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Sparkling champagne pink, a woman in a fur stole is strolling down the Strand; passing her, a stressed mother kindles irate frazzles of green in a murky brown, trying to snatch back the hand of her daughter who is pointing to something in a shop window, around over her neck a trickling of indigo staining a pure white....

The two woman walking out of HMV touch hands, and their shades of plum and whiskey brush tentatively even as the taller one is moving in a bold motion to entwine her fingers with the shorter one, causing their colours to combine, slide into each other, erupt like opening blossoms; watching them with a faint smile, a black businessman tussles his hair with a distracted hand, a lacquered russet whorling as he types something on the keypad of his phone...

In the observations that catch his senses, his attention, the constant input that comes naturally like breathing after a lifetime, John doesn't think about his leg. Not the cane that seems a sign of weakness, nor the nightmares, nor the tremor, nor the fact that every time he dreams of Afghanistan, there's a part of him that wants to return to the mayhem because it's better than the loud silences of a lonely man.

He loses himself in the colours, because it's easier than thinking about everything else.

Mike Stamford is a predictable fluttering yellow when the two of them sit down together. The tremor in John's hand makes it hard to steady his takeaway coffee, and the bench they've perched on seeps its cold through the back of his jeans. Mike's presence is a mostly welcome sight; his colour's always been a invariant thing, a coalition of a chirpy lemon, undercut with a deeper, more grounded amber, never really altering much in all the stacked up years they've known each other.

He's worried about John today; the doctor can tell, his outline shadows interspersed with simpering flickers of ivy, pockmarked, the yellow waning, becoming darker with caution, the phosphorescent glimmer of a traffic light, his laughter awkward like rusted spokes of the conversation have shuddered to a halt on ground he has no experience with.

Mike never went to war. But John did.

Come on, John argues, tight smile clasped shut, resigned, just another one of those things that's changed, that used to be formed from less shadow, that used to be more easy to achieve, who'd want me for a flatmate?

Mike smirks then, a comprehensive thing, not quite an offer, yet more a payback; it's the sort of smile he used to give when they were younger, school-days, football and paper aeroplanes and their whole lives like a path they just had to follow, when John gave him lunch-money the day before and Mike would present the same coinage the day after, here you are Johnny, told you I'd pay you back. A laugh tags along, the trails of green receding, yellow gleaming brighter.

“What's funny?” John has to ask, unable to disconnect from that laugh, hackles rising with an enacted frown. His question is stinging, and this is it, the flaw, the crackling static halfway through an otherwise perfect signal; it's too hard to trust anyone anymore, even the old faces, a toiling ferment of discontent as a baseline to the mundane of the everyday.

Everyday; wake to the sound of war guns and forget the blood in the sunshine, only it possesses his waking motions; the washing of his already clean hands, the one plate, one cup of tea, the peeking into the wooden drawer of his desk for the reassurance of lustred metal; all of it ritual, step-by-step, regimented, a throwback to army days he can't shake off, all to forget that blood and that sand and that heat, that's in his hair and under his nails and in his head.

“You're the second person to say that to me today.” Mike lays out his words as an offering, a hand stretched out, inviting, don't you want to see what I’ve got to show you? The yellow quivers darker, an increase in tempo from the tranquil outline before.

John can't help but frown, overused muscles remembering how the downturn works quickly, barely a delay before he asks the inevitable.

“Who's the first?”

No two colours, cataclysms of heat and mechanisms of shade, the gradients of light and dark, improvised and instantaneous, are the same. The same colours crop up with regularity, greens and blues and yellows, the hues reinvented, made-up, non-existent as a combination before then and never to be repeated, like flowers that only open once in a lifetime. John's noticed them all, catalogued the things they tell him, quietly, without fuss like he's been doing for over thirty years, and in the self-important edge humans are wont to add to make themselves feel as though they aren't as small in the scheme of the world as they really are, he believes that there can't be anything new he hasn't seen before.

But the aura of the man he meets as soon as he steps through the door of his old classroom at Barts, this extraordinary stranger bent over a microscope – this is something new.

His colours are beautiful.

Not just unique, a towering effect that forms cities and skyscapes in the swirls, but beautiful.

John doesn't think the word exactly. And for the moment, he doesn't analyse his internal reaction, think on what it could mean, his inherent belief in this one word, think on a them that doesn't yet exist but will from today, doesn't think on a future that is forged from this meeting into something as equally unparalleled as the colours sparking like synapses around Sherlock Holmes.

He just looks.

The base shade is silver. A glistening sheen akin to melted liquid, and the edges that touch into white are like exposed bone visible through damaged flesh. At some areas, there seems to be the attempt at control, the colours marbling in a corkscrew fashion; and in that glorious immutable depth there are deep arrogant purples, inquisitive indigos and lilacs.

This aura should just be grey, this corona around the stranger, the mixing of independent harrowing white and the intractable proud black that compliments every other shade but inhabits a niche all of its own; yet it's incomparable, one-of-a-kind, a diminuendo of glassy colour that explodes in waves and fusions, glinting like knife blades, the sheer amount of colour so much that it cannot hope to summarize this one man in just one view. John cannot fool himself into thinking that by merely a glance, or even an examination drawn out over months and years he could ever hope to understand him.

Oh, John can see the arrogance and self-confidence, and the hurtling desire to succeed, to achieve, but the silver he cannot quite categorise, and there is the obsessive lack of closure and understanding as he studies the visage before him. And he wants to know, see the spaces where he can put a label to a shade or an emotion on a certain tempo, but at the same time he wants to prolong the unknown, and be content to watch the overturning of light and shadow, the inevitable constant movement, traversing, never stopping, never halting, the colours of a man who will never be tamed or tied down, and John would never want him to be, would happily observe the colours forever.

It should scare him, the blatant unforgiving attraction that ignites right there, accommodating itself in an as yet unformed portion of his chest.

The man turns out to be as interesting as his colours suggests, and John is contented to be unsurprised.

John has never told anyone about the colours. Doesn't ever plan to. It's not something he could imagine describing in words, something often too much to visually bear never mind relay to another. He could not possibly go through the flitting interchanges like the flight of birds, cutting his dialogue to reference the still patches of tense mystery before it's all in the open.

Often the aura of a person is not what John thought he'd see, and sometimes it hurts that people are so often liars, paste a front of one persona that works as though a mask while underneath their true nature writhes and arches, slimy and scaled, not hidden by clothes or skin or blathering mouths that just keep talking even when John's already crossed his arms to form an enclosure around himself.

He doesn't tell Sherlock about the colours either. But this hectic, possessed life of the detective's, and now his, is fraught with dangers, and when the warning lights are there, John cannot wait by the roadside as the story plays out without doing anything to defend his own.

“I don't trust him,” John murmurs, and he tries not to stress what he says, because then Sherlock will wonder why if he pushes to hard, will ask questions that go deeper than mere queries regarding his method and logic, and John can't have the answers he will want. Keep it simple, soft, and undemanding.

The dark haired man angles his eyebrow, and there is a question on his face to pull the ensemble of his expression together as the suspect walks away with his hands in his pockets, strolling, grin like sandpaper has scraped away any fragment of honest humour. John thinks darkly that the man might start whistling, and whether he will still be able to whistle if John were to punch him hard in the mouth and loosen teeth, his knuckles an ugly red but the blood triumphant, worth it – because he sees the admission of guilt in the sickening rush of onyx and green and brown, none of the shades indicative of negative qualities in themselves, but the drive to commit a crime, the lime green of jealousy, the mahogany of something hidden, the threshold where the green and brown meet crumpling like mould instead of phasing into each other, all of it pointing to a conclusion that John couldn't explain to anyone.

It is more primal instinct than anything, but John can read the signs; murderer, they say, guilty, leaving the doctor in no doubt that the man they're looking for in connection to the deaths of three people (who had families, children, husbands, wives, and that's what always gets John the most, the fact that no-one ever really thinks on those left behind who have to grieve) is the very one that's walking away with a cast iron alibi.

“Why not?” Sherlock asks, and John can't reply how he wants to, so shrugs, feigning disinterest.

“Dunno,” he says, and Sherlock doesn't lower the eyebrow, and his aura jumps, prompting him to continue even without saying anything, lapping like the tips of the waterside. “Just get a bad feeling that's all.”

“You can't judge a man based on gut instinct,” Sherlock tuts, turning his face away, his attention focused on other matters. “It is fact John. Data, evidence that secures the answer, not emotion.”

And John nods, almost agreeing, but knowing he can't.

The man leaves no clues, barely even a paper-trial, and when Sherlock gets too close, the only conclusive evidence they get is when he wraps his fingers around the detective's throat and admits it all while throttling him, John hauling the man away before too much damage is caused; half watching Sherlock worriedly, reassured by the fluctuating polish of silver, half throwing the man against red brickwork with an angered wildness that rises unbidden from unnerving depths, a fervent compulsion to protect that almost shames him in its violent outburst.

“Told you he wasn't any good.” John makes light of the situation as is his habit as the man is being taken away by officers, Lestrade encircled in a polished beryl shouting after them for their statements tomorrow. Sherlock shoots him an odd contemplative glance fringed in a smile.

The next time John gets another 'bad feeling', they both pretend not to notice that Sherlock pays attention to it.

Sherlock is unrelenting.

Nothing he does is by halves, no gentle easing to soften the blow to a victim, all his motion aimed forward without glancing back at the carrion he might have left in his wake. His palette may be beautiful, but it's hard, a shield he thrusts up at the first sighting of intrusion, defensive, sang-froid. During cases his colour tests its boundaries, thrums like wing beats, crushing against different strands of itself that interact, violet darkening to sable, pooling, rising, rebuilding its form, drawing the wispy shades together into an orbit like he's creating stars. Yet outside of the cases, it's not the same. It's more restless, waiting, stalking, decked in ebony and indigo, the drive and the need to learn, know, solve, the raison d'etre, instead being in union, it is instead a self-destructive cauldron tinted with an abrasive boredom that turns the silver shrill and unpredictable.

It's not the first argument they've had, but John is pushing himself up off the chair, heading for the door.

“Where are you going?” Sherlock asks like he's really curious, like he doesn't know, even though he always asks this as his flatmate leaves – and John thinks, maybe he doesn't understand why, but he doesn't quite care, needing out, needing space to breathe when everything around Sherlock converges into sealed up spaces where there's no room for air, no allowance for predictable human requirements. And his aura is so brilliant, and so angry, and spiking a cool frustration that slips into a tight grey pallor, no ignited gun metal, like he's blocked out the illumination of those stars he made, and John can't be around it any longer.

“Out.” He keeps the words short, almost as though he's proving something, that he doesn't need Sherlock, that he isn't drawn to him, to his vivacity, to his personality, to him, that any minute he could stop and walk away. Even though he can't.

“Why do you look at people like that?” Sherlock enquires, and as he says it, his shade bunches up in clumps of gravel, grinding, riding over each other, bumps of tar and creosote while the slick around the islands deforms in a cochlear shape, like lambent petrol with the tapered aurora imprisoned in just the right way.

There's something about this question that matters to him.

“Like what?” John replies. Sherlock doesn't continue at first, tugs his coat further round himself, smooths the wrinkles in the cotton of his scarf.

“You don't meet their eyes.” He lays out the foundations of his sentence with care, precision, the lumps in his colour dispersing like knots of tension into taut metallic ribbons. “Not at first.” Another pause, another brick forming his hypothesis. “The trajectory of your gaze is inconsistent, but always is drawn to a point next to the person you are addressing. You did it when we first met, glanced around me before at me, but obviously, I have had chance to gather significantly increased amounts of data upon observation, and the pattern remains the same.”

John works hard to keep his expression impassive, and although he smiles, it doesn't break the skin, it's more warning, stay away from this, from where you aren't wanted nor invited and Sherlock notices, of course he does, and John is relying on this, is relying on him deciphering this request to not dig deeper. For once in your life, let it go.

“I have no idea what you're on about,” he says, and Sherlock shrugs, hands delving into his pockets, colours sleek and graceful, spiralling livelier as though wrapped up in the ornate intensity of thought. Whatever he's thinking, he doesn't share it with John for the moment.

Recently, the colour of Greg Lestrade has been changing. He's always been a calming teal, his shades focusing on the blue end of the spectrum; in anger or frustration, even as he's threading his hands through greying hair, his aura is roiling cobalt like a storm-tossed sea. For the most part, it's a stable, collected azure, soothing, peaceful.

There is another pigment that has begun to encircle this sediment of grounded shade, digging furrows through the cerulean like veins to touch and fade against the flesh. It's not destructive, nor designed to adapt what is already there in a manner of sabotage, a trojan horse to assault behind city walls, provoke into unwanted change. It's really just there. As though it has become part of the original make-up, sliding into a place already set up for it moving in.

The new colour is purple, touched with an arrogance, a heightened self-awareness not unlike Sherlock's, but more obvious, an extravagant mixing of fiery crimson and a cool blue, a hint of mystery. It doesn't reflect Greg, doesn’t capture his personality or reflect some hitherto unknown aspect of his person, but where it meets the pre-existant shade, where the two should clash, smother and drown and mute each other in a complex warfare, they instead compliment, boosting and bolstering both of them to gleam brighter.

For a long time, John wonders quietly why, questions the origins of the new shade, the foreign agent settling in deeper every time he and Greg talk.

The answer reveals itself in a velvet clarity when Mycroft Holmes visits the next crime scene.

Sherlock's too blustered and defensive to notice, all his barriers up, resorting to childish manoeuvres, a game with ground rarely won or lost; how's the diet, Mycroft?, his sharp tongue blistering. John on the other hand, unaffected by sibling rivalry, takes the opportunity to observe, corroborate data, burrow down deep for the answers he seeks, admonishing himself in hindsight that he hadn't recalled the colour of Mycroft's aura sooner; the majestic sweeping fuchsia, dappling lilac in places as he leans on his umbrella, svelte and motionless in a dark suit.

It might be John's imagination, and he could be wrong, because the elder Holmes always dresses with care like he's going to be judged by every piece of clothing on his person, but has he taken more time to put himself together than usual? His thinning hair is combed back neatly, his free hand unconsciously perfecting and flattening out any rucks in the fabric of a straightened black double breasted suit jacket that looks like it's valued at more than John's monthly income, a tie that is decidedly more colourful than is standard for the British Government; thick strips of crimson and navy with thin interspersed streaks of white, the tie that he seems constantly dissatisfied with, for he keeps adjusting it round his neck.

He sees the azure entwined on the outskirts of the purple and tunnelling through it to the centre, and thinks Oh.

When Mycroft has slipped off away from the two, and Sherlock is fuming in that quiet stormy way of his, John cannot resist turning his head, searching out the two he knows will be there, off to the side, almost unnoticeable in a corner of shadow if not for the supernova of illumination they're making as they lean in, discussing something in low terms. Mycroft murmurs something feather soft, and Greg chuckles, but John's attention is held solely by the reaction the closeness is inducing.

The purple and blue are marbling, embossing an imprint on the other, articulate swirls that define their own hues while allowing the other new inclusion to blossom, flower, ebbing and rising to meet the other like something timeless, a dance where each circles, one leading, before they switch effortlessly, choreographed in a private motion that John shouldn't be privy to.

He tunes back into what Sherlock is saying in a growling baritone, allowing himself to be pulled away from the scene. The colours behind him are alighting like fires.

“He's good for you, Greg,” John says later, when they're on their own, having a quiet drink in the nearby pub on a Saturday night with no crime scenes to attend, the air woodsy, saturated with salt and alcohol.

“How did you – ” Greg frowns, defences battered up, before they tumble into dissolution as he sees that John means him no harm, is honest in his sentiments. He smiles, and it's an enduring thing with a memory of something John will never know sparkling beneath. “Never mind.”

He blushes, the halo of helical sapphire wide and open as an ocean, a skein like leaves seen through sunlight, none of the grace of silver that so attracts John to Sherlock but with a quiet contented calm in the purple and the blue that only serves to back up what John believes – that in these colours he can see the men they both can be together, how they fit, work, reflect and better themselves by the interactions, become the very best they are together, an inner radiance transposed to lighten dark cobalt and indigos to other pigments that are fearless in the face of everything that exists on the outside.

“Thanks,” Greg says, and John just raises his glass with a smirk and orders them another pint each.

Sherlock figures out a few weeks later, and it's funny to see the put-out moue he forms with his lips when he sees that John already got there before him.

“What do you think of Miss Morrigan?” Sherlock asks suddenly, affixing John with an intent expression. It strikes the doctor that the detective is wanting his input into the case they are currently embroiled in, a rare, but not dismissed phenomena. “Any more of your startling insights? Your gut wishing to tell you anything when we interviewed her and the boyfriend?”

He's faintly teasing him, John realises with a degree of shock. He wouldn't believe the man had it in him if he didn't have the proof right before him. The detective is playing infuriatingly innocent.

Navy, is what he recalls about Alison Morrigan. John returns to that memory, rewinds it back, pays special attention to the colours, the trestles of darker blue, does what Sherlock has taught him prime skills for; analysis, noting, searching for the hidden factor.

Navy, he goes over the memory, studies it closely, looking for discontinuity, a hint of something afoot, fluttering, churning, genuinely upset, that rosy patina, an honest affection for Linda, grief from her murder evident, grey dots and scars tearing through the shade as her boyfriend comforted her...

The boyfriend. John thinks back to him, having not paid much notice to him at the time. Think John. Repeat. Go over. Check. Solid red aura, that ripple that comes from tiredness, bags under his eyes, so didn't sleep last night, not well at least. The shades decorating the red, the usual concerned greens, threading through like vines... but then what is he concerned about, and think back to that flicker of morose overcast fear, twitchy, what's he got to be frightened of? Hiding something perhaps?

John doesn't know. But he'd bet money on there being something dodgy about him.

“There's something about the boyfriend,” he replies to the detective's query ambiguously, as though it's just a passing statement backed up by mere instinct, but Sherlock nods nonetheless, and John's grateful he doesn't want evidence.

“I'm glad you think so,” the detective says absent-mindedly. “I believe his drug problems might deserve some looking into.”

“He's an addict?”

“Honestly, John,” Sherlock rolls his eyes admonishingly. “Do you really see anything at all? Are those eyes in your head connected to your brain, or is that merely an illusion you've managed to get by with most of your adult life?”

John gets that exasperated glance from the detective again, the one that makes him want to grin fondly and ask the man to never change, not even if John wanted him to.

-

“What are you looking at?” Sherlock finally gives up any pretence of reading the article he's found in one of John's medical journals, rifling through the printed pages, sporting various expressions of disdain, a litany of Wrong. Wrong. Wrong, and even if that's not spoken aloud, then it's obvious in the way he rolls his eyes, tuts, mutters under his breath. He looks over to catch the doctor's eyes, meeting his gaze boldly, defensively, the paper on toxicology drooping down as though he's just forgotten it was in his hand. Well? His eyes ask, Out with it.

John realises too late that he's been staring at his flatmate again.

He can't help it; really he can't – stopping himself from falling down feverish warrens of thought, chasing what grabs him, resplendent like thorns that dig until they're embedded in his flesh. Sherlock is almost lunar today, the daylight through the curtains a sustaining porcelain over his arms, his aura captivating in its ethereal qualities; patches lowering, a penumbra in the margins, the undefined raven of an undeveloped photo that's just been shot in a flash of pearling white, the metallic lustre smoothed and unruffled, untouched by the way Sherlock's brow creases faintly as he reads, scanning the pages with condescension.

I love him, John thinks, the realisation not sudden, more like the building of some masterpiece, stroke by stroke, with layers and layers of memory, of sensory evidence, fine brushes of horsehair gently adding detail, highlights, shade, the side of his subject where the sunrise hits directly and the dusk is cast behind. Internally this makes so much sense, is perfect in its conviction and performance. John wants to know what the skin of Sherlock's hands is like against the toughened tanned flesh of his own, wants to know what it's like to be the sole focus of his raw untamed attention even for a second, his silver melting white-hot, wants to know where he has to touch to unravel the detective completely, what will make him smoulder and blaze and burn, Sherlock illuminating the two of them as they lie together, curved like parentheses in the obscuring dark with the glow of his aura like an eclipse.

Yet while this is what he wants, John knows the world doesn't work like that. That now is not the time to examine these feelings, both men unsteady on this ground, both too cynical, distrusting, both too flawed. Now is not the time to be in love.

But John's braved harder wars than this, needs this relationship to stay generic, simple, because he's not sure if either of them are yet ready to handle the implications of anything else. So he locks away his thoughts for the moment, drives them into a box then stuffs them away on the dusty top shelf of his psyche where he can't subconsciously reach, and finally looks back at Sherlock.

“Sorry,” he says. “Just staring into space.”

They're arguing again, and John wonders whether Sherlock's kisses would burn as much as his words, before he's back to his snarling fury – a pent up week of chasing and dead-ends and near fatalities, his motors running on caffeine and catnaps, and Sherlock's put his foot in it again, said the wrong thing, and instead of letting it go, John's bitten hard and left teeth marks, claws out, and from the box they've opened tumbles out every screaming disappointment, every disapproval. John's the one shouting, raised tones crashing down like stomping feet, but Sherlock can give just as good, waving his hands, a conductor to his frustrations, theatrical to the last, snapping with short cruel phrases.

“God, that's your problem John. You expect everyone to live up to your precious idiotic standards without bothering to understand the circumstances – ”

“That man had a gun to your head, all because of your damn ego, Sherlock! Because you didn't tell anyone where you were bounding off to.”

“I had it under control.”

“You were five seconds away from a bullet in your brain. Bloody hell, would it kill you to let someone in for once?”

“I could ask you the same thing!”

John stops, scrunches up his face in a buttoned up question and throws out more words to keep the silence from forming.

“What the hell do you mean by that? You're the one who swans off without telling anyone, thinking he can exist in his own little bubble when people on the outside actually give a damn about your well-being, you just horde all your secrets like a fucking child...”

“I'm not the only one who keeps secrets, John.

There's something in the way he spits out his name that makes the doctor freeze, words lodged in his Adam’s apple, flexing the hand he had held clenched at his sides.

“I'm not keeping any secrets from you.”

Sherlock sneers with an expression constructed to border contempt, and it splits through John, a sharp blade through his ribcage, it drains him icy, and the silver surges in a disjointed tempo like smashed glass, the light off, imperfect, ruined from what it was before, soiled and impure with the tint of rage.

“Oh, please, ” is all the detective says, and that’s enough for John to breathe out hard, unwilling to talk, uncomfortable with the way Sherlock's staring at him like he's trying to take him apart when he's not a bloody puzzle, he's a person, and he's not made of cogs or machinery or data that Sherlock could understand. He wants to repeat his former statement, but they both know he'd be lying.

Sherlock is cool and icy, silver shimmering like a needle, a guillotine before it slashes down, and the silence is almost unbearable.

There is the reverberation of two gunshots, compacting the air, the weapon recoiling back, bullets gaining momentum, kinetic energy, following the slight curve of a parabolic arc, and everything slows down.

Something hurts. A burning sensation on his thigh, a smell of sulphur in the small room.

He's back in Afghanistan again. Hypervigiliant, senses on full-alert; his muscles tensed, breathing too fast, heartbeat arrhythmic, it's near evening and the ground is cooling as his fingers dig grooves into coarse sand, and the pain, the pain swallows him, erupts, there's systolic shock, and he can't move his hands, and there's someone nearby calling out his name.

“John! John, are you alright?!”

Sherlock repeats his name twice, repeating the phrases over again for clarity – “John, for God's sake, answer me!” – and John's too busy trying to force an answer out of lips dislocated from his brain – Not Afghanistan, Not Afghanistan, he's not there anymore, he's back, Sherlock remember? Sherlock... He examines the walls in order to ground himself back to the present, the back room of a closed up restaurant, boarded window slats that bar the light out and the dust in, a film of grease over terracotta damask wallpaper, a stench of must, mixed in with bleach and plastic. There's a stain on the floor, and John doesn't want to know its history.

London. Three and a half thousand miles from Afghanistan. London. With Sherlock. Home. Safe.

“Did it hit you? John, did it hit you?” Sherlock's saying his name again, needing reassurance, as though he's frightened, yet Sherlock's never frightened, is never out of control, and the way he's saying that name, that short word of one syllable, the way he's wording it means something more, something neither are quite ready to address yet.

“It didn't get me Sherlock...” John murmurs, but Sherlock's not listening, is sitting him down on a nearby chair, hands roaming over cloth checking for the trauma he's expecting, panicked, his pigmentation all wrong; withdrawn, fraying at the edging, the creaking broken spine akin to a book with a snapped back, bent too far, glittering like a shattered windscreen, too much pressure exerted, ragged.

There's a gun in his hand he's disarmed from the unconscious man on the ground, and it's almost as though if a bullet slammed out of the barrel it would just go through him, this pale ghostly man who for the first time looks rattled, who has pulled a knife out from somewhere, his colours pulsing strangely, in a manner not quite their own, slitting open the fabric of John's jeans, expecting an entry wound, expecting the bleak ripped hole, glancing off bone, fragmenting into shrapnel that deflects elsewhere, ricocheting through arteries and causing excess damage, expecting so much with so many ramifications but none of it delivering.

“It's just a graze,” he says disbelieving, fingers fluttering, tracing above the bloody red furrow that's cauterized with the heat, the black surrounding of powder burn but nothing that can't be bandaged up, nothing that's fatal. Sherlock huffs out one of those relieved hysterical laughs, where there is an absence of humour but he's laughed anyway just to release some of the tension, running a hand through thick black curls dampened with sweat, the knife still clutched in his hand like an extension of his fingers.

John cracks a smile, needing to break up this moment, unconsciously shying away from the glaring light of the complications of this; Sherlock Holmes, his lips pressed taut, glanced off emotions that are scraped together and held back with a leash of self-control that's slipping from his grasp, the lights in his eyes dimmed enough so that something else that was smothered back down can creep to the edges like the curling up corners of burning paper; Sherlock Holmes, who has been made this way, who has been made to tremble and shake, by one action that forces a reaction, who is not yet in love, but who is learning the lessons of it, the things that don't fit in with his ideology.

Sherlock Holmes, who is not ready for this reveal. The bones over his heart newborn and still knitting together, these uninitiated feelings he does not yet categorise, understand, the emotions that today grabbed him without even leaving a mark on his skin.

The two of them are leaning in close but not so close that the metronome of their heartbeats can be heard in the silence, not close enough, and maybe that will come in time if they go the right roads, their feet each making separate smeared footprints for the same steps.

“The Yard rumour mill would have a field day if they were here,” John jokes. “Walking in on you trying to rip my jeans off.”

Sherlock laughs, and that was John's intention. There is a quiet moment now, before the return to the fray, vaulting the trenches into No-Man's Land. And in the fractal lull, the space like the split second the shutter of a camera takes to redo the shot, in that quiet John notices something else, as the silver before him bandages itself up, cracks of moonlight moulding themselves fresher skin, weaving over gaps where it's flaked and weakened; there is a new colour in the midst of it.

It's faint, so faint John almost misses it; a quiet unassuming gold that's beginning to thread through the silver, a warm flare like the tip where the candle burns brightest, bronze pools that sink into copper, the liquid rippling at the barriers like a corrugated roof with the sun striking off metal, the bold strong shade that could barricade itself into a shield, the sharp light of a swinging sword that caresses the place where it sides with the silver, slots into grooves that have been already carved for it.

And in that moment, John wonders where that colour comes from.

The trouble with this gift of John's, his ability, his talent, whatever its title is apart from a bloody nuisance at times, is that rarely, once in a blue moon, although he relies upon it like an extra sense, doesn't doubt the input because he's had no reason to, sometimes it can be wrong.

Later, John will curse himself for not seeing it, yet there was nothing, no indication that there was anything untoward, and even Sherlock was fooled – but that's not the point, because it's John's responsibility to keep the detective safe, to know when something is dangerous, and this time, when it really mattered, he failed.

The man flounces into the room, shy grin, self-conscious wave (“Sherlock, this is my boyfriend, Jim. ”), his teeth wide and white in the lab light, constantly moving, touching, as though nervous, the great performer (“Did you like the touch with the underwear? ” he'll ask with a cheeky smile later by the side of a swimming pool).

John casts a glance at his aura, and notes what he was expecting; a fizzy sort of orange, a bit like a hyperactive cocktail of too bright tinctures all merging in an excitable mess, a nervy crackling ultramarine, the orange stopping partway as though the effect is unacceptable, assuming a yellow stain that's under lit only to show it up to be a little grimier than if it were clean, overcompensating with a citrus agitation.

Extravagant, he recalls thinking vaguely at the time, but it's nothing special, nothing to get worked up about – even though that harmless man slips his number under the Petri-dish, an invitation, a forward declaration of interest, and it's not harmless enough to stop John being rubbed the wrong way, seeing the china column of Sherlock's throat exposed in its drapery of starched collar, thinking Mine, seeing the soft skin of his wrist, the pulse beneath the outer layers, seeing the glow around him, not merciful or pure but his nonetheless.

John is wrong about Jim. Gay Jim, who works down in IT, with the V neck shirt and the effeminate mannerisms, and the mobile number tucked under a container of blood samples. Gay Jim with his smiles and his screaming oranges and vivid over-active shades and his starstruck routine.

Gay Jim who played both of them.

Jim Moriarty. Hi!, he'll introduce himself to Sherlock in an hours time.

But for the moment, it's just John being stuffed into a Semtex coat at gunpoint, and the surveyor of it all comes in with his hands in his pockets, cheerily whistling, to study his latest prize, the final pip, the bait that'll be present at the encore of the charade with the man he's had so much fun playing this game with, looking John over like something he's bought. There's something in his eyes, an intensity, the smile as though he knows his punchline is hilarious and is only waiting till the end of the joke to share it with everyone else, and John's breath catches like air has solidified and is stuck in his throat.

There's no aura around Jim Moriarty at all.

And more than the expression from a face that could act out more characters than the one the man was born with, replete with secrets, beaming with a smile that’s twisted, a plastic doll with a printed on expression, the twinkle in their eyes painted on unnaturally; more than the way that Jim can fake his aura, intentionally or just as a by-product of his acting the parts, mislead John, keep hidden from him the internal workings that John has always been privy to; more than the weight of explosives over his shoulders, the cold clammy tension of his body under his shirt and the god-awful parka, that terrifies John.

Moriarty should be battle-smoke. Imperfect clouds of rain-dashed blue or even electric smears of mauve, other veneers catching the failed non-starters, a dash of amethyst, ghost white, a red like a blood clot, John would even see the orange back. But nothing. No-one has no colour, no one is so utterly surrounded by a blank void, an empty space where stars are extinguished. It's not even black, because even that is backlit to make it visible, is complimented by other flecks of colour. It's nothing, a complete lack, an absence, like he's missing something vital, a soul, a heart, something to make him recognisably human.

It scares him. Destabilises the stoic unmoving front he's holding up, the controllable things that are slipping, about to fall, pulled into the orbit and swallowed by the nothingness, taking him apart piece by piece while that madman just grins.

For the first time, John's not so sure Sherlock can get them out of this one.

They survive. Like they always do. That episode leaves him with nightmares of the things that could have been, and they are things John does not want to think upon, so he strolls the peripheries instead. The red blinking dots are just the brake lights on cars. The oscillations on water that distort the image of falling bodies like the blur on the back of a spoon are just when it's been raining too hard and his foot has shattered a murky puddle. The shudder of an explosion he hears as he opens his eyes is just Sherlock shooting the walls again. That's all, he tells himself. That's all.

He has those dreams the first few weeks after, but little changes. Except that's a lie. Things moved around while John wasn't sparing them a thought, subtle, behind his back. These moments that pass sluggishly, still half deaf with the ringing that still reverberates like bells in lonely halls, a jalopy stuttering forward blinded by smoke and dust and ash, these moments betray all their insecurities in a harsh spotlight, shows them all up for the fragile men they are.

John starts keeping his gun down the back of his trousers and doing daily perimeter checks, and Sherlock is dark-eyed, skirting round his flatmate, flicking his gaze across to him as though he'll start shouting any moment. They've both been reborn in this trial of fire, only the skin doesn't fit yet, is uncomfortable, not worn in, and they haven't got the hang of how all their limbs work.

There are ways to deal with things like this. Emotions that are too big to grasp, moments that peel and hammer at the foundations of a structure that before was stable, arrogant in the belief it could survive any strike of lightning.

So John makes endless cups of tea and complains to Sherlock about body parts, because that's what's needed, and the anger the detective is waiting for never comes, and he doesn't obviously expect this. He wants something, wants to speak something aloud, and John can see his mouth imagining how the words shape up, a sentence, a statement, the shattering of some block of sheet ice that is hiding in plain sight. But the winter ice is still too thick, and neither of them are strong enough in the wake of Moriarty to break it down, so John makes more tea, and Sherlock shoots the walls, and chases through the back-alleys and doesn't stop running, with John still behind him like an imperfect shadow, and they both wait till spring.

“I'm sorry.” Sherlock murmurs one day, so quiet the words are almost a hum. The syllables slide off his tongue with great effort. John glances up from the pages of a newspaper that he is not reading, clearing his throat, feeling too loud, intrusive.

The world outside is too noisy, thumping music battering walls, and the air conditioning in 221c croaks with a rusted curse. But in here, with his friend coiled like a comma on the sofa, – his aura like the sighting of the moon in daytime, something untouchable, startling in its prevalence – there is something in the quiet that immerses him, floods in over his head.

“Pardon?” John asks, guardedly, question lilting, stiltedly curious, almost tentative, like he's not after anything, but isn't everyone always after something, even if they don't know what they want just yet. He fiddles with the fridges of the newspaper, meets eyes that today are more blue than green, like the strip of sun slanting off the skin of the ocean. The gold that has been present as a constant for the last few weeks is calm compared to the nervous waves of gun metal grey that roll and smash like the tidal break.

Sherlock looks at him, eyes snapping up to John's face from where he's just been absorbed elsewhere.

“I'm sorry,” he repeats, as though this is something John needs to understand, a door to a room where few have tread that he needs to open, and the words he says, the apology, is genuine and unpolished, riddled with a misplaced emotion that takes on all the forms of guilt.

“What for?” John asks, and Sherlock snorts, dissatisfied, rolls his eyes and gesticulates with his hands, and there's the memento of frustration in his actions.

“What do you think, John?” he snaps, “Moriarty. ” The name spoken like a curse, like a swearword, something so foul it's reverent, like when a child says a bad word that they've been told never to repeat, and there's that thrill of danger as they do anyway. Moriarty, and it brings back everything they both tried to block off, the white chipped tile and the red sight dead centre and the consulting criminal that's still out there, and next time it won’t just be a warning, next time it might kill them, and John's not sure that even that would stop Sherlock from conceding to the game.

This is the moment, although John can't bookmark it because he never recorded the signs. All he knows is that the tone of Sherlock's voice touches him, a jolt at the base of his chest, and this moment is like the first crack on an icy plane, the splintering of a glassy shield.

“You aren't to blame for any of this – ” he starts, but the detective cuts him off.

“Of course I am,” Sherlock snarls, standing up from his seat, pacing, his motions caged, tense, and John can see it all, his colours flashing, carnal and violent, half attacking themselves and half turned inward, saturating his tone, his expression. Splintering out and splitting up, like a collision of two opposing factions in a war, like the war John was part of, is part of, this battleground, his conquered land that he can call his own, and god, he doesn't want to die for someone else's fight, but he would die for Sherlock, and it's not someone else's battle anymore, it's his because there is no scenario where he would not fight by the side of this man. “Your association with me put you in danger, and I should have known that he would use you at the Pool, and I didn't... I didn't think... I didn't....”

“Sherlock.” John is up now, and the two of them are standing before each other with the point of no return far back in the past, and he clenches his fist in a habit he used to have when he was younger, except he used to do a lot of things in his youth that just won’t work now, that need new tactics. “You're an idiot.”

John gives a smile he couldn't remember before, a fond thing, and if this was the time he'd reach out, cup Sherlock's face with his hand, stroke pale skin with his thumb. “You are an idiot,” he repeats. “You might be able to tell... I don't know, the state of a marriage by a wedding ring, or where someone has been by the dirt on their shoes... but none of that in any way detracts from how monumentally stupid you are if you blame yourself for any of this, ok? This isn't your fault. Put that massive brain of yours into gear.”

“But you are not safe, ” Sherlock stresses.

John shrugs. “I know.” And then, another one of those smiles. “But that would be incredibly dull, don't you think?”

It's hesitant, like a foreign custom he has not quite managed, but when a trace of the smile flourishes across the detective's face, he gives a hum in the back of his throat, a smoothness coming back to his features, pleased although not sure why.

“I'll always be there Sherlock, if you want me,” John says, and that smile surges wider, if only for a moment before it's an emotion quite different.

“Of course, John,” he murmurs, and they're standing too close again, closer than before, with not enough space to separate them, and the room has had all the air sucked out, and John's forgotten how to breathe as he watches Sherlock's dilated pupils and the adamantine coils around him that follow inwards like a nautilus shell.

The glorious burning ambience of the man he loves and the golden touch of something new, eroded by time and life and sand but emerging out the other end to glow brighter, the two shades touching, joining, like the twin serpents entwined around the caduceus, moving into each other, an ouroboros, provisional and stuttering at first, then strengthening; obsidian sparks with a dancing seamless white, and then the grounded yellows like desert sand and honey shade and burnished comforting browns that dapple into something a little threatening if provoked, a defensive shade that's crushed down all its barriers for this moment, a hint of something special that ascends it to a metallic splendour.

He can't be sure, but he thinks that the gold that alleviates the silver, the conductor of light that compliments it and makes it shine ever brighter, might be from him.

And then Sherlock tilts forward and kisses him, and suddenly John's not thinking at all, the room falling away, and there aren't words for this, because they aren't needed, there aren't thoughts for this, because they aren't wanted. Sherlock's lips are uncoordinated at first, but pliant, and then when they are emboldened by the fact that John isn't pulling away, is leaning in to gain more access, they push harder, demand more, devour, take. And John gives, choking down disbelief and just letting this happen, then stands his ground and requests, increases the rhythm, takes the lead for Sherlock to follow, conquers in the unspoken language of tongues and teeth, the two auras around both of them touching at every point, bleeding together to make something better, something that's perfect.

And the fine line of space they've made between them is the one safe place with just the two of them, the whole world bathed in light, a clap of thunder before the one split second where the entire sky is lit up to the horizon, Sherlock's hand on his waist, John's fingers twisted into his hair, retaining contact.

It's just an introduction. They have forever to learn.

What are you looking at?” the detective asks after one kiss of the many they've practised, when John has spared a glance at the man's aura with the part of his brain that's still active with some form of thought, watching the spirals of metallic grey and the darkened satin sheen yellow, the places where they fit, spin off only to join again.

“Something beautiful,” John replies softly, and neither of them need to say any more.