Title: The Cure is Worse
Rating: PG-13 (what?!)
Warnings: mention of drug addiction
Summary: Sherlock needs to test a theory about his nicotine habit. The results are not what he expects.
It started as an experiment. Of course.
Sherlock was devoting every ounce of his not inconsiderable concentration to the problem of stopping himself from vibrating out of his skin. His head throbbed in time with his pulse. The stone-cold cup of tea Mrs. Hudson had brought him hours ago sat on the table, too far to reach comfortably, even if Sherlock had felt capable of sitting up. He could call John to bring him another cup, but that ill-advised solution would certainly lead to a worsening of the vibrating-out-of-his-skin problem.
John had caused this, in a quite straightforward manner that anyone else might have miscategorized as only tangentially related to the issue at hand. Sherlock, accustomed to finding interconnections between data points, could recall the inciting incident in perfect detail.
He’d been standing against the wall in the kitchen, left sleeve rolled above the elbow, right hand pressing down on two nicotine patches. He’d been considering the flecks of mud on the floor mat of the victim’s vehicle--dry on top of the mat, but underneath, still damp, and a darker shade (Different origin, then. The mat had been replaced after he’d moved the body. Why?)-- when John spoke.
“A two patch problem?”
Sherlock had noted John’s arrival and progress across the room, of course, but had immediately catalogued it as irrelevant to his current train of thought, and therefore to be ignored. He rarely bothered to devote attention to John’s whereabouts, as Sherlock could summon him quickly via text and, in any case, John persisted in being present when he was truly needed.
“Tuesday’s rainfall,” Sherlock said. “What time was it?”
“Cleared up around two. It’s psychosomatic.”
(Not the rain, clearly. Something to do with the victim’s sister’s speech impediment? No, John hadn’t met the witness. His leg, perhaps, except that was old news with no place in the conversation.) Sherlock opened his eyes.
John glanced at Sherlock’s bare arm. “The dependency is completely psychological. In my professional opinion.”
Sherlock closed his eyes again. “Who said I was dependent?”
“Do you actually think your genius exits at the mercy of a dopamine reaction?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Heaven forbid,” John had said. His enunciation was uncharacteristically short, clipped, pressing his lips together unnecessarily hard on the plosive b, over-pronouncing the d to make it nearly a second syllable. (Aroused emotional state. Could have had an upsetting experience prior to arrival; more likely, something about this interaction had irritated him.) “Why do you ask about the rain?”
Sherlock had been dragged back onto the chase then, and he’d filed John’s accusation away until the case was completed. Now, with no game to occupy him, Sherlock found himself pricked by the thorn of John’s words.
So here he sat, eighteen hours and forty-seven minutes since he last utilized a chemical substance. He’d thought he would have another six hours at least before experiencing symptoms, but either he’d miscalculated (unlikely) or this enforced idleness was amplifying Sherlock’s impressions of his physical state. He added the intensity of his headache, the crawling of his skin and the tingling in his hands to his growing list of data points.
Step one of the experiment, the work of this miserable afternoon: establish a baseline. He’d done nothing whatsoever to address his symptoms. If Sherlock had acquired a genuine physical dependency, then only a physical method of relief should alleviate the symptoms. On the other hand, if his withdrawal symptoms were, as John contended, merely a trick of his mind, then they could be dispelled by psychological methods. The third option--that Sherlock had no dependency, and that therefore no withdrawal symptoms would appear--had been neatly eliminated two hours ago with the onset of this damnable headache. Another well-designed experiment was already getting results.
Not that John needed to know the results of this experiment, or even that the experiment was taking place. Sherlock found most people’s opinions--especially opinions about himself--to be amusing at best, and boring at worst. John, though--his opinions carried a weight Sherlock picked up without thinking. And on this point, Sherlock would prefer that John didn’t have the satisfaction of knowing he’d piqued Sherlock’s curiosity (He’d smirk. He might smirk. Or smile patiently, perhaps, but with that glow of victory he got after one of his comments put Sherlock on track to a brilliant deduction.)
As if the thought had summoned him, John tromped down the stairs and into the kitchen. Sherlock pulled his blanket up underneath his chin and waited for John to leave so that he could get back to the business of being appropriately miserable.
John pushed aside the sealed package of kelp in the sink (Integral to another experiment that had been interrupted in favor of this one; he must really get back to that at some point) and ran some water for the kettle.
“You’ve been awfully quiet today,” John asked. “Should I be worried?”
“Working,” Sherlock muttered.
John set the kettle on the stove, leaned back against the counter, and turned on Sherlock the same unhurried, frank attention he gave corpses at crime scenes. “You look a mess.”
“Doesn’t look like you’re working. Looks like you’re pouting. Is that sweat? Are you sweating?”
Sherlock flung off his blanket and made a break for the door. “I’m going out.” He stopped at the bottom of the stair and assessed the contents of the foyer. He trudged back up the stair to find John unmoved. “Why have you taken my coat?”
“I’ll return it if you tell me about the experiment you’re working on.”
“I don’t want to offer conclusions until I have definite results. Doing so could compromise the data.”
“Do you think soldiers never get addicted to stimulants?” John glanced away from the kettle to raise an eyebrow at Sherlock. “I’ve seen withdrawal.” John stepped toward him. “Listen--.”
Sherlock dodged him and moved away, putting the kitchen table between them. He couldn’t let John touch him. It would ruin his control--ruin the experiment. “I’ve seen it, too. That’s not what this is.”
“What is it then? Tantrum?” John picked up kettle and began to pour.
“I told you, an experiment.” Sherlock could feel his irritation growing. It had an unpleasant amplificatory effect on the prickling sensation under his skin.
“I don’t understand.”
“Of course you don’t.” Sherlock saw the opening, saw that he could wound John. It would help protect his data (On average, there was an eighty percent chance that cruelty would make John go away), and a small part of him(Not as small as all that; look at the barbs routinely slung at Anderson or Donovan) craved the satisfaction as balm for his physical discomfort. “You see nothing. You natter around here with little purpose and no progress except that to which I deliberately lead you. Right now you’re an inescapable nuisance.”
John set down the kettle with a soft thump and stood perfectly still with his eyes fixed on the damned thing like it might do a trick. Sherlock felt a sense of discomforting blindness as he failed to deduce John’s thoughts. (Waiting for what? To decide a course of action? Or did he want a response? If so, what exactly did he expect?)
After almost precisely ten seconds, John said, “Well then.” He pried his fingers off the kettle and dried them with unnecessary force on the nearest towel. “Allow me to aid your escape.” John picked up his cup of tea--slopping a few drops onto the saucer (agitated, wounded indeed, and losing his usual fastidiousness). His steps toward the stair were measured, careful (Deliberately calm, attempting to hide his distress), and carried him out of sight sooner than Sherlock would have liked.
The glow of Sherlock’s victory lasted only moments. His discomfort crept back, stronger this time for having been temporarily thwarted. The headache had worked itself up to impressive proportions. Furthermore, there was a new symptom: a sort of painful gnawing at his gut that he decided to catalogue as nausea.
He returned to the couch, curled up on his side, and held himself as motionless as the natural processes of his body would allow. His mind seized on the new data, rabid for a problem to solve aside from the mystery of Sherlock’s own human weakness.
The symptoms had lessened temporarily during his conversation with John; that much was beyond dispute. John hadn’t touched Sherlock, so unless the physical movement Sherlock had undertaken had created some physical response, any results from this interaction had to be categorized as psychological effects. So it seemed his addiction did have some psychosomatic elements, at least. Fine. No point in arguing with the evidence.
Except… Except Sherlock couldn’t be sure of what had caused the lessening of the symptoms. It could have been that the stimulation of a good argument simply distracted him. Or perhaps it had been physical--the exertion of a rush up and down the stairs could have affected him somehow. Then again, there was another possibility, one he might have entertained before, perhaps, in idle moments, or in the rare moments before sleep.
Perhaps John himself had some unquantifiable effect on Sherlock.
Sherlock should stop the experiment. If John did turn out to be some sort of mysterious cure-all, Sherlock wasn’t certain he wanted that information. He could not, he must not use John that way. He must not have a crutch like John to lean on. To do his work, he must be independent, unfettered. Aloof, even.
Sherlock turned his back on the room and huddled into the sofa, nursing his physical misery like a fine scotch. That Sherlock of all people should be subjected to such a common, dull routine as lovesickness felt abhorrent. Still, his headache was quite real, throbbing behind his eyes worse than ever, now, and robbing him of mental acuity. His eyes drifted shut, and if he did not actually sleep, nor was he exactly awake.
The next thing he knew clearly was that he was standing at the kitchen counter holding a sachet of tea in the palm of his hand. His hand shook: tiny tremors that rumbled through him, irritating as flies. The headache still pounded in his temples, and the clench in his stomach had worsened.
“Sherlock.” John stepped up beside him. He was wearing a different jumper, this one of cabled wool in several shades of brown. Perhaps it was the next day. “What are you doing?”
“Looking at the tea,” Sherlock said, though he hated stating the obvious.
“Come here.” John pulled Sherlock forward by his shoulder. He pressed two fingers against Sherlock’s neck. “Your pulse is elevated.”
“Yes, I know.” He’d just been taking stock of his physical state, actually, when John had interfered. In fact, John’s fingers against his neck seemed to be altering the data, even as he spoke. Sherlock had thought his pounding blood would exacerbate the headache, but instead the pain seemed to be abating. “I am capable of my own diagnosis.”
“It’s not your powers of observation I doubt, it’s your common sense. You’re never this worked up unless you’re working on a case. So what’s the case?”
“Me,” Sherlock said. John’s skin still touched his, and his pulse was speeding up, not slowing down. “I’m the case.”
“Oh Sherlock.” John broke into an understanding smile that seemed to have an underpinning of pain. “You can’t self-deduce. Utterly impossible. It’s like Newton’s Third Law. You can’t lift yourself, you know.”
“I don’t see the connection.”
“Of course you don’t,” said John, but not unkindly. He cupped Sherlock’s hand, the one still holding his tea sachet. “Now. Does your case involve this sachet, or shall I make us some tea?”
Sherlock looked down. When John touched his hand, the trembling stopped. There seemed, of a sudden, to be more space in Sherlock’s head: enough to calculate his pulse (still quickening), to deduce the time of day (morning, by the sounds on the street; he must have spent the night sense-dulled by his misery), and to suss out John’s point about Newton (a metaphor, should have seen it at once). John’s skin on his created a startling clarity of mind.
“No. Of course.” Sherlock tipped the tea out of his hand and into John’s before pulling gently away. The headache came back only slightly, but the tremor in his hand had fled, as had the nausea. (Perhaps John maintained his effect in proximity, or perhaps the influence of his touch lasted beyond the original exposure.) Sherlock wondered what would happen if he touched more of John than his hand.
“So how’s the withdrawal?” John asked as he put the kettle on. His shoulders tensed as he turned his back on Sherlock (Braced for another verbal attack, most likely). “That is the experiment, isn’t it?”
“Not exactly,” Sherlock said. That may have been what he’d begun to explore, but his hypothesis had led him on a merry chase. Addicted. To nicotine. To the stimulation the game provided. And now, to John Watson (Traded cocaine for the thrill of the case and the occasional nicotine patch. Now he could trade up again. If he dared.) “I have the data I need.”
“Does that mean you’re done with the patches, then?” John shot him a hopeful glance.
“The results of my experiment are quite clear.”
“Are they.” John didn’t sound optimistic.
“I could live without the influence of chemical substances, but I choose not to.” (Choose not to be dependent on John, not like that, not when John had already filled up the empty spaces in Sherlock’s life so thoroughly it all might collapse if he ever left.)
John shook his head. “You just said, ‘I can stop any time.’”
“Have you developed a hearing problem?”
“It’s a phrase that--oh, never mind. You choose to be dependent.”
“Yes.” Nicotine patches were much safer than the lure of skin on skin. He didn’t need John to touch him again to imagine how it would feel (His sure doctor’s hands learning the planes of Sherlock’s body, his mouth firm and thrilling like the muzzle of a gun pressed against his temple.).
“And this mystery experiment convinced you that’s the proper choice?”
“Proper.” A bitter laugh escaped Sherlock. “In a manner of speaking.”
“Well.” John shrugged, but the tension in his shoulders had abated somewhat. “I suppose I should be grateful it’s nothing stronger than that.”
“You should be,” Sherlock said. (Truly.) He thought about turning away, but somehow he ended up watching John watching the kettle until it whistled.
John’s fingers wrapped around the handle of the kettle: appallingly routine, inescapably fascinating.
“John. Give me your phone.”
“What’s wrong with yours?” John didn’t wait for Sherlock not to answer, but fished his phone out of his pocket and held it out.
Sherlock rested his hand on John’s for a moment before taking the phone. His head immediately cleared, as if a clean wind had blown away a fog. He held the warm phone in his hand for a moment while John fussed with the tea. When John turned around again, Sherlock typed a short message on the keyboard, sent it, erased it from the out box, and handed back the phone.
“Thanks,” John said. He put two sugars in a cup and offered it to Sherlock. “I think I saw some eggs in the fridge. If I made a scramble, would you eat some?”
“I wouldn’t eat the eggs. They’ve been injected with dioxin.” Sherlock took careful stock of the way John’s hand curled around the teacup, but he did not reach out his hand to take it. Would not. “I’m headed out,” he said. “If you’ll return my coat.”
John regarded him for a second with a doctor’s eye. “Alright.” He disappeared up the stairs for a moment, and returned with Sherlock’s beloved coat and muffler.
Sherlock turned his back and held out one arm.
John sighed loudly, but he obliged Sherlock by putting his coat on him. “I’m not your valet,” John said. But he turned Sherlock around by the shoulder and wrapped the muffler around his neck, skin brushing skin again, transcendently stimulating beyond the effect of anything Sherlock had yet experienced. John gave Sherlock a little shake by his lapels, perhaps to make him open his eyes. “You listening? I’m not your house boy.”
“Yes. I know that.” Sherlock took one step backward, then another, then turned and hurried down the stairs before he accidentally articulated what exactly John was, or might be.
As the door to 221 closed behind him, he pressed himself against the brick of the wall, feeling wrung out as if he’d just been chasing criminals through the streets on London all morning. He pulled his own phone out of his pocket and read the text he’d sent himself.
“You’ve touched something he’s touched. Be satisfied with that. Be finished. – SH.”
Sherlock dropped his phone back into his pocket and let a smile turn up the corner of his mouth. “Not likely,” he whispered.