“Time and tide wait for no man.” - Geoffrey Chaucer
Southwark Bridge was dotted with street-lamps and mostly void of traffic at this god-awful time of night. Pools of light raced by underfoot as he and Lestrade played catch-up. Sherlock was up ahead, sprinting after the thief with preternatural grace, utterly focussed on his quarry.
A pounce, a struggle – an unexpected waltz of bodies as the suspect twisted and rammed his weight into Sherlock's chest...
One wrong step was all it took.
'Sherlock!' John's voice cut through the air, a scream of horror as the cheery yellow and white parapet of the bridge gave way, its weathered stonework crumbling at the worst possible moment. For one heartbeat, the two men hung suspended, Sherlock's ears flat to his head and his sharp teeth bared in a snarl as the thief's half-shadowed profile melted from ferocity to fear.
John lunged, hand outstretched to snatch his friend back to safety, but he was too far away: a dozen paces behind and useless. He heard nothing – no scream or shout – just a solid splash in the deep, turbulent channel below.
Grit scraped over stone as he skidded to a halt at the gap, knees already bent and thighs burning, thinking of nothing but the impulse to follow. There was no common sense, only the aching terror of loss and the need to do something, anything, to make sure that was not how tonight would end.
'John, no!' Lestrade's hands bit into his shoulders, tangling his coat and pulling him back. Strong arms and a broad chest blocked his way, grappling with him as useless words echoed in the air. 'No, you can't! For god's sake, stop it. Just stop it!'
Ragged breaths left his mouth in a painful stutter, clawing up his throat until he thought he might retch on them. Sherlock's name made a hoarse litany, and he stumbled to the edge, numb to the bone as he peered desperately down into the inky void. He hunted for a familiar pale figure, or even a hint of black wool in noir water, but only the inexorable drag of the river as it rushed towards the sea greeted him.
Vaguely, he could hear Lestrade calling for help: police, helicopters, divers– pulling every string he could in a hurried, clipped voice. All the while, his fingers remained locked in the cloth of John's jacket, clinging to him as if he knew letting go would mean John followed Sherlock over, to save him or die trying.
Frantically, John tried to think. He searched for a lifebelt, but even if he could find one, there was no one to throw it to. If it were the other way around, Sherlock would already have a map of the river and its currents in his head, picking out likely places where John could get to shore, but there was nothing so useful in John's mind.
His jagged thoughts whirled, cutting at his rationality as he smacked away Greg's hand and broke into a sprint. He dodged around the other police, ignoring their cried out questions as he dashed away. His feet thudded against the pavement in a frantic tattoo, and he veered along the south bank, trying to see anything over the featureless stretch of water.
No light. No life. There was nothing to find. London built itself up in every edge and cranny. How many places were there that Sherlock could even climb out? Quays and docks, wharfs and stretches of grassy bank, all had succumbed, inch-by-inch, to the buildings that sprouted everywhere. All John knew was to head downstream.
He ran beyond rational thought, his heart drumming as a stitch burned up his side. He barged by the occasional pedestrian, too intent on keeping the water in his sights to pay them any mind. He kept close to it in the hopes that somehow, he'd see Sherlock amidst all that emptiness. Yet with each passing minute, he found only the wretched suck and swell of the turning tide.
A choked noise caught in his throat as, finally, his body started to flag. His legs throbbed and his knees shook. The air hurt his fretful lungs, and he staggered drunkenly to a halt, promising himself that after a few seconds, just a few, he'd start again.
Doubled over with his hands on his thighs, he breathed, and prayed that somewhere, Sherlock was still able to do the same.
Dimly, he was aware of the whirr of helicopters and the sound of boats on the Thames. Their spotlights turned the water to mercury as they began the search, but Sherlock had gone under so quickly... Snatched away. How did they even know where to start looking? Was there order in that chaos, or were they like John, driven by desperation and nothing more?
The rumble of an engine permeated his awareness, and he squinted as the headlights swept over his face. A black vehicle idled at the kerb, stately and elegant. A vicious shove made the door thump open, ruining the illusion and scratching the paintwork on an old concrete bollard.
'Get in, Doctor Watson,' Mycroft ordered, grim-faced in the sallow light of the car's interior.
'But Sherlock –' he wheezed, trying to ignore the sweat chilling at his temples as his vision blurred.
'Is unlikely to have time to spare. In. Now.'
Weakly, John limped over, sliding in at Mycroft's side and dragging the door shut behind him. Immediately, the vehicle took off, graceful even in its haste, and John stared as they wove through the sparse traffic.
'The Detective Inspector called me. Luckily, I was nearby,' Mycroft explained, speaking in curt, professional tones. 'Was Sherlock wearing his coat?'
John blinked, shaking his head as he tried to understand where this was going. 'What?'
'His coat, Doctor Watson. Was he wearing it, or did he leave it at Baker Street?'
'He was – of course he was bloody wearing it. He never goes anywhere without it! What's that got to do with anything?' John shook his head, fighting the urge to claw his way from the car and away from Mycroft's maddening composure. 'Your brother fell off of Southwark Bridge into the Thames, and you want to know if he was wearing his coat?'
'Neoprene may have been more suitable,' Mycroft acknowledged, raising his eyebrows in John's direction. 'Please don't underestimate me, Doctor Watson, or my concern for my brother's welfare. The currents of the Thames can be vastly unpredictable, but there is method to even nature's madness. Taking into account certain variables, one of which includes the potential drag created by several kilos of wet wool, I can judge how far Sherlock is likely to have been carried, and where it is possible to come ashore.' Something flickered across Mycroft's patriarchal features, and it took John a moment to recognise a faint reflection of his own, hollow dread. 'Whether that is under his own power or thanks to the whims of the river remains to be seen.'
John leaned forward, pressing his hands against his face as he tried to get a grip. The howl of possibilities raked through his mind, circling one, gut-wrenching fear: Sherlock, his pale eyes wide and staring, blank of all genius, his life removed by one indifferent twist of fate – a dodgy bit of bridge and a two-bit thief.
'Can –' His voice cracked, and he cleared his throat as he pressed his hands together. 'Can he even swim?'
Mycroft glanced away, drawing in a deep breath as he managed a single nod. 'Felisians are averse to water, an amusing parallel to most species of cat. However, our parents made sure both of us knew how to swim, in both still and flowing water. The addition of another person to the scenario is an uncomfortable factor but, providing Sherlock was not injured when he fell or hauled below the water by the panicky criminal he was pursuing, then I am confident of his survival.'
John stared at him, practically shaking where he sat, a bundle of nerves and sharp, aimless anger. 'Well, I'm glad one of us is,' he snapped, clenching his fingers into a fist on top of his knee as the car finally came to a halt. Immediately, John was pulling on the door-handle, half-falling out of his seat as he tried to see anything on the fragment of shoreline that stretched before him.
It was marshy and miserable, full of rubbish as it clogged the arc of one of the river's bends. Worse was the density of the night, barely lessened by the headlights of Mycroft's car, which only touched a fraction of the sandy soil and detritus revealed at low tide.
John's boots squelched over God-knew-what as he stumbled to the water's edge, looking both ways along the narrow ribbon of land. The torch he tugged free of his pocket was ineffectual, like peering at a room through a keyhole, but he swept it back and forth as he inspected his surroundings.
'Sherlock!' His voice rang out, unmasked desperation clear in every syllable as he muttered curses and pleas in equal measure. Behind him, he could hear Mycroft beginning a hunt in the opposite direction, efficiently covering ground with his driver's assistance. 'Sherlock, can you hear me?'
Silence was his only answer, and John stopped, fighting down a surge of helpless fury. There was so little he could do. There wasn't an enemy to shoot or a target to punch, just Sherlock's absence and the void of the river off to his left. His only choice was to keep looking, and have faith that what awaited him at the end of his ordeal was more than just his best friend's corpse.
If he found anything at all.
Overhead, the steady din of one of the police choppers grew louder, and John watched the circle of white light skim over the cresting waves. The water glinted, but it was a grey-green wall, opaque and unreadable. The occasional bit of driftwood made his heart leap only to sink deeper, tangled in the knot of his despair, but he didn't stop looking, not even as rain began to dapple the air.
His hand shook, and John was well aware that his breathing had grown staggered and hitched. Dismay was a leaden taste across his tongue, and he tried to swallow it away, hanging on to the thin thread of his hope like a lifeline. He stumbled, tripping on old tree branches and things better not looked at as he approached the peak of the river's bend.
Up ahead, the ground became narrower as the water coursed by. At high tide, there'd be nothing there at all, but now a fading spar of sodden, shallow river bank was revealed, unlit and forbidding. Grimly, he cupped his wrist with his other hand, holding the torch like a gun to keep it steady as he clenched his teeth, breathing in to shout Sherlock's name again.
The first syllable was perched on his lips when a sound made him pause, his body frozen and his head cocked. For a moment, there was silence, then it repeated, and John broke into a sprint, slithering over rubbish and twisting his ankle as he followed the unmistakable noise of someone throwing up.
There, behind a thicker glut of debris, he could make out a person on all fours, wet and bedraggled. John didn't even stop to think as he darted forward, half-tripping as he dropped to his knees. The torch fell to the ground, forgotten as he pressed shaking hands to heaving shoulders. They were clad only in familiar white cotton, streaked with grime, and John quickly shucked out of his jacket, pitching its weight over Sherlock's shuddering back as he continued to gag, vomiting up filthy river water.
'That –' Sherlock rasped at last, sounding shaken and more than a little bit pathetic. '– was horrible.' He spat before sitting back on his heels, swaying and shivering in fitful bursts. 'I think I swallowed half of the Thames.'
John's next breath left him in a wobbling huff, hysteria bubbling under his ribs as he clutched helplessly at Sherlock's shirt. He didn't care about the water, filth and worse soaking Sherlock to the skin. Not even the faint sharpness of bile was off-putting as he pulled him close, wrapping his arms around that slender body and holding on tight.
'You git,' he muttered, trying not to shake apart with sheer relief. 'You absolute bloody git. Almost gave me a heart-attack.' He pulled back, groping across the ground by his knee as he grabbed the torch and swept its beam over Sherlock's figure, taking in everything as he forced himself to think like a doctor. 'Are you hurt? Difficulty breathing? Anything like that?' A wince of pity pinched his face as he saw a gash at Sherlock's hairline, thin but deep, and he pressed his fingertips to its edge before flicking the light in Sherlock's pupils, checking his reflexes.
'It was hardly my fault the bridge gave way,' Sherlock replied. His normally alabaster skin was frighteningly bloodless, and John pressed a finger to his pulse, ignoring Sherlock's growl of complaint as he registered the fast, if solid, beat.
'Any double-vision? Confusion? Did you lose consciousness?' He gripped the handle of the torch between his teeth, cupping Sherlock's jaw gently with both hands and checking his cervical column.
'John –' Sherlock's voice was cut off by a groan nearby, and they both turned to squint into the darkness. A shape was moving at the water's edge, and John recognised the suspect crawling up beyond the tide-line, coughing and shaking for all he was worth.
Sherlock moved before John could protest, ripping himself free and staggering to his feet. Even uncoordinated, his tail a dishevelled, muddy mess and his hair still slicked to his head, he looked terrifying, and his teeth glinted in the torchlight as he snarled. 'You!' He grabbed the thief's collar, hauling him bodily upright and giving him a shake, ignoring the faint moan of protest. 'You're not even interesting!'
'Sherlock...' John murmured, but it was a weak protest. 'Put him down.'
Sherlock's lips twitched in distaste, one ear flicking a drip of water from its tip. 'I hope you catch dysentery,' he hissed, releasing the culprit to slump to the ground with a wet thump.
John reacted instinctively, reaching down to drag the man away from the river's clutches before straddling his back. 'I wouldn't try anything if I were you,' he advised, checking vitals and making sure he could breathe before cinching the man's hands at the base of his spine and holding them in place. 'Because if it were up to Sherlock, he'd throw you back in the river, and I'm not particularly inclined to stop him. I might even help. Understand?'
A groan of assent was half-drowned by the approaching buzz of a helicopter, and John squinted towards the distant road to see an array of flashing blue lights. Guiltily, he thought of Mycroft. He should have called him as soon as he had found Sherlock. However, his remorse was short-lived as he took in his friend's sodden form, all wet fur and fabric as he flopped down on the ground next to him, exhausted.
'Cavalry's on its way,' John promised, switching to hold the thief down with one hand and rubbing at Sherlock's shoulder with the other, trying to instil something like warmth in his juddering body.
Sherlock closed his eyes, humming quietly as he slumped against John's side, seemingly too weak to care about anything akin to dignity. 'As far as I'm concerned,' he murmured, nudging his forehead into John's shoulder, 'it already arrived.'
The door to 221B opened under the shove of John's hand, and he stood aside to let Sherlock shuffle into the flat. Now, in good light, John could only wince in sympathy at the state of him. A bruise crested one cheekbone, and his hair was drying in crusty, filthy curls. His tail was an absolute disaster, held low and dejected, and he clung to John's jacket feebly as he stared around at the furniture as if he didn't recognise it.
He looked drained – unsurprising, considering what had happened; his weariness showed in the shadows under his eyes and the half-drunk sway of his body, which had only worsened as they travelled from the river bank to the ambulance to the hospital, and then finally home in Mycroft's car. Sherlock had been too spent to even bicker with his brother, who had looked on with impotent concern before thrusting him into John's care.
'Right, come on,' John said, easing his jacket away from Sherlock's unresisting grasp. 'You're filthy. A bath, I think.'
He jerked back at Sherlock's gruff vehemence, wincing at the hoarseness of his friend's voice. He sounded wrecked, but no less firm as he weakly straightened his shoulders and glared in John's direction. 'I've had quite enough water for one day. A shower is all I can tolerate, and even then, only out of necessity.' He sagged, looking torn between the warmth, comfort and cleanliness bathing could bring and an obvious loathing of getting wet again.
John had noticed, in an absent way, that Sherlock's showers were brief and perfunctory. He didn't linger under the spray like John did. Even rain was treated with grim distaste. Being dunked in the river must have been far beyond Sherlock's comfort zone.
'All right,' he agreed at last, pressing his hand against Sherlock's back and guiding him forward. 'Will you be okay on your own?'
'I'm not an invalid, or a child,' he pointed out, but there was no strength in his complaint, and John fought back a grimace of concern.
'No, you're a man who just fell from a reasonable height into cold water and half-drowned himself in the process. Don't try and tell me you're “fine”, Sherlock. I'm a doctor, not an idiot.' He indicated various scrapes, haloed in clean skin where the paramedics had seen to their treatment. 'The fact you let strangers patch you up tells me all I need to know, and you didn't even argue about going to hospital.'
'A waste of time.' Sherlock sighed, rubbing at the three stitches near his hairline with a wince.
'Hardly.' John grabbed some towels off the radiator and pushed them into Sherlock's hands, watching him clutch the warm fabric to his chest. 'You're crap at keeping your vaccinations up to date, and someone had to check your lungs were clear.' He pulled a face, remembering the harassed doctor's fairly perfunctory examination. John would have felt better if they'd taken an X-ray as well, but there'd been nothing to indicate one was necessary. 'As it is, if you start wheezing or coughing or anything like that, I'm dragging you straight back there for another look.'
He almost longed for an argument, for Sherlock to flap his hands and insist he was fine. The defeated nod he got instead made him hesitate, hovering uselessly in the doorway as he fought not to fret.
'Am I allowed some privacy,' Sherlock asked, the corner of his lip curving upwards in a faint smile as he undid the top button of his shirt. 'or were you hoping to stay and enjoy the show?'
John snorted, shaking his head. 'I hate to tell you, Sherlock, but you look like something the cat dragged in. Estuary slime's not a good look on you.' He waved a hand at the shower and turned his back as Sherlock huffed in false offence. 'Go on, get clean and brush your teeth. Shout if you need help.'
Reluctantly, John closed the door behind him, sealing Sherlock in the bathroom. Frankly, he was unwilling to let him out of his sight, but what could he do? Sherlock was capable of washing himself, and he suspected Sherlock's dignity had taken enough of a beating for one day. John's instinct to take care of him would have to find another outlet.
Moving quickly, he considered his boots and clothes, mud-splattered from combing the river banks, rank with sweat from his mad sprint through the city and damp with rain. It was the matter of a few minutes to trot up to his room and peel them off, leaving them in a heap as he pulled on the loose t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms he wore to bed.
The electric heater he had up here in winter to supplement the radiators sat in the corner, and he picked it up, gathering up the flex before padding downstairs. The windows had been left ajar all day, and icy air had seeped into the flat. John pulled the panes shut and fiddled with the thermostat, cranking it up and listening to the old plumbing groan its complaints before he nudged his way into Sherlock's room.
Within minutes, the two elements glowed red, throwing out heat. John drew the curtains, turning on the bedside lamps and rummaging through Sherlock's drawers for comfortable clothes. Finally, he had an armful, and he dropped them outside the bathroom door, tapping on the panel. 'Pyjamas and stuff are here for you. You okay?'
The water wasn't running, but he could hear the rasp of Sherlock's toothbrush, followed by a delicate spit in the sink. 'I didn't keel over in the shower if that's what you mean,' came the slow reply. Normally, Sherlock's speech was swift and confident. Now he sounded like he barely had the strength to string the words together. 'I'm fine, John.'
'Get dressed,' John told him, knowing better than to argue. Sherlock would deny it until he was blue in the face, but even without the scrapes and bruises, he was badly shaken and probably cold to the bone. John's main priority was warming him up and easing his mind – whatever it took to get Sherlock back to his usual, swaggering self.
Hurrying through to the kitchen, he made a cup of tea, deciding the chances of getting Sherlock to eat anything were slim to none. A brew would have to do; with any luck it would raise his temperature from the inside. Filling a couple of hot water bottles took a bit longer, and John finally sealed their caps in place before burying them under the quilt in Sherlock's room to banish the chill from the sheets.
By the time he re-emerged, it was to find Sherlock perched awkwardly on the corner of the kitchen table, cross-legged, clothed in multiple layers with a towel across his lap and a comb in his hand. Yet it wasn't his hair he was bothering with. The curls made a glossy halo around his ears and dripped water down his neck, but he ignored it in favour of dealing with the sodden length of his tail.
John paused at the door with a puzzled frown on his face. You couldn't live with someone for a year without paying attention to how they normally looked after a shower, and he'd never seen Sherlock so, well, wet before tonight. Normally, his tail looked a bit damp at most, but now it was a thin whip of flesh and fur, and Sherlock looked truly miserable about it, teasing out tangles with rapidly fading patience.
He yanked at a particularly vicious knot, hissing in annoyance, and John immediately stepped forward, stilling Sherlock's hands with his touch. 'Hey, enough of that. Come on. Get in your room, and I'll try and help.'
Sherlock's ears were drooping, low and pitiful, and there was a distinct level of earnest misery to his normally petulant pout. 'Wretched,' he muttered, easing himself off the table and shuffling towards his room. John was left to follow on behind, another clean, dry towel over his shoulder and the cup of tea he'd made in his grasp.
'Right. Don't sit on the bed just yet. Go and stand by the heater, not too close. Let's not make tonight any worse by setting yourself on fire, okay?' The pyjama bottoms Sherlock wore had a fastening above the tail to let the fabric cinch tight around its base. Droplets left darker marks on the cloth, and John grasped the towel, using it to carefully blot the water away. 'You really got drenched, didn't you?'
'Being submerged in the Thames does that to a person,' Sherlock replied, but there wasn't much animosity in it. He had wrapped his fingers tight around the mug of tea and hunched over, huddled and small. It also didn't escape John's attention that he kept easing towards the heater only to shuffle back, surfing the interface of air where “baking” became “volcanic”.
And he was still shivering.
With a soft tug on the hem of his hoodie, which made Sherlock look about a decade younger and sat a bit too big on his slender frame, John pulled him down to the floor, making him sit on the carpet as he concentrated on what he was doing.
Unlike Sherlock's ears, which were covered in a thin, delicate pelt, the fur on his tail was dense. The problem was that the water had soaked through the guard hairs and into the softer, downy undercoat beneath, robbing it of any heat-retaining properties. John wasn't sure precisely how much a Felisian's tail had to do with temperature regulation, but judging by the sporadic shudders that still danced across Sherlock's frame, it had to play some role. The sooner he got it dry, the better.
Within minutes, the towel was almost saturated, lank and heavy in John's grasp, and he cast it aside with a sigh before grabbing the comb out of his pocket. Some Felisians had ridiculously long fur on their tails. In contrast, Sherlock's wasn't so bad, but there was still a lot of it, and John set to work, parting and fluffing in an effort to dry out the strands.
'Sorry if I grope your arse by accident,' he murmured, trying to ignore the full swell of Sherlock's backside beneath the brush of his fingers. 'Doing the root first should warm you up more quickly.'
His only response was a faint hum, and he glanced up to see that Sherlock's knees were drawn up to his chest, his eyes at half-mast and the empty mug dangling loosely from his grasp. 'Hey, don't go to sleep,' He poked him in the back. 'You've got a head injury.'
'A minor one,' Sherlock replied, but he still lifted his head obligingly, staring at the heater so that the ruby colours caught reflections in his eyes. 'It could have been much worse. The river was deep thanks to the recent rain. In summer, there’s a good chance I would have cracked my head open on the footings.'
'Don't.' John said, more clipped and harsh than he'd intended. 'I really don't want to think about it. As it is...' He trailed off, trying not to dwell on the pure, keening panic that had sprung to life in his chest back on the bridge. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so deeply, viscerally afraid.
John blinked as Sherlock shuffled around, facing him so that their knees knocked. He could feel the sharp press of Sherlock's shins against his, and he looked up, taking in Sherlock's expression. The first thing he saw was the colour returning to his cheeks, but a moment later that comforting knowledge was overwhelmed by relief, because, there in Sherlock's eyes, lethargic but still present, was the gleam of that brilliant mind at work once more.
'You ran,' Sherlock murmured, his fingers pinching a crease of fabric at John's knee and rubbing at it absently. 'Distinctive pattern of mud droplets up the back of your leg, spray from passing cars up your right calf. You sprinted along the south bank. There was sand on your jeans with clay on top: you went for almost three miles before Mycroft picked you up.'
John bent back over Sherlock's tail and concentrated on the task at hand, trying not to wince at hearing his futile efforts recited back to him. 'You sat in the car but didn't do up the seatbelt, there were no creases in your clothes. You wanted to be able to get out quickly and continue the search.'
The weight of Sherlock's brow against his made John pause, the comb hovering uselessly. A damp twist of hair cooled his skin, but mostly, it was Sherlock he could sense: warm blood pulsing through his veins and the humid veil of each breath.
'But before all that, before you raced the river through half of London, you almost jumped in after me.' Two fingers pressed under his jaw, right over his pulse, their presence making him look up into Sherlock's gaze. Normally, those eyes were shielded, emotion carefully hidden away, but now John could see it all: fear and curiosity, disbelief and determination.
'How?' John licked his lips, glancing away. 'How can you possibly know that?'
'When you wrapped me in your jacket I saw the star-burst creases. Someone grabbed the cloth in their fist trying to stop you. They were forceful: one of the seams has split. I suspect Lestrade was the one who held you back.' Sherlock's eyes narrowed thoughtfully, and his next words were quiet and deep. 'I shall have to thank him.'
'For stopping me from coming in after you?' John asked, still far from grateful for Greg's restraint.
'For saving your life. The currents are powerful between the arches of the bridge. I was wearing a relatively light suit, and the thief was clothed in some kind of tracksuit. We were both sucked straight under. I got out of my coat and jacket in moments; it was easily done. Now consider what you had on: jeans, heavy boots, a wool jumper and that abominable excuse for a jacket. You're also not a strong swimmer.' A delicate shiver rushed through Sherlock's frame, and this time John didn't think it had anything to do with being cold. 'You'd never have been seen again.'
John closed his eyes, silently acknowledging the point. Sherlock was right. The ability to swim twenty-five metres in a pool wouldn't have done him much good. Even experienced swimmers easily lost their lives in the Thames. 'I wondered what had happened to your coat,' he murmured, managing a crooked smile.
'It's probably somewhere in the estuary by now,' Sherlock said with a scowl, grimacing before butting gently against John's forehead. 'I have an identical spare, but that's really not the point.'
John giggled, shaking his head at the outrage in Sherlock's tone. Without another word, he caught the end of Sherlock's tail, watching it curl over his knuckles as he carefully teased away the last of the moisture. It was slow work, and the minutes slipped past unnoticed, banished by the soft whisper of silken pelt and the steady rush of their breathing.
At last, he was finally done, and he smirked at the result. Gone were the knots and unruly clumps of fur. Instead, each strand was fluffed and dry, once again starting to trap heat next to Sherlock's skin where it was needed. Now, it was so thick that he couldn't get the loose ring of his thumb and fingers around it without flattening the fur. Gently, he began stroking it back into some semblance of normal, running careful caresses from the base all the way down to the long tuft at the tip.
Looking up, he realised Sherlock was watching him, half-propping himself up on John's shorter frame, pliant and trusting. It made John's heart swell to realise he was permitted so unquestionably close, and he carefully lifted his hand to Sherlock’s face, cupping his cheek with shaking fingers. A moment later, Sherlock nuzzled John's palm in welcome, as if his touch were all he longed for.
He watched John with a limpid gaze, neither pulling him close nor pushing him away. There was acceptance there, and a soft, tender kind of wanting that made John's heart skitter under his ribs. Briefly, he considered crossing the last frontier between them, pressing his lips to Sherlock's mouth and taking that first and final step, but something about the moment felt too fragile for the attempt. It didn't quite seem real, this bubble of peace in the darkest hour before the dawn.
Instead, he dragged his thumb across the fullness of Sherlock's pout – a less intimate claim – a promise of sorts. One which was returned by the subtle pressure of Sherlock's lips against his skin: fleeting, but definitely real.
'You're tired,' John managed, not bothering to hide the husk of his voice. 'And probably mildly concussed.' It wasn't an excuse, but he let it be mistaken for one as the corner of Sherlock's mouth ticked upwards in a weary smile.
'Always the doctor,' he murmured, and it sounded more like praise than a complaint. He climbed to his feet, his back curving in a bone-popping, phenomenal arch as he stretched his arms above his head. The movement was artlessly sensual, and John didn't bother to hide the appreciation in his gaze.
A second later, Sherlock relaxed again, rubbing his eye with the back of his hand as he turned towards the bed. He didn't bother sacrificing any clothes as he climbed under the covers, a rumble of contentment emanating from the depths of his chest. His fingers kneaded absently at the swell of one of the pillows before he sagged down on his front in a clumsy sprawl.
With a wry grin, John tucked the quilt around him before settling on top of the eiderdown and flicking off the lamp. The ruddy light from the heater lent everything a carmine glow, and the slow break of dawn behind the curtains added its gilt, painting Sherlock in unnatural, beautiful shades.
'What are you doing?' he asked, peering at John accusingly.
'Looking after you,' he replied, propping his back against the headboard and crossing his legs at the ankle. 'I don't care how minor it is, you've banged your head and swallowed God knows what from the river. You watch me doze off in the armchair all the time. You can cope with me keeping an eye on you for a few hours.'
A huff of annoyance made him glance down, and before he could do anything but give a quiet squawk of protest, the quilt was yanked out from under him. Long fingers tangled in the collar of his t-shirt, bodily dragging him down the bed before Sherlock threw the covers over his shoulders, trapping him in the deliciously warm nest.
'Idiot,' Sherlock said, and John suspected he'd deny the fondness in his voice later, but it sounded far more like an endearment than an insult as long arms curved over John's body, tugging him close. One leg slipped between his own, and he could feel the heavy, serpentine drag of Sherlock's tail beneath the quilt as it wrapped loosely around the angle of his knee.
It was both a claim and acceptance, and John realised that, while he'd shared a bed with a number of people over his life, nothing naked and sexual had ever been this intimate. Here, fully clothed and caught up in his embrace, he felt not just wanted, but needed: an essential to the existence of Sherlock Holmes.
There were no rumbling purrs tonight. Only the quiet hush of their breathing, calm and content, disturbed the peace. John reached out, carefully draping his arm over Sherlock's waist before giving him a tight squeeze: relief, gratitude and more all wrapped up in a single gesture.
'You realise I'm not going anywhere,' Sherlock mumbled, half asleep already, but there was a resonance under those words that made John think he was talking about more than just this moment. Silver eyes watched him, shadowed crescents soft with unmasked fondness.
'I know,' he replied, but he didn't bother to loosen his grip as he bumped the tip of his nose against Sherlock's, just once. 'Neither am I, just so you know.'
Sherlock's smile was beautifully genuine, and John took a deep breath, feeling how far he had already fallen for this man in the joyous pulse of his heart. He could sense it, the brink on which they stood – the very edge of something amazing.
One day, they'd take that last step. Not tomorrow maybe, or the day after that, but soon, and when they did, John knew nothing would ever quite be the same again.
It would be better.