Chapter 1: Green
In a city, after midnight
'Neath the halo of a streetlight
Where the dreams die, as the blood dries
On the wounds we keep hidden from view
— "Dreams We Conceive", Night Castle
For him, Afghanistan wasn’t brown. It was green that he remembered — the scant cover of small-leafed trees, irrigated fields where sluggish brown river water flowed in channels over clay-hard earth. Crawling on his belly in green weeds, hidden in the sliver of noon’s shadow cast by a broken stone wall.
Strange that his memory of Afghanistan wasn’t stained red. Drops fell from the cuts in his face and hands, staining the weeds with scarlet specks that were unnaturally ruby-bright in the glare of the Afghan sun. But it was the green he saw, green that drew his eyes and attention. Green had promise — the promise of shelter, of concealment, of cool shadows and water.
Over there, green was memory’s promise of home.
But here at home? Green was just... wrong. It was wet and overcast and limned with steely grey sunlight filtered through mist and smog. Night was better, when green and red and brown all turned to charcoal and shadow. But even night was wrong, with rain glittering like diamonds strewn everywhere. Diamonds, not blood. Horns honking, not gunfire clattering and bombs shaking the earth. People laughing, not screaming.
God, he needed to get out. To get back. To escape his own damned head.
“Start over. Go somewhere new. Somewhere fresh. Take a couple of years. Travel — see the world.”
“I have seen the world.”
“I know, John. Through a gunsight.”
Thanks to a simple accident of birth, it took less than a week before John was flying across the Atlantic, bound for JFK and a new life, far from everything he knew. Everything he remembered.
After the pilot released the passengers, John levered up and out of his seat. He wasn’t in first class — no money for such luxuries — but his ‘special circumstances’ status had landed him a front row seat, giving him ample room to maneuver, awkward as it was with his cane stowed overhead. A flight attendant was at his side, giving him a pretty smile as she said, “Here, love, let me get that.” She reached to get his laptop bag down from the bin, and John couldn’t help but admire the effect of her uniform moving over her trim, athletic body.
She caught his admiration and smiled, all bright-eyed and professional, but her blush was for him alone.
He eased back into his seat and got his laptop set up on the flimsy tray table. While it was booting, he found the printout he’d tucked carefully into an interior pocket of the bag: an email from a colleague he knew from his old student days back at St. Bartholomew's. Mike Stamford had some small measure of notoriety as a professor, and had done a visitor’s stint at NYU, which meant he was the closest thing John had to a friend familiar with the city he intended to make his new home.
Though he himself was back in London — at Bart’s, in fact — he offered to get in touch with some of his contacts and see if he couldn’t get John introduced to someone who could help him settle in, maybe find an affordable flat, if such a thing existed. It was a fragile, tenuous connection, but it was a bridge all the same, a thin thread stretched between his life before Afghanistan and his new life, after.
The city was new, with gleaming silver and steel claws thrust into the sky. Even the old parts were new, barely a hundred years old. In London, you could feel the history with every breath. Every footstep was in the shadow of kings and queens.
Afghanistan was even older — the land that time forgot, except to modernize the weapons.
He’d sent his qualifications to a half dozen clinics, but hadn’t waited for a response before booking his flight. One hotel room was much the same as another, the way he figured. And maybe the change of scenery was a change of luck, too, because he got a call back on his second day.
“Dr. John Watson? This is Dr. Rebecca Levine, with the Henriksen Medical Group.”
The voice was warm and friendly and female — just what John needed. He found himself grinning, walking somewhat blindly, letting the pedestrian flow carry him along. “Dr. Levine. How nice to hear from you.”
She had a pretty voice, one that got John’s imagination working in a way that was highly inappropriate for a man talking to his next boss, or so he hoped. “I was hoping we could set up an appointment to talk. That is, if it’s a good time there? I’m sorry — it must be close to dinner time for you.”
“Actually, it’s right about lunchtime,” John said, feeling some of the tension ease away from him by another notch, as if the time zone difference — New York City, London, Kabul — had moved him into some new dimension, full of potential. He glanced up at the midday sky and green caught his eye, a thick wash of deep, living green that looked even more out of place here than in Afghanistan. “Good heavens, I think I’ve found Central Park,” he remarked absently.
Dr. Levine’s voice surprised him, reminding him that he still held his mobile to his ear. “You’re right by the office! But your address on your resume...”
“Oh, that. I’ve been here two days,” he said, wishing now that he’d scouted the city better. He wanted to ask her to lunch, but had no idea where to suggest. He’d taken his meals by chance — bagels at the hotel for breakfast, hot dogs and pretzels out of street carts, and pizza. As a physician, he was appalled at his own behavior.
“Well, then, let’s meet,” she offered, making him smile again. “Do you like Thai? There’s this great Thai place not too far from here.”
The restaurant was neither intimate nor romantic. It had plastic booths that John handled awkwardly, given his cane, and the tables were chipped. There were no menus — just a garish set of photographs over the register, so tourists could order by number. John impressed Dr. Rebecca-call-me-Becky Levine by ordering by name, identifying the dishes by sight.
The food was excellent. The interview, fantastic. Except that the Henriksen Group was less about trauma recovery and more oriented toward sports injuries. “You wouldn’t believe what some of these idiot stockbroker types do to themselves. They only think they know how to play racquetball. And don’t even get me started on the ones who do yoga.”
Maybe John needed to get out of trauma. He lived for the rush of struggling against death, of losing himself in the battle until nothing existed but the race to stop a life from slipping away. But maybe that was too much the old John.
Too bad he had no idea who the new John really was.
But while the Henriksen Group might not be a good fit for Dr. John Watson, Becky was definitely a good fit for John. Petite, dark hair matching eyes so dark you could get lost in them, with the sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheekbones more usual to redheads. Her lips were full and her eyelashes very long. She wore no cosmetics and kept her nails trimmed very short and neat. No wedding ring and no tan line from one, either. That suited John just fine.
She seemed genuinely regretful when her BlackBerry went off, summoning her away. “Oh, damn. Consultation. Thanks so much for accommodating the spur-of-the-moment interview, Dr. Watson,” she said, getting to her feet.
She put out her hand at an awkward moment, just as he was levering himself upright with his cane, but he managed to keep from falling and looking like an idiot. “A pleasure, Dr. Levine.”
“I’ll call you very soon, I promise,” she told him, a sparkle in her eye.
She wasn’t talking about the job.
He put on that shy smile that had always worked so well for him back home, when he’d been the modest, bright young doctor who’d volunteered for the worst postings, who’d signed up for a life of service, who’d dedicated himself to the wellbeing of his fellow humans. “I’d like that very much,” he told her.
He wasn’t talking about the job, either.
His reward was a faint blush and a knowing smile. Then she was gone, leaving John to contemplate the remains of his food before he decided he’d had enough calories for one meal. With his limp, he was at risk of packing on the pounds, and that was the last thing he wanted to do.
She’d insisted on paying the server, making a joke of taking the receipt ‘for tax purposes’, so he was free to leave. As he did, picking his way slowly through the crowd, his phone buzzed. He fished it out and saw he had a text:
Found flat and flatmate, Baker building 221-B 7pm tonight, best of luck!
The return number was Mike Stamford.
The cabbie didn’t know the Baker Building by name, though John had googled for a proper address, and managed to make it to the building at ten minutes before seven. The drive had him nervous, and it had nothing to do with meeting a complete stranger. No, this was purely the neighborhood, all posh shops and elegant buildings with handcrafted brick walls, stone details, and wrought iron railings. He’d told Stamford he was on a military pension, and obviously he’d forgotten, damn the man! Now, he was spending money on a cab ride and wasting not just his time but someone else’s, all to look at something he’d have to turn down anyway.
The cab stopped in front of a five-storey building in the middle of a one-way street. Trees grew from brick-covered square patches cut in the sidewalk. Two more trees fronted a little café with a red canopy over the door and a window display of sinful-looking pastries. The building entrance was three steps leading up to a little foyer. John limped up and let himself in, mostly to get out of the nighttime chill. There were five brass mailboxes set into the left wall of the foyer, and an ancient-looking intercom system. He reached for the ‘Apartment B’ buzzer, then hesitated, looking the mailboxes over instead. The only listed residents were Hudson (Apt. A) and Turner (Apt. D).
Before he could choose which one to buzz — one of the occupied apartments or the apparently vacant Apartment B — the outer door opened and a tall, thin man swept in. He wore a dark charcoal overcoat and blue-grey scarf that only highlighted the pale skin of his face beneath a disarray of neglected black curls brushed to one side, over his right eye. His gaze pinned John, an electric shock that paralyzed him, stealing breath and words, leaving him gaping like an idiot.
“Good. Very good,” he said, and one corner of his pale lips quirked up. He reached past John, brushing a sleeve right over his chest as he stepped close, pressing one gloved finger into the buzzer for Hudson (Apt. A).
“Sorry,” John said, finding his voice. He tried to back away, but he was trapped between the man and the mailboxes. “I’ll just — That is, I’m waiting...”
It took him that long for the man’s accent to cut through John’s sudden confusion, because to John’s English ears, the man had no particular accent. But here in New York...
“Did Mike send you?”
“I believe he sent you,” the tall man corrected, turning that subtle little smirk on John again. “Do you like the violin? I play when I think. And I sometimes don’t speak for days on end. Flatmates should know the worst about each other from the outset, don’t you think?”
“Flatmates — Hold on,” John protested, wondering exactly what Stamford had said. “We’ve only just met. I don’t even know your name. And I certainly can’t afford even a share here, in this neighborhood. Sorry to disappoint.”
“Not a disappointment at all,” the man informed him, as though disregarding everything else as unimportant. Then his smile turned up another notch as the inside door lock rattled moments before it swung open, revealing an older woman with frosted blond hair cut fashionably short. She wore what John would have described as a little black dress, only done in deep violet. Her makeup was applied carefully for a woman ten years younger, and John could see the subtle signs of cosmetic surgery along her jaw and around her eyes. She wore a small fortune in diamonds at her throat, ears, and fingers, but a wedding ring was conspicuously absent.
“Sherlock!” she purred, holding out her arms to embrace the taller man. She kissed the air by his cheeks. “How are you?”
“Mrs. Hudson, this is Dr. Watson,” Sherlock said, releasing the embrace. Apparently, Stamford had neglected only half the introductions.
Mrs. Hudson looked John over quickly, smiling in a way that would have sparked John’s interest if she’d been a good twenty years younger. Well, maybe fifteen — she obviously was one of those yoga practitioners that Dr. Levine had been complaining about. “Dr. Watson, how nice to meet you. Come in, both of you,” she invited, and John helplessly followed along. Obviously this ‘Sherlock’ fellow seemed accustomed to getting his way, and John didn’t see any graceful way to argue his point in the hallway. Besides, the building was much nicer than his hotel across the city (and, more importantly, out of the cold that made his whole body ache) and he figured he might as well have a quick tour, and then stop at the café for one of those pastries before venturing back to his hotel.
Mrs. Hudson ushered them into a lobby floored in black and white tile, with art deco fixtures casting diffused light onto the white plaster walls. There was a lift to one side and a metal fire door barely visible at the far end of the foyer.
Leading them into the waiting lift, Mrs. Hudson pressed the ‘3’ button. “The ground floor’s taken up by the café and some storage. Basement’s for the boiler and utilities — I don’t expect you’ll need to go down there. I’m on the second floor, apartment A, if you need anything. And here we are.”
The lift door slid open, revealing another black and white tiled hallway, this time with a somewhat faded red Oriental runner down the length. “The building was divided fifty-odd years ago. It was one property all the way to the corner, before my husband bought it in seventy-nine.” She spun the keyring on one finger before flipping through the dozen or so keys until she found the one that unlocked the dark wood door with a brass ‘B’ above the peephole.
Beyond was a spacious sitting room with dark hardwood floors, crown molding, and other elements of architectural detailing that added up to John’s apprehensive tally of the rent. Mismatched furniture was scattered throughout in no logical order, no sense of groupings or function of space — not that it mattered, since virtually everything was hidden beneath boxes and papers, clothes, and all manner of equipment better suited for a laboratory.
“Oh, Sherlock,” Mrs. Hudson sighed, exasperation and fondness warring for dominance in her voice. “Couldn’t you have straightened up before showing the apartment? Never mind,” she dismissed with a wave at Sherlock, who was already digging into one of the boxes. Apparently, he’d already moved in.
It felt like events were quickly moving beyond John’s control — a feeling he definitely didn’t like. He drew a breath, prepared to protest, when Mrs. Hudson took the reins again, saying to John, “Let me give you a quick tour, and then I’ve got to run. Theater date tonight.” Her smile flashed, taking years off her appearance.
Still in a daze, wondering how he’d ever afford even half of this — or if he even wanted to, given the disaster Sherlock had made of things — John followed her through the cluttered living room, through a dining room, and into a well-appointed kitchen that Sherlock had apparently attempted to turn into a chemical laboratory. The stainless steel appliances were all but lost under bottles of chemicals, analysis equipment, and reference journals. Windows in the kitchen and dining room looked out into a narrow little garden tucked up against a high brick wall. Beyond, John could barely see an alley.
“The master bedroom’s back this way,” she said as they returned to the living room. She pushed open a doorway, revealing a spacious room dominated by a massive four-poster bed. Clothes were scattered everywhere. John froze in the doorway, wondering precisely why Mrs. Hudson was showing him Sherlock’s bedroom.
She turned, suddenly right in front of him, standing an inch taller in her substantial heels. Her lips quirked up and she lowered her voice, saying, “There’s another bedroom in the back, if you’ll be needing it. Or it would be perfect for storage. I’m afraid I can’t give you room in the basement.”
“If I’ll — Of course I’ll be needing it, if I take the flat,” John said, just a bit helplessly, following her back into the living room. He nearly tripped over his own cane when his gaze met Sherlock’s.
The tall man smiled, barely a curl of his lips, and looked down at the phone he held in his long, graceful fingers. His eyelashes were very dark against his pale skin, shadowing his equally pale eyes.
“Bathroom’s through here — shared, I’m afraid, only one per apartment, but it’s spacious,” Mrs. Hudson was saying, opening the door into a tiled room that felt nearly the size of John’s tiny hotel room. The back wall was dominated by a huge, claw-foot bathtub. A toilet and sink were built against one wall, opposite linen cabinets that Mrs. Hudson helpfully opened, showing empty shelves ready for towels and toiletries. Tucked away in the back corner, as though a later addition, was a narrow shower stall with a glass door.
Exiting the bathroom, she turned right and opened another door. “The second bedroom is just through here, though really, I don’t mind if you two would rather share.” She gave him a conspiratorial smile and patted the hand that held the cane. “This is Manhattan, after all.”
John’s attempt at denial fell on deaf ears. He showed himself the bedroom, since Mrs. Hudson seemed to believe it was extraneous. The bed was significantly smaller, and the room was entirely devoid of clutter. Still, it seemed comfortable and cozy, at odds with the rest of the cluttered flat.
Assuming — and it was a virtual impossibility — that he could afford it, did he really want to live with a mess like that? And he could already tell that Sherlock was insufferable and domineering, precisely the opposite of the quiet and professional type of flatmate John had idly pictured. Perhaps Stamford had set this up as a prank of some kind.
John wandered back out to where Mrs. Hudson was looking in the mirror mounted over the fireplace that dominated the front wall of the living room. She was touching up her lipstick and talking softly to Sherlock, who seemed to be ignoring her as he stared at his laptop, long legs sprawled out beneath the coffee table in front of the sofa.
“Mrs. Hudson, this is truly a beautiful flat,” he said as soon as she paused for breath.
Delighted, she smiled. “I could listen to that accent all day. Try not to lose it, no matter how long you’re here. Promise me that,” she said, finally turning away from the mirror. “So! Will you take it?”
“Yes,” said Sherlock without looking up.
“Now, wait. We still haven’t talked about the money,” John protested.
“No time. Your pension can cover it. Mrs. Hudson has made us quite a generous offer.” Sherlock snapped the laptop shut, his head coming up sharply. His eyes gleamed wickedly as he all but bounced to his feet. “No time! Doctor, go fetch your things. Make yourself comfortable.”
The buzzer at the apartment door sounded. Sherlock was already there, pressing a button, presumably to remotely unlock the downstairs entry. He threw open the apartment door and turned to Mrs. Hudson as he pulled on his overcoat. “I’ll be home late if at all, Mrs. Hudson. If you could stop by the café downstairs and pick me up something that will keep — something cold, thank you.”
“I’m not your housekeeper, Sherlock. I have a date tonight.”
He pressed on, saying, “Just leave it somewhere in the kitchen. I’ll find it.” With a practiced flick, he doubled his scarf, twisted it around his throat, and tucked the ends through the loop. “John, help yourself to anything you’d like.”
“Sherlock, we haven’t —”
John’s protest was interrupted by the sound of feet pounding on the stairs.
“No time!” Sherlock gave a manic grin and then disappeared, bellowing, “Lestrade! Call me a taxi! I won’t ride in a police car, even one of your unmarked ones!”
As the echoes died out, Mrs. Hudson let out a sigh. “And he’s off. Why don’t you have a seat, take the weight off that leg? I’ll call down to the café and have someone bring up something. Maybe some soup? They do a wonderful matzo ball.”
Normally, John would have asked what on earth a matzo ball was, but his mind was racing. Lestrade? An unmarked police car? What had inspired Sherlock to such a sudden frenzy of activity?
Before he could do more than settle into an armchair, cane tucked close against his knee, Sherlock appeared in the doorway, manifesting out of nowhere like a summoned demon. “You’re a doctor. In fact, you’re an army doctor,” he all but purred.
Stamford must have mentioned John’s military service. “Well, yes —”
John blinked. “Very good,” he said, rising to his feet.
“Seen a lot of injuries, then? Violent deaths?”
“A bit of trouble, too, I’ll bet?” he said, moving closer, stopping at the edge of John’s personal space, staring right down into his eyes.
“Of course. Yes. Enough for a lifetime. Far too much,” he said automatically.
“Want to see some more?”
John’s blood surged, and suddenly he was back. “Oh, God, yes,” he said steadily, as something deep inside him awoke with a roar.
Chapter 2: Black
In the safety of this darkness
As it hides all time has tarnished
The forbidden, unforgiven
Are secure here where no one pursues
— “Dreams We Conceive”, Night Castle
John’s hands were dirty, but that was from fighting the alley door to get into the building where Sherlock had gone, on the trail of the murderer. The dead murderer. But that was all that was on his hands: dirt.
A person has to do a great deal of shooting to get enough gunpowder residue on his hands for it to be visible to the naked eye. John knew this from experience; he’d had black-stained hands before. He remembered his first days in Afghanistan, how he’d scrubbed and scrubbed to get the dirt out from around his fingernails. It had been ground into the ridges and whorls on his fingertips, in the webbing between his fingers, everywhere. He’d even carried a little scrub brush to try and clean up.
He lost that scrub brush somewhere. It didn’t seem terribly important now, but he remembered it all the same, and it nagged at him. Of course it didn’t matter. After a while, he’d learned that even a dirty hand stuck into a wound to clamp off a spurting artery was better than no hand at all. Sometimes it seemed like even surgical gloves were a luxury.
John remembered killing someone while wearing surgical gloves. He’d been doing emergency first aid while his squad was slowly advancing. Two gunmen had crept up on where John was tending his patient. One had scuffed a rock, barely a click of noise, but enough to set John’s warrior-senses on edge. He got a hand on his gun just in time to have it kicked out of his grasp, and that’s when he’d realized they wanted to take him alive. A doctor, even a field medic, would be a prize. He could treat their wounded, and he’d be a more valuable hostage than some ‘murderer’ they could put on video. Even the terrorists had their own Youtube channels.
His thoughts were wandering, but he didn’t need that laser-focus anymore, and it was as though his mind was trying to compensate. He realized it was because the pattern was all wrong. He’d killed a man tonight, but there had been no recovery period afterward. Instead, he’d had to escape the scene (thank God he’d been too far away for any blood splatter) and pretend everything was normal. He’d lied to the FBI and NYPD, for God’s sake, giving them a wholly false story of being too late to catch up with Sherlock, arriving after the whole drama had ended. He was just glad that Manhattan wasn’t laced with CCTV cameras everywhere.
As his mind wandered over the night’s events, remembering that he’d shot someone, he realized that meant there was a bullet lodged in the body. Or maybe in the wall beyond. And while he’d placed the shot with damned near amazing accuracy, given the distance, his mind wasn’t cooperating with his analysis of where the bullet had ended up, despite all of his experience with gunshot wounds.
Surely the FBI would scour the scene, sending in whole teams of forensics investigators. And they’d be able to trace it back to his gun, wouldn’t they? He nearly tripped over his feet, hesitating as he considered suggesting they go back to the scene.
Sherlock glanced down at him, saying something with his eyes, his expression, but John was damned if he had any idea what it was. Then the taller man sighed and leaned down just enough to shove a gloved hand into the pocket of John’s coat, frisking him with brusque, efficient movements.
“Hey!” he protested, trying to bat Sherlock’s hands away without spilling Chinese food everywhere. “What are you —”
“Keys.” Sherlock’s hand emerged with John’s keyring dangling from his long fingers, and John only then remembered Sherlock had thrust the keyring at him when they were in the taxi just... God, just a few hours ago.
“You could’ve just asked,” John muttered, shoving his free hand into the pocket that Sherlock had picked, though it was a bit after-the-fact to mount any sort of defense. Really, the man had no concept of civilized behavior —
There was something in his pocket, exchanged for the building keys.
Walking beside Sherlock on autopilot, John nearly extracted it, but his sensitive fingertips immediately identified a bullet. Deformed from being fired and then from impacting a body, followed by some hard surface.
His heart pounded, fast and hard, as he remembered Afghanistan. How many times had he dug his fingers into shredded meat (because you couldn’t think of it as a person, not when every second counted and there was no room for grief or fear) until he felt this very same sensation at the tips of his fingers?
Then he realized Sherlock had stolen evidence.
To protect him.
“There’s a formula to it, of course. Everything — every human behavior, everything we think is random, it all forms a pattern. You have to see, though — to observe,” Sherlock was saying dispassionately as he yanked open the front door.
“People aren’t numbers, Holmes,” John protested, trying to let the conversation (if you could call it that) distract him from his shock. “People have emotions — motives you cannot quantify —”
He paused, one hand on the key he’d slid into the inner door lock. He turned his head just enough to fix John with one startlingly blue eye, seen through the shadowy haze of his hair where it fell in disarray over his brow. “Sherlock.”
The soft word momentarily derailed John’s thought, helped along, perhaps, by the beer he’d had while waiting for the restaurant to cook their Kung Pao chicken and Mongolian beef, and by the shock of the bullet trapped between his fingers, hidden in his pocket. The bullet that had taken a man’s life. The bullet he’d fired to save this man, this almost-stranger.
“Right. Sorry, Sherlock,” he said, gathering himself. He had no idea what he’d been saying a moment earlier.
Sherlock apparently was disinclined to assist his memories. He opened the inner door, saying, “People never see what’s right in front of their faces, John. How relaxing — how easy — it must be to go through life half-blind, never bothered to realize the whole world is screaming at you, and you’re just too deaf to hear it.”
“You’re mixing metaphors,” John accused, following Sherlock past the lift to the stairs. Sherlock seemed full of manic energy that needed to burn out through physical activity, and John didn’t mind the stairs — not now that Sherlock was proven right. The bloody limp had been psychosomatic.
“I’m attempting to explain an obviously difficult concept,” Sherlock said coolly.
“Bastard,” John muttered.
Sherlock didn’t look back as his long legs took him up the stairs two at a time with ease. “You wouldn’t say that if you knew my mother,” he dismissed, and though his voice was still cool, John could hear his smirk.
John had to trot to keep up. It took a moment for him to realize he’d spoken aloud. “Yeah. You, you bastard. How’d you know I didn’t need that cane, anyway?”
“You didn’t lean against the wall.”
John’s mind searched for context, but he just drew a blank. “What?”
But Sherlock was off again, saying, “A man is dead tonight, John, and another man lives. Why?”
“Sherlock...” John sighed, realizing that if he chose to stay, this was his future — leaping from one subject to another like a frog in a frying pan, stumbling along in Sherlock’s wake. “Are you saying you aren’t grateful I shot him?”
“Gratitude has nothing to do with it. I’m confident I would have survived the encounter.”
“Confident or certain?”
This time, the look Sherlock shot over his shoulder, as he paused at their flat door, was just a bit cooler. “All right, confident,” he finally admitted.
John felt a little surge of triumph. He smirked and followed Sherlock into the flat, pausing to kick the door closed. “So you are grateful,” he pressed, turning to throw the deadbolt.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
Sherlock’s statement came from right behind John, so close that his breath ruffled John’s military-short hair. He turned, wondering how in hell someone that tall and that untrained had snuck up behind him, and he willed his heart to stop pounding. He was still riding the adrenaline high, something he hadn’t felt for months, and God, he was just as addicted as any heroin junkie ever had been.
“What — What question?” he asked, stumbling over his own words. He looked up into Sherlock’s eyes, remembering again that it was Sherlock who was alive because John had chosen to take another life. Flatmates or not, John and Sherlock were essentially strangers.
John had fired without hesitation.
“One man, alive; another, dead. Why?” Sherlock demanded, his eyes blazing, locked to John’s.
“I’m not going to let anything happen to you,” John said softly in answer. “Not on my bloody watch. If you want to kill yourself in some stupid stunt to impress the FBI, you do it on your own damned time.”
Sherlock stared down at him in silence for a full ten seconds before his lips twitched, the barest hint of the start of a tiny, faint smile. His eyes, though, came alight with humor that he made no effort to suppress or hide.
“Good! Almost right!” he approved proudly, snatching the takeaway bag from John’s numb hand and disappearing in the direction of the kitchen.
John let out a breath, slumping back against the door, feeling almost like he’d been pinned in place by the throat and then suddenly released, able to breathe again. He clutched the bullet in his pocket and felt his heart pounding hard against his ribs.
God, Sherlock was going to be the death of him.
Not two minutes later, Sherlock shouted from the kitchen, “John! Get in here!”
The shout pulled him away from the door with another surge of adrenaline. He ran for the kitchen, reveling in his body’s coordination — no limp, no pain, no hesitation at all — and put a hand to the small of his back, ready to draw his SIG P226 on whatever threat had entered their flat. Assuming he could afford the rent. Assuming they ever talked about the rent.
As he burst into the kitchen, Sherlock simply looked at him from where he stood by the sink, sharp-eyed and calm. “Come here, John.”
Willing his breathing to slow, John asked, “What? Something on fire?”
“Your hands.” Sherlock extended one of his, his body language arrogant and demanding, a manner that John was quickly coming to learn was customary for him.
“My hands? What about —”
“John,” Sherlock said sharply, moving away from the sink. In a few quick steps, he circled the kitchen table — where the takeaway bag of Chinese was balanced precariously atop a rack of test tubes.
This wasn’t anger; it was simple intensity. Sherlock did nothing by half-measures. They’d known each other for not quite six hours — six hours in which John had been acquainted with an FBI special agent (which he gathered was a position of some prestige, ranked over just ‘agent’), two forensic pathologists, and five corpses, all of whom had been, in life, victims of some sort of organized crime ring that had something to do with horse racing.
He was surprised to feel a touch on his shoulder, one of Sherlock’s hands brushing over the jacket he still hadn’t removed. “Powder residue, John,” he said much more softly.
Ah. Right. His mind was wandering again. He’d had a quick wash-up at the Chinese place, but he should probably scrub more thoroughly, clean his arms and face, that sort of thing.
Maybe this flatmate thing would work out after all, assuming he ever actually found out how much the flat cost. And that seemed a good place to start.
“About the rent,” he said, moving away from Sherlock to start searching the cupboards, thinking they’d need dishes for the Chinese food. He didn’t see Sherlock as the eat-out-of-the-box type. “How much —”
“Oh, Mrs. Hudson is giving us a very good break. She owes me a favor, you see. Her husband was on death row in Florida.”
Startled, John turned to look at Holmes, who was absently picking things up off the buried kitchen table, then putting them back down in different places — test tubes, vials of chemicals, a pipette, a fresh microscope slide. He wasn’t managing to actually clear any space at the table, or to find any dishes that could be used for dinner.
“You got her husband freed?”
“Absolutely not. I ensured he died.”
John had no idea how to respond to that. In something of a daze, he resumed his search.
He’d just found bowls that would work for dinner, though he was hesitant to use them. They were glass, not china, and judging by some of the chemical labels he’d glimpsed on the table, there was every likelihood that Sherlock had used them to mix some unmentionable chemical concoction. Perhaps a quick rinse first would be wise.
Sherlock stopped him, though, when one long-fingered hand clamped around his left wrist. “Put those down,” he ordered with a tug. “We’re lucky Lestrade was too busy dealing with the dead murderer to question you.”
“Now, wait. You don’t think —”
“One of us has to,” Sherlock cut in, reaching across him to take the bowls out of his right hand. He put them down and tugged John’s arm again, finally getting him to move to the sink. The quick flick of a hand turned on the tap.
John hadn’t had someone else wash his hands in... well, not in forever. Even during his recovery, with his right hand bandaged against his body in a splint and sling, he’d managed to take care of himself. But John wasn’t quite thinking straight, between the desperate search for Sherlock, tracing the mobile phone’s GPS, the thought of Sherlock dead like the other victims, and the shot that had saved Sherlock’s life. So he made no protest as Sherlock trapped John’s stronger, smaller hands between his and held them under the stream of warm running water.
He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t think. He could only stare down at those long, pale, perfect fingers running over his hands, spreading hot water across his calloused, sunburned, wind-roughened skin. He’d killed a man to save a complete stranger — a complete bastard, if he wanted to be honest with himself — and in return, that man had stolen evidence from the scene and was now helping him wash away more evidence.
It was something John had been warned not to expect in the civilian world. Loyalty.
Sherlock resumed scolding him as he let go with one hand to reach for the soap pump. “It was defense of an innocent, of course, but you could have gotten in serious trouble. The FBI doesn’t take kindly to people shooting their suspects. Be glad I distracted Lestrade from taking a swab of your hands. We’ll have to launder your clothes— the jacket, too. And we’ll melt down the bullet; that’s easy enough.”
That sank through to him, and he realized that this might well be Sherlock’s inept way of repaying John for saving his life. Not that John was ungrateful, but he was fully capable of washing his own hands. Fully intending to pull away, he protested, “This is America, Holmes. The gun laws —”
“Sherlock,” he cut in, smoothing the soap over John’s hands.
Throat gone dry, John had to swallow a couple of times to find his voice. “Sherlock, right. They, ah, they don’t have such strict gun laws here.”
“How did you —”
Sherlock’s hands froze.
His fingers tightened around John’s.
He drew in a sharp breath.
“Of course!” he exclaimed, turning away, scattering water droplets and soap bubbles everywhere. “Of course, John! Your dual citizenship. You have a permit. God, why didn’t I see it before?”
Startled, John hastily rinsed his hands and turned to look for a towel. Naturally, there wasn’t one anywhere.
“Hang on, hang on. You can’t know about that. You cannot tell me that by... by looking at me, you know I have dual-citizenship.”
Sherlock gave him a scathing glance, all ice and distance and contempt. “John. Think. How else would you have been able to keep your weapon after your military discharge and bring it into the States? The permit alone — your father, most likely. American military, stationed in England. And I must have been too distracted by these bloody murders to not have seen it before.”
“Residency! No paperwork! It takes months to immigrate to the States without paperwork.” Abruptly, he fell silent, turning to stare at John, who began to feel foolish as he stood by the sink, hands dripping. There wasn’t a single towel in the kitchen — at least not one he’d touch without gloves.
Then he said, questioningly, “Unless...”
John waited, drying his hands on his slacks, but there was nothing else forthcoming. Finally he raised a brow expectantly. “Unless?”
“You’re not here on a fiance visa, are you?”
“God,” John groaned, finally wiping his hands dry on his shirt. Instead of answering, he went for the bag of Chinese food. He didn’t feel like dealing with Sherlock on an empty stomach.
Chapter 3: Red
But the night fades away and gives way to the day
For what else is the night to do?
As the dark steps aside with the hopes we confide
And never believe that the dreams we conceive
Would ever, not ever come true
— "Dreams We Conceive", Night Castle
By the end of his second month with Sherlock, John had gone on a total of four dates with two different girlfriends, which equated to paying for four moderately expensive dinners that he really couldn’t afford, spending two nights away from the flat — one with each of the girlfriends — and two really spectacular breakups, thanks to Sherlock’s habit of texting John at precisely the wrong time.
The problem, John realized as he reviewed his texts, was that Sherlock had no sense of proportion. From him, a ‘danger, come at once!’ text could mean that someone had a gun to his head or that he was on the brink of destroying something just to analyze its remains, as he’d done with the spectacularly ugly lamp that had been installed in the dining room. (“Old wiring, John. I did Mrs. Hudson a favor. It was a fire hazard.”) Or it could simply mean that Sherlock was bored and wanted to see John come running at his least little summons.
How could one man be so frustrating and so captivating all at once? Such a spoiled little brat and yet so wise, so brilliant at times? And such a damned perfect complement to John’s own moods...
Sherlock offered not only the promise of adrenaline and the knife’s-edge between life and death, but a surprisingly insensitive empathy. When John fell into a funk of depression — girlfriend trouble, money worries, the lack of full recovery of dexterity to his right hand, whatever the day’s problems were — Sherlock could be counted upon to do something. It might be helpful, it might be infuriating, it was almost always outrageous, but it was always something. And he’d always get a reaction out of John, whether it was a laugh or a scream of frustration or even just an eye-roll, and then John’s black mood would drift away like smoke on a breeze.
It seemed that John was finally finding his balance, building the life his therapist had said he needed.
Well, no. It wasn’t the life she’d advised — not by any stretch of the imagination. Because she’d painted a picture that John himself had convinced himself he wanted: a little city flat, shared with either a quiet, professional flatmate or (more ideally, John had once thought) a pretty young lady who wanted him to be more than just a flatmate. He was certain that his therapist would advise him to run as far as he could from Sherlock Holmes and his manic madness, his bouts of depression, his narcissistic tantrums, his childish sulks...
And the work. She’d probably break her composure and scream at John for plunging himself into a world distinct from Afghanistan only because most people her spoke English (American as it was) and it rained a lot.
John wouldn’t trade any of it for the world.
At least, not most of the time.
On this specific night, as John rose from the back of the ambulance, he gave serious thought to the fact that he needed to get a real job. He looked cautiously around for Sherlock, only to find him berating the silver-haired Lestrade and the pretty black woman who was his liaison from the NYPD, Detective Donovan. She had rebuffed John’s one and only attempt to chat her up. It turned out that she loathed Sherlock Holmes — ‘freak’ was the kindest word she had for him — and as soon as John had established himself to be firmly in Holmes’ camp, Donovan seemed to have labeled him persona non grata.
John had already given a preliminary statement before the EMTs put an end to it. Instead, he’d be heading down to the FBI tomorrow (Or was that today? It had to be after midnight...) to give them more details. For right now, though, he wanted to go home, get out of his filthy clothes, take a hot shower, and sleep for about ten hours. If there was a light meal in there somewhere, so much the better.
His head ached where he’d been pistol-whipped. His wrists were bruised from the handcuffs. His bad shoulder felt like it was on fire from being bounced around in the boot of the car that had taken him right off the streets — a bold kidnapping that had caught him entirely by surprise and unarmed — to the seaport somewhere off Manhattan Island. Queens? Brooklyn? He had no idea where he was. Wherever it was, he’d been driven around for more than an hour, and they’d wasted another couple of hours trying to play at being reasonable to get him to talk. (“We don’ wanna hurt’cha. We just wanna talk to yer boyfriend.” “He’s not —” “Shaddap.” Slap.)
He’d been rescued at about the five-hour mark, according to the chatter he’d overheard. Thank God they hadn’t really started on the interrogation beyond a few slaps and punches.
Finally, Sherlock swept away from Lestrade and Donovan, stalking through the crowd in an arrow-straight line aimed right at John. Foreseeing trouble, he stood up, making sure he had his balance before he turned back to the EMT. “Thanks,” John said, handing back the blanket.
“Just ’cause you’re a doc doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see a different one,” the man scolded, his eyes both hard and warm with concern. He was about twenty years John’s senior and had the look of a battlefield medic. “The cops can wait. And if they don’t, throw up on their shoes. They hate that.”
John laughed at the earthy advice. “I’ll mind that, thanks,” was as far as he got before Sherlock was there, a silent figure virtually humming with ill-concealed energy. He took firm hold of John’s left arm and dragged him away with surprisingly slow, considerate steps — steps that were deliberate all the same, leaving no room for John to protest. When two police officers approached, Sherlock turned his icy, pale eyes on them, and they found something else to do.
He must have called a car, for there was a dark blue sedan waiting beyond the barricade of police cars and flashing lights. Praying that Sherlock had his wallet — generally a 50/50 chance — John let the other man help him into the back of the car and sank gratefully into the leather seat. Sherlock gave no orders to the driver, who got them moving as soon as the back door was closed.
“Nice to not be riding in the trunk,” John remarked, closing his eyes and tipping his head back.
“Stupid fool,” was all Sherlock told him in a flat, angry tone.
Instead of taking offense, John just laughed softly. “Nice to know you care, Holmes.”
Maybe it was the motion of the car, or maybe it was knowing that he was safe, but he was asleep before he heard Sherlock’s response, though he knew what it would be: “Sherlock.”
Back at the flat an hour later, they were swarmed by Mrs. Hudson in the form of a whirlwind of concern wrapped in an eye-searing red and gold silk kimono that barely skimmed her thighs, her hair carefully pinned up in curlers. “Oh, John! Your poor face!” she fussed, all but pouncing them as Sherlock threw open the flat door. He’d left it unlocked, of course, but John considered it something of a triumph that he’d remembered to close it.
Then John reconsidered, realizing it was more likely that Mrs. Hudson had probably found it open and pulled it closed herself when she’d come to check for any news on John’s whereabouts.
Sherlock stopped Mrs. Hudson just inside the entryway. “John needs his rest,” he declared.
“Oh, of course, dear. And some ice for those terrible bruises —”
“Food, tomorrow morning, Mrs. Hudson, thank you,” Sherlock cut in, herding her back the two steps required for him to be able to slam the door in her face before she could protest about being their landlady and not their housekeeper.
“Sherlock!” John protested, reluctantly sitting upright barely seconds after he’d finally been able to slouch comfortably into his usual armchair. He nearly added a verbal condemnation of Sherlock’s rudeness, when he saw Sherlock not only throw the deadbolt but actually engage the other two locks. That was so uncharacteristic that John could only stare in silence.
Sherlock spun back to face him and discarded his overcoat with a toss in the general direction of the sofa. Though he missed it, he got points for effort. He crossed to John in quick, long strides and commanded, “Up.”
“God, just let me sit a moment,” John sighed. He knew he should go to bed — even the shower didn’t sound all that appealing anymore, after his nap in the car — but the chair was comfortable and here.
In answer, Sherlock took hold of his left hand, prepared to pull him upright by sheer force, when he froze, staring at the bruising around John’s wrist. His fingers trembled, moving so lightly over the abused flesh that John felt no pain at all. John nearly said something, but Sherlock’s eyes had gone dark and his lips parted slightly in that way that said his mind was a thousand miles away.
Very carefully, Sherlock unbuckled John’s watch and slipped it off his wrist, throwing it aside. John made no protest; the face had cracked when he’d been dumped out of the trunk onto the hard cement floor of the warehouse. He just watched it land, bouncing once on the carpet before it slid onto the hardwood floor, and then turned to study Sherlock’s face.
Gaze focused on John’s wrist, Sherlock resumed tracing the bruising with his fingers, touch as soft as a breeze.
With a faint sigh, John let his head fall against the back of the chair once more. He half expected Sherlock to take photos of the bruising for use in some future case. Stranger things had happened.
After another moment of simply holding his hand, though, Sherlock repeated his command. “Up.”
There was no arguing with him in this mood. John let Sherlock help him to his feet and followed him deeper into the apartment, though there was an awkward moment when he had turned for his bedroom, only to bump into Sherlock, who was still hanging onto John’s hand and who’d crossed in front of him, going instead to the bathroom.
“Sherlock, I don’t need...”
His protest died out when he realized he had no idea what Sherlock intended.
“I certainly don’t trust those thick-fingered primates,” Sherlock said dismissively, his gaze flicking to the wound on John’s forehead.
Ah, so the EMTs were the new targets of his ire, then. That was a refreshing change. Usually it was the police, the FBI, or whatever forensics team had ‘wrecked all the evidence’ before Sherlock had been called to the scene.
“They did a perfectly —”
“Slap a bandage on and send you home with two aspirin,” Sherlock scoffed, shaking his head. He caught John by the chin and tilted his face up, staring deep into John’s eyes for one breathless instant before his gaze traced over the dried, aching wound at his left temple. A couple of butterfly bandages held it closed, and it had been swabbed with antiseptic.
The hard, cold crystal of his eyes seemed to soften. “You shouldn’t bear any more scars, John — especially not for me,” he whispered.
John’s mind shut down. He heard something in Sherlock’s voice, some distant, half-buried sentiment that was impossible, coming from the man of ice, the self-proclaimed high-functioning sociopath. If the family dog had suddenly stood on its hind legs and asked him to pass over the sports pages, he would’ve been less shocked.
The head wound, he could clean and re-bandage for himself, but sometimes it was easier to just ride out the tide of Sherlock’s obsessions. Arguing would only give John a headache — one Sherlock would probably try to treat after he got his way anyway and tended to the more visible wounds.
So he didn’t fight when Sherlock shoved him down to sit on the rolled edge of the clawfoot tub. He didn’t even blink when Sherlock started stripping off his shirt, batting his hands away when he automatically tried to help.
Then Sherlock paused again, staring at John’s chest. The map of John’s time in Afghanistan was etched forever into his flesh — the paths of bullets and knives, abrasions from rocks and lacerations and burns from hot shrapnel... Twice, he’d barely managed to avoid being invalided out; the third time had been his unlucky charm. Now, just like back then, his chest was spattered with blood that had soaked through his shirt, spots of rust that cracked with every breath.
Sherlock’s eyes went cold with anger.
“You’d have fits if you knew,” he muttered, only realizing that he’d spoken aloud when Sherlock gave him a sharp-eyed look.
“Don’t.” The word came out tight and hard, before John even realized he was speaking.
His scars were his scars, not one more set of clues to be dissected and analyzed by Sherlock’s too-sharp mind. Some things, John believed, needed to be kept private. He had never volunteered any information about his military service, and Sherlock had never asked.
But now, Sherlock quietly said, “Afghanistan.”
“Fuck,” was all John said.
For a cold-hearted, high-functioning sociopath, Sherlock had the gentlest hands.
He barely brushed his fingertips over John’s skin. He meticulously soaked the butterfly bandages with alcohol — after covering the wound itself with antibiotic gel to keep the alcohol from stinging — before he carefully peeled them free of John’s skin. He used a warm, damp washcloth to clean John’s face.
Diluted spots of bloody water dripped onto the floor between John’s shoes.
It was fatigue and shock that made John imagine Sherlock’s touch was lingering longer than was necessary.
His eyes were intense, pupils large in the somewhat dim light of the bathroom, and John realized that part of what made Sherlock seem so icily distant was that there was no dark warmth to his eyes when seen in bright light, such as the living room, their usual haunt in the flat. Light streamed in through the windows or glowed from the multiple lamps that sometimes blazed for days at a time, constricting Sherlock’s pupils to pinpoints.
Sherlock’s hands froze, little finger brushing the stubble along John’s jawline, thumb just touching the ridge of his cheekbone.
He didn’t seem to be breathing.
John couldn’t breathe, either, until he closed his eyes, breaking the electric circuit that sparked between them. It had to be exhaustion, the shock of the kidnapping finally hitting him. The headache had settled in for a nice, long stay, and he was going to have one hell of a hangover tomorrow, all without the entertainment of getting drunk tonight.
Slowly, Sherlock’s hands resumed their deft, gentle motions, moving from the wound on John’s face to the abrasions on his hands, where flesh had been scraped off on concrete. Meticulously, Sherlock swabbed every wound clean, being as gentle as he could. Even when Sherlock caused some of them to start bleeding again by soaking through the scabs, John felt no pain at all.
It was some endless time before John’s wounds were cleaned and bandaged to Sherlock’s satisfaction. Sherlock shoved the first aid supplies into the box and closed the lid with a thump of his fist, rather than putting things back neatly. He latched the box and shoved it haphazardly beneath the pedestal sink, leaving the wet washcloth and towels on the floor.
As Sherlock went to wash the blood off his hands, John remained on the edge of the tub, too tired to even think of standing just yet. He’d dry-swallowed two Tylenol from the first aid kit, though they didn’t seem to be helping. Despite not wanting to resort to anything stronger, his thoughts wandered to his nightstand, where he had half a bottle of prescription painkillers from his last surgery. He’d stopped taking them as soon as he could; he’d seen the effects of opiate addiction and withdrawal. He’d sooner face a hundred insurgents with his bare hands than have to battle it out in his own head against the demons of addiction.
“You will not let yourself get hurt on my behalf again,” Sherlock said out of nowhere, his voice cold and uncompromising, echoing in the tile bathroom.
At that, John opened his eyes, giving a little laugh. “Oh, I won’t? You’re the one who showed up late.”
He’d meant it as a teasing jab, nothing more, but saw Sherlock flinch as if he’d been gut-shot. “John... I’m sorry —”
“Sherlock,” John protested guiltily, rising to his feet. Things were fuzzy, but he kept his balance well enough, so he dared to take a step, then another, and leaned against the sink beside Sherlock. His wrists ached, but he could live with that. The whole time, he’d been terrified that they’d hurt his hands — break his fingers, damage the nerves, inflict injuries that would end his career as a trauma surgeon, even if he didn’t actually practice these days.
Looking away from the bruises and the bandages that covered his hands, he met the taller man’s eyes in the mirror. “I’m teasing, Sherlock. You saved my life.”
Sherlock’s expression was still hard, but now John could see the shadowed pain in his eyes. “I refuse be the cause of further injury to you. Or worse,” he said in his analytical I-know-something-you-don’t voice. John had learned to distinguish it from the childish version (accompanied by a slightly curled lip) or the petulant one (marked by a subtle frown line between his dark brows).
God, when had John come to know Sherlock so damned well?
“You’re thinking,” John accused, leaning a bit more heavily against the sink, meeting Sherlock’s gaze sternly in the mirror. “What are you thinking? What facts are you twisting around up there?”
Sherlock’s dark brows twitched up — practically a scream for him. “What do you think I’m thinking?” he asked unguardedly. For once, it didn’t sound like it was a test that he could use to turn John’s own words against him, proving himself yet again the smarter man.
“That you nearly were too late. You’re blaming yourself for things you think you missed.” His eyes narrowed as he watched the impact of his words crack through Sherlock’s mask. And something in him made him keep pecking away at the mask, exposing raw flesh — Sherlock’s soul. “You blame yourself for me getting kidnapped, because it was you they were after.”
Sherlock’s eyes hooded, the mask slipping back into place, but only after John saw the pain he had hidden so well, up to that point.
“God,” John whispered, closing his eyes and taking a deep breath. His bare arm pressed against Sherlock’s sleeve.
He felt movement, but it wasn’t Sherlock flinching away from the touch. When he opened his eyes, he saw Sherlock had turned to look down at John’s bare chest — no, at his shoulder, where the bullet wound marked the end of his military career.
A chill prickled at John’s skin. He shivered, breaking away, searching for his shirt.
Then Sherlock was there, putting an arm around John’s body to support him, no longer looking at the scars John wasn’t prepared to acknowledge, much less discuss. “You took a head wound. I’ll wake you every couple of hours,” he said in that same clinically cool voice. His body, pressed to John’s, was very warm, and his fingers skimmed in soothing little circles over John’s ribs. It would have tickled someone else, but John wasn’t particularly ticklish. Did Sherlock know that or did he have no idea what he was doing?
“That’s not necessary,” John protested in a daze, allowing himself to be led out of the bathroom. Sherlock turned right into the dining room and right again into John’s bedroom. “Sherlock.”
John sighed, stopping beside the bed. Unlike Sherlock, who seemed to nest in his blankets and laundry on those rare occasions he actually slept, John made his bed every morning. Reaching down, Sherlock stripped back the covers with a powerful one-handed tug, leaving his other arm holding John close.
“Sit,” Sherlock ordered, only then turning John and pushing him down onto the edge of the mattress.
Easier not to argue, John told himself, so he sat and watched as Sherlock knelt and reached for his shoes. He opened his mouth to say something when the strip of pale flesh at the back of Sherlock’s neck caught his attention. His dark, curly hair was like a shadow, and John’s fingers suddenly itched to know if it was as soft as it looked. It was obvious he rarely bothered to cut his hair; the skin above his collar was almost pure white, as if never exposed to sunlight.
Without thinking, he rested his arm on his knee and brushed his fingers over Sherlock’s hair, barely stirring the fine strands.
Sherlock hissed in a breath, his hands going perfectly still on John’s half-bared foot. Apparently, he’d gotten both shoes off and was now working on his socks, and John hadn’t even noticed. God, had he been staring? Not just staring. Touching. He was petting Sherlock’s hair, and that was insane. This was his flatmate, not his girlfriend.
And by God, he was not going to think about anything like that, with Sherlock on his knees at his feet, and John’s memory of the too-rare occasions when he’d gotten a date — a female date — to do just this sort of thing, only with less in the way of trousers involved.
When he pulled his hand away, every muscle in his arm was locked with tension. A shiver passed visibly through Sherlock, and John actually saw his throat work as he swallowed, before he got back to pulling off John’s sock.
Too late to really make any sort of difference, John managed a half-hearted protest. “You don’t have to.”
Sherlock lifted his head while remaining on his knees, and just looking at those pale blue eyes and long, dark lashes seemed to send a spike of electricity right through John’s body.
“John,” Sherlock said in his soft, low voice, his name almost a rough growl. “Let me.”
It wasn’t ‘shut up’ or ‘stop being stupid’ or any of a thousand commands that Sherlock threw at him on any given day. It was like Sherlock really was asking for permission, but... permission for what?
There came a time, though, when a man has to decide who he’d die to protect. In Afghanistan, it had been an easy decision. His squad. His fellow soldiers. The wounded in his care. It didn’t matter who they were, because they were all brothers-in-arms, and he knew that every one of them would have died for him, in turn.
And he’d been warned not to go looking for that in the civilian world. They don’t understand, the doctors had told him. You’ll set yourself up to be hurt even worse than the bullet. Care for your friends. Love your family. Fall in love with some pretty girl and raise a family. But don’t look for that bond. It’s gone now.
They were wrong.
He managed to nod silently. Words were stuck in his throat — words he couldn’t bear to even think, much less to speak, but words that were true all the same.
I would die for you.
John always came awake abruptly, his first thoughts of danger and the threat of battle. This time, he was surrounded by darkness. His eyes cracked open in slits barely enough for him to see a shadowy shape beside him. His heart thudded once hard against his ribs as he racked his brain to remember where he’d put his weapon. He never slept without it at hand —
Except he did, he remembered as Afghanistan slipped away. He was between clean sheets, the weight of a comforter draped over him, head pillowed on soft foam. And with that came the realization that his head hurt.
A touch, right at the center of the pain, seemed to drive it back a notch. Cool, soft fingers skimmed over his skin, tickling lightly at the stubbled beginnings of a beard that he really didn’t feel like getting up to shave. He sighed and let his eyes close as that touch traced down his jaw, sending pleasant little chills through him. Then the hand moved back up, fingers combing through his short hair.
“God, that feels good,” he muttered drowsily, feeling the battle-readiness ebb like a falling tide, leaving behind a blissful relaxation. He was safe and cared for, by...
Oh, bollocks, he’d forgotten her name.
He blinked his eyes open, straining to see, but he was in his bedroom, which meant the blackout shades were drawn. That meant he’d actually brought a woman home with him, which meant he was going to have to take her out there, to where Sherlock was probably lurking in the living room. There was no noise at all — no violin, no shouting, thank God. So Sherlock was probably in one of his depressions again. He got like that without a case.
“John,” came Sherlock’s voice a moment later from just inches away, full of dry wit and something that a more-awake John would never call affection, because Sherlock was about as affectionate as that skull he kept on the mantle.
And now, his flatmate — his infuriating male flatmate — was sitting right beside John, on his bed.
Startled, John tried to sit up, demanding, “What the bloody — Ow! Oh, fuck!” Head pounding, he sank back into the pillow. He ached everywhere — his head, his shoulder, his wrists and hands. His whole body felt bruised and battered.
He felt Sherlock draw the blanket down enough to expose his right hand, into which he laid what felt like two pills. “Take those, John. There’s some water here... That’s good,” he encouraged softly as John took the pills and swallowed them with a sip of tepid water.
“Concussion,” John finally said as the memories finally fell into place. “God, I feel like I got kicked by a horse.”
“That would be far worse.”
“Was that an attempt at reassurance?” John muttered, steadfastly refusing to think about how good Sherlock’s touch had felt just a moment before. He absolutely did not want more of that, no matter that it had driven away the pain more effectively than whatever he’d just taken. And that made him ask, despite it being too late to protest, “What’d I just take, anyway?”
“Tylenol,” Sherlock said dryly. “You would refuse anything stronger, stubborn as you are.”
John couldn’t hide a relieved sigh. He wasn’t even going to ask how Sherlock knew that, so instead he concentrated on trying to sink into his mattress. If he could sleep, he’d get some distance from the pain throbbing in his head, at least for a little while. And he wouldn’t have to think about Sherlock sitting in his bed...
“Wait. Have you been here all night?”
“All day,” Sherlock corrected sharply. “I’ve been waking you periodically.”
“Well, I’m fine now, so you can go... do whatever you need to — Oh, god, I need to give a statement.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. With all that physical evidence, even a halfwit could put a report together.” His voice turned absolutely scathing as he added, “And I told you last night, I’m not going to permit you to come to harm anymore, on my behalf.”
Apparently, Sherlock seemed to have gotten himself some kind of conscience.
John had only lived with Sherlock for a couple of months now, but that was long enough for him to have picked up a trick or two at handling his irascible flatmate. “Fine,” he conceded. He wasn’t going to get back to sleep — not after all this — so he went for a distraction instead. “I’m famished. If you’re determined to keep me from harm, does that extend to feeding me? I could do with a cup of soup and a sandwich from the café downstairs.”
Sherlock actually took a few seconds to consider that before he moved, slipping so slowly off the bed that John at first thought he was injured, before realizing it was Sherlock’s way of minimizing any disturbance to the mattress. That was incredibly considerate of him, as was his silent departure, with no further argument or protest.
Resolving to encourage this newly civilized behavior of Sherlock’s by being nicer to the man, John made his way out of bed and followed in Sherlock’s wake much more slowly. He’d be able to make it to the bathroom on his own, and he’d eat breakfast — supper, whatever it was — off a tray in the living room like a civilized person, and the two of them could forget all about Sherlock spending an entire night — day, whatever — with him in his bed.
Chapter 4: Chocolate
Still looking for a beta! I'm going back and editing, fixing a couple of typos and inconsistencies. If you see anything that needs attention, please drop a note!
Is life different after midnight
With its new dawn and its new lights?
Inconsistent and indifferent
To the things we were so sure we knew
— “Dreams We Conceive”, Night Castle
The ninth day of silence broke John’s nerve.
Sherlock’s phone hadn’t stopped chiming with incoming texts, emails, calls, and voicemails, every one of them ignored. He barely moved from the sofa, where he just stared up at the ceiling or rolled onto his side to face the back, blue dressing gown twisted around his long limbs or thrown dramatically open when he covered his face with one arm, the other thrust out to dangle off the sofa as though he were nothing but a corpse.
On day three, Mrs. Hudson had tried to fuss, but John intercepted her, promising that he was taking care of Sherlock. He took to leaving bottles of water by the sofa when he went out to the store or to the clinic where he’d been called to work for a couple of days. When he came back, each time, the bottles were gone, but that was hardly a victory.
By day five, John’s worry was growing, especially since he had committed to going out of town for a week with his latest girlfriend. Her family had a vacation house out in the woods, and she had pointedly suggested that time away from the city (as in, Sherlock and his incessant texts) would be a good thing. He’d put it off until she made it clear that their relationship was reaching the him-or-me point, which was a little too weird for John’s liking.
He got Mrs. Hudson to promise to keep an eye on Sherlock, but it was the weekend, and she had the type of active social life that John could only dream about. Worse, once he and his girlfriend reached the vacation house, he discovered that cell reception was spotty at best. He spent so much time trying to get a text through that they ended up calling the vacation early.
They took the train back into Manhattan in a frosty silence that told John, louder than any words, that he’d just gotten himself another ex-girlfriend.
Even John’s return to the city didn’t evoke much of a reaction from Sherlock. He just looked up to watch John’s defeated entry into the flat, and then let his head fall back against the sofa cushion without saying a word.
The next day, unable to stand the silence (and trying not to get resentful that he’d lost another girlfriend over this), John went down to the café to debate their soup-and-sandwich lunch special. He didn’t have much of an appetite, though, and was still staring at the menu when one of the girls came out of the kitchen with a tray that smelled like heaven. “Hey, John,” she said, giving him a quick smile. She was seventeen and flirted with him every time he came in — something he normally tried to avoid.
Not this time, though. He followed her along the length of the pastry counter, asking, “What’ve you got there, Ellie?”
“We’ve got this awesome new baker,” she said, her eyes lighting up as she set down the stainless steel tray and peeled away the foil cover. Within was a bed of chocolate, rich brown striped with a darker icing. “Fudge brownies, family recipe. Want to try one?”
“Oh, god, yes,” he said with a laugh, thinking he could do without a diet for one day.
The brownie looked soft and moist and rich enough that he’d be jogging for a week to make up for it. Ellie was using the spatula to cut out a very generous portion, her eyes flicking up to John every other second, her flirtatious smile full of hope and interest.
John smiled back at her, but he was thinking of his morose, despondent flatmate.
“Make that two — to go,” he told Ellie, much to her disappointment.
John let himself back into the flat, having already considered how best to get Sherlock’s attention. A direct assault was almost guaranteed not to work — Sherlock gave ‘stubborn’ a whole new level of meaning — which meant he had to be clever.
More clever than the great consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. Right, then. He could do this.
The brownies were warm from the oven, and John could smell them even through the styrofoam boxes and plastic bag. He knew Sherlock, with his too-sharp senses, would catch the enticing odor as well, so he deliberately didn’t look in the direction of the sofa. He remained perfectly silent as he went to his armchair, setting the bag down on the side table where he usually kept his laptop when he was writing or checking email. The newspaper on the table crunched and the plastic bag crinkled, the sounds loud in the otherwise deathly silent flat. John had to repress the urge to divert from his plan and go throw open the curtains and windows just to let the summer air in.
But for now, the silence suited his purpose. He didn’t want Sherlock distracted by analyzing the weather or traffic patterns or god-knew-what.
He removed the two styrofoam boxes from the bag and set one on top of the bag, the other one in his lap. He found the plastic forks Ellie had helpfully included — the café was accustomed to providing plasticware to John and Sherlock, since they were both terrible at remembering to wash what few dishes survived Sherlock’s habit of using anything at hand in his experiments. He set one fork on top of the box resting on the table beside him. He picked up the other one and opened the box in his lap.
Then John began to eat, letting out a surprised, delighted “mmm” at the first bite. God, this was good. If this was going to be a regular menu item, he was going to have to do something abominable, like stomach crunches, because he couldn’t deny himself this sort of indulgence. He just wasn’t that strong-willed.
He savored three bites before Sherlock stirred, the sofa creaking under his weight. John deliberately didn’t turn, and in the darkness of the flat, Sherlock was nearly invisible to his peripheral vision. But John hadn’t lived with Sherlock for a few months without learning to observe, and his ears told him that Sherlock had rolled onto his side. Facing John or facing away? That was the question.
Two more bites passed into delighted memory before the shadowy shape on the couch sat up.
Victory. John hid his faint smile by taking up another forkful of the rich confection.
Ghostlike, Sherlock drifted closer, robe billowing around his bare ankles. Only when he reached one hand out, fingers just touching the second fork, did John actually turn, raising his gaze to search Sherlock’s face.
When Sherlock said nothing, John gave a little shrug, saying, “Go ahead.”
His graceful fingers gathered up the fork. His other hand lifted the second styrofoam box.
John took another bite, feeling a surge of triumph —
One that turned to confusion as Sherlock half-turned and lowered himself to the floor, right at John’s feet. Blinking, he watched Sherlock open the lid of the box and start in on the brownie.
Eventually, seeing that there was no explanation forthcoming, he shrugged and went back to his own dessert. There was no sense in ruining his minor victory with questions that would probably just irritate Sherlock right back into his sulk.
Living at the Baker Building with Sherlock, John had never quite fallen into a normal schedule. Every time he thought he was getting back into a diurnal pattern, some late-night crisis threw his system out of balance all over again. Finally, John had reverted to his old military habits, snatching naps whenever he could. At least the armchair was much more comfortable than the hard floor of a helicopter or the stifling heat of a tent.
When he fell asleep sitting up, there seemed to be much less chance of nightmares, so he awoke slowly, with the taste of chocolate on his lips and the feel of something soft under his right hand. Taking a breath, he caught the lingering odor fudge brownies and smiled at the memory of his plan to snap Sherlock out of his dark mood, at least a little bit.
Shifting, he felt a warm weight pressed against his right leg, and he vaguely wondered if he’d forgotten about a girlfriend or something. But no, he was single again — a fact he’d confirmed by text earlier that day, or maybe the previous day — and a somewhat apprehensive look told him that it was Sherlock who was curled up against his leg, head pillowed on his knee beneath his hand, which was petting Sherlock’s soft hair as though of its own volition.
For one moment, John froze, going tense.
Sherlock caught it. Of course he did — the faintest twitch was like a scream to him. He barely moved, stubbled jaw scraping against denim. “Thank you.”
How the hell was he supposed to respond to that? He couldn’t think of anything that a normal person would say in this situation, because normal people didn’t get into this sort of situation in the first place. So he asked, feeling rather dull-witted at the moment, “For what?”
“Thinking of me.”
His first instinct was to dismiss it as a simple courtesy. But he knew that would result in Sherlock closing down, perhaps relapsing back into the silent, half-dead figure intent on becoming a permanent sofa accessory.
“I always do,” he said instead, and with those words came several realizations in quick succession, like lightning flashes in his mind, making him wonder if that was how Sherlock lived all the time.
Because it was true — he did always think of Sherlock. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was always either aware of where Sherlock was or worrying about him, thinking of when he’d last eaten or slept... Really, Sherlock needed a full-time caretaker to keep him from neglecting himself right into hospital.
But it was more than that. He hadn’t known his flatmate for a handful of hours before he’d killed a man to protect him. And when he’d been kidnapped almost a month ago, he’d been afraid that they would ruin his hands, but he would have let them, rather than giving them any information about Sherlock.
In fact, there was nothing John wouldn’t do to keep him safe.
His hand still rested on Sherlock’s head, fingers tangled in the long, soft curls, and Sherlock’s body was a comforting, warm weight pressed against John’s leg. And now he should laugh it off, maybe jokingly offer to help Sherlock get to his own bed or something, but the words caught in his throat.
For the first time John could remember, Sherlock sounded uncertain. Hesitant.
A chill passed through John, making him shiver. He was reminded of his first nighttime HALO jump, when he stood at the top of the chopper’s ramp and stared out into darkness so profound it might have been outer space. It required all of his courage to take those running steps and let himself fall.
And now, he was back on the ramp, staring out into the dark unknown — a place where, apparently, Sherlock had already ventured.
Slowly, Sherlock’s hand, strong and gentle, slid over John’s shin, fingers curling around to his calf, very warm even through the layer of denim that separated skin from skin.
“Sherlock,” he said, thinking to protest the touch, but the name came out in a near-whisper.
He slowly turned his back to John’s leg, head pressed into his thigh. He lifted his chin and turned his head to look up at John. The dim, diffused light made his pupils huge, almost eclipsing his normally icy blue eyes.
God, he was absolutely exquisite, like the creation of some mad renaissance sculptor, the stark bones of his face all the more arresting for the paleness of his skin. When Sherlock had turned, John’s hand had slipped down to rest on his own leg. Now, it was a simple matter of lifting his fingers to touch one prominent cheekbone.
Sherlock’s eyes closed, lashes stark black against his skin, and John couldn’t keep from staring.
For the first time John had ever seen, Sherlock was entirely relaxed, bonelessly resting his weight against John, his breathing slow and deep. The tension that seemed to live at the corners of his eyes and mouth was gone. His hands — always in motion, touching and exploring — lay still at his sides.
I did this, John thought, moving his finger over Sherlock’s perfect, warm skin. With a shiver, Sherlock exhaled softly and seemed to relax even more, strangely at peace.
Somehow, with a simple offering of dessert and a kind touch, John had tamed his insane, incorrigible, self-centered flatmate. His best friend. If a wild wolf had burst into the flat and rolled belly-up at John’s feet, he wouldn’t have been more surprised.
That thought, that mental image, made him draw his fingers down to Sherlock’s throat, where the skin was even softer. Tension rippled through Sherlock as he drew in a shallow, sharp breath, arching his back just a bit to lift his chin further.
Offering John his submission. A tame wolf.
John had to close his eyes, steeling himself against the sudden urge to slide his hand over Sherlock’s throat, fingers pressing in over the pulse just enough to feel it accelerate, to make his breathing hitch. He remembered one girlfriend in college who’d done that to him at just the right moment, and he’d nearly passed out from the mix of fear and pleasure.
But this was Sherlock!
What in hell was John doing?
They’d had this conversation. They were both straight — or at least, John was. Sherlock’s ‘married to my work’ comment had left John vaguely wondering if he liked anyone that way, male or female.
Slowly, John opened his eyes and found Sherlock looking back up at him. There it was again, that electric spark, as if from a completing circuit, racing through his body, only this time, it burned infinitely hotter, searing his hand where it touched Sherlock’s throat.
He could feel Sherlock’s pulse jump under his fingertips. With every breath, soft skin pressed into his palm.
“John. Please,” Sherlock said softly, the words not pleading and broken but curiously dispassionate. He could feel the subtle vibration of Sherlock’s vocal cords through his hand. It took him a moment to realize Sherlock was hiding his emotions not from himself but from John, out of fear of scaring him off.
“Bloody idiot,” John scolded just as softly, striving for a measure of the same emotional detachment, though Sherlock’s sharp eyes didn’t miss his affectionate smile. “You think I’m going to drive you away over dessert? I’ve killed to keep you mine.”
The word slipped out before John could catch himself, but the truth of it hit with the impact of a bullet. Mine, he thought, the concept settling deep into his chest, warm and safe and somehow right.
“Yours!” Sherlock blinked and twisted so suddenly that John’s hand fell away. Kneeling up beside the chair, Sherlock was nearly of equal height, allowing him to fix John with a flat, offended glare. “What do you mean by that? If anyone is anyone’s here, you’re mine.”
“I’m — But you — You’d starve without me!” John protested, turning to prop a knee up on the arm of the chair, facing Sherlock more directly. “You can’t even find your damned socks half the time without asking me what you’ve done with them!”
Sherlock’s eyes went hard and snapped with irritation, softened only by his dark pupils. “You follow me everywhere. You do exactly what I want, sometimes without even knowing it. Obviously you belong to me!”
“Oh, wonderful. I wouldn’t trust you with a plastic floral arrangement!”
A faint laugh bubbled up inside him at Sherlock’s indignant expression, coming out as a sort of choked cough.
Sherlock’s eyes widened in disbelief.
“Are we... actually having this argument?” John asked in little hitches, lips twitching more violently as he fought to keep from outright smiling.
“You’re damned right we are!” Sherlock said, standing his ground for all he was worth, not laughing at all.
Or kneeling his ground, John thought, and though he finally had to give in and grin, he realized that the sight of Sherlock kneeling beside his chair, with his mussed hair and his blue dressing gown falling open as the silk belt slipped loose, was perhaps the hottest thing he’d seen... well, since Sherlock had knelt at John’s feet to take off his shoes the night he’d been kidnapped and then rescued.
“God. Sherlock,” John managed to say as the laughter finally died out. He reached for his best friend, his flatmate, needing to feel that soft, perfect skin under his fingertips.
Pale, intense eyes closed as Sherlock leaned into the touch. He wanted this. And John...
John wanted this, too. God help him.
In the diffuse light, Sherlock was a creature of pale skin and soft shadow. The blue silk robe framed his chest in a V that dipped below his waist, barely preserving what modesty he had left as he knelt up beside John’s armchair. He was so tense that John could see the pulse beating in his throat.
John traced the sharp line of Sherlock’s cheek, paying no attention at all to the little voice in his head that insisted he wasn’t gay, he didn’t like men this way, he didn’t do this. Because this, whatever this was, had nothing to do with male or female and everything to do with his infuriating, captivating, brilliant, erratic flatmate-turned-best-friend.
He had killed for Sherlock. He would die for him. This simply was the logical conclusion, the ultimate answer to the impossible equation that was Sherlock Holmes + John Watson.
“You’re absolutely stunning,” he whispered, truth slipping between his words and breaths, so tangible that John could feel it resonating within him like a touch.
“I’m nothing,” Sherlock said just as softly, though his words were delivered in a dispassionate tone, stating a simple fact. “Before you, I was... I...”
The sharp interruption silenced John, as it had so many other times, but this was different. There was no flash of irritation — only a sense of patient waiting. Whatever was on the other end of that interruption, it was important to Sherlock; therefore, it was important to John.
But instead of speaking, Sherlock hitched in a breath and looked down, the motion causing John’s fingers to skim up the side of his face and into the curls at his temple, soft as silk. Sherlock’s long, pale fingers moved then, his right hand drawing up the left sleeve of his bathrobe, pulling it high up above his elbow, and John realized at that moment that he’d only once seen Sherlock roll up his customary long sleeves, and that was to display the nicotine patches — three of them — stuck to his flesh.
Wordlessly, Sherlock extended his arm, turned palm-up, showing skin so delicately translucent that John could see his veins even in the half-darkness...
Veins and scars. Punctures.
John’s mind filled with clinical data, counting the scars, calculating the age of the earliest and latest, estimating the impact on Sherlock’s health. It was, in retrospect, obvious. Sherlock needed input. Data. Information. Anything to send his mind racing down paths few others could ever follow. And if there was no mental input, he craved physical input.
Nothing so simple as alcohol or one-night-stands for Sherlock Holmes, though. No, he would choose something harder, more extreme, because Sherlock did nothing by half-measures. Heroin was John’s first guess, though cocaine was a second. A hallucinogen was another possibility, but he couldn’t see Sherlock giving over his brilliant mind to false visions. No, heroin would bring the perception of clarity and mental focus.
The most recent scar was over a year old, which was a relief, but John still clasped his hand around Sherlock’s wrist, fingers digging in.
Something inside John twisted nearly to breaking point. He’d seen the effects of addiction. Not street-drugs, but morphine, other painkillers, handed out so freely to front-line soldiers in an effort to keep them moving and functioning. During his recovery, he’d intentionally not taken his pills except when the pain was truly unbearable. He couldn’t bear the thought of Sherlock’s brilliant, erratic mind breaking under its own pressure like that.
“No more,” he said, his voice almost unrecognizably rough and harsh. It took a force of will for him to raise his eyes to Sherlock’s face, and he knew, by the way Sherlock’s own eyes went wide, that his expression was set into fierce, stern lines. “No more, Sherlock.”
Guilt flashed across Sherlock’s expression. he looked down and let his sleeve fall, though it caught at his elbow. He made no effort to pull free of John’s tight grasp. “I don’t — I haven’t in —” He took a ragged breath and shook his head just slightly. “You should know. John... I need...”
Oh, God, John thought, horrified, as the tension drained from between them, replaced by the fiercely protective instinct of a best friend and doctor. “What can I do?” he asked, gentling his hold on Sherlock’s wrist, catching at his hand instead, a physical sign of the support he offered.
Sherlock’s head came up, eyes wide and haunted and very, very dark. “I — I need you, John,” he said, sounding a little lost and puzzled. “I can’t — There aren’t words for it,” he added, his voice growing in strength and dropping into a lower register, almost like a growl.
The physician-part of John’s mind slipped away like a mask falling to the floor, leaving only the confused best friend behind. “You what?” he asked numbly, before remembering that seconds ago — surely no longer than a minute — he’d been the one wanting.
Sherlock didn’t just rise; he uncoiled, a predator emerging from its place of concealment in the tall grass, sharp eyes fixed on the tender young morsel that wobbled away from the protection of the herd. “Not me,” he said, twisting his hand slowly from John’s grasp. Long, powerful fingers closed around John’s wrist, easily circling, pressing against small bones. “You, John.”
He tugged sharply up, and John was on his feet before he’d even realized he’d moved.
You follow me everywhere. You do exactly what I want, sometimes without even knowing it.
And he was back on the ramp again, wind tearing at his uniform, oxygen mask sending icy air slithering into his lungs, the terror of the unknown dark yawning before him, pierced only by the gleaming intensity of Sherlock’s pale blue eyes.
He had to take back control, or he’d be lost, burned to ash in Sherlock’s mad, manic, all-consuming flame.
It was his turn to twist free, and before Sherlock could do more than blink and open his mouth to protest, John was out of reach, going for the window shades. He threw them open, revealing the New York summer sky, so brilliant and blue it was nearly an agony for his eyes.
“Come here,” he said, turning back to Sherlock.
He knew that he was silhouetted against the glare, and that Sherlock’s eyes had grown accustomed to the half-light over the past week and more. Blinking rapidly, Sherlock stood for a moment, reflected sunlight turning his white skin luminescent.
John felt a small surge of triumph when Sherlock broke from his place beside the armchair, taking hesitant steps forward, as though expecting to burst into flames when he reached the pool of sunlight where John stood.
For the last few steps, John helped, holding out a hand like an offered lifeline. Sherlock took it at once, allowing John to draw him close, closer, until they very nearly shared breath. John’s heart was pounding but his mind had a crystalline clarity that he rarely experienced outside the operating theater — or the battlefield.
That the bullets flying at them were emotional and not physical made them no less real. No less deadly.
He considered his words for a moment, telling himself that he needed to be firm, to put their relationship back onto the same track where it had been before all this, whatever this was.
John took a ragged breath, trying to reorder his scattered thoughts. “Right, then,” he said.
And, “We should...”
Then, “We need to sort this through.”
Followed by, “So.”
Slowly, he came to realize that he was babbling, and Sherlock was just... staring at him, rapt and fascinated, as though John were the subject of an experiment, his every response to be sorted and cataloged and analyzed.
“Bloody hell,” John muttered, the surge of frustration sending him over the edge. He closed his fists around the shawl collar of Sherlock’s robe and pulled hard, making the taller man stumble in surprise, drawing a gasp as he tugged Sherlock down enough for a kiss. It was hard and nothing like kissing a woman and just a little desperate. He could taste the faintest remnants of the fudge brownie Sherlock had eaten a lifetime ago.
Off the ramp John tumbled, into the endless sky that engulfed him not in infinite darkness but the pure, clear light of the summer sky, a brilliant reflection of Sherlock’s beautiful eyes. One single heartbeat passed before Sherlock’s lips parted, a light gasp playing cool air through the space between them before that space closed, and then it was all heat and desire. A tiny corner of John’s mind was screaming that he was going to ruin everything, to destroy the friendship that was maddening and endearing and so very precious to him, but that voice was very small and fell silent as the kiss just went on.
Sherlock’s hands were on him now, clutching lightly at his upper arms, not to push him away but to simply hold him there. His fingers twitched, playing nervously over John's sleeves, and he was otherwise perfectly still, his whole being focused on the kiss. He made some soft sound, more a noise of breath than voice, as John slid his tongue between those perfect, pale lips, and it felt like a prize.
His imagination caught fire, trying to determine what Sherlock might sound like if he were brought to the edge of insensibility. He could imagine that controlled, aristocratic, arrogant voice broken, pleading incoherently, gasping, begging for release, for anything John would give him... for more.
“Oh, fuck,” John whispered dizzily, lips moving against Sherlock’s. He shoved at the collar of Sherlock’s robes, sliding the silk over his shoulders, tugging it down, forcing Sherlock to drop his hands from John’s arms just long enough to let the robe fall free. It caught on the belt still loosely tied around his waist.
The temptation of all that pale skin was enough to get John to break the kiss and shift his weight back. He opened his eyes, a little dazed, and looked down at Sherlock’s chest, ribs barely visible under sleek muscles and a very fine dusting of night-dark hair.
Sherlock’s breathing was ragged, his hands half-lifted as though he didn’t know what to do with them. He took a deep breath, and John knew that he was rallying his considerable mind, most likely in an attempt to wrest back control of the situation.
So John did the least predictable thing he could think of, on a moment’s notice. He stepped back and spoke in a commendably steady voice: “Off with the belt. I want to see all of you.”
Chapter 5: Blue
As you stood there in the night air
With such beauty that the stars stared
From their distance, you were different
Like a dream that no one could refuse
— “Dreams We Conceive”, Night Castle
The blue robe slithered to the carpet, pooling around Sherlock’s bare feet, glowing like the midday sky in the bright sunlight that streamed through the window. In public, Sherlock wore slim-cut, dark suits that emphasized his tall, angular frame, shirts always unbuttoned at his throat. At home, when his mood was dark and self-destructive, he wore soft, shapeless pyjamas and this silk dressing gown, as though seeking comfort in the folds of soft fabric. In the summer, he sometimes cut it down to just a robe. And that was all. John had never seen him in anything else — no casual tee-shirts, no blue jeans, no trainers or tracksuits or jumpers, not even a bloody towel wrapped around his waist as he went from the bathroom to his bedroom.
Somehow, he’d never even considered the idea of Sherlock, naked and exposed to his sight. It wasn’t so much that he wasn’t interested in men (because he wasn’t) but that somehow, the ideas of Sherlock and nudity didn’t go together.
Now, confronted with the reality, he was captivated all over again, just as he’d been that very first night when Sherlock had offered him the lifeline of excitement and danger, that knife’s-edge that was the only place where John truly came alive.
In a way, this was its own knife’s-edge, so sharp that he felt as if he were already bleeding just a little bit. This could destroy them, slice them to ribbons, or it could carve away everything from before and remake them both into something... other.
He watched — stared — as Sherlock’s breathing quickened. A flush spread down from his cheeks, softly pink, just a shade darker than his normal color. John let his gaze roam, feeling his own blush burn the inside of his skin as he realized that Sherlock’s nudity was complete. Somehow, it was a relief to see something as normal (Normal?) as an erection rising from the thatch of dark curls — he wasn’t the only one affected by this — and it was insanely hot to see that those curls were neatly trimmed back.
He was nearly overcome with the desire to touch, to compare the feel of those short, groomed hairs against the silk-soft mop that was brushed to the side, over Sherlock’s right eye.
Carefully, he examined that impulse, searching inside himself for any hint of discomfort. He wasn’t gay, was he? No, he didn’t think so... but maybe bisexual, at least a little. At least where Sherlock was concerned.
There was no reason not to let his eyes continue down, taking in Sherlock’s long legs, lean muscles tense. His weight was forward, on his toes, as if he were ready to break into flight. But he didn’t move as John looked back up his body, noting with a growing heat that the evidence of Sherlock’s interest was most definitely still present. By the time their eyes locked once more, both men were breathing faster.
“God, you’re even more beautiful in the light,” John said roughly.
Sherlock swallowed as though attempting to find his voice. “John —”
He knew better than to cross wits with Sherlock, especially distracted like this, so he interrupted the attack before it could really get started. “Quiet,” he ordered sharply.
Sherlock’s head jerked up, eyes wide, lips parted to gasp or to speak.
Before he could, John continued in the same authoritative voice, “One word, Sherlock — one word — and I walk away, and this never happened. Do you understand? Just nod or shake your head.”
For a moment, he thought he’d pushed too far. But then Sherlock’s lashes swept down as he lowered his head in a terse, graceless nod. At his sides, his fingers curled, nearly clenching into fists, as his body went tense.
A little nervous, John lowered his own gaze, and his breath caught when he realized that Sherlock was actually more erect now. As if he liked the way John had simply taken control.
This was insane. John didn’t like men. Sherlock didn’t like anyone. They were flatmates, not live-in lovers, no matter what everyone seemed to assume upon learning that the two men lived together, especially not after seeing them work together, fitting so seamlessly despite Sherlock’s berating insults and John’s refusal to tolerate him once he passed some indefinable line.
He didn’t like men this way, so there was no reason for him to reach out and lay his palm on Sherlock’s chest, except that he wanted to feel that perfect skin, thin and taut over his breastbone, cool from the air conditioning but scorching hot underneath, reverberating with the fast beat of Sherlock’s heart. No reason at all to trace his fingers across sleek muscle to one nipple, where the skin was already furled tight. No reason to feel a hot spark of raw, wanton desire ignite in his own belly when Sherlock gasped, eyes closed completely now, and arched into John’s touch as his fingers grazed over that nipple.
Needing more, John moved, taking a step to the side, then another. Sherlock looked at him and went to turn with him, but John pressed his hand against Sherlock’s chest. “Stay,” he said, more softly, though he kept his voice firm. “Let me see you.”
There was a desperate, needy light in Sherlock’s eyes. He looked almost lost, off-balance, and John realized that Sherlock had no data for this — no frame of reference for how to behave or what to expect or, most important, how to predict what John would do next.
“Let me see you,” he repeated steadily, looking up into Sherlock’s eyes. John spoke from a calm, controlled, confident place, even though he had no idea what he was doing, and that seemed to reassure them both.
Sherlock closed his eyes and turned his face away, with a motion that might have been a nod. He shifted his weight, finding his balance in stillness, his mask of composure betrayed only by the tension in his jaw. There was something more to this, as if he wanted this but also didn’t.
The power in their awkward, bizarre relationship had always been in Sherlock’s hands. Oh, John bullied Sherlock into eating and sleeping and otherwise doing the minimum to maintain life, if not health, but even that was something Sherlock simply tolerated. There was no obedience in it; sometimes, it seemed that Sherlock ate at John’s urging simply to shut him up.
But now, the dynamic had tipped, and John wasn’t about to relinquish his new power — not until he knew exactly what this was and what they both wanted. If there was even a hint that this would cost their friendship, John would end it without hesitation. Otherwise, he was willing to see where this new path led. More than willing, in fact. Eager.
In profile, Sherlock was even more beautiful. The line of his shoulders, the curve of his spine, the tight muscles that he held so tense, almost vibrating with the restrained desire to turn and watch John watching him.
And then John moved to his back, and realized that he might have been entirely wrong. The tension had nothing to do with Sherlock’s need for data, and everything to do with his desperate need for the privacy that had shrouded him.
The images came in little flashes, each one a separate impression, like a series of snapshots that chronicled the denizens of the dark place where Sherlock’s demons lived.
There, over the right shoulder blade, a long scar, thin and so white it was nearly invisible against his flesh. Another three lines were cut parallel to and between his ribs. Hash-marks criss-crossed through the fine, silk-soft skin near the base of his spine. Tiny little cuts, like Morse code dots and dashes, traced a meandering trail up his back, to the left of his spine.
How many times had John made cuts like these — but unlike them as well? He knew the exact pressure required to slip a scalpel through human skin — it was more than most people realized, and there was an art to knowing just how deep you would cut with any particular pressure.
But these weren’t surgical cuts. These were far shallower, just deep enough to draw a welling of blood, meant to sting with an electric pain that would crawl over the skin and up the spine. John had seen men take a bullet with nothing but angry curses, and had seen those same men bitch and whine like children over a simple papercut. That’s what these were — thin cuts made by delicate blades for no other reason than to cause pain.
Two more scars were a little thicker than the others, tapered at the ends — one across his left shoulder blade, the other near the bottom of his ribs, just above the right kidney. He had absolutely no idea where those had come from. They were beyond his medical experience, even from the battlefield.
And on the heels of that thought came a hot spike of pure rage, bordering on bloodlust, aimed at the nameless, faceless person who had marred Sherlock’s perfect form and dared inflict such agony on this brilliant, erratic man.
It took John long seconds of breathing deeply before he was able to think again. The rage was still there, but it burned cold now, buried deep inside, locked away inside that part of him that still lived in Afghanistan. One day...
Looking back at the razor-fine scars, John realized that it hadn’t been torture. None of the fine, delicate lines was disrupted or ragged. Short of anaesthesia or nerve block of some kind, there was no way to forcibly restrain a body so it couldn’t even flinch.
Which, John realized in the dispassionate, analytical way he was learning, meant that Sherlock had been a willing participant in his own torture.
He dragged his mind back to the present, forcing himself to see past the scars, reading — inexpertly, granted — the subtle change of the tension across Sherlock’s shoulders. Before, the tension had been a hot, living, electric thing, like a current that ran from John to Sherlock and back. Now, it was all defensive, as though Sherlock expected to relive the pain of those scars, this time unwillingly, like he was braced against John’s scorn and anger.
“Sherlock,” John said, feeling an absurd flash of pride at how steady and calm his voice was. But then he realized he didn’t know where to start or what question to ask first. Where did one start, with this sort of thing? Who? Why? The only question for which John had any answers was when? He estimated the scars to be a year old, perhaps less — meaning this had happened well after the last of the injection marks had been made. So drugs (injected drugs, anyway) weren’t the cause or explanation.
Even though John hadn’t actually asked, Sherlock answered, his low voice almost a whisper. “Because I needed something. To focus on. A... a distraction.”
“Dear God,” escaped John’s lips before he managed to shut the hell up. This wasn’t about condemning Sherlock’s past. This was simple worry for his best friend, a fierce determination to never see Sherlock hurt like this — willing or not — ever again.
Desire forgotten under his concern, he came back around to stand before Sherlock, gripping the taller man’s shoulders and looking up into his eyes. “Help me understand,” he pleaded.
Sherlock’s eyes closed, but not before John saw something like despair. He moved back out of John’s grasp, leaning down to sweep up his dressing gown, silk billowing around him as he swept it out like the wings of a bird, settling it around his shoulders. He said nothing until after he’d thrust his arms into the sleeves, back turned to John, and tugged the belt around in front of his waist.
“It’s irrelevant,” he said, his voice all cold distance and locked doors once more.
A sense of loss welled up inside John, as if something precious had died before it had properly been born. The cold emptiness reminded him of those first days and weeks in one hotel room after another, sitting there in a haze of blank nothingness as he tried to send his mind back to Afghanistan, hating his cane and his tremor and his pain and the fact that he’d survived.
“Sherlock... please,” he said, his voice breaking into a rough whisper as he watched Sherlock throw himself down on the sofa, one hand reaching out to twitch the robe up over his bent legs as he rolled over onto his side, presenting his back to John.
Fuck, John thought, closing his eyes as the emotional storm broke through him — disgust at himself, fury at his childish flatmate, disappointment, desire, concern, and so much more, all coming in a rush, fast and hard, leaving him too off-balance to think, much less to sort it all out.
He told himself to stay, to go to Sherlock, sit down on the couch, try to draw him out of his shell, but he didn’t have the energy.
No. That wasn’t right.
He didn’t have the courage.
Hating himself, he went to get his coat, making his escape like the coward he apparently was.
Chapter 6: Gray
But the night fades away and gives way to the day
For what else is the night to do?
As the dark steps aside with the hopes we confide
And never believe that the dreams we conceived
Would ever, not ever come true
— “Dreams We Conceive”, Night Castle
John had no idea what would have happened if not for the abrupt series of cases — three private investigations and one consultation with the FBI regarding a bomb threat — that filled their time. Slowly, by inches, things went back to normal.
But John was no longer willing to accept ‘normal’.
Once again, there was distance between them, made up of long sleeves and bodies kept at arm’s length, separate armchairs, tables between them. Not that they’d ever been close enough for casual touching or even sitting together on the sofa that was practically Sherlock’s spare bed. But this distance was perhaps an inch broader than it had been before, and John was trying (and failing) to stop himself from flinching every time Sherlock shifted his weight back to avoid even brushing John’s sleeve.
He wanted to give up. God, he wanted to just quit trying. But the memory of Sherlock, luminescent in the sunlight, standing there with a tiny glimpse of his soul bared, forced him on. Sherlock had trusted him with everything, and he had failed to honor that trust. He was determined to make it up to him or die trying.
Of course, to do anything to fix the situation between himself and Sherlock, he had to get past the dying part. He couldn’t do anything about it immediately, especially not while he was on his knees in an ageing resort hotel bathroom, his new gray suit in complete disarray, vomiting up his toenails. Tears streamed from his eyes as he coughed and strained to breathe before another wave of nausea hit.
Three, maybe four minutes, he thought, reviewing his symptoms. He wasn’t anywhere near in danger of dehydration yet. Hopefully, he’d managed to expel the worst of the poison — for that had to be what it was, not a reaction to the food as he’d originally thought.
He’d been fine up to a half hour ago, when the stomach cramps had hit. He’d excused himself from dinner well before dessert and sent Sherlock a warning text that he was no longer able to watch their suspect. By the time he’d made it up to his hotel room, the cramps had turned into a burning sort of agony that had him running for the bathroom. He couldn’t remember if he’d locked the door, and he fumbled for his phone, thinking that he should call 999 — no, he was in the States. It’s 911 here, isn’t it? he thought fuzzily.
Before he could think beyond that, Sherlock was there, door crashing open as he fell beside John, holding his shoulders, telling him, “The paramedics are on the elevator, on their way up.”
John couldn’t do anything but nod helplessly and go back to puking while Sherlock disappeared. A three-minute eternity later, John was in the care of two older paramedics. One was a sweet-faced grandmotherly type who had the misfortune of looking too much like the suspect they were investigating, making his already racing heart seem to skip and stumble, rattling against his chest. Her partner was on his phone with poison control, and John could hear Sherlock talking over him, insisting John had no food allergies. John tried to croak out something, but fear clenched an icy hand around his throat when he saw the woman holding up a syringe. There was nothing he could think of that she should be injecting him with. As an EMT, she wasn’t trained for that sort of diagnosis.
It hit him then: She looked like the suspect in a series of poisonings! His heart raced even faster, which was no help at all, and he tried to snatch the syringe away, but he was as weak as a kitten, and this sixty-something-year-old woman was actually faster, catching him by the wrist and raising the syringe to jab, when Sherlock was there like some sort of black bird of prey, still wearing the dark clothing he’d put on for a little bout of breaking and entering. Sherlock hit her, she hit John, the syringe went flying, and John threw up on the tile floor as his stomach cramped even more violently, spiking hot pain through his whole body.
When he next became aware of his surroundings, it was in time to hear Sherlock shouting, “I refuse consent!” and “I’m his husband, you bloody fool!” and breaking down into graphic threats.
Clearly, the poison wasn’t all out of John’s system. He was hallucinating. Or maybe he was dead, and this was some bizarre version of hell.
Either way, John’s body decided that throwing up again was a very good idea, though he’d long since expelled everything from his body, and couldn’t even summon up enough strength to spit. He had vague thoughts of cleaning himself up, because he was a damned wreck, but he couldn’t even sit upright without clinging to the toilet or the handle to the under-sink cabinet. So instead, he curled up on the tile floor, arms pressed to his burning, aching stomach, and wondered if he could will himself to death.
No one else came in to help. He could vaguely hear Sherlock shouting, slamming the hotel room door, and then talking to someone. At first, it was typical Sherlock, all arrogance and command, but then John heard a strained, desperate, “Please!” and decided he had to be hallucinating.
It was another age before Sherlock came in, crossing right through the mess on the floor to kneel down beside John. “You’ll be all right, John, but we can’t trust the locals,” he said tightly. The motion of his hands was gentle, tugging the tails of John’s dress shirt free of his gray trousers. At some point, John had loosened his belt and fly — any pressure on his gut caused racking, stabbing pains — and Sherlock had little difficulty stripping the stained thing off him.
“Stop moving,” John protested, or tried to. It came out as a dry croak that startled Sherlock. His eyes were very dark, shadowed underneath, and his brows shot up as if he’d realized something.
He disappeared, leaving John half dressed, shivering from the sweat soaked through his undershirt.
Then he came back with a glass, which he filled from the sink tap, and held carefully to John’s dry, cracked lips. “Just a little,” he said. “Slow sips. There.”
The water seemed to seep into his parched throat, soothing the burns caused by his own stomach acid. It wasn’t nearly enough, but when it finally hit his stomach, he could feel the cramps threaten to start up again.
“Hospital?” he managed to ask, though the thought made him more than a little anxious.
The local hospital was the reason that Sherlock and John were here in upstate New York. A concerned granddaughter had hired Sherlock to investigate the suspicious death of her grandfather, who’d been under the care of an upscale hospital for the elderly — a hospital to which he’d donated quite a substantial part of his estate. Foolishly, John had offered to go undercover as a surgeon interested in a career change, using his real name. He hadn’t even thought twice about it, but apparently someone up here had internet access and had found his blog, therefore discovering his work with Sherlock, and the whole thing fell apart.
“Hardly,” Sherlock answered in a scathing voice. “You’ve rid yourself of most of the poison efficiently enough, and I’ll have you back in Manhattan in proper care by morning.”
John groaned, only half-caused by the pain he felt when Sherlock fussed to get his trousers off. He had no idea when he’d gotten rid of his shoes — probably before he’d started puking, since they’d pinched his toes through the whole charity dinner.
“Dehydration,” he managed to say.
“Ice chips and water,” was Sherlock’s decidedly non-medically-trained response.
So this was how it all ends, he thought. Poisoned by an elderly woman who’d been embezzling from donations to a charity hospital, left to die in the outdated bathroom of a Catskills hotel. Sherlock would probably end up cataloging the details of his death, and then dissecting his corpse for more data.
He wasn’t even entirely aware of Sherlock undressing him until he was up on his bare feet, stumbling into the shower, pressed against sodden fabric as strong hands held him up under a stream of hot water. The bizarre reports of his obviously confused senses got him to open his eyes, only to see he hadn’t misinterpreted anything. He was naked, in the shower; Sherlock, also in the shower, was still in the dark clothing he’d worn to break into the hospital director’s office, right down to his black leather boots.
“Least you took off the gloves,” was the most coherent observation John was able to make.
John couldn’t have been asleep for more than an hour when he awoke with a shout, pain lancing through his aching body, memory filled with gunshots and screams and blood pumping from gut wounds that looked like so much fresh ground meat. He was aware of someone holding him down with gentle hands, whispering words that thundered into John’s migraine, but the tattered fragments of the nightmare were slow to fade away.
“You’re all right, John. You’re safe now. I won’t let anything happen to you, I swear. Lie back, John, please. You need to rest.”
It was the voice that did it — Sherlock’s voice, broken and rough, thick with emotion. John managed to roll onto his back, ignoring the way it sent pain shooting through every inch of his body, and got his eyes open enough to see the shadowy shape lying beside him.
That made him conscious of skin pressed against his hot, sweating, shivering body, where he wasn’t covered by the disarrayed sheet tangled around his limbs. A hand rested on his chest so lightly that he almost couldn’t feel it, except for the brush of fingertips.
“Have to die to get you naked in bed?” he asked in a harsh, croaking whisper. It just slipped out, like his brain had no filter, and he cursed that he hadn’t damaged his throat too much to speak at all.
Sherlock went silent and still.
Then he let out a soft breath that hitched and caught, and gently slid his arm across John’s chest, fingers quivering with tension, though he kept his touch light as if aware that anything more was a risk of unbearable agony for John’s abused body.
“I’ve called for a private ambulance to get you back to the city. You’re no longer working with me,” Sherlock said.
“Fuck off,” John muttered, slowly easing himself over onto his side and scooting back, pressing himself up against Sherlock’s chest.
He heard Sherlock’s breath catch again as their bodies fitted together as if they’d been made for this. Sherlock was unusually tall, John unusually short, and that meant Sherlock could curl around John, holding him close and secure and safe. He did so hesitantly, moving by inches, leaving his arm draped over John’s hip and resting on his bent knee, not daring to touch John’s abdomen.
God, he felt good and warm enough that the shivering stopped, and it couldn’t have been pleasant for him to be this close when John was sweating and in pain and half-dead, but he didn’t flinch away. Another subtle shift of their bodies let Sherlock get his other arm up under John’s pillow, and it was the most natural thing in the world for John to reach up and rest his hand against Sherlock’s, fingertips intertwining.
Sherlock’s exhale ruffled John’s short hair, still damp from the shower. The shower they’d shared.
“I almost lost you,” Sherlock said desperately.
“Didn’t. Still here,” John observed, a little proud that he was, for once, the logical, rational one.
“Sherlock. Shut up,” he slurred, already half-asleep.
From that point on, it was just flashes, nightmare and reality intertwining like a noose tightening around him. He was grateful for the periods of blackness when there was nothing, but more grateful for those brief moments of awakening, when he realized Sherlock was there, his long fingers caught up with his own, or resting his hand on John’s arm, or brushing John’s short hair back from his forehead.
When he finally opened his eyes and kept them open, he realized he was in a hospital room. His body was making him aware of several things, including the IV in his arm and the monitoring contacts stuck to his chest and clamped around his finger. Glowing screens on a wheeled rack to the left of the bed verified that he was, in fact, alive.
Sherlock was on the other side of the bed, John’s right hand trapped between both of his. In the brilliant fluorescent light of the hospital room, he looked positively undead, shadowed eyes sunken, cheeks hollow.
“John,” he said sharply, coming alert like a hunting hound catching a scent.
“Sherlock.” He was surprised that his voice was as strong as it was, though he felt as though his throat had been shredded with sandpaper from the inside. His mouth tasted like something had died in it, his eyes felt crusted, and his lips were cracked, but he was alive and not in nearly as much pain as he had expected.
That’s when the memory hit, fuzzy as it was.
“Poisoned. Like the others.”
Sherlock visibly flinched and bowed his head, unruly hair falling to shadow his eyes. “Yes,” he said, and launched into a description of the relevant chemicals.
John interrupted before Sherlock could go too far. “I’m not dead. Good enough for now,” he insisted, squeezing Sherlock’s hand. When the other man tried to pull away, John held on as tightly as he could — which wasn’t very, but Sherlock respected his wishes enough not to fight.
“I’m so sorry, John.”
The words may as well have been uttered in a foreign language. Sherlock did not apologize.
Well, no. He did. He just never actually meant it. ‘Sorry’ was just another tool in his manipulation toolbox, to be wielded like a weapon, all to ensure he got whatever it was he wanted. But god, this time, it sounded real.
John said nothing, but he didn’t have to — not aloud. Sherlock read his thoughts in the way he tensed and in the skeptical way his eyes narrowed.
“I am, John.” Sherlock let out a ragged breath, folding his arm onto the bedside rail, pillowing his head on his wrist. “I would sooner die than see you at risk, yet I just let you —”
Even such a weak shout took strength and set a distant sort of pain to throbbing in his head, but it had the desired effect: Sherlock’s head came up, his haunted eyes wide.
“One more word, and I swear, I’ll thrash you,” John threatened absurdly. The flare of irritation passed as quickly as it had come, leaving him slightly dizzy. “God, I’m not on painkillers, am I?”
Hesitantly, as though fearing he’d be scolded again, Sherlock said, “I wouldn’t permit it.”
Something about that jogged John’s memory — something about Sherlock yelling his refusal to consent. On behalf of —
“You... You said something about... a husband,” he said somewhat incoherently.
He had the rare pleasure of seeing a hot flush of embarrassment spread across Sherlock’s pale cheeks. “I had to tell them something,” he said defensively. “And they wouldn’t let me in here otherwise.”
John knew very little about how US hospitals worked, given that he hadn’t held any sort of regular job since moving to the States, unless being Sherlock’s caretaker and assistant counted as ‘work’ and not ‘life-threatening insanity’. But he knew that such things required paperwork for proof — and he knew Sherlock knew that as well. So he stared at Sherlock until the flush darkened a shade.
“I... asked for assistance,” Sherlock finally said guiltily, looking down, very nearly mumbling his words. “From Mycroft.”
John’s brows shot up. “Mycroft,” he said mildly. “Your brother, Mycroft. The one you hate.”
With an irritated little huff, Sherlock nodded. “He arranged civil partnership papers filed at the embassy here. They’re backdated to the day you moved into the Baker Building.”
“Papers as in forgeries for the purpose of fooling this hospital, or papers as in official, legally recognized civil partnership papers?” John asked, not certain which answer he would prefer.
Sherlock flinched, refusing to meet John’s eyes. “I couldn’t well ask Mycroft to issue false documents.”
“I don’t recall signing, which would make them forgeries,” he pointed out logically, not quite catching up to the whole concept of civil partnership, even if it hadn’t been his idea.
“When this is all over, we’ll have them annulled,” he snapped petulantly. “I wasn’t about to leave you up there to get poisoned again.”
“God, you’re so incorrigible,” John sighed, squeezing Sherlock’s hand painfully tight for a moment, forcing the other man to meet his eyes. “Given that I think I remember an EMT trying to kill me while I was in no particular shape to defend myself, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, Sherlock.”
Dark brows drew together over pale blue eyes. John could almost see Sherlock turning the words over in his head, looking for the trap.
“I do,” John insisted. “Leave the bloody papers. They may come in handy — legal backup in case one of us is incapacitated.”
The look of surprise on Sherlock’s face was absolutely precious. “But —”
“But nothing,” John interrupted sharply. “Leave them. Not another word about it.”
“I — All right,” Sherlock said, staring at him as if expecting him to laugh it all off as a joke.
Growing exhausted, John slumped back into his pillows, closing his eyes. His weakened body was pulling him down into sleep, but he clung to wakefulness long enough to say, “Sherlock.”
“I’m going to sleep. Are you staying?”
His hand tensed, clutching John’s. “Yes.” His tone all but dared John to challenge his decision.
“Good,” John said, and felt Sherlock’s hand relax. “If we’re to be civil partners, though, there’s one condition.”
“It isn’t real —”
“Sherlock!” he barked with some hint of his old army officer voice. He opened his eyes to see Sherlock looking at him in surprise. “Shut up and kiss me.”
Sherlock’s mouth opened, but not a single word came out. Bright spots of color blossomed in his cheeks and his eyes seemed very bright.
“Now, Sherlock, so I can get back to sleep.”
After one slow, wary blink, Sherlock leaned in and gently, almost chastely, touched his lips to John’s.
John couldn’t help but shiver. This had been a long time in coming, but it was right, even if it was dreadfully unsatisfying. He sighed as the kiss broke far too soon. “We’ll try again properly when I’m out of here,” he murmured tiredly.
“If... if you want —”
“Shut up, love,” he ordered, and was asleep before he realized what he’d said.
Chapter 7: White
As you stand all alone at your station
What if God doesn’t know where you are?
As you send out your prayers for salvation
But afraid that they don’t go that far
— “Dreams We Conceive”, Night Castle
Between Sherlock’s irritability and John’s authority as a doctor, they managed to escape the hospital the next day, far earlier than the attending physician liked. He tried to pull the organ damage card, but John fended off the initial attack long enough for Sherlock to launch into a complex counterattack full of chemical names that soon had both doctors blinking at each other in confusion. Finally, John told the physician, “I married him for a reason, you know,” and the physician just threw up his hands and left, saying he’d send in a nurse to get John discharged.
“Should I ask how we’re paying for that?” John asked once they were in a luxuriously large car with tinted windows, venturing out into Manhattan traffic.
“Don’t be ridiculous. The government is,” Sherlock told him flatly.
Wondering if Mycroft was involved or if this was purely an American matter, John asked, “Which one?”
That got him a single look before Sherlock went back to staring out the windows, chewing on one knuckle. It wasn’t his busy-thinking-face, nor was it his bored-already one, and John felt the first stirrings of worry. He didn’t know this one, but if Sherlock had been a different man, John would have guessed he was... afraid.
“This makes five injuries you’ve sustained while working with me,” Sherlock said a good ten or fifteen blocks later.
John had fallen into a lazy sort of half-doze that allowed him the excuse of slumping against Sherlock’s body and pillowing his head on his shoulder. He murmured a noncommittal sound and gave a half-shrug. “I’m the soldier. You’re a bloody scientist. Worst thing that should happen to you is, I dunno, a bleach spot on your trousers or something.”
Sherlock’s answer was a dissatisfied huff. He went back to gnawing and staring.
He did have a point, though. Working with Sherlock was anything but safe, and it seemed that John was always the one throwing himself in harm’s way, just so Sherlock wouldn’t have to do so. And the last two days had been far from pleasant, though the worst of it had passed. He wasn’t even tired so much as lazy, enjoying not being poisoned.
As for the rest... well, it would all sort itself out. For now, he got comfortable, appreciating the unusually comfortable backseat, a nice change from the standard yellow taxis they usually took. He moved away from the door, shifting a bit sideways to get comfortable, and crossed his arms, letting his chin fall to his chest. He still had a soldier’s habits; he could sleep anywhere, even with guns firing, as long as they weren’t too close.
God, it was nice to be able to just lean companionably against Sherlock, even if he had all these bony corners and sharp edges to him. Wonderful hands though — and there had been definite promise in that one tentative kiss.
Back at their flat, John suffered through almost two hours of Mrs. Hudson’s fussing, starting with a care package of pastries from the café downstairs (and the sight of the brownies made John’s gut twist in a way that had nothing to do with his medical recovery) and ending with coffee as evening fell.
Mercifully, before anyone could suggest a proper dinner, her iPhone went off with some horrid dance music ringtone. “That’s Richard, the latest boyfriend. We’re going to a new club across town. If you need anything, call me, boys,” she said, leaving a lipstick imprint on John’s cheek and air-kissing Sherlock’s before she swept out like a departing hurricane.
“You should rest,” Sherlock said nervously after he actually went and locked the apartment door — all three locks, in fact.
“I’ve been bedridden for days. If I end up anywhere near a bed, it definitely won’t be alone,” John said bluntly.
Sherlock shot him one startled, trapped look before he began stalking through the apartment, raking a hand through his disarrayed curls as his eyes flicked from one spot to another without really seeing. Finally he came back to, “You need your rest.”
Realizing he wasn’t going to make any progress, John got to his feet, glad for the rest he’d had in the car, and intercepted Sherlock in front of the dining room archway. “Sherlock. Stop,” he said gently, catching the taller man’s arm. “I’m perfectly healthy and not at all tired. I’m not angry at you for your brother’s forging my signature or filing those papers. I’m glad you had him do it. You’re right — it’s perfectly sensible,” he said, even though it grated on him a bit to put it that way. Any sort of commitment like that, be it marriage or civil partnership, wasn’t something to be entered into lightly. John had sworn not to go the Harry-route in life.
Sherlock let out a breath, shoulders easing as some of the tension drained away. “Good. That’s very practical of you,” he approved blandly.
John clenched his jaw, fighting the retort that would have been obvious to anyone but Sherlock Holmes, and instead tried to slither into the darkness after him, trying to think like him. “I’m going to make some tea.”
“Coffee,” Sherlock said absently, his mind already detached from their moment of closeness.
Silent, John went to make coffee, reminding himself that sometimes patience could win battles where courage only brought ruin.
An hour passed, marked by the decreasing level in the coffee pot, before John got up to divide the remainder of the coffee between their two mugs, and came back to the living room with a cinnamon roll the size of both his fists. He’d heated it in the microwave for twenty seconds and the whole flat smelled of cinnamon and sugar and fresh pastry.
Sherlock had spent that hour in silence, sipping his coffee and staring off across the living room at the cold fireplace. He didn’t turn as John sat down beside him, but John considered a victory that they were sitting on the sofa together instead in their usual separate armchairs.
He set down the mugs, rested the plate on his knee, and tore the end off the outside curl of dough. White sugar icing dripped onto his fingers. His thumb smudged the half-liquid cinnamon-and-butter mixture everywhere. He lifted the morsel to his mouth and ate it whole, then sucked his thumb clean, followed by his finger.
When he reached for the next piece, Sherlock’s eyes were locked to his hand.
John wondered what he saw. Was he analyzing it? Determining the chemical makeup of the frosting or the heat-induced changes to the dough that had occurred during baking? Or was he thinking of the taste of frosting on skin, the contrast of fluffy pastry and calloused fingers, like John was?
Before lifting the second piece off the plate, he leaned forward and took a drink of his coffee. “Goes well together,” he said absently, and turned, smoothly raising the piece of the cinnamon roll to Sherlock’s lips.
Startled, Sherlock twitched his head back like a startled, head-shy horse. “John, don’t,” he said, a faint note of pleading in his voice.
For one moment, John was thrown off-guard, even hurt by the rejection. He knew Sherlock liked desserts of all kinds — he’d caught Sherlock eating three-day-old pastry crumbs out of a box forgotten on the kitchen table — so it wasn’t the cinnamon roll. And John would be damned before he’d get a fork, because he was sick of playing this almost-not-quite-something game. The tension between them was going to kill him.
But thinking back, he realized the game was two-sided. For one image was permanently seared into his memory, an image created not by him but by Sherlock: the raw, sensual power of Sherlock sitting at John’s feet, the sight of an errant bit of chocolate on his lips.
Perhaps the great genius detective had finally made a mistake?
“Oh, right, sorry,” John said casually, and because he was watching — he was observing — he saw the flash of disappointment in Sherlock’s expression in the moment before he turned his face away to look toward the window.
John let the silence hang there for one single heartbeat. His throat was dry and the air seemed frozen in his lungs, but he needed to stay strong. He exhaled halfway, just like he did when firing a gun, and he felt the same sense of calm spread over him.
Then he said, “You should be on your knees for this. Here.” He put a foot against the coffee table and shoved, not caring that Sherlock’s coffee sloshed over the rim of the mug.
No matter how the night turned out, Sherlock’s wide-eyed expression was worth the risk of saying those words.
When Sherlock didn’t move, other than to stare at him, he spoke more firmly: “Down, Sherlock. Kneel for me.”
Slowly, Sherlock slid to the edge of the couch, staring at John the whole time, as if expecting him to change his mind or declare it all one big lark. John just watched, his expression schooled into something that was both pleasant and expectant (or so he hoped, anyway). And then Sherlock was off the sofa and kneeling on the floor, his left side pressed against the sofa, knees against John’s right foot.
Adrenaline flooded John’s system as a sense of power rushed through his body. Sherlock was utterly silent, but his breath came in shorter, shallower pants, and his pupils were blown wide and dark.
John supposed he should have praised Sherlock as a reinforcement for his obedience, but he couldn’t for the life of him remember how to talk. What the hell did those websites know, anyway? Not too damn much, he thought, and even less about Sherlock. This wasn’t a game with him — at least, John didn’t think it was.
Damn Sherlock for being such a manipulative bastard, anyway.
He felt something squish between his fingers and stared blankly down at the shred of pastry he’d crushed, wondering for a moment how it had gotten there. Oh, right.
He discarded it on the plate and tore off a fresh piece, lifting it toward Sherlock. Those pale lips were soft with uncertainty, parted as though to speak, but John silenced any attempt right off, knowing that the best way to win a battle of wits with Sherlock was to avoid the fight altogether.
When Sherlock accepted the pastry in silence, lips trembling as they closed against the tips of his fingers, John felt another surge of triumph.
It was damned tempting to work through the whole cinnamon roll, but he was beginning to realize this had to be Sherlock’s idea. He was so damned stubborn and independent and accustomed to controlling everyone and everything around him that John had to fight with guile. Not his best weapon, but he’d manage.
“Good,” he said, dragging his gaze away from his study of Sherlock’s closed eyes. When a finger touched a spot of icing on Sherlock’s lip, he jerked away, eyes flying open. Timing it perfectly, John lifted the finger to his own mouth and licked it clean, barely flicking the tip of his tongue to scoop away the icing. He allowed himself a small smile as he leaned toward the now-distant coffee table and set down the plate.
“Have the rest,” he invited in a friendly, properly distant sort of way as he rose to his feet. “I’ve slept enough for a lifetime. After the hospital, I need to get out in the open air. If you think of anything we need, text me.”
Sherlock’s expression slipped from hazed and unfocused to confused; John had no idea which was a rarer experience for him.
He smiled down at Sherlock, momentarily enjoying the equally rare experience of being taller than his flatmate, and then got the hell out, before Sherlock could recover enough to speak.
The cinnamon roll incident passed without comment, though there were two promising clues. First, when John came home that night, he found the empty plate actually placed in the sink and not left to sit on the coffee table. (The coffee mugs did sit there for a total of four days, coffee dehydrating into sludge and then a fuzzy brown residue, until John surrendered and did the dishes.) Second, and more important, Sherlock had taken to watching John. It wasn’t his usual sharp-eyed observation. No, these were tentative, uncertain glances he threw John’s way, as if John had gone from an occasionally helpful, occasionally irritating shadow to some sort of new puzzle to be analyzed, dissected, and studied.
John could live with that. Even more, he could encourage it.
Another few days passed until it was finally Sunday, a day John usually reserved to make a half-hearted effort to stay ahead of the apartment’s clutter. He’d developed something of a routine, running loads of towels and his own clothes through the washer/dryer in the kitchen closet while doing the dishes and checking the labels on Sherlock’s most-likely-illegal array of chemicals scattered throughout the kitchen. He had a couple of pairs of old, worn blue jeans kept for dirty work like this, and it was hot enough in the apartment that he felt it was perfectly acceptable to leave off a shirt.
It wasn’t just meant to get Sherlock’s attention. In a way, it was a peace offering. Things had all somehow gone very wrong when he’d seen Sherlock’s scars. And though he knew Sherlock had seen his, he’d never really been comfortable with them.
As soon as John came out of his room, shirtless and barefoot, laundry in a cloth sack over his shoulder, he knew it had worked. Sherlock glanced over from his fixed stare out the window, and his eyes locked right to John’s chest. He could feel the weight of that intense gaze pricking across his skin, and it was an effort to just nod in greeting and turn to walk away, through the living room and into the kitchen, out of Sherlock’s line of sight.
It took less than thirty seconds for Sherlock to follow, under the pretext of making tea, and John hid his grin as he bent to start sorting whites from darks.
Of course, their lives were too complicated for anything to go simply and easily.
Before he could do more than start the first load of laundry, Sherlock’s phone rang — always a bad sign, on a Sunday — and they were off, heading to one of the morgues across town (and wasn’t it a sad state of affairs that John knew the location of more morgues than bars in Manhattan?) and then into a series of disused downtown subway tunnels, chisel and hammer John’s back pockets, SIG concealed under the T-shirt he’d thrown on, so they could get samples of old wall-tiles from across half the island, in an attempt to locate where the smuggler had been murdered.
By the time they had sufficient samples to satisfy Sherlock, they were both filthy enough that the cabbie didn’t look too happy to have to drive them all the way back across town. “Tell me again why you didn’t have some junior lab technician do this?” John grumbled as he dug the building keys out of his front pocket. He still had the hammer and chisel, but he’d made Sherlock carry the rucksack of samples. It looked ridiculous with his tailored slacks and the muck-stained button-down shirt that was now ruined, but even in this state, Sherlock was too striking for words to describe.
“Rats and insects.”
John got the door unlocked and then pushed it open, looking back over his shoulder. “Don’t tell me. You wanted to go, rather than sending someone else out, so you chose me to go with you because I wouldn’t wilt at the sight of a cockroach?”
The only answer that earned him was a twitch of one dark brow.
“I thought you’d enjoy making the police uncomfortable,” John said thoughtlessly as he went for the lift. They’d done enough scrambling around for one day, climbing over debris and hopping off platforms, that he didn’t feel guilty skipping the stairs.
Once in their flat, Sherlock started right for the kitchen, probably already thinking of how he’d be analyzing the tile samples, but John was prepared for that. “You’re not going anywhere but the shower, in that condition,” he protested, catching Sherlock’s sleeve.
“I need to get started,” Sherlock said, tugging free, letting the rucksack slide off his other shoulder and into his hand.
Before he could open the flap, John locked one hand around Sherlock’s wrist and squeezed tightly enough to get his attention. “Shower, now,” John ordered, and started walking for the bathroom. Sherlock had a six-inch height advantage and outweighed him, but John hadn’t let himself get too out of shape after his medical discharge. Besides, he (correctly) counted on Sherlock’s unwillingness to escalate the incident to something more physical, and soon they were off the hardwood floor and onto the bathroom tile.
“Sometimes, I have no idea why I let you talk me into these things,” John said, firmly slamming the door and toeing off his trainers. A glance showed that Sherlock was wearing his usual dress shoes. The man had no sense of propriety in his clothing. Did he even own anything that wasn’t bespoke or from some boutique where John couldn’t even afford to window-shop? John had long since realized that Sherlock needed a flatmate not to pay half the rent but to simply make sure he didn’t starve to death.
“It’s part of an investi—What are you doing?” Sherlock demanded, looking down as John started unbuttoning his shirt.
“What’s it look like?” John countered, smacking Sherlock’s hands aside when he tried to get in the way.
“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
There was no way he was going to justify that with an answer beyond a silent glare. Once, he might have felt intimidated by Sherlock, between his height, his intellect, and the overwhelming force of his personality. Now, he just met Sherlock’s gaze steadily, until the taller man finally sighed and looked away in petulant surrender.
John took a breath to keep his hands from shaking as he went back to unbuttoning the stained dress shirt. “You constantly lecture me about being too stupid to see what’s right in front of me. You know what’s going on here, Sherlock, but for some perverse reason, you feel compelled to make it all into some bloody head-game — probably because you’re too damned stubborn to admit to something as human as interest in another person, as more than some test subject to be analyzed.”
The words came out all in a rush, shocking John into falling silent when he paused to take a breath. He couldn’t bring himself to look up at Sherlock’s expression, but the bare flesh right in front of him did nothing to help. God, he needed to shut up. To escape. But that would just lead to more of this — this tension, this desire, this awkward, fragile, razor-sharp thing between them, and by now, John wanted to get past it, even if he bled to death.
Emotion flickered in Sherlock’s expression, just a tensing at his jaw and at the corner of his eyes. His face was smudged with dirt, and there was no way John could stop himself from reaching up to rub a thumb across his cheek. Sherlock drew in a hissing breath at that touch.
“You don’t want this, John,” he said in a detached tone. “You think you do, but you don’t.”
“Because you’re the expert on me?” John challenged, sliding his hand around to the back of Sherlock’s neck and letting his fingers go tight. Some of the tension seemed to melt away from Sherlock, replaced by a new tension, less defensive and more anticipating.
“Arrogant bastard, always. You don’t know a damned —”
“You saw!” Sherlock shouted, voice echoing hollowly in the spacious bathroom. His eyes were wide and intense, spots of colors standing out against his too-pale face. “You saw who I am, John — you saw what’s inside me — and you don’t want that!”
John nearly opened his mouth to say they were in the past, over and done with, and that he’d never allow anyone to hurt Sherlock like that again... but then he realized that was the problem.
There had been someone in Sherlock’s past, someone who had done that to him because he wanted it. He had stood or knelt or lain still while someone carefully, slowly carved bloody lines in his flesh.
“You need it to feel something,” he said, speaking from that tiny corner of his mind that could look at this analytically, detached from the raw protectiveness that reared up inside him.
The slight catch of Sherlock’s breath was answer enough.
“It’s... God, I should’ve seen it before,” John said, lifting his hands to trace the sharp angles and planes of Sherlock’s face with his fingertips. “It’s never half-measures with you. Touch isn’t enough.”
Those beautiful eyes closed. Opened. There was no hint of shame in Sherlock’s expression, thank God — John didn’t think he could deal with that. The uncertainty was bad enough. “But it’s not who you are,” Sherlock protested.
“No. It’s not,” John agreed, feeling his heart starting to race. He didn’t think he could ever hurt Sherlock — not intentionally, not like that — without something inside of himself breaking. “But there are other... other things we can do —”
“Other things,” Sherlock growled contemptuously, tossing his head, pulling free of John’s touch. “You don’t think I’ve tried? I’m not some fainting virgin, John. I’ve done things you’ve never even imagined.”
Irritation threatened to shatter John’s already fragile patience, but he managed to quash it. And the answer came to him in a flash of insight to rival any of Sherlock’s brilliant conclusions. What was wrong with what little they had done? He’d seen that desire in Sherlock’s eyes, and while maybe it wasn’t enough, it was something. It was a start.
“Maybe,” he said, taking gentle hold of Sherlock’s face once more, turning him so their eyes met. “But did you love any of them?”
The answer was written across Sherlock’s face, in his wide eyes, the way his lips parted. He didn’t speak so much as breathe out a soft, “No.”
“What about now?” John asked quietly. “Do you love me?”
Sherlock’s expression became desperate. He closed his eyes. “John...”
“Yes or no, Sherlock,” he said evenly and calmly, ignoring the way his heart was racing. “Either way, it’s all right. It won’t change how I feel.”
“I don’t... I don’t know,” he whispered, his voice breaking. “I’ve never — I don’t know, John. You deserve it — I should —”
“Sherlock,” John whispered, pulling the taller man close, pressing a hand to the back of his head to draw him down against his shoulder so he could press a kiss to his soft curls. “That’s not how it works. It’s not a matter of deserving or of ‘should’.”
“I want you,” Sherlock whispered, his voice not just broken but shattered. Tentatively, his fingertips touched John’s sides through his filthy shirt. “I want to know everything about you. I want to study you — to learn every reaction, everything you like and want. To own you.”
Something inside John caught fire at that, at the contrast between Sherlock’s pleading tone and his confident, dominant words. “Okay,” he said softly, and Sherlock’s head came up despite John’s hold. Meeting Sherlock’s baffled eyes, John repeated, “Okay.”
“Sherlock. We’ll figure this out together,” John insisted. “Okay?”
Sherlock’s indrawn breath was ragged and hitched, but he nodded, eyes wide and dazed.
“Yes,” he finally said, and this time, when John pulled him down into a kiss, he didn’t try to escape.
Chapter 8: Gold
So you wait all alone in your darkness
There’s a train that drives on through the night
And if everyone’s on it except us
Would it return for that single life?
— “Dreams We Conceive”, Night Castle
One long finger traced the jagged line across John’s back, diagonally across his ribs, the contact made slick and hot from soap and water. The shower was barely big enough for one of them; with two, they could hardly breathe.
“Knife,” John said, shivering at the touch. His eyes were tightly closed, hands pressed into the chilly tile wall to cushion his cheek. “A kid — couldn’t have been more than twelve, thirteen. They start young, over there. Came out of nowhere.”
Memory flashed. The hot pain of the knife. The sharp report of his rifle as he fired and missed. The louder burst of shots from his squadmates as they didn’t miss. A child’s blood pooling ruby-bright against the sun-baked earth.
The touch hardened, pressing in, a blunt nail scratching up to the scattered array of fine white dashes on John’s right shoulder.
“Window glass. Schoolhouse we were using as an emergency med center. IED in the street outside, right where our bloody vehicles brought in the wounded,” he said bitterly. He could still hear the explosion, smell the smoke and fire, hear the screams of pain and the shouted commands as everyone tried to make sense of what had happened.
Silently, Sherlock’s hands traced over John’s body, exploring his memories, laying John’s soul bare — and John let him, welcoming him into what had been his own personal darkness, until now.
Sherlock had never seen war, and if John had any say in the matter, he never would. He’d never know that a bullet felt more like a blunt impact than a sharp puncture, or that you could go for three days before realizing you had shrapnel under your skin if you were kept busy enough trying to kill the bastards who’d thrown the grenade in the first place, or that taking away the other guy’s knife and twisting it in his gut felt like nothing at all when hot blood rushed out over your hand and you were alive and he was dead, and that nothing was absolutely fucking glorious.
His hands kept John grounded, here in the reality of Sherlock and not lost in his nightmares, and something inside him stopped screaming for the first time since he’d first taken a life.
Then it was John’s turn, after the slip of one body past the other, nearly distracting them both as they fell to the temptation of exploring, of touching, rather than concentrating on getting clean. Sherlock’s chest was pristine, the skin absolutely flawless over sleek muscle and sculpted bone; John knew that already, and indulged himself in washing that skin with long, sweeping strokes, learning what kind of touch made Sherlock gasp and what made him squirm.
Then Sherlock turned, stretching catlike against the wall, hands pressed to the tile at head-level, making his shoulder blades flex and rotate in toward his spine. Entranced with the feline grace of the movement, John didn’t think as he swept his hand over Sherlock’s left shoulder, leaving a trail of lather over skin that was still cool from being trapped against the tile wall.
“Signal whip,” Sherlock said.
John’s hand froze for a moment, and he had to actually feel the raised, scarred flesh under his palm to have any damn clue what Sherlock was saying.
He felt Sherlock go tense, turning his head just a bit, and he knew he had to say something, anything, but he knew better than to try to reassure Sherlock. He was a creature of data and facts, not emotion. He didn’t want to be comforted — only accepted.
“What did it feel like?” he asked instead.
Sherlock’s flinch was one of surprise. John saw his eyes go wide, half-obscured by wet strands of hair flattened over his face. He swallowed, closing his eyes, and said tightly, “Good.”
Good, John thought inanely, clearing away the lather with careful sweeps of his fingers. The scar was almost two inches long. The wound must have bled — an impact would have welted but wouldn’t have scarred like this. He couldn’t imagine the pain Sherlock must have felt.
Into the silence, barely audible over the sound of the water, Sherlock said, “Very good. But he stopped after that.”
John had never considered himself a very jealous sort, until he heard the word ‘he’ and his mind caught fire. “That’s —”
He cut off before he could say ‘that’s good’ because something told him Sherlock would disagree.
“That’s not what you wanted, though,” he guessed instead.
Sherlock shook his head, turning back to face the wall, moving one hand so he could rest his forehead against it. His response was a very soft, “No.”
John nodded, trying to look at this without judgement or criticism. It was one thing to catalog the scars left over from war. It was something else entirely to review scars that had been... requested. He had to think of it that way, because he couldn’t quite force his mind to go a step further and imagine Sherlock begging for it.
He didn’t know if he could do this, but he moved to touch the other thick scar, needing to hear at least that much.
“Cat,” Sherlock said a bit breathlessly.
“What kind of bloody cat? Were you wrestling a tiger or something?” he asked, baffled.
Sherlock’s laugh was tight and thin at first, before he twisted enough to smile at John with something like fondness in his expression, melting John’s heart. “Not that time,” he said, eyes sparkling.
“Sodding idiot,” John cursed, smacking his palm into Sherlock’s shoulder to get him to turn around.
The slap drew a gasp. Sherlock’s eyes went unfocused and dark before fluttering closed as his back arched, and John’s rational thoughts completely shut down.
“A cat, as in cat o’nine, though this one had more than nine tails,” Sherlock managed to say, resting his forehead against the tile once more.
John shook his head; he hadn’t even realized that sort of thing was real, in this day and age, and not just a movie prop. “And... did he... stop?” he asked hesitantly, massaging the scar with soap, feeling it under his fingertips.
“Not at all,” Sherlock said, the words coming out almost in a purr. “She kept going, through everything we’d discussed.”
“She? But — You’re not gay?” John blurted, wondering if somehow he’d managed to read everything wrong here.
The look Sherlock shot over his shoulder was closer to his usual state of amused contempt. “Really, John, with one’s back turned, does it matter? She was strong. Not afraid to push me or herself.”
“So... she was your... what? Girlfriend?” he asked, wishing he’d stop stumbling over his words.
This time, the shiver that passed through Sherlock wasn’t the good kind. “I wasn’t looking for that from her. It’s not about sex. It’s... It’s about...” He trailed off with a frustrated shake of his head that scattered water droplets across John’s face.
Immediately, John dug into Sherlock’s muscles with his fingers, gently following the lines of his back, and was rewarded with a startled, pleased groan as Sherlock melted against the tile wall.
“It’s the intensity, is that it?” John guessed, pressing his thumbs up along either side of his spine. Intensity he couldn’t even imagine, considering that he’d been stabbed and shot and burned even more than Sherlock had, and it always fucking hurt —
His hands went still as his mind hung up on one realization: “It didn’t hurt until after.”
“Almost right,” Sherlock said, arching his back to press against John’s hands, a silent urge to keep going. Only when John complied did he continue, “You’re a doctor, John. You know the effects of endorphins and adrenaline on the human body.”
This time, John’s hands stilled as his mind leaped ahead, all the pieces falling into place. He’d seen it before — God, he’d experienced it, that rush of pushing yourself beyond your limits, the terror and excitement of battle, the uncertainty when bullets were flying and you didn’t know if your next breath would be your last, and you were never so alive as you were at that moment.
He had no idea how much time passed. Sherlock twisted again, frowning worriedly down at John, who snapped out of his thoughts with a sheepish little smile. “Sorry. I... I think I understand.”
“You don’t have to,” Sherlock said quietly, his voice muffled against the wall. “Though if you don’t start up what you were doing again, I might have to kill you.”
The absurd threat made John laugh, shattering the tension with a very necessary release. This time, he smacked Sherlock’s hip intentionally harder and was rewarded not just with another gasp but a languid, boneless shiver that went through Sherlock’s entire body as he relaxed against the wall again.
As he lathered his hands up again and went back to chasing the tension out of Sherlock’s back, he thought that maybe he didn’t have to explore these new ideas, but it definitely was worth considering.
This was all unfamiliar territory, but John trusted that Sherlock would (probably gleefully) point out anything that was going too far off-course. They were clean, at least, by the time they got out of the shower, their discussion having turned into near-silent, desperate, tentative touches and much more intense kissing, and John was fairly convinced that Sherlock had him ruined for anyone else, because the bastard paid attention. Of course he did — no surprise there. But that meant that with little more than his lips and tongue, he had systematically stripped away John’s self-control, leaving him more desperate than he’d been since his teenage days, when girls were a terrifying mystery.
They ended up in Sherlock’s room only because Sherlock was the one steering things as they left the steaming bathroom. The building air conditioning was operating at full blast, and they both shivered as they passed through the living room and into the room John had, to this point, avoided out of respect for his flatmate’s privacy. Now, he hardly paid attention at all, except to note that the walls were painted in a pale gold that probably matched whatever was on the floor, under all the clutter.
After tripping over a pile of file boxes and laundry, John paused long enough to ask, “Do you ever clean?”
“Is now the time to discuss this?” Sherlock countered in protest.
John growled; he’d let himself get distracted, but he’d been distracted since the realization of what Sherlock... well, perhaps ‘liked’ was too passive a word. Needed might be better.
Just like how John needed to know what was going on in Sherlock’s head, difficult as that would be to decipher. So, best to pick up where they’d left off in the shower.
He got them turned around and gave Sherlock a little shove in the direction of the bed, buying some space between them. That helped; having Sherlock so close, bodies pressed together, seemed to draw all of the air out of the room, leaving John dizzy. The bedspread was a matching gold, which made John wonder if Sherlock had actually gone to the trouble of painting the room to match or he’d just kept the linens that had been supplied with the furnishings, as John had.
“Turn over, on your stomach,” John said, one part of his mind telling him he’d gone insane. Another part had him glancing at the nightstand, cataloging what he saw. Cell phone charger, a stack of files covered with ‘Confidential’ and ‘Do Not Remove’ stamps, a half-empty bag of coffee beans, and a switchblade; no sense trying to decipher any hidden meanings behind Sherlock’s magpie tendencies. Best to just be grateful there were no body parts.
Did he keep anything so normal as condoms and lubricant in the drawer, or was John more likely to find some experiment involving dust attraction properties of a dead rat?
That thought kept him from finding out, at least right away. Instead, he turned his attention back to the bed and forgot all about breathing. Sherlock had stretched across the width of the mattress, head pillowed on his folded arms, one knee slightly bent, twisting his hips, parting his legs enough that John could see damn near everything.
Oh, dear God, John thought.
And then... Right. Facts.
His knees bumped into the bed between Sherlock’s feet. He leaned forward and felt Sherlock go still, and the electric current between them surged back to life. “What about these?” John asked, his voice gone rough and ragged, as he touched the hatch-mark scars near the base of Sherlock’s spine.
“Number fifteen scalpel, steel blade.”
John swallowed, throat gone dry and tight, because he was a doctor, and there were just some things you didn’t do. Sherlock could have been terribly harmed, if whoever had done this —
He tried not to think about it and lifted his hand to the longer scar on Sherlock’s right shoulder blade. “And this?”
“Buck hunting knife, three-inch engraved blade, custom antler handle.”
Fuck. Was Sherlock trying to get himself killed?
“Here?” he asked, his voice distant in his ears, touching the three lines, scored parallel to Sherlock’s ribs.
This time, he sounded smug as he said, “Obsidian scalpel, approximately number eleven in size.”
“What —” John stopped himself, fumbled for words. “What’re you so satisfied about?”
“It only took me three cuts to identify it accurately. He would’ve continued until I did.”
“You didn’t know — and you allowed —”
“John.” Sherlock twisted, frowning with worry, and lifted one hand as though to reach for him, before flinching back. “It... It was just a game, John. We both consented, and we both enjoyed playing. There was never any danger.”
“Never any — Sherlock!” John moved to sit on the edge of the bed, dropping his head into his hands. His hair was too long, and he had to remind himself again that there was no need to keep it regulation-length. “God, Sherlock, you could have been severely hurt!”
Behind him, the mattress dipped and swayed. He felt a touch on his back, tentative and uncertain. “There was minimal risk, John,” he said in his confused-by-the-stupid-humans voice. “Everything was negotiated beforehand. I wasn’t bound in any way I couldn’t escape. I —”
“You — Escape?” John burst, looking over his shoulder in shock.
Taken aback, Sherlock blinked and said, “It’s all part of the game. I had a safeword. I even —”
“Safeword,” Sherlock repeated irritably. “To stop whatever was being done to me. And before you comment, I did use it, several times.”
John’s brain was admittedly not in top form at the moment, so he was still playing catch-up. “You used it? When? When they were about to carve out your spleen?”
“When I was bored.”
Of course. Leave it to Sherlock to get bored of someone slicing through his flesh or beating him with a whip.
“John.” The soft word cut into his thoughts. Their eyes met with that spark all over again, reminding John that he was naked in his flatmate’s bedroom — his very appealing, brilliant, who-cares-if-he’s-male flatmate — and they probably had better things to do than discuss his less savory habits.
“Sorry. A thousand miles away.”
“Let’s keep you here, then,” Sherlock said, a new intensity creeping into his voice as he threaded his fingers through John’s short-cropped hair. The motion drew John’s head back just as Sherlock leaned down, and the sudden slide of a tongue on his lips was all it took for the stranger aspects of this to melt away.
He ended up on his back with Sherlock, all long-limbed grace, writhing on top of him. Their hips pressed together, and John instinctively nudged Sherlock’s legs open, and another shift pulled the taller man up just enough for their position to change, Sherlock straddling him now in a way that was familiar and darkly exciting and new all at once. With women, John had always rather liked being on his back, so he could watch and feel them writhe atop him, movements unhampered by being trapped between he mattress and his weight. Staring up at Sherlock now, he realized his preferences hadn’t exactly changed.
“You — you said this wasn’t about sex,” a last twinge of conscience made him say. “I mean, not this. That. The — What you like — Stop laughing!”
“You’re mixing up two things that aren’t necessarily related,” Sherlock said, still grinning like some mad devil. He settled a hand on John’s chest, curling his fingers through the light hair in a way that didn’t quite tickle, shocking his nerves to life with sudden sensitivity.
“What?” was all John managed as those fingers, calloused from playing the violin, scraped over a nipple. The shock went right to his spine and down his body like a lit fuse.
“This has nothing to do with pain, John. Remember what I said,” Sherlock told him, leaning down to whisper in his ear. “I want to know everything about you, Doctor John Watson. I want to study you — to learn every reaction.”
“To — to own me,” John said, the words stuttering and catching on the jagged edges of his shattered composure.
Sherlock made some purring, growling sound of assent that John didn’t quite register as Sherlock’s lips closed around his earlobe. The tug of teeth on flesh was gentle, just enough to spark new nerves awake, and it occurred to John that as celibate as his flatmate seemed most of the time, Sherlock’s powers of observation and deduction were just as much an asset here as they were at a crime scene.
The way Sherlock read him as he worked down John’s body proved that much true. It took hardly any experimenting at all for him to learn precisely how sensitive John’s nipples were, that he wasn’t ticklish on his sides, and that he preferred a firmer touch on his cock, be it hands or lips and tongue, and he realized through the fog of bliss and fiery need that Sherlock was down between his legs, licking long, firm, hard strokes up his length, pausing only for a moment to slip on a condom, and God this was moving faster than John had expected.
With the foggy idea that he shouldn’t just lie there like a lump, John propped up on his elbows, vaguely thinking to reciprocate, until his eyes locked to Sherlock’s. He was coiled up between John’s legs, one hand finishing smoothing the condom down, long fingers curled around the base of his cock. His eyes were nearly black with desire, lips glossy and parted as he breathed like a marathon runner finding his stride.
And his mind... John could damn near see his thoughts. He’d learned how to recognize Sherlock’s manic, intense concentration, that single-minded focus that let him see the tiniest details and weave them together into a glimpse of realities left hidden to everyone else around him.
Then he moved, spine arching, legs sliding against John’s thighs and hips, hand still twisted between them to hold John’s cock firmly upright. The mattress shifted and Sherlock’s free hand came down beside John’s right shoulder, fingers slick in a way that didn’t quite register until pressure engulfed the head of his cock and he realized, with his last rational thought, that Sherlock must have been preparing himself for this.
He had just enough time for that one imagined sight to sear into his mind, Sherlock’s long fingers pressing into his own body, before everything went white for a moment, his world narrowing to the pure, raw sensation of their bodies connected.
Sherlock leaned down, arching to press his forehead to John’s, and they shared breath for long moments. John could feel every one of those breaths, could practically feel Sherlock’s pulse in little tremors that surrounded his cock, and he struggled to regain some measure of self-control.
“Better now?” Sherlock whispered an eternity later, when the pressure died back enough for John to fully appreciate what he was feeling.
John managed to nod, shivering at the touch of Sherlock’s damp curls brushing over his face. “Yeah. Better,” he said with a little laugh, and when Sherlock laughed in answer, John could feel that, too, and the pressure started to build once more.
“I know you prefer to be ridden like this when you’re with a woman” — and how the fuck could he know that? — “but I think you’ll like this better.”
Before John could ask or protest or even think, Sherlock’s arms wrapped around him, right leg stretching out beside his left, and in one powerful twist, their positions were reversed, and John’s cock slid another quarter inch deeper into Sherlock’s body. Beneath him, the other man let out a ragged breath, and spread his legs, drawing them back, arching his body to draw John even further inside.
“Right. Yeah, that’s — that’s just fine,” John said inanely, experimentally shifting his hips. They both gasped at the same moment, and John’s throat locked up around the questions he wanted to ask.
Sherlock heard anyway. Of course he did, the bastard.
“Hard as you want,” he said hoarsely, sliding his hands up John’s tense, trembling arms, tracing muscles that were locked tight in an effort to cling to his self-control. “Please. Don’t hold back, John.”
There was no fighting that, not with Sherlock’s eyes boring right through John’s defenses and into the shadowy corners of his brain, or the way he arched his back even more as though even his body were begging for more. John let go his self-control, realizing that he wouldn’t hurt Sherlock. He wasn’t fragile or soft or even innocent in any way, meant to be cherished and protected, and there was no reason John shouldn’t thrust as hard and fast into him as he liked, fucking him, taking him, letting go all the little controls that kept him a civilized, kind, considerate lover.
There was nothing nice about this, and there was nothing nice about the way Sherlock gasped and moaned and clawed at John’s arms until he let go to reach between their bodies and grasp his own cock, and there was nothing nice at all about what that sight did to John’s psyche, because it wasn’t enough. It just made him fuck even harder, finding a rhythm that made Sherlock’s hand twitch and falter as he threw his head back and hissed in a breath through clenched teeth.
“Come, damn you,” John growled, needing to see Sherlock’s composure break, to know that it was him — plain, ordinary, stupid John Watson — reducing the great consulting detective to nothing more than a man with raw, animal desires and needs. Stripping away the layers to find the human inside.
With a broken cry, Sherlock obeyed, and the tremors ripping through his body pushed John over the edge, sending him free-falling into nothingness, with only Sherlock to cling to as his lifeline.
In the city after midnight
’Neath the halo of a spotlight
— “Dreams We Conceive”, Night Castle
It was never truly dark in New York City. Sherlock’s room lacked the blackout curtains John had put up in his own. He lay in Sherlock’s bed (in Sherlock’s bed!) and stared at the sweep of lights that passed from one side of the ceiling to the other, reflected through the window from some car driving by. Outside, the night sky was a deep black with hints of indigo. He had no idea what time it was — leave it to Sherlock to not even have a clock on his bedside table — but he really didn’t care. He wasn’t quite hungry enough to get up yet, and he wasn’t entirely prepared to think about what he’d just done.
More to the point, he wasn’t entirely prepared to consider that he didn’t mind what he’d just done.
Sherlock returned to the room a moment later, a pale shadow against the darkness, and slipped over the pile of sheets that John had kicked aside, needing the wash of cool air conditioning over his body. “Brought you something,” Sherlock said in the lazy, sated, self-satisfied voice that usually marked the end of a particularly vexing case.
Thinking it was something to drink — the usual courtesy, in John’s experience — he propped up on an elbow, twisting around to face Sherlock. “Oh? What’s —”
He cut off when Sherlock pressed something into his hand, and his fingers curled automatically against the grip of his SIG. Expecting a glass or a bottle (though he couldn’t remember if there was any beer in the fridge), John faltered, and only his training kept him from dropping the weapon. “What?” he asked dumbly.
“You need it to sleep.” And then, more tentatively, Sherlock said, “Unless you’d rather go back to your room. You prefer the curtains in there.”
Stunned, John could only stare into the darkness, struggling to see Sherlock’s expression.
“You have nightmares,” Sherlock said, uncertainty creeping into his voice, “but I was hoping... I wanted you to stay here. With me. I thought —”
“Right,” John interrupted, his heart breaking, because Sherlock shouldn’t be uncertain. Not about this. He couldn’t think John was a completely selfish ass, to get off and then go back to his own bed as if nothing had happened.
“I want you to be comfortable,” Sherlock protested.
His naivety was absolutely endearing. He was so wise about people, and yet so utterly clueless. John nudged at him, saying, “Switch sides.”
After a moment, Sherlock nodded. “Yes, you’re left-handed.”
John laughed and moved under Sherlock as the other man crawled over, and the feel of their now-cool bodies sliding together made him catch Sherlock for a brief kiss, because he could now, and he reveled in that freedom. “Nice to not have to explain everything to you,” he said, turning to open the nightstand drawer.
“At least one of us should have that luxury,” Sherlock said dryly, over the thunder-snap sound of a sheet being shaken out of the pile. It fell over John’s legs a moment later, soft as sunlight, a far cry from the discount poly-blend sheets that John purchased from the discount bin.
“Good to know you’re still a know-it-all bastard,” John muttered, feeling the affection that now twined with his customary irritation. He went to put the SIG into the drawer, and then stopped himself. “What’s in here?”
He didn’t have to explain why he was asking. Sherlock just answered, “Snake fangs, a skinning knife, a few old case files. I believe some mints from a couple of Christmases ago.”
“A couple — You haven’t lived here for even one Christmas,” John said, hanging onto the mints as the most normal things found in a bedside drawer. The snake fangs were almost normal, at least for Sherlock, and he didn’t dare think about the skinning knife.
“So? I had to put them somewhere after I moved in here.” Apparently dismissing John’s curiosity as irrelevant, Sherlock wrapped an arm around John’s chest and pulled.
Quickly, John put the SIG away, ignoring the crunch and rattle of the contents below, and slammed the drawer shut. Then Sherlock pulled him roughly over onto his back and swarmed over him, saying, “You’re in excellent health, except for slight nerve damage to your left hand and a few extra pounds. Your heart and lungs are strong, and you have excellent circulation.”
“Who’s the doctor here?”
Even in the darkness, John could see Sherlock smile like a predatory cat. “You should be at the end of your recovery time. Let’s test that,” he said, kicking the sheet away.
John couldn’t deny his interest, but he got his arms around Sherlock to pull him close, before things could get too distracting. “Sherlock, just... tell me one thing.”
“Is this really the time to chat?”
Either something in John’s voice had gotten through to Sherlock, or he assumed that indulging him was the fastest way to get to what he wanted. He sighed dramatically and made a little get on with it gesture.
“Is this — us, I mean — is it real for you?” he asked, forcing the words past the lump in his throat. “Or is this just something in your head, something you can analyze and dissect and then delete once you’ve gotten bored?”
To his surprise, Sherlock didn’t have a quick answer, but neither did he zone into that other place where he went by himself, deep into his head. He shifted to prop his weight on his elbows, the sole of one foot rubbing against John’s ankle, and skimmed his fingers over John’s ear, teasing through his hair.
“I don’t know love,” he finally said, a faint tremor in his voice. “I know want and need. But... I want you. I want to make you happy. And I would kill anyone who ever harmed you,” he added, his voice taking on a low, intense quality that made John shiver in a way that made him think of sniper scopes and land mines.
But this was Sherlock — mad, brilliant, erratic Sherlock — and in John’s experience, that was as close to love as he could get. John pushed up and caught Sherlock in a fast, hard kiss, knowing that even if he didn’t intellectually understand love, he’d feel it somewhere deep inside.
“All right, Sherlock. It’s all right. I suppose that’ll do.”
And there it is, my first Sherlock fanfic! If anyone has any suggestions or criticisms, good or bad, I'd love to hear them.
I'm working on the sequel, too - and still looking for a beta!