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the thunder underneath his ribs

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The slap of feet echoes against the pavement, nearly drowned out by the crash of thunder and heavy rainfall. Neon lights glint off wet concrete, turn the night into a kaleidoscopic circus of noise and heat and confusion, and John twists into it, gets lost in it, running fast, breathing hard, elbows in, focus.

He blinks against the rain in his eyes; the fear of losing sight of Sherlock makes him almost nauseous.

“Come on, John,” Sherlock shouts back at him, without bothering to look and see if he’s still there. “We’re losing him!”

Around them, London carries on, oblivious: the rush of steam from cheap late-night restaurants, the splash of cabs through puddles growing in the streets, the smell of soaked skips and dirty bodies infiltrating the labyrinthine alleys Sherlock leads them through.

John runs without thought, desperate only to keep his eyes on Sherlock’s dark figure as they navigate through the streets. The Belstaff sways around his calves, heavy and sodden with rain, and his curls plaster wet to his head, turning the shape of his skull foreign and alien before John’s eyes. Otherworldly. Unreal. John’s stomach lurches with unease, as though Sherlock might wink out of existence at any moment, and it won’t matter whether John was able to keep up.

The suspect is young and fierce, wild with adrenalin and fear, searching for a place to hide.

There is not a hiding place in London Sherlock cannot seek out, and they run, and they run, and John follows.

*

Reality is different now.

Instead of the easy beat of life in the city, John feels like he’s living in some sort of grisly storybook: The Brothers Grimm, graphic and disturbing with smiles full of teeth, shifting in the shadows of London. There’s never any soft-glow of moonlight and street-lamps anymore; it’s been stripped of anything warm and comforting, and the low-lights of evening and night are sinister and malignant.

John had walked these streets once and thought nothing of it. He’d been to the pubs and the post offices, the Tescos and the Bootses, in the backs of cabs and on the Tube, and scarcely gave it any consideration.

Now he’s constantly looking over his shoulder, skin crawling and mind prickling with the possibility of being watched or followed. Dangerous has lost its slick attraction.

It’s not so exciting when it’s your wife on the other end of the handgun, putting a hole through a coin, just off-center, nobody’s perfect.

Not so interesting when your daughter, not yet old enough to hold her head up on her own, disappears behind a paternity test that says not yours at all, not really, not ever. And for some reason everyone thinks that news should be met with relief, as though John hadn’t spent the last nine months aching for her, for something to make it all worthwhile.

It’s been six or seven months, maybe eight, since the words over and ended were tossed around. John’s not very good at time anymore and nothing seems safe yet anyway so it doesn’t really matter. London is a cesspit of criminals and assassins and would-be-wives with shrouded pasts and the sort of friends who’d just as soon die as be honest for once in their goddamn lives.

Even the buildings bear down on him, suffocating, throwing their shadows long across the pavement to wrap him in darkness.

He knows he should go back to his therapist. He knows he’s not handling it. The nightmares he’d once laid to rest about gunfire and gaping chest cavities amid the long grasses and the suffocating heat begin to seep into the waking hours; sometimes when the light catches wrong in Sherlock’s hair it looks thick and heavy with blood, even when he’s just lying on the sofa at 221B. Sometimes John looks across a crime scene and sees a skeleton dressed in Sherlock’s clothes and doesn’t quite feel surprised.

I’m not okay, John thinks sometimes, wonderingly, but the declaration only feels detached, as though it’s been torn away, and it really belongs to someone else.

*

In an alley behind an alley behind another alley, red and yellow graffiti blooms across the buildings and the suspect shrinks back into a dead-end, crouching low with bared teeth, trapped beneath the thunderclouds.

Something flashes in the rain, half-hidden by a fist, not enough light to see it well but John doesn’t need to. He feels the blade in the air like it’s electrified, feels the slice of it through the atmosphere, knows how it would slide into Sherlock’s body if it got the chance. John’s hands clench around themselves.

He meets Sherlock’s gaze in the dark and Sherlock looks back, cheeks flushed, eyes shining, and nods.

Together they attack before the suspect—no more than a boy, really—can get his courage up: a zig and a zag and John beats Sherlock to him, collides with him, careful to aim for fabric instead of slick skin. Right hook, left leg curling around the back of a kneecap, forcing him to the ground, forcing the clatter of the dropped switchblade against the pavement. If he fights back, John doesn’t even notice.

Sherlock slips in immediately with a pair of handcuffs at the ready. When he looks over at John again, the victory of the moment roars in John’s ears and it feels like the last six or seven or maybe eight months crashing down on them with the deluge of rain and thunder: we survived.

Do you know that? We survived.

“All right?” John asks Sherlock, embarrassingly anxious and unable to stop himself. Sherlock nods, pushes his dripping fringe off his face, looks away.

John believes him but doesn’t; he might not have sustained any injury tonight, but John is not convinced there is not something lingering, something that happened during his time away. A certain stiffness of his spine and ribs, a certain glance over his shoulders that doesn’t even really expect to see anything but can’t be stopped.

The macabre parade of police and paramedics fills the other end of the alley and John swallows down the question he isn’t sure how to ask anyway.

*

The storm intensifies before they can make it back to Baker Street. The heat of the cab is almost unbearable after the chill of the rain; Sherlock’s coat is positively steaming. Apprehension curls heavily through John’s abdomen, replacing the usual sense of excitement with the weight of everything they’ve not yet addressed. Each new and sudden crash of lightning injects fresh adrenalin into his veins. Each wild rumble of thunder paints Afghanistan over the reality of London. Cracks of lightning illuminate Mary on all the street-corners, holding the gun as she fires.

When they finally arrive, Sherlock spills out of the cab and onto the pavement, holding his hands out into the rain. The wind whips around them and John knows it is freezing cold, but he can’t shake the impression of hot desert sand grating on his skin.

Sherlock’s face turns up to the sky, his pale skin turning almost sickly translucent in the darkness. Another bolt of lightning illuminates him, eyes closed, hair streaming. “Isn’t it treacherous?” he asks, voice low and admiring. “Beautiful, when it gets like this. Like it’s going to sweep us away, like London was never here.”

Let’s go in, John wants to say, get out of these wet clothes, but he can’t force them past the mass in his throat, the terror of watching Sherlock on the pavement, Sherlock in the rain, exposed and offering himself up, Sherlock alive and breathing and inviting the earth to destroy them, after all this time and yet still before—

Thunder booms overhead. The cacophony of the storm, the stark, skeletal quality of Sherlock’s cheekbones and the weight of the rain in his curls, the sudden smothering darkness: everything coalesces inside the thunderclap and John’s residual adrenalin high spirals into panic. He darts forward before his mind can clear out the compulsion to protect and he forces Sherlock back up against the building, dragging him down so John can use his own body as a shield. Sherlock’s skin is cold, icy where John has his fingers clasped around his wrist and he scrambles to adjust his grip, to find Sherlock’s pulse.

“John,” Sherlock breathes. God, his breath is warm against John’s neck. His eyes are dark underneath the black sky. “It’s just rain.”

“It isn’t going to take you,” John says fiercely, peripherally aware that he’s lost his mind. He holds Sherlock to the wall, fights the urge to use his teeth to make the body in his grip stop moving.

“No,” Sherlock agrees, and leans forward to slant his mouth over John’s.

It takes John several seconds to even realize what is happening; he is being kissed by Sherlock, kissed. John has one foot in London, one foot in Kandahar, and Sherlock doesn’t kiss anything like the tall freckled medic did, and John pushes him back hard against the stone façade of 221B, pushes him away. After everything that’s gone too long unsaid, six or seven or maybe eight months, they’re trapped in a storm not of their own making and John isn’t even sure Sherlock is real half the time but Sherlock kissed him like he had always wanted to, maybe like he’d always intended to.

His mouth had been warm. John licks his lips and stares.

Sherlock leans his head back against the brick and keeps his eyes closed, and that itself betrays the vulnerability he’s trying to hide. There are raindrops caught in his lashes. Water streams over his face, along the line of his nose, down the path created by his cheekbones.

But John can feel Sherlock’s pulse under his fingers, frantic and wild, for all that Sherlock’s face is trained into passivity. Sherlock is afraid. Mad, brilliant, amazing Sherlock, who has no sense of self-preservation in the slightest and who makes a hobby of chasing down both serial killers and unstable chemical formulas, is afraid.

Of John.

“Okay,” he says gently, breathing hot onto Sherlock’s frigid skin, and feels Sherlock’s own breath hitch in his chest. “Okay.”

Sherlock makes a noise in his throat like he’s been punched in the gut, and John steals it from his mouth. Kisses him back. Kisses him hard, desperate with too much teeth, primal urges to claim and protect warring against each other. Kisses him the way John would have kissed him the day he woke up with the path of a bullet carved into his chest, the way John would have kissed him the night he came to find John, to find out whether John had waited, the way John would have kissed him a hundred thousand times except that he didn’t and John kisses him and can’t remember why.

The rain drives on around them, enveloping and holding them in perfect stasis against each other, like time has stopped and spun out and put itself on hold to keep the gravity of the moment in place. Sherlock kisses him back like he’d wanted John to kiss him all those hundred thousand times. It’s either a fantasy or a nightmare but John slips his fingers over Sherlock’s cheeks and keeps kissing him anyway.

Whatever it is, Sherlock is kissing him and it’s worth it.

The night is wet and cold and freezing but the inside of Sherlock’s mouth is hot and John licks into it as Sherlock’s body surges against his. It’s the chase all over again, the edge of fear racing alongside desire and lust and it’s a dare, a challenge, everything they’ve silently agreed to never say spilling out between them in lips and tongues and shared breath.

Sherlock bruises John’s lower lip with his teeth. “Inside,” Sherlock bites out, even as he pulls John closer against him. “Upstairs.”

Another burst of lightning, the clap of thunder following almost immediately. The storm is right on top of them.

Sherlock looks feral, drenched with rain and practically snarling with want.

John wants to capture him.

*

The move inside is a hurricane in its own right, gales of wind and Sherlock’s urgency pushing them into the door and up the stairs. Sherlock pulls John up to the landing, pulling John hard against his own body. Their clothes are glacial with rainwater where they press together, highlighting every point of contact, but Sherlock ignores the cold and slides his enormous hands around the base of John’s skull to haul their mouths together again, hungrily, too eager for elegance.

He’s taller now than he was outside, where John had forced him to slouch in an effort to protect him beneath his own body, and the length and breadth and weight of him is intoxicating, the solidity of give and take and need and please, god, please, reckless and fierce.

John’s hands slide under Sherlock’s greatcoat, past the buttons of the suit jacket, searching for heat. His button-down shirt is just as drenched as the rest of him, clinging to his flesh, and John runs his hands along the seams over Sherlock’s ribs, wondering at the feel of his torso, imagining the skin beneath: chilled and damp and naked, vulnerable and trembling with the power of Sherlock’s heartbeat.

“John,” Sherlock says, and he feels the word rumbling through both their chests. “John.”

“Yes,” John half-gasps, half-growls, “yes, keep going,” and Sherlock tears himself away, nearly falling up the stairs in his rush, weighed down by his soaked coat, leaving watery footprints in his wake.

John lingers behind him, bending forward to slide his fingers through one of the slick prints left on the stairs. He wishes the water would sink in and warp the wood, leaving a mark, making a permanent record of where Sherlock was and had been.

If only he left footprints everywhere he went, so John could follow.

*

He finds Sherlock standing at the foot of his bed, struggling with the buttons on his cuffs. His fingers and the fabric both have been made stiff and uncooperative with the wet and cold, and even from across the room, even with the lights still turned off, John can see that his hands are shaking.

The rain and wind rail against the bedroom window as though they’d brought the storm inside. A crash of lightning illuminates the scene like a set from a play: Sherlock’s bed standing to attention, center stage, properly made with the blankets smoothed out and the pillows propped at the top. The Belstaff lies in a heap on the floor; it will smell in the morning, musty wool and lingering damp, a reminder of tonight Sherlock will wear wrapped around himself.

“We’re not really okay, are we?” John asks, standing in the doorway. “Either of us.”

The storm fills up the silence as Sherlock hesitates, staring at his buttons as though they might read to him the script—the right thing to say.

“No,” Sherlock says eventually, his voice crisp to the point of breaking. “We’re really not.”

John rolls his lips between his teeth and waves a hand over the room, wrenching his fingers out of the fist they’re trying to form. The blueish gloom of night and the shadows sticking to their clothes makes them both look incorporeal, disembodied hands, disembodied faces. “We shouldn’t. Not like this.”

Sherlock doesn’t move, his wrist still raised, his cuff still twisted around to see the buttons better. John isn’t even sure if he’s still breathing.

“Would you, though?” Sherlock looks up and thunder rolls overhead. “Would you, if the world were ending?”

The walls shudder in the storm around them. John watches the raindrops on the windowpanes cast dappled shadows across Sherlock’s face and considers everything Sherlock is asking, everything he’s admitting.

It’s a question of would you ever, could you ever, the way that I would, the way I could, the undertaking of a risk and the acceptance of a fate and the throwing of caution to the wind, and John feels like his world has been ending ever since some bright June morning on the pavement outside Bart’s hospital. His world has been ending since he watched the brilliance of their life together shatter into pieces, domesticity and adventure and laughter over takeaways and lingering on the sofa instead of going up to bed. Since he tried to arrange those same pieces into a life with someone else and found they’d never fit.

John stands in the doorway and wants to be back there, back before things fell apart, but that’s a history long since gone and there’s only here and now. There’s only this moment and it’s not perfect and it’s not triumph and it’s not even comfort, but it’s Sherlock with his hands pressed together and set against his lips as though in prayer, looking at him from across the chasm of the bedroom, asking him to take this next step even if it means everything will fall to pieces again.

John breathes. He breathes into the possibilities and thinks about what he stands to lose right here, right now, if this goes wrong the next day or the next day or the one after that, and he doesn’t turn away.

“I feel all the time like the world is ending,” Sherlock whispers finally, a confession and a plea at once, and John knows, then. He knows.

He crosses the room before the next lightning strike and wraps Sherlock in his arms, pressing the promise of right here, right now, down into his bones, overwriting every risk they’ve ever failed to take and every chance they’ve ever let slip by. Sherlock folds into him, lets John hold him up under the weight of his relief.

“I’m here,” John says, and Sherlock’s chest heaves against him. “I won’t leave you.”

Because the world will always be ending when they’re apart and they’ll always be alone until they’re together, and they need it to be over now. Sherlock needs John to let it be over now.

When John kisses him, it feels like the darkness and the fear and the horror, the regret and the despair, the plunge of the bloody mess underneath his ribs into realisation, and it’s familiar but it’s shared and it’s known and acknowledged and understood and John feels like his heart is beating for the first time in years.

Sherlock pulls back and grazes his lips over John’s cheek. “Stay. Stay with me.”

Another lightning bolt breaks the rain, sending sparks down John’s spine. The following roll of thunder sounds like the waves of the ocean closing over their heads. John kisses him through it.

“I’m here,” he says against Sherlock’s mouth, “I’m not leaving you.”

Sherlock offers John his cuffs.

*

The pale undersides of Sherlock’s wrists are cool to the touch, the violet veins rising up against the surface like a calling. John presses his mouth to one and then the other, nipping at the tendons and licking over the planes, imagining he can feel Sherlock’s pulse underneath his lips, the thrum of his body.

“John,” Sherlock says, calling him back, and god, John never wants to hear anyone else say his name again. He kisses Sherlock hard and tastes the sound of his name in Sherlock’s voice, clutching his hip and his shoulder, finding the damp nape of his neck under his hand. Sherlock is all soaked shirt and the movement of his jaw and the length of his fingers peeling away John’s jacket, finding the slick skin of John’s stomach just above the waistband of his denims, and John kisses him and kisses him and holds on.

Rainwater trails down Sherlock’s neck and John follows it, licking it out of the hollows of his collarbones, out of the dip at the base of his throat as his buttons slide away. Hot mouth, cold skin: ribs and shoulders and sternum, angles and curves. Sherlock shivers and John bites down at the join of his neck and shoulder, sucking blood to the surface, sucking heat to the surface as Sherlock wrestles his shirt off the rest of the way, leaving himself exposed to the dark.

There are scars on him that John doesn’t know about. There are stories here Sherlock hasn’t told, demons he hasn’t cast off. There are questions here John hasn’t dared to ask, or even thought of, and he hopes that someday there will be answers, and then closure, and then forgetfulness.

There’s one, though, that John does know. There’s one that’s written in John’s own name, under Sherlock’s heart, just to the left of the midline: a shiny, silvery-pink oval, deceptively small. John hasn’t seen it since it was hidden under bandages and the necessity of forgiveness.

He puts his hand over it and grits his teeth against a rising growl.

This scar is his now and he’s claiming it. He set this wound into Sherlock’s flesh as easily as if he’d pulled the trigger and he’s taking charge of it, this bit of skin and muscle and bone. There’s only one message that should be written on Sherlock’s body and he’s going to write it there with teeth and tongue and hands and hips.

Another kiss, and another, the plush cushion of Sherlock’s mouth disappearing into the crush and Sherlock stumbles into him, chest heaving, half-pushes and half-pulls him toward the bed on wobbly legs. “John,” Sherlock gasps against the hinge of his jaw. “John, please.”

“I’m here,” John answers, one arm already around his waist, guiding him down. “God, yes, I’m here.”

He helps Sherlock spread out across the covers, a long stretch of white skin and dark hair just beginning to curl again as it starts to dry. He reaches for John before he’s even settled and John follows, dragging his lips over Sherlock’s body, muscle, blood, bone, seeking hands and arching spine, the hint of heat and hardness beneath wet trousers, breathless and needy.

There’ll be time for slow later. There’ll be time later for gentling through, time for pausing and waiting and holding back, but right here, right now, they are lost in the collision and it feels wild and it feels primal and fearless, the crash of their hearts under the shields of their breastbones, the barrage of the storm over their heads, the bite of fingernails and jab of bones, as if this is what it would have felt like if John had been in a different place that June morning, as if this is what it would have felt like if John could have reached out and pulled him back from the ledge.

John knows it’s right because nothing has ever felt like this before.

“Tell me what you want,” John whispers, hovering over Sherlock’s mouth as Sherlock struggles to keep his eyes open all the way, staring up in half-lidded wonder, his body writhing against John’s, searching for friction. Fingers scrape over John’s shoulders, stinging.

“This,” Sherlock says, his hips stuttering up against John’s, and it’s not really an answer but John understands what he means. “Just this. Just—together.”

Their trousers catch and drag against one another but together they work them off—John’s pants manage to leave with the lot, though Sherlock’s don’t—hips revealed and then thighs, the eventual freedom of their feet twining with each other's. Their bodies slip against each other, wet and slick, and John cannot get enough of him, cannot see or feel or taste enough to know all Sherlock’s secrets, but oh, he tries: the notch of his ankle, the side of his knee, the hollow of his hip.

The line of auburn-black hair trailing beneath Sherlock’s belly button, disappearing into his pants, unbearably human.

“Can I?” John murmurs into that line of hair, feeling Sherlock’s stomach quake beneath his cheek.

Outside, the onslaught of rain and lightning renews itself, bursting against the frame of the house and London could be reduced to rubble beyond these walls, but Sherlock’s gaze doesn’t falter when he looks back at John and nods, nods again, opens his mouth but doesn’t make a noise. Instead he lifts himself up as John sits back so that the pants can be slipped away.

Sherlock’s cock is flushed and eager, and he’s gorgeous, the strain and the bitten off noise in his throat and the flex of his hands against the bed and the knowledge that John is wanted in exactly the same way that John wants.

“Sherlock,” John chokes out, rushing his hands back up Sherlock’s thighs, back up over his torso as he stretches their bodies together again and kisses him again, because he can’t not be kissing Sherlock right now, and Sherlock opens for him, accepts, draws him in, exploring, demanding.

John wants to kiss him everywhere.

John wants to kiss his cheeks and his forehead and his eyelids and his temples, the bridge of his nose, the dip of his lip, the crest of his brow. John wants to kiss him to completion and Sherlock surges against him, pulls him down, fingernails biting into his back and John thinks he could, just now, he could do it: kiss them both through to whatever end.

Thunder rolls through the room and Sherlock rolls his hips with it, finding the elemental rhythm, his cock sliding across John’s belly and the whine in his throat begging for more. His head tilts back, giving John the length of his neck, the bunch of his muscles as he undulates his body, the curls of his hands clasping John to him.

And John takes, gives back everything he can and takes, the rush of the wind outside and the edge of desperation in Sherlock’s voice, his hands on every part of Sherlock he can reach, the spread of shoulders, the backs of thighs, the soft insides of his elbows. Their cocks don’t quite line up and it doesn’t even matter because when John pushes down against him, Sherlock pushes back, and they thrust against each other, kissing until they can’t breathe, frantic, uncontrolled.

Then John slides his hands up under Sherlock’s back, holding him close by the wings of his shoulder blades, and the slide deepens into something tender like a bruise, and he kisses away the raindrops left in Sherlock’s eyelashes and lets everything align.

“Please,” Sherlock says finally, lost somewhere in the curve of John’s neck. John shifts, pushes the hair off Sherlock’s forehead, drags a kiss along a cheekbone. “John, I need—I need—”

“Okay, yeah,” John agrees, “Yeah, let me just—” He sneaks a hand down between them, teasing at the head of Sherlock’s cock for a moment before shifting his hips to line them up better and grasp them both at once, thrusting against Sherlock into the tight circle of his fist, the raw friction sparking along his spine already. “Is this, god, is this?”

He peters out before he can complete the question but Sherlock understands anyway and thrusts back, sliding through his hand, sliding against his cock. John’s hand isn’t quite big enough but god, who cares, when it feels like this, when it’s Sherlock hot against him, pre-come smearing between them, moving faster again, harder again, a plea for more, a plea for soon. Sherlock’s mouth moves like he’s trying to speak though no sound comes out, yes, maybe, or please again, but he thrusts up and his whines turn to cries that rattle the windows and his hands scrabble across John’s back, turning to claws as things get quick and messy and he slams his eyes closed, forehead creased, trying to find the crest of things. The flame at the base of John’s spine rises, sparks and spins and the feel of him under John’s hands, the heat of him under John’s body, the flush in his cheeks and the pink of his mouth and the sound of his pleas overcomes, overtakes, overwhelms.

And this, John thinks, and this, John thinks, and this, this is love, and it is deep and it is beautiful and it is terrifying, creation and destruction and the constancy of being, the start of something and the end of it told in the swivel of Sherlock’s hips, the last six or seven or maybe eight months and they’re falling to pieces, both of them, but John knows he’ll find Sherlock in the foundations, he’ll find this moment and the gasp of Sherlock’s breath in his ear and the call of his name in Sherlock’s voice, and this, he thinks, is love, falling apart together and letting themselves rise out of the ash, all the waiting and all the hurrying, the bright June morning and before that, the frigid January night, and all the violin solos and blog posts in between and it’s the rash bloody pulp between their ribs and the constant fear that this is what he stands to lose and the raw consideration for so long that he’d rather hold the world ended in his fists than let it go entirely and this, John thinks, is what love is.

And John comes.

John comes, every muscle in his body clenching with the burst of electricity and he tries to hold back but his cock pulses and Sherlock pushes against him and he comes, rain pounding down against 221B and the sea is rising and they could be drowning, they could be, but Sherlock is here and vibrant and safe and John comes, sticky and wet, and when it’s over, he puts his mouth to Sherlock’s and breathes.

“John,” Sherlock pants, “John,” full of awe, full of disbelief, and he curls up, hangs on, wraps an arm around John’s back, hand splayed over his spine to feel each aftershock traveling through him. Sherlock’s body wrestles up against the weight of him, arching into him, thrusting into the lax circle of John’s hand until John remembers and tightens his grip, using his come to ease Sherlock’s slide. “Oh, god, I’m going to—I’m—John—”

When Sherlock comes, it feels like he’s dying in John’s arms, stiffening and shaking and his voice caught in his throat, in his chest, John’s name trapped inside, unable to break free. He comes like it takes everything out of him, like that was all he had left, and he shudders through the aftershocks and slides back down into the pillow, breaking away from John as though he hasn’t thought to hang on, and John has to follow after him, has to press against him to feel the shallow rise of his breath.

“Please,” John whispers into the crux of his neck and shoulder. He doesn’t know what he’s asking. “Please.”

There’s a long pause and then finally, finally, Sherlock drags a limp hand up John’s back to his neck and hangs on, digging his fingernails into John’s skin: we survived.

*

Daybreak, grey and muted. The rain has slowed to a drizzle, tapping gently against the windowpane, dripping through the reaches of an early fog. John turns his face toward the light behind his eyelids. Weak as it is, fragile and delicate and new, it feels hopeful.

There’s six or seven inches between him and Sherlock on the bed. Maybe eight. He knows the distance of the space immediately, without having to wonder or measure or even see.

He thinks now he’ll always know the distance of that space. Always.

He reaches, slow and sure, to find the warm spread of Sherlock’s body, the smooth curve of his skin. He traces a circle in the hollow of Sherlock’s hip with a single fingertip.

“Are you ready?” John whispers into the morning.

There’s a pause that stretches on, one minute, two. John stays with his face turned toward the dawn and waits. He can tell by the way the other side of the bed is too still, breath too even, that Sherlock is already awake. That Sherlock heard him.

Eventually there’s a shift of sheets and mattress as Sherlock turns toward him, onto his side. “Ready for what?” he whispers back.

His voice is a bit rough and a bit lower than usual, less refined, nearly a mumble. John can’t stop the satisfied grin from quirking the corners of his mouth. Sherlock, sleepy: it’s a dream and a reality combined into one overheated bed with two bodies in it, sore muscles, a truth about to be spoken.

“You know what I mean.”

The mattress shifts again and then John feels the press of Sherlock’s mouth on his shoulder, the tiny curl at one side of Sherlock’s lips against his skin. “Say it.”

John opens his eyes and turns to meet him. Sherlock is a rumple of curls and faint auburn stubble and pink cheeks, but his eyes are clear and knowing and accepting. John takes Sherlock’s face in both his hands, runs his thumbs over Sherlock’s cheekbones. He leans in close and brushes their noses together, as softly as he can, taking in the smell of him, the smell of them together on his skin.

“I’m going to love you now,” John says. “I’m going to love you the way I’ve tried not to since the very beginning. I’m going to love with you every single cell of me and every single breath, and I will follow you until you tell me to stop and then wait for you to come back, and when I die I’m going to die with your name imprinted on my very bones with how much and how hard and how long I’ve loved you.”

Across the pillows, Sherlock blinks. He takes a tiny breath that doesn’t seem to make it past his lips and blinks again.

Then he takes John’s hands in his own and studies them, as though looking for some proof written in John’s lifelines, and he presses a kiss down into John’s palm. “Okay,” he breathes, damp and warm. He kisses John’s other palm. “Okay.”

This time when John kisses him, Sherlock is soft and flushed with the heat of their bodies pressed together under the covers, relaxed and unhurried, a little blurred around the edges in the pale morning. The slow rhythm of the rain outside soothes and eases the buzz in John’s brain, steadies his hands on Sherlock’s body, and this time when Sherlock comes, he comes with a gasp pressed against John’s neck and he folds into John, instead of falling apart, gorgeously clingy and sticky and sated and strong and vividly alive.

They stay, fingers tangled together in the bedsheets, and let the rain wash the morning away.