Sherlock Holmes can change the way John sees things: hidden corners of London, secret doors, codes and glyphs and tricks of the light. Sometimes Sherlock’s mind is like a prism, bending the world into all possible colours, showing John where to find the rainbows on the wall. John’s reality, flipped upside down in the curve of a spoon.
And when the light bends, when they chase reality around a corner, it’s impossible to see the world the way it was before.
Most of the time, it’s a good thing.
But sometimes, it’s hard to adjust.
~ ~ ~
"She's terrified," Sherlock says. He is pacing, pounding a line between sofa and window, staring out at the rain-blurred street, hair wild in silhouette. "Her stepfather abuses her. That much is quite clear. Surely you noticed."
John had noticed. Time spent with Sherlock did have its side effects, one of which was a heightened sense of awareness, a sixth sense for the type of minutiae catalogued in Sherlock's mind. John's eyes had lingered on the yellowing bruises circling their latest client's wrists; she had tried to conceal them beneath too-long sleeves during her visit. He nods.
"Her wrists," he says.
Sherlock's glance glints with approval. "More than that. She flinched, just barely, when you leaned forward to shake her hand."
"Did she?" John had somehow missed that detail. He is chagrined to realize that the only thing he can recall about their exchange of greetings is the way Sherlock straightened the impeccable lines of his jacket and held out a deft, long-fingered hand. Lately his flatmate had been inexplicably occupying his thoughts at the least convenient moments. Client. Next time watch the client.
"Poor thing.” John manages to wrench his mind back to the client in question, a young woman with a fragile, soft-spoken manner at odds with her severely gothic choice in attire. “A strange one, though, isn't she? Do you think she's deluding herself about the cause of her sister's death? Their stepfather may have abused them, but the sister was a clear-cut drug addict. Police ruled her death an overdose years ago."
"Not enough data," Sherlock says bitterly, throwing himself backward onto the couch. "They would have to go and cremate the body, wouldn't they?"
"Savages," John deadpans. "Can't imagine why they would do such a thing." He shifts in his armchair, puts down his paper. "But the autopsy report should be easy enough to get -- "
"Molly's already sent it," Sherlock says, flipping his mobile out of his pocket and illuminating the screen. "Asphyxiation, no marks on the body, traces of vomit -- your standard piece of garbage the police file unless someone is on the scene who is not a total imbecile."
"Really. You alone are responsible for the only decent police investigations in Britain this decade."
"I thought as much," John says.
~ ~ ~
Helen Stoner flits up the stairs in front of them like a shadowy apparition, as least as much as one can flit while wearing combat boots. "Second floor, this one is mine," she says, once they've reached the landing, "and that one next door is vacant. Being painted. You can smell it from here."
The hallway smells of paint fumes and something else, something sickly and processed. Helen wrinkles her nose.
Sherlock's eyes are scanning stair treads, wallpaper, specks of dust, John isn't sure what else but he knows he'll hear about it soon. Sherlock inspects the baseboards, hesitates, inhales. "Oil-based paint," he says. "Not latex."
"I know. It smells so strongly, I asked about it when they first repainted... six years ago." Helen is fumbling for her keys in a large black leather handbag. "Apparently that flat was originally painted with oil paint, and you can't paint latex over oil, it just comes right off, so they've got to keep using oil paint when they touch up. Rest of the units in the building are wallpapered, thank God."
Helen unlocks the door and swings it open, looking up at them with wide eyes heavily rimmed with black liner. She's nervous, teetering on an unseen edge, white skin and inky black hair and lipstick the colour of a bitten plum. The smell in the flat is like rancid perfume, far worse than in the hallway; the flat itself is sparsely furnished, more hotel room than home. There's a dingy grey couch, and in one corner, a double bed strewn with pillows; the windows are hung with heavy, thick purple drapes. The only nod to decor is a faded poster on the far wall: Jimi Hendrix, Band of Gypsys. A faint glow comes from a glass terrarium on a low table near the bed.
"I know, it's awful," she says, dropping her handbag on a counter littered with mail. "The smell this month has given me atrocious headaches. I'm sure I told you I suffer from migraines. Julia did as well."
Sherlock is pacing the small studio, taking everything in, and John unconsciously falls into step behind him. Their particular comfort zone: John always one arm's length away, tossing a camera if Sherlock needs it, or his own mobile, or any number of random things John has learned to keep in his pockets. Helen watches them, biting her lip, as Sherlock prowls through the space.
"I hope you don't think I've brought you here on a lark," she says, as the minutes tick by and Sherlock remains silent. "It's just that it's all so similar to my sister -- to when Julia died. And she was clean then, and no one would listen to me, and I'm trying to clean up too -- I know I've been in plenty of trouble, but that's why I've moved here, I'm trying to get away from all of it, make a fresh start. And then the renovations, and this smell starts up, and it just... everything came back to me. I get these... intuitions, sometimes."
"Your birthday is coming up. Twenty-five." Sherlock picks up a prescription bottle on the counter, turns it over, reading the label.
"Yeah. Same as my sister, she died only a few days before her twenty-fifth." Helen gestures at the bottle. "That's nothing, I swear. It's for my headaches."
Sherlock tosses the bottle in John's direction, attention already elsewhere. John catches it deftly, turns it over to read the label. "Sumatriptan," John says. "Standard migraine treatment. Helping, I hope?"
"Not really," Helen says, and John looks at her more closely now, realizing that some of her fragility seems to stem from a haunted, almost glassy look in her eyes, faint purple shadows visible underneath despite the makeup. "They're changing my prescription, going to try something new. I hope it works, they've been getting worse ever since--“ she waves a black-polished finger in the direction of the door "--ever since the repairs. Thank God they're almost finished."
Sherlock appears next to John, holds out a hand. John fishes in his own pocket, brings out the point-and-shoot, hands it over. Sherlock’s finger brushes his, familiar, like a touchstone.
"I'm sorry for asking," John says, as Sherlock stalks away and aims the camera near the floorboards, "but this has to affect you somehow, living in the same flat where your sister died."
Helen's watching Sherlock again, arms folded, hugging herself in long black sleeves. "It's eerie, yeah. Not like I'd choose to do it. But I'm out of a job. I've got no place else, and I can't live with my old roommates anymore, it's not -- they're not a good influence. My stepfather may be a nightmare but he doesn't charge rent while I'm here, and he..." She trails off, unable to finish. Something isn't right.
She shifts nervously from foot to foot in her tall, battered Doc Martens, and her voice quiets. "I told you, I get these feelings. Sometimes it's like... I can feel her here. Trying to tell me something."
"Dull." Sherlock's next to John again, returning the camera.
"Sorry?" John glances up at Sherlock, whose face is set in familiar steely concentration.
"Boring. Irrelevant." Sherlock's words are sharp, clipped. "If there is a case here, and the key word is 'if,' let's be rid of the seances and horoscopes. If you want someone to read your tea leaves there's a lady in Camden Market. Don't waste my time. Understood? "
"No, it's all right," Helen says, lips tightly set. "But I think feelings count perfectly well as evidence. My sister and I were very close."
"Don't mind him." John watches Sherlock, now down on his hands and knees, examining the air vents. "The fact that he's here this long means you may well have a case."
"You know him well." Helen leans back against the counter. It's a statement, not a question.
"Yeah, I do." John's taking in the lines of Sherlock's coat, the arc of his shoulders as he sweeps a finger along the opening of the air vent. Sherlock sees something amiss; John can read it in his face, in his tense, swift motions, in a dozen other tiny ways. Julia Stoner's death must be suspicious at the very least. This, to John, is second nature: Sherlock reads the scene. John reads Sherlock.
"Well he can tell me to piss off all he wants, but I've always been able tell things about people. Gut feelings. My sister was killed, no one can tell me otherwise. I knew her." She lifts a dark eyebrow. "Just like you know things about Mr. Holmes. A bond like that, you don't even need to talk to each other."
John flushes a little. "I'm not sure what you mean."
"My sister and I were like that," says Helen, voice tight. "But with you, it must be... even stronger, I mean, it's easy to tell. How long have you been -- "
"Miss Stoner!" Sherlock's voice issues from the flat's tiny toilet. "When did you say the duct system was repaired?"
"Years ago," Helen calls back. "Ten at least. Before my sister moved in. They did quite a few renovations then, when my stepfather first bought the building."
"It's not like that," John says tersely, and she looks back at him. "Me and Sherlock."
"Isn't it?" Genuine surprise.
"John," Sherlock's baritone echoes from the toilet. "You and I are spending the night."
"I see," Helen Stoner says. She smiles.
It’s the first genuine smile John has seen from her all day.
- - -
Sherlock is deep in concentration by the time their cab pulls up at Baker Street; they’re stopping back at the flat before returning to Helen Stoner’s later in the evening. John is inwardly amazed that Sherlock is finding this case worthy of his time; in John’s mind, it falls squarely in the Stay In 221B, Wrapped In A Sheet category.
Upstairs in the cocoon of their sitting room, John tosses his favorite pillow into his armchair of choice and settles heavily against it. "All right, let’s hear it. You want to spend the evening literally watching paint dry. There’s a reason for this?"
Sherlock hops into his own chair, perching on the backrest, feet on the seat cushion. "One odd coincidence can be dismissed. Two or three, worth a second look. Helen Stoner's life fairly reeks of coincidence at the moment. She's re-enacting the period of time before her sister's death six years ago. Yet she doesn't seem to have done it on purpose."
"You're saying someone's deliberately gotten her situated in that flat so they can kill her, like her sister?"
"But Sherlock -- her sister died of a heroin overdose."
Sherlock steeples his fingers. "We have far too little information on the circumstances of the original death, but what we do know is this. Julia Stoner was a heroin addict; Helen Stoner says Julia was clean in the months before her death. Julia was living in Helen's current flat when she was killed, shortly before her twenty-fifth birthday. The flat next-door was being painted, just as it is now. Julia was discovered dead of a heroin overdose in her flat, no signs of entry, no signs that any other person had even been there that day. A needle was recovered on-scene. She had a fresh injection wound. Foul play was not suspected at the time. The room was locked from the inside."
"Helen Stoner, also an addict at one point," John says slowly, "says she's clean now. Almost her twenty-fifth birthday. Forced to move into the same flat. Flat next door is being painted." He sighs. "It's completely weird, but I'm still not seeing the logic that she'll end up dead in the same way. I mean, what are the chances?"
"Ducts. The air vents. Did you not see? No, you were too busy listening to Helen Stoner's charming little ghost stories to pay attention. The ducts, John."
"I wasn't listening -- oh for God's sake. No, I didn't notice."
"Very odd configuration." Sherlock tosses John the point-and-shoot camera, displaying an image of one wall of Helen Stoner's flat. "This wall has evidence of once having had heating registers, but they've been removed. The only vents in Helen's flat are on the wall adjoining the painted flat. Did you not notice the smell was much stronger in Helen Stoner's room than in the hallway? Shouldn't have been the case. She even had one window cracked. Her second window has a broken latch and is stuck shut. Odd that someone would go to such lengths to paint a vacant flat when they can't be bothered to fix a window latch in the occupied unit. From an air flow perspective, Helen's flat is nearly a closed circuit. It gets most of its air and heat from the flat next door, as far as I can tell without opening up the walls to check."
"Sherlock, you're bloody well not opening walls --"
"Not necessary. We need to break into the other flat."
"Are you thinking someone set up that flat on purpose, changed the air flow? Used... gas? Poison gas?" John rubs the bridge of his nose. "But Sherlock, they would have noted it on the toxicology report. They found nothing fatal except heroin."
"Once they found that amount of heroin, they stopped looking for anything else."
"There was a puncture wound consistent with injecting the drug. There was a needle."
"Neither of which we can see!" Sherlock rakes a hand through his thick curls in frustration.
"But who, Sherlock. Who would do this? What could anyone stand to gain from murdering these girls?"
Sherlock settles into his chair, rolls up his sleeves. "There's only one person it can be."
A sudden shout echoes in the downstairs hallway; John can make out Mrs. Hudson’s alarmed voice, and before either of them can react, the heavy thud of pounding footfalls reverberates up the stairwell.
The door to 221B bursts open like a round fired from a gun. It slams against the wall, rattling the bookshelves as one of the larger men John has seen in recent memory stalks into the room. His face is purplish, suit tie loosened around his bulging neck.
"Where is she?" the man fumes, eyes rolling as he takes in the cluttered, quiet flat, John and Sherlock seated in their customary armchairs. "Helen's been here. Where are you hiding her?"
Sherlock's pale eyes are wide, but he seems remarkably unperturbed, baritone cool and resonant. "Good afternoon, Dr. Grimsby. I've been expecting you."
The stepfather. Of course. They haven't even been back from Helen's flat for twenty minutes. John grits his teeth; he hates being followed, and he really hates not having noticed. Sherlock will almost certainly be smug about it later.
The man's dark eyes fixate on Sherlock, then narrow. John is nearly levitating in his chair, coiled to strike. Sherlock catches John's eye; a silent exchange passes between them.
Calm down, John.
Right, but I'm ready to take him out.
John doesn't even marvel anymore that they can do this without speaking. By now he knows whether to ready his gun based on the set of Sherlock's shoulders.
Sherlock stands and offers his hand, which seems to shock the pacing man into stillness. Sherlock can look him in the eye -- in fact, they're not far from the same height -- but this man must outweigh Sherlock by a factor of two to one; his shoulders alone are twice the width of Sherlock's narrow frame.
Sherlock's eyes are alight; this is just his sort of danger. "Sherlock Holmes," he says, when the man finally extends a giant, meaty palm in return. "This is my colleague, Dr. John Watson." John's hand is practically crushed in the giant's paw. "John, Dr. Roy Grimsby. I believe he specializes in orthopedics, am I correct, doctor? Please, have a seat."
Sherlock motions toward the couch and sits back in his armchair, but Dr. Roy Grimsby appears to have other plans. He remains standing, fixed to a spot on their worn rug as if held there by the gravity of his own fury.
"She was here earlier today," Dr. Grimsby says, his voice tight. "I know it. I've tried to keep a handle on my stepdaughter for years. She's a danger to herself, supposed to be under my watch at all times. Finished rehab less than a month ago. The last time I lost track of her she went missing for thirty-six hours and nearly died from a heroin overdose. She needs to be found immediately. You'll forgive me if I'm not in the mood for exchanging pleasantries."
"She was quite sober twenty minutes ago, I can assure you," Sherlock says.
"Really." Dr. Grimsby's dark eyes glint; his tone is mocking. "An expert in everything, are you, Mr. Holmes?"
"Regarding heroin, yes." Sherlock's voice is deep and quiet.
Dr. Grimsby seems to stare at Sherlock with increased rancor as he absorbs this information.
"You'll be telling me her whereabouts," Grimsby says, "or I'm phoning the police."
"Afraid not," Sherlock says. "And threatening me is not terribly effective, I should warn you. Neither are the police."
"I should warn you, Mister Holmes," says Grimsby, drawing out every syllable of Sherlock's name as if it were a repulsive disease. "Withholding information from me is not terribly effective either."
"You've given me no compelling reason to betray your stepdaughter's confidence," Sherlock says. "In fact, I have every reason to believe you will assault her when you find her, given the clear evidence on her wrists."
Dr. Grimsby's hold on his temper has clearly been tenuous at best, but at these words he finally comes unhinged. He takes one long stride toward the fireplace and seizes the first weapon-like object he can find: a long iron poker with a very sharp end. He whirls to face them. John's frozen, claw-handed grip on the armchair is the only thing that keeps him from exploding into Grimsby like a grenade. Well, that and Sherlock's calm manner, a near-telepathic signal: Not yet.
"Think carefully, Mr. Holmes," snarls the doctor, grasping both ends of the heavy poker in his enormous hands, "about who you accuse."
And with a single colossal thrust he bends the poker almost double. Dr. Grimsby holds it up for a split second like some sort of warped trophy, then lets it fall to the hearth with a clatter before whirling on his heel and storming down the stairs. His heavy footfalls rattle the teacups in the kitchen.
"Good God," Sherlock says mildly, and John exhales. He had been in the process of calculating just how badly he was going to lose the scrap with the monstrous doctor. A trip to hospital seemed a guarantee.
"Anger management issues, yes?" John says weakly, nearly dizzy with relief.
Sherlock stands, chuckling. "Excellent diagnosis." He stoops and picks up the weirdly distorted poker, holding it up to the light. "Delightful man, wasn't he? We must have him round for Christmas. I've been dying to have the coat rack twisted into a balloon animal."
John rubs the back of his neck, trying to ignore the persistent thud of heartbeat in his ears. "Quite," he says, taking a deep, ragged breath. "But, Sherlock. Christ. Provoking him may not have been wise. The man was a bloody gorilla. You knew I was unarmed. He could have wiped the floor with either of us."
Sherlock is studying the poker intently. Suddenly in one motion he grasps both ends and strains against it. Veins stand out sharply in his smooth, pale forearms. With one massive, nearly inhuman groan he wrenches the poker back into a straight line.
He looks at John, and it's a wicked, self-satisfied look. As if the world exists merely for his own amusement and he's just let John in on the joke.
"You really think so?" he says, a deep, dangerous rumble.
John's erection is as shocking as it is intense and his vision goes white with the force of it. Every last molecule of blood in his body abandons its regular post and zooms straight to his crotch. All hands on deck.
His thoughts explode, a dozen different shards of panic wheeling through his brain like bits of shrapnel. The most coherent thought says simply Oh My God. The others, loosely translated, say things like Fuck and I'm Not Gay and I Really Didn't Think I Was Gay, and yet others say This Was Bound To Happen Sometime. And one very quiet one says For God's Sake, Sherlock, Do That Again.
Truth be told, no time is a good time to have a sexual crisis about one's best mate, but John's fairly sure that if he could choose a time, it would not be now.
Because this is, in fact, a blazing crisis, an earth-shattering moment of want. John has known for ages that he's fond of Sherlock. Well, fond in the way that a fish is fond of water. Sherlock fits against the ragged holes in John's life, fills them with his intoxicating blend of insanity that John needs like he needs food or sleep. John needs Sherlock. But apparently, a part of John also wants Sherlock. A part that has remained silent until now, but has suddenly made itself very much known. A part that inexplicably has a thing for the sinister glint in Sherlock's eyes and the growl in his voice, when combined with Sherlock's hands on a long, hard object -- Christ.
Either that, or he has a fetish for fireplace tools. Not bloody likely.
John is sure he must look absolutely stunned, but as it seems he has lost control of his body completely, he abandons any hope of hiding his expression. Reflexively he swipes at the newspaper that is, by the grace of some higher power, on one of the arms of his chair. Half of it falls into his lap. The other half flies apart into thirty separate sheets which flutter onto the hearth like a sudden snow flurry. It must look to Sherlock as if John has just had some kind of seizure.
Better than the alternative explanation.
"Problem?" Sherlock says.
John looks up, face burning, to see Sherlock regarding him with a maddening blend of curiosity, concern, and mirth.
"Jesus, Sherlock." It comes out in a long exhale. John swallows, hard, willing his wildly defiant body to submit to his control. It doesn't work. He'd have a better chance of producing a hot cup of tea from one nostril.
Sherlock is alternately studying the tortured poker and John's reddened face.
"That was -- well, it was impressive, I mean. You could have... strained something."
"I appreciate your concern, John, but I'm not sure if I'm flattered." Sherlock turns the poker over in his hands. "I've never been able to maintain a critical mass of... bulk, in comparison to men like Grimsby, for example, but I am perfectly proficient in matters of strength."
This conversation is doing nothing to help the dire situation between John's legs. Images flash through John's mind: Sherlock's body, alarmingly thin at first, wiry whipcord limbs, fragile bony edges of wrists and ankles, and why has John catalogued all of these, what are they doing in his mind in such sparkling detail? Sherlock, bare-chested in bloody Buckingham Palace of all places, smooth, hard muscles working under pale skin as he grips that ridiculous sheet. Broader shoulders than John had guessed, concealed under those narrow suit jackets.
John had always assumed Hell was a rocky place filled with lava and devils. He had not expected to find it in his own flat by way of intense arousal over his flatmate.
"I never said you weren't, Sherlock, but that -- with the poker, that was -- " John gestures at it, now placidly straight in Sherlock's hands, and really doesn't want to think about very hard, very straight things any more.
"I'm sure you'd be capable of doing the same." Sherlock settles into his armchair opposite John, still looking at him with wry amusement, toying with the poker like a conductor about to signal an orchestra. John nearly shivers and decides it might be best to study the skull on the mantelpiece.
"I don’t know, Sherlock -- " Distracted beyond belief. Still no hope of moving the newspaper on his lap; he chances another glance at his flatmate. "Seriously, you provoked a massive violent man in our living room without any actual plan. He could have cracked you on the head with that poker in half a second, I couldn't have stopped him in time -- "
Sherlock rolls his eyes. "Without any actual plan. Really, John, you disappoint me."
"There was a plan, then."
John puts his head in his hands. "Sherlock."
"Dr. Roy Grimsby, six foot two and a half, weight approximately nineteen stone. Prone to extremely violent outbursts, but everything from his gait to his posture suggests he has absolutely no formal training in martial arts of any kind, not to mention he's somewhat out of shape and likely an asthmatic. He is merely the veteran of several dozen pub brawls and a rather unspectacular school career as a rugby prop. I could have disarmed him without trouble, as I have studied Baritsu for years, and boxing before that, which you might have bothered to remember. I'm quite aware of how to disarm a much larger assailant. Or any assailant, for that matter."
Sherlock is standing up to move furniture, sliding his chair back, lifting an end table out of the way, what is this madness? He whirls to face John, poker still in hand.
"Up you get," he says, gesturing with it. "Come on, I'll show you."
"Sherlock." John's hard-on is still quite evident, and he was rather hoping to will it away under the cover of the Times. But there is no reasonable excuse for refusing to stand up, at least none that John can think of in his flustered state. He moves the paper, straightens up gingerly, and looks Sherlock in the eye, praying Sherlock won't notice that he's standing at attention in more ways than one.
"Here." Sherlock hands over the poker, the iron still faintly warm with the heat from Sherlock's hands; a slight kink in the middle is the only indication it's had rather an unusual morning for a fireplace implement. He beckons to John. "Now, come at me. Raise it up, try to strike me with it."
"You're going to hurt me, aren't you? You're going to hurt me just for fun. Seriously."
"Don't be ridiculous." Sherlock beckons again, exasperated, and John knows there's nothing for it. He'd punch Sherlock in the face if Sherlock asked him to. Wait -- he's already done that. But.
"But I'm half Grimsby's size, what would be the point -- "
"Doesn't matter, this would work on anyone. Go on, John."
John sighs. At least this is the distraction he was hoping for, although being trapped in the sights of Sherlock's intense blue-eyed stare is making his pulse ratchet up again. Thankfully, he doesn't have time to analyze what that means. Right, soldier. Combat. John lifts the poker, takes a step toward Sherlock, and starts to bring it down swiftly, ready to pull back if necessary.
But there's no need. Sherlock's lightning-quick. In a single motion that makes John feel as if time itself might be slightly broken, Sherlock throws up an arm, striking John's attacking arm from below, then takes a step closer and strikes John on the underside of the chin with the open palm of his other hand. Before John can blink he's on his back, pinned effectively underneath Sherlock's wiry limbs and surprisingly heavy chest, breath temporarily knocked out of his lungs in an undignified grunt.
"Simple enough," Sherlock says, panting a bit from the exertion of holding John nearly flat against the floor, and why was this necessary? The back of John's head aches from where it struck the edge of the carpet; he's going to have a few scattered bruises elsewhere, he can already tell. John couldn’t care less, however, because his attention is focused on one thing alone: Sherlock is pressed against him, shoulder to hip. John figures he has about two seconds before Sherlock registers the entirety of the situation. Cold panic grips him. Shit.
But John is a soldier. He is also no stranger to a wrestling match, and unlike Grimsby, he was actually a damn good rugby player in his day. Summoning all of his strength, John growls, twists, and positively wrenches Sherlock to one side with such speed that Sherlock has no chance to react. They're sideways, John nearly on top, except now Sherlock is retaliating because there's no way he lets anyone have the last word, even John.
They strain against each other, limbs tangled, and in half a second they're flat-out wrestling all over the floor of the flat. They're both swearing and muttering, and then one or both of them chokes out a laugh, and suddenly they're giggling like six-year-olds, and if it weren't for all the bruises and Sherlock's elbows and John's dead panic over his hard-on, it would actually be the best time John's had in ages. Which says something for the way John's life is, really.
John learns the following facts during their breathless, surprisingly challenging tussle: They're perfectly matched. They're also both barking mad.
Sherlock is bloody strong and unfairly coordinated for someone so lanky. His height would be an advantage in most cases, but since they're on the ground, John's compact build works in his favour; they seem to weigh about the same, which evens the playing field. Sherlock is, as expected, dastardly and evil and tricky in a fight; John's got a few decent tricks of his own, however, and he's also stubborn bordering on insane. The end result is a hilarious deadlock, an endless tumble over the worn carpet of the living room, one of them crashing occasionally against a chair or table leg.
"Tosser," John gasps, coming up for air, trying to pin one of Sherlock's shoulders to the floor as Sherlock wrenches out of the way and nearly rolls John again. "Bloody ridiculous -- just wanted to provoke me --"
"On the -- contrary -- " Sherlock is breathing hard, laughing and twisting his legs in an attempt to gain leverage, but John is quick, and he grabs Sherlock's forearm and tries to wrench it backwards, and they tumble over each other again in a riot of scattered exclamations and curses.
Just then John has the bad luck of rolling onto some unknown sharp object (needle? scalpel? the possibilities in this flat are endless) and a flash of pain shoots through his bad shoulder. He gasps, losing concentration, and Sherlock seizes the opportunity and pins John in a single defiant thrust of movement. His triumphant look is wiped away instantly by the screwed-up wince of pain easily readable on John's face.
"Christ, Sherlock, get off --"
"Sorry, John -- " Sherlock rolls them both sideways. "Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm okay," John says, and they're both breathing hard, sweaty, flushed. He's still hopelessly tangled in Sherlock, tries to grope around to his own back but can't reach the spot where he felt his shoulder twinge. "Think I rolled onto something --"
"Let me see." Sherlock takes John's hand and pulls the two of them up together, half-sitting, still intertwined. A deft, light touch explores the back of John's shirt, and John dimly realizes they're breathing in unison. It's only a few seconds before Sherlock's murmured "Ah, here" and John feels a second jolt, like a bee sting.
"Pinned, in more ways than one," Sherlock says, leaning away from John and holding up a drawing pin. His eyes are glinting and he's flushed, a glorious bloom of colour across his cheekbones, and there's a faint sheen of sweat at the edge of his dark hairline. He drops the pin into John's open palm.
"That explains it," John mutters wryly, and then Sherlock's satisfied smirk is just entirely too much, and John swiftly stabs the pin into the nearest chair leg and lunges forward, and this time it's John pinning Sherlock quite effectively to the floor. John catches a look of genuine surprise on Sherlock's face before a slow smile spreads across Sherlock's lips and he starts to laugh, a marvelous resonant chuckle vibrating between them.
"That'll teach you -- " John begins, but his voice falters.
Underneath him, between them, Sherlock is... hard.
The realization pulls air from John's lungs and he feels his own body respond in an instant, his erection surging anew with a hot, painful throb. John flinches, instinctively shifting in a last-ditch attempt to hide the evidence, but a sharp twist of hopelessness seizes him. He freezes. It wouldn't even take a brilliant detective to deduce that there are two undeniable, heated erections in this equation.
John swallows, entirely lost for words, and shuts his eyes. He realizes the panic he feels is not so much at being aroused but at losing everything he holds dear.
Sherlock's phone rings.
"Oh for God's sakes," Sherlock mutters, and suddenly they are apart, scrambling away from each other, and John is very much aware of the cold space around him where Sherlock is not, and his heart beating in his ears and the insistent ache of his hard-on.
"Sherlock Holmes... Yes. No, he was here."
John sits up, rubs the back of his neck, watches Sherlock pace in front of the window with his phone. Tries to piece his reality back together into something resembling normalcy. It's a bit like trying to repair a window that someone has attacked with a sledgehammer.
"No, we're fine, Miss Stoner." Sherlock turns, catches John's eye, arches an eyebrow. "Apart from the fireplace poker."
Sherlock's look is unreadable, pale eyes slanted and alien, and he looks far calmer than John feels. As if rolling about on the floor with John in a state of arousal is a perfectly normal part of his daily routine. John can't stop himself from scanning Sherlock, a discreet sweep from shoulders to ankles: Sherlock's suit is slightly rumpled, but otherwise he appears entirely... under control. Of course. The bastard.
Unless John had imagined... but no. Not possible.
Sherlock is watching John.
"Yes. Meet you there at eight. You've got someplace to stay tonight?"
Basic functionality returns to John's limbs at last. He heaves himself awkwardly to his feet. Half-mast; Sherlock still watching. Christ, at this point John might as well strip and parade about the sitting room.
John can run up a flight of stairs remarkably quickly for a man who once had a psychosomatic limp.
~ ~ ~
The smell in Helen Stoner's flat is every bit as pervasive and nauseating as John remembers. Well, at least he remembers it as pervasive; he's not sure if it's also nauseating, or if his rattled nerves have added the nausea as a bonus.
Helen Stoner may appear anxious and frail, but she has succeeded rather neatly in ridding them of Dr. Roy Grimsby for the evening.
"You're quite sure he left London this afternoon," Sherlock says as Helen drops the keys to the flat into his outstretched palm.
"Oh yeah. We've got a weekend place in Sussex. I texted him, said I'd be there for the evening. Roy's got a man who follows me sometimes -- I know who it is, I'm not daft -- and I gave him the slip at the train station. Roy took the 5:15 from Kings Cross, I watched him board. In a few hours I'll text him, tell him I've got another headache and decided to stay in London after all. I'm sure he'll stay the night in Sussex. He prefers to pretend he's not stalking me."
"You know for a fact that your stepfather has you followed," John says, feeling even more unsettled. "Have you ever thought about going to the authorities?"
Helen shakes her head, picks up her overnight bag. "Lovely idea, Dr. Watson, but I was a junkie, remember? The word of a doctor against the word of an addict. He didn't start up this stalker nonsense till I'd been to rehab once already. Anyone with any sense would assume he's just trying to keep me from slipping into my old ways."
She doesn't wait for John to reply. "Mr. Holmes, I hope it's not a waste of your time, staying here."
Sherlock pockets the keys, waves a hand. "I assure you, it won't be. Good evening, Miss Stoner."
"Cheers." Helen starts for the door in a swirl of floor-length black skirt, then turns. "Oh, I forgot to mention. In the tank over there. My snake -- he's friendly. Won't bite."
Sherlock raises his eyebrows. "Common motley corn snake, yes, I'd gathered."
"Yeah," Helen says, brightening. "Name's Spot."
"Great, that's... great," John mutters. "We'll have a grand time, all three of us."
"Right. Thank you, Mr. Holmes. Dr. Watson. Really."
The door clicks shut behind her.
Sherlock crosses to the window, peers out at the street below. "She's correct. She wasn't followed this time."
John says nothing; his nerves feel grated and raw. He's watched Sherlock go about the rest of their afternoon as if nothing has happened, wrapped up in this seemingly meaningless lark of a case, giddy and distracted in the usual thrall of puzzle-solving. John, in contrast, has been battling a weight of panicky dread that has taken up residence deep in his gut. Is Sherlock ever going to say anything about what happened? Is he waiting for John to bring it up? Does John really feel... that way about Sherlock?
Sherlock's long form is framed against the window, all dark hair and sweeping lines, as if someone's painted him in ink. His pale fingers trace the edge of the broken latch. John's heart thuds once, hard. Unbidden.
Apparently he does feel that way about Sherlock.
This isn't going to work.
It's panic, rather than anything else, taking hold now. And a rising sense of claustrophobia.
"Sherlock. You don't need me here. If it's poison gas, I'll do you more good out of the flat than in."
Sherlock turns sharply. "Don't be an idiot."
"Don't. Be. An. Idiot." Sherlock bites off each word. "I do need you here. We're breaking into the flat next door."
"Sherlock, we're investigating a death that's over six years old, one that might not even have been a murder -- "
"Was definitely a murder, John, do keep up."
John rolls his eyes. "Was definitely a murder, okay. But Grimsby's not even here, I don't see how there's any threat in this flat tonight. Unless you count Spot, there." He glances at the terrarium. "You don't think it was Spot, do you?"
"If a four-year-old snake could commit a six-year-old murder I'd be terribly impressed."
Sherlock ignores him; he's at the door of the flat. "Coming?"
John sighs. It’s half-desperate, half-exasperated. He may be short-circuiting.
Hand on the doorknob, Sherlock pauses, gives John a sweeping look. "Something's bothering you."
"Get over it, John." Sherlock opens the door, stalks out of the flat. "We've got work to do."
John stands, tense, army-ready, in Helen Stoner’s noxious sitting room. Angry. He wants nothing more than to leave, to get in a cab and sit alone with his rebellious, inexplicable thoughts, but he can’t leave Sherlock at a crime scene, no more than he could call lightning from the sky.
It feels like his brain has gone rogue on him. As it stands, John's head is now a messy Pandora’s Box of feelings and urges that have reached some incomprehensible boiling point. He needs to shut the lid on the whole business. Find a way to lock it up. He feels his hands clench into fists.
"Now, John." Sherlock’s voice issues from the hallway.
Lock it up, then. There is no other option.