John shoved a couple of twenties at the taxi driver, too busy thinking about a hot cup of tea and a warm bed to bother demanding any change as he stumbled onto the pavement. His shoulder ached beneath the weight of his bag and his leg twinged with the cold, but he ignored the discomfort as he trudged across the rain-slicked ground and huddled at the threshold, groping for his house-keys.
Doveish dawn light shaded the world in pearly tones, and he screwed up his tired eyes as he nudged the door open and eased his way inside. At least the place was still standing. The medical conference in Dublin had only lasted four days, but Sherlock could do untold damage in the time it took John to go to the shops. He'd half-expected nothing but rubble.
Mercifully, Baker Street was tranquil, and John crept through the hall and up the seventeen steps to the flat. His hips were stiff from the cramped economy seat on the dirt-cheap two a.m. flight, and he felt unnaturally tired and travel-worn. All his thoughts were honing in on the promise of a peaceful day at home – Sherlock-permitting, of course.
He pushed his way into 221B, lowering his bag with a sigh before glancing around. No blood stained the walls or floor – always a good sign – and no experiments graced the table with their macabre presence. In fact, the whole place was moderately tidy, with a certain abandoned feeling that suggested Sherlock had not been home much in John's absence. Was he even here now, or was he out in London somewhere, neck deep in trouble and without any back-up?
A sound from the sofa answered John's question, and he stepped forward, craning his neck to get a better look. Of course, he should have known that just because the flat seemed empty didn't mean he was alone. Sherlock could be absent and present at the same time, his body a statue while he wandered his mind palace, lost to reality.
He expected to see Sherlock, perhaps in his blue robe or a suit, pristine as always, with his hands steepled under his chin and his eyes shut: a monument to himself. Yet as soon as his gaze fell on the figure, his breath jolted hard in his chest, caught up in a baffling mixture of surprise/alarm/confusion as he stared at the almost-stranger, fast asleep and oblivious to John's presence.
It was Sherlock. It had to be, because people didn't break into strange houses and doze off on the furniture, but John had never imagined he could look like this.
His flatmate was either presented in a way that would make the people in Vogue seem shabby, or he was lounging around in silk and cotton sleep-wear: a spoiled Pasha. This was like nothing John had ever thought to associate with Sherlock: stubble, skin-tight jeans and three small silver rings gleaming at the crest of one ear. For Christ's sake, he was wearing sturdy, serious, stamp-on-someone's-foot-and-break-all-their-toes boots. It was unnatural and unbelievable, like stepping into an alternative universe.
And John couldn't stop staring.
Sherlock looked younger, significantly so. Part of that could have been because he was relaxed, his face wiped clean of that cold arrogance that made him seem both ageless and wise. Yet the clothes, for all their softer, ragged edges – a million miles from the sharp lines of the suit – somehow stripped fifteen years from Sherlock's appearance. It looked so artless, thrown together as if he had dragged himself out of bed and put on whatever was at hand.
Except Sherlock never selected clothes with anything but diligence, and it was that knowledge that made John look harder, seeing beyond the dishabille to the careful construction beneath. There was plenty of product in his hair, controlling those curls into something that looked tousled but alluring, deliberately ruffled, and the ebony shadow of growth across his jaw was neatly groomed, rather than the general mess that came from a man neglecting himself.
John's fingers twitched at his side, itching to reach out and feel the rasp of facial hair that, before today, he had not even been sure Sherlock produced. Even in the deepest fits of ennui, the man remained clean-shaven. John was amazed at the change – dark hair against pale skin, strikingly monochrome.
Then there were the clothes. At first glance they looked like normal off-the-rack fare, but somehow John doubted anything you could get on the high street was so perfectly cut. The jeans fit Sherlock like a second skin, so much so that he gave a fleeting, giddy thought as to whether he wore anything underneath them. The t-shirt was not much better, but where the suits were tailored to emphasise Sherlock's slender frame and conceal the lithe strength of him, the black cotton did the opposite, giving him a striking outline.
'It's for a case.'
John almost managed to hide his guilty start as the rasp of Sherlock's voice shattered the peace. He sounded like he had been shouting for hours or chain-smoking in John's absence. Both seemed equally likely. However, before he could ask, he made the mistake of meeting Sherlock's gaze.
Over the time they had known each other, he had grown used to the brightness of Sherlock's eyes. Blue, green, grey and a dozen shades in between the three, they changed as often as the weather. Now, though, hazy and half-lidded, they looked nothing short of sultry – storm-silver outlined with the faintest hint of –
'Are you wearing eye-liner?' John managed, biting his lip as Sherlock stretched, long and languorous like a cat in a sunbeam. The hem of the t-shirt rode up, revealing a slender expanse of pale stomach and a line of dark hair leading down into the low slung waist of Sherlock's jeans. John could make out the peak of his hip-bones, twin ridges framing the soft flesh above his crotch.
He was torn, because while all he wanted to do was stand there and admire him, part of John was painfully aware that this glimpse of a new, beguiling Sherlock was not going to make it any easier to think of him platonically. It was bad enough that visions of feminine curves and warm, wet heat had a tendency to dissolve into fantasies of Sherlock's strong body and wicked eyes whenever John took himself in hand. Now he was lying there looking like sex personified, and John had to bite his tongue and focus on the pain as he beat a tactical retreat to the kitchen.
'Tea would be good.' Sherlock's voice husked over the words, and John swallowed, wondering what he had done to deserve this.
Ignoring Sherlock was never an easy task. He seemed to take up all the space in a room – and in John's God-damn head – merely by existing. However, before now, there had always been an air of something untouchable about him. John had assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that Sherlock was beyond the reach of carnal interest. Now, dressed like he was, he looked– well, like a man on the prowl, actually. Still Sherlock, but sexually charged, inviting, sumptuous and...
John swallowed, bracing his palms on the kitchen surface as he waited for the kettle to boil. He dragged in a deep breath, the air burning down his throat and adding to the heat that was pooling between his legs. He had come home hoping for a relaxing day, and instead he was fighting a growing erection and trying to understand how Sherlock could look so different.
He wasn't shamming and pretending to be normal, which John found more disturbing than attractive. He was still just a mad, annoying nutter of a flat-mate. The fact he was wearing unusual clothes should not be enough to shatter all of John's good resolutions and leave him gaping in helpless lust, should it?
'I hope you enjoyed your ridiculous conference,' Sherlock muttered, his footsteps unusually heavy as he sauntered into the kitchen. The boots should have looked stupid: more hardware than footwear, but actually, they suited him. 'Though why you bothered going, I don't know. Pointless.'
'Useful,' John corrected, concentrating on making tea and very much not looking in Sherlock's direction. 'We already had this discussion before I left, remember?' He added hot water to their mugs, letting the tea bags steep as he tilted his head, attentive without actually meeting Sherlock's kohl-lined gaze. 'Tell me about the case.'
Sherlock waved a hand, and John noticed the bracelets around one wrist. They looked like soft leather, well-worn and comfortable. 'An old acquaintance asked for my help just after you left. Four regulars at his club have gone missing over the space of the past two months. At first there was no cause for alarm. People change their socialisation spots all the time, but then two of them were found.'
'Dead?' John pulled a face when Sherlock nodded.
'He came to me about ten minutes before Lestrade called about the same issue. The bodies were dismembered and hidden in shipping containers at Banning Street. Identified by dental records. No personal effects were present, and decomposition made it difficult to judge cause of death. However, there were traces of a drug combination including Gamma-hydroxybutyrate in their system.'
John's stomach twisted uncomfortably, and he added milk to his tea before passing Sherlock his mug, finally examining that thoughtful profile. There was no empathy in those features, not that John had expected any. Instead, Sherlock's expression was locked into a familiar mask of consideration. 'GHB? Raped then murdered?'
'Hard to be sure; it could have been consumed recreationally, though its use as a date-rape drug means that sexual assault is included in the current assumption. Lestrade's initial suspicions lay with the employees of the storage grounds, since the killer must have had access to dispose of the bodies, but all the obvious leads have turned up nothing.' Sherlock shrugged, sipping his tea. His quiet hum of appreciation was gratifying, and John wondered if he had actually made any for himself while he had been away.
'Sounds a bit run-of-the-mill for you.' John hated to say it, but it was true. Murder in London was hardly a rare occurrence, and Sherlock made a point to only take cases that would interest him. 'I would have thought you wouldn't have bothered.'
Something twitched across Sherlock's face, a brief downwards tilt of his lips and a wrinkle at the bridge of his nose. 'There are a couple of interesting facets. I've not seen the drug combination before, and it's not something that's available for purchase on the streets.'
'How do you know?' John paused, his jaw tightening as he realised that, in his absence, Sherlock had probably been locating old connections – dealers, most likely – and getting information. His face must have given away his train of thought, because Sherlock rolled his eyes in annoyance and set down his mug before stretching out his arms, underside-up.
John wished he could decline the offer and say he trusted Sherlock not to return to his mind-sharpening methods of choice, but it would be a lie. If nothing else, their honesty with each other mattered, and he carefully relinquished his tea before grabbing Sherlock's elbow and tilting his arms, first one, then the other, to the light.
There was nothing to see: no tiny punctures or lingering bruises from intravenous administration. John wasn't stupid, he knew that Sherlock could have used a different injection site somewhere else on his body, but even as he followed the broad blue roadmap of Sherlock's veins, John doubted Sherlock would have bothered. He was not being deferential to John's wishes with his abstinence. It was self-serving restraint. He didn't take up his old habits because he wanted to help the Yard with their cases; pleasing John had nothing to do with it.
'My contacts couldn't tell me anything that would lead us to the buyers. I don't know every dealer in London, but Molly conducted a few quick tests for me.' Sherlock did not move to pull away as he continued to explain. 'The pharmaceuticals are high-grade, suggesting they are either being bought directly from the manufacturer, or the murderer is skilled enough to make their own. My associate's club is probably their hunting ground –'
'And you're using yourself as bait.' John had not heard his own voice sound like that for years: clammy and horrified. His fingers tightened where they were still wrapped around Sherlock's wrists, and he felt the jump of his radial pulse. It was not a huge leap of deduction, but Sherlock was giving him a strange look, his brow pleated and his head cocked to the side as he gleaned God-knew-what from John's expression.
'What makes you think that?' he asked at last, and John suddenly realised why he couldn't quite identify the pinch on Sherlock's features. It was confusion – not something often seen on the consulting detective's face – as if he could not fathom John's intuitive, plain-as-day assumption. 'I'm there to observe, at least as much as I can while working behind the bar.'
John blinked, because he had never seen Sherlock drink a pint, let alone pull one. 'Why don't you just... mingle?'
'Why bother searching the club when I can get everyone there to come to me?' Sherlock asked. 'GHB is often administered orally via the medium of an alcoholic drink, which the killer will no doubt purchase from the bar. Even if I don't serve the perpetrator directly, I'll always be close enough to deduce the essentials. It should be adequate to give Lestrade some leads.'
'You see everyone, and everyone sees you.' John did not add “dressed like that”, but the words were on the tip of his tongue. 'How do you know whoever's doing it won't take a shine to you?'
'The victims have all been below six-foot, under twenty-six and pale-haired. The murderer has a type.'
So did I, John thought. It used to be flirtatious, female and friendly. Now look at me.
Out loud, he said, 'He could still break his pattern. You don't look like you've been out of university long in that get-up, and you can't tell me it's not meant to be eye-catching.' He gestured to Sherlock's outfit, lifting one eyebrow when he only saw continuing puzzlement rather than understanding. It was ridiculous. Sherlock knew he was attractive. For God's sake, he spent enough time looking in the mirror...
Except, now he thought about it, John realised that maybe appreciation of his looks was not something to which Sherlock was frequently exposed. There was Molly of course, but everyone else of their acquaintance treated him like a convenience at best and a freak at worst. Anderson and Donovan did their best to spread their vitriol, and even to someone as apparently-indifferent as Sherlock, it had to have some effect on how he perceived himself.
He used his appeal to get the truth out of suspects or chase down the details of a case, but that was more about his behaviour and body language– attentive and enthralling – than Sherlock deliberately using his physical assets to get attention. Not that they needed emphasis, but perhaps it was a factor Sherlock was failing to take into account.
'I'd look out of place in a suit,' Sherlock replied, a defensive edge to his voice. 'It's easy to dress down to a certain age. People make assumptions based on clothing – they always have done, from class and background to sexual proclivities.' He shook his head, gently easing free of John's grip before grasping his tea and gulping down the last of the cooling beverage. 'Besides, people who tend the bar are also in the spotlight – not exactly wise to drug someone who is the centre of attention.'
'So that's what you've been doing? Doling out drinks and playing “spot the murderer?”' It sounded ridiculous, but judging from the expression on Sherlock's face, those were the bare bones of it. 'Any luck?'
'So far there have been no obvious suspects, but weekdays are slow and I've been using the time to acclimatise to the role. Tonight should be another matter.'
John, befuddled from flying and time away, took a moment to realise that it was Friday, the end of the working week for most and one of the busiest evenings in any club. 'So, what? You're just going to keep moonlighting as a bar-tender until you catch this guy? You said it was three months; you could be waiting a while.' He followed Sherlock through to his room without thinking, barely seeing the neat order of the bed as he frowned in thought. 'Are you even getting paid?'
The envelope hit him squarely in the chest, and John fumbled it in clumsy hands before frowning down at the grubby bank notes within. 'And this is?'
'Tips. Once the murderer's caught there'll also be payment from the club owner and, if I fill in the paperwork, the consulting fee from the police.'
'You never fill in the paperwork,' John mumbled, but he was too busy counting to push the issue. All right, it was mostly fivers, but there was nearly four hundred quid tucked into the bulging, tatty envelope. What was Sherlock doing at that bar, serving drinks naked?
'What sort of club is it?' John asked, clearing his throat when Sherlock looked up from where he was perched on the edge of the mattress, taking off the monstrous boots.
'A loud one.' Apparently, Sherlock realised that was not the quite the answer John was looking for. 'Relatively mainstream, standard fare. Writhing on the dance floor, sex and drugs in the toilets. The usual.' He rubbed the pad of his index finger under one eye, smudging the liner before screwing his eyes up tight and opening them again. 'I only got home about thirty minutes before you walked in, and I have to return in a little over twelve hours.'
'Is that your way of saying you need your beauty sleep?' John asked, a faint smile crossing his lips when Sherlock merely gave a half-hearted glare. Now that he mentioned it, John could tell that not all of the colour around Sherlock's eyes was cosmetics. The biological hues of exhaustion also lingered there; discussing the details of Sherlock's plan and John's reservations would have to wait. 'It's unlike you to rest when there's a case on.'
Sherlock grimaced, raking his fingers through his curls and leaving them in further disarray. 'Tending the bar is surprisingly exhausting. The noise, the people – it's overwhelming. I need to be alert tonight, and if that means I have to sleep, then so be it.'
He spoke of slumber as if it were a battle to be fought, rather than a peaceful respite, and John pursed his lips. Of everyone, he was least likely to complain about Sherlock breaking the habit of a lifetime and actually getting a decent amount of shut-eye.
With a nod of understanding, he turned to go, one hand on the edge of the door and the other still curved around the packet of money. 'Good night then, Sherlock, sleep well.'
'You should do the same. The unsociable hours of your flight have left you deprived, and I might need you.'
It wasn't an invitation, no matter how much Sherlock's still-rough voice made it sound like one, and John swallowed tightly as he shut the door behind him and left Sherlock in peace. He glanced around the flat, barely registering his familiar surroundings. So much for a quiet day at home. What had been leaden tiredness was now a mix of tight-gutted anxiety and lingering need, the cocktail of which made him edgy and tense.
John washed dishes and tidied up in an effort to calm himself. He left the money propped up behind the kettle, promising himself that he would pay it into Sherlock's account later. It was only once the place was neat and he found himself at a loose end that John resigned himself to the challenge of trying to get some sleep. Sherlock was right, it would do him good, and maybe when he woke up again he would be ready to face his flat-mate with only friendly sentiments in mind.
Once in his room, he got changed and made sure the curtains were drawn against the morning sun before settling into bed. With a grunt, he pulled the quilt up to his shoulders and wished it was as easy to turn off his whirling thoughts as it was to close his eyes. Time and again the memory of Sherlock sprawled on the sofa was presenting itself to his mind's eye, and his erection, which had flagged when Sherlock explained about the case, put in another appearance.
Stubbornly, he ignored it, keeping his hands above his own waist as he fought to succumb to slumber. Thankfully, exhaustion worked in his favour. Sounds grew faint and the world took on a misty quality. At last, on the indistinct border of wakefulness, John could only hope that Sherlock was not underestimating the killer, whoever they may be.
If he was, the consequences would be more than either of them could bear.