He went outside simply to take a breath, to calm down, to prevent himself from punching his best friend in the face. He could see that Sherlock was upset, couldn't understand his own angry and somewhat patronising reaction to that, and honestly meant to go back inside once he'd again found the precious balance that kept him sane in the company of his intense, insecure, impossible flatmate. But he saw the signalling again, went to investigate and by the time he realised his mistake Sherlock was texting him about Henry's therapist.
The thing with her thinking he was Sherlock's secretary cum lover, or whatever impression the scientist from Baskerville left her with, wound him up even more and at just after ten, when he was sitting at an empty table staring at their half-finished bottle of wine and contemplating going upstairs to a room that was going to be cold in more ways than one, he decided the last thing he wanted to do was go to bed, and the second last thing he wanted to do was drink alone.
So he braved the chilly night and the lonely village roads and walked the short distance to Henry Knight's indecently sized house. Henry was still up, surprise surprise, and welcomed the company, agreeing with him when John muttered something about Sherlock being an arse and there not being enough alcohol in the world to deal with the situations they found themselves in.
They took what looked (and tasted) like a hideously expensive bottle of red into the snug at the back of the house, and sat at the wide, long breakfast bar that looked out over the walled yard at the back. "Something was setting the movement detectors off," Henry explained, half-hysterically, "the lights kept coming on." But they stared out of the wall of glass for ten minutes in silence and nothing happened.
"Why do you stay with him?" Henry asked when the adrenaline and the cold had worn off and the wine had kicked in.
John contemplated the gorgeous deep Burgundy in his glass and shook his head slowly. "I don't know. Most of the time he's wildly unpredictable, completely crazy, and on the odd occasion I actually want to kill him just to keep him still." He considered that for a while. "But I can't imagine life without him in it. I can't imagine not waking up to the smell of chemicals and a demand for tea, or being lulled to sleep by the sound of a violin." He glanced up, saw the look Henry was giving him and knew which inevitable question was coming next, pre-emptied it. "We're not sleeping together."
Henry's frowned. "Why not?"
He ignored the question. "I've been telling people that since the night I moved into Baker Street, before I moved in, in fact." He pinned Henry with the same frown. "Why do people assume we are?"
Henry refilled their half-empty glasses. "You're two single men living together."
"Lots of men live together! Lots of guys have flatmates, share their rent with other... bachelors."
"I think most of those men would be able to imagine life apart."
"I didn't say I couldn't imagine life apart...." He let out a frustrated sigh. "It's no surprise I can't keep a girlfriend for more than a couple of weeks, isn't it?"
"Let me guess. They all have to compete for your time. You go when Sherlock texts you, you stay when he asks you to. They're all competing with him and they can't possibly win. He's too... engaging, too exciting, too brilliant."
Seeing Sherlock through someone else's eyes was strange. "Most people think he's... a freak at worst. A pain in the arse at best."
That was the question, the one that often kept him awake at night, kept his brain ticking over, contemplating everything that Sherlock was to him; not just his best friend but the path his life was going to follow for as long as he let it.
"He's a good man. The best I've ever met."
"Awww." He glanced at Henry, at the tilt of his head and the pursing of his lips, and laughed, dropped his head and let the laughter wash through him, wash away the bitter taste of the night - his argument with Sherlock, if that's what it could be called, his rejection by Dr Mortimer. Not that anything would have happened anyway, he knew; in the end they would have ended up saying goodnight and possibly, very possibly, share a quick kiss before acknowledging there wasn't even a chance of anything more ever being between them.
"We're not together!" he insisted, and tipped the glass of wine down his throat. Henry refilled it. "He's going to wonder where I am."
"I don't know." He giggled again, not meaning to but unable to stop it bubbling up. "Who the hell knows? I spend most of my waking life with the guy and I barely know him. His own brother...." But talking about Mycroft was off limits and even after the wine in the pub and the half bottle he'd managed to consume with Henry. He shook his head. "He was upset, earlier, really... upset. You're right that he saw something but he doesn't believe he saw it, doesn't believe his own eyes. And I walked out on him...."
"You said he was in a shitty mood."
"He said he didn't have friends."
"And that hurt you."
"I think I'm the only friend he's got."
Henry shrugged. "Well, maybe he doesn't know what to do with that. If he doesn't have friends, if he's never had friends, he probably doesn't know how to treat one."
"Oh, he definitely doesn't know how to treat one." John shook his head and finished his wine.
He considered it but shook his head. "I should get back...."
"Don't be daft. There are... lots of spare rooms upstairs. Kip in the first one you find."
"Don't thank me until you've slept through the night without me waking you up by screaming."
John looked at him. "Nothing's going to get you while I'm here." He was serious. He meant it.
He'd known the morning would start this way; the banging at the door, Sherlock barging in to Henry's house just to stop at the sight of him standing at the bottom of the stairs, hair still wet from the shower, eyes still blurry from sleep.
Sherlock's expression started at surprise and cycled through several emotions before settling on hurt, actual hurt. Then he turned on his heel and stormed off, throwing open the door again, almost running out of it.
"Oh for f-"
"I thought you said you weren't a couple," Henry teased, and John rolled his eyes.
"We're not a fucking couple!" He sighed dramatically. "I'll be right back."
"Take your time."
Sherlock had headed for the moor, away from the village and John followed him. It started to rain, just gently, just spitting.
He caught up when Sherlock stopped running, out on the moor, close to a small outcrop of great grey stones.
"Sherlock! For Christ's sake!"
"You walked out on me and ran to Henry of all people?!" He was angry, but John could hear the tears in his voice and that stunned him.
"I went to investigate the bloody signally I saw the other night! And when that turned out to be... unimportant, I obeyed your command and returned to interview Henry's therapist." Sherlock stared at him from a couple of feet away, rain falling between them. "And no I didn't get anywhere because that mad scientist from Baskerville interrupted us and gave her the impression that you and I are sleeping together. Which we're not! But I'm starting to think we should, because everybody thinks we are."
"You didn't come back to the room." He was still angry and that sent a rage through John that he didn't know what to do with. He took several steps forward, grabbed Sherlock's coat at the lapels and crushed their mouths together. Not a kiss, no where near. The culmination of months and months of misplaced frustration and misunderstood tension.
"We're not a couple, Sherlock!" He shouted in the man's face. But Sherlock was staring at him, not pushing him away, not moving.
"Did you just... kiss me?"
"No." He shook his head and almost laughed. "That definitely wasn't a kiss."
"So show me what is."
That stopped his anger dead. He'd never heard Sherlock talk to him, talk to anyone, in that tone before. He was caught, like the proverbial deer in headlights, hypnotised by one suggestion, one little plea. He stepped forward, sliding a hand over the blue scarf, from lapel to throat, stroking skin with the tips of his fingers as he leaned in slowly and touched his mouth to Sherlock's, gently this time, lingering before parting his lips and poking his tongue out between them, a hint that was picked up and subtly turned against him.
Sherlock's arms wrapped around him, he was pushed back and stopped from stumbling by a hand at the small of his back, directing him, one behind his head. The backs of his knees collided with one of the stones and he pushed forward again, tongue sliding into Sherlock's mouth, one hand reaching under his heavy coat.
Suddenly Sherlock was gone, taking several steps back, eyes wide, pupils blown, face flushed.
"You slept with Henry."
The accusation, the idea that this had been an experiment, should have enraged him but it didn't. Sherlock, he realised, was trying to understand. For eighteen months he'd been telling everyone who would listen that he wasn't gay, that they weren't in a relationship, that they weren't a couple. He was being contrary, he realised, giving out some very confusing messages.
"No," he reassured patiently. "And I never intended to or wanted to. I went to Henry's because I wanted another drink and I didn't want to share a room with you after the conversation we'd had last night."
Sherlock stared at him for a second or two before lowering his head.
"About that.... I haven't had a friend before. Not at school, not at university, not ever. Mycroft's the closest thing I've ever had to a friend and how did he describe himself to you? My arch-enemy? I'm still learning how to act around you, the things I should be saying, the... way I should be acting."
John signed, rolled his eyes and made a grab for one of Sherlock's gloved hands. "You don't have to say anything or act any differently to how you usually would. You can just be you. I don't need anything special from you, Sherlock. I don't want you to be someone you're not, I want you to be you. I... love you the way you are; the experiments and the composing, the silences and the tantrums and everything in between. Just be you, and I'll be me, and somehow... we'll work." He paused. "And I'm sorry too. Some of what I said to you last night was incredibly patronising. I'd never seen you like that before and I didn't react well. You are my friend, Sherlock, my best friend. That isn't going to change, no matter how much we try to fuck it up."
Coming forward again, Sherlock touched the palm of his other hand to John's face. "Do you think we might work as more than friends?" Never before had he heard this level of intensity, this need for answers from him to something other than a mystery. He didn't know, he really didn't know, but he was... willing to take a chance.
"I thought you were married to your work?" John couldn't help the little tease and was rewarded with an embarrassed smile.
"I didn't think I would end up... feeling this way about you. Not at that point in the evening anyway. It is something I've regretted saying since."
"Since you killed that cabbie, potentially saved my life."
"That was a couple of hours later, the same evening." He couldn't help but be amazed. "The first evening, first night, we knew each other."
Sherlock smiled. "Do you think it could work?"
John nodded. "I think so. If that's what you want, Sherlock, because I think I just don't want to live a life without you."
"Am I... attractive?" He needed to know - everything - something John was going to need to get used to. "To you, I mean. In... that way?"
"I...." He wrapped his fingers around those touching his cheeks, hard leather against his quickly cooling hand. "God, Sherlock, I don't know. It's so intense, but yes... you're like a bloody bright flame - it's impossible not to be drawn to you, not to be fascinated and a little bit awed. I'd not sure I'd survive if I was your sole focus, I'm not sure anyone would, but you should be loved, Sherlock, you deserve to be and you are." He kissed him again, moving slowly, aware of how long this transition from friends to lovers could feasible take. "I left Henry making tea, if you're interested and not about to punch him for giving me a bed for the night."
"Promise," Sherlock murmured, voice still with that low rumble that went straight to John's surprised libido. "Maybe tonight we can push the beds together in our room...."
Maybe it this courtship wasn't going to take as long as John thought.
They walked back to Henry's place, walking side by side for the first fifty yards, then shoulder to shoulder, and by the time they reached the house they were holding hands.
Henry opened the door and despite obviously trying his level best not to laugh, he was failing miserably.
"Now just to get things straight, you're not a couple?
John slapped his shoulder, and he led the way into the kitchen where the tea was brewing. There was a spring in his step, John saw, that had been missing up till now. There was still a mystery to be solved, but hopefully with Sherlock back in charge of himself, it wouldn't be long now.