Ezekiel 25:17. "The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee."
--Jules Winnfield, Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994)
That Sherlock was having recurrent dreams that disturbed his rest and tormented his mind became apparent to John almost as soon as he moved back into 221B following the divorce. John himself was having a hard time sleeping, and, of course, Sherlock was a terrible sleeper at the best of times.
This was not the best of times.
Less than a week into John’s second tenure of tenancy in Baker Street, he was sitting on the sofa trying to lull his brain into a stupor by watching awful late night telly, perhaps by killing brain cells, or at least by making him forget the things that led to the dissolution of his marriage—the cheating wife who’d shot his best friend, the child who’d turned out not to be his…
John was startled from his reverie by the sound of Sherlock’s voice coming from his bedroom. It was just after 4 A.M.
John listened. At first there was nothing, but then he heard Sherlock again, muttering, then vocalizations growing louder and more agitated.
John stood, started toward Sherlock’s bedroom, then paused as he reached the door. He’d had more than his share of nightmares after Afghanistan, to be sure, and again after Moriarty and the pool, and then once again after The Fall. How would John have felt about being awakened in the middle of one of those dreams?
John opened Sherlock’s bedroom door. In the light that slanted from the doorway, John saw Sherlock’s disarrayed bedding. John waited to see if he would speak again, expecting him to say something possibly related to the shooting and Mary. He braced himself, because it wouldn’t be easy to hear. From the moment he knew she’d done it, he’d felt varying levels of culpability for her crime depending on his mood, and whether he felt inclined to aim most of his recriminations at Mary or himself that day.
But when Sherlock did speak, it wasn’t related to the shooting. It wasn’t even intelligible. If anything could be made of it, it sounded sort of…Slavic. And then, “No. No. NO!” Then Sherlock began to moan sadly. It was a terrible sound. John felt a tightening behind his solar plexus. All indecision was gone. He strode to Sherlock’s bed and put a hand gently on Sherlock’s shoulder.
“Sherlock…hey, Sherlock, wake up. Sherlock. Sherlock, you’re dreaming. Sherlock?”
“What?” Sherlock woke with a jerk. His eyes stared through John for an unexpectedly long time. Finally Sherlock blinked, and blinked again, eyelashes fluttering a bit in the mostly-darkness. “John. What? Did I wake you? How—“ Sherlock looked concerned suddenly.
“No, no, I was on the sofa, wide awake. You were talking a bit, that’s all. Nothing understandable, though. Sounded like a different language,” John added quickly. He didn’t want to embarrass him. “Do you want to tell me about it?”
“No.” Sherlock shook his head and looked away. “It’s nothing personal, but…I’d really rather not talk about it.”
“I understand.” John replied, in a tone that implied that he did, indeed, take no offence. “Well, goodnight then, Sherlock.”
The next time John woke Sherlock from a nightmare was five days later, and the conditions were nearly exactly the same. There was either sleep-nonsense or what were words of another language (or possibly some combination of the two), words of refusal, and then that gut-wrenching moaning that went straight to John’s chest and lodged there. Again, he was at Sherlock’s side, shaking him to rouse him.
“Sherlock. Wake up.”
“John…what…what are you doing here?”
“You were having a nightmare. Seemed like the same one.”
Sherlock grew annoyed. “You don’t have to keep coming in here to comfort me like I’m a child.”
“Sherlock, I can hear you moaning, and I can’t not respond to that,” John said, in his Sherlock-You’re-Acting-Like-a-Child tone.
“Then don’t listen and you won’t have to hear it,” Sherlock replied petulantly.
“I can’t just not hear it,” John replied.
“Don’t come stand in my doorway and you won’t,” Sherlock retorted.
“Fine.” John huffed, and got up and left.
There was a part of him that could tell that Sherlock was covering up embarrassment about the nightmares (ridiculous), but John’s pride was touched in a couple of different respects; first by the idea that the nightmares should be embarrassing. John had suffered with recurrent nightmares. Did Sherlock think that having nightmares made him unmanly or something? Then what did that make John? Then there was that shot about standing in Sherlock’s doorway. Just what in the bloody hell was he implying, anyway? Well, he could just sod off then, him and his nightmares and his childish attitude.
John went to bed, but sleep eluded him for a long time. Once his anger eroded, he was occupied with pondering what Sherlock might have been dreaming about.
Luckily they had a few cases, one of which involved, rather improbably, a mongoose and man who hadn’t been murdered at all, but who’d had a stroke and had hit his head on his way down, dead before he’d hit the floor. This unfortunately placed some suspicion on his wife, which Sherlock was able to clear up quite nicely. John wrote up a lovely blog entry about it, the first since before the Magnussen disaster.
So there’d been distractions, and they’d sorted things between them as they usually did, by not discussing the row and just pretending it hadn’t happened at all.
A little over a week later, John had another bout of insomnia that drove him from bed to the lounge, where he had himself a cup of tea and tried reading a book. Anything just to get out of that bed where he brooded about the way things used to be but weren’t anymore, all the things he used to have but no longer did, and all the things he’d thought he’d had but in the end turned out to be as insubstantial and deceptive as images made of smoke.
Not that this was really any better. John found that sitting here in His Chair, he wasn’t paying any attention to the words on the page. He was listening for the sounds of his best friend’s distress. John found that his muscles were wound tight, and he made himself relax. There was nothing to hear.
The book was a classic, but as much as John was a reader, there was just something about it that made him not be able to get beyond the first forty pages. He’d tried more than once. Eventually he’d realized that the book was a great cure for insomnia. So even putting as little in storage as he had before he left for Afghanistan, and living with as little stuff as he had in the sad blank bedsit when he’d returned, this unread book had always been with him, a last resort in times of insomniac desperation.
Slowly but surely, it was working. The movement of John’s eyes back and forth across the pages of flowery prose was having its usual soporific effect. He began to nod in his chair.
Some time later, he jerked awake to the sounds of Sherlock’s negation followed by that same terrible moaning. John’s hands tightened on the chair’s arms. He looked down to where the book had fallen closed in his lap and sighed. Sherlock did not want John to wake him, so he wouldn’t. The feeling he had right then was exactly what he felt when he woke up from a nightmare himself—breathing-too-fast, heart-pounding, half-ill, fight-or-flight—but there was no relief as there was upon waking from a dream, because there was no waking from this and nothing to be done, no flying nor fighting, and it was a nightmare he was having on someone else’s behalf.
The best thing to do would be to just go back to bed and not listen. So to bed he went.
When he reached his upstairs room, he realized he could hear Sherlock, faintly but surely, through his vents.
The moaning continued, and now it had a sort of sobbing quality to it. John closed his eyes. In addition to the tightness he’d felt in his chest both times this had happened before, he now also had the helpless frustration of the knowledge that there was no escaping the sounds of Sherlock’s pain anywhere in the flat.
“No. NO!” And then a sound that was definitely a sob.
John leaned over where he’d seated himself on the edge of his bed and put his arms on his knees, putting his head down, pressing his eyes against his fists. Please. He thought. He had no idea who he was asking or what he was asking for, he just felt like he ought to be asking someone for something, for God’s sake.
Someone must have heard him, because there was only silence from Sherlock’s bedroom after that.
It was only three days later that John heard the next nightmare. Now that he knew he could hear it from upstairs in his room it didn’t really matter where he had his sleepless nights. John was awake, and the book wasn’t helping.
He felt the now-familiar ache in his chest begin, the dull anger of feeling ineffectual in the face of someone else’s pain. But it isn’t just anyone’s pain, is it? That makes it different, doesn’t it? He thought.
Then, suddenly, he heard it. Faintly, then not so faintly, but so clearly: “John, John, JOHN!”
John was off like a shot downstairs and was opening Sherlock’s door practically in one motion. His frenzied arrival woke Sherlock with a jolt. “John!” His brow was beaded in perspiration. He inhaled and exhaled rapidly several times, catching his breath from the nightmare. He looked at first like he was going to pretend to be angry again. Then his face fell, and his voice sounded like he was struggling for neutrality. “John. I thought I told you not to keep coming in. Why did you come this time of all times?”
“You were calling my name. I thought you wanted me to come this time.”
Sherlock considered this for a moment before answering. “The nightmare. I was…You were in the dream this time. That must be why I called your name. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
John was quick to reassure him, “You didn’t disturb me. Do you still not want to tell me?”
Sherlock hesitated. “It was…from part of the time between The Fall and my return.”
John swallowed. He had wondered what had gone on during the time between, of course, once enough of the bitterness had passed over Sherlock’s deception to allow John to do more than rage every time he thought about it at all. But by then, after Sherlock’s initial attempts to make amends through explanations and justifications that John had not been ready or willing to hear, the window of Sherlock’s willingness to provide any information at all about the Fall and its aftermath had closed; very little had been forthcoming since. About the places he’d been and dangers he’d faced in the in-between time he was particularly taciturn. John decided to use one of the Great Detective’s own techniques against him: Shut Up So The Other Person Will Start Talking. He didn’t think it would actually work; however since John had no idea what to say, it seemed like as good an idea as any. He was gratified and surprised when Sherlock began to speak again without further prompting:
“About two months before I returned I was taken prisoner after trying to break into a military installation in Serbia. What happened during the period of my captivity there was…unpleasant. They interrogated me repeatedly to determine what I was after. Mycroft arrived to extract me and likes to take credit for doing so, but I was well on my way to escaping with or without his help,” Sherlock said.
Torture. Sherlock had endured tortured in Serbia for months, and John had…things went hazy as John saw nothing but white and then red for a few seconds and then lost cognitive function briefly. He was going to have to process all of this later. Later. He couldn’t even begin to deal with this now. He was supposed to be comforting Sherlock in the aftermath of a nightmare, after all. Soldier mode—switch the brain OFF. He didn’t have Sherlock’s powers of total deletion, but he could do this temporarily, and had done before.
“Sherlock,” John began tentatively, and then trailed off, not sure what to say next.
“I’m glad you woke me this time,” Sherlock said, his voice barely above a whisper.
“Why? What was different this time?” John asked him.
“They were threatening you to get me to talk. But in the dream they were asking me questions I didn’t know the answers to and couldn’t answer.” Sherlock’s voice and body both shuddered almost imperceptibly.
“You know,” Sherlock said in voice that hardly sounded like his, “While it was actually happening, I had excellent control. I hardly ever made much noise.”
In the end, they made a deal that in the future John was allowed to wake Sherlock if John heard Sherlock calling John’s name in his sleep. Sherlock did not want to be coddled like a child for every nightmare, however. John agreed with this plan grudgingly.