Sherlock was staring at John. Not through him, for once—though his constant transparency made it impossible to avoid—but at him. At the turn-down of John’s collar, where he’d missed a button he usually fastened. Where the shirt gaped and John grimaced, clearly yearning for the undershirt he’d taken to layering underneath his clothes. He hadn’t quite gotten back into the swing of London yet; to him, it was still too cold. He’d only abandoned his jumper because the day had been unseasonably hot. He was regretting his lassitude now, Sherlock knew. The world’s only consulting detective tended to have that effect on people.
John reached up to tug at the spread of his collar, licking his lips with a self-conscious air. His anxiety wasn’t unfounded. Sherlock followed the motion of his hands where they failed to hide the evidence. Partially obscured by the shirt’s ghastly fabric, a dark green mark wound toward the hollow of John throat. The shape of it was distinct and the colour vibrant though Sherlock doubted he could see the whole of it. It clashes with his hands, he observed, noting how John shifted as though embarrassed at his oversight. Sherlock disregarded his discomfiture. The unidentified mark twisted from sight at the clavicle. John moved to right his placket as another burst of colour caught Sherlock’s gaze. Below the vanishing tendril, a rich blue streak smudged to burnished gold between the buttons, trailing down his ribcage to settle above his navel in some indefinite form. This was all in plain sight, laid nearly bare for Sherlock alone to see.
“You have tattoos.”
John drummed his fingers. John narrowed his eyes. Sherlock continued to wait. John sighed. “One there, a large one.”
Sherlock’s quiescent interest in the Case of John Watson reared its head. “You’ve never mentioned it.”
“You’ve never asked after my distinguishing marks.”
“I assumed you’d mention one quite so prominent.” Sherlock spun the impressions about in his head in search of a fit.
John shrugged. “Didn’t see a need myself.”
Sherlock laced his fingers together and watched John breathe. What else have you kept from me? “I see.”
Written in response to this BBC Sherlock kink meme prompt. Posted here because I got way sick of character limits. I expect this fic to be around 25 to 30k. I've got 22,000 written right now and I'm hoping to wrap it up soon.
Also, no worries about Stitches & Threads, I'm working on that as well. Additionally, I have another Sherlock fic that's still in drafts, but is nearly
25k 31k42k. Whee!
Chapter 2: Skin of an Ordinary Man
Sherlock is terrible at boundaries, even his own. John is better. They compare scars and notes.
Ao3 ate some of the text, but I tried to restore it. Sorry if it read as choppy at first!
They had survived a small London war together by the time the subject of inked skin arose again. Sherlock had not asked to see John’s markings in more detail before, thinking it both irrelevant and liable to end in unnecessary awkwardness. That and John hadn’t offered. The message was clear, even to Sherlock.
That consideration didn’t survive his next black mood.
At some point, one point, some day when Sherlock’s head was turned for lack of motivation to look at anything at all, John had slipped away. He’d come back with a stiff arm but a straight back. He hadn’t shuffled up the steps and had prepared the tea his flatmate would go on to ignore with steady hands. Sherlock noticed immediately and his mood receded to return another day. As before, John made no mention of it and was far more diligent in concealing it from easy view.
He favoured his left arm for a week after, but he didn’t complain. The bandage was stark white and fresh each time Sherlock saw it. He never caught him mid-change, only arriving in time to see John lay down the final, sealing strip of medical adhesive tape. John was oddly protective of the mark, unwilling to show it or describe it the one time Sherlock had thought to ask, leaving the detective with only his deductions for company on the matter.
He’s undergone this procedure more than once in the past, as indicated by his ready ease with the aftercare regimen. Perhaps in some excess of the one first observed, then. Sherlock hadn’t noted any body modification beyond the initial discovery, but John was hardly one to bare his form for the world to see.
It occurred to the detective that he’d never seen anything so pedestrian as the skin of his flatmate’s bare wrists. Long sleeves and high collars kept him hidden from the most interested of eyes. He could be covered from neck to toe in ink and no one would see. For reasons he purposefully ignored and deleted, this annoyed Sherlock to no end. Intrigued him as well.
A secret hidden in plain sight but for a hideous 1300 yards of yarn and a pair of sensible shoes. How loathsome. Sherlock couldn’t bear it.
He flipped onto his side to watch John. His sleeve was pushed up, leaving his left forearm uncovered save for the large white bandage obscuring the bulk of it from sight. “You have other tattoos.”
John nodded and yawned between sips of tea. “I’ve mentioned that.”
“You never show them.”
“They aren’t for other people.”
“I’m not other people.”
Sherlock scoffed. “Nothing’s private.”
“These are.” He rolled down his sleeve with an air of finality. “There are plenty of things you don’t want me to know about you, so I don’t ask.”
“You’re asking me not to ask.”
“I’m not asking anything. I’m letting you know I won’t answer.”
Sherlock considered letting the matter lie. He considered it, then compared it to the fathomless maw of boredom that would devour him whole if he tried. The contest was hardly worth noting.
“Is it your family’s coat of arms?” John was just sentimental enough for it to have been.
John sighed, but responded regardless. “You mean the Watson tartan?” Sherlock nodded. “No. Well, not solely.” Sentimental to be sure, but interesting in quantity if not quality.
“The emblem for RAMC?”
John hummed. “It’s in there.”
Sherlock eyed John’s torso, trying to visualize what images the man would willingly have branded across his person. “How large is it? What areas does it cover? How long has it taken you?” He wasn’t bored now.
“Over a decade.” He seemed oddly proud of his proclamation, rather than put out at Sherlock’s prying. Sherlock was fascinated.
“You won’t even consider allowing me to see you?”
“You see me every day.”
“Not this part of you.”
“This part isn’t for you.”
Sherlock frowned. He didn’t like the idea that there were parts of John he wasn’t allowed access to. “Then who is it for?”
“And your lovers?” May as well be all of the Greater London Area.
“If I trust them. Contrary to popular belief, Sherlock, I don’t get my leg over every person who shows an interest.”
Sherlock ignored that, knowing his response trended toward ‘not quite true.’ “So, in order for you to show your tattoos to someone, you have to trust them?” He wasn’t willing to consider why that only further offended his sensibilities.
“You don’t trust me?” That would never do. “Why?”
John squirmed in his chair. “I trust you, but this is difficult.”
“I told you about the drugs, John – everything about the drugs!” A long, protracted conversation that need never be repeated. Flatmates should know the worst about each other.
“I know.” His voice was small when he spoke, and regretful. Sherlock was unmoved. Completely. He got up lest he give in.
John fidgeted with his cuffs. “I really don’t do this.”
“And I don’t have friends. Yet, here you are.”
“Way to be a manipulative git,” he scowled and began rolling up his right sleeve—not the new one, then. “I got this after Afghanistan. Figured I might as well use the space since I wasn’t getting back into uniform anytime soon.”
Sherlock stepped across the table with ease before dropping to a crouch for a much closer look at the newly exposed limb. He was surprised to see the re-creation of a map on John’s skin. No, make that two maps. It was Afghanistan and England intertwined, Kandahar over London, road ways over transit lines; Sherlock felt for a moment as if he was in both places at once. He couldn’t resist tracing the image. John twitched in place, fixing Sherlock with a glance more scathing than ‘a bit not good.’
“You can’t expect me not to touch, John. I have to catalogue this.” His fingers followed to where country green overlaid mountain pass, up to John’s elbow where it ran hiding underneath his sleeve. He scowled at the fabric in the way. He wanted, no, he needed to see it all, all of John, all the parts of himself he refused to share with anyone else. The void in his knowledge of this man felt suddenly indescribably large. He couldn’t bear it. He moved his hands to John’s buttons, but other man’s grip caught him short. He pulled against the hold without success. “I need to see.”
“And I said no. I said it twice and now I’ll say it again: No, Sherlock. Those are not for you, not for your eyes, or hands, or whatever else you’re considering using on me. They’re mine.”
Sherlock pouted. “What do I need to do to convince you to trust me?”
“Nothing, absolutely nothing. I trust you with my life.”
“So you do, but not with your skin.”
“I only trust my artist with that. It isn’t personal.”
Sherlock burst into motion, rising to his feet to pace an unsteady beat. “Of course it is! You’re my blogger. I’m supposed to know all there is to know about you.”
“You know what’s important.”
“What if you vanish? How will I be able to identify your body when it’s found.”
“Let’s just stick to hoping I don’t disappear, shall we?”
“That’s a fool’s errand, John. The likelihood that you won’t be abducted before month’s end defies probability.”
“And I suppose asking you to avoid upsetting new and more terrifying criminals would be asking too much.”
Sherlock didn’t understand the question and, thus, refused to respond to it.
“You’re being unreasonable, John.”
Sherlock pouted again.
“That won’t work on me. I’ve refused sweeter faces than yours. You haven’t got a chance.”
“What if I showed you my scars?” They were many, but he wasn’t ashamed. He’d come out on the other side of them improved and with an increased tolerance for mind-altering substances.
While continuing to look obstinate, John did begin to look interested. “You have scars? What kind?”
“Naturally. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.” Sherlock began to unbutton his purple shirt with aplomb.
“Hold on a minute. You don’t have to show me anything. Those are your scars. I have to earn the right to them; you can’t just give them away.”
Sherlock huffed. “I can and I will. Besides, it’s you.” John was worthy of these kinds of confidences; he had earned this long ago. Sherlock wasn’t even nervous. The silk shirt slipped easily down his shoulders, where he caught it to pitch it toward the sofa. “Most are largely self-explanatory.” He pointed out a jagged scar on his right triceps bracchii. “A serial murderer I encountered in Battersea had a preference for serrated blades.” A well-healed infinity symbol burned just above his hip. “It would surprise you how cruel public school children can be.”
John reached up to trace the scar. “Little shits, weren’t they?”
“Quite. That was the first time Mycroft wielded his influence on my behalf. I dare say that’s where he got a taste for it.”
“Not surprising if this is what goes on.” John continued to absently rub at the mark as though a simple touch could make it go away. Sherlock was oddly comforted.
“Don’t let him hear you say that or we’ll never be rid of him.”
John shook his head and pulled away, seeming to return to himself. “I could think of worse things.” Sherlock bared his teeth at the very idea of Baker Street overrun by his brother’s smug presence with even greater frequency. Talking of things he couldn’t bear.
“In any event, that’s one of the first wounds of my career. I must admit to a strange fondness for the thing.” He shrugged in response to John’s quizzical expression. “No one wants to hear the truth as much as they claim.” With wandering fingers, he sought out the clean lateral incisions decorating his wrist. John’s eyes followed where touch tread. “Adolescence was a trial. Mycroft has matching ones, I believe, but he rarely sports short sleeves, so no one knows.” Save John, that is. Now, John knew.
“It was rough for both of you, then.”
“I imagine things were more difficult for him as he didn’t have an elder brother to smooth his way.”
John curled his hand around Sherlock’s elbow, head tilted to spy the more incriminating scars therein. “Trouble didn’t stop there, I suppose.”
“Afraid not.” Sherlock stared down at the faded track marks littering his forearm amid the slashes. “Addiction is more trouble than it’s worth. I thought it would help keep away the boredom between cases. I thought it would help me focus on the details. Things were so clear in the beginning. I could see beyond the statistical white noise to come to my conclusions. How could I possibly give that up?”
“Why did you?”
“It began to impact the work. People don’t hire consulting detectives being routinely arrested for possession. Lestrade wouldn’t allow me to consult as long as I was using. I’m not naive enough to think his directive was free of Mycroft’s influence, but I would like to believe he’s yet to regret his decision.”
“So you got clean, went from cocaine junkie to adrenalin junkie. I suppose that’s progress.” He made his customary sounds of empathy. Sherlock noted it immediately and realized he should have known all along.
“And you, John? What was your gateway drug?”
John hummed. “What wasn’t?” He didn’t appear compelled to share.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Medical practitioners boast one of the highest rates of illicit drug use among professionals, though they usually demonstrate a preference for prescription narcotics rather than street fare.”
“You assume I was a doctor when I started.”
Mindless of his half-dressed state, Sherlock climbed onto the armrest of John’s armchair. John, for his part, merely shifted aside to make room for his hips and knees. “Tell me.” What he meant was show me, but it was too soon to push. He wanted to see John’s track marks and burns and pupils blown open on a high. They were the same in this way; he wanted, needed to see how.
“Harry had friends with vices and they liked to share. It isn’t as though she was keeping an eye on me or anything. A bit of heroin or coke, depending on the day. Marijuana is an old friend, and don’t think we don’t visit.” Sherlock met him, self-satisfied smirk for self-deprecating grin.
“You do have keen eyesight than one might expect for a man of your age.”
John gave him a dubious look of gratitude. “Thanks, I think. LSD was one bad trip after another back then. Ecstasy was...interesting, to say the least. I can’t help thinking Harry got lucky to get away with only alcohol dogging her heels.”
“I assume you weren’t as lucky.”
“I wanted to be a doctor. I had to be.”
“You’re a great deal more honourable than the most of your colleagues, then.”
“I can’t save lives with my head in the clouds. That’s why I became a doctor; everything else is secondary.”
John huffed but didn’t outright refuse, rolling his shoulders to dissipate the tension he carried there. His fingers hovered above his pearlescent buttons uncertainly, as though he truly doubted what he was about to share, as though he doubted it was right.
“John, if you aren’t inclined to show me, I won’t force you.” Sherlock utilized the best of his acting ability to sound convincing.
John continued to be unconvinced. “Liar.”
“I mean it. If this is of value to you, then I’ll simply have to earn the right to see you this way.”
“And I’ll earn the right to see you.”
“You already have.”
John tipped his head back and forth in contemplation before beginning to pop the buttons of his shirt at speed. Like ripping a sticking plaster free.
Sherlock soon found himself treated to an inked and scarred tableau that only a soldier could love. A soldier and a consulting detective, that is. It was war and an idyllic love. As Sherlock adored London, so John adored Kandahar, enough to etch his devotion into his flesh. Conversely, he had Scotland, specifically Edinburgh, over his heart. A broad, thick rope of green ink sloped off into John’s prohibited sleeve. Sherlock filed the fragment for later perusal. He would see John like this again.
“The family home. I grew up there until we moved when I was eleven.”
“You don’t speak with an accent.”
“Just because I dunnae, does na’ mean I cannae.” John finished with a wink.
Sherlock leaned away. “Oh.” Then, he leaned closer to John’s face. “Interesting.” John kept secrets and did it well, had kept them from the first day and left Sherlock none the wiser. While infuriating—because Sherlock needed to know—it made him all the more captivating. John was nothing if not endlessly captivating. And to think I missed all this.
Sherlock shimmied down to the floor to better survey John’s abdomen. He pursed his lips pensively. Bones, there are bones. False ribs and a ticking clock. What does the clock mean?
“Not nearly.” He bound up to retrieve a magnifying glass from the desk before dropping back to his place between John’s knees. John’s breathing gave the illusion that the clock quaked with every tick. “Why the clock?”
“You tell me.”
Sherlock spared a mere moment to glare up his inexplicably amused flatmate. “Need more data.”
“I’m bare-chested in front of you. How is that not enough?”
“I believe we’ve covered this, several times, in fact. I’m a detective, not a mind reader. I can only deduce facts when there is evidence to point the way.”
“So deduce. You’ve got evidence, Sherlock. You’ve got me,” John said with a decidedly off inflection. Sherlock allowed his gaze to wander back to John’s eyes. His look was steady and utterly faithful. Sherlock looked away. “You’ve got everything you need right here. Tell me why.”
“ ‘Inesperata fl....’” He scowled. “It stops.”
“Bullets do have a way of mucking up body art, don’t they?” Despite the tension in his posture, John had a demonstrated talent for playing blasé.
Sherlock outlined the script of what lettering he could read amid the satiny carnage of his shoulder wound. He was a glorious wreck, flesh knotted and most probably numb, designs of days’ efforts obliterated, never to be recovered. He wondered if John remembered what had painted his skin, if he felt the absence of it like holes in his chosen armour. “What did this say?”
“Contrary to popular belief, I don’t know everything.”
“You didn’t look up the Watson clan motto? For shame.”
Sherlock bared his teeth. John smiled. They were evenly matched.
The translation curled into Sherlock’s thoughts by rote, It has flourished beyond expectations. “What has flourished?”
John raised his shoulders in uninspired bafflement. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Sherlock levied an amused brow. “There’s no need to be insulting, John.”
“Piss off, you great prat.”
“Touchy, aren’t we?”
“Nosy flatmates from hell can do that to a man.”
Sherlock poked John’s navel in retaliation. John squeaked and coloured, shamefacedly. “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“ ‘Course you wouldn’t.” John pulled his shirt closed and began to button it, his relief palpable in the relaxing furrow in his brow.
Sherlock propped himself up, an arm on each of John’s thighs, and his fingers clasped underneath his chin. “I don’t know why you’re bothering, I’m simply going to have you undress again.” John paused, then carried on covering himself, all the most remarkable bits concealed by a cheap cotton blend Sherlock wouldn’t consider fit to wipe his dripping nose. “You’ve put years and, I don’t doubt, a small fortune into these, I don’t understand why you go to such lengths to keep them covered.”
“Remember the part where I mentioned they’re for me?” Sherlock scoffed in response, unimpressed. John glowered. “They still are.”
Sherlock pulled himself away, sensing John’s imminent sulk in 5...4...3...
The doctor got up and stalked from the room before Sherlock reached one.
Sherlock infiltrated John’s favoured chair, slouching down to think. “Now, what can the clock mean?”
He was still considering the answer to that question when John came down the following morning.
John passed him in shuffling near-silence, rubbing his eyes clear with the heels of his hands on his way to the kitchen. Sherlock sprung up to follow his barefooted clobber. John was reaching into the cupboard for breakfast cereal when Sherlock thought to ask, “Why the clock?”
John didn’t drop the box on his head, but it was a near thing. “Do we have to do this now?”
“‘Why put off till tomorrow’—etc, etc, etc. I’d rather know now.”
“And I’d rather you never know. You aren’t great with confidences.”
Sherlock glared at the top of John’s downturned head. “What exactly is that supposed to mean?”
“It means....I think I said what it means, actually.”
Sherlock beat his fist on the kitchen-cum-lab table. “You said that showing someone your body meant that you trusted them.”
“I did, and I do.” John went in search of a clean bowl and, failing to discover one, dumped out a necrotizing flesh experiment Sherlock was terribly attached to. He held his tongue on the matter mightily.
“Then, what’s this about?”
“Nothing. You’ve seen what you wanted to see. I kept you from being bored for a few minutes. Game’s over.”
“This isn’t a game.”
“Everything’s a game for you.” He scrubbed his ill-gotten bowl thoroughly in scalding water, glaring at Sherlock as he went.
“That doesn’t sound like trust, John.”
“No, Sherlock, it sounds like reality.”
Sherlock pursed his lips, tapping his fingertips on top of the refrigerator in agitation. “Do you have more?” At John’s perplexed look, he barely withheld a sneer. “Tattoos, John. Aside from those you’ve already shown me.”
“I don’t see how that’s important.”
“We’ll take that as a yes, then.” Sherlock rubbed his hands together excitedly before standing back to inspect John further. “All right. Your chest, abdomen, and forearms are covered. Logically, one could expect corresponding marking on your back.” John stayed mum. “Tell me I’m right, John. We both know I’m right.”
“Not in the mood to massage your enormous ego this morning. Try me again later.” John took his dubious cereal to the sitting room and tuned into the morning paper while tuning Sherlock out.
Sherlock didn’t care to be ignored.
John didn’t care to care about his feelings on the issue.
Sherlock didn’t care to care about his morning paper either, tearing it from John’s grasp and tossing it aside to make room for himself. John’s countenance upon staring down at him was far from indulgent. Sherlock would go so far as to say he could see ill humour shooting like steam out of John’s ears. But he still managed to get the first and eightieth word:
“You have the Rod of Aesculapius tattooed somewhere. The most likely areas are the left or right bicep; less likely places include the calf or scapula. You mentioned delaying extending your tattoos to the forearms due to uniform regulation. There’s no such regulation forbidding them in those areas. It would have also served as a symbol of solidarity with fellow members of the Medical Corps. You would have felt obliged to place it where it could be easily seen yet easily and quickly concealed when necessary. Conclusion: an asklepian on your left or right bicep above short-sleeve length.” He sat in wait for John’s verdict.
“You are insufferable.”
Predictable. “I’ve heard that one, try another.”
“Hmm, no, I think that one best suits.”
Sherlock flapped an arm in blunt dismissal. “The asklepian, John. Tell me if I’m right about the asklepian.”
“I don’t recall mentioning one of those.”
He’s being wilfully obtuse. “You didn’t need to mention it. It was obvious, predictable as you are. The carer, the doctor, the soldier with such a penchant for sentimental behaviour it may well qualify as a psychological compulsion. It would hardly come as a surprise if you have the name and birthday of your first serious girlfriend on you as well.”
John went still under Sherlock’s arms. Sherlock felt a genuinely amused chortle building at the centre of his chest.
“Oh. No. John, tell me you didn’t.”
The good doctor squirmed, ears going dusky at the tips. “I was young.”
“I should hope so. This, I have to see.” He made for John’s sleep shirt collar only to be evaded with impressive agility and care given Sherlock’s position at his feet. John staged a retreat worthy of the French at their best and dodged Sherlock’s parry easily enough.
“Nothing to see. Gone, now. I’ll be heading out. Work and all that.” John slowed only long enough to dump his bowl in the sink for later washing. His dressing grown whirled a windstorm in his wake, something he regularly took care to avoid in deference to Sherlock’s delicate filing system. That he failed to do so said a great deal, indeed.
Sherlock observed his departure through a narrowed gaze. This was another of John’s ineffectual avoidance techniques. He had to know that, should Sherlock’s curiosity move him, he would happily trail John to the clinic to continue his interrogation. The consulting detective had yet to meet a social convention he couldn’t pummel into submission. This one wasn’t going to be the first.
Preoccupied, Sherlock dug a tattered box of patches from the sofa’s depths to apply one to his arm. Inadequate. He applied another. Next, one more. John would disapprove of four. Sherlock rewound his thinking to take stock. Why should I be concerned that John disapproves?
He slapped on a last to prove that he could. His mind sang in a high-pitched key, but his body rebelled, extremities going stiff with chill, his stomach churning for England, and his heart racing toward Kent. John was right. Imagine that.
Sherlock picked off the additional nicotine plasters in time to lie sturdy for John’s habitual goodbye.
“I plan to be home by six, but I may stay after closing to catch up on charting. Text me if you want me to bring back takeaway.”
Sherlock sighed agreeably.
John merely sighed. “Be good.”
He shut the front door on Sherlock’s derisive response. Likely for the best. Sherlock needed to think.
John was a four-patch problem where Sherlock could only tolerate three. This calls for experimentation.
Chapter 3: The Heartlines of London, the Roadways of Kandahar
Sherlock does not get the answer he wants, though he does get an answer.
When John returned from escorting out his last patient of the long day, Sherlock was lying on his exam table locked in vain contention with a magazine crossword puzzle. ‘1980s’ sun-drenched crime procedural, starring Don Johnson.’ “Does anyone with an IQ above 90 care about this sort of thing?”
“If you knew how many people proudly told me the answer to that one today alone, you wouldn’t have bothered with that question.”
Sherlock tossed the rag aside to give John his full attention. “You aren’t surprised to see me.”
“I’m surprised you weren’t my first patient of the day. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were making progress on your journey toward becoming a real boy.”
Sherlock made no attempt to translate his flatmate’s nonsense into English. “Mmm, yes. In more interesting news, take off your shirt.”
“That’s funny, and no.”
“You tried that.”
“Yes, it worked well last time. Merited another try.” Sherlock lowered his head to look up through his lashes, a tactic shown to have a 73% chance of success. “Please?”
John sighed. “I have to applaud your audacity, if nothing else.”
Sherlock gave up all pretence of subterfuge. “You’ve said I should be more polite. Why should I bother if so-called ‘good manners’ aren’t rewarded?”
“Are you ransoming your future behaviour on my shirt? Is that seriously what you’re doing?”
“When you put it like that, I almost feel guilty.”
“No, you don’t.”
“You’re right, I don’t. Shirt?”
“You’ve got a photographic memory. Why exactly do you need to see me topless again?”
“Not for the parts I’ve already seen, for the parts I haven’t. It’s for your own good, anyway. You’re like a frog in hot water, the more you show me the more comfortable you feel. Show me everything and you’ll trust me with anything.”
“The way you trust me?” Even Sherlock couldn’t be sure there was genuine doubt there.
“Yes.” That was no question at all.
“I ought to be more bothered that you keep taking advantage of my sentimental nature to get your way.” John shrugged off his lab coat to hang it on back of his door.
Sherlock shed his Belstaff as well, laying it across the lab table as it was too heavy for the cheap peg on the door. “You’ve grown accustomed to it. Whether your realize it or not, you’ve already decided how far I’m allowed to push. You’ll stop me before then.”
“I don’t know why I bother thinking with you around. You seem to have me all figured out.”
“If I had you all figured out, I assure you we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“Please, don’t mock me with what might have been.” John’s expression was pained.
Sherlock’s mouth twitched against his will. “Cheeky.”
John unbuttoned his cardigan, then began work on his heinous green plaid button-up. “That isn’t what that analogy means, by the way.”
Feeling momentarily distracted, Sherlock was slower to catch on. “What?”
“That analogy. The frog in boiling water doesn’t realize he’s being boiled to death, because the water begins at room temperature before slowly rising to a lethal level.”
“Your point?” Not that he cared. Another undershirt, John? What could you possibly need with that many layers in spring?
“The point is, you’ve just said that I’ll confide in you unto my death. Not exactly the kind of image to inspire a great deal of trust.”
“Really, John? I thought we were beyond relying on facile literary devices to communicate.”
“Suit yourself. Facile or not, you were still wrong.”
Sherlock scoffed. “You glory in these little victories, don’t you?”
“Every single one.” John stood in his unbuttoned upperwear, looking all out of sorts, if largely covered.
“And yet you’re still dressed. I won’t be distracted by what you believe passes for wit for much longer.”
John mumbled ineffectually, scratching his stubbled jaw, “He insults my intellect but likes my body. Mum warned me about blokes likes you.”
Sherlock rapidly calculated the speed required to relieve John of both the shirt and cardie without incurring some kind of injury. His chances were middling. Best to leave that for a last resort, then.“Perhaps you should have listened to her.”
“What would be the fun in that?”
“No idea.” Sherlock rolled his eyes at the easy inaction that descended over them. “Do you plan to keep that on for the rest of the evening? My vision may be exceptional, but it hardly qualifies as the ‘X-ray’ variety.”
“See, this is why people talk.”
“Picked up on that,” John retorted with his typical ill humour on the matter.
“You worry too much what others say.” Sherlock leaned heavily against the side of the examination table, struck by a revelation. Oh. He felt disappointment though he couldn’t have given quantifiable cause. “That’s why you cover yourself. You’re afraid of what others might say if they saw you. You’re a doctor, a soldier, a hero.” Sherlock sliced through his modest stutter: “No, no, shut up. You are, you are and you know it. You’re a hero and a healer and you worry that people won’t respect this version of you, so you conceal it; you hide in plain sight.”
John clenched his jaw, square hands tight fists at his side.
Sherlock stood up erect and looming over his friend. “You really are an idiot if you think it’s what’s on your skin that would have others turning their backs on you.”
“I told you, my tats are private.”
“You’ve shown me a portion of them.”
“Yeah, like an idiot frog with second-degree burns.”
“Funny, but that doesn’t answer my question. You’re afraid that others won’t respect you. That doesn’t explain why you think I won’t.”
John dropped his shoulders and inclined his chin. He faced Sherlock the way he might have faced certain death.
“Don’t make me into the enemy, John. I’m the best friend you’ve got.”
“Not if you don’t walk away from this, you aren’t.” His expression remained insufferably stoic.
“As a locked-room homicide.” Sherlock might have pushed harder had he not recognized that mule-stubbornness in the set of John’s mouth or that desperate micro-spasm underneath the eye that warned he would press on at his peril. Others he’d cared for had abandoned him for less.
“Fine. For the record, locked-room crimes aren’t nearly so serious as you seem to think.” Sherlock turned to pluck up his greatcoat. “I’m starved. How’s Greek strike you?” He returned to his previous position to find John unmoved, save for the cautious gratitude adorning his features. “Spare me. I haven’t spontaneously developed a conscience,I’m merely unwilling to suffer through days of poorly-made tea in deference to your wounded sense of propriety.” He pulled on his coat and started for the door. “I do understand the meaning of the word ‘no’.”
“Do you? This is the first I’m hearing of it.”
“Your incipient wit strikes again.” Sherlock paused with his back turned to allow John time to sort himself out. Yes, he wanted to see all of John—the longer John delayed, the more so it became true—but he didn’t care to risk driving his only friend away to sate a needless curiosity. Not today. “You were in the army. Tell me, do all soldiers dress this slowly?”
“Shut your gob. I have to redo all my neat handiwork from this morning. I can’t walk out of here looking like—well, looking like we’ve been up to something besides having a nice chat at the end of the day.”
“Heaven forbid you look like you’re having sex on a regular basis.”
“Not if I want to actually have sex on a regular basis, no.”
“You don’t seem to be terribly concerned about that, one way or another.” Bored of staring at bland blue paint, Sherlock revolved to watch John fumble with his shirt’s pearlescent buttons. He was having trouble meeting button to hole for the shaking of his left hand. Sherlock stepped forward to take over the work from the top without making note of his difficulties.
“I thought you were going to let this go.”
“We aren’t discussing body art. We’re discussing your stated desires versus your contradictory actions.” John managed to cover the bottom three, dropping his hands where Sherlock smoothed the fabric in a line.
“Just when I thought it was safe to talk.”
“It’s never safe to talk when it’s me you’re talking to.” He went on to straighten John out all over as his tremors tended to make a mess of him. He played at not minding it, but it made his shoulders sit tense and tight for hours until he could undress for the night.
“You’d think I would have picked up on that by now.”
“Few people ever do.”
“Guess that’s me told.”
“I suppose it is.” Sherlock stepped back. “Get your coat. I know a place that serves a passable lamb kebab till ten. The cook owes me a favour.”
“Everyone owes you a favour."
“’Course, I do.”
“What for?” Sherlock was interested to hear this, as he thought he and John had a rather balanced relationship of give and take, with John admittedly doing most of the giving day by day where Sherlock was prone to take.
“Nothing big or anything.”
Which Sherlock took to mean ‘of considerable size.’ “Equivocation doesn’t suit you. Out with it.”
John blew out a taut breath, hands flat at his side once again. “You saved my life.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You saved my life.”
“You’ve saved mine half a dozen times. Don’t tell me you’ve been keeping score.” He did subtle math and found them roughly equal, fist for bullet, in any case.
“Not during cases, not like that.”
“The first day we met. You saved my life.” John rocked on the balls of his feet. “You saved my life and I’ve yet to say thank you for that, but, yeah, thanks. For that, I mean.”
“You weren’t in any danger. Your limp was a hindrance which could have conceivably endangered you at some point, but you weren’t actively in peril.” At John’s pursed lips and averted gaze, Sherlock thought back.
What could I have saved him from that he wouldn’t thought to mention? Recollecting that day, he saw Stamford, Molly, Mrs. Hudson, the Met, and Mycroft. John was never in any physical danger that he could recall. Meaning the threat wasn’t external, rather internal. Sherlock stuffed his hands in his coat pockets to prevent them grabbing hold of John. The percentage of suicides among returning soldiers, especially those discharged due to injury... The figure floated in and out of focus with the strength of his willingness to believe it. “I see. You’re welcome.” Any reply he could have given would have been insufficient; this one was no exception.
“Right,” John coughed, scuffing his work shoes on the lino. “You said something about a kebab.”
“I did, yes. Let’s go.” Though Sherlock found himself far from hungry, he had promised his friend dinner and he would deliver. He thought, perhaps in performing this one deed properly, he could assuage the unease he felt at realizing his partner had very nearly slipped beyond his reach. And silence the voice of reason that remarked in dull unconcern that he still might.
They exited the clinic past the lingering staff and last patients, nodding absently to the receptionist that smiled in welcome expressly for John. Whether or not he noticed, he only paused long enough to sign off his shift and re-take his place at Sherlock’s side. They stepped out into the evening, where the sidewalks bustled with the late dinner crowd and let it sweep them in the direction Sherlock leant.
For a while.
Chapter 4: Watson's Anatomy
Sherlock's thoughtlessness causes some trouble and he finally sees what John tried to hide, but he doesn't understand. Not yet.
Sherlock flicked at the tails of John’s bathrobe with the handle of his disused cane. It flipped up bare-thigh-high. No tattoos there. Pity.
John kicked at the shaft from where he sat watching telly. “Boundaries, Sherlock!”
Sherlock rolled his eyes, sick to death of the word and the meaning. 'Keep out, keep out,’ always with ‘keep out.’ “Why do boundaries exist other than to separate people from what they might actually care to see?”
“It may shock you to know they aren’t supposed to go both ways. They don’t exist for the intruder; they exist for the person wishing to keep others away.” And wasn’t that the crux of it?
“Then, why do you keep invoking them against me?”
John’s jaw fairly thunked with the force of his repressed indignation. As if he’s got any right to be indignant.Sherlock threw his cane across the floor, pulling his legs up to perch upon the chair. What he’d seen wasn’t enough, what he had wasn’t enough. The entire ruse was making him snappish.
“Time and again, John, you’ve proven to trust me above all others. Yet, not with this, why not with this?”
It had been weeks and week since the clinic. Cases had come fast and furious in the interim, but they had gone to ground now, save the odd domestic discontent and studies in paranoia. Good money, perhaps, but they left his mind to rot.
“Leave off that privacy carp, it’s old hat by now. We live in each others’ back pockets and you’ve never had a single complaint. Well, save for the eleven separate occasions I’ve caught you engaging with those videos. Really, John, there’s better pornography to be found on the internet. Surely, you must have come upon it by now.” He paused. “Pun unintended.”
John positively grumbled in his fluster. “All right, all right, you’ve made your point. Let’s agree never to discuss that again.” He raised his hand before Sherlock could go on to do just that. “Besides, if anything, those are perfect examples of why you should knock before entering a private room.”
“But it isn’t private, it’s yours. Any other time, you’d never have asked that I announce my presence before entering the room.”
“Because I know you won’t.”
“Which casts your complaints in a rather academic light, doesn’t it? You know I’ll continuously fail to comply, yet you consider it necessary to lodge your protests at volume for the sheer hell of it. Why?”
“You’ll never learn if no one complains.”
“Why should I learn? There’s no one to care but you and it isn’t as though you’ll ever leave me because of it.”
“You say that like it’s a sure thing.”
“I say it that way because it is.”
John began to sport that unhappy, hunted look he had at the start. Sherlock didn’t want him spooked, he wanted him laid open. He couldn’t understand him any other way.
“Look, I know you’re interested. I’m even sort of happy you are. But, Sherlock, my skin is my business, like I’ve told you before.”
“Why can’t it be mine as well?”
“Why would you want it to be?”
Sherlock waffled. “Isn’t that what partners do? Share business and secrets? You and I, we already solve cases together. We live together. On any given night, we might even fall asleep together. Why is this different?” Sherlock had pored over what all he’d seen of John, but that was like a case with only half the evidence in sight: he couldn’t work this way. And I want to know, I want to understand. John seemed to be the only one not to recognize that for the feat it was.
“Because I’m me and you’re you, and it just is.”
“That isn’t any kind of answer. It doesn’t even make sense! Look.” Sherlock shoved off his sleeping gown and yanked his t-shirt over his head. He left them in a pile on the floor. He twisted to point over his shoulder, offering John a generous view of his spine. “See that. I’ve got an arc of acid burns across my back from a decathlon-runner turned research scientist in Cardiff. He didn’t care for my interest in his work.”
John’s wariness didn’t abate. “He went to prison for that, I hope.”
“Fell from a pier.” Pushed, but who was to know?
“Just as well.”
Sherlock slumped in his chair and set his feet on the nearer armrest of John’s chair, giving his toes a tentative wiggle. “I lost sensation in the tips of my toes from frostbite. I was apparently the only imbecile outside during the worst winter storm in Sussex history.”
“That should shock me more than it does.”
“Not necessarily. Even geniuses play long odds. I count myself lucky to have retained full use of my fingers at the very least.” He wiggled those as well before curling each finger in turn. It was difficult for him to fathom that he’d come so close to never playing the violin again. Years of dissonant and melodious joy dashed on a whim. He preferred not to think about it.
In spite of John’s pretended lack of interest, he blatantly examined the proffered digits with a clinical eye. “We’ll have to keep you in leather gloves, then.”
“And socks.” John dragged a knuckle along Sherlock’s left instep; his foot spasmed and his abdominal muscles flexed in what might have been a laugh had Sherlock not stifled it. He hadn’t been ticklish since the age of five. He wasn’t intending to start that up again.
“Most definitely,” Sherlock coughed, wilfully disregarding the self-satisfaction he read in the wrinkles outside John’s eyes.
He rucked up the right leg of his pyjama bottoms, ready to get on with the thing. “There’s a similar mark here on my calf.” The elongated patch of skin was discoloured and satiny in texture. Only luck and the benefit of modern medical technology had prevented gangrene setting in. “Most mistake it for another instance of frostbite and, after a fashion, they wouldn’t be wrong: an experiment with card ice gone slipshod. A fragment of the lot I was working on got away from me and sublimated while I was manipulating the larger portion. The gas reached my lower extremities first. Had I not felt the cold, frostbite would have been the least of my concerns.”
“You’d have asphyxiated.”
“It wouldn’t have been pleasant. I’ve since learned to take more care with my safety measures.”
“Severed heads in the fridge is you taking more care?”
“No backchat! I like to think I came out all right, given the alternative.”
John laid his hand over the scar; it exceeded his hand for length. “Can’t say I disagree with that.”
Sherlock basked in his momentary amity. John could be interesting, he could be the most interesting person in the room when he deemed Sherlock worthy to be entertained.
John elbowed Sherlock’s foot from his chair. Sherlock glared, unappreciative of his rough handling. “Not that you’re doing much to hide it, but I do recognize what you’re doing, Sherlock. And, while I appreciate the effort you’re going to, I can tell you it won’t work.”
“What won’t work?”
“You trying to get me to show you the rest. You can’t force a confidence like this, mate, however harmlessly-meant. I’ll show you someday, I promise I will. I’m just not there, not today. Sorry.” John’s solemn-eyed sincerity would have been appalling on anyone else.
“It’s fine.” John hadn’t ever shared a league with anyone else, nor would Sherlock have meant his words for another’s ears.
The sway of John’s lips was as true in resignation as in good humour. “I wish I could believe you meant that.” He knows me too well. Sherlock didn’t like to be doubted, even with good cause, and by John least of all.
“So do I.”
Sherlock could have throttled himself later for not more effectively skewering John’s doubts at the source.
Recent days had seen John lapsing into introspection for hours at a stretch, his gaze set on crap telly for the duration without a sign of laughter. He would rub at his forearm tattoo—the new one, the one to which Sherlock wasn’t yet privy—in fervent contemplation. Like an adherent to an icon. Sherlock hadn’t meant to wake a sleeping a beast, he’d wanted to lay John’s hands to a stop but hadn’t dared. Hadn’t he done enough to disturb his friend’s fragile balance? In his own tedious insistence, Sherlock forgot that for all his bravery, John had yet to step down from his tightrope walk. And as unerringly as Sherlock had saved his life, he might unknowingly induce its end. I can’t be trusted with him. Why was I entrusted with him? Sherlock was wrong-footed here. What if London’s heart no longer beat for him?
Sherlock stepped from out of 221 with every intention and nowhere to go. It was mid-evening and the spring showers were out in force, painting the sidewalks, cars, and streets in oil slicks and muddy refuse. There was every vapid soul in sight save for the one Sherlock wanted.
“John! John...” He couldn’t see John for the dark and the rain, couldn’t have seen him on a bright day as he wasn’t there to be seen. “Shit.” Naturally, his flatmate would learn the proper way to duck pursuit on a night when Sherlock needed to find him. He pulled out his mobile, intending to text the man to return home at once when he remembered that John had left his phone in the sitting room to charge alongside his laptop. “Wonderful, exactly what I need.”
Sherlock cast about his mental map of the area to deduce where John would retreat to half-dressed in the rain as anything other than a last resort. After the way his relationship had ended with Sarah Sawyer, he’d not risk inconveniencing her now. John hadn’t taken his wallet, so no pocket change. Anywhere he went he’d have to go on foot. There was nowhere in walking distance that he might go save back to the flat. Sherlock was free to wait for his return. But he didn’t wait.
The rain was pelting down, the chill of the air was creeping into Sherlock’s limbs despite his coat, scarf, and gloves. John had none of these, in fact, he had much less and given his mood he might sulk for hours out of stubborn pride. Or hurt. Sherlock hadn’t intended to hurt him. He recognized that he could be impatient and entitled and petty on the matter of John’s secrets, but this once he’d only been oblivious.
He’d stolen into the bathroom while John was brushing his teeth after his evening shower. He hadn’t clapped eyes on the man so focused was he on what he’d planned to share. Sherlock hardly remembered what he’d wanted to say anymore. All that came to mind was John’s face, how his eyes had positively burned as he’d turned and marched out of the flat in house shoes, sleep pants, and a thin shirt. John hadn’t ever looked at him that way. He hoped to make it the last time.
The harsh rain softened to a drizzle though it did nothing to lessen the bite of the wind. Sherlock turned up his collar against the invading mist and set out to find his friend. Speedy’s was a clear miss. Too close. He wouldn’t risk me finding him. Angelo’s was the wrong sort of place for John given the hour despite the fact that the restaurant owner could have easily allowed John use of his private office to cool down. Too far and John would be mortified to be seen less than decently dressed by the regular wait staff.John wouldn’t have been able to board a bus or hail a taxi, leaving Sherlock with his best guess and not much else.
Public place, free of cost, low probability of being disturbed. Close proximity to home. His leg would have bothered him.Emotionalism, Sherlock abhorred it; nevertheless, he acknowledged John wasn’t built as he was. Inadvertent slights had the capacity to rip open nonexistent wounds. Someplace open but secure. Someplace he would have felt least threatened.
Sherlock swore at his own stupidity. It was obvious. John’s emotional, he doesn’t think well when he’s angry. He would have gone to the Tube Station after realizing he couldn’t visit Sarah. He would have arrived only to realize he’d walked out without either cash or Oyster card. And he would have stayed rather than face me right away.
Sherlock forewent a cab ride altogether to make shorter work of the trip on foot. The weather wasn’t a deterrent to criminals and he’d hate to have to bail John out of lockup in the mood he was in.
Upon arriving, he managed to get halfway down the staircase before he spotted John. He was huddled on a bench under a triptych of Doctor Who advertisements, more half-frozen than still fuming. Not that that’ll stop him laying me flat his first chance. The platform was hardly bare, but Sherlock deduced that none were likely to alert the authorities in the event of a confrontation, so there was some good to be found in that. However, any notion of bracing himself for a fall passed as he finally got a look at what he’d supposedly already contrived to see.
The rain had effectively rendered John’s vest transparent and left it clinging. The unsuitable cast of the overhead light be damned, John was remarkable. The Kandahar-London map ran up the length of his right arm, from wrist to shoulder, seamlessly absorbing the RAMC cap badge that he wore with pride. On the opposite side, a green and gunmetal serpent coiled downward toward his forearm, great mouth open to disgorge...a bomb. Why the serpent, he queried to himself, but it couldn’t hold sway over this new data; it was devoured by it.
It was a bomb, one Sherlock could have identified with one eye and his memory shot. It was an adaptation of the vest Moriarty had strapped John into that night at the pool, bar one crucial feature. Sherlock couldn’t be sure—and Sherlock was always certain—but he thought the arrangement of the wires that had coiled amid the Semtex was wrong. It nearly gleamed and lay in four parallel lines as the wire hadn’t in a formation Sherlock would know to recognize before the spelling of his own name. I had no idea John was so enamoured of my playing. The knowledge sat like bad a meal, like infatuation.
This was the symbol John had painstakingly cared for over these several weeks. Sherlock couldn’t begin to deduce his motive for that.
John looked up from his vigil over the detritus littering the platform floor and, if possible, drew himself tighter, lower once Sherlock met his eyes. In trying to make himself disappear, he made himself all the more visible. For want of a better course of action, Sherlock continued his approach. He continued his approach even as he spied the rest and words failed him.
Featured in muted, enduring colour across the expanse of John’s hunched back were lungs. Faultless imitations of the organs, no surrealist dream, blooming a robust red-pink with ripe blood vessels running hither and yon the thoracic region through. The image of them positively bled through the fabric of his shirt in grotesque pageantry. They heaved to his every shudder; they were alive as he was.
This explains everything. Somehow. Sherlock would retreat to his Mind Palace to sort the lot at a later time. Just now, he needed John.
“This is why. The jumpers, all the layers, the buttons, the undershirts. This is why bother despite how difficult they can be to remove at the end of the day.” Sherlock sat down at John’s side, straining to catch his eye. “They’re remarkable. You shouldn’t hide them.” You shouldn’t hide you. He felt the fool for ever thinking John the dull one.
“It’s not a modesty thing, it’s just,” John exhaled shakily. “God, you’ll hate it. You’ll hate it. It’s sentiment through and through.” He clenched his red-rimmed eyes shut. “We give everything we are to every person we meet. We shake hands, we say our names, our occupations; if we’re Sherlock Holmes, we open our homes. There’s nothing left for ourselves but the skin we’re born in.” He rubbed his intolerably bare arms; Sherlock’s fingers flexed for want to shelter them. “This is mine. It isn’t much, it’s got dozens of scars, but it’s mine. And I thought if I just made it something worth seeing...”
Sherlock considered the plethora of stories encompassed in such a statement and discovered something far beyond his comprehension taking root in the empirically nebulous ‘place within’: something quite like tenderness.
“It is worth seeing, John. As you are.” Sherlock could have shaken him as soon as shown him a mirror. There was nothing ‘unworthy’ about John, or his ink totems. Their left and right bronchi were lushly depicted, narrowing artfully into bronchioles and alveoli in the lower lobes of John’s ersatz lungs. Sherlock wanted to touch, but his fingers refused the contact. The drawn lungs seemed to fill and deflate as real lungs might, powerful and wretched across his flatmate’s back. For all that he’d imagined insipid wings, these were beyond imagining.
“Why?” The word was far too small to contain the methods and means by which Sherlock wondered.
John remained curled over himself, shuddering for cold and anger and unbearable weariness. “Because, sometimes, I can’t breathe. Not since Afghanistan, not since coming back. Thought if I had another set of lungs, they might help.”
“Not every day but some days, they’re the only thing...” John’s shivering grew increasingly violent till he tucked his hands against his ribcage to quell it. “God, I’m barely even dressed. What’s the matter with me?”
Sherlock thought, Nothing at all. He asked instead, “Can I do anything?” Sherlock would breathe for John, would fight for John and, possibly even beg. It would be less than the absolute least he could do to keep him warm.
“I’m all right.”
“You’re shivering, but only just so, which indicates that your core temperature may be dropping to a dangerous level, potentially even hypothermic. Don’t be stupid, John. Being right isn’t worth the risk to your good health.” Hysterical nonsense. I'm being hysterical. I am not hysterical! He took a mental step back. Am I? He couldn’t answer.
“That’s a bit rich coming from you, isn’t it?”
Sherlock gave himself a reaffirming shake. “I’ve never claimed to be free of hypocrisy. No one is.”
“Too right.” John's breath rattled in time to his response.
John was ill, obviously ill and Sherlock hated to see it knowing that it was partially his initial prying that put John there. In a fit of inspiration—he’d seen something like it on late night telly—Sherlock shed his coat and draped it over John’s shoulders. That fit was doubtless a touch narrow, but the wool would do him well.
“Let’s go home.”
John gave a nod and tried to stand. His weaker leg folded the instant it took his weight, leaving Sherlock to snatch him up from a regrettable spill.
“Shoulder hates the cold; leg hates it more and has veto power. I’m as good as I can be.”
Sherlock hooked his waist to start a slothful tread. “Grab hold of me. I’ll get us home.”
“I know you will, I trust you.”
“After all this?”
John tipped his head in deference to a shrug, stifling a groan of pain as he hobbled. “When a sociopath comes out in the rain for you it’s usually a sign that he gives a damn.”
Sherlock hadn’t considered his actions in that light. He hadn’t considered them at all, really, rather the potential outcomes that would result if he left his friend to stew in his upset as he tended to do. I suppose this is what it means to care.
“Don’t be fooled. I only came at all because I was in need of tea and there was no one there to make it.” That wasn’t entirely untruthful, Sherlock had never longed more fervently for a cuppa.
“Likely story,” John groused in good-natured scepticism as they ascended the stairs at a slow clip.
Sherlock slackened his lengthier, swifter stride to accommodate John’s spasmodic limb, sparing the flintiest possible gaze for any passerby who might conceivably try rushing him aside. John was oblivious as always, but he held on at Sherlock’s waist just as tight. So much for what people say.
Sherlock may have become infected with Molly Hooper’s brand of disquieting optimism, but he thought he might have this caring lark figured out yet.
Chapter 5: A Cadenza at the End
A cadenza is "an elaborate flourish or showy solo passage, sometimes improvised, introduced near the end of an aria or a movement of a concerto" [x].
Sherlock released John to settle while he fetched himself a towel to dry off. John abandoned his Belstaff to the floorboards and Sherlock couldn’t find it in him to complain. The walk hadn’t been terribly far, but all the taxis seemed to have vanished. What should have taken a couple of minutes had taken nearly a half-hour on foot.
Sherlock scrubbed down his wet hair. “You’ll need to take off those clothes. You’re soaked through.”
John’s failure to offer even token protest was a sign of how bad off he was. He was the worst of patients on his best day. Not good, not good at all. Unacceptable.
John peered out from his nest of covers just as Sherlock started to insinuate himself into the same. “What are you doing?”
Better to plead forgiveness than beg permission, Mummy had always said. Sherlock burrowed infinitesimally closer. “Keeping you warm.”
John shifted sideways, blessedly upright despite evident fatigue. “I have a blanket—I have several blankets.” Had Sherlock anything resembling typical vanity or modesty, he might have been offended. Good job I deleted both in primary school.
“Body heat is more efficient.” Sherlock eased over another jot.
“An electric blanket could probably trump you, you bag of bones.” John, likely without realizing, leant toward Sherlock as a ready source of warmth. Sherlock stifled his smirk, but it was near thing. Biology trumps repression.
“I’m told I radiate heat like a furnace, something to do with my elevated metabolism.” A brief tug of war ensued, one which John was in no fit state to win. Sherlock was triumphant and vexed all at once. How do people put up with so many conflicting emotions? It was headache-inducing.
John surrendered the match with all the grace befitting a nursery-age child. “Is there anything about you that isn’t a forward leap in human evolution?”
Sherlock paused to parse whether that might have been an insult.
John’s teeth returned to clicking in the meantime. “Oh, just take the compliment and get over here, you lanky beast. I’m catching my death of cold.”
Sherlock pressed against John’s clammy flank and wound his arms around him, trapping him in an embrace of maximal contact. “You wouldn’t actually die of a cold. Hypothermia can lead to death, but you’ve a higher probability of developing pneumonia at this point.”
John pressed his cheek into Sherlock’s clavicle, all the fight gone out of him. “Still a doctor, still not an idiot. Also, not helping, Sherlock.” He shoved a sturdy elbow into Sherlock’s stomach and a knee somewhere precious. He laughed at Sherlock’s alarmed gasp.
“Right.” Sherlock tugged at John’s limbs as much as they were accessible in their freezing clinch. John’s body was typically the more malleable of the two, so it stood to reason that he should to yield to Sherlock’s more angular physique. “Must you be so stiff?”
“That’s not what she said.”
“Pop culture reference.”
“Nothing new there.”
“Nothing new under the sun, if you believe the philosophers.”
“You can’t convince me there’s a philosopher you’ve read that you haven’t thought a moron.”
“Not Aristotle obviously.”
“I think that’s supposed to be my line.”
“Speaking of lines...”
“You make me regret every smartass remark I’ve ever made.” His words were lukewarm gusts at Sherlock’s pulse.
“Good, maybe you’ll endeavour to avoid them in the future.”
“Not on your life.”
“What about on yours?”
John hummed low in his chest. “I’d feel more threatened if you weren’t rubbing circles on my back like a new mum.”
Sherlock felt his cheeks go pink and halted the motion immediately. “I’m promoting proper circulation.” A poor excuse at best.
“It’s my back, not an extremity. Care to give that another shot?”
“I’m attempting to discreetly examine the tattoo on your back on the off-chance you’re never bareback in front of me again.”
John let out a huff of amusement Sherlock couldn’t completely decipher.
“What is it? Have I said something funny?”
“Nothing you can’t look up.”
“Oh, I don’t think you do.”
Sherlock ticked up an eyebrow at John’s downturned head. “If this is referring to the sexual connotation of the word, I have to say, John, I don’t think we’ve quite reached that stage in our relationship yet.”
John sniffed in good humour despite himself. “Serves me right for underestimating you.”
“I’m shocked you haven’t learned better by now.” Increased social interaction had schooled Sherlock in the necessity of absorbing mainstream culture. He might never ‘come up for coffee’ again.
“The learning curve for us mere mortals is just that much steeper, sorry.”
“Not thing more than I’ve come to expect. Remind me not to take your health for granted in the future and we’ll call it even.”
“Then, I guess we can call it even.”
Sherlock tentatively outlined the upper lobes of each ink lung in sequence. They pulsed in synchrony: inhale to exhale. “Your back is remarkable.”
“Not that you’re biased in any way.”
“Oh, no, categorically not.”
John gradually began to surrender more of his weight to Sherlock’s side, who was only too willing to shoulder the burden. He’s no real burden, at any rate.
“What were you thinking, going out there like that?”
“Wasn’t thinking. I meant to think. It isn’t always easy when these aren’t things you think about.”
Sherlock was all at sea. “Try that again, but with English.”
John chuckled, low and tired, folding himself under Sherlock’s arm. “I was going to show you sometime. I was! I was just not ready. I needed time to make you understand.”
“What’s there for me to understand? They’re your coping mechanisms, for lack of a better phrase. They’re your talismans, proof that you’ve survived the tribulations you’ve faced intact. They may even qualify as living proof.” Sherlock drummed his fingers in complex sequence down the length of John’s spine. “They remind you of your identities as soldier, doctor, blogger, and Englishman. But more than that, they help you to cope. So long as they continue to do so, there isn’t a need for me to understand. You’ve been worried all this time that I’d think less of you for this, but there isn’t any way I could. You’re the only friend I’ve got and a passable assistant, to wit. How could I think less of you?”
“Huh, just when I think you’re all charcoal and brimstone in there,” John knocked on Sherlock’s breastbone, “you bleed a little red.”
“I see you’re making another attempt to introduce figurative language into the common vernacular. May your future attempts be far less trite.”
“You’re just teed off that I forced you to have an emotion.”
Sherlock sniffed. “No one forced me. It so happens that I care about your wellbeing. Friends care about each other, don’t they?” Sherlock sat awkwardly still until John nodded without raising his head.
“You shouldn’t have had to chase me out into the rain like that. I’m perfectly capable of handling my emotions in a mature and reasonable manner.”
“Unless those emotions are anger, disappointment, generalized anxiety, or immense grief or sadness.” Sherlock could go on.
“You really know how to pick a guy up when he’s down.”
“It’s illogical to pretend there aren’t mitigating circumstances for your shortcomings. You aren’t weak, John, far from it. You’ve held up quite well, considering.”
“You don’t have to sugar-coat it: I know I’m a mess.”
“Hardly. Most people are a study in dysfunction, be it a result of failed past relationships or traumatic events during their formative years. Coping skills rarely come standard. Your sister Harry is a testament to that.”
“Take it from me, I’m the last person you have to explain that to.”
“Be that as it may, you don’t appear to be listening to me.” Sherlock narrowed his eyes in sharp reproof, an action that would have carried more weight if John could be arsed to lift up his head. My neck isn’t nearly as interesting as all that. Sherlock sulked, put out. “I mean to say there isn’t any shame in having trouble that you haven’t had a hand in putting there. Those who judge do so for their own reasons, you shouldn’t take them onto your back.” Sherlock’s life alone was a lesson in this.
“Easier said than done.”
Sherlock propped his head amid the drying cowlicks of John’s hair. “Try harder. I’ve got better things to do than follow you into inclement weather.”
“Maybe respect locked doors from now on and we can avoid the inevitable emotional outbursts that ensue.”
Sherlock lapsed into affronted silence.
“I can hear the sourpuss look on your face.”
“Facial expressions don’t make a sound.”
“If there’s anyone capable of changing that, it’d be you.”
Sherlock pinched him, much as he had Mycroft when they were young and quarrelling. John yelped.
“What the hell was that for?”
Sherlock didn’t need a reason, making John yelp was motivation enough.
Sherlock smirked to himself. “You never did answer my question.”
“My question. You never answered it.”
“Which one? Seems like all you ever do is ask questions.”
Sherlock gave his short hair a tug, determinedly ignoring John’s subsequent offended flail. “Why the clock face?”
“I’m starting to think you’re obsessed with that thing, you know.” At Sherlock’s continued expectancy, John rolled his eyes. Sherlock felt his lashes flit on his skin. “Because nothing good lasts. Time is fleeting.” Sherlock questioned whether there wasn’t more to his simplistic explanation and made a note to interrogate him on it further another night.
“And the—the bomb?”
“Noticed that finally, did you?”
“I deduced that the violin string you substituted for the control wire is an allusion to my part in your abduction. Well, that particular abduction,” he clarified, favouring his friend with a wry glance. He continued to disrupt the flow of Sherlock’s wit with his refusal to make eye contact.
“Don’t ruin the moment we’re having by being an annoying dick.”
“Is that what this is?” Sherlock shuddered. “Feels like rash.”
Finally averting his gaze from the base of Sherlock’s throat, John cuffed him about the nape. “Arse.”
“Don’t try to distract me.”
“I thought you wanted a distraction.” John began to right himself and pull back, his skin a rosier hue. Sherlock resisted.
“Not just now. Why the bomb, John?”
John ruffled his hair. “New life, new mark, that’s how it goes.”
“You associate Semtex with living with me?”
“With the moment I realized I’d never get out of here alive? Yeah.”
Near-death experiences. “Afghanistan and the army, Moriarty and London. You’re a walking pre-emptive obituary.” The expanse of John’s upper body was an assemblage of things that might someday break him. Sherlock’s mind could be a desolate place, yet he wondered how John bore living in his own skin.
“It sounds morbid when you say it like that.”
Sherlock had surpassed bewildered. “I don’t know another way I might put it.”
“Welcome to my world.”
“If this is in reference to that god awful blog of yours—“
“Be grateful. That god awful blog has netted you plenty of interesting cases so far.”
“Yes, each one more grotesquely-entitled than the last.”
John slickly evaded Sherlock’s grasp, draping himself in the thickest of the afghans beside him. “You mean The Geek Interpreter. You’re still in a strop about me getting that internet journalism award last month, aren’t you? I thought we agreed it was a fluke and a sham and we weren’t going to make a big deal out of it.”
“We did agree and it is a sham, but you’ve got the plaque displayed on your wall at work, so what else am I to conclude but that you take it seriously?”
“I don’t see why it matters anyway. It’s a piece of tin that someone went to the trouble of having engraved. It’s a neat bit of flair is all. It was an honour just to be nominated.”
Sherlock crossed his arms under a knitted periwinkle throw. “I wasn’t nominated.”
“And that burns you up?” Sherlock refused to answer. “Sherlock, you do more every single day than most of those kids will do on their arses in a year. So do I, for that matter. So they gave me an award and can say they met me. You’re still Sherlock Holmes and there doesn’t need to be an award for that.”
Sherlock unlaced his arms, secretly pleased as he often was when John praised his work.
“Not that we couldn’t instate an award for that, mind, but you’d never win it. Certainly none for being the Sherlock Holmes most likely to pick up his dirty clothes or the Sherlock most likely to properly dispose of biohazard waste material or—“
“You’ve made your point.”
“God, I hope so, because if I never see your day-old pants again, it will be too soon.”
“Don’t look under the kitchen table,” Sherlock offered. May as well give fair warning. Sherlock wasn’t inclined to alter his routine as it suited him, but he could make concessions for John. His doctor had made more than his fair share.
John directed his narrowed eyes toward the ceiling, sucking boorishly at his teeth. “Should I ask whether an experiment was involved or will I regret it?”
“For a given value of the word ‘regret,’ I can say that your video collection is tedious and repetitive but serviceable.” John’s tastes were curiously diverse. Sherlock’s own weren’t terribly so, though it had made for a valuable learning experience.
“I would say you should forget I asked, but I’ll never get that image out of my head, so you shouldn’t get to either.”
“Was I supposed to keep that? I’m afraid I deleted it ages ago.”
John cut him a dubious look. “I doubt that.”
“We aren’t all so concerned with sex that we hoard visions of it for future perusal. Sexual stimulation is fleeting and insignificant, not worthy of the memory space I could devote to something far more appealing.”
“Now, that I believe,” John replied archly as he began unravelling himself from his knitted cocoon.
“What are you doing?”
“Going to take another shower. All water is not created equal and London rain is no exception. I’ve got muck just about everywhere.”
“You didn’t fall into the Thames, you sat in a Tube Station.”
“Doesn’t matter, I’ll feel better when I’ve washed off.” John freed himself of his fetters to stand from the couch. “Thanks for coming to get me, by the way.” John set about gathering their abandoned clothes, careless of his state of undress. An army man all through. Sherlock’s fingers itched for the road to Kandahar City.
“The weather was atrocious and you were being unreasonable. I only did the logically sound thing.” Sherlock reclaimed John’s blankets, feeling chilled contrary to all reason.
“No, the logically sound thing would have been to let me have my sulk and wait for me at the flat.” Sherlock gawped. “Don’t look so shaken, you’re not that impossible to understand.”
“A rare opinion if I’ve ever heard one.”
“You’re a magnet for morons. No wonder your opinion of man is low.” John shook out his sodden bottoms and pulled them back on. “Come on, the champ gets the shower first.”
“Yes, you. You’ve earned it.” He extracted Sherlock from his molehill to pull him into the drafty air of the flat. “Let’s get you really warmed up. I need you well.”
That John should need him at all was news to Sherlock and he let himself be led, walking at something of a backward angle to keep watch of John as he was likely still suffering some effects from the deluge he’d been caught in.
“I’m not going anywhere, turn around before you fall and have to add on to your scar collection.”
“You’re one to talk.”
“You’re right, I am. Off you go.” John nudged him toward the bathroom through the kitchen. Sherlock shuffled to a stop when John halted at the refrigerator.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“I think you can take it from here.”
“I could, yes.”
John tilted his head expectantly. He was bare-chested and obviously chilled despite his act. The snake writhed, the bomb ticked, Edinburgh beat visibly; John shivered.
“You’re still cold. You’ll make yourself ill.”
“That’s a given, but I can afford to get sick, you can’t. Off you pop.”
Sherlock wrinkled his nose in contempt. “That’s the farthest thing from sound reasoning I’ve heard since the last time you said no to me.”
“Like I ever say no to you.”
Sherlock drew John to him by his left forearm. “You did about this.” He managed a rough approximation of proper placement on the strings. He pondered composing on this arm, what sonatas he might draw out of this commendable flesh. The Semtex was, to him, an afterthought if it were any thought to begin with. Sherlock saw strings which rang out Schubert and Sarasate, not plastic explosives set to bring a game, at once mortifying and fantastic, to its inevitable conclusion. John had taken the weapon that he was and that he wore and made an instrument. Sherlock could not conceive of the mind it took.
“You know, no matter how you pluck me, I still won’t play.”
“I haven’t begun to make you sing.” Sherlock tempted an arpeggio; John breathed deep, the racket of it recognizable in succession.
“Which is probably for the best since I couldn’t carry a tune in a box.”
“Not yet.” Sherlock allowed himself to be shuttled toward the bathroom door. Sibelius, Mendelssohn, Spohr?
“Not every movement needs a cadenza, Sherlock. Some are better without.” John pushed him firmly in the direction of the standing shower. “Warm-up. I’ll make us some tea and see if I can’t rustle up some of those digestives you like.”
Sherlock didn’t move, intention thwarted by a discrepancy in his collected data. He may as well have said that life is adequate without danger. Every word was a lie. Sherlock caught John’s wrist when he turned to go, Belgravia trapped in the recess his palm.
“You haven’t played clarinet since university. At least, you hadn’t until you met Sarah Sawyer. You never play it here, but you’ve taken it up again. The strings aren’t only for me.” His fingertips craved a fingerboard, a bow.
“The clarinet’s a woodwind instrument.” Sherlock hissed at his feigned guilelessness.
“Don’t be obvious.”
“Music is a much less vicious motivator.”
“To save you strangling me.”
John lifted his chin in measured concurrence. “You’re not far off.”
Sherlock pondered whether he’d stumbled upon another of John’s methods of coping. “Is this—that is, would you...” He began again, “Perhaps we should play together sometime.”
John glanced at him sidewise, doubting. “The classically trained violinist and the grade eight clarinettist? I don’t see how we can fail.”
“We can’t.” They hadn't yet.
“I’ve heard that one before.” He peeled off Sherlock’s touch. Belgravia was mottled for it and the irony was lost on neither of them. “Shower first, tea second. We’ll take the classical music genre by storm tomorrow.”
Sherlock huffed, perturbed at John’s unsurprising, if disappointing, evasion. “If you insist.”
John herded him onward. “I do.”
They didn’t take the musical world by storm, either that night or the morning after. John kept his clarinet somewhere safe from Sherlock’s reach. Not the clinic, not Sarah Sawyer’s, not at Bart’s or even the Met. He’d thought to search Harry Watson’s residence but she’d moved since John last visited and left no forwarding address that he could find. John hid this one secret well.
John and Sherlock would never get to have their ill-fated duet. Instead, they would have something better and much worse.
Chapter 6: An age at least to every part
Sherlock discovers that John is essential, if that had ever been in doubt.
John sprinted up the stairs to the flat, taking them two at a stride. He reeked of sweat, vulcanized rubber and exhaust fumes, petrol and mown grass. A long-sleeved sporting top coupled with jogging shorts that clung where his body wept ounce upon ounce of vital hydration. John trotted into the kitchen at reduced speed in search of a non-toxic sports drink to replenish his lost electrolytes. Sherlock watched him go.
His blonde hair stuck, drenched, to his skull and what little sun the city offered had tanned him a spare shade where Sherlock would have burned. Freckles peppered the bridge of his nose, a testament to the latent ginger tangled in his Scottish roots. He was a picture of exhausted exaltation. Any other time, Sherlock would have thought the game was on.
“I take it your run was satisfactory?”
John hummed in the affirmative, shuffling in place to taper off his elevated heart rate as he guzzled in greedy mouthfuls. Since the case at Baskerville, John had taken up a rigorous self-imposed fitness regimen: 6am daily runs as the work permitted; 50 repetitions of pull-ups, curls, and push-ups as his shoulder permitted; and visits to a local gym as Sherlock allowed.
He had only allowed twice. John had returned on both occasions with a swagger to his step bespeaking a lucky pull. Sherlock had surreptitiously erased each of their numbers from John’s phone—Eliza ‘with the eyes’ then Alexei ‘with the dlafjdlkfd’ ?—and threw out the slips of paper John had secreted in his gym bag ‘just in case.’ He should have learned by this juncture that his contingency plans were no match for Sherlock’s total disregard for the sanctity of his belongings. There wasn’t time for another of John’s ill-advised attempts at romance; their unavoidable, though patently predictable, conclusions made for a surly flatmate, the antithesis of Sherlock’s preference for a John that was merely resigned, even pleased, to be with Sherlock alone.
John wandered into the hallway to complete his habitual cool down with a series of static stretching exercises. Sherlock set John’s laptop on back of the couch to drift into his wake, slumping against the sitting room door to watch his doctor decompress. John patiently progressed through the major muscle groups, arms extended forward, then behind him, toward the ceiling, toward the floor, lengthwise over his chest for 10 seconds at a turn.
He lowered himself to lie prone on the wooden planks, nose toward the landing’s sole window, heels pointed at Sherlock’s feet. With care, he distributed his weight between the rubberized tips of his trainers and the narrow surfaces of his forearms. Sherlock pinpointed the ripple of the gluteus contracting at the base of the coccyx, the one-sixth of a minute it held in stillness, the release. John reached outward with his left arm, leaving his other touch points to compensate. The core is stronger for it. The reverse action was not as smooth: John swallowed a grunt of discomfort when his right arm abandoned the ground. Sherlock counted the seconds to himself as John’s left shoulder jerked in response at the strain. Four, three, two... John was panting upon return to his initial pose. Sherlock didn’t think to inquire on the matter; John wouldn’t have appreciated his interjection.
For twenty-six seconds, Sherlock had counted, John braced himself. Then, he lifted his right leg to begin the process again. Sherlock remained through the calf stretch. The rest he left to John, locked in arduous battle with his physique. He retreated to his designated space to raid John’s email inbox. There was a message from ‘an army mate’ named Mary Morstan, a former medic turned primary school teacher if Facebook could be trusted. Pretty, he thought, in a manner that John would have found inviting. Dull as an especially telling dirt sample by every other conceivable metric. Just his type, then. He took the precaution of deleting her email address from John’s address book and blocking her number on his mobile. John deserved better than boring.
Sherlock was in the midst of putting editorial touches on the worst of John’s literary blunders when the man shuffled, yawning, into the sitting room. John rolled his neck to work out the kinks, a towel dangling from his shoulders and his robe from his arm.
“I’m having a shower. Do you need the bathroom?”
Sherlock waved him off, flummoxed by another of John’s needlessly intricate sentences on the subject of Sherlock’s deductive process. “Must you wax philosophic at the climax of every case? A simple transcription of my explanation would undoubtedly suffice.” In addition to adding accuracy to what is at best a fanciful approximation of the facts.
“If you don’t like the way I write, you could just do your own write-ups.” John tapped his chin in parodical mimicry of Sherlock’s ‘thinking face.’ “Hold on, you do do that, but no one reads them, do they?” Sherlock didn’t respond, erasing another fatuous paragraph altogether with a stab at the delete key. “And stop rewriting my posts, people are starting to notice.”
“Knock yourself out. Mycroft will just email the originals to me later on.”
“I’ll delete those as well.” He made a note to block all of Mycroft’s known email addresses from John’s account. His brother could easily circumvent Sherlock’s countermeasures, but the effort was its own reward.
“Wouldn’t you rather bother Lestrade about his latest investigation than spend valuable time rewriting my blog posts?”
“Were there any worthwhile cases to be had, I would. However, as there aren’t any at present, I find myself compelled to amend these injustices against the Queen’s English that you insist on perpetrating for the world to see.”
“There’s definitely nothing needlessly dramatic about that. Did you read English at university, by any chance?”
Sherlock squinted at John where he stood on the kitchen threshold. “No, Chemistry, why?”
John smirked and turned away. “No reason at all.”
Sherlock tracked his exit by the flexion of John’s ankles, named the muscles that quivered in exertion from his run: the gastrocnemius, soleus, and quadriceps femoris; the gluteus maximus, the hamstrings, and iliopsoas. Sherlock would have liked it if John’s musculature were sketched on him as his lungs were, as his ribs and tartan heart; that would have made for a simpler indexing process. Then again, had John treated his lower half as he did his topmost, Sherlock wouldn’t be privy to even that.
In an odd turn, John’s continued resistance to openly displaying his upper body manifested in an increased willingness to expose his lower limbs, at least for the duration of his workouts. Sherlock had seen most all of John now, top and bottom, if he was inspired to combine his individual sets of data. John was pale, muscled calves and thighs below, sprinkled with fair blonde hair only faintly visible indoors. His were short legs but serviceable, as they carried John swiftly where he was needed most and wasted no effort bringing him to where Sherlock most desired him.
Not to mention, and he wouldn’t lest he risk an eon of John glowering into his cuppas, that John’s legs put Sherlock rather well in the mind of The Woman’s, both in strength and aesthetic quality. Sherlock hadn’t decided yet how to regard this comparison his mind had dredged up. His palace was a baffling place to live for the most orderly of intellects and, day by day, it became more baffling still. The ensuing transformation was mostly down to John, a fact Sherlock couldn’t begin to figure out, one he didn’t dare to.
For if he knew, Moriarty would know, and Moriarty could never know.
The subsequent weeks were kind if one defined kindness as chockfull of intellectual torpidity. The cases Scotland Yard had on offer were paltry. They solved a parental kidnapping, restoring a snot-nosed brat to its snottier mother. Sherlock felt certain he’d done the non-custodial, divorcé father a good turn. He had said as much, earning a stern look from the supervising inspector combined with a quiet ‘bit not good’ of John. He’d buckled his lip thereafter, speaking only as much as required to end his involvement. They didn’t accept any more offers like that one, not that they were offered more than one.
Mycroft had tendered an errand in person, a small non-political matter in Moldova. Sherlock had refused it, neither desiring Mycroft’s debt nor wanting to get caught in something that was in all likelihood a more complicated case than was being presented. John hadn’t had his foresight; he was on a plane before night had fallen. Sherlock had a fleet of foetal pigs couriered to his brother’s Whitehall offices for five days, deleting each of his sure to be irate texts unread. Mycroft’s resolve to ruin Sherlock’s peace of mind could only be answered in kind. Oh, look, I’ve done another kindness. Sherlock would have turned to share a grin with John were John at his side where he ought to be.
The flat was lifeless as a tomb inhabited by Sherlock on his lonesome. He ordered a four-piece band to Mycroft’s estate for a midnight serenade. It was only fair that neither of them should sleep, not that the Holmeses ever slept. Then he shall have no more peace than I in the midnight hour, an hour that would find him exchanging increasingly acerbic texts with the British Government himself as he sought the status of the investigation which had swanned off with his flatmate.
‘Bring him back. SH’
‘This operation is not currently in my hands. It will end when it ends and your doctor will return to you none the worse for wear. MH’
‘Bollocks. You presented the matter for our consideration. If you had the authority to draft outside agents, you’ve the authority to discharge them. Bring me John. SH’
‘Your doctor is more than capable of caring for himself. After all, hasn’t he spent this last year caring for you? MH’
‘I’ve been in charge of my own wellbeing since the age of eight, I’m not in need of a minder. What I do have need of is a friend. Bring mine home, preferably alive. SH.’
‘If I cannot assure that?’
Sherlock went cold, unnerved at Mycroft’s uncharacteristic dropping of his signature. A sign of distress that could not be dismissed.
‘This is not a moment to acquiesce to your bloody God complex, Mycroft. Bring me John safe or never contact me again.’
Sherlock glared at the message he’d sent, them skimmed the entire exchange for any indicator he may have missed that might tell him what latest disaster his brother sought to hide. If John is hurt—no, if John is dead, it’s his head. Sherlock could not promise the memory of John that he would not bring Britain to her knees in his name if he were harmed.
‘Doctor Watson will arrive at Heathrow in fifty-seven hours. I suspect a welcoming party would not be unappreciated. MH’
Mycroft did not write again that night though Sherlock remained awake, vowing not to sleep a wink before John set foot in the flat again. He wouldn’t chance missing a text. It was upon reviewing the typed conversation a fifth time that Sherlock recognized his telling error. He hadn’t signed his final text either.
A mindless custom done absently as breathing forgotten. He recoiled from his instinctive estimation of Mycroft’s deduction. He didn’t care to know what his brother might presume of his sudden inattention. Mycroft’s gift for comprehending the human hea—no, the summation of relationships, of bonds had surpassed Sherlock’s from their youth. In the kingdom of Mycroft’s mind, concern would become abiding love, a matter on which Sherlock was sure to disappoint all concerned.
Nonetheless, when John disembarked from his flight out of New Zealand—but Moldova??? Mycroft!—Sherlock was there. They went for Thai and carried it out. John commandeered his sofa while Sherlock was contented on the floor. John divested himself of jumper and button-up till he was down to a Kevlar vest—Sherlock made mute inquiry, arching a brow—and a plain white undershirt. His arms were vivid in contrast to his unadorned hands; watching them lot out food became a bizarre fixation not to be denied.
Sherlock asked between healthy mouthfuls of kai yang chicken, “New Zealand?”
John nodded, sipping wine that had, in true Mycroftian fashion, appeared in the kitchen in their absence. “You would not believe—no, never mind, you would. Some people are not only selfish, they’re tedious.”
“I could have told you that.”
“My point exactly.” Sherlock picked through his papaya salad, pleased. “So, New Zealand?”
John laughed. “Fucking counterfeit hobbits is what New Zealand was about. Don’t ask.”
Sherlock would ask, but later, after he’d gotten used to clumsy puttering in the kitchen again and sleepless muttering upstairs. Tonight, Sherlock grumbled to his best friend about a dearth of unclaimed bodies in the morgue.
“It took her fifteen minutes to say something. I was already up to my forearm in a recently identified John Doe.”
“You shout over her at every turn; it’s a wonder she manages to get a word in edgewise, much less refuse you anything.” John tucked into his suea rong hai beef with gusto.
“You don’t seem to have any trouble.”
John feigned a stabbing thrust with his fork. Sherlock parried with a clangour. John stole a bite of chicken dangling from the prongs.
“The benefit of not being head over heels for you most likely,” he giggled, “daft bugger.”
Sherlock’s chewing slowed. He didn’t find that joke giggle-worthy as he might have a year back. “Quite.”
“What’d you get up to while I was gone?”
“This and that.” Sherlock glanced longingly at the cobbler Mrs. Hudson had prepared for John’s return.
John studied him. “Oh, god, how many apologies do I owe Mycroft for your abhorrent behaviour?”
“My behaviour was more than appropriate under the circumstances. I can’t fathom why you and my brother keep labouring under the assumption that I require a keeper. I had a nursemaid; that isn’t what I need anymore.”
“Okay, say we’re all in agreement on that. What do you need?”
“Work. A partner.” Sherlock pilfered a coin of meat off John’s plate and dipped it in sauce: the flavours approached nirvana on his tongue.
“Then, it’s good I made it back. For sanity’s sake, I hope Lestrade shows up with a juicy double murder for you tomorrow, first thing.” John squinted into his meal, contemplative. “I dunno what it says about me that I actually mean that.”
Sherlock suckled the spicy-sweet sauce from his fork. “Only that you’ve matured into something of a rationalist. You’ve deduced that I’m less of a threat to your peace of mind when distracted with a case, so you hope that I’ll always be distracted.”
John glimpsed at him from hooded eyes. Sherlock experienced difficulty swallowing. “It isn’t only for my sake, you know. I know you’re happiest when you’re working.”
“I wouldn’t say happy—”
“I would.” John rolled his shoulders to the extent Kevlar allowed; Sherlock had plans to steal it off him. “I see what I see and I see that you’re never closer to content than when you’ve got a case on.”
Sherlock ducked down to nibble at his raw veg, eyeing John’s bare feet like enemies as all parts of him nowadays. “I’m perfectly content at the moment.”
“You have just spent a week giving Mycroft seven kinds of hell. You’ve also terrorized poor Molly and worn a groove into the floor with your worrying—don’t think I hadn’t heard about that. Add that to you trying to deduce what Mycroft’s had me doing these last few days and it’s no wonder you’re chuffed. You’re in your element.”
“Well, you got one thing right: I’m always in my element.” He gestured toward John’s wristwatch. “Insurgent hobbits, John?”
John turned over his left wrist in an attempt to see what Sherlock had observed. “What does my watch have to do with hobbits?”
“Your watch, your shoes, the hems of your trousers.” The perceptible bleaching of your tattoos in the sun. Not that he made a habit of analysing them when given the frustratingly infrequent opportunity.
“All right,” John headed him off, “one thing at a time. What’s the watch about?” John swung his elevated feet to the floor and unclasped his timepiece. Sherlock pointed out the minute discoloration caught alongside the sentimental engraving. A gift from Clara, after.
“You’ve got blood on the rim of your watch’s back plate.” The stainless steel bore a rust patch that wasn’t rust.
“Oh?” John glanced at the stain in question. “Huh, what do you know, there is.” He exuded nonchalance in the vein of few men Sherlock had ever known. Like Mycroft in the early years. He’d been as calm about it at all, then. Sherlock needn’t wager on whom the blood had come from. Someone prominent but not vital, someone expendable. Not hobbits, certainly. John ventured nothing.
Sherlock could be good this once, just the once. He didn’t ask. “Shall we save the cobbler for tomorrow night?”
“Sounds like proper motivation to make quick work of your double murder.”
He seemed oddly certain of it. Will you arrange it for me, John? Ask it of Mycroft in recompense? “So it does.”
John boxed the leftovers, leaving Sherlock to finish off the dregs of the wine. “Night, Sherlock.”
“Good night, John.” He made no further remark; he had no ground to stand on.
John’s shoulders loosened as he departed the sitting room, tension ebbing gradually from his frame till he was out of sight.
Before towing himself to slumber, Sherlock ventured online. He purchased a month of tickets to the London Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, the New London, and the London Symphony Orchestra on Mycroft’s government account. A year of full houses at each totalling a considerable sum for a man in his ‘minor position.’ In reality, this transgression would put a mere dent in his brother’s incalculable wealth, but Sherlock thought his meaning to be self-evident.
No one was permitted to turn John killer in the name of a cause, bar himself. That honour belonged to Sherlock and Sherlock alone, and he would cheerfully demolish anyone fool enough to think otherwise, thick blood or none. He supposed this could be his opening gambit, if he so choose.Mycroft would suppose it as well, justifiably so. He might even be proud.
Chapter title is a line from Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress [x]
The story is currently at approximately 29k and, barring revision, I expect it to be about 32k, so we're doing all right! This chapter was originally coupled with the next one, but I decided to separate them as the second part is giving me trouble. You can let me know after I post what you think of the split.
Chapter 7: And the last age should show your heart
John fills Sherlock's mental databanks to capacity. Sherlock wasn't prepared for that. Irene Adler was.
See end notes for relevant warning.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lestrade did not have a murder for him, double or otherwise, at break of the following day. What he had was an art theft that had confounded the Arts and Antiques Unit of the Met. Its resolution was the work of seven hours, two of which Sherlock had wasted on a pointless game of Cluedo with John, Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson. Another four and a quarter had been spent pleading for the case to be more interesting than first blush suggested. He was fated for disappointment. The Falls of Reichenbach sat in the cellar of the assistant curator’s summer home. Sherlock was gifted diamond cufflinks as reward for his efforts, which he promptly abandoned to John’s bureau to be discovered at the other man’s leisure.
Now, Sherlock was at a loss. He needed something to do away with the inanity banging around his head. It had come on rapidly in the wake of such a poor workout. The conundrum of John’s skin was all but riddled to ruins and the world was so much dimmer without Moriarty out to play. Sherlock was having trouble chasing the plot. He didn’t know why he bothered continuing to breathe when getting up from the sofa was beyond his diminished capability. Must everything progress at a snail’s pace?
“Good god, won’t some ambitious, enterprising non-idiot commit a crime? I’ll take anything. A bank robbery, a murder-suicide, a bloody dognapping if it’s passably inventive. Anything to put a stop to this dreadful tedium.” He sought visual contact with John cleaning his gun across the way. Impossible to acquire with John in proximity. “John, do something entertaining.”
“I’m not your court jester.” He reassembled the firearm with the precision of focus Sherlock committed to a crime scene or to a musical piece. The images overlapped as double exposed photographs in Sherlock’s palace. Yes.
“I couldn’t vouch for that. You’ll earn a BAFTA yet playing the fool as you do.” Prodding a lion with a stick. He did it all the time.
John had the temerity to take offense.
“Don’t bother. I’m in no mood to cater to your overfed ego. I need a diversion, provide me with one or else stand aside while I find one of my own.”
John narrowed his eyes. Sherlock met them squarely. He could locate his chosen distraction easily enough. His dealers maintained their business by virtue of convenience; their markets once cornered were never deserted. Sherlock could name the location of three rendezvous points without putting up any effort. This must have been obvious even to John, because the other man left his SIG to invade Sherlock’s couch, laden by his ubiquitous sigh. Sherlock only too happily repaid the inconvenience, claiming John’s thigh for his pillow cushion and anchor. He smells of mineral oil and cordite. Sherlock pressed in closer for more.
John’s mumbled “nutter” was just audible over the subtle din of competent fingers mussing Sherlock’s hair by the handful. Sherlock shut his eyes in contemplation. He could have got the drugs—obvious—but he didn’t want them. He had what he wanted, by hook or by crook.
“You know, you never asked me about the snake. I wondered when you would.”
Sherlock blinked to lucidity, unfazed by the non-sequitur. He shifted mental tracks, adjusting his position to examine John once more. Maps> ribs> clock face> badge> lungs> bomb>serpent. The mark at issue sat inoffensively on John’s upper arm. He wears sleeveless tops now. He lets me see. Sherlock dammed up the thrill in his chest.
“I didn’t.” He hadn’t thought it of any importance when he had the contents of the elusive bandage before him or the replica of a double-sheet of Grey’s in life size, yet this was also its own riddle to solve. “The serpent, why the serpent? You never said.”
“You know me well enough, tell me what it means.”
Sherlock reached up, and then hesitated. “May I?”
“You don’t need to ask.”
That hadn’t always been so. His skin tingled at what could be inferred.
Sherlock familiarized himself with the deep verdant hues that made up the snakeskin and the gunmetal grey that offset its hexagonal scales and topside. John’s bicep contracted and the reptile positively undulated beneath his touch. The effect was entrancing.
“This one has more scarring than the others. The outermost incisions are deeper and more raised. I never took you for one to try your hand in scarification.”
“It’s not much, just part of the major line work. Besides, you didn’t take me as one for any of this when we met.” John leaned into his fingers’ press, steady and sure. Sherlock pressed harder to see if he might quail.
John never quailed.
Unusually stirred, Sherlock gave up trying anymore. He didn’t want to try, he only wanted to know. He trusted the answer would be true. Since when do I trust?
He mapped the outer limits of the serpent’s form in unbridled wonder. Since when have I wondered? “What is it, if not a snake alone?”
“Temptation.” Sherlock lifted his eyes to John’s. His friend shrugged quite matter-of-factly, if more grimly at heart. “I wanted to be a doctor. Something had to give, so I gave.”
Sherlock scraped his nails where poison fang met ignition string. “Temptation ate the bomb.”
“Temptation harked it up more like. What’s a more fitting substitute for drugs than near death?”
“I said, ‘dangerous’...”
“And here I am.”
Because, for all their intellectual disparities, John and Sherlock were the same.
Sherlock continued on his fool’s errand no wiser, aching in a most peculiar fashion to immortalize each unique sweep and stroke and scar on John’s skin with his fingers, with his mouth. Temptation ate the bomb and here you are. Sherlock wet his lips and wondered at his own thirst. But what’s become of temptation?
Texture and taste, he wanted to catalogue both at every place where John’s colours changed. He had John’s naked image burned into his memory; his other senses nagged for that equality.
“John...” He knew he ought to ask for this. There were rules they had regarding boundaries and touch, but John hadn’t removed his fingers from Sherlock’s hair and he had yet to reject Sherlock’s compulsion to get closer in any vehement fashion. Sherlock needed, yearned to fill his mental databanks with all that John refused to put into words, if he ever could have done. ‘Let me have this, give me this, I need this.’ Sherlock found he was no better at verbalising his impulses.
Sherlock dared a hand under John’s vest, pushing it upward and replacing his fingers with his lips. John’s sudden intake of breath drew his abdominal muscles tight. All the better to bite and lick up toward his navel. Trail of hair, sparse and dark, leading up from the pubis, following the midline of the torso.
“Sherlock?” John’s hand cupped the back of Sherlock’s head in what may have passed for protectiveness had there been a threat.
“Shh, just let me.” Tastes include remnants of soap, generic store brand, a trace of detergent, expected levels of salt. Sherlock inhaled deeply, drinking John in here. Sweat and detergent, generic. I’ll have to have him use mine; this one gives him rash.
The drawn clock face beneath his ribs dangled from a chain. It was a fob watch that lacked either a closure or hands to tell time. Time is fleeting perhaps, but a clock without hands is never right at all, much less twice a day. The sheer, John-like sentiment of it drew his lips and he brushed them across the noon hour. John gave a murmur above him, an almost indiscernible exhale. The numbers were embossed in dark green as well. Temptation at all times. Sherlock sympathized against his better nature.
He swiped his tongue about the hollow chamber where the burnished fob watch dangled. His mind supplied metal, brass while his tongue perceived flesh and faint carbon. Sherlock’s fingers climbed John’s waist as his lips ascended. He counted the sternal ends of each rib he encountered back from twelve. He clicked his incisors against three. John’s hands never left his hair. Still salt and sweat. Smooth but for the odd invasive surgical scar. Sherlock cherished those.
On reaching the centre left of John’s chest, he kissed Edinburgh without any love for the place, noting how the heart muscle jolted at the gesture. John remained impassive despite his heart’s telling treachery. John didn’t quail and didn’t break; Sherlock wanted at least for him to bend. He pulled back to drag the wrinkled vest off John’s body over his head.
He rubbed a cheekbone along the pitted scar of John’s shoulder. The man eased back and Sherlock demurred, preferring to avoid the bitter tang of adrenaline that came with threat. John wasn’t a man to threaten. He changed directions, taking the right arm to task instead.
His doctor nuzzled his jaw in arguably fond gratitude. Sherlock felt it in his heels and the deadened pads of his toes. John chastely kissed his neck and Sherlock’s own heart muscle surged. He wondered what he tasted like to John’s taste buds, how his flesh fared under other lips.
John wound Sherlock’s arm around his neck. Sherlock took his cue to entangle himself further, nosing down the length of his right arm to savour the RAMC mark. The faintest taste of skin, not a hint of sand. Dimpled. Coarse where there’s hair. The cities had swallowed up it up; Sherlock saw no reason why he shouldn’t. He ventured to suck bruises onto blotted skin and sat back to admire the contrast. He wanted John all speckled in his handiwork; he liked the look of it.
John’s blunt nails scoring his back sent sparks flickering in his vision. He imagined those lines always there, signs of Sherlock forever claimed. He swept the image away as dangerous thinking. He didn’t need to be claimed.
Sherlock shoved up John’s arm to mouth along the route to St. Bart’s and the army outpost on the underside, only to encounter a series of mottled imperfections. They were large and small, middling and oblong.
He bit at one—a wrong move. John grunted and yanked away from his teeth, subduing him with a twisting pinch to his inner thigh. Sherlock tensed, blinking back a sheen of reflexive tears at the pain. Sensitive to pressure and pain despite extensive nerve damage. Sherlock suppressed his impulse to sink his teeth in again. The only worthwhile results are repeatable results.
John unwittingly stayed his sadomasochism. “IED shrapnel from a roadside bomb.”
See, so much easier when people tell me without being asked.
Sherlock saved his apologies. These weren’t his fault. But he counted and memorized each one as though he might discover whose fault they were and punish them, as though there were any way he could.
He was progressing in the direction of John’s wrist along the Arghandab and River Thames when he felt a diverting mouth attach to the faint, lumpen scar cutting crossways at the crest of his right collarbone. He got a smack on the arse when he didn’t explain.
He croaked, “Open transverse fracture,” thinking of that mark on his cheek for all time. John gave an exasperated sigh while Sherlock sampled the incompetent tang Scotland Yard to stop himself tasting that, too.
“I won’t ask.”
“Probably best not to.”
Sherlock covered old ground on the path back to Baker Street, past the badge, up John’s good shoulder, beyond his fragile, tender neck to the place he’d been before: the belated hind end of floruit and the whipping tail of the serpent. Sherlock fluttered his tongue about the edge of John’s grandest scar. John shuddered all too readily. Rear entry, large calibre projectile, downward angle. He thought better than to share.
At last, Sherlock got to toil with Temptation. He nibbled it a few millimetres at a stretch to sample the variations of hue and flavour. Were he any more voracious, he’d have drawn blood. John might have allowed it. The freedom of his trust was intoxicating. The closest he’d come before was drugs; this far exceeded his best-made solution.
John was offering him everything; Sherlock would be a fool to deny himself, and Sherlock was no fool.
“Up. Up, up, get up!” He pushed at John’s shoulders till the other man stood and moved to follow him. Sherlock wanted John on his feet; his doctor, his soldier, his unbalanced, beckoning force.
He would rend the best man he knew limb from limb with tongue, teeth, fists, and cock, and feel no remorse. He would glory in that possession. Because John was his, it had been decided. He had decided. Not since he was a child had he feared the beast in his chest more strikingly.
He scraped his nails across John’s ink heart, across his stinging scar till blood rose up in welts. “I will tear you apart.”
John’s gaze was unwavering as his hand. “All right. Just...just...do it.”
Sherlock hooked his non-dominant hand round John’s nape and locked his dominant fingers across John’s throat. He fitted the web of thumb and forefinger to his airway and pressed with intent. John impacted the wall like a chiming cymbal, a bass drum struck. Their foreheads touched where they shared breaths, in and out, John’s breaths the shorter ones.
“I could kill you where you stand, strangle the life from of your body, and ensure no one ever knows what I’ve done to you.”
John’s lips swivelled into brackets, secretive parentheticals highlighted in vermillion. “I’d love to see you try.”
Sherlock would crack him open to lick his heart, tattooed imposter be hanged. He could cradle that heart to keep, suspend it in a jar for his sole appreciation. He could make room in the freezer for both lurid arms, discard that dastardly, mocking leg, and preserve John’s eyes in embalming fluid. Each of these acts was within his capabilities. His morality, such as it was, would bear with.
Instead, he did the more heavenly thing of all those things he could have done: he kissed John. Softly, reverently, he fitted his mouth over thinner lips and tasted. John stretched up to meet him, teeth catching hold of his upper lip to suckle, retreating to caress. John breathed in puffs of insufficient breath, lips parted to the invasive seeking of Sherlock’s tongue and the need for air.
Sherlock delved beyond the nondescript flavour of saliva to ubiquitous tea and toast, to the taste of John already inscribed for posterity on his taste buds. Metal, asphalt, carbon, salt, desperation, fear, temptation. He tilted John’s head back till he could plunder his fill, biting, licking, gorging himself on the one person who would not run. John was twisted under him, back arching for more, scrabbling at his thighs, his waist; they were entangled from lips to legs.
The manners in which they might yet seep into each other left him in a state of agonized ecstasy, hard, needful, starved as this body had not been since onset of pubescence. Sherlock would flay John open, and then suck him down. Sherlock would drive him to the edge of sanity and when he thought mercy had come, pitch him over. He was nothing if not meticulous.
John’s chest shuddered suddenly, rattled, his mouth, before pliant and welcome, became a trap that had Sherlock snapped back to escape; the heel of John’s palm slammed into his solar plexus, sending him staggering, winded. A more graceless man would have landed in a sprawl. Sherlock kept to his feet.
He wanted an explanation, would have demanded to know why he’d been ejected from where he belonged. He had earned the right to be this close. John was his now. That he was John’s he could not say aloud, yet this was no less so.
John’s face was flushed an unbecoming shade. He was bent over at the waist, panting.
His throat, his damnable, good throat, was ringed in red. He’ll have bruises before the hour’s done.
Sherlock’s vision tilted. He stumbled when his knees went to cotton. John caught him and Sherlock scrambled out of his hands, shoving himself into the wall to stay upright.
Sherlock had almost killed him. Not reciprocation, not foreplay. Respiratory distress.
“No, no, no! No.”
John stayed back, chest heaving, his less tartan organ run amok under flesh. Sherlock couldn’t bear to watch it, that heart he’d wanted—wanted—to stop. He crossed his arms behind his head. He couldn’t look at his hands. What good are they if they do this? What good am I?
“What’s the matter with me?”
John came behind him, rubbing circles on his back that did nothing to shut up the voice that wanted more. John had offered him everything, which should have been sufficient. I ask too much, but why shouldn’t I when it’s for me?
“Take a deep breath.”
“Don’t patronize me! I won’t be patronized.” He yanked at his hair in frustration, knocking John’s hands away before they could stop him. “Leave it! Leave it.” Sherlock thumped his head on the wall. It was all he could do not to touch John again. What’s happening to me? I’m better than this. I’ve been better than this.
“Sherlock, you’re okay. I’m okay. Nothing’s wrong.”
“That isn’t what you usually say.” He scowled, hissed like frightened, cornered scrap of prey. “What happened to ‘in case anybody cares, I’m still not gay’?”
“Do you really want to be getting into the complexities of human sexuality right now? Is that something you really want to do?”
“No! And I never have. I have the Work and it’s been more than enough for me. It was enough until you, until this part of you.” The glorious part, the best, least predictable part that made Sherlock jealous and dependent.
John fell quiet before him. “Look, if you don’t want it.” He let out a piddling cough. “This part of me, I mean, you don’t have to have it.”
Sherlock wanted that to be true. He needed it to be true. “I can’t. I’m sorry. I thought I was and there was...” He braced himself against the wallpaper. He wanted John’s hands in his hair like before, the denim under his cheek, the taste of him more unknown than foregone conclusion. “I can’t.” He could devour John whole and the man would let him.
He had to be self-sacrificing for John’s sake, a role which wouldn't ever suit him.
“Hey, it’s all right. It’s all fine. For Christ’s sake, lay down before you wear yourself to the ground.” John’s hand came to rest on his neck, thumb drawing back and forth in gentling strokes. “Come on.” He guided Sherlock back to couch and drew him down till Sherlock had pressed his face into John’s lap to hide. Sherlock felt shaken and naked, yet he was the more fully clothed.
He wanted John in the worst way, yet not in the way that most others would want him, not those who’d try to take him away. They who would coddle and gentle and never harm. They who will never understand him yet will care for him properly. He couldn’t hope to compete when danger was all he had to give, when danger was the core of who he was, and John’s next breath required more.
Lost as to how he should salvage a day so well begun , Sherlock held fast to his anchor and hoped he would stay. He was too much a coward, now, to vocally implore, please stay, please.
John didn’t wear his vest tops anymore after, so Sherlock couldn’t see. He felt as though he’d lost him already.
Sherlock burrowed under the heap of his bed covers on another day. He was naked underneath them, thankful they were light to save him stifling. He’d retreated here to reflect. The meticulous state of his mind was upended, the sprawling order of his palace was askew. John Watson had made its foundation his own and crept in like a draught in a neglected home while Sherlock was diverted. It was the first day. I allowed his flattery to cloud my perception and he hasn’t stopped since.
I suppose this is the end of that.
He overheard John’s careful tread on the opposite side of his door: the score of John’s mornings was tea for Sherlock (left on the table), the creak of rubber-gripped soles as John set to warming up with dynamic stretching exercises in the sitting room. He might pause for telly if Sherlock left it on and something caught his fancy, but he’d be out by five till six, his weight slightly uneven on the stairs. Today, he loitered in the kitchen for longer than usual, hovering outside Sherlock’s sanctum.
“You are alive, aren’t you? I mean, I’m not going to blunder on your rotting corpse when you I come to pick up the washing, right?” There was the clink of metal on ceramic. Tea, he’s made me tea. Sherlock shook himself. Don’t be absurd, he always makes tea; he’s a consummate Englishman.
“That is a question so imbecilic, it only just warrants a response. You would have smelt the decomposition by now had I died.”
John let out a startled laugh-cum-sigh. His voice was just to the side of a rasp. “Disgustingly comforting of you to answer.” Sherlock hugged his knees when he heard a softly offered, “git.” He was hiding behind his patellae like a loon, lips upturned at the ends. “That’s me off, then. I’ve left you tea and toast. Pretend to eat it, at least.”
“Twat!” was John’s wholly mature parting shot. His giggle stayed behind.
Sherlock regretted to hear him go. He regretted any time John was gone. To the clinic, to the park, to Harry’s; anytime John was out of sight, Sherlock thought it a mistake. Arm’s length was hardship enough, hand’s width was exceeding forbearance.
Sherlock rose and dressed once the house had gone quiet, Mrs. Hudson snuffling in the depths of REM sleep and John’s trot taking him blocks east. He stepped out of the flat to consult the early-rising lot of his “Irregulars,” as John liked to call them. Nothing new or maddening under the sun, not today. He went on his way.
London, their city London swaddled him in familiarity, each corner occupied with a moment they’d shared that had defined their friendship. This city had been his to begin with; he hadn’t realized that imparting holes-in-the-wall and covert corners to John would make her theirs together. But she was theirs. The ink seeping ever deeper into John’s dermal layer was a sign of his devotion—some might call it fanaticism whereas Sherlock thought it right. London was worthy.
Sherlock, however, wasn't, not nearly.
Sherlock paced the alleyway beside Angelo’s, mindful of Mycroft’s CCTV cameras recording his tread. He didn’t care; for once, his brother’s interference would be nearly welcome. It was Mycroft or this. The closest CCTV switched off. So much for sibling solidarity. He’d never put much stock in it before, not even when it was warranted.
Sherlock made the call.
The phone was at the start of its fifth ring when she answered. “Mr. Holmes, to what do I owe the pleasure?” She was in a spacious room, one with high ceilings if the echo of her voice could be trusted. There were open windows or open doors. No clients, he surmised and something in him eased.
“I’ve a concern and, I believe, a dilemma.”
“And you’ve contacted me. How flattering.”
“I’m hardly spoiled for choice,” he ground out, hating that he’d been reduced to seeking opinions to understand his own thoughts.
“You do know how to treat a girl. Tell me, what’s got the world’s only consulting detective tied up in knots? I’m assuming you haven’t developed a taste for bondage.”
“Can’t say that I have.”
She tutted, playful to the flick of her tongue. “Pity.”
“The answer to your previous question: John. I find myself in something of a quandary where he’s concerned.”
“The good doctor. Has something happened to him?”
“No, nothing recent, nothing I can give name to.”
“Then, why the depression? No, no,” she halted his intrusion, “you sound depressed. And upset. What’s happened?”
“I want him.” Even he dreaded to know his meaning.
“All right.” Her question was implied.
Sherlock felt obliged to give his vexation voice. “He has these markings, these tattoos covering his chest and abdomen, covering his uppermost back. He—they’re....I can’t describe them.” He pulled at his abruptly stifling scarf. “He’s—they’re remarkable.” It was all of a piece in his mind.
“I imagine he wears them well.”
“Artfully, compellingly. He’s marvellous, for lack of a better word. I can’t stop looking for them, trying to see them now I’ve seen them. He kept them hidden at first, you see. He wouldn’t let me see. I didn’t know there was anything to be seen, but most were there all the while. They’re his and part of him and they should be the more ordinary for it, yet—yet I see even a hint of them and I can think of nothing else.”
He confessed, “I’m going mad” as she remarked, “You’re in love.”
“What?” He choked the word, he hadn’t meant to. “What? No. No, that doesn’t make any sense. If it wasn’t you, if it isn’t Moriarty—how?” Because John was ordinary, the extraordinary sort, and his brilliance was commonplace, and his fashion had never been anything of the kind. Yet he keeps secrets over secrets which he carries so close to his heart they never leave him. They are a part of him, because he chose it and ever chooses it again. And then, he thought, How not?
Irene had let him have his silence on the line.
“Whatever you may think, your obsession with the good doctor’s body is logical.” Obsession, what’s she know from obsession? Sherlock thought folly the more accurate descriptor.
“What are you on about?” He didn’t know why he’d bothered to call The Woman. She was dead, good as anyway, and this was a reckless chance to take, but he had to speak with someone who might be able to piece him out and no one save blood had come nearer than she.
“It’s symptomatic. You’re enchanted with his body art as a consequence of your obsession with the rest of him, which you have to admit is a little funny given how common he is.”
Sherlock was helpless to keep his hackles rising to the stratosphere. “There isn’t anything common,” he spat the word, “about John. Not his body art, not his intellect. He’s well above average.”
“Ooh, you’re worse off than I first believed. You’re fascinated by him because he’s defied your admittedly poor expectations and he continues to do so. Shall we examine your motives?”
Sherlock clapped his jaw shut, sweeping his fingers across his lips. He wouldn’t rise to her provocation. But she must be wrong. She must be! Sherlock’s ‘heart’ was no burrow; it was forever unfit for habitation.
His silence was no protestation.
“All right, we’ll begin with the man himself. John Watson, a common man of arguably above average intelligence who does little to strive above his peers. He might have had the makings of a truly brilliant man in his youth, but he’s let that potential lie fallow. He’s a simple man, now, and he luxuriates in it, or so you believed once. What separates him from those you detest is that he recognizes your gifts for what they are and is generous with his praise. He doesn’t hesitate to encourage you in your work, nor is he afraid to tell you to stand down when you go too far. He cares for you more so than I believe even he realized before we met.” He thought he heard her take a drag of a cigarette, but he couldn’t recall at all whether she’d smoked, phantom wafts of Chloé clouding his eidetic memory. He sucked in greedy lungfuls of piss stink and rot to keep diversion at bay.
“John is a good man,” he affirmed in lieu of examining the sensory lapses that had orbited his doctor, and this woman, from the start. Sherlock didn’t think he’d yet been as enamoured with the nature of a man as he was with John’s. Or less concerned of a woman’s veracity. She had staked tentative claim to his trust.
“If I’d know virtuous was your type, I’d have worn a different outfit our first meeting.” Clothing which would have told Sherlock too much, clothing which would have ensured she wasn’t alive for this conversation to take place. Your life would be forfeit but for your own ingenuity. There was a compliment for the Woman in that; he’d conveyed it in contacting her at all.
“I haven’t got a type.”
“You do. As I said, he’s not so dull-witted as you first thought.” Sherlock grimaced. “Don’t pout; he even had me fooled for a full two minutes. The mind supplies what it expects to see, you’re no more immune to that than the rest of us.”
“I should be.” It was the work of a lifetime that he should be.
“To err is human, as you are, Mr. Holmes. Don’t let that be what keeps him from you.”
Sherlock went still. “You’re speaking in riddles.”
She laughed at him; he felt the notes resound in the pulsing at his wrists the way John’s sighs rattled in his ears. “I’m speaking emotions. No wonder you’re so addled.”
He ticked an eyebrow at a passing alley cat. “Pun unintended?”
“If you like. Regardless, your doctor has managed to keep secrets from you only because you haven’t the foresight to expect them. You underestimated his worth and ceased to look when you found what you expected. Anticipation breeds oversight. You found his simple secrets and missed the complicated truths altogether. That failing wasn’t his.”
Sherlock examined her conclusions to dissect his own. He slapped his leather-clad palm against the brick side of a watchmaker’s shop, setting his hard head against his depressed knuckles. I should have foreseen this.
“But, now for my question. Why does any of it matter? Why is it this out of everything you’ve gathered that makes John Watson exceptional? You must have seen an extensively tattooed person before. If you’ve ridden the Underground once, you’ve seen a dozen.”
“I have.” Sherlock turned over the assorted collected images in his mind. This room of his palace was filled to the brim yet ever-expanding. They all paled in bright compare. “None have been of interest.”
“Because you don’t care about pedestrians on the street or strangers beside you on the Tube, do you? You care about John. You care what he thinks of you, what he says about you, what information he thinks is worthy of his hiding it from you. You’re trying to take him apart without use of a knife.” She laid her cigarette aside. It burned loudly in an empty room, wherever she was. Paris, still? “I’m impressed. It appears I underestimated his hold over you.”
“There’s no hold, merely a preoccupation.” Not love, merely caring. But wasn’t care a brand of love to start with?
“What’s to be preoccupied with? Hasn’t he told you what you wanted to know?”
Sherlock easily concocted thirty questions he could demand to have John answer. And he would. Yet, Sherlock realized that those thirty would be insufficient as he now thought up thirty more and a passel of deviations to follow. Sherlock wavered. Sixty petty, pointless, inane, indispensable demands on John’s time would become 6,000 would become a lifetime stolen for the sake of his heaving his hard drive. A single lifetime. To think a single lifetime of examination would be sufficient to sate his hunger on the subject of John Watson was folly indeed.
He might have laughed if he saw any way to salvage it all. He pulled at the lapels of his over-warm coat and plotted how to stretch millennia out of forty-one years. The British male life expectancy is 77.95 years. He’ll survive me by two decades should the criminal element fail and cancer keep; boredom, risk will kill me first. I will kill me first. That was yet in the cards.
“It frightens you,” Irene murmured, dissolving the opaque haze of his concentration, the gossamers tendrils of a nascent plan.
“Nothing frightens me.” Everything about him.
“He does. The thought that he might not believe in you as you’d hoped.” Wrong, wrong, wrong, he didn’t say.
“John is an intensely private man.” I don’t care!, he could have roared, his own accuser to his crime.
“And an intensely loyal one. He won’t replace you.” Replace? Replace?!, he hadn’t thought to think. Not twice.
He snapped, “I don’t care about that!”
“Lie to yourself if you feel the need, but don’t ever think you can lie to me. I won’t support that.” Sherlock felt stayed, whipped onto a cruel floor a second time. Manicured nails swept across a hard tabletop—marble, he supposed, perhaps fine wood—to grasp an elegant package of cigarettes—a lack of crinkling denotes cardstock rather than plastic casing, something high-end? His lips pursed in blithe sympathy to the melody of a cigarette lighter, to the song of flame and fag and nicotine. He needed a patch, he needed five, down his forearm in a line.
I’ll hurt him. He shuddered at the truth. He’ll hurt me, abandon me like all the others.
“I can’t do this.”
“You can,” she sighed, a capitulation to what he didn’t know, “but you might not and you may never.”
“Is that supposed to mean something? You’re just...saying words to hear yourself speak. I’ve neither the time nor the inclination for idle chitchat.”
“My words are only idle if you refuse to hear them. Compromise or lose.”
“I never lose.”
“Pride is confidence for fools.”
“And hubris has levelled empires. What will it do to you?”
“We’re no longer discussing John, are we?” Somewhere, a spider fiddled and spun.
“The full quote, depending on the version, is ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.’” She was reciting from memory; there were no pages to turn.
Sherlock’s brows knitted together in wonderment. “I didn’t take you for an adherent.”
She hummed into a mirthless laugh. “My reading habits have little to do with any particular devotion. I’ve found that people are haunted by demons of all kinds, so I seek them out where they begin.” She took a sip—a drink? where from?—in serene contemplation. He abhorred that she should bask in it where he floundered.
“And what do you make of mine? What of my demon?”
Porcelain kissed marble in peaceable clink. Tea. “You’re thoroughly possessed, Mr. Holmes. We should all be so lucky.” A door opened, a wordless signal relayed. “Goodbye, Sherlock,” she said.
He was awash in amber notes, rose oil, and wood, but it was the scent of her hair wet with John’s pilfered shampoo that haunted his sinuses in the dank and the damp.
Contrary to his outwardly placid state, Sherlock mood had not improved. In his mind, he raced about this room of strangers, this one chamber of his palace in a fit. He needed something to be marvellous, someone to shout out at him the way John did from the tip of his normal head to the breadth of his ink-splattered waist. He craved an outlier.
There was no one to be found.
Sherlock leant against the masonry, helpless to make sense of the reconstruction plaguing his thought processes. His mind palace had been redone in his absence; his blank walls had come aflame. In the dungeon where addiction slept, the door was slicked in green, gunmetal and green, from knob to frame. His doctor’s influence could not have been more apparent if he had left a sign reading, John Watson was here.
Yes, he was, and Sherlock was powerless to make him go. He didn’t want it badly enough.
Warning: Unintentional relatively consensual breathplay.
Chapter title is a line from Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress[x].
I finished this up on just about no sleep, so I know it's probably riddled with errors. I'm traveling for the next few days, but I promise to fix as many errors as I can as soon as possible.Tried to catch all the typos and missing words but I may not have got them all. Point them out if you see them, please! Tweaked the paragraph on scar biting (in short, don't!). Hopefully, this is an improvement. Thanks, Quietbang for the protip!
Chapter 8: If my Soul was not fitted to prize it
Sherlock feels he has to make amends for the 'incident.' He makes something of a hash of it. Mycroft is no help.
Temptation ate the bomb and lived to tell the story. Here is a story of mine.
“I used to have scars on my hands. Not like what I get on cases now. Little nicks and gouges in my palms and in back of my knuckles. I’d get them from the thickets outside the house, the brambles. Mummy hated them, but no matter how much she complained to the groundskeeper, they always stayed. I used to think that was Mycroft’s doing as he loved to toss me in them. I’d get myself all caught in the thorns and roots. Our housekeeper never let up about the state of my nightclothes. I hated Mycroft for that for more years than I ever idolized him.” He didn’t let himself count the years; they went on much too long.
John remained at the door with the shopping in hand. He hadn’t had the chance to take off his coat. “What’d he do that for?”
“At the time, I didn’t know. I didn’t ever know what it was I’d done to upset him, but he’d shove me into the brambles on the odd night and order me to stay until he returned for me. It could be minutes or the whole night long. I was seven before I thought to follow him back. I was determined that Mother and Father should know what he was doing to me, so he’d be punished and leave me to my bed. Not that I slept. It was the principle of the thing.”
Sherlock drummed his fingers on the armrest of his chair. “I found them with our relatives that night; they and their contemporaries having nightcaps in the den. My brother was with them in one of his ‘grown-up’ suits, sitting prim at Uncle Lysander’s elbow. The lot of them were discussing my latest escapades at high volume, some het-up about what damage my ‘outlandish’ behaviour was doing to the family name. They hadn’t a care about whether I could hear them—and I would have from my bed. The external walls were thicker; their voices would have been muffled by the wind at night.” He hadn’t cried at that age, he was more studied in property damage than emotional outbursts, even at seven. The kitchen had been a loss.
“Mycroft was watching out for you. Brothers tend to do that.” John took his purchases to the kitchen where he put everything in its place.
Sherlock hopped up to follow. “Mycroft was lying to me. All my life, he’d drilled into my head that knowledge was power and he kept the ultimate power out of my hands. He was always doing that. He kept me weak when I most needed to be strong. I might have trusted then in time and they would have lorded their disdain over my head like I was some sort of performance animal. What kind of brother does that?”
“The kind who never wanted to see you hurt.” John adeptly rounded him in his pursuit of evening tea.
Sherlock ground his teeth till pain radiated throughout his jaw. “He sat there, evening after evening, nights on end, while he left me in the cold.” Sherlock sat against the counter, cataloguing John’s every move in absent fashion. “He didn’t even enjoy it.” Sherlock had concluded that much from a single glance. “An entire gathering devoted to air grievances at my abhorrent behaviour and he didn’t enjoy a moment of it. Any idiot could have seen it and given the fortune in Oxbridge education inhabiting the place, they all should have. He hated them.”
John put the kettle on. “I can’t imagine why.” His reply crackled, dry as tea leaves.
“Every one of them that had doted on his blessed head the day he was born, every one that had called him precious when he was brilliant, and every one that insulted me; he hated them all. On my behalf, if you believe a word he says.” Before Mycroft had wielded influence, he had collected knowledge. Sherlock had been his first conquest. He hated that his brother warranted even that much credit.
“But he stayed.”
“Yes, of course he stayed. Knowledge is power and Mycroft has always been powerful. They spoke too freely in the presence of a child.” Sherlock chuckled in memory of their arrogance. “For all that I was the outlier, for all that they treated me like a leper to be borne, they forgot my brother. They failed to remember that Mycroft was the Cuckoo child before me. He sat with while they reviled me to my parents’ faces and they forgot he was there. That fatal mistake was ultimately their undoing.” He had loved them to his capacity for the sentiment when he was small; he had mistakenly believed himself to be loved in return.
Sherlock wanted a drink or a cigarette, he wanted a needle. John was what he had.
“You must understand. Mycroft changed after my birth. He ceased to be the troublesome firstborn and became someone brand new. He sat with them and he loathed them for all they said about me, loathed them. He never forgot, nor did he allow them to plead ignorance when they came with hands outstretched for their bit of my late father’s estate.” At John’s confused mien, he explained, “My father was the Holmes patriarch. The roots of our family run deep in England. Our holdings are what some would call impressive.”
“Loads of useless cousins thrice removed?”
“More than bear mentioning, save for their heritable greed.”
“So, Mycroft kept the inheritance from the ones who’d made merry at your expense.”
“That’s...the most of it.” But never all; some stories lived on deathbeds best.
“Remind me why we hate him again.” Sherlock’s neck didn’t warm at his use of ‘we,’ the steam from the electric kettle was merely a bit humid. John poured them each a cup and dropped the teabags in.
“Because knowledge is power and he left me powerless! How can I ever trust that he won’t do it again?”
“Given that you’ve pretty much heard the worst that a child can, you don’t think he’s out of things to hide for your own good?”
“I don’t know, but I won’t take a chance on being left flatfooted again. Knowledge is power, John—“
“And you’re tripping over your royal sceptre every day. Simmer down, Highness, before you give yourself an aneurysm.” John placed his mug directly in his hand.
Sherlock huffed, taking a drink solely to dispel his flatmate’s piercing glare. “I’m not wrong.”
“Maybe not, but there’s such a thing as long enough to hold a grudge.”
Sherlock spotted the opening he’d been seeking. He cradled his tea to his lips. “Does that edict also apply to us?”
John paused mid-gulp to regard Sherlock. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m referring to the couch...incident. Am I going to be punished for it indefinitely, or do I at least get the chance to plead my case?”
“I’m not punishing you for that, or anything, though I’ve gotta say I’m not tickled to see the necrotizing flesh experiment is back on again.”
“I need it for a case. If I’m not being punished, why are you hiding from me?”
John returned to his drink. “There isn’t any case, but thanks for playing. Hiding?”
“Repeating the question in abbreviated form is unlikely to deter me. You’re back wearing the jumpers. I thought you gave them up. You should also be aware by now that I don’t discuss the details of every case with you.”
“Sure you do, I’m the skull upgrade: I talk back. And you know I get cold in London weather. I’m still adjusting.”
“It’s been over a year, you’re well past the acclimatization period. And I wouldn’t get too cocky. Upgrades can be downgraded, or even replaced.”
“Sorry my body chemistry doesn’t behave to your liking. I’ll try to do better. I’m sure Monsieur Flesh-free over there will be happy to pick up the milk when I’m not here to do it.”
“Needless sarcasm,” Sherlock bared his teeth, “how clever.” John wasn’t going to leave, John would never leave.
“Insulting my intelligence again, how shocking.” John poured out the remainder of his tea, a sure danger sign. Sherlock scrambled internally to salvage this conversation. John could never make anything easy, ideal for a consulting detective who abhorred ease.
“You’re taking my actions personally when they aren’t personal.”
“I’m not taking them as anything. My tats were giving you trouble, so I put them away. ‘S not like it’s the first time they ever bothered anybody. I wear layers because I’m accustomed to it. I’ll get accustomed to it again. So will you.” John turned his back on Sherlock to rinse out his cup. Sherlock ruffled his dishevelled hair.
“I didn’t want things to be like this.”
John sighed. “They’re not like anything.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Estranged is Harry and me. You and I talk every day, we’re not estranged.” John sat the cup to dry on the rack and began tackling the breakfast dishes.
“You won’t let me see you like before.” Sherlock missed that signs that John wasn’t ordinary, the other man faded into obscurity without them.
“You don’t want to.” John gave a casual-seeming shrug. “You said it wasn’t working for you anymore, so I put it away.”
He keeps using that phrase. It was driving Sherlock to distraction. “You can’t just tuck bits of yourself out of sight like a magpie.”
“You do it all the time. I certainly do it. I’m a doctor and a soldier, you don’t think there are parts of me tucked so far down I couldn’t find them with a tour guide? Think again. ‘S not like anyone else is interested in those bits.”
Sherlock placed his hands on his hips to keep himself snatching John up to remind him how interested Sherlock was.
“I don’t want anyone else seeing you like that.” That trust was his—had been. He didn’t want to chance John finding someone who wouldn’t turn their back, for whom control wasn’t a philosophy lifelong.
“Don’t worry, no one else will.” John left him standing by the sink. “Is the paper still out here or have you already burned it?” This was John, sliding from him in peerless British gestures of dismissal. ‘Biscuits, tea, and silence. Calmly carry on.’ Despicable. My life now, my doing.
“Burned it first thing. You’ll have to borrow Mrs. Hudson’s.”
“Will do. Back in a mo’.”
Sherlock stood sentry over the kitchen in motionless deliberation until John’s footsteps vanished toward the ground floor. He sent his mug careening toward the kitchen’s unoccupied wall in a swing. It served more purpose as decoration than solace for his nervous, churning stomach.
John thudded back up the stairs, the paper tucked into his back pocket. “I assume there’s a good reason for the mess you just made.”
“Assume whatever you like.” Sherlock grabbed his coat on his way past the hook. He needed something more than constrained reassurance ill-disguised by farcical normalcy. What he wanted was John and his mind palace set to rights and sweat and skin of all colours under his lips. He wanted more of improbable verging on impossibility. He wanted to forget that he had ever known different. He wanted to know himself again.
There he had a smattering of luck: there was a proven solution for that.
Sherlock made it as far as Bond Street before his taxi was diverted from its original destination. He might have cursed his luck if it would have done anything more than give evidence to his annoyance. He wasn’t even allowed the outlet of slamming his way into his brother’s unlit apartments, the door having been opened and shut by a cheerless, moustachioed butler of blank affect.
The hearth was ablaze in Mycroft’s study, casting the imposing chamber in rust and ochre hues over lush green drapes and mahogany panel walls. It had never belonged to Father or Mother or mother’s brother Lysander, the letch. This was a place largely safe from history. Sherlock chewed his lip, shed his coat, and sat in wait. Mycroft would show his face in time; Sherlock would fume—and fret and wallow and pine. Sentiment is an unpleasant by-product of attachment. He unearthed a cigarette to light, patches long abandoned for inefficacy.
“That was a frightfully tall tale you told. How many overheard childhood horrors did you pillage to concoct such a gem?” Sherlock had noted his arrival by the slant of the flames, repelled and nourished by the breeze from the open door.
“Shut up, Mycroft. It’s not as if you came off badly.” Mycroft entered from the hall to pour himself two fingers of Lagavulin, the twenty-five-year old variety. He didn't offer Sherlock a drop.
“No, I suppose it wouldn’t do to anger John to the degree he resorts to physical violence next time we meet. Better to lend me a sheen of unwitting heroism and give root to your emotional dysfunction than confess that you hate me because I know you better than you’d like.”
“A nursery-age child could parse your rudimentary deductions.” Mycroft drank in the manner of a connoisseur, respectfully, reverently. The source of Sherlock’s learned reverence became all too plain. He heaved a plume of fragrant smoke.
“We’re no longer children, Sherlock. I cannot be the agent of your redemption forever.”
“As you have no redemptive qualities to speak of, I believe we’ve discovered a rare topic on which we entirely agree. Shall I alert the media?”
“No, we’d hate to plummet the stock market. Best to keep this one between us.”
Mycroft observed him openly. “What are you doing, Sherlock?”
Sherlock stubbed out his fag on the polished end table, drew his knees to his chest. “I don’t know.” He would kill his brother if he made the obvious remark. There was little Sherlock could not parse in his own time yet he feared time was in short supply. The spider spins and weaves in the distance.
His elder brother lowered himself to rest beside him on the settee. He smelt of ink and foreign soil. Denmark was this week. Next week will be Syria, I think.
“Your John, he said something once.”
Sherlock bent his lip. “You could at least pretend not to watch us at the flat.”
“To what end? You’re aware of my surveillance; we’ve no need for subterfuge. It’s only the two of us here.” Sherlock made wordless, perturbed acquiescence. “In any event, John remarked that a confidence cannot be coerced. You have been attempting to draw blood from the stone since the inception of this fascination of yours. Have you considered it may be time to allow your stone to rest?”
John’s addiction to the relentless torture of metaphors was eclipsed only by Mycroft’s perfection of the art. “You mean let him go.”
“I mean, let him breathe. He has been at the eye of your intellectual storm for months; put an end to it. Allow him the option of doing the same.”
“You are saying I should let him leave. You’re saying I should sever ties.” Panic buffeted him on all sides. This was Dartmoor without the benefit of a steady mate beside him.
Mycroft resorted to a vague, quelling gesture. “Not in the slightest. In whatever manner you’re capable, you care for John—though I suspect worship to be a more appropriate descriptor of your feelings for the man. As with any such devotion, responsibility exists on each of your parts: his to stay until this arrangement no longer satisfies and yours to leave him the choice.” Mycroft gently swished his whisky about the glass. “If I may be so presumptuous, I would like to offer a word of advice.”
“As if I have any hope of stopping you.”
Mycroft puffed, indulgent humour lightening his mien. “Quite.” He sobered. “I would strongly recommend against attempting to deceive John again. That he forgave you Baskerville was a triumph of sentiment over self-preservation, but John is a soldier, Sherlock. How long do you wager a soldier can ignore his survival instinct before deciding to withdraw?”
“John is unique to any soldier I’ve known.” I’d have lost him long ago were he not.
Mycroft’s eyebrows ascended to new heights. “Have you developed a habit of frequenting military installations the world over without telling me, brother?”
Sherlock treated his elder to a glare fuelled by decades-long suffering. Mycroft’s habitual pedantry wallowed at the shallow end of his patience.
“I’ve played unwilling guest to a slew of your Box 500 lackies on a frequent enough basis to evince repeatable responses to situational stimulus. John is unlike any of them.”
“Faulty logic, though I respect your attempt to analyse your emotions empirically. MI5 recruits a very specific subset of service personnel. You’ll find much of the force to be made up of the same sort, people who can and are willing to do what’s necessary to gather intelligence vital to the interests of Queen and Country. John is unlike them because John is not of them. Though I must say, I believe you’d arrive at similar conclusions given the chance to analyse every soldier in John’s particular demographic.”
“You can’t know that.”
“Caring is a disadvantage, Sherlock, but that has never stopped me. Perhaps you shouldn’t allow it to stop you either?”
“If this is one of your trifling stabs at fraternal commiseration—” Mycroft disregarded his supposition in a wave.
“This is nothing of the kind. You care for him and, despite what you may say, you’ve allowed past events to cloud your judgment where sentiment concerned. You care for him and have done without cause for months now. Now there’s cause and no reason for you to delay. What’s stopping you from having what you desire most?”
“He deserves more.”
“This is not a world where anyone gets what they deserve, Sherlock. Cosmic justice is best left to chance and fiction, and to the machinations of men very much”—he blinked—“like myself, I suppose.” Mycroft finished the last finger of his single malt in a hearty gulp. “What we get, we bleed for. Some of us are merely forced to bleed more than others. The question is whether the treasure we gain is worth the wound. Is John?”
“John is worth many, many wounds.”
“If you truly believe that, you’ve done yourself a disservice coming here tonight, as well as John. Perhaps it’s time to make your return.”
The likelihood of this night ending in anything less than a row is decreasing by orders of magnitude. “I think I’ll stay, if you don’t mind.”
“Running away from your problems, again? And here I thought you’d made progress.”
Sherlock glared daggers at his brother’s smug, bare throat. He’d bleed as well as any man. “Leave me in peace.”
“As you wish, petit frère.” Mycroft rose in his irrefutable grace to leave Sherlock to his own devices.
His brother glanced back at him, tumbler glinting in hand.
“Would he forgive me this?”
His expression was fond. “Sherlock, your doctor would forgive you anything, including this. That will be the ruin of you both, but is nonetheless quite true.”
“He knows I lied.” Mycroft’s face registered no surprise. He hadn’t expected events to take any other turn. Overeating, overindulgent, interfering prat. His face registered underlying amusement, now.
“Yes, I imagine he deduced you weren’t being entirely truthful. You are not inscrutable to those who care to look. If he does not know currently, I expect he’ll recognize your duplicity in due course.”
“What should I do?”
“Batten down the hatches, as it were. Perhaps...even take your medicine.” Gruffly emptying his throat, Mycroft removed an item from his trouser pocket and laid it down for Sherlock to see.
Sherlock gawped at the syringe on the side table. “Brother?”
“You’d see your way to it, eventually,” he opined, his knowing smile bleak. “Emotionalism has ever been a source of immense distress for you. I’d rather know that the solution is secure and that you’re safe than have you stumbling about in the dark.” Mycroft furled his pianist’s fingers into eloquent fists for want of a brolly. “Better you should fall tonight than on another day.”
Sherlock supplied him a nod of vague acknowledgement. There was a chance, a minute glimmer of a possibility that his answer this way laid. John was a quandary that could be resolved. He was not impossible, not for a mind of Sherlock’s calibre once properly nourished. I can have this. Not as a habit, not anymore, John wouldn’t stand for it, but for a night—for a night Sherlock could have a lover who demanded nothing of his morality and whom he could not destroy untried. He wouldn’t have to find out.
Mycroft sighed from the depths of his lungs, resigned as always. “You must realize, Sherlock, that this is you making a choice. The consequences will be yours.”
Sherlock could not avert his eyes from the crystalline solution. Not 7 percent as he preferred, but it would be heavenly at whichever proof Mycroft allowed. His brother could not abide low quality even in vice.
“You did say it, if you recall: ‘Money is influence for the uninspired. Knowledge is the only power worth killing for.’” Mycroft gaze had slipped to the flames as Sherlock’s fingers closed around the barrel.
“I did say that, but the cousins never came to me after father’s death.”
“Don’t be daft, the dead can hardly protest a will.” Mycroft’s posture became ever so slightly taut. Only one who knew him well would see. “Yes, I knew.” Sherlock slumped further on the leather sofa, button embellishments embossing his skin, the smooth plastic tube secure in his hold. No mark worth tasting was ever plastic.
“Power is not all that’s worth killing for.” Mycroft set a grave hand atop Sherlock’s head. Like father’s hands. Not at all like John’s. He missed John, had missed him when he was three feet nearby.
“I still have scars on my palms,” he admitted where his doctor would not hear. Preparing the syringe was old hat, habit, effortless as the rosining of his bow, veins bursting with colour under thin skin. He felt no pain on the prick of his arm. Only Mycroft’s proximity, protective and sure.
“Had I had my way, brother mine, you would have no scars at all.”
Sherlock inhaled euphorically as the warmed solution rushed into his veins as a pet might greet its master after an interminable separation. I had forgotten this. How could I forget?
“If John cannot love you alongside your scars, there isn’t a chance to be had.” The feather touch on his brow was exactly like Mummy’s. Exactly. “Be safe, little brother. Forgive me.”
Sherlock sank into the oblivion of warmth and safety and narcotic bliss in his brother’s home. This would be the last time, he swore; he would not partake again. John would not forgive him that. But John would never know.
Mornings never have the kindness of nights. Sherlock would have counted himself fortunate to wake feeling empty. Instead, he was cold. No fireplace. His surrounding made his head swim though his eyes were screwed shut. He no longer smelt laundered wool and drink but perspiration emanating from a body he’d set to ravaging only to encounter his point of no return. Without meaning to, he had raced past it, twice and again.
“If I didn’t care about you as much as I do, I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Sherlock slit open one eye to see a pair of forearms clasped together by agile hands. John was seated on edge of their coffee table, watching over him. It might have been an entirely new day for all that Sherlock’s internal clock was out of sorts. Mycroft! He’d meant to return to Baker Street under his own power.
“You heard me. Even high off your arse, you can always hear me. It’s bad enough you got the drugs for yourself—five years of sobriety, give or take a Woman, down the toilet—but you brought them home. You know how hard it was for me to get clean and you still brought them home. That’s not something you do to a friend.”
Sherlock covered his face. His nose was wet and tender. He daren’t check the state of his arms. When did I leave the apartments? Where have I been? He could surmise what else he’d gotten hold of, what old ‘chums’ he had met. He let me go. The bastard let me leave!
“I needed them.” Not a complete lie, he thought in a corner of his mind. Not especially useful, either.
John’s laugh was embittered. “Figures.”
Sherlock peered from under peeled lids, the sunlight vicious pinpricks through the curtains’ lace. John’s face hurt to see. “You’re going to leave.”
“You never do what you should.”
“Not when it comes to you.” John slumped further over his knees. He ground his fists into his eye sockets. Sherlock couldn’t watch.
He picked tiredly at John’s vile jumper instead. “You shouldn’t wear this anymore. I hate it.”
John dropped his hands. “Evidently, you hate everything about me. Maybe I shouldn’t be here.” His voice shook with his hands.
The statement settled in the hollow of Sherlock’s stomach. He remembered when John hadn’t wanted to be here or anywhere. “Don’t talk like that.”
“Like what? How am I allowed to talk? What am I allowed to be? Tell me, Sherlock, because I haven’t got any idea what you want. You’ve seen all of me. Mischief managed. Are you through?”
I’m not ever going to be through. That’s what’s frightening about you.
“Could have fooled me.”
Sherlock sat up slowly in deference to his buzzing head. “I don’t know the proper way to do this.”
“To do what? What are you trying to do here?”
“Want you. Have you.” Before the Woman, he hadn’t wanted anyone. After her, he hadn’t any more of a clue.
“There isn’t a proper way. If you’re interested in me, say so.”
“I am, I obviously am. I just...I don’t, I can’t. John, I lose control with you. I can’t lose control.” A trait he and Irene had shared, but he’d been the better player. After all, he hadn’t had his heart—in all its shrunken, atrophied glory—to lose.
John appeared to consider it a while. “All right, so you won’t lose control. No problem.”
“But, John, what you expect of me...”
“We’ll figure it out. We’ll have to anyway, since it’ll never work, me seeing someone else as long as I’m here. They’ll leave me because I put you first, same as always.”
“You think me a burden.”
“I think,” John said, carefully, “that you are unlike anyone I have ever known or ever cared for.” Sherlock waited. “And for that, you deserve some special consideration.”
“Then, you’ll stay.”
“Where else do I have to go? Nowhere else has you.”
Sherlock’s pulse fluttered away beneath his jaw, a swallowed hummingbird begging for reprieve. He wet the chapped skin of his lips. There was no high on earth to compete with John’s affection. This would be Sherlock’s opiate of choice henceforth, the steady supply of which he would not jeopardize and whose loss he might not survive.
“May I see them?”
John rose to precious alertness. “See what?”
Sherlock huffed, irritable, limbs twitching from his comedown. “Your prize collection of bottle caps! Your tattoos, John.”
“I don’t think that’ll help our problems much.”
Sherlock raised a shoulder in a noncommittal move. He wanted to see some hidden part of John to prove he was still allowed in. John’s clothes were locked doors—not that Sherlock had any use for those—he wanted to be sure he still had his key.
His partner let out a noisome exhale. “Okay, fine.” He pushed the sleeves of his jumper up to the crooks of his arms. Places and times. It was enough for today. That his hands itched for contact was more than the work of the drug leaving his system.
“I noticed you haven’t got any below your waist, why is that?”
John was neither visibly impressed nor surprised by his presumptuousness. “You’re the detective, you tell me.”
“You enjoy that phrase entirely too much.” Sherlock traced the chords of violin string as though they might resound with notes. John’s flinch rang discordant. Sherlock blamed his tuning. “You’re a soldier but a doctor first. You’ve a deep psychological attachment to your upper body, yet you have a more tenuous relationship with your lower anatomy. Curious, given your penchant for sexual excess.” John hummed in noncommittal reply. “Have you considered that a having something done there might help with your limp, perhaps to serve as a reminder of danger?” A reminder of me? He skimmed his palm along the inseam of John’s jeans. John latched his hand over Sherlock’s like a shield, or a vice.
“I’ve thought about it, just never took the time to do it. I was more interested in occupying the space above deck anyway.”
Sherlock gave his answer the unfocused nod it warranted. For a moment, he couldn’t think. He‘d struck a chord. John had immortalized Sherlock on his skin to carry as his companion for all time. He didn’t see how he could bear to do less himself when he wouldn’t risk a gift of more.
Chapter 9: 'Twas folly not sooner to shun
Mycroft makes his excuses. Sherlock confesses to sentiment and John takes it all in stride. Mostly.
The greyscale drones of Whitehall collectively cringed on sight of Sherlock Holmes stalking in. A building lit from within by hidden fires was no place for a man who made his living in their extinction. I make them nervous. They made him cross! It was a fair trade in his estimation.
He blew through Mycroft’s outer office, giving no quarter to his secretary— not Anthea-Nike-Regina, no; she is more bodyguard than gatekeeper. The soundproof door snicked fast in his wake. It won’t even slam properly. The berk!
Sherlock threw himself into a stout chair, atypically winded from exertion. “I should murder you for subjecting me to that.”
The ‘British Government’ huffed peevishly, setting aside the Meisterstück fountain pen he favoured for the signing of legal instruments. “I haven’t the faintest—”
“Save your fabulist nattering for the imbeciles abroad. You got me high and had me dropped off at John’s doorstep like some misbehaved housecat. He all but had his bags packed when I woke the next morning.”
Mycroft was profoundly unmoved by his plight. “I warned you, Sherlock, about the consequences of your actions. I warned you clearly. Had you made any effort to cast off your thrall, this regrettable event might have been avoided.”
Sherlock pitched himself forward. “It was you who gave me that syringe. You had one of your sycophants prepare it and you carried it in your pocket to give to me.”
“When I had your cab intercepted, you were en route to a meeting with your second-best dealer in Berkeley Square. His supply would have wracked your body with sickness for days, maybe longer; it was that badly tainted. John would have remained long enough to see you well, and then he would have ducked into the nearest recruiting office by close of business. It is enough to be an addict in recovery; the vagaries of a life with one might have been more than he could bear.”
“You were testing him.” Sherlock clutched at the arm rests, prised his nails under the brass fittings.
“Naturally.” Mycroft wavered, evidently spying his unease, spying much more. “You’re surprised.”
“The only thing I find surprising is that we still speak. John is past the stage of needing to prove his veracity to you, Mycroft.” He thumped his fist on the rest till it throbbed.
“No one passes that stage until they are dead or have you completely obliterated all memory of our upbringing? Countless people have cared for you, Sherlock, but almost none have loved you for good and for ill. You cannot let slip the one who has.”
There he is again, sticking his overinflated nose into my affairs. Any fool could see John wasn’t going anywhere, John had promised and his word was his bond. Sherlock rocketed to his feet, sick unto death of this dance, and gathered the folds of his Belstaff around him.
"Text me when you’ve something of use to say, otherwise don’t contact me—and you aren’t to breathe a word to John. No more chats and coffees. Leave him alone.”
“You’re labouring under the misapprehension that I consider John an enemy.”
“I don’t care if you think John is your bloody ‘one that got away.’ If you attempt to unsettle him or try to drive a further wedge between us, I’ll consider you my enemy.” Mycroft took up his pen. Sherlock read the boredom in his expression. His brother would do what he liked unperturbed by any strop Sherlock might throw in his path.
“These histrionics are wholly uncalled for. My actions were without malicious intent. I needed to be sure of John. I am now.”
Sherlock loomed over his seated elder, obscuring the broad middle of Mycroft’s precious legislation with his hands. “I have been from the start, and mine is the only certainty necessary for this relationship to transpire.”
“Yours and his, Sherlock. Isn’t that what your little display was all about? Doubt? You feared John would be unable to withstand your little idiosyncrasies, so you ran away like a child.” Mycroft gave his recently let out waistcoat a sanctimonious jerk. “Your equilibrium is restored. I won’t apologize for my method of achieving success.”
Yet he had been repentant, Sherlock recalled of his last snatches of sobriety. I could not despise you more than you hate yourself. "I won’t trust you another time.”
“So long as there’s John, you won’t even miss me.”
Sherlock sensed the flytrap of premeditated rhetoric clapping around him. “Going somewhere, brother dear?” He’d aimed for sugary sweet only to land in a vat of aspartame. Mycroft wrinkled his nose in revulsion. He abhorred graceless stratagem.
“I’m scheduled for Damascus in three days.”
“Not what I meant.”
“Somewhere you cannot follow me, Sherlock.”
“Or somewhere I should not.” Rules were guidelines in Sherlock’s philosophy. “What have you done?”
“More than enough by now, don’t you agree?”
“I agreed when I was seven.”
“Both and every age since. Good day, Mycroft.” Sherlock made to go, his piece spoken.
Mycroft clicked his tongue in reluctance. “Very well. James Moriarty sends his regards.”
Sherlock’s skin rose in a chilly furore unrelated to his withdrawal. It wasn’t any great shock to him that Mycroft should have known where Sherlock’s elevated nemesis had made off to. That didn’t mean he was pleased that his brother had kept his intelligence to himself. This confession sat harbinger of the fight to come. This isn’t child’s play anymore. As children, they’d been anything but normal, a trait they hadn’t lost in growing.
“James Moriarty can bugger off to hell. May you travel together.”
The Downing Street troglodytes did tactical somersaults to evade his notice on the way out. They were about as deserving of note as their cumulative moral offenses: government-sanctioned murder, adultery, and a dash of treason. Sherlock didn’t put much stock in the turncoat seeing Bonfire Night much less midnight. Beware, little spy, Mycroft knows all. His brother’s next bold move was anyone’s to guess.
On making it outside, Sherlock grew restive, his nerves jangling in wanton abandon. If he walked in any direction, he risked wasting these last two days of exorcising his demons a fifth time. It would be no work at all.
Northwest to St. James’s Park, Whitcomb Street and the Trocadero due northeast, Tottenham Court Road further on, Marylebone High Street, and Portman Square to Baker Street. Six active drop zones at which Sherlock could justify his presence for a short time. A cold case, even I have them. ‘One of my informants saw something of interest and asked...’ Sherlock punted the idea from consideration as too pedestrian. John anticipates madness. I can give him madness.
Sherlock prowled Parliament Square till the veloce beating under his skin slackened to an indeterminate vibrato, till the goose bumps and nausea subsided. He knew it to be a trick of brain chemistry designed to drive him toward the fix that would sustain his faded high. For years he’d considered this yearning his sole companion. John had illuminated the misnomer to reveal his crutch for what it was: a poison that, for all that it bolstered his tolerance of the world’s meaningless drivel, stifled him.
He was going to disembowel his brother if he was forced to endure this yawning hunger for one minute more. He was enumerating methods for murder when suddenly, his phone sounded in his pocket, a text.
Don’t kill Mycroft. JW
He snorted at his flatmate’s impeccable sense of timing. Ever the optimist, his John.
Not yet. SH
Tea first. Come home. JW
Sherlock gave his back to St. James’s Park and threw up his hand to hail a taxi. They’d be taking the most direct route to Baker Street. Tea and army doctors waited for no man. No other man, anyway.
Sherlock tore off his greatcoat on entering the flat, flinging it over his chair and launching himself at John’s lap where there was room enough for Sherlock’s head and for John’s hand to nestle in his hair like welcoming. John scratched, absentminded, at Sherlock’s scalp, blotting out the regiment of cocaine fire ants laying siege to his central nervous system and gentling his fratricidal rage for thirty seconds or so.
“What’s His Majesty done to get your back up this time?”
“Mycroft is an arrogant, pompous, meddling toe rag.”
John singlehandedly wagged the wrinkles out of the Guardian open above Sherlock’s line of sight. “And water is wet, news at nine.”
Sherlock glowered, indignant. “You’re as bad as he is.”
John flicked Sherlock’s ear. “Play nice.”
Sherlock sniffled, chomping at the indefensible censure. “What for? You should be as upset with him as I am, perhaps even more so. He gave me drugs, you hate the drugs. Why aren’t you angrier with him?”
“D’you want the short answer to that or the long?”
“Have we stumbled onto a home edition of QI?
“So, you’d prefer no answer. Fine by me.” John flipped to a new section. Jobs. John’s had enough of wiping wet noses for a paltry sum. Sherlock fretted that his next supervisor might not be so forgiving of Sherlock’s demands. He required his assistant and his friend at his side at a moment’s notice.
“For God’s sake, John, just tell me already.” He dug a hand of fingernails into the meat John’s left quadriceps femorus, snappish. John flicked him twice till he loosed his grip.
“I don’t know, it might do you some good to learn a bit of patience.”
Sherlock hunkered low, snarling in his insecurity. “Tell me or I’ll pour battery acid over every revolting jersey, jacket, and pair of corduroy trousers you own.” His shoes, coats, and shirts go without saying. The general public would give him a medal. John would end up largely naked as his wardrobe included little else. Make that two medals.
“You’re planning to do that anyway, but I appreciate the warning. I’ll add new clothes to the monthly budget.”
“We have a budget?” This was first Sherlock had heard of it. Possibly. I seem to recall a deleted conversation entailing excess spending on bovine gall bladders, but that was for the Ipswich investigation!
“And you wonder why people mistake me for your governess?”
“I don’t wonder that.” Sherlock’s furrowed brows collapsed into a groove. “Why should I wonder that? Anyone in possession of one or more functioning senses can see we’re two adults in a committed, equitable relationship.” John made a derisive sound in back of his throat. Sherlock scuttled upright, dislodging John’s paper to the point whole sheets scattered to the ground. “What was that sound you just made?”
“Sorry?” He was having Sherlock on, had to be.
“That sound. I didn’t make a joke, I wasn’t being funny. You think there’s something inequitable about our relationship.”
John drummed his fingers over his knee, pretending at a calm belied by the stern, square lines of his shoulders. “I wasn’t aware we had a relationship until yesterday.”
“We share a home, work, acquaintances, expenses, food. You do the housework and I provide the lion’s share of our income. We could be married but for trifling realpolitik.”
“That’s a leap. Sherlock, we’ve fooled around once and halfway through you backed out. That doesn’t usually bode well for a romantic affair, in my experience.”
“You told me it was fine, that we’d work through it.” The pull remained, jailed tight behind his navel. Sherlock could give in to it anytime, like the beelike buzzing in his veins.
“I meant that and we will, but we have to face facts. You have a problem, I had one, and I’m not sure those things can coexist.”
Sherlock's sympathetic nervous system kicked into gear in the name of panic, shunting adrenalin like acrid lightning into his bloodstream and setting his heart to race. He tried to remain calm for appearance's sake.
“You said you would stay. Right here, you promised you would stay. Have you had a change of heart? If Mycroft’s said something...” Arsenic in his Jaffa cakes. He'd deserve it, the larder. There would be no one alive with the mental acuity to build a case against me.
“He hasn’t said anything to me. This is me given time to think things over without the threat of you OD’ing in the sitting room to terrify me.”
“I wouldn’t. I’ve carefully assessed my tolerance levels.” If 'recklessly injecting every substance money or sexual favours could obtain’ qualified, and he thought it did, this was an unimpugnable fact.
John sat his cheek on his fist. Sherlock didn’t believe in extrasensory perception or telepathy or any of that neuro-extraordinary nonsense, but he concluded instantly that John had grasped the meaning behind his selective speech. Many of his former dealers should count themselves fortunate Mycroft had got them first.
“Sherlock, barring the few instances I know about, you haven’t used in years. You don’t think that has some effect on what will or won’t kill you?”
Sherlock reclined in sullen unresponsiveness. John ought to have more respect for his scientific process than to think he wouldn’t check from time to time, to think he wouldn’t know this body to its marrow.
“You don’t have to lie, you don’t even have to answer, but I want you to think about that.”
“How long can I expect this lecture to last?” He picked at John’s inglorious brown bottoms. “Only I’ve got a stomach perforation experiment on that wants finishing.” The murder weapon looked to be a spiked designer heel: Louboutin, six inches. He was intrigued.
“Ha bloody ha. Thank you for proving me right. I never get to be right.” John lurched up to go to the kitchen, dislodging Sherlock's easy destruction. “We’re good friends, I enjoy that, I think maybe we’re best as that. I promised you tea, didn’t I?” He swiftly patted Sherlock’s shoulder when he went to accompany him. “No need to get up. I’ll bring it, don’t worry.” But Sherlock did worry.
“While I agree that our personal relationship amounts to an almost ideal friendship, our obvious mutual physical attraction and affection for one another would seem indicate we’ve the prerequisites for something more."
“Run that by me again.” John leant on the lip of the sink, the kettle whizzing on the hob beside him. He looked befuddled. Situation altogether normal.
Sherlock scrubbed his clammy hands on his trousers. He was out of things to go for but broke. “John, ahem...I have been, I think, reliably informed that I could be ‘in love’ with you, in the widely accepted definition of the term. What are your thoughts?” Sherlock sat back, fingertips to lips, to see the penny drop.
John reeled, jaw unlatching in pursuit of sounds to form words that didn’t come, his cheeks hollowed sharp of a startled exhale. He looked very nearly sad at what Sherlock had hoped might make him happy. Sherlock didn’t like the timbre of this silence; the hair on his arms stood up at it. He pondered his gut-driven impulse to put distance between them, mystified at his recognition of a rejection he had no precedent for.
“I think, I think...you should get back to me when you know how feel, or don’t feel as the case may be.” John palmed his face before nullifying his previous remark. “On second thought, you won’t have to say you’re not. I know what that looks like.”
Sherlock thought there little chance of the latter possibility bearing fruit. For all that he was a loathsome intruder in Sherlock’s life, Mycroft was seldom wrong in his judgments. Irene, in their short acquaintance, had proved near as a canny. It stood to reason that John himself would be the one to doubt him. Somehow, John’s unwarranted insecurity pricked at Sherlock’s calluses and palms. He hardly noticed that it was his nails doing the rending till John intervened. Ever the healer-protector, my John.
Sherlock leant up as if to engender a confidence, desiring to read the answer John wouldn’t give in his eyes. “Does that happen often?”
John fixed his too-small mouth into an inoffensive line. Sherlock had the urge to pitch whoever had judged him wanting into Cardiff Bay. He would if it would banish that look he was coming to hate.
“It’s not important,” John ultimately said, ducking to pick up the orphaned newspaper sections on the floor.
Like hell it isn’t.
“Everything to do with you is important.”
John’s Adam’s apple dipped. He made tracks when the kettle called. He’ll obfuscate next.
John took down two mugs and poured. More sugar than milk in Sherlock's with a dollop of honey, the reverse and a lack in John's. He carried them back to be imbibed. Sherlock flicked an illusory contaminant out of his, staining John's shirt cuff in the offing. He settled, docile, to drink at John's combustible glare.
“Right. Um, I am angry at Mycroft, very much so, and he’ll feel it from me when I see him. But I’m not nearly as upset as you are because he doesn’t mean as much to me. He isn’t my brother, I don’t love him. Simple as that. He doesn’t have the ability to disappoint me like he does you because I don’t love him like you do.”
Sherlock’s font of wry wit ran accursedly dry. Misdirection managed. “Don’t be absurd. Nobody loves Mycroft, least of all me.” He rifled his brain for Mycroft’s damning particulars. “He lies for a living. It’s impossible to ‘love’ anyone who doesn’t tell the truth more than once in a day’s time.” Sherlock blew across his cuppa to cool it.
John swished a mouthful of his Yorkshire best. “I don’t know. You lie all the time just because you can, and I’m still here. I haven’t shoved off to Antigua for a load-off like I deserve.” Neither made note of New Zealand.
Sherlock dithered and composed a ballad in his head, made no attempt to see the symmetry.
“That’s what I thought. You’ll need to pick up some new stones to cast at your brother when you go to the shops. I threw out the old ones with the flesh experiment.” Sherlock put on a sour face, rejecting out of hand the erroneous assumption he’d voluntarily set foot inside a Sainsbury’s before he died.
“Again, John? It’ll take days to set up another trial. Think of the embarrassment of valuable biological tissue Molly’s let me waste replicating my previous efforts.”
John was exasperated. No, relieved. “Don’t put this off on her. If it inconvenienced you to do it over, you wouldn’t bother. You’ll try it until bores you and I’ll bin it as many times as it takes for you to realize that your necrotizing flesh samples do not belong in the food dishes, Sherlock."
“I like to get your medical opinion on my experiments.” He wouldn’t be averse to John having more input into his work—in theory.
“You never ask.”
“The request is implied.”
John stretched his neck, eyelids flicking in a disbelieving roll. “Because you’re known for being shy about demanding what you want.”
“Had I not met Mycroft, I’d say you learned that word from me. Actually, having met him, I'm positive you did. Your brother isn't so much well-mannered as cordially mortifying."
"If you value your privacy, such as it is, you'll never let him hear you say that. Never has there been a man more leery of a flattering word than Mycroft. Besides, my brother hardly tips the scale at intimidating. 17 stone on the other hand..."
"He can lose that, I've been trying to feed you up for a year and you haven't gained so much as half a stone. You're as spry a beanpole as I've ever met." Wrong, Sherlock had gained some eight-point-three pounds in the months he'd had John. According to Molly, he'd never looked so well.
"Feeding me up, isn't that something girlfriends do?" He hid in his tea.
John emerged, lips shining, from his. "Best friends, too. Speaking of which, I just realized you haven't got a case on and you’re mostly through with detox. That means food." He nicked Sherlock's mug just as he was getting to the sweet at the bottom, taking it with his to the sink. "Come on, get off your bony arse, we're going for Chinese."
Sherlock peeled himself grudgingly off said arse and trudged to retrieve his coat and John's, teetering only somewhat relative to his usual grace. Nausea was missing in action and the army in his brain had raised the white flag. He could breathe.
In gratitude, he guided John into his coat sleeves and tucked his lapels flat. John indulged him, knotting Sherlock's scarf on his behalf and retrieving his gloves, waiting patiently for him to slide them on. Sherlock fisted his hands to test the fit, his nerves still randomly sparking electric under him skin. John watched, ensorcelled, as he was more apt to show nowadays, with the activity of Sherlock's hands.
"You and Mycroft wear leather gloves like no two blokes I've ever seen."
"Hmm." This wouldn’t be the first time Sherlock had found himself compared to his brother’s grace, but this was the first time he’d cared to emerge the victor. Sherlock itched to grab John up and ravish him until he never again thought of Sherlock and Mycroft in the same lewd breath. They had the same hands, perhaps, but they were in no sense interchangeable.
He settled for drawing his encased index finger along the shell of John's ear and leaned down ever so to whisper in, "I wear them much, much better." The ragged shudder that seized John’s through and through was just reward enough.
John tilted as though to catch Sherlock’s mouth, only to stop himself short with a mere ounce of restraint. Sherlock believed he registered a fortifying breath to follow, but he let his flatmate free at the man's skittish sidestep. Sherlock still had too much to prove.
John slicked his lips, avoiding Sherlock’s eyes. "I'll remember that."
"See that you do."
"So," John proceeded, voice gruff, "Chinese?"
"Mmm, no, I've changed my mind. Indian."
"In the mood for something spicy?"
"In the mood for more.”
Here, Sherlock did what he’s done since adolescence. He did the daring, he completed the circuit and kissed John first. He covered John's lips with something chaste. Not the least because he was still finding his feet in wanting this, but because John needed to believe that he was more than an irresistible thrill for the indulging. John licked a profession into the corner of his mouth Sherlock didn’t think the man himself was ready to acknowledge. Kissing wasn't so terribly brilliant in and of itself. Kissing John Watson was another matter entirely. Sherlock could waste a day in the doing of it.
Sherlock's lower lip stung on sliding free of John's custody. His human heart was racing faster than the speed of deduction. John’s steel core pulled at him in its ferromagnetism.
John's hand wrapped around Sherlock's wrist where sleeve and glove laid him bare. "Still hungry?"
"Ravenous." The richest biryani London had to offer couldn't have sated him now.
Although Sherlock's tempestuous digestive system would revolt against him in the aftermath, he thought some grumbling from his transport was a rather fair trade to see John turn away with cheeks so red.
Three days later found Sherlock lounging on John's exam table, one case in the palace and two in the bin, whilst the other man carried out his evening charting. There was a triple murder cooling in the ground floor foyer of Sherlock’s mindscape, the tiny threads knotting and entwining to form an intricate tapestry of a crime worth blogging about in Sherlock's inestimable opinion. The sooner John finished the job he supposedly had to do, the faster he could share Sherlock's latest professional success with his readership. Even if it will take him days to type it all up and days more for me to make the necessary corrections. Sherlock was content in the meantime to occupy his flatmate's space, to observe him where he excelled. Where he smiles despite himself.
John yawned and signed his seventh referral slip. Serious enough to warrant a specialist yet not concerning enough to draw concern. Superficially benign lesion or abnormal thyroid activity. Thyroid is the more likely for the yawn. Weight, obesity, forward to endocrinologist and/or dietician/nutritionist. Sherlock could have guessed and been right.
Sherlock perked up once John switched to another patient folder. John had put his non-dominant hand over his heart and left it there until he needed it. Advanced cardiovascular disease. John notated this chart thoroughly, unearthing a dispenser of neon tabs to catch the attention of the cardiac specialist he'd be calling upon.
John had rubbed at his clan colours, not drummed on his heart. Not just heart disease. Scotch-Irish patient, late middle age. John did it again as he made a final notation in the chart and set it in his outbox for one of aides to retrieve in the morning. His eyes lingered on it in silent contemplation a few seconds more. He cares too much. Sherlock worried that John might one day care himself to death. It’s why I never bother. All that caring won’t save them. All of Sherlock’s fretting couldn’t any more save John from his damnable nature. Even consulting detectives had their beloved lost causes.
Sherlock counted the flecks of sparse grey in John’s hair and measured them against the first sight of the man he’d had in Bart’s that fateful day. John had been an old man, then, in body and in mind. Now it was the years that were catching up to him and, so, to Sherlock as well. He’d stay them as best he could by invoking those matters which brought John constantly to life: the Work and the colours he wore like pride made flesh.
"Do you plan to get any more?"
Sherlock didn't privilege that intellectual belch with a response.
"Oh, you meant another tattoo. No hard, fast plans, why?"
Sherlock wagged a shoulder. "Curious."
"Okay," John drawled, dragging the word out for syllables longer than the English language required or approved. "Should I be worried?"
Sherlock twigged a torpid eyebrow, head slung off the cushioned edge of the table. "You're always worried."
"Should I be more worried?"
"That's a 'yes' if I ever heard one. Just don't do anything stupid to me while I'm sleeping, or while I'm awake. Or unconscious. I'll know if you do and if I'm not sure, I'll ask Mycroft."
"He won't tell you."
"Yes, he will. He wants you to keep me—like a pet or something, I think, but who knows with Mycroft? He apparently has this mad idea that I’m a good influence on you."
They shared a look, then descended into helpless, snuffling laughter. John ended up curled up in his chair, arms tight around his heaving sides. Sherlock nearly spilled off the exam table onto the floor. Mycroft always did read me all wrong. When it counted, anyway.
"I thought your brother was supposed to be the smarter one."
"That's what everyone says, but most people are idiots; you can't expect them to know any better."
"So, you promise you're not up to anything?"
"I suppose that'll have to do."
"You’re suggesting food for, I think, the second time ever. The Mayans were right.” John backpedalled at Sherlock’s nascent sulk. Mayans? Need more data. “All right, I’m done. Put away the pout. I haven’t eaten since lunch; you I doubt have eaten since Monday. Dinner sounds like a brilliant idea. Is that Greek place still on?”
John hummed in needless reply and began the brief process of clearing his workspace. Sherlock whipped out his phone, intent on texting the eatery’s the proprietor. The cook and the head waiter were colluding to swindle the man, but the waiter was skimming off the pot, thus also deceiving his partner in duplicity. Sherlock advised the owner to wait till close of business to confront his mendacious employers. He wanted to have a peaceful meal with John before all hell broke loose for pudding.
“As of now, the owner owes me another one. Let’s go before I light an oxygen tank on fire to alleviate the monotony."
John shucked his lab coat and stethoscope. “Don’t even joke about that. I’m still paying for the month’s supply of iodine, tongue depressors, and Batman plasters you ruined last time you had one of your boredom fits at the clinic.”
“You shouldn’t have kept me waiting.”
“It was twenty-five minutes! I met a toddler just today with an ear infection who showed more patience than that.”
“Yes, but I bet he wasn’t a twenty-sixth as intelligent, nor half as attractive.”
John pulled the exam room door open to guide Sherlock out, his palm finding rest at base of Sherlock’s spine. “I’ll give you the second one, but that was a pretty quick two-year-old.”
“I doubt he was toilet-trained.”
John laughed into his fist, falling into step with Sherlock as they left the treatment area and passed into the reception. “You’re barely toilet-trained. No points for the consulting detective who only goes or showers if he hasn’t got a pig corpse decomposing in the bath.” John read as apathetic to the alarmed reactions on his remaining co-workers. Sherlock took pains to mask his pleasure.
“Any sacrifice in the name of science.”
John hitched both shoulders, bending to sign off his shift at the front desk. “It’s your world, Frankenstein.”
Sherlock filled the vacancy on John’s weaker side. “Good that you understand.”
John shook his head, amused. “We’re going to get you caught up on pop culture references one of these days if it kills me.”
Sherlock turned up his nose at the thought, shut down the probabilities before they spun out. “Heaven forbid.” It mattered not which scenario he meant.
He didn’t have to give the receptionist a second glance tonight. One didn’t have to be a genius to see that John was out of bounds anymore. From the high, nasal pitch of giggle only Sherlock could evoke to the look in his eyes, John might not have been sure of Sherlock's veracity but he was already Sherlock's entirely. If Sherlock played his cards with care, John would see that possession for the mutual affair it was.
John bid the receptionist an amiable good night which she returned in warmth if without expectation, something immanently critical in the version she tendered to Sherlock next. Message understood. There was a world of scorn to be had for mistreating John and a line was forming. How was anyone else to know Sherlock had plans to be the first one in it?
Moderately unsettled at the blatant, though undeclared, challenge, Sherlock tucked John into his orbit and led him out in the quiet night. Sherlock sought solace in the shuffle, and in John’s glad willingness to march along to his stride. His doctor revelled in London’s evening the way he’d thrived in war, the way Sherlock thrived at the heart of a riddle in progress. It was its own riddle how they’d got along without each other before.
“I don’t get any more interesting than this, you know.”
Sherlock caught hold of his wandering attention to drag it home. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“Clothes on, clothes off, this is as spine-tingling as I get. After these, you’ve got me right down to the ground.”
“I want you right down to the ground.” He wanted John to the stratosphere, in any direction and every one.
John halted in the full flow of evening, expression placid save for the notable straining of the fascia temporalis, the musculus masseter at temple and mandible, respectively. “Yeah, but what happens after you get what you want? What happens to me?”
Sherlock’s mouth pulled south. "You stay and we carry on better than we were before."
"That's frightfully optimistic of you."
"I have my sentimental moments. Don’t get used to it."
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” John murmured under his breath, not a trace of laughter in it.
Sherlock looked toward him, uninterested in the weary jeering of the pedestrians directly at his back, to see that John hadn’t moved yet. His expression was nigh on indecipherable which, for a man of Sherlock’s abilities, was disconcerting. He found himself abruptly at a loss to deduce his friend’s new mood. His slanted lips weren’t telling and the lines near his eyes told lies.
John wanted something out of Sherlock which he didn’t know how to give. This was the fear that kept his hands preoccupied with the replaceable and easily breakable because John was neither, easily. Words weren’t sufficient to sow certainty when the subject was emotion, not for Sherlock. This was him standing on the mouth of an oubliette in wait of a fall. He didn’t know where John was going to lead him anymore, but he knew he’d follow him anywhere.
He'd Googled that.
“Let’s not do the Greek, hmm?” John made to cough, wetting lips. He eyed the pedestrians, unconsciously vigilant. Open air made him cringe. “There’s, there’s this little Afghan place I know. It’s small, family-owned and all, but you’re not going to have a better meal this side of the Mediterranean, and...I think we should go. I think you’ll like it.”
“I like everything to do with you.”
“Then, I guess it’s a date.”
“I think it might be.” Sherlock shoulders cried for the tension of it.
“It’s down this way,” John said finally, nodding in the direction opposite the place they’d gone months back.
“Lay on,” Sherlock assented. His tongue had gone dumb in his head, snuffing out the Socratic impulse to ask what this meant. John was giving him something, entrusting him with his passions and Sherlock was at a loss for how to answer it properly.
“People expect me to hate Afghanistan, you know. They expect me to flinch when they mention it, like I could have a vendetta against a place that gave me the best years of my life.” His tone mocked. “They expect me to hate it and I don’t know how to say I miss it almost every day.”
Sherlock took up his flank, spoiled for pride of place beside him. John was peeling back onion-thin layers of the skin he was so prized, and all in Sherlock’s name. Sherlock compressed his lips flat to keep from letting slip again something John wasn’t ready to believe of him. If he could have spoken to begin with, that is. Sherlock didn’t know how to say any more and he didn’t have the words for less. John was...unquantifiable.
Where the spoken word failed him, Sherlock decided, then and there, that something must be said for the sting of the needle—and, for a change, his old solution didn’t come at all to mind.
Chapter 10: The star of my Fate hath declined
Sherlock considers the face he shows the world and John considers the only face that matters.
Eleven days, eight peaceful meals, and seventeen damnably heartfelt adagios after his relapse, Sherlock felt ready to make his request.
“If you were to recommend a tattoo artist for me, who would it be?” Sherlock fingered the strings of his beloved instrument in absent resolve. This choice was right, he was sure of it. The world at large had learned to watch him carefully when he was sure.
John flicked his attention from the latest paternity debacle on Jeremy Kyle to watch Sherlock. “What do you need with an artist?”
“Irrelevant. Answer the question.” Sherlock strummed in legato, pondering the beauty of a waltz.
“Not until I get a straight answer out of you.” John tossed the remote aside to angle his body toward Sherlock. “What are you planning?”
“Nothing, I’m merely curious to meet this person whom you hold in such high regard. Failing that, one of his colleagues.” Sherlock paused momentarily. “Or her colleagues. Never let it be said I’m not an equal-opportunity consumer.”
John ignored the digression. “That’s all?”
“I’m no detective—“
“Piss. Off. I’m no detective, but I can pick up on an easy lie as well as the next idiot. Sherlock, tell me you’re not thinking of a getting a tattoo just because I’ve got a few.”
“I’d hardly call that veritable shirt of ink you carry around ‘a few,’ John. Anyway, of course not! What I want’s got nothing to do with you.” Sherlock surged up from the couch to tend to his latest experiment, violin in hand. Well, he said ‘latest,’ but he hadn’t looked at the thing for days. It had proved less enlightening than he’d hoped.
“Sherlock,” John droned as he took up hot pursuit, voice all a-warning on the approach.
“Be serious, John. You aren’t the first person to think of commemorating an event with an external symbol, you won’t be the last. Don’t act as though you’ve got a monopoly on the thing.”
John lifted his hands in an attempt at placating him. “That isn’t what I’m doing.”
Sherlock levied his bow in John’s direction. “That’s exactly what you’re doing."
John visibly reined in his quick temper, reaching back to scratch at his hairline. An anxious tic. “I just want you to do it for the right reasons.”
“And who are you, pray tell, to decide what those reasons are? What makes your motives worthier than mine?” He’d expected that John would protest when he got wind of his plan. He hadn’t expected the fact to bother him as much as it did.
“Nothing,” John conceded in blink, as he tended to when in the wrong. He backed up to put distance between them. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Sherlock banged one beaker and a flask about his makeshift lab station. “That doesn’t quite ring true on either side, does it?”
John performed a shoddy about-face in his haste to exit the kitchen. “Right. I’ll get that number for you."
Sherlock didn’t follow his departure. “No, you’ll take me there. Introduce me yourself.” He knocked distractedly on the table’s scrubbed wood surface. “If they’re as trustworthy as you claim, I’m sure they’ve heard all about me, haven’t they?” It felt like a confidence violated. He hated it.
John puffed softly in what must have been resignation, what might have been regret. “Yeah, they have.”
Their appointment was made within the hour.
“They’re willing to meet with you during lunch.”
“A personal favour?”
“Yup. Get ready, we’re not keeping them waiting.”
“Fine.” Sherlock showered and dressed quickly after days of doing neither. He donned his coat, scarf, and gloves while John turned off the telly, shut the window, and checked the appliances. Sherlock hailed the cab, John locked the front door. They accomplished this without more than necessary chatter.
It was miserable. Sherlock was beginning to remember why fighting with John was never any fun.
John inhaled deeply, usually a sign that he was preparing himself for an argument. Sherlock shifted in horrid anticipation.
“Doing what I did isn’t for everyone, Sherlock. There isn’t some standard you have to meet to be considered tough enough.”
Sherlock could have laughed. “I’ve never cared about standards.”
“You’ve always cared about standards, just enough to be able to confound them. You can play ignorant with people who don’t know you well, but don’t pull that with me.”
“You think you know me that well?”
“I think we wouldn’t be going where we’re going together if I didn’t. You’d have snuck the number from my phone, hailed a cab, and left me none the wiser.” Not a terrible idea in hindsight, Sherlock mused. “That’s what you do to people whose opinions don’t matter to you one way or another. I should know. I used to be one of them.”
“You were never one of them.”
“I think...that might prove my point.”
The remainder of the drive was conducted in silence.
They pulled up to a nondescript storefront, which announced itself to passersby as GHQ. John paid the fare and ushered Sherlock into the tinted glass entrance. The waiting area boasted a full complement of mixed chairs and benches bordering the walls, some of them occupied. None of those in queue gave in indication of being frustrated at the wait, leading Sherlock to conclude the turnaround was fairly quick and that some weren’t paying customers at all. The ambient temperature was comfortable, the air smelling of a combination of black coffee, powdered cocoa, tea.
John went straight to the front desk to speak with the receptionist. “We’re here for Donnie.”
“Yeah, I got your call. Some kind of emergency?”
“When you live with this one, everything’s an emergency. Let me know when Don’s ready.”
“He said to send in the...just go in.”
Sherlock made a mental note of the self-censoring. She’d abruptly shifted topics when he glanced in her direction. Petite, well-muscled, military bearing. Former enlisted. He turned away completely. It was clear she'd heard of him.
“Sherlock, you can head back. Go straight through the door in front of you. Donnie’ll meet you on the other side.”
Seeing as the only other doors led to a lavatory or the street, Sherlock had deduced that at once. John would have known that had he put his instinctual situational awareness to good use.
Sherlock heard John clucking behind his back with the spectacled receptionist, Torrance.
“Isn't he charming?”
“He’s an acquired taste.” Sherlock knew that John would be leaning toward the former staff sergeant to impart instructions. Sherlock lingered in the reception area under the pretence of silencing his phone. “He’s a bit—okay, a lot—much but he’s mine. Tell everybody to go easy on him, would you?”
“Loud and clear, Cap. I’ll hand down on the word.”
Sherlock tucked put his phone away into his inner pocket and proceeded into the consultation lounge, something like levity in his stride. The room was medium sized with an octagonal floor plan. Of the eight walls, one was devoted to entry from reception while the one directly opposite led into the workshop. The remaining six were divided among six artists, each of whom had semi-enclosed stalls in which to consult with prospective clients. The ceiling bore the Crown Jewels and Carry Ons etched amid epic war poetry, amid ballads and your quaint honour turned to dust, splashed above a Robinson map projection that made Sherlock itch. The eyes of Watson and Crick stared inquisitively downward with Marie Curie and the Sphinx. Sherlock saw why a man of the world might retreat here, when the world had retreated from him.
John’s Donnie, his Donald Camden, stepped out from his alcove to beckon Sherlock in. They shook hands and sat down to business.
“Tell us what you want.”
Sherlock could give nary a response. John, I want John. No, that wasn’t entirely right. He wanted John the way he was wanted by John. He wanted him commemorated, emblazoned, and immortalized where Sherlock would always dwell. Keepsakes could be misplaced and walls papered over, but skin remained unless maimed to obscurity. Although Sherlock might ultimately find himself mutilated, he would never forget. It would be John, how could he?
His bafflement must have been writ all over him. Camden took pity.
“Are you thinkin’ somethin’ small? Small-ish? How much ground do you want to cover? Placement?”
Sherlock considered the sheer amount of skin allotted to the human body. Nothing on the face or hands. Sherlock’s ability to work was predicated on his ability to go unnoticed. Society made body modification its business, thus people tended to note when someone with the extravagant variety was in their midst. Cosmetics could be of use in those instances. All the same, Sherlock rather liked the idea of something that only he and John would see, something secret between them like what John kept close.
“Nothing above the neck and the forearms are out.”
“Not for public consumption, I s'ppose.”
“No, definitely not. Just John and I.”
“We can do that. Any thoughts on what you’d like to see?”
“Some kind of animal might be acceptable. Nothing pretentious or tasteless.”
“That’s angel doves and peacocks right out.”
Mycroft would laugh him into exile. Sherlock covered his face in pre-emptive terror. “Not even to joke.”
Camden’s craggy grin traversed his cheeks like the Serpentine did Hyde Park. “If it’s any help, we’ve got a sample wall and a Lookbook if you’d like to give that a going-over.”
Sherlock had seen the wall and wasn’t satisfied with the offerings, however talented the hands by which they were drawn.
“No, no, I want something no one else has had.” Sherlock flipped through his mental databanks—Chrysocolaptes lucidus socialis (flameback woodpecker—no),bubo virginianus (great horned owl—clever creature but the name, best not), Haliaeetus leucocephalus (sea eagle—I loved the sea once but it lacked pirates). He discarded twenty-six avian genii and species before coming to one he found least objectionable. “A raven, I think. Cliché, I suppose, but poignant enough to be forgivable.” Sherlock had often been likened to birds of prey in the past, rendering the symbolism meaningful if not distinctly flattering. “Make of that what you can.”
Camden nodded the nod of one already preoccupied with his task, scratching out a doodle Sherlock couldn’t exactly make out on the corner of his desk blotter. “If you don’t mind me asking, what’re you getting this for? What do you want it to show to whomever you want to see it?” He flipped his drawing pencil like a baton for the twirling. There was an expectant quality to the asking.
“That they’re important, vital, essential to me.” Sherlock still had something to prove .
“I know you may have a hard time believing this, but we get this a lot, so there’s some questions you’re going to want to ask yourself: One, will this person be happy about this? Two, do they feel the same? Three, will you regret this if they don’t?”
Sherlock stilled his twitching wrists, momentarily deleted the violin strings he longed to pluck from his mind. Nervous tics. He knows.
“All I’m saying is it’s a commendable thing getting a mark of affection tattooed on you, but it’s a not a patch on a leaky schooner. The relationship’ll still sink if it’s dinged. You’ll just be stuck with a reminder you don’t want after it’s done.”
“If it’s done, it’s all I’ll have and I’d rather that than nothing.”
“Blimey, you have got it bad.”
Sherlock’s mouth hitched in a droll arc. “The worst.”
"That means we'll have to see about setting you up with something the size of how you feel." Camden reached into his angled art desk to retrieve a large A3 drawing pad. Sherlock's mind was full to bursting with possibilities. How much is too much?
“What makes you think I’d want it that large?”
“You don’t strike me as the subtle type.”
Camden rolled his shoulder. "More like experience. You don't do this as long as I have without learning to pick a Romeo from a crowd of Johns, if you'll forgive the pun."
Sherlock sniffed. "Romeo was a lust-addled juvenile delinquent bent on getting off with the first willing maiden."
"You've got ‘lust-addled delinquent’ down pat."
"I assure you my regard for John has a more potent basis than mere lust." He didn’t protest the ‘delinquent’ epithet; he had the arrest record to match.
"I'm glad to hear that, because John is barmy over you and I'd be damned upset if it turned out you were leading him on, or god forbid pulling another of your tricks."
Sherlock’s mouth puckered up in a snit. "I don't perform tricks."
Camden flicked an inattentive hand in his general vicinity. "Experiments, then? That’s what you call ‘em, isn’t it? John makes a good lab rat. He thinks so, too, laughs with us about it.” The artist spun the drawing tablet 180 degrees and slashed four long reproachful lines in graphite. “It’s not too funny, far as I’m concerned." He went in for detail, his dominant hand steady as the hand of a master equestrian at the reins. Sherlock was under-armed here; he hadn’t known the battlefield to be so deceptive in its welcome.
“It was never funny.” John in peril brought out the very best and the very worst in Sherlock, more so than ever when Sherlock was the danger.
“No, you’ve got that part right.” The lines were gentler at the centre. Sherlock watched him work but was no more enlightened to see his request brought to life. The sentiment of him was fogging his senses.
“Why don’t you say what you’re obviously thinking? You don’t think I’m good enough for John.”
What had been broad strokes became shadow became shade became depth and dimension. Sherlock began to see himself in the work. He began to see John.
“I think love is a dangerous game of chicken to play with a masochist.”
“That doesn’t nearly answer my question.” John is not a masochist. John is...mine.
“Was that a question? I hadn’t noticed.” Camden tore off his sketch and handed it to Sherlock. “This is all I’ve got to say about that. P.S. Don’t fuck it up.”
Camden clapped him on the shoulder and went out to meet John in the reception area, leaving Sherlock the fold the drawing into neat fours and slip it into his coat pocket. The results of this meeting remained to be seen, his initial impressions were inconclusive.
Sherlock was beginning to see why John kept this world private; Sherlock didn’t fit here at all, not even near the seams.
Sherlock emerged in time to see the reunion.
The two acquaintances exchanged perfunctory pleasantries that belied the undemanding clasp of their hands. John’s were the smaller yet he was heedless of Camden’s sheer overwhelming hand span. Where angels and sane men fear to tread, John fears not at all.
Camden was tall and stout, hair burnished the colour of wheat by a love of the sun with skin damage to match. John laughed over his peeling ears.
“Look like somebody’s still addicted the Isle of Wight. Sunscreen, mate, it’ll do you wonders.”
Camden grumbled amiably. Repetition had worn the exchange smooth. Sherlock could have vanished for all that habit tuned them to their proprietary frequency.
John and Camden groused over the antics of some Everett and Cedes, the injuries of a Murray and Rhade, and mutual comrade Moran’s evidently unsurprising dismissal from service with the nonchalance due friends of old. John had slipped into his former posture, shoulders back, chin inclined, and steady right to the soles of his run-in boots. The shop’s litter of patrons held him in reverence, a reverence he returned tenfold. Sherlock was the oddity here, he was the strange thing. This wasn’t a revelation, he was always the eccentric, but he had yet to see anyone regard John as Sherlock did. It was gratifying and distressingly isolating.
On leaving, they boarded the taxi where Sherlock retreated into his deductive process to manage his unsettled internal state.
“He’s a former military man, that’s why you respect him.” John watched the sluggish traffic shunting them to and fro. Sherlock watched John.
“Emergency services, actually. His dad served in Korea, so he’s got a soft spot for a soldier having a rough go of it after coming out. And, for what it’s worth, I respect him because he respects me. Not everyone does.” John was so good as to disregard the mistaken deduction. There’s always something, Sherlock reminded himself.
“War isn’t a popular subject.” Sherlock wanted to grab whatever thoughts his friend let drift unmoored behind his eyes as he snorted in response to Sherlock’s profound understatement.
“Nor are the people who’ve been involved in it. It’s a godsend to be able to go somewhere and talk about it.”
“You could talk to me.”
John favoured him with a sardonic nod of assent, mouth curved for effect. “I know.” He echoed the sentiment, “You could talk to me, too, about anything. You know that, don’t you?”
Sherlock ruminated briefly before presenting his friend with a brisk nod. “Thank you.”
Sherlock might yet pack gold-leafed volumes with affection he lacked the vocabulary to express, but it would be no less genuine for all that it remained improperly declared. You amaze me. Stay. Moriarty was right about us, about you. What are your thoughts on Sussex in springtime or the company of bees? Spend forty-one years with me. I promise not to get bored—often.
They shimmered like chemicals not spilled or promises he’d yet to break. Their unfulfilled potential for failure could curdle milk.
“You’re all Semtex and my violin strings, and all I could think to get was a bloody raven on my back. What does that say about me?” John came from the washing-up with sleeves pushed up high. Sherlock’s heart muscle thunked. He covered his chest for fear John would see. But he never does.
“Let me see that.”
Sherlock clutched the drawing in his hand, resistant to laying it bare under John’s discerning eye. John understood hearts and ink and people, he’d understand what the drawing meant. Sherlock did not believe he was ready to be understood.
“It’s fine, you don’t have to show me. Just,” John faltered in place, “don’t fret about it. If it isn’t a fit for you, it isn’t a fit. Go back to him when you’re feeling differently and work out a new sketch. Or I can have him refer you to someone with a different aesthetic. You’re not required to like him because I do. Something like this has got to feel right or it’ll become something you regret.”
“Do you regret yours?”
“Regret that I had my hopes and fears drawn on the biggest canvas I own?”
Sherlock hated the hysterical prose of the thing though he saw the purpose. He acquiesced in a nod.
“Not at all. If I hadn’t done it, I’d have gone mad. Writing it down didn’t help. Talking about it was like pulling teeth. This way, my story’s told regardless of whether anyone knows the meaning. I can breathe like this.”
Sherlock felt doubts he’d thought put to bed take hold again. He hadn’t been normal when he’d been indistinguishable from the Harrow schoolboys around him, he wasn’t normal now and who better to compare with than John?
He proffered the outline of his proposed tattoo to his friend. “I don’t know that I can breathe with this.” John took it in hand with care, as though it was something that ought to be cherished instead of tossed in the hearth and set ablaze the way Sherlock would prefer.
“It’s beautifully drawn.”
“Some would say so.”
“You don’t like the style? ’S funny, I always thought gothic would suit you.”
Sherlock was at a loss to name his reservations. The eyes of the raven were beetle-black and keen to his damnable envy. The wings were glossy in stark relief to the endless matte darkness of each feather, set to curl ‘round his shoulders as the curious, feasting avian peered over him while he worked. Sherlock would never be alone again with it and he’d already lost his breath.
“He’s pecking at my heart.”
“I noticed that. Thought it a touch poetic, all things considered.” John didn’t understand, not that anyone should have.
“Well, you convinced someone who hadn’t known you an hour before that you had a heart. What might we deduce about that?”
“That you’re a terrible influence.” This was possibly his most loathsome scowl yet.
“That you’re a better man than you think and people are beginning to notice.” Smiling wanly, John offered the drawing back. Sherlock refused to take possession of it. John laid it on the coffee table.
“I’m not a good man, John.” He had six damning thoughts before breakfast on a given day.
“No, you’re a great one.” John rubbed his shoulder before rising to make tea. Sherlock watched him go, unable to fabricate a pithy retort. Who better to know than John?
John returned carrying two mugs of his panacea. He handed one to Sherlock and kept the second for himself, taking it along with him to his customary chair. Sherlock drank in preference to speaking. The tea was sugary as he liked it.
“Why’s it bother you exactly, if you don’t mind me asking.”
Sherlock did mind. Sherlock minded to the meaningless moon and back. But John had bared his back and mind, wasn’t it customary to reciprocate such a confidence?
“It’s mocking me.” He felt more the fool for confessing.
John’s brow furrowed instantly. “What makes you say that?”
“Look at it, it’s obvious. Your artist thinks I’m a bird of prey pecking you to bits.”
“What have I got to do with this?”
“Don’t be stupid. It’s plain what the heart’s supposed to be. Moriarty said it himself.”
John’s brows approached his hairline or vice versa. With John, it was never easy to judge. “You think that’s me?”
“I don’t see how it could be anything, or anyone, else.”
“You don’t think that says more about you than it does about him?” John abandoned his tea to perch on the low table directly before Sherlock. “The heart goes directly above your actual heart.” John tapped his index finger over the drawing’s admirably-replicated aortic valve. “Donnie’s good for this sort of thing since he’s studied anatomy for work. He likes to put everything in its place. Maybe he does think that’s me, but there’s no way to know for sure unless you ask him.” John rubbed his bent knee. “Sherlock, sometimes a heart is just a heart.”
“And a raven only a raven?”
“Nah, that’s definitely you. Look at the beak.” A tease, a joke. Sherlock was reluctantly soothed.
“I’ll have you know this nose is a family trait passed down on my mother’s side.”
“And Mycroft’s your father’s?”
“No idea. I’ve yet to be convinced he wasn’t found in the compost heap as an infant.”
John stifled a giggle into his wrist. “You two may be the maddest pair of brothers I’ve had the dubious honour of knowing personally.”
“We aren’t even the worst our family’s got to offer. You should meet our grand-uncles.”
“Do I want to know?”
“You might, it's an interesting enough story if you like fraternal betrayal and limitless intrigue. Suffice it to say, it ended either in a duel gone awry or a murder-suicide. It’s never been clear as to which.”
“I’ll be sure to hide the potential weapons more carefully the next time he comes to visit.”
“As though you could.”
John cut him a chastising glare. “Considering how regularly you insult my intelligence, the fact that I haven’t knocked you flat more than once is astounding."
Sherlock sank into the back of the couch, smiling a small smile and burying his toes in the leather upholstery. “Indeed. Some would say it’s love.”
John didn’t bother to deny it and Sherlock didn’t see a reason why he should. Another point to the Woman. He worried that he hadn’t heard from her, he worried that he would.
“Sometimes a raven is just a raven?”
“And sometimes a bad sketch is just bad. Nothing to lose sleep over.”
John swiped Sherlock’s tea for himself, though it wasn’t made the way he liked. He grimaced through it.
“It wasn’t a bad sketch.”
“Maybe it was a bad day for it, though.”
“Maybe.” Sherlock hesitated. “Do you think I ought to get it?”
“I think you ought to be sure it’s what you want before you commit to it. This isn’t a one-day ordeal and it will hurt, even for someone with your pain tolerance. Something like what you’ve got there can take up to four separate parlour visits, maybe more depending on how intricate it becomes later on. This tat isn’t easy on and would be hell removing. Be sure.”
“Ravens are considered ill omens to the superstitiously-inclined.”
“You mean to idiots. No need to sensor yourself for my benefit.” John took another questing sip. “People see them hovering about the dead and dying, and think them cruel for it. They’re scavengers, yes, but you and I both know there isn’t anything personal about a scavenger. They’re curious about the dead, hungry to a fault, and intelligent as all get out. How terrifying must that be for people too afraid to look any further than skin-deep?”
“Are you calling me a scavenger, John?” His smile hurt for the poorly exercised muscles it pulled. John’s exasperation made the twinges worthwhile.
“Why am I surprised that I go to the trouble to say all that and this is what you take away from it?”
“Haven’t the foggiest. Did you know that in Celtic animal symbolism, ravens are closely associated with battle, and that their presence on the battlefield is sometimes considered a portent of a battle’s outcome?” (1)
“That—did you Google that?”
He furrowed his brow in false pensiveness. “Might have done. I don’t remember.” John placed Sherlock’s teacup on the floor near his feet and immediately forgot it.
“That’s rubbish and you know it. This bothered you enough that you put effort into researching it. Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t cut yourself with an insult. That’s something I’ll intervene to stop, even if it means going to Mycroft to do it.”
He dismissed John’s condemning hand gestures even as he committed them to his mind palace. “Theatrics aren’t your forte.”
“Pot. Kettle. Black. End of.” John grabbed the sheet of tracing paper and popped up in search of destruction. He moved in every direction for want of a destination. “Should I burn this? Or would you prefer to douse it in hydrochloric acid? It’s up to you, but it can’t be here anymore, clearly, as you’ve taken leave of yours senses because of it!” John’s enraged stamping made a ringing in Sherlock’s ears.
“I’m fine!” Sherlock hated coddling, always had done.
“You’re right, you are. There’s nothing wrong with you. Not a thing, nothing at all. Now, forget this. Delete it. Delete the entire concept of tattoos, if you need to. This is nothing. It’s ink on paper, not a revelation.” The crisp paper crinkled further in his grasp.
“Come off it. It’s me. He spoke to me all of seven minutes, sketched that for fifteen, and he had me sussed out. I’m a predator, a scavenger, too curious by half and repelling.”
“Okay, so maybe you are. That isn’t new. It’s who you’ve been all along, why’s it such a problem now?”
Sherlock frowned, struck broadside by John’s frankness and his own lack of ready reply. The days preceding John’s entry into Sherlock’s life had been static, unchanging with scarcely little to commend them between cases. Not much had changed since, save for his tendency to avoid the siren’s call of hard drugs and the welcome presence of a friend, a mate. He led much the same life; it was he, the man he was that was changing. There lay his epiphany. Never leave an amateur to do a detective’s work. Scotland Yard doesn’t consult amateurs.
“It isn’t, I just thought...” He released a gusty breath and dragged his fingers through his disagreeable snarls of hair. “I don’t know what I thought.”
John ambled back to him, grinding his fingers along his nape as though it hurt him. Tension headache, he gets those from me.
“Look, Sherlock, it’s normal to see enemies everywhere when that’s all you’ve ever had. It’s normal to expect mockery when that’s the usual response from people you meet. But that won’t be every time. Donnie respects you because I do. That he’s even thinking about taking you on means you’ve gained his respect in your own right.” He placed the wrinkled page where Sherlock’s curled toes ended. Sherlock observed that he unconsciously favoured one leg over the other.
“The raven isn’t there to mock you. It’s there to keep you safe when I can’t, to cover your back when I’m not there. It’s there to be as smart as you are when nobody is. If that heart really is me, Sherlock, the raven isn’t picking me apart; it’s getting to know me the only way it knows how: by striking me right at the centre. That’s fine by me, it’s all fine by me. I’m not afraid of it any more than I am of you."
“You don’t hate it?” You don’t hate that I do that to you? He discarded the entire thing as emotional nonsense. It lingered contrary to his objective.
“Nope, but I won’t be angry if you do. Skin is armour. That’s why we rally behind those with the thick stuff and take the piss out anybody whose skin is too thin. You have to pick what yours is made out of and pick what you colour it with, if you decide to colour it with anything.”
“Yours is war paint.” He was disgusted with himself even as he said it. I’ve resorted to trite cliché. What’s happening to me? Blaming John for the man Sherlock was becoming was easiest, so he was all to blame.
John smirked as if he knew. “Battle colours more like. But yours doesn’t need to be.”
“I can’t have him picking at you, John. Can’t have it. Won’t.”
“Then, don’t.” John beat his calluses along the notch of Sherlock’s ankle. “If you leave off the heart and keep the raven, you’ve got yourself a hell of a self-portrait, here.”
Sherlock couldn’t find it in himself to disagree. “It is an inspired reproduction.”
“He had the best possible model.”
“I’ve got the best possible heart.” Oh, hell. He slung an arm over his face, enough to see but not be seen.
“I know. I’ve seen it in action.” John licked his lips, his expression shifting to a thoughtful one. “Say, here’s a thought. Why don’t you put this in a drawer for bit? Wait a while, give it some thought. A few months down the line, if you think you’re still up for it, I’ll drag you someplace new and we can try this all over again.” He swept his hand to the unfeeling, scarred skin on Sherlock’s leg. “I like your skin the way it is. No ‘war paint’ necessary.” Sherlock flexed, the solidity of the hold an anchor to save him drifting.
“I think you’ve got enough for us both.”
“All right by me.”
And it was. Fine, that is. A public accountant had been abducted and by Sherlock’s deductions found. Lestrade received a third-hand tiepin for his birthday and Sherlock fell asleep on John’s good shoulder more nights than he powered through. Irene finally texted him, this time from Istanbul. Soon after, Sherlock found another scrap of sketch paper in the desk beside his own. A tattoo of a cracked stained glass pane meant for a thigh. Faith cracked but unbroken.
‘All right?’ said the note John had left him to find.
Everything was perfectly all right.
The death throes of spring were miserable, on this day more so than on others. This day ran hot and long. Too hot for the master thieves and murderers of London to bother plying their trade. Too long for any respectable man to reject wakefulness for the imagined relief of an overheated sleep. Sherlock, having no respectability to lose, lay recumbent on the couch at high noon, face to the open window, set to rob any innocent, passing breeze. John wandered in carrying two perspiring glasses of ice water, ostensibly mummified in long sleeves.
John tried to give him water.
“Ah.” John made to take back the glass but lost his grip, spilling most of the glass’s contents onto Sherlock’s bare stomach.
Sherlock hissed. “Bloody fu—hell, that’s cold!” Sherlock rocketed forward to bowl his body round the spill lest it wet the couch. He was moderately successful. John didn’t appear sorry despite the untimely nature of his accident. “What was that about?”
“You’re going to get heat stroke. Drink.” He proffered the same glass again.
Sherlock took the glass this time and finished the half-cup still inside. He felt reluctantly quenched. “There, done.”
“You look better already. You don’t even have to thank me.” John’s body language was smugly triumphant.
“Thank you for being an intolerable bully out to dictate my life and body? Please, by all means, continue.” He chose to hand it over instead of ‘clumsily’ shatter it on the floor. John sat it there anyway on his way down.
“I will, thanks. Now, budge over. You aren’t the only one here who likes to languish on days like this.”
Sherlock budged. A lanky body and a compact one entwined took up a considerable amount of leg room. John’s dishwater hair caught in the grooves of Sherlock’s front teeth. Sweat-soaked, in need of a wash. Sherlock knew himself to be in a worse state up top.
“John, it’s too hot.” The positive result of his impromptu shower was evaporating rapidly.
“Agreed.” John moved to roll off Sherlock’s arm where’d tucked his head inside the bend.
“Not just yet. Come here.” Sherlock pulled at John till they were sprawled nose to nose with John on top, his appendages interposed around furniture and body to Sherlock’s liking. Their position cast the rest of the world out, as was Sherlock’s wont. This was only for them.
“This looks familiar.”
“As it should. I’m attempting to partially recreate our initial intimate encounter. I intend to go about it correctly this go-round.”
“There was nothing wrong with the last one.”
“There was: me.”
“I was there, too.”
“I ran, you didn’t turn me away, which is what I deserved for my behaviour that afternoon.”
“You’re not the first one to take one look at me and run. Anyway, you came back.”
“Yes and I’d like the chance to do this right.”
“Is this you trying to be romantic?”
“This is me doing whatever it takes to have you stay.”
“All you have to do is be here."
"Is this you being romantic?"
"You have to admit I'm worlds better at it than you."
"I don’t think so."
“You don’t think at all. Your mind’s turned to dust. You’d best leave the higher-level cognitive functions to me.”
“You are rubbish at this wooing bit,” he complained, but his mouth had gone curled up at the ends. His face gave away the game.
“I believe I can prove my worth at the sport.” Sherlock let his fingers travail cloaked ink green scales up to where the starburst scar loomed like a penumbra from behind. “It may surprise you to discover that I’m right, yet again. Through rigorous self-assessment, I have confirmed that I am in love with you andI have been for months now.” Sherlock was victorious in the sense that he’d solved this—another human milestone conquered by empiricism. He was also mildly troubled, because John seemed to have malfunctioned. “That is all right, isn’t it?”
John had seemed fine with the odd kiss that Sherlock initiated and, since the parlour visit, they’d been closer. Sherlock didn’t have any reason to believe he’d interpreted John’s desires wrongly, but he wasn’t awash in experience on the matter. Maybe John would prefer a more casual relationship? The term made Sherlock queasy. Casual meant there would be others and Sherlock didn’t think he could withstand ‘others’ seeing what he saw any longer, touching what he’d claimed as his to touch.
“Months.” John’s eyes followed an unseen metronome, flitting left and right. In search of escape? Sherlock didn’t know, but John didn’t leave, remaining a heavy, wanted burden on his hips. “Months? I can’t say I was expecting that. But, are you sure about this? I mean, love’s a pretty serious chemical defect and you don’t like to lose. You’re a bloody awful sport about it, in fact.” His stiff upper lip was coming back to him, the giddiness of it—of happiness?—diffusing under his skin.
Sherlock jutted out his stubborn jaw. “It doesn’t qualify as losing when I’ve won.” The prizes varied. “Besides, I consider it more as a mutually-beneficial compromise.” Not to mention a lethal disadvantage. For all that he did not carry it on his skin, Sherlock wore his heart on his sleeve, now.
John rolled sighed. “Mr. Punchline to the last, of course you’d come up with something like that.”
“Is that all right?”
“You tell me.” He was too shrewd by half tonight.
Sherlock hitched his naked shoulders. John traced the grooves that defined his pectorals. Sherlock keenly ached to return the gesture of affection, but was unsure of his welcome. His friend, more tonight, was far from a wilting flower, nevertheless, there were parts of John left tender by Sherlock’s predecessors and he couldn’t be sure of treading over the landmines they’d planted behind them.
John curved to kiss the glass curves of his cheeks. He harboured a scarcely concealed attraction to all that made Sherlock the odd in the eyes of strangers. Sherlock revered all that made John plain.
When John began again, his hand was over Sherlock’s heart, thudding acquisitive, the wires binding the intellectual to the mind crossed with the sentimental heart’s function.
“You need to know these are the only warning you get.” John gestured at the cloaked mural on his arms and chest. “I can be damned petty and passive aggressive. I won’t tell you if something’s wrong till I’m plum sick of putting up with it and my things are taped in boxes. I will fall for you and it won’t be a small thing. I don’t love that way, Sherlock. I can’t be ‘your idiot’ at home and just any idiot at other places. I’m an awful flirt—‘Three Continents’ is pushing it though not far—but I am faithful. I don’t sleep well, but better than I used to, better with you.”
This was nothing Sherlock hadn’t observed in their first month of cohabitation, notes he amended by the day. “Why are you telling me this?”
“To knock some sense into you. People walk because they realize all this isn’t just decoration to me. This is me and they don’t always like what they see. I can’t say that I blame them, but it does hurt. If you take me as I am right now and leave me after, I’ll live, I’ll get over it eventually, but it will hurt like nothing else has, because I’m falling for you like I haven’t fallen for anyone.”
“You’re warning me not to disappoint you."
“No, I know you won’t. You couldn’t. I’m just asking. This is me asking you to think this through.”
Sherlock clumsily shuffled upward underneath John’s weight. “You don’t need to ask! I don’t need warning. I am fully cognizant of what we’ve started. John, barring murder, terminal illness, or unexpected calamity, you have approximately forty-one years left to live. Spend them with me.”
John blinked off-kilter, left then right. Shell-shocked. “You’ve counted?”
“To the day, the hour, the minute; seconds are tedious but, yes, also to the second. We’re wasting time.”
“We have time.”
“Not enough.” He grabbed John’s terribly earnest, rudely handsome face in his hands and offered him a reverent kiss. “You astonish me.”
“Have you hit your head? Maybe fallen down? Because this sounds like a mild to moderate concussion catching up to you.” John combed his hands through Sherlock’s curls in search of lumps. Sherlock trapped John’s hands behind his neck.
“Don’t! Don’t.” Sherlock pressed their foreheads together. “Don’t make light of what you mean to me. I did not expect to feel like this for anybody in my lifetime, but you showed up and, well, I’m nothing if not adaptable.”
“I didn’t know there was anyone like you in the world. I’m ludicrously fortunate to have found the only one. Doubt anybody else would agree, but there you are.”
Sherlock ignored the last, as he did the majority of John’s failed comedic efforts. “The only consulting detective?”
“Nope. The only Sherlock Holmes.”
“Oh.” Sherlock wrinkled his nose. “I ought to be embarrassed at how quickly we progressed to the saccharine drivel stage of this relationship.”
“Could be worse, you could be getting down on one knee to propose.”
“Not if I was offered unimpeded access to the morgue of every London hospital for a year.”
John bumped his perspiring forehead on Sherlock’s collarbone, giggling as Sherlock did at the absurd picture they made together.
“Do you sweet talk all your prospective beaus like this?”
“Only the crack shot ex-army doctors with psychosomatic limps.” Sherlock found he was gradually learning the playful tongue of affection. He prayed he might one day wake up fluent.
“Met a lot of those, have you?”
“Only one who mattered.”
“And you say you’re not human.”
“Not human enough, actually. Apparently, there’s a distinction. And it isn’t me saying it. It’s said plenty enough on my behalf.”
“Morons that can’t see past the end of their noses. Any idiot could see that even tin men have tin hearts.” More contemptible metaphors, Sherlock mused. Nevertheless truer words were still waiting to be spoken.
“Funny, you’re curiously warm for steel.”
John’s answering look was one so alight with grudging fondness Sherlock had to kiss him in reply. There was neither will in his body to refuse, nor want. How horrifically easy he is to kiss. How distracting. Sherlock kept his level head even as his romantic heart, poor doomed animal that it was, slipped out of his body into unfailing hands.
Sherlock’s mobile rang out from wherever he’d left it, a shrill disfigurement of the chorus of Killer Queen.
John huffed, parting from him. “I’m more surprised you actually know Queen than anything. Can’t hold on to heliocentrism, but Freddy Mercury, him you make room for in that hundred-acre brain attic of yours.”
“Any musician with the ability to offend my brother’s sartorial sensibilities and aggravate his antipathy for gross flamboyance merits a share of memory space.”
Rolling his eyes, John swatted him. “Answer him, it could be important.”
“It won’t be.”
“But it could be.”
Sherlock peeled himself off John and grumbled his way to the dial.
“The fox has been released, or shall we say the hound?” Large room, quiet: Diogenes Club. Idiotic analogy: must be Tuesday.
“How long ago?”
Sherlock brought the call to a swift end lest he say something truly damning. Officious, egoistic tub of lard.
Moriarty was waiting in the wings. Mycroft was manning the strings. Sherlock was the bloody marionette jigging on a rotted stage.
“My brother is a fool.” Sherlock gave what warning he felt he could, imbuing his words with frivolous annoyance to the nth degree. “He’ll be the death of me.”
“Not without your help.” John’s look was sly, fox like. Sherlock slithered nearer, reading him for foreknowledge, for the odds that John might foresee. He thought, but he could be sure!
“Since when are you clever?”
“I dunno. You might be rubbing off on me a bit.” John pinched forefinger to thumb. “Tiny bit. A smidgeon.”
“A positively microscopic amount at best.”
“All right, smartass. The dating bit means you have to pretend to be nice to me.”
“And here I thought romantic relationships relied on honesty. More fool me.”
Sherlock didn’t allow himself to ask what he’d surmised was true. Wishful thinking might have rendered null his capabilities and he couldn’t chance being sidetracked with foolish hope. Mycroft would keep him abreast of the latest. The game was now a waiting one. John was right, I should have sat a degree in patience. He wouldn’t have completed that one, either.
A text arrived at six.
He’s returning to London. MH
Their story was reaching its climax.
Sherlock was becoming painfully aware he now had something to lose.
Another day, another front page. Sherlock had the ill fortune of discovering how right John was in his concerns about the press. Sherlock’s growing notoriety was already becoming steadily evident in the calibre of case he was being offered from public figures and the lack from London’s more private denizens. He didn’t care for the change as it made moving about unobtrusively quite difficult.
The abduction of a middle class public accountant was supposed to bore our admirers, not provoke them! Just on the way back from Bart’s, he’d had to fake a head injury to skive off autographing blurred headshots of himself. The uninspired tiepin he’d fobbed off on Lestrade was a more than adequate punishment for a man who hadn’t tied a Windsor knot since his twilight flight from Harrow in a purloined delivery cart.
“‘The Reichenbach Hero Rides Again,’” greeted his return to 221b. “Oh, god. We’re superheroes. Well, you’re a superhero. How the hell did that happen?” Sherlock mustered the resolve not to be offended.
“Fate, god, luck. Choose your groundless fairytale.”
“Watch it, ‘Net Dec.’”
Sherlock bemoaned his fate as he shucked his shoes and jacket and coat. “That is the most asinine headline the Guardian’s run in a year of asinine headlines. Why did it have to be my picture attached?”
“Someone not-so-secretly hates you?”
More than keen to change the subject, Sherlock shammed a chuckle. “Ha, and what’s your secret identity, Bachelor John Watson?
“You’re serious?” John scrambled to stave off Sherlock’s calling him a clot. Clot. “I guess my superhero name would be ‘Blogger’ whereas you’d be ‘Hatman.’” John cut him off twice. “Not a word, you asked. Yes, you’d definitely be the man with the earflaps. All posh and polished and that voice. That voice is your superpower but it’s that mind behind it that makes you devastating.”
Sherlock was unspeakably flattered, thus he didn’t speak it. “Hatman is a dismal contribution. Even you can do better than that.” He sidestepped a stack of case files to flop into his chair.
“I couldn’t do any better than you.”
A tidal flush crept up his throat. John wasn’t garrulous. He said only what he believed needed saying, even when it was wrong.
“Likewise.” Sherlock had had the dubious honour of seeing John totter from one moonstruck infatuation to another, but still he wondered. “Do you talk like this with the women you date?” When you’ve dated men? No, no, I’m the first. I’ll be the only.
John assumed a demonstrably cagey air. Not trepidation, as in the past, rather the waffling of a man who had seen roughly five relationships sunken under a like utterance’s heft.
“There isn’t a right or wrong answer.”
“Not bloody likely. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a thousand times and I am, in fact, the stupidest man on Earth.”
“Don’t be absurd, you’re not the stupidest. Stupidity entails your being either incapable or unwilling to learn. You have neither impediment."
“That might be the nicest thing you’ve said to me.”
“I’ve observed that relationships in which the participants exchange regular compliments have a 32 percent greater chance of long-term success.”
“You pulled that out of your arse.”
“Immaterial to the point I was attempting to make, try to stay focussed. You’re not the stupidest man in London, much less on the planet. Please refrain from needless exaggeration.”
Eyebrows up. “Only if you’ll refrain from being an unmitigated arse—to Donovan, Anderson, Molly, and Mycroft.” Sherlock may have conceded were it not for that last. Forever the fly in the ointment, Mycroft.
“I suppose some hyperbole is permissible, but only in rare instances.” He used John’s old cane, found half-stuck under his chair, to swat at the fluttering back pages of John’s paper. John kicked at his ankle.
“How about I say whatever I like, whenever I like and I don’t start refusing to make the tea, do the shopping, and clean up after your lazy arse on principle? I do promise not to shout it in your ear, though.”
Sherlock stuck out his lip, displeased if aware he was beaten. “Unsatisfactory but tolerable.”
“Welcome to relationships, Sherlock. You’ve just survived your first ever compromise. Should I get out the shock blanket?” His dark blue eyes were bracketed in a laugh lines Sherlock could have scripted notes in. There's still a ballad I've yet to write.
Sherlock sensed a prime opportunity rid them of that detestable mauve monstrosity. “You could lend me your cardigan.”
“And give you a head start on that battery ‘experiment’? Pull the other one."
Sherlock fiddled with the jumper’s darned hem. John’s clothes earned their keep in keeping him hale and healthy. Sherlock had no reason to hate them for doing their due diligence. What he hated was the very real fashion in which they kept John cinched in tight, how they made John feel secure when Sherlock still made him scarper.
“I...want to see you. Nothing like before, just to see you.” His head would rule his hands; he swore it. John didn’t ask him for even that much.
“Idiot.” John was as putty in Sherlock’s hands as Sherlock was in his.
John tossed over the Guardian and began stripping down to the short-sleeved crewneck he wore under. There was only the partial serpent, bomb, and the maps were highly abridged. John’s lungs were relegated to that sacred space beneath his clothes, but Sherlock made himself content with this much he had when every inch was ground he coveted.
For the sake of his ruse, Sherlock wrangled himself into John’s jumper, which stretched across his sternum and gapped around his stomach, exposing a hint of shirt where it stopped short of his belt. The knit fabric had come off John warmed to his body temperature. Sherlock avariciously stole John’s heat back from it.
Stooping to kneel in front of John’s chair, Sherlock walked his fingers from Arghandab to Chawnay, grazed Loy Wiyala and was reminded of the Trocadero, passed a hand over Shirkati Mewa to cover Kabul Darwaza. He thought of soldiers with worse aim than John and that there was no predictor for death but chance.
“Never go back.”
John followed the path, his changing micro-expressions narrating the tale. “I’m no good to anybody there.”
“Not true. I’ve read the guidelines. Your Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder has minimal effect and there’s surely some good you could do on the home front if not at the front lines.” Mycroft’s briefing notes were more detailed than any the public could access.
“Haven’t you heard, there aren’t any more front lines?”
“Political double speak. As long as there are government interests, there will be a front line. I don’t want you there.” Mycroft would have a fight if the army tried absconding with his blogger again.
“Where do you want me?” He swayed a hair’s breadth nearer, drifted into Sherlock’s gravity.
“Here. Baker Street. This is where you belong, now.” Sherlock couldn’t hold his hands still. They trailed along inked skin, embraced fabric; carefully, so carefully cosseted John’s throat and slunk into his hair. Were Sherlock a mapmaker, he would make a map of this man to record the lay of him, his nonpareil topography. Sherlock had no interest in cartography, but he might take to pencil and protractor over GPS and moaning mobiles just for this.
“Look at you. God, I almost love you like this.” John mimicked his actions, thumbs at pulse and over heart, caught in the decadent whisper of clothing trapped between flesh. He was forgetting how to worry. Sherlock didn’t want him to worry or to doubt.
“Only almost?” This strange, courtly abstinence he’d been cultivating would be the end of him.
John held off; John gave in. “More than almost.” He leant up to kiss Sherlock languorous and deep.
Sherlock grabbed John’s careworn undershirt by fistfuls, slotting easily between gripping thighs. How much more than ‘almost’?
John drove his hands into Sherlock’s hair, tugging him securely in place to stroke his tongue across his palate. Sherlock moaned into John’s mouth, jeopardizing his peace of mind for one taste and another. I won’t hurt him. He won’t break. His mantra didn’t drive the trembling out him, but he had manipulated volatile chemicals through rounds of detox, he would persevere.
John retreated an inch. “Is this all right? The kissing, can I kiss you?”
Sherlock’s excited nod brought his mouth fumbling for John’s. “Fine, it’s fine.”
He buried himself in the sweetness of that kiss. Saliva, predictable, tea and toast, an ice lolly John thought Sherlock hadn’t seen him sneak. He was the complete informational experience: taste, scent, the space he occupied in Sherlock’s arms. He was incontestably real, solid, Sherlock’s in every conceivable way.
“There’s something I need to say,” John interjected, which didn’t stop him clutching Sherlock close and chuckling down into his mouth as though he didn’t believe himself. He twiddled disorienting curlicues over Sherlock’s sacrum, hands shoved up under silk, cotton, and wool alike, invasive and thoroughly welcome.
Sherlock scrabbled at him like a gaunt stray to an auspicious slab of meat, but he tried to press his mind to the arduous task of conversation to prove that he could. “Say it, say anything.” He bombarded the side of John’s face with kisses—temple, zygoma, jaw, the rapturous angle of his mouth gone gorgeously claret at Sherlock’s attentions, the crest of his ear. John was all colours: tan, claret, ash blond and grey. Sherlock had fallen in love with his colours. “Say it.”
The scrape of a stubbled jaw, the sheer intransience of bone under musculature and integumentary tissue—
“If the drugs come back, that’s it, these go away.” John cupped Sherlock's cheek and peppered kisses along his jaw line. “I’ll stay for now, but I won’t watch you kill yourself. You can’t make me do that. I walked out on my sister because she decided she loved the bottle more than anyone. I won’t stick around long enough to get left behind, not again. I've done that.”
Sherlock quietened for another kiss, a procensuring press of lips. “I would pick you.”
“You didn’t that night.”
“An unforgivable lapse in judgement.”
“Forgivable, not forgettable.”
Sherlock heard the unsaid, counted himself forewarned. Never again.
“John, it cannot be disputed that I’m, to put it frankly, pants with expressions of sentiment, but I think you should know that if I had to feel the way I do, I’m glad I met you first.” John’s eyes flickered to where Sherlock had once stored Irene’s phone. “No one else, not even who you’re thinking right this second."
“You don’t know who I’m thinking about.”
“Let’s assume, for the sake of expediency, that this is my area. I'm considered something of a professional.”
“You know, I think I might have heard that online, from some blog or something. I don’t really follow that kind of thing, you know.” His aspect lightened with doubt receding.
Sherlock pursed his lips in a tight smile, forced himself not to cling equally tight. “Did I say the right thing?”
John tugged gently at his jumper’s stretched stitches. “Sherlock, you are shamelessly unprofessional, indiscriminately and unaccountably cruel, and the most brilliant man in London to get paid for it that isn’t Stephen Fry. I don’t think I could to love you back more if I tried really, really hard.” He drew his gaze over Sherlock’s face. Sherlock hadn’t the faintest what he must have seen; he was preoccupied fighting this strange swelling in his breast. “Did I say the right thing?”
Sherlock supposed what he was feeling must be happiness. He hadn’t had much of that, until now.
“Almost always.” He pulled John into his arms to begin again. This man was his for the taking, finally, and he intended to have all at once.
“Inesperata floruit, John.” He curled his fingers behind John to caress the most gracious lungs to breathe oxygen while nuzzling his lips along the hours of the unchanging clock. Hours and hours spent with you isn’t nearly enough, not at all.
Hours later, when the season had given over to night and John to rest, Sherlock read his texts in the dark.
I behaved most indecorously. Forgive me. MH
Watch over him for me and there will be nothing left to forgive. SH
Their groundless fairytale was ending right at the start.
(1) Got my perfunctory info on ravens here, so I take responsibility for anything I’ve misrepresented.
Chapter title from Stanzas to Augusta (2) by Lord Byron [x]
Chapter 11: Epilogue
Sherlock faces the aftermath of the Fall.
After the fall, Sherlock’s hair was shorn ragged and dyed red; he was no raven anymore. He was no one anymore, a man without friend or name or home fires to await him. London was a concussed blur behind him of hard pavement and begged promises for silence from a man who wasn’t his comrade and now would never be.
Donald Camden was the trustworthy sort John had vowed after all who had balked at Sherlock’s injured state and at the very breath in his lungs. Sherlock Holmes had died in London’s eyes; his voice had not been a welcome one to hear in the night, not for Donnie. But he had kept his peace and performed the task Sherlock had pled for. He knew it was solely Camden’s love of John that stayed his hand and made it work, and that all this was for John’s sake.
It was the toil of a selfless, stinging week, which the artist had deemed pushing it and would be sped no further. The hours were whiled away in late evenings, terse reports of John’s state shared by word of mouth and the odd muted news report. What pain Sherlock trembled for went beyond the dermal layer of his skin, reached beyond lungs. It lingered where John was not.
Sherlock could hardly bear clothing on his tender flesh as he departed London, care of Molly Hooper’s dearest and most intrusive aunt. He endured for the sake of the mission, for the sake of ink tributes, and someday, somehow making his return. He said goodbye to Britain by way of private charter, paid in cash vanished at his brother’s behest. There was a host of martyrs left behind he’d have to thank one day, should he survive this; they would land on the blade of John’s sword before him.*
His subsequent travails found him in a matchbox flat in Gdansk, taking the tedious measures necessary to prevent infection setting in. The ritual was an awkward, agonizing reach, leaving him panting on hands and knees before his full-length mirror glass. It reflected him sapped of vanity save this one essential feature, this one hallowed piece of his mate that he could carry with him, his name protected.
Thus, Sherlock found himself alone in all the world, but for the beetle-black eye that peered from his shoulder and the sharp, cruel beak plucking at his tin heart.
*In case it wasn't clear, a sort of bastardization of the phrase "to fall on one's sword," which means to take the blame.
This prompt and story was instigated by my love of this story here. It’s almost two years old, but it may be worth dropping the author a line or just a read. (1) Got my perfunctory info on ravens here, so I take responsibility for anything I’ve misrepresented.
Thank you all so much for reading and commenting. I’ve really enjoyed writing this story and hearing what you all thought. It’s been great. I hope you’ve loved it, too. If I’ve left any unforgivable Americanisms in or plot holes that you noticed or there are any other salient mistakes you want to mention, I’m all ears. There is a coda in the works, but I've got no idea when it'll be done, so we'll see. Thank you again!
This bit is totally random, so feel free to skip.
For anyone interested, I took the liberty googling some images that best resemble what I had in mind for the tattoos in this story. None were dead-on, but these should help you picture them if you were having any trouble.
John's lungs would be something very much in the style of this from Gray's Anatomy, but more colorful and from an anterior vantage point. The appearance of John's snake would fall somewhere between this (SFW but terrifying) and this (SFW and less terrifying). 'Terrifying' is very subjective, though.