Sherlock pauses on his bedroom threshold, caught between two worlds, unable to go forward or back. The cries of a man locked in nightmare echo down the stairs.
What to do. What would a normal person do?
Avoid choosing a flat-mate suffering psychological scars from service in a war-zone in the first place, probably.
John calls out in his sleep, shouting orders. Orders to Murray, to Forster, to Selby, to Gray, to Dunn.
Gasped, screamed words; choked, bitten-off instructions. More authentic history in ten seconds of eavesdropping than in a thousand pages of Gibbon.
The base is being evacuated, under fire. Patients will die as a result. Patients John has fought for, stolen supplies for, battled twenty-four hours on his feet for, told decorated NATO generals to fuck off for.
People will die who should have lived.
John will never forgive himself for having betrayed them to their deaths.
Should have been better. Cleverer. More alert to what the situation demanded. Wasn't. Not enough, never enough, never possibly enough -
Upstairs, silence falls. The dream must have run its course; John will be sitting awake in the dark of his room. Sherlock's dilemma is not ended, just changed. Each time the same. In theory, repetition should make it easier. Instead it merely reinforces the insoluble nature of the problem.
Going up – attempting to extend comfort, sympathy; those alien, complex things – will betray his knowledge of John's continuing nightmares, give the lie to John's repeated assertions of being past that kind of thing. Remaining here, quivering in cowardice on the threshold of his own bedroom, when someone he – cares for – is so audibly in pain, presents its own impossibilities.
The violin. He can start playing now, loudly and discordantly, presenting John with a cast-iron excuse to descend from his bedroom to bawl him out for lack of consideration. At which point he can quite plausibly tell John to make them tea, since they will both be awake and in close proximity to the kitchen.
And then John will have a change of scene, companionship and a hot drink, which is what anyone observing his symptoms might have prescribed in the first place. Without either of them having to admit to anything at all.
The quality of light on the stairwell changes; John has switched his bedside light on. A break in the pattern. Hitherto, John has sat out the aftermath of his nightmares in the dark. In Sherlock's world, breaks in patterns spell danger.
He is out of his room, poised at the foot of the second flight of stairs, before he knows it.
Five halting steps cross the floor above. Five steps represents the distance between John's bed and the dressing table. Sherlock's taking the stairs two, three at a time before he even hears the familiar creak of swollen wood as the dressing-table's top drawer is pulled open.
The drawer where John keeps his gun.
A bullet at point-blank range to the head – blood fountaining, brains spattering, eyeballs burst, hair burned off, cranium torn jaggedly away -
No time, now. Seconds, less than seconds. Not enough, never enough, never possibly enough -
John spins, the dressing-table drawer open behind him. In his hand – in his hand is a white, oblong, cardboard box, perhaps ten centimeters long. A pharmacy packet.
Tablets. Painkillers – no, sleeping pills. In the dressing-table drawer. Obvious, with hindsight. Always something. But obvious. Should have been. And now – explanations. Always – explanations.
His gut clenches.
John's voice sounds eerily calm. "Is it a fire? Is there a leopard in the kitchen?"
Despite everything, his curiosity is piqued. "Why would there be a leopard in the kitchen?"
John shrugs. "I've abandoned 'why' as a concept having any relevance to the kitchen. My bedroom, on the other hand – I still consider that to be a why-applicable zone. And you're in it."
He does not sound particularly resentful of the fact, just curious. And, as his eyes widen to take in Sherlock's state, concerned.
Explanations. Impossible explanations.
Sherlock adjusts the tone of his voice, uses the one he usually saves for Anderson and similar lowlife. He can see John flinch under its bite.
"I misinterpreted some data. I apologise."
John's voice is level but there is steel in it.
"No. You aren't bloody well getting away with that. You are in my room and I have just woken up from a combat nightmare and you look, I suspect, about ten times as bad as I do. 'Misinterpreted some data' doesn't cut it. What the fuck's going on?"
He feels his lip curl. "Aren't you missing a bit? 'And what are you on?' is the usual way to end that particular question."
For years Mycroft never forgot to ask, whether it happened to be true on any particular occasion or not. In the end, it became easier to live down to his expectations. At least that meant not having to face him without a comforting, chemical haze between them.
John exhales, his fingers balling into fists, the pill packet crushed in his hand.
"In case you've forgotten, Sherlock, I am a doctor. I've also been living with you some time. As a result, I'd classify that question as unnecessary, unhelpful and unkind. You aren't on anything, but it wouldn't make my own question one whit less relevant if you were. So. To rephrase. What data, how did you misinterpret it and why are you looking so sodding upset?"
Unkind. What have I ever done, what have I ever been, to deserve kindness? He can barely speak for the pressure in his chest. "You. Dreams. Yelling."
John looks first shocked, then contrite. "I hadn't realised my nightmares were that vocal. Christ alone knows what the neighbours think."
The pressure eases. Words rise automatically to his lips. "219 isn't usually here - off-shore oil-rig maintenance engineer, girlfriend in Stavanger. 223A think we're running a very private sex club for sadomasochistic Goths. Though that isn't just the screaming. They found a severed thumb during one of their periodic trawls through our wheelie bin this morning."
Oh, God, what have I said now?
John has that expression on his face, the one that makes him feel as if a swarm of bees have invaded his brain.
Through their buzzing Sherlock says, as distinctly as he can manage, "Anonymous letter. From her, not him. She couldn't have found the thumb before ten-thirty at the earliest and he'd been out two hours by then. Probably with his boyfriend in Bayswater; she thinks he's spending all day at his office but actually orders have dried up and the business is going down the pan. Maximum of three weeks before the receivers come in."
A crash of crockery and the sound of raised, angry voices from the adjoining flat. John limps stiffly across the room and hammers on the wall.
"Oy!" he yells. "Some of us are trying to have some PTSD round here."
That tricks an unexpected smile to Sherlock's lips. "Will that help our relations with the neighbours?"
"Probably won't add much either way to your text disabusing Mrs Greenhalgh of her mistaken impressions regarding our business activities, her husband's fidelity and the family's solvency."
Despite everything, an electric jolt of excitement runs all the way down to his finger-ends. "John. You deduced –"
"Sherlock." The weary, resigned tone in John's voice leaches all the excitement away. Oh. God. Another one.
Another bit of wreckage added to the pile of past attempts at human connection. Not enough, never enough, never possibly enough -
John's exhausted, grey face, the slumped line of his shoulders – real and phantom injuries both reporting for duty tonight – threaten to tear him apart. Sherlock backs towards the door; awkward, too much, in the wrong place and did I mention too much, yet nevertheless not enough, never enough, never enough –
"Sherlock!" John moves fast, despite his leg. Strong, blunt-fingered hands grasp his wrists, twisting him round, pushing him away from the door. The back of the bed hits his calves. He sits, abruptly.
"Now." John sits beside him on the bed, hands still clamped round his wrists. "Pay attention, you melodramatic, stupid bugger. I don't give a flying fuck about the Greenhalghs, their matrimonial difficulties, their opinions about what we're running here or their letter-writing habits. Also, anyone snooping in our wheelie-bin deserves everything they will probably get, up to and including anthrax. Though, on that subject, human body parts, when finished with, belong in the mortuary furnace, not in any form of general waste disposal whatsoever. Christ, I'm glad we don't live in Germany."
Sherlock exhales. What a strange place the inside of John's head must be, full of hypothetical leopards and illogical, sideways, geographical leaps. But kind. Unbelievably kind.
Abruptly, he starts to shiver.
"Good grief, you silly sod, you're frozen. That won't do. Jumper, or duvet?"
"Jumper." He isn't quite sure if he may still need to bolt. Bed-clothes would slow him down. The navy-blue jumper smells of John - soap and integrity - and is curiously comforting. John slides back into bed, curls up on his side, propping his head on his elbow. Looks at him, still waiting for answers.
Sherlock draws his legs up onto the bed, sitting cross-legged, curling his feet under him.
"Go on. Sherlock, tell me. This isn't the first time I've had bad dreams since moving in."
His tongue flickers out, moistening dry lips. "Sixteen – no, seventeen times. Counting this one. A group when you first moved in, then tailing away almost to nothing. A cluster recently."
"Yes, well, having a jacket full of explosives strapped to you will do that. So. The previous sixteen times you did nothing –"
"From the fact you never mentioned them in the morning, I inferred it might be considered intrusive of me to do so."
Something changes in John's face. He can't fully decode the expression; acceptance, acknowledgement, understanding? Gratitude? Without logical reason, his tense limbs begin to relax.
"Presented with the same information, my therapist inferred 'trust issues'. Honestly, I prefer your approach. Though you're about the one person I could bear –" John changes tack. "So. Sixteen times you left me to cope. Tonight you spectacularly didn't. What changed?"
"This time, you switched the light on."
John nods, slowly. He looks down at the cardboard packet, still clenched in his hand. "Sarah suggested sleeping pills. I'd held out before – they always make me feel like I'm moving through treacle the morning after. But, this time, I thought –" He stops speaking, looks down at the packet again, across to the dressing table. Its drawer is still half-open.
All these months he's goaded John, taunted him, downright insulted him, all to convince him that deductive reasoning is not some arcane talent only the God-touched possess, but a simple observational skill which can be honed in anyone of adequate intelligence by practice. Now John's putting that statement to the test. It terrifies him.
John's voice is suddenly very quiet. "You burst in here because you were afraid I was about to top myself, didn't you? You said, 'John, stop -' before you saw what I was holding. And then shut up."
"Your therapist's notes said –"
"Christ, Sherlock, what do you think I am, that I'd do something like that to you?"
For a second he literally cannot comprehend what John means. It's as if John's talking Sanskrit (Sherlock once thought he'd have to learn Sanskrit, but the case turned out, disappointingly, to revolve around an extremely boring matter of driver schedules at a Neasden mini-cab firm instead, so the moment passed).
Then realisation dawns and he gulps air, huge lungfuls of it, because what John has said, what John has just said –
"You're claiming I provide a reason for you to carry on living?"
For a moment, John's honest face looks almost shifty.
"Given the things you keep dragging me into, at the very least you provide a reason why committing suicide would seem like missing the point." He pauses, his voice changes, softens. "And I'd not dump a mess like that on you. But it's good to know you're looking out for me. Truly."
John sits up, just long enough to toss the crumpled pill packet accurately into the half-open drawer, then flops back down and pulls the duvet up around his shoulders.
"You're not going to take them after all?"
John shrugs. "Odds are, next thing will be a leopard in the kitchen. And I'd hate to be wading through treacle for that." He reaches out, clasps Sherlock's shoulder. "Bed, you. Or batcave, or whatever. Everything's good here, now. Stand down and get some rest."
"Is that medical advice?"
John pauses, considering. "It's friendly advice. As is; if you start playing that sodding violin, I'll wrap it round your neck. Understood?"
A wholly inappropriate urge to giggle wells up within him. He suppresses it with an effort. "Understood."
Sherlock considers, briefly, going into the living room and checking progress on one of his experiments – a quiet one, needing no more than a microscope and a note-book – but the door to his bedroom is still open as he passes and, for once, his bed looks unutterably tempting. Perhaps a cat-nap will, after all, aid his powers of observation.
He's still wearing the jumper when he awakes. It's broad daylight and John's hovering on the threshold.
"There's tea," he says without preamble. "I've got to get off to the clinic, but I wanted to let you know – I – um – really appreciated what you did last night."
Sherlock raises his head. "The bit where I burst into your bedroom under the erroneous impression you were in a suicidal state, the subsequent insults or the abduction of your jumper?"
"Your need of the jumper was undoubtedly greater than mine," John says solemnly, but his forehead crinkles. "Hang onto it, if you want. For – um – late night in-flat crises. Consider it your official leopard-wrangling uniform."
His lips twitch. "You can't have shared this phantom leopard obsession with your therapist, or her notes would have been much more interesting."
"If she'd realised she was writing for publication, they might have been more interesting then, too." John hovers. "Whatever she said – at the start – I'd not say she was wrong. It was something I – considered. More than once. Just after I got back."
Persistently. John's therapist may be an idiot, but her observational skills are passable. He sees no reason to doubt her on the point.
"But not now?"
"Not now. Thanks to you." John's voice is firm, intended to reassure. Doctors are probably given tutorials on how to do it. John, obviously, must have earned an alpha on that module. Or perhaps he means it. Which implies he must have meant last night, too.
"And what am I supposed to have done?"
John's smile is fleeting, but almost unbearably warming. "Enough."