Sherlock holds John and all sense has left. All logic.
John cries on with muffled sounds of pain while Sherlock’s hands touch John greedily, the smooth warmth of his neck - Sherlock is massaging it, his fingers pressing and letting go, rubbing John’s neck in a rhythm he didn’t know he knew but he does - comfort.
They are swaying together outside of noise or thought.
They are one.
When John pulls away slightly, it’s too soon. Or too late, Sherlock isn’t certain. Sherlock’s right hand has found a home on the curve of John’s lower back and is rubbing a circle there. His left hand is at John’s neck. His fingers are splayed over the very beginning of John’s nape, tracing John’s bare skin. Meeting John’s eyes feels impossible like this, but he does so anyway.
John’s eyelashes are dark with tears, his cheeks gleam with wetness, and he wipes his nose on his sleeve. He seems embarrassed. “Sorry. About that.”
Sherlock gathers his breath. “It’s all right.” He sounds smooth, he thinks. As if he is in control.
John glances to the side.
Mary is here, Sherlock can tell. And Sherlock doesn’t deserve to hold John. It’s only that he can’t seem to stop.
John looks back to him, then down at Sherlock’s hands - one finger is just stroking the edge of John’s collar bone - and asks, “Now? ”
Sherlock teases the fabric of John’s shirt and feels the smooth slide of John’s skin underneath. The sensation is stunning.
John asks, “We’re… yeah, we’re going to do this now, then?”
Sherlock isn’t certain whether John is speaking to him or to Mary. John turns towards the bedroom without saying anything more, and the loss is as poignant as losing anything ever has been. Sherlock follows him, even if only not to lose the trace of warmth that still lingers between them.
John has stopped by the bed. He is staring at it.
“John...” Sherlock is not certain what words are needed, now.
John laughs, but it’s the wrong laugh. It sounds choked, as if there are still tears pressing behind his vocal cords, as if John is nothing but water and he is going to overflow.
Sherlock’s fingers itch to reach out and hold John, to pull him to his chest again.
But John eyes him for a moment, then nods, as if it is a matter settled. “Right.”
John starts to take off his shoes. Then his socks. Sherlock’s eyes are stuck on John’s fingers as they nimbly work their way to the sides of his last sock and roll it off to reveal a perfect pale foot.
Part of Sherlock wants to sink to his knees and observe John’s feet. He wants to see the smallest detail.
But John straightens up and fiddles with the buttons of his shirt. “So. What do you like, then?” John breathes oddly. “What does Sherlock Holmes like?”
Sherlock can feel the tone hit him. John is irritated.
“A bit of rough? You like it when she spanks you?”
She – the woman? John is jealous, still.
Sherlock says, aware that his mouth feels dry, “John, I have never had any sort of sexual interaction with Irene Adler.”
“No? Why the hell not?” John shrugs off his shirt, revealing a white undershirt. “She was into you.”
It’s an old shirt and the fabric is worn. Sherlock would like to trace the John-ness of it, but John pulls it over his head like a magician revealing flesh beneath. Sherlock takes in the map of John’s scar, John’s nipples, the mild trace of hair over John’s stomach, and marvels at the surprisingly aesthetic pleasure of the compactness of him.
“This what you want?” John sounds as if he is falling apart still, his voice shifting between anger and something a moment from crying again.
Sherlock swallows. “Yes.” It’s the truth. He has always, in some secret corner of his mind, wanted to see John naked. But in this moment, it’s a confession Sherlock is not certain he should make. John seems... unsteady.
John’s chest looks empty without his clothes. He is thinner than he used to be. Sherlock is not certain whether it is grief or guilt making John seem gaunt but he wants to take him to dinner with a sudden longing that surprises him. Let’s go out, John. Eat. Let’s be silly together.
John has a thumb under the line of his trousers, and Sherlock feels as if he should avert his eyes.
But instead of taking his trousers off, John comes closer. This John is a different creature than the one Sherlock pulled to his chest. The tears have gone, and what is left of John is washed up on a beach after a storm, the waves still churning darkly.
John asks, “You plan on doing this while dressed?”
“No, I imagine that would be rather impractical.” Sherlock says it because he wants John to laugh.
But they are not laughing right now.
Sherlock didn’t predict this, not today. But his body is washed recently, and he dressed in expectation of seeing John. So maybe he did think it was an option, maybe he has spent years predicting it and he never noticed. It seems plausible. Sherlock’s hands feel slower than they should when they touch his shirt buttons and try to open one.
Sherlock’s heartbeat has not sped up, doing this - undressing for John. He is as cool as when he was facing Culverton Smith, when he was offering to lie there and be taken apart. There is no difference.
All he is, is flesh. John will see that now. I was never a hero, John.
Sherlock opens another button. His fingers brush some glue residue on his chest from the heart monitor pads. He has just detoxed again, and the aches and bruises and track marks all over his hateful body are the reminders. Death isn’t supposed to hurt, is it? So he’s alive, then.
John swallows heavily as he looks at him.
Sherlock follows John’s eyes and looks down at his barely-revealed chest. The bruises from where John kicked him are mainly on his ribs and stomach, coloured a dark green and blue by now. He stops unbuttoning his shirt. Maybe he should leave it on.
He touches his trousers instead, unsure.
“Well, get on with it.”
John is nervous. So Sherlock knows what he needs to do. He spares a thought for the bruises, and then says, “You think you can say that to me?”
The change is instantaneous - an easy anger floods John’s eyes and Sherlock knows only too well what it means. You owe me, Sherlock. You killed my wife. She gave you this life and now you need to spend it.
In her honour, then. Sherlock steps forward and says, “You think you can handle me? ”
“Oh, I bloody well can!” John grabs his arm, bends it, and throws him onto the bed.
Sherlock lands with a thump, his body screaming as his bruised ribs hit the mattress. The pain thunders through him. It’s a victory or a defeat, he’s not sure, but there is no turning back now.
He is making this up. Fibbing - Sherlock can hear an echo of Mary’s voice. But the basics are the same as they always are. Lie still, let it happen. All they want is the upper hand - everyone always does.
Sherlock says, once the array of dizzying spots clear his vision enough he thinks he can speak, “If you plan to have me, John, you might get to it.”
“In a hurry, are you?” John kneels over him and pushes Sherlock downwards until his face is flat against the mattress. The stitches in Sherlock’s eyebrow pull sharply. John’s breathing sounds laboured, because he is finding this arousing or because he is still angry, Sherlock cannot tell. There likely is little difference.
John presses his crotch to Sherlock’s backside. He has the beginning of an erection that feels impossibly there even though there are several layers of clothing separating them.
John asks, “You like that, then?”
Sherlock pushes out, “Yes.” John’s weight is making it hard to breathe. His head pounds in time with his blood rushing there.
John starts slowly gyrating himself onto Sherlock’s arse, and Sherlock abruptly hopes that John will climax and that this will be it – sex. That the moment will pass and that nothing whatsoever will change between them because of it. He’ll insist on dinner somewhere, he can lie that it’s his birthday some more.
But after approximately forty-three seconds of frottage, the mattress dips, and John leaves the bed.
Sherlock turns over only slowly. He hesitates, and his eyes linger on the layer of dust on his side table - he has observed it often, the dust in 221b. He always wondered how much of it was John’s skin cells, fluttering here still. How much of John is not entirely lost after he leaves him.
John is holding a condom like a bargaining chip.
Sherlock scans the condom - reservoir tip, silicone based lubricant – bought explicitly for the purpose of anal sex. But the creases suggest that, “You’ve had that in your wallet for at least two months.”
“Figured it was either never see you again, or…” John nods towards the condom.
Sherlock can feel his stomach contract.
“Guess we solved that one.” John smiles for a moment, but the edges seem brittle. Does he want to do this?
John gets back on the bed. They are facing each other now. Sherlock forces himself to relax but John leaning over him like this is like Cul – no, it is not. Clearly it is not.
John’s eyes are hard, as if this is a duty, to him. A moment to get through.
Sherlock can feel his breaths rattle around in his chest as the seconds tick down. He is aware that the only way out is to take charge again - he needs to challenge John, keep him on the defence - but he cannot seem to make himself do so. He feels motionless, like this. Sunk into the bed. Sherlock breathes heavily through his nose. His muscles are weak, he could not sit up and defend himself if he wanted to. His face feels hot, his skull echoes. I don’t want to die.
John stares at him with growing unease until he decides, “You’re still sore.”
“...Clearly.” Sherlock takes the excuse while his heart thunders and all of him nearly vibrates off the mattress.
John seems surprised he’s admitted as much.
But then, the worst possible thing – John leans back and touches Sherlock’s stomach. John struggles impatiently with the button of Sherlock’s trousers and there’s an ugly timbre in his voice as he says, “Gotta get you there too then, don’t we?”
John glances at him, either to get his permission or for the denial that John could get him there, Sherlock isn’t sure. It feels like an interrogation – just tell us the truth, Mr. Holmes. Do it and you will be allowed to sleep. Sherlock’s hands are clammy, and he is definitely sweating, yet he can feel an icy chill run through him.
Sherlock opens his own trousers. He bares his underwear for John and lets John see his unaroused state. Sherlock looks away.
John’s hand settles there. It’s where Sherlock had imagined it – when, why did he ever think of this? What had he hoped for? Not this, this appalling closeness. No one should ever fantasise about this.
John’s fingers crawl under his pants, find his soft penis, and pull him out.
Sherlock risks a glance toward John and John gives him an awkward stroke. Sherlock does not feel anything remotely like arousal, but regardless he grows hard like this, in John’s hand.
John breathes in audibly. And strokes him again, with growing confidence.
Sherlock cannot compute the feeling. Every sound is lost in the whining in his ears. He is trembling, noticeably enough that John must feel it. He feels outside of his body and yet in some corner there is the deep arousal of this.
Is that what this was always meant to be, Sherlock breaking down so John could be built up in comparison?
Sherlock is fully hard and twitching in John’s hand and it is a cruel exposition of what he wants, somewhere deep below. Who he is.
John coughs and says, “Well, then.”
Hearing it sets off a wave of heat in Sherlock’s stomach, because this is John. This is the John who lived here. The John who laughed at crime scenes with him and thought he was brilliant, once.
Sherlock loves it, and he’s also deeply aware of the danger of this, for both of them. Exposure.
His breath is coming in small, shuddering gasps. The sheer sensation of John’s fingertips is overwhelming. He does not want to give in to it, but he already has. John can tell. John can see this, feel this. And Sherlock’s reaction is too much.
The answer is too much.
John lets go of him abruptly.
John sits down on the bed, then says, “I... I don’t...” His hand trembles wildly and he balls it into a fist. “Jesus!”
Sherlock waits for the verdict, already sure of what it will be.
“...I can’t do this.”
Sherlock lies there, uncovered, his erection to his belly, his body still confused about the reality he always should have seen. He should have known that John would break him more than he ever thought possible.
John leaves the bed.
Sherlock turns to his side and pushes his erect penis back into his trousers even though his hands barely obey him. Then he slowly sits up, his head throbbing deeply as he does so.
John’s back is turned to him as he is putting on his shoes and breathing long, controlled breaths through his nose. He’s purposely not looking at him, Sherlock knows.
You and me, against the rest of the world.
Sherlock stands, barely seeing through the dizziness for a moment, and says, in exactly the joking tone John wants to hear, “The nature of experiments, I imagine.”
John looks up at him almost wearily.
Sherlock finishes his lie, “...Occasional failure.”
The corners of John’s mouth curl, and he gradually relaxes. “Yeah, true.” He gets up. “True.” He says it again, as if it really is the lifeboat Sherlock offered him and not some senseless lie.
John glances at the door.
“Molly will be here in under five minutes,” Sherlock offers.
John nods. He starts to walk out, then hesitates and says, “Celebrate with Molly, yeah? Have a...” He swallows. “A good birthday.”
Sherlock manages a weak smile.
The moment the front door closes, Sherlock can feel his knees unlock. His legs give out in an appalling, slow-motion moment and he barely manages to sit down on the bed before the rush of dizziness overtakes him. He hangs his head between his knees and breathes.
Sherlock sits there, looking blankly at the dust filtering in the air.
As always, he imagines the two of them here, in 221b.
And what remains of who they were, once.