It wasn't until John heard that grinding snore again that he realised that Sherlock's touch-me-not pose on the sofa had been as much about exhaustion as it was cogitation. The noise would have been irritating, but John was too relieved that he was finally free to give way to his own thoughts to mind, really. While he was at it, he could make himself useful by cleaning the flat; it was a sufficiently mindless task, and it could hardly be denied that the place needed it.
He took the steps up to his bedroom slowly by necessity, spirals of regret blossoming in his chest that he had been so adamant about skipping the physical therapy he'd been prescribed after all the damage he'd taken at Moriarty's hands. He knew very well, as a doctor himself, how to recuperate and keep fit, plus he hadn't had the time, he'd reasoned, not with chasing after Sherlock and trying to settle into work with Sarah. Hadn't had time for Sarah either, and that had cost him more than a few pangs.
Still, her sharp eye had kept him honest, forced him to admit when pain flared in his ribs or streaked down his leg or along his arm. Sarah had even taken to wrapping his ribs up tight before the workday began, never letting her eyes linger on his chest; he hadn't flattered himself that he was that much of a catch, surely, but her determined pleasantness had been hard to take. He wished he could still call and confide in her about this mess with Harry. He badly needed a friend, someone who would listen, not just brush his words away as distractions to a thought process infinitely superior to whatever he was capable of.
Lestrade, Vee, Donovan, Molly, Mrs. Hudson, Sarah, Stamford – none of them was the right person. The answer hit him as hard as a kick in the teeth; the one he really wanted to talk to was Clara. Not Clara, the human rights lawyer. Not Clara, the indefatigable crusader for justice. Just Clara, his sister-in-law, who always kissed him with three little pecks on the cheek and laughed at his jokes, with whom he'd shared a hundred pots of early morning tea as they listened to the floorboards creak as Harry went about her staggeringly slow morning routine, from whom he'd got his only care packages while in Afghanistan. Clara, whom he loved absolutely and uncomplicatedly.
Of course he couldn't. He shook himself from his reverie and continued up the stairs, hoping the noise from the Hoover wouldn't wake Sherlock.
He needn't have worried; just bending down to switch the bloody thing on had him gasping and pressing the heel of one hand to his ribs in a futile effort to lessen the pain. Right. John nudged the contraption back under his bed with his foot, resigning himself to the fact that Sherlock was going to have to keep breathing the dust of a thousand chemical experiments and months of careless use into his diseased lungs. That would only hinder his convalescence, meaning Harry's case was likely to be drawn out for longer, and she was already walking on a knife's edge. It wouldn't do.
John knew his place in the pecking order of the flat very clearly. He was a prop to Sherlock's brain, doubling for Sherlock's body when necessary, second in command when not. If he couldn't clean, then at least he could cook, nourish the great brain, and lend a willing ear.
He'd trained his eyes to look automatically past anatomical specimens in the fridge and cupboards, so he hardly noticed what was there as opposed to what was not. All he could find in the cabinet to the left of the sink were a few bags of lentils, a tin of tomatoes, and a couple of lonely onions. Chopping the vegetables would be a good test for his hands, so he plucked them up and got to work.
The sulphur-induced tears streaming down his face brought Harry sharply back to the front of his mind. Surely there was no possibility that she really had run a man over? She'd been the most tender-hearted of girls, loud and boisterous when running with a pack of her friends, but quiet and dreamy, more often than not, when at home, cuddling with her one-eyed cat Gladys. She'd always loved old, weak, and battered things best, and he supposed that included him, always undersized and tagging along. If his impulse to heal had got its start from wanting to dry her tears when Gladys was mauled by a stray dog, well, surely by now she'd put the pieces together herself. It didn't require Sherlock's prowess to figure it out.
John shot a glance into the living room and saw his flatmate still lying on the sofa, his respiration audibly difficult. It was a constant balancing act, even when Sherlock was well, to determine which he needed more, rest or food. If the smell of onions frying in butter wasn't enough to wake him, then he'd just let him be.
"What is this mess?" Sherlock snapped, when, thirty minutes later, John held a plate of green lentils and crispy fried onions under his nose. "Take it away; I'm working."
"Sherlock –" was as far as John got, because Sherlock's eyes narrowed triumphantly. "I'm working on your sister's case," he crowed, or as near a crow as his abused throat could muster; "got to prove she isn't guilty of manslaughter or murder."
John looked down at him, supine still, and said, very distinctly, "You're going to eat this, or else when you do finally get up to begin your work in earnest, you'll find that you won't be able to get very far. Come on, Sherlock, it's protein, it's necessary. Your body requires fuel." He wondered how Sherlock's parents – or, horrors, Mycroft – had convinced him to eat; the length of limb he'd achieved argued that he'd had adequate nutrition as a child. Some days, though, John felt like all he was good for was holding up a spoon, making buzzing noises, and coaxing Sherlock to open wide for the aeroplane.
It was ridiculous that he, a doctor for God's sake, was playing nursemaid to an able-bodied man while his sister grieved and worried and drank herself to death, egged on by a filthy blackmailer. He deposited the plate on Sherlock's chest, where at the very least it would warm him up, stalked back to the kitchen to fetch his own, and sank into a chair.
He had some ideas of his own, starting with tracing the number the texts to Harry had been sent from. Surely he could come up with a good enough reason why he needed to trace the number to satisfy Lestrade; he could, he supposed, go the roundabout way and enlist Vee's help, though every instinct he had told him to keep it simple.
"John," he heard, and looked over to find Sherlock struggling to sit up while keeping the plate level. "Pass me my phone," Sherlock said, and shovelled in his first grudging bite. He typed something into his mobile, fingers flying as swiftly as ever. "We'll start with the number of our blackmailer's phone," he continued, and John nodded, relieved and glad that they were synchronised once again.
John took one look at Sherlock's thin silk shirt, turned him around by his shoulders, and shoved him back through the doorway to his bedroom. "You're still congested and need to stay wrapped up," he reminded Sherlock briskly, hoping the words would salve his own conscience for his failure to protest that Sherlock was planning on leaving the flat at all; Harry's distress was too immediate to allow for any delays. "Fetch your coat and your scarf, if you've no warmer shirts. Or better yet, a jumper."
The look Sherlock blazed at him at that was eloquent, flatly declaring that Sherlock would rather suffer through pneumonia for the rest of his natural existence before he would deign to wear anything so cuddly as a jumper. "You are such a blight," John said, mostly under his breath, too sure of Sherlock's inability to stay away from a puzzle to worry at all that Sherlock would hear, take offence, and leave Harry to her wretched fate.
Sherlock was only bent double twice by horrid coughing fits as they made their way out of the house and waited for a passing cab; John, disgusted with himself, wondered when he'd started counting that as a win. This was real life, not war; he didn't have to prioritise an arterial bleed over a shattered bone. But as they lingered in the doorway, looking out onto the street for a convenient cab, Sherlock couldn't turn away from him and hide his lustreless eyes and chalky complexion, and at the sight of him John revised that thought – Sherlock was waging a war, one in which the earliest casualty was likely to be himself.
"You were supposed to wrap up tight," John reminded him, reaching out to secure the scarf more snugly around Sherlock's wintry throat, worry gripping him again when Sherlock protested only verbally instead of using his greater height and reach to intimidate him or slap away his hands.
"If you're going to persist in acting like my nanny, you will simply be in the way," Sherlock said haughtily just as a cab pulled up. Before John could muster a protest, he'd jumped in and slammed the door.
The cabbie took one look in his mirror at John and knew better than to drive off. John wrenched open the door and climbed in, nearly on top of Sherlock, who hadn't bothered to slide over to the other side; John ended up shoving him across like he weighed nothing at all. "No, you bastard, I'm your doctor, and you clearly need a minder."
Sherlock gave a mightily displeased sniff in lieu of any kind of retort, and John directed the cabbie to Scotland Yard. At the end of the ride, he paid, as usual, and pushed Sherlock out of the cab.
Scarred lungs or not, Sherlock's legs were as long as ever, and he fell into his accustomed stride, the one that left John half a step behind him as usual; it didn't even any scores to point out that Sherlock was wheezing when he finally reached Lestrade's office, because John was panting too.
"God almighty," was all Lestrade had to say when he saw the two of them, Sherlock doing his best to look as if he didn't need the wall to support him, John reaching out to lay a steadying hand on his flatmate's chest. "What the hell's got into you?"
John gawped silently at Sherlock for a moment, and Sherlock's accustomed arrogance descended like a knight's visor snapping into place. "I require information," he snapped. Grimacing with disgust when Lestrade raised an eyebrow at his thready voice, he cleared his throat. "Got a case, need to trace a mobile number."
"What case?" Lestrade demanded. "Are you taking on work from Gregson now?" John was well aware that Lestrade was making idle conversation, knowing as he did that Sherlock had been too infuriated by the DI while working the Patterson homicide to unbend even for the most fascinating cases, which, as luck would have it, tended to fall to Lestrade instead of Gregson anyway. John saw the whole train of thought in Lestrade's unblinking gaze, and opened his mouth to lie and give Dimmock's name, but Sherlock beat him to the punch.
"Don't be absurd. I do have a website that attracts private clients. Now, the number –"
"You don't have a licence. You don't have any official standing as an investigator. You cannot just invade someone's privacy by giving me a phone number and expecting to get the owner's name and address. That's not how it's done." It was entirely possible that Lestrade thought he was being kind, and putting up obstacles to send Sherlock home and force him to rest; it was possible, but it made John clench his jaw anyway, and too late, he saw Sherlock observing the state he'd got himself into.
Without a word, Sherlock stepped forward from the wall, looking ready to shout until he got his way. John was barely able to catch him as he slumped bonelessly into his arms.
It wasn't a trick, surely; Sherlock's lips and cheeks had lost what little colour they ever possessed, and his face was cold and beaded with sweat.
"Jesus –" Lestrade bit out, rushing over to help John lay the idiot down. "What's he need?"
"Let's start with some water," John said, feeling ridiculous, because what Sherlock really needed was to stop assuming his body could continue to function on snatches of sleep and only one solid meal a week. Sherlock's head lay heavy on his lap, but the pulse at his wrist throbbed with a reassuringly steady beat. "Sherlock," he said quietly, too absorbed in watching for a telltale flutter of dark eyelashes to hear Lestrade coming up behind him, proffering a mug of water.
"John," Sherlock murmured. "The number," he reminded, at last opening his eyes, though slitting them immediately against the overhead fluorescent lights.
John nodded, as if he had any idea what he could do to wrest it from Lestrade. "He looks like shit," he heard from behind him; "bet he could do with some tea as well. Fancy a cup yourself?" Lestrade didn't wait for an answer before heading back out of his office.
"Let me up," Sherlock said, as if it were John, and not his own fatigue, holding him down. Once set gingerly on his feet, he prowled his way over to Lestrade's computer.
"Sherlock," John warned, caught between his desire to prop Sherlock up and to keep a lookout for the DI. He stayed close to the door.
"He purposely left us alone in here, and it would be foolish to waste the opportunity. Unless you'd really rather approach his wife and have her plead your sister's case? No, I thought not." Sherlock was trying various passwords as he spoke. "Not idiotic enough to use a birth date or his wedding date as his password. What else could it be?" John looked back at him, white as a sheet and swaying slightly on his feet, but Sherlock seemed to be addressing the framed photograph of Lestrade and Vee that was perched on the desk. "Ah, of course. Flight numbers for their honeymoon trip to the Maldives."
"How on earth would you know that?" John asked, but Sherlock had disappeared inside his head and didn't bother to respond.
"As suspected," Sherlock said, after two more minutes of rapid typing. "The number belongs to an unregistered pay-as-you-go mobile, most likely bought second-hand and paid for with cash, somewhere in London. No name or address can be matched to it." He was, John noted incredulously, actually faintly smiling as he shut everything back down. "That would have been too simple in any case." He finished up and laid something flat and dark across the keyboard. "Not to worry – I still have plenty back at the flat," he said, and with that, John recognised one of Lestrade's warrant cards.
John wondered if Sherlock meant the return of stolen property as a gesture of thanks. And he wondered how much gratitude he owed both men for their machinations, for not letting him waste his time begging Vee for a favour that would have cost her some pangs of her own. Not for a second did he let himself wonder if saving Harry was worth whatever it would cost.
"No more police," Sherlock croaked from the sofa, swathed in the duvets from his bed and John's bed and a couple of blankets nicked from the back of Mrs. Hudson's linen cupboard as well. There was a scarlet pashmina draped over his head, and John entertained the mad thought that, given the bulk of the blankets and the delicacy of his features, Sherlock looked like Jabba the Hutt with the head of Little Red Riding Hood resting on the shapeless mound of his shoulders. Sherlock hadn't protested being bundled up, except for a mutinous gleam in his eye when he'd realised his hands would be trapped and he'd be unable to text, but he'd comprehended that John needed to soothe his conscience as best he could. And, he pointed out smugly, without the use of his hands, he could not eat. John, unamused, stuck a bite-sized piece of a sandwich into Sherlock's mouth without so much as a by-your-leave and stared him down until it was grudgingly chewed and swallowed.
"What?" John asked, watching as the first faint flushes of colour started to bloom in Sherlock's cheeks from his body temperature being raised by the swaddling. "We must have other leads –"
"No." Sherlock's voice was flat again. "Half of that pitching and swooning I did in Lestrade's office was to get his eye off you."
"Oh, really –" John said, exasperated; that slump had been too ungraceful to be feigned.
"Really." Sherlock cut him off without compunction. "One of the virtues of your face is that it transmits your thoughts quite clearly. You were next door to telling Lestrade straight out that the case held a personal interest for you." He coughed, a bitter, choking sound, and John's fists clenched again. "If it becomes necessary to involve the police once more, I'll go myself while you work from another angle."
At least he'd never had to fight Sherlock for the right to work. He nodded his agreement. "What else can we do now?"
Sherlock closed his eyes, but John thought it was honest fatigue, not irritation or impatience, that informed the action. "We need to see a new leaflet. In the meantime, we need to determine the route Harry drove, assess her car for any damage, and . . ."
Sherlock nodded, eyes still closed, and John let the weariness on the man's face persuade him that this was not the time to try to convince Sherlock that Harry was absolutely innocent. Whatever Sherlock's beliefs, he'd do the work with skill and his findings would be all the proof he needed.
John was in Sainsbury’s, reaching for a twisted hunk of fresh ginger root, when his hand was clasped. He looked round and saw that it was Clara, shredding her lower lip with her teeth but meeting his gaze dead on. He hauled her in without a second thought, arms going round her fiercely.
God, finally, there was one person who looked exactly as she should, not skin and bones like Harry and Sherlock, just as shiningly beautiful as ever. He could hear the susurrus of his own hair as she dragged her palm over his head, cupping his skull just the way she used to, and then his name, murmured low and sweet into his ear. "I've missed you," he said, glad to say something entirely true without weighing his words. He got an extra squeeze in response, and when she pulled back she was smiling, her fingers on his cheek.
"I'd forgotten about these wrinkles right here," she said, thumb just brushing the crows' feet next to his left eye.
"There are more of them now," he acknowledged. He looked at her nearly empty shopping basket and realised she had been wandering, not just dashing about in a hurry, picking up things for the week. "Look, come home and have breakfast with me?" He didn't let go of her hand until she nodded, and then he pushed himself into action. "I just need a few things," he said, putting her packet of ground coffee into his own basket and dropping the ginger root on top.
He carried both the bags out to her car and pointed her in the direction of Baker Street. Maybe it would be best this way, he thought, letting chance dictate what came next rather than trying to puzzle through the optimal way to keep Sherlock from being too disturbed by another new presence in the flat. The quiet between him and Clara was as restful as ever, and he only had to gesture when she needed to turn left or right; she found a parking space two houses down, and eyed the building approvingly as they approached it.
Sherlock was nowhere to be seen, and the only visible trace of him was the red pashmina he'd had wound about his head last night, flung carelessly over the arm of the sofa. He got her seated at the mercifully clean kitchen table. "We'll have to break into your coffee if you want the good stuff," he said over his shoulder as he put the rest of the groceries away, angling his body to limit her view into the cupboards and fridge. She nodded her permission, and he set to work making their drinks. "What would you like to eat?"
He couldn't believe he'd forgotten how she liked to lean forward on her crossed forearms and look up through her eyelashes at him – her little trick to pretend she didn't have three inches on him and Harry both, she used to tease, the willowy bint. "You aren't going to make me eat my porridge?" she inquired, already grinning at the old joke. "How else can I grow up big and strong in this cold country?"
He smiled to himself and fetched the oats from the cupboard. There was no need for milk or sugar in coffee as good as the kind Clara bought, so he washed up two mugs and let her fuss with the coffeepot in peace. Just the smell of the coffee had him moving more quickly, and her face lit up when he brought two large bowls of porridge with plenty of milk and a pinch of chilli powder to the table.
"Well, no, it won't put hair on your chest, but it's really very good for you nevertheless," Clara chanted as she had whenever one of them had made porridge from Clara's mother's recipe for their breakfast, both of them laughing at Harry's disgust for what she called "that sloppy mess." She took a big bite and grinned. "My compliments to the chef."
"I haven't had this in years," John said, remembering those mornings as unfailingly sunny and cold, like they'd been preserved in amber, ready to be plucked and held in the palm of his hand when the moment arose.
Clara, bless her, refused to allow the incipient melancholy in his tone to take over. "We might be the only two people in the world who can actually stomach this stuff, John," she said, laying her free hand down on the table so that their fingers just barely brushed.
"Certainly you are the only two people in this flat who can make that claim," Sherlock said from the doorway, and John noted that his voice had gained a little strength, though he was as wan as ever. "It looks revolting."
"Good morning," Clara said, clearly struggling not to laugh.
"Clara, this is my flatmate, Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, this is Clara Endriseh."
"Coffee," was Sherlock's response to the introduction, made as he seated himself at the table like a proper person instead of retiring to his usual position on the sofa and expecting to be waited on hand and foot. John saw Sherlock's spidery hand reaching out for his mug, so he grabbed it and stood.
"Not for you," he said authoritatively, gauging Sherlock's temperature with the back of one hand against his forehead. Sherlock's glittering eyes promised him a messy death for the indignity, but he didn't duck away. "I'm making you something special." John knew better than to pretend he had some pride just for Clara's benefit; she would never think less of him, even though he sounded like an anxious parent bribing a sickly child to take medicine.
Without needing any words or significant looks, Clara caught on that giving Sherlock any attention would be dangerous, so she turned her attention back to her breakfast; John could feel Sherlock's eyes on him as he went through the process of boiling water, grating ginger root, and squeezing a lemon. He mixed it all up in a mug, added a generous spoonful of honey, and set the concoction down in front of Sherlock.
"This looks vile," Sherlock said, even as his hands cupped the mug like they were chilled through.
"And yet you'll drink it," John said pleasantly, swallowing the last of his coffee and turning back to his porridge.
This time, Clara clearly couldn't help herself. Her laugh rang through the kitchen, and John felt his insides warm from the sound. Sherlock, meanwhile, acted like he'd gone deaf, not deigning to react in any way at all; he just took a disinterested sip of his drink, and that was what got John giggling as well.
"How ever did you meet?" Clara asked when she'd got herself under control. "The two of you together are priceless."
"Mutual acquaintance," Sherlock said curtly. His eyes were intent on the contents of his mug rather than Clara's face. John wondered what good deed he'd done, that Sherlock was behaving himself and not deducing every one of Clara's thoughts and deeds from the past six months.
One sharp glance his way was all the warning John got. "Do you believe your wife is capable of murder?"
The mirth drained from Clara's face when she looked up to see Sherlock gazing intently at her, and John doing his best to apologise with his eyes. "You . . ." she stammered. "What?"
"Harry's being accused –"
"Blackmailed," Sherlock cut in.
"– of running someone over, killing him." John didn't know what words to use, how to keep from bludgeoning Clara, but someone had to stand between her and Sherlock.
"Whilst intoxicated," Sherlock added.
"No," Clara whispered. She buried her face in her hands, just for a moment, the perfect shape of her skull and cropped hair brought low, and then she raised her head, defiantly, and said, right to Sherlock's face, "No."
John nodded at her, and Sherlock's gaze ticked from her to him like a spectator at Wimbledon. "Ah, there it is," he rasped. "You've closed ranks against me. Never mind that she's hurt both of you time and again. Never mind that she could very well have done it. Never mind that she burnt all the evidence of blackmail. You've made up your minds without having the facts –"
"Because we love her!" John shouted. God damn it, how many times did he have to have this fight with Sherlock? "We're not ignoring the facts – there just aren't any to be had yet!"
"And when I find them?" Sherlock looked almost panicked himself, for some reason. "If she is guilty –"
"Then we'll have to live with it," John said, reaching out his hands to Clara. She held fast to him. It would be easier to say this if he didn't have to look at Sherlock. "I would never ask you not to find the truth."
"John –" Sherlock said, quietly, like his throat had just been put through too much; he didn't continue, and the silence spun out between them.
It lasted until Clara asked, tentatively, "Tell me?"
Sherlock's eyes remained down, and John squeezed her hands gently, thinking back. It had been hard to hear Harry recounting the whole sordid mess, but it would have been worse to hear second-hand. And Clara had already been blindsided by Sherlock Bloody Holmes. He said, as kindly as he could, willing her to remember that he loved her, "Darling, it's not our story to tell."
Clara stood then, not quite as graceful as she usually was, and looked down at Sherlock. Her soft Kenyan accent was more pronounced than John had ever heard it, a clear sign of agitation. "You love the truth. We love her. Seems like everyone's got a stake in this, so you had better do your best."
John felt her lips on his cheek, three quick kisses, and then she was gone. Sherlock still hadn't moved, didn't turn even when John took his jacket down from its peg and went off, forty minutes early, to the surgery.