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The Refractive Index

Chapter Text

Bromley.

“He says you’re to come at once.”

Standing on the front step of 221 Baker Street is the half-frozen form of one of Sherlock’s homeless network. Under her filthy wool hat her nose is bright red, as are the whites of her eyes. Alcohol, John automatically surmises. It doesn’t take a hard-core drugs addiction to send someone to the streets. Vivienne, was it? Something with a V. He doesn’t ask, because Sherlock’s been gone for two days, and with her appearance John’s gone from mildly annoyed to petrified.

“Why hasn’t he texted? Where is he?”

She stares at him. “He says you’re to come at once, and bring his coat.”

The temperature hovers at minus ten so John pulls her inside and shuts the door. “Just…give me a minute. Stay right here.”

It takes considerably longer than a minute, because John has to put on layers. Long underwear, wool socks, a turtleneck, a jumper, a second jumper, his heaviest coat, watch cap, scarf, gloves, boots. His gun, tucked into his coat pocket for easy access. His guide is standing exactly where he left her in the foyer. John grabs Sherlock’s coat from the hooks by the door, and together they head out into the cold.

“Where is he?” John asks. He’s inhaling through his mouth, as the air is cold enough to freeze his nostrils.

She doesn’t answer, just ducks her head and keeps walking. There’s a lone cab on the street a few streets away. The driver’s headed home, but John throws every note in his wallet into the window and he agrees to take them despite the icy streets. Only when they’re inside the warm car does she give him directions.

The driver lets them out and they start to walk again. She finally stops by a bench on the edge of a park, and points. “He’s in there.”

“Where?” When Sherlock left the flat two days earlier, he’d been quite dapper in jeans, jumper, and a blazer, with gloves and the scarf for sartorial flair. No jacket, let alone a coat.

She just points. Carrying Sherlock’s coat, John sets off into the cold.

Just inside the park, Sherlock is huddled in the lee of a building. He stares at John like he has no idea who he is. “Jesus Christ,” John says, and slings the coat around Sherlock’s shoulders. “What the fuck are you doing?”

“Waiting for you,” Sherlock says. His voice lacks its usual vibration, like the frigid air has numbed his vocal cords.

John looks at him. He’s been outside for less than ten minutes and his hands are stiffening. “How long have you been outside?”

“It’s just transport, John.”

Sherlock isn’t putting his arms through the coat’s sleeves, much less buttoning it. When John reaches for his arms, he moves like a puppet with poorly fitted joints. Gently John eases his arms into the coat and buttons it. “Your transport is in serious danger of hypothermia. Come on. I’m taking you home.”

“Home isn’t safe. That’s why I sent for you.”

John feels the back of his neck prickle. When Sherlock sends for John he normally won’t shut up, spilling details, deductions, needs, demands. John is, after all, a replacement for the skull. But Sherlock stays silent. Still. It’s the lack of shivering that triggers John’s command voice. “Fine. Not home. Where?

“Bolt-holes.”

John’s sure he mis-heard him. He shifts his blue watch cap up to expose his ear and turns his head to Sherlock’s mouth. “What?”

“Bolt-hole. Change disguises. Disappear.”

John learned early on in the Army that comprehension wasn’t necessary for action. He grabs Sherlock’s arm and supports him while Sherlock leads them out of the park, then deep into a warren of alleys, then up a rusted fire escape behind an abandoned building. By the time they get there, John has to all but hoist Sherlock through the sixth-floor window. Inside is almost as cold as out. Creature comforts are few and far between: a chair, a fan, a tarp, a rack of clothes at the back of the room.

John bundles Sherlock into the warmest clothes he can find, but he ends up putting Sherlock’s jumper and blazer over a couple of summer-weight shirts, and his trousers over the shorts. His chalk-white skin is normally hot to the touch, but today it’s cold like a church statue. His hands fumble with buttons and zips until John shoves them aside and dresses him like he would a patient.

“This is piss poor planning, Sherlock.”

“I set — this up last — summer.”

When the temperatures were near thirty for weeks straight. “You never told me about these places.” John wraps another useless piece of clothing around Sherlock’s long feet.

“It — never came up.” At John’s disbelieving stare, he adds, “It’s dangerous. I didn’t — want to presume on — our partnership.”

John just shakes his head. He gives up on maintaining personal space and crowds in close to Sherlock to rub his arms and back. Even with friction, the extra layers, and his coat, Sherlock doesn’t stop shuddering. John yanks all the remaining clothes from their hangers and tosses them on the floor against the interior wall of the building.

“You’ve mild to moderate hypothermia, so you’re too cold to generate enough body heat,” John says. Then he strips Sherlock to his pants and socks, and drapes him in the coat. “I need to warm you up.”

John strips himself, pulls his knee-length parka back on, then rolls them both into the tarp with Sherlock’s back to the clothes and the only wall without a draught. The plastic will contain their body heat, but it’s the touch of John’s skin that makes Sherlock’s breath ease from him, half-sigh, half-groan.

“I’m going to put your hands between my — Sherlock, stop fighting me.” The tarp cocoon jerks and snaps as John tries to snug Sherlock’s hands tucked between his thighs. “Your hands are like ice. Do you want the transport to lose fingers to frostbite?”

Sherlock stills, but doesn’t speak.

“Your arms are too long to tuck them in my armpits and keep you close,” John says a little more gently. “Stop fighting me.”

Sherlock tucks his hands between John’s thighs.

“Just keep them away from my bollocks, thanks very much. I’m going to put one hand between your legs and the other in your armpit. It’s not much, but it’s something.”

John ends up half on top of him, his chest to Sherlock’s, his pelvis pressed into Sherlock’s hip, keeping him as close as possible. John can feel Sherlock’s pulse against both of his hands and counts for several minutes, until he’s assured Sherlock’s heart is beating normally.

Sensing Sherlock’s carotid pulse with his lips is merely a consequence of their height difference and proximity. Fifty beats a minute, but Sherlock’s very fit.

The plastic tarp rustles with each of Sherlock’s tremors, but after an age, John can feel Sherlock’s skin warming. The tremors ease to occasional ripples, then Sherlock finally relaxes. But he doesn’t remove his hands from between John’s thighs. His head is bent forward, as if he wants to breathe in the warmer air between their bodies, and his eyes are closed. John studies the nape of his neck, so vulnerable and so rarely seen, and his cock thickens and shifts in his pants.

They’re both grown men. This is the body’s natural response to close quarters, to danger, to an unabashedly bisexual man pressed up against a…a…a Sherlock. He’s not going to make this into something it isn’t.

“What was the tarp for?” he asks.

“Shade.”

“Oh.”

Idle conversation isn’t helping. His cock is fully erect and pulsing with his elevated heart rate.

It’s nothing.

Ignore it.

Sherlock is.

But then…but then, there’s the unmistakable sensation of hot blood pulsing through Sherlock’s shaft against John’s hip. Both grown men. Natural response to close quarters, danger…and another man’s erection.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” John says, striving for his clinical voice. He’s the doctor. He’ll take the lead on this one. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

Sherlock looks up. Their faces are so close John can see the striations in his pale eyes, the silver woven with the blue. Sherlock’s hand slides from between John’s thighs, then angles so his long fingers cup John’s balls and the heel of his hand presses against the head of John’s cock.

“Doesn’t it?”

John’s been offered gratitude fucks before, and never taken anyone up on it. But his body isn’t getting the honourable message humming in his brain, because he spreads his legs even as he says, “You don’t have to do this.”

“I know.” Low, amused, and the way Sherlock’s rubbing the sensitive patch behind John’s balls with his fingers is (mobility in extremities returning, a good sign) very distracting.

“You’re experiencing a fairly typical response to a near-death experience followed by skin-to-skin contact,” John says. “It doesn’t have anything to do with me.”

Sherlock’s lashes dip, then his breath eddies against John’s temple. “Don’t embellish, John. I wasn’t near death, it’s not the typical response to me, and has everything to do with you.”

John stares at him. John’s hand is still between Sherlock’s thighs. Sherlock’s femoral pulse kicks up, fluttering, anything but steady. His pupils are dilating, and the colour in his face isn’t just from John’s rewarming efforts. The attraction he thought was one-sided and worked hard to hide is clearly mutual, and John wonders how he missed it.

Oh, right. He missed it because Sherlock didn’t let him see it.

When Sherlock’s fingers slip further down to circle his hole through his pants, he stops thinking entirely, because he’s seeing it now. “We’re wearing too many clothes,” he says.

They strip to their skin. John takes a moment to examine Sherlock’s toes, but for once he wasn’t dressed for a City boardroom but rather in thick wool socks and boots. “Put your socks back on,” John says.

“Ruins the aesthetics,” Sherlock complains, but he obeys.

“I’ll leave mine on,” John offers.

“That’s worse,” Sherlock says, then rolls to his back. He watches John, eyes slightly narrowed. “You’ve done this before. In the army. Never with a subordinate, of course, and not since you returned to London. I’ve been…what’s the phrase? Cock-blocking you?”

John’s never been deduced by a mad genius lying naked (but for wool socks) and spread for him, but he could get used to it. He pulls Sherlock’s coat over his back and braces himself on knees and hands over Sherlock. Heat simmers between their bodies, but practicalities come first. “I don’t have a condom.”

One eyebrow lifts. “What happened to Semper Paratus?”

“You have Arduis Fidelis instead, and before you complain, the RAMC just saved your life. I had clean test results in November. You?”

“Tested clean just before you moved in. Celibate since. Get on with it.”

“I also don’t have any slick.”

Sherlock traces John’s lip with his index finger, his gaze following it like he’s thinking about John’s mouth around his cock. “You have Vaseline,” he says quietly. “It’ll do.”

John thinks about the many, many times he’s moisturized his lips against the cold or wind, about what Sherlock observed, about what John didn’t.

The Vaseline does very well. John takes his time, uses the grease to soften the skin, then opens Sherlock one finger at a time. When he presses home, the deep groan that rumbles from Sherlock’s chest lights up every nerve in John’s body.

“Good?” he asks. His voice is nearly inaudible despite the silence, but Sherlock opens his eyes and nods.

For a split second John looks down at him and wonders what else he hasn’t been permitted to see, but the tight, slick heat quickly ends all thinking, and in a matter of moments he’s building to a steady rhythm. He watches the sex flush bloom on Sherlock’s throat, then his chest, thinks about vasodilation bringing blood to the surface of the skin, about Sherlock’s heart pumping to circulate all that hot blood through his cold body. It’s meant to distract him before this ends too quickly, but it backfires. John’s brought him back to health, and made his eyelids flutter wildly with each carefully aimed thrust, satisfying on so many visceral levels. When Sherlock tips his head back, exposing his throat as he groans, all medical knowledge evaporates from John’s head. He curls his toes into the floor, grips Sherlock’s hip and shoves forward, grunting with the effort. Sherlock gives a strangled cry and works his hand between their bodies to squeeze his cock. The rough rub of knuckles against John’s belly nearly ends him. He tenses against it, but when Sherlock comes with one hand braced against the wall behind him, John surrenders.

Too fast. John wants to do that again, in a proper bed in a heated flat without the threat of death or destruction hanging over their heads, but if he’s learned anything in the months he’s lived with Sherlock, it’s not to make plans. “Feel safe to presume on our partnership now?” John asks, trying to sound light-hearted.

“Yes, unless the kind of partnership you mean includes a ring and an announcement in the Sunday Times,” Sherlock says, amused.

John considers this as he picks through the piled clothing for something suitably ugly to ruin with clean-up. “Where are the other bolt holes?”

“Kensington, Chelsea, Westminster, Harrow,” Sherlock rattles off.

“Sod the announcement,” John says, and pulls out. “We christen the other four and call it good.”

One corner of Sherlock’s mouth lifts, as if he hadn’t considered this benefit. “My bed in Baker Street?”

John likes the sound of that. He hands Sherlock the soiled shirt, clean side down and ready to use. “And mine.”

“Yours is too small,” Sherlock says as he wipes his stomach.

“It’ll feel left out,” John says. “It’s only fair.”

“If we’re factoring in the emotions of inanimate objects we don’t own, let’s not forget the settee or the shower or the kitchen table.”

“We’ll have to move the microscope.”

“No, no,” Sherlock says, mock-serious. “It wants to watch.”

John snorts. “To think people call you an unfeeling machine.”

“Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson,” Sherlock muses in that whiskey voice.

Put that way, it’s a new phase in their relationship, but John’s not going to make much of this. Sherlock discards toys as rapidly as he buys them. “It has a nice ring to it,” John says, then catches Sherlock’s eye. “That kind of ring suits me just fine.”