The title comes from the Mountain Goats song "Going to Georgia". Enjoy!
The worst part of the nightmares isn't the nightmares.
It's not reliving all the horrors great and small that he's tried so hard (so fucking hard) to bury down in some lightless part of him (the heat, so brutal that it seemed to shimmer with a hazy life of its own, the damp, rusty brown of blood soaking through cloth, seeping onto the sand, the constant percussive rattle and shake of machine guns and mortars, the way that a man's eyes looked just before the light in them dimmed for the last time).
It's not the panic afterwards, the way every cell of his body seems to constrict as John imagines that he's back in Kandahar, the cold prickling and the crushing weight in his lungs and the oh god oh shit oh fuck no need to escape, to run, to do anything but lay there helplessly.
It's not the crying. It's not the shame. (Because look at him- he was a hero over there, and now he can barely sleep through the night.) It's not even the constant question in his head, the countdown to when this will all be too much and he'll succumb to the gun in his drawer and an early grave.
It's being alone afterwards.
Sherlock doesn't dream very often.
But when he does, it's a whole new hell unto itself- things shifting and moving in the darkness, voices whispering for him, whispering his name, his reflection in mirrors twisted and distorted and monstrous (my true form, he thinks to himself as he lies awake at night).
(It doesn't help that he's usually high when he dreams. But nightmares are a small sacrifice for the feeling of it all, the way his world becomes all sharp, bright edges.)
He awakes one night from a particularly bad one gasping for breath, clammy and sweating. Someone next to him discreetly clears their throat- Mycroft, in a chair next to his bed, wearing a full suit despite it being three in the morning, thumb marking a page in his book.
"Leave," Sherlock says, his voice roughened by sleep and terrors.
"You promised, Sherlock," Mycroft says in reply, his gaze resting for the slightest instant on the tourniquet that lies discarded on the floor next to Sherlock's bed. (His tone is light, level. They could be discussing the weather.)
(From that point on he tries to stop sleeping altogether.)
John Watson and Sherlock Holmes are not men who believe in fate.
No cosmic connection draws Sherlock to make that offhand comment about what an awful flatmate he'd make that morning. It's pure chance that John runs into Mike Stamford in the park that afternoon.
But it's some sort of poetry that after all the chase and chaos ends, after John's bullet tears through the window and into the cabby's side, after Sherlock finds himself lying to cover for a man he's only just met (a man who's just killed for him without a moment's pause), they both sleep soundly through the night.
They fit together better than expected: quiet, steady comfort to mercurial, luminous madness, lionhearted loyalty to razor-edged genius. They both marvel sometimes (though neither would ever say it out loud) on how they ever got on without each other, without John to bring out the human in Sherlock, to tell him when things are a bit not good and when they are brilliant, without Sherlock to temper the quiet anger in John, to channel it into cases and intrigue, to bring color back into the gray of his life. To imagine one without the other now is nearly impossible. It feels like the loss of a limb, a torn seam.
(John's nightmares have shifted now into ones in which Sherlock is gone- dead, or just a particularly vivid figment of his imagination dreamed up during his more miserable moments. He wakes up panting and shaking, and has to walk around the flat to anchor himself, to remind himself that this is real, that Sherlock is real.)
(Sherlock doesn't have nightmares, not anymore.)
It's something strange and fragile, two nonbelievers blessed with a miracle all their own.
Sherlock knows that John has nightmares.
They never discuss it, but he can read John better than he can read anyone else, and so he sees it in the slump of his shoulders on certain mornings, the hard, slanting line of his mouth and the way his hand trembles as he makes breakfast.
(Sherlock also knows that John's nightmares have become less and less frequent since moving into 221B, but he's not quite sure what to make of that.)
He normally doesn't try to help John (because comforting people, like having a girlfriend or emotions, is something that's distinctly not his area, and he has the vague idea that John would feel slightly patronized). Normally, on the nights that he hears thrashing and shouts coming from upstairs, he just tries to move around the flat a bit quieter than normal, making each footfall as careful and silent as possible, as if by decreasing the noise he makes, he can make the nightmares stop.
Tonight is not one of those nights.
He didn't mean go into John's room (really, he tells himself later on, he didn't.) It had all happened so fast- mixed in with the usual things that John shouted in his sleep (usually profanities or oh god no or random words in Pashto or Farsi) was his name, sounding raw and desperate and afraid. Something in his chest that he wasn't previously aware existed gives way and he drops his flask onto the kitchen floor (and he can hear the faint tinkle of broken glass and the hiss of the solution eating through the tile and he knows John will murder him come morning but he can't bring himself to care as he bolts up the stairs towards John.)
John is half-awake, his face bone white and drawn, but his eyes are glazed and he's a million miles away from Sherlock (in the hills of Kandahar, in a back alley in London). His breathing is ragged and shallow and Sherlock has to swallow hard to avoid the lump in his throat, the sudden hollow pain in his chest.
"John," he says, unsure of what to do (he can barely handle his own nightmares, much less someone else's). When that gets no response, he kneels down next to John's bed, wrapping his hand tight around John's wrist (is this right? Is this what he's supposed to do? John's usually the caring one, not him, never him). John's trembling all over, and without even thinking, he strokes his thumb gently across where the bones of his forearms join the bones of his wrist in slow, careful circles.
John's shuddering slows into the occasional tremor and the fog in his eyes begins to clear.
"Sherlock?" His voice is clouded by sleep, still drowsy (and that place in Sherlock's chest hurts again).
"Go back to sleep, John."
John makes a sleepy noise of assent and Sherlock drops his hand and slips out of the room. He doesn't sleep that night.
The next morning at breakfast, neither of them mentions the previous night, but there's a moment when Sherlock passes the sugar to John and their eyes meet (and there's embarrassment but there's also gratitude and Sherlock's not quite sure what to make of that).
John doesn't have many nightmares after that.
Four months after Sherlock and John meet, Sherlock uses again.
(What's the saying? Once an addict, always an addict?)
(Because Sherlock Holmes is always an addict.)
I can't help it, he tells himself (and he can practically hear John telling him how feeble of an excuse that is). He tries to at least time it so that John's out of the house, to spare John the pain and Sherlock the indignity.
And for a few hours, it's brilliant (the good old days once again). The watery weakness of ordinary life is filed down to razor points, giving everything a sharp, steely bite that has its own bright burst of color and pain.
It's as if a reminder of what he's lost during the endless stretches of tedium has been carved into his chest- that he is brilliant, that he is dazzling, that he's above it all.
After a few hours, his high starts to taper off and he feels the need to lie down.
(That's a mistake.)
He doesn't even properly get into the nightmare (an endless shifting labyrinth of shadows and whispers, left alone with himself for all eternity) when there's someone shaking his shoulders, gripping hard enough to hurt, hard enough to leave a bruise.
John's mouth is an angry slash, his eyes cold and disgusted.
"God, I cannot believe you," he says (and his voice is hard and angry and disappointed and Sherlock never wants to hear that voice again). "This is just unbelievable. Fucking Christ, Sherlock. Fuck this."
(Sherlock feels ashamed for the first time, ashamed that John's seeing him like this, strung out and shaking and frenzied, ashamed at the disappointment and anger in John's voice, ashamed at himself.)
"I'm sorry." His voice isn't his own.
John laughs, but it's bitter and hollow and Sherlock can't help but wince.
"Sorry. You're sorry. Oh that's lovely. Really fucking great. Christ, Sherlock, you promised me! Doesn't that mean anything to you?"
Sherlock's about to tell him that of course it does, that it was a mistake, that this whole night was a mistake, but John's already twisting out of his grasp, grabbing his coat and moving towards the door.
"Where are you going?" His voice sounds lost (pathetic, he tells himself).
"Out." And with a slam of the door, John's disappeared.
He doesn't return until mid-afternoon the next day and all the fire from the previous night has gone out of him, leaving him looking very small and very sad (and when Sherlock realizes that he did this to him, he feels physically ill).
"Listen, Sherlock, about last night-"
"It's fine." (Because Sherlock is desperate to put this behind them, to forget it's ever happened. He's desperate to never make John look like that again, that terribly combination of disgust and disappointment.)
"No, it's not. I shouldn't have- I shouldn't have stormed out on you like that. Not with the state that you were in. Christ I mean, what you did was wrong too. It was really terribly wrong, Sherlock, you've got to understand, and I'll kill you myself if it ever happens again, but I shouldn't have done that. It wasn't right."
Sometimes Sherlock wonders how someone as wholly good as John Watson has ended up in his life.
He can only nod in response, not quite sure of what to say.
(He's too busy contemplating the miracle that is John Watson.)
Sherlock doesn't dream very often (and when he does, it's usually thanks to the aftereffects of some illegal substance).
But in the weeks after the incident at the pool, he finds himself waking up from the same recurring dream.
(Well, nightmare, to be honest.)
And one night, it's particularly bad, a bit too real, even for a dream, and he wakes up shouting, hands scrabbling at his sheets, eyes shut tight against the darkness, nose still filled with the sting of chlorine.
There's a rustling from upstairs, then he can hear John's footsteps thumping down the steps and pausing outside his door.
"Sherlock?" John's voice on the other side of the door is muffled and even though he can't see him, Sherlock buries his face in his pillow (John can't see him like this- lost and afraid over something that's not even real).
When there's no response, John pushes the door open.
"Bad dream?" he asks, and even though no one can read people like Sherlock, no one can read Sherlock like John.
Sherlock nods into his pillow and John climbs up, sits cross-legged next to him
"D'you want to talk about it?" There's no pressure in John's voice, no urgency, just gentle concern (John Watson, ever the doctor), but there's a strange look in his eyes when he looks at Sherlock, like hope and sadness and joy all rolled into one.
Sherlock shakes his head.
(But he can see it all too clearly- the red of the sniper's laser sight on John's heart, the red of John's blood against the slick tile. The overwhelming feeling of I did this to him oh god oh god he's gone oh god oh shit oh no and the crushing weight of being alone once more.)
Yet despite everything, despite Sherlock's unwillingness to speak or even to look at him, John stays until the morning. At some point during the night, his hand reaches out to rest tentatively on Sherlock's shoulder.
Sometime around four in the morning, John falls asleep, stretched out awkwardly with one leg hanging off the side of the bed, his hand still wrapped around Sherlock's shoulder. Sherlock can't do anything but stare at him, wonder at how John is solid, at how John is real, at how someone like John cares for someone like him. It's something he wouldn't mind doing for the rest of his life; he wants this, needs this.
(And if Sherlock didn't know better, he'd say it was fate.)
What happens on the roof is a shock to both of them, a dousing with ice water after a long, contented sleep.
And like water, it washes away all they've worked for over the past months.
The sunbursts of color in John's world fade away once more, leave the world gray, leave his life gray, leave him gray.
And if John is a man shrouded in gray, then Sherlock is one veiled by shadows. He slips away unseen into the darkness afterwards, disappearing into the night.
(It's just a magic trick.)
The first thing Sherlock does after being declared dead is smoke three cigarettes, one after another, perched on the steel slab of the autopsy table (not currently in use, thankfully.)
Molly wrinkles her nose in distaste when she sees him.
"Those'll kill you, you know."
He ignores her and keeps on smoking. What does that matter? He's already dead.
Sometimes John's not sure what's worse- the raw, angry terror and grief of the nightmares or waking up from them to the washed out gray of everyday life (everyday life without him.)
(He's fairly sure it's waking up.)
But he wakes up in the middle of the night from a particularly bad one remembering the faintest haze of another memory of another nightmare in another flat on the other side of London.
(Sherlock's hand around his, his voice telling him to go back to sleep. The feeling of safety, of warmth, of love.)
God. How could he have forgotten that?
And that scares John, because he can already feel Sherlock slipping away from him, try as he might. There's no one around anymore to drag him along on chases or to awkwardly comfort him after his nightmares and he's becoming used to that and he hates it, hates it so much that it makes him feel physically ill.
But maybe Sherlock was already slipping away from him before all of this even happened, before the fall. After all, he hadn't known what Sherlock would do, that this time John wouldn't be able to save him from himself.
That John wouldn't be enough.
(Because what sort of person is he if he couldn't stop his best friend from killing himself?)
The grief and the failure sweep in like the tide, dragging John Watson down, filling his lungs and leaving him gasping for breath.
With all due respect to the man returning from the dead, it's a fairly ordinary day.
For a long moment, John can only stare at the figure in the doorway, unable to believe that this is real, that this is actually happening. Then his mug slides out of his hands and the sound of shattering ceramic and the sticky burn of coffee pooling around his feet is enough to force him awake.
Before he even knows what he's doing, before he can really even fully process the person who's just appeared in front of him, he's sprinted forward and grabbed Sherlock in a tight, bruising hug. He hangs on for a minute, until Sherlock's hands come up to tentatively wrap around his shoulders, and then he pulls back and punches him in the face.
Sherlock winces a bit (it wasn't hard enough to hurt, not really) but there's no anger in his expression, just a sort of bewildered confusion.
The pain in John's hand blooms outward, sending a throbbing ache down from his fingers through his wrist and he revels in it, revels in the proof that this is real, that it's not another hallucination, that Sherlock (ever the miracle worker) is standing alive in front of him.
(But there's anger too, mixed in with all the wonder, a dangerous, poisonous sort of anger that's taken root in John's belly as he realizes what Sherlock's done, an anger that threatens to crawl out of him at any given moment.)
Sherlock, who's still standing in the doorway, drenched from the rain outside and looking as if he hasn't slept in years, shuts his eyes for a moment and then reaches his hand out onto John's shoulder.
Something in John swells and breaks and he shrugs off Sherlock's hand, runs towards the kitchen and retches into the sink. He leans over the countertop for a moment, trying to stop his trembling. The world had been so gray, so still for so long and now it isn't, now he's back, and it's too bright, too big, too much. He feels too small for his own skin.
He can suddenly see Sherlock's thin frame looming over him out of the corner of his eye and he pushes past him, heading for the stairs. He slams the door to his room loud enough that he can hear dishes rattling downstairs and he winces.
A minute or two later, there's the sound of Sherlock's baritone cursing, then footsteps on the stairs that stop halfway up, turning to retreat back down to the living room.
(They're together once more, but they've never been further apart.)
John is dreaming.
(Or at least, he's trying to, in spite of the voice that keeps cutting in.)
It's the first night again, the very first night and he's standing in front of the two identical buildings, trying to catch his breath, trying to figure out which one Sherlock's in before it's too late.
"You aren't going to hear any of this, which is partially the point, but-"
As soon as he chooses which building to search first, he knows that it's the wrong one, but when he tries to leave, he finds that all the doors are locked, that no matter how hard he pounds on them, they stay firmly shut.
"…and you've got to understand that he was going to kill you, kill all of you and I couldn't- I wouldn't be able to-"
He runs through hallway after hallway, the lights flickering overhead, giving everything a sickly, fluorescent cast. It's an endless maze and he's shouting Sherlock's name but there's no one around to hear him. He's alone and it's growing dark dark dark.
"I know it's probably been awful for you and what I put you through was unfair, but these last three years were hell for me too, you've got to understand, please John."
Finally, just as his lungs are burning and the hallways are nearly midnight dark, he skids to a stop inside of a long room filled with desks and chairs. Through the window, he can see through to the other building, to an identical classroom, with Sherlock sitting across the table from Moriarty.
"And I'm sorry, John, I'm so sorry. God, if you'd only just let me back in-"
Jim's got one hand stretched palm up towards Sherlock and even at this distance John can see the pill and he knows it's poison and Jim knows it's poison, but Sherlock doesn't. Sherlock takes the pill from Jim, studies it with a frown, and John's screaming his name, but there's only silence.
"…and I understand if you never want anything to do with me again, but please just try, please, for me, John, try."
And Sherlock's holding the pill up to the light, turning it over with his fingers and suddenly he's bringing it close to his mouth and oh god oh god oh god he's going to die and John can't do anything to stop him.
"It was never my intention to hurt you, can't you see that? I was never trying to hurt you, I never even knew that it would affect you like this, but-"
And before John can even think clearly, he's pulled his gun from his side and he's aiming it at Jim, hands steady. He pulls the trigger.
"But you've got to know that I- that I couldn't imagine- that a life without you isn't worth- can't you see?"
The bullet bursts through the window in his building with a percussive blast of shattering glass.
"And I know what I always said about sentiment, but I've come to realize that-"
The bullet misses. Sherlock slips the pill into his mouth, swallowing death down.
"You had to have known that I cared, even then, that I care even more now and I know you don't return these…these feelings, but I just hope that-"
Sherlock falls to the floor and Jim is smiling that terrible smile, all teeth and claws.
"…And I- oh god, I love you. I think you're brilliant, in spite of your constant efforts to prove me wrong on that fact, and stupidly brave and unbelievably loyal, especially to someone like me. And kind, oh god you're kind. The very best man I've ever met. And I don't expect you to give anything back, but just stay here, with me, as flatmates, as friends, as anything."
John's screaming. He's screaming and screaming and screaming and-
"Just please don't leave. I know you're furious with me and I know I deserve it, but I'm asking you please-"
John's alone once more.
And the light finally goes out, leaving John alone in the darkness.
John wakes early in the morning, the gray light of dawn seeping in through the windows. His head is fuzzy.
As his eyes begin to adjust to the light, he remembers the barest wisp of a dream last night- like the case with the cabby except different. And he remembers Sherlock's voice weaving throughout it, whispering things to him that don't seem quite real in the light of day.
He shakes his head, tugs on his dressing gown.
It's only a dream.
When he goes downstairs, Sherlock is nowhere to be found, and for a brief, terrible moment, he thinks he's imagined the whole thing.
But no, there's a note fixed to the kitchen table with a scalpel (even after three years, nothing ever changes, not really):
People I needed to see. Don't wait up. –S
When John turns his phone on, he finds a text with the same message sitting in his inbox, and he smiles a bit at the thought that Sherlock thought that John would need to be told twice.
Sherlock doesn't return until very late that night (or possibly very early the next day). By the time the door opens, John's half asleep on the sofa, the television flickering silently in the darkened flat.
"Sherlock?" His voice is thick with sleep and he feels incredibly groggy. From the darkness around him, there's a soft chuckle and then the sound of footsteps.
"Go back to sleep, John." Sherlock's bedroom door clicks shut and John slips back into his half-waking, half-sleeping haze.
The nightmare starts not long after he falls asleep.
Outside of St. Bart's once more and Sherlock's falling and he can't stop it and it's his fault it's his fault it's his-
"John!" The voice cuts through the fog of the dream. "John, you've got to wake up."
There's a hand on his shoulder now, shaking him awake, fingers digging into his back but avoiding the knotted mass of scar tissue.
It's Sherlock, leaning over the sofa, face made paler by worry, eyes frantic.
John tastes blood in his mouth, sharp and hot and metallic. Sometime during his nightmare, he must've bitten down on his lip, hard enough to break the skin. He swipes at it with his hand and his fingers come away smeared with red.
He pulls himself up into a sitting position and Sherlock, hand still resting on his shoulder, sinks down to join him. He's trembling all over (and he can't help but feel embarrassed by that, even though Sherlock's seen him in far worse states).
"In my dream," he says, his voice flat and no more than a whisper. "It was the roof again and you were dead."
Sherlock says nothing, just stares straight ahead (but there's an almost imperceptible squeeze to John's shoulder, and that helps).
"Sherlock, you've got to understand that I…that these three years were…" He knows what he needs to say but the words are trapped in his throat and for a moment, he wonders if he's going to pass out.
Sherlock's arm wraps tighter around him and for a while they just sit there, entangled together in the darkness, Sherlock's hand around John's middle, John's head on Sherlock's shoulder.
They both try to speak at once, words tumbling and tangling together.
"I've missed you so much, you nutter, and you need to know that I-"
"John, I've got to tell you that-"
They both stop and then they're laughing and then (and neither is quite sure who initiates it) they're kissing.
And it's slow and messy and a bit awkward and they bump noses far too often but oh god it's worth waiting three years for.
(And John can hear Sherlock's whispers when he pulls back for breath, his voice so quiet that John's not sure if it's even meant for him to hear at all, but he hears it anyways- I love you, over and over and over again.)
(He could listen to that voice every day for the rest of his life.)
And it's perfect and it's inevitable and it's infinite.