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Seventeen Letters

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John loves Sherlock.

It's the kind of realisation best suited to sleepless nights. It should happen while lying in bed at four a.m., listening to the relative quiet of London waiting for the lively morning rush. Or, as occasionally happens in John's life, lying there and breathing in time with the soft sighs of a violin.

That's when it should happen.

That's not when John figures it out.

***

John finds out by accident, at two forty-three on a cool Wednesday afternoon. He realises it because he's muttering under his breath as he types in various passwords. At first, he thinks his computer's playing up. Lack of proof doesn't stop him from blaming Sherlock -- must have accidentally damaged it last time he kidnapped John's laptop. It's enough justification to swipe Sherlock's computer.

John pays the phone bill, checks his current account and when he opens his email, he finds a message from Sherlock. The subject line is "Computer password" and the message reads:

4 words. 17 letters. UPPER CASE-lower-lower-UPPER.
I'm sure you'll figure it out.
SH

At first, it seems like one of those stupid, annoying things Sherlock does from time to time. Sherlock amusing himself by being the bloody great wanker he really is. But it's been an hour and John's tried everything he can think of: his name, Harry's name, their parents, their pets, the streets they grew up on. All the things he's previously used as passwords, mixed in with street numbers and dates of birth, but nothing works.

"Prat. Wanker. Stupid interfering sod," John mutters, bashing keys at random, which isn't as satisfying as it should be. He pulls Sherlock's dictionary from the shelf and starts searching for inspiration. Not that a dictionary is going to give much insight into the raving lunatic he lives with, but it's worth a try. "Pillock. Bastard. Cock."

John knows Sherlock can't hear him, but Sherlock is very good at viewing a scene and inferring what happened. John hopes Sherlock infers every single insult he mutters at the ugly wallpaper of their messy sitting room.

"You can keep your hands off my fucking computer if you're going to do this. Next time you touch it I will shoot you right between the eyes, Sherlock. You can just piss off. You're a rubbish flatmate, absolute rubbish. What sort of prick resets someone else's password as a game? You're lucky I love you because otherwise, I'd be walking out of here so bloody fast. Or taking your laptop and throwing it out the window, see how you like that. It's really what you deserve, Sherlock. Your laptop smashed to a million pieces, and then your phone, and then possibly you."

John has a righteous head of anger going so it takes a few moments before he stops and hears what he said. Well, his brain doesn't so much stop as slam on the brakes, drop down a few gears and do a screeching u-turn suited to a seventies cop show. When it gets back to its destination, John thinks…

"Huh."

In hindsight, it's one of those things that's so outrageously obvious he can't even be surprised. He lives with Sherlock and on any given day he usually eats at least one meal with Sherlock and somehow manages to spend hours around him without strangling him. John risks life and limb to follow Sherlock into god-knows-where. He puts up with a mad flatmate, who plays his violin in the wee hours of the morning and hijacks John's laptop whenever he feels like it, who raids the boxes at the top of John's cupboard and steals the strangest things for the sitting room, like his RAMC mug or the old blanket he bought for cold Afghan nights. It's not unusual to see Sherlock lying on the couch, his fingers wrapped around John's mug with his bare feet poking out from John's blanket.

And every time John sees him like that, it makes John smile and offer to make a fresh cup of tea. Sometimes, John even tugs the blanket down to cover Sherlock's long toes.

"I love Sherlock," John says out loud, testing how the words feel in his mouth. It doesn't change anything. Sherlock's still the pillock who fiddled with his computer password.

John needs a plan.

***

By the time Sherlock comes home, John's prepared. It might look like he's sitting on the armchair, flicking through the paper, idle and carefree, but he has this sorted.

Sherlock arrives in a flurry of motion. The door swings open, he twists and turns, unravelling his scarf and spinning out of his coat, hooking both behind the door. "It was the assistant," he says over his shoulder, tugging the perfect line of his suit jacket. "She read the hate mail and decided it was a good cover. The break-in was only meant to be a burglary but the boss came back to the office late, a little drunk and theft turned to murder."

"She confessed?" John asks, looking up. He doesn't have to fake the interest; Sherlock's cases are always interesting.

"We found the missing items in the locker at her gym."

"Well done," John says, and turns to the next page.

Sherlock doesn't seem to know what to say to that. He stands there for a moment, paces to the window and back, then says, "And how was your day?" He says it like someone repeating a phrase in a foreign language. He clearly thinks it's something he should ask, something other people ask, something John expects him to ask, even if it serves no practical purpose.

Watching Sherlock attempt to navigate apparently confusing social standards is always fascinating, and a little hilarious. It's like watching a newborn colt take its first steps: so awkward and ungainly that you want to snigger, even though it's trying its best.

John raises an eyebrow in challenge. "You tell me."

"Your shoes are dry, so you haven't stepped outside today."

"I could have changed my shoes."

"The laces are loose but the knot's tight. You tied them earlier this morning. You've walked around in them, enough for the knot to tighten. You haven't changed your shoes in hours," Sherlock explains. "You're reading the paper, not looking at the classifieds, so that suggests a good mood, a successful day. An effort that you feel warrants a reward, in this case, time to sit around and read the paper cover to cover. There are crumbs on your shirtsleeves, Hobnobs if I'm not mistaken. You probably visited Mrs Hudson in the afternoon because there aren't any plates in the sink, and you rarely wash up during the day. She likes having afternoon tea with biscuits."

"Anything else?"

Sherlock looks around the room, slowly, carefully. "You've taped the phone bill to the mirror, so you probably paid your share this morning." Sherlock stands there, waiting. He has the air of a student who's just completed an exam and is waiting for his grade.

"All correct," John allows, and goes back to the paper. He keeps flicking through it as Sherlock paces, walks out to his room and back in. Sherlock finally settles on the couch, throwing his feet over one end, then shifting to sit up straight again. He's always a little restless after a case, happiest when he's out of the flat, walking John to this month's favourite restaurant. Personally, John likes the Chinese place down the road and Anthony's because they both have good food at reasonable prices. Whereas Sherlock changes culinary tastes every few weeks. This month it's Korean, last month it was Ethiopian, and Spanish the month before that.

It's only a matter of time before Sherlock reaches over to the coffee table for John's laptop and pulls it closer. Turns it on.

"Want a cup of tea?" John asks, setting the paper down and standing up. He waits for the sound of typing on the keyboard, wandering casually to the foot of the couch. When the chime sounds as Windows opens, John lunges across the couch, tackling Sherlock against the cushions.

If he'd wondered about Sherlock's opinion of things (which John hadn't. For the record, he's pretty sure that rampant blanket-stealing has to be a sign of more than friendship), Sherlock's instinctive reaction makes him certain. Sherlock's hands are braced against John's shoulders. His fingers aren't digging in to hurt, his palms aren't pushing John away. Rather Sherlock's fingers are curled over the joint of John's shoulders, bracing him, slowing his sudden momentum so he doesn't go headlong over the couch (with or without Sherlock in tow). His instinctive, unthinking reaction is to protect John and that says a lot.

"Is this for changing your password?" Sherlock asks, and he doesn't sound put out at all. "There's no practical way to guard your laptop against me."

John grins and shakes his head. "Stay there." John pushes himself up, shifts and turns until he's mostly sitting upright. Sherlock does as he's told and stays lying on his back, but John doesn't miss the fast as lightning flick of his eyes to John's mouth, or the way Sherlock stays on the couch, but twists his hips away from John.

"What are you doing?" Sherlock asks curiously, folding his hands behind his head.

"Discovering my new password."

"You haven't worked it out by now?"

"Not all of us are sneaky masterminds," John says, reaching down for the two items taped to the underside of the coffee table. "Some of us are just sneaky."

From beneath the table, he fishes out talcum powder (his) and a wide make-up brush (Mrs Hudson's). Sherlock curls around to watch him carefully brush the powder across the recently-cleaned keyboard, searching for the marks made by Sherlock's fingers. There's an S, L, H, C, K, so one of the words must be 'Sherlock'. An I and an A but John's not sure what that means. N and G, and when he sees the U, he groans. "Sherlock is a genius? You changed my password to 'Sherlock is a genius'?"

"Sherlock," Sherlock says with a level of emphasis that's bordering on camp as he throws his arms wide, "is a genius."

"I got close, you know. 'Sherlock is a wanker'. Right number of letters and everything."

Sherlock sniffs in disapproval. "Not as accurate."

"That's debateable," John says, rubbing a few fingers against his temple. "Definitely up for interpretation."

"I didn't mean to inconvenience you," Sherlock says, like that makes up for it. "I apologise for overestimating your intelligence."

"You really are a smug git," John says but the words lose something when they sound so damn fond. He can't help it, he thinks, he loves Sherlock. He pulls the laptop closer, and hunches to hide it from Sherlock's view. "Close your eyes."

"You're going to change the password?" Sherlock sighs, insufferable as ever. "You do know I'll crack it before you go to bed tonight?"

"Close your eyes." He has to stare Sherlock down, but eventually Sherlock does. John settles his fingers on the keyboard and then adds, "And cover your ears. Listening to me type it is cheating."

"Do you want me to hum as well? Just to be certain?"

"Yes, please," John replies, and Sherlock actually does. He hums the William Tell Overture but he's lying on the couch, palms flat against his ears, eyes closed and humming because John told him to. John thinks that he should have prepared better. He should have had his phone on hand just so he could record this (and post it on YouTube the next time Sherlock got really annoying).

But that wasn't necessary for the plan. The plan, right now, involves John logging in and changing his password to three simple words, seventeen small letters: johnLOVESsherlock. Then he logs off the computer.

He leans over and taps Sherlock on one exposed, pale wrist. Sherlock stops humming and lowers his hands. "Do I get a clue?"

"Seventeen letters. Lower, upper, lower," John says, standing up. "Do you want to go out for dinner? That can always wait."

Sherlock grins, bouncing off the sofa. "There's a Korean place on Kingly St that I want to try."

***

They have dinner, they stroll back home and then John reads the rest of the paper while Sherlock coaxes wistful sounds from his violin. Sherlock plays facing the window, his back to the room, his shirtsleeves folded up to his elbows. Sometimes he watches the street and sometimes he closes his eyes, but his fingers are always certain and effortless on the strings and his shoulders are straight. Years of practice show in the way he can hold his wrist at that strained angle for hours.

John goes to bed with Sherlock still playing. Maybe he should have known better, maybe he should have anticipated that Sherlock wouldn't leave a mystery alone. Either way, it feels like he's only slept for twenty minutes when Sherlock storms into his room, turning the light on without even knocking first.

He stands beside John's bed, bare forearms folded across his chest. "My password was true."

"For a given value of true." John scrubs a hand across his face, but it doesn't make him feel much better. He squints against the light. "It's the middle of the night, Sherlock."

"There are a lot of other five letter verbs you could have used."

"It's still the middle of the night," John says, hiding his face in his hands. "And what do you mean, your password was true? So was mine."

"Oh," Sherlock says, and then, "In that case, go back to sleep."

At least he turns the light off on his way out.

***

In the morning, John's password doesn't work. Again.

He double-checks the capslock key is off, but that's not it.

Sherlock's out at St Bart's, something to do with knees. (John didn't really want to ask.) John considers calling up Sherlock to abuse him, and then tries a password on a whim. Silly, really. It's not like he expects it to work, he tells himself as he types the letters in.

It works. John grins as the computer starts up.

Sherlock loves John.