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One of Maple, One of Palm

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“But what is it?” John asks, staring at the wooden box Sherlock has grasped in both hands, held between them like an offering.

“The greatest puzzle of them all,” Sherlock answers, eyes focused intently on John.

**

The earliest memories that Sherlock has is of a huge laboratory, large and airy despite the modest size of the cottage that it’s attached to. His father had built it himself, spending days constructing the oak beams that would hold the building together and the pine joists that would keep it standing, hours spent on his hands and knees sanding and staining the beech planks for the floor, and then nailing them into place one by one.

By the time Sherlock had turned six, the laboratory was complete, and one of Sherlock’s favourite places, always filled to the brim with wonderful and beautiful objects carved in wood, finely decorated and polished to a shine, stained in a variety of colours to catch the eye.

Siger Holmes was a master carpenter, a talented woodworker who had a gift with maths and an eye for artistry that was unparalleled, a man whose passion was his work and vice versa. So when Margaret Holmes decided that her eldest son needed a new desk, Siger created a masterpiece, built from solid maple wood (“for balance and practicality,” he murmured, his voice soft and intense), stained dark to match the furniture he’d previously built for Mycroft, with a chair made of eucalyptus (“for prudence”).

When Sherlock begged for a violin, Siger spent long hours in the library, reading up on violin construction and Antonio Stradivari, and then months creating and discarding unfinished pieces of spruce and willow, stating they didn’t sound right or that he could do better until the moment when Sherlock, on his ninth birthday, was presented with the finished piece.

It was the best birthday present that he’d ever received, that he could ever hope to receive, and he spent days in his room, practicing his bowing, losing track of time and himself in the notes, the sounds and the music.

And then he turns thirteen.

**

The cake his mother makes is delicious--chocolate with vanilla icing, his favourite because it makes Mycroft grimace with jealousy when he can have as many slices as he wants and Mycroft can’t--and all of his presents have been opened. There’s the new bow for his violin, the large encyclopedia book on animal biology--complete with detailed drawings--and a large coat he’s wanted ever since he saw one of the Year 11 boys wear it to school, with much acclaim and fanfare.

Just when the evening is over--the cake eaten, the candles extinguished, his hands itching to carry his new possessions into his room and look them over minutely, inspect them with all of his senses--one last box is placed on the table. It’s on the large size of medium, perhaps just smaller than the size of the average human head, wrapped in pale blue wrapping paper with a white bow. When he tugs the gift closer, he can tell that the box itself is wooden and the entire thing is weighty, heavy.

He rips the wrapping paper free of the box and inspects it carefully. As expected, it’s solid and sturdy, made of redwood and finished with a gloss that almost seems to glow in the light. The decoration on the outside is sparse, consisting of tasteful vines arranged in gentle spirals and a small willow tree, along with a few words carved onto the lid:

To my son, on the occasion of his thirteenth birthday. May he solve the greatest puzzle of them all.

Sherlock looks questioningly at his father. “What is it?”

His father smiles at him. “That’s part of the puzzle, Sherlock.”

Sherlock shrugs, flicks the latch and attempts to open it, but to his consternation the lid doesn’t budge.

He pulls harder and it doesn’t move, so he inspects the box closer and realises that there aren’t any visible seams, no indication--except for the words--where the top of the box is.

Irritated, Sherlock scowls and attempts to shake the box, but it’s too large and awkward in his arms to give it a proper shake. What he does know, though, is that it the box is heavy and well-made, though not as heavy as it would be if it were solid wood. This becomes evident when he raps his knuckles on the box and it produces a slightly hollow sound. There is definitely something within.

It’s on the tip of his tongue to ask, yet again, what’s inside, but he doesn’t. If he’s meant to solve this mystery himself, then he will do it himself without any help. He will astound everyone by being as clever as his father and solving it very quickly.

A bubble of excitement floats up from his stomach, past his lungs and under his ribs, before sliding through his throat and up into his brain. It feels like a fever, this desire, and it’s the first truly interesting thing that’s broken through his shell of teenage apathy.

“Happy Birthday,” his father says with a smile.

Sherlock nods his thanks and turns his attention back to the box that doesn’t seem to want to open.

“I’ll be in my lab,” his father murmurs to his mother, but Sherlock only has eyes and ears for his new puzzle. He confidently predicts to himself, as he carries all of his things to his room, that he will have it solved before the week is out.

**

He doesn’t have it solved before the week is out.

For months, he works on the box every day, running his fingers over the redwood (from a sequoia, “for eternity, longevity, and great wisdom”), over the carvings of vines (“for introspection and depth”) and the willow tree (“for imagination and vision”), as well as the golden clasp that’s not a clasp at all. He memorises the box by feel, recognises instantly the knots in the wood, the carvings, and can trace the pattern of the grain with his eyes closed. He keeps it close to him when he’s home, either on his desk or on the nightstand by his bed.

But despite all of his effort, the box remains maddeningly closed.

**

Sherlock doesn’t give up on it, runs his fingers over it by force of habit, but more interesting things happen to take its place.

His voice deepens and he hits his growth spurt. He grows to nearly his father’s height and his legs feel gangly and uncoordinated until he begins to take self-defence lessons.

Carl Powers dies in a swimming pool in London.

It’s a tragic accident, everyone says, a promising swimmer from Sussex who drowned while training for a swim meet. Something is wrong, though, and it captures his attention. He immerses himself in anything about the case he can find, but he never believes--along with everyone else--that Carl Powers’ fit in the pool was an accident. Something about it is wrong, and the only thing he can point to, in his youth, are the missing shoes.

He begs his parents to take him to London, but they can’t, so he demands that Mycroft do it. He only does, Sherlock suspects, to appease their parents.

Once in London, he tries to talk to the police about the case, tries to tell them what he suspects, that the missing shoes are important, that if it was an accident the shoes should be there with the rest of Carl Powers’ clothes.

They don’t listen, of course not, they’re stupid and slow and they want to believe it was an accident because everything is so much easier that way, isn’t it?

The utter failure and humiliation of the day is complete when he sees Mycroft send the DS a commiserating, conspiratorial smile--the sort of expression he’s beginning to fully understand now that he’s older, one that says Thank you for humouring my little brother, he doesn’t know any better.

It’s a look he’s seen more and more in relation to himself, and it twists in his chest painfully, sets his teeth on edge, and forces him to ball his hands into fists to avoid hitting his brother in his ugly, superior face.

When he arrives home, he stomps past everyone without a word, locks himself in his room and rages.

The test tubes he’s collected as part of his makeshift chemistry lab crash to the ground with a satisfyingly loud noise, the sturdy wooden chair that goes to the sturdy, wooden desk his father crafted ends up across the room--still in one piece, though with marks and scuffs from where Sherlock has thrown it and kicked. Lashed out.

He turns to the puzzle box, to the gold clasp that refuses to open, to answers denied him, to mysteries unsolved and taunting, and rushes forward, grabbing it off his nightstand and shaking it, pulling at it, anything he can think of to simply open it.

It remains shut, closed to him, until he runs out of anger and collapses onto the bed, clutching the box tightly in both hands.

He reads the carved letters, traces them with his fingers, and consoles himself with the knowledge that the police are idiots, incompetent, and that he’s the one on the right track.

His fingernails catch on the z’s of the word puzzle, his hold on the box squeezing as he furiously thinks of his humiliation, when suddenly the lid clicks.

The sound of it echoes and he freezes briefly before clawing at the z’s again while simultaneously trying to unlatch the clasp, pushing and pulling on it desperately.

There’s another click and the box snicks open barely, a small seam in the previously smooth wood.

Sherlock catches his breath, his blood pounding through his body frantically, and wastes no time pulling the lid off, the hinges silent and smooth.

Inside is a roughly fist-shaped lump of wood, unsanded, unfinished. The wood is a sickly pale colour, and there are clear signs of splinters, of rough edges and huge knots. It has the appearance of something laughably amateurish, as if some first year carpentry student had been attempting to make a wooden ball and wasn’t quite finished with it.

Given what his father is capable of, it looks ridiculous.

Sherlock swallows harshly, confused. He’s at once elated--having solved the puzzle box--and disappointed at the anti-climatic reveal of the lump of wood.

Still, he turns up at dinner and reveals to his father that he’s solved the puzzle box.

Siger Holmes smiles at him, briefly. “Did you?”

“Yes,” Sherlock sighs, frowning.

“Both?”

Sherlock blinks. “There’s,” he pauses and then sighs. “The lump in the box is also a puzzle?”

“The infinitely more challenging one,” his father answers.

Sherlock doesn’t say another word, but once he’s suffered through dinner, he returns to his room and attacks the misshapen wood with renewed vigour.

All he gets for his trouble are painful splinters.

**

“I don’t understand.”

Sherlock smiles. “Don’t you?”

And when John shakes his head, a line between his brows indicating confusion, Sherlock clears his throat. “Hold out your hands and I’ll show you.”

**

This new puzzle box--though not box-shaped--is made of alder, which his father has never explained despite repeated questioning.

Sherlock works on the puzzle for days, weeks, months, and gets nowhere. The splinters make handling the box difficult, until Sherlock settles for tough, sturdy gloves to preserve his fingers. This has the drawback of making it more difficult to work with, his gloved fingers clumsy but protected.

Years pass and still nothing. He’s at turns thrilled and frustrated, though his frustration is mounting. He’s forced to divert his attention to other things, lest it consume him.

Despite that, it is still exciting, this great mystery to solve, this puzzle so brilliant that he’s yet to even scratch the surface.

He carts it with him to university, keeps it displayed on his desk--something to work on and distract him from the tedium of university life, of his supposed peers who don’t understand him, who taunt him repeatedly.

But nothing changes until he’s most of the way through his second year.

**

Sherlock drops the phone he’s been holding, stares at nothing. His hands shake, but he doesn’t notice, doesn't even notice when he starts sliding to the floor. The only thing holding him up from complete collapse is the wall at his back.

He feels like he wants to throw up, something scrabbling its way out of his stomach, up to his throat, threatening to spill out all over the floor, all over the carpet of his room.

It’s just transport, he tells himself sternly, holds his stomach as though to stave off the inevitable. His vision is blurry, a pressure caught behind his eyes.

His body is poised for an all-out revolt, though his mind is doing everything it can to keep a lid on it, but it's like trying to keep a lid on a pot about to boil over.

Sherlock grabs at his sides and rocks himself. He’ll have to pull himself together soon--reign in his treacherous body and reestablish control. A car is coming and he can’t bear the thought of being found like this.

**

Sherlock remains stoic through the visit home, through the funeral, even through a last visit to his father’s normally bright laboratory space.

It’s dim now, dark and grey. It feels cold, and Sherlock shivers despite the balmy spring weather outside. Sheets cover his father's equipment, his unfinished projects.

He’s nearly betrayed as his fingers trail along the unmistakeable, though incomplete, form of a violin. It’s the wrong shape--the swooping curves still blunt and crude--and the wood is still pale. The strings haven’t been attached.

And now they never will.

When he returns to his tiny room, his eyes light on the misshapen wood and he approaches it, feeling dazed. He picks it up in his hands, ignores the nettles and splinters that catch on his palms and fingers--he can hardly feel the pricks of pain, doesn’t feel them entering his skin--and holds it, stares at it.

Nothing. No revelation, no understanding that he didn’t have before, nothing new his senses can tell him.

Useless.

Sherlock screams--the lid blows off, the water spills over onto the fire, steam explosive and hot and scalding--hefts the solid, unshapen, painful lump of wood and hurls it at the wall.

The wood simply thuds, falls to the carpeted floor with another thud, and rolls over pathetically.

The quiet that follows is all-encompassing, presses in on his ears and mouth and nose, squeezes painfully until the world in front of him blurs.

He kicks the wood under the bed, blinks the blur away, and stares at his splintered hands, at the specks of blood from the few places where they’ve sunk in deep. Breathes in and breathes out.

Painful, uneven, shaky.

He falls asleep on the floor, eventually, and wakes up to a dull, dreary morning. But at least the unfinished, unsolved lump of wood is no longer mocking him.

By the end of the night, life has brightened considerably--sharp and clear as crystal, rushing faster than the speed of light. Burning with an ice cold fire.

The wood remains buried under the bed.

**

(Until the day when he’s expelled and he gathers up all of his things. He reaches gingerly under the bed, plucks the wood from underneath and--without looking at it--locks it up in the outer puzzle box, which he then stuffs deep into a box he takes to London with him.)

**

He doesn’t see either box for years until he wakes one day to find himself in hospital, strapped to a bed and hooked up to all sorts of monitors and drips.

To make matters worse, Mycroft is sitting in the chair next to the bed, buttoned up in his stuffy, old-fashioned suit, plummy tones and the suggestion of Eton and the stench of old money wafting around him like a toxic cloud.

Sherlock scowls and turns his back, only to be confronted with the polished, shiny wooden box, painful words carved on the lid.

There are few scuff marks, despite being carted around in a box for years from flat to flat. The fact that he’s being confronted with it now, that someone else has touched it and opened it after all this time, is almost enough to make him turn back and face Mycroft. Or to scream and hurl things.

He closes his eyes instead. “Go away.”

“Sherlock,” Mycroft sighs condescendingly.

“Go. Away.”

There’s a novel's worth of disappointment in the silence that follows--pages and pages of words unsaid but understood. There is also a distinct lack of any sound indicating that Mycroft is actually leaving, which is all that Sherlock truly cares about at the moment.

“Did you ever solve it?” Mycroft asks, after the silence stretches past disappointment, sadness, anger, awkwardness and drifts into curiosity.

Sherlock grits his teeth, clenches his fists and feels fourteen again. His silence speaks for him.

“Did you ever wonder why it was so difficult?”

“How else can it be the greatest puzzle of them all if it’s easy,” Sherlock fires back, and then clamps his mouth shut. Irritating.

“Indeed,” Mycroft hums noncommittally, sounding so much like the distanced, pampered aristocrat that Sherlock has to squeeze his eyes shut and control his breathing to keep from lashing out, from shouting.

The steady background noise of beep beep beep increases in speed, giving him away.

“Leave.”

Silence stretches out between them and then Mycroft moves, but he’s not moving towards the door. Rather, his steps take him around the bed, to the other side, over to the table with the puzzle box on it.

Sherlock’s eyes jerk open and he stares at Mycroft hatefully as his elder brother runs his fingers along the carving on the shiny, glossy box, his long fingers tracing vine and willow tree, brushing over words nearly sixteen years old, the features and textures long burnt into Sherlock’s memory despite himself. Some knot, some huge knot of something--it may as well be wood, solid oak that’s sturdy and heavy--lodges itself in his throat and he can hardly breathe.

Beep beep beep beepbeepbeepbeep

“Do you think you will ever solve it?”

Sherlock can’t even speak around the knot, around the incessantly loud, shrill beeping, and settles for staring at Mycroft as hard as he can.

“Because I rather think, at the rate you’re going, you’ll run out of time,” he finishes, finally turning his eyes to Sherlock.

Mycroft is so obvious, Sherlock thinks, that even a normal person couldn’t fail to understand his meaning. Sherlock is many things, but normal is not one of them.

He finds himself thinking of a cold, dark laboratory, of an unfinished violin, of musty sheets covering over a man’s life’s work.

Goosebumps rise all over his skin and he nearly chokes, couldn’t answer even if he had anything to say.

Mycroft nods--so superior, so above it all and untouched, the bastard--before turning back to the box. His fingers hover for a moment above the open lid and then descend, almost in slow motion, as if to reach in and touch--

Sherlock ignores the screeching monitors, and the idiots, and his agonised, painful body as he sits up, snatches the puzzle box away from Mycroft’s outstretched fingers, and hugs it to his chest.

“Go away!”

Mycroft stares at him, frozen as Sherlock glares fiercely, and then nods his head imperiously before heading to the door. Sherlock tracks his progress, unsurprised when Mycroft stops and turns. He always has to get the last word in, of course.

“Perhaps you’d have better luck with that if you could touch it without injuring yourself,” he says.

Sherlock doesn’t say anything--lets the heat in his gaze, the twist of his face say it all--and sags once Mycroft has left the room.

It doesn’t matter that the other people in the room have seen the entire exchange, doesn’t matter that they’re staring at him like he’s a freak; he ignores it and stares down into the box, at the lump of wood that looks older, scuffed and nicked, showing the wear and tear of being moved and jostled around without a care.

He doesn’t touch, but he can see where small patches have rubbed against the inside of the box, have been sanded and smoothed.

Sherlock closes the box, closes his eyes, and ignores the bustle around him now that the nurses have finally responded to the beeping of the machines tethering him to the bed.

He aches all over, hurts, and knows that there's far more of it in his future.

**

“Do you see now?” Sherlock asks him, eyes bright, and folds John’s hands around the wood, presses John’s hands with his own. “Do you understand?”

**

They tell him he needs a hobby, but the only thing he’s interested in is puzzles.

And when he mentions it, they naturally think--of course, because they’re idiots--that he means jigsaw puzzles.

He always ignores their attempts to involve him in such pointless activity, and instead busies himself with the misshapen puzzle box. He spends his time in this godforsaken place by carefully sanding the box by hand, smoothing out the rough edges as best as he’s able to without compromising his father’s original shape.

When he finally finishes and he can handle the smooth wood without getting splinters, he packs up his minimal belongings and leaves the facility.

He doesn’t need their assistance anyway.

**

(When he returns to London and collects all of his papers and books and boxes from storage where Mycroft put them after his old landlord threw them out into the street, he puts the misshapen puzzle box into the shiny, glossy box and buries it into a box going to his new flat. This time, though, he stuffs some newspaper into the box to keep the smaller box in place.)

**

Sherlock keeps most of his possessions in boxes, simply because it’s more expedient. Despite having cleaned up, he has other habits which regularly get him evicted from flats--his late night violin playing, his volatile experiments, and the coming and going of all sorts at all hours.

He keeps the puzzle boxes, in particular, inside a box because it’s one of the few things he has left from before, and because it's unfinished business.

**

Montague Street is no different than the others, but for some reason he’s feeling the need to retrieve the box and look it over.

It hasn’t changed--the same nicks, the same scuffs and signs of wear since the last time he saw it--but he has. It’s been twenty years since he received the box and he still remembers every carving, the feeling of elation and disappointment when he opened the shiny box to find something half-formed, rough and coarse.

The fact that the edges are now mostly smooth has done nothing to help him solve it, and he’s beginning to despair that he ever will.

He opens the outer box and removes the inner one, runs his fingers over the smooth grains and ponders the mystery of why his father chose alder wood (he’s looked up the meaning and he can imagine his father whispering, “for endurance, strength, and passion”, but can’t imagine the significance). It’s not unusual for furniture, but his father tended to prefer to work with oak and maple, or even beech and birch.

A knock at the door startles Sherlock and, before he can truly react, newly-minted DI Lestrade is barging in, looking tired and worn. “Sherlock,” he greets him, his lips turned down in a permanent frown.

Sherlock scowls and puts the inner box back into the outer one.

“What was that?” Lestrade asks suddenly, looking as though his train of thought had derailed very suddenly, much to his own surprise.

“Nothing,” he says, standing and striding over to the man. “What have you got?”

Lestrade opens his mouth--no doubt to press the issue about the box--when Sherlock interrupts. “It’s a puzzle box if you must know, though it’s none of your business when you’re clearly here about those murders in Hyde Park.”

“But what...” Lestrade tails off, and then gathers himself and looks at Sherlock suspiciously. “Puzzle box, is it?” he asks. “Big enough to hide anything in?”

Sherlock narrows his eyes, but breathes in and then out. “I’ll let you know when I finally solve it. Now, murders. What have you got?”

Lestrade looks at him for a moment longer, and then shrugs, changing the subject by explaining the case.

And then he’s off and running, breaking up an illegal smuggling ring, returning to Montague Street having triumphantly solved yet another case that had the whole of Scotland Yard stumped.

The flat is cold and dark when he enters, and the food that sits in his stomach rolls and gurgles, as though he’s suddenly climbed aboard a boat stuck in the ocean with no wind to propel them to shore.

The puzzle box sits where he left it, still slightly open. He’s not truly explored the outer box in years, and he sits in his chair, sets the box in his lap, and runs his fingers over the willow tree, rubbing vigorously over the exquisitely carved bark and out to the finely detailed branches and leaves.

A click breaks the silence of the flat and he blinks in surprise to a see a compartment he never noticed before, inside the large box at the bottom. Reaches carefully to pry the small bit of wood up to reveal a ring.

It’s a signet ring, clearly a man’s, white gold with a black X on it.

It’s a key.

His blood pounds through his body and he inspects the ring more closely. No smudges or visible fingerprints--he’ll have to inspect it under the microscope at Bart’s to determine if there are any fingerprints at all--no engravings on the ring save for the large X.

He scoops the inner box out of the larger one, and commences pressing the ring to every part of the box he can.

Nothing.

Next he drags it across the surface, varies the pressure, squeezes some of the knots on the wood in tandem with dragging the ring along the wooden lump.

Still. Nothing.

With a growl of frustration, he tosses the signet ring down and hops up, fingers clutching so hard at the wood that his knuckles are white.

He’s so close, he can feel it. He will solve this, he will.

Sherlock doesn’t let his eyes stray to the sofa, to the hole in the wainscot panelling behind the sofa, even though it calls to him, sweet as a siren’s song.

He collapses into the chair instead, box still in his hand, and nods off.

By the next morning, the mystery is lost in the tedious minutiae of everyday life, specifically the all-too-common occurrence of being evicted from his flat and forced to find another.

When he sees a listing, later that afternoon, for a flat on Baker Street for let by a certain Mrs Hudson, he’s loath to call it luck, but any of the other terms that spring to mind--fate, destiny, meant to be--are even worse.

Now, it’s simply a matter of finding someone he can stand to live with.

**

John Watson, he decides after meeting the man, will do. Even if he is an idiot.

He tries again with the signet ring and the inner puzzle box that night, but all he succeeds in doing is scratching up the smooth wood.

**

He changes his mind the next night, after John Watson kills a man to save his--Sherlock’s--life.

When he looks across the crime scene, when he sees John standing there trying to look innocent, he feels something in his stomach, in his body flutter. It’s strange, it’s been years since he felt anything quite like it, and so he’s not sure what to do with it.

He verbally stumbles in an unprecedented manner when Lestrade starts questioning him, but he can’t bring himself to care.

John Watson will more than do, he thinks. Something is caught tight in his throat, which is why he paces himself on the short walk over, gives himself time to clear it and lower his voice.

“Good shot,” he murmurs, and even the appearance of his brother with his ugly, fat face, his superior manner, and knowing look can’t ruin the smile, the chuckles that bubble up to the surface from deep inside.

When they return home that night, after giggles and Chinese and predicting the fortunes in the fortune-cookies, Sherlock bids John goodnight and goes to his room where the puzzle box is on top of the box he used to bring it to 221B.

He slides the signet ring unenthusiastically over the wood, his mind on other puzzles, fascinating ones, like what John’s nightmares sound like and how Sherlock can coax from the man that huff of laughter that makes warm goosebumps tingle over Sherlock’s skin. Among others.

The ring catches briefly and interrupts the experiments flitting through his mind that were never possible before meeting a man like John, and he focuses back on the wood.

For a shining moment, he thinks he’s solved this twenty year old mystery, has finally completed the puzzle, but the ring only caught on a raised line of the grain. He repeats the motion twice, three times, five, but there is no seam.

He puts the wood and the ring away in the outer puzzle box in frustration, though he’s not nearly angry enough to throw it again.

He’s got other puzzles that can keep him occupied.

**

“Sherlock...” John murmurs uncertainly, feels the warmth left over from Sherlock’s hands in the shaped wood, feels even more warmth from where Sherlock’s hands are covering his own.

“You were the key,” Sherlock says, eyes bright, voice excited. “To solve it, I had to understand what it was, and you were the key.”

**

“Sherlock, where’ve you put my mobile charger?” John nags, and Sherlock comes back to himself to notice that John is completely ruining his filing system.

“I didn’t do anything with it.”

“You did--yes, you did. You told me you had to borrow it the other day, remember? Which is why it wasn’t in my room when I went up there to charge it.”

“Of course I remember,” Sherlock says lazily.

There’s silence and stillness in the flat and Sherlock looks up to see that John is staring at him expectantly. He sighs. “In my room,” he gestures vaguely, “in the box.”

John rolls his eyes and throws up his hands, “Oh for the love of...in the box, right.” He stomps out of the room loudly and irritatingly. Sherlock sighs and closes his eyes. He’s been ruminating on some bleach experiments that should prove useful once Lestrade realises he needs Sherlock’s assistance on his most recent case.

He expects Lestrade to show up at any time.

“Sherlock,” he hears from the bedroom, “why do you have a box with a replica of the human heart in it?”

He almost misses the question in his ruminations, but once it filters through to his brain he frowns and sits up. “What are you looking at?” he asks, standing and striding through to his bedroom--only to stop in the doorway.

John is in his room, the outer puzzle box open (he remembers now, he left it open the last time he’d attempted to solve it) holding the inner puzzle box.

Sherlock’s brain grinds to a halt, his breath held captive in his chest as John holds it up inquiringly. “Do I even want to know?” he asks, with the resignation of a person not expecting an answer.

Somehow it doesn’t seem wrong for John to touch it, to hold it, even though he’s the first person in twenty years--the only person apart from Sherlock or his father--who has.

“No,” he blurts out, and wonders why it feels like the wrong thing to say.

John sighs and sets it back in the puzzle box, and Sherlock can breathe again, his brain rebooting itself. “So, where’s my charger?”

He’s not recovered enough to sneer, or to tell John to keep looking, and instead goes over to the only box remaining from his move into 221B and picks it up wordlessly, hands it to John who smiles in relief. “Ta,” he says and starts to head out of the door. He pauses and turns around with a frown. “You all right?”

Sherlock clears his throat. “Fine, I’m fine,” he enunciates carefully, relieved when John just rolls his eyes and leaves. Sherlock’s eyes return to the puzzle box.

A heart, a human heart, of course. Idiot he thinks, in a voice that’s starting to sound worryingly like John.

The outer box is the mind, the inner box is his heart, but not physically.

Metaphorically.

He pulls out the signet ring and inspects it again. His father, talented as he was with wood, had no experience with any form of metal-smithing, which means that he must have commissioned the ring as a key to open the box.

But Sherlock knows, from experience, that it can’t open the inner box--the heart--alone.

There must be another, and since this key was in the outer box...

The other must be in the inner.

He redoubles his efforts, looking for any sign that he’s missed, any hint or clue that there’s some secret compartment in the misshapen inner box that might hold the other key.

But there’s nothing.

Always, nothing. He remembers a story, once--mostly deleted now, but parts of it still linger--about a man condemned to push a rock up a hill, only to have it roll down once he nearly reaches the top, forced to start from the beginning.

This puzzle box is his rock, always slipping back once the summit is in sight.

He needs a distraction from this and Lestrade's case won't do. The flat, London, everything has become stifling, boring, maddening. He needs to get away, needs a new puzzle. Something challenging, not merely frustrating.

And the further away, the better.

Thirty minutes later, he discovers a promising case on his blog, an Englishman in Belarus begging for his help.

The next day, he’s on a flight bound for Minsk.

**

The case is a bust and as stifling and awkward and boring as London is, it’s less irritating than purportedly English criminals who can’t even speak English.

And then it’s not boring--not at all--because there’s a lovely case full of shining, brilliant, brand new puzzles, the best ones he’s ever seen. Better than a puzzle box in the shape of a heart, better than the mystery of why John’s ruffled hair or John drinking tea or John touching his things makes his body quiver and the back of his neck prickle with goosebumps.

As long as he has so many delightful puzzles, such a devious adversary to strategise against and challenge--and be challenged by in return--he doesn’t need the answers to those other things.

Unimportant.

Until, that is, the endgame.

**

“Oh,” John breathes, and then clears his throat. “How do you open it?” he whispers, arrested by the sight of their hands and fingers overlapping and almost intertwined.

“You mean, how do we open it,” Sherlock says. He gently squeezes John’s hands tighter to the wood, just briefly. “You’ll see.”

**

He’s not sure he’ll ever be able to describe the feeling that jolts through him when he hears the doors slam and he turns to face Moriarty.

It’s elation, anticipation, determination, mixed in with something darker, something like fascination, a moth drawn inexorably to a flame.

And he doesn’t have the words to describe what he thinks--what he feels when John steps out, voice flat and taunting.

Can’t adequately describe the shock, the complicated combination of awe and disappointment that goes through him, much like when he opened the outer puzzle box. He can really only describe it in physiological terms--increased heart rate, sweaty palms, goosebumps, hot and cold flashes, nausea.

It only gets worse when John opens the parka, reveals the bomb strapped to him and, of course, how stupid of him. Of course it couldn’t stay a merry dance forever, of course Moriarty had to make it personal.

The confusing push-pull of emotions is clarified in that instant, as though subjected to a sudden intense flash of heat that has strengthened them, him.

He knows what this means, how this has changed the game, and it’s also disappointing because now the puzzle isn’t as interesting, downgraded from the best-ever to merely brilliant.

The back and forth is engaging, in its own way, but some part--some large part--of him is constantly aware of John, of the emotions that flash across his expressive face even when he tries to remain blank, that sear themselves into Sherlock’s memory, never to be deleted.

Especially not when Moriarty taunts John, saunters past him. Especially not when John flings himself at Moriarty, grabbing him around the neck, and tells Sherlock to run.

John is fierce, dangerous, desperate, and Sherlock feels his heart thud in his chest, against his ribcage, equally as desperate to save John. His heart seems to move in synchronisation with John, twitches when he does, flinches when John does.

The lasers flicker over John, and the way that John freezes--Sherlock’s heart seems to stop in his chest at the same time--Sherlock knows they flicker over his body too. Of course, they’ve already been doing that since they appeared, trained on John.

“I will burn you,” Moriarty says, his smile dropping off his face, his eyes cold and dark. “I will burn...the heart...out of you.”

Sherlock’s eyes slide to John; he knows it’s a mistake, but he does it anyway. “I’ve been reliably informed that I don’t have one,” he replies, tries to cover.

Moriarty simply looks amused. “But we both know that’s not quite true.”

When Sherlock’s eyes flick to John once more, it becomes clear. The answer to the puzzle box.

The key he’s been searching for.

Moriarty leaves and Sherlock suddenly feels inundated, over-dosed with emotion, with physiological reactions to danger and fear. He paces, he gestures wildly, but the adrenalin won’t leave him, feels bottled up inside, a box overflowing which no lid can tamp down.

Moriarty returns and Sherlock stills, eyes slide over to John for affirmation of what needs to be done. Heart and mind in agreement, before the encounter takes yet another turn, another twist.

Yet another mystery that presents itself, and if Sherlock didn’t have other pressing matters on his mind--like almost dying, like John almost dying, like finally solving the puzzle which has eluded and mocked him for twenty years--he might take a greater interest.

Perhaps later.

They aren’t able to find a cab so late at night until they’re much closer to home, so they end up walking the whole way home, each preoccupied with their own thoughts. He wants to hurry, is frustrated at being forced to wait with the solution so near, which is why he takes off at a jog once Baker Street is in sight, heart pounding in time to the sound of jogging behind him.

He barely stops to unlock the door before he’s dashing up the steps, flinging open their door and rushing to his room.

“Wait, Sherlock, what’s going on?”

He doesn’t answer, preferring to grab both puzzle boxes and hurry back to the sitting room where John is removing his coat.

“This, John,” he says, holding up the outer box before setting it on John’s chair and pulling out the smaller inner one. “This.”

“But what is it?” John asks, staring at the wooden box Sherlock has grasped in both hands, held between them like an offering.

“The greatest puzzle of them all,” Sherlock answers, eyes focused intently on John.

“I don’t understand.”

Sherlock smiles. “Don’t you?”

And when John shakes his head, a line between his brows indicating confusion, Sherlock clears his throat. “Hold out your hands and I’ll show you.”

John does, reluctantly, and starts when Sherlock reverently sets the box in his hands.

“Do you see now?” Sherlock asks him, eyes bright, and folds John’s hands around the wood, presses John’s hands with his own. “Do you understand?”

“Sherlock...” John murmurs uncertainly, feels the warmth left over from Sherlock’s hands in the shaped wood, feels more warmth from where Sherlock’s hands are covering his own.

“You were the key,” Sherlock says, eyes bright, voice excited. “To solve it, I had to understand what it was, and you were the key.”

“What is it?”

“My heart.”

John nearly drops the box--would, if not for Sherlock’s hands covering his. “Your heart?” he asks, voice shakier than it has been at any other time tonight.

“Ours,” Sherlock clarifies, looks significantly at their hands.

“Oh,” John breathes, and then clears his throat. “How do you open it?” John whispers, arrested by the sight of their hands and fingers overlapping and almost intertwined.

“You mean, how do we open it,” Sherlock says. He gently squeezes John’s hands tighter to the wood, just briefly. “You’ll see.”

“So...what do I do?” John asks, trying to gather his bearings.

“Keep your hands there,” Sherlock says, squeezing once again and then releasing them to return to his chair and retrieve the signet ring from the larger box. He returns and traces his fingers over the heart-shaped box, finds the slightly raised grain he’d discovered previously and smiles.

John smiles tentatively back, couldn’t possibly look away or leave now. “X marks the spot?”

Sherlock’s eyes crinkle and he huffs in amusement. “Essentially, yes. Now,” he continues, “just press down on those knots,” he instructs.

John nods his head and complies, while Sherlock--heart pounding and stomach fluttering--presses the signet ring against the wood, traces the raised grain with it, places his free hand to the side facing John for support. Holds his breath.

And sure enough, after what feels an interminable time, he hears a click. He slides the signet ring onto his finger so he’s able to use both hands, and presses his fingers over the wood carefully, looking for the seam.

“It worked,” he breathes when he finds it, gently prises it open, looks inside. “I only realised tonight that I could never have solved it alone.” Sherlock pauses. “It would always have required a second person to help.”

John swallows, breathes in deeply and lets it out slowly. “What’s inside?” he asks, sounding almost choked.

Sherlock pulls out two small wooden objects--the size of charms--and inspects them before his body goes hot and then cool, inhales sharply. They’ve lovingly detailed, finely carved despite being so small. One of the objects--roughly oval though with one side flatter than the other--is made of a light wood with even grains that’s been stained to have a darker, richer brown colour.

The other object is shaped much like the box it’s been hidden away in for twenty years, made of a medium brown wood with flecks of darker brown, the grains unstructured--veering wildly as if traced out by someone with a hand tremor.

He holds them in his palm, stretches his hand out to John for a better look.

John, who carefully puts the heart-shaped box down and takes them--touches them, holds them safely in his palm and traces his finger along the edges, along the carvings.

Sherlock fancies he feels the warmth within him, the gentle touches, and shivers. He picks up the heart box to cover, glad to have something to hold onto.

“A brain and a heart, one made of maple and the other of palm. Maple for balance and palm for peace and harmony. That was--is--the greatest puzzle of all.”

John stares for a long time at the small wooden charms, lovingly carved and detailed, and then looks up at Sherlock in awe. “What...heart and mind in balance--”

“Brings harmony, peace,” Sherlock says, a small smile. “You and me, heart and mind...”

John smiles slowly, the wrinkles around his eyes crinkling in a way that Sherlock has been fond of for some time. “Us. Ours.”

Sherlock smiles. “Indeed. If you are amenable, of course.”

“You prat,” John says, a touch exasperated, but mostly fond. “I was prepared to sacrifice myself for you. I killed a man for you, after we first met, simply because you were in danger. You’re the genius, so you tell me: do you think I’m amenable?”

“Yes,” he responds slowly, a smile inexorably spreading across his face.

“I’d hate to think you’d lost your touch.”

“No,” Sherlock says, taking the charms from John and placing them back in the box. He then returns the heart-shaped box to the outer box. “Not now, when it matters most.”

The look that passes between them is tender and warm, laced with affection and attraction, and something much deeper, weightier--the size of an old giant sequoia, or even something larger, the deepest ocean or the tallest mountain, or the largest planet--that pulls them together, holds them close and firm, sturdy and durable. Everlasting.

Together, always.