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Sublimation

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sub·li·ma·tion  [suhb-luh-mey-shuhn]:

  1. Psychology. the diversion of the energy of a sexual or other biological impulse from its immediate goal to one of a more acceptable social, moral, or aesthetic nature or use.
  2. Chemistry. the act, fact, or process of converting a solid substance into a vapour through the application of heat.

 

Adrenaline is still flowing from the case, from solving the case, running yellow-red flashes through his blood. The last three days have been nothing but the mind, locked up inside himself and coming out only to bounce the sound of his voice at John. Sherlock's voice is grey, but when it comes back to him from John, it brightens to blue. John's voice is orange-gold. This is how Sherlock always hears him.

He hears tension in John's footsteps as they climb the stairs to the flat. He suspects he is the cause, but isn't sure why. He feels the presence of John pressing around him and against his skin like swaddling. It's a feeling he's coming to associate with home.

So when John leaves a few minutes later, it's unsettling.

Then, unsettled by being unsettled, Sherlock flips through his latest set of notes to find where he left off, and begins pulling unspeakable things from the refrigerator.

John returns five hours and seven minutes later and he smells wrong. He smells wrong. Sherlock can smell a woman's perfume, and more, the rank hormonal smell of sex. His insides curl around themselves and he doesn't look at John, exchanging meaningless words as he studies a journal article on molecular biology.

He doesn't sleep until nearly daybreak, thinking of cells dividing and multiplying. Thinking of nuclei and RNA and DNA, transcription and epigenetic modifications. He does not think about orange-gold voices that smell like someone else.

 

Sherlock hears his mobile ring at 2:42 in the afternoon, but doesn't move. John's been awake for twenty-eight minutes, so he can answer it. The bed is too comfortable, sheets still just crisp enough to rustle against his skin. He turns the pillow over to the cool side and settles back against it, arms curling up around it.

John says, “Sherlock's still sleeping.”

He closes his eyes and tries to sink into the mattress entirely. It's possible he hasn't fully recovered from three days without sleep.

“Bad?” John's tone falls on Sherlock's ear like a familiar passage of music. There's tension in his voice, but excitement as well, turning it to shades of crimson. Siren song of the battlefield.

“Yeah, hang on.” John pauses. “Can I call you back? This could get ugly.”

Sherlock should get up. But he doesn't want to. He closes his eyes and stills his breathing, mimicking the deep and even rhythm of sleep.

John knocks at his door. “Sherlock. It's Lestrade, he's got a case.” He knocks once more, then Sherlock hears the bedroom door open. He hears each step, he hears the hesitation in them and wonders at it.

Then John touches his bare shoulder and it's all he can do not to tense. It starts as a shake, but lingers—not long, just a few seconds too long. His hand is cool against Sherlock's skin, soothing, like aloe applied to a sunburn. John's breathing shallows, but Sherlock doesn't think John realizes. John shakes him once more, and Sherlock says, “I'm awake.” He turns against the pillow to look up at John—neat, unrumpled John—who has a crease between his eyebrows as if he's thinking hard. “Coffee?” Sherlock murmurs.

“Right. Get dressed. I'll make some.” His bearing is military upright as he leaves.

 

The case is gory, but far too obvious. Sherlock suspects Lestrade called him only because Anderson didn't want to deal with the mess.

The case isn't enough. It isn't enough to keep him from thinking that John is being distant. It isn't enough to keep him from wondering who the woman was, and what she means.

It isn't enough to keep him from hearing the pale yellow lie in John's voice when he says he'll be visiting his sister that night.

It isn't enough.

 

He spends the night in his chair by the hearth, hands steepled before him. This is a puzzle, and like all puzzles, if he’s given enough time he can solve it. John is running from him, and Sherlock wants to know why. It started after the departure of John's last girlfriend, whatever-her-name-was. John doesn't know it, but Sherlock has seen how John looks at him sometimes, his eyes full of something like despair.

Sherlock knows he frightens people. He didn't think John would ever be one of those people. People are afraid of his mind, but they don't understand. His mind developed the way it did because it had to. Sherlock's senses are acute, but he's had them tested, and they fall well within the range of the human norm. Not super-human. They just never stop working. As a child in school, he was regularly reprimanded for taking off parts of his uniform: tie, coat, socks. He couldn't seem to make anyone understand that the scratchy wool was driving him mad, really, truly mad. His research suggests that the average mind can filter out stimuli when necessary—the scratch of a wool suit coat, for example. Sherlock can't. There is never a moment he is not maddeningly aware of the pressure of clothing, the temperature of the air against his skin, the constant drone of traffic in Baker Street below. Nothing ever fades into the background. Developing his powers of observation was the only way he had to keep from wandering the world drowning in sensory stimuli. He knows how to sort out the important from the unimportant, the relevant from the irrelevant, and it frustrates him that no one else seems to understand the difference.

The drugs helped. Cocaine in particular, gave him a sense of focus he'd never found before. Even after years of not using, he thinks of the orderly way coke made his thoughts march past him with an aching, longing twist in his stomach.

Then John walked into the laboratory at St. Bart's. The rush wasn't as palpable as cocaine. It was subtler. But Sherlock had that same sensation of his thoughts falling into a queue, as if John had given them the order to march. So he did what he had to do to keep John in his life, to fuse him into the pattern of his life. The thought of John pulling free, leaving him behind with the noise in his head, makes it hard for Sherlock to breathe.

And so he watches through the night, trying to solve the puzzle before time runs out.

 

By the time John returns home, Sherlock thinks he may be close to an answer.

“Morning,” John says. “Get my text?” He's showered, but Sherlock imagines he can still smell the woman and it's as maddening as scratchy wool.

“Yes. And how is Harry?” The gall of the lie, the green-yellow lie. Why are you lying, John? Sherlock feels sick and helpless and while the feelings are novel, he could have done without the experience.

“Fine. She's fine. Listen, have we got anything on for today? I was thinking we could--”

“John.” He's had enough. “Where you spend your nights and who you spend them with is none of my concern.” The lie in his own voice is a pallid grey-green. “Do not, however, think you can deceive me about it. Don't ever think you're capable of that.”

“Not—I'm not..? You don't know what I'm capable of.” John steps toward him, hands curled as if offering violence. “You—you utter prick. You know, despite what you think, you don't know everything there is to know about me. I don't care if you are the magnificent Sherlock fucking Holmes. You have a blind spot so fucking complete you don't even know it's there, and there are parts of me that just vanish behind it.”

“John, I--” What? How is he planning to finish that sentence? I'm sorry, don't leave me?

“Sod off,” John says, and slams his way up the stairs to his room.

 

He apologizes days later, in the back seat of a cab heading for another crime scene. He hadn't planned to, but John's silence is sandpaper against his skin. When John receives the twenty-third text message since the morning he came home from a woman's bed, Sherlock can take no more.

“John?”

He starts up from his phone violently, turning it so quickly away from Sherlock that he nearly drops it. “Hm?”

“I just wanted to say... I'm—that is, you were right. I do underestimate you at times. That's...” stupid, idiotic, moronic “...foolish of me.” Sherlock focuses on John, but his eyes are drawn to the image reflected in the taxi window. He can't see details, but the photograph on John's phone is clearly a naked figure, logic suggests it's the woman John has been seeing.

“Sherlock, are you trying to apologise to me?”

He tears his eyes away from trying to glean clues about his rival. “Yes. That's it. I apologise. For, for underestimating you.”

John relaxes against the bench seat, and for a moment, sounds like this usual orange-gold self. “That's all right then.”

 

When John goes out that night, Sherlock is prepared. He's set himself a difficult task, one that requires delicacy, finesse, and absolute concentration. The eyeballs that he's gotten from Molly are all in perfect and varying states of putrefaction, and he wants to study and catalogue the differences in the cellular structure of each one. If he's thorough, he may manage to avoid sleep entirely.

He's carefully slivering off a bit of tissue from the eighth specimen when his phone beeps. He reaches with one hand to flick through texts. Mycroft. Check your email. Sherlock drops the phone to the table and goes back to his work. He's carefully mounting the tissue on a slide when it beeps again. He should ignore it, but doesn't. Irritation is almost as good a distraction as work. Mycroft again: It's to do with John.

How like Mycroft, to bait the trap with something so obvious. How unlike himself, to walk into it so readily. He fixes the slide plate and goes over to John's laptop on the desk.

The email is short and to the point: You need to have a talk with John. There is a video attached. Curiosity compels him to click and open the file. CCTV coverage. Sherlock doesn't recognize the corner immediately—there's nothing distinctive about it, just another London street corner with brick walls and alleyways.

Until John walks on to the scene hand-in-hand with—Sherlock doesn't know how to describe what he's seeing. It's her, that much is clear. He studies her as closely as he can, and Mycroft's hidden camera operator obliges him by zooming in on the couple. She's tall, nearly as tall as he is himself. Dark hair, wavy and not over-long. Dyed, clearly. Fair complexion otherwise. The resemblance to himself is unmistakable—heightened by the fact that she's clearly dressed in a masculine fashion. More specifically, she's dressed like him. John's expression suggests that he's drunk, but Sherlock can tell from his gait that he's not.

Adrenaline floods his body, speeding up his heart rate and making it difficult to breathe. Fight, flight, or something else entirely? Instead of passing from the frame of the picture, the woman grabs John roughly—Sherlock has a moment of outrage, how dare she—and backs him against the alley wall. When she starts to kiss him, Sherlock reaches for the mouse with a hand that barely trembles, but ultimately he can't stop the video.

He tries to detach, to observe. John is clearly uncertain at first, but when the woman moves her mouth down his throat, his mind changes. Interesting. More interesting—he can see nothing of the woman but her back, and little of John but his face. Mycroft you bastard, why did you send me this? But he knows why. You need to have a talk with John.

Sherlock watches John's face on his screen, John's face with its eyes closed and mouth slightly open. Their hands are hidden beneath the woman's coat—Sherlock's coat—but Sherlock's imagination supplies the details. He can't breathe. It's the adrenaline, the norepinephrine, chemicals in his bloodstream over which he has no control, speeding up his heart and respiration, sending blood rushing through his body at an entirely unnecessary pace. He isn't in danger here, for all his body thinks he is.

Another shift in movements on the screen—something has surprised John, and frightened him, to judge by the sudden tension in his shoulders. Sherlock watches them study each other before something is decided and this time it's John that's kissing her, and Sherlock can't see their hands, but there's no mistaking the hip movements. Are they—no, not that, their movements are too unsynchronized, and the height difference would make it impossible standing up, but... think, damn it, think. But he can't think. He can't hear John, the ambient traffic noise is too loud, but he can imagine it, the vermilion sounds coming from that open mouth. He can only watch chemical reactions spark expressions on John's face over the woman's shoulder. He has never, in all of his life, hated chemistry more than he does at that moment.

It happens sooner than he expected—sooner than John expected too, to judge by his look of surprise and embarrassment—but it does happen, and now Sherlock knows how John looks in the throes of an orgasm. The knowledge is bitterer than he would have expected.

He watches the clip three more times, memorizing each expression on John's face. The capillaries in his face are dilated, suffusing cheeks with colour and warmth. Sherlock knows the same reaction is his right now, flushed and breathless. As the couple walks out of frame hand-in-hand for the fourth time, Sherlock comes back to his senses. He snaps the window closed and closes the computer, turning away to scrub at his face with his hands, focusing on the feeling of stubble against fingers, fingers against stubble, focusing on the here and the now. He takes a deep breath against the adrenaline, and stands, determined to return to his work.

 

He's typing his notes up on John's computer, detailing cellular breakdown at one week, two weeks, but another part of his mind is rehearsing what to do when John comes home. He expects a long night's wait, he expects a text from John telling him that he'll be out all night.

He doesn't expect what happens next.

John returns hours earlier than he would have thought, freshly showered, smelling of someone else's soap. Sherlock reacts quickly, wanting some way to bring him closer, to bring him within arm's reach to—what exactly he doesn't know, but he wants John near. “John, you're back. Good. Can you hand me the--”

“Shut up,” John says, and the next moment his hands are tangled in Sherlock's hair, pulling his head back, burning his scalp, a low fierce burn that makes him want to give in and fight back simultaneously. Then John's mouth is on his, closed but soft, lips moving the smallest fraction. Oh. Before Sherlock has time to reach for him to return the gesture, he's gone. Before Sherlock can say anything, John has left the room.