On Tuesdays they pass each other on the street; John on his way to the clinic, Sherlock out for his morning walk. John sips hot, flavourless coffee from a paper cup as he walks, the cardboard sleeve sliding dangerously close to the bottom. Sherlock blows smoke into the air and taps the end of his cigarette.
With his opposite hand, Sherlock slips an envelope under John's arm. Then he shrugs more deeply into the collar of his coat and walks on with his smile hidden behind his scarf.
John tucks the envelope into his pocket, holding it against his side through the layers of clothing with the palm of his hand.
• • •
The envelope is still warm when John pulls it out of his pocket hours later.
The top flap is tucked in rather than sealed, crinkled a bit from being handled, and the paper smells faintly of pen ink and cigarette smoke. John carefully pulls the letter out into the open and flattens it over his lap to read it again for the third time.
The letter is only two pages. Lineless, and covered nearly top-to-bottom in Sherlock's messy chicken-scratch, back and front. John chews on his thumbnail as he reads, smiling all over again.
When he finishes he runs his left hand over the pages, where Sherlock's left hand would have held them down against the table as he wrote. John imagines Sherlock drinking his morning coffee and smoking his first cigarette of the day and barely touching his plate of toast as he writes, ink smudging and blotching with the excitement of his hand.
John finds his stationary set and brushes off the thin layer of dust a week's abandonment has brought it. Sherlock appreciates the nice paper. Some days, John buys a new pack from a fancy paper-craft store, and Sherlock guesses the country of origin. So far he's never guessed wrong.
John sits down at his desk, pulls the cap off his pen and writes, Dear Sherlock Bloody-Great-Git Holmes.
• • •
Some Tuesdays John doesn't arrive on time, or even arrive at all.
Sherlock still walks to their meeting point every morning.
If John isn't there he keeps walking. On those days he allows the small twinge of disappointment to scratch at the insides of his stomach. Those days are far more disappointing than the days when John comes with no letter for him. Sherlock can deal with those days, because at least then he gets to look at John, if only for the briefest second.
(The briefest second is all he needs to create a new snapshot in his mind, to file away the changes in John's skin, the wrinkles around his eyes, the smile lines at the corners of his mouth, the new specks of grey in his hair and the fading colour of his clothing. The way he is limping, or not limping, or wincing in pain from his shoulder or not wincing. He catalogues every change in his body that would take place if John were still living with him.)
Seeing John will always be enough.
One morning Sherlock isn't there.
John hesitates in the street, wondering if he should wait.
But then he checks his watch and realizes he's going to be late for work, so he hurries across the street and down the steps into the underground.
When John gets home that night there's an envelope waiting for him under his door. He laughs and shifts the weight of his groceries in his arms to bend down and pick it up.
“Don't think I haven't noticed,” Mycroft says one morning.
Sherlock ignores him in favour of the book in his hands. He skims each page until he finds the words he's looking for, then smudges out all the words around them with a black marker. Mrs Hudson hums a tune to herself as she places a plate of eggs and toast in front of him and refills his mug with coffee.
Sherlock draws a thick, black line through an entire passage. The room stinks of permanent marker.
“I did warn you that people are still looking for you. You need to be more careful,” Mycroft continues. “I can't be responsible for what happens to him if you keep insisting on pulling this little stunt of yours.”
Sherlock blows the ink dry.
• • •
The next envelope Sherlock gives him contains only one slip of paper torn out of The Great Gatsby. He has a small collection of these, now. They're tucked away with the rest of Sherlock's notes, in their own box at the back of John's wardrobe. Sherlock has never been one to care for his books; half of John's novels have notes in the margins, words and entire passages underlined or circled or written over with red pen that says Wrong! Wrong! WRONG!
This page is nearly completely black except for a few words shining up at him from a sea of permanent marker.
stimulating my curiosity. young men—drift coolly so intimate. a voice cried with sensation
John bites his lip.
Sherlock just wants to talk, but he isn't allowed.
He's angry, because how dare Mycroft take away the one thing in his life that was actually preventing him from flying off the handle. Even though he knows this will all blow over, eventually, he wants it to blow over now. Sherlock just wants John to come home again, to sit in his arm chair in front of the fire and smile at him as he paces a path into the rug, spewing off deductions left and right and helping John do more than just see.
Since he can't phone, and he can't text, and he can't write e-mails or respond to John's blog, Sherlock does the one thing he can think of that Mycroft can't stick his oversized nose into. He sits down at his desk and writes five pages, back-to-back, about nothing and everything all at once, until his arm is sore and the joints in his fingers are stiff and his pen has leaked all over his hand.
He touches each page with his fingertips, leaving black smudges in the corners.
Then he walks through London, every day, for a week. He waits at the park, inside restaurants, at bus stops and in the underground until one day – a Tuesday – John wanders out of a cafe across the street with a cup of coffee in his hand. He spots Sherlock watching him and stops mid-step.
Sherlock smiles at him.
Slowly, John smiles back.
John cuts out comic strips from the newspaper and staples them to his letter because he knows Sherlock won't read them if he just gives him the page number. Sherlock may like to pretend he's above having such a thing as a normal sense of humour, but John knows that in reality, if the mood is right, he's capable of finding just about anything funny.
He leaves out the mundane, every-day details in his letters – because if Sherlock really wanted to know he could just read his blog. Instead, tonight, he writes about the war, about his friend Bill, about the young man named Adam that he tried to save but couldn't.
I had seen men die before him, John writes, and I saw men die after him.
But in my nightmares it's always Adam.
The night Sherlock's words begin to stray away from innocence is cold and raining. How inappropriately appropriate, he thinks, somewhere in the back of his mind. He sits on his bed, naked save for the blanket wrapped around his shoulders and the hardcover book pressed against his thigh. It leaves a red imprint when he presses down to write. In his other hand he grips a glass of red wine – his third – but otherwise he ignores it completely.
I often wonder what the patch of skin behind your ear tastes like.
It's a thought I used to ignore but have since decided to investigate further. Each time I do the room feels too warm and my chest feels a bit too tight and a bit too big for my own skin. Is this what you feel, when you wake up frantic from your nightmares? Is this what panic is? Shortness of breath, tingling sensations, and heated skin. Everywhere. Hot hot hot. Research suggests this is a panic attack, but I'm not sure if I feel frightened.
I'm going to do it. Tonight. When I'm done writing to you. I'm going to imagine that patch of skin behind your ear and just what it tastes like. I'm going to imagine your skin and my tongue against your skin and I'm going to wonder if it's salty with sweat or bitter with chemicals from your shampoo, or if it's none of those things at all because you're more than just sweat and cheap shampoo.
After that I suppose I'll just see what happens.
• • •
John swears at himself for being ten minutes early, but Sherlock is there all the same. For the first time since they started this, Sherlock hesitates as he crosses the street. John notices his pace slow and his hand reach into his pocket only to pull out again.
John frowns and presses his cup against his lips. Sherlock looks away, down at the pavement under his shoes rather than at John's face as he normally does. Without knowing why – just that he should – John pretends to glance over his shoulder, as if he heard someone calling his name, using the movement as an excuse to slow down.
Sherlock snaps out of whatever daze he's in and John feels him all but shove the letter into his arms. Startled, John opens his mouth and turns to look at him, but Sherlock has already sped off down the street and around the corner.
• • •
Stupid, Sherlock thinks as he walks.
The fear that John will never speak to him again suddenly becomes very tangible.
• • •
It's the first time John makes the mistake of reading Sherlock's letter at work.
It certainly won't be the last.
He waits until his lunch break before he locks himself in his office and digs out the pad of paper he uses to take notes on. It's small and running out of pages. It's not the fancy, thick paper he has at home just for this occasion, but it'll have to do for now.
Oh, he writes. His hand shakes with a sudden surge of energy and he writes, you're a bad man.
John's fingers brush the back of Sherlock's hand when he hands him the note.
Their eyes meet.
John wets his bottom lip and Sherlock swallows.
• • •
At home, John thinks of Sherlock's tongue pressing against the spot behind his ear.
He thinks of Sherlock's hands, thin and pale and long-fingered. He remembers the feel of soft skin on the back of Sherlock's knuckles, gloveless (for once) and warm despite the cool breeze. The way Sherlock's fingers twitched, pressing against John's hand minutely, wanting to touch and be touched.
John thinks of Sherlock's mouth against his skin. Sherlock's breath against the shell of his ear.
John thinks he would let Sherlock do whatever he wanted to him.
• • •
Every time you were being a cold-hearted tit, I wanted to grab you and breathe some warmth into you. I thought if, maybe, I could show you how it feels to have someone care about you so much that it hurts, you would start caring about all the people who have died since we moved in together (or since you started, or since humanity started) since there are other people out there who care about other people as much as I care about you.
Looking back on it now, I think I just wanted to kiss you.
Sherlock leans back against his headboard and exhales slowly.
He watches the pages of John's letter rise and fall against his chest.
• • •
The following Tuesday, Sherlock doesn’t give him an envelope.
Instead, he gives him a bright blue post-it note that he sticks to the sleeve of John's coat.
It reads: I want you to kiss me.
“This is a dangerous game you're playing,” Mycroft tells him. He shifts the manilla folder tucked under his arm, tightening his grip on the edges, and adjusts the umbrella hanging off the crook of his elbow.
Sherlock tucks his violin under his chin and glances up at him.
“There are people watching him,” Mycroft says. “People who are not me. People who will not hesitate to use him against you if they find out you’re in London. These people – they will find out eventually, if you don't stop now.”
With a smirk, Sherlock begins to play God Save the Queen.
“As always, dear brother, I’m just looking out for you,” Mycroft says.
• • •
There are men in his flat when John returns home. He nearly drops his keys in surprise, but then Mycroft steps out of his kitchen and gives him a small, tight-lipped smile.
“Ah. Sorry for not giving you any notice, John,” Mycroft says. “But I’m afraid we have to relocate you. Far too dangerous for you to be in such close proximity to Baker Street at the moment. Not to worry, I’ve set you up with a nice flat on the other side of London. Closer to your new office.”
• • •
It only takes two days for Sherlock to realize something is wrong.
What have you done with him?
I’m merely trying to keep you both safe. Something you don't seem keen to do yourself. Do yourselves a favour and do not look for him.
Sherlock bites his phone in frustration. The plastic creaks under his teeth.
• • •
John hates his new flat. It's on the top floor but doesn't offer much in the way of a view. At least it's bright, he supposes. He reads over the information package concerning the new job that Mycroft has set up for him. If all goes well, Mycroft said, there's a higher position awaiting him.
John doesn't know what that means. He's not sure if he wants to find out. He shoves the folder aside and pulls his bag closer. Buried under his clothing he finds his box of notes and letters from Sherlock.
John places the bright blue post-it on the inside lid of the box and closes it gently.
That night his bed feels small and painfully empty. John stretches out and tries desperately to fill it.
• • •
Sherlock opens John's blog on his laptop and immediately receives a text message.
I'm warning you, Sherlock.
John's new office feels small and cramped. The other surgeons are nice, if a bit boring.
During his lunch break he glares at the fake tree in the corner and wonders about the point of it all. When he returns to his office with twenty minutes left in his break, he locks the door behind himself and pulls out a brand new pad of paper. The cover hasn't even been bent yet.
He rips it off in frustration.
He presses his pen down hard against the pages.
What the fuck is going on?
He scratches it out and tries again.
What the fuck is going on?
I want you to do whatever you want to me. I don't care what it is. I'll follow you blindly, wherever you go. I'll do whatever you want. I just want you to touch me. Everywhere. Anywhere. I don't care.
You always look so cold and untouchable but I know you're not. You're warm and solid and real. I want you. I think I've always wanted you. I wonder about it, too, you know. I wonder if you like it slow and gentle or fast and hard. I wonder if you’re a biter, I wonder if you like having marks left on your neck. Battle scars. I wonder if you're loud or quiet, or what you would say to me, what sounds you would make when you came. Do you go tense and still or do you just shudder?
John glances at the clock. Two minutes left. He reads over what he's written. His cheeks feel warm.
Do you even know what I'm talking about?
• • •
“This came for you, love,” Mrs Hudson says the next morning. Sherlock ignores her humming and prodding and tsking as she cleans the flat around him, a pile of skin and bones and blankets curled up in a petulant ball on the sofa.
But this is just the thing he needs to stir into life. He peeks his head out from under the blanket and grabs the envelope from off the coffee table. Sherlock holds it in his hands and feels his heart stutter in his chest. He wills Mrs Hudson to go away, and when she doesn't, he clambers off the sofa and makes his way to his bedroom, blankets and all.
Mrs Hudson calls after him, saying, “Are you not having lunch, then?”
Sherlock shuts his door in response. He leans against it, listens for the tell-tale put-upon sigh and the sound of Mrs Hudson wandering back down to her own flat. He moves away from the door and lies down on his bed, ripping open the envelope with shaking fingers and dumping the pages onto his chest.
He reads them once as he bites his lip. Then he reads them again, breathing unsteadily. He thinks about John under him, pliant, letting Sherlock do whatever he wants to him. What does he want?
Everything, he realizes. He just wants everything. Slow-fast gentle-hard. Biting. Leaving marks – battle scars, John called them. He wants it quiet, quiet, quiet until the end, then he wants it loud, loud, louder still. He wants John gasping in his ear. He wants John gripping his arms and his shoulders and his back. He wants John stretched out under him with his head thrown back and his cheeks flushed and John letting him in, in, in.
Sherlock runs his hand down his chest and stomach. The blanket moves in a rolling wave as his arm shifts underneath it. He swallows and wraps a hand around himself and closes his eyes.
Do you even know what I'm talking about? John had asked.
Inside his head, Sherlock says, Yes.
The message comes from Sherlock's blog. A single word flashes up from the subscription e-mail.
John blinks at it and holds his breath. The post on Sherlock's blog is deleted five minutes later.
John licks his lips and opens his own blog. He creates a new entry, types in a word and publishes it.
Then he deletes the entry, his heart pounding and his palms sweaty.
• • •
CAFE, John's post had said.
Sherlock throws Mycroft’s files aside and rips apart his copy of Dorian Gray. Mrs Hudson sighs at him when she puts a bowl of cut-up fruit down in front of him.
“I wish you wouldn't do that, you know,” she says. “You can always just donate them.”
Sherlock grunts and pulls out his black marker.
• • •
John with his paper cup of coffee burning hot against the palm of his hand. Sherlock with his fourth cigarette of the day clamped tightly between his fingers. They walk past one another silently, Sherlock tucking his chin down to his chest. John stares at his face, catching the crinkle of skin around Sherlock's eyes when he smiles at him.
John reaches out just as Sherlock reaches out. A quick exchange in the middle of a crowd, over in the blink of an eye. Sherlock's hand warm in John's hand sending sparks shooting up his arm through his veins. He swallows his coffee and smells cigarette smoke. The wind is cool and the sun is warm against his face.
Sherlock plays with the buttons of his shirt collar as he walks away.
John rubs his thumb against the thin, soft paper as he slips it into his pocket. His thumb comes away black with ink. He'll read it in his office, even though he knows he shouldn't. He'll read it and wet his lips and watch the clock tick away, and wish there was some way to fix all this.
• • •
I would do what Ordinary men do going in as if it were the most fascinating of sins.
wonderfully primitive instincts love being dominated. I fancy how delightful you look. I will come to life in hand if you like and Cry out.
John pulls a random book off his shelf and searches the pages for something to say. When he finds it, he blacks out all the words around it until it screams up at him from the page.
When I see you I hope you know how much I love you.
When John gives it to him, he squeezes Sherlock's hand closed around the page. Sherlock blinks at him, then smiles. Unbeknownst to them both, it will be the last letter either of them receives from one another for a long time.
John gets the promotion.
Mycroft moves him out of the country.
He works long hours performing surgeries and saves three people in the first month.
• • •
Sherlock walks past the cafe every morning for a week.
John doesn’t show up once.
Sherlock stops trying.
Mycroft has John's blog shut down.
“It's just temporary, I assure you,” he says. “We don't want any... important information getting into the wrong hands. It’s easy enough to track an IP these days. If he’s reading your blog, someone else can find out about it just as easily as I can.”
John doesn't want to believe him, so he doesn't, but there's not much he can do about it. He knows the deal by now; if he wants to move back to Baker Street, he has to wait. So he keeps his mouth shut until Mycroft leaves.
Mycroft drops off more files and thumb drives sealed away in plastic bags. Sherlock spends three days working through them all before getting frustrated and littering 221B with pages and pages from books, their passages blacked-out completely.
Mrs Hudson doesn't bother scolding him anymore. Mycroft sighs heavily when he arrives to pick up the files. Sherlock claws at his hair and presses his forehead into the back cushion of the sofa.
“Patience, dear brother,” Mycroft says.
Then he’s gone and Sherlock is finally able to fall asleep.
John saves eight people in his fourth month.
He should feel proud, but he doesn't. It’s just work to him, just another day to cross off on the calendar. Another day spent not knowing when he can go home. Another day with his heart fluttering in his chest because he hopes it’s soon.
When he goes back to his flat he digs out his box of Sherlock's letters and reads through all of them again. The pages no longer smell of smoke or the flat at Baker Street. They just smell of paper. John wonders if they ever smelt like anything other than paper.
He can't get comfortable at night. His bed is too big and too empty.
He sleeps on the sofa.
Some days Sherlock still stops in at the cafe. He orders a cup of coffee and takes a newspaper and finds a seat next to the window so he can watch people walk by. His mug of coffee leaves a brown stain on the pages and his hands shake with too much caffeine and not enough breakfast.
Sherlock imagines John coming in through the front door, the little bells tinkling. He imagines John brushing flakes of snow out of his hair, ordering his coffee for take out, and walking out again just in time to pass Sherlock on the street.
Sherlock wonders what it must look like to others; these two men, complete opposites in every way, who speak only in the flutter of eyelashes and the tiniest twitch of a smile playing at the corners of their mouths. Who speak only in letters and pages torn from books.
John is mid-surgery when the text arrives.
The other doctors glare at him from over their paper masks. John swallows and ignores the vibrating against his leg. Mycroft had told him to keep his phone on him at all times, despite it being against company policy. If anyone argued, Mycroft had said, John could point them in his direction.
He pulls off his mask two hours later and dumps his gloves into a nearby rubbish bin. His mobile is warm in the palm of his hand. The screen goes bright and Mycroft’s number flashes up at him.
There will be a car waiting for you outside. Your bags have already been packed for you.
Relocating again, then, John thinks. He doesn’t bother replying. He shoves his phone back into his pocket and walks back into surgery to finish up.
There’s a familiar black car waiting for him outside when he gets off his shift, just as Mycroft said. The driver holds open the door for John as he approaches. He gives a small nod and John slips into the back seat, next to his bag. He pulls out his mobile as the driver closes the door.
Can you at least tell me where I’m going this time?
The driver opens his door and settles into his seat. He adjusts his mirrors. His eyes flick to John in the back seat. He starts the car and pulls away from the curb. John’s taps his fingers against his knee and checks his phone as they pull into traffic.
The driver looks in the mirror again and says, “Shouldn’t be too long, Doctor Watson.”
John’s phone buzzes against his thigh. He flicks the screen on and stares down at the text.
221 B Baker Street. Sherlock’s name has been cleared.
• • •
A car pulls up outside Baker Street.
Sherlock listens to the car door slamming shut, then tunes it out. Mycroft is the last person he wants to see on a good day. Today is not a good day. Today – he decided at exactly 5:45am – is an awful day. He scratches his hands through his hair and contemplates grinding the still-burning end of his cigarette into his wrist just to watch the skin go red and pus come out.
Instead he drops it into his coffee and shoves the mug away and doesn't bother thinking about the mess it leaves all over case files he’s not allowed to do anything with until Mycroft says he can. He’s solved two of the cases already and is nearing the resolution of the third. His fingers itch with the urge to text Lestrade.
Mycroft takes an awfully long time to get his fat arse up the stairs, Sherlock thinks. Then he remembers that he doesn't care. For a moment he hopes Mycroft has fallen and broken his neck. But then Mrs Hudson would fret and Sherlock would be left to clean up the mess, and surely it would be his fault, in the end. So he takes it back and starts wishing for a twisted ankle instead when he feels something soft and warm press against the skin just behind his ear.
“Hmm,” a voice says next to him. “Tastes just like skin to me.”
Sherlock jumps out of his chair. It falls backwards onto the floor with a loud bang. John's eyes move from his face to the chair, then back again.
“Are you going to pick that up?” he asks. There's a bag in his hand, Sherlock notices. There are – there's another bag, resting at his feet. Heavy. Stuffed right up to the zipper. Jam-packed. Sherlock looks back to find John grinning at him.
“No,” Sherlock says. “No, it's – no.”
“Didn't think so,” John says. He drops the other bag by his feet and says, “Git.”
For the first time in over a year, Sherlock says, “John.”