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France

 

John can’t help but think that everyone is mad at him.

Normally he’d refuse to notice (life is too short for drama, he’d always reminded himself since Afghanistan), better to just let people have their bit of snark or their hopefully short-lived pissy moods and he’d let it slide and assume that it was over. If it was a real problem, presumably people would behave like adults and address it directly and calmly and then they could all move on. So he didn’t notice at first, not exactly, yet it started seeming like too many people were in unusually bad moods when he was around all of a sudden.

They’d been back from the honeymoon for a week. He was still sunburnt, but supposed that was what happened when one subjected English skin to the sun in a hot climate during the summer months. (Foolish, he supposed; they should have gone to Brighton after all, but he’d thought it would be nice to splash out and take Mary on a proper vacation somewhere. Proper, of course, meaning expensive. He’d saved for this and wanted to do it right – and it had been great, of course. But the sunburn remained.)

Molly had nodded at it when she’d come by to drop off Mary’s hairpins that she’d borrowed for the wedding. “You’ll want to put something on that,” she’d said, eyes averted, avoiding John’s.

John had shrugged. “It’ll fade.”

“You should have been more careful,” Molly said sharply. “Skin burns more easily close to the equator.”

It wasn’t like her to snap like that – Molly Hooper, of all people. John was a little taken back. “Er, all right,” he’d said. She’d gone then, leaving him on the front stoop of the building they’d hardly lived in since before all the wedding prep had started. They’d only come home to sleep, more or less.

He wasn’t worried that Sherlock was lonely by himself at Baker Street, though – Sherlock wasn’t home. John had gone by to say hello the day they’d come back from the honeymoon and no one was there, including Mrs Hudson. He’d texted Sherlock twice, then Mrs Hudson.

Mrs Hudson, it’s John. Do you
know where Sherlock is?

She was new to texting but Sherlock had shown her how to use the new mobile she’d got and she’d taken a fancy to writing text messages. She wrote back instantly.

He’s in France. Didn’t he tell you?
Not all that surprising, maybe.

John had frowned. Not all that surprising? Was that just a reference to the way Sherlock was constantly disappearing and going wherever it was he would go sometimes? Or did she mean that he wouldn’t have wanted to bother John on his honeymoon? (Though he’d texted earlier, around the blog posting.) He wrote back:

Case, is it?

Her response was a bit slower.

I wouldn’t know. Sorry, dear,
with my sister at the moment.
Got to dash.

So, Sherlock was in France. After that ridiculous blog post Sherlock had written, John hadn’t heard from him again. He’d been a little too preoccupied to think about it, to be honest. Assumed Sherlock was busy with whatever and besides, he was hardly supposed to be spending his honeymoon thinking about some bloke, even if it was his best friend, was he? So he’d had a glorious time with Mary instead and assumed they’d catch up when he got home. Now he was home and Sherlock was in France, and apparently not texting back. Not able to, maybe. God only knew what he was up to – disguised as a mime outside the Louvre or something ridiculous like that, spying on the tourists passing by in hopes of pinning down a too-familiar face. Something along those lines. He would come back and regale John with the fascinating case he’d missed, and all would be back to normal.

***

Lestrade was strangely irritable the next time John saw him, too. John privately thought that he looked a bit hung over and wondered if he should say something. He’d texted and asked about meeting up for a pint and Lestrade had agreed, but sounded a bit distant, said he couldn’t stay all that long.

“That’s quite the sunburn,” Lestrade had said, staring at his face.

(Was it that visible even in the dark of the pub?) “Er, thanks,” John had said, and changed the subject. The conversation was stilted and lurching from one topic to another like a lumbering elephant, until Lestrade finally set his empty pint glass down and said he had to go. John had been a little startled, but chalked it up to being tired – there had been a bank heist that had kept Lestrade up for three nights running, after all. John couldn’t help but wonder if it might have only taken one night if Sherlock weren’t in France.

Today John remembers that he’s left his other jacket at Baker Street and decides to go by and pick it up. He’ll say hello to Mrs Hudson while he’s there. He thinks of taking along the shell necklace they bought her on the beach but thinks that maybe Mary would want to be there for that, since she picked it out. Next time, then. He takes the bus and lets himself in with his key. In the front hall he stands still for a moment and takes in the deep silence. The house feels as empty as a tomb, as though no one’s been there in ages. John frowns and tries to shake off the weight of Sherlock’s silent absence and goes to knock on Mrs Hudson’s door. It feels like there shouldn’t be anyone in the building at all, but she’s there. The cup of tea she sets down near his elbow bears a similar weight to the one she’d served him the day he came to tell her he was moving on, proposing to Mary. She’s angry with him, then. Or irritated about something else, possibly. He looks up at her, telling himself that he’s imagining things, but he sees instantly that he’s not.

His smile falters. “What is it?” he asks. Her hands are on her hips, mouth pursed unhappily. “What’s wrong, then?” He feels defensive. He has no reason to feel defensive; he’s not done anything wrong.

“Would it have hurt you to have gone after him?” Mrs Hudson asks. Demands, really.

They never need to specify which him she means. There’s only ever been one. John feels his good mood evaporate. “Hey,” he says, his tone a little more confrontational than he meant for it to be, but he can’t help it. “It wasn’t my choice for him to leave the wedding early. Matter of fact, I’m surprised he lasted as long as he did. He’s always hated a crowd scene.”

She glares at him now. She hasn’t sat down, just stands where she is, leaning against the counter, arms crossed. “The crowd had nothing to do with it,” she corrects him, in tones that suggest he’s as much of an idiot as Sherlock has always thought. “He felt left out. He had no one there, not even his brother came. No one to dance with. No one to talk to, once you had gone off. Would it have killed you to tell him how much he still means to you, how much you wanted him to stay?”

John feels himself growing angry. No: not growing; he is angry. “Mrs Hudson, I hadn’t even noticed that he’d left until he was gone, all right? How was I to know he’d take off like that? It wasn’t me who was rude there, it was Sherlock. What best man leaves his best friend’s wedding early, especially one he was so involved in planning? Besides which, my wedding is hardly the time to be professing my everlasting love to some bloke, even Sherlock.”

Mrs Hudson’s face changes then. It’s a look he’s never seen on her face before. He thinks it might be disappointment, touched with… was that contempt? (Mrs Hudson?) “Not even after he’d professed his to you?” she asks, very softly, but it’s not really a question. She meets John’s eyes, not backing down an inch. “You could have met him halfway. Given him something.”

“I really don’t know what you mean,” John says flatly, and it’s true. He doesn’t.

Mrs Hudson shakes her head. “You should, John. You really should. After all this time, if you don’t know that yet, then I just don’t know.”

This is getting ridiculous. John gets to his feet, leaving his tea untouched. “Listen,” he says. “You’re saying I should have spent my entire wedding night babysitting my best friend and making sure he didn’t feel too jealous of my new wife. I did actually have some more important things on my mind.”

“Like what?” Mrs Hudson scoffs.

“Like Mary!” John shouts.

(Oh. He didn’t mean to shout at her.) Mrs Hudson looks distressed, one hand at her necklace, the other finding the edge of the table to steady herself. “Right,” she says, not looking at him. “I see.”

“I hope you do!” John says, still angry. “She’s my wife. She should come first.”

Mrs Hudson nods. “Yes, of course, dear,” she says. “I just thought, after he made you the promise that he did…”

“What,” John says, aware that he’s breathing too heavily. She doesn’t say anything, so he attempts to batten down his irritation and ask again with forced calm, “What did you think?”

Now she looks at him. She’s very pleasant, but there’s something in her eyes he still doesn’t like. “That you’d promise him something in return,” she says, and her eyes are boring into his in a way that makes him uncomfortable.

“It was my wedding, to Mary,” John says stubbornly. “That’s who I married, in case that wasn’t clear.”

“And Sherlock more or less made a marriage vow to you,” Mrs Hudson says. She sighs. “Pity it was so one-sided, that’s all – and just after he’d finally learned to open himself up a bit. I really thought you cared for him more than that, John.”

This is getting beyond belief. John doesn’t even know what to say. At last, he says into the strained silence, “I didn’t even know that he had left. I didn’t notice him leaving or I would have gone after him.”

“He’d have noticed you leaving,” Mrs Hudson says, gently pointed.

John swallows. Some of the defiance he was feeling evaporates and there’s a bitter taste in his mouth. “He notices everything,” he mutters.

“Particularly when it concerns you.” Mrs Hudson lets that sink in a moment, then picks up his cup and carries it to the sink. She turns her back to him and pours the tea down the drain. “My love to Mary,” she says vaguely, and it’s a dismissal.

John is so startled and slightly shaken by the whole, uncomfortable encounter that he forgets to get his jacket, or ask if she knows when Sherlock is coming back.

***

It bothers him for the next several days, the conversation replaying in his head a dozen times over. Of course it’s all hyperbole. Mrs Hudson has always been a bit touched where Sherlock is concerned – scolding him, but always indulging him at the same time. He doesn’t tell Mary about the conversation. He also doesn’t tell her that he’s tried texting Sherlock again. She’d said to leave it, that Sherlock would respond when he wanted to or was free to, and that pestering him would just make him irritable. It’s true; Mary understands Sherlock’s essential nature fairly well, but John can’t help it.

Really wish you would answer
me. Getting worried about you
over here. If it’s a case, I assume
you’ll let me know if you’re in
trouble or need me, right?

That gets him no response, either. In frustration, he finally texts Mycroft. It bothers him to have to ask, bothers him to no end that Mycroft might know something about Sherlock that he doesn’t, the implication that John doesn’t know him as well as Mycroft does, or as well as he should. But they’ve been back from the honeymoon three weeks now and there hasn’t been a word from Sherlock.

Do you know when Sherlock is
coming back from France? What’s
he doing there, anyway? Case, I
assume?

Mycroft takes his time about responding (damn him, he probably made John wait on purpose, just out of spite, the bastard), finally writing back three hours later.

Welcome back from St. Lucia.
I should have mentioned earlier that
aloe vera gel can be soothing on a
sunburn. Why are you asking about
Sherlock?

John stares at the mobile in his hand. The question reads like a rib to him, as though he doesn’t have the right to ask about Sherlock or something. Sod that, he thinks, and types angrily back.

I’m his best friend. I have a right to
know. Is he in trouble? What kind of
case is it, anyway?

Mycroft’s response is curt.

It’s not a case. If he hasn’t been in
touch, then I would suggest you
leave it alone. If he wants to contact
you, I’m certain that he will.

What the hell. If he wants to contact John? What is going on here? (Why is everyone and his dog being such a dick to him?) “Mary,” he calls toward the sitting room of the flat, “I’m going out. I’ll be back in awhile.”

She doesn’t respond, but looks up from her book when he appears in the doorway. “Where are you off to?” she asks, using her finger to mark her spot in the book.

John goes over and bends to kiss her. “Just out. Errands and such. I might stop by Bart’s lab to say hello to Molly. She’s got Sherlock’s violin and I thought I might pick it up.”

Mary accepts this. “I still can’t believe he forgot it at the reception,” she muses. “Maybe that case came up suddenly. It would explain why he didn’t tell you about it; he wouldn’t have wanted to disturb you on your wedding night.” She smiles at him.

She’s posited this theory before, but somehow John isn’t convinced. Not with Mrs Hudson’s words (accusations) swirling about in the back half of his head somewhere. “Maybe,” he says, not wanting to disagree. “Anyway, are you still feeling ill? Should I pick anything up for you?”

“I’m fine, now. It’s just the mornings.” She shoos him off and John heads downstairs.

Molly is weighing a liver with safety goggles on when he comes in. She looks surprised to see him. “Oh. John. Hello.”

“Hello,” he says. He goes over. “Busy?” He smiles and nods at the liver with his chin.

She bites her lip. “I am, a bit.” Her tone is a touch cool. “If you’re here for the violin, it’s just in my office. You’ll have to wait a minute or two until I finish this.”

“Yeah, of course,” John says. He clears his throat. “Er, could we chat for a minute or two while you’re doing that, or…?”

She glances at him, the look a bit sharp, but then she nods, not saying anything.

John puts his hands on the counter separating them and leans forward a bit. “Listen,” he says. He doesn’t want to admit it, but he sort of hates that he has to ask Molly this, too – hates admitting that he doesn’t already know. “I was wondering if you know when Sherlock is coming back from France.”

Molly has stooped to peer at the liver, turning it over in rubber gloved-hands, but she shoots a hazel-eyed look at him over the rim of the scale. Her expression is guarded, almost suspicious. “What makes you think I would know?”

John sighs, disappointed. “I don’t know. I just thought that, maybe… he’s spent a bit more time with you since he got back, hasn’t he? I just thought he might have said, while I was away…” he trails off.

Molly picks up the liver and puts it in a bowl, then carries it over to the far side of the lab, her back to him. “And you still think he would confide in me but not you?”

Another question. A deflection, Sherlock’s voice corrects in his head. Still, Molly’s words spark the old grievance again. “He has before,” John says sharply, before he can prevent himself.

Molly goes still for a moment. She sets down the bowl, takes off her gloves and starts writing something, a label maybe, affixing it to the side of the container. Then she says, rolling a new pair of gloves on, “If he wanted you to know, he would probably tell you.”

This oblique answer is rather out of character for her and hearing Mycroft’s words come out of her mouth pushes all of the wrong buttons for John. “But why is he there?” he bursts out, annoyed, angry, frustrated. “What’s he doing in France? And where in France? I don’t even know that! Why does everyone, even bloody Mycroft, know what he’s up to and I don’t?”

Molly puts the liver in a medical refrigerator and crosses back toward him. She looks defensive, confrontational, crossing her arms over her chest. “Why?” It’s a challenge. “Would you go after him?”

What? “Go after him?” John doesn’t understand. “What do you mean?”

“If you knew where he was, would you go to him?” Molly wants to know.

He’s still confused. “I – I don’t know. If he was in trouble, yes. Of course.”

“He’s not on a case.” She raises her eyebrows.

“Mycroft said, yeah,” John says. “Then what’s going on? What’s the big mystery? Why won’t anyone tell me why he’s there?”

Molly studies him for a long time, with almost Sherlock-like intensity. Finally, she says, “You should have gone after him. When he left the wedding.”

John sighs. He looks at the backs of his hands, which have finally stopped peeling. He’d even managed to sunburn his hands. “I would have if I’d noticed him leaving. Now I wish I had noticed, but I didn’t, and there’s nothing I can do about that now. I wish he hadn’t left, but he did.”

“I noticed,” Molly says.

John looks up at this. Of course Molly noticed. Of course. She would see something in Sherlock that only someone who had loved him for years would see. Wait – John is shocked by his own inner monologue. He has loved Sherlock for years, damn it! Sherlock is his best friend, more than a best friend, but there is no term that can adequately describe what Sherlock is to him, how important he is, how central, how loved. Why didn’t he notice what Molly noticed? Because you were dancing with your wife, at your wedding, the other voice in his head argues. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Still – he feels torn, caught between the two loyalties. He still has trouble believing sometimes how easy Mary and Sherlock both made it for him, resolutely getting along from the very first, no jealousies, no rivalries. He’d honestly expected it from Sherlock, given his track record with John’s past girlfriends, but Sherlock had been remarkably good about the entire thing – which makes this sudden, inexplicable disappearance all the more confusing now. Still, Molly’s right. As Mrs Hudson was, damn them both. He meets Molly’s gaze evenly. “I should have,” he acknowledges. “I should have noticed.”

“Yes,” Molly says. “You should have.” She looks away, opening a small drawer in the side of the counter and closing it again. “But you never have observed him that well.”

Spark of annoyance. Who is she to tell him that he didn’t see things about Sherlock? He bloody well lived with the man for nearly two years. “What are you saying?” he asks, trying to keep it from sounding belligerent. “What didn’t I observe?”

She shrugs, her shoulders small in the white lab coat. “He looks sad when you can’t see him. He has for a long time. It was the worst just after he came back, when you wouldn’t talk to him. For weeks before the wedding he was doing it again. It was really hard for him, you know. Doing all that.”

John doesn’t know what to say to this. He feels defensive. “He’s my best friend. If I’d asked someone else to be my best man, he’d have been hurt. I think.”

“I’m not talking about the speech or the planning or any of that,” Molly says. She takes a deep breath. “I mean, it was hard for him to watch you get married. To give you away. That’s what he did, you know. He gave you to Mary. He knew it was the right thing to do, and that’s what he did. Except, it was like he married you that day. He promised to love and take care of you forever, and then he stepped aside and let you go.”

John feels his eyes blink several times, trying to process this. It’s nearly exactly what Mrs Hudson said. “Molly,” he says slowly, “I think you’re overestimating that speech. I agree that he seems more… uh, open, I suppose, more emotional since he got back, and I was moved by what he said. But he’s very much accepted Mary and they’re great friends. I don’t think it’s what you’re thinking.”

Molly shakes her head. “You don’t get it,” she says, quiet but firm. “Take it from someone who loved him for years – since before you knew him. He loves you. And I don’t just mean as your best mate. There was a time when I would have given anything to have him look at me the way he’s always looked at you, and for him to say something like that – ” Her breath catches and she restarts. “Listen, take my word for it. Someone who loved him would know what it looks like to see him in love. He loves you. And he might just need some space away from you while he gets used to the idea of how things are now.”

John makes a gesture of frustration. “He’s had months and months to get used to the idea. He has to be used to it by now. I’m sorry, Molly, but that just doesn’t make sense. He loves Mary.”

“As an extension of you,” Molly counters. “He’s accepted her because it’s that or lose you. Don’t you see? He would do anything for you, even that. But I think it was easier for him to die, or – pretend to die – for you than this is. All that time he spent away, getting arrested, getting tortured and beaten – he did that for you. So don’t get tetchy with me about his having confided in me about that, or that he asked for my help and not yours, because he did it for you, not for me, and not for his brother. We weren’t on his list, remember? So if Mycroft and I know something about him now that you don’t, perhaps you’re the reason again, John. I think you should respect that.”

John frowns at her. “What am I supposed to do, then?”

One of her eyebrows lifts. “Either give him the space he’s taken, or… go after him.”

“Go after him?” John repeats blankly. “And do what? I don’t even know where he is.”

Molly considers him for a moment, her eyes weighing him. Then, “I think you’d know once you got there,” she says, turning away. “Boulogne-sur-Mer. It’s on the coast.”

“Details might help.”

She’s walking toward the desk, not looking back. “You lived with him for two years. You know his methods. I’m sure you’ll work it out.”

Bloody hell. What is it with everyone? Molly comes back with the violin case, holding it out to him. John accepts it, feeling that somehow by taking it, he’s taking on something else entirely. “Thanks,” he says in defeat, and heads for the door.

***

Two evenings later Mary is at her book club meeting, so John calls Lestrade and asks if he’d like to get a pint. Lestrade agrees with what sounds like reluctance and John wonders for a moment as he ends the call if he’s about to get a third lecture about Sherlock.

Lestrade meets him right on time, though, and doesn’t say anything about it. He asks about the honeymoon, which he didn’t last time, and notices that John’s face is looking tanned instead of red now.

“I told you before,” John says. “It’s how my entire family tans. Red first, then brown.”

“Mate, that was no tan. That was a sunburn like I have never seen before,” Lestrade says, downing his pint. “Another?”

“Please.” John had got the last round, so he doesn’t argue as Lestrade shoulders his way up to the bar this time. Should he ask? Maybe. It's all he can think about these days. Well, that and Mary, whose morning sickness had just begun after they got home. That was what he was supposed to be thinking about. His wife. Somehow this life had cursed him with the oddest, most eccentric best friend on the face of the earth, and if he had disappeared to France for some reason and saw fit to tell everyone but his best friend, what was John supposed to do about it? Still, though. Lestrade was coming back, armed with another two pints. John gulped at his, then got the question out. “So, er, Greg. Can I ask you something?”

Lestrade pauses with his glass partway to his mouth. “Wondered when you were getting to that,” he mutters, just audible above the noise of the pub. He drinks and sets the glass down, locking his fingers around it. He hunches his shoulders a little more than usual and nods at John. “Yeah, all right. Out with it.”

“Er…” John isn’t sure how to begin, so he just says, “Where’s Sherlock?”

Lestrade swipes the back of his hand over his mouth. “France. He didn’t tell you?” His tone is light enough but his eyes and the lines around his mouth are hard.

John shakes his head, feeling a little lost. “No,” he says. “He didn’t tell me. Or Mary.”

“Why would he tell Mary?” Lestrade wants to know. “You’re his friend.”

“They’re friends, too,” John says defensively. “They get on like a house on fire.”

He gets a head shake for that. “It’s not the same. Don’t try to pretend that it is.”

For a second John is tempted to say something nasty about Lestrade’s two failed marriages, but catches himself before he can. He changes tactics. “All right, then, tell me,” he says. “I seem to be the only one out of the loop. Why didn’t he tell me? And when’s he coming back?”

Lestrade sighs. He lets his gaze drift into the interior of his glass for awhile, then says, “Listen, mate. I’ve known Sherlock about eight years now. In all that time, I’ve never really got to know him, not like you have, so I feel a bit of an ass giving you advice about him. Then again, it’s a bit daft that you’re coming to me for advice. There’s something wrong with this picture.”

“But you’re his friend,” John argues. “And he told you.”

“Yeah,” Lestrade agrees. “He did. He does seem to consider me a friend, which is bloody fantastic. I’ve always liked him. Don’t ask me why; I never worked that out. For all that he insinuates – or says outright – that I’m an incompetent moron, he seems to genuinely like me, and you know how rare that is. I don’t know how I made his exclusive list of three when Moriarty figured out who his handful of friends were, but I’m glad I’m one of them. And that said, I think you’re being a bit of an idiot, personally.”

John feels his back stiffen. “How’s that?”

“Maybe the only thing I’ve got that you haven’t with regard to Sherlock is a bit of objective distance,” Lestrade says, lifting the glass again. “That and the extra five years, maybe. In all the time I’ve known him, I’ve never known him to say something like what he said at your wedding. Never once. But there was a time when he and his brother had a big fight about something and Mycroft meddled in his financial affairs – probably something to do with the cocaine, but I never heard the details. Sherlock got upset and went to Switzerland for awhile. He was gone for two months, maybe, and then just like that, he was back in London, not a word of explanation. The best I ever got was that he ‘needed space to think’. I don’t think things were ever the same with his brother, maybe not until he got back and they had their reconciliation or whatever, but what I’m saying is, the only other time I’ve seen him genuinely upset about something, this is what he did. He took himself away and didn’t come back until he wasn’t upset any more.”

John listens to all of this without interrupting. When Lestrade finishes, he pokes at the condensation on his glass with the index finger of each hand. “So, I’m what he’s upset about, is what you’re saying.”

“Got to be,” Lestrade says. “And after what he said at your wedding, I’m not that surprised. I mean, it’s almost funny because it’s sort of awkward. He basically married himself to you – and Mary, too, at the end, there. But what he said, about having the rest of his life to prove that he’d never let you down and always love you, that’s when I started thinking, shit.”

John drags his eyes off the condensation to Lestrade’s face. Lestrade is staring off toward the bar. “Shit, what? What do you mean?”

Lestrade’s eyes come back and refocus on him. “I mean, I thought, shit, he’s totally head over heels, isn’t he? That’s not just something the best man says, you know what I mean? He loves you.”

“Of course he does,” John says, but he feels distinctly odd in his midsection. And a bit light-headed. He should probably stop drinking about now. “He’s my best friend. I love him, too. We all do, odd and infuriating as he can be.”

“No,” Lestrade interrupts, nicely. “That’s what I mean: you don’t get it. He’s in love with you. Desperately in love with you. That’s what I took from that whole business. And when I saw he’d gone, I wasn’t surprised, but I just had a bad feeling about the whole thing. Tell you what, I’m a little worried we’re going to lose him.”

A touch of panic comes into John’s voice. “What? What do you mean, ‘lose him’? How do you mean?”

Lestrade shrugs. “I mean, maybe he won’t come back.”

John stares at him in horror. “Ever?” He’s too loud; the people from the next table are looking at him.

Lestrade holds out his hands in a gesture that says I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine. “All I know is I’ve never heard him say anything like that before in my life and I kind of think that’s because he’s never said anything like that before. I mean, honestly, I thought from the beginning that he felt that way. Maybe he didn’t even know it, but he’d never had a friend before. That first time he brought you to a crime scene – Jennifer Wilson, remember? – I thought, shit, look at this! He’s found himself someone! I mean, you moved in with him that day, right? You were attached at the hip from the start. None of us could believe it. There’s never been anyone like you in his life, and that’s a fact.”

John shakes his head, looking into his beer again. The froth is beginning to dry on the inside of the glass. “But he never… he even said, the first time we went for dinner. That same day. He said he doesn’t date. That he considers himself married to his work.”

“Yeah, but that was way back then,” Lestrade counters. “Things could have changed. You were obviously special for him. He was always alone before you, and then he was alone again so long before he came back. I mean, did he tell you that he brought Molly along on a crime scene after he got back, when you wouldn’t talk to him? She’s great, but that’s plain desperation for him. I’d say he’d got used to having you around and missed you something fierce while he was away. And then he comes back and you’ve got someone who’s more important to you – I mean, even if all he wanted was to be your friend, I don’t see Sherlock Holmes as having the emotional maturity to manage sharing his best friend with anyone.”

“But he’s done it,” John argues. “He’s done exactly that! Like I said, he and Mary get on great! I was relieved, honestly, because yeah, I thought the same thing at first.”

“He does it for you,” Lestrade says firmly. “But it might be too much now, you being properly married now, baby on the way. If he thinks there’s no place for him in your life now, why would he hang about? He left the wedding early and no one even noticed. I feel badly about that. I’d have gone after him if I’d seen him leaving.”

John feels badly all over again himself. “I didn’t notice, either,” he says. “I wish I had.”

Lestrade shakes his head. “He’d have noticed you leaving.”

“I know.” The admission hurts.

“But that’s just it,” Lestrade says, gentle. “You didn’t because you don’t feel the same way. Obviously! You’re in love with Mary and that’s how it’s meant to be. I just think it’s a bit hard for Sherlock, finally becoming – well, human – and finding out he’s capable of feelings after all, just when the target of said feelings marries someone else. Hell, I’d go off to France, too.”

You don’t feel the same way. Somehow these words don’t sit right; John feels like he should object to them, opening his mouth but then catching himself. What was he thinking? If Lestrade is right and Sherlock is actually, genuinely in love with him, then of course he doesn’t feel the same way. He feels something, certainly: what he feels for Sherlock has always defied traditional definitions. But it’s not that, is it? Surely he would know by now if it was that. He loves Sherlock. Loves him dearly. And this hurts, thinking about Sherlock being alone in France having some kind of emotional crisis and refusing to come back to London. “Shit,” he says aloud, to the table.

Lestrade drains his glass and pats John’s arm. He gets to his feet. “I’d best be off,” he says kindly, perhaps seeing that John needs to be by himself about now. “Let me know if you hear anything, would you?”

“Yeah,” John says, not quite able to look at him. “You too.”

“I’ll do that,” Lestrade promises, and is gone.

John sits there, alone at the table for another half hour, staring into the beer instead of drinking it, before he finally gets it together and takes himself home.

***

He can’t stop thinking about it. Three more weeks go by. He checks his phone obsessively and can’t sleep. He thinks about Mrs Hudson’s reproach, which was well over the top and coming from a motherly bias in the first place, and still mostly dismisses it. He thinks of Molly, still carrying a residual infatuation for Sherlock and skewed to be a little too sympathetic in his defence. Her opinion of Sherlock’s feelings for him are very likely coloured by her own jealousy of John’s place in Sherlock’s life and affections, which has always been higher than her own. But coming from Lestrade, it shocks him. It has the ring of truth, too, much as John had disputed it. He doesn’t know that John said something along the same lines when he asked Sherlock to be his best man, that he told Sherlock, all boiled down, that he loved him. The two people I love the most in all the world, he’d said, and named Sherlock after his fiancée. And the look on Sherlock’s face, that slightly pained blank. As though he didn’t understand or simply couldn’t take it in, believe in, handle it. But he was more or less just returning the same sentiment a couple of months later, wasn’t he? That was what John had thought at the time, and been grateful to hear it, frankly. He’d never thought to hear Sherlock say something so forthcoming and so emotional to him like that – and in front of a roomful of witnesses, too. He’d been deeply moved.

But the thought of Sherlock being in love with him, really in love with him and – heartbroken, if Lestrade and Molly are to be believed – over his marriage stirs something deep within John. He can’t put words to it but it aches almost physically, somewhere low in his gut. He hears Sherlock’s voice commenting on the various small stupidities of his life and wishes fiercely that he was hearing it aloud instead of only in his head. It’s been six weeks now. There’s been no word. He’s asked Lestrade, too, and he hasn’t heard anything. John is beginning to feel sick over it – and what he should be feeling is the delirious joy of a newlywed. Granted, Mary spends most mornings retching in the adjoining loo rather than in bed, but he makes love to her every night, save the few that she doesn’t feel up to it. His thoughts are increasingly more and more focused on some unknown point in France, though. He looks Boulogne-sur-Mer up on the map and wonders how long it would take to get there, and what he would say to Sherlock if he did go. Hello! Listen, I’m not in love with you but I love you like I’ve never loved anyone else except Mary but in a different way and I wish you’d come home even if it’s never going to be what you want, if that is what you want. Only, now he’s fairly certain that Lestrade – and Molly and Mrs Hudson – are right. It just feels true. And of course he knows why Sherlock never said anything. It’s Sherlock, for the love of God. He wouldn’t ever do anything the normal way. Is he hiding now because he’s afraid John will see it and waiting until he’s got it under control before he comes back? Or has he disappeared for good?

The thought of losing Sherlock again is more than he can bear thinking about. He’s growing snappish and withdrawn. He has trouble falling asleep every night, waiting for Mary’s breathing to settle into sleep beside him and then giving himself guiltily over to thoughts of Sherlock, as though focusing his thoughts on him will somehow bring him back.

That night, he dreams, clearly and lucidly. He’s standing on the coast somewhere, the southeast coast of England. Dover, maybe, facing in the direction of the French coastline. It’s probably the wrong angle; the channel ferry goes toward Calais, not Boulogne-sur-Mer, but John doesn’t know exactly which way it is, even in his dream. He’s never been to France. But he can see Sherlock nonetheless, standing on his own coast, coattails flapping in the breeze, hands thrust into his pockets as the setting sun behind John throws beams of golden light over his marble-cold features. Somehow it doesn’t matter that Sherlock is in France and John is in England. Seagulls are circling overhead, calling to one another. There is an eerily beautiful quality to the very air.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” John asks.

Sherlock shrugs. “What could I say?”

“You love me,” John says. Looking for confirmation.

Sherlock is dismissive. “Of course. I said as much. Why would I lie?”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Another shrug. The sunlight catches Sherlock’s eyes, glittering like strange, pale jewels in the light. “Then say what you mean.”

“You’re in love with me,” John says.

Sherlock looks to his left, to the south. “Yes.”

“I wish you had said. Years ago.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference.” Sherlock is still gazing out at the sea. “Would it?”

It’s only barely a question. He wants John to say it, say No, it wouldn’t have made a difference. I don’t feel that way about you. I’m sorry. John gathers his breath, but he finds he can’t speak. It’s like that in dreams sometimes: at the most important moment, you find you can’t speak, can’t run, can’t do the thing that most needs doing.

Sherlock looks at him and smiles. “Keep your eyes fixed on me,” he says.

Panic rises like wings flapping in his throat, choking off his breath. “No!” John shouts. “Sherlock!”

Sherlock’s arms spread like wings; no, he has actual wings, charcoal dark, made of the same wool mix of his beautiful coat. They’re spreading outward, reaching to the stars that have come out now that the sun has set and it’s the same as it was that day three years ago, Sherlock is falling forward in slow motion, arms and wings outstretched and John can’t reach him, can’t help, can’t get to him quick enough. Not without falling into the sea himself, and even then it would be too late.

He wakes with a gasp, tears streaming down his cheeks, and Mary is sitting up beside him in bed, one hand on his chest, the other arm circled behind his back to support him. “It’s okay,” she’s telling him, over and over again. “It’s all right, John. You’re all right. It was just a dream.”

His heart is hammering furiously and the tears won’t stop. He gulps air and tries to get a grip on himself, but all he can see is Sherlock falling in that ethereally beautiful dream, the sunset sparkling on the sea that divided him from Sherlock as his friend’s body plummets into the darkness below the cliffs. He digs his knuckles into his eyes and forces himself to breathe. Mary has experienced his flashback nightmares before, but will she know that something is different this time?

When his breathing begins to settle, she gets up and goes into the loo. “Be right back,” she promises, and returns with a glass of water. She gets carefully back into bed with it and hands him the glass. “You said his name,” she says, sitting up against the headboard.

Damn it. “Did I?” John grips the water glass and stares straight ahead.

“Shouted it, really,” she says. She pats his arm carefully. “You’re worried about him.”

“Well, yeah,” John says. His heart is still thudding in his chest but his breathing is levelling out. “It’s been over six weeks since we’ve got back and no one’s heard anything.”

“If it’s a case, he might be deep undercover,” Mary suggests.

He hasn’t told her that it’s not a case. He’ll have to, though. John shakes his head. “It’s not a case,” he says to the glass. “Mycroft and Molly and Lestrade all said so.”

He can feel rather than see Mary’s concern. “Then what’s he doing?” she asks, a bit too carefully.

“Molly and Lestrade are of the opinion that he’s… taking some space to get it together, more or less,” John says dully. “Mary, I… I think I need to go to him.”

She’s quiet for a moment. “You’re really worried, aren’t you?”

“I am,” John acknowledges. “It’s been too long. No one has heard from him. He’s withdrawn and I think he might need me.”

“Wouldn’t he have just said if he wanted you there?” Mary asks, her tone lightly inquiring but John can hear something else concealed beneath the levity.

John sighs. He’s going to have to tell her. Much as he would rather keep it a secret for Sherlock’s sake, and to preserve the good dynamic between Mary and Sherlock, he does have to explain. “They – the others – think he’s in love with me,” he says heavily.

He expects Mary to deny it, to say that this is silly, but she makes a thoughtful noise. “I wondered,” she says. “But he seemed fine before the wedding.”

“He’s always been a distressingly good liar,” John says dryly. “Lestrade is worried that he might never come back if he thinks there’s no place in my life now I’ve got you, and with a baby on the way... you know how he is.”

“Despite everything we’ve both said to reassure him on that score,” Mary says, shaking her head. “Trust him to not take us at our word. But do you think it’s true? That he feels that way? Because if he does, won’t thank you for confronting him about it.”

“True,” John says. “But… I just have to see him, Mary.”

There’s a bit of silence while she just sits there next to him and strokes his arm. “For his sake or yours?” she asks at last, quiet.

“Both,” John admits, painfully honest. “I need to know that he’s okay.”

“And if he admits it?” Mary asks. She turns her head to look at him, her round eyes drawing his to her. “What will you say? Do you think your friendship can survive that being open between the two of you? Some things really are best kept hidden. Or at least, sometimes it’s better to turn a blind eye.”

“If he doesn’t tell me, I’m not going to ask,” John tells her. “I won’t confront him. I just need to see him. I need to. And he might need someone.”

“He might need you,” Mary corrects with a sigh. She pats him. “It could be very hard,” she warns. “And it might not help, if you force him to see you before he’s ready. But if you think you need to go, then – ”

“I have to,” John says, suddenly vehement. “I need him, Mary. I can’t lose him again!”

Mary goes still. John begins to wonder if he should say something, explain further or retract what he’s just said, but that’s not possible, is it? He searches for something to say, but Mary speaks before he can. “That sounds a little different than ‘he’s my best friend and I love him’,” she says, her voice very even and very quiet. “Tell me I’m not hearing whatever it is I think I’m hearing. Tell me I heard that wrong.”

John struggles, but the right words won’t come. “I – ” He stops. Suddenly he’s very afraid of what might come out of his mouth. “I – I don’t – know,” he says, the words coming out in jerks. “I just know that I need to see him.”

Mary’s hand has gone still, still resting on his arm. After a little bit, she says, “All right.” Just that. And then, a few minutes later, “When are you leaving?”

“Today, I thought,” John says, wincing internally. (Surely she doesn’t think he’s leaving her. He should reassure her, tell her that nothing is going to change; he’s just going to bring his stubborn git of a best friend home so that everything can go back to the way it should be.)

She nods, stoically accepting it. “I’ll be here when you get back,” she says. Then she shifts gracefully off the bed, making for the loo. “Sorry,” she says. “Feeling a bit sick.”

John feels like a heel. “I’ll bring you some ginger ale,” he says, getting out of bed.

Her voice comes from behind the closed door. “That would be lovely.” Then he hears the water running and the sound of Mary being ill.

***

He calls Mycroft on his way to the airport, and to his near-shock, Mycroft actually answers. “John,” he says, that perfected, bored upper-class drawl bleeding through the phone.

“Where is he?” John asks, skipping the formalities.

He hears Mycroft exhale through his nose. “Why?”

“I’m going to find him,” John says firmly. “Give me an address. I’m on my way to the airport now.”

There a moment of silence on the other end. “Why are you going?” Mycroft inquires mildly, though there’s something hard beneath his tone.

“Because I need to see him,” John says. He’d really like to tell Mycroft that it’s none of his damned business, but he needs this information, damn it.

“Don’t you think you’ve done enough damage?” Mycroft’s tone has shifted to one of heavy patronisation. “If he’s left the country, perhaps he wants to be alone.”

“Yeah, well, perhaps I don’t want him to be alone,” John retorts. “Look, I need to see him. I need him, full stop. Just tell me where I can find him. Please.

A beat passes, then Mycroft says, “Very well. I will text you the address so that you don’t lose it.” He rings off without another word.

John waits for the text and it comes within the minute. La Petite Auberge, 55 Rue de Lille, Boulogne-sur-Mer 62200, France. Perfect. John gets out of the taxi with his small carry-on at Heathrow and buys a ticket for the first flight to Boulogne-sur-Mer.

***

He spends most of the twenty-five minute flight and then the thirty-minute taxi ride from Le Touquet Airport in Étaples, further down the coast, which was as close as he could get, trying not to think of Mary and trying to decide what to say once he saw Sherlock. Provided he could actually find him. Trust Sherlock to hide somewhere nearly inaccessible, yet practically visible from England. Hiding in plain sight, of course. The driver explains in heavily-accented English that the area near the hotel is mostly pedestrian-only, so he’ll have to leave John short distance away.

“Fine,” John says. “Just tell me how to get there. It’s fine.”

The driver stops at the edge of a cobbled square surrounding a church and points to the far side, explaining how to find the small hotel. John pays and thanks him and gets out. It’s warm, warmer than in England, the mid-September weather beautiful. It’s a little after one in the afternoon. John sets off across the square, looking around at the architecture, the cobbled pavestones, the gothic cathedral. The sunlight plays off the stonework beautifully and he can see in an instant why Sherlock would like it here. He finds the auberge without difficulty, though English is not an option at the front desk. He flounders a bit, dredging up beginner French from early uni days. “Je – je cherche, uh, un invité?” he tries.

The receptionist looks at him as though she's being presented with London’s prize-winning village idiot. “Oui, et comment s’appelle-t-il?” she asks, tapping a pen lightly against a notebook lying open on the desk.

“Sherlock Holmes,” John says, relieved that she understood.

She consults the notebook, then informs him that it’s room twelve upstairs.

John wants to ask if Sherlock is there, but doesn’t have the vocabulary for it. He settles on a mangled Merci and gets himself out of view as quickly as possible. The staircase is small and winding but he finds room twelve at the top of the third landing. He gathers his breath, still having no idea in the world what he’s going to say, and knocks. He’s half-afraid that Sherlock will be there, but even more afraid than he won’t. But there are steps, soft on the carpet, and then the door opens. The instant Sherlock’s eyes fall on his face, his entire expression is lit with joy for one split second, gone so quickly John almost could have imagined it. But he didn’t. He’s sure of that.

“John!” Sherlock says. His expression has gone guarded and apprehensive. “What are you doing here?”

The joy he saw on Sherlock’s face is still vibrating in John’s chest. “Looking for you,” he says. “What are you doing here?”

Sherlock’s lips compress a little; he’s clearly debating internally over the response he wants to go with. Finally he says, “Waiting for you.”

John takes a step forward. His entire body and face and heart are bursting with unnameable emotion, he’s practically radiating with it. “I’m here,” he says, his voice not quite steady. He takes another step, then does the only thing he is capable of doing at that moment. He steps into the circle of Sherlock’s personal boundaries, which Sherlock allows him to do, lifts his chin slightly and puts his mouth on Sherlock’s, his hands settling on Sherlock’s bony hips. If he had any doubts about the veracity of Mrs Hudson, Molly, or Lestrade’s assertions of Sherlock’s feelings for him, they’re definitely allayed now: Sherlock responds instantly, his hands sweeping up to cradle John’s face as they kiss, lips opening to John’s. Their tongues touch and John feels the anxious knot in his belly dissolve into a deeper, darker lust than he has ever known or felt in his life. Every memory he’s ever had of Sherlock seems to be coloured backward in a wash of this feeling, and suddenly he wonders how it was ever even a remote possibility that he hadn’t loved Sherlock back from the first. He’s been blind, completely blind, and now he’s paying the price. His arms move to circle around Sherlock’s back, holding him closer and he thinks again how precious Sherlock is to him, how tenuous the strands connecting them have been. How easily Sherlock could have slipped away again.

They’re still standing there in the open doorway. When Sherlock releases him, he’s breathing hard and puts his forehead against John’s, closing his eyes. His hands are still on John’s face, thumbs moving over his cheeks. John doesn’t let go either, his own eyes closing, feeling Sherlock’s breath on his lips. Everything feels tight and painful and right. He can’t speak.

Neither can Sherlock, it seems. For long moments they stand there, just holding each other, just being together, and finally Sherlock murmurs, “I took myself out of the equation. I told myself I wouldn’t get involved, wouldn’t ever tell you explicitly. But you’re here. And I can’t not – ”

“I know,” John says. It hurts to say it, but it’s right, damn it. It feels right. And wrong. But more right. “I’m here.”

Sherlock opens his eyes and gently pulls himself out of John’s grasp, taking a small step back. “John,” he says. He looks pained. “This is where I have to say that I can’t let you do this. You can’t do this with me. I can’t let you ruin everything with Mary. Not for me.”

“Shut up, Sherlock,” John says, fierce with emotion. “That’s not your decision to make.”

“Isn’t it, though?” Sherlock levels him with his piercing gaze. “If I feel what I feel for you, then every part of your life is my concern. And if your marriage breaks up because of me, you’ll just end up resenting me in the end. I know how these things work.” He’s being gentle, explaining in his nice way, not in the way that suggests he thinks John’s IQ is in the single digits. He gestures between the two of them. “This is one thing,” he says, meaning the kiss. “Easily denied. Easily forgotten. Well, perhaps. But if I let you into the room, all the way in, you’ll be in way over your head. I can’t – I shouldn’t let you do that.”

It’s all true and John knows it. Still, though… the sensation in the pit of his belly roils, mixed tension and desire. “If I come all the way in, what will happen?” he asks.

Sherlock's eyes lock on his. “You get me. All of me, if you want it.” His eyes skate down over John’s front. “It would seem that you do,” he adds, trying to sound detached but there’s a certain amount of wonder not quite disguised behind it.

“You know I do,” John says plainly, terribly direct. “So let’s not play games. I’m here because I love you and I can’t stand the thought of losing you again. I know I’ve been an idiot for not seeing it sooner and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do now, but I’m here. I came. You wouldn’t answer my messages, so I had to come to you.”

“Mycroft gave you the address,” Sherlock says, watching him. “No one else has it.”

John shrugs. “I had to come,” he repeats. “I want you to come home with me.”

Sherlock doesn’t move; otherwise he won’t be blocking the door any more, but he looks away and down. “I don’t know,” he says quietly. “I thought I could continue hiding it, but the more I think about it, the more I realise that I said a bit too much at the wedding, gave myself away. I don’t want to cause you grief, John. I came away because it was too quiet in Baker Street and I needed to be somewhere where I have no memories of you. Where I could get a grip on my feelings and then come back as your friend. Just your friend.”

John shrugs helplessly. “And my feelings?” he says, as though it’s a rhetorical question. He gives an unhappy laugh. “What am I supposed to do with those, Sherlock?”

“Your feelings?” Sherlock repeats, with that slight tilt of the head that’s a request for detail, for more data. “Which feelings?”

“The ones I have for you,” John says. “The ones I’ve always had, but only just realised. For you. I love you.”

Sherlock closes his eyes for a moment, as though letting the words wash over and into himself. With his eyes still closed, he asks, “Do you want to come in?”

John hesitates only a fraction of a second. “Yes.”

Sherlock’s eyes open, bright, slanted, full of something John has never seen there before. “Then come in,” he says, “and close the door.”

John takes a deep breath and does as he’s told. He latches the chain and turns to find Sherlock right there in front of him, pinning him back into the door. John lunges forward and the kiss is wild this time, unstoppable and near-violent, lips and teeth and tongues bruising each other’s and scraping. All of the apprehension in his gut turns to liquid heat in the moment and John’s hands are out of his own control, roaming over Sherlock’s back, his chest, his face, and then, when Sherlock slides his hand down to rub the heel of his palm over John’s aching flesh, John moans and does the same, giving in to the urge to do so at last. They stand there, kissing and kissing and touching each other through their clothes like teens. There’s something unpractised and virginal about Sherlock’s touch that sends a curl of desire down John’s spine. He’s always wondered about that, always been curious, and now it seems that not only is his question being answered, but he’s going to be the one to first set hands on Sherlock’s untouched body, and it’s thrilling. He craves Sherlock like a drug – a regular, ongoing condition, he knows, but now it’s tens of thousands times stronger. Sherlock’s other hand is on the back of his neck, possessive and tight. John tastes copper and realises Sherlock’s lower lip is bleeding.

Sherlock doesn’t seem to care. He is unbuttoning John’s checked shirt with little regard for the buttons and gets it open, pushing it back off John’s shoulders. His lips are on John’s neck as he pulls the shirt out of John’s trousers, breath hot on John’s skin. John is fairly panting with lust, arousal like he’s never experienced before, a hunger of flesh and bone and soul that’s gone unsatisfied far too long now. He feels he will die if he can’t have this, if something happens to prevent it now. He might die even if it does happen. What he feels, physically and emotionally, is so intense that he can hardly breathe. Sherlock is touching him reverently, passionately, as though it will be his only chance in a lifetime to do so, which is probably exactly what he thinks, John realises, and it makes him reach for Sherlock’s face to pull his mouth to his own again. As they kiss, it’s John’s turn to rid Sherlock of his shirt, so that they’re skin-to-skin at last. John can feel the heaving of Sherlock’s breath as his abdomen expands and collapses against John’s, and wants him so badly that he has stopped inhaling. The only sounds either of them make are low, no words, just slips of breath and moan as they touch and kiss and try to fill the space between them with themselves. John’s hand goes to the button of Sherlock’s trousers and Sherlock stills a bit. He lifts his mouth from John’s and says, “Come to bed.”

John doesn’t need a second invitation. He nods once and Sherlock’s mouth descends again. Somehow they stumble to the side of the bed and finish undressing each other, then kiss again, nude and hard for each other, bodies pushing together in a swaying dance until Sherlock pulls him down onto the bed, onto himself. John moans, hears Sherlock’s name fall from his mouth like a curse, or a promise.

John is half on top of Sherlock, their legs tangled in ungainly fashion, anything to be touching as much as possible. Sherlock turns his face to John’s, his eyes too close and green with desire. “You know I’ve never…” he says, touching his nose to John’s. “But I want to. With you, I want to. I want to do everything. But right now I just want to touch you.”

“Then touch me,” John says, voice wavering between speech and whisper. He has never seen Sherlock like this, open and vulnerable and full of keen-eyed want and it’s undoing him entirely. Sherlock seemed unhesitant with their clothes still on, but now he waits, hand stilling on John’s hip. John reaches for it and moves it to his cock and they groan in tandem as Sherlock’s fingers curl willingly around it. John reaches for Sherlock and puts his mouth back on Sherlock’s as they touch each other. There were so many times this could have happened, John thinks. So many moments he didn’t realise this was hovering just out of sight, like a half-remembered idea that slips elusively away every time one searches for it. How long he had wanted this without realising it fully, wanted Sherlock with every pore of his being. He refuses to think of Mary right now. He loves her – loves her dearly – but she has no place in this moment, this long-denied, too long-postponed moment with Sherlock. Sherlock makes a sound so wanton now that John stops thinking altogether, steadying the rhythm of his hand on Sherlock’s erection. There’s a long, elegant leg draped up over John’s hip now and Sherlock is actively thrusting into John’s fist and moaning, voice low and ragged, parts of John’s name trying to form in his mouth. John can feel every sound Sherlock makes in his very balls, the sounds winding around his flesh and tightening, tightening… Sherlock comes a moment before he does, his hips giving a tremendous jerk, voice exploding from his constricted throat and he comes all over John’s stomach. It’s hot and very wet and the experience of feeling Sherlock come apart in his very hand and all over his body sends a violent tremor through John’s body and he comes a moment later, a hand gripping the firm curve of Sherlock’s arse, cock pushing into Sherlock’s fist over and over as he comes.

John’s panting and Sherlock’s panting against his forehead, pushing closer to rub their softening cocks together, the come smearing between their stomachs. It’s sensual and dirty and John’s cock is still twitching as Sherlock’s touches his. He’s never had another cock touch his before, never held one in his hand, but it all just feels so right with Sherlock. They waited too long, he thinks, but the moment didn’t disappoint at all. On the contrary; he feels so full of emotion that there aren’t words to frame it, contain it, nail it down and describe it adequately.

“I know,” Sherlock says, still breathing hard. “What you’re thinking. I know.”

He finds John’s hand on the sheets between them and slides his fingers into John’s, interlacing them, a gesture so oddly tender that John is astounded to find he can be still more moved by Sherlock. “I love you,” he says, and means it from the depths of his heart.

Sherlock opens his eyes and gives him a small, wonderful smile. “I know,” he says. “I love you, too.”

“Everything you said at the wedding,” John says. “I mean that, too. I’ll always be there for you. Always love you. For the rest of my life.”

“I know,” Sherlock says again, but there’s worry there.

“I don’t know,” John says, in answer to the unspoken question. Mary. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just know that this was something I had to do. I didn’t have a choice. Not really. I needed to see you so badly.”

“I needed you,” Sherlock says in quiet admission. “I wanted you to come. But I would never have asked you to do this.”

“I know,” John says, and he does. “But I couldn’t lose you again.”

“I would have come back. After awhile.”

“Not soon enough. And besides,” John says honestly, “this needed to happen. I needed it to happen. And you needed it to happen.”

Sherlock blinks. “Yes.” Then, softer, “Very much so. I – shouldn’t – I did everything I could to try to make things perfect for your wedding and for your marriage. Mycroft told me not to get involved, and I told myself I wasn’t going to. I didn’t think you wanted this, regardless.”

“But,” John says.

“But here you are,” Sherlock concedes.

“Here I am,” John agrees.

Sherlock moves forward and kisses John again, a kiss so gentle it feels innocent, despite the touch of their softening cocks, the drying come on both their bodies. “So what happens when we get home?” he asks.

“I really don’t know,” John says honestly. “But – I need you. Don’t leave me again. Please.”

“I won’t,” Sherlock says. “I wouldn’t. I made a vow. I was always coming back.”

John thinks of Mary. Of the baby. He tries to imagine Sherlock part of that dynamic, and just can’t. Besides, it might be completely selfish, but he cannot fathom sharing Sherlock with Mary. Or vice-versa, though somehow that doesn’t seem as important. Mary’s had ex-boyfriends, was engaged once before she met him. He’s accepted the notion that she’s been with other men. Somehow the feeling of being Sherlock’s only lover is terribly significant to him, though. Sherlock is his and his alone. He can’t imagine what the way forward looks like, not remotely, but he’s still glad he came to Boulogne-sur-Mer to find Sherlock, to find this. This is the balance point and while he cannot imagine that life will allow him to keep both, to persuade Mary and Sherlock to share him, neither can he imagine not being with either of them. The baby gives Mary’s side of the argument too much weight. It’s not fair. But he refuses to give this up, with Sherlock. He doesn’t even have an inkling what the right decision is. He supposes he’ll just have to move forward with honesty and what little remains of his integrity and see what happens. Perhaps Mary will understand. Or perhaps she will leave him when she finds out. His heart gives a pang at this. She’d be well within her rights, though. Two months into their marriage, and this. (He should have seen it sooner.)

“I should make it easier for you and refuse to continue this,” Sherlock says into the silence. They’re still tangled together, Sherlock’s lips two inches from his. “But I’m not selfless enough for that. I tried to be, John. I really did. I can say that I’ll understand if you go back to Mary. I will, intellectually speaking. But I can’t make myself give this up.”

John’s arm tightens around him. “Neither can I,” he says softly. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. Come home with me. We’ll work it out.”

Sherlock stretches an arm out above his head, settling his head against his bicep. His eyes travel over John’s face as though memorising its every detail for the millionth time. “You are a marvel, John Watson. So optimistic. So sure that something will work out.”

“It has to,” John says stubbornly. “I’m not losing you again.”

Sherlock makes a sound of negation. “You may want me to leave,” he warns. “You might decide against it. What benefit would there be to staying with me? I can’t compete with the lure of a wife, family, children. Normalcy. You know what life with me is like.”

“Yes,” John says. “And I can’t live without it.”

“Stalemate, then,” Sherlock says, and kisses him again.

John lets himself fall into it. He shouldn’t be doing this and he should. He shouldn’t have come and he should. He should be with Mary and their unborn child, and he should in every way be here with Sherlock. Stalemate indeed. He should have chosen a side years ago and committed to it. He thought he had, after Sherlock had died. He thought he was free of the constant tug-of-war between Sherlock and the women who had come and gone in his life – not just the women, but all that they stood for. As Sherlock said: normalcy. Marriage. Traditional, hetero-normative relationships. Stability. Sherlock represents the opposite of all that: instability, excitement, adrenaline, other. Everything about him is unusual. And yet…

You have missed this, Sherlock’s voice says in his head. Admit it. The thrill of the chase, the blood pumping through your veins. Just the two of us against the rest of the world. And he hadn’t admitted it then, but it’s true. And just like that, John knows with a sinking in his heart that’s offset by just the tiniest touch of relief, he knows which way the scale will eventually tip. He can’t help it. He failed to notice before, notice Sherlock’s love, notice Sherlock’s self-sacrifice, notice Sherlock leaving, but now that he sees it, he will never be able to not see it, want it, need to give it back. It will be hard. It will be tremendously painful on many sides. But it’s always been Sherlock. And always will be.