"I want you to try something," the doctor says. He has warm brown eyes and thin white hair. He makes John feel at home in a way that he doesn't question.
John has been back in London for five months. He is still having dreams. He is not mad.
"I'll try anything," he says. The doctor's office has piles of books with peeling bindings, a name painted on the door in old-fashioned gold leaf. No title, he notices. Just a name.
"Before you go to sleep tonight, I'd like you to repeat the following words: tonight, I will be in control of my dreams."
The next time John sees his therapist, she asks him if he's still having the dreams. He doesn't need to lie to her. The dreams are over. He starts to forget.
They're on the Tube. Sherlock all low blood sugar shaky, rushing down the street with a sheaf of printed articles under his arm. No taxi in sight, and that nervous-adrenaline rush to go anywhere, do anything. Down into the warm subterranean air, John fumbling for his Oyster card.
"Explain it to me again --" John says, and what he really wants Sherlock to explain is what keeps him going, what he thinks he's going to do when he knocks on the suspect's door at eleven o'clock at night.
Instead Sherlock puts on his Explaining face and says "He's the only one with access, John."
He explains the entire case in ragged little snippets, in between taking out his phone and looking up the Tube timetable. The lights flicker when they're going through a tunnel. Canned air, tinny shushing sounds coming from the headphones of a teenager courting tinnitus. The stuff of life, sitting next to Sherlock in a train carriage full of drinkers and late-night commuters.
Sherlock's mouth next to his ear, his voice carefully casual, soft. Whispered observations about their fellow commuters. "She's having an affair. He's just visited his parents in Andalusia."
When Sherlock does that John's cheeks suddenly flush, warm, and his dick twitches and he realises with a distinct sensation in his gut, like falling, that he's in love with this man, that he's in lust.
But that was then, and this is now.
Mycroft mocks him mercilessly for this habit, knowing when a Tube carriage was made. Wikipedia; London Underground rolling stock; 1972 Tube Stock. London is like family to him, like a mother. He knows everything. He can pull his knowledge of the city up and around himself like a blanket, disappear if he wants to.
The woman sitting across from him: her clothes (polyester shirt, good skirt and shoes, receptionist then) say office, and her gym bag's never been anywhere near a gym: affair. Her face late-night slack. Graffiti flashing by in the tunnel, red. Pantone Red 032 PC. A mental note.
John sitting next to him, quiet and calm, and Sherlock is so full of the answer, so bursting to push this case to its resolution, that there's a pressure in his chest: the words are there, the solution, begging to be let out. He talks to John because he has to, because he has to share it with someone.
But that was then, and this is now.
The empty madness in Moriarty's eyes, raising the pistol to his mouth. John in the taxi, and oh god, there's no time to think, nothing but the blood and the wind and the fall. He closes his eyes. Think, think. Run.
He never regretted the drugs, the sleek dismissal in his father's eyes, the ragged edge to Mycroft's voice when he answered the phone, baby brother calling from a phone box in Glasgow. Shaking, the concrete floor gritty, his hands cold and dirty. Nobody had heard from him in three weeks. He'd lost track of the time. Lost track of himself. A pocket full of scrawled notes and twists of tinfoil, a missing week. He never regretted any of that.
He regrets this.
They're back in the the train carriage, he and John. Forever between two stops on the Bakerloo line. It's dark. He can't really see. Nothing but the rubbery scream of the brakes. They're alone.
"You can change this," John says. "You can control it. You're dreaming."
Weeks of running, hollow with hunger and fear and the knowledge that every time he closes his eyes he could wake up with a knife at his throat. A pocketful of greasy ten-pound notes in Portsmouth. Cheap red wine he spits into the gutter in Paris, too paranoid to drink even though his head feels like it's splitting. No trust, no rest.
He stops in Sofia because he needs to, because he can't run anymore. He wants to learn the language. He takes a job washing dishes and adopts the accent and half the identity of a ragged homeless guy he knew in Slovakia. He feels ragged and hunted and empty, and for the first time in years he remembers his dreams.
Night after night, the tube, the rattling, John speaking to him, the female announcer repeating next stop next stop next stop until the words mean nothing.
Sherlock wakes up hoping nobody hears the half-stifled, very English fuck he moans into the pillow. A clammy handful of the hostel sheet, the rattle of the traffic outside, a dubbed cop show playing in the next room.
He wonders where John is. He wonders if London has forgotten him.
John hears someone whispering behind him, in the line at the supermarket. I'm sure it's him, he hears, a stifled murmur he pretends not to hear, his eyes fixed carefully on the line of chocolate bars and breath mints at the checkout. Suicide, he hears. Sherlock Holmes.
Now he has another role to play, the grieving flatmate. Sherlock would approve of the way he flatly dismisses the landlord's questions when he rents another flat, of the careful-contrite way he speaks to his therapist, invents things to say. Because he feels like a shell, really. Full of questions, grief the only thing weighing him down. Stuck between two stations.
He goes to see his therapist.
"Do you know what a lucid dream is?"
Her voice is always soft. She's heard it all. "John, if you're experiencing these, you should know that they've been linked to psychosis."
Everybody thinks him mad.
"No, he says. "I read about them while I was researching an essay in undergrad, that's all."
She asks him if he's gotten around to sorting out some of the stuff from Sherlock's flat yet, going through the books and the furniture. Dust and chemical residue, and Ziploc bags of thumbs or white powder, things he doesn't want to find. It's not that he doesn't have the time, it's that he can't bear it.
He takes to sleeping with a notebook by the bed. Knew I was dreaming. Always the same. I can get up, look out the window. Took my jacket off, shoulder twinge. One day he turns over to fumble the light on in the 3am gloom. I am sure he knows it too. It is like crossing a bridge, admitting to himself that he thinks the dream is real. That the dream is real.
But John is used to other people thinking him mad. This is no different.
Always the same dream.
Rattle rattle. The empty carriage. Staring straight ahead, watching the lights flicker by on the wall of the tunnel. So dim he can barely see. John's voice at his side. He's been down in some of these tunnels, led by a ragged girl with a knife and a drugworn face. Drunk on the danger. He loses himself in it: huddled in a woollen jumper and school PE shorts at the police station, nobody listening. In a sticky alley behind a club at 20, a notebook full of clues, no leads. His head spinning.
"Sherlock, please. Concentrate on my words. You're dreaming. You're dreaming. You're dreaming."
"Yes, John, I am," he feels himself say. It is so hard to open his mouth at first, so hard. Like he's separated from himself, the half-scary detachment that he remembers from a bad ketamine trip.
"Oh God, thank you," John says. "I've been trying so long -- I didn't --"
John has his hands pressed hard against his face and he breathes in hard and mumbles into his palms, oh God.
Sherlock can see him now. It's hard, trying to hold all this together in his head. He's so tired and it's so hard. He tries to stand and all he can bear to do is move his feet forward, and oh oh oh, he can feel them moving across the gritty floor. Everything is there, the texture, his shoes slightly worn at the heel.
He feels faint. John sounds so him, so real. The people in his dreams are never like this, they never have faces or voices or emotions. Sherlock feels so far from home. The empty longing ache in his chest, like the coke dreams he'd have just after giving up.
"Just tell me you're okay," John says.
"What is this?" He can hardly speak, but he wants to scream. This isn't logical. It isn't right. He wants to turn to John, but moving is hard and his whole consciousness is consumed by making sense of this reality. Can't be real can't be real can't can't.
"It's our dream," John says. "I've been waiting for you."
"I'm alive," he says, because it's the simplest logical answer. The truth.
He can't tell John much. He's worked it all out, balanced all the variables up against each other. Right now, John's ignorance is an asset. If he doesn't know, he won't come after them, and Sherlock can pull at the knot from the other end until it unravels.
So he can't bounce theories off of John. But he can use the dream for the same thing. He never gets any rest here, in Sofia or Dublin or Paris, even on the long post-midnight walks he takes, always afraid he'll be recognised, always afraid he'll be robbed or mugged and the house of cards he's built out of a stolen credit card and an expensive forged passport will fall down like the flimsy protection it is. He has to be cautious, and caution's always felt like a hindrance.
Here, in the dream-here, he can do anything. He wills a thick black marker into life in his pocket and spends hours making diagrams on the window. They always lead back to London, but he knows he can't go back yet. Because everybody thinks him dead, and being a dead man is an asset.
And and and, he thinks, tapping the marker against his fingers. He will only admit it to himself here, and in those quiet moments when he's hiding behind Le Monde in a waiting room somewhere, thinking in another language, another man's mannerisms in his walk and his hands, but he's free. Free from himself, free from words like freak and genius and brilliant.
Tonight Sherlock paces back and forth, jiggles the change in his pockets.
(The change in John's pockets never changes, two pound coins, one slightly duller than the other).
Sherlock tells John about the chemistry of sweets, about the chemicals used in commercial cookery. He paces back and forth, past the empty rows of seats, and then he leans past John and traces something onto the window with his finger, and it leaves behind a shimmering trail like phosphoresence, a trail that fades after ten or fifteen seconds. It's all molecules and emulsification, the murder he solved too fast. Red brick dust, John remembers. Those children locked in a dark factory, gorging themselves on tainted sweets.
Sherlock sits down in the seat ahead of him, tapping his hand on the back of the seat. Silent. Next stop. "Why don't you explain something to me?"
"I never much cared for football. I don't know much about it."
"What do you know about it?"
"That it uses a ball. That we acted out some repressed 17-century schoolmaster's idea of it at school, but I thankfully deleted any reference to that long ago."
John puts his hands in his pockets and explains the offside rule. It seems that Sherlock's listening. He never interrupts.
"Mmm," he says, when John's stopped speaking. "Interesting."
"You'll never use it," John says. "The only thing it's good for is arguing with tossers in pubs."
"I might take a case about football one day," Sherlock says.
It seems so presumptuous, talking about returning to London, when the papers are still running jeering stories about Sherlock Holmes' fantasies, his arrogance. John knows that Sherlock just wants to hear him speak.
"You're on the other side of the bloody world."
Music: someone talking over a rapid trance beat, a foreign language, Russian perhaps. It gets louder and louder, it's all around them, and Sherlock sighs. He looks weary.
"Not quite. That's my alarm," Sherlock says, and he's gone.
It's been the same thing for so long. Locum work two or three mornings a week, never at a GP anything more than a 45-minute trip away. John wants his life circumscribed. A twice-weekly trip to the supermarket. An empty bedsit. His voicemail full of messages from Harry and Mrs. Hudson he's too tired to return.
He goes to the chemist and fills his basket with fish oil brain supplements, chalky anti-stress herbal crap. He goes to the counter, stares at the pharmacist's nametag, not daring to meet her eyes.
"I've been having trouble sleeping."
Docylamine succinate. Safe, over-the-counter. He wonders if the pharmacist recognises him. If she believes Moriarty's lies. His lies.
He's a Norwegian dilettante who came to this city to escape a girlfriend and a low-grade drug habit. That's the character, and after a while it fits like a glove. He left his hair in a sink in Prague, his clothes in London.
He's done it before, but never for this long. He repeats things to himself, before he goes to sleep. Your name is Sherlock Holmes. You were born, you lived, this scar came about when. He goes into his memory palace and looks up at his mother's house in the bright light of a summer afternoon. He sits through a chemistry lecture, stands in Baker Street with reagents bubbling in test tubes.
Once a week he catches a bus across town, doubling back three or four times. He takes a denim jacket and a baseball cap out of a locker at a fitness centre. He hires a computer in one of five convenience stores he's chosen for the high turnover of their staff and the clear view of the street from the computer.
Years ago Mycroft would leave messages on the answering machine in a house where he was staying. His mother beyond caring. He couldn't trust his flatmates. He couldn't trust himself. Holmes' brother has tickets to the opera meant let's meet, I have money. Spent it all, and of course Mycroft wouldn't come anywhere near the house.
A stolen credit card, an antique book store in Manchester. He asks them to slip a card inside. Thanks for the opera tickets. The sale goes through. He calls up the next day and cancels the card, using the information on the guy's driving licence. Flicks the SIM card into a garbage bin. Nothing but dead ends.
Five people know about the man Mycroft has in Lyon. Sherlock is the sixth. He's been keeping secrets for Mycroft since he was a child, been keeping important secrets since the year he took his Finals. Mycroft turning to him and saying we don't want you, Sherlock. You're a drug addict. You're dangerous. He didn't want them, their nondescript faces and carefully worded reports and wetwork. He wants Mycroft's information.
God, he wants his advice.
"I thought you were dead," John says. "For six months I thought you were dead."
Sherlock realises with a vague sense of shame that he didn't expect John to sound this angry.
"I wish I could say I'm sorry," Sherlock says. "But I'm not. What was I supposed to do?"
John's ignorance is an asset, he decides. He's so cold. Sometimes it worries him, the thing that makes him like this, the thing that makes him not care. But then he remembers Moriarty putting the gun in his mouth, trying to knit a plan around the ringing in his ears. Coldness works.
"Sorry means regret, Sherlock. Sorry means that you wish it hadn't happened."
Oh yes. He regrets it. But regret is not the same as sorry. Sorry is defeat.
He's thinner, now. They're always wearing the same thing they were wearing that day on the tube, and the empty lager can rattling down the end of the carriage and the two discarded newspapers (one tabloid, one broadsheet) are the same. But Sherlock looks different, slower. Worn down.
"I'm sorry then," Sherlock says, and he stands up, swaying a little with the motion of the train. "I wonder if I could stand on my head here."
John wants to take him by the shoulders, shake him until he's spilt the details of where he is, how he's living. But the dream keeps him locked in this state of half-complacence, everything dulled by the fact that they're asleep. And Sherlock isn't telling. It's never cold here, and the world shrinks to this tiny space he shares with Sherlock, the muffled blur outside the window. He never wants more. He never wants anything for long, in the dream.
Sherlock manages to stand, but he topples over, then he's gone. He woke himself up.
John stays. He can rest here, now. He's comfortable.
John knows the things he can't say. Sherlock won't tell him what he's doing, where he is. It isn't safe, he says. John feels like a dupe, but as long as he knows Sherlock's alive that's okay for now.
"I found something out today," Sherlock says. "A loose end he might have left untied in another city."
"Is it safe? Are you sure it isn't a trap?"
"Safer than practicing medicine in a war zone. I think Mycroft's intelligence is legit."
John is rises to his feet, forces them to move. Here in the dream every movement is a conscious one. He's jealous of Mycroft, his arrogant drawl and his secrecy, the way he moves them all around like chessmen. He's angry because Mycroft has access to Sherlock, because he's let John live in ignorance all this time. Sherlock is standing against the closed doors of the carriage, his hands deep in his pockets. It's been more than a year. Down here, it's still eleven o'clock on a Monday night and he can do anything.
John puts one arm against the glass, cold against his palm, and he uses the other hand to draw Sherlock's head down toward his own. He's hard and he wants Sherlock so much and some stupid romantic part of him thinks sex will make this simpler.
Sherlock's lips are cold and then he makes a stifled noise, puts his hand against John's chest and pushes him away, hard. His cheeks are flushed, one hand flat across his mouth.
"No John," he says, and his voice sounds wrong. "I don't do that."
He turns, takes a quick breath through his teeth and punches the door. The noise is loud, and it reverberates, echoes, sends a dull thumping noise all around them like feedback. The lights flicker, darken, and beyond them are the bare walls of John's bedroom, bathed in sterile dawn light.
"Sherlock, I'm-- What are you doing? You'll wake yourself up."
"What do you think I'm trying to do?" Sherlock says, and he takes the hand he's cradled to his chest and punches again, and then he's gone.
Stay, John thinks, but he's alone now.
"Look at this," Sherlock says to John, and then he takes a perfectly formed memory of a Beethoven piano sonata from his memory palace and puts it on display. They're both learning things. Sherlock can feel Mummy sitting at his side for a second, Mycroft on his other side. He's at the Royal Opera House, and the train fades away. Mummy's cigarette-perfume smell, the murmur of the audience. Then the rushing darkness behind the window is replaced by a view of the stage, and he sits next to John and watches. In this place, he's in control.
"Thank you," John says, his voice soft, and Sherlock sits and lets the music wash over him. He lets his mind follow the rise and fall of it, the scales and chords. He aches to hold a violin again.
"You have to understand," he says, his voice level. "There's a hole in me, where other people love. Where other people make love."
"I'm sorry about before," John says, and Sherlock ignores him, speaks again.
"Hole isn't right. It's a lack. But it doesn't bother me. Like being colourblind. I can't explain it."
"I think I understand," John says.
Sherlock wants to tell John about Victor Trevor, trite phrases like taking advantage and making love (that wasn't love, he loves Mycroft, he loved his mother, even though he sometimes doubts if she loved him. He loves John. That wasn't love).
But he doesn't, because that was then and this was now, and he has a sniper to track down and John knows he's okay, so he sits and they listen to the music. It is such a mercy to finally have a place to think.
"Where have you been? It's been days."
It's cold in London, but never cold here, in this dream-London. Here it's the warm underground smell of the tube, the same sweat cooling at the small of his back over and over again.
"A lead," Sherlock says, his voice remote, distracted. He says nothing. He paces back and forth in the narrow aisle. All frenetic energy and anxiety that spreads through the atmosphere, setting the train bumping clumsily over the points.
"Locum work sucks," John says to fill the silence, his stomach churning.
"You wouldn't believe how fast the time goes by, John, when I know I'm safe. I work. Sometimes I forget that I'm still looking for him. I work at the University now."
"Where?" A hopeless question, but he asks anyway.
"I can't tell you that." A snort.
Sherlock turns to look at him, then, and his face is so pale, bathed in the harsh fluorescent light. His eyes meet John's and dart away, the pupils dilated.
"Oh God," Watson says. "You're lit."
A strange, lopsided smile. Standing tall and lost within himself, lost in the dream. "I'm illuminated," he says. John takes that as a yes.
"I couldn't think," Sherlock says. "I couldn't sleep, either."
"How did you come here?"
"I don't know. I thought about it." He's off his head.
Sherlock babbles to him, half-paranoid ramblings, experiences that he's forgotten John didn't share, cases he took before they met, and John lets him talk until his voice is hoarse and he's shaking, and then they just sit again, two people going absolutely nowhere.
Sherlock's been gone so long. He's thinner. He's forgotten things about London. He's learnt new things about new cities, things he thought he'd never learn again: the right corner to score. How a cable tie will work to tie someone up in a pinch, how a roll of coins is as good as brass knuckles. Where to put his fingertips to make them hurt, to make them tell him what he wants.
"I'm not the same person I was, John."
"But you're still here," John says. "God, Sherlock, that's all that matters to me."
He wishes he could tell John to forget him, to move on. He has this terrible image of John in an empty room, a life designed around an empty hole. Waiting for him, his worthless fucking self, cold and pigheaded and so blinded by his own ambition that he didn't see Moriarty coming.
"Please tell me you're not sitting there waiting for me," Sherlock says. "Go out and have a pint with Stanford."
"Whatever," Sherlock says. "Fat guy with two divorces, he looks like he needs a mate."
"Sherlock, what are you--"
"I've found him, John. I might not come back."
It's so easy, falling into this other life, a strange accent, a false smile. But he's sick of looking behind him, sick of knowing that the bastard is out there, sick of being robbed of himself.
If he doesn't come back, Mycroft will know what to do. He'll go to John. John will know what to do.