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The Common Cold

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Sherlock didn’t look up from his microscope when John came in with two bags of shopping and began to unpack them on the table. He was far too concerned with the culture in front of him to pay attention to the bread and fresh vegetables being put away around him. It wasn’t as if he was likely to eat any of it after all.

However, as a box of cornflakes was pulled from the depths of the bags a small box fell out and slid across the table, stopping when it touched one of his Petri dishes. He let his eyes momentarily flicker towards it then seized it up with his thumb and forefinger when it proved to be something of interest.

“Ah, paracetamol, exactly what I need for my-“

“Thank you.” John cut across him abruptly and snatched the box of tablets out of his fingers in a vicious sweep. “They’re for me actually. You know you’ve managed to experiment on or contaminate all the medication in the flat? I couldn’t find a thing this morning. That’s why I bought more. Which you are not touching.”

Still leaning forward on the table in the same position he had been when John had seized the drugs, Sherlock stared at his now empty hand.

“You’re irritated.”

“I’m around you, of course I’m irritated.” Except now John sounded more resigned than irritated.

Sherlock sat back to examine his flatmate and noticed for the first time that John was somewhat paler than usual and was sweating ever so slightly. “You have a headache.”

“And a throat ache and an ache all over. Sherlock, I’m ill.”

John put a packet of pasta away and slammed the cupboard door. He winced instantly and for a moment rocked back slightly on his heels and rubbed at his forehead.

“A nice quiet evening in,” he muttered almost to himself. “Exactly what I need.”

And exactly what Sherlock didn’t. He had planned to spend another hour or so on examining the development of his cultures but he knew that if he let John settle down on the sofa right now it would be twice the effort to get him back up again. That wouldn’t do if they were to get to the morgue before dinner.

Rapidly changing his plans he jumped up and grabbed John by the shoulders to stop the other man from taking off his coat. “We’re going out.”

John pulled himself forcefully out of Sherlock’s grip and turned to face him, stumbling slightly as he backed away.

“Didn’t you hear what I just said?”

“We can go to that Cantonese place you like afterwards and still get back in time for The Apprentice,” Sherlock said reasonably.

“That’s not the point.”

John sat heavily down in the armchair and sniffed loudly. He started to shrug out of his coat again, but seeing that Sherlock reached over and seized him by the arm.

“Nope, come on.”

John rose to his feet when he pulled so he started to victoriously plan their route to the hospital and whether he could persuade John to take a side trip to check out a warehouse he was sure was being used for smuggling; they were running an hour early after all. Suddenly John twisted himself out of Sherlock’s grip again, violently shook himself out of his coat and flung it to the floor.

“I told you, Sherlock. I’m not going out. I’m ill.”

“Hardly.”

“Hardly!” John’s shout was abruptly cut off by his own pained wince. He reached for his throat and idly massaged his Adam’s apple.

Three months ago, John had run halfway across London to Sherlock’s aid with a dislocated shoulder. Seven weeks ago, John had knocked out six gang members while nursing a broken hand. Two weeks ago, John had tried to persuade two paramedics that he didn’t need an ambulance even though his jumper was soaked with over a pint of his own blood.

This surely wouldn’t take that much persuasion. Perhaps if he mentioned the probably dangerous warehouse diversion John would be keener.

“We-“

“How many times do I have to tell you? I’m ill. I’m staying here.”

“You don’t look ill.”

“I feel it.”

“Are you really going to let a trifling little illness take you out?”

John’s mouth fell open. Sherlock became very aware that he had never seen his friend look more outraged. Cross, enraged, morally irate, yes. But right now John looked like Sherlock had paid him the worst insult imaginable. His offence was so utterly apparent that Sherlock felt the sudden overwhelming urge to apologise. He had never felt that before.

“Just sod off will you.”

The words weren’t shouted. Sherlock thought it might have been better if John had shouted. They were hissed in a disgusted tone and followed by another congested sniff before John stormed past Sherlock and up the stairs to his bedroom.

Sherlock tried to go back to the cultures but found he couldn’t concentrate. He picked up the warehouse pictures, fully intending to peruse them for more data but found his attention drifting to the ceiling above him where he could hear his flatmate moving about.

By the sounds of it John had climbed into bed but was unable to get comfortable. At one point he heard John get up and Sherlock found himself jumping to his feet in case John came down, suitably contrite of course, and they could go out after all. But John only went into the bathroom. He walked back to his bedroom almost immediately and Sherlock stared at the ceiling, trying to see through the plaster and deduce what was happened. Ah, there it was. The sound of John blowing his nose. They had no tissues so the other man must have taken some toilet roll from the bathroom. Satisfied with a successful deduction Sherlock turned back to the pictures and gave them his full focus. Until John made another sound.

By the next morning Sherlock was absolutely certain there was must be something seriously wrong. John had come down several times during the night, either to get a glass of water or make a cup of tea. Every four hours like clockwork he would take two of the paracetamol. Whenever he appeared Sherlock, who had finally managed to settle on the sofa with his laptop, tried to speak to him but John never said a word. Sherlock was concerned by the growing tiredness he saw in John’s face combined with the lack of sleep the doctor appeared to be getting. He calculated by the amount of movement that indicated John tossing and turning, added to the visits downstairs and to the bathroom, that John had had less than four hours non-consecutive sleep during the night. At eight fifteen in the morning he heard John make a phone call. Clearly John would not be going into work that morning.

Sherlock was worried. He had been worried about John before, true, but usually because the other man had a gun pointed at his head, or had been kidnapped by Chinese gang members, or was lying unconscious in a hospital bed while a machine did his breathing for him. He had never been this worried about John while the other man was just upstairs.

Surely there must be something seriously wrong. John wouldn’t skip work for anything. Well, anything apart from Sherlock’s cases. He’d gone in to work with a cast on, after having no sleep, covered in grime after chasing a triple murderer though the tube network after happening to spot her on his way in. This illness must be far more serious than John had let on. So very like John Watson to hide the fact that he was dying. He obviously intended to spare Sherlock the discomfort of having to deal with this knowledge.

Well Sherlock was certainly capable of dealing with it. But first to discover exactly what it was…

 

~

 

When Dr Sarah Sawyer picked up the phone at around ten o’clock she barely got out the first syllable of her usual greeting before a very familiar voice blurted out,

“It’s Sherlock. I need Ciprofloxacin.”

They were two doctors down and now her locum was off sick. She did not have time to deal with Sherlock’s usual shenanigans this morning. “What?”

“Ciprofloxacin. I believe it’s the recommended treatment for Pulmonary Anthrax poisoning.”

“Anthrax poisoning?” Then again maybe she did. “Who’s been poisoned?”

“John. I could steal some from Barts but I’m uncertain how large a dosage should be used and seeing as John is out of action it seemed sensible that I call you for assistance. Besides, you can then continue to prescribe the medication for as long as John needs it without any further action from myself.”

Sarah’s heart was beating out a drum. How could Sherlock be so calm about this? “John called this morning and said he had a cold. Are you telling me he’s been poisoned?”

“It seems the logical conclusion from an internet search of his symptoms.”

Sarah paused. Her heart rate slowed. Her annoyance at Sherlock shot through the roof.

“An internet search of his symptoms.” She was quite proud of the way she managed to keep her voice flat and calm.

“Yes. So should I come to the clinic to collect the prescription or will you come here?”

Sherlock’s voice was businesslike but Sarah had a sense that there was something else going on here. She decided to humour him for a while.

“Tell me about his symptoms.”

“I assure you my research was thorough.”

Sarah silently cursed internet research. Every concerned mother was an expert on tuberculosis and influenza these days. Sarah had never expected to compare Sherlock to a concerned mother but it was obvious this was a similar situation.

“Yes, I’m sure it is, but I can’t prescribe anything without knowing a bit more about what I’m prescribing it for. Tell me John’s symptoms.”

“A sore throat.”

Sometimes there needed to be a button to telephones which you can press and it will cause a rubber hammer to come out the other person’s phone and knock them upside the head.

“A sore throat.”

“Yes, but he isn’t coughing. Not yet at least.”

“Just a sore throat.”

“Well, obviously not just a sore throat, John is a doctor and a soldier and made of far tougher stuff than to take the day off due to just a sore throat.”

The word idiot floated there unsaid and they both knew it.

“Then can you please tell me his other symptoms.”

“Weakness, headache, fever, chills, tiredness, inability to sleep and a blocked up nose.”

Again there was an edge to Sherlock’s voice as he gave the list. It was almost as if he was finding it difficult to remain entirely abstract about the situation. About the patient?

“All of which are the symptoms of a cold.”

“Yes, the website did say Anthrax poisoning displays cold-like symptoms.”

“You know what else displays with cold-like symptoms? A cold.”

Sherlock scoffed. “I hardly think John Watson is the sort of man to be taken out by a mere cold.”

Ah, here was the route of the problem, Sarah thought. And she had always suspected John was the one who hero-worshiped Sherlock, not the other way around.

“He hasn’t been taken out by it. He’s being very nice and not coming in here to share it with the rest of us.”

“He spent the entire morning in bed.”

“Resting. That’s what people do when they’ve got a cold. It helps them get over it.”

“Dull, tedious.”

“For you maybe. Not for normal people.”

“John Watson is not normal.”

Sarah smiled. “And yet still susceptible to the common cold.”

“John Watson is not common.”

“For the-“ Oh hammer button, hammer button, wherefore art thou hammer button? “Look, Sherlock, have you even been somewhere lately where John could have picked up Anthrax poisoning?”

“It’s possible.”

“Let’s try this again. Based on your thorough research can you ascertain whether you are suffering from anthrax poisoning?”

“No.”

“And has John been anywhere you haven’t in the last few days apart from the surgery or the shops, neither of which are likely sources?”

“No.”

“Have you deliberately given him anthrax poisoning?”

“No!”

“How about other symptoms? Is he showing any signs of shock?”

“No.”

“Any severe breathing difficulties, aside from the blocked nose?”

“No.”

“Has he been able to get out of bed for any reason? Toilet, cup of tea, anything?”

“Yes he keeps making tea.”

“Sherlock.”

“Yes?”

“He doesn’t have Anthrax poisoning. And if he’s able to get out of bed then he doesn’t have swine flu, avian flu or indeed any other type of flu. He. Has. A. Cold. A bad one, yes, but a cold. As long as he gets plenty of rest and fluids he’ll get over it in a few days.”

That seemed to take a moment to sink in. Sarah could almost hear the cogs turning. It was rather nice, actually, to be able to silence Sherlock Holmes for once.

“But what do I do?”

Sarah couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “What was that?”

“I won’t say it again.”

“What do you do? You don’t have to-“ Alarm bells went off in her head, stopping her speech immediately. John always did everything for Sherlock. Shopping, cooking, cleaning and Sherlock only rewarded him by hauling him out on those adventures and getting him hurt. She thought it was about time Sherlock started to work off his debt. “Tea.”

“What?”

“Make him as much tea as he likes. Go to the shop and buy lockets, lemsip and paracetamol. Also soup. A dozen different varieties of soup and plenty of bread to go with it. Boxes and boxes of tissues certainly wouldn’t go amiss. Then give any and all of these items to John when and if he requires them. Talk to him. Keep him entertained, he’s probably bored stiff shut away in his room. Take him books to read in bed. Or wrap him up in a blanket and watch a movie on the sofa with him. Let him rest and sleep as much as he needs and don’t go dragging him out on cases.”

“Right.”

Without another word, Sherlock hung up.

 

~

 

Message to John Watson.

I may have set an overly anxious Sherlock on you. Sorry.

 

Message to Sarah Sawyer

Oh god what did you do?

 

Message to John Watson

Persuaded him you don’t have Anthrax.

 

Message to Sarah Sawyer

What?

 

Message to John Watson

He was concerned. It was sweet. Milk it for all it’s worth.

 

~

 

Despite Sarah’s warning John was convinced his fever had spiked and he was delusional when Sherlock burst through his bedroom door later that morning. He was carrying a tray laden with soup, fresh bread, tea, a box of tissues, a mug of lemsip and a whole stack of medication. It looked as though Sherlock had bought out the entire cold and flu section of the Tescos pharmacy.

John sat upright in bed, knocking aside the book he had been unable to read and the ever increasing pile of used tissues, and unconsciously felt for his forehead. He wasn’t that hot. My god, he thought, that meant this was real.

Sherlock placed the tray on John’s lap then perched on the edge of the bed by his knees and stared at him.

John’s head felt like it was full of cotton wool. Admittedly that was marginally better than it feeling like the top was trying to escape as it did whenever he got up. But it meant that he was having even more trouble than usual trying to discern the peculiar look on Sherlock’s face.

Was it concern? Should he placate Sherlock by lying and saying he was feeling better? Was it impatience? Did Sherlock want to drag him out the door to a crime scene? John wasn’t sure he could resist right now. Was it self congratulatory? Was Sherlock waiting for him to praise him on his successful supply run? Or was it expectant? Maybe Sherlock was just waiting for John to start on the contents of the tray. If that was the case then where did he begin? He stared at the offerings in front of him, at a complete loss.

Sherlock sighed and forced the lemsip into his hand with a comment about how it was a substitute for his regular dose of paracetamol. John downed it gratefully then scrunched up his face at the taste. Lemsip was a cruel thing to inflict on a sick person. He always knew he was really ill if he could stand it. Otherwise one whiff of it and he would suddenly realise with certainty that he wasn’t all that bad.

Sherlock took the empty mug from him and shoved a spoon in his hand.

“You haven’t eaten since lunchtime yesterday,” he said. “While this is perfectly commonplace for me you normally require more frequent nourishment. Especially if you are unwell. It’s chicken. I asked a retired secretary on her second divorce in Tescos and she said chicken was best for ill people.”

“Thank you,” said John voice uncomfortably croaky.

He had a few spoonfuls. He could barely taste it but the heat soothed his throat. He realised Sherlock was still staring at him.

“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” John asked.

For a second John thought Sherlock looked almost crestfallen. That couldn’t be right. This cold must have affected his mind more than he thought.

“You want me to leave.” Sherlock started to get up.

“No!” The word came out in more of a rush than John had intended and it sparked an oddly pleased look on Sherlock’s face. “Stay.” Sherlock sat down. “Talk to me.”

“Sarah said you would be bored. I don’t blame you.”

“I can’t concentrate on anything right now.”

“She said it was just a cold.”

“It is.”

“You’re ill.”

John laughed, the way his throat was affected it sounded like an evil cackle. “Some colds are bad like that. I’ll get over it in a few days.”

“And you’ll have a much quicker recovery time if you remain in bed.”

John paused to blow his nose, briefly embarrassed by how loud and sticky it sounded to his ears.

“That’s right,” he managed eventually.

Sherlock nodded. “Then you shouldn’t move. I can’t have my blogger incapacitated for too long.”

John smiled at Sherlock and tried to think of something to say to that. He couldn’t so he just sat there with a silly smile on his face until Sherlock nudged the bowl of soup towards him. John obediently started to eat while Sherlock talked, regaling him with some theory about a warehouse or something.

When he finished the soup he sat back and closed his eyes; only to rest them he said to himself. He was already feeling better. Maybe he could go out with Sherlock tomorrow.

He let the sound of Sherlock’s voice waft over him. He was no longer listening to the actual words but it was nice and familiar. It made him feel comfortable and strangely safe. It wasn’t long before he felt himself drifting off to sleep.

He was vaguely aware of the tray being removed and of being laid down onto his pillow before he drifted off.

He never felt the hand stroking his hair.

And the kiss on his forehead just became part of a dream.