There is a clock.
He knows there is a clock because he can feel it, heavier than a heartbeat. Loud. Slow. An eternity between—each—solemn—tick. Too slow. Very too slow. Wrong.
Clock ticks mean seconds. He thinks. One tick. One second. But there are too many seconds. The clock is wrong. No, he realizes. I am wrong. For someone who is right so often it is an unpleasant shock.
Sherlock opens his eyes—A hospital then—and resists the pedestrian, but oh so compelling impulse to groan.
Hospital. Again. The machine-hum noise blurs with red and green monitor letters. The colors make noise in his head. Like Christmas. He thinks. And then: No, not like Christmas. Stupid.
His heart rate is stable. Good. Oxygen but no ventilator. Good.
His attention moves in jagged leaps to the pale crook of his left elbow. He doesn’t dwell on the already existing needle tracks. Boring. But there are two IV lines instead of the usual one and his attention lurches up to the corresponding hanging bags.
Fluids and blood. Blood? Blood. Not good.
The familiar weight of Morphine is making it hard for him to think.
Everything is slow and loud and bright.
Sherlock closes his eyes again and takes a deep breath. It hurts. He pauses a moment to enjoy the brief clarity of thought that comes with the pain.
Broken rib. He thinks. No—Ribs? He breathes again. Ribs.
He tries to catalogue the rest of his body but can’t seem to find it. He tries to remember what happened but isn’t able to manage that either. Eventually he relents again to the siren draw of medicated sleep, thinking vaguely that perhaps the taste of blood in his mouth should not be so familiar.
It’s been five years since John Watson allowed himself to say the name out loud. He does now, trying to parse the garbled shorthand on the patient’s chart.
He hadn’t been the one to admit him.
He hadn’t been the one to panic as the mangled mess of a man was carried into the ER. He hadn’t been the one to order a blood transfusion or suture the laughing mouth of a knife wound that hugged the curve of his sixth right rib. He hadn’t been the one to shock Sherlock out of cardiac arrest when his heart had stuttered to a tired halt under the weight of drugs and blood loss and the endless struggle of keeping it’s very, very, stupid host alive. He hadn’t been the one to treat the subsequent paddle burns on his chest. Because he hadn’t known.
John can’t decide if it’s a good thing or not. That he hadn’t known Sherlock was here, trying to die, a few hours earlier. Probably good, he thinks; good for his sanity, good for his job. Probably. But that reality makes it no less infuriating.
Sherlock. He says again, just because he has an excuse now.
The name comes out sounding like a curse.
He knows he should probably call Dr. Allen, tell her he can’t be on service for this patient. Tell her they have history. But that would involve putting down Sherlock’s chart and leaving the room and not being able to watch his vitals and continue being certain that, yes, his heart is still beating and, yes, he is still alive. So John doesn’t. He’s already checked on his other patients. There’s four hold-overs from the previous week and one admitted the night before, same as Sherlock. He knows he has forty-five minutes before rounds and he knows that he should be getting his third cup of tea for the morning or catching up on paperwork or buying something that could pass as a meal from the cafeteria, but he also knows he will do none of those things.
Instead, he sits in the visitor’s chair in the corner and re-reads Sherlock’s chart for the fifth time and tries not to look at him too much or remember too much or worry about what will happen when he wakes up.
He isn’t very successful.
But it’s not the looking or the worrying that causes the problem. It’s the remembering. Because how can he not? It’s been five years, and yes, five years is a long damn time, but he’d be lying if he said that mattered. Not with Sherlock. The man is just as unforgettable as he is infuriating. John still has the same conflicting urges to hit him and hold him as the day John got on the plane in his fatigues half a decade ago thinking that he’d see Sherlock again in eleven months. Sherlock was still a child then. So was John, really.
He lets that train of thought run backwards, rewinding a riotous timeline that ends in safer recollections, less painful ones, like the day they met. Sherlock is so impossibly young in the running reel of footage in his head. It’s hard to reconcile twelve year old Sherlock with his haughty expressions and frightening eyes with the stark reality of eighteen year old Sherlock in the hospital bed in front of him. Eighteen? No. Eighteen was the estimate on his chart but that wasn’t right. He’s twenty now, nearly twenty-one. Five years since he’d last seen him. Eight since they met. More time as strangers than anything else.
John reaches out despite himself, his fingers finding a pulse in one pale wrist. He can see the numbers on the monitor, but the need to touch Sherlock overwhelms logic. He closes his eyes and counts heartbeats and loses himself to memories.
John met Sherlock for the first time at the shrink’s office; two weeks after his seventeenth birthday and three weeks after his father had killed himself. It was a Friday. Not the day he met Sherlock, the day his father died. It was a Friday and he used his 9 mm handgun. John had football practice after school and he’d forgotten his cleats and he knew coach would be pissed because it was the second time that month. So between fourth and fifth period he ran home to get them. That’s when he found his father. Friday. Handgun. Kitchen floor. John missed football practice that night.
He met Sherlock for the first time at the shrink’s office ten minutes before his first appointment. Sherlock looked about as thrilled to be there as John was. Which was not at all. John was there under duress. He thought it was pretty normal under the circumstances that his grades had dropped and his nightmares were of the screaming variety, but his mom seemed to think that he was broken and a few months of therapy would put him right again. He agreed so she’d stop crying.
The waiting room was small and white and every bit of what one would picture mentally when they hear the words “shrink’s office waiting room.” There was a bookcase and fish tank and four uncomfortable looking chairs against the far wall. And that is where he met Sherlock.
The boy was sitting in the farthest chair, one ankle hooked behind the other, arms crossed behind his head, eyes closed. If performed by anyone else John imagined the position would be called relaxed. Somehow he managed to look dangerous, which was absurd, considering that Sherlock probably weighed all of 60 pounds at that point. With his black curls and near-translucent skin he should have been a caricature of childish innocence, but there was something feral about him, something wrong. John remembered a class trip to the zoo, when he pressed sweaty palms to clouded glass and peered at jungle cats as they paced in their enclosures. He was like that, John decided. A look-but-don’t-touch sort of creature. The kind that might let you pet it one moment and then decide to eat you the next.
When John sat down, one chair separating them, Sherlock opened his eyes and for a moment everything went a bit sideways. The younger boy studied him with an expression that matched his appearance with equal savagery and, again, John’s mind was turned to sweaty palms and pacing predators.
“So what’s wrong with you then?” Sherlock's voice, when he spoke, was surprisingly soft.
“Nothing.” John answered instinctively.
“Dr. Sebring doesn’t take on trivial patients. If you’re here there’s something wrong with you.”
He spoke like an adult. He pronounced every syllable of his words with eerie precision. He watched John: unblinking, jungle-cat like, until John was unnerved enough to answer truthfully.
“My dad killed himself. I was the one that found him.”
In the past weeks John had found that most people, when confronted with this information, tended to apologize for no reason, give him what he’d come to know as the “pity look” and then usually initiate some sort of physical contact. Sherlock did none of these things. The only movement he made was to lean toward him slightly, palm resting on the chair that separated them. He had impossibly small hands, even for his size.
“How?” Sherlock said, pulling his attention back to his face.
“What?” John asked.
“How did he kill himself?” Sherlock looked annoyed, as if he wasn’t used to repeating himself.
It occurred to John then that he should probably be offended by this response, but he found it refreshing enough not to mind. “Gun.” John answered, tapping his right temple. “Nine millimeter glock.”
He was still waiting for the apologizing and the pity. It still didn’t come.
“Why?” Sherlock asked, frowning slightly.
“Why did he kill himself?” John clarified.
He couldn’t help but laugh, which Sherlock seemed to find interesting.
“Wish I knew,” he answered.
Sherlock sat back in his chair, arms moving to cross themselves behind his head. “Curious,” he said, closing his eyes again.
“What about you then?” John asked, feeling he ought to get something out of this. “Why are you here?”
“Antisocial Personality Disorder.” He said it straight and even. Like he’d said it a thousand times before. Like it was fact.
John had read enough on Wikipedia’s psychology page in the prior few weeks to recognize the term.
“So you’re a sociopath then?”
If the younger boy was impressed by his knowledge he didn’t show it. “Yes.” He answered simply.
“Must be nice.”
“What?” Sherlock’s eyes opened again. He studied John in a way that made him feel like prey.
“Not feeling,” John murmured. “Sociopaths aren’t capable of empathy or emotion, right? It must be nice.”
Sherlock gave him a new look, a considering look, as if John had impressed him, as if he was an animal that has suddenly shown the propensity for speech.
“Yes,” he agreed. “Yes it is.”
John stands in a swift, awkward movement that leaves him feeling lightheaded and somewhat embarrassed, as if he’s been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to. He glances from Sherlock’s still form to the face of Dr. Stamford, another third-year resident, and sighs, rubbing one palm against his forehead, unconsciously trying to scrub out eight year old memories, hidden beneath frustrating layers of skin and bone. His other hand still holds Sherlock’s chart, fingers poised guiltily at its edges, as if he’d picked it up by accident and had certainly not been memorizing it a few moments before.
Stamford frowns at him, walking further into the room. He lowers his voice, dark eyes serious behind crooked glasses.
“Are you alright, John?”
Mike Stamford is a friend, or the closest he’s had to a friend since starting med school. They round together, and go out for drinks a time or two a month and occasionally sneak biscuits in the supply closet when they’re supposed to be suturing in the pit. But Mike doesn’t know about Sherlock and all that that implies and John has absolutely no intention of telling him.
“I’m fine. Just tired,” he answers, “Is Dr. Allen here?”
“Yeah, it’s time for rounds.”
John stands, accepting the two additional patient binders that Mike proffers him. He automatically rearranges them so Sherlock’s is on top, and then, annoyed with himself, purposely puts Sherlock’s back on the bottom.
He follows Mike into the hallway, trying to listen to the rough timbre of his colleague’s voice, while simultaneously ignoring the fact that he can no longer feel Sherlock’s pulse. He shifts the charts in his arms as Stanford presses the elevator button. He touches his thumb to his forefinger, trying to remember the feel of Sherlock’s cool skin between them. Cool. Had he been cold? Maybe he needed another blanket.
The elevator doors open and he briefly tunes in to what the other resident is saying.
“Dr. Allen wanted to start with Mr. Lawson on the fourth floor, she’s meeting us there,” Mike glances at the binders in his hands as he boards the lift, then nods toward John. “I think I gave Lawson to you.”
John pauses for a moment, still thinking about cool skin and blankets and, oddly, his childhood trips to the zoo, and then realizes that Mike is staring at him, knuckles pressed to the “door-open” button. The elevator is making an annoyed buzzing noise.
“John, you coming?”
He steps inside with an apologetic shrug as the other doctor studies him with worried, far too intelligent, eyes.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Sorry,” John mutters, looking appropriately sheepish. “Haven’t slept in while. I was on call last night. You know how it is.”
His friend groans, briefly letting his head fall back against the mirrored wall. “That I do.”
The other doctor then proceeds to launch into a story about a harrowing week he’d had back in July when he’d subsided on nothing but ten minute naps and Jammie Dodgers for 52 hours straight, but John is only half listening. His thumb, skin dry and cracked from continual hand-sanitizer use, continues to move against the pad of his pointer finger, trying to recall the phantom weight of a pale, blue-veined wrist lying lax and pliant between them.