sleeping, and a girl who was holding her side and whimpering to the woman who sat next to her patting her shoulder. Howard was on the end closest to the window, and the doctor said something to Raj that he didn't pick up before she pulled back the flimsy curtain. It gave a false sense of privacy and Raj could still hear the girl, and the doctor as she clip-clopped her heeled feet out of the room.
"Oh my God," Raj muttered when he saw how much paler Howard was than usual, and took his hand immediately. He pushed a damp lock of Howard's hair aside and kissed his hand.
"Hey, watch it," Howard croaked with a strained smile. "Hot Lips Houlihan there isn't going to believe the cousin story if you keep that up."
"Whose cousin?" Raj asked, genuinely confused.
Howard chuckled to himself though his eyelids were heavy.
"I wrote you down as my next-next-of-kin, just in case. Who knew ma would be on a plane to The Promised Land when my arrhythmia finally landed me in here."
Without warning, Howard's smile disappeared and his eyes welled with tears. Raj stroked his cheek and shushed him.
"Oh no, sweetie,” he begged, “don't – please don't."
"I'm scared, Raj," Howard whispered. "They want me to have surgery, give me a pacemaker. What if I don't make it? What if something else happens like tonight?"
Raj pressed his forehead to Howard's and cupped his cheek in his hand. He felt the corners of his own eyes start to sting.
"It's going to be ok," he whispered. "They'll take good care of you."
He hoped that he wasn’t lying.
Leonard sat hunched over with his hands in his lap next to a silent, stoic Sheldon. He looked up as Raj came back, looking lost and overwhelmed.
“They gave him a sedative so he wouldn’t make himself upset and cause more problems,” he said vacantly. “They scheduled him for surgery sometime tonight but they still don’t know when.”
Raj sat down and stared at the ground, eyes wide but unseeing. Leonard didn’t know what to say, so he just squeezed his hand. He was mad at himself for wanting a shoulder to cry on. He wondered what kind of friend he was, since it was Raj who really needed comforting. Raj had been there with Howard when it had happened, and Leonard couldn’t imagine what it must be like to see anyone collapse, let alone someone so close. But he couldn't think of anything more to do than to pat Raj's knee and tell him everything was going to be okay. He felt so stupid for proffering such an unoriginal sentiment. Raj said nothing, he just sat with his hands clasped, elbows on his knees, staring into nothingness, his face passive and sad. Leonard felt like he was just in the way.
Despite trying to convince himself that Howard was going to be fine, without a doubt, that he was in good hands, Leonard couldn’t help but let himself slip into thinking the worst. He imagined that this would be what the rest if their lives would be like with Howard gone: just one long awkward silence where everyone hated him because he did nothing to help his friend in a crisis. If he had been smarter, like one of his siblings, he could maybe have been a medical doctor and have been some use to people, but he just sat there, unable to say anything. All he was to anyone, especially Howard, was useless.
He couldn’t sit still any longer. He stood up abruptly.
“I’ll go get us some coffee.”
Sheldon had always thought of hospitals as non-threatening. They were places where people would go when they were ill, and then leave when they were well, somehow getting cured despite the inadequacies and shortcomings of the medical profession. Most of the time that Sheldon had spent in a hospital had been primarily for research purposes, and he had usually been the one in command.
Now, however, he felt as though he'd stepped through the looking glass. He had never been in a hospital in such a helpless capacity before, and it unsettled him. He swallowed with a bit of difficulty, unable to produce a sufficient amount of saliva to fully clear the dryness from his throat. Intentionally, he unclasped his hands one from the other, and sat on them instead. If he was going to be completely honest with himself, he was actually frightened. All he saw were people in white lab coats uncertain of what move to make next. He was more than a little disdainful that Howard was in these people’s care. The haggard nurses were nothing more than bureaucratic paper-shufflers unconcerned with patients whose fates were out of their hands. He tapped his foot in consternation that they were forced to sit here because of their scheduling incompetence and overall lack of interest. He started to bristle at the fact that the other people waiting for news of their own loved ones seemed resigned to a system that would most likely fail them in the end.
Sheldon’s anger receded for a moment as he backed up an instant in his thought process. The realisation struck him that he had mentally referred to Howard as a 'loved one.' Not the treasured acquaintance he once was, not even just a friend, but someone he truly cared about, someone he considered close. He remembered when he had upset Howard greatly by nearly ruining his career. That time, he had mended his relationship with Howard by offering him the thing he held most dear. His heart clenched a bit. There was nothing he could offer this time to fix things.
He turned to look at Leonard, sitting by his side with his third paper cup of coffee in his hands, and Raj next to him. For their sake, for his sake, he hoped, irrationally, that his good thoughts could somehow be of help to Howard. These three were, like no other people in the world, his family.
"Everything's going to be just fine," he said, trying to reassure them, and not fully understanding himself why he was promising them things beyond his control.
There was nothing tangible in the sterile waiting room against which to measure time. Raj had stopped staring at the clock because the numbers had lost all meaning. The walls seemed to swallow time. The air was the same as it had been from the moment they entered – cool, with an overtone of disinfectant. The light was unchanging, an assault on the eyes. He’d even lost track of which doctor and nurse were taking care of Howard since they came so infrequently and started to look like every other person in a white coat or scrubs that rushed through the corridors. He could have been sitting there for hours; it might have been mere minutes.
At one point, he considered just leaving. He would go home, he thought, and this would be over. Howard would be there, everything would be all right, and he would make them dinner. They’d fall asleep to a movie after they ate. They wouldn’t have to get up in the morning because it was a Saturday.
The idea was so real that when he looked up again, it took him a moment to recall why he was at the hospital. When he remembered, he felt a heaviness in his chest and wanted to sob.
What if this was it? The end. After eight years of friendship. More than a year of being much more than just friends. After all that, no more. No more making dinner for someone. No more shoulder to fall asleep on. No more lips to kiss. No more soft skin, pale like milk. No one to wake up next to.
No more Howard.
Raj put his head on his knees and wrapped his arms around them. Without a sound and without tears he sobbed to himself silently. He should have done more. He shouldn’t have left Howard alone in the living room. There must have been something he could have done. This must be all his fault.
He sat up quickly and rubbed his hands over his face.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said, not realising that he’d spoken aloud.
He looked up to see Leonard offering him another cup of coffee, trying to smile through his exhaustion and his worry.
They finally scheduled Howard for a three hour-long emergency procedure at 2:15 a.m.
Howard remembered seeing a clock before the anaesthetic took effect and everything disappeared.
Sheldon glanced quickly at the time, clicked his tongue, then stared back at his whitening knuckles.
Leonard looked at the clock, checked it with his wristwatch, and then again with his cell phone.
Raj stared at the clock on the wall, watching every tick of the second hand. He counted every one of his own heartbeats as if he could save an extra one for Howard each time.
It was going to be the longest three hours of their lives.