John needed a holiday.
It wasn't that he worked too hard. On the contrary, his calls from the locum had been fewer and fewer of late; he supposed that the period of time when he was regularly turning them down and his obvious disinterest in strep throat and plantar warts had led them to call instead on more reliable clinicians who didn't sigh when the third sprained ankle of the day was led in. It was true, there'd been a long stretch when his unpaid activities had been far more engaging than mundane, paid work, and he had no one but himself to blame if he'd ignored the receptionist's calls once too often.
The work had been paid, though, and the excitement of chasing an international forger through the disused tunnels of the Underground couldn't make up for the fact that one did need a bit of dosh to get on in life. Cases were coming thicker than ever, particularly since that "Hatman" story had caught on (and didn't John just love being "Robin"), which led to more refusals of locum work, which led to fewer calls for it, which led to a depleted bank account and an ironic need for a holiday he couldn't afford.
It wasn't just the cases.
John needed a holiday from this. A rest from living in one's nerves, waiting for the the next manic outburst, the next stretch of three days without sleep for either of them because of the case, John, the all-absorbing case, the next explosion, the next madman, the next step in whatever nameless alchemy was brewing between them, the titanic, inconsequential shift which had come months ago and changed everything and absolutely nothing.
It'd been six weeks since Sherlock had blundered into John's room while he was drunkenly wanking after a rather embarrassing cock-up with a girl from the pub (when would he learn that three was his limit if he wanted to keep control of his faculties), and six months since he'd been bringing home girls from the pub for Sherlock to listen to, and in all that time nothing had been said by either of them about the state of things. And Christ, he'd practically kissed Sherlock that last time, putting their mouths together awkwardly like a teenager's first kiss, and for all he knew it might really have been Sherlock's first. It was certainly the first time John had ever done that with another man, and how his cheeks burned when he thought about some of the things he'd said and done that night. He'd still been half-pissed, really, or else he'd never have dared, but it wasn't the daring that surprised him so much as the wanting.
Or the possible wanting-back -- except that wasn't clear at all, especially given that Sherlock had told him over breakfast a few days later, one eye on the obituary column and the other on an experiment just about to boil over, not to bring company round anymore. "Too many people in this flat, John, I need absolute concentration," he'd said, snapping his paper open, and John had flushed into his teacup and stared out the window, wondering if he'd pushed Sherlock too far. He hadn't been thinking very clearly, and Sherlock hadn't exactly encouraged any of it. The thought didn't make John feel very good about himself. He'd heard Sherlock wanking at night a few times since, so apparently Sherlock no longer needed whatever he'd provided in that regard. Which made John start to wonder when Sherlock would stop needing anything he could provide.
So when Mike Stamford asked John to be his last-minute plus-one to the wedding of an old friend in Somerset (there was a long story about a supposed date whose mother had taken ill, which John didn't believe a word of but nodded at anyhow), John said yes before the memory of his bank balance could make him say no. He hadn't seen Tom in years, Mike had a spare train ticket, and the chance of a long weekend in the west country was too appealing to pass up.
"The only difficulty is the hotel's booked right up," Mike said apologetically. "I'd offer to share, but..."
John imagined kipping with Mike on the sagging mattress of a country hotel, in lieu of the absent "Tamora," and hastily assured him that an alternative would be found. A few calls turned up a room in a nearby B&B, and John quelled his gasp of horror at the price by determinedly ruminating on the beauty of a thatched-roof farmhouse and fresh-laid eggs for breakfast. He'd have a few weeks of beans on toast for dinner when he got back, that was all.
It was one missing sister, two commonplace murders, and one particularly gruesome murder before John found the time to mention to Sherlock that he was going away. He'd meant to do it straight off, and leaving it until the night before he left smacked suspiciously of a guilty conscience, but somehow bothering to tell Sherlock at all gave the thing unnecessary importance. It wasn't as if Sherlock ever noticed much if he wasn't in the room, or the flat, or the post code, unless he needed something from John. Which seemed to be happening less and less, these days.
"Mrs. Hudson needs someone to let the builders in on Saturday morning," Sherlock said from behind his computer screen, while John did the washing-up from dinner.
"You'll have to do it," John said, a dish suddenly slippery in his grasp. "I'm going away tomorrow with Mike."
"Oh?" Sherlock asked. John didn't turn to look, but the sounds of typing paused.
"To an old friend's wedding in Somerset," John said. "Near Taunton," he added, unnecessarily.
"Oh," Sherlock said, without a question mark this time.
"I thought I could do with a bit of a holiday," John said. "What with -- " But Sherlock was already typing again, and John didn't finish his thought.
Stupid, really, to think Sherlock needed anything more than the barest of details. Small talk was not his strength. John let out a slow, quiet sigh, covered by the splashing of water from the tap, and finished washing the last dish.
And what interest could Sherlock possibly have in John's state of well-being, John thought gloomily the next morning, waiting for Mike outside Paddington. Sherlock certainly didn't allow for such things as "needs a holiday" in himself. This was just another one of those rough edges, where the carpeting of the ordinary world ended and the cold, clinical, tiled floor of Sherlock's world began. John, traveling between, was bound to trip on occasion. Sherlock didn't even seem to know the difference existed, half the time.
He was going to meet a girl, John decided, watching the outskirts of west London slip by out the train window, and take her back to his absurdly expensive room at the B&B. That was the point of being single at a wedding, wasn't it? Free-flowing champagne, the suggestion of romance in the air, and everyone in their best outfits. If he couldn't pull at a wedding where he knew almost no one, he'd well and truly lost it. He was going to have loud sex for his own benefit for the first time in months, and he was damn well going to enjoy it.
Mike wanted to reminisce about the old rugger days on the trip out, and John was happy to go over the same stories again. It was pleasant to talk about something normal for once, instead of the basal temperature of corpses or families of alkaloid poisons. Mike's conversation was easy, pleasant, and utterly mindless, and got them halfway to Taunton before they ran out of stories and took a companionable nap.
John woke up as the train pulled into the station, his sleep light and easily-interrupted as always. Mike was blocking the aisle, and John gave his shoulder a shove.
"Five more minutes, mum," Mike muttered, rubbing at his eyes, and John grinned.
They made their way out of the station to the cab stand, cases in hand, and into separate cabs. John's turned off the main road to a smaller road, and then a still smaller one, winding between overgrown hedgerows with occasional breaks through which houses and rolling green fields could be glimpsed. The sun was coming out from behind masses of lumpy grey clouds, and here and there a finger of light illuminated a stand of trees or a white-washed house standing alone.
"Peaceful here, isn't it?" John asked.
The cabbie shrugged. "It comes and goes. Can't trust Taunton at night. My mate's been held up four times in his cab, stabbed once."
John pressed his lips together. Crime, it seemed, was not so easy to escape. They took a sharp turn past a large stone cross, marking the center of a tiny hamlet, and then slowed to a crawl on the single-lane road. Rooks took off from the hedgerows overhead, and they passed a small table advertising homemade wine, with a few bottles sitting next to a bowl half-full of bank notes. No one seemed to be watching over the table, and John smiled. Still more peaceful than London.
The B&B, situated at the end of a bumpy and unpaved drive, proved equally peaceful. The farmhouse was a long, white-washed building, crowned with a humped straw roof and flanked on the one end by an overgrown vegetable allotment, on the other by a field of placid-looking cows. The older couple who ran it greeted John with reserved warmth while their two yellow labradors sniffed everything below his belt, and he stopped in the rose-covered doorway to sniff the fresh air, watching dozens of chickens scratch at the grass in the field across the drive. A winding staircase behind what had looked at first to be a cupboard door took him up to his really enormous room, divided by an inner door into two parts and with an unexpected private bath as well.
"We usually keep this room for families," his hostess Margaret said, straightening a doily on the mantle. "The little bed out by the head of the stair is for children, really."
"It'll be fine, just fine," John said, dropping his case by the side of the large four-poster bed in the main room and going to look out the window. The casement swung outwards, somewhat grudgingly, and he had to duck his head beneath the thatch. Through the opening he glimpsed a long green lawn, dotted with several weathered benches and a spreading chestnut tree. "I don't expect to spend much time here."
"Oh, yes, the wedding up at the estate. Our friends down the lane are putting up some of the guests as well. It's going to be very grand, I hear."
"I think it's a big do, yeah," John said, pulling his head back in the window.
"Well, that'll be nice," said his hostess, going towards the stairs. "Boiled or fried for the morning, love?"
After she'd gone John took a moment to breathe again, the quiet ringing in his ears, and then stretched out on the bed with a sigh. The room was nearly as big as the Baker Street flat, and he didn't have to share a bath. No violin, no emails (he'd left his laptop at home), no weird smells in the kitchen, no climbing into sewer tunnels in search of a piece of rubbish that might be evidence, no getting shot at, no lying in his bed at night wondering if Sherlock was awake too, no worrying about what it meant that he thought about Sherlock in bed, no worries at all. Just three days of peace and quiet.
Peace and quiet turned out to be actually rather boring, and within five minutes John missed the street noises of London. He found the remote for the little telly on the window ledge, but none of the three channels it carried were showing anything interesting. He fell asleep to a particularly tepid session of Parliament, and woke hours later in darkness with his mobile ringing.
"Hello?" John mumbled into the phone, his throat dry.
"You coming down here or not?" Mike said. "I sent the cab for you ages ago."
"The pub dinner. Everyone's meeting up."
John looked over at the clock, glowing in the twilight. "I'll be there soon as I can."
"Cheers. Hurry up."
John changed his shirt quickly, not bothering to turn on the light, and went carefully down the twisting stairs, which were guarded by a wooden gate at the top. Outside the chickens had huddled in their coop, and the sky was brilliant with more stars than he'd seen since he'd come back from overseas. The cab was waiting on the drive, driven by his friend from before. John climbed inside.
"Did your mate really get stabbed?" John asked the cabbie, as they headed back down the lane to Taunton.
"Said so, didn't I?"
"It's just -- it really does seem so peaceful out here."
"That's a Londoner's way of thinking. You can't keep all the fun for yourselves."
"Hardly fun," John said, but he couldn't help but remember the thud of his blood in his veins, the thrill of a mad chase. It seemed he wasn't really built for peace and quiet, even when stabbing was a distinct possibility. Bit grim, that, he thought, and wondered just when he'd come to accept that he might never be comfortable in a normal life.
Inside the pub, he was pulled to his seat by Mike, and old friends, half-forgotten, cheered his arrival. John had a busy half-hour catching up on the usual details, meeting wives and girlfriends and Tom's fiancee Caroline, who was young and blonde and very sweet, if a bit shrill. The party around the large table grew steadily louder and more hilarious as the evening wore on, partly to compete with the horrible music coming from open mic night in the far corner, and John felt himself relaxing, aided by two pints and a chat with his neighbor, a gorgeous young French-Algerian woman who was a former flatmate of the bride's.
Amira was a graduate student in genetics, it turned out, and funny as well as gorgeous. John had just enough lager in him to be rather funny himself, and they got on splendidly. Her very slight French accent made everything she said sound charming, and the fact that she was just down for the weekend from Edinburgh was something of a bonus, he thought. Mike nudged him with an unsubtle elbow as they left the pub several hours later, once the party broke up, and Amira gave him a not unencouraging smile when he helped her into a cab.
"See you tomorrow, yeah?" John said, leaning on the roof of the cab.
"Why, you got better plans?" Amira asked.
"Miss the wedding?" John said, glancing over at Tom and Caroline, who were engaged in a playful shoving match on the pavement outside the pub. "Not on your life."
"Tomorrow then," Amira said, and pulled the door shut.
John felt a silly kind of smile break out across as his face as he watched her cab drive away, and rocked on his heels a bit, whistling. Beside him, Mike laughed aloud.
"You always could pull the best-looking ones," Mike said. "Dunno how you do it."
John thought about the girls he'd been pulling for the last six months, some of them quite good-looking, girls he might never have had the courage to approach if he'd been looking for more than a quick shag back at the flat with no strings after. There had been a few girls who'd lingered, crossing the line into steady girlfriend territory, but inevitably those relationships had fallen apart once they'd undergone the test of daily life with Sherlock. John had really tried with one or two of them, but even that hadn't been his best effort. And yet still they came, almost as if John paying only half-attention to them was an enticement. He'd never work girls out.
"I'm just that good-looking, aren't I?" John told Mike, and got into his cab.
John woke the next morning feeling better-rested than he had in months, with sun streaming through the opened window onto his face and the faint sound of birdsong in the air. After a long soak in the deep roll-top tub, he got dressed and went down the stairs to the flagged entry where he was greeted by the two labradors, who happily sniffed at his shoes and got hair all over his good black trousers.
"Hello, Wellie," John said to one of them, bending down to scratch behind the dog's ears.
"That is Winston," said David, his host, a large, heavy-jowled man with a slow, deep voice who strongly resembled the dogs. "Wellington has a bald patch above his tail."
"So he does," John said, patting the other dog on his rear. "Lovely boys."
"They are that," David said wryly.
"Speaking of," said Margaret, coming down the stairs. "Your friend's just sat down to breakfast."
"Sorry, my friend?" John asked.
"Yes, he turned up early this morning. We were all in a muddle, since I did think you said you'd be staying alone."
"I did," John said, feeling his jaw clench.
"I knew there'd been some mistake!" Margaret said. "But he was such a nice young man, and I hated to turn him out. He said he'd be quite comfortable starting breakfast without you."
"I'm sure," John said, through gritted teeth, and went into the kitchen.
Sherlock was dressed in his best dark suit, long legs stretched out under the scrubbed farmhouse table, chatting on John's mobile and wearing that sickly-sweet false look he always put on when he was charming someone. John hated that look. He slouched down in his seat on the opposite bench, noting that Sherlock had eaten more than his fair share of the toast.
"That's so kind of you, Caroline, really just smashing," Sherlock drawled into the phone. "You know I just hate to put myself where I'm not wanted."
Like hell, John thought, starting in on his egg.
"Of course not," Sherlock said, and laughed a high, insincere laugh. "Oh, the hair dresser's there? You must run, love. Kiss kiss!" He turned the phone off, and with it his ingratiating persona, a blank mask falling over his face once more. He dropped the mobile in front of John and picked up his fork.
"What," said John, "do you think you're doing?"
Sherlock didn't even look up from his plate. "Good morning," he said, taking a mouthful of beans and tomato.
"How did you even -- right, laptop. I don't suppose if I asked nicely you'd stay out of my bloody search history?"
Sherlock swallowed. "If you really didn't want me to know where you'd gone, you'd've cleared the cache."
"I tried that before, you found some way of restoring it. So now I rely on basic human courtesy. A mistake, I realize."
They stared at each other for a moment.
"Sherlock -- "
"I could do with a bit of a holiday too, you know," Sherlock said.
John started to say something, then stopped and shut his mouth. It was so unlike Sherlock to admit to any kind of weakness, he had to suspect there was an ulterior motive here. And yet Sherlock really did look tired, his face pale and drawn.
"Look, I don't mean to be rude," John said at last. "But I'm here for a wedding that you haven't been invited to. And -- "
"Everything's been settled," Sherlock said. "That Caroline, such a lovely girl."
John didn't say anything, just shook his head and looked down to pick at the shell of his egg. Sherlock ate more beans and tomato, glancing at the paper folded at his elbow. It was like almost any other morning, except for the country sunshine coming through the cafe curtains behind Sherlock and the dogs nosing around beneath the table. John had the heat of the enormous Aga stove at his back, and his fresh-laid egg was really rather good.
Sherlock was humming. John glanced at him sideways. Why are you here? was on the tip of his tongue, but he didn't ask.
"Pass the marmalade?" he said instead.
Later, after Sherlock had gone to take his things up to John's room, Margaret poked her head back into the kitchen. "So -- you'll both be staying then?" she asked.
John rubbed his eyes. "Seems like it."
"Well, that'll be nice for you," she said. "I'll just pop a second hot water bottle in the bed tonight."
"No -- " John said, and bit his tongue against the usual surge of annoyance. "He'll take the bed in the outer room."
Margaret clucked. "Oh, he'll never fit in that. His legs are too long."
"He'll have to," John said grimly.
He made Sherlock pay for the cab out to the estate. It was a long trip, so far out in the country that the cab's GPS didn't work properly and they had to backtrack several kilometers to the place where they'd missed the turning, and John watched the meter tick up with a little mean satisfaction. Sherlock handed over a careless handful of bank notes at the gate, and they walked up the gravel drive to the top of the hill. The view from the top was gorgeous, and John took in a deep, pleased breath, surveying the summer-green countryside, which looked like something right out of a painting. The clouds on the horizon filtered the light wonderfully, and herds of reddish cows grazed beneath clumps of trees.
"Really lovely, isn't it?" he asked Sherlock.
"Mm," Sherlock answered, fiddling with his shirt cuff. "Places like this, I always think how easily one could commit a really foul murder with no one around."
"You would," John said. "Look, here's Mike."
Mike did not look terribly pleased to see Sherlock, John thought as they shook hands. He gave John a questioning look behind Sherlock's back as they started off through the well-kept grounds.
"What's this then?" Mike whispered, jerking his head in Sherlock's direction.
"He followed me," John whispered, shrugging.
"What, like a dog?" Mike hissed, not quietly enough. John saw Sherlock's shoulders go suddenly stiff, but he just walked faster.
"No, like a -- " John stopped, unable to think of the right word. Like someone who gets bored after five minutes alone with himself.
"Caroline'll go mental," Mike said, as Sherlock got farther away from them.
"It's been sorted," John said. "Don't worry about it."
Mike shook his head. "Never seen him outside St. Bart's. Does he know how to behave properly?"
"I can tell a salad fork from a dessert fork," Sherlock said loudly, without turning around. "And I rarely climb on the table."
John gave Mike a weak grin. Mike flushed. "All sorted," John said.
Sherlock behaved well enough that John felt safe leaving him to chat with a few old friends in the courtyard of the manor house, and by the time they found their seats for the ceremony in the atrium he was almost relaxed again. Sherlock looked bored, but not on the point of saying anything unforgivably rude, and John was able to enjoy the simple, pretty exchange of vows. Mike, sitting on his other side, sniffled all through it, and even John felt a bit misty when the bride's little nephew ran up to give them the rings and be kissed by Caroline. Tom seemed happy, and John was sincerely glad for him. At their time of life, it was a stroke of luck to fall in love with someone like that.
John caught himself wondering what his life might have been like if he hadn't joined up -- would he be like the rest of their mates, with wives and children in expensive schools, living in quiet suburbs and driving worn-out estate cars to football matches and school fetes? Or like Mike, buried in hospital work with hardly a glimpse of a pretty girl from one day to the next? How did one meet anybody serious, after the social whirl of university had ended?
Sherlock shifted next to him, stretching out his leg and accidentally kicking John's foot, and John felt himself go curiously warm. He supposed living with another man was not the most helpful step on the path to wedded bliss. John caught sight of Sherlock's slender, clever hand out of the corner of his eye, twirling one of the homemade boutonnieres they'd been given, and carefully let his train of thought end there.
They weren't seated together for the meal, and John worried for a moment, watching Sherlock settle in between older relatives of Tom's on the opposite side of the large, rustic hall. Then he discovered his seatmate was once again the lovely Amira, and Sherlock left his mind altogether.
"Your better plans fell through?" Amira asked, a teasing smile lighting up her lovely amber eyes.
John took a moment to admire the cut of her silvery green dress, dipping low beneath her collarbones, before answering. "No, nothing else turned up."
"Except his flatmate," said Mike.
"He's gate-crashing," John said with a sigh. "Nothing to worry about."
"He's here?" Amira turned in her seat to look around the hall.
"Tall creepy bloke with the dark hair and mad eyes," Mike said, pointing across the room. Sherlock was sitting ramrod-straight, eating scallops with perfect poise and not saying a word to anyone, to John's relief.
Amira narrowed her eyes, and John felt a flutter of worry. Girls always did look at Sherlock first. "He's... odd-looking," she said at last. "Is he odd?"
"God, yes," John said. "Let's talk about something else."
They fell back into their easy conversation of the previous night, with Mike joining in here and there. Amira was brilliant, really clever and funny, and her research was far above John's head. She seemed to like him, though, and John could feel himself warming up as the dinner went on, saying just the right things to set her laughing. He told her a bit about the crime-solving, mixing the dangerous stories with the funny ones, and he thought she was impressed.
"The police just let you do whatever you like?" she asked over cake, resting her chin on her hand.
"Well," John said, hesitating. Someone was giving a toast in the corner, but no one was really listening. "Not exactly. It's more like -- consulting."
"The police consult ordinary people?"
"No," said a voice from above, and they both looked up. "They don't."
"Hello," Amira said. "You must be the flatmate."
John cleared his throat. "Amira, this is Sherlock. Sherlock -- Amira."
"Enchantée," Sherlock said, and bent quickly to kiss the air near Amira's left cheek, then her right. She studied him when he pulled away, her eyes narrowed and reserved.
"How do you get to be a police consultant?" Amira asked.
"It's a long story," Sherlock said. "John, a word, please?"
John looked back at Amira. She raised her eyebrows and gave him a small, questioning smile.
"I'll be right back," he said, and followed Sherlock outside.
"Sherlock, what -- " he started to say once they'd left the hall for the cool darkness of the courtyard.
"I've had a text from Lestrade," Sherlock said, pulling out his mobile.
"Of course," John sighed. He looked longingly towards the hall, where glasses were being chimed for another toast, and then back to Sherlock. "A case?"
"Not yet," Sherlock said. "But certain events are in motion which have the police -- concerned. They're idiots, they should have seen this coming months ago, but we need to be there -- "
"Look," John said. "I'm on holiday. We're on holiday. Could we perhaps have just one the night without murder and mayhem on the brain?"
Sherlock glanced at the hall now, where the golden glow of fairy lights spilled from the door, faint music drifting out. The band had begun to set up, and the floor was being cleared for dancing. John looked too, and then at Sherlock's face, set in that intense, elated look he got when a new case was on the boil.
"Why are you here?" John asked finally. "If you saw this case coming, why not stay in London? This kind of thing isn't really your sphere."
"My sphere," Sherlock said slowly. "No."
"I know you drive yourself mad being alone for too long, but surely there's someone else you could natter at until I get back. Before I turned up, that position was being filled by an inanimate object, I recall."
Sherlock turned to look at him. "You aren't an inanimate object, John."
"Oh, brilliant," John said. "Nicely deducted."
"Deduced," Sherlock said.
John raised his hands in surrender. "Point is, you didn't have to come haring off to the west end of nowhere if you needed company. Particularly not with an important case on the horizon."
Sherlock shoved his hands deep in his pockets, pushing aside his jacket, and looked at his feet. The gesture made him look surprisingly young, and surprisingly unsure of himself. John wasn't certain what was going on here, but he felt a creeping tension in his chest, and a sudden fear of what Sherlock was going to say next.
"John -- "
"There you are," came a feminine voice. They both turned to see Caroline, floating out the door in a haze of white silk and yellow orchids. She crossed the courtyard to them, holding out her hands and smiling.
"Congratulations," John said, taking her hands and leaning in to kiss her cheek. "You look beautiful. So pleased for both of you."
"I wanted to meet this mystery man," Caroline said sweetly, turning to Sherlock and leaning in for a kiss. "Here I rearranged the seating diagram at the last moment so you could meet Amira, and naughty Mike forgot to tell me you had a boyfriend. Tom was so surprised."
John glanced up sharply and met Sherlock's eyes over the top of Caroline's head. Sherlock looked away, quickly.
"You didn't," John said, in a low voice.
Caroline turned back to John, frowning in concern. "Oh, was I not meant to say anything to Tom? But he's lovely, you mustn't keep him a secret." She grasped Sherlock's hand, then reached out to take John's. "I'm only sorry it was too late to rearrange the seating. Again."
"We managed," Sherlock said, cutting in over John's attempt to speak. "We see enough of each other at home as it is."
"Oh, right, you live together, don't you? I think I've seen something in the papers about you."
"Papers exaggerate," John said quickly. "Look, Caroline, we -- "
"Are just so happy for you," Sherlock said, in that fake-sweet voice that sent shivers down John's spine. He never wondered more about Sherlock's sanity, or his moral character, than when he put on his "punter" face. "Thank you so much for letting us be part of your special day."
Caroline looked between the two of them, smiling and swinging their hands. "Just lovely," she said again. "Now, you must come and have a dance."
"I don't -- " Sherlock said.
"My leg," said John.
"Shoulder," Sherlock said.
"Yes, my shoulder."
"Nonsense," Caroline said, dropping their hands to put hers on her waist. "I want to see everyone dancing. It's my wedding." There was a slightly threatening undertone to her last words, and John remembered Clara in the days leading up to her wedding ceremony. Harry had been terrified, by the end.
"We'll follow you in," Sherlock said.
"Well," Caroline said. "All right." She smiled a huge, glowing smile, gathered up her dress, and tripped back into the hall.
They stood next to each other for a minute after she was gone, a tense silence in the air.
"One more night," John said, through clenched teeth. "You owe me one more night of holiday before we go back."
"And you'll tell Tom -- " John stopped, and looked at Sherlock, who had his hands buried in his pockets again and his eyes on the ground. John sighed. "Sod Tom. It'll probably be another ten years before I see him again."
"Shall we go in, then?" Sherlock asked, without looking up.
"Yes, I left a glass of champagne and a beautiful woman in there."
"Fancy a dance?"
"No, but you're welcome to."
"I don't dance," Sherlock snorted. "Dancing is ridiculous."
"Depends on who's doing the dancing," John said, and started for the door, where the band had begun to play the first song. It was old-fashioned swing music, something familiar he couldn't remember the name of, the kind of thing his nan had used to listen to. Sherlock stayed where he was.
John stopped in the doorway, one hand resting on the wooden frame, and half-turned to look back.
"I couldn't sleep," Sherlock said to the cobbles at his feet.
Ah. John felt a warm thrill in the pit of his stomach, and his breath caught. So they were back to this.
"I thought you -- " John said, and Sherlock shook his head.
"Well," John said, thinking of Amira, even though this was exactly what he hadn't had in mind. "I suppose I could -- you know."
Sherlock shrugged, going a bit pink. "It's your decision."
John nodded. "All right," he said, and went into the hall.
Amira was still sitting at their table, chatting with Mike, and John slid back into his seat to rejoin the conversation. He finished his cake and his champagne, and then another glass of champagne, and then more cake, and the world was golden and a bit bubbly when he finally noticed Sherlock standing at the far end of the long hall, examining the portraits hanging on the white-washed brick walls.
"Should we ask him to join us?" Amira asked in John's ear, startling him slightly.
"Yeah," she said. "He looks a bit lonely down there."
John looked at Sherlock, then at Amira watching Sherlock, and could see a path stretching out ahead of him, made easy by champagne and romantic fairy lights and old-fashioned music. It wasn't like him to pull off something this smooth and complicated, but tonight all the pieces seemed to be falling into place, and he had an unaccustomed sense of power. He could make this happen, if he wanted to.
It's your decision.
"Actually," John said, a sudden shiver taking him. "Forget him. Let's have a dance."
"Thought you didn't dance," Mike said. "On the way down, you said your leg -- "
"Yeah, well, I'm making an exception," John said, getting to his feet and holding his hand out to Amira. "Shall we?"
"Thought you'd never ask," she said, taking his hand.
Dancing was, in fact, a mistake, John had to admit after two songs. His leg did get unaccountably stiff at times, and he hadn't kept up with PT for his shoulder either. He was grateful when the tempo slowed and he could just hold Amira close, swaying gently to the music and trying not to wince when he moved his feet. They maneuvered to the edge of the crowd, and he could see Sherlock sitting down now, in a chair pulled a little apart from the rest of the tables. He caught Sherlock's eye and looked away, feeling watched and self-conscious.
"All right?" Amira asked, against his shoulder.
"Yeah," John said. "Just my leg. And my shoulder, a bit."
"Big war hero," Amira said, her voice low, and moved in a little closer.
"Not exactly," John said. He looked back and Sherlock was definitely watching them from where he sat, no question about it. Sherlock wasn't really sitting but lounging, turned sideways with his legs crossed and one arm draped over the back of the chair, on top of his jacket. He'd rolled up his sleeve cuffs and unbuttoned his shirt at the neck a bit, as the temperature in the hall had gone up with the dancing. The posh bastard had to know how attractive that looked.
John had never thought about whether any man looked attractive with his sleeve cuffs rolled up and his shirt unbuttoned at the neck. He swallowed, feeling his pulse quicken, mostly out of nervousness. Nothing felt made sense tonight. Or else it all made a bit too much sense.
"You should come visit me in Edinburgh sometime."
John bent his head to look at Amira. Her eyes were half-closed, her dark, curly head resting against his shoulder.
"I'm not going to ask you back to my room tonight, see," she said. "But I'd like it if you came to visit me."
John wondered, for a moment, if there wasn't something in her eyes asking to be convinced, if he should push. But he wasn't like that, and he didn't think she really was either. They were two nice people, having a nice time at a near-stranger's wedding, and spending one sweaty, possibly awkward night together in her room and never speaking again wasn't what either of them was looking for, in the end.
John smiled at her. "I think I'd like that too."
"First, though, you've got to sort out whatever's happening with your flatmate," Amira said. "Because Caroline came over and gave Mike an earful for not telling her you were dating, which was news to me."
"Yeah," John said. "About that."
Amira shook her head. "Just sort it out, d'accord? Then come to Edinburgh sometime. Even if it's just to say hello."
"All right," John said, feeling the little spark of possibility fading for good, down to a warm friendly glow. He glanced back up again. Sherlock hadn't moved.
When the song ended, Amira pulled away. "Facebook me," she said, and leaned in to press a quick kiss to his cheek.
John stood on the dance floor alone for a few moments, then crossed the room, limping a little. Sherlock watched him the whole way. There was a feeling of inevitability, John thought, like something had happened the way he always knew it would. He just wasn't sure what it was.
"Ready to go?" Sherlock asked, as John pulled up a chair next to him.
"In a minute," John said. He stretched out his legs and slid down, resting his hands on his thighs. It felt good on his stiff leg, and he rotated his ankle, grimacing.
"Should we order two cabs?" Sherlock asked.
"Nope," John said, reaching back for a carafe of water from the table. He poured some into a glass and took a long swallow, feeling the golden bubbles from before evaporate and disappear for good.
"I see," Sherlock said.
John finished his water, then set the glass back down. He looked over at Sherlock, who was sitting up straight now, his earlier lounging pose gone. "Phone the cab, yeah? I'm going to say good night to some people. I'll meet you out front."
Sherlock nodded, watching the dancers on the floor. John heaved a sigh, and got back up again to do the rounds.
It took ages to say goodbye to everyone, of course, with every old friend feeling the false nostalgia of champagne and insisting he keep in touch. Caroline kissed him with a knowing smile, and Tom gave him a funny, questioning look which John studiously ignored. Mike caught up with him halfway to the door.
"John, what is Caroline on about?" Mike asked in a low voice. "She keeps calling Sherlock your boyfriend, and fairly took my head off for not telling her about him. Is there something you're not saying? And how does Caroline know?"
John put on a big, hearty smile, and slapped Mike's shoulder. "Good night, Mike," he said. "See you at the station tomorrow afternoon."
His last sight of Amira was her dancing in the midst of a crowd of girls, who seemed to be learning a kind of line dance from the American girlfriend of somebody-or-other. She was laughing, one hand circling an imaginary lasso over her head, and John smiled and waved. He wasn't sure if she saw him or not.
Outside, a damp chill had come into the air. John rubbed his arms and shivered as he came down the drive to the gate. The cab was already waiting and he got in gratefully, sliding down in the seat and sighing.
"John," Sherlock said, as they pulled away. "I only ordered one cab."
"But -- " Sherlock said, and didn't finish his thought. They spent the ride back to the B&B in silence, and John nearly fell asleep in the comfortable warmth. There was a faint aroma of freesias clinging to them both, rising from their boutonnieres. John reached up to unpin his, then decided to leave it, half-dead as it was.
"Pretty wedding, wasn't it?" was the only thing John said, and Sherlock made a sound that might have been agreement.
They let themselves into the farmhouse, dropping the iron bar behind them as quietly as possible. John went first up the darkened stairway. It was treacherous without a light and he tripped once, catching himself against the wall with a curse. Sherlock pushed him back upright, just a quick shove at John's lower back, the contact broken almost before John registered it. They took turns cleaning their teeth, and John stripped off his trousers and button-down and got into bed while Sherlock was finishing up. He didn't shut the inner door all the way, leaving a finger-width of space.
Sherlock took a long time before getting into bed, and even then John could hear him fussing around, rearranging his clothing in his bag, paging through several books. At last the light clicked off.
John reached down to touch himself, mostly-erect already. His heart was pounding -- they'd only done things this way once before, not counting the time he'd been drunk and in the same room as Sherlock -- and he wasn't quite sure how to make enough noise to ensure Sherlock could hear. It was tricky without a girl here, with nothing to think about except the fact that he was wanking while his best friend listened. It led to the sort of thoughts he'd been trying all night not to have.
Sherlock shifted in the outer room, the bed creaking. Then he shifted again. And again. John realized he was still trying to find a comfortable way to lie in the undersized bed and broke into a sudden grin, then a helpless laugh he had to smother behind his hand. Before he could think about it, before he decided what it could mean, he threw the blankets off himself and went to the door, pulling it open.
"For Christ's sake," John said. "Just get in here already."
Sherlock sat up in the tiny bed, propped on his hands. He did look ridiculous, his feet sticking off the end, and John snorted and rolled his eyes before he turned and got back in bed.
The bed dipped low when Sherlock laid down next to John, pulling the blankets up to his chin. Now all John could hear was their breathing, Sherlock's a bit faster than his, and all he could do was wonder what the hell was going to happen next. John stared at the ceiling, feeling tense all over, terribly aware of Sherlock on the other side of the bed. The minutes stretched out, almost intolerable.
"I'm sorry," John said, finally. "About the last time. I was drunk, but that's not an excuse. I wouldn't blame you if -- if you didn't trust me anymore."
Sherlock didn't say anything.
"I don't know what this is," John said. "Any of it. I don't know what you want, I don't even know what I want. It's -- very new to me. I've never..."
He trailed off, and felt Sherlock turn to face him. With an effort, he looked over and met Sherlock's eyes. It was too dark in the room to see very much, but Sherlock looked nervous, his mouth open a little and his eyes uncertain.
"This is -- more than new to me," Sherlock said. He paused, and licked his lips. "It's never interested me much. It seemed to be a distraction. It is a distraction. As well as a surprise."
"I know," John said.
"When we first met, you said you weren't gay and I thought 'Good, he's safe, then.' I've had... attention, in the past. It's complicated things."
"I'm sorry," John said. "If we could bottle this up, put it away -- "
"Do you want that?" Sherlock asked.
"I'm not gay," John said, after a pause. "I don't think. But if you've been surprised, well, so have I."
"All right, then," Sherlock said softly.
"All right what?" John asked.
"Let's -- " Sherlock said, and stopped, and John could see him groping for the right words, that deep and precise mind trying to find a path through new territory. It was strange to see him at such a loss, and a little heartbreaking, and John wished he had an easy answer himself.
"Sherlock," John said at last, and reached under the blankets to grasp his hand. Sherlock's eyes widened, but he squeezed back, his fingers moving slowly to curl around John's thumb.
"Let's just start at the beginning, yeah?" John said, and moved Sherlock's hand up to his hip. Sherlock was wearing silky pyjama bottoms, and it was easy to slip Sherlock's fingers beneath the waistband. John gave him a meaningful look, raising his eyebrows a bit, then let go to reach beneath his own waistband.
"Oh," Sherlock sighed, and John felt him shift on the bed, sliding his hand down to grip himself.
John kept his eyes on Sherlock and began to stroke himself, just a loose, brushing grip at first. He could see Sherlock doing the same beneath the blankets, and see Sherlock's breathing pick up, his chest rising and falling with little hitches. Sherlock's eyes were dark and unfocused, and after a minute he closed them, stroking himself faster.
"Missed seeing this," John said, speeding up his movements to match Sherlock's. "I thought about it all the time, you know."
Sherlock made a small noise and nodded.
"It drove me a bit mad, knowing what was going on in the next room," John said. He fell into a good rhythm for a moment and groaned, jerking himself faster to keep it going. "I'd imagine it. Did you?"
"I don't have to imagine," Sherlock said.
"Right, you know," John said, half-laughing, half-gasping.
"Well," John said, his voice breathy. This was going much too fast, and felt much too good. "For those of us without -- ah! -- photographic memories, maybe we could do with a visual here."
He waited a moment, to see if Sherlock would stop him, but Sherlock only reached up with his free hand to grasp the top of the headboard behind him, arching his back. The movement exposed the curve of his long neck, and John needed to see more, now. He reached down and twitched the blankets off Sherlock, kicking his own legs free as well.
"Jesus," John said, as he looked at Sherlock. He hadn't pulled his pyjama bottoms down, but his grey cotton shirt was rucked up to expose his lower stomach and the line of dark curly hair. His whole lean body was tense, focusing on where his hand moved beneath the silky blue fabric, making little slick sounds.
John bit his lip, feeling suddenly overwhelmed even as he wanked faster, his cock growing stiffer and thicker in his hand. He was fucking turned on, no doubt, but he'd never felt this way in quite this scenario before. Everything about Sherlock seemed attractive -- his bare feet, the dark hair falling above his closed eyes, the way he seemed self-conscious but still somehow wanting to be looked at, twisting his body towards John -- and it was too much and too new and almost frightening to realize how much John wanted this. This, and more, a tiny voice said, though he could hardly think what.
"John," Sherlock breathed, turning his head on the pillow against his tensed upper arm, his eyes opening just a sliver, and John could see he was getting to the edge already.
"Oh, you're close, aren't you?" John said, glad to focus on something else. He rolled onto his side and moved a little nearer, propping his head on his hand and slowing down his own movements.
"Very," Sherlock said. He opened his eyes a bit more, watching John.
"Do you want to come now?" John asked, his voice low.
"Not sure," Sherlock said, and groaned softly. There was a spreading wet spot on the fabric of his pyjama bottoms, and John couldn't take his eyes off it.
"What do you want?" John asked.
Sherlock shook his head, and closed his eyes again. John waited a breath, then took his hand off himself and moved his knee to touch Sherlock's leg, sliding against the silky fabric. Sherlock jumped a little, startled, but moved into John's touch.
"I think you want to come," John said, and Sherlock just gasped in response, stroking himself faster.
"And," John said, "I want to watch. I want to -- " His heart thudded suddenly, beating so hard it almost made him sick, and he reached out slowly to place his hand on Sherlock's taut stomach, just above where his shirt was pulled up. He could feel the heat of Sherlock's skin through the soft fabric, and Sherlock's quick breathing beneath his hand.
"Is this all right?" John whispered, and Sherlock nodded.
John looked down to where Sherlock was touching himself, and fuck, he was so turned on it felt like his head would explode. He moved in the last little bit, so he was right up alongside Sherlock's body, almost but not quite touching, and dropped his forehead against Sherlock's chest. He curled his fingers into Sherlock's t-shirt, until he was touching bare skin with his knuckles, and pressed a kiss to Sherlock's ribs.
Sherlock breathed faster, making little moans and gasps, and lifted up his hips. John turned his head, so his ear was resting against Sherlock's heart.
"Don't stop," John said. "Don't you dare stop touching yourself until you come, Sherlock, I want you to come so hard -- "
Sherlock cried out, a harsh sound John could feel under him, and came, twisting his hips and pressing his leg against John's, tangling their feet together. John heard the squeak of the wooden headboard under Sherlock's grasp, and let go Sherlock's shirt to splay his hand against Sherlock's stomach, lightly stroking with his fingertips. When he'd finished Sherlock brought his arm down from the headboard, stretching it over the pillows with his hand just curling down somewhere behind John's shoulders, and lay still, breathing hard.
"I don't want to miss that again," John whispered, and Sherlock let out a shuddering sigh.
John closed his eyes, feeling a peaceful tension, happy to lie with his head on Sherlock's gently-rising chest but still with that pleasant ache in his groin. He shifted once and accidentally brushed against Sherlock's hip, his cock jumping at the contact.
"Your turn," said Sherlock, who missed nothing. John heard the deep rumble of his voice and shivered.
"In a minute," John said, but he was already lifting his hand off Sherlock's stomach and moving his leg back. There wasn't much room between them, and his hand, as he slid it into his boxers, rubbed up against Sherlock's leg. Sherlock didn't move away.
"Come here," Sherlock said, and shifted his arm. John lifted his head, straightening up, and lay back down half on the bed, half on Sherlock's pillow, with Sherlock's arm resting above him. The new position brought their faces closer, so that he could feel Sherlock's breath on his cheek, and the nearness made John's throat go tight, his heart beating faster.
"You had nothing to be sorry about, last time," Sherlock said softly, his eyes searching John's face.
"I'm glad," John said, closing his eyes.
"I wanted you."
"God," John said. He began to stroke his cock, rubbing his thumb over the head over and over, his foreskin soft and slick.
"It's just so much for me to take in, the sensations, the emotions..." Sherlock sounded lost and unhappy, and John shook his head against the pillow.
"We'll do just as you like, only tell me what you want," John said, his voice raspy.
"I want you to stroke yourself faster," Sherlock said.
"Yes," John groaned, and did as he was told.
"I want you to move your hips forward, like you're -- like you're fucking your hand."
John did that too, opening his mouth to breathe faster as the pleasure grew. Each thrust of his hips forward moved the tip of his cock against the hard edge of Sherlock's hip. He didn't think that was an accident.
"I want..." Sherlock didn't finish, and John was just on the point of opening his eyes when he felt Sherlock move in close.
Something like panic fluttered in John's chest as Sherlock kissed him; there was faint stubble and full lips and everything felt slightly strange. But familiar too, because this was Sherlock. He smelled right, he tasted like John's toothpaste, he made a small noise just as he had when John had not-quite-kissed him weeks ago, and John had been thinking about that noise, at odd moments, ever since. John wanted this.
He kissed Sherlock back, which was good because Sherlock didn't seem to know exactly what he was doing. John pulled Sherlock's lower lip between his teeth, running his tongue over it, which made Sherlock take in a sharp breath through his nose, and began to stroke himself again, moving fast and squeezing his cock tight.
"That's it," Sherlock whispered, breaking contact. "Like -- "
John cut him off with another kiss, pressing their mouths together hard, and Sherlock ended with a surprised murmur as he tried to finish his sentence. John thought for a longing moment that he was always going to shut Sherlock up like this in the future, and then he twisted his wrist a certain way and pleasure seized him, putting him irrevocably on the edge.
"Oh god," John gasped. "God, I'm so close. I'm going to come, Sherlock, I can't help it."
"Going to take you in my mouth next time," Sherlock said, his voice low and breathy, close to John's mouth. "Going to taste -- "
"Oh fuck," John said, and kissed Sherlock, and came, clenching his eyes shut and thrusting against his hand and Sherlock's hip, so hard it almost hurt. He had to stop kissing Sherlock so he could breathe after, and then they lay still for a minute, not meeting each other's eyes. John pulled his hand up, wiping it off on his boxers, and realized he'd gotten Sherlock's pyjama bottoms wet as well where he'd rubbed against them.
"Sorry about the mess," John said. "Again."
"It seems to be a hazard of the proceedings," Sherlock said.
"Can you stand a bit of mess?"
John looked up, knowing he would see Sherlock looking back. Instead of the frown he expected, though, Sherlock wore a faint smile.
"I suppose I can," Sherlock said.
"Good," John said, and smiled back.
This was the moment, with a girl, when John would've made some attempt at defining boundaries one way or another. Do you want to stay the night? or are you seeing anyone? or, more often of late, I'm not looking for anything serious just now. Asked about her stories, shared some of his. But he already knew everything Sherlock wanted him to know, and a few things he perhaps didn't. And, John realized, he wasn't looking for anything serious because he'd already found himself right in the middle of it last year, with a flatmate who, after two days, was a man he'd kill for without thinking twice. Serious as a heart attack, and sometimes about as much fun, but unquestionably where he wanted to be.
Sherlock was still looking at him, still smiling, and there were a thousand things that needed sorting out but they could wait. John put his hand on Sherlock's cheek, and moved in for one more brief kiss.
"Good night," John said, and moved back to his own pillow.
In the morning John found himself on the extreme edge of the bed and Sherlock on the other, snoring on his stomach with his face smashed against the pillow. Not one for cuddling, then. Just as well, John wasn't terribly keen on it either, especially when not when he was trying to fall asleep. He got dressed and cleaned his teeth before waking Sherlock up with a hard shake on his shoulder, which he'd learned from previous experience was necessary to get through.
"Five more minutes," Sherlock said, very distinctly, without opening his eyes.
"Fine, but I'm eating your bacon if you're not down by then," John said.
Downstairs, breakfast was much the same as always; Sherlock ignored him in favor of the paper, and there was a silent battle over the last cup of tea in the pot. Sherlock won, because John was busy hoping that he didn't have some kind of stupid morning-after glow that his hosts couldn't fail to miss, and so he kept chatting inanely with Margaret about local walking paths while Sherlock poured out the last of the tea.
They spent a leisurely morning in the garden, sharing a bench and a packet of crisps while Sherlock did things on his phone and John read the paper, creased and folded and marked up as usual after Sherlock had finished with it. They didn't sit terribly close to each other, and Sherlock made several rude comments over John's shoulder as he tried to finish the crossword, but there was a new sort of peacefulness, one which had been missing in recent days. Once Sherlock physically snatched at John's hand to stop him writing in a wrong crossword answer, and John looked at Sherlock and then at Sherlock's hand on his, feeling a sudden catch in his throat. Sherlock seemed to feel something similar, because he swallowed and dropped John's hand and looked away. He was smiling a bit, though, and John thought that if this was their future, he could get used to it.
Mike was already at the station when they arrived. John was heartily friendly with him, Sherlock was distant, and Mike looked between the two of them with the same confusion as the previous night.
"Everything all right then?" Mike asked John quietly on the train, and they both looked over at Sherlock. He was taking up two seats, sitting with his long legs folded up under him and his eyes closed, listening to earbuds that snaked up from his phone with a rapt expression and completely ignoring the man attempting to take the seat next to him.
"Yeah," John said. "I think it is."