The problem, or, from a different perspective, the solution, is John’s drinking.
Obviously he has an alcohol problem. Who wouldn’t, after what he’s been through? He ought to know better, of course, what with his sister’s issues and their arguments about it, everything he saw her lose, everything that made John so angry with her. But he doesn’t even notice it happening. He doesn’t think about it. He pours a drink, he gets through the day. Success! It’s just survival. It works, so he pours another. And another. He manages, for the most part. Some people can do that. John is one of them.
It gets worse after the fiasco with Mary. No need to explain. He can’t sleep without it after that. It’s the only thing that stops him from thinking things that make him want to put a bullet through his skull. Well, the only thing that’s firmly in his control, that is.
The other thing that helps depends entirely on a combination of Sherlock Holmes, crime, violence, or murder, and all of those are notoriously unreliable. But he can dependably find a bottle of whisky.
John is nothing if not functional, even at his worst. So no one notices what state he’s falling into. It’s a steady stream of too many bottles buried in his recycling, nights spent drinking and staring into space, and, from John’s perspective, comfort in the form of oblivion once the sun goes down.
No one notices. Except for Sherlock, naturally.
John doesn’t always drink alone. He goes out, sits in pubs, stares out windows, watches other people being happy. There are a few mornings when he doesn’t remember how he got home, but he doesn’t worry about it. Because he got home in the end. It doesn’t matter how much he remembers; remembering isn’t much good for him right now, is it. Remembering is hell, in fact, and forgetting is peaceful, so he doesn’t mind the blacking out, and he doesn’t worry about it. A doctor should know better? Sure. He’s trying to get through the day just now. That’s all. He just needs to get through the day. And the night.
If nothing you want to remember happens to you, it’s easy not to count the evenings that vanish. They all blur together anyway. There’s nothing there of note. Wood panelling, a bar stool, rain, stumbling home unable to feel your extremities, trying not to think. What’s to remember anyway? Brush your teeth, go to bed, forget. It’s only pain. Let it fade away.
John is quietly, stoically, morosely drunk when Sherlock joins him. He’s staring out the window, ignoring everything around him, blank.
“You’ve got to stop this,” Sherlock says to him. “It’s getting out of hand.”
John turns and looks at him, not even surprised or startled to see him there. His brain frequently conjures up people he doesn’t want to see.
“Not now,” he says. His eyes are heavy and his voice is soft. “Piss off.” As if Sherlock is just a memory, another thing John can make disappear as the night goes on. He throws back the rest of his drink. He looks out the window.
Sherlock doesn’t go away. But he doesn’t say anything more. He just sits there, watching John watching nothing outside the window. Staring at nothing, trying his best to be nothing.
The next morning, John wakes up in his bed, as he usually does. His head is pounding, but he doesn’t remember going to the pub. He doesn’t remember vomiting into the toilet at 3am, or crying into the tile. Not that he tries to remember. What would be the point? He has work to do. He thinks about the immediate future, not the immediate past.
Two days later, Sherlock and John solve a case together. It involves climbing on a second floor terrace and scrabbling up onto a roof in North London. John might lose his footing at any point, but doesn’t. He thought of it once, running hard on the pavement and taking a sharp corner, feeling the uneven jut of cobblestones under the soles of his shoes. It would be so easy to fall, twist his ankle, land on his face. Lose. But he doesn’t.
They run, they tackle a murderer and pin him to the soft, orange earth of Hampstead Heath. It’s exhilarating, calming, blissful for John. Sherlock doesn’t mention the drinking, and John doesn’t drink. He sleeps well that night. He remembers every exquisite detail. He dreams about it, and wakes up feeling euphoric. Until he remembers who he is, and where he is, and why, and the feeling ebbs away.
Three days after that, John starts the night on his sofa, but wakes up in the dark curled up on someone’s back steps in Islington. He doesn’t remember how he got here. He doesn’t try.
When the sun comes up he’s in his own bed again, and he doesn’t remember concrete steps digging into his back, or why his jacket is sopping wet. There’s a bruise on his left shoulder he doesn’t remember getting. Best not to think about it.
Work is boring. It’s the same every day, and in some ways it’s not much different than being drunk. Interminable stretches of nothing, where nothing matters, and nothing of note happens.
“John,” Sherlock says to him. “Enough.”
John is floating in a state of non-existence. He is entirely numb and has no idea where he is.
“Did it ever occur to you,” John says to Sherlock, looking into his non-existent face, “that you might be in love with me? Because I’m pretty sure you are.”
He takes a drink and considers what he’s just said, as if someone else said it. As if he read it in a book somewhere, some random thought, someone’s thesis.
“Not that it matters,” he adds. “Not that it means anything, Because it doesn’t. It’s just...” he pauses, looking at Sherlock, but not actually seeing him. “A thing. That’s true. You know.”
Sherlock does know. “Would that bother you?” he asks, though there’s hardly any point.
“No,” John says. He shrugs, then he shrugs again. “S’fine. S’Good.”
John doesn’t remember that conversation.
They spend two solid days looking for scraps of fabric along the M1. It’s boring and fruitless, and while John spends the latter half of the time complaining, in truth he doesn’t really mind. He doesn’t sleep for forty-eight hours and considers it a blessing, because he has no dreams to try to forget. Grousing at Sherlock is better than sleep.
“It should have been you I ended up with,” he says.
This time he’s at the pub round the corner from his house. John doesn’t think Sherlock is there, because he’s too blind drunk to see him sitting beside him. He’s talking to the idea of Sherlock, as he does to all kinds of ideas of people in his head once he gets into this state. Once he’s numb, he can stand to conjure up their faces. Or, at least, the outlines of them, as seen in the dim light of the pub.
“Though,” he says, holding his glass up and peering through it, “you probably would have done even worse to me than she did. Far worse. I’d probably be dead by now if it’d been you.”
He takes a drink. Sherlock leans back and watches him.
“But at least I’d have fucked you.” He laughs. “Presumably.”
Sherlock says nothing.
An unsolved case takes up three solid days the following week. Sherlock is too frustrated to sleep. John dozes off comfortably at 221b, in his chair, listening to Sherlock play his violin. In the morning when he wakes up, Sherlock is still playing.
John hates going to work now. It’s too boring to keep him distracted, and every woman who comes in reminds him of Mary, somehow. He suppresses his rage as best he can, but he knows he’s not being a terrific GP. Rage is the easiest of his emotions.
He texts Sherlock: case?
It takes Sherlock an hour and a half to respond.
No. Experiment. Livers and fingernails. Microwave. Very delicate.
Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.
John dreams he’s back in Afghanistan, buried up to his neck in sand.
“I don’t understand you,” John says, jabbing a finger at Sherlock, nearly spilling his glass. He’s in his own flat tonight. There’s no way Sherlock can be there. He’s busy. He’s still microwaving livers, or something.
“Perhaps not,” Sherlock says.
John ignores him. “You’re basically in love with me, and I’m in love with you, but still.” He motions to the space between them. “Nothing. Why is that?”
“You’re mourning,” Sherlock says. “You’re drunk.”
“Brilliant deduction!” John laughs. “Completely irrelevant.”
“Those aren’t deductions,” Sherlock says. “Those are facts. And they’re painfully relevant.” And then, almost as an afterthought: “I didn’t know. You never said.”
“You’d never, would you,” John says. He closes his eyes and flops back onto the sofa. “You would hop into bed with a woman you just met, apparently, but not with me. You just don’t...feel those things, do you.”
Sherlock doesn’t answer.
“You don’t have to feel anything.”
Sherlock says nothing.
“I’ve got you covered on that front, trust me.”
“I do,” Sherlock says.
John’s phone pings three times while he’s writing a prescription for his last patient of the day.
[17:53] John, I need you immediately.
[17:53] A man’s been murdered with a fork.
[17:54] How can you possibly think of doing anything else when a man’s been murdered with a fork?
Hours later, in a cab, the afterglow of the case hums through both of them. They’re slumped into the seat watching London by night zip past them. John watches Sherlock’s monochrome profile appear and disappear in the amber glow of traffic and streetlights. Sherlock rests his hand almost accidentally against John’s thigh, and neither of them shift away. There is a golden feeling in John just now; he thinks that nothing will ever feel as good as this does.
For a moment, all is as it should be, and John is at peace. But it doesn’t last. It can’t.
A week later, John’s sitting outside on a patio in Southwark. He’s the only one there. The wind off the Thames is too cold and damp, and the others who started the night outdoors have drifted inside by the fire. John’s hands are freezing and he’s shivering, but he doesn’t notice. The whisky is cold, but it feels warm.
Sherlock finds him, of course. He brings a wool blanket with him and wraps John up in it. His hands find John’s and hold them.
“Stop, John. This is killing you.”
“Yeah.” John sighs, and leans into Sherlock automatically, as if he’s done it before. “I know.” He nuzzles into Sherlock’s neck and kisses him behind the ear.
That’s an odd thing, isn’t it. It doesn’t seem odd to him at the time. It’s a time that doesn’t exist, after all. He can’t feel his fingers, but Sherlock is warm like whisky, and John wants to kiss him. He doesn’t think about it.
“I know, I know. I know, Sherlock.” He wants to, so he does. He kisses Sherlock’s neck with his cold lips. He slides his hand along Sherlock’s stomach. “I know.” John kisses him on the chin. And then he kisses Sherlock on the mouth.
It starts to rain.
He wakes up under the same wool blanket on the sofa at 221b, but doesn’t remember getting there. He only remembers the wind off the Thames, and, oddly, heat.
He wonders if he turned up on Sherlock’s doorstep drunk and out of his mind last night, cold and wet and horribly lonely. He is always, always horribly lonely. He’s embarrassed. This has gone too far. He knows it’s got to stop, but he doesn’t know if he has the strength. He’s in a lot of pain, you understand. For the first time it occurs to him that he’s not much different than his sister, and he is ashamed of himself.
It’s easy to hit the bottom when you can’t feel yourself falling.
It’s still raining. The sun is coming up. John doesn’t want to think about it. He puts his shoes on and leaves as quietly as he can.
It’s hard to stop, but he does, for a while. It hurts. A lot. But he doesn’t talk about it, and Sherlock doesn’t mention it. No one else has even noticed. Days have never been so long, and nights have never hurt so much. He loses his temper a few times, with patients, co-workers, friends, and has to apologise. He struggles to sleep. He has nightmares. He cries.
He is so angry with Mary that he punches a hole in the wall. His therapist, the one he has begun seeing again, but to whom he has not yet confessed his drinking problem, says expressing his anger is healthy.
“Anger is honest,” she says. “You need to be honest with yourself.”
It’s not a surprise that he picks up a drink again two days after that. These things are difficult.
“John,” Sherlock says. John has no idea where he came from, but he’s here, and sitting very close to him. So close John can feel the distracting, blissful heat of him. His face is full of anguish. “Don’t.” He takes John’s hand away from the glass. “Not again.”
There is so much in Sherlock’s deliberate touch. He takes John’s hand and presses his fingers to his mouth. John can’t ignore it. Sherlock is kissing him. He presses his lips to John’s fingers, his knuckles, he strokes the palm of his hand. John is spellbound, transfixed by it. Nothing else is as real as that.
Suddenly John knows. He understands. He doesn’t remember how he got here, but he knows who’s in front of him. And why. Years of being in love with each other, and this is the breaking point. He runs his thumb over Sherlock’s lips. It’s so obvious now. All this time; everyone knew it, and both of them pretended it wasn’t true. He almost laughs. He can only do this because he’s drunk. He hates the irony of it.
“Tell me that you know,” John tells him. He can’t feel his skin. He knows he won’t remember this in the morning. “Tell me that you’ve deduced that I’m in love with you from the buttons on my shirts, or the way I tie my shoes, or how I brush my hair, I don’t know, whatever works. Tell me it’s obvious. I’ll believe you. I always do.”
John’s presses his forehead to Sherlock’s. “I’ll be terrified.”
Sherlock gives him a wan smile.
“Tell me,” John pleads. “Tell me you love me too.”
“I won’t believe you,” John says. He strokes Sherlock’s cheek. “You’ll have to kiss me,” he whispers against Sherlock’s lips.
John wakes up in his bed with a hangover. He’s not sure where he was last night; he’s not even sure he left his flat. How did get his hands on alcohol? Did he rob the neighbours? He’s not sure, but he wouldn’t put it past himself. He curses his weakness, and vows to join Alcoholics Anonymous, or whatever he had to do to put an end to this. He’s exhausted. He’s ashamed of himself. He thinks maybe it’s time to be honest with his therapist. He needs help with this, he can’t deny it any longer.
His phone pings.
I need you. Come immediately.
John smiles. Case?
Something like that.
John sits up, winces, and puts his feet on the floor. He hopes it will be an interesting day. He needs one of those.