They are walking away from a crime scene and John is considering if he has the energy to cook himself some pasta once they get home or whether last night's take-away leftovers will have to do, when Sherlock suddenly hugs him. It is completely unexpected and utterly awkward: One moment they are walking along one of the small streets just off Russell Square, rain drizzling down their collars, cars whooshing by, and then, suddenly, Sherlock steps in front of him with one huge stride, turns around and wraps both arms around John.
John stands there, stock-still, for about ten seconds, trying to figure out what is going on. Are they hiding from one of Myrcoft's security cameras? Is Sherlock suddenly feeling dizzy? But Sherlock isn't leaning on him. On the contrary, he is standing upright, back ramrod straight, his whole body tense in a way that seems to try and get some space between them even though his arms are pressing John tightly against his front.
John can hear Lestrade quietly snickering in the background and decides that this has gone on for long enough. He brings his arms up between them and gives a shove, effectively dislodging Sherlock.
“What the hell was that, Sherlock?”
Sherlock has the nerve to look offended. “I was hugging you.”
Lestrade is laughing openly by this point and John glares at him while taking a moment to be grateful that it is just the three of them right now. He can just imagine Anderson's face.
“Sherlock, we don't hug,” he points out in what he thinks is a fairly reasonable voice considering the circumstances. “In fact, we have never hugged. Not once. And we are in the middle of the sodding street. What on earth is this about?”
Sherlock still looks vaguely injured, in the way he does when he has made what he considers an enormous effort at normal human civility and is being rebuffed for it (usually because he has fucked it up spectacularly).
“You are tired. You always seek out more physical contact when you're tired. And you've been particularly morose during the last two weeks, ever since Lestrade foiled your attempt to pick up someone for casual sex at your local.”
John knows that it is impossible to actually die of embarrassment, but right now he really thinks that is a terrible design flaw in the human body.
He shoots Lestrade a betrayed look, but Greg just lifts up his hands and shakes his head as if to say “I didn't say a thing,” and John believes him.
“I was just trying to help.” Sherlock sounds sulky now and if there is anything that this evening really, really doesn't need it is an addition of sulky Sherlock. Sherlock sulks so loudly the entire borough can hear him.
Before John can marshal an appropriate response, Lestrade unexpectedly comes to his aid. He is standing next to them, his arms folded and smirking as if Sherlock and John are the most entertainment he has had all week. John has the sneaking suspicion that he thinks that quite often but is usually better at not letting it show.
“John might appreciate your help a little more if you didn't suddenly spring this on him in public,” he offers. “Also, I'd try not looking like somebody is forcing you to hug at gunpoint. It tends to kill the, you know, mood.”
Sherlock looks even more annoyed now and his voice assumes the disdainful tone he uses to express his utter disgust with most people's idiocy.
“Are you telling me there is an etiquette to hugging? A technique? And I assume you are the designated expert?”
Lestrade is still grinning and looks utterly unfazed.
“Oh, yeah! There is definitely a technique to hugging and I have it on good authority that I give excellent hugs. You see, you have to let your body relax. It helps if you don't hold your head up entirely straight, either. And for extra effect you can rock from side to side a little. Like this.”
He steps forward and enfolds Sherlock in a bear hug, adding a little practical demonstration to his instructions. Sherlock's hands flail in an amusing fashion behind Greg's back for a moment but then he gives in – probably for completely experimental reasons, John thinks – and even relaxes minutely.
When he disentangles himself from Lestrade he looks thoughtful and turns to John, but John quickly backs away.
“Oh no, you won't! I've had enough hugging for one night.”
Thankfully they make it home without any more awkward touching incidents, but even so John thinks he is probably in for about a decade of teasing from Lestrade.
Lestrade has to admit that, his sympathy for John notwithstanding, watching Sherlock stealth-hug him was the highlight of this week. That is probably why he agrees to meet with the man when Sherlock texts him several days later, requesting more instructions in “the absurdly complicated rules and regulations surrounding platonic touching between adult males.” He takes this to mean that Sherlock has made further attempts at alleviating his flatmate's “touch deprivation issues” and can't wait to hear the full story from John.
Right now, however, he is sitting in a small Italian café near the National Gallery, picking apart a deliciously flaky croissant while the steamed-up windows create an illusion of privacy around him and the world's most socially awkward consulting detective.
“I don't understand,” Sherlock's gripes, looking thoroughly annoyed and viciously stirring a spoonful of sugar into his excellent espresso. “I haven't done anything outside the flat, and I have given appropriate signals so as not to take him by surprise--” Lestrade has to choke back a snort of laughter at this point, as his mind provides a mental image of what Sherlock telegraphing his moves would probably look like “--but he still doesn't respond to hugs. And his mood is not improving, on the contrary. He has been even more irritable than usual and it is starting to affect our work.”
“Uh-huh.” Lestrade has learned long ago that “it is affecting my work” is Sherlockian for “it really upsets me” but he keeps that to himself.
He clears his throat. “Well....” he trails off for a moment, trying to figure out exactly how to explain something that has always come naturally to him. “Try paying attention to his body language, yeah?”
At Sherlock's frustrated huff he elaborates: “You said that you noticed what was going on because he already, well, he already seeks out some forms of touching, right?” Though usually with more plausible deniability attached, Greg would bet. Straight blokes could be awfully wary that way.
Sherlock looks thoughtful.
“Also, he probably feels bloody embarrassed by this right now. Wanting to cuddle isn't exactly considered proper for blokes, you know?”
Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Arbitrary gender restrictions on behaviour are so pointless.”
“Well, yes. But you still grow up with them and they're hard to shake. Just, when you next notice him doing something like that, try to see whether you can just go with it. Follow his lead, yeah?”
He has to admit that he is madly curious about what exactly John has been doing that tipped Sherlock off. They have a strange relationship, these two: John with his loudly proclaimed heterosexuality even though the most gaydar-deficient person on the planet would be able to tell he is crushing on Sherlock like the proverbial teenager. And Sherlock who, to Greg's knowledge, has never really been emotionally or physically intimate with anyone for longer than ten minutes, and who is now taking lessons in hugging for John's sake. He would ask for details but he already feels slightly voyeuristic as it is and he is pretty sure that John would appreciate his pumping Sherlock for information even less than his involvement as platonic-touching coach from the sidelines, so he keeps his gob shut.
Sherlock is frankly disgusted by how needlessly complicated this whole affair has become. He noticed early on that John seemed to require a certain amount of physical contact to function optimally, both physically and mentally, attributing it to John's low tolerance for sexual frustration (really, how had the man survived military service?). It took him a little longer (this was hardly the most pressing thing on his mind, after all) to realise sex was simply John's preferred way to fulfill a more basic desire for touch. This had merely been background knowledge, amassed in the same casual way that he noticed everything about the people around him, until he realised John had taken to touching him.
Sherlock doesn't enjoy touch. He usually feels slightly claustrophobic whenever a grateful client tries to hug him and touch in general has the tendency to occupy a distressing amount of his processing power. So, when John, not so subtly tries to move closer to him as they are watching one of his idiotic action films, Sherlock simply moves out of the way. He tries not to notice that John seems to keep especially close when he is tired, bumping into Sherlock to a frankly unnecessary degree and simply hopes that John will sooner or later fall back on his habit of substituting casual sex for annoying his flatmate.
He breathes a sigh of relief when he realises John has gone to the pub to, no doubt, charm an attractive woman into some form of sexual assignation and is therefore doubly disappointed at his return. He is supervising a slow, delicate reaction of chemicals in the kitchen when he hears John's distinctive tread on the stairs and he can tell instantly that he is in as dour a mood as he was when he left. As soon as John enters the kitchen he realises what has happened. Damn Lestrade!
They continue like this for a while but John's mood deteriorates further and further to the degree where Sherlock notices that it affects his own. That is simply intolerable and so he decides to take measures into his own hands. He doesn't like hugging, no, but then he dislikes the deadly dull task of cleaning his microscope slides just as much. Both, however, are apparently necessary to ensure high quality in his work and so he steels himself for the task – only to be rebuffed by John in a manner that is frankly illogical and more than a little annoying.
He decides that the opportune thing to do right now is to simply let the matter rest. John has taken to shooting him suspicious glances whenever Sherlock gets within two feet of him and all attempts at casual touching on John's side have completely dried up. Lestrade is probably right. While the man can be infuriatingly slow when it comes to solving crimes, he is astonishingly competent where human relationships are concerned.
A couple of weeks pass by and John slowly starts to relax in his presence again. Sherlock isn't entirely sure whether John is still suffering form a lack of physical affection as there was a night last week when he might have gone home with someone from the pub; Sherlock was out chasing an emerald thief at the time and can therefore not be entirely sure what happened. He definitely doesn't display any of the usual signs Sherlock has come to expect. Though that might simply be due to John's exasperating and frankly pointless resolve to keep others from noticing how touch starved he is.
It is almost a month after Sherlock's first, abortive attempt at providing John with the physical contact he apparently needs, when an opportunity unexpectedly arises in the wake of their latest case. They had been tracking a ring of human traffickers who groomed teenage girls for prostitution out in Uxbridge and, for some reason, both Lestrade and John had found the case particularly upsetting as they often did when minors where involved. They had finally made a breakthrough when Sherlock recognised the cigarette ash they had found at several points throughout the case on the sleeve of a little old man who runs a newsagent's shop right next to the Underground station and it was only a matter of time before they managed to track down the rest of the pimps involved.
They are currently leaning against the plate glass window of the Chimes Shopping Center in the middle of the pedestrian precinct, from which vantage point they can observe Lestrade, Donovan and a handful of PCs arresting the ring leaders. Sherlock knows John is exhausted and maybe that is why he doesn't seem to care that his shoulder is pressed up against Sherlock's arm, why he seems to lean his weight against Sherlock ever so slightly. Sherlock allows himself to sag sideways a little as well and John doesn't move. Promising.
They straighten up again when Lestrade begins walking in their direction and meet him halfway.
“Good work, lads!” He says admiringly and claps both of them on the shoulder. John doesn't flinch at that, either, and Sherlock files it away for future reference as another example of appropriate-platonic-touch-between-males.
They both groan, however, at Lestrade's next words: “Unfortunately I will have to ask you to come over to the Yard with us. I need to take your statements.”
“Really, Greg?” John never sounds this plaintive unless he is practically dropping with exhaustion. “We haven't really slept during the last three days. Surely we could come in tomorrow?”
Lestrade frowns in Sherlock's general direction and shakes his head. “After what happened last time? Not a chance.”
Sherlock assumes that Lestrade is referring to the latest case they solved, but really, it was hardly his fault that a new investigation took him to Amsterdam immediately afterwards, preventing Lestrade from officially closing his case.
John groans tiredly again and to Sherlock's surprise he turns around so that he is facing Sherlock and lets his head drop forward until it is resting against Sherlock's chest. “I blame you entirely!” comes up muffled from his shirt-front but Sherlock is too distracted by the sudden warm weight of John's head against his breastbone to defend himself. Behind John, Lestrade is grinning at him and making shooing motions with his hands while he mouthes “Go with the flow.” Sherlock closes his eyes in pained exasperation for a moment – really, doesn't the man have any other tired clichés in his repertoire? - but then he remembers the mission at hand and carefully lets some of the tension drain out of his body. He lets his head fall forward until it rests on John's shoulder. They stay like this for a while and Sherlock has to admit that it is strangely comfortable. He could almost fall asleep like this. He closes his eyes and can feel himself drifting off but then John abruptly straightens his posture and draws back a little.
Sherlock blinks his eyes open and stares at John for a moment before shaking his head and coming back into wakefulness. John looks amused.
“You were falling asleep, weren't you?”
Sherlock narrows his eyes. “It isn't my fault your shoulder is absurdly comfortable.”
John snorts at that and then tugs Sherlock in the direction of one of the cars. “Come on, let's get to the Yard and give our statements before we both keel over. God, I am knackered!”
Sherlock catches Lestrade's eye as they squeeze into the back of the car and gets a cheerful wink that is apparently supposed to convey some variation on “Well done, at least this time he didn't punch you in the face.” Which is peculiar because he had never actually told Lestrade about that incident. But then, the man can be strangely observant at the oddest moments.
After this, Sherlock catches John leaning against him - and, during one memorably exhausting and traumatising case, on Lestrade as well – whenever he feels particularly tired.
Leaning when exhausted, John has apparently decided, is acceptable, even in public.
Sherlock would never admit it but he prefers it when it happens back in 221B. Not because he shares John's ridiculous hang-ups about platonic touching but rather because when John leans against him in their own flat, he goes soft and pliant and he stays pressed up against Sherlock for much longer. He will even tolerate hugging at these times, as long as Sherlock gives him some time to sink into the lean and brings up his arms slowly and gently.
It is peculiar, really. He realises that he is starting to enjoy this. Which is not, of course, the point, he reminds himself sternly. The point is that John needs a certain kind of physical stimulation to function at his full capacity and Sherlock needs John to be his alert and ruthlessly competent self. If Sherlock finds that John feels strangely good, leaning against him, that he savours the warmth that bleeds through their clothing, that his own muscles seem to relax when John exhales and goes almost boneless against him, well that is simply an irrelevant side effect.
If there is no case related sleep deprivation to blame, John usually seeks him out after a particularly long and arduous day at the surgery. There is one evening when John opens the door to their sitting room just as Sherlock is standing in front of their bookcase looking for his tome on serial killers in the 18th century. He doesn't turn around, too intent on searching through the stacks of books and journals, but he hears John walking over towards him. His tread sounds heavy and slow, as if he is wearing shoes of lead and Sherlock knows instantly that today was an especially tiring day. It is to be expected, it is the flu season after all. What isn't quite as expected is that John comes to a halt behind Sherlock and then lets himself fall forward with a gentle huff. Sherlock stands still, cataloguing the way in which John's weight is now propped against his own spine, the warm snuffle of John's breath against his shirt, the pleasant feeling of being anchored to the spot by somebody's trusting body. This time it is John who brings up his arms and wraps them around Sherlock's middle, squeezing slightly.
“Bad day?” he asks, even though he already knows. When John is tired he often gets peevish at Sherlock's disregard for the tiringly redundant exchanges of information that make up so much of prescribed human interactions.
He can feel John nod against his back.
“Tea?” he asks. “Mrs Hudson brought us chocolate digestives.” John has a weakness for chocolate biscuits with his tea, especially at night.
“I'll put the kettle on in a moment.”
“Mmm.” Sherlock agrees and goes back to scanning the books, John's warm weight still pressed against his spine.