The Zero Hour
zero hour: noun 1. (Military) the time set for the start of an attack or the initial stage of an operation, especially a combat operation of great size. 2. (Informal) a critical time, esp at the commencement of an action; a time when a vital decision or decisive change must be made. 3. moment of truth, crisis, turning point, vital moment, appointed hour, moment of decision.
"I would try to convince you but everything I have to say has already crossed your mind."
Sherlock looks at John, who gives a tense nod at the unspoken question. "Probably my answer has crossed yours," Sherlock replies, aiming the gun at the vest.
Moriarty giggles and holds up a hand. "Wait, hang on," he says. "I do have one more trick up my sleeve, so to speak. Watch closely, boys." He grins then waves his hand with a dramatic flourish, and suddenly there's a popping sound and smoke is filling the air where Moriarty is standing. "Abracadabra!"
When the smoke clears, he's long gone.
In the car, as they drive back to Baker Street a short while later, John is silent. He looks out the window and watches the still-dark streets rush by, feeling oddly detached from what's happening around him; he barely hears what Mycroft is saying to Sherlock though it's clear the elder Holmes is delivering a scathing dressing down to his younger brother.
Anthea is quiet too, typing into her BlackBerry and ignoring everyone.
John closes his eyes and leans his head against the window. Too much, he thinks. He's cold, tired, overwhelmed. Too much.
When they get back to the flat and Mycroft has gone (with the grave promise that he'll be paying them a visit the next day), John turns to Sherlock and says, "You must have an emergency pack of cigarettes somewhere around here. I'd like one please."
Sherlock gapes at him, clearly startled by the request, but then he goes off to his bedroom and returns moments later with a pack of cigarettes, a lighter and an ashtray.
John takes the proffered items, lights up.
Sherlock sits down on the sofa and watches John smoke. A minute passes. Two. Then Sherlock breaks the silence. "What happened with Moriarty...before you got to the pool?" he asks. "What did he say to you?"
John shakes his head and presses his lips together. "No. We're not going to talk about that," he finally says. "It's not important for you to know."
"But - "
"No. I don't want to talk about it." He stamps out his cigarette with more force than necessary. "Look, I don't want to fight with you right now. It's been a long night. I don't want to talk about what happened. I'm too upset and I'll end up saying - no, we'll both end up saying things I'm sure we'll regret."
"John. What - why? I don't understand. Are you angry with me?"
"You're serious?" John says incredulously. He lets out a breath when he sees Sherlock's puzzled expression. "Jesus! You really don't get it, do you? To answer your question, yes, Sherlock, I am angry with you. And the fact that you seem surprised by that is...god, it's unbelievable!"
Sherlock stares at him.
"For the moment, let's put aside the fact that you lied and went off without me to meet an insane psychopath," John begins, " - and, just to be clear, in case you haven't figured it out yet, that's one of the things I'm angry about. But consider this: I've dedicated myself to a life of service - to helping others, to making a contribution to humanity. That means something to me. I went to war. I watched men and women die for 'Queen and country', as you like to call it. When Mycroft gave you the Andrew West case and I saw you weren't taking it seriously, I told you it was important...and then you showed up at the train tracks and I thought you'd finally understood. I thought you were trying to do the right thing, getting the memory stick back."
He holds up a hand when Sherlock opens his mouth to interrupt. "No, let me finish. I thought you understood and were finally doing your part - your small part - to protect and serve your country, and I was proud of you. But then, what did you do? You just gave up those missile plans like it was nothing. And for what? For a game. A bloody game! A getting-to-know-you present, Sherlock!"
"I didn't," Sherlock protests angrily. "It wasn't because of that. Yes, I brought the memory stick to the pool and I said what I said, but it was meant to be a bluff! I wasn't really going to give it to him. I only did because he was threatening you."
"That's just as bad!"
"What? You offered to give up your life for me! How is that any different?" Sherlock shouts.
John closes his eyes, inhales sharply. Exhales. Takes another breath. "No," he says, getting to his feet. "I can't do this right now." He storms off to the kitchen and puts the kettle on then goes to the fridge. "Oh, that's just great!" he snaps a moment later.
"What?" Sherlock asks. He's hovering in the doorway, peering at John anxiously. "What's wrong?"
"I want some bloody tea and there's no milk. Of course there isn't! You said you would get some." He stops and glares accusingly at Sherlock. "Wait. Why did you even offer, anyway?" A thought occurs to him suddenly, one that makes his stomach clench and his chest feel tight. "Oh. Right. Of course. You only said it because you wanted to get me to leave the flat faster so you could set up your..." - he wants to say 'date', wants to fling the word at Sherlock with all his might, but despite his anger and hurt, he's still in control of himself enough to not give that much away, or at least any more than he already has (You've rather shown your hand there, Doctor Watson) - "...your meeting with Moriarty."
Sherlock has the grace to look abashed. He stares at the floor. "No," he says quietly. "I was going to get it. I'd intended to..." He looks up. "John. I - "
"Forget it," John says, cutting him off. "It's fine." He walks past Sherlock, heads back to the sitting room. "I'm going to go to bed, but I should probably check my email first. Moriarty took my phone and I was supposed to see Sarah tonight. She must be wondering what happened to me."
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Sherlock, who's settling himself back on the sofa, flinch minutely at the mention of Sarah's name. Good, he thinks.
John sits down at the table in front of his laptop and opens it. When he accesses his email he sees he has several messages. He reads them all. The last one from Sarah he reads aloud: "John, I think it's fair to say I've put up with a lot from you, both personally and professionally. It was worth it until now, because you really are a lovely man, even if you are a little mad, what with the dangerous adventures you get yourself into (which you don't seem to mind at all, and in fact, actually seem to thrive on). However, I am not like you. I might enjoy a bit of adventure but there are limits. Getting death threats from the people you choose to involve yourself with is the last straw. I don't know what's going on with you and with Sherlock but I got a text just now that said, 'My dear Sarah, this is your one and only warning. Stay away from John Watson or I will kill you.' - signed 'JM'. So, yeah, I'm sorry, but I can't see you anymore. Ever. Don't call me, don't come over, and don't bother coming into the surgery. It's over."
"Why would Moriarty threaten her?" Sherlock asks. He sounds surprised.
"What does it matter, why?" John says in a strangled voice. "Jesus Christ! Do you ever listen to yourself?" He slams the laptop shut and turns in his chair to face Sherlock. "You're always going on about observing but do you even see? The things you do, the things you've done have consequences! Not just on you but on other people!"
Sherlock's expression changes. He looks furious suddenly. "Yes, I do see that," he says, his voice going cold. "I'm not stupid."
"I've lost my job, my girlfriend - "
"Well, she wasn't exactly your girlfriend though, was she?" Sherlock interjects snidely. "You went on a few dates with her and talked about it on your blog as if dating her was something you were enjoying, but nothing was really happening between you. You spent the night at her flat but you slept on the sofa. I bet you never even kissed her. And why was that, hmmm? For someone with the reputation of a 'Casanova', it's really quite interesting that you weren't making the relationship," he sneers, "progress very far."
John forces himself to be calm. He stands, walks over to the coat rack and grabs his coat.
Sherlock is up in a flash and rushes to get between John and the door. "No, don't go," he says urgently, looking slightly panicked. "Moriarty's still out there. We don't know where he is and what he's planning next. It's not safe. You're angry with me, I know, but you can't go. Please."
John stares at him for a long moment. Then he hangs his coat back up on the coat rack and without a word, turns and makes his way across the room. He goes upstairs, to his bedroom, locking the door behind him.
Alone in his room, John feels his control crumble the moment he locks the door. He changes out of his clothes, throwing them in the corner. Then he gets into bed and turns out the light.
He wishes he could just go to sleep but he can't stop thinking; the thoughts are running in a constant loop over and over in his head and he can't turn it off. What he can't stop thinking about: how Sherlock liked the attention, how he lit up every time Moriarty gave him a new puzzle, how he was practically preening with the excitement at the novelty of being engaged in a battle of wits by someone who was his intellectual equal. Thinking about it makes John feel sick inside - the way Sherlock let himself get seduced by Moriarty's twisted courtship of games and puzzles (and yes, seduced is the proper word, John thinks viciously - and in the privacy of his own mind, John is honest enough with himself to admit that most of his anger and hurt stems from the fact that he's jealous, not that he wants to explore that too deeply).
Sherlock had only cared about the attention and the game, never mind who got hurt.
That changed when John was brought in as the fifth pip. For a moment, John can't help but feel a twinge of vindictive satisfaction remembering the look on Sherlock's face when John had emerged from the pool's changing stall. It had been obvious from Sherlock's shocked expression that he had actually thought in those first few seconds that John was Moriarty, and John, furious with Sherlock after hearing the words "I bought you a little getting-to-know-you present", hadn't done much to disabuse him of that notion when reciting Moriarty's opening gambit.
(Evening. This is a turn up, isn't it, Sherlock? Bet you never saw this coming.)
But then John suddenly remembers the look on Sherlock's face when Moriarty had turned his attention away from him and onto John. And there it was - that flash of fear in Sherlock's eyes, fear that Moriarty was going to hurt John.
That's why Sherlock gave up the memory stick.
(Here. Take it.)
And it was that moment, that action, that had showed something tremendous. It exposed the cracks in Sherlock's armour, revealing a glimpse of vulnerability that's almost heart-wrenching in retrospect.
Moriarty had seen it, just as John sees it now.
(I will burn the heart out of you.)
(I've been reliably informed that I don't have one.)
(But we both know that's not quite true.)
John remembers the fear on Sherlock's face, and the evidence that Sherlock does indeed have a heart, and is ashamed of his own pettiness and jealousy.
And yet...he can't forget everything else that happened either.
When he finally falls asleep, he feels more conflicted than ever.
The next morning when John goes downstairs, Sherlock is waiting. He offers John a cautious smile and says, "I made you some tea." He clears his throat. "With milk. I got some from Mrs Hudson."
John looks at him.
Sherlock holds out the cup of tea. He's tense, nervous.
John takes it. "Thanks," he says quietly.
"Breakfast?" Sherlock asks, gesturing at the table. "Mrs Hudson made scones."
John notes that the table has been set for two. He nods. "Yeah, ok."
They sit down across from each other.
Sherlock coughs then reaches out and gets a scone, putting it down on his plate.
They both go for the jam at the same time. Their fingers brush together, and it's like an electric shock; they both start at the contact then look away.
Jesus, John thinks.
A knock at the door saves them from the very awkward silence that has suddenly descended upon the room. Sherlock actually looks relieved as he jumps up and rushes off to answer it, though when he comes back his expression is one of supreme displeasure.
For some reason, John flushes when Mycroft's eyes fix speculatively on the table and the two settings.
"Forgive me," he says. "I see I've interrupted your...breakfast."
Sherlock glowers at him. "What do you want, Mycroft?" he asks rudely, plopping himself down on the sofa with ill grace.
Mycroft gives Sherlock a look then says, "If you'll excuse us, brother, I'd like to speak to John in private."
Sherlock folds his arms across his chest defiantly. "I'm not going anywhere."
Mycroft's eyes narrow. "You will excuse us, Sherlock. You owe me."
"I don't care," Sherlock snaps. "I'm not going anywhere."
"It's fine. Let him stay," John says to Mycroft. "What did you want to talk to me about?"
Mycroft looks at Sherlock like he's going to argue but then he shrugs and lets out an annoyed sigh. He turns his attention back to John. "Due to recent events, I believe you might want to consider...other options," he begins.
Sherlock is on his feet in a millisecond, his face red with shock and anger, violin bow brandished threateningly in Mycroft's face. "How dare you!" he growls. "Stay out of this, Mycroft! I mean it!"
"Really, Sherlock," Mycroft says in a mild voice as he calmly bats the bow away. "It's not actually up to you, is it? There's only so much a person can tolerate, you must realise. Perhaps John has finally reached that limit. I'm merely offering him an opportunity for something...else."
John has never seen Sherlock this angry before. Trying to head off potential fratricide, he says, "Er...I appreciate the concern, Mycroft, but this really isn't a good time."
Mycroft raises a brow, looking back and forth between John and Sherlock. "Hmmm...yes. Perhaps not." He takes out a card from his pocket and hands it to John. "Come see me at my office later. My number's on the card."
Thankfully, John is spared the inevitable argument with Sherlock when Sherlock gets a text from Lestrade almost immediately after Mycroft leaves.
"I have to go," Sherlock says. "It could be important."
"Ok," John replies.
Sherlock hesitates, looking as if he wants to say something.
"You should go," John says, averting his eyes. "Like you said, it could be important."
John doesn't see Sherlock again until that evening, when John gets back from visiting Harry.
"How was your sister?" Sherlock asks.
"She's fine. Worried, understandably."
"Did you tell her what happened?"
"As much as she needed to know. I had to tell her about Moriarty. I told her to watch out for him, gave her a description of what he looks like."
Sherlock nods, looking uncomfortable.
"I also met with Mycroft. Earlier, before I went to Harry's," John says after a pause. "He offered me a position. MI6."
John shrugs. "He said I'm perfectly suited for it, and now that I'm out of a job he thought I might be interested."
Sherlock looks aghast at that. Aghast, and...scared. "You're not actually considering it, are you?"
John hesitates. Finally he says, "I don't know."
It's the hurt on Sherlock's face that nearly undoes John. But John is hurt too. He's hurt and angry and confused, and he's not ready to just forgive Sherlock for what he did, as if none of it mattered, as if none of it ever happened.
"Look," John says, "I don't know what I want. Everything's gone mad and I don't know what I'm doing or what I'm going to do...but to be honest, I'm tired and I don't really want to think about it right now."
Sherlock just stands there, frozen, a stunned expression on his face.
John can't bear it. "I'm going to bed," he says. "We'll talk more in the morning."
Without a word, Sherlock turns and walks away, heading for his bedroom. He slams the door so hard it echoes throughout the flat.
John feels too much and he's not sure Sherlock feels enough. That's what it boils down to. And yet, he's seen glimpses that maybe Sherlock does feel enough, that maybe he feels just as much as John does.
There is a word for what John feels. He hasn't wanted to give it a name but he knows exactly what it is.
And that's just it - if he gives in to it, if he lets himself surrender to it and get pulled in any deeper, there is one thing he knows with absolute certainty: there will be no going back and there will be no getting out of it. Being with Sherlock isn't just consuming; it's all or nothing. If John chooses to stay, he knows he's choosing to take on everything.
With that in mind, John makes a decision: he's going to leave it up to Sherlock to make the next move. If Sherlock wants John in his life he's going to have to man up and do something to prove he's worth it. Because John knows all the concessions he would have to make, all the concessions and the compromises and the absolute commitment it would require, if he stays.
John is awakened by the sound of his door opening and Sherlock coming into the bedroom. He pretends to be asleep but when Sherlock gets down on his knees to kneel by the bed, John's heart begins to race, and he has to make an effort to maintain his steady breathing.
Sherlock's own breathing is ragged. "Don't go," Sherlock suddenly whispers. He sounds as if he's been crying. "You can't."
John's heart is pounding but he keeps his eyes closed, waiting to hear what Sherlock is going to say next.
"I'm used to people leaving but you're different."
John doesn't move, doesn't say anything.
"You're different. Don't you understand that?"
John waits again, waits for Sherlock to work out what he's trying to say.
"If you go...I don't think I could bear it. I never thought I would ever say this to another person but..." He trails off abruptly and inhales sharply.
This is the moment, John thinks. The zero hour. The point of no return.
He slowly reaches out until he finds Sherlock's hand. "But what?" he whispers.
"You can tell me, Sherlock," he prompts gently, reassuringly. "You can tell me...anything. Really."
Sherlock is silent for several seconds. When he finally speaks, the words are choked out, as if it physically hurts Sherlock to say them. "I...have feelings...about you. Feelings I didn't expect to have...that I don't have for other people."
John opens his eyes and looks at him. "Do you?" he asks softly. "What kind of feelings do you have...about me?"
Even though the room is dark, John can see that Sherlock is gazing at their joined hands. "It's hard for me to talk about...this sort of thing," Sherlock says. "I'm not good with - I don't know how to..." He stops, takes a breath, then blurts out, "I...care...about you. Do you understand what I'm trying to say?" He squeezes John's hand, clutching it tighter.
John realises Sherlock is trembling.
"I think I understand...what you're trying to say," John hedges. He appreciates how difficult it is for Sherlock to even acknowledge his emotions, let alone talk about them, but they've been dancing around this for too long, and there's too much at stake now for ambiguous language and opaque gestures and equivocal declarations that can be taken more than one way. It's not enough. John needs to know; there's no room for uncertainty, because...this is it. It's all or nothing. "But I think I need you to clarify."
Sherlock lifts his head and stares at him with wide eyes. "Isn't it...obvious?" he asks helplessly.
"You would probably think so," John answers. "But it's not, at least not to me."
For a long moment, they just look at each other.
Then Sherlock lets out a shaky breath and stills suddenly, as if steeling himself for something. He blinks a few times. Then without warning, he leans forward and presses his lips to John's.
It's a kiss, definitely. It's inexperienced and chaste and shyly innocent, and John can tell that Sherlock quite possibly hasn't done this before, but there's no doubt it's a kiss.
It's also an answer: firm, decisive, undisputable.
John is a man of action. Of action and reaction. There's only one thing he can do in response.