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John had nightmares.

It was simply a fact of life. John woke screaming, shouting, whispering, crying.

It wasn’t as if he had nightmares every night. It was just often enough to be unusual, to be something he dreaded and knew was inevitable. But John was never one to run from his demons.

He had had them since he was a child. Then they had been simple dreams then, monsters chasing after him in a long never-ending hallway changing to his drunkard of a father cornering him with a belt, always waking before the first stroke hit. His fourth form teacher, Mrs. Burns, watching him as he tried to take an impossible test. Being teased about his family, his sister. His mother dying. He dreamt that one quite a lot, until she finally did die, the cancer twisting inside her brain until she could no longer remember who she was anymore, much less recognize her own son.

Children often have nightmares, subconsciously afraid of the world they know so little about, but John had seen more than his share of violence and horror, and the dreams never left.

John had nightmares of failing classes, textbooks swallowing him alive, being dissected by his classmates. Medical studies were not advisable for one attempting to escape gore, but John never faltered, never reconsidered his life choices. This was what he wanted, and if it fueled his dreams, so be it.

The dreams changed when John changed, but they never left him.

The dreams of the war were expected, normal. Almost all soldiers were haunted. John was no exception. John’s dreams of the war were no different from his other nightmares. No one ever got hurt in John’s dreams except for him. He was always the only casualty.

That changed when Sherlock Holmes decided to commit suicide in front of John.

He jumped off the roof of a hospital.

And John’s dreams changed.

Every night, Sherlock died. Sometimes they were accidents, sometimes they weren’t.

***

The very first night he didn’t dream at all, blank, blessed relief.

The second night he dreamed Sherlock had jumped from the roof of John’s childhood home, hitting the cheap gravel on the ground below with a sickening crunch.

The third night, Sherlock fell several times, but never from the same place. In John’s mind he jumped from a medical evac. helicopter, the very top of the London Eye, off a bridge into the Thames, and into a pit of snakes John had once watched a video about in primary school.

After those three nights, Sherlock never jumped again.

***

John was dreaming, but it wasn’t a nightmare. He was in the pool he had always gone to as a child, but no one else was there and the water was more murky than John remembered. Nevertheless, murky water didn’t qualify as nightmare material for John Watson, and he was content to swim in the dark water until he brushed his hand along something vaguely familiar. He ducked his head to see and was greeted with the sight of Sherlock Holmes sitting in the deep end, held down by a semtex vest, but rather than explosives, the vest was stuffed with weights. Sherlock’s face was bloated, waterlogged, his hair floated around him as if it had a life of his own and he stared vacantly at John, hands outstretched vaguely towards him. John screamed, forgetting that his head was underwater, and choked into wakefulness, feeling the phantom burn of water in his lungs for hours afterwards.

***

John was reading the paper, a regular, everyday, occurrence. He kept turning the pages but the words didn’t make any sense. There was only one coherent story in the paper, about a new breed of mouse that could trace bloodstains and John laughed as he read it, turning to tell Sherlock. Sherlock was hanging from the rafters, a noose about his neck and a paper taped to his chest reading, “Bored -SH.”

***

John was called into St. Bart’s morgue from his office, and went immediately, thinking it must be Sherlock summoning him for a case. It was not. He was called in to identify Sherlock’s body. The idiot had gone on a case without him, and gotten himself killed. It was blunt force trauma. His skull and been dented by a cinderblock, thrown with the full force of a desperate criminal. The bruises on his face were the only clues that something had gone wrong, the only hint that this body no longer contained a Sherlock Holmes.

***

John sat up in his bed. “No,” he announced to the empty flat. “No.”

***

John and Sherlock were eating dinner at Angelo’s, but all the windows were missing and candles covered every surface. This was irrelevant, as they had just closed a case and Sherlock was finally eating, after a week of starving himself in the name of crime solving. He was so hungry, he barely chewed, literally inhaling food by the forkful. Most foods are meant to be chewed but John wasn’t about to tell Sherlock to stop or slow down. John was sitting back, smiling, watching Sherlock scarf down his entire meal before reaching for John’s own half-eaten dish. John surrendered it without protest. Abruptly, Sherlock stopped inhaling the food, looking panicked in a way John had rarely ever seen. His eyes grew wide and stared beseechingly at John. He wasn’t breathing. Why wasn’t he breathing? His face quickly darkened, oxygen deprivation shading it an unpleasant red. John tried to get up, help him, stop him from choking. He was a doctor. He knew the Heimlich. But he couldn’t get up. His chair had suddenly turned against him, his ankles and wrists tied to the arms and legs of the chair. Sherlock was turning blue, his eyes still wide and now horrified. John could do nothing but watch as Sherlock fell forward onto the table, his eyes rolling back into his head.

***

John was having problems coping.

He had never woken screaming so many days.

He started taking pills, sedatives, anything to stop the nightmares. They didn’t help.

***

John woke up to the smell of smoke. He wasted no time with clothing, racing down the stairs in only his pants and an ugly jumper he had gotten rid of years ago. Sherlock was slumped over their kitchen table, the majority of his face blown off in an explosion obviously caused by some experiment or another. The flesh left on his face was blackened and smoking, a fire have obviously already burnt away most of his hair and skin. Shards of bone and chunks of Sherlock’s brain were splattered over the table and a good part of the floor. A vaguely greenish solution was spreading around the shattered beaker at Sherlock’s feet, eating at the tile. Blood was still leaking freely from the mottled stump of his head and John stared at it as it spread, slowly reaching the edge of the table and dripping off to mix with the fluid on the floor, swirling them together in a grotesque clash of color. The mix rushed around his bare toes and burned them, eating at his flesh as he stood frozen, staring at the bloody mess of Sherlock.

***

He began avoiding sleep entirely.

But he could only remain conscious for so long. And when he neared his limit, there was nothing he could do.

***

John walked into 221B, sighing happily as he pictured his afternoon. A nice, hot cuppa and some crap telly seemed to be in order. As John walked into the kitchen to make some tea, he called out to Sherlock, announcing his arrival and asking if he wanted some tea or not. There was no answer, but the shower was running, so John felt no need to check on him. Around an hour later, however, the shower was still running and there was no sign of Sherlock. John cautiously walked up to the bathroom door, knocking clearly. There was no answer, so John pushed the door open. Honestly, Sherlock had no understanding of personal boundaries. What he saw crumpled on the floor of the shower froze him for all of two seconds. He dove into the shower, not caring that his clothes were being soaked by the now cold water still pouring from the showerhead. Sherlock was sitting in the corner of the shower, as far from the water as possible, weakly shivering and clutching a syringe in his right hand. His left forearm was littered with track marks, and he stared at John with pupils blown so wide they eclipsed his irises completely. “John?” Sherlock muttered, as if unsure he was real or not, before slumping to the side, eyes still wide.

***

People began to notice he was acting strange.

He had mood swings, unpredictable and violent.

He became increasingly paranoid, sweeping the flat for bugs he was convinced Mycroft had planted there.

He became twitchy, forgetful.

He still tried to stay awake, watching television for up to eighteen hours, reading books until his eyes felt heavy, cooking enough food to feed the entire block.

Anything to stay awake.

***

The building was unstable. They both knew that. The large, concrete pillars that had once held up an overhang for the front where dangerously unbalanced. Sherlock ran towards the building anyway, desperate to catch the man who had stolen all the carrots from the government. It was of the utmost importance that he was caught and apprehended. Their lives depended on it. John dutifully ran after Sherlock, pulling the gun tucked into his belt out. As he paused to check that it was loaded, he heard a loud crash. Loud enough that it shook the ground beneath the soles of his army boots, throwing him off balance. He recovered quickly, and ducked to run low to the ground, unsure of the cause of the noise. As he approached the rickety building, he noticed that one of the pillars had fallen onto something. Or, rather, someone. Sherlock. He had been crushed by the weight of the pillar, his skull and ribs smashed flat. His brain had seeped out the sides of his cracked skull, blood making a neat circle around his head and body, some splattered onto the sides of the pillar in an unmistakable show of death.

***

John rushed into the flat, urgency making him take the stairs two at a time and ignoring Mrs. Hudson’s greeting. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong. Sherlock had sent him a text at the surgery. It was half finished, so unlike Sherlock that John was in a cab on his way before the meaning of the text soaked in. “Substance more toxic than expec”. Sherlock must have been experimenting. Case? John threw open the door into the sitting room, turning into the kitchen and almost stumbling over Sherlock in his haste to find him. He was on the floor, his face purple in color and beyond recognition. His entire body was swollen to the point of his skin splitting and pus oozed from the rips. His distinctive cheekbones and eyes were both lost in his swollen face, but as he watched, Sherlock mouth spread into a wide smile, his bottom lip splitting under the pressure and the white liquid of pus dribbled down the side of his face. He was holding a small beaker in one hand, completely empty as far a John could tell, but Sherlock’s fingers obscured most of the glass. “Poison.” Sherlock whispered, “Didn’t know. Uncle did it.”

***

John was working at a field hospital, one he recognized as the place he had been treated after being shot, and was relieved, thinking it just another war dream, no Sherlock here. All of his patients were lying obediently in their cots, and as he began walking through the lines of beds to assess the damage and set up a triage, he noticed that all the patients were turned away from in, curled on their sides as though sulking. Strange. But stranger had happened, John supposed. He picked a man who had had his entire lower half blown off by a landmine to treat first. He checked the wound first, ensuring it was clean and that there was no sign of infection. He asked the patient to rank his pain on a scale of one to ten, standard procedure. He was shocked into stillness to hear a familiar, deep voice sarcastically asking him, “What do you think, John?” Icy blue eyes stared back at him, angry and pouting. John reeled backwards, shocked. No, no that wasn’t right. Sherlock wasn’t supposed to be here. Never here. He backed away from the Sherlock without his legs, horrified at the sight of rows upon rows of identical haughty eyes staring at him accusingly. “It’s not my fault! I’m trying to help!” John screamed, sitting on the ground and tucking himself as close as possible to his center, pulling his knees up and hiding his face like a child. “No no no....”

***

He had begun passing out from exhaustion.

He had woken up from the paralyzing dreams a number of places, including the bathtub, the stairs, and directly next to the fireplace.

Once he passed out, it was impossible to wake him for at least twelve hours.

***

Damnit, damnit, damnit, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Sherlock was down for the count, obviously having caught the knife with his body. Idiot. John started towards him, intending to help, forget the damn criminal, but Sherlock wouldn’t allow it, shouting at John to catch the man, he would be fine. John caught him, and produced a pair of handcuffs out of thin air, cuffing him to a convenient pole that looked suspiciously like the pole that had impaled his best friend when they were in a car accident when John was nineteen. John ignored the similarity and began running backwards, trying to find Sherlock, but the streets had turned into a maze, dead ending where John swore there was a turn, and leading him in circles around the alley Sherlock had fallen in. When John finally found the right turn, he was just a minute too late. Sherlock was still breathing, but the pool of blood he sat in was too large for him to survive. The knife had sliced in a perfect line through his gut, spilling out his internal organs in a mess of fluid and blood. Sherlock had apparently realized he was dying and decided to study his own insides, sitting up and picking them apart, examining each organ individually. As John ran to him, he looked up quietly from his study of his own stomach, acknowledging John’s presence with only a glance, then returned to it, holding it in his hand experimentally, and then attempting to open it using his fingernails. He quickly realized it wasn’t worth the effort and reached inside himself for a new organ to puzzle over. He went through his gallbladder and liver, before reaching in and up and grasping his heart. He pulled it out slowly, the veins and arteries stretching impossibly until he could hold it in his palm, out of his chest, and watch it weakly beat. He glanced up at John, a look of wonder on his face, before squeezing his heart sharply, watching the blood leak out into the arteries and falling onto his back, his eyes flat and blank, staring at the stars he knew so little about.

***

He locked himself into the flat, and refused to speak to anyone for two days.

***

John wandered into the flat, relaxed and happy after a night at the pub. He wasn’t drunk, but he had had a pint or too. Enough to feel loose-limbed and happy. He was whistling as he leapt up the stairs, feeling younger than he had in years. “Sherlock?” He called out as he walked in, pulling off his coat with a flourish. Silence. Odd. Usually Sherlock would appear seemingly out of thin air, staring at him and deducing every moment of John’s absence. John walked into the sitting room, peering around the couch and then pulling up short when he saw Sherlock, apparently lying on the floor in front of the couch. He crouched in front of him, panic pooling low in his stomach when he noticed the thin streams of blood running from his nose and the corner of his mouth. He reached out, pushing at his shoulder. “Sherlock?”

***

Jim Moriarty had John exactly where he wanted him. He was practically vibrating with vicious glee, his smile sharp and predatory. “Alright Johnny boy, I promise you that I’ll let you see your Sherlock again. All you have to do is shoot.” There was a man’s figure sitting in a metal folding chair in front of John. The man’s arms were tied behind his back and a brown wool sack was pulled over his head. “I suggest aiming for the heart” Jim whispered, sliding closer to John, who barely managed to contain his flinch. “Here we are,” Jim sang, high and quiet, handing over John’s own gun. “This should do very nicely indeed.” John carefully took the gun, checked that it was loaded, and weighed it in his hand. “Come along, Johnny boy, I haven’t got all day” Jim taunted, crossing his arms and tapping a foot in a dramatic gesture of impatience. The man in the chair made no noise, no movement at all. John lifted the gun, aimed quickly and fired. Right into the heart. The small hole made by the bullet filled quickly with blood, overflowing and spreading until the entirety of the man’s chest was soaked in crimson. Jim laughed and laughed and laughed, his shrieks of glee ringing through the room, as he strode over to the man’s body and pulled off the sack, revealing the face of Sherlock Holmes.

***

John woke silently for the first time in months.

***

A huge, hulking man had his arm around Sherlock’s neck, muscles squeezing to hold him still. He had a gun, pressed up against Sherlock’s temple, and was staring straight at John, a smirk on his face but a look in his eyes that told John he had never killed a man before. Sherlock tried to wheeze something, and John instinctively stepped towards him. The huge man startled, his fingers flexing and pulling the trigger on the gun, the bullet going straight through the front of Sherlock’s brain and out the opposite side of his head, a spray of blood hitting the wall two feet from him and sending splashes onto the man still gripping his neck. The man looked startled, dropping Sherlock and vomiting on the floor away from him. John barely registered the sounds and smells of the puke, too focused on Sherlock. He was still breathing. The point-blank shot hadn’t killed him. Not yet. He would die, fairly quickly, bleeding out or drowning his brain in blood; but now, he was breathing. John found he could move, and crouched next to Sherlock, watching him warily. John knew it was a dream, knew he should have woken up by now. Sherlock was dead. Or would be, very soon. It was done, finished. He always woke up once Sherlock died. That was how it worked. Why was he still here? He waited, and waited, but Sherlock wouldn’t die. The blood stopped pooling around his head, his breathing seemed to stay the same, not weakening and then stopping as it should have. John still had his gun tucked back into his waistband. He pulled it out, staring at it as though it were a stranger. He stood up, pointing the gun at Sherlock’s heart, telling himself it was the right thing to do. Sherlock was suffering, but he need not. All John had to do was pull the trigger, and Sherlock would die and John would wake up. John closed his eyes, briefly, then opened them and pulled the trigger.

***

John stayed in bed for three hours after waking up, staring at his shaking hands.

***

Sometimes Sherlock was just such an idiot. John woke up on a perfectly pleasant fall morning, stumbling downstairs in just his pyjamas and a jumper, hoping to make a nice warm cup of tea for himself, when he found Sherlock. He had cleared everything off the kitchen table and was apparently experimenting with electrocution. He had himself hooked to at least two car batteries, one with wires he had attached to one of his middle fingers and a toe, and one he had attached to his chest. John was fairly used to these sorts of activities, though usually Sherlock refrained from experimenting on himself. As he calmly made tea, he watch Sherlock shock himself repeatedly, slowly ticking up the voltage until he froze, muscles locked and eyes wide. He had obviously reached his let go threshold, and would die in minutes if John didn’t turn the current off. John calmly sipped his tea, watching as red streaks appeared across Sherlock’s skin, painting the path of the electricity flowing through him. John continued to sit, finishing his tea and getting up to wash his cup. He dried it slowly, making sure to get every droplet of water off before placing it gently back in the cupboard and turning to flick off the batteries’ power. He removed the wires and checked Sherlock’s pulse. Nothing.

***

They were just dreams, he told himself. Not real. Sherlock was dead. John wasn’t killing him. It was all in his head.

***

“I’m sorry Sherlock. I’m just so tired. So bloody tired.”

Sherlock was sleeping. A rare phenomena, one John had only witnessed once, when that cursed woman had drugged him. But he wasn’t drugged now. He was sleeping peacefully, his face relaxed and calm. John was sitting behind him on his bed, propping up Sherlock’s torso with his own. He had a knife in his hand. He had taken it from the kitchen. It was a serrated blade, about eight inches long. It would do quite nicely.

“I tried Sherlock. I tried for so long. But maybe, maybe if it’s me that does it, they’ll stop. I can’t get away from them. I’m sorry.”

John sighed, resting the top of his head on Sherlock’s curls, raising his arm and watching as the blade in his hand slid swiftly across Sherlock’s throat, cutting into the skin almost without resistance, blood pouring from the slash and down Sherlock’s t-shirted chest. John sat with him as the blood slid down Sherlock’s sides and seeped into the bedclothes, waiting until his blood slowed and cooled.

***

John didn't dream again for four days.

***

He had been so sure he was awake this time, but when Sherlock had tentatively pushed open the door to 221B, his eyes downcast and his posture broken and defeated, John assumed he must have nodded off while reading again.

He looked up at Sherlock, searching for the reason behind Sherlock’s shamed expression. Nothing came to mind.

“I’m sorry, John. I did not anticipate my absence having such an effect.” Sherlock muttered, eyes still roaming over the wood at his feet.

“What are you on about?”

Sherlock looked up sharply, eyes narrowed in confusion.

“I’ve been... traveling... for quite awhile John, surely you remember?”

“Remember what?”

“My supposed suicide?”

Now that was new. Sherlock had never talked about his real death in a dream before. The dreams always avoided Sherlock’s legitimate death, straying into the land of realistic fantasy.

John’s lack of reaction to the statement had apparently alarmed Sherlock, who was now cautiously approaching him.

“I know you’re angry, John. If you want to hit me, that’s alright. If you want me to go away again and never come back, I can do that.”

So John punched Sherlock in the face, as he obviously seemed to be expecting it. He barely reacted, simply checking that his nose wasn’t bleeding and asking John if he wanted to know how he did it.

John didn’t particularly care how his mind wanted Sherlock to have survived jumping off a hospital but nodded anyway to appease Sherlock. He was bound to die soon anyway.

He half-listened as Sherlock described how he had faked his death, wondering how the hell his brain had cooked this up.

Sherlock finished his story with a dramatic gesture about the room, perching in the chair he always occupied.

John nodded, smiled. “Tea, then?”

Sherlock shook his head slowly, narrowing his eyes at John as though concerned.

John got up anyway, ignoring Sherlock’s suspicious look and continuing to ignore the tension radiating from Sherlock as he made himself tea.

He was waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the life-threatening situation, waiting for Sherlock to suddenly keel over or attack him.

But nothing happened. Hours of nothingness passed, John calmly drinking tea and reading while Sherlock stared at him as though trying to puzzle something out.

John was getting rather tired with this dream. None of the others had dragged on so long, or been so thoroughly uneventful. But it wasn’t a nightmare, not even close.

Eventually John decided that if nothing exciting was going to happen, he might as well go to bed. He bid Sherlock goodnight and went upstairs to his room.

He sat in the dark for three hours, dozing and then jerking awake without dreams. He’d never slept in any of his dreams before. Maybe he had been sedated again. Well, there was one way John knew of to force himself to wake. Every dream, every single one, had ended when Sherlock was dead. Apparently, it was up to John to kill him this time.

Around one thirty am, John heard Sherlock moving around downstairs, most likely getting ready for bed. He waited until four to walk down the stairs, quiet only by habit, Sherlock never woke in John’s dreams anyway.

He grabbed the lighter he used to start fires in the hearth, silently walking to Sherlock’s bedroom door, grabbing the handle and turning it, slowly sliding himself through. He strode to the foot of Sherlock’s bed, then sat himself on the floor and flicked on the lighter. The blue flame that erupted out of the end with a small click seemed much too bright for the room, but John simply guided the point of light to the corner of Sherlock’s sheet, watching in fascination as the flame caught, eating away at the sheet, the light growing brighter and bigger, yellowing as it reached forward on the sheet, devouring the fabric in its path. Smoke began to trickle into the air, but John ignored it as it made its way towards the ceiling, too focused on the fire blooming across Sherlock’s bed and the surprising heat it gave off. He did not notice when Sherlock began to cough in his sleep, rolling over and kicking the sheet away as though he had suddenly realized how warm he had gotten. The fire continued to eat away at the thin material, now bunched along the bottom of the bed, and was spreading to the mattress itself, smoking profusely and burning brutal orange. Sherlock suddenly woke up, toes just barely brushed by the first reaches of the flames, and threw himself off the bed with a shout of surprise. John looked up at him then, shocked to see him awake. Sherlock never woke up. John returned his gaze to the fire, ignoring Sherlock as the man asked him what he was doing. Sherlock ran from the room, grabbing his phone from his nightstand as he went. John stayed in the room, ignoring the smoke burning his lungs, eyes focused on the flames dancing before him on what should have been Sherlock’s death bed. It seemed like a long time before Sherlock reentered the room, hauling John onto his feet and physically dragging him from the room. What the hell was he doing? He was supposed to die, not wake up. John had to kill him. He wanted out of this dream. He reached for Sherlock’s throat, wrapping his fingers around it and squeezing. Sherlock stared at him with panicked eyes, struggling against John’s grasp and breaking it with a sharp strike to John’s solar plexus. John struggled for breath, and Sherlock grabbed him around his waist and pulled him through the sitting room, down the stairs, and outside the flat. There were sirens blaring close by, getting louder every second. Sherlock had called the fire department. Why had he done that? He was supposed to die. This wasn’t real. Why did this seem so real?

***

John woke up in a padded room. He was wearing a straightjacket. He’d had stranger dreams, he supposed. There was one of those large, one-way mirrors on the wall to his left, the only non-white feature in the room. He walked up to it.

“Hello?” His voice was scratchy, raw against his throat. That was strange.

A small, previously invisible door opened to John’s right, an elegantly dressed man with an umbrella stepping over the threshold. Mycroft.

“Why did you try to kill my brother?” His voice was smooth, calm.

John was confused. “What do you mean?”

“Last night, you attempted the murder of Sherlock Holmes by arson and strangulation.” His tone was utterly passive.

“No, no, no. That was a dream. I had to kill him.” John hastened to explain.

Mycroft raised an eyebrow.

“I can assure that was no dream, Dr. Watson.”

“It was. The only way for me to get out is for Sherlock to die, and now I am here, in this new dream.” John gestured to the room with a nod of his head.

“I can also assure you that this is not a dream.”

“No you can’t.”

“Sherlock did not die last night, Dr. Watson. In fact, he is here. To see you.” Mycroft adjusted his umbrella, and half-turned to the open door he had come through. Sherlock was hovering on the edge of John’s room, half in and half out of the door.

John recoiled, backing himself into a corner of the room. A light ring of bruises had formed around Sherlock’s neck, and his eyes were heavy and dark-ringed. He took a small step towards John, who stared back at him, his eyes those of a trapped animal.

“No. You were supposed to die. You have to die. I don’t like this dream. I want out. Let me out.” John spoke quickly, his voice tripping over the words, slowly rising in volume until the last sentence emerged a panicked shout.

Mycroft and Sherlock both froze, then quickly backed out of the room, two nurses in plain blue scrubs coming in after them and restraining John to inject him with a sedative. He slowly tuned out, the world going soft and blurry.

***

John was dreaming, but it wasn’t a nightmare. He was in the pool he had always gone to as a child, but no one else was there and the water was more murky than John remembered. Nevertheless, murky water didn’t qualify as nightmare material for John Watson, and he was content to swim in the dark water until he brushed his hand along something vaguely familiar. He ducked his head to see and was greeted with the sight of Sherlock Holmes sitting in the deep end, held down by a semtex vest, but rather than explosives, the vest was stuffed with weights. Sherlock’s face was bloated, waterlogged, his hair floated around him as if it had a life of his own and he stared vacantly at John, hands outstretched vaguely towards him...