It was only a matter of time. John knew that from the start. Now, he stared at the read-out on the thermometer before examining his reflection in the bathroom mirror. A glassy blue gaze stared back at him from beneath the dishevelled nest of his hair. Dark shadows smeared their warpaint beneath his eyes and his skin had an unhealthy, greyish tinge.
He'd felt all right yesterday. He'd come home from work, braving the blustery late-March weather, and hopped straight in the shower, the better to disinfect himself as best he could. A decent home-cooked curry and a pint of beer while watching good telly had helped him unwind. He'd gone to bed, and then woken up feeling like shit.
Stumbling towards the bathroom door, he pushed his way out into the flat and stood in the corridor, trying to marshal his scattered thoughts. He needed to call the surgery. Let them know he wouldn't be in. He should clean things. Try and stop it spreading more than it already had, but he was so tired...
'No.' He threw up his hands, taking an instinctive step back and colliding with the wall as he tried to halt Sherlock's approach. 'I've got a fever. You need to keep away.'
Sherlock tilted his head, those silver eyes raking John's frame in a cursory assessment. 'That's not going to be possible. The flat's too small for that and we only have one bathroom. We had this discussion when the pandemic first hit, if you recall?'
John did. He was a GP, not front-line staff, but that still meant he was more likely to be exposed to the wretched virus than the average person on the street. His chances of bringing Covid-19 back to the flat were considerable. Now, here he stood, sweating and shivering and not sure what to do with himself. Sherlock had ignored his feeble attempts to keep his distance then, and it seemed that was not about to change.
'What hurts?' Strong hands rested on his shoulders, and John peeled his eyes open to give Sherlock a half-hearted glare. In truth, he'd not even noticed he'd shut them. Now, Sherlock had got too close, the casual intimacy of it all the more jarring after having the message of "six feet apart" drummed into them for bloody weeks.
Not that they'd managed that, either, though they'd at least tried at John's insistence. There had been no nudging shoulders, no fingers brushing as they passed on another cups of tea... He'd missed that more than the cases: the easy nearness they'd cultivated.
He blinked, wetting his lips and squinting as he tried to remember the question. 'My head,' he managed at last, 'and my legs. Joints. Just...' He sighed, knowing he was giving Sherlock nothing more to go on than general malaise. 'I think I'm going back to bed.'
'Wait. Can you sit for a bit?' Sherlock guided him towards the living room, easing him down into the familiar nest of his armchair. A blanket surrounded his shoulders, and he clutched it gratefully. 'I'll get you some water and some paracetamol.'
'I need to call work,' John added, lifting one arm to reach for his phone only to find it too heavy. It dropped back to his side, limp and useless, as Sherlock grabbed John's mobile from the coffee table and set it beside him.
'While you're doing that, I'll put fresh sheets on my bed. My room's closer to the bathroom, and I can keep a better eye on you.'
'I should be isolated!' John protested, knowing it fell on deaf ears. 'Upstairs at least I'm out of the way!'
'And I will have to traipse up a flight of stairs to check on you multiple times a day.' Sherlock's icy logic left little room for argument, not when John felt like this, anyway. 'My room is better. It won't be for long. You'll recover in no time.'
John didn't have the heart to argue with that. He'd been trying not to think about it: how bad this could get. As far as the scientists knew, the lucky ones felt nothing. They remained symptomless, going to work and whatnot and spreading it around.
From John's personal experience, the actual expression of symptoms varied hugely. That was assuming it was even Covid-19, of course. It could just be 'flu. There'd be no way to know for sure unless he got a test, and John wasn't holding his breath for access to one of those any time soon.
With a sigh of surrender, he picked up his phone, dialling the surgery's number with fingers that felt like sausages. He bypassed the appointment line and pecked in the three-digit number that would put him straight through to Sarah.
'John, are you all right?' Concern laced her voice. He could picture her sat at her desk, all of her work forgotten. Even after the mess of their failed relationship she considered him a friend, and he allowed that kindness to wash over him like a balm.
'Sorry, Sarah, I've got... something. I need to isolate.'
'Oh, John. What are your symptoms?' She listened as he rambled through the same thing he'd described to Sherlock, making appropriate noises of sympathy. 'Do you have everything you need? Food? Medication?'
'Yeah. Yeah. We've been stocking up, me and Sherlock. Helping out Mrs Hudson, too, since she's not meant to go outside.'
'Well, none of you are now. Do you have someone who can drop stuff off at your door if you need it?'
'Yeah. Thanks, Sarah. There's plenty who can help out, as long as they've not got it too.'
'And is there anyone to keep an eye on you? I know Sherlock can get... distracted.'
John glanced over his shoulder, peering through the thin seam of the doorway to Sherlock's bedroom. The occasional flap of fabric and shadow moving on the wall suggested he was doing just as he said. In fact, now he thought about, where he'd expected dismissal from Sherlock, the attentiveness came as a pleasant surprise. 'Mrs Hudson's downstairs if it comes to the worst, but I think I'll be okay.'
'All right. Make sure my phone number's written down. I'm more than happy to reassure or give advice if you or Sherlock need it.'
'Thanks. What about testing?' A sympathetic smile tweaked his mouth as Sarah made a rough, growling noise. 'I take it that's a no?'
'I'm working on it, John, I swear, but you know how it is. The government's full of liars and they're prioritising what tests we do have to ICUs.'
'As they should. It's a pity they don't have enough for the rest of us.'
'Yes, well, you know my thoughts on that,' Sarah grumbled, pulling a weak laugh from him. 'You've heard me rant about it in the breakroom enough times.'
'I have. Let me know if it becomes a possibility. Until then, I'll assume I’ve got it.'
'Smart man,' she praised. 'Do you have an oximeter, just in case?'
'Yeah, I've got a thumb-clip. I bought one back in December.'
'Good. I'm sure Sherlock already knows a low O2 saturation threshold, but make sure, yeah?'
'And John? Stay in touch.' A hint of a tremor tilted her voice as she said goodbye, and John disconnected the call before huddling further into his blanket. Her worry concerned him. Logically, he knew the chances of needing hospitalisation were low, but when you saw the horror stories every day, it was hard to shake the sinking feeling of dread and doom.
He had no trouble compartmentalising. When you were in the army, you had to, or you'd spend your whole time deployed catatonic with fear. Still, at least then you could keep busy – distract yourself. This? He barely had the strength to lift his arms, let alone get to his feet. His mind was a helpless, anxious prisoner in a body fit for fuck all.
'Here.' Sherlock held out a glass of water and a blister pack of paracetamol. 'The bed's ready if you need it, though if you can stay sat up for half an hour it might help you digest those.' He perched on the edge of the coffee table, bringing himself down to John's level and tilting his head, as if he could see John better from an angle. 'Do you want any food?'
John pulled a face. His stomach sat like a rock of granite beneath his ribs, heavy and dead. The thought of breakfast held no appeal, but he knew all too well that it would be better to eat while he could. His body needed fuel to fight off whatever he had, and though nausea wasn't a given, it could still rob him of the ability to eat. 'Maybe toast. Just a bit.'
Sherlock nodded and padded through to the kitchen, wiping down surfaces and washing his hands before he started putting together the simple fare. At least he didn't have to remind Sherlock about that, John thought as he swallowed back the tablets and sipped his water. Sherlock may have a bit of a blind spot when it came to human remains in the fridge, but he had a strong understanding of good hygiene and the spread of disease.
One of the first things he'd done, back in January when John came back to the flat fretting about hand-washing, had been to procure them a tube each of very good hand cream. At John's baffled expression, he'd explained about dry hands chapping from being so clean, and the risk of infection getting in through broken skin.
They did not use each other's to avoid cross-contamination, and they had a pump to prevent either of them touching the cream not being used. It seemed like such a small thing, but John had found himself grateful more than once when he saw the state of his colleagues’ poor fingers and palms, sore from constant rounds of hand sanitiser and soap and latex.
'Ugh, no thanks. Just butter.'
'Cup of tea?'
John considered it, wincing as a delicate shiver trickled down his spine. 'Yeah, all right.' If nothing else it might help the cold that seemed to press itself against the inside of his skin. In contrast, his eyes felt like hot coals in their sockets, burning every time he blinked, and an odd headache grumbled around inside his skull. 'Thanks.'
He listened to Sherlock bustling about, smiling his gratitude as his flatmate wiped down the little table at the side of his armchair. He suspected the religious cleanliness had probably been more effective at easing their anxieties than stopping germs from spreading, but every little bit helped.
Before he knew it, a cup of tea steamed at his side and a piece of toast awaited him, gleaming gold with a suitable layer of butter upon its surface. John picked at the snack and sipped his drink, raising an eyebrow as Sherlock sat down in his armchair with a pen and notebook in his hands. 'What are you doing?'
'Taking notes. What was your temperature?'
'38.3 centigrade. What notes? Sherlock, please tell me you're not studying this?'
'Not precisely.' Sherlock looked up, meeting John's gaze without a hint of remorse. 'Tracking the progress of the disease means I can provide any medical staff with all the information they should require. It should also help us to ascertain whether you're recovering or getting worse. Data, John. Data.' He tapped his pen against the page. 'What about loss of smell? Sense of taste?'
'No, they're both fine. No rashes, either, before you ask.' John surveyed Sherlock over the rim of his cup. He should have known that Sherlock's compassion, when it made an appearance, would look something like this: practical, analytical, and devoid of all physical sentiment. He offered John no sympathy, treating his illness as a problem to document and solve above all else.
Mind you, he suspected if Sherlock started acting all aghast now, it would only send John into a panic. No. This was good. This was what he needed. Sherlock behaving like himself, the same as always. And if that meant John was little more to him than one of his experiments? Well, it would have to do.
'Any cough or difficulty breathing?'
'Not yet. That doesn't show up until later. It's – it's just a headache. Muscle aches. I'm tired and I've got no appetite. A bit of sleep will sort me out, I'm sure.' John tried to smile, but it felt more like a wound on his face than anything else, so he let it fall away. ‘So far, it's not so bad. I've had 'flu worse.'
'Hmmm.' Sherlock clicked the pen, retracting the nib and putting the book aside. 'Are you all right with me cleaning your room? Normally, I wouldn't intrude...'
'You intrude all the bloody time!' John scoffed, shaking his head as Sherlock pouted. 'It's fine. That'd be good actually. I don't think I've got the strength to do it myself. Just, wear gloves, yeah? I don't suppose there's much chance of sparing you from it, but you should still do what you can.'
'You never know. Perhaps I'm an asymptomatic carrier,' Sherlock replied with a shrug, holding up a hand to stem John's protests. 'I'll be careful. I promise.'
'There are some Dettol wipes under the sink. They might help. I'm more worried about communal spaces, like the hallway, if I'm honest. I tried not to touch too much when I came back from work, but...'
'I'll do that first and let Mrs Hudson know what's going on so she can keep herself safe.'
'Thanks.' John set his half-finished cup of tea to one side, marvelling how even a little bit of chatting could leave him so exhausted. His entire body felt heavy, as if gravity had been dialled up. Even the thought of moving to Sherlock's room seemed like an insurmountable task, and he looked over his shoulder at the door, trying to find the will to get going.
'Maybe I can just sleep on the sofa?'
'I think not. Firstly, it's leather. You'll slip off it every time you move. Secondly, it is far from comfortable. You might be shorter than me, but you still won't fit with ease.'
'Yeah, thanks for that,' he grumbled, knowing Sherlock had a point. Bed was the best place for him, and he gripped the arm of his chair, groaning as he hauled himself to his feet. The blanket spilled from his shoulder like a superhero's cape, and he clutched it in one hand, trying not to limp as his hips and knees set up a raucous mantra of complaint.
'Ow,' he muttered, pressing his hand to his lower back like an old man and shuffling towards the broad dais of Sherlock's king-size bed. 'You sure about this?’ he asked, checking one last time. 'Where will you sleep?'
'I'll figure something out.'
Maybe if John had more energy, he'd argue, but frankly he didn't have the strength left in him to do anything but take it at face value. Yeah, he felt guilty for stealing Sherlock's bed, but the man had offered. Besides, all trace of hesitation fled when he lay down and let the mattress cradle his abused body. 'Oh, God, that's better.'
Sherlock huffed a laugh, prodding and bullying John until he could tug the quilt from under him and drape it over his body. Soft, whispering down hushed its lullaby, and John turned his cheek to the cool sheath of the pillowcase, letting out a gusty sigh.
Sherlock extricated the blanket that had been around his shoulders, folding it and spreading it in a narrow band across his feet, instead. 'I'll get you some more water. Do you need anything else?'
John mumbled a negative, the seam of his eyelashes burning as his eyelids drifted shut. The sheets smelled mostly of detergent, but a trace of the scent he associated with Sherlock lingered: a hint of whatever he used in his hair. It comforted John in ways he did not quite want to define, and he nestled deeper into the quilt, curling his knees up towards his chest as his tortured frame began to relax.
The world took on an ethereal quality, the sounds of the flat turning tinny and distant. The sound of a glass coming to rest against the wood of the bedside table punctuated his doze, but he barely stirred. Even when the sensation of a cool, dry palm against his brow – dreamlike and diaphanous – whispered through his mind, he could not bring himself to emerge from the shallows of slumber.
Sleep claimed him, and John went willingly.