Sherlock’s mobile chimed while he was still in the cab. He considered not looking at the text: he knew who had sent it and what it would say. But he reluctantly dug the phone out of his pocket anyway. Things would just get worse if he didn’t respond.
“Where R U?”
Sherlock scowled. He had no idea why John felt the need to check up on him every few hours. Nor why he expressed himself in the puerile abbreviations of a school girl when he did so. But then he had no idea why John had felt compelled to attend his great-aunt’s funeral in Nottingham in the first place. John seemed to feel that without constant supervision Sherlock would land either in jail or in the hospital—conceivably both. Sherlock had no idea why that was either. He’d done fine on his own before John entered his life. Well, mostly fine, anyway.
He stared at the phone. But if he didn’t text back, John would start ringing, and things would get progressively uglier from there.
“Crime scene. Camden,” he typed back. Indeed, he was there now. He paid the driver and slipped under the yellow tape. Then the phone chimed again.
“Really? Who brought you in?” If texts could raise their eyebrows skeptically, this one would have.
“Lestrade.” Why did John need to ask? He knew no one else at NSY would call Sherlock voluntarily. Sherlock scanned the crowded scene in front of the dingy terrace house for the Detective Inspector, while his phone continued to spew words at him.
“Thought he was off sick. Chest infection. Bed rest. Doctor’s orders.”
Honestly. Why had John left London if he needed to keep such close tabs on everyone in it? Sherlock had located Lestrade in the crowd now, giving orders as purposefully as ever, even if his bearing was a little hunched. “Must be feeling better,” he wrote, hit send, and stuffed the phone resolutely into his jacket pocket.
But Lestrade didn’t look very well at all when Sherlock made his way over to him. He looked drawn and pale, eyes glinting too brightly in sunken sockets. Still, if what he’d told Sherlock earlier were true, Sherlock had no doubt Lestrade would have risen from his death bed to inspect these murder victims personally. The double crime appeared to be the work of someone they’d been chasing for years. A killer who always took two victims at once. Always middle-class married couples—no sign of forced entry, no sign of struggle. The lack of violence had made the crime scenes distressingly free of clues.
“Sherlock.” Lestrade’s voice was scraped raw, but he was smiling. “I think we may have something this time.”
Sherlock returned the grin. It was possible he wanted this killer as much as Lestrade did. “Get me an hour alone with the bodies,” he said, “and I’ll find your evidence for you.”
Lestrade made short work of it, Sherlock gave him that. He sent Anderson packing, and set himself firmly in the door of the master bedroom where the bodies lay to guard against further intrusion.
“All yours,” he said, and then turned away abruptly to cough into his elbow. It went on for a long time, and sounded terrible, a deep, hollow ripping sort of noise.
Despite himself, Sherlock paused, unwilling to start his inspection while Lestrade was convulsed like that. It had been a long time since one of them had collapsed at a crime scene, and even then it had never been Lestrade.
“Alright?” he asked, when things seemed to be winding down.
“I’ll live.” Lestrade spat into his handkerchief and wiped his mouth. “Just get on with it, will you?”
Sherlock didn’t need to be told twice . He gloved his hands, and knelt next to the man first. Lestrade was right: this time there did seem to be something more. There was something intriguing under the man’s nails, and the left-hand cuff of his pajamas was frayed in an irregular way that was obviously important, if Sherlock could just figure out why.
He moved on to the woman to see if she was marked in the same way. Something rustled behind his right shoulder. “Find anything yet?” Lestrade asked, then immediately started coughing again.
“I’ll thank you not to do that directly over the bodies, Detective Inspector,” Sherlock said without turning around. “Whatever bacteria are swarming around you right now might contaminate the crime scene.”
“Sorry.” Lestrade sounded a bit strangled. “You’re quite right.”
Sherlock heard him move away, a few more muffled coughs, and then relative silence. He continued his investigation of the woman’s body, and sure enough, the same powdery, blue-gray substance was under her fingernails as well. It was more than they’d found at any of the other crime scenes—something unusual enough that it might actually crack the case. He scraped out a bit of the stuff with the sterile tweezers he’d brought with him, dropped them into a plastic evidence bag and turned in triumph to Lestrade.
Who was no longer standing vigil in the doorway, but sitting slumped against the doorframe—knees drawn up to his chest, eyes closed, skin shiny with sweat.
An unexpected bolt of worry shot through Sherlock. He’d known Lestrade for many years, and in all that time he’d always been—well, sturdy. In body as much as mind. Strong enough to take anything Sherlock threw at him and then some. This was—well, this wasn’t like him at all.
“Lestrade.” Sherlock tamped down his anxiety, moved over to Lestrade and jiggled his forearm. “Detective Inspector, are you with me?”
“Hmmm? Wha’?” Lestrade opened blood-shot eyes. Good, not quite unconscious, then. Sherlock pressed his fingers to Lestrade’s wrist: pulse light and fast, the skin uncomfortably hot under his hand.
Three thoughts chased through Sherlock’s mind in rapid succession. The first was to ring John. Indeed, his free hand was already curling around the phone before he stopped himself. No, that wouldn’t do; he didn’t need John to babysit his every step. The second was to call Donovan up from downstairs and make her take charge of the situation—caring for the unwell was most assuredly not Sherlock’s bailiwick. But he stopped himself from doing that, too. If they hauled Lestrade out of here in this condition, another officer would be given the case. And whoever it was, he or she would almost certainly deny Sherlock access. If that happened, he was absolutely sure that their chances of solving this one would plummet to zero. Not to mention how irked Lestrade would be not to close out a case he’d been pursuing for so long.
No. There was only one thing for it. Sherlock was rather glad he hadn’t succumbed to ringing John. He doubted whether John would have approved of his plan.
“Lestrade.” He shook Lestrade’s shoulder this time—not very gently. The detective inspector blinked, squinted at him as if it were hard to focus on Sherlock’s face. “See here—it looks as if you need to get off your feet for a while.” Wrong words. Lestrade already was off his feet—that was the whole problem. “Perhaps have a bit of a lie down,” he amended. “But you don’t want to get moved off the case, right?”
Lestrade shook his head, looking slightly more energetic.
“Right,” Sherlock continued. “So all you have to do is get out of here under your own power. Tell them we’re tracking down a lead. To text you if anything comes up. I’ll take care of the rest. Think you can manage that?”
Lestrade nodded with something that might have been vehemence on a better day and started to struggle to his feet, clearly grateful that the doorframe was there to hang onto. Even so, Sherlock had to brace his elbow through another one of those gruesome coughing fits before Lestrade was steady enough on his feet to make it downstairs.
“Boss?” Donovan looked up from her inspection of the parlor as she saw Sherlock and Lestrade heading toward the door. “Something up?”
“Lead,” Lestrade choked out, apparently incapable of explanatory sentences. “Sherlock and I. Lead. Chasing down one.”
“You alright, sir?” Sally said, clearly worried by her boss’s lack of coherence.
“Mmm. Fine. Text me.” Lestrade stumbled toward the door. Sherlock gave Sally as ingratiating a smile as he was capable of. She narrowed her eyes at him in pure hate.
Sherlock grabbed Lestrade’s elbow again as soon as they cleared the yellow-tape perimeter—he was swaying alarmingly. With his free hand he neatly pocketed Lestrade’s phone—the better to intercept any incoming messages. They found a cab easily enough. Sherlock gave the driver Lestrade’s address as Lestrade slumped against the seat, eyes closing again.
As soon as they’d gone a few blocks, Sherlock’s phone chimed again. Well, it was about due, he thought, and wondered idly whether John was actually texting during the funeral service, black-clad matrons all around him. Sadly, though, he knew John would never be that rude—he’d made some excuse to step outside.
“Where R U?”
“Cab. Taking Lestrade home. He’s done in.”
“Done in? Done in how?” Sherlock could just see John’s face furrowing with concern, his fingers tapping more incisively at the phone.
“Almost passed out at the crime scene. That’s how,” Sherlock typed. He instantly regretted it.
Sure enough, his phone rang almost immediately.
“How’s his breathing?” John said, without waiting for Sherlock’s greeting.
“Funeral that boring, John? Your Uncle Alfred launch into one of his two-hour eulogies again?”
“Sherlock.” John’s voice held a warning note.
“Yes, yes, alright.” Sherlock peered at Lestrade, who seemed to have slipped into either sleep or unconsciousness. He could hear the air entering and leaving his lungs, rattling a bit, but he didn’t seem to be struggling for air. “Breathing’s a bit labored,” he told John, “but steady enough.”
“Any signs of cyanosis? Does it look like enough oxygen is getting to—“
“I know what cyanosis is, John,” Sherlock snapped. But he picked up Lestrade’s hand and checked the nailbeds. They were a healthy enough color, as were Lestrade’s lips. Lestrade didn’t stir at the touch, though, which was as disturbing as anything else. Still, “No cyanosis,” he told John.
“Good. Is he feverish?”
Sherlock noted the slashes of color high on Lestrade’s cheeks, the film of perspiration on his forehead. “Yes,” he said. “Quite feverish, I think.”
On the other end of the line, John sighed “Look, Sherlock, don’t take him home. I want you to take him to Baker St.. I’ll be back later this evening; I can take a look at him then.”
This was too much. “John,” he protested, “Don’t be ridiculous—I’m no nursemaid. Besides, he’s a grown man, he can look after himself.”
John made an annoyed sound. “Apparently not, if his going out on a case in this condition is any indication. And nearly passing out. Think of it as an experiment. An experiment in which you try to make someone feel better,” he added hastily. “Or take him to A&E, I don’t mind. I just don’t think he should be on his own right now, if he’s as ill as you’ve described.”
Sherlock had a sudden, visceral memory of the nights, more nights than Sherlock generally cared to think about, when Lestrade had scraped him off the floor of whatever unsavory establishment Sherlock had been frequenting, dragged him back to his equally unsavory digs, and sat with him, plying him with tea and toast, bin handy in case he was sick, until the world had resumed its ordinary contours. Lestrade had never called Mycroft, and he’d never dumped Sherlock at A&E, though he’d threatened to on more than one occasion. It wasn’t that Sherlock was grateful—he didn’t hold with pieties like gratitude. It was just that it was possible that such courtesy might deserve some form of reciprocity.
“Alright,” he told John, with a silent prayer that Lestrade’s current indisposition didn’t extend to puking. “But he’s having your bed.”
“Of course he is.” John sounded satisfied, now that he’d gained his point. “Can’t even sit down on yours for all the rubbish piled on it. See if you can get a temperature reading when you get home—ring me if it’s over 40—and get some liquids in him—“
“Yes, yes, yes.” Sherlock was ready to ring off.
“And Sherlock—“ John had one more thing to say. “Make sure he had the good sense to bring his meds with him—otherwise you’ll have to go by his flat for them.”
John had a point. Sherlock gingerly reached into Lestrade’s coat pocket and encountered a jumble of plastic cylinders: an antibiotic of some kind—he read off the label to John, who approved; prescription-strength paracetemol; an inhaler.
“That should hold him,” John said. “And seriously, Sherlock, don’t run off again until I get back—he really does need someone with him—“
Sherlock hit the end button on the call.
By the time they arrived at Baker St., Lestrade had revived sufficiently to exit the cab under his own steam. He was not, however, cogent enough to realize where they were until the vehicle had pulled away.
“Sherlock,” he rasped when he’d registered the white brick facing of the building, “what the bloody hell—why are we here?”
Sherlock crossed his arms and pursed his lips. “Not my idea, I’m afraid. Doctor’s orders. Sent in all the way from Nottingham. John seems to feel you’re too ill to be alone. By all means, though, take it up with him.” He held his mobile out to Lestrade. “I’m sure he’d jump at another opportunity to escape his great aunt’s funeral. Or I’d be happy to take you to your own doctor. Or drop you off at A&E.”
Lestrade glared at him, and seemed about to call Sherlock’s bluff and take the phone. But another round of wracking coughs descended upon him, and he wrapped one arm around his chest instead, almost doubled over with the force of them.
Concerned that he might actually topple over, Sherlock gripped Lestrade’s bicep. “Don’t be stupid,” he said under his breath. “Come inside. Let’s not make a spectacle for the passersby.”
“Maybe just ‘til I’ve caught my breath,” Lestrade wheezed, defeated, and followed him through the door. They paused in the entryway so Lestrade could use his inhaler, and whatever drug it pumped into his lungs thankfully made it possible for him to ascend the stairs without incident.
Sherlock had had half a mind to foist Lestrade off on Mrs. Hudson once they arrived. But the building was strangely quiet. Of course, he realized: the second Tuesday of the month, and it was gone half five. She’d be at the bi-weekly bacchanal she called her Bridge Club--back later than John, four sheets to the wind, if previous experience was any guide. He resigned himself to playing a miscast Florence Nightingale for the evening.
Once inside the flat, Lestrade sagged against the wall. “Christ,” he said wearily, “why don’t you just kill me now? There have to be at least nineteen types of lethal bacteria in this room and my immune system’s shot to hell. Or was that your plan all along? Infect me with things and see how long it took my body to decompose.”
Sherlock surveyed the room. It didn’t look any worse than it did when John was about. Or perhaps only slightly worse. Of course the chemical precipitate he’d abandoned when Lestrade had rung earlier in the day was now giving off noxious vapors. Arguably noxious vapors.
“You’re delirious,” he said, tugging at Lestrade’s bicep again. “Besides, you’re to have John’s bed. It’s perfectly sanitary up there, I assure you.”
Lestrade nodded, apparently convinced that a bed was a good idea after all, but he was white and shaking by the time they’d made it up the second flight of stairs to John’s room. The room was as tidy as Sherlock had promised, for all that John had left for Nottingham in a mad dash, but Lestrade seemed past caring. He sank onto the neatly made bed, panting as if he’d run a marathon.
Sherlock watched him for a moment, beginning to believe that John was right about him not being alone. “I’ll just fetch some water for your pills. Do you need any help—“ he gestured vaguely at Lestrade’s coat and shoes.
Lestrade shook his head, but when Sherlock came back with a glass and an old mercury thermometer (all John’s top of the line equipment having gone with him to Nottingham, danger of heart attacks in elderly relatives on such occasions being what it was), Lestrade had only managed to shed his coat and jacket, and undo half the buttons on his shirt. He was sitting, elbows propped on his knees, head in his hands, looking so perfectly wretched it stopped Sherlock in his tracks a bit.
“Here now,” he said, as briskly as he could, “you can’t sleep in your shoes—John’ll have my head if I let you do that. Off with them.”
Lestrade gave him a wan smile, and bent over further, reaching for his laces. And then straightened up quickly with a sharp hiss of pain, fingers pressing into his chest below his solar plexus.
“What is it?” Sherlock covered the remaining space between them, on his knees before he knew it, his hand over Lestrade’s own. “Are you about to be sick?”
“No.” Lestrade sounded sheepish, though he didn’t try to throw Sherlock off. “Just pulled something, I think—from coughing so much. All the muscles are wrecked.”
Sherlock felt the heat coming off Lestrade’s hand, the rapid thump of his heart against his ribs. “Never mind,” he said, and reached for Lestrade’s shoes himself.
Had he ever done this for another person before? Sherlock wondered as he worked the laces. He didn’t think so, although he could clearly remember Lestrade doing it for him several times in the past. Sherlock held the backs of Lestrade's ankles as he slipped off first one shoe and sock, then the others. Even there, Lestrade’s skin felt tight and hot.
“You’ll be making me tea and toast next,” Lestrade murmured, his hand ghosting over Sherlock’s hair.
Sherlock froze. Lestrade had breached—had breached something. By unspoken mutual agreement they never spoke of those days. He risked a glance up, half-expecting Lestrade to be mocking him. But there was nothing but blurry fondness on the other man’s face.
“Yes. Well, yes. If you like.” Sherlock straightened, flustered, though he couldn’t have said why. He tugged down the duvet behind Lestrade. “Lie down. You’ll be warmer under the covers.” Was that what John would have said? It sounded like something John would say.
He fed Lestrade his antibiotics and painkillers, and took his temperature. Not the forty degrees that John had said merited further communication, but not much under either. By the time that was done Lestrade’s eyes were already closing.
“Wake me if there’re any messages,” he muttered, burrowing deeper under the duvet.
Sherlock cocked his head. He’d almost forgotten that they were here under the pretense that Lestrade was out investigating the double murder case.
Back downstairs, he laid his phone and Lestrade’s side by side and stared at them.
Lestrade’s buzzed first: Anderson, asking whether he should begin the autopsies. Sherlock stared at the words, fingers itching to type “Holmes taking over. On his way now. Do not touch bodies until he arrives.” Lestrade was medicated now, and sleeping. There’d be no harm in leaving him for a few hours. Besides, he was sure it was what Lestrade would have wanted, if he’d been in any kind of shape to make decisions.
But Sherlock didn’t type that message. He’d promised John he wouldn’t leave. And there was the image of Lestrade’s face on the pillow, skin hardly less gray than his hair, breath harsh in his throat, head canted to expose the soft, vulnerable skin under his jaw. Unexpectedly, he found that he couldn’t leave Lestrade alone like that.
So he compromised. “Wait ‘til morning. Will advise then.” The message was very un-Lestrade-like, and Sherlock was glad it was Anderson on the other end and not Donovan. She would have smelled a rat.
His own phone went off almost immediately after, as if John had some kind of sixth sense about Sherlock’s waverings.
“Just boarding train. How is he?”
“Patient resting comfortably,” he wrote. “In your bed.” Then, because he knew John would ask, he added as many details about Lestrade’s temperature and respiration as he could muster.
“Good. Train arrives 9:45. Don’t bugger off.”
“Dr Watson,” Sherlock typed, “you wound me.”
There was no reply.
Sherlock tinkered with the experiment laid out in the front room—but the long delay seemed to have obviated any possibility of a good result. He tried to think his way back through the crime scene, but the facts maintained a smooth impenetrability, refusing for once to let him pry open their secrets.
After a while, he became aware of muted noises from upstairs. Groans, maybe—muffled coughs.
Lestrade had kicked off the duvet, Sherlock saw when he stuck his head into the room; he had shed his shirt as well—flung it to the other side of the room, in fact. Now he lay shivering on the sheet, in just his vest and trousers, limbs moving restlessly, inarticulate sounds of discomfort every now and then escaping his chapped lips. He wasn’t awake, despite his misery—or at least he gave no sign of realizing that Sherlock was in the room.
Not quite sure what to do, Sherlock pulled the duvet back over him, and touched the back of his hand to Lestrade’s forehead. If his fever had risen, perhaps he should wake him for more pills? But he didn’t feel any hotter than before. Surprisingly, though, Lestrade tilted his face towards Sherlock’s hand, like an animal seeking heat.
Curious, and suspecting he might be imagining things, Sherlock turned his hand palm downward, ran it along Lestrade’s cheek, around the corner of his jaw, into the short hair over his ear. The effect was even more pronounced: Lestrade stilled and quieted, half-moans draining away to sleepy murmurs.
Sherlock took his hand away. Nothing happened immediately, but after a few moments the fretful tossing returned; Lestrade began to mutter again, and pluck at the duvet.
It was perplexing. Sherlock could think of no reason over the course of their long acquaintance that Lestrade would have come to find his presence comforting. Quite the opposite, in fact. Perhaps it was an impersonal thing—any hand would do. Still, the evidence was incontrovertible. He pulled John’s desk chair close to the bed and continued running his hand over Lestrade’s face and neck.
John’s words had been truer than he’d known, Sherlock thought. It was like an experiment: where could he touch, how hard, with what rhythm? What pattern of movements would let Lestrade sleep in peace?
Carding his fingers through the damp hair at the nape of Lestrade’s neck seemed to work best—perhaps the muscles were particularly tight there. After a bit, Sherlock abandoned the chair and curled up next to Lestrade on the bed instead—legs folded under him, back against the headboard—so that he could get a better angle. When Lestrade finally fell into a deeper sleep, snuffling contentedly, his hot head pressed into Sherlock’s hip, Sherlock didn’t move. It was uncomfortable, to be sure, and awkward. But at least once that night, he’d achieved the desired outcome.
The sound of John’s feet on the staircase caught Sherlock by surprise. He hadn’t realized so much time had passed. But it must have. His legs were starting to go numb beneath him.
John paused in the doorway, medical kit in hand, looking rumpled and travel-weary. When he took in the two of them on the bed, his eyebrows flew up, and he gave Sherlock a silent stare that was equal parts amusement and astonishment.
Suddenly self-conscious, Sherlock started to disentangle himself, but John shook his head and pulled his stethoscope out of his kit.
“Don’t bother,” he whispered. “I’ll do this without waking him if I can.”
But Lestrade woke abruptly as soon as John pulled the duvet off his shoulders.
“Hmmm,” he said muzzily, fingers reflexively gripping Sherlock’s knee. “Wha’s going on? Did Anderson--? Oh.” He twisted, realizing a third person was in the room. “John. I’m in your bed”
Then he descended into a bout of punishing coughs.
“So I see,” John said mildly, tucking his stethoscope into his ears. “You’re both in my bed. But I know you’re very old friends, so I’ll refraining from commenting on it. If you’re awake, though, Inspector, perhaps you could sit up a bit so I can listen to your lungs? Sherlock, could you fetch the Detective Inspector a pair of your pajamas? He’s more your size than mine.”
Sherlock did, glad to escape John’s laughing eyes, and somewhat nonplussed he hadn’t thought of pajamas himself. When he returned, John was just getting a reading off the thermometer.
“Well done,” he told Sherlock dryly. “It’s down a bit from earlier. Surprising, that. I would have thought a few hours of your nursing would have sent anyone’s temperature through the roof. But I suppose you’re made of sterner stuff, Detective Inspector.”
Lestrade smiled wanly, and coughed into his elbow. “Yes, well. Thanks. Just needed a lie down, that’s all. I’ll get out of your hair now—let you have your bed back.” He started to struggle upright.
John held him down with an easy hand to his chest. “Oh no, my friend, you aren’t going anywhere else tonight. Get some rest—we’ll see how things stand in the morning.”
Sherlock watched as John got Lestrade out his damp, wrinkled vest and trousers and into Sherlock’s pajamas with a few effortless tugs and nudges. He’d never thought about John’s dexterity with living humans before—their work was usually so focused on the dead. Was it something he’d learned as a doctor? Or something he’d been born with? Either way, it seemed an enviable skill.
John doled out another round of pills, and stacked up the pillows behind Lestrade’s back so he could breathe more easily—again, Sherlock wished he’d thought of that himself. With another murmur of gratitude, Lestrade was asleep again before he’d finished.
“Well,” said John. “I can’t say the evening’s done him any good. But it hasn’t done him much harm either. He really needs rest more than anything. As do I.” He yawned. “Nothing like a passel of elderly relatives to take it out of you, eh? All asking me when I was going to give them great-grand-nieces and nephews. As if I didn’t have enough to look after already.” He snorted, but there was no real edge to his words, and he smiled as he said them, one of those tiny smiles that improbably lit up his whole face. “I’ll kip on the sofa, yeah? And I’m here now, so feel free to continue whatever investigations this interrupted. If there’s anything you can continue in the dead of night, that is.”
“No,” said Sherlock. And surprised himself inordinately by adding, “Nothing that can’t wait ‘til morning.”