John opens the door without knocking. He doesn’t startle at the sight of the man inside—the conscious man inside—but he does clear his throat. “I’m sorry, sir,” he says, “but visiting hours are over.”
“I’m aware,” the man replies. He makes no move to stand. His eyes remain steady on John’s patient.
“He’s stable,” John says. A moment of hesitation, and he approaches. It feels like walking into church late, his footsteps cracking through silent prayers. He picks up the chart and looks though. He hums positive noises, but the man with the strained face and the ill-fitting suit shows no sign of hearing. John makes an educated guess at the man’s name. “Mr Holmes, if your brother’s condition changes, we’ll notify you immediately.”
“I’m aware.” The posh voice sharpens.
As the likelihood of budging Mr Holmes is roughly the same as moving the hospital walls on his own, John takes the path of least resistance. This is a man who will have to talk sense into himself. John sits in the second chair, opposite Mr Holmes. For the first time, Mr Holmes looks at him.
“Ah,” says Mr Holmes. His eyes cut through John and dismiss him in the same motion. “An addict in the family.”
There used to be. “How many times have you sat with him?”
Mr Holmes’ gaze returns to his brother’s pale face. “You’ve seen his records.”
“Enough to know this is the longest he’s even been out for.” They sit in near silence, the machines murmuring to each other to keep up the conversation. “We’ll get him through the physical withdrawal. After that, he might be up soon or he might not be. He’ll need you more when he’s awake.”
Mr Holmes says nothing. His mouth pinches tighter, and that’s enough for John to guess.
“He only accepts your help when he’s unconscious,” John supposes. “Stubborn git.”
“Isn’t your shift over, Dr Watson?” Mr Holmes asks.
“So are visiting hours.”
They watch the comatose man breathe. His pallor is poor, his weight lacking. His hands are bone and the IV might as well be stuck into his marrow.
“What does he like?” John asks.
“I’ve seen his records.” John shifts in his chair. “What else does he like?”
Mr Holmes doesn’t answer.
“I read to patients, sometimes. Any preferences there?”
“He liked pirates when he was small,” Mr Holmes says.
“Pirates and cocaine. Not a mix you usually hear.”
Mr Holmes’ expression doesn’t change. If his breathing eases, it’s only slightly. “He detests anything dull.”
“Better high than bored? We see a bit of that.” Posh hospital means posh junkies, for the most part.
Moments pass, eased away by breath and heartbeats and humming of machines.
“He’s never still,” Mr Holmes says.
Privately, John disagrees. Stillness happens to be his patient’s defining characteristic at the moment. Along with unconsciousness, poor nutrition, and terrible decision-making.
Mr Holmes rubs a hand over his face. He fishes a ringing mobile out from an inner jacket pocket. It chimes as Mr Holmes turns it off. He closes his eyes, his tired face abruptly similar to that of his brother.
“I’ll read to him,” John promises.
“Thank you.” Slowly, Mycroft Holmes rises from the chair. His trousers are lined with wrinkles much the way his eyes are lined with red. He bends down and picks up an umbrella, though John’s nearly sure it hasn’t rained since yesterday. Mycroft looks down at his brother but does not touch.
John closes the door behind them. He hovers for a little while and walks Mycroft Holmes down to the parking lot. There’s a car waiting, no telling for how long it’s been there. John waits until car, man, umbrella and all disappear into the night before he pulls out his own keys.
His only book that includes a hint of pirates only makes a passing mention of pirate treasure. Overall, it’s an anthology of crime and mystery short stories. Close enough.
“Good morning,” John says. “Slept well? Very well, since you’re still at it.”
Sherlock Holmes doesn’t respond. Good: John hasn’t had enough coffee for that much excitement.
“I’m leaving this here with you.” He sets down the book. “I’m going to read to you later, if you don’t mind and even if you do. If you want your brother back underfoot, just give me the word. No? Brilliant. And it’s John, by the way. John Watson. I don’t know if you’ve picked that up by now.”
Hours later, after patients and paperwork, John returns for the book. He yawns a little as he sits. Sherlock lies in a slightly different position, but he’d hardly moved on his own. He’s been cleaned up and shifted about at some point during the day. Not a bad shave on him either, now that he notices.
“Evening.” John settles down in what has become his chair. “Okay.” He clears his throat and begins.
The stories aren’t too long and John finds he enjoys reading them aloud. Telling someone else’s stories is hardly as nerve-wracking as sharing his own. Possibly, it helps that his listener can’t respond.
Each night holds something different. Here, a detective tracks down smuggled Chinese artefacts. There, a policeman pursues the kidnappers of an ambassador’s children. An undercover agent battles with a grotesque assassin. Four men turn against each other over pirate treasure and far more than four people die. A cleaning lady discovers a deceased dinner party, guests and hosts alike terrified to death. A circus comprised of cat burglars tours through the UK.
At the end of the first week, John warns, “If you expect me to go on for a thousand and one nights with this, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.” He’s not going to be on his own forever, regardless of how the last months have felt. Only a few months left now.
Sherlock doesn’t respond.
“Git,” John calls him. He checks his watch. “I think we’ve time for another.”
During the second week, John discovers Mycroft Holmes once again in his brother’s room. He holds John’s book as if it might be diseased.
“Afternoon,” John says. “We’re on the eleventh story, I think.”
Mycroft doesn’t look up from the book, but he does turn the pages. “He doesn’t like me to read to him.”
“Unfortunate for him.”
Not another word breaks their silence as John performs basic checks. John leaves without Mycroft reading aloud, but Mycroft doesn’t put the book down either.
John skips to the twelfth story that evening, just on a hunch. There are only seventeen. He’ll have to do something else after this.
The third week begins. There’s been worry aplenty, but Sherlock will come out of it when he comes out of it, and not a minute sooner. John tries to put the concern in its professional pen and it digs its way out under his walls.
He finishes the book. He closes it softly and looks at a sharp, angular face that has only grown sharper. “You should stop it, you know,” John says, and quite reasonably, too. “Just stop it.”
Sherlock doesn’t stop it.
“You clearly weren’t prepared for this. Not nearly enough weight on you to stop eating. Have you considered eating on your own volition?”
“You should give it a try.”
Not the slightest agreement.
John rubs at his eyes and checks the time. “Sorry, I need to get to bed. I’ll find something else for tomorrow night.”
No protest to that at all.
He stands, taking the book with him. “Good night.”
Sherlock, of course, is already asleep.
John brings his laptop. He forgets about it until that evening when he changes into his street clothes and discovers the bag. His stomach plummets. He forces himself to go through with it anyway.
In Sherlock’s room, John plugs in the charger and opens a much edited file.
“As a general warning,” John begins, “this is going to be completely rubbish.”
He wets his lips and takes a moment. He clears his throat. “If it’s too terrible, just say.”
Sherlock’s heart rate remains constant. His respiratory rate neither hastens nor slows.
“Okay. So. ‘A Study in Pink,’ by John H. Watson. It starts with, ah. With a blog entry. You can tell by the formatting. ‘January twenty-eighth. There’s been another of those ‘serial suicides’. It’s weird. There doesn’t seem to be any connection between the deceased. It doesn't make sense.’” He glances up at Sherlock, steadies his nerves, and continues.
Over the next two evenings, he tells the story of the narrator and his unnamed detective friend. He stops to add bits and take others away, but Sherlock never complains at the lag. John works better when he speaks aloud, he finds, and he puts those words into his detective’s mouth. The story isn’t as shit as it could be. It might be better than some of the published ones John’s read to Sherlock.
“‘Dinner?’ he asked.
“‘Starving,’ I answered.
“‘My new friend laughed. With that, we slipped away from the crime scene and into the night.’”
Falling silent, John works his dry tongue inside his mouth. He swallows.
Sherlock doesn’t stir.
“I know, I know,” John says. “It left you comatose.” He shuts his laptop with a click. “There’s, ah. Well, there’s another one. About a mutant dog. Sort of. I don’t think scifi’s my thing.”
He reads that one to Sherlock next anyway.
John receives word in the canteen and promptly abandons his lunch. “You can finish it off, if you like,” he tells Sarah.
“Cheers,” she says as John hurries away.
He takes the lift up and steps into a hallway echoing with shouts. He doesn’t know the voice, but he recognises it instantly.
“Get out! No, get—Stop talking! Get John, he’ll explain—would you shut! Up!”
John enters the room, his terrible self-preservation skills leading the way. He closes the door behind him.
“Jesus, there you are,” Dr Dimmock says, but John’s attention fixes onto his patient.
Excruciatingly conscious and borderline skeletal, Sherlock Holmes trembles on the bed, the sheets kicked off, his legs exposed. He’s pulled off the heart monitor but kept the IV in. Spots of colour dominate his place face. His wide eyes scan John before dismissing him. Sherlock’s wrath immediately turns back on Dimmock.
“You’re not listening!”
“Tell me instead,” John offers.
Sherlock freezes. The whole of his attention focuses on John. Even with him weak and disoriented, the weight of it is incredible. “What?” Sherlock asks.
Confusion distorts Sherlock’s face, pulling his eyebrows in while dragging his mouth open. “...Why do you sound like that?”
“About twenty years ago, something called ‘puberty’ happened,” John says. “My voice has never recovered.”
Sherlock moves his lips but does not speak. John recognises the mouthed syllable as his first name.
In this moment of relative calm, John pats Dimmock on the shoulder and Dimmock gratefully exits. The door shuts behind him. Sherlock resumes breathing.
John sits in his chair. He keeps his expression bland but pleasant. “In your own time. I’m sure your brother’s been notified of your change in condition, but we can keep him out until you’re ready.”
“You sound like John Watson,” Sherlock accuses. He looks like a dying man but sounds like a toddler.
“Well,” John says, “that’s convenient.”
Sherlock frowns. He looks John over a second time and his eyes stick on John’s ID badge. John takes it off and hands it to him. Sherlock studies it. He turns it this way and that. “Does the ‘H’ stand for ‘Hamish’?”
“Um. No. Henry, actually.”
Sherlock nods as if this is some crucial piece of evidence. He hands John’s ID back to him. “You have freckles,” he says.
“Came with the skin. Believe me, they weren’t optional.”
“I don’t...” Sherlock catches himself. He closes his eyes. His eyelashes are damp and John looks at the equipment accordingly. Given a moment, Sherlock asks, “What’s happened?”
“Twenty-three days ago, you had an overdose,” John explains. “You lost consciousness and we kept you in a medically induced coma for the worst of the withdrawal. We’ve been waiting for you to wake up for a while now.”
Sherlock studies the track marks on his own arm.
“Water?” John offers. “Just a little. Can’t go surprising your body like that.”
“Yes, fine.” Despite the answer, Sherlock doesn’t seem to hear him.
John buzzes for a nurse. They sit in silence until Molly brings the water in. “There you are,” she says, bedside manner impeccable, but Sherlock stares at her as if she has two heads.
“Thank you, Molly,” John says.
Molly nods. “I’m right down the hall if you need me,” she tells Sherlock. She exits.
“John,” Sherlock says.
“Yes,” says John.
“This isn’t real.” Sherlock says this with perfect seriousness. “This is wrong.” Gesturing with his free hand, he indicates the room. He also indicates John, which is a bit more difficult not to take personally. “This isn’t... real.”
“You’ve been through a lot,” John explains. “You’re going to feel off for a while.”
“No, I’m not wrong, this is wrong.” His voice breaks.
John hands him the water. Sherlock takes it automatically but does not drink. John folds his hands in his lap. Sherlock stares at John’s hands. How much is disorientation and how much is brain damage? They ought to run a few more tests, now he’s awake.
“You have a wedding ring,” Sherlock says.
“So I do.”
“But not living together.” Like a trick archer, he fires the shot straight into an impossible target.
“How...? No, she’s on sabbatical.” He adds, somewhat defensively, “We email.”
Sherlock stares past him, through him. Whatever he sees is clearly distressing, but he faces it with anger instead of fear. “Was I dreaming?”
“I have no idea,” John says. “What do you think you were dreaming about?”
Again, Sherlock closes his eyes. He slowly sips the water. He coughs a little, nothing alarming. The cup surrenders its last drop before Sherlock answers.
“Detective work,” he says.
“Oh,” John says.
With a sharp turn of the head, Sherlock looks at him with bright eyes. “Oh?”
“I read to you, a bit,” John says, and the light leaves Sherlock’s face. “Short stories. Mysteries, really.” Each word only worsens Sherlock’s reaction. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise—”
“Of course you didn’t.” Sherlock hands him the cup as if John himself were a rubbish bin. “I’d like to be left alone now. Don’t let Mycroft in.” The IV his tether, he reaches down and pulls the sheets up. “I’m going back to sleep.”
John isn’t about to stop him. “I’ll be back in a few hours. In the meanwhile, Molly might come in to check on you, but she’s very quiet.”
Sherlock simply rolls over, presenting the fragile wall of his back.
John turns off the lights on his way out.
Mycroft Holmes makes it into Sherlock’s room, but it does take him until the following morning. With an exasperated frown, John joins them.
“You realise the entire hall can hear you shouting?” he asks the pair. Not even a day conscious, and Sherlock’s already made more fuss than he ever did during the physical withdrawal.
“Lovely, no need to catch you up,” Sherlock drawls.
Mycroft sighs. An invitation for alliance, he lifts his eyes to John.
John breaks eye contact first. “I couldn’t hear the specifics,” he tells Sherlock.
Sherlock, in turn, glares steadfastly at Mycroft. “Rehab centre.”
John frowns. “You want to transfer? I’d advise against it, at least for a few more days, until we get your diet and physical therapy sorted.” John shifts on the balls of his feet, attempting to draw Sherlock’s gaze. Sherlock glares at the IV in the back of his hand instead.
“I need to be somewhere else.”
“Anywhere specific in mind?” John glances between the two before settling on Mycroft. Speaking around Sherlock as if the man is no more than a boy, Mycroft lists the options and asks John his opinion on several. Despite John’s best attempts to draw Sherlock into the conversation, Sherlock sits with his attention focused elsewhere.
Mycroft narrows the list down to two options before John has to excuse himself. “Other patients to get to, I’m afraid.” He aims a polite smile at Sherlock. “If you’re all right for the moment, that’s me off.”
“Fine,” Sherlock says.
John gives up the attempt for eye contact. He nods to both Holmes brothers and steps out.
Later, much later, he returns after Mycroft Holmes has left the building. “I hear you’re transferring tomorrow afternoon,” John says.
Sitting upright, Sherlock mutes the telly, his only acknowledgement of John’s presence. He wobbles a little, his body trying to sag down without his consent.
“Bit quick, but if you’re sure that’s what you want, by all means.” John touches the chair back. When Sherlock doesn’t forbid it, John sits. “If your brother’s pressuring you into it, I can put my foot down.”
Mouth pulling into an odd shape, Sherlock snorts. “Down on what?”
“Only on his umbrella, probably, but it would annoy him.”
Sherlock glances at John before jerking his gaze away. “At least there’s that.”
John waits a moment, but that’s all Sherlock will say. “Do you want to transfer tomorrow?” John asks.
Without looking at him, Sherlock nods.
“That’s good. I just wanted to be sure.” John stands. “They’ve a good staff. Should have you back on your feet soon.” He offers Sherlock his hand. “Good luck.”
Sherlock looks at it. “I leave around two o’clock.”
John lowers his hand. “Ah. Well. In that case, good night. Do you want me to turn the light off?”
“I can do it from here.” Sherlock turns off the mute on the telly.
John reaches the door and the telly falls silent again mid-advert. John looks over his shoulder.
Still sitting upright, eyes locked on the remote, Sherlock works his jaw like a snake about to swallow sustenance. He bites his lip before he says, “The cases. Where did they come from?”
John frowns. “The...? Oh. Oh, right. I’ve a book. Short stories. I can bring it tomorrow morning.”
Sherlock shakes his head. “Doesn’t matter.” Sherlock turns the volume back up.
“Here you are,” John says the following morning. He extends his hand farther, not about to retract the offering.
Wholly ignoring John’s face, Sherlock’s eyes fixate on the book. His gaze holds there and his face breaks behind his expression. “I told you, it doesn’t matter.”
John shrugs a little. “If it doesn’t matter, then you don’t mind.”
Sherlock accepts the book. His hands tremble, his arms quaver. Tension keeps him upright even as it shakes him back down. His mouth twitches downward and he closes his eyes. When he opens them, he blinks several times. “I don’t mind,” he says, voice rougher than mere disuse ever made it.
“Good. Can’t have you getting bored in rehab.” John shows him a small smile.
Sherlock rolls his eyes. “No hope of preventing that.”
“Try to stave it off, anyway.”
Sherlock sets the book down, its lines carefully parallel to the edges of the bed. He looks up at John and squints, as if forcing himself to stare into the sun. No discoloration of the eyes, no excessive dilation or contraction of the pupils. Mental problem, more likely. In whichever case, Sherlock forces himself to sit tall and offers John his hand. “Thank you, Dr Watson.”
John shakes his hand, cool and weak and tense. Not clammy or sweating. “You’re going to be all right. Just let people help you and don’t be an arse.”
Sherlock releases a tiny, voiceless laugh. He lets go of John’s hand. “Goodbye,” he says.
John nods at the finality. “Goodbye,” he says. Closing the door quietly behind him, he continues on his rounds.
He performs his job, he reads to his patients, and he writes his emails. Steady, static, his life continues. It lies dormant under his skin, waiting for spring to arrive at Heathrow. In the last week of winter, he secures a day off. He greets the changing of the seasons with a sign in hand, and she crashes into him, her laptop bag swinging, her glasses scraping against his cheek. She sags on him, her exhaustion seeping against his body. He holds her up, savouring the twin sensations of being hers and being strong.
“That was too long,” Mary breathes into his ear. She pulls back to reveal red eyes and her exhaustion-lined face.
“I know, stop writing books.”
“Never.” She threads her hand through his.
He squeezes tight. “Damn.”
Her smile pops open into a yawn. They go home.
She writes her book and he pecks at his stories. She returns to the university and he inhabits the hospital. Sometimes, they socialise. Mostly, they watch telly after dinner. She shoves her feet under his bum and he flips from the news to sport until bed. One night, he turns the match off and asks, “Could I read you something?”
Another night, long after that night and others like it, a buzzer sounds. John’s first reaction is to check the slow cooker. Still five minutes to go. The buzzer goes off again before John realises it’s the door. “I’ve got it!” he calls to Mary en route.
John turns the bolt and gives the door an extra tug when it tries to stick in its frame. Outside stands a man. A tall man, taller than John, pale with a dark coat and darker hair. His face is sharp, his eyes sharper. The only soft thing about him is the blue scarf beneath his chin.
“Yes, hello,” John says.
“I’m returning this,” the man says. He holds out a book.
Frowning, John accepts it automatically. Scanning the cover, his eyes widen. “Oh. Oh! You’re, um. Thank you. Jesus, it’s been awhile.”
The man pulls his mouth into a polite shape.
“How have you been?” John asks, buying time to remember a name. It was unusual, it was ages ago, but he should still know it.
“Better,” the man says.
“I’m glad,” John says.
“Was this the only book you read from?”
John blinks. “Um. Book, yes.”
“Where were the other two stories from?”
The man very nearly snaps at him—Sherlock Holmes, that’s his name, Sherlock Holmes—but merely settles for an impatient huff. “There was one with pills and a cabbie and another one with a mutant dog. All the rest are accounted for in here.”
“You remember those?” Through a coma?
Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Yes, obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be asking.”
“...What did you think?” John asks.
“They left me comatose.”
John blinks, then laughs. Sherlock laughs with him, surprised and nearly silent. “But they were memorable,” John says.
Hands in his pockets, Sherlock nods.
“Is that Bill?” Mary calls. She pokes her head into the hall.
“Mary, this is Sherlock.” When Sherlock adds nothing to this explanation, John continues, “He’s returning a book.”
“Hi,” Mary says.
Sherlock simply nods and Mary disappears back into the sitting room.
“Well,” John says, a hand on the door. “Thanks.”
Sherlock doesn’t move. “You wrote the other cases yourself.”
“Those two, yeah.”
“Have you written any others?” Sherlock directs the question largely at John’s feet before checking his face.
John shrugs, a lift and fall of one shoulder. “Maybe a couple.”
“Getting there,” John says.
“Published?” Sherlock asks.
John laughs. “Fuck you.”
Sherlock grins at the doorframe. His expression twists slightly as he says, “You could post them online. Like a blog.”
“Yeah, well,” John says.
In the kitchen, the slow cooker’s alarm buzzes. Mary calls “I got it!” and John shouts “Thanks!” back over his shoulder. “Sorry,” John says. “You were saying?”
Sherlock presses his hands deeper into his pockets, his arms straight and his shoulders hunched. He shakes his head. He withdraws his right hand from his coat pocket. He offers the handshake with all the gravitas of a life-debt. Which it might be, but John won’t dwell on it. He doesn’t take Sherlock’s hand either.
Instead, one hand on the door, the other holding the book, John asks, “Dinner?”
Sherlock frowns. “What?”
“Food,” John says.
“What about it?”
“We have it.” He knows how much chicken curry he made. There’s enough.
“And it’s edible!” Mary calls from the kitchen.
Sherlock hesitates, as if still uncertain that what he hears is an honest offer.
“You hungry?” John asks. To be completely clear, he points over his shoulder.
Sherlock looks toward the kitchen and he looks at John. He looks at John’s face and his hands and his clothes, and he stops leaning away.
“Starving,” Sherlock says. With that, he steps inside, out of the cold and into the light.