“Where the devil have you been?” Lestrade said when he opened the door to Sherlock’s bedraggled form. He sounded hoarse and querulous, even to his own ears, but it wasn’t to be helped.
In truth, Sherlock’s haggard face, his wrinkled clothes, and visible tremor already told Lestrade far more than he wanted to know about where he’d been. And, as if sensing this, Sherlock ignored his words and answered the question Lestrade had really been asking. “I’m fine,” he said, though his voice was almost as wrecked as Lestrade’s. “Better than you, by the look of it.”
“Really? What tipped you off?” Illness and worry had made Lestrade ratty. “The three sweaters in July? The nose like a circus clown? Hard to get anything past your powers of deduction these days.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose with what he hoped was a belligerent honk.
But Sherlock, who never did anything on cue, didn’t rise to the bait. Instead, he stepped through the door and moved close enough to press his cheek to Lestrade’s temple. Lestrade’s face was as hot as the rest of him was chilled, and Sherlock’s skin, though unwashed and clammy, was blessedly cool.
Also blessedly intact. It had been a long night, fever and exhaustion conjuring endless versions of Sherlock’s fate. Several times in the wee hours of the morning, Lestrade had resolved to get up and search for him—once, he’d even found himself fully dressed at the front door—only to convince himself that Sherlock had disappeared for far longer in the past, that it had never been part of their relationship to check in every day, and that he was merely allowing his imagination to get the better of him. Then he would tumble back into a restless sleep, only to half-wake and begin the same argument with himself again.
And now it was the morning of another oppressively hot day, he’d just called the Yard to say he wouldn’t be in, and here was Sherlock more or less unharmed.
Lestrade leaned into the not-quite-embrace. “Just a bloody summer cold,” he murmured into Sherlock’s neck.
“Hmm. I’d best let you get some rest then.” But Sherlock didn’t move away.
“No. Stay. Since you’re here already. Stay. Might as well, yeah?”
It really had been a bad night.
He woke with a start to find Sherlock perched near his feet, legs folded under him in some complicated tangle. He looked better; the shower had put a hint of color in his cheeks and he’d exchanged the reek of drugs and sweat for the citrus scent of Lestrade’s shampoo. His damp hair was beginning to curl at the ends. But his eyes still seemed to regard Lestrade from another world.
“What?” Lestrade asked. “What is it?”
Sherlock shook his head slightly, but didn’t smile. “Nothing. Just trying to convince myself I’d made it back. Last night it seemed…unlikely.”
Letrade swallowed around the sudden tightness in his throat. He blamed his cold.
“I think we could both do with some sustenance,” he said, pushing up onto his elbows. “Surely between the two of us we can find the strength to fry an egg.”
Lestrade watched him now. His pale limbs contrasted so sharply with the dark sheets that he seemed almost to float above them. He was thin—thinner than when Lestrade had seen him last, and he had been thin then. There were fresh needle tracks on his arm.
How long could they go on like this? Awake, Sherlock powered through on nervous energy, but asleep one could see he was reaching the end of his strength. His hipbones stood out sharp as axes, and the skin around his eyes was dark and fragile. And how long could Lestrade go on taking him in, cleaning him up and feeding him, no questions asked? The educational materials on addiction handed out by NSY had some sharp words for such behavior.
Lestrade turned his face towards the window. The bedside clock told him tea time had come and gone, but the July sun still blazed away in the cloudless sky. The walls of the flat seemed to have absorbed its heat and to be pouring it back into the room in waves. Suddenly stifling under the duvet, Lestrade shoved it off, almost panting.
The movement woke Sherlock, who rolled onto his side and put an inquiring hand on Lestrade’s forehead. “Thirty-eight degrees,” he said, voice gravely with sleep. “Probably higher.”
“Hot,” Lestrade agreed, too woozy to question Sherlock’s freakish precision.
Sherlock frowned and clambered out of bed, not bothering either to dress, or to explain where he was going. His pallid body blurred in the room’s bright light as he moved away. Lestrade wondered, with a familiar pang of sadness, if he was leaving for good. But he didn’t hear the front door bang, just various rustlings and thumpings from the kitchen.
Reassured, Lestrade roused himself enough to gulp some water from the glass on the bedside table, and fumble for the tissues and the packet of paracetamol. He’d just finished blowing his nose when Sherlock reappeared, carrying Lestrade’s salad bowl filled with water and a flannel.
It was such a surprising sight that Lestrade snorted with laughter and had to blow his nose again. “Am I hallucinating, or are you about to give me a sponge bath?” he croaked.
“Don't be stupid," said Sherlock, setting the bowl down on the table. "You're not nearly feverish enough to hallucinate." He wrung out the flannel and lay down again next to Lestrade.
As soon as the cloth touched his bare skin, Lestrade gave up all thought of derision and sighed with pleasure. Sherlock, being Sherlock, had got the water to the exact temperature at which its coolness would soothe rather than shock. He drew the flannel across Lestrade’s chest, along his sides, and up under his arms. Lestrade closed his eyes, embarrassed by how good it felt. Then he opened them again and watched, mesmerized, as Sherlock’s long-fingered hand moved the cloth methodically across his body. What an odd thing, Sherlock looking after him. It felt as unreal as a dream.
When the flannel grew too warm to be useful, Sherlock balled it up and tossed it on the floor. Then he blew out a long breath over Lestrade’s damp skin. Lestrade shivered in a way that had nothing to do with fever.
“Wha--?” he murmured, logy with sensation.
“Evaporation,” said Sherlock. “It has a known cooling effect.” He blew again.
“I think you’re just trying to take advantage of my weakened condition.”
“Never.” But Sherlock’s eyes took on a devilish glint that made Lestrade feel better than all the cold compresses and paracetamol tablets in the world. When Sherlock pressed his lips into the hollow of Lestrade’s throat, that, too, felt so good that Lestrade couldn’t suppress a moan.
But when Sherlock tried for his lips, Lestrade turned his face away. “Uh-uh. The shape you’re in, this thing would knock you flat. No kissing.”
It turned into something like a headbutt instead, clumsy but comforting, an animal affection. But Lestrade was still too hot for closer contact to be appealing, and Sherlock, seeming to sense that, merely slid his toes between Lestrade’s feet, intertwining their ankles.
They lay there, naked and very still, touching only at their heads and feet, watching the dust motes dance in the golden afternoon light. An unexpected surge of gratitude went through Lestrade, or perhaps just simple happiness. There’d be no need to wonder where Sherlock was tonight. He curled his fingers around the nape of Sherlock’s neck; the knobs of his spine were delicate, but solid, under his hand.
After a while, Sherlock fell asleep again, one arm flung across Lestrade’s waist, and his face mashed into Lestrade’s shoulder. The weight of him was pleasant now. Lestrade ran his palm down the long curve of Sherlock’s back, looking out the window again. The baked blue of the sky was finally softening into grey, promising the mercy of evening. Lestrade realized with surprise that he was hungry. Soon, he’d have to disentangle himself from Sherlock and go find something to eat. Not now, though. Not yet.