John misses a lot of things about Afghanistan. Some of these he can talk about with his therapist or with Mike or the lads down the pub. He misses the food. He misses feeling useful. He misses being a stranger in a strange land where nothing is the way he is used to. London can be disturbingly familiar at times. He misses the feeling of camaraderie and the comforting order of military structure where everybody knows exactly where they stand and who they are.
There are other things he can't quite bring himself to mention. How can he explain to people who are blessedly, innocently, ordinary that he misses the danger? That he misses the rush of adrenaline and the utter calm that always settles over him in moments of greatest risk? That he misses, God help him, the violence of it all? Not because he has any sadistic or masochistic tendencies. He is not actually all that fond of pain though he has absolutely no trouble ignoring it. No, violence raises the stakes. That crystal clear feeling that everything you do matters in a life or death way. That is what he thought he had lost. That is what he regained in that frenzied taxi ride to safe Sherlock from the serial killer. He had gone up the chain of command like he was supposed to, he had called Lestrade for back-up, but in the end it had all come down to him. His finger on the trigger. His slow exhale as he fired the gun. The wonderful, breathless stillness of that moment.
The other thing he really misses about his army days and that he can't really bring himself to mention to anybody is casual touching. God knows, it's not as if they ever sat down and cuddled or anything. But, in John's experience, soldiers develop an easy physical closeness with each other that reminds him a bit of his rugby team mates from uni. Only about a hundred times as intense, due to the isolation and constant danger. There were casual slaps on the back, quick squeezes of shoulders and arms. Firm grips when equipment or wounds needed to be checked. Mates leaning against each other tiredly. The crowded silence of barracks and the inevitable huddling together under the cold desert night sky. The relieved hugs and squeezes when you realised that your mates where not dead despite the intel you had just gotten on the radio.
John feels a little pathetic about missing this but he does. He tries to remember if he has ever felt a similar absence of casual, affectionate touches before in his life and comes up blank. His family, for all its myriad faults, has always been physically affectionate and all during his childhood there was Harry who would exercise her big sister prerogative to hug him whenever she felt like it, often against his express wishes. He remembers childhood afternoons when he and his friends would end up in one big messy sprawl on his bedroom floor reading comics together, arms and legs casually touching, heads pillowed on stomachs, innocent and thoughtlessly intimate. As a teenager and at uni there were his team mates - rugby is a pretty physical sport after all - as well as later on a steady string of girlfriends who were only too happy to have a boyfriend who didn't have to be coerced into touching outside of sex.
John had had the vague idea that this is where he would pick up: Get back, get himself a flat and a job and a girlfriend. He really likes women and he loves sex, he was looking forward to having a steady relationship again. That was before he met Sherlock. Sherlock, who had brought risk and colour and movement back into his civilian life and who is making it utterly, spectacularly impossible to go on regular dates. Oh, sure, John will go out every once in a while, even have the odd one-night stand when the odds are good and he is really gagging for a shag. The truth is, though, that casual sex isn't really his thing. Neither, truth to be told, is it particularly good. Touching strangers for the first time is always awkward unless it is for a medical examination and he really prefers the sort of sex you can have when you know a person's body well.
And so, more often than not, he finds himself spending his evenings at Baker Street writing up one of their cases or watching the telly with Mrs Hudson when he isn't chasing criminals through the London streets. He finds that, thanks to the excitement and ever present danger that their work entails, he is mostly happy to slip back into the habit of army days when sex was either a brief assignation somewhere between shifts and behind barracks or, more often, consisted of his own right hand. For the moment at least, he is fine with his lack of a sex life. What he isn't fine with is the lack of casual touches and the absence of the animal comfort of a warm body pressed against his.
Sherlock isn't really a physically affectionate bloke - hell, most times John isn't even sure Sherlock is even capable of being genuinely affectionate – and it isn't as if John has a lot of friends left in London. There is Mike Stamford he goes out for the odd pint with and sometimes he will have a drink with Lestrade when Tottenham is playing, but that is about it.
It has taken some time to figure out that the reason he is feeling out of sorts and itchy in his own skin so often is that he is simply touch starved. Skin hunger he thinks. Sure, Sherlock will touch him every once in a while: Shoving him into his coat and out the door with a firm hand between his shoulder blades, pulling him behind cover when they are in danger of being shot at or gripping his chin with strong fingers when he wants John to look into a specific direction. But those touches are always brief, impersonal and goal directed.
John knows he is in trouble when he realises that Sherlock touching him actually makes him grumpier because it feels disturbingly like being cock-teased by someone who has no intention of following through. God, no wonder everybody thinks they are shagging! The truth is, of course, that Sherlock is simply as oblivious to John's peculiar form of loneliness as he is to most emotions he isn't actively deducing. Also, he doesn't seem to have any need for casual or friendly touches of his own. John, to his embarrassment, has experimented: He has slowly slid closer to Sherlock on the sofa when they were watching one of his James Bond films, telling himself that he can always blame it on the three beers he has already had. But Sherlock simply kept moving away whenever John's shoulder was in danger of touching his and after the third attempt and a definitely suspicious glance from Sherlock John had finally given it up as a bad job. He tells himself he is being ridiculous and tries to forget the whole thing but it never quite works. He still comes home from a particularly atrocious day at work and feels the overwhelming urge to simply lie down on the couch and just hold somebody or feels the insistent need for a brief full-body hug after the latest life-threatening crisis. He even thinks about getting himself a cat but Mrs Hudson decidedly vetoes the idea and he thinks that any pet surviving Sherlock's constant experiments is probably highly unlikely, anyway.
He tries to tell himself that it doesn't matter, that he has a good life now, hell, a great life even, that his friendship with Sherlock and their extraordinary adventures, the quiet companionship of Mrs Hudson in front of the telly and Lestrade next to him in the pub are enough. And the thing is: They very nearly are. But this last little bit is missing and he can't help worrying at it like a sore tooth. He sits next to Sherlock on the couch and feels the physical distance between them like a painful ache. He joins Mrs. Hudson for a cup of tea in the living room while they listen to Women's Hour on BBC 4 and gets horribly melancholic because he has the sudden impulse to put his head in her lap and let her pet his hair the way his mother used to do when they were listening to the same programme on rainy days. Mrs Hudson would probably think he had gone completely mental though, so John stays where he is.
He is a little afraid Sherlock might figure out what is going on, why he is sometimes so morose and grumpy, why he can't keep himself from stealing touches by casually bumping his shoulder into Sherlock's when they walk. He is worried that at some point, when Sherlock stands right in front of him and John is very tired, he will turn around and realise that John is seriously fighting the urge to just lean forward and rest his head against Sherlock's back. But he never does.
This has been going on for months now and John is beginning to think that he might have a serious problem when the whole thing starts affecting his self-esteem. He finds himself obsessing about the question of whether somebody would just touch him if he was a better person, more attractive, more intelligent. Less scarred by the war. Recognising this as the slippery slope towards depression that it is, he decides that it is time for drastic measures. Sure, sex with strangers isn't great but a nice long fuck might at least alleviate some of the self-doubt and hopefully shut up the nagging little voice at the back of his head that calls him damaged and undesirable. Even if he has to get through a round of awkward fumbling for this, the peace of mind should be worth it.
So John grabs his jacket and decides to go down to the pub. It is Saturday night and there is sure to be at least one shaggable bird there who won't turn him down. He can, after all, be quite charming when he wants to be.
He turns up the collar of his jacket as soon as he steps outside and tries to decide whether the drizzle merits an umbrella. Shrugging his shoulders he decides that a brolly will be more trouble than it's worth in a crowded pub. He simply ducks his head down and begins to walk into the cold and grey November evening.
When he gets to the pub, though, it is so crowded he can't even get in. Standing on the pavement outside he stares in disbelief at the people who are crowding around the door with their drinks in hand and watches as the last bloke who tries to squeeze his way in is forcibly ejected onto the street again. He is so taken in by the unusual spectacle that he nearly jumps out of his skin when Lestrade suddenly appears at his elbow and comments “I think they are having a stag party in there. Bloody tourists!”
“Bloody hell, Greg, you almost gave me a heart attack!”
“Jumpy, are you? You here for the game then?”
For a moment John considers telling Lestrade the truth but actually explaining so someone “I'm on the pull because I am desperate for someone to touch me” is even more mortifying than simply thinking it. Best to play along.
He nods. “Yes, well, not much of a chance of that happening now. Might as well go home.” He can't help but feel dejected at the thought though.
It must have been audible because Lestrade throws him a sideways glance and says “We could watch it at my place, if you want to. I've got some beer and cider in and we could stop at the off-license for some crisps.”
John feels a little caught. He had been idly toying with the idea of simply moving on to another pub in the hope of finding somebody willing to let him spend the night, but he can't very well say that to Lestrade after pretending to be here for the match. Cider though – cider is a draw. It's his favourite drink and he is still not quite used to being able to have it any time he wants to. He has high standards, though.
He eyes Lestrade speculatively. “What kind of cider do you have in? Because if it's Strongbow or something - ”
Lestrade looks offended. “Hell, no. Old Rosie.”
God, that is the good stuff. It has sediment and everything. John finds that his mind is made up.
“Right then, lead on, or we'll miss half of it.”
The game isn't much – Tottenham are kind of shite this season – but it is enjoyable to moan about their abysmal technique and get quietly plastered with somebody. Lestrade's couch is strangely comfortable, the sort that is so old and worn that, no matter where you start out, you inevitably end up in the dip in the middle. And Lestrade is warm and relaxed next to him, so John really can't be blamed if he maybe, maybe leans in a little closer than is strictly necessary, so that their shoulders are touching. Unlike Sherlock, Lestrade doesn't move away. Lestrade also is bloody good fun to be around – he keeps making these sarcastic comments that have John choking on his crisps more than once – and the cider is chill and tart, just the way he likes it. He is on his fourth bottle and more than a little pissed by the time the match ends and Lestrade turns off the telly, so he doesn't get up right away. They sit in companionable silence for a moment and then Lestrade gives him another one of these sidelong glances and asks “Are you alright, mate? You seemed a little down in the mouth earlier.”
John sighs. He had hoped Lestrade hadn't noticed or at least wouldn't bring it up – aren't blokes supposed to hate talking about their feelings? - but he should have known the sneaky bastard would simply wait for him to get drunk enough to tell the truth.
The thing is, he almost wants to tell somebody. And Lestrade would probably be nice about it. Sure, he would take the piss for a bit but he is unlikely to spill John's little secret to anybody else, and frankly, making fun of it might be the best way to get himself out of his grumbly mood.
He leans his head back onto the back of the couch and closes his eyes as he tries to figure out the best way to say this so it doesn't come out as a cheesy come-on.
“It's - just the touching, you know.” He grimaces: that really could have been phrased better but Lestrade next to him stays still and relaxed so John figures he might as well keep going.
“With Sherlock around it is almost impossible to convince anyone of sticking around for a second date and he is just so fucking stand-offish sometimes and – ah, bugger it, I don't know.” He shrugs helplessly, not finding exactly the right words that will explain his situation without making him sound desperate or childish.
“It's not even about the sex, you know? It's more just, I don't know, creature comforts or something.”
“Hm.” Lestrade says next to him, and then: “So, tonight at the pub you were - ”
“Looking for a shag, yes. And look where that got me.” He is trying to be subtle about it but he really doesn't want Lestrade getting the wrong idea.
They both laugh a little at that.
“Sorry to get in your way, mate.” Lestrade sounds more apologetic than amused and after a moment he adds: “When my wife and the kids moved out, that was one of the hardest things.”
John looks at him in surprise but Lestrade is staring into his pint glass with an unhappy twist to his mouth. John deliberately moves a little closer again, this time trying to provide some unobtrusive comfort. There isn't really a lot to be said here, divorces simply suck. But privately he has to admit that he is a little relieved not to be alone in his touch deprivation issues.
“Really?” he can't help but prod.
Lestrade nods. “I mean, don't get me wrong: Realising that Annie was having an affair, that she had stopped loving me at some point and I didn't even notice - “ he stops and swallows. “It hurt. Realising that all these dreams we had of a life together were just never going to happen.....” After a moment he shrugs. “It was bloody awful. But what really gets me down is the small stuff, you know? Coming home to an empty flat. Having to phone my own children, if I wanted to know how their day has been. And, well the touching thing.” Lestrade grimaces and John suddenly feels like a complete dick. Here he has been going on about his own, considerably more minor, woes, never stopping to think what sort of emotions they might trigger for Lestrade. He wants to kick himself but that seems unlikely to improve the situation. He briefly considers hugging Lestrade but that just feels much too awkward, despite their previous confessions. In the end they simply sit there in silence for a while, leaning against each other ever so slightly.
It isn't what either of them wants, precisely, but right now it is enough.