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A Thousand Threads of What-Might-Have-Beens

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When John does finally leave, Sherlock is the last one to be surprised by it. But so much leading up to the event was Good by their eccentric standards, even Immeasurably Good, that the timing does seem wrong.  Well, mildly wrong.  As wrong as any trivial detail can feel when one's bones have been removed, for example, or one's blood drained out of one's veins.  As wrong as bad timing can feel next to:

John isn't here.

And Sherlock clearly has two options to choose from: either get him back, or die trying.





Sherlock had imagined a number of ways Christmas that year might go.  There were generally gifts in these visions--outrageously expensive close-fitting jumpers made of cashmere, and a better watch, and a laptop that didn't freeze every time its anti-virus software self-updated.  Things that would make John smile.  The making John smile being the point, and not the gifts, though the new jumpers would be a blessing.  After the extravagances, purchased with a credit card stolen from Mycroft, there would possibly be food, as John likes food though Sherlock usually could care less about it, ordered from the pretty French place on Marylebone Road, and after the delivery and the obligatory dinner and the not-answering-Mycroft's-call, there would be between three and five hours of sex.  Sherlock had enjoyed anticipating Christmas even more than usual as a result of these schemes, and he'd planned the day out between cases with every intention of following through.  But then John gets a virulent flu for Christmas instead and all of Sherlock's plans are derailed entirely.

He first becomes aware that something is amiss when John arrives home much later than usual after a shift at the clinic, two days before the holiday.  It's pouring outside, silvery streaks glistening in their windows, the lights beyond refracting red and gold and white and orange and green, as lovely in its own way as any sort of artificial decor.  It's mesmerizing.  Sherlock has been watching the drops scattering the colours for endless minutes, on his back on the settee, his legs tucked up and his fingertips touching and his head on the Union Jack pillow.  Mrs. Hudson is playing the radio downstairs, and a song which ought to be played in a French cafe, sung by a man with a voice like coal smoke, is drifting up the staircase through the crack under their door.  When it opens with a bang and he hears John cursing under his breath and shaking his umbrella, Sherlock turns from the light show to glance at the entrance to their sitting room.

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin, the man rasps.

John's hair is damp despite the umbrella, and he's toeing off wet leather shoes.  He looks harried, rather ragged around the edges.  The tremor in his hand is barely evident when he brushes his hair back from his sweetly lined brow.  Odd.

"What are you up to, then?" John sighs.

"Watching," Sherlock says.

"Watching a wall?"

"Watching the rain."

John's keys hit the tabletop, and he rubs his hand over his face.

Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn.

"Anything new on hand?"  John drops the post dispiritedly.  It's bills and adverts, Sherlock deduces.  He hadn't bothered to check.

"Commonplace little murder in Lambeth.  I solved it by text.  It was the landlord, he was the one with the shellfish allergy."

"Right.  I don't understand a word you say sometimes."

"I know."

John walks over to the sofa as Sherlock unwinds himself a bit, sliding further in with his spine to the cushions.  When the doctor stretches out next to him exhaustedly, his back to Sherlock's front, Sherlock presses his face into soft not-brown-and-not-blond hair which currently smells of chamomile and winter and the dazzling rain display just beyond the windows.  John is shivering.

Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove, the man growls gently from below stairs.  Sherlock interrupts the accompanying violin solo he has been mentally writing for the past three minutes whilst also listening to his friend and also listening to the words sung by the man who sounds like coal smoke.  John doesn't feel normal.

"Are you all right?"

"Honestly, I don't know what you see in this holiday," John grumbles.

That isn't like him, so Sherlock frowns, propping himself up on one elbow so he can see better.  "Why not?"

"You do love Christmas, yes? I've heard you say so."

"I do."

"And why?"

"It's difficult to explain," Sherlock counters. "It's none of the typical reasons--not because of Christmas dinners, certainly, nor the sentimental Victorian idea of God-bless-us-every-one.  It's a mood.  A sort of process."

"What sort?"

"I couldn't possibly make it clear to you."

"Very flattering."

"What's wrong?"

"I was just kept at the clinic for two hours longer than I should have been because a sweet, dotty old bat I treated last week couldn't be arsed to finish out her prescription antibiotics and developed pneumonia in her right lung, and then when I finally escaped--she'll be fine, I think, god I hope so--I went to Harrod's to try to find something for the world's only independent consulting detective, who is unnaturally gorgeous and claims not to want anything on the planet.  The ponce."

"But I don't."  Sherlock smiles.

"You're very unhelpful.  Anyhow, it was all crowds of people, jostling at each other, and picking through thousands of things they didn't need in the slightest, and it was all just--it was far too much.  The things, and the people, and after such a shite day.  I wanted to rip all the holly down.  It was too bright and too loud and too many and not enough, and I know I'm just tired, but.  I dunno.  It was like being inside a washing machine with the brights going.  All tumbling and garish and meaningless.  And I could tell everyone felt just as I did--none of them were enjoying the spectacle either.  They all looked a mess.  Oversensitized and miserable.  I couldn't wait for it to be over, for Christmas morning, when everything would be quiet again, and--what?  Sherlock?"

Sherlock's breathing has stilled.

John turns over onto his back, setting a hand on his friend's side, touching his ribs through the tailored grey shirt, dark blue eyes looking up into eerily pale ones.  "Hey."  He tugs at the fabric gently.  "Tell me."

"That's why," Sherlock says, dumbfounded.

"What's why?"

It is the exact definition of the reason he loves Christmas.  For most of the year, Sherlock Holmes is the only one of his kind, an alien life form in a way, a man with a brain which makes him his own island nation with a population of one.  Every Christmas, however, there are visitors to his kingdom.  Other people begin to flinch when they see stack after stack of similarly useless detritus, and complete strangers start snarling due to simple overexposure to humanity, and painfully catchy music that sticks like treacle in your ears, and hyperbright products that will be purchased and then thrown in the bin six months later.  Far too much is required, and everyone is striving, and it's all quite entirely useless, and they know it.  The city dwellers who generally float along obliviously with the help of their tiny little minds and their plodding, pedestrian senses are nervous wrecks.  They get wound tighter and tighter as the season progresses, all across London, and, because Sherlock more or less is London, he can feel them coiling like springs, waiting for the moment when everything is too much, too fast, too relentless, and they either jump in the Thames to die like the lemmings they've just realized they are, or else... Or else they live.

And Christmas morning arrives, and it's over.  All the scurrying.  Everything is quiet and there is nothing more to be done, the effort is over with one way or the other, too late to change anything, and so it's a bit like dying even if they survive it.  It's final, like a funeral.

It's wonderful.

"It's just so horrible beforehand, and then...then it's calm," Sherlock says lamely.

John begins to smile his not-quite-getting-the-whole-picture-here smile, but then it slows.  He rubs at Sherlock's skin beneath the shirt, understanding relaxing the cast of his eyebrows.  They settle back into a sympathetic quirk, the one Sherlock has been trying to reproduce when interrogating witnesses and thus far spectacularly failing at.

"You feel that way all the time, don't you?  Every day.  Almost overwhelmed."

Sherlock nods.

"And once a year, it all gets amplified."

He nods again, touching the buttons on John's shirtfront.

"And Christmas morning, it's..."

"Over."

Smiling a real smile this time, John tucks his head into the space between Sherlock's upper arm, his bent forearm, his propped head, and his shoulder.  "Microwaves.  Beforehand, it's like the microwaves.  That's settled, then, I'm buying you a new microwave for Christmas.  There are still stains from the ink you boiled in ours."

"What a marvel you are," Sherlock murmurs.

John Watson, thinks Sherlock as he runs his hand down John's back, is an honest to god miracle.  John is boundlessly warm and infinitely perfect and perpetually intriguing and now can apparently read minds.  This is fascinating news.

"I'm sorry your world is turned up to eleven, even if it makes you amazing.  Is that the only reason you like Christmas?  The mad rush and then the silence?"

"I also like fairy lights, but I don't know why.  You're still shivering," Sherlock says, concerned.  He can feel John's trembling in the circle of his arm.  The doctor's torso is alive with tiny spasms.

"It's nothing.  Just--it was cold outside."

It isn't nothing.

Within two hours, John's head is over the toilet and his face is pale as death and the shaking is about ten times worse.  Or at least, Sherlock assumes that remains the case, because John locked the bathroom door half an hour ago.  Sherlock's ear meets the wood for the fifth time as he grits his teeth against being excluded from something happening to John he's never witnessed previously.  And something that's hurting him, to boot.  It's absolutely maddening.  He could claw his way through this door.  He could positively chew his way inside.

"Any better?" he calls quietly.

"Sherlock.  You're not helping," comes a weak voice from beyond the barrier.

That is decided, then.  He will help.  If that will gain him entrance, he will help tremendously.

Sherlock goes into the kitchen and puts the kettle on.  He also pours a glass of cold water and drags the thickest blanket they own off John's armchair.  When the tea is finished, he finds the dusty brandy bottle and pours a little measure in, recalling something of the sort happening when he was sixteen and virulently ill over Bonfire Night when he'd have much preferred to be watching explosions.  He changes out of his dress shirt and trousers and ties his blue robe over grey cotton, fetching John's flannels and a t-shirt in the meanwhile.  John's small stash of medical supplies are in the kitchen, so he finds an anti-nausea agent and paracetamol and a bottle of flu medicine and puts them on a tea tray with the spiked tea and the water and a packet of very bland biscuits.  Thinking twice about the tea tray, he removes the items and washes it quickly, as it last hosted the remains of a spinal column.  Armed with a blanket, pillow, sleep clothes, provisions, and a Swiss Army knife, Sherlock picks the bathroom door lock in record time.

"Bloody hell, Sherlock," John moans.

He's slumped against the wall a little distance away from the toilet, grey and wrecked.  It's entirely arresting, this new John, the John whose blood is now filled with some sort of virus, and Sherlock feels precisely the way he did during the summer on that day they were out in the blinding sun all afternoon and John's skin was flushed pink along the tops of his ears, the time he laughed about it when Sherlock pointed it out.  New things about John are sacred.  They are to be revered and savoured and placed on clear glass slides in Sherlock's hard drive forever and ever and for all time, amen.

Apparently when John is very ill, the whites of his eyes grow red.  Sherlock gleefully ticks off another box.

"What is all of that?" John asks miserably.

Carefully, as if he's dealing with a wild animal, Sherlock sits with his back to the corner between wall and bathtub and sets the tea tray and bedding down.  He holds out the biscuit package.

John shakes his head, wincing.

Sherlock tries the water glass. Sighing audibly, John reaches for it.

Water first, then.  A new box goes tick in Sherlock's head.  He passes the glass to John and John sips carefully.  John then lowers his hands, staring down at his lap with a defeated expression.

"I hate this," he whispers.

Sherlock cocks his head inquisitively.

"I think it's just flu, but I.  Well.  You know what happened, probably.  After I was shot.  I nearly died."

Nodding, Sherlock holds out the teacup.  With a rueful twist to his mouth, John takes it and sips.

"You aren't meant to break in when I'm throwing up everything I've ever ingested, you berk," John points out after he swallows the spiked tea.

"Why not?"

"Because I said so."

"Not good enough."

"It's the principle of the thing.  You could give a man a little privacy if you liked."

"No," Sherlock says, deeply annoyed.

"I fucking deserve privacy, Sherlock."

"But I don't understand the point of it."

"Well, what if I don't want you to see me like this, perfect, elegant you, seeing me all twisted and weak and broken and fucked-up and helpless?" John snaps savagely.

On the word helpless, he sends the teacup flying cruelly into the bathtub.  It hits the porcelain and shatters in a spectacular explosion of china.  It's the most brilliant thing Sherlock has ever seen.  Now the tub is spattered with brandy and hot chamomile, and there are little pieces of disfigured pink blossoms everywhere, sharp enough to draw blood.  Shrapnel from a distant war zone brought vividly home and painted with cabbage roses, scattered all around their drain.  John winces, hard, and then covers his face with one shaking hand.

Get your bloody hand out of my way, you're completely ruining my line of sight.

"I'm such a mess," John says hoarsely through his fingers.  "I hate being this way.  I hate me this way."

"I don't."  And god, Sherlock doesn't.  "But don't hurt anymore.  I brought Boots night liquid and anti-nausea tablets from your kit."

The hand slides off his face again.  John looks at Sherlock with a resigned and embarrassed and exasperated expression, as if he half wants to punch Sherlock and half wants to sink through the floor.

"You really can't be enjoying this," John observes.  "I could spare you the discomfort."

"If you tell me to leave now, I will do," Sherlock offers.  "I will.  But I don't want to be spared.  Do you think I like listening at doors, wondering how miserable you are?  Does that seem like something I would enjoy, guessing at your condition?  Where I'm concerned, do guesswork and John make a happy pair in your brain?"

John thinks it over.

"May I have a biscuit, please," he murmurs.

Tearing the packet open, Sherlock passes one along.  John chews it experimentally, then winces again and drops the remainder in the bin.

Sherlock lifts the pair of flannel trousers and the soft cotton shirt experimentally.

"Right, hand them over."

"No.  Come here."

John scowls.

"Problem?"

"Sherlock, I'll only get you sick."

All it takes is the raising of one very eloquent eyebrow to convey to John that the previous remark was either very stupid, or else failed to take into account anything he has ever learned about Sherlock Holmes.

Finally, at last, at last, at last, something in John softens visibly.  He rolls his eyes heavenward and then crawls within easy reach.  Being exquisitely careful, Sherlock reaches out and begins unbuttoning his shirt.  When it's open, he slips it over John's arms, pulls his undershirt up and off, and continues, with John's occasional shaky assistance, until he has John nearly dressed for bed, tugging the flannels up his lean hips and pulling the drawstring to tie the knot.  Dressing and undressing John is always a pleasure, but this time there is something to it beyond the revealing what's veiled, something deeper than the heady rush he always gets when a previously covered patch of John's skin is exposed.  It feels almost worshipful doing this, like draping a Buddha or a saint.  It's breathtaking.

If Sherlock could undress John to his bones, painlessly peel off the skin and then dress him back up in his own soft flesh again, that would be wonderful.  More than wonderful.  But it would hardly feel any more sacred than this does.

"You'd better go to bed," John says, watching Sherlock's fingers move.  "I live here for the moment."

"Then I live here too."

"This is ridiculous, I'm perfectly capable of--"

"No."

Sliding the tea tray away a bit, Sherlock rises to a crouch and spreads the blanket over the floor.  It's soft and thick and quilted, and he puts the pillow against the wall, lying back with his head sinking into goose feathers.  John looks down at him as if Sherlock is a creature never before seen with human eyes, as if he'd encountered a unicorn sleeping in the middle of the forest.

"This is the part where you come here," Sherlock observes.

John's lids slide wearily over his eyes, and he grips the edge of the bathtub in frustration.  "God in heaven, I--listen, Sherlock, you remember when I used to limp around like a mongrel run down by a truck?  I was ashamed of it.  Angry.  I didn't...I didn't want to meet anyone who knew me, didn't want them to see how damaged I was.  Running into Mike Stamford was horrifying.  I'm a fucking doctor, I knew the leg pain was imaginary, I saw the tests and the scans myself."

"You're not limping an imaginary limp.  You've a case of very real flu."

"Yes, and right now I feel as wrecked as I did when there was a hole in my shoulder and the nurses were being extra kind to me despite the fact I was screaming bloody murder at them, because the fever was rising and they all thought I was going to die.  That was awful.  Knowing.  That they were coddling me, that they...  And you're not just someone.  And you don't just know me." 

"Correct.  And so?"

"I don't want an audience."

Sherlock, despite knowing that John is simply being honest, can't help feeling outraged.

"Wrong.  Wrong.  I am not an audience.  Of all the mindless--you love me, and so I am going to sleep here with you on this floor, and bring you water and more tea in a new teacup and whatever else you like, for as long as this lasts.  I cannot be coddling you, as I am emotionally and intellectually incapable of coddling anyone.  I don't think you are twisted or weak or broken or fucked-up or helpless.  But you are mine, in case you had momentarily forgotten." He's listening intently, but nevertheless John doesn't say anything. "Do you want it to be for me?  Fine, that's fine.  It would be better for me," Sherlock requests in desperation.  "Please come here."

John absorbs this.  His mouth twists, hesitant, and he swallows something bitter down.  Sherlock would greatly prefer to have swallowed it himself and saved John the suffering, but some things aren't workable no matter how badly you want them, no matter how thoroughly your blood is mixed up in each other's veins.

When John does crawl onto Sherlock's lean chest, he's shivering badly again.  Sherlock takes John's head and guides it down, pulls him tenderly into a cocoon of long arms and longer legs and slim musician's fingers brushing through his hair.  He wraps his friend up in his limbs as if Sherlock is a coat, and then sets his lips where they can rest against John's hot brow while his nose is buried at the edge of his hairline.  He kisses John's sweat-damp forehead once, but that isn't the point really, and John shouldn't get the wrong idea, that his friend needs more contact, as Sherlock doesn't want anything save for this.  The closeness and the too-sweet heartache and the fact that now he can feel the tremors in his own body beneath John's, which is a much more accurate measure than simply watching, or listening through a sodding door.  Sherlock wonders whether he'll catch the virus too perhaps, whether it would be at all helpful to take some of the minuscule invaders away from John and fight them himself.

There was once a song written by someone else who liked to think about dying, about wishing to eat someone's cancer, and Sherlock lets it play in his head.  Slow and dark and dissonant and helpless and sad.

"The way you love me boggles my tiny little mind," John confesses to Sherlock's breastbone.

They both know that John's body is tiny, and his mind isn't.  So Sherlock smiles like a caress against John's skin.

 


The next three days ought to be excruciatingly dull, but they aren't.  They're riveting.

While John is asleep, Sherlock solves two cases via the web, rather cleverly.  But by the end of John's illness, he can't even be bothered to recall them.  John with flu, as it turns out, is a source of endlessly mesmerizing information.

The first night mainly consists of kipping on the lav floor, alternating between kneeling with his hands warm and steady on John's shoulders as he coughs helplessly over the toilet, or wrapped around John's shaking form, or going for water, or sweeping the teacup shards out of the bathtub when John says they would give him nightmares if he did manage to drop off.  By morning, John is in bed, but still feverish, saying strange things as he half-sleeps and half-dreams, syllables that Sherlock's vast brain records religiously.  In Sherlock's experience, John never speaks during his nightmares, though half-strangled sounds emerge at times, just before he turns onto his back.  But now his lips are soft, pliant, ready with hazily whispered words.

Marasta. 

Wadrega. 

Zeh mutaasif yum.

John takes tea when awake that afternoon, and manages a few more biscuits.  But by nightfall, the fever has worsened, though he's now perfectly alert and awake and still a combination of annoyed and miserable and awestruck.

"Thirty-eight point eight," Sherlock reports gravely when the thermometer slips from John's mouth.  "Should I take you to hospital?"

"God, no, not for simple influenza," John sighs.  "They're stacked three deep as is, this time of year, and me a grown man.  I'll be fine."

You can't die of this.  There's only one like you in the universe, I know it.  And somehow you're mine.  The thought of a doctor tending to you instead of me doing it is like a slap in the face, but I'd endure that no matter how awful, him or her touching you, I'd let them, I really would, for your sake.  I'd not hurt them after, either.  I'd promise.

"Are you certain?" Sherlock demands.

"I'm sure you'll come up with a much more interesting way for us to die, one of these days," John returns dryly. Silently, Sherlock wholly agrees with him.

Throughout the course of the next two nights, Sherlock does things he hadn't ever imagined doing.  Things he'd never done previous.  He'd never before listened to the language spoken in the land of his own new dreamscapes, the tongue of deserts and beige camouflage and blood spurting from bullet wounds.  He can't stop dreaming of deserts, and now the whispers have a voice.  Before this incident--and it's now much more than an incident in Sherlock's mind--John had always been endlessly affectionate and yet completely in control of himself.  Deadly, in fact.  A force to be reckoned with.  John loses his mind during sex because he wants to, not because he can't help it.  Now he's completely vulnerable, just a shivering little pile of bones.  To Sherlock's shock, that makes the detective feel unspeakably kind.  As if, now that John is actually at his mercy, mercy is the only thing he wants to provide.

No, not mercy.  Mercy implies a crime.  Just what John deserves.

And Sherlock keeps on providing, he himself equally as shocked as John at the deeds which pour forth.  He'd not before stayed awake all night just to keep a steady hand on a sick man's breastbone and occasionally his brow.  He'd not ever held a mug of soup for someone while pretending that chap could probably manage it on his own when both men know it's an outrageous lie.  Although Sherlock had often cleaned dead flesh so as to get a better look at it, he'd never once fetched a cool bowl of water, and several towels and cloths, and then set to making a fever recede, by hand, on frantically shivering skin.  John's epidermis fights him all the while, the flushed skin raising hackles at the contact and John himself half gritting his teeth and half relaxing in intuitive relief.

"It doesn't matter now, you know," John says in a dry whisper at the end of one such session.

"What doesn't?"  The man in his arms has never felt smaller, and Sherlock's mouth is against John's temple, which is burning like a ransacked city.

"How it ends.  You're the only thing I'll ever want anymore."

John doesn't mean to say it, and that makes it true.

What Sherlock admits to himself (he's ruthless) and John doesn't suppose (he isn't) is that all of this business is just about the headiest power trip Sherlock Holmes has ever been on.  It's the bipolar opposite of charity.  Sherlock feels like a god even more than is usual, and a god without a small, steady being to clear his throat and correct the sleuth's thinking from time to time.  When he examines it ruthlessly (as is his habit), Sherlock adores being literally everything to his friend, and seemingly without any price tag involved in the selfish privilege.  After all, John seems gradually to be mending, and Sherlock couldn't invent a virus which could have given him a better series of small, infinitely precious gifts.  He loathes the suffering involved in John's ordeal and gladly would endure it himself if such were possible.  But since it isn't...

It's all more or less spectacular.

After a total of three days, John looks exhausted but is smiling inexplicably from the bed.  Sherlock, bearing tea on another rainy evening, assumes there is something to smile about and awaits news from the doorway.

"I'm sick to death of this room," John says.  "Let's move to the sofa."

Finally, the worst of it is past, Sherlock supposes.  He can't help but be glad, despite the tender confessions and the muttered Pashto and the fact that he'd practically held John in the palm of his hand.  Soon, John won't be miserable, and warmth spreads through Sherlock's chest at the thought of it.

They go into the sitting room and settle themselves along the sofa and turn on the telly, just for ambient noise to help John sleep.  North by Northwest is playing, and Carey Grant is preoccupied with elegantly dodging bullets and climbing cliffsides.

"He's dangerously good looking in this film," John muses.

Sherlock looks, considering.  If he were capable of being attracted to anyone else now there is John, and if he were capable of being attracted to aesthetics when removed from the real person, just appearance without knowledge of intellect or character, then yes, he sees John's point, as his few attractions have always been confined exclusively to homosexual encounters, though he's incapable of interpreting the current visual data flow sexually.  John isn't incapable, though.  John is normal.  And bisexual.

"Stop scowling, Sherlock.  He died about fifteen years ago.  Must have been over eighty years old by then."

Good, thinks Sherlock, well satisfied.

Then it occurs to him, in an idle way, that he'll never be that old.  For one thing, he's a person very, very apt to do dangerous--borderline deadly--things.  But for another, by the time he grows old, he won't be beautiful any longer himself, and that's the reason John stays, apart from his being amazing.  It certainly isn't because Sherlock is generally all that comforting or comfortable.  No, he's a beautiful specimen, one of a kind and all, and a wonder at that, but without being beautiful, there wouldn't be much reason for John to tolerate the rest of it. John is very patient, but it wouldn't be the same.

Then Sherlock starts wondering whether anyone else thinks about this, if this is normal, needing to stay beautiful or the world would careen off like a bowling pin, and winces to himself.  It can't possibly be a profitable line of thought, he supposes as he falls asleep at last.

The next day, they awaken on the sofa and the telly is still softly glowing.  John sits up with his back to Sherlock's pelvis, smoothing a hand over Sherlock's face.  He looks normal.  Not feverish at all.  Just John.  Weary and tireless and gentle and deadly and grave and funny and boyish and weathered.

"Good morning, crime scene," he says to Sherlock with a disbelieving smile.

"I missed you," Sherlock returns sleepily.

John bends down and touches his cheerful slope of a nose to Sherlock's elegant one.

"We also missed Christmas," he notes apologetically.  "But I'll make it up somehow."

"No need.  I'd not have wished it different."

Pausing, John blinks. "I...god help us.  Sherlock, you were amazing.  Are amazing.  I am amazed."  John smiles in a slightly abashed manner.  "Still, no need to pretend that was a picnic."

"No.  It was much better."

John's head tilts.  He frowns, and his lips purse in thought.  It occurs to the still very sleep-addled Sherlock that he had better shut up.  He's well in just now, John seems quite pleased with him, what with all the unexpected care-taking, but the doctor's face has clouded.  He's not angry, but he's puzzling something over.

"Um.  You liked the last few days, did you now?" he inquires.

Sherlock thinks very quickly.  He did, and he also didn't, not in the least.  But there's a right and a wrong way to say that.

What is the proper way? "There isn't anything about you I don't want," he says.  "Even when you're miserable and half-delirious.  It was something new about you, so I wanted it."

And that's the truth.  It's one of the truest things he's ever said.  But John doesn't answer.  He bites his lower lip, in fact, and--

"Thinking about you in pain is nauseating," Sherlock hastens to add.  "Thinking about you in pain without me, all alone, is--it's not bearable."

And that's also the truth.  One of the other truest things he's ever said.  It dissipates the growing maelstrom in John's already storm-coloured eyes, and John tilts his head and leans back in for a kiss, one that's thankful and trusting and oh so very, very warm.

The truth is a useful tool on occasion, Sherlock thinks as his breath is stolen away from him.

 


The next day, there is a case, and John manages to get himself locked in a fish freezer.  Sherlock rescues him by expertly picking a padlock, and when the Doctor walks out, his eyebrows are more or less frosted-over.  Sally Donovan puts him in a shock blanket and scolds him for tagging along after the likes of Sherlock Holmes, the tosser, but she's smiling in relief while she says it.  So Sherlock doesn't mind as much.  The day after that, Sherlock involves himself with a crime ring that's been passing along forged American paper currency made in South Korea, which earns him a gun to his head and a nasty bruise on his left arm from where the crowbar glancingly landed, and John clucks over the dark contusion in what seems to be irritation while the three men are led off in handcuffs.  After that, there is a case involving an insurance scandal and high finance, which takes up far more of Sherlock's time than he'd like, but ends with a spectacular showdown on the rooftop of a skyscraper, so that's something.

All in all, Sherlock doesn't have any time to think about his birthday until it is upon him.  January the 6th.

John is leaving for the clinic that morning, but he makes them both tea beforehand and puts Sherlock's next to where his hands are typing away on his laptop, explaining to someone in Georgia (the country, not the American state) that he absolutely requires the make of bicycle tire before he can get any further.

"I'm through at seven-thirty.  Meet me at Bart's at eight?"

"Hmm?"

Sherlock looks up, fingers pausing.

"You have another case," John explains, winking.

Sherlock frowns in disbelief.

"Fine.  There's a brilliant corpse I need you to look at."

"How brilliant?"

"So brilliant that Molly saved it for your birthday.  She emailed me about it."

This is puzzling.  But Sherlock enjoys puzzles.  Tremendously.

"Why would Molly email you about a corpse?"

"Why would you email Molly asking specifically for a victim of leprosy last Tuesday?" John counters on his way out the door.  "And why don't I mind?  People do eccentric things."

Sherlock arrives at Bart's morgue at ten to eight, his breath frosting in the chilled air outside the stately structure.  He follows his usual route and finds Molly sitting before a computer screen having a cup of coffee, wearing her lab coat and a new shade of mauve lipstick, entering the data from a post-mortem.  He glances over the information, reading it in two and a half seconds.  Boring.

"Hullo," she says cheerily.  "God, it's awful."

"What?" Sherlock inquires.

"You.  Poor little thing.  Having to work on your birthday.  John said it was a case, very secret and hush-hush and all.  Told me to tell you he's in Room 114.  Already working on it.  Hope it won't take you long.  Do the pair of you fancy a birthday pint after?  My treat, of course, there's a very nice--"

But Sherlock is already out the door by this time.  Heading swift and sure for room 114, which is a normal, small, dull room for private medical examinations.  It's for tapping people on their kneecaps and taking their blood pressure.  He cannot imagine what John could possibly be doing there.  If he'd truly found Sherlock a leprous corpse, he'd have kept it in the morgue.  John is keen on sanitation.  Very keen.  No one in in the hallway, and Sherlock's shoes echo against the floor.  There.  Room 114.  The light within is turned on.  Reaching out, Sherlock twists the door handle.

When Sherlock enters the spare, square chamber, he at once stops in his tracks.  Shocked into stillness.

John is sitting on an examination table, wearing blue scrubs that make his eyes bluer, barefooted, his head covered with an interconnected net of white electrodes.  The little nodules are resting against his scalp over his downy hair, and against the upper part of his brow.  There are perhaps three dozen of them, and they are all attached at the base of his skull to a slightly wider cord, which runs loosely down from the padded table and over to another table and plugs into a small box which resembles a cheap beige radio.  Sherlock knows without being told that the box is a portable recording device meant to store medical readings.  And he can also see that the box itself is plugged into a small computer monitor which is currently blank.  But apart from that, his brain has stopped working entirely.  His friend is smiling, equal parts confidence, good humour, and amused nerves, beneath the tiny discs of white plastic.

"Happy birthday," he says.  "Lock the door somehow, won't you?"

Sherlock closes the door and props a folded metal chair back under the handle. He goes back to staring.

"Is something wrong?" he asks at length, as it's the best he can come up with.

"God, I hope not.  Come here, you, we haven't got all night.  Only about...I should say thirty minutes, in fact, before things start to look spotty to Molly."

As Sherlock walks to the examination table, John reaches over to the box he's wired to and flicks a switch.  Lines appear on the monitor, a series of elegant waves as lovely and even as a summer's ocean.  They're moving.  John claps his hands lightly as if he's beginning something, firing a gun at the start of a race.

Sherlock discovers that his diaphragm is paralyzed seconds later, when he realizes what exactly this is.

"You probably know this is all about voltage.  Do you?  Of course you do.  The synchronized activity over the neuron network plays out onscreen as oscillations.  Currently, I'm anxious you're going to find all this utterly crackers, so you should be seeing that my beta bands are emitting low amplitude waves.  Just there, at twelve to thirty Hertz.  Right.  What else.  Well, currently, my synaptic activity is quite firmly within parameters.  From what I can tell.  I decided to use an average reference montage rather than--"

"I wanted to open up your skull and see inside."

John stops.  He glances at Sherlock and then back at the screen, the bluish white glow with the squiggly lines running along it horizontally.

"You did," he concedes, "but that sounded rather a lot of bother.  On my end, anyway."

"I wanted to read your thoughts."

"Thank Christ that's never going to happen."

"I wanted to map every fold of your brain."

"Yep.  So I gathered."

Sherlock is speechless.

John's lips push forward.  "Do you still, then?  Or have I the wrong end, and you've--hang it all, you think this is lunacy, don't you?  Listen, it isn't as if you wanted anything for Christmas, so I wasn't about to go through that rigamarole again a week later.  Finding you some...some thing.  You don't consider food recreational, so taking you to dinner is out.  And it isn't as if I can just hand you a birthday voucher for a blow job or something, our sex life is brilliant, I'm not exactly a slouch and I can barely keep up with you.  You're like the Bobby Fischer of sex.  Are you even listening to me?"

"That's your brain," Sherlock whispers hoarsely, still staring at the lines.  "What you're thinking.  This is an electroencephalogram."

If Sherlock wanted to rip his eyes off the stately progression of various neural frequencies, he would be physically incapable.  It isn't that they're elegant and organic and mathematical and gorgeous and pure and human and divine.  Though they are.  It isn't that they're the closest scientific approximation to John's thoughts he's likely ever going to view.  Though they're that, as well.  It isn't even that he can see clear as day all the aggregated individual interactions and permutations between the billions of neurons living inside the skull of the man he loves so much that it hurts to look at him occasionally.  That's true too, but that isn't what strikes Sherlock right through his core either.  It's that John said that he deserves privacy, and privacy means keeping some things hidden, and John has just invited Sherlock inside his head. The detective feels as if he's just crested the top of a roller coaster.

He is falling either:

1) in circles like a felled predator

2) to pieces

3) in on himself

4) through the dull grey floor

5) apart or perhaps

6) in love

though that seems rather redundant at this juncture.

"Tell me I'm permitted to touch you this very instant," Sherlock commands, "or something genuinely terrible is going to happen."

John just grins at him.  It feathers the crow's feet around his dark eyes in ways that currently give Sherlock what feels like actual arrhythmia.  Then John glances down at an object resting on the table to his right.  It's a testament to his complete loss of logical faculty that Sherlock missed a small tube of lubricant in plain sight.

"Idiot.  If you couldn't touch me, what would be the point?"

It takes two strides to reach the exam table, and four more to grip John by the legs and swing him entirely round so his back is to the monitor and Sherlock has reached the opposite side, looking over John's shoulder.  He has a clear view of the screen and John doesn't, but presumably this is being recorded for posterity.  And if not, Sherlock is going to fucking well devour every instant of it in great bloody dripping greedy handfuls.

Keeping his eyes up, he fastens his lips to the side of John's neck just above his carotid artery.  The pulse leaps a little, which is sublime but also normal.

A line on the screen quivers, which is heartrending.

"Glad you're finally on my page here.  I was hoping you'd see what you could do about my theta bands," John breathes.

"I presume they indicate arousal in the adult brain."

Not stopping what his teeth are doing to the sinews of John's neck, Sherlock reaches behind himself and tugs his arms out of his jacket, throwing expensive fabric mindlessly on the floor.  Then he brings his hands up, one to the other side of John's neck and one to his upper thigh, caressing the muscle beneath the soft cloth of the scrubs.  When he sucks a mark onto John's throat, the man under him shivers at the same time he half-laughs.

At the same time a digital black line throbs.

Sherlock's eyes flutter shut without his permission.  Furious, he wrenches them open again.

"If you actually were a vampire, which you aren't, now would be a good time, don't you think?" John asks teasingly.

John is playing with fire in the worst way, though he hasn't the slightest idea that's the case.  Sherlock could take a scalpel and cut him open just to taste the blood at the moment, the blood that's mostly John's but also a bit Sherlock's.  Sherlock could bite off his earlobe and swallow it down.  He could fetch a rib separator so as to crawl into John's torso.  He doesn't need to, though, staring straight into John's skull.  And the most violent options don't seem at all conducive to his goal of witnessing what John's theta bands do when he's screaming the word Sherlock.  So instead, he slides his hands up under the soft blue shirt and then drags his fingernails down his friend's chest.  John shudders pleasantly again, electrical readings fluctuating, and then reaches for Sherlock's belt buckle.

"Don't touch me."

"But--"

"Leave off."

"I thought--what's wrong?"

"Let me have this, please, oh please let me have this," Sherlock begs breathlessly, his eyes darting to John's.  "Let me know your mind."

"God yes, but don't you--"

"I can't watch if I'm distracted.  I can't--"

"Hush," John murmurs.  "Anything you want.  Well, within--you know.  Let's both emerge intact.  But Sherlock, god, anything."

"Then say anything again."

Sherlock is focusing his full attention on the monitor screen now, and when John smiles and repeats the word anything, meaning what he says for the third time, a slightly differently pitched little series of spikes appear.

That is too good for any English words to qualify, and requires immediate further escalation, and so Sherlock sets his full mouth over John's thin one, begging immediate entry, tasting his breath and his lips and his heart and no that's wrong anatomically where did that come from his teeth yes that's right and his tongue and how in the name of god did I ever find this man.  Out of the corner of his eye, he can still see the readout, it's well in his periphery, and--though it's a job not to close his eyes when kissing John Watson--the increase in wavelength of one data stream is enough to send wild sparks careening down his spinal column.  He's so lightheaded for a moment that he does allow his lids to fall, just as John's have fallen, already breathless and panting and god can John be enjoying this too, can John Watson actually be mad enough to be aroused that Sherlock is in his fucking head?

Wrenching himself away momentarily, Sherlock tugs at the drawstring on the scrubs.  John lifts himself up and then they and his pants are gone, joining Sherlock's suit jacket on the ground.  Something about that is wonderful, but not as good as kissing, and so Sherlock returns to that activity with a hungry growl.

"What do you want?" John gasps when Sherlock is wedged between his knees and neither of them are getting nearly sufficient levels of oxygen.

"Everything."  The soft laughter bubbles up from nowhere, from both of them at once, mingling with the kissing neither knows how to stop.  "I told you.  Absolutely everything."

"Right you are.  That was...day two.  I didn't fully grasp it at the time."

"You don't fully grasp it now.  And it's Day Three Hundred and Seven."

"Stop giggling, you can't giggle, it's a hospital.  Sherlock.  Sherlock."

Sherlock's eyes widen.  "Say my name again.  Now."

John complies, but lower, darker, more.  The results are conclusive.  John saying Sherlock while Sherlock watches his brainwaves flutter with wanting is better than John saying Sherlock in their bed, against the wall, at a crime scene, after a blood transfusion, in any other situation he can recall.

"Do you want to see it too?" Sherlock questions with his lips over the perfect cleft in John's chin, realizing that John is missing his own data stream.  It's the only completely altruistic query John is going to get out of this encounter.

"What?  The reading?  I don't care about the reading, there's something much more interesting in here." John swings his legs back up and lies down on his side facing Sherlock, propped on one elbow so as not to damage sensitive medical equipment, his lips flushed and one knee up, cocking an eyebrow.

Sherlock knows the unspoken suggestion fuck me somehow when he sees it and considers it his privilege to comply.

And the strangest part of all is what's so natural about doing something so entirely mad.  Later, when he remembers it, Sherlock doesn't think exclusively about the delicate pulsing waves that flowed past his vision whenever his eyes shifted upward, the dips and valleys of John's thoughts, the poetry of neurons spiking, the undertow of John's anxieties and his memories and his sadness, the mountain ranges of electrogalvanic passion, the music of his brain's energy mapped and laid out for the scientist like a human sacrifice.  Granted, that waterfall of data was giving him what felt like a sustained intellectual orgasm, but that isn't all.  It isn't all, and that shocks Sherlock, shakes him down to his bones.  When he remembers, he remembers that his hand stroking John created one pattern, of course he does.  And that his mouth on John created another.  But then his thoughts fly to the taut muscles of John belly quivering as his lips skimmed them.  The same as they always do.  To what good clean sweat in the crease of John's thigh always tastes like.  To John saying please and then fuck and then like that, oh like that, god yes.  All of which is normal.  To the happy, uncalculated, almost self-deprecating huff of breath he gives when Sherlock's fingers first curl up inside of him, and how after that sound, John's eyelashes always flicker like moths, and how during what they still call Last Wednesday they hadn't hijacked any expensive medical equipment but it was still perfect anyhow, that taking John apart is both the means and the end and the goal and the journey, no matter if his cranium is transparent or not.

John means to finish quietly, undone by Sherlock's two hands and with his head thrown back.  Sherlock can tell.  But it doesn't go quite the way John wants it to.  The quiet.

After, John sits up, breathing hard.  He reaches for a cloth on the nearby table and wipes it over his stomach, tentatively smiling.  Sherlock is leaning heavily with both hands on the exam table's edge, unmoving, his lips parted, still riveted by the readout.  When John's hand brushes over his friend's perfectly flat and respectable trouser flies, Sherlock's eyes wince shut.

"Hey."  John's voice is worried.  "You're not even...maybe this wasn't the sort of thing you meant by--"

"Shut up, please," Sherlock hisses. He closes his mouth again.

He didn't mean to say that, even softened with a please.

But it is all much too much at the moment.

It is all much too much for several very long moments, in fact.

He can hear John sliding down, can hear him disengaging the gelled-on electrodes with professional medical efficiency.  Next he can hear the click of the machine shutting off, and John re-dressing in his scrubs, and John setting Sherlock's rumpled suit jacket to his immediate left, and finally John easing his hands over Sherlock's on the padded surface from across the table.

If he opens his eyes, Sherlock thinks from within a painful haze of downward-spiraling delirious sensory overload, it will be the death of him.

Gradually, Sherlock becomes aware in the darkness that John has unbuttoned one of his shirt cuffs and rolled up his right sleeve.  His small, deft index finger touches Sherlock's inner arm, sure but light.  Unobtrusive.

T-H-A-T W-A-S A-M-A-Z-I-N-G

Quirking his lips, Sherlock feels himself blushing.  Blushing is undignified.  But clearly can't be helped.

He doesn't move, though, can't stomach the notion yet.  After another very long silence, John's fingertip begins writing again.

D-I-D I B-R-E-A-K Y-O-U-R B-R-A-I-N?

Sherlock shakes his head, smiling a little wider.

W-H-A-T A-R-E Y-O-U T-H-I-N-K-I-N-G O-F?

Exhaling slowly, Sherlock captures John's hand in both of his and settles down on his elbows, leaning over with eyes still shut.  It's growing better now.  He'd supposed from the instant his eyes first closed that coming down from a sustained mental plateau of that height would give him irreparable psychic bends, and he has absolutely no doubt that he was right.  Nothing like this has ever happened before, but he does know his own mind.  That it was all rather touch and go for a moment.  He knows his own heart too, the one that isn't meant to be there, and he thinks to himself that he will never repay his friend for this, that the balance is irretrievably lost, that all his life, he will now be working to adequately thank a man for having given him something he didn't even know that he wanted.  And if he'd wanted it in the first place, Sherlock knows he'd probably not ever have mentioned it.  Turning John's hand over, he touches his friend's palm.

Y-O-U

When Sherlock eyes open a moment later, they are already looking into John's.  As if they can see him in the pitch black.  As if they'd been looking at each other all along.

 

 

 

Sherlock and John arrive home at nine thirty, Sherlock carrying a wrapped birthday gift from Molly.  She had been her usual fluttery, buoyant, askew self despite being turned down over a trip to the pub, good-naturedly still fretting over Sherlock for having to work on his birthday and smiling at John because John removed the single greatest source of unresolved stress from her life several months ago by sleeping with Sherlock.  Molly had held the present out, with her arm straight and her hair in her eye, looking like a cat who'd swallowed a canary.

"I think it's right up your street, Sherlock," she'd said.

Sherlock, by now capable of rudimentary English, had taken the gift and thanked her politely because he hadn't yet gotten any further towards recalling how people behave, let alone how he behaves specifically.  He was going on instinct.

"You're nice like this," John teased him as he hailed a taxi.  "You've got manners and everything.  How long will it last, d'you think?"

Sherlock glares.  But he takes John's hand, and he keeps it for the entire ride home.

Sitting at their Food and Experiments table, staring at the cup of tea John just passed to him, Sherlock begins to feel almost normal.  Or if not normal, as usual.  He looks up at where John, still in scrubs, is writing his clinic schedule on their calendar.  John the Doctor.  John, who can speak in dead tongues.  John, who once gave him blood, and whose thoughts resemble brightly sparking little live wires.

"I don't know what to say," Sherlock says.

"Neither do I, at the moment.  And I'm a bit distracted.  Maybe because you kept your clothes on, who knows, I've been thinking that you are so beautiful as to be a biological impossibility."  Turning, John smiles easily.  "Go on, then.  What did Molly give you?  Looks like a book."

The thin paper tears off easily and Sherlock turns the volume over to read the title.

"Perfume," he reports.  "The Story of a Murderer, by Patrick--"

"Bloody hell."

The book is whisked from Sherlock's hands before he has time to blink by a suddenly very active ex-military doctor.  John puts the table back between them at once.

"Just a moment," Sherlock objects irritably.

John is holding the book firmly and just a little behind him, as if its contents were visible with the spine closed.  His eyebrows are raised, as they are when he's putting his foot down, but Sherlock hasn't the slightest notion of why.

"Right, you're not reading this," John declares, walking to the sink cupboard and binning the gift.

"That was mine," Sherlock snaps.

"Now it's rubbish.  But it was a nice gesture."

"What in the name of actual bloody hell--"

"Sherlock, you don't give a damn about perfume, do you?"

"In the context of a crime scene I do.  And it said murderer."

John's hands slide to his face, and he rubs them up and down.  "Yes.  It...did.  Look.  You're not reading that.  You don't give a damn about fiction either, anyhow."

"Explain why you are stealing my property and then binning it before my eyes."

Blowing out a breath between his lips, John walks over to Sherlock and perches with legs spread in his lap.  His skin is warm under the scrubs, the compact musculature of his thighs pressing up into Sherlock's groin, and it isn't the slightest bit inelegant for all its simplicity, the way they fit together.  They fit like Sherlock crafted John out of clay and then breathed life into him.

"That isn't going to work," Sherlock says, petulant almost in spite of himself.

"Yes, it is."

"Tell me--"

"Which bits first?"  John nips at his neck softly.  "The part about how you're amazing, or the part about how goddamn beautiful you are, or the part about how I can't stop thinking about either one of them?  You are driving.  Me.  To distraction.  Hottest sex in ages, and I didn't even see you properly.  We're sorting that."

"But why did you bin--"

"Because you adore me, you infuriating work of art."

"Yes, but--"

"It's safer.  Trust me.  And if you think you are going to make it through your entire birthday without a shag, you are dreaming.  Stop thinking about literature.  Your knowledge of literature is nil, anyway."

John is nibbling at his ear.  "Not that I mind this, precisely," Sherlock sighs, "but frankly I'm a bit--"

"Knackered," John agrees.  "Dazed.  Blissed out.  Slow on the uptake.  High.  Thick.  Adorable."

"Shut up.  I meant--"

"I know what you meant.  I can take care of it.  I haven't wanted to fuck you this much since that night you wore the tuxedo when we were tailing the fence trying to sell that stolen Greuze."

That does the trick.

And really, he should do this more often, he thinks.  It's lovely to be undressed and gently pushed into bed when it's by John, and it's lovely to be moved to your side with your knees pulled up a bit and a soft pillow under your head, and it's lovely to know that's because John is half a foot shorter, and having the upper curve of your shoulder and your arm and the back of your neck kissed while John is moving slowly behind you is lovely too.  The first time, after the fight over Charles, Sherlock had imagined his spine was unraveling, just untwisting like a tightly braided cord being pulled apart all the way up into his brain, and had been ever so slightly frightened of it despite the jolts like tiny hits of heroin over and over again.  Because no matter how much of a top Seb may have been, and how badly Sherlock had wanted to remain agreeable for once in his life, that had never happened before.  With Seb, or with any of the others.  But with John, things fray all to pieces at their edges.  He'd never conceived of anything like it.  But now he's better used to it, John's hand on his hip and in his hair, can feel his mind unspooling without supposing John is untethering it entirely and plans to let it go like a bunch of balloons over the Thames.  And John is saying beautiful when Sherlock shudders at last, so fucking beautiful, and so it's fine, being unspun like a jumper with a hole in it.  Everything is fine.

"You," John says twenty minutes later, having showered briefly and returned to bed smelling of soap, "are a very clever boy.  Here it's your birthday and I'm having the time of my life."

Sherlock tucks his face further in against John's neck.  One of his ankles is crossed over John's, and he rubs them together lazily.

"My knowledge of literature is not nil," he drawls stubbornly, pouting.  "And I still want to know why I can't be trusted to read.  How am I to improve literature knowledge when you won't even let me have books?  Why did you chuck it out?"

"Professor Hawking, just what department do you chair at university?"

Sherlock scowls.  It's more determined and masterful than laughing, he supposes.  But it doesn't hold up for very long.  It's a fragile scowl, brittle, and it breaks into a wry half-grin before he can manage to salvage it.

 



The following week, Sherlock receives a very strange appeal from Lestrade.

When he and John arrive at the house, Lestrade hands over a number of photographs.  The atmosphere inside the parlour they stand in is oppressive--thick and a bit musty.  It's clean, though, and nicely decorated, all stripes and quiet blues, and Anderson is dusting for prints on the upright piano.  Sherlock imagines his head exploding like a pumpkin dropped from a building and then moves on to the evidence.

"My god," John breathes.

There are several pictures of a pair of men.  Both look wild-eyed, their faces contorted in freakish pain, shrieking something at the camera.  They're crime scene photos, snapped without regard for aesthetics, looking like something from a horror film.  One of the men is being given an injection by an emergency medical tech.  The other is laughing in the most horrifying way possible.

"That would be George and Owen Tregennis," Lestrade explains.  "Daft as a sack of jackals.  As of yesterday morning, when they were found in this room.  Not previously given to fits.  I've seen them an hour back, they're even more charming in person."

"They remind me of someone," Anderson mutters pointedly.

Ignoring him, Sherlock moves on to the next still.  It's a woman, previously very pretty, clearly the sister of the other pair by the evidence of her chin, her face both demented and blasted with terror.  She's sitting in a chair with her hands fixed to a card table with a number of beer bottles resting on it, and her is mouth gaping open, eyes looking glassy and demon-possessed.  Very dead.  Dead how Sherlock can't tell, but she looks...frightened to death.

"Pretty, isn't it," Lestrade agrees dryly.

"Fascinating," breathes Sherlock.

"Disgusting," gripes Anderson.

"Your knack at marital fidelity, or whatever drug these people took?" John asks sweetly.

Sherlock flashes John a glance and quirks a smile at him.

They learn as much as they can from the official police.  Brenda had a fiance, for instance, a celebrity doctor John has heard of who does AIDS and other virus-related work in Africa.  He's in town at the moment, but has a very valid alibi, as he was giving a lecture on bush meat before a crowd of fifty people.  He is about to return to his studies in the jungle.  The trio have another brother who was absent from the proceedings but dropped by earlier in the evening, and discovered the bodies when he returned the following day to fetch an umbrella he'd left behind.  He appears to be in shock, according to Lestrade, and his name is Morty.  Morty is of the opinion that his siblings got their hands on some sort of illicit drug cocktail, a badly laced batch of meth or LSD, and took it while partying the previous evening, not knowing its potential effects.  Sherlock, looking around and sniffing, isn't so sure.  Neither is John.

"These could have been accidental deaths," John says judiciously.  "But lord, what a way to go.  It's a dreadful business.  And if they all took the same dosage, why was the girl the only one killed?  She's not so very different in weight.  Are there toxicology reports yet, Lestrade?"

"Not as such.  No track marks, though, and no trace of anything left lying about either.  Pipes, syringes, what have you.  We took blood from the two men, but nothing's come of it yet.  Sherlock, why are you staring at the fireplace?  Christmas is over."

Sherlock is staring at the fireplace because according to the photos, Brenda had been seated closest to it.  And Sherlock's nose is very sharp indeed.  And something in this room is a Bit Not Good.  He points.

Lestrade and Sherlock stare down at the grate.  Most of the ash looks normal, but there's a very fine powdering of queer grey powder on one of the fire irons.

"Well spotted, you.  Could mean something.  Oi, Anderson, take as many samples as you can from this fireplace.  Whether these deaths were accidental or not, how the drug was delivered might give us some answers."

"You think it was airborne," John muses as they hail a cab outside, directing the driver to New Scotland Yard while Lestrade follows in a police car.  "Whatever poison that was."

"I think it was new," Sherlock whispers.

"Well, hallelujah, then--that's a 'new' I could have done without, thanks awfully."

Morty Tregennis turns out to be a landscaper, a weedy, sweating fellow with mean eyes and a red nose.  His siblings were lushes, he claims--beloved, but experimental drug freaks.  Who knows what they could have dug up to snort off of mirrors this time.  Or cooked up out of night liquid?  He's heard rumours of such things.  But he is heartbroken, and poor dear Brenda, and are George and Owen feeling any better yet?

"Not likely to," Lestrade says gruffly.

"It's all too horrible," Morty says tearfully.  "It was awful to see.  I couldn't stand it, and when they arrived after I called nine nine nine, they all turned white as a sheet."

Sherlock tries not to smirk at this news, that the atmosphere in the room had previously been still more oppressive, and fails.  John catches his eyes but says nothing.  After promising Lestrade that Sherlock will keep him informed this time, for once, god help us, Sherlock and John leave the Yard.

But by that time, even so early in the proceedings, not everyone is quite so well-informed as they could be.

For instance, Lestrade doesn't know that Sherlock collected a quarter-ounce of dust from the bottom of the fireplace at the blighted Tregennis house when they weren't looking.  When Sherlock had asked Lestrade to check the bathroom for pills the siblings could have powdered.

Neither does Anderson, the twit.  He'd had his back turned very, very pointedly whilst alone with The Freak.

John doesn't either.  He'd been going through the kitchen supplies, looking for evidence of the Tregennis family having ever cooked up their own special mixtures.  He doesn't know when they leave the stifling residence, and he doesn't know when they exit the Yard, and he doesn't know when they go home, and he doesn't know when he pays for the cab fare because Sherlock never has any cash on him, grumbling about just how many favours Sherlock expects per day on average, though Sherlock points out that John likes doing him favours, and he doesn't know when he pops down to the corner shop for a sandwich and a bag of crisps.  John, after all, grows hungry frequently.

And then Sherlock is alone in his flat.  He takes out the dust he'd scraped into an evidence bag and he looks at it.

Sets it on the kitchen table.

Gets a glass slide out of his chemistry kit.

There will always be a moment of choice in these situations, Sherlock knows.  It is never simply involuntary.  Just because he feels compelled to do it doesn't mean his feelings rule his brain.  They don't.  As he had watched his own hand rising to his lips with the cabbie's poison pill, granted, he had thought himself in the right regarding his choice.  Safe.  But that hadn't meant the notion of dying was any less thrilling than usual.  Going to see Jim Moriarty alone was tragically stupid in retrospect, but nevertheless it was his own decision and he cannot pretend not to have loved the risk of it.

Sherlock is too ruthless for that.

So when the spent powder (it's spent, isn't it?) is there on the glass slide (like no drug he's ever seen before, like a new species, like a miracle), and he is trying to think how to identify it in their kitchen (analytical method must be chosen carefully when dealing with such a small sample) and not at Bart's (too great a chance for interruption, this is delicate work), Sherlock knows perfectly well that burning the stuff would be dangerous.

Unhealthy, potentially.

But not deadly.  Surely not?

It's the question mark he loves like almost nothing else.

So he flicks a lighter on and holds it under the slide.

At first, nothing happens.

Then a violent smell like hashish laced with mortuary chemicals assaults his nostrils, and he gasps, choking.  Feels the bile rise up in the back of his throat.

Bad idea.

Sherlock makes it to the sink and shoves the slide under the tap just as the front door opens.  It's John, probably.  Yes, it's John, because John is saying something, and now dropping the bag he was carrying, and now John is racing to the windows and throwing them open, and now he's shoving Sherlock into the bedroom, onto the bed, not being gentle, closing the door behind them to block away whatever-is-infecting-the-sitting-room, and--

~~~~~~~~~~~~~ssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS

Sherlock flinches, shoving his palms over his ears.  There is a horrible hissing screeching high-pitched whining static just above the screaming now.  And a lingering sense of dread.  He's used to the shrieks of his mind, has always heard them and will always hear them, and maybe he's immune to the true horror of this drug, since what's in his mind anyhow isn't exactly a stroll through the Park.  He isn't seeing visions, and the darkness inside him isn't worse than normal.  It doesn't make him want to scream the way the others had in the photographs.  To hide away from the terror of it.  But his heart is hammering and his lungs are dragging in trickles of air against a closing throat and John is straddling him on the bed, his knees spread, shouting something with his dark blue eyes raging.  He tears Sherlock's hands away from his head.

"--swear to Christ on my life, if you weren't such a fucking sick bastard.  Sherlock.  Answer me, damn you.  That was the poison, you found it, the poison from--"

"I think I'm dying," Sherlock realizes.

And the moment he realizes that for a fact...it's fine.

Everything is fine.

It could have been so much worse than this.  This is the right way.

John is here.  So it's fine.

It's such a relief, as a matter of fact, that it's all over.  John is here, he won't die alone, will have spent every last second with his friend.  He doesn't deserve it, but he's getting it.  His dying wish.  More or less.

Really, it's an honest to god dream come true.

"No."  John clenches his fists in Sherlock's shirt.  "No.  You are not.  Sherlock, breathe a little slower.  Calm down.  You're going to be fine, just--"

But he isn't.  Sherlock isn't not-breathing-right because it's an interesting trick and breathing is boring.  It's because he can't help it.  And his heart...

his heart...

"No.  No, you are not fucking doing this to me, Sherlock Holmes."

Sherlock's eyes squeeze shut.  The pain is excruciating.  Deserved, he thinks, because his friend sounds anguished.  He's never heard anyone sound like that.  John is saying his name again, just over and over, frantic, Sherlock, and it's like he's praying for something.  It's wonderful.  Sherlock ought to say goodbye.  Now is clearly the time for it.  And John shouldn't look this frightened.  Why does he look so?  Everything is fine, after all.  It's as it should be.  What would he most like to say to John, if he didn't have time to explain it, wanted it to be correct from the beginning, needed English to work the way it's meant to for the very last time?

"If you hadn't been in the world," Sherlock says, "it wouldn't have been worth visiting here at all."

John screams something in return, but Sherlock can't hear it.

He think it's still his name.

What a perfect way to begin the greatest adventure of all.

 

 



Sherlock falls into a dream just before he dies.

Or he lands himself in a strange limbo, possibly, as he passes on.  He can't be quite certain which.

Someone in his mind is singing a song he once heard in an independent record store, and--with his agonizingly perfect recall--he can remember every word of it as he slips down beneath the lip of the world, even though he'd been busy half-throttling a blackmailer in the jazz section during the first and only time that he'd listened to it play.

To escape you must've been brave

It was a frightening case

Where somebody chased you to the same place where your eyes closed

It is night in the Afghan desert.  Before Sherlock stands John, looking delighted to see him.  His shoulders are thrown back easily, quite free of care, and he's illuminated by the bright grey glow of the countless stars overhead.

Say hello to the monster in your home

Who roams around when he thinks that he's alone

The light is otherwordly, shocking.  There isn't any moon, but the stars are beyond Sherlock's imagining, and that is saying a great deal--they're staggering in number and almost blinding in intensity against an ebony backdrop, sharp as glass and twice as painful, for they burn coldly.  Sherlock knows without asking that he's in the Maiwand District, in the shifting sands north of Kandahar, and that the night sky really looks like this there--stars gone dangerous and cutting, as deadly in their way as some of the men who live under them.  Sherlock has always loved starlight, but this is different, almost too much.  The constellations he's always appreciated without knowing why now prick at his pupils.

"You're here," John says happily.  In the starlight, he looks like a black and white photograph.

"I always come here now," Sherlock answers.

"No, this is different.  This time you're staying.  I'm so glad."

Grinning, John crosses his arms.  He looks happier than Sherlock can ever recall seeing him, and it suddenly occurs to the detective that there isn't any scarring beneath the black and white striped jumper and the casual jeans.  John is completely unscathed.  Flawless.  Quite entirely wrong.  Sherlock's skin prickles uncomfortably.  The question may not be where they are, but rather when.

"You haven't been hurt yet," Sherlock says, confused.  "This is you before deployment.  But this is Afghanistan, I know it must be.  Your blood makes me dream of it."

"Close," John concedes.  "Not far off.  Good enough for horseshoes, anyhow.  We're somewhere else.  You'll love it here, Sherlock--I was tired of waiting, you know.  I mean to say.  I'd have waited forever, but this is much better.  Good lad."

Sherlock makes a full circle, looking around them.  Only desert, as far as the eye can see.  Endless desert, not even any mountains at the edges, and that can't be right, and the sky is too close and too bright, and John too happy, and everything piercingly cold.

No one can hear you scream, John says kindly.

No, that's the song.

"Listen to it here, Sherlock," John instructs.  "Not the song, love.  Not back there.  The world.  Where we are.  Just listen a moment.  Listen."

Sherlock cocks his head, and...and he doesn't hear anything any longer.  No song, and no ambient buzzing, and no drone of far-off machines.  No animals.  No whispers of wind.  He can't even hear John breathing.  He can't hear his own pulse.  Why can't he hear what ought to be ringing in his ears, since his nerves feel so highly strung at the moment?  Where is the pressure, the relentless beat? 

Sherlock puts his fingers over his own wrist and finds his heart has stopped.

That explains that, then.

John smiles, open and wistful.  "Isn't it just what you've always wanted?" 

Actually, it's exactly that.

It's glorious.

It's everything the end of the world is supposed to be.

And Sherlock appreciates it, the silence and the stars and John.  But something is wrong.

"There's something I forgot," Sherlock announces.  "Somewhere else."

"An object?  A person?"

"No.  A reckoning," Sherlock says slowly.  "A balance."

John frowns for the first time.  Sherlock wonders how he knows John is unmarked below his clothing, but he's dead certain of it, that John's skin is smooth as the day he was born, and the knowledge eats at him even as the silence fills his chest with cool, watery peace and his eyes grow used to the piercing stars.

"Everyone leaves imbalances," John objects.  "Everyone.  You're staying here with me.  You don't need anything else.  Do you?"

" What are we to live on?" Sherlock inquires carefully.  As a test.

"We'll live on starlight and crime scenes," John says with infinite affection.  "Same as we always have."

That sounds right.

Doesn't it?

We two live on starlight and crime scenes.

Yes. It fits.

They always have done.

Say goodnight to the contents of your room

Trim the lights for the spinning of the moon

In your bed, it's a shoulder for your head or a helicopter pad

"Stop listening to yourself," John says patiently.  "You don't even like it, listening to yourself.  You never have."

"I've missed something," Sherlock insists.  "It was something important.  It had to do with you."

"But I'm right here.  And perfectly sorted, thanks."

Sucking in a breath, Sherlock closes his eyes.  Breathing hurts of a sudden, he finds, hurts as badly as anything he's ever felt in his pain-ridden life.  It's too cold here.  John doesn't seem affected, but it's ungodly cold, the sort of frigid atmosphere that scalds the lungs.

"Sherlock, for god's sake.  Come on."

"I told you to stop listening to that," the quiet, scarless John reminds him.

Do you see in the corner of your eye that I'm standing by your side?

Nothing is making any sense.  That's infuriating.  Sherlock grits his teeth, hard, his airless lungs aching.  "I never meant to--"

"Just breathe for me.  Just once.  Please."

"I'm trying to reward you, and this is how you act?" John asks sadly.

"I'm sorry.  I like it here.  And here you are as well, with me, but I don't think I can stay.  It had something to do with a hospital.  You gave me what I'd always wanted, what I hadn't realized I could ever have."

"That does sound like me."

"Yes.  And I haven't repaid you yet.  Whatever it was."

You say I never leave But I've been everywhere

Sherlock doubles over, feeling as if his ears are bleeding and he's breathing in burning petrol.  Something in his breast aches, something like a bulbous bag over-full of liquid and about to explode within the confines of his torso.  Nothing ought to hurt this much.  Especially not here.  This is hell, probably, he supposes.  An eternity of it will be very unpleasant.  Something is crushing his chest cavity like a snail shell underfoot.  His collarbone is bending and his ribs cracking and breathing sulphur would likely be pref--

"Don't.  Don't, don't.  Breathe, damn you.  Please breathe."

"Goodbye," the John who has never been pierced by bullets says, waving.  "I wanted to keep you, very badly.  I'm so alone here."

Falling to his knees in the sand, a half-strangled scream escapes Sherlock's lips.  His body is being twisted in half and he doesn't want to leave John alone, not in the cold under merciless stars, he'd never do such a thing, abandoning--

"No.  Come back.  Oh, god, love, please don't.  Don't leave me here alone."

You're not blind

"You're killing me," Sherlock gasps in agony.

"You can't leave me this way."

There's not a star in the sky

"I'll wait for you," John says.  "I'll always be here.  It's like dying, though.  Every day.  A piece at a time."

It's like dying.

Dying--

DYING--

"Sherlock--"

The light is like an explosion.

It rips through him like a detonation, like dreams of chlorine and a soft Irish accent and a searing red dot on John's skull.

"Oh, thank you.  That's it.  Yes.  Yes.  Easy, now.  Easy.  I've got you, I've got you.  Stop thrashing."

Sherlock hadn't realized he was thrashing at all.  But he goes limp obligingly.  That sounds like John.  The ringing is still in his ears, but further away.  And Sherlock's pulse is back:

 

~

~

~

~

~

~

~

~

 

And nothing has ever hurt this much.

Ever.

Not even before he Got Lost.

There are nails in his chest, he's sure of it.  Driven through the skin.

Someone is whimpering a little, just a soft moan, and Sherlock suspects it's him.  It certainly isn't his friend.  Who is speaking.

"Shh.  It's fine now.  Easy there.  You're fine."

Sherlock can't be expected to judge time very accurately just at the moment, but he suspects that nearly ten minutes go by as he gets his breath back.  All the while, his head expands and contracts like a bellows.  His lungs burn.  His blood pumping feels like being punched in the breastbone repeatedly.  He's still lying back on the bed and now John is stretched out beside him, just whispering soft phrases, his fingers firmly tucked into the pulse in Sherlock's throat.  Not moving.  Just feeling the rhythm.  As if it might stop again.  It strikes Sherlock that John's hand isn't trembling.  It's very warm and steady, like John's heart.

After enough time passes, Sherlock struggles to a sitting position.  John readily follows him.

Blinking, the sleuth breathes in.  That was very fast, very deadly, and very disorienting.

But he's getting himself back again, and when he hadn't thought it possible.

"Better now?" John asks gravely.

Sherlock nods.

"Not dying any longer?"

He shakes his head.

"Right."

The slap is completely unexpected, the efficient, sharp, driving, open-palmed blow of a man who knows what he's doing when it comes to his hands.  Sherlock's head twists as the side of his face begins to burn.

Interesting.

But then, John is nothing if not unpredictable.

"How dare you," John growls through his teeth.

Rubbing at the side of his face, Sherlock wonders where to start.  This is not going to be...pleasant.  In fact, the slap, as it was fascinating, will probably prove to have been the highlight.

"It might have been an unjustifiable experiment," he admits rather shakily, thinking it a good start.  "But I needed to know--"

"No," John snaps.  "You did not 'need to know' what it felt like.  You did not 'need to know' what I look like, finding you've gone suicidal with crime scene evidence.  We did not 'need' this."

"I didn't imagine the effect would be so sudden," Sherlock says.  It's entirely true.  "Or so severe."

They fall quiet for a while.

"It also didn't have the effect on me it had on the others," Sherlock observes at length.  "It didn't drive me mad, for one."

"It would be fucking superfluous, the driving you mad," John snarls.  "Testing an airborne poison by burning it?  You're already mad.  There's wild experiments, and then there's.  You ought to be sectioned."

"God, if I could only die that way, though," Sherlock says to himself, shutting his eyes and remembering.  "Later."

"You'd like that, would you."  John's voice has gone strange.  Blank and grainy-sounding.  "Leaving me that way, in a completely nightmare scenario.  You can be...just...so cruel, it's shocking.  Have you any idea what it's like, having a man like you are in love with you?"

"No," Sherlock realizes.

"You wanted to leave.  I saw it.  You wanted to die.  Why did you come back, then?"

Sherlock opens his eyes.  John is crying.

Crying for the first time that Sherlock has ever seen.  It's strange and otherworldly and marvelous, this new expression of John's, because soldiers don't cry and John has never even hinted at being capable of such an act.  Sherlock fights as best he can not to look utterly enthralled, but it's a losing battle.  Three seconds in, and he's soaring, over the moon with new data.  John's face isn't screwing up in pain the way normal people do when they are forced into tears, it stays relaxed instead, though he blinks more readily than usual and his mouth looks softer, less like a steady little straight, tender line.  John crying is like no other fascinating thing Sherlock has ever seen.  It's a piece that he didn't even know he was missing, a facet so mysterious that it went unlooked-for all this while, like turning a page and suddenly finding it three-dimensional.  It feels a bit like fractals and considerably more like the colour violet, but really like nothing Sherlock has ever imagined.

And why did I come back, after all?

It would have been such a lovely way to die.  Just falling away like that, a drifting snowflake or the ash from a Marlboro cigarette, listening to John say the only name he ought to be able to remember by now.  John's voice the last sound he ever heard.  And then the screaming would have stopped.  Sherlock doesn't believe in Heaven, but he believes that much with all his heart, and it's like believing in Heaven from the perspective of a person whose world is inverted, he supposes.  When he dies, everything will be blank and quiet.  It will be a reward.

"I think because I owed you a favour," Sherlock says hesitantly.

It doesn't sound right and John puts his hand over his mouth, shaking his head.  He makes a muffled noise that might have been a curse.  The tears don't stop, and Sherlock thanks him silently for that, because how often is this going to happen?  Obviously not often, and he'll try to avoid causing this reaction in future, because people leave people who make them cry too frequently.  Everyone knows that.  It's a basic principle.  For the moment, though, it's like watching a star go supernova in real time.  John's eyebrows, in particular, are doing splendid new things.  And if he only makes John cry once, that ought to be acceptable by normal standards.

But soon enough, an all too familiar panic strikes Sherlock.  He knows he's staring and suddenly needs very badly to comprehend why John seems horrified.

"If you want to stop crying now, you can.  It's spectacular, but I won't be angry, I've already memorized it," Sherlock says in a rush of breath.

And god, his head aches, but he loves John so.  Pressing forward on the bed, he puts his mouth over John's eye, and John is going to know that it's half kiss and half an excuse to taste what salt water produced by John is like, but John is also going to know that at heart, those two motives are identical.  He has to know that by now.  If he doesn't, then his sense of context is thoroughly buggered.  Sherlock's lips part just barely over John's very soft and fragile-seeming eyelashes.

And it's stunning.

They currently taste vaguely of oysters and sweet grass, the moisture thicker than water, thinner than sweat.

That is incredible.

Sherlock can't help it, and a gust of happy breath escapes his not-quite-open mouth.  "Oh, god, John, you're perfect, you're...no.  That's not what I mean.  I mean...don't cry.  Am I meant to tell you not to?  I probably am."

John makes the sound he produces whenever Sherlock is tenderly choking off his air supply, his hands exploring the landscape of the back of Sherlock's dress shirt.

"The only reason you came back is because you owed me a bloody favour?  Like paying for petrol or doing the washing up?"

"Yes.  I owe you for the...  It was good."

"You lived because you owe me.  I think you've finally done it.  That is.  It's too much, Sherlock."

Too much is not a phrase with which Sherlock Holmes is at all comfortable.  But he's very familiar with it, whether it's Christmas or any other time of the year.

Too much.

Too much _______.

cocaine.

sound.

colours.

Anderson.

light.

knowledge.

greed.

detritus.

humanity.

melody.

chatter.

space.

sky.

at once.

meaning.

inanity.

morphine.

life.

small talk.

emptiness.

air.

idiocy.

smiling.

sensation.

ugliness.

silence.

insincerity.

data.

loveliness.

pain.

time.

Sherlock.

Bloody hell. 

Too much Sherlock, he means, John means the exact same thing I do.

"Listen, I'm glad I did, though, honestly," Sherlock says in reeling desperation.  "Otherwise I'd not have got to see you cry."

John's head tilts back as he laughs.  It's not a balanced laugh, nor is it in any way a happy one.  It's overwrought and sounds painful and means Sherlock has it quite wrong.  The tears were beautiful, but he doesn't like that sound out of John, it's violent and messy and more despair-laden than crying somehow.  John pushes his middle torso away, firmly, simply not wanting him near any longer, and Sherlock has him fiercely by the jumper with both hands an instant later.

Unfortunately.  But that's what happens, that's the sort of thing that happens, Sherlock thinks as the world turns universally beige in the space of about two seconds, when you don't know what's meant to happen next.

"Hell, John, just tell me what to say," Sherlock begs.  "I don't want you to be unhappy.  Look, the poison is still in my system, so I'm literally a crime scene.  You love crime scenes."

"Sherlock, stop talking," John gasps.  "I hate you more every second.  I love you and I hate you, and I can say that today, can't I, because you almost got away from us?  This whole fucking sideshow you loathe so much.  I can't.  I just...please stop.  Stop telling me to think of poison in your veins as an attraction, that you like to see me cry.  I love you, and I think you're breaking my heart."

"But that's backwards.  I love you, and I'm not even meant to have a heart."

It's wrong again.  John launches himself off the bed at this confession, tearing himself from Sherlock's grip.  He's pacing, quick little spurts back and forth on his short legs, furiously drying his face with his jumper sleeve.  Finally he comes to a brief stop in front of the wall and sends his fist flying at it.  It's not hard enough to make a hole, but it's hard enough to damage the fingers, and John flinches in pain, and Sherlock stares, feeling much more like he's drowning now than he did twenty minutes ago.

"So this is the way you really like it," John concludes, his back striking the wallpaper.  His legs seem exhausted suddenly, as the did that day at the public pool, and that's wrong, violently wrong, wrong enough to freeze Sherlock's breath in his throat.  "Fuck all the rest of it, crime scenes and electroencephalography.  You like being officially dead for twenty seconds or so while I do CPR and mouth-to-mouth on you, and then coming back because you feel vaguely obligated, and then watching me break.  That's.  That's a laugh a minute for you, a day worth making declarations on."

Wait a moment.

Sherlock is normally an unspeakably fast processor, but that was...

Oh.

I...

Yes. I see.

Not Fine List

5.  The Perfect Day.

Tell John you love him on the perfect day.

But I didn't say I loved you because today was so sublime.  I can't be entirely happy, you looking like that, weak in the knees like there's semtex hanging off you.  I could never be happy when you're propped against the wall like a broomstick, that would be impossible.  I said it because I thought you wanted to hear it.

And because it's true.

Meanwhile, Sherlock's tongue is glued fast to the roof of his mouth.

"I can take a lot of things," John whispers.  "But if this is truly your perfect day.  Then.  Well."

John folds his arms over his chest.  He stops talking.  He closes his eyes, delicate lashes drifting down towards deeply scored pain-and-suffering lines.  He stands perfectly still against the wall like an abandoned dust mop, and just exactly that colour too, and Sherlock can see his entire life crumbling, both of their lives, a thousand futures of cases and take-away and murders and sex and misunderstandings and jokes and obsession and quiet smiles and mingled blood gone in the blink of an eye.  A thousand threads of what-might-have-beens, all burning.

"Just because I want to die in your arms doesn't mean I'm sorry I didn't," Sherlock says when he can talk again.  "And I can't say the things you want to hear without knowing what they are.  You're too far away over there, come back.  It's not what you think."

"It's exactly what I think, Sherlock--if you could rewind today, do it all differently, you wouldn't want to, would you?"

"No, but that's because--"

"Because you are so selfish and so cracked that you'd rather break my heart than never have seen what it looked like.  You can't leave well enough alone, can you, you and your sodding science, you'd rather catalog this along with everything else than spare me the...fuck."

Sherlock once used dry ice in order to preserve an extremely delicate tissue sample, so of course he knows what dry ice feels like, the cold searing into his skin, because naturally he experimented.  But this is a bit more like a much rarer chemical compound he spilled on his wrist once, a frozen burning throbbing underneath the scalding panicky thought of NO.

"That isn't true and you know it," Sherlock snaps, rising.

"Then tell me you'd prefer that none of this ever happened.  Go on.  Jesus.  You can't, can you?"

"I can't because every time you save my life, my life means something to you, specifically.  None of this is news to you, by the way."  The sandy fear in his gut is sharpening his voice into still worse dagger points than usual.  "I hate when you pretend you're stupid.  You aren't this stupid, John.  You know me.  You've read me like a book."

"I once read a book about Afghanistan, too.  And then I saw it for myself."

They don't say much of anything after that.

John pushes himself off the wall and rubs his hand over his head.  He's not looking at Sherlock, and Sherlock desperately wants to be looked at just at the moment, he's good at non-verbal communication and anything he could possibly say right now would only make it worse supposing he is in fact the human personification of Afghanistan.  Speech would be shooting a revolver into the bottom of a sinking lifeboat.  Meanwhile, John walks to the bureau and slides his wallet in his pocket, checks his jeans for his phone.  He stands still for another moment and then straightens his shoulders, which means he's soldiering on, which makes sound sense if Sherlock is a desert where people shoot at him, and then his tongue touches his lower lip.  He's about to say something.  He doesn't want to say it, though, whatever it is.  And thus, whatever he's about to say is too terrifying to contemplate.

It has to be stopped.

"If you're going out, you've forgot your keys," Sherlock whispers.

He only means to forestall what John says next.

But John doesn't say anything.  He doesn't even look back when he leaves.

 

 

 

It isn't a bit the way Sherlock had thought it would be, being without John, he discovers on the first day.

He'd thought, for one, that it would last about eight hours at maximum before he was dead.  He'd supposed that a trip to Bart's pharmacy or a quick dip into a knife shop would solve the problem.  But just when he needs it most, he can barely stomach the idea.  If he dies, then he doesn't get to have John again, ever.  And anyhow, he doesn't deserve something so nice as dying, not after what he did.  He still owes John.  The asymmetry is still there, even if John isn't around to be kind to, which scrapes steadily at his skin.

The eight hours when he wasn't dying consisted of the following activities:

1. Staring at his silent phone, waiting.

2. Typing out This will be the death of me and then erasing it.  Because John probably knows that.

3.  Typing out I only said I loved you because I love you and not because of today at all and if I can't say I love you when I do love you then I'll say something else that means I love you if you'd rather I not say I love you I do understand that and happy to oblige even if you're being a feeble-minded little-- and then erasing it.

4.  Absently noticing that his heart seems to be working better as the poison goes away.

5.  Not texting Mycroft.  (This one is harder just now than it ought to be, and growing ever more difficult.)

6.  Activating by means of a red necktie hung in his sitting room window Certain Longstanding Worst-Case Scenario Precautions.

7.  Downloading the e-book and then reading Perfume: Story of a Murderer.  When he finishes, he is so enraged that he wasn't allowed to read it previously that he can hardly see straight.

8.  Typing out I can find you anywhere and I will do, and then I will take you back and keep you here forever, because this is where you belong and I own you, every cell of you is MINE and then erasing it.  Because John can leave if he likes.  Sherlock told him so.

The next morning, he has barely moved, only sat in his chair as the dawn rose with creeping cold fingers on the back of his neck.  Clouds are obscuring the sun, but he can sense the light.  It's cooler than the day before, tangy pollution hovering in the air like powdered grit.

And that's it, he thinks. What it's like.  That's eight hours without John.

If eight hours were ever more utterly useless, he can't remember them or even imagine them possible.

Sherlock takes a shower, turning the taps so the water is as hot as he can stand, pinkening his skin and then reddening it, leaning with his hands against the tiles.  He stays like that for ten minutes, until he looks like a boiled lobster and is so dizzy from heat and steam that a bit, just a bit, a nearly imperceptible degree, really, of the cold in the pit of his stomach recedes.  Scalding water isn't John's belly, but it'll do until he boils his epidermis off.  Getting out, he scrubs his hair dry and opens the door of the bathroom, standing in a quiet, empty flat.  He looks down the hall one way, then the other.

That's nothing like he'd imagined either.

Sherlock had also supposed that being without John would grow exponentially more difficult every second, spiraling in a complex and ruthless geometric progression until his own heart simply clenched in on itself and died, or he forgot to breathe, or his brain stem melted.  It isn't like that either.  It's horrible, but it's the same horrible second after lonely second.  A droplet from his elbow falls to the ground and splashes. 

He waits.

Another falls.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

For the first time in his life, Sherlock wishes with every fibre of his being that there were more sounds.  Construction outside in Baker Street, Mrs. Hudson hoovering downstairs, a horrible earworm of a cleverly penned song drilling into his skull right through the bone.  Anything would be better than this absence.

What's viciously catching? he wonders in quiet despair.  What's hideously, cruelly insinuating?

I have stood here before, inside the pouring rain

With the world turning circles, running 'round my brain

It doesn't work. The evilly pernicious tune just drifts away again, melting, a snowflake in August.

It's so fucking quiet.

This is nothing like Maiwand by night, nothing like anything he's ever experienced.  There aren't enough sounds, and Sherlock can feel his own tongue in his mouth just now, people aren't meant to be able to feel that, to really register it.  The tongue which possibly isn't ever going to speak to John again, or share a piece of toast with him, or caress the back of his ear.

Drip.

Drip.
He quickly brushes the towel over his shoulders, sickened at the thought of one single further tiny drip in the stillness, one more whisper that doesn't come from John.  If Sherlock were a man who could be anything less than ruthless with himself, he might have thought that at least it couldn't get any worse.  But he knows better than that, because it won't get better either.

Same becomes the definition of worse, sooner rather than later, he thinks grimly, going into his bedroom.

The sheets are still mussed.  Of course they are.  Crawling into the wrinkled cotton, Sherlock feels the beginnings of a wretched headache beginning to pulse in his upper neck.

How long do sheets smell of a person before they stop?  If I avoid sleeping here, if I sleep upstairs and then only allow myself to live here for an hour a night, say, will that make it last?  Will it stay, then, if I don't smell it all at once, the vague skin and cinnamon and sand and salt and cream smell John has, since smell consists of particles? 

Sherlock's phone buzzes and his heart starts hammering as he reaches for it.  But it's only Melissa Wiggins, who is homeless and very keen.  The red tie worked, then.

Grapevine traced him as far as Wandsworth, home of Harriet Watson. Stopped en route for toiletries. CCTV #34622 for surveillance.

Toiletries.

Toiletries.  Toothbrush toothpaste shaving cream razor soap floss aftershave deodorant lotion.

Sherlock sticks his knuckles in his mouth to prevent an undignified whimper of pain, but it's a near thing.

Melissa is a paranoid schizophrenic who nonetheless is very observant.  She threw herself in the Thames once, claiming that she'd wanted a swim, but Sherlock knows exactly what she really wanted.  She'd told him the water was so cold that it felt warm, like a hot slick over her skin, as if she was being tarred and feathered for witchcraft.  Sherlock likes Melissa Wiggins, but she's mad as a hatter.  He knows the type intimately.  Melissa thinks too much and never gets any quiet and believes radio waves are blindingly visible.  Melissa doesn't have anyone to speak with who understands her.  That's because not one person in fifty thousand understands madness without being wholesale insane.

John does, of course.

I'm going to die, Sherlock taps out on his mobile, adding his initials.

Get used to it, she replies a few seconds later.

Sherlock gets out of bed and dresses quickly, half-buttoning a white collared shirt.  He pads barefooted into the kitchen where he left his laptop and pulls it open, enters the password, clicks the shortcut to The Science of Deduction, and accesses his email account, sitting at the Food and Experiments table.

Dear Jim, he begins to type.

He pauses.  But it's a better way to die than most, now that John won't be there to watch.  And this way, Jim Moriarty will die too.  In agony.  On fire.  With his skin melting off.  And aware of a certain...poignant irony in the technique Sherlock plans to use.  And so he continues typing, being very efficient.  Sherlock is about to make an appointment someplace where covering himself in semtex won't cause anyone save for he and Jim Moriarty any fiery harm when Mycroft Holmes walks into his flat, takes one look at Sherlock, and then closes the laptop.  Sherlock's face whips upward with a snarl on his lips.

"Oh, come now," Mycroft chides, propping his umbrella in the corner.  "You didn't suppose you were the only one in the universe to adopt...well, Certain Longstanding Worst-Case Scenario Precautions, did you?"

"Don't you have a prime rib for two or an entire roast chicken or maybe a pound of foie gras to be eating somewhere?" Sherlock seethes.

Mycroft pulls a chair up far too close to Sherlock and sits, adjusting his trouser leg.  He looks both comfortable and put-upon.  Sherlock doesn't know how he manages it, but can date the expression to when Mycroft started civil service.

"Inelegant.  You ought to have picked just one, it's far pithier.  You were about to contact James Moriarty."

"Sod off."

"No."

"I wasn't."

"You were."

"Don't bully me."

"I haven't the slightest intention of doing so.  But you were arranging a rendezvous."

"What difference does it make?"

"Sherlock," Mycroft says sternly, "count the number of brothers I possess.  You'll find it won't take you long.  I shall wait for you to reach a figure and give me a report."

Smug, self-righteous bastard, Sherlock thinks, and holds his tongue.

Mycroft glances around their flat, absorbing the flow of data.  It would be bad enough to have a brother who is the British Government when war is so horribly wasteful and boring, bad enough to have a brother as unflappable and infuriating and fucking nosy as Mycroft, bad enough to have a brother who's seen him at his worst, helpless and strung-out and half-dead and still high, bad enough that it's more than likely that Mycroft loves him even though Mycroft doesn't want to care about anyone, bad enough that Mycroft always wins.  But Mycroft is also measurably smarter than Sherlock.  And to Sherlock, that is simply unfair.

"Well," Mycroft says, conversationally.  "This is unfortunate."

"That's not the word I would use," Sherlock grates out.

"Regardless of your penchant for dramatic hyperbole, it remains factually 'unfortunate.'  What are your plans?"

"I haven't any."

"That is patently not the case."

"I'll die somehow or other, Mycroft.  Watch me."

Mycroft narrows his eyes at Sherlock, and Sherlock is suddenly aware that he just sounded about ten years old.  Not "like a ten-year-old," but like himself at ten years old, when nothing seemed to be right in the universe and the colours surrounding him felt like sandpaper and his future life already looked far too long.  His ears start to burn.

"You're right--it wasn't the most elegant of solutions then, either, though it did impress me with a certain dramatic flair," Mycroft supplies.

"It's the only one I can think of," Sherlock whispers, burying his head in his arms on the table. Defeated.  Again.  And so soon, too.

"You can survive without being happy, you know.  Look at me."

"It's not about being happy," Sherlock confesses despairingly without looking up.  Talking to Mycroft is easier without having to look at his pudgy, self-satisfied face.  "I'm not happy with him at all.  We're hardly ever just happy.  Sometimes it's wonderful and sometimes it's awful, but it's not that I'm happy.  I'm me with him.  Like myself.  Who I am.  Not...censored or filtered or even translated.  Just me.  And he..."

"He loves it," Mycroft finishes.

Sherlock looks up.  He slumps back in his chair, because fore or aft, good posture is simply not happening right now.  Shockingly, Mycroft doesn't look like an overstuffed shirt with a smile painted on at the moment.  He looks sad, and tired, and a bit overwhelmed.  His phone begins to ring, and he pulls it from his suit jacket, not looking at the caller before switching it off.  The phone disappears once more.

"That's why I like him," Mycroft offers quietly.

In a small series of half-noted images, fragments of sneers really, Sherlock recalls that Mycroft loathed Charles the Archaeologist, without ever having met the man, although you could never be certain with Mycroft.  He'd always wondered why, and this seems to be the reason.  It hadn't been Charles's fault Sherlock had fooled him, but the fact remained that Charles had wanted a normal person, an open and loving and sensual and affectionate normal boyfriend.  And Sherlock is not normal.

And apparently, Mycroft prefers Sherlock to live that way.  Abnormally.  It's news to Sherlock.

"If you need him that badly, dying seems rather a profoundly roundabout way of getting him back, don't you think?" Mycroft asks, with some of the usual condescension creeping back into his tone.

A silence falls in which the lack of words mean that Mycroft is right.  Sherlock follows the line of thought getting John back...

"Not that way," Mycroft says sternly.

"Get the fuck out of my head," Sherlock snaps, decidedly not thinking about chloroform or Rohypnol or simple tranquilizers.

"Fine."  Standing up, his brother places a hand on Sherlock's shoulder.  To Sherlock's vast bewilderment, he doesn't shrug it off.  "You are possessed of boundless ingenuity and equally infinite enthusiasm.  Disturbing enthusiasm, in fact.  Find a way.  I'll be in touch."

"Whether I like it or not," Sherlock mutters.

Halfway to the door, Mycroft calls back, "Not that way either."

Wincing, Sherlock erases images of an unmarked van and a masked man with an AK-47 from his consciousness, stops feeling the scratch of wool against his face.  It takes three and a half minutes, but he manages it.  Because the difference between him and Jim Moriarty goes beyond simply how they feel and what they think and how they get their kicks.  It's in knowing that a particular prize is worth more if garnered by some means than by others.  Sherlock understands this principle.  He doubts that Jim does. One day, that may be an advantage.

Sherlock pulls out his mobile and glares daggers into the screen.

I should be thanking you.

S

Seconds later, his phone chirps.

If you ever do, my response will be "You're welcome."

M

 



Between watching little glimpses of John on the CCTV feed he hacked into and trying not to think about ether and its properties, Sherlock makes a shocking discovery: it turns out that what you do when you've been left is remarkably like what you've always done.  You don't eat and you don't sleep much and you smoke cigarettes you shouldn't and you respond to Lestrade when he texts you because if you don't, you'll never think of a way to make it up to John because the silence will have completely smothered your mind.

He's sure that this decision, continue the case, is the right one.  On the third consecutive night of hell, while trying to ignore Mrs. Hudson's worried tap-tap-tapping and yoo-hooing and all-right-dear?-ing at the door, he found one of John's hairs on his pillow.  It took two hours to scour the flat for more, and Sherlock, who has eyes like a nocturnal predator, is reasonably sure he got them all despite how pale and fine they are.  There are forty-seven of them, and they are in a plastic evidence bag.  At the time, it seemed a worthy project.  But he can see how it also might be construed as rather melancholy.  It could also be construed as melancholy that he sleeps with them, and with the hard disc with the electroencephalogram recorded on it.

He's cradling them both on his chest as he lies on the Thinking Couch when his phone goes.  Reading the text, he realizes that you don't sharpen your imagination or stiffen your resolve by spending time with hair follicles.  You move.  You take off the t-shirt and find a pressed pair of trousers and respond to Lestrade.

Besides, the text says:

Morty Tregennis is dead. Same symptoms. Will you come?

L

When Sherlock spies Lestrade at the crime scene, which so happens to be the identical house where they started all this ghastly business, Lestrade's lips tense as Sherlock approaches.

"Where's your boyfriend, then?" he asks, his eyes on his phone.  "Sorry.  Your forensics colleague.  I'm getting to like him, he has a sharp eye.  And he's nicer than you."

It's difficult to answer this question, so Sherlock doesn't.

Gradually, Lestrade lowers the phone.

"Christ," he says.

Suddenly knowing everything.  How did that happen?

Sherlock swallows.

"Out with it," says Lestrade.

"First I need to know--"

"Somebody dragged Morty Tregennis in here equipped with a respirator for sinus problems.  He was found dead.  Same drug.  Off his apple.  Toxicology can't trace it for shit.  No prints on anything--not the mask, not the house, nothing.  Sod all that.  Have you tried flowers?"

"Hmm?" says Sherlock, desperately trying to ignore his ally of the official police.

Lestrade crosses his arms, determined.  It occurs to Sherlock that DI Lestrade appears to be suffering from some degree of mental anxiety, and that the same mental anxiety might possibly have to do with whether or not Sherlock is happy.  This is news more shocking than even Mycroft's revelation.  Lestrade wants crimes solved and Sherlock likes solving them.  Is a genius at solving them.  That is how things work.  Lestrade knows Sherlock is a drug addict and sometimes treats him like one, but only because Sherlock takes advantage of Lestrade in every other conceivable way, and it's the only ammunition Lestrade knows will make Sherlock stop and listen.  But this is not a drugs bust.  Lestrade's hair glints silver in a shaft of winter sun from the window.  Coughing impatiently, he lifts his brows.  He does this when Sherlock is being purposefully dense or deaf, Sherlock recognizes for the first time.

"Flowers," says Lestrade.  "Those colourful bits at the ends of stems.  Often in a vase."

"No," says Sherlock.

"Hang on, John likes cinema.  I doubt you ever take him, though.  Tried that?"

"No, but it's rather more--"

"Then what else does John like?  You've at least made a list or something for emergencies, yes?"

Wincing, Sherlock decides not to tell Lestrade anything whatsoever to do with lists.

"Well, if you haven't been paying attention--"

"John likes my violin and he likes The Kinks, but not when I play them, he says it sounds as if I don't like the songs.  He likes wearing things that make him look like a civilian, more or less a schoolteacher, because it doesn't remind him of the Army, because he wants to look as if he isn't deadly, isn't a threat if he wants to be.  He likes books.  Fiction.  Tremendously.  He likes cooking, but only when we've finished a case the night before.  He likes treating minor illnesses much less than he likes saving lives, whether it's in combat or a case of adult chicken pox.  He likes his coffee black, but he still puts little dashes of sugar and milk in because he can, and it feels indulgent.  He likes dogs, but he also likes cats, but not hairless cats.  He likes Angelo's fresh pasta, particularly the black spaghettini, but not Angelo's gnocchi, he's always very polite about it, but I can tell he thinks it's mealy.  It is mealy.  He likes when I make tea, god only knows why, he makes perfectly good tea himself.  He likes chocolate with mint in it.  He likes Carey Grant.  I think.  He likes crime scenes.  No, he loves--"

Sherlock stops, because his voice has gone off like milk left on the counter.  Lestrade, meanwhile, is staring him down as if he's suddenly become a shifty witness.  Which is very uncomfortable.

"It's worse than I thought," says Lestrade, "and I thought it was pretty damn bad."

"What was?" Sherlock demands.

"You've gone round the twist," he answers sympathetically.  "Look, the point is, I don't really know what John likes.  Not the way you do.  But knowing you...have you tried anything yet?"

Clenching his jaw, Sherlock shakes his head once.

"There.  Set that to rights, and you'll be well sorted.  The other point is, the name is Greg."

"What?" Sherlock questions, entirely derailed.

"Greg Lestrade.  If you ever want to have a conversation that's not to do with a crime scene.  I think when you're around that expert medical consultant of yours, you're a...you're better.  Better than alone."

Sherlock only gapes, trying to look less tall when he generally likes being the center of all attention.

"You've solved my crime, yes?" Lestrade asks, almost rolling his eyes but visibly stopping himself.

Yes, Sherlock has, he indicates with his head.

"Bugger.  Nothing less than I expected.  And you know, I think I might have solved it myself this time.  However.  You can skip the big reveal if you need to go see John.  Supposing no one is about to flee the country imminently.  Go see your fellow right this instant and we'll keep it between ourselves you chose John Watson over collaring a murderer."

But Sherlock shakes his head, playing out possible scenarios in his mind.  This criminal...yes, this criminal is important.  This criminal is worth speaking to.  Sherlock needs to know just how this specific criminal feels about all these proceedings.  And so he is going to have a professional chat first, and then...

then.

Lestrade is walking away, towards the door and his waiting police car, having also made up his mind.

Sherlock thinks about saying Goodbye, Greg.  It's tempting for a moment.

He doesn't do it.

But he's alive and well, after all.  He has plenty of time.



"I loved Brenda," Leon Sterndale confesses, broken.

Of course Morty killed his sister, and drove his brothers mad.  For whatever reason.  There had never been a trace of drug culture about the three of them, and Sherlock can spot drug culture.  He can also spot trends.  And likelihoods.  And liars.  So can Lestrade.  Everything he had seen at that crime scene announced not a stranger.  Someone you love.  The way hearts are generally broken.  And just as obviously, Brenda's fiance, currently in the country to drum up funding at an awards dinner, killed Morty with the same drug.  Sherlock checked Sterndale's flight information by pretending to be a VIP flying standby at the last moment.  Sterndale had skipped his first-class flight back to his research.  After chatting with his personal secretary, Sherlock learned that it was for "unavoidable personal reasons."

But now Sterndale is telling his own story, in a voice like a crypt talking.

"It's simple as that," Sterndale continues.  They are standing outside his temporary flat in Pall Mall.  It's ridiculously posh here, and Sherlock can feel his own brother staring down the back of his neck.  Not that that isn't generally happening.  "She was an angel.  If you'd seen her, had ever met her, you'd have known what I mean.  Everyone loved her.  She didn't belong here at all.  She was too good for this fucking world.  But she was mine, has always been mine, she was the one person who's ever loved me, and I needed her like air.  We were going to get married when I came back, and her studies were finished, and...."

Flexing his fingers, Sherlock glances away.  He isn't entirely comfortable with watching grown men sob.  Particularly when he knows how they feel.  And they are standing outside a dwelling place on a public street because Sherlock hadn't any warrant and Sterndale, now he knows what's at stake and what Sherlock has already deduced and feels the weight of his own madness, is too hysterical to move them inside.

"I do AIDS research in the bush, but I'm also a student of ritual African medicines," Sterndale says, pulling himself together with a violent effort.  "Her bastard of a brother has been in my lab.  This root, when powdered...it's called the devil's foot.  Radix pedis diaboli.  Absolutely foul stuff.  I never imagined, though--Brenda and Morty never got on--he owed her money.  A very great deal of money.  But there was something wrong with Morty, anyhow.  I only wish I'd seen it sooner.  When I realized what he'd done, I put his face into a respirator of the stuff with my gun against his head.  He died within two minutes.  Christ, how he died.  It was wonderful.  You think I'm insane, don't you?"

Sherlock shakes his head.  Not in the slightest.

"Maybe if you'd ever loved someone like that," Sterndale finishes hoarsely, "you'd have done the same.  But I don't care if you understand or not.  Nothing terrible can happen to me ever again.  Without Brenda...I'd just as soon be dead myself.  Go ahead and arrest me for murder.  I don't care.  It doesn't matter now."

"You're right," Sherlock says slowly.  "It doesn't matter now."

He begins to walk away, his dark coat spreading in the chill wind.
"Where are you going?" Sterndale asks, mystified in spite of his grief.  "Don't you mean to turn me over to the police?"

"Dull," Sherlock sighs.

"Dull?"

"You heard me.  I'm sorry, I can't be bothered at the moment.  Lestrade is going to to get you anyhow, supposing he wants to, he saw what I saw.  But I'm in a hurry.  If you could get Brenda back, what wouldn't you do?"

"Nothing," the bereaved man murmurs, utterly bemused.  "I'd do anything.  I'd look death right in the face if it meant seeing her again.  I'd walk through hell."

"Well, wish me luck," Sherlock says over his shoulder.  "That's where I'm going."

 



The cab arrives in Wandsworth in late afternoon.  The streets are quiet, and the paint on the row houses has apparently darkened all into greys, even though Sherlock knows they don't really look like that.  He takes the 47 hair follicles in the plastic evidence bag and a note and he tacks them both with a flat-headed pin to Harry Watson's front door.  The fine dishwater hairs are nearly invisible against the dark wood, as if John himself is fading out of reality without Sherlock being there to observe him.  The note reads:

This is the last of you apart from skin cells, which are too small for the naked eye.  I can't think of anything more precious to me than these, and I will give them back to you, they're yours after all, in exchange for one conversation.  Think what you like of me, but you know what I think of you.  There are forty-seven hairs here, and they inspired me to add an item to the Fine List, which is to count yours, the live ones, because if God can do it, then so can I.  I'd rather cut my arm off than leave these tacked to a door, so since you know that to be literally true, and I think you likely don't want my arm, please talk to me. 

If you do want my arm, though, let me know,

Sherlock Holmes     

When he walks away from the door, it feels like the last of everything.  He doesn't care where he's going, so he bumps with highly uncharacteristic clumsiness into a housewife out doing the shopping, and she huffs at him with a glare settling over her tired, narrow features.  She has three children and they're staying with her mother while she buys the groceries.  Sherlock knows this is true, but isn't sure quite why.  Oh.  It's because of the run in her stocking and the fact that her keys are jingling in her open coat pocket and not her purse.  He keeps going, crossing a street.  There's a shop with great rounds of cheese in the window, a shop with light fixtures whitely glowing, a shop packed to overflowing with chrome-accented electrical appliances, and an office blanketed with photographs of empty flats waiting to be filled to bursting with the blenders and the standing lamps and the cheddar.

S o many things in the world so many things god so very many many things, and none of them any better than any of the other things, if you put it all in a pile and doused it with petrol and lit a match it would all be so much cleaner, it would be an amazing feat to do that and so John would say it was amazing, I'd been amazing to burn it down, and he'd smile but try not to look too pleased, glowing but then glancing sideways in under two seconds, it's always under two seconds, like he doesn't want me to see it, but he does, he does, he always does, and the fire would be warm and John's mouth would be warm and it would sort everything, saving the world by means of arson.

Too bad it's never going to happen.

Sherlock's phone chimes.

He freezes.  He's under an unlit street lamp and he suddenly whirls, his coat flowing around his legs, leaning against the metal and breathing quick and soft through his lips as he pulls the mobile from his pocket.

well spotted, my not wanting your arm.

I'll meet you at the park, on that bench you like.

where you told me about the screaming.

no severing limbs in the meanwhile.

JW

Sherlock reaches out with his left hand and traces the letters on the flat mobile screen, reading the message over again.

It's dizzying.

Getting to Regent's Park is partly a blur of frenzied anticipation and partly an exercise in severest self-control, as John clearly was at Harry's front door when he texted Sherlock, and the street names of the route John is following are slamming one after another through his mind like a series of physical blows.  Ballantine Street, Dighton Road, Birdhurst Road.  Sherlock's consciousness has been entirely hijacked by something resembling a Google map.  It would be faster to run to John, to sprint back, so much faster, to see John emerge from round a street corner looking for a taxi to take him to Westminster and then to enfold him in his arms and possibly swallow him whole, whether he likes it or not, to chew him up and just bloody ingest him and never never never be without him again.

Bad idea.

When Sherlock arrives at the Park, he assumes it's looking largely green and brown and beige, though he can't be sure just now.  But he can see it's rather deserted due to the time of day, right before people leave work or begin to think about what to make for supper.  The shadows are growing longer, and Sherlock's is very long indeed, very thin, except where his coat spreads like a fan as he walks.  Finding the proper bench all too quickly, Sherlock sits.

He stands.

A man passes by holding the hand of a small child.  The child is whinging about the fickle nature of squirrels, one of which he had wanted to pet when it came close.

Sherlock sits again. He's on his feet ten seconds later, pacing.  Pacing is the right approach, as it happens.  He circles the bench, changing direction often, striding a few lanky paces one direction and then another.

Sherlock Holmes reaches what seems a profound conclusion. If this discussion doesn't work, he will never open his mouth again.  English will be dead to him, an enemy loathed more thoroughly than Jim Moriarty.  He will never speak it more as long as he lives, preferring muteness to a tool that couldn't get John back.  Maybe he will cut out his own tongue, as that would be interesting.  But maybe instead he will let it sit there in his mouth, useless now, kept only due to the fact that it at one time or another explored every single secret inch of John.  In any event, it won't be making strings of words any longer, not in English, nor any other dialect, not after having lost--

John.

As he turns towards the water, there John is.  Short and limping a little and wearing his black coat un-zippered, with the same striped jumper underneath, his soft, dull hair being ruffled by the wind.

Sherlock stops pacing, primarily because he's forgot how to move his legs.

John limps up to him.

"Hello, Heartbreaker," he says with a wry expression.

He looks terrible.  In all honesty, Sherlock can't look much better, probably looks worse, in fact, but it hurts to see John this haggard again.  His quick, secretive, sideways smile is nowhere in evidence, and he's looking at Sherlock as if the sight physically excoriates him.  It's all Sherlock can do not to flinch.  In fact, he's breathing wrong already, hard and quick like he's drowning, no, he's actually drowning, that was wrong, why was that wrong, he should have known better, the way his head was buzzing, it's all pools and semtex and whiteness and static and shrieking and--

"Hey," John says.  "Sherlock, what's--no, I'm an idiot, what the fuck am I saying?  Sherlock, it's okay.  Did you--my god, what have you been about all this time, starving yourself to--what the fuck am I saying?  Sherlock, you need to bloody well sit down before you fall down."

Sherlock sits, though it feels more like falling.  The park bench is rough and the trees are spinning.  Just when he begins to marvel at himself for behaving like something out of bad telly, he recalls that he did in fact last eat before John left.  Four days ago.

That was foolish.  He's probably not very well hydrated either.

When the space between them closes and John's jumper touches his nose inside the gap in his coat, Sherlock could fall apart on a cellular level.  He buries his face in warmth, and there are hands in his hair, and thank god his hair is clean from the scalding showers.  John likes his hair, and hair ought to be very clean.

"I'd berate you for the hunger strike, I'd beat the shite out of you over it, in fact, but you didn't tell me about it, which means you simply forgot food exists, because you are the genius population's biggest moron," comes the most perfectly kind and sad voice on earth.  "I'd have talked to you before, you know, without the...hairs.  But the hairs were very...generous.  Um.  I appreciated them.  Though I've lots."

Sherlock takes two fistfuls of the jumper inside the coat and simply holds on.

"What is it going to take, stopping you hyperventilating?  You are always doing this at awkward times.  That time we came home after the skip, I thought your lungs were going to explode.  At least you aren't rubbing a gun against your cranium, that was more than a little disturbing.  God almighty.  I'm not going anywhere.  All right?  Sherlock, just.  Come on, love, I'll be damned if I'm letting you pass out on my shoes.  Look at me."

"I can't.  I needed to say something.  No looking yet."

What he's doing in the meanwhile, however, is smelling.

1.  Harry's detergent brand, generic lavender.  Disgusting.  Disregard that at once, it isn't John.

2.  Cloves.

3.  Dry earth.

4.  Wool.

5.   Darjeeling.

6.  Caramel.

7.  Burnt umber.

8.  The idea of Last Wednesdays.

Long seconds pass.  The world rights itself a bit.  As dignified as he can, Sherlock stands.  It must be at least moderately graceful, because John's hands slip smoothly away as Sherlock rises and turns, cocking a hand over his hip and his coat and his charcoal suit jacket, pretending he wasn't just drowning in the middle of a London public park.  Briefly, he shoves his long fingers into his dark hair and cards them out again.

"I don't know how to say it," he informs John.  "The...I tried writing a formula, you see.  About us.  It was accurate in almost every particular, and very elegant.  But your algebra is quite pedestrian."

John blinks, absorbing the frank assessment of his maths skills.  "Okay."  He looks to be fighting a smile for an instant, but the mirth at once disappears.  "Well, I..."

"And the map didn't work either.  I couldn't get the geography of it precisely right.  As I said, I thought about just giving you my arm, as a metaphor, but--"

"English, Sherlock."  John already sounds exasperated.  "English.  Take a stab at English and I'll try to fix it if it gets bollocksed."

Fine.

The detective takes a deep, slow breath.

Not a bit fine.

Fuck it, step into the firing squad, it isn't as if anything else will work either.

"I needed you to know that I'm sorry I'm like this."  Sherlock's heart is thrumming like a hummingbird's under the pale skin, all the beats running together so it's a near-constant clenching.  "Tasting your tears is like tasting your blood, but I shouldn't have let you see that, that I was fascinated and happy of the chance.  I do want you to be there when I die, but on the other hand you don't want to watch me die, and I understand that, I really do.  And whenever I almost die, you want me to live and you somehow accomplish it, and that makes my life more valuable, every time, but I shouldn't have been honest, I ought to have said I wished the poisoning hadn't happened.  I've been thinking for days over what I could possibly give you to make it all up, but if I'd actually stolen the Crown Jewels, you'd have objected.  I don't think...no, you'd not have liked that."

John shakes his head, catching his lower lip in his teeth.  Good.  The Crown Jewels would have been a feat, but also a mistake.

Carry on.

"So I just wanted to tell you the truth."  Sherlock waves an arm, helpless.  "I want you home.  I don't know how to make you, but I don't exactly want to make you, though I also do, but really it's more that if I knew what a normal person would say to convince you, the right thing to tell you, then of course I would say that, the proper combination, even if it was cheating."

"I'm not a normal person, Sherlock," John says softly.  "I don't think anyone is.  Why don't you try what you would say to get me home?"

Sherlock clenches and unclenches his fists twice.  It's a hopeless request, but so very like John to think that asking the insanely impossible might just be a step in the right direction.  It's going to fail, though.  And Sherlock had thought he deserved a hint or two.  At least it'll be decided, however.  Ten minutes at most and he'll be tongueless, but apparently that can't be helped.

"Please come home," Sherlock requests.  "That's all I can think of.  It isn't very good, but then neither am I.  I can't promise to be safe nor not to hurt you, but I can promise to be amazing, and beautiful--that is, for the time being, until I get too old, and then I'll have to think of something else.  You can leave me when I'm not beautiful any longer, I'll quite understand, but that'll be at least ten years thrown away if you leave now.  For the moment, I'm still beautiful, and yours.  And that's...that isn't as much as I once thought it was.  Me.  But I'm all I have.  It's too quiet without you, and it's freezing in that flat, and even when I was alone, I wasn't alone like this.  I know it's selfish to want you back, but I can't help it.  At least you could own something beautiful, if only for the time being."

"You'll always be beautiful, you daft bastard."  John isn't breathing right either.  "Beautiful like white tigers, and really expensive guns."

"Beautiful like things you think will hurt you."  Sherlock nods in quiet despair.  "I will again, probably.  And you can't take it, I see that now, and that's--"

"No!  It was never...oh, Christ.  It was never about that.  Not being able to take it."

"Why else would you have left me?"

"Left you?" John exclaims.  His lips dart forward, pushed together, as they do when he's vexed about something.  "Sherlock, I went to my sister's.  Without my bags or my clothes or.  I never.  God in heaven.  Don't tell me that you of all people didn't know where I was, it's impossible."

"Of course I did, I had you tracked by the homeless network."

"And I was easy to find, yes?"

"Childishly so."

"Well, and what did you make of that?"

Sherlock gapes at him, because he'd not made anything of it.

"After I'd picked up the bare necessaries, I never set foot in a shop, either.  You knew that?  You were watching?"

"Of course I was."

"And you didn't make any deductions?  Not a single inference?"

"What inference?"

"That I needed some air," John murmurs, looking dazed.  "A lot of air.  A very great whopping deal of air.  There isn't enough sodding air on the planet for the amount I needed.  I nearly derailed the entire ecosystem.  But I...are you serious?  You thought I was going to live out the remainder of my adult life with a knit jumper, a mobile, and three pairs of new-bought pants to my name?  Are you ought of your--"

John cuts himself off, putting a hand over his thin mouth.

The entire world is reeling.  Sherlock can't understand why the other people in the Park aren't staggering about, the ground is so uncertain.

"You left your keys!" he snaps.  "You left without saying goodbye.  You left me standing there.  You left."

John winces, hard.  "God, I did.  I know.  I was punishing you, I think.  Punishing myself too, for.  I don't know.  Not being enough.  Enough of a friend that you...enough to keep you here.  But god knows how that drug was messing with your internal chemistry, and you did come back, and I should never have...  I'm ashamed of myself, really."

"Why?  You know you can leave.  I've told you."

"No, not for leaving, not if I'd really been leaving because I knew I couldn't take you anymore.  That would have been fine.  It isn't as if you were being tactful, you're never that, and you were being...  Well.  Unguarded, I suppose, worse than usual.  Still.  I never thought we couldn't survive it.  But I thought you'd come after me a hell of a lot sooner.  Sherlock, I went to Harry's.  Not--not Abu Dhabi, for fuck's sake.  At first I was too hurt and furious to think at all, but later I supposed you'd pop round by morning, demanding I follow you to some godforsaken bloodbath or other.  I can't believe you managed to resist, in all honesty, with me kipping on my drunk sister's sofa, but then again.  Christ.  You shock me stupid six and seven times in the week.  Why didn't you burst through her door with a case and a cracked expression?"

"I could have.  Morty Tregennis was murdered horribly.  It was wonderful.  But I don't understand this."  Sherlock's head is beginning to pound again.

"I almost lost you.  I was half off my head already, Sherlock.  Then you...you gutted me pretty thoroughly, and I s'pose I wanted to punish you.  It was wrong of me, now I look at it, but that's what it was."

"Because I was being unguarded," Sherlock says slowly. "But you've already seen the very worst of--you've already seen twenty-six on the chalkboard, for example, though there are perhaps others equally as bad now."

Not Fine List

26.  Carve a massive scar in John's right shoulder to match the absolutely brilliant one on his left, so that the majority of his scarring belongs to me, and slowly, and he had better watch me do it.

"What?"  John looks alarmed.  "There are new ones?"

There are, of course, since the Incident of the Flu.  They're slightly out of order of importance these days, as twenty-seven is still John mercy-killing Sherlock, but he can't be bothered to re-number everything perpetually, can he? 28.  Arrange for John to ingest nothing whatsoever save what I feed to him, forever, so that the production of all his new cells might be entirely my doing. 29.  Induce another serious fever, this one more prolonged, and thereby learn absolutely everything about John's subconscious. 30.  If only one of John's kidneys failed, then I could--

"Stick to the point," Sherlock snaps.  "How was what happened any worse than--"

John throws his hands in the air.  "Because you seemed to think it was all right to tell me you returned from the brink of death so as to pay me back a fiver for cab fare.  As if you were in a snit over an accounting balance.  It wasn't nice."

"A fiver?" Sherlock cries.  "It was because of...of the hospital.  You didn't have to do that, to do something mad just because I'm mad, I never imagined a life where I even wanted such things from a person before I met you, let alone a life where anyone would dream of tolerating them, let alone coming up with new ones unasked.  It was something I didn't even know I wanted and you gave it to me just because you're good, and it was a miracle, you're a miracle.  An electroencephalogram?  You did that because I'm insane, it was tailored for me, and you...you understand.  So yes, I wanted to give you something like that.  Something...it was an act of charity, John.  I wanted to return it in kind."

This ought to be working, but John is turning green.

"What have I done now?" Sherlock demands.

"I am an idiot," John whispers.  "Officially.  But for the record, you giving me a spectacular orgasm does not fall under the category 'selfless favours John has done Sherlock,' or 'John's acts of pure altruism,' you barking mad git."

"I can't talk anymore, talking isn't any good when I'm not," Sherlock says miserably, fear seeping like acid through the soles of his shoes.  "I knew it wouldn't be.  If you come home, we don't even have to--I could try to let you alone, John.  It's a nice flat.  You said it was very nice indeed.  The rent is low.  I just need to hear you walking over the kitchen floor occasionally, that would be enough.  You don't have to blog about me, or help me, or sleep with me, or make two cups when you make tea.  Just don't leave me.  I'll be very quiet if you like, even when I'm doing experiments.  You'd never have to touch me again, or kiss me, just be there.  Will that make you come home?"

"No, it fucking well will not make me come home," John gasps, reaching out with two hands and dragging Sherlock's mouth down to his.

A tongue is a very interesting organ.

A tongue is light flashes through the slits of Sherlock's eyelids when John's arms both fly around his neck ostensibly an organ used for taste the top of John's spine rests under the detective's right hand, and his left arm is wrapped round John's compact waist beneath his black coat, pulling like he's never letting go, because he isn't and yet when it's used for touch, it's such a sensitive apparatus, tasting and touching at once, that's an otherworldly thing, it's shocking really, it isn't as if you can taste with your fingertips John makes a sound like he's starving for something and Sherlock can only hope John is getting whatever he wants, because he's already on his tiptoes and Sherlock is very, very busy just now and it's a small miracle every time, tasting him and touching him at once, the wet and slide and sweetness and breath and salt of it, and to think that the same organ is meant to be used for something so utterly wretched as English neither man can breathe very well, but breathing has always been highly overrated and not to be bothered with when half-bodily lifting a lovely little doctor whose arms were just round your neck and whose grip is now shifting to your breastbone and to your hair and to think that something so mad and so perfect just happened to me and I was never going to use it again, not to kiss anyone, not to say another word for the rest of my life, and now this.

A tongue is a very interesting organ indeed.

John touches Sherlock's lower lip with his fingertips, breathing hard.  "How do you do that?

"What?"

"Incredible."

"Which part?"

"Every part.  Just when I think I've got you sorted.  Every time.  Fuck you, Sherlock Holmes," John laughs, still kissing him though now his fingers are in the way slightly.

"Well.  If you'd like."

"God, yes, you're so good, you're--"

"I'm not, though.  You've got us mixed."

"I try to be good," John says, letting his forehead touch Sherlock's when the taller man ducks.  "But I fail sometimes.  I don't mean to, but I'm human.  I'm only human, Sherlock.  We both try.  You try, too."

"It doesn't look the same when I fail.  Things explode."

"Well.  You're a bit beyond human."  John tangles his fingers in the curls at his friend's nape. "So you have a different excuse altogether."

"What are we to live on?" Sherlock demands, forcing his voice to remain even although it's just now strenuously objecting.  "How are we to live like this?"

"We'll live on starlight and crime scenes," John breathes.  "Just as we've always done."

That sounds right.  Even though it doesn't make a bit of sense.  They will always live on starlight and crime scenes, Sherlock thinks, at the edge of the map, where other, saner people fear to tread.  Something about the phrase strikes him as familiar, but not for any specific reason--it's the way the five hundredth crime scene looks familiar, when the fifth was still foreign.  He's been here before, somehow.  And John is speaking his language.  How John learned it Sherlock doesn't know, because he never taught it to him.  John is like Babelfish, English to Sherlock, without ever having been programmed.  It's magical, what the doctor does, like being able to speak to jungle creatures, or communicate with the weather.  Perhaps everything will be all right after all.

They have starlight and crime scenes, and they'll not need anything else.

"Are you coming home, then?"

John huffs out a slightly crazed laugh.  "I've forgiven you, so--supposing you agree to forgive me--yes.  Will you?"

"I don't care about forgiving you one way or the other.  It's completely irrelevant.  I'm not even angry."

"How in hell could you not be--no, no.  What am I thinking?  It's not surprising.  None of this is a bit surprising.  Let's go home."

They start walking, fingers intertwined.  Sherlock is still baffled by half of it, but John will doubtless explain everything later.

He only hopes that laterlasts just as long as it possibly can.

 

 

 

They don't go home.

John drags Sherlock into the first restaurant they pass, which happens to be Vietnamese, and forces pho into him.  Then they walk along the edge of the river for a while.  The sky is darkening above and the water ripples beyond and there are trees here, and poetry underfoot.  The colours are present and vivid again.  Things begin to feel better.  The threads of what-might-have-beens, all the ways they already match each other and the ones they haven't even imagined yet, are back in Sherlock's mind, a hopelessly tangled skein running wide and deep and slow like the Thames.  He didn't burn them after all.  What a fortunate circumstance.

"You can say you love me if you really want to," Sherlock says a bit sheepishly.  "I promise not to fuss about it."

"I don't have to," John returns with an easy smile.  "You love me, and you don't want to hear it at the moment.  And I think it just so happens to be my greatest joy and privilege to be with you.  You lucky, lucky, bastard."