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Three Words in Sequence

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...

 

“Punch me in the face,” Sherlock says.

John freezes, his face a boiling pot of emotion. For a moment, it looks as if he actually will. They stare at each other; an arms-length away. Much too close for comfort in their small sitting room.

Much too far.

Back up a bit. Once more, with feeling.

Just an hour, or so, this time.

 

 

...

 

 

Sherlock stirs, feeling chilled. In the receding tail of half-sleep, he reaches beside him, searching for the blankets and also, out of years of habit, expecting the familiar muscled form to meet his fingers. He wakes fully with a surprised snap as he feels the slender, smoother arm instead.

Oh. Right.

She’s stolen all the covers, as usual, and taken up easily two-thirds of the bed, in her sloppy, somnambulant quest to nestle close to him. Her uncanny ringlets are fanned out over both of their pillows. He rolls to view her better, casting his gaze over her moonlit features; her beautiful face serene in deep sleep.

It is not their first night together like this, but the weird newness of it still lingers. This sort of thing is more John’s area; Sherlock is so unpracticed and inadequate in this regard. And another part of his consciousness, tainted by an old fear, needles him low in the belly with trepidation. People would talk. And oh, the things that some of them—the ones that used to stare at him and John with misapprehension and malice—would probably say now.

Confused deviant.

But at the moment, they are alone and safe in the dark; John isn’t here and there’s no one else to judge this, and Sherlock ultimately doesn’t care. He understands his motivations, and he’s not surprised to find that he’d needed this too; perhaps nearly as much as she had. She’d come to him for comfort and he’d be damned if he would have denied it. Especially now. He just wishes she would open up to him in daylight... these night-time sojourns evaporate with the dawn and he doesn’t know how to talk to her.

There was a time when Sherlock could not have believed that it were possible for anyone other than John to occupy such a large territory in his heart... yet here they are. He reaches out the sort of fingers that he reserves for a Stradivarius or an insect wing and smoothes a stray curl from her face. “I love you,” he whispers at her ear; marveling at the irrationality of this... the need to be quiet enough not to disturb her, paired with the desire to say it out-loud anyway. With the blankets redistributed and his arm carefully around her, he falls back into sleep.

Almost.

Unsure of how much time has passed—the sky through the curtain-crack is still dark—Sherlock is suddenly alert and aware of the near-silent sound of the door downstairs, then the tell-tale third step. An ascent, then a careful foot-fall through the flat. Not-familiar? No... it is... but the older version, from the recesses of his memory.  

A sight asymmetry, that limp. It only appears when the owner of the legs is very weary.

John regards them silently from the doorway. In the shadows, Sherlock can barely make out his face; the expression it wears is unreadable. A moment passes, and John looks up slightly from Sherlock’s companion and seems to recognize that Sherlock himself has woken and is returning the gaze. Their eyes glint at each other in the darkness. Then, just as silently, he turns and limps away.

Without disturbing the bed’s other occupant, Sherlock rises and tip-toes out the door, closing it behind him. He catches up to John, half-way down the hallway.

They nod stiffly in an awkward greeting. It’s one of those times when the words aren’t going to come easily.

Still, he has to try; knowing that if they don’t, they run the risk of missing each other, like ships that pass... like they used to. But even though John should know why better than anyone, Sherlock still feels the weird defensiveness and starts to explain, in a hushed tone, “We—“

“I know.” John holds up a hand, as if he doesn’t want to have to hear Sherlock continue the justification. “Of course it makes sense. Especially with me away so much lately.” His own voice is also barely above a whisper and completely flat, as is his face; blank, empty. He turns and continues to move through their home, his movements methodological, robotic.

Except that it takes him several minutes to find the bag he’s looking for... the one that is sitting quite obviously on top his chair; he stares at it three separate times before recognizing it as the object of his search. He picks it up and continues to wander, finding and packing items that seem to make sense—jumper, watch—and others that don’t—their Rubik’s cube?—but Sherlock isn’t about to argue.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m not staying,” John says, avoiding his gaze and not appearing to notice that it isn’t an answer to Sherlock’s question. “She kicked me out, but I’m going back again; whether she wants me there, or not. Just need a change of clothes.”

Sherlock glances hesitantly over his shoulder towards their bedroom door. “Let me just—“

“No.” His voice is suddenly sharp, and laced with something else. John halts and stares at him, and even though Sherlock can’t quite identify which one, there is definitely emotion back in his eyes.  He then looks down, and riffles though the laundry hamper half-tipped on Sherlock’s chair, as if hoping to find what he needs without having to go into the bedroom. “I’m... not ready right now. For that conversation. Okay?”

“Okay.”

As John flounders through the seemingly insurmountable challenge of efficiently packing his bag, Sherlock watches him helplessly, noting that he’s lost weight and wondering how much he’s eaten or slept recently. After the doctor re-folds and then misplaces the same shirt twice, glancing around the sitting room in a bewildered numbness, Sherlock steps closer to him and begs in a whisper, “Tell me what I can do?”

John keeps his eyes affixed on something beyond Sherlock’s shoulder and attempts to move past him. “I’m fine.”

He reaches out a hand and closes it around the bag’s handle, feeling John’s hand shaking with it. “I know; I just want to h—“

In Sherlock’s efforts to be useful and John’s to subvert this, they collide into each other between the sofa and the coffee table, John bumping his shin and cursing as he sways off-balance. Sherlock mutters an apology and attempts to steady him while still also backing off... but then John’s hands are suddenly on either side of his face, fingers twining the curls there, pulling him down, their mouths crashing together with a jarring of teeth. Sherlock closes his eyes in reflex, neither kissing back, nor pulling away; just letting his mouth fall open... more out of shock than anything else at this moment. Without looking, he can tell that the set of John’s lips is more snarl than smile; can feel it in the gnash of their canines and the desperation of John’s tongue. But a moment later, he cracks his eyelids a fraction, slides his own hands around John and groans against him in a way that is not unappreciative. John breaks the seal on him then, dragging his teeth across the taller man’s jaw, his mouth coming to rest below his ear. I’ll tell you what you can do, Sherlock thinks he just barely hears, under the flurry of their panting, Don’t say no. He turns his face slightly, grinding their cheekbones together, as if it’s possible to get any closer. Don’t say Not-good, don’t tell me about Timing, damnit... Perhaps John isn’t actually speaking; his words are just being pressed directly into Sherlock’s brain.

Don’t stop; please don’t stop. I just want to forget for a little while.

Perhaps they aren’t John’s words at all, but his own. I’ve missed you.

They fall in a tangle on the sofa, both casting a furtive look toward the bedroom door, which is still closed, trying to still their movements and breathing as they listen.

Nothing.

“Upstairs?” Sherlock whispers, stifling a moan as John’s hips move slightly on top of his, with a welcome crushing of his body further into the cushions.

John turns his head back toward him. “Probably should.” But neither of them move, save for John’s hand in Sherlock’s pyjamas, shoving t-shirt up and waistband down, fingers gripping Sherlock’s flesh, and his mouth working on his throat again, as if he aims to draw blood. When it does draw a soft gasp, John amends, “Or, you could just be quieter than you tend to be.”

Easier said, Sherlock thinks, but doesn’t argue... there’s a part of him that’s afraid that, if they do go upstairs, they’ll lose themselves entirely in the pretense of a privacy that really doesn’t exist at the moment. Better to stay here; keep silent, keep—mostly—clothed, keep watch over John’s shoulder... 

He feels his own teeth sink sharply into his lower lip to smother a cry and his eyes actually loll backward as the heel of John’s hand grinds down against the jut of his hipbone. He muses that this entire plan is, quite possibly, the worst one they’ve ever had... especially if John is hell-bent on touching him there...

 

 

...

 

 

Anterior superior iliac spine, Sherlock narrates to himself, hoping that silently reciting anatomic nomenclature will do something to pacify every nerve-ending that is screaming right now.

It doesn’t.

John’s fingers, which have been slowly ghosting over... under... between, damnit... have momentarily come to rest on what should be a more innocent item on the inventory he’s been taking. Undermining the edge of the low-slung waistband, they trace a lazy circle on the triangle of hipbone beneath taut flesh. Sherlock, who has been propped, semi-recumbent on his elbows, gives up and surrenders himself flat to the floor... only to raise again immediately, releasing a sharp hiss of pain. “Ow!”

His companion stops and looks up in confused worry. “What, did I—?”

Sherlock reaches behind his back and into the creases of his open shirt, feeling around for the small culprit. Digs it out and holds it up for them to see. Glass; blood-cornered. Another one.

John chuckles. “Sorry. Christ... you’re probably going to be finding those for days.”

He presses his mouth into a half-grin that says Worth it, and, without breaking gaze with John, flicks the shard into their fireplace, where it fizzles briefly on the flames.

The doctor crawls up the length of him, planting a kiss on his chin. “Well, that settles it.”

“Settles what?”

“Off. Everything.” They pull momentarily to sitting and he drags the shirt from Sherlock’s shoulders. “Can’t risk the remnants of your Erlenmeyers interrupting me again.” He runs hands soothingly over Sherlock’s back; new wounds and old scars and all.

Sherlock flinches for a moment, but doesn’t protest. “The cleaning staff are going to kill me tomorrow.”

“You won’t be working tomorrow,” the Captain-mode voice tells him in a way that makes his toes curl. It’s a joke, wrapped in a threat, and inside a promise.

“Oh.” Bed... they’ll eventually make it to the bed, but it’s not just that that makes Sherlock’s brain buzz with joy. Sleeping. Waking, touching. Shower, breakfast, day.

Day, night. Repeat. John is home.

John then raises both eyebrows in a sudden realization that had... somehow... slipped his consciousness earlier. “Does the lab have a security feed?”

“Of course it does...” Sherlock lets the flush of mortification travel only so far across his friend’s features before reassuring him, “...but I always set them up with an alternate version when I’m working alone at night.”

Relief. “You do?”

“Well, how else do you think I’ve managed to re-appropriate—

“You mean steal.”

“—so much of their stuff?”

“Good.” John has tossed the shirt up onto his chair and leans back, nudging Sherlock back down to supine and working the trousers and pants—a distinctive brand, he’s likely noticed—completely off. “I don’t mind if people know... but I don’t actually like the idea of us on camera.”

“We probably should’ve done a sweep of the flat, then.”

“Not funny, Sherlock.” John sits back on his haunches and tosses Sock #2 over his shoulder with a flourish and a look that says Now-then-where-was-I?  

Sherlock tries to return it with something resembling pure lust, only to find that the momentum of their earlier, spontaneous, partially-clothed and partially-curtailed exploits at Bart’s has now been weighted with a new emotion. Since their return home—John is home, finally HOME!—he realizes that he’s been stalling: light the fire, tidy up, pour them drinks; in attempting to classify and, hopefully, disarm whatever this unsettled sensation is. He’s not alarmed, certainly... that would be ridiculous. This is John... his best friend, who cares for him deeply; who knows him better than anyone in the world.

Who has never seen him entirely naked. It’s nerve-wracking. And now that John has subdued all the procrastination by coaxing him down—we didn’t even make it to the bedroom, for God sake!—to the floor in front of the hearth, he feels far too defenseless and exposed. Like an insect, tenderly dissected on slide... which, as Sherlock knows, are two concepts that are not mutually exclusive.

As if sensing this, John slows down, pausing to shuck his sole-remaining and surprisingly-crimson item of clothing so the two of them are on equal terms. He settles below him but touches nothing other than Sherlock’s hip, as if he’d be perfectly content to do only this all night. His thumb returns to stroking the right crest of pelvis. “You know, I think this might be my favourite part of you to kiss.”

“How... do you know that...” he croaks out, “...if you haven’t done it yet?”

John smiles, bending his face closer. “Well, it’s just a theory. Needs to be field-tested.” The suggestion of this renders Sherlock, unbelievably, even harder, and he twitches slightly, almost bobbing John in the eye and letting them both snicker at each other.

And then. Lips, tongue. Graze of teeth against the thinly-fleshed angle of bone. Sherlock’s brain momentarily loses its grasp of the language of anatomy, as well as most of the King’s English in general. “I think it...” he manages to gasp, a minute later, “...might be mine, too.”

The puff of laughter against his slicked bare skin almost makes his spine double back on itself. “Don’t be too hasty.” John props himself on one arm, moving inward. “Shall I try to finish what we started earlier?”

“I...” It’s almost too much; the surreal sight of something imagined but forbidden for so long; really happening... “I don’t...”

“We don’t have to do anything that you don’t want—“

“No, I want to. I’m just not sure I can... erm. You know. With anyone. Even... no, especially, you. I mean...”

“Let go?”

“Yes.” He feels his cadence rising with his breath; rapid-fire. “It’s strange. Is it strange? Why is it strange...?!”

“Sherlock. It’s okay.” John pauses, straightening his posture up a bit in a way that is more familiar than anything else he’s done in the past hour. “It is strange. But we’ll figure it out.” Then he smiles at him, in the way that only John can... in the way that means both Could be dangerous and oh, God, yes. “We’ve got the rest of our lives.”

But, in short enough order, Sherlock’s fears are proven unfounded, as the hearth-light of Baker Street burns in an afterimage on his tightly squeezed lids, before intensifying and washing over him in the novae of pleasure that his best friend’s warm mouth and hands brings. As with most things currently in his shattered consciousness, Sherlock is only dimly aware of the fact that the air in their flat has become thick with four-letter words, John’s name among them.

“Hmm.” John resumes a position up at his shoulder, licking lips and thumb. “Well. Can’t say I’ve heard you use that particular term very often.”

Sherlock rolls his head sideways to look at him, his chest rising and falling in gathering breath. “I say fuck all the time.” He really does; though this is usually censored in front of others—rude!—but John’s heard it often enough; whenever Sherlock has burned his fingertips, broken a string, found that Mrs Hudson has disposed of the elements of an experiment...

“No, not that. The other one.”

Oh. Right.

And because it suddenly seems false and specious... not to mention morally compromised... to use the word in question only while in the throes of orgasm, Sherlock now tries saying it in the middle of the typical arrangement, which he manages to place in fluid sequence this time, with normal breathing and without profane punctuation. And then, because it’s so surprisingly easy and feels so improbably not-strange, he says it again, several times, throwing his partner’s name in for good measure.

Out of everything they’ve done so far this evening, this is what causes John to blush and look down bashfully. “Yeah, me too.”

 

 

...

 

 

The heel of John’s hand grinds against his hip and it’s all Sherlock can do to keep from loudly vocalizing his approval of this. He reaches between them, clumsily undoing the belt buckle there and displacing clothing to stroke John instead. Half-hard only, but that shouldn’t be a problem; Sherlock uses his other hand to grip John’s wrist No, let’s focus on you.

John groans his assent quietly against Sherlock’s neck, but does so again in irritation a minute later, shifting his position gingerly, as if he is lying on broken glass. Sherlock redoubles his efforts, finding with dismay that his clever fingers are having the opposite of their usual effect. His partner’s hand joins his; the hitch in his trembled breathing beginning to sound like a growl. Damn. John shifts again, unable to find at-attention or even just at-ease, and he raises his body so he’s barely touching Sherlock at all. Fuck.

“Here, let’s—“ Sherlock tries to nudge John into a new position, but this doesn’t help either, when he accidently knees him sharply in the scarred thigh and elicits a cough of pain, causing the doctor to collapse roughly against him again. Normally, none of this would be enough to wither an erection, but both of them are agonizingly aware of the now-nearly-defunct state of things. John sighs and, more forcefully than he needs to, pushes Sherlock’s hands away.

Sherlock exhales in what he hopes is a soothing sound. “You’re distracted,” he whispers gently, next to his ear, “and exhausted...”

And heart-broken, he doesn’t say, thinking that John would assume he doesn’t understand this.

When, of course, he does.

“I’m uncomfortable,” John scowls, placing both hands on either side of Sherlock’s pelvis and using the leverage to launch himself back up to standing with a shove of this piece of anatomy, as if it almost offends him. “Why do you have to be so... angular?!”

Sherlock bites down hard on the inside of his lip and says nothing, rising to sitting and realigning his clothing.

As John does his own, he steps on a newspaper lying open on the floor, half-under the sofa, and his foot slides on the skid of paper. Regaining his balance, he claws the air with a frustrated shake of both hands. The hushed thunder in his voice is just barely restrained. “And would it kill you to clean up a bit around here...?!”

There had been a time when John had been a mystery; when Sherlock hadn’t known how to read between the lines, but that ship has long sailed.

“I know you think you’re doing your best, but you’ll have to try harder...”

I hate that I’ve needed to rely on you so much.

“...in fact, it’d be nice if everyone would just do their damn jobs...”

I can’t help her, and it’s killing me.

“...so that I can do mine!”

I don’t know what to do.

God help me, Sherlock.

I just don’t know what to do.

Sherlock stands. “Punch me in the face,” he offers.

John freezes, staring at him, his face a boiling pot of emotion.

And because it looks like he actually might and it’s going to hurt like hell, the consulting detective tilts his head in the direction of the stairwell. “Though... perhaps we should go upstairs for that, because I’ll probably make some kind of noise.”

The doctor rolls his eyes and tilts his head in that way of his that silently screams Jesus-bloody-Christ, Holmes...

Sherlock spreads his arms sheepishly. “It might make you feel better?”

John huffs out a bitter laugh. “Not fair.” But the bitterness dissolves into something else and he swallows hard as his features melt into a mixture of both tragedy and comedy. “I’m sorry. None of this is your fault.” By the time Sherlock reaches out and crushes him gently against his chest, John is shaking with genuine mirth, occasionally punctuated by quiet sobs.

“Well, how’s that for a turn-up?” Sherlock rumbles into his hair. “Just give me time. Sooner or later, I’d do something to deserve it.”

“You?” There is the feeling of John’s mouth warm against his shoulder; muffling the words slightly. “Hard to fathom.” But the grief gradually overtakes the giggles, and the soldier leans against him weakly. Sherlock guides them back to sitting on the sofa, swallowing the unnerving discomfort that he feels whenever John rarely cries; reminding himself that it will pass and—at least this time, for once—he’s not the reason. Intermittently, there are other words shuddered into his tear-soaked shirt, like bloody bastard surgeons! and critical, but they can’t seem to find OR time! and various other things that Sherlock’s already deduced from the tidbits he’s gathered over the last few days.

Since there isn’t anything he can say that makes any of this okay, he simply listens until John finishes his broken oration; until the shaking of his shoulders subsides.

After a few minutes of calm silence, he risks adjusting his pyjamas in a way he hopes is unobserved; having not quite gotten the coverage right in his previous attempt.

John notices anyway and chuckles wryly, drying his eyes. “And I’m sorry about that. I’ll make it up to you.”

“Just as well.” Sherlock tilts his head in the direction of their bedroom door, which has remained mercifully shut. “Little pitchers have big ears.” For good measure, he flicks the lobe of one of John’s, reminding him of their likeness.

“How is she doing with all of this?” John asks softly.

He thinks for a moment. Abby has not said much. When she has, it has been quick, to-the-point and revealing a surprising intuitiveness. She’s so young, but quite clever, regardless. As always, she reads between all of their lines more easily than they would like and is obviously angry and frightened. Confused. Sad. And typically hides it under a stoic little face.

“She’s definitely a Watson,” he tells her father truthfully.

John’s phone rings and he gets up to answer it. Sherlock tries not to listen, but of course he does. It’s fine. Did you get—Oh. Nine am? Okay. I’ll see you in—No, I will be there. Yes. Yes. Well, he’s awake, you can tell him yourself—

Sherlock takes the phone from John’s outstretched hand. Through it, the voice is tired-sounding, but wearing a smile. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

But your daughter stole my blankets, Sherlock wonders if he should joke. Weird, granted... but so are they, and most of him thinks that Mary would understand and might actually find this funny. The part of him that isn’t sure, however, counters instead, “Shouldn’t you?”

“Well, you know. Big day.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“You said that last time.”

Sherlock swallows, then puts on his haughtiest lilt to cover it up. “And, as always, I was right.”

For a few years at least, neither amends.

“Did you solve the case?” she inquires, conversationally. Stalling; off-balance. Never good when she is.

“No, Abby did,” he tells her proudly. “She discovered that the bicycle...“ He then realizes that this is, perhaps, the wrong thing to say and clarifies. “Well, by looking over the pictures. I... I would never bring her to a...”

“She snuck along again herself, didn’t she?”

Dreading the coming reprimand for his mild negligence, Sherlock admits, hesitantly, “It was really Greg’s fault...”

But Mary only chuckles weakly, and then Sherlock hears the cough she tries to hide from the receiver. “Remember, Sherlock. Nothing more than a three.”

“I thought you said no cases at all.”

“Yeah, well. She’s almost eight years old. You try and stop her.” And then the smile leaves her voice and, with only a slight waver in it, she thanks him and then gives Sherlock the messages to pass along in the event of... the ones that, he muses briefly, maybe should come through John, except that Mary still tries to protect her ex; she still filters what she thinks might be too much for him to bear. Promise? You’ll tell her?

You’ll tell her yourself, he would say, except that he’s also mindful of the sound of the one-sided conversation to the other occupant of the quiet flat. “Yes, of course.”

The sorrow continues to tinge her words, but it’s joined by the slight cheek that she employs when choosing her phrasing with precision. “Right then. I’m going to need my husband back for a bit longer, if you don’t mind.” She means on the phone, of course, but Mary’s never passed up the opportunity to use a double entendre at their expense.

And it only seems fair. “Yep.”

As John continues the conversation, very softly, on the way to the bedroom, Sherlock rambles around their kitchen; noting that there is a pale blue glow of early dawn beginning to creep down the corridor of Baker Street. He may as well get breakfast ready. He cannot hear, and does not try to listen anyway, to the words contained in John’s low drone to Mary, nor the ones that he whispers, after ending the call, to the sleeping girl in the bed.

John returns; dons his coat again, shoulders his bag. “Nine,” he repeats, although he knows Sherlock has heard.

“We’ll be there by half-seven,” Sherlock promises, “so she can have time to say good—“ and because his partner’s face twitches in anticipation, he endeavors to complete the statement seamlessly “—luck.” He lays out the items he’s gathered from the fridge on the cutting board and begins chopping them with a knife. He keeps his voice carefully even and continues the purposeful task with his hands as he asks, “What do you want me to tell her?”

“The truth,” John answers, without missing a beat. He gives Sherlock a pointed look. You should know that.

“Alright.”

“Watered down on details as you see fit, of course,” the doctor adds. “I trust your judgment.”

They grin at each other briefly. Oh, how times have changed.

And then Sherlock hesitates in their dialogue, feeling that the short phrase on the tip of his tongue is a Not-good thing to say at the moment. No one, least of all the high-functioning sociopath himself, would have ever expected that he would take to this sentimental expression like a duck to water, yet he has... it has replaced Catch you later and Thanks for the tea and John you’re brilliant and pretty much any other opportunity he gets to tell his companion that he means the world to him, as if he’s making up for lost time. It’s become so imbedded in his repertoire that, even though he knows it’s obviously terrible timing for demonstrations of affection, he doesn’t know what else to say.

And John also pops the clutch and stalls; this moment highlighting the fact that he never says it at all unless it’s in an automatic ditto response to Sherlock; as if the way that Sherlock emotes so verbosely spares him from having to use the four-letter-word that has become extremely convoluted in his heart.

What they settle on, at this particular moment, is a discomfited and simultaneous Bye.

A descent of fourteen, a squeak, two more, and then Baker Street is silent.

As he prepares the ingredients for Abby’s omlette, Sherlock begins to prepare his answers to her questions; to prepare his explanation for what this day may bring. He thinks about the restful innocence of her sleeping face and almost decides to tell her lies.

But they’ve all had a policy on truth, since the acceptance of the fact that anything else is generally too complicated, not to mention fool-hardy. A pre-school event several years earlier had first forced the issue.

The memory of that day rises in his mind. A moronic-bint-of-a-schoolmate’s-mother had actually had the gall to interrogate John about how he could have ever done this sort of thing to his child... Before either of Abby’s fathers could respond with the suggestion to mind-her-damn-business, Mary had arrived with daggers in her eyes and cut the woman off, succinctly explaining the entire micro-and-macro-cosms of the matter in three curt statements.

Not “to” his child, actually. For his child. Does this family look broken to you?

And, in their private conversation that had later ensued, Mary had looked at the two of them with genuine shock. What do you mean, you haven’t told her yet?

She’s only four, John had protested.

Well, just water down the details then! Bloody hell, John. What good has lying ever done any of us?

It was a moment that had reminded Sherlock of the fact that, perhaps with only the exceptions of a landlady with a coloured past and a timid pathologist with uncanny intuition, Mary Morstan is the finest woman he’s ever had the good fortune to meet and would have made an excellent choice of wife.

Do you ever miss her? he had asked John that night.

John had considered this question far too slowly... and then rushed through the answer far too quickly. She never changed the toilet paper or put the toothpaste caps back on, he had joked, in the close darkness of their bedroom, and had a bad habit of shooting people.

Watering down the details.

Sherlock now finds himself gripping the knife too tightly, feeling something that is both remorseful and anxious... as well as something ugly and jaggedly green and far too angular. He swallows a hard lump in his throat. That’s enough, Drama Queen. It’s not about you, right now. He stops attacking the onions and wills his heart to return to the careful neutrality that has served him well many times in the past eight years.

The front door opens below, and the familiar feet ascend the stairs once more before the familiar form reappears on the landing.

What did you forget? Sherlock starts to ask, raising his head to glance around the flat’s surfaces for wallet, keys. Phone.

But John is standing still and only looking at him. “I love you, you know.”

Five words—not three—in sequence; in the same tone and cadence that John says every rare thing of great import; as if it doesn’t need saying. As if it’s obvious.

‘Course you’re my best friend.

Of course I forgive you.

Just saying; it’s all fine.

Sherlock realizes he’s been silent too long when John clears his throat and prompts, tentatively, “Did you hear me?”

He nods, with a brief swipe of the back of his hand across his eyes; swirling the knife around in a small circle in the cutting board’s direction as he does so. Damn onions. Clears his own throat and smiles. “I always hear that whenever you’re speaking, but it’s usually sub-text.”

John chuckles, then sets his shoulders. “I need to go.”

“Yes you do.”

“Later?”

“Later.”

And John departs again while softly... softly, the day breaks.

Sherlock is just wondering if he should leave the eggs to stay warm in the pan, when there is a pad of bare feet down the hall. “Dad?”

“In here.” He knows, by her subtle inflection, that this is actually meant for him. They had tried other monikers, but all had apparently defied the younger Abby’s internal classification. She now only calls him Sherlock when aggravated... or when trying to aggravate.

She blinks in the kitchen light, smoothing wild amber tresses back from her face, with Badger—who, evidently, she’s not too old for at the moment—tucked under her arm. She peers at the stove, quirking a surprised look in the realization that it bears food. “Breakfast... for breakfast?”

Sherlock smiles at her, dumping omlettes onto plates next to beans and toast. “It is done in some circles, you know.”

They sit across from each other at the table. As usual, Sherlock isn’t hungry, but forces some down, so that she will. Abby picks at it, suspiciously. “Is Mrs Hudson sick now too?”

“No. I just felt like cooking.”

A half-grin. Fibbing. Then her eyes dart around the flat, with laser precision. They note the tipped and ransacked laundry basket, the absence of bag on John’s chair and—Sherlock hopes with fervour—nothing else. She’s far too observant for her age; he and John may to need to re-arrange either their normally vigorous sex-life or their cramped living accommodations if she’ll no longer be half-each-week with Mary...

He halts in his chewing. Oh, no. He hasn’t prepared any words.

Abby speaks again, suddenly. “Dad was here.” This time, with the intonation that means John of course.

“It was very early...”

“He didn’t wake me up.” Frown. It’s bad, isn’t it?

He sets down his fork. “We’ll be going to see them soon.” And then, carefully, he tells her the rest of the truth; watered down, but not much. Her face is vacant in the same way that John’s goes vacant when Sherlock knows he’s only half-listening. He wonders how many of the words are filtering through. Yes. Bad. Another operation. Chance. Nine o’clock.

Hope.

It’s not a lie. Sherlock would never say such a thing about improbabilities, no matter how slight.

Abby seems to consider it all for a minute, then nudges the beans around, as if she’s panning for gold, her eyes indecipherable. “Okay.”

“Are you—?”

“I’m fine...” she says, taking a bite, then another, avoiding his gaze. Somehow, without looking at him, she knows that his mouth is open, poised to launch another question, and she extinguishes it under his name, “...Sherlock.”

Period.

He nods and gets up to clear his plate, offering her as much privacy as the tiny kitchen allows; puttering with the dishes in the sink. Feeling slightly relieved, he wonders if he should entirely leave her be for a while, knowing that there just aren’t any words he can give her that would be of any comfort anyway. If the previous few weeks have been any indicator, Abigail Watson will steal under the covers seeking proximity and quiet solace, but does not want to talk to anyone. Especially him.

It then occurs to him that, perhaps, this is too easy... and that nothing worth doing is ever easy... and that there is such a thing as too much stiff-upper-lip, particularly for a seven-year-old. It’s their job to parent her, after all; to teach and to guide her and perhaps they haven’t been paying enough attention their duties in this regard lately... if ever. If someone doesn’t help her to—

“And I’m not.”

Sherlock turns back around.

“I mean, obviously I’m not fine.” She rolls her eyes with a slight scoff and a look that plainly says Idiots and means all three of them. But before Sherlock can reply, her face changes to something more serious and she continues, cutting him off, “But I also am, you know?”

He blinks, having utterly no idea.

“Mum and Dad and you need me to be fine right now, so I am... but it’s not just that. I need to be. For me.” Her small chin puckers in a tremble, and Sherlock sits back down across from her but doesn’t dare try to script this—not with the muscles of his own jaw barely staving off the same state—so he lets her carry on. Her round blue eyes are submerged, but defiantly refusing to drown, looking at something that is beyond him. “Sometimes I cry a bit and sometimes I punch Badger and sometimes I want to go to school and just be me, you know? I can’t be anything other than what I am... I don’t know how... so I’m just going to be me.” Three fat tears escape and roll over her cheekbones, but the tension in her face softens, calmly, and no more follow. “And maybe it doesn’t make any sense, but I know that if I just keep doing that, I will be. Okay, I mean. Not-good, but good too, until, someday, no matter what happens, all that’s leftover is just... fine.” She tilts her head, the far-away quality of her gaze lifting, and returns to a true exchange with him; “It’s weird... how it’s such a small word, but it can mean so many different things. Right?”

And she says all this while wrinkling John’s nose and puckering Mary’s chin... and—dear God—the way obviously had rolled off her tongue had impossibly summoned his brother to mind... and, for a moment, Sherlock wracks both sides of his brain to recall where he recognizes the set of her mouth from...

...until he realizes that it’s because he knows just what it feels like to wear that same small smile.

To the very best of times.

“Right, Dad?” She reaches a hand evenly across the table, with the serene manner of someone waiting for a bird to alight on it. Like a princess in a fairytale.

So young, yet so clever. He places both of his hands gratefully around hers.

“Right.”

 

 

...