John Watson once knew a woman who had thirteen hearts on the inside of her forearm. They were all pink, and one even had little lacy wings coming out of it. Hearts didn't always mean love, but on her, they obviously did. She was an obvious person, with blue eyeshadow and pouty lips and a gold heart on a chain around her neck, as if the rosy blooms on her arm weren't enough. One of them was for him, she'd told John, excited, the morning it appeared.
They'd only met the night before, at one of those insane after-finals parties in med school. She was going to be a pediatrician. John stared at the perfectly formed, fresh mark, proof that what she'd whispered into his mouth the night before, still rocking gently on top of him, the backs of her thighs sticky with sweat on top of his, was the truth.
She wanted him to check if he had any new ones - she didn't know his body well enough, as it had been dark when they'd stumbled into her room past midnight, and they hadn't bothered turning on any of the lights as they undressed each other with alcohol-clumsy fingers. He didn't want to. He knew he wasn't in love with her, didn't feel much of anything toward her aside from a vague embarrassment; it wasn't like he needed to check his body to see if it agreed. He also didn't want her seeing all of the other pictures secreted around his body, even if she wouldn't know what most of them meant. He just wanted to find his pants and rinse the sour taste out of his mouth and get out. He told her he'd call her.
To this day, he can't for the life of him remember her name, but he's sure that - if she's still alive - she has one pink heart on the inside of her lower left arm that reminds her of him. He hopes she's added at least one more.
When John was five, his family had gone to Newquay. Their first day there, John had run straight out into the surf and got bowled over. He hadn't been in any real danger - his father had been just a couple of metres behind him - but he'd panicked and inhaled a mouthful of water and thought he was going to die. By that evening, a black wave had appeared over his seventh rib.
He also has the tree he broke his arm falling out of right over the point of the fracture and an image of Puppy, the family dog, on his left hip. They aren't always that literal, although ones you get in childhood usually are, before your brain learns about metaphor and symbolism.
For example, he has a butterfly on his upper left pectoral from when he set aside his medical career to join the army. He puzzled over that one for a long time, but Harry got it right away. ('Bloody crap, Johnny, it means you were meant to be a soldier. Like everything before was just to bring you to this point. Emerging from the cocoon and shit. Now pass the beer.')
The one wing is puckered and distorted now, clipped by the scar that the Taliban bullet left in its wake, but the butterfly itself is a constant reminder that he remains a soldier at heart, even if he is now a battalion of one.
The apple at the base of his cock he figured out himself. He didn't notice it right away, but when he did, he realised it must have appeared a couple of days earlier, when he'd admitted to himself that he was attracted to another man. Forbidden knowledge, carnal and necessary but possibly dangerous.
You didn't get one for everything that happened in your life. That would have been a bit ridiculous, if your skin reacted every time you sneezed or ate an egg or got a paper cut. Only things that had a strong emotional impact, positive or negative, ended up imprinted on your skin, a permanent reminder for you and the world of how your sojourn through this earthly existence had marked you.
Some people were covered in garish sweeps of colour, blue and gold dragons breathing fire down their backs and entire solar systems encircling their necks, red and green planets orbiting yellow suns. Others were more modest, with thin, black tracings peeking out from necklines or subtle pastels on their ankles and behind their ears.
When he'd done his peds rotation during his foundation year, one of his patients had been a boy with Angelman Syndrome who'd come in with an earache. He'd only been six years old, yet his body had been almost completely covered in vibrant bursts of sea green, sunrise pink, and juicy orange. Every experience had been a wonder and a joy for him.
Another patient, from his psych rotation, had been black from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet, as if she'd been caught in an oil slick, like a sea bird, emerging heavy and clotted and half-dead.
Sometimes the marks were entirely abstract, swooshes or curls whose meanings were fathomable only to the people whose bodies they adorned (and sometimes not even then). There was an entire branch of psychology dedicated to the interpretation of the pictograms. John's therapist, Ella, would have had a field day with the blood-filled chalice on his forearm (he told anyone who asked it was wine, but he knew better) and the cradle built of femurs and tibias on his lower abdomen.
It wasn't possible to get rid of them. Well, except through a donor skin graft, but that meant a lifelong dependence on anti-rejection meds, and the skin tone was never quite right. Grafts of your own skin from elsewhere on your body were pointless; your cells were still your cells, and retained the imprints of your experiences. They would simply re-manifest whatever had been there before.
You can never erase your past.
Tattoo artists did a good business, touching up colours that faded as people aged, adding embellishments, like a yang to an existing yin, or sparkling highlights to a crown, or even painting over unwanted or embarrassing images, turning a pile of shit into a flower pot or a Swastika into a Celtic cross.
And of course for those few individuals who were born without the propensity, a tattoo artist could create entire life histories, allowing them to blend in. If you looked closely, you could tell the difference, of course. Tattoos tended to leech colour at the edges, become fuzzy over time.
No one knew exactly why some people's skin never blossomed in testimony to their experiences; a genetic inability to produce the pigments, perhaps, or malnutrition. Or the lack of deep emotions in the first place. Near or complete absence of spontaneously auto-generated dermal pigmentation was one of the criteria listed in the DSM-IV for antisocial personality disorder. In order to avoid the stigma, most people who didn't develop them naturally - even if the cause was mundane and organic - would have at least a couple of tattoos done in prominent places.
Which is why John had been surprised to find that Sherlock Holmes' skin was as pristine and blank as a newborn's.
He hadn't noticed it at first, of course, that day in the lab at Bart's. Sherlock had long sleeves, everything covered except his hands, face, and neck, and it wasn't unheard of for those areas to remain naturally unmarked.
Later, though, at Lauriston Gardens, Sally Donovan had warned him off Sherlock, saying, "He's a psychopath. Didn't you notice he hasn't got a mark on him?"
"And how'd you know that? Seen him starkers, have you?"
Sally had smirked at that, crow's feet crinkling up the sunburst at her left temple. "Seen enough. He doesn't make a secret of it, anyway. He's proud of it. Something about not being a slave to sentiment."
John woke up the morning after he shot Jefferson Hope with a lion across the width of his upper back.
After he moved into 221b, he kept an eye out from time to time, if only to prove Sally wrong. Sherlock generally kept himself well covered inside the flat too, but John noted the pale, thin bare feet, the narrow V, gaping empty at the neck of his dressing gown, the cream-coloured skin of his lower arms when he rolled up his sleeves to protect them from splashes of acid or horse piss. It didn't mean anything to him, one way or the other.
Sherlock, though, appeared to be fascinated by the pictures on John's body.
"Is that a poplar?" he asked on one of the first mornings, pointing at the tree on John's arm.
John looked at it. "It's a tree. I don't know, is it a poplar?" He'd had it for thirty years and never wondered what kind of tree it was.
"May I?" Sherlock grabbed John's arm before he had a chance to respond, pulling it across the breakfast table. He ran his finger over it, traced the outline, leaned down so closely to inspect it that John could feel his breath stirring the fine hairs on his arm.
"And?" John asked, calmly continuing to eat his toast with his other hand.
"Did you break something falling out of it or rescue someone or something from it?"
"Broke my arm. Right there."
Sherlock grunted and moved on to the chalice.
"I didn't actually give you permission, you know," John said, but didn't move his arm.
Sherlock snapped his head up to look at him. "Problem?"
John shrugged. "'Spose not. It's considered rather intimate, though. Looking at them." He took a sip of tea, his eyes remaining on Sherlock over the rim of his cup.
Sherlock scoffed. "If that were the case, I couldn't look Sally Donovan in the eye."
"Well, no. Not like that. Not standing next to her and touching it and trying to deduce what caused it."
"It's obvious why she has it," Sherlock said dismissively. "Dull. I don't need to get close to her to figure it out."
Sherlock let go of John's arm and sat back. "If it bothers you..."
"Doesn't bother me," John said steadily, and leaned forward to put his arm within Sherlock's reach again. "Just don't expect me to explain them all to you. And some are off-limits."
Sherlock eyed John warily, then flicked his eye down at the chalice. The temptation was too great. He took John's forearm in both hands and nearly pressed his nose against it. "Is that blood?"
"How often do you get new ones?" Sherlock asked one afternoon from where he was reclining on the couch.
John paused in his two-fingered typing. "New ones of what?"
"Spontaneous dermal images."
"Er... there's no set schedule," John said. "I don't do a full body check every day anyway. I couldn't give you an accurate answer."
Sherlock exhaled, obviously dissatisfied. "When did the last one appear, then. That you noticed," he added spitefully.
"Couple of weeks ago."
"So, around the time you moved in here."
"Around that time, yeah. Like I said, I don't always notice them right away though. Give or take a couple of days."
"Where is it? What is it?"
"Yeah, remember what I said about some of them being off-limits? That's one."
Sherlock twisted his upper body to look over at John. John was studiously picking out letters on his laptop, his gaze fixed firmly on the screen.
"Interesting," Sherlock mused.
As the weeks went on and minor injuries occurred in the course of pursuing the criminal element (injuries which necessitated looking to by Dr Watson), Sherlock's right ankle (twisted jumping out of a second-storey window), right calf (torn by a rusty nail), left elbow (bruised while breaking a thug's nose), and left knee (bashed with an iron pipe) all proved to be undecorated as well. Sherlock watched John carefully as each new patch of virgin skin was revealed, but beyond tutting over whatever recklessness had led to the injury, John didn't remark on it.
Then came the Saturday night when a murderer held a knife to Sherlock's throat. By the time they were able to apprehend him, Sherlock's neck was covered with blood. It wasn't the carotid, thank God, but Lestrade wanted to call an ambulance anyway. While the two men argued, John moved aside Sherlock's scarf, which he had been pressing to his neck, and inspected the wound as well as he could in the thin light from the street lamp.
"I don't think this will need stitches," he said. "Dermal adhesive ought to do it."
Sherlock looked at Lestrade triumphantly. "We'll be off then."
Lestrade shook his head in disapproval and concern, but let them go with the promise to come in the next day to give their statements.
Back at the flat, John had Sherlock sit on the toilet lid while he washed his hands and got out a pair of examination gloves.
"You'll have to take your shirt off, too," he said, taking alcohol wipes out of the first aid kit. "Collar's in the way."
By now, he wasn't surprised to find that Sherlock's torso had no markings, aside from several moles and freckles.
"You've never said anything about it," Sherlock said, leaning his head back so that John could see what he was doing.
"My not having any imagines moti," he said, using the medical term.
"What do you want me to say?"
"Nothing. Never mind."
"Does it bother you?"
"Because you can always have a tattoo-"
"I know that!"
"There are lots of reasons why people don't get them," John said mildly.
"I didn't ask for a lecture!"
"You know, this would be easier if you didn't keep moving your jaw."
Sherlock snapped his mouth shut and glared at the ceiling.
John carefully wiped away the dried blood. Sherlock had moles and freckles on his neck as well. Not surprising, given how fair he was. He leaned in closer to peer at the wound and make sure there was no foreign matter in it. As he did, he noticed that one mole on the right side of Sherlock's neck had a slightly irregular shape. Mindful of the possibility for skin cancer, he tilted Sherlock's head farther to the side to get a better look. It looked... well, it looked quite a lot like a perfect, miniature horse. John blinked. He leaned in closer to look at some of the other spots. The small cluster behind his ear were actually stars, and the two at the base of his throat, taken together, looked very much like an exclamation point.
John straightened up. Sherlock was watching him warily out of the corner of his eye, his head still pulled back. It was possible that Sherlock didn't know. They were really very small. It was difficult to tell what most of them were without greater magnification, and it would be impossible for Sherlock to see any of the ones on his neck, upper chest, or back without a mirror and some contortions. On the other hand, this was Sherlock Holmes.
He decided, if it were him, he'd want to know. "Have you ever-"
"I know," Sherlock said curtly.
"Ah." John tore open a foil packet and took out a pre-loaded GluStitch applicator. "Definitely not a psychopath then."
"Merely emotionally stunted," Sherlock muttered.
"There could be other reasons."
"I said no lectures."
"Fine." He applied the adhesive and then finished with a couple of Steri-Strips for good measure. "Right, that's you set then." John peeled off the gloves and turned to the sink to wash his hands. "Keep it dry for a couple of days. Should heal up nicely, the edges are clean."
"Have you ever seen one form?" Sherlock asked, leaning against the wall outside Lestrade's office.
John had in fact been witness to their appearance a couple of times. After he had intercourse the first time, when he came out of the shower he noticed there was a dark circle forming on his upper arm. He'd wiped the condensation from the mirror and stood there naked for half an hour, as the colour rose to the surface like wine bleeding through linen. The Mars symbol was childishly transparent, but there were worse things. Like the stock trader who'd shown up to work one day with the image of a penis across his face. (Although that might just have been an urban myth.) Still, most people had a tube of Dermablend in their medicine cabinet for just such emergencies.
"Yes," he answered. "You?"
Sherlock glowered. "Do you imagine I have nothing better to do than hold parts of my body under a microscope, waiting for something to happen?"
"Right, sorry," John said, rubbing his eyes. They were dry and sticky from lack of sleep. "Um, I guess they just kind of... I don't know how to explain it. Fade in, I suppose. It's like a shadow at first, then it gets darker until you can tell what it is."
"If you ever see one start to come in-"
"Okay," John agreed before he really thought about it, because he'd been awake for twenty-three hours straight and hadn't eaten in seven.
But of course he lied, because the next day Moriarty started his game. Moriarty, who had a spider on his neck, crawling up out of his collar.
After the pool, John was pretty certain he'd be getting a new one. He remembered that he'd promised Sherlock could watch, but first of all that meant he'd have to sit around in front of Sherlock mostly or completely nude, possibly for several hours, since there was no way to tell where or when it would show up. And at this point, that was becoming so not an option.
The second reason was related; he was apprehensive as to what form the image would take. If his body chose now of all times to go all cherubs and bows on him, he wasn't sure how Sherlock would take it. Or, for that matter, how he would handle Sherlock's reaction.
So when they got home, he pleaded exhaustion (not actually a lie), locked himself in his room, stripped, and did a full body check, or as much as he could with the use of a hand mirror. He dozed, sitting up on the bed huddled under his duvet, re-doing the check every half hour or so, until he woke up and found that several hours had passed.
He pulled back the cover and looked over his torso, his arms, his legs, his feet, used the mirror to look at his face, ears, neck, and back. Nothing. He was oddly disappointed, and perplexed. He'd thought he was going to die. If things had gone even slightly differently, he probably would have. Not only that, but Sherlock had been... expressive. The way he'd looked at John, grabbed his shoulders; John had thought he saw a glimmer of something there, enough to allow him to hope, anyway. And for those reasons, he'd more than half been expecting something spectacular, like the lion.
But maybe his body needed a bit more time to work through the emotions and break down the adrenaline, cortisol, serotonin, and dopamine into pigments and arrange them in a meaningful way. Or maybe the new image was so small he'd missed it, or it was on the back of his head, under his hair, or some other place he couldn't see on his own.
He laid the mirror aside, only to see a patch of gold on his left palm that hadn't been there before.
He felt sheepish. He didn't know what it symbolised (him being the last pip and thus the 'key' to the end of the game?), but obviously it was nothing that he had to keep from Sherlock. Good thing, too; he couldn't exactly hide it, being right there in the middle of his palm.
Sherlock was slouched in his chair, dressed to the nines and fingering his violin when John came downstairs. He didn't look up, just continued staring vacantly at a spot on the opposite wall, a grim look on his face.
"I got a new one," John said through a yawn. "I would have come to get you, but I was asleep." It was sort of true; he was asleep when it appeared, and he would have let Sherlock watch once he'd identified what it was going to be. "Sorry, maybe next time."
Sherlock started upright. "What is it?" he asked, appraising John sharply.
John held his hand out. "A key. No bloody idea what it's supposed to mean."
Sherlock took John's hand and angled it toward the window, rubbed his thumb over the image, then let go and faded back, staring at the spot again. "A key..." he said, with something like wonderment.
John cupped his hand, still feeling the ghost of Sherlock's touch.
"Does it make sense to you?" he asked, because he still thought this must be an important one.
"Hm?" Sherlock flicked a glance at John, then waved his fingers in irritated dismissal. "No, no idea."
"Oh well, no matter." John shuffled into the kitchen to make a cup of tea.
About a week later, Sherlock pounced the moment John came in from a shift at the clinic.
"Have you ever noticed a connection between any of your markings and someone else's?"
John hung up his coat. Really, was it too much to ask for Sherlock to at least let him have a cup of tea before demanding he think? "Sorry, not following," he said.
Sherlock made an impatient sound. "Say a shared experience. You and someone else in a car crash, for example. And then you both end up with the same one."
"That's a pleasant image."
"Have you?" Sherlock insisted.
"I've never been in a car crash, thank God," John said as he went into the kitchen.
"That was just an example, it doesn't matter what, any shared experience: getting shot at, parachuting out of an airplane, winning a football match, finding that bloody jumper in the bargain bin; Christ, I don't know what makes you emotional."
"This jumper does not come from the bargain bin."
Sherlock scowled and hunched down over his laptop. "Never mind."
John took a bottle of beer out of the refrigerator and dropped down into his armchair. He'd need a bit more than tea with Sherlock in this mood. "Yeah, I get what you mean. Never really thought about it, to be honest."
"Is it nice, going through life being so spectacularly unobservant? What good does it do you to have all those-" Sherlock made a flourish with one elegant hand. "-pictures all over you if you don't pay any attention?"
John shrugged. "Dunno." He took a deep draught of his beer. "Why are you so interested all of a sudden, anyway?"
"Research," Sherlock grunted.
Sherlock hesitated for a second before answering, "Yes."
"Anything I can help with?"
"Apparently not," Sherlock said, and started typing very fast.
There followed more cases, and near misses; Irene and Bond Air; Henry Knight and the nerve gas. Sherlock took a nasty blow to the ribs and actually deigned to be taken to hospital to be looked over. John attributed this to his practical-minded influence. Sherlock continued to show interest in the images decorating John's body.
"You let your girlfriends see them," Sherlock complained one rainy, caseless day. "Even ones you've just met."
"Yeah, taking off your clothes is kind of the point of the exercise," John remarked dryly, one eye on the match running on the telly.
"They don't even care about seeing them."
"Candy - really? Do people actually name their children Candy? - Candy was a religious fanatic looking for the sign of the beast."
"Point." John sighed. "Is it really that important to you? Christ, I don't-" He dropped his head and rubbed his hand over his face. "They're just pictures. They don't mean anything without context." It wasn't clear if he was trying to convince himself or Sherlock.
Sherlock was watching him keenly. John licked his lips, and started to unbutton his shirt.
"Just my shirt, Sherlock. This is crossing so many lines already."
Sherlock leapt up, a gleeful look on his face. "Yes, fine." He watched impatiently as John fumbled with his buttons. "Oh for goodness' sake, do you need me to do it for you?"
"No!" John kept his eyes averted as he pulled the bottom of his shirt out of his trousers and worked his arms out. He could practically taste Sherlock's anticipation as he grasped the bottom of his vest and pulled it off over his head.
"Come over here, where I can see better," Sherlock said.
John stood up and moved obediently to the clear space in the middle of the living room. He clasped his hands behind his back, standing at parade rest, fixed his gaze straight ahead at the mirror, and breathed out slowly.
Sherlock's fingers immediately went to the butterfly and the scar. "Are these related?" he asked, his excitement evident.
"Um... indirectly, I suppose. The butterfly's from when I decided to join the army. The scar's - well, you know."
John looked down at Sherlock's dark head, moving systematically back and forth in front of his chest; too dangerous. His eyes snapped back to his own reflection in the mirror.
Sherlock continued inspecting his chest and stomach, dotting his fingers over John's skin here and there, his motions animated yet clinical; the touch of a scientist, probing and cataloguing. John began to relax. Sherlock deduced quite a few of the images, or came close, and John gave brief explanations of the rest.
"Really, John," Sherlock said with a chuckle as he tapped the circle and arrow on his bicep. "As if there were any doubt."
John grinned. "I was seventeen, what do you expect?"
When Sherlock moved around behind him, John dropped his head forward because he knew what Sherlock was going to be most interested in.
"I got that protecting someone," he said into his neck.
Sherlock's fingers ran over the top of his back, stroking the lion's flank, following the curve of its tail around John's shoulder. John willed himself not to react. Was it because he knew of the connection between Sherlock and the lion that it felt as if his touch were lingering now? Caressing rather than taking note, asking rather than deducing?
"Must have been an important someone," Sherlock said.
"Why, because it's so big?"
"Size doesn't matter," John said before realising what that sounded like. He glanced over his shoulder at Sherlock, who was smirking, and started to giggle.
"Indeed," Sherlock agreed. His eyes returned to John's back, but before he could move on, John twisted his torso around suddenly and touched Sherlock's arm.
"I mean it, Sherlock," he said. "Yours-" He lifted his hand to touch one of Sherlock's 'freckles' on the side of his neck. "It doesn't matter. They're just as meaningful."
Sherlock stiffened, and frowned uncomfortably. John turned back around, staring forward, his heart thudding in his chest. "Sorry," John muttered.
"No, it's all right," Sherlock said. There was silence for several seconds, and John began to wonder if Sherlock was done, but he wasn't moving.
Finally, there was a faint rustle of cloth, and then John felt two of Sherlock's fingers tracing from the middle of his spine down to the waistband of his trousers. The snake continued further, of course. John clenched his jaw and squeezed his fists together. "And someone betrayed you here," Sherlock said softly. "Someone who, perhaps, made a complete arse of himself?"
"Might have done, yeah," John said tightly.
"It's fascinating, how the body knows... Things even we aren't conscious of."
"The human body is the best picture of the human soul."
"Are you ready?" Lestrade asked.
John swallowed. No, of course he wasn't ready. They didn't need him to do this. It was just a formality, a technicality. There was no question. But he nodded once. This was the last service he could do for his friend.
Molly cringed a little as she pulled the sheet carefully back to the level of his shoulders. His face had been cleaned off, though there were still clumps of blood in his limp hair. His face was already grey, but thankfully someone had closed his eyes.
His body was unclothed. Of course they would need to perform an autopsy, find out whether he'd been under the influence of narcotics, or terminally ill (which would make this somehow easier to understand, even if it wouldn't make it any easier to bear), or something, anything, to give them answers to why he'd done this.
John nodded, trying not to look directly at his face. "Yeah, it's-" He cleared his throat, forced himself to continue speaking. "It's Sherlock." He was about to turn away when he noticed something at the edge of the turned-back sheet. A line of colour on Sherlock's left pectoral. His heart sped up, his breath became shallow and his vision began to close in, to focus on that bit of coloured skin.
"Sorry, Molly," he said through the buzzing in his ears. "Could you - pull the sheet back a little further, I need to-"
There was an image of a box on Sherlock's chest.
"Did you know?" Molly asked softly.
John shook his head and put his hand over his mouth, stifling the sound that threatened to burst forth.
"Christ, he wasn't a-" Lestrade said, gaping. "Sorry," he amended at John's glare. "Course he wasn't."
The box was plain and square, probably wooden, given the striations that resembled smoothly polished grain. It might have held cigars, or jewelry, or stationery. But John thought he had an idea of what was meant to be inside. There was its placement, for one thing, but there was also the fact that in the face of the box was a keyhole. John didn't even need to look at his hand. He had its shape memorised. He'd puzzled over it for hours, nights, unable to understand what his brain was trying to tell him but using it as a reminder of that moment when he and Sherlock had pledged their lives for each other. His hand was hovering over the box before he knew what he was doing, lowering it to touch-
The sheet snapped back up over Sherlock's face. "Sorry, John," Molly said, biting her lip and not looking at him. "Better not."
Lestrade clapped a hand on John's shoulder and steered him gently away. "I'll let you know as soon as I get the results of the autopsy."
John dropped his hand to his side and allowed himself to be led. He let himself take a breath. He had to; there were spots at the edge of his vision. It went in shakily, loud in the stark metal-and-tile space. His pulse throbbed in his palm. In the split second when Molly had lifted the sheet to replace it, it had billowed up, and John had caught a glimpse of other patches of colour: on the inside of Sherlock's upper arm, his abdomen, his side. Colours that hadn't been there the night when John patched up Sherlock's neck. In that brief glimpse, he hadn't been able to tell what they were of. They might have been tattoos. Maybe Sherlock was experimenting with something. But if not - and John would have bet everything he had that they weren't fake, no more fake than Sherlock himself - then the box would have been the first one. Something in Sherlock had awoken at the pool. And John, apparently, had the key to it. It suddenly made sense why Sherlock had become so compliant about allowing strangers to tend to his wounds.
He had to- John stopped and tried to turn around. He had to see the rest of them. But they were already through the door, halfway to the lift, Lestrade's arm firm around him, forcing him onward.
"Don't worry, John. She'll take care of him."
As soon as he got home, John took off all of his clothes and put them in a plastic bin bag. There was blood on his trousers from where he'd sank to the pavement, and the rest stank of morgue. He went, naked, to the bathroom to piss. The door to Sherlock's room was closed. He felt sick.
Through half-closed eyes, standing over the toilet, he saw a smudge, something dark in the middle of his chest. Shit, he couldn't, he absolutely couldn't, because he could already tell what it was, even upside-down. He put his hand over his face, tried to press the tears back into his eyes. He couldn't breathe. He sank down onto the bathroom floor, the tiles cold on his skin.
In a cubicle deep in the bowels of Bart's, Sherlock was putting on the clothes Molly had appropriated from the lost and found. The trousers were ridiculous - whoever owned them before must have been at least six stone heavier. He reached for the shirt - checked, of course. As he pulled it on, he brushed the back of his hand over the image of the box on his chest, resting his knuckles there for a moment, as had become his habit.
John knew now. Sherlock hoped he understood. He thought he did, judging from the sounds he'd made. That was the hardest thing he'd ever done, lying there and having to hear John make those sounds. But he had to let him see, he had to tell him, somehow, that despite everything else, whatever it was that he and John had, that was real.
Sherlock pulled the edges of the shirt together and started to do up the buttons. As he did, he noticed a dark smudge in the center of his chest. He let the shirt fall open again. Now was not the time; he felt the pressure of his advantage ticking away, in the confusion following Moriarty's death. But he couldn't help himself; he'd had so few chances to watch one develop, and this was - He knew this was an important one.
As the outline became clearer and the inky shape pressed itself up onto the surface of his body, he had to brace his hands against the table. An involuntary gasp escaped him as something in his chest clenched and held.
It was a black heart.
There is now a sequel here: Sustained by the Strength of the Colours to Come.