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The Whore of Babylon Was a Perfectly Nice Girl

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John doesn't spend every waking moment thinking about Sherlock Holmes. Regardless of what his government-paid therapist might imply with a gently raised eyebrow, there are things in his life that don't involve Sherlock. (For instance: his family; nightmares of Afghanistan.)

John doesn't start every sentence with "Sherlock says…" or "Sherlock thinks…" or "Last night, Sherlock…" no matter what Harry says. Harry teases him about it but that's simply proof that Harry is, and has always been, painfully addicted to sticking her nose where it doesn't belong.

He doesn't think about Sherlock all the time. But, okay, there are times. Nights when he can't get back to sleep and he doesn't want to close his eyes in case he starts to hear gunfire. When he needs to think about something that isn't grit and blood and flickering lights, generators threatening to die and patients that get bumped to the end of the queue because they can't be saved but someone else might. While he loves London and her busy streets, while he loves television and books and all the things he can indulge in now he's home, it's not enough to stop him remembering. It doesn't hold his attention.

Sherlock, on the other hand, always holds John's attention.

Everything about him is strange and weird and just a little fantastic. He's brilliant and callous, but most of the time, he does so much good for people. He's churlish when it comes to Mycroft and mischievous when it comes to Mrs Hudson. He's a superb actor when it suits his purposes but most of the time, he can't even be bothered to be civil.

John wonders if he was home-schooled, privately tutored and kept away from other children; it would explain all the general knowledge Sherlock doesn't understand, all the social cues Sherlock tramples underfoot. But Sherlock knows people, even if he doesn't always understand them; he puts together patterns and explains people's secrets. Surely he couldn't do that based on social isolation. And the accent, the use of 'Mummy,' it all says public school.

John doesn't know, and he hasn't asked, but he wonders.

Sometimes, when it's very late and the night ahead looks too long, when there are phantom screams in the darkness, John thinks about sex. And Sherlock.

He's never seen Sherlock touch anyone who wasn't dead. (Not affectionately. Not without a specific, physical purpose.) Sherlock doesn't invite touch -- he's always fast and sharp and moving from this idea to the next, from here to there. Sherlock doesn't even share the sofa with anyone else. It's like there's a circle of space around him, big red letters screaming 'do not touch' and no one tries to break through.

It makes John wonder.

***

It's not that John's a pervert. He hasn't rigged up secret cameras in their bathroom or wanked off against Sherlock's slept-in sheets. But at 4am, there's not a lot else to think about.

He could consider the state of his bank balances and how he always feels one step away from his last twenty quid. (Not the reality of the situation, fine, but that gnawing anxiety isn't something John can defeat with reason and facts.) Those thoughts always lead back to his pension, the meagre income he knows he needs to supplement, and the bullet wound that led him here. From that, it's a short step to remembering the shock of being knocked down, lifting his hand to his shoulder and finding it wet, wet and sticky in this dry, dusty country, seeing the dirt and blood on his palm and the long seconds before he thought to apply pressure to the wound, as difficult and useless as that was.

So he tries not to think of that.

Anything else he ponders invariably, inevitably, returns to Sherlock. It's really not John's fault. Sherlock walks into a room and takes all the space right out of it. He does the same inside John's head. Sherlock's simply there, larger than life and too impossible to be real. He's fascinating and brilliant. Utterly mesmerising.

And despite any suggestions to the contrary, John's still a (relatively) normal, red-blooded male and sex is one of those things you think about. Even when you know you're not supposed to. Even when it's your ridiculous, impossible flatmate.

But Sherlock and sex, well. It's hard to think about Sherlock and sex. (No pun intended.)

John finds it difficult to imagine anyone pushing past Sherlock's natural... Sherlock-ness, to imagine Sherlock staying still long enough for anyone to catch him. He can't picture it. He can't picture Sherlock bringing someone home, leading them up to his bedroom. He can't picture Sherlock kissing someone without pulling back and analysing, giving constructive criticism or rambling off on a wild tangent about the details of their shampoo.

He's seen how Sherlock talks to people, how Sherlock can play a part for thirty seconds, sixty at a stretch, and then seems glad to be rid of people. John can't imagine Sherlock with anyone.

Or, more honestly, John can't imagine Sherlock with anyone else. When it comes to Sherlock and sex, he's surprised how easily he can see himself in that scenario.

He wouldn't have to force his way past Sherlock's dislike of touching, not really. He's sure Sherlock would let him. He knows, like the way he knows Sherlock's smile and the long stretch of Sherlock's fingers steepled together, that Sherlock would let him.

Sherlock would go still, would watch attentively, as John leaned closer. As John kissed him, coaxing and patient, gentle. Because he would be gentle and careful, because Sherlock needs someone who would take care with him, who wouldn't laugh or push or taunt, who wouldn't make Sherlock's inexperience the punch line to a joke.

Sherlock would probably think it sentimental or mawkish, but John means it.

He can picture it perfectly. On the sofa in the sitting room, in the neutral safety of that shared space, kissing Sherlock slowly and untangling Sherlock's scarf and tugging it free. Undoing the buttons on Sherlock's jacket and pushing it down his shoulders. Mapping Sherlock's chest through the thin cotton of his shirt and dragging his mouth along the sharp edge of Sherlock's jaw, down his neck, flicking open buttons to mouth his way down pale, cool skin.

He can imagine looking up and seeing the expression on Sherlock's face, cool gaze taking in every detail, observing every move. And when John moves his hands, presses his palms against Sherlock's thigh, Sherlock would nod. Would trust him. Would keep watching.

***

But the first kiss isn't particularly gentle. It's giddy and breathless. John's too glad to be alive, too glad to be home, too glad that almost-certain-death was more of a by-the-skin-of-your-teeth-escape. He doesn't think it through. He doesn't even realise he's done it until he's pulling back, his hands still bunched in the collar of Sherlock's coat and Sherlock's lips are wet and parted in surprise.

"John," Sherlock says, like he's sounding the word out, like he doesn't quite know what it means.

And John replies with, "Sherlock," and, "I didn't quite mean--" and, "That wasn't how I imagined this," and, "Oh, shit."

Sherlock looks at him like he's just confessed to another fight with the chip-and-PIN machine. His mouth is a straight line but there's an amused smile lurking in his eyes. "Bedroom," Sherlock says, placing a hand low on John's back and pushing him forward. Towards Sherlock's bedroom.

John hasn't imagined Sherlock in bed.

(Well, he has but in vague, soft-lit ways. He's thought of Sherlock stretched out across dark sheets, long pale limbs and dark messy hair; he's thought of running his fingers over bare skin, sketching out every angle and curve; he's thought of curling up behind Sherlock, panting open-mouthed against Sherlock's shoulder blade and pushing in torturously slow, fingers laced in Sherlock's.)

He hasn't thought of Sherlock's room as a bedroom. The bed's made, although not to army standards, and there's a lamp and a few scrappy receipts on the bedside table. The room's tidy, if you ignore the stacks of clutter on the bookshelves and the textbooks piled in a corner. The wardrobe door is ajar and John can see half a dozen dark suits hanging with precise two-inch intervals between them.

Sherlock takes two steps and closes the wardrobe door, then closes the bedroom door, and John feels like he should say something. He gets as far as, "Um…" before Sherlock's back, reaching out to rest a proprietary hand on John's hip.

John thinks maybe it's Sherlock's turn to say something, but Sherlock doesn't. Sherlock drops to his knees, as nimble as if he was striding over their coffee table, and rubs his cheek against the front of John's trousers. It's been a night of adrenaline and running from thugs with guns, and John knows none of that has anything to do with how fast he goes from confused to desperately hard.

He's seen Sherlock's fast, clever fingers on the violin, texting on mobile phones. He shouldn't be surprised that Sherlock only pulls back for a moment, and that's long enough for him to get John's belt undone, his trousers open and his underwear out of the way. After that, it's Sherlock's mouth -- god, Sherlock's mouth. Hot and wet, Sherlock's cheeks hollowed and his tongue working every nerve. There's that obscene sound of swallowing as Sherlock takes his cock deeper than anyone with a gag reflex should be able to, and Sherlock's hands on his thighs, fingers sliding over his hips smooth and warm, followed by the sharp scrape of fingernails on sensitised skin.

John gasps and squirms, and holds on for dear life, digging his fingers into Sherlock's hair, Sherlock's shoulders, anywhere he can find purchase. He tries not to buck, he does, but he's helpless against suction like that. Has to thrust just a little, can't stop his hips from twitching when Sherlock hums and through it all, through it all, watches John with unnaturally pale eyes blown dark with lust.

John's pretty sure he whimpers as he comes and his knees threaten to give way, but he manages to collapse back onto Sherlock's bed instead. It takes him a good five minutes to realise his trousers are stuck around his knees and it takes him another five minutes to honestly care about that fact.

***

John's memories after that are post-coital and hazy. At some stage, Sherlock must have undone his laces and pulled off his shoes because John's next clear point of reference is Sherlock's voice by his ear, Sherlock saying, "I want to fuck you," in a low, intimate tone. It's not really a question, not when Sherlock's ridiculously, wonderfully long fingers are pushing in, so John doesn't bother replying. The groaning noise he makes is more than enough of a reply, really.

This somehow leads to John with his shirt and jacket still on, his knees hooked over Sherlock's bare shoulders and his hands pushing against the wall for leverage. He's pushing back, demanding more and harder, and the thing he remembers best is Sherlock's mouth, glint of teeth and swollen red lips caught in an open smile.

***

During the night, he wakes up tangled in Sherlock's sheets. Sherlock is stretched along the foot of the bed, lying on his stomach, typing on John's open laptop.

"Is that my computer?" John asks, stifling a yawn.

"It was closer."

"It was on the sofa."

The white-blue light from the screen catches on Sherlock's cheekbones, casting alien shadows across his face. Sherlock's all pale skin, pale eyes, pale lips against the dark contrast of hair. "Mine was in the kitchen," he says, not looking away from the screen.

John's still in his shirt and jacket, so he sits up to pull and push them off. "An extra five steps, Sherlock. You didn't need to take mine."

"You weren't using it," Sherlock says, which is true. "Go back to sleep."

***

John's thought about Sherlock and sex -- more than he will ever willingly admit -- but it's always been the kind of late night fantasies that don't have a lot to do with reality. There's no aftermath, there's no awkward morning after. John's imagined kissing Sherlock many, many times; he's never once imagined waking up alone in Sherlock's bed the next morning.

John rubs a hand hard against his forehead but, as it turns out, psychic powers can't be physically forced into a human brain. If they could, John would know how this is going to end up. Up to this point in his acquaintance with Sherlock, nothing has gone as he expected. Hardly makes sense to start worrying about it now.

John gets out of bed like it's any other day. He fishes his clothes off the floor, pulls on his trousers, and then goes straight to the bathroom for a shower. He soaps up without really thinking about anything and brushes his teeth. He gargles while he towels himself dry. He gives up on the crumpled clothes from yesterday and wraps his damp towel around his hips instead. On his way out the door, he throws his clothes in the shared laundry hamper (and has to double-back to pick up the socks that rebounded).

He gets dressed, runs a comb through his hair and then sits on his bed. There's a chance that Sherlock isn't even in the flat, but even if he is, John isn't the type to hide all day and worry. The scariest thing about danger is facing it; it's not whatever happens once you show up, it's finding the courage to put one foot in front of the other and walk into peril.

So John puts one foot in front of the other, and finds Sherlock standing in the kitchen. With a frying pan on the cooker.

John can smell leeks and garlic, the warm smell of eggs cooking.

"I heard the shower," Sherlock says, which is such a normal piece of conversation that John's not sure what to do with it. "Thought a hot breakfast would be best."

It's like the anti-Sherlock has taken over his kitchen, but John's good manners automatically kick in. "Anything I can do to help?"

Sherlock nods towards the kettle. "Tea would be good."

John turns on the kettle and pulls out spoons. He gets the mugs and teabags, sugar and milk. When he has everything set out -- at precise right angles, he can't help noticing, like a tray ready for surgery -- and he's literally waiting for water to boil, he sighs. "So," he says, pausing to give Sherlock plenty of time to interrupt, "last night," he finishes weakly.

Sherlock gives the pan a confident flick of his wrist, flipping the omelette up and over. John watches him out of the corner of his eye, not willing to turn away from the terribly important business of making tea.

Sherlock's clearly not a fan of relationship talks. He doesn't say a thing as he slides a surprisingly professional-looking omelette onto a plate.

"Well?" John demands.

"Well, what?" Sherlock asks, with a softly curving brow. "'Last night' wasn't a question. It didn't require a response."

John shoves Sherlock's tea -- two sugars, almost no milk -- into Sherlock's hands. He can see Sherlock's amusement in the twitch of his lips, but Sherlock graciously hands over the cooked omelette.

John takes it without noticing the curve of Sherlock's fingers against the white china edge; he certainly doesn't think of what those fingers were doing about eight hours ago.

"I didn't know you could cook," John says, and then considers the sentence. Maybe ending with a structured question would be best. "Why don't you cook around the flat normally?"

"I'm sure given time and practice I could learn to sew a shirt," Sherlock says, following John to the table and sitting down. "I don't see the point in devoting time to a mediocre skill when there are professionals within walking distance."

John takes a bite of the omelette. It's not bad. In fact, it's very, very good. "This is good," he says around the second forkful, belatedly raising a hand to cover the fact that he's talking with his mouth full. (His mother would be so ashamed.)

"Exact ingredients mixed and then heated in a particular way. It's really no more complicated than any other scientific experiment." Sherlock blows the rising steam from the surface of his tea, and then adds, "Although far less enlightening and far more repetitive."

"But you can cook?"

"I didn't think that was important to you."

"It's not," John says, because… well. It isn't. It doesn't have any impact on his friendship with Sherlock. After being in the army for years, John doesn't care if his food's home-cooked or microwaved from frozen as long as he gets to eat. It's not the cooking itself that's catching his attention; it's the frightening normality that's got him stumped. He's eating breakfast that Sherlock cooked without having to be asked. He's sitting at an almost clear table -- two piles of pages pinned by a paperweight rock are clear compared to Sherlock's usual mess -- across from Sherlock, who isn't texting, isn't reading, isn't answering queries on his webpage. Sherlock's just sipping tea, looking at John and the room. It's very unnerving.

Then John has an even more unnerving thought. Maybe this is Sherlock enjoying the afterglow. Maybe Sherlock's erratic, manic behaviour, the way he's acted as long as John's known him, was just sexual frustration.

"Sherlock, how long has it been since…" John trails off, but Sherlock looks blank. John has courage but not quite enough to say the word sex to Sherlock. He's allowed to be a coward occasionally. "… you cooked omelettes?"

Sherlock blinks, face perfectly blank. "I have no idea. Assuming you were talking about actual omelettes and not using it as a euphemism for sex."

John makes firm eye-contact with his omelette and says, "And if it was the second one?"

"Longer than you."

"Excuse me?" John asks, glaring at Sherlock. "How could you possibly know that?"

"You evidently haven't slept with anyone since returning to England, despite sleeping on Sarah's couch twice. Given the infection you sustained after you were shot -- it's detailed in your medical history," Sherlock explains easily, and John doesn't want to know how Sherlock's got his hands on that or when. Personally, he's blaming Mycroft. Or maybe the Holmes' parents for raising two preposterous men. "-- you wouldn't have been in a fit state to enjoy physical activity so it's a fairly safe bet that you haven't slept with anyone since the injury. So, between seven and nine months?"

This is why Sherlock keeps doing this. Because when he pulls apart details and fits them together like jigsaw pieces, turning minutiae into the picture of someone's life, John can't help but be impressed. Even when it's his own sexual history, he can't help but grin and say, "That's incredible. It's been eight months, roughly speaking."

Sherlock smiles. The fine skin at the corners of his eyes crinkles with pleasure.

John has to look down at his freakishly-normal omelette and try another bite. When he's sure he won't say something mawkish and stupid, he swallows. "How long has it been for you?"

"Roughly speaking, four years, three months," Sherlock says over his mug. "In precise figures, one thousand, five hundred and ninety-two days."

"That's… very precise," John says. Sherlock memorises the strangest details. Before he can ask more, or what other events Sherlock can calculate by days, they're interrupted by a call from Lestrade.

***

John had always thought sex with Sherlock would change everything. He'd been foolish enough to think he'd be the first, he'd be the one to see past Sherlock's prickly, cactus exterior and… And what? And a few kisses would change Sherlock from the amazing, insightful, astounding man that John likes being friends with? John wouldn't even want that.

John doesn't know what he wants or what he expected, but it settles back to normal. For them.

Donovan meets them on the roadside, calls Sherlock a freak and Sherlock makes one comment about moisturising her wrists that has her spluttering and stalking off, heels clattering loudly.

"Do you have to do that at every crime scene?" John asks, although he's secretly a little proud. There's something satisfying about knowing Sherlock can, and will, humiliate anyone who truly annoys him. John's certain he shouldn't be proud about that ability, but he is. "There's a reason she's never glad to see us."

"Because she's too irrationally biased to realise I solve half their murders for them," Sherlock says smugly. He's clearly pleased with himself. "Besides, I only force her to retreat on sixty per cent of our cases, maybe sixty-five. Certainly not all of them."

"The rest of them, Lestrade runs interference between you and everyone else." John looks over his shoulder and recognises the black car with dark, tinted windows parked across the street. He nudges Sherlock with an elbow and whispers, "Your brother's here."

"I know," Sherlock mutters back, head ducked close to John's ear. "But there is a murder and that's far more fun."

The car door swings open. John considers dashing inside to hide in the murder scene, but Sherlock's already straightening his shoulders, tensing in ready defiance, and Lestrade has enough difficulty dealing with Sherlock in a good mood. Sherlock looking at a victim and fuming over whatever Mycroft's come here to say -- that's not something John wants to inflict on anyone.

"Let's get this over with," John says, and starts walking towards the car.

John's a step away before he hears Sherlock's footsteps follow him. He doesn't look over his shoulder; he stares straight ahead and watches Mycroft unfold himself from the backseat, ever-present umbrella in hand.

Mycroft taps it once on the tarmac, and then stands there, arm perfectly straight and umbrella perfectly absurd. "Ah, Sherlock, John," he says when they get closer. "Good to see you."

It doesn't sound like it's good to see them but John's learned not to judge anything Mycroft says by his tone of voice. Everything sounds as if he's slightly bored, as if he's simply waiting for other people to go away and stop being difficult. It's a lot like Sherlock's impatience with Lestrade's team, if you took away the irritation.

"Mycroft," Sherlock says in reply.

John just nods. Mycroft will ignore him until he wants to prove a point to Sherlock. John knows he's not really needed but it still feels important to stand beside Sherlock. Just in case.

There's a strange, silent standoff where nobody talks. Sherlock and Mycroft don't break eye contact, not even when Mycroft takes a slow breath and says, "John. I would like a word. In private."

Sherlock says, "We have a crime scene to investigate."

From the twist of Mycroft's smirk, Sherlock just conceded some point. "I'll wait here," Mycroft says.

"Fine," Sherlock says and spins on one heel, coat swirling around him as he stalks off. Without John. John can't help but notice that Sherlock apparently forgot he was even here. He does that far too often.

"Best of luck with the body," Mycroft says, and it's clearly a dismissal. Mycroft looks down, inspecting his fingernails. "Remind Sherlock to look closely at the wallpaper. He does miss the most obvious things."

John doesn't run after Sherlock. He turns and walks slowly towards the flashing blue lights. He doesn't stomp, he doesn't march, but he's imagining thumping Sherlock with a certain satisfaction. At least until he finds Sherlock waiting at the edge of the bright yellow tape. "I'm actually a person. You know that, right?"

"I'm quite sure of it," Sherlock says, stepping past the crime scene tape.

"You do know you can't just hand me off to Mycroft like some shared teddy bear," John says, frowning. "What if I don't want to spend time alone with your brother? What if I have absolutely no wish to talk to him?"

"You'll talk to Mycroft because if you don't, Mycroft will find a way to get you on your own. At least this way, whatever he has to say will be done."

John thinks that through. He tries not to annoy Mycroft Holmes because he's firstly, not an idiot, and secondly, more practical and sensible than Sherlock. Neither of those things have changed in the last two minutes. "Do you think it's about a case?"

Sherlock snorts, walking through the front door and taking two steps to the side. They're out of Mycroft's direct line of sight. "Did you see the way his right pinky tapped twice against his umbrella? This has nothing to do with his work."

John didn't see that, but he'll take Sherlock's word for it. "So... what is it?"

"Last night," Sherlock says. John must look as confused as he feels, because Sherlock adds, "Your gait is leaning slightly to the left, and usually when your limp plays up, you lean right. There's a red crescent-shaped imprint on the back of my neck, from a blunt, short-cut fingernail. When we first saw him, I leant closer to you to talk. Altogether, it's quite obvious."

"How--" John starts, and then changes to, "That's not obvious!"

"It is to Mycroft. Although what he'd want to discuss with you is beyond me."

"Is this the Holmes version of 'break his heart and I'll end you'? Because that could be genuinely frightening coming from your family."

Sherlock looks at John as if John's being absurd. (He's not. John's not the one with a sibling sitting outside in a government car, demanding an audience.) "I doubt it. But if he offers money for information, this time, take it. I've been fancying a trip to Europe."

***

Sherlock finds the second bullet embedded in plaster, visually hidden by the frayed, curling edge of wallpaper hanging down. He finds it without John even telling him Mycroft's cryptic clue.

It cheers John up enough to head out to the waiting car without being nagged by Sherlock. (Sherlock's too busy being brilliant and important, and calling out orders of what to check and what to move, and generally being a terror to all of Lestrade's subordinates. He's having a ball, so John leaves him to it and sneaks out the back.)

On the other side of the road, the black Audi S8 skulks in the shadows. John's not really a car guy but Sherlock mentioned the make, so John looked it up online and then boggled at the price. It's probably government owned, but it's still nice to open the door and slide into leather seats that cost more than every personal item John owns.

Mycroft nods at John and smiles in a way that's truly unpleasant. "I take it Sherlock found the second bullet?"

John does not say that Sherlock did it all by himself because that would be childish. Instead, he says, "Sherlock thinks this is about last night."

"Hmm," Mycroft says, watching John so closely he can feel his skin crawl.

Mycroft doesn't ask about what happened last night, or try to reason the pieces together. This probably means he already knows, so there's no point in John being coy about it now. "Are you going to threaten to break my legs if I break his heart?"

"That's hardly necessary," Mycroft replies. The pinky finger of his right hand taps once against the handle of the umbrella but John's not Sherlock. He doesn't know what it signifies, only that it's a tell of some kind. "Sherlock's far from… helpless."

It's true enough. John's seen how deep Sherlock's words can cut when he's attempting kindness. John's quite sure if anyone broke Sherlock's heart, they'd walk away psychologically scarred at the very least. Given how well Sherlock understands the human body, there's a chance of broken limbs as well. "So why am I here?"

"I'm gathering information."

"On Sherlock's love life?"

"On you, Doctor Watson."

That's somehow far more unnerving. "Why?"

"It's what I do." Mycroft loosens his grip on the umbrella but doesn't let go completely. John wonders what that means. "Sherlock runs around London, playing detective and solving his little mysteries. I know everything that's important. I find it more useful."

John scowls, thinking it over. It still doesn't make any sense. "You insisted I sit in the backseat of your car just to… what? Take a good look and intuit everything you need to know about me?" He can't help but feel insulted.

"Intuit," Mycroft repeats distastefully, his forehead crinkling into soft lines. "No. The purpose was to make sure Sherlock knew that I knew. And you can tell him that if he likes Paris at this time of year, he can pay for the trip himself."

When John gets out of the car, Sherlock's waiting three steps away. Far enough that he doesn't have to acknowledge Mycroft, close enough that he can probably read most of the conversation by John's expression.

"How did it go?" Sherlock asks when the car has turned the corner out of sight. He doesn't sound annoyed or highly-strung, so Mycroft's demands mustn't have meant much.

"Didn't offer me a bribe," John replies. "Said he refused to contribute to you touring Paris."

"Pity," Sherlock says, but he's smiling.

***

The case proceeds easily enough. Sherlock makes sweeping announcements on their suspect, based on details that seem inconsequential and faintly ridiculous until he pieces them together, and the Met swoop in for the arrest. As much as John enjoys the occasional piece of B&E and running through London alleyways, sometimes it's nice to let the police do the work. Sometimes, he likes sitting in Lestrade's office with a nice cup of tea and a Mars Bar from the vending machine, waiting for Sherlock's curiosity to be sated.

"I still can't believe you let him interview suspects," John says, finishing the last bit of chocolate.

"Consulting Detective." Lestrade is sitting behind his desk, completing forms in messy, all capitals handwriting. He glances up, then continues writing. "Pretentious title but it does give us a little wriggle room to bend the rules. Besides, after half an hour with Sherlock, you'd be surprised how happy they are to confess to an ordinary copper, someone who isn't going to look at their shoes and tell them their sister is sleeping with the gardener."

John nods, allowing the point. "Do you think he'll be much longer?"

Lestrade's pen stops as he looks up. The cheap fluorescent lighting catches on the silver in his hair. "Sherlock?"

"Yeah."

"He left five minutes ago," Lestrade says with a perfectly straight face.

"Oh, for--" John cuts himself off. Really, he should know better by now. Sherlock frequently forgets him, if it's convenient. "I was waiting for him to finish up."

"Might as well finish your cuppa," Lestrade says, directing a small smirk at the pages on his desk.

***

Sherlock isn't at home when he gets there, but Mrs Hudson is. She's busying herself around their kitchen, wiping down the table, cloth circling around the three jars of floating tissue samples -- Sherlock's pickling them just to see what happens -- without so much as a pause.

"Hello, Mrs Hudson," John says. He doesn't say thank you because if he does, she'll remind him that she's not their housekeeper and this isn't her responsibility. They've paid their rent on time (for once) and Sherlock hasn't destroyed the place in the last week, so John's at a bit of a loss as to why she's here. "Did you need a hand with anything?"

"Oh, no, dear. I can't stay," she says, dropping the cloth in the sink. "I just wanted a quiet word with you."

"A quiet word?"

"About being quiet, actually. The walls are a little thin."

"I… don't understand," John says, even though he has a terribly embarrassing idea that maybe he does.

"It's just that my room's directly beneath this one," she says, pointing a finger at Sherlock's bedroom. "I'm not a prude and I'm certainly not trying to pry, and I realise that usually you must use the upstairs room, but maybe you could mention it to Sherlock? Just for future reference."

John doesn't correct the 'usually' assumption. He doesn't want this conversation to last any longer than it absolutely has to. He's fighting the urge to cringe or curl up in a foetal position. "I'll let him know."

"Thank you, dear," Mrs Hudson says. She smiles, and then leans closer and adds, "But between you and me, sounds like a good time was had by all. If you can live together for months and still be that keen, it's a sign."

***

When Sherlock comes sauntering in two hours later, John looks up from his paper and says, "When I die of embarrassment, I'd like my tombstone to read: 'Here lies the brave John Watson, mortified to death by the awful Sherlock Holmes.' Just so you know."

Sherlock pauses where he stands, tilts his head a little and eyes John speculatively. "Are you sure you want to go with brave? Courageous seems like a more appropriate description. A little more formal and funereal."

"I'll think it over," John says, and Sherlock looks pleased. "But the awful stays."

"Really? You never considered despicable?"

John turns a page, starts skimming the headlines for an interesting article. "You can be awful and despicable."

"I think I'd like that."

***

It's an odd evening. John reads the paper and Sherlock putters about with jars of pickled people parts (a phrase John's never going to attempt to say while drunk), and at no time does Sherlock act as if anything is amiss. It's like he's forgotten last night ever happened, like it was an irrelevant fact to be jettisoned from his memory banks.

John can't forget. Every time he gets out of the chair or stretches a little too far, there's that vaguely pleasant twinge to remind him.

It's not something he can post about on his blog, although he's tempted. But he's always been a bit private when it comes to his love life, and practical enough to know that sharing too much makes you vulnerable without offering any real rewards.

He stares at the blinking cursor of his blog, the empty page waiting to be filled. So he writes about the case, simple and boring as it was, blanking out the names and details. It's a funny routine, sitting down and recording Sherlock's cases. His therapist said he did it to avoid talking about himself. Put it down to trust issues. (She might be right but the most interesting things about John include Sherlock or Afghanistan, and he'd rather talk about the former than the latter, thanks.)

At the end, he types in: 'PS - For the record, Sherlock is both awful and despicable.'

And: 'If I die prematurely, I'd like that recorded on my headstone for all to see.' Then John deletes that line. He doesn't want to deal with Harry's reaction to a joke like that, or what Mike would say or Mrs Hudson, and he doesn't want to worry anyone.

Sherlock will still get the reference and maybe even find it funny.

John hits the post button and closes the laptop down, leaving it on the coffee table. He'd feel awkward calling out goodnight so he doesn't say anything, just heads out the door and turns up the stairs. By the seventh step, Sherlock's behind him.

Sherlock doesn't say anything but when John pauses, one foot on the next step, Sherlock crowded warm and solid against his back -- uncertain if he should stop or keep going or worst of all, discuss this -- Sherlock curls one long hand around John's hip and sucks a warm kiss to the back of John's neck at the edge of John's hairline.

"Come on then," John says, resting his hand over Sherlock's to keep it there as they continue up the stairs. "Mrs Hudson will be relieved. Apparently, the sound travels from your room."

"I'm not surprised," Sherlock says, the words breathed softly near John's ear, "given the construction of the floorboards."

***

John's done the one night stand thing. He knows the drill: late nights and flirtation, convenient fun, and no strings attached. In the right circumstances, it has its advantages. No broken hearts, no heavy discussions of family and futures, no heart-to-heart confessions of deepest fears. When you know the next day has a good chance of car bombs and a slight possibility of shrapnel, it's nice to have a distraction that involves sensations, not feelings.

John's also seriously dated people. Technically, he's had serious girlfriends, had casual sex with guys, and had a few one night stands with both genders, but he knows the pattern. Date, get to know each other, sleep together, discuss the relationship, decide to move in together because it's the next step towards a shared future. It hasn't worked out, but he's done it.

Sherlock manages to straddle both. There's no dating -- dinner at Angelo's doesn't count, especially when four times out of five, they're on a stakeout -- and there's no discussion. But they live together and every night when John heads upstairs to bed, Sherlock's only a few steps behind him.

Sherlock had warned John that he wasn't the world's best communicator. It's true. John's seen Sherlock spend fourteen hours staring down microscopes without saying a word. Sherlock not talking about it probably doesn't mean a thing.

He's getting used to waking up to find Sherlock sprawled over the covers, reading textbooks or typing on one of their laptops, or doing both simultaneously. There's a growing stack of books on the far side of John's bed, slowly migrating from the bedside table to the floor. For the sake of regular, spectacular blowjobs, John can live with it.

If Sherlock would cook breakfast more than once a week, John could forgive the early morning stubbed toes too.

***

John's not entirely sure what tips Sherlock off. He must have said something -- one of those rubbish conversations you have when you're too blissed out to feel your toes and the sweat's still cooling on your skin -- but he doesn't know what. Whatever it is, it makes Sherlock snort against his shoulder and sneer, "Really, John, that shows a remarkable lack of imagination."

Sherlock's long fingers are tapping out a soft, nonsense beat against John's ribs. That takes most of the sting out of the words.

"What?" John asks, looking over his shoulder. He can only make out dark hair and a sliver of pale forehead, so he closes his eyes and relaxes into the pillow.

"It's such a myth," Sherlock goes on. "Totally unfounded and so… common."

"What are you talking about?"

"Sexual innocence." Sherlock's fingers tap the words into John's skin. "The idea that inexperience is somehow of greater value to a potential partner than simple competence. It's utterly ridiculous."

Sherlock understands every detail about people except the important things that hold them together. John knows this. Also, John's currently relaxed and well-fucked so there is absolutely no reason get defensive and say, "Some people think sex is something private that should be valued. That's not ridiculous."

"False delusions of privacy serve no purpose," Sherlock declares, and really, that explains so much. Sherlock never fails to mention a private, embarrassing detail because he doesn't see why it should be embarrassing. If it's a fact, he believes everyone has a right to know it. Mostly, he seems to forget other people don't notice things the way he does, and assumes everyone already knows it anyway. "And this isn't a question of privacy. This is the romanticised concept of mapping uncharted skin as if each body is a country that can only be explored once."

Sherlock's mocking him, but John still finds it sexy, feeling those words murmured into his skin. John swallows his reaction down. "You object to the romanticism?"

"I object," Sherlock says, burrowing a little closer under the covers, "to the utter lack of practicality. The first apple you eat is no more meaningful or enjoyable than the tenth, thirtieth or four hundredth. Practice improves any physical act based on skill, judgment and muscle memory. Think of eating, running, anything else as basic and physical as sex. Skill and expertise are encouraged. Why should sex be given a privileged value, where inability is somehow better than ability?"

"It's just…" John lets the thought trail off. Defending this to Sherlock is hard, because objectively, logically, John knows Sherlock's got a point. But sex isn't logical. Attraction and affection aren't objective. It's the urge to possess, to have a claim on a lover, to feel that what you share is unique and irreplaceable. To think that you're the one, the only one, to touch them here or hear their voice break like that. Even if you know, rationally, that it's not true. But trying to explain to Sherlock that sometimes it's nice to believe something you know is a lie… John would have a better chance convincing Sherlock the sky's orange.

"Exactly," Sherlock says, as if he's won the argument. "Legal age limits do not pinpoint the age when a teenager becomes sexually aware, not even close, but let's assume they do. At thirty-three, I've been at a legally consenting age for a decade and a half. It's preposterous that I had never once slept with someone else."

John stays where he is, sprawled on his side with Sherlock curled behind him. He doesn't even look back. "I've never seen you with anyone."

"That was your unfortunate timing," Sherlock chides, and John nearly laughs. He hides it as a silent huff, but Sherlock probably feels his chest jerk with the movement. "Even if I had no experience with other people, I still would have had ideas, thoughts, concepts of sex. In our society, surrounded by media that uses sex as both currency and product, it would be impossible not to have some preconceived ideas about sex. No one enters their first sexual relationship without some idea, some concept of what it should be and should mean. There is no blank page waiting for your desires to be written out in indelible ink; no complete innocent to be shaped by your needs alone."

"That's not the point," John says, because it's not. "It's not about creating some perfect little automaton to scratch your itch. Human beings don't work like that."

"Which is what makes the fantasy so bizarre," Sherlock says smugly. His head slides down until his forehead is resting against the curve of John's shoulder and his breathing starts to even out.

John should go to sleep. But now, he's wide awake. Sherlock has theories about everything. From insects to rubbish lorries, hair to toenails, and everything in between (especially if it's a dead body), Sherlock has observed and identified trends, can extrapolate a theory on almost any subject. (Well, not Peter Andre and Jordan, or political parties, but most chemical and biological facts can be connected to some string of Sherlock's thoughts.) He has ideas about everything, and he's always, always irritated by stupidity, but…

There's something off here. Given how annoyed he was by the idea, Sherlock dismissed the conversation too easily.

"Sherlock?" John asks softly, in case Sherlock has managed to fall asleep in the last few minutes. He's seen it after the end of a long case, where Sherlock will go from alert and talking to fast asleep within thirty seconds. But when Sherlock drops off suddenly, he usually snores so he's probably not asleep now. "Sherlock?"

Sherlock stays very still but when pressed against each other, hips and thighs and stomach to back, John can recognise the tension that means consciousness. "Is this conversation worth keeping me awake?"

"How many people do you think I've slept with?" It's not the question John wants to ask, but in times of limited ammunition, misdirection is key.

"Hmm." Sherlock kisses the sound into John's skin. "A dozen, maybe fifteen. Given the changes in your music collection and the occasional photos that show up tucked into your books, probably only five of those were long term, lasting between six months and two years. The rest were one night stands."

"Wow," John says, and this time he twists around to stare at Sherlock. Sherlock stares back. "You didn't talk to my mum, did you? Or Harry? Because I'm sure a few CDs and a couple of photos can't tell you that much."

Sherlock quirks one dark eyebrow, clearly suggesting that John should have more faith in him by now. John does, normally, but still. Sometimes Sherlock knows too much to be believed.

Eventually, Sherlock sighs and deigns to explain himself. "You had no difficulty asking Sarah out on a date, despite only meeting her the previous day. Therefore, enough experience to feel comfortable making romantic advances, or alternatively pull one night stands. Despite three mostly successful dates with Sarah, you didn't sleep with her. Not from lack of nerve or ability, as I can personally attest, but from choice. You prefer something long-term, especially now that you're back in England."

John blinks at that, but he can't object. There isn't anything there he could object to, although he vaguely feels like he should. "Okay. So how many people have you slept with?"

John's expecting the answer to be more than him, only because there's no way anyone is naturally that good at sucking cock. And because Sherlock shows absolutely no compunctions about sex, no hesitancy or self-consciousness. He's not expecting Sherlock to say, "That's more difficult to establish."

"How is it easier to guess my past lovers than it is to remember your own?"

"Because there were more of mine and I didn't pay attention at the time. I never considered keeping a tally on pure quantities of people."

"But you kept a tally on other things?" John asks, simply because it has to be said.

Sherlock nods. "Sexual acts. Different types, different fetishes, different styles. I wanted to know why people had a preference for one over the other, to work out what made people enjoy whatever it was." There's a pause, and John knows Sherlock well enough to spot that there's something he isn't saying, something he thought and then decided was irrelevant or too unlikely to warrant speech. "Is it important?"

"The number?" John asks and Sherlock nods. "Sort of. It feels unfair that you know mine and I don't know yours."

"You didn't tell me yours, I deduced it," Sherlock argues. "If you can't deduce mine, I don't see why I should tell you."

"How about I guess, and you can tell me higher or lower? Five hundred?"

"Lower," Sherlock says, rolling his eyes.

John grins. "Two hundred?"

"Higher."

And the grin falls off John's face. "Four hundred?"

"Higher."

"Over four hundred?" John hears himself say in a really discomforting, high-pitched whine. It's not that Sherlock's horribly disfigured, or doesn't know how to dress his stick-insect figure to best advantage, but still. John had been imagining about a tenth of that. Maybe. "You've slept with over four hundred people? I'm amazed your genitals are still attached."

"There's no need for hyperbole." Sherlock frowns. He adds in that distracted, calculating routes and travel times voice of his, "My best guess would be four hundred and twenty, but I really didn't keep count. It's possible it's up to fifty higher than that."

Unrealistic as it was, John liked the idea of being Sherlock's first; he's not sure how he feels about being Sherlock's four hundred and twenty-first. Or possibly five hundredth, since Sherlock apparently didn't bother keeping count while sleeping with half of London. "Twelve, twenty, even thirty people is a pretty average number. Once you hit the hundreds, you've become the whore of Babylon."

John says it before he really thinks it through -- calling someone a whore is probably the fastest way to make sure they'll never sleep with you again -- but Sherlock's wearing that surprised, pleased expression that means he's flattered.

"You know, most people wouldn't take it as a compliment."

"You wouldn't have said it if you thought I'd honestly be offended," Sherlock says and John chooses to believe that's true. Even if he knows it really isn't. "Most scholars believe the whore of Babylon was a coded reference to Rome, a bustling, metropolitan city of the time. If you compared me to London, I'd take it as a compliment. This is the same thing."

It's really not, John thinks but he doesn't have the heart, or the cruelty, to say it.

***

John considers posting to his blog, just to check if he's being a bit unreasonable. Maybe he's a little behind the curve, maybe four hundred plus isn't as bad as it sounds. Maybe it's a perfectly reasonable figure and John's only a stick in the mud who finds himself typing into Excel, working out an average. (Assuming Sherlock didn't sleep with anyone until he was eighteen and he hasn't slept with anyone for the last four years, that's four hundred and twenty people over eleven years, which is thirty-eight people a year. Someone new every ten days.)

He's not going to post on his blog about sleeping with Sherlock. His therapist reads that, his sister reads that. Sarah reads that. Call him old-fashioned, but John thinks that's the sort of news you tell people face-to-face.

He wouldn't want to use Sherlock's name. Mike knows Sherlock, he introduced them for heaven's sake, and John knows Lestrade and Donovan read his blog. It wouldn't be right to share something so personal about Sherlock with people he works with. It's unprofessional. John might have blurted out the worst possible reaction but there's no way he'd willingly humiliate Sherlock by publishing those sorts of details.

He could couch it in impersonal terms but he already knows the reactions he'd get. Harry would show her typical level of maturity and leave encouragement in capslock and demand details. Bill would imply that John's talking about his own history -- Bill's always assumed that John did a lot more than he has -- and Sherlock…

John wouldn't hazard a guess as to what comments Sherlock would leave, but he'd say something. Or he'd rightfully sulk about it. Again, it's a conversation that John would prefer face-to-face, rather than him on his computer and Sherlock wandering around London, madly typing into his phone.

"Pass me your laptop," Sherlock demands from the armchair, eyes closed. He's sprawled on his back, arms lying out to either side, long fingers hanging loose over the armrests. He's been quiet for nearly twenty minutes, waiting for something to happen in the kitchen. (Not any random something. He was in there this morning with beakers and protective goggles and a raised hand when John tried to step in, a brief warning of, "Best not to disturb this right now. Go get a coffee from that café on the corner. You like their lattes.")

John's spent the day in the sitting room, waiting for smoke, a foul odour or possibly an explosion. For some reason, as careful and meticulous as Sherlock always is with his experiments, there's a part of John that always expects an explosion or maybe a raging fire. The idea of leaving Sherlock alone with it makes the hair on the back of his neck rise.

"I'm using my computer right now," John replies primly. "Go get your own."

Sherlock sighs and pushes his head back enough to give John a baleful stare. "You're using the number keys, therefore you're using Excel. You only use Excel when looking over your budget -- which is both boring and an utter waste of time -- so you don't need to use your laptop. I want it."

He does keep a budget in Excel -- limited income, limited savings, it's only practical -- but he didn't know Sherlock knew that. He didn't think Sherlock was interested in anything so mundanely practical. "You have a computer of your own. Go get that."

Sherlock's up and out of the chair so quickly it takes John a moment to react. By the time he's minimized the spreadsheet, Sherlock's standing behind him, smirking. "That's a very inaccurate average," he says, in the same half-chiding, half-encouraging tone he uses to praise John's attempts at deduction and then tell John he's missed all the important parts.

John groans and buries his head in his hands. "Just for once, Sherlock, could you let other people get to a conclusion in their own time?"

"Why? What value does it serve when I already know the right answer?"

John looks up at Sherlock, expecting a smug, I'm-smarter-than-the-rest-of-you-combined expression, but Sherlock looks genuinely confused. It's not often that he makes an effort with people -- tries to be kind, tries to consider other people before he acts -- and too often, Sherlock gets surprised that people don't always respond to efficiency and facts. There's something about it that makes John want to step in and play intermediary, wants to act as a buffer between Sherlock and the world so Sherlock can keep being brilliant and impossible and extraordinary without worrying about how everyone else will react to him.

Not that Sherlock needs John for that. Sherlock's fine at ignoring people when it suits.

"Fine," John says, rather than try to explain that practice makes perfect; if you want someone to get better at reasoning, you have to let them practice the skill, not jump in with the right answer. Sherlock's too impatient to understand it and most of the time, it doesn't bother John anyway. "What's wrong with that average?"

"Incorrect timeframe. I wasn't very interested in people when I was at university." Sherlock leans over his shoulder and brings up the spreadsheet. As he talks, he tabs across into John's cells, changing the formulas. "Even the first year out of university, sex didn't interest me. Not until I was twenty-four."

The eleven years gets cut down to four; a new person every ten days turn into a new person every 3.5 days. "You were pulling two people a week? For four years?"

"Approximately," Sherlock replies and John knows how much he hates inaccuracy of any sort. "During those years I spent most nights out in London, becoming familiar with the city. Not every night, but at least four out of seven. Assuming I pulled half the time, that's a hundred or so people a year."

There's something in the way Sherlock says it, casually and a little amused. When John thinks about what amuses Sherlock -- cases interest him, but annoying Mycroft amuses him -- he gets it. "It was a game. You picked people up to entertain yourself," he says slowly, and Sherlock nods. "Were there rules?"

"A stranger, someone I passed on the street. Anyone as long as I couldn't remember seeing them before. I'd follow, try to gather whatever information I could, and then I'd approach them. Do whatever it took to get them into bed. Well, sex was the goal. Bed was optional. Alleyways and backseats worked just as well. And once, the toilets at Covent Garden tube station."

John blinks. It doesn't stop him from imagining that last one in surprisingly vivid detail. He's used that station. He can imagine the white tiled walls, pushing Sherlock into a stall clumsy and fast. And the horrifying embarrassment of being overheard or having security called to escort them out. "I have to ask. Were disguises involved?"

"That would have been cheating," Sherlock says decidedly. "And it would have required me to return home to change, which really wasn't practical when following a stranger on the other side of London."

"You know they call that stalking these days. You could be arrested for it."

"Only if I did it badly." Sherlock believes the rules of society don't apply to him. (John should have known.) "I wasn't obvious enough for them to notice me. The point was to change accents, mimic conversation, notice physical signs of their personality and adjust mine to attract them. To try to find out what they liked, what they wanted and if it could be guessed from their actions and appearance. Sex is the physical act but it's also highly revealing. It was a puzzle."

"A puzzle?" It's strange to think of it. The idea of Sherlock pretending to be other people, trying on personalities and flaws… Actually, John's seen it -- or close enough -- so he can see that part. Can see Sherlock smiling and changing his accent, changing his body language, changing every reliable marker about himself, just to charm someone into bed, or down a dark alley. To try anything in order to understand what made people enjoy whatever it was.

"The best kind of challenge," Sherlock agrees easily.

John thinks Sherlock was also looking for something he liked, maybe trying to find something that overcame his boredom or his constant need to think. Then he realises what Sherlock isn't saying. "It was all one night stands, wasn't it? Four hundred and twenty people, and it was only ever for one night."

"No point in repeating it. No new data to be gained," Sherlock says, and John wonders if Sherlock knows it's a lie. The first time is never everything; as you get more comfortable, as you know each other better, there are new ways of knowing the other person, understanding them. The first night can be fun and exciting, but it's never the whole story. "It would have been tedious maintaining the persona for longer than necessary."

John spins around in his chair, and Sherlock takes a quick step back. John's noticed it before, the way Sherlock touches so confidently in bed but keeps the same distance between them otherwise. He'd assumed Sherlock was sexually confident but not interested in affection or romance, but now he's thinking… maybe not. A one night stand isn't a relationship. Sherlock's never done this part of it before. It's... interesting.

"If I'd met you then," John says, letting the thought trail off.

"You were deployed," Sherlock replies.

"True, but assume I'd got shot a lot earlier. How would I have met you?"

Sherlock takes a step back, perches on the arm of the sofa. Any minute now, John expects him to lose his balance and fall to the floor, but Sherlock crosses his legs at the knee, suspended in the unstable position. "You don't go out much late at night but you do go down to the pub to watch a game, so that would be it. You always sit at the bar, near the television screen to have a good view, so I'd sit at the back. I'd claim a table and have a drink and after the first twenty minutes, I'd sit next to you. I'd ask if the seat was taken and explain that a mate hadn't shown up, so if he wasn't here, I might as well watch the game."

John thinks about Sherlock and his well-cut coat, his plummy tones, arrogant and assuming, that public school air to him; he's not the kind of bloke that could convincingly elbow his way in to watching a match. "Really?"

"'Course," Sherlock says, his voice higher and rougher, clearly Manchester or up that way. The lean, elegant height of him folds and shrinks; he slouches and takes up less room, looks relaxed and far less formal. "We'd watch. I'd cheer for the other team. We'd drink. I'd point out your team was made of tossers. You'd have a go at mine. There'd be a bet, a few more drinks, it'd all be right."

"Okay, that's kind of scary. Stop it."

Sherlock rolls his shoulders and straightens, and when he talks, he sounds like him again. "You're a doctor, military, used to making do and acting fast. After the game was over, when you started talking about heading home, I'd trip and sprain my ankle."

"I'm a doctor, I'd notice a fake."

"The human body is a simple case of moving parts. Pressure on the wrong angle of the bone, muscles tensed against a fall, a lot of injury can be done quite easily."

"So you'd sprain your own ankle," John says pointedly. This is one of those times when Sherlock doesn't recognise that what might seem perfectly logical is not what any sane, reasonable person would do. "Then what?"

"I'd say I lived a distance away, that I was only on this side of the city to meet up with a friend. You always drink at a local pub, so you'd invite me back to yours. You'd say I could crash on the sofa," Sherlock says, and John nods because he probably would. He's always been friends with Bill, never been attracted to him at all, but Bill's spent a few too-drunk nights sleeping it off on John's couch or floor. "You assist me getting back to yours, on the way I'd suggest buying a bottle of something as a thank-you, saying it was cheaper than the taxi fare home. We'd get to your couch, pour a drink and I'd kiss you. I don't think you'd need any more encouragement than that."

"And then you'd be gone in the morning?"

"Probably," Sherlock says and before John can ask what would make Sherlock stay, if he would have cooked John breakfast back then, there's a tinkling sound of glass breaking in their kitchen and Sherlock's eyes widen. "Oh," he says, getting up and rushing to the breaking beaker. "That's unexpected."

"Do I need to call the emergency services?" John calls out, because it's always worth asking.

There's a suspicious silence. Then, "It shouldn't be toxic."

"I'm going to stay here in case you pass out," John says, checking his pocket for his mobile. He has the emergency services on speed-dial.

"That's very unlikely," Sherlock calls back. "Oh, actually, John--"

John runs at the worried surprise in Sherlock's voice and gets to the archway just in time to see a gust of magenta smoke fill the room with a horrible smell. The world goes crystal clear and calm for a moment: the familiar chill of danger all around. John looks around and then acts. Anchoring a hand against the wall, he leans through the doorway, eyes closed against the smoke. He reaches blindly towards where Sherlock was standing, gets a grip on Sherlock's sleeve and pulls him out.

Sherlock emerges with bright pink powder in his hair and smeared across his cheeks. He's also grinning. "That was very unexpected," he says happily. His breathing seems normal, no discolouration of the skin, eyes clear and not affected. Messy, but not in any mortal danger.

"Clean the kitchen before you try it again," John says, sudden adrenaline fading back to normality. "Are you sure that's not toxic?"

"In moderation," Sherlock says, and he looks like he wants to jump back in and test everything right now. "Definitely no permanent effects."

***

John stands his ground about cleaning the kitchen. He holds Sherlock's nicotine patches hostage until the pink smudge is scrubbed off the ceiling. He knows well enough that if he moves from the sitting room, Sherlock will probably get distracted doing something else and if he lets Sherlock closer than two foot, Sherlock will steal the box of patches out of his pocket, so John settles on the armchair facing the kitchen.

John opens the Guardian across his lap and reads a few stories. Or he tries to. He spends more time watching Sherlock standing on the kitchen table, burgundy shirtsleeves rolled up, soapy water dripping down his wrists as he drags the scrubbing brush across the ceiling plaster. He's used to seeing Sherlock lounging around the flat or dashing from this clue to the next, it's interesting to watch Sherlock doing something so ordinary. As ordinary as Sherlock gets.

It's not a bad view, John finds himself thinking as he slouches down into the chair. He lets his head drop back and rests the paper on his lap, giving up the pretence of reading. Honestly, he'd rather watch the long stretch of Sherlock's legs and back, the bunched movement of his shoulders and arms, the light catching on his pale skin of his neck. Sherlock squats down to rinse the dirty water from the brush, and John likes that view too.

Sherlock freezes for a moment, stills from his hands down, then looks over his shoulder at John. "If you're going to spend the afternoon sitting there, you could help."

"Your mess," John replies. "You clean it up."

Sherlock studies John, like he's trying to work out the right angle, the correct pressure to apply to force John to help. For once, John's got the upper hand: Sherlock can't continue his experiments in a contaminated area and John has absolutely no incentive to clean it for him.

"Can you at least rinse out the bowl so I don't have to get down from the table?"

John considers saying no just to be difficult, but it's a fair enough request. Plus, Sherlock asked instead of ordering him; that sort of behaviour needs to be rewarded. "Sure," John says, and does it.

There's something nice about this, sitting around while Sherlock keeps himself busy. It's relaxed and easy, bordering on domestic. For a moment, he wonders if Sherlock's ever shared the casual, daily routine with anyone else. Then he banishes the thought from his head.

Sitting down again, John turns pages until he gets to the puzzle section of the paper. "If you want," John says, "I can read out the crossword clues."

"It's the Guardian," Sherlock says disdainfully, moving a step across the table. The mark's nearly half gone. "Hardly challenging."

"I won't tell you the number of letters," John offers. "And you won't be able to see where they overlap, so it will be a little more difficult."

"I doubt it will take me more than ten minutes," Sherlock says so John finds the stopwatch feature on his mobile, picks up a pen and reads out the first clue.

***

John's failing to catch his breath. He's trying, but Sherlock keeps sliding two slick, confident fingers all the way into John and then almost all the way out, and--

"Fuck," John groans and Sherlock gives a sudden twist of his fingers that makes John's vision spark.

Sherlock's sharp teeth catch on the curve of John's ear, and John has to grit his teeth to stop a whimper. He's not sure if he wants Sherlock to hurry up and go faster, harder, or if he wants this, slow and indulgent, body revved up and feeling everything. He can feel the tension in his muscles, his back and his legs, squeezing around Sherlock's fingers to eke out every shiver of sensation.

John squeezes his eyes shut and tries not to beg.

Sherlock's pressed against his side and his shoulder. His breath is warm on John's neck. "Do you want me to go slower?" he asks, the deep sound rumbling across John's skin.

"'m good," John manages, his voice high and reedy.

The mattress shudders and there's a huff of breath through the damp hair at the nape of his neck. Sherlock's laughing at him. It's a little hard to care when Sherlock's fingers keep sliding deeper and retreating, unstoppable as the tide.

John shifts on the cotton sheet, sweat dripping down the back of his knees, the faint breeze from the open window across his chest. He reaches out blindly, gets a hand on Sherlock's hip, grips it. He doesn't want this over yet, not yet, so he tries to think of something else. Anything else.

Like not picturing an elephant when someone tells you not to think of it, as soon as John tries to think about something other than Sherlock -- Sherlock's fingers smooth inside him, Sherlock's hair brushing his shoulder -- he can't. His mind goes blank. All he can think of is Sherlock: Sherlock's sharp eyes and full lips, all watchfully still or sudden bursts of energy; absolute confidence and condescension, even when he's guessing; constantly finding people boring, obvious, predictable but still surprised when John's impressed by him.

John doesn't really get that. Doesn't understand how anyone could be so brilliant, could take it for granted and still be taken aback that someone else notices. It makes no sense.

"You seem distracted," Sherlock says with a twist of his fingers that has John biting back curses. "I can fix that."

Then Sherlock sits up, curls over John and licks one hot, wet line from the base of John's cock to the tip. His fingers keep moving as he swallows around John's cock.

John comes so loudly that, two floors down, Mrs Hudson probably hears him.

***

John yawns and squints against the light. He tries to hide under the sheet and turn away from the window, but that makes the light behind his eyelids brighter. Blinking his eyes open, he sees why.

It's not morning. The light isn't weak sunshine filtered by the buildings next door. It's Sherlock's lamp, which drifted to John's room with the second pile of books. ("Better quality of light for reading," Sherlock said, and John hadn't cared one way or the other.)

"It's three a.m.," Sherlock says. He's lying on his back with a small hardcover book on his lap. The duvet forms a pyramid over his bent knees.

It's early -- or far too late -- and John's tired, but he's also thirty-seven years old. On pure principle, he objects to being told when to go to sleep. In retaliation, he moves his head to Sherlock's shoulder, resting his chin against Sherlock's bicep. Beneath his cheek, the cotton of Sherlock's T-shirt is warm and soft, and that's something John never would have guessed about Sherlock. Sherlock doesn't like sleeping naked.

Personally, John's happy to skip putting on pyjamas just to get undressed and dressed in the day's clothes. Plus, sex always makes him drowsy and prone to napping, so it's not like he's awake enough to care about being dressed. If he needs to, he can throw his clothes on in minutes. Life in the army taught him to get ready fast. (In a lot of ways, years in combat was surprisingly good preparation for living with Sherlock.)

Sherlock dresses like a soldier too. At a moment's notice, Sherlock can pull on clothes and be presentable in sharp-ironed lines and well-polished shoes. The shirt, the suit, the coat: it's as much a uniform as army fatigues. But he doesn't like sleeping naked. He says it's more practical to wear pyjamas.

"I'm sure the pillows are far more comfortable," Sherlock says.

For that remark, John hooks an arm around Sherlock's skinny chest. Retribution through enforced cuddling might not work in most relationships, but Sherlock isn't like most people. These days, John's starting to accept the fact that he's not like most people either.

John settles down with every intention of falling asleep, right where he is, thank you very much, but Sherlock sighs. "Given the weight of your head, I will lose circulation to my fingers." It sounds like defeat; enough that John lifts his head and lets Sherlock pull his arm free.

Once it's free, though, John rests his head back on Sherlock's shoulder.

Sherlock moves the book to his right hand. It's old, bound in dark green material that's fading to the colour of dying moss, and its pages are pinned open by Sherlock's pinky and thumb. Sherlock returns to reading intently, and his left arm curls around John, palm flat on John's spine, rubbing slow, meaningless circles on John's skin.

It's one of those soft, water-coloured moments that John wants to remember. It feels like a secret moment carved out of time, too quiet to be London, all golden lamplight and this bed. It's just the two of them. The regular rise of Sherlock's chest beneath John's head, the wheeze of air in his lungs, the familiar heartbeat and various gurgles of a living body. John's bare skin and the way Sherlock fits against him, warm and easy through the thin layer of pyjamas. The careless brush of Sherlock's hand against his back, only pausing when Sherlock needs to turn a page.

John wants to ask: Have you ever done this before? With anyone else?

He wants to ask: Is this what you imagined when you thought of us together?

But he doesn't. He keeps his eyes open, and watches Sherlock's fingers on the yellowed pages, the line of Sherlock's forearm holding the book up. He thinks about the places he's kissed, the places he's touched, and the way this is easier than he really imagined it being.

He doesn't try to read along because Sherlock reads textbooks for pleasure. Sherlock likes books filled with chemical compounds seven syllables long. The kind of books John's capable of studying and understanding, but not the sort of thing he'd ever consider light reading. Still, it takes him a long time to realise 'ist' isn't an English word.

"Is that German?" John asks. When he really looks, he can see why he hadn't understood anything on the pages.

"Is the book written in German," Sherlock corrects.

"Do you speak German?"

"No," Sherlock says, soft and sarcastic. His hand keeps rubbing against John's back. "I've spent the last two hours pretending to read the book. I thought it was a practical use of time."

John nods at that. It was a silly question. "How many languages do you speak?"

"Twelve fluently. I can converse in another five but I can't sound like a native." Sherlock turns a page and John thinks the conversation will stop there. Unexpectedly, Sherlock adds, "Mummy was always disappointed that I didn't have more of a flair for foreign languages."

John snorts. "After years of schoolboy French, I can introduce myself and count to ten. That's it." He also learned to say, 'Medical personnel, don't shoot,' in a few dialects but he never really figured out what was being yelled in return. It doesn't count.

"Mycroft speaks twenty-six. Twenty-nine if you include dead languages, although they're utterly pointless. What is the advantage of fluency in a language only used by linguistic academics?"

"If we ever get a murder threat written in Latin, you'll regret that."

"That is what translation sites were made for," Sherlock replies.

"Ah, Latin death threats. I always wondered why Babelfish was created."

There's a whisper of pressure to the top of John's head, something that might have been Sherlock pressing a kiss to his hair. Then Sherlock turns another page and resumes reading. It's comfortable and undemanding, and it should soothe John into sleep but instead, he finds himself awake.

He has absolutely no desire to move. He's relaxed and the bed is soft, and he likes the way Sherlock's T-shirt smells like detergent and fabric softener, like Sherlock doesn't wear his clothes so much as hang them on his body to keep them pristine. So he lies there and thinks.

Mostly, he thinks about what he wants to ask, the things about Sherlock's romantic history that don't make sense, and why it doesn't make sense. Why Sherlock hasn't told him. It's not as if John's under the mistaken impression that Sherlock's anything near normal. John knows he's not. He knows Sherlock's bizarre and outlandish, impossible and fantastic. He likes it.

But it's the detail that's wrong. Sherlock can't tell him the exact number of lovers but knows to the day the last time he slept with someone (with someone who wasn't John, John amends smugly). Sherlock said he had no interest until a year after university, and that seems strange too. Living away from home, being eighteen and surrounded by other eighteen year olds and the availability of alcohol… First year of university seems like the logical time to find an interest in sex, really. Unless you're John, who had sex on the brain from age fifteen.

(Like most boys that age, he'd thought about it fifty times a day, at inappropriate times, and didn't get past kissing until his final year. And then spent every afternoon at Jenn's house because both her parents worked and an unsupervised hour and a half was heaven for two teenagers who'd just discovered sex. His schoolwork suffered a bit but it was worth it.)

"If I asked what happened your first year out of uni," John says, and the hand on his back stills, "would you tell me the truth?"

"You're not asking now," Sherlock declares, "so it's hardly important."

Sherlock sounds disinterested. John doesn't trust that at all.

"I'm not asking right now. I just wanted confirmation," John says, pushing up on an elbow and turning to press one light kiss to Sherlock's full lower lip. He drops another kiss to the bow of Sherlock's upper lip. "So when you tell me, I'll know it's the truth."

"Assuming that I would tell you. Or that it has any relevance."

John kisses the edge of Sherlock's jaw, nuzzles into the soft skin beneath. Not because he wants sex, not because he thinks it will influence Sherlock at all, but because he can. Because Sherlock's here and so easy to touch, warm under John's lips, and he wants exactly this. This precious touch, this stolen, secret moment. He wants it enough that he's not going to push for answers. Not right now.

"You'll tell me eventually," John says, lying back down and closing his eyes.

Sherlock doesn't reply. There's a rustle of pages, and after a moment, Sherlock's arm settles around his shoulders. His fingers curve around the crook of John's elbow, holding gently.

***

Despite everything, Sherlock remains himself. Regular sex doesn't change much of their day-to-day lifestyle. That's the reason John comes to, locked inside a walk-in freezer.

He feels the back of his head gingerly, wincing when he feels the tender spot. "No matter what anyone says," he says to Sherlock's coat-covered back, "being knocked out with a lead pipe is not the best way to achieve unconsciousness."

"What it lacks in style, it makes up for with brute efficiency," Sherlock says, not looking around.

This is the thing with Sherlock. Most people, a bad day is having your train cancelled and getting in late to work, having a smarmy supervisor insult you with a smile, and stopping by Tesco on the way home to find your bank card refuses to work. When you're with Sherlock, it always involves crime and direct threat to life and limb. It's not entirely Sherlock's fault. He had correctly deduced the appearance of the three suspects and their location. Sherlock's harebrained confrontation probably would have worked, if not for the fact that the blond was actually one of a pair of twins.

Holding them off at gunpoint doesn't work when there's suddenly a fourth man with a kitchen cleaver against Sherlock's throat.

Now, they're in a freezer six foot wide and nine foot deep, white walls and metal shelving stacked with brown, cardboard boxes. Taking up most of the space in the middle of the room, there's a pallet of more boxes. John looks down at the one he's sitting on: frozen Bavarian cheesecakes, apparently.

"You know," John says conversationally, "next time I say you should talk to the police before running after murderers, maybe you should."

Sherlock crouches by the door, running one leather-gloved hand along the rubber seal. "They always take so long. There isn't time."

"But there's time to get locked in a fridge."

"They'll come eventually." At least, Sherlock looks over his shoulder this time. Then he stands up, proving that door is definitely locked. "Lestrade knows where we are."

John knows Sherlock didn't speak to Lestrade, so… "Developing your ESP?" John twists his fingers together, breathing on them to warm up. It's bloody cold. He's dressed for autumn, warm woollen jumper and old jeans. He's not dressed for icy cold.

Unlike a certain coat-wearing, scarf-hogging flatmate who's currently wearing black leather gloves.

"I texted the address to him," Sherlock says, but that makes no sense. Sherlock's phone ran out of charge during the taxi ride here. John remembers because Sherlock was looking up GoogleMaps at the time. Then Sherlock pulls John's phone out of his pocket. "Do you want this? There's no reception in here."

"You--" John stops. He has a throbbing headache and his teeth are so cold they hurt, but he's suddenly remembering Sherlock, stainless steel blade pressed against the column of his throat, his right hand in his pocket. While John was thinking how fast someone bleeds from the jugular, one sudden move and Sherlock would only have minutes, Sherlock was texting Lestrade by feel. That's both stupidly insane and more than a little awe-inspiring. "Did you tell him we're in the freezer?"

"I didn't have time," Sherlock says, sitting down on a box of cheesecakes of his own. "I sent the address and come now. And my initials, of course."

"Of course." John nods. "How else would he know that this was very important and required his presence this very second?"

Sherlock gives him a narrowed sideways stare, like he knows John's mocking him but he's not entirely sure how. "Lestrade will come."

John tucks his hands under his armpits for warmth. He refuses to ask for Sherlock's scarf and tries to burrow his chin under the neckline of his jumper instead. "You send me 'urgent, come now' texts when you can't be bothered to get off the couch to close the window. You use texts to make Lestrade look like an idiot during press conferences. He's not going to come running just because you demand."

"You do."

"For some reason that has more to do with my mental stability than anything else, I come when you want me. Doesn't mean Lestrade will." John knows he's bickering, and knows it's pointless, but he's locked in an airtight freezer and sitting on a mountain of boxed frozen desserts. If there was ever a time for pointless bickering, this is it.

Sherlock raises one mischievous brow. "Are you implying I have a talent for making you come?"

"Don't make this dirty," John says, but he's already sniggering. "I do not want to die while being embarrassed by you."

"The most obvious physical sign of embarrassment is blushing, a rush of blood flowing to the cheeks and bringing a noticeable increase in warmth to the tissue. It would do you good." There are times when Sherlock does manage to read John emotionally. Like right now, when he's glaring at Sherlock and wishing him the slow, painful death of a thousand paper cuts, Sherlock takes the hint and adds, "Lestrade is plodding and methodical. He will wait five minutes and then call you to confirm that you know I have your phone and to make sure nothing is wrong. When he consistently gets no answer, he will eventually arrive at the correct conclusion and send a car here."

"So now we just have to wait and freeze." John sighs. "At least we won't starve to death. I've always thought that would be unpleasant."

Sherlock glances down at the pallet. "Do you feel like dessert?"

"I don't want to eat anything I've been sitting on."

There's a comfortable silence where John loses feeling in his toes. Then his feet, his ankles and his knees. He can feel the chill across his shoulder blades, clawing into his skin no matter how low he hunches his chest into his lap. He wishes he could stop breathing: breathing through his mouth hurts his teeth; when he breathes through his nose he can feel the chill all the way up to his sinuses.

"I thought they'd be here by now," Sherlock says, and the git doesn't even sound cold.

There is a time for personal pride, and John is far past that. "You could give me your scarf."

"But that would result in my core body temperature lowering," Sherlock says. "One of us needs to be able to move to the door when the police arrive, otherwise they may not think to look in here for us. Given your head wound, you already stand a higher probability of passing out from the cold."

John doesn't hit him. He thinks about it -- in vivid, vicious detail -- but hitting Sherlock would require John moving his hands, and his fingertips are the one part of him that's currently warm enough to feel.

"Sherlock?" John growls out, teeth clenched together. "Give me. The scarf."

"You're being illogical. Ensuring I remain conscious is the best choice for both of us to avoid death."

"I will strangle you. Give it to me."

"John," Sherlock says, and there's a laugh hiding in his tone, "you're shivering. You wouldn't have the motor control to make good on that threat."

"I'm willing to try anyway."

It's hard to look threatening when you're folded in two, curled against your knees and shaking like a leaf. John tries, but from Sherlock's smirk, he's clearly not succeeding.

"Fine," John says, "let's talk." Sherlock is stubborn and selfish and right, but if John has to be cold and miserable, then Sherlock can at least share in the misery. "This relationship? Where do you see us going?"

It's vicious and underhanded, and totally worth it for the way Sherlock blinks and then says, "Probably to the police station and then back to our flat."

"No, not where are you and I physically going," John corrects, distantly noting that anger is surprisingly good at getting the blood flowing. "Where are we as a couple, as an us, metaphorically going?"

"As a--" Sherlock looks a little confused, pale lips pursed and forehead drawn into soft lines that remind John of Mycroft. "Couple?"

"You know, the relationship talk. Surely, with all your experience, you've done this a few times." And that's nasty. It's over-the-line nasty, John realises as soon as it's out of his mouth. He's put together scraps of information; he knows enough to know Sherlock hasn't done this before. A ridiculous number of people and one night stands, and pretending to be someone he wasn't just to prove he could bed anyone he wanted, Sherlock's done all that. But this, working out the lines between sex and friendship and more, letting someone in without breaking hearts on both sides, this is new to Sherlock.

And John knows it. Like he knows that attacking Sherlock with it is petty and childish, and freezing to death doesn't excuse everything. "Sorry," he says.

Sherlock watches him carefully, weighing him up. Like he's trying to find clues to this conversation in the fold of John's cuffs or the style of John's hair. "What, in particular, does this discussion usually involve?"

It's probably kinder than John really deserves, but when he looks at Sherlock, he realises kindness has nothing to do with it. Sherlock's curious. As curious as he is about John's shoe size and preferred vegetables. John remembers waking up from flashback nightmares, PTSD dreams, whatever Thompson wants to call it, with Sherlock holding his shoulders down and watching him just like this. No pity, no sympathy, no cloying, demanding emotions; just simple curiosity. Just another fact about how people tick, something to observe and file away.

It probably says a lot about John that he finds that reassuring. "It's usually setting out terms. Outlining expectations. You talk about what you're looking for and how you see the relationship, and how you feel about the other person. How you see them fitting into your life."

"Very subjective," Sherlock says. From him, that's meant as an insult.

"Most of us muddle along. Not perfectly, but how else can you communicate stuff like that?"

It's a rhetorical question but Sherlock says, "Possibly a survey. Would lead to more accurate, empirical judgements of the situation."

John laughs. Sitting on boxes of frozen cheesecakes, locked in a freezer, waiting for the police, John laughs. "Like how permanent do you see this relationship, mark on a sliding scale of one night to forever?"

"Nobody can promise forever," Sherlock says thoughtfully. "You could adjust it to 'the rest of my life'."

"You could tick a box for exclusivity," John offers. "You might need three options."

"Monogamous and polygamous," Sherlock supplies, "but what would the third one be?"

"Exclusive, seeing other people, and reserve the right to see other people. It can be an important distinction."

"What other questions would there be?"

"How do you think of me?" John sees Sherlock's frown and explains. "What term would you use to describe me to someone you passed on the street?"

Sherlock arches back, tilting his chin to look up at the ceiling as he thinks about it. His hands stay in his pocket. "Colleague. If I talked to someone I met on a street, it would be related to a case so colleague would be the most appropriate term to use."

"Okay, bad example," John says. He starts rocking back and forth, pushing his heels into the concrete. It doesn't make him less cold, but it does serve as a distraction. "I didn't mean as part of a case. I meant, someone you know."

"They already know you. I wouldn't introduce you again."

There's a high, hysterical giggle that somehow escapes John. Sherlock's right. Everyone who plays a recurring role in his life already knows John. Mrs Hudson and Mycroft already know they're sleeping together, and John wouldn't underestimate Lestrade, either. This kind of conversation is a little ridiculous when it literally has no impact on their lives.

John struggles for someone Sherlock knows but doesn't know well. The only person he can think of is Sebastian. "What about if you were introducing me to Sebastian at a social gathering, not related to a case, for the first time?"

"Very specific," Sherlock says admiringly. It's strangely flattering. "I would introduce you as my significant other."

John has to raise an eyebrow -- okay, both eyebrows -- at that. He always assumed it was the kind of term only used by politically correct, gender neutral survey forms. "Really?"

"Significant other implies permanence and domesticity, further supported by us living together." Sherlock gives him a wicked grin and leans closer. "Sebastian's marriage only lasted three years. Calling you my significant other highlights a committed relationship that he couldn't maintain without giving him an opportunity to make a joke about divorce."

"That's evil, Sherlock. And possibly the best thing I've ever heard."

"Is that all that gets discussed?" Sherlock asks, pulling a hand out of his pocket to check the time on John's mobile. "Is there anything else?"

"Living arrangements. But given we live together that doesn't apply to us." John shrugs. He tries sitting up for a while because he doesn't think he could possibly be any colder. He might not like it, but there's a chance Sherlock's right. He might pass out before Lestrade gets here. He's having trouble keeping his eyes open, and he's stopped shivering. He's a doctor. He knows that's not a good sign.

"Here," Sherlock says, and there's a warm scarf pressed against the back of John's neck. Sherlock's steady fingers wrap it around his neck, up around his chin and his ears, across the bridge of his nose and then around his forehead. It's a makeshift balaclava and possibly looks mad, but when John breathes out the warmth of his breath is trapped against his cheeks and his nose and it might be the best thing ever.

"Took you long enough," John says, but he means thank you.

Sherlock turns up the collar of his own coat, holding the wool closed over his mouth and cheeks. "I don't share what belongs to me."

If John wasn't afraid of his fingers falling off or shattering like icicles, he'd be pointing at the scarf wrapped around his own head. "Right now, that makes no sense."

"I wasn't talking about the scarf."

John thinks about that. It takes him a moment to realise that despite, well, everything (sanity, better judgement, attacks on his life, Sherlock's insane family, his own threat of poverty), that's fine with him. "So, rest of your life, monogamous, significant other. I'll agree to those terms."

"Good." Sherlock gives a nod and then stands up. He walks to the shelves and reaches under it, pulling out a loose bag of corn on the cob that must have fallen out of a box sometime in the past and then starts whacking it against the door. For a second, John worries that the cold has affected Sherlock's mind, and then he hears a scuffle of movement.

"The police are here?"

"They arrived three minutes ago," Sherlock replies, changing the pattern of his swings to make a simple S-O-S in Morse code.

John stands up. His feet feel like blocks of lead, numb weight at the bottom of his legs. He struggles to balance, to walk over to the door. "You couldn't have done that three minutes ago?"

"Seemed like an important discussion to finish," Sherlock says as a police officer opens the door, and Lestrade's worried face comes into view. "They were driving a '93 red Citroen BX, number plate G476 F-something."

***

Tickets arrive for Paris. John's not going to ask how Sherlock managed to afford it. (There had been a missing bag of cash from the last case, but John really hopes Sherlock didn't reappropriate it. On the other hand, stealing from criminals is probably better than stealing from the bloke in charge of MI5, and probably MI6, but the less John knows, the better.)

Sherlock hasn't mentioned the freezer incident, so it's probably not an apology for that. Sherlock doesn't do apologies. Instead, he saves John's life and that's enough for John to forgive him.

But it's Paris. For the weekend. In a suite that's possibly bigger than their flat. John knows not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Sherlock wants to be a tourist. ("Really?" John asked, and Sherlock nodded enthusiastically. "Tourists are so interesting, John," he said, and John thought about pointing out that tourists were obnoxious and judgmental, and those who weren't, were twenty-year old backpackers in need of a shower.) So they do the tourism thing. Sherlock gets them tickets on a hop-on, hop-off tour bus and John spends half an hour stuck behind an American girl who insists on talking on her mobile and can't start a sentence without the word 'like'.

"Like, it's so pretty," she's saying to someone who clearly hasn't been to Paris. "Like Las Vegas, you know, but no buffets."

Folding his arms, John leans as far away from her one-sided conversation as he can. He'd complain but Sherlock's entranced, watching everything with wide, thrilled eyes. He's not watching for the sights or listening to the stories of what happened when; no, he's watching the other tourists on their bus. He's observing details, who looks where and what they're interested in, and every time the bus stops, he cranes over the edge of the top deck to watch everyone getting on and off.

John unfolds the tour map in his pocket. He's lost track of where they are, but he eventually works out the next stop is the Champs de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. He doesn't particularly care about it -- been there before -- and he doesn't have any real love of heights, but if he has to listen to one more vapid conversation (the girl in front says, "Like, it's really great but the food's just not, like, normal,") he will not be allowed back into France.

When the bus slows, he digs his fingers into Sherlock's arm and says, "We're getting off," and drags Sherlock off the bus.

Sherlock looks at him -- first time in half an hour, thank you -- and then up at the Eiffel Tower. "There's always a queue at the lift to the third level. It's never worth it."

"Fine," John says, "we'll go to the second level."

"You don't like Paris very much," Sherlock says as they walk over.

"Paris is fine." John shrugs and Sherlock looks at him like he knows John's lying. "I don't like the Parisians and the tourists, but Paris is fine, really."

"But you don't like anyone in it?"

"I like you," John says, and then, because he doesn't feel like cramming into a lift like a sardine in a tin, he detours towards the stairs. "Race you to the top?"

"Second level," Sherlock agrees, and he's off, bounding up the stairs two at a time, dodging around a family with four children.

John runs after him.

***

After too much walking and too many tourists, a lot of very rich food and possibly too much red wine, they manage to drag their sorry carcasses back to the hotel and into bed. John decides he is never moving again and that tomorrow they are doing a proper weekend in Paris.

"What do you mean, a proper weekend?" Sherlock asks, sounding very, very sober. There is a good chance John finished the entire bottle of red wine on his own.

"Yes, you did," Sherlock says, "but that doesn't answer the question. What constitutes a proper weekend in Paris?"

"Dirty weekend," John says. "You know. Bed."

"You want to spend tomorrow in bed?" Sherlock interprets, quite accurately. "We could do that at home."

"We did what you wanted today," John says, sitting up and swaying so much he decides lying down is a much better idea. He falls back to the pillows and manages to loll his head towards Sherlock. "Tomorrow, it's my choice. In bed. Naked. All day."

"That's a waste of coming to Paris," Sherlock mutters and John yawns so loud he almost doesn't hear him.

John closes his eyes, just for a second. "Twenty-four hours," he declares, and hears himself make a snorting, snuffling noise that's almost a snore. "Tomorrow," he adds, and then falls asleep.

***

He wakes up tired but not hung over, with Sherlock pressed warm and naked against his side. Sherlock's awake and when he sees John is too, he asks, "Naked for the entire day?"

John nods. "Dirty weekend away."

They're not at home. There's no one to call about a case, no one to walk into their sitting room, no one to overhear. They leave the lights on and pull the French doors wide, white curtains billowing in the breeze. John fucks Sherlock on white cotton sheets, Sherlock's head hanging over the end of the bed as the Parisian skyline blushes pink with the dawn. Sherlock comes with his fingernails digging into the back of John's neck and John's name gasped out, desperately broken and beautiful.

Afterwards, John naps a little, curled against the lean line of Sherlock's back, lying upside-down on the bed with sunshine creeping across their balcony.

In the bathroom, there's a small pool pretending to be a bathtub, so John runs it until it's hot and almost overflowing and then calls out for Sherlock to join him. The water splashes over the edges of the tub, and John has to pull the plug to let it out a little so he can lie down with his back against Sherlock's chest and not risk drowning.

"Is this all we do?" Sherlock asks, mouth so close to John's cheek it might as well be a kiss. "All day?"

John keeps his eyes closed, his fingers on the cool porcelain. "Naked and relaxed. Talk, if you want. Nothing that requires clothes."

John adds hot water to the bath three times, and they stay in until their hands and feet are terribly pruned. Sherlock talks about why fingers wrinkle after exposure to water, using phrases like 'vasoconstriction' and 'epidermal electrolyte homeostasis.' When the bath starts to chill and John thinks about topping it up for the fourth time, they get out.

It's early afternoon and it's a clear, bright day outside, but Sherlock doesn't suggest leaving the room.

They order room service. Sherlock points out that wrapping a towel around his waist or donning a bathrobe would break the naked rule of today so John answers the door naked and ignores the smug, condescending look he gets from the room service guy. John's found all of the hotel staff condescending as if they're too good to serve the likes of him, so he doesn't worry. He's coped with communal showers and he's a doctor, so he's seen his share of bare bodies. He knows there's nothing he needs to be embarrassed about.

They eat in bed, taking turns to steal each other's food.

Sherlock finds a book in his suitcase, and lies across the foot of the bed, reading. Sunlight from the open window cuts a sharp division across Sherlock's shoulders, another slanting line across his lower back and the swell of his arse, and it's too perfect to resist. John traces the lines between light and shadow, first with his fingers, then with lips and tongue. Sherlock sighs into it and it has the potential for more, but John thinks that's too much effort. And there's no rush today.

So he finds a magazine and lies down beside Sherlock, enjoying the warmth of the afternoon and tangling his feet with Sherlock's as they read.

He drifts off and when he wakes up, the sunlight is staining a red square high on their wall and Sherlock's closed the window against the chill. "Did you want to go out for dinner?" John asks, tired and happy and willing to compromise.

"If I'd never slept with anyone else," Sherlock says slowly, and his eyes are clear and sharp, his mouth turned serious at the corners, "how would today have been any different?"

John shakes his head. "It wouldn't."

"How would we have been any different?"

"Us?" John asks. Sherlock looks serious, like he's been thinking about this, so John does the courtesy of genuinely thinking about the answer. "We still would have got here. Might have taken longer, or not, but I think it still would have ended up the same."

Sherlock nods and says, "Room service for dinner. The deal was twenty-four hours."

***

"You know the most annoying thing about flying?" John asks, stepping over Sherlock's gangly legs to get to his seat. He'd asked Sherlock to move but Sherlock was too involved with reading the in-flight magazine to stand up and let John back in. Hence, he's climbing over Sherlock like some sort of deranged monkey.

"Other passengers?" Sherlock gives him a long-suffering look and then finally drops his knees, stretching his legs under the seat in front of them. He even drops the magazine against his thighs.

John flops into his seat. "No," he says, reaching under him to find the ends of the belt. He knows he doesn't have to have it done up, but he likes have it snug across his hips just in case. When Sherlock's around, you can never take too many precautions.

"I'm quite sure it's the other passengers," Sherlock mutters, turning back to the glossy pages. Leaning over, John skims the article sitting beneath the bright, sun-drenched beach. It's not about tropical destinations, as John would have assumed, but the medical dangers of holidaying in remote locations. No wonder it's caught Sherlock's attention.

It's not that John's jealous. John's perfectly capable of entertaining himself. He certainly doesn't want Sherlock to go back to saying things like, "You see the man three rows ahead, blue jacket, bad comb-over? He lives with an elderly female relative, possibly his aunt, probably his grandmother. He's spent more than he meant to, he keeps checking his receipts. Maybe he thinks he can claim some of those back? But, no, look at the quality of the clothes, the old suitcase he stashed above his head, he hasn't had the disposable income to buy a new outfit for holiday. He's only had the money for the airfare and hotels, probably a package deal, but he's spent more on food than he meant to. Maybe too many drinks. No, no sign of hangover. Must have been food."

(That sort of muttering made the people around them turn in their seats and give Sherlock pointed stares that Sherlock ignored. John can live without that.)

Still. Be nice to have a whinge and have someone listen. It's not beyond the realms of possibility for Sherlock to show just a hint of interest in John's complaint. Not a huge expectation.

John tries again. "You know what I really hate about flying?"

"The toilets," Sherlock says, which… is exactly what John was about to say. "You got up for the stated need of using the facilities and returned frowning and visibly annoyed. Either you dislike the toilets or you just joined the Mile High Club and found it dreadfully disappointing."

"There's always queues! Always. It's not like they don't know how many people are going to use the toilets. It's a specified number of seats." John waves a hand, gesturing at the seats ahead of them. "A specified number. But every time, there's a queue. You stand, you wait politely, you get a turn and then spend five minutes working out how get the door closed with all of you inside, and when you come out, what is there? A queue. There's always a queue of people waiting and looking at their watches, and a pulling a face like you're wasting their time out of spite."

"So I'm right," Sherlock says and gives John the quickest of smirks. "It's the other passengers."

"No, it's the queues. You'd think they'd be able to plan for a set number of bums on seats. It can't be as hard as all that."

"Peak usage times," Sherlock says, turning a page. Over Sherlock's shoulder, he can read general health tips like don't drink the local water and don't leave drinks unattended in bars. The kind of stuff Sherlock would only do on purpose, just to see what happened. "Most passengers use the toilets within ten minutes of the ascent seatbelt sign turning off or ten minutes before the seatbelt sign turns on for descent. Planning for that level of usage would be a waste of space and weight on a plane that covers costs through each seat filled."

John nods. Sherlock's probably right. "Still stupid planning. There's never enough space to get in and get out."

He picks up his own magazine and flicks the pages. He's not really interested. He doesn't care too much about the latest pop album or book reviews, or what some celebrity chef considers his ideal holiday. He's a bit bored, honestly. "Wait, the Mile High Club? Do people actually join that?"

"I don't think there's an official member registrar," Sherlock says distractedly, reading carefully about parasitic threats.

"But how would you even do that? How would you fit two adults into toilets that size?" John wonders, a little too loudly judging by the look the woman in front of them shoots over her shoulder. "There's barely enough space for one person to get in."

"Easiest way is to drop the toilet seat cover, kneel on the ledge to either side of it and brace against the wall," Sherlock says, clearly more interested in parasites than in this conversation. "Second person stands behind. It's quite simple."

"How could you possibly know that?" John asks, because even Sherlock can't know the layout and cubic footage of every type of airplane. (Or aeroplane, as Sherlock would undoubtedly correct.) Sherlock hasn't even been to the loo on this trip, so it's not like he had a spare thirty seconds to look and evaluate. Unless he's…

Talking from personal experience, John thinks. The idea stops him, freezes his thoughts like a tiny Ice Age inside his head, a meteor bolt of impact causing the whole ecosystem to shut down. John wants to say it's ridiculous, but it's not. Sherlock hasn't hidden his sexual expertise so this shouldn't be any more shocking than… well. Than anything else Sherlock does and says.

But it's one of those things you're pretty sure only happens in the movies, and really bad porn films, or on the private jets of footballers or rappers. It's not something that real people do.

When John looks up, Sherlock's watching him closely. "Correct assumption," Sherlock says, and then turns back to the magazine. This time, he's not reading it. John can tell by the way Sherlock's eyes don't track across the lines, the way he's holding himself just a little too still. He's probably using his peripheral vision to watch John for a reaction.

"How?" John asks, and then realises he doesn't want to know that. "No, don't answer that. Why? And, really? Like, really? Why?"

"Because I could." Sherlock's long fingers turn the page of a magazine, and then tug at the dark cuff of his coat, keeping him perfectly presentable. John can imagine Sherlock walking out of that tiny bathroom door, coat and suit precisely as they should be, no one the wiser. "And yes, really."

"Just once?" John asks, like that makes a difference.

"Twice." Sherlock stops, blinks. Turns his head up to the ceiling. "Three times if oral sex counts."

"Oral sex always counts," John hears himself say. When the woman in front turns around to stare pointedly, John glares right back. This is far from the most disturbing conversation he and Sherlock could be having in public. She should count herself lucky.

***

The minute the seatbelt sign switches off, Sherlock's standing up and using height and ridiculously long arms to rescue their carry-on bags from the overhead lockers. John's is a nylon, navy blue bag he picked up for sixteen quid on eBay. It's big enough to carry his clothes and small enough to fit the carry-on luggage limits, and that's all he needed. Sherlock's is soft, slouchy charcoal leather with artfully rough edges and vaguely military-looking silver zippers. John's trying particularly hard not to notice a brand-name because once he sees the brand, he's going to be tempted to look for it online and then he's going to be horrified at the sheer amount of money some people spend on a bag. (He really doesn't want to know.)

But Sherlock stands there with his bag over one arm, buttoning his coat over a dark suit and perfectly pressed pale blue shirt and he looks… like someone who should have flown first class. John, on the other hand, is wearing jeans and a jumper and carrying the cheapest, practical bag he could find, and probably looks like he should be on a budget flight leaving at two in the morning.

At least John fits in. Everyone around them looks tired and a little worn on a Sunday evening, mostly dressed for comfort during travel. Sherlock's the only one who looks like he possibly stepped off the cover of one of those men's magazines filled with cars and watches and wankers writing about fashionable outfits that cost more than a decent (or, well, rusted but working) second-hand car. Sherlock's also the only one avidly watching the people around him, eyes sharp and pleased.

Everyone else is standing around looking tired and long-suffering, waiting for the flight crew to open the doors and let the crowds move.

They finally shuffle out, politely ignoring the "Thanks for flying with us," chirped at them and Sherlock takes three steps into the corridor before taking off at a run. He has to dodge around the other passengers, but John runs after him, apologising to the people Sherlock shoves his way past.

He wants to say, "Sorry, sorry, I live with a madman," but he's pretty sure he doesn't say the last bit.

When he gets to the departure gate, he has to look twice to spot which direction Sherlock went. Then he spots the fluttering tail of the coat.

He runs through wide, white, chrome and glass passages, avoiding the congestion of the travelators, following Sherlock past the shops, down the stairs, round three corners and into the wide, empty hall of space around the baggage claims. He finds Sherlock standing in front of the baggage carousel for their flight and has to lean forward to catch his breath. "We didn't," John says, hands braced on his knees, struggling for breath, "check in any luggage."

"No." Sherlock's out of breath too. There's a breathy huff that might be a chuckle under other circumstances. "You didn't have to run after me."

"That's blatantly false," John says. "If I didn't, we'd be paying for two separate taxi fares home."

"Hmmm," Sherlock hums, watching the conveyor belt start to move. It's probably as close as he'll ever get to admitting John's right. The first bag comes out -- standard black-wheeled suitcase with a floral pink ribbon sewn across the top pocket -- and Sherlock announces, "The brunette in seat 18C."

"You came here to guess who the luggage belonged to?" John asks as the next suitcase -- hard silver, fake-metal look case, the kind that always makes John think of spies carrying secret missile components -- appears.

"32E, I think. Look at the scratches." He spares John a quick glance, and then looks back to the next suitcase. "Do you mind waiting?"

They're the first ones around the carousel, but John can see a few of their fellow travellers on the escalators. It will probably only take half an hour for everyone to collect their bags and sort out travel plans. It's only half an hour and it's hard to mind the delay when Sherlock actually asks. "It's fine," John says, and there's a half twist of Sherlock's mouth that's almost a smile.

"23A," Sherlock says, as the next black suitcase rolls past.

"Can I play too?" John asks and this time, Sherlock grins, showing white teeth and strikingly blue eyes under the fluorescent glare of unnatural lighting.

Naturally, John doesn't win. Out of pure, dumb luck, he manages to get one in every five right. Sherlock only gets about one in every five wrong.

John makes a mental note: next time Sherlock's bored, a trip to the airport luggage carousel might be a good idea.

***

While Sherlock pays the cabbie -- Sherlock insisted so Sherlock can pay -- John unlocks the front door. He's barely got the door open before Sherlock's bounding past him in a swirl of black coat and half unwrapped scarf, calling out for Mrs Hudson.

"So much for the peace and quiet," Mrs Hudson says, stepping out in faded pink slippers and a worn burgundy dressing gown. She's tired, walking carefully in the way that says her hip's playing up, but she's smiling. And then she's laughing as Sherlock grabs her by both shoulders and kisses her on each cheek. "Had a good trip then?" she asks.

"It was magnificent!" Sherlock says with the kind of glee he usually reserves for murder, impossible crimes and, strangely enough, Christmas.

"See a lot of the sights?"

"Only the important ones." Sherlock sounds ridiculously pleased with himself.

Pleased enough that Mrs Hudson catches John's eye and says, "Oh, so it was that kind of weekend away."

For a moment, John wishes the floor would swallow him whole. There's something sweet and maternal about Mrs Hudson. She feels like a mate's mum. John's perfectly happy coming round for a cup of tea, a few biscuits, watching extremely bad telly and being critical of the endless supply of mingers they find for those makeover shows, but he doesn't want to discuss his sex life with her. He'd prefer to maintain the polite fiction that he doesn't have sex and she certainly doesn't know about it.

Before Sherlock can open his mouth and say something terribly mortifying, there's a knock on the door.

"Only been back three minutes and there's someone to see you. Non-stop, your life," Mrs Hudson says, walking over to the door. "No wonder you needed a holiday."

On the other side is a familiar brunette, dark hair falling across her face, fingers flying across her Blackberry. "Hello," she says, looking up for a split-second.

"Oh, Anthea, dear, how nice to see you," Mrs Hudson says.

Anthea blinks, giving a polite, vacant smile. John doesn't believe it, not really. Anyone working for Mycroft would be on the ball, surely. (They'd need their head read but they'd have to more tuned in than Anthea appears.) Every time he sees her, she seems distracted, polite and completely disinterested. "The car's waiting," she says, and stands there waiting, thumbs moving constantly on the tiny keys.

Inconvenient as it might be, Sherlock won't ignore a summons from Mycroft -- not if it's delivered in person, at least. "Give us a minute to put the bags upstairs," John says.

Anthea says, "Okay," without even looking up.

Sherlock pulls something out of his bag. It's wrapped in silver and white paper, tied with the curliest bow John's ever seen. "For your collection," he says, handing it to Mrs Hudson.

While Mrs Hudson coos over it downstairs -- "Oh, you boys," and "You didn't need to, dear," and "That's really very thoughtful," -- they take the bags upstairs and drop them on the couch.

"Her collection?" John asks.

"Mrs Hudson collects souvenir teaspoons. Not the strangest collection one could have," says Sherlock, who seems to collect bits and pieces from every difficult crime he's solved, "but utterly useless."

John rummages through his bag, finding a warmer jumper. Late night visits usually lead to crime scenes, and if he's going out late at night, he'd rather be warm. "I didn't know you'd bought that."

Sherlock grins, sharp and smug. "You also didn't know I'd used Mycroft's funds to pay for the holiday."

"That explains Anthea." John zips up his bag and scans the room. It looks the same as they left it: mess and clutter but surprisingly clean for all the disarray. "Is Anthea her real name?"

"Define real," Sherlock says, heading down the stairs again.

"Legal sense."

Sherlock nods. "She would have legal ID in that name. Of course," Sherlock adds slowly, "it's not the name that would appear on her original birth certificate."

"Oh, of course," John says airily, like working under an alias is something people do all the time. Sometimes, knowing the Holmes brothers is like stepping into one of those spy novels he read as a kid. It's all secrets, ulterior motives and red herrings.

Anthea opens the car door for them, and Mycroft's sitting in the back. He has a sleek silver laptop open on his knees, fingers on the arrow keys. It seems strange mixed with the three-piece suit and old-fashioned umbrella. Mycroft has a phone so he must use technology, but in the back of his mind, John's always assumed Mycroft did most of his work with fountain pen and paper (and possibly poisoned ink).

"Ah, John," Mycroft says, and then he closes the lid on the laptop and looks over. Mycroft's never what John would call warm and welcoming, but his expression goes a little colder when he sees Sherlock over John's shoulder. "You're not necessary for this meeting, Sherlock."

"If it's to do with the funding for Paris," Sherlock says, ignoring Mycroft and getting into the car, squashing John into the middle seat, "John didn't know."

"Of course he didn't." Mycroft lets out a small, restrained sigh. "And as you know, that credit card was for living expenses, not European jaunts."

"One could argue one lives most on holidays, so it is a living expense."

One, John thinks to himself, trying not to smirk. It's the kind of phrasing Sherlock never uses around Lestrade and the Met, but he sometimes slips into it with Mycroft. It makes John imagine a childhood of Mummy, Daddy and Nanny, and discussions over the dinner table of what one should do and the moral obligations one has to one's intellectual inferiors.

"Semantics," Mycroft chides and Sherlock smirks like he's won a point. "Don't be petty."

Stuck in the middle of Sherlock and Mycroft feels like watching a tennis match. John keeps looking from one side to the other. You have to with these two. There's too much that isn't said, too much that's pure context and observation and that family trick of knowing the other person so well you don't need to specify details.

"I'm here to talk to John," Mycroft adds and from the front seat, Anthea hands John a plain manila envelope. Mycroft's laptop gives a small, tasteful chime. Mycroft raises the screen and gives a dismissive wave towards the envelope, saying, "Read that, John. This will take a few minutes."

Inside the envelope, there’s a folder, containing a dozen printed A4 pages. The first two pages are a position description. It's GP work in outer London, certainly within John's abilities. Basically a permanent, steady version of the locum work he's doing now but… much better paid. Much better. John would wonder if it was a typo but it's coming from Mycroft; this thing has probably been vetted and triple-checked before it was printed. The only downside he can see is the commute (at least an hour each way from Westminster but not impossible).

He turns to Sherlock for a second opinion, but Sherlock's staring out the window. No, John realises as he watches Sherlock's eyes move, Sherlock's using the reflection to read Mycroft's screen.

Sherlock's pale reflection against the tinted glass windows winks at John. Then he says, "I like Greece so much more when you're not fiddling with their economy."

"Needs must," Mycroft says, too distracted by what he's reading to reproach Sherlock regarding confidentiality, or to fall into that half-said taunt that Mycroft gets to know about things that Sherlock doesn't. (Sherlock would say it's all boring detail and who wants to know about international politics anyway, and then imply that Mycroft's a warmonger, because that's how their conversations go. Like Harry will sometimes refer to John running off into danger at the smallest excuse, and John will infer that at least it's better than running to hide in a bottle. It's a sibling thing.)

John turns the pages over to find out what else is in the folder. There's a colour picture of a room -- white plaster, huge window, grey view across a dismal London sky -- and beneath it is a description from a real estate website. There are more pictures on the next page and John doesn't understand until he sees the suburb. It's close enough to the job that he could walk.

He nudges Sherlock with his elbow to get his attention. The pictures are light, airy and modern, all the things Baker Street isn't. The kitchen is gleaming stainless steel with a bench. It reminds John of an autopsy table for a moment, but there's no table in there for Sherlock to spread his experiments across, so it probably (hopefully) won't get used for dissecting anything.

"Plenty of cupboard space in the bedroom," John says when he flips the page. Neither of them have a large cupboard now, but it might be nice to have some storage space. Maybe some of Sherlock's books could be piled in there instead of stacked across a corner of John's room.

John's thinking new job and new place and all the ways this would make so much financial sense. Then Sherlock throws himself backwards into the seat, staring up at the ceiling. John recognises the downturned corners of Sherlock's mouth. He's upset and angry. "Really, Mycroft?" Sherlock asks, voice low and furious.

Mycroft doesn't sound at all concerned. "I did say this meeting didn't require you."

"What is it?" John asks Sherlock. Unless modern architecture is a personal affront, there must be something he's missing in context.

"One bedroom," Sherlock says, staring at John. When John's still confused -- they're only sleeping in one room now, surely Mycroft knows that -- Sherlock adds, "Open-plan living area."

When John keeps staring, Sherlock snorts and grabs the folder out of his hands. "Look at the square footage," he says, pointing at the figure. "Not enough space for my things. For my experiments. For me. It's a flat for you, a job for you. Just you."

"Did I not make that clear, John?" Mycroft asks, folding down the screen on his computer and looking over at them. "I would have put a note in the file if I'd realised it needed to be explicitly stated."

"It does need to be mentioned," John says. On one side of John, Mycroft nods as if he's noting that for future reference; on the other, Sherlock stares out the window and in his lap, his hands are fisted tight. He hands the folder back to Anthea in the front seat and tries to remain civil. "Thank you for sourcing the job and if you find anything closer to Baker Street, I'd be interested. Not interested in moving, though."

"You do understand it's not personal," Mycroft tells him.

"Your attempt to stop me living," John nearly says 'in sin' but stops himself just in time, "with your brother?"

"Sherlock's attentions. It's not personal. It's simply something he does from time to time."

"I doubt you'd understand the appeal of any activity that made you breathe hard or sweat," Sherlock bites back because Mycroft's weight is his favourite weak spot to attack. "I'm not a child, Mycroft. You can't decide what is and what is not appropriate for me."

"You're too old to be coddled like a child," Mycroft says, words a little too fast for his calm tone. He takes a breath and says, "Do not mistake me for Mummy. I will not sit back and watch this happen again."

"Unlike the rest of the European Union, this isn't in your control."

Mycroft glares and John discovers his voice goes a touch higher when angry. "I will intervene in any way I deem necessary."

There's a stalemate where they glare at each other. John feels like he's missing something, but that's par for the course when dealing with these two. "Can I ask why you think it's necessary to intervene?" John asks Mycroft, and in the window behind Mycroft, he sees Sherlock's reflection, the sharp worried look Sherlock gives his older brother behind John's back.

Mycroft sighs. "The biases of a medical man," he says, sounding normal (for him).

It's a reply that Sherlock understands because he turns to look out the window. John watches the ashen reflection of Sherlock's profile, the line of throat and jaw, the smooth bridge of nose and the tight press of Sherlock's mouth. It doesn't explain anything.

"Sorry, what?" John asks. "I'm moving out because you have a grudge against doctors?"

"It's really not necessary for you to know the ins and outs of the situation, John," Mycroft says firmly. "I had hoped that you would be a calming influence on my brother but that's clearly not the case."

"Excuse me?" John can't quite believe what he's hearing. "You think I'm a bad influence on Sherlock? Do you know how often--? I'd need more than one hand to count the number of times I've saved his life so far."

Mycroft laughs. It's disturbing and strangely familiar, very similar to Sherlock's low chuckle. But Mycroft is not a man that anyone would meet and imagine him laughing (unless it was a maniacal, take over the world, James Bond villain type situation). "As much as I hate to disillusion you, my brother has always, always risked his life for the most petty of reasons. He did it before you came and he will do it after you go. Sherlock has been threatened with guns and knives, asphyxiation and drowning--"

"Defenestration," Sherlock adds under his breath. He's Sherlock; of course he keeps a mental tally of the number of ways people have tried to kill him.

"When he can't extricate himself there is a security detail to take care of such problems."

"So Sherlock's invincible and doesn't need my help," John surmises, "but I'm somehow a bad influence. How?"

Mycroft leans forward and catches Sherlock's gaze in the reflection of the window. "If A and B have always been intertwined, it's extremely foolish to indulge in one and believe you will not indulge in the other. This is for your own good, Sherlock."

Sherlock huffs, says, "As always, your company has been tedious and unpleasant. Trust you to spoil a perfectly nice evening," and gets out of the car.

***

John's expecting a sulking fit of major proportions. After that conversation with Mycroft, he expects Sherlock to change into pyjamas and dressing gown, and mope around the sitting room, throwing himself into furniture and curling into impossible positions.

John decides to give Sherlock a little time to cool down and has a cup of tea with Mrs Hudson, telling her about the weather and the hotel, the plane ride and all those little details of a trip. But as they talk, he remembers there are two test tube racks on the kitchen counter with a dozen gleaming tubes standing to attention. He probably should have put them out of sight before he came down.

He listens for the sound of breaking glass or the angry wail of Sherlock's violin but upstairs seems quiet. Very quiet.

After ten minutes of endless silence, not even broken by angry pacing, John's unease gets the best of him. He excuses himself and goes upstairs.

Sherlock is sitting on the sofa, back straight, elbows propped on his knees. He's fully dressed and resting his chin on his interlocked fingers as he stares into the distance. He's thinking so hard John can almost hear the thoughts whizzing around Sherlock's head.

"You want to talk it through?" Sherlock's thinking but John knows he likes thinking aloud. Partly because the right question -- or even the wrong one -- can prompt a new thought, and partly because he enjoys an admiring audience.

"Probably best not to," Sherlock says after a moment. "Mycroft may be irritating, supercilious, interfering and the most annoying man on Her Majesty's payroll, but he is rarely wrong."

"Really?"

Sherlock glances at John out the corner of his eye, gives him a one-sided smirk. "He's may be too lazy to prove his own deductions, but I spent years as a child trying to prove him wrong and never succeeding. He is, unfortunately, right about most things."

John sits down and makes himself comfortable. He's pretty sure this conversation is not going to be easy so he might as well be physically comfy. "Do you think I'm a bad influence?"

"No," Sherlock says slowly, clearly thinking about it. "An enabling influence, certainly. But not morally bad."

"Do you think you'd be better off if I moved out?"

Sherlock breathes deeply and John watches Sherlock's fingers, sees how hard his fingertips press into the back of his hands, the indentation of pressure on skin. "I'm not sure yet."

The trick with Sherlock is patience and questions: have the patience to keep asking until he explains. "What are you sure of?"

"You're a man who keeps his promises. When we were locked in the freezer, you were concussed and showing early signs of hypothermia. Your judgment was impaired and any promises or agreements made in that state should be ignored."

"I meant it," John says.

"And you would keep it because you promised. Because you pride yourself on being someone who fulfils his obligations."

Sometimes, John wishes he could read Sherlock more easily. That Sherlock worked in the normal, expected ways and there'd be some easy scripted role he could play out. But he likes Sherlock's impulsiveness, his sharply rational mind, his unexpected kindnesses, his wide-open joy. John likes all of it, and these moments are part of it. Moments when he has no idea what's going on in Sherlock's head, when he looks at Sherlock and wonders how someone like him manages to live in the real world.

"So it falls to me to clarify," Sherlock says thoughtfully, "that I was aware of the situation at the time. I encouraged the conversation knowing your unreliable state. I wanted to know," and there's a pause, a moment where Sherlock clearly has to rethink his words. "I wanted to know a lot of things. Expected relationship patterns, your views towards them, et cetera. I was curious. But there's no expectations attached to that. You shouldn't see it as an obligation."

John doesn't point out that he'd promise it again. It's not an obligation. It was… describing his assumptions in words. He's not keeping it because he gave his word; it's simply how he feels. John scratches an eyebrow with the back of his thumb and tries to remember: patience and questions.

"Why does Mycroft think I'd be a bad influence?"

"Ah," Sherlock says, standing up to pace across the room. He doesn't say anything more and now is not the time for him to fall into one of his silent spells.

John rubs a hand across his eyes. He'd really been hoping for an easy first night back: a few hours of telly, curled up on the couch, early to bed and probably waking up at three a.m. to find Sherlock typing away on John's laptop. In other words, their norm. This is more than he wants to deal with, but he knows Sherlock.

He knows Sherlock's collar size (fifteen inches). He knows Sherlock likes that sickly sweet Indonesian soy sauce, especially on fresh chicken dim sims. He knows that Sherlock sleeps up to four hours a night but he's capable of going without sleep for days when he's involved with a case (without any severe signs of fatigue, other than the way he'll sleep the whole night through when the culprit's finally caught). He knows Sherlock likes two sugars in his tea but when he occasionally has a macchiato, he won't add sugar at all. He knows that Sherlock sends all of his laundry out, including his underwear, and won't hoover or dust, but will scrub the shower and keep the bath immaculately clean. He knows a lot of things annoy Sherlock but very little embarrasses him. He knows Sherlock will fall headfirst into danger, run towards it if he can, but he's always genuinely sorry to risk John's life. He knows that Sherlock can talk down serial killers and barely blink, but sometimes John will point out the most obvious fact and it will render Sherlock speechless for a second or two.

John knows Sherlock. He should be able to put this together.

He knows Sherlock's stalling about something, he just doesn't know what. It must be something in Sherlock's past -- something in his romantic history, perhaps -- and it's something Mycroft would protect him against if Sherlock let anyone protect him against anything.

He doesn't understand the look Sherlock gave Mycroft in the car. That sharp worried look as if Mycroft was going to say something he didn't want John to hear. It makes no sense. He's never seen Sherlock embarrassed, except…

"The fake drugs bust," John says out loud and Sherlock stops pacing, and gives John that look. That stunned surprised look, that expression that says John's surpassed all expectations.

"What about it?" Sherlock asks, because he doesn't give in easily.

"That's what this is about, isn't it? Drugs and your history with them."

"To be specific," Sherlock allows, collapsing back into his favourite armchair, "cocaine."

"Only you," John says, because honestly, how had he not seen this coming? How had he not realised the most ridiculous, self-destructive explanation for Sherlock's past would be the answer? "You got high and went out shagging strangers? Do you have any idea how dangerous that was? What could have happened to you?"

"I can tell you in great detail what happened to me," Sherlock says caustically. "If you really want to know."

"You're an idiot," John says, flinging his arms out and stalking into the kitchen. Then he thinks the better of it, and storms back into the sitting room. "Just because it didn't happen doesn't make it safe! Doesn't mean there wasn't a risk. What if you went back to someone's place and found they liked it rough, or wanted to tie you up and beat you, or--"

John stops because Sherlock's just sits there and blinks at him, looking smug and amused, and John knows him too well.

There's a sick twist in John's stomach and an anger that he can't rationalise at all. "You let them, didn't you? You just viewed it as one more challenge, one more way to prove you're so clever, and to hell with the danger."

Sherlock's expression turns mean. He leans forward in the armchair, pale eyes glittering with challenge. "You're hardly one to lecture me about avoiding danger, John."

"You know what?" John asks, giving up before this turns into a fight he doesn't need right now. "I'm going to bed. You can sit out here and think as long as you want, but I've had a long day and I'm going to bed."

***

John spends three hours tossing and turning, and grumbling to himself because, honest to god, how can the smartest person he knows be such an idiot? And he knows it's not that simple. He knows people do stupid things when they're young enough to think they're invincible (John joined the RAMC and everyone he knew at the time thought he was insane for doing it). But Sherlock should have told him. John wants to be angry about that but given his own reaction… He feels like he's lost the moral high ground.

Scratch that. He knows he's lost the moral high ground. He doesn't want it anyway.

He wants… He wants to not be in the middle of a fight. He wants to pretend to be mature and rational about this. He wants to stop obsessively listening for footsteps on the stairs, for the sound of Sherlock coming to bed.

He wants to fix this.

So he drags himself out of bed. Downstairs, Sherlock is lounging in the dark red armchair that's unofficially John's, reading in his pyjamas. His bare feet are propped up on the coffee table and crossed at the ankles. Every lamp in the room is turned on.

"Were you planning on going to bed?" John asks, edging around what he really wants to say.

"Considered it," Sherlock says, still reading. "But my lamp's in your room. I'll move it in the morning."

Of course Sherlock's three steps ahead of everybody else. He's skipped straight past fighting, past talking about it, past deciding there's nothing to be done but break up, and he's already planning the simplest way to reclaim his belongings.

John would like to know how they got from this morning to this point. John knows because he lived it, but it feels surreal. This morning, they were in Paris, enjoying the last few hours before they had to check out. This morning, he was invading Sherlock's shower and crowding him against the tiles, letting the stream of hot water cover the sound of Sherlock's sighs. He wants to go back to that moment: Sherlock's forehead resting against his, his hand on Sherlock's cock, and Sherlock's arms loose around his shoulders.

Instead, Sherlock's apparently spending the night in the sitting room, turning pages in a book as he says, "Mycroft's offer will be open indefinitely. If you reconsider, call him and he'll make the arrangements."

"I'm not moving out," John says, surprised it needs to be said.

Sherlock closes the book and looks up at him. The soft light catches on the straight bridge of his nose, the softness of his lower lip, the curve of those ridiculous cheekbones. For a moment, John considers leaning over, planting his hands on the armrests and kissing Sherlock. It's not something they've ever done in this room, but he's gone to Paris with the man; kissing in their own flat shouldn't be an issue.

John's undecided, not sure if Sherlock would understand John's impulse to touch, the simple reassurance of physical connection. He stands there for a long moment and Sherlock watches.

"Did you want me to move out?" There's a touch of petulance to Sherlock's tone, like breaking up is perfectly logical but having to give up his central London address is a true hardship. "Convention states one of us should leave, but since I found the flat I should get to keep it."

Convention, John thinks sarcastically. Like Sherlock's ever cared about convention.

Sighing, John looks around their flat: mismatched furniture, amazingly ugly wallpaper, a collection of Sherlock's mess and notes, science equipment and endless books. It's cluttered and crowded, and it's home. When he was deployed, he had his own room but it wasn't home; it wasn't his.

But Baker Street is. It's warm and safe and comfortable, except for all the times it isn't. And for all that Sherlock takes up space -- in any room, in John's head, in John's life -- this flat isn't Sherlock's. It's both of theirs, and it's their home.

"No one's moving out," John says, reaching forward to brush the back of his knuckles along Sherlock's left cheek. Sherlock doesn't frown or move out of reach, so John considers it a good sign. "We didn't break up, we just had a fight."

"How can you tell the difference?"

"No one left the room screaming 'I never want to see you again' or 'get out of my home' or 'go fuck a goat.'"

"A goat?"

"It's a long story," John says, sitting down on the opposite armchair and adjusting the pillows behind him. "Not all of my break-ups were amiable. A few ended in screaming fights and clothes being thrown out the window."

"Really?" Sherlock looks confused, as if this is new knowledge that doesn't fit into the person he's defined as John Watson. "Why?"

John nearly lies because it's the sort of thing everyone glosses over. Nobody's completely honest about their past, after all. Then he realises how completely hypocritical that would be. "I can be over-protective. And a bit possessive."

Sherlock snorts. "Anyone who's seen how you guard your laptop would know that."

"That's my computer, Sherlock. You shouldn't need to use it when yours is right--" John stops when he hears his own voice. Sherlock smirks like he's proved his own point. "Okay, fine, I get jealous and frustrated. Especially when my girlfriend's still friends with her ex, and she's drinking wine at his place because he's going through a really bad time at the moment. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect the person you're living with not to spend Friday nights dating other people."

"She didn't agree?"

"She thought I was being heartless and controlling, thought I should be more sympathetic to him. But she's now married to him so I still say I was right." It's not a flattering tale but if anyone can understand the satisfaction of being absolutely, utterly right when other people didn't understand at all, it's Sherlock. "You could have told me, you know. About the cocaine."

"Your sister has an addiction and you spend as little time with her as possible," Sherlock says, waving a hand freely.

"I don't spend time with Harry because I don't like Harry. We've never got on, we've always rubbed each other the wrong way, and that doesn't go away because she should be in AA. I'm not going to pretend to get on because that's what everyone else expects. If they want to support her, they can. I'm not going to be guilted into it."

"Your facial expression and body language during Lestrade's little attempt at authority made your opinions on the matter quite clear." Sherlock shifts on the armchair, folding one leg underneath him, and pulling the other knee against his chest. "It made no sense to draw your attention to the facts."

John shrugs. "I'm just saying, you could tell me about it. And I'll try not to be incredibly insensitive."

Sherlock doesn't look at John. He stares at his own knee and says, "I was twenty-four when I discovered a predilection for cocaine. It made the world brighter and sharper, more vivid and colourful. It made each and every detail so wonderfully fascinating. It made the background noise fade."

John doesn't say anything. He doesn't want to interrupt Sherlock's quiet confession.

"And then I discovered sex. Varieties of people and acts, and all of them mesmerizing in their own way. All the different ways human bodies respond and react, the way personality shapes desire as much as the physical." Sherlock glances up, and his eyes are clear and cold. There's nothing soft or forgiving in his expression. "The definition of a habit, John, is an acquired behavior pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary. It somehow became something I did, like eating breakfast in the morning. A syringe became as familiar as a cigarette."

The syringe part doesn't surprise John. Sherlock's sense of smell is too good to have spent any serious time snorting lines of coke, so needles make sense but John's a doctor. He'd recognize the kind of scars left from years of drug use. "I wouldn't have known."

"I wasn't a delinquent stealing car stereos for my next hit," Sherlock says, as if John should have known better. And maybe, John should have. For all the mess in their place, Sherlock is meticulous in all of his experiments, painstakingly precise in his clothing. (If they go out for Italian, John's the one who spills the pasta sauce. It's never Sherlock.) Lestrade lets him walk around crime scenes as if his coat and shoes are pristine.

Sherlock probably sterilised everything and used saline solutions for injections. Sherlock would have known how to leave as little proof as possible on his body.

"Four years?" John asks, and Sherlock nods. "How did you afford it?"

"I inherited a sizeable trust fund as a child. By that age, I had access to it."

Sherlock doesn't say anything else and John has to ask. "What made you stop?" He's pretty sure the answer will be Mycroft because John can't imagine Mycroft having any limits if it came to getting Sherlock clean.

But Sherlock says, "Lestrade," with his typical expression of long-suffering annoyance.

"Lestrade?"

"This was before I worked with the police, before I had my website. Angelo asked for my help and Lestrade was working on the case. After I proved Angelo didn't kill anyone, Lestrade said I'd need to testify at the hearing and if I wanted to be taken seriously, I'd best show up clean and sober. His phrasing, not mine."

John makes a mental note to shout Lestrade a drink next time he sees him. "So you went to rehab? A private clinic somewhere?"

Sherlock laughs. "Can you imagine me in any facility, working through a Twelve Step programme? I would have been back in London by the end of the first day."

"Probably within the first six hours," John agrees. He can't imagine Sherlock acknowledging a greater power than himself, no matter how many group therapy sessions tried to convert him.

"I locked myself in my flat. Seemed best. The first week was… bad." This from the guy who described hugging a maniacal killer while wearing semtex and daring him to pull the trigger as 'um… good.' It's clearly an understatement.

"You kicked a four year habit without any medical supervision whatsoever?" John tries to be patient, tries not to think about the chances of cardiac arrest, stroke, and all the ways it could have gone wrong.

"I didn't need medical supervision to develop the habit. Besides, it was only three years at that stage."

"You said four years before."

"I stopped using, I testified at court. I decided that being a consulting detective would be fun and…" Sherlock's shoulders jerk uncomfortably and his gaze falls back to his knee. "The withdrawal symptoms of cocaine are mild compared to other illicit drugs, but they have been known to lead to depression, to an absence of joy. It's all to do with dopamine levels in the brain."

"Yeah," John says, and doesn't point out he's a medical doctor with a degree and everything. He does know the basics.

"Embarrassing as it is, it took me three months to recognise what was wrong." Sherlock takes in one slow, laboured breath. "My routine hadn't changed. I was still researching, experimenting. I was still exploring London at night, still having sex with people. But it was all tedious and dull and boring. So obvious. A look here and a touch there, and so clear to see what they wanted in bed, what he was looking for and whom he was trying to forget. That she'd had her nails done, and how she was looking forward to her brother's wedding, and how she was feeling sorry for herself, still single at thirty when she'd wanted two kids by this age. It was predicable. It was dull," Sherlock says, his voice getting harder. Then he stops himself.

He shakes his head, dark curls moving roughly, and turns to stare out the window. "I'd always assumed it was the sex itself that I enjoyed. But it was the cocaine. The sex was simply something to do while high. And coming to a conclusion like that, well…"

"You experimented to see if you were right?" John asks, because he knows Sherlock hates knowing things he can't prove. "You took cocaine again, just once, just to prove you were right?"

Sherlock pushes a hand through his hair, and gives a grimace. "And once turned into nine months. I barely noticed."

"But you stopped."

"Due to an unexpected visit from Mycroft. At that stage, I was still going home for Christmas dinners, for Mummy's birthday, but I'd prepare. I'd reduce the dose I was taking days before I had to see them. Then Mycroft showed up at two in the afternoon, and I was noticeably affected."

"What did he say?"

Sherlock snorts, and it doesn't sound like laughter at all. "There he was, perfect three-piece suit and shoes shined, and the first words out of his mouth were 'Good God, you can't appear at Mummy's funeral in that state.'"

John knows grief produces shock, knows people can say the most appalling things when they've lost a family member. But the way Sherlock says it, like it's half a joke, like it should be funny in hindsight… it makes it worse. John hides his mouth behind his hand, wonders if it hides his reaction -- his ridiculous urge to fix this, as if he could -- and listens.

"I didn't, you know. He delayed the funeral a few extra days while I made sure I was fit to attend," Sherlock says lightly. "The funeral, that is. I excused myself from the wake. They're far too dismal to endure."

John doesn't know what to say to that. He'd say 'I'm so sorry' but it seems trite and Sherlock wouldn't appreciate it anyway. So John gets up, walks over and takes Sherlock's hand. "Come on, let's go to bed."

"There's a chance Mycroft's right," Sherlock says but he gets to his feet. "I gave up sex when I gave up cocaine. I decided it was better to be abstinent than so out of control."

John stretches up and kisses him on the lips, right there in the middle of their sitting room. The last time he did that, well, it started a lot more than he'd expected, but he doesn't know what else to do. "It's not the same situation," he says, and leads Sherlock upstairs.

***

John can't sleep. For the first time since he's started sleeping with Sherlock, John can't sleep and Sherlock's not awake to distract him. Usually, Sherlock's up and reading, or typing, or once sitting up in bed with a chopping board and a scalpel using chicken breasts to test the force resistance of different angles on the blade. (John doesn't like waking up with blades in his bed so Sherlock knows not to repeat that. John made that quite clear as he showed Sherlock how a surgeon would use the scalpel and monitored Sherlock's surgery attempts. It wasn't a complete waste of time; Sherlock cooked chicken omelettes that morning.)

But for once, John's the one lying awake and Sherlock's asleep. He's a bed-hog, legs stretched out from one corner to the other, one arm hanging over the edge of the bed and the other flung across John's chest. It's ungainly and gawky, not helped by the way his face is squished into the pillow or the mess of dark curls falling every which way. When Sherlock's awake he's all crisp lines and intensity. Sherlock asleep is the opposite: soft and muted, carelessly messy. John likes this side of Sherlock more than he's ever going to admit, almost likes it as much as running after Sherlock on a case or walking away from a crime scene and trying not to smile inappropriately.

John likes Sherlock. It's such a simple fact and he can't explain why it's keeping him awake. It isn't new and it's not even a surprise. Anyone who knows him could see that Sherlock slipped right past John's usual defences and John didn't mind a bit; anyone who knows Sherlock can see Sherlock's done the unthinkable -- adjusted his habits and occasionally compromised -- for John.

Like the sun rising in the East, it's something Sherlock's accepted without caring too much about the why. And it's not that John neurotically needs to define every detail and motivating factor, but...

But something doesn't feel settled and he doesn't know what it is. He knows that his assumptions about Sherlock were wrong. Sherlock isn't inexperienced and physically isolated from the rest of the world. It's the opposite. Sherlock has a history of enjoying sex as the physical act, as a way of revealing details about other people, as a challenge and a puzzle, and most of all, as the best thing to do while high.

The details of sex -- swallowing past the gag reflex, balancing your weight, rolling a condom on without having to break the vibe -- Sherlock knows all of that. Sleeping with John is nothing new physically. Nothing Sherlock hasn't done dozens (okay, hundreds) of times before.

And that's where John gets stuck. Because it's not the physical act that separates him from Sherlock's past lovers. It's not experience, it's not gender, it's not anything about the sex itself. None of that is unique, or different, except in the way that everyone is slightly different, every encounter has moments to separate it from others.

John was fantasising about physically being the first and only, but that's not the important part. The important part is that when Sherlock's sleeping with John, he remembers being high, he remembers other lovers, but he doesn't wake up the next morning yearning for a hit. He would have mentioned if he did -- it would have been the deciding factor for Mycroft's concerns -- but Sherlock was uncertain, so it's a fair assumption that this isn't a current concern, more of a theoretical one.

John can accept that he probably isn't the wildest lover Sherlock's ever had or the best. He's clearly not worst because Sherlock doesn't tolerate incompetence in the rest of his life and he certainly wouldn't do it in bed. For all the silly ideas John had about Sherlock, John isn't one amongst a million, isn't one utterly unique physical experience, but he is the only person Sherlock's taken to crime scenes and St Bart's morgue. He's the only person who's had to deal with Sherlock's snoring and severed body parts and impromptu violin sonatas on a regular basis.

He wonders if that's enough: John and nights in front of the telly and running through London streets. If combined with murders and mysteries, and Lestrade and his crime scenes, Mrs Hudson downstairs and Mycroft's occasional interfering, if that's enough for Sherlock.

John knows it's enough for him.

***

John gets up and makes his way to the toilet by memory and the faint outline of windows and doorways. He turns the light on once he's there, and it ruins his night-vision for the trip back. He has to shuffle back to the bedroom by feel, trailing a hand along the whispery, aged wallpaper as he goes.

He pauses in the doorway, waiting for the shadows to coalesce into shapes, and wonders if it's better to go downstairs and watch telly. He's wide awake and sleep probably isn't going to happen, and maybe watching telly would be less creepy than spending hours watching Sherlock sleep.

There's a rustle of fabric as Sherlock moves on the bed. "Are you reconsidering Mycroft's offer?" he asks, voice rough with sleep and deeper than usual, the way he sounds in the middle of sex, the way he sounded the first time he leaned over and said, 'I want to fuck you.'

Consequently, it takes a few seconds for what Sherlock said to sink in.

"What? No," John says. "No, of course not. Why would you ask that?"

"The most frequent disruption to your sleeping pattern is caused by dreams about combat. But you tend to thrash and wake me up," Sherlock says casually, the way anyone else would say you snore or you never put the cap back on the toothpaste, like nightmares of gunfire, sand and blood are just a minor irritation. "While there are a number of other concerns that could be keeping you awake -- finances or employment, for example -- the only one I really care about would be Mycroft's offer. That was a lot of information to absorb last night. You might need some time to process."

"You know I'm not an idiot," John says, rolling his eyes and getting back into bed, "so don't be any more condescending than you have to be."

Sherlock makes a harrumph sound and burrows under the duvet. "I was trying to be considerate."

"By implying I'd need at least six hours to understand a conversation?"

"John," Sherlock says, stretching his name into a whine. "Don't be difficult when I'm trying to break the habit of a lifetime. For once, I'm considering my impact on other people's happiness."

"Liar."

Sherlock pulls the duvet down enough to glare at John. "I beg your pardon?"

"You went all the way to Florida for Mrs Hudson. Don't tell me that was just for a case." John leans over and lands a kiss on Sherlock's forehead. "Anderson might be stupid enough to believe you don't care about anyone but I know you bought Mrs Hudson a teaspoon."

"Because she's our landlady and there's less chance she'll kick us out for damage to the property if she thinks fondly of us."

Sherlock doesn't like admitting he's wrong, even when he is (especially when he is), so John doesn't argue the point. Instead, he shifts closer and runs a hand down Sherlock's side. He catches the hem of Sherlock's T-shirt and sneaks a hand under, palming smooth warm skin.

"When I first returned to London," he admits, "I hated it."

"How could you hate London?" Sherlock considers London a necessity, like oxygen. Although Sherlock might accept hating oxygen since he considers breathing boring. London, on the other hand, is as dear to him as his violin.

"London's busy, but it's not the busy I was used to."

"Car bombs and emergency surgery," Sherlock says under his breath, as if it should be obvious to everyone.

"My therapist kept saying get back in contact with friends and family, you need their emotional support. Every time I did, I hated it. I didn't fit anymore. It was like they'd left this John Watson shaped hole in their minds and I'd come back... I left as a square peg in a square hole and I came back shattered and warped, still roughly John Watson but not the right shape. I didn't fit."

"Hardly London's fault."

"Okay, maybe it wasn't," John says because that's not the point of his story. "I didn't want to be here. I couldn't afford to stay but I didn't want to be anywhere else, either. I wanted to go back to where I was useful, where what I did mattered. I wasn't a hero, I didn't do anything extraordinary, but I helped. And suddenly I was back home and on a pension and useless, until I met you."

"I gave you a purpose?" Sherlock asks, cuttingly sarcastic in the way that only he can be. "Is that the moral of this fable?"

"Sort of true but not the point. The point is that I found somewhere I fit. And I don't think Mycroft understands that. We fit together. It's a little odd and occasionally mad, and there are times when you're utterly impossible but I'm no picnic either, and we fit. Doesn't make any logical sense but it works for us. That's enough."

Sherlock doesn't say anything but John's sure he's smart enough to understand.

***

John doesn't speak to Sherlock the next day. When he gets up, Sherlock's gone. His coat's gone from the back of the door, his fold-away microscope is missing from the mantelpiece and John's laptop has been left open to Sherlock's website: all clues leading to the conclusion that Sherlock's accepted a case and might not be back for hours.

John gets a call from the clinic (somebody's daughter's plane got delayed and can John come in for the day) so he leaves a note for Sherlock, stuck to the mirror above the TV. John doesn't like initiating text conversations; he can never be sure what Sherlock's doing. If Sherlock's in the middle of jumping across rooftops, he doesn't want a text saying, "Am working at clinic today. Do you want me to pick up Chinese on the way home? John" to be the momentary distraction that sends Sherlock plummeting to his death.

He does get a text that afternoon from Sherlock, right as he's in the middle of diagnosing chickenpox in a crying four year old. It says:

Get Chinese on way home from clinic.
I feel like wonton soup.
SH

John's half-tempted to reply, "You don't look like wonton soup" but it's a fairly childish joke. So John types back a simple "OK" and buzzes for the next patient.

When his shift's finished and he slips out the back door of the clinic, he's somehow not surprised to find a familiar black car waiting for him. The back door sways open in the kind of invitation that's rarely refused.

At least it saves him a cab fare, John thinks as he gets in. "Evening."

"John," Mycroft says, raising an eyebrow. "I hope you've reconsidered my offer."

John should have known it. Really, what else did he expect from Mycroft Holmes, Interferer Extraordinaire? Mycroft's not the sort of man to simply sit back and wait for other people to understand he's right -- he's more of a convincer. He's probably just as bad as Sherlock when it comes to acknowledging he might be wrong. "In a word, no."

There's a sympathetic tilt to Mycroft's brows and a faint, soft frown. John wonders if that expression convinces anyone that Mycroft understands how normal people feel. "In that case, I think we should discuss it further."

"It's not open for negotiation." It's easy to sound firm in a car that's taking the correct turns to get back to Westminster, but if he's tracking where Mycroft's driver is taking them, John knows he's not comfortable with this conversation. "I made that clear the first time we met. What happens between Sherlock and me? That's none of your business."

"There are things one does for family. This may be a waste of my time, but Sherlock is family. I would be remiss to simply wash my hands of the affair."

"I'm not leaving Sherlock for the sake of a better job. This isn't something you can throw money at and force it to go your way."

"You are not a very financially motivated man," Mycroft says, as if it's a great character failing. He adjusts the cuff of his shirt -- of course the man wears cufflinks; personally, John can't stand them, they're too fiddly to put on and too easy to lose -- and then says, "But you are motivated by other factors."

John stays silent. He doesn't respond well to threats, and he can't believe Mycroft doesn't know that about him. Bribes aren't appealing. He's been poor before, and he can live with it as long as he still feels like an honest man. He can't imagine anything that would make him walk away from Sherlock but he's not going to open his mouth and give Mycroft any extra insight.

"There have been certain funding proposals," Mycroft says, "regarding medical supplies for the forces, specifically those keeping the peace overseas."

Mycroft watches him, eyes clear and perfectly blank. It's strange because so much of Mycroft seems soft and sheltered. It's the shape of his chin, the roundness of his cheeks, the constant hint of jowl beneath his jaw line. For all of Sherlock's taunts, he's not actually overweight, but John can see how easily a small change in weight would make him look pudgy and heavy. Of course, Mycroft plays it up. Where Sherlock's suits are all sharp lines and crisp silhouettes, Mycroft wears layers of unassuming wool, muted colours and looser jackets. Where Sherlock is all energy, jumping from one idea to the next, constantly moving, thinking, cutting people with fast words, Mycroft is cool, untouched, careful politeness and condescension.

But when Mycroft stares, when Mycroft truly watches, John knows his mind is as sharp, or sharper, than Sherlock's.

"What does this have to do with me?"

"We would need a civilian contractor to ensure the right supplies were received where they were most needed. It would be a difficult position due to personal danger and the requirement to personally visit the medical facilities in, say, Afghanistan. Someone who used to serve, who was aware of the country, would be the best choice."

"You're offering to send me back?" As soon as it's out of his mouth, John knows saying it was a mistake. He sounds too interested, too excited. John thinks there'll always be a part of him that wants to go back, that remembers operating there -- soldiers bleeding out on tables and sewing them back together, working fast and dirty and doing anything he could just to get them stable for another hour or two -- as the most useful, important part of his life. He's been there, he knows that lack of supplies is one of the biggest morale killers, the thing that makes doctors and nurses swear and wish a painful death on whoever didn't order enough saline and bandages, let alone morphine.

"In a civilian capacity," Mycroft adds.

John turns to look out the window, watch familiar buildings going past. There are streets filled with students and office workers, groups talking and laughing, people briskly walking to the station, lost in their own world of earbuds or mobile phones. Ordinary, everyday people who wouldn't understand the urge to go back, the urge to say, "Yes," and willingly walk into a world of gunfire and danger, stretches of routine boredom split by days spent on your feet, operating until your fingers go numb and your shoulders cramp.

He'll say no. He knows it. He'll say no because he has a life here, because he's useful here in a way he's not there. Over there, he's one of a team. He's one more medic pushing himself to the limit, one of many. Here, he's Sherlock's… He doesn't even know how to finish that, but the fact stands that he's Sherlock's. He's the one person who'll always be on Sherlock's side, even when Sherlock's being stubborn and wrongheaded. That's a position that's harder to fill.

"No," John says finally. "Thanks, but no."

"Really?"

"I don't expect you to understand, I don't really expect my therapist to understand, but I'm pretty happy where I am. Just like Afghanistan, there's bullets, blood and danger, but there's also good telly and going out for Indian. And there's Sherlock."

Mycroft smiles as if John's a particularly amusing insect caught under glass. "Sherlock may not believe in Queen and country, but you do. Given the difference you could make, the number of lives you could improve, I'm surprised you'd prioritise good telly."

"Well, I am," John says, starting to get annoyed. "I'm saying that this, right here, is more important to me. I can understand your concern. I can understand that you're his brother and the idea of Sherlock falling into old habits scares the living daylights out of you because, yeah, the idea of him shooting up and wandering around London every night is terrifying. But this isn't your difficulty to fix, so you need to back off."

Breathing hard, John glares out the window. He crosses his arms tightly and waits for his temper to settle down. It's not Mycroft's fault that Sherlock's been an idiot in the past, that he's taken the kind of risks that make John want to bang his head against a wall. And Mycroft, in his twisted, controlling, Big Brother is Watching You way, is only trying to protect Sherlock.

And, really, John isn't stupid enough to want an angry Mycroft Holmes after his head. But… "Do you have any concept of how insulting it is that you think Sherlock needs to be protected from me?"

"We are each other's only living relatives. He's family," Mycroft says as if that excuses everything. John gets it, he does. He knows how far he'd go -- how far he's already gone -- to protect Sherlock. This isn't so different. "There is very little that genuinely endangers Sherlock. This does."

"He got clean for a funeral--" John says, and Mycroft turns so suddenly, John freezes, about to reach for a gun that isn't even there. When Mycroft doesn't say anything but keeps staring, trying to bore a way into John's skull through determination alone, John asks, "What?"

"For all that Sherlock may believe you are of above average intelligence, it's much like saying that one ant is more important than another. You're not clever enough to have worked that out yourself."

John's a little surprised that he's not offended. "I think living with Sherlock has made me immune to being called stupid."

"I was surprised. No offense was meant," Mycroft says, and there's a smile and that almost distracted air of condescension. Whatever surprised him, he's recovered fast. "Sherlock believes in truth for the truth's sake. As if knowing facts will somehow help the general populace."

"Whereas you believe in doing what's best for them and only tell them what they want to hear?"

"Do what's best for Britain, deal with problems with minimal disruption, and allow the populace to sleep soundly at night," Mycroft corrects and John doesn't doubt that he believes every word of it. "But for all Sherlock believes in the truth, there are certain things he does not discuss."

Blinking, John thinks it through. "Meaning he doesn't talk about his addiction? Or he hasn't talked to you about it?"

"He hasn't told anyone. I would know." Mycroft doesn't explain how he'd know, and John's relieved. There are things he doesn't need to know. "Neither of us likes acknowledging weakness or personal failings. But he told you."

"I'm a doctor. I've seen addiction before, so I'm probably less likely to jump to conclusions," John offers.

Mycroft waves the thought away with three curled fingers. "You're a doctor so you'd know, better than most, the dangers of Sherlock's choices. And contrary to all practical self-survival instincts, and ignoring my sizable offers, you haven't used this new knowledge as justification to distance yourself from Sherlock."

John doesn't roll his eyes. He's tempted, but he doesn't. "So maybe I'm not such a bad influence."

Mycroft doesn't reply and the remaining traffic-filled streets are navigated in silence. Mycroft is looking at the windshield but John would bet good money he's not seeing anything outside. He's seen that expression on Sherlock's face, usually when Sherlock's lost inside his head, following thought after thought.

When the car stops outside 221B, Mycroft shifts in his seat and gives a small sigh. "There is a point to tradition. Even when it has no practical impact on how a person acts, there is a certain value to convention, to doing things as they should be done."

John blinks. "Yes," he says, because that seems like the answer that Mycroft's expecting.

"Please be aware if you betray Sherlock's trust, if you metaphorically break his heart," Mycroft says, eyes narrowing, "there will be consequences."

John's always wondered if Sherlock was exaggerating about his brother. If Mycroft -- powerful as he clearly is -- was mostly an analyst for MI5 and/or MI6: someone whose conclusions were important but not someone who inspired fear. Right now, he's pretty sure this is a man who makes SAS officers wet their beds.

Mycroft gives him a quick, false smile and adds, "Do tell Sherlock you are both invited to Christmas dinner."

"That's six months away," John says, because there's planning and then there's over-planning, and mostly, he doesn't want to think about what Mycroft would consider a reasonable 'consequence' of upsetting Sherlock.

"Which gives Sherlock ample time to ensure the pair of you are far from London on the 25th. Far better than the flimsy excuses he concocts at the last minute to avoid the day."

John says the first thing that pops into his head. "Sherlock likes Christmas."

"He likes Christmas," Mycroft says as his driver opens John's door. John scrambles to get out as Mycroft clarifies, "He doesn't like spending it with his family."

***

The next time he sees Sherlock is at three in the morning. He doesn't know what time Sherlock got in or how long he's been lying in John's bed -- head at the foot of the bed, bare feet resting on John's pillow -- but he's using John's laptop to watch something rather disgusting on YouTube. From this distance, John's best guess is that it's a small animal decomposing. He hopes it's a small animal and not a human body part, but he can't be sure.

John curls a hand around Sherlock's pale ankle, rubs his thumb over the fine points of bone. "If our ISP is tracking that, someone's probably a little concerned."

"If it's not child pornography, nobody cares," Sherlock says carelessly, pausing the screen and looking over his shoulder. "How did the chat with Mycroft go?"

"How did--"

"Time of the receipt left in the bag of Chinese. You had to go out again to get it, and there were splash marks on the right leg of your trousers."

"I understand the time, not the splash marks."

"It rained yesterday afternoon. There were puddles on the road. You were splashed by a passing car driving at 30mph, judging by the splatter pattern, but higher on your right leg. You had your right side to the passing car, so you were walking from the flat to the restaurant, not the other way round. Hence, Mycroft." Sherlock rolls onto his back and John very nearly gets kicked in the face. "What did he offer you this time?"

John stretches, yawning and sitting up a little higher on the pillows. "To oversee delivery of medical supplies in Afghanistan."

"Oh," Sherlock says quietly. It's a soft sound that usually comes right before a brilliant insight. "Quite clever, really. Offer you a position that you know is needed, allowing you to feel useful. Require face-to-face contact with the medical staff over there. Given a high enough budget, you'd be considered something of a saviour. You won't be able to operate but you'll still be considered part of the team, respected and liked."

Sherlock draws in one slow breath, then adds, "You get to help soldiers and doctors, and be acknowledged for it. How long did you think about saying yes?"

"Thirty seconds." John shrugs. "Maybe a minute."

"He'll be terribly frustrated that didn't work," Sherlock says gleefully. "He'll break his diet. He likes something sweet when he thinks."

"He also invited us for Christmas."

Sherlock sits bolt upright, like Frankenstein's monster lurching to life. "What did you tell him?"

John's good at playing innocent. He spent most of his school years avoiding trouble by simply being there and looking as if he had no idea what was going on, and whatever it was couldn't possibly have anything to do with him. "What?"

Sherlock's pale eyes are bright, and there's a quirk to those full lips, a smile that he can't quite hide. "What did you say to Mycroft? Specifically, what words?"

"Just a normal conversation," John says, eyes wide and face blank, thinking, 'No, sir, butter wouldn't melt in my mouth, sir' and trying his best to portray that exact sentiment.

"No, it wasn't." Sherlock's having fun -- multiple murders and impossible notes level of fun -- and he's crawling over to John on hands and knees. "Mycroft doesn't invite people over. He hates company."

"Well, he invited us for Christmas dinner."

"And he knows I hate spending it with him," Sherlock says, stopping with his knees to either side of John's hips and planting his hands level with John's shoulders. He stares down at John, dark hair falling across his forehead and expression wild. "But as insincere as it is, he wouldn't extend the offer of hospitality if he hadn't changed his mind."

John nearly grins, but that would give him away. "Maybe he's planning to poison me using the turkey?"

"Mycroft wouldn't waste good food on an assassination attempt. He has people to do that for him."

"Maybe family requires the personal touch?"

Sherlock leans down. His hair brushes across John's forehead and temples, and John can feel Sherlock's warm breath on his skin, the corner of his jaw and moving up to his ear. "You said something that made Mycroft change his mind," Sherlock whispers, like it's the juiciest secret he's ever heard. "Tell me what it was."

With Sherlock hovering over him, so close but not touching, John gives in to the urge to slide his hands up the back of Sherlock's legs. Two can play at this game, John thinks, dragging his fingers back down slowly and hearing Sherlock's breathing quicken. "Can't think of anything."

"You know what it was," Sherlock says, sucking a kiss to the sensitive skin behind John's ear. It's fighting dirty but it's a desperate gambit. Sherlock's pressing back into John's hands, and his voice is low and breathless when he says, "You will tell me."

"I'll tell you later," John promises and pulls Sherlock down to him.

***

He does tell Sherlock (after sex but before John drifts back to sleep -- John has a pet theory that leaving Sherlock unnecessarily frustrated might result in John waking up without eyebrows, or something equally mad) and Sherlock's surprisingly calm about it.

"We never discussed it," Sherlock says. From the tone of his voice, he's rolling his eyes or doing the Sherlock equivalent. "Obviously Mycroft knew about the situation. Still, it's interesting."

"Interesting?"

"I didn't tell you to upset Mycroft's assumptions." What Sherlock doesn't add is that if he'd thought of that, he probably would have told John everything much sooner. Upsetting Mycroft's worldview is far more satisfying than personal privacy.

Honestly, it makes John's relationship with Harry look downright functional.

John's a good bloke, mostly. He's shot a few people, but it's been while defending lives. He's certainly saved a lot more than that. He usually does the right thing, but he also recognises an advantage when he sees it.

"What else would Mycroft assume you'd never tell me?" John asks, because everyone knows heaven helps those who help themselves.

"You'd know most of it," Sherlock says distractedly, thoughts far away. "Or you've picked it up in passing, as your blog shows."

"Yeah?"

"Public school, boarding from eight years old. Both parents dead. Mummy from a stroke when I was twenty-eight. Father from leukaemia three weeks before I went to school."

John wants to say he's sorry, for all the good that will do, but Sherlock waves it away when John opens his mouth.

"I barely knew him. He was a pale figure in a bed surrounded by machines for as long as I could remember. Not the type of environment appropriate for a child." Sherlock presses his palms together, looking at something beyond the ceiling. "School years, even university, all tediously normal. I was anti-social enough for it to be diagnosed as a personality disorder, but other than that, nothing of interest."

John shifts to his side and watches Sherlock closely. "What about after university?" he asks, as casually as he can. That's what he wants to know. That first twelve months and what in the world convinced Sherlock cocaine was something good to try.

For all of John's careful cunning, Sherlock's eyes narrow. "You could have simply asked," he says.

"I was curious about the other stuff." It's true, in its way. He's not going to point out that he has asked, and Sherlock's side-stepped and avoided answering.

"Curious but only using it to get to this topic. It does prove you've paid attention when I questioned witnesses."

John's pretty sure that's a compliment, back-handed as it is. Since cunning didn't work, John figures basic honesty might. "I don't understand it. I don't understand how someone as brilliant as you could have fallen into such an obvious trap. You're an idiot to risk your life but you do it knowing the dangers. I can't swallow the idea that you tried cocaine and didn't know addiction was a possibility."

For a long moment, Sherlock's silent. John's starting to suspect he won't get an answer when Sherlock says, "I was at a loose end."

"I need more than that to understand."

"Assuming you would understand," Sherlock bites back. John doesn't take it personally. He knows how easy it is to blurt out the wrong thing at the wrong time.

"So tell me. Tell me and I'll try. Worst that happens," John says, reaching over to wrap a hand around Sherlock's wrist, "I still don't get it. Nothing lost."

"No," Sherlock says, fast and sharp and scared, and that's ridiculous. It's ridiculous that he's scared of telling John, like there's anything stranger than human eyeballs in the microwave, anything more frightening than seeing that little red dot aimed at Sherlock's chest.

"Sherlock, either I get it or I don't." John realises he's holding Sherlock's wrist too hard and loosens his grip. "That's all there is to it. Nothing you tell me is going to make me think any less of you."

"That's an absurd promise." Sherlock looks away, turns his whole head away from John, and takes one slow, steadying breath. "During final year, a student went missing. A friend of Sebastian's. There had been an argument. I made sure the body was never found."

Sherlock's quiet and tense, the tendons on his neck standing out. He sounds like a man confessing a secret but John knows -- gut-deep knows -- that it's not true. "You're lying," John says.

"How could you tell?" Sherlock rolls his head back, looking a cross between annoyed and intrigued. "Donovan would have believed that in a heartbeat. Even Lestrade would have started looking into missing persons."

"One, I've seen you around Sebastian. It's clear you don't like each other, but you like proving that you're smarter than him. You wouldn't hide a body for him," John says, choosing not to comment on the Met's inability to distinguish slightly mad genius from maniacal psychopath. Lestrade would look into it because he's methodical, not because he really thinks Sherlock's two steps away from dumping bodies in the Thames. "Two, I know you. You break rules but it's thoughtlessness. Habit, not compulsion. You don't get any joy out of it. Covering something up and hiding it from other people, you wouldn't see the point in it. It would be boring."

"You're not going to argue that I'm morally incapable of murder, some sentimental reasoning that you care for me and I'm fundamentally a good person?"

"Killing doesn't equate to a lack of morals," John says, matter-of-factly. "People kill for a bunch of morally good reasons. I have. Being a good person doesn't have that much to do with it. Hiding a body for someone you can't stand, that's just moronic."

"So there's nothing I could tell you that would make you think differently of me?" Sherlock asks and John nods because that was his point. "What if I told you I used to be female?"

John laughs. He doesn't even try to pretend he's not laughing at Sherlock.

"What?"

"I'm a doctor!" John can't believe he has to point out something so obvious. "I've seen you very naked in good lighting. Even the best surgeons in Europe are going to leave scars, and the hormone therapy you'd need to be on, I would have noticed."

Sherlock frowns but it's dangerously close to a pout. "But it would have changed your impression of me."

"It would be fine," John says, wondering when conversations like this became normal for his bedroom. "You'd still be the tall, strange guy in the coat who stabs knives into the mantlepiece and keeps human body parts around the flat. I already know you're odd and extraordinary, and I like you. Another mad fact isn't going to make a difference."

"After university, I was at a loose end," Sherlock says, and John settles down to listen to another false confession. "I didn't want to follow in Mycroft's footsteps and I hadn't thought of becoming a consulting detective yet. I liked solving mysteries and had an interest in criminology, and I thought the only way I'd get near a murder scene would be to join the police."

For a moment, John gets distracted thinking of Sherlock in the uniform. Which, huh, wasn't a kink he even realised he had.

Then he banishes the image, and says, "Not that you couldn't pass the tests, because you're smart enough to fake it, but I can't imagine you walking the beat."

"Anti-social, does not get on with peers, aversion to teamwork," Sherlock says, effectively summing up John's doubts. "But the idea of better living through chemistry did occur to me."

John can't say what it is -- if it's Sherlock's slightly distracted air, the calm monotone of his voice, the almost amused sneer ghosting across his lips -- but he's suddenly sure this story's true. John knows the phrase but he asks, "Medication?" to be certain.

"We medicate for everything. Anxiety, apathy, lack of sleep, lack of energy, too much energy. Emotional intemperance, emotional distance. For any diagnosis, there are half a dozen chemicals to correct it. Logically," Sherlock says slowly, giving John a quick sideways glance, "given the right combination, even I could pass for normal."

John rubs the heels of his palms against his closed eyes. He knows, Sherlock hasn't even said it yet, but he knows this is going to be just like the tales of detoxing. This is going to be one of those things Sherlock's done that makes the little doctor-voice in the back of his head want to scream and throw things and point out there is a right way to do this. There is a safe way. There are theories and rules and trials for a reason.

And that reason is not because no one's as smart as the great Sherlock Holmes.

But instead of saying any of that, John pushes it down with a groan and uses his calmest voice to say, "So you decided to experiment?"

"The medical profession doesn't agree within itself on the correct way to manage these things so clearly the best way to find the answer was to work on it myself."

"Prescription drugs," John says, and it's not even a question. This is Sherlock. Sherlock and his absolute lack of respect for the letter of the law. He could have stolen prescription pads and forged signatures, or simply forged medical records and attended doctor's appointments. John doesn't need to know the details. Just the broad outline is scary enough. "So you took everything you could get your hands on and then moved from legal drugs to illegal?"

"I kept detailed notes," Sherlock says peevishly, as if following scientific procedures makes this any less dangerous.

"Do you have any idea how many different ways drugs can react within a body?"

"Of course I researched--"

"No," John interrupts. "This isn't research, this isn't theory. You could have died; you could have done permanent damage to yourself. This isn't something you play with like a chemistry set."

John breathes and tries to unclench his jaw. This is Sherlock, who doesn't always understand things the way everyone else does. This was something done years ago and being angry now doesn't help anything. But knowing that doesn't stop John from being angry.

It's bad enough there are physical dangers wherever Sherlock goes. At least Sherlock faces them for a reason: at the end of the day, he helps people; he protects them even though he wouldn't see it that way. But something like this, something rational and considered and carefully documented...

It makes John feel helpless. It's not the kind of threat he can do anything about.

"There wasn't anything that worked," Sherlock says, and John wants to say that's not the point, but he doesn't. "I spent eleven months trying a wide variety of substances and nothing worked. It either didn't make a noticeable difference or impaired my thinking to unacceptable standards. And the side-effects were quite unpleasant."

John doesn't open his mouth. There's this simmering worry in the middle of his chest that feels like bad heartburn and he needs a moment. Needs a moment to work out what in the world you say in this situation.

"Morphine was different. Quite lovely, softened everything until I didn't even want to think, but impractical for daily use," Sherlock says calmly. "Cocaine, ironically enough, made my thoughts quicker and made me more agreeable. It made people seem interesting, instead of one more stupid sheep in a flock."

John breathes out. Then he says, "How is that ironic?"

"The point was to keep my intellect and find a better way to interact with society, to find a way to fit into an institution as unimaginative as the Met. I found a drug that worked but it was illegal, which precluded a position in law enforcement, and it was enjoyable enough that I no longer cared about the original goal." Sherlock nods to himself, twisting his fingers in his lap. "And while it made my personality more socially acceptable, the habit itself was objectionable at formal occasions, like court cases and funerals."

"Thanks," John eventually forces himself to say, "for telling me the truth."

Sherlock shrugs. "You wish I hadn't."

"I wish you hadn't done it in the first place. It's not the same thing."

Sherlock hugs his knees up to his chest. If they were in the sitting room, he'd be cocooning in his dressing gown and pulling the fabric tight, John's sure of it. It's so easy to read Sherlock's discomfort, and he almost wishes he couldn't.

John tucks an arm around Sherlock's shoulders and thinks.

Sherlock respects life, but not his own. He doesn't stop to think about the possible danger, or if he does, he considers it unimportant. It's not worth as much as knowing the facts, proving the deductions.

What bothers John about this is the way Sherlock invites personal risk, the way he'll throw himself at brick walls as if he can't possibly break. But that's not an opinion Sherlock shares.

Not being able to find the right drug, not being able to prove a hypothesis -- Sherlock's too much of a pure scientist to take that personally. Being called an idiot by John, well, that's hardly new.

For all John knows about Sherlock, he doesn't know what it is that's bothering him right now.

"This might be a stupid question, but why didn't you want to tell me that?"

"You can tell when I'm lying but you can't tell that?" Sherlock asks back.

"I can't." John shifts closer to Sherlock, pressing their shoulders together. "But I can tell that I don't know what it is, so that's something."

"It's not the years spent with reduced control over my actions," Sherlock allows. "It's the cause."

"The reason why you--" And John understands. Sherlock took cocaine because he'd been experimenting, but Sherlock had been experimenting because he wanted to fit in. Because he was young and full of potential and unsure of where he belonged in the world. John says, gentle as he can, "You wanted to be normal. You wanted to be someone else."

"Don't presume I still feel that way," Sherlock says harshly. "I can assure you I would much rather be a sociopath and able to see what's right in front of me, than walk around with the average gelatinous excuse for a brain."

John presses a kiss to Sherlock's bicep, lips lingering against warm cotton. He gets it, he does. So much of Sherlock is weird and brilliant, fantastic and callous, but it all works because Sherlock doesn't care. Sherlock swoops into a crime scene and puts the pieces together, but he doesn't try to be normal, he doesn't try to hide how different he is, and it works.

But this, admitting that once upon a time he tried anything to be one of the masses… It's not a weakness. It's something Sherlock would never want anyone to know.

"Hate to break it to you, Sherlock, but you weren't the first twenty-something to try to live up to everything you thought you should be. It's not a rare and terrible failing to be young and having trouble working out who you are."

Sherlock moves nothing but his head, turning just enough to see John's face.

"At that age," John says with a smile, "I was at St Bart's. I was going to earn a million pounds a year and be a brain surgeon. I was going to fulfil my parents' middle-class dream of having a doctor in the family, and by fifty, I was going to have published textbooks and be a respected lecturer."

"What happened?"

"I realised I hate public speaking and textbooks are boring. Brain surgery is very hard and very competitive, and every surgery has to planned to the smallest detail," John says, and for a second he thinks Sherlock could have done that, he has the necessary attention to detail. "But you know what, I'm good in a crisis, I'm good at evaluating and acting fast. I believe in serving your country and I think the people who do it deserve the best doctors they can get. So I joined the RAMC and my parents eventually got over the fact that I'm not who they wanted me to be."

That last one's a lie. John still gets comments from his mum about his classmates and how successful they are, how respected, what a difference sensible career choices can make. But his parents retired to Spain and comments like that are easy to ignore over international phone lines.

"Given the way you avoid talking to your mother for more than ten minutes at a time, and your body language during those calls, I doubt that's entirely true."

"Most of it is."

Sherlock turns, twisting around into John's arms. He slithers down the bed until his head is on John's chest, ear right above John's heart. John runs his fingers through Sherlock's hair, smoothing it down and off his face, and Sherlock closes his eyes. "None of that is to be used against Mycroft," Sherlock says, but it's not an order, more a reminder.

"Had figured that out for myself," John says, rearranging the pillows under his head. Then he has a frightening thought. "We're not going to Mycroft's for Christmas, are we?"

"I'd rather spend Christmas with Anderson." Sherlock gives a very eloquent shudder. John's not sure which Christmas dinner would be worse. "I'd rather travel."

"Any destinations in mind?"

"Tanzania or Norway. Haven't decided yet."

John has no idea what those two locations could have in common, or why those two countries, so he keeps his answer simple. "I'd rather have sunburn than frostbite."

"Tanzania, then."

***

As it turns out, sleeping with Sherlock doesn't make John think about him less. His mind isn't all Sherlock, all the time, but when he's not working at the clinic or following a case, it's mostly Sherlock. It's curling up against Sherlock in bed and reading over his shoulder. It's pushing Sherlock's legs off the couch so he can sit and watch telly (and Sherlock's feet inevitably returning to his lap as soon as John's comfortable). It's wondering why Sherlock was watching fingers decompose on YouTube last night and wondering why there's a beaker half-full of nail clippings on the kitchen counter.

It's not that his entire life revolves around Sherlock Holmes, but the important parts, the fun parts, the parts that make him feel almost lucky that he got shot and had to return to London, Sherlock's always a part of those. John wouldn't have it any other way.