Sherlock and I didn't stop arguing the ethics of human experimentation on our way home from Dartmoor. Burnt umber intransigence in the Land Rover. Stony discretion in the train. Intermittent flares of gray and ochre, around other people's attention, from the station to the cab; quiet, in the cab, and picking up again from the street door to the landing at 221B. I started for the upper stairs to my room, shaking my head, only to be stilled when Sherlock crowded me against the kitchen door.
Silence: like the space between the lightning in my bones and the thunder in my veins. He pinned me without touching, hands on the door to either side of my arms, face turned away but mouth close enough I could feel his breath passing over my ear. Some of those dark curls brushed, ticklish, against my cheek, and I wanted to free my arms, tug him closer, tangle my fingers in his hair.
No idea what he was thinking, with his face hidden. I took a deep breath: wool and travel dust and ethylene and, under all of that, sweat and Sherlock. Body heat trapped in the narrow space between us, and my hand came up to settle on his waist, beneath the dramatic coat he hadn't yet removed.
Sherlock stiffened and pulled back, leaving me in a stunned haze as he crossed the landing into the front room, used the threshold to reassert the boundary we had come so close to crossing.
"Sherlock..." I started, following him — always following, always a step or two behind — and I dropped my kit by the door; vibrating with the low amber thrum in my blood. Stripped my jacket off and hung it on the hook behind the door, cursing myself for an idiot. Should have known better than to touch, to try and tilt the fragile balance between us.
"I don't have friends," Sherlock reminded me, sharp emphasis on the sibilant.
My lips tightened. An explanation, in our personal shorthand at least, the green and granite of the Grimpen churchyard — but hardly an excuse. I wasn't exactly flush with friends myself, could count maybe two or three all told, and no other could provide a match for the flame-like flutter I got each time I came home to Baker Street, or left it to investigate the world with him.
"I know." I pushed the words past the hot blue feeling in my throat. "Just the one."
Sherlock threw himself onto the couch, still in his coat, and the springs squeaked in a tired minor third; I would have wagered he could reproduce the notes for me on the violin if I asked. My own sense of pitch is relative, not perfect.
Sherlock closed his eyes, folded his arms across his chest.
"Tea, then." I walked to the kitchen, made a conscious effort not to clatter the kettle against the tap. Knew Sherlock couldn't help cataloging and identifying every frustrated rustle I made: leaning against the counter, adjusting my flies. A fleeting memory of The Woman — and look at us both — and caught myself wondering if she'd think my withdrawal was strategic or cowardly.
Well, I'd looked. And discovered some surprising things along the way about my feelings toward him, best played close to the chest because I had Sherlock's clear word on the matter, and because not every relationship has to be about sex. Though I'd realized I wouldn't turn him down flat if he asked, either. Which had taken a bit of mental rearranging — but, then, I'd been doing a lot of that since I moved in with him.
Kettle on, I walked back into the front room and sat in my chair; I had a clear view of the sofa, the music stand, the windows, Sherlock's seat, nearly anywhere Sherlock might choose to move in the room.
"Sherlock." No response; no surprise, really.
"Sherlock?" Not so much as a twitch. Not retreating to the platinum precision of his 'mind palace,' then; if he were, I would have expected to see his fingers shifting, at the very least — conducting symphonies, pushing aside useless data.
In my best conversational tone, I commented, "My nose is on fire, and I have a wild badger in my trousers."
Sherlock lifted his head off the arm of the sofa, frowning in consternation.
I raised an eyebrow — it wouldn't do to laugh — and Sherlock rolled his eyes. I knew what I was doing, could see Sherlock himself was more amused than annoyed — the set of his shoulders, the faint crinkling of his nose.
I looked at the door to the landing and back at Sherlock; a pointed question.
"Temptation. Frustration," he answered.
I turned my head, slightly, Nipper on old RCA vinyl — surely Sherlock wasn't quoting The Police. Don't stand so close to me. But no, his face didn't reflect the smug glow he got when he knew something I figured he'd deleted if he ever knew. A tense honesty, then; and I could taste pale hazel and lingering blue in the back of my throat.
"An experiment?" Dangerous for him to agree, given the argument that had lasted the whole trip back from Devon, but a plausible lie nonetheless. Providing him an out, if he wanted to take it.
"A fall from grace," he said, rough and quiet. After all his hard work, admitting to himself that he might want something, some colour in his life beyond his brilliant collection of cold metal facts, had to seem a mortal flaw.
And I could hear won't happen again in the low murmur, feel tiny silver needles piercing my insides. I didn't stifle my sigh nor the almost-shake of my head; tilted my neck back so I could stare at the ceiling.
The kettle clicked and I got up in a response Sherlock had long since defined as "Pavlovian".
And I said dangerous, and here you are.
Not cowardice. A chance to regroup.
I put together the tea carefully; even if Sherlock wouldn't drink any, I needed the ritual. Taking the time, allowing the interruption, enjoying the aroma in the air: white space for our figures, the necessary rests between chords. I breathed in the fragrant steam on my way back to the front room, clear topaz for the palate, and set both mugs as well as my arse on the coffee table in front of him.
Sherlock's eyes were closed again; I ignored the implicit 'do not disturb', reached out to take one slender wrist, and watched his eyes open in consternation. Settled my fingers on the ulnar artery, appreciated the accelerating throb transmitted from Sherlock's heart, lifted his hand.
His response was a fine example of the almighty frown I had seen more and more, of late — the silent one that said I'd done something utterly inexplicable to him, and he was holding back from snapping something caustic or dismissive while he tried to unearth the hidden logic to my behaviour.
I wished him luck.
In the deep green woods of human emotion, I'd learned how to keep my bearings. I got it wrong more than I'd like, and god knows I suffered as much as any other lonely male, lonely human. But I didn't get lost; not the way Sherlock was lost, a gleam of silver panic in his eyes when I wilfully crossed the boundary, pressed Sherlock's fingertips against my carotid.
Sherlock's field of mastery has always been words, logic; not just linear thought but brilliant leaps between invisible systems of causality, A to B to Q to Z'. Sometimes I thought we got on so well because I didn't always require the guided tour from Here to There, the way the rest of his familiar faces seemed to. Sometimes I caught up with him easily, once I saw the destination; other times it didn't matter — I trusted him to know what he was about.
But the physical realm, somewhere between emotion and logic — the touch of his fingers against my eloquent pulse, my late-in-the-day stubble; the squint of seawater eyes that said he wanted to pull back, the flick of the tongue at the corner of the mouth that said he didn't — this realm of action and touch might be neutral ground between us. Sherlock loved to run and climb and fight, trained his body through boxing and martial arts to be as agile and reliable as his thoughts, despite his disdain for the mundanities of food and sleep. And I — Captain Doctor Three-Continents Watson — I knew the human body intimately, after countless hours of academic, professional, and recreational study.
I held Sherlock's gaze and released his wrist.
He didn't draw his hand back fast or slow, and didn't bring up a shield of biting words — but the proverbial stiff upper lip marred the hushed pink of his mouth, while his fingertips hovered against my throat. Subtle arcs and twitches of his eyebrows spoke minute pleas — asking me to understand how very much he had to lose.
I reached out to trace one fingertip across a cheekbone. Of course it was a risk, one I was asking us both to take. I caught his free hand, rubbed a quiet thumb over skin and muscle, the webless space between his fingers, the tendons spreading like violin strings toward the bridge of his knuckles.
I didn't need more than what we'd had coming up the stairs. Wanted, god yes, a deep solar flare of yellow that had been lurking unacknowledged up to now, down in the marrow of my bones, but I didn't need.
Still, the want flowed back into gray-shot blue-green frustration in my throat when Sherlock squirmed away from my touch, pressing back into the upholstery.
"John—" Imperative. Frightened.
Despite the hot tightness in my throat I let him go; I gave him space, shifted back and picked up my mug. Took a sip, swallowing back ambered hazel and a thousand stinging shards of glass. Offered Sherlock the second cup.
He sat up, and his eyes, silver in the late afternoon sunlight, searched my face, ignoring his mug. I was reminded of the inn, of his cut crystal tumbler flashing in the firelight. A different kind of fear, this, but related, somehow, to those long moments of doubt out on the moor.
"It's fine. Married to your work, friend not friends. I do listen, you know. We don't need to change." Our knees were so close to brushing I could almost feel sparks across the gap.
"But you want..."
"The same things you want," I said, gesturing with the mug to indicate the flat, Sherlock, nights that go to dawn, the howl of a tortured violin — all the things I had no intention of saying aloud, even now. Us, whatever shape that took. The things Sherlock wasn't about to admit he wanted, either, with or without the brink he'd teetered on, there at the kitchen door.
But it could all go unsaid, like so much else between us, go right to the devil if it had to.
He stood, abruptly, slid beyond the coffee table, caught the music stand before it could fall.
"Wanting..." he said, shaking his head as I pivoted to face him. "We shouldn't change. The things we want aren't always the the things we need. We can't let the desires of the moment distract us from everything that works..."
I watched him walk restlessly around the perimeter of the room, in and out of the fading light: circling our work desk, touching my phone, straightening the handwritten composition next to his computer. I held my tongue — no sense contradicting him when I wasn't the one he was arguing with. He considered it a survival trait, keeping the palace of his thoughts clean and pristine, without the colourful mess the rest of us managed with more or less grace. But whether he liked it or not, the brilliant mind was only a part of him. The moment on the landing had loosed some buried desire from his titanium willpower, and he'd pinned me against the door where I couldn't slip away from him—
Warmth rose under my skin, a small russet epiphany — he thought he was caught between losing the man he wanted to be and losing me.
He stroked a finger along the top of the glass case with his mounted pipistrelle bat. "We have an excellent partnership, and I know from experience that your qualities are difficult to find at all, much less combined in one person. If we were to let temptation draw us into quagmires that might pull us apart—"
I cut through his monologue. "Sherlock. Stop. You've got hard data to contradict that hypothesis."
He paused, looking back at me with a new variant of that deeply bewildered frown.
"Your little lab experiment." I set the mug down. "You tested your hallucinogens theory — but you also tested me. It was poorly thought-out and hellish and dangerous." I spread my hands. A tiny thrill of orange, limning that electric word. And here I remain.
So many things he'd done to me, from the very first night when he'd used my phone to text a serial killer, to dosing me with an unknown chemical before setting me up for new nightmares about big dogs and blinding lights because Afghanistan and the bloody pool weren't enough.
I'd argued the limit between "Not Good" and "Not Evil" fiercely with him today — and was prepared to until the end of time, if need be — because I'd already decided he was worth every miserable moment.
I took to my feet, telling him so with my steady gaze. Glanced at my kit and out the door before looking back at him. Reminding him I hadn't been forced to follow him across that threshold; if I'd intended to leave, nothing would have stopped me going upstairs to pack.
"How can you possibly make such a promise?" He came around the back of his chair and I stepped to meet him, face to face in front of the mirror over the fireplace. I set a hand on the mantel, next to the skull that had previously been his only friend.
"I know what I want. And I know what we're both capable of. Why are you hesitating?"
Dusk blended a slate wash across the room, he and I and 221B cast in the same light, boundaries blurred by the approaching darkness.
I reached up, touched his cheek, watched his eyes glimmer with calibrated calculations. Mind flickering over a thousand details, from the calluses on my fingers to whatever scents I might be carrying on my hands; weighing our entire history, from the unyielding argument we'd just had to whatever painful reasons drove him to embody the coolly logical superego.
"Sherlock Holmes — you took that cabbie's dare and risked your life to feel alive, and you won't take mine to keep it interesting?" His eyes widened at my words, his nostrils flaring. "I challenge you to a relationship."
He stepped closer, just an inch or so, and touched his fingers under the tip of my chin. Patinas of blue and green darkened the silver eyes fixed on mine, all his attention and all his determination balanced on a single fulcrum.
I held my fingertips still, light against his cheek.
And then the moment and the boundary and the space between us collapsed, his fingers sliding along my jaw to grip the back of my head, mouth upon mine, amber flare burning through to thunderous gold. I set my free hand on his side beneath his coat again, reaching up and leaning in.
A kiss, a conflagration, a surreal blend of urgency and willpower; an act I'd once dismissed as inherently uninteresting, not part of my identity. Irene had asked me to look past definitions, look at him, at what we already had together, and his lips were soft and luscious against mine. We fit together like twinned rare-earth magnets brought close enough at last, drawn together with a force that shook us both.
His hands clenched in my hair, my shirt, around my belt, pulling me tight against him, restraint crumbling. For those first few moments I yielded to his strength, and to an expertise I hadn't anticipated; holding him just as close, but following his lead as I so often did.
But it was my curious hands that slid beneath the fabric of his jacket, rested a moment on skin-warmed linen before tugging his shirttail loose to explore the smooth expanse of his lower back.
His lips parted, kiss falling to pieces around his heady exhalation; our faces so close, hazel and amber and the brush of our noses, the bitter damp of shared air. Wrapped my hand around the side of his neck, into the soft curls behind his ear.
His eyes flickered open, seeking confirmation that we were anticipating the same journey through these woods, then lit with a half-voiced laugh; fingers searching beneath my shirt as well.