It was the familiar baritone which stirred John from his doze, rather than the cursing. Although, as he became more alert, he recognised that to hear cursing in that particular voice was unusual in itself.
The fresh outburst brought John up from his chair and he headed for the living room door, looking down the stairs to see Sherlock sitting at the half way point, attempting to roll up one of his trouser legs.
"Are you all right?" John asked uncertainly. Sherlock's head swivelled around and he almost toppled over sideways. John rushed down the stairs to steady him. "My God, are you hurt? What happened?" He knelt on the step and started running his palms over Sherlock's ribs, checking for injury.
Sherlock huffed out a breath and the question was abruptly answered; John stiffened in shock. "You're drunk!"
"Shhh…" Sherlock stretched out a hand and laid a finger rather imprecisely over John's mouth. "Don't tell John," he instructed urgently.
John's emotions cycled through disbelief, concern, and the inclination to laugh like a hyena. The roulette wheel was still spinning on a definite decision when he forced himself into doctor mode.
"Right, we need to get you up the rest of the stairs before you fall down these ones," he said firmly. "Come on." He pulled Sherlock's arm around his shoulders and got to his feet, using the considerable strength in his legs to force Sherlock up, then practically manhandled him to the top. Briefly debating the merits of the sofa, he decided to press on instead and get Sherlock straight to his room, where he attempted to drop him down onto the bed.
The plan worked fine, except for the part where Sherlock's long fingers had threaded themselves into the loose knit of John's jumper, forcing him to follow or risk dislocating them.
"What have you..." John was left kneeling awkwardly on the edge of the bed and craned his neck to peer at his own shoulder. "I need to put the light on," he said, but Sherlock made no attempt to extricate himself.
"Fine." John shrugged his other arm out of the sleeve and pulled the jumper off over his head, leaving it in Sherlock's hands as he got up to switch on the lamp.
He turned back to the surreal sight of Sherlock Holmes sitting on the edge of his bed, peering woefully at the empty knitwear in his hands.
"What happened?" John asked. "You were going out to check out a suspect… how did you get like this?" He waved his arm to indicate the advanced level of inebriation before him.
"There was..." Sherlock abandoned the jumper, "... a bar," he finished, squinting up at John. "The subjuspect…" He stopped, frowning, as if aware that there was something wrong with that word but unable to put his finger on the problem. "Bar," he said again.
"OK, so I'm getting that there was a bar," John agreed, kneeling down and unlacing Sherlock's shoes.
Sherlock watched these proceedings with interest. "Shoes," he announced.
John pulled them off, then removed his socks too, Sherlock's toes immediately flexing into the pile of the carpet.
"Bedtime?" he asked.
"It is for you," John agreed, getting to his feet again. "So what happened at the bar? Did the suspect buy you a drink?"
"Lotsh of drinks," Sherlock nodded emphatically, nearly falling forwards with the motion. John steadied him, but didn't push him back – it would probably be easier to get his clothes off while he was sitting up.
"He tried to… tried to…" Sherlock seemed to lose the thread of his sentence, as John's hands tightened on his arms.
"He tried to what?" All trace of humour had gone from his voice.
Sherlock's eyes opened indignantly wide. "He tried to kith me!" he complained.
John stared at him, only partially distracted by the lisp. "Is that all he tried to do?" he asked, debating whether a broken nose would suffice for this stranger, whom he would be tracking down as soon as Sherlock could safely be left on his own, or whether more serious measures would be called for.
"That'sh enough," declared Sherlock firmly, as John started to ease his jacket away from his shoulders. "I told him…" he tried to raise his arms, presumably to make one of his usual expansive gestures, but found that they were pinned to his sides by the jacket. This seemed to confuse him and he struggled a bit until John finally got the jacket off, at which point Sherlock threw both arms around him. "Told him... no good," he confided, turning his face into John's neck and inhaling deeply. "No good."
"No, you don't like that sort of thing. I know, I understand," John agreed, disentangling himself and starting on the shirt buttons.
"No good if not John," Sherlock mumbled, his head lolling forwards again.
John's fingers paused in their work, certain he must have misheard, or at least misunderstood. He looked down at his hands and waited until they were steady again. Then he finished his task and tugged the shirt free, throwing it in the direction of the laundry hamper.
"Don't tell John," Sherlock insisted again. "Can't tell John. Spoil everything." His eyelids were drooping.
"Don't worry," John reassured him, reaching for the T-shirt he slept in then pulling it over his head, guiding his arms into it one at a time. "Come on, lie back. You need to get some sleep." He pushed and Sherlock lay down obediently as John picked up his legs and swung them onto the bed, wondering what on earth was going on in that sozzled head.
He sat down on the edge of the mattress and leaned forward to rest the back of one hand against Sherlock's forehead, picking up his wrist in the other and checking his pulse rate, eyes on the bedside clock as he counted.
After a few more seconds, Sherlock sighed. "John doesn't want me," he announced sadly.
John lost track of what number he had reached. Then he reminded himself that Sherlock was drunk and mentally added '... to keep body parts in the fridge' on to the end of his sentence. "I'm sure you can compromise," he replied, starting his count again.
Sherlock's expression became even more forlorn and John let go of the wrist he was holding and frowned, finding that his other hand was now smoothing over dark curly hair. He had no recollection of deciding to do that. He reached for the quilt which was folded over the footboard and spread it out, then moved to get up, but Sherlock's voice halted him.
"Stay." His eyes were wide and guileless, and John gave himself a moment just to take in the sight of Sherlock with his defences down and his thoughts streaming freely. He opened his mouth with a world of questions on his lips... but then stopped and turned his head away. He would not take advantage of his friend, however overwhelming the temptation.
Sherlock rolled onto his side, curving his body around John. "I want more," he murmured into the semi-darkness as his eyes finally closed.
John's breath seemed to have fled the scene, since try as he might he couldn't catch it. "What do you mean?" he asked at last, but there was no response.
He twisted away and rested his elbows on his knees, dropping his head into his hands. He sat like that for a while, feeling Sherlock's warmth against his lower back, then he sighed.
"What do you want from me?" He spoke very softly, not expecting an answer, but he got one anyway. Just the faintest whisper of breath from a man tipping over the edge into sleep...
The following day, John didn't know what to do.
He had hardly slept the night before, sitting up with Sherlock out of concern that he might be ill. Or, more honestly, because he had the excuse of concern that Sherlock might be ill. By the time he had forced himself to admit that Sherlock was fine, and that running a hand through his hair for hours was not really medically necessary, it had been very late indeed.
Sherlock had been twitchy all morning and very obviously hungover. Enquiries about the mystery suspect from the night before were ignored and he maintained a fairly low-grade rant, which immediately cut off whenever John got up, then resumed upon being presented with another cup of unwanted tea.
By late afternoon, he was on the sofa and had settled into his effigy impression... eyes closed, hands pressed together prayerfully; replace the pyjamas with a suit of armour and he wouldn't look out of place in a crypt. John sat and looked at him, wanting to cross the room and take the chance but unable to get past the fear that he was reading too much into too little and would ruin everything.
"Sooner or later someone's going to come along and take a brass rubbing of you," he observed after a while.
Sherlock sniffed but didn't open his eyes. "Brass rubbings are taken from monumental brasses rather than from three dimensional representations, as should be obvious from the name. Sometimes things are so blindingly apparent and yet you don't see them at all, you ignore the facts, you disregard the evidence, just marching along with your narrow perceptions, unable to disregard a single aberration and if you're going to leave, just go."
His mouth snapped shut exactly as John's fell open and an awkward silence swelled in the flat, until it was disturbed by the rustle of a silk dressing gown as Sherlock turned his back to the room.
"Sherlock, how much do you remember about last night?"
"Enough to wish you would forget it."
Well, that seemed fairly clear. John exhaled, then moved over to the desk and fired up his laptop, trying to put the whole thing out of his mind and get back onto an even keel. He opened a new page and stared at it.
'... if you're going to leave, just go.'
Go where? John frowned. He had spent the morning debating some pretty radical plans of action, but leaving had never featured among them - other than as the fear which stopped him from trying. He didn't want to upset their arrangement so drastically that he would have to move out. He raised his head and looked at the Sherlock-shaped lump on the sofa.
'... just go... just go... just go.'
Why would Sherlock think that he would leave?
"Your blogging would be more successful if you actually typed something rather than just staring at the back of my head." The voice was terse, as was usual for these moods, but there was something off about it.
John sat there and turned things over in his mind. If Sherlock remembered the night before, was he concerned that John would misunderstand his words and be offended? Offended enough to leave? But no... Sherlock was pretty clueless on the emotional front, but surely he knew John better than that? His brows drew together in thought.
"My God, I can actually hear the gears grinding."
John was struck by a sudden inspiration and stood up, walking across the room to perch on the edge of the sofa. Sherlock didn't look round. Nor did he appear to be breathing. "Can you delete this, if you need to?" John asked. "If I say or do something which damages our friendship, could you erase it and let us go on as before?"
Slowly, Sherlock turned his head. "Thus far, successful deletions of memories associated with you total exactly zero," he advised. "But I am certainly willing to try, if it means you will stay."
John frowned at him. "Let's just clear this up right now, shall we? I'm not going to leave unless you throw me out." Sherlock's eyebrows rose and John tried to think of a way to be clear, without being too blatant. "If you had almost everything you needed to be happy," he started cautiously, "say, seventy or eighty per cent of everything you ultimately wanted..." He paused, steeling himself. "Would you risk it for the chance at a hundred?"
Sherlock twisted around onto his back, studying John closely. "The risk is greater on my side," he pointed out eventually. "You have other friends, whereas for me…" He shrugged.
John stared, trying to judge whether he was adapting what he heard to fit his own hopes, or whether... He gave up and stripped himself bare. "There would be no risk for you," he promised. "No risk at all."
The expressions chased across Sherlock's features more quickly than John could identify, and the moment stretched out as he waited, feeling as if he'd thrown himself from a cliff top without being sure he was attached to anything. He was just starting to lose his nerve when Sherlock caught him, reaching out and taking hold of his wrist, then placing the hand directly over his own heart.
"Yours, if you want it," he offered abruptly.
John gaped at him and Sherlock released his hold. "Such as it is," he added, turning his head away.
John did not remove his hand, but rather lowered his gaze to look at it, his stubby fingers brown and rough against the thin material of Sherlock's grey T-shirt. He could feel the heart underneath beating too quickly, unsure of its welcome, uncertain of its worth. "I want it," he said, his fingers flexing. He looked back up at Sherlock's face. "I want it."
"What exactly do you want?" Sherlock looked sideways at him and John smiled, then deliberately allowed his eyes to wander down over the long neck, noting the convulsive swallow; across the lean chest, seeing the nipples peak - he rubbed his thumb over the nearest and Sherlock's whole body quivered, but then his hand flew up to cover John's, halting his survey. "What do you want from me?" he asked again.
John blinked as he recognised his own question from the night before. There was only one possible answer. "Everything," he replied. "I want it all. Everything you show to the world and all the things you hide."
Sherlock sat up, bringing them face to face. "How sure are you?" he asked, as John's hand slid down to curve around his hip. "Because you can't go back from this, you must understand that."
His face was intent and John's other hand rose to stroke a fingertip along one perfect cheekbone, hardly able to believe what he was doing. Totally unable to stop.
Sherlock reached out and gripped his shoulders. "John! John, look at me. You're not paying attention."
Sherlock smiled and frowned at the same time, which made John want to kiss him. "Thank you, but I need you to focus," he insisted.
"I want to kiss you."
"Oh, God." Sherlock swallowed, his eyes roaming John's face. "Listen to me. You have to be sure. You have to be absolutely certain that this is what you want, because if you do this... if you let me in... I will never, ever let you go."
"Good," said John.
Sherlock's fingers tightened. "I am serious," he reproved. "I am obsessive and possessive and I absolutely do not share. If you take this step, I will wrap myself around your life until you are drowning in me. I will consume you, John. You should think about it... I am dangerous."
"The magic word." John pushed his hand into the curls at the back of Sherlock's head and attempted to draw him nearer, but he refused to budge, his arms tense and holding John at bay.
"John, wait… Please. Be sure." His expression was pained and he pulled free suddenly, slithering out of John's grip and jack-knifing off the sofa. "You're not hearing me," he muttered, moving to the window and standing with his back turned. "I couldn't bear it if…"
John tried to clear his head and focus on his friend once more, but it was impossible to revert completely. He couldn't persuade his heart that it shouldn't be racing, or his mouth that it shouldn't be smiling, or his hands that they should be anywhere in the world but on Sherlock's body.
He got up from the sofa. "This seems all out of order, considering I haven't even kissed you yet." He walked up behind Sherlock, seeing the tension in his spine. This was Sherlock's risk - his gamble - the fear of throwing himself into something he couldn't control, knowing he would never get out. "But you must know that I love you… that I am in love with you? You see everything… how can you not know this?"
Sherlock shuddered an exhale and turned around. "Say it again."
"I love you," whispered John, both hands sneaking inside Sherlock's dressing gown and around to his back, slipping under his T-shirt and stroking up over smooth skin. Sherlock arched into his grip, fingers digging into John's shoulders.
"Again," he demanded.
"I love you," John angled his head so that his lips brushed Sherlock's throat. "I love you. And if you're the only person I'm going to kiss for the rest of my life, then I'd really like to get started on that as soon as possible." He drew back just far enough to be able to focus.
"Let me kiss you, Sherlock," he whispered. "I really need to kiss you now. Right now. Please."
Sherlock blinked a long, slow blink, as if mentally tucking the moment away, and then he smiled. "Let me," he said, bringing both hands up to cup John's face.
Their lips met so gently, so very, very softly, that John was disconcerted. Whenever he had allowed himself to imagine this moment, it had always been a desperate act, filled with the adrenaline which made Sherlock seem more approachable than he did at any other time. For Sherlock to kiss him with such sweetness and delicacy was completely unexpected and John pulled one hand free and thrust it into his hair, trying to tug him nearer.
Sherlock resisted, stiffening his spine and nipping gently at John's lower lip. "Let me," he requested again between kisses. "Let me take my time." One hand moved away from John's face and slid around his waist instead, the other tipping his head up, then there were kisses pressing along his jaw. "I don't believe it yet," Sherlock admitted.
He pulled his head back and they looked at each other. "I knew you cared, I could see that much," he managed, before his gaze fell and he leaned forward again, brushing their mouths together and finally John felt the tip of Sherlock's tongue tracing his bottom lip. "But I am so unused to seeing affection aimed towards myself; I couldn't be sure whether it was just friendship or something more." The hand on John's back slithered down and under his jumper, tugging clothes out of the way and smoothing up across bare skin.
John shuddered and let his own hand drift down Sherlock's spine, pausing just below his waistband, suddenly unsure.
"You can touch me," Sherlock murmured, pressing their lips together again, and again, their tongues teasing but still tentative. "Anything you can dream of, you can do... could have done for months now."
John's mind reeled slightly at the unqualified permission but he immediately dropped his hand lower, squeezing firmly. "Do you still not believe it?" he queried, hardly able to credit himself what he was doing... where his hand was. He traced a line along the very top of Sherlock's thigh with the tips of his fingers, from the outside to the inside, enjoying the reaction this produced. He did it again, tightening his other hand in Sherlock's curls and holding his head steady for a longer kiss - finally managing to run his tongue along that cupid's bow, forwards and back, learning the taste and texture of it, before abandoning all restraint and just sucking it into his mouth, nibbling and teasing until Sherlock pulled back and stared at him, wide eyed.
"You really want me," he blurted out, then flushed, looking embarrassed by his words.
John snorted, but didn't move his hand - he'd been fantasising about that arse for far too long to relinquish his hold so easily; Sherlock may as well get used to it. "I really, really do," he confirmed. "Is that OK? I mean, I thought you weren't interested in this side of things, but clearly you are." There was no mistaking the effect they were having on each other.
"I never used to be," Sherlock replied. "I mean, I have... I'm not that much of a freak." John's hand tightened reflexively at the word and Sherlock jumped. "Are all our future conversations going to take place with your hand on my backside?" he asked, with an air of interest rather than censure.
John shrugged. "Problem?" he asked, one eyebrow raised in what he felt was a passable imitation of the man he adored.
Sherlock grinned. "I'll try to cope." He adopted an expression of supreme self-sacrifice, which was quite possibly the oddest thing John had ever seen. He tugged Sherlock's head down again and this time there was no hesitation. Their mouths sealed together and opened and they got lost in each other, their lips moving, tongues exploring, while Sherlock's hand stroked up John's back until it was between his shoulder blades and John's hand... stayed exactly where it was.
Long minutes passed as they kissed, sucking in quick gasps of air when they needed to, but parting as little as possible, until at last Sherlock pulled back a tiny, a miniscule amount, just far enough to be able to squeeze out a few words. "I need to sit down," he said. "I can't..." He was shaking.
"Sit or lie?" John asked, between kisses, breathing in Sherlock's answering gasp.
"Ah, lie... most definitely lie," Sherlock told him. "Is that..." He drew in a breath, trying to pull himself together. "My God, what have you done to me?"
"Hmm... I would say, items one to five on my list," John replied, leaning back slightly.
Sherlock stared at him. "How many..." He swallowed. "How long is the list?"
John just grinned.
"Oh, God." Sherlock sounded dazed, but then he blinked a few times and forced himself to focus. "Before... before we..." He trailed off. "Could you move your hand?"
John did as he was asked.
"The other one."
John huffed, but rearranged himself until he had both arms wrapped around Sherlock's waist.
"There's something I have to tell you," Sherlock said. "I don't want to, but..." He shook his head. "Please remember I did it for the best."
"I mean, the idea seemed sound... and none of this would have happened..."
"You're making it worse."
"I know." Sherlock sighed. "There's no easy way..." He drew a deep breath. "I wasn't drunk," he said. "At least, not as drunk as I led you to believe."
"You weren't...?" John echoed blankly. "What do you mean you weren't drunk? Last night, you mean? But..."
His arms loosened their grip and Sherlock's tightened to compensate.
"You deliberately fooled me?" John was running through the events in his mind, remembering the way he had sat and stroked Sherlock's hair for ages. "Why... why would you do that?" He tried to pull away.
"John, just listen," Sherlock pleaded. "Will you listen?"
John looked at him. It was hard to trust his expression in the circumstances, but he seemed distressed and John could no more ignore that than he could suddenly make himself a foot taller. He nodded.
Sherlock sighed in relief and moved them over to his armchair, sitting and dragging John down sideways on top of him, despite his protestations. "Are you listening?"
John scowled at him, but it was difficult to doubt someone's genuine interest in you when their erection was poking you in the thigh... which was no doubt why Sherlock had pulled him down into this undignified position in the first place. He folded his arms, but stayed put.
With a pronounced clearing of throat, Sherlock started to explain. "At the bar last night..."
"Oh, so there was a bar?"
"... the suspect..."
"Don't you mean 'subjuspect'?"
Sherlock flushed, but carried on. "... was clearly ordering much stronger drinks than requested."
"Bastard," John growled. "Not you," he added, unfolding his arms and raising a hand to Sherlock's face, his protective instincts blasting through everything else. Sherlock leaned into the pressure and kissed the inside of his wrist.
"Go on," said John.
"Well, part of my brain was, as always, considering our situation," Sherlock continued, bringing up his own hand to hold John's in place. "As far as I could tell, we were at an impasse: I realised months ago that I was in love with you, and sometimes I thought you might feel the same, but I could never be sure... and I couldn't risk it, because your friendship was too important to me."
"But that's how I..." John broke off. "Except I never really thought that you - I mean, sometimes you would look at me so intently, but I didn't think..." He shrugged, inwardly thrilling at Sherlock's declaration.
"Exactly," said Sherlock. "Stalemate. Both of us possibly wanting more, but neither willing to risk what we already had. And then it occurred to me that if I came home 'drunk', I could let you know how I felt in such a way that you could choose to ignore it and thus avoid any awkwardness, because you wouldn't know that I knew you knew."
John blinked at him. "I'm not sure my brain is up to this."
Sherlock shrugged. "Well, as I said, once the concept presented itself... it appeared to have some merit."
"You mean it seemed like a good idea at the time?" John shook his head. "How many drinks did you have?"
"Only two. I managed to dispose of the next and left soon after."
"Sherlock, you have the alcohol tolerance of an eight stone Methodist. Last time you had a third glass of wine at Angelo's you sang tunes from Pirates of Penzance all the way home." His mouth twitched at the memory. "Loudly."
Sherlock sniffed, although the indignation might have been more convincing had he not been rubbing his face against John's hand. "I'm an excellent singer."
"Yes, you are," John agreed. "But you're not a bloody pirate king. My point is that your decision may not have been entirely 'you'."
"I knew what I was saying last night, though."
"And did you mean it?"
"Of course I meant it, that was the whole point! I didn't make it up, I just... let it out." He sighed. "I would not normally deceive you deliberately. Not you. I leaned that lesson a long time ago." His eyes flew guiltily to the narrow scar just above John's left eyebrow, legacy of one of Moriarty's snipers. "But would you have taken the chance today, if you hadn't heard my confession? Would you ever have risked it?"
John started to relax. "I never would," he admitted. "I would never have believed that you wanted me if I hadn't heard it from your own lips." His gaze fell to the lips in question, which parted invitingly and John found himself moving inexorably forward, his palm rising to slide into Sherlock's hair once more, as the hand around his hip urged him nearer.
He was breathing Sherlock's air again when the thought struck him, and he jerked his head backwards. "What would you have done if I'd called your bluff and taken advantage?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Tried to ensure that your post-orgasmic haze was sufficiently disorienting to prevent you regretting it in the morning."
John's mouth fell open. "That's a good answer."
"Thank you." Sherlock attempted a modest expression.
"Don't do that face."
Sherlock grimaced. "It's irrelevant anyway; you'd never take advantage of me."
"Don't bet on it."
"It would be impossible."
"What, because I'm such an upright citizen? Sherlock, you'd tempt a saint!"
"No, because I give you permission." He took John's face in his hands and brought it to his own, pressing their foreheads together. "In fact, I'm begging you to." His voice was a growl.
Moments later, they were kissing and John forgot everything else, because really... what did it matter? Sherlock loved him. He really loved him. And wanted him... John wriggled a bit, enjoying the evidence and revelling in the deep groan he drew from Sherlock's chest. His chest... John's hands slipped down, but then he paused, forced himself to think for a moment, and scrambled to his feet.
He looked down at Sherlock, sprawled in his chair, his hair wild from John's fingers, mouth red from his kisses, eyes glazed with lust, and reached out both hands to him. "Your room or mine?"
Sherlock smiled his slow, lazy smile as he stood up, then wrapped both arms around his doctor, accepting the hand which immediately dropped to his bum and smirking with supreme satisfaction.
"Irrelevant," he said.