Love is the rhythm of two hearts beating. – Clay Walker
Sherlock is six years old when he first notices what’s happening to him.
It starts with small scrapes and tiny abrasions that heal instantaneously. He also discovers that even the largest of bruises vanish rapidly, though the deepest of cuts still leave scars.
Armed with this new knowledge, he forms new hypotheses to test, experiments to conduct, and prepares for explorations into his world that any six year-old must make.
It so happens that near the posterior side of the Holmes’ manor is a wide, sprawling oak. The higher branches have sheltered a stray cat for several days, and suspecting that the cat’s simply stranded, Sherlock decides to rescue it. He rests a ladder against the trunk of the old oak, shimmying his way up the rest of the tree. As he nears the cat, he can see its small, trembling body, its hackles raised in tufts of sand-coloured fur.
“Come on, I won’t hurt you,” he coaxes softly, creeping further out onto the branch. He reaches for it, confident that he’ll scoop it into his arms and have a playmate for a time, before the rotten wood snaps under his weight, taking Sherlock and the cat with it.
His inner arm catches on a jagged branch on the way down, drawing blood, but aside from a few scratches and a slight tailbone fracture that heals within seconds, Sherlock makes a safe landing.
The cat does not.
“Fix it,” Sherlock demands, bursting into Mycroft’s study with a lump of blood-matted fur in his arms. He tries his level best not to pout, but stoicism is difficult to affect with his dirt-streaked, tear-stained face. As his brother gives the cat a thoughtful, appraising look, Sherlock can tell the Talk is coming. One that Mycroft and their parents have clearly been working up to.
After tending to Sherlock’s arm, Mycroft says pensively, “All lives end, Sherlock. All hearts are broken.” He pauses. “Except ours.”
It’s then that Sherlock learns that the Holmes cannot fall foolishly in love and give up their hearts to just anyone, because their hearts are their literal lifelines. To give them up would mean losing their immortality, allowing room for weakness—to say nothing of their sealed fate if the one it was given to was fickle or careless with it.
Sherlock listens, eyes wide with childish curiosity as Mycroft accompanies him to a far corner of the grounds to bury the cat. “Hasn’t anyone ever…I mean, what if they can’t help falling in love?” he asks.
Mycroft shakes his head disapprovingly. “I’ve heard stories, rumours of those so closely bound with another, that the loss of their partner meant the demise of the Holmes involved. Even when their partner suffered the smallest injury, they’d know it or be equally pained.”
Sherlock briefly wonders what it would be like, to love and be loved that much. Then he shakes his head, silently resolving never to be one of those fools blinded by affection. He trudges forward with a small shovel to break the earth as Mycroft pulls his blazer about himself against the biting wind and rain that’s begun to fall. But what if? wonders Sherlock. What if you found someone who—
“Caring is not an advantage,” Mycroft says sternly, his mouth a pinched line, as if he’s caught the vein of Sherlock’s thoughts. His fingers dig tight into Sherlock’s shoulder, dissuading him, and for the briefest of moments, Sherlock feels a minute change in his brother, too subtle to pinpoint, but unsettling all the same.
It’s a lesson Mycroft will ingrain into him over the years, through patient examples and careful warnings via other casualties.
There are failed social experiments in uni and endless faux pas, but through it all, Sherlock guards his heart carefully, spurning unwanted advances and crushing any budding affections of his own. Detachment and a keen analytical eye remain his greatest assets.
They’re what bring him to a series of crimes scenes, involving poisoned pills and a murderous cabbie. The last crime scene of the day involves his crack shot flatmate, and as Sherlock’s eyes meet John’s across the throng of ambulances and police cars, there’s a new, foreign fluttering in his chest. It leaves him mourning his temporary loss of rationality and definitely his composed persona (gibbering “I just need to talk about the…the rent” at Lestrade), but the most damning loss of all is his heart.
He’s not even sure when it happened. It might have been at “Here, use mine”, when John generously held out his phone to a stranger. It might have been during “You’re unattached, just like me”, when John made them sound like comrades-in-arms.
Or it might have been when John shot a man for him.
Regardless, he makes his way over, the words fighter, strong moral principle, and nerves of steel circling in his mind, tipping the scales ever in John’s favour. At John’s tentative smile, Sherlock decides it’s no surprise he’s fallen for him; that after safeguarding his heart so fervently, he’s helplessly lost it the man who’s taken a life to save his.
“Dinner?” asks Sherlock. He’s not sure how these things go, but upon reflection, dinner seems like a better segue into getting-to-know-you conversation than “You have just killed a man”.
“Starving,” John agrees, and a bloom of warmth unfurls somewhere in Sherlock’s chest, expanding until it fills his very being with a nervous, electric current of excitement.
A chance encounter with Mycroft nearly kills the spark that’s begun to stir inside him, but the remnant glow is so bright that he can’t care less as his brother stares after him, no doubt increasing the already stringent surveillance on him.
All he can feel is the wonderful buoyancy of striding along with John at his side, their hands brushing every so often, both of them high as kites on post-case euphoria. Sherlock can’t help but think Take that, Mycroft, but mostly it’s I think he could just be the one.
What follows are cases surrounding stolen Chinese relics and incendiary antics from a deranged fan of Sherlock’s work. It all culminates in a poolside rendezvous with said fan, a consulting criminal of “Dear Jim” internet stardom.
John’s act of self-sacrifice makes Sherlock’s chest ache, and there’s no doubt now that his heart belongs to the one man who would die for him. He can’t run though, won’t, because it would mean leaving his heart there, leaving John. So he stays—only for Moriarty to promise I will burn the heart out of you, with laser sights trained on John’s chest. He’ll never know how right he really is.
They make it out of the pool by sheer luck, alive and together, and afterward, nothing changes.
Except everything does.
Of course, they settle into their comfortably complacent routines, have little rows about who’s left the seat down (John), who left the thumbs in the fridge (Sherlock), and who’s going to make the tea (John, and very rarely and grudgingly, Sherlock).
But now, when John’s passing the newspaper at breakfast, his fingers linger on Sherlock’s for longer than necessary. When they’re watching telly, John will occasionally edge closer, even snug up against him (while complaining that Sherlock’s taking all the room on the sofa). His fingers brush against Sherlock’s knee when he reaches for the remote, and he stays up later than he should, frequently falling asleep on Sherlock’s shoulder.
It’s all disturbingly domestic, and Sherlock’s not sure what to make of this change. He’d like to believe, from all the tiny gestures and motions, that John’s given him his heart in return.
But inevitably, John will freeze and pull away, breaking their connection as quickly as he’s initiated it. He’ll claim to need air, visit a girlfriend, or some mundane reason that broadcasts I don’t want to be with you right now. Then he’ll leave, taking Sherlock’s heart and hope with him, with no idea of the power he holds.
Sherlock will curl up on the sofa alone, wishing he’d never given away his heart. That Moriarty had burned it, when he promised to.
Then he wouldn’t know this pain, wouldn’t want to know it, wouldn’t care.
One night, John disappears.
Sherlock’s just come out of an intellectual fugue, torturing dissonant chords out of his violin when he notices John in the chair opposite, blogging about their latest case. He’s brimming with a nervous energy, has been for the last few weeks or so, and Sherlock can’t find the reason for it. Deducing what’s bothering John is a process that requires fuel, however.
“Make me tea,” he commands, poking John’s shin with the bow of his violin. John flinches like he’s been stung and draws his leg back quickly.
Hurt at the minute rejection, Sherlock bites out, “Whatever you’re writing, I’m sure it won’t win any literary prizes in the time it takes you to make tea.”
John’s tongue swipes over his lower lip, an anxious gesture. “Yes, well,” he says absently, continuing to type.
Sherlock waits another few minutes. “Look at you, writing so conscientiously. You must have a book deal,” he snipes. “Sign any autographs lately?”
“I don’t see how that’s any business of yours,” John says wryly. As Sherlock continues eyeing the kettle in the kitchen, readying another scathing remark, John shuts his laptop with a resigned sigh and slings on his jacket.
“Going to the pub to find a publisher, then?” Sherlock asks, lounging lazily on the frumpy grey chair. He’s suddenly delighted that he’s made a pun.
“Going to pick up the shopping,” John snaps irritably. “I know you’ll want sugar with your tea, but you used the last of it for an experiment. And we haven’t anything to eat in the fridge, unless you want us to cannibalize the arm you’ve left in there since last week.” He pulls at his sleeves. “The least you could do is come with me to carry some of it home.”
Sherlock narrows his eyes, throwing John a look of incredulity, just as John throws his hands into the air in exasperation. “Fine, stay here and saw away on your violin. I could use a little peace and quiet.” He slams the door, marching determinedly out into the spitting rain.
When half an hour passes, and John still hasn’t returned, Sherlock starts sending numerous texts, ranging from My tea, John; you haven’t come back to make it. – SH to the more desperate Where are you? Come home. – SH. They remain unanswered.
Sherlock has noted the exact amount of time it takes John to get to and from the Tesco, give or take a minute depending on if John remembers to picks up the milk, and factoring in potential rows with the chip and pin machines.
It most definitely does not take half an hour.
He throws his coat on, retracing the steps John would have taken to get there. After combing the route multiple times, he still finds no trace of his flatmate; there are no scuff marks on the pavement where John might’ve been stopped, no oil deposits or skid marks from a vehicle large enough to contain John and the men who apprehended him.
There is nothing, other than a residual tug of panic that Sherlock isn’t sure comes from John, or himself.
If this is Moriarty again, there’s no time to waste. With a sigh of resignation, Sherlock pulls out his phone and dials a number he’s been avoiding until now. It picks up on the first ring.
“What is it this time, Sherlock?” Even on the phone, his brother still manages to sound like a smarmy git.
“John’s gone missing. It’s been over half an hour since he went to get the shopping.”
“Perhaps he’s had another row with the chip and pin machine,” Mycroft offers drily.
Sherlock almost smiles at that, before snapping, “That only adds eight minutes to his itinerary, and I’ve—look, just find him. I think something may have happened to him.”
There’s a pause on the other end, before Mycroft’s voice comes through again, distant and impersonal. “You certainly know how to utilize my resources.”
“Just…fix it,” Sherlock stresses, before a wave of déjà vu rushes over him and he ends the call as abruptly as it began.
He hasn’t used those words in years, and they leave him feeling small and helpless, like the little boy he was, hoping for his big brother to perform miracles.
“Losing track of your toys again, Sherlock?” Smug confidence oozes out of Mycroft’s every pore, and Sherlock can’t help but clench his fists at his brother’s intrusion at the flat. It doesn’t help that Mycroft’s sunk his weight into the armchair that Sherlock considers John’s, grey wool throw, faded red plush and all.
“Shouldn’t you be back at your office? You know, actually looking for him?” he retorts. “I didn’t call so you could boast about your vast network of useless spies.”
Mycroft remains unperturbed by Sherlock’s sniping, an effect of prolonged exposure. “Those ‘useless spies’ are out there right now, searching for your doctor and reviewing the relevant CCTV tapes. They are perfectly capable of locating him, if you would just have a little faith in—”
Without warning, a cut opens spontaneously under Sherlock’s eye, just over his cheekbone. Sherlock touches his face gingerly, his fingers coming away a sickly scarlet before an impact to his stomach causes him to double over, wincing like he’s been punched in the gut.
It has begun, and at the worst possible timing, as his connection to John manifests itself in front of Mycroft, of all people.
Without preamble, Mycroft narrows his eyes. “You’ve lost it. Or,” he says, giving his umbrella a sanctimonious little tap, “you’ve given it away.” There’s no question about what he’s referring to. “Haven’t you learned anything from what I told you?”
“What business is it of yours?” Sherlock snaps defensively. His heart is his to do with what he wants, no one else’s.
Mycroft stands up, his initial flash of disappointment mellowing into something strangely unreadable. If Sherlock didn’t know any better, he’d say Mycroft looked almost pleased. “I hope, for your sake, that he reciprocates the feeling.”
Sherlock responds only by glaring at him, shooing him away with a flippant hand motion.
“We’ll talk about this later,” Mycroft continues quietly. “I’ll contact you again when we find John.”
As it turns out, John finds him.
His appearance is preceded by the squealing of tires downstairs, a slammed car door, and an irritated thud of steps to their flat. John stumbles in, wet and bedraggled, flinging a crumpled sack of shopping into the kitchen.
“What,” he sputters, “was that all about? Your brother decided to have a talk with me again, and this time, by talk, I mean hired thugs and—”
“Oh.” Relieved to see him relatively safe, Sherlock takes in the sight of John in his rumpled clothes, catches the subtle whiff of Mycroft’s cologne.
That bastard, he thinks. Of course Mycroft orchestrated this. Bloody hell. He’d been worried that John had been kidnapped, or worse, and he’d called Mycroft to find him.
“Yes, oh. Mind filling me in?” John snaps. He’s started to pace now, the muscles in his neck taut, fists balled in anger.
This is it—this is where John will say sod him and his controlling brother, that he’s had enough and he’s leaving. Sherlock feels something frosty and hard clench in his chest at the thought. It’s a cruel reminder that he’s tethered to John by his heart and if John leaves, it will shatter into a million pieces.
He sucks in a tense breath, berating himself for such melodramaticism. “What did he tell you?” Sherlock asks, affecting indifference as he steeples his fingers under his chin. He leans back casually into the armchair.
“Not much.” John frowns, struggling to remember. “He mentioned that he was quite certain you’d lost your heart, and wanted to perform an experiment.” His brow crinkles a bit in confusion. “What’s that even mean? Do you have a gaping hollow in your chest where it used to be?” He laughs awkwardly. “I don’t understand, but…do you need help looking for it?”
Sherlock swallows the giggle threatening to bubble out of him. Only John, his John would be so bluntly pragmatic. “No, nothing like that.” He releases a slow, calming breath. “Mycroft and I—no, our entire family—we’re what you might call…immortal.”
John nods like this makes sense, and Sherlock can’t help but wonder how much Mycroft’s revealed already. “Yes, Mycroft mentioned that. But what’s that got to do with losing your heart?”
“We can’t be injured, or killed.” As John opens his mouth to point out the cut that had blossomed spontaneously on Sherlock’s face, Sherlock raises his hand in a bid for silence. “Except in one instance. When we’ve given our heart to someone.”
John blinks, brow furrowed, as he shrugs off his jacket and throws it on the sofa. “Oh. I…I think I need some tea.”
Sherlock makes a scoffing sound at that. Trust John’s primary defensive mechanism at hearing about the unknown to be to make tea.
John responds by looking at Sherlock with something approaching a fond smile, that isn’t quite one. “You should be making the tea, considering that you’re the one with explaining to do,” he says, turning toward the kitchen.
He returns in a few minutes with two mugs of steaming tea, sugar in one, milk in the other and Sherlock reaches out for the one he knows is his.
“Sherlock, no, they’re hot. Let me set them—” John says, trying to bat his hands away, before the tea jumps in its mug and sloshes over John’s hand.
John hisses in pain, his hand turning an angry, scalding red, but not enough to miss the matching scald forming on Sherlock’s hand. Without the tea having touched it.
Sherlock winces, though he’s unsure if it’s in pain or mortification, that maybe John’s figured this out. He looks up at John, hurt and wide-eyed.
“Oh god,” John says faintly, before he’s dragging Sherlock to the sink, whipping the tap to cold, stinging water. He laces their scalded hands together and they stand there, water roaring at full force. “Sherlock, are you all right?” He jostles Sherlock’s hand a little and gives it a gentle squeeze. “Sherlock?”
Sherlock manages a faint, watery smile. How he wishes this moment would last.
When John finally turns off the tap and releases his hand in order to find a towel, Sherlock repeats, “We can’t be truly injured, except when we’ve given our heart to someone.”
John stops, but doesn’t turn around. “And you’ve…given it away, haven’t you.” It’s not a question, can’t be, in light of the evidence in their matching injuries.
“Lost it, in fact,” Sherlock agrees.
“Well,” John replies softly. “I’m…happy for you, then.” Sherlock doesn’t understand why John won’t turn around, won’t meet his eyes, and it hurts all the more because he can hear John’s insincerity in his voice. There’s a throbbing ache welling up in his chest, squeezing and constricting, but it’s not until a tendril of jealousy works its way in that Sherlock realizes this feeling is coming from John.
“Just so I know,” John begins carefully (too carefully, Sherlock thinks), “who have you given it to? Who’s the lucky person?” He turns to meet Sherlock’s gaze, his smile too wide, too counterfeit.
Sherlock thinks more cursed than lucky, to be saddled with the broken burden of his heart. He pads over to his seat and flops into it; he’ll need the support it provides when John turns away in disgust, or leaves for good, as he surely will.
“Clearly your foray into doing the shopping has addled your mind. From Mycroft’s talk with you and your clumsy fumble just now, I’d have thought it obvious who it was.”
He shrinks back into his seat after that remark. Although he’s heard that you catch more flies with honey than with poison (if that’s the correct aphorism), all Sherlock knows is to drip poison into his words, to wound. To keep everyone from the heart he guarded so dearly.
At the prolonged silence, Sherlock can see the moment understanding dawns on John. “Oh,” John breathes, eyes widening in realization.
“Yes. Oh,” Sherlock spits back, huddling defensively into his chair.
“I didn’t want to assume,” John says quietly, humbly, and Sherlock can’t help the warmth that rushes in at that, filling his chest, and he’s so hopelessly in love with John again that it hurts.
“You don’t understand, John. I’ve never been interested in…I never meant to—” His hands gesture helplessly at the lack of words. I never meant to fall in love.
“I’ll understand if you don’t want it.” Sherlock imagines that if he gave John his physical heart, it’d be a gray, leaden thing, shrivelled with disuse. John only stares at him, an evident crease between his eyebrows that Sherlock wants to smooth away, because John should never look concerned like that, never.
“You can’t do that, Sherlock,” John whispers at last. He shakes his head disapprovingly. “It’s simply not fair.”
A retort springs to his lips before Sherlock realizes he should ask for clarification first. “What’s not fair?”
“You can’t just give me your heart, without telling me.”
“Why not? It’s how love works,” Sherlock argues vehemently. “Unrequited love, at any rate.” He laughs, the sound bitter and cold in his throat. If only he had guarded his heart more carefully, and not given it away like some lovesick fool.
John’s shaking his head again, as if he’s explaining something to a small child. “No. You can’t just give it to me…and not expect mine in return.” The hopeful smile he gives Sherlock this time is genuine.
Sherlock drinks in the sight of John’s smile, possibly the last he’ll ever see of it, before his gaze flicks to the carpet again. “I have no right to expect anything,” he says quietly, shoulders slumped into the chair.
There’s a flurry of motion, an irritated growl, and suddenly John is right there in front of him, grasping Sherlock’s hand and guiding it to his chest. As the solid drumming of life beats against Sherlock’s palm, John’s lips at his ear insist, “You have every right to expect it.”
“I just…I had to show you,” John says, now pressing Sherlock’s ear desperately against his chest. “You need to know, that this beats for you. Only you.” A calming thrum pulses just under his fingers, and Sherlock listens in awe as his heart beats in unison with John’s. “Do you understand?”
The rhythm of their synchronized hearts conveys its message in steady, faithful beats, and suddenly Sherlock does understand: it’s the sound of reciprocation, of mutual longing, of all his Christmases come early, because John feels the same way too.
He winds his arms around John’s waist, face pressing into the soft wool of John’s jumper. He wants to be closer, warmer, and as John cards his fingers through Sherlock’s dark curls, he can see it—a future of cozy dinners and leisurely reading by a fireside, a quiet life in a country cottage when age creeps into his gait and there’s silver in his lover’s hair. With John, he can try to cultivate the proverbial honey to combat the poison he’s generated all his life, the poison he won’t need anymore. And when they’ve cultivated a lifetime’s worth, when it’s John’s time to go, Sherlock will go with him, because being a Holmes who loved means he won’t be left behind.
“Sherlock?” John prompts, his hands tightening on Sherlock’s shoulders. There’s a slight tremor in his voice, as if he’s afraid Sherlock will call this all off because of his own doubts and fears. “You’ve got hold of my heart too, you know. You haven’t lost yours for nothing.”
In the dim lamplight, Sherlock stands up and grins, his arms still folded around John’s waist and John’s arms closed around his neck. They’re not a perfect fit by any means, but they’re together, and alive, and that’s all that matters.
“Well, then,” he says, nuzzling John’s nose reassuringly. “I suppose that means we’ve both won.” He slides his fingers into the soft curls against the nape of John’s neck, stroking, touching, to confirm that John’s really his.
“I suppose it does,” John murmurs fondly, as he leans in for a meeting of lips, minds, and hearts.
“You told me once, that caring is not an advantage,” Sherlock says, settling comfortably into a chair at Mycroft’s office. He helps himself to the brandy, after having marched in and vindictively split Mycroft’s lip and umbrella for ever hurting John.
“It isn’t,” his brother replies, sitting opposite as he nurses his lip with a bag of ice. He casts a sorrowful glance at his ruined umbrella before shifting the ice a touch higher. “As you well know.”
“Then why did you do it? Kidnapping John off the street, roughing him up. What were you trying to prove?”
“Why does anyone do anything?” Mycroft shrugs. “I had a hypothesis, and I tested it. It turned out to be correct, by the way. And it spurred your doctor to finally confess, didn’t it? Perhaps you should thank me for your newfound happiness.” He reaches out to snatch back the bottle of brandy, and as he does so, Sherlock catches a glimpse of silver, a pale line of skin roughened and scarred, starting just above Mycroft’s wrist. He seizes his brother’s hand and yanks the sleeve up.
“This.” Sherlock inspects the scar that runs the length of Mycroft’s inner arm. “It’s the same as mine.” He pulls his own sleeve up to reveal the identical scar. “The very same,” he echoes uselessly.
Mycroft pulls at Sherlock’s grip, to no avail. “Just another consequence of being the British government and Secret Service and CIA on a freelance basis.”
“No, how did you…it was that day, wasn’t it? That day, with the tree, the cat, everything. The day you told me what we are.”
This time, when Mycroft jerks his arm away, Sherlock lets it go. “What we were, Sherlock,” he says, sounding almost regretful.
The lack of subsequent identical scarring tells Sherlock that Mycroft hasn’t shared his wounds since then, despite sustaining other injuries. It stirs a flickering spark, illuminating shadows of memories long deleted; he remembers the brother who smuggled cardboard boxes into his study so they could secretly play being pirates; who swabbed Sherlock’s badly skinned knees with antiseptic, calming his squalling sibling with hugs and tales of scientific discovery.
It makes him wonder when Mycroft’s brotherly affections started drifting, when they ended, his attentions turning toward Queen and country, and suddenly Sherlock aches with a distinct feeling of loss.
“They haven’t ended,” Mycroft insists, in the way he’s always been attuned to Sherlock’s thoughts. “I’ve just had other things to attend to, in the meantime.” He pours himself a generous measure of brandy. “That day, I told you about our heritage because I didn’t want you to be the same. To have a weakness.”
Sherlock opens his mouth in protest, but Mycroft silences him with a nearly imperceptible shake of his head. “I think you’ll find, however, that not having this ‘weakness’ and having to guard your emotions so meticulously can leave one…so very lonely.” Mycroft gestures to his office, with its tomes of knowledge, its antique furnishings that exude decadence and excess, and yet it strikes Sherlock just how empty the office is, with no one to share its wealth.
He sinks further into his chair, contemplating how far they’ve come in their role reversal. “Ah.”
There’s a knock at the door, and Anthea, or whatever Mycroft’s assistant has chosen to call herself today, appears. “Sir? There’s a call for you on line one. The Secretary-General of the UN would like a word.”
Mycroft gives her a thin smile, and though the gesture doesn’t reach his eyes, Sherlock wonders if Mycroft’s capacity to care just might be rekindled. That his emotional inhibitor (a term Sherlock’s learned from some sci-fi show John insists they watch on Saturdays) might one day be allowed to switch off.
“Think about what I’ve said, Sherlock,” Mycroft says, rising from his seat to answer the phone. Sherlock can hear the unspoken Learn from my mistakes—of caring too much, then too little. “And do enjoy the time you have with the doctor, won’t you?”
By the time Sherlock makes his way back to Baker Street, John’s reclined in one of the plush chairs by the fireplace, reading a novel.
“Where’ve you been, Sherlock?” John exclaims, dropping the book and starting toward him. “I’ve been worried and—” He stops, cradling Sherlock’s hand and examining his raw knuckles. “What’s this blood from? We’ve got to clean this!”
“Come here,” Sherlock demands first, and bloody fist be damned as he pulls John against him, revelling in his warmth and smell. He feels like home—not a weakness, not a liability, just John with his boyish grin and tea-stained jumper, the arms he’s wrapped around Sherlock’s waist safe and protective. Sherlock can’t help wondering how he would ever live without John in his life.
There’s a muffled “Sherlock?” into his scarf, and as John leans up to kiss him, Sherlock matches his smile, just glad he’ll never have to.