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Splitting the Atom

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Toenail clippings, not his, lay in the bottom of the bin in the bathroom. Sherlock stared at them, crouching near the bin, which was in its usual corner beside the toilet. There was a faint smell of urine — he’d have to tell John to clean. He reached into the bin and picked up a white crescent, examined it with his magnifier. He could see faint grooves. He had read those were caused by stress. The nail had been cut neatly, straight across. The sliver was quite small, as if John cut his nails frequently.

That was all the data to be gleaned from the bin. It was not what Sherlock wanted to know. John had kissed him for the first time exactly one month ago. That was a certainty. Other things were not so certain.

There were bits of hair under the blade of the razor. Hairs had fallen on the tiles, too, short and sandy, sometimes grey. John shed them without knowing, without being aware. Sherlock was looking for fissures, for flaws, for the point where things would break apart, but there was no scientific method for identifying them.

That night, he woke for no reason, sat up in bed until his eyes got used to the light, and then stared at John while he slept. The light from the street was enough to see the shadows of John’s face, eyelashes, ears. It was enough to see the curve of his lips, his slightly open mouth, his hand curled on the sheet. Sherlock listened to breathing, to snoring, to asthma, to shouts from the world of dreaming. He listened to restless tossing and turning, to words spoken in Persian.

John woke.

“Will you stop?” John asked. “How long have you been sitting there?”

“I haven’t the faintest,” Sherlock said.

John buried his face in the pillow, groaning loudly. Coming up for air, he said, “Can’t a man sleep in peace without you studying him like a puzzle? You’re letting cold air under the blankets.”

“I’m thinking,” Sherlock said.

“Stop thinking.” John took Sherlock’s hand and pulled him down. “You’re freezing.”

Sherlock didn’t resist. He let John kiss him. He kissed back, kissed John’s sleepy mouth. Already naked. John’s hand on his hip, then squeezing his right buttock. He wanted. And John’s hands stroked him, practised and sure, until he came with a gasp, sperm spilling on the sheets.

“Sleep now,” John mumbled, kissing him clumsily, missing his mouth.

Sherlock fought drowsiness until he was sure John was asleep, breathing steadily with a whispering sound. He didn’t want to miss anything. He hated to miss things.

Days later, more evidence: lunch leavings in the sink. Why only one bite of pasta left on the plate? Why hadn’t John finished it? That meant something, he didn’t know what. Sherlock stood at the sink, pondering. He picked up John’s dirty fork. He picked up the tumbler, which bore the print of John’s lips. These things were certain but not useful.

Dirty laundry was certain. It was in the hamper in the closet. Some things still smelled like washing powder — John was very fastidious, and he never wore things twice. Sherlock’s nose detected aftershave, deodorant, and John’s own smell. One shirt smelled of leaves. Yes, he’d worn this when they’d visited the park. He’d lain on the grass. In the leaves. Some of them had drifted down to him, landing on his stomach, on his legs. The leaves were already gone — Sherlock had walked by there earlier in the day. Those leaves that had touched John were gone. Raked up. Mown over. Gone.

It wasn’t the proof he needed.

The universe held mysteries only until science could elucidate them.

Sometimes he wanted to bite John to see what was underneath. He wanted to look inside John’s mouth, inside his ears. He wanted John never to blink. He wanted to see inside John’s stomach and his heart. What was it like, the blood that kept John alive? Before it hit the air. Before it turned colour. Before it spilled out, useless.

John had let Sherlock lick him the week before. Spread out on the bed, on his stomach, Sherlock’s hands parting the cheeks of his arse. Tongue inside him, Sherlock had fucked him until he talked to God. His tongue had been inside John, inside. It was worth using brainspace to remember the taste of that skin, and the way John had sounded. Like he could never tell a lie.

“I love you,” John had said afterwards.

Sherlock liked facts. Evidence. The things people left behind without knowing. Fingerprints. Fibres. Hair. Those things didn’t deceive.

When John cooked Sherlock dinner (which was often), it meant Sherlock ate the skin cells that sloughed off John’s hands.

“What is it?” Sherlock said, leaning over John’s shoulder as he rinsed vegetables in the sink.

“Tabouleh. You might help out for once.”

“Can’t. Busy.” Sherlock watched John’s hands as he began chopping the parsley. He held the knife with his right hand, even though he wrote with his left.

“A bit hard to work with you breathing down my neck.”

Sherlock sniffed at John’s hair. The shampoo was the same. Nothing had changed. He leant to bite at the nape of John’s neck.

“Sherlock!” The sound of the knife dropping.

Sherlock straightened up. John held his finger under the tap, putting pressure on the nick. He turned off the water. Sherlock stared at the blood as it seeped along the lines of John’s fingerprint.

Sherlock took John’s hand. Brought the finger to his mouth. Sucked. The tang of John’s blood on his tongue. The texture of the wound. A slice in skin.

“Your mouth is full of bacteria,” John said.

Sherlock licked John’s fingernail, so hard and smooth. A jagged corner where the knife had cut. John’s bits of armour were not invulnerable. Sherlock wanted to take him apart, wanted him soft and naked and pink.

“You want to have sex now? In the middle of fixing dinner?” John didn’t withdraw his finger.

“I’m not fixing dinner.” Sherlock licked John’s knuckle. Skin cells sloughing onto his tongue.

“Of course you’re not.” John took his finger back and left the kitchen.

Sherlock listened to the bathroom cabinet opening and closing. John was bandaging his finger. There was to be no sex. Dinner, not for a while. Sherlock wandered up the stairs to John’s room. John’s laptop had yielded some items of interest in the past — John’s finances, rough drafts of blog posts, abandoned emails to Harry — but not what Sherlock needed to know.

John was writing up a new case for the blog. Sherlock made a few changes. John tended towards sensationalism when he wrote. The facts — the details — were the important parts of the case, not the sordid affairs the husband had and the titbit that one of his mistresses was in local government.

“Are you on my computer again?” John said, appearing in the doorway.

“Fixing the blog,” Sherlock answered without looking up.

“Can you —” John made a noise of exasperation, squeezing the bit of his nose between his eyes.

“What?”

“Anyone else would have moved out by now, you realise.”

Sherlock stared at John. Moving out? There was a bit of parsley on John’s collar. Bandage on his left index finger. Was that the scent of tomatoes? John couldn’t move out. “You’re angry with me.”

John looked at the ceiling. “Get off my computer.”

Sherlock studied the screen. Somewhere, somewhere he hadn’t looked yet, there was the answer. John could say things, but Sherlock couldn’t believe them until he had proof. People lied all the time. “You want to move out?” Sherlock asked.

“I’m not going anywhere, unless it’s with you. Stop being thick.” John swiped the laptop, shutting it. “You have to stop doing this. You have to trust me. Can you do that?”

“Trust is for idiots,” Sherlock said. “Evidence either confirms hypotheses or refutes them. I have yet to find evidence that you won’t move out.”

John’s jaw tensed. “Look, I’m going downstairs to eat. If you decide to stop being an idiot, you can join me.” He slammed the bedroom door on his way out.

The bit of parsley had fallen from John’s collar onto the floor. Sherlock got up from the chair and crouched to pick up the green leaf. It stood out against his pale finger. He wondered how many miles it had travelled to get to 221-B Baker Street.

John was already eating when Sherlock went downstairs. A place was set for him beside beakers and retorts and the bunsen burner Sherlock had been using to make various accelerants. He sat, dished food onto his plate, and watched John eat.

John usually told him to quit staring, but this time he didn’t. They ate in silence. John always shovelled food into his mouth, barely chewing. He ate as if someone was going to take the plate away from him. Possibly something from childhood. More likely: there’d been little time to eat in peace in Afghanistan. Habits, once acquired, were difficult to break. Even habits acquired as an adult, as many habits were.

“Do you want to know why I wouldn’t move out?” John asked suddenly, setting his fork down on his almost-empty plate. There were still specks of bulgur, some tomato seeds, and a whole garden of parsley. “It’s because life is better with you than without you. It’s not rocket science.” John got up, his chair scraping on the tiles. He took his plate to the sink, and ran the water over it. “Try to do the dishes without setting fire to anything this time?”

“I wouldn’t have neglected the experiment if the sink hadn’t overflowed!” Sherlock called after John, but John didn’t answer.

Sherlock sat in the empty kitchen, listening to the clock. It reminded him of a bomb. He contemplated the scientists who had discovered nuclear fission. What had they done after work that day? Had they gone to the pub for a pint? Did they comprehend the magnitude of the thing they had brought from the realm of God to the realm of science?

Sherlock ignored the dishes. He didn’t like to do them alone. He liked when John sat at the kitchen table and talked to him. Brainspace for dishes! John said he never got them clean. What was the point? Clean ones always appeared in the cabinet if he waited long enough.

He considered reading, but John wasn’t in the living room or in Sherlock’s bedroom, and he liked to read with John beside him. Mrs Hudson would say they didn’t need two bedrooms anymore. Sherlock preferred John’s room. It was always clean. He climbed the stairs.

“What are you doing?” he asked when he reached John’s door.

“Reading The Journal of Trauma,” John said. He was sitting up on the bed with his laptop, leaning against a pillow. His feet were adorned with bright red socks.

Sherlock dived onto the bed. “I approve. Read to me.”


“I haven’t forgotten you editing my blog to suit your fancy. Not everyone wants to read about glue on envelopes.”

“Glue solved the case!”

“Not the point. What was the point, Sherlock?” John kneed Sherlock in the side.

“Why do you care if I look at your computer? You’ve got nothing to hide. If you had, I would have found it by now.”

“Then stop looking!”

Sherlock squinted up at John. “There might be something.”

“You’ve found everything.”

“Fine.” Sherlock buried his face in the pillow. He could smell John. Why did John’s clothes smell different? They used the same washing powder. He inched his face closer, sniffing. Jeans. Denim had a distinct smell. He pressed his nose to John’s hip.

“‘The patient was injured by an IED, which fractured the splanchnocranium...’” John read.

Sherlock listened, at the same time thinking about John’s own war injuries. John had almost died. The scar on his shoulder was raised and sprawling, darker than the surrounding skin, split by fault lines. Only once had John mentioned being taken prisoner. He said he’d felt like the only person left on Earth. He’d told Sherlock that after sex, curled at Sherlock’s back, kissing the knobs of his spine, right before falling asleep.

The paragraph was lost, and there was no sense in making John repeat it. Sherlock had other things on his mind. He sat up.

John stopped reading.

“Let’s have sex. Can we?” Sherlock didn’t wait for an answer; he began unbuttoning John’s shirt.

John shut the laptop and set it on the bedside table. “Neurosurgery? Puts you in the mood?”

Sherlock pulled the vee of John’s vest aside until he could see the scar. That was evidence. Sherlock leant to kiss the bit of scar that snaked out farthest. “You do.”

“I do?” John shrugged out of his shirt and cardigan.

They grabbed at one another’s clothes — there was a brief struggle with socks — until they were naked. John pulled the blankets and the top sheet aside, climbing in. The air was chilly — Mrs Hudson hadn’t yet turned on the heating for the winter — and John’s nipples pebbled up. Sherlock circled one with his fingertip. He liked all the textures of John’s body. The short hairs around the nipple, the soft down on his stomach, the scar, his teeth, his nails. Sherlock hunkered under the covers, pressing his cheek to John’s cock, kissing the tip of it in the half-darkness. Maybe it wasn’t John who needed to be taken apart, maybe it was him.

Sherlock burst out into the air. “Lube.”

John grunted as he rolled over to get it from the bedside table. “When we met, I didn’t think you were the type to like sex this often.”

“I didn’t like the others.”

John understood what Sherlock meant. “I’m sorry.”

“That I didn’t like them?” Sherlock sat up, leaning on one hand. He was immediately cold, and he buried himself in the bed again.

“Sorry for you, not for me.” John huddled beside him under the covers, clutching the lube.

“Oh.”

John kissed Sherlock’s nose, and his lips felt warm. Sherlock closed his eyes. John kissed his eyelids. Then there was nothing. The snap of the cap on the tube. Everything was quiet. He felt John moving, but he kept his eyes closed. The whisper of skin on the sheets. John’s breathing. John’s fingertips pressing against him, opening him up. He liked John’s fingers there. So much friction. Sherlock wondered about the bandage. That was the left hand. John’s lips. Tongue on the head of Sherlock’s cock. Suction. Fingers. Sherlock lifted his hips up off the bed. He wanted more fingers. His nerves leapt and sang. A scrape of teeth. He couldn’t breathe. He imagined uranium atoms being bombarded with neutrons. The scientists in the lab, holding their breath as they tested it, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. What did they think when barium was born? Did they think they would save the world? Did they think they would destroy it? He opened his eyes as he came. Did the ceiling look different? No. The same. But John looked different, kissing him, rubbing up against him, his cock prodding Sherlock’s belly.

“Fuck me,” Sherlock ordered.

John hovered. “You wouldn’t let me before.”

“I didn’t care for it before.”

“And now’s different?”

“Yes,” Sherlock insisted.

“You’re very bossy, do you know?”

Sherlock smiled. He liked John in this light. The lamp made subtle shadows in the room, and everything looked golden and soft. John reached for something. Returned. The tearing of a condom packet. Sherlock sat up.

“Let me.” He took the slippery condom from John’s fingers, bent to put it in place, held the tip as he unrolled the rest, taking time to catalogue the altered appearance of John’s cock through the latex.

“It’s cold, Sherlock. Might want to speed it up.”

Sherlock finished his task, then lay back on the bed. John gathered up the covers, making a tent over his shoulders before lying down on his side, facing Sherlock. There was a billow of cold air as the blankets settled. And then they were twined together, Sherlock’s leg over John’s hip. The tip of John’s cock pressed into him. John was being very gentle, barely moving. It was more pleasant than Sherlock remembered from previous attempts with other people. He angled his hips, trying to increase their contact. John shifted his weight, pushed Sherlock onto his back. They broke apart. Their limbs tangled. They rearranged. The blankets fell away as John sat up, and there was cold air. Sherlock spread his legs, brought his thighs close to his chest. He lifted one foot to touch the scar on John’s shoulder. Then John was inside him again, moving a little bit faster, deeper, setting off nerves like flares of light. Sherlock envisioned the night sky filled with stars. John came, out of breath, his skin damp and warm. After a moment, he withdrew, slipping off the condom and tossing it aside before lying back down. Their mouths collided, then settled. Air from John’s lungs was going into Sherlock’s lungs. There was no way to tell whose molecules were whose.

Sherlock shivered, and John reached for the covers again.

“I’m telling Mrs Hudson to turn on the heating tomorrow.”

“I could wear my scarf.”

“You’d look fetching wearing nothing but your scarf.” John closed his eyes, shifting closer to Sherlock. He seemed to be drifting off.

Sherlock kept watch, feeling restless. After a moment, John opened his eyes. They looked at one another. John took a breath, as if he was about to say something, but then he changed his mind.

“What?” Sherlock asked.

John shook his head. “Nothing. Do you want some tea?”

“Tea is good.”

John got up, tucking the blankets in around Sherlock. Sherlock watched, eyes lingering on John’s soft cock — it had been inside him, transformed by his touch. He watched as John found his socks and boxers, pulled on his jeans, his vest, and the cardigan. He listened as John padded downstairs in socked feet. He heard the bang of a cupboard door, cups being set on the worktop.

John appeared again, bringing two mugs. He set them down on the bedside table, moving the laptop to the floor. Sherlock sat up, gathering the blankets around him. John stripped down to his boxers and vest, then climbed into bed. He reached past Sherlock for his tea.

“You didn’t do the dishes.”

“I was feeling incendiary. I thought it best to wait.” Sherlock picked up his mug, peering into it. No milk. That was good. “What do you think they did, Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman?”

“What?”

“After they first found barium from uranium.”

“What do you mean, what did they do?”

“Afterwards,” Sherlock said impatiently. “Did they just go home? Ordinary day, we broke nuclei apart, what’s on the telly?”

John laughed. “They didn’t go home, you idiot. They probably stayed all night, trying to get it to happen again. They were like you, when you’re on a case.” He leant to kiss Sherlock’s shoulder.

“You were going to say it again.”

“Say what?”

“That you love me.”

John glanced at Sherlock, then away. “Would you rather I not?”

“I wasn’t certain I believed you when you said it before.”

“You weren’t — Why would I say it if I didn’t mean it? Is that why you’ve been reading through everything on my laptop?”

“It didn’t seem possible,” Sherlock clarified.

John seemed to have nothing to say to that. He leant over Sherlock again to set his mug down. He took Sherlock’s mug from his hands and set that down, too. He held Sherlock’s face in his hands and kissed him softly. “And now?”

Sherlock catalogued the evidence: John was looking at him fondly; he had remembered how much sugar Sherlock liked in his tea; he had stopped password-protecting his laptop; he had lived in the flat for eleven months and fourteen days, and he had not moved out; he had assisted Sherlock on fifty-seven cases. Sherlock was sleepy, and he could feel the places where John had touched him, inside and out. Three scientists, decades ago, with war bearing down on them, had the idea that from atoms of one thing, you could derive another. It was seemingly impossible, but they built the machine to perform the experiments. They kept testing the hypothesis until they proved it was true. Without a doubt, it was true.