He startles awake, suddenly, zero to sixty and he’s heaving. Sweating. Panting, struggling for air that does not arrive. His lungs burning, throat constricted, eyes watering. There's a low beeping-noise in his ears and goosebumps springing across his skin as he shivers. He tries again, to calm himself, to get a grip, to breath. He can’t. He can’t, and panic sets in.
“She-” he tries, but his voice is but a raspy hiss, “Sssh-”
His eyes fly about the room, looking for help, for anything to catch Sherlock’s attention from one floor down. With the last of his wits, he flings his hand wildly at the nightstand and the large table lamp crashes to the floor in a racket.
Sherlock comes flying in not 15 seconds later. “John? John!” he tries to get the man’s attention. John’s eyes fly open, terrified, wet, the air battling its way into his lungs in loud rasps as his arms fling up in front of him.
“Hel-p,” John begs, crumpled on the bed.
“How?” Sherlock asks frantically, helpless, his body stuck in the motion between going to call help and staying close to John.
“Lie,” John huffs on a strenuous exhale. “Li-,” he tries again, and it comes out as a hoarse squawk. His fingers stretch out towards Sherlock, “here,”
Sherlock finds himself moving closer without remembering to command his legs to do so. John’s fingers catching at his dressing-gown, clutching, pulling him forward, towards him. “Lie – on – me,” he croaks, face red, body trembling, still trying to gulp air into his lungs. “Pl-”
Hesitantly, Sherlock comes closer, unsure of what to do, uncomfortable. But John’s fingers move to clutch at his collar, pulling him down. Sherlock’s arms shoot forward to stop himself from crashing against John, they cage John underneath him. Then he understands its exactly what John wants. His knee finds the mattress, and he climbs up over John, settling his weight against him. John is lying on his side, huddled into a ball and Sherlock’s torso covers him, his thighs coming up against the back of John’s thighs. It’s awkward, graceless, uncomfortably intimate and a bit painful where John’s boney shoulder juts into Sherlock’s chest. Sherlock isn’t sure how it’s supposed to help, but he stays there, surrendering to John’s arm clutching him around his back, and gives John his weight. Their faces are so close, he can see every pore in John’s face, the drops of sweat soaking into John’s hair. They lie there, one on top of the other, waiting in a harsh silence, broken only by John’s frightened gasps.
Minutely, Sherlock feels a change, some tiny thing eases in John’s muscles; or throat. He gently drops his forehead to John’s temple, his lips against his ear. “Breathe, John.” He whispers calmly, “with me, breathe. You’re okay.”
He can feel John’s eyes opening, feels them move about frantically, searching for something, before John draws another breath in, slower and not so deep, but some of the air, at least, succeeds to arrive into his lungs. The next breath is calmer, deeper, and soon John is gratefully gulping air down.
He moves slowly, trying to turn onto his back, open his rigid body, relax the muscles for the oxygen to reach all extremities. But when Sherlock begins to move, his arm clutches at his shoulder, “Not yet.”
Sherlock doesn’t fight him, doesn’t pull back, though with John’s movements he’s practically lying between John’s legs, sprawled against his chest. “What happened, John? What triggered it?”
“Nightmare?” Sherlock tries again when John doesn’t answer his initial question and can see John nod slightly. “Afghanistan?” he asks curiously but John shakes his head, closing his eyes.
“Barts?” Sherlock asks, with a tinge of guilt in his voice.
“The pool? Bonfire? The river?” he goes on, his brain raking through all the close calls and almost-death experiences John has been through, but John remains quiet. “They’re becoming more frequent again, John,” he finally says, his voice devoid of blame but filled with worry. They’re both well aware and well acquainted with John’s recurring nightmares, but the panic attacks he’s long been free of, have started again and gotten worse.
John finally breaths deeply, exhaling slowly. “Dying,” he admits gravely, slowly, sad, “alone. It was about dying alone.” He whispers after the word reverberates through the room.
Sherlock can feel a shudder going through John’s body, adopted by his own body. He raises his head to look at John directly.
“That is not going to happen,” he says strictly, surprised at John’s thought and fear. “I won’t allow it.”
John smiles a soft, sad, tired smile but does not say anything. It breaks Sherlock’s heart in a way he didn’t know possible. “Do you feel alone?” he asks, his voice sincere, his eyes searching. How did he miss this?
“Sometimes,” John answers truthfully, his answer but a sigh on his lips. “You can get off now,” he adds, “thank you.”
But Sherlock doesn’t seem to notice their physical position anymore, his brain clearly working something out. “You don’t believe me,” he declares after a moment of scrutinizing John.
“John,” Sherlock cuts in, “Unless you decide to leave, I plan to be there when you die.” He says in the most neutral, natural voice, stating a fact. “I will always do my utmost best to ensure your safety, but if you die during a case, I will be there right next to you, stopping the blood, imploring you to hold on, to fight and stay with me. I will be at your hospital bed, and your death bed, wherever it is. I give you my word, you will not die alone.”
A reverent silence falls as the words sink in, the breath now caught in John’s lungs as he processes the words, his eyes trained on Sherlock, absorbing his sincerity. His hand comes up to gently caress at Sherlock’s cheek before falling to his chest.
“It’s a different kind of alone, Sherlock,” he says carefully. “But thank you,”
“You mean living alone." Sherlock half-corrects half-challenges. They stare at each other, trying to read the page of their communication. Then he swallows thickly, carefully putting the words together. "If changing the terms of our partnership,” Sherlock begins carefully, “is what will calm your fears and recede your panic attacks, you should know, I am amenable.”
“Not out of a sense of obligation, John,” Sherlock is quick to placate John’s argument. “But because, well, because… I’m willing,” he says carefully, hoping John will follow, his hand comes to rest against John’s chest.
John is stupefied into silence, his eyes huge and full of surprise, his mouth opening and closing without a sound.
“I don’t feel alone when you’re here,” Sherlock goes on, his fingers absentmindedly playing at a button on John’s chest. “And, if you’d allow it, I would like to be the one who makes you feel assured that you are not alone.” John can see the blush rising on Sherlock’s cheeks. His lip catches in his teeth before he goes on. “It’s clear to me, that you have other needs, expectations, from such a – relationship,” Sherlock falters lightly at the word, as if tasting it for the first time on his tongue, “but I’m confident,” he swallows thickly, and John can see he’s anything but confident, the realization bringing so many questions to mind, “that I could accommodate at least some of them, all of them, perhaps, with time.”
“You’re perfect,” the words slip quietly from John’s mouth, catching both of them by surprise, making Sherlock recoil slightly. His eyes are quick to find John’s again, reading deep into them for meaning and hidden implications. But there are none. John’s hand carefully comes to ruffle through Sherlock’s dark curls as he takes time to think of his answer. Sherlock fights his instinct to flinch away. They both learn the feeling of this new experience.
“I won’t impose a sexual relationship on you if it’s not something you want,” John says finally, softly, thinking his words as he speaks. “That’s not necessarily what I’ve been missing. This,” he gently pulls a lock of Sherlock’s hair into Sherlock line of sight, caressing it between his fingers as a way of example, “could be enough. Holding you, if that’s okay?”
It’s his turn to scrutinize Sherlock’s features, watching as Sherlock nods gently, his chin scraping against John’s abdomen. “Sharing a bed?” He can see Sherlock’s hesitance. “Not for sex,” John clarifies quickly, “you know what, never mind.”
“No, listen,” John cuts in gently, “it’s really isn’t about that. It is about the terms of our partnership, though, as you’ve put it; I would like to change something, add something to our relationship, but it’s not the physical aspect.” He takes a deep grounding breath before he continues, “I need you to know something; I need you to know that I love you. I love you in the sense that you’re my best friend, the most important person in my life. In the sense that I want you close and safe and happy. I love you in the sense that you’re my home. And I’d like to care for you, just as you take care of me. I know it’s perhaps not so different to how it’s been until now, but I’d like for it to be allowed, recognized, in this relationship. For it to be okay for me to feel it, without hiding or holding back, and to be able to say it. For it to exist openly between us, accepted. I don’t know if this is coming out right if you understand,”
“It is, I do,” Sherlock answers quickly, his head bobbing up and down, and his eyes so sincere.
“Okay, so can we do that?”
“Okay,” John chuckles lightly at Sherlock’s innocent determination. “Thank you." They look at each other for a moment in silence. "I also find utterly breathtaking and mesmerizing," John adds bashfully, meaning to lighten the mood though he's not sure how. "But we really don't have to act on that. I was just... going for honesty,"
“We could share a bed if you’d like,” Sherlock adds, and John isn’t sure if it’s meant as a stab at sarcasm.
“Let’s… let’s work up towards that,” he chuckles in response.
“John,” Sherlock says once he’s pulled himself up from John, now sitting on the bed in front of him, tense and insecure. But John can hear the honesty in his tone. He calms his features to listen again. “I do see it,” Sherlock begins, “everything you said - in your actions. In the way you care for me. It is recognized. And reciprocated, even if not by similar actions.
“You’ve taken up space in my mind since our very first meeting. Taken root in it, really. It is unfathomable to me how one person can occupy organs of another person, other than the brain, as it is the only organ capable of thinking, but I am proved wrong, John. To my surprise, and horror at one point, I find, you occupy much more than my brain. Figuratively or not, John, you occupy my heart, too.”