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The Night Sherlock Broke All the Numbers

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Lestrade could tell when his most recent dose of paracetamol was beginning to wear off because he was suddenly freezing again. He huddled deeper into the duvet, frowning in his sleep and burrowing down to try and find some warmth in his dreams, but eventually he shivered himself awake. He lay there and shook for long confused minutes in the dark until the ache in his bones brought it all back to him: Flu. Fever. Must be time for more medicine soon. At two a.m., John had said, he could have another dose--it had to be nearly two by now, or perhaps even later, perhaps he’d slept right through it.

It took effort to turn over and look at the bedside clock when everything hurt so much. The smallest motion triggered a fresh sickening wave of the shakes, and the scrape of the sheets against his wrists was very nearly unbearable--but he managed it, finally, and focused his eyes on the glowing red numbers.

1:17. Shit.

He lay there and listened to his teeth chatter for a while. John was sleeping next to him, breathing audibly, not quite snoring. Lestrade wouldn’t have woken him for the world. He did curl a bit closer to him, though, jealous of his body heat, hoping to steal a little warmth. He fell into a miserable haze again, his mind wandering along strange and chilled paths. 1:20. 1:22. The clock was sentient, he decided. It didn’t like being watched, so it was slowing itself down deliberately to punish him. Best to keep his eyes shut for a while.

When he jerked into a kind of consciousness again, he was no longer cold. He was baking. The room was tropical, the bedcovers unbearable torture devices, he could hardly breathe for the heat. Surely it had gone two o’clock by now. Lestrade kicked off the duvet, sought out the red numbers again, and his mouth went dry because they weren’t numbers at all, but nonsense symbols. That fucking clock. Broken, he told himself, his heart beginning to hammer, calm down, the clock was just broken. There was his watch in the loo, he could go check that, and the tiles in there would be lovely and cool. He wouldn’t wake John. He was a little frightened at how high his temperature must be, this probably wasn’t good, but he wouldn’t wake John, John needed his sleep, and it would be awful to see him looking all worried at him--didn’t bear thinking about. The watch, he needed to check his watch, the watch was just down the hall.

It was a long and perilous journey. Part of his mind was convinced he was in the jungle, and although he mostly knew it was just the fever fucking with him, that didn’t make it seem any less surreal or more bearable. He was shivering again despite the heat and he didn’t remember dropping to his hands and knees but it seemed to make sense to be closer to the ground, and when he finally got to the loo it was brilliant because he could just press his cheek to the blessedly cold ceramic floor, spread himself out on it like sunbathing in reverse. He was too hot, though, so it didn’t last. The tile heated up under him so quickly he thought he could hear the sizzle--he’d melt it, he told himself, starting to panic, struggling over onto his back. This was a terrible idea, he should get back to the bedroom, but the nightmare clock was there, watching with those hellishly wrong symbols, there was no escape--

*

The light was suddenly much, much too bright. Cruelly bright, stabbing right through his eyelids.

“No, quiet,” John told him. “Don’t move.” His fingers were strong and steady on Lestrade’s neck. Lestrade squinted at him through a halo of light and heat. John looked serious when he was tired and tired when he was serious, and his face was nothing but pale exhausted creases now. “Don’t move,” he repeated, splaying a restraining hand across Lestrade’s chest. “Your heart rate’s through the roof right now. I need you to be still.”

“Did you fix the clock?” Lestrade asked him.

“Yep, fixed it,” John said, but his voice was tight and strange; there was definitely something wrong, something about the clock he didn’t want Lestrade to know, or-- “Think you can hold this under your tongue for me?” He was shaking down his thermometer, the old-fashioned mercury one he kept in his kit. Lestrade nodded and opened his mouth for it. He was glad it wasn’t the digital kind. Whatever’d got into the clock might have affected it, too.

“Too bright,” he mumbled around the glass tube, because even with his eyes shut the ceiling light made sickening patterns flash on the backs of his eyelids.

John covered Lestrade’s eyes with his hand. “Shh. You’ll spoil the reading. One minute.”

It was a long minute. Lestrade drifted, temporarily safe behind John’s cool and shading hand, and wondered if the problem was with time itself and not the clock at all. Either way it was a terrible thing to think about.

“All right,” John said eventually, and took the thermometer from him, then breathed out in a controlled sigh. “Yeah, about what I thought. Fuck.”

“What?” Lestrade asked, frightened.

“Nothing, you’re fine, don’t worry. It’s just a number, nothing to panic about.” John felt his pulse again for a few moments, then patted him on the shoulder. “Not a number I particularly like, though. We’re going to have to work on getting it down. Let’s get you up? Slowly? That’s it, there.” His voice and his hands were so gentle and calm that Lestrade knew there must be something badly wrong. Something about all the numbers going bad, if John didn’t like them either; it must have even got into the mercury somehow. He found himself standing up, leaning heavily on John because his legs were shaky with illness and fear, fear which increased as he realised that John was guiding him back toward the bedroom.

“I can’t,” he said, clutching at the door frame, because he could already see the red glow of the clock from there.

“Sure you can. Steady on, just a few more steps, the bed’s right here.”

“No, I can’t, you don’t--I’m not, I’m not going in there,” Lestrade insisted. “That’s where it all started, don’t you see?” His voice was rising to a shout, he was vaguely aware, but John was still trying to propel him forward; he clearly had no idea of the danger.

“Christ,” John moaned, squinting his eyes tightly shut and resting his forehead against the doorway on the other side. “You’re not. Oh god. Lestrade, please, I’m so fucking tired I can’t do this will you please just let me put you in bed and we can talk about it there?”

“What’s going on?” a voice called up from downstairs. “John?”

Sherlock. Of course. Sherlock was downstairs, he’d cocked up all the numbers in one of his insane experiments. It all made sense, if only Lestrade could get the words out properly, if only John would just listen.

“Yes, that’s exactly what this night needs, thank you,” John said quietly, and then called back, “Nothing, it’s under control, don’t come up.”

Sherlock came up, taking the stairs two at a time, and surveyed the two of them sharply for a moment. His eyebrows went up. “Need help?” he asked John.

“He’s delusional with fever and has apparently decided the bedroom is evil,” John told him, still leaning against the doorway with his eyes closed. Lestrade let himself slide down to sit with his back against the hallway wall, muttering to himself, trying to find the words to explain the situation. Sherlock squatted down on his heels next to him for a moment, listening, then nodded once and unfolded up to a standing position again.

“Not the bedroom, the clock,” he told John, and strode right into the room--he did that, Lestrade had seen him do it dozens of times; it looked like bravery but it was really that he just didn’t care at all what happened to him, so nothing usually did. He came out again straight away with the clock in his hands, its screen blank and dead.

“It’s got into all the numbers now, though,” Lestrade protested. “I don’t think that’s actually solved anything.”

“No, but it buys us some time,” Sherlock said seriously. “I’m working on it, shouldn’t be long, but the bedroom’s as safe as anyplace right now--you may as well get some rest, let John take care of you. Come on, I’ll help you up.” Sherlock’s eyebrows went up again as he got a hand under Lestrade’s armpit to lift him, and he shot John a quick look; there was still something very wrong about all this, but Lestrade was beginning to long for something to rest his aching head against at this point. He allowed himself to be led back to bed, allowed John to feed him paracetamol tablets and most of a cup of water, then subsided into the pillow. He kept his eyes shut so he wouldn’t see all the things he knew were moving about in the corners of the room; bad enough that he could still hear them. Scrabbling. There were voices, too, which he attempted to ignore, because they were pitched too high, too fast.

*

“A&E?” Sherlock asked.

John shook his head wearily. “I’m hoping to avoid it. It’s just a fever spike, no reason to think it won’t come down with meds, maybe a cold pack or two to help it along. Not going to be a restful night for him, that’s all.”

“Hm. Nor for you. What do you need?”

John pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to think. “Ahh...there should be some bags of frozen vegetables in the freezer. If you could bring those up? And a couple of tea towels? Bowl of lukewarm water, clean flannel. Thanks.” Sherlock offering help was such an anomaly that John didn’t dare glance at him--better to pretend he didn’t notice, probably. He turned back to his medical bag instead and disentangled his stethoscope so he could listen to Lestrade’s chest while Sherlock was out of the room.

It wasn’t often he got to do this. He tried not to worry overmuch about Lestrade’s heart condition, tried to leave him alone about it apart from making sure he went to his cardiologist appointments and keeping a sharp surreptitious eye on him for unusual signs of fatigue. Lestrade didn’t want to be fussed over, and John could certainly understand that.

But he was awed and terrified, now, by the sound of Lestrade’s heart working so hard in its overheated cavity. That sinister whisper of blood leaking from chamber to chamber. Without thinking about it, John pushed up Lestrade’s t-shirt impatiently so he could get a better listen, and Lestrade moaned and shivered in his sleep.

“Shh, I know, just a minute,” John told him, holding him steady with a warm hand to his abdomen, but it was more than a minute; he couldn’t seem to tear himself away from the hypnotising susurration, and he was still listening intently when Sherlock got back to the room.

“It’s a dangerous flu for patients with pre-existing medical conditions, from what I’ve read,” Sherlock said from the doorway, startling him. “Sure you don’t want to run him over to A&E?”

John removed the earpieces from his ears, letting the stethoscope dangle, and rolled his head, wincing as his neck cracked. “Pretty sure,” he said. “There’s no arrhythmia, no real cause for alarm right now. We’d likely just wind up sitting in a waiting room somewhere till morning anyhow. I do want to try and get the fever down, though, get his heart rate a bit lower if I possibly can. Here, I’ll take that, thanks.” He reached for the water bowl that Sherlock was carrying, but Sherlock hung onto it for a moment.

“You don’t think perhaps an injection of something, digoxin, metoprolol...?”

John stared at him, wide-eyed. “I...no. That’s not...indicated, at this point, I wouldn’t...wow. You’re actually concerned, here, aren’t you?”

Sherlock scowled, his jaw going stubborn, but before he could say anything, John added, “Sorry. I’m sorry, it’s...no, that’s nice, that’s very nice, I just wouldn’t have expected--it’s fine, it’s good of you, but--”

Sherlock shoved the supplies into John’s hands, sloshing water onto his shirt front. “I’ll be up for a bit longer if you need anything else,” he said curtly, and turned to go. “Just shout. Need to get back to my experiment now--it’s probably coagulated already.”

John shook his head, closed his eyes briefly, and then sighed and went to change his shirt.

*

Lestrade was in the throes of the shakes again and failed to appreciate having makeshift ice packs pressed up against his sides, even wrapped in layers of cloth to shield his skin from the bite of cold. “No,” he protested, opening his eyes wide. “Oh god why are you doing that I’m freezing. Don’t do that. Why?”

“Sorry, love.” John lifted up his arm so he could push the second pack into place. “Need to get you cooled down a bit here. Just for a few minutes, OK?”

“No,” Lestrade said, trying to peel John’s fingers away. “Ow! I’m bloody freezing to death! Why are you being so horrible? Are you evil? Have you gone evil too?”

“No one’s evil,” John told him, and lay down next to him, wrapping his arms around Lestrade’s shivering body in a firm hold. “You’ll be all right. I know it feels cold, but your temp’s over forty degrees right now.”

“It’s not,” Lestrade insisted, his teeth chattering. “It’s a mistake. The numbers are bad. Oh god, horrible, you’re killing me. Please don’t do this.”

John was too tired to try and soothe or reason with him. He readjusted his hold and curved his body around Lestrade’s, hoping it wouldn’t turn into a fight. After a minute Lestrade made a choked relenting sound and went limp in his arms, still shivering miserably. John pressed his face into the hot hollow between his neck and shoulder. “OK, good,” he said, and yawned. “Better. You’ll feel better in a bit. Promise.”

*

Sherlock was at the foot of the stairs, listening with his head cocked. It was now nearly three a.m., and he hadn’t heard a voice or a rustle from the top bedroom in at least fifteen minutes. Cautiously, barefoot and noiseless, he mounted the steps.

The toilet was upstairs, after all, and he’d been drinking tea all night. And as long as he was upstairs he might as well look in on them.

They appeared to be asleep, Lestrade sprawled out on his back in the center of the bed, with John curled around his left side, one leg thrown over him. No one would be the wiser, probably, if Sherlock decided to come around the other side of the bed and assess the situation a little more closely.

Lestrade wasn’t very deeply asleep, unfortunately. He stirred restlessly and tried to raise his head when Sherlock pressed two fingers to the pulse in his throat. “What--”

“Quiet,” Sherlock whispered, and rested a hand on his forehead. Lestrade subsided. His heart rate was still rapid, his skin still alarmingly warm. Perhaps a bit less so than an hour ago. “Are you lucid?” Sherlock demanded.

“Don’t know,” Lestrade whispered back. “I think so. Just...damp.” He touched his side tentatively. “Why’s it so damp?”

Sherlock leaned closer to inspect, snaking his hand down in between Lestrade’s body and John’s, and pulled out a soggy bag of half-thawed peas. He found its twin on the other side and pinched both bags of vegetables between two fingers, considering them for a minute. He was tempted to just toss them into the corner, but this was John’s room and there’d surely be a row the next day if he did. He left the room and carried the bags into the bath instead. While he was there he found the mercury thermometer on the edge of the sink and brought it back to the bedroom with him, shaking it down.

He’d never taken anyone else’s temperature before. It was slightly more difficult than it looked. Lestrade sighed in annoyance when Sherlock nudged him out of his doze and told him to open up--“Why won’t anyone just let me sleep?”--and yelped when the thermometer poked him too hard underneath his tongue. Sherlock wasn’t sure how long to leave it in, and it was impossible to read in the dark, but he didn’t want to turn on the light and disturb John. Finally he managed to get a good look at the mercury by the light of his mobile.

“Thirty-nine point five," he said. “Bit better than it was, I suppose. Are you still thinking the clock’s out to get you?”

Lestrade looked puzzled, from what he could see in the dark.

“Well, that’s something.” Sherlock looked over at John doubtfully.

“He’s knackered,” Lestrade said hoarsely, apparently alert enough to be able to read Sherlock’s hesitation. “Don’t wake him, for god’s sake. ’M all right. Just hot. Open a window or something, will you?”

“It’s February,” Sherlock told him. “You’ll freeze to death and John will be cross with me forever. I’ll never hear the end of it. Budge over a bit.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and fished out the flannel from the bowl of water he’d brought up an hour ago, wrung it out, and carefully began wiping down Lestrade’s face and neck. Lestrade made a surprised sound when the cool cloth touched his skin, and he paused. “All right?”

“God, yes,” Lestrade said. “Feels fantastic.” He was quiet after that. The flannel heated up quickly, and Sherlock had to dip it into the water and wring it out again several times. It was a strange thing to be doing at three in the morning, but not really an unpleasant task.

“You did this for me once,” Sherlock remembered suddenly, startled into saying it out loud. “Not long after we met.”

“Yeah, I did.” Lestrade’s eyes were half-open, glittery with fever. “That was a hell of a night. Followed you home. Crazy skinny bastard. Christ, but you were ill. Thought you were done for.”

Sherlock’s hand stilled. “Why didn’t you phone for an ambulance?”

“I did,” Lestrade reminded him. “Eventually. You don’t remember?”

“I deleted it,” Sherlock said absently. “Most of it.” Or he’d thought he had. Bits of it were coming back now, visceral memories of pain and helplessness and sheer unreasoning fury. He’d spent six days in hospital with a raging blood infection and then been shuttled off to rehab. It had been a long time before he’d been willing to return any of Lestrade’s messages.

“Just as well, I suppose.” Lestrade sounded discomfited. “Not a good time.”

Sherlock didn’t answer.

“Worked out all right in the end, though,” Lestrade offered after a minute. “I mean, lucky for you I was there to follow you, yeah?” Sherlock blinked, coming back to the present.

“Lucky for you,” he snapped back.

“All right,” Lestrade agreed, managing a rather dizzy grin. “For me, too.”

The cloth in Sherlock’s hand had gone warm again, and he dropped it into the bowl and put the back of his hand to Lestrade’s face. He was really no cooler at all, Sherlock realised, feeling strangely frantic. There ought to be some way to make a fever like this break.

“I don’t like you being this hot,” Sherlock said irritably. “It can’t be good for you. John should take a look at you again. Isn’t there any--”

“Oh, don’t wake him.” Lestrade raised himself up on his elbows, looking distressed. “Really don’t. He’s knocked out, look at him. I’m all right.”

“You’re burning up. You’re all...weird and emotional. An hour ago you tried to accuse me of destroying the fabric of time.”

“Well, go back to what you were doing, then.” Lestrade jerked his chin at the bowl of water on the bedside table. “It was nice. It was helping.”

Sherlock glanced over him at John again. The shadows under his eyes looked darker than ever before.

“You can wake him in an hour,” Lestrade promised. "If you still want to by then."

"Half an hour." Sherlock pushed on his chest. "Lie back down."

*

John snapped wide awake at 6:15 and switched on the bedside light to find them both there, tangled together looking like they were having some sort of bizarre paleness competition with the pillow. Sherlock’s face was mashed against Lestrade’s shoulder, his arm thrown carelessly across Lestrade’s stomach, and they were both snoring lightly, not quite in sync.

“I am absolutely getting a photo of this to use as blackmail,” John said aloud. It was obvious that the fever had broken, but John was still absurdly relieved when Lestrade shifted against him and sighed and blinked a few times--the brown eyes were sleepy and a bit unfocused, but he was clearly there again.

“Hi,” Lestrade whispered, and then, shyly, “Sorry about last night.”

“Never a dull moment,” John said, and kissed him lightly on the forehead. “That’s all right. You can be the one to nurse Sherlock when he comes down with the same thing in two or three days. Bloody idiot,” he said to the dark head on Lestrade’s pillow, not at all fondly.

The corners of Lestrade’s mouth quirked upwards, and his eyes drifted shut again as he pulled Sherlock’s arm more securely across his body. “Stay in bed,” he murmured before settling back to sleep again. “Stay here with us.”

John didn’t even really try to resist.