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When We Start to Sink

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John Watson, armed with a vast array of cleaning products, various scrubbing brushes, and a queued up cleaning playlist, had been determined that the bathroom would not win this war against his cleanliness.

As a result, he was feeling pretty good - spectacular, really, if he'd go that far - about the shine winking at him from the walls of the shower and truly kingly state of their ivory throne. Just the mirrors left, and the sink, and the floor. So long as Sherlock kept his chaotic hands out of it for just those few more minutes, the army man and the hospital corners that still kept up firm residence in his heart (and cried bitterly every time he entered this room) would be satisfied. He and the army man and the hospital corners alike all knew this was a losing fight in the long run, but he was damned if he wouldn't do his best in the interim.

(Mrs. Hudson had taken one look at it those few months ago and walked right back out, possibly crying a little herself, so John assumed now it was entirely up to him.)

But this was really fantastic - the glitter of the mirror as he scrubbed away the residue of weeks (thanks for that, Sherlock) reflected his own smile back doubly, and if he was honest, his personal pleasure at seeing a job well done in any respect did not exclude such a menial task. Plus, it was sort of nice, being alone and not in the constant company of a madman for a change. Allowed to do what he wanted, and to accomplish just some personal successes. And, as a doctor, the improved hygiene was no small thing, either. Radio crooning and hands busily scrubbing away, it was easy to actually kind of enjoy this.

It was probably for all these reasons that John let his guard down enough to allow the shimmy in his hips turn to full, blown out dancing around the tiny bathroom, singing just off-key into his Mr. Clean's MagicWand and breaking out the invisible guitar where needed. His strokes were timed to the beat, and his foot was tapping away at the tiles before he was whirling madly off again, dabbing more soap on the end of the brush and sashaying back. Oh, if Sherlock saw him now... the thought was enough to have him compulsively check the open door, but no figure or amused smirk had appeared, and with a tiny shrug he danced right back to the spot on the floor he'd left behind to do a bit of harmonizing into his microphone/mop.

In fact, his flatmate was absent for the entire time he was destroying mildew and staving off any threats to his health. John was amazed at his luck, and as he stood in the center of their admittedly small shared bathroom, he allowed himself a few seconds just to revel in the sparkle of it. And, truth be told, he was a little breathless and flushed. When he'd got that breath back, though, a victory dance was in order, and he let the slow beats of this one guide him lazily around the room.

Which, of course, is when he'd inconveniently forgotten that he'd done the floors and they were, as a result, quite slippery.

And when aforementioned flatmate, covered in a strange, unnamed substance and clearly intent on a shower, simultaneously and equally inconveniently stepped onto the floor. Which was, of course, quite slippery.

They crashed into each other, and though John would complain of a headache for days and Sherlock would remark smugly for years (the sod) about John's amusing yelp of surprise, it was a bit miraculous alone that they stayed upright.

"You're a consulting detective, you idiot," John panted, maintaining his death grip on Sherlock's arms after the flailing and uncontrollable spinning had stopped. "How did you not notice that the tile was wet?"

Sherlock glared down at him from under sopping-and-slightly-really-disgustingly-crusty-at-the-ends-what-the-hell-was-that-stuff fringe. "Pardon me for a slight preoccupation," he growled, jerking his head down to gesture at the substance that was covering his suit. John's grip loosened; came to rest again on his arms when the floor decided to slip away again for a moment. They teetered dangerously, but found their balance, Sherlock throwing more narrowed eyes his way.

"You stop that," John chided. "I was just trying to tidy the place up a little; it's a wonder you could even admire yourself in the mirror every morning. Don't," he cut in, preceding Sherlock's protest, "even lie, you preen more than a peacock, Sherlock. If anything, that was your fault."

"What, me? For wanting a bit of personal hygiene? You're the one choosing abominable times to clean," he sniffed, a distinctly peacock-like arch to his neck.

John raised an eyebrow. "Personal hygiene? That's rich, coming from you. Because leaving thumbs to fester in the fridge is just so bloody -"

He didn't have the opportunity to finish, though, as the step he'd taken in towards Sherlock landed in an untouched soapspot and had them both whirling in a circle to stop from falling, shouting various cries of outrage/distress as their awkward dance started up again.

But by the end of it, as they found equilibrium and spun madly to a stop, they were both giggling breathlessly, heads falling softly together as they panted in relief.

"Why," John chuckled after a moment, breath ghosting across Sherlock's down-turned face, "does falling seem like such a bad idea?"

There's silence for a few seconds, as the track changed. "I wouldn't let you fall," Sherlock replied at last. John looked up at the honest innocence of it; saw nothing except an unreadable, maybe, almost... sad expression on that face. He dropped his head again, and the tendrils of Sherlock's crusty hair tickled at his temple.

"You know," he admitted, changing the subject as best he could, determined to shy away from whatever Sherlock was hiding in those eyes, "I was dancing before you came in."

"Oh, and you chose to blame me for your mishap anyway?" Sherlock fired back, but there was a teasing glint in his eyes, now. A playful Sherlock Holmes. John hadn't seen him around very often, especially not recently, but he liked drawing him out in these quiet moments, probably a little more than he was willing to admit.

"Yes, because I am an excellent dancer, so it couldn't possibly be my fault." Sherlock laughed, but John was slowly swaying them side to side, pulling Sherlock gingerly along by his arms. There was a boyish grin on his face that completely opposed the uncertainty on Sherlock's. He gave his own quiet chuckle and firmly drew Sherlock closer. "C'mon, it's a slow one," he wheedled, and with a last roll of his eyes and a put upon sigh, Sherlock gave in, the glee on John's face spiking several notches.

For a few long moments, they let the singer fill the silence between them, the squelch of their tentative feet the only other sound as they stepped carefully from side to side. John offered Sherlock an encouraging smile, barely containing the giddy laughter that welled in his throat at the sheer amazement crossing the angular face that watched their shifting feet. John joined him, observing as their feet chased each other across the tile to leave strange, milky-green footprints all over his floors; Sherlock's big toes and the hard press of John's heels. He found he didn't mind, not so much. He sighed, leaning his forehead down across Sherlock's shoulder, head against his throat, and closed his eyes. There was a steady, underlying rhythm to their steps, and it took John a moment to realize that quickening beat wasn't in the music but thrumming throughout Sherlock; the pulse in his throat leaping and syncing to the temple pressed against it.

After a while of breathlessly listening to the quiet - so, so loud in his head - rhythm, he raised his eyes to find Sherlock had turned that intent stare in his direction. It wasn't anything he wasn't used to, even after only a few months living with him, but there was a strange focus to this one in particular that had the teasing comment he'd had planned dying in his throat.

"Sher-" he tried at last, but then they were slipping, and the sick sensation of falling filled his head instead of whatever question he'd been about to ask; though it was important, he remembered, just vaguely -

Just as they were spun around and John was pressed safely against the wall. John felt the breath leave his body in a great exhale, eyes wide as he blinked and focused back in on Sherlock's form. The man was smirking softly to himself, and John couldn't even guess at the gears whirling away in that mad, impossible brain of his. "Told you," Sherlock said at last, his voice a quiet roll, the rumble of a cooling summer storm as it washed over John.

He swallowed under it, drawing up this spine again to ask, "What?"

"I won't let you fall," he repeated from earlier, crooked grin back in place, and John was helpless to do anything but return it.

He shook his head, raising his eyes to the other man's. "No, no; you never have." He reached a hand up, and it hovered just briefly by the edge of one cheekbone. John wondered what would happen if it stayed there, and felt detached from it as it hovered in that half-space, its own volition the only thing between the skin and another, safer course of action. Regaining control with a quick succession of blinks, he darted his fingers into Sherlock's hair and ruffled the thoroughly crumpled, crisping strands. "Better clean you up," he said with a cough. The hand deposited a gentle, chastising slap on Sherlock's shoulder. "You, I mean, better clean yourself up. I'll, um, just...redo the floors. When you're done."

"I don't know, I kind of like the pattern," said Sherlock thoughtfully.

John hesitated, his eyes drawn to the colorful, soapy stains all over his tile. A crazed, myriad kaleidoscope of dancing feet; the slap-dash outlines from where they'd slipped and spun together and the clear imprints from those places where they'd stepped so carefully, all crossing and cavorting over and between one another until the lines were blurred and almost indistinct, impossible to read except where it broke away to lead like a map to where they still stood.

Sherlock was already kneeling by the tub and fiddling with the knobs by the time he thought to ask if he was joking, but were he to admit it, he kind of liked the pattern, too. Even if he had to do all the floor again.

John's own smile faded as he shut the door behind him and let his forehead rest against the wood, cool to his touch but so unlike the greatcoat it had rested against only moments before. Not as good, no. Which was not a good thing to be thinking at all. The water roared dimly in the room beyond him, and rose in his ears. He sighed.

"There are some falls you can't protect me from," he breathed out, a sigh settling in the slump of his shoulders before he finally turned away, to leave the bathroom and its map of footprints for another day.

 

_____

 

John does not get to the footprints.

Because before he can, there is a hospital roof, and a fall.

And then they are all he has left.

 

_____

 

"Do these songs ever remind you of us?"

The question had seemingly come out of nowhere, but John knew better than to be surprised by sudden voices anymore. A grin touched his lips when he spied Sherlock from the corner of his eye, fiddling innocently with one of the dials on the radio. The singer's voice - some pop star bloke, obviously, apparently pretty big in the music world now, though hell if he or Sherlock had the time to know who he was - shrank in and out of volume, eerily dilating and receding. John laid a hand across the knob and cocked an eyebrow, even as his smile stayed in place. "Not when you do that." He turned back to the groceries, wondering absently if he'd already put the bread away or if he'd just forgotten it again.

He could feel Sherlock's eyes tracking his progress across the kitchen as he went on the bread hunt, but resigned as he was to his flatmate's oddities he let it pass. There was a loaf missing and John, if he remembered correctly, had had some experience in the mystery solving business, once. This would not go unsolved.

"Top cupboard, to your left," Sherlock droned after a few moments of amused silence. John's spine stiffened, and slowly he rose from the bottom cupboard on the right to find the bread sitting smugly where Sherlock had said it would be. John glared back at it, and let the door fall shut.

"Were you just going to let me look all day, then?" John asked, though there wasn't any venom in the words. Sherlock, per usual, didn't reply, instead letting whatever tune was on now rush over them. The not-silence that descended was just this side of uncomfortable, and though Sherlock's eyes were still boring oddly into the back of his head, it wasn't anything he hadn't been used to before. Just not in a long while.

Hurriedly, that thought went down the bin with last year's cream.

Shutting it with a sway of his hips, he surveyed the room and gave a satisfied nod. All full up again. Time for a celebratory cup of tea. He turned to ask Sherlock if he wanted some, but the man had disappeared.

John blinked, sucked in a breath of air but couldn't breathe, couldn't even see for a moment when he thought, imagined -

His eyes latched onto the coat hanging on the door outside, only tearing away to land on the sugar he'd bought for him, that man, and all the other, unmistakable traces that he really was back. His heart was pounding loud in his ears again, though for a moment it had stopped completely. He'd felt it. Felt it once before, staring up at Bart's from cold and rainy streets.

Gritting his teeth and assuring himself of the facts, over and over again, he snatched the kettle from the stove and went to fill it up. His hands shook. The water trembled in its pot, listing softly up the metallic sides until John's own soothing waves of memory and calm had quieted enough to leave it still. Peace. It's been a long time for John, and Sherlock, too, but they're finding their equilibrium again. Slowly, but certainly. Like the tides after a storm.

Breathe. They will. It'll just take time. That's all.

He'd just put it over the flame when Sherlock called from upstairs. "John?"

The simple summons was enough to have him hurtling down the hall, almost pitifully at his beck and call again. He worked to control his eagerness, slowing the last few steps as he came up to Sherlock. "What's on?"

In answer, Sherlock pushed the door further back, and John peered around the frame.

Oh. Oh.

"Sherlock, I -" he faltered, and the waves crashed over him again and threatened to pull him under.

There he was again, reeling in space, feeling like he had to explain why he hadn't come back even after all that time, why he couldn't bear to scrub those footprints away, why he'd left the flat and left everything he'd had when he'd left, why why why, because Sherlock had already done his piece and there were some things John could - should - own up to as well. Because none of this was perfect and wouldn't be, not for a long time and maybe not ever. Especially not if they never revealed that quiet, ever-present thing that threatened to pull them down in the deeps with the weight of it.

But Sherlock only held up a hand as he stepped into the room, silencing the flood that was prepared to spill from John's lips. His cold, bright eyes fell on the twining paths of cracked and dry and old footprints as he crossed the threshold, stepped slowly and carefully around the circling strands. He spun slowly as he walked, doing what he did best as he stood in the room and drank in all the information it had to give him, letting his eyes rake over everything and take it all until there was nothing left. One of Sherlock's habits; definitely the most destructive, and John could fully attest to that. But he only waited; waited for the moment when his conclusions would all come spilling back out and everything was laid bare and destroyed.

I couldn't stay because there was still too much of you left, and it still wasn't enough.

I couldn't come back here because this dance goes on forever, and ours wouldn't.

I couldn't bear to remember because I felt your pulse in your throat that afternoon, when it was alive, and then I felt your wrist when it wasn't.

But Sherlock said nothing. Only stood in silence with his back to John, his face still pale and gaunt in a mirror coated with dust. So very, very quiet, so quiet that the radio still on downstairs crooned up from the kitchen, wending its way into their small space until it was all he could hear; loud and huge and terrifying in his ears. He remembered that song.

"Sherlock," he whispered, but it was barely a breath.

And it was enough. Slowly, but finally in motion, Sherlock dropped his head. He toed off his shoes, and extended a hand. His eyes did not rise from the floor.

There was an eternity in that moment; a lifetime in which John recalled his past lives and all they couldn't give him. How, in all the stormy seas, there was never anything to anchor him and still keep him afloat. But then he found a tempest and discovered the merits of drowning in spite of it all. And so in that quiet infinity he has a choice - to risk the open seas in the search for solid ground, or to take a leap of faith that he'd wondered so many times, late at night after his return, if he'd ever be able to make. Sometimes it looked so dark and so very deep.

But Sherlock's eyes were light, and as they finally met his in the mirror, John could not stop himself from grasping those fingers and watching, in the amazement and adoration that he'd long forgotten, as a peace they'd been searching for washed over those grey shores and was reflected in his own.

John spun into Sherlock, and then they were moving, just a gentle sway over the paths they'd treaded into this floor a long time ago. And it was awkward; painfully awkward at first because John remembered the giddy rush of laughter and the light of it in the face opposite him now, which had become so much darker and closed off. He remembered a tune hanging in the air, and their chasing it about the room with stuttered, shy steps and quiet, warm words. And he remembered all they hadn't said; had never had the opportunity to say. Not... not until now.

For a few silent moments, it was that awkwardly familiar waltz, with avoided eyes and tentative hands because if they looked then they'd remember. But then John took a breath, and with it, his leap of faith.

"You asked me," he said quietly, lips falling against his shoulder and feeling the warm press of it against his skin, "if any of those songs make me think of us. This one does. Every time." He laughed; choked it off into Sherlock's rigid shoulder. "It makes me think of what you said. Actually, what... what we didn't say. I had a question and I never asked it. And I'd forgotten, or tried to."

Sherlock was silent, waiting. His steps slowed, the only indication that he was listening at all. John followed, as he always had.

"But I remembered how you also said you wouldn't - wouldn't let me fall. I didn't know then that it wasn't your decision. Didn't really realize that I already had." They were hardly moving anymore. When John risked a glance upwards, the sadness written there in the agonized lines of a drawn face made him turn quickly away. But he needed to say this. Needed it, if they would ever get back to before.

"Then whose choice is it?" Sherlock asked quietly; impossibly soft, but it echoed against the tile to ring in their ears.

"Nobody's," John answered, immediate and certain. "You... you had to have your own fall, too. I understand - no, wait, no; I don't understand. There's still a lot I don't get and I'm not done being angry at you. But," he continued, finally looking up and staring Sherlock straight in the face, "I couldn't help my own falling then, and I'm not sure I can help it now. I don't know if that makes me stupid, or - or an idiot, but you've always said that's what I am and apparently I was fine with it once so might as -"

"John," Sherlock interrupted his babbling, impatient as ever and eyes suddenly burning, and god, he's missed that fire and the warmth that it brings, "what was your question?"

They've stopped spinning. John still felt a bit dizzy, especially when his mind caught up enough to realize they had followed their timeless footsteps to the exact spot where he'd bitten off that question a long while ago; ages, now it seems - John's back against the wall and Sherlock there and real in front of him. There and real and waiting. God, they always ended up here, didn't they?

"It doesn't matter now."

Sherlock very nearly looked as if he wanted to shake him. His eyebrows sailed into his hairline before settling across his forehead in a vicious scowl. "What? But I need to -"

"It doesn't matter," John continued, patient as ever and his perfect foil because of it and for so many other reasons; every reason perfectly aligned to bring them back here and where they have always belonged, "because I have a better one. And I think you're asking it, too." A fond smile stole over his face, creeping up and over and into all the little furrows until there was nothing else except that. That emotion. "And the answer is yes."

Yes, yes, yes, as he felt the pulse of it in the chest pressed against his own, yes yes yes yes, lips mouthing the words over the jump of it in his throat, yes, because it's the answer Sherlock's been thirsting for and the one for which John is willing to drown.

Forgive me?

Yes.

Then John's lips were moving over Sherlock's, and that mouth was breathing into his as if all the oxygen in the room had condensed into the small space shared between them; exhales of wonder and relief in the moments between soft bites at the flesh of his bottom lip and a tongue tracing the line of his teeth. He sucked at his upper lip, felt Sherlock's gasp fanning out against his open mouth, breathed his own sigh as Sherlock's hands came up to hold his face, fingers stroking in ghostly, reverent touches across his chin. And just as one curled in his short hair and began to tug him closer, the soft, wet sounds becoming stronger and more insistent, John felt himself slipping down the wall, legs giving way.

Sherlock, laughing and smug until John took away his air again, was there with him the entire time. And sitting across his lap and peering down into his eyes, feeling the flutter of John's nervous fingers against his hips, Sherlock felt the question shift. Or maybe they were the same question, all in one, but it didn't matter. What mattered was the way in which, as he slid his fingers against John's throat and felt a beat that was strong and assured and steady and alive, he could hear the pulse of it and the answer running through him, same as ever, settling deep and matching stride for stride. Sherlock leaned his head down, resting against John's with a quiet, contented sigh, and after a beat, John stretched up, their meeting in the middle where they were always supposed to be. The song ended, had ended a while ago, now, but a new one had begun. Sherlock closed his eyes, John followed, and they began to sink.

Love me?

Yes.