And I knew the beat because it matched your own beat,
I still remember it from our chest to chest and feet to feet.
A pulse, your pulse; it's the only thing I can remember.
I break, you don't; I was always set to self-destruct, though.
Snow Patrol - If There's a Rocket Tie Me To It
Life is always tales of lost and living,
I could almost hear the breath that you were almost giving,
I could hear the silence in the way that you were talking,
I could leave the signs and sirens if I could ignore them.
Kaiser Chiefs – Things Change
It feels like open-heart surgery. Like someone's sliced through his sternum and the relatively thin breastbone there, inserted a sternal retractor and slowly applied pressure. It feels like his chest has been forced open, like there's too much space in his ribcage, nothing around his lungs, his heart beating in a vacuum.
It feels wrong and terrible. It hurts. That's how Sherlock feels as he presses one palm over the other and pushes against John's chest for a count of five, as he leans over John's tilted head and slack mouth and tries to force air in. As he waits for distant sirens to get closer.
The open-heart surgery metaphor fits, Sherlock thinks. It's accurate and feels impossibly, painfully true.
Then there are flashing lights and paramedics, and someone else making John breathe. John wheezes in one dreadful, winded gasp and Sherlock stops worrying about metaphors.
After the enforced hospital stay for observation -- although Sherlock watches them and they hardly observe anything -- after John's released and back home at Baker St, Sherlock still feels it. Down the centre of his chest there's an ache like a healing wound. A physical awareness of a body he usually ignores as much as he can.
It's psychosomatic, nothing more interesting than that.
He visits Mycroft. John had a private room at the hospital but the bills never arrived at Baker St. If the bills had come, John would have wanted to pay them. John makes arrangements and tries to be reliable and responsible even when he doesn't have the funds to spare. John didn't request the private room, wouldn't have even if he had the funds, but if the bills had come, he would have worried.
Sherlock wouldn't have; Mycroft takes care of these things, in one way or another. Sherlock had expected a quiet room to sit in while John slept and he'd known Mycroft would make sure they weren't surrounded by other people with their illnesses and complaints. He'd expected it like he'd expected a bill in the post, Mycroft's usual method of trying to force Sherlock to be thankful for his crumbs of generosity.
This time, nothing came. This time, Mycroft wasn't using it for petty point-scoring.
So Sherlock breaks the habit of nearly six years, and visits Mycroft's office. Sherlock doesn't go in through the front doors. He sneaks in through the fire doors, hiding in plain sight amongst corridors of civil servants, and picks the lock of Mycroft's office. It's an easy lock to pick, work of a moment, so Sherlock doesn't even bother looking through Mycroft's desk. If he had anything worth hiding, the lock wouldn't be so uncomplicated.
Mycroft's office, much like the study he had when they were children, is all dark wood, deep reds and mustards. It's the scale of it, not the warm colours, that makes the room serious and intimidating. When Mycroft walks in to find Sherlock sprawling across one of the chairs, he doesn't seem surprised. He simply closes the door behind him and makes his way to the desk.
For a moment, they look at each other. Sherlock notes the mustard-coloured tie: a conservative colour but bolder than Mycroft's usual tastes. It's a tell, a sign that whatever this morning's meeting was about, it was something Mycroft considered unnecessary and foolish, something he only attended because he must.
There's a smudge of dark ink on the heel of Mycroft's right hand. The pattern of the smudge betrays the cause: an agreement signed with a fountain pen. The ink in most other pens can be dated so most likely there's a false date under the signature. Or maybe there isn't a date at all.
Sherlock doesn't know what Mycroft observes from Sherlock's appearance. He doesn't try to evaluate himself through Mycroft's sharp eyes, but Mycroft nods and says calmly, "You're welcome."
Quite unexpectedly, Sherlock remembers being nine years old. He remembers attempting to climb from the third floor with a rope made of sheets. He'd read about it, decided it must be a great idea, although he'd gravely miscalculated the lengths of his sheets compared to the height of the building.
It's the sensory details he remembers: the warm sunlight on his back, the dusty grey stones in front of him, his fingers clenching tightly to the sheets. He hadn't considered that he could fall, that it would hurt, that there would be consequences -- not until he was stuck. Not until he'd found himself hanging onto the last sheet, still so far from the ground, and too terrified to move or call out.
He remembers Mycroft as he was then: sixteen, double-chinned and overweight; tall, reliable and patient with Sherlock's never-ending questions. He'd been the one to see Sherlock, to fetch the gardener's ladder for him and climb up when Sherlock was still too scared to loosen his precarious hold and stretch for footing. He'd guided Sherlock down to the top rung, helped Sherlock to the ground, and then put away the ladder. He never reported the incident to any of the adults.
Sherlock remembers being nine, when he had faith that Mycroft knew the answer to every question. Now, Sherlock doesn't need faith. He knows Mycroft knows virtually all, and what knowledge he doesn't possess can be obtained swiftly. He knows Mycroft has an answer for every situation and yet…
He also knows Mycroft's answers don't work for Sherlock. For all their similarities, they have grown into very different people.
So Sherlock doesn't ask. He doesn't mention the ache or the invisible stitches holding his chest together. But when Mycroft looks up, he frowns. "Was there anything else?"
"Of course not," Sherlock says, standing as if he doesn't feel a thing.
John is resilient. While Sherlock's still feeling an ache that doesn't exist, a phantom pain of something that never happened (if he'd had the actual surgery he would have recovered by now), John's back to toast in the mornings, working occasional shifts in the surgery and watching bad telly at night.
"I don't see the point," Sherlock says and John ignores him completely until the commercials are on.
He looks at Sherlock and then at the TV, and seems confused. "What don't you understand?"
"It's supposed to be about the crime, and they've spent the last five minutes on the most superficial of romances."
"Some people have chemistry. Viewers like to see it." John shrugs as if it's a general point and not a personal opinion at all. "It makes the characters seem more real and more interesting."
"They should be interested in the murder."
"There's more to life than murders," John says, laughing but not unkindly. His eyes crinkle and his smile shows his left incisor is slightly twisted. "For most people."
Sherlock shrugs. He doesn't see the point.
"We'll find something more procedural next time," John says as the show starts again. John goes back to watching the show, but Sherlock doesn't.
He sits on the sofa next to John, he lets his eyes track the movement on the screen, but he's not thinking of onscreen interview rooms (too dark, too moodily lit; Lestrade would never allow it) or office flirtations in a corridor. No, Sherlock's thinking of the pool.
He remembers the weight of the gun in his hand, not uncomfortably heavy but not familiar, not natural to him. He remembers looking at John, John's one blink of approval, the way John squared his shoulders and looked Sherlock boldly in the eye, made it clear that whatever happened next, they were in this together.
Sherlock doesn't remember firing. He remembers a flash of light, heat. He remembers the sudden weight of John barrelling into him, forcing them both beneath the water. There is one single snapshot second where he remembers blinking underwater, the explosion sounding eerily distant, the light refracting through the moving surface. He remembers thinking that if he had to, he could hold his breath longer. Then there was darkness above them, no flickering firelight, no reason to stay submerged.
So he surfaced. But John didn't. Sherlock had to find John beneath the water, had to pull him onto wet tiles covered with plaster dust.
And here John is, sitting on the sofa with colour back in his cheeks, a confused frown on his face as he tries to follow the plot of what passes for entertainment. He's eating salt and vinegar crisps from a no-name packet and it crinkles whenever he pulls out another handful. He frowns, he eats, he breathes, the same as he always has.
But Sherlock still feels like he was sliced open, hollowed out and sewn up empty. He feels like something was removed, like something important is missing. It's only in his own mind -- John's still here, everything is just as it was, nothing has changed other than Sherlock.
John does his share to contribute to the household budget and Sherlock says that he's taking on cases. It's a lie. He could answer the emails on his site, pick up some easy money that way, but every time he looks at it, there are traces of Moriarty hiding amongst the code. In hindsight, he can see the messages, the hints, the taunts. He can see his own misjudgement.
He can't look at his forum without seeing all those comments so close to his own, those comments so close to John's.
It's not that Moriarty himself is any threat now (dead men are no danger to anyone) but the idea of answering some new anonymous email, the idea of miscalculating again, misreading the danger... It makes his hand freeze, makes his chest feel pried open and exposed.
It makes Sherlock dismantle his own site, page by page. He deletes, he destroys. Any action he can take to hide its very existence, Sherlock does. If someone wanted to find him, if they looked hard enough online, they could find residues of his presence but he won't make it straightforward. He won't stand there and shout his brilliance to give them an easy target.
Not while he can still remember the smell of chlorine on John's skin. The dead weight as Sherlock pulled John's unconscious body from the water. Not while he finds himself crossing his arms to hide a pain no-one else can even see.
Sherlock always thought that if he stopped working cases, the boredom would kill him. It doesn't.
He's still bored, and the boredom is tedious and mind-numbing and enough to make Sherlock wonder why humanity bothered with conscious thought when there was so little worth thinking about, but it doesn't kill him. He doesn't even shoot the wall.
It's a matter of perspective, Sherlock thinks on his third day of wearing pyjamas beneath his dressing gown. He knows there are sensations far worse than boredom. He knows that boredom, like that dull pain stuck firmly in his sternum, is simply one of the mind's small betrayals. It's not permanent and it won't last and it means nothing. If he waits, he will eventually outlive it.
John's working the late afternoon shift -- the surgery's open late on most nights, but Thursday is the busiest and seems to have become one of John's regular shifts -- but before he leaves, he perches on the side of the sofa, and says, "Do you want to talk, Sherlock?"
Sherlock thinks about the alternatives. "Sign language is annoying," he says because he doesn't like having to focus on his gestures when he speaks, "and telepathy isn't really an option."
"No, not--" John says, and stops himself. He frowns in a complicated way: eyes concerned and mouth amused, forehead crinkled in thought. Sherlock doesn't know how to parse that, or the hand John places on Sherlock's knee. "I mean, do you want to talk about anything? Is there something you want to discuss?"
Sometimes, Sherlock wishes people would simply say what they mean. Not mean one thing and feel another and say something else. Usually, he can read enough of John to understand the context (John isn't deceitful but he's private; he's honest when he's not being polite) but Sherlock doesn't feel like guessing right now.
"No," Sherlock says. If he had to guess, he'd think it was the pool and Moriarty, and maybe this is John's way of bringing it up. Maybe John wants to say something, but if so, he needs to say it. Sherlock doesn't want to open the topic; he thinks about it enough without hearing John speak about it.
John stands up, giving Sherlock's knee two light pats. "If you want to talk, you know I'll be here, right?"
"You live here. Of course you'll be here."
John frowns with his forehead and smiles with his mouth, and softly shakes his head. "Yeah, sure," he says, and then, "We're out of milk. I'll pick some up on the way home."
Lestrade doesn't visit for weeks after the incident. Sherlock's not surprised. He knows Lestrade only uses his advice as a last resort. He'd rather spend weeks with his slow-thinking team than ask for Sherlock's help. Sherlock used to think it was a waste of time (why attempt those cases when Sherlock could solve them easier, faster, better than any of the team?) but he's been glad for the reprieve.
Lestrade comes, lights flashing, but Sherlock's already read about the crime in the papers. He's expecting Lestrade's visit. He's dressed and reading the paper, but out of courtesy, he drops it to the table and stands when Lestrade clatters up the stairs.
Lestrade tries to tell him about the crime, about the actions they've taken, but Sherlock cuts him off. "I don't care."
"You've never cared," Lestrade says, blinking. Then he shakes his head, and trudges onwards. "I'm not asking you to care. I'm asking you to look at the crime scene photos and solve it."
Sherlock collapses back into the red armchair, ignores the aches his body keeps pretending to feel, and stretches his arms up. He doesn't need the distraction of a violin bow, doesn't need the props he'd use against Mycroft. "Let me rephrase. I'm not interested," Sherlock says clearly.
"A woman dies from strangulation, no fingerprints, no DNA. Two months later, her younger sister's killed the same way," Lestrade says, factual and uninvolved. Sherlock’s a little amused that he can see John’s absence in Lestrade’s choice of approach. If John were here, Lestrade would mention that there's a third sister, a possible third victim. If John were here, he'd play on sympathy for the family until John made the decision for both of them and agreed. Instead, Lestrade is trying to appeal to Sherlock’s curiousity "Strangulation is an up-close and personal crime, Sherlock, and there was no personal evidence left on the scene. How do you get that close to someone without leaving a fingerprint, a hair, something?"
Sherlock shrugs. "I'm not interested."
"Is it only fun if there's a countdown, now?" Lestrade asks, and then winces. Sherlock knows Lestrade considers himself a good man, takes pride in being decent and reasonable. He tries to hold himself to a slightly higher standard than the rest of his team. He's rarely so directly insulting to Sherlock. "Sorry, didn't mean that."
"You're tired, you've spent the last two nights in your office," Sherlock says, because he can read the bruised shadows beneath Lestrade's eyes as clearly as the wrinkles on his slept-in trousers and the store-folded creases on his new shirt, "and you're frustrated that I can't help."
"That you won't," Lestrade corrects, scratching the back of his head. "You haven't even looked--"
"I won't help," Sherlock says, and doesn't say anything more until Lestrade finally stops glaring at him and leaves.
Sherlock reads every book he can get his hands on. When he can be bothered to leave the flat, he wanders around the streets of London. He dodges the roadworks in Marylebone village, or circles Regent's Park, or strides along the dreary endless grey of Euston Road. The weather gets warmer -- too warm to justify wearing a coat and scarf. Sherlock misses the extra layers and in rebellion, he keeps his shirts buttoned up. The ache doesn't fade. It doesn't subside just because he knows there's nothing wrong, but he gets used to it all the same. It becomes easier to ignore.
He only really notices it when he's playing the violin. He wants to slouch, wants to drop his wrist and hold the neck of the violin in a way that's wrong, wrong, wrong. It's unforgivable to play the violin incorrectly to appease a pain that doesn't exist, so Sherlock plays a little less. Thinks twice before he picks up the bow. It's strange to find his oldest form of escapism, the least harmful of all his retreats from the world, suddenly so powerless. He used to be able to play and think of nothing but the music: the notes on the page, the strings under his fingers, the sounds vibrating through the air. Now when he picks it up, it reminds him that there's still a part of him pretending to be broken.
Walking around London with his arms crossed against the breeze or twisted up on the couch beside John, knees under his chin and watching something utterly mindless, he almost doesn't notice the pain. He's nearly convinced himself that he'll forget it entirely, forget it's even there, until John says lightly over breakfast, "I talked to Mrs Hudson yesterday."
Sherlock says, "And?" as he keeps reading the paper.
"She said given everything that's happened recently, it's fine that we're behind on the rent." John's watching him, hands steady around his mug. He blows steam from the surface of the black tea -- no milk, one sugar, strong how John likes it in the mornings -- but his eyes don't leave Sherlock's. He's calm and contained, considerate in a way that makes Sherlock feel like a patient (or an unfamiliar combat zone). "I thought you said you had it covered."
"I do." Sherlock shrugs. Sighs in annoyance. "It'll be fine."
"Because you said you'd been taking on cases."
"I'm capable of remembering what I said."
"But your website's gone," John says carefully, and he glances down at the paper. It's the least interesting kind of murder story -- murderer brought to justice by the police, confession and arrest all complete -- and there's no picture of Lestrade, but John's thought patterns are obvious. "And Lestrade called and mentioned you weren't taking on any cases for the Met either."
"Don't worry about the rent. It's an annoying thing to worry about. If it comes to it, I'll ask Mycroft for a loan." The idea of taking Mycroft's charity doesn't sting the way it once did. It's probably the best alternative he has.
"You should let me look at that," John says, which makes no sense to Sherlock until John reaches across the table and puts his hand over Sherlock's chest, pinning Sherlock's left hand there.
Sherlock looks down. He'd been rubbing the palm of his hand against the centre of his chest, pressing hard as if dispelling a bruise rather than a figment of his imagination.
"You've been doing that a bit lately." John sounds concerned and coolly professional at the same time.
Sherlock's torn between pride in John's observational skills and disappointment in his own. He doesn't even know when that gesture became habitual. "It's nothing," he says, and John raises an eyebrow.
John drinks his tea. He doesn't argue the point, not directly. "The EMTs checked you out, right?"
"Without an x-ray, ultrasound or some other internal scan, you're not going to see anything they didn't."
John nods reasonably, as if Sherlock hadn't been trying to score a verbal point. It's hard to be defensive when John sits there, chewing toast.
Sherlock sighs and gives up. "It's psychosomatic," he says irritably. He waits for John to ask questions, to probe and ask why, and suggest horrible, ridiculous solutions like counselling and psychiatry, but the corner of John's mouth quirks up. "What?"
"Nothing," John says, failing to hide his smirk.
"You're getting psychosomatic chest pains," John says with amusement. Before Sherlock can defend himself or attack in return, John adds, "And I've got a psychosomatic limp. We're a right pair."
John's smile is infectious. Sherlock finds himself mirroring it, saying, "It could be worse," because he knows John's sense of humour. He knows John likes the absurd and inappropriate, and letting John know about this is fine if it makes John snigger. "At least we know they're not real."
John laughs. He doesn't bother hiding it behind his mug. "But it does seem to be contagious."
Sherlock expects John to ask eventually, to be bothersome and try to fix Sherlock. At the very least, he expects John to complain about Sherlock's lack of work. But John doesn't. John acts as if Sherlock's fine, as if lying around the flat reading for twenty hours straight is perfectly normal. As if spending his day walking until he's staring at the old weapons displays at the Wallace Collection is a justifiable use of Sherlock's time.
John works shifts at the surgery and makes small talk about his day, complains about chip-and-PIN machines and disagreeable patients. He updates his blog -- it's far less interesting without entire posts of Sherlock's exploits, but he still receives a steady stream of comments -- and watches telly and makes breakfast. John's life keeps plodding along, and it makes Sherlock marvel. John Watson, survivor extraordinaire. John Watson, who can shrug off semtex and snipers, who can wash away near-death experiences with his first shower at home. John Watson, who seems to be coping much better than Sherlock can.
That's the heart of it. Sherlock had always assumed he could withstand anything. Almost anything. Certainly anything that didn't kill him.
And this didn't kill him. This was four stitches for a cut on his forehead, a few bruises and scrapes. He's had far worse injuries but this is the first time he can't stand up and shake it off. He's never baulked at repeating his own mistakes before, never shied away from the threat of pain, but the idea of taking on a new case horrifies him. No, worse, it scares him. Even when it has nothing to do with murders and bombs, even when it's simply a security leak in one of fourteen possible MI5 offices, Sherlock can't stomach the idea of agreeing.
He tries to hide it. Tells Mycroft, "I don't see any reason why I should do your most boring work for you," and lounges back in the armchair as nonchalantly as he can. Usually, he'd pick up his violin and bow to distract from the conversation, but Mycroft would notice his slouch, he's sure of it.
Mycroft turns the handle of his umbrella, his entire expression impassively bored. "There's no need to be difficult."
"Why don't you do it? I'm sure your diet would appreciate the extra 'legwork'," Sherlock says, although Mycroft's diet has clearly been working. He's lost three and a half pounds since Sherlock last saw him.
"And I'm sure your bank balance would appreciate actual employment," Mycroft replies, mouth tightening in annoyance. Sherlock's ability to annoy Mycroft within five sentences is one of the few truly reliable certainties in the world. It's warmly reassuring. "Besides, if I looked into this there might be an impression of distrust."
"Because you don't trust them?"
"I trust them enough." Mycroft pauses. The silver point of the umbrella twists against the rug. "I'd like to know that trust is warranted."
"Get someone else to do it."
"Sherlock, be sensible." Mycroft rolls his eyes as if this is an immature fit of pique on Sherlock's part. As if Sherlock is refusing out of spite, when he really feels as if his chest is about to split apart. "This is a mutually beneficial--"
"I don't want to," Sherlock says. He clenches his hands into fists on his lap to stop himself from reaching up and rubbing something that can't be fixed. He stares at his fisted hands, demotes Mycroft to his peripheral vision. "Give the job to someone else."
Mycroft stares at him, goes so calm and still that Sherlock knows he's given himself away. But he can't take the case, he can't, and if this is the only way for Mycroft to see that… Well, so be it.
"Your rent is late."
Sherlock knows Mycroft as well as Mycroft knows him. Beneath the cold, factual statement -- unsurprising because he'd already assumed Mycroft was monitoring his bank balance -- there's brotherly concern. All Sherlock has to do is ask.
"Then perhaps you would lend me some money," Sherlock says, and it's still harder than he'd expected to swallow his pride. It feels too much like admitting that Mycroft's years of concern might have had solid foundations. "Only on a temporary basis, of course."
"No," Mycroft says, reaching into his pocket for a cheque book. In this day of cards and electronic funds, it seems antiquated to carry a personal cheque book, but Mycroft always has. "Consider it a prepayment for future services. This time, I'll use other subcontractors."
Mycroft stands up and hands Sherlock a folded cheque. It's for a reasonable amount of money -- only a thousand pounds -- and they make their farewells as civilly as they've ever managed. Then Mycroft walks steadily down the stairs and Sherlock hears the front door open and close.
But Sherlock knows his brother too well. When Sherlock eases their door open to eavesdrop, he hears Mycroft quietly double back to Mrs Hudson's door. Sherlock pulls a mirror out of his pocket, uses the reflection to watch Mycroft write out another cheque and fold it inside a sheet of paper. Mycroft writes a quick note on that and slips it under Mrs Hudson's door. Sherlock doesn't need to see the note to know what it will say, just as he doesn't need to see the cheque to know it will be for far more than the outstanding rent. It's enough to know that Mycroft did it and that if Sherlock ever mentioned it, Mycroft would deny all knowledge.
When he tells John about Mycroft's help, John's face twists in a half grimace. "I know. According to Mrs Hudson, we're now six weeks ahead. I'm not sure how I feel about owing your brother that much money," John says, clearly thinking of his reluctant relationship with his own sibling.
"Would you prefer owing Mrs Hudson or Mycroft?"
"Well, we see Mrs Hudson nearly every day, so that's uncomfortable." John shrugs, picking tins of beans and spaghetti from the table and lining them neatly in the kitchen cupboard. "On the other hand, you threw his missile plans into a pool. I hope he's not holding a grudge about that."
"Owing a few thousand pounds hardly compares to destroying classified information," Sherlock replies. "And if it makes you feel better, I'm sure Mycroft will find a way to write it off as a business expense."
Without the cases, Sherlock expects to spend less time with John. It's only logical. There'll be no running through dark alleys, no wrestling suspects to the ground, no saving innocent lives; there'll be no danger or sudden adrenalin. The things that appealed to both of them, the things that started their friendship, have disappeared. John has work to do at the surgery and has friends other than Sherlock, so it makes sense that John will find other ways to pass his time.
John doesn't. He works and he watches bad telly. He sits on the couch and reads the paper. He spends hours sitting at the table, updating his blog, playing idiotic Facebook games or checking eBay auctions for boring, practical items.
Sometimes, he'll simply use his laptop to play card games, but he's there. When Sherlock looks up from a book, John's sitting close by or making a cup of tea. He doesn't disappear with the cases.
Eventually, Sherlock's curiosity gets the better of him. They're walking along the South Bank, after John declared the day too nice to waste indoors. Sherlock can feel sunshine on his face, and he keeps catching snatches of other languages as tourists walk past. It's a Wednesday afternoon, so of course there are more tourists than locals looking out across the muddy, olive-brown water. "Why haven't you asked me?" Sherlock asks, interrupting the easy silence.
John's eyebrows rise in friendly interest.
"You haven't brought it up. Why haven't you asked for more detail about the chest pains or the lack of work?"
John nods distractedly, humming as he looks out at the water. It's a small, careless sound that says he's thinking the question over. "Do you want me to? Did you want to talk about it?"
"No," Sherlock says quickly, "and that wasn't my question. I want to know why you haven't." Sherlock’s thought about this but he can’t work it out. It’s a puzzle he can’t solve. Sherlock usually hates asking for explanations but John is an exception. Sometimes, John’s answers are as interesting as the questions themselves.
John doesn't stop walking, but his pace slows. His gait changes slightly, favouring his left leg, but its doubtful John even notices. "When I was injured, everybody wanted to talk. Doctors, nurses, counsellors. Administration staff filling in paperwork. Then a therapist when I got back to London. None of it helped."
Sherlock steps around a pair of German tourists taking photos of St Paul’s across the river. "So you didn't ask because you don't think talking about it solves the problem."
"I didn't ask because I hated talking about it. I'm not a genius," John says, and Sherlock smiles because John isn't a genius but he's brilliant nonetheless, "but I'm a doctor. I know it's not real."
They fall into silence after that. Well, not silence. Sherlock can hear their footsteps and the brush of clothing as they move beneath the chatter of others, the noise of traffic on the bridge overhead, the sound of wind catching at leaves and the flags for the National Theatre. Sherlock watches the people around them, especially the pickpocket walking towards them. She's around twenty, but short and slim enough to be mistaken for even younger, and wearing a loose cardigan jacket with large pockets. She wears a pair of headphones over her shoulder-length, medium-brown hair and her fringe gets caught by the breeze as she smiles, nodding her head to music that probably isn't playing. She seems like any other university student, except every so often, her right hand flashes out and retrieves a wallet, and slides it into her pocket.
Sherlock doesn't mention it to John. He doesn't know what John would say -- might suggest police and Sherlock doesn't want that -- so instead he watches her. He watches her technique, the movement of her hand and her steady strides. When she passes him, he mimics the movements and fishes a soft leather wallet from her pocket.
Sherlock pauses, pretends to pick it up off the ground while John takes an extra step before stopping and walking back.
"Hey," Sherlock calls out, and she turns despite the headphones. He holds the wallet up between two fingers. "You dropped this."
Sherlock throws it over to her and she catches it with one hand, frowning at him. "Thanks," she says, still unsure what happened.
John gives him a funny look -- a little disbelieving, although he couldn't possibly know -- as they start walking again. He takes a breath, and then says, "Did I ever tell you about getting shot?"
It should be a rhetorical question. John rarely talks about the injury, not since their very first case. "Wounded in the shoulder, no physical damage to your leg."
John nods. He watches his feet as he walks, as if he's trying to navigate uneven ground. Moments like this, it's so easy to imagine John in uniform, in combat. It's the contained, confident way he walks, looking for danger, ready to react. Sherlock's never thought a military career was any more interesting or worthy than any other, but sometimes he wishes he'd known John when he was serving. He wonders if their friendship would have worked then, if he'd even notice John or if John would simply be one more unseen face in the rank. John knows how to be overlooked in a crowd, knows how to fit in with the masses. It's only on his own that you can see how extraordinary he is.
"We were ambushed," John says. He's calm, certain, as if it's an easy thing to talk about. Given the way he habitually avoids the topic, it's clearly not, but Sherlock wouldn't be able to tell that from his tone. "I wasn't the only one shot."
Sherlock isn't sure what he's supposed to say. But John usually doesn't mind that Sherlock says the wrong things because he doesn't know, or particularly care, what the right things are. "What difference does that make?"
"When I was shot, I remember looking down. My leg was covered in blood." John's stance straightens, his shoulders going back, his posture too correct to be anything other than military.
"It wasn't yours," Sherlock says, thinking that someone else was shot and John was covered in blood. "But at the time, you thought it was."
"I thought I was going to bleed to death out there." John's voice is low and calm, but John can sound calm while strapped to explosives. "I was sure of it. Later I found out it wasn't true but part of me still believed."
"Psychosomatic trauma has links to the subconscious, of course. The most basic understanding--"
"Sherlock," John says softly and Sherlock stops. Stops talking, stops walking, stops and tries to work out why John's telling him this. "I was there, okay? I was there. I remember Moriarty threatened to burn the heart out of you. The chest pains aren't a coincidence."
For a moment, just a moment, Sherlock can't breathe. He can't force his lungs to work -- his chest feels too tight, too much pressure all around him. Then he swallows and reminds himself that it isn't real. It's a trick of the mind, nothing more. Reality is the pavement under his feet, the wind against his face, the sounds of London and people. His chest isn't injured in any way; he can't actually smell chlorine.
"As I said," Sherlock says, and his voice doesn't waver, doesn't plead, doesn't betray a thing -- living with John has taught him some skills, "trauma usually has a subconscious connection. It's a well accepted tenet of treatment."
John doesn't say anything else.
Lestrade visits again. Sherlock recognises the charcoal grey car as it parks across the street. He watches Lestrade take the ignition key out and then lean across the passenger side. There are manila folders spread haphazardly on the seat, three or four of them, most likely case files although Sherlock can't be sure from this distance. Lestrade moves them, pauses with his hand over the closed files and then gets out of the car without them.
It tells Sherlock all he needs to know. Lestrade clearly has a case, either with multiple attacks or links to previous crimes, and he's brought the case files. He wants Sherlock's expertise, but if he thought he'd get it, he would have brought the case files upstairs. He's left them in the car because he doesn't believe Sherlock will help. But he'll still ask, because Lestrade is thorough and methodical; he believes in following police procedure (as much as he can while working with Sherlock) even when the actions are by rote and won't solve the crime.
Sherlock steps away from the window, and makes sure he's lying on the couch with an open book in his hands by the time Lestrade starts walking up their stairs. "I won't help," Sherlock says as Lestrade takes his first step on to the landing.
"You know," Lestrade says, stepping inside undeterred, "most people start a conversation with hello."
"Hello," Sherlock repeats dutifully. "I still won't help."
Lestrade shrugs one shoulder, keeps his hands loosely in his pockets. His shirt is ironed; there are no extra creases in his trousers. He hasn't spent the night at the Yard. His shoes were polished two days ago and he's clean-shaven, except for a spot under the left side of his jaw. His mirror at home must be awkwardly placed or the bathroom's too small; when he shaves at home there is always that small patch of skin, a triangular shape four millimetres wide at the base, the distance between one slide of the blade and the next.
These are all signs that prove that whatever Lestrade's working on now isn't urgent, it isn't keeping him up at nights. Lestrade never comes to Sherlock first; he always waits, works night and day, runs himself ragged, and asks Sherlock when he can't find another solution. He's not at that stage yet, so this isn't about a case.
He might have stopped by to see John -- that's a possibility. But, no, Lestrade doesn't glance past Sherlock, doesn't look around the room, doesn't sneak a glance towards the stairway leading up to John's door. Lestrade watches Sherlock and takes a few steps closer, rests his arm on the back of John's armchair.
Sherlock doesn't want to ask why Lestrade's here -- he doesn't like asking obvious questions -- so he turns back to his book. Flips a page.
Lestrade clears his throat. Sherlock doesn't look up.
"You're doing okay?"
"You came here to ask me that?" Sherlock snaps, before he thinks better of it.
He glares at Lestrade until Lestrade shrugs and says, "Not really. I came to see if you were bored enough to start working on cases again."
"You're supposedly a detective," Sherlock says, gesturing at the piles of books around him. The bookshelves are empty. As he reads, he's sorting the books into piles: those he wants to read again, those that might be useful, those he wants to prove wrong. "What do you think?"
"That's a no, then." Lestrade doesn't sit down. Sherlock doesn't ask him to. "Just thought I'd stop by. See how you were getting on."
It's a transparent excuse. Almost word-for-word what Lestrade used to say, back when Sherlock's addictions were more illegal in nature. Lestrade just 'thought he'd say hi', he was 'just dropping by' to see how Sherlock was. A series of polite social fictions to pretend he wasn't here to try to enforce good health and rational, conformist decisions.
Sherlock glares. "Clearly, I'm fine."
"Good," Lestrade says, nodding. "Well, Anderson doesn't miss you at crime scenes, but the rest of us do."
Sherlock doubts that very much. Lestrade appreciates Sherlock's presence because Sherlock can solve a case, the rest of the Yarders allow it because Lestrade insists. Secretly, Sherlock also suspects Lestrade likes him because he can call Anderson an idiot, can voice the insults that would dull the sparkling future of Lestrade's career. Not that Lestrade will ever admit that. "I'm sure you'll manage without me."
"It'll give us a chance to use all those years of police training," Lestrade says drily.
Sherlock turns back to his book, and keeps reading until Lestrade leaves.
As soon as he hears the front door close, Sherlock springs off the couch and watches from the window. Lestrade walks to the passenger side first, checks on the files -- sloppy to leave them there, where anyone with the slightest ability to pick a lock could take them -- and then lifts them out. Sherlock doesn't understand why until John walks into view (Lestrade must have seen him coming along the pavement). They talk and John tilts his head slightly to the side, nods gently -- all body language signals to show he's listening and interested -- and then Lestrade hands the files to John.
It's ridiculous, Sherlock thinks, falling back into the couch in a messy sprawl. As if Lestrade could replace his skills with John's! As if John's skill sets, interesting as they are, could replace Sherlock's deductions. Sherlock rolls on his side, curls into a tight ball. It's insulting that Lestrade doesn't recognise that the only other mind capable of Sherlock's deductions is currently busy running the country. Lestrade can't simply hand the files over to John and expect the same results. He can't sit back and expect John to leap across roofs alone and face down killers and, and--
Sherlock can't finish that thought. Can't think past the familiar pressure in his chest, the sudden awareness that it hurts. He hates this. Hates feeling like a body on an autopsy table, like he's been cut open and exposed, a simple Y cut down his chest and spilling out his insides. But he knows that he can breathe through it -- slow breath in, slower breath out. It will pass and if it doesn't, then he can ignore it. He can do that.
So he breathes carefully, until he hears the thunk of the door close (caught in the wind) and John's steady steps on the stairs.
"What did Lestrade want?" Sherlock asks, but he doesn't turn around, doesn't look, doesn't want John to see. He's rather let John think this was a fit of bad temper.
"Gave me a few old case files," John says easily, walking through the kitchen. There's a rustle of thin cardboard as he puts them down. "In case you got bored." Then John adds, "Want a cuppa?" as if the files aren't at all important to him.
The case files get moved from the kitchen table. The next morning, they're standing on the bench, propped up between a test tube rack and Sherlock's favourite microscope.
Sherlock's a little curious about which cold cases Lestrade would choose to distract him, but he doesn't actually open them. He doesn't touch them. He thinks about it and that's as far as he gets. It's only crime scene photos and witness statements. It wouldn't require leaving the flat or visiting crime scenes. He wouldn't have to deal with simpering victims or unrepentant murderers and looking at ancient cases wouldn't involve anything specifically dangerous, but…
He doesn't reach for them. He should; his bank balance keeps steadily declining. He should force himself to open the pages, to ease his way back into what he once enjoyed. He doesn't want to. He's sure he could. If he focused hard enough he could ignore any phantom aches, he's sure he'd grow accustomed to it. It can't be too hard.
(He wants to say it can't be too hard because John does it, but John somehow manages to take these things in stride. John faces it all with stoic determination beneath a mask of friendliness.)
Sherlock could find a consulting job. Something not related to crime. Something hatefully, mind-destroyingly dull. He probably should. Instead, he texts Mycroft. Says:
Your prepayment might have been a bad investment.
Mycroft calls him all of ten minutes later and Sherlock hits ignore. He doesn't want to justify himself, he doesn't want to ask outright, and if Mycroft offers him sympathy (Mycroft, of all people!) Sherlock thinks he might scream. Mycroft calls back, of course; Mycroft is nothing if not doggedly patient. But for each of the five times he calls that night, Sherlock presses ignore every time.
It's not a surprise to find a hand addressed envelope in their post the next morning with a cheque and a note in Mycroft's crisp, restrained handwriting.
I seldom make bad investments.
John doesn't suggest he gets a job. He doesn't suggest that Sherlock take on cases. He doesn't mention the case files or even move them to a more obvious position. He doesn't say anything about it, but Sherlock notices that John starts spending a little more time looking at the real estate section of the newspaper. Between bouts of Solitaire and FreeCell, John looks up real estate sites. It's easy enough to guess John's computer password (Clara96 -- sister's ex-wife and year of marriage) and confirm John's been looking at one bedroom flats in London's northern suburbs. There's no-one else in the flat, so Sherlock gives in to the urge to bury his head in his hands, to fold in on himself and pretend he's perfectly capable of handling this.
"Do you think I should be working on Lestrade's cases?" Sherlock asks, and then wonders if he should have started with the obvious. If he should have said, 'Mycroft will keep lending me money. There's no danger I won't be able to make the rent.'
"If you want," John says and shrugs as if he's not bothered either way.
"If you think I should be working you could at least say so, John."
"I just said it was up to you. Whatever you want to do is fine." John smiles a little, clearly amusing himself. "It's all fine."
Sherlock recognises the phrase, remembers John earnestly telling him that before. At the time, he'd been sure John was lying in some way -- too serious, too appeasing, surely he was trying to gauge Sherlock's reactions as a potential flatmate -- but he's since realised John was being honest. He was uncomfortable, as John's vaguely uncomfortable with topics of discrimination, but he was telling the truth. "But you're looking at one bedroom flats."
John looks surprised. He's sitting on the other side of the room with the paper laid out on the coffee table, bent over it reading. He looks around quickly. Sherlock can see him first consider then dismiss the mirror as a source of Sherlock's information. Then John glances at his laptop and Sherlock feels an odd swell of pride.
"You looked at my browsing history," John says, and Sherlock nods. "It's not for me. One of the girls at work is having issues with her boyfriend and thinking of moving out. I said if I saw anywhere nearby and within her budget, I'd let her know."
The relief is so strong Sherlock's breath catches in his chest. He has to quiet his breathing lest John notice. "You're not a real estate agent. Why offer to help?"
John smiles at him warmly and Sherlock suspects he didn't hide his relief as well as he should have. "I've got the spare time. Besides, there's nothing like looking at expensive, dingy little flats to make me thankful for living here."
Usually, Sherlock doesn't remember his dreams. He's sure he has them -- it's a medical fact that a healthy brain dreams during sleep -- but he never remembers them. He's perfectly happy not to know the mangled symbolism of his subconscious.
Now he keeps dreaming, over and over, and wakes up remembering too clearly. It's not the same dream, not identical, but it always starts at the same moment: standing at the pool, when he first saw John in that big coat and had that single second of doubt. (In that moment, he'd wondered if he'd been completely wrong about John, he'd suspected John of the worst things imaginable.) There's always a moment of guilt afterwards, realising his obvious mistake because John would never do those things and Sherlock should have known that.
After that, the dream changes.
Sometimes, Sherlock runs when John grabs Moriarty. He flees in terror and hears the echo of sniper shots behind him. He never goes back and checks on John, just runs and runs until his legs are burning and he can't feel his feet.
Sometimes, Moriarty pulls out a gun of his own and shoots John neatly through the side of the head. John collapses like a puppet with its strings cut, like the newly dead corpse he is, eyes still open and staring blankly. There's a spray of dark blood against the red and blue changing room curtains and Sherlock always finds himself staring at that, unable to look at the body.
Sometimes, and these are the worst, John doesn't breathe. John lies wet, cold and still on the tiles. Sherlock keeps pressing at his chest, keeps fusing his mouth over John's, keeps going, and John never breathes. Sirens never sound. No-one else comes. It's only Sherlock trying his hardest, until his wrists ache and he's almost hyperventilating and his chest hurts, and John never breathes.
Sherlock still sleeps as much as he used to, still falls asleep easily. But when he wakes up, he sometimes needs a moment standing at the closed door to John's room and breathing in time with the reassuring snores.
It shouldn't bother Sherlock that John doesn't go. He doesn't want John to leave (it's bad enough asking Mycroft for money now, he wouldn't want to ask for enough to cover the whole rent). John hasn't asked him about work and it's not that he wants to be nagged (Sherlock's never responded well to being told what to do and how to do it, and how any reasonable person would have already done it by now). He doesn't want John to do any of these things, but it bothers him that John hasn't. He doesn't understand why. Value for money in a rental property only goes so far.
There are other things Sherlock notices. John still goes out to the pub, still has a few drinks with a few mates but the pattern's changed. The people are the same: friends John knew before Afghanistan that he thinks he should stay in contact with, the occasional officer from the Yard and people he works with now. John has a circle of casual acquaintances who get on best over a few pints. It's the kind of carefree socialisation that Sherlock has never indulged and never enjoyed. People speak simply to hear their own voice, to feel accepted amongst the group. It's a great example of normalisation within numbers of individuals: opinions are mitigated and subdued in order to fit into the group. Certainly not Sherlock's idea of a good time, but it appeals to John who usually goes out on these nights at seven or so, and comes home around midnight, footsteps clumsy and uneven on the stairs, keys jangling too loud for someone sober.
Now, John goes out less often and comes home earlier. The footsteps are quieter, more controlled. Where Sherlock never bothered waiting up for him before (he heard John returning but he didn't consciously stay awake for the purpose), Sherlock does now. He knows the only reason he's reading on their sofa is so he'll know for certain when John's home. He shouldn't worry: John's not an aggressive drinker and he doesn't favour dangerous nightspots, he's never come home with so much as a split lip. Yet seeing John head out for the night, watching him walk across the street in the darkness, it makes Sherlock uneasy. It makes him aware of that ache, like a half-healed breastbone, and it's ridiculous to think that one attack from Moriarty makes John vulnerable every time he leaves at night. Sherlock knows this but knowing it doesn't stop him from being relieved when John comes home.
Sherlock turns off the light. He'll wait a few moments for John's footsteps to pass, then steal up to his own room, and John will be none the wiser. But the steady footsteps pause and the kitchen door opens. John helps himself to a glass of water from the tap. He swallows hungrily in loud gulps, emptying it fast. Then John rinses the glass and turns around, and sees Sherlock.
It doesn't look good, Sherlock thinks. He could have justified sitting in the living room reading, but sitting still in the dark, waiting for John to leave without noticing him is suspicious behaviour even by Sherlock's erratic standards.
John blinks once and then says, "D'you want a cuppa?" as if this is perfectly normal.
Sherlock occasionally wonders if John thinks a hot cup of tea could solve all the world's problems. He agrees and John puts the kettle on, so Sherlock switches on the lamp and then wanders into the kitchen. "You're not going to accuse me of waiting up for you?"
"That would be a statement of fact, not an accusation." John reaches into the back of the cupboard, past the tea bags, and pulls out a box of herbal tea.
Sherlock grimaces in distaste. "I don't want camomile tea."
"Well, I'm making camomile tea so it's that or nothing, Sherlock." John doesn't wait for his reply. He drops the tea bags in the mugs and then pours the steaming water in. "Besides, it'll help you sleep. Caffeine's not good this time of night."
Sherlock sighs. But when John hands him the mug, he takes it.
They drink quietly, standing in the kitchen. Sherlock doesn't ask how the night went. He can already see it: John's collar is a button looser, there's a mark where beer was spilled over his cuff, but he's smiling and a little relaxed, somehow contented by the horrendous trial of spending times with mobs of stupid people.
"Is something on your mind?" John asks, and Sherlock doesn't know how to reply to that. "You were up late, waiting for me. I assume there was something you wanted to say."
"Yes," Sherlock says, because wanting to discuss something with John is a far more rational reason to be up late. He sips the camomile tea he didn't really want, and asks the first thing he thinks of. "Why haven't you pressured me to get work?"
"Do you want me to?"
Sherlock rolls his eyes. That's a ridiculous suggestion. "No. But it's the type of thing you worry about. For the sake of rent payments if nothing else."
"The rent's covered for weeks. We're fine."
"But if I keep not working…" Sherlock says, waiting for John to fill in the blank. If Sherlock never works again, there will be financial issues. John must have thought that far.
"You'll borrow more from Mycroft," John shrugs, as if this is theoretical, as if this is simple and easy, "and pay him back when you do work."
Sherlock swallows. Then takes another mouthful to give himself time to think. "How can you be so sure I'll work again?"
There's a twitch to John's mouth as if he's amused for a moment, then his eyes turn serious and thoughtful. "Years in the army, I guess."
"You live your life like you're deployed. There are quiet times but the front line's never far away. At a moment's notice you could be running out through the door, dealing with chaos and violence. It's how a soldier lives," John says, calm and certain. There are many things Sherlock likes about John, but he might like this best: the calm certainty of a soldier, the compassion and knowledge of a doctor, the way John can be both without sacrificing either. "You can do it for months but eventually the tour of duty's over and you get to go home. You get to leave it all behind and step into another world for a while."
"That's how you see this?"
"Everyone needs a break eventually. Doesn't mean you'll never serve again." There's a touch of wistfulness to John's tone that makes Sherlock wonder how he'd felt being invalided home, if the worst part had been the idea of never going back. "So you took a break. I'm not too worried."
Sherlock holds his mug tight, talks quietly into the steam. "I don't think a break means everything stops."
"Let's be honest, Sherlock," John says, laying a hand on Sherlock's shoulder and leaning in, "you don't really do moderation. It's all or nothing. Running across London or lying around the flat. Why would this be any different?"
Sherlock blinks and pulls in a slow breath, but it comes surprisingly easily.
Sherlock's never let his life be ruled by other people's opinions. Why would he? In comparison to him, other people are idiots and only a fool follows the opinions of someone less intelligent. There are only two notable exceptions to this generalisation.
One is Mycroft. On a day when Sherlock is feeling brutally honest, he can acknowledge that Mycroft is his intellectual better, although that doesn't mean Sherlock's obligated to listen to him. Sherlock refuses to make decisions based around Mycroft's endorsement. There may be a part of him, a very small piece, that still feels twelve years old, that still wants his big brother to approve and be proud, but it really is a terribly small part. It's not a part of himself that Sherlock particularly likes, and he tries to discourage it as much as he can.
The other exception is John. John isn't Sherlock's intellectual equal and certainly not his superior. John, who sometimes doesn't see the most obvious things, occasionally sees them in a way Sherlock doesn't. John can't always describe why he interprets something a particular way, but can notice the emotions around him with a subtlety that Sherlock himself has yet to master. John has followed Sherlock on the most absurd of chases and negotiated over the most mundane of arrangements. For all this and more, John's opinion matters.
John is Sherlock's best barometer of moral values and conventional behaviour. He's not conventional -- not boring and dull and predictable -- but John knows how to hide it well. John knows how to seem acceptably normal, acceptably average and he helps Sherlock do that too. When Sherlock strides over the line, John draws him back, making it seem less like a disapproving order and more like a friendly reminder, pointing out manners as easily as he confirms details about cause of death.
And John says it's fine. Says taking a break is normal enough. Sherlock hadn't realised how much he'd been worrying about that until suddenly he doesn't need to. He'd been waiting, he guesses, waiting for John to tell him that he needed to work, that he wasn't coping or dealing or processing or whatever pseudo-psychobabble term is thrown about these days. He'd worried that this would be the final straw, that this would be the thing that made John look at him the way everyone else does -- from Lestrade to Donovan, all different shades of freak and outcast, always different and always distanced. It's not as if he wants to be anyone other than who he is. It's not as though he'd trade their acceptance for his own brilliance, it's not as if he's at all discontent with who he is, but he'd worried. If it had been John, the one person Sherlock would identify as a friend, losing that acceptance would have mattered. He'd have felt the loss keenly.
It's strange that he doesn't want to work, doesn't want to push his limits to see how smart he can be, how fast he can run, how much he can accomplish. He doesn't want to do any of those things, but a few simple words from John and he feels better about it.
"Mrs Hudson invited us for lunch."
"She invited us," Sherlock clarifies, "or she invited you and you want to keep an eye on me?"
"She invited us, else I would have said," John says, rolling his eyes, not particularly bothered. "And I'm not keeping an eye on you."
"You're spending more time in the flat than you usually do." Sherlock could point to a number of signs, all the small signals John leaves when he enters a room, the signs he's been there or not, the little things that make Baker St feel like home, but John doesn't ask.
"I'm spending more time at home because you're here. Because, well, it's nice having company." John stares at Sherlock, as if daring him to make a fuss over that statement. John can be sensitive about the strangest things. "Usually, you're running about somewhere and I spend time with Mrs Hudson, and she invited us for lunch and a DVD today, so I'm going to go."
"Am I going to enjoy it?" Sherlock asks, considering.
"Maybe bring a book," John says after a moment. "I'm sure Mrs Hudson won't mind."
Mrs Hudson doesn't mind. She says, "Oh, Sherlock, dear, nice to see you," and they have a Greek salad for lunch. "Healthy option," Mrs Hudson explains, "Doctor says I need to watch out for cholesterol." They sit around Mrs Hudson's cosy kitchen table (round, wooden, covered by a clean white tablecloth with a high thread count that's clearly seen better days) and Mrs Hudson and John talk about people Sherlock doesn't know, but John does, at least in context.
"And my niece, Nicole," Mrs Hudson says (pausing long enough for John to jump in with, "The one studying to be a hairdresser?") then nodding and continuing, "She's saving up for a car. I told her in London the congestion hardly makes it worth driving, not to mention trying to find somewhere to park."
John grimaces sympathetically. "With traffic, it's usually quicker to go by tube or bus," John says, as if they don't spend most of their cases jumping in and out of taxis. "Plus, the cost of parking can be a small fortune."
"Certainly not practical on her income, but you know what she's like. She won't be told."
Sherlock watches. He doesn't know these people; he can't really contribute to the conversation and there aren't any blank spaces left for Sherlock to fill. So he can watch, see how easily John can talk the most domestic gossip and fit in so easily. John seems genuinely interested when Mrs Hudson talks about her hip or her sister's holiday plans. It's fascinating that John can fake it so well.
After lunch, they retire to the sitting room for the DVD. For a moment, Sherlock's optimistic when she mentions the title. "Is it a medical documentary?" he asks hopefully.
John shakes his head. "Hollywood romance."
"Boring," Sherlock declares and he's completely right. Within the first five minutes, he retreats back to his book -- not the most imaginative case studies in the world, but still vastly preferable to the dull story played out onscreen -- though the over-stuffed armchair is hardly comfortable. Too short in the legs and too low in the back, and generally simply too small for Sherlock to get comfortable in. After the third time of twisting and rearranging legs, and having John look pointedly at his feet on the coffee table until Sherlock puts them back on the floor, Mrs Hudson says, "Maybe we should switch places. You don't look comfortable there."
"I'm not," Sherlock bites back sharply, but he gets up and swaps the uncomfortable chair for half of the not quite as uncomfortable sofa. He still can't find a way to get arms and legs and book sitting right. If forced to share the sofa at home, he'd have his knees up or his feet on the table, or he'd lounge over John. And while John objects to Sherlock putting his feet on other people's furniture, Sherlock thinks John probably won't object to being used as a pillow. So Sherlock lies down and puts his head in John's lap, lies on his side facing the telly so he's not holding his book right in front of John's face, and settles down to reading.
There's a ghost sensation across Sherlock's scalp. Light sensation of pressure and almost not there, and it doesn't feel real until there's a warm brush across his forehead. Fingers, Sherlock realises. Fingers stroking his hair, and even half asleep, Sherlock feels himself frown. It's a soft movement, regular and gentle, but it's enough to lift him from the dregs of sleep.
Sherlock blinks his eyes open and finds himself staring at the pink and blue embroidery of the doilies on Mrs Hudson's coffee table. He stays still and blinks again. The TV screen is still on, paused on a shot of desert and then Sherlock hears a door close. Further down the hallway, towards the bathroom. He glances up but there are no feet sitting in front of the armchair, so Mrs Hudson must have stopped for a bathroom break. It was probably that movement, the change in his surroundings, that woke him up.
The denim under Sherlock's cheek is warm and soft, and smells like John's detergent. Sherlock lets his eyes close again. John's fingers keep stroking his hair, a loose, careless motion that makes Sherlock wonder how long John's been doing it. It's a habitual gesture of John's: John tends to run his fingers along the armrest of the armchair when he's reading a paper; the fingers of his left hand will trace nonsense patterns on his knee while he's watching telly. John touches mindlessly, carelessly, without conscious thought. Sherlock's observed it many times. He has a few theories on why, the most likely cause is a self-soothing mechanism developed when young, the touch of familiar textures as a way of reducing anxiety. Or it might be a developed gesture since John's return, a cover of regular movement to hide shaking hands.
Whatever the cause, the sensation is rather… nice, Sherlock decides.
There's a noise of doors closing, then Mrs Hudson says, "Cup of tea, dear?"
"Yes, thanks," John says, voice hushed and quiet as if Sherlock were still asleep.
Sherlock tilts his head slightly and looks up at John. He expects John to be watching the kitchen, watching Mrs Hudson's movements, but John's not. He's watching Sherlock. John smiles. Every smile moves so many facial muscles and can be so telling, if catalogued carefully. There's the twist of John's lips, the exact shape of his mouth, the creases forming under John's eyes and the faint crows feet at the corners, the way his brows lower slightly and his jaw slackens a little. There are dozens of miniscule signs, tiny micro-expressions that taken separately mean nothing. Together, it makes Sherlock interpret the expression as affection, pure and simple.
Sherlock closes his eyes. He falls back asleep with John's fingers stroking his hair.
Once he sees John's affection, Sherlock can't un-see it. It's like cracking a cipher. Once the code is broken, it's impossible to look at the same symbols and not recognise the meaning. Likewise, it's now impossible for Sherlock not to recognise the fondness in John's smiles, to hear it in his voice.
It shouldn't change anything. It doesn't change John's behaviour. When Sherlock folds himself into one of the armchairs, working through his steadily declining pile of unsorted books (he now has an entire shelf of "wrong, wrong, need to be proved wrong" texts), John still settles on the couch or the other armchair, still watches telly or taps away at his laptop. Sherlock uses the cover of his book to watch John without being noticed and he sees that gentle, caring smile more often than he expects.
Sherlock blames that expression for helping Mrs Hudson find her lost earrings. Usually, Sherlock wouldn't have cared. But when Mrs Hudson stops by ("Just to check if you've seen them. I'm not even sure if I was wearing them when you last came over."), John gets off the couch and agrees to help. He doesn't look to Sherlock with expectation; he doesn't suppose that Sherlock will go out of his way for such a meaningless reason.
Nonetheless, when Sherlock says, "I'm sure we can find it," John smiles at him. There's approval there and a certain pride, but there's fondness there too. Something that makes Sherlock smile back.
Finding the earrings themselves takes a handful of minutes. The kitchen benchtops are clean. Mrs Hudson keeps an immaculately clean kitchen. Sherlock watched her wipe down after lunch and she covered every corner -- there's no way the earrings could be put down there without her noticing. The most likely places to remove jewellery are the bedroom or bathroom. John offers to check the bedroom, so Sherlock takes the bathroom.
All of the obvious surfaces are jewellery free, but the liquid soap is an inch closer to the wall than it was the last time Sherlock was here. Sherlock doesn't move it, but he looks around it, moving his head to catch different angles and sees the quarter-inch gap between the counter top and the wall. Just enough space for earrings to fall down.
He opens the cupboard doors beneath the sink and climbs up onto the counter top on his knees, and peers down the gap. In the darkest corner, he can see the glitter of platinum and sapphires.
"Quite obvious," he explains to both Mrs Hudson and John, while they use a broom handle to try to recover the earrings.
"You came to the bathroom, saw your reflection, took the earrings off and placed them behind the soap so they'd be out of the way, not in danger of getting wet. You washed your hands, maybe washed your face as well, but forgot about the earrings. Later, cleaning the bathroom, or washing your hands again," Sherlock allows, because he can't be sure, "the soap was moved backwards, pushing the earrings off the edge."
It takes them nearly an hour to fish the earrings out. In the end, they use fishing line and hooks to catch hold of the earrings and pull them up. John's surprisingly adept at it.
"You've fished before," Sherlock says as they make their way upstairs afterwards.
"Not since I was a kid." John's footsteps slow on the stairs, and Sherlock adjusts his own pace. "Our parents used to send me and Harry to the Lakes every summer. We'd stay with our grandparents for a week or two, and granddad was bound to take us fishing."
"He enjoyed the sport?"
"I think it was the only way he could get us to stop squabbling for a few hours." John shakes his head, shaking childhood holidays from his mind. "And you, finding lost property. In hindsight, I should have known it was one of your skills."
"One of my many skills," Sherlock says, because it is true.
"Yeah," John says, smiling a little and resting a hand on the arch of Sherlock's back as they climb the last few stairs, "One of too many to count."
Finding Mrs Hudson's earrings isn't exactly a case. Sherlock doesn't expect John to write about it in his blog -- The Case of the Missing Sapphires, perhaps? The Amazing Disappearing Earrings? -- and it's nothing like putting together pieces of a crime, bringing together suspects and victims and finding the correlations, but there's still a satisfaction in it. It reminds Sherlock why he started in this profession in the first place. This is the moment after a case, when everything settles, just for a while. Where the world seems still and easy. He knows it doesn't last long. Within hours, he'll be wishing for something new and unknown, anything to challenge him, to make this whole pointless excuse of civilised society worth noticing. But during a case, working through a puzzle, there's such clarity of focus and afterwards there's the satisfaction of being right and knowing the world follows understandable patterns.
Sherlock's missed it. He's missed the focus and the temporary calmness that follows. He finds himself thinking about it, dissecting the emotion as he packs books back into their shelves. (He categorises them by subject and usefulness and shelves them accordingly. It's not a system most would understand but when he tells John to pull down the third book on the left hand side of the second shelf from the bottom, John will do it and he'll always, always bring back the right one.)
When his books are all shelved, Sherlock wanders to the kitchen. There's dust starting to collect on the thin rims of the test tubes. Neither Mrs Hudson or John will clean them, for good reasons, but Sherlock doesn't like the physical reminder of how long it's been since he's touched his equipment. Standing upright in the middle, leaning against his favourite microscope, are the folders of Lestrade's old cases.
Sherlock's curious. That's what he tells himself: he's simply curious. Wants to know what Lestrade would pick to entertain Sherlock, what Lestrade would consider tempting to Sherlock's sensibilities. He's not going to work on them. He probably wouldn't want to -- what Lestrade finds amusing Sherlock will probably find obvious and irritating -- but just out of curiosity, he pulls one out and opens it.
It's a burglary, no one injured, jewellery taken from a still-locked safe. No signs of forced entry, nothing broken, no fingerprints other than the owner's. Nothing, in fact, to prove it wasn't one of the owners themselves, except for two third parties who had seen the jewellery in the safe on Friday night, and missing on Monday morning and an alibi of being in Rome for the weekend.
Sherlock does what he always does with these cases: opens the file, pulls out the photographs and studies them carefully, and then re-reads the reports. He's looking for irregularities, for something in the crime scene that wasn't noticed in the report, something that wasn't followed. It takes until John comes home to realise the missed entry point: slate roof tiles and no mention of a lock from the attic to the rest of the house, so the thief most likely came through the roof and down.
John's carrying three over-full bags (self-serve, packed it himself, should have packed a fourth). "Can you give me a hand?"
"Can't," Sherlock says from the armchair. "Busy." He's looking up the model of safe. He needs to know if there were any design flaws, any manual overrides, any safety features designed for a forgotten combination.
There's a rustle of plastic bags in the kitchen. Cupboard doors opening and closing, followed by the fridge. Eventually, John comes into the living room and perches on the other armchair. He leans forward over the coffee table, or more correctly, he leans over the mess of photos, reports and notes in Sherlock's own haphazard handwriting, the diagrams he's sketched while thinking this through.
John doesn't say 'I told you so' or ask what Sherlock's working on; he doesn't say anything so boring. No, John smiles and says, "Tell me you worked out how they did it."
So Sherlock does.
He considers arranging a time to go and see Lestrade, but it's far more satisfying to show up unexpectedly. Lestrade's always caught between irritation and relief, and it annoys Donovan like nothing else, so the next day when John's at the surgery, Sherlock heads down to Scotland Yard. He considers taking a cab but the weather's nice and there's no rush, so he carries the folder under one arm. He can't deny there's a certain jauntiness to his pace. It's nice knowing he can go in and tell Lestrade step by step how it was done, that he can give them the culprit (in this case, the wife's best friend: jealousy and money troubles, criminal history of burglaries in her youth before she changed alibis and grew respectably middle-aged) and he takes a certain pride in knowing Lestrade's team worked on this for weeks, but Sherlock's solved it in mere hours.
He's imagining what he'll say to Lestrade. He won't say anything to Lestrade's underlings; Sherlock will sweep past them because it especially annoys Donovan when he does that. He'll walk straight to Lestrade's office. He'll stand and hand over the files-- No. He'll sit and take his time and then lazily pass the file to Lestrade and say, "When I thought about it, it really was quite obvious…" or "The correct level of detail in the background checks of possible suspects would have found the link much earlier." But no, that doesn't quite have the right ring to it. Maybe he'll say, "You should have given this to me months ago," but that probably won't do either. Months ago, he wouldn't have touched such a small unimportant case -- rightly or wrongly, he'd been too busy chasing bigger things.
He doesn't want to belittle their efforts. Lestrade does do good work, usually. Maybe Sherlock will say, "Thank you for the time taken interviewing all those people who didn't commit the crime. If you hadn't wasted so much time recording their badly remembered descriptions to confirm the couple's alibi, it might have taken me more than an afternoon to work out the correct culprit."
Sherlock's imagining the expression on Lestrade's face. He'll be a little put out, because he always is when Sherlock has the answer his team couldn't find, but he'll be pleased too. One more case solved by DI Gregory Lestrade, one more notch on his career belt. Sherlock's so distracted by his imagination that he doesn't hear the siren until it's right there, until it's screaming past him, lights flashing as the ambulance cuts through the midday traffic.
Sherlock steps away. He has to. He takes three steps into an alley, away from lights and people and traffic, just away. There's a searing pain in his chest and he can't breathe. The case file drops to the ground. Sherlock folds in on himself. He presses his back against the brick wall and sinks down, pulls his knees up to his chest. He huddles on the street like some bad impersonation of the homeless.
Behind closed eyes, all he can see is that damn pool. All he can see is those harsh white tiles, reflecting the dim light after the explosion, most of the bulbs blown out, light struggling through the dust in the air and the wall behind Moriarty mostly rubble. He can see John's pale skin, the blue tinge to his lips and Sherlock remembers. Even though he has his hands wrapped around his knees, even though he can feel the fabric of his suit and the curved edges of his own kneecaps beneath his palms, he remembers how his own hands had been clumsy with cold, he remembers how wet and heavy John's clothes had been to his touch, can still remember John's skin and slack mouth, the dead weight of him. Sherlock remembers being terrified. He remembers being so sure that John would never open his eyes, would never move, would never say anything or smile again or come running after Sherlock on some case or complain that Sherlock used the last of the milk.
He'd been so sure he'd lost John -- for good, forever. He'd been too desperate to stop trying but deep down, he'd been sure it was already too late. He'd been so sure that sometimes it's hard to remember that John's still here. Well, not here. That John's a few tube stops away. That John's right now probably sending a patient out with a medical certificate for work, that he's calling in the next one and making small talk with the practice nurse and smiling at patients and still living as if none of this ever happened.
Sherlock will never admit it to anyone, but he's not sure how long he sits there. He wants to say it's ninety seconds, maybe five minutes, but the truth is probably a lot longer than that. When he looks at his phone, when he finally lets go of his own legs and pries his eyes open, and gathers the spilled case notes from the ground… By the time he looks at his phone, he's lost at least half an hour to this ridiculousness.
But Sherlock gets up and brushes himself off. He pulls himself together, breathes deeply, and walks back to the last post office he passed. He writes a quick note to Lestrade -- explains the culprit, how it was done, what evidence they need and the questions to ask -- and shoves the whole thing into a large envelope and mails it back.
Sherlock quickly steps back as John opens his bedroom door, but there's only a staircase behind him. He can't claim that he was going up or down the stairs; John would have heard footsteps. Even if he had been, it's still half past four in the morning. John won't believe that Sherlock woke early for no reason.
John freezes in his doorway. "Oh." Then he blinks. John keeps his voice hushed and quiet (as if Mrs Hudson could hear anything after taking one of her so-called herbal soothers). "I'm putting the kettle on if you want a cuppa."
He walks past Sherlock to the stairs, so Sherlock follows him down.
"Are you going to force camomile tea on me again?" Sherlock asks, matching his tone to John's.
"It's the middle of the night, Sherlock. I'm not feeding you anything caffeinated."
"You're not feeding me at all."
"Watering, then. I'm not watering you with anything caffeinated," John says, pulling out mugs and, yes, camomile tea bags. He grins as if he's made a point, and then makes the tea.
There's an easy silence, a comfortable silence, a silence Sherlock only really experiences with John. They drink tea and stand in the kitchen, and Sherlock distracts himself with little things. The puffy skin and darker shadows under John's eyes: he clearly hasn't slept well tonight. He can tell John lay on his left side by the pillow creases just in front of John's left ear. John's short hair, recently cut, back to uniform standard, sitting unevenly on his left side. The movement of John's throat as he swallows, and the tapping of John's middle finger against the mug as he drinks. All such small things, but all are undeniable reminders that John's here, that John's whole and safe and fine.
John doesn't take the last mouthful of tea. He swirls it in the mug and then holds the ceramic with two hands. He's warming his fingers, Sherlock realises. "I can recognise the signs, you know."
"The signs of what?" Sherlock asks because he's been staring, he's been selfishly memorising signs that John's still here, still alive, and Sherlock doesn't think John's recognised that yet. He doesn't think John knows what terrifies Sherlock in the middle of the night.
"The nightmares," John says, with that uncanny ability to instinctually be right even when there's no way he could know. "Trust me, I know about the nightmares."
John's extrapolating from his own experience, Sherlock realises. He's guessing, assuming. He doesn't know anything. "This isn't PTSD. There are no symptomatic nightmares," Sherlock bites back before he thinks it through. John has a point: nightmares, flashbacks, psychosomatic pains and a new sense of anxiety. These are all symptoms of PTSD. Maybe that's all this is -- one traumatic event and a mind not fully prepared to cope with it. It's so annoying that such an insignificant thing should stop him in his tracks.
John reaches out and runs two fingers along Sherlock's hairline. "Sweating, terrified, heart-pounding. I recognise it."
"Then why don't you tell me all about it," Sherlock says and it comes out nastier than he meant. Usually, when he's mean, it's intentional. He's surrounded by idiots who consistently deny the fact; a little rudeness is warranted. But he tries not to snap at John. He doesn't always succeed, but he tries.
John looks him in the eye, squares back his shoulders and faces this like he'd stare down a firing squad. "You feel trapped in the dream. You know what's going to happen, you know you've done this before and even knowing that, even when you know it's a dream, it's still terrifying as it happens."
"You're still shot," Sherlock surmises and John nods.
"All I'm saying is that you can talk to me about it. If you want." John swallows the last mouthful of tea and then rinses the mug in the sink.
Sherlock looks down and realises his tea's gone cold. He passes it to John, who dutifully empties it and washes the mug. "You were there," Sherlock says, "and you know what happened."
"Yeah," John says, but he looks sad. Not scared or angry, determined or resigned, not one of the expressions Sherlock usually sees on John's face. No, John looks like Sherlock's someone to be pitied, like Sherlock's some wounded bird that fell from the nest.
Sherlock wants to kick and scream and argue. He wants to pull apart John's presumptions that he has any idea of how Sherlock thinks or feels, wants to hurt and attack until John goes away and stops being so nice about this. He wants to pretend this is over, he wants to move on to the next thing now; he's so bored with his own reactions.
He has the self control not to say any of that, though.
Maybe John reads enough of it in Sherlock's face. He says, "Sherlock," and reaches forward to wrap a hand around Sherlock's shoulder. Sherlock remembers that hand on his shoulder, remembers John's hand hitting his shoulder and the weight of John's momentum barrelling them backwards into the water and the recoil of the gun in his right hand.
He hates that his mind keeps confusing now and then. He hates that his mind keeps gravitating back to something that was only a few minutes out of his life, so unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Sherlock is sick of remembering.
"I know this isn't your thing," John says, hand still there.
"Relationships. With people. I know it isn't your thing but you need to know-- You need to know that I--" John sucks a frustrated breath through his teeth and Sherlock finds himself wondering if John could say anything less coherent. "If there's anything I can do to make this easier on you, anything, then say it. I care, Sherlock. I want to help."
John keeps watching his face, eyes tracking up and down, side to side a little as he looks at one eye and then the other. Sherlock doesn't know what John's looking for, what he's hoping to see in Sherlock's expression, but he has a sinking feeling John won't find it. Whatever John's expecting, whatever John thinks Sherlock's capable of, John's bound to be disappointed.
He says, "You can stop monitoring my caffeine levels. And you can stop pretending that camomile is an acceptable substitute for tea."
"You could make your own," John says lightly, pulling his hand back.
Outside the taxi's window, the streets are bright with neon lights. It's Wednesday and darkly overcast, and it feels much later than actually is. There are still people outside, talking, standing, walking hurriedly from one corner to the next. Sherlock likes travelling around London by taxi. He likes watching people, likes the way everyone ignores a taxi, like one dull light signifying occupied makes him invisible to the masses.
Beside him, John says, "House-sitting for your brother," breaking the silence, even though his main question -- the why hovering at the edge of his thoughtful frown -- remains unspoken.
"I'm working off my debt," Sherlock says. John keeps watching him but Sherlock refuses to elaborate if John won't ask the question.
"He doesn't have any," John pauses for the slightest moment, "pets?"
Sherlock nearly laughs. "No. Mycroft and the animal kingdom only interact under extreme duress."
"So why does he need to pay someone to house-sit?"
Sherlock shrugs. He hadn't gone into the details of the MI5 leak with John. (He's a little worried John would be awed by Mycroft. Not that he thinks it likely, but… Sherlock likes knowing that as far as John's concerned, he's the preferred Holmes.) Mycroft hasn't mentioned it directly, but there's clearly a correlation. "He's out of the country for a few days. Unavoidable, apparently. If someone tries to break in, he wants to know immediately."
John nods and doesn't ask if it's likely to happen. The answer to that would be both yes (there are very good reasons for trying to bug Mycroft's home and a lot of potential information to be gained) and no (very unlikely it wouldn't be noticed; far too risky for any of their allies to attempt, far too obvious for any political enemy to try).
The rest of the ride passes in silence. John answers two texts on his mobile (shoulders hunch, knuckles tighten: they must be from Harry) and then turns the phone to silent and slides it into his shirt pocket. John won't turn his phone off because he doesn't like being out of contact. Instead, he'll put it to silent so no-one else knows it rang, so he can ignore it without seeming impolite. Sherlock notices the movement, the quiet buzz as it vibrates. John must feel it but he doesn't show a thing.
Sherlock spends the ride thinking about John's likely reaction to Mycroft's house.
He knows John. He knows John considers himself staunchly middle-class. His father was a bank manager, his mother was a teller before she got pregnant and stayed home with Harry. John mentions his childhood easily, casually, and it's not hard to put the facts together. He didn't grow up in London but he went to university here. He doesn't consider himself a city boy but he doesn't consider himself rural either. Like every human being, John has biases. He's compassionate, liberal, open-minded, but he disapproves of drunks and addicts. When he passes the homeless in the street, he maintains the social fiction that he doesn't even see them. He's not selfish or cruel, but he was brought up with certain attitudes and some of them remain.
Sherlock knows this as well as he knows John has a certain attitude towards the upper class as well. It was clear in his reaction to Sebastian Wilkes and his cronies, to the perceived ease of being born into wealth and privilege. It gets John's back up. It makes him pull himself up, force his shoulders down straight and settle his weight firmly on both feet. It's strange, but social privilege makes John act even more the officer. John's behaviour shifts to point out his own achievements, his own claims to social status.
People make assumptions, it's natural. They make judgments based on their knowledge, their prior experience, the expectations handed down through other people's stories. Sherlock understands it, of course. He uses it himself. There are times when he plays up his own accent, makes his vowels plummy and his consonants sharper. For his first few years as a consulting detective, he used his accent and his manners and the assumptions that go with it to keep the Met at bay, to encourage everyone to keep their distance and avoid stupid, annoying, obvious questions.
It still annoys Anderson. Sherlock knows the right words said the right way will make Anderson scowl, even if Sherlock's being perfectly polite. It never annoys Lestrade. He just smirks. But Lestrade uses his accent in his own way. Lestrade's accent gets stronger when he needs it, when it suits him to be considered one of the boys, one who just happens to be the boss. He makes himself friendly and approachable to his team, but the accent fades around superiors.
Sherlock doesn't emphasise the accent around John. Since that first case, he hasn't wanted to give John any excuses to keep his distance, any reason to think there should be distance between them.
When they get there, Sherlock hands the cabbie three crumpled notes and gets out. Three fast strides up the stairs, and Sherlock has the heavy front door unlocked by the time John catches up. John's reaction, when he sees inside, is to breathe in a low, admiring whistle. It's a predicable reaction. Anyone who knows John could have expected it.
Stepping into Mycroft's house, Sherlock watches John. John looks around and then looks at Sherlock, and Sherlock can see curiosity and deliberation, can see John reconsidering Sherlock in light of his brother's wide hallways and luxurious fittings. He's adjusting his perception of Sherlock to fit the facts.
"It's certainly impressive," John says, turning around to soak it all in.
Sherlock tries to see it through John's eyes. The walls are too wide, the ceilings are too high; it's unnecessary and impractical in a house this size. The stretching rooms and grand staircase are meant for a country estate, not the middle of London. The antique furniture along the walls, old, aged but once fine, sturdy but appearing deceptively delicate. The small collectables carefully arranged on otherwise empty surfaces, each item worth more than all of John's worldly goods combined. Through John's eyes it probably appears pretentious. Maybe he thinks Mycroft chose it to show off, to obnoxiously impress everyone with his own success.
Sherlock wishes he could explain the context. He wishes John could see in it what Sherlock does: the entire style is emotional indulgence. For all of Mycroft's apparent rationality, he's always been the more sentimental of the two of them. From the first time Sherlock stepped into this house, he could see it. High ceilings, the vast width of the corridors, the scale of the rooms; open and empty and long past its prime. The entire place felt like home.
He wants to explain it to John. He hasn't brought it up yet but someday he will. He'll sit down and tell John about living in a house that was described in terms of wings with an entire floor of servants' quarters, even if most of them were empty by the time Sherlock was a child. It's not the first time he's thought of taking John there, showing him the clear similarities to Mycroft's (John would see it, Sherlock's sure of it).
He could do it right now. The estate's empty and Sherlock has as much legal claim to it as Mycroft, not that either of them particularly wants to claim it. It was left to both of them, to pass in entirety to whichever of them had surviving children. It still amuses Sherlock now that even their own parents couldn't extrapolate which was more likely to breed future Holmes'. Even now, Sherlock doubts he'll ever raise a child, but he can't imagine Mycroft having one of his own either.
He could take John there. Could drive him through the thick trees that hide everything behind that long winding driveway, until that last turn where the house appears, three stories high and looming over the countryside around it. He'd like to show John the grand staircase stretching and curving from the entrance like the arch of a spine, take him through sitting room after sitting room and tell John which were his favourites. He'd like to walk John through the ballroom, below the crystal chandeliers that have been gathering dust for years now. He'd like to show John the narrow serving stairs from the old kitchen up to the dining room and the other places he wasn't supposed to go as a boy but went anyway. He'd like to tell John but he's not sure how to explain it. Wall to wall, stretch of trees to the very edge, Sherlock could walk the gardens all day and never leave his home. Until he went away to school, it was his entire world -- vast and full of possibilities, but still known, still safe. He'd read voraciously and asked questions, but the idea of cities full of people had seemed mythical and wondrous. London, Edinburgh, Cardiff -- he'd considered them as real and as reachable as Pompeii, Constantinople and Camelot.
He wants to tell John that, too. About growing up as the only child on the estate, except for the holidays when Mycroft would come home and there would be someone else besides him and adults. The housekeeper downstairs would cook and chase Sherlock out of the kitchen with a wooden spoon. The nursemaids and nannies who changed two or three times a year, who would never tell Sherlock no or don't, who would never enforce any rules other than ensuring he was neatly presentable if his parents were home for dinner. In hindsight, Sherlock would use other words to describe it -- isolated certainly springs to mind -- but as a boy, it was his entire world and he'd been happy in it.
John would think it antiquated, strange in this day and age. When other children were watching Blue Peter and Doctor Who, listening to pop music and imitating forgettable fashion trends, Sherlock had no idea of any of that. He read histories and languages and chemistry; he could explore and experiment, and spend his hours as he liked. The things John subconsciously assumes everyone did as children -- Sherlock has no reference for that. If he had any interest in obtaining it, if it were useful in any way, he could imitate and bluff his way through, but it's dull and pointless. Far easier not to mention it at all.
If he showed John the family home, John would look around as he is now: a little envious and a little mocking, out-of-place and defensive. He wouldn't mean to be and he'd try so hard not to let it affect him, but it would change how he saw Sherlock.
Sherlock would prefer to keep John looking at him the way he does now.
John pulls together a quick spaghetti bolognaise and they eat at the relatively plain kitchen table, leaving the formal dining room undisturbed.
"There's no telly?"
They've already discussed this -- while Sherlock gave John a tour of Mycroft's house -- but John seems rather stuck on this point. "He has a laptop," Sherlock explains.
"I know you can stream things but who doesn't have a telly?"
"Mycroft can access the news online. Or watch it on his laptop if necessary."
"But…" John trails off, shaking his head. "Who doesn't have a telly?"
"So, what? He just works and then shuts off?"
Sherlock imagines it for a moment. The idea of Mycroft simply shutting down like a slow computer or a badly conceived robot is so absurd he nearly laughs. "If he wants to relax, Mycroft will read. He does have a library."
"Maybe we missed that room," John says, mouth crooking up at the corner. "There are a lot of doorways."
They go there after dinner, and John's eyes follow up, up, and up at the bookshelves stretching to the ceiling. He stares at the books surrounding them on every wall.
"Oh," John says, and then, "I feel a bit outnumbered. Also, this makes your collection look small."
"I only keep necessary volumes," Sherlock says, which is almost true.
It would be foolish to think a change in locations would stop Sherlock from remembering, from dreaming. But from Sherlock's surprise at waking up gasping in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room, from that crashing moment of dismay, Sherlock realises he'd been hoping it would make a difference. He'd wanted a clear night's sleep. He wanted to wake slowly with his mind blank and unfettered.
He didn't want to wake up thinking of John's skin pale and chilled, his waterlogged clothing and absent pulse.
Maybe he thought a change would be good, but it's the same. The only difference is that he has to concentrate to navigate the dark room to find the doorway. It opens to a stretch of dark corridor. Sherlock follows without switching on a light and turns the corner to find a glow seeping from under the closed door of the library. The light catches on the edges of the polished wooden floors.
Sherlock nudges the door, barely opening it. He likes opportunities to observe without being noticed. People always show so much more when they're not conscious of being watched. It's fascinating.
He finds John reading in one of the large armchairs. John usually sits in an armchair, feet flat on the floor, hands lying on the armrests -- he doesn't perch or fold into them like Sherlock does – and tonight's no different. He has a book open on his lap but he's not truly reading it. He's turning the pages too fast, eyes gliding down the page not tracking across.
John keeps turning pages, doesn't look up from his book. "Don't leave the door open, Sherlock. If you're coming in, come in."
Sherlock smiles and pushes the door open. He closes it behind him.
"Did you know," John asks, and this time he looks up with a fast grin, self-satisfied and amused, "your brother has a copy of Winnie the Pooh?"
Sherlock pays attention to the cover in John's hands. From the corners of the cover and the spine, the book has been read many times. From the materials used and the style of binding, it's most likely an early edition. Knowing Mycroft's tastes, it's a fair assumption that it's a first edition. "Mycroft tastes are wide-ranging, as long as they're first editions."
"I don't think he's holding on to this for the resale value." John turns another page and there's another fleeting smile. "Even I know you're not supposed to write in a first edition."
"Mycroft would never deface a book." Every book Mycroft has ever owned has always remained in pristine condition. Even textbooks from his first few years at school are free of smudges and folded corners.
John stands up, carries the book over to Sherlock. He opens it up to the page he was reading and there's a line – thick, lead pencil, 2B by Sherlock's guess – through the word 'Tigger'. And above it, painstakingly copied in messy handwriting, is the correct spelling of Tiger, correct other than the back-to-front lowercase e. It's a typical pattern duplication error, common in children learning to write.
"It's all through the book. Someone's very carefully renamed Tigger. Well, I say someone…" John pauses, opening the book at the front page. In the top right-hand corner of the very first page, in the same thick pencil and same problematic e, the handwriting spells out 'Sherlock'.
Sherlock can't remember reading the book or writing that, but he vaguely recalls a fondness for the images. "I think Piglet was my favourite," Sherlock says.
John chuckles, low and privately amused. John doesn't explain those sorts of chuckles. He always looks surprised when Sherlock asks, and he always demurs and avoids answering, becomes a touch too self-conscious to let those chuckles out for a while. Sherlock finds he doesn't particularly care about the source of John's amusement. He'd rather hear John's laugh than understand every cause.
John takes the book back to the bookshelf, back to the half-inch of clear space where the volume clearly belongs and slides it back in. "Couldn't sleep," John says and for a moment, Sherlock doesn't know which of them he's referring to. "Same problem?"
"I slept, I just--" Sherlock stops before he says it all, before he says enough to make this not only pathetic but obvious as well. He truly detests the obvious. If he says it, John will know. If he hints, John will eventually push for more. Or maybe this will be one of those things that John knows without a logical basis, without evidence and proof; this might be one of those things John understands even though he shouldn't.
John rubs his hands together as if warming them in front of a fireplace. He bites at the corner of his lip and watches his own fingers. Then he nods once (small movement, internally focused, a decision made) and says, "You can tell me."
"They're only dreams," Sherlock says but it comes out tight and pinched. It feels bad enough; there's no need for it to sound painful as well. "Bad dreams but it doesn't mean anything."
He finishes with a shrug that doesn't feel right, like his bones are awkward and unnaturally trapped beneath his skin. It's a horrible thing to discuss -- pointless and childish, not that he can even remember having nightmares as a child -- and he can't imagine it's something John honestly wants to hear. It's John's misguided sense of obligation. The question was nothing more than a doctor trying to fix a patient.
There's a creak of overstuffed leather as John sits down beside him on the sofa. Sherlock glances over and it's all written in John's face. The widening of John's eyes, the way he looks genuinely interested. The slight purse of John's mouth, concern and something sharper. Something cold and angry, something… protective. Not warm and fuzzy, let's discuss our feelings protective -- it's more along the lines of an eye for an eye. It's the kind of protective that inspires blood feuds and brutally efficient murders.
Sherlock suspects most people wouldn't find that calming. Mind you, most people wouldn't see that in John, wouldn't look past the concerned eyes and caring tones to see John is far more than some caring local GP. But Sherlock does.
John rests a relaxed elbow across the backrest, stretches out his arm and rests his hand around the curve of Sherlock's shoulder. His palm lies on Sherlock's back and his fingers curl around Sherlock's shoulder, and there's something so casual about it. It's comfortable and warm and it makes Sherlock wonder when was the last time he sat and talked to someone and was touched at the same time. He doesn't do it often, he realises, and when he does, it's always with John. It's not that he objects to it but the opportunities don't occur. He's certainly not the personality type to inspire casual affection.
Sherlock thinks about what he wants to do. The myriad possibilities of actions and John's probable reactions spin out into a web too convoluted to predict correctly. There are too many mights and maybes. So Sherlock closes his eyes, breathes in and lets his head drop to the side. Resting his head against John's steady, competent fingers, cheekbone to phalanges, he lets the breath out. "I dream of the pool. Of you."
Sherlock breathes in slowly. He's expecting John to interrupt, to ask questions or offer suggestions, but John gives his shoulder a squeeze. Sherlock can feel the back of John's fingers move, can feel the pressure as he squeezes. It's irrefutable proof that John is here and alive; all of Sherlock's nightmares are fictions, no more real than any other fantasy.
"He wins." Sherlock's voice comes out as little more than a whisper. "Every time. In different ways, but he still wins."
"I'm wondering what win means." John sounds stoic and sensible but there's that little thread beneath it. Sherlock doesn't know when he became so used to reading John Watson's tones, but he has. He's become used to reading John's face and seeing the fondness there, seeing things he usually doesn't have to worry about because it's never really important. But with John, when John looks at him and smiles in just that way, it warms Sherlock from the inside out.
Somehow, he knows John's tone of voice as well. From the mocking self-deprecation right through to the practical calm of a soldier in danger. He knows John when he's tired and exasperated and he knows John like this. Knows this undertone of anger and protectiveness. When John's truly worried he sounds a little bit angry. And he knows that for all they run after danger, danger itself rarely distresses John.
Sherlock moves his cheek against John's hand. It's a small back and forth gesture, just enough to feel the fine blond hairs brush his skin, to feel something he usually doesn't see. "He wins. You don't walk away."
"No," Sherlock says quickly because John's doesn't understand and he needs to. He needs to understand so Sherlock doesn't have to repeat this. He can't have this conversation again. He simply can't. (He'd say he can't imagine anything worse but his dreams would make him a liar.) "Not us, not we. Just you. Just you, John. I walk away, or run away, but you…"
"Oh," John says. It's a disjointed sound, not really a word. John's perfectly still, not even his fingers move. Then he leans down fast and presses his lips to the crown of Sherlock's head. "No wonder you aren't sleeping well," John says into Sherlock's hair and he stays there, in this awkward simile of an embrace, twisted around each other and not quite holding on but resolutely entwined.
They stay like that until Sherlock's neck starts to twinge uncomfortably, until he has to shift his hips and the angle of his back to ease the pull on his neck. John seems to take that as a hint. He sits up straight and pulls his hand back.
"Stay there," John says as he stands up. He stretches his neck side to side and it cracks once. He walks decisively to a spot on the shelves and pulls out a book (he barely reads the titles, must have seen it earlier), and then walks across another few shelves and pulls out another one. He brings them back and passes the first to Sherlock. It's a book of herbs and plant-life. "It's got a good section on natural poisons."
John sits back on the other end of the sofa as if it's all fine. As if it isn't embarrassing or mortifying to be an adult and still frightened by nightmares. As if none of this changes what he thinks of Sherlock. He sits and gets comfortable and opens up a copy of Oliver Twist.
Sherlock knows the value of the book, knows the age and the delicacy of the pages. It's really not a book that should be casually read for entertainment but it serves Mycroft right for displaying it so obviously on the reachable shelves. "Are you a fan of Dickens?"
John shrugs. "Not really. But I've seen Oliver so I figured I'd give the book a try."
Sherlock doesn't speak again for thirteen hours.
After half an hour of sitting quietly reading, John gets up and says he's going to bed. Sherlock nods. He's busy reading his book, a verbal reply is unnecessary.
John returns six hours later, bleary-eyed and one hand scratching at the back of his head. John's t-shirt is rucked up and showing a sliver of pale hip. He yawns and collapses into the sofa beside Sherlock. After ten minutes of blinking and half-hearted stretching, he stands up and drags himself to the kitchen. Sherlock doesn't pay much attention to the sounds but even in an unfamiliar kitchen he can recognise the pattern of John making tea.
Sure enough, John returns with two teacups, steam gently rising. Sherlock's still reading -- Mycroft does have an interesting assortment of books -- as he accepts the tea and drinks it.
"I'm going for a shower," John announces, and it's hardly a statement that needs a reply.
When John comes back, he's wearing jeans and a knitted jumper in periwinkle blue. It's not a colour John usually chooses. John likes dark tones and neutrals and military olives, denim and simple block colours. A second glance and Sherlock sees the fine edge of the cuffs, the lightweight weave. Too fine, too expensive for John to have bought -- a present from Harry. He wonders if John wears it because Harry bought it or if he knows how well it suits him.
"You're not sulking, right?" John asks, and Sherlock shakes his head, turning his page. He's not sulking -- not that he'd ever admit to something as puerile as sulking -- but he doesn't see the need to speak.
John shrugs, and picks up Oliver Twist again. "Just checking."
They spend the rest of the day reading side-by-side on the sofa. John occasionally gets up to wander to the kitchen. He brings back sandwiches and new cups of tea, and even finds a plateful of Jaffa Cakes in the early afternoon. The best part is that he doesn't say anything. He doesn't ask Sherlock anything. Sometimes he taps a hand on the armrest as he reads; sometimes John switches the hand holding his book and rests his right hand on Sherlock's knee instead. It's… nice. Good.
But it's also fine when John takes his hand back, switches his book again to hold it open on his lap.
Sherlock gets up occasionally to change books and stretch his legs. Eventually, as he's striding back to the sofa with a new book, he says, "I need to lie down."
John looks up at him and then looks back at his book. He points an index finger at the page, marking the line he was up to (such a simple thing, a lack of reliance on memory, a shortcut to avoid re-reading, but Sherlock finds it endearing), and then looks up again. "Are you asking me to move seats?"
"No." Sherlock reaches his arms out and back, pressing his shoulder blades together. He should have known -- he does know but he forgets these things -- that sitting still for so long would leave him stiff. "I prefer lying on couches for a good reason."
John raises an eyebrow. "Are you asking to use me as a pillow?" His voice is teasing, as if he can't quite believe it even though it's a perfectly logical solution.
Sherlock does and John lets him. John lets him stretch out along the couch and lie with his head on John's thigh. He's only done this once before and yet it feels so familiar. It's also surprisingly comfortable. He can feel his back relax and his spine lengthen, the backs of his ankles rest on the armrest and he can wriggle his toes if he feels like.
From this position, he can look up and catalogue John's expression. The creases under his eyes are still puffy from a bad night's sleep, the lines at the corners -- signs of age, yes, but also amusement -- are slightly less pronounced than they were a year ago. It's the difference of climates from desert winds and sun back to London's milder conditions. He can see the snub end of John's nose, a feature that would have been adorable on a child below ten, Sherlock's sure. From this angle, he can see the light reflecting on John's skin, catching on the mild imperfections -- acne as a teenager, mild to moderate -- and yet for all of John's imperfections he is indisputably the best man Sherlock's ever met.
"John," Sherlock says and then finds he doesn't have the words to say these things. John leaves crumbs on the couch and he always leaves dishes on the coffee table, and insists he knows where he's going, refusing to ask for directions even when he should. These are all such ordinary, simple faults and John's still extraordinary. Sherlock wants to tell John that he thought himself indestructible, that he never feared death -- it had never seemed important -- but now he has something to lose. The most frightening thing about the dreams isn't that John dies, it's that Sherlock lives and Sherlock doesn't know how he could do that without John. He doesn't think he could. He might go on existing but he doesn't think he'd want to.
He wants to tell John other things. How Mycroft always said Sherlock needed a purpose and something to ground him, but Mycroft had been talking about public service and Queen and country. Mycroft had meant responsibility to society in general and altruism and patriotism; all the things Sherlock's never believed in and never wanted in his life. He wants to tell John that he thought he had them, that he'd already found enough to make life interesting and rewarding. He'd found his purpose in a made-up title (‘Consulting Detective’ indeed) and he'd thought that was enough.
Then he found John. John grounds him. He doesn't weigh Sherlock down, doesn't anchor him and drag him to earth. John is his tether. John doesn't stop Sherlock from running towards the cliff, from jumping off and feeling the wind rush against his face, but John always gives him enough rope that he can climb back up and find safe ground again.
Sherlock's always been able to think more than he can explain. Logic and deduction are easy compared to communication, to trying to explain things so everyone else will understand what he means and how he means it. If he gave voice to the ideas that are so clear and so complimentary inside his head, they'd come out wrong and John wouldn't understand. Sherlock's sure of it.
John rests his forearm across Sherlock's torso. Sherlock feels the pressure first, on the edge of his ribcage, the way his diaphragm moves beneath the weight of John's wrist and hand. A moment later, the warmth of John's skin seeps through the thin cotton. "It's okay, Sherlock. When you work out what you want to say, I'll still be here."
Sherlock doesn't have the words but he can reach down and squeeze John's hand. And then watch in surprise as John's face lights up with a smile.
John takes a shift at the surgery so Sherlock's the only one home when Mycroft returns unexpectedly early. Sherlock should have anticipated it -- would have if he'd paid attention to the news and the forecast weather patterns over Heathrow airport -- but he didn't. He tries not to let that show, though. When he hears keys in the front door, Sherlock stays standing in the kitchen, sipping his cup of tea slowly.
When Mycroft steps inside, he doesn't look at all surprised to see that it's only Sherlock. (John probably scuffed something as he left this morning.)
Sherlock remembers Mycroft coming home from school. He remembers counting down the days and avidly waiting at the driveway for the car to pull up. He remembers the first thing Mycroft would ask him each time was, "What's the most interesting thing you've discovered?" and Sherlock would tell him. He'd describe his latest obsession in the great detail that only an eight-year-old can muster: what he'd seen, what he'd read, what he'd tried to do. He'd tell Mycroft everything and Mycroft would listen, and ask questions and explain all those things Sherlock didn't know yet.
It was a long time ago. Before school, before university, before national service had become Mycroft's raison d'être, but Sherlock still feels a little bit nostalgic. He blames it on the architecture of this building. "Aren't you going to ask me the most interesting thing I've discovered?"
Mycroft looks him up and down. "I've already read everything in my library."
Sherlock wonders if Mycroft missed the reference. It's certainly not something they usually discuss. "I used to look forward to you coming home from school. They were the most exciting weeks of my year."
"They were always the least predictable." Someone who didn't know Mycroft well (John, for example, or anyone else in the known universe, Sherlock mentally amends) might think Mycroft didn't care. There's no hint of enjoyment in the tone, no sign of softness or nostalgia in the gaze. Mycroft's eyes are always sharp, always searching for that extra piece of information, cataloguing and storing for future use. But at the corner of his mouth there's a hint of amusement, and in the relaxing slump of his shoulders there's an acknowledgement of home. "School was necessary but very predictable. Coming home was always interesting."
"Interesting?" Sherlock mocks. "Can you really say that about your life now?" It comes out a little too sharp, a little too snide, and Sherlock hadn't meant to cut but Mycroft stands a little straighter.
"It is interesting," Mycroft insists.
Sherlock shakes his head and says, "No, I meant--" and he pauses when Mycroft looks startled for a microsecond, "Do you find it interesting? Is that why you do it?" He's never understood the appeal. He's never understood how Mycroft could spend all of his time trying to orchestrate something bound to fail, how Mycroft could spend so much energy trying to influence and manipulate people who are clearly his intellectual inferiors. People are idiots; people in power are not an exception to that rule.
Mycroft watches him for a long moment. Then he leans against a bench as if this is a casual conversation. "Do you remember us playing chess?"
"Of course." It was their favourite game as children. There were three sets in the playroom and that was how they used to play, three sets concurrently, a move on any of the boards, and always, always watching every move the other made. It entertained them for hours. Mycroft won more often but Sherlock never accepted defeat easily.
"My work is like playing chess with you. Every strategy is constantly shifting against unpredictable defences and obstructions. I can win," Mycroft says, his mouth twisting into something akin to a shark's grin, "but only if I concentrate."
At that moment, Mycroft's phone rings and he steps out of the room to answer it. Sherlock could eavesdrop, could follow and try to piece it together, but he doesn't honestly care. He’s never cared about Mycroft's job. Instead, he thinks about what Mycroft said.
He used to be so angry at Mycroft. For growing up first, for going to university, for joining the civil service. For changing and leaving Sherlock behind. He'd always thought that going to school would fix that but school was dull and other people were stupid. His whole world had been him and Mycroft, he'd always assumed they were average. He'd found out that most minds weren't brilliant shining gems but dull worthless pebbles. He got to university and found the entire world worked that way: nepotism and favouritism, personality and attraction and so many things that weren't intelligence at all. And while the world disappointed him at every turn, Mycroft found better ways to spend his time.
Sherlock had been so angry that Mycroft had changed and left him behind. But now he wonders if maybe Mycroft didn't change so much as grow up. Maybe Sherlock needed time to grow up too. Maybe they haven't changed too much.
Maybe not everything was left behind and lost.
The dreams reduce in frequency. At first, there's a day between them and then two. Then three. Sherlock keeps count and he fills in his time walking the streets. Each day he chooses a different heading as he sets out from the flat. He walks until his feet are sore and the effort of following his bearing becomes too convoluted and awkward to be worth the effort, then he calls a taxi and goes home. He’s walked most of these streets before but usually he has a purpose. Now he does it for the sake of doing it. He notes the differences between the old stone buildings and the towers of steel and glass, modern shrines to business and wealth. He walks along the Thames and down Saville Row, wanders past shops and through markets.
He ventures further sometimes. Walks past the bustling daytime activity of the city to the brutalism of ugly council flats, all concrete and washing hung out on tiny balconies. He walks past shabby five-story houses that were well-maintained a hundred years ago, but now have fifteen bells by the door and no one who cares about the weeds around the doorstep or the rows of overflowing bins.
The popularity of car makes change as the social norms change (sometimes he checks it on his phone, looks up population and average income per capita and standards for the area; sometimes he simply walks and looks for the next Audi). He walks for the sake of having something to do. He walks and waits for time to pass.
Eventually, there are five nights between the nightmares. Five nights between waking up panting, pushing sweat-damp hair out of his eyes, five nights where he doesn’t find himself standing at John’s door in the small hours of the morning, listening to be sure John’s still breathing. When there are five nights where he doesn’t wake up wanting to scrub the chlorine from his skin, Sherlock opens the next case file.
It’s clear that the initial investigation was inefficient to the point of incompetence. The evidence is there, in photos and witness statements, and it takes Sherlock all of an hour to not only read through the file but also to solve it. He texts Lestrade.
Second case solved. Starting to suspect basic investigative skills are no longer being taught to police force.
Lestrade doesn’t reply. He never does when Sherlock texts him.
An hour later, though, there’s a call from Lestrade’s office number. Sherlock considers ignoring it, but doesn’t. Sighing, he hits answer. "What do you want?"
"Your manners are as good as ever," Lestrade mutters, voice pitched low, tired. A long day after a case, Sherlock surmises. "Do you want me to come round and pick it up?"
"I can post it."
Lestrade sighs. On the other end of the line, there’s a soft scratching sound. A brush, maybe. Lestrade… brushing a hand through his hair? Rubbing an unshaved cheek? Sherlock can’t be sure.
"So, are you well?"
"I’m fine," Sherlock replies, already bored with this conversation.
"Are you back to taking cases?"
"When they interest me," Sherlock says, which is not entirely true. But it’s close enough.
"I’ll be impressed when you solve the third one. It’s a curly one." Lestrade sighs again. He's weary, Sherlock thinks, wants to leave the office, doesn't want to have this conversation. "But you are doing okay?" Lestrade asks carefully.
Sherlock snorts. "Why? Were you worried?"
"'Course I was." The reply's so quick, too fast for Lestrade to have had time to think of a lie. Too fast for it to be anything but unvarnished truth.
Sherlock shifts on the sofa, swinging his legs around to sit up. He almost wishes Lestrade were here, wishes he could have seen the expression or the tell... He's expecting it to be a lie, he realises. He assumes it's a lie and therefore is searching for observations to prove it a fact. It's bad deduction, bad reasoning.
"You were worried," Sherlock repeats because he needs to listen to Lestrade's reply. He needs to observe first and then deduce the truth, not allow assumptions to blind him and infer meaning that doesn't exist.
There's a huff, a sound one step from laughter. "Yes. There are a few of us at the Yard who are worried about you. More worried than we usually are, I mean."
Sherlock doesn't know what to say to that so he doesn't say anything. This is why he prefers text messages: it's so much easier to review them, to read between the lines. People use tone of voice, body language and expression and so little of the meaning is actually in the words. It makes everything so hard to decipher.
"You're not one of us," Lestrade says, and that's blatantly obvious, "but you’re ours. You’re on our side, so… We worry."
Again Sherlock stays silent. He listens as Lestrade takes a quick breath and says, "None of us wanted something like this to stop you doing what you do."
"I entertain myself." Sherlock's sure Anderson, Donovan or a score of others would phrase it differently, but it's still true. Sherlock isn't a saint or a hero; he certainly isn't someone who is, or should be, admired. "I solve cases because it's fun."
"And you help put criminals away. There are murders I wouldn't have solved without you," Lestrade says plainly. He should sound begrudging, unwilling, but he doesn't. He acknowledges it as a fact.
"It doesn't make me--"
"You're ours. We're claiming you whether you like it or not, Sherlock." Lestrade sounds so certain about it, unsurprised, as if it's no more remarkable than traffic on London streets or the terrible quality coffee provided by the Met. "And look at the third case. It's minor, but it's annoying that it's not solved. It's blemishing my extremely good record."
The third file is a running string of identity theft. The only linking factor is that all victims were regular visitors of the same swimming pool. Sherlock reads through all the information and thinks. There are many possibilities, but the least problematic is that the thefts occurred in the changing room, handbags left in lockers while their owners' were swimming. A member of staff would be most suspicious, but they've all been interviewed.
Licenses, bank cards, all those little details that make up a financial identity. The thief went through the details, took notes and then made their own copies of the cards. Sherlock approves of the technology use, far more interesting to duplicate the cards than simply take the physical objects, but John doesn't seem so impressed.
"Why not just take the cards?" John asks, sitting on the sofa beside Sherlock.
Sherlock temples his hands together, pressing the cool line of fingers against his lips as he thinks. "Makes it more difficult to find. Makes the thief harder to catch. If not for Lestrade's dogged persistence, I doubt the swimming pool link would have even been noticed."
"Was that you complimenting the Met?" John asks with an amused crinkle beneath his eyes. He's not smiling, not yet, but his expression is pleased and fond.
"Of course not," Sherlock says, stretching past John to reach for the mug of tea on the coffee table. The case notes are spread across the middle of table, and the mug is far enough away that Sherlock leans a hand on John's knee for balance.
Sherlock doesn't think anything of it – soft denim of old jeans; fabric warm from John's body heat; strong muscles above the joint of the knee, to be expected from John's general body shape and the ease with which he runs – until John blinks at him.
Sherlock pulls his hand back. He drinks his tea but in his peripheral vision, John's still staring at him pointedly.
When Sherlock looks over and meets John's gaze directly, John raises a hand and points to the other end of the coffee table... where there's another mug of tea.
Meaning he's just picked up John's.
"You've stopped taking sugar in your tea," Sherlock says immediately. John's always been fond of one, if not two, spoonfuls of sugar. John can do without milk and habitually purses his mouth if anyone offers a slice of lemon, but the sugars have been a staple since he moved in.
"The girls at the surgery are trying to--" John stops himself, but he's said enough. Female colleagues in a medical profession might encourage a reduction in sugar for the health benefits (although that's usually an idiom for weight loss and body image concerns) but the idea of John willingly submitting to peer pressure is interesting.
It's another example of John fitting in, modifying his superficial behaviour to be generally accepted without changing any of the things that make him remarkable.
Sherlock wonders if he'll always find John so fascinating. Sherlock usually gets bored very quickly, discards one fascination for the next. Unless he considers being a consulting detective, Sherlock thinks as he takes another sip of tea, because he's done that for years and he's certainly not bored with it.
"Fair's fair," John says, "if you're going to sit there and drink my tea." And then John grins and leans across Sherlock's lap, his right hand pressing low on Sherlock's thigh and the brush of John's shoulder against Sherlock's shirt. John picks up the abandoned mug and then settles back in his seat, but his hand stays on Sherlock's leg for another four seconds.
Sherlock counts them.
John's not working the next day, so they investigate the pool. The first thing Sherlock notices is the volume, children laughing and squealing and yelling, the wet slap of feet against tiles as they run. They're school children, Sherlock realises as he notes the barely ordered chaos. A collection of swimming lessons. And then...
Then he smells the chlorine. It's sharp and acrid in the air. It makes his eyes water. It's too sharp and too strong, and he doesn't realise he's taken a step back until John's right there beside him, his hand on Sherlock's elbow.
The gaze John turns on him is sharp and evaluating. "You okay? Is this too much?"
"No," Sherlock says, shaking his head. "Of course it's not." That would be ridiculous. It's a public pool full of chemically cleaned water; he should have anticipated the stench of chlorine.
But it's well lit, noisy and crowded. Every other sense Sherlock has is telling him this is not the same pool, this is not what he fears. That smell might be clogging every breath he takes but this isn't one of his nightmares.
"I'm fine," Sherlock says, calming his expression so John will believe him. "Maybe you should talk to the girl at the counter. Find out if there have been any odd occurrences with the lockers, anything they haven't reported to the police."
John nods but he holds Sherlock's gaze for a moment before he turns – military sharp turn, he's still concerned, on alert in case Sherlock's lying – and walks over to the desk.
Sherlock is mostly fine but it's still nice to be able to breathe without being witnessed. It's nice to watch John: hands in the pockets of his cardigan, a terrible style that doesn't suit him at all; shoulders hunched just a little; head tilted slightly and a hopeful, friendly smile on his face as he approaches the girl behind the counter. She's only twenty-three (obvious in her hairstyle and the bracelets on her wrist), far too young for John to consider, but she still smiles back, still mimics his body language with her own, tilting her shoulders forward, letting her head lean slightly to one side.
John has this ability. People respond to him. He asks questions with a hopeful smile and almost apologetic manners, and they tell him what he wants to know. It's remarkably useful.
The girl shrugs and leans back a little, and John's nodding now. He says thank you (Sherlock doesn't need to read his lips to know that; he knows John) and walks back to Sherlock.
"Nothing else has been reported," John says with a shrug. "They had one regular who complained that someone messed with her bag but everything was there so they didn't take it seriously."
"Ah," Sherlock says, and John nods sharply. It's obvious enough that even John can see what must have happened. The bag was stolen, the ID and banking details were duplicated and returned, and this time the thief was careless enough to be noticed before the cards were used.
"She hasn't reported anything withdrawn from her account, so he must have known he'd been noticed. He must have spent time here afterwards and watched her complain."
"Statistically speaking, it's most likely a man."
John eyebrows rise sceptically. "In a women's changing room?"
"A stealthy, clever man," Sherlock amends. "Best if we have a look around."
"In the women's changing room?" John asks again, in exactly the same tone of voice.
"It was the most likely location of the thefts."
John sighs as if Sherlock's somehow being unreasonable. "Fine, as long as you don't suggest a swim."
"I really wasn't planning on that, John."
They stake out the women's changing room. They do it from the pool, because it's the least suspicious way. Sherlock is very good at passing as something he's not, but even he has his limits. With nothing but a swimsuit and a towel, he wouldn't convince anyone he was female. (He could, and he suggested it to John, effectively appear to be a middle-aged mother escorting a child to the change room but John refused. First, he argued against using children for subterfuge, utterly ridiculous, and then he pointed out a far more relevant fact: it might take hours or days for their thief to show again and even a difficult child wouldn't take hours to shower and change.)
It takes nearly four hours -- four hours of sitting on uncomfortable benches and listening to children holler, the constant splash of water and the stench of chlorine -- before Sherlock spots it. A small movement of the door, a young man loitering a little too casually and then ducking through the side door.
He texts John: I think we have him.
John's sitting by the front entrance, keeping an eye on the front door, the only publically accessible entrance and exit.
Sherlock types into his phone -- Red t-shirt, black jeans. F changing rooms. SH -- and sends it to John. John's reply is a fast "on way".
Sherlock watches the aqua-aerobics session in the pool. It's early afternoon, before school's finished, and the pool users are a combination of serious swimmers and a collection of suburban housewives splashing to the beat.
He turns his attention back to the doors, but there's no movement for the first five minutes. Or the next five. After approximately seventeen minutes, the door eases open and the young man side-steps out. (He's in his mid-twenties but Sherlock can’t be more precise than that.)
He pauses for a moment, looking around the pool to be sure he hasn't caught anyone's attention. When he's sure no-one's watching (no one is, other than Sherlock and Sherlock's trying to be an inconspicuous as he can be), he walks away from the changing room door. Sherlock expects him to head right and try to exit the building.
Sherlock starts typing a text to John, but instead the young man starts sauntering left, towards the pool itself.
Sherlock stands, hurriedly trying to retype his message, when he hears John's voice call out, "Oi! You!" and the young man bolts to the other side of the building. There's nothing there but the men's changing rooms, Sherlock thinks.
Sherlock looks over just in time to see John barrel through the glass doors, eschewing the most basic rules of pool safety by running after their culprit.
Sherlock had chosen his seat to be unnoticed. He's in the back row of chairs, away from the narrow steps leading here. The only logical choice is to hurdle the rows of benches in front of him, but he's still yards behind when he gets to the poolside.
He has a perfect view to see John in close pursuit. There are only a few steps between them, both running fast. A pool employee yells out for them both to stop and the young man actually does. He stops and turns and he plants his feet hard. He bends his knees. But John's still running hard, arms pumping as he goes, and he looks up too late. He doesn't have time to slow down, to fight the combined velocity and inertia pushing him forward.
Sherlock sees it happen. Sees John still belting along with steady, powerful strides, sees the young man twist forward, shoulders pressed back, and, yes, he shoves at John's shoulder, pushing him off-balance and using John's own momentum against him. John steps backwards once, and there's an awkward fumble, and John yells in surprise.
For a second, the world stops. Distantly, coldly, Sherlock knows it's shock effecting his subjective perception of time. Nothing actually stops, it's only that Sherlock feels frozen in that microsecond of John tumbling, falling, collapsing into the pool.
There's a loud splash.
Time begins to grind forward in slow motion. Sherlock's still running but he can't move fast enough and he sees John's head go under. His hands flail up and even his hands sink beneath the surface.
The suspect looks for a second and then he runs. Sherlock doesn't care, he doesn't even look. He doesn't look because John's underwater and Sherlock can smell chlorine and he can't have this happen. He can't.
He's running. He's forcing his legs to move but it feels like he's going too slow, like he won't ever, ever get there.
When he does, he's moving so fast he skids on the tiles, slips and has to reach forward, catch the railing of the ladder leading to the water, and balance himself. He's looking for John, scanning the surface of the water, And there -- a dark shape. There. Still moving.
Moving towards the surface.
John's head emerges from the water. There's water streaming from his face. He's coughing, spluttering, and treading water. Sherlock has never felt so thankful in his entire life.
John squints at Sherlock and scowls. "Sherlock. Get him."
"I'm fine. Go." John sounds annoyed, almost personally insulted by the whole thing. He sounds the same way when he asks Sherlock to pay the electricity and Sherlock completely forgets. "Don't let him get away."
Sherlock looks up, towards the men's changing room: the door's swinging shut. Then he glances back at John. John's treading water, still spluttering occasionally, but he's fine. John's fine. He's starting to use basic breaststroke, using slow, lazy strokes to pull himself towards the edge, and he's fine.
And Sherlock has a case to solve.
So Sherlock runs to the gently swaying door. He chooses his steps carefully, aims for as much friction and speed as he can manage on this surface. He makes the most of his leg length, making his strides as long as possible, but he still skids a bit as he collides with the swinging doors of the men's changing room.
Sherlock looks around for his culprit, but he's nowhere to be seen. He could be hiding in the cubicles or the showers, no certain signs either way -- too many footsteps on the wet floor to be certain -- so Sherlock spins left on instinct and starts pushing open the closed toilet doors.
The first two bang open but the third is locked shut. At a muffled noise from above, Sherlock steps back and looks up. He sees a small open window and there's a young man (same brand of jeans, same small rip in the upper right corner of the rear left pocket), hanging halfway out of the window, trying to shimmy his hips through.
Sherlock kicks the door once. It's a hard kick and the lock holds fast but the cheap screws holding it to the door don't. He lunges, grabs hold of the man's knees and leans back with all his weight.
There's a squawk above him, a plea to let go that Sherlock ignores entirely. Sherlock loosens his grip for a moment, slackens the pressure and just as their culprit starts to tug and try to free himself, Sherlock yanks backwards.
There's a satisfying clamour as Sherlock's plan works and the young man comes clattering back down.
Sherlock neatly avoids an elbow to the jaw. There's a scuffle, the young man lashes out, arms and legs and no plan to it. It's hardly a challenge for Sherlock to wrestle him to the floor, face-down on the dirty, wet tiles, one knee on the small of his back.
This is why Sherlock keeps handcuffs in his pocket. This is why Sherlock's occasional, maliciously motivated pickpocketing of Lestrade comes in handy. Because once a suspect has been overpowered, it's rather boring to keep someone pinned down until the Met finally decide to show up. It's far more efficient to pull the man to his knees, force his arms around the back of the cistern and then click the cuffs closed around his wrists.
Sherlock leaves him embracing the toilet, and texts Lestrade:
Culprit found. At pool now. Citizen's arrest made.
For some reason, Lestrade always comes quickest when Sherlock makes a citizen's arrest. Sherlock's not sure if that's caused by concern for the suspect or professional embarrassment.
youre not allowed to arrest people is Lestrade's reply. (Unusual for Lestrade to reply in text form. Even mentioning a citizen's arrest normally makes Lestrade try to call him.) Quickly following it, there's a second message: sending uniform car now dont leave pool.
Sherlock stands up. Lestrade insisted he stays, but he never said Sherlock had to stay with the suspect. As he walks into the main pool area, he sees John.
Standing near the ladder leading to the pool, John's soaked. He's pulling at his shirttails, trying to twist them up and wring the excess water out of them. It's rather pointless, given that his hair is plastered to his head, and he's dripping from every other point.
"D'you get him?" John calls out, looking up hopefully.
"Handcuffed. We're waiting for the police," Sherlock says, striding towards John. There's a tightness in his chest that he can't quite explain. Not stretched open, not gaping and empty, but he feels as if there's too much there suddenly. A lump of lead weighs him down, makes it hard to breathe but here's John, watching him and grinning like they've just run through London alleys, following a hunch, following a murderer.
As John grins, Sherlock realises three things. Firstly, that John's happy. John is ridiculously happy in this moment and it makes Sherlock smile. Secondly, there will be cars and sirens and uniformed officers, and in this moment, he really doesn't care. Compared to John's grin, compared to the fact that John's standing here, wet and curious and happy, the sirens are unimportant.
And thirdly, John was right. Sherlock Holmes doesn't do anything in moderation.
He never has. There's no point starting now, Sherlock thinks, coming to a stop in front of John. Moderation is for people who don't know what they want.
Sherlock reaches out, cups John's face in both hands and kisses him. John's skin is cold and wet and smells of chlorine, but his breath is warm on Sherlock's mouth. A huff of surprise caught against Sherlock's lip before John kisses him back.
It's heated and passionate, and Sherlock's never felt more alive. His clothes are sticking to his skin and pool water is soaking through his shirt where John is pressed warm against him. It will ruin his suit, Sherlock's sure of it, but it's an easy sacrifice.
He doesn't want to let go, so when he leans back, he doesn't go far. He can't, not with John's arm firm around his shoulder and his other arm holding tight around his back.
"I worked out what I was trying to say," Sherlock says.
John laughs. A terribly undignified giggle escapes him. "You realise you still didn't use words."
"You understood." Sherlock watches John to see if he's wrong, to see if he misinterpreted, but he's not. John smiles. That smile shines with fondness, concern and love, everything Sherlock's seen but not understood. In that smile and the soft crinkle around John's eyes, John's feelings for Sherlock are written boldly across his face. They always have been.
"Yeah," John says, "I understood."
John pulls him into an embrace and kisses Sherlock's cheek. Sherlock holds on tight, holds John like he needs someone to hold him together. He can feel his heart pounding in his chest, and he feels overwhelmed, so full of bursting happiness that he could split apart, so light with hope that he could float away.
He presses his closed eyes onto John's shoulder, and breathes in the chlorine on John's skin. Together, they wait for the growing sound of sirens.