"Are you all right?"
Sherlock looks up. The restaurant is warm and cosy and nearly empty, at this time of night-bordering-on-morning, and he and John Watson are the only two people there. John has his elbows on the table and a piece of kung pao chicken in between his chopsticks, halfway to his mouth. He's looking at Sherlock with his eyebrows slightly furrowed.
"Why wouldn't I be?" says Sherlock.
"I mean, because of the," John glances around, even though they're the only two people in the restaurant aside from the staff, and leans closer to Sherlock. "Because of the hit. I know you must have caught some of it, sorry, and sometimes there are side effects. You don't feel ill or anything, do you?"
Most people do not refer to a rush of affection as a sensation of illness, and so Sherlock shakes his head.
John does not seem reassured. "You'll let me know, won't you, if you start feeling worse?"
"Of course," Sherlock lies. He can see Mr. Chen, standing just outside the kitchen. He's lost weight, and there are bags under his eyes. Sherlock knows, from the recently repaired window, the pile of cigarette butts in the alley outside, and the marks around the door that the Chens have been feeling pressure from gangsters lately. Something hot tightens his chest. He thinks it might be concern.
Sherlock wakes the next morning and thinks about Mr. Chen. The heavy feeling in his chest is gone, replaced by the simple intellectual knowledge that Mr. Chen knows how to reach him, should he need to avail himself of Sherlock's services again. He gets up. The air goosebumps the skin on his arms, so he throws on his dressing gown.
John brings his things by black cab: a heavy canvas bag slung over his shoulder, and a smaller backpack that he carries by the handle. The canvas bag reeks of sand and sun and war; the backpack is newer and gives off the faint, benign impression of department store. Boring. Sherlock waits at the top of the stairs and offers to help, hand extended, a smile pasted on his face. He wants to lay hands on the heavier bag, the one that smells so tantalizingly of Afghanistan.
John looks up at him, startled, then jerks back so quickly that he bumps into the doorframe. "No, thanks," he says, and gives Sherlock a wide berth in order to make his way up the stairs by himself.
Sherlock pouts; so soon, and already John has an insightful grasp of Sherlock's ulterior motives. Delightful in its way, but also a bother. He goes back into the sitting room to flop on the sofa, closes his eyes, and lets himself drift down to the street level, to where someone is thinking about her meeting after lunch; where someone dreams of another cup of coffee; where someone has called up a picture of his son's temper tantrum that morning; where a cabbie puzzles out the quickest route to Paddington Station at this time of day.
Hours later, Sherlock has migrated to the floor, where he lies with his hands on his chest like a body ready for burial. John steps over him on the way to the kitchen, carrying his laptop and an RAMC mug, and makes kettle-filling sounds, and then steps back over Sherlock on his way to the desk. He sets up his laptop. Sherlock sends a gentle psychic wash over John's keystrokes.
He frowns and cranes his neck towards John. "Are you--is that a blog?"
The kettle in the kitchen clicks. John gets up, steps over Sherlock again, and makes himself a cup of tea. Sherlock tries to project a suggestion that John make him some as well, only to have it glance off of John's mental walls. John returns to his seat with only one mug.
"Your typing is deplorable," Sherlock tells him.
"It would seem so," John agrees.
Sherlock contemplates moving to the sofa, as the floor is hard and he has been there for quite some time now. But that would require more motivation than he currently possesses. He tries prodding John's mind again. John's thoughts and memories are surrounded by a barrier, slippery as glass and opaque as fog, without a crevice or crack for Sherlock to gain so much as a fingerhold. They're nothing like the flimsy shields ordinary people keep up as defence against rude psychics, and nothing like the barriers an ordinary empath uses to protect from the emotions of others. But then, John is not ordinary.
"Didn't anyone ever tell you that it's rude to read other people's thoughts without their permission?" says John.
"Yes," Sherlock replies, and retreats. John shouldn't have felt that, any more than the Great Wall of China would feel a dried pea being thrown against its stones. But John doesn't seem angry. Perhaps he didn't feel it; perhaps he just has extraordinary insight into what Sherlock is doing when he's quiet for extended periods of time.
"Ah." John nods. "So it didn't take, then."
Type typpity tap type tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap. John bangs the backspace key several times in succession instead of just holding it down to delete a line. Sherlock considers expiring from boredom, or going mad. He could rip one of those cushions apart with his teeth and scatter the stuffing everywhere.
"Is this what you're going to do, all day?" Sherlock queries.
"Hardly all day." John takes a sip of his tea. "The rest of the morning, maybe. And then I'll have lunch. What about you?" He glances down at Sherlock.
"Nothing whatsoever," Sherlock sighs. And yesterday was so nice.
"Then I'll probably spend the rest of the afternoon looking for work."
Sherlock's jaw drops. He sits up and looks at John. "Work?!"
"Rent needs to be paid. You're the one who was looking for a flatmate, ergo, you're interested in the rent being paid." John doesn't even look up from his typing. At least he can type without looking at the keyboard. Sort of.
Sherlock flings his arms up. "Spare me." He gets to his feet and stomps off to his room. John continues pecking away at his blog, his mind shrouded by an iron wall.
John is not in the sitting room. He is not in the kitchen. He is not under or behind any of the furniture. Sherlock darts up to John's room and checks in there. John is not in his bedroom, either. He is not anywhere in the flat.
Standing in the doorway to John's bedroom, Sherlock seizes this opportunity and flings his mind outward, sending psychic fingers to pluck at the sleeves of John's shirts and run along the soles of his shoes. He locates John's medals in the wardrobe, although they don't hold much of an imprint: John doesn't handle them often, and in any case, medals are an object of sentimental value, of more worth to an empath. The same goes for the little box of photos and other keepsakes. Sherlock returns them to their places quickly and turns his attention to John's laptop. He doesn't bother to power it on, just runs his hands over it. It's an older model, used, purchased on eBay from someone who lives in Manchester. He'll save it to hack later, when he's bored.
On the bedside table is a lamp, which came with the flat. The bedsheets are new, recently washed, stripped of any and all useful information. Nothing under the bed. Sherlock snarls. Dull, dull, dull, all of it, and yet John himself isn't dull at all!
And then, in the drawer of the bedside table, he finds John's gun.
All the air leaves Sherlock's lungs, and his breathing goes shallow. He takes a deep breath and reaches into the drawer to just brush his fingers against the textured grip. A shiver runs up his arm. The gun has recently been pressed against warm human skin; John had it with him last night, in the waistband of his trousers. Why didn't he use it, then, instead of his empathy? Sherlock wraps his fingers around the grip and eases the gun out of the drawer. John procured it several months ago, and the impression of its origin is very faint. Somewhere in East London? It has never been fired. John bought it for...what, for security? For a sense of something familiar? Sherlock brings the gun up to his face and touches the tip of his tongue to the barrel. Just as the sensitive membrane and papillae of the tongue make it a useful conductor of physical sensations and data, so it is with psychic--
"Sherlock? Oh, fuck."
Sherlock nearly smacks himself in the forehead with the gun and whips around. There's John, in the doorway, still wearing his coat, pale and then angry. He takes one step into the room. "Put it down."
"I can--" Sherlock begins.
"I said, put it down."
Sherlock feels the blast like a physical lash, emotions punching through his barriers like they're made of paper; his head jerks back, and he all but drops the gun back in the drawer. He falls backwards onto John's bed, shaking with fear and shame and guilt. It wracks his whole body, forcing him into a ball around the clutching, cavernous sensation in his chest. He thinks he might be sick. John slams the drawer shut, then grabs Sherlock by the shoulder, hard enough that there might well be a bruise there the next day, and hauls him to his feet. He marches Sherlock out of his room and manages to get them both down the stairs and into the bathroom, where Sherlock is sick, messily and all over the toilet. John rubs soothing circles into his back, flushes the toilet for him, and gets Sherlock a glass of water from the sink. Sherlock takes one lukewarm sip, then retches again.
Long minutes later, after Sherlock's stomach has settled, he gives one more dry heave and rests his cheek against the cool porcelain lip of the toilet. Most of the emotion has subsided, although some of the fear and guilt remains, chasing each other through his mind in loops of John won't leave, will he? and Don't leave, John, I won't do it again and I'm sorry I feel terrible I'm sorry it won't happen again. He peers up at John, who's still pale and thin-lipped, but now also looks a little bit remorseful.
John squeezes Sherlock's shoulder, gentler this time: a not-quite-apology. "Sorry about that. But don't go through my stuff again."
Sherlock shakes his head. John gives Sherlock one last pat on the shoulder and leaves. Sherlock remains sitting on the floor. He thinks about how powerful and precise that blast was. Something cold races up his spine. He shivers.
"Do you ever do the washing up?" John sighs at the sink.
To be fair, most of those tea-stained mugs and crumb-covered plates are John's. The only things of Sherlock's in there are some mouldy petri dishes and dirty slides. John sighs and runs the tap. Sherlock laces his fingers under his chin and notes that John does not get angry over dishes.
John also does not get angry over the hoovering. He does not get angry when Sherlock leaves his clothes on the floor, nor when Sherlock drips water all over the rug. He gets thin-lipped and exasperated when Sherlock borrows his laptop without permission and when Sherlock leaves body parts in the refrigerator. He gets hurt and defensive when Sherlock insults his taste in clothing and his continued attempts to find "legitimate" employment, but he responds by not making Sherlock tea and denying that he's Sherlock's friend to new clients.
Sherlock wants to see that flash of anger again. He wants to know how John gets past all of his defences to make him feel. He wants to know what lies behind John's walls. He wants to know everything.
One night, some months later, Sherlock finds himself dangling from the edge of a building. His shoulders are sore, and his fingers smart from being stomped on several times. He scrapes his shoes against the brick, unable to find a foothold, aware that he's twenty metres off the ground. His breath puffs in little white clouds into the chill night air. Harry Tobin's ugly, bearded face leers over him, and his large, booted foot grinds down on Sherlock's fingers one more time. Sherlock decides that he's had enough. John will take care of it.
The fall seems to last forever, but Sherlock is aware, intellectually, that it is mere seconds. He lands in the skip with a jarring thud. He glimpsed from above that all the rubbish was tied up in bags, so his coat shouldn't even be damaged, but the smell is less than pleasant. Still, there have been worse landings.
He hears the sounds of a scuffle above, and then a cry. He extends his senses and is met with a tangled fury of Tobin's thoughts, mainly about arrest and prison and improbable fantasies of how he might extricate himself from this situation. John's mind, as usual, is a grey wall. Then Tobin's mind winks out. Unconscious?
John's pale face peers over the edge of the roof. Sherlock blinks up at him. John's face disappears, and then all of John reappears as he manoeuvres himself down the fire escape. Sherlock struggles to a sitting position amongst all the bin bags.
"What about Tobin?" he calls.
"Taken care of," John grunts. "I phoned Lestrade. Hang on."
John's shoe skids against one of the metal rungs, and Sherlock's heart leaps into his throat and he tries to flounder upright in the skip. But John recovers and makes it down the rest of the way without incident and gives Sherlock a hand out. Sherlock realises that John is shaking. Is he all right?
No sooner do Sherlock's feet touch the ground than John has slammed Sherlock back against the side of the skip. "Don't. Ever do that again," he grinds out.
"Do what?" Sherlock is nearly breathless. John's face is very close to his, and John's eyes are flat and sparking with anger. He remembers this look. His mouth goes dry.
John shakes Sherlock, a little bit, banging his head against the skip again. "I thought you were dead."
"There was never any danger," Sherlock says, calm though his thoughts are racing, taking in the way John's lips draw back from his teeth, the way his eyebrows beetle together. "I saw the skip. And you--"
"I thought you were dead!" John roars, and Sherlock's knees give out. John crushes him up against the side of the skip, hands under his armpits. Sherlock's head tips back and he gasps into the night air. He can feel every iota of John's horror as he saw Sherlock's fingers disappear from the edge of the roof, his rage as he subdued Tobin, and his rage now, at Sherlock, for being so foolhardy (but Sherlock wasn't being foolhardy at all!). And behind it all, John's grief, as he saw, in a split-second, a life without Sherlock. Sherlock drinks it all in and holds his breath, and then he reaches out.
John's walls are down, because he's battering his way into Sherlock's mind right now. Sherlock wades through the sensations of loss and failure and sorrow and here, now, finally, he can touch John's thoughts.
People don't think in neat, orderly, linear sentences, and John is no exception. His thoughts, right now, might be best described as teach Sherlock a lesson/show Sherlock what I mean. But burrow in deeper, and Sherlock peels away layers to find a spartan, lonely bedsit and can't lose you and you madman you idiot you genius and a memory of that first brilliant, sparkling night, racing across London with Sherlock and forgetting his cane and I was so alone/don't leave me here alone and a sun-hard battlefield interrupted by the most agonising pain and
The walls come down again, so quickly and so hard that it hurts, like Sherlock's psyche is being cut in half. Sherlock recoils, hitting the back of his head against the skip again, and John takes a staggering step away. Without his support, Sherlock slips to the ground. John curses and reaches down to haul Sherlock upright again. They lean against each other and catch their breaths. John's hands are under Sherlock's coat, against his ribs, and Sherlock brings his hands up, gingerly, to lie against John's back.
Sherlock clears his throat. "I'm sorry," he rasps.
Sirens wail in the distance.
John is silent and tense as an exhausted Sherlock gives the account of their encounter with Tobin to the police. He's silent and tense as Sherlock berates the medics until they let him go. He's silent and tense during the cab ride home. By the time they're in the door, Sherlock's shoulders are tense too, taut as a drawn wire. He shrugs off his coat and hangs it on the hook, but before he can make good his escape, John touches his shoulder and says, "I want to get a look at your hands."
Sherlock's fingers are badly bruised, but not broken, though his little finger might be sprained. John washes and disinfects the abrasions and tapes the two smallest fingers on Sherlock's left hand together. He's quiet except when he asks Sherlock if something hurts. Afterwards, he puts everything away, snaps the lid of the first aid kit shut, and picks it up. Sherlock remains seated on the toilet. He doesn't like this heavy, hard feeling in this chest. Probably it's a remnant of everything that John pushed into his mind in that alleyway, but that doesn't make it pleasant or easy to ignore.
John crouches to stow the kit under the sink where it goes, and Sherlock thinks that maybe they aren't going to talk about this. Then John shuts the cupboard, but doesn't stand up. He says to the wood grain, "I'm angry." Sherlock doesn't reply, so John goes on, "That's not on, Sherlock. You can't just--do things like that."
"I already apologised," Sherlock sighs, leaning back. Now that the adventures of the night are over, the crash is catching up to him, and he feels the last day's lack of rest and food.
"That doesn't mean you won't do it again." The corners of John's mouth are tight. He glares at Sherlock.
"Yes, you're right, I will probably do it again," Sherlock says, exasperated. "But what do you expect? You know me by now. You know me to be rude, and vicious, and completely without boundaries. Yes, the second you let your defences down, I will be in your mind again."
The blood drains from John's face. His jaw drops. "You were in my mind?"
Sherlock stares. He was hardly being subtle. When he and the cabbie had been facing off over a pair of seemingly identical pills, yes, there had been a great deal of psychic parrying, slinking around in one another's minds, erecting labyrinthine defences. But there, next to the skip, Sherlock had been one step short of physically cracking open John's skull. And John was in the military; he should have been trained for the slightest sign of psychic interference.
"Oh." Sherlock's eyes widen. "Oh." John winces and gets to his feet, knees crackling. "You can't feel any of it at all, can you? You project empathic blasts, but you can't feel the effects of them yourself. Or psychic manipulation. Emotions, thoughts, nothing. That wall--it's so complete because you can't tell when someone's digging around in there. You're immune," he breathes.
John squeezes his eyes shut. "Shut up shut up shut up, you aren't, this isn't the time--"
"Why not?" Sherlock demands. "Now is--"
"Because you nearly died!" John roars, and for the second time that night every nerve ending in Sherlock's body seems to light on fire. He doubles over, hands coming to rest over his heart, which beats in double-time as he shakes with the onslaught of fear and rage and frustration. He wants to smash the mirror to pieces and fling the loo paper all over the room and scream profanities, but he's trapped in one place, hunched over his knees. There is nothing else in his head except for that--except for John.
Then it stops, just like that, leaving Sherlock slumped over on the toilet and panting. He can hear John's harsh breathing, too, and looks up to find John standing over him, his shoulders heaving. The lines around his mouth and eyes are uncertain and tired.
John takes a deep breath. "Look. You're right. I can't read at all, and I can't receive, and that means the only way I know anything about you, whether you're dead or alive or, or unhappy or glad is if I see it myself, with my own two eyes. Do you know what that's like?"
Sherlock tries. He was informed, in his younger days, that he had a very active imagination. What he summons now is an image of going through the world as if blind, unable to tell what people are saying or thinking or meaning with a single brush of psychic fingers. "You're amazing," Sherlock rasps. "The perfect weapon. The empath who can paralyse the enemy with a single thought but isn't susceptible to the same. No wonder they had to shoot you to stop you."
John's face twists, but Sherlock isn't able to read his thoughts. He turns away to cover his face with one hand. Sherlock frowns; there it is again, that leaden lump settling in his chest. It might be an aftereffect of John's little blast, but it tells Sherlock that he just said or did something wrong. He reaches out to brush his fingers against John's wrist, and when John twitches but does not pull away, curls his fingers around it. He can feel John's pulse under his fingers, beating too fast.
"A bit not good?" Sherlock offers.
"Not good at all." John lets his hand drop and turns around to face Sherlock. Sherlock lets go of John's wrist. John looks tired and sad and resigned, and he doesn't like it.
"I think you're brilliant," says Sherlock.
Something like a tired little smile tries to light up John's face, and only partially succeeds. "That's not what people usually say."
"What do they usually say?"
John's mouth twitches a little more. "Freak." He rubs one hand across his face and looks down at Sherlock. He still looks a little bit sad. "God. What are we going to do?"
Sherlock's stomach chooses that moment to grumble. "Order Chinese," Sherlock suggests.
John laughs, and then looks startled that he laughed. "All right," he says. "That's as good a suggestion as any." He gives Sherlock a hand off the toilet seat, but pauses in the doorway, so that Sherlock crowds him a little too close. "But don't think this isn't over."
It's not over, Sherlock knows. That's the best part.