Work Header

One Step

Work Text:

1. John takes a step towards Sherlock.

+0.3333333333333... And never reaches him.

John advances with his shoulders heavy like they are in the mornings, still getting used to the speed and pressure of the Earth and the everyday, the lack of dreams' confused and simple logic. Waking up is like climbing a staircase for John; creaking, with a door at the top and no way to tell what is waiting inside. Sometimes he takes the steps in the flat two at a time, when he's worried over something, and then pays for it with hours of twinging and itching in his old injuries, all of them, with their different kinds of reality. Sherlock watches him in those moments, while John pretends nothing is happening. That's how John lives, sometimes.

Sherlock sees him come this morning, with his shoulders softened by sleep, steeling against the ache of waking gradually, one moment in front of the other. The day is still dark, and somewhere, off-center in this tableau, Lestrade nurses his coffee like it's what's holding him to the surface of the Earth. His breath and the vapour rising into his face are one.

There are no ways for things to last forever, except this one. When Sherlock was nine Mycroft explained to him, patiently, with a piece of chalk and a blackboard and a dustcloud made of drawing that settled in both of their hair, why it isn't true that a movement will last forever if it is halved infinitely. Intuition, he said with a sixteen-year-old voice that still broke sometimes, is wrong on many counts. Mycroft went on to live inside the mechanics of now, of acute timezones, of worlds that come alive and die in the span of phone calls. Sherlock went on to choose humanity in its ugliest forms, intuition as motivation, as goal and as means, even if he avoids it for himself as often as he can; he chose the suspended time of corpses, their messages of past via absences of present. Sometimes he can indulge in infinity, and enjoy the way it is true and absolutely not true at the same time.

So John advances and he halves the space between them, and again, and again, and with each step it will be more like a staircase, the endless anticipation of what is at the top. John will come so close it will no longer matter how many eyelashes he's lost in his life, because Sherlock will be able to finally count how many he has left, and he will advance still, and never stop, until all they'll be able to do is breathe each other, eat the specks of lip flaking off each other's mouths, and wait for a sun that will never reach zenith, though it will come close, and closer, and closer still.

They will never kiss, they will not-kiss for infinity, and it seems like a good solution to some of the problems Sherlock knows the shapes of but not the names. There are things he will miss – trying to outrun the night on rooftops, John's eyebrows when he's annoyed, the many truths and lies that blood can tell, Mrs Hudson – but Sherlock thinks he could like this world, where there is always something to observe, because John will be ever approaching.

“Are you all right? Sherlock?” John peers up at him with sleep-bruised eyes, and he turns Sherlock's name into a question, which is pleasing, but also means that it's not the first time he's said it.

“Yes,” says Sherlock, so evenly it makes John's brow furrow into lines.

A moment. “So what d'you think?” John's voice is easy, adjusted. The sleeve of his jacket brushes Sherlock's coat. Lestrade is coming over with his hands deep in the pockets of his jacket, coffee gone, the skin around his eyes crinkled with the weight of hours, gravity firmly in place.

“Not now,” Sherlock says, which is the truth, and steps away, towards the body.



+1 Because there is not enough room in the small tram cart.

“Sorry,” he says hoarsely, crowding closer towards Sherlock, feeling the pressure of the people forcing their way inside. Sherlock can just see his grimace, the sheen of sweat on his forehead. John does that sometimes: apologising for things that are very clearly not his fault. When things are his fault he tends to find it harder to apologise, which amuses Sherlock in a way he doesn't think he can explain to John, ever.

“It's fine,” he says, because it is.

The tram shudders into a groaning descent, up the hilly street.

John smells, pressing into Sherlock the way that he is: the sourmetal smell of tram, of the handlebars with so many hands on them. The heavy air of people in summer, of clothes and thighs sticking to plastic seats, of a grandmother's dark-freckled hands peeling an orange in thin sprays of surprised citrus. The grandchildren can already taste the smell, crowding around her for their share. John, close by underneath the freshness of orange, smells of this city even after only a day, this city so different from London, smaller, slower, with smells of hills and sheep like clouds, and strikingly of himself after a day of sweating in the Portuguese sun, as though there is more of his body than usual.

“God, it's hot,” John huffs. He turns his head and his nose makes contact with Sherlock's arm. His breath is a different kind of warm than the heavy air inside the cart: moist, fleeting. “Aren't you melting in that shirt?” he asks Sherlock's shoulder.

“Flesh doesn't melt,” Sherlock says automatically, watching the sticky, orange-spray-misted, interchangeable grandchildren chewing with an open-mouthed synchronicity that unexpectedly soothes something inside of him.

John is pushed even further into him at the next stop, and this time he doesn't say sorry, but it is entirely possible, Sherlock must allow, that that is because John's mouth is now pressed into Sherlock's upper arm.

Sweat tickles Sherlock's forehead where his hair sticks to it, and where his hand is trapped between his thigh and John's hip there is a build-up of heat that makes his skin prickle with alertness. His other hand, on the slippery handlebar above his head, tightens instinctively with the weight of John now fully against him, and the tram struggling to make it up the slope of the road.

“Mkay,” John half-gasps, half-laughs in a way that suggests he doesn't think it's funny at all. “This isn't... Mff. Sherlock.” He shifts a little and manages to lay his jaw instead of his mouth against Sherlock's arm. Sherlock can feel him swallowing.

“Yes. We'll get off at the next stop,” says Sherlock, because he can feel the unease building inside John, as though he's sharing it with Sherlock through the points where they're pressed together. “We can walk, it isn't far.” He closes his eyes, and tries to move the fingers trapped between his body and the warm, sticky presence of John. They feel strangely disconnected. When he swallows he can taste orange pith, bitter and sharp.



+2 And says, narrow-lipped, wide-eyed: “Jesus Christ, what have you been doing now?”

“If you'd been there you wouldn't have to ask,” Sherlock snaps, hanging onto the doorframe. He's illogical with a dizzy sort of pain, angry with John from a point deep in his chest, far under the fracture.

“If you'd told me where you were going instead of running off like a madman, I would have been there,” John says hotly, and even points at Sherlock with the cup of tea he's holding.

I expect you to follow, Sherlock thinks with his hands over the pounding protest of his bones where he hit the ground, and it's a thought that is so loud, so fully formed it's not possible that he's never thought it before. He grunts, then hisses out a breath at the sharp spike of pain that blooms through his torso. John's brow furrows at the sound. “Broken rib,” Sherlock tells him through gritted teeth.

John takes another step towards him, assessing, and assumes his Doctor Face like he's slipping into a change of clothes: matter-of-fact, quick, functional. “Idiot. Bathroom,” he says, calmly authoritative. “And don't think I won't send you to the hospital if you need it. Be just like you to climb the stairs with a punctured lung.”

“Don't be ridiculous, you'd be professionally calm in that way you have when you suppress panic, and you'd be arranging a cab by now if that were the case,” Sherlock says, but it is true that the breath that carries the words is tired and flat.

John comes into the bathroom while Sherlock is still struggling to get his shirt off his shoulders, biting down on his tongue through the shocks of sizzling pain in his ribcage. John reaches around him and peels back the shirt with the careful, reserved hands of the doctor, and pulls the sleeves over Sherlock's wrists without undoing the cuffs, so the shirt dangles off his arms like a bizarre cape, holding his hands captive.

Where John's fingers go on Sherlock's torso they spark little jolts of pain.

“Cracked,” he confirms, and then listens to Sherlock's breathing for what seems like an unnecessarily long time, the pressure of the stethoscope a little painful and cold after the fingers, and the lines of the tiles in the wall behind him are gritty and very straight. Inside Sherlock, there are small bursts of discomfort and, nevertheless, a sinking, subsiding tension, that seems to be bleeding out of the soles of his feet into the floor. John listens to the inside of him, eyes focused on the bluish discolourations that are starting to appear around where the rib sits twisted under the skin, a little wrong, a little ill-fitting.

“Well,” John says, “your lungs are fine.” He takes the stethoscope away from Sherlock's ribcage but keeps the earpieces in, like he's still listening, to something invisible around them. “But there'll be no running around for at least three weeks, that's for sure,” he says, and one half of his mouth smiles as Sherlock rolls his eyes.

“Ridiculous,” Sherlock mutters, but more for show than anything; at least for now there is a lack of bite to the idea of standing here for a bit longer, and maybe sitting down later, and replaying and savouring what happened before he smashed into the suddenly opened car door and broke his rib, and immediately after, when he lunged at the thief anyway without really allowing the pain to catch up with him, and grabbing the man's ankle so he fell down in a beautiful, almost slow descent to the pavement.

“I'll get you some painkillers,” John says, and then he looks up at Sherlock, and holds the look for a long moment. Sherlock, who has told himself he would stop counting the seconds until John looks away, but is finding it a difficult task, can see his eyes going noticeably softer; the doctor retreating, washing his hands and walking off with quiet, certain footsteps, leaving John in his jumper with his hair mussed from an impromptu nap in front of the television, John in the bathroom of their flat. He looks soft and secure against the off-white tile behind him.

“John,” Sherlock says. John's eyebrows rise in question. “I'll need you to... get this shirt off my hands,” Sherlock says, smiling a little.

“Right,” John says, one mouth corner still amused.

Sherlock's lungs are fine. It's still a little hard to breathe in the off-white bathroom that has John in it, reaching around him, hands steady and warm on the skin of Sherlock's wrists.




+2.5 And thinks it is a step away.

His limp would be hardly noticeable to anyone else, in this early stage of return, but even at this distance it's clear how John's leg pulls a phantom weight, how his shoulder sags. Sherlock can't quite see his face, and maybe it's good that way, though he's very annoyed at the idea that anything is good right now, with John looking at the ground and making a way between graves with his arms stiff and swinging. He counts the seconds anyway, until John has passed, disappearing out of sight. Nine. Sherlock forces himself not to turn and look at John's retreating back; he manages it, but it doesn't really help, because he can imagine it down to the smallest detail. He wonders, and then grimaces at the sharp spike of undeniable sadness that shoots up from his belly, if John knows that Sherlock keeps his cane in the back of the cupboard in the kitchen where Mrs Hudson put the vacuum cleaner the former tenants had left as a pointed hint that neither Sherlock nor John ever took.

There is no logical reason for Sherlock to have come here, and he's not about to fool himself about it. It doesn't work, and he doesn't have the energy to spare.

He glances at the black headstone with his name on it and wonders why Mycroft ordered one without dates. The thought is an irritating one, before it passes into a feeling of vague unease, of an unnamed weight settling in his chest.

He turns briskly and starts walking, because it's no use, being here. It's slightly disorienting, the way his brain is asking for a break, for a moment of breath, to organise some things. He normally welcomed it with glee when things happened all at once; it felt energising, it felt like he could work best with many different impulses firing up different parts of him, as if the violence of some thoughts spurred others, sparking each other with their fire. Now, he just wants to sit down for a little while, here in the grass if there is nowhere else, just a couple of minutes, he imagines that might be enough, or if not enough then at least almost enough, and salvage an idea of self from the remains of his life that will enable him to get to his feet and get going, and get things done, like he's done for all of his life when things had that urgency that reduces sleep and food and conversation to unnecessary complications.

Inside the pocket of his new coat, which looks the same but smells different, his phone starts buzzing – it's a new one with a pre-paid card, which means the can only be from Molly. Molly who used to text when she had a body for him, without punctuation and with an unreliable, amusing pattern of signing with an x or just as Molly, and who always calls, now, speaking so softly he needs to tell her to speak up at least once per conversation. He closes his hand around the phone and feels the vibration of the call against his palm. He lets it go still; she'll call again in five minutes if it's important.

At the exit to the graveyard, which he approaches carefully under cover of the trees, all is quiet. Mrs Hudson and John are gone. Sherlock hopes that they have gone home together.


+3 But stops.

He even says: “Stop,” though Sherlock didn't speak, didn't move, is just waiting here, against the wall next to John's new front door. John holds up his hands in a gesture that could be surrender but isn't. It's a signal of war: don't come near or I will hurt you. Sherlock can't stop any more than he already has, but perhaps it is that which makes John say that word – John did think all of Sherlock had stopped.

“John,” Sherlock says, and it is far more of a question than he had imagined in his rundowns of this moment, but there is no undoing that.

“No.” The hands lower, but none of the tension leaves John. “You don't – you don't get to do this. Okay? You don't get to.”

Sherlock feels as if something deep in his bones freezes at the look on John's face – there is more than just anger in the set of John's jaw, there is a sort of steely desperation that Sherlock has never seen in John, that reminds him of a caged animal.

“I told you I didn't want to talk to you yet,” John says, “but you just can't...” He lets out a long exhale. “You can't respect it, can you? You had to come here and corner me. Leave me the fuck alone, Sherlock. This once.” The words are clipped, sharp, heavy like hurled stones.

Sherlock swallows harshly around the indignation bubbling up in him. There is a big part of him that wants to grab John and shake him and say you are wrong and trust me as I do you and explain, explain, explain it to the both of them, because it's impossible that John will still not want to talk to him after that, he'll understand after a while, the way he always understands, he'll even understand the things that Sherlock doesn't, and then that terrible look in John's eyes will be gone, and there won't ever be a need for an apology, not over this, because this is the one thing that Sherlock knows with absolute certainty he doesn't need to apologise for, and John will see that, because John always sees, and Sherlock can leave his hands on John's shoulders to rest there and they can try again, they can try to get used to that again. But John's look speaks of so much warning that Sherlock feels a stab of danger, like a jolt of electricity running up from somewhere in the centre of him. His skin prickles with it.

“Okay,” he says, and his mouth is dry, tongue useless. In his pockets, his hands are fists. “Okay.”

John's mouth is a thin line, and he takes another step, towards the door. The key is steady between his fingers when he slides it into the lock.


+4 With his shopping basket held like a barrier between them. He stops, then, squaring his jaw, starts walking further towards Sherlock.

Sherlock stands between washing powders that proclaim differing intensities of erasure and happiness, useless hands holding two types of honey and lowering slowly.

For a moment it seems as though John will just slip past, press himself against the shelves of deodorants and hold his face half-turned away, using the bag of peas and the boxes of pizza in his basket to keep him at a safe distance – but halfway through this movement he looks up at Sherlock. Automatically Sherlock counts the seconds between them, out of sync with the sudden sound of his heart in his ears. He turns his head to follow John's progress, to keep the look between them, and John slows more with each step until he's standing still, like there's an invisible force holding him back, and he stops fighting in stages, in steps of growing defeat. They stare at each other; the honey is irrelevant in Sherlock's hands, and he can feel the chill emanating from John's basket with the frozen peas. Behind John, on a box of washing powder, there is a picture of a mother with clean, brightly coloured children that fold up as easily as their clothes. John, meanwhile, looks crumpled, and darkened with determination and fatigue. Without warning something jagged and hot expands in Sherlock's chest at the sight of John, with so many signs of John about him – a dried stain of tea on his shirt, dark circles under his eyes, shoulders defiant, hands clean and well-behaved under the pressure of this moment.

When John does lower his eyes Sherlock's lost count.

“Jesus Christ,” John says, and presses the hand that's not holding the basket into his eyes.

“I didn't know you were going to be here,” Sherlock says, because it's important that John doesn't think that Sherlock is trying to corner him again, though it's true that he knows this is the shop closest to John's new flat that always has a large stock of the chai he likes.

“Well, I suppose it's more neutral ground than my front door,” John says, sounding a little resigned, and just hearing his voice like that again, without shock or anger or threat changing it completely, makes Sherlock relax a little, feeling tension of months and months thinning.

It's not much, but John looks at him again, and he looks the way he always does when he's taken a decision. “I've been talking to Greg Lestrade,” he says, body rigid and alert under the crinkled lines of his clothes.

Sherlock nods and squeezes one of the tubes of honey, to feel the slight give against his fingertips. “I know. He told me.”

“Of course he did,” says John, and then he narrows his eyes a little, as though he's staring into a light.

Sherlock knows, often, what to do, even if he doesn't always do it. “We could have dinner,” he says. Things are less straightforward but John is still John and there is certainty there, possibility.

John breathes, a click of audible air through his teeth. “I'm still not okay with what you did,” he says, but it means yes, and that Sherlock can tell makes something in him buzz with contentment.

“I know,” he says. “I hope to change your mind by the end of dinner.”

“Don't ruin it,” John says, tiredly.

“John,” Sherlock says, because it's important to get this right. “I'll listen to you. If you listen to me.”

John licks his lips, squares his shoulders. “Text me, then. Same number.” He gestures vaguely with his basket of cold peas and pizza. “Have to... get going.”

“Yes,” Sherlock agrees, and watches him go, straight-backed, tea-stained, sleep-deprived, John.




+5 Just as Sherlock steps forward too, losing the rest of the space between them.

“Just when – just when this was building, Sherlock, it was,” John is saying, because he's had a couple and then he always talks about this, lips pliant and wet with beer and kiss, and he stretches his neck against Sherlock's hand when it comes to rest there. “How could I – I didn't understand.”

“You weren't supposed to,” Sherlock murmurs, and lowers his head again, and feels heat thread its way through his shirt to his skin where John is crushing the satin between his fingers. It's still so new, so fledgling, this new thing between them, there are still so many things... but John is standing framed by the wallpaper in 221B, and it seems almost possible that some things can be undone, and others can be remade.

“God, you dick,” John growls, the effect somewhat softened by the way he closes his teeth over Sherlock's bottom lip immediately after.

“I knew you'd cope,” Sherlock lisps against John who holds his lip hostage, and it is true, it is what he sometimes reminded himself of in motel bathrooms where he left his hair behind when it became too recognisable or under windy bridges where he missed his old coat sharply, it is what he reminded himself of when it became hard to focus all of his memories because he had to move fast and sleep little: John would always be fine, John only knew shades of fine, John would always be John, John would always get up again, even if his walk would be lop-sided. John knew how to pick up pieces of something shattered and make do with them, even if they no longer fit, had really done nothing else for the entirety of his adult life and would do so again. It helped, it did, to remember that.

John must know this. He releases Sherlock's lip and laughs, hoarse and low and a little dangerous, and Sherlock shivers against him in response, because he can, because he does, now, because even if it is still so very new it comes naturally to share this reaction that he's always had to John offering up small glimpses of his strength. “Shut up. You had no fucking clue.”

“Yes I did,” Sherlock whispers, and tries to kiss John again, but John moves back just a little.

“We're not done talking about this, you know,” he mutters, a threat, a warning, an offering in a sense, and then kisses upwards to stop Sherlock's reply, to turn it into a different language.

“But you have forgiven me,” Sherlock says when they emerge for air and John's hands are warm and heavy on his shoulder blades. It's not a question. Sherlock knows the moment when John forgave him: a night when nothing had happened, before he moved back in but had started visiting regularly, and things were moving in ways that had both of them silent and waiting a lot of the time, a night when John was just watching the news and suddenly looked over at Sherlock for a long time without saying anything – and Sherlock also knows that he had trouble focusing on his microscope slides for half an hour after that look.

It's not a question, but it's still a relief when John scrapes his teeth against the underside of Sherlock's jaw and says, close, breath more than voice: “Yes.”




+0 And takes his phone out of his pocket with the hand that isn't holding the cane.

“Oh, here,” he says, brow furrowed with questions that are still forming and are without doubt uninteresting, and he sucks an audible breath in through his teeth. “Use mine.”