It was the smell that tipped John off — the sour, stale scent of an unhealthy body languishing in a state of some filth. In his time as a general practitioner at the clinic, John was on intimate terms with that particular scent: illness, miserable and pitiful, but not altogether extraordinary. And, in his time as Sherlock’s flatmate, he was likewise familiar with the lows in Sherlock’s moods which on occasion caused him to neglect his hygiene and stink up his general area (always the sofa, never his room). What John encountered upon his return to 221b after his shift at the clinic was not Sherlock In A Strop, Sherlock In A Mood, or Sherlock In A Temper (three distinct states of being, in John’s experience). It was Sherlock in the throes of influenza.
“Dear God, no,” John exclaimed. Sherlock was a curl on the sofa, the bumps of his spine pressed into the satin of his dressing gown in a sharp curve, the sight of which always gave John inexplicable twinges in the vicinity of his diaphragm. Sherlock made no sound nor twitch nor other indication of awareness at John’s presence — maybe he was asleep, even tucked as he was into the inadequate space of the sofa. John had not yet met Sherlock With The Flu, had not dared to speculate on what unnameable horrors might be visited upon his person should Sherlock contract any sort of illness. Now images flashed in his mind of Sherlock’s whinging, his imperious nature cranked up to eleven, his casual command of John’s attentions magnified and intensified to inhuman proportions. But mostly, John imagined the whinging.
Sherlock couldn’t whinge if he were actually asleep over there, John decided. So he crept with ginger steps around the habitual creak of certain floorboards towards the diminished figure of his flatmate and carefully, so carefully, he touched his fingertips to the dewy white length of Sherlock’s exposed neck. Burning hot, at least thirty-nine degrees, and John sighed.
John couldn’t help but feel as if this were somehow his own fault. Flu was going round London, and there he was at the clinic two or three times a week, veritably lolling in the germs and promptly bringing them back to Sherlock. If Sherlock proved himself an insufferable whiner during this ordeal, perhaps John deserved it. He resolved to endure.
Beneath John’s hand, Sherlock’s body was wracked with cold, and he dissolved into shivers. John retrieved a blanket from the closet — a tatty old thing his Aunt Gertrude had once crocheted, but which had always been soft and toffee-smelling — and laid it over the compact twist of Sherlock’s body. He’d make tea, he decided, and soup. Maybe if Sherlock were one of those people who became pliant and malleable when ill, John would be able to compel him to consume broth with a bit of rice in. Somehow, though, John doubted it: he imagined an ill Sherlock to be a contrary Sherlock, an especially difficult Sherlock, a pouty and misery-spreading Sherlock. John shook his head, reminded himself he was a doctor and a friend and that this man was dear to him in a way he’d never expected to find when he returned from Afghanistan. He had brought John back to life, though John swore never to reveal something so raw to the man for whom other people’s feelings were a foreign country. At any rate, Sherlock Holmes had been a great surprise; maybe he would continue to be so, even in illness.
“John?” came a tremulous, unfamiliar voice. Sherlock turned his head slightly, and through the flutter of dark lashes, John caught the glassiness of his eyes. Sherlock was white, white, white; paler than usual, but with a splash of red high on his cheekbones. John’s heart squeezed even as it sank.
“I’m here, Sherlock,” he said. “We’ll get you well again, don’t worry.”
“Everything,” Sherlock said.
John sighed again. A touch of delirium was just what they both needed.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. He leaned in to peer at him, then reached over to brush the damp hair from Sherlock’s shining forehead. “What do you say to getting into bed properly? You’ll have more room and the mattress is better. It’ll feel good, I promise.”
“But my skin,” Sherlock said. His voice was weak and soft, guileless. John felt a rather peculiar combination of pity and amusement take residence in his expression. He sat down in the space Sherlock’s drawn-up knees left on the sofa, between diminutive bum and less-than-diminutive feet. He patted Sherlock’s hip indulgently.
“What about your skin?” he asked.
“It hurts,” Sherlock whispered.
“I’m sorry, Sherlock,” John said. “Listen. I have an experiment for you, do you want to try it out?”
“Oh, yes,” Sherlock said as he clutched the blanket to himself. “You’re the only one who doesn’t mind.”
John tucked his lips back behind his teeth to keep from smiling. “It goes like this,” he said. “You’re going to sit up and take a bit of aspirin with a glass of water. Then we’re going to install you in your nice, big, comfy bed, where you will stay good and warm until I bring you tea and soup, and you can have a kip.” A long, long kip that lasted days on end, if John had anything to say about it.
Sherlock shifted enough that John could see the slivers of his narrowed eyes. Always changeable, they were now so pale as to be an unnerving, colourless monochrome.
“That doesn’t sound like an experiment,” he said. “What’s its purpose?”
“If I told you, it would corrupt the data and negate the results.” John held his breath.
Sherlock peered at him suspiciously for a few more moments before he dropped his head back.
“Your logic is sound,” he said.
“Well,” John replied. “You needn’t sound so put out about it. Come on, up you get.”
Later, when the first batch of soup had been binned (burnt, and so salty as to dehydrate a body if so much as the tip of a tongue came into contact with it) and the second deemed tolerable, John ladled a portion into a bowl to bring it into Sherlock’s bedroom on a breakfast tray along with some Earl Grey.
Sherlock’s bedroom was a disaster area of clutter and rubbish. Papers and books, mostly, with some lab equipment and questionable petri dish contents thrown in for good measure. John did not want to know what the stacks of canned haggis were for, nor the bassoon cracked into pieces, nor the mismatched set of antlers. If John wanted to sit in here with his patient, keep him company until he was asleep and generally make sure he got nutrients into his body, then he was going to have to share the bed.
The bed was expansive enough, he supposed, and Sherlock With The Flu seemed less inclined to sprawl than the regular issue, so John set the tray down on the bedside table, clambered into bed above the covers, and crossed his arms and ankles. Beside him, Sherlock looked mostly like a mummified wrap, only his seeking nose and the untidy inkblot of his hair visible from his cocoon.
“Sherlock,” John said, voice low. “Phase two of the experiment is about to commence, but you have to sit up a bit.”
Sherlock struggled to shuffle upwards while John turned to get the tray and settle it on his own lap. Sherlock, leaning against the headboard, seemed drained by the effort to sit up, though when he blinked at John, he seemed more lucid.
“I don’t require coddling,” he said. “You can go about your business.”
John gave him a stern look. “This is my business, fancy that. Here, Sherlock. Just a bit of tea and broth and you can go back to sleep, all right?”
Sherlock looked as openly unhappy as John had ever seen, but accepted the tea John placed in his hand.
“I merely meant that you needn’t feel obligated,” he said. “I know I am… a trying person to be around, and if I’m ill, I can handle it without inconveniencing you.”
John stared. “‘Trying?’ That’s not quite the word I’d use, and so far for a sick person, you’re not too much trouble. Truthfully, Sherlock, I’d expected you to indulge in a bit of a man cold.”
Sherlock’s gaze skittered away from John, and he looked vaguely irritated.
“I’d appreciate if you wouldn’t lie, John. I know what people think of me, and while I am usually content to ignore it, being ill saps my tolerance for the rest of the world’s disapproval. Likewise my capacity to engage in the social nicety of acting of as if that disapproval doesn’t exist decreases dramatically. I would have hoped you would seek to aid me in my convalescence by being as unobtrusive and absent as possible, but if you’re just going to sit there and pretend you care beyond your vocation as physician, I must inform you, the artifice only wears on me further.”
John found his mouth incapable either of opening or of forming coherent words. “What?” he finally managed.
With weak arms Sherlock reached over John, set the tea down on the tray and plucked up the bowl. He spooned barely a mouthful of the soup down his throat, then set that down too.
“There. Duty done, Doctor. You’re free to go.”
“Sherlock… are you saying you think I don’t like you?”
Sherlock’s lips thinned into an unhappy little line.
“Nobody likes me, John. I am well resigned to it. Now if you don’t want to be witness to my very tedious wallow, I suggest you take your leave.”
Sherlock looked very determined to keep his dignity lashed to himself, even sweaty and rank as he was. John’s chest felt full to bursting.
“I do like you,” he blurted. “You’re — you’re my absolute favourite person.” He felt his neck heat, and he swallowed against the rising mortification. Sherlock’s eyes, previously droopy with fatigue and sickness, seemed to gain focus enough to bore into him. “I can’t understand how you know so much about people just by looking at them, but you can’t see how amazing I think you are.”
Sherlock looked flush and white all at once. He was really quite unwell, and John wished he hadn’t upset him.
“Look — you’re sick, and I’m bothering you. I’m sorry. If you just take a little more of this soup and tea, I can get out of your hair.”
“You find my intelligence admirable and perhaps entertaining; it’s not the same as liking,” Sherlock said.
“Sherlock,” John said with a sigh. He paused, the words sticking in his throat just before the dam broke. “I like you even when you’re not being brilliant. I like you when you singe off your eyebrows with a miscalculation. I like you when you don’t know how long your legs are and you accidentally knock over a lamp. I like you when you’re predicting the trite ending of some trite telly I insist on watching. I like you when you’re having a conversation with a four-year-old as if every single thing he says deserves your full attention. I like you when you make the tea just how I take it and you don’t even have to ask. I like your hair and your suits and your smile and the way you eat a biscuit so fussily.
“And when you are being brilliant, you’re dazzling. I like you when you use your deductions to dress down Anderson, but rein them in when they could hurt Mrs. Hudson. I like how quickly your mind works, and how you look when it’s in action. I like that you’ve let me have a glimpse of it all, how you make me feel like I’m useful and unbroken. I like you, Sherlock.”
Sherlock’s eyes had gone a fresh and lush green.
“Oh,” he said. His Adam’s apple gave a convulsive little bob.
John tried to smile, but it came out pained with all he’d laid bare.
“You’re not an easy person, Sherlock,” he told him. “But whoever made you believe that was cause for never being liked is a wanker.”
They were silent, caught in the interminable moment of their mutual stare.
“No one’s ever liked me before,” Sherlock said after eons had passed, and John found himself weighted again after the disembodiment of his suspension in Sherlock’s verdant gaze.
“No, you just never noticed before,” John told him. “You’re far too likeable altogether.”
“—Is a first class tosser, Sherlock, and you know it.” Sherlock’s mouth snapped shut and hovered about its little downward arc. John longed to see it relax, even if a smile weren’t on the horizon. “What about Lestrade, hmm?”
“Lestrade only finds me to be of some use to him. He’s kind, but he doesn’t want to come look at my fruit fly colony or catalogue mould with me.”
“Just to be clear, Sherlock, no one’s idea of a good time is a jar full of maggots.”
Sherlock rolled his eyes and flicked his wrist. “A hypothetical social engagement — Lestrade wouldn’t invite me down the pub, how’s that?”
“Okay, fine. What about Molly? She definitely likes you.”
An expansive sigh. “She’s attracted to me, and that’s despite my personality. Attraction is wildly different than liking, John, which, as a man whose sexual exploits certainly outnumber mine, you should understand without my explaining it.”
John flattened his mouth at him. “I don’t want to know how you know that. Fine — Mycroft. He’s a bit of a meddlesome arse, but he does care.”
“He’s proprietary by nature — he thinks that because he’s my elder brother, he can dictate what I do and how I should be. He understands me and finds me irritating. Of course he doesn’t like me, and don’t be obtuse about it, John — you don’t like your sister, either.”
John crossed his arms. “Mrs. Hudson,” he said, and triumph lit his spine when Sherlock dropped his eyes and lifted one thin shoulder in a tiny shrug. John pushed the bowl back into Sherlock’s hands. “You finish this, now.”
Sherlock brought the spoon to his lips, then paused and looked back up at John with clear, open eyes, touched now with blue.
“I like you best too, John.”