“When objects large enough to generate their own gravity fields come into each other's influence spheres, they increase their destructive force as they hurtle towards each other, and they are lucky if they escape each other's gravity at all after the collision, surfaces damaged and cracked from the impact and black hole cores shuddering with new activity.”
- Evolving Universe: the Biography of the Cosmos, Govert Schilling
Why in all his years he never felt like he needed to know what it's like in outer space: it's already easy enough to be suspended, weightless, in the slow rising and falling of his thoughts. It's easy enough to rush through the years of his life on his own, time jumping and hiccuping, folding away around him; he can easily retreat into the columned structure of his mind, open and shut the doors at will, and feel like the centre of a large, wheeling structure, globules of knowledge kept in orbit by the organising principle of his mind. There is more than enough space inside of him to never need more. His mind palace is a spider-web structure, able to carry many times his weight, with a dark centre and many arms branching out, in a fragile balance.
Jim Moriarty isn't a man, he'd said once, he's a spider.
He never told John about the feeling of knowing another predator when you saw it, the jolt of recognition as you realised that you were matched eye for eye, limb for limb. There were things that John was better off not knowing. Sherlock is convinced of that, still, even after everything's that happened.
It was dark out, Sherlock remembers, with light rain soundlessly misting the window; John was in the kitchen of 221B, waiting for the kettle to boil, his presence heavy with the weight of the day. Or no: that's not what happened. John wasn't there, and he'd taken the kettle with him to his new apartment. This was after. Sherlock, feet up on the armrest of the sofa, watched jumping spiders on the telly, web-less, jittery, calculating. No safety net, just the acrobatics of their bodies. He'd felt like laughing then, and almost even did.
Now, coming back into himself after a plunge into the memories of that time, feeling the weight of his body restored, the light from the garden is waning and careful. On the feeding platter, a lonesome jackdaw has scared all of the little birds away and is taking its time gobbling up all of the bread crusts that Sherlock left there in the morning. If John were here, he'd go out into the garden, brandishing his cane like a weapon, and chase the bird off. John Watson, fierce protector of all that is small and easily outclassed. (And of Sherlock, which had always been the strange anomaly.)
Of course, John isn't here.
Sherlock, stiff with the passing of the hours, gets up from his armchair carefully, rolling around the old pain in his shoulder until it fades a little. The air in the old verandah is chilly and moist, with the sour edge of metal that Sherlock always tastes in here when autumn draws to a close, as if the iron window casings start to give off particles of wet rust.
“At least take a blanket if you're going to sit in there for hours again,” John says mildly, glancing up from his book.
“I'm fine,” Sherlock says, feeling more than warm enough.
As he watches, the jackdaw takes off suddenly, startled by something. Possibly one of the wild-roaming cats from number 7, down the road, Sherlock thinks. The outlines of the old pines at the back of the garden are already fading away into the creeping gloom. Sherlock can still vaguely see the dark rectangular shapes of the hives. What he immediately liked about this house, even before seeing the verandah – the respectful distance of its neighbours, the thick hedges between the gardens that mute all sounds – he likes still. He saw moving vans today: mahogany closets and an oak table, white-painted chairs, colourful children's toys, a girl's horseriding gear. The family itself wasn't there, but Sherlock knows with near-certainty it's a mother, stepfather and three children, aged between 6 and 13 – but then, there's always something, and it doesn't seem that important anymore without anyone to tell. Mr. Dawridge of number 9 must have succumbed some time ago, then. Sherlock wouldn't know: he doesn't bother to read the mail that arrives in the letterbox anymore. Mr. Dawridge – widower, advanced lung cancer – had stopped by sometimes to buy honey in recent months, long after John had left. Said it eased his breathing in a way that no pain killer could. Had found it amusing to ask Sherlock how many months he reckoned he still had to go. After he stopped coming, Sherlock realised they never exchanged first names.
Day 758, Sherlock thinks, body and mind aching, and it feels aimless, a thought lost to the dark froth on the surface of the evening.
When Sherlock gets off the plane at Heathrow, he gets efficiently manhandled by a customs officer, who is quite professional at hiding his alarm at the practical guide to sustainable auto-cannibalism in Sherlock's coat pocket. Sherlock almost thinks about explaining, for a second, and that is enough to make him realise he is close to a nervous breakdown.
He goes into the loos, and locks himself in a cubicle. He presses himself up against the side and covers his eyes with his hands, trying to find a foothold in the darkness behind his eyelids. It's pathetic, and there are cameras whose operators might find it suspicious how long he's spending in here, but there is something heavy and hot in his throat that he can't swallow away, that impedes his breathing, that spreads through his body in shocks and leaves him weak.
It dawns on him that he might be having a panic attack, and when he thinks about what John might say – Sit down for a bit, try to breathe normally. Sherlock, come on. For God's sake, just do it. Listen to me for once, you – ugh. Come sit, here, come on. Breathe. – it doesn't really help, not this time.
After a while, the pebble of heat lodged in his windpipe seems to drop a little, and his breathing calms. He takes his hands away from his eyes, and stares at the cream white of the cubicle wall opposite. Welcome 2 London, someone's written there. Tits or GTFO. Someone else, in spidery handwriting: this is the gents, stupid
Mycroft had warned him for this, in that infuriating Mycroft way of his. “Shall I arrange for a driver?” he'd delicately asked on the phone, and Sherlock, understanding it exactly for the kindness it was, had ended the call without another word. Mycroft had texted him later, once: John will not be coming to the airport to pick you up. I will send someone. –M
He draws a deep breath. There's the scent of men's urinals, overlaid with the soap and sterility that is the same in airport bathrooms all around the world. The feeling of unease persists, but the knot in his chest loosens a little when he reminds himself that he is in London. He has the home advantage again. The city will mould to him as it has before. The thought calms him down.
He leaves the airport without looking for Mycroft's driver and ducks into a taxi. The address is strange and large in his mouth, the city fast and always-changed.
Mrs. Hudson has aged since he's last seen her. He doesn't like it. It's clear she's still reeling a bit from the news; she offers him tea from his own cupboard, and then nervously apologises for treating him like a guest.
He is a guest, he realises. He can easily tell she hasn't really touched anything in the flat since John moved out, a couple of weeks after Sherlock's funeral; after that it turned into a mausoleum of sorts, the heavy weight of the everyday still there. It's like he's infringing on a sacred place, on his own memorial service. It feels more like visiting his own grave than visiting his actual grave ever did.
“I dusted once a week,” she tells him, cradling her cup of tea.
“Why didn't you look for new lodgers?” he asks her, sitting at his own table, ill at ease.
She looks at him with wet eyes, loyal eyes, shuttered, hurt eyes – the skin around them is crinkled and fragile like paper. The question itself is just another betrayal, which he suddenly feels keenly.
“I'm sorry,” he says. An apology to her was never difficult to mean.
She puts her cup down, gets up and shuffles towards the television, reaching for the remote control; when she flicks it on he's immediately met by his own image. Months ago; press pictures; the hat; John in the background.
“They've been talking about you all day,” she says, back towards him, maroon sweater, silver hair. “The radio, too.”
“Yes,” he says. “Mycroft.” He focuses on John in the background; John pulling at his hat like it doesn't really matter. Like he'll do anything. Like he'll follow Sherlock anywhere, wearing anything, doing anything.
Mrs. Hudson turns, which draws his eye towards her, in that living room, and she looks wretched, looks nothing like he would ever want her to look. “You should have told us,” she says, the judgement soft.
He notes the use of “us”, and disregards what it means. He wants to say I didn't know how, and instead says: “It was important that I didn't,” which is also true.
“That's what he said,” she says, and turns the telly off. She is brave, she is. He's always known it. She is old and she has left a marriage that hurt her and she has never looked back and she has stolen a phone for him and she does not regret not having children and she challenges Mycroft and she comes up when Sherlock is sulking. He can't think of anyone braver than she. She confirms it, and says: “He should never have been the one to tell us.”
There is nothing he can say that will make sense to her, so he doesn't try. Deep down, he wishes she'd leave him alone. He'd feel better if he could tell her he hadn't wanted to, but the truth is he gladly gave over the task of telling them he was still alive to Mycroft. The problem of registration: the removal of problems. When you do not witness something, it can hardly be said to exist.
She exists. She wavers in the face of his silence. Brave. But loves him. Two forces at work. “Your tea's old,” she says, giving him this, and it's a relief. “I'll bring up mine next time.”
“There is nothing I want to say to you,” John says, through clenched teeth, as he thrusts his key at the keyhole of his building.
“I want to say something to you,” Sherlock says, heart hammering in his throat.
“I don't want to hear it.”
It would be lovely to say that he resists, but in the face of John, in the face of John's face, and in the face of his aggressive stabs at the door, it's simply easier not to. It isn't what he was expecting of himself, but there is something sluggish in him these days, something that wants to admit defeat.
I suggest you try again.
Sherlock hates his brother, hates his brother, hates his brother, hates this feeling of being reduced, of being diminished, of growing down in stages, as though he's eight again and Mycroft, ruffled and red-faced, pulls him out of the clay pits in the forest, where he was trying to collect mud samples to look at under the microscope Daddy had given him (“for your birthday”, though it had been October).
It's been nineteen days since Sherlock exchanged three sentences with John, the first words they've spoken to each other in ten months. Lestrade, whose texting tone had gone from cheerful to exasperated over the past week, has stopped replying to his texts, and Sherlock is vaguely impressed by his resolve. Molly has let him come to the morgue once, looking so sympathetic and understanding that he bullied her into giving him a severed arm she definitely wasn't allowed to give him with a grim sense of satisfaction, a feeling of dirty triumph that completely faded later and left him feeling hollow. He hasn't contacted her again, and she for her part has kept her silence. He's not sure he can stand it, any of it: the flat, that is full of his ghost with barely any room for the real him, Mrs. Hudson, so gentle and so quietly on his side that it feels like a judgement, and the idea that even Molly Hooper wouldn't be truly glad to see him, but would only be humouring him out of some sort of compassion that all of humankind apart from him apparently shares.
The night is quiet and wet outside, the streetlights hateful yellow smudges in the rain. He can't bring himself to draw the curtains, even though the sight of the peaceful street frustrates him further. Mrs. Hudson went to bed hours ago; he could clearly imagine her routine listening to the scraping of a chair over the floor, the opening and closing of cabinets, the ticking of the water pipes, finally the silence. Her hip has been paining her even more than usual the past days; John would be worried.
He is restless with an unpleasant energy, that sends him pacing from the kitchen to the sofa, and again, and again, always coming up short against the table. For the first time since he moved back into Baker Street, Sherlock allows himself to bring up John's number on the screen of his phone. It's just a name, it's just a number. There is no reason to assume it isn't still John's current number; John isn't the one who disappeared. John isn't the one who had to cover his tracks and leave behind his hair in nondescript pub bathrooms and check into hotels under a different name every week. A sudden, violent spike of anger surges through him – he did nothing wrong. He did everything right. Who else would go to such lengths to protect the people they...?
He calls the number, riding on the waves of his angry impulse, without any sort of plan.
John picks up on the first ring. “Watson,” he says tiredly, clearly still awake, despite the hour.
Sherlock's brain is a wonder, a miracle, an organising principle that speeds through galaxies of knowledge in seconds and holds up data and facts to the brilliance of its own light. In that moment, it truly shines with eloquence and intelligence.
“Er,” Sherlock says, nearly tripping over his own feet.
“Watson,” John says again, a little more loudly.
“Holmes,” Sherlock says almost automatically. “It's – Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock.”
John goes quiet on the other side of the line. Sherlock presses his phone to his ear, hard. He doesn't hear anything.
“Oh,” John finally says.
Sherlock stands in his living room, suddenly depleted of all anger, and slowly fills up with a longing so great, so desperate, that it screws shut his mouth, fills up his throat, makes his knees go weak.
“Well?” John asks. “What's so important that you had to call me at three in the morning?”
He waits. Sherlock tries to speak, tries to find a way to put into words the harsh edge of the way he misses John, of the way that thinking of John while he's not here feels like swallowing stones, that weigh him down and make it impossible to ever get up again, of the way that it's even worse now that they're in the same city again, and Sherlock knows John doesn't want to see him.
It's impossible. “Meet me,” he finally manages. “Lunch. Or coffee.”
“Jesus, Sherlock, you –” John snaps, but then seems to take a moment to calm down. Sherlock can hear him draw in a breath. “Call me again in the morning like a functional adult, and then we'll talk,” he says, clipped, and rings off.
Sherlock drops the phone onto the sofa cushions, and stands for a bit longer, heart carefully climbing down from his throat back into his chest. He feels like laughing. A functional adult, as though John were one to speak. Hah.
He glances at his watch – nearly quarter past three. At least four more hours before John would concede that it's suitably morning.
John shakes off the rain droplets on the collar of his coat, accidentally splashing the lady at the table next to theirs.
“Sorry,” John says, grimacing, putting up an apologetic hand. She goes from startled to mollified, and smiles at him. It makes Sherlock's insides clench. The air inside Speedy's is damp, smelling of people's rainy clothes drying. The low murmur of conversation around them sets Sherlock's teeth on edge.
John sits down opposite Sherlock. The way that he lowers his body into the seat is tense, careful; as though he's calculating his chances of escape.
“Tough shift at the clinic,” Sherlock says, automatically reading John's face, then realises that he probably should have greeted John first.
John smiles tightly in that way that isn't a smile. “Good to see you haven't changed too much.” He brings his cup of coffee to his mouth, and looks away from Sherlock. He taps his fingers on the tabletop, thrumming with tension.
“Look, John,” Sherlock begins, trying to remember what the order was of the things he wanted to say. Seeing the way John looks everywhere but Sherlock is unsettling. “You should know that I only did what I did to –”
“I've been watching the news,” John interrupts, in such a steady, calm voice that Sherlock automatically falls silent. John licks his lips. “I know why you did it.”
Sherlock blinks. Apart from the glimpse he caught when Mrs. Hudson turned on the telly on that first evening, he's avoided looking up what has been said about him and his return in the press. It never felt like something he needed to know: other people's opinions hardly matter.
“Did they mention the snipers?”
“Yes,” John tells the table.
“Did they mention that you would die if –”
“Yes,” John bites, and finally, finally, meets Sherlock's eye straight on. “Yes, that was covered. Extensively. Very heroic, Sherlock. Very... selfless.”
Sherlock feels unsettled by the extent of the cold anger he sees on John's face, twisting his familiar features into something ugly. A new face for John, one that Sherlock hasn't seen before. He narrows his eyes to study it, to make it something he can understand.
“But you're still angry,” he says. “Why? If you know why that was... why are you still this angry?”
John presses his eyes shut forcefully and massages the bridge of his nose with two fingers. “You're such an... Can you really not figure out why I'm not skipping with joy here?” When Sherlock just looks at him, he makes a frustrated noise. “I don't suppose you could have sent me a fucking text, or anything?”
“Ah – no,” Sherlock says, “that would have been –”
“Or stopped at a payphone somewhere to tell me that, oh, by the way, John, I'm not really dead.”
“– dangerous,” Sherlock finishes.
“A postcard, from wherever the fuck you've been. John, the weather here is hateful and the food is terrible. You'd love it. I'm alive. Sherlock.”
Sherlock is startled into a laugh at the absurdity of it. “John, that really wasn't possible.”
“A telegram,” John says, face blanking. “John stop not dead stop will explain later stop don't worry stop Sherlock stop.” He stops and looks Sherlock in the eye for a moment. Sherlock doesn't know what to do except stare back. “Or, I dunno,” John continues, voice flat. “A coded message in the women seeking men adverts. Stupidly tall detective seeking short army doctor. Applicants must not be dead. Or you could have paid someone to fly around one of those aeroplane streamers. John and Mrs. H, I'm not dead, S-fucking-H.”
“John, look –” Sherlock says, and he's actually half-smiling, because it's John, in the flesh, with his voice and his stupid jokes and his deadpan face, and it's been ten months since Sherlock has talked to him with any chance of a response – but John's face shutters.
“God,” John says, and looks at him, sad now rather than angry. “You never trusted me, did you?”
Sherlock is so taken aback by the statement that he doesn't know how to respond. There is only one person he trusts, trusts so deeply his instincts sometimes protest, trusts without reservations, without the barest shred of self-preservation, but John must not know this, because he looks at Sherlock with a tense, tight face, all trace of wry humour gone. He gives Sherlock some time to respond, but the seconds slip away, and Sherlock isn't able to recover enough to express that John is all wrong, of course he's all wrong, he's an idiot, of course Sherlock trusts John, it's ludicrous to even suggest otherwise, but it was imperative that –
John is nodding, as though seeing something confirmed that he was expecting. “Yeah,” he says. “You just aren't capable of sharing anything. I already knew that.” He huffs a chuckle, bitter. “You could have told us yourself that you weren't dead, at least. Letting Mycroft do that, Sherlock? Really?”
John looks at Sherlock with distaste, and drains his cup of coffee. “You know, Mrs. Hudson cried for an hour when she heard you were alive. And who was there to comfort her? Mycroft. Sodding Mycroft. Mycroft Holmes did a better job of comforting Mrs. Hudson than you did, just because he was there.” He gets to his feet, digs through his pockets for his wallet and fishes out the change for the coffee.
“You were there,” Sherlock says as he watches John count coins.
John puts the money on the table. “That,” he says, and his voice is colder than Sherlock has ever heard it be, “isn't the point at all.”
He leaves, gait even and restrained. The woman at the table next to them, the one who smiled at John before, catches Sherlock's eye and gives him the smallest of smiles and an almost apologetic shrug, as if communicating some sort of shared feeling. It shocks through Sherlock nastily, like a touch to an exposed nerve. A sudden fury flares in him, and he snaps at her: “Whoever it is you're sleeping with, you should know they've infected you with herpes,” and gets up before she can respond.
When he glances back at her through the window of the café, she's still looking at him, and still wearing an expression of gentle, pitying sympathy. It makes him want to break something.
“Oh dear,” Mrs. Hudson says, when he comes into her kitchen. “Let me get the kettle on.”
Sherlock spends the anniversary of his faked death trying very, very hard not to think about what John is doing, and if John felt anything, or thought of anything when he looked at the calendar this morning.
John, still wearing a lingering smile from his conversation with Molly, is holding a wine glass filled with orange juice. His frame stiffens slightly when Sherlock sidles over to come stand next to him, but he doesn't respond otherwise.
“Hello,” Sherlock says.
“Hi,” John responds neutrally, and takes a small sip of juice. Sherlock fights down the urge to tell John how ridiculous it looks to drink juice out of a wine glass.
They stand side by side for a long moment, surveying the room. One of the head doctors, with heavy glasses and a side parting, is telling a story that has several of the nurses around him laughing. Two of the surgeons are gesturing about something in a corner, probably talking about one of their cases, judging by the graveness of their features. The head neurosurgeon stands to the left, surrounded by her team, shoulders heavy with the weight of impending retirement and a clear affection for her people. Someone's draped her shoulders with bits of red string: left-overs from the Christmas party. Over at the table with the drinks, Molly, blushing, is talking to one of the nurses and fiddling with her hair.
“Molly thinks that nurse is flirting with her,” Sherlock remarks, watching as Molly spills wine over her dress as she brings the glass up to her lips with a little too much enthusiasm.
“Maybe he is,” John says, and it almost sounds like a challenge.
There are at least four reasons why he is not, but Sherlock holds them back. “Did she invite you?” he asks instead.
“Yes,” John confirms tightly. “And I don't need to hear it, so save it.”
Sherlock glances sideways. John's profile is so familiar next to him that it sets off a pang of affection in the pit of his stomach. But John's mouth is tight, and he won't turn to meet Sherlock's eye.
“Why are you here, anyway?” John finally asks.
“Stamford,” Sherlock says.
“Mike always invites you, to every Bart's reception, even the ones you have absolutely nothing to do with,” John says. “You never come.”
“I did this time.”
“Right,” John says, and takes another sip of juice.
“John,” Sherlock says, low and careful. “I didn't say any of the things I wanted to say at Speedy's.”
John turns towards him a fraction. His face is guarded, but also waiting, his eyebrows raised. Sherlock understands it for the chance it is, and suddenly feels dread blooming in his insides.
“I didn't...” he attempts, then straightens a little. “What you said, in there, that wasn't... true,” he finally manages.
John is still looking at him, with the same, questioning expression on his face. After a few beats, he blinks. “Oh,” he says. “Was that it?”
Sherlock wishes, with a very sudden and urgent desire, for a cigarette. The light in the room is hospital-bright and matter-of-fact, designed to bring every wound to light.
John chuckles bitterly. He's shaking his head a little to himself. “I've stopped expecting... but of course you'd manage to do even worse.”
Sherlock takes his chances, and grabs John's arm. “John, I'm sorry,” he says, the words falling over each other, too fast, too casual, not at all doing any justice to the persistent ache inside him, the dull painful throb of missing John, of wanting John with him all of this time.
John is silent for a long moment, and then knocks back his orange juice as though it's a shot of tequila. He licks his wet lips.
“So am I,” he says. “I'm going to need a bit more time, Sherlock.”
“How long,” Sherlock automatically says, not even capable of making it a question.
“I don't know,” John says.
The silence stretches. The murmur of the reception is a steady buzz. Sherlock feels numb.
“I'm getting another drink,” John says, and leaves Sherlock where he's standing. Sherlock follows him with his eyes; John's walk is steady, the hand that isn't holding his empty glass balled into a fist. Molly, at the drinks table, leans into him slightly and asks him something; John's shoulders heighten with tension as he replies, and Sherlock feels vaguely ill when he catches Molly's look at him, stricken and doubtful.
Outside, Sherlock crushes his cigarette in his trembling fingers before he manages to bring it to his lips. He lets it drop to the pavement, and watches as the wind aimlessly pushes it further a few feet, before losing interest and leaving it in a shallow puddle.
“Leave me alone,” John says two weeks later, looking so, so tired as he comes out of the clinic entrance.
“I can't,” Sherlock says, and reaches out almost blindly and catches John's arm. He registers John's look of fleeting alarm before he's pulling him in and wrapping his arms around John's shoulders.
John is warm, smells vaguely of talcum powder and latex gloves and the new sweat of the warm summer day, and is stiff as a board in Sherlock's arms. The shape of his body is firm and unfamiliar against Sherlock's. It occurs to Sherlock that they're exquisitely mismatched, that John's hair is at exactly the right height for Sherlock to press his mouth against without even trying, that John's head fits into his shoulder quite wonderfully.
John squirms a little, and then awkwardly brings up an arm and pats Sherlock on the back, twice.
“Um, okay,” he says, clearly surprised, when Sherlock withdraws a little, keeping his hands on John's shoulder. Their faces are still close, and when John licks his lips, Sherlock's eyes click down to his mouth involuntarily. John is so near, so warm, and everything in Sherlock flares hotly with the sudden closeness, and he wants, he has wanted for so long – and it would be so easy, like this –
John makes a small, bewildered sound. Sherlock lets him go as if burnt, and takes a step backwards. They stare at each other for a long moment, Sherlock feeling his insides crumble slowly and fall away into an infinite drop. John's jaw is slack with surprise, his eyes widening with an increasing, terrible knowledge. Stupid. Stupid.
Sherlock casts around for something to say, anything, and comes up empty. The inside of his skull is buzzing.
“Sherlock...” John begins, and Sherlock shakes his head, because he can't let this happen, he can't let John talk to him in that way, shock turning into gentleness, into pity. It's worse than anything he can imagine, worse than anger, worse than not getting to see John at all. It's disgusting, and he can't let it.
“I'm sorry,” he says. “That's – all I came here to say. I'll leave you alone.”
“Sherlock, wait, you –” John says, looking a little dazed, but Sherlock turns and all but runs away, because he cannot let John finish that sentence, it can't be allowed.
Sherlock's phone beeps about twenty minutes after he leaves John in front of the clinic.
Without checking the message, he pulls his phone out of his pocket and drops it in the nearest public bin.
Later he rather regrets it, but Mrs. Hudson pats his hand as he sits at her table and drinks her tea and ignores the biscuits and looks at the strings of pale roses printed on her wallpaper. For the first time since he came back, she seems relaxed around him, chattering about Mrs. Turner and her sister and the promotions at Tesco. He knows she's doing it at least partly for his benefit, to give him something to be annoyed by.
As he sits there it even feels like it's enough, and he thinks that he'll be fine, like this, just going from moment to moment to moment.
Five days later, Sherlock buys a new phone. He adds Mrs. Hudson's landline to the contact list, Lestrade's professional number, and from memory, John's number. He tries very hard not to think about why there is really no practical use for that anymore, and suffers a moment of intense frustration when he can't banish the thought to a dark disused corner of his mind palace.
He changes the contact info on his website. While there, he spends a while looking at the sad state of his case notes. He forces himself not to look at John's blog, and succeeds. He eats, when he remembers to. He lets Mrs. Hudson scold him for being too thin. He texts Lestrade. Lestrade texts back, sounding terse but willing. He sleeps, in short bouts. He deletes Mycroft's text requesting to kindly keep him updated about further changes of contact means.
After three days, his phone trills, and he spends a curiously blank moment staring at the words John Watson on the screen.
What do you think your doing?
I thought something had happened
Don't even say it. I meant you're
Sherlock thumbs back and forth through the messages a few times, and finally gets his shaky fingers to work.
Threw my phone into a bin.
Thought you said no one
reads my website. Yes.
Well I do. And of course
Right. Cafe across the clinic,
tomorrow, 12. If that works
John doesn't say many of the things Sherlock had expected, and some of the things he had not.
“I'm not really angry anymore,” he says, for starters.
“I know you're in love with me,” he doesn't say at all, like it never even happened, and Sherlock didn't helplessly watch the knowledge of it fill John's eyes.
“Just... y'know. Let me know if you want to talk, or... whatever it is you do. And we'll just... see,” he says, haltingly, and pushes two packets of sugar across the table for Sherlock's coffee.
“How many secrets do you even have, you prick?” he doesn't ask, contrary to Sherlock's expectations.
“You're not that different,” he does say, and he doesn't say: “But I am.”
“Good to see you, John.” Lestrade smiles briefly at John over the rim of his plastic cup of coffee.
John's answering smile is genuine. “Happy to be back,” he says. “Though I suspect that makes me a bit touched in the head.”
“Yeah, well,” Lestrade says, and his eyes click over to Sherlock for a second. “I s'pose most of us here are.”
“Now that you've both observed the proper social niceties,” Sherlock says impatiently, “where's the body, Lestrade?”
Lestrade grins openly. It makes him look younger, less exhausted. “You must've missed him, John. God knows I did.”
Sherlock chances a glance at John. John is looking at him too, and gives him a closed-mouthed, tight-lipped smile, and looks away.
Lestrade, oblivious, finishes his coffee, and indicates for them to follow him.
It takes Sherlock a while to start to think that John looks at him. Of course, John has always looked at him, has always been fascinated by him, has always been lavish with his expressions of admiration. But it – it seems different, the way he looks at Sherlock now, with a thoughtful, almost curious expression about him, as though he's seeing something new.
Sherlock tells himself, standing in the living room of his flat devoid of John, to stop seeing things that aren't there.
Mrs. Hudson hands John far too many glasses of wine and spends most of the evening looking at John as though he's the one who's returned from the dead, moist-eyed, smiling. Sherlock finds it hard to mind, all the more so because John grows increasingly soft and flushed and laughing as the hours wear on, and he sits on the sofa like it's his: shoes off, socked feet resting on the coffee table.
Mrs. Hudson and John fill most of the evening talking idly and playing board games from the eighties, and Sherlock spends most of it behind his laptop, doing little, mostly just observing them on the sofa. Their aimless chatter doesn't even annoy him, in that way he could always bear certain things from both of them he never could from anyone else. John's tipsy and relaxed, and it looks right, the way he sits there.
“I'll do it,” Sherlock speaks up when it nears eleven, and Mrs. Hudson starts collecting the glasses for the washing-up – he can tell she's exhausted and that her hip is paining her.
She tuts, face soft. “Oh, Sherlock, if you promise not to just leave them there.”
“I promise,” he says, and answers her grateful look with a smile.
“Don't get up,” she says to John, and gives him a little pat on his leg. “Behave,” she tells them at the door, with a smile, and shuffles down the stairs.
John stretches, yawning. “She seems happy to have you back.”
Sherlock glances at him over the screen of his laptop. “She's happy to have you back, too.”
John nods a little, smiling a small smile. “Thanks for inviting me.”
“Thanks for coming.”
They look at each other for a long moment. John seems to realise how sincere it is and inclines his head a little in acknowledgement. Sherlock, very acutely, realises he doesn't want John to leave. John, for his part, doesn't seem in a hurry to go either. In fact, he's looking at Sherlock with focused eyes, as though he's expecting something from him. Sherlock clicks his laptop shut, not quite sure what to do. John's gaze makes him feel warm, in an almost uncomfortable way.
“More wine?” he asks, to give himself something to do.
John narrows his eyes at his empty glass as if sizing it up. “Might've had a couple too many already,” he says, “but sure, why not.”
Sherlock pours them both a glass, and when he hands John his, John takes it almost clumsily, wrapping his hand loosely around Sherlock's and awkwardly tugging the glass from his grip. It's a strange touch, that lasts far too long to be accidental. Sherlock blinks, and tries to ignore the warm rush of – something – that fills up his chest at the way John looks at him, eyes bright. To get it under control, he brings his glass to his mouth and misjudges the gulp he takes, so much he has to stifle a cough.
There is a long moment of silence, and then they start talking at the same time. “Sherlock –” John says, while Sherlock says “Lestrade called –”
John quirks an amused eyebrow, and Sherlock frowns a little.
“This is no time to talk about work,” John says, and then laughs, his usual dry chuckle a touch deeper and looser because of the alcohol. “Though I realise you probably don't know that.”
“I –” Sherlock begins, but falters and falls silent when John turns towards him and places a very deliberate, very steady hand on his upper arm. The warmth of it through his shirt is startling. He automatically turns his body more towards John, towards the source of that heat.
“It's like you're immune to sexual tension or something,” John says wonderingly, looking at his hand on Sherlock's arm. “Anyone else would have shagged ages ago. These past few weeks – it's been – every time you said something I just wanted to... and you're always staring at me, God, you need to stop doing that.”
“I've always done that,” Sherlock points out, before it registers fully what John is saying and his breath hitches when John slides his hand up to his shoulder and then lets it rest there, fingertips lightly touching Sherlock's neck.
“Yeah,” John says. “Exactly.”
Sherlock takes a deep breath. It feels like getting ready to take a plunge into water lined with deadly rocks hidden from sight – thrilling, and with a dark, tantalising edge of fear.
“I know that you... and I've been thinking about it too, so much,” John breathes, and then finally pushes forward and touches his mouth to Sherlock's. His breath is slightly wine-sour, and Sherlock almost doesn't know what to do; he tangles a hand in John's jumper sleeve and otherwise just lets it happen, lets John press his mouth to his and lick a careful line against his lips.
John pulls back. His cheeks are a little flushed. “You all right?”
“Fine,” Sherlock says automatically, which doesn't even begin to express how it feels: like something dark and heady is bursting open inside of him that he'd kept tightly sealed all this time. As the shock recedes a little, the deep blooming feeling of it suddenly brings him to grab John by the shoulders and push their mouths back together clumsily, lacking the finesse of recent experience that John has, but licking his way into John's mouth with enough force of persuasion that John grabs him by the back of his neck and kisses back, hard.
“Mff,” John says against Sherlock's mouth, and they spend several long, frantic moments just pressing up against each other, tongues sliding against each other hotly, teeth occasionally clicking together, which has John stifling breathless laughter into the kiss. Sherlock can't bring himself to care much.
John groans when Sherlock's hands drop from his shoulders to his chest, and lower over the thick material of his jumper to his stomach.
“Shit – I'm – a little too drunk, Sherlock,” he says, breath already deliciously quick, “don't think I can really –”
Sherlock draws back, studying him intently. His heart pounds in his ears. “But you do want to,” he says – it's half a question, half a conclusion to the story he can read from John's body, his face.
“Yes,” John breathes.
Sherlock kisses him again, more cleanly this time. John matches him, kissing back without much hurry, more languidly than before. They break apart to catch their breath. “Think you'll still want to tomorrow, once you've sobered up?” Sherlock asks, and tucks a hand against the pulse point in John's throat.
“I'm pretty sure,” John says, voice hoarse.
Sherlock leans in and kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him.
In the morning, John doesn't reply for a long time to Sherlock's
You're free to come over
which takes over most of the tracks of Sherlock's mind with a dark, terrible feeling of foreboding that makes it hard to think about anything else. He takes a shower and dresses and fiddles with his microscope and checks the website and solves a case completely via e-mail, which doesn't improve his mood, and thinks about how maybe there was only one window of opportunity, only one, that he was only to get this one, single, unexpected chance, and he missed it.
Three hours after his initial text, his phone pings.
Ok, got called in, lots
of boxing day accidents.
Sherlock wonders for a moment how normal people do it, cope with all this, allow hope and uncertainty and fear of rejection into themselves, and how they don't just puncture after a time, like balloons that have been blown up and deflated one time too often.
John doesn't exactly look as eager as he did the night before – in fact it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say he looks nervous – but when Sherlock steps over the threshold of his fear and takes John's face in his hands and kisses him, he sighs a little and leans in, nevertheless.
He insists on Sherlock's bedroom, and tugs the curtains closed, and even in the gloom of it he's clearly thinking things that Sherlock finds hard to read, but when Sherlock slides his own pants down over his hips on the bed, John still looks at him with something like the old familiar awe, and scoots forward to kiss him and run his fingers along the swelling line of his cock. John still lets out a sound that is very much like a moan when Sherlock shudders through his orgasm against John, spilling sticky and intimate between the close press of their bodies. He still shows Sherlock how he likes it, far more slowly than Sherlock does, long, lazy strokes that draw it out, and Sherlock is fascinated by how his face changes in the half-darkness as he gets closer and closer.
When John comes, he tangles his hands in Sherlock's hair and pulls on it, and muffles a “Sher -” into Sherlock's shoulder.
He gets dressed with his back towards Sherlock, and is mostly silent as they have tea, which Sherlock awkwardly offered, wondering about what is the usual post-mutual-orgasm etiquette between people – most of his prior shared orgasms didn't require much etiquette, and John isn't saying much to go on.
But before he leaves, John puts a hand against Sherlock's upper arm and squeezes it, tipping his head up to look Sherlock in the eye.
“See you soon,” he says. “Thanks for the tea.”
Sherlock knows when to take what he can get.
“I'm so glad to see you two back as you were,” titters Mrs. Hudson one evening, cutting a slice of cake for John at the table. “He's been worse than ever without you here, John. He's not fit to be alone, when it comes down to it. No, no, don't get up, I'll bring it over to you.”
John, who had moved away from the contact of Sherlock's thigh against his when Mrs. Hudson had come up, smiles at her, and accepts the plate she brings over to the sofa.
“I'm only visiting, Mrs. H., I don't live here anymore,” he gently reminds her.
Sherlock looks at him, and remembers how forty minutes ago John's hands had been a soft weight on his head, suggesting but not commanding the pace, letting Sherlock take in his cock a bit more with each bob of his head, and how he'd gone quiet and shuddery when Sherlock had experimentally curled his tongue around the head of it. Sherlock can still taste him when he licks his lips, but he doesn't really know what it means that John sends him a dark glance, as though blaming him for something.
“Oh, well, of course,” Mrs. Hudson says, slightly deflated. “Did you want a piece, Sherlock?”
“For Christ's sake, Sherlock,” John snaps, and twists away from the touch of Sherlock's hand sliding over his stomach.
“What?” Sherlock says as he sits back, immediately wary.
“I just want to watch QI, leave me alone.”
Sherlock scowls, a prickle of annoyance running up his spine. “Well, I'm sorry if I assumed that you coming over here to watch TV instead of doing that in your own perfectly adequate flat might have meant that you wanted to –”
“Stop – talking,” John says, and his words are lined with such menace that Sherlock automatically shuts up. John re-focuses on the telly, but Sherlock can tell he's hardly paying attention; his eyes are hard and his jaw is working. After a couple of extremely tense minutes, Sherlock gets up from the sofa and moves over to his microscope on the kitchen table. It takes him over twenty seconds to remember which of the slides he'd been working on before John came in.
John finishes QI, switches off the television, and leaves without saying goodnight.
There is no word from John for a maddening nine days. Sherlock solves a Met case with such ferocity that Lestrade asks him afterwards if he's okay, seeming confused at his own question. Sherlock shocks himself even more by snapping back something that includes John's name, and later wonders how he got there, sitting on a pub stool with Lestrade while Lestrade tips back his pint in big gulps and patiently says things like some things take time, Sherlock.
When he gets home, he literally bashes his head against the wall, and endures with grim satisfaction Mrs. Hudson's scandalised tutting as she sticks a plaster on the small wound on his forehead.
Are you in tonight?
John brings over pork curry and naan that sits uneaten on the coffee table next to his unspoken apology as Sherlock looks down at his grey-blond head and shivers at the first, tentative touches of John's tongue to his cock, feeling like the marrow of his bones itself has turned liquid and hot and melting.
For some reason he can't help but laugh a little when he comes; it's almost a surprise, sneaking up on him nearly unannounced, and he can hardly warn John off, which means that when John looks up at him with wide, unreadable eyes when it's over there is a line of Sherlock's come spattered on his cheek. Sherlock, without thinking, smears his thumb through it. It seems to send a jolt of something through John, and when he comes up to kiss Sherlock it's hard and sharp, teeth-lined. “Don't,” John breathes when he breaks the kiss, but then rubs his sticky cheek against Sherlock's, and arches forward when Sherlock brings down a hand to palm at his erection.
Sherlock doesn't know what it means. He really, really doesn't.
“We do have a witness,” Lestrade tells them, “but she doesn't make much sense. Doesn't appear to be in shock, but keeps saying it was a monster. Dark, shaggy, hairy, wolf-like – you name it. Werewolves, or something. Security tape footage doesn't show anyone who hasn't been accounted for entering or leaving the building; either someone's edited it out pretty expertly or that bloke was a contortionist who stabbed himself in the back. It's pretty puzzling.”
“For you, maybe,” Sherlock says, smirking with the anticipation of a solid riddle. “We'll need to speak to this witness, of course.”
“She's just in the other room,” Lestrade says, indicating the door with his coffee spoon.
The woman is calm and clever and clearly not in shock, though shaken. She also looks at John with an appreciating, assessing look that Sherlock isn't sure what to do with, because it sets off a completely illogical feeling of possessiveness inside him, and he hates her for it, for that look of calm interest in John.
When he has what he needs from her and gets up to leave, John hangs back. Sherlock only notices it when he's back beside Lestrade and John isn't with him.
When John does come out of the room, his posture is very straight and he's wearing a small smile. When Sherlock meets his eye, he raises his eyebrows a fraction, clearly communicating Problem?
Sherlock doesn't know quite what it is inside him that makes him want to grab John by the lapels and shake him, and shake him, and kiss him, and then shake him some more.
It can't be that serious, Sherlock supposes, if John still comes to Baker Street after another date with her instead of going home to his own flat, and slides his hands up Sherlock's nape into his hair and kisses him, open-mouthed and filthy.
It can't be that serious if John watches Sherlock's face closely as he pushes a finger into him, and bites his lip as Sherlock keens and presses his hips back against it, working himself open fraction by fraction on John's hand.
“You're so sensitive,” John says, sounding awed, and presses the pad of his finger upwards, grazing Sherlock's prostate.
“I – ah – I can come just from this,” Sherlock groans, breath coming quick, “if you keep it up long enough.”
It can't be that serious if John looks up at him, eyes dark with lust, and says “Jesus,” as though Sherlock is some sort of revelation, a miracle, a wonder.
It isn't that serious, and John simply shrugs when Sherlock raises a quizzical eyebrow when he comes in, and hangs his coat, slick with rain, onto the hanger that for all intents and purposes is his.
“No need to tell me what happened,” he says, tersely, “I was there. Have any beer in?”
“You should move back in,” Sherlock says in the dark.
John huffs a laugh next to him, his arm loose and heavy over Sherlock's chest. “Just after an orgasm is maybe not the best time to discuss things like that,” he murmurs.
“It's a perfectly suitable time,” Sherlock says. “Besides, it's only logical. It's clear your flat is less financially convenient for you while far less spacious or comfortable than this one. Baker Street is closer to the clinic. You're here plenty of the time as it is. Mrs. Hudson would be thrilled to have you back here. It makes perfect sense.”
“It makes perfect sense,” John repeats vaguely. Sherlock can feel him rolling over onto his back, away from Sherlock.
Sherlock counts the seconds as they slip past in the near-perfect darkness of his bedroom deep in the night. When he gets to twenty, he puts out a hand and feels John jump slightly when it lands on the soft part of his stomach. Sherlock lays it there, palm down, fingers spread, and notes the movement of John's breath and the warmth of his skin.
“I'd like you to,” he finally says, low, quiet, wondering if he's pushing the limit, the limit that they never talk about and that sometimes seems to change without warning.
John puts his own hand on top of Sherlock's, lightly locking their fingers together. Like this, in the dark, when they can't see each other clearly, the boundaries are less sharp.
“Yeah,” John says, and lets out a long, soft breath. “You're right, it does make sense.”
Mrs. Hudson makes lemon zest cake because John likes it, and they eat it together after John finishes putting away all of his boxes and occasionally calling down to Sherlock that he could use a hand, you know, but clearly not really bothered that Sherlock mostly ignores him and lets him tinker about in his old bedroom on his own.
Mrs. Hudson looks so delighted to have them here together that Sherlock can't resist the urge to grab John gently by the back of his neck and squeeze the firm muscle there.
John looks back at him, and smiles, and he looks so happy that Sherlock curiously feels as though something is squeezing him too, something somewhere in his chest.
“Oh God,” John groans, gripping Sherlock's hips as Sherlock slowly lowers himself onto John's cock, gritting his teeth around the exquisite burn of the stretch. “Fuck, that's so good – Sherlock –”
Sherlock steadies himself with a hand against the headboard as his body comes flush against John's, the tickle of John's pubic hair against his arse, the skin of his sides hot and slightly sweaty under Sherlock's thighs. John is quiet beneath him, not moving, breathing already a little ragged. “Give me – a minute,” Sherlock says hoarsely; it's been so long since he's done this, and the idea that it's John makes him need to take a little break to get a grip on the whirring inside his head.
“Hey,” John says breathlessly, smoothing his hands over the skin of Sherlock's sides and down the outsides of his thighs, “it's okay. Take your time.”
Sherlock closes his eyes for a second – the blackness of the inside of his eyelids is more complete than the gloom of the bedroom, and when he opens them again he can make out John a bit better: the contours of his body, the light sheen of sweat on his face.
“John,” Sherlock says, voice low, and rolls his hips a little, experimentally – the movement makes John give a small, bitten-off moan. “I want – to switch on – the light,” Sherlock says, punctuating his words with careful movements of his hips.
John's hands squeeze his thighs more firmly at the friction, but he doesn't speak for a long moment.
“John,” Sherlock repeats.
“Yeah, I'm... fine,” John says, breathlessly, and removes one of his hands to reach out for the bedside table and switches the lamp on – the room is immediately bathed in the soft glow of it. John meets Sherlock's look with wide eyes.
Never taking his eyes off John, Sherlock sets the pace, grunting with the building exertion of it, thigh muscles burning deliciously as he grinds down on John's pubic bone, and watches with a new sort of fascination the way John's mouth falls open in soundless pleasure, and the way John doesn't look away at all, can take it all the way through.
Later that night, Sherlock runs his fingers through his shower-damp hair, kicks out his feet over the coffee table, and completely by accident catches John observing him from the kitchen, where he's making tea. John's eyes click down immediately when Sherlock intercepts his look, and he turns away. Sherlock shifts a little on the sofa, trying to swallow a vague sense of anxiety away.
When they get home from the crime scene, Sherlock sets himself up with his violin in front of the window, brain already rushing over the details of the past hours.
“I'm tired,” John says from the hallway. “I'm going to try and get some sleep.”
“I could need you,” Sherlock says, and turns around to find John peering at him from the doorway.
“I really need to get a couple of hours,” John says, and there is a tightness to his frame that Sherlock easily reads as sleep deprivation. “You can always wake me up if something happens.”
“Okay, fine,” Sherlock says, a little unwillingly. He turns back around, shoulders his violin, and tunes out the sounds of John climbing the stairs to his room.
Oakley St 86. Need
you here, now.
I really can't just
abandon my shift,
sorry, but tell me
about it later, ok?
When Sherlock finally makes it home, bursting with the after-sparks of adrenalin and looking forward to reconstructing the last few hours for John's benefit over some tea and Indian, he nearly runs into John at the top of the stairs.
“John!” Sherlock says, breaking into a grin. “You are going to wish you had quit your job, this case – it was –” He takes note of John's state of dress and falls silent. “Going somewhere?”
John looks surprised to see him. “Er, yeah, Mike rang. He wanted to catch up.”
“Oh,” Sherlock says. “I thought we could get some food.”
“I already ate, sorry,” John says. “I didn't know when you'd be getting home.” He doesn't immediately move.
Something deflates inside of Sherlock, and the happy buzz of the case simmers down and seeps away. Suddenly he feels tired. “Yes, okay,” he says, and frowns a little at himself, at the feeling of disappointment that replaces the glow of adrenalin inside him. He'd been looking forward to seeing John, to talk about the case and let the warmth of John's admiration and interest pull them together as it sometimes had, before – but he doesn't quite know how to say that without crossing the careful lines between them.
John smiles briefly. “I'll see you tomorrow.” He works his phone out of his pocket and looks at it for a long moment, then gently shoulders his way past Sherlock. “There's pasta in the fridge,” he calls up when he's almost downstairs, without turning around.
After the case finally breaks, after the tearful gratitude of the client and the almost force-fed pints bought for them by the client's girlfriend, after the silent, tired cab ride, Sherlock leans in without much thought and tries to kiss John over the take-away box of pad thai between them on the sofa.
John freezes so completely that Sherlock automatically aborts the movement of his head before his mouth even meets John's. He draws back, slowly, eyebrows raised in question.
John looks like a caged animal, eyes wide, every line in his face tight. “I'm sorry,” he says, and brings up his hands, as if to deflect... something. It occurs to Sherlock that that something is probably him.
“Something wrong?” he asks, narrowing his eyes.
John scrubs his hands over his eyes, then fixes Sherlock with a steady look. “We need to stop doing this,” he says, evenly.
“This,” Sherlock repeats.
“Yeah, this.” John makes a vague gesture in Sherlock's direction.
“I see,” Sherlock says. “Breaking the unspoken 'let's not talk about it when we're not doing it' rule. Interesting.”
John breathes in noisily through his nose. “I want to stop.”
Sherlock is on his feet without really noticing it, and then stands awkwardly in front of the sofa, unsure of where his body wanted to take him. He opens his mouth, only to find that he can't find a single thing to say. It's like everything inside him has switched off.
John is watching him, and when he doesn't speak, shakes his head. “It's getting unhealthy, Sherlock.”
Sherlock scowls. “Don't pretend that you are in any way interested in healthy, please. Spare me.”
John folds his arms over his chest, which serves to improve his shoulder posture to the military straightness he adopts when he's tense. “I spend pretty much my every waking minute with you.”
Sherlock frowns at him. “Problem? That's never bothered you before.”
“Well, it was different before, wasn't it?”
Sherlock looks down at him, trying to get a grip on John's expression. It was different before, but really not that much; it has to be the sex, John's inability to acknowledge it when it's not happening, his guarded defensiveness over the state of his sexuality.
“What's this really about?” he finally dares to ask, eyes narrowed.
“Look, it's –” John licks his lips. “I met someone, okay. And it's different than before. So we... this has to stop.”
Sherlock blinks. How had he not...?
“It's still very new,” John is saying. “It's not even sure if anything will... come of it. But it made me realise that we need to have this conversation.” He clears his throat, and looks up at Sherlock with a steady gaze.
Sherlock looks back, his brain frantic, worrying at the pieces, until they click together – John's looks during the cases, long and assessing, the way he took his phone out of his pocket more often than usual, sometimes just holding it in his hand as though checking its weight, and the way he'd gone upstairs to sleep while Sherlock worked, shoulders straight and tight. Sherlock had seen all of this, and still he hadn't...
John is talking. “And this is – this thing between us, whatever it is, I don't know. It's not like it's...” It looks like he's rolling a word around in his mouth, trying it out. “...permanent,” he finally says. He has a look of resigned distaste on his face, something that Sherlock would associate with him glancing at the washing-up and seeing how far advanced some of the fungi already are. “Right?”
“Right,” Sherlock echoes, insides cold.
John smiles at him a little at that, tight-lipped. “I thought we should stop while... well. With minimal damage.”
“Minimal damage,” Sherlock repeats flatly. Inside his head, things have gone strangely quiet now; it's hard to do anything but just look at John as he speaks.
“Yeah,” John says. “We can just... go back to how things were.” He looks up into Sherlock's face; the eye contact is hard to bear for longer than a second, and Sherlock turns away to reach for his violin bow on the coffee table. He runs a finger over the bowstrings; one of the horse hairs has snapped and is curled up at one end.
When he looks back at John, John is frowning. “I thought you'd have figured out this was coming. We've been busy, but... you must have noticed that I've been avoiding – this,” he says, making another vague gesture between them.
“Of course I noticed,” Sherlock snaps, and, well, he had, hadn't he? But now it turned out he'd completely misread the magnitude and meaning of it. There had been cases almost back to back for the last few weeks, and that had been enough to occupy his brain and assume that John was similarly engaged. He hadn't thought that it had meant anything more.
It feels like something bottomless has opened up inside him.
John seems to know this somehow, with the strange brand of knowledge that he has that Sherlock sometimes doesn't have, because he looks at Sherlock with a doubtful, almost soft look in his eye. “Are you okay with this?” he asks.
“Yes, fine,” Sherlock says promptly, almost without meaning to.
John gives him a very small smile, one of those that Sherlock can very easily tell isn't really a smile. “Good, okay,” John says, clears his throat, and then glances at his watch. “I'm... glad we had this talk. I, erm, I'll be going.”
Sherlock says nothing, and after a second John gets up and moves around him towards the door. Sherlock can't stop his eyes from following him.
At the door, John makes a jerky movement, as though catching himself halfway through taking a step in Sherlock's direction. “Sherlock,” he says, “you know you're – we're mates, yeah? Nothing has to... you're my friend.”
“Yes, thank you, John,” Sherlock says crisply, slightly recovered, and re-focuses on the violin bow, sliding his thumb over the strings.
“Right,” John says. It's another long moment until he actually leaves. He closes the door behind him with more than his usual care.
Sherlock stands there for a second longer, caressing the bow. Then, he takes a breath and lifts his violin out of its case to put the familiar, friendly weight of it on his shoulder. “It's not like it's permanent,” Sherlock repeats to himself, quietly. Right? Right. Of course. How could it ever have been. It was obvious.
He picks at one of the strings with his fingertip: a sharp, off-key pizzicato. He automatically starts twisting the corresponding peg to correct the sound, but then suddenly grows heavy with fatigue, and puts the violin back into its case, slowly, tenderly.
Sherlock almost wishes John would just say it when he goes out with her, when he stays over at hers, when he's fucked her all night and has made her breakfast and has had to rush to make it to work on time and has spent his entire shift thinking about her. Sherlock doesn't even expect John to act like it isn't big, or like it isn't important. That would be fine. He just wishes that John wouldn't feel the need to go out into the hallway when she texts, or hide smiles that are triggered by some private memory behind his hand.
Sherlock knows all of it anyway. Not being part of it, having to pretend he doesn't see it, is many times worse than being shown it from up close; now it sits there between them like a ghost, always present, and it makes everything John says to him sound tense and calculating, even when it isn't.
It doesn't work out. John appears fine, though Sherlock is aware that he might not be seeing enough of John to know for sure. Despite the relationship ending, John carefully gets out of Sherlock's path in the flat, doesn't look him in the eye for longer than a maximum of three seconds, and is most uncomfortable when he finds himself inside the relatively cramped space of the kitchen together with Sherlock. During cases he is helpful and normal, and no one, not even Mrs. Hudson or Lestrade, seems to notice any change in him.
Sherlock does, because he watches.
And what he sees is: John is terrified.
John doesn't seem to even entertain the notion of moving out of 221B, which puzzles Sherlock. It's completely illogical for John to stay when even the barest brush of Sherlock's body against his makes him go rigid with tension.
They barely talk, apart from cases. John works a lot. Sherlock feels like something is happening that he doesn't understand, no matter how long he thinks about it, and it's a supremely uncomfortable and novel feeling.
He does the only thing he can think of: wait. (And hope, though he tells himself several times to stop.)
When it does finally happen, it's clear right away.
John had come in half-frozen, flushed-cheeked with cold, and Sherlock had got off the couch at the sight of him and had started making him tea without comment. He'd been fancying a cup anyway.
“Sherlock,” John says quietly behind him, and when Sherlock turns, John is in the kitchen with him, his cold hands crammed deep into the pockets of his trousers. The way his jaw tenses when Sherlock fixes him with a quizzical look already says everything. “I'm – I've been a dick. And if you – I don't know – if you still –”
Sherlock steps forward and bends down to kiss John, and it's not at all complicated.
The day is coldly bright outside, and John doesn't draw the curtains. Sherlock chases the lingering chill out of John's skin with his hands and sees all of it, how John arches his back and his jaw goes slack as they thrust up against each other into the slick ring of Sherlock's fist, and how John shudders completely silently through his orgasm, face pressed hard into Sherlock's shoulder.
He stays like that for quite a while, arms tight around Sherlock's torso, and Sherlock isn't entirely sure what to do with that, so he just lets him, lightly running his hand up and down the skin of John's back, feeling strangely peaceful as his minds lazily picks up different thoughts to play with and discard again.
Finally, John lifts his face off Sherlock and breathes in hard through his nose.
“Okay,” he says, as though admitting defeat. “Okay.”
The next morning John comes banging down the stairs with a suitcase.
“I'm going to spend a couple of days with Harry,” he says in response to Sherlock's raised eyebrows. “Train leaves in forty-five minutes, have to hurry.”
“You can't stand Harry.”
John shrugs. “She's still my sister.”
“Fine,” Sherlock says nonchalantly, flapping a hand. “Whatever you think is necessary to deal with... your little crisis.”
John glowers at him, but without any real heat behind it. They both know they're just playing at it, at the parts that would normally be theirs. Even pretending to return to something like normality makes Sherlock feel as though he can finally breathe again.
Before John disappears down the stairs, he turns to Sherlock and says: “I'll try to be back before Christmas.”
Sherlock listens to him go, and brings his palms together under his chin.
December 31 st , 2014
John comes home at four.
“Nice to see you're still alive,” Sherlock says mildly, without turning around, lifting his bow off his violin. The final note persists just a fraction of a second longer, a clear, transparent trill. “How was Harry?”
“Horrid,” John says.
“You managed for a surprising nine days.”
“She wasn't horrid all of the time.”
“Ah, yes. In the short interval between her first coffee and whiskey and her third I imagine she might be capable of civility.” Sherlock puts his violin down and turns around. John looks calm, which is reassuring. “Anything I should know?” Sherlock asks him, quieter.
John, who almost never initiates touch outside of foreplay, and who sometimes jumps when Sherlock puts an unassuming hand on him in passing, steps forward and touches all ten of his fingertips to the lapels of Sherlock's dressing gown. The light pressure of it sends a shiver of warmth down Sherlock's spine. He's missed John, in a straight-forward, impossible to ignore or misunderstand sort of way.
“I suppose I,” John begins, looking at his fingers instead of at Sherlock's face, then clears his throat. “...underestimated the, erm, the intensity of. Of this. Of you.” He does look up at Sherlock then, and swallows visibly.
“You panicked,” Sherlock says. “I noticed.”
“Yeah,” John says. “I do that.”
“Not often for months on end, though.”
John smiles a little not-smile. “Never that you were around to see, no.”
Sherlock looks at him for a few seconds, and then flicks his eyes down John's body and up again, picking up the bits and pieces he can gather there – slept badly on Harry's couch, hand-washed jumper because of lack of washer in Harry's apartment, nicked chin while shaving yesterday, used Harry's shampoo, sat behind glass with face turned towards sun for at least three hours –
John's palms make full contact with Sherlock's chest. “I've been a massive prick. Sorry.”
Sherlock feels almost faint with the relief of it, sitting like a warm liquid in the pit of his stomach. He takes a breath. “You'd like to be monogamous, which is fine with me, since I only sleep with you anyway and don't feel any desire to change that. You don't want anything else to change much, and you don't want to make a big deal out of telling anyone, though you'd probably say if anyone you care about asked. It means something to you to acknowledge it, to name it, even if it's just in private. Apology accepted.”
John huffs a laugh. “Thought that was coming.”
“You missed Christmas,” Sherlock tells him after a beat. “I should warn you Mrs. Hudson will want to force-feed you to make up for it.”
John smiles a real, sincere smile, and tightly grabs the fabric of Sherlock's dressing gown when Sherlock gives in to the impulse to cover that smile with his mouth.
January 1 st , 2015
John groans a little and mumbles something unintelligible when Sherlock rolls over and hooks an arm over his body, restoring the closeness they'd lost during sleep. Sherlock's room is already bright with morning light, and there's the popping sounds of people firing off likely illegal fireworks not far away. Not much later, the urgent blare of a siren, which makes Sherlock roll his eyes. Idiots. John grunts a protest at the noise, but doesn't stir much otherwise.
It's not hard to fall asleep again, which takes Sherlock a little by surprise the next time he wakes up.
“Are you still all right?” Sherlock asks John carefully, after Mrs. Hudson has come up to wish them a happy New Year and has spent at least twenty minutes tutting over John and gently scolding him for missing Christmas at 221B.
John looks up at Sherlock from where he's sitting on the couch, staring at his half-eaten plate of Yorkshire pudding with the courage of the damned, and smiles so genuinely that it's almost as if a light has been switched on somewhere inside him. “Yes,” he says, puts the plate away and then, slowly, as though trying it out, puts out a hand and waits for Sherlock to take it, tugging him down into the sofa.
Sherlock looks sideways at him, half-amused, half-wary. John leans into him and tucks his face into the space between Sherlock's shoulder and his jaw.
“Why am I such an idiot?” he mutters, voice muffled.
“It does strain belief sometimes,” Sherlock hums, and wraps an arm around John's shoulder, almost embarrassed at the warm, deep flush of happiness that sets his insides alight.
Sherlock catches John looking at him when he straightens up from the blood smear, clicking shut his pocket magnifying glass. It's a hard, hungry look, lined with intention – and Sherlock answers it completely, looking back straight at John, feeling a flint of anticipation spark in his stomach. One corner of John's mouth is smiling.
Lestrade frowns a little, looking between them. “Something I missed?”
“No more than the usual, Lestrade,” Sherlock says, not taking his eyes off John. “Don't worry.”
“You are incredible,” John breathes in the cab as Sherlock sits, still thrumming with energy, mind jubilant as he turns the final pieces over again and find that they completely, beautifully fit. “That was incredible.”
“What a case,” Sherlock all but crows, every neuron singing in euphoria.
“You're a fucking wonder. You're a fucking miracle,” John says, and his voice is so raw and thready Sherlock finally remembers to look over at him.
He blinks at the sight that meets him. “You're extremely aroused,” he says.
“Fuck yes,” John says, eyes dark with lust, “I've been hard ever since you started talking about Chechnya.”
“You have strange kinks, John,” Sherlock says, smiling, and lets John pull him in and lick his mouth and tug on his hair and suck on his neck until they're both panting with it. They're so wired by the time they get home they don't even argue with the cabbie when he charges them extra for spoiling the seats, even if they didn't.
Sherlock, spread out on the couch, flicks away the newspaper that had been lying on his face and makes a long, hard sound of frustration. “I can't stand it any longer!”
“God, unwind a little, will you?” John's voice comes from where he's sitting in the armchair with a completely imbecilic novel that Sherlock knows will end with the protagonist's mother turning out to be the double-crossing spy and a whole lot of insipid dialogue with bad Russian accents written out quasi-phonetically.
“I can't, John. There's nothing. Nothing.”
“It's only been four days since your last case,” John says, sounding patient in that way that means he's had just about enough.
“Four days of mind-melting boredom,” Sherlock groans. “I might as well be dead. I wouldn't know the difference.”
“I would,” John says almost mildly.
It makes Sherlock fall silent, but only for a minute. “You don't know what it's like, John. It's like every cell in my body is calling out for stimulation. I'll be in a vegetative state soon.”
“Sometimes I wonder how old you are.” John somehow manages to turn a page with a pointed sound.
“I can feel myself mentally degenerating, yes. My brain is atrophying.” Sherlock puts his hands on his face and taps his fingers on his cheeks in a rapid, enervated rhythm. Everything inside him screams out for a diversion, for something, anything –
“Read a book,” John suggests evenly. “Go for a walk. Finish that documentary you started watching last week before Lestrade called. Put together a bloody puzzle, I don't know. Or, hey, do the dishes.”
“All incredibly inadequate, and sure to only make it clearer how full of idiots the world is.”
“Doing the dishes reminds you of the world's number of idiots?” Sherlock can hear John snap his book shut without indicating the page – he must have caught on to how moronic it is. Better late than never.
“Everything does. There is not a moment's respite from the realisation of how stupid everyone is.” Sherlock presses his eyes shut, feeling as though every nerve in his body is whining dully, demanding attention.
John makes a clicking sound with his tongue. “If I suck your cock, will that make you shut up?”
Sherlock's eyes open. It almost feels as if his brain sighs at the prospect, in anticipation of some relief. “Worth a try,” he says, and scrambles to untie the knot of his dressing gown, throws open the flaps of it, and waits.
When nothing has happened after a few moments, he turns his head to look at John – who is looking at him with his eyebrows raised high.
“I mean,” he amends, “that would be nice. John.”
John shakes his head, but half of his mouth is smiling, as though he can't help it. “Scoot up, then. I'm not sitting on my knees on the floor just so you can get serviced.”
John knows very well how to lick Sherlock so he won't come quickly – just letting the weight of his cock sit on his tongue, and alternating that with broad, long licks, without much sucking.
“God, thank you,” Sherlock groans when he wouldn't be able to say anymore how long John has had him in his mouth, and when the way the pleasure pools hotly in his groin starts to push everything else away, take over the fast-running tracks of his mind one by one. John keeps it up for a long time, until a different sort of frustration starts to burn inside of Sherlock, and he keeps trying to push his hips up, but John holds him down with his hands. Finally, just before it gets to be too much, John swallows him down as deeply as he can, and bobs his head, sucking hard on every upstroke, immediately igniting intense pleasure in Sherlock's gut. “Ngh,” Sherlock formulates intelligently, and manages “Thank you – I –” before he comes into John's mouth, one hand in John's hair, the other clenched tightly around the sofa's backrest.
John keeps him in his mouth, catching most of his come. He only pulls off after Sherlock goes soft in his mouth, aftershocks still sparking up his spine. “You're welcome,” he says throatily, wiping his lips. “Now please shut the fuck up.” He presses a soft kiss to Sherlock's hip.
“Yes,” Sherlock breathes, and pets John's hair with a lazy, heavy hand.
“Don't even start,” John says, holding up a hand, “we booked this trip three months ago. You said you wanted to see Pompeii, remember? Look at all the bodies? Read the graffiti?”
Sherlock groans. “John, this case is important.”
John snorts. “Yesterday you said it was barely a two. You didn't even finish reading the e-mail. You just don't feel like getting off your couch.” He punctuates the you and the couch by jabbing his index finger at Sherlock. “You have absolutely nothing on. All you've been doing these past days is harassing Mrs. Hudson about Mr. Stephens – she practically begged me to get you out of here.”
“Well, she could be a bit more discreet,” Sherlock says tartly, and rolls his eyes at John's glare. “Holidaying together, John? Really? Like some sort of middle-aged married couple.”
“We are a middle-aged couple, in case you hadn't noticed. And I took time off for this from the clinic. I'm ruddy well going, and I'm not going to Italy without you.”
Sherlock lets out a deep sigh, scrubs a hand through his hair, and says: “Oh God, fine. I'll go. Also, I'm 39 and you're 43. That hardly qualifies as middle-aged.”
“I'll just speak for myself then,” John says. “Being with you is almost certainly taking off twenty years of my life.”
“Nonsense,” Sherlock says with a yawn. “I keep you young of spirit.”
On the plane, Sherlock sits nearly folded in half against the seat in front of him, fidgets furiously for a good fifteen minutes, and eventually settles for pushing his knees up against John's legs, which earns him the blackest of glares that shows that John has been stewing in annoyance at his fumbling the entire time. Sherlock ignores it.
“John,” he says loudly, “the man in front of us is masturbating under his flight information sheet.”
John looks at him with the look of a man who realises he's made a terrible, terrible mistake.
“Sometimes you can even make out their expressions,” Sherlock says softly to John, peering down at one of the plaster casts of a Pompeiian in death throes, still a child, limbs twisted awkwardly. “It's amazing. They died nearly two thousand years ago.”
“Told you you'd like it,” John says, passing a hand over his sweaty brow and re-adjusting his sunglasses on his forehead. Sherlock doesn't even deny it, squatting down to get more on the level of the body. The cast looks rough, with none of the smoothness of a normal statue, but Sherlock realises with something of awe that this might be the closest he can ever come to studying a body that's seconds from death, knowing what's coming, working on complete instinct. Even if the data is strongly diluted, just a plaster imprint of what the bodies left behind in the ash as they decomposed, it still makes him want to reach out and touch a hand to the child's form. He restrains himself, remembering the rapid, angry syllables that one of the site overseers had spat out at him when he'd stepped over one of the separation lines and had thumbed curiously at an ancient fresco. His Italian is sufficient to know that it was an unconditional warning. He doesn't want to get thrown out – not from here.
“Boy's curling his arms around himself,” he says. “Protective gesture. Maybe he could hear the pyroclastic cloud coming, and woke up from that. He only had a few seconds – they'd have been pure fear, no time for anything else.”
“It's probably a she,” John says, peering at the small plaque on the wall of the villa. “They think these were women's quarters.”
“There's always something,” Sherlock says, and smiles to himself.
John steps up behind him. “Have I told you I like you in shorts?” he says affectionately, trailing a warm hand over Sherlock's curls.
“Yes, extensively,” Sherlock hums, arching up into the touch despite the fact that his hair sticks to his forehead in sweaty tendrils. “I'll let you tell me again when we get back to the hotel.”
“That's – that's – oh,” John says, as if surprised, when Sherlock scissors his fingers inside of him, and then stops talking, as Sherlock lays himself across his body and kisses his sounds away, swallowing them up, absorbing them into himself.
The hotel room smells of salt and clean sheets, and the sweat dries on their skin with the warm breeze from the open window.
Far out in the bay, it's possible to drift slowly, floating face-up with his eyes closed and his arms spread, and think about how death is such a small, easy thing, a turning point of not even a second, and then suddenly becomes irreversible and permanent – a state of being. He can think of no equivalent for it, apart from life, and his mind, lazy with sea water, jumps to the fullness of the space beneath his body, full of water and old ships and creatures watching him as he invades their territory. The sun shines hard on his face, while the rest of his body is cool from the sea, and it's like floating on an edge, a world above, a world beneath.
John lifts himself up on his elbows when Sherlock comes back from the shoreline, dripping water.
“Jesus, Sherlock, I could barely make out where you were anymore,” he says, frowning. “How far out did you even go?”
“I swam competitions when I was at uni,” Sherlock says drily, flopping belly down onto his towel. John makes a small sound of protest at the droplets Sherlock splashes onto him when he shakes the water out of his hair. “It got boring. Only so many ways to cross a swimming pool.”
“I thought you were a junkie at uni,” John says, clearly watching Sherlock's shoulders and enjoying whatever it is he sees there.
“I was a recreational user, John,” Sherlock says, his voice muffled by the towel. “Besides, taking drugs is hardly a full-time occupation. I had to find other ways to keep busy.”
“Huh,” John says, “Mycroft always makes it sound like he had to drag you off to rehab every six months.”
“Patently untrue, and Mycroft's a tit,” Sherlock mumbles, without any real heat to it, and stretches languidly, shifting into the warmth of his towel and the sand beneath it. After a moment, he can hear John picking up his book from where it's lying on his belly and rifle through the pages.
Three hours later, John ruffles Sherlock's hair and laughs unabashedly at the way it stands stiffly upright with dried salt, and chuckles his way through Sherlock's hissed curses as he spreads after-sun lotion over the lobster-red of Sherlock's shoulders.
“You've got a handprint here,” John says, voice dancing with cruel, cruel mirth. “Guess I must've nodded off for a bit with my hand there.”
“Shut up and rub.”
“You've been doing great,” John hisses at him, “don't go and spoil it now.”
Sherlock grimaces at him, and drops his fork into his grilled sardines. “Spoil it? Spoil it? John, he's fake-playing Un' vero Italiano. Fake. Playing. Playing along with a tape.”
“Why do you care? Why is this even a problem? Don't pick a fight with the hotel's pianist by telling him that – God knows what. Don't do that, is all I'm asking,” John says tightly, glancing round at the other guests in the restaurant, and takes a large gulp of his glass of wine.
“The problem is that it makes my brain shrink,” Sherlock says through gritted teeth, feeling the words rise in him like a tide, poisonous, rotting. “All of it.”
“All of it?” John mirrors. He's calm in that tense way that means that Sherlock is treading on thin ice.
Sherlock tries to stop it, he does. He tries to do many things nowadays. “Boring people with their boring holidays and their boring books to read on the boring beach and their boring miserable lives,” he snaps, and then can't stand it anymore, the lack of air in the restaurant, the way the shrill notes of the tape behind the piano drill into his skull. He gets to his feet too quickly, bumping the table with his knees so John's knife clatters to the floor. “I'm going outside.” He doesn't wait for John's response.
Outside, he searches feverishly through his pockets and curses himself for not having a cigarette on him, and settles instead for watching the furious sun dilute in the sky as it drops down, turning the air an angry rust-colour.
John is in bed but clearly still awake when Sherlock comes back into their room. Sherlock takes off his clothes silently, not at all sure that he wants to be there. John doesn't speak; in the pale moonlight falling through the open window his outline, back towards Sherlock, is clear and sharp. The room smells like the sea.
Sherlock gets into bed, mind still itchy and scraped raw with irritation.
The silence is so silent it's loud. Sherlock breaks first. (That is usually how it goes.)
“Say it, then,” he mutters.
John shifts, and is silent for another long, stretching moment. “What you said. Is that really how you feel?” he finally says, voice hoarse with disuse.
Sherlock takes the time to think about it. “It makes my skin crawl,” he eventually manages to put into words, “how they just... float through life. All of them. Completely meaningless.”
“I don't give a fuck about the pianist or any of those other people,” John says, voice hard. “Do you really feel that way about me?”
Sherlock blinks at the ceiling. “I never mentioned you.”
“Boring books to read on the boring beach. Boring miserable lives,” John quotes. “I read a fucking book on the beach and you know it.”
Sherlock closes his eyes for a second. The moon-washed bedroom disappears, but nothing else does. “I didn't mean you.”
“Yes you did.”
Sherlock exhales, stomach tightening in annoyance. He forces himself to be silent.
John turns over and lifts his torso up on his arm. He looks down at Sherlock, backlit by the serene moon, face in darkness. “You've hated this entire trip,” he says evenly, not even framing it as a question.
“No,” Sherlock says.
“Yes,” John snaps. “I know you think all of this isn't necessary, but I would've still expected you to tell me if –”
“I don't hate this,” Sherlock interrupts him, and closes his eyes again, because at the moment, he truly does. “And I didn't mean you.”
John goes quiet. Sherlock can feel his sadness, slower and deeper than the anger. It used to thrill him, being able to read John that way – now sometimes he wishes he could turn it off.
“Then what did you mean?” John says softly, almost without inflection.
“It's,” Sherlock begins, has to try again. “I find it – hard,” he persists, “when you pretend to care about what other people think. It isn't real. Not from you.”
The mattress creaks with John's shifting weight, away from Sherlock, off the bed. Sherlock opens his eyes to find John standing at the window in his pants, back towards Sherlock in the fragile, glassy light. “Why shouldn't I care when you ruin my evening?” John says, voice tight, pulling on the syllables.
“It ruins your evening when people start to notice you,” Sherlock says sharply. “When they start to notice us. You can't stand that, so you want me to just act normal all the time. Just so no one will see.”
John turns. “It isn't about that.”
“Of course it is.”
“Christ,” John says, and rubs his eyes with his hands. “It isn't, Sherlock. You know that I – that I'm fine, that I'm – proud of you, and of the fact that we're here together, and that I...” He trails off. “I'm not ashamed of being seen with you.”
Sherlock looks at him, tries to read his face cast in darkness. It's hard. “Except when I do something that would disturb normal opinion,” he says.
“I just want to enjoy our holiday. When you get – stroppy, it's –”
“Stroppy,” Sherlock repeats, the word cold in his mouth.
John breathes in through his nose. “It makes me feel like you're not interested. That I can never be enough reason for you to enjoy something. That it's never enough.”
Sherlock shakes his head, marvelling at the absurdity of it. John is the only person who has ever consistently been interesting, who is so impossible to solve completely that he keeps drawing Sherlock's attention back to him. “That's stupid,” he therefore says.
“Yeah, I guess it would be to you,” John says quietly.
Sherlock frowns, but finds that he doesn't really know how to fill the silence that follows. “Please come to bed,” he finally says, because that is what he wants most, now, in the weight of that moment.
John does, almost to Sherlock's surprise. He stays on his side of the bed, on his back.
“John, I am interested in you, it's – I really didn't mean you,” Sherlock tries one more time, feeling frustrated with the way the words don't express any of the truth of it. He moves closer to the mass of John's body under the sheet, and slides a hand over his chest, fingers carding through the smattering of hair there.
“Shut up,” John says wearily, but allows Sherlock to press himself to John's side, and frees the arm that's trapped between them to wrap it around Sherlock's back.
Sherlock waits for a while. John's breathing calms, his body growing relaxed against Sherlock's.
“Regret it yet?” Sherlock finally asks him, quiet in the sea-foam feeling of the night.
“Mmmno,” John says, after a moment. “You?”
Sherlock presses his mouth to the skin of John's shoulder, rough with scar and salty with sea and the day's sweat.
“No,” he says softly, and thinks, loudly, the never.
On the plane home, John dozes, nodding off and jerking awake a couple of times until he finally really falls asleep, his head drooping down onto Sherlock's shoulder in stages.
Sherlock holds his slumped and slightly uncomfortable pose for the entirety of the flight, carefully resting his cheek against John's hair.
“What's this?” Sherlock says with half-distaste, peering at the cream-coloured envelope Lestrade had pressed into his hands.
“Invitation to the Met's New Year's reception in January,” Lestrade says, looking almost apologetic. “You know, because of the... becoming an official Yard consultant, and everything. They're trying hard to make you forget about how they treated you before, 's my guess.”
Sherlock rolls his eyes lightly, tears open the envelope with his thumb and shakes out the card inside.
Sherlock Holmes plus one, it says in print, and then, in biro, in Lestrade's barely legible scrawl: John Watson
“You wrote that,” Sherlock says.
“Yeah.” Lestrade shrugs. “Thought it would be a bit stupid to give John one of his own. But I didn't want him to just be 'plus one'. 'Cause he's – he does a lot, right? And, since, you know, the two of you are...” At Sherlock's continued look, his expression grows a bit concerned. “But if, er, if you want to bring someone else, or he –”
Sherlock blinks. “No, it's – it's fine. Very good, um. Lestrade.” He slides the invitation back into its envelope. “Er. Thank you.”
Lestrade still looks confused, so Sherlock simply decides to leave.
“See you later, then,” Lestrade calls after him.
In the taxi, Sherlock smiles a little as he runs his thumb across the hard rim of the envelope in his pocket.
John falls asleep after twenty minutes, during which Sherlock has already figured out that Luke and Leia are actually siblings, that the director is unhealthily obsessed with incestuous overtones, that the actor who plays Han Solo was drunk during most of his scenes, and that John's memory is either strongly distorted by the glowing idealism of the middle-aged for their adolescence or John really is just a very bad judge of cinematographic quality.
Sherlock gently untangles himself, careful not to disturb John's always-light sleep, pulls one of the blankets Mrs. Hudson gave them that Christmas over John, trails a soft hand over his sleep-relaxed brow, flicks off the TV and finally pulls on his coat.
He leaves a note on the coffee table: Out for some air.
Regent's Park is less dull during the night, cold and very nearly quiet, if he tunes out the steady hum of traffic. He smokes three cigarettes, one after the other, a luxury for the senses that he saves for times like this, and watches the way the smoke seems to freeze into the still icy overhead of stars.
John texts him:
Idiot. Don't think I won't kick you
out of bed if your feet are freezing.
I'm offended you didn't finish the
film, by the way.
Sherlock pockets his phone with a small smile, and savours the frosty prickle of air in his lungs.
“Not now, John,” Sherlock says half-irritably, twisting away slightly from the suggestive touch of John's lips to his neck, pressing his eyes closer to his microscope.
John draws back and breathes in loudly through his nose. “When, then?”
“You've been working for three weeks on end,” John says sharply, and walks away to drop himself into the sofa. “You're just tinkering with experiments now.”
Sherlock lifts his eyes off his microscope and looks at John, frowning. “There are time constraints on this, you know. It's important that I –”
“Yeah, I'm sure,” John grumbles, and reaches for the newspaper. “Incredibly important.”
Sherlock watches him for a moment, then rolls his eyes and looks back at the sample, gritting his teeth in annoyance.
“We should talk,” John's voice comes when Sherlock closes the bedroom door behind him.
“Why're you still awake?” Sherlock says, and starts undoing his buttons in the dark. “It's nearly four.”
“Because we should talk, and you're doing a bloody good job of not paying any attention to me during the day.” John clicks on his bedside lamp. He looks crinkled and discontent, and squints up at Sherlock as his eyes adjust to the sudden light.
“If this is about earlier,” Sherlock begins, steeling himself for a fight.
“Yeah, it is about earlier,” John cuts in, sitting up against the headboard, “and about a whole lot of other times recently.” He doesn't look angry, which is reassuring.
Sherlock frowns as he slides his shirt off his shoulders. “You like it when we're busy.”
“I like being busy. I also don't mind when you're busy with things that don't involve me. What I don't like is when you stop talking to me because you're busy.”
Sherlock folds up his shirt, puts it away, and flicks open the button on his trousers. “You're sexually frustrated,” he says.
John rolls his eyes. “Not really the point.”
“Definitely the point, as you only really got annoyed when I didn't want to have sex with you earlier.”
“I'll give you that,” John says, calmly, crossing his arms over his chest. “Yeah, I get a bit itchy when we haven't got off in a while together. But do you know why that is?”
“Primal urges,” Sherlock says, stepping out of his trousers.
John scowls at him openly. “Because, idiot, having sex makes me feel like we're doing something together that involves no one else. I can get off on my own just fine. But that's not as satisfying as it is with you, because it's nice to feel like we give enough of a toss to take the time to have sex together.”
Sherlock watches him for a second. “You know I give a toss.”
“Yeah, well,” John says, “the thing is – and I know it's different for you – something like that needs to be reaffirmed now and then for me. I'm just a normal bloke, Sherlock. I don't know how to read your mind.”
The implication that Sherlock does makes him smile a little. John doesn't seem to know the difference between Sherlock being able to read a sequence of events or even the state of John's mood and actually understanding why, or what John's reaction will be. He gets into bed, and turns on his side to watch John. “You feel... neglected.” It's half a guess.
“It certainly isn't very fun to feel like you'd rather look at fungal development for hours than have a conversation with me.”
“The fungal development is –”
“Important, yeah, I know.” John frowns a little. “I'm not saying you need to stop doing – whatever that thing is. I just want you to... you know. Remember that I live here too and that I...” He casts around for the right words. “...fancy you,” he finishes, a bit lamely.
Sherlock bites back a smile at that – it dissolves the chafing feeling of unease in his gut somewhat. He can see that John is right, in that John-way he has of being right about some things, but Sherlock also knows himself – knows how he can lose himself in riddles and zoom in so closely on a problem that everything else just fades out of existence. It used to be the only thing he lived for, and even if that is no longer the case it still makes him feel euphoric in a way that nothing else ever does. The problem is: it's a complete state, complete or not-at-all, that doesn't leave much room for other things, and what John is asking, he isn't sure if, he doesn't know if, he doubts if.
John reaches out and gently pushes his knuckles against Sherlock's jaw.
“I'll do my best,” Sherlock says quietly, and turns his head a little to lean into the touch.
“Oh, yes, I'm almost – almost – ah,” John groans, and grips Sherlock's hair so tightly it's painful-delicious, and Sherlock licks an obscenely wet stripe up to the head of his cock and takes the tip of it into his mouth again, sucking on it hard, sliding his fist up from the base to meet his lips. John makes a strangled sound, and his hips stutter, arching off the mattress as he starts to come. Sherlock lets John's cock head slip out from between his lips and wanks him through it, letting him jerk against Sherlock's mouth, striping his lips and cheeks with his come.
“God, that's –” John says, and then laughs breathlessly. “Fuck, I fucking – I love you, so much, fuck,” he pants, his body relaxing, cock going soft in Sherlock's fist.
Sherlock freezes for a fraction of a second, something inside him suddenly sounding a loud and unexpected alarm.
John, apparently not noticing, tugs him up and lazily runs his fingers over Sherlock's mouth and jaw, skating through the slickness of his own come on Sherlock's skin. “God,” he breathes, smiling, then reaches out to the bedside table to pluck the flannel off it. He cleans Sherlock's face slowly, hands unsteady.
Suddenly he stops. “Are you okay?”
“I,” Sherlock says intelligently, and then finds himself at a loss, because inside of him there is still the steady pulse that says danger, danger, danger.
John drops his hand with the flannel, realisation changing his look. “What's the problem?” he asks, voice tightening at the edges. They look at each other for a long moment.
“You've – never said that before,” Sherlock says hoarsely.
John blinks. “No, I suppose I haven't,” he says, sounding a bit baffled. “But surely it isn't... news to you, or...?”
“No,” Sherlock says, because it isn't, precisely; if the question had ever occurred to him he'd probably have accepted that there was a very high probability that yes, John loved him – John put up with things from Sherlock that no one in an uncompromised emotional state ever would, and this relationship had outlasted quite a few of John's previous ones already – but hearing it from John's mouth somehow makes his throat fill up with a deep, dark feeling of unsafety.
“Okay then,” John says, and brings up a hand to touch Sherlock's hair, frowning. “Then don't – don't worry, okay? There's really no reason to.”
Sherlock looks at him and feels very keenly the pressure of the expectation to say it back, and it's stupid, because it's not like John really adheres to those rules anyway, he likes to pretend that he does but Sherlock knows he doesn't most of the time, anyway they're just words, and it's not like he doesn't feel it, like it doesn't tug at him when John does John-like things or when John isn't around at all or when he starts to talk to John and realises that he's gone out.
He takes a breath. “I'm fine,” he says, and smiles a quick smile at John that John, judging from his face, doesn't believe at all.
John watches him rather closely for the next days, as though he's waiting for Sherlock to do something unexpected.
Sherlock takes care to not look away when John catches his eye, and to kiss John at least once every day; John accepts these offerings with something of confusion.
Sherlock doesn't know why the words feel like sharp stones in his throat, why they rub and clink together and chafe him raw on the inside, why they seem to steal his breath away every time he tries to get them out. John doesn't say them often, but now that he's started it does happen, bursting out of him at times when he looks at Sherlock with shining eyes and a soft mouth – and every time he seems to regret it, seems to want to take them back as Sherlock fumbles with the silence that follows them, and the light in John's eyes dims a bit, and he deflates slightly, as though Sherlock is draining him of something.
In the cab home from the suspect interview, Sherlock surfaces out of his flashing thoughts for long enough to notice John studying him out of the corner of his eye. There is something heavy about John's posture these past days; something is so clearly wrong that it makes Sherlock hesitant to even speak to John for too long for fear of losing his focus. Sherlock does his best to stop the slow steady trickle of anxiety before it starts to blot out the clarity of his thoughts.
Priorities, he chides himself, priorities.
John receives a call that takes him outside of Lestrade's office just as Sherlock and Lestrade are going over the final details of the case, talking at each other excitedly, drawn together in the residual adrenalin of it.
When he comes back inside, it takes Lestrade raising an eyebrow before Sherlock remembers to look over at John. He's white as a sheet, hand clenched tightly around his phone.
“Okay, John?” Lestrade asks.
John looks at his phone. “That was Harry,” he says. “My mother just died.”
Lestrade lets his pen drop to his desk in the ringing moment of silence that follows. “Oh, mate – I'm sorry,” he says.
“What?” Sherlock finally manages, staring at John.
“Yeah, she – she'd gone in for a coronary artery bypass graft, but it... something happened, and it... went wrong. I need to talk to the doctors, and I need to – Christ, I need to...” He trails off, and looks at his phone as though it has the answers.
“Shit,” Lestrade swears softly. “I'm so sorry.”
“Yeah,” John says, and gives him a tight smile. “I'll be off.” He turns, and steps outside.
Sherlock shares a fraction of a look with Lestrade, and then he runs after John, catching up to him at the lifts.
“Do you want me to come with you?” he asks John, landing a hand on his shoulder.
John peers up at him, face tight. “No, it's fine, I know you still have plenty to wrap up with Lestrade here.”
Sherlock shakes his head. “But this is – so much more important,” he says, feeling a bit lost.
John huffs a dry, bitter laugh, and presses the lift button. “You know, I tried to tell you she was going in. Twice. You said Later, John. And then you said I'm thinking, John.”
“I – oh,” Sherlock says, as the memory hits him. A very hard, very cold point is spreading in his chest. “John, I'm sorry, I didn't know.”
“No, you didn't,” John says softly. The lift doors slide open. “But you might've if you'd just listened to me for once.” He steps inside the lift, back rigid. “I'll see you at home.”
“What the hell are you still doing here?” exclaims Lestrade, when Sherlock steps back into his office, feeling numb.
Sherlock waits. He has John's portion of pho in the microwave, and a cup of tea with a dry teabag in it waiting. He, too, waits, and drums his fingers on his thighs, and waits, and tries to think of a way to fix this, and waits.
John texts him near midnight:
Staying at Harry's, she's a bit
Taking his chances, Sherlock calls.
“Sherlock, I really don't have time,” John says as a greeting. He sounds tired.
“I just –” Sherlock tries, he does. “Do you need... anything?”
John laughs a little. The sound is hard to read over the phone. “I'll talk to you tomorrow,” he says, and rings off.
“You prick,” John says, but still moves forward into the embrace Sherlock offers him in as soon as he steps through the door the next afternoon.
“I'm sorry,” Sherlock says, and presses his mouth to the side of John's head, “I'm sorry.”
“I can't...” John says, and withdraws from the hug. His face is deeply lined, his eyes moist. “I can't talk to you about this now. Funeral's on Saturday, and we still need to arrange pretty much everything. I'm going to bed for a bit, Harry kept me up all night with her nonsense.”
He slips out of Sherlock's arms and disappears into the bedroom.
The March day is unseasonably warm, and John is even sweating a little in his black suit. Sherlock stands between him and Harry during the service, feeling somehow infected by the extraordinary tension in both their bodies, the way they both focus their stress in their clenched hands. Every time he sees them together he is struck by the family resemblance, especially in the way they carry the weight of their worry, which is something that he's never said to John, not even during their fiercest fights.
Afterwards, he accepts handshake after handshake after handshake with a growing feeling of being exposed, as though someone will, at any moment, notice the way John isn't really speaking to him and uncover him as a fraud, as not really part of the family at all. There is no extended family of John's that Sherlock has ever met. Their curious, gossipy scrutiny makes him uncomfortable.
He'd only met John's mother once; she had been brisk and friendly and mostly forgettable. John had gone to see her sometimes, always coming back looking vaguely guilty, and had never asked Sherlock to come; Sherlock's sure Judith Watson died without knowing about their relationship. That had never seemed that important before, but now that Harry has spoken more words to Sherlock in the entire day than John has, it takes on an ominous edge.
He groans a little when he sees who's approaching him, and curses the fact that William Watson had been a very important figure in the restructuring of the Ministry of Defence into its current shape in 1964. Surely I need to honour his widow, Sherlock, Mycroft had said pompously at the church doors, unperturbed by Sherlock's open hostility. Sherlock suspected more personal motives, as he was sure neither John nor Harry had thought to invite all of their late father's colleagues, especially not those who were more than half a generation younger.
“Ah, Sherlock,” Mycroft says delicately, in an impeccable black that looks just like his normal suit. Sherlock raises an eyebrow as a greeting. “My condolences.”
“You know perfectly well I only met her once,” Sherlock says, immediately annoyed.
“Still, it must hit rather close to home,” Mycroft says neutrally, and then leans in a fraction and tugs on Sherlock's tie.
“For God's sake, leave off,” Sherlock hisses, slapping the hand away. He loosens the knot again, just to annoy his brother. Mycroft straightens his own tie instead, supremely unruffled.
“So, is everything all right with John?” Mycroft watches him closely, and automatically Sherlock feels an urge to attack bubbling up under the thin, already cracking surface of his calm – Mycroft still has that effect on him, even now, the effect of shrinking him down to child-size and making him want to lash out just so he won't have to go into the defensive under the always-knowing look of his brother.
“He just buried his mother, Mycroft,” Sherlock sneers. “Obviously he's just ecstatic.”
“Yes, of course, I see,” Mycroft says mildly, and Sherlock doesn't like the shrewd spark in his eye at all. “If you need anything, you know where to find me,” he says as a goodbye, and walks away. He immediately strikes up a clearly informal, hearty conversation with one of John's uncles, and Sherlock grits his teeth.
It takes four days after the funeral for things to come to a head.
“It's always the same problem, isn't it? It's always you and the work and you just – forget about me,” John snaps.
“You never tell me,” Sherlock says loudly, jabbing his index finger at John. “You only tell me when it's already too late and you've been stewing in it for weeks and there is no way for me to fix it anymore! You never let me try, you always shut me out, you –”
“That's rich,” John says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I shut you out? Are we on the same fucking planet? You barely even look at me when you're working!”
Sherlock scrapes his hands through his curls. The tension of the entire week prickles under his skin and he realises that more than anything, he wants to leave. “You know that's –” He makes a noise of deep frustration and tightens his hands into fists in his hair. The words get stuck somewhere in his throat – and he doesn't know how to tell John how much he tries, how many times he reminds himself of John when he can feel the details start to enlarge until they replace the larger picture, but how he just... slips, sometimes. Often.
“You've done some hurtful things, Sherlock, but this is the worst,” John is saying. “My mum died and you haven't been here for me at all. Even now, you're just trying to make excuses for yourself instead of giving a toss about how I feel.”
“I – didn't – know,” Sherlock says through gritted teeth.
“I fucking tried to tell you! You waved me away like some sort of –” John throws up his hands in frustration. “– bug.”
Sherlock grabs John's arm. “You knew exactly who I was when you got into this,” he hisses, “so stop pretending like this is only my fault.”
John wrenches his arm free and glares deeply and darkly at Sherlock. “Yeah, it's my fucking fault as well,” he snaps, voice raising, “I shouldn't have expected from you that your priorities could ever change enough. I'm an idiot, you've always been right about that, at least!”
Sherlock looks at him. Something is rising in his throat, dark and hot; he tries to swallow it down again.
“I have seriously never met anyone so emotionally repressed,” John says.
“Have you ever met yourself?” Sherlock says hotly.
“Oh, fuck you,” John snarls, “I'm not the one who – who can't even fucking say –” He cuts himself short, but the words ring out loud and clear anyway.
Sherlock feels like he's been slapped across the face. All of a sudden all he wants is to hurt John, take everything away from him, hit him just as deeply. “And I'm not the one,” he hisses, “who is so self-hating about putting my cock up another man's arse that I'd rather let my mother die thinking I was a sad, lonely bachelor than tell her about it.”
Something in John's face changes. The silence between them stretches for a long, oppressive moment. “Any other person... any normal person would have... long ago –” John says, almost stuttering with anger.
“Because you're so normal, is that it, John?” Sherlock spats.
“At least I try to be!” John yells, spittle flecking Sherlock's face.
“Well, you completely fail at it!” Sherlock shouts the three final words so loudly John flinches away from him.
They stand looking at each other, breathing heavily, the abyss that's opening up between them deep and black and widening.
“Sod this,” John says, almost calm, “and sod you. I'm going out.”
Sherlock must, and does, entertain the possibility that on top of not being a very good person (which he knows), he is also not a very good person for John.
But John really isn't a very good person either, even if he hides it a lot better, and there honestly is no one who understands as many parts of Sherlock as John does, and no one who is capable of leaving alone the parts that he doesn't understand like John is.
Sherlock never believed that selflessness existed, and though he thinks about how there is a very real possibility that John could be happier without him, he also thinks about himself and knows that he'd never, ever be able to do it.
John comes back at around two in the morning. Sherlock can hear him, climbing the stairs with uneven footsteps, dropping his keys, cursing quietly. He waits for John to appear in the living room, feeling a slow-blooming fear spread its cold tentacles inside him, the last flushes of his anger seeping away quickly at the prospect of coming face to face with John.
“Ha,” John says when he comes in and catches sight of Sherlock waiting, as though it's funny. He takes off his coat without looking at Sherlock.
“Hey,” Sherlock tries.
John looks up at him. “You know, I was going to leave you to stew in it for a bit,” he says, sounding more or less normal. “Sleep at a friend's. See how that made me feel. See how that made you feel.” He smiles one of his not-smiles. “Guess what I realised? I don't have anyone in London to spend the night with when my partner is being a right bastard.”
Sherlock barely registers the 'bastard'; it's the 'partner', and the utterly normal way in which John says it, that makes something of hope spark inside of him.
“Stamford wouldn't mind,” he offers, not at all sure it's the right contribution.
John snorts. “You don't really know Mike at all if you think he'd be happy if I showed up at his door at one a.m. without warning.”
“Guess I don't know him then,” Sherlock says, uncomfortably aware of all the possible trap doors in this conversation. John's calm is a little unnerving, hard to read.
The silence between them stretches heavily. John is looking at Sherlock closely, jaw working.
“You didn't need to say that about my mother,” he finally says.
“No,” Sherlock agrees, because even if it had been true, he can accept that it was a low blow, something he used just to hurt John, to push at his pressure points.
John licks his lips. “Do you understand why I left?” he finally asks, and there is something steely in the words that tells Sherlock that this is a test of sorts.
“I think so,” he therefore says, careful not to sound – or be – too sure. “You've been feeling overlooked for quite a while, ever since the elephant tusk case I'd guess, and that feeling peaked when you –” He catches himself and rephrases it. “– when I didn't pick up from you that you were worried about your mother and didn't give you any space to tell me. Of course when she then proceeded to die that made it worse.” John frowns deeply, and Sherlock realises that was probably insensitive, again. “And, er,” he tries to amend, “completely understandably you were very emotional and stressed over that.”
John lets out an audible breath, but doesn't speak.
So Sherlock continues: “And now you left because you were feeling extraordinarily angry with me and you were afraid you'd do something you might regret if you stayed here and let it escalate any further.” John dropping his eyes away from Sherlock for a second confirms this hypothesis. “And you probably wanted some time on your own to – to re-evaluate the, um.” Sherlock swallows. “The relationship.” Unease flares in his stomach at the vocalisation of it, at the fear spoken aloud.
John has a strange look in his eyes. “It's so weird how you seem to understand all of it, and you still –”
“It's a reconstruction post factum,” Sherlock says. “I don't... when it's happening, I never... it's not...”
John, appearing to take pity on him, saves him from having to finish the sentence. “Right.”
“John, I am sorry,” Sherlock says after a long moment, increasingly desperate to bridge the gap between them, to puncture the heavy tension.
John seems to accept it, nodding vaguely. Then he says: “So you know why I went out. Do you know why I came back?”
The question throws Sherlock for a second. “Because – you said – you had nowhere else to go.”
John smiles, a tired, sad smile, but a smile. “No,” he says. “I realised that even if there had been someone I could stay with, I still only really wanted to come home and crawl into bed with you.”
Sherlock blinks. “Oh,” he says.
“God knows what's wrong with me,” John groans and passes a hand over his tired face. “But even after you had a go at my dead mother I still just wanted to come back and make things right again.”
Sherlock, clumsy with relief, steps forward and wraps himself around the bundle of tension that is John's body. “I really never meant to have a go at your – mother,” he tells the side of John's head, catching himself just in time to delete the dead from his sentence. “Or to forget about you.”
John laughs a little – not quite happily – and relaxes a fraction into the embrace, his arms coming up to circle Sherlock's back. “No, you never do, do you?” They stand for a moment, loosely wrapped together. “You're right, as always,” John mutters. “I'm not normal. I'm a nutter. I fucking love you, you incredible prick.”
Sherlock feels how this is the moment, how this is the right time – how he can make it better, show John that he can try, that he can change. He feels it so intensely right now, all of his limbs warmed through with it, the glow of it so deep and full of a breathless relief that he can feel the words filling his mouth, as natural as water. He opens his mouth, and –
John draws back and peers up into Sherlock's face. “Go to bed?” he asks, face lined with fatigue.
“Yes,” Sherlock says, hoarsely, almost choking on the width of the words caught in his throat.
“She's all right,” John says immediately as Sherlock jogs up to him, ignoring the scandalised request of a nurse to stop running. “The doctor just talked to me. I was about to go outside to call you.”
They share a moment of intense relief between them. Sherlock, whose heart had been trying to break out of his ribcage, slumps against the hospital wall. “Thank God,” he breathes. “Thank God.”
John touches a hand to his shoulder. “Sherlock,” he says hesitantly, and something in his voice makes Sherlock straighten up again. “It's not... all fine.”
Sherlock scrutinises John's face. “It's going to happen again,” he concludes from what he reads there.
“Maybe. Probably,” John says. “And they don't know yet what the effect of this will be. It was a fairly big stroke, and it's possible... it's hard to say which areas of her brain were affected, and how they will recover. There will be damage, they just don't know where yet.”
Sherlock remains silent, and stares at John, daring him to say more.
Of course, John is brave. “Whatever happens, this is going to leave her a lot weaker and less self-sufficient than before,” he says. “If I hadn't been there, I don't know what would've happened.”
“You were there,” Sherlock says, gripping John's shoulder. “That's best possible care she could have ever had. You saved her!”
“That was a lucky coincidence! You and I are never home and you know it.” John peers up at him, frowning. “What if it happens again while we're out on a case? The doctors say she cannot have any excitement, and God knows living with us in that flat is about the furthest you can get from –”
“The doctors don't know her at all,” Sherlock snaps.
“I know her,” John says calmly. “I'm a doctor too. I agree with them; it's very likely that she'll need specialised care that we can't provide. Sherlock – be reasonable. I don't want to think about this either, but –”
“Then don't!” Sherlock yells, thumping his hand against the wall, startling a passing nurse.
John's eyes are very nearly hard. “We don't have a choice, okay. Either we give up on the life we have now and devote ourselves to her needs, or we can try to find her someplace where she can be completely looked after.”
Sherlock stares at him. He knows this John exists, this hard, efficient, pragmatic John – the John who was in Afghanistan, and who shot a man 24 hours after meeting Sherlock, and who has saved both of their lives dozens of times since – but it was never that John who talked to Mrs. Hudson, or about her. That John had a soft mouth and tender eyes.
“You're serious,” he says, throat dry.
“Do you think you can give up doing what you do?” John challenges him.
Sherlock is very nearly tempted to say yes, he'll do it – stop the casework, run down every thirty minutes to check on her, put his energy into putting together alarm systems she can trigger when she needs anything – but then he sees himself, clawing at the walls after three days, neglecting to check on her, unable to resist the pull of the city.
“No,” he says, the word like treason.
“Yeah,” John says, quietly. “She could die and it would be on us, Sherlock.”
Sherlock presses his hands into his eyes. “We are terrible, selfish people,” he mutters.
John has the grace not to deny it.
“I should talk to her at least,” Sherlock says, feeling the weight of it suddenly drop onto his shoulders. “We can't make this decision like she doesn't have a right to make it herself.”
“She's not awake now,” John says.
“I'll wait,” Sherlock says, pinning John with a hard look.
“Sherlock, you don't have to do this on your own.” John wraps a hand around his arm.
“Yes I do,” Sherlock says, the certainty of it bitter and sharp.
There is a long moment of silence. John looks a little stricken. “Okay,” he finally says. “I'll talk to one of the nurses for you.”
She isn't really awake, but she's not asleep either. She looks at him. Doesn't speak. She's pale and small and hooked to a monitor that turns her inside out so it's possible to read the normally hidden rhythms of inner life. Sherlock swallows, looking at her. Between the obsessive brilliance of Daddy, the hot-and-cold, uncomprehending affection of Mummy and the controlling exasperation of Mycroft, the old woman in this bed and the man waiting outside in the corridor are the closest things he has to real family.
He picks up her hand from the sheet, the skin wrinkled and fragile like paper. “I want to take care of you,” he surprises himself by saying. “Though I never really have.”
The only response she gives him is a weak squeeze of her hand.
He sits with her and tells her that it will be all right – borrowing her vocabulary, her language, and feeling how clumsy he is with it.
He sits with her and assures her that he and John will always be there, and wonders if it can ever be true.
He sits with her until the feeling of wanting to cry passes.
Outside, John hands him a plastic cup of coffee, and Sherlock drinks it, tasting nothing but guilt.
“Don't you worry,” Mrs. Hudson says, as though Sherlock is the one who needs reassuring. “It's a beautiful place. They've got swans in the garden.” She's standing up, leaning against her table, though her wheelchair is waiting for her in a corner. The movers, whistling, bulky Armenians, are busy dismantling one of her closets – one of a few precious items she can take with her.
“We'll visit you whenever we can,” Sherlock says, sticking close to her in case she needs his help. “At least once every two weeks, I promise.”
“You are good to me, boys,” she says. She is brave, she is. Loves them. Had agreed with John from the beginning, though Sherlock still isn't sure how much of that was the thought that she didn't want to inconvenience them. She had forcibly refused any of their offers that involved them moving out, and had found the home herself, leafing through folders with Mrs. Turner.
“At least once every week,” John corrects Sherlock from the doorframe, smiling a weak smile.
Mrs. Hudson looks at him with a look of deep gratitude, which makes John drop his eyes and duck out of sight, into the hall. Sherlock knows John can hardly bear to see this, no matter how much he was the one to push for this solution. Still, it annoys Sherlock slightly that he's the one in here with her now, having to help her shuffle around on her uncertain, increasingly useless legs, having to pretend to not feel the extent of her grief at having to leave Baker Street. She picks up a doily with shaky fingers, then smooths it down again.
“Well,” she says, and folds her mouth into a trembly smile, “it's in good hands.”
Sherlock nearly laughs at that, because there are many things he and John are, but reliable lodgers they are not. But he looks at her, at the way she looks at him, and supposes that isn't really what she's talking about at all.
They help Mrs. Hudson with the sheets in the room and wheel her around the garden in her chair, surreptitiously feeding the swans even though they aren't allowed, and then she and John play cards while Sherlock reads an article on mid-life traumatic genetic modifications and tries hard not to get antsy at the chattering of other residents down the hall.
could have a case for you
looks like triple homicide
but v strange forensic
results can you come?
and Sherlock texts back:
When they leave, Mrs. Hudson seems okay.
At home, the flat is quiet and strange.
“Angelo's?” John says, before he even takes off his shoes.
“Yes,” Sherlock says.
The home's grounds are covered with a light dusting of snow that had already completely melted in London by the time Sherlock and John had made it out of the city's Christmas traffic. The swans float like still, giant snow sculptures on the grey surface of the lake. Mrs. Hudson sits folded into her wheelchair, about every inch of her covered by blankets and hats and scarves and knitted cloths her neighbour has made for her.
“I can almost smell the pudding,” she says, and the movement of the incredible amounts of fabric covering her suggests she's rubbing her hands together.
“Sherlock?” Mrs. Hudson asks as Sherlock and John are doing up their coats, fighting out a silent argument with only their eyes about who will go outside to try to start the ancient and temperamental Honda they bought basically only to drive here.
“Yes,” Sherlock says, quite fluent in the shorter way she speaks nowadays when she can, the rest of the question unsaid. It tires her a little, putting words into the right order.
“I'll go and try to get the car going,” John says after a moment, the translation taking him a little longer. He sends a small mock-glare Sherlock's way at having to start the car, and kisses Mrs. Hudson's cheek before leaving the room.
“What do you need?” Sherlock says, sitting down on her bed next to her.
The spark in her eyes is shrewd as ever. “I set everything up with Mr. Lancy – you know, the retired notary on the second floor. He's got his son, Henry. I've got to... I named you and John as my bene... my somethings – you'll both own half of it, when. Well.” She falls silent, folds her face along the familiar, well-trod lines of a smile.
“What?” he says, frowning. “You know you don't have to do that.”
“Who else would I give it to?” she says and makes a sighing sound that suggests she's so tired, and wouldn't it be cruel of Sherlock and John to ask her to change her decision now, after all that trouble.
He sits, lost for words, looking at her, still formidable when it matters. He feels a flicker of pride at the way she meets his stare innocently.
“I wish you'd marry him,” she says then, sounding long-suffering. “It would make everything easier.”
Sherlock huffs a laugh at the familiar refrain, then narrows his eyes at her. “Why are you telling me this now?”
She smiles. “John would try to talk me out of it.”
“And I wouldn't?”
“No,” she says, pats his hand with trembling fingers, and doesn't elaborate.
“Is she okay?” John asks him when he gets into the car, the engine of which is running and shuddering far more than it should while stationary.
Sherlock hums an affirmative and spends the rest of the drive looking out the window, watching the snow diminish as they draw closer to the warmer stony breath of the city.
“You had a bloody good run, mate,” John tells Lestrade, and claps him on the shoulder in the bloke-y chummy way they have that Sherlock has never quite understood.
“Thanks,” Lestrade says, smiling, though there is a definite hint of melancholy in the way he allows his eyes to wander around the table that holds his team, drinking and eating on his behalf. “'s not quite over yet. But desk job's not going to be the same as running around in the streets.”
“Sherlock was telling me earlier about how he's going to miss you,” John says, and grins unabashedly at Sherlock when Sherlock levels a glare at him.
“All I said was, you're the least incompetent of everyone in this department.”
“Aw, Sherlock,” Lestrade says, and to Sherlock's horror, his eyes are shiny when he tips his glass up to Sherlock in a salute. “It was an honour to work with you too.”
“Oh, shut up, whiner,” John says easily in the cab home as Sherlock complains about the length of the Chief Superintendent's speech. “You know you're going to wish he hadn't been promoted.”
Sherlock thinks about protesting, but instead opts for a dignified silence, looking out the window at the city blurring past.
“– fucking inconsiderate,” John snaps, throwing down his tea towel and dropping the plate he was furiously pretending to dry back into the water in the sink. “I told you five times you needed to keep that weekend free!”
Sherlock throws up his hands. “I'm sorry if your thrilling reunions with your school mates don't remain at the top of my brain all the time!”
“Yeah, just delete everything I say,” John says nastily, pointing a soapy finger at Sherlock. “That's easier, isn't it? Easier than trying to take my plans into consideration for once.”
“It's a school reunion,” Sherlock says loudly.
“Yeah? Well, I fucking wanted you there so at least I'd have –” John cuts himself off, and his shoulders tense.
Sherlock blinks, the flare of annoyance dying down. “Someone to talk to,” he finishes.
John licks his lips, clearly not quite ready to give up. “Fat chance of you being supportive for once, right?”
Sherlock frowns and waves it away, completely capable by now of telling when John means something he says in a fight and when he doesn't. “Why would you even want to go if you hate everyone there?”
“I don't hate everyone there,” John grumbles, but some of the heat has gone out of it. He plunges his hands back into the sink and starts vigorously scrubbing a plate.
“You don't have to go,” Sherlock says. “No one's forcing you. No one will even know you're not there.”
John stops scrubbing and takes a deep breath. “Look, I just thought it'd be...”
“Normal,” Sherlock supplies.
John meets his gaze with his jaw working. “Nice,” he says, clipped.
“Nice,” Sherlock repeats with distaste. “You're not nice. Your classmates are the ones who are nice, and they're statistically very likely to suddenly find someone new to talk to after you introduce them to me and then ask you about anal sex and how it works as soon as they've had four drinks.”
John huffs an incredulous laugh. “You have no data whatsoever to base that on!”
“Generalities,” Sherlock says flippantly, and comes into the kitchen to put his hands on John's shoulders. “You're not going. There is nothing you would like to do less. We're going to Angelo's instead that night.”
John's shoulders sag a little under his fingers. He turns around and peers up at Sherlock.
“That's really not the point,” he says, and Sherlock knows John has given up the fight just for the sake of the fight. “The point is that I told you five times and you still managed to forget.”
“I didn't forget,” Sherlock says promptly. “I deleted it, because I realised subconsciously how much you didn't want to go. See? I am supportive of your buried desires. Surely that's better than being supportive of your voiced ones.”
John stares at him, and after a few moments can't stop his mouth from twitching. “You're impossible,” he says, and picks up a new plate, more gently this time.
“Must admit this is – better than the reunion,” John says after they come home from Angelo's, breath catching when Sherlock mouths at the sensitive skin on the inside of his thigh.
“Shhh,” Sherlock says, and runs his tongue up the length of John's cock, licking away the bitter bead of pre-come at the tip.
Mycroft actually shakes Sherlock's hand at the church doors, the skin of his own dry and soft, the pressure of his handshake perfectly measured and unrevealing of any facet of his character. Sherlock knows all of it is premeditated; Mycroft is the kind of man who works with other men who think they know a person's inner life by measuring their handshake and looking deep into their eyes. “I do wish we could see each other occasionally in less mournful circumstances,” Mycroft says.
Something like I wish we could simply see each other less in every circumstance makes its way to the top of Sherlock's brain, but it isn't worth it. He simply nods and lets Mycroft's fingers go.
“I know how much she meant to you. Both of you.” Mycroft's eyes flick to John. “I think she was very happy to have both of you in her life.”
“Yes, thank you, Mycroft,” Sherlock says, aiming for clipped and stranding at tired.
“Thanks,” John says hoarsely when Mycroft shakes his hand too. Mycroft steps away after giving Sherlock a final delicate look of his typical Mycroft sympathy – the kind Sherlock has never really known is genuine or not.
John squeezes his elbow. Sherlock closes his eyes.
“Mrs. Hudson wasn't really a first name kind of person. I don't think I've ever really used her first name until a couple of days ago,” John addresses the church, then has to collect himself, looking at his speech cards for help. “Just like she was a – a last name sort of person, she was also a last love sort of person,” he persists bravely, voice already thready. Sherlock wonders for a moment if John has done this before: tried to find words to throw down into the well of loss and then listen, hoping for an echo. In Afghanistan, maybe, under the sun-glare of the sky, looking at his hands and wondering if he could have done more. He hadn't wanted to speak at his mother's funeral, Sherlock recalls. He can hear, somewhere behind him, the sound of Molly blowing her nose in her handkerchief.
Sherlock sits watching John as he stumbles over the complicated words of his simple love, and then has to bend his head and cover his eyes with his hands, because what presses up behind them, hot and wet and painful, is unstoppable.
That night, John gets out of bed and goes to the bathroom. Sherlock can hear his muffled sobs, and can imagine down to the smallest detail the way John bites down on his tongue to stifle the sound, and presses the palms of his hands into his eyes hard, as though willing the tears to go back in. He feels empty thinking about it, as though he's cried all the tears he had already, and though the sound of John stirs something deep and painful in him now, there is nothing left to give.
When John comes back and gets between the sheets, Sherlock sits up.
“You don't have to hide,” he says quietly in the dark, and John exhales audibly. Sherlock touches a hand to his cheek. Then, John rolls over, presses his damp face into Sherlock's shoulder, shaking his head, and then, as though letting something go, cries a little more, shoulders jerking.
“I'd like to talk to you about – finding someplace else.” John's voice is cautious as he says it, holding out a mug of tea for Sherlock.
Sherlock takes it, but looks at John's face. It isn't exactly a surprise – he'd been expecting this, but nevertheless his first instinct is still to completely, utterly reject the notion.
“Where?” he asks instead.
“I don't know,” John says, looking distinctly relieved at his reaction. “I don't want to leave London or anything. But, maybe, you know. Something with a garden, maybe.”
“Leave Baker Street?” Sherlock isn't really asking John the question; it's more a question to himself.
“I don't know about you,” John says and takes a breath before continuing, “but I don't really like it here anymore.”
Sherlock swirls the tea in his mug, looking down into it thoughtfully. The thought of leaving is heavy and painful, but John is right that staying has been heavy and painful too these past weeks.
“And you know that if we're honest we can't afford to do the upkeep on this place unless we rent out 221A – and we should rent out C too if we want to be entirely comfortable,” John says, looking vaguely guilty for saying it. “If we rent out all of the flats we can easily get a big loan to buy or rent a different place. If that's... you know. If that's something you would want.”
The idea makes Sherlock scowl. He knows, immediately, that if they really have to rent out the flats he doesn't want to live here anymore. “Let's think about it a bit longer,” he says, and blows on his tea, watching the ripples.
“Okay, fine,” Sherlock says eventually, thumbing through their bills with distaste. “Somewhere with more natural light, then. I've never liked looking at my microscope slides under this lamp.”
“Nice place,” John says lightly, looking away from the body to the dusty elegance of the oak book racks lining the wall and the Victorian splendour of the fire grate.
“Yes,” Sherlock confirms, snapping his latex gloves off his hands and letting his eyes wander over the living room. “Likely family property. Victim was a professor in....” He walks over to one of the book racks and picks up a book, carefully opening it to the first page. “...zoology, at first glance.”
“Holmes!” Dimmock calls over from the other side of the room, where he's talking to Anderson. “Don't touch that without your gloves!”
Ignoring him, Sherlock runs a finger through the pages absently. He looks round the room. “Victim was a widower of at least ten years, one son who died in his thirties, no grandchildren, and apparently no extended relations he was close enough to to put up pictures of them.”
“Looks like a tumour in his neck,” John says, and leans in to brush away the man's wispy white hair from the bump under his ear. “We'd have to wait for the autopsy to be sure what type it is, but that looks like fairly advanced lymphoma to me.”
Sherlock taps the book against his lips. “So: a recluse, eccentric, and now ill. He's been barely taking care of himself in recent months, judging by his shave and the shape his clothes are in. Good quality, but worn down to a thread.”
John looks down at the body, curled into a foetal position on its side as though peacefully sleeping, were it not for the large pool of blood around it, seeped from a fatal head wound. “And now this. Poor bugger.”
“Who would want to kill an elderly zoologist with no family who's probably on the verge of death anyway?” Sherlock says, putting the book back in its place. “Who would go to the trouble to do this instead of just waiting a few months until he drops dead on his own?”
“Disgruntled unemployed ex-students?” John suggests drily, before going off to the side of the room to open the large glass door there.
Sherlock takes another moment to sweep his gaze over the body. Blunt force trauma, several blows, perpetrator knew what he was doing. A planned murder, not an impulsive one. Victim's body was rearranged into its current position post-mortem, but –
“Sherlock?” John's voice comes from outside the room. “I know this isn't really the time, but you might want to take a look at this.”
“Why is it not the time?” he calls back.
“It's not exactly case-related.”
“Then why would I want to see it?”
“Trust me,” John says, and Sherlock can hear his smile, “you do.”
Sherlock sighs, straightens up and goes over to the door. John is just outside it, standing inside a bright, roomy, circular structure of glass and iron, on one side half overgrown with flowering ivy. The glass dome is dirty and some of the windows are cracked, but it still gives them a nearly 180° overview of the garden, that stretches back quite a long way, into thick, neglected undergrowth and wildly flowering fruit trees that have clearly not been looked after in recent years.
“Ah,” Sherlock says, blinking.
“How does that feel then?” John asks him, smiling.
“Quite... good,” Sherlock says, quirking one corner of his mouth.
They stand together a for moment, breathing the iron-flavoured air inside the dome. “The victim doesn't have children, you said,” John says, thoughtful. “As soon as the case gets cleared, the house'll likely go on the market.”
“And with the horrendous murder that happened here, the price will be lowered considerably,” Sherlock fills in.
“The agent will probably be pleased to find anyone interested at all.”
They share a grin, standing in the generous spill of light inside the dome, and Sherlock, on impulse, bends down a little and presses a quick kiss to John's laughing mouth. John clasps his sleeve and pushes up into it, pulling him back down when he starts to withdraw.
“Gentlemen,” Dimmock says behind them, “might I remind you this is a crime scene?”
“Certainly, inspector,” Sherlock says, straightening. “Let me tell you what I know. The sooner this is all cleared up, the sooner John and I can buy this house.”
“Don't say anything,” John says menacingly, pointing a dripping brush at Sherlock. “I asked you seven times what colour you wanted, and you lost your right to have a say when you ignored me every time.”
Sherlock makes a disgusted noise in the back of his throat. “John, you should see a doctor. Someone who isn't you. I really think there's something wrong with your eyes.”
“Out,” John says, and follows Sherlock with the brush in his outstretched hand until he's through the door.
Sherlock skulks in the hallway, watching John's confident strokes, smiling a little to himself.
At night, the street outside is silent in a way Baker Street never was. Sherlock, well on his way to an orgasm, allows himself to be pushed down into the mattress by the warm, sweaty pressure of John's torso against his back, which limits the angle of John's cock inside him to shallow thrusts that do absolutely nothing but sharpen the edge of his want. It tickles at Sherlock's senses, the way John's fast, ragged breathing against his neck sounds just a little different here – as though the room responds to him differently than their bedroom at Baker Street did, or the clear, silent night outside has more room for him.
The thought vanishes when John shifts up a little, and the head of his cock pushes in just a bit deeper, sending a tingle of hot pleasure up Sherlock's spine.
“John, for Christ's sake,” he groans, trying to get more friction by pushing his hips up, but the weight of John's body holds him down. He whines, and grinds himself down against the mattress.
“Not – yet,” John pants, and Sherlock feels the moist warmth of John's smiling mouth against his shoulder blade.
Sherlock fists his hands in the sheets and tries to push back into the small movements of John's hips. The skin on skin contact between them is slick and hot with sweat. John's thrusts are fast and superficial, teasing relentlessly, and Sherlock feels his body start to tingle with the need to have him deeper, to have all of him inside. He whimpers when John scrapes his teeth over the muscle in his neck, the spark of pain melting into the building pleasure inside him. Suddenly feeling a very keen desire to have John closer in any way, he twists his head to get it closer to John's, and John responds by sucking a hard, wet kiss into the base of his neck, unable to actually reach his mouth.
“John, please,” Sherlock breathes, “need you – need you deeper – please –”
“How – is it,” John grunts, clearly only managing to not deepen the contact by the final threads of his self-restraint.
“Terrible,” Sherlock manages, and John laughs breathlessly, his hips stuttering, losing their rhythm.
“You're terrible,” he says, then pushes himself up on his elbows, lifting himself off Sherlock's back. Sherlock gives a low, needy sound of protest at the feeling of John's cock slipping out of his body.
“Come on, up,” John breathes, and with some fumbling Sherlock manages to get himself up on his knees and elbows, John's hands steady and warm on his hips. John presses against him, nestling his cock between Sherlock's arse cheeks, the tip of him touching Sherlock's balls, hot and tight. Sherlock makes a sound of frustration that melts into a moan when John wraps a hand around his cock and strokes it four, five times, slicking it with pre-come. Sherlock shudders, pleasure flaring in his groin.
“Think you can come like this if I fuck you properly?” John asks him, giving his cock a final squeeze and letting it go.
“Ah – maybe,” Sherlock pants. It's been a while since they've done it like this, since they took the time for it, but his orgasm is so close he can almost taste it; his body is aching with it.
“Good,” John says, voice heavy with lust, and aligns his cock with Sherlock's body before pushing in easily, sliding forward until he's sheathed balls-deep inside Sherlock, and Sherlock lets his face drop to his forearms, moaning.
John places a steadying hand on Sherlock's back and starts to move, no longer teasing now; he fucks Sherlock deeply, without reservation, the ridged head of his cock grazing Sherlock's prostate at nearly every thrust.
It doesn't take long before Sherlock can feel his orgasm building, his muscles starting to clench. Every nerve in his body is taut and firing, his cock bouncing against his stomach with every one of John's thrusts. “John – it's – ngh –”
“Come on then,” John says hoarsely, “come on, Sherlock, come on, let it go –”
Sherlock stifles a broken little sob by biting into his arm, and then he's coming, his cock pulsing against his stomach, come spilling hotly onto himself and the sheets. The sound he makes is unintelligible, a meaningless smear of vowels.
“Oh, yes,” John groans, “that's it – come on –” He fucks Sherlock hard through every wave and tremor of it, until it's over and Sherlock comes back into himself, gasping.
John keeps up the pace and comes inside Sherlock, warm and messy and wet and fucking perfect, and Sherlock can do nothing but give in to the impulse to laugh breathlessly as John crumples onto his back, shuddering through his orgasm.
Finally John stills, and presses a wet kiss to Sherlock's shoulder. “Fuck,” he breathes.
“Yes,” Sherlock agrees, dazed, brain sated and silent.
“Lemme just –” John half-slurs, then pulls out of Sherlock's body. Sherlock winces at the slick feeling of come and lube, and the sudden nothing inside him. With John gone, he simply lets his knees slide out from under him and collapses onto his side, trying clumsily not to land in his own come. He feels John reaching for the flannel and endures the quick, tenderly efficient touches of it, as well as the soft billowing of air and coolness as John draws up the bedsheet to cover them.
John spoons around him, sticky and a little too warm, wrapping an arm around Sherlock's waist. Sherlock, half-asleep, threads his fingers through John's.
“There's your terrible, you prat,” John murmurs, and Sherlock smiles, and squeezes John's hand with his own, feeling completely, utterly good.
January 1 st , 2022
“This is no time for alcohol, John,” Sherlock snaps at John when he comes into the living room with two glasses of sparkling wine. “I've just received the most interesting e-mail on the website in months. And it's just here in Greenwich. Get your coat on.”
John blinks. “I was going to say happy anniversary and, I dunno, happy new house, or something, but, er, okay.”
“Plenty of time for that nonsense later,” Sherlock says, flapping an impatient hand.
“Bell's broken,” John says, turning his head to hear anything as Sherlock presses his finger to the button next to a tattered name tag reading C. Nawrot: animal conservation and taxidermy.
“As always, John, you are completely oblivious to everything that's happening right in front of you,” Sherlock says happily. He breathes in deeply and then exhales, his breath rising in a wisp of warmth.
Cecylia Nawrot, around eighty years old, speaks with a strange, nasal, lilting rhythm and a basic vocabulary with vowels all out of swing that suggests that she had some time to master the basics of Polish before something happened that almost completely destroyed her hearing – meningitis, most likely, at the age of about six, after which she learned bits and pieces of English later in life, when she was already deaf. Sherlock looks around as she serves them strong coffee (“Tea no,” she'd said, wrinkled hands shaping the words out of habit). Her living room is full of dead animals, their eyes glinting with a dull, dead attention. Ferrets are frozen in macabre frolicking play on the mantelpiece, a large dog sits next to Sherlock's seat as though waiting for a treat, a fluffy white cat is curled up into one of the armchairs opposite them, convincingly asleep.
John catches Sherlock's eye. He looks positively spooked, and Sherlock gives him a little grin.
Cecylia doesn't like speaking. Her old hands tremble with the effort of not taking over from her voice, and forming full sentences makes her frown and tug nervously on her long grey braid.
“Write it down,” Sherlock tells her, enunciating clearly, and then watches as she writes, pencil on thin recycled paper, tongue peeking out of her mouth in concentration.
John makes a horrified sound as they overlook the carnage; the dogs' bellies slashed open, entrails spilling onto the cold stones of the large courtyard where they were kept at night, the blood crusty and shining with the frost of the previous night. There are at least twelve animals there, butchered carelessly, paws sticking up, furs matted with blood.
Cecylia thrusts her notepad at Sherlock, eyes aglitter with deep emotion. Left them so for you, v hard. Dont want police, dont help, never help. YOU HELP. He glances at her, at the tough set of her mouth, the shrewd, hard spark of her eyes.
“Okay,” he says.
“Jesus,” John says, and presses his palm against his mouth – John, who doesn't even blink at most of the crime scenes they visit. “Who would do this? And why?”
Sherlock moves closer to one of the carcases and squats near it, looking at the snarl of its muzzle even in death, the way its teeth are stained red. “Not just an animal-hating sadist,” he says. “There's method to this, however clumsy.”
“Huh,” John says behind him. “I thought that cat was dead.”
Sherlock glances back to see the white fluffy cat rubbing its face obstinately against John's calf, with the fine-tuned sense of all felines to pick out the person in any company that dislikes them the most.
“It's to do with the quarantine,” Sherlock tells John as they leave Cecylia's driveway. “The dogs were quarantined for four weeks when she came back to the UK after staying with her street dog project in Guatemala for 18 months. Some of the dogs came from the shelters there, but plenty of them were with her before. The animals have only been back for a few days. Something happened during the quarantine.”
“Are you thinking drugs?” John asks, trying hard to get the stubborn white cat hairs off his jacket sleeve.
“Smuggled out of the airport in their stomachs?” Sherlock says. “Possibly. Someone high-up at customs must be involved in that case. But even so there's more to it. She has a visual alarm that the dogs are trained to trip when someone they don't know enters the compound. She told me she's never slept through it. They didn't raise any alarm, even when someone was brutally slaughtering their fellows.” Sherlock claps his hands together. “Either way, this looks like a proper government muck-up,” he says, grinning. “It's about time something like this rolled around again! I think we should pay a visit to the animal quarantine in Heathrow.”
“The car's at the dealer's,” John reminds him, “because you thought it would be fun to experiment with the durability of tyre rubber in aceton, remember?”
In the taxi to the airport, as Sherlock is busy thumbing through Cecylia's dogs' travelling documents, he catches John typing up a text, angling his phone away from Sherlock.
“What're you doing?”
“Nothing,” John says, with a half-serious, half-amused frown. “Just... changing some arrangements. It's none of your business, creep.”
Sherlock blinks at him, then shrugs.
“How was she?” John's voice comes from the verandah as Sherlock wipes his shoes on the entrance mat, wincing at the dog shit caught on his sole.
“Not quite yet recovered from the idea that there are neighbours who will callously sedate and cut open your pets when one of them supposedly eats their wife's diamond brooch,” Sherlock calls back. He takes off the shoes, wrinkles his nose at them, and dumps them in a corner of the hall.
In the kitchen, he grabs a pear from the fruit basket and pads to the verandah on socked feet. John is sitting on the new sofa in the middle of the winter light-bright dome, fighting the chill behind the glass with one of Mrs. Hudson's blankets, which had migrated with them from Baker Street. He glances up from his book when Sherlock comes to stand next to him.
“I hope you didn't tell her you were disappointed by the case's ending,” he says, raising an eyebrow.
“I would never,” Sherlock mumbles around a mouthful of pear, and rolls his eyes at John's openly sceptical look. “Besides, it was worth it just to see you punch the neighbour in the face.”
“He's a sick fuck,” John says simply. “She's getting the damage claim money, right?”
Sherlock nods. “And he's being forced to leave the neighbourhood as part of the settlement.”
“Good,” John says, and returns his attention to his book.
“She gave me something,” Sherlock says. He takes the slip of paper out of his pocket and shakes it open before handing it to John.
John studies it, eyes widening. “Wow, that's...” He tilts his head to the side. “That's amazing. Look at the texture of your coat! And your hair – it's... how did she even do that without proper models?”
“Her visual memory is very strong,” Sherlock says, and smiles a little. “She said sorry because it's such a rough sketch.”
“That's a rough sketch for her?” John says, sounding awed. “She got us completely spot on, Sherlock!”
“Especially your distrusting, doubting glance at me,” Sherlock says.
“Shove off,” John says, and smiles up at Sherlock as he hands the portrait back. “That's clearly an adoring and admiring look.”
“You need a bit more practice, I think,” Sherlock says, and ducks away to avoid John's half-hearted swipe at him with his novel.
John tells him to put the picture up somewhere in a frame, and after a few days of indecision Sherlock finally hangs it on the wall in the bedroom, because it's tender, this: the way John looks intently at him in the drawing, and the way his own hand just barely seems to rest on John's elbow as he looks elsewhere, somewhere off-screen, eyes focused and bright even in the stark black-and-white palette of the charcoal picture.
When he comes to bed that night, John is still awake, and pulls him close, fingers trailing slowly over the expanse of his back, seeming to count the bumps of his vertebrae. Sherlock believes in the rules of action and reaction, and he knows by now that John forces himself to see in other things what Sherlock still can't say, for reasons that remain vague and hidden even to himself.