You brush wispy hair away from the child's eyes, her heated skin leaving your hand warm.
"It's just the flu," you tell her worried mother. "Keep her hydrated and she'll be fine in a few days."
The woman gathers her little girl closer, and you watch the child's body mould to her mother's. Relaxed. Safe.
"You did the right thing bringing her in," you say and watch her body relax against her daughter's.
Your work here is done.
She's the last for you to see today, and you take your time writing your notes and packing up to go.
"Heading home?" asks Sarah.
"Yeah," you answer. "Sherlock should be back from the lab by now."
"Good," she says. "I'll see you next week. Rest up, okay?"
You nod, disconcerted that even Sarah can see the fatigue that radiates from every pore of your body. You thought you'd hidden it better than that. Thought at least your professional self still appeared intact.
"I'm fine," you say, not meeting her eyes. "But thanks."
It's nearly dark by the time you make it back to the flat. Sherlock is, indeed, home from the lab, though he appears to have brought half of it back with him.
"Brought your work with you, I see," you say and brush a kiss across his lips despite the fact that he's completely distracted by the skin sample under the microscope you're sure he's purloined from Bart's.
"Umhm," he answers and then, "Ooh, I knew it!" And you can see that he'll be occupied for hours at least.
It's usually fine. Really, it is. You used to get absorbed in your own work and even in your hobbies with nearly as much gusto as Sherlock does. Lately, though, there's not much that lights you up, and you watch Sherlock with a hunger that goes far deeper than your need for him, your love of him. For him.
Your listlessness is like a grey cloud that fills every cell of your body. You wonder what Sherlock would see if he put a bit of John under the microscope. Would he see the bits of you that you're sure are dying even now? Maybe he could deduce why, because you're certainly making no progress in that regard.
"I'm going to head up to bed," you say.
You can't watch him one more minute, lit up with excitement. Incandescent, as always (apart from the sulks, but even then, he pops with an energy that most people can't match on their best days). You can't help but hope he'll notice, that he'll follow you into bed and wrap his long arms and legs around you until you feel grounded again. But you know he won't. Not tonight.
It's a long time before you fall asleep.
Even the early morning light is muted. Falling through the crack in the curtains to crumple to the floor as if it, too, is exhausted.
You've barely slept. Waking at 4am, eyes wide open, is a special cruelty you've discovered in recent months. The hours stretch, long and dark.
Sometimes when you wake, you're still alone, Sherlock's side of the bed empty and cold. But this morning, it's occupied by an abundance of tousled hair and milky skin, soft huffs of breath proof that he hasn't died from overwork.
His is a different sort of exhaustion, you think, watching his chest rise and fall with every gulp of air. He wrings himself out, pushing until there's no fuel left with which to drive himself, collapsing with a certain sort of triumph in a job well done, or an effort well made.
You envy him, you realise with an uncomfortable stab in your chest.
It's not enough to be loved by him. Wanted.
And you are. You know you are. You know it from the way he touches you when you are his sole focus. The way he whispers your name in his sleep and reaches for you in his dreams.
It had been heady at first, being near him. Being pulled into his orbit. Wanted. Needed in a way Sherlock never needs anybody.
Sherlock is a world of light. Shooting stars and bright explosions flooding you with love and hope and need. But when he's far away, and these days, even when he's near, all you feel is a bottomless yearning for something to fill the emptiness.
It's five days before Sherlock takes you by the hand and leads you to bed.
You've spent the hours you aren't working watching him, reading his website and searching for articles that mention him and the cases the Met has brought him to solve.
You don't know exactly what you're looking for. You live with the man, after all. Share his bed, his life. But you read and reread the passages where others describe him, the bits where you can see him through other people's eyes. You obsess over the image they paint of him, this man you love.
You feel absolutely crazy.
The sun is setting and Sherlock has opened the curtains upstairs to let burgundy streaks of light paint the walls.
You wonder what it would be like to ride the sun beyond the horizon. To disappear from view. Dark and silent.
"Tell me," he whispers. He's wrapped himself around you, your back curled against his chest, his arms holding you close. You close your eyes, focusing only on the warmth of his breath against the back of your neck, clutching his hands as if they might anchor you even in a sea of uncertainty.
"Nothing to tell," you say, grateful that he's spared you the indignity of piercing you with those eyes, deducing even the darkest corners of your psyche and spilling it out like a box of jumbled junk.
"Something's wrong. Has been for a while," he insists, then pauses. "I've been busy. Distracted. Is that it?"
You can feel his body taut behind you. Anxious that he's the cause of your distress. Worried that being Sherlock has hurt you.
"That's not it. I don't think so, at least," you say, aware that you've just ceded a point.
"You don't know what it is," he says.
"I don't," you admit, though this is akin to an engraved invitation.
"Will you tell me what you do know?"
This surprises you. Sherlock is usually all too eager to dive in, considering his own observations sufficient evidence to be going on with. He's going to listen first. It's a mark of his regard for you, you realise, and you feel the warmth of knowing it spread through your body.
"As long as you're prepared for me to be unsystematic," you say. "I'm not up for much more than free association, so if you expect—"
"I don't expect anything, John," he interrupts, shifting your bodies so that they're face to face. "I'm just worried."
You can see it in the furrow of his brow and the lines etched around his eyes. Ooh, those eyes. What would it be like to be behind them looking out at the world? You wonder how it would feel to be Sherlock, to have possession of that brain, that talented mind, the agile body, the fiery talent and manipulative charm. The smile that nearly stops your heart every time.
"I can't stop thinking about you," you tell him, and though he looks confused, he stays silent. "It sounds crazy. I know it does. You're right here; I know that."
Sherlock nods and you lay your head against his chest. His heart is pounding and it means more than it should that he's as afraid as you are.
"What do you keep thinking about?" he finally asks. His hands are mapping the line of your back, tracing the outline of your shoulders the way he does after every time you've made love.
Reassuring, you think. So that you don't forget it's him you're talking to.
"You are, without a doubt, the biggest pain in the arse I've ever met," you say, and nearly regret it before he laughs.
He holds his breath.
"You're also… You're just." Maybe there aren't words for what you see in him. What you want from him.
"What is it?"
"It's you. I want." Your voice breaks and Sherlock's arms tighten around you. "I want what you have."
You can feel the effort he makes not to stiffen and you rush to continue.
"It's not that I want your mind. Not exactly. It's not that I want your skill. Sort of, but that's not it either. I mean, it would be amazing to be able to do what you do. Of course it would." You lift your head and drop a kiss on his chest. "You're brilliant."
He snorts. "None of which is new information."
"No," you say. "It's not."
"I was just thinking that I want to know what it feels like to be seen the way that you're seen. Apart from the insults. You invite those. You know you do."
Sherlock nods. "I do," he admits. "That way, they leave me alone when I'm done with the work."
They do, you think. If Sherlock didn't insult and provoke, would he instead be surrounded by fawning fans?
"I want to feel what it's like to be incandescent. Like you. I haven't been anything close to that for longer than I can remember."
That's the word, you think. Incandescent.
"Incandescent?" Sherlock echoes. He huffs out a laugh, and you're confused.
"Yes," you say, irritated. "Should I explain?"
"No, I know what it means," says Sherlock, amused. "But John, you're the most incandescent person I've ever met."
Now you're sure you haven't explained yourself well at all.
"Look at you, Sherlock," you say. "You have to fight them off with a stick. Or the blunt end of your intellect. Can't you see how people are drawn to you? To what you can do? What it feels like to watch you do it?"
Sherlock is very quiet. Too quiet.
"That's not me you're seeing, John," says Sherlock at last. "I have a talent. I'm good at what I do; that's obvious. Some consider me attractive, fine. I learned charm at my mother's knee and use it when necessary."
You nod, leaning back so that you can see Sherlock's face. He understands something you don't, something you must.
"But you light up the room when you walk in," you tell him. "They need you. You fill up the space and leave it different than it was before you got there."
"John," says Sherlock. "Do you know what happens when you walk into a room?"
No. Unless it's that you drag the grey cloud behind you and fog up the place.
But you just shake your head.
"You warm it. Everybody breathes again. It's like there's a flame inside of you and you share it. When I go to a crime scene and you're not there, the first thing everybody wants to know is when you're due to arrive."
Sherlock smiles. A real smile. The one only you get to see.
"I'm not incandescent," you insist.
"You are," says Sherlock. "People respond to you. They like you. They want to be near you, and when you reach out to them, you leave them better than they were before."
You blink at the sudden blur in your vision.
"But you have so much talent," you say, and your stomach twists into a knot. Envy doesn't become you.
But Sherlock only grunts and shakes his head.
"When was the last time you looked in a mirror?"
You'd been avoiding those, actually. Your pale, tight features hardly inspire a lightening of your mood.
"I don't need a mirror—"
"You quite obviously do," he insists. "Army doctor. Surgeon, in fact. Head of his battalion. Decorated three times for valour. Ridiculously overqualified medic. Published—"
You nearly gasp.
"Did you think I wouldn't find out?" Sherlock smirks. "Published in the most prestigious journals of your profession." He traces the outline of your jaw with the pad of his thumb. "Sought out by his peers."
"That was before," you mutter.
Before a bullet ripped through your shoulder. Before half your men were blown to bits before your eyes with nothing you could do to stop it. Before a madman strapped you to a bomb and set a sniper's laser against your heart.
Before your body stopped feeling like your own, and your mind and spirit along with it.
"I've lost it all," you say, and you don't care that your voice is rough and that Sherlock will feel the dampness against his skin.
"What have you lost?"
"Everything that lit me up. Everything that made me special," you say, and until you put it to words, you didn't know you felt it. "I want it back." Your voice cracks.
You didn't know until just now that you'd left it for safekeeping inside Sherlock.
You wonder, as Sherlock begins to brush his lips against your skin, inch by inch, if he thinks that he can give it all back if only he kisses you enough. You'd be willing, you think, as he draws a gasp from you, to let him try.
You wake to the pink streaks of sunrise streaming through the open curtains. The walls look rosy, as if they, too are alive, bursting with the energy of a new day.
You're still in the twilight of half-sleep when something your therapist once said rises to the surface. Something actually useful though you hadn't understood its relevance at the time.
It had been early days. That period when you'd been following Sherlock everywhere.
Before you had a regular work schedule with patients who queued up to be seen, one after the other, until their maladies were one big blur and Sherlock seemed like a streak of light in the distance.
"You're projecting," she'd told you and you'd rolled your eyes.
"Psychobabble," you'd answered. "Rubbish."
She'd raised her eyebrows.
"He's brilliant," you'd insisted. "Amazing."
But Thompson had just nodded and made a short notation in the chart.
You can see now that you'd missed the glint of admiration in her eyes. The way she always listened so carefully when you'd told her about your work before Sherlock. Only now, in retrospect, do you remember her respectful responses when you'd finally told her about the nightmares. About what you'd had. About what you'd lost.
It feels as if someone has rolled a large stone off your throat. You revel in the sensation of breath flowing through you, unimpeded but for the heaviness still in your chest.
"It's obscene to be awake this early," Sherlock mutters, and you can't help but smile just a little.
"Nobody said you had to be."
"You are," he says, struggling to open his eyes. "And I'd rather not miss a moment of you, awake."
Why this should make the weight in your chest lessen, you can't say. But your lungs expand now, full of morning sun and Sherlock, and the promise of today.
You reach for him then, a tangle of arms and lips and hair winding around you, and the feeling, joy and hope and love and incandescent energy, bursts inside of you like a firecracker, and you laugh.
a/n: Endless thanks to the alpha/beta/cheereading village of dreams: annietalbot, bluestocking, pyjamapants, scoffy, and subversa. Your eagle eyes and your support make everything I write so much better.