"Oh no," Mrs. Hudson whimpers from across the room. John looks up from his newspaper to cast a cursory glance in her direction. She is dusting off the living room - a common occurrence despite her continuing insistence that she is not their housekeeper. "Look at this." She holds up a jar containing a thick, black substance which slides reluctantly down the side of the glass when she tilts it in her hand. "Five weeks he's been back, and already he's bringing back these kind of things."
John frowns over the top of his newspaper. Held up against the light, the thick globular mass seems to have a burgundy hue. He returns his attention to his newspaper; he does not want to know.
"Sometimes I just don't know what to do about all of this," she says unhappily, turning away to place the jar on the mantelpiece again. "This place was much easier to keep while he was dead."
John's head jerks back up at that. "Mrs. Hudson!" he scolds, a little scandalised.
"Oh, you know what I mean, dear," she says dismissively, preoccupied with the jumble of things on the mantelpiece.
John shakes his head. For the first many weeks after Sherlock's funeral, Mrs. Hudson had looked constantly exhausted. She'd been withdrawn and irritable, looking ten years older all of a sudden, and she had lost close to a stone in the months that followed. But she'd carried on all the while with steadfast determination, dutifully dusting off the living room, boxing up Sherlock's belongings and worrying over John's eating habits. The day she came home and saw Sherlock again for the first time in three months – curled up and fast asleep on the couch - only the white paleness around her lips had revealed her emotion. It has taken her a couple of weeks to get used to Sherlock being at Baker Street again, but by now it seems that she has decided to let his disappearing act become just another thing that she grumbles about, along with the severed head in her fridge, the thumbs in her freezer, and the foul smelling purplish stain on her kitchen lino.
Sherlock enters from his room. John glances at the clock. Half ten. Since Sherlock came back he has spent a frankly alarming amount of time sleeping. Today, he is wearing one of those off-the-rack, blue polyester suits that he has been using as a disguise to avoid attention whenever he goes out. He matches them with plain white shirts and striped ties, and hunches his shoulders into a bad posture, putting on an air of worry and timidness with minute changes in his body language, before he leaves the apartment. Outside, he is virtually unrecognisable. Inside, though, his utter disdain for the attire is evident in the way he seems to cringe under the fabric.
"Good morning. How are you today?" Mrs. Hudson asks pleasantly.
"Still legally dead, Mrs. Hudson," Sherlock replies with a smirk in John's direction, obviously wanting to share the joke. John ignores it.
"Sherlock," Mrs. Hudson tuts, drawing out the first syllable of his name, "that's a horrible thing to say." John drops the paper and throws his hands up, disbelieving, but she doesn't notice.
Mrs. Hudson doesn't talk much about her early life or her marriage, but from the little John does know, he has gathered that she's probably had to figure out how to handle hard times before. John had been shocked and royally pissed off when Sherlock came back, one day after the three month anniversary of his funeral. In these following weeks, though, he's been trying to take a cue from Mrs. Hudson. He's known hard times, too. He's come back from war, and so he does what he tried to do then; he tries to find some kind of normalcy to let him reconnect with his life. It seems absurd that they should let it be this easy, sliding into old routines. But the thing is, John’s not sure what else to do but forgive.
Sherlock picks up his violin. "All right, let me have it." He points at the newspaper with the bow before leaning his head down over the instrument. He fits his chin into the chinrest, and begins to play. His red bangs fall into his face as he plays an idle tune. Sherlock's hair has been dyed since his return, and he is sporting a boringly correct haircut. Paired with the poorly tailored, pastel-coloured suits, it makes him look pallid and gangly, frail and impossibly thin. For a long while, it unsettled John to see a stranger whenever he caught a glimpse of Sherlock out of the corner of his eye. He's still not quite used to it.
John shakes himself and turns his gaze away from Sherlock's red hair and alien body. "Net Phenomenon Sherlock Holmes' Resurrection a Hoax?" he dutifully reads out from the paper he is holding, then grabs another on the stool next to him. "And here: Fake Detective Orchestrates Elaborate Prank." John looks up. "You've been bumped down to page ten. One column, no picture. You seem to be falling out of favour with the press."
"God speed the day," Sherlock mumbles, looking down the length of his violin bow.
The British press has been valiantly trying to make a case of the Fake Detective's return from the dead, but Sherlock has done all he could to make it an uphill battle. No one knows the details of Sherlock's disappearance, and no one seems to be able to get a hold of the man himself. Without pictures or interviews, the story of his death and resurrection seems incomprehensible and convoluted, not to mention slightly over-the-top.
"I haven't seen any reporters around the house since yesterday," Mrs. Hudson adds from behind them.
Sherlock perks up at that. "Is that so?" He gives John an intent look before he drops the violin back onto the couch and stalks towards the hallway.
John pushes out of his seat and follows him downstairs. "Wait, where are you going?"
"Reconnaissance." Sherlock is already pulling on his gloves. "Now, where's my coat?"
"On the hanger, I suppose." John frowns, puzzled. Sherlock has been wearing a hideous beige trench coat these last weeks.
"No," Sherlock says, waving an irritated hand in the air, "my coat, my coat."
John shrugs. "I don't remember," he answers truthfully.
Sherlock has the cheek to look annoyed. "Mrs. Hudson, where is my coat?" he yells, then stomps back upstairs.
John pauses, resting his hand on the bottom of the stair railing. He hasn't seen that coat for weeks, but he knows that Sherlock wore it on the day of his return, because he remembers the sensation of the rain spattered fabric bundled up in his hands, his face pressed against it and the smell of cigarettes and car exhaust emanating from the wet wool.
He hangs back for a moment, then takes the stairs at a slower pace.
The truth is that he doesn't remember much from the first days after Sherlock's return. It doesn't surprise him. After all, he is well acquainted with the ways the psyche reacts to psychological trauma; he has experienced it countless times with patients, and a few times personally, too. The symptoms show great variation but usually include an initial state of daze, with constriction of the field of consciousness and a narrowing of attention, followed by amnesia. At least, that's the text book definition. In John's own experience, it felt like his mind overloaded from too much input - too much emotion - and the events that caused it to happen were broken into manageable fragments of memory: isolated visuals, smells, small observations or odd thoughts that his mind chose to fixate on instead of relating to the present. John was shot in Maiwand, but he remembers nothing about the pain from the bullet or the scramble to get out of line of the snipers. He only remembers the ride back in the Jeep in the dead of night, the hot, dry air rushing over him through the open windows and the sight of his own black blood seeping out between Colonel Murray's fingers as she tried to staunch the flow.
John has only just reached the hallway at the top of the stairs when Sherlock rushes back out, this time wearing his black, full-length coat. Despite the red hair, the image of him standing there in the dim light from the matted window reminds John uncomfortably of the day he returned to Baker Street. He swallows. "You found it."
Sherlock is quickly doing up the buttons. "I did. Now, if you'll excuse me..."
John hears him hurry down the stairs. The front door is opened and slammed shut. John hurries through the living room to the window, to catch Sherlock striding across the street below with the coat flaring out behind him. He leans against the window pane. He remembers seeing Sherlock jump from the roof, but he doesn't remember seeing him fall. Instead, his memory skips straight to the point where he was losing his grip on cold fingers as multiple hands grabbed him and drew him away from a bleeding body.
Down on the street, Sherlock turns towards Allsop Place, disappearing from view, and John moves away from the window. Mrs. Hudson is standing in the entry to the kitchen, clutching a dish rag. "You all right, dear?" she asks. John collects himself. He smiles shortly at her, nods. He goes back to his chair and takes a seat, thankful when Mrs. Hudson turns away, returning to the kitchen.
All that John has retained from the hours immediately after Sherlock's return five weeks ago are a few fragmented images. He remembers climbing the stairs to the first floor and seeing a stranger - a gaunt, exhausted-looking man - standing in the hallway. He can't remember a word of what was said after the moment of recognition, but he remembers that they hugged; he remembers the smell and the feel of that coat, the touch of Sherlock's dry, cool hands. The last thing he seems to remember, though, he's not so sure about it. It might just be one of those weird thoughts that the mind sometimes randomly grabs hold of in the chaos. The memory itself is vague, and looking back on it, it seems implausible, too far removed from the implicit rules and habits of his and Sherlock's fairly cemented friendship. The brain can play tricks on you when you're under stress - stray thoughts can manifest as memories - John knows that. It doesn't have to mean anything, and in his head, John has dismissed it.
He is in the kitchen, making himself a sandwich, when Sherlock returns two hours later. John wipes his hand on a dish rag and walks into the living room, where Sherlock is shrugging out of his coat. There is a Sainsbury's bag on the coffee table.
"They're gone," Sherlock exclaims triumphantly. He walks past John and into his own room. A few seconds later he returns with a stack of baby blue suits and polyester shirts which he dumps in a heap on the floor in front of the fireplace. "No reporters, no fans. Nobody." As John watches, he starts stripping down unceremoniously; unfastening the tie he's wearing and adding it to the pile, along with the coat, the cheap imitation leather belt, even his socks.
"Sherlock, what are you doing?"
Only in his shirt and trousers, Sherlock loads the entire pile of clothes onto the fireplace and walks barefoot to get the Sainsbury's bag, from which he procures a bottle of lighter fluid with a maniacal glint in his eyes.
John groans. "Oh, you've got to be kidding me."
But Sherlock squirts the fluid over the fabric, gets out a box of matches from the plastic bags and proceeds to set a light to the whole thing.
"Sherlock! Jesus!" John rushes over to open a window before the fire alarm goes off.
Sherlock stands up, unfazed, looking incredibly self-satisfied. "You don't know how long I've dreamt of doing that," he exclaims. Then he grabs the bag with the rest of its contents and retreats to the bathroom.
John uses his absence to put out the fire with the ash shovel - which isn't too hard since the polyester suits seem more inclined to melt than to really burn – grumbling to himself about Sherlock's apparent need for drama. He is putting the remains of the clothes into a trash bag when Sherlock reemerges from the bathroom. John is stopped short by the sight of him. Sherlock is wearing his maroon silk dressing gown, and he has cut off his curly, red hair. The few remaining millimetres of hair that remains on his head is nothing more than a dark shadow across his skull. He looks simultaneously both more and less familiar.
Sherlock strides across the room to kneel down with his back to John. He runs his hand over the back of his head, the short, dark stubble and the pale skin of his scalp. "Okay?" The long line of his neck looks smooth and exposed. His feet are still bare.
John clears his throat. "Looks okay, yeah." He fiddles with the trash bag.
"Good." Sherlock stands back up with his usual agility. "Maybe now things can finally go back to normal." He is already walking away again.
John shakes himself. He realises that he has wound the black plastic bag tightly around his hand and carefully unwraps it again. "Yes," he says after a moment of silence, although Sherlock is already gone and there's no one there to hear him.
Of course it isn't as easy as that. For one thing, the legal implications of coming back from the dead have quickly turned out to be a right pain. John had been named executor in Sherlock's will, but with John locked out of Sherlock's accounts during the inquest, bills have started piling up on their table.
They arrive for their fourth meeting at the Social Security Agency ten minutes late. Sherlock's advisor, Mr. Peters, has quickly turned out to be the person least impressed by Sherlock's miraculous return to the living. He's been seemingly hell-bent on exposing Sherlock's resurrection as a particularly cunning attempt at social benefit fraud, and has so far refused to reissue his national insurance number. Sherlock, of course, does not help the situation by being secretive and obnoxious at every meeting, sitting with his legs crossed and his collar turned up, giving snide answers to every question. Next to him, John - who knows from receiving his army pension that placidity and patience are absolute essentials when dealing with the system - rolls his eyes.
Peters looks up from his two-fingered typing on the computer keyboard. "So, Mr. Holmes, let's try this again. Where have you kept address these last four months?"
"I'm afraid I can't tell you."
Mr. Peters responds with a vicious stab at the keys. "Well, Mr. Holmes, if you won't tell me your residence address, then how are you going to prove to me that you haven't been receiving social benefits from a different office?" he asks, surly, the corners of his mouth pulled down.
Sherlock sits for a moment in silence, then does a quick intake of breath and leans forward in his chair. "Listen to me, now, Mr. Peters," he starts pleasantly, but John recognises the evil glint in his eye and slumps down a little in his chair, sighing.
Unsurprisingly, Sherlock does not get access to his accounts at this meeting, either.
"What does he mean it's impossible to re-activate a national insurance number? Surely I can't be the first and only case of Lazarus Syndrome to baffle the British government?" Sherlock exclaims indignantly. They are walking down the street towards the Farringdon tube stop.
"Yes, well, I'm not a huge fan of Peters, either." John is walking at a brisk pace to keep up with Sherlock's long stride. "But Sherlock, I can't cover the rent any more. Or the bills. Or the food. I'm all out." He hesitates. This is not his first go at this conversation. "If we could get Mycroft involved -"
"But we won't," Sherlock says shortly, still looking straight ahead.
John sighs. "I'm just saying, that -" he's about to go into a longer explanation, but stops when he casts a sideways glance at Sherlock and realises that he is pointedly not paying attention. John shoves his hands into his pockets. He gives up. Mycroft Holmes has not been an easy subject since what happened with Moriarty.
"Good morning, John." Sherlock is sitting by their table eating a soft boiled egg that Mrs. Hudson must have cooked for him.
John descends the last few steps of the stairs and enters the living room. "Good morning." He stops by the edge of the table without taking his seat. There is an egg for him, too, along with a plate of toast, a cup of coffee – and next to it, a wide selection of papers, all turned to the job section, and all with job ads carefully circled with red marker. "What's this?"
Sherlock looks up briefly. "You said you needed work," he says matter-of-factly, then returns to his egg.
"Did I, now?" John huffs. "You've got some nerve." But he looks at them anyway, sitting down and taking a bite from his toast while he reads on. "You know, all it would take is one phone call to your brother," John says lightly, after reading through a couple of the ads. No reply. John sighs and reads on. Most of the ads are for acute and critical care units - and John is done with that - but one of the circled ads is for a locum position in a GP's office, only a few miles away. The position is six weeks in duration, and conveniently close to a tube stop. John waits until Sherlock has left the table, and then he brings out his mobile and dials the listed number. Financial troubles aside, Sherlock is becoming more and more intolerable with the lack of work, and John could quite frankly use an excuse to get out of the house anyway.
John's two days and twenty-one patients in. He's just said goodbye to the previous patient, and he's by the sink with his back to the room, when there's a faint knock and the door opens behind him. "Come on in," he says without turning, and turns the tap off. "I'll be right with you." He shakes his hands dry and adds a squirt of disinfectant gel before he turns towards the door.
"Mrs Boulstridge..?" he starts, voice rising a note when he turns around and takes in the person entering. John has just checked the medical records of his next patient; Mrs. Boulstridge is eighty-two years of age and has a check-up appointment for her abdominal hernia. John's never been good with guessing people's age, but Mrs Boulstridge this is not.
"Not exactly," the woman at the door smiles. She can't be older than her mid-thirties, and she is small - shorter than John, even though she's wearing heels - with brown hair and dark eyelashes. Something about her features hints at something besides Anglo-Saxon in her genealogical heritage, something about the dark brown of her irises and the slope of her eyes. "I'm Maya Patel. I'm your med tech." She strides across the room to shake his hand. "I'm here to collect your blood work for the laboratory." She has a sweet smile, John notes, not feeling very professional.
"I'm John. John Watson."
Maya lets go of his hand and leans back on her heels. "Usually the doctors put the vials in the fridge in the lobby for me, but you're new."
It takes John a moment to remember what they're talking about."Oh," he smiles, "I haven't any samples, today."
"I won't bother you any longer, then," Maya says, "can't keep Mrs. Boulstridge waiting." She winks, and then turns away to leave. John looks after her for a long moment. He shakes his head at himself and walks over to his intercom to ask the secretary to send in Mrs. Eleanor Boulstridge.
From then on, John finds himself going out of his way to be in the lobby when the blood work is collected, and he's very diligent about handing over his samples personally. Six weeks in, he decides to get his PSAs tested.
"You know, you are trained for this, you could technically draw your own samples," Maya says while she tightens the tourniquet, but she smiles as she leans in over his arm, carefully feeling out the veins in the crook of his elbow.
John waits until she has inserted the needle and attached the little vacuum vial before speaking. "Truth is, I can do it to patients easily – can't for the life of me do it to myself." He smiles, seeking out her eyes. "Does that make me a rotten person?"
Maya laughs. "You ask of the woman who's chosen to work with human tissue samples for a living." She exchanges the vial on the needle. "You know, I secretly dream of becoming a pathology assistant," she confesses in a low, confidential tone of voice, still smiling. John watches her face as she returns her attention to his arm, absently tugging a strand of hair behind her ear with her left hand.
He draws in a breath. "Listen, would you like to have a cup of coffee with me sometime?"
Maya gives him a brief, questioning look before she presses the small cotton ball over the puncture wound, then withdraws the needle and guides him to bend his arm with the deftness of long standing routine. "Really, Dr. Watson?" she finally asks, wrinkling her nose, "during a blood sample?" But there's definitely something mischievous in her expression - and John smiles widely at her. He loves this, he's missed this: the flirting, the easy back-and-forth banter.
"I'm a little out of practice," he says easily.
"Was this blood test business all a ploy to chat me up from the beginning, then? Or were you inspired by my charming conversation just now?" She continues to pull off her gloves and bin them, before turning back around to face him, an amused smile playing around her lips.
"Is that a yes?" John asks, hopeful, foregoing her questions.
She tilts her head to get the hair out of her eyes, playfully appraising him, and then starts placing the small vials in their crate, one after the other. "I get off work in about half an hour, can you wait?"
John keeps compression on the puncture wound for the required two minutes. After that, he stays for half an hour in the waiting room, looking at anti-smoking pamphlets and trying to conceal a stupid grin. Then he takes Maya out and buys her a tall non-fat latte.
He returns home in the late afternoon. Sherlock's in the kitchen, reading a paper with his back to the door. His hair is a couple of centimetres long by now, all of it dark brown. John hesitates for a second in the doorway, watching.
"Hello," John echoes absently and pushes off the door frame to step into the room.
Sherlock looks up briefly from the newspaper when John moves past him to get to the fridge, and then his eyes shoot up for a second time to dwell on him for a longer moment. "Oh, I see you've met someone."
John blinks, astounded. As annoying as it can sometimes be - as invading as John knows other people find it - he still can't help but marvel at every display of Sherlock's abilities. He looks down at himself, wondering what Sherlock has noticed to make him arrive at that conclusion, and then belatedly realises that he'd been taking the stairs two steps at the time, that he might possibly have been whistling. He groans inwardly. Not that hard to figure out then, really. "I might have met someone, yes," he relents. He peers into the empty fridge and sighs.
"I got you some take-away," Sherlock says casually, turning a page.
John pushes the fridge door shut. On the kitchen table there's a foil container wrapped in a plastic bag, dark dots of condensation water on the inside of the plastic. He glances at the dining table and sees that Sherlock has even put a plate out for him. "Oh." A few things - small things - have been changing since Sherlock came back. This is new. "You got that for me?" he asks, "how did you pay for -"
"Office romance," Sherlock says dryly, not a question. He folds the paper down. "How unoriginal."
"Yes, well," John grabs the bag and brings it to the table to sit opposite Sherlock, "I seem to be spending a lot of time at the office these days seeing as we can't get access to your accounts, and you won't ask your scarily influential brother for help."
"Let's still not talk about Mycroft," Sherlock suggests evenly, and John promptly drops it.
"Her name is Maya. She's a med tech," he offers instead, peeling off the lid to a box of Phat Tai. It smells like heaven. "We had coffee," he adds magnanimously, because, Phat Thai. And to be honest, meeting Sherlock has worked wonders on his love life. After first returning to England, John had felt powerless, impotent – bitter and half angry all the time. Since he met Sherlock, he knows that he's generally a much more pleasant person.
Sherlock gives him that twitch of a smile that looks more like a half-arsed attempt than the real thing, and flicks the paper back up. "Good for you," he says mildly, from behind his paper.
John stares incredulously at the newspaper for a while, but all he can see is yesterday's headlines and Sherlock's hands, and neither give any hints to the reason for Sherlock's sudden benevolence regarding John's love life. There are smudges of ink on Sherlock's fingers, a small fresh burn mark on his right hand from an experiment gone wrong (Sherlock insists that it was all on purpose. John knows better). Usually, John's problem with dating since he met Sherlock is that eventually John has to introduce potential girlfriends to him, and regardless of his influence on John, Sherlock himself isn't a particularly pleasant person. John opens his mouth, then closes it. He grabs a fork and digs in. The Phat Thai is amazing, still warm. He'll see Maya again on Sunday. She invited him around to her flat.
Lestrade calls John in the middle of a rugby game that same evening. "Sherlock isn't answering his phone," he says without introduction. John mutes the TV and looks over to the corner of the living room where Sherlock is lying on the floor, bare feet up against the bookshelves, reading a heavy volume of Collins Advanced Human Biology. His phone is lying next to him, ignored.
"I think he's sulking," John says, suppressing an amused smile at Sherlock's indignant huff. "Do you have a case for him?" he asks hopefully, and he doesn't miss the way Sherlock tenses minutely, inclining his head towards their conversation.
"I can't bring him back in to work with us. Not yet," Lestrade sighs. "I am working on it, but." Long and loaded silence at the other end of the line, and John has no doubt that Lestrade is picking fights with the chief superintendent, Donovan, Anderson and several others in his division over this. This is why John has always liked Lestrade. Because he is a good man - tired cynicism and barely suppressed weltschmerz aside - and because he never doubted in Sherlock.
"How is he holding up?" Lestrade finally asks.
John sighs. "I think he's going slightly mental, to tell you the truth," he says, making no effort to keep his voice low. He ignores how Sherlock puts down the book with a heavy clunk and pushes himself to his feet. "He'll live, though." Sherlock doesn't spare him a glance as he demonstratively walks out of the room.
"Yes," Lestrade says, "apparently... But will you?" and he sounds genuinely worried. John snorts.
Two days later, John finally finds Sherlock's new hiding place for cigarettes while Sherlock himself is out buying milk (this is new, too). He's feeling so triumphant that he has his phone in his hand, ready to text Mycroft, before he remembers. He puts his phone back in his pocket. But ten minutes later he thinks sod it, and sends the bloody text anyway.
On Sunday, Sherlock eyes him but surprisingly doesn't comment on his tucked-in shirt, or the splash of cologne when John comes down to grab something to eat before going to Maya's. John fidgets a little under his steady appraisal, anyway. He's used to having to endure Sherlock's snide comments whenever he goes out on dates – they're childish, and not at all unlike jealousy.
"I understand that you're communicating with Mycroft," Sherlock says, instead, returning his focus to his microscope. He's sitting by the table, surrounded by flasks and beakers of clear liquid.
John stops in his tracks, surprised, hands by his sides. "How did you -"
"I asked him."
"Oh." John can't help but feeling a little relieved. "So you two are talking again, now."
"I sent him a text," Sherlock replies, words crisp.
"And he answered it. Two way communication, that," John says cheerfully. "I thought we were balancing on the brink of fratricide." He leans against the kitchen counter, watching Sherlock work.
Sherlock carefully transfers a drop of liquid from a flask to the microscope slide. "I decided to let it go. Mycroft didn't tell Moriarty much more than some clever research and a little legwork wouldn't have turned up on its own." He adds another drop of liquid to the slide, then gently puts the cover slip over and places it under the microscope. "I don’t really have those kinds of secrets"
"Right." John is never entirely going to understand the Holmes brothers' dynamics. Sherlock seems preoccupied with the sample, so John pushes away from the counter. He should get going soon.
"Before you go, could have a look at this one for me?" Sherlock grabs a newspaper lying next to the microscope and slides it towards John without looking up. "Top of the page."
John checks his watch, then moves closer to the newspaper to read the article that Sherlock points out. He checks the logo at the top of the page and rolls his eyes - it's the bloody Sun. He fidgets with the cuff on his shirt, while he quickly skims the text.
"It says the news presenter is calling off his wedding because his lover was cheating on him." Sherlock points and John looks at the picture. It's some silver-haired, wholesome-looking American news anchor.
"But, clearly, his lover wasn't cheating," Sherlock says, "just look at that photo."
John does, then dutifully reads the closing note before he returns his attention to getting the final button on his cuff done up.
"Well," Sherlock prompts, "what do you think?"
"That depends," John says, "are you asking me, or are you doing that thing?"
John lets his hands fall and gives Sherlock a steady look. "The thing where you listen to me do my best for fifteen minutes, because I stupidly think that you're actually asking, and then you explain it all to me in five?"
"No, I am asking you," Sherlock insists, sounding indignant at the very idea, even though he most certainly would, and has done, before. "I'm in the process of gathering new data, and I believe you have more experience in this area."
"This area?" John frowns. "Gossip?"
"Passion?" John can feel his eyebrows shoot up of their own volition. "I thought you despised sentiment?"
"I do. It tends to make people stupid," Sherlock waves a hand. "Stupid people, stupid crimes. Dull." His voice drips with disdain. "But I am finding myself sadly short of clients, and unfortunately a rough estimate of thirty percent of all crimes fall under this category. I'm afraid I can't allow myself to neglect it."
"So you're gathering data from The Sun?" John asks lightly.
Sherlock ignores him. "Look at the paparazzi shot of the lover. Clearly he and the other man weren't expecting photographers, but they don't have that look of guilty excitement about them, either. And look at the way the presenter is standing during the press release; he's not angry, he's uncomfortable." Sherlock points again, "Look at the way he's fiddling with that piece of paper. For a journalist he's a surprisingly bad liar. He obviously condoned his lover's relationship, but he can't say that in a public statement. Look at the indents on his finger, he only just removed his engagement ring before coming on to make the statement."
John sighs and picks up the paper to look over the article again. "Yes, I suppose that's possible. Not all that unlikely, actually," he finally says, a little reluctantly, "but Sherlock, I have to say, you're getting pretty desperate if you're actually reading this silly thing." He tosses the paper back on the table.
"People do silly things out of passion," Sherlock says. He gives John an odd look, then pinches the bridge of his nose briefly before he grimaces and turns away.
John stares at him. Then he looks down at himself; he's changed shirts twice, shaved against the grain, and dabbed on cologne, for Maya. "Yes," he agrees, "I suppose they do."
Maya lives on Beaufort Street, not far from Hyde Park. When she opens the door, John's happy to see that she's dressed up too, wearing a pretty shirt and a pair of silver earrings which she fidgets with a little nervously as she leads him through the living room to the kitchen.
John sits down on the edge of one of two chairs placed on either side of a small kitchen table. There's one plate drying in the dish rack, one cup, a fork and a knife - but from the two place mats on the table and the twin plaids he saw on the sofa walking through the living room, John gets the impression that someone lived here with her recently. He lets his eyes wander aimlessly over the knick-knacks on the counter, the notes and postcards on the fridge, and tries not to be like Sherlock. It's not his place to ask questions, really. Not yet, anyway.
Maya brings over a cup of coffee for each of them. She catches his eyes and smiles as she places one cup carefully on the mat in front of John. It's filled to the brim. She sits down opposite him, briefly fiddling with the label on her own mat before looking back up. "So."
"So." John leans back in his chair, surprised and a little charmed by her unexpected nervousness. "Would you like to go out, maybe? We could eat, if you're hungry."
Maya searches his face, then lets out a deep breath. "Look, I can't figure out how to segue into this smoothly," she finally says, "I didn't know how to say it over coffee the other day." She laughs a little nervously. "The thing is, I really like you. But I'm not actually looking to date, as such."
"Oh." John slumps down in his chair, confused. He takes a sip of from his mug, just to have something to do.
Maya brushes her bangs away from her forehead. "I would really like to sleep with you, though," she says, tentatively, "if you want to."
John chokes a little on his coffee. "That's... forward." He busies himself with his mug to hide his face for a moment. He's never thought of himself as prudish, but he's a little shocked, to be honest. He clears his throat and takes another drink. Thinking it over, though, he supposes that he shouldn't be surprised, if she is just out of a relationship. John's eyes fall on her hands resting lightly around her moustache mug. Kind of a silly mug. A joke, maybe, a gift from her ex. Or maybe not. Who knows? Anyway, John is all too familiar with that tender, tentative stage you get to after the end of a long-term relationship. He looks her in the eye again, smiles a little.
Maya shrugs, much calmer, now."I just thought it'd be easier to be clear about it from the start," she says, letting her hands fan out in an explanatory gesture. "Would you like to... Do you want to stay?"
John hesitates. He watches the elegant line of her neck, the way her dark hair falls over her shoulders, her slender arms, and the dip in her v-neck that reveals a softly fading tan line. He had maybe been thinking about going out to dinner, had been entertaining ideas of wine and flirting, of first kisses in the hallway, tentative touches in the dark. But now Maya is looking at him expectantly, soft eyes, beautiful and self-assured. And, well. "Yes." He can feel heat creeping into his cheeks and shakes his head at himself, laughing a little. "I mean, yes, I'd like to stay." He shifts in his chair, feeling awkward and a little turned on, already.
"Wonderful," Maya smiles, obviously pleased and relieved - no trace of the nervousness from before. "Here, let's go sit in the sofa. We'll have a drink." And suddenly there's a whole other kind of tension between them, the simmering knowledge that they will end up in bed together soon. When she stands to lead him back into the living room, John's eyes drop to the shape of her body beneath her billowy shirt and tight jeans, and he's only a little embarrassed when she turns around and catches him.
Half way through the bottle of wine, she leans over and kisses him, straightforward and quietly confident. Her lips are sweet, from lip gloss maybe, the wine is a darker taste on her tongue. "Come to bed with me," she says against his mouth, and John feels a sweet, hot wave of arousal swoop through his body.
Maya takes him to bed. John hasn't slept with anyone since Jeanette broke it off, more than a year ago. The truth is that he usually finds one night stands more awkward than truly erotic - he can never help feeling rushed and exposed, and he usually feels a certain amount of stress from trying to figure out how to please this person that he barely knows. But Maya seems comfortable to lead, and so John gratefully follows. Maya has a soft belly with strong muscle underneath. It turns out she likes to use her mouth and teeth which has always driven John a little crazy. He allows himself to relax and revel in the pure pleasure of being close to another human being like this, being skin to skin beneath the covers.
He drowses for about half an hour afterwards, and when he wakes Maya is lying next to him with her head propped up on one elbow, awake and watching in the beginning dusk. "Come here," she whispers, pulling him closer. They exchange a couple of slow kisses, before Maya draws away again and John pushes himself up to sit in the bed.
"I should get going," he says. Maya already told him that she is going to a concert with some friends later in the evening. Ever since the war, John hasn't slept well in strange places and quite frankly finds it a relief not to have to hide his restlessness. He swings his legs over to sit on the side of the bed, then stands and quickly pulls on his clothes. Maya doesn't make a move to get up. John looks up at her from where he is kneeling on the floor to tie his shoes. He puts his hand on his knee, pausing. "I guess this is it, then?" he says, smiling a little to conceal his regret.
"I think so, yes," Maya answers softly.
John kisses her goodbye. He lets himself out of her flat and starts off home in the early evening darkness. After a little while, he finds himself smiling about the whole thing, despite himself, feeling young and obvious, and a little embarrassed on the tube.
It's only quarter past nine when he returns to Baker Street. Sherlock is in the chair by the chimney, playing a slow piece on the violin. "Home already?" he asks, swinging the instrument down and placing it on the floor next to the couch to give John his full attention. He is not trying very hard at all to hide that he is pleased by the fact.
"Yes." John decides to be gracious and ignore it. He walks fully into the room, and Sherlock looks him over searchingly, but heck if John is going to explain himself. He shrugs out of his cardigan and leaves it over the back of a chair. He should shower. He moves towards the door, but hesitates before leaving the living room. "I'll probably pop down to Speedy's in a bit. I'm starving. Do you want anything?"
Sherlock gives him another lingering look, but then he lets his gaze drop away, apparently satisfied. "No thank you, I ate this morning." He grabs the strip of silk lying on the armrest and wipes the bow of his violin. "You can use my card, though, if you want." He drops the silk and digs into his pocket, fishing out a brand new credit card which he holds out to John.
John opens his mouth, then closes it. He steps forward and picks the card from Sherlock's fingers. "Your accounts are open."
Sherlock hums. "Mycroft sorted it."
"Right." John decides to just turn around and leave.
He gets Sherlock a sandwich at Speedy's, and Sherlock comes over to sit in the sofa next to John while he eats his soup and salad. He even ends up eating a couple of bites of the sandwich while they watch TV in amicable silence.
It's another week before Lestrade calls John again. "We're at Saxe-Coburg Square," he starts gruffly, no introduction. In the background, John can hear sirens and traffic, policemen shouting. "Come down. And John," Lestrade sighs, "tell Sherlock to be brilliant." John doesn't say that when he relays the call to Sherlock.
"You said you heard several sirens in the background?" Sherlock steeples his fingers.
"Saxe-Coburg Square." Sherlock closes his eyes and leans back in the chair. "Let's see... the tobacconist, the newspaper shop, a vegetarian restaurant, and then, ah, the bank." His eyes shoot open. "Still, better not to hypothesise before we get there." His voice is calm and even, but the way he forcefully pushes himself out of the chair betrays him, and there is no trace of his usual lethargy as he sweeps through the apartment, stuffing various small objects into his pockets. Within minutes he's waiting by the door, holding it open for John who is walking towards him, shrugging on his coat. "Ready?" he asks, voice tinged with a barely concealed edge of excitement.
"Oh, yes," John answers, right there with him.
Oh, and it's good. During the first forty-eight hours they uncover forgeries, secret tunnels, stolen identities. Sherlock is on fire: manic and single-minded, rude, obnoxious and utterly brilliant. Lestrade hadn't needed to worry. Out of work again, anyway, John spends all of his time on the case with him. They hardly sleep those first two days, gathering information. On the third night they end up in the pitch dark in a locked bank vault, waiting for the burglars to break through. John's nerves are worked so high that his senses seem almost supernaturally acute. He can pick out Sherlock's breathing in the group of policemen that surrounds them, and there in the dark he can admit to himself how much he's missed this too.
The whole thing is resolved right after midnight.
John has never been a slave of his own ego - being a smallish rugby player and an army recruit cured him right out of that. He knows he's good at some things, very good at others, maybe even close to brilliant on some. But he's never had a problem stepping down and enjoying the sheer gob-smacking genius of Sherlock's intellect. "Bloody fantastic," he mutters - still high on adrenaline - because it was - and because he knows it pleases Sherlock to hear him say it.
Sherlock inclines his head, one corner of his mouth quirked up. "Thank you." They walk alongside each other up the stairs, behind the officers wrestling the two felons towards the squad cars.
Lestrade is hanging back by the red tape when they emerge from the vault, hands deep in his pockets. "Apparently the Yard has been chasing John Clay for years," he says. He's got the same tired expression on his face as always, but somehow it still comes across how pleased he is. "Welcome back."
Donovan and Anderson don't look so happy. John wouldn't rub it in their faces, it wouldn't be proper. But of course Sherlock has no such concerns and, well, John's probably a bit of a bastard to enjoy it so much. He can accept that about himself, though, just to allow himself to enjoy the sour expression on Anderson's face when Sherlock loudly points out the three or four obvious mistakes he made when he examined the original crime scene.
"You all right, love?" John asks politely, smiling closed-mouthed at Donovan's frowning face as they pass her on their way from the scene.
"Oh, fuck off," she bites, arms folded tight across her chest.
"You're a bad man," Sherlock mutters beside him, smirking.
But after the case is finished, there's the inevitable coming down. John should be used to it by now, after all it has been like this the entire time he's known Sherlock. For some reason, though, it feels worse this time around. He can't put his finger on why. The routines are the same: testifying, staggering home, eating, crashing out, waking up in the morning feeling like you've been run over by a steamroller, spending days catching up on sleep and unobtrusively monitoring Sherlock for signs of drugs or cigarettes. John used to be fine with it, but this time around he feels hollow and restless, irrationally irritable.
Sherlock sleeps for nine hours, and John finds himself worrying about brain haemorrhage, although Clay barely glanced Sherlock with the butt of his gun. He stops a couple of times outside Sherlock's door, listening for the sound of his breathing, before he tells himself to stop being stupid.
When Sherlock finally does get up, he takes up too much room in the apartment, makes too much noise. John retreats to his room and tries to get some sleep himself. He lays half drowsing and listens to Sherlock's apathetic plucking on the strings on his violin, starting awake whenever there's a pause. Finally, he gives up and comes down back into the living room. He splays out in the chair by the fireplace and lets his hands hang over the armrests while he scowls at the long curve of Sherlock's back where he now lies curled up on the sofa, evidently asleep once more.
He wakes up with a start when John's phone beeps. "What?" he asks blearily.
John fishes out his phone from his pocket. It's a text from Maya. All it says is: 'Would you like to come over?
John presses 'send' and pushes off the couch. "All right, I'm going out."
"Where? To Maya's?" Sherlock calls after him, straining his neck, but John doesn't answer.
Maya is dressed nicely, looking like she just came back from work, but something about her expression tells John that maybe she hasn't been sleeping well for a couple of days either. "Hi."
"Hi." John steps inside and Maya closes the door behind him. John shrugs of his shoes, takes off his coat and hangs it. Then he turns to face her. "I thought this was a one time thing," he says softly.
Maya, who had been quietly waiting, quirks a smile. "Yeah, me too," she says, then reaches out to run her palm over his chest. The ridges of her fingers slide over a nipple beneath two layers of clothes, and John can feel the short hairs at the nape of his neck stand up. He doesn't try to suppress the shiver it elicits. "I'm happy you changed your mind," he says, slightly breathless.
Maya reaches up to curl her hand around his neck. "Me too."
They kiss in the hallway. There is no wine this time around, no playful conversation. There's only the low grade burn of arousal building up slowly to hot, clenching pleasure, and then the heavy, delicious sense of something coming unwound, laughing a little together, then speaking sleepily for a while, warm and close, before drifting into sleep.
When John wakes again it is still light outside. Maya's still asleep next to him, so John quietly slides out of the bed. He uses the loo and then walks through Maya's apartment which is light and airy and uncluttered. The wooden floor is smooth and still warm from the afternoon sun which is only now disappearing. Before John lived at Baker Street, before the war, he lived with his girlfriend, Rhonda Taylor, in an apartment much like this. He and Rhonda took turns cooking, and had common friends from uni, and went to bed together every night. Real people, John thinks, real lives. He shakes his head, a little wistful. When he returns to the bedroom, Maya is awake, lying on her back in the bed and staring up at the ceiling, one hand playing absently with a corner of the duvet. John hesitates in the door when he sees her expression. She seems preoccupied; her usual animated demeanour seems dampened by some soft and melancholy emotion. But then she catches him looking. "Hey." She turns her head towards him and her expression is transformed, brightening, coming back to the moment.
"You all right?" he asks lightly.
She stretches luxuriously, then nods, so John walks over to the side of the bed to let Maya pull him down beside her, and John lets himself pretend for a moment, lets himself curl his arms around her, accepts her soft kisses and nestles into her, in a bed that's already beginning to feel comfortable and familiar.
"I'm bored!" Sherlock exclaims vehemently, finishing a piece of music on the violin with a violent flourish. It's only been three days since they finished the Saxe-Coburg case. Sherlock's been pacing back and forth, playing half tunes for hours. John placed an orange on the coffee table for him a couple of hours ago. It sits untouched, a bright dot of colour in the clutter of papers and books.
"You are on a case," John states mildly, following Sherlock's movements from his place in on the couch, "in fact, at six pm this evening, we are boarding a police speedboat to try and hunt down the Aurora, and retrieve one of the greatest diamond treasures ever to have been stolen. How can you possibly feel bored?"
"I detest waiting," Sherlock spits out. He crosses the space from his music stand to the bookcase in the corner yet another time, and again John catches him looking.
John sighs. He's aware that he's been under close scrutiny for at least the last half hour. He finally puts his paper down. "What is it? Did I shave unevenly by the light of the sun again, is my face covered in an interesting kind of pollen? What?"
Sherlock stops short, but he doesn't respond. After a moment he walks over and places the tip of his violin bow with unfailing precision on John's clavicle at the exact spot where, two days ago, Maya had bitten down as she came, just hard enough to leave a mark. His demeanour is changed, his restlessness gone. “She bit you, here,” he says, entirely focused. “You enjoyed it.”
John pales, surprised. Maya had been gasping wordlessly, eyes squeezed shut, digging her fingers into his shoulders as he brought her off with his fingers. She'd finally pulled him down for an uncoordinated kiss, then tipped her head down to clamp her teeth over his collarbone as she came with a series of ungracious but deep-felt grunts, her cunt pulsing and twitching beneath his fingers. She'd pushed him over on his back afterwards laughing a little, hiding her flushed face in her hands.
The blood rushes back to his face at the recollection. John squirms in his seat. He realises that he has probably been touching the bite mark, smiling at the tender ache. He never thought about Sherlock paying attention to these kinds of things, before, never imagined that he would find it anything but tedious and hopelessly mundane.
Sherlock removes the bow with a swift motion. "Why?"
John pushes himself up in the chair, trying to recover. "Why what?"
"Why did you enjoy it?"
John looks up at Sherlock looming over him, face shadowed in the backlight from the windows. "Sherlock," he says warningly.
"I need data," Sherlock replies, lifting his chin.
There's a moment of silence.
"No," John says, then, briskly folding the paper twice over the middle, "no, I absolutely won't tell you about it. I'm not a part of your research and I'm certainly not here to entertain you with anecdotes from my personal life whenever you get bored." He rises to stand. He can feel heat in his cheeks, still, and wonders if Sherlock can tell.
Sherlock remains where he stands, very close now that they are at eye level. "Can I see it?" His voice is impersonal and even, and John narrows his eyes, trying to read his emotion.
Sherlock invades John's personal space habitually - casually - with his observations and his questions. But this crosses a line. This time, John thinks, he won't oblige him. He takes a couple of steps away, but then his curiosity get the better of him, and he finds himself turning back around. "Why?"
"I need data," Sherlock repeats stubbornly, but there's a flicker of something else across his features.
John searches his face. Sherlock might think he's unreadable, but he's not. "Is this part of that project of yours? About passion?"
"Yes," Sherlock says calmly, but John's not entirely sure that he is telling the truth. By now, he is skilled enough that he can read Sherlock's bluffs a lot of the time, but he's still not able to suss out the underlying emotion.
But the pretence makes it easier to justify to himself why he starts undoing the top two buttons of his shirt beneath Sherlock's unwavering gaze. He peels back the collar. He can feel his own pulse beneath the tips of his fingers where he's holding back the lapel - and this is, this is not - for half a crazy moment he expects Sherlock to step closer, to maybe touch, but Sherlock stays put at the other end of the room. "You enjoyed it," he says again, softly wondering.
Maya had lain for a while with her palm covering her eyes, shaky and a little rattled. "Give me a minute. Just. Give me a minute," she'd laughed. There had been a flush down between her breasts. Her lips and nipples had been puffy and dark. John had propped himself up on one elbow to watch her, pleased with himself. His fingers had absently sought out the bite, rubbing over the tender but unbroken skin. The light irritation had been good, had helped him shift his focus away from his own need for a moment.
"Yes," John says simply, helplessly.
"Interesting." Sherlock's voice has lost its usual detachment. Their eyes meet for a long moment, and, somehow, John gets the impression that Sherlock is surprised at himself. Then his face is closing off again. He clears his throat. "Well, that's good, I suppose." He swings the violin back up under his chin and starts playing something fast and complicated, turning away towards the window.
John wavers on his feet for a moment, hesitating, unsure. He goes up to his room, but once there, he doesn't know what to do. He is aware that his heart rate is slightly elevated. He sits on the edge of his bed, palms on his thighs, until he hears the phone ring, Sherlock's brisk, three syllable conversation, and then: "John, come on, waiting's over."
John rushes around a sharp corner, slipping on the loose asphalt, and in front of him the narrow alley opens up into a larger loading area on the wharf, partially illuminated by projector lights. He can clearly see the shape of the man he is following, now, and he picks up his pace. In front and on either side of them the dark and silent water glitters with the reflected lights from the cranes and warehouses. The guy turns around once, but John makes no effort to duck or hide. He knows that the man is unarmed, he heard the clatter when the guy dropped his empty gun earlier on.
Before John can close the distance between them, though, the man veers off to the side and jumps from the pier. There is no splash – instead, after a few seconds there's the sound of an engine starting, and then a small motorised boat peels away and sets out over the black waters. John keeps running right to the edge of the pier, but there are no other boats by the dock. Still, he walks along the edge for a few steps, eyes fixed on the boat disappearing in the darkness, high on adrenaline and unwilling to give up the chase. But soon the boat is no longer visible, and John finally stops pacing. He's gasping for breath, he realises. He leans forward and puts his hands on his knees, breathing in deep. Now that the chase is over he can feel his muscles aching, trembling to the point where he's not entirely sure that his legs won't give out beneath him. He drags a hand across his neck, close to his jaw, where he can feel something slippery trickling down beneath the collar of his shirt. There's a smear of blood on his hand. He must have scratched his neck on the rusty iron fence he had to scale a few yards back. Tetanus, he thinks dumbly, I'll have to get a tetanus shot. But he can't feel the pain yet. His ears are roaring, endorphins are cursing through his body like a drug and he feels wild and euphoric and good.
He's only aware of someone approaching a few seconds before Sherlock catches up with him. Sherlock grabs hold of his arm and pulls him up to stand, pats him down roughly. "John, are you all right?"
"Yes, yes," John huffs, bearing with Sherlock's examination for a few seconds before putting a little distance between them.
"You took off on your own," Sherlock says accusatorily.
John ignores him. "He got away. Had a boat waiting." He points out over the water.
Sherlock looks him over once more before turning away to watch the harbour. "Pity," he says, still turned towards the water. "But we'll find him." Somewhere behind them further down the pier, they can finally hear the blare of sirens approaching. They both turn towards the sound. The police cars are still hidden from sight, but the flashing blue lights are reflected in the humid air. "Oh, now comes the cavalry."
They finally stagger into the kitchen at Baker Street at half four in the morning. By that time they are still riding out the adrenaline high and are turning a little loopy with the lack of sleep.
"Sit," John orders, and Sherlock splays into one of the kitchen chairs while John checks the cupboards. There's a loaf of bread and a tin of beans, eggs in the fridge and a strip of bacon in the freezer. John sets about cooking a proper fry up for breakfast. They haven't eaten since yesterday afternoon and John is starving. He puts the beans in the microwave along with the bacon. Soon, the smell of food spreads in the kitchen. Once John's got the milk and the eggs mixed in the pan, even Sherlock is eyeing the food with some interest.
John puts out two plates, then ladles out two generous portions. "Cheers."
They dig in hungrily, both still wearing their coats.
"So, probably not in it for the money, then?" John says after a while, he can't resist. The hundred thousand pound jewelry treasure spread over five square miles of the Thames would indicate a stronger motivation than greed.
Sherlock looks up from his plate. "A minor flaw in my deductions," he says shortly.
"Minor?" John teases.
"Well, ultimately irrelevant to solving the case," Sherlock hedges, shifting uneasily in his seat.
"Some would say it was a crime of passion, really," John says, raising his brows.
"Yes... I missed that. But I am working on bettering myself in that area."
John smiles, leaning back a little in his seat. He doesn't push it. He knows how sore Sherlock is about being wrong, but he can't help being amused by Sherlock's obvious discomfort. "Don't worry, I won't tell a soul."
Sherlock relaxes. "Sentiment?" he asks, one corner of his mouth turning up into a smile, reluctant at first, but then he gives into it.
John huffs out a laugh. "Sentiment," he confirms, an old joke. He is still smiling as he starts in on his eggs.
He can feel Sherlock's eyes on him for a long moment, but then Sherlock grabs the kettle and goes to fill it from the tap. John hears him put the kettle into its base and then flick on the switch. He is mostly focused on his plate, so he doesn't react when Sherlock comes over to stand next to him. "Hm?" he asks absently, without looking up.
Sherlock's so close that John can hear the noiseless rustle of his pressed shirt against the sleeve of his coat when Sherlock reaches out and touches him. John goes still. He places his hand holding the fork on the edge of the table and looks down at his last triangle of toast, yellow butter half melted, while he sits absolutely still. The water begins to boil in the tea kettle on the counter while Sherlock's fingers trace the skin below the gash on his neck, a butterfly touch that moves on from his neck to his collarbone. His fingers press down slightly, there; a dry cool touch through the cotton. "Painful?" he asks quietly.
John hesitates. From anyone else the touch would have been a caress. Somehow, with Sherlock, it feels more like a test, but of what or of whom, John can't guess. "No. Not really," he glances to the side, weirded out and a little warm.
"Good," Sherlock says. He draws away, moving back to the counter, busying himself with the kettle.
"Yeah," John replies, at a loss for words. Sherlock must have had his coat cleaned, his mind offers, unbidden. When Sherlock came back it had smelled like cigarette smoke and gasoline. Now it smells like nothing at all.
Sherlock pulls two mugs down from the cupboard. "Tea?" he asks, voice even and matter-of-fact, like nothing out of the ordinary has happened.
John shakes himself. "Yes, please." From where he is seated, he can see out into the hallway, where he had first seen Sherlock on the day of his return. In a flash he remembers pulling away from Sherlock's embrace, releasing his grip on the back of his coat, the oddly intent look on Sherlock's face.
Two days later, Maya runs her fingers across the edge of the adhesive dressing covering the wound on his neck, and John shivers a little at the touch. "Not terribly sexy, I know," he says lightly, although she can't have minded too much, because John is stretched out, naked and sated and feeling benevolent about life, on her bed in the late afternoon.
Maya carefully touches the wound beneath the dressing. "You had stitches."
"Just the two," John answers, absently. He can barely feel it. He grabs her hand, traces his fingers along her naked arm.
"What did you do?"
"I was helping my flatmate with a job down by Westminster Stairs. Cut myself on some fencing." He curls his palms around her shoulder and tugs gently until she lies down next to him.
"Your flatmate," Maya hums. "Is this the same man who kept you up all night working, a week ago?"
"Yes." John smiles. "He holds a very interesting and controversial job."
"Oh, indeed?" But Maya doesn't seem that interested any more. She seems much more focused on running her nails lightly over John's arm and watching the goosebumps that form on his skin. She looks up when John's breath hitches, looking awfully pleased with herself, and then she moves to climb on top of him. Her duvet crinkles as she presses him down against it.
This is the fourth time John visits - always initiated by her by an easy and unspoken agreement. By now, he is beginning to feel acquainted with her bed, the luxurious duvets, the dip in the middle of the mattress that they tend to roll into. He is becoming familiar with her small but airy bedroom with the bed pushed against the corner and the tall, west-facing window spilling light onto them in the afternoon. He's surmised from their sleepy, lazy conversations that Maya amuses herself with collecting a vast mental library of odd and obscure biology facts. She's made him explain niche human biology to her while she listened intently. In return, she has explained the sedimentation principle in relation to blood centrifugation. She seems to make a point of not disliking anything she hasn't tried at least once. A lot of the time her immediate and open-minded reception of the world makes John feel a bit conservative, really, but he likes that about her. He likes her a lot.
He likes to please her, too. By now he knows that she likes him getting her off with his fingers more than with his mouth; he knows that she is delightfully pragmatic when it comes to talking in bed and he knows that she loves being penetrated but that it won't bring her to orgasm. He knows that she loves kissing for long stretches of time, but that she still doesn't want him to sleep over. He can tell that she's sometimes sad about something, but it's also obvious that she doesn't want to talk about it. He is beginning to notice just how often Maya elegantly sidesteps certain lines of conversations.
Last time John had attempted a casual sexual relationship, he was twenty-three and after two months he and Kelly had ended up in an ill-fated, short-lived relationship, anyway. He remembers how difficult he had found all of it back then. It seems to be easier this time around.
"Hey," Maya says, drawing him back into the moment. She places her hands on his shoulders and leans down to kiss him languidly. Somewhere from the beneath the heap of clothes on the floor, John's phone beeps. "Crap," John mumbles against her mouth, "I have to get that." He moves to sit up, and Maya jostles over.
"Sorry, sorry." John rolls off the bed to dig around for the phone on the floor. It's a text from Sherlock: 'North Greenwich Station at seven pm. You'll like this one.'
John frowns. "I have to go." He gets up.
Maya leans back against the bunched-up linen. "Your flatmate?"
John slides his boxers over his hips before looking back at her, and his mouth goes a little dry at the sight. Maya is stretched out over the covers, naked and gorgeous, running a hand from her breastbone to her belly. "Surely he won't be expecting you to be there right on the minute." She smiles crookedly, looking him up and down in obvious appraisal, and despite his worry over Sherlock's text, John can feel a rush of heat at her frank stare. He hesitates for a long moment, then sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm afraid he will," he says reluctantly, dropping the phone back onto the heap of clothes to pick up his undershirt, "he always does." He smiles regretfully.
"Oh." Maya slides out of bed and picks up her pants from the floor. "Shame." She follows him out into the hall, still wearing only her pants. "Come here." She presses up against him, putting her arms around his neck, naked and warm through the fabric of his clothes. "Can you come back tomorrow," she asks, "I have to talk to you about something."
John puts his arms around her. "Okay?" he says hesitantly.
She laughs shortly. "No need to sound like that," she says, but she sounds a little nervous, herself. "Don't worry about it, now. We'll talk tomorrow."
John lets it go. "Okay," he acquiesces. He smoothes his hands down the line of her naked back.
Maya sighs, leaning into the touch. "God, I really wasn't planning on liking you this much," she mumbles into his shoulder, just loud enough for him to hear.
"Oh. Thank you?" John says into her hair, then pulls away and shoots her a crooked smile. "I'm sorry for running off like this. I'll come back. We'll talk tomorrow." He takes a step towards the door, then turns back towards her. "I am seriously peeved with my flatmate right now, by the way." When he closes the door, Maya is laughing and John smiles to himself as he heads down the stairs.
"I need to learn to ignore your bloody texts," John shouts over the din of the train rushing up behind them in the tunnel, but Sherlock – who is two steps behind him - doesn't hear.
In front of them, their shadows on the walls of the tunnel are growing smaller in the train's flickering headlights. They are still several yards from where the narrow tunnel opens up into a platform area. The train conductor must have finally seen them, because the train's horn suddenly sounds, expanding and reverberating, painfully loud in the concrete tunnel. Too close, John thinks, dangerously close. The blare of the horn is followed by the high-pitched whine of the brakes, but it's too late for the train to slow down now.
With another few breathless running steps, John finally makes it out of the closed tunnel and into the abandoned platform area. He throws himself onto the ledge on their right, scrambling frantically as his hands and feet search for purchase. The train lights are moving in quickly in the periphery of his vision. John finally finds an edge in the tiling to grab hold of. He jams one foot into a crack in the concrete and pulls himself up. Next to him, Sherlock runs up and throws himself against the ledge too. The moment John's got all his weight on the platform, he reaches down and with a great bodily heave manages to drag Sherlock over and on top of himself, just as the train breaks out of the tunnel with another deafening blare. The whining brakes are released and John can feel their entire bodies vibrating with the heavy triple-beat rhythm of the train cars rushing past not two feet away from them.
As soon as the train has passed, Sherlock rolls off and away, but it is not soon enough to hide the wild pounding of his heart, palpable even through two layers of coats and shirts.
"Jesus Christ!" John exclaims. His ears are popping. "God." He covers his eyes for a moment, his whole body jittering. He finally uncovers his eyes and lets his head fall to the side. Sherlock is splayed out beside him, arms and legs spread wide, coat and scarf askew. It takes John a moment to really register that they are safe, that they made it entirely unscathed. When their eyes meet they both let out a shaky, hysterical laugh. The arches above them throw back the echoes of their voices.
"Nothing about this is funny," John gasps after a while, trying to sound stern. He turns his head to look up at the vaulted ceiling, still fighting a smile.
"No, you are absolutely right." Sherlock gulps, also trying for severity, and also failing. Then he rolls into John until his body is warm and solid all down John's side. He reaches out and his fingers close around John's wrist, squeezing gently. John looks down, surprised. Their wheezing breaths sound loud in the quiet. Sherlock shifts his grip a little, and holds on.
John keeps still. The firecracker spots dancing in front of his eyes are gradually subsiding. Sherlock is lying close enough that John imagines he can feel heat coming off him. The blood pumping through John's veins seems to be changing course. The subway tile is cold against his back; the sound of the train is disappearing in the distance, and John is a little rattled by the battling sensations: the air rasping through his throat, the firm grasp of Sherlock's long fingers, and the sweet, unanticipated wave of dopamine rolling through his limbs.
Sherlock is still looking up at the ceiling, slowly beginning to breathe more steadily. He swallows, and his smooth jaw shifts, his Adam's apple working. John can feel his own heart beating in his chest, his shoulders and arms and the tips of his fingers. He watches Sherlock's profile; the funny swoop of his top lip, the prominent, but elegant lines of bone in his cheek and chin. John turns his head away again, mind blank. He focuses on breathing deep and steady through his nose. The last few sparks in front of his eyes die out in the darkness above. The low and pleasant physical burn is accompanied by a larger and much more complex emotion.
After a long moment, Sherlock lets go of John's wrist, releasing his grip one finger at a time. John moves closer, involuntarily following Sherlock's hand. "Sherlock."
But Sherlock is pulling away. "Wait a minute," he says slowly.
John shifts to look at him once more. Sherlock's eyes are closed, his brows furrowed in thought. Then his eyes shoot open. "Of course!" he exclaims, snapping his fingers. "Of course he wouldn't plant the bomb along the Jubilee Line! Oh, John how silly we've been."
John groans. But beside him, Sherlock is already rising to stand. "Come on, no time to waste."
John pushes himself up to sit. He stays there for a moment, palms on the cold tile, and watches Sherlock go: his lean form, his jaunty walk. He feels a bit like he was hit by a train after all.
"Come on, John!"
"Yeah... Okay." John pushes himself off the ground, briefly brushing down his jeans before setting after him.
It's another four hours before they arrive back at Baker Street, each carrying a plastic bag filled with surveillance camera discs from the Mile End tube station. Sherlock turns on his computer and immediately starts working again, but by then it's the middle of the night, and John has to beg out to get some sleep.
Sherlock is looking through the surveillance tapes when John comes downstairs again after six hours. John pauses in the middle of the living room to watch him work for a moment. Then he goes to make himself a cup of coffee. When he wanders back into the living room, Sherlock is still staring intently at his computer screen, while his finger taps the forward button in a swift, regular rhythm. His eyes are bloodshot, his hair a little wild. John walks over to stand next to him. Still photos of people flash across the screen of his computer, milliseconds apart, like a stop-motion film. On the table there are four printed pictures in a neat formation, each with a red circle around the face of a slightly pixilated person entering the station.
John runs a hand through his hair, trying to wake up fully. "Can I help?"
"Yes." Sherlock reaches out and hands him disc without moving his focus from the screen. The disc is labeled 'Camera 3, 16:30-17:30'. John goes to sit at the opposite side of the table. He opens his computer and slides the disc into the drive. "What are we looking for?"
"Male, blonde hair, approximately between thirty and forty years old, wearing dress shoes, dark dress pants. Expensive coat, but bad hair."
"Rampant dandruff, cheap product."
"I see." John starts in on the photos. Camera 3 is placed by the escalators going down into the tube station, giving him a nice clear shot of people as they exit the stairs and walk onto the platform. He settles into the chair, sprawling out and curling his toes against the carpet, getting comfortable. He goes through the first hundred pictures before he notices the quiet on the other side of the table and looks up from his screen. Opposite him, Sherlock has stopped working. His gaze is fixed on John, on a point somewhere between his chin and his stomach. He appears to be lost in thought; his eyes are narrowed, his teeth set against his lip.
John can feel the tiny responding hitch in his own breath. Thankfully, Sherlock doesn't seem to notice. John resists the urge to shift his body in the chair. He just pulled on his jeans when he rolled out of bed, and he is wearing yesterday's undershirt. He still hasn't showered since he left Maya's. He glances down his own body. As far as he can tell, he is unmarked. But who knows, maybe Sherlock can tell where Maya scratched her nails over his skin anyway. Maybe Sherlock will be able to tell where he and Maya touched by the way John holds himself, or by the slight rawness he can still feel on his lips. John swallows. He takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. "Data?" he finally asks, looking back up.
Sherlock starts and his eyes snap away. He busies himself with his computer. There's a pale flush creeping up his neck between the two undone buttons of his black shirt. He looks unsettled. "You were at Maya's when I texted you, yesterday," he says after a moment, not answering the question.
"And you are seeing her again." Sherlock returns his gaze to John, waiting for his answer.
"Yes." John feels pinned and splayed beneath his eyes. "This evening."
"Ah." The corners of Sherlock's mouth curl down in dismay. He returns to hitting the forward button on his keyboard. The movement is steady like a metronome, but he is frowning, his whole body tense.
John studies him for a moment, confused, before he does the same. "You're not normally so aware of the women I see," he says after a while, aiming for casual, glancing over the edge of the screen to gauge Sherlock's reaction.
Sherlock's face, painted blue by the light of the screen, shows no reaction. "How do you mean?"
"You know her name, for one," John offers, voice light. And up until this moment Sherlock's been unusually tolerant about Maya, as well, but John doesn't say that.
Sherlock tenses. "Well. It's different," he says. "She's different."
Sherlock shifts in his seat. "The previous ones," he starts, "you invited all of them out approximately five days after agreeing on a reciprocated romantic interest, you called and texted them quite regularly between dates, and you brought all of them back here within the first two or three dates. You began referring to them as your girlfriend after a maximum of four." He taps in a command, then clicks his mouse. Next to him the printer starts whirring. "Yesterday was the fourth time you saw Maya," he notes, "this evening will make it five."
John's a little taken aback by the amount of detail. "Maya doesn't want to be my girlfriend," he finally says.
"And you know that for certain?" Sherlock asks, looking like he is making and effort to keep his face neutral. He picks the photo from the tray, then circles a face, jotting down a few notes next to the person on the picture.
John smiles joylessly. "Oh, she's made it very clear"
Sherlock adjusts the picture to lay aligned with the others. The desk lamp is reflected dully in the photos spread out in front of him. The way Sherlock fiddles with the photo is maybe a nervous gesture, John isn't sure.
"And you," Sherlock asks, "what do you want?"
"I'm not sure," John admits. Sherlock's still not meeting his eyes. He has rolled his sleeves up, and his underarms are pale and slender. His hair is flat, except for a spot right at the top of his head where he must have run a hand through it. It sticks out in a crazy angle. John shakes his head. The picture on his screen shows a couple, holding hands. The man has neatly coiffed brown hair, so John clicks forward to the next. "I like her very much," he says, "I don't know, maybe some day we could take a crack at it."
Sherlock ejects the disc from his computer and grabs for a new one from the stack with an irritable motion. "I don't think that's likely," he says dismissively.
He's angry, John realises. "Why so?" he asks, feeling his own temper rising.
Sherlock looks him over intently, then away. “She's married,” he says curtly. And there it is, John thinks, Sherlock's least attractive personality trait: the way he gloats in ambushing people with his deductions.
"Oh, for Christ’s sake!" John pushes himself up in the chair. "How could you possibly know that?" He is mentally rewinding to what he has told Sherlock about her. But for once, tight-lipped, Sherlock doesn't offer any explanation. John stares at him for a long time, fingers tapping irritably on the armrest. Bloody Sherlock and his bloody brilliant mind. He slams his laptop shut, and gets up on his feet needing to move. "When did you know?" he demands, "why didn't you tell me?" He doesn't try to hide the tremor of anger in his voice. There's no one like Sherlock who can make his blood boil.
"Why should I?" Sherlock says haughtily, "it's none of my business."
"Jesus!" John laughs harshly. "Since when do you bloody care what's your business?" he says, his voice breaking. "You tell me so much crap, Sherlock, on a daily basis, that is none of your business. This," he points accusingly, "this is the kind of thing you should tell me!"
Sherlock closes his laptop with considerably more force than necessary. "You seemed to be carrying out a primarily sexual relationship, anyway, why does it matter so much to you?" he asks sharply.
"What matters right now is that you didn't tell me!"
Sherlock stands and collects the printed photos into a messy pile.
"Wait, where are you going?"
"I think I've got the bomber. I need the police records to be sure, so I'm going to the station," he says shortly, grabbing his coat from the couch. But he hesitates for a moment at the door. "Are you coming?"
John swallows down a crude reply. "Not this time," he finally says.
Sherlock actually looks startled, which at least gives John a mean satisfaction. Then he steps out and shuts the door behind him.
Several hours pass by, and Sherlock doesn't return. John fights the compulsion for almost an hour, and then sighs and types out a text: 'Let me know if you find him. Don't go after him alone.' He hesitates thumb hovering over the button before he presses send. But when a text finally ticks in, it's from Maya: 'Home from work now. Taking a nap. Key under the mat. See you soon xoxo'
"Shit." John takes a few deep, steadying breaths.
When he rings the bell at Maya's there's no answer, so he finds the key under the mat and lets himself in. "Maya?"
"I'm back here," Maya calls the moment he enters. She's in the bedroom, sprawled across the bed, in her bra and panties. "I just woke up," she says, sliding a hand across her eyes. Then she seems to notice his hesitation. "Hey, come here."
John goes over and lies down next to her, fully clothed, on the bedspread.
Maya stretches, then leans in and kisses him lightly, letting out a little pleased sound. "I would never get bored with kissing you," she says, but then immediately yawns widely. "God, sorry," she laughs, "long day at work."
John isn't really hearing what she's saying, though. He's been trying to let what Sherlock told him go, but now that he's here, he can't help thinking about the king size bed with the two, luxurious duvets, the heavy closets along the wall that have never been opened while John's been there. He always assumed that these things were remains from a previous relationship, but they've never talked about it, he realises. They've never really talked much about anything. "You wanted to tell me something," he says, aware of how stiff and awkward he comes off.
Maya's eyes widen. "You're right." She sits up in the bed next to him, and his view of her face is obscured by her shoulder. "I should get some coffee, do you want coffee?"
He reaches out to touch her warm skin, the exquisite softness of her side. "You don't want to be my girlfriend," he states softly.
Maya leans into the touch. "No," she says.
John runs a finger over the little birthmark right under the curve of her ribs. He hesitates. "Are you... someone else's girlfriend?" he asks, trying to keep his voice light.
Maya freezes beneath his fingers. At first she keeps her face averted, but then she turns to look down at him with a small frown, worrying her lip with her teeth.
Sherlock was right, John realises. "God damn it," he exclaims involuntarily.
Maya blinks and moves out of his reach, drawing her legs up against her chest.
"Sorry, sorry." John shakes his head, draws back. He clamps down on a sliver of betrayal, of anger. He pulls himself up to sit against the headboard next to her. Of course Sherlock was right, he thinks, Sherlock is very rarely wrong. "You are someone else's girlfriend," he states as evenly as he can manage.
Maya draws the covers up over her knees. "Actually, I'm someone else's wife," she replies with a hint of defiance.
"Crap," John breathes, then lets his head fall back against the headboard. Maya starts at the loud sound, and John immediately straightens back up. "Sorry. I didn't mean to – sorry."
"No. I was going to tell you," Maya says, seemingly irritated with herself. "I should have told you before, but I didn't think I would – I thought - It's not like you think, though." She looks at his face, rolls her eyes and adds, "no, honestly, it's probably not like you think."
"What is it like, then?" John asks softly.
“Nick, my husband, he knows about us.”
"What," John half laughs, "that's -" he shakes his head, not even sure what he's trying to say.
“Don't,” Maya says with impatience and the kind of instinctive hostility that probably comes from having to explain herself too many times, John imagines. He watches the slight twitch of her hands - a reflexive abortive motion wilfully subdued - and Christ he's turning into Sherlock, now.
"You're together?" he says, trying again. "He lives here?"
"Yes, normally he does. Not right now, though. He's in Pakistan, working on a UN development programme." Maya sighs, and John suddenly realises the source of the sadness she's been trying to hide from him. She wasn't recovering from a bad break-up. She's been missing her husband. John draws a deep breath. It all makes sense. The twin plaids, the postcards on the fridge. Sherlock would have known straight away, he thinks. Somehow, Sherlock guessed it anyway.
Maya shifts beside him. "It's not just because he's away. We both enjoy – We both like having different partners. And we both enjoy the idea of the other having different partners," she continues.
"So you've told him about me?" John asks, incredulous.
"Yes," she says, jutting out her chin a little. "Not in detail, just – we have a three time rule, if I wanted to keep seeing you I had to ask him. So I told him about you. Just a little bit."
John stares at her, feeling a little hopeless. He can't quite justify to himself the stab of unreasonable jealousy, or the hint of humiliation. He thinks about how he showed Sherlock the neat imprint of Maya's teeth on his skin. He's hardly in any position to feel betrayed. There's a long silence and then he settles on: “Good things, I hope?” weakly, a peace offering, and Maya snorts.
John smiles a little wistfully in response. He moves his legs under the covers. "I wish you'd told me."
Maya looks up again, a little uncertain. "I know," she says, "I just didn't think it was going to be like this. I kept thinking... I didn't want you to... I just... I wanted you, I guess." She fidgets with the covers, looking like she thinks she's said too much, and there's a mean little voice at the back of John's head whispering that maybe he could have her, maybe he could take her, all for himself. But then he is reminded of the postcards on the fridge, the silly moustache mug that's probably an inside joke, the soft and wistful expression on Maya's face when she thought John wasn't paying attention. He lies back down, stares at the ceiling.
"Nick comes back in three weeks," Maya finally says.
"And then we're over?" John asks. He had been beginning to hope – to think that maybe. He firmly shuts down that line of thought.
Maya lies back down, and reaches out to tentatively touch him. "We don't have to be," she says.
She's different, Sherlock had said. John grabs the edge of the bed. "I'm sorry I -- I need to think." He slides to sit on the edge, pushes away. "I'm going to – I'll leave."
John lets himself out and walks home in the chilly afternoon.
When he gets home the living room is empty. He sits down in one of the chairs, leans his head back and closes his eyes. From downstairs he can hear the mumble of Mrs. Hudson's TV set. From the bathroom he hears the shower running. After a while the water turns off, and there's the clatter of cupboards being opened and closed, toiletries against the porcelain sink. Finally the door opens, and there's the pad of bare feet as Sherlock walks into the living room. John opens his eyes to see Sherlock in front of him, fresh out of the shower. He startles when he sees John. "Oh, you're back."
Sherlock's hair is wet. His chest looks impossibly narrow framed by the lapels of his unbuttoned shirt. "I thought you'd be gone longer." He starts doing up the buttons over naked skin, fumbling a little. Sherlock never wears an undershirt; he mocks John because he does. "I take it it didn't go well?"
John shrugs noncommittantly. He is not quite through being angry.
Sherlock shoots him an inquiring look, but doesn't pursue the subject. "I was about to text you," he says. "We found the bomber. I didn't go after him alone. Lestrade sent a squad out to apprehend him, I'm going back to the station to identify him now."
"Good," John says. Sherlock looks him over again, and John wonders what he is looking for. He stays stubbornly still, unwilling to clue Sherlock in.
Finally, Sherlock cocks his head. "Are you all right?" he tries.
"Fine," John lies, taking some small, childish delight in Sherlock's obvious confusion.
"Did you -" Sherlock stops, and John can see the wheels of his mind turning. He pauses, brows furrowed. "Are you angry?" he finally asks.
"With you? Or with her?" John asks snidely.
Sherlock lets it go.
John is aware that he is exacting some form of petty revenge - he knows that Sherlock seems to think that he's entitled to any information that John possesses and hates being denied. He watches the line of Sherlock's fingers against the white fabric of his shirt, as he finishes buttoning his shirt, then tucks it into his trousers. He is pale and sharp, narrow-hipped. There is a certain elegance to the preciseness of his movements.
He wonders if Sherlock knows more about Maya than Nick does about John, just from being around John – just from observing him.
"I'm sorry," Sherlock finally tries, not very convincingly. Then - realising that he won't get an answer - he turns away to go to his room. John mutely rests his chin on his hand, and watches the soft undersides of Sherlock's feet as he walks away.
He calls Maya later in the evening. She picks up after the first ring. "Hey," she says, sounding a little wary.
"Hey," John echoes. A pause. "Look, I just wanted to say that I don't want to be a prick about this, and I'm not angry." He looks up at the ceiling. "Well, not that angry," he amends.
Maya's exhale is a soft crackling noise in his ear. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before," she says. "It was getting a little muddled. I guess I like you more than I meant to."
"I like you too," John says, fumbling.
"Thank you." He thinks he can hear Maya smile at the other end of the line, but her voice still sounds a little uncertain. "I meant what I said. I don't want us to be over."
"Okay." John hesitates, looking down at his own feet. "I don't know what that means."
"I've been talking with Nick. He thinks he'd be okay with us seeing each other once in a while, but he'd like to meet you first."
"Oh." John's a little surprised. "Is this - you've done this before?"
"Well, we dated this guy a couple of years ago, but that was different."
Maya hesitates. "Because you're straight."
"Oh," John repeats dumbly. "Right." He shakes his head, trying to wrap his head around this new information. He's probably a conservative old fart, but all of this is a little hard for him to follow. "So... How do you--" he starts, "don't you get jealous?"
"Sometimes. Not that often, though," Maya says. "John, do you think--" she stops. "Will you think about it."
John thinks about the warm squares of sunlight on Maya's bed in the afternoon, her soft skin and easy smile. "Yeah," he says, "I will."
The next day he goes to the pub with Mike and a couple of other old uni friends to watch England play the All Blacks. Afterwards he walks home along George Street instead of taking a taxi, and he thinks about it, like he promised her. The street is mostly deserted. There's a light cool drizzle, which feels good against his hot face. He's a little drunk. The lights are off in most of the flats that he passes. His mind drifts and he finds himself thinking about Rhonda, who had known all his uni mates, who used to go to the pub with them sometimes and roll her eyes at them and smile. He and Rhonda had been together for six years, and there had been a time, in the middle of it where John had been convinced that this was it for him, when his mother's hints about marriage had been awkward but logical enough.
When he reaches Baker Street, he's happy to see that the lights are still on in their living room. He fumbles out of his jacket in the hallway, still a little drunk despite the fresh air. Sherlock is sitting in the chair by the fireplace, reading. From the corner of the desk chair hangs a dirty old cap under his magnifying lens lamp.
"New case?" John asks, indicating at the hat. He's pleasantly buzzed and his team won, and he's always been crap at staying angry with Sherlock for long.
"It's turning out to be a neat little mystery, at least," Sherlock says, obviously pleased that John is talking to him again. "Lieutenant Peterson brought it over, along with a five pound unplucked goose."
John snorts. "You're joking."
Sherlock shrugs, obviously trying to suppress the smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. He turns a page in his book. "Check the fridge."
John doesn't. He stands, swaying slightly on his feet, with a stupid grin on his face. "Mrs. Hudson is going to murder you."
"That is highly unlikely," Sherlock says mildly, turning a page. "She will probably yell at me, though." He looks up at John with a small smile. "You're drunk."
"No, not really," John protests, although he should know better than to try to lie. He walks across the room and lets himself fall back onto the sofa. Sherlock looks exhausted. "You're not sleeping tonight, then?" John asks, squirming against the pillows to get comfortable.
"I'm waiting for that." Sherlock nods over at the kitchen table where a piece of cloth hangs suspended from pliers, with what John recognises as one of Mrs. Hudson's favourite plates placed underneath it. John studies at it for a moment, but nothing seems to be happening. He nods, he knows better than to ask.
John stretches until his jeans ride up on his shin and his shirt slips up against the small of his back. He catches Sherlock frowning at his socks and wriggles his toes a little. Sherlock hates his striped old man socks, and so John always delights in flashing them. Sherlock returns to his book. John relaxes into the soft pillows on the couch. Comfortable, he closes his eyes and listens to the hushed sound of Sherlock turning the pages. After a while he opens his eyes again. "You were right, you know," he says, despite himself.
"What?" Sherlock mumbles distractedly, still focused on his book.
John swallows. "You were right about Maya being married."
"Ah." Sherlock looks up, closing his book around his index finger. At least he has the modicum of decency to not rub it in. "I'm sorry," he reiterates, sounding a little more sincere this time.
"Yeah," John says, then rolls his shoulders. "All of this used to be easier," he admits, after a moment, "you know, before Afghanistan." He pushes himself further up on the couch. "Dating, that is. Meeting people... Do you know I've been dumped by four girlfriends since I came back?"
"I know," Sherlock confirms, voice low.
Johns sighs deeply. "My mates used to laugh at me for being boring and settled." He's maybe more drunk than he thought he was, and suddenly feeling a little maudlin. "Oh, it's bollocks. It's bloody confusing."
"Yes," Sherlock says reluctantly, his attention back on his book, "that is my experience also."
That makes John straighten up in the sofa. "Oh?" he says, a little louder than he meant to.
Sherlock's head snaps up. "What?"
"Just, I thought you didn't – that you weren't interested in people that way," John says lamely, making himself slouch back into a more relaxed position.
"Attraction is a nearly unavoidable human phenomena," Sherlock says, sounding a little irritated, now, "of course I've experienced it."
John is suddenly wide awake. To be honest, it's a shock - and at the same time it's completely bloody absurd that it should be. He turns his body on the sofa to look at Sherlock more closely. "When"? With whom, he wants to ask, but then thinks Irene Adler with sickening clarity, and keeps his mouth shut.
"A couple of times." Sherlock waves a hand dismissively. "It's highly impractical."
"It can be quite nice, too, you know." John offers, not quite believing this conversation. "Love, I mean," he adds after a moment, feeling foolish, "intimacy. Sex." He's not too drunk to wonder what he thinks he's playing at.
"Ah," Sherlock says, and he seems to be under the illusion that absolute stillness doesn't betray any emotions, but of course it does - just what John isn't sure.
"But you don't like those kinds of things?" he presses.
"No." Sherlock's hands are carefully wrapped around the book, unmoving.
Sherlock meets John's eyes. "I've always thought love to be a dangerous disadvantage." Each word is sharp and precise. John's about to laugh, because that's preposterous, but then he catches Sherlock's tight, almost accusatory expression and schools himself. "It unbalances my mind," Sherlock adds sharply. "I find it abhorrent."
John presses his stockinged feet down into the pillows. He feels hollow, all of a sudden. "You don't mean that," he objects quietly.
"I do. If I told you any different I would be placing myself in a false position." Sherlock pushes himself out of the chair. "Look, I appreciate that it's important to most people, I mean, it's not unimportant to me, either. But I've always been able to divorce myself from those kinds of feelings."
"Wait, but why," John protests, floundering, "did something happen, did someone hurt you?"
"No," Sherlock spits with a flare of real contempt, "what a predictable and yet marvelously obnoxious presumption." He places the book on a shelf with an irritated motion. "No, I haven't been hurt or abused, I haven't had my young heart broken beyond repair, or any of that nonsense. But regardless of any of that, it's not a subject I am interested in discussing."
"Okay." John retreats. He doesn't know why he pressed the matter in the first place. It's just this stupid thought that's been haunting him. This imagined thing. He almost wants to ask Sherlock about it, but he can't formulate the thought, his drunk, fuzzy brain grasping around for the right words: do you think - do you remember, that day you returned, in the hallway, did we - when in the kitchen the cloth suddenly catches fire with a violent blue whoosh.
"Bloody hell, Sherlock!" John shouts, pushing himself up in the sofa by reflex.
"Aha!" Sherlock exclaims, obviously delighted, and rushes over to examine the ashes smouldering on Mrs. Hudson's best china, giving off a darkly purple poisonous-looking smoke. It only takes two seconds for the fire alarm to go off. John gapes for a full minute, and then, helpless, he begins to laugh.
It turns out there is a bloody goose in their fridge, and it comes with a new case that swallows the next couple of days. They fall into old habits. This was always the easy part, and John is happy to have something to do. He texts Maya: 'Busy, but thinking stuff over. You all right?
The response ticks in almost immediately. 'I'm good. Your flatmate putting you to work again?'
John smiles down at his phone, relieved. 'I'm afraid so,,' he taps out.
"John," Sherlock calls, "come on, we need to do this quickly, before they move the remaining poultry." John rolls his eyes, then pockets his phone and follows Sherlock down the alley.
They find the rightful owner of the red gemstone hidden within the goose on the second day, and Sherlock has figured out the identity of the culprit by six pm on the third. But it's another long hard twenty-four hours before they can finally hand him over to the police and return to Baker Street. Sherlock is quiet all the way back in the cab. The frantic adrenaline-fueled twitchiness had drained out of him as soon as they handed over Mr. Compton to the police. John watches him out of the corner of his eye, taking in the dark shadows beneath his eyes, the grey tone of his skin.
They lock themselves into the lobby in the dark. Uncharacteristically, Sherlock stops half way up the stairs and leans heavily against the wall. Behind him, John pauses, too, each of his feet on different steps of the stairs. He takes in Sherlock's slumped shoulders, and realises that he can't remember the last time he saw Sherlock sleep. He hasn't seen him in a supine position since... Since they finished the jewelry case, he realises. Sherlock sways lightly, and John quickly steps up and puts a steady hand on his back, pushing him gently. "Come on," he murmurs, "up we go." He steers Sherlock up the stairs and through the hallway, but lets go when they reach Sherlock's door.
Once John releases his grip on his arms, Sherlock blinks slowly as if coming awake. "Ah." His shoulders are drooping, his hands hang limp and open by his sides. His hair is lying flat against his skull.
John doesn't reach out to touch him again. Instead he takes a step back and shakes his head. "When did you last sleep?"
Sherlock blinks. "I don't remember." He whirs his head, then straightens up and leans in, grabs John's shoulder. "Look, I truly am sorry about Maya," he says, voice low and seemingly sincere.
John sighs. "No, you're not." And even if he was, they're not having this discussion now. John reaches over and pushes down the door handle to Sherlock's room, lets the door swing open. "Go get some sleep, Sherlock," he says and finds his words coming out sounding gentle.
"John -" Sherlock begins, then stops. His hand is still wrapped around John's shoulder. His grip is soft, but his palm is hot through John's cotton shirt. John looks up at his face to find Sherlock staring at him with glassy eyes, pupils wide in the darkness. Their faces are very close, but Sherlock only holds John's gaze for a moment before looking away.
John stays standing still. His pulse is beating hard in his hands, his chest and stomach. For a moment he almost thought that Sherlock – But it can't be. Sherlock finds it abhorrent. "Go to bed," he repeats quietly.
"Yes." Sherlock blinks once, twice. "Yes." He lets go of John's shoulder and turns towards his door.
John doesn't follow Sherlock into his bedroom to make sure that he actually takes off his shoes and coat before lying down, even though he has done so before. He stays just outside the room for a long moment, though, listening as Sherlock shuffles off his shoes, hangs his coat on the nail on the other side of the closed door.
Eventually, he shakes it off and goes to the kitchen to get himself a drink of water. He takes a few gulps, then wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. Some things have been slowly changing since Sherlock came back. There are many things which John knows about Sherlock that he has never really formulated to himself before. He knows the smell of his shampoo, for example, and he knows what Sherlock smells like beneath it. He knows that he likes the smell of Sherlock right after a case best, when the faintly unhealthy scent of not enough sleep or food and too much coffee is replaced with soap and curry and maybe even wine. He knows he likes Sherlock sleepy and sated and lounging leisurely on the couch, playing Schubert just to please John. He knows his long, slender body well enough to recognise it out of the corner of his eye, well enough to know the sound of his tread on a staircase, or the rhythm of his breathing in a darkened room. He has looked at him enough to have noticed the tiny moles on his neck that seems to be the only blemish on his body.
John stares out of the kitchen window. The back alley is dark save for the shaft of light from the window.
When John came back from the war, he'd felt terribly alone. He had stayed with Harry for as long as he could before they both went nuts (two weeks exactly), and then he had moved to the military's veteran lodgings. After a month, he had looked up Rhonda, who still lived in the same area, and was still friendly with John's mates from college. They had one cup of coffee together, and they exchanged phone numbers, but neither of them ever called. Back then, John had had a lot pain and a lot of anger to go with it; grotesque nightmares that woke him up gasping every night. He'd been angry and impatient, and struggled to connect with his friends and family.
It had been different when he met Sherlock. Within twenty-four hours of meeting him, John knew for certain that he didn't need to worry that Sherlock would ever fear or pity him. The work was immediately interesting. The personal rapport, the friendship, came later. He moved in with Sherlock because it was cheap. He works with him because it's exhilarating. All this time he's been bothered by people making assumptions about their relationship. Not so much because he was bothered by the label, but because it wasn't true. And it still isn't.
John shifts his weight on his feet. Sherlock is... very dear to him. A very dear friend. And while he was gone – John puts the glass by the side of the sink. No reason to think about that now. He shakes his head to himself. This is ridiculous. He doesn't even know where this line of thought came from in the first place. Sherlock finds it abhorrent and John - he's not. He never. There were never any tentative make-out sessions with mates in his childhood to practice for girls. There were never any drunken experiments with college friends. He dated Amanda Phillips from the second year of college until his first year at uni, and when they broke up, he had two years of hopeful dates and short-lived relationships before he met Rhonda whom he stayed with right up until he left for Afghanistan.
Whatever happened on the day Sherlock returned, in the hallway, whatever John thinks he remembers; the image of Sherlock's face, the sensation of his breath against John's face... He must have imagined it, because it doesn't make any sense. He picks up the glass again, rinses it out and places it on the rag next to the sink. Then he turns away, switches the lights off in the kitchen and walks over the soft carpet in the lobby, climbs the stairs to his bed.
They have to return to the station the next morning to give their statements. Sherlock is bleary and grumpy, and still looks rather worse for wear even after nine hours of sleep. John didn't sleep well and feels much the same.
Lestrade, on the other hand, is in unusual high spirits. "Welcome back, gentlemen," he says cheerily, clapping his hands together when he sees them. The office is already bustling with people, phones ringing shrilly. "The Countess was very happy to hear that we found the thief. All I need for you to do is step right through there and give your respective statements, and you're free to go."
"You're very chipper," John notes. Lestrade did not spend last night in a dirty, noisy goose coop, and while this whole affair is going to make a fantastic blog entry later on, John is not at his most benevolent at the moment.
Lestrade just smiles. "I'm doing all right, yeah."
"Of course he's happy," Sherlock grouches off-handedly on his way out of the room, "his wife finally broke it off with that PE teacher."
Lestrade's smile falls. "Bastard."
Sherlock is already gone, but John runs a hand through his hair, then offers Lestrade a weak smile. "Quite so." He hesitates, then moves closer to Lestrade. "Look. While you've known him, has he ever mentioned being involved with someone?"
Lestrade rubs his temples. "No."
"Never? He's never talked about a girlfriend, boyfriend?"
Lestrade snorts. "If you'd known him before, you would understand why..." then he stops himself and cocks his head, as if he's just now hearing what John said. John tries not to blink beneath his frank stare. "Lets just say, he used to lead a very unhealthy lifestyle," Lestrade says finally. He runs a careful hand over the back of his head. "To be honest, I think he was lucky to meet you when he did."
"Ah." John squares his shoulders, clears his throat, unsettled by the expression on Lestrade's face. He turns to leave, but changes his mind. "You do know," he mutters a little uneasy, "I did explain to you that Sherlock and I aren't involved in that way."
Lestrade shrugs. "Are you sure about that?" he asks tiredly.
John's about to protest, like he always does, but Lestrade is already turning away, not expecting an answer. John draws a deep breath, and lets it out in a rush. He turns around and goes in to give his statement.
The thing is, John thinks - as he and Sherlock ride back to the flat – the thing is that this works. Him and Sherlock, sharing a flat and working together. It seems to be working for the both of them, and right now, John likes his life as it is, God help him.
Sherlock is trying to explain something about minerals found on British soil to him. John nods and agrees in the right places, only half listening to the deep drone of his voice. He leans against the car window. Buses and cabs pass by them on their way down Oxford Street. Those things John thought he needed, the things he feels that are missing, he doesn't know how to fit them into this life he's leading. It's beginning to get dark. Sherlock's hands are gesturing gracefully in the periphery of his vision. John idly fumbles with his phone in his coat pocket. He should contact Maya soon, he owes her an answer.
Mrs. Hudson greets them in the lobby when they come home, and follows them up into their flat to make them tea. She fusses over them, serves them some of her own biscuits, since they're all out again. Sherlock has always tried to hide it, but by now it's obvious to John how he revels in her attention - and how she treasures the way he turns into her regard. As Mrs. Hudson gets their tea, Sherlock gets out of his jacket and rolls up his sleeves, getting comfortable, and John sighs at the collection of new and old nicotine patches on his arm.
In the evening, John fries up a bag of frozen vegetables along with half a leftover box of rime-covered falafel, and leaves half of it in the pan in case Sherlock wants to eat. He drinks a beer. They take turns with the shower. They both retire early.
John lies awake for a while. He hasn't called Maya yet. For some reason, his thoughts keep getting stuck on Rhonda Taylor. He keeps wanting to tell the story different to himself – the way he had preferred to remember their relationship in Afghanistan. But the truth of it is the thought of settling down, of this being it, had been crushing him already before he went away. Their parents had been hinting at marriage and grandchildren, and he and Rhonda had been looking at each other with what seemed like equal amounts of trepidation. John had gotten the feeling, back then, that they were both just waiting for something to feel right. He turns over in his bed, slowly, careful of his stiff leg. The truth was, stepping onto the flight that would take him to Afghanistan, into the big unknown, had felt amazing, like a liberation - like every time Sherlock drags him into a new case.
By one o'clock on the following day, John is done thinking. He texts Maya. 'We should talk. Do you want to come over to mine this afternoon? 221b Baker Street.'
'I'll come by after work,' Maya responds a few minutes later.
"Great," John says out loud in the quiet. "Good."
John tidies a little, but in the face of Sherlock's meticulously organised mess, there is only so much he can do. Sherlock himself is out at Bart's investigating a rare and interesting Gallium poisoning that Molly is most likely bending rules to allow him to get a look at, and John doesn't expect him back before Molly kicks him out, sometime after ten, when the laboratories close. John wouldn't mind it if some time passed before he had to introduce Sherlock and Maya to one another.
It's four o'clock when the door bell rings. "I've got it!" John shouts at the top of the stairs, hurrying down to open the door before Mrs. Hudson gets a chance to come out of her apartment.
Maya's wearing a red raincoat. Her hair is a little wet. She brings the fresh smell of rain and cold air with her when she steps inside. "Hi." She smiles a little, but doesn't lean in to touch him.
"Hi." Pretty, John thinks dumbly, she's so pretty. He leans in, then pauses, checking wordlessly for her assent before closing the distance to kiss her, one hand hovering over her damp hair. "Come on up." He leads her up the stairs and into the kitchen, where he puts on the kettle and gets out two clean mugs from the cupboard.
Maya is quiet, taking in the apartment. She runs her fingers over the counter-top, before walking over to investigate Sherlock's distillation apparatus which has once again taken residence on the kitchen table. "This is cosy," she finally says. John turns away from his preparations to shoot her a disbelieving look, and she laughs at his expression "No, I really like it," she insists.
"Ah." John relaxes a little.
She leans down to further examine the closed-circuit chemistry set-up, which appears to contain some sort of bacterial culture at the moment. "What does he do, your flatmate?"
"It's hard to explain." John turns back to the kitchen counter and busies himself with preparing the tray. He puts two cups on a tray, finds the tea bags and the milk and sugar. When he turns back around Maya is engrossed in another of Sherlock's bacterial cultures. John watches her profile for a moment as she studies the Petri dish intently, unselfconsciously reaching up to sweep a lock of hair behind her ear. His mouth goes dry. "Do you still want to -" he blurts out, unthinking, then freezes, holding the tray out in front of him like a fool.
Maya looks up at him. She places the Petri dish gently back on the table. "Yes," she answers without preamble. They stare at each other for a long moment, and then the corner of Maya's mouth quirks upwards.
"Here," John says finally, stepping forward, "lets sit down."
In the living room, Sherlock has been unpacking and reorganising his library. John and Maya carefully step around the precariously balanced stacks of books, and take a seat on the couch. John takes a moment to pour the tea, puts in two sugars and milk on Maya's direction. Finally, he sits back against the cushions with his own mug. "So," he starts, tapping out a nervous rhythm on his knee, "I've been thinking, and I... really like you." He grimaces, annoyed with himself. This is worse than the first year of college and Amanda Phillips, he thinks. "And truth be told, I don't think I'm looking for a traditional relationship right now either. I'm involved in something else that I don't know how to let go. But."
"But?" Maya echoes, wary.
John gestures, helpless. "I don't know how to this."
"Oh." Maya's shoulders lose some of their tension. "I don't think there's one way to go about this." She shrugs, fiddling idly with the label of the teabag. "I mean, it's not always easy, making this kind of thing work – but then, what is?"
Her face and the curve of her neck is half hidden by the dark fan of her hair. John can see the minute movement of her carotid arteries shifting with each heart beat in the hollow above her clavicle. He swallows. "I'm just. I want to... be with you," he flounders, "but how do we..."
"Not fall madly in love? Maya suggests, cocking her head. "Keep it casual?" she goes on with a tentative, crooked smile "Not ruin what we already have?"
"Yeah, something like that," John says lightly.
"We won't," Maya finally looks up, searching John's face. "Or... what I mean is," she amends slowly, "I really don't think we are going to ruin anything."
"I'm fairly certain."
"Because I'm madly in love with my husband." she glances down at her hands with a smile that is laced with something sweet and private, not intended for John at all. She looks back up. "And you have your flatmate," she adds tentatively and there's a question in there, although it's mostly in her eyes, her soft and brown and pretty fantastic eyes.
It takes a moment for the words to sink in. "Christ." They don't actually know that much about each other, but apparently even she thinks - John leans his head in his hands, somewhat overwhelmed by the whole situation.
He hears the soft click as Maya puts her mug on the table, and then she peels one of his hands away from his face, turns his hand palm up and kisses it lightly. "Hey. I didn't mean to."
Embarrassed, John turns his head to give her a weak smile. "Sorry," he says. "We're not. I mean, we're just friends." He sighs. "It's... still complicated, though," he admits after a moment.
"Hey," Maya whispers softly, "you don't have to explain yourself to me." And then she leans in closer, seeking out his mouth to kiss him lightly, then with more determination when he reciprocates. She leans her weight against him, and John kisses her back gratefully, lets himself fall back and lets her climb into his lap.
Sherlock comes home well after twelve, shutting the door noisily after himself, careless and loud - stamping across the floors, then opening and closing cupboards in the kitchen.
Upstairs, John stretches against his sheets. He went to bed half an hour ago, but he is still awake. He let his door stay slightly open on purpose, and now he listens to the sounds of Sherlock in the kitchen: the soft whoosh of the fridge door being opened, the clink of plate and cutlery, and then the microwave being turned on. John turns onto his side, relaxing - satisfied that Sherlock is back, happy that he is eating. His eyes are sliding closed when the flurry of activity suddenly stops, making John wake up a little again. In the sudden quiet, the microwave pings, but John doesn't hear it being opened. He listens to cars driving by outside on Baker Street above the silence, wondering what brought Sherlock to a halt, when he suddenly remembers: he left the two mugs sitting in the sink when he and Maya retreated upstairs. There's going to be a slight imprint of gloss on Maya's. Sherlock will know that she was here, Sherlock will know that -
Downstairs, Sherlock walks into the living room, the one creaky floorboard by the fireplace groaning. Then silence. There is probably an indent in their leather couch where John sat with Maya astride him, earlier, sharing deep hypnotic kisses - both of them dragging out the pleasure by unspoken agreement, staying there forever with just the slow rhythmic slide of his erection against the heat of her through the fabric of their trousers.
John turns over onto his stomach. He can still smell Maya in his bed although she left hours ago. Downstairs, he imagines he can hear Sherlock breathing. Unguarded, something in him twists, a slow, perverted thrill. He flops onto his back, keeping his eyes closed, trying very hard not think about anything. His muscles are sore from their last couple of cases, his skin is still a little tender from Maya's teeth, but he can't help running his fingers over his chest, down to the waistline of his boxers. He shivers a little beneath his own touch. There's a heavy, interested feeling in his gut - from the memory of him and Maya on the couch, in his bed – and from the thought of Sherlock downstairs, drawing his conclusions.
Bugger it all, John thinks - despite his attempts not to – bugger this all to hell.
He twists and turns for a long time. He's not able to fall sleep until he hears Sherlock turn off the lights downstairs, hears the soft click of his door being closed.
When John comes downstairs the next morning, Sherlock is seated in the kitchen with his back to the door. His hair is now long enough that it is beginning to curl against the nape of his neck. John stops in the hallway for a moment. He shakes his hands loose, tells himself to stop being a tit and strides purposefully into the kitchen. "Morning."
Sherlock looks up briefly, "Good morning," then returns to typing on his phone. His shoulders seem to tense up, almost imperceptibly.
The two mugs have been washed and are drying along with a few plates and glasses next to the sink. Sherlock has done the dishes. John pulls down a box of cereal, gets the jug of milk from the fridge. Sherlock doesn't do the dishes unless John yells at him, and John now can't stop thinking about Sherlock knowing, can't help that his skin prickles at Sherlock's unnatural silence. "You all right?" he asks, finally, after a long silence.
Sherlock is still staring at his phone. "Hmm? Yes. I have a new case. Possible murder suspect. I've got the homeless network looking."
"Oh, that's good." John sits down opposite Sherlock and opens the box of Weetabix.
He's about to ask about the case when Sherlock places his phone on the table and fixes him with an intent look. "You had Maya over." The disdainful tone, the attempt at disinterest and the barely hidden jealousy is nothing new, but the hint of apprehension is.
John deliberately keeps his hands moving. "Yes." He pours the cereal. "You seem surprised."
"A flawed deduction. I didn't think you were going to see her again." Sherlock's tone betrays his casual words; he sounds shaken.
John stills. "Does it bother you?"
Sherlock shrugs, turns his face away. "No."
That's a lie: it obviously does. John watches Sherlock's fingers trailing idle patterns over the screen of his phone. He lifts his gaze to see Sherlock studying him again, eyes scanning over him intently. Sherlock wants to know more, John realises with a lurching feeling, taking in his soft and hungry expression, his unhappy smirk. "It does bother you," he states softly.
Sherlock makes an abortive motion. "I don't see why it should. You are entitled to bring home whomever you please. We share the flat."
That is such a bunch of bollocks, John thinks. He looks down into his bowl of dry cereal. Sod this. "But you and me, we're not just flatmates, are we, though?" he asks, quietly determined, then looks back up. Sherlock's still not meeting his eyes. "I mean, Mike has a flatmate," John continues doggedly, "they take turns cleaning and watch footie together, and sometimes they share a Chicken Tikka after a night out. What we do, that's not a flatshare.”
Sherlock doesn't protest, so John stands up and walks around the table. He's aware that his heart is pounding like he is about to do something stupid or reckless; adrenaline is crawling up under his skin like his whole system is gearing up for a challenge.
"John," Sherlock finally says, uncertain.
"Not flatmates," John repeats quietly, then reaches out and closes the distance between them. Sherlock's hair is soft beneath his fingers. It should be with those bloody expensive shampoos he keeps in the bathroom, John's mind babbles - he got a shock when he first saw the price on one of the bottles. Sherlock is staring stubbornly at the tabletop, but his body sways imperceptibly towards John's touch. Encouraged, John runs two fingers tentatively up the nape of Sherlock's neck, and hears Sherlock's breath hitch. He hasn't a bloody clue what he is doing. He lets his fingers tangle in the soft curls on the crown of Sherlock's head. If he's honest with himself, this is not the first time since Sherlock's return that he has been struck by the urge to stroke through Sherlock's growing hair - but it is the first time he lets himself act on it.
Sherlock keeps completely still beneath his hand and John can't see his face, can't read him. "John," he says, finally, and then he moves away from John's fingertips. His chair scrapes lightly over the floor as he moves further away. "I consider you a good friend," he says feebly, his head bent. "You know I hold you in the highest regard." His voice is croaking, his tone oddly formal and too honest.
John flushes cold. "Right," he says dumbly. He lets his hand drop, already retreating. He still can't see the expression on Sherlock's face, but he knows a brush-off when he hears one. "Okay."
"I really need to get cracking on this case," Sherlock grabs his phone, "time is of the essence." He gets up and leaves the room without looking back.
John stays where he is, hands in fists by his sides. It was a stupid idea. He is not the master detective, and it would seem that his deductions were wrong. After a while he sits back down. He uncaps the milk, pours it over his cereal. He eats slowly, methodically, listening for Sherlock in the other room. He tidies up after himself, puts away the dry stuff on the rack, washes his bowl and spoon, then grabs the tea towel. Sherlock's phone rings, the sound muted and weak through the walls. John can hear him having a long conversation, but he can't make out the words. When Sherlock finally steps out into the living room again, he is dressed to go out. He walks toward the door without sparing John a glance.
"Wait," John protests, following him into the hall, tea towel still in hand. "Where are you going?"
"I got a lead on a possible suspect. I'm going to see if I can find him."
"Wait a minute," John protests, throwing the tea towel on the dresser, "you're not going after a murder suspect on your own."
Sherlock folds his scarf and ties it around his neck with brisk motions. "In this case it will work much better if I go in alone." His voice is even and detached.
John freezes. "No," he decides after a moment, reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "No. It won't be safe." He turns on his heel to go looking for the sweater he knows he left on one of the chairs by the dining table.
"John," Sherlock calls from the hall. When John doesn't answer he comes back into the living room. "Look, I have noticed that you've endeavoured to stay by my side whenever we're on a case ever since I came back, but really, it is unnecessary." The expression on Sherlock's face is infuriatingly calm and far too close to condescending. "I have been habitually throwing myself in harm's way for more than a decade. Long before I knew you."
John's jaw tightens, but he is not even going to deign that with an answer. He finds his sweater under a pile of papers and pulls it over his head.
"I used to do this all the time, you didn't mind so much before," Sherlock continues, reasonably, and John just wants him to shut the hell up. He takes a deep, steadying breath, trying to control his anger.
"Don't do that," he says tightly. He pulls the sweater down, adjusts the sleeves.
"Do what?" Sherlock asks, one eyebrow raised, but John knows damn well that he isn't that oblivious.
Don't condescend to me, John thinks, don't close yourself off like this. Don't be cruel. "Don't pretend like you don't know what you're doing. You're a bloody human being like the rest of us."
Sherlock pulls on his gloves with curt precision. "Not like the rest of you."
"Oh, that's just -" John throws up his hands, then turns away, needing not to look at Sherlock. Bloody hell. He grabs the back of the closest chair, focuses on breathing. His knuckles are white against the mahogany chair.
"Oh, by the way, can I borrow your revolver?" Sherlock asks casually behind him, seemingly unaffected by John's anger. "Just in case."
"Damn you!" John shouts, abruptly releasing his grip on the chair and swirling around to face Sherlock again, out of control for a dangerous second. Sherlock blinks hard, but he doesn't flinch, and he doesn't lower the hand he is holding out expectantly. John stares. "For Christ's sake, Sherlock! Do you not--" he starts, voice trembling with barely controlled anger.
Sherlock does not respond. He stays standing, hand out, guarded and defiant.
John stops himself. It's no use. Sherlock's going. There's no stopping him. "Okay, fine," John says, fighting to reign himself in, "fine!" He walks over and pulls out the drawer. He yanks out the gun, but wills himself to calm down enough to carefully check the safety and fill the chamber with steady fingers. Six bullets, one by one. "Here," he hands it over hilt first, refusing to look Sherlock in the eye. "Don't let Lestrade catch you with that."
John barks out a harsh laugh, incredulous.
Sherlock begins to turn away, then stops. "John, this isn't about... It will truly be safer if I go in alone -"
"Shut up, Sherlock!" John says sharply. "Just. Shut up." He lets himself fall down in the sofa. His left hand is cramping up, shaking lightly. He clenches and unclenches it surreptitiously in his lap, trying to ease the ache. He keeps his eyes determinately on the blank TV screen, unseeing, until he hears the door slam.
Upon entering the military, John had possessed excellent people skills. His preliminary psych evaluation had described him as sociable and empathetic. But his time in Afghanistan had changed that. At the beginning of his stationing, he could still turn it on and off as he needed to, but joking around with a person one day, and wrenching dirty pieces of shrapnel out of their femoral bone the next had forced him to learn how to maintain a certain distance. It wasn't until he had to return to civilian life that it had become a problem. It was one of the things he talked with his therapist about when he came back to London: how hard he found it to reconnect with the people around him, how he seemed to always keep himself separate.
Only, John realises now – exhausted and angry - it seems that, when it comes to Sherlock, he doesn't know how to keep himself separate at all.
John gets up off the couch after a while. He reads. He eats. He exchanges a few texts with Lestrade (who knows nothing), Mike, Maya. He looks through the job ads in the papers. He turns on his laptop and checks his blog, his email, his Facebook page. When the restlessness gets to be too much, he goes to the market and does the shopping, flinching with irritation at every shrill announcement from the speakers, every person pushing into him in the queue.
Sherlock still isn't back when he returns to the apartment. John goes to bed early and shifts restlessly in the darkness of his room. The months of absolute inertia that he had experienced during Sherlock's absence has been replaced by chasing down suspects, brushes with real danger, sleepless nights, fighting, sex. Aches and bruises are beginning to let themselves be felt, and John's alone with his thoughts in the dark.
He closes his eyes.
The thought hadn't hit him until three days after Sherlock had been declared dead. John can hardly remember those first two days, but he remembers the third - the moment where that specific memory had hit him: how he had run to reach Sherlock, how he'd been held back, but had fought his way through the crowd to grab a cold hand. No pulse. Of course there had been no pulse, but. The hand had been cold. John had gone a little mad with that thought on the third day: Surely - even if Sherlock had been standing outside at the top of a building in the brisk wind - surely those fine merino wool sleeves would have kept him moderately warm? Surely jumping from that building would have made his blood race with fear, made his heart pump hot blood into his capillaries? No pulse - of course – John had reasoned desperately, but if that had really been Sherlock's body, then his wrist shouldn't have been cool to the touch, barely above refrigerator cold. Surely.
That thought - and the mad, persevering hope that had accompanied it - had kept him afloat for more than a month, even though evidence had piled up against it. He hadn't shared it with anybody, he hadn't even articulated it to himself. He had persuaded Molly to hand over the coronary report ("John, don't do this," she had said, and now he believes he knows the true reason for her reluctance), but he hadn't believed the pictures or her carefully written descriptions. He'd let Lestrade and his people into his home, to comb through the flat, certain that they would find nothing. He didn't even protest when Mrs. Hudson had opened the door to Sherlock's room, in the end, and started in on the boxes.
But with time, the doubt had started eating at him. There hadn't been one conclusive piece of evidence that had finally convinced him against it. Only the passing of time, and the absolute certainty with which the people around him set about overcoming the loss. Slowly, his conviction faded. And the day that John had let go of the last thread of hope he had been pinning on that single memory, he had crashed hard.
He shifts in bed. Not worth thinking about, he reminds himself firmly. He goes through the breathing exercises he learned in the army, the body awareness meditation that his therapist has taught him, and finally he drifts into sleep.
Most days now, John doesn't walk with a limp. The pain in his left side is intermittent and receding, the tremor in his hand and arm is almost entirely gone. But he still has nightmares.
He comes awake on an intake of breath in the middle of the night, instantly aware of the figure standing over him. For a second his whole body tenses, ready for a fight. But it only takes him another moment to assess the situation: He is in his own bed on Baker Street. Not in Afghanistan; there's no hot dry wind rushing over his skin, no black blood seeping out of his body.
"Are you awake?" Sherlock asks needlessly, looming over him like a Gothic statue in his flared coat. "You were shouting again."
John rubs his face and is about to answer when he notices that Sherlock is swaying unsteadily above him in the dark. He goes cold all over, his dream instantly forgotten. "Are you hurt?" But it's only another second before he abruptly recognises the reason for Sherlock's unsteadiness. John pushes himself up in the bed. "You're high."
"Coming down," Sherlock says regretfully, not bothering to protest, "it's dreadful. "
John relaxes slightly. He reaches out and curls his fingers around Sherlock's wrist, feeling his pulse, noting his respiratory rate and the temperature of his skin by rote. No injuries, no blood. Just the frantic but faint beat of Sherlock's pulse against his fingertips and the unhealthy sheen of perspiration, the coolness of his fingers.
“Methylphenidates as the stimulant?” John asks after a minute, and Sherlock nods. “And then Benzodiazepines to come down?” he guesses. Sherlock nods again. “You idiot,” John says, trying hard to control his breath of relief. He doesn't want Sherlock to think that anything about this is all right - but the truth is that it could have been so much worse.
"I only took half of what I would have considered a satisfying dosage back in the day," Sherlock mumbles, "technically, I realise that I'm not in any danger." John looks up at Sherlock standing by his bedside, hands helplessly at his sides. He's looking down at John with something like longing.
John curses to himself, then makes a decision and shifts over in his bed. "Come here." Sherlock hesitates for a moment. "Lie down, you arse," John says, not unkindly, "I'll keep an eye on you."
Sherlock finally crawls into the bed beside him, coat and shoes and all. He curls up on his side, facing away. John places a hand on his back, mostly to reassure himself. At first it seems like Sherlock's tensing up, but after a while the trapezoid muscles of his shoulders finally start relaxing. It feels like a wing unfurling beneath John's palm.
"Thank you," Sherlock says. A long pause, followed by: "Don't tell Mycroft.”
John nods even though Sherlock can't see him. He can feel Sherlock's breathing evening out beneath his palm through layers of clothes. John's not through being angry, but he'll mute it, put it aside for now.
John had been at uni when his father had died. For the last many years of his life, Hamish Watson had been a drunk, and a bastard. John had hardly seen the man in the last ten years leading up to his death. Back then he hadn't thought that his dad deserved any tears. He had spent two hot summer days in his bed with his face against the wall, wanting to hide his emotion from everyone - and maybe most of all himself. Rhonda had crawled in behind him and soothed him wordlessly with long strokes down his neck and his back, steady and comforting. John wants to mimic that motion now, but he keeps his hand still, unsure of how Sherlock would react. "Don't do this. Just please don't," he whispers, after a long silence. Sherlock's breathing has turned slow and even, but John's not sure if he is really sleeping. John himself is bone deep tired. He lets his hand twist in Sherlock's coat and closes his eyes. He falls asleep immediately.
When John wakes up, Sherlock is gone. There is no evidence of him even having been there; John is stretched across the width of the bed, alone. It's still mostly dark outside, but John's alarm clock reads 06:38. He quickly gets out of bed, pulls on his clothes and rushes downstairs, but his fears turn out to be unfounded: Sherlock's sitting on the couch in their living room, illuminated only by the light from the TV. He has pulled his long legs up against his thighs; his bare feet are curled over the edge of the couch. "Oh, you're awake," he notes without looking away from the TV towards to John. He is still wearing his coat and his collar turned up around his face. He looks tense and miserable.
"Yes." John takes in Sherlock's pallid skin and the dark circles around his eyes. "Yes," he repeats distractedly, "are you clean now?"
Sherlock nods. "I didn't bring anything back to the apartment."
"Good." John waits for Sherlock to say something more. When Sherlock doesn't, he walks over and sits down next to him on the sofa. Emmerdale is on an early morning rerun and they watch for a while in silence. Sherlock's hands are wrapped around his knees and in the blue light John can see a large bruise on the back of his right hand. It looks like a hematoma from a burst capillary, John reckons. Maybe Sherlock slammed a door over it. Maybe someone was trying to hurt him. John shifts in his seat. "Is your hand okay?" he asks despite himself.
Sherlock nods, eyes on the screen, keeping mum.
"What happened yesterday?" John asks, a little irritation creeping into his voice, "did you get in trouble?"
"Not as such," Sherlock prevaricates. He shifts uneasily on the couch, hiding his hand from sight.
John snorts. "You haven't had a relapse in near on two years."
Sherlock seems to creep further into his coat. "You are not sexually attracted to me," he says bluntly, with a sideways glance in John's direction.
Oh. John can feel his head jerk back in surprise, immediately derailed from his line of conversation. He wasn't wrong then; this is not just him going crazy. "No," he answers after a beat. It feels like a half truth, but he has no clue how to explain the rest of it.
"But you touched me," Sherlock adds, sounding confused, almost contrite.
John's heart is pounding. It would still be easy to brush it off, he realises, to say: you touch me all the time, or: it was a joke, I didn't mean it like that - and for a moment John wants to give into it, wants things to be easy. "Yeah," he says instead, breathing out, "I did, didn't I?"
John shifts in his seat. "Look, Sherlock, it's hardly just me, though, is it?" He ignores the way Sherlock flinches minutely. "You've been acting differently, too - things have been changing between us ever since you came back."
"There are twelve new bullet holes in our wall," Sherlock says, interrupting John, as if he'd just noticed, as if they hadn't been there ever since he came back. He indicates at the wall behind them without actually looking. "Excellent marksmanship, even with the limited distance. Your work."
"Yes," John says, not wanting to elaborate. On the wall behind them, the eyes and the mouth of the smiley face are now entirely gone. John emptied a clip into it five months back, on the day that he let go of his hope that Sherlock might still be alive. Not something he wants to be thinking about right now.
"Mrs. Hudson must have been livid," Sherlock tries.
John ignores him. She hadn't been. Mrs. Hudson had seemed almost relieved to see some kind of reaction from him. "I won't touch you again if you don't want me to," John persists, "but, can we at least talk about this. Please. Won't you explain to me what you're thinking?"
Sherlock puts his feet flat on the floor. "No." He looks almost pained.
It makes John pause. "What do you mean?"
Sherlock grimaces. "I mean: No, I can't."
John stares. You won't, he thinks meanly, feeling his anger rising again. He didn't imagine the look on Sherlock's face last night when he was standing over John. He knows that. There must be at least some part of Sherlock that's wanting something like this. "Sherlock -"
Sherlock fixes him with a piercing stare. "Will you see Maya again?"
John will. He's agreed to meet her and Nick in five days. "I don't know," he lies, not willing to let Sherlock deter him again.
"You can't -" Sherlock frowns, then corrects himself, "I don't want you to see her any more."
"For God's sake," John groans, he's had enough of Sherlock prevaricating; he's fed up with his petty and unwarranted jealousy too.
"It would be better if you didn't see her again." Sherlock sticks out his chin like a petulant child.
Enough, John decides. His answering smile is nothing but a show of teeth. "Well, tough luck, Sherlock, that's not your decision."
He leaves Sherlock on the couch, leaves the apartment.
He only meant to go for a walk, to get a breath of fresh air, but he finds himself on the doorstep of Maya's apartment without really making a conscious decision about it. He rings the doorbell. "Hi," he says awkwardly, when she opens the door. "Can I come in?"
Maya is leaning against the door, half hidden behind it. "John," she says hesitantly.
"Sorry," he says quickly, more out of reflex than anything. Then he takes in Maya's mussed hair and the line of naked thigh beneath her oversized t-shirt and realises the cause for her hesitation: It's only half eight on a Sunday. He must have woken her. Lying in bed at Baker Street, two days ago, they had agreed on rules, one of which was: don't show up unannounced. "Crap, I'm so sorry. Can we just forget I was here?" He is already turning away, embarrassed.
"No. Don't -" Maya says quickly. "Just. You know Nick comes home this evening." Her voice is light; she looks happy, full of longing.
John is instantly, unreasonably jealous of her uncomplicated joy. He swallows hard. "I know," he says, although the truth is that he'd forgotten - he hadn't been thinking about anything at all, making his way to her apartment.
Maya must be able to read his confusion on his face. "Hey, are you okay?"
John lets out an awkward laugh. He's uncombed, unwashed. He hasn't eaten since yesterday afternoon. "Not really, I suppose, no."
Maya bites her lip, then nods slowly. She steps aside and lets the door slide fully open. "Come on in for a second." She takes him into her kitchen and sits him down on the same chair that he sat in the first time he was here. John takes in the knick knack on the counter, the notes and postcards on the fridge with new eyes, while Maya prepares a cup of coffee. John watches her moving. He gives her a weak smile when she turns around to check on him. She isn't wearing a bra underneath her threadbare t-shirt and John feels a little weird about being so distracted by the shadow of her dark nipples beneath the oatmeal coloured fabric, the strong wish to touch her. He folds his hands on the table. He's thankful for the silence.
Finally she sits down opposite him and pushes one mug towards him. She blows on her own coffee. "So, I want to ask if we should talk about it," she says with a soft and hesitant smile, "except, I think maybe we shouldn't talk about it?" She reaches over and grabs his hand, the action softening the sting of her words. "I mean, we sort of agreed that these things stay our own business. The whole point was that we weren’t going to be having an affair."
John almost automatically opens his mouth to tell her that he and Sherlock are just friends. But then realises that it isn't really true any more.
He sighs. She is right: this not what they agreed to be to one another. He was lying to himself, he realises, when he told himself that he didn't know what had made him come here. Some part of him had known how ridiculous it was the minute she'd opened the door - wishing for something familiar, something easy. John finally smiles back, feeling grateful to her for going easy on him. "No, you're right." He resists the urge to apologise again. Instead he takes a careful sip of his coffee with his free hand. "You talked with Nick about Tuesday?"
"And we're still on?" he asks, hoping that he hasn't ruined it by being here now.
"Yes," Maya says, "if you want to."
"I do." He does. Very much so. He wants her, wants this. He looks down at their twined hands. He needs someone who doesn't flinch away from his touches.
"Okay," Maya says easily, "that's good."
John nods, distracted. "You know, what you've got with your husband, it's – I'm really impressed with how you do this, I -"
"Nick and I are good," Maya says firmly, overriding him. Then she gives his hand a gentle squeeze. "Are you?"
He doesn't know if she's asking about just him, or him and Sherlock. Maybe the answer to those two questions is the same anyway. He shifts their grip to caress the back of her hand, the soft skin there. "I don't know."
Maya gently untangles her hand from his, leaning back in her seat to give him a searching look. Then she lifts her foot under the table, to push at him with her bare toes on the inside of his thigh. "Maybe you should go find out."
"Right." John closes his eyes for a second, lets his head drop in acknowledgement. "You're right, I should."
He leaves Maya's shortly after, but he's not ready to go straight back to Baker Street. Instead, he ends up taking the long way home, going through Kensington Gardens. The garden grounds are still swathed in the last remnants of early morning fog rising from the wet soil. It's only a little after nine, but already the first young families are down by the pond with their toddlers in strollers, feeding the ducks and a fair amount of seagulls. Apart from the gulls' squawking calls, only a far away car alarm is breaking the silence.
Coming out on the other side of the gardens, the streets are still mostly empty. Not far from St. Mary's church, John passes a café he used to visit once in a while, back when he lived at the veteran's lodgings. He decides to go inside on a whim. He's starving with only a cup of black coffee in his belly. While he waits for his order of mushroom omelette and orange juice to arrive, he surreptitiously watches the other customers: a young guy and a girl who don't look like they've been to bed since yesterday, an elderly couple, a mother and two children. Real people, John thinks, real lives. Unbidden, his lips twist into a wry smile.
He used to come here quite often in the first months after returning from Afghanistan. Back then, he always got his coffee to go because he couldn't stand the crowded front room, the waiters flitting in and out between the tables, or the noise from the coffee mills behind the counter. He'd been restless, irritable, always moving. All of that had changed when he'd met Sherlock. Everything is different now with Sherlock. John casts another glance around the room, then he gets out his wallet, lays down the cost of the food and a ten percent tip, and leaves the café before his order arrives.
Back at 221B, the window in the living room has been left wide open. A score of music sheets has blown off the music stand and is strewn across the floor. John slams the door to the hallway shut against the draft and rushes over to close the window.
He is gathering the music sheets into a sheaf when Sherlock appears in the doorway to the kitchen. He is out of his clothes, wrapped in his blanket and wearing nothing underneath. John carefully continues what he's doing without missing a beat. "Jesus, it's cold in here," he says to Sherlock's naked feet as he bends down to collect the last sheet of paper. When he straightens, he takes in Sherlock's grey skin and dull eyes. "Drugs?" he asks suspiciously.
"Two packs of cigarettes," Sherlock answers. "Not as bad," he adds, indignantly, at John's expression.
Now that he knows, John can smell the faint lingering trace of tobacco beneath the cold spring air. "Two packs?" He is honestly surprised out of his own indignation. "I knew about the one in the Persian slipper. Where'd you keep the other one?"
"Doesn't matter," Sherlock says shifting his feet on the kitchen linoleum. "I'll stop. I have stopped."
"Good," John says keeping his voice light. He tries to square the music sheets into a tidy pile. "Because otherwise I'd have to tell Mycroft, and then we'd never hear the end of it." He gives up, drops the messy pile onto the stand.
"He would not hold you accountable," Sherlock protests.
"Oh yes, he would," John says with absolute certainty.
Sherlock blinks. John is not at all surprised to see that that thought bothers him. "I won't do it again," Sherlock finally says, and it's obvious from the serious expression on his face that they're not just talking about the cigarettes any more.
"You bloody better not," John says seriously, turning to face him fully.
Sherlock takes in his expression, then nods slowly. He leans his shoulder on one of the cabinets by the partition. There are goosebumps on his underarms and John is seized by a series of impulses: He wants to hug him, wants to clasp his wrists, wants to put a hand on his skinny chest to feel him breathing. He swallows hard, looking away.
"About this morning..." Sherlock says, shooting John an unhappy smirk. His long fingers are carefully picking at a loose thread in the bed sheet. "I'm not good with people, as you well know. It was never my forte, but truth be told, I've also chosen not to be." John is about to ask him to tell him something he doesn't know, when Sherlock adds: "I am beginning to re-evaluate that decision."
John shakes his head, still a little distracted. "In English, please."
"What I mean to say is, I want us to be friends."
John feels something that is packed tight and hard in his chest shift a little. "Sherlock." He takes a deep breath, and begins to take a step forward, but is stopped in his tracks by the almost imperceptible shift in Sherlock's face.
Sherlock pushes off the shelves, straightening up to his full height and putting a little more distance between them. "I'm sorry I acted so oddly about Maya. I'll try to be more civil about your romantic relations in the future..." He swallows, pale throat working, then hugs the blankets closer around himself. It's almost comical, the look of displeasure on his face.
"Okay," John says, at a loss. He shifts his feet. He is reminded of the last time Sherlock tried to apologise to him, fumbling and clumsy and seemingly earnest. He remembers Sherlock saying: "I don't have any friends. I've just got the one." Most of the time, Sherlock is so bloody brilliant that John forgets that he is younger than John is, and that their lives have been lived widely from one another. When John was at university - spending his days studying and hanging out with his rugby mates and sleeping next to Rhonda in a tiny dorm room every night - Sherlock had skipped two middle school grades and was practically living in a laboratory at Bart's, teaching himself to recognise 243 distinctive traits of tobacco. When John was dispatched to Afghanistan – leaving behind a long-time girlfriend and a comfortable position at King's College - Sherlock had been holed up in the library with the microfilm machine, incorporating decades of crime into his mind palace, aided by a heavy cocaine addiction.
All in all, this is probably better, John thinks. He can't hold Sherlock accountable for his own expectations, formed by a completely different type of life. Sherlock has never been interested in any kind of normalcy, he has never shown much interest in forming relationships with other people. They'll be friends. They'll let things stay the way they were. Safer. John sighs. He doesn't even know what he was hoping for – he's straight, and Sherlock finds it abhorrent.
"John?" Sherlock asks. He looks slightly ridiculous with his unkempt hair and his long legs and naked feet sticking out beneath his luxurious bed sheets.
John clears his throat. "Okay." He wonders what it says about him that he is so easily mollified; that even when he is confused and angry, he somehow still finds comfort in Sherlock's presence. The truth is that with Sherlock, John has always found it far too easy to be swayed. It's not right. John has never bent so easily to someone else's will before. Sometimes he finds himself worrying what it will take before he's had enough. And sometimes he thinks that he'll never have enough - that Sherlock could manipulate him or hurt him or put him in danger, and John will always be unable to do anything but forgive and forgive and forgive.
"Come on, go get dressed," he sighs, helpless, rubbing a tired hand over his face, "I'm taking you out for lunch."
Sherlock turns away from him easily, obviously relieved.
They go to the Moroccan place just off Charing Cross Road, because Sherlock suggests it. The Lamb Kibbeh is pricey, but delicious as always. Sherlock has a glass of wine which puts a bit of colour in his cheeks and makes him a little animated. He runs through his last case with John, going so far as to admit the reason for his bruised hand (slammed it in a cab door in pursuit of the suspect, nothing broken, no. It's perfectly fine.). When they get the bill, Sherlock, who is usually so oblivious to money, insists on paying. They go home and Sherlock fiddles on the violin, weaving in and out of 'Clair de Lune' - which has to be for John's benefit - while John types up the case for a blog entry. It almost feels comfortable. It almost feels like things going back to the way they used to be. Still, John knows himself well enough to recognise that it is not coincidental that he suffers one of the worst sleepless nights he's had since coming back from the war.
Two days later, John is back at Maya's front door. He stands there for a few minutes, breathing. He'd been going back and forth on whether or nor to bring something, a bottle of wine or flowers, maybe, but when he tried to visualise handing over a hostess gift, the idea seemed absolutely ridiculous.
Sherlock had gone out earlier in the day, and John carefully hadn't asked where he was going. He hasn't told Sherlock about this. He is going to. Later today, probably. He purses his mouth, sucks in a deep breath, then lets the thought go. He refuses to let this feel like a betrayal. "Well," he tells himself in the quiet, then knocks on the door.
Maya opens. She's wearing make-up, earrings. "Hi." She leans in to kiss his cheek. "Come on in," she says, smiling widely.
Nick comes out of the kitchen and into the living room as John enters. He is a slender, handsome man. Not very tall. Neatly dressed. In spite of the speckle of grey in his black hair, John gets the impression that he is younger than both Maya and John.
"Hello, I'm Nick." He steps forward extending his hand.
"John Watson." He reaches out and clasps Nick's outstretched hand.
"Pleasure to meet you," Nick says easily. His grip is firm and warm. He holds on for a long moment though, searching John's face, seemingly a little distracted. He finally lets go with an apologetic smile. "Sorry, but you look awfully familiar."
"Oh?" John smiles nervously. "I don't think I've seen you before?"
Nick bites his lip. "Maya told me you're a doctor. I used to work as a nurse, before finishing my masters degree. I met a lot of doctors, then."
"Could be," John offers, "King's College?"
"No." Nick frowns.
"You may have seen me in the papers," John offers awkwardly. Out of the corner of his eye he sees Maya cock her head.
"The papers?" she asks, amused, "you've been in the papers?"
But Nick's smile fades. "Wait a minute... Dr. John Watson?" he says slowly. "You work with Sherlock Holmes?"
John stills. "Yes."
"Who?" Maya interjects. "Sorry, I never read the crime stories, they bring me down."
"Yes, that's him," John answers, still looking at Nick.
Nick takes a step back, rubs his hands together. "Oh." He nods slowly. "That's odd." He smiles, but now he looks slightly uneasy. "You'll never believe this: I used to know Sherlock Holmes."
John feels the blood drain from his face. He collects himself quickly. "Excuse me?"
"I used to know him," Nick repeats, "I was working at St. Bartholomew's hospital, four years back. He uses the laboratories there, or used to, anyway. We became acquainted." There is something pinched and uncomfortable hidden beneath his polite expression.
Maya steps closer to her husband. "This Sherlock, he's the flatmate you've told me about?" she asks. "What a weird coincidence."
No. No, it's not, John thinks grimly. But he shoves his suddenly trembling hand into the pocket of his coat and keeps his mouth shut. Nick obviously doesn't know Sherlock like John does, and whatever Sherlock has done, Nick and Maya don't need to know.
John's phone beeps at this moment, and he fumbles it out of his pocket. It's Sherlock. 'At Bart's. Please come.' John squeezes his phone so hard that the plastic creaks.
"Is that him, now?" Maya asks.
John nods, trying to keep his facial muscles under control. "I'm so terribly sorry. I'll have to go."
"I'm so sorry." He forces a smile and then turns away quickly before his face falls. Behind him, Maya and Nick are silent.
John stands for a moment outside their front door after he's closed it, feeling rattled and foolish and second guessing his decision to leave. He still doesn't hear them talking inside the flat. He opens his fisted hand to glance down at the text again. Then he turns around and leaves.
John takes a cab to Bart's. He stares blindly at his own reflection as he runs through the last months in his mind. Looked back on, there's a sickeningly logical pattern to the whole succession of events: The withheld social security number and Sherlock's blank refusal of asking Mycroft for help that John had foolishly put down to resentment, even when Sherlock had forgiven his brother without a second thought not much later. Then that newspaper they didn't normally keep with the job description, which Sherlock had laid out on their table that morning. All the ads except one had been for jobs that Sherlock would know John wasn't interested in. John swears out loud, then coughs into his hand when he catches the cab driver staring. Unbelievable - John thinks, staring out the window - Sherlock's careful questions about Maya, his unusual interest, his keeping count, his growing discomfort with every time John saw her.
The cab driver has to call him back when he forgets to pay in his rush to get to the laboratories. He pushes a wad of notes and coins into his hand, and then hurries back towards the laboratories, the hard soles of his shoes slapping against the asphalt.
Inside, Molly and Sherlock are bent over something on the counter. Sherlock only looks up for a brief second, barely seeing him. "Ah, there you are," he notes offhandedly, not really paying attention, "I wanted you to see this."
John remains standing in the doorway. Molly is the first to raise her head again and really look at him. Nervousness creeps into her expression. "John," she says. She straightens up in her seat and puts a hand on Sherlock's shoulder. For a split second something unspoken passes between the two of them. Then Molly slides off her chair and wordlessly leaves the room by the other exit. Sherlock watches her go before shifting his attention to John, staring intently. "You're upset," he says finally.
The shame and disbelief John's felt ever since he left Beaufort Street finally gives way for anger at the bland look on Sherlock's face, and John welcomes it, lets it well up inside his belly, spreading out cold and sharp, shortening his breath. He realises that he is still squeezing the door handle and lets go, stepping into the room. "You set it up," he bites out, finally finding his voice.
Sherlock freezes, then pushes his stool away from the counter. "Yes." The way he instantly knows what they are talking about only makes it worse. He pulls off his latex gloves with swift, efficient movements. "You've met Nick, I gather?" he says, not meeting John's eyes.
The heavy door finally clicks shut behind John. "All along, you knew. I don't –" John cuts himself off and takes a deep breath, trying to regain control. He hobbles forward on his suddenly trembling leg, leans heavily against the nearest steel counter. "Why did you want me to sleep with her? Is it part of a case?" He's suddenly struck by a grim suspicion. "Wait, is she a suspect?"
"No," Sherlock says, he looks almost offended. "No, of course not."
"What, then?" John demands. He slams his fist down on the table, when Sherlock hesitates. The line of test tubes clink and rattle and it gives John a mean sense of satisfaction to see Sherlock jump in his seat. "Damn it, Sherlock!" he half shouts, "you lied to me, you made me lie to them."
"I didn't mean for you to ever meet him," Sherlock exclaims, "they used to have a three time rule."
That stops John cold. "What?" he grinds out. "How do you even know that?"
"It was only meant to be an experiment," Sherlock explains loftily, rolling his neck, and John knows him, knows that his reflexive aloofness means he feels unsure. Sherlock only allows himself these tics when he is alone with John, unguarded. "I believed her needs to be complimentary to ours."
John presses his palm against the cold steel counter. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"You are very obviously attracted to women. You love flirting. You enjoy sex, but have a personal disinclination to one night stands. Yet you've found it difficult to maintain a traditional relationship in your current situation." Sherlock pauses. "You feel a strong emotional attachment to me, but there is no sexual attraction." He lifts his chin.
The muscle in John's left thigh jerks with a sudden spasm. He takes a step back, rattled. This is the first time he truly understands why Sherlock's abilities make other people so uncomfortable - the first time he realises just how excruciating it can be to have your intimate secrets and half-realised motivations laid ruthlessly out in the open by someone with such a poor understanding of the effect of his words.
Sherlock moves around the counter. "I only meant to experiment with a way for you to find a satisfying outlet for your sexual needs, with relatively limited emotional ties." Despite his feigned calm, there is an uneven mottled blush spreading on his throat, but it's impossible for John to read any emotion on his shuttered face. "Also, I was hoping that this sort of relation might be easier for me to tolerate," he finishes.
John sits down on one of the stools before his leg gives out. "You fucking bastard," he mutters.
"Nick said that they didn't tell each other about casual lovers, but I should have predicted that they'd be willing to break their rules for you," Sherlock continues regretfully, almost to himself, voice low.
"Jesus." John looks up at the ceiling, furious and humiliated. "Why the hell would he tell you something like that?"
Sherlock squirms imperceptibly. "I had a brief sexual relationship with him four years ago," he says, "he explained the premise to me then."
Of course, John thinks darkly. Of course. He squeezes his eyes shut, envisioning Nick's hesitating, careful explanations, his uneasy smile. Unwillingly, John's brain flashes to his tanned face, his lean frame, his handsome features. "You've slept with Nick," he states flatly, curling his fingers into a fist on the counter.
"Yes," Sherlock says mildly, closer to John than he was two seconds ago, "four years ago as a part of an experiment." Sherlock clears his throat, "I did not enjoy it. Anyway, I don't see why it matters now."
John opens his eyes. It hurts. "It matters." He can't explain why, because he's not - he wouldn't want to. The muscle spasms are followed by a dull ache in his leg, running up from the sole of his foot to the joint of his hip. Psychosomatic, he reminds himself.
"Well, it shouldn't," Sherlock protests, "you are letting your own sentiments get the better of you. You operate from the assumption that sex adds to a relationship. To me it's dilution." He takes a step closer. "I've never even met Maya. I simply googled Nick's address, and gathered that they were still cohabiting, then found out where Maya was working... it's hardly stalking, John," he adds as an aside, as if he can sense John's train of thought, "all I did was facilitate events that put you and Maya together in a relatively intimate setting, over a certain amount of time. I knew there was a good chance something would happen. After all, you and Nick have a similar physicality and demeanour." Sherlock pauses, looks away. "It was a fair assumption that she would find you attractive."
John stares mutely, out of words.
"I was only trying to find a solution that would be acceptable to us both," Sherlock continues. He hesitates, searching John's face. Then he takes another step forward and places his hand close to John's on the counter. "Come on, John, you can forgive me for faking my own death, but not for this?" John hesitates. And maybe Sherlock reads that as a sign of something, because he reaches out to place a seemingly casual hand on top of John's.
John pulls away immediately, instinctively repulsed by Sherlock's calculated touch. He's seen him imitate this false sense of confidentiality with witnesses too many times to believe it. "No," he says, his voice breaking out from somewhere deep in his chest. He blinks, a little startled with the word, himself. "No, I don't think I can."
"John, please," Sherlock coaxes, obviously not believing him, and reaches out again.
John blinks, once, slowly. "Don't," he says, "don't you dare play games with me. Not again."
"Please," Sherlock repeats, but he finally takes a small step back, giving John room to draw in a shaky breath. "I don't understand why you're so upset about this," he adds after a moment, almost as an afterthought, "I've manipulated you so many times before."
John goes absolutely still. He can feel a muscle in his jaw beginning to tic crazily. He has been to war and he's been in hand to hand combat. He's had a few bouts down at the pub with his rugby mates. Hell, he has even punched Sherlock before. But this would be different - this would be something else entirely - and John is never going to be that kind of person. "Move," he says quietly, carefully unclenching his fist although his jaw muscles still feel like iron bands grinding his teeth together.
Sherlock frowns, searching John's face. He steps aside quickly as if he'd been burned. John pushes past him, down the stairs, limping through the narrow hallways and out into the moist evening air.
Outside, the afternoon is turning into a grey half dark.
John marches off the hospital grounds, but as soon as he knows that he is out of view of the laboratories, he pauses to lean against the metal railing which fences in the hospital. He beats a fisted hand against the ache in his thigh, trying to loosen up the clenched muscle. Then he wraps both hands tight around the metal banister and focuses on breathing.
In Afghanistan, a couple of days after his first surgery, one of the military nurses had carefully informed him that even with another operation they might not be able to repair the extensive damage to his peripheral nerves. As a consequence, she said, John might never regain the full function of his leg. Also, she added softly, he needed to prepare himself for the risk of subsequential neuropathic pain. Two days later, his sergeant had stood by the foot of his bed and informed him that they were pulling him out of his stationing, and that his time as an army doctor was over. What John remembers most from that time is being pissed off. He remembers feeling trapped and restless in the hospital bed, snapping and shouting at the personnel. And after they had shipped him out, there had been the reconstructive surgery, the countless hours of physical therapy, the cane, the constant anger that his body wasn't obeying him.
After he had finally been convinced that Sherlock was dead, he hadn't felt any anger. For a long time, John had simply been immovable - caught in a stark, dead misery that seemed to have no end; a dead, sucking silence that slowly ate away the hours. He'd sat in the chair by the fireplace until his body ached. His legs, his back, his stomach, his throat, his bladder, had all been a dull background noise in the overlaying quiet. On the mantelpiece next to him, Sherlock's switchblade knife was pinning their unopened mail to the wooden surface. Squares of light from the tall windows swept over the floor in a slow arc as the days passed. On the coffee table, cups of tea, glasses of water, toast and slices of fruit were endlessly supplied and replaced by Mrs. Hudson.
John had reverted to using his cane whenever he had to stand. His left hand had shaken uncontrollably whenever he tried to move glasses of water or cold cups of tea to his lips. Somehow, the fact that he had now known that the pain stemmed from his head hadn't helped to make it any less actual or hurtful.
John lets go of the metal banister, trying his balance. A couple of ambulances pass by on their way to the A&E. The air is cool and humid going into his lungs. The cramp in his thigh slowly eases off.
He'd only just been creeping out of that misery - he had just begun to scrape his nails against the underside of the ice, looking for a breathing hole - when Sherlock had finally returned. John straightens up and starts walking away from the hospital. Sherlock wants him to be a friend, and John had thought that he could be. But he's beginning to think that he was wrong - maybe he can't be friends with Sherlock, after all.
John wanders for a while. When it starts to rain he seeks shelter in a doorway. After a moment, he fumbles his phone out of his pocket and calls Maya. "I know you can't be the one to guide me through this," he says as soon as she picks up. "We are not having an affair," he adds before Maya can talk. He's paraphrasing part of their conversation at Baker Street. Maya snorts quietly and John smiles humourlessly into the night. He takes a deep breath. "I need to figure out – I can't..."
"Nick told me. About him and Sherlock," Maya interrupts, "What a stupid coincidence."
"Yes." John looks upwards; in the street lights' halo, the raindrops looks like glittering rice. "Look," he finally says, "whatever happens, I just want to tell you that I'm a little bit in love with you." It's one true thing, at least, and he's so fed up with not talking.
Maya laughs, sounding tired and a little sad. "I know."
"I didn't mean to run out on you and Nick like that. I just -"
"I know," Maya repeats softly, overriding him, "this is such a stupid coincidence."
John blinks and swallows and keeps his mouth shut, and feels furious with Sherlock for putting him in this position. "I don't want this to be the last time I talk to you," he finally says.
Maya exhales. "It won't be."
John is not going back to Baker Street, but he can't to go to Lestrade, or God forbid, Mycroft. He should probably go to Mike's, but Mike will make him talk, and he can't bear the thought of it. Instead he ends up going to Harry's.
He had stayed with Harry in the days after Sherlock's disappearance, while he still couldn't stand being at Baker Street, and he had returned at the point where he needed to get back out again. Harry doesn't ask any questions. They'd figured out years ago that their relationship works much better if they simply avoid talking. Instead, Harry just takes one long look at his face, and then lets him in - and John feels the same sort of sad regret when she insists on sharing a bottle of wine with him, this time around.
Harry has a guest room, and a very comfortable guest bed - the one she used to share with Clara before the break-up. John doesn't spend any more time sleeping in it than he did last time he was here. He dozes on the couch while Harry moves about the flat on her way to work in the mornings. He eats take-out and toast and watches TV with her once she returns in the afternoon. He stays up long after she's gone to bed and falls asleep sitting up. He wakes up aching all over. He has no clue what he is doing.
It's only four days before Sherlock catches up with him while he is out for groceries in the Tesco's two streets down from Harry's flat. Sherlock skips in front of the line and doesn't seem to register the consternated looks from all the other people queuing. His coat is unbuttoned and his hair looks a little wild.
John sends him a short look and then decides on ignoring him. He runs his tin of beans through the scanner, his bag of apples, his loaf of bread. Sherlock hovers over his shoulder as he sticks his card in the credit card terminal and punches in his pin, but he doesn't speak until John has finished paying.
"I didn't mean to deceive you," he says then, without introduction.
The lady next in line shoots them a funny look.
"You didn't mean for me to find out," John retorts, voice tight. He bags the groceries quickly and lifts them off the self-checkout counter. There's an underlining of unthinking relief in his anger which he squashes down viciously.
Sherlock frowns, but continues, "I wanted to find a way to keep you at Baker Street." He follows John out of the shop, squeezing between two trolleys to keep up with him. "Since I've met you, I find myself wanting things I thought I'd discarded ages ago - doing things that I never thought I'd develop an interest in - "
"You lied to me." John stops at the curb, waiting for a bus to pass, then crosses the street, keeping his eyes resolutely ahead.
Sherlock is momentarily held back by a cyclist, but takes two long steps to catch up with him. "Because I care for you," he adds, a little breathless. Surprised, John cast a quick glance sideways before he can help himself. Sherlock looks downcast and uneasy, walking along with his hands in his coat pockets, unaware, for the moment, of John watching. John deliberately shifts his gaze away again. He keeps moving forward, one step after the other. He'll get to Harry's. Turn Sherlock away at the door.
Sherlock follows him.“The fact of the matter is that I care for you more than I have ever cared for anyone before," he says, "I am more invested in your opinion of me than anyone's.” His voice is a little rough. "But I still don't want to have sex with you."
John stops. The hard edge of a tin beats against his shin through the plastic bag. They're on Harry's street now, only a few paces from her front door. Sherlock stops one step ahead of him, silhouetted against the light from the spring sun.
What the bloody hell is John going to say to that? "Sherlock, what do you want from me?"
"I don't know," Sherlock answers tightly, sounding as if the words are being wrenched from him. "I want you to come back to Baker Street. I want to be close to you, I want to watch you... I want to touch you, I want... more." Sherlock grimaces, his brow knitted. "Not... not sex," he says, and for a split second his lips curl in something like revulsion, "just more." He shifts uncomfortably when John finds himself unable to do anything but stare dumbly. "I don't understand it very well," he says defensively, "I don't want to feel like this."
And suddenly John gets it: Sherlock's shuttered face and constant withdrawal, his experimental touches, the way he'd freeze up every time John moved close. All these stupid games, all Sherlock's denial. John shakes his head. Despite his resolve, the anger is leaking out of him. "I've made you want more?" he tries carefully, trying to wrap his mind around it. He blinks a little against the light to see Sherlock's face.
"And that... scares you?"
"Yes." Sherlock is pale. His shoulders are drawn back and his hands are pulling the lapels of his coat away from his body, exposing him to the still brisk wind.
John had been worrying that he doesn't know how to separate himself from Sherlock any more, but Sherlock's the same way, he realises. And who knows what that means to a man who's always prided himself in being able to divorce himself from feelings, who refuses to let himself feel fear; a man who finds love to be a dangerous disadvantage and who sometimes has a hard time even admitting to their friendship.
Crap. John sighs, he looks up into the sky for a moment to gather his thoughts. "All right," he says finally, letting out a deep breath. He is suddenly aware of the bags in his hands, the thin plastic handles digging into his palms. "All right, we'll talk," he says, and sees Sherlock's shoulders slump down in obvious relief. A group of laughing teenage girls pass by them on the pavement, shrill voices and far too much make-up. John hefts the bags up and takes a step forward. "Just, let's go inside."
Harry's kitchen is small. Her broken wall clock is ticking loudly on the wall above the counter, the big hand never moving beyond five minutes to. The kitchen was done up in a romantic country style when Harry moved in, three years ago, after breaking it off with Clara. Harry has since bastardised it as much as she could without spending money, but there's still pink patterned wallpaper on the back of the glass cabinets and fake patina tiling on the counter. Beneath the sink stands an unopened bottle of vodka, hidden behind the cleaning products. For a while, John had been in the habit of secretly checking the seal on that bottle whenever he visited his sister. But then he'd realised that it couldn't be read as a sign of anything - there were plenty of other hiding places all over the apartment.
Sherlock has moved into John's personal space and seems to want to stay there. He's close enough to touch as John picks out the instant coffee and the box of Tetley's from one of the pink cupboards. Sherlock takes his tea with milk, no sugar. Most of the time John prefers coffee. He leans heavily against the counter while the kettle comes to a boil. The trivial act of making tea seems slightly surreal when he knows that this is a moment in time that will most likely separate one part of his life from another. Finally, the kettle clicks off.
"It wasn't just a random experiment," Sherlock says, voice soft even though they're alone in the flat; Harry's at work and doesn't come home for hours. "I only did it because I was desperate to find a way to make you stay." He's very close.
"I see." John's fingers hesitate on the kettle's handle, then he reaches over and carefully pours the hot water into the two mugs he's placed on the counter.
"You know that predicting personal sentiment is not my strongest point, and I hadn't predicted... I wasn't prepared for how I felt without you in the three months before I could return." Sherlock clears his throat. "I need you to be with me." It sounds weird, too raw and vulnerable coming from Sherlock and uttered like this, quiet and confidential, standing too close in this strange kitchen. John's a little shocked by his honesty. Sherlock sighs. "Ideally, I want you to not need anything else. But I knew that couldn't work."
The air seems to be caught high in John's chest. He takes deep, deliberate breath. "That wasn't your decision to make." He takes another breath. "You can't experiment on me, not in this, not in anything. Not ever again," he says quietly. He carefully grabs the tip of the teabag between his thumb and index finger, trying not to burn himself on the hot liquid, then shifts it with a wet thud to the sink.
"I won't," Sherlock says, and John thinks yes - yes, you probably will - but with no heat, no real anger. Sherlock stands leaned against the counter next to him, and everything about him - his smell and his sound and his movement - is intimate and familiar. From his chest to the tips of his fingers, John feels light and warm from the intensity of Sherlock's voice, the proximity of his body. He thinks about Sherlock with his long and slender feet up against the bookshelves back at Baker Street, Sherlock smiling at him, joking with him while dissecting a small, neat serving of scrambled eggs; the hours of intense and satisfying work researching at Baker Street and John drifting helplessly into sleep while Sherlock worked on beside him. The unhesitating trust that John places in Sherlock which makes him want to follow him everywhere he goes, the deep affection that makes John willing to forgive and forgive and forgive.
He places both palms flat on the tabletop. "I do things for you too that I wouldn't do for anyone else," he finally echoes, weakly. "I care more for you than for anyone."
The clock ticks. Sherlock reaches over to place his hand on John's, and John stares at it uncomprehendingly for a moment before putting his weight back on his heels and turning his own hand over to twine their fingers. "But you don't – " John stops, staring down at their hands. "You're not careful," he restarts, "and if you're not careful this will end with me losing you. And I bloody well know what that feels like, now, and I can't do it." He has to close his eyes on the cutesy flowers and the rustic tile, because suddenly it reminds him of the stark misery that he has wanted so hard to forget. He was here not half a year ago: The bottle from under the sink standing mostly empty on the counter next to him. One hand clutching the tap, he'd been dry heaving over the sink, stomach on fire, head aching and he'd been grateful for it, then, because it had still felt better than the icy silence that had gone before. When Sherlock came back, John had been all too eager to forget it, to pretend that nothing had changed, that he didn't know what it felt like - because it wasn't a place he could go back to, it just wasn't a place that he wanted to think about ever revisiting.
John takes a deep, steadying breath.
He doesn't remember much from the first days after Sherlock's return. What he does remember is this: He remembers seeing a gaunt, exhausted-looking man standing in the hallway, he remembers the sensation of Sherlock's rain spattered coat bundled up in his hands, his face pressed against it and the smell of wet wool, cigarettes and exhaust emanating from the damp fabric. He has a visceral memory of the movement of their chests as they inhaled and exhaled against each other, and the clear feeling that he was breathing again for the first time in a long time; that he was coming alive again, too, after a long period of silence. Maybe some part of him should have known already then that things were changing between them - that maybe they had been changing for some time - that there couldn't be any more Sarahs, or Tinas or Jeanettes that he would hurt by being careless and unintentionally treat abysmally until they left him.
The skin on the back of Sherlock's hands is dry and soft against John's fingertips. "Look," John says, "before I met you I wasn't even tempered or patient. I was lonely. I was in pain, and angry a lot. I got restless really easily, and the few people I had around me, I drove away." He drags his eyes away from their hands to look Sherlock in the eye. "I owe you so much. But you can't lie to me," he states, imploring Sherlock to understand. "You can't leave me behind, and I'll tell you one thing, I don't know if I can compartmentalise as well as you can."
"We'll learn," Sherlock says with quiet confidence, "we'll figure it out." John realises that somewhere in John's monologue Sherlock must have been able to hear his surrender, because the corners of his mouth are curling into that tiny, pleased smile that John has always turned towards whenever he could hear it in Sherlock's voice, wanting to see it.
John's smiling back, he can't stop himself. "Okay."
Sherlock pulls lightly at his hand. "Will you come home?"
John takes in the two bags of groceries on the counter, the two mugs with their steaming contents. "Yeah," he says, "yeah, all right."
John lets Sherlock unlock the door to their apartment, and then follows him through the hallway and up the stairs. In the hallway they pull off their coats in silence. The muted light from the matted window falls on the nine volumes of the Encyclopaedia of the Non-native Fauna of the British Isles, which has been there ever since they moved in. Sherlock had brought them with him and after three years still won't let John throw them away despite the mildew. Mrs. Hudson had never gotten around to packing those into boxes. John puts his gloves into the pocket of his coat, then puts the coat on the hanger before folding his scarf and stuffing it into the sleeve. When he turns around, Sherlock is standing in the middle of the room, watching him with some open and unnamed emotion.
John can't deny them, any more, these helpless waves of tenderness and affection for Sherlock; this sense of need and belonging whenever he's near. He doesn't want to. "Here, come here," he mutters, and steps forward, to draw him into a hug.
They stand together for a moment, arms around each other, breathing. Then Sherlock pulls back. He moves away a little. “Can I,” he starts. His hand twists next to his thigh, an aborted motion. “Is this all right?” he asks nonsensically, looking slightly nervous. John doesn't know what is being asked, but he nods his assent anyway, trusting, and then Sherlock reaches out to touch him.
Sherlock's fingers graze over his cheek before settling in his hair, and then his fingers brush through the hair on the side of his head. John breathes in through his nose and keeps still under his light, exploratory touch. Sherlock's gaze has turned keen and unblinking and John realises that Sherlock is observing his reaction – cataloguing, still - and John can't lie to himself, the truth is that he has always enjoyed the thrill of Sherlock's full attention.
Sherlock pets his hair for a moment, then shifts to rest his hot palm against the curve of his head. "Okay," he says, and the word falls somewhere between a question and an affirmation. Instead of answering, John lifts his face to let Sherlock watch him, certain that he will be able to read the confirmation on his face; John feels exposed and slightly out of his depth, but it feels right, it feels real. "Right," Sherlock murmurs after a moment, seemingly reassured. John's hands have been hanging limply by his side, but now he reaches out and rests his hands on Sherlock's sides, mutely hanging on. He keeps his touch light, letting his hands move with the movement of Sherlock's breaths.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, John has been storing the memories from Sherlock's return that he's found so hard to understand. They come back to him now: The way they'd stood in this room, Sherlock's solemn gaze, his own hands tightening in the fabric of Sherlock's coat – and even though he holds a mental image of it in his mind, John still doesn't really believe that they kissed. But at least for a moment, he must have been gripped by a strong desire to do so. He must have wanted it so much that all his senses latched hard onto the intention, because in his mind he holds a vivid image of having felt the firm press of lips against lips, of having felt the hint of teeth beneath the flesh of Sherlock's lips. John closes his eyes on the shaggy carpet, on the sight of their shoes, their bodies close together. He'd thought there was only one way to be closer, to be more. He breathes out shakily, inhaling as Sherlock exhales. Sherlock carts his hands through the longer hair at the back of his skull, and John bows his head to the touch.
The sound of the door to Mrs. Hudson's apartment being opened wrests them out of the moment. "Sherlock?" Mrs. Hudson calls from the bottom of the stairs, "That police inspector, Lestrade, was here while you were away."
Sherlock rests his hand on the back of John's neck. "What did he want?" he calls, and John can feel his voice vibrating through his body beneath his palms, the bone and muscle moving. Head bent, he smiles to himself.
"He wanted you and John at the station. Something about a case," Mrs. Hudson says, "he said it was urgent." A pause, and then: "John, is that you up there?"
John straightens up and they pull apart like schoolboys caught doing something bad, even though she can't even see them. "Yes, Mrs. Hudson," he answers dutifully.
"Oh, thank goodness!" she exclaims, "please don't go running off like that again, I can't bear it when you boys do that." Her door closes.
John and Sherlock both try to suppress a smile, and fail. "She was worried about you," Sherlock says under his breath. "She was worried about me," he adds after a second.
Sherlock lets go of him to pat down his pockets, then fishes out his mobile phone. He reads a couple of texts, frowning. "There's been a murder. A young man, Ronald Adair, shot in his own home. There's no obvious motive, no witnesses. They're preserving the crime scene for us." He pockets the phone again and turns around to reach for his coat, then hesitates, turning back to face John. "Ready?" he asks, inclining an eyebrow.
"Well, Lestrade did say it was urgent." John moves towards his own coat, and Sherlock shoots him a pleased smile.
They move down the stairs and back onto the street where Sherlock hails them a cab. The day is still light. Once inside the cab, John casts a glance at Sherlock, taking in his unruly hair, his high cheekbones and the funny shape of his lips. Maybe it doesn't have to matter so much if they kissed back then, John thinks suddenly. All this time he's been trying to fit the two of them into some preconceived notion of what he thought they could be. He can ask Sherlock later, but it's not that important anymore - it's not what's going to define them.
Sherlock catches him looking and John can read it in his face, can feel it in his own bones: the wholly inappropriate giddiness at the prospect of a case, the intense feeling of excitement and anticipation building between them. A smile is playing at the corners of Sherlock's lips. "Lestrade will be glad to see you," he remarks breezily.
"Yeah?" John says, a little distracted.
"Yes," Sherlock replies, "he's found me exceedingly hard to tolerate these days while you've been away."
They share a smile across the back seat. Then John turns toward the window, letting the shapes and colours of the world outside flitter past his vision as the taxi rushes down Euston Road. They are just beginning to test out the shape and size of this new thing between them, he thinks, but whatever this is, it is going to work. They'll figure it out.