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The Me Without You

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It sounds so easy.

They're in bed together when Sherlock gets the summons from Mycroft. Normally it's the sort of thing he would toss aside just out of spite, but the fact of the matter is, the case sounds thrilling. John can tell by the look on his lover's face that Sherlock is already hooked, but the case will require travelling to Paris for an extended length of time and neither one of them likes the sound of that. However, he can also tell that if Sherlock doesn't go, the case will haunt him, and the last thing John wants is for Sherlock to suffer in any way. It doesn't take much prompting; Sherlock launches himself out of the bed and begins packing in haste, taking all sorts of things that only a consulting detective would realize as valuable. John sits back and watches with an indulgent smile.

"Don't forget anything," he says mildly. "And don't forget to eat and sleep on a regular basis. I won't be there to make sure you do."

There must be something in his voice, his face, because Sherlock turns around and looks at him. "John," he says, and hesitates. It's unlike Sherlock, but sometimes he doesn't know what to do with the crossed lines and that's never more evident than when he's trying to express feelings. "Are you sure you're alright staying here by yourself?"

"I did live by myself for quite a while before I met you, Sherlock."

"Yes, but things are different now," Sherlock says, and he's right, he's so right that it actually hurts, like a little punch to John's gut. He controls the urge to grimace by looking back at Sherlock squarely, letting just enough pain through so that it won't look like he's hiding. He's gotten good at lying to Sherlock, or as good as one can be. Sherlock would see through it in a second if he weren't so distracted, but he is.

"I know but I think you need to go, and I can't, so that's just how it is," he says.

"I could make Mycroft let you go."

John can't help smiling. "Go, you nut. Solve your case and come back with a wonderful story, alright? I'll be waiting to hear about it."

"Alright." Sherlock steps towards him and cups his face, pulling John into a very soft, very chaste kiss, so unlike the rough, demanding kiss that John is craving. He lets go in the next instant and spins away, striding out the door and down the stairs. John remains where he is as the second door shuts, and then he crosses to the window, watching as Sherlock hails a cab and climbs inside. It drives away and turns a corner and now he's totally alone.

It only takes a few minutes for the silence in the flat to creep up on him. John shudders and roughly rubs one ear with his shoulder before moving into the bedroom. Sherlock likes having the sheets changed after they've had sex and John hasn't yet had time that morning. He's decided he's going to go about his business as usual. There's no sense in standing around waiting, and indeed, he refuses to be one of "those people". He can function without Sherlock. It's only for a few weeks, after all.

He changes the sheets on the bed and replaces them with new ones before hauling the soiled bedding downstairs to the laundry. He adds a few shirts in with the sheets, adds in the detergent that doesn't give Sherlock a rash, and goes back upstairs. He prepares a cup of tea (well, make that two cups of tea - one gets poured down the drain and he tosses the bag) and drinks it while sitting in front of the telly. Then he starts puttering around cleaning things up, organizing Sherlock's extensive pile of unopened mail, putting away the worst of the toxic chemicals and getting rid of the thickest layer of dust before Mrs Hudson sees it and gets angry. The routine is soothing, it makes him feel like Sherlock has only gone out for the day and will be back that night.

Just before dinner he goes shopping for groceries, picking up the usual basics, things that are relatively easy to cook that don't take much time. He shuffles back and forth a few times before going through the line and he realizes that he's waiting for Sherlock to text him with some bizarre, last minute addition to their list. Indeed, the cashier looks somewhat taken aback by John's ordinary order and he offers her a crooked, half-hearted smile of apology. He could always toss in something odd but it's just not the same when it's not from Sherlock and he knows it.

The walk back home seems to take an eternity, but when he gets there he wishes it had taken longer. He casts a longing look at Sherlock's violin and wishes that Sherlock was there to play some of the music that drives everyone, including John, crazy. He prepares himself a plate of toast for dinner and eats one piece before dumping the rest. He finds himself sitting back on the sofa, this time staring blankly at the screen without bothering to turn it on, wondering where Sherlock is. Would he be in Paris yet? Is he racing around the city trying to get the jump on whoever committed the crime? Has he found the perpetrator or is this one of those crimes that's driving him crazy, the kind of crime he lives for?

"That idiot," John says out loud, and the stark echo of his voice through the otherwise empty flat makes him wince. He leaves his cup of tea on the coffee table and goes into their bedroom. He can still see the restraints Sherlock used last night; normally he puts them away but today he decided to leave them out. Made of good, soft leather and stencilled with a burnished SH in gold, they're John's favourites. He sits down on the bed with the cuffs in his lap. His wrists are still red from where he pulled against them. He falls asleep with the cuffs on his chest, wishing that his lover was there to put them on.

---

The sound of his phone wakes him up. Still half-asleep, he grabs for it and shoves it against his ear. “Sherlock?” he asks before remembering that Sherlock hates talking on the phone and much prefers to text. Sure enough, there’s a low laugh that’s entirely too female for his tastes.

“No, it’s me, Sarah.”

“Oh. Hi,” he says. Too late he realizes how completely unenthusiastic he sounds.

Sarah just laughs again. “I was wondering if you were available to come in today. One of my doctors called in sick unexpectedly. That’s if you and Sherlock don’t have anything planned.”

“No, I’m free,” John says, levering himself up and peering at the clock. It’s half past ten. He feels disoriented, like he’s slept for much longer than he did. His mouth tastes gritty and disgusting. “I’ll be there by eleven.”

He swings his legs over the bed and the cuffs fall to the ground. John stares at them for a long moment before reaching down and picking them up. Impulsively he shoves them into his pocket before checking his phone for messages. Nothing. Not entirely unexpected. Sherlock tends to get caught up in cases to the point where everything else becomes meaningless, including John. A small sigh escapes him and his thumbs hover uncertainly over the buttons. He could just text Sherlock. Ask him how the case is going. See if his genius has stunned anyone yet (or, more likely, got him punched). But what if that looks too needy? After all, Sherlock’s only been gone a day. No, it’s better to hold off for a bit and see if Sherlock contacts him first.

He gets dressed and puts his jacket on and leaves the flat. Halfway down the stairs he realizes he’s forgotten his keys, so he goes back up for them. It puts him a little behind but he knows Sarah won’t mind; she’s become much more amiable towards him since he and Sherlock became a couple. He takes the tube because it’s cheaper and riding in a cab without Sherlock just seems wrong. By the time he gets to the locum it’s just after eleven, so really he’s only a few minutes late.

It’s already bustling and Sarah hustles him straight into an office. A patient is directed in a minute later, an older woman who is complaining that her stomach hurts. She’s a “repeat offender”, meaning that she shows up every few weeks with a new, unrelated symptom and she won’t leave until she feels she’s been adequately fussed over. He remembers her well. John stares at her as she gets comfortable on the table and thinks that if Sherlock were here he’d call her on it. She’d never show up again if she had a few minutes alone with him.

“Doctor?” she says. “Doctor?”

“What? Oh, right. So tell me what’s wrong this time,” John says, scooting his chair closer.

She launches into an avid description and John tries to listen, he really does, but his mind wanders to Sherlock. What is the man doing now? Questioning (insulting) people? Chasing down criminals? Exploring crime scenes? Sometimes the best part about being with Sherlock is just having the chance to admire how good he is at what he does. Sherlock moves through the world of crime with an easy grace that the rest of mankind can only gaze upon enviously. John certainly does often enough. He wishes that he was there with Sherlock, even if it was only so that he could follow Sherlock around and listen to his deep voice.

“Doctor!”

John jumps. “Sorry, Mrs Havisham. Do go on. You were saying you woke up with tenderness around the kidney that escalated as the morning went on?” he says.

“That’s right,” she says, looking a little mollified. “What’s your prognosis?”

His prognosis is that he was stupid to let Sherlock go without him, but John doesn’t say that. He forces a smile instead. “I’ll write you a prescription for some mild soothers,” he says, taking out his prescription pad. “Take one before each meal and if your problem persists past a week or so, come back in.” At least then she’ll be someone else’s problem.

She takes the script and leaves. John leans back in his chair and closes his eyes, feeling restless and out of sorts. He’s tired but he doesn’t want to sit; he wants to be up and about and moving, and yet the thought of actually doing anything makes him feel more drained than ever. Besides, what would he do? Lestrade’s not going to call him out on any crime scenes, not without Sherlock. He pulls his phone out of his pocket and stares at it silently, willing it to ring, to beep, to do something that will alert him to the fact that Sherlock is trying to get into contact with him.

This time, he can’t stop himself. He types out a text and sends it, then quickly shoves his phone back in his pocket as the next patient comes in. The whole time he’s with the young man – simple summer cold, nothing to be done for it – his ears are trained, listening intently for any sound. When it comes, it’s like a knot in his chest is loosening slightly, uncoiling just a little. He claps one hand over his pocket and excuses himself, bolting out into the hall.

How is the case going? – JW

Surprisingly intriguing. For once Mycroft hasn’t failed me. – SH

John swallows and swallows again, staring at the screen. He can practically hear those words being spoken and Christ what he wouldn’t give to hear Sherlock’s voice. It’s almost like a physical craving, it hits so hard and so brutally fast. His hands are shaking as he taps out a reply.

See, I told you it would be worthwhile! Boring here with you, though. – JW

Of course it would be. – SH

And then, before he can do anything else but smile,

You are alright? – SH

He relaxes back against the wall and breathes a sigh.

Yes, Sherlock, I’m fine. Don’t tell me you’re turning into a mother hen. Giving Mrs Hudson competition? – JW

When it comes to my important possessions I always exercise caution. – SH

God. John closes his eyes against the tingling that shoots through him. Nothing more comes after that, and he suspects that Sherlock has gone off on another part of the case, but that brief contact has made him feel a hundred times better. It’s only for a few weeks and he’s already gotten through the first day, he thinks, rubbing a hand over his face. Surely the hardest part is over?

---

He eats something for dinner, he’s not wholly sure what it was but he does know food went into his mouth and down his throat so that’s all that matters, before he goes to bed. It’s definitely not the best night’s sleep he’s ever had. He’s restless and keeps waking up, reaching for something beside him that’s never there. His phone stays stubbornly silent no matter he wants to hear it beep. A couple of times he wakes up and finds himself looking through his texts, desperately reading the ones that Sherlock sent, searching for some reminder that Sherlock does care about him, still wants him, that he didn’t go because John is useless and a bit not good.

At about five in the morning he gives up and wanders out of the bedroom, finding Sherlock’s dressing gown flung over the back of a chair. He pulls it on – it’s far too big, trailing behind him on the floor, and the sleeves hang down over his hands, but it smells like Sherlock – and curls up into a ball on the sofa. Mrs Hudson knocks on the door at some point but he doesn’t respond and she shuffles away, no doubt thinking that John is already out and about. Sometimes they do leave very early in the morning. He doesn’t call back, just curls up tighter and wonders what Sherlock is doing.

His phone rings. He answers. “Hello.”

“John, it’s Sarah. Could you fill in again?”

“Sure.”

“Thanks.” Pause. “Are you alright?”

“Fine.” He hangs up, lets the phone drop where it may because Sherlock isn’t going to text, and puts his head back down.

The sun is shining through the windows when he stirs. It’s horrendously bright and makes his eyes hurt so he shuts the curtains, blocking it all out. Sherlock does that sometimes when he’s in one of his black moods and he doesn’t want anyone intruding on his world. John shuffles into the kitchen and stands there for a long moment, staring vacantly at the stove before he remembers that he needs to put the kettle on if he wants to have tea.

As the water begins to boil, he leans against the counter and considers himself. Pathetic, really. Sherlock’s only been gone about 36 hours and he can’t even collect himself enough to make tea? He can only imagine what Sherlock would say if he heard. John shakes his head. He knows he should get dressed and go outside. Sarah didn’t call him to come into the surgery again (or at least he doesn’t think she did) so he could go grocery shopping again. They always need milk because Sherlock has the tendency to get rid of it somehow or another, and John’s teased him in the past about absorbing milk somehow.

When he checks the refrigerator, the carton is still full.

This doesn’t compute well. It’s like reality has tilted on its side, a bit. He puts it back down and closes the door, decides to forget that it ever happened, and pours the water into his cup. He adds a teabag and forgoes sugar or milk, walking back into the other room. The cup goes on the coffee table while he sits down and stares at the door.

No grocery shopping, then. He could just go for a walk. He used to do that all the time before he met Sherlock. Sometimes that was all he did, just wander around London until the pain in his leg grew so blindingly painful that he couldn’t walk another step.

But where would he go? London is enormous. The thought of all those choices makes John break into a sweat. It’s too much.

He puts his head back down on the sofa, feeling dizzy.

Mrs Hudson comes back and knocks again, then calls through the door that she’s leaving food and would John please eat and let her know that he’s doing alright? Again, he doesn’t respond, though he does reach out and pick up his cup of tea. It’s gone stone cold and he stares at it, puzzled, because didn’t he just make this? He puts it back down on the coffee table and breathes in and out, pushing his nose into the cloth of Sherlock’s robe. It’s rough and leaves a red mark on his cheek.

Slowly the world around him goes quiet. It presses down on his head.

The tea goes filmy and gets a skin on top. He stands up and takes it into the kitchen to dump it out. He finds himself standing over Sherlock’s experiments, watching them. Some of them have gone mouldy. Sherlock will have to re-do them. He won’t like that much. There’s something he would normally do at this point but he can’t think of what that might be. Eventually he goes back to the couch, sits down and wraps his fingers around his phone. He doesn’t remember retrieving it from wherever it was but it’s there and it’s his only link to Sherlock so he holds onto it, tightly.

---

You need to return to London. – MH

The case isn’t finished yet. I need at least three more days. – SH

You need to return to London, Sherlock. John hasn’t been seen in three days. – MH

I asked you to watch him, Mycroft! – SH

I have been watching, Sherlock, and that’s how I know something is wrong. Forget about the case for once in your life and look at your priorities. Considering the unique relationship between you and John, he should be at the top of your list. – MH

I don’t need a lecture from you. Get me a plane ticket. – SH

You leave in half an hour. – MH

---

221 is quiet when Sherlock returns. He opens the door and steps inside and looks at the top of the stairs. It’s just past 11:00pm and John should be watching telly while he prepares to go to bed, but there’s no sound at all, not from Mrs Hudson’s or from their flat. He leaves his suitcase at the front door and walks up. Containers and platters of food have been placed at the door. Mrs Hudson’s work, no doubt. None of them have been touched. He frowns slightly and reaches out, opening the door quietly. Stale air rushes out at him, the smell of a flat that has not been opened for a while, and he steps in.

The flat is orderly but everything has a layer of dust. Someone cleaned but not for a few days and nothing has been touched since then. His experiments, most of them long since rotted, are still on the kitchen table. The curtains are drawn tightly across the windows and the room is dark, but not so dark as to prevent him from seeing John.

John is huddled into a ball in front of the sofa, staring off into space. His hands are clutching his phone his chest. He’s wearing Sherlock’s dressing gown and a pair of pyjama bottoms that have a tea stain on the front of them. Sherlock looks him over, unable to speak for a moment as his mind assimilates and deduces and understands. John hasn’t moved for a while, hasn’t eaten, hasn’t bathed, hasn’t done anything. It’s so unlike what he was expecting that for a moment Sherlock has to tamp down on the anger at himself. John continually surprises him, but this – how could he not see this coming?

He takes off his coat and scarf, hanging them on the hook, and moves past John into the bathroom. He switches the taps on, making sure the water edges on hot, and then goes back out to John. “John.”

No response.

“John.” This time, with an edge of command.

John blinks sluggishly and looks up, but it’s like his eyes won’t focus, like he can’t register Sherlock’s presence. Still, it’s a reaction and Sherlock will take what he can get; it means that John hasn’t fallen to the point where he can’t be reached. He takes John’s wrists and pulls him to his feet. John sways slightly where he stands and looks confused.

“You’re going to take a bath,” Sherlock says, leaving no room for argument. Simple orders are best, he knows. Anything else will be too much. He leads John into the bathroom and looks at him. As much as he wants to take over, he knows what John needs. The work will steady John’s mind. “Strip. Take everything off and leave it in the corner of the bathroom.”

It takes a moment before John begins, his hands wandering to the edge of the dressing gown and easing it off his shoulders. Sherlock stands close and watches silently. When John is naked, he puts a hand on John’s shoulder and says, “Get into the tub. Sit down. Wait.”

He pulls out his phone and sends a quick text. By the time he looks up, John is sitting in the tub and staring forward blankly. But there is a little more light in his eyes and he doesn’t look quite so hopelessly lost. It’s an improvement, though a minor one, and they still have a long way to go. Sherlock unbuttons his shirt and pulls it off, leaving him in just his trousers. He kneels beside the tub, placing him behind John, and places a hand on the back of John’s neck, thumb and fingers cradling the delicate expanse of flesh.

He says, “Put soap on the cloth. Wash yourself. Make sure to get every inch.” Every word is spoken with that light hint of command, enough to make John obey but not enough to overwhelm.

John takes the cloth and smears soap over it. He begins dragging the cloth over his leg and winces when he reaches his thigh. The pain is back, Sherlock realizes, and he knows that this is much worse than he thought. He reaches out and puts his hand over John’s, not pressing or guiding, just there, an extra heat on top of the soothing warmth of the bath water. John begins to shiver, his breath catching in his throat, but he keeps on cleaning himself just like Sherlock wants. As he continues his movements become more sure, less timid, until he’s actively scrubbing as opposed to just making meandering circles.

“That’s good,” Sherlock says, keeping his voice soft. Giving praise is still awkward, still new, even though he and John have been doing this for months. It’s not what he’s used to but he’s found that it helps. John soaks up any praise that Sherlock gives like it’s a balm for his soul. It helps him go under faster and keeps him there. “That’s very good, John, just what I wanted. Now lean down so that I can wet your hair. Close your eyes. There you go.”

He’s done this before. John likes having his hair washed. It’s another way to foster trust between them and it’s something they did a lot back when John was still nervous and unsure. Sherlock wets the blond and gray hairs and squirts some shampoo on top. It’s hard to do this with just one hand but he never removes his other hand from the back of John’s neck. With a patience most people won’t know he possesses, he works the shampoo into a rich later, until the scent of mint and citrus is strong in the room, and then he rinses it out with a little pitcher of water. John remains silent but the tension in his body is slowly easing as he gives way to reality.

“Sh’lock,” he slurs.

“I’m here, John. It’s alright,” he murmurs in response, giving John’s neck a gentle squeeze, just enough pressure to affirm his words. “Stand up.”

It’s almost like working with a child, except this is John and seeing him like this is really a bit excruciating. Sherlock’s hands remain gentle as he eases John into another one of his dressing gowns, but inwardly he is furious with himself. There was so much evidence and he didn’t pay attention to any of it. John is easily the most important person in his life and if Sherlock has lost him through this, he’ll... well, it will be a bit not good and may result in an international incident if he gets his hands on the men who committed the crime that took him away from John in the first place.

By the time they make it out to the kitchen there is an Italian feast sitting on the table, courtesy of Angelo. Sherlock guides John into a chair and puts a simple meal in front of him: cheese ravioli with a warm sauce and a little piece of bread. He sits down across from John and pulls some pasta over even though he has no intention of eating. John likes to see him making an effort, though, so he eats a bite or two whenever John looks up at him, blinking in wide eyed surprise like Sherlock has magically appeared in the chair across from him.

“Sherlock?” he says again, and this time there’s a little more awareness in his voice.

“Eat, John,” is all he says in return. “Finish your dinner.”

Bite by bite, the pasta disappears, until John puts his fork down and doesn’t lift it again. The fact that he isn’t following through on Sherlock’s order and is instead listening to his own body is a good sign. Sherlock leaves the food where it is and takes John into the other room, where they sit down together on the sofa. He notices John’s favourite cuffs on the coffee table and picks them up. John must have brought them out of the bedroom, where they usually remain. He takes John’s hands in his and slides the cuffs on easily, tightening them with a quick twist of his wrist. As soon as the worn leather has clasped into place, all of the tension leaks out of John’s body and with a small cry he collapses sideways into Sherlock, his face pressed against Sherlock’s shoulder. His body is shuddering and Sherlock winds an arm around him, subtly adjusting the two of them into a more comfortable position; he senses they will be here for a while.

“Sherlock,” John whimpers, his hands curled into the fabric of Sherlock’s shirt. “You came back.”

Right there is everything he needs to know about what happened while he was gone and something cold tightens below Sherlock’s chest. His hand returns to the back of John’s neck. “The case is over,” he says, which is technically true.

“Did you catch them?”

“Yes.” Also true. He’ll text Mycroft the names of the men as soon as John falls asleep.

John is silent for a moment and then he takes a shaky breath. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For this. For... for being unable to... God. You were only gone for a little while and I totally fell apart. It’s not even... We don’t, outside of the bedroom... and I couldn’t...”

“John.”

Silence.

“We were both at fault to some degree. You should have told me that you didn’t want me to go. I have told you before that I am not a mind reader.” He pauses, realizing that sounds a bit harsher than he wants, and adds, “I can only work with the material that you provide to me.”

“I know.” John’s voice has lightened a little. “I’m sorry.”

Sherlock nods. “I’m sorry, too.”

“What?” John looks up. He’s shocked. “You? Why?”

“I’m your dom, John,” he says. “It’s my responsibility to take care of you. There was evidence that you were not handling this well and I chose to ignore it in favour of working on the case.” It frustrates him, sometimes, to remember that there is now something more important than The Work. Most of the time John is a part of the work and so it’s not a big deal. But then there are times like this, when the two are at odds, and he has to make a choice. This time he was wrong but he won’t make that mistake again. Next time he’ll find a way to bring the two together, Mycroft be damned.

“I guess we were both wrong,” John mutters, curling closer. He sighs lazily. “I’m glad you’re home, Sherlock.” His breath is evening out, becoming shallower, and it’ll be a span of seconds before he’s dropped off into a full sleep.

“I know,” Sherlock says. And then, because John probably wants to hear it and, alright maybe it’s a little bit true, he says quietly, “I am too.”