It’s been too long.
It’s been too long for a while, John thinks—only he hasn't noticed until just now. Noticed the quivering limbs. The paling of already-pale skin. The rings of red around eyes like the ends of burning cigarettes.
It isn't unusual for Sherlock to go without sleeping during a particularly difficult case. Sometimes one or two nights, sometimes even three, and this one had been grueling (kidnapped children, death threats, empty storage units), so much so that even John went a whole day before finally crashing on the sofa, dead to the world. Then there had been... everything before. With Moriarty, and bombs, and pools, and the Bee Gees... but that had been four days ago. Four incredibly busy, stressful days ago.
And so he hadn't noticed.
He notices now.
Sherlock moves around their flat like a ghost, his tread silent, his movements erratic and unplanned. John feels guilty as he watches him, even though, he decides, he really shouldn't; it isn't as though it's his job to monitor the sleep schedule of his flatmate, and besides, he's had plenty going on in his own world, what with being strapped up in Semtex and almost dying in a darkened swimming pool.
But John Watson is John Watson. And John Watson has a compulsive need to heal people.
And so he's guilty.
It's going on five nights without sleep for Sherlock, and he won't stop. Won't deactivate, won't flip his off switch, won't even sit down and close his eyes, and John aches when he looks at him and sees the way he's hurting. John wants to help him. He just doesn't know how.
They're in the morgue at three thirty in the morning, because Sherlock had come up to John's bedroom and said they needed to be, and John loves him. The fluorescent lights do nothing for Sherlock's image; his already-pale skin looks sallow and thin, and the shadows that nestle under the planes of his face are deep and inky. His hands shake, shake so hard that John sidles up close to him (feels his heat, a long line of fire against John's side) and takes the scalpel he's holding out of limp fingers. Sherlock puts up no resistance, and when the edge of his fingers brush against John's, they are shockingly cold.
Molly is across from him, and it's a testament to Sherlock's exhaustion that he hasn't said anything insulting to her yet, because she's blatantly worried. Only a sharp look from John keeps her quiet, but even so John can see the way she longs to ask, to reach out. She's a good sort, Molly Hooper, John registers dimly. He can understand the pull she feels towards Sherlock; the man is like a drug.
Sherlock's hands quiver, spider-like, over the grey flesh of the man lying dead on the table before him. John stays right next to Sherlock, not quite touching, but near enough to offer support should anything happen, and as he looks into Sherlock's face, he can tell that Sherlock has no idea what he's even looking for.
This is a distraction, John realizes. Oh, love.
“Sherlock,” John says gently, and at his voice, Sherlock's hands flutter up to his own chest and press, hard, into his sternum. He sways a little bit closer to John but does not look at him; his wet-concrete eyes are wide and wild.
Molly jumps in, understanding what John is trying to do. “Caucasian male, aged sixty-seven years. He died seven hours ago. Myocardial infarction.”
There is a furrow in Sherlock's brow, deep, and John wants to smooth it away. He doesn't.
“Natural causes,” John says instead. “He wasn't murdered.” And somehow, miraculously, Sherlock turns away from the body. He leaves the room, his steps almost drunken, his shoulders hunched, and after a murmured “Thanks” to Molly, John follows after him.
When John finally catches up to Sherlock, he's almost running down the hallway, and his steps are twisted and uneven; he barely avoids running face-first into the door frame as he makes to exit the building. John steps around Sherlock, opens the door for him, and together they walk out into the rainy dark.
Silently, Sherlock leans against the brick wall of Bart's, head tipped back, eyes closed. His arms hang, unused, at his sides, and John thinks of how easy it would be to put his own hand in the crook of one of those arms, to pull Sherlock close to his own body and tether the two of them together so that neither of them will ever be kidnapped or sad or alone again. He wants to step into the shadowed corner beside Sherlock, and take Sherlock's hand in his, and hold him. He doesn't.
Instead he steps over the edge of the kerb into the damp, mostly-empty street, and hails a cab. He turns when the cabbie pulls closer and Sherlock is there, and they climb in silently.
Sherlock half-falls against the window, his head thunking on the cool glass. He is a mess of angular, sharp, too-thin things; when John looks at him he hurts, right down to his very core. It's a dilemma, living with this wonderful, fragile man, who wants nothing more than to be inhuman, and is yet somehow the very most human human being that John has ever met. This brilliant genius of a man who treats his transport—his body—as if it is nothing more than a cheap shell that he can replace at a whim. All John Watson—doctor, soldier, flatmate, friend—longs to do is to help Sherlock Holmes; to soothe him, to hold him, to feed him, to teach him that it isn't something to be ashamed of, being a human and having human needs. To teach him that sometimes, having those needs fulfilled by someone who loves you as much as John loves Sherlock, is the very best thing in the world.
Sherlock's eyes are closed once more, but John can see them moving at hyperspeed beneath eyelids that are paper-thin and lined delicately with dark blue veins. It is evidence that whatever is on Sherlock's mind is unpleasant and insistent, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out what that thing could be: Moriarty.
He's out there, somewhere, decidedly undead. He escaped the pool intact, just as John and Sherlock did, and even Mycroft doesn't know where the madman is now—or at least if he does, he isn't telling. It's inevitable that Sherlock is upset by this; he hates not saving the day, not walking away the undeniable victor in every situation. And while John and Sherlock haven't discussed any of this since it happened—not John's kidnapping, not that gut-wrenching five seconds that John had seen the heartbreak and betrayal dimming Sherlock's ocean eyes before the fiercer wave of panic had set in—because that's just not what they do.They're properly British, and male, and anything more personal than mentions of a mild happiness spoken out loud sends one or the other of them into a tailspin.
And that's ok, John thinks. It really is. It's fine. They do fine. But it's not... It isn't all that it could be. All that it maybe shouldbe.
All that he wishes it was.
The cab pulls up in front of their flat and Sherlock opens his eyes in increments, his eyelids heavy and reluctant to peel apart. He doesn't look at John, just opens the door and half falls out of the cab and into the night, leaving John to pay the fare as per usual. John does so quickly, hesitant to let his mad detective out of his sight for even a few seconds.
He needn't have worried; Sherlock is there as soon as John exits the cab. He doesn't reach for John, not precisely, but the way his body seems to list towards John as if he can't help himself sets John's heart off at a racing gallop. John finally gives in slightly to the urge he's been feeling since the pool—hell, since that first bloody day—and takes the edge of Sherlock's coat sleeve between his fingertips, tugging the taller man along gently as they make their stumbling way across the sidewalk and to their door.
“Here we are,” John murmurs, and lets go of Sherlock's sleeve long enough to draw the key from his pocket and unlock their door. Sherlock looms, half beside him, half behind him as he does this, and John can hear his uneven breathing, the way it hitches and catches as if there's something blocking his chest. If the idea weren't unfathomable, John might think that Sherlock is repressing tears. The idea puts something tight and hot in John's throat.
“John,” Sherlock whispers, and John turns around, coming up face-to-face with him. He looks frail and infinitely sad. “I'm sorry.”
John finds himself trying to smile reassuringly, finds himself taking up the fabric of Sherlock's sleeve again and worrying it between his fingertips. “You have nothing to apologize for,” John murmurs back. His heart thumps once, twice. Fast. “You had evidence to look at; and anyway, you'd be lost without your blogger, wouldn't you?” he asks, going for an already-flimsy joke that shrivels up and dies in the face of Sherlock's utter solemnity.
“Yes,” Sherlock breathes, the words a tiny rasp of warm air against John's forehead. Sherlock's eyes are round and shining in the darkness, and somehow more honest than John has ever seen them. He looks scared and lost and alone, even though John is right here, and John knows that he isn't doing enough. He isn't helping enough. But what can he—how should he— “Yes, I would be. John.”
And Sherlock sways, then, his knees almost giving out. He stumbles back and John darts forward, arms up to catch him, but Sherlock regains his balance with a breath drawn in sharply through his nose. His jaw is clenched tight, and his hands are, too, hovering there at his sides. He is out of control, he is weak, and John wants to lift him in his own arms and carry him up the steps and to bed.
Instead he takes Sherlock's sleeve in his hand again and leads him through the door and up the stairs.
He hovers right beside him when Sherlock pulls his coat off with trembling hands.
He aches, deep inside of himself, in a place that he didn't even know could ache, when Sherlock just stands stock-still in the middle of their living room, his shoulders slumped, his gaze unfocused. Entirely and completely lost. His mouth is pressed into a tremulous line and he looks like a pencil sketch, all crude grey edges and fading, fading. John wants to take him in his hands and stroke him, smudge him until he's put back together again.
“Do you need me for anything else?” he asks instead. His voice is a rent in the velvety silence of the flat. Again, Sherlock presses a fisted hand to his sternum, and his spine bows this time, each vertebra showing under the thin fabric of his shirt in a way that makes that ache inside of John spread.
“I always need you, John,” Sherlock whispers.
They haven't been living together for very long—but it doesn't take more than a handful of seconds, does it? To know that someone is your soulmate. To know that you never want to live another minute without that someone by your side. John knows this about Sherlock, knows it absolutely and completely, and it hurts him to see the man that is his whole word weak and shuddering like this. And so maybe it isn't what they do, but John isn't thinking about that when he does it, oh no. Maybe they don't touch, and hold, and stroke, and carry. But the truth is, they take care of each other, whether they talk about it or not. They love each other, whether they've realized it or not. And John Watson—John Watson is a healer.
When John's fingers brush the nearly-translucent skin at the inside of his detective's wrist, Sherlock keens. It's a broken sound, a sound of huge pain and inexpressible grief, tinged with the promise of relief; his eyes flutter shut and he sways towards John, panting sharply in the back of his throat.
“I need you too,” John murmurs. He doesn't think, doesn't think, doesn't think: pulls Sherlock towards him as he backs into the sofa. Sherlock opens his eyes, and stumbles with John, and he's so pale. So pale, and John wants to hold him so tightly that their bodies fuse together and they become one human, inseparable for the rest of eternity.
He slides his hand from Sherlock's wrist to his shoulder, from his shoulder to the back of his neck. Sherlock makes another anguished noise, so John puts another hand on his waist and pulls him in, wraps him completely in his arms, and tucks Sherlock's head under his own chin.
The effect is instantaneous. Sherlock melts into him like so much butter melting onto a piece of toast; his own long arms go around John, pressing him close; he buries his face in the crook of John's neck (and if John can hear muffled sobbing noises coming from that vicinity, well, then he will simply hold this man all the tighter); and he presses them together from thigh to torso and up. He's trembling still, but he's positively boneless, and John sees his chance and takes it.
When John pulls away a little bit—just to sit on the sofa in an effort to prolong this situation as much as possible—Sherlock clutches at his shirt with scrabbling fingers. “No,” he hisses. “John, don't, go,” and the combined force of both of their movements sends them toppling down onto the sofa, tangled together in a knot of bony limbs and fevered flesh.
“I'm not leaving,” John soothes, adjusting them until he is reclining against the arm of the sofa with Sherlock draped on top of his chest and cradled in the V of his legs. Sherlock buries his face in John's jumper and breathes in deeply, the breath shuddering and catching in his thin chest. His eyes are wet—John sees it in the seconds before his face is turned away—and John decides to say nothing about it. He cards through Sherlock's silky curls with steady fingers and smiles to himself as the man somehow manages to relax even further on top of him, spreading out like an enormous, skinny, sleep-deprived blanket. “I'm not leaving,” John repeats in a whisper. Sherlock is pressing his head into John's palm, seeking his touch, and the ache in John's chest is dimming swiftly.
“Ever?” Sherlock asks, his tone plaintive and so, so tired.
John feels the pressure of tears in his own eyes; he doesn't know why. “Ever,” he whispers.
And somehow, miraculously, Sherlock finally goes to sleep.
John falls asleep too, trapped under his detective, and more content than he has been in years. It feels good, it feels right, it feels like maybe (finally) they are doing what they were meant to do a long time ago. Maybe (finally) they are done with being alone, done with long empty days and longer, emptier nights. Maybe (finally) John can hold him and feed him and lovehim, completely and uninhibitedly, for the rest of their days.
When John wakes up, light is flooding through the windows of 221B, all traces of last night's rain chased away by a rare, sunny day. Sherlock is still curled up-over-into him; his arms have wound their way about John's waist, and his cheek is pillowed on John's stomach. He doesn't look well-rested, but he doesn't look half-dead, either, and the surge of love that floods through John is so strong that he nearly sobs. God. What has this man done to him?
John wants to stay here on this sofa for the foreseeable future, but with a pang of regret he realizes that there's simply no way. His shoulder is throbbing tightly with pain, threatening to knot up if he doesn't move, and he doesn't fancy the hassle that would come from an instance such as that.
He shifts experimentally under Sherlock, and smiles a bit when he doesn't so much as stir. Still dead asleep, then. John manages to extricate himself from those long, limpet-like limbs, roll quietly off of the sofa, and position Sherlock as comfortably as he can on top of the Union Jack pillow, all without rousing him at all.
He stands for a minute, simply gazing down at his best friend, his best love. The man who has saved his life so many times, and the man that John has saved as well. His smile grows. If there's any sort of god in this world, he thinks, then Sherlock will stay asleep for the rest of the day. And possibly the day after that.
John takes a quick shower, then pulls on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. He hasn't any plans of going out today, that's for certain, and he's just about to head back into the sitting room and insinuate himself onto the sofa with a lapful of consulting detective when there's a knock at his door.
He opens it, expecting Mrs. Hudson, but instead John is greeted with a very sleepy, very panicked-looking Sherlock Holmes.
“John,”he gasps, and then topples forward into John's arms.
John's heart constricts as he reflexively curves his body to cradle Sherlock. Somehow, Sherlock seems small and insubstantial despite his height, his face buried in John's neck, his shoulders up at his ears, and John can feel every bone in his body where they're pressed together like this. He holds Sherlock tightly, and walks them achingly slowly to his bed, petting Sherlock's hair all the while.
John realizes that he's speaking, nonsensical words of comfort streaming from his lips. “It's alright, love. I've got you, I'm here. I'm sorry, I didn't leave you, I stayed, just like I promised.” They're standing by the side of the bed now, and without thinking (he seems to be making a habit of that) John sort of lifts Sherlock onto the mattress. Sherlock's eyes go huge and his face goes pale at the loss of contact, so John dives in next to him, pulling the duvet up around them and wrapping Sherlock in close to his chest.
“You need to sleep, Sherlock,” John murmurs into the top of the man's head. His curls smell like a mixture of the ridiculously posh patchouli rose shampoo that he uses, and the kind of sweat that only comes when someone is really, truly scared. John knows that sweat. “You hurt yourself when you go on like this.”
“Can't,” Sherlock breathes. The word is short and choppy, although his body is once more completely relaxed. “Every time I close my eyes—” He breaks off into a muffled moan, the sound vibrating against John's neck. John strokes at his scalp, and feels the involuntary arch of Sherlock's spine, feels the press of his too-prominent ribs against John's own.
“Why can't you?” John prompts softly. And then, when Sherlock still doesn't answer, “If I know, maybe I can help you.”
Sherlock rips himself out of John's grasp in one smooth move; he takes the blankets with him, and John is left looking up at him, feeling cold and empty. Sherlock pants through a slightly open, rosebud-pink mouth, his chest rising and falling under the dark blue button-down that he hadn't removed last night. His hair is a wild nest of dark-chocolate curls, wild from John's fingers that have been tangled in it half the night. He looks exactly like John feels.
John climbs slowly to his knees and takes Sherlock's long, cold hands in his own. He cups them in a prayerful position. Tugs just lightly enough that it's a suggestion rather than an order, and tries to give a smile when Sherlock reluctantly scoots closer to him, letting John press their joined hands against Sherlock's stomach. It is moving in much the same fashion as his chest: up, down, up, down. Too fast. John presses their hands in. Presses, lightly, gently, and Sherlock's eyelashes hood his fever-blue irises from John's view as he looks down at their hands.
“You,” Sherlock begins hoarsely. He stops, and John doesn't prompt him. Doesn't interrupt him. Sherlock takes a particularly deep, shuddering breath, and shifts their hands until he is grasping John's wrists lightly. He brings John's hands up to his own chest and places them there, and John takes the hint: he splays his fingers against Sherlock's pectorals, and the warmth from the man's chest bleeds into John's opened palms, and John presses and presses and presses and Sherlock breathes.
“Yes,” John says. Softly. So softly he isn't even sure Sherlock hears. “Good.”
“Every time I close my eyes, John,” Sherlock rasps, his fingertips digging needily into John's fragile wrist bones. “Every time I close my eyes, you die.”
The smell of chlorine, thick in the air, stinging John's eyes and the delicate skin of his nostrils. A weight, heavy and constricting around his chest. A voice, melodic and lilting, whispering terrible things into his ears, terrible things that he must repeat if he wants to stay more than some brain matter smeared across the slippery tile of a swimming pool.
Every time I close my eyes, you die.
“I didn't,” John says. He knows the words are hollow as soon as they've left his mouth, knows that they won't do anything to help Sherlock, and yet still they come. “I'm right here, alive.”
Sherlock snaps his gaze to John's so fast that John is left feeling dizzy. The irises have gone from fever-blue to panicked, gunmetal grey. “I know that, John, I am not an imbecile,” Sherlock snarls. His lips pull back from his teeth; he is utterly terrified. “I see you in front of me, I hear you around me, but for some reason where you are concerned my capability for rationality seems to dissipate entirely. I know you're here, John, but—” Sherlock breaks off. His fingers are digging so tightly into John's wrists that he's sure to leave bruises there, and John doesn't mind. He welcomes them. Evidence of this conversation that feels bigger and more important than anything they've ever said before, left in the form of purple fingerprints.
“He told me that he would burn the heart out of me.” Sherlock's voice is a low, fervent thrum that John can feel vibrating through his palms and up his arms. The echo of Moriarty's words runs through his head, and a shiver makes its way down his spine. “And John, he was right. John. John, I burn constantly now. I can't—”
“Close your eyes.”
Sherlock shakes his head before John has even finished speaking. “No, you aren't listening, I can't—”
“Sherlock,” John murmurs softly as he raises himself up on his knees so that he towers above his friend. His hands slip out of Sherlock's grasp, and Sherlock's arms fall to the bed. “Close your eyes.”
Sherlock swallows; his pale throat bobs gently above the crooked collar of his shirt. Here, with his face upturned to John like a pale morning glory to the sun, he looks younger and more vulnerable than John has ever seen him look. It isn't hard to imagine what he might have been like as a child, a teenager, a young, addicted adult. Infinitely lonely, and hating every minute of that loneliness. With obvious reluctance he closes his eyes, but he leans unconsciously towards John as he does so, as if seeking reassurance or warmth.
John intends to give him both.
Carefully, as if approaching an animal that might run away if startled, John grasps Sherlock's bony shoulders and leans down. He presses a soft, lingering kiss to the velvety lid of Sherlock's right eye; his skin is warm. Sherlock hums, a sound of exhaustion and approval in equal measures, and so John kisses his left eyelid, too, and then, because Sherlock has turned to putty in his grasp, he draws back a little and presses a kiss to the tip of Sherlock's cold nose.
“I know you burn,” John says. He places his hand above Sherlock's heart, feels the beating of it in his fingertips, and rubs a firm, gentle circle there. “I burn, too.”
Sherlock's eyes are still closed, but he hums again, and a wrinkle appears between his eyebrows. John kisses that, too.
“But you need to know something, Sherlock,” John continues. He's speaking so quietly, so softly, that his words are almost a breath, but it doesn't matter. He knows that Sherlock can hear every word.
“What do I need to know?” Sherlock breathes back. John kisses his forehead, one hand threaded through the curls at the nape of his neck, and this time the hum that Sherlock emits sounds every so slightly more like a moan.
“You need to know that I was a soldier. I am strong. I can outrun criminals. I can dodge bullets, I can withstand Semtex, I will live and I will live and I will outlive madmen who want me dead.” He places his hands on either side of Sherlock's narrow face, kisses the right cheekbone slowly, savors the answering flush against his lips. “I can withstand almost anything—but Sherlock, I can never, ever go back to being alone.”
Sherlock opens his eyes and stares up at John with a look that is so near reverence, John's breath catches in his lungs. “John,” he mouths, as if his vocal cords are too weak to emit sound.
John nods. He turns Sherlock's head gently, cradles the weight of in his palms, and kisses the left cheekbone this time. “I can never go back to a time when I didn't... When I didn't have you. My life was empty and cold and so, so lonely before I knew you. And maybe my life wasn't being threatened every few weeks, and maybe I'd never been strapped to a bomb before, but if those are the things that I have to withstand to be with you, then I will withstand them.”
John lowers Sherlock down until he's lying on his side, and then he joins him, pulling the duvet over both of them. He props himself up on one elbow and strokes his thumb lightly along the sharp edge of Sherlock's jawbone. Sherlock stares at him with eyes that are round and soft and slightly glassy, and threads his fingers through John's.
“You don't have to worry about me, Sherlock,” John says. He smiles slightly. “That doesn't mean you won't—but you don't have to. Because I'm going to try like hell to survive for you, every day of my life, and I'm going to try to survive for me, too, because I fucking love being alive.”
“John,” Sherlock chokes. “Me. As well. The same.” He wraps a fist in the fabric of John's jumper and pulls until John is stretched out beside him, their faces centimeters apart. “For you.”
“Good,” John says, nodding again. His smile is soft, tinged with sadness. He tastes something like sorrow at the back of his throat, sweet and melting. “That's good, Sherlock. But you need to—I want you to want to survive for you, too. I want you to want to be happy, and healthy, and well-rested, and full. And I want... Can I help you with that, Sherlock? Because I love you, I love you so much, and I want you to see that and I want you to agree with that. It hurts me when you hurt yourself like this. I don't want you to hurt anymore.”
John Watson isn't a romantic man. He isn't one for flowery declarations or wild promises, but this statement doesn't feel like either. It feels like the truth, and he doesn't care if it isn't what they do, and he doesn't care if it's codependent, and he kisses Sherlock on the corner of his dry mouth and he smiles.
Sherlock is breathing in puffs, hot and light, against John's face. John wants to bottle it up and wear it on a chain around his neck. “Please, John,” Sherlock whispers against John's lips. “Help me.”
“I'm going to,” John answers. And by god, he is. He will help this man, even if it takes him weeks or month or years. He will help this man, even if it kills him to do so. He will help this man learn to love himself, as fully and completely as John loves him. But first, he will help this man to sleep.
He wraps Sherlock against his chest, and Sherlock nestles his face into John's neck with a sigh of unparalleled contentment. As John buries his fingers once more in Sherlock's nest of downy curls, he can feel Sherlock's breath evening out, can feel as the fog of slumber slowly creeps over him once more.
“John,” Sherlock whispers as John's own eyelids become too heavy to remain open.
“Hm,” John murmurs.
“I love you, too.”
John wants to kiss him, right there on the crown of his charcoal head.