At first he thought it was a rash. A mild allergic reaction to a new kind of laundry powder, exhibiting itself in the form of faint pinkness on his inner arm. He ran a finger over it to make sure it didn't hurt or itch, then ignored it.
A few days later, it was still there, and it was darker. Dark enough to show what it really was. Sherlock stared at the imperfect circle on his left wrist in horror, then sat down on his bed with a bit of a thump. After over thirty years, his heartmark was finally showing activity. This was not good.
He consoled himself that it was still only the faintest of colours – nothing most people would even notice. He wasn't in love, nothing that drastic and awful – it was just a small crush, at most. Most people had seen their heartmarks go such a colour several times by his age, and most of the time they'd faded again after a few weeks or months. It didn't mean anything.
He'd always been rather proud of how unnoticeable his heartmark was. Still flesh coloured and only faintly raised on his skin, it was the clearest proof he had that he was the sociopath he claimed to be. Only a sociopath would show no signs of ever having loved, after all. Even people who were not currently in love had discolouration on their heartmarks left from previous loves, giving away how the experience had left them indelibly marked. Sherlock was above that – had been above that. Now he was just another of the ordinary people.
He put on a long-sleeved shirt and told himself that all he had to do was concentrate and he would be able to beat this. The colour would fade back to pale flesh if he could just overrule his heart with his mind, which should be easy given the relative strengths of both.
He didn't bother wondering for one second who the object of his apparent affections was. There was only one person in the world who could ever have any impact on his heart.
When he left his room, John was already at the table in the sitting room, drinking a cup of tea and frowning at the paper. Sherlock's eyes immediately flicked to his right wrist, his non-dominant one, but John was wearing his watch over his heartmark. He always seemed to these days – Sherlock assumed that he didn't want Sherlock's opinions on his level of affection for Sarah.
He could still remember what it had looked like when they first moved in together, though. John's heartmark was larger than most people's and the skin was raised enough to stand out. It had shown the usual traces of past loves – a faint marbling that spoke of a long-term relationship that had ended fairly amicably, a streak of what looked like scar tissue that spoke of a broken heart, the usual freckles and blemishes left from less serious entanglements. Back then, it had had a grey cast to it that spoke of John's state of mind, and how unlikely it was that he was going to fall for anyone while feeling so alone and depressed. Sherlock thought it highly likely that the grey had faded by now, and that he could claim some credit for that.
“Morning,” said John, looking up to smile at Sherlock. “There's tea in the pot, if you want a cup.”
Thinking of John's heartmark now, Sherlock was struck by a sudden desire to blot over all those other blemishes with his own colour. Burn his mark on to John's wrist in the darkest of reds – the colour that spoke of love so deep that no one else could ever touch it.
Sherlock pushed the thought away and turned to the teapot to pour himself a cup. That wasn't how this was going to go – he was going to lose his colour, not inspire some in John. Much easier and simpler that way.
“Oh, and I got that ridiculously expensive honey you like, if you feel like toast,” added John.
A warm glow pulsed from the point in Sherlock's chest where his heart was, out along his arm to his wrist. Sherlock pushed back his sleeve, his back still to John to hide his actions. His heartmark was definitely redder than it had been before. He scowled at it. He was going to have to learn to control himself better than that.
He didn't. By the time Christmas came around, his heartmark was a dusky pink, and still growing darker. He had given up all hope of controlling his feelings for John and decided that, as it was merely an involuntary emotional reaction, he could just ignore it. Besides, John always seemed to have a girlfriend and would, presumably, eventually find one who wasn't completely dull and then move in with her, marry her, all that sort of thing.
That thought never failed to make Sherlock's heart clench and his heartmark throb. It was not all one pure, healthy colour, but streaked through with the yellowish tinge of unrequited love, which just made the whole thing even more hateful, really. Molly's baby-pink crush on him had shown similar markings, and he had felt blissfully superior when he first saw them. Now he was on the same level as her – or lower. Her feelings for him had been fading for a while now until they were not much more than a faint blush.
John insisted on a Christmas drinks party and Sherlock was apparently incapable of putting his foot down when it was something John really wanted and that seemed likely to make him happy. John invited everyone who might be thought of as a friend to them both, and then included his latest girlfriend, which made Sherlock want to stamp his foot and hide in his room like he had as a child with his mother's parties. He was an adult now, though, so he merely played his violin, showing off how he could captivate John's attention and admiration with it, and then deliberately forgot her name. He managed to get in digs at most of John's other girlfriends along the way, and was feeling rather satisfied with himself when Molly arrived.
Possibly his satisfaction led to overconfidence and too much showmanship. It seemed her feelings for him were not yet completely faded – although he was pretty sure he'd helped them along the way with his behaviour. From the glare John gave him, she wasn't the only one he'd caused a negative reaction in. That had not been part of the plan.
He took the first chance he could to escape the whole unpleasant business.
John continued to quietly read his book, clearly settled in for the night to watch over Sherlock. He tried to find his mother hen-ing irritating, but instead just found it endearing. A pulse ran from his heart to his wrist and he scowled at the ceiling.
“I suppose you're going to end up blaming it on me,” he said to break his chain of thoughts about John's qualities and how often they fell into endearing rather than irritating.
John lowered his book. “What?”
Sherlock let out a sigh. “Janette dumping you.”
“Oh, you remember her name now,” grumbled John.
“I'll have deleted it by tomorrow,” said Sherlock. “It's clearly no longer needed.”
“Apparently not,” said John, looking back at his book.
Sherlock waited twenty-three seconds.
“And why shouldn't I blame you?” burst out of John. “You gatecrashed our dates, said horrible things to her, phoned me when we were in the middle of sex-”
“Because,” interrupted Sherlock before John could work up a proper flow of anger, “I was not the one going out with her. What does it matter what I said to her? She hated me before she met me. And you were the one who answered your phone. Anyway,” he added, turning on his side so he could see John, “none of that actually made her leave. She didn't go until after she'd taken your watch off.”
John froze, then glanced down at where his watch band covered his heartmark. “How did you-”
“Traces of her nail varnish on the catch,” said Sherlock. “Rather obvious. She took it off, saw something she didn't like, and left. I suppose you should be congratulated on having kept it hidden thus far but honestly, John, if you didn't have strong feelings for her, why on earth were you bothering?”
John let out a long, slow breath. “Right, of course,” he said, which wasn't an answer to Sherlock's question. “Well done, top marks for deduction, now you can piss off. You don't get a say in my love life.”
Sherlock was all too painfully aware of that.
When it later turned out that she had been playing him, despite the emblazoned evidence of her feelings, he was glad he hadn't. John would never do such a thing; he was far too loyal and kind-hearted. The thought sent another pulse through to his heartmark, but for once he didn't mind. The stronger John's effect on him was, the less he had to worry about someone else, someone less trustworthy, infecting his mind with emotions. Falling for the wrong person could be incredibly inconvenient, as Irene managed to prove rather well before she passed out of his life.
In the weeks that followed, and especially after Mycroft got John to feed him the lie about Irene's relocation to America, Sherlock became aware that John was subtly attempting to catch a glimpse of Sherlock's heartmark. Sherlock had, by now, mastered the art of keeping the thing hidden at all times whilst making it look accidental that it was so. He took care to drop a few casual hints about how he was never affected by the softer emotions and after a few weeks, John's scrutiny relaxed.
Sherlock couldn't help noticing that John was just as competent at hiding his own heartmark. He wondered if it was engrained habit now, even though he had yet to replace his last girlfriend. Presumably whatever colour change she had prompted had long faded by now, and John's wrist would be as close to neutral as it got. The thought was depressing – surely Sherlock should have made some mark on John. It seemed unfair that friendship, no matter how strong, had no visible outward sign. He might not be John's type romantically, but he knew how important John considered their friendship to be.
And that was a depressing thought too. He had always considered falling in love with someone who was so obviously never going to return the feeling as the height of stupidity. How, then, had he managed to fall in love with someone who looked solely for pretty young women with uninteresting personalities? Where was the logic in that? He pressed his thumb into his heartmark, hard enough to hurt, and wondered for a fleeting moment if cutting it off would make the feelings go away as well.
He dismissed the thought as nonsense immediately, although he wouldn't have been the first to try it. The mark had no control over what it represented; it was just an outward sign of inward emotions. Look, this person's interior landscape has been reformed by another person, it said. This person depends on another for too many things. This person has a weakness that can be exploited. Sherlock scrapped at it with his nail, then gave up, pulling his sleeve back down.
And he did do it willingly, and entirely for John, for all he didn't want to see Mrs. Hudson or Lestrade hurt. He looked at the tiny figure so far below him, and realised that even if there hadn't been a plan in place for his survival, he would still take this step. A choice between a life without John and no life at all was far too easy to make.
As he realised that there was nothing he wouldn't do for John, the familiar pulse thrummed through to his wrist. How much more could John make him fall in love? He was so deep in now that there seemed no way out. He stammered out his last few words, cast his phone aside, and took one last fall for John.
Everything worked precisely as he had intended it to, which was a massive relief. Just because he would die for John didn't actually mean he wanted to. He heard John's dazed voice approaching and shammed dead as hard as he could. Eyes open but not focused, staring at the pavement in front of him despite all the temptation to dart a look at John's face.
“He's my friend. He's my friend, please.”
There was a note in John's voice as he pushed his way through the crowd that made something in Sherlock's chest feel as if it was tearing open. John should never sound like that; he should be high-pitched giggles and genuine pleasure and gob-smacked adulation.
Fingers felt for his wrist, and Sherlock had the horrible thought that John was looking for his heartmark, that he'd see just how dark Sherlock had gone for him. Instead, John felt for his pulse and Sherlock let himself feel relief for a split-second. This was going to be hard enough for John without him having to deal with Sherlock's excess of feelings for him. Unless he would have assumed that they were for Irene, but surely even he couldn't be that stupid? If Sherlock had felt even half this much for her, he would have left London with her and never looked back.
John's fingers disappeared. “Please, just let me-” he said, then his voice faded out.
Something in Sherlock's chest was definitely injured. There was far too much pain, drowning out all the bruises he'd gained in his fall.
John's voice was flat and defeated, but Sherlock could still hear it perfectly beneath all the other noise and bustle that was going on. “Oh, Jesus, no. God, no.”
The paramedics arrived with a trolley, and he was being turned over. He kept his eyes open and glazed, and was rewarded with the briefest flash of John, collapsed on the pavement and surrounded by people, looking greyer than Sherlock had ever seen anyone, as if the colours had been drained from him.
There was a crack in Sherlock's chest as they lifted him onto the trolley and he felt the shock of it travel down his wrist. God, was there no end to the pain of this thing?
“The less like my normal attire the better,” he had firmly instructed her, and she had given a darting nod, then disappeared. She seemed to be handling this better than he could have hoped, although she'd been very quiet.
Sherlock looked at himself in the mirror and wondered what would be the best way to disguise his appearance. It seemed likely something would have to be done about his hair, but that could wait until he was somewhere a little safer than a hospital that was probably filling up with the media. He filled the sink with water, rolled up his sleeves, and set about washing as much of the blood off as he could.
Molly came back with a stack of clothes. “I'm not sure these jeans will be long enough,” she said, “but I suppose that will only make you look less like you usually- Oh.”
This last was a shocked, breathy gasp, and Sherlock glanced at her to see that her eyes were riveted on his heartmark.
He looked at it himself. It was even darker now, like dried blood, and the yellow streaks were a sickly mustard colour. There was also a jagged black line cutting it in two, and he remembered the crack in his chest. Who knew Sherlock Holmes had enough of a heart for it to splinter?
“Oh, Sherlock,” said Molly in a hushed voice. “I've never seen one so dark. It's for him, isn't it?”
Sherlock felt his scowl deepen, and he thrust his hands back into the water to hide the damned thing. “I hope you managed to find some shoes,” he said, hoping to change the subject.
“It's unrequited,” she said. Of course she'd recognise that much. “Sorry- just. Sherlock, does he even know?”
Sherlock glared at her. “It's irrelevant,” he said. “It's just emotions. It doesn't mean anything.”
“It means everything,” said Molly. “A mark that dark? Of course it means everything. And now he thinks- oh.” Mercifully, she stopped speaking before Sherlock snapped and told her to mind her own business. She had been extremely useful, and was likely to continue to be so – he couldn't alienate her now. Besides, he owed her.
“Would you give me a minute?” he said, nodding at the pile of clothes.
“Oh, yes, of course,” she said. “I'll just – I'll be back in five minutes. I'll knock,” she added, then disappeared again.
Sherlock let out a long breath, dried his hands and face, and set about changing into the clothes she'd brought. The jeans were too short, which only highlighted that the socks were an unattractive beige colour but the hoodie was big enough for the sleeves to cover his wrists, which was all he really wanted for now. He'd need to sort out some sort of permanent arrangement to hide his heartmark; it really was far too noticeable right now. It was impossible to be generic and forgettable when everyone could see that he was so deeply in love that it hurt. Perhaps some sort of wristband.
That satisfaction was quickly wiped away when Mycroft insisted on talking about John. “Your doctor is suffering rather badly.”
“He'll get over it,” said Sherlock as shortly as he could.
“Will he?” asked Mycroft. “I am not so sure. He has become rather diminished by your actions.”
The idea of John being less than he had been, of anything being taken away from him, struck Sherlock like a knife through his chest. He felt a shudder that meant his heartmark was likely reflecting that emotion and felt overwhelmingly glad that it was covered by both a wristband and his sleeve.
“All I need is access to your money, not your opinions,” he said.
“I am afraid I am not willing to give you one without the other,” said Mycroft. “I wonder if you have any idea what grief is like for someone like John, who feels so much more than either of us ever will.”
Sherlock gritted his teeth. “As if you have the first clue about feeling,” he said. He glared at Mycroft's shirt-covered wrist, where his heartmark was likely as blank and virginal as Sherlock wished his was. “Unless you've finally fallen in love with yourself, of course.”
Mycroft gave an unamused smile. “Always so quick to lash out, even when you're looking for my help,” he said. There was a brief pause, during which Sherlock realised that he might have given too much away, and then Mycroft let out a quiet “Ah.” Just the tone of it was enough to twist Sherlock's face into a scowl.
“I see,” said Mycroft. “Yes, you have taken care to cover up since beginning your acquaintance with John.”
Sherlock wanted to rip the expression off his face and stamp on it, but then he definitely wouldn't get the money he needed to take Moriarty down. “Is this where you remind me that caring is not an advantage?” he asked through gritted teeth. “Because even if I didn't already know that, I'm really not interested in your opinion.”
“On the contrary,” said Mycroft. “This is where I remind you that every broken heart has the capacity to be mended. You should remember that when you see John again.”
“Save it,” said Sherlock. “Just give me the money and let me get on with this.” If he had to listen to one more smug, sanctimonious word out of Mycroft's mouth, he was going to lose it.
Presumably Mycroft realised that, because he just sighed and gave in.
This was doubly infuriating because he was very aware that the longer he spent trying to clean this mess up, the higher the chance that John would have moved on and found a new life while Sherlock was gone. After all, without Sherlock to keep his attention on more important things, he might well find some bland woman to waste his time on, one Sherlock wouldn't be able to encourage to go away like he had the others. He might finally get back to Baker Street only to find John had gone.
He might never be able to expect John to return his feelings, but he had at least counted on keeping him by his side, as his friend. Cohabitation, friendship and his assistance on the cases would be enough, would have to be enough. If he got back and found John had moved in with a woman and could only find time for Sherlock when she was busy, what would he do?
The more he let that worry nag at him, the more distracted he found himself, and the darker the black line cutting through his heartmark got. He began to avoid looking at it, keeping the wristband on at all times to cover the unhealthy, dull colour of it. He tried to console himself that it hadn't grown any darker, but given how dark it already was and that he hadn't actually been around John so that he could fall any deeper in love with him, that wasn't much consolation.
He avoided sleeping, because it wasted time and only meant he dreamt of John, and he only ate the bare minimum, to avoid wasting energy on digestion, and he worked every hour he could to bring this thing to a close as quickly as possible. When he finally watched Sebastian Moran, the last of Moriarty's men, being taken away by the police, he thought he was going to collapse with exhaustion.
Instead, he steadied himself, found a taxi, and directed it to Baker Street. Time to go home.
He spent some time logging all the differences around the flat. Quite a few of his possessions had disappeared into boxes stacked in his room, which didn't seem to have been touched apart from their appearance. What was more interesting was the things that John had left where they were – he had always thought John hated the skull, for example. Why would he have left it in place on the mantelpiece rather than hide it away? There was no sign of a woman, though, not even as a regular visitor. That was rather a relief.
John arrived home an hour later, after Sherlock had collapsed on the sofa, shifting slightly to fit himself into its familiar lumps and bumps. His footsteps up the seventeen steps were slow and careful, and Sherlock felt anticipation rise higher up his throat with every step John took. He got up off the sofa, not wanting to be found lounging, but was then undecided on how he should stand. He crossed to the window, then wondered if he was retreating.
John made it to the top of the stairs before Sherlock could find somewhere else to stand. He opened the door, came inside, saw Sherlock and stopped dead. His face went pale, as if he was the one who had been dead, and he wavered.
For a horrible moment, Sherlock thought he was going to pass out. “John,” he said, stepping towards him and holding his hands out. “John, let me-”
“Oh god,” croaked out John, looking even more unsteady and ignoring Sherlock's words. He was staring at Sherlock as if he'd forgotten how to blink. “Sherlock. Jesus Christ, Sherlock, you're dead.”
“I'm afraid that is not entirely accurate,” said Sherlock. He wanted to take the last few steps to John and put his arms around him, both to help keep him standing up and to feel his warm, solid presence for himself. He wasn't sure if that would be welcome, though.
“Oh, god,” said John again, then staggered the few steps to the coach and sat down on it. “Sherlock, you-” He broke off, and just shook his head wordlessly. “God, I don't even know what to say. I should be furious!”
Should be. “Does that mean you're not?” asked Sherlock carefully. It would be excellent if they could skip the anger and go straight to drinking tea together, but it seemed highly unlikely.
“I'm-Jesus, Sherlock!” said John. “I haven't even got that far yet. There's a dead man in my sitting room!” He threw his hands up, then abruptly dropped them. His tongue darted out to wet his lower lip, and his eyes stayed steadily on Sherlock. After seven months away from him, having this level of John's attention was beginning to make Sherlock feel a bit dizzy, as if just John's gaze alone could make him drunk.
“No,” started John. “No, I am angry – I'm furious. Do you have any idea, any at all? Can you even begin to conceive what it's been like for me?”
“I might-” started Sherlock, but John was on a roll and not listening.
“You can't do things like this, Sherlock!” He was clutching at the edge of the sofa with white knuckles, anger beginning to flush his face. Sherlock put aside the thought of how attractive he was when he was angry, and tried to come up with some way to calm him.
“I've been- Look,” John said, and suddenly he was moving, standing up and fumbling at his wrist with clumsy fingers. “Look, see what you did to me, maybe that will make you understand.” He pushed his sleeve up and pulled off his watch, then thrust his arm out in front of Sherlock's face.
John's heartmark looked like a wound. Deep reds merged with green-tinged yellows, and cutting across the middle was a thick band of scar tissue.
“Oh,” Sherlock heard himself say. That was his fault? John had felt that deeply for him, deeply enough that Sherlock had left a scar? There was a throb from his own heartmark, but he ignored it. This was far more important.
John cleared his throat, clearly having thought better of showing this to Sherlock, and Sherlock grabbed his wrist before he could move it away. He glanced up at John's eyes, to see the anger had been tinged with self-consciousness.
“I am so sorry, John,” he said, then bent and pressed a kiss over John's heartmark. As his lips touched John's skin, he felt an almost electric tingle, and John let out a faint gasp. He pulled away to see that the colours were already looking better, richer, more vibrant, and he thought the scar might have shrunk as well. Every broken heart has the capacity to be mended, he remembered Mycroft saying. He would do everything he could to make sure that was true for John.
“Sherlock,” said John in a low voice.
Sherlock glanced at the confusion and hope on his face and let go of his wrist in order to push his own sleeve up. He ripped off the hideous wristband and threw it to the floor, holding his arm out so that John could see what he had done to Sherlock in return.
Sherlock's heartmark already looked better than it had done, now that he had seen the evidence of John's feelings. The yellow streaks had faded away, leaving only a rich, dark red, cut through by the black mark that he had a feeling would take a while to heal.
“Oh,” said John, reaching out to touch it with the tips of his fingers, which sent a shiver of feeling through Sherlock. “I didn't know. I thought you were- you know. Beyond this kind of thing.”
“Yes, so did I,” said Sherlock. “Then I met you.” He laid his arm next to John's, noting the similarities and differences between them, and realising that they had almost exactly the same depth of hue. John was just as in love with him as he was back.
Enough pretending this wasn't happening. Sherlock reached out for John's shoulders, pulled him in, and kissed him. When John made a tiny noise in his throat and kissed him back, a flood of warmth emanated from Sherlock's heartmark, flooding through his body. He smiled against John's mouth, and when they eventually pulled apart enough for him to look, he could see that the crack across his heartmark had already faded a bit further.
He grabbed John's wrist again to inspect his, noting how just one kiss had changed it already. For the first time ever, he found himself incredibly grateful for heartmarks. Without them, they would have to use words to explain their feelings; clumsy, inexact words, which were never fully interpreted in the way they were intended. Here, though, Sherlock had undeniable evidence of John's feelings, and his own, and would be able to keep track of both, and so always know exactly where they stood with each other.
“If you're quite done,” said John, and Sherlock glanced up to see a wry smile on his face.
“I don't think I'll ever be done,” he said, truthfully, then rested his thumb over John's heartmark as he pulled him back in. It might have been Sherlock's imagination, but he could have sworn he actually felt the pulse of emotion through it as he kissed him again. Glorious.