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Practical Johnkeeping

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Sherlock wakes early to darkness and silence. His heart seizes in his chest and he reaches out blindly for the John-lump beneath the bedclothes. Fingertips to his feathersoft throat prove John’s still there, still breathing. A slow, steady in and out, predictable as the sun over their hives. Sherlock exhales and settles back into his nest of pillows. He rests his hand on the back of John’s neck for a full minute before he rolls over and swings his legs over the edge of the bed. He pulls out the drawer of his bedside table, pops out the false bottom, and unearths a battered little notebook.

Sherlock scratches 56 beneath today’s date. In spidery scrawl over hundreds of notebooks he keeps carefully out of sight, Sherlock has recorded John’s resting heart rate every day since John’s myocardial infarction. Just to be sure. For ten years, Sherlock has felt like his is the heart that is fragile with waiting.

He pushes the drawer back in slowly so as not to wake John, and he gets up to tend his bees by the first flush of dawn.

Sherlock is stung an average of seven times a season, always on the hands. He considers it a necessary inoculation with minimal inconvenience and no longer wears gloves at all.

Sherlock pushes his protective veil aside to meet John in the garden for tea. John wears an Aran jumper in oatmeal Sherlock got him on his seventy-eighth birthday some months ago. The colour is atrocious, but John favours it and Sherlock finds that at this late date he cannot bring himself to harass the man for his bad taste. Anyway, it hasn’t worked for the last forty years. Sherlock stoops and John stretches upward and the pass of papery lips over papery lips is rote, the motions cycled through before conscious thought encroaches upon either party.

“Good morning, love,” John says with a smile, the thin skin at the corners of his eyes bunching. Sherlock just grunts and passes a hand over the side of John’s face, thumb drawn down temple to jaw, memorising. “Lapsang today.” A favourite of Sherlock’s, and something John barely tolerates.

“Thank you, John,” Sherlock says, and his voice comes out a thick rumble from disuse. He clears his throat. John only shakes his head and sets the tray down on the wooden table. He folds into a chair with a laboured sigh, bones creaking, and reaches for the teapot with gnarled hands, but Sherlock waves him off. “Let me.”

The tea is rich and dark and smells of smokehouses, bitter and invigorating. John sips and squints into the greenery that is their acreage.

“Bit cool today,” he says. It’s a bit cool every day for John. “How are the bees?”

“Each has her own place,” Sherlock replies. As he has since they retired to Sussex. “Where are your glasses, John?”

John grimaces and sends him a dark look. “I don’t need them just round the house,” he grouses.

“I’d rather you didn’t break a hip tumbling arse over tit on something easily avoided.”

“Bloody hell, Sherlock, I’m not going to trip over anything.”

“Wouldn’t you rather see, John?”

“Leave it,” John snaps. He bangs his teacup on the table and gets to his feet with some effort.

“John, don’t—”

“I’ve got the washing to do,” John says. He fusses with the hem of the jumper. “And errands and the post and everything. And I’ll be sure to wear my damned glasses.” He picks up the tray and makes his way back to the cottage, a diminished curl in porridge-wash.

Sherlock indulges in a long sigh before stretching his legs out beside his bottle of liquid smoker and taking a long draw of the Lapsang. The breeze blows his veil back down over his face.

The British Beekeepers Association advocates natural beekeeping and so does Sherlock Holmes, though the latter denies all accusations of affiliation with the former.

“New neighbours,” John says when he comes in with two bags of shopping. Sherlock has changed out of his white protective gear and he lounges in the kitchen reading the Britannica online. “They breed bulldogs.”

“Beastly things,” Sherlock sniffs. “Hideous and rank.” He gets up to help John put some of the nonperishables in the higher cupboards. John has been shrinking for the better part of fifteen years, but Sherlock takes care not to mention it. Sherlock himself has lost some height, but he tells himself it’s merely a matter of posture and time of day.

“Sweet tempered and loyal,” John corrects him. “What do you think of us getting one?”

“Preposterous,” Sherlock says, but John, close against his body now, peers up at him with his I never ask you for anything, Sherlock eyes, his let me have this one thing protruding lip. Sherlock’s breath collapses into a huff. “Oh, John.”

“Don’t you think it might be nice, a pet around the place?”

“We have the bees.”

“I mean something that can interact with you, something that’s always happy to see you.”

I’m always happy to see you.”

John barks out a laugh. “Oh come off it, Sherlock. Half the time you don’t even pay me any mind.” Sherlock opens his mouth to protest, but John barrels through. “You wouldn’t even have to do anything; I’d train it and clean up after it and see its needs tended. You’d hardly know it was here.” Dark blue eyes, clouded with age, are optimistic but cautious, as if Sherlock makes a habit of batting down John’s hopes. Sherlock doesn’t think he does that.

“I’d know,” Sherlock says snidely. Of course he’d know — there the wretch would be, in John’s weary lap, taking all his heat and praise and friendly caresses, making John smell of dog, leaving vindictive little messes in the corner if left alone with Sherlock, sleeping on Sherlock’s side of the bed. Sherlock is a bee person.

“Please, love. It’d— it’d be good for me.” And with that John cinches it; he knows Sherlock’s read the studies on elderly health and the benefit of pets. He’d left those in his browsing history on purpose, just so Sherlock would look. God, Sherlock thought, he’s probably been planning this for years. New neighbours indeed.

“Bloody — fine,” Sherlock says. “But we’re building a fence around the apiary.”

John hugs him tight round the middle, grinding their bones together.

Sherlock once attempted to smoke tobacco from a pipe citing the calming effect smoke has on bees. John snapped his pipe in two and flushed his bag of tobacco down the toilet.

It’s a round, clumsy pup born in the autumn, lashed with a rather unappealing brindle pattern and peering outward with eyes like a Catholic martyr, but John can’t keep it until it’s eight weeks old. The breeder is indeed the new neighbour, and she’s a thick-set woman just past her prime and most likely to be called “handsome” by the very generous. Her hair is overlong, a rusty once-ginger, and John looks at her as if smitten, even when her arms aren’t overflowing with pathetically mewling puppies. Sherlock lurks in the garden or on the stairs when she visits for tea, or to talk training, or any number of fabricated reasons to call in on Sherlock’s husband before the animal even takes up residence in their cottage. John always kisses her on the right cheek when she leaves, and she titters like the girl she must have been forty years ago, in a time when John would turn that star-lit gaze on Sherlock alone.

It’s when John tries to fetch a jar of Sherlock’s honey from the pantry in order to gift it to the harpy that Sherlock rushes out and smacks it from his hands as if it’s on fire.

“Jesus, Sherlock, what are you on about!” John pushes at Sherlock’s shoulders, scowling so hard he looks like one of the ill-gotten pups from that harridan’s barn. Laboriously he bends to pluck the jar from where it thudded into the hardwood. “I was going to give that to Vivian.”

“No, you weren’t. That one’s from the raspberry batch; she can’t have it.”

John straightens to his full height and he tilts his head up to meet Sherlock’s eyes. His mouth has gone flat and bloodless, puckered at the corners. A muscle in his jaw ticks.

“And why the hell can’t she have some raspberry honey?” That’s something Sherlock’s not heard in years — John’s command voice, threatening and low.

“It’s just for us,” Sherlock says. It’s John’s favorite, and Sherlock can usually entice him to chase it tongue first into Sherlock’s own mouth.

“And the orange blossom?”

“Promised to Mrs. Whitfield.”

“Plain clover then.”

“I put arsenic in the lot of it.”

John slams the jar on the counter with a loud smack and he’s gone, honey in hand, before Sherlock even realises the whole exchange took him by surprise and his heart is racing.

He peers into the other room from the kitchen. The virago’s eyes dart to catch his just as she’s thanking John with a kiss.

Honey contains trace amounts of botulism, and for this reason it is not to be fed to human infants. Sherlock is not sure about dogs.

It gets dark so early this time of year. And gloomy.

Sherlock shucks his dressing down and slides under the sheets, but John doesn’t spare him a glance as he changes into his usual sleepwear: his pants and a worn cotton t-shirt.

“I could read us something,” Sherlock says. It used to be a ritual of theirs, John’s head on Sherlock’s chest, their legs tangled together. John would stroke his hand over the skin of Sherlock’s belly, his sides, and Sherlock would read. They’ve not indulged in some time. A year or more. “Here. Mark Twain.”

But John’s eyes are flinty and flat. Empty of light. “Are you going to explain your abominable behaviour to me?”

Sherlock swallows and shakes his head.

“Fine.” John turns over and reaches to flick his light off. “Good night.”

Sherlock stares at the curved line of John’s back. He reaches his hand out, but stops short of the swell of John’s hip beneath the blanket.

A bee colony consists overwhelmingly of females. It is the most significant female society Sherlock has ever been able to tolerate.

 

John names the stout little thing Gladstone and dotes on it terribly. He coos at it and buys it little toys that squeak underfoot. He gives it special meals and lets it lick his face. He cuddles it all night after it’s rendered incapable of reproduction. He doesn’t bother trying to get Sherlock to pet it or act as if he likes it, and it’s not long before short jaunts round the property become long walks round the whole of the neighbourhood, leaving Sherlock alone with his bees for much of each morning, which he resents though he can pinpoint no real reason for it.

Gladstone is best described as husky and John’s arthritis is something he must force himself to overcome every day, especially when it’s damp, so their walks are leisurely and Sherlock finds he has entirely too much time without John’s teas or the sandwiches he brings him or some remark about something he’d seen on the telly earlier. It’s a cold winter now and Sherlock’s hives are drowsy things anyway. He wonders if John is wearing enough layers. Sometimes it’s best for him to wear a thermal shirt under a regular shirt, and then a cardigan, and then a jumper before he puts on coat, gloves, scarf and definitely hat because his ears are very sensitive and just slightly overlarge and Sherlock worries about frostbite.

He’s in his own coat and out the door before he can properly hang up his bee gear.

He finds John ambling down the path from the breeder’s house, Gladstone pulling against the lead. Coat open, hat off, cheeks flushed — he’s been inside, long enough to warm up and relax and exchange illuminating conversation with that wench. When John raises his head and catches sight of him, Sherlock’s heart leaps to see the smile that splits John’s face. No guilt then, no reason for the doubt that flickered when Sherlock saw the plumped quality of John’s thin lips. Tea, perhaps, or he’d been chewing them again, a habit he’d broken years ago.

“Sherlock!” John calls. “Join us on our walk?” Seeing John’s breath in the air comforts the deepest core of him. A few long-legged strides and he’s in front of John, pulling his coat closed, zipping and buttoning him with gloved fingers.

“Catch your death,” he murmurs, but he presses his lips into John’s and pushes his mouth open, where it’s hot and wet. John grunts and when he pulls back, his grin is wide and his hair is mussed. Sherlock smoothes it down, then fishes in John’s pocket for the woolly hat bundled inside. He pulls it over John’s pate and makes sure it covers his ears.

“Hey,” John says softly, and they’re chest to chest. Sherlock’s mouth tips in a lopsided smile.

“Are you cold, John?” Sherlock asks. He cranes his neck down a bit to put the tip of his nose against the tip of John’s. His own is colder.

“I’m fine,” John says, elongating the operative word in placation. “The cold’s refreshing, and it’s good for my knees to exercise.”

There’s a shuffle at their feet and then Gladstone plants himself on Sherlock’s shoes. All the way down, fully outstretched as if in flight, sodden nose snuffling up Sherlock’s pant leg and letting in icy blasts of winter air. Sherlock glowers, and John laughs.

“We’ll get the two of you on speaking terms yet, love.”

“Hmph.”

John’s gloved hand slips into Sherlock’s and they let Gladstone lead them home.

If a queen cannot perform, the worker bees will kill her and raise another.

Sex with John now that they’re in their dotage is a slow, comfortable burn. Sherlock likes to take his time committing John to memory — each new wrinkle, each new discolouration, is something for Sherlock to examine and catalogue and press sucking kisses into. In turn John whispers devotional nonsense and holds Sherlock close, and they breathe in each other’s air and company and it’s good. The late morning sun throws long shafts of light onto their bed, and John is a resplendent thing to study, no matter how long Sherlock’s been at it. He has never been able to name the precise colour of John’s eyes.

There is semen on the sheets (John’s) and semen between John’s thighs (Sherlock’s), and it can’t be comfortable but John makes no effort to move. He’s gone fuzzy-eyed and slack, and at some point when they’ll both regret their languor, but for now John simply lies there half dozing while Sherlock trails dry fingertips over John’s brow, his nose, the swell of his lips, his throat and collarbone, each soft nipple, the gentle convexity of John’s soft belly, his damp, spent penis. John’s “at play” heart rate is as high as a hundred beats per minute, and there’s a different notebook for that.

“Been a while since we’ve done that,” John murmurs. Sherlock grunts out an agreement. “Wondered if you’d gone off me.” At this Sherlock tenses. He props himself up by his elbows and scowls at his bedmate, who looks more and more like a sultana every day, now that he thinks about it.

Me, gone off you ? I’m not the one gallivanting all around with some… shrew who peddles puppies.”

“I’m old enough to be her father,” John says with a giggle, reaching over to flick one of Sherlock’s ears, but Sherlock bats his hand away.

“It’s indecent!”

John’s expression shutters and he shifts away from Sherlock. Sherlock feels a chill where his skin is no longer touching John’s.

“What is wrong with you, Sherlock? We’ve had a lovely morning and now you come over like I’m some kind of cheating cad. And with Vivian of all people, are you mad?”

“I look at the evidence John — you know that.”

John utters an inarticulate noise most often used to indicate disgust and disgruntlement. He rolls over and away to sit up on his side of the bed, back to Sherlock. That back is stooped, the skin loose and mottled with age spots. The scar on his shoulder is a livid starburst. It’s a greedy thing, sucking up all of John’s colours with each year that ticks past. John grows steadily whiter as his war wound shines bright as a summer apple.

“And pray tell, what ‘evidence’ have you concocted for this one?”

A 40% decrease in smiles sent Sherlock’s way. Friendly touches, once bestowed on Sherlock, now gifted to dogs and dog breeders. Kisses to cheeks. Long walks, a misnomer if he only goes to the house down the way and takes tea. No more chocolate digestives in the parlour. A dearth of sex, even of simply being close — classic symptoms of comfort gleaned from elsewhere. John’s increased irritation with him, seemingly constant.

In four decades, John has left him twice. Once in the early days before Sherlock was capable of compromise and negotiation and expression of his regard. And another time ten years ago, on the floor at Baker Street as Sherlock cradled his head in his lap, waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

This knot clogging his throat, that’s not real, empirical evidence. It’s not something he can shove under John’s nose and say “you see?” But it, more than plumped lips and long-suffering sighs, is the most compelling insight into John’s actions and intentions that Sherlock has. He is familiar with it from before, and he hates it bitterly.

“There, see?” John says. “You don’t even have anything to say, gaping at me like a fish.” John gets up and wraps himself in his heavy winter dressing gown, once-white. “You are a seventy-five year old child, Sherlock, I swear. And until you can get hold of yourself, I’ll be in the guest room.”

When John opens the door, Gladstone is just outside, tongue lolling, tail slapping against the floor. John bends to pick him up even though he shouldn’t, even though Gladstone’s not a puppy anymore, not really, and the door closes behind him.

Male bees are called drones and exist only to mate with the queen. When the drones are no longer needed, they are forced from the hive and torn limb from limb.

Even though it’s January, brood production has begun, but Sherlock is distracted. He has a hard time keeping tabs on John’s heart rate when he sleeps away from him, and John didn’t take it well when he sneaked into the second bedroom before dawn their first night apart. It’s been three days and those blanks in his notebook fill him with a churning, nauseating anxiety. Likewise, John hasn’t spoken to him, even at meals and tea, and the silence is desolate. Even John’s mongrel companion is suspiciously quiet when John and Sherlock are in the same room, John pointedly not looking at Sherlock, Sherlock staring after him blatantly. He doesn’t know how to tell John to dump the dog and never see the breeder again in a way that would endear himself to John. Save me from social niceties, he thinks.

So he’s out in the bee yard contemplating the tedium of a domestic dilemma instead of thinking about bees, and that’s his first mistake. His second is to jump when Gladstone barks at him, suddenly on his hind legs at the fence and bursting with more energy than Sherlock thought a bulldog could muster. His third is to wheel back around without proper awareness of his own limbs and knock a hive to the ground with his elbow.

Despite the cold, the bees aren’t sluggish, and there are thousands of them, tens of thousands, tens upon tens of thousands, and he can’t see through the swarm to find his liquid smoker. His hands are on fire, stuck with stingers and pumped full of venom and it’s not stopping, they’re not letting up. Sherlock knows he can’t outrun them, knows his body isn’t what it once was, knows his hands are raw, pulped meat even now and Gladstone is barking barking barking and Sherlock can’t even think through the swarm and the noise and the rising panic that radiates outward from the burn in his hands and—

“Sherlock! Sherlock!” It’s John’s voice, and John’s quick thinking in an emergency, and John’s will to overcome the limits of his aged body, and then Sherlock hears a hollowed blasting sound — the fire extinguisher — and there is blessed, blessed relief. “Hurry now, back into the house,” John says, and takes him by the sleeve to drag him back at a pace quicker than Sherlock thought either of them capable.

Sherlock’s breathing is heavy and laboured when John pushes him down on the sofa and tears off his hat and veil, but there’s no anaphylactic shock, despite how many stings he sustained. John pries open his mouth and angles a lamp to peer into his throat, but it’s not closing — he doesn’t need a trip to A&E. John draws back and lifts Sherlock’s hands up to the light, inspecting them with a pinched mouth. At least a hundred stingers decorate them up to the wrist.

“John,” Sherlock rasps, but that’s all he can say about anything. The shape of the name in his mouth is enough.

“I’m getting my glasses. I’ll be right back. Don’t you dare pick at any of them.” Sherlock knows that, of course. If he removes any with a direct upward slide, part of the stinger will become embedded in the flesh and continue to pump venom into his body. Sherlock doesn’t bother telling John that any beekeeper with half a brain knows that, or that none of his fingers are up for the challenge even if he were that profoundly stupid. There is a warm shuffling beside him, and he finds Gladstone plastered to his side, nuzzling and making tiny sounds at him. He sets his elbow carefully on the broad bony head, and the doleful brown eyes flutter shut in contentment.

John comes back, bespectacled and brandishing a metal ruler, and sits beside Sherlock on the sofa. He takes Sherlock’s wrists in his hands, and he begins to scrape each stinger out by pushing the flat of the ruler sideways along the skin and forcing the stingers out with a hard, decisive flick. The pain is dull and throbbing, but Sherlock can smell John, can make out the quality of each hair in his eyebrows, can count the freckles that splash over his big nose. Sherlock can’t tear his gaze away.

Removal takes over an hour. When it’s finished, John seems to sag. He takes his glasses off and rubs at his eyes. Then, so gently, he takes Sherlock’s sore, hot hands, and presses his own face into the palms. With his thumbs Sherlock strokes at John’s temples.

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock says, and the words scrape at his throat like ashes.

“I love you,” John says back, voice pitched low. Sherlock’s heart thumps hard against his ribs. Neither of them is casual with those words; they are not to be bandied about like worthless coins, or used as tools for manipulation. They are not light words. Sherlock swallows, and maybe he needs a shot of epinephrin after all, because his throat does feel a bit tight. John lifts his head but keeps hold of Sherlock’s hands. He meets Sherlock’s gaze steadily. “You drive me completely barmy, and you’re self-absorbed and irrational and I have never met someone so bloody-minded and rude and terrifying and my God Sherlock, I can’t believe it’s forty years on and we’re still negotiating like this.”

“I’m sorry.” He doesn’t know what else to say, and John just shakes his head.

“I’m not,” he says. “I am mad for you, exactly as you are. Always have been, always will be.”

Sherlock leans forward to rest his forehead against John’s. He can feel John’s eyelashes on his own. Their noses touch.

“Are you going to give the Vivian thing a rest?” John asks. “She’s married, you know. To a woman.”

How had Sherlock missed it? “Damn!” he growls. John only laughs at him, and the little trills travel up Sherlock’s spine to light him from the inside and ease the ache in his chest.

“Listen to me, listen.” John says. “I’ll say this once: You are the chosen partner of my life, Sherlock Holmes. When I met you, you ruined me for all other people, man and woman. I have spent more than half my life chasing after you, and I don’t intend to stop until I’m good and dead. I love you. From the core of my being to the ends of the earth, I love you.”

“Alright,” Sherlock says. John kisses him and Sherlock deepens it. He arranges his arms around John’s shoulders, careful of his hands. John strips him of his white bee gear and the clothes he wears underneath. He buries his face in Sherlock’s belly — a bit of a paunchy little thing these days, and he wonders if he should take up sit-ups — and breathes him deep. Coaxes his cock up and out and treats it with reverent playfulness. When Sherlock finally comes in John’s mouth, his hands are tangled in thinning hair and he tells John he loves him, loves him, loves him too.

Sherlock predicts nectar flow the same way he deduces a murder, but he harvests the honey like John coddles the dog.

Sherlock wakes up with a gasp, checks John’s pulse. John shifts against him and Sherlock relaxes, buries his face in tarnished hair. A wet panting comes from below, and there is a paw nudging his foot. Gladstone’s eyes gleam in the darkness.

“I hate you, you know,” Sherlock says.