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The Perils of Urban Warfare

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The day that Harry came out to the family, John was actually relieved. He’d spent years worrying about her lack of boyfriends and fearing that she was lonely, boozing it up by herself and getting melancholic and spiteful. The thought that she was fucking women instead and hiding it was cause for celebration by comparison.
 

That was years ago when he was still in med school, of course, and so when his parents threw a fit he took her in. They lived together in a cramped student flat for two months and four days without quite managing to kill each other before Mum and Dad started speaking to them again, and two days after that Harry fell madly in love with Olivia. That lasted for a span of exactly three weeks, four days and nine hours, at which point Harry decided that she was in love with someone else and sparked another family argument, this time about her disgraceful, flighty ways. Thus commenced another spat lasting for another month and another day, and so it went, on and on. The tangled web of the Watson family’s strained relationships is mapped out in small parcels of time spinning from one drama to the next while John does his best to keep everyone from being taken out in the crossfire.
 

John’s always been the stable one in his family.
 

Then he ended up in Afghanistan, discovered what it was like to live your life on the front lines, and lost the ability to relate to ninety percent of people on the planet, including his family.
 

Stable.


The irony is bitter.


 

***


 

Thompson gives him a broad smile when he walks into her immaculate office on Thursday morning without the aid of a stick.


‘John,’ she says, clapping her hands. ‘That’s fabulous. What happened?’


There’s only one answer John can give to that without wasting the entire day in explanations:


‘Sherlock. I suppose Sherlock happened.’ That’s how he says it, in the same shell-shocked tone that he might have said ‘an earthquake’ or ‘the hydrogen bomb’ or ‘the collapse of the entire European continent into the ocean under a tsunami of watery death’.


‘Sherlock?’ Thompson asks.


‘Yes. I met someone. Not like that, just some bloke. He’s a friend – well, not friend, he doesn’t have any friends, plenty of enemies, but.’ He pauses for breath and smiles ruefully, abashed at his own enthusiasm. ‘Sherlock Holmes. He’s an acquaintance of an old school friend of mine. He was looking for a flatmate and I was looking for a place to live. It made sense.’


(It made no sense at all. Nothing in Sherlock’s life makes sense to anyone but Sherlock. Even when Sherlock explains it and distils it all down into that precise, incisive and unpredictable logic that structures the bedrock of his universe, it’s still absolutely baffling. John can tell that Thompson knows it too – her lips purse and she scribbles something down. ‘Impulsive. Early sign of self-destructive behaviour patterns?’ she writes. John always hates trying to spy on her notes; she has terrible handwriting.)


‘So you’re living with this Sherlock, then?’


‘I am. He’s a complete nutter. Absolutely brilliant, and I mean that literally.’


‘He emits light?’ Thompson asks archly.


‘He’s a genius.’


‘And where does your leg come into all this?’


Just like that John finds himself launching into (a heavily edited version of) the tale. Thompson’s very good at wearing her therapist’s face; John reckons it must be a requirement for the job and that the carefully neutral, measured expression in front of him could only be the product of extensive training. He detects, however, a slight widening around her eyes and a crease between her brows as he goes on – normally she can barely pry his jaws apart for a one-word response but now he’s aware that he’s babbling, like Sherlock has thrown open the floodgates in his skull and it’s all just pouring out without his consent or control. Maybe it’s because he finally has something to talk about, something exciting to relieve him from the monotony of a life without danger or gunfire or fear-born adrenaline. There’s nothing to do in the real world.   


(He stops that line of thought right there; it sounds far too much like Sherlock Holmes for his liking.)


‘You’re very generous with your praise for Sherlock,’ Thompson remarks when he’s done.


‘I don’t think he gets it very often.’


Thompson sits back in her chair and thinks for a few moments. John is quiet and glad to have finally wrestled his tongue into silence.


‘If Sherlock Holmes has no friends,’ Thompson says at length, ‘then what are you?’


John finds he has no easy answer for that one.

 


***

 


John likes to think that he doesn’t delude himself. Not too much, at least. He knows in many ways that he’s not cut out for civilian life. He itches when he walks down the street without the weight of a weapon on him, carries himself like he’s expecting a dressing-down at any moment for not conforming to uniform regs, and treats every conversation like a tactical engagement: get in, get what you need and pull out as quickly and cleanly as possible. He has this tendency, he’s noted, to clasp his hands behind his back and avoid eye contact whenever he’s in a situation he’s not comfortable with (which is often), falling into the defensive posture typically adopted in the face of psychotic officers the world over.


It’s lucky for him that Sherlock doesn’t really do conversations. What Sherlock considers conversation is more akin to a staccato burst of machinegun fire strafing over John’s head in a spray of logic-based shrapnel and deadly hand-grenades of intuition.


When he bothers to remember you’re in the room, that is.


Duck and cover and try to keep up: it’s a tactic that John is familiar with, comforting, and Sherlock seems to find some entertainment in his pragmatic, guerrilla approach to their relationship. Acquaintance. Whatever it is.


It does worry John that he frames his life solely in terms of military metaphor these days. It’s the kind of thing Thompson tells him he should be bringing up in their sessions or writing about in that useless blog, but no power on earth short of Sherlock  waking up one morning as a socially-conscious philanthropist could compel him to actually mention it.

 


***

 


Thompson doesn’t like Sherlock. This becomes readily apparent over the course of the next week. She thinks he’s a bad influence. The last thing John needs, she says, is to be swept right back up into a life of violence and danger. London isn’t a battleground, she informs him sternly.


John knows several people who would disagree with her, but he isn’t one of them.


Of course London isn’t a battlefield: there are no soldiers here. Soldiers don’t have arch-enemies who are actually their brothers and who ply the strings of the government from the shadows like bizarre, unrealistic puppet-masters and overlords of extreme familial dysfunction. No, London is a pantomime stage or a box office smash-hit replete with rooftop chase sequences and scheming villains and bodies in lurid pink heels. John knows the difference. Afghanistan wasn’t so sanitised.


(John isn’t ever going to tell her that he shot and killed a man for Sherlock. Thompson, who lives in the real world, would never understand. John doesn’t want to see the horror on her face or deal with the legal and personal fallout, but more important than any of that is this realisation: sighting down the smooth black planes of his handgun, everything came back into focus. His hands were steady, his nerves were calm. He’d lined up with his target so perfectly that he felt he could dissect the architecture of the universe with that one amazing shot. It was the best damn thing he’d felt in a long time, and he can never let anyone know.)

 


***

 


Sherlock’s boredom is destructive. He’s sitting with his chin on the table when John gets home from an awkward and trying lunch with his parents, staring contemplatively into the empty sockets of his beloved skull. There are five discarded nicotine patches on the floor.


‘That bad?’ John asks.


‘Dreadful.’


He looks like he’s moments away from breaking out another set of patches. At least it’s an unobtrusive way to be insane – he has yet to follow up on his threat of the violin, which John thinks would be a greater problem. John hasn’t managed to spot one anywhere in the piles of detritus littered in the wake of Sherlock’s eclectic and fickle flights of interest. That doesn’t mean anything, though. Sherlock is devious, and may just be biding his time.


John puts the kettle on. He’s desperate for a cup of tea. A couple of minutes later he gets stuck in the process of opening a new carton of milk. It’s not the screw-top that’s the problem, it’s the infernal tab underneath.


‘Someone needs to invent a better way to store milk,’ he grunts as he succeeds only in pulling the end off the tab without unsealing the milk. He reaches for a knife to puncture it instead. ‘These tabs are just... It doesn’t matter how hard you pull it, you’re always at the wrong angle.’


Sherlock’s eyes light up like gunfire, and John hears warning sirens in his laugh.


‘Angles, that’s it!’ He bolts up from the table. ‘John, you’re a genius. Well, actually, I’m a genius.’ He lunges out of the room for his coat and scarf. ‘We need to get to Waterloo right now.


‘Really?’ John darts a pleading look at his tea. ‘I’ve had a long day, I was just going to put my feet up-’


Sherlock steps back into view in the doorway. ‘I promise you there’ll be danger,’ he says, tantalising. ‘I’d even advise you to bring your gun, you might have to use it.’ He settles his hands on John’s shoulders and leans in, grinning wickedly. ‘It will all be highly illegal.’


‘You shouldn’t be excited about that,’ John mutters.


‘Neither should you.’


‘I’m not excited.’


‘And yet,’ Sherlock says, reaching the door, ‘you’re coming.’


‘I’m doing no such thing.’ John throws on his coat and steps out after Sherlock without a second thought. He isn’t an adrenaline junkie. He doesn’t need the thrill or the danger or the promise. But if there’s a better way on earth to pass the time, John hasn’t found it, and God knows he’s followed stupider men into battle.

 


***

 


Three weeks after John meets Sherlock, Thompson starts writing her notes in code.


‘It’s more helpful for me if I know you’re not trying to deconstruct everything I write,’ she says.


John spontaneously decides that he needs to break this code, and spends the rest of the session memorising Thompson’s gibberish as she writes it.


She might be onto something with the trust issues, he concedes.

 


***

 


He settles down in Sherlock’s plush, ugly armchair with a copy of Thompson’s coded notes propped on his knee and the butt of a pencil wedged between his teeth.


Sherlock drifts in from the kitchen with a biscuit.     


‘Should I tell you what it says now, or would you rather I pretended it took me a bit longer? You know, to ease your’ – he leans in to read over John’s shoulder – '‘feelings of inadequacy’ and avoid wounding your’ – his eyebrows shoot up – ‘‘fragile masculinity’.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘Your therapist isn’t very good.’


John glares up at him, exasperated. ‘Look, do you mind?’


‘Not in the slightest. By all means, keep working away.’


Sherlock drops into the armchair opposite and polishes off his chocolate digestive. John watches him through narrowed eyes.


‘You have no concept of- of privacy. Or respect for other people’s affairs.’


‘On the contrary, I have enormous respect for them – where else am I to find all the best clues?’


‘Stop snooping,’ John says, aware that telling Sherlock not to snoop is the same as telling him not to breathe or be rude or wear scarves.


‘John,’ Sherlock says pityingly, ‘if you really wanted to keep any of that hidden from me, you’d never have brought it back here. You know me better than that.’


John eyes the notes in his lap. ‘She didn’t say anything about my fragile masculinity, did she?’


Sherlock smiles. ‘No.’


John sighs. Sherlock is an intensely irritating man, but it’s part of his charm. ‘Fine, I’ll bite. What’s wrong with my therapist?’


A gleam comes into Sherlock’s eyes then and John realises that he has yet again made the rookie mistake of indulging Sherlock’s love of showing off.


‘For one thing, she clearly hasn’t been able to establish a rapport with you. She doesn’t trust you to trust her. Of course, you don’t trust her, which is hardly surprising. Hence the code. Hence you sitting here and trying to break it. The fact that she recorded her notes in a position that left them visible to you means she thinks the code is unbreakable, which means she doesn’t think you’re smart enough to break it, a dangerous assumption to make and false besides. She has also failed to factor in the possibility of you coming to me with it or even looking at it in my presence as you are doing now, which implies that she has misapprehended the nature and closeness of our relationship as flatmates. And that’s before we even go into what she’s written, much of which is fundamentally incorrect.’


Sherlock leaps to his feet. Not because he has anywhere to be so much as because he can’t sit still when his mind is ticking over. He’s like a perpetual motion machine, flouting the laws of physics or at least mortal capability left and right as he pleases.


‘She underestimates you. Or me. Or both of us. Anyway, she hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about.’


John attempts to mount a defence in Thompson’s name. ‘She’s a... very... nice woman.’


Well, that went down in flames.


Sherlock quirks a smile.


‘Assign each letter its number in the alphabet and subtract five. If you get a number less than one, subtract it from twenty six.’  


‘Excuse me?’


‘Your therapist’s code. Elementary stuff, quite insulting really, it’s as though the field of cryptography never existed. Another reason why she’s not right for you.’ Sherlock taps John authoritatively on the back of the head as he passes behind him. ‘Get a new one, John.’

 


***

 


There’s something about the way Sherlock says his name that John can’t quite pin down. It shouldn’t be unusual: plenty of people call him John. Almost everyone, in fact, who isn’t a policeman, in the military, or Mycroft. But when Sherlock says it, it feels intimate. Maybe it’s the tone of his voice, an innocent by-product of that deep, cadenced voice wrapping itself around a familiar name with any degree of fondness or curiosity or cheek.


It gives John a tic, a kneejerk reaction of discomfort as though he’s gone and done something terribly indecent just by listening to it.

 


***

 


John starts to become very aware that he talks about Sherlock too much. Thompson’s notes agree with him. He sees words like ‘unhealthy’, ‘co-dependent’ and ‘obsessive’ crop up in her messy, ciphered, upside-down hand. He makes a conscious effort to talk about Sherlock less, but there’s nothing of interest in John’s life that doesn’t stem from him, and the holes it leaves in their conversations are even more telling than his name would be.


One day, he cracks under the pressure.


‘Sherlock says you’re not very good at this.’


Attempt no. 1,274 not to talk about Sherlock Holmes: mission failed. Sherlock’s abrupt and blunt nature must be catching. Frightening thought.


Thompson takes the comment with admirable grace.


‘Oh? And why does he say that?’


‘He just means you’re not a mad, omniscient and possibly superhuman genius like him. He thinks most people are idiots.’


‘Does he think you’re an idiot?’


‘Of course he does,’ John says without rancour. There’s no point in holding these observations against Sherlock – he classifies John as an idiot in the same way that he classifies him as a bipedal mammal with opposable thumbs.


John’s phone beeps. It’s a text from Sherlock:

 


Stop talking about me

 


it reads,

 


we have a case

SH

 


John’s first reaction is to smile. His second reaction is to be immediately horrified by his first reaction. Thirdly he notices Thompson’s raised eyebrows and looks up guiltily. ‘It’s him. I have to go.’


‘John,’ Thompson cautions as he stands. ‘Don’t. This isn’t healthy.’


John pauses with one leg already out the door. ‘No,’ he agrees, ‘but it’s fun.’

 


***

 


‘Freak’s here, and he’s brought the freak-in-training again.’


Sherlock spreads his arms. ‘Sally! You look radiant.’


Sergeant Donovan’s face creases in suspicion. ‘Really?’


‘No,’ Sherlock says cheerily. ‘Been rooting through any skips lately?’


Donovan scowls after his back.


‘Hello,’ John says as he passes. She gives him a cursory, affronted glance.


‘Piss off.’


Her sympathy for him has waned dramatically since he lost his limp, John laments.


He follows Sherlock through the crime scene tape and around a corner to find Detective Inspector Lestrade and his team gathered in a narrow back alley where they are all, indeed, rooting through a skip. A skip that is apparently littered with dismembered body parts sealed and frozen in sandwich bags.


‘That,’ says John, ‘is disgusting.’


That
, says Sherlock’s expression, is fantastic. He pulls on his gloves, concedes for once to wearing one of the standard issue blue bodysuits, and dives right in.


‘We’re never going to get him out of there,’ Lestrade comments.


‘No,’ John says. ‘But it saves you having to do it.’


‘That’s true.’


John folds his arms and sighs. ‘How long do you reckon before he pulls me in with him?’


‘A minute or two, if you’re lucky.’ Lestrade gives him a pat on the back in consolation. ‘We’ve all been there.’


The expression on Anderson’s face as Sherlock fights his way into the skip is priceless, warring between relief at being able to get out of the body-part-infested skip and distaste at having to yield his crime scene to Sherlock’s attentions. He settles with reservation on relief.


‘Enjoy yourself,’ he sneers as he clambers out.


‘Actually,’ Sherlock says, ‘I could use a menial worker over here.’


‘Tough, because-’


‘Get back in there, Anderson,’ John and Lestrade say together, not bothering to look up. They smile at each other. Lestrade laughs.


John rubs the chill from his arms and tucks the collar of his coat up against the wind. It’s nothing like the blistering heat he had to become accustomed to, but being insulted by Sally, commiserating with Lestrade and casually abusing Anderson – it’s like having brothers-in-arms again.


And then Sherlock looks up, elbow deep in rubbish and human remains, and the brightness of his eyes cuts at John like the hurtling fragments of a carbomb under the Afghani sun. John loses an entire minute to the vertiginous sensation before he realises that Sherlock is motioning him over impatiently.


‘John, come look at this. I need a second opinion.’


‘No you don’t.’


Sherlock grins. ‘True, but it will put the Detective Inspector’s mind at ease if I get one anyway. Come on, John, you don’t get an opportunity like this every day.’


John shares a wry look with Lestrade. ‘Thank God for that.’


The work he does with Sherlock is pretty horrifying, John reflects, holding a sandwich bag containing some poor sod’s severed index finger up to the light. His control over his gag reflex is being sorely tested. Suddenly Sherlock grabs his arm. John can track the progress of revelation across Sherlock’s features and hears that quiet huff of sound that precedes a major epiphany. He looks at Sherlock’s face instead of the carnage and feels, absurdly, settled.

 


***

 


‘Are you sure you’re not a latent homosexual?’ Harry asks suspiciously.


John chokes on his tea. ‘I- no, what? No.’


Harry smiles a Cheshire smile, white-toothed and evil. She’s bright-eyed today and not hungover. It means she’s with someone new. In about a week she’ll be a mess again and John will go long months without speaking to her at all. For now, he almost wishes they were in one of those cycles.


‘No I’m not gay,’ he clarifies, dabbing at his now tea-stained jumper with a napkin. ‘Not that there’s anything wrong with being
gay. Obviously.’


Harry’s smile does not abate. ‘Oh, obviously,’ she agrees. ‘But how can you be sure? Don’t you ever have... thoughts? About men? Just occasionally.’


John throws down his napkin and looks longingly at the entrance to the cafe and the freedom that lies beyond. ‘For the last time, I don’t fancy Sherlock Holmes.


The Cheshire grin turns positively frightening.


‘I didn’t mention Sherlock.’


John notes the triumphant light in her eyes and remembers part of why they never got along very well.

 


***

 


The nightmares are terrible. Really, predictably terrible: flashbacks, shouting, cold sweats. The works. He’s back there every night, and every night the bullet is there with him as well, burning its bright, implacable trajectory into the muscle of his shoulder.


John can never get away from it even when he knows it’s coming; he’s always that bit too slow, that bit too late, and then it’s punching the breath and the blood out of him and dropping him into the dust where Lockley is lying too. Lockley’s the worst part. John has to stare into his face for what feels like hours, watching him twitch and jerk and bleed out, knowing that he’s about to follow down the same path.


This time, something is different.


John isn’t alone in his personal hell with Corporal Lockley. Sherlock is there too. He crouches down over Lockley and inspects him.


‘He bites his nails,’ Sherlock notes. ‘Nervous disposition. And here, his uniform has loose threads. He doesn’t take proper care of it – textbook rebellion against military discipline.’ He catalogues every aspect of Lockley’s body bit by bit, laying him open with his merciless powers of observation. John listens to the rhythm of his voice and forgets to feel the pain of his wound, or the panic. He forgets to beg and shout and pray for his saviours with their precious morphine.


‘What do you think, John?’


John watches Sherlock’s lips form the words and stares up into his steady, intelligent eyes. He looks at Sherlock’s face instead of the carnage and everything settles, recedes.


He wakes up.


There’s a blank journal on his bedside table – Thompson wants him to keep a dream diary. This is most definitely not making it in there. He bullshits something about being trapped in the desert with a gun that shoots rainbows instead. Let her chew on that for a while. Sherlock is no one’s business but his.


The oddness of that thought doesn’t strike him for most of a day, at which point he concludes that he is, quite clearly, going insane. Sherlock has tipped him right over the edge.

 


***

 


John meets Mycroft for tea one rainy Tuesday afternoon. It’s possibly the most surreal experience of his life, and that’s coming from someone who spends a lot (too much) of his time with Sherlock.


They don’t have tea in a cafe. No, that would be too predictable. That would be too easy. Sherlock  would know. Instead they have tea in an abandoned multi-story car park in Hackney that John has to reach by following a series of instructions communicated to him via several payphones, changing his clothes, and waiting for half an hour in a park to check whether he’s being followed. He’s in a bad mood by the time he hauls himself up the sixth flight of stairs to find Mycroft (who has disabled the lift) sitting at a quaint little table adorned by a white lace tablecloth and a gleaming silver tea service. John stares at him resentfully – it’s not as though Sherlock isn’t going to take one look at John’s face and his scuffed shoes when he gets back and know exactly what happened anyway.


‘Dr Watson, what a pleasure to see you again,’ Mycroft says.


‘Yes. I’m afraid the feeling isn’t mutual.’


The woman whose name is not Anthea sits in a chair nearby, ignoring them completely. John suspects that she has been surgically attached to her blackberry, the better to serve at the pleasure of her deranged master. He wonders if Sherlock’s brother is some sort of mad, cyborg-creating professor as well as a shady mastermind of government initiatives and counter-intelligence agencies. It couldn’t lessen his credibility.


‘Now Dr Watson, please, there’s no need for such hostilities. I merely wish to enquire after my dear brother.’


John braces himself; tea with Harry has only sharpened his instincts for detecting when unpleasant conversations are on the way.


He’s right.


Somewhere between the discussions about Sherlock’s opinion on the current economic climate as it relates to an increase in crime, whether or not Sherlock owns enough pairs of warm socks and how John really should go about relieving some of that dreadful tension with Sherlock, John decides that he is too old for this. Or possibly too young. Or possibly just not mental enough for this family.

 


***

 


What, John wonders, is so obvious about himself and Sherlock that makes every single person on the planet unanimously decide that they must be flamboyantly, rampantly gay for each other.

 


If he were a slightly different brand of broody, troubled veteran, he might start to suspect a government conspiracy.

 


***

 


It is 9.32 am. John has an appointment with Thompson at 10.05. He doesn’t even make it past the threshold of 221B Baker Street before his phone brings him up short.

 


Look up

SH

 


He looks up.


Sherlock gestures to him from the window. John sighs, checks his watch. He’s not going to make it. He should call Thompson to cancel his appointment, but he doesn’t relish the thought of what she’ll say or the questions she’ll ask. He dithers.


His phone beeps again.

 


Well hurry up then

SH

 


John takes the stairs two at a time and, later, switches off his phone when Thompson’s name flashes up across the screen. He pockets it and focuses on not losing Sherlock as he sprints off round a corner in hot pursuit of their target. He’ll have time to feel guilty for it another day.

 


***

 


There is one voicemail message on John’s phone:


‘John, you missed your appointment today. I hope everything’s all right. As I’m sure you’re aware, what we do in these sessions is very important and you really should try to attend them all. I’ve rescheduled your appointment for tomorrow at 11.30, so please give me a ring to confirm. I’m here to help you. And remember: Sherlock Holmes is not an acceptable substitute for therapy, even if he tries to persuade you otherwise.’


John isn’t sure whether his ears are deceiving him or whether that last part is actually a little bit peevish.

 


***

 


There’s a game that John likes to play. It’s an easy game that seems to slip right under Sherlock’s formidable radar: he’s trying to see how long it will take for Sherlock to stop looking surprised when John compliments him.


His eyes widen a fraction every time and this little line appears on his forehead as his mouth curls into a near imperceptible smile. He pretends to take it all in stride, but John can see each time how it throws and pleases him. It makes John want to compliment to him more, like dropping pebbles into a pond to watch the ripples form. But mostly John does it because no one else ever does and he thinks that Sherlock deserves it.


It’s awful to think that Sherlock has so obviously never had anyone to compliment him before – no friends, no one close, no one to support him or tell him when he’s done a good job. Nothing to push him on but his own unrelenting curiosity and terror of boredom. John finds it hard to wrap his mind around a life of such staggering isolation (although these days he finds it easier to understand than he might have before). How did Sherlock manage it for so long? How does he make it out of bed in the morning?


The questions cascade from there: if he’s never had any friends, has he ever had any partners? Does he even think of anyone like that? Does he fuck? Does he masturbate? Surely he must.


And surely John should stop thinking about that.


God, this is what Harry meant by ‘thoughts’, isn’t it?

 


***

 


‘I trust Sherlock Holmes,’ John blurts halfway through his next therapy session.


Thompson looks at him calmly. John is impressed considering that his declaration has come as a complete non sequitur in the middle of a probing discussion about his childhood relationship with the family dog.


‘I trust Sherlock. Unconditionally. Probably with my life.’ He nods to himself. The confession has already ripped itself free like a guilty secret and he can’t take it back. ‘There. I said it.’


Thompson considers him for a moment. ‘Out of all the people you know,’ she says slowly, ‘your sister, your parents, your old friends. Detective Inspector Lestrade, myself, for God’s sake even Mrs Hudson – out of all of them, you decide to trust the narcissistic sociopath.’


Well, John thinks, when you put it like that...


‘Yes.’


John’s gotten pretty good at reading Thompson in the months they’ve known each other. In fact he’s gotten very good at it. Even her expert therapist’s poker face can daunt him no longer. He gets the feeling now that she’s banging her head against a mental wall.


‘Well,’ she says resignedly, ‘a breakthrough’s a breakthrough.’


Sherlock’s instruction to get rid of her drifts across the surface of John’s awareness. He frowns. It’s always bloody Sherlock Holmes, every time he closes his eyes, every time he forgets to actively not think about him. It’s annoying. It’s also the only explanation he has for what he does next.


John leans forward. ‘Listen,’ he says, rubbing his hands nervously on the leg of his trousers, ‘what are you doing after work tonight? I was wondering if you’d like to go for a drink.’


What the fuck?
says the eloquent expression under Thompson’s therapist mask. She’s pretty – long-necked, smooth-skinned, with beautiful serious dark eyes. She’s nothing whatsoever like Sherlock, and she, like John, wishes he wouldn’t talk about him so much. She, in fact, has an entire life outside her work that is devoid even of the notion of Sherlock Holmes. John wants to get to know her.


‘John,’ she says, very carefully, ‘why do you only ever call me by my last name?’


‘Because I have a hard time trusting people and it’s easier to distance myself if I hold them back from a first-name basis?’ he hazards. There, he thinks to himself, he’s proven he can be self-aware. That should earn him some points.


Thompson’s eyes narrow to tiny slits, focussed beams of piercing feminine intuition. It’s like a superpower. ‘You’ve been reading my notes again.’


‘I. Maybe. A bit.’


Frustration drives Thompson to violate about seven different professional, ethical and procedural codes by leaning over and giving him a good, hard thwack on the arm with her notepad.


‘You see?’ she says primly at his wounded look. ‘Nothing good comes of transgressing the boundaries of professionalism.’


John takes that to mean he isn’t getting a date. He wonders if he has to sign some kind of waiver for this abuse.

 


***

 


‘You asked out your therapist.’ Sherlock looks at him askance.


‘Yes.’


‘And she rejected you.’


‘Yes.’


Sherlock is fascinated by John’s obvious discomfort. ‘What possessed you to ask her out?’


‘I... She... seems very... nice.’


‘If that’s all it takes, I’m no longer quite so flattered by your previous pass at me.’


‘You’re not nice,’ John replies with a roll of his eyes. Then he runs back over the sentence and splutters. ‘And no, I did not make a pass at you. That was a complete misunderstanding.’


‘Right.’ Sherlock turns away from the window and the pale London sun, smiling. ‘Cheer up, John, don’t be like that. Who knows, we might get another horrendous murder tonight. There could be gore, or poison. Poison’s always fun.’


‘Well, I know I feel better now,’ John deadpans.    


Sherlock gives John’s shoulder a squeeze over the back of the armchair. John gets a phenomenal jolt from the contact – his left shoulder, above the bullet scar, and even though most of his nerves are dead in that area the sensation couldn’t be stronger if Sherlock was running electric current directly through him. John almost starts right out of the chair, he feels hot and his palms break out in a sweat. The feeling doesn’t stop even after Sherlock has moved on, tingling and plucking at John’s pulse disconcertingly.


Sherlock says something else. He’s going out, he’ll be back later, pressing need for hydrochloric acid, something along those lines. John manages an inarticulate noise of acknowledgement but doesn’t really notice. He’s too busy wallowing in realisation. A thousand pathways in his brain that he’s never noticed before are clicking into place, like someone’s playing join-the-dots with his brain cells, and they’re finally starting to make sense.


The pure light of reason bludgeons John over the head with his own stupidity.


If this is what it’s like to be Sherlock all the time, then it’s no fun at all.

 


***

 


John Watson is a cautious man. He’s a pragmatist, not the sort to go blundering into enemy territory all alone. That being said, he’s also no coward, and when he’s fixed it in his mind that something has to be done, he sees it through to the end and nothing on earth will move him.


Not even Sherlock bloody Holmes.


God help him.

 


***

 


It comes down to this: kissing Sherlock, John decides, is going to be a lot like sighting down those smooth black planes with his finger on the trigger. He’s going to be an island of calm, his hands will be steady, his nerves of tempered, unbreakable steel and-


‘You’re standing at parade rest again,’ Sherlock notes.


John readjusts his feet.


‘No I’m not.’


Damn. That’s it, he’s thrown, he’s lost his focus.


Sherlock looks at him quizzically. ‘Is something troubling you?’


‘No,’ John answers quickly, ‘why would anything be troubling me?’


‘Well, you’re looming for one thing. And the military posture is a dead giveaway. It always means that you’re deeply uncomfortable or that you’re contemplating physical violence. Which is it this time?’


Sherlock is very, very good at this; John should have been more prepared for it. He opts for honesty.


‘A little bit of both,’ he says.


It’s disconcerting to have Sherlock’s full attention on him. His face is caught halfway between a frown and a smile, requesting clarification. He’s sitting on the sofa with a newspaper from the 1940s on his lap, looking as casual and relaxed as it’s possible for him to be. It sets a flutter in the pit of John’s stomach that is, frankly, embarrassing.   


To hell with this.


John plants one hand on the arm of the sofa, one hand on Sherlock’s shoulder and his mouth right on Sherlock’s. It’s a dry kiss, just warm, chapped lips, and John’s heart beating a rapid tempo on the inside of his chest. Sherlock stays perfectly still throughout, spine rigid although his lips are pliable. It’s okay, John wasn’t going to try to wow Sherlock with his technique at this point. This is just a declaration of intent.


When John pulls back, so does Sherlock. He jerks his head away, awkward and off-kilter. There’s also a little part of him there that’s pleased, because this too is a compliment of sorts.


‘Look, John,’ he says, eyes skittering away, ‘I’m flattered really, but we’ve been over this – married to my work.’


‘That would be a problem,’ John agrees, ‘if I’d asked you to marry me.’


Sherlock eyes him uncertainly, choosing his tactics with care. ‘Romantic entanglements are complicated. I’m... not very good at them.’


‘Something we have in common,’ John tries with a weak laugh. God he’s nervous. It’s pathetic. But Sherlock hasn’t shut him down yet, and in fact he’s thinking. Thinking is good. Thinking means that something in this scenario has caught his interest. His eyes are flickering, chasing down data. They rove up over John’s face, graze his lips and flicker over the lines of his forehead, deducing who-knows-what from whatever he finds in John’s face.


‘This is a terribly bad idea,’ he says at last. It’s not a no. Considering most of the ideas that Sherlock pulls John into, it’s practically an endorsement.


‘Yes, it is. But,’ John says softly, ‘isn’t it exciting?’


It’s the killing blow. John knows the exact point at which he lands it – he can see it there, that curiosity in Sherlock’s eyes, the gears of his intellect turning. What if? What would it be like? The scientist in him wants to know, and the junkie is looking for a new kind of high to float. It’s so clinical, so typical, John thinks fondly. Of course it would happen this way. He licks his lips and watches Sherlock follow the movement raptly.


‘Okay,’ Sherlock says quietly, eyes narrowed.


John moves in again, and this time Sherlock curls a hand confidently round the back of his neck and tugs him forward. Sherlock proceeds as he would with an experiment: the first press of lips is firm and probing; he tilts his head, adjusts the angle of the kiss to a precise degree; he flicks his tongue across John’s lower lip, taking a sample. John opens his mouth to him, inhaling sharply as Sherlock’s tongue and Sherlock’s taste flood his mouth.


His hand fists itself into the fabric of Sherlock’s shirt and he steps in between Sherlock’s knees. This way he can get enough leverage to tip Sherlock’s head right back and gain the upper hand. Sherlock’s pulse jumps wildly in his throat, excited, maybe nervous the same way John is. He has to stifle a groan and leaves the imprint of his teeth in Sherlock’s lip.


Afghanistan was bright and pitiless, a yawning, greedy sky over sand that scoured everything away and left long scratches in the bodywork of the jeeps. On the long, tedious stretches of waiting in between frantic bursts of trying not to die and trying to stop other people dying, John used to look up at that perfect blue canvas and think that it would swallow the world without the membrane of ever-shifting sand to hold it back. He feels now like he’s diving into that sky, throwing himself headlong from the tether of solid ground and into freefall, white-hot and all-encompassing.


One of Sherlock’s hands slips up under his shirt, hovering warmly at the small of his back. Something gives way in John’s chest, his knees feel weak, and he lets Sherlock pull him down.

 


***

 


Sherlock stretches out on the sofa with one arm tucked behind his head. His shirt is undone, as are his trousers, and he’s looking thoroughly debauched. He’s already slapped a nicotine patch on his arm. John, wearing nothing but his boxers and the remnants of a fine flush all up his chest, assumes it’s his version of a post-coital fag.


‘What is your therapist going to say about this?’ Sherlock says.


John pauses with his hand on the handle of the teapot.


‘Christ. I hadn’t thought of that. I don’t suppose she’ll take this as proof that I’ve acclimatised to civilian life?’


Sherlock clicks his tongue. ‘Not. A. Chance.’


John takes a sip of scalding tea.


‘That’s problematic. We can’t have her thinking that I’ve regressed into my danger-seeking, self-destructive patterns of behaviour.’


‘I am very dangerous,’ Sherlock agrees.


‘Very.’


‘You could tell her that entering into a relationship is an attempt to reacclimatise yourself to physical contact and closeness and is as such a crucial stage in the process of reintegration into society at large. The high probability of it going spectacularly wrong in your current unbalanced condition led you to pick me as your candidate of choice because I’m already acquainted with many of your issues and am less likely to take it too personally.’


‘She’d know that came from you.’


‘You’re right of course. Curse my obvious brilliance.’


John gives Sherlock an amused look over the rim of his teacup. That narcissism is going to be a problem further down the line.


‘Actually,’ he says, ‘I know exactly what she’ll say.’


‘Oh?’


John takes another thoughtful sip.


‘Don’t keep me in suspense, John,’ Sherlock demands impatiently. John had thought that maybe a good fuck would take some of the edge off Sherlock’s, well, Sherlock-ness. No such luck.


‘She will remind me, again, that you are not an acceptable substitute for therapy, that you are a negative and unstable influence in my life, and that if I want to settle down into any normal sort of lifestyle, I should move out.’


Sherlock waves a hand. ‘Boring. And I am a perfectly acceptable substitute for therapy. I understand more about people and solving people – correctly – than-’


‘She said you’d say that.’


Sherlock twists to look over at him, disgruntled at the thought of having been anticipated.


‘You need to find a more exciting therapist, John, even if you’re determined not to find a better one. And what will you say to this boring hypothesis?’


‘I’ll say that you’re perfectly stable – I can always trust you to do the most insane, unpredictable thing that comes into your head. You’re a random constant.’ John frowns. ‘Or should that be a constant random?’


Sherlock looks at him curiously. ‘Does sex always make your brain shut down like this? It’s going to be terribly inconvenient.’


‘You’re getting ahead of yourself,’ John says mildly. ‘What makes you think there’s going to be more?’


Sherlock props himself up on his elbow to look at John properly. His brow creases. ‘Of course there’s going to be more. That was a very satisfactory effort, for both parties. I certainly didn’t hear you complaining.’


John taps the rim of the teacup against his lips. ‘I would rate you as... mediocre,’ he decides, straight-faced.


‘What?’


‘In future, you’re going to have to try a lot harder than that.’


The indignation on Sherlock’s face makes him laugh until he can barely breathe. Sherlock watches him with sharp eyes as he plonks himself down in front of the computer and switches it on.


‘But there will be a future, right John? John?’


John stretches out his legs and begins the arduous task of trying to compose an entry for his blog that doesn’t reek of the smug and recently laid. He glances back over his shoulder. Sherlock is sitting up now, regarding him with his chin propped in one hand. His hair is a wreck from John’s fingers and the sofa, sticking up in all directions, and there’s the hint of a smile playing on his face.


John thinks of the Afghani sky, so endless and terrifying. Evening is descending now, and the flat is lit by the fluorescent hue of the computer screen and the neon haze of the street lamps outside. There’s a heavy smell in the air, like the weather’s about to turn. John sits there in his flat in central London with the taste of the coming rain on his tongue, the pleasant flavour of sweetened tea at the back of his throat and his crazy, brilliant flatmate half-dressed on the sofa nearby, and he realises that it’s nothing like Afghanistan at all.


‘Yes,’ John says. ‘Yes, I think there will be.’