Sherlock had asked him once what his last thought would be if he thought he was about to die. They had known each other only a few hours, and John thought he should have seen immediately what sort of relationship they were going to have, if he was already being asked such a personal question at that point. At the time, he had had only one notable near-death experience, so he had answered based on that.
Standing in Baskerville, trapped in a dark laboratory, with a gigantic, murderous hound breathing down his neck, John was thinking that he was getting tired of facing down his death, that he was getting tired of what his last thoughts tended to be when he thought he was about to die. Because these days his last thought was always Sherlock.
It was no different this time, standing in the laboratory, dialing Sherlock’s mobile desperately. His last thought was always something about Sherlock. Where is Sherlock? Or Get in touch with Sherlock. Sherlock wasn’t answering, and John hung up when he got to his voicemail and, unable to think of anything else to do, dialed him again. “Don’t be ridiculous, pick up,” he muttered, frantically, but the phone rolled over to voicemail, Sherlock’s velvet voice brusquely telling him to leave a brief message and to be quick and not be boring about it. John snapped into it, “Where the hell are you? Answer. Your. Bloody. Phone.” Then he ended the phone call and looked around the laboratory and considered his options. He could hear the hound stalking him, growling in the darkness, its breath heaving in snorts. Claws clicking across the floor, a snarl rising up. John tried to track it, eyes straining against the darkness, clamping a hand over his mouth to try to keep his own breaths as quiet as possible. When the claws stopped moving, John decided he had to take a chance. He couldn’t just wait there, a sitting duck.
He bolted for one of the empty cages he’d seen, tumbling into it and pulling the door closed behind him, the sheet falling down to hide him. He pressed up against the bars, as far away from where he had last heard the hound as he could get, and dialed Sherlock’s mobile again. Sherlock was his only shot of getting out of here alive. Sherlock had to answer, he just had to.
Voicemail again. John squeezed his eyes shut against the rising of his panic. “I am locked in the first lab we saw, with the hound,” he whispered, hoping the hound wouldn’t hear him. It was a risk to speak but he needed to get this out; it was his only chance. “You have got to get me out of here.”
John ended the call. There was another snarl from the hound, claws clicking across the tile floor again. John clapped his hand over his mouth again, but it was too late, he knew it was too late. He watched the shadow of the hound approaching. It was moving slowly and purposefully, as if it knew that the game was up and it was going to relish moving in for the kill. The cage would delay the inevitable a bit, but the hound had got out of its own cage, so it would find a way to get into John’s. He was going to be bloody killed by a gigantic hound in a secret government laboratory.
John’s finger pressed his first speed dial again. He put the mobile to his ear. Outside the cage the hound sidled closer, snuffling as it followed John’s smell, as it pinpointed which cage was his. John watched the outline of its approach through the sheet.
Don’t be boring, said Sherlock’s voice, and there was the beep of his voicemail, and John saw the hound’s muzzle press between the bars of his cage. John squeezed his eyes shut, not wanting the last thing he saw to be the hound moving in to rip his throat out. He stopped trying to hide his breaths, tearing at oxygen, and he heard his voice say, completely of its own accord, “Sherlock. Oh, God, I should have told you this so much sooner. I’m so sorry to say it like this, but this hound is going to kill me and all I can think is that I should have told you that I love you. I need to make sure you know that. I loved you. I was so in love with you. I think I fell for you the moment you were so bloody smug at St. Bart’s, the day we met, I really think I loved you from that moment and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you it when I was still alive. I’m sorry.” John listened to the hound, its claws scraping up against the bars now. It was only a matter of time before the cage gave way, bent inward, gave the creature access. “I’m so sorry,” John said again, and then lowered the phone. He took a deep breath and opened his eyes because he couldn’t resist the urge—
Light flooded the laboratory. The sheet fell away from the cage, and on the other side of it was Sherlock, peering in at him with concern.
“Are you all right?” he asked, opening the cage door and leaning forward to put a hand on John’s shoulder. “John…”
John, disoriented, shook him off and tried to breathe. He was still alive. How the hell was he still alive? “Jesus Christ,” he managed, dazedly. He pulled himself up, staggered out of the cage, stuffing his mobile into his pocket. “It was the hound, Sherlock. It was here. I swear it, Sherlock. It must…” John looked around him. The brightly illuminated laboratory was completely devoid of any enormous dog. “It must…” John began again, helplessly. What the lab contained was a Sherlock, and John turned toward him. “Did…did…did you see it? You must have.”
Sherlock reached for him, almost as if he were going to draw him in for a comforting cuddle, which John decidedly wasn’t in the mood for because his panic was still too high. He was supposed to be dead.
“It’s all right,” Sherlock said, speaking as if John were a skittish horse who might bolt. “It’s okay now.”
“No, it’s not!” John shouted at him. “It’s not okay! I saw it! I was wrong!” John tried to take deep breaths, recognizing vaguely that that would help with his high-running panic.
Sherlock, infuriatingly, shrugged. Actually sodding shrugged. “Well,” he said, unconcerned, “let’s not jump to conclusions.”
“What?” said John, in disbelief.
“What did you see?” Sherlock asked him.
John felt unpleasantly like one of their clients, interrogated by the great detective, story picked apart as if he’d made the whole thing up, which he definitely hadn’t. He could still hear the rumbly growls, still feel the beast’s hot breath coming toward him as it scrabbled to gain access to his cage. “I told you,” he answered. “I saw the hound.”
“Huge?” guessed Sherlock. “Red eyes?”
“Yes,” John affirmed, unsure why he needed to give a physical description. Sherlock knew what the hound looked like, he’d seen it himself.
“Glowing?” said Sherlock.
“No,” Sherlock replied.
John blinked. “What?”
“I made up the bit about glowing.” Sherlock actually looked pleased with himself. “You saw what you expected to see because I told you. You have been drugged. We have all been drugged.”
“Drugged?” echoed John. He couldn’t comprehend this. His brain was trying to process too much at once.
“Can you walk?” asked Sherlock, maddeningly calm.
“Of course I can walk,” retorted John, vaguely offended, as offended as he could make himself be.
Sherlock turned away from him, walking briskly out of the laboratory. “Come on, then,” he commanded, easily. “It’s time to lay this ghost.”
As ridiculous as it sounded, and John knew it sounded ridiculous, he forgot entirely about his frantic voicemail to Sherlock. He sat trying to recover from the whole experience, too shaky to do much, still vaguely nauseated from the after-effects of the adrenaline. Dr. Stapleton said he looked peaky, and John was feeling peaky and trying to ignore it. And they were busy solving a murder and trying to keep Henry from killing himself and getting drugged again and avoiding minefields, and John didn’t even try to sleep. None of them did. Lestrade grabbed a bottle of scotch from the bar and brought it up to Sherlock’s room. John sprawled on Sherlock’s bed, drinking, while Lestrade sat on the floor and asked Sherlock questions about the case and Sherlock paced and answered impatiently.
John wasn’t trying to sleep, but he fell asleep anyway out of sheer exhaustion, and in his dreams there was a gigantic hound, red eyes glowing, directly on top of him, foul breath in his face, pinning him down, its jaws leaned down to close around John’s throat. John could feel the sharp sting of its teeth and clawed desperately to push it away, away, even as he felt his skin break, felt the heat of his jugular, so close—
“Wake up,” Sherlock said, very harshly, and pinned John’s scrabbling hands to the bed.
John blinked up at him, gasping and drenched in sweat. Sherlock was frowning darkly. He’d lit a lamp, so the room was bright, but it was clearly not yet morning, dawn only hinted at from the window.
“Sorry,” said Sherlock, his voice gentler. “I needed to wake you up; I had to shout at you.”
“’S fine,” John managed.
“You were having a nightmare. Do you remember what it was about?” Sherlock looked like he thought it might be some sort of deep Freudian puzzle for him to solve.
“Of course I bloody remember what it was about,” John snapped with as much energy as he could muster. “It was about a gigantic hound attacking me.”
Sherlock looked down at him, pursed and unpursed his lips, and John closed his eyes, exhausted. “Where’s Lestrade?” he asked.
“Went to his room. You’d fallen asleep. I thought it best not to disturb you.”
John sat up, scrubbing at his eyes. “I should go.”
“I really think you should stay,” said Sherlock.
“Where will you sleep?”
“I’m not tired. John, I’m sorry.”
“About what?” John opened his eyes, looked at him wearily.
Sherlock hesitated, then said, “Nothing, just…sorry. About the nightmare. I didn’t know… I didn’t realize…that the hound had affected you that much.”
John leaned back against the wall. “It was apparently a pretty damn good drug,” he said, sardonically. “Now I know why you were having a meltdown the other night.”
Sherlock picked up his wrist, and John knew he was feeling his pulse, which was thrumming along rapidly. “Deep breath,” Sherlock murmured. “Take a deep breath.”
John complied, closing his eyes to focus on it, because he knew Sherlock was right.
“You’re susceptible to nightmares,” Sherlock was saying. His voice was muted, musing, as if he were just piecing it together. “You have them fairly frequently.”
John opened his eyes again. “How do you know that?”
“You’re not quiet, and I don’t sleep much. I stand outside your bedroom and I debate whether or not I should wake you up.”
“Why don’t you wake me up?” John was curious.
“Because what would I do after that? What could I say to make it better?” Sherlock looked honestly troubled by the question.
“You would have made it better by waking me up.”
“Do you want me to start waking you up?”
“I don’t know,” John said, honestly. “Let’s talk about this when it’s not the middle of the night and I’m not, you know, slightly panicked.”
Sherlock nodded once, curtly, and dropped John’s wrist. John had forgotten he’d been holding it in the first place.
“You don’t get nightmares?” John asked, extrapolating from Sherlock’s interest in the topic.
“No. I don’t dream, generally. There must be so much going on under the surface in this brain of yours.” Thoughtfully, Sherlock pressed a finger against the center of John’s forehead, briefly, before withdrawing it.
“Yes, and all of your brain activity takes place right on the surface,” said John.
Sherlock smiled briefly and then straightened. “You’re tired. Go back to sleep. I’ll wake you if you have another nightmare.”
“You should get some sleep,” John told him.
“I’m not tired.” Sherlock settled in the chair he’d pulled over to look out the window, steepling his fingers together.
John didn’t move for a second, and then he stretched out on Sherlock’s bed again and fell asleep watching his profile against the lightening sky.
In the middle of everything else, John didn’t think about the voicemail until they were on the train back to London and Sherlock took out his phone.
John had been in the middle of a mild sulk, aware now that Sherlock’s apology for last night’s nightmare had stemmed from the guilt of having drugged him in the first place. He’d been pouting in the direction of the window and thinking that he was starting to pick up too many of Sherlock’s terrible habits, when Sherlock took out his phone and said, in distaste, “Three voicemails.”
John started, the memory of his voicemail slamming into him, and how had he forgotten about that? He turned away from the window and stared dumbfounded at Sherlock, who was frowning down at his phone, clearly trying to decide whether or not to listen to his voicemails. This was a disaster, thought John. He had to stop Sherlock from listening to the voicemail. It wasn’t that it wasn’t true, it was just that, well, he had never thought it was an especially good idea to say it. He felt like an idiot. He was a heterosexual male, he couldn’t possibly be in love with his flatmate, even if, facing death, his life stripped back to the bare undeniability of it, it was clear that he was. And what would Sherlock make of it, anyway? Sherlock didn’t feel things that way. Sherlock might be mildly curious, a bit bemused. He would probably turn the phrase around on his tongue. In love with me? Really? What does that mean? As if it were a fascinating experiment for him. Saying I love you always left you open and vulnerable. Saying I love you to Sherlock Holmes would be so much worse. To be that open and vulnerable to Sherlock Holmes…
“Those are me.” It came out sounding high-pitched and panicked, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Those are me.” There. Much more normal sounding.
Sherlock looked at him, and then deduced, “Ah. From Baskerville.”
“Yes. You weren’t picking up your phone.”
“Yes. Well. It was all part of the experiment.” Sherlock slid his mobile back into his pocket.
“Aren’t you going to erase them?” John asked.
“Yes, probably. Eventually. I can’t be bothered to listen to them now.” Sherlock waved a negligent hand.
John licked his lips and tried not to look nervous or eager. “I can erase them for you if you want.”
Sherlock’s gaze was narrow. “What? Why?”
John shrugged, affecting nonchalance. “No reason. Just…sitting here, nothing to do. I may as well be of some help.”
Sherlock regarded him for a minute and then shrugged. “I’ll erase them later,” he said, and settled deeper into the train seat, deeper into his coat.
John watched as Sherlock appeared to fall asleep, but John didn’t trust him. He had to get the phone away from him. That was easily done. Sherlock frequently left his phone all over the flat, and John knew all of its passwords. If he just didn’t display any undue interest in the messages, Sherlock would ignore them the way he always did, and John could simply delete all of them when he managed to snag Sherlock’s phone.
Piece of cake.
John was the worst liar on the entire planet. At least when it came to lying to Sherlock. John was a cool liar when it counted, when the pressure was on and they were trying not to get thrown out of Baskerville, for example. Then John could lie with the best of them. John pulling rank on that irritating corporal had been a thing of such profound beauty that Sherlock had strongly considered pushing John back against their Land Rover and snogging him thoroughly. But that would not only have blown their cover but have hopelessly startled John, so Sherlock hadn’t done it.
That aside, John was a terrible liar. And it was clear that, whatever was in the three voicemails on Sherlock’s mobile, he was desperate that Sherlock not listen to them, which meant that Sherlock was desperate to listen to them. John obviously wasn’t going to leave Sherlock alone until Sherlock left the phone alone, and Sherlock didn’t want to be in a standoff over who was going to go to bed first—John always went to bed first, so that was the world’s most ridiculous standoff—so, sitting in 221B, Sherlock abruptly leaned away from his laptop and pulled out his mobile and pressed his “Voicemail” number.
“What are you doing?” John asked, instantly, from where he’d been pretending to be reading a book in his armchair.
“Phoning Lestrade,” Sherlock replied, entering his voicemail password smoothly.
“Don’t you have Lestrade on speed dial?” John asked, suspiciously, watching how many numbers Sherlock was pressing.
“That was before he showed up at Baskerville just to baby-sit me,” said Sherlock, and, password entered, lifted the mobile to his ear. Over the computerized voice telling him he had three new messages, Sherlock said, “Lestrade. About this story of the rash of suicides in this town in Wales, doesn’t it strike you as similar to the cabbie case?” The computerized voice finished, and John’s first message played. Where the hell are you? Answer. Your. Bloody. Phone. Well, thought Sherlock, nothing interesting about that message. John left him messages along those lines fairly often.
“Hold on a second, Lestrade,” Sherlock said, smoothly, as the computerized voice came back, “I’ve another call coming in.” Sherlock carefully pressed the command for Keep as new then put the phone back to his ear. “Sherlock Holmes,” he said. John’s second message played in his ear. I am locked in the first lab we saw, with the hound. You have got to get me out of here. It was nothing more than a whisper, softer even than the hiss of the first message, but there was still nothing especially noteworthy about it. John sounded frantic in it, but then, John had been frantic, and that was something Sherlock had already seen. “I’m sorry,” said Sherlock, firmly, “but you must have the wrong number.” He pressed Keep as new and said into his phone, “Lestrade? Bloody idiot on the other line babbling nonsense. Now what were you saying?”
Sherlock, said John’s voice on the third voicemail. Oh, God, I should have told you this so much sooner. I’m so sorry to say it like this, but this hound is going to kill me and all I can think is that I should have told you that I love you. Sherlock froze, his eyes flying up and meeting John’s, whose gaze had not left Sherlock the entire time. Sherlock remembered that he was supposed to be speaking to Lestrade, and he rolled his eyes the way he would have if Lestrade had been on the other end, but he was really listening intently to John’s message. I need to make sure you know that. I loved you. I was so in love with you. I think I fell for you the moment you were so bloody smug at St. Bart’s, the day we met, I really think I loved you from that moment and I’m sorry I didn’t tell you it when I was still alive. I’m sorry. There was a pause. Then, I’m so sorry. There was a lengthy, staticky beat at the end of the message, and that was it.
Sherlock didn’t want to hit Keep as new. He wanted to hit Keep forever. He cleared his throat and managed, “I agree, Lestrade, excellent idea.” He hit Keep as new, ended the call, and lowered his phone. He stared at John, who stared back.
“Well?” said John.
What had been his cover story for listening to the messages? He felt like he couldn’t remember. “Lestrade’s going to send me the files,” he said, vaguely. “So I can look them over.” Sherlock forced himself to put the mobile on the desk. He had to leave it behind, with its 3 New Messages message still intact. He knew he had to leave it behind. He knew John had to be given the opportunity to delete the messages, but oh, how he didn’t want to. Oh, how he wanted to listen to the last one on an endless loop for possibly the rest of his life. I love you, said John’s voice, thick with sincerity. Not just panic, John had meant that.
“I…” said Sherlock, staring at John, and he knew he was giving it all away, he had to be, but he couldn’t help it. “I’m going to go to bed,” he said, blurrily. He had to. He had to get away and process this.
John blinked. “Really? You are?”
“I haven’t slept,” Sherlock reminded him, as he stood. He left the mobile on the desk and staggered to his room without saying another word. And then he collapsed onto his bed.