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Semi-Charmed Life

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For the first year, John just tried to keep up, nothing more than that. There weren't enough hours in the day even to think of more than that.

It was wearing, John could admit to himself. He loved the thrill of hanging onto Sherlock's life by his fingernails, but he was older than Sherlock – only by five years, but by five years that really counted for something – and sometimes he regretted all of it. The chaos and the insults, the fridge that never had any food in it and the gunshots that would go off when he was bored, John, BORED, the bad hours and bad pay and nothing but more of Sherlock's abuse on the horizon. Sometimes he did think to himself that if his head weren't as empty as that of Sherlock's previous helpful skull, he'd leave. He didn't owe Sherlock anything, after all, not even an explanation. It could be over at any time that John wanted it to be, for any reason or all of them.

If the Moriarty cock-up had taught John anything, it was that dying for Sherlock wasn't half so hard as living with him, and what was that? Friendship? Love? Self-destructive tendencies? John thought about calling his therapist to ask, but he never went through with it.

Things were better sometimes, worse others. They had some very good months, after the beginning of Adler and before the end of her. She had some sort of positive effect on Sherlock, which made no sense at all, since John wasn't willing to credit her with a single positive personal quality of her own. How the woman could be so viciously, ruthlessly selfish and yet turn Sherlock soft-spoken and sentimental, John would never understand. What was that? Love?

It got a lot worse after. By the time the case in Yorkshire came along, John thought that maybe he almost couldn't stand Sherlock Holmes. He thought that maybe it really was time to be done with all of this, if this is how it was going to be: the manic ranting, the manipulation, the bloody experimentation -- the refusal to admit that John was his friend, which was a backslide and therefore the most demoralizing part of all. John wasn't helping Sherlock at all, it seemed, and he certainly wasn't helping himself like this.

They rode the train back to London in brittle, polite silence. John tried a dozen different ways to parse it all out, to move the facts from column to column, to put a frame around his life that made everything worth it in the end. Sherlock tried to observe him at a slant, without getting caught at it, and the way he got increasingly sober and weary-looking made John suspect that he was having excellent success at deducing John's thoughts.

It was almost over. They both knew it. One of them would just have to be the bigger man and say it right out.

They didn't speak on the walk home from the station. They didn't speak on the stairs. Would they ever speak at all, John wondered, once he'd moved out? E-mail each other at Christmas? It hurt to think about. Of course it did. He still did care for Sherlock, in spite of it all.

John headed to the second flight of stairs straight away, toward his room. Sherlock sat on the couch – not flinging himself down as he did in a fit of emotionalism, but perched stiffly on the edge.

"Not my best work," he said. John had to stop on the third step and walk back down. He had to look at Sherlock before he could be sure that Sherlock was...doing what it sounded like he was doing.

"Saved that boy's life, didn't you?" John said.

Sherlock looked from the carpet toward John – not at his face but just over his shoulder, to an empty place on the wall. "Next time," he said carefully – so carefully, his voice pulled into a tight wire, a violin string ready to snap. "It won't.... I can do better."

"I know you can," John said.

That was the last time John thought about leaving for a good long while.

*

Sherlock was as good as his word. He was better after Baskerville -- markedly better, better in almost every way. He smiled more. He didn't do the washing up, but at least he returned his dishes to the sink instead of abandoning them wherever he pleased. He handed John the remote control whenever John asked for it and didn't complain. He adjusted his body language at crime scenes, turning toward John when he spoke, nodding at him, explicit confirmations that he was listening. Sherlock was always listening, of course. John knew that, but not everyone did, and John could feel the shift, the barriers falling, the others all listening to him because now they understood that Sherlock did. Once he even asked if he could borrow John's laptop.

Sometimes he still needed reminding, of course. But that was easier to do now; if John had to say Sherlock and shake his head firmly, it wasn't a power struggle anymore, but a check and balance. Now that he knew Sherlock wanted to repair what his temper and his intensity tended to batter away at, John didn't mind being his early-warning system. What was he here for, after all, except to help keep Sherlock honed and focused on his goals?

There was a bit of a spike in Sherlock's use of nicotine patches, but all in all, it seemed a very small price to pay for domestic and professional harmony.

*

Things went on like that for weeks, a veritable Golden Age, and then abruptly the cases dried up. Not in absolute terms, of course, but Sherlock was unable to find one that he'd condescend to take. He was engrossed in some online research at first. Then he was sluggish and spent the better part of two days asleep. Then he was twitchy, and then it all went wrong.

Sherlock paced. He came in and out of his room like a cuckoo clock, slamming his door each time. He walked over the furniture. He kicked a lamp over, then cut his eyes at it as if it had offended him by existing, and then he chucked it down the stairs where it obstructed the landing. He snarled when John tried to read him a comment off the website. He turned his back on John when John tried to bring him tea.

"You can't possibly think this is appropriate behavior," John said.

"Oh, god," Sherlock groaned, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes. "I want to shoot something and I'm not, isn't that enough for you? Is anything ever enough for you?"

"I don't understand why you won't take a case. Even if it's a bit dull, it has to make you happier than you are now, doesn't it?"

"Nothing makes me happy," Sherlock said. "I want a cigarette. I want a pack of cigarettes, I hate you for making me quit."

"You came to me," John reminded him, not for the first time. "You said you were getting winded when you ran and you wanted me to help you quit."

"You're relentless!" Sherlock yelled. "You hold me to things, I can't say anything around you!"

"Consistency is good for you," John said.

"If you condescend to me right now, I will shoot you."

John snapped the paper open and said, "Yes, you're terrifying."

In the midst of his pacing, Sherlock dropped to the floor, sitting with his knees up and his arms around them. John lowered his paper, faintly concerned for the first time, but not yet willing to let Sherlock see it. "I need something," Sherlock said, his voice small and uneven. "Please, if you can't help me, then at least stop training me, just for the day."

"Training you?"

Sherlock looked up reproachfully, and John swallowed his denial. "You like it when I'm miserable," Sherlock said. "It makes me cooperative."

"This is you cooperative?" John said, but he regretted it even as it came out. He sighed and tried again. "I don't understand why you refuse to have any hobbies that won't slowly kill you. Ordinary people get bored, too, you know. They play a round of golf or make pasta from scratch or have a wank and wait for it to pass."

"Inadequate," Sherlock said. "Next you'll be advising me to meditate."

"I don't for a moment believe you've given all those things an honest try. You've never made pasta in your life."

"Stop it," Sherlock said. The part of his face that John could see above his knees looked flushed. "You make enough pasta for the both of us, don't you think?"

John laughed, relieved and honest. That sounded more like Sherlock. Whatever chemical shift in his brain was cranking him up into this state, he was still Sherlock. "You know, you might find that you like endorphins. It doesn't mean that you're suddenly interested in a relationship, or even in sex, or anyway it needn't. It could just be...something you do as a bit of a reward for yourself."

"Well, you're wrong, I have given it an honest try, and it's boring. It's mindless and repetitive and boring." Sherlock paused briefly and then said as if he felt compelled, "The bit at the end's all right, but not enough to offset the half-hour of tedium."

"If it takes you half an hour, you're using the wrong fantasies," John said. He glanced over his paper. At some point Sherlock had unfolded himself; he was still sitting on the floor, but cross-legged, his head cocked curiously to the side with that look he got when he was searching his hard drive for some way to contextualize something that John never suspected would be obscure. "Fantasies?" John hazarded. "Mental stimulation, you of all people understand that."

"I didn't think you were allowed to think during," Sherlock said. He sounded so oddly earnest and a bit aggrieved at discovering he'd been misled, and John had to bite his tongue hard to keep from laughing outright.

"Ninety percent mental, Sherlock," he said. "Take your fan mail with you, it'll be easy."

"You really do think I'm a narcissist, don't you?" John raised his eyebrows slightly. "People tell me I'm brilliant sometimes!" Sherlock huffed. "It's pleasant, not sexual."

"Needn't be sexual, though," John said. "I had a girlfriend once who liked sex well enough, but it only really worked for her when we pretended it was a medical exam. The more we made it seem like it wasn't meant to be about sex, the more turned on she got. Fantasies are funny things, and they twist up with ordinary life in all sorts of odd ways."

"Did you ever think perhaps I'm not as twisted as your girlfriends?" Sherlock said, but without any real bite to it.

"Haven't given it much thought, to be honest," John said.

After that, Sherlock took a nap on the couch, and when he woke he was ready for dinner and the worst had passed.

*

It was several days later that John heard a noise from Sherlock's bedroom. He paused at the computer and listened. When he thought he heard Sherlock gasp, he was halfway off the couch in sudden panic.

Then there was another noise, and John sat back down.

Not awkward, he told himself firmly. Probably a very good thing, actually. He plugged in headphones and got right back to work.

*

Sherlock shuffled out of his room around midnight, rubbing sleep from his eyes on the sleeve of his dressing gown, and John knew it was bad manners to smirk at him, but god it was irresistible. "Stop it," Sherlock grumbled as he passed by John en route to the kitchen.

"Can't help it," John said honestly. "It is good fun to be right about something, isn't it?"

"You can't have any tea," Sherlock said from the kitchen as he ran water for the kettle.

"Don't feel you have to thank me," John said.

"I assure you I don't," Sherlock said. "I know you only want to shut me up. You wouldn't be the tiniest bit concerned about my well-being if it didn't have to do with peace and quiet."

He knew he should really leave it alone – he knew that Sherlock had to be feeling a bit embarrassed and that really anyone might lash out. But that was a bit much. John wasn't concerned about him? John took a careful, steadying breath and promised himself he wouldn't descend to Sherlock's level, then shut the laptop and walked into the kitchen.

Sherlock was literally watching the kettle boil. "I don't think that's quite fair, do you?" John said, putting a hand on the doorframe. "Because I don't want you destroying the flat over cigarettes, I don't care?"

"No, because when I'm destroying the flat, you leap straight to pacifying me and don't even bother with finding out what might be amiss. Was it the cigarettes, John? What's your evidence? How do you know you're right?"

Well, because.... "How are you any better?" John said. "When was the last time you saw that I'd had a bad day and asked about it? When was the first time? You can't play stupid, of course you know. You just don't trouble yourself about it. It's only my problems, after all."

"Oh, what problems?" Sherlock scoffed. "You only ever whinge about your girlfriends, and I give you loads of advice about them. Advice you never take."

"I do have a trauma disorder, you realize."

"What, the limp? I cured that in one day!"

"Getting rid of the cane doesn't mean I don't have a trauma disorder anymore. I also have a sister who's killing herself with drink-- "

"I can't do anything about your sister. I don't even know the woman."

"I'm not asking you to do anything about it!"

"Yes, you are!" Sherlock turned to look at him at last, and his expression wasn't angry the way that John expected. He looked almost confused. "You think I don't trouble myself for you, and it's the opposite, John. I'm troubled constantly. I can't stop thinking about what to do for you next, because if I stop thinking about it for one moment I'll say something wrong, I'll make you angry, I'll drive you off. Friendship doesn't come naturally to me, you may have noticed. I work at you constantly, and you didn't have to ask me to in so many words. It's very clearly a part of our contract."

John was still working that through when the kettle whistled. Sherlock removed it from the stove and put his hand up on the cabinet door, still looking at John. John cleared his throat and said, "I'll have a cup. If you've made enough."

"It wasn't about cigarettes," Sherlock said.

"No," John said. "I guess that was stupid of me, wasn't it?"

Sherlock put the tea on the one clear corner of the kitchen table and they both drew chairs to it. "I have headaches," Sherlock said, watching his tea without touching it.

"Do you?" John said quietly. "I never knew that. Migraines?"

He shook his head. "Stress headaches. They respond to pressure points. I can take care of them myself, but it's appalling that I have to, isn't it? After everything I do for humanity."

John couldn't help smiling. "You're a humanitarian now, are you?"

Sherlock's frown smoothed out a little bit, next-best-thing to a smile, and he shrugged with one shoulder. "Well, I'm not a martyr. It's not a crime to love your work, is it?"

"No, I'm sure it isn't. Do you have a headache now?"

"There's one coming on. I can feel it."

John took a drink of his tea and evaluated the risk in his next move. "Where are these pressure points?" he said at last, because what was a little risk?

Sherlock's eyes flicked up to him for the first time since they'd sat. "Over my orbital ridge. And along the temporalis as well."

"Simple enough." John brushed his hands off on his trousers and leaned forward, putting his thumbs on Sherlock's cheekbones. Sherlock didn't startle or twitch. He didn't move at all. "Are you sure it isn't a sinus infection? You've sounded stuffy since the park this weekend."

"It's stress. I'm under extraordinary pressure, you know."

John nodded and moved his first and middle fingers to Sherlock's temples, feeling around carefully for these pressure points. "Any stress in particular?"

Sherlock's breath shifted slightly, a catch and a stutter. His gaze dropped lower still, on the floor now instead of anywhere in John's vicinity. "Moriarty," he said. He almost breathed it; John could barely see his lips move at all.

John moved his hands, cupping his fingers around Sherlock's skull and skimming up along his scalp so his thumbs could trace just under the arch of his brows. "Yeah," he said softly. "Reasonable, that."

"There's no one else who can help. Only me."

"Thought you thrilled to the game, though."

"Yes, it's – thrilling."

"But not always good thrilling?"

"If I win it's good. More than good. But winning is not – entirely – foreordained."

"Could be wise not to take unnecessary risks, I should think."

Sherlock shook his head slightly. "Moriarty's fearlessness is his chief advantage. If I surrender that field to him-- "

"No, not surrender," John assured him. "Not at all. Just maybe not invite him to empty sports complexes in the middle of the night, yeah? Or at least let me know next time. I flatter myself that there isn't no one who can be a little bit helpful to you."

"I didn't mean that," Sherlock said. "You're very-- Oh. That feels."

John waited for the rest of the sentence, but it wasn't forthcoming. "Good?"

"Yes," Sherlock murmurred. The just-woken roughness was still clinging to his voice, and when it dropped just one more note it hit a low burr that seemed to tingle along John's hands.

"Just keep breathing," John advised. "Deep breaths."

Sherlock fumbled for one of John's hands and pulled it back around to his face, to the place where John had begun, just above the zygomatic process. "Lightly," he said. "Just...barely."

John nodded and let his fingers skim the surface of Sherlock's skin. "Like this?

Instead of a reply, Sherlock sucked in a sudden, harsh breath, his whole body going rigid and rocking backwards. John used his other hand to wrap tightly around the back of Sherlock's neck, steadying him. "Sorry," Sherlock muttered. "Sorry."

"It's all right. You're all right, aren't you?"

"Yes," Sherlock said. "Fine."

"Good. That's good."

"Is this how you are with your patients? It's – soothing."

"I do try to have a good manner with patients, yes," John said. "They don't usually come to me for tension headaches, though."

He could feel Sherlock's smile through the tips of his fingers. "They probably sense that you wouldn't be forthcoming with any of the better drugs."

"They get what they need." Sherlock hummed a bit at that, but John couldn't tell if it was dubious or affirmative. "You shouldn't clench your jaw like this."

"I don't normally."

John leaned back a bit, loosening his grip on Sherlock's neck. "D'you want me to stop?"

"No. No, I didn't mean-- I'm just trying to keep myself from saying anything that might spoil your mood. Which often means...anything I say."

"Am I really such a nag, then?" Was he? He had been enjoying his new power over Sherlock, this ability to stop him and shift his course with a word and a glance. But that was – for everyone's sake, wasn't it?

Sherlock shrugged. "You're better with me than anyone else ever was. And I...am trying. With you. It must not always seem it. I'm not the soothing one, I realize."

"No," John said, "you seem it. I know you try."

Somehow or other, John's palm had fitted itself to the high curve of Sherlock's cheek, his fingers rubbing circles over Sherlock's temple. Sherlock's eyes fluttered open – when had he closed them? "Don't come after Moriarty," Sherlock said. "Don't try to help me. He'll target you first. That's what he meant when he said...."

"I know," John said. "I can't promise to leave it, though. I'm as set in my ways as you are, you know."

Sherlock smiled. "I know."

"How does your head feel now?"

"Better. Good." It felt strange to draw his hands away for some reason, maybe because it left them both sitting in partial darkness, nursing their lukewarm tea.

"What was it?" John asked. "Not the cigarettes. What, then? You said you needed something."

Sherlock drank the rest of his tea in a series of uninterrupted swallows. When he finally put the cup down he dragged his sleeve over his eyes again and said, "Will you always have the trauma disorder? Even if the limp never recurrs and your hands stay steady, even if you aren't actively symptomatic in any way?"

"Might do," John said. "Some people have it forever. Some don't."

"I'll always be an addict. I'm clean, the flat's clean," he said impatiently when John set the cup down with a bit of a bang. "It won't matter. I'll always...want things. Some days are worse than others."

"Is that when you get the headaches?" Sherlock looked at him without answering, and John thought perhaps he should be very specific. "Is that your extraordinary stress? It's not Moriarty at all, it happens when you're having cravings."

"Cravings," Sherlock said softly, as if he were testing out a new word. "Cravings. Yes. That is what they are, isn't it?"

When John got tired of waiting for him to answer the actual question, he said, "Let me help, then. Sherlock, you don't have to do it all yourself, I can help. I can help with the headaches, if nothing else."

"You would do this again?"

He sounded so genuinely surprised that for a moment John's throat felt too narrow to respond. "Of course I would," he said when he could manage it. "Sherlock. If it helps you, then of course I would."

"It helped tonight," he admitted, but added in a warning tone, "It might not always."

"When you think it might, all we can do is try," John said. "I'd like to try. I really think it's the least I can do, don't you?"

"We can try," Sherlock said, very softly.

*

It almost always helped.