Sherlock wakes up in the middle of a heart attack.
Or at least, that’s what it feels like, his chest constricted, his body uncomfortably warm.
It is not, as such, an unfamiliar feeling. During his years of indulgence in cocaine, he actually felt this way a handful of times. Twice, he ended up knocking on death’s door, though he didn’t actually pass the threshold. That was how Mycroft described it in a rare use of metaphors that has somehow resisted all attempts at deleting.
Sherlock’s memory is a strange thing. He can recall that metaphor, he can recall his previous overdoses, but he absolutely cannot recall the high that must have caused the overwhelming tightness in his chest.
As his grip on consciousness firms up, he opens his eyes to find himself in his bed – he doesn’t remember getting in it – and with a possessive arm thrown across his chest. The owner of that arm, rather unexpectedly, is John. When and why John climbed into Sherlock’s bed, Sherlock cannot fathom.
Why they both appear to be nude is just as much of a mystery.
Sherlock isn’t opposed to those developments per se, but they are rather startling when he has no recollection of what led to this. And that lack of data, as much as the tightness of John’s arm, quickly becomes too much to bear.
Pulling away, he sits on the edge of the bed, his feet firmly on the floor but his mind still unsteady. A quick look at the clock tells him it’s almost seven in the morning. His last memory is of lying on the sofa in the early afternoon with a headache severe enough that John was concerned. Clearly things have happened since then. One of those things was sexual in nature, judging from a trace of discomfort so minimal Sherlock wouldn’t have noticed it if he wasn’t taking stock of his body. It explains why he and John are naked in bed, but by god how did they get from friends to lovers in just a few hours?
“Bathroom,” John mumbles behind him, and the word feels like an electric shock. Sherlock nearly jumps to his feet.
“What?” he asks despite his suddenly dry throat
John’s eyes are still closed, but he responds readily after a wide yawn.
“Go into the bathroom. Look at your arm. Then at your chest in the mirror. Then come back to bed ‘cause it’s too bloody early to be up.”
He’s not making any sense, and Sherlock is about to say so when he sees something on the inside of his left arm. With only the glow of the alarm clock for light, he can’t make out more than a large stain, dark on his pale skin. Frowning, he stands and goes into the bathroom. He has to blink a few times against the suddenly bright lights, but soon he looks down at his arm and sees that the stain is a tattoo.
His first thought is that this is appalling. Of all the ridiculous things to do to his body…
His second thought is that the tattoo is healed. There’s no redness, no swelling. It’s been there for a while. But how can that be? He didn’t have a tattoo earlier today.
The next thing he notices is that this is his handwriting. He couldn’t not recognize it. It is as distinct to him as his own face. Which means he must have written the words and given them to a tattoo artist to ink exactly as they were.
The last thing he takes in is the words themselves. Or maybe he did read them first and shove their meaning back, too unsettled to consider them right away. But he can’t ignore them. Not when they are the beginning of an explanation as to what is going on.
The tattoo on his arm says: I was diagnosed with anterograde amnesia.
He runs a finger over the words at the same time as he accesses the medical library in his mind palace. The library is exactly where it should be, as is everything else he can see, but there’s something out of place, nothing he can quite identify and yet the feeling of wrongness is like a pinprick right at the base of his skull, where he feels much too vulnerable. He ignores the feeling the best he can and finds a definition for anterograde amnesia. He knows already what it is, but he needs the words, needs to contain this, to make it data rather than fear. He needs, also, to make sure it’s only anterograde amnesia, and not more than that.
Anterograde amnesia is a loss of the ability to create new memories after the event that caused the amnesia, leading to a partial or complete inability to recall the recent past, while long-term memories from before the event remain intact.
His recall of that medical text is perfect, he’s relieved to realize. Closing the door of the library, he transports himself to the veranda and picks a plant at random. Abrus precatorius. He lists for himself the symptoms of poisoning, already moving on to a different room while the information still filters through his conscious mind.
Five more rooms in his mind palace. Five more random pieces of data. It’s hardly proof of anything, but it does tend to indicate that his long term memory is intact. His breathing calms down a little.
I was diagnosed with anterograde amnesia.
His message to himself, since that’s clearly what it is, appears to be accurate.
Remembering what John said – how long ago was that? At least five minutes. Some people with anterograde amnesia forget events practically as soon as they happen, but Sherlock can remember waking up with John’s arm around him, can remember what he said. How long until he forgets? – Sherlock glances down at his chest. There’s another tattoo there, but the letters are reversed.
He steps in front of the mirror and peers in. It’s his handwriting again. Three lines of text. The last one appears to be newer than the other two, the edges still slightly raised and a little red. Without thinking, he touches John’s name. His breathing returns completely to normal.
He commits the words to memory, stashing them in the music room in his mind palace, each line of text represented by one page of sheet music on top of the grand piano; silly, really, if the diagnosis is correct, but that’s what he has done with important information for more than half his life and he can’t just stop now. Then he takes a good look at himself, seeking more tattoos, more messages. He finds nothing. Next, he touches his skull with his fingertips, examining every inch, seeking scars or depressions. Nothing either.
Feeling cold from standing naked in the bathroom for so long, he steps into the shower and shivers under the cold spray for a few seconds before the water warms up. He just stands there, head bowed, sifting through his memories again.
The first cause of amnesia is traumatic brain injury, but he hasn’t found any evidence that anything happened to him. Shock or a strong emotional disturbance can also be to blame, but Sherlock refuses to think he’d let emotions wreak havoc on his brain; not anymore. A far less common cause for anterograde amnesia, although not unheard of, is encephalitis.
And the last thing he remembers with some clarity is that headache. He had a fever, too, he thinks.
Getting out of the shower, he towels himself dry and pulls on the robe hanging behind the door. He strides back into the bedroom and turns on the lights before approaching the bed. John makes a noise of protest and draws a pillow over his head.
“John,” Sherlock says sharply. “Did I have encephalitis? Is that how it happened? When was it?”
But John doesn’t answer.
Sherlock tugs the pillow off his head and takes hold of his shoulder, barely noticing the scar under his fingers as he pulls and rolls John onto his back.
“John. Wake up. I need you to tell me…”
Sherlock forgets what he was about to ask when he sees the three lines of text on John’s chest, an answer to the ones on his own. They’re not inversed. Not meant to be read in a mirror. Meant for Sherlock.
The first two are tattooed in a typewriter-style font. The last one is slightly smudged. Permanent marker rather than tattoo. John’s hand. They say:
Sherlock’s hand falls away from John’s shoulder and he touches those simple declarations instead. One of John’s hands comes up and cover his, pressing it tight over his heart.
“You’ve got questions,” John says in a tired voice, his eyes narrowed against the light, “but we’ve had three hours of sleep and that’s not nearly enough for me to function. Your diary’s on the sofa. Let me have a couple more hours before we have that talk again, all right?”
Sherlock nods numbly. He tries to pull his hand back but John holds on to it and leads it to his mouth. He presses a kiss into the center of Sherlock’s palm before releasing him. The touch is both foreign and strangely familiar, and it makes Sherlock want to get back into bed, makes him want to ask questions that have little to do with amnesia. He doesn’t, and instead picks up the pajama pants on the floor and leaves the room, turning off the lights again and almost tripping over his own feet when John mumbles, “Ta, love.”
He can’t remember anyone calling him that with quite that meaning. He never imagined how nice it’d be.
The diary John mentioned is a blue notebook, unremarkable except for the words written in large letters on the cover. Sherlock’s hand, again. Read me.
Sherlock sits down and opens the notebook to the first page. The first sentence answers the very questions he asked John.
I was diagnosed with acute encephalitis on June 2nd.
He keeps reading about the hospital, the treatment, but gets distracted by a note in the margin. It’s still his handwriting, but the ink is blue rather than black.
DO NOT discuss illness with John. He experiences residual guilt for not identifying the illness sooner and blames himself for the outcome. 29/6
Another margin note a few lines lower says, Tried to point out it’s not his fault. Poorly received. 20/7
And lower still, Attempted again. John still unreasonable. 14/8
All in all, the notes in the margins tell Sherlock as much as the diary itself. His illness, treatment and recovery take two pages and seven notes. Then there’s a brief explanation of when he can expect to lose his short term memory.
The metaphor is imperfect but still workable. If my long term memory is a hard drive, then my short term memory is RAM. The hard drive became read-only following the illness. New data is stored in RAM and can be used while I remain awake. Going to sleep – ‘turning off’ – wipes the RAM, returning the system to what it was prior to the illness.
A margin note indicates that Sherlock has gone as long as nine days without sleep in August. Another note warns that John threatened to forcibly sedate him if he ever tries to stay awake longer than three days. The next note announces negotiations were made and when an important case is going on, John will allow up to five days provided that he is allowed to monitor Sherlock’s vitals and told of any hallucination or paranoia symptoms as soon as they occur.
Another page is about music, and how Sherlock has composed three pieces since the illness, one of which over a span of several weeks. That is a surprisingly soothing piece of information, even if Sherlock can’t remember any of these compositions.
The next few pages talk about how the people in Sherlock’s life are reacting to his condition and limitations, with advice as to what to say or not say in order to minimize tedious moments of sentimentality.
After that, the notebook is more like the diary John called it, describing cases and their resolutions, Sherlock skims through a few of them before flipping further back into the notebook. Many blank pages still wait to be filled, but there is one set of data glaringly missing. Other than margin notes, there isn’t anything in the notebook about John, and certainly nothing to explain his presence in Sherlock’s bed, the tattoos on Sherlock’s chest, or the ones on John’s. There must be a reason for that lack of information. A good one, since Sherlock has been continuously adding to the diary. The last case is dated November 14th. Spying his phone on the table, Sherlock goes to pick it up and checks the date.
He wrote that last entry mere hours ago, it seems. And yet, when he goes back to it, nothing whatsoever comes to mind as he reads intently his own descriptions of the crime scene or murder victims. It’s like he’s reading a novel – and, exactly as if he were reading a novel, he guesses the identity of the culprits long before the end. For a moment, he wonders if he remembered the solution – but no, he just deduced it. It was all that easier for the fact that he only recorded the pertinent clues, without the red herrings a novelist might have inserted as attempts to distract the readers.
Lying down on the sofa, he rests the notebook on his chest and takes a closer look at his phone. An icon on the main screen is labeled ‘VATICAN CAMEOS’. Opening it reveals a short message.
IMPORTANT. If you just woke up and John isn’t with you, call him immediately. If he doesn’t answer at once, call Mycroft. Don’t text. CALL.
Closing the file, Sherlock looks at his text messages. They look normal enough. His conversations with Lestrade are all about cases. The ones with Mycroft are as biting and childish as ever – thank god. His messages to John are infrequent, and Sherlock guesses that’s because, more often than not, John is with him. Scrolling back, he finds three instances in which he sent John a single word. Twice, it’s ‘Hallucinations’. Once, ‘Sleepy’. Every time, John’s answer is immediate. ‘On my way,’ or ‘Wait for me.’
Setting the phone and notebook aside, Sherlock steeples his fingers under his chin and tries to relax before accessing his mind palace. Earlier in the bathroom he did a quick check, taking shortcuts. Now, he approaches from the outside and mentally walks up to the front steps, checking that each and every mental cue is where it belongs.
The three pieces of paper he set on the piano earlier are still there, still easily legible. Reaching for his phone again, he creates a new note for himself.
15/11. Left three pieces of sheet music on the piano in MP. Are they still there?
Putting the phone away, he closes his eyes again and returns to the music room. One room after the other, he tours his palace, takes inventory, vaguely aware after some time has passed that there is noise in the flat.
Water running. Steps. Kettle. Porcelain on wood. All of it is so familiar, it doesn’t draw him out of his mind. John’s voice, on the other hand, does. Or maybe it’s not so much his voice as the fingers gently running through Sherlock’s hair.
“Tea or coffee?”
“Busy,” Sherlock replies, tilting his head out of John’s reach. “I’m—”
“Checking your mind palace, yes,” John says with a small sigh. “Would you believe me if I said you’re not going to find anything out of place?”
Unvoiced is the corollary. You never do.
Part of Sherlock wants to object that he won’t know for sure until he does it. But that’s the point John is making, isn’t it? Sherlock has done this before. Probably repeatedly, since it was his first instinct. The result is unlikely to be any different now than previously, and if he’d found something wrong then John would surely know.
“Coffee,” he says, opening his eyes to look at John.
He’s wrapped in his terrycloth robe, the front drawn tightly over his chest. Sherlock wishes he could see the words on his skin again.
With a small smile, John nods and returns to the kitchen. He comes back with two mugs. Sherlock sits up to take his, and watches, slightly bemused, as John sits at the other end of the sofa, briefly lifting Sherlock’s feet to reposition them on his lap. His fingers remain curled on Sherlock’s right ankle, as possessive as his arm when Sherlock woke up.
After taking a sip of coffee, John says, “Go ahead. I know you’ve got questions and it always annoys you when I answer before you ask.”
He’s looking straight ahead of him rather than at Sherlock. Why? Not something he’ll ask, but definitely to ponder.
“Why is there nothing about you in my diary?”
John nods as though he expected the question.
“My request. I don’t think you ought to learn about us from words on a page. I’d rather tell you myself.”
Us. The word rolls easily on John’s tongue. Why it makes Sherlock’s insides feel like they’re dancing a jig is another question that will remain unvoiced.
“How long have we been ‘us’?” he asks instead.
A small smile curls John’s mouth. He hides it in his mug before answering.
Thinking back of what he read in the notebook, Sherlock makes two connections. That was the day a murder case was solved. Also the day when he noted John would allow up to five days of wakefulness. How these things are all linked, however, he cannot guess.
“Is that when…” He doesn’t know how to voice it. He does not care much for grand declarations as a rule, but something within him aches at the thought that those words were said and he can’t recall the moment. Absently, he touches his chest and the words inked there. The movement draws John’s eyes to him.
“That’s when I said it, yes,” John says quietly, but not so quietly that Sherlock can’t hear the hitch in his voice.
Sherlock absolutely loathes that he needs to ask. “And what happened?”
John’s expression takes an amused turn. “What happened was that you ran out. You were gone for three hours. Scared the hell out of me. I had to call Mycroft to ask him to track you down. In the end you came back before he found you. And you had this—” Letting go of Sherlock’s ankle, he reaches out and traces two fingers along the first two lines on Sherlock’s skin. “—on your chest. You said you wanted it there because that was data as important as your diagnosis and something you should never question.”
Still shivering from John’s brief touch, Sherlock looks down at the words. The explanation sounds like something Sherlock would say; something he can easily believe.
“So… you said… you said this. And I ran out right away? So I didn’t actually say it back?”
John smiles a little more widely. “It didn’t occur to you at the time that I might actually want to hear it rather than watch you run away. You berk.”
How many times has John recalled this story? Does he always end it by calling Sherlock ‘berk’? It’s frustrating not to know. It’s also frustrating not to know what his voice sound like when he says it, or the way his lips curl around the words, or whether his eyes tighten a little at the corners, the way they always did when he talked about—
“What about Mary?”
He regrets the question as soon as it passes his lips – as soon as John’s smile fades into a pained expression. Waiting for John to answer, Sherlock makes a mental note. Before he goes to sleep, he needs to write in the diary.
Do not bring up Mary.
“We split up,” John says quietly, now staring into his coffee mug. “We were already shaky, and then…”
In his tense shrug, Sherlock reads a word. Illness. He’s the reason ‘shaky’ turned into ‘over’. He feels like maybe an apology would be warranted, but it’d also be disingenuous. He never liked Mary, never liked how little time her mere existence left for his friendship with John – and he’s fairly certain the dislike was mutual. John forgave him for faking his death – although it took time – but Mary always found a reason to bring it up again.
“I’d like to hear you say the words,” Sherlock says abruptly, sitting upright and folding his legs in front of him. “I can’t imagine what they sound like in your voice and it’s annoying.”
John’s smile returns, a little crooked, a little softer than before. He turns sideways on the sofa, one foot still on the floor, the other folded under him as he faces Sherlock fully.
“Nope. That’s not how it works. I learned my lesson. You only get to hear it if you say it first.”
Sherlock’s eyes widen in outrage. “Are you blackmailing me?”
John chuckles. “Is it blackmail when you have the truth tattooed across your chest?”
Glancing down at his chest again, Sherlock touches the second line, running his fingers along the words from left to right as he says them.
“I told John I love him.” His cheeks feel awfully warm when he looks up and meets John’s eyes. “I’ve never… never told anyone that.”
He never wanted to, not until John, but even then he missed his chance to say it – or at least, he thought he had.
John takes the mug from Sherlock’s hands, and sets it and his own on the floor. Then, he shifts a little closer, and slides a hand to the back of Sherlock’s neck. It feels oddly familiar. Comfortable.
“You’ve said it plenty of times,” John says. “Heard it just as often. But because you’re a lucky bastard, you get to hear it again like it’s brand new. Ready?”
Sherlock’s throat tightens and he nods. John leans a little closer still, until he can murmur right against Sherlock’s lips.
“I love you.”