"You have no concept," John rants. He is somewhere between incredulous and amused and really fucking not amused at all. "Has it never occurred to you that listening in to every last noise in the toilet is -- " He sputters. Sherlock's eyes are widened in faint surprise.
Of course Sherlock wouldn't think about the consequences of noting every sound in their apartment. John should have realized upon moving into 221B that he was making a rather serious trade: companionship and excitement in exchange for any shred of privacy.
John takes a breath. "Just," he says, and he sounds defeated. He knows all too well when a war is lost before it's begun. "I know you can't turn off your brain. But while I'm in the loo, could you at least --" He reddens. "Redirect it. For a few minutes."
Sherlock arches an eyebrow. He is silent for a moment. "You know me rather well, John," he says evenly. "I suppose that is a reasonable request."
"Good. Right." John shuffles to the kettle on autopilot, intensely distracted, trying to think of nothing at all. Milk. Tea. Stop reading my fucking mind, Sherlock.
Five minutes ago Sherlock had neatly laid out, in great detail, John's private train of thought for the past half-hour. It was so accurate and matter-of-fact that it felt distressingly like Sherlock had jumped into his brain as if it were a comfortable bed, pulled up the covers and settled right into John's innermost thoughts.
The goatee idea was less than a day old, born mostly from an idle but nagging thought that John might fare better at picking up women if he tried a new look. It was, of course, an insanely personal thought, one that had only been half-formed in John's mind when he walked into the kitchen. Sherlock had presented it to him as if it were a story in the morning paper.
"Don't grow a goatee," Sherlock had said, skipping neatly over any pretense of Good Morning. "Horrible idea. You'll hate it. Just go and have a shave, you're coming with me to the lab in twenty minutes."
John had goggled at him. He wasn't even sure what he'd said in response. "How -- ?" seemed a likely contender.
Sherlock had chuckled, deep and bemused, and then one of his maddening daisy chains of deduction spooled forth like streamers from a Christmas cracker.
"Last night at the restaurant I caught you looking at a woman by the bar, the one with the dark brown hair, a bit dumpy, red lipstick, you know the one. Married but available. She was flirting with that older man, professor, I'm guessing Oxford, in town visiting relatives, I don't think he was interested but she was rather forward since she touched his arm three times while they were talking. He had a goatee, and you rubbed your chin each time he turned round. You usually spend exactly four and a half minutes in the toilet before breakfast and this morning you were there for seven, but doing what? The sink wasn't running, it was completely silent, you had to be looking at something. Your own reflection. Since you never spend more than ten seconds glancing in a mirror, you'd have to be thinking about making a change. You shave after breakfast but you'd have to plan for the shave if you meant to do something different."
Sherlock waited a beat, but John was stunned into silence. "You won't like it though," Sherlock continued. "It'll be all grey. And that woman wasn't attracted to the professor because of his goatee. She likes tall men. The facial hair was irrelevant."
"She likes tall men." John felt that familiar, uncomfortable sensation that his own brain was treading through molasses while Sherlock's was breaking the sound barrier in wide circles around the both of them.
"Yes. Well." Sherlock shuffled the newspaper again. "She made that clear before you arrived."
Sherlock's distracted now, scanning headlines, taking a bite of toast. Just like that, John's not there. One moment John is under the laser-sharp gaze of relentless scrutiny, next moment a blip on the infinite radar, just another pulse beating away in the background.
It's utterly maddening, but it's also -- something else. John can't quite wrap his mind around it. Sherlock, watching him closely at the restaurant last night, so closely that he could clearly read John's thoughts. Sherlock, knowing every sound of John's morning routine, knowing that John's goatee would grow in grey. No one has ever watched John this closely in his life; John doubts that it is possible to be watched more closely than Sherlock can watch someone.
It's no wonder John is failing to pick up women. Probably something deep in his subconscious is aware that he's now being tracked, catalogued, observed like a mold culture on a petri dish in their refrigerator. Just another plaything for a restless mind, a can of yellow spray paint available for Sherlock's amusement. The puzzle to solve when there are no other available puzzles. When the Sudoku cube doesn't cut it any longer.
He belongs to Sherlock, and it's this inescapable thought that won't stop rattling in John's head, even as Sherlock hails a taxi for the lab (twenty minutes after breakfast, as stated), even as John is blithely ignored for the remainder of the morning in favor of test tubes and text messages from Lestrade. John is on the periphery as always, steady, constant, a heartbeat on the edge of Sherlock's awareness. There is no other choice. The full force of Sherlock's laser attention is like Medusa's gaze, and John is frozen before it, knowing it is only a matter of time before the brilliant beam sweeps over him once more. He will be there when it does.
He has to be there.
What does it mean that he can't be anywhere else?
- - -
Two hours later they are sitting in the darkened hallway of a Soho apartment, waiting. For what, Sherlock won't say. John knows better than to question anymore. Sherlock is folded against the worn wallpaper like some sort of angular lawn chair. Occasionally his phone vibrates and he pulls it out of his pocket to text a response, the glow of the screen illuminating the rakish planes of his profile. Another day at the office.
John still hasn't been able to shake Sherlock's morning deduction. He's always been able to brush off Sherlock's overly invasive comments, but this one is eating at him. Maybe it crossed some sort of line -- but was there a line to begin with?
What does it mean if there are no lines?
"Sherlock." John can't leave this alone. He nudges Sherlock with one shoulder. Sherlock grunts. "About this morning."
No response. John nudges again. "Hush," Sherlock mutters.
"Don't hush me," John says, and at his tone, Sherlock looks up.
"I just want to know," John continues, and this is at once an utterly trivial and desperately important conversation. "Do you listen to me use the toilet in the flat every single time, or just, you know, when the mood strikes you? Because I'm not really loving the idea that you're listening. To... me. In there. You know."
Sherlock's eyes widen, and John can tell he is caught off guard. A rare treat: Sherlock's undivided attention, even though they're on a case.
"I don't listen every time," Sherlock says matter-of-factly. "Only if there's an irregularity."
"How would you know if there's an irregularity if you aren't listening?"
"Patterns," Sherlock says, and something in his voice sounds nearly defensive, except John knows Sherlock better than that; Sherlock doesn't do defensiveness. "I know patterns. I don't need to listen to tell if one's been broken."
"Ah," John says, and oddly, this makes sense in a backwards Sherlockian way. "So you'll be able to tell me if I'm hydrated enough during a heat wave, then."
Sherlock blinks at him. "I would have thought you accustomed to our living arrangement by now."
"Oh yes, quite," John says. "Just wanted to make sure it's all on the table, then. Nothing off limits. We're quite comfortable with this."
"Of course," Sherlock says easily, but he's studying John, a deep line appearing between his brows.
"So if I were to make a list, say, of every time you urinated, and track it on the laptop, you'd be okay with that."
Sherlock raises an eyebrow; the corner of his mouth quirks. "Is that the sort of thing you're likely to do?"
"No," John says, and wonders how Sherlock has made him feel like the insane partner in the duo when it's Sherlock who can cite in seconds the precise timing of his morning ablutions. "But if I did, that would be all right with you?"
Sherlock shrugs. He still looks slightly puzzled. His shoulder rubs against John's, warm and sharp-angled. "I suppose so."
"Well okay then." John exhales, rubs his temples, wonders how his life has come to this place at all. "I just might."
"You do that, John," Sherlock says, and pats his shoulder.
- - -
In the next week, Sherlock solves two cases, and John is shot at three different times. Late nights with takeaway, violin strings singing as Sherlock focuses at some faraway point outside the window. It all should be normal, really. Except it isn't.
John can't stop scrutinizing, turning over Sherlock's near-psychic moment in his mind, stealing glances at his flatmate. He realizes that it might be possible to dissolve into full-blown paranoia in Sherlock's constant presence: How much can Sherlock guess at any given moment? Would it ever be possible to lie to Sherlock? What if there was something John wanted to keep private?
Is there something?
On the flip side of this unwelcome paranoia is a simple fact: meeting Sherlock is, no question, the best thing that's happened to John in his adult life. It's something John knows in his bones, something he knew on an unconscious level from the moment they laid eyes on each other. There is a clear division: life before Sherlock, and life after Sherlock, and in John's head it's almost comically similar to the Wizard of Oz. The past is black and white; then, one tornado of a day, a forgotten cane, a dead cabbie. A door opens, brass letters: 221B. Boom. Technicolor.
And yet this technicolor life has swept over John like a blinding tide, and at the moment he feels like he's drowning in it. There's something about the brightness of Sherlock's eyes, the black-and-white of him, dark coat and pale skin, polar charges that pull John to his side like a magnet. Sherlock knows John better than anyone in the world. John knows Sherlock better than... well, better than anyone's ever known Sherlock.
So John keeps drowning, feeling for footholds where there are none, because there are no roadmaps for a lone satellite orbiting the all-knowing sun of Sherlock Holmes.
- - -
"Something's bothering you," Sherlock says in a low murmur.
They're holed up in the flat after dinner, each focused on their own laptops. John looks up; Sherlock's eyes haven't left the screen.
"What do you mean?"
"You've been on edge for over a week now." Sherlock shuts his laptop, regards John from his armchair. "And since it started after I had the bad fortune to deduce your goatee idea, I can only assume you're still, for some unfathomable reason, upset about it. For God's sakes, grow a bloody beard, John, if you want one so badly."
John is now staring, dumbstruck. Sherlock's brow furrows. "But that's not what it is, no. Something else. Something related. Give me a minute."
John feels himself flush. He should have known Sherlock would catch on to the fact that he's been quietly freaking out, but he's still not prepared for it. He's caught entirely wrong-footed, truth be told, and he answers without thinking. "It's nothing, Sherlock, really. Just a bit rattled after those two cases. Getting shot at, you know." The lameness of this excuse nearly makes John wince as he hears himself say it.
Sherlock gives a derisive laugh. "Please, John, if you're going to lie, at least honor me with a bit of effort. If anyone in the world can handle being shot at on a near-daily basis, it's you."
"Sorry, I -- Sorry, Sherlock." John sighs. "Look, do we really need to talk about this? I've just been... thinking. When you did that... thing, the other day, with the goatee. It's nothing you haven't done before, it just... set me off." He closes his laptop. "I'll be fine. Let's watch telly, right?"
Sherlock sighs, tosses John the remote. "If we must." He wraps his dressing gown tightly, turns away from John.
Damn, John thinks. Can't blow this off. Not going to work.
"Look, Sherlock. I am sorry." This might be utterly futile. "I haven't said anything because I didn't think you'd understand."
"I can understand anything if you'd tell me what's going on, instead of staring at me every three minutes like I've got a contagious illness. It's very distracting when we're on a case."
"I've been staring --"
"Every three minutes, yes, now get on with it. Your little crisis, or whatever it is, I need it to be over and done with."
John gives an exasperated chuckle. "It's always about you, isn't it?"
"Clearly not in this case, that's the point, John, are you trying to do your best impersonation of Anderson or did you remove the functional part of your brain without telling me?"
"All right!" John nearly shouts; he brings his hands down rather harder on the table than he'd intended, and some of his tea slops onto the newspaper. "You want to know what the problem is? I live with someone who can read my mind. Most of the time it's not an issue, but every once in a while it's a bit much."
Sherlock is silent. Something flickers in the tilted corners of his eyes.
"You're under no obligation to stay here," he says quietly.
"Don't be mental, Sherlock. I'd never leave -- " John says, his voice hard and shaky all at once, realizing he was about to say you, I'd never leave you but he doesn't.
Sherlock raises his eyebrows. It looks like mild surprise. Another long moment. "Good."
"Don't worry about it, though, really," John says, subdued. "I'll get over it. It may not be something you can understand. You're the only person who can -- do what you do. You're not ever going to experience living with someone like you."
Another pause. When John looks up, Sherlock's fingers are at their customary spot, steepled reliably under his chin. "A fascinating suggestion. Not something I've thought about before with regard to personal relationships."
"The Observer effect. Of course."
"What? I didn't -- "
"Simple physics, John. The act of observation itself can affect the subject. You can't check your tire pressure without releasing air, thus ensuring you'll never get an accurate reading, since the act of checking the pressure changes the pressure itself. Observation affecting subject, as I said." Sherlock's mirror-pale eyes are alight, all cylinders firing. Hands on the arms of his chair, feet underneath him in one swift motion, crouched like some strange bird of prey. "I've never considered what it might be like to be the constant target of my observations. No one's ever lived with me as long as you have. Or, I should say. No one's ever chosen to live with me. I've never thought to predict the long-term effects of such an arrangement."
"You shouldn't predict anything. I don't want to be living in an experiment, I just -- " John exhales. "I don't want to be your bloody target, that's the point. I want to be --" He trails off. What does he want to be, exactly? Flatmate doesn't come near to describing it. Friend seems so pedestrian; John has friends, he's always had friends. He's never in his life had someone like Sherlock.
John realizes he's standing up, pacing restlessly. He looks down at Sherlock, still perched in his chair. "What?"
"I need to think about this."
John sighs. "Of course you do."
- - -
The next day passes in a blur roughly the shape of a murdered postal worker. Lestrade's team swoops in once Sherlock determines the location of the murder weapon (crowbar, tossed into the Thames) and the motive (lover's quarrel, postal worker shagging two different men on her delivery route). John doesn't even notice they've walked on autopilot to their Chinese restaurant of choice until he's seated at their usual table with a plate of egg rolls in front of him.
"Right," says Sherlock, breaking a silence John didn't realize was there. "Here's what we need to do. You need to observe me."
"What?" John says, mouth half-full of egg roll. He swallows. "What are you on about?"
"Go on," Sherlock gestures, waving a hand. "Look at me. Tell me what you see. I don't mind. Turnabout is fair play."
"You want me to... do what you do. To you."
"Yes, yes. Get on with it. You know how. It will take some time to get your skills up to an acceptable level, but I expect you can come up with something, you're less of an idiot than most."
John is caught between a protest and a laugh; it comes out as an undignified snort. "You've got to be joking."
"I don't tell very good jokes. Now pass the lemon chicken and use your eyes, John."
John sighs, resigned. Saying no to Sherlock is not something he does well, if ever. He's not entirely sure what Sherlock hopes to accomplish with this little thought experiment, since it will only serve to confirm what they both know -- John isn't a consulting detective -- but the idea is harmless enough. John squints across the table. "The lighting is bad. And I was with you all bloody day."
"Trivial inconveniences, really John." Sherlock is staring at him, mouth quirked, with a near-giddy light in his eyes. This is Sherlock's idea of great fun.
John can't help but smile in return. "Right, okay." He looks at Sherlock then, really looks. Right. You know Sherlock's tricks, don't deny you practice them, and there are certain things you've learned to look for --
"You, er. Didn't sleep much last night, if at all, you've got dark circles under your eyes," John says hesitantly. "You had a nicotine patch, maybe two, at some point. Your left sleeve is badly wrinkled at the cuff so you've probably rolled it up today for the patches, but you had your coat on for most of the afternoon, so you had them early this morning." More, there has to be more. John finds himself studying the lines of Sherlock's shoulders, the way his shirt is unbuttoned at the throat, the creamy skin there, and a jolt of something entirely unexpected rockets through him. He swallows. "You, uh. God, I'm shite at this, Sherlock -- "
Sherlock's eyes are dancing with amusement; he's leaning forward toward John, elbows on the table, lemon chicken untouched. "You're doing fine. Correct on both counts, although both are easy enough to guess. What else?"
Dark curls, mussed as usual, something on Sherlock's right shoulder, grey and miniscule -- a bit of ash, maybe? Long, slender fingers, nimble, twined on the table, interlacing eagerly. John knows those fingers almost better than he knows his own. A spot of blue ink on the right index finger. Ink. Sherlock doesn't carry a pen. Sherlock prefers to text.
"You had a cigarette," John says triumphantly. "You pickpocketed Lestrade, and you had a cigarette."
Sherlock laughs deeply, an open, happy sound, one of those rare laughs John knows not many others get to hear. "Right on both counts," he rumbles, pleased. "Now tell me how."
"Cigarette was easy," John says, feeling something warm blossom in his chest at Sherlock's praise. "Bit of ash on your shoulder. You don't have any cigarettes at home, so you got it from someone else, but you're not likely to bum one, you must have lifted it. You've got a bit of ink on your finger -- there." John reaches out, taps Sherlock's finger with his own. Sherlock's eyes meet his across the table, sharp, unusually dark. Pupils slightly dilated. That jolt of technicolor again, the world so bright, honed crystal, the clatter of the restaurant falling away into a blur, Sherlock in painful focus. John stutters a breath. "You never have a pen on you, but Lestrade always has one in his coat pocket. With the cigarettes that he's not supposed to be smoking." John gives Sherlock a pointed look. "You too, by the way."
Sherlock leans back, still chuckling, warm and deep. "Well done," he says. "Full marks. You're taking the next case on your own."
John is laughing now too. "No thanks," he says. "And it's not as if that was fair, I only knew those things because I know you rather well."
"That you do," Sherlock says quietly, quirking a smile. They sit in contentment for a moment, John's heart beating slightly faster than normal. He attributes it to the rush of their little game, to his minor victory.
"But what was the point of that, really?" John says at last, sipping his Tsingtao. "Apart from being a bit of fun."
"The point, John, is that you know me better than you think you do." Sherlock's voice holds a note of unexpected gravity. "You've been so busy worrying about what I know about you, that you forget you can be remarkably perceptive about me as well. As you've just illustrated, you're even capable of surprising me with it." He raises an eyebrow. "You're not the only one under observation in our flat. You're just a bit more subtle about your methods than I am."
John tries to absorb this, but Sherlock's just gone and made a brilliant point and it always takes John a few minutes to recover from one of those. He sips his beer again. Sherlock looks at him expectantly.
"I hadn't thought of it that way," John says.
"I'll wager you're aware of more of my habits than you realize."
"Okay then." John gives Sherlock a wry half-smile. "I just don't make it public knowledge that I'm tracking your toilet habits."
"Point taken." Sherlock lifts an eyebrow. "I'm still awaiting that spreadsheet, by the way."
John guffaws. He feels as if someone had been squeezing his shoulders tightly for the past week, and he hadn't realized it until now, because they've finally let go. Sherlock, in his own backwards way, understands. Sherlock understands because this is new for him, too, this... whatever they have. Flatmates. Partners?
There are no words for it.
- - -
They walk back to Baker Street, Sherlock's coat collar turned up against the cold, their breath swirling in visible puffs in the January air. When they reach Speedy's, Sherlock stops short of the door to the flat.
"John. There's just one thing."
There's always one thing. "Sherlock, it's freezing." John takes a few steps toward the door, turns back. "Let's have the one thing back in the flat."
"I understand why you were preoccupied with... your privacy. But it hasn't bothered you in the past, anything I've said, and I'm sure I must have said far worse. So why now?"
This is not so much a question to John, but a question in general, a pause in Sherlock's stream of consciousness. John is well aware that if he were to go up to the flat now, Sherlock would likely carry on talking. If, in fact, John were to take a cab to King's Cross and then hop on a flight to Dublin, Sherlock would likely carry on talking. Outside it is, then. Resigned, John rubs his gloved hands together, stands in front of his flatmate, and answers anyway.
"I don't know why now. Attrition, maybe? Woke up on the wrong side of the bed? It's all sorted, anyway."
"The crux of your worry was not that I made an inappropriate observation," Sherlock says slowly. "It was, as you put it, that I was reading your mind. I believe you used that exact phrase. So it stands to reason that there is now something in your mind you don't want me to read. Something that wasn't there before."
"Sherlock, there are plenty of things in my mind I don't want you to read. I'm sure there are plenty of things in your mind you don't want me to read. It's not a bloody puzzle."
"Yes," Sherlock says, still mostly to himself. "Not a puzzle. You're not a puzzle. Not an experiment. That's what you've said. You're concerned I see you as a puzzle. You're concerned because -- "
"Because I'm not," John says. "Sherlock, I'm right here. Your bloody puzzle is standing outside freezing his arse off. Look at me for once."
"Look at you..."
"Yes, for God's sake, if you're going to talk about me as if I'm not here, and make me stand out in the cold, bloody well look at me, you idiot -- "
Sherlock's head whips up, and for once he does as John asks, his eyes intent, searching. John's frustration dissipates with a rush, like air out of tires, what was Sherlock on about? Tire pressure? and he's suddenly overwhelmed with Sherlock's hell-bent determination to solve whatever might be troubling John, not content until the offending problem is fingerprinted and cuffed and locked away. A tidal swell of emotion overwhelms John and he takes a huge breath, meets Sherlock's steady gaze.
And then he knows. Knows what has shifted in his mind, what's been bobbing beneath his subconscious. Sherlock, bugger him, almost found it before John did. Of course.
What on earth would John want to hide from Sherlock? Only one thing. Something so terrifying John had almost succeeded in hiding it from himself.
"I don't see you as a puzzle, John," Sherlock says, and his eyes are softer, unreadable. "I never have."
"I know." John's breath huffs into thick commas of steam. "But I think you've solved the puzzle anyway. I've just now figured it out myself."
That familiar crease appears between Sherlock's brows. His cheeks are faintly pink with cold.
"There is one thing I'd be afraid to tell you," John continues, and he looks down, scuffs the pavement with his shoe. "I'm still afraid. And it's just fine if we go upstairs now, and have a cup of tea, and put it aside. I'll be all right with that. Really." He glances up at Sherlock beside him, a dark profile under the streetlamp, coat collar and scarf and curls. "My bad luck is, sooner or later you'll deduce it, and I guess I've known that deep down for a while now. I guess that's the real reason I've been acting the way I have."
Sherlock is silent, breathing next to him. Illuminated in black and white.
"Just," John says, to the street, to no one in particular. "I'd like very much to stay. The life I had, before -- before I met you. I -- "
"John." A single word, a curl of breath. And Sherlock's gloved hand, warm, on John's shoulder.
John exhales, breath fogging white. Mingling with the last traces of Sherlock's.
"John, as ever," Sherlock says, stepping in front of him to look him in the eye, "as always, you see, but you do not observe."
And this John can see, John can read it in Sherlock's eyes as clearly as he read his wrinkled cuff and ink-stained finger, as surely as he knows that whatever is between them doesn't need words at all. Sherlock's eyes are dark, pupils wide, and this, this is what it means to find out that watching someone can change things forever.
"You too?" John breathes, and it's a question, and a guess, and an answer.
"Oh," John says.
"You're wrong about one thing, though," Sherlock says, and he closes the space between them, smiling very slightly at John's intake of breath. "You surprise me, John. You surprise me constantly. I don't know everything, you know."
"I'd like a ringtone," John says, and dares to wind an arm around Sherlock, who's smiling, and this is all too much, unraveling in a fluttering rush in the pit of John's stomach, "of you saying that. 'I don't know everything.' Go on, say it again."
"I don't," Sherlock says in a deep purr, wrapping both arms around John, "know everything."
"I don't know much of anything," John says, and the world is only Sherlock's arms around him, and the rest can wait. "I only know... this."
John cranes up just as Sherlock bends down, and everything blazes color as their lips crash together. It was all intended to be questioning and hesitant and oh fuck, are we really doing this but it's unquestionably none of those things, and John's hands seek the space under Sherlock's beloved coat and this is suddenly the only thing John has been sure of in his life, and he wonders why he spent so much time running from it. It's been here all along. There's no place like home.
When they finally break apart, John's heart pounding riotously in his ears, Sherlock slides a hand around the back of John's neck and brings their foreheads together, and they're both almost shaking, with cold, with something else.
"I think... I love you," John says, and it feels astonishing, and absolutely right.
Sherlock's chuckle vibrates through John's fingertips, and he presses a gentle kiss to the top of John's head. "Solved it then?"
"Well spotted." John exhales shakily, closes his eyes. "My God."
"John." A murmur. "My dear John."
Sherlock's gloved hands are sliding over him now, pulling him closer, tilting his chin for another kiss. "Sherlock." John opens his eyes, and what he sees in Sherlock's nearly makes his knees buckle. It's a good thing Sherlock is nearly holding him up as it is --
"A mistake, is this -- a -- "
"God no." Sherlock's deep voice breaks, and the right side of his mouth lifts in a smile as he traces John's jaw with a fingertip. "Truth is far better than indefinite doubt." He takes a breath. "I think I... love you too."
"The only mistake," Sherlock continues, a shaky whisper, "would be to die of hypothermia before I get you to bed, because God knows I've wasted a lot of patches figuring out what to do if I ever were to get you there."
A breathless laugh of disbelief. "Seriously?"
"You know my methods, John."
"I suppose..." John says wryly, "I suppose I do."
~ ~ ~