The porch is the best thing about the house, John has decided, and possibly the best thing about Sussex in its entirety. Back in uni, John had shared a cramped first-floor flat with three other med students, with a long flight of cement steps leading up to the door from the sidewalk. It had been hideous, but that hadn’t made it any less lovely to sit out on warm evenings with a glass of wine.
Speaking of which.
Sherlock has always had timing like the hero of a second-rate movie, and so the fact that he appears as if on cue in response to John’s train of thought isn’t even surprising anymore. Sherlock’s hands are full, so he nudges open the screen door with one foot and slithers through the gap, catching it on his shoulder as he slides outside. He’s got hold of the wine bottle around the neck with his left hand, the corkscrew dangling from the hook of his little finger, and a pair of glasses clutched in his right, the stems threaded between his knuckles.
“There wasn’t any white in the fridge, so this is the claret,” Sherlock says, as he performs some sort of sinuous finger-work that results in one of the glasses being passed to John.
John frowns. “Yes there is. I just put it in there this morning.”
Sherlock joins him on the top step, sets down his own glass, and begins working on the foil on the wine bottle. “Not – anymore,” he replies in that langorous monotone that says my attention is elsewhere.
John huffs in annoyance, mostly for the form of the thing. “Sherlock.”
The foil spirals away cleanly under Sherlock’s fingers. “The mold cultures were developing too quickly,” he says. “I won’t be able to introduce the pollen until the day after tomorrow.” Sherlock’s tone is offhand, but he flicks his eyes sidelong, briefly, to meet John’s, before returning to the cork he is easing out of the bottle; not an apology, but a mild acknowledgement that John might deserve an answer. Years of progress, that was. John knows to appreciate it for the rare gem it is.
And appreciate it he does: “You’re a right git, I hope you know that,” he says, holding out his glass.
“Intimately,” Sherlock replies as he fills it. He inclines his own glass toward John slightly before lifting it to his lips.
John rolls the first sip around in his mouth. The red wine goes down warm, and he has to admit it’s a nice antidote to the chill that has threaded its way under the dry smells of late summer. October seems to have crept in without either of them noticing. Sherlock still notices everything, of course, but there’s been a little less to “everything” with the passing of time, ever since they moved out here six months ago. It seems to be a compromise he has struck with slowing down.
“What,” says Sherlock slowly, his eyes tracking the wine's legs down the inside of his glass.
“Just thinking about the flat I had in uni,” John replies.
“A nice stoop?”
“No, actually,” John says, with a bit of a laugh. “but it was nicer than the inside. My favorite place to be.”
A wry smile ripples briefly across Sherlock’s face. “Flatmates.”
John shrugs. “Could have been worse. There was the one who always left his laundry in the hall.” He purses his lips, thinking. “Not friends, but good sorts. Nobody who kept human livers in the casserole dish, at any rate.”
Sherlock scoffs, lightly. He studies his glass a moment longer, then drains it and walks back on his elbows, his body a long line slanting down their three steps to the lawn. The sun is low, and now he is low too, out of the reach of the beams that had been keeping at bay the deep shadows native to his face.
John has long since learned when to bring tea, and now he’s learning about the wine, as well; he plucks Sherlock’s glass from between his fingers and pours him another.
A bit more for himself as well, he decides, although a few minutes later he still hasn’t drunk any; still swishing it around in the bowl, feeling the minute changes in weight.
“But it’s chance, mostly, isn’t it?” he says. “The people who come into your life. The people who stay.”
Sherlock raises his eyebrows. “Already such profundity. Isn’t that your first glass?”
“Shut it,” John says, aiming half-heartedly for heat and settling on warmth. “I just mean that… well… what if Mike hadn’t been in the park that day when I walked by?”
“We would be strangers to this very day,” Sherlock replies, tranquil. This is a conversation they’ve had before.
“Unless you were dead in some alley these twenty years,” is John’s dry retort, and this too is familiar, although he does derive some minor pleasure from conjuring up new and horrible deaths for Sherlock to have hypothetically encountered. One of the new pleasures that John has discovered in the countryside, now that they are all securely in past tense.
Sherlock spins his wineglass from hand to hand across his chest, where his fingers nearly touch. “It’s something different, tonight.”
John sighs. “Yeah, maybe.” A pause. “Or, no, actually; it’s just.” He sighs again.
Sherlock waits. Tolerantly, even. Wine does temper his fiercer edges, but John also recognizes the subtle balm of learned patience. The warm hum of appreciation he feels, seeing in Sherlock the fruits of that determined study, prods him to be brave.
“I don’t –” John tips his face up toward the sky, where a few early stars have appeared. “I sometimes don’t know why it’s me. Who’s here with you.”
“Yours is the other name on the deed,” Sherlock replies in his dark velvet rumble. There is a laugh lurking somewhere behind it, which is how John knows Sherlock is actually listening.
“Well, that’s me sleeping better tonight, knowing I won’t find myself booted out with all my worldly belongings come morning.”
“I thought you liked the porch.”
“And there’s that moderation problem of yours again. I like it sometimes. Lovely for a glass of wine in the evenings, not so lovely for sleeping on.”
Sherlock gives a light hmmph. “Very particular, aren’t you.”
“Yes. Well.” A fresh stirring of the breeze draws a chill across John’s back, and he sips at his wine. “And you are too, I’d have thought.” Sherlock hums in assent. “And I know why I was the one to have along for some of those cases, when you needed someone who could keep up with you.” The last of the wine clings briefly to the lip of the glass before warming his tongue and throat. “And god knows there was nobody else to clean up your. You know. Eyeballs. Or whatever was in the fridge that day.”
“But there might have been,” Sherlock says, finishing John’s thought, his voice penetrating the evening gloom that has somehow lowered around them. John considers an appropriate response and settles on a simple yes, but it comes out as more of a croak; his throat has somehow gone tight.
The silence spreads for several heavy minutes. “I don’t know why you always see it that way,” Sherlock says, the quietness of retreat in his voice. “As if you are –” and John hears the pause and rehearses, in his head, the hand gesture he cannot see through the thickening dark – “fungible in some respect, fulfilling some sort of prosaic office that anyone might have done.”
“Oh, trust me,” John replies, mirroring back Sherlock’s warm dark humor from before – safe, a known place, a reliable road – “I know full well that it takes someone special to put up with you.”
Sherlock sighs into the cool dark noises of a late summer night in Sussex, and John suddenly feels acutely conscious of the place that they are in, the scent of sweet autumn grasses on the newly-prickling chill in the air and the hum of the apiaries in the distant background, all so real and immediate that it is almost overwhelming. He shivers.
“You... would… be… special without me, John,” Sherlock says haltingly.
“It’s all right, Sherlock,” John says gently, when he realizes that no more is forthcoming. “I like the way my life turned out. I don’t need to be special without you.”
“You certainly don’t need me to tell you what you are,” Sherlock insists, and only he could manage to combine sounding imperious and plaintive, couldn’t he? “And besides, people are idiots. They completely miss what’s right in front of them.”
John looks over at Sherlock’s profile, black silk against a sky still faintly luminous. “Does it count, though,” he says. “If nobody sees you.”
It is a question without an answer, and Sherlock never says I don’t know if he can help it. The last of the light fades, and all the noises and smells come stronger, the scents and sounds that, John is learning, are to become the rhythm of his new life. Of their new life. Their crime-solving career has come to a close, and maybe it’s time, John thinks, to learn to let some questions stand. He leans back on his elbows, another slanting line down their front steps, and feels his heart shift slightly into place as the stars come out, one by one, over their heads.