Sherlock wakened to rain falling, without opening his eyes. The faint light in the room indicated it was morning, though of which day he was not certain. He recalled tumbling into bed in the early hours of some morning or other, after an exultant night spent closing the net round a domestic terror cell with designs on Whitehall. He'd solved the case in four days, instead of his predicted five. That was good.
The sound of running water came from down the hall, and then the tap shut off with its usual groaning clank. He heard the door to the bath open, followed by footsteps coming nearer. Slow, familiar footsteps, cautious, as if John were trying to be quiet. The hinges of Sherlock's door creaked next and John paused just outside, shifting his weight on the floorboards.
"Are you awake?" John asked.
Sherlock made a noncommittal noise, leaving it to John to determine what it meant.
John paused a moment longer, then pushed the door all the way open and entered the room. Sherlock kept his eyes shut, following John's movements by his tread. The sounds stopped at the edge of the bed, and Sherlock supposed he was being observed. There was a cut over his left eyebrow from a fistfight several days ago, which John had insisted on placing butterfly bandages over when Sherlock had refused stitches. The plasters were gone now, rubbed off against the pillow in his sleep, but the cut felt like it was healing cleanly. As expected.
Sherlock felt John lean in closer, and anticipated the clinical touch of John's fingers against the scab on his forehead. Instead, John pulled the blankets back and sat down on the bed. The mattress bounced slightly as he moved around, rearranging himself, and finally settled down lying away from Sherlock, judging by the absence of his breath on Sherlock’s face. He was near enough that Sherlock could feel the warmth of his body, his weight on the mattress pulling Sherlock nearer without quite touching.
It was quiet in the room, except for the rain. John let out a short sigh and stretched out his legs. Sherlock opened his eyes.
John's bare back and shoulders were before him, John's arm lying atop the blankets. In the grey, rainy morning light, John's skin was pale, the muscles in his arm well-defined. Sherlock studied the flesh of his back automatically, cataloguing information out of habit before he even thought about it. There was nothing he didn't already know. Freckles from exposure to strong sun, scar tissue on John's shoulder from his wound, a few curling hairs on his shoulders somewhere between blonde and silver, like the hairs on John's head. A largeish mole right between John's shoulder blades he should probably have looked at, for caution's sake.
Sherlock reached out to press two fingers to the spot. "You -- " he started to stay, and stopped.
John had taken in a quick breath when Sherlock touched him, and everything felt different. Tense, charged. Sherlock kept his hand where it was, the tips of his fingers taking in the warmth of John's skin, and thought for a moment. John was shirtless, in his bed. John had sought him out, after letting him sleep for at least a day, possibly two. John probably hadn't come here to be looked at, for melanomas or for anything else. Sherlock felt a little shiver of apprehension, working it out.
They'd scarcely had a moment alone since returning from Somerset at the beginning of the week. Lestrade had phoned him almost hourly until they'd got back to London, and then the chase had been on. Sherlock had vague memories of a meal in a Thai restaurant together, taken in haste and interrupted before the end by an urgent text which had summoned him out to a deserted warehouse and into a very sensitive meeting with MI-6. He supposed John had paid the bill for the meal.
Four days of brainwork, legwork, and some rather dangerous undercover work, most of which he'd done alone. That had been John's voice on the wire in his ear at the end, he was almost sure of it. John had got the cab on Thursday night, after the warehouse had gone up in flames, and John had half-supported him up the stairs into his room, Sherlock's legs weak with fading adrenaline and the sudden realization that he hadn't slept since Sunday. The last thing he recalled were John’s slow, warm fingertips, pressing the plaster to his forehead.
And now John was here, warm and tense and waiting under Sherlock's fingertips. Waiting for what, Sherlock couldn't quite think. They'd agreed on this -- this intimacy. Whatever it might be called. No parameters had been set, no expectations voiced. They'd hardly seen each other since, much less discussed the strange, hazy new thing between them. And none of their three previous encounters had begun this way, with John half-dressed, sliding into Sherlock's bed, asking --
Asking to be touched, Sherlock thought at last, feeling some of his anxiety subside. John had presented himself, really, coming near without forcing himself into Sherlock's space, simply waiting for Sherlock to decide what he wanted to do.
Sherlock wanted to touch John, so he did. He rested all five fingertips on John's back and slid them gently down, following the curve of John's spine. He registered the texture of John's skin, the change from muscle to bone and back again, the feel of John's ribcage expanding with his breath. He flattened his whole hand against the small of John's back, then lifted it again, running his fingers along John's ribs. He rested his knuckles on the back of John's shoulder, brushing his thumb against a raised knob of scar tissue. He wondered if his fingers felt good against John's skin and supposed they did, from the way John leaned into him.
He wanted to touch John, and John wanted to be touched. For the first time, Sherlock appreciated the symmetry of this mutual desire, an exchange of want and satisfaction. It explained a lot about human behavior, if one became dependent on it. If one needed it.
Sherlock went on stroking John's back and shoulders while the rain fell outside, drumming against the pavement and splattering the window glass every so often. John made a sound when Sherlock rubbed his thumb firmly across the back of John's neck, and there was a subtle shift in the atmosphere. Sherlock saw, suddenly, that there was satisfaction in giving pleasure as well as touching, a kind of feedback loop with infinite potential. It reminded him alarmingly of narcotics, the loss of euphoria creating a need for it, only without the diminishing returns.
"Don't stop," John said, his voice muffled against the pillow.
Sherlock realized his hand had gone still on John's neck as he pursued his thoughts. It was difficult to be present in both body and mind at the same time. He'd already discovered that John's proximity in a sexual situation could interfere with his ability to think, like jamming radio waves. Could prolonged physical contact stop his mind altogether? Would he enjoy that? How would he know?
John shifted under Sherlock's hand and Sherlock pressed his thumb down again, fingers gripping the ridge of muscle between John's neck and shoulder. John let out a voiced exhalation, more than a sigh and not quite a groan, as Sherlock's fingers moved. He rubbed John's shoulder, digging his fingers in slightly.
"Feels good," John murmured.
It felt good to make John feel good. There was a rising warmth in Sherlock's chest, as if he were the one having his shoulder massaged. He slid his fingers up into the short hair on the back of John's head and John hissed, arching his neck. Sherlock's pleasure increased, his own scalp tingling. He sketched circles and parabolas with his fingertips, lifted his smallest finger to trace around the rim of John's ear. John's breathing sped up and he made another noise, this time closer to a moan. Sherlock felt the urge to do the same. On impulse, he leaned forward and pressed a kiss to the back of John's neck, his palm cupping John's cheek, fingers resting on John's temple.
"Christ," John breathed, and rolled over.
Sherlock's eyes flashed over John's face, noting signs of arousal, but John was kissing him before he could even process them into words. Dilated pupils, he thought, and then John's lips were warm against his, cutting off the rest of his observations. John's hand came up to curve round the back of Sherlock's head, fingers resting on the same spot on Sherlock's neck that he had just kissed on John, and Sherlock experienced a brief, frightening blank, completely lost in sensation for a moment. He came back to himself to feel John's mouth opening under his, John's tongue sliding delicately forward to touch the underside of Sherlock's lower lip.
It was a signal, Sherlock thought, feeling slightly frantic as he tried to slow his thumping heart, decide where to put his hand, currently crushed against John's bare chest, and decipher what John's tongue against the underside of his lip meant. Open your mouth, he thought, and did so, and John slid his whole tongue into Sherlock's mouth. Sherlock jerked his head away, having finally decided to press his hand flat against John's shoulder.
"Sorry," John said, looking surprised and concerned. He frowned, stroking the back of Sherlock's head lightly. "Do you not want to...?"
Sherlock shook his head, out of breath, feeling foolish. "It was a -- " He tried to think of the right word. Reflex? Accident? He could feel his thoughts clouding over, arousal and frustration combining. He wanted to kiss John again. He felt like crawling out of his own skin.
"Hey," John said softly. He kept stroking Sherlock's head, sliding his fingers into Sherlock's hair. It was having rather the opposite effect than he'd probably intended; Sherlock felt that confusing tension building again, sensation threatening to overwhelm him the harder he tried to think.
John sighed, and leaned forward to press his forehead against Sherlock's, his eyes shut. Sherlock swallowed, keeping his eyes open. John's face blurred double as he came closer.
"If this is too much," John whispered. "We don't have to do it. We can go on as we were."
"No," Sherlock said, before he thought. John opened his eyes, and leaned far enough away to look at Sherlock.
"What do you want?" John asked. "Can you tell me?"
Sherlock shut his eyes. Control, he thought.
"I need to find things out on my own," he said, and opened his eyes again. "Will you let me -- touch you?"
"Of course," John said, but there was a brief hesitation in his voice, a nervous flicker in his eyes. Perversely, it sent a little thrill of blossoming confidence through Sherlock, stiffening his spine. He wasn't the only one traversing new ground here.
"I just want to -- " Sherlock started to say, and then cut off his own words by kissing John. John's hand tightened in Sherlock's hair, and he made a surprised little noise. He kissed back, though, pressing his lips firmly against Sherlock's.
Kissing was not obvious, Sherlock discovered after a few minutes. He would try something that felt right, pulling John's lower lip lightly between his teeth, and then they would both turn their heads the same way at the wrong time and mash their noses together. Once John coughed suddenly, and once Sherlock opened his mouth far too wide and caught both of John's lips inside, which was strange and not at all arousing. He ran his tongue behind John's upper lip, making John let out one of those emphatic exhalations, but when he flicked his tongue behind John's teeth John actually broke away and laughed.
"Sorry," John said, smiling. "Teeth just -- aren't an erogenous zone. On me, at least."
Sherlock huffed, feeling insulted, and knew his face showed it.
John stroked Sherlock's temple with his thumb, still smiling. "Can I try something?"
Sherlock felt a return of his earlier apprehension, but John's eyes were gentle, and so he pressed his lips together and nodded. He closed his eyes when John leaned back in.
"Just follow my lead," John whispered against Sherlock's mouth, and kissed him again.
It was difficult to say what was changed, but this felt better, right. There was a rhythm to the way John kissed him, sweet and warm, with little nips of his teeth, little swipes of his tongue. After a while Sherlock found he could manage to both think and kiss John back, and he slid his hand up to touch John's face, feeling the stubble on his cheek and the pulse in his jaw. Eventually he opened his mouth under John's and their tongues met, sliding together in a way he would have sworn could never feel good, but in fact felt completely fantastic. He breathed in John's breath, tasted John's mouth, and would have lost himself in the sensations entirely except every so often John pulled away to breathe Sherlock in his ear, so that he couldn't forget where he was.
The minutes crept by, at least twenty by Sherlock's count, though he kept losing track for brief periods of time when John would catch Sherlock's lip between his teeth or brush a spot beneath Sherlock's ear with his tongue and the world would go white with pleasure, so it must have been more. His heart was pounding in his chest, and he was breathing so deeply that sometimes he got a bit dizzy, but that was all right. It was amazing how all right it was, actually. His body was showing every physical sign of high alert, and he'd never felt so relaxed and at peace.
John pulled away finally, resting his head back on the pillow with a long sigh. Sherlock regarded him with half-closed eyes. John's mouth was red and swollen, and Sherlock's mouth felt like it must look the same way. He reached up to touch his lips, then John's, tracing their edges. John smiled under Sherlock's fingers.
"I don't think I've snogged anyone this long in years," John said, with a small, rueful-sounding laugh. "Makes me feel quite young. As if I'm back in school, hoping my parents don't come home and catch us out."
Sherlock froze, his fingers going still on John's mouth. Was this childish? It was the most intimate thing Sherlock had done with another person, and to John it seemed like a joke, something teenagers did. Sherlock pulled his hand back, frowning and flushing at the same time.
John seemed to realize he'd said something wrong. He lifted his head and raised himself up on his elbow to look down at Sherlock.
"Did I -- ?" John asked, his face creasing with concern. "I'm sorry, I -- "
The chime of Sherlock's mobile came from the lounge and he turned away from John, rolling over to slide out of bed. His chest felt painfully tight as he walked around the edge of the bed without looking at John.
"Sherlock," John said, sounding half-worried, half-exasperated, as Sherlock left the room.
Sherlock could hear John sitting up in bed as he went down the hall with quick strides. He found his phone on top of a litter of material data safety sheets on the long table in the kitchen, and unlocked it to read an email from Lestrade, with a forwarded news wire article attached. He scanned through the gruesome little story quickly, saving the photos to his case folder, and thought he could quite do with some breakfast. Unusual.
"Anything important?" John asked from behind him.
"Need to go to Croydon," Sherlock said, enlarging one photo to study a small anatomical detail.
"You do, or we do?"
"We do." Sherlock closed the file and set his phone down again. "A medical opinion will be useful on this case."
"You've only just finished a case. Wouldn't you like a bit of a break?"
"What day is it?" Sherlock asked, turning to face John. He was still shirtless, leaning against the doorway with his arms folded.
"Sunday," John said.
Two days asleep. No wonder he was hungry. Shame he'd have to wait a little longer.
"It's the start of a new week then," Sherlock said, matter-of-factly, and John smiled a little.
"Well then," John said. "Shower first?"
"No need," Sherlock said, vaguely. He was thinking about ears.
Thirty minutes later, John was showered and dressed and Sherlock had managed to change his clothes, still running over possible chains of events in his mind. It was a mistake to build too detailed a theory before viewing the evidence in person, but the article Lestrade had sent had had several very suggestive points. He was seized by the old familiar cold excitement, his thoughts shifting into a higher gear even as they became more refined. At times like this, he felt as though he were the only real person in a slow-motion world, walking at his leisure and stopping to observe the frozen objects around him.
"Wait," John said, as they prepared to leave the flat. He took hold of Sherlock's lapels, pulling them even, and took in a short, sudden breath. Then he looked up, pressed a quick kiss to Sherlock's cheek, and turned away to open the door before Sherlock could say anything or even catch sight of his face.
Sherlock felt that kiss lingering on his skin the whole ride to Croydon, taken by tedious necessity on the Overground. The kiss warred in his mind with ears, and with hunger, and made him feel he was three people instead of one. No one had ever, to his memory, given him a perfunctory, affectionate kiss before. It was a mother's peck, a lover's buss. He'd seen hundreds of people be kissed like that, deduced the depth of relationship by the exact length and warmth of those kisses, and now that John had given him one Sherlock's mind was too full of ears and breakfast and John's eyes are colored like the sea to remember how long it had lasted. The whole thing was extraordinary, and extremely unnerving.
He snuck a sidelong glance at John, who was quietly paging through a free newspaper on the seat next to him. John seemed unsettled as well, as if perhaps he hadn’t quite meant to do it. Ordinarily John was thoughtful, cautious, steady. Was he regretting acting on the impulse of a moment?
Sherlock slumped back in his seat, digging his chin into his hand and his elbow into the window sill. Ears. More important than breakfast, less important than the precise length of John's goodbye kiss. It had been a goodbye kiss, that much was certain -- swift, a bit smoochy, as if sealing something off. The way people always kissed their loved ones goodbye, in his observations. But John hadn't been bidding him farewell; they were leaving the house together. Was it merely an expression of fondness? Sherlock had no experience with that type of kiss either, but he'd observed it as well. Parents when their offspring suddenly charmed them. Lovers still in the throes of early passion, or old enough to have moved onto a more platonic relationship. Sherlock could think of a hundred variations on the kiss he'd just received, and none of them fit John, or him.
His mobile went off, giving him another email, and Sherlock turned his mind instead to thinking of a hundred reasons for the residents of Croydon to be receiving boxes of ears in the post.
The residents themselves were full of suggestions. After half a dozen interviews, during which Lestrade patiently took down notes on serial killers, UFOs, and someone's uncle who owned a butcher’s shop (what sort of butcher’s shop? John had asked, dryly and incredulously), Sherlock leapt from his seat, batted aside several local constables and curious neighbors, and went into the alley for a think.
Ten people, each receiving a cardboard box in the morning post. No discernible prints on the brown wrapping paper. Knots in the twine were suggestive of nautical training, but anyone could get a book of knots nowadays. Inside, nestled on dry ice, a pair of mismatched ears. Mismatched, that was the curious bit. None of the pairs matched each other, nor did they match any of the other ears received so far. Twenty separate ears, from twenty separate subjects. Was this really the work of a serial killer? The ears had certainly been detached after death, based on the blood flow. There were no traces of the usual preservatives of a dissection room or morgue. The only hint was in the ears themselves. All adult ears, with no sign of piercings in the lobes or cartilaginous folds. He’d touched John’s this morning. Those lovely, individualized, unique whorls of --
Sherlock left off his pacing and sprinted back into the station house, startling several pigeons and brushing past John in the doorway who, he now realized, had been standing there for quite some time. Had he been speaking aloud to John as he thought? Impossible to know, and totally irrelevant. All that mattered was the case, the problem, sparkling in his mind's eye like a marvelous many-faceted jewel, needing one good stroke at the right angle to cleave it wide open.
The last subject, a middle-aged former secretary with two cats and a milk allergy, was still sipping her paper cup of tea and chattering on, her talk grating and unenlightening. No matter, it wasn't anything she could say that would be of any use. Sherlock knelt beside her chair.
"Those medical students were really impossible," the woman sniffed. "I had to turn them out after that time with the goat in the garden. Wouldn't put it past them to send everyone boxes of ears and toes and who knows what else from those corpses they cut up."
"No sign of dissection preservative, Ms. Cushing," Lestrade said wearily, and Sherlock was impressed that Lestrade should have noticed.
"That wouldn't stop them," she said. "They were always -- I beg your pardon."
Sherlock ignored her, probing the curvature of her ear with his forefinger. Identical on every point. The chances of such strong correlation occurring at random were slim to none.
There was a hand on his shoulder. Sherlock shrugged, irritably.
"Sherlock," John said gently. "Perhaps you could conduct your observation without putting your finger directly in Ms. Cushing's ear?"
Sherlock scowled, but removed his finger. Yes, the shortening of the pinna was exact. He would need the calipers for the upper lobe.
"And perhaps you wouldn't mind telling us what it is you're looking for?" Lestrade asked.
"Yes, indeed," said Ms. Cushing, turning to look at him with a prim frown.
"You have younger twin sisters," Sherlock said, rising. "Don't be surprised, I saw the photograph in your handbag. Where are they now?"
"Well now," Ms. Cushing said, flustered. "Mary's at sea; she's in the Merchant Navy. Sarah..."
Her face darkened, and Sherlock watched her go through the classic symptoms of avoidance; she looked away, plucked at the hem of her shirt, and cleared her throat. When she looked back again, he prepared himself for the oncoming lie.
"I haven't seen Sarah in some time," she said, her voice betraying every textbook indication of falsehood.
"Wrong," Sherlock said. "Try it again, with the truth, please. Why was Sarah sent to prison?"
The woman gaped openly for a moment, her eyes comically wide.
"Oh for heaven's -- " Sherlock sighed, and began to pace. "You're clearly ashamed of her. You aren't wearing any religious jewelry, so I doubt your objection to your sister is on purely moral grounds. She has, then, most likely broken the law. You still carry her picture in your handbag, so it can't have been for something you find truly unforgivable, merely distasteful. And since you still have a bus pass with the name 'Sarah Cushing' tucked into the side pocket of your handbag, I deduce that she was, until fairly recently, residing with you, but is now in prison."
Ms. Cushing gaped wider, then shook her head and shut her mouth with a snap. "You're either an angel or a devil."
"I assure you, I am neither," Sherlock said.
"I wouldn't bet against the second one," Lestrade muttered darkly.
"What was your sister's crime?" Sherlock demanded, ignoring Lestrade. "Drugs? Prostitution?"
"No!" Ms. Cushing quavered. "She's a good girl -- she is -- but she does love pretty things. And we never had any money growing up, we were that poor."
"Bad cheques?" Lestrade asked. "They don't send you down for a few bad cheques."
"It was more than a few," Ms. Cushing said. "But then she got worse."
"Identity fraud," Sherlock said. "I doubt she had the knowledge or skills to do it electronically. Nicked someone's card, did she?"
Ms. Cushing hung her head. "It was a terrible temptation, her working at that posh shop. Seeing all those nice clothes made her want them, you know, and I don't deny she was likely slipping a hand in the till when she got the chance. But then one day someone left a handbag behind, and the name was so similar, she just couldn't resist. Like it was heaven-sent, Sarah said."
Tears were beginning to roll down the woman's face, leaving trails in her thick powder. Sherlock could tell it was distressing John, who was shifting behind him uncomfortably. He probably longed to give her his handkerchief, if he'd carried such a thing.
That chivalrous impulse might actually be useful to the interrogation. Sherlock turned away, took a step closer to John, and bent his head down.
"Give her a tissue," he said quietly.
"What?" John asked, looking startled.
"To wipe her face," Sherlock said.
"I know what for. I just want to know why."
Because I said so, was on the tip of Sherlock's tongue, but it wasn't a reason likely to motivate John. "Because -- it would be kind," he said carefully, after a moment.
John looked more startled than ever, then suspicious, and finally grudgingly accepting. He walked over to take a box of tissues from an officer's desk, half-frowning and one eye on Sherlock the whole time. Sherlock gestured impatiently at the woman with a jerk of his head.
"Here," John said, his voice softer than before, and crossed the room to hand Ms. Cushing the box.
"Thank you, dearie," she said, sniffling, and pulled out a tissue. She smiled at him, a tight grimace with her thin painted lips pressed together, and wiped her cheeks.
That moment of unguardedness told Sherlock what he needed to know. There was no relieved slumping of the shoulders now that his interrogative focus was gone, no attempt to solicit John's sympathy or derail the conversation. She had told them all she knew.
Or all she thought she knew. Witnesses, he'd learned, never did recall the most relevant details at first. He was tall, rather than he had the crooked walk of a railway conductor. Sometimes they took a bit of pressing. Tactfully done, of course.
"You're holding something back," Sherlock said, in an accusatory tone.
John and the woman both turned to look at him, Ms. Cushing with a shocked and fearful expression, John with that raised, sardonic eyebrow which meant he thought Sherlock had gone too far. It was just possible he was correct, and Sherlock lowered the volume of his voice a bit.
"Tell us the details of her arrest," he said.
The sardonic eyebrow arched even further. Sherlock tried again.
"The woman's name," he said. "The one whose identity was stolen."
"Sandra," said Ms. Cushing, sounding slightly bewildered. Like a lost sheep. "Sandra Cushman. I told you, Sarah said it was like a miracle."
"Hardly that," Sherlock said.
"Look, what's this got to do with anything?" Lestrade asked. Sherlock whirled to face him.
"Twenty ears, ten recipients. No clue as to motive, intent, or any connection between them whatsoever -- except this woman's ear is nearly identical to specimen #19 in almost every particular."
He pointed at Ms. Cushing, who let out a small gasp.
"My ear?" she asked, putting her hands up over her ears nervously.
"Since she is still in possession of both ears," Sherlock continued, "the most likely answer is that #19 belongs to a close relative. Namely, her felonious sister."
"Sarah?" Ms. Cushing's face crumpled like a grocery sack, and she seemed on the verge of tears again. "But why would anyone -- it was just a bit of money! And besides, I haven't had a letter or a call or anything from the prison."
Sherlock paused for a moment, thinking. It was true that a prisoner could hardly be murdered and have her corpse mutilated without at least someone noticing, however thick the prison officers were. John put a hand on Ms. Cushing's shoulder, and looked over at Sherlock.
"DNA?" John asked in a low voice.
"Yes, of course," Sherlock said, tossing his head and feeling irritated. It was an obvious next step, but necessary. He was more annoyed with himself for overlooking Sarah's imprisonment and subsequent surveillance as an obstacle to her being quietly murdered. He was off his game.
"Hang on a tick," Lestrade said, and Sherlock turned to see him typing on the Chief's computer. "I've just pulled up the file."
"For this case?" John asked.
"No, the identity fraud one. Since you think there's something in it," Lestrade added, with a wry look at Sherlock. "I'll print a copy. And I'll see if I can't track down the detective who handled the case."
Lestrade left and after a moment the printer across the room whirred into action, spitting out pages. Sherlock picked up a few and began to speed-read, looking for the relevant information. There had to be something in here. Had Sandra Cushman been involved in something dangerous, leading her enemies to Sarah Cushing when she foolishly stole and used the wrong identity? Or was it simpler than that?
"Sherlock," John said, from across the room.
Sherlock kept reading. The list of shops Dr. Cushman's stolen card had been used at might turn up something. He felt himself forming theories like icicles hanging off a roof, and shook his head. The trick was to keep an absolutely open mind, solutions guided by data rather than the other way round. Once the most important fact turned up, everything would flow from there.
"Sherlock," John said again.
These interruptions were really intolerable! And from John, of all people, who knew his methods. Sherlock turned his head, ready to snap out a biting insult, and saw what John was holding, delicately, between fingers and thumb sheathed in a latex glove.
"These ears are different," John said.
"I know that," Sherlock said.
"No," John said. "This one -- " he shook the ear he was holding slightly "-- is just an ear. But this one -- " he replaced the ear he was holding and picked up the second ear from the cardboard box " -- this one is something really different."
"How do you know?"
"Because it's got a lab trademark on it," John said quietly.
There was always a moment in every case when time stopped and Sherlock felt himself at the center of an exploding galaxy, examining each part of the whole at his leisure to see how it had all once fitted together. Every particle had an origin and a destination, and when he reached this moment, he understood everything simultaneously, cause and effect merging into a single plane of comprehension. It was euphoria, it was omniscience, it was nirvana, it was grace.
And John had handed it to him.
John was still holding the ear between his fingertips in a manner that was -- not squeamish, no, he was a doctor and a soldier -- but it was gentle, respectful. John cared about the pieces of the game as much as Sherlock cared for the game itself. John would blunder his way into half-truths and whole truths and do what he was told even if he didn't understand or didn't agree and still keep his dignity when drying the tears of an absurd middle-aged former secretary with two cats. Would want to dry her tears. And he knew about things like trademarks on laboratory-grown ears. Oh, he was brilliant.
Sherlock realized he was beginning to speak, even as his thoughts ran in another direction. It was the solution to the case, spilling out of him, almost superfluous now as he came to other conclusions but unstoppable as a torrent in spring. He was simply overflowing with understanding.
"It's a joke within a joke, you see," Sherlock said, advancing towards John. "The first prank was funny. Little boxes full of horrors for people she didn't like. Horrors she had on hand, too many of, even. All the failures. Why shouldn't she send them to her tight-fisted landlord? Serve him right."
"Who?" John asked, clearly doing his level best to keep puzzlement off his face and failing.
"Dr. Cushman," Sherlock said.
"And her -- tight-fisted landlord?"
"Albert White, whose name appears in Dr. Cushman's testimony. Also known as Recipient #3. The man with the butcher uncle. Obviously the parsimonious type, who darns their socks nowadays? He isn't poor -- I saw the roll of banknotes in his wallet -- he's just cheap."
"All right," John said. "But Dr. Cushman?"
"Ears," Sherlock said, shaking the case report he still clutched in his hand. Why was it taking so long to explain? Speech was really so inefficient, he felt like shouting sometimes. "Dr. Cushman is a cancer researcher. She uses lab-grown tissue, ears to be precise, in her experiments. She's smart, she doesn't suffer fools gladly, and she has a really gothic sense of humor when it comes to her pranks. I might quite like her if she hadn't included murder amongst them. When we re-interview the recipients, I'll certain we'll discover every one of them had some kind of unpleasant run-in with Dr. Cushman in the past year. Possibly they weren't even aware they'd annoyed her, but she's the type to hold grudges."
"Such as against the woman who ran up her credit bill," John said, catching on.
"Precisely," Sherlock said. "Or against her twin sister. Ms. Cushing, I admit it took me such an embarrassingly long time to come to the correct conclusion, but I'm afraid your sister Mary is not, in fact, at sea. Or if she is, she's likely at the bottom of it."
"Sherlock," John said, coloring the word with such repressive censure it practically turned blue.
"Mary?" Ms. Cushing said, with a little shriek.
"Yes, if you phone her commanding officer, you'll likely find that she'd got shore leave this week, and intended to pay you a surprise visit. Unfortunately, she encountered Sarah's nemesis first, at which point the ordinarily rational Dr. Cushman seems to have lost her head and crossed from the line from gruesome pranks to murder. Presumably she assumed Sarah had somehow escaped. A second case of stolen identity, if you will, which ended rather unfortunately for Mary."
"Sherlock," John sighed, and this time his name was just grey and worn-out with exasperation.
Lestrade had returned by this time, and stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips surveying the scene. Ms. Cushing had begun to weep again, and John appeared to realize he was still holding an ear, since he flushed and dropped it back in the box.
"What's all this then?" Lestrade asked.
Five minutes later, the story had been re-told and two constables dispatched to Dr. Cushman's laboratory to fetch her in. John didn't want to wait for her.
"I hate this bit," he said to Sherlock, bluntly. "Either they're monsters, or else they're ordinary people who've been caught up in something horrible that's got beyond them. Either way, I don't relish watching them wriggle in the net."
"Which do you think Dr. Cushman is?" Sherlock asked, as they finished their paper cups of tea in the station corridor.
"Oh, whatever you said she is, a monster I suppose," John replied. "A gothic sense of humor, yeah? I fancy I've seen enough of that for one life."
John chucked his cup in the bin and stretched his shoulder, twisting his arm behind his back with a sigh. Sherlock studied him, lifting his own cup for one last long swallow.
"Well," Sherlock said, chucking his cup as well. "If you go round with me long enough, I think you're bound to see a good bit more."
John looked up at Sherlock steadily, his body perfectly still now. "Your gothic humor or someone else's?"
Sherlock rolled his eyes.
"'Go round with,' eh?" John said. "Diplomatically phrased."
"Thank you, I thought so," Sherlock said. He took a step towards John, using his height. It didn't seem to affect John, other than making him tip his chin up a little.
"I'm afraid my thought processes might have been somewhat -- impaired today," Sherlock said, lowering his voice. "That lab trademark should've been an easy catch for me."
"Oh, lovely," John said, narrowing his eyes. "I only got one up on you because you were at a handicap?"
"No," Sherlock said, distressed. It was imperative John understand. "I mean, yes, but I meant..." He trailed off, trying to think of a way to express this nameless feeling, this pressure in his chest that made his throat tight and the world look dim, except for John's steady blue eyes before him.
"Thank you?" John asked gently, sounding less put-out now.
Inspiration struck, because John always knew the right thing to do. Sherlock thought back a moment and realized exactly how to say what he couldn't quite say.
"Thank you," he muttered, and leaned down to press a quick kiss to John's cheek.
The response, like so many things John did, was not precisely what Sherlock had expected. He went rigid, then took a step back, whipping his head quickly from left to right. Scanning, Sherlock realized, like he was on patrol, and couldn't imagine what the danger might be. They were surrounded by police officers, who might be incompetent but could surely protect them from one angry scientist. Sherlock looked over his own shoulder, just in case, but saw nothing except local Croydon constables and Ms. Cushing being led out the back door by Lestrade.
He turned back to look at John, now fiddling awkwardly with his phone.
"What -- ?" Sherlock asked.
"Text from Harry," John said quickly, without looking up. He was lying, and his cheeks were faintly pink.
Sherlock started to say something else, then shut his mouth, feeling uncomfortably confused. It was not his natural state.
"Ready to go?" John asked, his voice higher-pitched than normal. Without waiting for an answer, he stepped past Sherlock and began to walk briskly down the corridor, sliding his phone into his pocket.
Sherlock hung back a moment, still trying to work out what had just happened, and then followed John. Soon they were out in the street, where the earlier rains had stopped but left oily puddles everywhere, now being avoided by women out doing the afternoon shopping and splashed in by children. With the clouds gone, a thick summer heat was building up, enough to make Sherlock sweat under his heavy coat.
"Hot, isn't it?" John said, and Sherlock let this piece of obviousness go unanswered.
They made a little desultory conversation on the walk to the station, John's voice still high and tight-sounding. By the time they boarded the train, they had both lapsed into silence again. Ordinarily this was a comfortable state of affairs, allowing Sherlock time to organize the details of his latest case or ponder a few theories, but today the silence was charged and awkward. The Overground wasn't particularly crowded, and it somehow made John's quietness seem all the more pointed.
He'd done something wrong, of course. This wasn't like last weekend in Somerset, though, when he could feel the annoyance radiating off John, or the milder daily irritations Sherlock caused him. John seemed profoundly uncomfortable, both with Sherlock and himself, and it was making him brusque and snappish and angry about that, too.
It was the kiss, Sherlock supposed. He'd done it at the wrong time, or in the wrong place, or in front of the wrong people. Was it strangers John objected to? No, of course, Lestrade had been there as well, though perhaps far enough down the corridor and involved enough with Ms. Cushing not to see anything. John cared about what other people saw or thought, as if it could possibly make a difference.
He'd kissed John trying to close the gap between language and ideas, trying to use this new shorthand to say things he'd never even thought before. That was difficult enough, but now he was expected to remember what John might or might not object to, and whether people saw, and other tiresome things? This business of intimacy grew more absurdly complicated by the moment.
Sherlock felt a sudden sharp pain, and looked down to see that he'd torn a hangnail off his index finger while lost in his reasoning, leaving a pink strip of raw skin that oozed tiny beads of blood. He winced as the air hit the exposed area, and John looked away from the window.
"Mm," John said, clicking his tongue and looking at Sherlock's hand instead of his eyes. "Hang on."
John lifted his hips so that he could reach into his pocket, and took out his wallet. After a moment of searching, he pulled out a sticking plaster. Of course he had a plaster in his wallet.
"Here," John said, and reached for Sherlock's hand.
His fingers were warm and deft, and Sherlock studied the top of John's head as he dabbed away the bit of blood with a napkin, then wrapped the plaster around Sherlock's finger. John's hair was greyer than when they'd first met. The result of genes, or the life of a consulting detective's blogger?
"All sorted," John said, balling up the bits of rubbish paper in his right hand. He was still holding Sherlock's finger with the fingertips of his left. "Shall I -- "
John paused, and looked up to meet Sherlock's eyes at last. Sherlock could tell, from John's teasing tone and the hesitant, serious look in John's eyes, that there was some joke he was meant to be completing in his head, but he couldn't think what.
"Yes?" Sherlock asked at last, when the moment had stretched out too long. His tone was sharper than he'd meant, but the last hour had worn on his nerves too much for artificial kindness.
John looked down, and pulled Sherlock's hand up closer to himself. Sherlock's breath caught as John bent his head and kissed Sherlock's finger, mostly on the plaster but a little on his skin as well. It was warm and unexpectedly pleasant.
Then John laced his fingers with Sherlock's, and dropped their hands to rest on his own knee, and looked out the window again.
Kiss it better, Sherlock thought, and for the second time that day John had shown him a kind of affection Sherlock had never received and never much cared about. Was this intimacy, making one long for things one had never missed before? The whole thing seemed suddenly, heart-stoppingly dangerous, destined to end terribly. Sherlock looked down at his hand, held in John's, and imagined it would feel cold when they had, inevitably, to let go. Such a small thing, but when magnified, how would the loss feel?
Something very like panic blossomed in Sherlock's chest, even as he held himself rigidly still all the way back into the city. John didn't look back again, and Sherlock could count the hairs on the back of John's hand, trace the beads of sweat inching down John's neck in the stuffy train carriage, all without John noticing his observation. He could feel John's pulse, slightly elevated in his wrist. The new step was making John nervous -- and next to him Sherlock could feel himself coming undone.
John let go first when they arrived at the station. Sherlock had known he would. The symmetrical feedback loop, want fulfilled by matching desire, couldn’t really be perpetual. John would always be the first to leave. He knew how to change things without losing himself in the process, and Sherlock --
"Sherlock?" John asked.
He realized they were standing still on the platform in the midst of a rushing crowd, John looking up with a frown that was slightly more worried than annoyed.
"All right then?"
Sherlock, not for the first time since he'd known John, found that he couldn't say a thing around the tightness in his throat.
Whitechapel, said the disembodied female voice over the PA. Change for the Hammersmith and City and District lines.
John glanced away for a moment at the display board, then back to Sherlock. He was sweating more now inside the crowded station, the neckline of his shirt turning dark, and Sherlock wanted to run his thumb over John's glistening upper lip. That didn't seem like a helpful impulse.
They stood there sweating, staring at one another, neither making a move. At last:
"I've an idea," John said, and took Sherlock's hand again.
He pulled them onto a District train for Upminster, rather than onto the Hammersmith-bound train they needed (John was putting them through a course of frugality, after having got most of the cab fares the previous week himself, and Sherlock was resigned to the indignities of the Tube for at least a fortnight). The surprise was almost enough to unglue Sherlock's tongue. Not quite enough, though, and once they were in seats facing each other he curled into himself, bringing up his feet and wrapping his arms around his legs, resting his chin on his knees. John smiled, tight and nervous, and patted just the toe of Sherlock's shoe.
"Get comfortable," he said. "It's a long while to Elm Park."
The words Elm Park worked their way into Sherlock's brain like a thin tunnel drilled into a block of ice, and he spent the next forty minutes contemplating it. He didn't know anything about Elm Park, other than its square area and rough population estimate and the names of a few roads. There was nothing there of note, and no one of consequence either. John didn't know anyone who lived outside London proper, except his sister, who kept a spartan bedsit in Hounslow when she wasn't working as an air hostess.
When they finally arrived at the Elm Park platform, John took a deep breath of warm air and gazed around him, pleasure washing over his face and smoothing out its lines. Sherlock couldn't see what for. It was an ordinary suburb, full of ordinary people. Trees, houses, adultery, child abuse, rubbish on the pavement, no shops open later than seven. Hardly paradise.
It was warmer than ever here, and Sherlock put one finger in the fold of his scarf, pulling it away from his sticky neck. John looked back at him and smiled, the first real smile he'd given Sherlock since they'd been in bed that morning.
"Let's get a little more comfortable, shall we?" he said, tangling his fingers in Sherlock's scarf and pulling. The damp wool came away from Sherlock's skin and left coolness behind, followed by John brushing his knuckles down the side of Sherlock's neck as he took the scarf off. He paused longer than necessary with his thumb in the hollow of Sherlock's throat, then put the scarf in the pocket of his own coat.
"Come on," John said, and Sherlock followed.
They went down the small high street, bustling now with after-work shoppers, and lined with the sort of small, specialized shops one rarely saw when there was a Tesco handy. Cuts of meat hanging in a butcher shop, square and unsliced loaves of bread in a baker's window. It was absurd, inefficient, but... charming, in its way. John stopped in front of the second bakery they saw with a fond look on his face, then went in and bought two jam doughnuts. He offered one to Sherlock, who shook his head, wrinkling up his face.
"As you like," John said. "More for the swans, then."
"The swans?" Sherlock demanded, goaded into speaking at last, and John just shook his head, maddeningly.
Their walk took them through a block of houses, down a narrow path, and into a park with a small, tree-ringed lake. Sherlock could tell John was growing happier and more relaxed by the moment, his shoulders loosening and his arms swinging freely. John pulled his coat off as they crossed the turf to the lake, tucking it under one arm and reaching into the bakery bag for Sherlock's scorned doughnut. As promised, there were swans; only two of them, and looking rather yellowish and bedraggled. That didn't stop John from breaking out in a grin of positively childish glee.
"Lovely," he said, breaking off bits of doughnut to toss to them. They seemed to be familiar with this routine, and gobbled the food up with a greedy alacrity Sherlock had to admire. A few ducks glided up looking for a meal and the swans defended their supper with aplomb, taking it in turns to beat the water with their wings or honk threateningly.
"That's the last of it, mates," John told the swans, and threw one final hunk in the water for them to quarrel over. "This one's for me." He turned and walked a little way from the water, to a bench tucked under the trees. Sherlock, with nothing else to do, followed behind.
They sat on the bench, and John ate his jam doughnut. Confectioner's sugar got all over his chin.
"My nan used to live here," John said finally, swallowing. "Tough old girl, never left London during the Blitz but she liked her quiet, later in life. Harry and I used to visit her in the summer holidays."
"And she bought you jam doughnuts and took you to feed the swans," Sherlock said. "What did you give them?"
"Harry's doughnut, if I could nick it off her in time," John said. "But Nana always kept bits of stale bread in her handbag."
"Ah," Sherlock said.
"Hadn't thought about this place in years, 'til I spotted the Upminster train at Whitechapel just now. It gave me such a sense of peace as a child, you know. Taking the District line to see Nana. It suddenly seemed like the most comforting place in the world, and I wondered if it still looked the same."
John shrugged. "This bit does. The bakery's the same. Maybe should take a walk by her house, see if it's still standing."
Sherlock didn't answer. Nostalgia was an unfamiliar emotion to him, one that seemed muddled with both happiness and pain for most people. A purposeless thing.
"Do you have a place like this?" John asked, looking at Sherlock searchingly. "Somewhere that makes you feel quite young, where you remember being happy?"
Sherlock looked at the birds on the lake, and then up at the green leaves swaying gently over their heads in the breeze.
"There aren't parts of my past I long for, if that's what you mean," he said at last. "I wouldn't choose to go back and relive any of it. Though it wasn't specially unhappy or anything."
"But not specially happy either."
"I like living in the present moment," Sherlock said. "Or perhaps just a little ahead of it."
John huffed out a small, wry laugh.
"I'm happy when I have something to occupy my mind," Sherlock said, looking directly at John now. "As a child I often got so bored it was nearly unbearable. That's the unhappiness I remember best. And ever since I became independent, I've made sure I kept myself -- occupied."
There was a silence, during which John wiped his sticky fingers on the bakery bag, and Sherlock thought about the ways he'd kept himself occupied over the years. Science, martial arts, cocaine, deduction. Was intimacy to take the next place?
"I'm sorry about earlier, in the corridor back at the station," John said at last, looking down. "I can't imagine what you thought." He caught Sherlock's eye, and got a rueful look on his face. "Don't say it -- I know, I can never imagine what you think."
"I wasn't going to," said Sherlock, who was.
John blew out a long breath, twisting the bag between his fingers. "I felt like kicking myself, after. I know -- I think -- that was something new for you?"
Sherlock nodded, eyes dropping to his lap.
"And I acted like... that. Christ, Watson, you're a smooth one."
Sherlock looked over at John, whose jaw was set as he stared out over the lake. Words tumbled through his head, but it seemed that when it came to puzzling out the boundaries of intimacy, John was better-suited.
"John," he said, then stopped, because he had nothing ready after that.
"Did they ever call you a poofter in school?" John asked, without looking at Sherlock.
"Did you mind?"
"Not really. It was only a word."
"I minded. Not for any particular reason, just because it seemed like the worst thing one could be. The way they said it."
"I know you've got an acculturated response -- "
John winced. "You make me sound like a laboratory subject."
"The world is a laboratory of sorts."
"Yeah, all right," John said. "I might have a sister whose string of ex-girlfriends is longer and better-looking than mine, but that doesn't change the fact that it's different for blokes."
"It shouldn't be," Sherlock said. "It's irrational to differentiate -- "
"It shouldn't be, but it is," John said.
The firmness in his tone surprised Sherlock, and they both lapsed into silence again for a while. The breeze briefly picked up, showering them with a few fallen leaves. Sherlock watched a young family on the other side of the lake bringing bread for the swans, who seemed just as eager and hungry as ten minutes before. The husband drove an American sports car and was worried about his current unemployment. The wife was seeing another woman and had been treated for scoliosis as a child. The children were just children.
"So you've changed your mind," Sherlock said, watching the little boy empty an entire sack full of bread lasts into the water. He said it carelessly, as if they were discussing the shopping, or anything else inconsequential. He was proud of being able to do that.
"God, no, Sherlock, that's not -- look at me."
Sherlock turned, and there was John's familiar, frowning smile, only John's eyes were serious and tender. He reached out and put his hand on Sherlock's forearm, grasping the thick wool.
John took a breath before he spoke. "I'm sorry for -- hurting you. Confusing you. I just don't know that I'm quite ready yet to be snogging in front of people we know. It's not...who I've been, before now. I'm not ashamed of you," he added quickly. "Or of -- whatever this is. Hell if I know how to describe it."
"Intimacy," Sherlock offered.
"Yeah," John said. "And I haven't been close to -- oh, anyone at all in quite some time. Didn't think I would again, honestly. It takes some getting used to."
"I suppose I'm a difficult person to get used to," Sherlock said.
"No," John said. "Well, yes. But I mean -- everything's new with you. Even just an ordinary conversation."
"Do you think it's more trouble than it's worth?" Sherlock asked, feeling his chest go tight as he asked.
John squeezed his arm. "I think we're both working through something new, and that we've got to be honest about where our boundaries are. Even if they're shifting."
Sherlock nodded slowly, feeling something like relief flowing through him. He was intensely conscious of John's hand on his arm. "No kissing in front of people we know."
"Yet," John said, with emphasis.
"And this?" Sherlock lifted his arm slightly.
John looked down, his face going a bit pink. "Well. You've manhandled me often enough at crime scenes before now. But I don't really think you want to hold hands while we're examining bodies, do you?"
"Not generally," Sherlock said, with an acerbic smile.
"All right then," John said, squeezing Sherlock's arm. "Your turn. What did I do that set you off this morning?"
This morning seemed ages ago, dim and irrelevant now. Was this what people did, hash out every slight and quarrel until everything was neat and unsnarled and just waiting for the next snag? It sounded intolerable.
"Good lord," Sherlock said. "Is this how it's going to be? If we have to spend our days apologizing to each other now, perhaps I'm the one changing my mind. You're forgiven already." He waved his free hand limply, rolling his eyes.
John looked shocked for a moment, and then broke into a laugh. It took over his whole body, and Sherlock could see the relief flow through him.
"I wasn't actually apologizing," he said, with a shake of his head. He tucked both his hands behind his neck and stretched out his legs, sliding down a bit on the bench. He looked up at Sherlock, laugh lines still crinkling around his eyes. "I was trying to avoid you walking out on a promising session of snogging in the future, you mad git."
"Oh," Sherlock said. That was surprisingly efficiency-minded of John. "Well. You said you hadn't kissed anyone for so long since you were at school. I assumed you meant it was a childish thing to do."
John raised an eyebrow. "Quite the opposite. Those teenage years... I'm sure I was rubbish at everything back then, but it all felt fantastic. I had this girlfriend when I was fifteen, we spent hours in her parents' lounge one summer just snogging. When she finally let me put my hand on her chest, over her clothes, mind, I thought I'd found paradise."
Sherlock thought of a young John, with too-long floppy hair and his mouth flushed with kisses, sliding his hand over the no-doubt padded bra of a teenage girl on the hideous carpet of a suburban semi-detached in the '80s, and felt an unaccustomed twinge of something. Lust, envy, amusement? The twinge turned into a smile and he realized it was fondness.
"Kissing me made you feel like that?" Sherlock asked, clearing his throat to mask the confusing tumult of emotions.
"Like everything's new again, yeah," John said. "Scary like back then too, like I might make a wrong move and cock everything up. As it turned out, Tina did not want a Stone Roses album for her birthday, she wanted that necklace she'd pointed out in the shop window a dozen times. I've often wished since then that women's desires had remained as transparent and straightforward."
"Am I -- transparent and straightforward?"
John considered a moment, tipping his head to the side. "You aren't generally shy about making your wishes known."
"But..." John hesitated. "I think that's only when you know what you want."
"I always know what I want."
Sherlock opened his mouth to say of course, and then stopped. He thought about the previous weekend, not looking up from his newspaper as John walked -- no, slunk out the door Friday morning, having oh-so-casually announced his departure the night before with obvious guilt in his voice. About Friday night, the sweaty, unpleasant hour he'd spent turning over like a rotisserie spit in his bed before acknowledging sleep wouldn't come on its own. About sliding one hand into his pants, trying to keep his mind on anything else, only to find John John John and his face and voice and hands were all he could think about, John's mouth soft and scarcely touching his and the whole focus of his concentration. About taking the cab to Paddington Saturday morning and the train to Taunton after that, telling himself the whole way that he just needed some sleep and everything would come right.
It had come right, mostly. It hadn't been easy and it hadn't been straightforward, but it had only needed John.
"I want to go home now," Sherlock said.
"And find out what you mean by 'promising session of snogging.'"
Back at Baker Street, Sherlock followed John up the stairs slowly, his heart pounding. It had done that the whole way home, no matter how he'd thought about the rebuttal he was going to send to Nature about Lessinger's idiotic article on enzyme regeneration, or tried to pay attention to John's distracted-sounding chatter about one of his locum patients. John's shoulders were hunched a bit, and he looked nowhere near as relaxed as he'd been by the lake in Elm Park. It was strange, knowing Sherlock had done that to him, that John was thinking about the same things he was.
Once the door had shut behind them John turned to Sherlock, his eyes wide but determined-looking, and Sherlock was getting quite good now at knowing the precise moment when John was about to kiss him. It was like a line pulled taut between them, or chemical communication in the air. He knew, and John knew he knew, and Sherlock was just able to get his hands on John's shoulders before John slid his fingers into Sherlock's hair and pulled him down into a kiss.
Standing to kiss was rather awkward. It made Sherlock's neck ache, but worse, he could feel John's growing discomfort. John shifted from foot to foot, getting up on his toes for a moment but dropping down fast. He got sloppy in the way he moved his mouth and Sherlock had to improvise on his own, which led to his accidentally knocking their teeth together and digging a thumb into John's neck.
"Sorry," Sherlock said, when John jerked his head back. "Should we...?"
"Yeah," John said, pulling down one hand to rub at his neck. He didn't look at Sherlock, and it seemed like there was something more to his discomfort than the mere fact of their height difference.
"You don't like my being taller," Sherlock said suddenly, as the realization hit him.
John looked up then. "It's..." he said, and trailed off. He gestured with his free hand. "It's an adjustment. Come on." He smiled, quick and tight, and pulled Sherlock in the direction of the sofa, walking backwards until he struck it with the back of his legs. He sat on the sofa then, tugging Sherlock down with him. Sherlock took a stumbling step forward, and sank to his knees on the floor.
John's eyes went wide. "Sorry, I didn't -- " He glanced at the empty cushion next to him. "I meant -- "
"I'm shorter this way," Sherlock said simply, and leaned forward to kiss John.
Now it went better. It was as if the intervening hours since the morning had never happened, the train rides and the ears and the weeping secretary and the yellowish swans chasing bits of jam doughnut on a green summer lake. Sherlock was learning what John liked -- small kisses that tugged at his lips, using his teeth -- and what he himself liked -- pressure at the base of his neck, long open kisses that made him feel both consumed and consuming -- and it was easier now to switch between, building a rhythm. It really was something like music, Sherlock thought in wonder, with the long phrases of giddy euphoria and the punctuating staccato of sudden passion blending into a shared melody. John licked into his mouth for endless minutes, and then broke away to bite at Sherlock's throat, sliding his tongue down into the hollow between his collarbones. Sherlock groaned, tipping his head back and reflecting that John might have something of an artist in him after all.
"I've thought about you on your knees all week," John murmured against Sherlock's throat.
Sherlock felt a twinge in his belly, as John kissed up his neck into his hair, and tightened his hands on John's shoulders. He'd almost forgotten what he'd said to John last weekend, with the taste of John on his lips and the blood still pulsing in his veins after coming, John writhing on the edge of orgasm. He'd imagined crawling down John's body on the bed, taking John's cock in his mouth and holding down John's hips with his hands, but John had imagined -- this?
"It's all right if you don't want to," John said in his ear. "People say things like that in bed sometimes without meaning it." He kissed Sherlock's temple and pulled away, taking Sherlock's face between his hands and looking serious. "I just -- wanted you to know I was thinking about you."
"I can't say the same," Sherlock said bluntly, and John laughed.
"Of course not. You couldn't thwart a terrorist leader's plans while you were thinking about sucking my cock."
They stared at each other for a moment. The silence roared in Sherlock's ears, and then he lunged forward again, kissing John so hard that he let out a sharp groan.
"I don't know how," Sherlock breathed, between desperate kisses.
"I don't care," John gasped. "Fuck, Sherlock..."
Sherlock reached down and rubbed the heel of his hand against the bulge in John's trousers, the hair rising on the back of his neck. John groaned again and pulled at Sherlock's lower lip with his teeth. Sherlock stroked him as best he could through the thick fabric, kissing John all the while and feeling John's panting breath on his cheek.
"Yeah, like that," John said, lifting his hips. Sherlock pressed his thumb down hard and John made a jerky thrust forward. "Christ."
Sherlock's head was spinning, and he was perilously close to that disturbing, over-sensitized feeling, but he kept moving his hand, switching between his palm and fingers and trying to find the motions that John liked best. It would be easier if he could get John's flies down, but he didn't trust himself to accomplish that with any grace at the moment, and it seemed like John was too far gone to stop now.
"Close?" Sherlock muttered, after a minute.
"Almost," John said. He made a frustrated sound and turned his head to the side, squeezing the back of Sherlock's neck.
Sherlock swallowed and dropped his forehead against John's shoulder. He looked down to where he was still caressing John through his trousers. The thick placket over the zipper was definitely in the way. John lifted his hips once more, straining into Sherlock's hand, and Sherlock made up his mind, his mouth going dry.
Without looking up, Sherlock began easing down the zipper. He felt John inhale sharply, his fingers moving up into Sherlock's hair. There still wasn't quite enough space, and he pushed gently at John's middle until he leaned back, so he could get at John's belt. It was stiff and difficult to work, but Sherlock had skillful hands and this was a task like any other. If he could only keep himself from looking at John and remembering what he was really doing, he thought, he might be able to get through this.
All that remained now was to free John's erection from the slit in his boxers, and Sherlock did so gently, glad he'd seen John naked on a previous occasion and wouldn't be overwhelmed by new data. John's cock felt very much like his own, surprisingly soft skin covering a muscular hardness, except narrower at the head and with a leftward curve that he longed to trace with his fingertips. He wanted, really, to take the time for a full observation, because after over a year of flat-sharing this was almost the only thing left he didn't know about John, but John had jumped the moment Sherlock's fingers touched his bare flesh, and now Sherlock was able to generalize, from his few experiences, that John was getting very aroused indeed when he made that particular whimpering sound.
Still. Sherlock stared down at his thumb and forefinger, rubbing circles on the smooth head of John's cock, and felt himself growing calmer the longer he observed. With a little more time, he thought, he would probably be able to recognize John without seeing any other part of his body. That flushing pattern there, the direction he twitched when Sherlock squeezed lightly, the patch of hair at the base --
"Sherlock," John said, sounding strangled.
All Sherlock's nervousness came rushing back at John's voice, and it was difficult to breathe. He didn't trust himself to look up, and John's hand on the back of his head was tense with the desire to push him forward, so he leaned down, holding his breath, and put his lips around the head of John's cock.
"Oh my god," John breathed.
Sherlock didn't move for a few moments. John's body was tight as a bowstring, and he was breathing fast, almost gasping. Sherlock wasn't exactly familiar with the usual mechanics of the thing, but he could imagine that further sensation would be welcome. He tried a small swipe of his tongue, thinking John's heightened sensitivity required gentleness, and John gasped ah, fuck and pulled at Sherlock's hair. He did it again, licking back and forth across the soft salty wetness, and this time John moved his hips forward, sliding his cock farther back along Sherlock's tongue.
How much could he fit in his mouth? Sherlock wondered. He bent down more, opening his mouth to make room, until John's cock was almost touching the back of his throat. It wasn't very far in. Sherlock shifted, trying it again from another angle, and John moaned, his fingers flexing in Sherlock's hair. Ah. Of course, it was about the friction, not the depth. Bobbing his head should produce sufficient stimulation of the glans.
He tried that, just an experimental up and down glide, and John took in a quick, shocked-sounding breath. Sherlock fought a smile, mostly because he needed to keep his lips in that pursed o-shape for this to work. He bobbed his head several more times before realizing he could flick his tongue into that little underside hollow he himself found so arousing, and John seemed to feel the same, judging by his groan. Saliva had built up in his mouth, making the task easier but also making him feel he was about to drool into John's lap, so he swallowed as best he could, with his mouth full.
"Yeah," John moaned, leaning back and lifting his hips.
Sherlock was momentarily puzzled at John's enthusiasm, until he realized it was suction John really wanted. A firmer sensation was more similar to the pressure of a hand or -- other things. He increased the pressure of his mouth, fitting his tongue along the groove on the underside of John's cock, and went back to moving his head again.
John's response was electric. His fingers went tight on the back of Sherlock's head and he arched his whole body up, grasping the sofa cushion with his free hand and pushing his cock into Sherlock's mouth.
"Oh, christ," John gasped. "Fuck, fuck, that's -- " He moved his hand to Sherlock's forehead, pushing away his fringe, and Sherlock looked up to meet John's eyes.
John looked utterly wild, his mouth hanging open and a glazed expression on his face. It was stunning, seeing what he'd done to John, and for a moment Sherlock's own arousal threatened to overwhelm him. He breathed deep, through his nose, and moved his head up and down once more, still looking at John. John clenched his eyes shut, turning away and pushing his hand back into Sherlock's hair. Sherlock kept going, coordinating the complicated motion of tongue against shaft and keeping the suction tight, feeling the tension building in John's body, trying to ignore his own body. He recalled another thing he liked himself, and worked a hand into John's trousers to slide his fingertips over John's bollocks in time with the motion of his mouth.
Apparently John liked it as well, because he groaned out loud again, his voice broken and raspy. "Sherlock -- god -- sorry -- "
Sherlock realized just in time what John was apologizing for, and allowed John to push his head away. John grasped himself and jerked twice, then came shooting all over his hand and lap. Sherlock watched, sitting back on his heels so that his trousers pulled tight against his own erection. When he'd finished John slumped back, closing his eyes and dropping his hands at his sides, covering Sherlock's hands where they lay on the sofa.
It was very quiet in the flat. The clock ticked in the corner, and a lorry rumbled by outside. John's hand, on his own, was sticky and warm. Sherlock counted John's breaths and his own pulse until John opened his eyes and looked at him.
"Come here," John said, his voice low.
He couldn't move, for a moment. It was like earlier on the train, when the tumult of emotions had turned him into speechless stone. He wanted to be close to John, and he wanted to go sit alone in his room and catalogue everything that had just happened in its proper place, and he wanted to send John away, now, forever, so it was his choice and never John leaving him, and he wanted to kiss John and come on his lap.
John smiled, and it seemed he understood whatever expression was on Sherlock's face. He leaned forward again, and pressed his lips to Sherlock's forehead, grasping his hands.
"It's all right," John whispered. "Just come here."
Sherlock shifted his weight to his knees and straightened up, so that his face was level with John's, their mouths close. John dropped one of Sherlock's hands and ran his fingers gently up Sherlock's chest, catching in his shirt, then over Sherlock's neck, his thumb rubbing across Sherlock's throat before tracing the line of his jaw, fingers sliding into Sherlock's hair. It seemed like John was about to kiss him again and Sherlock shut his eyes against the intensity in John's darkened eyes, but John stayed where he was, breath warm on Sherlock's face and his thumb still moving slowly on Sherlock's skin. Long moments passed, Sherlock feeling the pulse twitch in his veins as John looked at him.
Then John let go of Sherlock's other hand and reached for Sherlock's belt buckle. A cold shiver went through Sherlock, and his breath caught in his throat as he fumbled for support to keep himself upright, leaning on John's leg. The points of contact between them -- thumb on jaw, fingers on scalp, breath on face, hand on knee, hand on groin -- seemed to throb and burn, like too much electricity being forced through a circuit. John pulled down Sherlock's zip and then paused, his fingertips just barely resting on the fabric of Sherlock's pants. Sherlock counted breaths again, trying to keep himself anchored as the anticipation of sensation threatened to carry him away. His breaths were quick and labored, and John's were shallow and nervous-sounding, with a slight quiver on the exhalation.
"Sherlock," John whispered finally. He didn't say anything else.
There was a still, calm, rational part of Sherlock's mind that understood the situation. For John the position of his hand was on the border of a last frontier, still in the quantum uncertainty of a hazy sexuality, caught between his understanding of socially-defined terms and his own half-suppressed desires. To move forward from here, to touch another man like this, would alter the status quo, perhaps unacceptably. John had offered this before, but Sherlock realized now it had been in the spirit of a bluff, never really expecting him to accept. In short, John was afraid.
And Sherlock was nearly shaking with the need to be touched, and his nerves were so overstimulated he could hardly stand the thought of it.
After too much time had passed Sherlock jerked his hand up to John's wrist, meaning to push it away and give himself relief from the heart-stopping almost-contact, but he was trembling and instead he crushed John's hand against himself. John's response was almost as electric as before, when Sherlock had inadvertently given him pleasure; he gave out a long sigh, almost a groan, and wrapped his fingers around Sherlock's cock, through the fabric of his pants.
"Yes," John breathed against Sherlock's mouth, and kissed him.
John moved his hand slowly, still with the barrier of cotton between their skin. He traced the outline of Sherlock's erection with his fingertips, and Sherlock forgot about breathing for a moment. When John's thumb slid near the opening in his pants, he squeezed John's wrist so tightly that the bones ground together and John took in a pained-sounding breath through his nose. Slowly, slowly, John's fingers crept inward, until Sherlock's knees were shaking and he was biting at John's lips, holding in a groan.
Just before John's fingers touched Sherlock's bare skin, he left off kissing Sherlock, and they shared the same warm air, mouths centimeters apart. Sherlock heard his own pulse in his ears and felt John's in his inner thigh, where he was still gripping John for support. Desire flooded through him, so surprisingly strong he couldn't even vocalize the please god please that thundered in his head as John made feather-light contact, or pull John's hand more firmly against himself as he wanted to. He could only make a small, helpless sound as John drew one finger up along his cock, then circled the head, catching the wetness pooling there.
"God," John said, very quietly, as if to himself.
He kept tracing up and down, seemingly heedless of Sherlock's iron grasp on his wrist and knee, and Sherlock grew light-headed with the shallow breaths that were all he could manage and with the tension of his body. Time seemed to stretch and slow, so that this was all he had ever known, John's breath on his mouth and John's fingers so delicate on his skin and every muscle aching with the promise of ecstasy just out of reach. John brought up his thumb and another finger to encircle the tip of Sherlock's cock and Sherlock nearly collapsed forward, like a wire had been cut.
"John please," he managed in one breath.
John shook his head slightly, as if he had been in the same trance as Sherlock, and wrapped his fingers around Sherlock. Sherlock's hips twitched forward at the increased contact, and John huffed a small, embarrassed laugh.
"Sorry," John said. "I'll do my bit now."
He stroked Sherlock once, firmly, and Sherlock closed the distance and kissed John again, more to stifle his moan than anything else. John built a rhythm up, twisting his wrist, changing pace, and Sherlock felt that white-out sensation building, his senses too overloaded to make sense of anything more than individual moments. A flash, and John was licking under Sherlock's ear while he thumbed back Sherlock's foreskin. Another flash and they were kissing again, open-mouthed and deep, while John stroked him with long, smooth movements. One more flash and he was panting into John's shoulder, hips jerking into John's moving hand, and John was whispering yeah, come on, that's it in his ear. The imminent sensation of orgasm built in his groin and it was almost too much, an unpleasant intensity, like the time in school when Mycroft's mates held him down and tickled him until he thought he'd suffocate from his unwilling laughter.
Sherlock fumbled at John's wrist and tugged, stilling John's movements. He kept rocking his hips, though, and John seemed to understand, holding himself strong and steady against Sherlock's thrusts. A kind of desperate gratitude filled Sherlock, and he moved both his arms up to wrap around John's shoulders, burying his hot face against John's neck. He filled his senses with John, blocking out everything else -- the ping of his mobile, the scent of curry from a neighboring flat, the coo of pigeons in the attic rafters, the memorized flocked pattern of the wallpaper behind them -- instead inhaling John's familiar smell of deodorant and licorice drops, listening to his warm welcome breath speeding up, feeling John's fingers come up to rest against his cheek, sliding into his hair again.
It was John that Sherlock thought about as he sped himself towards ecstasy, the hundred known and the thousand unknown things, the direction the hairs grew on John's chin and what his very first nightmare had been. John, wrapping himself around Sherlock as much as Sherlock leaned into him, saying oh please Sherlock as if he were the one so close to orgasm that his toes were curled tight inside his shoes and his fingers had gone tingly and numb. Sherlock's knees were raw from the carpet and his body ached from the unaccustomed movements, and then John found Sherlock's mouth with his and that was it, he was gone, lost in a world of pleasure that tasted only of a faint lingering sweetness and John John John.
Awareness of other things crept back in slowly as he knelt there, his lips still moving against John's. Bodily discomfort first, sore knees and an unpleasant coolness from his open flies, then the ordinary sounds within and without the flat, the daily symphony of sounds and smells that told his subconscious that all was as it should be. Eventually Sherlock lifted his head and opened his eyes, an irrational part of him half-expecting to see that the wallpaper had changed, or that John's eyes would be brown, or something that signaled he was no longer in the world of ten minutes ago. Everything had changed, hadn't it?
Nothing had changed. John looked at him with fondness, and slight exasperation. His eyes were still blue. Sherlock glanced down, briefly, to where John's lap was covered with their mingled fluids, and realized the source of John's irritation. He had a feeling the shirt he'd just stained was new, even if it was cheap stuff.
"Sorry about the mess," he said.
John laughed. "I expect that's the first and last time I'll hear that from you."
"I'll have to remember it then," John said with a grin. "Perhaps we can mark the yearly anniversary of the time Sherlock apologized for making a mess. Do a tea or something. Invite the neighbors round."
Sherlock cocked his head to the side. John's tone was teasing, but he had begun to suspect John often sounded the most careless about things that meant the most to him.
"John," he said uneasily. "If you like, I could tidy -- " He glanced around the flat, taking in the stacks of, to his eye, perfectly organized papers and books and scientific paraphernalia, all exactly where he liked them to be. For the most part. "Er. I suppose the kitchen could do with a..."
"Level three decontamination? That'd be a start," John said. He was still grinning, but it faded when he caught Sherlock's eye again. "Sherlock. If I really were bothered by mess, I'd have been flat-sharing with Harry long ago. You can't scare me off so easily."
"Ah," Sherlock said.
John leaned forward and kissed Sherlock briskly, lingering for a moment after. "I will take advantage of your post-coital generosity to ask you to do something about the lefthand crisper drawer. Whatever's in there either needs to be burnt or taught algebra by now."
"That's a -- "
John kissed him again, cutting off the rest of his words. It was a long time before he let Sherlock speak again.
"Not now," John said. "A nap for you first." He wiped his hand on his shirt with a grimace. "Laundry and case notes for me, I suppose."
"I don't need a nap," Sherlock said. "I'm not a child."
"You always nap after a case," John said. "And I should think you're well-knackered after this one. Budge up."
With an economy of movement that surprised him, John reversed their positions, and Sherlock found himself being pressed onto the sofa, with John unlacing his shoes and tugging off his trousers.
"The case presented almost no challenge at all," he protested. "I solved it in less than an hour."
John turned away for a moment and returned with the tartan throw, which he proceeded to tuck around Sherlock's body. "I didn't mean that case," he said quietly, brushing a hand over Sherlock's forehead. "I meant the Adventure of Two Idiots Have a Go At Domesticity."
"Oh, that one," Sherlock said. He reached up to grasp at John's hand. "I did solve that one, didn't I?"
"Time will tell," John said, but he smiled, squeezing Sherlock's hand before letting go.
Sherlock found sleep stealing in quite naturally, as he listened to John stomp downstairs and back with the laundry, put the kettle on, and exclaim once again over the perfectly harmless item in the lefthand crisper drawer. (Possibly items, by this point. Still harmless.) Finally John settled in with tea and his laptop, and the last thing Sherlock registered before he drifted off was the slow clacking of keys, as John told the world another story that left out, Sherlock was certain, all the best bits.