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a perplexing thing

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The black t-shirt was well-worn, thin, too soft for John's rough hands. Too small for him, too—definitely Harold's. White text stretched across the front, the words "team edward" in huge serif font letters cracking and peeling, flaking off beneath John's curious thumbs.

It took John's tired brain a few too many seconds to remember who the hell "Edward" was supposed to be. He laughed. Those damn vampire books. He'd read one of them while on a stakeout, watching a terrorist who'd holed up in some tiny dump of a cabin in the sweltering boonies. Kara quickly lost patience with the book and literally threw it into his lap, but he'd been just bored enough to slog through it, each page making him feel older than the last. He didn't seek out the sequels.

He'd been running on so little sleep this week—with more days of it to go—that it wouldn't have been much of a surprise if he was hallucinating the shirt. A hallucination might've made more sense, even. Harold, with a t-shirt proclaiming his love for a fictional vampire? A fictional vampire from a series of books he'd said he'd never read, even.

"What's this?" he asked, holding it up.

All the mirth vanished from Harold's face. "Oh," he said, quiet and sad. Mournful. John's stomach twisted. He bit back the sudden urge to apologize.

"That was a gift from Nathan." Harold abandoned his attempt to choose between two seemingly-identical dark pinstriped suits and took the shirt from John's hands. He held it carefully, reverently, a wistful smile taking shape on his face. "A gag gift. He bought it for me for Harold Wren's birthday. Always said a fake person should get a fake gift. Dreadful, isn't it?"

Harold traced his fingers over the peeling lettering. "I wore this to so many physical therapy appointments, when I actually bothered to go. Slept in it so many times when I didn't. I just..."

"You wanted to feel closer to him."

"It's not even the most significant gift he ever gave me," Harold said, "or the last, or anything like that. I don't know why I was so attached to this terrible thing. I probably would've thrown it out, had circumstances been different, but I just..." He grabbed a hanger, brushing up against John. "Grief is...a perplexing thing sometimes, isn't it?"

John tried to swallow the growing lump in his throat. It didn't budge. "Yes."

Harold put the shirt away with great care, and John took advantage of their closeness, wrapping his arms around Harold's warm, smaller frame. There was always a moment whenever he hugged Harold that he'd wonder if he'd made a mistake, those first few seconds where Harold would freeze up, not remembering how to be hugged. Then, Harold would let out a small sigh and return the embrace. He did it this time as well, only unlike normal, he sagged into John's arms.

"I miss him," Harold said, and John kissed his cheek.

"I know."

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about him at some point, for some reason. The things I'd like to tell him, to show him." Then, he quietly added, "The things I'm glad he didn't get to see. Sometimes...sometimes I wonder, if he saw me now, if he knew some of the things I've done, would he be proud of me or afraid of me?"

"Proud," John said, firmly, and took a step back, so he could look Harold in the eye. "I bet he would be proud."

He leaned in and kissed Harold properly then, stealing any protests of his goodness from his tongue, wordlessly offering a distraction. Harold took it, welcomed it. With a tiny whimper, Harold yanked him forward, until they were flush against each other again, and kissed him thoroughly back.

They wouldn't talk about this. They didn't talk about so many things. But if that ever changed, John hoped Harold knew he would listen.