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Take my pulse

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     A whirlpool of thoughts raced through John’s mind as he pushed the door of 221B open and started climbing the stairs. The last twenty-four hours had been unbearably tough, and he could hardly believe that Sherlock had been brought back. Considering John’s luck, it was a miracle he had not lost his friend for good.

     In the end, given the new status quo after Moriarty’s sudden reappearance, Sherlock had been allowed to continue living at their old apartment and to look for every clue that could lead to finding him. Mycroft had insisted on Sherlock keeping a low profile, of course, even though his assassination of Magnussen had become a state secret, never to be made public. A masked stranger had got into the mansion and had been taken down by the MoD forces after the deed was done. No connection could be found between Magnussen and the stranger, who had no police records. The tabloids would eventually grow tired of speculating.        

     John had made many mistakes but, as the plane with Sherlock on board was taking off, he couldn’t help thinking of one only, the one error that was even bigger than marrying a former assassin. The man had saved him; he had literally killed to save John from being bullied and blackmailed for the rest of his life. John hadn’t seen that as it happened, the gun being lifted from his pocket; the wild, unforgiving look in Sherlock’s eyes when he just shot the man as if they were in the middle of battle and there was no time for second thoughts. John had been afraid of death —Sherlock’s, his own— as the helicopters hovered above their heads. Later he had been afraid of loss, of being trapped in the mirage of a happy married life forever, with no way out, no Sherlock to run around with; in short, no one to trust in the whole world.

     John stopped halfway up, trying to make sense of all those thoughts. It was nearly four in the morning but he wasn’t tired. He knew Sherlock would be awake. Are you going out this late? Mary had asked him. You haven’t slept in days. He had nodded and left. No explanations were required. He had to go to Sherlock, stand by him at a time like this. No, that wasn’t right. He had to stand by Sherlock always; he owed him. That was the one reason he gave himself ninety percent of the time. There were others. John seized the key from his pocket and took a deep breath. The touch of cold metal between his fingers was somewhat reassuring. He got to the first floor and opened the door.

‘It’s me,’ he said as he stepped inside, not wanting to startle Sherlock.

The living-room was so dark that for a moment he thought Sherlock might be out —out, alone, in peril. His heart almost sank to his feet. Then he saw the familiar silhouette sitting on the leather chair, as still as if he were sleeping.

‘John,’ Sherlock greeted him. ‘Don’t turn on the light. I need the darkness to think.’

John nodded, although Sherlock couldn’t see that. He just walked to his own chair and sat there, less than three feet apart from his friend, eyes squinting to make out the other man’s features. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with Sherlock except for the fact that his eyes remained closed and he was still wearing the previous day’s clothes.

‘You’ve come for nothing. I’m not planning to go out tonight. You should be with your wife,’ Sherlock said in a somewhat hoarse voice.

‘I am where I want to be,’ John answered, heaving a sigh. ‘If Moriarty does show up, I don’t want it to happen when you are on your own.’

‘He could try to get to you first.’

‘Yes, because it’s what they all do,’ John tried to make it sound funny but failed.

Did,’ Sherlock snapped. ‘We have no proof that Moriarty is truly alive. The whole thing could be a set-up.’

‘Your brother believes it. You are here.’

‘Are you glad?’ Sherlock opened his eyes and finally looked at him. They were like shining beacons in the darkness.

John didn’t hesitate.

‘Of course I’m glad. You left once. Do you think I would enjoy going through that again?’

‘It would have been for good this time. I wouldn’t have come back. Not ever. I just want you to know this. I lied to you again.’

John had known. Hence the fear.

‘It doesn’t matter. I saw right through you this time, Sherlock. We’d better stop lying to each other.’ He shook his head slowly.

Sherlock ruffled his hair and looked away for a moment. He didn’t reply. He looked like a marble god sitting on a dark throne, John thought, and this time he didn’t mentally slap himself right after.

‘Sherlock. There is a lot going on. There is always a lot going on, and it’s never going to stop. You said it. The game is never over. I just want you to know that I understand why you do things. Most of them at least.’

‘Do you? I know I haven’t made it easy. I haven’t even properly explained the reason I disappeared for two years and didn’t let you know I was alive,’ Sherlock said, his voice full of self-reproach.

‘I figured it out.’

‘You did?’

‘You’ve been trying to keep me safe with or without my knowing. Don’t tell me I got that wrong.’ John gasped for air. He always had a hard time voicing his feelings.

‘I’ve succeeded thus far, even though being safe isn’t exactly your priority all the time.’ There was a hint of humour now. John had learnt to appreciate all the subtle shifts in his friend’s voice, even if he sometimes didn’t know how to interpret them.  

‘You walked into a bonfire to get me out. Right into it,’ John gestured for emphasis.

‘I’ve been to hell and back several times. The bonfire is a nice metaphor; a little obvious for my taste maybe.’

John’s eyes had adjusted to the darkness and he didn’t need to squint anymore. The outlines of Sherlock’s face were clear, and he was smiling a little.

‘Why are you here, John? I’m fine.’

‘You’re not sleeping. It doesn’t look like you’ve eaten much, either.’

‘Not tired. Upset stomach. I’ll be okay in the morning, mummy, there’s nothing to worry about.’

‘That’s not funny.’ John hunched his shoulders forward, leaning his elbows on his knees. He was only thinking of something else to say, but Sherlock startled and retreated farther against the back of his chair and wrapped his arms around his own bent knees protectively. Sherlock used to do that when he was deep in thought, John mused, but the look on his face didn’t quite fit at the moment. Sherlock looked a tad frightened.

‘Is it something I’ve said?’ John asked, sitting up straight again.

‘No! They are just out of control,’ Sherlock said quietly, still clutching at his knees like a small child. ‘They say drugs must be illegal; they say tobacco, alcohol, even sugar should be illegal. But not this. This is supposed to be fine. No one is alarmed by it. No one else seems to want to go outside and scream at the top of their lungs.’

Was Sherlock high? John wondered. He wasn’t making any sense and yet his gaze was focused, which meant he was ranting about something in particular.

‘Sherlock, I don’t follow.’

‘The chemical reactions. I need my body to cooperate and stay focused on the task at hand. A mind needs a sound body to dwell in.’

It took John a couple of seconds to understand. There were many things he could have said but none sounded right in his head so he reached out to Sherlock and got hold of one of his hands, hoping that the message would hit home.

‘What are you doing?’ Sherlock asked, somewhat taken aback. He didn’t withdraw his hand one inch. Instead, his fingers grazed John’s palm tentatively. It was John’s turn to look away as he spoke.

‘I’m letting you take my pulse.’

This was it, then, John thought, because there was not a chance his heart wasn’t beating twice its normal speed. Well, if Sherlock thought he was the only one puzzling over his attraction to his best friend, he was in for a surprise. John had puzzled for years, then he had silently accepted it, tried to get over it as he grieved and ultimately striven to find someone who could fill the emptiness and make him right again. The fact that he could only think about returning to their living-room at Baker Street meant that he had failed.

Sherlock kept touching John’s hand and wrist, somewhat gingerly at first, then more firmly. He didn’t move from his assumed childlike position on the chair, although he leaned his chin on his knees to look at John more closely. His gaze was sad and had a vague glittering quality to it.

‘Sherlock, you are hardly ever at a loss for words. You’re freaking me out.’ John cleared his throat.

It was not true. Sherlock had been unable to say a proper goodbye to him before boarding the plane. No one could make him lost for words, but John could. He’d just realized that.

‘I’m very eloquent when my words are a product of my brain,’ Sherlock replied in a matter-of-fact voice. ‘My mental faculties are seriously hindered by emotion at the moment. It all comes down to chemical reactions, as I said, and I don’t quite grasp their workings. They make a fool of me, that much I know.’

Sherlock tried to let go of John’s hand but John didn’t let him. Instead, he ran his thumb through the long fingers, reveling in the familiar electric current that shot though his own body. The spark had always been there. Sherlock could easily kindle a fire.

‘Whatever you feel— feel for me, Sherlock, I felt it first. No need to be dramatic about it.’ The words came out with surprising ease.

He could hear Sherlock swallow as his eyes widened.

‘I knew it but I chose to ignore it. Call it a self-defence mechanism. I didn’t know how to handle being cared about. You were there. I took you for granted. That’s all I did. John, I can’t do this to you now. Not now.’

John felt about to drown in his own affection, the one he’d always felt for this strange, overbearing man who had taken over his life a few years before. There was nothing else he could think of at that moment.

‘You must,’ John said, and in one swift motion he inclined his body forward, left his seat, pushed Sherlock’s knees out of the way and cupped his face in both hands. Sherlock looked genuinely surprised as John pressed his lips to his. John could sense Sherlock’s insecurity, his lack of prior experience when it came to real intimacy. John held back his tongue and used his lips only, nibbling at Sherlock’s full lower lip, not wanting to overwhelm him. Sherlock barely moved; he just parted his lips and tried to respond in kind. All the feelings John had tried to dispose of during Sherlock’s long absence came back with a vengeance. He lost track of time and, by the time they separated, he wasn’t sure whether they’d been kissing for a minute or an hour. Sherlock was frowning but his mouth had curved into a smile, as if he didn’t know what to make of the kiss.

‘Was it your first?’ John asked, standing on the spot. Sherlock tilted his head upwards and their eyes met.

‘I was terrible, wasn’t I?’

‘No. No, you were not. I’m just asking.’

‘It was the first that mattered. I’m hoping more will follow.’ Sherlock jumped on his feet and looked away for a moment. ‘John, this is what I wanted to avoid for your sake.’

John let out a short laugh and rubbed at his nose.

‘Stop deciding what I have or don’t have to face. Sherlock, you were the one who told me that I was addicted to danger and dangerous people. It turns out that I’m addicted to you above all things, and I can live with that.’

‘But you are going to be…’ he started to say. John took a finger to Sherlock’s lips.

‘I know. I know everything you’re going to say. I’m not giving you up again.’

Sherlock’s smile grew wider even as he shook his head slightly. He bent forward and wrapped his arms around John. John buried his face on Sherlock’s chest as he returned the embrace.

‘John, this is what I’ve wanted to say for a long time. I think I love you. I have nothing to compare this feeling to but I’ve done my research and it all fits.’

‘It must be true, then. Your deductions usually are.’

‘You’ve never been intimate with another man before, have you?’ Sherlock stepped back just a little so he could look at him properly.

‘How do you know that?’ It was the truth, and John guessed it showed.

‘You tried to talk yourself out of it. Repeatedly. If you were used to it you wouldn’t have had to.’

‘I’m not gay. It’s just you. And my guess is you’ve never been intimate with anyone.’

‘I didn’t feel the need to.’

‘Do you, now?’

‘I do.’

Predawn light started filtering through the living-room windows as they kissed again, more hungrily this time. John basked in his friend’s pure unadulterated affection, breathed his familiar scent in, and tasted him with his tongue and lips and hands. Contrary to what anyone would have thought, Sherlock was starved for affection, for closeness. He just wouldn’t have let anyone else notice; no one else could see him letting his guard down but John.

‘Promise me this, Sherlock,’ John whispered between kisses, as he felt one of Sherlock’s hands creeping up his back under his shirt.

‘Anything.’

‘You’re never going to value my life over yours. You can’t do that. I need you safe and sound. I’m never going to grieve for you again, is that clear?’

‘I’ll do my best.’

John smiled and ran his hand through Sherlock’s hair, ruffling his curls. God, he had wanted to do that forever.

‘What are you thinking?’ John asked, noticing Sherlock’s pensive expression.

‘I’m thinking that the game is still on and we don’t know what tomorrow holds. As much as I would like to take things slowly, we can’t afford it, can we?’

A shiver ran down John’s back as the implications dawned on him. He was anxious because he had never touched another man, but at the same time he wanted nothing more than Sherlock on a bed.

‘You’re right. We should seize the moment.’  

Sherlock led the way to his room, stood on the threshold for a second and looked back at John.

‘I was lying when I said sex didn’t alarm me, all those years ago.’

‘I know. It won’t if you don’t think too much.’

John’s heart was pounding in his chest, his excitement building up.

‘How can I not think too much?’ Sherlock asked, sounding a little alarmed.

‘By feeling instead. Trust me.’

And if they only had a few hours together before reality came crashing in, feel they would, John thought as he and Sherlock faced each other in the darkened bedroom and their hands did away with all those unnecessary layers of clothing.