The first time John had died for Sherlock, he hadn't even realized he was doing it.
It had all been a blur. From the moment he heard the faint ding of the laptop's GPS from the living room, the moment something clicked in his brain. He was rushing, rushing, out into a cab, down the streets, into the university.
If he's being perfectly honest, ever since, "Afghanistan or Iraq?"
So it comes as no surprise that things just sort of happen. Things have always just sort of happened to John, despite what he might otherwise have claimed. He certainly has no control over being alive - born, suddenly plucked from nothing and thrown into the chaos of the world. As for the rest of his life, well, there's no taking charge of that, either. There's school, which everyone is forced to attend. Then there are the friends who are just sort of there and a job that suddenly becomes his and a life that sort of just kind of is.
But then he chooses the army. It's a bit of control, a measure of power, as he makes this decision and commits and becomes someone who is part of something.
But then he learns that it, too, was all a lie, much like the limp he develops from a tiny piece of metal that spiraled through the air to map an ugly scar across his shoulder.
And so John Watson went back to just being. Drifting aimlessly through life, though it wasn't like floating - more like slogging, his body sinking lower, following the weight of his heart. The air always felt heavy around him, the walls too close and the ceilings too low. Not like the desert, with its vast stretches of rolling red sands offset by the stark blaze of blue above. But that was too wide, too empty, and John began to feel the same wide and empty space somewhere between his lungs. Especially at night, when he'd awaken gasping for breath and it just wouldn't come.
It's a terrible feeling, being neither Here nor There.
But John keeps a gun in his desk, just in case one day he wants to go There.
He doesn't think as much about Here, because it's just too difficult when you're so close, and yet - as the saying goes - so bloody far from it. And so, like everything else, he just sort of stumbles into it. Him. Mike, that is, while taking a walk (therapist said the fresh air would do him good. Thank God for his therapist). And then he finds himself in a familiar place, the scent of chemicals and the bright hospital lights enveloping him like home, but there's something out of place. Someone out of place.
"Afghanistan or Iraq?"
From that moment, it's a different kind of floating. This is the one where he walks on air; he feels wings that stretch behind him and buffer him up into those crystal skies - once so unattainable and great and wide, but now right under his fingertips. He finds it on the coattails of a man with a shock of dark hair and a shockingly sharp tongue and this shocking, brilliant brain. He floats along in his wake, at first, and he knows that this man - this Sherlock - is just another one of life's shocks; John is still just thrown into the mix.
Things, as it has been said, just happen to John Watson.
…That is, until he makes them happen.
His voice doesn't carry through the window, but when he squeezes the trigger - not a second thought; it had to be done; this was the right thing to do and John was going to be the one to do it - the bullet does.
When his fingers glide over the slim metal, he knows what he's doing. He's making his choice - yes, yes, always, yes. No more drifting.
The cabbie isn't the only one who dies that day. The old John, the John of happenstance, of aimlessness, of 'nothing [good] happens to me,' dies, too.
Without even the faintest hint of a goodbye, the old John, the John that John has known for his entire life, goes There. The new John, who feels his heart beating wildly in his chest and his hand hanging steady by his side, doesn't notice - because, for the first time in a long time, John is Here.
As a doctor - an army doctor - John had seen death before. Seen people marred by it; unrecognizable faces and still chests and closed eyes that would never open again.
"Lots of violent deaths?" Sherlock had asked him.
"Enough for a lifetime," John had replied.
He hadn't been lying. Most people never saw the sort of deaths John saw, let alone death at all. If they did see it, it was usually their own - the slow decay of age, stripping their faces of youth and filling their eyes with a tired sadness, until it all became too much and they were finally allowed to stop watching.
John never thinks he'll go that route. He'll be shot before then, definitely, or drowned, or something equally horrendous that just comes with the life he's chosen, now.
But he never imagined the way it would go, either - the other ways of dying that come with Sherlock. Or rather, the absence of him.
Sherlock - who's dead, thank you very much, saw him in the casket himself, touched his cold wrists - is standing in the doorway. He is dripping from head to toe, and his chest is heaving and his eyes are wide open, and he is very much alive.
John, however, has been dead for three years. From the moment he'd woken up in the hospital bed to see Mycroft - Mycroft, of all people - at the foot of his bed, he'd felt something in him sinking.
And then, pleasantries, and then, "Sherlock would have deduced why I'm here by now, were he in your place, John."
And, "…Would have?"
John remembers shapes. Just shapes; the vague outlines of two people sailing towards the ground, the hazy lift of his gun as he aimed for the one he hoped to god was Moriarty. It was, but it hadn't saved Sherlock.
Or so he'd thought, because now Sherlock is standing in his - their - living room, making a sodding mess on his - their - carpet.
When John sends his fist into Sherlock's face, he tells himself it's because he knows Sherlock won't clean the mud and water from the carpet later and John will end up doing it, and dammit he's done cleaning up his messes. It's certainly not because you fucking bastard you fucking bastard you fucking bastard you left me and I had to go back to that, except there was nothing back there; nothing ever since you took it all away.
Sherlock has the gall to look affronted, of course he does, rubbing his jaw and narrowing his eyes at John. "It was for the greater good, John. Now everyone, everywhere, is free of Moriarty forever. That's the last of him, all because you were able to keep my secret. Isn't that what you wanted?"
"No, Sherlock, all I wanted-," John begins, before he cuts himself off and drops his head. His hand comes up to pinch the bridge of his nose, and he breathes out shakily. "You didn't even tell me the secret," he says at last.
"Well, of course. That would defeat the purpose of a secret. Come, John, even you know that."
"That doesn't bloody well make it right," he sighs, as all the fight fades from his eyes. He sinks back into his chair, puts his head in his hands. His shoulders begin to shake, and for a moment Sherlock is paralyzed - is John, is he…? - until he realizes he is not crying, but laughing. John throws his head back, and, laughing, says "Come here, you. God, you're insane…"
Sherlock wants to comment that, given the current display, John has it the wrong way around, but he keeps silent. He stops in front of him, and John's hands encircle his wrists and draw him gently down into a crouch. John's eyes pass almost desperately over his features, and his hands come up to card through the wet hair plastered across his forehead. Sherlock recognizes it for what it is and sits patiently through his doctor's examination, and John relearns all that he never wanted to forget.
"God, it really is you," he breathes at last, fingers settling, impossibly delicate, upon the bruise that is blooming along Sherlock's jaw. His knuckles just brush over the purpling skin, but it's enough to make Sherlock flinch anyway. His eyes flicker in annoyance.
"And it took you punching me to realize this? Your mind really has suffered without me, John, how on earth did you survive?"
The fond light in John's eyes drains down to the grim line of his mouth. "I didn't."
Months, years. Years of anguish that didn't fade with the days, despite what everyone said. Walking around a flat where he expected certain things to happen - something blowing up, finding human bits and pieces strewn about the kitchen, even the sound of swift footsteps on the staircases - that just didn't. Seeing people going about their normal, peaceful lives and being reminded of how much He'd hated normal and peaceful, and how much John hates it now. A numbness, a bleakness that crept over everything; left grey London going dimmer than ever before, left John feeling a bit like a candle burned down to the wick. Spent. Useless. Inconsequential to the inexorable darkness.
John has been many things. Doctor, soldier, flatmate, unemployed, etc. Most recently, he was Sherlock's greatest confidant, all for taking part in the master scheme designed to eliminate the greatest of his enemies, no matter how involuntary his part might have been in that. Later, multiple times, Sherlock will insist on how necessary it was, how vital, how John being upset with him is just idiotic compared to all the people whose lives he saved, including Sherlock himself.
And though there will be concern in his eyes when he says it, he won't come to understand for a long time that John had believed he'd failed his one sacred duty in life, and been sent to hell as punishment for it. You didn't protect him, he'd been telling himself, when in fact that's what he'd been doing all along. He'd stare out at the rainy skies above, so bleak and dark and cold and so far, far away, and felt the pain of loss somewhere under his chest. You didn't protect him, and now you're paying for it, every day for the rest of eternity.
Though John is many things, a liar is not one of them.
John doesn't remember much of it, dying. Later, as he's lying in a hospital bed with IVs all up and down his arms and doctors peering around the door at him every five minutes, his visitors tell him the story.
All except for one who, curiously enough, hasn't bothered to show up yet. Bastard.
As it is, he only gets bits and pieces. People seem to tiptoe around him; the few that come in groups exchange conspiratorial glances and shut up completely whenever he asks about it. In all honesty, it's a bit maddening. He'd been in the army, for god's sake, don't they think he'll be able to take his own death?
It's Lestrade who tells him the most, reclining in the uncomfortable row of chairs by his bed.
"You're not going to like it," he says in response to John's pleas.
John huffs. "I'd really just like to be told anything. Everyone's being so hush-hush about it. Don't know why," he says, with a keen glance in the inspector's direction.
"Well, of course, that'd defeat the purpose then, wouldn't it?"
He earns a glare for his troubles, and finally, with an uneasy glance towards the door, sighs.
The first part is something John can make out in his memories, vaguely, if he thinks hard enough. The leads of their latest case, two bodies with an extra hand thrown into the mix, had taken them down to a history museum's parking garage. Things get a little fuzzy after Sherlock hijacks the car - Sherlock, that's a Jaguar, oh my god, you can't just…! - and they go flying down the overpass, on the wrong side of the road, of course.
Filling him in, Lestrade shakes his head. "Couldn't just wait two minutes for the squad to get there. He's going to be the death of me." His eyes dart quickly over to John, then back down. "Almost - was, really - the death of you."
The simple sentence sparks something in John's mind. It isn't panic, or anger, but… understanding. A coldness blooms in the pit of his stomach, and he pushes past the frost painfully as it begins to dawn on him. "He did know it wasn't… wasn't his fault?"
Lestrade just stares at him for a while, until he swallows. The words are coarser after that, gruffer. "Witness reports have both cars going over the bridge at about 11. It was another ten minutes before we saw him drag you out.
Six minutes. Six minutes is the average time John knows a human body can survive without oxygen. And if he'd been under the water, most likely unconscious from the impact for ten minutes... either Lestrade's off, or there are miracles involved.
With Sherlock, it's basically the same thing.
"We all thought it was too late," Lestrade says quietly. He's flipping his phone over and over in his hands, uneasily sliding his thumbs across the smooth surface, as if he wishes someone would call him away at any moment. His eyes, when they dart back up to meet John's expectant gaze, show the same uneasiness. "All of us, except Sherlock. Hell, we all knew it was too late. But John, he was… he was screaming for an ambulance. For medics, for anything. And he kept up with the CPR, even when we tried to get him way from you. He just dragged himself back. It's the first time - John, it was the first time I'd seen him refuse to believe the facts. God, it was horrible."
"But they weren't the facts, then, were they?" he says with a wry smile. The heart monitor beside him beats steadily in agreement, and Lestrade lets out a laugh.
"Well, yeah, apparently. We put you in the ambulance even though we knew - or thought we knew, I guess - it was a hopeless case. But somehow, some bloody miracle, you ended up like this instead of as a vegetable. God help me, I don't know how he knew or how you didn't die, but that's how it is."
John's eyebrows furrow. "That's it? That's what everyone's been afraid to tell me?" He remembers the feeling he had at the beginning, and he frowns a bit. "Why would… why would Sherlock blame himself for that?"
"Because it was my fault."
John whips around, his poor neck protesting violently - with the week it's had, it has the right to. "Ow," he mutters, but his eyes don't leave the man at the door. "What're you doing here?"
Sherlock is removing his gloves in the doorway, and peers over at John with something like offense. "Seeing you. I haven't been yet. Problem?" he inquires. He is standing strangely hesitantly, and when John waves him in, enters with an odd look of uncertainty on his face, as if he doesn't have the right to come in.
John shakes his head. "No, not at all. Just surprised. I didn't, er, think you were coming," he finishes lamely, all too aware of just how wounded that sounds. Ah, nope. Best to dwell on that when I'm not hopped up on painkillers, thanks, he tells himself, focusing his attention again on the man in front of him.
Sherlock doesn't reply, opting instead to submit John to the full examination. His eyes dart critically over his frame, deeming it satisfactory only after things have become sufficiently awkward enough for Lestrade to clear his throat.
"Case," he says, pointing to his mobile. Sherlock's eyes light up, but Lestrade quickly shakes his head. "Boring. Not your thing. We idiots can manage." Sherlock's face falls, and Lestrade uses his momentary distraction to send a quick wink in John's direction. He raises a hand in farewell, and leaves with promises to buy John a pint once he's out of the ward.
For a few moments, it's quiet. Sherlock stands uncomfortably at the foot of his bed, eyes still flitting over the man in the bed every few seconds in what can only be described as disbelief. For once he is too preoccupied to notice that John is drinking him in, too. It's been months living with him now, and even he can deduce Sherlock's lack of sleep from the faint circles under his eyes, and the more-unruly-than-usual hair and wrinkled suit bespeak of his… what? Distress? All the usual, textbook signs, and John can't bring himself to believe it. Or, maybe, wants to believe it too much.
"What's wrong, Sherlock?" he prods gently. They know each other too well for this. No dancing around the issue. Straight to the heart of the matter. It's just, the thought flies through Sherlock's mind, though John wouldn't know it, so very John.
Sherlock gives a humorless laugh. "You're in a hospital bed, asking me if anything's wrong."
"Is my being in the hospital bed what's wrong?" John asks quietly.
The heart of the matter.
Sherlock gives him a look, then stalks over to the seats just vacated by Lestrade. He sits down with none of his characteristic drama - almost gingerly, clasping his hands determinedly. John notices, with a hint of his own distress, that they're shaking.
"Sherlock," John prompts again, but before the word has even completely left his mouth Sherlock has leapt up again and is pacing about the room. "Sherlock, would you - would you just relax?" he tries again, but this only earns him another vicious round of the room - the man is giving him whiplash.
"I haven't been able to relax," he snaps. "There's no one at home to make my tea for me, and while you're here just lazing about I've had to take cases on all by myself. Not very relaxing at all. It's not as if I needed you here anyway - that notion is laughable at best - but now I'm paying for your medical bills and not getting anything out of it, either. Definitely not getting anything out of it when you're sitting in a bed, not dead. Just sitting there all happy and alive when you were dead for two minutes, legally dead, for two minutes, I counted to make sure. You're alive but you were dead and," he cuts off abruptly, shoulders heaving, and he doesn't look at John.
John isn't able to tear his eyes away. He feels his lips forming the word again, doesn't really realize until it's out of his mouth. "Sherlock," he breathes.
Unbidden, his gaze rises to lock with John's, tired and apologetic and just a bit wild. "What?" he asks. What do you want, what can I give, the question is asking. A thousand different questions at once, all begging the same answer.
"Why are you blaming yourself for this?" he whispers. "It's not your fault."
"But it is," he says quietly. "It is."
John swallows. "How?"
"I'm not an idiot, John. You know that, everybody knows that." His voice starts to shake. "I don't ask you to come with me. But you can't refuse. And I bring you into that, every day."
"But it's my choice, and -"
"No!" he says vehemently, and his face twists. "That's not it, though. You… you put too much of yourself into it, and John. John, you almost got killed for it. You did." His next breath is deep, shuddering, and John can practically hear it clawing its way up out of his throat. "You don't remember because of the impact, but I do. I… I was too bloody stupid to fasten the seatbelt. So simple, so stupid. I never though I could be so… You unbuckled yours to throw yourself in front of me." He laughs, almost dazedly. "John, the hero. Ridiculous, ridiculous John. What would the world do without you?"
He laughs again, but this one is broken, the sound of shattered glass under his teeth.
"I had to find out. It was… it was my punishment. For bringing you along, for giving you the only choice you had. For letting you save me."
John has been listening silently. It all makes sense, some part of him thinks. Why Sherlock would blame himself. To anyone else, it makes sense. But to John, it's just as ridiculous as Sherlock apparently believes him to be.
"You're right," he begins, and John can see the way Sherlock's shoulders stiffen before the fall. He hadn't expected it to come from John. Thought he deserved it, maybe, but never imagined John would be the one to say it. He hurries on - it's a look that John was never meant to see upon his face. "I never had a choice. You offered me the life I couldn't refuse, Sherlock, even if I'd tried. But d'you maybe think that, even if I had had another option, that's the one I would have taken?" Sherlock's face crinkles in consternation, but he otherwise remains still, just staring down at his shoes. "And saving you, you think that was something that just happened?"
Sherlock is still finding patterns in the floor tile, and with a sigh, John sits up and beckons the detective over. "C'mere." Reluctantly, almost against their will, his feet begin to shuffle closer to the bed, until John can wrap a hand around his wrist and pull him down to sit beside him. His fingers stay locked firmly about the detective's slender arm, and John pulls him forward until Sherlock has no choice but to meet his steady gaze.
"It was a choice," John says clearly, his tone leaving no room for disagreement.
"You don't even remember," Sherlock tries weakly, but John is already shaking his head.
"Doesn't matter. I know that, in the same situation, I'd save you. Sherlock," he says thickly, and the water building beneath his eyelids must have snuck up on him, because suddenly he's blinking away tears and trying to speak around the lump in his throat. "I'd save you, every time. I never want to find out what a world is like without you in it. I won't let that world happen. God help me, Sherlock, I'd save you every time."
The sudden pressure of those lips against his own isn't as unexpected as John imagined. Certainly not unwelcome. Muscles protesting, mind not giving a damn, he lifts a hand to lay his fingers gently across the nape of Sherlock's neck, fingers curling in the fine hair there. It's chaste, the barest, faintest brush, but John wants to drown in it. Six minutes, ten, an eternity.
"It seems we're at an impasse, then," Sherlock murmurs against his lips.
"Hmm?" Brain off. Sherlock's lips. Kissing him. Mmm. What?
Sherlock pulls back, his nose resting alongside John's. He feels the faint brush of eyelashes, wet, against his cheek. "I won't let you die for me. Not ever. Never again."
"We're just going to have to stop dying, then," he says. His face softens slightly. "We protect each other, Sherlock. That's our agreement." He pulls back, a smile suddenly taking to his lips. "Next time, I'll just force you into the bloody seatbelt."
And as Sherlock follows him, sinking them both down, down, and down again, he knows this sort of drowning is one he'd choose every time.
"Shot dead like a mongrel in the backyard. Where's your pet now, Sherlock?"
Lying on the concrete floor with blood seeping through his clothes and his chest frozen in mid-breath, his face utterly slack, John is dead. Or rather, looks dead. He's been around enough cadavers in medical school to know a real dead body from a live one, and he's seen more than enough with Sherlock to know what violent death looks like as opposed to just-slightly-sort-of-maimed, but not many other people could look at the man sprawled on the ground and realize he was just faking it.
To be fair, John is quite good. He has, after all, seen lots of bodies. Lots.
Sherlock has, too. Obviously. It's not hard for him to deduce that John isn't dead, even with blood continuing to seep through his side in a way that looks uncomfortable. The bullet was only a graze, he reminds himself, and John was smarter than he looked. Some sort of plan, then, since he wasn't rising despite his state of being very much alive and despite the warehouse's state of being very much on fire..
There's a moment where his vision narrows to where John is looking awfully dead on the floor and things go dizzy for a bit, but he blames it on the smoke.
Their murderer's taunt recalls him back. John watches from under slit eyelids as Sherlock draws himself up to meet the killer's gaze with a cold stare.
"What? You think he matters?" he responds, face turning into a hideous sneer. "An idiot, just like the rest of them. Expendable."
Their killer, a self-proclaimed genius with a penchant for necrophilia, smiled crookedly. Only Sherlock would have noticed the wobble in the hand he had clenched around his gun. "Can't fool me. I seen his blog. You're mad for each other."
Sherlock makes a sound like a snort. "Please. It was a classic case of hero-worship, nothing more."
The confusion is beginning to crease on the young man's pale face, and something like anger creeps into his wild eyes, lit by the flickering flames lapping hungrily at the walls. "I'm not a dumbass! Everyone can see it. Don't try an-"
"Everyone tends to be a measurement filled with quite a lot of stupid people. Perhaps not as smart as we think?" Sherlock queries, looking bored. John is gritting his teeth. Taunting their killer right back is not what he had in mind. This is not, he thinks decidedly, going to end well.
Either way, it needs to end soon. The crackling of the fire is all around them, and when he'd risked a peek at the ceiling, the old, rotted wood didn't look as if it would be lasting much longer.
The man, hand trembling furiously on the weapon now, stalks toward Sherlock, and John feels something in his stomach drop. He prepares to pounce, to leap up and throttle the creep, but suddenly he stops walking. John can't see it from where he is, but there's an icy smile on his face that is completely at odds with the sweat on his brow.
"You don't care at all then?"
Everything about this is screaming warning, warning, warning.
"…Not a bit."
Maybe Sherlock can't hear it over the flames.
The man smiles almost delightedly, nodding slowly. "Not a bit, eh?" He takes a few steps backwards, gun still pointed at Sherlock's chest. John shuts his eyes as the killer turns towards him fractionally. "What if I fucked him, then?"
What blood is not draining out of John's side is currently draining out of his face. Sherlock's remains remarkably impassive. Only he could have noticed that a muscle in his neck jumps once (he does). As if his pulse is throwing itself wildly against his skin.
"Men aren't your regular sort," Sherlock says slowly, as if puzzling through some sort of exciting new development.
He earns a dazzling smile. "Full o' surprises, I am," he practically purrs, and John feels the toe of one thick boot sliding along his arm. "He's an attractive one, though. Just look at those lips. Full, mmm. But they're soft," he says, voice dropping, and John hears it coming closer as their man lowers himself to his ear. A hand strokes across his skin, and he wills it to stop crawling. "But they'd feel great wrapped around my -"
"Are we done here?" Sherlock cuts in, and maybe it was just a little too sharp, because the killer chuckles, a breathy, aroused sigh of contentment. John's heard something similar before - it's the feeling of yes, I'm right, just look at how clever I am. But it sounds so different, so wrong, when it's not coming from Sherlock's mouth.
"Oh, not nearly, detective. You can watch, if you like. You've seen it all before; can't fool me. No one can," he whispers, and John feels teeth closing around the skin of his ear. It takes all his military training to remain still and keep his breathing steady. He thanks the encroaching flames for blocking out the sound of his lurching heart.
"No, I meant, John, if you're through lying on the floor, you can subdue him now."
"Right, thank God," John groans in relief as everything suddenly makes sense, and his hands come up to close around the killer's neck, knocking away his weapon in the process. He flips them over, military training once again saving the day, and pins the man beneath him in seconds, though the wound in his side throbs in protest. He's panting, sweat dripping down his forehead in rivulets now, but their psychotic murderer is now looking up at him with shocked, furious eyes, and it's all over.
Sherlock is at his side in moments, tearing off his scarf and binding the man's hands with it. He's alternating between laughing manically and shouting obscenities, eyes rolling back into his head and skin jumping. As soon as he's bound, John looks away. He doesn't want to see this… this thing, anymore.
"Are you all right?" Sherlock asks, turning to him and gripping his shoulder with both his hands, eyes roving over his form. They pause painfully over the red seeping through the cable-knit jumper, but John crooks a finger under his chin and lifts his gaze back up.
"Hey," he says gently. "I'm fine." And he is, strangely. He'd been about to be… well, he probably wouldn't feel fine about it later. No, he thinks, recalling those fingers dragging across his throat, he won't forget this. But he doesn't want to think about all the things that could have happened. Best to focus on what is. "All thanks to you."
The pain is back in Sherlock's eyes, something John hates seeing because he's the only one allowed to see it when it happens, and it's usually only because of him. He waits for Sherlock to say something, anything, but as he's opening his mouth a piece of the roof comes crashing to the floor behind them, and the conversation is temporarily discarded.
After giving their statements to the police, handing over the at-last arrested criminal, and attempting to catch a cab back home at two in the morning, they stumble into the flat, drained and dragging their feet. The silence hangs heavy between them - the entire ride home, Sherlock had sat with a stony look on his face, gazing pointedly out the window. He'd only flinched when John had put a hand across his shoulder, doing his best to subtly shrink away from it. John had removed it, awkwardly, and sat with his hands in his lap the rest of the time. For some odd reason, his heart was fluttering in his throat. It didn't stop, even now as he was turning to Sherlock in the middle of their living room.
They stare at each other a moment. The silence remains there, oppressive and thick, like a wall John just can't reach through.
"I'm off to bed," Sherlock says shortly, but John breaks through the wall by pulling Sherlock towards him, until there's nothing left to separate them. As his hands settle gently across Sherlock's waist, that tortured look creases his face again, as if the fingers are scorching his skin through the fabric.
"Sherlock," John says, tone quiet, and even as it is a question, it is an answer.
"I didn't - John, you know I didn't mean - any of them. It. Those things I said," he admits haltingly, and a shaking hand finds his face and rests there with hesitation. John leans into his touch, breathing in the scent of Sherlock's fingers. Smoke, thick and oppressive.
"Shh," he murmurs, and gathers Sherlock into himself.
The detective feels impossibly tiny, burrowing into his shoulder and inhaling deeply. "I'm sorry," he says in a small voice, muffled even more so by the thick wool. John's hand splays over the top of his spine, gripping tightly. His eyes squeeze shut, and he speaks around the building thickness in his throat.
"Nothing happened. Nothing to be sorry for."
"But I knew, I knew that if I taunted him, he'd do it, and I let him, and it was the only way but that still -"
"It was the only way," John says firmly, and he leans back to look Sherlock in his rumpled face. "How else would we have gotten out of there?"
"There are always other ways," Sherlock insists, but John cuts him off as he swallows the words with his lips.
"You're brilliant, and I trust you," John murmurs against the soft skin, dropping more chaste kisses over his face. "You led him to me, I took care of him. And we take care of each other, alright?"
Sherlock is looking at him with something John has never seen in his eyes, and he's terrified and exhilarated to name it, but he won't. Instead, he holds him tighter as Sherlock's moist breath cascades over his neck in a deep sigh. Relief, sadness, that other terrifying, exhilarating emotion.
"You have never been expendable, John Watson," he mumbles, and John leans his head on his friend's, hand coming up to caress the base of his neck. He can still smell the lingering aroma of smoke on his skin, and later he'll taste the fire on Sherlock's tongue, but they're too far from the flames by now for the warmth in John's body to be anything but the glow he feels at his words.
The last time John died for Sherlock, he hadn't even realized he was doing it.
Sherlock's got him folded up in his arms; is gathering the frail form of his doctor into himself, as they step out from the sliding door into the backyard. He kicks the door shut, and steps out into the sun.
It's fall, John notes, the cool air sliding across his skin. Seemed like summer only yesterday. But the sun is still warm on his face, as if the seasons are only just passing, spilling over into one another with a last, desperate embrace.
Sherlock's arms tighten around him fractionally as he moves into the field, picking his way around the tall grass and gnarled roots, and the occasional rock that thrusts itself under his feet. When they bought it, it was the unused pasture beyond the cottage that sold the place for John. The meadow spilled down into some woods beyond the small stream that ran to the hills on the horizon, and a stately willow in the center looked perfectly at home amongst the tall, waving grasses. John had loved London; its bustle and thrum and excitement. But he had, despite everything, missed the openness.
And when they got the test results back, John liked being able to see the sky a bit more.
Sherlock hadn't minded so much, either. Around the side of their new home he'd taken up bee-keeping, and was a careful steward to their needs. Of course, he still made the short trip back to London occasionally, when the new DI (Lestrade had retired years ago, was living out his retirement somewhere in Edinburgh) required his assistance. That was less often, now, of course. With things as they were, Sherlock didn't like being away from home. Not that he liked being home that much, either.
It was just harder to be there, now.
Sherlock stumbles a bit. The hand John has around his shoulder tightens reassuringly, but Sherlock's lips and eyebrows still fold in anxiety. "'M alright," John murmurs, head falling into the dip of his bony shoulder. I won't break, he wants to say. I'm not made of glass. But the truth of it is that he might as well be, and it is no use lying to Sherlock about it. They both won't forget the day when Sherlock had come home from one of his excursions to find John struggling not to cry at the base of the hill, hand clutching at his leg. And Sherlock can see for himself how when the light strikes his John just so, it refracts in a myriad of spiraling, soft colors that grow more dazzling with every passing day.
No, Sherlock doesn't like being away from home.
He moves more slowly now, and eventually they come to the willow. Its yellow leaves beckon them closer until they're sitting under the cave of its branches, John enfolded tightly across Sherlock's lap. Sherlock lays his head across John's, exhaling deeply. John's hand slides along his arm, soft but strong, and it is in this wordless companionship that they sit for what could be minutes or hours or years.
The bright sun feels good on John's skin. It's a nice place to be, John thinks, eyes falling closed.
"John?" Sherlock asks, voice trembling, and John notices his heart thrumming against his ears. Always knew he had a heart. I always knew.
His eyes open again; focus on Sherlock above him. He frowns. "Something wrong?"
He breathes out. "No, no, just thought…" he stops. He doesn't have to go on. John's eyes drop and his jaw clenches fractionally.
"A month. Maybe two."
It's been five.
He wants to tell him he's not going anywhere. Because he knows it's what Sherlock wants to hear. But he also knows after forty years with the man that he doesn't like being lied to. Can't, in fact, be lied to, even if he ever did want it.
So he settles for second best. "I'm right here, Sherlock."
The arms around him squeeze impossibly tighter. "I know."
The breeze sighs in agreement, and the trees whisper with it. The world, in its own conversation, fills in the blanks of theirs, until Sherlock speaks up again.
"Did I ever thank you?"
"Everything. John, you are… an extraordinary man. And I always knew I was, and that not many people could measure up. I didn't think anyone ever would. But... I fear you are more extraordinary than I."
John laughs breathlessly at this. "Why do you say that?"
"You stayed," he says simply, and John feels lips press onto the skin of his head.
"Because you're extraordinary."
"It takes a lot more to stay with me than you'd think," Sherlock admits.
John chuckles again. "I've done it for forty years, you ridiculous sod, I would know. But it really doesn't. Just - just love."
Hesitantly, Sherlock says, "Love… is extraordinary."
John hums against his chest in agreement.
John hums again.
"Are you… are you singing?"
"All you need is love. All you need is love. All you need is love, love, love. Love is all you need," John answers sleepily, and Sherlock laughs in response.
They go quiet again, the tune hanging in the air between them until Sherlock at last says, "You were all I needed. Just… just you." He pauses, begins anew. "Do you remember the day you gave me your heart? I wanted it; asked for it, but you wanted me to have it. I remember thinking how idiotic that was. Hearts like yours are so very breakable, John, don't you know? How could you give something like that to me, knowing full well how easy it would be for me to destroy it? I couldn't understand how people could just give something up; surrender it so completely. But you, John, you are extraordinary for the fact that out of the billions of people in the world, you are the only one who has made me want to understand." A smile flits across his face, and his eyes fall shut. "And you did teach me, John. Taught me what no one else could, about what it takes to handle a heart. Taught me why I wanted it in the first place, and why… why I wanted you to have mine. Your heart is beautiful, John. And you, you did what no one else could, what I thought no one would ever be able to do; gave me what I never imagined I - I deserved. You, John, you extraordinary man; you took mine and made it beautiful, too. Just because it belonged to you."
He stops abruptly with a shuddered inhale because he can continue no longer. He doesn't have to. He realizes his cheeks are wet just as he brings himself to acknowledge the fact that the body held tight in his arms is no longer breathing or moving or John.
He still cradles it to himself, head tipping back against the trunk of the great willow. He inhales deeply, and the scent of fall, with its changing leaves and darkening days, fills his lungs. He doesn't let go.
Somewhere in the depths of the universe, and somewhere in the middle of Sherlock's chest, a star goes into supernova.
John lives for Sherlock, every single day of his life.
He lives for the light of deduction in his eyes, the brief glimpses of the whirring gears and ticking machines that spin off behind those silver lenses. How his face radiates joy at the pure pleasure of thought; how sometimes, he radiates it for John in those secret smiles he's not quite sure what he's done to deserve. He lives for the brains and the cleverness that keep him on his toes, the lifestyle that keeps him firmly on the ground of reality, rather than trapped in his nightmares. He lives for Shut up, John and You're an idiot, John, and I think I…er, I sort of… maybe…have been feeling that I might… well, you and me…what are you - mpphhgg. He lives for the frighteningly large pile of fingernails on the breakfast table; even more so for the many, many Chinese places with blessedly sterile kitchens that are also blessedly, blessedly open at ungodly hours. Lives for the nights of crap telly and the mornings of shabby breakfasts spent in companionable silences and telling off the Yarders and subsequently apologizing and the thrill of the chase and the flat and London and all of it.
And these nights, when he's got those long, pale limbs wrapped around him; god yes, he lives for them, too.
"Sherlock," he breathes, lips skirting the edge of his lover's jaw, dropping down along his neck. It arches under the deep, sucking kisses he presses there, and John smiles briefly against his skin. The hand Sherlock has in his hair tightens, the other fisting the bed sheets by his side until his knuckles go white.
John's hips undulate slowly, torturously, and he knows it's driving Sherlock mad. Well, madder. A fond light grows in his eyes at the thought, even as he knows that he's going just a little mad himself. But this practiced ease; this knowledge of what works and what doesn't, the give-and-take between them - it's enough to drive anyone insane, with euphoria and happiness and maybe just a dash of vertigo. It's good, it's so much better than good, and John has never deserved something this perfectly, flawlessly good.
Sherlock is rising to meet him, just as both of his hands are scrabbling to pull John back down to take his lips. He nips sharply, breathy sigh ghosting over John's face as his tongue follows to soothe the marks left by his teeth; wet, hot trails paved into his skin. John's having none of it; dives in to bite - to capture, to own - just as hard until Sherlock is whimpering into his mouth and obscenely pliable against him. His hands stutter down John's spine, raising goosebumps under his trailing fingernails, and John shudders, the steady rhythm he's been working so hard to maintain faltering as his hips jerk involuntarily forwards. In response those long fingers settle at his waist, thumbs sweeping in patterns all across his sweating skin.
"Mmm, John, fuck me," Sherlock groans, head lolling to the side.
John laughs breathlessly. "Well, what did you think I was doing?"
That sharp gaze snaps back to his again. Sherlock's pupils are blown and his face is flushed and there's a thin sheen of sweat just under his hairline, and John'll be damned if it's not the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. Some sort of heavenly, exquisite creature under his hands, who is currently frowning up at him in his token look of exasperation.
"You know what I mean," he growls, the sound vibrating through where their chests are pressed together and sending a jolt straight to John's cock. He can't stop himself from sliding in just a little harder, deeper - hot, tight, oh god, yes - and it draws a gasp from Sherlock's throat. "Oh, yes, now you're catching on." The legs spread wide on either side of John's body come up to latch over his thighs, and his hands push John closer, pressing their skin together until there's not a breath of space between them.
His world narrows to the space they occupy in that moment; from the shared space of their home to their bed to their bodies, moving maddeningly, gloriously together. Just them, sighs and murmurs and the sounds of wet skin on skin; from Sherlock's urgent, trembling hands clawing at his back, to his own sloppier presses of his lips against the line of that ivory neck, and the way their eyes are locked desperately and unequivocally as they move faster and faster, falling farther into one another.
"John, I… I need," Sherlock pants, but John is already there, hand slipping between them and pulling deftly at Sherlock's length in rhythm, even as he feels himself getting closer. God, Sherlock was made for him, all soft flesh and tight angles - rocking forward and sinking himself deeper still, it was impossible and glorious and mad, and oh, he was not going to last.
At that moment, the hips beneath his shudder and jerk upwards, as with a strangled cry Sherlock spills over John's hand, eyes going wide and glassy, mouth open and chest heaving. The sight, like every other time before it, and like every time that will follow after it, shreds the last of his self control. Burying his face in the crook of Sherlock's neck, he strokes upwards in earnest, groaning, until the familiar pulsing in his gut gives way to the flare of white-hot intensity that leaves him blind and gasping against Sherlock's chest, his very bones leaving his body.
It's like supernovas. A star, winking out of existence, but only after the flash; the miraculous explosion - and even then, scattering it across the universe until it's all around them. Until it's all that's left.
Sherlock nudges his head upwards, and his mouth moves almost frantically across John's face. He scatters weak kisses along his forehead and eyelids and jaw, until with a sigh he steadies and finds his lips again. John moans into the wet heat of his mouth, delirious to anything except Sherlock Sherlock Sherlock. They're snogging in contentment for hours, maybe, still drunk on each other and drinking more still. Sherlock only pulls away once, hands grasping at the bedside table for something to clean them off, and John slips from his body with a huff, but in moments they're tangled together again.
Sherlock nestles his head under John's chin, and John buries his nose in the soft bed of hair there. He inhales, the scent of Sherlock all around him; filling him, flooding him.
Sherlock, filling him, flooding him.
His heart is still hammering away in his chest, and it only beats faster at the thought. He knows it's attempting to rip free from his chest and launch itself straight into Sherlock's, and it's all he can do to hold it in, hold it back, because he wants nothing more than to give it away. But more than anything, he wants him to…
"I want it."
Sherlock is pressing his lips just below his shoulder, over the drumming in his chest.
John rolls them so that Sherlock is sprawled across his torso and he can see the detective more properly. He's taken aback to see that Sherlock's eyes, when they flit up to his, are wet, even as they're silver and open.
"I've never… I've never wanted one before. Not anyone's. It's just muscle, ugly and bloody and messy. But, John… I want yours. Just yours. And I think I might want it forever." He heaves a great, shuddering sigh, but when he speaks again, it's… soft. Vulnerable. "I think I might die without it."
John is quiet for what is, in Sherlock's opinion, an unbearably long time. "You know," he finally says, shifting upwards on one elbow. "I can't live without a heart, either."
Sherlock just stares. "No, no of course not, you have mine. John, you must know that; after all, you're the only one who wants it."
John feels a thickness growing in his throat. "Everyone should want your heart, Sherlock. You might think it's ugly, but I... I think it's beautiful. And I think I might… I know I want it forever."
Sherlocks leaps up and practically attacks John, his hands clutching as if he'll never let go. At this point, he doesn't think he will, never ever ever again. "Thank you, thank you, thank you," he is murmuring, over and over again into John's mouth.
Their noses slot alongside one another, until John is looking up into Sherlock's eyes. They are great, silver galaxies, endless worlds that he has decided he's going to spend his lifetime exploring. He's already lost inside them, tumbling about in the stars. "For what?" he remembers to ask, just as he's spinning, spinning, spinning out into the great, wide, silver dark.
Sherlock smiles against his skin, wide as the universe. "Everything."
Their racing hearts fall into step, reaching for one another through bone and flesh and blood. They beat in time, and do not stop.