Irene's picture still sits on his desk—almost covered now, by the clutter that seems to have only gotten worse the longer Watson has been away. Watson notices it whenever he comes in the room; some days, it stands turned up, other days, face down. Today it has moved from its typical resting place to sit atop the ever growing mountain of books in the corner.
Watson catches Holmes paying unconscious attention to it as he passes—his fingers catching on the frame and lingering there for just a moment before continuing about his business.
Watson shifts from his place in the arm chair, his fingers mindlessly fidgeting across the upholstery.
"You really did love her, didn't you?"
Holmes turns, seemingly caught off guard by the question. He regards Watson wordlessly a few moments before turning to gaze out the window. It's cloudy, now, what with all the random experiments and none of the proper cleaning. Sometimes Watson wonders how Holmes has managed to survive so long without him.
Sometimes Holmes does, too.
"In my way," he says, a kind of mimic of Mary in a conversation he wasn't supposed to overhear. Watson catches the reference but says nothing on the matter, watching Holmes's profile for a twitch of emotion; the man is so good at keeping still, keeping unaffected, but John—out of anyone—can sense those small shifts in his stance, so long as he looks hard enough.
"I guess I just thought it was more of a game to you—a kind of sportsmanship."
"A battle of manners?" Holmes asks, quirking an eyebrow and turning to look at the doctor.
"Something like that." Watson can't help but feel he is being backed into a corner, here—but then again, that is a feeling many fall prey to when speaking with Holmes. He had hoped, by now, he was above that. But, of course, Holmes always has a trick up his sleeve.
And Holmes, frank and shrewd as ever, looks completely unaffected when he turns to look directly at Watson. When he turns to quirk up the corner of his mouth in a sort of smile and adjust his cuffs as though his words were nothing out of the ordinary.
"I wasn't allowed to love you, so I loved her instead."
Holmes scoffs. "Don't play deaf. You heard me, John." And there's a kind of uncertainty in the way he turns his gaze to the ground and becomes suddenly absorbed in the sleeves of his shirt. His voice, however, betrays nothing. He sounds the same overconfident genius he always does. After a moment, he seems to forget the ruse of his shirt sleeves and instead stands motionless, merely waiting for some kind of response.
Any kind of response.
Watson moves his mouth but no sound comes out.
"Right, so, as I was saying earlier, the thing I'm having the most difficulty with is convincing Mrs. Hudson that I mean no harm. It was so much easier when you were here to placate her." He smiles in that way of his—taut and quick and riddled with a hurt he doesn't dare fully express.
Holmes acts surprised. "Don't what?" His eyebrows rise toward his hairline.
"Don't change the subject." Bickering comes naturally to them; John has to fight the urge to start a fuss—because fighting is easier and fighting makes sense and there's nothing complicated about fighting.
"Oh," Holmes says. He turns away from Watson again, finding something across the room to take his interest. "I apologize, Watson—I assumed the matter closed."
"It's not closed it's—" Watson stops, collects himself. He runs his hands over his face and tries to string a sentence together that is less of an utter mess than his thoughts. "It's the same thing," he finally says, staring up at Sherlock.
"What's the same thing?" Holmes won't look at him, yet. He thumbs through a book Watson knows he has read a thousand times.
"With Mary and I. It's… it's the same."
Only now does Holmes finally turn to face him, a look—unreadable—sitting uncomfortably on his features.
Watson goes on, because that just doesn't seem to say enough—not enough of the things he has kept bottled up for the sake of society, for the sake of their friendship, for the sake of his sanity.
"Don't get me wrong, she's a brilliant woman, I—I'm so lucky to have her, it's just… She's not who I'd have picked, had I been able to choose."
"And who would that have been, John?" Sherlock lays the book down, contemplating Watson—deducing a myriad of things Watson couldn't even begin to guess.
A smile tugs at John's mouth and he shakes his head, chuckling to himself. "Oh, come off it, you great buffoon. It's you." The smile fades a little and he turns his gaze down to his fingers. "With all your skills of deduction, I assumed you already knew."
"Even a trained eye can be fooled," Sherlock says, his tone light enough that they could be talking about almost anything. If anyone overheard them now it would seem a simple banter between two old friends, holding none of the political and emotional undertones that lie beneath the surface. To an outsider, things within this room would seem completely and utterly normal.
But they're not.
"Hearts are tricky things, Watson," Holmes continues—babbling, the way he often does when he's nervous. Or thinking. Buying time.
"That's all? The great Sherlock Holmes, a master of talking off the cuff and that's really all you've got to say?" John stands up, crossing toward Sherlock but not quite coming close enough to touch—just out of arm's reach, just out of danger.
"What do you want me to say, John?" And he can feel the heat rising in Sherlock's voice—the oncoming fight that would feel so much more comfortable, so much more familiar than this fight they are not allowed to have. "That I wish things were different? I do and they aren't. What else is there to say on the matter?"
When he looks away again, that's John's breaking point. He steps closer to snatch Holmes by the shoulder, whirling him around so they are finally eye to eye.
"There's plenty more to say on the matter!"
And then he lets his thoughts step back from the conflict; he looks at the situation before them. At the way their faces are too close and their heartbeats too high, the way they lean into one another even arguing as they are.
Sherlock puffs out a breath and diverts his eyes to one side. "For God's sakes, John," he says, but his words are hardly a whisper: a shadow of what they were before, "You're married."
The word sticks in his throat like a cancer. He has to fight to get it all the way out, and it hurts—on every surface of his throat, on his tongue, his teeth, it hurts.
John looks at him—at each eye, at his mouth, his nose, the chin he hasn't shaved—he drinks him in.
He gives in.
John's hand comes around to hold the back of his neck and he tugs Sherlock forward—presses their lips together in something heated and forbidden and desperate. Sherlock's body seems to surge with desperation he had not allowed himself to feel. His hands come up to grip John's hips, holding him there, while John clings to his face and pushes their lips harder together.
When they pull apart, John looks at him—looks to him like he always looks to him. Because never, in his life, has he respected a man as much as Sherlock Holmes. Never has he idolized as man as such. Never has he so much wished for answers that he knows—he knows—the other man cannot provide.
He kisses him again. And again—the kisses grow more frenzied, less controlled. John holds Sherlock to him as though afraid that any moment he might lose him to one of those wild, brilliant tangents of his. Sherlock's hands rove his back with cautious reverence that sends chills down his spine.
The kiss deviates, their mouths shifting apart so that Sherlock can trail kisses across John's jaw, down the line of his throat. He holds John to him and just breathes him in. They stand this way—Sherlock's face buried in John's neck, John's face buried in Sherlock's hair—for a long time.
Sherlock pulls back just enough to look at him—to trace the lines of his face and wonder what it was that got them here, how two such people could ever have found one another.
His eyes flit to the open window. "If someone saw," he says, trailing off, his eyes closed tightly against the reality threatening to bear down upon him.
"You're on the second story," John breathes, resting his forehead against Sherlock's. "No one's watching."
"You know full well someone's always watching me." Sherlock whispers back, drawing his cheek across John's skin as if to prove to himself that this is really real, really happening, and not just some daydream he has let himself wander too deeply into. "The police. Moriarty."
John chuckles to himself. "I highly doubt Moriarty has much interest in your love life, Holmes."
"He'd use you against me."
"He already does." John noses him, dragging his lips across Sherlock's—not a proper kiss, but something softer. "Me and Mary."
Mary, Mary, Mary.
And then suddenly reality comes crashing in, though they had been trying so hard to keep it at bay. And they had, for a few unearthly moments, where it was just the two of them and this room and hurried breaths and stolen kisses.
John pulls back, sick with the twist of emotion tugging at his chest.
"I do love her," he says, though it almost pains him to say it. Sherlock meets his eyes and his hands fall away from Watson's frame. "I honestly do."
"Of course you do," Holmes says—that thin smile of his back again. "I've known that for a long while."
"Sherlock, I—" He doesn't know what to say. Words stumble-tumble from his lips and he does not know what to do with them. They lay useless at his feet and he stares, trying to make sense of the crossword puzzle they've become beneath his boots. He looks up, after a while, to meet the pained gaze of the man he has so admired, has so loved. "I loved you first."
Holmes lurches forward at that, his hands getting lost on Watson's skin—searching for purchase, for somewhere to hold, but too mixed up, too frantic to—
Watson takes hold of his wrists.
"She's my wife." He says. The finality of it strikes him. "Sherlock, she's my wife."
Holmes steps away from him, smiling and nodding and pretending to be distracted—pretending not to care.
"Yes, well, Watson, I—I'm glad you're happy."
"Holmes—I'm sorry." He finds himself subconsciously moving in the direction of the door, because it just hurts too much to be in this room with him, now, after what they both know. After what they've now done.
"I've got quite a lot lined up for me, right now, Watson," Holmes reassures him, moving away an deeper into the clutter to find some newspaper article he recently discarded. "Lots of cases to solve—an ingenious dead madman to find. You understand. Justice just never rests, you know." He shakes today's paper at Watson as if to prove a point.
"Right, I'll… leave you to it, then."
"Thank you, old friend."
Watson turns to leave an Holmes adds, almost as an afterthought, "Enjoy your honeymoon, would you?" It sounds so pleasant.
"Yes, of course." His fingers wrap around the doorknob.
"I'm sorry," Watson says in parting, "About Irene."
"I loved her." He says simply. He turns to face John just as he is about to close the door. "I loved you first."