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The Risk of Absence

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It starts with five words.

“Ah! My favorite little family!”

Or maybe, that’s how it ends.

Angelo means well, or at least his big, bright smile claims as much, but somehow his welcome, these five words, seem to vanquish the peace that had settled upon Sherlock, John and James like a light but comfortable blanket.

Sherlock should have known it wouldn’t last. In his experience, things are rarely so easy. Especially with matters of sentiment.

They all left Bart’s in good spirits, despite – or because of – the hard truths they shared there. In the cab that took them home, James showed John the pathology book Molly had given him, and Sherlock watched them, listening absently, wondering how this – they – had become his life. It was more than he’d hoped for when he dreamed of ending his hunt and coming back to London.

It was more complications, more pain, more trauma and bad dreams than he ever imagined. But it was also better than what he imagined.

By the time they got back to Baker Street, it was close to lunch time. Quick negotiations ensued. James ran upstairs to put his book down, and when he returned they walked to Angelo’s. It was a nice autumn day, a nice stroll, and at the restaurant they were seated in their favorite spot by the window. Sherlock was quiet, as were his companions, but it was a gentle silence, peaceful. Comfortable.

In Sherlock’s life, few people have ever been comfortable with his silence. Fewer still have ever liked what he had to say. He never thought he’d find one person who would appreciate both things consistently, unwaveringly; that he found two seems almost incredible.

But then Angelo comes to welcome them, as effusive as ever. And his words detonate like a bomb in the middle of that quiet peace.

There’s no explosion to see, no blood, not even a flinch. But to Sherlock, it’s as obvious as the fact that the man seated two tables over is having multiple concurrent affairs, or that the woman across from him, one of his mistresses, knows it and doesn’t care.

It’s in the way John sits straighter, suddenly. In the light tremor in his left hand before he switches his menu to the right one and slips his left hand under the table. In the tightening at the corners of his eyes.

It’s in the way James goes completely still, as he always does whenever he tries to disappear in plain sight, eyes averted, shoulders rounded, barely even breathing.

All that because of five words.

No, not five. Just one.

Family.

Angelo called them a family.

And while it’s legally true for Sherlock and James, it doesn’t make the word any less problematic, especially after the revelations James just heard about his father. As for John, he made it clear Mary’s shadow still looms over him, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future even if that future includes Sherlock.

They all might be a family someday, but as Angelo leaves the blast zone and retreats to the kitchen, unaware of the damage he has caused, one thing is clear to Sherlock: they’re not a family yet. If they were, he’d know what to say to bring smiles back to their faces, words to their lips. But he doesn’t know, and his feeble attempts yield absentminded replies at best.

Music, he thinks, a little desperate. When they get home, he’ll play for them. Something soothing, at first. Then something a little brighter, a little more joyful. Something to raise their spirits again.

But his plan goes awry when they return to 221B. They climb the steps together, but break apart as soon as they reach the flat. James goes up to his room without a word; John picks up the suitcases he left in the sitting room earlier, retreats to the bedroom, and closes the door behind him. And Sherlock is left standing alone in the sitting room, wondering if it’s even worth picking up his violin. Wondering what he was supposed to do to stop each of them from stepping away from him. Wondering what to do now – and where to start.

At a loss as to where to go from here, he sets the kettle on. During the time it takes to boil, he tries to decide which of them he ought to talk to first. He still hasn’t figured it out when the decision is made for him and John joins him in the kitchen.

“You’re making tea?” he says with that slight tone of surprise he always adopts whenever Sherlock demonstrates that yes, he is able to boil water. Under normal circumstances, Sherlock would huff about it. But these are not normal circumstances.

It’s not every day that someone, let alone someone like John Watson, tells Sherlock he is loved. On the contrary, it’s rather unprecedented, and Sherlock finds himself quite willing to forgive that tone of surprise.

“I am making tea, yes,” he confirms. It’s obvious, but he doesn’t know what else to say other than, “Would you like some?”

He sounds very formal, and he knows why; uncharted territory, he’s not sure how else to act. A relationship is easy to dissect from the outside, but from the inside it looks fairly different.

John does want tea. Rather than going to his armchair, he sits at the kitchen table, watching silently as Sherlock pours into their good china rather than mugs. A plate of biscuits was left on the table while they were gone, but neither of them picks up one of Mrs. Hudson’s offerings. Soon, they’re sitting across from each other, and if Sherlock can’t take his eyes off John, too afraid of missing some clue, John doesn’t look up from his steaming tea.

“He’s been very quiet since the restaurant,” John says, his eyes flicking toward the door and the staircase behind it to indicate he’s talking about James. “Maybe you should talk to him.”

Again, not something Sherlock expected, although in retrospect he should have. John’s nurturing streak is as strong as the difficulties they have, both he and Sherlock, to talk about anything resembling feelings.

“I know,” Sherlock says. “I will. As soon as I figure out how to approach that conversation. If you have suggestions…”

John peeks up, shrugs a bit. “Same as before, really. Be there for him, let him know you’re listening. Whatever you’ve been doing so far seems to be working.”

The praise, if that’s what it is, comes with a faint smile that makes something inside Sherlock’s chest twist and twirl. He’s not sure it’s that easy, not with someone as complex as James is, but it’s still pleasant to hear.

Although Sherlock wonders—

“Do you mean it’s working for James, or for you?”

That came out more bluntly than he meant it. Not that he even meant to say it at all. Today has been a study in saying too much, too fast, with vastly different results. The result, now, is that John observes him for long seconds, his gaze unreadable.

“You’ve been very quiet since the restaurant, too,” Sherlock points out.

“No, I haven’t,” John starts, but interrupts himself. He looks down at what remains of his tea, takes a sip, clears his throat. “All right, maybe I have. It’s just…”

He shrugs rather than continue.

“Angelo called us a family,” Sherlock finishes for him. “He didn’t mean anything by it but it troubled you.”

A thin smile stretches John’s lips. “That transparent?”

Sherlock doesn’t bother answering, and instead offers, “I’m here. I’m listening.”

John’s eyebrows arch and he lets out a chuckle, quickly extinguished.

“Does that line really work for James?”

“His reaction was akin to yours,” Sherlock says dryly. “Although he didn’t actually laugh in my face. Still, however ridiculous it might sound coming from me, I mean it.”

“I don’t doubt that. And I appreciate the offer. But like I told you earlier, some things I just need to work through on my own.”

Sherlock nods. No rush, he said, and he meant it. John is here, now, and that’s already more than Sherlock thought he’d have when he fell asleep last night.

John clears his throat again, and adds, sounding more reticent now, “There is one thing. I hate to ask this from you—”

“Anything.”

“Right. Could we…” His eyes flit around the kitchen as though he’s looking for words.

How strange to hear him hesitate. What could be bothering him so much?

“Anything,” Sherlock says again.

Ever so slowly because he’s not sure he’s allowed, he reaches out across the table, touching John’s right hand with the lightest of fingers. John startles and looks down, but he doesn’t pull his hand away. On his third finger, his wedding ring gleams dully under the kitchen light. He switched it to his right hand when his left one was swollen after he broke his arm and hasn’t returned it to the proper finger yet. Sherlock wonders if he will.

“I’m not sure people would understand,” John starts again. The words come out slowly; they sound like they pain him. “I mean. I got married barely over two months ago. Lost Mary a month ago. If you and I… I don’t want anyone to think this was going on while I was married. I’d never have done that to Mary.” After a beat, he adds, “Or to you for that matter.”

Sherlock draws his hand back and nods, although in truth he’s not sure he understands. Who are these ‘people’ John speaks of, and why does it matter what they think? The people most likely to notice a change if there is one are Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade, maybe others at the Yard, possibly Molly. In other words, people who already thought something was going on between them before Sherlock had to go away.

“Our private life is just that,” he says. “Private. No one has to know. I’m sure James will be discreet. And it’s not as though Mycroft has any friends to share the news with.”

John’s head snaps up at that, his eyes widening. “Mycroft? You told him—”

“Of course not.” Sherlock grimaces. The mere thought of discussing his feelings with Mycroft is unpleasant to say the least. “Nor am I going to. But you know his methods. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have a report on his desk already.”

A peculiar glint takes form in John’s eyes, a mirror of the dangerous smile now drawing his lips tightly together.

“If he brings it up, let me deal with him. I’m just about done with his Big Brother act.”

“As long as I can watch,” Sherlock says, unable to suppress a grin.

John’s smile softens, the gleaming edge of steel fading away, leaving behind true amusement and warmth. It’s like the sun just burst into the flat. Sherlock basks in that quiet moment, cataloguing every crinkle at the corners of John’s eyes, hoarding it all away for those coming times in front of ‘people’ when it won’t be quite so simple to be together.

The moment ends only too soon.

“I was thinking,” John says, “I’ll sleep on the sofa from—”

“Absolutely not. Don’t even think about it.”

John’s sigh is one of exasperation. “Sherlock, can we discuss this for a second?”

Standing, Sherlock sets his empty cup in the sink. “There is nothing to discuss,” he says on his way to the sitting room.

He shrugs out of his suit jacket and leaves it on his armchair before sitting at the desk. His laptop hasn’t finished booting up yet that John comes to stand by him.

“It’s your flat,” he says. “Your bed. It made sense when I was hurt but I’m fine now.”

“It’s our flat,” Sherlock retorts. “And you sleep more than I do, so it makes sense for the person who uses the bed the most to sleep in it.”

What Sherlock really wants to say is, it will be our bed eventually, and if you sleep in it, it already is, somehow. He’s not sure it’s the right time for that however. And it’d feel crass to hint again at sharing a bed, as though he can’t wait for John to be ready.

“Sherlock…” John’s voice is quieter, all of a sudden, and Sherlock looks up to meet his eyes. “I don’t know how long… I mean, even without the whole widower issue… Are you sure you want to sleep on that sofa for God knows how long?”

“I’ll sleep on it for the rest of my life if I have to.” John’s frown calls for clarification. “I’m more interested in sharing your life than your bed.” An even deeper frown, now. Sherlock is messing things up more and more, isn’t he? “Not that I don’t want to share your bed,” he adds, coming close to tripping over his own words in his haste to get them out. He can’t seem to stop, can’t seem to chase away that frown. “Or that I’m likely to sleep here forever. If nothing else James will move out in a few years and—”

And his inane babbling thankfully comes to an end. Hard to keep talking when John’s lips are pressed against his, chaste, gentle, but unyielding. When they retreat, John’s hand remains at the back of Sherlock’s neck. Every hair at the nape of his neck and on his arms is standing up, though Sherlock himself would be hard pressed to do the same with his knees suddenly feeling like jelly.

“I thought…” He has to lick his lips before he can finish. “I thought we were taking things slow.”

John chuckles quietly. He squeezes Sherlock’s neck once before letting go. “Yeah. We are. But I don’t think you’ll have to wait for James to go to uni or something before you sleep in a proper bed again. Just thought you needed to know that.”

“That’s… good.”

The word, ill-fitting to the extreme, seems to chip away at something, and suddenly they’re both laughing, almost giggling, for no reason at all or maybe because they’ve found each other, the same way they laughed, so long ago, coming home for the first time after chasing a cab through London. Sherlock can’t remember when he last time heard John laugh. He missed it, he now realizes.

When they finally quiet down, they’re back to that peace from before the restaurant; easy companionship. Sherlock missed that, too, for three long years.

“Listen,” John says, “I’m going out for a while. If I’m staying here, I’ve got to get the rest of my clothes. And talk to my landlord, too.”

Sherlock doesn’t like the idea of letting him go alone to the home he shared with Mary and that is filled with memories of her, but John declines his offer to accompany him.

“One of those things I need to do by myself. Besides, you’ve got things to do, too.”

A meaningful look toward the ceiling makes it clear what he’s referring to. Sherlock nods and lets him go. A few minutes pass before he finally goes up to James’ room, and when he does he still has no idea what he’ll say.