John could still taste Sherlock’s lips on his mouth.
The translucent sphere that they had entered, that place in time where three worlds — worlds, plural, can you believe it? — converged into a single, shared space and then popped like the time-lapse of soap bubble collapsing. The Doctor, that manic man, had all but shooed John and Sherlock along like truant schoolboys while he ushered his companion, Donna, into the impossibly small old blue police box. Had they escaped? And what about the other Sherlock Holmes, and the other John Watson? There wasn’t much to do more than shake hands, before they all had to flee.
Sherlock tightened his grip around John’s wrist, and ran, leading him out of that strange place. The last of the sphere collapsed, revealing the sooty ruins of the Museum of London that had been there all along, John supposed, looking just as John had left it, but not, he realized, how Sherlock had left it.
Sherlock let go of him.
“God, what … what was all that?” John checked his watch while Sherlock checked his mobile. John leaned over to see the screen and watched Sherlock's phone connect to the mobile network and adjust the date and time and confirming what John already suspected. Only a few minutes had passed since he’d entered that in-between space with Holmes, the other one. He laughed nervously. Was it even real? It was science fiction, maybe. How would he even blog this? A Case of Two Sherlock Holmes? Nah, no one would believe it. Traveling through time? Not that part, either.
But that kiss? That was real. It burned on John’s lips even now. He could feel the heat of a blush creep up his cheeks for the second time that evening.
Mercifully, Sherlock wasn’t looking at him. Instead, he slinked forward towards the exit, every footstep a soft scrape through the fine dust workers hadn’t yet cleaned up from the explosion three nights ago. It gave John a chance to look him over: Sherlock was still favoring his leg, but doing his best to ignore it. The borrowed greatcoat from that other place was comically short on him, especially around the sleeves. Sooty, too. Where had he ended up? And was that, actual stubble on Sherlock’s cheeks?
John suddenly remembered the stubble, and blushed a third time.
Sherlock hesitated at the threshold and then lifted up the white and blue police tape. He waited for John to go through first, then followed, with John acutely aware of how close he was to Sherlock or how conspicuous they were being. But no one, not the end-of-day tourist crowd or the exhausted security milling about in the common hallways, seemed to notice as they stepped out of the ruined gallery room and joined the waning throng of visitors.
Sherlock scanned the crowd as it moved around them, then bolted.
Leaving John standing alone in the midst of strangers.
“Sherlock, hold up!”
If he heard John, Sherlock ignored him. His coat — no, not his coat, Holmes’s coat — flapped sharply as Sherlock took the corner and the infuriating man was gone.
Sinking panic made the world take a half spin to the left. John gritted his teeth. “Oh, no you don’t. Not again.”
John briskly cut through the crowds, elbowing as gently as necessary, until he spotted Sherlock’s crown of dark curls above the herd where it congested at the main exit. Since there are only so many permitted exits in the building, soon enough John had caught up to Sherlock, waiting like a caged colt in the queue to get outside.
John winced at how feral Sherlock looked, sharp pale eyes alighting on everything and not a trace of human emotion on his face. Like he was on a case. John reached up to touch Sherlock’s coat, but the queue surged forward and in another minute they were both on the street, the crowd fanning out around them in the cold London night. As thin as the crowds leaving the Museum were, the road was flashing with cabs and cars, horns honking at every opportunity.
Sherlock came to a stand-still at the edge of the curb. He drew in a deep breath through his nose, held it, and then expelled it roughly from his mouth like a hiss. He repeated it, this time through his mouth, then out his nose.
“What, forgot how to breathe?” John said, trying to make a joke of it. And then it hit him how awkward that sounded, considering. He shook his head, pinched the bridge of his nose. “I didn’t mean —”
And Sherlock stepped right into traffic.
“Sherlock!” John’s hand had reached out to latch onto Sherlock’s arm before John had registered the danger. He yanked Sherlock back roughly, and was treated to the furious countenance of his friend, outraged at the presumption — until the lorry John had spotted out of the corner of his eye raced past them, horn shrieking in condemnation.
Sherlock appeared to shrink, and his brow softened. “Oh.”
“You just got back,” John said, a little breathless himself now, and annoyed. “Let’s keep it that way, hmm?”
Sherlock nodded, face impassive again. His gaze drifted down to his sleeve, where John’s hand still held on tight.
John let go.
They made their way in silence after that, always several respectful feet apart. Wordlessly they had decided against taking a cab home, confirmed by their mutual avoidance of any available such vehicle that passed nearby. It was too soon for either of them to return to the flat. They both needed the cool, muggy air of London’s nightlife to soften the events of the last few days and decide, well, John thought, shifting uncomfortably in his coat, whatever they were going to decide.
At least, that’s what John was thinking. Was that true of Sherlock? It was sensible, but being sensible wasn’t always Sherlock’s strong suit. Sensible was also, John considered, relative.
Sherlock seemed keen to stay a few steps ahead of him, even as the streets narrowed into the familiar connections that ran between and behind the major roads that would take them to Baker Street. They were still twenty minutes away, if they were taking the direct route, which they weren’t. Sherlock ducked through alleys, took weird detours that cost them more time, all the while alert and watchful, like a dog too long from its favorite trails. John had to watch him carefully, sometimes to the exclusion of traffic, for fear of losing him again.
Funny, John thought darkly. He couldn’t pry Holmes off of him during the three days John had had him, but Sherlock couldn’t get far enough away fast enough.
Oh, no good was going to come of this. John’s heart moved steadily upwards in his throat with every step they took that brought them closer to home.
And there it was at last, the black door of 221B, the flat windows dark. Just like the night when they’d returned from the Moor, but without the rain and the luggage, four days ago.
Four days? A lifetime. John rubbed his own stubbled jaw, and felt very tired. Bone tired.
“Sherlock, I think we need to —”
And before John could finish his sentence, the door to the flat was open, and Sherlock was gone like a shot up the stairs, leaving John standing alone, again, this time next to the cafe’s dark windows and neon sign.
“You … impossible man.” John slammed his palm hard against the door frame, and waited until he collected himself. Then, with deliberate slowness, he went inside and did all the things that normal people did when they got home: close and lock the door, thumb through the gathered mail that he’d been too busy to look through, take off his coat. This was all just avoidance. John couldn’t lie to himself about that. He’d have to go up sooner or later.
They’d have to talk, too.
That kiss. That damned kiss and everything it might mean — what it meant.
It meant, for good or ill, everything had changed. It could not go back to what it had been.
John took a deep breath and ascended the stairs.
Sherlock stood stock-still in the center of the living room. If he heard John coming — no, scratch that, John thought, he’d heard all right — he did not react. John quietly shuffled off his shoes, laid his jacket down, put away his keys. It wasn’t until he went to reach for the light switch that Sherlock spoke, his voice a knife edge.
“No.” He stood with his back to John, ram-rod straight.
“Wouldn’t you like to —”
Sherlock roughly pulled the too-short jacket off and flung it into a puddle on the floor. Next, the shirt. He all but snapped the buttons off in his zeal to remove it. It was not the last of the clothes he took off, either. John felt his cheeks color again and made an abrupt turn for the kitchen. He smacked his knee as he did so, causing him to utter an oath. But nothing deterred Sherlock. Although John was painfully aware of how he was not looking, he could hear one article of clothing after another stripped off the man and thrown to the floor.
When the last piece had landed and the room had gone quiet, John waited for a tense few seconds before daring to look up, just in time to see Sherlock shadowed bare backside as he stalked out of the room. John couldn’t hear anything over the sound of his own heart in his ears until a door slammed shut and the shower came on at full blast.
John, a little dazed, wandered back into the living room. He let a small chuckle escape as he turned on the desk lamp, then sat down in his chair by the fireplace.
The water never stopped.
After ten minutes, John bolted up, and said, “Well, fuck me.” He retrieved his shoes, his coat, his keys and left.
And he could honestly say, he thought as he slammed the door behind him, that he didn’t know when he’d be back.
Scalding hot water rushed across every square inch of Sherlock’s skin, bursting out of the shower head like a pent-up geyser now unleashed. Glorious invention, the shower, one he hoped never to miss for so long ever again. After he was sure, one hundred percent, that this Earth, this London, was his Earth, his London, all he could think about was getting into the hottest shower that the flat’s old, post-war water tank could muster.
He was filthy all over, dirtier than he felt he’d ever been. Never mind no running showers, or limited access to baths, the very century he’d been trapped in had sought to defile him. Yes, he was naked of the clothes he’d borrowed from the that else-place time, but he wasn’t yet clean. Each minute under the shower washed away the grime, the smoke and the garbage that felt caked on like quick-drying plaster. His nails were a ruin from the coal of the factory, and where they were not soot-stained they bore the telltale trace of tobacco around the thumb and index finger. His armpits were rank like old cheese, the curls of his hair greasy and heavy. He cleared his throat out and spat several times towards the drain, and vowed to drink half the bottle of mouthwash when he was done brushing his teeth.
Sherlock leaned into the spray of the shower head, bracing himself against the tile. Soot pooled in grey clouds at his feet before being drawn down the drain. He could stay like this forever. He knew it wasn’t rational, shades of Baskerville all over again, but he feared his sense of smell might be impaired, not just when it came to his own corporeal transport but for the world in general. Might as well be blind if you couldn’t smell the difference between brands of perfume or cigarettes when interrogating suspects, or when a poison had been added to one’s tea. And what about his sense of taste?
No, he thought. No.
John. He could still taste John.
Sherlock let the water wash over him, rinsing away the hundred and twenty-five years of dirt that had taken only three days to acquire.
It was 10:30 pm, and John was tired.
But he was more angry than tired. More confused, too. He’d had no real destination in mind when he’d left the flat, other than out and away, so he let his feet take over and marched down Baker Street all but blind, hands fisted in his pockets and shoulders hunched under his jacket. A light drizzle had started up, washing out the lights, dulling the noise of traffic — perfectly suited to his mood.
When he realized he’d walked straight to Angelo’s restaurant, John cursed himself under his breath. Even though his stomach grumbled mightily at the treason of it, he passed it on.
He just wanted a pint. A simple, bloody pint. No memories.
Which came anyway.
Their first case, The Lady in Pink. They’d known each other for less than 48 hours. The linguini had been incredible, the wine smooth. The candle, Angelo’s assumptions, that had been uncomfortable. Sherlock so intent on what was happening on the street. And John couldn’t stop asking questions, painful attempts at conversation, surely that was all, until Sherlock turned it around on him.
It’s all fine, John had finally said, after Sherlock turned down an offer John hadn’t thought he was making.
Had he been flirting? He’d been the one to bring up girlfriends, and boyfriends, after all. No, he assured himself. Just trying to suss out the man who refused to be sussed out.
Sherlock never bothered correcting anyone, when people presumed they were a couple. John had always figured Sherlock couldn’t be arsed to care. Later, John thought it was just to piss him off, sure that Sherlock had a smug, possessive grin for that the split second before John reliably launched into clarifications. And then John himself had stopped because it didn’t do any good, just drew attention to the whole thing. Protesting felt like confirmation, at least it seemed to be for everyone else. Make it a non-issue, John had decided. Let them think what they like. What did it matter?
John kept walking, his path taking him under a rebar and tarpaulin sidewalk corridor put up while the building in front was being renovated. It stopped the rain, mostly, so he slowed to shake out his coat, his hair. The exposed bars and flimsy sheeting made John’s memory cough up another protest, the last one he’d given.
If anyone out there still cares, I’m not actually gay.
Irene, sheathed in her black coat, as sharp-tongued as Sherlock, standing in judgement. Telling him what she thought was obvious. God, that woman. Maybe he was jealous. Then the sound of her text message being received on Sherlock’s nearby mobile, that slinky gasp echoing through the empty power station. He should have gone after Sherlock, John thought, as he often had, right then and there. But Irene held out her hand, and John let Sherlock go.
Sherlock needed time, John had rationalized, after discovering Irene was alive. Everything he’d said, done for her, it had meant that he must, that she surely was the woman he —
John stepped out from under the last of the covered sidewalk and spied a pub on the other side of the street. He hustled across, flipping his collar up.
Against the rain, he thought crossly to himself. The rain.
He turned down his collar and went inside.
John found no answers at the end of one pint. And, funnily enough, no answers at the bottom of the second, or the third. He paid his tab with too many pounds and left, an hour or so after he’d arrived.
He didn’t quite stumble his way home, but certainly on his empty stomach, the beer left him feeling sharply angry at the beginning of his trek home and then less so, and less, until all he was left with was faint worry and growing dread. He found himself at the steps of the flat far sooner than he would have hoped, but was too tired to think about delaying any longer.
John paused at the threshold. The windows of their second floor flat were dark, all of them. Not even the dim light of the lamp he’d turned on.
Which meant it was off.
Which meant Sherlock was either not there, or abed.
John was more than a little embarrassed how relieved he was. The key took a second try to get into the lock square, and, as quietly as he could, John climbed the stairs, keeping the light off. He’d go to bed, he’d sleep off the alcohol, he’d wake up and it would be like it was. Before.
Nothing had to change.
He let out a soft, almost laughing sigh.
The hairs on John’s arms goose-fleshed. He had been about to take the stairs up to his room, but nearly tripped instead, and leaned against the corridor wall.
Towards the back of the flat, Sherlock stood framed by one of the windows that overlooked the side street. The lights from outside were bright enough to bring out the colors in Sherlock — dark brown curls, blue dressing gown, pale skin — while keeping the flat shrouded in grays and blacks. Again, he had his back to John, except his head, which was turned just slightly towards the hall.
“You’re up,” John said lamely. He entered the living room, stomach sinking.
Sherlock inhaled deeply, then made a small grunting noise. He looked back out the window.
John took his jacket off for the second time that evening. His keys clanged into the bowl and his shoes refused to let go his feet. He fumbled, kicked them off and padded into the living room.
Finally, after watching John struggle so, Sherlock said, “You let him wear my things.”
John massaged his head, which was starting to pound. So soon? Not fair. “And some of mine, too, yeah. He’s, um, short.”
“Short, but destructive. I’ve never seen the flat in such a state. Mrs. Hudson will have fits.” Sherlock still hadn’t turned around, and the anger in his voice was growing.
“Actually, she quite liked him,” John said, intent on being contrary all of a sudden.
“As did you, apparently.”
“What? Are you, what, jealous? Seriously?” John spied a lump of clothing sitting in his chair. He stomped over, saw that it was the outfit Holmes had been wearing when he’d arrived, and the clothing Sherlock had worn on his return, some of it his own, some of it from that other time and place.
In John’s chair. No where else. Even in the dim light, he could see the state of the flat. Whatever ‘damage’ Holmes had done, Sherlock had done similar since his return. What had he gotten up to in the last two hours? He yanked the clothing out of his chair, throwing it to the floor. “What was I supposed to do, Sherlock? Of course he needed your clothes, of course he went through everything. Like you didn’t in his flat? I don’t believe that for a second.”
Sherlock asked softly, “What do you believe?” He made a half turn.
John, a second from sitting down in now free chair, held off, mouth suddenly dry. “About?”
“What happened? You’re the genius, not me.” But John pointed to the lump of clothes now on the floor. “Something happened. It happened. Whatever it was, was real. Dunno how. Pretty … pretty fucking unbelievable.”
“Not something for your blog?” Sherlock said, voice limned with a faint trace of humor.
It was catching. “Ah, no.”
John could see that Sherlock’s hair was still wet from the shower, and, thanks to the light behind him coming from the alley, that he wore nothing beneath his robe. John swallowed hard.
Sherlock turned to face John fully and sniffed the air again. Frowned. “We were to talk,” he said.
“Well, you wandered off,” John said. When that didn’t illicit any response, he added, frustrated, “And maybe I needed some liquid courage.”
“You need courage now?” Sherlock’s mouth twisted into an ugly scowl. “Am I that fearsome?”
“Look, let’s … let’s not fight.” That sounded so stupid. “I don’t want to fight.”
“Go to bed, John.” Sherlock looked so tired and … what was that, disappointed?
The thought made John’s heart squeeze in his chest. “Don’t… don’t sent me away. That’s not fair. You did this. Not me.”
“Do you want me to take it back?” Sherlock said, voice rising, both petulant and angry. “There was the man with the time machine. Maybe he can undo it for you.”
“I didn’t say I wanted that,” John said, closing his hands into a fist.
Sherlock fixed him with one of his snide looks. “Didn’t want what?”
John blurted the words too quickly, faster than he thought them. “That I wanted it undone!”
This brought Sherlock up short, and shut him down. He stared, hawk-eyed, watching. Waiting.
This was going so suddenly wrong. John dug his fists into the sides of his legs. Why was it he could chat up a girl without knowing more than her name for hours, but Sherlock had him tongue-tied and feeling like a green school boy asking his first girl out — Oh.
He looked up into Sherlock’s strange, chameleon eyes.
But Sherlock appeared to have come to a very different conclusion. “John,” he said, eyes downcast and talking too fast, “I’m sorry. It was Watson’s idea. Said I needed to let you know that I appreciate what you’ve done for me, what you mean to me. I thought I’d lost you, and I didn’t, and thank every God that ever was. But I shouldn’t have k—”
Sherlock jerked his gaze up. He looked about to speak again, but John held up his hand.
And crossed the last few feet remaining between them.
Sherlock once again opened his mouth, worry creasing his brow. “John, no. You don’t have to. I’m sorry. I know I got it all wrong. I know you don’t want —”
John shook his head, said firmly, “This won’t work if you can’t shut up.”
John leaned in and brushed his lips against Sherlock’s. For his part, Sherlock trembled, like he might bolt at any second. Good, thought John, I might bolt, too.
But he didn’t, and Sherlock didn’t. Instead, they stood in the gloom of the apartment, their lips tentatively exploring one another’s, the world shrinking down to just them.
John didn’t know where to put his hands, and didn’t know how much farther he wanted to go that night. Clearly, parts of him were interested in going a hell of a lot farther, which surprised him, considering how far afield this was from his regular experience, but that was an even bigger case of not knowing where to put his hands. Instead, he found it natural to rest them both on Sherlock’s hips, while Sherlock’s own hands found their way to cup John’s cheek and jaw. Gentle first kisses, mingled with the odd dart of tongue, continued for a time.
And, John thought, it’s all fine.
Sherlock, in the end, broke the kiss. “You’re still drunk,” he whispered.
“Tipsy,” John corrected. He rested his head against Sherlock’s jaw. Sherlock had shaved, he noticed, and then John thought about his own stubble. “And tired. I don’t think I’ve slept for three days. Not really.”
“Nor I.” Sherlock shifted on his feet. “I don’t want —”
“Nor I.” John said, knowing what Sherlock meant. Not like this. He stepped back, Sherlock mirroring him.
“Good night, John.” Sherlock had a small smile on that normally stony face of his. Not an arrogant smile, not sneering, not superior. Cautious and hopeful, and it looked beautiful. Not that the rest of his smiles didn’t, damnable man, but that smile was the rare one. And, John blushed as he finally realized, always reserved for him.
From the beginning.
“Good night, Sherlock,” he said. “I’ll see you in the morning.”