Chapter 1: Brutal Beethoven
Sherlock Holmes was anything but ordinary, that much was obvious. He was well-aware of the impression he gave others: cold, analytical, socially indifferent, freakish. People did not understand his fascination with murder and the macabre. They did not realise that he saw not the blood, or the body, but the mystery. They projected their own distaste onto him and then complained when he failed to respond in the expected, human manner.
Now, for example, he was cutting open eyeballs on the kitchen table. If Mrs Hudson walked in, there would be uproar. However, she was visiting her sister, which left only John to complain. John, who was a doctor and not prone to excessive sensitivity over body parts – but who was still watching what he was doing with a vaguely sick look.
'This is for an experiment, isn't it? You're not just –' He made a vague gesture – a sort of fluttering hand wave. He did that frequently, and Sherlock had decided it was John's silent way of asking “Have you gone off the deep end?” without actually voicing the question.
'It's an experiment,' he confirmed, wiping vitreous humour from the scalpel blade before carefully slicing free another section of the sclera.
John did not ask for further details as he sank into his armchair and picked up the newspaper. He was one of the few people of Sherlock's acquaintance who didn't require overly complicated explanations to ease his moral imbalance over meddling with human remains. Sherlock had realised some time ago that he could get away with quite a lot by telling John whatever he was doing was for science, whether it was cutting up dismembered toes or taping a steak to the ceiling and leaving it there for a week.
'Fine, just put them away when you're finished with them. They're staring at me.'
Sherlock glanced up at the other three eyeballs. They were currently undisturbed, none of them matched their companions, and yes, he had lined them all up to be looking at John rather than himself. He was never very fanciful, but the brown one seemed particularly judgemental.
'Since they have no eyelids, they don't have much choice but to stare,' he pointed out logically. 'It's not like they're reading over your shoulder and beating you at the crossword.'
'Which you've already done, I noticed,' John huffed.
'I thought I would save you the trouble. You find them more frustrating than entertaining. Yesterday you sulked for almost an hour when –'
Sherlock blinked, the scalpel hovering uselessly above another sample as he listened to the clanging, echoing, horrible silence in his head: all thought wiped clean in an abrupt and startling fashion. It was as if his brain had become just a collection of pink and grey matter rather than the collusion of facts and experiences that made him who he was.
'You all right?'
The paper rested forgotten in John's lap, and he was staring at Sherlock looking nothing short of alarmed. Why was that? Oh, he had been talking, but what had he been saying?
Abruptly, like a spark catching alight again, everything came back online. Thoughts exploded into life and the peace abated, leaving Sherlock to glare at the tabletop. Perhaps other people experienced such placid moments on a more frequent basis. Stopping in the middle of sentences was a common occurrence for almost everyone else on the planet. Even Mycroft did it when he was distracted, which was not often, but this – this was different.
'I'm fine,' he said dismissively, putting the scalpel down and getting to his feet.
'Did you have a brainwave? Don't think I've ever seen you do that before – stop in the middle of a sentence like that and stay silent, I mean. Normally you're just correcting yourself or something.'
'Something like that. I need to check some data.' He could feel John watching him as he strode over to his room, leaving the door open a fraction as he began to search. After several minutes, he found the right notebook. Red, unlike all the others he owned. That was deliberate, because while these events were rare, they were important. Not murder, but still fascinating and horrible all at once: a personal mystery that remained unsolved.
He had a tendency to delete just about everything once its usefulness had passed, but this – this refused deletion. This hovered around in the back of his brain and reminded him of how it had been last time, and the time before that – of confused doctors and Mummy worrying and Mycroft talking in a calm, patient voice while Sherlock's entire head was overcome with agony and his brilliant brain was reduced to chaos.
Sherlock skimmed through his own handwriting, screwing up his eyes as he tried to decipher it. He tended to write the notes shortly after each attack, and the evidence of it was all over the place. Backwards letters, foreign nouns dropped into English sentences, words written in the wrong order... yet there was information to be gleaned from the mess – particularly the date.
There it was. He had not had a major episode for almost four years. Oh, there had been a couple of warning signs that faded away to nothing. Perhaps this was the same – a blip, rather than a pre-cursor?
He would need to be vigilant. Sherlock possessed many things, but his mind was his most valuable treasure. Yet during these episodes, everything went wrong. Thoughts lost cohesion, pain took control, and the neatly ordered bastions of his mind palace fell to rubble.
Worse, his symptoms went beyond the realms of severe towards inexplicable. No doctor had ever found the cause. They tested and tested and found nothing unusual. No signs of brain abnormality, clots, burst blood vessels.... nothing.
Migraine, they said. Take painkillers and sleep. As if that could ever be enough.
It terrified him when all his control was reduced to nothing. When his most powerful tool became a repulsive liability. He had tried to stop it last time – had not really cared about anything at all but ending it, and he had nearly succeeded.
That was his last overdose. The one that almost killed him. Even now, he was not sure if it had been an accident. Had he honestly miscalculated the dose, or had he simply been looking to make it all go away?
Shaking his head, Sherlock took a deep, shuddering breath, putting the notebook back in his drawer. Perhaps it would not come to that. He had been told, after all, that he would grow out of them, and they had reduced dramatically in frequency. At sixteen he had experienced eight in one year. Maybe the fleeting blankness of his mind had been more like an aftershock than a primary tremor?
With a sigh, he turned away from the sanctuary of his room and returned to the microscope, ignoring John's worried gaze as he resumed his experiment. This was his life now: puzzles and answers, the Work and John.
Not mind-breaking events that confused doctors and made Mummy cry.
Maybe John could not look at other people and tell their life stories from the little details that surrounded them, but he was not nearly as blind as Sherlock seemed to believe, especially when it came to his flatmate. It was difficult to share a space with someone and not become intimately aware of their habits, their quirks, their neuroses – and Sherlock had plenty of all three.
So when he started acting strange – well, stranger than usual – John noticed. It helped that Sherlock was an irritatingly captivating man. It was hard not to stare at him. John had tried, because there was only so long you could visually appraise your friend before people started to talk, but it was useless. The rumours spread, and John kept watching, attempting to learn everything he could about the mysterious Sherlock Holmes.
The eyeball incident had been the first thing that whispered a warning in his ear. Something about that's not quite right, but he put it aside. Everyone was entitled to stop in the middle of a sentence sometimes. Hell, it happened to him several times a day, but he was fairly certain he had never heard Sherlock do it before, and his behaviour afterwards had been faintly agitated, more tense and controlled.
Sherlock was a tall man, one that moved with a grace that came from growing into that elegant frame. Yet for the past three days he had seemed more compressed, elbows tucked in, shoulders hunched, strides shorter, as if he was not quite sure where his body began or came to an end anymore.
He ate, too, which made John twitchy. Normally it was a battle to get a meal down his throat once a day, but now breakfast, lunch and dinner passed Sherlock's lips. He did not raven his food, like a man sating a sudden surge in appetite, but put it away one meticulous forkful after another, like someone stocking up for future deprivation.
John frowned, trying not to worry as he watched Sherlock examine the latest corpse, every movement too controlled and inadequately flamboyant. He seemed diminished, and the subtle wrongness of it was starting to make John feel sick with worry.
'Is he all right?' Greg asked, leaning back against the police cruiser. Around them the blue lights flashed, drowned out by the weak morning sunlight. 'Barely said a word when he got here. Ignored Anderson and Donovan, and he looks...' Greg's shoulders shifted uncomfortably, and John could see that open face setting itself into lines of genuine concern.
'I don't know,' John said at last, which was the truth at least. 'He's been acting a bit strange these past few days.' He kept his voice low, not quite sure why he did not want Sherlock to hear the exchange. It felt a bit like betrayal, admitting that Sherlock had been anything but himself, but Greg cared, which was more than could be said for most people.
'He seems –' Greg pursed his lips, and a whole new level of discomfort twisted in John's guts. 'It's just he used to look like this, you know, before.'
'Before?' John asked, feeling as if the conversation had turned down an unexpected tangent, leaving him more than a bit lost. 'Before what?'
'Before he cleaned up.' Greg said it, quick and quiet. There was nothing like law and order in his voice. He just looked sick, as if he were afraid of what he was seeing. 'He used to turn up at crime scenes and be all –' He gestured weakly at where Sherlock was still crouched, looking thoughtfully at the victim's face. 'Not right. I swear, he was the most high-functioning addict I’d ever seen. You had to look close to realise what was wrong, but it was like this – like someone trying too hard not to be drunk, you know?'
'Yeah,' John muttered to himself. 'Too self-aware.' He shook his head in sudden, sharp rejection. 'He's not using. I'm a doctor. I know what to look for. For Christ's sake, I’ve been keeping an eye out for it since the night I moved in. This is something else.'
'No offence, John, but you're the one who's always willing to see the best in him, and he's clever.' Greg snorted, self-derision thick in the sound. 'More than clever. He's good at hiding it.'
'I know.' John straightened up, his left hand clenching tight at his side as a twinge ran through his leg. 'I know, but I still don't think he's using. This is something else, and I wish I knew what it was.'
Over by the body, Sherlock straightened up, and both John and Greg saw him sway. It was faint, quickly hidden by tight muscles, but it was enough to make John's stomach go cold.
With half an ear, John listened to Greg call orders to his men, instructing them to take control of the scene. They were parked up at an old industrial estate, and John watched the police officers spread out, looking for clues across the vast sprawl of land.
To anyone else it probably looked like standard procedure, but John briefly wondered if Greg was deliberately reducing the number of witnesses. Before long, only Donovan remained, along with Anderson and his team, who paced towards the body as Sherlock walked over to the car, apparently concentrating on where he was putting his feet.
This close, John could see a faint gleam of sweat at Sherlock's hairline, despite the chill of the day. His eyes were pinched at the corners, and his pale skin had taken on an unhealthy tinge. When he spoke his voice was softer than usual, not a decisive, triumphant monologue, but something pointed: a straight answer for once.
'Carbon monoxide poisoning. Landlord panicked, made it look like a rape gone wrong. Sexual abuse conducted with an object, I imagine. Do what you want with that.'
'Aren't you going to tell me how you know?' Greg asked. 'I can't just arrest someone because you say so.'
Sherlock blinked, and John licked his lips. That was too slow. The normal human blink was a fraction of a second, and he found himself trying to check Sherlock's pupils without him noticing. Not that it worked. Sherlock just gave him a faintly disappointed look before he answered.
'Carbon monoxide poisoning is obvious. She's pink. Add that to the fact that there are no signs of a struggle suggests that she was moved here, and abused, post-mortem. She lived in the low rent flats over there.' He gestured to one of the tower blocks dominating the skyline. 'Ex council properties now privately owned and rented out cheap. Who would want to hide carbon monoxide poisoning? A landlord that was shit at maintenance.'
John frowned. It was not like Sherlock to curse; he thought vulgarity showed poor vocabulary. He noticed a gentle, steady tremor running through the taller man's frame. It was subtle, not the ravages of a fever, but something else. Greg had seen it too, because he folded his arms across his chest, his chin dropping as he spoke quietly.
'Sherlock, what’s wrong with you? Please, please tell me this is not what it looks like.'
A tight sound caught in Sherlock's throat and his fingertips pressed to his right temple. 'Must you be so gun-metal grey?' he spat, his eyes clenched shut as his fingers splayed across his own brow. 'Obvious. You're always so obvious. Brutal Beethoven.'
John stepped forward, inserting himself between Greg and Sherlock in one efficient movement. The army taught him many things, but one of the best skills other than shooting people from far away was how to make himself seem tall and commanding while still being the shortest man in the room.
'Leave it,' he ordered Greg, not shouting or vehement, just firm, before he carefully looped his fingers around Sherlock's wrist and pulled his hand away. 'Sherlock, I need you to tell me what's happening so I can help.'
This time the sway was more obvious, and Sherlock's weight pressed against him, leaning forward like he knew John could hold him up if necessary. The fan of his lashes did not part, but after a few moments his lips moved, framing whispered words that John had to cock his head to hear.
'My head. It's all failing. All gone wrong, wrong, wrong.' He opened his eyes then, veins making road-maps across the whites and the irises more green than John could recall seeing them before, but it was his pupils that caught his attention. The right one looked normal for the amount of light around, but the left was significantly larger, and when John carefully shielded Sherlock's eye with his hand, the dilation was far too sluggish.
'Shit, have you hit your head?' he demanded, his hand digging in his pocket for his phone, his mind racing back as he tried to think of a time when Sherlock might have injured himself. 'I'm going to call an ambulance.'
'No!' Sherlock's barked word cut across the air, making Donovan look over, but John was too busy watching Sherlock flinch from the sound of his own voice, rocking back on his feet as if the sound were a physical thing. 'Sharp, vulgar, acid green. No.'
'What's the freak going on about now?' Sally asked, her lips curling into a sneer as she stopped by John's shoulder. Her face fell as she looked at Sherlock, becoming tense and suspicious. 'What the hell is this?'
'Please stop,' Sherlock murmured, one hand curling in the collar of John's jacket as if he was trying to anchor himself. 'Electric pink hand grenade. Make her leave.'
'Are you talking about me?' She jammed her hands on her hips, looking from Sherlock to John in disbelief, as if she was not quite sure whether to be offended or amused by Sherlock's bizarre statement. Her lips were pulled into a straight line, but her eyes were wide and curious. Perhaps she felt vindicated in her description of Sherlock as a freak, but John had no time to deal with her as he reached up a hand, wiping some sweat from Sherlock's brow only to recoil as he whimpered in distress.
'Take charge of the scene, Sally,' Greg ordered. 'Check out the landlord, and keep me updated. I think we need to get Sherlock back to Baker Street.' He jerked his thumb at the car behind him. 'Get him in, and if he throws up on the upholstery, you're cleaning it up.'
It was a weak, half-joking kind of threat, but John could not bring himself to smile as he guided Sherlock gently into the back seat. A large part of him wanted to forget Baker Street and head for Bart’s instead, somewhere that they had scans, painkillers and emergency equipment. Seeing Sherlock like this made his thoughts jump to the bad, dark places: brain injury, aneurysm, stroke. His mind circled, fixated on the contents of Sherlock's skull. Was there something in there, some flaw killing him in front of John's very eyes?
Christ, what was he meant to do?
'Don't go,' Sherlock said softly, his hand reaching out to clasp John's once more until he climbed into the car. He let Sherlock lean, loose-limbed and drained against his body while he propped himself uncomfortably against the closed door. A rough growl erupted from the engine, making Sherlock jerk, and his spare hand flew to his ears as he murmured, 'Tastes like petrol.'
'Don't worry,' he whispered, swallowing as Sherlock turned his face into the dark curve of John's neck. 'I'm here. We'll fix this.'
John met Greg's gaze in the rear-view mirror, daring him to comment. However, Greg just smiled in a sad, uncertain way before he steered the car back out into the bustle of London's streets and headed for home, leaving John to bear Sherlock's trembling burden as best he could and pray that, whatever this was, it was something he could cure.
Chapter 2: Appalling Toulouse
John was an anchor, an island, a sanctuary in a turbulent sea, and Sherlock shielded his throbbing eyes in the dusky curve where John's neck joined his shoulder. He had been a fool to set foot outside the flat today, to agree to Lestrade's plea for help, but he had stupidly hoped the storm growing inside his head would wait another day to unleash its full fury.
He had perhaps an hour before the full assault of the pain would hit, bringing with it a vortex of disorientation and misery, and already he could feel everything starting to crumble. Every sense was turned up to eleven. Light made his eyes burn while his skin itched and crawled. Sound was sharp and bitter, a nail gun fired along his ear canal. Scent and taste confused each other, no longer partners side-by-side but lovers entwined, indistinguishable.
Lestrade's car did not purr, it roared, and the roll of the road was enough to make Sherlock press himself closer to John's side in a quest for something stable. John was a warm, strong presence, worried in a way Sherlock could do nothing to ease. The words would not work. Simple vocabulary was beyond him, his language bleeding outwards in an inarticulate wound.
And the synaesthesia was making him want to vomit. Sounds should not have associated colours, nor tastes, but every time he opened his eyes there were flickers of hues that had no place in the scene and strange ripples of flavour over his tongue: acid fumes and beef.
John feared head injury, brain damage and other, equally dreadful things. Sherlock knew because those same uncertainties had been shared by many a specialist before John. People who had clucked over brain scans like chickens as they tried to find the elusive cause. Empty-handed. They were always empty-handed. Then their palms brimmed with pills that did no more than take the edge off the pain. A screeching string quartet morphing into a percussion section, which was no better.
'Did you take something?' John's voice was a breaking wave in his ear – a soft susurrus made loud. Yet it was not a bad noise. It did not stab at him like the others: Sunny sand and golden glow – that was John. Warm and tropical, almost comforting. 'If you did, you need to tell me.'
His lips were close enough to brush against Sherlock's ear. Lovers did that kind of thing, but this was not a passionate voice. It was tense and concerned, and John's heavy arm draped over his shoulder was pressing him closer as if trying to imbue Sherlock with the strength to respond. He did manage, in the end, after his brain had dissected the question word-for-word and turned it into nonsense before putting it together again.
'Codeine. Recommended dose. Two this morning.' He paused, dimly aware that he was whispering into the skin of John's throat. Perhaps he couldn't hear. 'It's not working.'
He felt the softness seep through John's shoulders, and at least he was not too far gone to recognise relief. John had feared other, less legal medications. At least codeine could be purchased at a pharmacy, rather than a street corner. He slumped further into John's body, chasing the dark that made his eyes stop aching so much, half-noticing the soothing skim of John's hand up and down his arm, heavy through the barrier of coat and suit.
Perhaps he slept, or maybe the spinning streets of London's roulette had already settled on approaching Baker Street, because the next thing he felt was John gently trying to lever him upright with murmured promises of home. Dry, steady hands braced his weight as the gunshot of the door opening breached Sherlock's mind. The wave of fresh air was almost overpowering, tainted with car-exhaust, rubbish, rain and the scent of Speedy's entire menu battling for dominance.
However, even that was preferable to the light. Logically he knew the day was overcast, yet the glow stabbed through the veil of his eyelids, arrowing through his optical orbit and piercing his skull with enough force to make a groan of misery tremble in his throat.
'Ah, Doctor Watson.' The tap of an umbrella tip on the pavement and a voice like toffee. Mycroft. A butterscotch brother. 'Detective Inspector Lestrade. Can I be of assistance?'
Grimly, Sherlock pried his eyes open and immediately wished he had not. So far, he was still slumped on the back seat, holding himself up now that John had climbed out. The front door looked miles away, and John was hunkered down on the pavement, one hand outstretched towards Sherlock while he gazed over at Mycroft, who had dipped slightly to peer into the car and was giving Sherlock a hard stare.
Analysing, Sherlock realised vaguely. It made him seem constipated, but then Mycroft always looked a bit like that.
He jerked away when Mycroft's light, cool finger touched his jaw. The movement made his head clang in warning, his skin prickling and itching from his brother's gentle prod. 'Fuck off,' he managed to mutter, though whether the words sounded the same spoken as they did in his head was doubtful. Both John and Lestrade, who hovered by the door of 221 Baker Street, looked perplexed.
Only Mycroft appeared comprehending, one eyebrow raised and his expression locked in a mixture of gentle reprimand and sympathy: wretched smugness. Vivaldi all over the place.
'That was in French,' Mycroft said, 'though perhaps you don't realise it. I'm assuming you can understand me?'
Obviously. Sherlock wanted to glare, but couldn't. His eyes hurt too much. Even the act of dropping his chin down in a nod made his neck feel like it was made of brittle steel. Sharp, spiteful splinters shoved through his vertebrae.
'Oh, Sherlock,' Mycroft murmured. 'I thought you'd got over these.'
'You – you know what it is?' John asked, and there was such hope in his voice, as if he thought he would get an explanation rather than a dull excuse.
Mycroft appeared to consider the answer for a moment before he bent down to Sherlock's level again, stepping closer and sliding his umbrella so it lay on the floor of Lestrade's car. 'I will tell you all I can, Doctor Watson, but our first priority is to get Sherlock inside. Straight into bed is probably the best idea. This is not the worst of it. Not yet.'
The whole ordeal of getting from the car to the flat was unpleasant. His muscles were working, but only in an approximation of their normal manner. It was as if he had forgotten how long his legs were, so each step either fell short or jarred him until it felt as if his teeth were going to rattle loose.
Mycroft's arm was around his waist, helping him up the stairs with a steady kind of patience Sherlock thought his brother had forgotten existed. He was so used to being pushed around by Mycroft that this – firm support, shining understanding – was enough to make him wonder if he had actually lost consciousness and started dreaming without realising it.
Ahh, except no, because if he had, then the rippling waves of pain would be muted by the tatters of sleep. Instead they were building, gathering speed behind his temples, crushing his sinuses and pressing on his ear drums.
He could hear John and Lestrade climbing the stairs behind them, asking Mycroft muted, worried questions to which they received no answer. Instead his brother held his silence as they eased their way into 221B, and Sherlock allowed himself to be guided towards his bedroom.
Mycroft eased him down onto the bed as if he were made of spun glass, leaving Sherlock sitting on the mattress' edge, his elbows on his knees and his shaking fingers pressed to his temples.
'Can you open your eyes?' he asked quietly, rewarding Sherlock with a thin smile when he managed it. 'I'll get hold of some Norazophen, but it will take a few hours.'
'Won't work,' Sherlock managed. 'Nothing does. You know that.'
'You're still talking French, with an appalling Toulouse accent I might add.'
Sherlock groaned. He had no idea if Mycroft was talking French back to him or English. He understood, and that was what mattered. 'So glad I amuse you.'
'If you were not in such discomfort, you would find it fascinating. You clearly think you are speaking English. However, what's coming out of your mouth is anything but.' Mycroft got up, shutting the curtains with a rasp that sounded like gunfire to Sherlock's ears. 'Norazophen is still what’s recommended in your medical file, and so it's what you'll take. I'll brief your Doctor Watson on its purpose, since I doubt he has heard of it. What else do you need?'
'Rest,' Sherlock managed, dropping his hands weakly and tugging off his scarf before shrugging out of his coat. All his joints felt too elastic and discoordinated, but he had to get out of his clothes. The strafe of the fabric against his skin was becoming too much, reaching beyond itches and irritation to the point of undeniable pain. 'Dark.'
Mycroft nodded, quickly helping Sherlock divest of everything except his underwear. Perhaps he remembered something from the childhood bouts, because he pulled the quilt away from the bed, leaving just a sheet to cover Sherlock's body, as if he were aware that any more weight would seem too smothering.
Easing himself gently to the pillow, Sherlock stifled a rough cry of pain as his neck tried to seize and the first full wave of agony slammed through his skull. It brought the hot bite of tears to his lashes, and he grabbed the second pillow on his double bed, placing it over his eyes and leaving his nose and mouth free to breathe the air unimpeded.
'Bucket.' It was a blunt reminder. Nausea was a forgone conclusion. Often it came to nothing, but Sherlock had deliberately been eating these past few days, attempting to stave off the incoming disaster. The last thing he wanted to do was throw up on the carpet.
'Of course. Try to sleep, if you can.' There was a whisper of cloth as Mycroft folded Sherlock's clothes, radiating silver lines of neatness amidst his fudgy smug undertones. Sherlock did not even need his eyes to know that. The colours turned up in his brain anyway: ghost images echoing across his mind.
At last he was gone, leaving Sherlock alone in the blank canvas of his room. But no, it was not blank, impressed as it was with the footsteps of his life, his body remembering the patterns of his paces as if his outline was blurring. He could feel the varnished wood of the wardrobe against his palm, the cold flash of the windowpane against his cheek, the mirror's baleful eye watching... Sensory hallucinations: a point where memory and sensation blurred together, whipping into a vortex of data that left him pressing his body harder into the bed, desperate to ground himself even as, at last, merciful oblivion rose to claim him.
John fidgeted around the flat, his footsteps echoing sporadically back and forth as he turned to glare at the door to Sherlock's room. He could hear Mycroft's voice, so much softer than usual, less clipped and more rounded at the edges. Then there was Sherlock's answering baritone, a beautiful sound in its own right, made all the more mysterious and worrying by the language.
French. Because of course Sherlock would know French, but the fact he was speaking it now, without any apparent intention of doing so, was enough to make John feel like a spring wound too tight, ready to snap with his need for some solid, medical facts to work with.
'Here.' Greg held out a mug to him, and John felt a stab of gratitude/shame as he realised the DI had taken it upon himself to make tea.
'Thanks. Sorry, I should have offered. Spared you the horrors of our fridge, if nothing else.'
'Don't worry about it. You live with Sherlock. Allowances are made.' Greg glanced towards the bedroom door before looking back at John. 'You got any idea what's going on with him?'
'It's not drugs.' John said it a bit quickly, but he kept his voice firm. He trusted Sherlock, and besides, he had no idea what kind of pharmaceuticals could have such a disturbing effect on a human being. Unless it was some form of bizarre cocktail.
'No, no I got that. Never seen him act like that before, not even when he was off his head. Normally I'd suggest calling a doctor, but –' He gestured towards John with his own mug of tea. 'Well, you’re already here.'
The door opened, revealing Mycroft, who moved with his usual fluidity and reached into the cupboard under the sink, not even blinking at the unusual array of chemicals as he grabbed a bucket and returned to Sherlock's room before emerging a final time. The door closed behind him softly, whispering against its catch as his shoulders slumped, and John watched him let out a faintly shuddering sigh.
'What's wrong with him?' John demanded, lifting his chin and fixing Mycroft with a determined glare. 'Can you give me one good reason why he's in his room and not at hospital?'
'Because the staff would have no idea what to do with him,' Mycroft said calmly, turning towards the kettle and making himself a cup of tea. John would never have known the older Holmes had such domesticity in him, yet he moved around their cramped and frankly disastrous kitchen as if it were an everyday occurrence. 'His first experience of a similar event was almost twenty-five years ago. He was nine.'
Mycroft poured milk into his tea, wrapping his hands around the mug before he leaned against the kitchen surface: all tight, controlled lines and stiff shoulders. 'Throughout his life he has undergone repeated diagnostic regimens, including spending the best part of a year when he was sixteen not only stuck in bed but almost insensate with the pain in his head. At last, the doctors were forced to conclude that it was a type of migraine.'
'Migraine?' John repeated, not bothering to keep his scepticism out of his voice. He knew that the term was used to cover all manner of ills: the inexplicable glitches the human mind sometimes exhibited.
Characteristically, a migraine described an acute, recurrent head-ache accompanied by nausea, vomiting, visual disturbance and disorientation, although many other symptoms were also indicated. Sometimes they occurred in “storms” affecting a patient four or five times in a month before vanishing for years. The cause was not well-documented, and neither was the treatment.
'That's not just a headache.' He jabbed his finger in the direction of Sherlock's door. 'I have never seen a migraine do that to a person before. He was speaking in the wrong language, Mycroft!'
'Indeed.' Mycroft sipped some tea, showing neither appreciation nor distaste for the brew. 'However, I think everyone who knows my brother can agree that he is anything but ordinary. He treats his brain like a hard drive and these attacks are an electro-magnetic pulse. His mind gets scrambled. Synaesthesia, allodynia, aphasia of varying degrees... Though no physical damage occurs within the brain, and believe me, that has been checked time and again throughout his life, the effects are far-reaching.'
'Um...' Greg looked confused, casting a glance at John as he shrugged. 'Can you explain what he just said? I got most of it, but not those words in the middle.'
'Synaesthesia and the others?' Mycroft asked, and for once his smile was genuinely apologetic. 'Most of Sherlock's symptoms can be described as his brain getting its wires crossed, resulting in confusion. His language becomes muddled, he becomes overwhelmed, often registering even the lightest touch as pain, and his senses begin to overlap. He seems to taste sounds, for example –'
'When you started the car, he said it tasted like petrol,' John pointed out. 'If he's seeing sounds as colours as well, it could explain why he was describing you as gun-metal grey.'
'What about brutal Beethoven?' Lestrade asked, looking between Mycroft and John for some kind of answer.
'He will have to explain that one himself,' Mycroft replied. 'He'll remember, which is perhaps more disturbing. His recall of what happens is explicit. Considering how much Sherlock values his mind, to be aware of its degeneration can be nothing short of horrific.'
John frowned down at his tea, which was steadily growing cold in the confines of his mug. 'Is he all right in there?' he asked at last. 'Should he be on his own?
'For now, yes. Minimising the amount of sensory input is still the best way we have found of helping him through these episodes. The room is dark and quiet, two things which he will value greatly in the coming hours. If he sleeps, then it's all for the best.' Mycroft checked his phone, his thumb making the screen scroll as he read a message. 'My assistant will bring by three vials of Norazophen, which Sherlock will need to take intravenously. One dose every twelve hours, if you would be so kind, Doctor Watson?'
John paused, raking through his memory for that drug name and drawing a blank. 'What is it?'
'A pain-relief agent and anti-coagulant with sedative effects. Not available on the NHS, and only on the private health system if you know the right people. Fortunately for Sherlock, he has been seeing the best specialists since his symptoms first emerged. Norazophen is all they can offer.' Mycroft closed his phone and replaced it in his pocket. 'It is inadequate, but necessary. It will reduce his pain level to some extent, particularly once he reaches the peak of the attack, and lower the risk of a blood clot in his brain.'
'Is that likely?' Greg asked, aghast. 'That's – that's what a stroke is, isn't it? He's only thirty-four!'
'Migraine sufferers are considered to be in a risk group,' John supplied, chewing on his bottom lip before setting his tea aside. It was cold now anyway, and what he had drunk sat slick in his stomach.
'Sherlock has never shown any indication of brain abnormality in a physical sense. It's simply a precaution,' Mycroft said, his voice level and soothing, as if he were discussing the weather. John was not buying that tone for a minute. His voice might say one thing, but his body language said another. He was tense in that three piece suit and pale with concern. This was something from which Sherlock could not be protected. All Mycroft could do was try and ease his way, and from the sounds of it even that was a losing battle.
The chime of Greg's phone cut through the tense air of the flat, and he pulled it out with a frown, his eyes darting as he read a text. 'Shit. I have to go. Looks like the landlord’s resisted arrest.' He shot a look at Sherlock's bedroom door, then turned to John. 'Let me know if you need anything, or, you know –' He gestured with one hand, looking as helpless as John felt.
'Yeah, thanks. I'll call you when he's back on his feet.' The promise sounded hideously weak, and John wished there was a way to inject more certainty into his voice. However, when even Mycroft looked ill with worry, how was he meant to be sure of anything?
'As reluctant as I am to leave my brother in this state, I am afraid I must also depart.' Mycroft's blue gaze swept over the kitchen floor as if his schedule was written on the tatty linoleum, his lips curving downwards in displeasure. 'I will return as soon as possible, Doctor Watson. Obviously should his symptoms become any more alarming, I encourage you to seek my advice.'
'Seek your –?' John gaped, his head already shaking back and forth. 'Mycroft, this is insane. I can cope with snot and puke and blood, but this is completely different.'
'Vomit may have a role,' Mycroft murmured, as if that was some kind of comfort. 'As alarming as it may be to an outsider, John, my brother has learned, in his way, to cope with these events. The best thing that can be done is basic medical care and a comforting presence. While I can offer the former, I am afraid the latter is beyond my capabilities. As I said, I will do my best to return at the earliest opportunity. Look after my brother, won't you, John?'
There was no time for him to reply as Mycroft bade him farewell, gliding down the stairs. Dimly, he hoped that Lestrade had driven off with the older Holmes' umbrella. It might be petty, but it would serve the bastard right for leaving John like this, stuck with the barest scraps of information and Sherlock, helpless and speaking in the wrong language.
'Christ,' John muttered, feeling his own headache beginning to dwell in his temples as he considered his options. Mycroft had said Sherlock was best left alone, but there was no way he could simply sit down and wait for signs of movement from the bedroom. No, if Sherlock was in his care then John was at least going to do his own rudimentary diagnosis. The basics could be done while Sherlock was asleep, at least if he was careful.
Creeping over to Sherlock's bedroom door, he eased the handle down, hearing the metal slide free of its catch before he nudged his way inside. The hinges stayed silent, and though the room was very dark, there was still enough light for John to make out Sherlock's form on the bed, outlined by the drape of the sheet.
He was lying on his back, a pillow pressed over his brow and covering his eyes. In the frail illumination of the room, he looked monotone, bleached of colour and washed out. Even the usually pink flesh of his lips was pallid, parted as they were around every steady breath. Sleeping then. His body was too lax for anything else, his bare shoulders rolled back into the mattress and his fingers motionless at his side.
Right, good. With the greatest amount of care possible, John reached out and flicked on the bedside lamp, hoping that the additional glow would not disturb Sherlock. Mycroft had mentioned allydonia as a symptom – a confusion of the pain response where even the slightest touch could register as agony. If he could, he would do most of his examination by sight. Most doctors thought there was not much that could be gleaned through the visual alone, but John had learned to use whatever tools he had to hand. If it was eyes only, then so be it.
Hunkering down at the side of the bed, he watched the pulse throbbing in the hollow of Sherlock's jaw, counting off the beats. It did not take long for him to conclude Sherlock's pulse rate was high, and venular distortion also suggested that his blood pressure was up. There were no obvious signs of shivers or sweats, and John cautiously reached out, hovering his palm over Sherlock's exposed sternum. It was inaccurate as hell, but he was still comforted by the normal level of heat radiating away from Sherlock's body.
'Good,' John breathed, scratching at one of his eyebrows as he nodded to himself. He might still feel hideously out of his depth, but at least while he was here, right by Sherlock's side, he could see every breath and heartbeat, every minute sign of life that could bring him comfort, and he had no intention of simply leaving Sherlock alone to suffer.
Moving quietly, he tiptoed back through into the main flat, grabbing his laptop and opening it up to turn both the brightness and the speaker down. As long as Sherlock was asleep then hopefully the whirr of the fan would go unnoticed, and he could close it the moment Sherlock showed signs of coming around.
For now, though, he needed to research, and he slipped back into Sherlock's room, flicking off the bedside lamp and settling on the floor, his back against the wall and his legs stretched out in front of him as he prepared to wait.
He had just got comfortable when a new email came in, one from Mycroft's office. It was signed from Anthea, and included a document – a compilation of notes from Sherlock's specialists. It seemed Mycroft was not leaving John totally in the dark after all. With just a moment's hesitation, John opened them, preparing himself for an education.
Within minutes, it was clear that Mycroft had not been exaggerating. To say Sherlock had suffered was to miss the opportunity to claim he had been plagued. The first attack had been one of the worst. Terrifying in an adult and doubly horrifying in a child. It made John's heart ache and his guts twist to think of Sherlock like that, the would-be pirate still, agonised and petrified by the betrayal of his mind.
The notes described years of diagnosis and searching, detailed brain scans which all came back as normal: proving that Sherlock's fabulous mind was no different from anyone else's, at least on the surface. The pattern of attacks was also evident. Throughout childhood and into adolescence, Sherlock would suffer one every twelve to eighteen months. Then, abruptly, at sixteen, there was an explosion of them, different intensities, different seemingly disconnected symptoms, although John was quick to pick out the obvious hormonal interference of puberty. Sherlock had grown like a weed that year, shooting up from five foot seven to six foot in twelve months.
It was an image that made John smile despite himself. Sherlock had not been a short child by any means. That last surge had taken him to almost his full adult height. Obviously, the hormones had wreaked havoc on him, and the blood panels that had been taken cited that as a cause for the increased frequency of the so-called migraines. God, it must have been hell. They kept him sedated for the last one, a crippling event that rendered him helpless with pain for almost seventy-two hours.
After that, they vanished, dipping off the radar except for one, brief report when he was twenty-three. It indicated the formation of Sherlock's drug habit as a potential interfering factor in the usual pattern of the migraines. It was, after all, hard to measure pain when the patient was stuck in a cycle of narcotic abuse.
Mycroft had made it sound like there had been more, though, throughout Sherlock's adult life. Had he just handled them himself, locked away from the light and the noise until his brain found its equilibrium once more... all on his own?
John looked up at the figure on his bed, sadness weighing heavy beneath his ribs. It was all too easy to picture Sherlock in that situation, trapped and solitary in the chaos of his own head with no one in the outside world to help him.
Well, not this time. When Sherlock woke up hurting and confused, then John would be there, for however long he was needed.
Chapter 3: Oblivion's Needle
Sherlock will explain what he meant by the French line later on in the story. As for the fact it's not really a phrase French people use, or a correct translation - that's because, due to his migraine, Sherlock's doing direct word-for-word misappropriation in his speech, so it's deliberately wrong. :)
Something was brushing on the edge of Sherlock's awareness, a feather-light, timid kind of touch over the knuckles of his right hand. It was enough to peel back the dark shelter of his sleep in steady increments, unfurling him to the hateful, stabbing edges of the world once more. A groan caught in his throat, wretched and miserable, and he could feel a golden, glowing pity at his side.
'Sherlock, I need to give you the dose of Norazophen.' John's voice drifted softly into Sherlock's ears, his consonants sanded smooth like polished marble: careful and considerate. His vowels tender, curving lines of comfort. Brahms. 'I have to touch you to find a vein. I'm sorry. Lift your little finger once if you think you can bear it.'
There was not really much choice in the matter. The pillow's weight on his head felt like too much, and everywhere the sheet and mattress touched his skin was a scald, raw and weeping. Yet he needed the drug: a blissful mix of chemicals. Oblivion's needle to sew his slumber together once more.
A twitch of his finger was enough to bring on the whispering symphony of John's movements, and he listened to the umber and vermilion tones of John's sunset voice, trying not to flinch as pain ricocheted up his right arm from the gentle tap of John's fingertips raising a vein. He tried to squeeze his hand into a fist to assist, but his knuckles grated against one another: ruination and strife. At last he could only lie still, waiting for the quick flick of a needle diving in to the yield of his flesh.
The drug whirled through his bloodstream, a chaotic internal rush of sanguine smoke, filling up his empty spaces with haze. His pain did not go, it never did, but the edge eased from the panicky, anxious alarm that filled him, allowing him to observe the chaos of his mind palace with a detached eye.
To say it was a mess was to miss an opportunity for other, better words: Disaster and cataclysm in shades of cerise filled his skull, staining the scatter of facts and knowledge with putrid tones of rot and maleficence. The walls were tumbledown, overgrown as if a century had passed. His metaphor literal in the caverns of his head.
He was not sure how long he walked the cracked marble floor, surveying the damage with indifference. There was nothing, now, to protect him from the rasp of the desert winds driving across his mental landscape. He allowed the sand to scratch at his face, clawing at his eyes and turning his lips bloody as they scoured ever inwards.
Eternity lay here, captured in the vault of his skull. He could see it all from beginning to end, alpha to omega, useless chatter and life and stars gone wrong in their waltz. It was madness, probably, human and base. So much left to rattle, lost and forgotten, with neither order nor purpose. How many times had he put it back together? How many endless hours had he spent recreating his brilliance from the ashes only to have it laid to waste once more?
If he did not bother, if he left it here to crumble away, would he still be himself on the outside, or would he be changed in all essentials? Would he still be the man he recognised, or would something new emerge from the destruction: better or worse, dark or bright? Would he be human at all, or just a body's shell and an empty mind, forever impressed upon but unable to interact with the world he knew?
'It's all right. I'm still here.'
John's voice. Was he speaking still? Again? Had seconds passed, or years? Sherlock felt hazy at his edges, shielded from the world by drugs and sedation. Fuzzy in a way flesh had no right to be. The pain was still in his head, of course, a nauseating, throbbing ache that shot through him at every moment, dull drums of war, but at least the rest of his body had been given a temporary reprieve.
'Sherlock, I'm going to move the pillow. Do you think you can open your eyes for me?'
John sounded like velvet moss, undertones of lush concern and crystal dew. Strange, had the drugs changed the way he was perceived, or was this John in all his changeability, showing Sherlock different fragments of his world? A glimmer and a gleam, the dart of fish scale and splash of quenched thirst?
He lifted his hand, clutching at the pillow and lifting it away, a slab of granite shoved aside from his anchorhold door to let reality in once more. The bedroom's air was silken against his face, soothing fingertips rather than desecrating claws, and Sherlock steadily pried his eyes open, braced for the merciless skewer of light.
Yet the room was mostly dark. Only a few hazy patches of coloured illumination wavered, seemingly suspended in mid-air. Hallucinations were a fair possibility, but this was not his normal style. They were innocuous, innocent, friendly, even. Not malicious or malignant or malpropisant.
He frowned, unsure that the last one was even a word, and a confused noise rasped hoarse in his throat.
'Candles,' John said, his voice disembodied still. Probably forever. Sherlock's eyes could not trace an outline in the gloom, nor find any kind of silhouette. 'I put them behind smoked glass. Diffuse light is meant to be easier if you're photo-sensitive.' A hand shifted in his peripheral vision, blocking out the weak flow of illumination to first the right, then the left eye without actually touching him. Possibly checking pupil response, or just general activity, like blinking.
'Can you try and say something?' John asked, and there was a tension in his voice that Sherlock did not enjoy. It was not the angry-edged tone he used when Sherlock had done something stupid, but the slightly higher, softer cadence that suggested pity and concern and fear all wrapped up into a bundle of cinnamon-scented emotion.
'My head hurts,' he managed, closing his eyes again as the deep rumble of his own voice seemed to fall back on itself, eating through his skull with clenching, gnashing teeth. He should have whispered, though he was not sure he was capable.
There was the sound of a fingernail scraping over sparse hair, John scratching his eyebrow: vermilion confusion. 'That – I don't know what that was. Not English. Didn't sound French, either. Do you think you can try again for me?' He sounded so hopeful, like he really wanted to get something sensible out of Sherlock mulched brain.
He took a deep breath – air like thorns all down his throat, filling his lungs with cerulean acid – and focused, shoving at the spongy resistance of pain to try and find some element of familiarity as he repeated himself.
'My head hurts.'
'Yeah, I guessed that much,' John murmured, and the mattress dipped as he shifted, allowing Sherlock to finally place his invisible friend. He was next to him, his weight pinning the sheet neatly at Sherlock's side, back propped against the headboard and the short length of his legs stretched out in front of him. A slight movement of Sherlock's left hand was enough to catch a dense crease of denim at John's knee: cool and rasping, individual fibres in brilliant complexity as if they were woven of John himself. Wonderful.
'You were having a bad dream or, or something,' John explained, his voice still oh-so-smooth and easy on Sherlock's ears as he closed his eyes again. 'Maybe the drugs are wearing off. You've been out for almost nine hours since the injection. Mycroft came to check on you again.'
Sherlock gave a frail sigh through his nose, hoping it was adequate to convey all general feelings pertaining to Mycroft. John seemed to get the message, because there was a brief bubble of quiet laughter, a bit too high, a bit too fretful, but good all the same. John was here, not dripping all over him with hideous regret, nor fluttering in the useless patterns of the lepidopterous around his bedside. He merely sat and waited, as if he knew that this too, like all things, would pass: It was a temporary motionlessness in their lives – a brief cessation. It would go, as all things did, but John still followed him, even when there was no “could be dangerous” about it.
'Keep talking?' Sherlock asked, repeating himself again in a different nuance of the bizarre Esperanto gestalt of language in his head in the hopes of hitting English. 'Keep talking. It's good. Distracting.'
John made an aborted noise in his throat, something that sounded like the start of a question, but maybe he realised that Sherlock was not looking for conversation, but monologue. He wanted John's voice in rich, mellow sunshine tones across his skin: the first spring day after winter's dark. And so he was rewarded by the jumble of John's malleable consonants, his velveteen vowels, all shaping words about whatever crossed his mind.
He spoke of his time in the army, making Sherlock think of Afghanistan's mountains and surprising verdancy. The rippling flow of ridiculous stories: grit in army boots, laces undone, practical jokes and poker, tent canvas flapping in the wind all filled Sherlock's mind. He could taste cumin at the back of his tongue and scent the hot, dry air, twisting through the shattered avenues of his mind palace. It danced across the loose papers, stirring the pinned butterflies back to life so that they danced in the air once more, bright flashes of colour in the growing glow of the sunrise.
And John sat next to him on a sand-worn slab of stone, watching the golden light pour through glassless windows. They were hip to hip, shoulders pressed together as they leaned back, braced on their hands so that their fingers touched. Not moving, simply being.
Connected as the storms of pain rolled around the horizon and they existed in the eye of it all, together.
The second dose of Norazophen went in as easy as the first, with Sherlock hovering on the edge of consciousness as John slipped the needle into the vein. It seemed to be doing its job, though he was aware that the drug was merely taking the sharpest edge off the pain in Sherlock's head and easing the jangling lies his nerves broadcast through his body.
Yet Sherlock himself did not seem to be improving. There was no real sign of him returning to his usual acerbic self as midnight came and went, and John's eyes began to grow heavy and exhausted. Mostly, he slept, which John knew was a blessing. The times that he was awake were brief and full of pained breaths and fragmented words, sometimes in French, German or something that could have either been Spanish or Italian. Asking him to repeat things seemed to help him find the English variant, but clearly talking was a painful effort, and at his pleading John had been the one to speak, his voice little more than a whisper as he filled the air with words: anything and everything – a tiny price to pay if it could soothe Sherlock.
Now, though, just as John was debating getting some bedding so he could sleep on the floor, Sherlock was beginning to shiver. It started out as gentle tremors rippling up his bare arms, but gradually the intensity increased, growing stronger as he curled up on his side, pressing closer to John as he sought out some warmth.
An effort to cover him in a quilt had resulted in a hoarse cry of agony and shot John through with guilt. He had ripped away the offending eiderdown and flung it into the corner of the room, murmuring meaningless comfort as Sherlock drew his knees up to his chest. Now, John perched on the edge of the bed, quiet and worried, the hastily consumed leftovers of a late dinner sitting uneasy in his stomach.
A quick, light touch to Sherlock's brow did not suggest fever; he was just cold. The temperature of the room had fallen away as midnight came and went, and although he wore a jumper John was not quite warm enough. Yet it seemed that even the sheet was causing Sherlock pain, making him scratch red welts into his ribs where it itched.
After a few moments, Sherlock turned around, pressing himself closer to John's hip only to recoil as if burned, drawn to John's heat but repelled by the contact. His long fingers plucked mutely at John's jumper and jeans, and John watched his friend's eyes blink open and scowl up at him, more focused than they had been all day.
'Cold,' he muttered, retracting his hands and pressing them briefly to his eyelids before curling his arms around himself, hunching up tighter. 'I hate this part.'
'Does it always happen?' John asked, still keeping his voice low and soft, incredibly aware of every flinch that danced over Sherlock's face. 'What do you normally do?'
Sherlock's shoulders moved, a quick, sharp jerk upwards that made a soft moan of discomfort catch in his throat, trembling in the still air of the room. 'Wait for it to go?' He sounded like a child, then. Not petulant but hopeful, as if he was desperate for John to offer a better alternative.
Rubbing his hand down the bridge of his nose, John sighed as the options ran through his mind, each as unhelpful as the last. At least Sherlock was speaking in English, now, although how long that would last he wasn't sure. 'The quilt hurts, so I'm guessing putting you in clothes won't help. What about a shower? Hot water?'
Sherlock closed his eyes, his lips pulling down into a miserable grimace. 'No, can't move.' He shivered again, harder this time, and John saw him wince as his teeth clattered together, undoubtedly loud in his own head.
If they were in a hospital, they could use heated blankets, something they could put close to Sherlock to radiate the heat, but they did not even have any hot water bottles in Baker Street. All John could offer was himself, and he swallowed tightly as he considered the idea. Sherlock's attitude towards personal space was notoriously indifferent, but this was about more than standing just a bit too close. However John looked at it, there were connotations to sharing a bed, regardless of the relationship between the two parties. It was intimate, either way.
The problem was not that he did not want to get that close to Sherlock; he just was not sure how easy it would be to pull away again once he was no longer needed. Nor how Sherlock would react to the intrusion once his migraine had passed.
Another shudder beneath the sheet made up John's mind for him, and he stood up, pulling off his jumper, toeing off his shoes, peeling off his socks and stepping out of his jeans until he wore just a t-shirt and his underwear. Sherlock was watching him, looking fleetingly confused, and John padded round the other side of the bed before lifting up the sheet and slipping underneath, trying to act as if it were an everyday occurrence.
'Body heat,' he explained. 'It's the best I can do. I probably won't radiate much, it's not exactly warm in here, but with any luck it will help.'
He watched Sherlock roll over to face him, his movements careful and tender, as if his spine was made of crumbling stone rather than strong, solid calcium. His eyes were dazed and pinched, foggy with the medication still lingering in his system, and his hair was insane. At any other time, John would have laughed, but right now the picture of Sherlock was surprisingly innocent and artless.
'Is it okay?' John asked, watching Sherlock shuffle towards him, not actually touching John in any respect, but huddling as close to his warmth as he could.
A quiet hum was his only response as Sherlock closed his eyes, blocking out the flickering glow of the candles as, inch by inch, his muscles uncoiled. John could feel the tension easing away, smoothing out from Sherlock's body to leave him lax and languid. His eyelashes made dark fans near the crest of those impossible cheekbones, and the furrow of discomfort between his brows smoothed away.
John was not sure how long he lay there watching Sherlock, the sharp angles of his face softened by slumber and the candlelight. His exhaustion was a heavy burden on his body, but somehow the very act of closing his eyes felt like too much of an effort. He was too busy observing Sherlock, measuring the whisper of each breath and the rare flicker of his eyelids.
At some point, the shivers started again, and John found himself in the same situation. True night had taken away the warmth of Baker Street, and he slipped cautiously from the bed, grabbing the quilt and trying to arrange it so only he was weighed down by its bulk. Sherlock remained completely out of it, but when John slipped back into the bed, his cotton clad shoulder brushed against Sherlock's, and the cry of pain that followed was enough to shatter apart any lethargy with a burst of adrenaline.
'Shit! Sorry, Sherlock. Sorry.' Without really thinking about it, John peeled the t-shirt off, casting it aside and nestling under the quilt's edge. 'There, it's gone. All right?'
'Sorry,' Sherlock mumbled, curled up and miserable again. 'Barbs everywhere. Asteraceae.'
John sighed quietly, the noise plaintive even to his own ears. He couldn't be sure whether that last word was in a foreign language, or just outside his vocabulary. Only Sherlock, it seemed, could have an epic brain-malfunction and still remain the smartest person in the room. 'Can you go back to sleep?' he asked, hovering his hands uselessly above the bare curve of Sherlock's shoulder, desperate to touch and offer comfort but fully aware it could bring Sherlock nothing but pain. 'I didn't mean to wake you. I'm –'
'Not your fault,' Sherlock murmured, burrowing further under the thin veil of the sheet until only his eyes were visible, watching John with a hazed, mercurial gaze which gradually disappeared under the droop of his eyelids. He spoke again, the mongrel syllables of the English language giving way to something softer.
'Tu ne m'as jamais échoué.'
French again, and John breathed out a sigh, scrubbing his hand over his face before staring at Sherlock. He wished he knew what that meant – what tender words Sherlock was murmuring like a lover in the night – but his linguistic skills were poor at best. A few words of Pashto and Dari, like “Don't shoot” and “Medic” were no good to him now, not when Sherlock was murmuring as if he had been born across the Channel, utterly fluent. To John's ear he may as well have been other-worldly, and he found himself listening to the breathy whispers, not sentences, possible not even words, but Sherlock's sensual voice made exotic by the tangle of his mind.
It was to that sleepy susurrus, uttered on the fringe of wakefulness, that John finally surrendered to slumber. His breathing slowed and his muscles unwound, comforted by Sherlock's presence within arm's reach.
Peace found them both as, beyond the windowpanes, London slept.
Chapter 4: Leviathan Awakened
Darkness bound him, weighing its heavy, brumal burden on his bones. He could feel it pressing between his lips like smoke, tainting every breath, but there was no conflagration, no heat to balance the toxic choke of fumes. The corridors of his mind palace, shattered now, carried the ghosts of his footsteps as he paced, alone and lost amidst the thickening fog.
All around was cold, Arctic and raw. It clawed at the skin of his cheeks, sand and snow intertwined with the sun's light gone. He looked up through the broken roof, jagged teeth of slate framing the endless black maw of the sky: patient oblivion. No stars, no moon. No glow, no heat. He looked down at his bloodless skin, his nude body revealed to the cruelty of the elements: pulse-less.
It should have alarmed him, this extinction, but his mind felt too distant and scattered to comprehend. No life left in him then, but thought still lingered in shards that hovered in the air. They cut his arms and chest as he pushed through their swarms, leaving tears in his skin as if it were no more than fabric: parted threads – splitting at the seams.
He padded onward, his flesh shrinking tight to his bones with the cold as he wandered deeper into the tangled hallways. Doors to rooms lay askew on their hinges: drunken defeat. Others lay in pieces, splinters underfoot that stabbed into tender soles, piercing through bone until he could only limp, a wretched, dragging eidolon of his former self.
At last, beneath the endless stretch of the putrid sky he found one door still standing, one slice of warm illumination cutting from beneath its panel, closed as it was to block out the world. Something in all this wreckage survived, light and life to all his apocalypse. He reached out; his fingers, skeletal and thin, torn by the endless passage of violin strings, pushed the portal open to reveal what lay beyond.
Baker Street. He recognised it instantly, brimming with the connotations of hearth and home, sanctuary and serenity. The hideous wallpaper awaited him, shaded in tones of drab and green made warm by the fire's insouciant glow. There was the cow's skull, the dagger embedded in the mantelpiece, the sofa and the glistening trove of glassware from one of his experiments, empty and benign.
Yet it was the man in the armchair that caught his attention, hair made gold by the firelight, skin remembering Afghanistan's tan: a living, breathing body to his own macabre image. A cup of tea steamed by John's hand, propped on the arm of the chair, and the paper rustled like a flock of starlings as he turned the page, engrossed and content.
Abruptly, he looked up, and Sherlock flinched away, stepping back into the darkness and smog, abruptly ashamed. John could not see him like this – a broken, bitter creation of death and destruction. He did not want to be the one to bring fear into the brave soldier's life, nor spark repulsion on that friendly, open face. Light and warmth were not for him.
Yet before he could move, strong fingers encircled his wrist, tugging him back through the door-frame to stumble, grotesque, into the room.
He expected a cry of horror, but John just smiled, his relief glowing bright in his eyes as he grabbed a blanket and cast it around Sherlock’s shoulders, wrapping the fabric tight around an emaciated corpse creature as if he were something precious. 'You got lost,' he said softly, 'but you're home now. I've missed you.'
He stepped closer, arms folding around Sherlock's ribs in a tight embrace. Blood bloomed through Sherlock's frame, pushing through collapsed veins to surge onwards – life, not merely existence. When John stretched up to place a kiss on his jaw he felt the stirring drum beneath his ribs. Thudthud, thudthud, thudthud: a leviathan awakened from its slumber.
His heart beat strong in his chest, brought to dance by John's touch: a fairytale made real and death cast back into the abyss.
And after an endless time in the cold, Sherlock remembered what it meant to be warm.
He opened his eyes to darkness again and knew the dream was done. His head throbbed in a bass, glacial way, birthing tiny calves of icy sweat at his temples, and his entire body felt raw and swollen, slumbering nerves slowly awakening to bitter life once more. The shadows of night still lay thick about him; the candles (A memory or a dream themselves? He could not recall.) had gone. Now fey light crept in from the window: dawn of a sort, mostly blocked out by the heavy weight of the curtains, but a few threads slipped past to weave their hints in the shadows of his bedroom and throw weak highlights onto the profile of the man sleeping next to him.
John: his soft, sunlight tones pulsed with every passing whisper of breath, diffuse and painless. Part of Sherlock knew that was because it was not real light, but a sensory misinterpretation – the synaesthesia still in effect – but it was pleasant to watch the fantasy and bathe in its warmth.
Except that, no, it was the wrong kind of heat for light. This was more organic – a dull, leaden humidity that seeped across his skin like treacle, no longer hurting but welcome. They were not touching, not quite, but at some point John had rolled closer, his right arm creating a furtive ridge under Sherlock's pillow and his left hand lying in the gap between them, elbow bent and awkward.
The narrow width of one of John's surgeon hands – exquisite metacarpals, blunt fingers elegant nonetheless – was all that held them apart. As Sherlock watched they curled against the mattress, drifting closer to graze lazily across the flesh of Sherlock's waist.
He flinched, expecting the sharp bite of agonising retribution from his petulant skin, but it was as if John carried the desert's summer with him, melting all Sherlock's ice caps. Opium smoke in his lungs, cocaine surging through his veins: addictively scorched. He shuffled closer without thought, a tight breath catching in his chest as a creak of pain in his head gave its warning, and a nauseating flash of colour danced across his vision at the minor movement.
He needed sleep: more, most, endless slumber to ease the jagged fractals of his bloody, broken mind, but first he sought out John. Light and life: a different kind of sustenance than Sherlock's body normally demanded, but one he knew he could not exist without. Something whispered in the back of his head – worried lime green and fresh cut grass; personal space, inappropriate intimacy – John might be angry, his golden sunlight turning red and Vulcan, but the thought broke apart, a wave of sea-foam crumbling down on itself.
Carefully, with fingers that felt strangely elastic and too responsive for their own good, Sherlock grasped John's wrist, lifting his arm so that he could slip closer and press himself to John's torso: cold cat by a warm radiator – no chance of moving in the foreseeable future. John's hand draped easily back over Sherlock's waist, enclosing him comfortably in the tropical air that lingered around John's body, easing aside the slick ice of his chills.
Gradually, the shivers that had twitched across his skin intensified, then abated, dragging his temperature back up to normal as his body whined with pain. The burn of his eyes in their sockets grew more intense, and he bowed his head, shuffling down the bed to hide his face in the warm crook of John's neck: hard ridge of collarbone, soft, torpid flesh before the harsh interruption of the shoulder. Perfect.
The last thing he felt was John's arm tightening across his waist, a dry palm and the splay of fingers stroking across his back, drawing out his discomfort as Sherlock's sleep reclaimed him.
This time, there was no mind palace, nor a twisted delusion of metaphor and madness. There was only John's touch and, at last, after hours of pain and misery, something like respite.
The quilt fell from the bed in a hush of feathers and fabric. The sound infiltrated John's sleep, tweaking him back towards the surface of wakefulness as his body gradually roused itself to the idea of re-entering reality. Shame though, because he was amazingly warm and comfortable. Normally his nightmares jerked him from sleep at Oh-God o'clock, leaving him shattered, but his internal time-keeping was telling him that this was no pre-dawn awakening. It was, instead, a languid return to consciousness, one he could not recall experiencing for years.
Perhaps it had something to do with the body entwined with his: long legs pressed against his own, a strong arm draped across his hips and soft hair against his jaw. He hummed quietly to himself, inhaling the scent of Sherlock's shampoo and skimming his hand down the warm, skin-sheathed ridge of his bed-mate's spine. Brilliant.
A second later, his hand stuttered to a halt as his mind caught up with what his senses were telling him. His eyes snapped open, blinking aside sleep as he stared. A soft pillow obscured half his vision in peaks of white cotton, and all he could make out was a chaos of black curls until he carefully tilted his head, pulling back just a fraction to take in Sherlock's sleeping profile.
He looked completely at peace, the tightness that had lingered across his features the previous day wiped clean. He was also cleaved to John like a limpet, trapping him with endless limbs and heavy weight. At some point in the night he must have moved closer, though John could sense a fair expanse of empty mattress behind his back, so it seemed it was not just Sherlock who had shuffled over seeking out comfort. Instead it looked like they had met in the middle of the mattress, inexorably drawn together.
His thumb drifted over the notch of one of Sherlock's vertebrae, unconsciously soothing as he noted how smooth Sherlock's skin was, drawn like silk over strong bones. It was strange, seeing all of Sherlock's chaos reduced to this kind of peace, and John found himself wondering if this was how Sherlock usually slept. He had always struggled to imagine him being as normal as anyone else when it came to slumber; he was so brilliant in every other respect that John half-expected him to deduce even while unconscious. He had not pictured this level of tranquillity and contentment.
It was all too easy to imagine waking up like this in different, better circumstances, wrapped up and half-overwritten by Sherlock's lanky frame. He could picture being greeted by a warm, happy, relaxed gaze, something subtle and tender in Sherlock's eyes: approving. It was not an idea John allowed himself to consider too often. It was one thing to have occasional, inappropriate sexual fantasies about Sherlock, but scenes of domesticity struck closer to home, speaking of something more intimate than the slake of lust.
John could not look at those too closely, especially when he suspected such things would never, ever be within his grasp. If Sherlock woke up now, he would greet John with inevitable confusion and distance, possibly even revulsion. However John looked at it, even with his motives clearly in mind, this still felt like taking advantage.
Someone at the door cleared their throat, and John's head snapped up guiltily. Before he even looked he knew it would not be Mrs Hudson. It was a man's voice, for a start, and Mrs Hudson would be more likely to twitter in happiness than make such a pointed, judgemental kind of noise.
'Go away, Mycroft.'
Sherlock's mumble was an additional shock John could have done without. His heart leapt and then plummeted with shame, sick and rotten and resting somewhere down by his navel. For the first time since he was fourteen, John wished the ground would swallow him up.
'I'll help myself to brunch,' Mycroft replied smoothly, giving John a rather meaningful look. One eyebrow lifted in a way that managed to indicate he was both very disappointed in such unprofessional behaviour and, at the same time, utterly unsurprised by it. John was not sure which was worse.
However, the older Holmes was not his main concern. Mycroft was not the one who he had to live with, who he followed to crime scenes, who he had built his whole god-damn life around, or who was currently lying in his arms, lazy and laconic and possibly still not really with it. John should pull away, get out of the bed and give Sherlock the space he would want if he were not half out of it with pain and sedatives, yet his muscles were distinctly unwilling to move, and his sigh stirred Sherlock's hair.
'Sherlock?' he whispered, clearing his throat as the name emerged in a hoarse nothing-voice. 'How are you feeling?'
There was a moment of considering silence, and John held his breath, praying that the answer was both understandable and in English. Surely that would indicate that Sherlock was at least a fraction better than he had been yesterday?
'Like someone detonated a high yield nuclear bomb inside my skull and my brain is now laminated across the internal wall of my cranium,' Sherlock finally replied in a rusty voice. His sigh tickled John's skin, and the point of Sherlock's nose nuzzled into John's shoulder as he added, 'Warmer, though. Thank you.'
John considered offering up some kind of excuse about the fact that they were so close together, his body wrapped around Sherlock's as much as Sherlock's was around his, but in the end all that came out was a quiet, 'You're welcome. Is it – do you feel better than yesterday?'
Sherlock lifted one shoulder in a fractional shrug, still moving as if his body were made of granite rather than hot, pale flesh and languid muscle. 'Different. More aware, unfortunately: a normal progression.' There was the chime of crockery from the kitchen, and Sherlock sighed, his hand skimming across the line of John's waist as he withdrew his grip. 'He'll start making tea in a pointed fashion in a minute, and eating all the biscuits. Tell him not to be so fudge.'
'Fudge? Is that – is that his colour?' John asked, feeling ridiculously pleased as Sherlock cracked open one eye to give him an approving look.
'Mmmm, mostly butterscotch, but the tones change.' He blinked, then closed his eyes again, dragging at John's pillow and putting it over his head so that his voice was muffled. 'When I was younger he used to be jam.'
John gave a weak huff of laughter, shaking his head in amazement. Synaesthesia was always something that had fascinated him. Some people were born with it, their brains constantly wired to interpret the signals they received differently. Of course, coupling the condition with Sherlock's already highly analytical mind was as enthralling as it was disturbing.
Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, John reached for his clothes, pulling them on before he tried to make his hair look like less of a wreck. Not that it mattered, since Mycroft had already seen him and Sherlock curled up together like kittens, but he would really rather not face the smug bureaucrat with bed-head.
'I'll get you something to drink while I'm out there,' John promised, watching the lump on the bed that was Sherlock for any signs of movement. 'You must be gasping, unless you think it will make you throw up?' He glanced at the unused bucket still by the bed. 'We'll give it a go, all right?'
When Sherlock did not respond, John reached for the door-handle, squaring his shoulders before stepping out into the main flat. Mycroft was sitting in Sherlock's chair, his legs neatly crossed and a mug of tea in one hand.
'Your attention to my brother is to be commended, John,' Mycroft said pointedly. 'Few others would be so – diligent – in their care.'
The words themselves were fairly innocent, but Mycroft's tone was not. He oozed disapproval, as if John had over-stepped an invisible line by treating Sherlock like a human being, rather than a machine. 'Though I am uncertain of the veracity of your methods.'
'Stop right there.' John jabbed a finger in Mycroft's direction. 'You left me here with very little to go on. I could cope with just about all of it, but he got cold. I used what “methods” I had available.' He lifted his chin defiantly. 'The heating's on a timer so I couldn't turn it on, and we have nothing in this whole damn flat that would radiate warmth without touching him and causing him pain except me.'
'And yet this morning he was smeared against you like butter on toast.' Mycroft's smile was thin and taut: big brother mode fully activated. 'I am sure that your intentions were for the best, but you are treading on very dangerous ground. If you take your relationship with my brother further –'
'We're friends,' John interrupted, folding his arms and forcing his jaw not to clench. 'Not that it's any of your business. It's between me and Sherlock, no one else.'
Mycroft lifted his chin, giving John a narrow-eyed, calculating look. 'So it's a possibility, then?'
'That's not what I said,' John replied, watching as Mycroft set his tea aside and got to his feet, tugging the line of his jacket straight. 'I was just looking after him.'
'Are you sure of that, John?' He tipped his head up, looking down his nose a fraction. 'Really sure?' He pursed his lips before glancing down at his shoes. 'My brother has only just recently realised he has a heart after all. I would be loathe to see it come to harm.'
'Stop being so melodramatic, Mycroft.'
Sherlock's voice made them both look over to his bedroom door, where he leaned heavily against the frame, the blue silk dressing gown wrapped around his form. He looked bleary and unsteady on his feet, but he was at least supporting his own weight, mostly, even if his eyes were narrowed painfully against the light in the living room.
'You shouldn't be out of bed.' Mycroft tutted, standing aside as John quickly moved over to the windows and pulled the curtains closed, blocking out the sun and plunging the living room into a softer, easier kind of twilight.
There was a pause, and John got the impression that Sherlock was struggling to make sure his words came out right. 'And you should not be harassing my flatmate. Why are you here?'
Mycroft raised an eyebrow. 'To check on you, and if you think this display is going to convince me you're feeling better, then you're very much mistaken. Phase two, I take it?'
Sherlock just grunted, picking his way unsteadily to the sofa and sinking into it with a sigh. 'It's not a government reform, Mycroft. There are no phases; it just hurts until it doesn't any more.'
'Improved cognitive function, better lingual control, and pain that is no longer utterly unbearable, but still powerful enough to render you predominantly immobile – except when you're being stubborn. It sounds like a different phase to me.' Mycroft sniffed, his voice softening somewhat as he glanced in John's direction. 'It seems perhaps I have underestimated Doctor Watson's abilities.'
It was all the apology John was going to get, and a weak one at that, but one look at Sherlock curled up on his side on the couch, not petulant but miserable, was enough to make John think twice about pushing the issue. Mycroft was a heavy-handed, overbearing older brother, but Sherlock did not deserve to suffer for that.
'So glad I'm exceeding your expectations,' Sherlock mumbled. 'Now leave. You're dripping on the carpet.'
John hid a smile behind his hand as Mycroft's lip curled at the very thought that he would be doing anything so indecorous as dripping. Normally, he would have chided Sherlock for being so rude, but this time he was inclined to believe Mycroft deserved it. 'You don't need me to show you out, do you?' he asked, his tone indifferent. 'Only I should get back to looking after your brother. You know, like you asked me to?'
'Indeed,' Mycroft murmured. 'Get well soon, Sherlock. John.'
His retreat was as stately and dignified as ever, and John breathed a sigh of relief as he heard Mycroft's footsteps descend the stairs. The door closed in his wake, shutting out him and all his assumptions, however right or wrong they might be. Without a word, he moved into the kitchen, getting Sherlock a glass of tepid water to drink before he padded back through to the living room.
'Here,' he said softly, urging Sherlock to take the glass and helping him sit up. After a few wobbling seconds, John realised Sherlock could not actually brace his own weight, and he quickly sat down, letting Sherlock lean against him in a half-reclined position like a puppet with its strings cut. 'You've overdone it. Why didn't you stay in bed?'
'Mycroft was being cochineal.'
John frowned for a moment before taking a stab at what Sherlock might mean. 'Food colouring?'
'Yes. Crushed beetle shells. It's red. I could hear him being smudged and obtuse.' Sherlock's voice sounded plaintive, but John suspected it was more about the fact that he struggled to be understood than having to explain to John. At least now Sherlock was able to shed some light on what the hell he was talking about.
'How much did you hear?' John asked, suspecting he already knew the answer. The walls of Baker Street were not exactly thick, after all.
'I'm not butter, and you are not toast,' Sherlock said by way of response, repeating his brother's earlier, somewhat strange metaphor. 'Thank you for not letting him make you question your actions.'
John did not point out that he had been questioning himself just fine without Mycroft's intervention. It seemed wrong to do so, now, when Sherlock was so earnestly, helplessly grateful. It made him wonder if anyone had done this for him before, not just looked after him, but been there if Sherlock needed to reach out.
John blinked, looking down at Sherlock in surprise. 'Who, Mycroft?'
Sherlock hummed in agreement, leaning more fully back into John before he explained. 'You can take care of me – make it easier. He can't.'
John breathed out a sigh, too concerned about Sherlock to worry about the older Holmes. He doubted it was as straightforward as Sherlock made out, but right now he had other, more immediate problems to solve.
A glance at his watch told John it was almost time for another dose of Norazophen. They had slept late, Sherlock at the mercy of the drug and John pulled under by the comfort Sherlock's bed and company had to offer. Now noon was rapidly approaching.
'We need to give you another injection,' John said quietly, resting his hand ever-so-gently in the springy nest of Sherlock's curls before slipping out from behind him and easing him back down to the couch. The glass of water pivoted before John eased it from Sherlock's grasp. 'Would you rather be here, or in your bedroom?'
Sherlock blinked at John, his lips tightening for a moment before he asked, 'Where will you be?'
Something in John's chest clenched at the softness of Sherlock's voice. It was rare to hear him like this, unguarded and open, and John smiled despite himself. 'With you, if you need me to be.'
'Want,' Sherlock corrected. 'Want you to be.' His eyes darted around the living room of Baker Street for a moment, a faint frown on his brow as if he were struggling to recognise the room. 'I'll stay here.'
John did not question the idea; he had asked, after all. Sherlock did not seem to care that the couch was too short for his frame. With a quick pat on the sofa cushion by Sherlock's hand, John got to his feet, grabbing Sherlock's bedding from his room and dragging it back out. One pillow went under Sherlock's head, and the other was put on the floor nearby, in case Sherlock wanted to block out the thin ribbons of light seeping through the chinks in the curtains.
'Quilt?' John asked, smiling in relief as Sherlock nodded. 'I'm guessing it doesn't hurt to be touched, any more.'
Sherlock licked his lips and shook his head. 'It just itches. It's the first thing to change.'
'And the rest of it?' John asked, spreading the eiderdown out over Sherlock's frame.
'Varies. Takes days, normally.' Sherlock reached out, dragging up the extra pillow from the floor and hugging it somewhat clumsily to his chest.
'I'll call into the surgery, then, and let them know I can't help them this week. I'm not leaving you here by yourself.' With proficient movements, John retrieved the last vial of Norazophen, loading a syringe and clearing the air before turning over Sherlock's arm, exposing milky skin and the blue line of veins.
Sherlock barely even blinked when the needle went in, easing its relief gently into his bloodstream. John withdrew and pressed his thumb lightly to the minor breach it left in Sherlock's flesh, rubbing in unconscious circles as he watched the haze fog those pale eyes: clouds blocking out the moonlight of Sherlock's brilliance. 'Sleep well.'
Sherlock's only answer was a crooked smile and the clumsy shift of his arm, elbow drawing back so his fingertips slid down John's sleeve to his palm and further, weaving his fingers between John's. It was a simple gesture, but John found himself staring at their joined hands long after Sherlock's grip had slackened, its strength dragged away as he was plunged into darkness once more, and John was left alone.
Chapter 5: Philia, Agape, Storge, Eros
Mycroft had melted, which would not be nearly so bothersome if it had also removed his ability to speak. No such luck. There was no face, nothing to indicate that the thick, sweet-scented substance contained in the jar in Sherlock's hands was actually his brother except the smug voice that seeped up from its surface.
'This is another dream,' Sherlock told the contents of the jar. 'If it were real, you would never fit in a container that small, and I don't think liquid human being is that colour. You should be more pink.'
'How perceptive of you,' came the dry reply. 'I'm surprised you haven't done an experiment to find out.'
'Don't be ridiculous. People don't melt in normal conditions. They are more likely to immolate.' Sherlock paused thoughtfully. 'Purée is a possibility, but John wouldn't like it.'
'Oh yes. The inestimable Doctor Watson.' Mycroft's voice spoke volumes, oozing with implication. 'I have told you before that caring is not an advantage.'
In the distant ravages of his mind palace, Sherlock heard the smack of a riding crop on flesh and a husky, breathless moan of pleasure, but he ignored it. 'John is an asset. Stop interfering.'
'You will break each other, he will leave, and then where will you be? Alone again.' The liquid bubbled as a sighing sound reached Sherlock's ears. 'It would be the end of you.'
Yes, he could see that. Baker Street gone dark. No footsteps on the stairs or slow peck-peck-peck of fingers on keys. No one complaining about heads in the fridge. No steady hand and the blunt line of a Browning watching his back. John could depart and leave all that – all of Sherlock – behind.
'That's not how it has to go.' Sherlock sat down cross-legged on the shattered floor, setting the jar none-to-gently down at his side before tracing his fingers over the fault lines in front of him, charting their deep clefts and hearing their stories. 'It is a risk, not a certainty.'
He tilted his head, trying to see the way forward – attempting to pick apart the tangled knot of potential to make a tapestry he could understand. He did not want to be the one to tear John asunder – to pull him apart, strew his pieces to the winds and make him leave – but what could be done to stop it? Where did the break lie: In truth, or in silence?
Sherlock could sense a turning point here, in the recesses of his subconscious mind. Perhaps awake and aware he would have missed it entirely, but when he had opened his eyes to find John at his side in bed that morning, Sherlock had felt the possibilities open up before him. For once he had seen not the killer or the motive, the crime and the punishment. He had seen his own future and all the strands of what could be.
But would acknowledging how he felt be the one thing that finally drove John from the sanctuary of Baker Street, or would it be all that was necessary to ensure he would stay?
Sherlock licked his lips, his words falling from his mouth like stones as he gave them voice. 'He should be told. Literature, culture, our very instincts tell us sentiment such as love cannot go unspoken.'
'Love?' Mycroft's scoff was so familiar that Sherlock clenched his jaw tight. 'What do you know about love?'
'More than you.'
Silence, then. It dripped down the walls in emerald green, welling up in the cracks on the floor and flowing outwards, strangely sticky. His fingertips became tacky with it, gummed up and useless as he listened to the steady beat of his heart in his chest. Back in Baker Street, the real one, not the surviving core here in his head, Mycroft had told John that Sherlock had just found his heart – had warned him against breaking it – but in amidst all the denial Sherlock had heard John's words:
“It's between me and Sherlock.”
True on so many levels. Superficially, John was trying to warn Mycroft to keep his big nose out of his personal life, but the meaning went deeper, more literal. There was something between them: a thread. Sometimes it lay slack and platonic, a simple tether. Others it tautened, burgeoning to draw them close again.
John had sensed it before Sherlock, perhaps being more used to these things. Maybe he had noticed it that first night at Angelo's, when Sherlock still ignored emotion in general and love in particular, but over time even Sherlock had begun to feel its pull.
A cobweb strand with two termini: one in him, and one in John. A single, silken hair that, with each passing day, thickened and strengthened, becoming a string, then a cord until they were inexorably tied to one another. Still independent and autonomous, but also interlinked and cast into symbiosis.
Sometimes the bond was merely warm and comfortable: pleasant days in silent companionship. Evenings watching drivel on television and trying not to tease John about the endings of his shows. Days of John blogging and Sherlock experimenting that sometimes ended in peace or a solved murder or, on one occasion, a visit from the fire brigade.
Other times, dark, quiet moments after a chase, half way up the stairs, on the doorstep or in the close confines of a taxi, the cord went hot, pulling tighter, trying to draw them closer to one another. Sometimes, side-by-side was not enough, and all Sherlock wanted was to let their outlines blur and their bodies slide together until they were joined by something real, one inside the other and as close to unity as two people could be.
It never happened, but there were days when he thought he saw an identical urge in John's eyes, as if the same message was beating back and forth along the line that bound them, broadcasting agreement for both of them to hear.
Yet the cord did not dwindle or die away through neglect. How could it, when John made Sherlock eat and occasionally sleep and picked up the shattered pieces of his broken mind to be glued together again? How could it when Sherlock murmured “Could be dangerous” and John's light came on – a limp gone, a cane forgotten, a life restored with every step they took together?
'Love, Sherlock?' Mycroft's voice asked again, softer now, less accusing. 'For a tired ex-army doctor?'
The word lingered around him, soft like feathers as he considered the individual quills, so much meaning making up the whole: Philia, Agape, Storge, Eros. Four sides of one all-encompassing emotion. The one that all humans strove for, and all experienced in their own way.
Philia, friendship. He and John had that, unique and special as it was in Sherlock's life: a treasure all of its own. Storge, the limping, lamented familial affection that existed between him and Mycroft, but no. John was not family. Brothers-In-Arms was more fitting to that label, where simple blood ties stood no chance against the promise to kill or be killed in the name of another's survival.
Agape, charitable, selfless love. Even in his kindest frame of mind such a thing had no real place in Sherlock's life. All humans, even those of a compassionate nature, were selfish at their root. Even John, in his care for Sherlock, aimed to improve his health so that he would remain at John's side. The same as the cured limp and the life brought to fulfilment. On the surface it seemed as if he had done it for John, but underneath was a thick vein of self-interest. He had done it because he needed John... hadn't he?
Then there was Eros. Carnal love. Breathless moments after the chase, locked gazes and the promise of kisses that never found fruition. Dreams daubed with unexpected fantasy and the slick of skin on skin. John, the first to catch his interest in more than two years... If it was offered, would he take it?
Sherlock hesitated, examining the chaos around him and thinking of one intact room: firelight, armchairs and John. It was the only thing still whole and perfect in the wreckage. His love in all its forms given shape.
In his waking moments he might shy away from the word, from the one thing he had always suspected he could never really feel, but here there was no space for such lies. He could not deny it, as he might in the outside world.
His lips parted and his voice whispered, soft and unassuming, but true all the same.
'Yes, Mycroft. Love. For my flatmate and friend. For John Watson.'
The stuff in the jar said nothing in reply, beaten at last, and Sherlock got to his feet, picking his way through corridors he had walked in these dreams before. He was neither dead nor cold now, and nor was he lost. In front of him, a line of light glowed, thick and heavy with promise, leading his steps unerringly back through shattered darkness and broken masonry to the one door that still stood.
And on its threshold John waited, his eyes bright and his smile brimming with everything Sherlock could feel inside of him, strong yet tentative, shy yet demanding.
He knew this was still a dream – that the John out there in the real Baker Street probably knew nothing of how he felt and may possibly never echo his feelings. Yet as he stepped into John's waiting arms and let himself bathe in that warm, sunlight tide, he knew this was real enough for now.
John stared blankly at the pages of his book, his eyes unfocussed as the words danced in front of him, so many useless black dots on the paper. Sherlock had been asleep for hours, the accumulation of the sedative leaving him utterly oblivious to the world. John was fairly sure the entirety of Scotland Yard could show up for a drugs bust and Sherlock would be none-the-wiser. The downside was that John was left with nothing but his own, circling thoughts for company.
He looked over at Sherlock, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest: a vision of pale skin and parted lips. He had barely moved since John had given him the injection more than six hours ago, too far gone in the medicine's grasp. That and the effort of seeing off his brother had clearly been too much for him.
'Bloody Mycroft,' John whispered, shuffling in a mixture of annoyance and embarrassment. Perhaps it would not have been so bad if his words had not hit so close to home, but true to form the older Holmes was relentless. He seemed to see through everything, and whereas most other people would have the decency to believe John's claims of keeping Sherlock warm, it seemed Mycroft was the exception.
It was not even as if John had been lying. For God's sake, he was a doctor. Of course he would do whatever he could to help Sherlock through this – this whatever it was. They were friends...
The word floated around in his mind, and he sighed, flipping the pages of his book fretfully at its inadequacy. To John, a friend was someone you met down the pub for drinks sometimes, and could maybe drag in to help you move now and then. They were someone to talk to when things got tough. Sherlock did not drink very often and rarely went into a pub unless John insisted. He could not even be prevailed upon to tidy up now and then, let alone rearrange furniture, and when things got tough it was normally his fault.
Somehow Sherlock managed to be the very anti-thesis of what John defined as a friend, but at the same time the best one he had ever had. Sherlock did not fuck about with social cues and niceties. He was brutally honest and often a massive pain in the arse, but he knew exactly what made John tick as surely as if he had taken him apart and seen all the cogs. He had flicked all the lights back on in John's life when no one else had even been able to find the switch.
Possible because Sherlock was the switch.
John was not an idiot. He knew that his current state of peace and contentment, occasionally interspersed with moments of adrenaline-fuelled oh my God, we're going to die was all down to Sherlock. Without him, he would have neither. It was not just that the access to crime scenes and ill-advised break-ins and such would be gone, but the promise of them would also have faded. Sherlock was dangerous, and John loved it.
Christ, that was a risky thought to have. Loving Sherlock Holmes, as if that wasn't a disaster waiting to happen. Yet it was an idea that had whispered across his mind more and more these past few months. Initially, right back at the beginning, he had been taken in by Sherlock's brilliance and his looks. However, after Sherlock had curtailed that idea with a few well-chosen words (surprisingly tactful, although John had not realised that until much later,) he had let the whole idea of climbing into Sherlock's bed slide away, forgotten but for the occasional fantasy.
Yet somewhere along the line, his feelings had changed, undergoing some kind of bizarre metamorphosis. It did not matter that he was never Sherlock's date, regardless of what everyone else seemed to think. It was as if a beam of lust had been shone through a prism of friendship and what came out on the other side was – this. This thing that John was not sure how to define. Sherlock Holmes had managed to become the single most important person in John's life, and he wasn't sure if that was the best thing that had ever happened to him, or the most pathetic.
He huffed a breath, glancing over at Sherlock again as his thoughts followed their inevitable path. He had never had a friend like Sherlock. No one had ever filled his life up so completely with their presence, or made him feel that everything else was somehow secondary to the two of them – as if John and Sherlock would carry on even if the rest of the world fell apart at the seams.
'Damn it,' he muttered, putting his book down and getting to his feet, stretching out his body and wandering over to the fire to poke it back into life. The embers glowed with promise, and the flames nibbled at the fresh fuel John put in the grate, their joyful crackle lending definition to the peace of Baker Street.
Stiffly, John sat on the floor by the hearth, the poker a solid weight in his palm as he gazed sightlessly at the tame fire and the dark mouth of the chimney above it. The truth was that he did not know what to think any more. If it were anyone else in the world, he would have put his cards on the table – would have explained what he felt and asked them if they wanted to explore it further. Even rejection was better than getting caught like a fish in the tangled net of his own confusion.
But this was Sherlock: a man who viewed sentiment in all of its forms as a weakness and made no apologies for doing so. John could not imagine him accepting any of what John had to say with interest or even tact. At best he would be indifferent. At worst John suspected he would lose his flatmate, his friend and his home all in one fell swoop.
He muttered a curse to himself, jabbing half-heartedly at the grate before setting the poker aside and getting to his feet. The faint nauseous feeling in his stomach was probably more about emotion than hunger, but it was about the right time for dinner, and he set about examining the leftovers in the fridge.
It was disturbing how things could change so quickly, John mused to himself as he explored various cartons. A week ago, he had been perfectly content to carry on as always, doing his best to put any and all fantasies from his mind and remain happily Sherlock Holmes' only friend. Now, in the space of only twenty-four hours, it was as if all his hopes had been spilled across the floor, bright and garish, set free by the simple act of taking care of Sherlock – of being there for him – and of seeing how much that kindness was appreciated.
It made him play tricks on himself. It made him start to hope that maybe all this time he had been wrong, and Sherlock's loud denouncements about things such as empathy were merely a front to hide his own emotional core.
'Wishful thinking,' John hissed to himself, grabbing the carton of Thai fried rice with chicken and shutting the fridge door.
The hushed whisper of Sherlock's voice made him jump, the packet of take-away twitching in his hands before he set it down on the surface and padded back over to the sofa. Sherlock had not actually moved, but his eyes were open a fraction, staring up at the ceiling in a faintly disoriented way.
'Hoping you'll learn to label your toxic experiments,' John lied smoothly, deliberately softening his voice as he hunkered down at Sherlock's side. The fact that Sherlock did not seem to know it was a deception, or at least did not acknowledge it as such, told John pretty much almost all he needed to know about how Sherlock was feeling. 'Did I wake you?'
For a moment, he thought Sherlock wouldn't answer. His glazed eyes were still staring upwards, almost motionless, but at last his gaze shifted slightly, and Sherlock's head twitched a negative before he groaned softly. 'No.' He clawed uselessly for the spare pillow that had slipped from the sofa while he slept, and John eased it gently back over Sherlock's face, keeping his nose and mouth free and hearing Sherlock sigh in relief as the cool cotton touched his face.
'Light still hurting your eyes?' John asked, wincing in pity when Sherlock gave a cracked hum of agreement. It was already dark outside, and Baker Street was positively gloomy apart from the firelight. 'Anything I can do?'
'Get the bucket.'
John doubted that there was anything in Sherlock's stomach to expel, but he knew better than to argue as he retreated to Sherlock's bedroom, grabbing the bucket and placing it by the sofa within very easy reach. He noticed the twitch of Sherlock's muscles at the noise and stifled a sad sigh. He had hoped that the last dose of the drug would tide Sherlock through to the recovery stage, but if anything he seemed even more unwell.
'Maybe I should try and get some more Norazophen?' he asked softly, frowning as Sherlock gave a tight, mirthless laugh.
'You won't get any. Three's all I'm allowed.' There was something dark in Sherlock's hoarse voice, and when he continued the reason was clear. 'My own fault. Addict, remember?'
'Dormant,' John reminded him, but it was a weak response. A dormant addict could become an active one again at the slightest trigger. He had no idea if the Norazophen was a risk drug for Sherlock. While, as a doctor, he could appreciate the complexities of pain management in Sherlock's case, the fact that there would be no relief from now on made his stomach sink.
'Is there anything you can take?' he asked softly, considering getting his laptop and checking the medical file again for more information.
'Basic paracetamol in twenty-four hours. Like throwing a gnat at a hurricane. Does fuck all.' Sherlock's fingers twitched vaguely in the direction of the kitchen. 'You were getting yourself dinner.'
'Won't the smell make you sick?' John watched as Sherlock's lips, the only part of him uncovered by the pillow, twitched in an odd grimace.
'Won't make it any worse.'
John bowed his head. There really was nothing he could say to that. If they had something he could eat cold, he would, just to spare Sherlock the extra sensory data, but already he was looking tight-lipped, and that ivory skin had taken on a faintly green tinge. No one stayed in the medical profession long without knowing that look, and John grabbed the bucket and held it out even as Sherlock jolted upright and heaved, dry and fruitless.
The sound caught on a sob, and John had never felt more useless: not even on a bloody battlefield where all the skill in the world couldn't save every soldier who came his way. Sherlock was shaking from head to foot, a shiver so vicious it seemed more like a seizure, but those eyes were focussed now, and the gloss of cold sweat on Sherlock's skin told its own story.
It was the same as last night. Rigors: chills without fever, and he passed Sherlock the bucket before he clumsily tugged the quilt around Sherlock's shoulders and propped the pillows behind his back. It was enough to help him sit up, and John tentatively splayed his hand across Sherlock's brow, feeling the sick drum of a pulse at his temple. Blood pressure was painfully high, driven up by the muscular constriction of the heaves. God, it must hurt.
'What can I do?' John asked quietly, his words formed in little more than a whisper. 'Anything?'
'No.' Sherlock's voice was clipped, but John knew better than to take offence, or argue, for that matter. Sometimes the presence of another person during illness was more hindrance than help. Space had its uses, and he reluctantly obliged.
John kept one eye on Sherlock as he set about microwaving his dinner, putting a hand over the vent to muffle the obnoxious beeps of the buttons and the whirr of the machine. Within a few minutes he had a steaming meal, which he ate over the sink, as far from Sherlock as he could get without actually going outside.
There were one or two more heaves which made John wince and his own stomach clench in sympathy, but they were equally unproductive, and eventually Sherlock abandoned the bucket, slumping back with his hands pressed to his temples, white-knuckled as if he were trying to hold his skull together.
Quickly, John finished his meal, setting the plate down quietly on the surface before he dug in the freezer, rummaging through things best not looked at before retrieving a bag of long-ignored frozen peas. Grabbing a couple of empty evidence bags from the mess on the table, he filled them both half way, his fingers rapidly going numb before he wrapped them both in separate tea towels and padded back to Sherlock's side.
'This is going to be cold,' he murmured, pressing one carefully across Sherlock's brow and the other to the back of his neck, holding them both in place as he sat sideways on to Sherlock on the sofa, close enough that his chest brushed against Sherlock's arm. 'Let me know if it hurts, or gets too much.'
'It's okay,' Sherlock whispered in return, and John could see his shoulders beginning to relax: Sherlock surrendering himself to John's care. 'Better. Less –'
'Sharp?' John finished for him. 'It'll give you a bit of relief, although probably not much. Is it always like this after the Norazophen?'
Sherlock's lips quirked in a sad smile, and John dutifully ignored the glimmer of moisture that lingered on Sherlock's lashes: tears brought on either by memories or pain, he wasn't certain, but they made his heart clench either way. 'Yes, but the drug's not cleared my system yet.' Sherlock drew in a deep breath, and John could hear it shuddering between his lips. He sounded more like a man about to go into battle than one contained within the peace and sanctuary of his own home. 'It's going to get worse.'
John bit his lips, trying not to dwell on what “worse” could mean. He had to focus on what Sherlock needed now, rather than borrowing trouble from the hours that lay ahead of them.
'I'll be here,' he promised softly, shifting his grip on the bag of peas and watching Sherlock reach up, long fingers looping around John's wrist to give a brief, weak squeeze.
'I know,' Sherlock whispered, and this time the smile was small, but honest. 'Thank you.'
Chapter 6: Arctic Comfort
Evening's hush drifted distantly across Sherlock's mental horizons, the minutes and hours punctuated by the hungry nibble of the fire in the grate and London’s whirl and blare beyond the window. It was a pin-wheel of muted input: high-heels on distant pavement, car engines purring, the hum of the occasional bus and the beep of the pedestrian crossing – urban jazz reduced to a clamour by the ache in his head.
Once again, John tethered him in place. He was an moor-line holding Sherlock's ship in the harbour – gravity that kept his feet on the ground while his mind wanted to bleed out to the distant stars. Sherlock had never been more grateful for the simple touches that reminded him of all life's little essentials, from who he was and where he lay to the natural rhythm of breath and heartbeat.
'You're uncomfortable.' He murmured it, his words sliding across his tongue like oil – solvent and bitter – as he tried to focus his mind outward beyond the pitching veil of crunching pain that stirred in his head.
'No,' John replied from where he sat on the floor by the sofa, facing Sherlock where he lay on its cushions. 'I'll be fine. You're the one who's uncomfortable.'
Sherlock would have laughed at the understatement if he were sure his head wouldn't simply detonate with the effort. Part of him was desperate to lift away the pillow, to open his eyes and check that John was not being dishonest in his rumpled, good-natured way, but the weight that rested across his eyes felt as if it were the only thing stopping his sinuses from collapsing inwards. In the end, he left it where it was, trying to distract himself from the agony by listening to the orchestral, amplified flare of his other senses.
The peas were back in the freezer now, their Arctic comfort gone. Yet there was something in John's hand that rattled as he shifted, and Sherlock could feel a whisper of change in the air: a damp, chill vapour amidst the fire's plush heat.
'We really need to get some water into you.' John sighed. 'I found some ice cubes. Think you might be able to suck on them without throwing up?'
Sherlock considered the possibility, and one part of his mind – one not totally thrown loose to orbit, distant and untouchable – had the common sense to try and recall any experiments that may have involved the ice-cube tray. 'It's definitely water?' he asked, hating the low, jarring pitch of his voice as it scraped through his head.
There was a moment of silence; no doubt John was considering the possibilities, working his way through the unique equation of Sherlock + freezer + experiments = questionable ice cubes.
'It looks right, smells okay, and froze without a problem in a domestic appliance. What could it be other than water?'
'Why would you freeze acid?'
Sherlock's lips twitched in a weary smile, not because of the question, exactly, but because of John's tone of voice, which suggested he knew that the answer would be “Because I can.”
'There's some litmus paper on the kitchen table,' Sherlock managed, turning each word over in his mind before stringing them together in a sentence. His lingual control, at least, was improving, and he had not said a word of anything but English for quite some time. Still, the effort involved was not only frustrating, it was exhausting. 'Check the pH.'
'This is why you need to label stuff,' John scolded, but there was an edge of fondness to it. Something rustled as he got to his feet and began to rummage on the kitchen table. 'Right, got it. Red for acid, blue for alkali?'
'Yes.' Sherlock paused, trying to listen over the strange, half-heard hum in his ears. It was a very faint sound, an imagined sensory input as a person might find in total silence, when the ear makes something from nothing. Tiresome and aggravating, but possible to ignore if he could concentrate on all John's subtle noises: a domestic symphony of calm breaths and sliding skin, wool jumpers and peace.
'No change. It's probably water,' John said at last, and Sherlock could picture him giving the ice cubes another hard look as the patter of his socked feet on the carpet heralded his approach. 'If it tastes weird, spit it out. It's that or try to drink something from a glass. I don't think that will end well.'
Sherlock grimaced, knowing John was right. If he were in hospital, or the God-forsaken clinic he had spent most of his sixteenth year, an IV line would provide him with hydration. Here, in Baker Street, there was no such equipment. John was an army medic and could probably improvise if he had to, but that might be a step too far for the good doctor.
Water would make him throw up. He could feel it in the dizzy, wretched tumble of his stomach, but ice?
Mutely, he lifted a hand, intending for John to put a chip of frigid, slippery solid into his palm, and he jumped in surprise when something cold touched his lip and slid into his mouth. His teeth ached at the abrupt temperature change, the pulp at their core aggravated by the sensitivity in his head. Quickly, it began to change, going from something almost uncomfortable to a blatant relief, distracting jangling nerves from their aches with the intense brumal bite contained in the pocket of his mouth.
Water slipped down his throat, a mere hint of fluid. It would not be enough to disturb his stomach, but the taste of it – bright, clear, not chemical at all – felt like an elixir of life to his tired, dry flesh.
'Okay?' John asked, and Sherlock could almost hear his happiness and relief when Sherlock hummed in agreement. 'Another?'
John was clearly a genius, and Sherlock would have said so if his lips and tongue were not engrossed with the sensuous skim of frozen water, frictionless, across their planes. How had John known that this was just what he needed? One sensation to over-rule the others, shoving the pain back and down and beyond, not gone, but almost out of reach for a fleeting moment. It was merciful respite where normally none could be found, and Sherlock made a happy noise in his throat, hoping that John would get the message: perfect Apollonian healer that he was.
There was a musical chink of ice against ceramic – a cup or bowl? – as John reached for another piece, and this time Sherlock's lips were already parted with something like thirst. Perhaps John's fingers slipped, or maybe Sherlock's mouth moved on its own, seeking out moisture blindly, but his teeth and tongue caught one of John's fingertips as well as the smooth-cornered cube.
John's choked gasp seemed loud in the peace of the room, but Sherlock barely heard it. The strange dichotomy of slightly chilled flesh and star-bright frost whirled through him: a brief, delightful amazement of tastes before John stammered an apology and pulled back. Sherlock was left with a frisson of heat in his stomach and a lingering flavour that his beleaguered mind latched onto in desperate fascination.
Salt and water, a hint of tannin almost lost beneath the wave of the ice's thaw and a fraction of something like cumin – a hint of sauce from the hastily consumed take away, or John's more natural flavour at its weakest in his extremities? Impossible to tell, and yet, God, he wanted to find out.
'It's all gone,' John murmured. Was it his imagination, or was that voice husky and rough at its edges? In his current state, it was hard to deduce what could affect the pitch of John's statement like that, but the faint tremor around the words was easier to discern. Strange, how now Sherlock's mind was scattered to the winds and aching amidst the desolate gale, the only thing he could actually bring himself to contemplate was John and the mysteries like stars on his shoulders. 'We'll see if you can keep it down.'
'I don't feel sick,' Sherlock promised. His voice sounded hideous and brutal in the cocoon he had built around himself: an airspace where only John was welcome. He found himself longing for his own silence, but if he held his tongue then John would probably do the same, and the peace would crush him. 'Thank you.'
'You're welcome. Next time maybe you'll have the coordination to feed it to yourself.'
Odd. Sherlock was sure that statement should have sounded hopeful. Perhaps he was reading the tone wrong, but there was no upward intonation, no bright challenge, just a downward tilt to the words as if John were disappointed by the prospect.
Of course, John wanted to be helpful, lived for it, really, and he hated to feel useless. Perhaps that had plagued him too often since Sherlock had fallen ill, that purposelessness, and now he sought any menial chore to alleviate his sense of inadequacy?
But, no. That didn't seem right.
His mind wobbled and tilted, too uncertain on its axis to process the thought properly. John Watson was an enigma at the best of times, and now he was a fractal creature, all promising umbra and tender resplendence. Sherlock felt torn between fascination and frustration, and he let out a gusty sigh. It became a groan as his sinuses protested to the change in air pressure, and he pressed the pillow back to his face in desperation.
With every passing minute the Norazophen was becoming less effective, taking its comfort with it and leaving his body to return to its natural, agony-riddled state. Part of him knew it was better than it could have been. Without the drug, he would have been caught in an endless loop of sleepless pain for days, driving his body to further extremes through the sheer inability to escape the biting, snarling, slashing creature the migraine became. However, even now, he could barely function as a human-being, let alone display anything like his usual genius.
'Bed,' he said decisively. 'I need to get to bed.'
'Sure you won't throw up if you move?' John asked.
Sherlock felt the pillow shift, cotton clinging lovingly to the contours of his face for a moment before the dull twilight of the living room tried to crowbar its way around his eyelids, drifting through the web of his lashes like smoke as he hesitantly peeled his eyes open.
The firelight made the ceiling undulate softly above his head, and he turned away, choosing to examine John instead as he considered the question. 'If I don't move now, I'll be stuck here all night. You're not going to leave me, and I'm not going to let you sleep on the floor.' He laid out the facts like a poker player putting down a winning hand, inviting no arguments and making no apology. He knew John too well to believe the doctor would leave Sherlock in this state to retire upstairs to his bed. At least in Sherlock's room there was a big mattress and enough soft pillows for them both. 'I don't know if I'll sleep, but I don't intend to let you deny yourself of the chance through stubbornness.'
'That's pretty rich, coming from you,' John pointed out, lunging forward to grab Sherlock's shoulders as he sat up and wobbled. The room pitched and swirled around him. His stomach clenched, but the retch did not materialise, and Sherlock drew in a deep breath. The vertigo normally came on sooner than this, but then no attack was precisely the same, and he swallowed hard as he gripped John's arms and dragged himself unwillingly to his feet.
'I'd carry you if I thought it would help, but I'm guessing it would make it worse,' John murmured. He kept one hand steady between his shoulder-blades as he guided Sherlock the short distance back to the bedroom.
God, yes. Being picked up would be awful, although part of him was impressed with the knowledge that John could almost certainly bear his weight without difficulty. At least now he knew his feet were rooted on the floor, even if every other sense was trying to make him a liar. The very thought of being picked up and suspended, unattached and weightless in a pirouetting world, was enough to turn Sherlock's skin clammy, and he pressed his lips together in mute response.
The bed swam in front of his vision: an altar of comfort amidst a jagged, cruel reality. Sherlock eased himself onto it, wishing that the gasp of feathers and the flex and give of springs could bring as much comfort to his head as they did his body.
'You need to get that dressing gown off,' John said bluntly, and despite himself, Sherlock smiled to hear the embarrassed stammer in John's explanation. 'I – I mean you'll probably choke yourself on the sash if you toss and turn in the night. Come on.'
Warm palms tucked beneath the loose lapels of the silk dressing gown, brushing the thin, delicate fabric from Sherlock's skin: down around the curve of his shoulders and, when he shifted his weight to free it, along the length of his arms to fall from his fingertips. John simply tugged it out from beneath Sherlock's back like someone performing that trick with a tablecloth where they could whip it off and leave cutlery and crockery in place. It would be hell on the material, but Sherlock was too busy studying the sensation to care.
'I need to go and bank the fire, and bring back your bucket. Can you do without me for a few minutes?'
Sherlock hummed a vaguely positive response, keeping his eyes shut tight against the waltz of the world and grounding himself through the other senses available to him. It lessened the rocking, sickly sway, although even his skin seemed to suggest that his surroundings were pulsing, losing themselves in paroxysms.
Eventually, he became aware of the metallic percussion of the catch of the door, and the faint clank of the empty bucket at the side of the bed. A brief, bright flash of light suggested John had turned on one of the bedside lamps, but it was hurriedly muted, and Sherlock opened one eye a fraction to see that a thick towel had been draped over the shade, allowing through only the faintest hint of light. Enough for him to see the bucket, should he need it, but adequately dim for the orchestra in his head to concentrate on velveteen Vivaldi, rather than descending into a crescendo of Beethoven's fifth.
John had changed into a t-shirt and pyjama pants, modestly covered from neck to toe with only his forearms and feet bare. 'Is this all right?' he asked, gesturing to the cotton. 'It's not going to set you off again, is it?'
'No,' Sherlock managed. 'Sensitivity's gone. Now everything’s –' He waved a hand, then pressed it over his eyes. 'Rippling.'
A sympathetic noise escaped John's throat, but it was a fruitless one. Sherlock knew there was nothing John could do to ease the swaying, sinking feeling, and he winced as John gently eased his weight down onto the mattress. He did his best not to make matters worse, that much was obvious, but the very real movement adding to the maelstrom of imagined vertigo was almost too much. Sherlock felt the sweat burst across his forehead and settle in the hollow of his cheekbones, and he clutched his fingers tight in the sheet, for once trying to let his body over-rule his fallacious mind.
He could feel the expanse of bed between them like a chasm, prurient and chaste, but in the space between one heartbeat and the next John bridged the gap. His fingers curled around Sherlock's wrist and pried the fist of his grip open so he could splay his hand against Sherlock's palm. It was one brief point of contact, and Sherlock’s spinning internal compass aligned to it as if John had turned on a magnetic field. He was a single, solid point, and when Sherlock rolled on his side to move closer, John took his other hand.
'Better?' John asked, and Sherlock opened his eyes just a fraction. There was still something a bit distorted about the world, but he could ignore it for long enough to see the earnest light in John's tired eyes.
Sherlock wriggled on the mattress, his hands moving up John's arms before he slotted his body in close, feeling the rasp of tired old cotton against his stomach, chest and thighs as he bound himself thoroughly to the one stable element in a volatile existence. And John, wonderful, fabulous John steadily curved his arm around Sherlock's waist in a firm grip that promised never to let him drift away.
John meant to stay awake, to keep fragile vigil over Sherlock's pain-racked form, but the stress of the day took its toll. He could not even find the line where reality – Sherlock warm and vivid in his arms – faded away, replaced instead by a hot, dusty wind and the scent of cedar mixed with gunfire.
Initially, the dream was innocuous: a memory of another time and place. Afghanistan's rugged terrain awaited him, where mountain met desert and the slim belt of green land in between carried the fragrance of both. The ground beneath his boots brimmed with sultry heat, beating back onto his face and making the nape of his neck slick with sweat as his pack dragged at his shoulders.
His helmet was a snug burden over his skull, and the cotton of his fatigues, dyed to match the distant sand, were stained almost bland with the collection of too much dust. His feet ached from the long patrol, but even before his mind began to turn, he knew something was wrong.
There was no one else here. He should have been surrounded by the rest of his unit, all of them together as they scoured the area for insurgents or IEDs, yet there was no one but him and the ghostly, empty breath of the wind. John blinked grit from his eyes and licked his dry lips, forcing himself to focus on the ground beneath his feet. This was not right. He could feel a sense of threat all the way down to his bones. The heavy presence of death hung in the air, and he found himself cringing at what he might find.
It was Carter he saw first. Part of his mind, distantly logical, whispered that the soldier had never died here in the battle-zone. He was back in Britain, safe and sound, and so was John... This was just another nightmare. Yet the rationalisation could not be heard over the dull thud of John's pulse in his ears as he hunkered down at the corpse's side.
He was too late – days too late. Carter's eyes had turned cloudy, and his face crawled with flies, darting in and out of slack lips around the thin, black maw of an open mouth. His skin had started to desiccate, turning dry and paper thin in the arid heat. His hair was clogged with dust, his body lax and unresponsive – rigor mortis long since passed.
Cautiously, John put his gun down beside his boot. It meant it was within easy reach in case of an ambush but left his hands free to probe the body. His fingers moved jerkily, first at Carter's throat, then eyelids, then chest with no obvious movement in between. He looked for a blocked airway, a broken hyoid bone, a bullet wound – anything that might show him how Carter had ended up like this, but there was nothing. It was as if he had just dropped where he stood. His pack was beneath his back, making his spine arch and twist. The canteen at his hip was still full of brackish, hot water, and his gun lay not far from his right hand, fully loaded.
Sitting back on his heels, John cuffed the back of his hand over his sweat-glossed brow, squinting around the brush and feeling his heart drop as he saw the other bodies. Like Carter, they lay where they had fallen: puppets with their strings cut. All his old unit gone. Even those who John had seen blown to nothing were there, whole and untouched but dead all the same, and his skin crawled with the wrongness of it all.
A sound made him blink and look around with more purpose, straining his ears until it came again: a moan carried along on the hot gasp of the wind. The noise seemed to shimmer at its edges, unearthly and half-lost in the heat haze, and John called out, his voice a cracked echo in the lank air.
'Hello? Do you need help?'
The only answer was a flash of movement: white like a flag of surrender – a pallid hand that looked like bleached bone in Afghanistan's merciless sun. It came from within some tall grass off to his left, almost as high as John's shoulders, and he parted the reeds with frantic slashes of his arms, trying to find whoever was caught up in the parched vegetation's grasp.
When he found him, he wished to God he hadn't: milky skin, dark hair and a suit – not military fatigues. John wanted to scream because this was not how these nightmares went, but the sound got caught in his dry throat, coming out as a groan of misery. If he could have torn himself from sleep, he would but, though part of him knew this was a dream, there was no way out. All he could do was stand there and stare at the man who did not belong in Afghanistan's heat.
Sherlock was sitting with his knees drawn up to his chest and his hands pressed to his face, blocking John's view. His hair shone like wet ink, the curls almost obscenely dark against the skin at his temples. Yet even as John took in his friend's hunched form, he noticed the blood. It was caught in Sherlock's ear, gleaming like a ruby: an endless well that had no place in the curve of that cartilage shell. As John watched, it spilled over, carving a gory line down his throat.
'Sherlock?' John staggered forward, dropping to his knees and reaching out, wrapping tanned fingers around slender wrists. 'You're hurt. Let me – let me see. Come on.'
His only response was another, miserable pulse of sound from low in Sherlock's throat but, inch by inch, the hands began to drop, revealing what lay beneath. Rivulets of red ran from Sherlock's nose, the corner of his lips, the ducts of his eyes, writing a visceral story down the blank paper of his face. It made his irises look like green cut glass, impossibly bright and burning with pain, yet it was the circle at his brow that caught John's attention: bone shards and pulp, brain matter swelling into the breach left by the bullet.
It should have been fatal, immediately so, yet Sherlock was still alive, his eyes sharp and his breathing hitched with agony. 'John. Help me! It's – I can't – I can't think!'
John's fingers fluttered uselessly, grazing over Sherlock's cheekbones and up to his temples in a futile effort to soothe. Head injury, brain swelling... He should relieve the pressure, but with what? He was in the middle of fucking Afghanistan, and nothing in his kit could do this kind of surgery. This was for the cold clinics of the hospital and a skilled neurosurgeon. That's what it would take to make Sherlock's miracle of survival something meaningful. He was just – just an army medic: amputating legs, patching bullet holes and hoping for the best... Not this.
'John, please!' It was a desperate cry, almost child-like but for the deepness of the man's voice, and John launched into action, trying to stem the blood-flow, swearing and praying under his breath as Sherlock's voice hitched on dry, terrible sobs.
'We need to get you back to base. They can help you there.'
It was a lie, and Sherlock knew it. The knowledge was there in his eyes, sick and terrified. John twitched as Sherlock's fingers fumbled at the holster on John's belt. The pistol thudded into the dry grass, and for a moment they both stared at it. Sherlock's breathing sounded ragged: death's slow approach. It could take a while, John knew that. Hours of pain and panic, of a body falling apart as its control centre was crushed and torn by its own swelling.
'You can still help me,' Sherlock rasped, his head sagging forward into the curve of John's palm as he picked up the gun and put it in John's other hand. The safety hammer was already cocked, and the gun's black shape seemed to absorb the sunlight, drowning it out in the sleek, dark lines of its form. John's finger curved on the trigger automatically, but it was Sherlock's shaking hands that guided John's arm up until the muzzle of the pistol pressed into the flesh beneath Sherlock's jaw.
John's heart turned to ice. He felt the chill even as he found his voice. 'No, Sherlock. Please...'
Sherlock’s hand slipped for a moment, sweat making his palm slick over the back of John's wrist. Yet the grip returned, tighter than before, and the pressure in the knuckle of John's trigger-finger increased ten-fold.
The Browning was trembling: a twitching, lively thing in John's grasp, stamping its presence onto Sherlock's skin. It rattled faintly, a cool, metallic sound in this hot, dry, other kind of hell, where Sherlock's blood still flowed and those eyes pleaded from the pallor of that familiar face. 'John, help me.'
A noise escaped John's throat: heartbreak, even as he shook his head and tried to form the words he needed. 'No. Don't – I can't. I can't.'
Sherlock's left hand reached up, shaking and clumsy as he touched John's face: ice-cold fingers over sweat-hot skin, brushing over the line of John's lips as if he were committing them to memory. 'It's the last thing I'll ask of you,' he managed, and for the first time that confident, arrogant, beautiful voice cracked right through, hoarse with unshed tears. 'The very last thing, John.'
He felt Sherlock's fingers tighten over his on the trigger – felt the moment when the gun went from a killing machine poised for action to an implement of utter destruction: balance lost and no going back.
The sound of the shot exploded through John's head, and his own scream tore him, panting and choking, from the nightmare's clutches.
Sherlock's hands were on his shoulders, a light weight designed to reassure, rather than restrain, and John lunged forward without thinking, flipping them around and over so that he was sprawled across Sherlock's body. His fingers traced the shapes of Sherlock's ears and eyes, up over his strong brow to find smooth flesh and solid bone rather than a gaping hole. Sherlock's ribs rose and fell in a steady swell beneath John's chest, and he could feel the firm beat of Sherlock's heart trying to call his own pulse back to a more normal pace.
John's breathing was so far beyond his control it was painful, making his body heave and stutter even as Sherlock lay still – accepting of John's obsessive touch. He was shaking all over, his teeth clattering until John clenched his jaw tight, trying to calm himself as sweat cooled between his shoulder-blades and tears threatened to spill over his eyelashes.
He felt Sherlock's arms wrap carefully around him, long fingers dragging lines across his back through the thin veil of his t-shirt before flat palms smoothed the invisible marks away. Sherlock did not squeeze or try to hold him tight. The embrace was a loose one, the easiest thing in the world to break, but moving was the last thing of which John felt capable. The heat of the living skin beneath his chest was enough to take the fast, sharp hitch of every gasp of air and soften its edge, dragging him back from panic's shaky precipice.
The fingers of his right hand were curled, claw-like and frantic, around Sherlock's shoulder while those of the left rubbed a tense, paranoid line between Sherlock's eyebrows, checking again and again that there was no damage. Steadily, the last shreds of the nightmare dissipated, taking the tightness in his chest with them and leaving him murmuring breathless, inarticulate apologies as Sherlock's hands smoothed up and down his spine.
'You dreamt I was shot,' Sherlock said, his whisper robbing the statement of his usual bluntness.
John glanced up sharply, taking in Sherlock's face for the first time since waking up. He had not wanted to look, before, in case all he saw was blood and broken bone. Now, though, there was just Sherlock's pale skin, eyes slitted in the gloom and still bracketed by lines of discomfort as his lips pulled down into a worried grimace.
He stared at his fingers where they were still pressed between Sherlock's eyebrows before curling them back towards his palm, dropping his hand and his head at the same time and letting his cheek rest against Sherlock's chest. Part of him was certain he should roll to one side. This took invading personal space to a whole new level, and the last thing Sherlock needed with a pounding migraine was a deranged army doctor sprawled all over him. Yet John's muscles did not want to move – did not dare to shift and lose Sherlock’s vital heat in case his absence somehow made the nightmare real.
'Something like that,' he managed at last, his throat pulsing as he swallowed. The lingering memory of the dream – shattered, vivid fragments that plagued him still – coated his mind like pitch. He pushed back against the dark veil, trying to shove his own feelings aside as he hurriedly changed the subject of the conversation. 'Did I wake you?'
For a few moments, Sherlock's only response was silence, suggesting his mind was still sharp enough to know what John was doing and to question his reasons. John held his breath, silently praying Sherlock would not resist the effort to ignore what had happened, and after a moment, his pleas were answered.
'No. The Norazophen's still wearing off, and the pain is increasing. It's too –' He paused, eyes flickering shut as he searched for the right word. 'Intense to sleep.'
'Sorry,' John murmured, forcing himself to move at last. 'I can't be helping, pouncing on you like that.' He glanced at the clock, staring blankly at the numbers which said he had been out for several hours. Some sleep must have happened before the dream, then, but he could not recall anything between the warmth of Sherlock's arms and the heat of Afghanistan's plains.
'You didn't hurt me,' Sherlock replied, one hand catching around John's wrist and dragging him over so he lay on his side, the two of them face-to-face. There was a hint of familiar scrutiny in Sherlock's gaze, though the shadows beneath his eyes and tension in his jaw suggested that the effort came at a price. 'Surprising, since you were having a borderline panic attack.'
At John's questioning look, Sherlock began listing symptoms. 'Rapid pulse, cold sweat, trembling, hyperventilation and disorientation...' The next question was quiet, as if Sherlock was thoroughly expecting to be told to fuck off for even asking. 'Is it always like that?'
It would be incredibly easy to lie – to brush it off as any other nightmare, normal in its horror, but it had been more than a year since John'd had such a crippling, physical response to his dreams. A few moments of fear and confusion before awareness set in were more typical these days – not that: cringing desperation and clutching, feral terror.
'No. It's not usually that bad. They wake me up, yeah, but...' John shook his head, screwing his eyes up tight before opening them again. Exhaustion nibbled at the edges of his vision, but there was no way he was going back to sleep tonight. He did not dare, not if that scene was all that awaited him once he shut his eyes. 'I've not woken up that frightened since moving into Baker Street.'
Sherlock's thumb stroked back and forth across John's hand in silent comfort, a silken sweep of skin-on-skin that had John half-mesmerised. His breathing slowed down to match the pace of Sherlock's caress, and part of him dimly wondered if it was deliberate: Sherlock taking care of him while John was still helpless to do a damn thing against the migraine that caught Sherlock in the vice of its grip.
Normally, he would have fled and found some comfort in the obviously waking world. He would have made tea and sat in the armchair, cementing himself in the reassuring burden of normalcy even as the night slipped on. Often, Sherlock was awake as well, and he would merely glance at John, assessing and silent, before asking him to pass him something or make him tea. Occasionally, he was playing the violin, and John could listen to the music and just forget.
Yet somehow his usual behaviour held no appeal. It felt too isolated, in that moment. Out there, in those dark hours of the past, he and Sherlock were utterly separate. Here, in the bed, there was none of that. Sherlock was right there, and though the migraine dulled his mind, all available power was fixated completely on John: alarming and compelling in equal measure.
'You're not going to be able to go back to sleep, are you?' Sherlock asked quietly, his lips twisting when John shook his head. There was a moment of peace, as if Sherlock was considering his options before he spoke again, his voice still hushed. 'Sit back against the headboard,' he ordered, letting go of John's hand and reaching for one of the pillows.
For a moment, John just blinked at him, trying to understand what was rushing through that brilliant brain. 'Why?'
Sherlock looked at him, and the flicker of conflict on his face suggested he was considering telling a lie before a sigh passed his lips. 'Your behaviour suggests your nightmare was as much about being powerless as it was about the war. You want to be useful, and I know a way you can make the pain more bearable, but you'll be more comfortable if you sit behind me.'
There was nothing he could argue with there. Even without all the details, Sherlock still seemed to have picked up on the root of John's dream. He'd probably been more obvious in his frustrated helplessness than he had intended, and while his subconscious painted bloody, horrific scenes of Sherlock dead at his hand, the living, breathing man himself was trying to think of ways to ease John's inadequacy.
Wordlessly, John did as he was told, propping a pillow between himself and Sherlock's headboard before leaning back. He lifted an eyebrow as Sherlock nudged his legs apart, dropping another pillow into the vee they made before reclining. His head rested against John's sternum, dark curls painting riotous lines on the white t-shirt John wore as Sherlock let his eyes flutter closed.
'I know you were trying to comfort yourself,' he murmured, 'but you rubbing your fingers over my forehead was – it was good. Distracting. External sensation is –'
'A simple way to detract from internal pain where no swelling or muscle damage is present,' John finished for him, pressing his own fingertips to his palms before sweeping them ever so-lightly over Sherlock's skin.
Before, it had been instinctive – a quick, fundamental need which he had fulfilled without even asking permission. Now Sherlock was lying there, head tipped back in surrender. In the dim light from the towel-covered lamp, John could see the strong, pale line of Sherlock's throat and the planes of his bare chest, a bit too lean but powerful in their own way.
It was beautiful. He was beautiful, utterly surrendered as he was in John's arms, and John forced himself to focus not on the body stretched out in front of him but the smooth skin beneath his hands. Warm flesh was pulled tight over the frontal bone, and John felt it grow more dense over the inward arch of Sherlock's nasal ridge. He traced the line of Sherlock's forehead, moving in steady, tender circles up over the delicate vaults of his temples and back to the centre of the brow.
He fell into a rhythm automatically, using his fingertips and the sides of his thumbs to apply the lightest touch of pressure, always watching for any sign of additional discomfort from Sherlock. 'Tell me if I hurt you,' he requested quietly, watching the flicker of Sherlock's eyes beneath his closed eyelids and the part of that cupid bow mouth around his response.
'You won't.' A faint frown crossed Sherlock's brow, fleetingly carving lines before it faded away and he spoke again, softer this time. 'It's just audio and visual sensitivity and a crippling headache, for now anyway.'
'Hmmm, I don't think the word “just” can be used in conjunction with any of this, Sherlock,' John murmured, his fingers drifting back to toy absently with dark, lank curls, idly stroking the skin beneath as he explored the contours of Sherlock's skull. 'Did someone else do this for you? When you were younger, I mean?' he asked curiously, thinking of the mysterious Mummy more than Mycroft. Or perhaps a kind nurse in one of the clinics Sherlock had been forced to attend.
'No,' Sherlock replied, and the softness of his voice had taken on a faint hum of pleasure as John's ministrations continued. 'Mummy was afraid to touch me. Everyone was. They seemed to think I would break.'
'That's –' John paused, a sigh trying to escape his chest as he pictured Sherlock surrounded by machines and drugged but ultimately alone. 'Horrible. No one helped you?'
'That's what the medicines were for,' Sherlock replied. 'I can't really blame them for their fears. I was – less controlled as a child. Less able to cope. I cried endlessly, screamed sometimes, which did not help.' His mouth twisted, his fingers tightening into fists. 'As a teenager I became vicious with it. More wounded animal than something sane. When I reached adulthood I discovered that it was better to get through it alone than worry people.' He licked his lips, tilting his head to the side to let John's fingers wander around the zygomatic arch above his left ear. 'By the time I realised I couldn't escape this attack, it was too late to distract you with something else.'
'Good,' John replied firmly, wincing as Sherlock flinched at the volume of his voice. 'Sorry,' he added quickly, his words softer and less jarring. 'I just don't want you to think you ever have to hide anything from me. I don't want to be kept in the dark. I want to help, however I can.'
Sherlock's fingers wrapped around John's ankles where they lay on either side of him, idly rubbing at the protruding bones and shadowed dips as if fascinated by the sensation. The pressure was just enough not to tickle, and John licked his lips as the lazy circles seemed to telegraph along his nerves until he was mimicking the pattern through Sherlock's hair.
'I know from the outside all this must have been strange in the extreme,' Sherlock began.
'Try terrifying,' John cut in, his smile crooked on his lips as Sherlock looked up at him. 'Only you could take a migraine to a whole new level.'
'And only you could remind me that it will end,' Sherlock replied softly, arching his back a fraction so that his head fit more neatly into the curve of John's palm. 'It can be so easy to get lost in it all, to assume that it won't improve and my mind will be broken forever. You've made sure I don't forget that.'
'It's the least I could do,' John replied. 'The idea of you going through this with no one to help...' He shook his head, staring unseeingly out of the window. 'I know you managed before, but I hate the thought of it. I've never seen your mind like that – so lost in itself. Your senses played tricks, half of what you were saying made no sense and the rest of it was in a foreign language. Even now that it seems to be getting better you can still barely even stand.' John swallowed tightly, his voice becoming a whisper. 'You needed someone here, and I couldn't have left you if you asked me to.'
The confession hovered in the air, more meaningful now that it had been given shape. John could hear the hoarse edge to the words, and he winced as he forced himself to be silent. It seemed to say too much, to threaten the boundaries he and Sherlock had created, and the last thing he wanted was to push Sherlock away when he was still in such obvious need.
He deliberately did not look down into Sherlock's face, upturned again now and strange from an upside-down angle. However, he did keep the stroking, gliding movement of his fingers and hands going, learning the unique topography of the skull that housed Sherlock's marvellous mind.
'This migraine's not over – not yet,' Sherlock replied, his voice heavy and exhausted as if he could not bear to think about it. 'What languages was I speaking?'
'Spanish, Italian,' he replied, relieved that Sherlock did not pursue the full meaning of John's clumsy words. 'Mostly French, though. You kept coming back to it. There was one thing you said to me...' He frowned in confusion, staring at the wall as he tried to remember it. Something like “m'as je échoué.”'
John looked back to see Sherlock frowning, his eyes glazed as if he were struggling to remember things lost within a sea of sedatives and torment. In the end, though, something like recollection twitched across his face. 'Was it “Tu ne m'as jamais échoué.”?' he asked slowly, wrinkling his nose when John nodded his head. 'It's not even a phrase a French person would use. It's just English words switched into French counterparts.'
'Can you –' John bit his lip, his hands falling still. Those words had haunted with him in the back of his mind, one unknown piece among many. There had been something in the way that Sherlock had said them, something important, and it was almost impossible to let it go. 'Can you remember what you were trying to say?'
Sherlock's shoulders tensed, his body moving slowly as he sat up. His right hand pressed at one temple as if trying to quell a thudding pain there before he turned around, sitting cross-legged between the splayed vee of John's ankles. His face was pale in the twilight of the room, shadows finding shelter in the valley at the base of his throat and the divot at his collarbone, but his eyes were intent, sharply Sherlock rather than the lost, pained man John had seen too much of these past couple of days. It was as if he were almost present again, despite the discomfort, and all his concentration was settled on John.
For a minute, John thought that Sherlock would not answer. He believed he would brush it off or stagger from the bed and bring this strange, perfect interlude of closeness to an end. Yet after a few heartbeats of silence, Sherlock lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug, clearing his throat awkwardly before delivering his translation.
'You've never failed me.'
Chapter 7: Lions In Their Cages
John's face still bore the lingering strain of his nightmare, writ large in the tense lines around his eyes and the wrinkle in his brow. Yet at Sherlock’s words, the stress lessened, eased away by a warm, open smile. It was as if, in the story of sentiment, Sherlock had managed to say something right, and the transformation of John's expression spoke volumes. Despite everything, from the terror of his dream to the burden of taking care of Sherlock, he was happy.
'Thank you,' John murmured, ducking his head and scratching his ear for a minute before meeting Sherlock's gaze again. Yet there was more there than mere gratitude. An answer in kind, perhaps, though one not verbalised, told in the cartography of John's features and the endless patience of his care. 'I – I know you wouldn't say that to most people.'
'It's not true of anyone else,' Sherlock managed, wishing the bass throbbing in his head would cease for long enough for him to try and explain. 'And I suspect you would be the only one to care if you did fail me somehow.'
He hissed in a breath through his teeth, groping out with one hand to catch John's grip. 'It seems to be worrying you,' he added, wincing at the dim lamp on the bedside table before lying down again, this time on his side parallel to the headboard. He had wanted to sit up, to watch John with sharp eyes and a clear mind, but his head was too full of vicious, cracking pain to do so. How hateful to be so exposed in feeling and yet utterly unable to concentrate the strength of his intellect on the interaction. 'You seem to think that all your assistance is somehow not enough, when it's the most anyone's ever done for me.'
John swallowed, and Sherlock watched the bob of his Adam's apple through slitted eyes. He looked conflicted – angry, perhaps, at distant, meaningless people in Sherlock's past who had offered the synthetic pity of drugs and thought nothing of the respite simple touch could offer. Yet there was grief there too, its mystery clarified when John spoke.
'It shouldn't be like that. You shouldn't – shouldn't be so thankful for basic compassion.' He tugged at the quilt, reorganising it so that it was draped over Sherlock's body: soft feathers and a serpentine symphony. 'It should have been offered to you long before now.'
Sherlock's smile felt more like an open wound: utterly false, a parody of joy. Sherlock knew that to see the stain of distress across his face would bring uncertainty rather than comfort to John, so he wiped it clean, letting his lips slacken again before he spoke. 'Perhaps it was offered, and I pushed it away. My personality is not conducive to sympathy,' he pointed out softly. Sometimes it seemed to him that John saw a very different Sherlock Holmes than everyone else, as if he were looking at him through a different lens.
John pursed his lips, his fingers tracing idle patterns on the quilt as if he did not know what to do. 'That's not the way I see it,' he said at last, twisting the fabric between his fingers. 'I just wish I could give you more. I get patients with migraines now and then – auras and headaches, that's all – I give them basic medication or refer them to a neurologist if they're particularly severe. This –' He waved a hand, gesturing to Sherlock as a whole and his head in particular. 'Even with the information Mycroft gave me, I don't know what to do.'
'Neither does anyone else,' Sherlock pointed out, bunching the corner of the eiderdown and resting his cheek on it. 'Not even people who have studied the brain for decades.' He winced as another, sharper lance of agony crashed through him, making him draw his knees up to his chest and turn his face down into the mattress, muffling his voice. 'Idiots. Them, not you.'
The faint snick of the lamp reached Sherlock's ears – John turning off the subtle glow of the bulb – but it didn't do any good. Where his suffering had previously been driven on by external influences, it was now like a spiked ball of lead in the centre of his skull, twisting and ramming around his cranial space as a rough moan of discomfort scratched at his throat.
Sitting up had been a mistake. Stationary and pressed into the cradle of John's body the misery had been tolerable – sailing along on an even keel. Now the pain pulsed and writhed, waxing and waning in intensity. He could almost feel the individual sections in his brain: glorious forests of neurons and glia falling victim to the raging inferno. His neck had become a cracked steel bar, utterly inflexible. Muscles contracted, tight and unforgiving, and all he wanted was for it to stop.
He felt John's hand at his temple, slippery over the sheen of sweat as he brushed Sherlock's curls back from his skin. 'Does this still help?' John asked quietly. His touch was feather-light, a breath of sensation and no more. What had been comforting and relieving a short while ago was now as distant as starlight trying to melt the polar ice caps. Yet for all that the movement was ineffective for offering relief, the gentle stroke of John's fingers at least made Sherlock feel like something to be treasured – guarded with the utmost loyalty and protected at any cost. It was rare, that kind of regard, and he could not bring himself to turn it aside.
'A little,' he lied eventually, his fingers scraping over the sheets until he found the sharp angle of John's knee and rested his hand there, palm cupped and comfortable. It felt like completing a circuit – a tentative connection – and Sherlock tried to contain his fretful sigh. His thoughts broke and shattered amidst the vortex of discomfort that was rising behind his eyes.
It reminded Sherlock of the time when he was sixteen and trapped in an endless loop of recovery and deterioration. There had been so little of him left by the end of that year, scattered out and strewn thin by the passing havoc of his mind. He had hated it. Hated that his once incredible thoughts were reduced to so much white-noise bringing him neither the joy of deduction nor the peace of silence. He could recall frenzied cries, his fingernails clawing at his own skin, biting bleeding lines into his scalp in a desperate effort to rip out the torment inside his head.
Sherlock's jaw clenched as another, fuller wave washed through him, bringing panic with it. God, he'd do anything to bring it to a halt, anything: sell his soul, fill himself to the brim with drugs, even put his head in a fucking guillotine if it brought him respite, but there was none to be found. He could feel his own breaths turning sharp at their edges as the minutes passed, catching on sounds he could not stifle even if he tried. Dimly, he could feel John moving, slipping down to lie at his side and murmuring his sympathies in a tight, hurting voice, as if Sherlock's own horror was echoing back at him.
'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry,' John murmured, and Sherlock felt the hot, fleeting press of thin lips to his brow. Once, twice, three times, as if John was trying to resuscitate something of the man he knew and drag him free of the twisted, wretched creature that now lay in his arms. Unfortunately, life was not a fairytale. His torment was not magically banished, and all too soon the sensation faded, lost beneath the migraine's rage. He had warned John it would get worse, but this went beyond even Sherlock's expectations, graunching against bone and shrieking along nerves until his entire mind-scape was filled from one edge to the other with the looming, brutal presence.
It was like being lost at sea, pitched from one jarring wave to the next, slammed down into dark, choking crevices only to emerge and repeat the process all over again. More than once he lunged upright, only finding the bucket by blind luck in the dark. Yet his retches were futile, doing nothing to ease the spin of returning nausea and only increasing the percussive pressure in the catacombs of his sinuses.
John was there through it all, the only thing outside of Sherlock's head of which he was fully aware. It was as if John was forcing his way into the arena in which Sherlock lay at the migraine's mercy, making his presence known: arms folded and chin raised as if he could challenge the thing that lay Sherlock's mind to waste.
He was not asleep, Sherlock knew that. He could still feel John's warmth next to him and the bed beneath: a boat on the tumultuous ocean of dizzy uncertainty, yet some when in the darkness of the night a new scene built itself before his eyes. Dusty ground and Roman stone rose around him, tumble-down and ruined like his mind-palace. Yet the hard-packed earth beneath him was stained with the blood of those previously vanquished. Bleached white bones, pitted with claw marks, lay in the curve of the oval space, and all around the edge the lions paced in their cages, their rising growls filling Sherlock's ears as he waited for their attack.
John stepped forward, past Sherlock's hunched form, to stand between him and the threat that lay ahead. He bore no spear, no weapon with which to fight off the creatures, yet his readiness for battle seemed to radiate from every angle of his body. He was braced, grim-faced and determined as the quiet wind brought with it the phantom cheers of an audience who had long since turned sedimentary in their graves.
Not real. Sherlock thought to himself, yet when he opened his eyes to the dark bedroom his eyes were full of grit and his mouth tasted of blood. John was still awake, still watching him as if he could not bear to turn away, his profile thrown into relief by the sallow street lamps that glowed beyond the curtains.
He looked wrong, neither soldierly nor gladiatorial, but battered and fractured, as if for all his wars and all his battles he had finally found something which he could not win. Sherlock watched John purse his lips, their corners twitching downwards as if he were trying to suppress a sob.
'If this is the price you pay for being so brilliant,' John whispered, 'then I'm not sure it's worth it.' His voice was shaking, tense and miserable as he clung to Sherlock, returning his grasping, drowning grip in equal measure.
Sherlock pressed his nose to John's neck, hiding himself in the deeper darkness there. He thought of the flash and rush of the mystery, the puzzle, the game – all such a distant memory now. He thought of his own mind, marvellous when it was whole, but now lying in useless decay, and when he answered, it felt as though the truth was tearing itself free of him, limping and wretched.
'Neither am I.'
Morning's light crept through the window like a funeral procession. London's urban song was a dirge beyond the walls of the room, but John barely heard the hum of buses and cars and the first distant cries of newspaper vendors: the city's equivalent of a dawn chorus. He stared as the soft fringe of silvery illumination inched across the sheets, brushing away the crepuscular shadows of the room and alighting on the ivory skin of the man caught in his arms.
The duvet had slipped down to Sherlock's underwear-clad hips, leaving John's embrace wrapped around bare skin that still twitched and heaved around tight little breaths of pain. There had not been any respite in the passing hours of the night. Sherlock had not been exaggerating when he had told John it would get worse. There were no more fascinating symptoms – no more riddles of language or senses entwined – only ravages that took the glowing metropolis of Sherlock's brilliance and shook it utterly to dust, leaving them both lying in its rubble.
Sherlock wept, far beyond shame in the net of his own agony.
John prayed, too desperate to remember he believed in neither God nor the church.
He had tried to help – ice-packs, cool, wet towels, anything and everything to somehow allow Sherlock to focus outwards, rather than getting caught up in the tempest that lay waste to him – but he was too far gone. It was so different from the times when Sherlock had stood, dripping blood or cradling broken bones, injured and furious but still himself in the midst of it all. This was an assault on who Sherlock was and all that he could be. Nothing rent apart his flesh, but he was destroyed all the same.
A hoarse moan against the skin of his throat had John pulling back and looking down. Sherlock's eyes were shut, the pale skin of their lids turned pink with burst capillaries and his lashes salted by the mute passage of involuntary tears – dry now. His hair was sticking to his forehead in a tangle, and John teased it back away from his skin, murmuring something meaningless as Sherlock pried his eyes open: a sliver of silver between the dark lines of his lashes.
'Time?' Sherlock managed to ask, his voice a rough rasp in the air. John knew he had not been asleep, but he could see the confusion in Sherlock's face – the obvious need to tie himself back in with the real world, even if the very thought made his head ache more.
'Half-six in the morning,' John replied, watching Sherlock shiver and tugging the quilt back up to his shoulders before easing his arms away. 'The sun's just coming up. I should –'
Sherlock's fingers clasped at John's wrist, a frail manacle around the bone as his hand spasmed uselessly. 'Don't go.'
He sounded wrong – a million miles from the arrogant confidence John knew so well. He had never doubted that Sherlock was human, but it had never been so obvious before. Illness did things to people, tore them up and broke them down. Sometimes they were made new again by it. Other times they never recovered at all. Right now it was difficult to see how Sherlock could ever be himself again – hard to understand that this could possibly come to an end – and John had to clear his throat to remove the faint tremor of fear from his voice.
'I'm just going to shut the curtains, get you some more ice-cubes – stuff like that. I'll be back in a minute.'
Sherlock did not argue, though whether that was a sign of agreement or because he simply did not have the strength, John wasn't sure. Quickly, he unwrapped Sherlock's hand from around his arm, giving those long, slender fingers a squeeze of reassurance before getting to work. He eased the curtains along the rail, blocking out the encroaching day before padding across the bedroom floor and pushing the door open. The bucket at the side of the bed was empty still, so he left it where it was as he paced out into the kitchen.
John's eyes ached from an endless night. He had not slept for even a minute since waking from his nightmare, and he did not dare glance at his reflection in the mirror above the fireplace. Instead he focused his attention on the kitchen, ignoring the faintly sticky linoleum beneath his bare feet as he retrieved ice cubes from the freezer before filling a large saucepan with lukewarm water. A quick hunt in the bathroom revealed a flannel, and he grabbed it from the side of the bath before returning to the bedroom with his supplies.
'You still with me?' he whispered, half-hoping that perhaps Sherlock had finally managed to slip into slumber. However, his hopes were dashed by a faint sound of acknowledgement that hissed past Sherlock's lips.
John settled carefully on the edge of the bed, careful not to slop the water as he considered his options. Part of him longed to be more pro-active – to hunt out something that would wipe this blight from Sherlock's mind altogether – but he already knew that it was a lost cause. Specialists with years of time had found nothing to relieve Sherlock's misery during these attacks, and as much as he hated it, John knew he could do no better.
Palliative care was all that remained; John would happily shoulder the burden of looking after the needs of the body in an attempt to reduce Sherlock's suffering. He fed Sherlock ice cubes in silence, allowing the slippery cells of water to skim from his fingertips to Sherlock's mouth. He never crunched them, and John suspected it was because the act of biting down was too cataclysmic for the spasms in his head. Instead he watched the gentle suckling motion of Sherlock's mouth before dipping the flannel in the water and wringing it out.
Sweat had left its salty traces across Sherlock's face, and John dabbed away the clammy residue in silence, concentrating on the planes and angles of Sherlock's features. He moved along the clear frontier of his hairline, dark on pale, allowing the damp cloth to linger across the sharp lines of Sherlock's cheekbones before moving down to his neck.
'Is this all right?' he murmured, narrowing his eyes as Sherlock swallowed roughly, his next breath jagged before he managed to speak.
'Yes. Thank you, John. It's – ' Sherlock did not finish the sentence, and John let the peace close around them again. It hurt Sherlock to talk, that much was clear, and he continued to rinse and drain the flannel before patting down Sherlock's neck. He lingered on the thud of the pulse, counting the beats only to twitch when Sherlock continued, 'Good. Cool.'
John blinked, a prickle of alarm rushing down his spine. Stopping in the middle of sentences was not abnormal, generally speaking. Hell, he could remember Sherlock doing it when all this started, but carrying on as if no intervening time had passed was enough to set alarm bells ringing in John's mind.
Dropping the flannel back in the bowl, he forced himself to look at Sherlock properly, drawing back his perspective to see him as he would a patient. Sherlock's eyes were still shut, but as John watched his eyelashes fluttered – too fast to be a conscious reaction. It was painfully subtle, and only lasted a short while, but it coincided with a chewing motion of Sherlock's jaw. If there had still been ice in his mouth it would not have caused concern, but John felt his heart stutter as he leaned forward and cupped Sherlock's face.
'Sherlock, can you open your eyes for me please?' No response, and John sucked in a breath through his teeth as he tried again, injecting more urgency into his voice. 'Sherlock? Come on. I need you to look at me.'
This time, he obliged, eyelids parting to reveal silver irises that watched John with a mixture of confusion and exhaustion. 'What's wrong?'
'Did you hear me ask you to open your eyes the first time?' John asked, brushing his thumb over Sherlock's cheek as he gazed intently down into his friend's face, seeing the faint lines of uncertainty etch their way into his skin. 'It's important; it's –'
His words died in his throat, falling to nothing as he saw the presence slide out of Sherlock's gaze. One minute he was undeniably there, the next he was gone – leaving a doll-like absence behind his eyes.
'Shit!' John spat, his hands dithering fretfully for a moment before he pulled himself together and began to count, breathing a shuddering sigh when he got to fourteen and Sherlock blinked back into the world. He did not seem frightened or alarmed. It was like someone flicking a switch, turning Sherlock on and off inside his own head. To anyone not looking for the signs it might seem more like a distracted daydream, but John knew Sherlock too well to believe that. He'd seen things like this before, once, but it was enough for him to know what he was looking at.
'You're having absence seizures,' John managed, forcing himself to sound calm and professional as he gripped Sherlock's shoulder. 'Does this normally happen?'
Now Sherlock looked baffled, his brow cinching in a frown. He was looking at John as if he had lost his mind. 'Seizures?' he repeated, blinking again as if trying to fit the word into his reality. 'Convulsions?'
'No, they tend to be characterised by short periods of blankness.' John shrugged fitfully, letting go of Sherlock to scrabble for his phone. 'Staring spells. The person suffering has no awareness of them. I'm calling an ambulance.'
Sherlock groaned, and some of the fear in John's chest eased a little to hear that familiar displeasure at the thought of hospital so evident in Sherlock's voice. 'Is that really necessary? It's over. It's gone.'
'Yes it's bloody necessary,' John growled, finally grabbing his phone and mashing the number nine three times. 'Sherlock, migraines are one thing, even ones as fucked up as yours, but seizures as well? You need to be in hospital in case they get worse. If you've not had them before...'
Sherlock closed his eyes, his tongue darting out across chapped lips as his throat pulsed around his voice. 'I don't remember.'
John shook his head, punching the call button with his thumb and trying to control his voice as the line went live. 'Ambulance,' he ordered, hearing the brief click of the transfer before he was calmly asked to provide details. The woman on the other end was clearly used to talking to people in a panic, because her voice was calm and smooth as she requested the address.
'221B Baker Street. November-Whisky-One, Six -X-ray-Epsilon.' He spelled out the post code in the phonetic, an age-old habit as both a doctor and a soldier, never taking his eyes off Sherlock as she confirmed an ambulance was on its way. Without pause, she asked for more details, no doubt handing the information on to the paramedics as John quickly explained. 'Adult Caucasian male, mid-thirties presenting with intense migraine symptoms has begun experiencing absence seizures. No known history of epilepsy or fits.'
The woman assured him that the ambulance would be there in a matter of minutes, leaving John to hang up and follow her quick, practical advice. It was easy to manipulate Sherlock into the recovery position so that, should a more violent seizure occur, he wouldn't choke on bile or spit. Sherlock merely gave him a very weak glare, licking his lips again before he managed, 'An ambulance, John, really?'
'Yes, really. You think I should try and take you to hospital in a cab?' John demanded. 'The drivers of London have enough to put up with from you without adding this to the mix. I'd better call Mycroft.'
'I'm sure he already –' His voice died in his throat, falling silent as the faint lines in Sherlock's face went slack again, void and lifeless.
John shivered, glancing towards the clock and checking the interval before he began to count. His experience with seizures was limited at best, which was part of the reason he had called an ambulance. In theory, he knew what to do – knew that fits were rarely fatal – but he wanted Sherlock in hospital, monitored and under surveillance with life-saving equipment nearby. That was probably where he should have been all along...
'Knows.' The last word of Sherlock's sentence sounded stranded and lost, so far separated from its fellows, and John pursed his lips as Sherlock gave him a puzzled look.
'They're lasting about ten seconds,' John informed him, grabbing his boots and shoving them on his bare feet. Socks were pointless, and he didn't give a damn that he was still in his pyjamas. All he cared about was getting Sherlock to a medical centre. 'You don't even know they're happening, do you?'
Sherlock's face twitched in a grimace, his eyes narrowing a fraction as the wail of a siren cut into Baker Street. For the first time since this had all begun, he looked not just pained or miserable, but afraid, and John quickly grasped his hand, holding on tight. 'Don't worry. The ambulance is here, and this is all a precaution. For all we know you've been having these seizures for years and no one's noticed. I just –' John licked his lips, shaking his head to himself as he confessed, 'I can't help you with these, so I have to get you to people who can. Okay?'
'You'll come with me?' Sherlock asked, his whisper rasping through the air, tight and fretful as a knock rattled the front door and the sound of Mrs Hudson's alarmed questions rang out up the stairs.
'I'd like to see anyone try and stop me,' John said firmly, meaning it all the way down to the core of his bones as he slipped his hand free of Sherlock's grasp and hurried to let the paramedics in.
'Is it bad, John?' Mrs Hudson asked, her hands clutched tight around the lapels of her pink dressing gown. 'Mycroft told me about the migraines of course, but –' She gestured weakly, her hands fluttering to her lips as she stood to one side to let the medics carry Sherlock down the stairs on a stretcher.
'This is ridiculous,' he muttered as he went, one arm draped over his eyes with the clip of the pulse monitor attached to his finger. 'I'll be back soon, Mrs Hudson.'
'It's just taken an unexpected turn,' John promised her, squeezing her arm briefly. 'Better safe than sorry. If Mycroft shows up –'
'I'll tell him where you are, but he's probably already waiting for you,' she said. 'Look after Sherlock, John. Goodness knows he's no good at taking care of himself.'
With one last, fleeting smile that did not touch his eyes, John hurried out, climbing in the back of the ambulance as the medics called out readings and checked Sherlock's reactions. John hastily filled them in on the migraine's path, seeing a mirror of his own bafflement at the array of symptoms Sherlock had exhibited. This went beyond the realms of their expertise, and John held onto Sherlock's hand throughout, listening to the familiar jargon flow around him as the ambulance blazed through the traffic.
The noise was probably escalating Sherlock's discomfort, yet he remained alert, watching the medics as they worked and occasionally meeting John's eyes with a hint of his usual impatience. To Sherlock, the seizures were probably undetectable, and John knew he thought this was all a fuss about nothing, but that did not stop his palpable relief when the ambulance came to a halt and the doors were flung open.
John latched on to the side of the stretcher, all too aware how easy it was for the hangers-on to get lost amidst the chaos of patient admission, but he was more than a concerned bystander. To all intents and purposes, he was Sherlock's doctor, and even if he wasn't dressed the part, his voice fit the bill as he interjected details to the nurses.
Sherlock's smile was weak, but smug at its edges, as if he had expected no less from John. It was a hint of the Sherlock John was used to, and he felt himself begin to relax. There had been no more sudden, jarring absences, no more vacant stares and involuntary twitches, and John was just starting to wonder if his fears were unfounded when the blood pressure alarm started to beep.
A sharp cry escaped Sherlock's throat as his eyes rolled back and his body jerked, every muscle going rigid. His fingers flexed, and John released his grip, a cool sweat beading across his forehead as he stared. The nurses moved hurriedly, rolling Sherlock onto his side and calling out details as he began to convulse, arms thrashing and neck jerking, making the bed clatter and shiver in metallic harmony.
John twitched, fighting against his natural instinct to restrain Sherlock – to stop him from hurting himself or breaking a bone with the violence of his motions. It was one thing, medically, to know what a tonic-clonic seizure was like, and another entirely to witness it. Fear scraped along John's skin, raising the hairs on his arms and curling his shoulders as he watched one of the best minds in the world reduce itself to this: a storm of electricity and nothing more.
Worse, this was no stranger. It was Sherlock. Beautiful, incredible Sherlock, utterly erased by a malfunction in the one part of him he treasured above all others.
And there was nothing John could do but watch the nurses work and wait for it to end.
Chapter 8: A Hidden Hurt
It was in equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Sherlock had never given seizures much thought, previously. In those brief, fleeting moments when they had played a role in a crime scene – poisoning often presented with convulsions – he imagined the horror of the mind being aware while the transport was lost in a hurricane of conflicting impulses. He had pictured himself awake and thinking behind a wall of physical turmoil, able to sense the world but incapable of interacting with it.
He had been wrong.
It was like being switched off. Everything was just – gone. One moment he was watching John give orders to the nurses, his voice strained but firm like a soldier in a crisis. It had amused him to see John being so commanding, short despite his best efforts and rather uninspiring in pyjamas and boots with their laces trailing, yet authority over-ruled appearance.
In the blink of an eye, everything changed. He felt a rash of numbness spread through him: fingers, arms, chest and lips all unresponsive as his spine stretched, pulled taut by the contraction of his muscles. A cry left his throat as the air was forced from his lungs, and the world went black. For a few moments he was there, alone in darkness, vaguely prescient of the clamour and the pain before even that was gone.
The next thing he knew, he was sitting up in the hospital bed, right hand clenched hard around the wrist of one of the nurses while a warm palm rested on his shoulder. Mycroft was halfway across the room, his jacket pitched into the corner like so many rags and his expression intent, but Sherlock had no recollection of his brother arriving, and he was sure there had not been this many nurses before. Hadn't the bed been out in the hallway?
A vicious spike of adrenaline was surging through his veins, making them feel swollen beneath his skin, and his breathing was quick and harsh between his dry lips. His teeth were gritted in a snarl and his spine curled, halfway through the act of recoiling from the people around him. Fear raced along every nerve, jarring and nonsensical as his mind grappled with his surroundings.
Through it all John's familiar, calm words washed over him. He spoke in the easy, measured tone of someone who had grown used to talking to men as they bled out on desert sands, making promises to the dead and dying in equal measure.
'– all right. I know you're confused, but they're trying to help you. I promise.'
'John?' Sherlock swallowed, tasting blood in his mouth. His tongue felt sore and ravaged, and the treble, pounding ache in his head was now competing against the low thud of exhausted, aching muscles. He felt as if he had run a marathon. Everything hurt, from the large muscles in his thighs to the small ribbons between his ribs, clenching and throbbing as he began to shiver.
'There you are,' John murmured, his smile not reaching his eyes as he examined Sherlock's face, taking in every clue his expression had to offer. Whatever he found seemed to satisfy him, because his hand squeezed Sherlock's shoulder, the ghost of a tremor transmitting itself through his touch. 'You need to let the nurse go now.'
Sherlock blinked at where his fingers were still banding the slender arm of one of the young women. To her credit, she looked neither pained nor unduly alarmed, and she waved away his apology with a smile as he released her.
'What –?' Sherlock pressed a hand to his head, easing himself back down onto the pillows as he tried to bully his blank memory into offering up some information. All he could grasp were isolated sensations of danger-conflict-hostile that made no sense. 'What happened?'
John stepped back, moving out of the way of the nurses as they worked. Sherlock watched him slump into a chair nearby, pulled as close to the bedside as possible without becoming an impediment to the medical staff. He tried to deduce something other than concern from the slackness of John's features, but his head was still ruthlessly uncooperative, losing itself in discomfort and panic even as Mycroft hovered nearby, tense and wan.
'A different kind of seizure,' John explained, scrubbing his hands across his face before he continued, and this time it was Doctor Watson speaking, laying out all the facts as if he knew what treasures they were to Sherlock's tattered mind. 'A convulsive fit. You passed out and experienced violent muscle spasms. If you're aching, that's why.'
John frowned as one of the nurses took Sherlock's left hand. The cannula went into the vein in the back with a sharp, snake-bite sensation, and the IV line was attached immediately.
'If there is a risk of another seizure, is that really the best idea?' Mycroft asked, gesturing to the drip and narrowing his eyes distrustfully as if he felt the NHS staff were probably unfit to take care of Sherlock.
'It's standard,' John explained, sparing Mycroft the briefest of glances. 'Hydration and electrolytes are essential during recovery, as is medication. Better that it's ripped out than Sherlock doesn't get what he needs.' His attention turned back to Sherlock in the bed, blue eyes intense and pinched with concern. 'Can you describe how you're feeling?'
Sherlock shut his eyes for a moment, trying to catalogue the mess of stimuli, but the challenge seemed too great. It all felt so unreal, like the fleeting transience of déjà vu, both alien and familiar all at once. 'Everything hurts. Head feels funny. I – I don't remember anything.'
John's hand sought out Sherlock's palm again, avoiding the awkward bulk of the pulse monitor still cinched around his finger. He stroked soothing, random patterns over the back of Sherlock's hand as if he could somehow imbue the knowledge into Sherlock's flesh. 'You won't. You already know seizures are like short circuits in the brain, right? The ones you were having back at the flat were relatively minor. They only affected the highest brain functions. Cognition and awareness.'
He paused, shuffling to the edge of his seat to be nearer to Sherlock. 'What you experienced just now was more like shutting down. Everything but your most automatic functions go, and when you wake up again its like you're coming back online from the bottom up.' He shrugged, shaking his head as if he was struggling to find the words to offer reassurance. 'The convulsions lasted –'
'Three and a half minutes,' one of the nurses supplied, already scribbling details on a chart. 'Basic consciousness was regained at about six minutes, and awareness returned after eleven minutes.'
'Your brain switched on without you,' John explained, giving Sherlock a faintly apologetic smile, weak and weary. 'Your fight or flight response, muscle strength, movement, all that came back first. The last thing to return is awareness. I'm guessing you've not had anything like this before?'
Mutely, Sherlock shook his head, letting his eyes flutter closed as his stomach twisted itself into anxious, bitter knots and his neck grated from the motion. To his right, he heard Mycroft speaking in those soft, rounded tones he only used when he was afraid and trying to hide it. Sherlock had not heard that from his brother very often. The last time was years ago – after the overdose – when every word Mycroft had said to him had sounded like goodbye.
'Doctor Patel, the specialist you used to see, is already on her way. I'm trying to reach Mummy to see if she's aware of anything that I'm not.' His voice changed slightly as he looked up at John, addressing the doctor rather than Sherlock. 'I had already left home when Sherlock began to suffer from the migraines. I wasn't there when I should have been.' Mycroft's hand reached out to touch the back of Sherlock's wrist, drifting around to the radial pulse as if he did not trust the government-owned machines to do their job and monitor Sherlock's welfare. 'Should I be worried about him?'
'You already are,' John pointed out. 'Constantly.'
Sherlock wanted to snap at them that he was still here, but the effort was too great. Connecting and engaging with the world felt like too much of a challenge when his head was still aching fit to split in two and his body was struggling not to shake itself apart. Instead he listened, allowing himself to take comfort in the knowledge in John's voice: firm foundations on shaky terrain. He might not know what was happening to him, but John did.
'Migraines can be associated with seizures, but they'll want to rule out anything else like emerging epilepsy, trauma or infection. It's possible that the fits were an isolated event, but...'
'But they could indicate something worse,' Mycroft murmured, and Sherlock felt the shake in his brother's fingers where they rested at his wrist. 'I should thank you, John. If he had been on his own – even if you had been at the surgery – it doesn't bear thinking about.'
John began to trace a different pattern on Sherlock's skin, lines, rather than spirals. Wearily, Sherlock wondered if they were letters of some kind, or just a random outline, but his mind struggled to grasp the slippery concept. Part of him desperately wanted to sleep, but he was afraid to let go of the world again. What if, this time, he could not find his way back? What if John was left there waiting for him only to have Sherlock never return?
Part of him knew that was a childish fear, one that had no real basis in the logic of the situation. Yet it lingered still, tainting the edges of his consciousness until at last his body robbed him of the choice. Mycroft and John's quiet voices faded from hearing, and the nurses' occasional touches went unnoticed as the world turned dark.
Baker Street was waiting for him in the war-zone of his mind palace, the fire warm and vivid in the grate. There was no discomfort here, within the imagined walls of his sanctuary, nor anything like the creeping, insidious alarm that tried to fill his waking moments. It was hard to bring himself to care or connect with what was happening to him out there when all he wanted, all he longed for, was waiting right here: heat and life, home and John, all infinitely preferable to a reality of hospital beds and griping, grasping pain.
'You're scaring me.' John's lips moved against his ear, a tantalising breath of feeling against the shell of cartilage that made Sherlock tip his head closer. He was leaning back against John's chest, both of them sprawled in the armchair and Sherlock's bare feet propped on the coffee table: living, breathing wood beneath his wriggling toes. 'Out there. You can see that, can't you?'
Yes. He could. John was good at presenting a calm, stoic front in times of stress, but even in his half-addled state Sherlock had not missed the cracks at his edges: faint hitches to steady breathing, a well of fear in those blue eyes that no smile could touch. Mycroft's concern was born of inadequate knowledge. John's, Sherlock suspected, flew free from the vast nest of his medical expertise.
'The seizures are linked to the migraine,' Sherlock replied, his voice strong with a confidence he did not feel. The words seemed to drift like smoke through the air of the imagined Baker Street, clinging to the wallpaper in winsome tendrils and blossoming against the icy window panes that looked out onto nothing. 'You know that.'
Strong arms tightened around him, hands splaying across his bare chest and sliding down over his heart, along his ribs, fingertips framing his navel before thumbs rubbed at the jut of his hip-bones. He was utterly nude again, exposed in John's lap. He could feel the cool rasp of denim and the prickle of John's wool jumper, but the disparity did not seem to have much relevance. He was warm, comfortable and safe, held up and held in by the wall of John's chest and the weight of his embrace.
With a sigh, he leaned back, resting his head on John's shoulder and feeling the scar there curl and flex before falling still once more: John's own hidden hurt. Idly, he moved his fingers along John's jaw: stubble and skin, the unyielding ridge of bone and the soft press of a pulse in the hollow beneath – wonderful in ways Sherlock could not even begin to describe.
John's lips pressed to Sherlock's fingertips, his tongue darting out to rasp across the whorl of the pad, but his gaze was still clouded, dark and unnatural in that familiar face. 'There are other things. Worse things: brain tumour, swelling, pathogens. We won't know until they look.' He kissed Sherlock's temple, nuzzling at the faint concave of flesh and bone as if he was trying to soothe whatever malevolent, brooding presence still lingered within. 'I could lose you.'
Sherlock closed his eyes again, his sigh trembling free of his lungs and caressing the curve of his lips as it escaped him. 'You won't. I'll always find a way back to you.'
Something roared, low and distant, making Sherlock drag his eyes open and frown up into John's frightened face. 'What was that?'
'Do you promise?' John asked, his hands gripping Sherlock's waist tight enough to hurt. He could see the fast, sick thrum of John's pulse, the pace of his breathing: fear given raw, terrifying shape in the hunch of John's shoulders and the depth of his gaze. 'You promise you'll come back to me?'
'I promise. John, what –' The noise cut him off: a deep rolling, thunderous sound that shook dust down from the ceiling and made the wallpaper bulge. Distantly, elsewhere in his mind palace, there was the sound of breaking glass. Sherlock was reminded strongly of an earthquake, all shifting walls and uncertainty before the pain hit him like an express train.
His muscles locked, breath wheezing from his throat as his chest heaved. The curve of his spine pushed him back, but John was already gone, fading away into nothing.
Darkness claimed him, and there was only time for one fleeting thought of the other John – the real one beyond the cavern of his mind forced to bear witness to this for the second time that day...
Then Sherlock was gone.
John jumped as Sherlock jolted, clenching his teeth hard as alarms began to beep. The two nurses already in the room moved forward quickly, pushing both John and Mycroft aside with firm hands before attending to Sherlock, guiding his jerking, insensate frame onto his side again. More medical personnel hurried in, each moving with the kind of competence John knew well, but he could not bring himself to admire it. How could he, when Sherlock was like this?
Mycroft was watching, the horror evident on his face: the most expressive John had seen him. He had not witnessed the first tonic-clonic convulsion Sherlock had experienced, arriving once the violence of it had already passed.
Yet even having seen Sherlock through the first one from start to finish, John did not feel any better watching it happen again. In fact, it was worse: not a one-off, but a pattern of repetition that made his heart patter in his chest.
He could see blood flecking Sherlock's lips – no doubt from his tongue, and as he watched a thin trail of red dripped from Sherlock's nose, ghastly against the pallor of his face. His eyes were rolling beneath the shield of his eyelids, his jaw clenching and relaxing. Electrocution looked the same, but at least that was brief: one sharp jerk and it was over. This seemed to go on forever.
'Why aren't they –?' Mycroft made a quick, abortive movement, gesturing to the nurses. To an outsider it must look like neglect, in a way: a patient violently caught in the cradle of their bed and the staff only stopping him from rolling onto his back. Some of them watched the clock and counted, their lips moving in silent confirmation as another monitored the spike and trough of blood pressure and heart-rate readouts. Medication was administered with care, and another checked Sherlock's airway, but there were no efforts made to keep him still.
'They can't. There's nothing to do,' John explained, hating the words even as he spat them out. 'You can only wait for it to pass.'
For a moment, Mycroft looked as lost as John felt, watching Sherlock with unmasked fear. He was a far cry from the government official John knew – his shirt beginning to rumple and his umbrella nowhere in sight. Yet in a moment the expression was gone, replaced by the kind of determination John was sure had ended as many wars as it had started. Mycroft dragged his phone free of his pocket, striding towards the door and speaking into the device. He did not snap or shout, but although John could not hear the words, the tone said everything. This man may as well rule the world. His will would be done, and if that meant helping Sherlock, then John was not about to argue.
Abruptly, Sherlock's shudders stopped, and John felt the tension ease out of the room. A quick glance over his shoulder showed him that Mycroft was standing in the doorway, his call over, watching Sherlock's lax body like a hawk, lips drawn down and eyebrows pinched into a frown. Perhaps on someone else it would look cold, almost indifferent, but John knew emotion from a Holmes when he saw it. Subtle, true enough, but no less real.
'Come here and give me a hand,' he ordered, making Mycroft jolt in surprise. He half-expected one of the nurses to argue when he grabbed some gauze and blotted at Sherlock's nose and mouth, but instead they moved around him, recording their measurements and giving each other instructions. One of them, the one who still bore the bruises of Sherlock's last awakening, handed Mycroft a piece of cotton-wool and gestured to Sherlock's hands, indicating the scrapes and gouges in his palm where his nails had cut in.
'The convulsions only lasted two minutes this time, Doctor Watson.'
'I'd rather there hadn't been a second one at all,' John replied, checking Sherlock's nose. There was no blood in his ears, and nothing leaked from around his eyes to suggest the bleeding was from the cranial space. High blood pressure had probably just burst Sherlock's capillaries, but “probably” wasn't cutting it any more. 'He needs his doctor and a CT scan, now.'
'Doctor Patel will be here within twenty minutes to begin whichever diagnostics she deems relevant,' Mycroft added. 'I've made sure of it.'
John did not question exactly what Mycroft had said to some nameless, faceless minion somewhere to get Sherlock's specialist here all-the-faster. The lengths Mycroft would go to in order to protect Sherlock were often implied as limitless – his protectiveness unbound by the constraints of the average person. Now, it was easier to see the intentions behind the overbearing behaviour, exposed as they were in a moment of helplessness.
Yet Mycroft's care was not just obvious in his willingness to use the power his job provided to assist Sherlock. Here, now, there was more ready evidence. Mycroft was hunched over the bed, diligently cleaning Sherlock's bloody palms. Somehow, John doubted there was anyone else in the world for whom he would stoop to something so – organic.
In truth, the action was more for Mycroft's benefit than Sherlock's. He needed to do something in order to feel as if he had some element of control – the same as John. They both cared for Sherlock, and seeing him like this was – John shook his head to himself, at a loss for words. Ever since Sherlock had first started showing signs of a migraine, John had thought he knew the full extent of what it meant to be powerless, but it was nothing compared to this. How could he get so far on in his life, see battle, bloodshed and bullet wounds and still be so fucking useless?
'Careful,' one of the nurses warned, noticing an increase in Sherlock's heart rate. 'I think he's coming round. It'll be the same as before: confusion and fear. Try and reassure him if you can. Familiar faces will help.'
John nodded, turning his attention quickly to Mycroft, who had only witnessed the very final moments of Sherlock emerging from the previous episode. 'He might lash out. The best thing to do is keep talking to him and see if he recognises either of us.'
'Was he violent after the last seizure?' Mycroft ask, watching the faint hints of tension appear in Sherlock's face, the coordinated twitch of fingers and the sudden, deep intake of breath that suggested a return to consciousness.
'He was getting there: high level of confusion and distrust. You saw his grip on the nurse.' John squared his shoulders. He almost hated this more than the convulsions – almost – because while Sherlock would be awake during the postictal phase, he did not seem to connect, either with his environment or the people in it. He hated to see that lack of recognition in Sherlock's eyes.
That fear, as if he thought John would hurt him.
Sherlock breathed in like a man surfacing from beneath the sea, hauling in a gasp so deep he almost retched on it as his muscles jerked him upright: fight or flight automatically engaged. That quicksilver gaze, so often swarming with intelligence and knowledge was instead a skim of moonlight around the wide pool of dilated pupils. A faint gloss of sweat lingered at Sherlock's temples, and his lips were parted around rapid pants of air as his gaze skated around the room, processing everything and reaching a conclusion that had him baring his teeth. His fingers bunched in the sheets as if he were considering tearing himself from the bed and fleeing whatever he saw.
'Sherlock. It's all right. You had another seizure,' John managed, trying to keep his voice level as he fought the urge to reach out and touch. Even in the worst kind of situation where life and death were balanced on a knife edge, Sherlock never looked this feral – this far beyond his own self-control. 'You were asleep when it started this time, remember?'
'You're in University College Hospital,' Mycroft added, furnishing Sherlock with the facts as if it were second-nature, 'and John is right here.'
He did not seem to include himself in the equation of comfort, but John did not have time to dwell on that as he deliberately sat down, putting himself lower and submissive, non-threatening as Sherlock glared at the nurses distrustfully.
'I won't let you do it,' he growled, his voice wild in his throat, jaw clenched and biting off the words in a way that made them sound as much of a threat as a promise, and John shuddered to think what Sherlock thought was happening. 'You can't look inside.'
'No one's trying to, Sherlock,' John promised. He had clearly made some sense of his surroundings – understood the scene of hospital and medical staff, the scent of antiseptic and the sensation of rough sheets even if he still saw it as a danger. 'No one's going to do anything to you at all, okay?'
He reached out without thinking, comfort the only thing on his mind, but Sherlock visibly recoiled, hands pulled in sharp to his chest and clenched into fists. A fresh ribbon of blood welled up as the cannula shifted, dripping crimson onto the sheet, but Sherlock was too busy staring at John as if he didn't know him at all: a stranger with his best friend's face.
'No,' he said again, and there was a healthy, hideous dose of genuine terror behind the shield of anger in his eyes. 'I know what you're trying to do. You can't!'
'Sherlock –' Mycroft flinched as his brother cringed in the bed, and he shared a quick, agonised glance with John. They were still lost, the pair of them, and it was John who started talking about anything and everything, detailing their last case, talking about Baker Street, anything to weave a sense of familiarity around Sherlock as the minutes ticked by.
His heart was hurting with every beat beneath his ribs, thudding out a Morse code of distress. John kept trying to tell himself that Sherlock would return – would step back into the shell of this snarling, cringing body and know who he was – but the fear that he wouldn't was trying to choke him. John had been doing his best not to let himself jump to all the things the seizures could represent – had been trying to believe it was all down to the migraine, nothing more – but it was hard to be rational when Sherlock was like this.
The only thing that kept him even close to placid, at least outwardly, was the knowledge that Sherlock would pick up on his tension. Like this, base and animal, Sherlock was running almost entirely on instinct, and fear was contagious.
For Sherlock, at least, John could be brave.
He took a breath, ready to continue in his endless, staggering monologue, but the air got stuck in his throat as, just like that, Sherlock stepped into himself. His lips trembled around his bared teeth and his brow folded into a frown. Pain tightened his features, carving minuscule lines into his skin as it bit through his body, but what had just been a chaos of lightning behind his eyes became a glow – something solid and stable that John would recognise anywhere.
Sherlock's throat pulsed as he swallowed, licking blood from his lips as his shoulders sagged and he let his eyes drop closed, leaning back, half-reclined against the pillows. 'Another one?' he asked, dropping his hand from where it was still clenched against his chest to lie, palm up and waiting for John's grasp, on the mattress.
John took it without even thinking, rubbing his fingertips over the slender shape of Sherlock's hand. 'Yeah. You were asleep when the convulsions started.'
There was a flicker of recollection in Sherlock's face, and he cracked his eyes open, giving the room another hard glare as if trying to pry its secrets from the plaster. 'I remember waking up, sort of. Except I was convinced –' He shook his head a fraction, screwing up his face as the motion caused discomfort before he shuffled further down the bed. 'Thought you were going to saw my skull open and take my brain away.'
'Not an unrelated delusion, considering the circumstances,' Mycroft pointed out quietly, a very fragile smile perched on his lips. He seemed pleased that Sherlock had managed to maintain a sideways kind of rationality, even if the conclusions he had drawn were fairly horrific. 'Was this seizure the same as the first?'
'It was shorter,' one of the nurses provided as she placed the chart at the foot of Sherlock's bed. Her name tag said she was Becky, and the freshness of her make-up suggested she had only been on shift a couple of hours. John allowed himself a moment of pleasure at his own deduction; Sherlock's influence in full evidence. 'The duration doesn't necessarily mean that matters are improving, but it's often a positive sign. The scans will show us more.'
'Doctor Patel may also want to run other diagnostics,' Mycroft added. 'In fact she requested blood be drawn for a quick analysis. She wanted to check the half-life of the Norazophen.'
John's ears pricked up at that. A half-life of anything pharmaceutical was linked with the amount of time it took for the body to process and clear it from the bloodstream. In any fully-tested drug, that measurement should be known and well-documented. 'Please tell me I have not been injecting Sherlock with something experimental,' he hissed, the gratification at Mycroft's discomfort short-lived as Sherlock's fingers tightened around John's hand in faint, weary restraint.
'No, Doctor Watson. It's been rigorously trialled, but with Sherlock's – history,' Mycroft lifted one eyebrow, 'there are always additional factors to consider. His use of recreational substances could come into play here, resulting in a new symptomatic spectrum.' The older Holmes touched the back of Sherlock's hand, a mute, fleeting gesture of apology, as if he were reluctant to bring up his brother's addiction when he was lying in a hospital bed, pained and unsure. 'It is simply another consideration. However, if I am honest, I would rather the seizures were caused by a foreign chemical than something more sinister in Sherlock's physiology.' His eyes met John's, calm and logical, but with a hint of something more. 'I am sure it's a sentiment you share, Doctor Watson.'
Before John could reply, there was a subtle noise from Mycroft's phone. One of the nurses looked over, irritated by the man's blatant disregard for the hospital's no mobile phone policy, and Mycroft offered a discreet smile of apology. 'Doctor Patel has arrived. I will go and retrieve her from the reception. If you would be so kind as to draw that blood?' He left the question hanging as he strode out of the door, moving with a brisk sense of purpose that John had rarely seen. A saunter was more Mycroft's style.
'He's worried. He'll be eating doughnuts within an hour,' Sherlock murmured uncharitably, pulling a face as the nurse extracted a vial full of rich, claret fluid from his vein. 'Are you going to help me escape back to Baker Street, or am I doing it on my own?'
John's incredulous laugh was weak, but at least it felt better than sitting in a taut web of worry. 'You're joking, aren't you? Sherlock...'
A frail smile curved Sherlock's lips, half-hidden by the miserable-excuse for a pillow. 'I wish I wasn't. Blood tests, CT and MRI scans... they'll keep me here for weeks.'
'I doubt that. Whatever happens, they'll make you better,' John promised with the conviction of someone who believed in medical science through-and-through. He straightened his spine and his shoulders, finally looking up to meet Sherlock's eye with what he hoped was strength and certainty, rather than hesitance and fear. 'And if you're in here that long, then so am I. I don't care if I’m not family; they'll have fun trying to kick me out.'
Sherlock's smile became a grin, tired and subdued, but honest all the same. His eyelids were drooping again, dragged under by the sheer exhaustion wrought by the migraine and convulsions, but the words he murmured were enough to make John's heart clench.
'You're more important than family.'
Chapter 9: Calciferous Curtain
Doctor Patel was very much as Sherlock remembered: talented within her field, and far more interested in the contents of Sherlock's skull than anything else about him. She perused his medical notes with tight-lipped interest, asking the occasional curt question and offering nothing in the way of comforting small-talk. Sherlock approved, John did not.
Sherlock was fairly sure that, when dressed in only their pyjamas and faced with a leading member of a highly specialised branch of the medical tree, most doctors would be suitably cowed. Of course, John was different. He glared and scowled and carried on doing so as swift, no-nonsense instructions were issued to the nurses. Doctor Patel scolded them when the blood test results were unavailable before she swept out of the door to commandeer the machines necessary for diagnostic scans.
'She's one of the best,' Mycroft said by way of an explanation, although Sherlock could see the tiny lines of disapproval around his eyes and mouth. Doctor Patel had not been chosen by Mycroft, but by their mother, who cared more about qualifications than bedside manner.
'There's more to being a good doctor than knowing what you're talking about,' John pointed out coldly. 'Sherlock's a person, not a brain in a pan or a slab of meat.' He folded his arms, sitting back in the deformed chair at Sherlock's bedside and tapping the heel of his foot on the floor: a sharp beat of annoyance amidst the muted noise of the hospital.
Yet John's anger was a thin veneer over something else: a tangled mass of deeper emotion. Sherlock allowed himself a steady blink, trying to force himself to observe through the thick veils of lingering weariness and haze that occupied his mind.
John was still afraid. Small valleys etched their way into his skin, creasing his brow and bracketing his lips. His hands shifted and slid as he pressed them, palm-to-palm in his lap before one gave a quick squeeze of his own leg – the psychosomatic limp threatening once more – all because of Sherlock. He remembered in a quick, vivid flash the John in his internal Baker Street holding onto him as if he were terrified to let go. Now, in the real John, the one who mattered, he saw an echo of that desperate need.
He had stopped holding Sherlock's hand when Mycroft had returned with Doctor Patel. Shame seemed unlikely, since he had not cared about physical contact when Sherlock's brother hovered at the bedside, all tense worry and half-hidden, opalescent surprise. Perhaps he thought he would be getting in the way? Whatever the reason, Sherlock missed the touch. He had grown used to John being right there, almost an extension of himself, and now the slender distance between them felt wider than a mile.
Worse, it left him disconnected and untethered. The vertigo at least had faded, lost somewhere in the fury of the convulsions, and the ache in his head and body had reached a strange equilibrium. The sharpness was gone, and instead a leaden beat thudded through him from the top of his head to the tips of his toes, sharpening with occasional percussive ferocity only to ebb again. John's healing hands were not so magical that the slightest touch could banish the sensation, but it made it more bearable.
Without a word, Sherlock stretched out, shifting on the bed and ignoring the creaking protests of his body and mind as he snagged John's wrist and drew his hand back into his own grasp. The stupid IV line, now replaced and pumping liquid into his veins, would not let him roll on his side to block out Mycroft, and he pointedly ignored his brother's careful sideways scrutiny as he felt John's fingers curl, warm and real, around his own.
'Doctor Patel is a bit like me. More about solving the puzzle than anything else,' Sherlock explained, hating the way the movement of his jaw made small detonations of pain fire in his temples. 'It gets the job done, and you know I find platitudes from strangers tiresome.'
'Most of the people you see are beyond pity anyway,' John pointed out, leaning forward and propping one elbow on his knee. 'There's a big difference between a patient and a – a corpse. You have a right to her sympathy, Sherlock.'
He wanted to argue, to point out that compassion from anyone but John was neither here nor there, but before he could open his mouth to speak again a couple of orderlies strode in, closely followed by Doctor Patel.
'Since your blood-work is still being processed, Mr Holmes, we'll proceed. Normally, we would begin with a CT scan, but getting a slot for the MRI machine is challenging at best.' She sighed, glancing towards the clock before looking back. 'We must take advantage of our moment, and a cancellation means we need to move now to make the most of our time.'
'A cancellation?' Sherlock asked quietly, shooting a quick glance at Mycroft.
His brother gave an indolent shrug and the faintest hint of a smug smile in response. 'No one will suffer adversely,' he said.
Doctor Patel cleared her throat in a pointed manner before turning back to Sherlock. 'Since you've had both forms of scan in the past, I assume I don't need to inform you of the procedure?'
'No,' he replied, adding a healthy dose of “just get on with it” to his tone. John might think Patel was a bad doctor, but he seemed to have forgotten that Sherlock could be a truly terrible patient.
'He will probably be back in an hour or so,' Doctor Patel informed Mycroft . 'Longer, if there's need for further investigation.'
'We're going with him, aren't we?' John interrupted, retrieving his hand from Sherlock's grasp as he got to his feet, arms folded and chin tilted at a pugnacious angle.
'That really isn't necessary,' the doctor replied, not looking up at John as she made notes on Sherlock's chart. It was only when he spoke again – his voice deeper, harder, far more war-zone than hospital ward – that she glanced up to see Captain John Watson firmly in place.
'I think it is,' he said in a clear, blunt tone, the kind Sherlock often heard when an argument about an unsanitary experiment had reached the point of no-further-negotiation.
'If he has another seizure, the medical staff will be in place to assist,' the doctor explained, lingering on the side of logic and avoiding the thought of sentiment. 'He'll be in no danger.'
'That's really not the point,' John replied, and Sherlock glanced across to catch Mycroft's eye, gathering together enough focus to communicate the need for his brother's interference.
'Doctor Patel, Doctor Watson will accompany my brother for –' Mycroft hesitated, as if selecting his words with particular relish as he lifted one eyebrow in Sherlock's direction. '– moral support. I assure you, he will be there in a non-medical capacity and knows better than to get in your way. I have a small amount of business to attend.'
'Business more important than your brother?' John asked, his voice rough and edgy, spoiling for a fight: too much concern and not enough sleep, Sherlock surmised. John's emotions always were closer to the surface during times of exhaustion and stress.
'Business pertaining to Sherlock, which cannot be completed from the MRI room,' Mycroft replied, entirely unruffled by John's words. He reached for his jacket, flicking out the creases and slipping the sleeves onto his arms. 'I'll be back in an hour. And Sherlock, please try to behave.'
He would have flicked his middle finger at Mycroft if the effort of moving his arm weren't painful. In the end, Sherlock had to settle for a mere grunt of acknowledgement as the orderlies raised the bars on the side of the bed and began to wheel him out and through the corridor.
Industrial walls and ceilings skimmed by, painted in neutral tones of white, beige and blue. The fluorescent lights charted their way past like white lines down the centre of the road, and Sherlock shut his eyes against the sensory input. It was a mirror-image of another time and place. Another test, another scan: torches flashed in his face and stupid, hateful questions about pain levels and coordination while doctors tried to take apart his complex mind with clumsy tools.
He peeled his eyes open to take in Doctor Patel, older now, more plump than she had been. Happily married, eight years, one child looked after by nannies and day care and the like. Busy parents: all money and no time. Perhaps they would regret that, one day, but probably not.
She had the sharp eyes of a person with an above-average mind. That, at least, was something Sherlock could recognise and admire. She had never worked with children, before him. No doubt they would have found her terrifying, but there was respite, of a sort, to be found in her clinical indifference to anything but physiology. She was interested in his parts, not the sum of them.
John cared for it all: flesh, blood, bone and the man within. It was part of the reason he was so tense-angry-tired-strong as he marched along at Sherlock's side, steady feet keeping up with rackety wheels. Fear was the other part of that equation, all of it for Sherlock. John was scared of what would show up on the scans and what evils may be lurking beneath the calciferous curtain of Sherlock's skull.
In a way, Sherlock thought, finding something would almost be a blessing. It would be a problem to solve, an ill to cure. His migraines had always been a flower of pain with no root to anchor them. There was nothing there to treat, and yet the symptoms bloomed time and again, rare desert flora responding to the rains after droughts that lasted years.
Somehow, he doubted that this time would be any different. The seizures were something else, a new fruit to explore, but the story was unlikely to be written in the structure of his brain.
John glanced down at him, his grim mouth curving into a faint smile which Sherlock answered in kind. He wanted to say something – to reassure John that this was all a fuss about nothing, and that it was his fault for calling the ambulance in the first place – but he doubted that would go down well. Whatever he thought of Doctor Patel, John clearly felt hospital was where Sherlock belonged.
The bed nudged apart the double doors to the MRI scanner, and Sherlock grimaced at the large machine, silent and hulking in the middle of the room. It was sleeker than the one he remembered, more stream-lined and less bulky, but the principle would still be the same.
'Can you stand?' one of the orderlies asked, looking more than prepared to bodily lift Sherlock to the machine if he had to. Sherlock's expression must have answered for him, because he stepped back, passing John the ridiculous, thin hospital gown for Sherlock to wear.
'It could be worse,' John pointed out when he noticed the faintly repulsed look on Sherlock's face. 'At least you've still got your underwear.'
'Only because it's all I was wearing when the paramedics took me away.' Carefully, Sherlock propped himself on his elbow, waiting for his brain and body to work in harmony before he swung his feet over the side of the bed and wobbled gracelessly to his feet.
God, it was awful, like being fourteen and nothing but knees and elbows all over again. His legs felt too long and his thighs shook with the effort of supporting his weight, but he forced himself to do it, noting with some satisfaction that although his head was still shrieking at him, it was not nearly as crippling as it had been that morning.
'Yeah, well don't tell anyone, or they'll probably confiscate them and leave you with a bare arse,' John joked, pausing for a minute. 'There's no metal in them, is there?'
'In underwear?' Sherlock asked, leaning slightly against John as those nimble, rough fingers did up the tie on the ridiculous gown.
'Knowing your expensive taste in clothes, it wouldn't surprise me to find out you had gold thread or platinum buttons on your pants,' John replied, the smile becoming a grin at Sherlock's gentle laugh.
'There is a line between stylish and ridiculous.' Sherlock shut his eyes, taking a steadying breath as John helped him towards the machine. 'No, there's no metal on me at all.' He glanced at the plastic cannula, seated in a different vein now and free from its IV line. It looked like an alien bulk on his hand as he reached up to hesitantly touch John's cheek. He needed something to get John's attention and hold it, something capable and calming. A flinch of surprise dissolved into focus as he forced John to meet his eyes. 'Stop worrying?' he asked softly, wishing he could make John obey the simple request. 'Please?'
'Easier said than done,' John replied, and his hand twitched at his side before reaching up to cover Sherlock's fingertips, making stubble scrape at Sherlock's palm for the briefest of moments before he shifted away. 'I'll stop worrying when you're back to yourself again. Come on, up you get.'
He gestured to the waiting device, and Sherlock bent his knees, obligingly lying down as John gave him one last look and followed the nurse's guidance into the small control room.
Sherlock had been anesthetized during his scans as a child, when the act of keeping his head still had been too much for him. Those times were long gone, and hours of lying motionless on the sofa stood him in good stead. Claustrophobia was not an issue for him, and he forced his shoulders to relax as the orderly carefully padded Sherlock's head and gave him some ear plugs to protect him from the noise.
'Twenty minutes, Mr Holmes,' Dr Patel's voice came over the speaker system. 'We'll monitor you for further seizures in the duration.'
'And if you need to get out, just say something,' John added. The thought of him in the shielded control centre glaring daggers at Doctor Patel was enough to make a smile twitch on Sherlock's lips, but he stilled the hint of movement before the percussive whirr and clunk of the scanner filled his ears with its curious symphony.
The MRI delivered his brain, slice by slice, to the screens beyond: his grey and white matter offered up for their viewing. Yet for all that they could examine every section, every transience and fissure, they would see nothing of what made him who he was. Dr Patel would not discern the cause of his intelligence, only the home of it. She would not be able to tell what made him laugh or stirred up that beautiful, white-light moment of epiphany.
John was the only one in there who would look at those pictures and see Sherlock, rather than merely another brain passing by. They shared it like a secret – this is who I am.
And for once in his life, Sherlock was not afraid to be known.
John watched the bloom of images on the machine, strange shapes resolving themselves into the unmistakable cross-section of a human brain. He had seen it before, of course, long-ago on his residency, but that had been a stranger lain out; their mysteries surrendered in the name of diagnosis. This – these pictures ghosting past him – were Sherlock. That was the mind he carried around in that thick skull of his, the one that gifted the world with dazzling deductions and cool analyses.
It was humbling, in a way, to realise that one of the best men he had ever known could be reduced to something so simple, and John watched each impression go by, fascinated. He was no expert on brain physiology. He knew where it should be and where it shouldn't, and what to look out for to suggest something was seriously wrong on an exterior level, but the tiny nuances of shape and structure showed by the scan were beyond his expertise.
Doctor Patel, however, was engrossed. She was leaning over the radiologist's shoulder – a fact that probably irritated the man no end – giving each image a perfunctory examination as it passed. Normally, a doctor would see other patients while scans were being performed, then either send them off for review by the relevant experienced staff or, if they were adequately knowledgeable, examine them themselves. John was not sure whether the fact Doctor Patel was overseeing every moment of Sherlock's diagnosis was reassuring or cause for concern.
'Ten more minutes, Mr Holmes,' Doctor Patel said as she flicked on the switch to the microphone. 'Then we will add the contrast dye to check that we are not missing anything.'
'Is that standard procedure?' John asked, unable to keep the question back. He expected a cool, dark look from Doctor Patel, but she retreated from the screens, rubbing at her eyes for a moment before meeting his gaze.
'I find that the words “standard procedure” and “Sherlock Holmes” do not often come into close contact with each other,' she murmured, and there was a faint smile on her lips that lessened the severity of her demeanour. 'However, it is relatively normal for a patient who has developed seizures. Usually, we would wait for a distinct trend: three or four events, perhaps, but given his history prompt action is the best. Doing these two MRI scans at the same time is simply the most efficient way forward.'
'I'm surprised he wasn't transferred to a private clinic,' John said quietly, watching the minutes tick down on the clock before one of the nurses went through to add the contrast dye to Sherlock's bloodstream. 'You're – you're not doing this on the NHS' bill, are you?'
'No, Mr Holmes will ensure the financial situation is under control, and that other patients are not put at risk by our requirements for equipment.' She said it like such interference with the NHS bureaucracy was completely normal, and John forced himself not to dwell on just what strings Mycroft might be pulling behind the scenes.
Doctor Patel craned her neck, watching the nurse carefully as she went about her work. 'If it were up to me, I would admit him to my own clinic,' she admitted. 'It's both quicker and more efficient, but Mr Mycroft Holmes thought it best to keep his brother closer to home, so to speak. My patient does not recall his time in my care with any fondness, and I have to admit I cannot blame him.'
John watched the nurse return to the shielded room before glancing at the video feed. Sherlock seemed fine, flexing muscles and shifting slightly, bracing himself for further motionlessness as the machine resumed its task. For a few minutes, John kept quiet, expecting Doctor Patel to return to the screens, but instead she leaned back, letting the radiologist work.
'Have you always been his specialist?' John queried at last. Reading Sherlock's notes was one thing, but meeting one of the doctors who had penned them gave him a different kind of insight.
'I was called in about a year after he first began to suffer, when the initial diagnostics found nothing of note. His mother was willing to pay for the best, and I was what she got for her money.' Something flashed across the doctor's face, and John recognised it. Sherlock got the same expression when he recalled a case he had not managed to solve – a sort of self-loathing mixed with resentment at the puzzle for not giving up its secrets. 'It did not do any good. In the end we were forced to focus on trying to alleviate his pain, which was a challenge in itself. Once he reached adult-hood, he moved away. This is the first I have heard of him since he was nineteen, I believe.'
'And he has a new symptom,' John murmured, unable to edit the dread from his voice. It sounded leaden in the enclosed space of the shielded chamber in which they stood, and he felt the intensity of Doctor Patel's gaze on him as he stared at the floor.
'It is always worse for doctors when their loved ones fall ill,' she said with a surprising amount of delicacy, 'if only because we know just how unwell they might be.'
He did not bother to correct her on her assumption about loved ones. It was pointless when his cheek still tingled from Sherlock's touch and his heart pattered from the memory of that intense gaze meeting his, pleading him not to worry. To an outsider they must have looked like lovers, and how could he explain any different?
'That said, Doctor Watson, there is no obvious cause for concern on these scans,' Doctor Patel gestured towards the screens, and John looked up to see she was still focussing on the data in front of her. 'I'll need to do a more thorough examination, and I'll run a comparison with the last images we took. There will be some small differences, since Mr Holmes was still a juvenile at the time, but it can offer us a wealth of information.'
'How long?' John asked, straightening up as the scan came to an end and the heavy clatter and clunk of the machine fell silent again. 'How long until you know?'
'A couple of hours, perhaps,' Doctor Patel said, and now she was back to her previous perfunctory behaviour, dismissing him as if he were nothing but furniture. 'I've ordered a CT scan as well, just to be thorough, which we'll conduct as soon as possible. By the time it's complete, we should also have the results of the blood test.' She turned to one of the nurses. 'Please see Mr Holmes and Doctor Watson to room 201.'
John raised an eyebrow. Previously they had been in a holding bay for new admissions, private in itself, rather than a ward, but not equipped for anything but a medical emergency. Now it seemed Sherlock would get a room to himself, and John could easily sense Mycroft's influence smoothing the way. Some of his “business” perhaps.
The nurses retrieved Sherlock's bed from the corridor and helped him from the MRI machine to the mattress. John watched him lie back with a sigh, removing the ear plugs before pressing one hand over his eyes. It was the same light-blocking gesture John had seen repeatedly over the past couple of days, and he held his tongue, keeping back the tide of questions about Sherlock's welfare. The din of the MRI had probably been enough to stir up the pain in Sherlock's head again, and he did not want to add to the discomfort by contributing his voice to the chatter and noise all around them.
Linoleum squeaked beneath his boots as he walked, one hand resting absently on the bar around Sherlock's bed: a meek bond between them as they made their way to the room Doctor Patel had mentioned. It was standard fare, decorated in neutral tones and with enough space to let doctors and nurses work if necessary. John watched silently as a new drip was connected to Sherlock's cannula – more hydration – and the pulse monitor found its way back to his fingertip.
A couple of bags were on the floor inside the door, and John glanced inside to see clothes for him and Sherlock, as well as a couple of books to read and some toiletries. He doubted that Mycroft had gone back to Baker Street himself, but obviously someone had been given instructions.
Mutely, John toed them aside, glancing up to realise Sherlock was watching him from the bed. He was wan against the sheets, his face deprived of colour except for the shadows under his eyes. He looked like he did after a case had gone on for too long, except that even then Sherlock was animated, burning bright even as he ran on empty.
Now, there was none of that. He just looked tired and ill, his skin paper thin and his hair a lank tangle across the pillow.
'You don't look much better than me.' Sherlock's words curled through the air, answering John's unspoken thoughts as if they had been written on his forehead. Yet in his voice, at least, there was something of the man he knew, and John's shoulders slumped as he sat in the chair by Sherlock's bedside.
'Talk to me,' Sherlock ordered. 'Why are you so worried?'
John's laugh sounded a bit sick, weak in his throat. 'Why are you not?' he demanded before biting his lip hard. Sherlock being stressed would not help the situation. The fact he seemed so unconcerned was a good thing.
'You didn't see yourself, Sherlock. Your migraines are unbelievable as it is, but with seizures?' He shook his head, almost unable to force the words out of his throat. 'I'm worried that it's something worse. That you won't be the same, even if they can make it better. Your brain isn't just part of what keeps you alive, it makes you into the person you are. I don't –' He choked, and John took a deep breath, bowing his head and hating himself for sounding so broken. Maybe if he'd had more sleep he would be in better control, but right now he felt too wrecked to keep it together. 'I don't want to lose my best friend.'
He heard the sheets rustle and looked up to see Sherlock swinging his feet over the edge of the bed. He tugged at the cable with the pulse monitor on it, making it stretch enough so that he could crouch down in front of John, narrow-eyed and a bit unsteady, but totally indifferent to John's protests.
'Look at me,' he commanded, batting John's hand off his shoulder and grabbing it in his grip instead. 'If it were a serious brain tumour, I would demonstrate more complex symptoms on a more subtle curve. If it were an infection at the very least I should be running a fever.' He moved his head slowly from side to side as if dismissing the possibilities. 'John, it's a migraine. I'm not going anywhere.'
'But you do. After the seizures –'
'That's meant to happen. You know that. You told me yourself after the first instance.' The hand without the catheter in it clenched tight around John's fingers, almost painful and surprisingly strong for all that Sherlock seemed so frail.
'You don't know what it looks like,' John whispered, clearing his throat before speaking again. 'And do you honestly think that the symptoms you're displaying aren't “complex”?' he asked. 'I've never seen anything like it, Sherlock.'
'But I have. Ever since I was a child it's been the same thing,' Sherlock pointed out, his voice knowing and logical in a way that eased some of John's taut nerves. 'Sometimes the symptoms occur in a different order, but they're still familiar to me.'
'Except the seizures,' John murmured, leaning forward and blinking in surprise when Sherlock's forehead touched his own lightly, the two of them almost propping each other up. It was a comforting position, Sherlock's palms pressed warm against his and that dazzling, blighted mind was separated from John's only by the cap of their skulls and two thin sheaths of skin.
John wanted to press closer – could feel the urge of it flaring through him. He wanted to wrap Sherlock's body in his arms again, as he had the night before, and keep Sherlock close and safe. Here, in the hospital, it felt too exposed. Gone was the warm cocoon of Baker Street, and John found himself missing the nest of Sherlock's bed and the peace and quiet of their flat. Sherlock was better off here, in professional care, but John felt worse – more distant and useless than ever.
Lifting his eyes, he felt his breath catch in his throat as he met Sherlock's gaze. Like this, the two of them were painfully close, the shared breaths between them making John very aware of the proximity of Sherlock's mouth. He licked his lips without thinking, wondering whether Sherlock would understand if he simply leaned forward and explained his fears with a kiss instead: showed him without words this is how I feel about you and this is what I cannot stand to lose.
A sound by the doorway stopped the thought dead in its tracks, and John flinched guiltily. Sherlock cast a dark look back over the bed to where Mycroft stood on the threshold, his expression completely impassive but for the tiniest lift of one eyebrow. A couple of nurses were waiting behind him, one looking faintly disapproving, the other trying hard to hide his smile.
'Glad to see you feel able to get out of bed, Sherlock,' Mycroft said. 'Now lie back down. The CT scan team is ready for you.' He paused for a moment, letting out a very small sigh when Sherlock did not immediately oblige. 'Please?'
With a tut of annoyance, Sherlock wobbled to his feet, releasing John's hand with a slow trail of fingertips that left his palm tingling, before climbing back onto the bed. 'I think I could manage a wheelchair,' he muttered, and John saw one of the nurses shake her head.
'Sorry, Mr Holmes. The bed's better in case of another seizure.' She lifted the bars quietly, easing them up so they wouldn't clang.
John got to his feet, dragging his shaky composure back together as he prepared to follow. Yet before he moved even a pace Mycroft stopped him, standing in his way with a faint, empty smile.
'I'll go with Sherlock. I think you've done enough.' Mycroft raised a hand quickly, stemming John's response with a shake of his head. 'That is meant as praise, not a criticism, John.' There was something in his gaze, an emotion John had not seen before. It was enough to make him hold his tongue, waiting, tense and impatient, for Mycroft to continue. 'As I said earlier, I wasn't there when Sherlock suffered his first migraines, but I did witness one or two. He hated to be touched. Did he inform you of that?'
John frowned, pursing his lips in thought. 'Allodynia, you told me. Experiencing touch as pain...' He trailed off as Mycroft shook his head, glancing after Sherlock as if considering saving the conversation for another time. After a few seconds, he appeared to decide that his brother was in safe hands and turned back to John.
'While that symptom does present during Sherlock's migraines, it's one of the first to leave. Yet by the time he was thirteen he would not let me or Mummy touch him at all for the duration of his episodes.' Mycroft shrugged, and there was a hint of sadness about him now. 'He barely tolerated the nurses, even. Perhaps he picked up on our fear of making it worse, or maybe being in another person's physical presence made him feel trapped, but you... He seeks you out. He wants the comfort you offer.'
Mycroft straightened his cuff absently, glancing at the back of his right hand and the gold ring that gleamed on his ring finger. 'You're the first one he has reached out to during these times in almost twenty years, John. Do you know what that means?'
Wordlessly, John shook his head, turning the information over in his tired mind. Sherlock had told him about the lack of physical comfort from his family, but not that he had actively repelled it.
'No,' Mycroft murmured, regarding John carefully. 'Neither do I. All I know is that you cannot help Sherlock if you're ill yourself. When was the last time you had a meal?'
John shrugged, his mind falling back over a tangle of worried hours, both of darkness and light. 'I can't remember.'
Mycroft tipped his head to one side, a fractional gesture as if he were simply absorbing the information. Yet as John watched, he thought he saw something brief and warm creep across Mycroft's expression. Nothing as overt as a smile, but a faint softening around his eyes as he nodded once in understanding.
'You have about forty minutes. I suggest you make use of them.' Mycroft turned away, crossing back over the threshold to follow his brother before calling back over his shoulder, 'Sherlock's in good hands, John, but he'll want you here when he returns. No one else. Think about that, won't you?'
Chapter 10: Subtle Metronome
Sherlock rubbed the fingertips of his right hand against his left palm, marvelling at the sensation that refused to vanish. It was a faint, hazy warmth, as if his skin could not bear to forget the rough press of John's palm. He could still detect the heat of John's brow against his own and the flutter of breath across his cheek, though by all rights it should have dissipated in the sterile air of the hospital the moment he had pulled back from John's presence.
It felt as if he had been branded with velvet – soft yet brazen – an unintentional mark.
Did John know? Did he feel the same? Sherlock may be pained and drained, wrung out by the migraine and its associated ills, but he was observant still. He had seen John wet his lips, so close to Sherlock's own. He had felt the tense moment of daring: the Shall I ? Shan't I? vibrating through John's body as he considered closing the distance. More telling, Sherlock had heard his own minuscule intake of breath and the pulse monitor's subtle metronome pick up its pace, shamelessly giving away his body's desire.
Then Mycroft had materialised like the worst kind of chaperone. John had been scared out of his internal debate, and Sherlock had been left shaken, aching and dimly hungry for the slightest hint of John's touch. Before now, he had not really considered it a possibility. After all, he had been the one to put a firm stop to John's most tentative advances. He had needed a flatmate, not a lover, and the idea of being both with a man he barely knew was illogical.
By the time he had come to realise how important John was, how integral, and how very much more he could be, it was too late. John was busy chasing Sarah and Jeanette and whoever else, and Sherlock had resigned himself to the missed chance. He had tried to find comfort in the thought of friendship and nothing more, bar the occasional subtle appraisal of John when he wasn't looking. Now it seemed that he had been mistaken.
He closed his eyes, blocking out the ceiling as it drifted past the moving bed. Damn it, he needed his wits about him, not half-mired amidst the flow of chemicals in his blood and weighed down by the droning presence of discomfort in his skull.
First things first, get out of this blasted, miserable situation and return to Baker Street – back to normality. Perhaps once he was himself again, not de-constructed and strewn out thin but collected and in command, he would be able to turn his full attention to John and this new, unexpected possibility.
He should have seen it before. After all, John's revelations were not limited to the hospital room. He had been there for Sherlock throughout, not just a worried shade hovering at his bedside, but someone physically present, cinched tight to Sherlock's body and holding him through the migraine's battlefield without hesitation.
Perhaps he had noticed, on some level not occupied with agony and the explosion of his own senses. He always dreamed vividly during these episodes, but clarity was rare. Ruins, yes, and conflict amidst the battered walls of his mind palace, but there was not usually such a stable element at the core of it. Never had there been an immovable force to bear up his centre and hold some few things sacred from the destruction. Yet the John in his dreams had been as constant as the one in reality, always there and never failing, intimate in a manner that spoke of more than mere desire.
The bed came to a halt outside the CT scan department, and the nurses tucked it into the side of the corridor, waiting for the previous patient to finish. They hovered, but did not speak, leaving Sherlock to his thoughts, such as they were.
John had wanted to kiss him. It had been there in everything from the shadows in his eyes to the slump of his shoulders, but why? Perhaps the reason wasn't as important as the act itself, but motive was part of Sherlock's livelihood. Was John being driven solely by his concern for Sherlock in this instance? Was it a confusion of the healer/patient dynamic that had forced the boundaries between them to blur? Would they rise up again, new and restrictive once Sherlock was back to his full health? Would he have to go back to that – to watching John chase anything in a skirt and ignoring the occasional heated glance that John might send his way?
'I was wrong.'
Sherlock opened his eyes to see Mycroft, who had materialised at his bedside. Realistically, Sherlock knew that he had merely approached unobserved, but just for a minute he could almost understand why his seven year-old self had worshipped his older brother so – before Mycroft buggered off and left him to migraines, analysts and behavioural tests.
'What?' Sherlock rasped, lifting his head off the pillow as he grappled with that statement. Those were not words that often collected themselves together and escaped Mycroft's lips. When his brother's only response was a raised eyebrow – they both abhorred repetition – Sherlock allowed himself to sag, letting his voice fall flat and cold. 'You often are, though you rarely acknowledge it. Should I celebrate the momentous occasion?'
'Your sarcasm is back in full force, I see,' Mycroft murmured, curling his hands around the bar on the side of the bed in an absent-minded way. No umbrella to hold onto. 'I was wrong about John.'
'Yes, from the first moment you met him,' Sherlock said, allowing his mouth to move while his brain turned the words over. 'You always were one to make assumptions.'
'Untrue.' Mycroft drummed his fingers, the soft patter of flesh creating a little melody, trifling and whimsical, hints of early Mozart. 'Initially, I believed that he could be a useful tool, one I could manipulate. His instant, dogged loyalty to you put paid to that notion. However, I still perceived him as –' Mycroft hesitated, and Sherlock knew his brother was selecting his next words with care. He made no vague gestures to encapsulate an unvocalised concept; he could never be so imprecise. He was an architect of communication, careful to the extreme. It meant Sherlock found himself listening out for the unspoken, as much as that which was given voice.
'Say what you mean,' Sherlock snapped at last, but it was a flimsy sound. 'I'm too tired to pick apart what you're talking about.'
'I thought he was transient, temporary – someone pulled along in your wake. You led, he followed.' Mycroft looked down at his hands where they rested, his lips curving in that tight, pinched smile that was more about awkwardness than joy. 'I did not realise how integral he had become to you – to your happiness.'
'My happiness?' Sherlock repeated, not bothering to clear away the rough exhaustion that edged his words as he pressed his hand against his aching forehead. 'Since when has that concerned you? My efficiency and obedience are all you care about.'
'Do you honestly believe that?' Mycroft asked, and Sherlock heard the subtle inflection. Not a sneer, but something creeping up to genuine regret. Deliberate manipulation or actual sentiment? Sherlock knew the former was the most likely, but a quick glance made him hesitate. Mycroft tended to meet the eyes of those he was making dance to his tune – an effort at forthright honesty. Real emotion was treated like something shameful. On those rare occasions it was admitted, he looked as he did now, eyes cast down and away, head turned a fraction – as if he could not bear to stare his own feelings in the face.
'What is this all about?' Sherlock asked at last, rolling his head on his pillow and trying to marshal his mental resources on the simple act of observation. 'You must have a point, or you would never have spoken in the first place.'
Mycroft's shoulders squared, braced, and Sherlock saw his throat convulse beneath his shirt collar as he spoke. 'John Watson is a man of many favourable qualities, which I have perhaps overlooked. However, understanding the subtle does not appear to be one of his strengths.'
Now Mycroft met Sherlock's eyes searchingly. 'Your behaviour, your dependence on him – out of character for you even when you are like this – speaks volumes to me about your regard for the man, but your message may be getting lost in the interference of John's own doubts.' He looked back down at his hand where it rested on the frame of Sherlock's bed. 'At some point, as uncomfortable as it may be for you, you will need to be direct in explaining how you feel.'
'Like you, you mean,' Sherlock muttered with a hint of a sarcastic sneer before his teeth clenched. 'If I thought it would do any good, I'd tell you to mind your own business.'
'You are my business,' Mycroft replied without hesitation. 'My younger – my only – brother. Who, before John, would take an interest in your welfare if I did not?'
The outburst was subdued, but shocking, more due to its source than its content. There was a reason Mycroft did not often discuss such things, choosing to prevaricate and hide his concern behind unforgivable, overbearing forays into Sherlock's day-to-day life. Yet here it was, genuine feeling rashly expressed, and with it the faint loss of control they both hated so much. Sentiment forced a person to rely on others – revealed too much while somehow never quite saying enough. He and Mycroft both had their reasons for emotional distance, and Sherlock found himself staring, half-alarmed as Mycroft smoothed his tie and cleared his throat.
'I found Doctor Watson's obvious admiration for you amusing at first, so obviously doomed to fail through your sheer lack of interest. I was prepared to intervene if he became inconvenient, or if I felt he was beginning to pressure you in some way.'
'John?' Sherlock asked, the simple word laden with doubt as the doors to the CT scanner were opened and another patient – elderly man, second week in hospital, terminal – was wheeled away.
'Yes, an unreasonable concern. I see that now,' Mycroft replied, standing back to let the nurses manipulate the bed through the doorway and following, walking on a level with Sherlock's head. 'He is not afraid to let his disapproval of some of your less charming traits be known, but coercion does not enter into it. Rather, it has become obvious that he occasionally inspires you to do better.' Mycroft raised an eyebrow, and this time when his eyes met Sherlock's they were meaningfully intense. 'I believe he is the only person to have ever done so.'
Wordlessly, Sherlock moved over to the halo of the scanner, climbing onto the makeshift bed there and reclining as directed. For a moment there was a flurry of activity, and a brief, half-whispered discussion about kidney function and contrast dye before Mycroft caught his attention again.
'You observe everything around you, Sherlock, except occasionally that which is right under your nose. He cares for you and you clearly return his regard. I hope that you won't let this opportunity pass you by.'
'Is running the country really so dull that you're turning to match-making?' Sherlock asked, penning in a sigh when Mycroft merely gave him an irritated glare. He was not about to give his older brother the satisfaction of anything like agreement. 'I don't need your blessing, Mycroft, or your interference.'
'Or my encouragement?' Mycroft asked, his voice archly innocent before it fell into his normal, clipped tones. 'I'll not mention it again. Somehow, I don't imagine I'll have to. The shift in the dynamic between you and John is obvious. If you don't raise the subject, he will. I simply wanted you to be mindful.'
Sherlock almost bit back a reply, demanding to know when he was ever anything but. However, the nurse was approaching with a large syringe, the contrast dye for the scan prepared, and instead he found his teeth clenched, his spine arching and his free hand spasming in the sheet as she injected the volume of fluid into his bloodstream.
He had forgotten this – how very uncomfortable the procedure was. The MRI was almost painless, and he knew the CT scan itself would not hurt him. However, the dye had to be pushed, fast and hot into his vein, making him agonisingly aware of his own circulatory system as it flowed down into his fingers and up his arm.
Mycroft's hand took his, his brother mute for once and their discussion forgotten. He did not murmur platitudes, but remained stoic and silent, as if his grip on Sherlock was more important than the economy and the world's diplomatic stage combined. He considered recoiling from the touch, or snapping at Mycroft that he had no duty to Sherlock's comfort, but the words died in his throat. Yes, he would rather it was John there, warm and sympathetic, but in truth even his brother's presence was better than nothing.
'Mr Holmes, I'm afraid you can't stay while the scan is in progress,' one of the nurses explained, her smile hinting at the apologetic even as Mycroft nodded his understanding.
Sherlock expected him to simply disengage, cutting himself free as if Sherlock was merely holding him back. Instead his older brother gave his hand one brief, cautious squeeze, delivering a message of uncertainty and concern without a single word.
'I'll wait for you outside,' Mycroft told him at last, stepping back and turning on his heel. Sherlock expected a parting shot – a final demand for him to consider Mycroft's words – but instead there was only one brief look back before he slipped out of the room, leaving Sherlock's thoughts to navigate the obstacles of his brother's advice.
Mycroft's motives were always obscure at best. Was he being played – an obtuse attempt at reverse psychology? Was Mycroft showing his approval in the hopes that Sherlock would not further his relationship with John out of spite? Was his actual aim to keep them apart, or was he making a genuine attempt to urge them together?
Asking was pointless, as any answer would be no more trustworthy than the initial statement. Sherlock was not sure what game Mycroft was playing, or even if it was a game at all. There were too many convolutions and pitfalls to be found in an attempt to understand, and there was far too much history of manipulation and attrition between them for him to take his brother's words on good faith.
No. In the end, Sherlock's words rang true. This had nothing to do with Mycroft. His acceptance, if that's what it was, may make life easier, but it was irrelevant to the outcome.
That was between Sherlock and John. Whatever choice was made would be theirs, and theirs alone.
John stared blankly into the plastic cup of coffee. Strong and bitter, it tasted of pure desperation, acrid on his tongue. It washed down the dry sandwich he had forced himself to eat, but now the whole mess was sitting in his stomach like a rock: indigestible. At least the hot drink was keeping his hands warm, breathing life back into numb fingers as his brain skipped like a broken record caught forever on Sherlock-Sherlock-Sherlock.
Mycroft meant well, probably, by sending John away to find food, though it was always best not to make assumptions about the older Holmes' motivations. Whatever the purpose, it still felt like exile, enforced distance when all he wanted was to bind himself to Sherlock's side and keep him safe.
It was pathetic, really, clinging and unsavoury. That's how Sherlock would see it once he was back to his normal self. These past couple of days had played tricks on John, fooling him into thinking that closeness and affection were the norm, rather than an aberration. Did he really think Sherlock would still reach for him once this was over? That he would still want John at his side and in his bed?
'God,' John muttered, bowing his head and closing his eyes. Tiredness prickled along the seam of his lashes, and he stiffened his neck, forcing his head not to loll forward in miserable exhaustion. He hated being like this, carved out by confusion and filled with the ice-damp chill of worry and fear. Perhaps he should go home, get some sleep and come back when he was more rational. Then at least he would be able to keep his distance, rather than blurring the lines of his and Sherlock's relationship beyond recognition.
Yet at the thought of leaving... No. The idea of going back to Baker Street without Sherlock made John ache. Besides, he had made a promise to stay, and he had no intention of breaking it.
“He'll want you here when he returns. No one else.”
John dragged his eyes open again, staring unseeingly at the formica tabletop as Mycroft's words returned to him. He had made it sound so important. It was as if there was a great big something staring John in the face and he was too tired to get his head around it. Sherlock didn't do comfort, both he and Mycroft had made that clear, but he obviously wanted it from John. Was that really as significant as Mycroft made it sound?
A dark shape moved into the corner of his vision, and he glanced up, an unwelcoming frown aimed at the intruder who had sat down opposite him. It took him an uncomfortable few seconds to process Greg's familiar face. He was giving John a half-horrified kind of look, and John really did not want to know what he could see: a tired, wrung-out wreck of a man, probably. Greg had actually gone pale, the colour draining from his cheeks.
'Jesus, John. Is Sherlock...' He trailed off, clearing his throat and shaking himself as if trying to rattle his thoughts into line. 'What are you doing here?'
John twitched his fingers against the cooling plastic of the coffee cup before lifting one hand to rub his eyebrow. 'Sherlock started having seizures,' he managed, his voice weak in his throat. 'They're running tests and things.'
Greg breathed out a sigh, and it took John a moment to recognise it as relief. 'Christ, don't scare me like that.' At John's puzzled frown, Greg scrubbed a hand over his jaw. 'I mean seizures are bad, but John, you look like someone's died.' Greg reached out, plucking the coffee from John's unresisting fingers and replacing it with his own, warmer cup. 'Here, you look like you could use this more than me. How long have you been here?'
John blinked before shrugging his shoulders. 'No idea. Feels like forever.' He screwed up his face in the effort of thought, realising just how untethered from reality he felt. In here, amidst bland walls and beeping machines, time didn't seem to work in the same way, and he dragged in a shaky breath as he realised they had probably been at the hospital for less than twelve hours.
Greg was watching him with a searching gaze, and after a moment he seemed to reach a decision. 'Come on, come with me.' He got to his feet, waiting as John followed suit with a groan, muscles protesting from disuse. He followed the DI like a lamb, docile until he saw the reception and the sliding doors leading to the world outside.
'Greg, I can't leave. Sherlock –'
'You're not going anywhere,' Greg promised. 'You think I'm stupid enough to try and separate the two of you when one is at less than their best? I tried getting Sherlock to go home that time, a few months ago, when you were knocked out by that mugger and had to be kept in overnight for observation. The look on his face... I thought he was going to kill me.'
John frowned; his memory of that day was indistinct. He could vaguely recall a throbbing headache and a hissed argument, but judging from Greg's amused expression there was more to it. 'I don't remember that.'
'Come and stand outside, blow away some of the cobwebs, and I'll tell you about it,' Greg promised with a smile. 'Five minutes, no more.'
After a moment's hesitation, John's feet shuffled forward, the aglets of his undone shoelaces clicking on the pavement as he stepped out into London's late-afternoon. The air was cool, brushing against his face and hushing through the thin cotton of his t-shirt. It was enough to raise goosebumps along his arms, but Greg was right. Within a few seconds his head had begun to clear, and his mind found a slippery grasp on something like intelligent focus.
'What are you doing here, anyway?' he asked, leaning back against painted brickwork. All around them people were coming and going, intent on their own business. A few huddled patients interrupted the flow, sucking desperately on the cigarettes they weren't allowed inside.
'Anderson fell down the stairs at a crime scene,' Greg explained, the grin on his lips unapologetic. 'He's in x-ray. I promised I'd stick around to give him a lift home. He shouldn't be bothering Sherlock for a while.'
John hummed, wondering if Sherlock would be well enough to take advantage of Anderson's absence. It was hard to see any possible way they could get from here – seizures and scans – back to that: their life as it had always been before Sherlock's migraine reared its ugly head.
'Hey, come on,' Greg said, giving him a nudge in the side. John realised he must have been slipping back into his own thoughts, his eyes glazing over as his concerns hurried in once more. 'You two really are as bad as each other. You know nothing's ever slowed Sherlock down for long.'
'You weren't there,' John replied, dragging in a steady breath that tasted like nicotine and exhaust fumes. 'It was – bad.' He rubbed his hands over his eyes, his tongue fumbling around words that were completely inadequate to convey what he meant. 'I've never felt so helpless in my life. There was nothing I could do.'
Greg's hand on his shoulder was a strong, reassuring weight. Gruff and awkward, but appreciated all the same. 'He's no better when it's you, you know,' he pointed out at last. 'All that brainpower can't help him when you're the one in a hospital bed, and it shows in just the same way. More vitriolic, more angry, but still lost underneath it all.'
'Tell me about it,' John urged, shuffling to one side to let a nurse guide an old woman in a wheelchair past. 'I only really remember being hit and then bits and pieces of hospital.' The retrograde amnesia had not bothered him at the time – a standard side-effect of being moderately concussed – but now John was wondering what he had missed.
'That much was obvious as soon as we got to you. You were out cold, and so was the mugger, except his nose was flat and his two front teeth were missing. It took a while for me to notice the mess of Sherlock's knuckles and do the maths.' Greg shrugged, shaking his head as he narrowed his eyes at his own recollections. 'He was very quiet. That's what I remember most. Calm. He bullied his way into the ambulance and stayed with you throughout. God knows what he told the nurses, but no one dared to try and make him leave.'
Something stirred in John's memory: a faint hint of leaning against someone's strong shoulder and the band of their arm around his back, palm rubbing in meaningless circles of comfort as they waited.
'By the time I'd dealt with the mugger and come to check on you, you were asleep and he was slumped in a chair. He looked knackered the way anyone does after a fight – like you do now, in fact. Too much adrenaline and not enough of anything else. As soon as I suggested he go home...' Greg shrugged, a grin playing on his lips as he met John's eyes. 'He didn't say anything, just gave me this look. I didn't bother wasting my time trying to change his mind.' He ran a hand through his hair, shifting restlessly before shrugging his shoulders. 'Mycroft, on the other hand....'
'Had to give it a go, I bet,' John replied with a faint snort.
Greg nodded, folding his arms and leaning back on the wall beside John. 'Sherlock said something. I didn't catch what it was, but one sentence and his brother shut up completely. Maybe it wasn't what he said, exactly, but the tone he said it in. Final. Utterly final. The only way someone was going to get him away from you was if they killed him first. He was still there when you woke up in the morning.'
He could recall that: Sherlock looking artfully dishevelled, his endless legs stretched out and his eyes narrowed at the slim view of the corridor offered by the doorway, perhaps deducing everyone who went past, or possibly just staring for the sake of it, lost within his own head. As soon as John had moved though, he had been there, alert and present, relieved and unwilling to show it. He had been angry on the surface, but there was something deeper in his gaze that John had not been able to identify at the time.
'Feeling any better?'
Greg's quiet question made John squeeze his eyes shut, concentrating for a moment on London's chill air and the distant, incessant hum of traffic that raced through the capital. He was still concerned, shaken through-and-through by what could still lie ahead, but now it was less overwhelming, caged and contained by the simple act of getting some distance and recalling that there was a life beyond all this.
The story Greg had told him was probably just meant to take his mind off of what awaited him within the hospital walls, but John could hear the message underneath it all. For all his intellectual superiority and disdain of sentiment, when it came to John at least, Sherlock's response was visceral. He shared the same need to care and protect. It wasn't much, but it was enough, at least, for John to feel as if he could breathe around the weight of his own uncertainty.
'Yeah, thanks. I appreciate it.' John breathed out, cuffing a hand through his hair and glancing through the hospital doors. 'I'd better get back. Hope Anderson doesn't give you too much trouble.'
'He's a model patient compared to Sherlock, I expect,' Greg replied, sauntering along at John's side as they picked their way back into the antiseptic-scented world. 'Tell him to get better soon, all right? Call me if you need to.'
John could hear the unspoken “If it gets worse” in Greg's words, and he nodded in agreement, bidding the DI a weary farewell as they went their separate ways.
Sherlock's room was empty when John got there, and he tried not to let a prickle of alarm consume him. He had been gone for less than the forty minutes Mycroft had suggested, drawn back by his own inability to be anywhere else.
He longed to head for the CT rooms, but he had no right to be there. He wasn't even next of kin. Something told him that it was really only Mycroft's influence that had prevented the nurses from kicking him out. Before long, visiting hours would come to an end, and John braced himself for the potential battle to remain at Sherlock's side.
With a sigh, he turned to the bag Mycroft had brought, pulling free some clean clothes and a toothbrush. The scent of stress and sweat lingered around him, impossible to cure completely, but at least he could change into something faintly presentable. Perhaps it would help him feel more human.
There was a tiny bathroom off to the right, and John made use of it, splashing cold water on his face before dragging on jeans and a jumper. The toothbrush rasped over his teeth, chasing away the taste of the coffee. He refused to meet the eyes of his reflection, choosing instead to stare at the bland sink until the job was done. His feet were cold in the loose confines of his boots, and John dragged on some socks, sitting on the closed toilet lid to do so before he emerged back in to Sherlock's room.
He had not heard the rattle of the bed being returned, but Sherlock was there – still too pale and tight-lipped, though a weak, brittle smile curved his mouth when he saw John. Mycroft was nowhere in sight, and John wondered if he was elsewhere in the hospital, leaning his weight at integral points in an effort to speed up the bureaucracy. For a moment, the nurses fussed around Sherlock's bedside, taking a new set of measurements, but after a few minutes they withdrew, leaving John and Sherlock in peace.
'Why was Lestrade here?' Sherlock asked from where he lay, breaking apart the peace with the deep baritone of his voice. For once, he did not wince at the volume of his own words, and although he looked as tired as John felt, there was an awareness behind that gaze that he had missed beyond measure these past few days.
'How do you know he was?' John asked, sitting down in the chair and leaning forward, his forearms resting on Sherlock's mattress. He had never, ever thought he would regret the loss of Sherlock’s “You're an idiot” expression, but seeing it now was enough to crack the icy case of worry that still wrapped John's frame in its grasp, letting through the first breath of relief. Sherlock was more himself than he had been for days: the genuine article, rather than a monochrome facsimile.
'Someone took the time to reassure you, someone with whom you're familiar. Mycroft was with me and would only have made you angry anyway. There are no medical staff within this hospital who would claim your friendship. Lestrade is the most likely suspect,' Sherlock explained.
'You had a cup of coffee, though you held it more than you drank it judging from the spill on your hand.' He reached out, tapping a thin, dry residue on the knuckle of John's thumb. A hot splash neglected and left to cool. 'You've been outside. Your hair's ruffled by the wind, and you smell faintly of cigarettes. The smokers always hover by the door.'
'Brilliant,' John said, unable to stop the grin that crossed his lips as Sherlock gave a faint huff that was more gratified than annoyed. 'If you know all that then why don't you tell me why Greg was here?'
'Because I would be guessing,' Sherlock pointed out. 'I can extrapolate possibilities, but –' He winced, and John got the message. For all that his brain was coming back to its normal excellence, Sherlock was still in pain. The signs of a headache lingered in the tension of his neck and the tightness around his eyes. His lips were bracketed with faint lines, and his eyelids drooped with every blink.
'Anderson had an accident at a crime scene,' John explained, watching a brief phantom of amusement dance across Sherlock's features, smug and reprehensible. 'Greg was taking him to x-ray, saw me, and stopped to chat. He says to get better soon.'
Sherlock hummed a faint sound. 'Probably can't solve crimes without me.'
'I think he's managing,' John corrected, trying not to smile at Sherlock's lazy arrogance. It would only encourage him. 'No one likes to see their friend in pain. He just wants you to be back to your old self. You seem to be getting there?' He didn't mean to make it a question, but hope took over, adding its own inflection.
'No more seizures,' Sherlock replied. 'My head still hurts, but it's better than it was.'
It wasn't much, but John was willing to look for the silver lining. Compared to the previous night, Sherlock's improvements were noticeable. He was more coherent, and did not move as if every breath caused pain. Yet John could not forget previous times, measured in a slim number of hours, where Sherlock seemed to recover a fraction only to slide down into the abyss. Was this just a brief reprieve, or the light at the end of the tunnel?
John bowed his head, trying to push the fear aside, but it was useless. It continued to gnaw at him, setting off a chain reaction of something far too close to despair. Only Sherlock's fingers plucked him back, reaching out to nestle in John's grasp like a child seeking someone's attention.
'You're still tired. You've not slept.' He pulled at John's hand, shuffling over in wordless invitation.
'Nurses frown on that kind of thing,' John pointed out, trying to ignore the way his body ached for more than just a soft mattress. He wanted to feel Sherlock's warmth against him, reassuring and real. 'The chair will be fine.'
'The chair will kill your back and make your shoulder ache,' Sherlock pointed out with flawless logic, a thin sigh escaping his lips. When he spoke again, his words were plain and to the point, reluctantly voiced as if wrenched from him by necessity. 'You need a bed, and I need you. Get in.'
John blinked, any response temporarily trapped by Sherlock's confession. He tried to remember a time when Sherlock had ever been so blunt before, but the memory evaded him. In all manner of things, he could be mercilessly direct, cleaving his way through to the core of the issue without a thought for anyone else, but when it came to his own emotions, Sherlock was anything but straightforward. It was enough to make a glimmer of hope spark to life in John's chest.
Belatedly, he realised he had risen to his feet, already obeying Sherlock's instruction without thought. Now, he hesitated, torn between acceptable behaviour and what he wanted.
He did need a bed, though one empty of Sherlock did not come close to fitting the bill. Not now. Yet here there was nothing like privacy, and any nurse would probably show him the door if they found him curled up next to Sherlock, no matter how chastely. Then there was the risk of another seizure. It would be all too easy for one or both of them to get hurt if Sherlock experienced any more convulsions.
He pursed his lips, closing his eyes in a blink before striding over to shut the door to Sherlock's room. It was a thin barrier between them and the world, but for all his reservations, John could not bring himself to say no to Sherlock's demand: the logical arguments of the doctor in him overwhelmed by the basic desire for the comfort of Sherlock's presence. He would lie next to Sherlock as they had done the past two nights. Just for a little while.
Kicking off his boots, he propped his hip on the narrow edge of the mattress that Sherlock had vacated. There was no IV line to get in the way anymore, and only the pulse monitor on Sherlock's other hand offered any kind of restraint, its long, lax cable giving Sherlock all the mobility he needed to budge closer to the edge so that John could lie down on top of the sheets.
'For God's sake, don't fall out,' John muttered. The bed was painfully narrow, only ever designed for one, and even with the two of them at the very borders of the mattress, they were pressed together face-to-face: a close seam of fabric with warm flesh beneath. A week ago, it would have been awkward, but now John could not deny how right it felt to have Sherlock leaning against him from chest to thigh. The weight of his arm snaked around John's waist, urging him closer, and John mirrored the position, allowing himself to relax into the thin mattress as the leaden curtain of exhaustion dragged at him.
His fingers knotted in the starched fabric of Sherlock's hospital gown of their own accord, clutching him close, and John sighed as Sherlock nudged him until his face was nestled into the curve of Sherlock's throat. Gradually, the litany of reasons about why this was such a very bad idea began to fade from John's mind, muted by the downy weight of encroaching sleep. Yet next to him, for all his apparent ease, Sherlock's breathing had not grown slow and deep.
'You should sleep,' John managed to murmur, his lips brushing the hard edge of Sherlock's collarbone in a way that could at least be written off as accidental. 'You've got to be tired. All that poking and prodding.'
'I will,' Sherlock whispered, his words barely disturbing the air of the peaceful hospital room. 'Later.'
John wanted to argue, to drag up his military training and infuse his command of “No, now.” with some strength, but it was no use. The gentle, steady stroke of Sherlock's hand up and down John's spine was hypnotic, and his arguments fell quiet, left unsaid as the unstoppable tide of sleep crept in.
Beyond the door, the hectic to-and-fro of the hospital continued. Yet in the slender bed, caught and cherished in the unexpected coil of Sherlock's embrace, John found his sanctuary.
Chapter 11: Sepulchre Of Slumber
Wool prickled at Sherlock's skin, shifting in an undulation of silken barbs with every breath that John took. His bare forearm lay around John's waist, pressed against the warm cocoon of his jumper. The other hand was trapped beneath John's weight: a willing captive to his burdens.
Every whisper of air that passed John's lips tickled Sherlock's collarbone where the loose hospital gown exposed his skin, and it was to that steady, tidal rhythm that he found himself watching the time slip by, precious sand through his fingertips. Eventually, he would have to wake John and chase him from the bed, if only to prevent the nurses raising difficulties. Between them, he and Mycroft should be able to stop them from ejecting John from the hospital, but it was not a risk Sherlock was willing to take. He and John would leave together, or not at all.
John's face was tucked against Sherlock's throat, leaving that sleep-smoothed brow on level with his lips. Blond hair tickled his nose, still scented with a hint of cigarettes and fresh air despite the hours that had passed since John's brief sojourn beyond the hospital's walls. His body was lax, his own embrace around Sherlock's more slender frame slack as he lay still and silent: slumber's exhausted victim.
Sherlock should join him, he knew that. He could feel the temptation dragging at him, blunting the sharp cut of his thoughts and slowing the thud of his heart, but somehow it felt like he would be missing too much. There was so much to catalogue and process, tiny details that he had failed to observe while still so thoroughly entrenched in the migraine's war-zone, like the way John's face softened in oblivion's grasp, and the feathery disarray of his hair, gold and grey turned sallow in the muted lighting of the room.
Feeling like a thief, he brushed his lips against John's brow. It was more of a nuzzle than a kiss, a stolen moment of increased intimacy, and Sherlock held his breath as John stirred before settling again. He did not want to break this – whatever it was. To have John so trusting in his arms was an inspiring experience. The thought of holding someone else while they slept had, before now, struck Sherlock as nothing but an enormous waste of time. What possible interest could he have in a somnolent person when there was so much else in the world – enfolded within the dark veils of London’s night – to catch his attention?
Now it felt as if, for John at least, he could happily make an exception. He could try and restrain himself to the confines of a bed for the hours of darkness and focus all his brilliance down to this point – this one man and his mysteries. Being captivated by a human being who was not an interestingly murdered corpse was fairly rare. Most were so simple, and on the surface John had been no different. Other people saw the doctor, the friend, the man saint-enough to put up with Sherlock and all his eccentricities.
Yet John had shown Sherlock the chimera complex of his nature that first night. Good doctor, heroic soldier, cold killer: his parts set out for Sherlock to see but the sum of him, the equation of his entire existence, still a mystery. A puzzle that, for once, Sherlock could not solve. He deeply suspected he could know John all his life and still never gain the full measure of the man.
However, that was not the root of his fascination. It was merely the best approximation his logical mind could create: a cold comfort to appease his analytical nature while in the abyssal, bloody depths of his heart, more accurate suspicions stirred. They were not facts – there was nothing known or quantifiable to what he felt – merely a certainty that, in John, he had found all the things he had not even known he was looking for.
Sherlock could not decide whether he was enthralled or terrified.
A knock at the door prevented him from reaching a suitable conclusion. For a moment, he considered feigning sleep in the hopes that he and John would be left alone. Nurses were sympathetic, after all, and might not want to disturb a resting patient. However, the footsteps told him that the intruder was not medical personnel. Mycroft's efficient pace was distinctive anywhere: clean-soled shoes tapping on the linoleum. There was nothing as undignified as the squeak of leather or the clatter of a trailing lace, but Sherlock did catch the falter in his brother's step halfway into the room – a tiny moment of hesitation that spoke volumes to the discerning ear.
From the doorway, it would be impossible to see John curled up close and tucked in against Sherlock's chest, but it seemed Mycroft had noticed that the bed held two people, rather than one.
Sherlock was tempted to look over his shoulder and read his brother's expression – perhaps then he would be able to gauge the sincerity of Mycroft's earlier encouragement. However, it was unnecessary. Mycroft's movements resumed, and there was a smug tempo to his stride. Something slower and more pleased, as if he wanted to claim the credit for the fact that John was currently asleep in Sherlock's arms.
'Doctor Patel is on her way,' Mycroft whispered, and Sherlock arched one eyebrow in surprise. Not at the message, but the tone. The hush of his words showed an odd consideration for John's continuing peace. 'Perhaps you should awaken Doctor Watson before she arrives? I'll wait outside.'
Sherlock blinked, hearing the hiss of his lashes against the pillow as the door closed behind Mycroft's back. This was the second time he had found them in bed together. Both occurrences were relatively chaste, but his reactions were polar opposites. Sherlock doubted that the reversal of behaviour was through any regard for him. Mycroft delighted in causing both discomfort and embarrassment. However, perhaps at last his older brother was giving John the respect he deserved, neither jolting him from sleep by speaking at normal volume or causing embarrassment by lingering when John was at his most vulnerable.
Glancing back down at John's restful profile, Sherlock held back a sigh. He did not want to disturb him. John had sacrificed sleep for Sherlock's benefit, and now breaking the sepulchre of slumber felt criminal. However, he knew John would rather be woken than left to face the consequences of being found in Sherlock's narrow hospital bed.
Carefully, he shifted his hand up John's back, feeling the twisted weave of the cable knit skim beneath his palm until he came to the warm, strong column of John's neck. His fingertips formed spirals and whorls, teasing the short, soft hair there before moving along John's jaw, applying just enough pressure to slowly part the veils of his repose.
It started with a deeper breath, the languid pulse of air between John's lips faltering and changing as wakefulness found him. His shoulders shuffled, and he nuzzled deeper into the curve of Sherlock's throat as if chasing after the fleeing shades of dreams before an inquisitive noise caught in his throat, gruff and appealing.
'Doctor Patel will be here soon,' Sherlock murmured, not daring to suggest vacating the bed. That felt too much like John was unwelcome, and nothing could be further from the truth.
John pulled back and screwed his eyes up tight, charting radial lines at their corners before blinking them open again, his pupils contracting as he focused on Sherlock's face.
'Right – I should probably get up then,' he rasped, his voice rusty and low. However, he made no move to leave the feeble cradle of the mattress, choosing instead to flex his arm over Sherlock's waist, a loose weight becoming something tighter and more captivating. 'Are you all right?' he asked, frowning as he seemed to take in more of Sherlock's appearance. 'Did you sleep at all?'
'I rested,' Sherlock replied, deliberately vague. Not that it fooled John for a moment. Even like this, lazy and dense from sleep, he was sharp enough to read Sherlock's real answer.
'You didn't even close your eyes, did you?' he sighed, his hand turning to splay across Sherlock's back and moving in a lazy sweep before he pulled away, swinging his feet over the edge of the mattress and easing himself upright. He stretched his arms above his head, and Sherlock heard the “pop” of John's joints beneath the shroud of his clothes and skin: one of the tells of middle-age. 'How are you feeling?'
Sherlock felt as much as saw John's intense focus, as if his skin was attuned to the weight of that blue gaze. It sent a prickle of chill over him, exacerbated by John's all-too-recent departure. Where the bed had felt welcoming and comfortable, it had now become nothing but a metal frame and an inadequate mattress. However, at least the pain in his head had receded: still a threatening, grumbling thing that rolled around his skull, but it was a kitten's purr in comparison to how it had been less than twenty-four hours ago.
'Hungover,' Sherlock said at last. It was the best analogy for the situation. He felt no worse than anyone would after a very intoxicated night out, and no better, either. If he had awoken with this, he would have spent the day in bed, avoiding noise and light and swearing never to drink again. It was only in comparison to the migraine's previous stampede that it could be considered mild. 'Nauseous and pained, but otherwise much improved. Come here.'
He made a beckoning motion, smiling faintly as John immediately obliged, leaning over the bed so that Sherlock could run his fingers through that short blond hair, dispelling the evidence of bed-head and leaving John ruffled and slightly flushed.
'Thanks,' he murmured, reaching out a thumb to brush at the shadows Sherlock knew rested beneath his eyes. It was a tender gesture, far from medicinal, but Sherlock did not miss the way John's gaze skipped briefly from one side to the other – checking his pupils again, probably. 'You really should have tried to sleep. Your body needs it. You look done in.'
Sherlock hummed, a sound neither of agreement nor debate. He would sleep properly when he was back at Baker Street, in familiar surroundings and his comfortable bed. Now, even if he hadn't spent the time watching John, he knew he would not have managed more than a shallow doze. There was simply too much of everything: noise, fragrance, people, data... The flow was ceaseless, even on his own in a seemingly bland room, and his mind was too sluggish to process it effectively. The end result was him lying, lethargic but unable to switch off. At least with John here he was able to ignore the ephemera of his environment.
The sound of footsteps in the corridor outside reached Sherlock's ears, and he looked up to see Doctor Patel shoulder the door aside, her hands full of files and her gaze fixed solidly on the paperwork in front of her. Her glance of acknowledgement was brief before she set the dossiers down on the table at the other side of the room and reached for Sherlock's chart.
Sherlock could sense John tensing nearby, muscles coiling as if bracing himself for bad news. Mycroft was hovering by the doorway, wearing a poor mask of aggravation over his concern. No doubt he had tried to quiz Doctor Patel before she got here and had failed miserably. She always had been tight-lipped about Sherlock's condition, preferring to speak directly to him, even when he was a child.
With a sigh, Sherlock settled back into his pillows, flicking one last glance over the Doctor before he spoke. 'The scans are all clear; the Norazophen caused the seizures.'
'I see you still have a habit of diagnosing yourself, Mr Holmes,' Doctor Patel murmured, her tone unimpressed as if she had seen the trick a dozen times before – which she had. Her shock and discomfort had worn off within an hour the first time Sherlock had deduced her. A quicker recovery time than most other people, some of whom held a grudge for years. 'What made you arrive at that conclusion?'
'Pipette in the pocket of your lab coat; solution stain on the right sleeve, dark because it's not quite dry. Your eyes are not bloodshot from staring at monitors, so you have been using lab equipment instead – centrifuge, microscope and spectrometer, probably.' He pointed meaningfully at her hands, where tiny white grains were still caught in the webs of her fingers. 'You have powder from the latex gloves on your skin – gloves which you wouldn't need to analyse imagery data. You've been re-running the blood-work to check an earlier finding, which probably relates to the Norazophen.'
Doctor Patel's sigh was restrained and, perhaps, faintly amused as she set Sherlock's file down and met his eyes. 'You're right, as usual. There is no sign of any abnormal growth, brain activity or blood vessel disruption in any of the scans. Nothing to indicate either a structural problem or a developing condition. The haematology was the only thing that showed anything unusual.'
She grabbed one of the files, flicking it open and offering it, Sherlock noted with surprise, to John. 'As you can see, prolactin levels are normal. We took blood within ten minutes of a seizure, and if it had been caused by epilepsy, we should see a rise in hypothalamus hormones.'
'There's a high-level of Immunoglobulin E,' John murmured, a frown creasing his brow as he looked up at Doctor Patel. 'An allergy response?'
Doctor Patel nodded, her hands folded demurely in front of her and her gaze a little unfocussed as she began to explain. 'As Norazophen decays, it breaks down into different protein strands which the body filters out in the kidneys and liver. In a small percentage of users, a gradual immune response to these proteins has been seen.' She sighed in professional irritation as if aggravated by the failing. 'It means that a patient can receive the drug on and off for years with no ill-effects. However, even when the Norazophen is gone, the antibodies remain.'
'What does that mean?' Mycroft asked, his voice flat and pinched at having to ask for clarification.
'It means that each time he's been exposed to the Norazophen, he has produced more antibodies, adding to the number already present in his cells and bloodstream,' John explained, his eyes scanning back and forth as he read the notes.
'This time there were enough antibodies to cause a noticeable reaction. In this case it manifested as seizures. Rare, but not unheard of,' Doctor Patel finished, standing aside to let one of the nurses through. 'I would like to take some more blood and check that the levels of both Norazophen and Immunoglobulin E have fallen to acceptable levels. The lack of seizures for the past six hours or so indicates that the issue has passed, but we'll provide antihistamines to speed recovery.'
Sherlock narrowed his eyes as more blood was drawn and a serum was injected into his vein. He stared at his arm after the needle had been withdrawn, dwelling on Doctor Patel's words. An allergic response was unexpected; there had been no other symptoms – no itching or rashes – but he had seen enough victims to know that allergies were anything but predictable. They could kill instantly, or present as nothing but a mild discomfort, and any rhyme or reason seemed well beyond the grasp of the general populace.
'So there was no immediate reaction when I administered the injections because it's not the drug molecule he's sensitive to,' John said, speaking in the steady way of someone working through a problem. 'It was only once there was a certain amount of degraded Norazophen in his blood that he began to suffer.'
Doctor Patel nodded, writing something on Sherlock's chart and circling it repeatedly. 'It has occurred previously in a small percentage of users, hence my suspicion.'
'What about the next time he requires medication?' Mycroft asked, speaking up as he approached Sherlock's bed. 'He has suffered these migraines for almost twenty years. He will need pharmaceutical assistance to deal with future attacks.'
'I will endeavour to find an alternative,' the doctor replied. 'Unfortunately, the drug is no longer a viable treatment for Mr Holmes, but now we are aware of the allergic response, we can monitor any potential sensitivities and be prepared to react promptly should the situation repeat itself.' She retracted the nib of her ballpoint pen with a click, slipping the chart back in the holder at the end of the bed and retrieving the file from John's hand. 'You'll need to stay in overnight for observation, Mr Holmes. However, as long as no further complications arise, we can discharge you into Doctor Watson's care tomorrow morning.'
Sherlock drew in a deep breath through his nose before giving a minuscule nod of his head. When neither Mycroft or John spoke up with additional questions, the doctor departed, her stride more weary now that her job was done and the small mystery solved. Of course, the greater puzzle of Sherlock's migraines remained unanswered, as always: a threat that would no doubt recur, and now there was no minor relief of the Norazophen to see him through the next storm.
'Christ,' John murmured, sitting down in the chair and scrubbing his hands over his face. 'I don't know whether to be relieved or terrified.'
'An allergy is better than a brain tumour, surely,' Sherlock replied, trying to string the words together as his eyes drifted shut, too heavy to keep open. He suspected the antihistamine was to blame, and he struggled to focus as John continued to speak.
'Of course, but what if you had gone into anaphylactic shock instead? What if you'd just – just died on me?' John sounded distantly horrified. 'I never thought I'd actually be grateful for seizures.' He paused, and Sherlock could hear the dry whisper of John's palms rubbing against each other as he considered the possibilities. 'I'll get an epi-pen for the flat.'
Sherlock managed an inquisitive noise deep in his throat, too weary to articulate a question, but John understood anyway: finely tuned after so long living together.
'Just because you had seizures this time, doesn't mean that it won't be worse if it happens again. Also, the only way to find out if you're allergic to the alternative drugs is to give them to you and see if you develop a sensitivity.' John's sigh sounded far away, like the distant Mistral, and Sherlock struggled to keep his grasp on the clinical coolness of the hospital room rather than the soft darkness of tempting sleep. 'I don't want to be caught unprepared.'
It was a sensible response, practical, like John himself, and Sherlock smiled. He had never known, in all his volatile existence, that this was what he needed: both a stable counterweight and a dazzling catalyst. It was hard to remember how it had been different, once, how his entire life had been unbalanced – on the edge of a precipice and braced for the fall.
As he slipped into darkness, Sherlock's final thought was of the man at his side: the one who did not hold him back from that dangerous edge, but instead gave him wings and helped him soar.
John stood on the threshold of 221 Baker Street, his keys rattling in the lock as he shoved the door open and looked back. One of Mycroft's sleek, black cars idled at the kerb, and Sherlock, dressed in a t-shirt and the pyjama pants he often wore around the flat, was easing himself free from the vehicle.
It was hard to believe that, only yesterday morning, he had been carried out by paramedics, almost insensate from the pain in his head. Now, at least, he could stand on his own two feet, though John did not miss the way he winced at the dreary light of the overcast day, or the delicate way he held his body as if every muscle ached. Sherlock was not at one-hundred-percent, not yet, but he was feeling well enough to sulk.
'It's unnecessary,' he muttered, his comment directed at Mycroft. The older Holmes was standing on the other side of the car, one hand resting patiently on the roof as he watched Sherlock pick his way over to John's side. 'Can't you do something about it?'
'It's unlike you to ask me for a favour,' Mycroft replied, his lips curving into a smug smile before he shook his head. 'Even if I could, Sherlock, I would not oblige you. You will get your license back in six months, as long as you do not have any further seizures.' Mycroft met John's gaze, and there was a hint of shared understanding and pity for Sherlock's fractiousness before the expression was gone. 'I will leave you in John's capable hands. Do call, won't you?'
With that, he folded himself back into his car, the door easing shut in his wake. Immediately, the vehicle carried him off to wage war, world domination, or whatever it was that Mycroft actually did when he wasn't spying on Sherlock.
With a sigh, John focussed his attention on his flatmate, running his gaze over that slender body in mute interrogation. He kept telling himself that Sherlock was fine, recovering nicely and released from hospital with the doctor's permission. However, that did not stop the twitchy anxiety that continued to roll through his stomach.
The antihistamines Sherlock had been given the previous night had plunged him into a deep, thick sleep that lasted almost twelve hours. Thanks to Mycroft, John had been able to spend it at Sherlock's side on a spare bed that the nurses had wheeled in. Surprisingly, for all the space available, it had not been nearly as restful as being tucked up against Sherlock's warm body, and John had tossed and turned while Sherlock remained oblivious.
The blood tests taken first thing in the morning had been promising, showing that the allergic response had significantly diminished. Doctor Patel had prescribed some more antihistamines to be taken orally over the next few days before finally allowing Sherlock – who was at least well enough to be aggravating the medical staff by announcing embarrassing details about their personal lives – to leave. However, there had been one last sting in the tail of the whole scenario. One that did not bother John one bit but that had left Sherlock severely disgruntled: his driver's license had been revoked.
'Are you sure it's standard procedure?' Sherlock asked suspiciously as he shuffled through the door and into the front hall, looking over his shoulder at John.
'They do it to everyone who has a seizure, Sherlock. Convulsions and driving aren't a good mix. It's not like you use it, anyway,' John pointed out, guiding his friend's wobbly footsteps up the seventeen stairs. 'You take taxis everywhere.'
'That's not the point,' Sherlock grumbled, but it was fairly half-hearted as he leaned against the wall by the door to the flat, waiting for John to let him in. 'What if I get a case outside of London?'
'Then I'll drive.' John fought back a smile as he added, in a tone faintly reminiscent of Sherlock at his most arrogant, 'Obviously.' Pushing the door open he rested his hand on Sherlock's elbow, absently guiding him into the familiar surroundings of their home. 'Either that or there is a perfectly good public transport system available. Buses, trains, that kind of thing.'
The look on Sherlock's face – a mixture of doubt at John's driving abilities and repulsion at the thought of public transport – had John struggling not to smile. With every passing minute it was as if Sherlock was reclaiming the mantle of his existence and becoming more himself again, and to see him like that was a balm to all the open wounds of John's concern.
'I think I would rather walk,' Sherlock replied, reaching up to tunnel his fingers through his hair and then wrinkling his nose as they caught in the lank tangle of his curls. Without a word, he turned towards the bathroom, his fingers catching on the hem of his t-shirt before he dragged it over his head and dropped it on the floor.
It was far from the first time John had seen Sherlock's bare back, but he still found himself breathless at the sight. Even more so now that he had held Sherlock in his arms and felt that strong plane beneath his own palms. He could still recall the warmth of it pressed against his fingertips and the strong, ridged column of Sherlock’s spine. Gone was the sallow tinge gifted to him by the migraine and the hospital's lights. A healthy glow had begun to return to Sherlock's flesh, breathing light and life into his pallor, and John licked his lips, only looking away when Sherlock disappeared across the threshold to the bathroom.
Water hissed in the bottom of the bath, and John lifted his voice to be heard over the cascade. 'Shout if you need help, and don't lock the door. I don't want to have to break it down if you keel over!' In fact, the thought of Sherlock being alone in a room with a dozen different ways to drown was enough to crank up the tension in his muscles, and John swore quietly to himself, loathing the lingering fear and insecurity that plucked at him.
Sherlock had every right to privacy and did not need John hovering uselessly around in case something went wrong. Yet the thought of stepping back from his vigil and doing something useful was almost inconceivable. In the end, he settled for leaning back against the wall to the left of the bathroom door and keeping an ear open for any sounds of distress.
Logically, he knew the risk of a seizure had all but passed. The allergic response to the drug had faded, and Sherlock had improved in leaps and bounds. He was no longer rendered immobile by the pain in his head, nor befuddled by the confusion of his senses. Instead he was like anyone else recovering from an illness: fatigued and uncomfortable, but caught in the half-way stage between bed-ridden and complete health. He would not be well enough to go charging across London in the next few days, but nor would he be so ill that lying in bed would be a necessity.
Before all this, the thought of Sherlock caught in that no-man's land would have filled John with dread. Boredom was a given, and the inability of Sherlock's transport to assuage it would lead to dark moods and sulks all round. Now, though, he could almost see it as a blessing. He would take Sherlock shooting the walls over sobs of agony any day of the week.
Besides, selfishly, John wanted more of this: not Sherlock pained and shattered apart by torment, but the closeness that had grown between them. Once the cases came to the fore once more, John knew it would be broken. There would be no ties with which to hold together the web of intimacy that had spun itself around them, and it would unravel in London's harsh chaos. Guiltily, he longed for a few more days where the world beyond the walls of Baker Street was a distant thing and Sherlock curling up at John's side was the norm.
The drum of the shower cut out just as there was a knock at the flat door, and John heard a distinctive titter of greeting.
'Hello, Mrs Hudson,' John called. He pushed himself away from the wall and looked around the corner to see their landlady wandering over to the table, clearing a space among the Erlenmeyer flasks for a casserole pot.
'Oh, John. You look exhausted,' she fussed, flapping a tea-towel in his direction before craning her neck to see over his shoulder. 'Is Sherlock...?'
'He's in the shower, and much better now. He had an allergic reaction to the migraine medication,' John explained, keeping it basic. 'Gave everyone a bit of a scare.'
Mrs Hudson tutted and shook her head in pity, absently flicking the kettle on and reaching for John's mug. 'I brought you some dinner, just this once. Hospital food's no good for anyone, and Sherlock needs to keep his strength up. He looked so pale when they took him away!' Her hands fluttered briefly at her chest before she straightened her shoulders, making John's tea with the absent-minded efficiency of someone keeping their hands busy.
'I also changed his sheets while you were gone, since I didn't know how long it would be until you got home. I would have done yours, but there was no need, since you'd not slept in them.'
John paused in the act of reaching for his mug, glancing sideways to see Mrs Hudson smothering a smile, her cheeks rounded with the effort. 'It was best for me to stay with him, in case he took ill during the night,' he managed, wondering why he was bothering with an excuse. Mrs Hudson had not believed a word on that score since the day he and Sherlock moved in.
'Of course, dear,' Mrs Hudson replied, her eyes sparkling as she patted his hand. 'You look after him so well. Now, you make sure he eats something, and if you need anything just let me know.' She looked up as Sherlock exited the bathroom, his curls damp, his jaw clean-shaven and his dressing gown slung around his shoulders and tied at his waist. 'And you make sure John doesn't work his fingers to the bone taking care of you,' she chided, giving Sherlock a firm look before shaking her head. 'It won't do for him to fall ill as well.'
Sherlock's eyes met John's, sharply focussed as if scanning him for any sign of poor health. Yet it was not the normal chill scrutiny of Sherlock's deductive gaze; there was a hint of softness to it that made John's heart skitter and his mouth turn dry.
'John will be fine, Mrs Hudson,' Sherlock replied in his usual brusque fashion, gifting her a hint of a smile. 'I'll make sure of it.'
Mrs Hudson's gaze took on a more knowing edge, and John restrained a sigh as she waved a farewell and headed down the stairs, leaving him to examine the contents of the pot. The scent of beef and rosemary assailed his nose, making his stomach groan and his mouth water. He did not care that it was too early for dinner and almost too late for lunch. Meals had been hit and miss the past few days, and his stomach demanded satisfaction.
'You need to eat,' he called out to Sherlock, who had retired to the sofa, one arm pressed over his eyes again and his body a boneless sprawl. It was a far-cry from his usual contained repose. The blue silk of his dressing gown was doing its best to slip away from him, giving John a good view of Sherlock's chest. He had at least put the pyjama pants back on, but they hung low on Sherlock's hips and draped over his feet, not leaving much to the imagination. 'You all right?'
The hum of agreement seemed like an inadequate answer, and John sighed before grabbing a pair of bowls and doling out some of the stew. Plenty for him, and just a bit for Sherlock, who was occasionally like a small child and tended to be put off by a full plate. Setting them down on the coffee table, along with some cutlery, he wandered over to the windows, drawing the heavy curtains and blocking out the daylight before turning on one of the more mellow lamps.
'Come on.' He gave Sherlock's feet a shove until there was enough space for him to sit down at the end of the sofa. 'If you don't sit up and eat, I'll just have to feed it to you.'
Sherlock lowered his arm and raised an eyebrow. 'Is that meant to be a threat?'
'I'll deliberately spill gravy on your dressing gown and ruin it,' John promised, shoving a forkful in his own mouth before watching Sherlock carefully. Familiarity made it easy to pick out the lingering signs of strain, and John wiped his chin with the back of his hand before grabbing some cushions and gesturing for Sherlock to lean forward.
He did so stiffly, his lips tightening in discomfort before John eased him back, letting the cushions support Sherlock's weight in a half-reclined position before handing him his bowl. 'Was the shower too much?' he asked, unable to hide his sympathy as Sherlock scowled in annoyance at his own weakness.
'It felt refreshing for the first couple of minutes,' Sherlock explained, chewing a mouthful and swallowing it before lifting one shoulder in a shrug. 'After that it became more reminiscent of having nails hammered through my skull.'
John winced, easily imagining exactly what Sherlock meant. 'There are some painkillers you can take with the antihistamines. Good food and decent rest should do the trick.' It sounded like a cop-out cure, but getting Sherlock to attend to his most basic needs other than breathing was nigh on impossible. All it meant was that, when he became unwell, his body was ill-prepared to handle it, deprived as it was of rest and resources. 'You barely touched the breakfast at the hospital.'
Sherlock scowled, spearing the last bit of meat and chewing it before replying. 'Only the most generous of people could call that swill “food”.'
'I'm surprised you're so picky since you wouldn't know a decent meal if it bit you on the arse,' John replied good-naturedly. 'Want any more?' He nodded towards Sherlock's empty bowl, anticipating the reply as his flatmate shook his head – a stiff, grating motion – and set the dish aside.
It was a small victory getting him to eat even that little bit, and John pressed down on the familiar temptation to push and cajole. In the end, Sherlock was not malnourished, and John had no right to interfere. Instead he simply did his best to nudge Sherlock in the direction of sustenance when he got the chance and tolerated him pinching bits of food from his plate those frequent times when John ate dinner and Sherlock refused to order anything.
Padding over to the kitchen, he sorted out the leftovers, keeping them safe from anything vile in the fridge. Nothing in there had started to smell, but John knew better than to believe there weren't any experiments hidden in the depths. Finally, he got a glass of water and tapped out some tablets, double-checking the strength of the dose before returning to Sherlock's side, the slender white capsules nestled in his palm like pearls.
'One antihistamine, two paracetamol,' he said, not missing the fact that Sherlock didn't hesitate when presented with the drugs. Either he trusted John not to give him something dangerous or was too eager for relief to care.
It was only when the water and pills were all gone that he took the glass from Sherlock's grasp and placed it on the coffee table before grabbing his book and easing back onto the sofa again. Normally, the couch was Sherlock's domain, fully occupied by his long, lanky frame. However, sitting in his usual armchair felt too much like exile, and besides, Sherlock seemed fairly willing to share his space – for a given value of share.
Opening his book to the page with the corner folded down, John tried to force himself to focus on the words. After a patchy few nights of inadequate rest, his brain was not up for anything too complex, but dozing off now felt like defeat. Besides, he would pay for it with a messed up sleep schedule when he eventually went back to work.
Yet the story was failing to hold John's attention. He was too aware of the man a bare hand's length away from him. Sherlock had his arm draped over his eyes again, head leaning back on the arm of the sofa and his throat exposed. On anyone else it might have looked coy or submissive. Sherlock, though, made it look strong and defiant, almost a challenge, and Sherlock's words from the previous evening rose unbidden in John's mind.
'I need you.'
At the time, he had been so tired and tangled up in his concerns for Sherlock that he had not felt more than a glimmer of breathless hope. Now, though, the memory shone in his mind like a diamond, bright and cutting.
In that moment, he should have asked Sherlock what he meant. Did he require John as a doctor, a friend? Did he mean more by it? God, John wanted to believe that. If anyone else in the world had voiced those words, he would have not hesitated to pursue the possibility, but this was Sherlock – far from straight-forward on a good day and still tangled in the stormy edges of a migraine.
John swallowed, shaking his head to himself as he tried to push the thoughts away, but they clung with tenacious claws, whispering fretful possibilities and half-paralysing John with his own uncertainty. Now was not the time for this. Not when Sherlock was still unwell and securely in John's care. Maybe one day there would be the right moment, when the stars of courage and circumstance aligned and John finally had the guts to just say – what?
'You've been on one page for nearly seven minutes. It's the Pope,' Sherlock muttered, jolting John back to reality. 'The Pope is killing the cardinals. Predictable. Why do you read such drivel?'
Sherlock's toes dug into the side of John's thigh hard enough to bruise, wriggling in an effort to get at the warmth beneath. They were frigid enough for John to feel them through the denim of his jeans, and for a brief moment he considered denying Sherlock's mute demand: punishment for trying to spoil his book. However, in less than a minute he found himself lifting his leg and placing it back down on Sherlock's feet.
'It's entertainment, Sherlock. It doesn't have to be rocket science,' he said at last. 'And just so you know, enjoyment of a book isn't just about knowing how it ends. Sometimes it's in the detail.'
Sherlock made a derisive noise in the back of his throat, but the pitch of it changed halfway through, coming out as something more uncomfortable. 'How long until the painkillers work?' he asked.
John heard the need in that question, and he wrapped his fingers around Sherlock's ankle, absently charting soothing circles around the protrusion of bone. 'Another twenty minutes or so.' He did not have the heart to tell Sherlock that the antihistamines would probably kick in at the same time, thickening his mind with drowsiness and lethargy, and rendering him unable to do anything to stave off boredom except sleep. 'Can you move? Bring that aching head up this end?'
Sherlock shifted slowly to oblige, and John turned where he sat so that one leg was stretched out along the sofa and his back was against the arm. That left Sherlock free to lean against his chest, and John smiled at the pleasant whisper of contented déjà vu .
His paperback lay abandoned on the floor as he gently rubbed fingers over Sherlock's brow and temples, careful to apply only a light touch of pressure as he stroked along the orbital ridge and up over the zygomatic arch. The clean curls had started to fluff themselves up into untamed chaos, and they twisted around his knuckles lovingly as he tunnelled his fingers through Sherlock's hair.
A breathy hum of appreciation made John swallow tightly, and he glanced down at Sherlock's face, seeing the dark fan of lashes and pink lips parted around every breath. Quickly, John began to list the bones beneath his touch, feeling out the different plates of Sherlock's skull in a desperate effort not to think of the pleasure in Sherlock's expression, intense enough to border on erotic.
'Is this helping?' John asked, wincing at the low, gravelly tone to his words. It said far more than the sentence he had uttered, but thankfully Sherlock either ignored it or failed to register it all together.
This time the noise Sherlock made was a purr: a rough, rumbling sound deep in his chest that had John's stomach clenching and heat pooling between his legs. An erection now would be impossible to hide, and he bit his lip hard, trying to fight it as Sherlock steadily relaxed against him further, his breathing becoming deeper and more even with every passing minute as John battled with his body in an effort not to embarrass himself.
At last, Sherlock was gone, lax in sleep against John's chest thanks to the pull of the drugs in his system. Yet even then, John could not bring himself to stop touching him, brushing fingers through his hair or stroking along his jaw. It was as if Sherlock's skin and heat were addictive. He found himself reaching out without thought, inching closer just to steal another fleeting caress.
'What have you done to me?' John whispered into the peaceful air of the flat, licking his lips before curving his arm down around Sherlock's shoulder to rest over the solid, steady beat of his heart.
'More to the point, what the hell am I going to do about it?'
Chapter 12: The Andante Pulse
The beat was his guide through dreams of senselessness: colours and scenarios with no place in the living world. It led him ever onwards in a steady, idle stroll of calm amidst calamity, drumming out a message of peace even in the breach of baffling insanity.
Sherlock glanced down at the corpse – twisted and abandoned on the roadside. The faceless police, their skin stretched tight and featureless over the spherical curves of their heads, lifted blind eyes as he ambled past.
'Body dump, not a hit and run,' he told them, but they did not seem to hear, choosing to turn their backs as he sauntered onwards through the labyrinthine streets of London. The scene glitched and changed, jumping back to his childhood home and forward again to Montague Street. There were visions of university, already blurred and almost deleted, that lingered at the edge of his consciousness, but Sherlock did not care for any of it.
This was not his mind palace. Perhaps it was the world beyond its tattered walls, or just the thin gauze of random memories vomiting forth to daub his sleep with their colours, but for all their tones of the morbid and macabre, they were benign. How could he be afraid, when his way through their maze was marked out bright and clear in a steady rhythm of sound?
He could not identify it. Percussive and bass, the knowledge of its source eluded him. So he followed, his steps measured out in four-four time until he broke free of sleep's grasp and found himself awake once more. His head rested on John's chest, his ear pressed to the unfaltering throb of John's sanguine, messy heart: atria and ventricles, aorta and venae cavae, a mass of muscle and blood that whispered its secrets to Sherlock like a lover.
John's hand rested on Sherlock's head, his capable fingers cupped around the dome of his skull. There was no pressure there, nothing to hold him in place, merely a constant comfort transmitting itself through the warmth of John's palm. It was his other arm that was draped more possessively over Sherlock's ribs, preventing him from falling off the narrow sofa with subtle strength and soldierly allusions.
At some point, John had shuffled down so that he was mostly reclined, his legs spread around Sherlock's body as his own flesh provided an unlikely mattress. It could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be comfortable. Yet John had made the effort to stay, to offer Sherlock companionship as he slept when he could just as easily have extricated himself and made his escape.
Further evidence, should he need it, that John wanted to be here. His obligation as doctor had passed, but his wish to remain nearby had not abated.
A smile pulled at the corner of Sherlock's mouth and he felt the hand on his hair twitch slightly, tightening for a second before easing off into a timid caress. Perhaps it should have felt patronising, to be stroked like some strange creature, but Sherlock saw the truth behind the susurrus of skin through his curls. John wanted to offer succour and asked for nothing in return. He merely seemed to take pleasure in being the one person Sherlock permitted to see him like this: human after all.
'Are you awake?' John's voice vibrated through the cage of his ribs, drowning out the andante pulse of his heartbeat and filling Sherlock's ears with his distinctive cadence.
With a lethargic hum, Sherlock stretched his legs, pointing his toes as his muscles contracted and shifted, shivering off the lazy weight of slumber. Untangling his fingers from where they had twisted into the cable-knit of John's jumper, he smoothed his hand down to John's waist as he attempted to focus his mind on the man who lay beneath him.
After days of only the slipperiest grasp on his own concentration and intelligence, he felt the wires slide back into place, completing his circuits and allowing the dazzling illumination of his abilities to stutter into vibrant activity. It was like water flowing through an arid desert, stirring into existence the life that had lain dormant, awaiting its touch. Where there had been leaden, heavy thoughts and deep, dark oceans of oblivion there was once more the orchestral symphony of his reasoning. This was not the discordant clamour of instruments being tuned, but the graceful slide of melody and harmony: his mind his own again at last.
The breath of relief escaped him, loud enough to be heard in the peaceful calm of the flat, and John's hand stilled in his hair. 'Are you all right?'
Sherlock smiled, lifting his head up and meeting John's gaze. 'I can think again,' he murmured, feeling the blissful absence of an ache in his head. 'It doesn't hurt any more.'
'Not at all?' John asked, his thumb brushing over Sherlock's occipital bone as Sherlock shook his head, enjoying the freedom of movement.
'It just feels a bit – hollow.' Sherlock shrugged, more than accustomed to the strangely empty absence once a migraine had passed. It was infinitely preferable to the shrieking, screaming pain that had made its home in his cranium for far too long.
As he watched, an answering grin bloomed across John's expression, chasing off those last, lingering shadows of concern. It was a simple kind of joy, one that made him look years younger, and Sherlock found himself watching that face, taking in all the details both familiar and new.
Over the duration of his migraine, he'd had the unique opportunity to view John closer than ever before, but he had not had the mental acuity to observe and interpret. He had been forced to make simple, one dimensional conclusions about the root cause of John's concerns and motivations. Now, he could see evidence of complexity, beautifully lain out in quicksilver trails, from John's behaviour to the physical traces lingering in his expression.
Take this very moment. John had remained with Sherlock while he slept. Perhaps that, on its own, could be viewed as mere consideration – John unwilling to disturb an unwell individual from sleep by shifting away. Yet his hands still held Sherlock in place, both warm and unapologetic against his body. John had made no move to leave once he knew Sherlock was awake, and his relaxed frame told its own story. He had no immediate intention of going anywhere, despite the unguarded intimacy of their current positions.
A week ago, they would never have even ended up like this. There had been a barrier there, some invisible line that neither of them had dared to try and cross. Now that was gone, and Sherlock found himself trying to remember life before he had been permitted this close to John. Their embrace was no fleeting grasp, no hug of comfort quickly withdrawn, but an ongoing declaration of – what? Attraction? Affection?
Both. That answer was written in the softness of John's expression and the warmth of his eyes. Affection was more obvious, more readily displayed, perhaps because John thought Sherlock would find it more acceptable. Yet desire wove its brazen thread, and Sherlock's mind skipped back to the moments before he fell asleep, where not even the thick denim of John's jeans had been quite adequate to hide the restrained, burgeoning response of his body.
At the time, he had almost dismissed it as a result of minor friction and warmth, and had been more intent on the relief John's hands could bring to the ache in his head than analysing what was going on in John's trousers. Now, however, it was another answer to hoard – another piece of the puzzle to examine.
Back at the hospital, there had been that moment – an almost-kiss before Mycroft interrupted with annoying efficiency. Yet there, in that plain room bathed in acid-light, there had been more desperation and stress than passion. People responded differently under emotional pressure; John had been afraid. Even in the haze of pain from his migraine, Sherlock had wondered if John's fleetingly exposed admiration, as welcome as it was, could merely be a product of blurred boundaries – of friend and healer slipping over into more uncertain territory.
Now, the cause of the seizures had been found. The unknown became quantifiable and ready for treatment. However, John was still here, unfailing and without question. He had not tried to reconstruct the barriers that had held them apart, nor sought to find some of the distance that had been reduced to nothing over the past few days. Instead he remained, stoic and patient, as if waiting for Sherlock to make the next move.
And here, in the sanctuary of Baker Street and with his head more clear than it had been in days, Sherlock finally felt up to the challenge.
Belatedly, he realised he had been studying John's face for more than two minutes. Most people would have been embarrassed by such intense scrutiny, choosing to look down and away, or preferably escape altogether. However, John seemed used to it, and he neither fidgeted nor flinched. Instead his hand continued a steady sweep from the nape of Sherlock's neck, down over his shoulder-blades and the dip of his waist to his lumbar, brushing over silk before returning upwards once again.
His gaze never left Sherlock's face, and he realised with a faint spark of pleasure that John, who occasionally failed to observe even the most obvious of criminal evidence, was giving Sherlock the same searching look that he so readily bestowed. Briefly, Sherlock wondered what he could see: the same physical tells of attraction, perhaps, though whether John would attribute them correctly was another matter. As much as Sherlock hated to admit it, Mycroft was right. Picking up on the subtle was not one of John's strengths.
Perhaps, then, he needed to be more obvious: a quick test of his hypothesis before he committed himself fully to what could be a disastrous experiment.
Sherlock may not use them very often, but the tools of seduction were instinctive. Constant study merely aided in their refinement, and while his experience was limited, he knew the power of the non-verbal. It was easy to play others and make them dance to his tune with the right smile and a promising glance. He did it to Molly almost every time he saw her.
Yet with John this was nothing so insincere. Choreographed, perhaps, but only to test the waters. Sherlock was almost certain that he was right – that all the signs he could see added up to John feeling the same kind of want, but where Sherlock was used to John's confidence, he instead found hesitance. It did not correlate with his behaviour when pursuing previous love interests. John Watson was many things, but shy was not one of them, so why did he not simply ask for what he wanted?
No, this required further investigation.
Excitement and uncertainty buzzed in Sherlock's stomach, blending together in a volatile cocktail as he tipped his head to the right. The motion revealed the column of his throat, and he allowed some intensity to bleed through into his gaze before looking, very deliberately, down at John's lips and back up again.
It was too obvious for John to miss, and a frisson of heat strafed down Sherlock's spine as those blue eyes darkened further, pupils dilating in the unwavering light. John's breath caught in his chest: a bird locked up in a brief prison before it was given flight once more, shaping the hesitant question of Sherlock's name.
He had never heard so much meaning in his moniker before – neither annoyance nor desperation – but soft, rich depths of hope laced with shadows of disbelief, as if John were afraid he was reading everything wrong. It was a question and a plea all in one, and Sherlock's heart jumped into double-time as the tip of John's tongue darted out to wet his lips: a hypnotic swipe of amaranth pink.
The air thickened, taking on the magnetic, pulling quality Sherlock had experienced so many times before. He and John, breathless from the chase, high on the rush and dragged inexorably into one another's orbits. Yet they had never collided, never shared more than the same hot, heavy look that brewed between them now.
Except this time there was no chase – no rushing blood chemistry to be mistaken for attraction and no thrill of life, death and the knife edge of one to the other. It was just the two of them and the boiling, seething potential of what-could-be steadily crystallising into reality around them.
'Sherlock – ' John said again, his voice hoarse and dry, hushed almost to silence by desperation. There was a hint of strain there, and Sherlock shifted, feeling the hardening ridge where his belly was pressed to the juncture of John's thighs. It only grew more obvious as John's cheeks flushed and those eyes fluttered closed in embarrassment. 'It's – I – That's not because of you...'
'Isn't it?' Sherlock raised an eyebrow, pressing his foot to the arm of the sofa so that he could shift up John's body until they were chest-to-chest. The movement drew a choked off moan from John – a pulse of sound that turned Sherlock's throat dry and flushed his skin hot.
John's eyes flew open again, wide and burning as Sherlock ducked his head, giving him the briefest of moments to protest before he closed the last inch of distance and pressed a kiss to John's mouth.
Strong muscles tensed, bedrock beneath Sherlock's weight where before they had been soft and yielding. For one split second, he wondered if he had read everything wrong – had perceived attraction where instead the root of all John's concerns had lain in the arena of compassion and friendship. Yet even as fear urged him to withdraw, John's hands tightened around Sherlock's body, holding him in place as he parted his lips and flicked his tongue tentatively over the curve of Sherlock's mouth.
It was a feather-light touch: warm, moist and impossibly tempting, as if John could not quite believe what was happening. Yet with every moment, he grew more bold. When Sherlock's lips parted in invitation, automatic and instinctive, John's tongue swept inside. Steady hands clung to Sherlock's back, fisting in the dressing gown as if he were afraid he would simply melt away. Sherlock's fingers seemed unable to stay still, curving around John's shoulder and stroking down his side, fitfully desperate for more but unwilling to break apart to get it.
John made a deep, satisfied noise as Sherlock nipped at his bottom lip, unconsciously cataloguing everything from John's taste – tea, a hint of rosemary from dinner and John's own distinctive flavour – to the firm lines of his mouth. The two of them were still clothed, still separate, but already John was filling him with his presence, new and fascinating in a way that left Sherlock starving for more. John succeeded where others had failed, cultivating a friendship where people saw only barren soil and now this.
In previous encounters, part of Sherlock's mind stayed separate and above it all, distracted by more relevant, compelling thoughts. Yet now there was nothing spare to dwell on anything but the feel of John's body beneath him, the heat of his lips and the reverent stroke of his hands up Sherlock's back to weave through his hair. Even that simple gesture felt intensely intimate, hungry yet attentive, dangerous yet safe: an exquisite contradiction that made Sherlock's body shift in restless need.
A gasp broke free of him as their hips slid together, mixing with John's hushed curse of pleasure at the friction. All the evidence that Sherlock's desire equalled John's was there, crass and obvious, igniting waves of electric incandescence that flared outwards along Sherlock's nerves, tightening in his gut and coiling at the base of his spine.
'I'm rather hoping,' he managed, arching his back again and nudging his hips forward meaningfully, 'that it's exactly because of me.'
'Christ!' John gritted out, dropping his hands to grab Sherlock's hips, his fingers digging in hard enough to leave bruises. His arms shook with tension, as if he were warring with himself between the urge to keep Sherlock fractionally at bay and clear his head, or simply drag him closer and revel in the grind. Sherlock could not recall a time when he had seen John's eyes so dark: vivid blue around a pool of pupil, his cheeks flushed and his lips parted as he blinked up at Sherlock. 'You – I didn't think –'
'Whole sentences, John,' Sherlock murmured, trying to smother a grin when he saw some of that soldierly focus snap back into place, still hazed by want, but the pinch of disbelief was gone. Hopefully, John had been reminded that Sherlock could be many things, friend and more, but he would never change in essentials.
'I didn't think this was what you wanted,' John managed at last, a frown creasing his brow as he examined Sherlock's expression. 'I swear to God, Sherlock, if this is some fucked up way of thanking me –'
Sherlock cut the statement off before it could be given full voice, curving his back and bending his head to kiss John again, stealing away his words with the slide of his tongue. Someone else, someone very much not him, might have taken offence at John's suspicion, but Sherlock had the intelligence to look beyond the surface to the uncertainty that lay beneath. John had not expected this to happen – for all that he welcomed it – and he knew the way Sherlock's mind worked. He knew that Sherlock deduced people's weaknesses and then used them for his own gain. John's fear may be incorrect, but it was far from unfounded.
At last, Sherlock pulled back a hair's breadth, enough that he noticed John move forward, eager despite himself to regain the contact, but close enough that the tips of their noses still brushed together. 'You're an idiot,' he said softly, meeting John's gaze, so close now that those irises may as well have been the whole world.
'If you think I don't want you, then you've not been paying attention.'
It was as if the reality John knew had shifted, skimming out from under him and dumping him into a dream. Sherlock's body was heavy over his, long and lean in all the right ways. Yet it was not an unresponsive form, a recipient of fantasies and nothing more. He could feel the insistent hardness of Sherlock's arousal trapped, tormentingly close to his own, and the swell of his ribs with each unsteady breath. Mercurial eyes watched him mercilessly and those bowed lips were swollen from kisses that Sherlock himself had initiated.
All those times that his thoughts had slid into the dangerous territory of him and Sherlock together, and now it was coming to life right before his eyes. A large part of him, one lost in the hot, tempestuous mess of basic lust, did not care about the why, did not care if he was being used or played by Sherlock for reasons unknown. He just wanted to touch, to find bare skin and stroke until Sherlock fell apart before his eyes, but a fraction of him, almost drowned out by the rest, whispered What then?
Maybe Sherlock could go back, in the aftermath, to being nothing but flatmates and friends, but John knew himself better than that. Casual sex was no problem with strangers if the right protection was used, but there was no foundation to be destroyed. He couldn't have Sherlock one minute and let him go the next, and the thought of Sherlock wanting more seemed almost too good to be true.
There was plenty of evidence that Sherlock desired him now, impossible to miss, but John had seen Sherlock turn on tears as if they were controlled by a lever inside his head. He was so rarely not under his own control that now John found a treacherous facet of himself questioning everything. All the signs that, on someone else, would be obvious indicators of unadulterated need were suddenly less concrete, and John bit his lip, hating himself for his own doubts. He wanted this, wanted Sherlock, but he wanted all of him, not some fabricated façade, and right now John was not sure he could tell the difference.
'What did I miss?' he asked hoarsely, the pressure on Sherlock's hips easing as his thumbs stroked over the twin parapets of bone: strong lines sheathed in taut skin and covered in a thin layer of fabric – so easy to peel aside. He could feel the solid chine and the soft dip to its flank, warm and tempting, and his body ached with the longing to flip them over, to get Sherlock beneath him and slide his tongue along that creamy flesh. Whatever doubts his mind held, it seemed his body had no such reservations, and John gritted his teeth tight to resist the pull of lust. 'Tell me.'
Those last words held a plea thrumming beneath their guise, and a whine caught in John's throat, barely stifled as Sherlock shifted, moving up and away to sit back on his heels. The loss of Sherlock's heat left him feeling naked, which was ridiculous, considering how he had not removed a single item of clothing.
If anything, Sherlock was the one who was more unguarded. His dressing gown had slipped off his right shoulder to slump around the curve of his bare bicep, and his hair was insane. There was also, John noticed, an imprint of the weave of his jumper on one cheekbone. It all added up to the kind of debauched look that made something in John's hind-brain give a pleased, possessive growl, yet Sherlock made no move to adjust his appearance. He simply met John's gaze, bold and strong and utterly, unmistakably himself.
There was not a hint of pain there, no shadows eclipsing his eyes, just the kind of intelligence that cut the world to ribbons. His lips, red and swollen from John's attentions, shifted into a grimace, and John recognised Sherlock's “sentiment makes me uncomfortable” face. He had seen it often enough at crime scenes with sobbing witnesses and shell-shocked victims alike. Yet this time the expression was missing that arrogant, above-it-all edge. There was no disdain, just something that, on someone else, John might have called insecure.
Sherlock was sitting over John's knees, his hands resting on John's denim clad legs and his thumbs rubbing back and forth along the inner seam as if memorising the sensation. It was just a hint of friction, but it was adequate to keep John's erection – slightly less insistent now that Sherlock had retreated – hard and embarrassingly obvious in the confines of his jeans.
'Sherlock,' John repeated in a strained voice when he realised that no answer seemed to be forthcoming. 'Tell me what I missed.'
The sweep of Sherlock's thumbs stopped, hesitating for a moment before he met John's eyes again. 'I wanted you to stay,' he said at last, cool and collected as if explaining a boring deduction. 'You and no one else. I hate being seen like that – unable to even think.' A snarl escaped on that final word as Sherlock gestured towards his bedroom door, closed and blank. However, John knew he was indicating not the room itself, but the memories of the migraine that still lingered within its walls. 'As soon as I was old enough I started pushing people away. I didn't want them to observe how helpless I am: blind and ignorant because my mind isn't even my own!'
John sat up, ignoring the pull in the backs of his thighs as his muscles stretched. Instead, his hands found Sherlock's shoulders, one silk-clad, the other soft skin and the divot of bone, clutching tight as he shook his head. 'You were suffering, Sherlock. Do you really think anyone's going to think less of you for being in pain?'
'People don't think at all,' Sherlock retorted, the dark look he threw in John's direction quickly softening. 'Mummy and Mycroft cared, I assume – familial obligation – but there was nothing they could do. We're not a – a tactile family – not usually, and their helplessness only made things worse. I tolerated the doctors because they served a purpose, and their care was medicinal, not sentimental, but I kept others away.'
John looked down, but before he could withdraw or reply, Sherlock carried on, his words gaining speed as he tried to explain.
'You were never merely tolerated, John. I wanted you to stay. I actively asked you to do so.' Sherlock said it as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, a declaration beyond any other, and John's heart clenched tight as he realised that, from Sherlock, it meant much more than mere words might suggest.
'Why?' he asked at last, unable to hold the question back.
'Because you are who I need,' Sherlock replied, closing his eyes for a moment as if he were impaling himself on a sword, rather than merely speaking – as if the very act of giving such a thing voice was costing him far more than John could imagine. 'Who I choose to need.'
John drew in a breath, feeling the mismatched fragments of confusion and uncertainty slot into place – puzzle pieces finally coming together to form a sensible whole. Sherlock, for once, was wrong. John had been paying attention, had done little else but wonder about Sherlock's acceptance of him when, according to Mycroft, everyone else was pushed away. However, he had not dared to give it such significance.
Sherlock was not speaking of something helpless and involuntary, the cry of the wounded or pained for any human compassion. It was deliberate, a decision consciously made, and Sherlock's choice had been John – had been this – the last step that broke new ground in the landscape of their relationship.
Mutely, he watched, his hands still curved around those shoulders as Sherlock continued his light exploration up and down John's thighs. Yet those bright eyes had not looked away. Instead he met John's gaze, neither derisive or defensive in such uncomfortable, emotional territory. There was nothing calculated in Sherlock's expression; he was simply exposed – honest in a way that demanded reciprocity.
With a gentle tug, John pulled him closer, ignoring the ache in his back at the awkward angle. Words kept getting caught in his throat, useless and unsaid, tangled in a knot of emotion so tight he was amazed he was not choking on it. However, he let his lips speak for him, pressed hard and longing to Sherlock's mouth in undeniable affirmation.
He felt Sherlock shiver, a delicate tremor of delight, and even though it was Sherlock on top of him, pinning his legs and taller with it, there was no doubt about who was in control. He followed where John led, returning the glide of his tongue and the faintest edge of teeth, parting with wet, filthy sounds of pleasure only to return again, drinking from John's mouth as if it were the only sustenance he would ever require.
Those nimble fingers had moved up to skim beneath his jumper: cool skin on hot flesh that made John's muscles twitch and his breath catch. It should not have been so erotic, feeling Sherlock's hands on the bare plane of his waist, yet there was something powerful about the touch: a connection made and a promise given. It lacked the dream-like quality of a kiss. Fantasies did not include calluses from violin strings or trembling uncertainty.
It was that touch more than anything, benign but full of potential, that solidified what was happening in John's mind. It flicked the switch from what he had wanted for so long to what he had – Sherlock in his arms, straining down for one kiss after another even as John stretched up to meet him. There was no grace to it, no premeditation, and John was rapidly losing himself in the stroke of Sherlock's hands and the feel of skin and silk beneath his palms.
Sherlock's robe had slipped off both shoulders, now, blue fabric rippling around his elbows and falling in a cascade off the slippery sofa. John's palms trailed down his arms and across his bare chest, calling forth a gasp of pleasure as he swept his thumbs over the tight buds of Sherlock's nipples and down across his meagre belly. At last, he followed the trail of hair to where it vanished beneath the low-slung waist of Sherlock's pyjamas.
Tentatively, John moved downward, palming him through the fabric. A feral smile curved his lips as Sherlock's entire body jolted, his name ripping itself free of Sherlock's mouth as his spine arched forward, pushing him, steely and hot, into John's hand.
Unfortunately, the sofa did not offer them much space, and the gloss of the leather was slick enough for one of Sherlock's knees to slip. It was only John's quick reflexes that stopped the pair of them ending up in a painful heap on the floor. He simply snatched Sherlock's arm, sprawling back onto the cushions and dragging him down on top rather than letting him pitch off sideways.
A huff of laughter escaped his lips at the brief look of confusion on Sherlock's face. Yet within a heartbeat the sound faded, caught up in its cage once more by the intensity of Sherlock's gaze. Liquid silver had shaded to storm-grey with hints of green, easily visible this close. If there had been any doubt about Sherlock's sincerity, it fled as his rough voice framed a single word.
It was the point of no return. John could feel the balance tipping them over to the inevitable, and he was oh-so-happy to fall. His lips curved around a smile as he met Sherlock's eyes, letting everything he was feeling show through for that deductive mind to dissect as his voice, strained across the rack of his own need, managed to choke out a response.
The bed welcomed them as if they had been lovers for years. The soft sheets tangled beneath them as Sherlock's fingers dragged at John's jumper, shedding the wool and the t-shirt beneath before pulling John down on top of him. Chest-to-chest, lips and teeth and tongue colliding as John tried to touch every inch of Sherlock at once, sweeping down ribs and across his chest as Sherlock threw his head back, arching his body and exposing his neck to John's attentions.
His grasp tightened over John's back, sliding down to scrabble at the jeans' waistband as John pressed an open-mouthed kiss to Sherlock's pulse, tonguing at the heady thrum in the hollow of his jaw before moving down. Sherlock tasted of sweat and longing, the last bitter edges of soap from his shower almost lost now as John sucked a mark at his collarbone and was rewarded with a growl, more thrilling than threatening.
In one quick move, Sherlock twisted, rolling them so John was on his back and those clever fingers were at his fly, dragging the zip down. The sound rasped loud in the room, punctuating their panting, wordless breaths with its retort.
A heartbeat later, it was John's voice that stirred the peace, a hoarse cry that he tried to smother as Sherlock's hand dove beneath fabric to wrap around him, deft, knowledgeable and – John realised amidst the humid fog that had filled his head – as curious as ever. He could feel Sherlock stroking and testing, cataloguing reactions as he bent his head so his brow rested below John's navel. Each hot breath fluttered against his skin, and when Sherlock's tongue darted out to lick his stomach, John jerked upwards, cock and hips urgently seeking even as he tried to hold himself back.
'Fuck!' he moaned, his grasp curling in Sherlock's hair as his jeans and underwear were shoved down and away, trapped somewhere around his knees. Yet the brief, manacled feeling vanished from existence as hot, wet lips wrapped themselves around him, stealing away the last of his breath. He gritted his teeth, his muscles locking tight in an effort not to spill himself at the first stroke of Sherlock's tongue.
'No,' he managed at last, pulling at Sherlock, nudging him, anything to try and get the message across. 'Up here. Please – please –' Articulation was almost beyond him. Too many hours spent imagining this as he got off by himself – of wanting it so bad that it almost hurt – meant John knew he wasn't going to last, but this first time he wanted to watch.
Sherlock gave him a bold, defiant lick from root to tip, enough to make John utter a keening, groaning noise before he half-hauled Sherlock back up the bed. The kiss tasted of them: John's pre-come in Sherlock's mouth – a heady combination that made them both moan – but whereas Sherlock's grip simply tightened on John's hips – John's fingers slipped below Sherlock's pyjamas and finally – finally found his prize.
The noise Sherlock made – a bitten off, gasping cry of sheer want – echoed along John's nerves, resonating through him as if he were Sherlock's violin. He huffed out a steadying breath as he stroked along the burning, velvety flesh wrapped in his palm, stiff and promising. It was not the first erection other than his own that he had held. Anatomically, Sherlock was no different, but there was an extra layer of meaning that John had not felt before – something as much about trust as orgasm, and his stomach jolted with the pleasure of it.
Hastily, he shoved at the cotton of Sherlock's pyjamas, shimmying them down to his thighs so he could marry up the feel of the turgid, solid flesh in his hand with an image in his mind.
Pale skin had turned dusky, jutting from a nest of dark curls as John slid upwards, rubbing his thumb over the glans and swiping through clear pre-come as Sherlock's hips stuttered. Tension was rolling off them both in waves, muscles drawn as tight as bowstrings.
Sherlock reached for the bedside table, clumsily snagging some lube from the drawer and smearing cool gel liberally onto his own hand before he moved back to John's cock, wrapping slick fingers around the girth before he began to move.
In this, at least, John could use his right hand almost as easily as his left, and he switched his grip to make it less awkward. Lying face-to-face, it gave them the space to stroke each other even as their bodies crowded closer, side by side and desperate to touch. John smeared the excess lube over Sherlock's shaft, the wet gloss making obscene noises as he pumped his fist. Part of him wanted more, to fill or be filled, but he doubted either of them could last that long. He was shaking with want, his body trembling with the thunder of his pulse and the rasp of his breaths as he pressed kisses to Sherlock's skin wherever he could reach.
Sherlock's mouth was like a brand along the line of his neck and the curve of his shoulder, lost in hedonistic worship. His grip shifted up and down, fingers sweeping beneath to cup and roll John's balls as the tempting friction rose higher. However, there was an edge of desperation to it, a gracelessness through helpless desire that only fed the heat in the pit of John's belly.
He could feel the heave of Sherlock's chest and the race of his heart: the throbbing beat echoed in the cock sliding through his fist. John's arm was starting to ache, threatening to cramp as he increased the tempo, but he could not bring himself to care as Sherlock made a high, whining sound, screwing his eyes up tight and whispering John's name.
'Look at me?' John begged. They were both losing their mutual rhythm, too far gone for anything but ragged strokes over each other, but he wanted to see Sherlock come apart and know he was the one who had brought it about. He nudged Sherlock's nose, trying not to let his own hips twitch as fire buzzed along every vein, rising with each passing twist of Sherlock's grasp.
Finally, the sable fan of Sherlock's lashes swept aside, revealing those torrid irises anew. His lips were parted and his cheeks flushed, and John knew his skin was just the same, pulsing with passion, but it was the intensity of Sherlock's eyes that shot through John like a wildfire. Need may have deepened their colour, but the focus had not faded. Instead it was all on John, bathing him in attention as if he were the most fascinating man in the world.
'Come for me?' Sherlock managed, his whisper more like a groan as the rising wave of rapture threatened to sweep John away. The pressure of his brow against John's, damp with sweat, was a weak anchor as fleeting, hot kisses brushed over John's nose, his cheeks, his lips – more necessary than air. Each second coaxed him closer to the precipice until, at last, his hips bucked and his muscles tightened to breaking point as he surged into Sherlock's hand one final time.
Release unrolled through his body, blooming through his muscles and electrifying his nerves as his mind went white. He barely heard Sherlock's ground-out curse of pleasure, but the twitch of Sherlock's erection in John's weakening grasp had him forcing his eyes open, desperate to see Sherlock in the throes of orgasm as his own continued to shift and blaze beneath his skin.
Beautiful. He was always beautiful, but right now Sherlock was at his most base, that dazzling mind rendered silent not by illness, but by John's actions. John had never been one for power play, but right then, vulnerable and still shaking in the aftermath of completion, he had never felt so strong or so humbled.
At last they sagged against each other, spent, too weak to do more than breath against each other's skin. John's muscles felt like water, his body dragged through ruination and ecstasy to lie in Sherlock's arms, uncaring of the mess between them. Gradually, his heart began to slow and his breathing eased, brought back under control by Sherlock's frame so close to his – like calling to like.
'Christ,' Sherlock breathed, a mere huff of air shaping the rare blaspheme as he trailed his fingers along John's shaft, inciting another shiver as the hardness began to recede. 'That was –'
'Good?' John asked, grinning at Sherlock's snort of disbelief.
'You're a master of the understatement,' Sherlock replied, but the words were softer than usual, almost tender as he nudged a kiss against John's temple. 'Are you going to finish getting undressed?'
John shifted his legs, realising that his jeans and underwear were still around his knees. He hadn't even bothered taking off his socks. He had simply been too desperate to accept all Sherlock was offering for something so mundane to impinge on his mind. However, now the fabric seemed impossible to bear – far too unwelcome in the nest of the bed. With leaden, sated movements, John managed to shuffle out of his remaining clothes and dump them over the side of the mattress before leaning back with an exhausted, satisfied sigh.
A hush of material made him open his eyes, and he watched Sherlock shimmy out of his pyjama trousers, which had been down around his calves. At least John was not the only one who had been too caught up in the moment to properly shed his clothes. He scrunched them up in a ball, using the high quality cotton to wipe away the mess on John's stomach first before cleaning himself, and then pitching the material aside.
Sunlight still picked its way through the window, but getting out of bed was the last thing on John's mind. He wanted to curl up and rest with Sherlock at his side, and with a quick flick of the sheets up over the pair of them, Sherlock made it obvious that it was a shared preference.
The sharp bite of desire had ebbed, dimming down to an eternal ember as they slotted in close to each other, legs entwined and arms wrapped loose and comfortable around each other's bodies. Their kisses were softer, unhurried but still addictive, and every touch was slower and more delicate, charting the new lines of each other's frames with every attentive moment.
Beyond the window, London's race and bustle continued unabated, but John could not bring himself to pay it any mind. For now, his whole world was right here next to him, and he had no intention of letting go.
Before this moment, Sherlock had not turned his mind to the consideration of such a state of being. If pressed, he would have claimed to doubt its existence: true joy, transcendental peace, such things were not attainable. However, wrapped in John's arms, he realised his mistake. It was not about the world being made new again – pure and clean and right. It was instead about finding his place in a tainted, stained reality; the one where all his scabrous edges and sheltered niches fit perfectly into a moment of space and time.
Here, amidst the sheets he and John had made into passion's pyre, he had never felt more whole.
It was an oasis of calm – a brief respite in both their lives. For once, the call of the Work was silent, and the race and rush of Sherlock's mind was quieter, if not entirely still. Night had drawn in across the sky. London's lights turned the darkness to shades of ochre and blue beneath invisible stars. There was still noise beyond the windows: the city's ceaseless pulse, but it was a restful urban beat in harmony to the tranquillity that surrounded the bed.
The thought made Sherlock smile, unexpected in its brilliance. Perhaps other people, in a new relationship, would not be so hasty to eradicate the boundary that marked the line between two very separate individuals and the unit that somehow became “us”. Sherlock had never considered it likely for such a partnership to be within his reach, or even something he might strive towards, but now it was impossible to consider the alternative: he and John sharing space for physical intimacy and little more.
No, that was not how this was going to work. Even if Sherlock had not been sure of his own mind in that regard, he would have known John's. All or nothing was the only scenario, and Sherlock was never one to back away from a challenge.
That was precisely the right word for it: challenge. Even with John, a romantic relationship would not be easy, but there was a thrill to it, an aspirational excitement. It would be difficult, trying, tormenting at times, but beneath it all was the unspoken realisation that, without a doubt, the joy would outweigh the sorrow.
With a soft sigh, Sherlock bent his head, resting his brow against John's, sleep-smoothed as it was, and feeling the indolent roll of sated relaxation seep through his body. That John could inspire this – this halcyon peace within him – was both unexpected and somehow unsurprising. There was nothing jagged or urgent to impinge upon him, and he was free to bathe in the shallow waters of a doze, dipping in and out of sleep's ocean.
He could not discern when the obsidian shadows of Baker Street dimmed from his perception, but the touch of sunlight, calescent across his skin, had him opening his eyes to another scene.
Aurora of rich amber and subtle jonquil shifted across the unblemished floor, pouring through intact window-panes that, a short while ago, had been nothing but gaping holes in the walls. Cracks had fused, open wounds in the stone fading to nothing as the rift was healed: his mind palace miraculously whole in the aftermath of the disaster. Pages of notes were intact, not ragged and trampled by the legions of time, but flawless, as if fresh from the sheaf. Overhead the vault of the roof arced upwards, a strong bower of masonry braced against the elements.
It was still his – the metaphor for his memory made real the way it had always been – yet there were no tell-tale indications of his usual clumsy repairs. Years of damage had left its scars, cracks that never truly faded and stains that lingered like bruises, but this...
This was not a renovation or a restoration, but a rebirth.
Sherlock trailed his fingers over the glass cases of butterflies, back in their places at last. They stirred, wings trembling and complete, not ripped as they had been. Nothing as cruel or substantial as poison and pin held them in place, and he stared for what felt like hours, examining everything from the blue fore-wings of the Morpho peleides to the vivid umber and thick black veins of the mildly toxic Danaus plexippus. How could all this fragility – all that he had seen so ruthlessly torn asunder be recreated perfectly – rising from the debris better than ever?
Soft footsteps behind him reached his ears a moment before rough, capable hands splayed across the skin between his shoulder-blades, stroking down over nude flesh to cup the contour of his backside. It was a simple gesture, but it spoke volumes: welcome affection, relief, happiness, admiration and a hint of possessiveness all bled through from the lines of John's weathered palm and the sweep of his fingertips.
That compact body pressed in behind him, resolute and substantial. Stubble rasped over Sherlock's skin, and the wool jumper prickled the bare flesh across his spine as cool denim pressed down the back of his thighs. Before, there had been nothing erotic about his nudity – a base state – but now the clothing discrepancy was stark and obvious, arousing placid nerves to keening, trembling attention and making his stomach twitch beneath the wander of John's clever fingers.
'You came back,' John murmured, his voice thick with joy as he stretched upwards to brush his lips against the nape of Sherlock's neck. The warm, moist swipe of tongue made Sherlock's breath catch, and he tipped his head in contented pleasure.
'Of course. I said I would.' He hummed as John's roaming touch continued across his iliac crest and over the jut of his hips as if John were charting unfamiliar territory, rather than the skin and bone which, in the waking world, he had stroked with feverish desperation only a short while ago. 'Did you –' Sherlock's eyelids fluttered as John's hands dipped lower, and he struggled to get the words to work as he sagged back into John's body, hearing the teasing, sensual chuckle rumble from his ribs. 'Do something?'
'Not yet,' John replied, his voice a growl of seductive mischief as he nuzzled at Sherlock's neck before stepping away, leaving him unbalanced and bereft. He did not go far, a mere half-a-stride away, and Sherlock turned to follow, matching John's retreat step-for-step until he abruptly realised he was being led, tempted along in John's wake by eager smiles and eyes agleam with promise.
'Where are you taking me?' he asked, curious, not hesitant. Trust was implicit and impossible to deny here, in the sanctity of his own head. Besides, John's pleasure was contagious as Sherlock grabbed his arm, pulling him close once more.
'Here,' John replied, gesturing to the room around them. Except that its boundaries were not mere walls and doors. Where the sanctuary of Baker Street had been lost off in the dark shadows of the ruins, now they were the hub of a wheel, the integral chamber to a much greater whole, the centre of his being with John at its heart.
He knew without asking that this was a stronghold. It was written between the lines of the ugly wallpaper and in the deep shade of the silent chimney mouth. Sherlock could feel, with the utter certainty of prerequisite knowledge, that this room was both a pillar and a foundation: strength where it was needed most.
John was watching him, head tilted to one side but still smiling, as if he could see each of Sherlock's conclusions falling into place. At last, he held out his hand, catching Sherlock's fingers in his own as he tugged him close. Their breaths mingled, John's lips brushing against Sherlock's mouth as he whispered, 'It won't fall apart again.' Hot hands stroked up Sherlock's back, fanning out across his ribs as John's tongue slid against his own, divinely distracting before he pulled back and met Sherlock's gaze.
This time, he could see all of John, all the fragments that made the sum of him: doctor and friend, soldier, protector. Then there were the other, as yet unlabelled parts, torrid, passionate and undeniable, all joined together in a simple oath.
'Not while I'm here.'
Sherlock woke with the words lingering in his mind like a wedding vow, so real that, for a moment, he wondered if John had spoken them out loud, but no. Slumber still had John in its clutches, wrapped in the amicable nest of the quilt that surrounded them both. Their limbs were entwined, unmoving from when Sherlock had slipped from awareness, binding them together as if separation was no longer an option. John's face was pressed against Sherlock's shoulder, his body caught close in the curve of Sherlock's arms as steady, deep breaths washed between them like far-off waves.
It was the perfect position, one that held John close but allowed Sherlock's fingers to stroke the lines of his spine and sides, feeling the very real sensation of living flesh. It was the same as in the dream, so exquisitely remembered that the line between fantasy and reality blurred, becoming bitterly uncertain.
But no, this was real. He could feel the details that only truth could bring as he mapped the geography of this man – his friend and lover. His skin was aged and weathered by Afghanistan's sun, more so at the nape of his neck than the hidden shadow below his scapula. Scars, both silver and smooth and bitter, angry seams of knitted flesh told their stories. The web at his shoulder, in particular, was fascinating, a riot of lines – a road map that had led them to this point.
There were times when Sherlock wondered what might have been, if a bullet had not found its home in John's body. Would he still be out there, amidst scrubby land and war-torn people, killing with one hand and healing with the other?
Sherlock refused to believe in pre-destiny – to think that every decision he had yet to make was already set in stone – but the thought of it being mere chance that had brought John to his side was painfully uncomfortable. The idea that John had suffered injury, infection and the ravages of a mind no longer at peace with the world was even worse. Yet Sherlock knew he could not, in all honesty, say he wished it had never happened, not when, without it, Sherlock's life could have been so very different.
Shorter, for a start.
'Whatever you're thinking, you need to stop it,' John murmured, his voice hoarse with sleep and muffled by Sherlock's skin. He could feel John's lips moving against his neck, almost ticklish as he shifted, nuzzling into the line of Sherlock's throat. A flex of John's arm nudged them impossibly closer – all alluring lines and faint, lingering humidity: the results of their pleasure. 'Or tell me about it. One or the other.'
Sherlock made a non-committal noise, wrinkling his nose before forcing his muscles to relax. It must have been his inadvertent tension that had called John – perfectly attuned as he was – from the shallows of slumber. Yet his fingers continued their soft exploration of the scar, tracing shallow ridges of flesh and the pit where the core wound had sunk deep. It was tempting to dismiss his musings as irrelevant, but John always had a knack for making Sherlock share things which, otherwise, he would have kept to himself. Now, if anything, in the flattering shadows of darkness, it was easier to give his reflections voice.
'I was considering what might have happened if you'd not been shot,' he explained, his voice quiet but unapologetic as he trailed his fingers down John's arm to his elbow and back up again. 'Whether you would have still been in Afghanistan.'
John's embrace tightened, a subtle shift of muscles to take his arms from a mere resting presence to something less passive. Really, it was all the answer Sherlock needed – an affirmation that this path of John's life was perpendicular to that which he had envisioned for himself. One simple event had struck him off at an entirely different angle, and against all likelihood, this had been the result.
'Maybe,' John said at last, his body shifting with a shrug. 'Probably. That's part of what made coming back to London so difficult. It was just so –'
'Unexpected?' Sherlock smiled as he felt John nod against him, a creature of tactile sensation rather than an image he could interpret. John's entire body was a wall of heat next to him, touching at every possible interval as if they were sealed together. His hands were rubbing idly along the line of Sherlock's waist, lazy and content, still half-fogged with sleep as his gentle hum of agreement suggested.
Yet there was a timid joy there, transmitted in John's grip and the tilt of his smile as he pressed a kiss to Sherlock's chin, then the corner of his mouth, and then his lips – already eagerly parted. Their bodies flexed together, igniting electric sparks and sending renewed waves of sharpening interest sweeping along Sherlock's nerves and down between his legs.
'Back then, I couldn't work out how I could ever be happy again,' John confessed, his eyes gleaming in the scant light that seeped in around the curtains from London's night-time glow.
John's smile was unapologetic and completely content, edged with a hint of something predatory that made Sherlock's heart pick up its beat. He shifted, nudging Sherlock onto his back and straddling his hips: hot skin and hidden promise as the quilt bunched around them before bending at the waist to gift Sherlock with another kiss.
'Now I can see it was a price to pay. Lose that, gain this. You.' His fingers trailed over Sherlock's pulse, the taut line of his arched neck and the hard ridge of his collarbone, ever onwards in the kind of worship that seemed more like a sin. Sherlock's hands shifted, mercilessly reciprocating John's caresses, allowing him to lead by example as John's smile grew.
His eyes met Sherlock's, dark and knowing in the feeble illumination that bloomed over his back like wings, and his voice took flight in a hush of honesty as he pressed his hand over Sherlock's joyful, fast-beating heart.
'It was more than worth it.'
The morning's light crept over the bed, splashing across John's face and easing him into wakefulness. Awareness found him slowly, stirring through sleep-heavy, sated muscles and sweeping over his skin. Instinctively, he reached out for the body next to him, only to blink his eyes open when he found nothing but cool, empty space.
For one truly awful moment, he wondered if he had dreamt it all: every perfect minute of passion and satisfaction, every quiet murmur and tender swell of something so much more than sex that grew between them. But no, this was Sherlock's bed, not John's, made up in love-wrecked sheets. All the pillows were dented and used, and even if it weren't for one or two tell-tale dark curls on the white linen, John could tell he had not spent the night alone. That story was written in the faint, happy soreness of stubble-rasped skin and over-worked muscles.
Sherlock had been here with him, and now he was gone. The question was, had he simply grown tired of sleeping at John's side, or was there an element of escape to his departure?
For a minute, John lay there, pondering the possibilities. There had been nothing like hesitance in Sherlock's demeanour last night. In fact, he thought with a twitch of a grin, it had been quite the opposite. John should have known that while he dithered over how to take the final step in their relationship, Sherlock would simply grab what he wanted with both hands. Yet that did not stop the lingering twists of uncertainty from filling his stomach with snowflakes of dread, light and chilling. What if Sherlock had changed his mind – had decided that one night was enough after all? What if he had concluded that the effort of a relationship was just too much to deal with?
'Well you're not going to find out by lying here,' John muttered to himself, scratching his stomach and wrinkling his nose at the patina of dried come that lingered on his skin. Chances were Sherlock had simply decided he couldn't wait any longer for a shower. They hadn't exactly bothered to clean up properly the previous night.
Sitting up, John heard a faint rush of fabric. Something slipped off the bed, and he blinked to see his terry-cloth robe, comfortable and familiar, in a pile on the floor. Slowly, some of his unease drifted away, and he reached out to snag the soft cloth before dragging the sleeves over his arms and fastening the sash. Lovers with regrets did not go to any lengths to make an unwanted partner comfortable, or bother to try and anticipate their needs. To be honest, he would have imagined Sherlock would be too wrapped up in his own head to think of giving John something to wear, regardless of whether he had second thoughts or not. The consideration was all the more comforting for being so unexpected, and John smiled to himself as he padded over to the bedroom door.
Peering out into the flat, he saw Sherlock sat at the kitchen table, the blue silk of his robe barely hanging onto one bare shoulder as he scrawled something in a red notebook. John could only make out his profile, but the expression there was one of concentration, not distance or uncertainty.
'The kettle's just boiled,' Sherlock murmured, a smile gracing his lips as his gaze flickered up to meet John's, bright and glowing and perhaps just the slightest bit shy in this strange new territory. Something told John that, while others might have shared Sherlock's bed, perhaps the morning-after was not something he had bothered to stay and experience.
'I take it that's a hint?' he asked, keeping his voice just the right side of playful as he reached for a couple of mugs and dropped a tea bag into each one. He'd have a shower later, maybe even share it with Sherlock, since it was evident from the debauched chaos of his hair that he had not yet bathed. 'How long have you been up? I didn't hear you leave.'
'I'm not surprised.' Sherlock's voice was a smug purr in his ear, and one arm wrapped, loose and tentative, around John's waist as Sherlock grabbed the milk from the fridge. Not actually doing anything as useful as making breakfast, John noticed, but still keeping him very welcome company. 'You were dead to the world. Did I wear you out?'
If Sherlock was aiming for innocence with that last question, he missed it by a mile. His deep baritone turned the words sultry and artful in a way that made John's appetite threaten to veer away from food and towards something more carnal.
'We wore each other out,' John corrected, swallowing tightly as he tried to drag his mind out of the gutter. 'Don't pretend you stayed awake all night. I heard you snoring.'
Sherlock looked affronted at the suggestion, retrieving his tea before turning back to the table. However, John noticed the way that Sherlock's hand lingered on his waist as if he were loathe to break the contact.
'I got up about an hour ago,' he explained, gesturing to the notebook. 'I should have been trying to write down the symptoms of the migraine as I went along. Now I have to try and remember them in the right order.'
'You keep your own notes?' John set a plateful of toast down at Sherlock's side. It was meant to be for him, but he did not comment when Sherlock commandeered a slice for his own consumption, crunching it happily as he nodded his head. 'Can I see?'
'If you can read them.'
The cryptic statement became clear when John leafed back through the book, taking in the mess of Sherlock's script when he was under the influence of each episode. Normally, Sherlock wrote in a relatively elegant cursive. Even when in a hurry his letters were well-formed. Yet this was not simply a case of deciphering the symbols. Missing words, incomplete sentences and whole lines of mirror-text spoke volumes for Sherlock's state of mind at the time. 'Bloody hell. Can you read any of this?'
'Some of it. It's a trade-off. If I make notes while they are happening, the sequence of symptoms becomes more reliable, but the coherence is greatly reduced. If I write about it afterwards –' He turned back to the latest entry, smooth ink flowing in comprehensible words across the page. '– It's easy to read but I can't be sure I'm getting the time-line right. It makes any attempts at pattern recognition hazy at best.'
'Does it help?' John asked, settling into the chair next to Sherlock, shoulder-to-shoulder and perfectly comfortable in each other's space. 'Knowing what to expect?'
Sherlock shrugged, reaching around John for some more toast. 'Somewhat. I started doing it in an effort to try and understand what the doctors couldn't, but –' He trailed off, obviously not wanting to vocalise his failure to comprehend the complex malfunction of his own physiology. 'Now it's just a way to get the extra data out of my head.'
John reached for his tea, taking a sip and nodding his head. Sherlock might not have said it in so many words, but John knew a ritual when he saw it. Perhaps Sherlock tried to excuse it with logic, but the act of getting things down in the notebook had seemingly developed its own importance, as much a part of recovery as actually banishing the pain. Why else would Sherlock go to so much effort to chronicle the empirical data even in the midst of his own suffering?
'Well, this time, you've got a witness,' he pointed out, getting to his feet and feeling a happy glow in his chest as Sherlock automatically followed. This, more than anything, was the part John had not been sure about – how easy and casual with his affection Sherlock would be.
Part of him had feared that Sherlock would reject any such effort at closeness outside of the bedroom, but instead he seemed to accept it readily, his body moving almost of its own accord as if seeking out John's presence. No effort was made to maintain any distance. Perhaps that would change, over time, as they became more certain of this new sphere in which they found themselves, but now in the first blush of intimacy, physical proximity seemed essential.
'What can't you remember?' John asked as he settled on the sofa, sprawling lazily even as Sherlock perched with a bit more delicacy beside him, his legs folded under him and pressed so close that the sharp angle of one knee was almost in John's lap.
'It's the order of it,' Sherlock explained, tapping the pen on the paper and rubbing one hand through his hair. 'I have it all up to the crime scene, but then everything went wrong at once. I remember the murdered woman – carbon monoxide poisoning – colour everywhere.'
'So the colours came first?' Idly, John reached out, following the mad flick of one curl with his finger before sweeping his thumb over Sherlock's nape. Every moment, he expected Sherlock to pull away, and yet the opposite was true. He leaned in as if he relished the contact, his lips parting in pleasure as he rubbed his palm over John's knee.
John caught Sherlock's hand as he nodded, entwining their fingers and giving a squeeze. It was difficult to remember more than vague impressions of that morning – nauseous concern and cramping confusion – but gradually he forced himself to picture the details. 'Your balance was poor,' he said at last, 'and you were sensitive to noise. You called Greg “gunmetal-grey”.'
'And brutal Beethoven,' Sherlock mused, jotting something down in neat shorthand. 'I remember that. Donovan and Anderson were both sharp, like barbed wire, but Lestrade was smooth and cold.'
It was fascinating to hear the random associations of Sherlock's mind. Now, with hindsight, and perhaps the perspective of an outsider, some of the impressions made sense. Both Sally and Anderson went out of their way to be obstructive, catching Sherlock up with thorns of spite. Greg's interference, on the other hand, was without malice. The times he got in Sherlock's way on an investigation were about procedure, not some petty, personal vendetta.
'Why Beethoven?' John asked, curious. His knowledge of classical composers was limited at best. 'Were you actually hearing music?'
Sherlock was already shaking his head, an absent-minded gesture as his pen flew across the page. His right hand was all motion, charting messages of ink on blank paper. However, his left remained in John's grip, not merely a captive, but a willing participant, his fingers stroking over John's skin in an absent-minded effort to maintain the connection.
'It's impressions, sensations. Not so much about anything auditory as...' Sherlock trailed off, glancing at John as if struggling for the words to convey what he meant. 'Lestrade was not Beethoven because he sounded similar to any of the compositions, but because his nature reflects similar traits. Professionally firm and decisive, direct.'
'Lestrade's not the brutal one, he's a victim of it. Beethoven's personal life was a mess of unrequited love and tragedy.' Sherlock shifted, looking back down at the notebook. 'There are parallels, in some respects.'
John pursed his lips, glancing down at his half-empty mug. He should have known that the strange descriptions Sherlock had uttered throughout the migraine's path were not mere superficial phrases. He looked at the world and saw everything, unapologetic and unashamed. It made sense that, while his mind was twisting itself in knots, some of those deeper, more personal observations would shade his perceptions.
'Do you remember anything else?' he asked eventually, plucking through his mind for any details that might help Sherlock get a time-line of his symptoms. 'You said the sound of the car engine tasted like petrol.'
Sherlock's eyes met his, something unreadable in their depths as he scanned John's face. 'I remember you,' he replied after a few moments of silence. 'You were a constant when everything else was unpredictable. Not just at the crime-scene or in Lestrade's car, but at every moment since.' He said it as if the idea of anyone wanting to devote themselves so entirely to his well-being was almost inexplicable, and John set down his cup of tea before turning to face Sherlock properly.
'What did you expect?' he asked softly, his brow creasing in consternation as Sherlock's shoulders merely shifted in a shrug. 'You think I'd have left you alone? I –' John swallowed, trying to collect his thoughts and choose his words with care. In all fairness, he was not that much better at expressing sentiment than Sherlock, but of the two of them he was probably the only one willing to try.
'I can't lie and pretend it was just for you. I couldn't have sat out here knowing you were suffering, and not just because I'm a doctor.' He shook his head, a tiny, negative movement before pursing his lips. 'Seeing you like that... I couldn't – couldn't not try and help. If you had asked me to leave, I'm not sure I'd have been able to. I care too much about you to turn away, even if it's what you wanted.'
That last part was said almost as a murmur, a quiet confession, but John knew that Sherlock heard it anyway. His grip on John's hand tightened while his grasp on the pen fell slack, leaving it cradled loosely between his long fingers.
'I couldn't have asked you to go,' he said at last, glancing down at the paper before meeting John's gaze again. 'Everyone else was an intruder – they always have been – too sharp or hard or wrong. You, you are sunlight and Brahms. All I – all I want.'
Sherlock shrugged again, a fitful gesture as if he knew that his words did not clarify his meaning, but to John it was everything. Knowing that Sherlock desired him, not as a doctor or a hand on the gun, but as John Watson – both throughout the migraine and on the opposite shore of those stormy waters – was more than enough.
It was tempting to say something else, to crystallise the mist of sentiment that lingered around them into something more tangible, but John suspected that might be a step too far for both of them. There would be other times and other places for more concrete declarations, if they were needed, but right now he was content to sit with Sherlock and simply appreciate how the dawn had found them, as both friends and lovers with the potential for so much more.
'Brahms?' he asked, wondering what Sherlock had attributed to him in the haze of pain and mixed signals. He watched the smile light Sherlock's eyes, not arrogant or knowing, but something softer. There was tenderness in that expression. John raised his eyebrows, tipping his head to the side as he listened to the answer.
'Obvious,' Sherlock replied. 'On the surface Brahms seems straightforward. It's only when you look deeper that you truly appreciate the complexity of it. His work often gives the impression of innocent simplicity, but it's incredibly nuanced.'
His fingers slipped from John's palm, lingering on the vulnerable underside of his wrist instead and stroking along the veins there as if they held all the answers. 'At first glance, you're ordinary through and through, but all anyone has to do is look again to see you're so much more than you appear.' He glanced away as if embarrassed by his own explanation before he added, 'Besides, you always respond best to Brahms. If you ask me to play something for you, it's always his work you request, even if you don't know it.'
Unbidden, a dozen different memories unfurled in John's mind, of firelight and Sherlock, the violin brought to ecstasy beneath his fingertips. He so rarely played it properly, not when there was Mycroft to annoy with dying cat noises, or trite nothing-tunes to irritate the neighbours.
Yet occasionally, in those first few months of their acquaintance, John heard something true from him, something beautiful, and he had taken to asking for more. It had reached the point where John would stumble home from the surgery, wet from the rain and tired from an endless stream of patients, or rip himself from a nightmare sweaty and trembling, and Sherlock would reach for his bow without any encouragement.
'Can you play now?' John asked. 'Not – not if you don't want to, it's just –' He cleared his throat, feeling suddenly stupid for asking. 'It's been a while since I've heard you.'
He was not sure why the need was so urgent. Perhaps he wanted to prove to himself that this Sherlock was the real one, in possession of his faculties and still wanting John all the same. Maybe he thought he would understand what Sherlock saw in him more easily if he could hear it in the crisp, unearthly notes. Either way, the desire was almost overwhelming, and John found himself waiting breathlessly for Sherlock's response.
'Of course.' There was a hint of understanding in his expression – something warm and knowing as he freed the violin from its case. Confident fingers checked strings and pegs before smoothing rosin on the bow and guiding the instrument to rest beneath his chin. There was no need for a written score – for stave or interval to dictate the melody's tide. No doubt it was all locked up in Sherlock's head. It seemed to come to him as easily as blood from a wound, and John smiled as he recognised the sweet tune that flowed forth.
Sherlock was right; it was his favourite. Before he came here, to Baker Street and Sherlock's side, his appreciation of classical music had been minimal at best. Nothing in the compositions had changed to catch his interest. Rather, it was the man who set them free to float in the air that earned his fascination. It was impossible to watch Sherlock play and not see the passion in him, so well-hidden at other times, step into the light.
John leaned back into the softness of the sofa, letting the music wash over him – languid like the first day of summer, then fresh and bright like thawing ice – and watched Sherlock surrender himself to the refrain. The silk of his robe hinted at the movement of back muscles beneath, swaying with the glide and sweep of the arm which carried the bow through its dance. Yet it was the expression on Sherlock's face that held John captivated, intense enough to take his breath away, as if Sherlock were pouring himself into the rise and fall of music that filled the room.
All for John.
It was easy to tip his head back, devoting all his attention to the melody and Sherlock's message contained therein, and this time, John was listening. He could hear every promise in the flow of notes and the quiet oath that wove its way between each movement: a hint here, a glimmer there, never said aloud but somehow audible all the same.
And John could only breathe his silent reply.
Author's Notes: My thanks, as always, go out to everyone who has read this piece. It's been brilliant to have your support and an honour to share this with you. I hope Electric Pink has been as enjoyable for you to read as it has been for me to write.