They spend a week at the hotel. Both of them want to get back to London, but John knows he probably shouldn’t fly immediately. When Sherlock insists he shouldn’t, John accepts it.
Aside from the state of his leg, which is healing well, he’s exhausted even after sleeping for two days solid and waking to find himself clean and patched up. They spend their time keeping a low profile, as Sherlock is not going public until they get home. That way, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade won’t find out from the media, plus when the story does break John and Sherlock will be on hand to exercise some kind of influence.
Meanwhile, Sherlock obsessively googles London news, and lays email plans with Mycroft, the one person who has been warned of his imminent resurrection. To make that revelatory phone call, Sherlock went out alone. John saw him off, anxious, knowing that Sherlock’s remaining family is one area in which he should not interfere. When Sherlock came back, even paler than usual, he just said, ‘Yes, that went all right. Is your leg better today?’ And the weird part of it was, that wasn’t (entirely) a distraction tactic.
Sherlock is truly being attentive.
Well. John's the one familiar thing in the altered landscape of Sherlock’s mind, so of course Sherlock clings to him. And the sight of Sherlock laughing, then animated and intent as he deduces the criminal proclivities of the three youths who habitually hang around in the hotel atrium, is a marvel. Just once John interrupts him skimming through British Islamist forums on his laptop, to ask, ‘The lithium, Sherlock. I think I can see the answer, but reassure me: is it still working?’
Sherlock stops mid-flow and looks at John with his mouth open. He closes it very deliberately, then nods.
Thank God. A knot in John’s stomach, already loose, dissolves. ‘Good stuff. Let’s go home, then.’
And they will; tickets are booked for tomorrow night. But that isn’t what’s on John’s mind right now.
Every night here they’ve slept together in the literal sense – hearing ‘We have only double room, is OK?’ and almost being amused is John’s one clear memory of checking in to this hotel. When John occasionally hugs him Sherlock accepts it, and they kiss now and then. John wasn’t up to any more, of course. To start with.
Now... well, half an hour ago John got out Sherlock’s set of leather cuffs, which have survived all their adventures, and set them prominently on the bed. Sherlock, sitting cross-legged on the desk, ignored them and carried on reading about EDL splinter groups on his laptop. John went down to the atrium to arrange checkout, and now he’s come back and the cuffs and Sherlock are still in position.
Low libido is a lithium side effect, John tells himself. Hyper-sexuality is a symptom of mania. A ‘normal’ Sherlock was satisfied with a sex life that consisted of text-flirting with the Adler female. It makes sense. And it’s fine, of course. Fucking fine.
It’s not fine. John is not superhuman.
‘Sherlock!’ he snaps. Forget how much this is going to hurt, he needs to know.
Sherlock does, finally, look up from his screen. As ever, he is harrowingly beautiful. He’s dyed his hair black again, and even put on a tiny bit of weight. Dear God, this past week he’s actually been eating to please John, so surely...
‘You could force me,’ Sherlock suggests.
OK. At least that was better than leave me alone. John takes a deep breath. ‘No, I couldn’t,’ he replies. ‘We haven’t played for weeks. Assuming consent would not be smart.’
Sherlock gets down from his perch, and sits on the bed. For once in his life he seems to be at a loss without quite being distressed. John watches, remembering how he used to worry about what might underlie Sherlock’s blend of oddness and genius. Now he knows, and it doesn’t supply enough answers.
‘There’s a cotton-wool ceiling in my brain,’ says Sherlock, staring at the curtained window. ‘It... softens me.’
Ah. John kicks himself. He’s been monitoring the physical side effects of lithium, basically because he can. But it’s the other ones that bother Sherlock.
John sits beside him.
‘That’s normal,’ he says. ‘It’s better than depression.’
‘Did I say it wasn’t?’ Sherlock snaps, though less viciously than he might once have done, and that’s both a relief and unsettling. ‘To be precise it’s preferable to being unable to think and constantly wanting to kill myself. I might select mild depression over...’ he gestures vaguely with his hands on either side of his head. ‘John, I’m still me, but nothing quite matters enough.’
John sighs. ‘I’d be lying if I said I had a quick fix for that. You might gradually adjust to the lithium. Or when you’ve been stable for a few weeks, we can try you on a lower dose, maybe.’
‘Hm.’ Sherlock’s voice is low and quiet. ‘I might enjoy a scene if we got started, but I’m not crawling out of my skin for it. This is better than suicide but I wish I could... want things again. I can try, John, if it’s important.’
John is silent. It is bloody important, to him, but if he says that he might end up topping a man who’s faking consent. He takes one of Sherlock’s hands and strokes it, aware that for once in their life together he’s being the impatient one, while Sherlock needs space. Maybe he’ll come out of this once he’s adjusted to being stable.
Another possibility is that this a chronic side effect, and part of Sherlock – part of their relationship – is obliterated by the very drug that keeps him sane. There’s no way to find out, except by waiting.
‘No,’ John says. ‘You’ll do more harm than good if you push it. I’ll be here when you want me.’
He buttons himself shut around the empty place inside.
On their final day in St Petersburg they have a farewell lunch with Zoya at an Ukranian restaurant in a quiet backstreet. Sherlock doesn’t really see the point, but her friendship with John oddly intriguing, so he listens as she tells John, with a moue of distaste, about some mysterious ‘food poisoning’ deaths among senior management at Kolyvanov Securities, then expands excitedly on her plans to improve the state of her flat, as now Sherlock has paid her in full she’s discharged her debts and has a few thousand dollars left. A friend of a friend installs kitchens and is getting her a discount.
Sherlock hunches in his rustic-style chair, eating mushroom blini because John glares pointedly at him whenever he stops. He feels slightly hazy – lithium does this to him – so he forbears to comment on the inanities streaming by. What annoys him enough to pay attention is John’s reaction. He’s not just being polite, he actually thinks Zoya’s priorities are admirable. In between scoffing his pierog, he starts telling her about their plans for handling the British press, talking as if their lives were the silly ones, not hers.
Sherlock lays down his fork with a click, and sighs. He means the others to pay attention, and they do: Zoya pauses mid-chomp and John gives a start.
‘A few thousand dollars for new plumbing and she’s ecstatic,’ Sherlock says. ‘For goodness’ sake, you’ve the brains to manipulate that clod Gleb if you wanted. How can you bear to live such a tiny little life?’
He’s genuinely curious. Also he wonders if she will say: You’re normal too, now, on lithium, stupid and numb and content.
Instead, she fires back, ‘How can you bear to be a gay freak? All this killing, all John does for you, it’s because you make enormous mess and he has to help. You want excitement? Have it, but see who has to pay.’
Sherlock relaxes a little. Beside him, John loyally protests that she’s being unfair, but Sherlock ignores him. This is why Sherlock respects Zoya, in the end. She dislikes him for genuine reasons rather than from cowardice. She sees him, and he is himself.
He picks up his fork again and spears pancake on it. ‘Zoya, I discovered as a child that I have to be what I am. Whatever follows, follows. I expected permanent solitude. I was surprised when...’ He waves at John, who is watching open-mouthed.
‘And I have to care for Mama,’ Zoya says, returning to her pickle. ‘If a person has to fight hard for his “little life” and also for another person’s, he appreciates it, doesn’t he?’
‘Perhaps.’ Sherlock does not in fact wish to talk about that. He’s annoyed to see it makes Zoya look knowing anyway.
‘What are you living for, John Watson?’ she asks.
‘Oh. I don’t know,’ says John, obviously taken aback by the question. He glances towards Sherlock.
At that, Zoya laughs - genuine laughter, that rises over the clink and chatter of the restaurant. John flushes slightly, realising what he’s implied, then laughs as well.
Sherlock sits eating his blini, pretending aloofness as Zoya needles John about blushing maidens in love. John can handle that. Sherlock is trying to handle the feeling of something unclenching inside him, spreading and thinning the lithium haze. Preliminary analysis suggests that it may be pleasure.
They walk back to the hotel in the brief afternoon. Although John temporarily has a cane again, they’re more confident on the icy pavements these days. Several times, Sherlock steadies John in the awkward spots and then finally holds his hand as they walk down a quiet alley. John looks up at him with slight surprise but says nothing.
They both fix their eyes on the brightness of facades battling to emerge between the heaping drifts, hanging icicles and leaden sky. He is starting to become interested in this northern river city, which is in some respects a twin of London, but he’s leaving after the barest acquaintance. Once they get home, it may feel like he never left.
He remembers blood on the pavement, fire in the sky and death in the snow. Those things happened, but lithium blurs the memory of pain, and that loss he cannot bring himself to grieve.
For now, he’s here with John beside him, their exhalations mingling in the air.
‘There’s no need to pack yet,’ says John, when they get back to the hotel. ‘We got late flights to reduce the chance of you being recognised at Heathrow.’
‘Yes,’ says Sherlock. He knows all that.
‘So I’m going to rest,’ says John, and lies down on the bed.
Five minutes later he jumps up again, says, ‘OK, I’m having a shower,’ and starts to undress.
Sherlock watches from his position at the wardrobe, where he’s been considering the most anonymous clothes for their return trip. Is John dropping hints? The ploy is crassly obvious. Sherlock flicks through shirts with feigned attention, observing John in the mirrored wardrobe door. Naked, he frowns purposefully at the air in front of him, then strolls into the bathroom. He leaves the door ajar.
Sherlock lowers his hands from the hangers, then raises them again. There’s an odd scratchiness in his chest, a feeling like scrabbling for something and not getting purchase. For a week his mind’s eye has simply slipped out of focus whenever he considered sex. But Zoya jolted him. All John does for you, she said. They do things for each other, he had thought.
John would ask, does Sherlock want sex?
But how would he know? He’s used to either being driven by his desires, or finding them all extinguished. Sorting his impulses, weighing them, deciding which to act on is a paltry use for his intellect, which should be attending to higher business instead of, as it currently is, whispering John, John...
Sherlock closes his eyes. Most curious, this steady itch that underlies thought but does not seek to unseat it. Is it durable? Experimentally, he imagines stepping into the shower. John smiles and moves his arms as if for an embrace – then he moves adder-swift, and Sherlock is forced to his knees, his arms twisted behind him, his head knocking against the tiles, John’s hand around his throat.
Yes. Sherlock steps backwards and sits heavily onto the bed as in his mind imaginary John chokes him. His hand goes to palm his cock through his trousers, and physical sensation cuts through the vagueness of lithium that softens the edges of lust but does not extinguish it. Sherlock deepens the picture in his mind, summoning the feel of the ridged shower tray against his knees, the heat of the steam swirling around him. Water roars in his ears, and he is held by John’s violence, and John’s skill. The pain wakes a sweet fire in his balls. The humiliation stokes it, as John grinds against his shoulder, growling possession. Yes.
Sherlock opens his eyes. The hotel room is placid and bland around him. The shower is still running beyond the door. It seems that he can feel, within limits. He can desire, without being desperate. Odd. Workable and odd.
Don’t push it, John said. But he’ll never know how his mind behaves on lithium if he doesn’t experiment. The risk is his to take. He wants John, if John still wants him.
With a little rush of abandon, John leaves the bathroom door ajar. If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and he felt good as they walked home hand in hand. Sherlock surely knows that if he wants to start vanilla, that’s OK. A shower grope would do it. They can even stay vanilla for a while, if that’s the issue here.
But apparently it’s not. John ends up wishing he’d shut the door, because at least then he could have a wank – doing it audibly would make him seem like a passive-aggressive twat. So after ten minutes’ waiting he gives his half-mast cock a single, sour tug then switches off the water and pads across the bathroom to lean against the edge of the sink, telling himself his leg doesn’t hurt. He squeezes shut his eyes, forces himself to relax body and mind, because he wasn’t expecting anything...
When John opens his eyes, Sherlock is partly visible in the misted glass above the sink.
‘Still want me?’ he says.
John stares at him, the clear face and hair and the body that is a misty blur but clearly naked. ‘Yes,’ he says, carefully and distinctly. Then he makes himself go on: ‘Sherlock, if you’re pretending for my sake...’
Sherlock makes a contemptuous sound, then he’s behind John, one hand snaking around his waist. He kisses John’s shoulder. ‘Tell me how you want me,’ he says.
Oh, God. That hand on John’s hip, moving down. ‘You... know how,’ he replies.
‘Tell me,’ Sherlock insists. His tone is shot through with genuine desire, yet what moves John is the undertow of fear. It’s the fear that wells up when your assumptions are ripped away, and you come back strange to yourself.
John remembers that fear. Enough.
‘I want you in pain,’ John says.
It’s true. They value the truth. They need it. As he speaks it aloud, desire crawls up John’s spine, and as it reaches the base of his neck Sherlock plants a kiss there, bowing his head. He kisses again, and again, moving gradually downwards, and lets out a sound that’s a little like a sob but more like something releasing deep inside him. He bends, moving his hands to John’s hips, then he’s licking a trail down John’s back. John shudders, the memory of scenes already played sparking through his brain.
‘In pain,’ he repeats. ‘I – want it. And you?’
It’s as much as John can do to speak evenly. He hears Sherlock slipping to his knees.
‘Yes,’ Sherlock says. Then he’s kissing the small of John’s back, alternating gentle pecks with full-on suckling of the tender area at the top of his cleft.
John accepts. Either he trusts Sherlock, or... no. He trusts Sherlock, and however aroused he is he also trusts himself to stop if need be. He feels the brush of hair on the tender skin of his inner thigh as Sherlock cricks his head to the side, and soft, wet warmth begins lapping at John’s arsehole.
John groans. His body seems to rearrange itself around the delicious sensation.
‘Then I am going to hurt you. So much,’ he promises. Ideas are forming. Most for the future, a few for now. Dark, sweet intent.
There’s something like a laugh from behind him, and Sherlock’s hands flex around John’s hips. John covers the left one with his own. For half a minute he gently strokes the long fingers as Sherlock licks and kisses... then John grabs his wrist, drags it forward and slams it down on the edge of the sink.
John presses down. Sherlock’s wrist is pinned between his palm and the porcelain rim. John’s growl and Sherlock’s whimper blend in the air. A jolt of electricity rocks them. Sherlock removes his right hand as if uncertainly from John’s hip – and John grabs it, clamping it into place like the left. He threads the tips of his fingers between the bases of Sherlock’s, listening to the hiss of flesh as Sherlock adjusts his balance on the tiles.
‘Harder. Push your tongue further in. Fuck me with it,’ John orders, and the coldness of his own commands is fire and bliss in his belly. He was half-hard before this; he’s dripping now, as Sherlock, breathing harshly, struggles to insert his tongue deeper. John is hurting him, humiliating him. He came to John for this. And John has Sherlock’s intimate, wriggling, urgent warmth inside. It's so much, so soon, but he want it all now, to make it theirs again, with no going back.
This coming back to life is violent bliss. John drags Sherlock’s left hand away from the sink now and wraps it around his own cock. Their two left hands work together while John increases the pressure on Sherlock’s still-trapped wrist, staring down at the long fingers that jut out delicate and helpless, then he closes his eyes, and against his lids he sees Sherlock on his knees, tongue in John’s arse, hand on John’s cock, serving, suffering, intent. John orgasms, head jerking, body lurching to the side until he manages to lean against the edge of the bath, dimly aware of Sherlock scrambling out of his way.
A few moments pass. John’s breathing slows. He straightens himself against the shower, reaches for a nearby roll of toilet paper and deals with the worst of the mess on his stomach and around the sink. Then he looks round for Sherlock.
Sherlock is sitting naked in the middle of the floor, leaning back on his hands. His eyes are wide, his legs splayed to show off his erection.
‘Thank you,’ he says, as if humbly, while his cock bobs, blatantly suggestive. A little topping from the bottom there: John might punish that, another day.
Now, shaky-limbed but clear-headed, he kneels down and pushes Sherlock onto his back. John’s knees press Sherlock’s thighs apart, his hands pin Sherlock’s forearms, and when Sherlock tips back his head the temptation to bite his neck is only resisted by means of remembering that visible marks and press attention don’t mix.
‘Mouth,’ John orders. Sherlock brings his lips into range, and John closes in. Their tongue-tips play together, and then John dives into Sherlock. Faint but clear he tastes acrid traces of himself inside his lover - dirty. Real. Sherlock squirms and groans, caged between John’s body and the floor. John’s softened cock brushes Sherlock’s half-hard one as they writhe.
‘Hurt me more,’ Sherlock blurts when John pulls back.
Yes, is John’s instinctive response. He wants to give Sherlock everything he’s asking for, and more than he can handle – scening was John’s idea. But they’re leaving in hours. ‘In London,’ he promises. ‘We can’t get too bashed up for travelling.’ Not to mention for facing everyone from Mrs Hudson to the national press.
Sherlock growls. The sound is as imperiously frustrated as if he was intimidating a suspect, and it makes John laugh. Sherlock sulking for lack of a masochistic fuck – he’d almost forgotten that things could be like this. Normal, for them. He can’t bear to entirely waste it.
And there are some things they can do here and now.
‘Kneel here and bring yourself off,’ he says. ‘I’ve never seen you do it for yourself.’
Sherlock looks surprised. ‘All right,’ he responds, just soon enough that John doesn’t start to worry that he’s asked something more difficult than he imagined.
Sherlock arranges himself on the bathmat with his legs splayed wide. John gives him a signal to wait and exits the bathroom to quickly rummage in his bag for a set of clover clamps.
‘To make things harder,’’ he says, coming back. ‘Or easier,’ he adds. Somehow for Sherlock it seems to be both. It would never work for John: the times he’s tried pain on himself, it did nothing but hurt.
He crouches down in front of Sherlock and fits the clamp to his nipples. Sherlock hisses and sways, but starts to stroke himself when John points to his cock. He tugs at his foreskin, then pulls at the length, narrowing his varicoloured eyes.
John is fascinated. A prickle of electricity shoots through him. This is primal, in a different way from fucking Sherlock himself.
‘Watch me,’ John barks, as Sherlock’s eyelids slip nearly closed. Sherlock almost jumps to attention, and stares. ‘Hurt yourself,’ John orders, and finds himself biting his lip to keep still and stern as Sherlock raises his long-fingered hand, grasps the chain and pulls. His tautened nipples sway as his body moves to the rhythm of his strokes. His eyes are fixed on John.
‘You’re mine,’ says John. At the sight of Sherlock hungry and obedient, heat is rising in his throat. Words surface. ‘I’m going to hurt and humiliate you. Chains and whips and punishment, Sherlock. Remember the blood tests in Croatia – did you think I just wanted to bareback? You’re going to bleed.’
John shifts from crouching to kneeling, and as Sherlock continues thrusting into his own hand, John stares into his wide, fierce eyes. ‘Yes,’ Sherlock gasps, on the crest of a ragged breath, but John hears I will hold you to that.
They will hold each other to it, he suspects.
For long minutes they stay in position, Sherlock touching himself, John several times telling him to slow down and occasionally to speed up. On the one occasion John tells him to stop completely, Sherlock looks dazed, short-circuited by frustrated desire, but he does obey. John’s heart tightens in his chest. Then he slaps Sherlock’s face, but only hard enough to jar him; they can’t have marks. ‘Just take that as a promise,’ he says. ‘All right, touch yourself again. Think of me.’
John allows Sherlock several long, trembling pulls on his cock. He’s visibly getting close now, and switches to thumbing the head. John reaches out to caress Sherlock’s cheek and allow his fingers to be clumsily kissed. Then he grabs Sherlock’s hair and drags his head forward, moving his own too, so they both end up staring down at Sherlock’s grip on the taut chain and Sherlock’s other hand tugging his swollen cock. John reaches in and wraps his own free hand around Sherlock’s thigh, digging in nails.
‘Come. Now,’ John instructs.
Sherlock continues frantically rubbing himself. He shudders, rising up on his knees as if to escape the new pain in his thigh. John moves with him, then drags him back down. Sherlock keeps working, and lets out a short, high, desperate noise. One of the clover clamps slips from his nipple and swings free.
His frustration is probably not just about John’s teasing. Lithium can make it difficult or even impossible to come. John bites Sherlock’s shoulder, praying it’s the former.
Finally Sherlock goes rigid and cries out. John briefly lets go of him to see his cock spurt and pulse as he convulses, head rolling on his neck to gaze half-at, half-through John with such a stunned, wondering expression that John’s heart lurches into his throat. John wraps his arms around Sherlock, and when he slumps down John draws him into an awkward, kneeling hug, fumbling to release the remaining clamp from his nipple.
Sherlock lets out a whimper, then settles against John, burrowing his head into John’s neck. John kisses his hair, and murmurs something so sappy he’s afraid Sherlock will pull away. But he doesn’t. He brings up a sticky hand to clasp John’s back.
‘Felt good,’ Sherlock murmurs, then lets out a low hum that sounds remarkably like a purr.
‘Looked good,’ says John. He’s received a gift; the sight of Sherlock struggling to obey him even when lithium got in the way. The wounds of what they’ve been through are still fresh. John half-suspects they’re one of the things making Sherlock receptive.
And the receptivity won’t last. When they pack their belongings for the flight, they’ll be packing away part of themselves, too. John has something to say, and after enjoying the moment for as long as he can, he decides to say it.
‘You aren’t cured, Sherlock.’
Sherlock’s head shoots up. Overshoots in fact, and he arches his neck to sit back against the bath, glaring warily at John. ‘Your point?’ he asks, suddenly stiff.
Fuck, John hates this. But it’s important. ‘You have bipolar and we need to monitor it, that’s all. If the lithium wobbles...’
‘If the lithium wobbles, I probably die.’ Sherlock grabs the edge of the bath and pulls himself to his feet. Cursing internally, John does the same, rather more painfully. ‘It’s agony, John, and death meant relief. Just relief. If you want me to say I’m sorry, then I am.’
‘I don’t need that,’ says John – though he finds he did want it. ‘I just don’t want us to go back there. I’ll prescribe for you, and I’ll keep your secret, but if I’m your medical team as well as your lover, then you can’t play me. Hell, I want to be chasing criminals with you and fucking you blind when I’m eighty, and that means just saying no to insanity and suicide.’
Sherlock’s mouth quirks up, just a little, at one end. He looks John in the eyes. ‘All right. I promise,’ he says.
They shower and dress, and sort through their few belongings. Finally they’re going home.
Sherlock watches out of the corner of his eye as John folds a sweater. The fact of John’s existence is difficult to square with the rest of his life, but the truth is that John has endured through Malta and St Petersburg, through murder and insanity, and now Sherlock will face his return from the dead with John beside him as well.
That knowledge is strength and peace. It seems profoundly improbable. It is real.
‘John,’ says Sherlock, just to see him look up and smile. Then there’s a kind of click inside him, and he repeats, ‘John, John, John, John,’ for the sake of the word itself, and to lure John over.
Sherlock succeeds. There is laughter, then kisses, then more of both as they drag each other onto the bed, displacing a pile of underwear.
Pleasure. Such extravagant pleasure, and he can feel it again.