I want to splay you out and cut you was something John said back when they started all this, and that’s the scene they’re playing now, on the bare boards of the living room floor. Sherlock is naked, his arms and legs stretched to their fullest extent, shining with sweat and a dozen thin streaks of blood as he twists against the rope binding his wrists and ankles to discreet bolts they have set in the floor. John, kneeling beside him stripped to the waist, is using a sterilised artist’s scalpel to draw blood and a pen with a broken end for scoring rougher lines, deep pink and speckled with shreds of epidermis. Sherlock shudders and pants, and when John raises bloody fingers to Sherlock’s lips he licks them clean then lets his head fall back to the Union Jack pillow, staring up with a dazed heat.
‘Fuck, pain looks good on you,’ murmurs John, admiring.
‘You – pretty good at it,’ replies Sherlock unsteadily.
What a talent for a doctor, thinks John, and for a fleeting moment he’s uneasy. But watching Sherlock take pain for him, gradually slipping into altered consciousness, is endlessly erotic.
‘I’m a bad man,’ John says, jokingly, and drags the sharpened pen across Sherlock’s ribs. ‘You’re just too much of a masochist to notice.’
Sherlock closes his eyes and moans, but when they open again their focus has sharpened. ‘You think?’ he asks, and his voice, if not normal, has a note of steely intent.
Shit, thinks John. He messed that up – Sherlock may not have many insecurities, but John apparently just managed to stomp on one of them
‘I make my peace with it,’ John says, which isn’t a lie, it’s what he does some nights when he’s alone, wanking himself silly over some fantasy and then wondering about himself afterwards. ‘And right now you are going to shut up and keep still.’
The order works, perhaps because John has picked up the scalpel again. With his other hand he lifts Sherlock’s cock by the tip, and runs the cool blade up the underside of its shaft. Sherlock moans gently, and John feels his heart clench with…
With a knock and a cheery ‘Oo-ooh!’ Mrs Hudson enters the room.
‘John Watson, you gave me such a shock!’ is all she says to him when he pounds downstairs past the dropped cake and finds her leaning against the wall in the ground floor corridor. The look she shoots him is raw and terrible, but she hasn’t screamed, so it’s not absolutely as bad as it could be. Is it?
‘He likes it,’ insists John. That sounds ridiculous – he’s justifying himself like some abuser – but if he thinks of her seeing Sherlock, and the cuts, and the scalpel and the bondage… oh god, she must think him a monster.
‘John, dear,’ says Mrs Hudson quietly. She moves to take his hand, but it’s smeared with blood and pre-come… so she doesn’t. ‘If I’d come in to find Sherlock kissing a nice girl in a pretty frock, now that would have been really shocking.’ She presses her hand to her neck, and nervously massages it. ‘I mean, he’s obviously, well, homosexual, isn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ John has to agree. He seems to have wandered into some parallel universe where his landlady just saw him slicing patterns into his flatmate’s skin yet apparently has something else on her mind. Because that’s the vibe he’s getting, heavily. ‘I… aren’t you upset?’
Mrs Hudson sighs. She looks old and tired, but she meets his eyes.
‘Oh, John, it’s like this. Your generation didn’t invent sex, but in my day, if you liked it, well … nothing so extreme as…’ She flutters both hands and her gaze flickers upwards, indicating the scene they’ve just come from. ‘… but a bit rough, then you couldn’t really go around trying things out like young people now. So you might end up married to a violent man, thinking that’s what you wanted. And you’re a dark horse, John Watson, I can certainly see that, but you’re not a man like my husband.’ She wags a finger at him. A finger that’s shaking slightly. ‘I can tell these things.’
John is silent. He leans against the bannisters, and lets his head spin as hard as it wants to, because at the same time he is taking in what his landlady has just told him.
‘Does Sherlock know?’ John asks her. He’s not sure if he means about the abusive marriage, or the overlap between Sherlock’s and Mrs Hudson’s bedroom tastes.
‘I don’t think so.’ Mrs Hudson shakes her head. ‘Of course he’s very sharp, but there’s some things you young men just don’t want to think about, not when it’s a lady my age.’ And there’s actually a twinkle in her voice, if a wobbly one.
‘I won’t tell him,’ John promises.
‘Oh, you better had – he’ll be worrying he’s upset me, otherwise. And you’ll never hear the end of it if he thinks you’re hiding something.’
John thinks the second of those two statements is the more likely to be true, but he nods at both.
‘Now, we’ve all had a bit of shock,’ continues Mrs Hudson. ‘So shall I bring you up some tea? Just this once.’
They stare at each other. John spots the moment at which it occurs to Mrs Hudson that she might not want to go upstairs again just yet…
And he is saved from having to say anything further by a sudden outbreak of thumping. A still tied-up, kink-deprived, utterly oblivious-to-social-niceties Sherlock is drumming his fists and feet on the floor.
‘I am going to kill him,’ John promises, and takes the stairs two at a time.
Sherlock doesn’t badger John with questions as the bindings are undone. He accepts some of the aftercare John tries to give him, but he seems detached and watchful.
‘Didn’t I ask you to lock the door?’ says John, coiling rope.
‘Unnecessary.’ Sherlock is disdainful, or trying to sound that way. ‘If Mrs Hudson is foolish enough to walk into our flat unannounced, we are not responsible. I take it she survived the experience?’
John nods, takes a deep breath and makes a mental note to lock doors himself in future. But he’s got bigger things to worry about right now. Once the ropes are tidied away and they’re sitting on the sofa, Sherlock in his dressing gown and John still in jeans, John asks:
‘How long was Mrs Hudson married?’
‘Thirty years,’ says Sherlock – and a second glance at John is apparently enough for him to fill in the gaps. His eyes light up and he says, ‘Ah! I never considered the dynamic between them at the time: it wasn’t relevant. How very interesting.’ He steeples his fingers under his chin, leaning his head back against the wall.
‘Interesting?’ snaps John. ‘Thirty years of abuse when all she wanted was a bit of slap and tickle?’ He throws back his own head. ‘Oh god, I’m not going to stop having sex just because it worries the landlady, but I can’t be blasé about all this.’
‘Blasé?’ responds Sherlock coldly. ‘I got her out of the marriage.’
‘Granted.’ John knows that, although he did need the reminder of just how much Mrs Hudson owes Sherlock. ‘And I probably shouldn’t care what people think, but… do you never have doubts? That we might go, I don’t know, a bit too far offshore?’ Now he’s coming out with stuff he doesn’t really believe himself – but some part of him must be worried about it.
While John was speaking, Sherlock leant back against the sofa arm and drew his knees up to his chin. He regards John over them as if they were fence pickets and says slowly and almost formally, ‘I do not possess and will never develop either the inclination or the ability to sham normal.’
‘I know that,’ says John, feeling guilty. His instincts have got so tangled inside him that he can’t say or even quite think what he really wants to. He feels a familiar fear: if you have something this good it will sooner or later be taken away. Is that what’s happening?
Then Sherlock nods his head towards the staircase. A second later, John hears the footsteps himself.
‘I’m just off out to my social night, boys!’ comes Mrs Hudson’s voice, bright and almost free of tremors. John can also hear her scraping up dropped Victoria sponge. ‘Have a lovely time – if that’s what you want. I’m afraid the cake’s gone for a burton but I’m leaving your tea out here on the landing.’
She clips off downstairs in her kitten heels.
John goes to get the tea, and all the time he’s thinking. It’s Monday; Mrs Hudson’s social night is usually Wednesday. She came back up here for another reason. She wanted to show them that whatever was done to her, she won’t take it out on Sherlock and him. You can’t undo suffering, but you can choose not to pay it forwards.
‘Sherlock, are you definitely OK with what I do to you?’ John asks before he can chicken out of it. ‘I mean, hurting you so much you scream? Drawing blood?’
Sherlock regards John curiously. Then the barrier of his knees divides, and he reaches out to take John’s hand and place it over one of the cuts on his chest. ‘Controlled periods of intense distraction are ultimately beneficial to my ability to concentrate on work,’ he says gravely. ‘Also, fucking hell yes.’ Then he raises his mug. ‘To Mrs Hudson,’ he suggests as they clink. ‘And to our forthcoming resumption of gloriously depraved acts.’
It takes John an extra cup of tea and an episode of Eastenders, but two hours later Sherlock is crying out under the strokes of the crop. John pauses in the beating to kiss his way up his lover’s sweaty back, then Sherlock cranes around and their lips press together.
John may never understand himself completely, but he loves these moments when Sherlock is hurting and they both take flight, sharing everything good between them.
He is not a man like Mr Hudson. That assurance is a gift.
He passes it on.