Sherlock watched the couple dance through a glass of champagne, the carbonation adding an otherworldly quality to the scene. The air was alight with hundreds of candles, several placed at each table. The reception was undeniably beautiful, the stars clearly visible through the large windows of the ballroom. The room was abuzz with conversation, and the music from the string quartet floated gracefully above it all. It was the epitome of romance and celebration, and the weight of it, combined with his five previous drinks, made Sherlock want to sink through the floor. But he smiled absently in his place at the table of honour as the song decrescendoed to a close. John had asked him to be happy. Sherlock would do his very best to pretend.
John was in the kitchen, filling his plate with post-case takeout they’d ordered. Sherlock was sprawled on the couch, flipping aimlessly through channels on the television. He was growing bored already. The case had been mind-numbingly simple, really. Could the ex-wife’s perfume have been any more distinct? Sherlock wanted to beg London criminals to be more creative.
“Want more chicken, or can I finish it off?”
“Feel free.” Sherlock adjusted his legs to give John room to sit. The doctor took the offered seat and began to eat.
“Brilliant case, that was. Didn’t have a clue for a while there.”
“Of course you didn’t.”
John offered Sherlock a half-hearted offended expression before returning to his meal. “I suppose it was obvious to you the entire time.”
“Almost immediately.” Sherlock could hear the dullness seeping back into his voice. At least John provided some entertainment on what would otherwise be a terribly mundane night.
“That’s why you’re the detective. I’m just the menial sidekick blogger. Tagging along for the thrill.”
“Hardly menial, John.”
John smirked at one of Sherlock’s rare moments of kindness. “That was almost a compliment. You’re getting soft, Holmes.”
“Yes. Pretty soon I’ll be greeting people with kisses.” The idea inescapably elicited a smile from both of them.
“Making comments about how delightful the weather is,” John added. Sherlock chuckled lightly, aiming a playful kick at John’s side. “Watch it! That’s abuse. You’re abusing me.” John joined in laughing and set his plate down on the table beside him. Sherlock watched him stand.
“What are you doing?”
“I have something I want to show you.” John turned and left the room, heading upstairs to his bedroom. Sherlock was honestly unsure what John was going to return with. Probably some silly novel he’d come across while shopping that he thought might interest Sherlock. After the last few murder mystery recommendations, Sherlock was not particularly excited about the next suggestion. He doubted he could stomach another narration of a “dark and stormy night”.
John returned, his fist closed around a small object. His eyes were bright; he was clearly excited about this revelation. Curiosity sparked inside Sherlock. What could he possibly be so enthusiastic about?
“Here.” John handed him the object. It was a small box. Sherlock swallowed, masking his sudden uncertainty. He truly had not expected that.
“Having fun?” Lestrade plopped down beside Sherlock at the table, clearly further along in the inebriation process.
“Why am I not convinced by that enthusiastic response?” Greg was now perusing the room, shamelessly eyeing up some of the more attractive women.
“I am completely sincere. Watching you get rejected by two separate bridesmaids was beyond amusing. Tell me, how did you acquire such finesse with women?”
Lestrade glared at Sherlock briefly, but returned to his scan of the ballroom. “At least I’m making an effort. I don’t think I’ve seen you stand up once since before dinner.”
“Not true. The waiter was not making his rounds quickly enough, so I took a trip to the bar.” Sherlock held up his glass as proof.
“I’d like to see you try with some of these snobs.”
“Please,” Sherlock laughed lightly, taking a sip of his drink. “In mere seconds, I could procure a date for the entire night. However, I have better things to do.”
“Like getting pissed alone at a table?” Lestrade laughed. “What, are you afraid of losing your partner? I doubt he can resist a good case any more than you can.” He was clearly intoxicated beyond his normal perceptive abilities. Sherlock continued to drink in silence until Greg stood and wandered off to a gaggle of women standing at the corner of the dance floor.
Inside was a diamond ring. Decent cut, fair purity. Sherlock swallowed again, lacing his voice with sarcasm. “John, I’m flattered, but… I had no idea that you felt this way…”
“Fuck off,” John said, shrugging off Sherlock’s joke. It did nothing to dampen his excitement. He sat back down on the sofa and leaned forward. “I decided I’m going to ask her to marry me.”
“By ‘her’, I assume that you mean Mary.”
“Of course I do.” John smiled expectantly. “What do you think of it?”
Sherlock eyed the ring in his hand. “It’s a bit small, isn’t it?”
“Yes, unfortunately the salary in the sidekick blogger business isn’t quite what I’d hoped it’d be.” He took the box from Sherlock and closed it. “What do you think of the idea, though? Me asking her.”
Sherlock deliberated for a moment, then shrugged. “Does my opinion matter?”
John drew back a bit, obviously disappointed. “I don’t know. I guess I thought you’d be happy for me or… something.” He set the ring on the table next to his plate, visibly deflated. “If she says yes—“
“She’ll say yes.” In Sherlock’s mind, the statement sounded a bizarre mixture of hollow and ominous.
John paused for moment, surprised, possibly by Sherlock’s tone. His response was quiet. “You don’t know that.”
“I am reasonably certain.” Sherlock’s voice was saturated with even more foreboding—hardly cheery comfort or encouragement.
“Well,” the doctor glanced back down at the ring. The light mood between them had definitely been clouded by awkwardness, and possibly something else. “Thank you for the… reassurance. Anyway, if she says yes, I want you to be my best man.” It sounded more declarative than suggestive. The thought created a vacant feeling in Sherlock’s chest, but he could not very well say no to his best friend. Even Sherlock knew that decision could create a significant rift between the two of them, particularly since John was so excited
“I’d be glad to, John.”
There was visible relief, alleviating the situation of some of the tense mood from earlier. John sat back comfortably once more, his arm absentmindedly resting on Sherlock’s leg. Sherlock’s eyes fixed on the contact, and he sighed internally at the warmth that spread from it. This was how John was constantly making him feel now—warm. Contentedness was usually associated with boredom in Sherlock’s mind, but this. This he could be perfectly satisfied with. He had confirmed his own attraction to John, but even if that never played out, he would be happy to simply remain this way. Apparently, John did not feel the same.
“How do you plan to ask her?”
John pursed his lips as he considered. “I think I’ll just do something simple. Take her out someplace nice. A fairly ordinary proposal. Nothing too big or complicated.”
Sherlock pictured John on one knee beside a restaurant table. Mary’s delighted surprise. Her face would light up, and she would accept. He’d seen the way she looked at John. The dilation of her pupils. Her leaning into him when he was close. The chemical euphoria of love. She would say yes, and they would kiss, and John would be gone. Sherlock felt ill. He turned back to the television, trying to shake off the image.
“I think she’ll want me to return to work at the clinic.” John picked up his plate again, setting it in his lap. “Don’t think she likes some of the more dangerous aspects of casework.” Sherlock’s vacant feeling was expanding to his extremities.
“You would do that for her?”
“I would try.” John chuckled darkly. “Oddly enough, I’ve become quite accustomed to guns aimed at my head and dead bodies. Might be hard to quit straight off.”
Sherlock tried to picture going back to working alone, as he had before. Married to his work. Late nights at the lab. Days without a meal, struggling to stay sober by taking advantage of the highs caused by solving cases. Wasn’t that the essential Sherlock Holmes? The solitary eccentric genius? But the thought was so empty now, missing some underlying, vital aspect that was a part of his present self—like returning to a fetal stage in his humanity.
“And you have no qualms about leaving.” Sherlock made the question into statement. It felt a bit less… weak, that way.
“I’ll miss it, yeah. Living here. But we all have to grow up sometime, Sherlock.”
The remark singed something inside of Sherlock. “And here I was, operating under the impression that we were both fully grown adults.”
“You know what I mean. Living with your best mate. It’s fun and all, but isn’t it a bit of a strange lifestyle for a middle-aged man?”
“I never knew you to have a problem with strange.” Sherlock finally glanced away from the television to focus on John. “I happen to enjoy my lifestyle.”
“Is this your way of asking me not to leave?”
Eye contact was too much. Sherlock returned to the screen. “It doesn’t seem that is an option with your current plans.”
John audibly inhaled and brought his hand to his face, watching Sherlock with renewed interest. “I didn’t think you’d… care, really. Didn’t give it much thought.”
Sherlock decided, then. Years of silence on the subject melted away into pools of potential energy and what-could-be as he reached to put a hand on John’s thigh. “Don’t go. Please.” He pulled his best friend’s hand away from his face and kissed him.
Sherlock did not look up when he heard the seat beside him scrape against the floor as it was pulled away from the table. John sat down and leaned in, smelling faintly of the cologne he wore on special occasions. Inexpensive, but appealing nonetheless. “Having fun?”
“You’re the second person to ask me that in the past hour. Do I appear unamused?”
“Oh. Well… No. Not particularly.” Sherlock could feel the stare and uncomfortable smile. He knew there would be pity in John’s eyes. That night. It surrounded them, blanketing the two with its awkward existence. Sherlock did not want to bring it up and see the regret again. It made the numbness more unbearable.
“The reception is beautiful.” He glanced at the windows. “The stars are a nice touch.”
“Glad you’re still able to appreciate them.” There was a hint of alcohol on John’s breath. Probably not nearly as much as there was on Sherlock’s. John did not need to be drunk to be cheerful tonight.
“I always have been able to appreciate them. Tonight isn’t any different.”
“No. I suppose it’s not.” John lapsed into silence again, finally looking away and sparing Sherlock of the embarrassing pity. Unfortunately, it did not feel any less degrading. “Mary would like a dance with the best man, if you’re up for it.”
The suggestion made Sherlock cringe internally, but he once again recalled his promise. Dancing with the bride would certainly exude an air of enjoyment, much more so than sitting alone at a table. “I’d be glad to, John.” The words echoed his reply to John’s request that he be the best man. Sherlock Holmes, doing things simply to please others. It went against his nature, but it was for John, and John was apparently an exception to everything in his nature.
“Great.” John’s perpetual smile re-emerged, as if the weight had been lifted. Sherlock knew that it most certainly had not, but perhaps they’d grown so proficient at pretending that John could convince himself of anything. Sherlock was not lucky enough to have acquired the same ability. “I’ll go tell her.”
“Sherlock… I can’t.” The words were muffled by the collision of lips and teeth, awkward at first, but growing warmer as the seconds ticked by. John’s protests were drowned out by his leaning inward, such clear consent that Sherlock could not bring himself to stop and listen. He was so sure that John could see the good that he could. He could read the ‘yes’ in John’s voice like text. With every moment, he was convinced more and more that his previous beliefs about John’s attraction were correct. He was kissing his best friend, and John was reciprocating. It was real, not just some fantasy concocted to pass the time between night and day.
He kissed John’s neck, reaching his collar, biting and desperate. The protests had transformed into heavy breathing and… yes, fingers in his hair. Wonderful agreement. Sherlock began to undo John’s shirt, and a hand reached down to assist him. The numbness from earlier disappeared to welcome cathartic heat. He used more teeth, worked a clumsy, animalistic trail down John’s chest, now bare before him. He felt rough hands undressing him as well, but was too busy with his own exploits to help in the task.
Sherlock reached John’s belt buckle, and undoing it brought the unsurprising awareness of the tightness of his pants. Sherlock laid a hand on the definite bulge between John's legs and took a moment to marvel at the turn of events. The hole that John had punched in his universe only minutes before was being stitched back together with every touch of lips on skin. Sherlock could do it--mend everything, perhaps reinforce it, even. Abandon talk of the nightmare of separation. Stay here, at home together.
He moved back upwards towards John’s face, leaving the trousers undone. He brought their lips together once more, hurried. The images of John packing boxes made way for images of nights together, alone in the flat. His mind raced with the infinite possibilities that were morphing into probabilities—the ‘strange lifestyle’ that could remain their refuge and existence. It was the closest thing to pure contentedness that Sherlock could picture, and was still so thrilling that he could not visualize being bored with it if he could only make it last. Their embrace tightened. Definitely John’s doing.
He ran his tongue along John’s jawline and could feel the shiver. Sherlock was frantic, trying to mimic every gesture, synthesize every sensation all at once. He was both lost and determined.
He worked his hands down the accordion of John's ribs, down his abdomen, plotting points. He listened in wonder to the moan as he reached beneath the waistband of John’s pants.
“Yes.” John was groaning as Sherlock grabbed hold of him, working his hand up and down slowly, eyes on John's face an inch away, wide-eyed and cataloging. There was a bit too much friction, but Sherlock would not consider extracting himself to find a lubricant. Besides, John did not seem to mind much, his head now tilted upwards over the arm of the couch. The sight was a wonder for Sherlock, and he felt tautness in his own stomach. The simple contact between them was exhilarating. Possibly, it would be enough. Stay, he thought. Please.
“Sherlock.” Hearing his own name practically panted by John was something foreign, and the speed of his hand increased, stroking John at a feverish pace. The change in motion elicited another moan. “Sherlock. Wait. Oh God. You need to stop.”
Please, no. Not now.
“I can’t. I really can’t."
But the ‘yes’. What happened to the ‘yes’?
Sherlock’s certainty faded, and he stiffened, ceasing his movement.
His voice shook, sounding so desperate that it acquainted Sherlock with a whole new level of his deepest fears. So frantic that pride played no part in them.
John’s hands flew to his own face again, burying Sherlock in the space between his neck and his arm. His breathing was slowing. “I can’t do this to her, Sherlock. I’m in love with her. I’m going to marry her. It isn’t right.”
Wrong. So this had been wrong.
Sherlock suppressed another plea. He would not beg John anymore. This, the possibilities, the fantasies. This wasn’t right in John’s mind. Reality came into focus, and Sherlock was conscious of the embarrassing fact that he still had an unwanted hand down his best friend’s pants. He slowly removed it and extricated himself from John, sitting back on the couch, consciously putting space between them. John’s hands were still blocking his face, closing Sherlock off so completely that he could not read anymore. He would have to take the words as truth. Perhaps John was not okay with the ‘strange’ that Sherlock wanted so badly to exist in.
When the silence reached its climax, John finally revealed his face to Sherlock. It was devoid of emotion—a cold, unfeeling mask that would not look out of place on Sherlock’s own face, but on John’s it practically distorted the air between them. It was like dry ice on bare skin—a frozen fire, blistering every inch of Sherlock.
“We need to forget this.” And there was finality in John’s voice. It was over—no more possibilities. It was all lost, a few years too late. Sherlock would not win. While both knew they could never forget, they would not acknowledge the actuality of this anymore. It would fade into an unfulfilled fiction, and as time passed, it would be altered in shades of black and white until it became a subconscious memory. Sherlock would watch John leave to grow old with Mary. He would return to his familiar alone. He would move on and convince himself that he had never revealed himself so completely—had never begged, and kissed, and mourned, and lost so entirely. He would pretend.
The beat of a waltz pervaded the candlelit ambiance. Sherlock moved in the centre of the dance floor with Mary in his arms. His struggle to remain pleasant had so far been successful. Perhaps his previous efforts really were improving his acting. Couples swayed around them, offering friendly smiles towards the bride. Everybody else seemed quite cued in on the celebratory mood.
“You’re a very skilled dancer.” Mary was radiant in white, and her grin was genuine. She was clearly trying just as hard as Sherlock was. “John tells me you’re also a musician.”
“I would hardly consider myself a musician.” Sherlock made an honest effort to inject flattery into his tone. It was effective enough. “Simply a hobby of mine.”
“Well, I hear that you’re quite good.”
“Perhaps to John’s untrained ear, I am.” Sherlock shifted to an attempt at humour. “To a professional violinist, I would sound like the amateur that I am. I think that John is simply awed by any artistic expression more cultured than the latest action film.”
Mary laughed, throwing her head back and allowing her golden curls to cascade down her back. God, this woman was gracious. “I suppose that I did marry an army doctor. Can’t expect the most refined taste in the world.”
From a few feet away, Sherlock spotted Greg waltzing with an attractive brunette. The detective inspector made eye contact and laughed. “Holmes, when I suggested that you find a date, I didn’t mean the bride.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Glad to hear things have cleared up for you down there, Lestrade. Wouldn’t want tonight to get itchy between you and your partner.” He offered his most infuriating, benevolent smile to the girl in Greg’s arms, whose eyes widened slightly, unsure if she was properly identifying a joke. Greg scowled and pointedly danced away, verbally attempting to assure his date that Sherlock was kidding.
Mary was chuckling again. “That was mean.” Despite her judgement, she was obviously amused.
“Don’t worry. I’m sure he would have messed things up for himself soon enough, anyhow.”
They moved together for a bit. Sherlock could sense Mary’s intense stare, and he did his best to look anywhere else. Before she said it, he knew that the consolation was coming. His participation award in the race for John Watson. “He’s not gone for good, you know.”
“I am perfectly aware.” Sherlock avoided eye contact, as he was not actually certain of that notion.
“You’re welcome to visit at any hour. Really, you are. I would love to see you around more often. It makes him so happy.” She was so sincere. Damn her for not being a terrible person.
Sherlock did not respond, instead resorting to mentally counting his steps. One, two, three. One, two, three. The exercise was quite unnecessary, given his adequate coordination, but it kept him from conveying something that would betray his promise to John.
“I know that he loves you more than me.” The words tumbled from Mary’s mouth, and she still held her gaze on Sherlock, despite his feigned lack of attention. He was sure that she knew nothing of that night, but rather had the observational abilities to see John almost as well as Sherlock could see him. She was offering some kind of consolation. Or perhaps she was simply looking for some herself, in a very wrong place. “I think I can live with that, though. As long as he still loves me. I can handle him loving you more.”
Sherlock held a brief internal debate as to whether or not Mary’s brutal honesty was precisely the worst thing she could be offering him at the moment. Despite it all, he could not even bring himself to hate her. She was simply too genuinely kind to him for that.
“Don’t cut him out, Sherlock. He needs you.” Mary continued on, uncaring about Sherlock’s lack of response. She knew very well that he was listening intently. “You’re not losing him.” Another pause, filled with conversation from the guests around them. “I almost said no, you know. I wasn’t sure that I could deal with it, knowing how he felt about you…”
“But you didn’t.” Sherlock’s words came out harsher than he’d intended.
Mary winced, but still refused to remove her eyes from Sherlock’s face. “No. I didn’t. You’ll have to forgive me for that. I can’t imagine being in your…” Mary did not have to complete the sentence. Her stare finally unglued itself, and she followed the trail of Sherlock’s sight to John, who was seated in a chair across the ballroom, chatting animatedly with his new mother-in-law. They both took a moment to observe his utterly joyful expression. “But I think that you understand,” Mary finished. And Sherlock did indeed understand. He and Mary were permanently bonded by the affection they felt towards John Watson. He could not despise her for saying yes. He himself would certainly jump at the chance to secure his own strange version of a lifetime with his best friend. Why should Mary be any different?
Distantly, he heard the song draw to a close. His hands fell to his side, gently releasing Mary. She strained upwards to plant a soft kiss on his cheek. “Thank you for dancing with me. I know that you did not want to. You’re a good man, Sherlock Holmes.” Mary then left Sherlock rooted to the spot, still watching John. His best friend looked up and offered him a quick smile. The numbness had not wholly left him, but there was no longer so much vacancy. There was something—something that Sherlock was not sure would ever be enough. However, there was a chance that, like Mary, he could get by. Neither one had gotten exactly what they wanted, but then there was no way that they both could. He would forever share with Mary the sting of pragmatic reality, even if his situation offered less comfort than hers, because that was just the way that things were.
So Sherlock stood quiet on the dance floor, watching the gorgeous bride seek victorious solace in the arms of her husband. And he pretended. And he had another glass of champagne. And eventually he danced more. Tonight was a night for celebration, after all.