My nightmares are always brilliant with light. I don't fear the dark. I fear mid-afternoon, the birthplace of civilization crunching beneath my feet. This nightmare is no different. I'm surrounded by a cacophony of sound: shouting men, guns that blast out noises like a steady drumbeat…or like the pounding of my own heart in my ears. I can't hear what the men are shouting, but I remember it somehow. They're telling me to find cover. It's too late: I know it's too late and still I run, the desert stretching around me without end. I feel it first in my shoulder- heat, unimaginable heat, spreading and expanding and stopping me from running. I'm a doctor; I know I shouldn't touch the wound with my filthy fingers. But I still do. And it still surprises me when I pull my hand away and find it crimson with blood. Then my leg collapses beneath me and I'm down, down, writhing with pain because oh God this hurts so much I don't want to die please God let me live-
I wake up all at once, instantly aware of the fact that I'm not in Afghanistan, that I am in London and I'm safe and I did not die. My bed is an uncomfortable mess of tangled sheets and aching limbs. Still breathless, I sit up slowly and cup my head in my hands. Sweat is pouring from my body in sheets, but I'm alive. Cool air still fills my lungs. I'm alive.
My therapist taught me some breathing techniques, and I try them. They help a little. I manage to swing my feet to the floor and glance around the room.
Sherlock Holmes is sitting on my windowsill, crossed-legged, his thumb against his bottom lip and his other fingers twitching with thought. I blink at him and swallow hard, but I don't find this to be particularly unusual. Sherlock keeps strange hours, and he doesn't like to be alone.
For a moment, he watches me silently. Then, with an almost imperceptible shrug, he turns to the window and stares down at the street. I'm infinitely thankful for this. That's the problem with girlfriends: they always want to know what's wrong, as if you can put something like that into words. But it's different with Sherlock. I don't want to talk about it, and he doesn't want to listen. It's a comfortable arrangement.
The awkwardness of the situation does need distilling, though. My voice still rough with sleep, I ask, "Still up, then?"
He tosses me something like a half-smile over his shoulder. "Clearly."
I stretch my stiff limbs. "Come on," I say, easing out of bed like an old man, "I'll make us some tea." I don't expect to go back to sleep, not tonight.
"Coffee," Sherlock says, unfurling himself. He hops down the stairs in quick steps, and I follow him at a snail's pace.
I ease down on to the sofa and pass Sherlock his mug. I'm still sore all over, fatigued from a battle that has long since ended. We sip in silence. We're on polar sides of the couch, Sherlock wrapped in his bathrobe. I yawn. The clock ticks. Outside, London sleeps.
Sherlock sets down his mug and jumps up from the couch, scooping up his violin. I smile, my first genuine smile of the morning, as he begins to play. I like watching him tame the notes, making order out of chaos. I sip my coffee, close my eyes. I wonder, briefly, if Mrs. Hudson is ever bothered by him playing at odd hours like this- but then I consider it and determine that the woman could probably sleep through a stampede. I open my eyes. Sherlock is playing with something bordering passion. I wonder what music feels like to him, if it feels like anything at all.
He glances up at me and stops mid-note. "Your leg," he says, pointing with his bow. I look down at it and grimace; he's right, it's stuck out stiffly. With a forced smile, I stretch it and hide my discomfort as best as I can manage.
"Good as new," I say.
He looks at me, unconvinced. "Come here."
"Come here." Impatient, the skin of his cheeks drawn tight.
I obey. My approach is nervous, wary. With a huff, Sherlock takes my hand and puts his bow into it. He stretches behind me, filling my other hand with his violin. Carefully, amid my stumbling protestations, he positions the violin just so and, with his hand over mine, begins to play. I fall silent. The music fills me; it vibrates in my hand and along my cheek. Sherlock presses his jaw to my temple, his chest firmly against my back, and hums softly as he plays. The scene is strangely intimate. I'm an army man: I've lived with a multitude of different men, showered with them, chased them, bare-arsed and giggling, with snapping wet towels, but this feels markedly more damning. This is not something flatmates do. But I don't push him away; his hand, warmer than I'd expected, stays over mine as he slides the bow over the strings and produces a perfect, haunting melody.
The music stops, but Sherlock doesn't let go of me. I'm the one to break the spell. I step away, suddenly awkward, clearing my throat and hoping he can't see the heat in my face. "Thank you," I mutter. "I…I think I'll be able to sleep now." I dash upstairs, but not before I see the look on his face. It's one I've seen before, the one that he wears when someone is emoting in a way he finds irrational. I'm glad he doesn't follow. My face burns.
Surprisingly, however, I find that I haven't lied to him. I'm only in bed for a few moments when sleep settles over me like an old quilt. My sleep is blank, barren, washed clean.
It's weeks before I have another nightmare. It's the pig's fault, I think. Its presence in the kitchen was alarming, at best.
(I woke up that morning to discover a disemboweled pig sprawled over a blue tarp in the kitchen, its organs piled neatly beside it. I stared at it, stepped over it, crossed to the fridge, and discovered that my appetite had been as eviscerated as the stinking corpse on the floor.)
In my dream, I'm walking. Ahead of me, I can see the pig stretched out under the brilliant sun, its hide sparkling with rot. I approach it, even though I'd rather not. I don't have a choice. I'm a doctor, and this pig needs my attention.
The pig is wearing an Army uniform, the stomach cut out of both shirt and skin. The organs are simply missing. I reach out gingerly and run my finger along the ragged tear of flesh and fabric, my own stomach going hollow. The pig snuffles, a low and terrible sound, and I want to vomit. I can't understand why it isn't dead. I wonder if I'll have to kill it.
"John." Sherlock taps me into wakefulness. He's crouching beside me, his eyebrows drawn together. I wonder vaguely if this is why he sometimes watches me sleep: perhaps he's studying the physical effects of terror on the sleeping body. I don't have time to consider it; Sherlock's face is inches from mine, his ice-blue eyes wide and questioning. "Your breathing was alarmingly rapid. Increased muscle spasms. You were having another nightmare, I suspect."
I feel strangely grateful to him for waking me up. "Excellent deduction," I say, sitting up creakily. I can't stop shaking.
"Do you want to go back to sleep?"
I look up at Sherlock and find the words tumbling out of my mouth unbidden: "Can we play the violin?"
It takes another five nightmares, and another five moonlit violin lessons, for me to admit to myself that there is something very worrying about our little ritual. It takes several more for me to admit this out loud, to Sherlock.
"What is this?" I ask, stopping his hand in the middle of a song. His jaw, as always, is pressed to my temple, his body cupping mine.
His voice is so low and close to my ear when he responds that I give a little start. "My own composition," he says, a smile in his voice. "I've been calling it 'Triumph Over Nightmares', but it might sound better in French. Or German. Mm. What do you think?"
"I think it's great," I say honestly, stepping away and running a hand down my face, "but that's not what I meant." I clear my throat. I can't even meet his eyes. "I meant, what is this?" My hand gestures back and forth between us, showcasing the crackle in the air that I can't explain.
Sherlock makes that face again, the 'I don't understand your silly human emotions face', and I feel my stomach clench like a fist. Is it possible that he doesn't feel what I do? I can't imagine it. The tension, to me, is palpable. After a moment of consideration, Sherlock answers (with more sincerity than I'd ever heard him use before): "A natural, mutual affectionate bond." He looks at me as though that were the obvious response. A bit more sarcastically, he adds, "Friendship, I think they call it."
I can't help but laugh. "Friends don't…" I pause, looking for the right words. "Friends don't do these kinds of things, though, Sherlock. Friends don't…don't hold each other when one of them has a nightmare. Men don't compose music for their flatmates."
"No?" Sherlock's eyes seem to search the floor. His gaze snaps back up seconds later, dawning awareness lighting up his features. "What are you saying?"
"N-nothing." I feel foolish and regretful. I want to pretend I never brought it up, and anyone else would allow it. But not Sherlock. His eyes burn into me.
"Ah." He takes a step towards me. "You think that because I don't necessarily understand the mechanics of love, I'm incapable of recognizing it…even in myself." Sherlock's hand twitches up, almost touches me, falls back to his side. "I know what you are to me; it was never a question. I simply don't understand the impulse of ordinary people to label every facet of every relationship. I didn't think I needed to clarify your importance to me."
I swallow, my sweating palms pressed against shaking fingers. "I'm not you, Sherlock. I can't work out your every thought from your shoelaces."
"Of course not," Sherlock blinks. "You lace my shoes; I merely tie them. There's barely anything there to deduce."
Laughing, I reach a tentative hand up and touch his chest, just above his heartbeat, hoping he doesn't find my touch invasive or strange. It seems that he doesn't; he folds my hand under his own, the warmth of him as surprising as ever.
Bending a little, Sherlock touches his cheek to mine and whispers: "Shall we finish the song?"
I nod gently, my eyes half-closed, and he spins me, placing the bow back between my clumsy fingers. We play together until the sun rises, him humming against my temple, me with my eyes closed and my body warm. I am alive.