"It was like certain dinners I remember from the war. There was much wine, an ignored tension, and a feeling of things coming that you could not prevent happening. Under the wine I lost the disgusted feeling and was happy. "
- Ernest Hemingway,The Sun Also Rises
Spain was humid, more so than anything John had ever felt in London, and the air was thick with salt. Their tiny suite of rooms on the top floor of the hotel was heavy with it. They kept the windows open to let in the strong breezes and the sounds of the ocean.
The location had Mycroft written all over it, from the simplistic charm to the sole double bed made up in crisp white linens that felt cooler under his palm than they should. Sherlock never mentioned his brother’s name, and Mycroft’s presence loomed all the more darkly for it.
Sherlock sat in an armchair as John unpacked his case. It was quickly approaching midday, though the brick-colored tiles of the floor felt cool against his bare feet. There wasn’t much to put away. Even still, the work left him feeling drained.
Afghanistan had been hot, but it was also as dry as dust, as sun-bleached bone; a burn more than a suffocation. Spain filled his lungs, stretched them until they were weighty and useless.
“Lunch,” Sherlock said suddenly, coming to life.
John wiped his brow and nodded, grabbed his shoes and tried to fit his feet into socks that felt uncomfortably small. Sherlock watched him.
They hadn’t far to go. There was a small café on the ground floor, just two flights of stairs away. The room was filled with tables and chairs of simple dark wood and a long bar along one side. There was an old man seated at the end of the bar, head bowed, and a bartender wiping a counter while talking to what appeared to be a waiter. Sherlock sat down at a table facing the door and John joined him.
A bottle of pale yellow wine was placed between them, uncorked. The glass of it turned quickly from frosted to drenched and John watched as water dripped from its sides to pool on the table. The windows here were open, too, and the breeze fluttered the curtain that separated the kitchen.
“Something light,” Sherlock said, absently, and reached over to pluck a Spanish newspaper from the empty table next to them.
The waiter nodded and retreated.
“Do they owe you favors, too?” John asked.
Sherlock’s eyes scanned the text of the paper for a moment and then he sighed. “Not at all.”
John busied himself with picking out familiar words on the back of the paper. There weren’t many and what he could put together didn’t tell him much of anything. He poured some wine for himself and then, after a moment’s hesitation, a measure for Sherlock as well.
It was just this side of sweet, but more importantly it was cold and light, and almost impossible not to gulp down for sheer want of relief.
“What’s the case then?”
Sherlock made some disparaging noise in his throat, all too familiar, and John went back to his wine. It was cooler in the café, though just as humid and salt-infused. The wine made it a little easier to breathe.
The waiter returned with plates of olives and hard cheese and bread with some sort of oil. There was fish, too, flaky and spicy. For once, John ate as lightly as Sherlock, taking small bits of the bread and olives to put on his own small plate.
“Anything interesting?” he tried.
Sherlock shrugged. “You’re welcome to it.”
“No, thanks. Still don’t know Spanish.”
“Well,” Sherlock said, folding the paper and placing it back on the neighboring table, “you aren’t missing much.”
He poked at a piece of the fish and finally brought it to his mouth. There was a sense of fondness to the shape of his lips that John found both captivating and confusing. He often caught himself looking at Sherlock like that, as though he was afraid he might disappear again. It’d been almost eight months since his sudden return from the dead, and still John occasionally feared to blink or turn his head.
“We’re not far from the beach,” Sherlock said after another few bites of fish and a small square of cheese. “There’s a cove where the swimming is good, so I’m told.”
John blushed at the thought of Sherlock’s lean muscles in the water and the way his hair might cling to his head, dropping water down his shoulders. He hoped that the heat and the wine would provide Sherlock with an adequate explanation for the tint of his cheeks. They were foreign, these thoughts, and yet made common these past two years. Sherlock’s sudden reappearance, rather than make them fade, only seemed to strengthen them. He’d thought maybe it was a form of mourning, attraction manifesting as an unnamed stage of grief, and he still half-heartedly clung to that hope.
Still. Swimming seemed a complete aberration.
“Won’t we be too busy with the case?”
Sherlock frowned and pushed an olive around his plate with his fork like a petulant child. He took a sip of wine.
He was waiting for something, then, John figured. Waiting for information, a contact, a move to be made that apparently didn’t seem to be immediately forthcoming.
“I’m not much of a swimmer,” he said. “You can swim if you like, though.”
They finished their meal in relative silence and John attempted to amuse himself by trying to deduce the sort of case that might have dragged Sherlock from his sofa-and-dressing-gown state. Mycroft came to mind again, and there had been no requests on either of their blogs. Some hushed up international affair then, most like, or perhaps a remnant of Moriarty’s web still clinging to the rafters.
“I think I will,” Sherlock said. “It’s cooler down by the water, even if you don’t go in.”
There was no gleam of danger in Sherlock’s eye, no little light to goad John into some sort of hazardous situation, but Sherlock had been so difficult to read lately. Sherlock’s absence, he supposed, had left John out of practice. Or maybe it was because Sherlock’s face wasn’t a mask of disinterest, but was instead something entirely new and unfamiliar.
And maybe it would be nice to lie out in the sun with the wind against his face. It’d be better than feeling the tightness of his skin, uncertainty manifesting itself into something physical – waiting so long for Sherlock’s demands (which had been strangely absent beyond ‘Pack a case, John,’ and ‘Pay the driver’ and ‘Quickly’) left him jittery.
Sherlock gave something approximating a smile and nodded.
Back in their rooms, the air seemed to be even more unbearable and the slowly oscillating ceiling fan did little by way of comfort. John glanced, for the hundredth time, at the lone bed and then changed into something more fitting for the beach.
Sherlock had been dressed in his usual style during lunch, despite the weather, but now was decked out in a loose fitting white shirt and long cargo shorts. It was strange for John to see his calves bare like that, despite having seen them plenty of times beneath the hem of his dressing gown.
“Coming?” Sherlock asked.
“You should wear sunscreen.”
Sherlock shrugged and led the way out, while John grabbed towels from the pile in their bathroom. On their way, they stopped at the café and grabbed bottles of cold mineral water.
The cove was oddly quiet, empty but for them and a scattered group of gulls. It was pleasant to lay there and listen to them fight over territory and shellfish. The sound of waves breaking on the shore was lulling, and John soon found himself with his eyes closed against the bright sunlight.
Sherlock had taken to the water in a way that left John momentarily breathless. There was exhilaration in his movements, something free and peaceful that was so at odds with Sherlock’s usual behavior that John half suspected he’d been dropped in Spain with a poor imposter.
He watched until his chest tightened painfully, until his thoughts turned from surprise to a deep need to join Sherlock there in the welcoming cool seawater and kiss him. Because that? That was not how he was supposed to feel about this sort of thing. Amusement, sure, and confusion, and a good level of fondness. Even a little dose of attraction was fine, completely normal. But this magnitude of want? Well. That was simply not on.
So he’d closed his eyes to it all, removed temptation, and let his muscles relax against the comfortable towel and the warm sand beneath it. The smell of salt here was more refreshing. He focused on that.
He dozed lightly, indulging in half-dreams of pleasant memories of seaside visits when he was a child: of Harry running along the edge of the water chasing seagulls, of his mother reading a thick crime novel beneath a big umbrella, of building a castle out of sand for a crab that –
A cold, wet hand pressed against the side of his neck and he started. He blinked his eyes open and looked directly into Sherlock’s dark face, blocking out the light of the sun.
“Hello,” John said, then gulped against the nervous flutter in his chest. “Done already?”
“Hmm. It’s been over an hour. Your pulse is rather high.”
“Well, you did startle me.”
John sat up and brushed away the bits of sand that clung to his calves. In this light, he could see the slight pink flush across the bridge of Sherlock’s nose. It spread endearingly to his cheeks.
“Told you you’d burn,” he muttered.
He opened up a mineral water, now warm from being in the sun, and took a drink. It was hardly refreshing. Still, he took another sip, grateful enough for the wet of it. Sherlock stretched out next to him in surprisingly red swim trunks.
“It’s fine,” he said, and closed his eyes.
“Don’t you have, I don’t know, research to do? Experiments?”
Sherlock huffed and turned over onto his stomach. “Not as such. Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.”
John just shook his head, smiling. “You really shouldn’t be out here much longer.”
“There’s good fishing nearby. They’ll rent us equipment. We could go tomorrow, or come back here if you like.”
“Do you even know how to fish?”
“Of course. I had to learn for a case. I’m told it’s relaxing, but at the time a woman’s innocence depended on it.”
John lay back down. “On fishing?”
“Mmm. She had an old wrist injury that went arthritic. It would have prevented her from using the rod in a way that would’ve caused the shape of the injury to her ex-husband’s temple. Turns out it was his bookkeeper and old fishing buddy who murdered him for having an affair with his wife.”
“And you needed to learn to fish to figure that out?”
“Well, no. But I didn’t know that at the time.”
“Come on,” he said. “I’m starting to burn, too. We should head back. You can take a nap in the hotel.”
“I don’t take naps,” Sherlock muttered and then yawned.
“Yes, well, perhaps you should. Up you get.”
John stood and offered Sherlock his hand to pull him up. He came reluctantly, all long limbs and sand-speckled skin. His wet hair was beginning to dry in riotous curls that made John smile in a way that he felt was completely acceptable, honestly.
After having been in the sun, their room felt so much cooler. John pulled a glass of water from the tap in the bathroom, while Sherlock stepped into the shower to wash away the sand. John shifted the armchair directly below the fan and sat in it, tilting his head back.
“The water’s cold,” Sherlock said as he stepped out in a towel.
John swallowed. The towel, frankly, was long enough to cover more than his swim trunks had, past his knees. And yet, there was something so intimate, so vulnerable about seeing him like that.
“Good to know,” he said. “Maybe I’ll take a shower before dinner.”
Sherlock collapsed back on the bed, towel still wrapped precariously low on his hips. He was fast asleep within minutes.
John allowed himself some time to watch the steady rise and fall of Sherlock’s chest, and the unusual softness of his face. Never mind whatever strange things John felt for him, the anger at having been so hurtfully lied to had long since abated and he was now merely content that Sherlock was so very much alive.
It had, of course, taken time. There had been the flash of joy, and then a bit of hysteria, followed by a blinding anger that lasted for days. After all of that faded, the uncertainty had settled around him and only months later had begun to dissipate into something more comfortable.
Sherlock still hadn’t explained much. John only knew that he had hunted the world until the last of Moriarty’s crime syndicate had been eradicated, and that it had taken approximately one year to accomplish. He also knew, from brief glimpses, that Sherlock did not escape unscathed. There were physical wounds (on his chest, his legs, his hands, his neck) that healed over time, and mental scars that occasionally woke him up at night in a way that John knew all too well. Still, even those were beginning to weaken like John’s own nightmares had.
One day, perhaps, with enough distance, John would ask for a more detailed explanation. For now, he decided he would refrain from questioning miracles.
Dinner was a livelier affair, if only because the café was now full of people. The tables were all filled, so they made their way to the bar.
Sherlock ordered himself a gin and tonic and, after a quick glance, he ordered John a whisky, and then he turned to survey the crowd.
“What should we eat?” he asked.
John shrugged. “Something light again, I think. It’s so hot.”
“The people aren’t helping.”
The bartender set out a bowl of olives and a plate of some sort of fried, spicy vegetable. The first bite made John’s mouth burn uncomfortably, but it cooled him off in the end. It was pleasant and delicious. Sherlock absentmindedly ate a few olives, his eyes still scanning the crowd.
“Are we waiting for someone?” John asked.
Sherlock blinked. “What? No.”
He took a sip of his drink and turned his head slightly, until he was practically whispering in John’s ear.
“That woman over there, in the blue skirt, is having an affair. No, that’s not right. She’s having two affairs. With that couple over there, in the corner. They’re newly wed, and both think they’re the only one sleeping with her. You can see it in the way they’re talking to each other, but keep seeking her out.”
John watched the trio for a moment. “Maybe they both just fancy her. She’s not looking back at them.”
“Exactly. She’s avoided that corner of the room all night, but she’s looked everywhere else. It’s a rather purposeful aversion. Tell me, John. If two people kept staring at you, wouldn’t you look over at least once?”
“Well. Yes, I suppose so.”
The crowd grew louder as the night wore on and more plates of food were placed in front of them. They’d sipped their way through two more drinks before Sherlock began to look restless. Honestly, it was a bit of a miracle; John had suspected he’d last no more than ten minutes.
“Shall we?” Sherlock murmured after a moment, this time directly in John’s ear to be heard over the din. “I ordered us a bottle of wine.”
John felt a shiver go down his spine, and then scolded himself. Really, he was being ridiculous. So Sherlock was acting strangely – when wasn’t he? It was all most likely an experiment of some sort. Perhaps he was reenacting the day of a suspect or a victim in order to determine the motive to some as yet unmentioned crime. He collected himself and nodded once, following Sherlock upstairs after having collected a basket with the wine and two glasses.
Night made the air much more bearable and leaving the windows open had, in the end, been a good idea. The breeze was cool and the room was pleasantly aired out. John set the basket on the writing desk and poured two glasses. Sherlock sat in the armchair and steepled his hands beneath his chin.
After a moment of staring out of the window, he took a deep breath.
“I may not have been entirely honest with you.”
“Oh?” John took a sip of the wine. It was sweeter than the wine at lunch, and deliciously chilled. “Are you ever?”
“There is no case.”
“I came here over a year ago. After Moriarty. Certain information led me to believe that he had conducted some of his business here and I needed to find out who his associates were. I spent a week here learning all I could, and then moved on to Morocco for a time.”
John sat on the edge of the bed. “Did someone else – are there more people you need to...deal with?”
“No, no, of course not. They’ve all been taken care of.”
Sherlock lifted his wine glass and held it up to the light. He brought it down slowly until it was level with his lips and then took a practiced sip.
“While I was here,” he continued, “more than anywhere else, I thought of you. It was a week of tedium, completely boring and virtually useless. And yet, I couldn’t stop wondering how you would look here, whether you would like it. I moved on from Morocco, and then elsewhere, and yet my mind kept coming back here, and to you.”
John let out a breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
“So you dragged me away for...for a holiday?”
Sherlock shrugged. “It was an experiment. I thought you’d like it, but I couldn’t tell if it was just fancy on my part, being away from you for so long.” He paused. “And you’re always reading Hemingway.”
He couldn’t help it. He started laughing.
“You daft git,” John said between gasps for air. “You bloody idiot. You should’ve just asked me.”
Sherlock frowned. “I wanted it to be a surprise. The control variable, of course. If you knew that I wanted you to like it, you would’ve liked it regardless. I needed to see how you genuinely felt about it.”
Sherlock looked anxious, like a child giving a gift of dubious worth. John shook his head and grinned.
“It’s very nice, thank you, you prat. Do you really want to go fishing?”
“Not at all,” Sherlock mumbled, pulling a face.
The fan swung above them, and the chatter from the café rose up and in through their windows, creating a dull murmur that melded with the sound of the waves. It was very dark outside without a moon to light up the water. John was a bit disappointed that he might not get to see how it might look.
“How long are we here for?”
“Three more days.”
John closed his eyes and let his foolish thoughts run rampant. It was a sweet gesture, and a bit mad, and wrapped up neatly in the packages of experiment and hypothesis. It was a risk, of course, but it went off well enough.
He decided he could take a risk. Worst case, he would just shrug it off as an experiment, too, and Sherlock would laugh or find scathing fault with his scientific method and everything would be fine.
He rose, ostensibly to refill his glass, and then turned until he was leaning over Sherlock. His eyes were wide, as though John had done something unexpected, but the rest of his face was smooth, relaxed. No fear, at least.
It was simply a matter of dropping his head and tilting his chin, and then they were kissing. Well, no, he was kissing Sherlock who seemed to have frozen completely. Reluctantly, John pulled away.
Sherlock’s eyes were closed, his lips barely parted. And then his hand shot out and grabbed John by the shirt. He pulled him close.
“Finally,” he whispered, in the same annoyed tones he used with Lestrade and his team, or when Mycroft left in a frustrated huff.
And then Sherlock kissed him back.