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The Night Is Darkest

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John doesn’t think he’s ever felt worse climbing the seventeen stairs to 221B, with the possible exception of the first time he came up after Sherlock’s fall, but he isn’t even sure about that. The guilt he feels right now somehow seems even worse than grief.

Sherlock might well refuse to see him, and John could hardly blame him. There’s no excuse for what he’s done, for how he’s treated Sherlock. But he must at least try and apologise, if Sherlock lets him. Then he’ll remove himself from Sherlock’s life once and for all, so he can’t hurt him anymore.

His steps falter on the top of the stairs when he realises he hears music coming from the flat, something light and poppy that doesn’t sound like Sherlock’s taste at all. He knocks, feeling he’s lost any right he may have had to just barge in, but when he gets no reply he opens the door and follows the sound of the music to the kitchen, even though he’d rather never set his foot there as long as he lives.

In the kitchen, he finds Molly, humming to herself to the rhythm of the song and… cleaning the fridge?

She seems to catch sight of him from the corner of her eye and jumps, raising a nitrile-gloved hand to her chest.

“John! Oh my god, you gave me a fright!”

“Sorry! I didn’t mean to startle you. Um, is Sherlock here?” he asks, but he already has a feeling that he isn’t – there seems to be something missing from the flat.

“No,” Molly says and suddenly looks extremely uncomfortable. “He’s… gone away, John. I don’t know where, but he left in a hurry and I don’t think he’ll be back anytime soon, because he asked me to dispose of any body parts he had in the fridge.” She gestures to a large travel cooler at her feet, her face pinched as if in pain.

John feels cold. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to him that Sherlock could remove himself from John’s life. That he could just leave. This is what John has done: he’s managed to drive Sherlock out of his own home. He made Sherlock run away from him.

He’s such a piece of trash.

“Oh,” is all he manages to say, feeling like he’s being crushed into powder by the shame weighing on his houlders. He can’t bear to look at Molly’s kind face, to stay here a second longer with someone who believes him to be Sherlock’s friend. He turns and starts walking away without a word.

“John, wait!” Molly calls after him. “I think – I think there’s a letter for you on the mantel.”

He looks towards a fireplace and indeed, there is a white envelope propped against the Persian slipper, with John written on it in Sherlock’s messy scrawl.

He gulps. He thinks of the letter he wrote to Sherlock after Mary died, all the terrible things he said in it. He takes the envelope with a shaking hand and puts it in his coat pocket. He’ll read it when he’s alone.

“Thanks,” he forces himself to say, and leaves.

*

Three days earlier

Sherlock sits at the kitchen table and thinks about the small plastic sachet of crystalline white powder that he keeps carefully taped to the underside of the outside sill of his bedroom window (very convenient hiding place: none of his “minders” would ever think to check there, and as an added benefit, it means he isn’t actually lying when he says there are no drugs in the house). He isn’t going to use it, he knows that, but he can’t stop thinking about how easy it would be and that, he has to admit, is a new low. He hasn’t used anything stronger than nicotine and caffeine since that day in Culverton Smith’s hospital, almost three months ago. He put himself through the wringer of withdrawal, made all the worse by the terrible physical condition he was in at the time, and he came out at the other end, weak and exhausted but determined to stay clean. Yet, he didn’t get rid of this last remnant of his secret stash. He’s always found it helpful to know that he had something within easy access… just in case.

He should probably bin it. Flush it down the toilet. He feels temptation gnaw at him to go check it’s all still there, open the packet to make sure it’s undamaged, fit for use. And that’s not a good sign, is it. He should get rid of it. If he uses again, even just once, he’ll lose John for good.

Except…

Except there’s no guarantee he hasn’t lost him already, is there? In fact, it’s likely that he has. He thought, after his birthday when John stood in the living room and cried and let Sherlock hug him and then they went out for cake, that maybe things would turn out okay after all, despite everything he had done wrong. That John would forgive him and they would, somehow, patch up their broken friendship. But it’s looking increasingly less likely that John is interested in doing that at all.

On Sherlock’s birthday it seemed that John softened towards him a little, but the effect was short-lived. They still see each other regularly, which is better than nothing, but it’s clear now that John only comes over when it’s his turn for Sherlock-sitting. Sherlock is no longer under 24-hour supervision like he was at the beginning, when could be glad he was allowed to use the loo unaccompanied, but someone still stops by to check on him every day to make sure he’s been a good little boy while left to his own devices. And that’s the only time John shows any interest in him – when he’s on duty. He checks that Sherlock has eaten and taken his medication and not taken anything not sanctioned by the NHS, and that’s all. He doesn’t want to talk about anything of import, (not Mary, not Rosie, not how he’s feeling or what he’s doing with his life), he doesn’t want to join Sherlock on cases and he listens to Sherlock talking about the ones he solved on his own with only half an ear. He’s morose at best angry the rest of the time, and usually comes to Baker Street via a pub, as if he couldn’t bear to look at Sherlock sober.

To make matters worse, there haven’t even been that many cases to give Sherlock something else to focus on. At first, he was effectively on house arrest imposed by his well-meaning friends, and too weak to run around the city anyway. But even as his strength returned, his enthusiasm for the work… hasn’t. It’s probably only due to the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything interesting going on in the world and nobody has contacted him with anything more than a four for ages. It just doesn’t seem worth the trouble – not when there’s no chance of having John by his side. A part of Sherlock wants to tell John to stop bothering to come if it’s just a chore to him, but the rest of him covets every second he can spend in John’s company, whatever the circumstances.

He startles from his contemplation when he hears footsteps on the stairs. Molly’s on duty today, and she usually doesn’t come before six, so it’s unexpected to hear someone coming so early in the afternoon, but it becomes almost immediately obvious that this isn’t Molly’s tread. It’s John.

Sherlock jumps up automatically, trying not to get his hopes up and failing. If John has come here even though it’s not his turn, then maybe…

“John,” he says and he hates the eager, needy undertone that slips into his voice. “I wasn’t expecting you.”

But he doesn’t need John to speak to realise that his hopes were once again unfounded, it’s all clearly written over Johns glowering features.

“Molly’s cat is sick, so it’s me instead,” John says curtly, confirming Sherlock’s suspicion. “Why are you still in your pyjamas?”

Sherlock can almost physically feel all his hopes crashing down. Today is clearly a bad day. There aren’t any good days when it comes to John, not anymore, but there are days that are all right. Tolerable. But this clearly isn’t one of them: John is already pissed off, his morning shift at the surgery was obviously exhausting, he had at least three separate arguments and now he’s miffed that he has to stand in for Molly instead of going home to Rosie and that he’ll have to pay the nanny for extra hours. (Somehow, John has never found it odd that the woman he’s hired to look after Rosie while he’s at work is always available when John needs her to be and charges barely a third of the average hourly rate. He believes her story that she’s a well-off old lady with no family of her own who just wants to spend time around children. Or perhaps he doesn’t, perhaps he’s aware that Sherlock pays the rest of her fees, perhaps he agrees with Sherlock’s assessment that it’s the least he can do to make up for the part he played in making Rosie motherless.) He hasn’t slept well and he’s already had several drinks – Sherlock can’t tell how many, he’s found he’s unable to judge John’s alcohol intake accurately since his tolerance seems to have increased considerably since the stag night – but it’s certainly more than what would be considered socially acceptable at this early hour. All in all, not a good day.

He shrugs in response to John’s question, avoiding his eyes. He knows John sometimes finds it irritating when he’s exhausted from work but Sherlock seems to have done nothing all day, and when Sherlock knows John’s coming and he has enough energy and presence of mind to do it, he makes sure he’s properly dressed and appearing busy when John comes to avoid unnecessary anger triggers. No such luck today.

“Nothing on today, there was no point getting dressed,” he says and ducks his head, looking at the floor.

“Hm,” John says, a lot of judgment in such a brief syllable. “And I bet you haven’t showered or eaten anything today, have you? You know, you could at least pretend to take care of yourself when all your friends go to considerable trouble every day for the sake of your health and well-being.”

Anger bubbles up inside Sherlock: he’s not a child, he can spend his day wearing whatever he chooses and eating or not eating according to his whim. He never asked John or anyone else for their overbearing involvement in his life, he could have got clean on his own without their “help” that mostly amounts to nothing but an excessive invasion of privacy. He wants to tell John that his words sound rather self-righteous coming from someone whose drinking is evidently getting out of hand. But he doesn’t. One misstep and John will walk out of the flat and never come back, not even on forced visits motivated largely by guilt. He’ll take the criticism and degradation if it delays the moment when John inevitably leaves for good. He’ll even take another beating, if he has to. It’s not like he deserves anything better, anyway. He feels his cheeks heat and he doesn’t know if it’s anger or embarrassment.

“You’re right,” he says quietly, swallowing his harsh words, forcing himself not to raise his voice. No point in provoking John. He swallows. “Let me get changed then I’ll make some… toast.”

“Wait, not so fast,” John grabs his arm before Sherlock can move away. “Look at me. Are you clean?”

“Of course I am,” Sherlock scoffs, all the more needled by the question because of the amount of time he’s just spent thinking about cocaine. John’s eyes bore into his in a way that Sherlock used to like because it seemed to create a sort of connection between them, but now it’s obviously only because John’s checking the size of Sherlock’s pupils. John grabs Sherlock’s right wrist and pulls up his sleeve, examining the crook of Sherlock’s elbow for fresh puncture marks. Sherlock wonders if John is more observant that Sherlock gives him credit for, if he’s suspicious because he noticed Sherlock feels guilty.

“Do you want to check between my toes too?” he asks haughtily to mask any pangs of conscience he might be feeling.

“Maybe,” John says, fixing him with an icy stare. What’s got into him? He has no reason to doubt Sherlock’s commitment to his sobriety. Sherlock has been nothing but obedient.

“John. You know I’m clean.”

“Do I?” John’s grip on Sherlock’s wrist tightens painfully. “Then why did I just see Wiggins down the street, hm?”

“I don’t know! He wasn’t here! You can ask Mrs Hudson, no one came up all day!”

“She’s out,” John spits out. “Convenient, isn’t it?”

Sherlock groans in frustration and anger. This is even worse than if John had found the drugs Sherlock actually has in his possession, then at least it would be deserved, but this is not his fault. Surely he can’t be held responsible for the whereabouts of all of London’s drug dealers.

“Search the flat then! I’ll piss into a cup if you want.” Sherlock’s voice rises despite himself. “I’ve done every single humiliating thing you wanted me to do without complaint, I really think you could trust me by now!”

“Trust you? But I can’t, can I? Not when I can never know when you’re going to decide that a case demands you get high!”

“That’s not how it is and you know it!”

“Yeah, I know, you do it because you’re an addict just looking for an opportunity to get high and say you did to catch a serial killer!”

The sheer unfairness of that statement makes Sherlock see red.

“I only did that because I love you!”

The words are out of Sherlock’s mouth before he can think about them. The sudden silence rings loud in the flat, interrupted only by John’s sharp intake of breath as he stares at Sherlock, his nostrils flaring.

It was a wrong thing to say – of course it was a wrong thing to say, there is no scenario where declaring his love for John Watson could possibly be the right thing to say – but it was wrong on a whole different level than Sherlock could have anticipated, Sherlock realises that more than clearly as he watches John’s reaction, panic and fear bubbling up in his stomach.  John’s not shocked or disgusted, as Sherlock expected – or more precisely, he is both these things, but they pale to nothingness compared to the red hot anger.

“You love me,” John repeats in a disturbingly calm, steely tone of voice, and his lips turn into a lethal smile that makes Sherlock’s blood run cold. “You love me,” he says again and for a moment he looks like he’s going to laugh as he takes a step towards Sherlock. Sherlock instinctively takes a step back, adrenaline coursing through his veins. He has miscalculated, badly. “How dare you say that to me, Sherlock, how FUCKING dare you?!”

Before Sherlock can notice what’s happening, John grabs fistfuls of Sherlock’s t-shirt, pushing him backwards until the back of Sherlock’s thighs hits the kitchen counter and his head slams against one of the cupboards. His vision swims.

“John, I’m so—“

“Shut the fuck up!” John shouts, so close Sherlock can feel his breath, droplets of saliva hitting his face. “You think you can manipulate me with some carefully chosen words, hmm? Tell me you love me, tell me you’re sorry! You don’t know what any of that means! You don’t pretend to kill yourself in front of someone you love! You don’t fake your death and then waltz back into their life like nothing happened! You don’t force their forgiveness by making them believe they’re about to get blown up in a train carriage! You don’t get high as a kite and throw yourself in the hands of a serial killer to make them take care of you! You have no idea what love is, so shut the fuck up!”

John keeps shaking Sherlock’s body as he shouts, his face inches from Sherlock’s, and Sherlock lets him. John’s words hurt worse than anything physical John could inflict on him, but John’s right. What right does Sherlock have to profess his love for John after what he did to him? He deserves John’s anger, his disgust, his hatred. That’s all he’s ever deserved. He lets his body go lax, waiting for the first punch to land. A broken nose is inevitable, he thinks. A split lip, a fractured rib, perhaps. It doesn’t matter.

The impact never comes.

Instead, John uses his hold on Sherlock’s shirt to pull his neck and head down, and crashes their mouths together.

Sherlock freezes in shock, his brain grinding to a halt. John is kissing him. Kissing him, not hitting him. How did that happen? The kiss is none too gentle, lips and teeth clashing together, one of John’s hands keeps a firm grip on the front of Sherlock’s shirt and the other finds its way to Sherlock’s hair, grabbing a fistful and pulling his head to the required angle. Sherlock gasps and John uses that opportunity to plunge his tongue deep inside Sherlock’s mouth. Sherlock tries to kiss back as best as he can but he’s almost light-headed with shock at this turn of events, and the forcefulness and insistence of John’s lips and hands and tongue make it difficult for him to do anything, he can barely catch a breath. Then John presses closer, inserting his knee between Sherlock’s legs and his groin comes in contact with Sherlock’s hip and oh god, oh god, he’s hard. John is hard.

Sherlock’s knees go weak at that but pinned as he is between the counter and John’s body he has nowhere to fall and the shift of his weight only serves to align his hips with John’s. John groans and begins kissing Sherlock even more forcefully, pulling his head down by his hair for better access, and he rocks his pelvis forward, rubbing his clothed erection against Sherlock, who is by no means soft himself at this point, despite the bewilderment he’s still feeling. His head is spinning with it, guilt and fear and arousal and panic, he doesn’t understand but he yields to the onslaught like he would to the punches. He’s dreamt about this, after all (well, not this, but kissing John – yes). John groans deep in his throat as he bites down on Sherlock’s lower lip and Sherlock feels himself stiffen further.

Then John’s hand that isn’t maintaining a firm grip on Sherlock’s hair drops down between their bodies and cups Sherlock through the thin fabric of his pyjama bottoms, squeezing roughly just when John’s lips leave Sherlock’s mouth and attach themselves instead to the side of his neck, and Sherlock’s whimpering yelp has nothing to be muffled against. His whole body’s shuddering uncontrollably, it’s too much too fast and it’s wrong, it’s wrong, John’s not gay and he wants neither Sherlock’s love nor his body, so why is he palming Sherlock’s erection through flimsy cotton, here in the kitchen moments after telling him he didn’t know what love was? It makes no sense, it makes no sense, it’s wrong and John will hate himself and Sherlock after it’s over and their friendship will be ruined, except it already is, Sherlock has already done that.

Then suddenly John stops kissing him and his hand disappears from Sherlock’s crotch, and Sherlock has a split second to be simultaneously relieved and disappointed, then John thrusts a bottle of olive oil in front of Sherlock’s face, so close Sherlock has to lean his head back to see it properly.

“Is this actual olive oil?” John growls.

Sherlock nods dumbly as he tries to catch his breath, his confusion mounting. First rage, then kissing and groping and now John’s going to cook?

“Turn around,” John commands, his voice as hard as steel. Sherlock catches his eye, and just like that, he understands. John’s pupils are blown wide, but there’s no desire in them, just rage and hatred. Sherlock knows that look. His kitchen might as well be a mortuary.

“I said turn around!” John repeats, and Sherlock obeys. What else is there to do? He could leave, push John away and stop this, but he’s not going to do that any more than he would have hit John back. His limbs move uncooperatively but he turns his back to John and his hard gaze, and then he pushes his trousers down and hoists his dressing gown up, saving John the trouble.

The jittery arousal he felt just moments before is gone without a trace. This isn’t about sex, it’s a display of dominance, pure and simple.

It’s a punishment.

That, at least, is something he can understand. There is no need for his earlier confusion and panic anymore, and his mind is quiet and blank even as John forces his legs further apart and then pushes his upper body forward. Sherlock braces himself against the counter and stays still, not thinking about what’s going to happen, not anticipating, just… being. There is nothing else for him to do. He hears John’s laboured breathing, hears him unscrew the cap and let it clatter to the floor, the soft sound of thick liquid pouring through a narrow opening, the clang of the bottle being deposited on the counter next to his elbow. He keeps his gaze straight ahead, fixed on the line where the counter meets wall. There’s dust there, and crumbs, unidentifiable at this range but probably bread. He’s never given much attention to cleaning the kitchen aside from his scientific equipment, and Mrs Hudson can only do so much.

He gasps when the first finger breaches him, slick but uncompromising. He fights his body’s instinctive reaction to clench and resist the intrusion and tries to relax as much as he can. The finger moves in and out, in and out a few times at fast, rough pace but it’s not too bad. All too soon, however, it’s joined by another one and that burns a little, pushing at his inner walls, stretching him, working him open without finesse.

It only lasts a few brief moments and then the fingers leave him. He hears John swear as his oily fingers struggle with the zip on his trousers. He tries to stay still, tries to relax. He breathes. He’s unnaturally aware of the beating of his heart. He thinks, pointlessly, that olive oil degrades latex. It’s irrelevant: John lost the habit of carrying condoms with him a long time ago. It’s not good. Sherlock is (was) an intravenous drug user. He never shared needles, obviously, but John can’t know that for sure. (He can’t know that Sherlock doesn’t engage in this particular act with random strangers on a regular basis, really, but the thought alone is preposterous). John should be more careful. He shouldn’t be so reckless with his health.

Sherlock feels John shift behind him, feels a hand grip his hip like a vice, feels something slick and hot and big press against him. He has the presence of mind to stuff a fist in his mouth, so his cry is muffled.

It hurts worse than he thought it would, searing pain like being split open as John drives into him again and again and again, pummelling his insides. Sherlock imagines what this would look like to someone who came in now, John “Not Gay” Watson ramming his penis deep inside another man’s anus with animalistic vigour, and he wants to laugh hysterically at the absurdity of it. The noises he hears leaving his mouth sound nothing like laughter, however.

He doesn’t know how long it lasts, seconds or hours of monotonous pounding, but eventually John thrusts in harder than ever, burying himself deep with a strangled groan.

After the slapping of skin against skin has stopped along with Sherlock’s muffled moans, it’s quiet. There’s only the sound of John’s heavy breathing and the rustle of clothing as he pulls out, tucks himself in. Then words, just a few, Sherlock hears them but can’t interpret them, is unable to match sound to meaning. He wants to stand up, pull up his trousers and put it all behind him, but he’s frozen in place, unable to move, unable to think. It’s only when he realises he’s alone that he gives a full-body shudder and sinks down to his knees, his legs no longer able to support him.

He ends up on all fours on the floor, breathing raggedly. He retches, certain he’s going to be sick, but nothing comes up. Everything hurts. There are tiny droplets of blood welling up on the back of his hand where his teeth have broken skin. He didn’t notice. He can feel John’s ejaculate slowly trickling out of him – at least he hopes it’s just John’s ejaculate. He should clean up.

When his breathing quietens and his head clears a little, he stands up gingerly, leaning on the kitchen table for support, and staggers to the bathroom. Walking hurts. Undressing hurts. Climbing over the rim of the bathtub hurts. He doesn’t trust his legs to support him for too long but sitting is not an option, so he kneels down under the spray of water, leaning against the wall with most of his weight. He washes himself carefully with lukewarm water, towels off and puts on a dressing gown. He applies antiseptic on the bite on his hand and wraps it with gauze, drinks a few gulps of water from the tap and stumbles to the bedroom.

When he collapses on the bed and there are no more simple, practical tasks for him to do, the reality of what just happened dawns on him. Images flash in his mind – the hard look in John’s eyes, you have no idea what love is, the firm grip on his hips, the painful push inside him. And all of a sudden he finds himself crying, huge, wracking sobs shaking his body, tears flowing freely down his face. He wishes John had hit him instead, punched him, kicked him. Killed him. It would be strangely fitting, he thinks, to die at John’s hand, and better than this. Better than having his feelings and his deepest wishes used as a way to punish him.

He cuts himself off mid-sob when he hears a noise downstairs, the front door opening and closing, and for a second he’s frozen in terror thinking it could be John coming back. But no, it’s just Mrs Hudson returning from the shops. He hears her retreat to her flat, and exhales in relief. For the first time in as long as he can remember, he wants John as far from him as possible. The feeling is so incongruent with what he’s used to that he can’t quite wrap his mind around it, and it makes him cry all the harder. It feels like something inside him has shattered beyond repair.

He’s hurt John so much over the years in ways he can never make up for, atone for enough, John has every right to be angry with him and take it out in whatever way he sees fit, but not… not like this. Not like this.

Sherlock didn’t deserve this. He didn’t deserve having the only sexual encounter with the man he loves made into an act of violence. His love for John used as a weapon against him by John himself. He may deserve everything else, but not this. Why didn’t he realise it before the fact? He could have stopped John, he could have got away, easily… There was plenty of time to act between the moment when Sherlock realised what John was about to do and the moment when John actually did it. So why didn’t he? Is he truly so willing to let John do whatever he wants to him, regardless of consequences?

And why did John do it? Sherlock can’t fathom his reasoning or motivations at all. Anger and violent behaviour are well in line with John’s MO, but this? John often does things he regrets afterwards, but this is bound to leave behind not just remorse for hurting a friend but also disgust for engaging in a sexual act with a man. Why would he do something so out of character just to punish Sherlock? Will he be able to even just look at Sherlock after this?

If Sherlock can’t predict John’s behaviour as well as he thought, and if he can’t trust himself to stop John when he goes too far, even when stopping him would be in John’s best interest, then where does that leave them? Where do they go from here? Is there any future left for them at all?

He thinks about going to the window, but he succumbs to exhaustion and despair before he can muster enough energy to move.

*

John,

Your self-flagellation is unnecessary.

I am leaving London for a while. Please don’t attempt to look for me or contact me – I think some time apart will do us both good. I will get in touch when I return.

Give my love regards to Rosie.

Ever yours,

Sherlock

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock wakes up in the dark, the bite on his hand tingling, a deep, persistent ache inside him, and a clear idea about what he needs in his head. He gets up gingerly and stumbles to the window, finding his emergency stash of cocaine unerringly. He prefers injecting, it’s so much neater, but snorting will do in a pinch.

He almost does it. He’s ready to do it, but then, somehow, moving almost without his own conscious input, he flushes it down the toilet instead.

He regrets it immediately. What is he supposed to do now? What other recourse does he have? The world has crashed and burned and the despair weighing on him is too much to bear. He has nothing left, nothing, and he just wants it all to stop, he wants to forget, at least for a moment, make it all just a little bit more bearable. He’ll text Wiggins and…

No. No. No. He needs to leave. He needs to go somewhere where a fix will be further away than a text to the right number. His last relapse wreaked havoc on him and he can’t let that happen, he doesn’t want to, if he relapses again it will be the last time because won’t be able to get out of it anymore, he knows that and he can’t let it happen, he can’t let John, of all people, drive him to it, he needs to stop it, stop himself, he needs something like…

Rehab.

Except not really, he knows from experience how these places drive him crazy with their strict regimes and rules and inane mantras and group sessions, he couldn’t bear it, he’d be bound to shoot up simply out of sheer frustration. But something more low-key, something that could help him stay clean and where he could somehow put himself together, because right now he feels like he’s falling apart at the seams. Somewhere far from everything.

And then he remembers the exact place he needs, a health resort in Switzerland he came across during his time away because one of Moriarty’s operatives was hiding there. He immediately likes the idea of leaving the country, of going far away from here, from his life… from John.

He remembers the nondescript name, Haus Talblick, and he googles it on his phone standing up in the bathroom, unwilling to try sitting down with his laptop. They offer “healing retreats” with addiction counselling, which sounds like precisely the kind of thing he needs. Healing. Checking the map, he notices that the place is located quite close to the Reichenbach Falls, and if he were a person to believe that sort of thing, he’d think it’s a sign that it’s where he’s meant to go. He dials the number on the website before he can change his mind. It’s late and even later in Switzerland, but the receptionist doesn’t seem to mind, confirming that they have rooms available and obligingly booking their six-week programme for Sherlock (or rather, Scott Siegerson, which is the name he gives) starting tomorrow. He isn’t sure he’ll want to stay that long, but right now, he wants to be as far as possible for as long as possible. His stay arranged, he books the earliest available flight out of London, tomorrow at 6 a.m.

Somehow, he feels better having done that, having a place to go, a sort of purpose. He gets dressed, packs a suitcase. He makes a cup of tea and eats a Greek yoghurt with honey (he should probably stick to a soft diet for a few days; he’d rather not eat anything at all, really, but at least this way no one can accuse him of not taking care of himself). He writes a note for Mrs Hudson, then, after a long moment of consideration and several drafts, a short letter to John. Then he puts on his coat, takes his case and leaves without looking back.

The flight uneventful but uncomfortable (not even business class seats are cushiony enough to make sitting comfortable) and he prefers to spend the majority of the subsequent train ride standing. At the train station in the small town of Meiringen he is met by a courteous Haus Talblick employee who drives him to the resort in a car luxurious enough for Mycroft. It’s in the car, as he looks at the snowy peaks of the Bernese Alps rising from the valley of the Aare river that he begins to think he may have overreacted. His craving has abated considerably compared to how he felt when he woke up, there’s no reason why he couldn’t manage it at home and certainly no need to talk to a therapist about it. And what will it look like to John when he finds out that Sherlock fled just because John… got a little angry with him? He got a bit hurt so now he needs a holiday? Preposterous.

But he doesn’t tell the driver to turn around. He lets himself be driven to the expansive mansion and checks in. Maybe he’s weak and a coward, but he has no strength left to try to do anything about it.

*

His first meeting with his therapist is the following day. He doesn’t really believe some idiot with a psychology degree can help him, that talking about things can help him, but he has no better options and he thinks he might as well try. Talking to Ella that one time after Mary died hadn’t helped him find the solution he needed and it hadn’t made him feel any better, but somehow, he didn’t think it was a wasted trip. It felt like he was doing something, and maybe a more consistent approach would actually have some results, though Sherlock isn’t exactly sure what he wants the results to be. But he’s here already anyway, and he’s desperate enough to try anything.

His therapist, Dr Schneider, turns out to be no idiot at all. She’s a woman in her late fifties with short-cropped grey hair and piercing eyes. Sherlock deduces she got her PhD in London, that she has a considerably younger female partner, two cats, enjoys gardening and knitting… and that she can read him just as easily as he can read her, deducing him right back.

It’s a disconcerting and not at all pleasant experience, to be subject to this kind of scrutiny, to be laid bare without being able to hide. He deduces what she deduces about him, that she can tell he’s here under an assumed identity, that he came here on an impulse preceded by a… traumatic event that caused his cravings to flare up, that he’s in pain both physically and psychologically, that he’s lost and deeply unhappy and doesn’t know what to do to stop himself from drowning in an endless spiral of misery. He looks at himself through her eyes and sees a broken man grasping at straws.

She clearly realises how rattled he is and doesn’t push him too hard, but she does ask him to tell her his true name and to be honest with her because she can’t help him otherwise. They don’t talk about anything too serious, she introduces him to how things work at Haus Talblick and what additional therapies and activities he can choose to complement their daily sessions, Sherlock tells her briefly who he is and outlines his drug history without going into details. But he tells her the truth because there’s no point in hiding – it’s simultaneously terrifying and liberating.

After the opening session, however, things get much, much harder. She asks him uncomfortable questions. Makes him talk about things he doesn’t want to talk about, and he gives in because she’s probably already deduced them. She makes him look at himself from an outsider’s perspective, look at himself the way he looks at other people, and he takes the clues in his own behaviour and assembles them into a whole, and the resulting picture is someone completely different than who he’s always taken himself to be.

*

“Who are you? How would you describe yourself?”

“A detective.”

“That’s just your job title. You won’t become someone else if you decide to change careers. Who are you as a person?”

“A high…”

“Yes? What were you going to say?

“A high-functioning sociopath.”

“High-functio-- Where did you hear such a thing?”

“From a colleague of yours, when I was much younger.”

“Okay, ‘high-functioning’ isn’t really a descriptor applicable to sociopathy, but let’s ignore that for a moment. Do you believe that’s who you are?”

… “No.”

“Then why was it the first thing that came to your mind?”

*

“Do you want to be happy?”

“Of course I do. Everyone wants to be happy.”

“And what have you done recently to achieve that?”

“... I came here.”

“Did you believe coming here would make you happy?”

“Not happy, exactly, but… better.”

“Fair enough. And before that?”

“There were more important things to focus on.”

“Such as?”

*

“In your entry form, you checked ‘drug addiction’ as your reason for being here, but you wrote in the margin that you’re not an addict but a user. Can you clarify that distinction for me?”

“I’m in control of my drug use. An addict isn’t.”

“Are you really? In control?”

“Yes.”

“Then why are you here? If you’re in control you shouldn’t need any help staying clean.”

 “Why do you choose to use, then?”

“It used to be lack of work. I need brainwork, I can’t bear boredom. Occasionally I also used to stimulate my thought processes.”

“You speak in the past tense. What changed?”

“I… it’s. My friend. John.”

“Is he also a user? Does he encourage you?”

“No, the opposite. He strongly disapproves.”

“Then why?”

*

Therapy is gruelling. It’s the single most emotionally exhausting thing he’s ever experienced. A lot of the time it makes him feel worse rather than better, but he keeps going. He’s not even sure why, probably out of a misguided sense of pride – so as not to come across as a coward who’s afraid of knowing himself.

That’s what it’s really about – discovering facets of himself that he never knew existed. Or he did know, but failed to interpret them correctly. But when he sits in Dr Schneider’s office and talks – or doesn’t talk, which is often the case – he can see them clearly. He is an intensely emotional person who craves human connection but believes himself unworthy of it. He hides behind a mask of coldness because he’s afraid of getting hurt. He would do anything, sacrifice anything for John Watson without a single thought to his own happiness, health or safety. He does drugs not to alleviate boredom but to numb pain. This is the person Dr Schneider sees, and he has a hard time reconciling that with who he’s always believed himself to be.

None of the things he’s done for John ever felt like a sacrifice. Faking his death and spending two years alone without a moment of peace, hunting and hunted, didn’t feel like a sacrifice. Planning John’s wedding even though it shattered his heart to pieces didn’t feel like a sacrifice, and nor did committing murder and willingly going to his death for it, or ruining his health and nearly letting himself be murdered. They were not sacrifices, they were simply things that needed to be done to ensure the only desirable outcome: John’s continued safety and happiness.

Surely that wasn’t wrong, he bristles when Dr Schneider first makes him put it into words, to care more about John’s happiness than his own. People always criticised him for being selfish, and now he’s too selfless and that’s wrong too?

“There is a difference between valuing someone’s happiness above your own, and disregarding your own completely,” Dr Schneider tells him. “The fact that you love someone doesn’t mean your own life and well-being become meaningless in comparison.”

She encourages him to think about his own happiness, and Sherlock realises what a foreign concept it is for him. He remembers being happy, back before the fall, when he and John lived together and solved cases and chased criminals and ate takeaway and laughed and there was never an ounce of cruelty in John’s eyes when he looked him, but that’s in the past, ruined forever, and he can’t imagine being happy again. But Dr Schneider tells him happiness doesn’t have to be a grand thing or a permanent state of being and encourages him to look for small things that bring him joy, however fleeting, and then to try incorporating them into his life as much as possible. It sounds a bit trite, but Sherlock is, frankly, tired of being miserable, and so he tries. After his therapy sessions, between yoga classes and aromatherapy and massages and art therapy and horse riding and country walks and boxing in the underground gym, he looks for little things that make him happy.

He likes pancakes and mangoes and good coffee. He likes the moment when his violin stops being an instrument and becomes an extension of himself and music starts coursing in his veins instead of blood. He likes it when he and Sophie, a French recovering alcoholic and exceptional pianist, play together in the music room and achieve perfect harmony. He likes the sweaty exhaustion after a boxing session. He likes the large gentle eyes and velvety muzzle of the black gelding called Silberstern that he rides, and he likes sitting in the sun with one of the cats living in the stables, Minka, curled up in his lap. (There are no dogs anywhere on the premises, which Sherlock things is a major oversight.) He likes wearing well-fitting clothes. He likes walking for hours.

He keeps a running list in head, adding things to it when he comes across them. The items on it are small, but the effect of knowing about them is incomparable.

Two weeks after leaving London, Sherlock receives an email from the woman he hired to be Rosie’s nanny. She usually emails him the number of hours she worked that week so that he can pay her the rest of her wages. This time, however, she lets him know that she will no longer be working for Dr Watson because he moved to the other side of London and the commute would be too long for her. Sherlock stares at the email, dumbfounded. John moved out of the house he had shared with Mary? But where? Why? He wants to text John to find out for a split second, then reconsiders and nearly contacts Molly or Lestrade or Mrs Hudson to see if they know something, or if all else fails, Mycroft, even though encouraging his brother’s meddling is never advisable and it took a substantial amount of effort to make sure he’d leave John alone (he doesn’t know what happened, but there aren’t many people who could make Sherlock want to leave London). He forces himself not to contact anyone. He’s here because he needs distance from John, that much is clear to him now. He needs to maintain that distance until the time is right. Cold turkey.

He misses him. It’s not a new feeling: he missed him in London too, even when he saw him regularly. He missed their old connection, the comfortable silences, the ease of their companionship. Will they ever be able to have that again, or something approaching it at least after all that has happened? The question weighs on him on sleepless nights, sneaks up on him on quiet moments during the day, and the answer remains elusive.

The most difficult part of his stay comes when he and Dr Schneider finally talk about the event that prompted him to come here (or ‘it’ as Sherlock refers to it in his head). He knows that Dr Schneider has already managed to deduce a lot, he knows there’s no point in lying or hiding, but putting it into words is excruciating. It’s like reliving the whole ordeal all over again, but somehow even worse. Having to verbalise what John did and what Sherlock failed to do in response – stopping him – is worse than any sort of physical torture he endured in Serbia. He doesn’t realise he’s crying until Dr Schneider passes him a box of tissues.

He lies in bed that night thinking about what it looks like in Dr Schneider’s eyes: Sherlock as a helpless victim, John as an aggressor – he knows what word Dr Schneider probably thinks he should use to refer to it, but his mind balks at such an interpretation. Thinking about himself and John in such terms doesn’t seem right at all. John just chose a wrong way to express his entirely justified anger at Sherlock, that’s all there is, it must be.

The question why John chose this particular way remains unanswered, and it’s not one Dr Schneider can help him solve because she doesn’t know John. She can only make the assumption that Sherlock would make in different circumstances, the same deduction he made when one of his Serbian captors threatened to rape him (and fortunately never got the chance): repressed homosexual leanings that can only be expressed when they can be framed as an act of violence. But that interpretation makes no sense with respect to John. His constant protestations of heterosexuality could perhaps be taken as a sign of self-denial, but John has never shown any signs of being attracted to men and definitely not to Sherlock. This explanation simply cannot be true. But then, the only remaining possibility is that John chose to do what he did because he knew it would hurt Sherlock the most and thus be a more effective punishment than a beating. That thought seems excessively cruel, and Sherlock desperately hopes there’s another explanation he hasn’t thought of.

After that, however, he’s surprised to find himself thinking about sex rather often. Not the sex he had (or more precisely, perhaps, the sex was had with him, since it didn’t feel like something that he had any active role in), but in general. What it would be like under normal circumstances. Not with John, of course, that would never happen, but just someone who maybe liked him a little. Or at least someone who wasn’t angry with him at the time and found him passably attractive. He might be inexperienced, but even he knows that sex shouldn’t be about one partner getting off while the other struggles not to scream in pain, and he’s starting to feel he might like to find out what the real thing is like. It’s strange to find himself curious about it when he hasn’t been for most of his life. He always considered sex as something that other people did but that didn’t concern him in the slightest. He felt some curiosity in his teens, but he couldn’t imagine letting himself be so vulnerable in front of someone. But now, this concern somehow no longer seems so relevant – there’s little to be alarmed about when the worst has already happened. He never cared that he’d never had sex, but it turns out he does care that he’s only had the most terrible kind of sex he can imagine.

He starts looking at men in new ways, admiring the breadth of their shoulders, the line of their jaw, the curve of their buttocks. One day while he’s boxing in the gym he catches himself looking at the only other man currently present, a muscular Zurich banker with a gambling problem lifting weights a few meters from him, and he realises he’s getting aroused. He runs back to his room in a panic and once there, without actively deciding to do it, he locks himself in the bathroom (a wholly unnecessary precaution, since he doesn’t share the room with anyone), pushes down his shorts and begins touching himself. He strokes himself furiously, thinking of the banker’s sweaty back, his flexing muscles, his soft grunts of exertion. For the first time in his life he masturbates while consciously thinking of another person and his resulting orgasm is explosive, shaking him to the core as he comes all over himself.

He’s quite shocked at himself afterwards, but in an unexpectedly good way. Still, he begins avoiding the gym after that when he knows the banker will be there. It would be exceedingly humiliating to be caught with an erection. Not to mention that the banker is clearly straight and has a wife and two kids at home, and anyway, Sherlock despises bankers.

He doesn’t tell Dr Schneider about his awakening libido even though he has a nagging feeling it would be somehow relevant. It would be absolutely mortifying to talk about it, for one, and he doesn’t want her to ruin it for him. It feels good, even though he doesn’t know yet what he’s going to do about it. It feels good to think he might be able to overwrite his one terrible experience with other, better ones, if he decides to do so.

*

“Why did you feel this occurrence was different from the ones before?”

“This was the only time it happened.”

“The sexual element, yes, but it wasn’t the first time John was violent with you.”

“That wasn’t the same thing! That was justified.”

“So he has the right to hurt you physically, as long as it’s not sexual? If he’d decided to hit you and kick you again instead of forcing you sexually, you’d see that as justified?”

“… Yes.”

“You don’t sound very sure.”

“Because I know what it sounds like! I know what you’re thinking, but it’s not like that! John’s not like that!”

“Isn’t it? Isn’t he?”

*

An abuse victim. That’s what Dr Schneider sees when she looks at him (she’d probably say survivor, but that’s just a question of terminology). He’s a self-hating, lonely man with no concept of self-worth who’s so desperate for any scraps of attention from the man he loves and is pathologically dependent on that he lets himself be abused.

What’s even worse, though, is that if Sherlock is all that, then John, his protector, his moral compass, his conductor of light… is his abuser. How can that be true? Where did they go so wrong? How did the best thing in his life turn into hell?

He finally stumbles into his room and collapses on the bed, shaking uncontrollably. He wishes he had never come here, never made this realisation. How is he supposed to live with this?

John has always had a bit of a temper, yes, and he never hesitated too long before punching an opponent, but in all honesty, that was part of what attracted Sherlock to him. But it was never such a dark and twisted thing, and he never turned against Sherlock, until… until Sherlock came back from the dead. John hit him that night on three separate occasions… and even know, Sherlock thinks he probably deserved that after what he’d done to John. Then the Culverton Smith case… where John was certainly right to stop Sherlock and perhaps slap some sense into him, but Smith’s people had to pull John away from him, and why on earth did Sherlock think that was all right when an actual serial killer thought it was going too far? If no one had stopped him, how long would John have gone on kicking Sherlock? And the last time… John used oil as a lubricant and prepared him a little, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but the penetration was brutal, and Sherlock can see now he was lucky that he got away with no worse after-effects than a few painful bowel movements. And throughout all of that, Sherlock did nothing. He was, in some messed-up way, grateful, because he felt he was making things up to John somehow.

Taken all together, it’s just a few instances with relatively long periods of time between them, much less than what many people go through… but it’s enough to form a dark, terrifying, escalating pattern. If he goes back home, sees John again, will he fall back in?

That night, Sherlock dreams he’s tied up in a dungeon in Serbia, moaning in pain as a whip falls onto his raw back again and again while another man’s combat boots repeatedly hit his ribs and stomach. When he looks up at his torturer, he sees he has John’s face.

He barely makes it through the following day. His session with Dr Schneider helps and so does a run and spending an hour petting Minka, but none of it stops him from feeling absolutely terrible and even more lost than when he first came here. He has an appointment in the late afternoon with a hairdresser who comes in twice a week to cater to Haus Talblick residents, and he wants to cancel and curl up in bed instead or maybe lock himself in the music room with his violin, but in the end he makes himself go through it because his hair is starting to get really overgrown, for one, and he doesn’t want to succumb to the despair.

The hairdresser’s name tag says he’s called Florian, and he’s obviously gay. If the way he dresses didn’t give him away, it would be more than clear from the way his gaze sweeps over Sherlock with evident appreciation as he says, “Mr Siegerson, please come in and make yourself comfortable.”

Sherlock nearly trips over his own feet on before he manages to sit down in front of the mirror. Here’s a man who finds him attractive – it shakes Sherlock to the core. He’s aware he’s attractive to some people, of course, and he has used the fact to his advantage numerous times. But this is the first time he’s detected admiration in someone’s eyes at a time when could be receptive to the attention, and he’s been feeling so awful lately that just the thought he’s somehow managed to elicit any sort of positive feeling in someone is like a balm. And while he knows how to flirt for a case, to extract information, to obtain a favour, he finds he has no idea how two strangers who like the look of each other might actually progress from there. He sits down in the chair, his pulse hammering.

Florian gets to work and Sherlock watches him in the mirror, deducing what he can. He’s not exactly Sherlock’s type, but he’s good-looking, with regular facial features and the physique of someone who works for it. Short brown hair in an artfully messy do that probably takes ages to achieve, sparkling blue eyes (Sherlock is partial to blue eyes, although Florian’s shade is a bit too light for his taste) and an easy smile. He speaks nearly perfect English with an American accent and has clearly spent several years in California, where he intended to settle down before he had to return to Switzerland to care for a sick relative (probably his mother). He’s not currently in a relationship and isn't interested in one, preferring hook-ups and short-term flings. A small alpine town is probably not particularly suitable for this kind of lifestyle, but Sherlock supposes Meiringen gets enough skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer to provide a frequently changing dating pool. And in between seasons, well, there are always the Haus Talblick residents.

“Your hair is absolutely lovely,” Florian effuses as he shampoos Sherlock’s hair. “It’s such a treat to meet a man who takes good care of his hair.”

Sherlock feels a shiver run down his spine. He isn’t even sure it’s flirting and not just run-of-the-mill hairdresser small talk, but it feels so good, and combined with Florian’s fingers on his scalp, it’s heavenly.

“Thank you,” he says. He wants to do something, anything, to make sure this random stranger likes him. “Your English is very good,” he says helplessly, the first things that comes to his mind.

“That’s nice of you to say,” Florian smiles. “I spent six years in Los Angeles, but then I had to come back here.”

“That’s quite a drastic change of scenery. Don’t you miss city life?”

“Sometimes, yeah. But this is where I grew up, and it’s beautiful here. Have you had chance to see any of our famous sights? The Aare Gorge, the Reichenbach Falls?”

“I’ve been meaning to go see the Falls,” Sherlock says. He hesitates slightly, then gathers his courage. “I could use a guide.”

Florian meets his eyes in the mirror with a flicker of surprise. Sherlock holds his gaze, ridiculously nervous, and sees a faint blush rise in his own cheeks. Florian smiles brilliantly.

“I would love to show you around,” he says, and the touch of his fingers changes subtly. Still professional, but with a hint of a caress now, and Sherlock has to stop himself from sighing audibly. This is the kindest touch he’s experienced in… he doesn’t even know how long. And he never minded, he often actively preferred not to be touched, but now… After spending hours lost in thoughts of past pain and cruelty, he finds himself desperate any sort of positive touch. It’s pathetic but he doesn’t care; he’s supposed to look for things that make him happy and this does, this tiny little bit of human warmth is suddenly everything to him.

He doesn’t know how he manages not to embarrass himself terribly, but by the end of his appointment, his hair is cut, he has Florian’s phone number scribbled on a piece of paper in his pocket, and they have a date tomorrow.

They meet the next day after Sherlock’s therapy session, where he most certainly doesn’t tell Dr Schneider anything about it even though he can clearly tell she knows something is up.

They take a funicular that takes them about two thirds up to the falls to breath-taking views of rushing water as well as the valley and the mountain range on the opposite side, and then they hike higher through the forest where fresh green leaves have barely sprouted. Florian chatters throughout, the sort of constant stream of words that Sherlock usually despises, but he doesn’t really mind today. He’s glad he doesn’t have to contribute much to the conversation – it’s never been his forte, and even less now when he barely knows who he is. He enjoys Florian’s easy smiles, his occasional touches – a hand on Sherlock’s back or elbow as they cross over treacherous terrain, unnecessary but so welcome.

From the top of the falls they walk down the other side to a narrow ledge that leads them close to the thunderous stream of falling water, tiny droplets hitting their faces when the wind blows their way. Sherlock looks over the railing and down the dizzying depth of the chasm. The endlessly moving but unchanging torrent together with the way the roar of water blocks out any other sounds create an illusion of a moment frozen out of time. Sherlock feels like he could stay here forever, in this strange sort of turbulent calm, and the rest of the world would stand still, that he could stand here until he felt like himself again, until he could face his life again… or until he decided to climb over the railing and jump.

He doesn’t know how long he stands there in a sort of trance, but eventually he shakes himself out of it.

“It’s beautiful,” he says. It takes him two attempts to get the words out.

“Yes,” Florian agrees, but when Sherlock turns his head to him he’s not looking at the falls or the view of the valley, but at Sherlock. He cups Sherlock’s cheek in one hand and Sherlock grips the railing tighter, afraid his knees might buckle at the tenderness of such a simple gesture.

“Beautiful,” Florian repeats, and then he leans in and kisses him.

It’s just a soft, brief press of lips, a question more than anything else.

“I wanted to do that from the moment I first saw you,” Florian says, his thumb stroking over Sherlock’s cheekbone.

“Me too,” Sherlock breathes even though it’s not strictly speaking true: the truth is that he’s wanted Florian from the moment he realised Florian wanted him, but that doesn’t sound like something he should say out loud. Florian smiles and kisses him again.

It’s nothing like the forceful way John mashed their mouths together. Florian’s lips are soft and yielding, his tongue dipping inside Sherlock’s mouth like a caress. Sherlock steps closer into Florian’s warmth, pressing their chests together, and Florian wraps him in his arms and oh, Sherlock nearly moans with how good it feels simply to be held and kissed and wanted.

They break apart when they’re interrupted by an arriving group of tourists and they make their way back to the top station of the funicular, with frequent stops for more kissing. Every square inch of Sherlock’s skin seems to be screaming to be touched and he’s almost light-headed with it - he didn’t know he could feel this sort of hunger for someone he barely even knows. He doesn’t think about anything besides his sudden overwhelming need for closeness until they get back to Haus Talblick, when the reality of what they’re about to do once they sneak to his room hits him. His hands shake as he struggles to unlock his door.

“Hey,” Florian says softly when Sherlock drops his key card. “I don’t have to go in if you don’t want me to. I had a great time today, but it’s fine if you don’t want anything more.”

Embarrassed that his nervousness is so obvious, Sherlock struggles to look Florian in the eye, but once he does he makes up his mind. Florian’s face is incredibly easy to read: there’s want and arousal there, but also sincerity and simple, unstudied kindness. Everything indicates that he will be a generous, caring lover.

“I do want more,” Sherlock says firmly and slots the key card into the lock.

Once the door falls shut behind them and they drop their backpacks on the floor, it’s really not that difficult. They come together easily, drawn into each other’s arms by an ancient, irresistible pull, kissing and stroking. Sherlock forgets everything else and lets himself be driven entirely by the need to touch and be touched, relinquishing control to his transport.

There’s a brief twinge of panic when Florian squeezes his buttocks.

“I don’t want penetration,” Sherlock blurts out before he has time to think about his rather clinical word choice, needing, suddenly, to make that absolutely clear.

“Okay,” Florian says easily and moves his lips to Sherlock’s neck, licking at his pulse point.

“And - I don’t want to take off my shirt.” He’d rather not have to explain the scars on his back, and they are hardly a turn-on. This request seems to give Florian pause, but then he just shrugs.

“Okay,” he says again. “Whatever you want. You don’t mind if I take off mine, do you?” he adds with a cheeky grin and pulls his t-shirt over his head, showing off his hairless, toned chest. Sherlock runs his hands down Florian’s smooth pectorals and he suddenly feels profoundly, viscerally gay. It’s such an absurd feeling it almost makes him want to laugh, because he’s known forever, he can hardly remember a time when he didn’t know, but it turns out there’s a difference between abstract knowing and the very concrete experience of having a hot, half-naked man in his bedroom. Desire surges in him, different from the simple need to touch he’s felt until now, and he kisses Florian hungrily.

There’s an awkward moment when they struggle with taking off their hiking boots, which breaks the mood a bit, but otherwise it’s easy. Slightly fumbly and uncertain on Sherlock’s part, but Florian takes his hesitations in stride and Sherlock leans into all of his touches, uncaring if he looks too eager: he’ll take all that he can get. They fall on the bed in a tangle of limbs, sighing and gasping as they rock together, and it feels so much better than Sherlock could ever have expected.

“Lube?” Florian asks breathily as his erection slides next to Sherlock’s, and it takes Sherlock a moment to muster enough brainpower to parse out what Florian means.

“Uh, I have a hand lotion?” he says, feeling himself blush at what must be an obvious giveaway of his inexperience.

Florian smiles. “Okay, hang on.” He extricates himself from Sherlock’s arms and bends down from the bed to rummage through his own trousers, giving Sherlock an unimpeded view of his… well, arse. They’re in bed about to have sex, he thinks he should probably call it an arse.

“Like what you see, you gorgeous thing?” Florian smirks when he catches Sherlock looking and crawls back to Sherlock, a small foil sachet of lubricant in his hand. Sherlock flushes hotly and nods.

Florian tears the sachet open with his teeth and squirts lube on his fingers. He takes them both in his hand then it’s all just delicious slick friction, and Sherlock moans into Florian’s mouth as they kiss messily and heat pools in his stomach. It takes an embarrassingly short time before he’s coming with a strangled cry, clinging to Florian’s shoulders.

As the physical pleasure ebbs away, though, Sherlock is hit with the vast difference between this and his encounter with John. Here he is with a man he met yesterday, but he’s had a lovely, intimate experience with someone who’s only been gentle and kind with him even though there’s nothing but superficial physical attraction between them. But John, on the other hand, the person Sherlock loves more than anything in this world and who called Sherlock his best friend not so long ago… Was he lying when he said that? He must have been, otherwise he wouldn’t have treated Sherlock like trash.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Florian asks with a small frown. Sherlock’s feelings must be showing on his face. “Are you all right?”

“Sorry, I’m fine,” Sherlock mumbles and tries to plaster a smile on his face. He doesn’t want Florian to feel bad or think he’s done something wrong when he’s been so good to Sherlock.

Florian watches Sherlock carefully and Sherlock ducks his head, simultaneously wanting to hide and desperate not to be left alone. Florian shifts a little and opens his arms.

“Come here,” he whispers, and Sherlock goes willingly, lets himself be wrapped up in a hug. “Someone hurt you, didn’t they,” Florian says softly and it’s not really a question. “I’m so sorry. But it’s okay now. You’re okay.”

It’s not true: Sherlock isn’t okay. If he were, he wouldn't be lying in a stranger’s arms, lapping up every bit of kindness thrown his way. But even the meaningless words are soothing when spoken in Florian’s gentle tone of voice and coupled with his fingers carding through Sherlock’s hair, and Sherlock lets himself find comfort in it.

*

They see each other four more times before it’s time for Sherlock to leave. It’s just about sex, pleasuring each other with their hands and mouths, but Florian always finds a few extra moments afterwards to give Sherlock a little cuddle, even though it’s obviously not something he usually does with his conquests, and Sherlock is inexpressibly grateful for it. Who knew that a bit of affectionate skin-on-skin contact could be so valuable to him?

Dr Schneider is not as disapproving as Sherlock expected her to be when he finally admits it to her, but she warns him that he’s “emotionally vulnerable” and that she wouldn’t recommend starting a new relationship so early in his sobriety. In this case, though, Sherlock doesn’t care at all what she thinks or believes. It makes him feel better and it’s not drugs – that’s all he cares about. It’s good to feel that he can have a little physical affection, that he’s deserving of it, even if it’s just in the context of no-strings-attached sex with someone who doesn’t even know his real name. It’s better than nothing – and it’s definitely better than getting beaten up by his best friend.

He isn’t even sure anymore if that’s what John is to him. His feelings are so muddled now, he’s angry and hurt and betrayed but he doesn’t really love John any less; the only thing he’s certain about is that he’s not ready to see him right now. The idea of completely cutting John out of his life is unthinkable, but he’s not at all sure he would be able to stand up to him if John hit him again. He’s painfully homesick, but he can’t go home until he’s certain what to do about John. His sobriety is tangled up with his relationship to John, his happiness depends on John’s, his work holds no appeal anymore if he can’t share it with John. He has to extricate himself somehow from this all-encompassing web of John John John, find his own footing, and only then can he go home and maybe find a way to repair their friendship, if it’s repairable… or end it for good if it’s not.



Chapter Text

Sherlock sits at a small table outside a café, sipping his coffee and listening to the city bustle around him. Back in the Swiss Alps, he thought he missed being in a city, missed England, but now he’s in Bristol and it turns out that wasn’t it at all – he just misses home. Being in an English city doesn’t help when it’s not London, it really only makes things worse by being too similar and not similar enough, so he’s already made plans to relocate to the country. For now, though, it’s good to be here – the only reason he picked Bristol out of all the places he could have gone is because he knew Molly was scheduled to attend a conference there. If he can’t go home (and he can’t), then he can at least see a friendly face. And when he does see her, walking towards him, scanning the tables for him, it creates a strange, almost painful feeling in Sherlock’s chest. A friend. He does have those, despite everything.

“Sherlock?” she says when she spots him. “It is you! I barely recognised you!”

Sherlock lifts a hand to the back of his head, touching his short hair self-consciously. He had Florian cut it short and dye it a rich auburn before he left Switzerland. People don’t usually recognise him in the street, but he doesn’t want to risk it, not now. Anyone who knows who he is also knows who John is, and he’d rather avoid any questions. He’ll stick to the Scott Siegerson alias for now.

“Molly,” Sherlock stands up. “It’s – good to see you,” he says awkwardly. He usually has no understanding for these pointless polite phrases, but this time it’s so true it hurts. He almost wants to hug her.

“You too,” Molly says, evidently a bit taken by surprise. “Um, what’s with the hair? Are you undercover?”

“In a way,” Sherlock says evasively, and Molly, bless her, doesn’t press for details.

“You look good. I mean – not that you don’t usually – I just – I mean you look healthy. Better than the last time I saw you,” Molly stammers, blushing a little. She looks at him inquisitively, clearly willing him to tell her more about how he spent the last six weeks.

“Oh, you know, fresh mountain air and all that. It does wonders for the constitution. By the way, I see that Lestrade finally made his move.” Sherlock deflects, trying to shift the attention away from himself. It was his idea to meet her here, but he realises now he doesn’t particularly want – or know how – to talk to her. They don’t usually do this kind of thing.

“Oh, um.” Molly blushes harder, looking down at her hands. “Yes. Well, no. I made my move, actually.” She looks up at him, smiling shyly. “It’s only been two weeks, but. It’s good.”

“I’m glad,” Sherlock says, and once again he’s surprised how true it is. Maybe he can admit to himself now, after everything that’s happened, that he likes to see people happy – perhaps all the more because he himself isn’t. “I’m sure you’ll be disgustingly saccharine together, but you deserve to be happy. You both do.”

“Thank you,” she smiles in a way that makes her look very pretty, but she sobers up quickly and Sherlock steels himself for the inevitable. “But, Sherlock. You don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to but you know I have to ask. What’s going on?” she asks gently. “Why did you leave so suddenly? Did something happen between you and John?”

“What makes you think it’s got anything to do with him?”

Molly looks at him as if he had just asked why she thought rain had anything to do with clouds. “He didn’t even know you’d gone. You wrote him a letter.”

Sherlock looks down at his cup of coffee. Why did he imagine he could meet up with Molly and somehow not have to talk about John? But Molly is his friend. She’s John’s friend, too. Maybe she has a right to know. And maybe… Sherlock has a right not to have to do this alone.

He adds another packet of sugar to his coffee to buy himself some time. He could tell her. She’d be on his side, a supportive friend. He craves her kindness, her understanding. But then the image of John in Molly’s mind would be forever tainted. Her image of Sherlock and John’s relationship would be forever tainted. And while Molly isn’t stupid enough to think it’s perfect now, she could hardly have imagined the true depths to which it had sunk. To her, to everyone they know, they are still friends – friends going through a rough patch, maybe, but friends. Breaking that illusion in Molly’s mind feels unbearable – like a final nail in the coffin of the bond he and John once had. He can’t do that. Having people know would make it so much more true. Molly’s no gossip, of course, and she would keep it to herself if he asked her to, but he decided long ago that he’s done burdening Molly with his secrets. He wouldn’t ask her not to tell anyone, and so she would most probably tell Greg, and she wouldn’t hide her knowledge from John, and the reality of their broken relationship would exists outside of the two of them. No.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” he says eventually. “Sorry.”

Something flickers in Molly’s eyes, but she nods. “That’s okay. I just – want you to know I’m here if you change your mind.”

“I know. Thank you,” Sherlock says, certain that he won’t.

They are silent for a moment. Sherlock knows he shouldn’t ask – cold turkey, he’d decided. But he can’t help himself.

“H-how is he?” he asks quietly, unable to say John’s name.

“I don’t know. He disappeared a few days after y-- Not disappeared! Sorry, bad word choice,” Molly corrects herself hastily when Sherlock’s expression turns alarmed. “He just – cut off contact with everyone and moved in with his sister, apparently.”

“What?!” Sherlock can’t imagine anything that would shock him more. “His sister? But they don’t get along.”

“That’s what I thought, too. I don’t know. She seems nice enough, though.”

“You’ve met her?” He’s never met Harry, but Molly has?

“A few times, but only briefly. He – I still get to see Rosie, you know. I think John didn’t want to cut her from people she’s used to, but it’s never him who brings her, always Harry, and she never tells me anything about him. Just that he ‘needs time’, which could mean anything.” She looks faintly apologetic, as if John’s secretiveness was somehow her fault.

Sherlock can’t fathom what it means. Why would John want to live with Harry, of all people? He wasn’t willing to go to her when he was fresh out of Afghanistan, but now he is? Why? And apparently he left shortly after Sherlock did – was it for the same reason? Did he want to get away from Sherlock too? But why cut contact with Molly, too? Does he want to distance himself from Sherlock so much that he doesn’t want them to have any friends in common? … Or is he ashamed? Sherlock wonders for the umpteenth time what John’s feelings are about what happened between them, but Molly’s news don’t really help him find the answer.

He sees Molly’s hand twitch and still, then twitch again – obviously wanting to reach out to him, touch his hand perhaps, as a gesture of comfort, but not daring. Sherlock’s heart squeezes painfully, and he realises that he wants her to touch him, wants to be the sort of person who’s able receive physical affection from a friend. He swallows audibly. He considers Molly one of his dearest friends, but they’ve mostly just worked together, they don’t really… do things that friends do. What do friends do?

“Do you want to go to a gay bar with me?” he blurts out.

Molly nearly spits out her latte at the sudden change of topic. “What?”

Sherlock shrugs, trying to act nonchalant. “It’s my understanding that many women like frequenting gay bars because it allows them to have fun free of unwanted male attention.”

Molly blinks at him. “But – since when do you go to bars?”

Since now, really. Sherlock decided on the plane from Switzerland that since he was going to spend a few days in a city, he might as well use the opportunities it offers. He enjoyed the time he spent with Florian and he was a bit sorry to leave, even though he knew their relation wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway.  But sex is good, he’s discovered. Closeness, being called amazing, being held, orgasms, the sated lassitude afterwards. The illusion of not being alone. He wants more of it, and where would be a better place to look for it?

“There’s a first time for everything,” he says, feeling his cheeks heat – he just had a vaguely sex-related thought it front of a friend, and that’s such a novel thing he isn’t quite sure how to deal with it.

“... Evidently,” Molly says slowly, still staring at him. “But I’m so sorry, I have an early shift tomorrow so I really need to get back to London at a reasonable time.”

Sherlock is simultaneously disappointed and relieved – it would be nice not to have to go alone, he supposes, but on the other hand, there’s a good chance he would be way too embarrassed to attempt to flirt with anyone in front of Molly.

“We could go shopping, though,” Molly offers a little sheepishly.

“Shopping!?” Sherlock would rather listen to one of Molly’s rambling monologues about her cat.

“Yes,” Molly says, eyeing Sherlock’s suit critically. “I mean, what are you going to wear?”

*

Sherlock hates shopping with the masses for high-street fashion, and it is clearly not Molly’s favourite pastime either. But it is a thing that friends do together, and in the end it’s not so bad and Sherlock ends up rather enjoying himself. It’s like preparing for an undercover mission – Scott Siegerson, out-and-proud gay man on the pull, confident and experienced and comfortable in his own body. Definitely not someone who’s vaguely terrified at the prospect of going to a club with the express purpose of finding a partner for casual sex.

He chooses fitted jeans that flatter his arse and thighs and a tight short-sleeved t-shirt and Molly shows him how to apply eyeliner. (Sherlock is a bit surprised she knows how to do that at all, he’s never seen her wear much of anything besides unfortunate lipstick, but then, he’s never given that much thought to what she gets up to outside of the lab. Maybe he should change that.) He walks her to the train station afterwards and there, standing on the platform, he decides there’s no reason why he shouldn’t hug her.

“Oh,” Molly exhales in surprise, but she hugs back without hesitation, pulling him close to her. Sherlock breathes in her citrusy shampoo and refuses to feel awkward. He can have this. Maybe he can’t have John, but he can have this. One day sooner or later he’ll feel ready go back to London and his work and his friends will be waiting for him. He has good things in his life, despite how bleak it’s looked lately.

“Take care of yourself,” Molly tells him when they break apart, Sherlock blinking back moisture that seems to have gathered in his eyes.

“I will,” Sherlock promises, and means it.

*

He’s nervous when he gets to the club, but he’s confident enough in his acting abilities to know it doesn’t show on Scott Siegerson’s face. The club is loud and hot and uncomfortable, all flashing lights and pounding music (if ‘music’ is even an applicable term), but the actual… seduction, or whatever it is he’s doing, turns out not to be that difficult. He attracts attention despite the fact that the club seems to mostly cater to a younger crowd and Sherlock is definitely closer to the high end of the age bracket. He can feel eyes on him as he moves around and his heart beats hard and fast with a heady mixture of anxiety and excitement. He surveys the men from under his lashes, gauging his options. He’s attracted to self-confidence, he realises, men who unabashedly let their gaze trail over his body, men who aren’t afraid to approach him. It’s attractive but also somewhat intimidating, because this is really not his area of expertise and he’s not able to deduce with any certainty that they won’t be too confident about getting what they want, if what they want happens to be penetration. And so he finds himself drawn to a young guy who lowers his gaze when Sherlock catches him looking, but a moment later his eyes are back on Sherlock as if drawn by a magnet. He’s shorter than Sherlock but not as short as… never mind, slim and muscular, with meticulous grooming habits and well-fitting clothes. Clearly a PhD student in a humanities field, a regular, living close enough to have walked here. His eyes crinkle when he smiles. He’ll do.

Sherlock buys him a drink. They talk a bit, dance a bit, and the alcohol and endorphins from the dancing strip away Sherlock’s nerves and before he knows it they’re kissing and grinding against each other, the other man’s fingers tangling in Sherlock’s short hair, Sherlock’s hands on his buttocks, and it’s a bit overwhelming in how quickly it happened but it’s also exactly what Sherlock wanted. No useless dilly-dallying, but straight to the point.

“My place’s just two streets away,” the guy – Terry – breathes into Sherlock’s mouth, and Sherlock nods.

*

They fall inside the flat, stumbling over pairs of shoes lying haphazardly on the floor next to the shoe rack, some of them too large to be Terry’s. Male flatmate, straight, office worker, footballer.

“Is someone home?” Sherlock whispers against Terry’s lips. He’s not particularly interested in someone walking in on them – these are uncharted waters as it is. Terry shakes his head.

“Flatmate’s at his girlfriend’s,” he says, and is that just Sherlock projecting his own feelings about flatmates having girlfriends, or is there a hint of irritation and disappointment in his voice? “No need to worry about making me scream.”

“That’s not a particularly wise thing to say to a complete stranger you’ve brought to your home,” Sherlock points out as Terry pulls him to his bedroom, kicking the door shut behind them.

Terry makes a questioning noise as if he has no idea what Sherlock means, but on reflection, Sherlock decides it would probably kill the mood if he said that he could well be a serial killer for all Terry knows, and Sherlock would hate to do that because Terry’s mouth on his pulse point right now feels rather amazing. He grabs two handfuls of Terry’s arse and pulls their hips together gasping at the contact. God, this feels good. Why didn’t he start having sex sooner? He’s wasted years.

“Are you a screamer, then?” he pants, rocking his hips forward.

“The sooner you get your cock in me, the sooner you’ll find out,” Terry says, cupping Sherlock through his trousers.

Sherlock freezes. He can physically feel his erection flagging. In his focus on avoiding anyone who’d only be interested in putting their penis in him, he’s managed to land squarely in the other end of the pool. He never even considered that this could be wanted of him (stupid, stupid!), he assumed things could be naturally steered towards handjobs or blowjobs, he’s not prepared for this kind of directness.

Terry stops nibbling on Sherlock’s ear and steps back a little to look at him. “What’s wrong? Are you... Did you want to bottom?”

“No,” Sherlock says quickly. “But I. I haven’t actually… done that. Before.”

He feels his cheeks heat and he looks away from Terry’s face in embarrassment, but not before he sees a brief flash of disappointment flicker over his features. Of course he’s disappointed. Sherlock should have realised – Terry picks up older men because he likes having experienced partners, not someone who’s only had sex a handful of times – and never the way Terry apparently prefers.

“Oh. Well. Care to try?” Terry asks.

Sherlock thinks of John’s brutal thrusts and the splitting pain and he can’t imagine wanting to do that to someone. He knows that wasn’t normal, he knows anal sex can be enjoyable for both parties and Terry has clearly had pleasurable experiences, but he can’t help the images of vicious pounding that flash in his mind.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” he says weakly. He should probably go, let Terry go back to the club and find someone better equipped to meet his needs. This is exactly the kind of humiliation he wanted to avoid. What was he thinking?

“You won’t,” Terry says, cupping Sherlock’s face with unexpected gentleness. “We don’t have to do that if you don’t want to, but you won’t hurt me.” He leans in closer, bringing his lips all the way to Sherlock’s ear, and he whispers breathily, “I’m wearing a butt plug.”

Sherlock’s mind goes blank, momentarily unable to comprehend this. He knows about butt plugs, he’s not that innocent about sexual matters, but the idea that there’s one in this room with him right now, inside Terry’s body, that it’s been there the whole time, in the club and all the way here…

“Is that… comfortable?” he asks stupidly and Terry laughs, not unkindly.

“Comfort’s not really the point,” he says. “The point is, you won’t hurt me.” He lets his voice drop back down to a sultry register as his hands roam over Sherlock’s chest, slipping under his shirt. “The point is I like being stretched and filled and I’m open and ready for you, if you want me.”

If Sherlock still held on to the belief that he’s above base human urges, he’d have to abandon that belief now once and for all, because Terry’s words work on him despite his fear. Something male and primal in him responds to the invitation to take and arousal floods his bloodstream.

“Yes,” he says, and mashes his mouth against Terry’s.

Terry’s obviously very sure about what he likes and what he wants from Sherlock, but he still takes care to make sure Sherlock’s comfortable. He complies when Sherlock asks to keep the room as dark as possible, only switching on the lamp on his desk without asking why, and he visibly restrains himself from going too fast, giving Sherlock time to relax. Sherlock watches in fascination as Terry pulls the thick, hot pink plug out of his body, watches him coat two fingers with lube and push them inside his obscenely stretched hole that swallows them greedily, and his heart beats so loud he’s sure Terry must be able to hear it.

Then he’s lying on his back with Terry astride his hips, holding Sherlock’s cock steady with one hand as he positions himself and sinks down on it in one long, smooth movement.

Ahh!” Sherlock cries out as Terry’s inner walls squeeze around him, impossibly hot and tight. “Oh, ohhh.”

“Hmm, yeah,” Terry hums. “Feels so good.” Good isn’t exactly the word Sherlock would use, it’s so vague and bland compared to the intensity of the experience, but he can’t come up with anything more specific, or any words at all, for that matter. He breathes, trying to get himself under control as Terry stays still for a few moments, presumably to get used to the stretch, but perhaps only to give Sherlock time to adjust.

And then Terry begins moving, first in gentle rocks and then increasing his range of motion until he’s lifting himself up fully and sinking back down on Sherlock’s cock with relish. Sherlock can only moan, holding onto Terry’s hips for dear life. Did John feel this incredible, overwhelming level of pleasure when he was---

No, no. Don’t think about that. Don’t think about John. He’s with Terry now. Terry, who’s obviously loving this, bouncing on Sherlock’s cock with his head thrown back, his chest flushed and his hard, swollen cock leaking pearly fluid, wholly unashamed in his pleasure.

“Yeah, that’s it, keep moving,” Terry gasps before Sherlock has noticed that he is moving, tilting his hips to drive his cock deeper inside Terry to get more of that wonderful hot-slick-tight friction. Emboldened by Terry’s obvious enjoyment, Sherlock plants his feet on the mattress and lifts his pelvis up just as Terry is sinking down.

“Fuck, yeah! That’s it, fuck me, ohhh, you feel so good, just fuck me,” Terry pants, and Sherlock does his best to do as he’s told, pistoning his hips up to meet Terry’s downward thrusts. They establish a steady rhythm and it’s perfect, it’s glorious, Sherlock can feel himself getting closer to the edge and that makes him thrust harder and faster, his release looming almost within reach---

And then suddenly Terry stops moving and Sherlock’s not inside him anymore. His cock throbs almost painfully at the sudden loss of stimulation and he can’t help making a noise of displeasure.

“Do you mind if we switch it up a bit? I like it better from behind,” Terry says before giving Sherlock a quick, dirty kiss and repositioning himself on his knees and forearms, his arse in the air, presenting himself to Sherlock like an offering.

Sherlock wants to groan in frustration because he’d been successfully getting lost in the sensations and now his hesitation is back. He kneels on the bed behind Terry and looks down at his hole, slick and open but now it doesn’t seem nearly open enough to accommodate anything thicker than maybe a finger. He knows he’s being ridiculous, he knows the ring of muscle will stretch around his cock like it was moments ago and Terry was obviously enjoying it very much, he wants it, but still Sherlock frozen in place, unable to push in, here in this position where he would have so much more leverage, so much more ability to cause Terry pain.

“Hey,” Terry says softly, making Sherlock look away from his arse and to his face. His eyes are almost black with arousal but soft at the same time. “It’s okay. You’re doing great. Making me feel so good. Just relax.”

Sherlock nods, steeling himself. His body most definitely wants to go back to rutting into tight heat despite his mind’s misgivings and Terry is clearly pretty much gagging for it. He can do this. He adds a bit more lube just for his own peace of mind, then lines up and presses in.

He watches himself disappear between Terry’s firm buttocks, and somehow the sheer erotic charge of that visual combined with the tightness and Terry’s nearly pornographic moan (probably exaggerated for Sherlock’s benefit, but that doesn’t matter) helps him leave the anxious headspace and let his bodily sensations override everything else. He cries out and begins thrusting, trying to angle his hips to target Terry’s prostate as much as possible.

YES!” Terry shouts, making it clear to Sherlock that he’s been successful, and that knowledge narrows his focus down further, intent on pleasuring Terry to the best of his ability. “Oooh, fuck, hnnng! Right there, right there, keep going! Fffffuuuuuuck, oh fuck, more!”

This is how it’s supposed to be, Sherlock thinks or maybe just feels: he’s been given this incredible level of power, he is inside another person who has trusted him with his vulnerability, and he’s using it to give him pleasure, to make him beg for more and meet his thrusts with vigour. It’s heady, almost more arousing than the actual feeling of Terry’s passage squeezing and rubbing him, the knowledge that he’s the one doing this, making someone feel good. John couldn’t have felt anything remotely like this. His cock feels fuller than ever as he thrusts harder, making Terry moan louder. He feels on the brink of orgasm but he does his best to hold on, wanting to let Terry come first – it just seems right that way.

“Fuck, I’m close, don’t stop!” Terry begs, as if Sherlock could possibly have any intention of stopping. “Are you close?”

“Hnnng,” Sherlock says in response, unable to form words. All of his focus is concentrated thrusting and not coming on the spot.

“Yeah, so good, don’t stop! Harder!” Terry moans as he begins impaling himself on Sherlock with even more force and one of his hands flies to his cock. Sherlock does his best to obey but he’s losing his rhythm, his thrusts turning erratic as hot pressure builds deep in his belly. Terry’s cries grow in pitch until suddenly they stop and he freezes in a wordless climax, his muscles squeezing around Sherlock in rhythmic waves and that’s as much as Sherlock can take. He thrusts in one more time and comes, crying out helplessly as his orgasm shudders through him, his cock spurting wetly inside the warm body under him.

Sherlock feels slightly disoriented when he pulls out and Terry collapses on the mattress with a satisfied sigh. He breathes deeply, trying to regain his composure, before he gets up on unsteady legs to dispose of the condom.

“You sure this was your first time?” Terry asks, his voice a bit muffled because his face is buried in the pillow. “Cause that was fantastic.”

Sherlock feels himself flush, equal measure flattered and embarrassed. He’s not sure what he’s supposed to do now. Get dressed and leave? Ask to use Terry’s shower, then get dressed and leave? Or get back in bed? Somehow, he doesn’t think that the post-coital cuddles he enjoyed with Florian are exactly the norm with one-night-stands. But it seems heartless to just walk away from a man who just let him come inside of him.

Terry stretches languorously, then reaches for a tissue from a box on his bedside table and uses it to wipe perfunctorily at the mess on his stomach, before carelessly tossing the crumpled tissue on the floor. Sherlock scrunches up his nose in distaste but forces himself not to comment.

“Want one?” Terry asks, offering Sherlock a half-full box of cigarettes. Sherlock hesitates – he shouldn’t, he told himself he’d stop smoking too, but this is a clear invitation for him not to leave just yet. He takes a cigarette and gratefully slides back in bed next to Terry, leaning against the headboard.

He doesn’t know what to say, but Terry doesn’t particularly seem to want to talk, so that’s all right. They smoke in silence, tapping off ash into a chipped cup, and it’s not a cuddle but it’s not bad. Their upper arms touch as they sit next to each other, Sherlock feels pleasantly tired and Terry seems relaxed and satisfied next to him, which is a nice confidence boost.

“Feel free to stay the night if you want to,” Terry says when he stubs out his cigarette. “As long as you don’t snore and don’t mind risking running into my flatmate in the morning.”

Ah. Of course. Sherlock’s first hunch was right:  it’s clear as day now that Terry wants him to stay the night and then run into his flatmate in the morning. To show the flatmate that Terry has a sex life too, to try and make him jealous, or perhaps just to make Terry feel better.

“Does shagging strangers help?” Sherlock asks instead of responding to Terry’s invitation.

“Hm? Help with what?”

“Your unrequited feelings for your flatmate.”

Terry flinches next to him, then sighs.

“Is it that obvious?”

Sherlock decides to be kind. “No. It – takes one to know one, I suppose.”

“Aw, I’m sorry, man. That sucks. But yeah, I guess it helps a bit. At least I’m less likely to do something stupid just because I’m sexually frustrated, like, non-stop, you know? It’s good to let off steam.”

“Hmm,” Sherlock hums in agreement even though he doesn’t really know. He supposes he’d suppressed his physical needs enough so sexual frustration was never something he felt around John. But now that he’s getting to know this part of himself, he thinks that maybe it would have all been a bit easier if he’d let himself feel it and let it out with someone else. Or maybe not – he’s not sure he’s the right type of person for one night stands. Tonight has been good – very good – and he definitely wants to continue having sex now that he’s discovered he likes it, but sleeping with a different person every time seems unnecessarily exhausting. He liked his arrangement with Florian, brief as it was. He had time to get to know him a little, learn what he likes, and then put that knowledge to practice. What’s the point of knowing exactly how hard Terry likes to be fucked if Sherlock’s never going to fuck him again? Why go through the stress of baring himself in front of someone new every time he wants to let off steam? Could he perhaps instead have a ‘friend with benefits’, as they say? Maybe it would be helpful to know that he’s wanted on a regular basis, albeit in a completely superficial way. Maybe it would make not being wanted by John hurt less, give him more confidence to stand up for himself. Although he may not even have to do that – maybe John’s determined to cut ties with him completely. But in that case, maybe it would be even more welcome to have… someone. It’s a thing to consider, at any rate.

Sherlock doesn’t stay the night. He wouldn’t mind helping Terry make his flatmate jealous, but the idea of literally sleeping with a stranger is too much. And so he excuses himself and returns to his hotel in the dead of night, running an assessment of the gay bar experiment in his head as he walks.

All in all, it was a good experience, but not one he’s anxious to repeat. Clubs aren’t really his thing, he has to put on an act to be there, and he finds he’d rather sleep with people who are attracted to him, not a persona he projects. It’s a superficial kind of appreciation, yes, but he’d like it to be real at least, if this is the best he can get. And he’d like... He winces internally at how pathetic his needs are, but the Dr Schneider that now lives permanently in his mind palace reminds him that he should acknowledge and accept them. He’d like it if his partners were willing to give him a little… non-sexual affection afterwards, the way Florian did, and he supposes this kind of thing isn’t exactly what people go looking for in a gay bar. He’s not naive enough to expect anyone to actually like him, not on any deeper level (and even if they did, it’s not like he would be able to reciprocate), he knows that any hugs or caresses would be just as meaningless as the sex, but… it would mean something to him. Florian’s attentions made him feel good. Why shouldn’t he look for someone who’d be able to provide more of the same? He’s supposed to seek out positive things, after all.

And as for the sex itself… it was very enjoyable in the end, but dampened by Sherlock’s memories of John. How much better would it have been if he hadn’t been terrified of hurting Terry? He wants to try topping again, he determines with certainty, and again and again until the only thing on his mind while he does it is the pleasure he’s feeling and giving his partner. John doesn’t get to take this away from him.

This thought is quickly followed by another one, much more intimidating. Terry clearly enjoyed being penetrated, and Sherlock knows for a fact that many people do too. Would Sherlock be one of them, if John hadn’t made his first experience into an ordeal? Could he still find out? Could he ever be able to let someone do this to him?

He stops in his tracks when he realises there’s an obvious answer to this: he doesn’t have to let anyone do anything to him to find out. He can to that on his own. He can find new ways to touch himself, he can… buy some toys. A butt plug like Terry’s, maybe, though he should probably start with something smaller. He feels self-conscious, thinking about masturbation in the middle of the street even though there’s hardly anyone about, but he also feels himself grin. He can find out if he likes it and if he does, then he can try it with another person. This is what this time away from his life is about, after all: learning about himself and making the most of what makes him happy, however temporarily. He won’t let John deprive him of a possible source of pleasure.

He walks the rest of the way to his hotel with significantly more spring in his step. Once he gets to his room he draws a hot bath and orders room service (hot chips and a cheesecake) – if he has no one to hold him, he’s going to make the most of other sources of comfort. When he gets in bed he very consciously doesn’t pretend that the duvet is someone’s arms holding him close, and instead he thinks about the things he has planned for the near future: the sex toys, a little cottage in the Cotswolds near an animal rescue centre where he hopes to volunteer, a new composition he’d like to start working on. And other things he hasn’t discovered yet. He snuggles deeper into the covers and lets himself feel a little bit hopeful.

 

Chapter Text

“Dear old Abby. I’m so happy for her.”

“Hmm.”

Sherlock takes a sip of his tea, not really listening to what Maggie, the sixty-something owner of the only grocery store/post office/coffee shop in the village, is telling him. Abby is a labrador Sherlock got to know at the nearby animal rescue centre where both he and Maggie volunteer, who just found a new home despite being old and blind in one eye. And Sherlock is happy for her too, she’s the sweetest, friendliest dog he’s ever met and deserves to spend her last years in a loving home, but he has other things on his mind right now.

“I really thought she was there to stay, you know?” Maggie continues. “Poor girl. So few people are willing to take an older dog, it breaks my heart. I get it, of course I do – you get attached and before you know it they’re gone. Not everyone’s ready for that, I get it. But those poor darlings! You could tell how happy Abby was when she realised she was going home with her new family! They seemed like a really nice couple too, I reckon she can have a good few years with them… but you’re not listening to me at all, Scotty, are you?” Before Sherlock can react, her eyes twinkle and she grins at him. “Is there a young man on your mind?”

Sherlock feels himself blush even though she’s not strictly speaking right – the man in question isn’t young, he’s a good ten years older than Sherlock, and Sherlock’s not thinking about him as much as about what particular acts he’d like to engage in with him – which is, all things considered, even more reason to blush, because there’s no way he can tell a kindly lady who’s old enough to be his mother that he’s thinking about the receiving role in anal sex in very explicit detail.

“I… uh…” he stammers, but Maggie just pats his hand and smiles.

“That’s all right, keep your secrets.” She slides another scone on Sherlock’s plate even though he didn’t ask for it.

Sherlock never told her he’s gay, but it doesn’t surprise him that she’s guessed  Her shop is the only place in the village where he can get tea and scones or soup and a sandwich or even just a decent cup of coffee without making it himself (the local pub is only good for chips) so he ends up there quite often, plus they see each other at the shelter too. She’s quite observant, and it’s not like Sherlock’s been trying to hide it – he’s been looking at men quite openly. He’s always looked, of course, it’s what he does, but it’s different now. Before, men were just people and people were just variables. Now, it’s a kind of experiment on himself. He looks at each and every man he meets carefully, assesses his features and observes his own reactions to them. What he likes, what he dislikes, what he finds appealing, what puts him off.

The results have been… well. Unsurprising. He’s clearly got a type. Short but strong. Sandy hair shot with grey. Blue eyes with crow’s feet. Small, capable hands. He wonders what came first: did John Watson arrive into his life as a misguided gift from the gods, a perfect fit for Sherlock’s unknown, deeply buried desires? Or did he sneak into Sherlock’s subconscious and shape this untouched, featureless part of Sherlock? He tries to remember who he’d found attractive before John but he can’t.

He can still appreciate men who don’t fit his particular idea of perfection, however.  He likes a kind smile, a broad chest, a toned bicep. He notices attractive men and handsome men and beautiful men and men who aren’t any of those things but still capture his attention. He looks.

That’s all he does, though – looking. He could approach them, flirt, find out if the first stir of attraction could lead anywhere, but he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t need to. He’s been having semi-regular sex since shortly after he arrived to the village, and he feels no need to search for other partners.

When Sherlock first moved to his quaint little rented cottage, the first thing he noticed was that there were beehives in his closest neighbour’s garden. He was immediately and vividly reminded of childhood summers spent in the Sussex Downs with his beekeeper grandfather, and how he imagined that when he was old, he would do exactly the same – live a little cottage and keep bees. He’d set off for the Cotswolds with the intention pursue things he already knew gave him pleasure, but to also look for new ones, and beekeeping seemed like something that was sure to fit the bill. And so once he had settled in, he asked his neighbour to introduce him to the art of beekeeping.

Robert Davenport is someone Sherlock would be unlikely to find attractive if he passed him in the street. He’s in his early fifties, taller and heavier than Sherlock, with male-pattern baldness that he tries to compensate for with a well-maintained beard. When Sherlock first met him, it never even occurred to him that he could be attracted to him. But then there was affable way he accepted a stranger barging into his house and demanding to be taught about bees, his laughing acceptance of Sherlock’s deductions about his solitary life, his absolute lack of prying into Sherlock’s reasons for being there even though he was clearly curious, his obvious joy at having someone to explain the intricacies of apiology to, the gentle way he treated the bees, his neat and clear explanations, the shy glances he sneaked at Sherlock when he thought Sherlock wouldn’t notice. His broad smile and soft-spoken gentleness that seemed to contrast with his burly frame. As it turned out, he was evidently capable of becoming attracted to someone simply because they were nice to him.

When Sherlock first realised he’d developed feelings of attraction Robert, he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it.  He knew that Robert had an ex-wife and a daughter, but his general interest in men was obvious – a straight man, no matter how open-minded, was unlikely to have half his bookshelf full of romance novels with gay male protagonists. But this wasn’t a gay bar, and Robert’s availability and interest in him was far from being as obvious as Florian’s had been. Sherlock could well be mistaken. Robert certainly looked at him in a particular way, but he made no move, and this wasn’t Sherlock’s area.

“You keep looking at my mouth,” he blurted out one day after several subtle and fruitless attempts to steer the conversation in a direction that would give him a clue whether Robert would be receptive to his advances. He cringed internally at his own directness, but at least it would be out of the way.

Robert startled and blushed and looked at the floor. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable,” he said, clearly misunderstanding Sherlock’s – admittedly idiotic – remark.

“You haven’t. I’m not uncomfortable. Quite the opposite.”

Robert looked at him with a sort of suspicion in his eyes, as if he thought he’d misunderstood, or that Sherlock was trying to make fun of him somehow.

“You…” he started but was clearly at a loss for how to continue.

“I’ve never kissed anyone with a beard,” Sherlock said, meeting Robert’s gaze with determination. “I wonder what it’s like.”

Robert stared at him some more, then took a cautious step forward and cupped Sherlock’s cheek. Sherlock’s heart thumped hard and his breath caught, but that didn’t surprise him at all anymore – he already knew he had ridiculously strong reactions to the simplest gestures of gentleness. And then Robert leaned down and kissed him, and that was it.

(Kissing someone with a beard turned out to be about as scratchy as he’d expected, but he liked it more than he’d thought he would.)

After that, they have settled into a sort of routine. First a beekeeping lesson, then sex. Very, very good sex.  Weeks have passed, and now, in the bright middle of the summer in one of the most picturesque parts of the English countryside, Sherlock finds himself feeling quite good. Content. Very nearly happy. He knows it’s because he’s avoiding thinking about John and what he’s going to do when he gets to London. He still misses John, but he’s discovered it’s possible to miss him without actually thinking about him too much. He can miss the John of old and never spend a second thinking about anything bad that happened later. He knows it’s wrong – he knows he should think about it, he knows he still has things he needs to work through, but it’s so much easier to lock all of it in a dusty corner of his mind palace for later. And actually, why shouldn’t he do that? Why shouldn’t he be allowed a few weeks of peace, free of stress and anxiety about the future? He had barely any opportunity in the last few years to just let go. Maybe he deserves this – live in the moment, not think about the past or the future and instead spend his time helping take care of the animals at the shelter, going for runs, learning about bees, doing yoga in the garden, playing his violin, starting a few experiments on local soil and flora. And sex, both with Robert and on his own.

Despite his generally self-effacing demeanour, Robert has turned out to be confident in bed, and rightly so. He’s a skilled and generous lover, patient with Sherlock’s inexperience and happy to indulge his curiosity. His post-sex hugs are amazing, even if he tends to fall asleep during them. As Sherlock predicted, he finds having a stable partner much more satisfying. He gets more comfortable and confident with each encounter and he finds great satisfaction in learning Robert’s body and being able to give him pleasure. He feels quite secure now about his skills in manual and oral stimulation, and he’s managed overcome his hesitance about topping too. It helps that Robert is big and strong – it seems less likely that Sherlock could hurt him, and gradually he learns to relax and enjoy the moment without any bad memories getting in the way.

There’s just one thing left now. Sherlock said at the beginning that he didn’t want penetration, and Robert has given him no indication that he minds at all, but Sherlock made up his mind very early on, once he was knew what Robert was like in bed: he wants it to happen with Robert because he could hardly find anyone better suited – calm, patient and caring.

He’s been experimenting on his own ever since Bristol, first with his fingers, then a slim beginner’s prostate massager he’s purchased. The beginnings were not bad, strictly speaking, but uncomfortable and made him feel awkward and embarrassed even though he was alone and no one would ever know how long he spent with just the tip of his little finger inside of himself, breathing fast and shallow. He was impatient and annoyed at his inability to just relax and do it, but he forced himself to give himself time, and eventually he got the hang of it and started to really enjoy himself and even progressed to a slightly larger toy. Prostate stimulation feels extremely good, he’s discovered, and even just having something inside of him, the stretch and fullness, is quite pleasurable with sufficient preparation and lubrication. He’s determined to experience it with a partner: normal, good sex, enjoyable for both parties. Or perhaps not even good – it may be awkward and messy and not entirely satisfying, but it will be safe and fully consensual and done out of mutual attraction and desire. He wants that. He deserves that.

One thing that’s both a deterrent and a motivator is the fact that Robert is very well-endowed. More so than John, Sherlock thinks, although he can’t be sure. But he’s fairly certain – he doesn’t think he would have survived something of Robert’s size being shoved inside him so brutally. For some reason, the size feels significant and important – if he can be penetrated by penis larger than John’s and enjoy it, everything will be all right. John will not have broken him, and there will be a chance to make things right again.

That’s what’s on his mind as he sits in Maggie’s shop and nibbles on his third scone. That’s what’s been on his mind for days now. He thinks he’s finally ready, but he’s always chickened out right before telling Robert. He knows it will be fine – they’ve often had fairly vigorous sex and Robert has never been anything but careful and attentive, he’d never do anything to hurt Sherlock.  Still, he’s scared, and when things get heated and they’re naked and Robert’s huge, erect penis is right there, it’s easier to just not say anything and do something else instead. But he doesn’t think he’ll ever stop being scared – he’s as ready as he’ll ever be. He’ll just have to work through it.

Making a decision, he finishes his tea, says goodbye to Maggie and goes home where he takes a very, very thorough shower and then he marches over to Robert’s before he can lose his nerve.

He knocks but doesn’t wait for Robert to open the door, he barges in, finds Robert drying dishes in the small kitchen.

“Scott, wh--”

“I want you to fuck me,” Sherlock interrupts him, forcing the words out. Crude, but needs must. If he didn’t say it immediately, he’d chicken out again.

Robert’s eyes widen in surprise. “Sorry, what?”

“You heard me.” Sherlock’s not going to repeat it, it was hard enough to say it once. He’s still not used to this sort of vocabulary, and definitely not out of the bedroom.

Robert puts the mug and tea towel he’s holding carefully on the counter. “You said you didn’t want that.”

“I’ve changed my mind.”

Robert steps closer, frowning a little as he searches Sherlock’s face. “But you know we don’t have to do that. I don’t care if we never do that.”

“I know. I want it.”

“Now?”

“Not necessarily, but it would be preferable.” Best if he doesn’t have time to panic.

Robert looks at Sherlock for a long time. He doesn’t know about John, he doesn’t know what happened, he probably just thinks that this would be Sherlock’s first time, but he’ll be able to tell it’s very important to Sherlock. He holds Sherlock’s gaze and nods seriously. “Okay.”

Sherlock’s heart seems to be beating all the way up in his throat when Robert takes his hand and leads him upstairs. He wills himself to relax as much as possible, to trust Robert to take care of him – it’s what Robert does. He lets Sherlock be in charge when he wants to be, but otherwise he’s happy to take control. Sherlock lets himself melt into Robert’s kisses and caresses as they undress each other, a familiar dance by now.

“You know we can stop at any time,” Robert tells him when they’re both naked and Sherlock’s lying on his back with his legs spread, waiting. He nods. He’s still scared, but in a weird way he simultaneously isn’t.

It’s like what he’s done on his own many times and at the same time completely different when Robert begins opening him up with gentle fingers. It’s wonderfully thrilling not to know exactly where Robert’s fingers are going to press next, how hard, how deep. Then Robert swallows him to the root and Sherlock loses himself in the sensations, and it’s only because he’s so keyed up that he doesn’t come just from that unexpectedly wonderful mix of stimuli.

When Robert withdraws his fingers Sherlock almost groans at the loss even as his nerves comes back full force – it’s clear what the next step is now. But he’s wrong, because the next thing he knows, Robert’s holding a prostate massager in his hand, slightly bigger than the one Sherlock owns.

“Is that okay?” he asks softly, stroking Sherlock’s thigh. “I’ll put a condom on it.”

Sherlock nods. The toy’s longer than Robert’s fingers and thicker than what Sherlock’s used to, it’s a good medium step and of course Robert thought of it. Sherlock feels an absurd need to thank him for being so considerate, but he stops himself just in time. That would be embarrassing.

The toy slides in easily enough but Sherlock still gasps when it breaches him, noticeably more substantial than anything he’s tried on his own. Robert soothes him with gentle touches, giving him time to adjust, before he settles on his side next to Sherlock and slips a hand down between Sherlock’s legs to begin moving the toy in smooth, careful strokes.

It’s the exact same thing that Sherlock had done to himself many times and yet it feels so different. How can it be so different when the only thing that isn’t the same is the hand holding the base of the toy? He turns his head to the side and kisses Robert, needy and messy, as his body adapts and responds to the gentle movements inside him. He’s learned to appreciate the vulnerability of sex, but this is something else, something more, his body opening to another. Sherlock whimpers into the kiss when Robert finds the perfect angle to stimulate his prostate just right, but a moment’s later that’s no longer a sufficient outlet and he has to break the kiss and throw his head back in a loud moan.

“Like that? Does that feel good?” Robert asks, even though the answer must be obvious.

“Yes...” Sherlock gasps as he tries experimentally to tilt his pelvis. “Oh! Yes.”

The pleasure feels like honey, flowing slow and thick and golden. Sherlock’s cock is flush against his belly and oozing precome but he feels no sense of urgency, no need to chasae his release. He could stay like this for hours, just lie here and let Robert kiss all over his mouth and face and neck and chest while he slides the toy in and out of Sherlock in a sensual rhythm. And maybe he’ll do that one day, ask Robert to pleasure him slowly and gently just to see how long Sherlock can last. But not today.

“Robert, stop,” he asks even though he doesn’t want this to end. “I’m ready now.”

Robert stills the movement of his hand but doesn’t pull the toy out.

“You sure? We could just do this today, you know. There’s no rush.”

“I know. I want it. I want you,” Sherlock says firmly, and means it more than he thought possible, more than could ever have imagined wanting someone who isn’t John.

He feels strangely empty when Robert pulls the toy out, and the prospect of being filled again is as appealing as it is terrifying. He eyes Robert’s cock, flushed and hard and huge in its nest of greying curls, and gulps.

“Do you want to be on your hands and knees? I think that’s easiest,” Robert suggests, stroking Sherlock’s hip in a soothing manner.

“No,” Sherlock says immediately, and perhaps with a bit too much firmness. One thing he’s certain about is that he doesn’t want to have his back to Robert. His scars are not much of a turn on, for one. Robert has seen them, of course, Sherlock could hardly have kept them hidden for so long, but that doesn’t mean he particularly likes him looking at them. And aside from that… having his partner behind him would probably be a bit too much for the first time.

“I’d rather stay like this, if that’s okay,” he says, spreading his legs wider. He knows there are positions that would give him more control, but he doesn’t want control. He needs not to have it.

“Whatever you need.” Robert places a pillow to Sherlock’s hips, adds more lube to Sherlock’s hole, slicks his sheathed cock.

“Tell me if you want to stop or – anything.”

Sherlock nods, too nervous now in the last few seconds to speak. He reaches for Robert’s shoulders as he braces himself above Sherlock, and holds on.

Sherlock only realises that he’s still expecting searing pain when it doesn’t come. It hurts, but so much less than what he’s been bracing himself against, more pressure and stretch and discomfort than full-on pain. He’s been prepared so carefully and there’s plenty of lube and Robert moves at a glacial pace, waiting for Sherlock’ body to yield to him rather than forcing his way in – it’s honestly almost underwhelming in how okay it is. He assumed he’d have to endure this part, suffer through it before he could start enjoying it, but it turns out there’s nothing to be endured. It’s not pleasurable or even just comfortable and he’s lost his erection, but that’s no different from the first few times he tried pushing his little finger in. It’s fine. He’s fine.

“All right?” Robert asks when he’s an inch in or halfway in or fully in – it’s impossible to judge.

“Yes,” Sherlock breathes, and then his tongue moves of its own accord and this time he doesn’t manage to stop it in time: “Thank you.” He cringes immediately and closes his eyes to avoid seeing Robert’s reaction, because what a stupid thing to say at this moment, no matter how much he means it.

Robert’s not someone who enjoys making other people embarrassed, so he says nothing, just kisses Sherlock very gently and pushes in a little deeper. Then there’s a long moment where they stay still and quiet, just breathing, being, waiting for Sherlock’s body to relax around the intrusion, for the incredible fullness to subside and melt into a need for more.

When Robert begins moving, it’s not fucking. It’s not thrusting or taking, it’s just minute rocks of his hips that must be barely perceptible from the outside, but inside – oh, inside. It’s everything Sherlock didn’t know he needed. He pulls his knees closer to his chest, allowing Robert to sink in at the exact angle he needs. He sighs and gasps, feeling Robert’s tiny movements everywhere, each careful slide of his cock a caress for Sherlock’s prostate, a gentle wave lapping at the shore. It’s so good. He knows it could be better than good, he can already feel the potential for this restrained softness to bloom into something mind-blowingly incredible, but now’s not the time. For now, this subdued, careful back-and-forth is all that he can take.

He slips a hand between their bodies, finding himself back to full hardness.

“Yes, that’s it, touch yourself, make yourself feel good,” Robert encourages him, his voice strained with the effort of keeping his movements in check. He can’t be too comfortable, but Sherlock will make it up to him later. For now, he wraps his fingers around his straining cock and begins stroking himself with long, firm pulls, his back arching at the increase in pleasure, the dual stimulation pushing long, shuddering gasps out of his lungs.

“Robert, oh…I’m…” he sighs helplessly when the molten heat begins to tighten around the base of his cock and the heavy weight of his balls, the jerky motions of his hand falling out of sync with Robert’s continued slow, measured rocks.

Yes, come now, you’re so good, let me feel you come now,” Robert urges him, pushing his forward a tiny degree harder, and Sherlock does. Like everything that came before, his orgasm is a slowly rising tide rather than a crashing wave, filling his entire body as it clenches around Robert, arching and quivering. It’s less intense that what he’s used to but longer and deeper, and when it finally ebbs away he sags into the pillows in heavy-limbed satisfaction.

Robert pulls out of him carefully, still rock hard. Of course he is – holding himself up on his forearms while barely moving couldn’t have been doing much for him, no matter how intense it felt to Sherlock. He disposes of the condom and ignores his erection in favour of checking on Sherlock, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead.

“Was that okay? You’re not hurt?”

“I’m fine. It was lovely,” Sherlock tells him honestly and leans in for a deep, lingering kiss, enjoying the scratch-tickle-burn of Robert’s beard. He feels good, in a quiet, understated sort of way, and very ready for his post-coital cuddle, but not yet. “What can I do for you?”

“You don’t have--” Robert begins, but cuts himself off when Sherlock rolls his eyes at him. Now that the challenge is successfully behind him, he’s much less willing to be coddled. He finds a new condom and slides between Robert’s legs, taking as much of him as he can into his mouth. He feels too uncoordinated for any of the fancier tricks he’s learned, but Robert likes it messy and sloppy just as well, so that’s all right. Afterwards, he lets Robert pull him into one of his wonderful hugs and he relaxes into the warmth of him as Robert nods off.

He lies there for some time, just listening to the rhythm of Robert’s breathing, before he extricates himself from the embrace and begins to put his clothes back on. When they first started sleeping together, Sherlock thought that leaving while Robert was asleep would be terribly rude, but there was really no knowing whether Robert’s post-sex nap would last fifteen minutes or three hours and it could get really boring, so eventually he stopped worrying about it and just left when he felt like it. He feels strangely out of place when he gets back to his cottage, moving from room to room without purpose. He steps under the shower and stands there until the water runs cold. He makes tea on autopilot and doesn’t drink it. Eventually he takes his violin and plays until it gets too dark to see the sheet musing and then he plays from memory without turning on the lights until the early hours, not noticing the pain in his arms and fingers. He sleeps without dreams.

*

Working at the rescue centre isn’t always easy or fun or glamorous. Sometimes it’s cleaning kennels and wiping away cat puke and lugging bags of food. Sometimes it’s seeing animals who have been so mistreated by their owners that they have to be put down. But it’s worth it for the time he gets to spend with the animals, for being able to contribute a little bit to making their lives better. If Sherlock has learned anything in the last weeks and months, it’s to appreciate the kindness of strangers, and he’s benefited so much from people being kind to him even though they didn’t know him and didn’t have to be. He wants to give some of that kindness back to the world (he’s always wanted to do that, really, but never knew how to fully embrace it, always felt he had to hide it – he can recognise that now), and he finds that animals are just as worthy objects as people, if not worthier. Perhaps when he returns to London, he could find a similar volunteering position somewhere – and perhaps he could take one of the animals home with him. A dog, he thinks. He’s always loved dogs.

He tries to be kinder to people, too. He’s more careful about what effect his deductions would have on people and keeps them to himself when they’d only cause pain. He helps Maggie come up with new ways to attract more customers to her shop, helps her friend’s grandson with his chemistry paper (he doesn’t think his patience has ever been tested more). He offers to walk the dog of an elderly couple who can no longer keep up with it (okay – that one is pretty self-serving, he adores the dog). He tries to stop hiding his softer side.

It’s a bit of a shame that there doesn’t seem to be much he could do for Robert, whose kindness has definitely meant the most to him. He tries at least to make their encounters as good for Robert as possible. He’s always been a quick learner, and he’s fairly confident in his skills by now. He knows what Robert likes and how to give it to him in the most effective way, and being able to bring him to intense orgasms is incredibly satisfying. He gets more comfortable with bottoming every time he does it, and soon learns how to make the most of what it offers, to explosive results for both of them.

He’s lying in bed with his head on Robert’s broad chest, heavy with the kind of sated exhaustion he’s come to associate with a particularly good shag. He’d definitely going to feel his thighs tomorrow after the workout they got as he rode Robert hard and fast, his body sinking down on Robert’s length with practiced ease now. Robert’s playing idly with his hair, which Sherlock loves, and he’s happy to just lie there for now, lulled by endorphins and lassitude. It takes him an embarrassingly long time to realise that something’s not quite right: Robert should have long nodded off by now, especially after such a vigorous performance. Sherlock looks at him and finds him staring into the middle distance, a frown creasing his brow.

“Robert? Is everything all right?” Sherlock asks, suddenly anxious. There didn’t seem to be anything on Robert’s mind before. They discussed the segregation of the queen at length, then moved to the bedroom and had very good sex – or at least Sherlock thought so, but something about it must have caused Robert’s thoughtfulness. Maybe he’s getting bored of Sherlock. Maybe Sherlock has imposed on his lone wolf lifestyle for too long and the sex they have can no longer make up for it.

Robert looks at him for a long moment, then he seems to make up his mind. He removes his hand from Sherlock’s hair and says, “Who’s John?”

It’s as if a brick of ice had suddenly appeared in Sherlock’s stomach. “Wh-what?” he stammers, sitting up straight, but there can be no misunderstanding. He’s never mentioned John to Robert or anyone else in the village – not consciously. There’s only one possible explanation.

“You said his name,” Robert says, lowering his gaze as if he were the one with a reason to be ashamed. “A couple of times. While we were – you know.”

A couple of times. He’s been here, all this time, lapping up Robert’s kindness and generosity, and he’s apparently repaid him by moaning another man’s name in the throes of passion. Repeatedly.

He’s despicable.

“Robert, I’m so sorry. I never meant… I’m sorry.” There’s no way he can possibly apologise for this. He should get dressed and leave and never have sex with anyone ever again. Why on earth did he think that he could?

“Scott, stop panicking. It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine! How can you say that?”

“Okay, so it’s not very good manners, but it’s not like you did it on purpose, and I knew there had to be someone anyway.”

“What? How?”

“Why would someone gorgeous and brilliant like you be wasting his time here in the middle of nowhere with a fat old beekeeper, unless you were trying to get over someone who broke your heart?”

“You read too many romance novels. I could be hiding from a criminal mastermind.”

Robert scoffs. “Are you hiding from a criminal mastermind?”

“No,” Sherlock admits reluctantly.

Then, very gently, Robert asks: “Did he break your heart?”

No, Sherlock wants to say, John has had absolutely no effect on the organ pumping blood through Sherlock’s body (although John’s wife did).

“Yes,” he says instead, and then, without planning it or consciously deciding to do it, Sherlock tells him everything. He sits there naked in Robert’s bed and the words spill out in a flood he can’t stop, everything he’s been bottling up pouring out of him.

“I’m sorry to say this, but he sounds like a right dick,” Robert says after Sherlock stops talking, his bushy brows knit together.

“He’s not,” Sherlock defends John immediately, but then feels forced to amend. “He didn’t use to be. He’s been through so much. I hurt him a lot, too.”

“That’s really no excuse,” Robert says, his face creased with concern and full of compassion. Sherlock nods, looking down at where he’s picking at a loose thread on the bedding. He knows now that Robert is right. Still, it feels important to be aware that he has a share of blame for messing up their relationship.

“Come here,” Robert murmurs with a sad kind of smile as he opens his arms and pulls Sherlock to his broad chest. It almost surprises Sherlock that they’re both still naked, that a few moments ago they were having frantic sex. That experience seems somehow completely removed from the raw intimacy of this moment. Sherlock relaxes against Robert and tries to enjoy the comfort the embrace gives him. Tears prickle in the corners of his eyes, but he feels somehow lighter.

“I hope you know you deserve better than how he treated you,” Robert tells him softly, his lips moving against Sherlock’s scalp. Sherlock nods – he didn’t always know it, but he does now, and Robert has certainly contributed to that. Sherlock feels inexpressibly grateful that out of the myriad of cottages on offer, he happened to choose this one and got to meet this wonderful man who’s shown him so much kindness and care for no reason at all, without wanting anything in return.

“Can I ask you a question?” Sherlock asks a moment later as he strokes gently through the thick hair on Robert’s chest

“Go ahead.”

“Why do you live like this? Alone? You’ve lived in this house since your divorce, but there’s no evidence anyone has ever lived here with you.” He can’t imagine that Robert would have a hard time finding a partner – if Sherlock’s heart were not unavailable, he would be sorely tempted.

Robert chuckles wryly. “No, you’re right, there hasn’t been anyone. But it’s not – there’s no dramatic or tragic reason. I just don’t really care for romance. The books are just books,” he says before Sherlock can even open his mouth to mention the romance novels. “I enjoy reading them, but I also like a good murder mystery and that doesn’t mean I dream of living in Midsomer.”

Sherlock frowns. “What do you mean? There’s no special uptick in murders in midsummer as far as I know…” Although he supposes it’s possible, he could certainly imagine someone murdering for air-conditioning given the heatwaves in recent years…

“What? No, I mean Midsomer, as in Midsomer Murders, the TV show? You’ve never heard of Midsomer Murders? How…? Never mind, what I mean to say is that what I read is one thing and how I want to live is another. I like to have sex once in a while – or several times a week, when I happen to have a beautiful insatiable neighbour --”

“I’m not --”

“-- but I don’t really care for the rest of it. I like my peace and quiet. The bees are all the company I need.” He looks at Sherlock from the corner of his eye, as if he’s expecting a specific kind of response he’s heard many times. “This isn’t a sad story.”

“So you’re not… I haven’t accidentally been leading you on?” Sherlock asks, ashamed that he never thought of this until today. He’d deduced when he first met Robert that he was solitary by nature and wasn’t looking for a permanent partner, but he gets things wrong sometimes, and he should have been more careful when the thing at stake was someone’s heart. It’s hard to imagine someone could fall in love with him, but he shouldn’t risk it anyway, no matter how improbable it is.

“I like you, Scott,” Robert tells him seriously. “I like that you only ever want to talk about bees and that you’ve never tried to stay the night. I wouldn’t mind if we continued like this, though I don’t imagine I could keep up with you for long. But I’m not in love with you.”

“Okay,” Sherlock says, trying not to make his relief too obvious. “That’s… good.”

“Yes.” Robert hesitates for a moment, his hand returning to Sherlock’s hair.  “So… you’re really planning to go back to him?”

“I intend to go back. There’s no ‘to him’. He’s not waiting for me. But I have my life, and it’s worth living even if he’s not in it.” It’s what he’s been trying so hard to convince himself of all this time, and he hopes that he finally believes it.

“But do you want him to be?”

“Yes. I don’t know. I think so. But I want us to be friends, like we used to be. Not… people who hurt each other. If he can’t do that… then no.”

“I know it’s not my place, but you do realise that’s only possible if he knows he did something wrong and is willing to work on it?”

“I know. I hope he is. The John Watson I fell in love with would be.” He sighs. “I just want to try and fix it,” he says, and suddenly he feels it so strongly he nearly gasps. He needs to try. He can’t do it alone, if John doesn’t meet him halfway then all is lost, but Sherlock will be damned if he goes without a fight. “We have a lot to talk about. We never really did that, not about anything that mattered.”

How much could have been avoided if only they had talked? If Sherlock had told John, that night when John asked him how he felt about Irene Adler being alive, that of course he was glad she wasn’t dead but on the whole he didn’t care about her at all and what made him unsettled was the implication she’d made about John? If he had confided in John before confronting Moriarty on the rooftop? If he had actually explained himself after coming back? If they had talked during those months after Mary shot him? They’ll have to change that. If they want to save their friendship, they’ll actually have to say what they mean.

After this conversation, Sherlock realises that he’s been stalling. He’s been focusing on the little bits of joy and contentment he’s managed to carve out for himself, dogs and bees, music and sex and every type of sweet baked goods available from Maggie’s shop, and it’s served him well, helped him feel more at ease in himself, in his body and in his life, but he’s long passed the point when it became routine, a pretext for not thinking about moving forward. It’s been good and helpful, this little respite, but it has to end. He can’t live the rest of his life like this just because it allows him the illusion that back in London, John Watson has turned back into the person Sherlock used to know and love. He’s been gone for four months – it’s time. He’s not ready to go back and definitely not ready to confront John, but like with the sex, this is as ready as he’ll ever be. He’s standing on his own feet now, he hasn’t had a craving for anything worse than sugar and caffeine in weeks, he’s secure in the knowledge that he can, in fact, live without John and that it doesn’t have to be bad life, and that’s as good as it will ever get.

He doesn’t sleep with Robert anymore. It’s just impossible, after having talked so openly – how could he sleep with someone who knows? Instead, they sit together in the shade in the garden, watching the beehives and drinking Robert’s homemade cider in companionable silence, and that’s nice too.

“You’ll be safe, won’t you?” Robert asks him the evening before Sherlock is due to leave, and there’s no mistaking his meaning.

“Yes,” Sherlock says firmly. He’s determined to be.

Robert nods, bites his lip. “I just want you to know that… if anything. Happened. I’ll come and punch him in the face.”

It’s not funny at all, but Sherlock chuckles anyway and raises an eyebrow, mostly to hide how touched it makes him.

“You’d never hurt a fly,” he points out.

“I would if it did something to people I care about.”

Sherlock swallows the sudden lump of emotion that has appeared in his throat. “I think I can swat flies on my own now. I just hope I won’t have to.” It would be the hardest thing he’s ever had to do, but he would do it. John hurt him in ways he had no right to, but Sherlock will never let him do so again.

Robert nods, accepting Sherlock’s answer, but the silence that stretches between them is tense now. Sherlock clears his throat.

“But I promise you’ll be the first person I’ll call if I ever run out of honey.” The boot of his rented car is full of jars of various sizes, some for himself, some intended as presents.

Robert smiles. “I’ll always save the best batch for you.”

*

Sherlock leaves early the next morning. His stomach churns as he drives towards London, but he doesn’t look back.

Chapter Text

Sherlock has been back in London for ten days. He’s spent them trying to fit back into his old life while maintaining his new habits. He visited a crime scene and consulted on a murder that happened while he was away - both cases were obvious and not worth his time under normal circumstances, but he’s just easing back into things now and so he doesn’t mind. Plus, it was good to see Lestrade again. He clapped Sherlock on the shoulder with a wide grin on his face, obviously happy to see him, and Sherlock let himself be pulled into a hug - only the second one of their long acquaintance, but this time Sherlock hugged back. He visited Molly and pestered her for body parts. He’s let his hair grow out again and returned to his natural hair colour. He fended off Mycroft’s attempts to involve himself in his life. He unpacked his chemistry equipment that Mrs Hudson had put away in vain hope that Sherlock would start using the kitchen only for cooking. He fended off more of Mycroft’s attempts to put his nose where it isn’t wanted. He found a gym where he can go boxing and a nice yoga studio. He made sure he had time every day to go for a run or a walk in the park. He invited Mrs Hudson for tea several times - partly because he’s decided to be nicer to her (though he still tunes out most of what she says, there’s just no other way), and partly because he wants to be in her good graces when he asks her if he can keep a dog in the flat.

He hasn’t seen John yet or contacted him in any way, but he’s been preparing for it. It was easy to discover the clinic where John works now (still only part-time work) and then have one of his homeless network tail him home - to a rather posh house in Wimbledon, owned by a Michelle Wu, partner at a large management consulting firm and presumably Harry Watson’s girlfriend, since Harry operates her small online business selling handmade tote bags from the same address.

At present, Sherlock is hiding in the front garden of the house opposite Michelle Wu’s, which is conveniently empty and up for sale. He’s not quite sure what he plans to accomplish by this - he only knows that he can’t just… text John, or walk up to him as if nothing had happened. He needs to have a better idea of what he’s getting into.

At 7:43, the front door opens and Michelle comes out clad in a smart trouser suit, holding car keys in one hand and a bottle of a revoltingly green beverage in the other. She walks briskly down to the street, clicking open the silver Kia Picanto parked in front of her house (which, Sherlock can’t help noticing, has a baby car seat in the back). She’s a diminutive woman, but she carries herself with the air of someone who has smashed every glass ceiling in sight, leaving bodies of straight white men in her wake. (Figuratively speaking. Sherlock doesn’t think she’s actually murdered anyone, but it would certainly be interesting if she had.)

Before she gets to the car, however, the front door opens again and a woman who must be Harry Watson steps out on the porch, wearing a fluffy bathrobe and her hair in disarray, looking rather pudgy compared to her sleek and elegant girlfriend.

“Babe!” she calls out, holding up a purple gym bag, but Sherlock is much more focused on her other arm - the one that’s supporting a chubby-cheeked, curly-haired toddler.

“Rosie,” Sherlock breathes, and he has to physically stop himself from running across the street to her. He’s not sure he would have recognised her if he didn’t know it was her, she’s grown so much. Of course she has, it’s been months since Sherlock last saw her. She’s probably walking and talking by now, and Sherlock has missed all of it.

He curses Michelle when she goes back to retrieve her gym back and kiss Harry briefly on the lips, hiding Rosie from view. He catches one last glimpse of her when Michelle moves away, and then Harry steps back inside the house, the door falling shut behind her, and Michelle drives away.

Sherlock didn’t think about Rosie much while he was away, but now his heart squeezes painfully. She’s his goddaughter - as ridiculous as that is for a confirmed atheist. He should take that role seriously. He will, if John lets him. And if John doesn’t let him, then he should at least… set up a trust fund for her, or something. But he wants to see her, to know her, to find out how much of her is John and how much is Mary and how much is just herself, an entire new person.

Nothing happens for a while after that, but then, at precisely 8:25, the door opens again and John walks out.

Sherlock’s heart lurches in his chest. He recognises John immediately because he would recognise him anywhere with his eyes closed, but he almost doesn’t - John’s changed. His hair is back to his old military cut but it’s so much greyer than Sherlock remembers. His face is pale and drawn, with new lines around his mouth and eyes. He’s lost a lot of weight - at least twelve pounds, Sherlock estimates, if not more - and his clothes hang on him unflatteringly. He looks ten years older than the last time Sherlock saw him.

It makes Sherlock blood run cold. John should never look like this, so… broken. It’s completely wrong. What could have caused this? Is John ill? Surely… surely it can’t be the result of what happened between them. Or can it?

John walks down the street and Sherlock leaves his hiding place to follow a few yards behind him, still shocked by John’s appearance. John walks in the general direction of the Wimbledon train station, but while his pace is brisk, he doesn’t seem in a hurry to get anywhere because the route he takes is far from the most direct one. He keeps his eyes fixed on the pavement straight ahead of him and barely looks around himself when he crosses the street - Sherlock thinks he could walk right next to him and John wouldn’t notice.

He follows John for several minutes before he realises that there’s one more thing that’s wrong with John - he’s limping. It’s barely noticeable, just a slight lurch in his step every now and then. And just because John had a psychosomatic limp once doesn’t mean that this one is too, he could have actually hurt his leg… but it’s too irregular to be physical. And if it’s psychosomatic… all the more reason to suspect it’s due to what happened between them.

Sherlock realises he wants it to be true. Because if it is, if John know what he did and feels bad about it, then it means they have a chance. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that it could have affected John so much. Not even Mary’s death had a such a profound, physical impact. Sherlock isn’t quite sure how he feels about it - it’s as if two separate Johns existed in Sherlock’s head: Old John, his loyal friend, and New John, an angry, bitter man who takes his rage out on him. Sherlock hurts for Old John, hates to seem him so small and broken and would do anything, anything, to make him better again. But New John? Why shouldn’t he feel the consequences of his actions? Why should Sherlock feel sorry for him? The two feelings are completely at odds.

After about half an hour, John stops in front of a small office building on a fairly busy street. He checks his watch, takes a deep breath, and presses the last one in the column of doorbells. A few seconds later, he is buzzed in.

Once the door has fallen shut behind him and it doesn’t look like he’ll be coming out anytime soon, Sherlock comes closer to read the name on the doorbell: Dr Arthur Richardson. A quick Google search confirms Sherlock’s suspicion: a therapist. A therapy session is likely to take a while, so Sherlock decides to retreat to a coffee shop across the street. He’d been lurking by John’s house since the early hours and he hasn’t had breakfast, so he orders an egg and bacon sandwich and a coffee and sits by the window to watch the door of the building opposite.

Therapy is a good sign. Whether John’s taking it seriously this time is another matter, but at least he’s aware he needs help.  It makes Sherlock feel a bit better, to know that John hasn’t been getting on with his life as if nothing had happened. And perhaps Sherlock should see a therapist again, too. Dr Schneider helped him to understand a lot of things, and he thought that would be enough, but now he begins to think that maybe it would be a good idea to see someone, just to make sure he doesn’t slip into any old patterns. Ella, he thinks. He doesn’t particularly like the idea of learning to trust a completely new person.

An hour later John reemerges, looking, Sherlock thinks, a little better. Sherlock gets up from his table, intending to follow him again, but then to his horror John crosses the street with the evident intention of entering the coffee shop. Sherlock sits back down with a thud as if felled down and looks around in a panic, searching for a hiding place but it’s too late, John’s already opening the door. This is not how Sherlock wanted their first meeting to go, not in a coffee shop with strangers watching, not when he’s not ready

John doesn’t see him. Adrenaline spikes through Sherlock’s body, but John doesn’t see him. He steps straight to the counter and orders tea to go (clearly in need of something to soothe his nerves after the therapy), he pays, picks up the paper cup and leaves, his eyes sweeping right above Sherlock’s head and not noticing him.

Sherlock exhales in relief as the door falls shut behind John, but also in… disappointment. It could have been over and done with already. He gets up and sets out after John once again.

John walks slower this time, partly because of the drink he’s carrying and partly because of things on his mind. Sherlock follows closely behind him, his heart beating loud in his chest, until they reach a small park where John walks straight to a secluded bench that has clearly become a favourite spot of his. He sits down with a deep sigh and begins sipping his tea.

Sherlock stands partially hidden by a shrub, but it’s an unnecessary precaution. John sits motionless and looks down at the ground a few feet in front of him, but he probably doesn’t see even that. He’s obviously focused inward, most probably replaying his recent therapy session, and Sherlock watches emotions play out on his face clear as day - despair, frustration, determination, and at one point, such profound, undiluted pain that Sherlock nearly gasps.

He’s moving before he realises he’s doing it, his legs carrying him towards John out of their own volition. No matter what happened between them, he’s unable to stay idle while John’s hurting. He’s very close by the time John notices his presence. He glances up and immediately back down, ready to ignore a rude stranger standing too close before he’s taken a proper look at him, and then he realises what he’s seen and his head jerks up, mouth falling open.

“Sh-Sherlock,” he breathes, his features slack with shock, eyes wide. He really does look terrible.

“Hello, John,” Sherlock says, and he’s pleased to note his voice sounds calm and collected, giving no hint of the myriad of warring emotions he’s feeling. John continues staring at him. Another emotion begins to show on his face alongside the surprise and Sherlock can quite decipher it, but it’s clearly not joy.

“Mind if I sit down?” he asks, feeling like his knees might actually give out at any moment, and he doesn’t wait for John’s answer, sitting down on the bench with enough space between them for another person. He clasps his hands in his lap, trying to still their nervous movements. He looks straight ahead, unable to look directly at John at such close range, but from the corner of his eye he sees John’s entire body turn towards him, his gaze fixed on Sherlock’s face. Sherlock waits, his pulse hammering.

“What - why are you here?” John asks. His voice is quiet and incredulous.

Sherlock shrugs, still not looking at him. “It’s where you are.”

When silence stretches between them for seconds and seconds, Sherlock glances at John, who immediately turns his head away, avoiding Sherlock’s gaze. His chest is rising and falling in rapid bursts.

“So the real question is,” Sherlock continues slowly when John says nothing, “why are you here?” The question has been weighing on his mind since he found out where John was living. It makes no sense, yet he feels like it should, like it’s a deduction he should be able to make.

“I’m staying with Harry and her girlfriend,” John says, even though he must know Sherlock knows that. Now that Sherlock is looking at him, he keeps his gaze focused forward, his features tense.

“I know. Why?”

John swallows visibly. “I... needed help. With Rosie.”

“You never sought Harry’s help with Rosie before,” Sherlock points out, his eyebrows drawing together. He doesn’t know how to approach this. For all the time he’s spent thinking about what he wanted to say to John, he can’t come up with the right words now.

“It was… different this time. No one else would understand.”

Harry was the only one who could understand. Something to do with their shared experiences, childhood, domestic life. John’s anger got the better of him and he reacted by seeking out his sister because… oh .

“Your father was abusive,” Sherlock exhales, his eyes glued to John’s profile. John’s whole body jerks and he moves his head as if to look at Sherlock, but he stops himself in time. His jaw clenches. Why did Sherlock not realise before? It’s textbook: the abuse victim becoming the abuser. And John would be terrified of that, when he realised what was happening, because he’s not actually someone who likes hurting people. And so he sought out Harry, the only person who knew first-hand what he was fighting against… who knew what Rosie had to be protected from.

“John,” Sherlock says, his throat barely working. “You would never hurt Rosie. You love her.”

John sniffs, the corner of his mouth turning into a grimace. He shakes his head. “You don’t know that. I don’t know that. Dad loved us too, in his way, and it didn’t stop him, not once he’s had a drink.”

“But you’ve stopped. Drinking.” It’s a guess more than a deduction. A wish, a hope.

John nods. “It’s an alcohol-free household. And Harry would kick my arse and have Rosie taken from me if I touched a drop or laid a hand on anyone.”

“And you go to therapy. You’re getting help. I’m fairly sure your father never did that.”

John shakes his head. “That doesn’t matter. Whatever he did, it’s the past. But now… the point is,” he takes a deep breath, straightens his spine and turns to finally face Sherlock. Their eyes meet for the first time in over four months but it feels like a lifetime, like they are completely different people now. The rich blue of John’s eyes is dulled by pain but his look is determined. “The point is you shouldn’t be here. You should stay away from me.”

The words feel like a knife slicing through Sherlock’s flesh.

“I want my friend back,” he says firmly, because that’s why he’s here. He can’t believe John is willing to give up so easily.

“You deserve better, Sherlock,” John tells him earnestly. His long eyelashes flutter as he blinks back tears, and he looks down. “You deserve so much better than someone who raped you.”

Sherlock’s body moves of its own accord, jerking back away from John as if kicked, increasing the distance between them.

“Don’t use that word,” he rasps, suddenly unable to take in a full breath. He can’t bear to have John call it that.

“It’s what it -”

Just don’t! ” Sherlock snaps, and he’s surprised to hear his voice comes out so much louder than he expected it to. He forces himself to speak quieter, but he doesn’t manage to sound less forceful. He’s angry, he realises. All this time speaking to John he’s felt only sympathy, but now all of a sudden he’s angry . “And don’t think for a moment it means I’m making light of things, because I’m not. I spent months trying to come to terms with what you’d done to me and why I let you and whether it was worth trying to fix things and I decided that yes, yes it was and so now I’m here and I know I deserve better. What I want to know is whether you’re willing to give it to me.”

He can’t look at John anymore. He can’t be here anymore. John is clearly aware of his flaws and has been working on himself, but that’s not enough if he’s so willing to write off their friendship without even trying to repair it. Sherlock is the one with the right to do that, and yet he’s here, practically ready to beg the man who abused him to take him back, ready to comfort him. He stands up abruptly, unable to stay there anymore. Not if John isn’t saying anything to stop him.

“I have to go,” he girts out through his teeth. He turns his back to John and starts walking away.

“Sherlock!”

He stops, looks over his shoulder. John has stood up too, breathing hard. His left hand clenches and opens as he looks at Sherlock.

“I’m sorry,” he says quietly. “I know I can never apologise enough, but I’m sorry. For everything.”

Well. It’s better than nothing, Sherlock supposes. He nods, acknowledging John’s apology, and then he walks out of the park and away. He walks straight ahead without thinking about where he’s going until he spots a cab and flags it down to take him home.

He didn’t expect seeing John would make him feel so much worse. So… helpless. There’s nothing left for him to do now. He’s sought John out and let him know he wanted to try to repair their relationship. The ball is in John’s court now. If John doesn’t do anything, if he really thinks they shouldn’t see each other again… then it’s done. Over. Sherlock’s not going to crawl and beg someone who…

Someone who raped you .

He banishes John’s words to the deepest recesses of his mind palace. Once he gets home he sits in his chair and goes through several breathing exercises, fighting off the encroaching panic. It wasn’t that. It was violent and far from being fully consensual. But it wasn’t that. He didn’t want it, but he was the one who decided that what he wanted didn’t matter. That was his choice, John didn’t force him to do that.

He’s aware he’d probably be far less willing to make this distinction if it concerned someone else, but he feels like his own sanity hinges on making it now.

After his breathing slows down he curls up in his chair, hugging his knees to his chest and wishing Robert were here to wrap him in a proper hug. At least John is trying to get better. He has therapy and the support of his sister and Rosie as motivation. If they never see each other again, at least Sherlock knows that John has a chance to get his life back in order. He’s strong and the kind, moral part of him is there fighting to save him. That’s the best Sherlock can hope for for him, after all.

He catches himself scratching furiously at the underside of his elbow, the fragile skin there already raw. Of course, this is exactly the kind of situation where we would have turned to drugs in the past. John is his trigger. But not anymore. He’s better than that now. Stronger. Instead, he’s going to pull himself together, make a soothing cup of tea and something simple for lunch, and call Ella to make an appointment at the earliest opportunity. Then he’s going to take his violin and work on his music until it’s late enough to go out and find someone to fuck him.

He hasn’t had sex in almost three weeks, which is actually the longest time he’s gone without since he started having sex, and he misses it even though he masturbates frequently and is very skilled at giving himself extremely satisfying orgasms. Now, with the his emotions so raw and painful, he finds he craves it, desperately needs to give himself to someone, willingly, consensually. Has he replaced one addiction with another? And if so, does it matter? The destructive potential of sex is hardly comparable to cocaine. It’s a good thing. Heathy. He’s always safe, even got tested once he came back to London just to be sure (the subsequent conversation with Mycroft, who naturally knew the moment Sherlock entered an NHS establishment, is something Sherlock dearly wishes to forget). And besides, he’s fast approaching forty and he’s only slept with three people. He would bet anything that John’s number is ten times higher, if not more. Sherlock has nothing to be ashamed of.

Of course, he wants no repetition of what happened with Robert - calling out John’s name while sleeping with someone else, but he can’t be sure it won’t happen again. So his only options are random strangers who won’t care, who are only looking for a shag, who perhaps won’t even tell him their name.  Someone from a club, or maybe a dating app. It’s not ideal, neither of these options seem particularly tempting, but it will do for now, to meet his immediate need, satisfy the craving. After that, he can see if there’s a way to have a more stable partner without hurting him.

So when the dark falls, he puts on his clubbing gear and sets out to find out how the London gay scene compares to Bristol.

*

He supposses he could say the London scene is twice as good as Bristol, because he ends up leaving the club not with one man but two - a married couple. Neither of them would probably catch his eye on his own - Patrick is a bit too pretty, Sam a bit too beefy for Sherlock’s tastes, but the opportunity to find out what it’s like to have sex with two people at the same time is too intriguing to pass up. At first, Sherlock assumed that a married couple looking for a third party meant they were having problems and were desperately trying rekindle the spark of their sex life, but it soon becomes clear that this isn’t Partick and Sam’s case. It’s obviously far from the first time they’ve done this kind of thing and they clearly love each other - Sherlock doesn’t spend too much time thinking about their motivations, but he gets the impression they like the addition of a third party simply because they want to give each other more pleasure than one person is capable of providing.

The logistics are a bit more complicated that with just two people, but Patrick and Sam are very coordinated and in tune, anticipating each other’s movements, seeming to communicate with just a look or touch. Sherlock ends up on his knees, sucking Patrick off while his husband rims him. It’s… surprisingly different from just giving head to a man with no one else there. Patrick moves differently, for one, clearly torn between which sensation he wants to lean into more, and Sherlock’s not completely in charge of the stimulation so he can’t fully anticipate his movements. And the noises he makes - god, the noises. Sherlock thinks he really perfected his blowjob technique while he was with Robert, but he’s pretty sure his skills alone wouldn’t be enough to make a man sound like that - the desperate, keening whimpers. And there are Sam’s noises too, low moans and hums and wet, squelching, slurping sounds that by all rights shouldn’t be as hot as they are. Sherlock mentally adds rimming on the list of things he needs to try, both ways. It’s not a thing he’d want to do with a stranger, but he’s come to enjoy anal stimulation a lot and the idea of a slick, nimble tongue licking him there…

He moans around Patrick’s cock and sucks him harder, channelling his intense arousal into making it as good for him as possible. Patrick comes with a drawn-out moan, his whole body trembling as he empties out. His knees give out as soon as he stops coming, but Sam is clearly expecting it and catches him safely in his arms.

“Enjoy yourself, love?” Sam asks with a smirk as he removes the condom from his husband’s softening penis.

“Oh yes,” Patrick sighs, reaching for Sherlock. “That’s one talented mouth.”

“Just one? I’m offended,” Sam says but he doesn’t sound it. He presses a quick kiss to Patrick’s temple and lets him crawl towards Sherlock. “I’m just going to brush my teeth real quick. Don’t do anything fun without me.”

“Hmm, no promises,” Patrick says before he licks eagerly into Sherlock’s mouth.

By the time Sam comes back, Sherlock and Patrick have migrated to the large, sturdy bed clearly meant to comfortably accommodate three people, and Patrick has two fingers buried inside Sherlock, easing him open as they kiss.

“Oh, but that looks very fun,” Sam says has plops down on the bed. “Look at that arse!” He runs a hand appreciatively up and down Sherlock’s left buttock, making Sherlock shiver.

“I think you should fuck him,” Patrick tells him, his breath hot on Sherlock’s lips. “Would you like that, Scott? I promise he’s very good.”

“Yes, please,” Sherlock breathes, sounding needy but not even caring. He wants it, needs it like he’s never needed anything in his life.

Sam trails his fingertips down Sherlock’s crack and massages his rim that’s stretched around Patrick’s fingers, using his other hand to stroke himself to full hardness.

“Do you need more prep?” he asks, and Sherlock shakes his head resolutely. He doesn’t want to wait, and Sam isn’t nearly as big as Robert, so he should be fine.

“Not if you go slowly,” he says just to be sure, and Sam nods. Patrick slips his fingers out of Sherlock’s body and moves away slightly to give Sam space to lean in and kiss Sherlock.

“How do you like it?” Sam asks as he nibbles on Sherlock’s lower lip, his erection rubbing against Sherlock’s hip.

“Just - not from behind,” Sherlock says. He has developed more specific preferences, but right now he doesn’t care at all.

“Okay,” Sam says as he kneels on the bed between Sherlock’s spread legs and then pulls Sherlock’s hips to his lap, letting Sherlock’s torso lie on the bed. The position makes Sherlock feel exposed - and that’s probably the point, giving Patrick a good view - and a bit helpless, but it feels good . He feels a brief twinge of nerves before Sam enters him, because he is a stranger and not kind, gentle Robert, but there’s no need. Sam enters him carefully, moving slowly as promised, and Sherlock’s body accepts him greedily. The position doesn’t give him much chance to play an active part in the proceedings, but that’s okay - he’s more than happy to just wrap his legs around Sam’s waist, like back and enjoy the delicious drag of a hot, hard cock inside him, thrusting against his prostate.

Patrick’s eyes are riveted to Sherlock and Sam, drinking in the sight hungrily as he strokes himself, already fully erect again. Sherlock doesn’t really understand how watching his partner fuck someone else can possibly be arousing for him, but clearly it is. And it adds an extra thrill for Sherlock, to know that’s being watched, that the sight of him getting fucked turns Patrick on. When his eyes aren’t closing from the onslaught of pleasure, Sherlock watches Patrick’s hand moving on his cock. It’s a pretty cock and it felt perfect in his mouth, not too big and not too small, just right. He licks his lips and Patrick smirks at him when he catches him looking.

“Could you suck me again? Your mouth is to die for,” Patrick says, and Sherlock nods. He’s not quite sure how it would work, but who knows if he’ll ever have a threesome again, he’s not going to pass up the opportunity to experience having two cocks inside him at the same time. He moans at the mere thought of it.

“Oh, fuck yeah,” Sam grunts in appreciation and slows his movements to allow them to arrange themselves. Patrick finds a new condom and carefully straddles Sherlock with his knees on either side of Sherlock’s chest, his back to Sam, and then he leans forward and dips his cock inside Sherlock’s waiting mouth.

Sherlock’s vision whites out. Patrick’s careful not to choke him, barely more that the head of his cock is in Sherlock’s mouth, thrusting shallowly, but it’s enough to add an extra layer to Sherlock’s arousal. Any remaining thoughts of John are driven straight out of Sherlock’s mind, the outside world ceases to exist: there is only his body, and the two men taking pleasure in it while pleasuring him . The sensations are contradictory yet complementary: the feeling of being used but taken care of at the same time. The more he applies himself to sucking Patrick the better and more intense Sam’s thrusts feel and Sherlock’s soon wild with it, writhing and whimpering as he tries to get the most out of both cocks inside him, hollowing his cheeks and pushing his hips back and before he knows it he’s reaching for his own throbbing erection and tugging and and pulling in desperation.

He comes, Patrick’s cock falling out of his mouth when he throws his head back and shouts, his orgasm rushing through him in powerful waves.

He’s vaguely aware of words of encouragement and appreciation murmured to him, Sam’s length slipping out him, hands gentling him, lips brushing his cheeks. The next thing he registers properly is Patrick’s impatient “Yes, yes, please!” and he blinks his eyes open to find Patrick next to him on his knees and forearms, his arse in the air, and Sam kneeling behind him, pushing his now bare cock inside him.

The first two or three thrusts are relatively slow but Sam quickly picks up speed and force and soon he’s pounding into Patrick, driving in so hard that the bedframe thumps against the wall. Sherlock watches in horrified fascination: this looks brutal , no less violent than what John did to him. As far as Sherlock’s aware, Patrick has had no preparation besides Sam’s tongue in him but Sam is pummeling him mercilessly, his knuckles white where he grips Patrick’s hips tightly as he pistons forward so hard that the slaps of skin against skin can be heard even among Patrick’s screams. Yet, there can be no doubt that Patrick is enjoying his. His screams are nearly incoherent but they seem to be composed mostly of variations of yes and more , his contorted face is a picture of pure ecstasy and it’s obvious that he’s actually pushing back against Sam’s thrusts, wanting more. Then, without anyone touching his cock, he lets out a loud wail and comes, his body shaking with the force of it for what seems like an age. Sam fucks him through it and then groans like an animal dying and stills as his own release overtakes him.

It’s only when the two of them start to disengage, both breathing hard, that Sherlock realises he’s aroused. Not visibly, his own orgasm is too recent for that, but he can feel it in his veins: this brutal display turned him on. He’s shocked at himself, almost disgusted - how can he, after what he experienced? But even now as he struggles to wrap his mind around it, he’s aware that what he’s just witnessed had nothing in common with what John did to him: this was a show of complete and utter trust .

He watches, intrigued and almost envious, as Sam murmurs words of gentle affection to Patrick, helps him lie down, caresses his overheated skin. It makes Sherlock feel superfluous and voyeuristic in a way that watching their actual coupling didn’t. But then Patrick, lying on his stomach in the centre of the bed, lifts the hand closer to Sherlock and flais it blindly, clearly reaching for Sherlock. He nearly hits him in the chest first and then just strokes up and down clumsily.

“D’you enjoy that?” he mumbles almost incomprehensibly. Half his face is mashed in the pillow, his eyes still closed. Sherlock doesn’t know if he means watching them, or the part before, or the experience as a whole.

“Yes,” he says anyway, because that’s the truth, as confused as it makes him. A beaming smile spreads on Patrick’s face even though he looks half asleep.

“Will you stay with him while I fetch a flannel?” Sam whispers to him. “He gets a bit out of it when he comes twice.”

Sherlock nods, even though he’s unsure what exactly is wanted of him. In the end, he settles for what he himself prefers after sex and starts stroking Patrick’s short brown hair. Patrick hums appreciatively, leaning into Sherlock’s touch a little. He looks blissful.

“Are you all right?” Sherlock asks anyway, needing to know.

“Fantastic,” Patrick says. His eyes flutter open, looking at Sherlock briefly before falling shut again. “I love it when he takes me hard, right after fucking someone else.”

Sherlock doesn’t understand that at all, but he knows that sexual preferences don’t always make much sense. His own seem rather muddled right now.

Sam comes back with a large bottle of water and two wet flannels. He hands one to Sherlock and uses the other to clean Patrick, exceedingly gentle. The three of them share the bottle of water and then Sherlock realises that Patrick and Sam are settling to go to sleep.

“I - I should go,” he stammers, suddenly uncomfortable.

Patrick makes a displeased noise.

“If you want,” says Sam. “But you’re more than welcome to stay. The bed’s big enough, and we’d be happy to make you breakfast in the morning.”

Sherlock hesitates. He’s never spent the night with anyone and the thought makes him apprehensive and uncomfortable, but he’s tired . The emotional strain of talking to John again, and the sex, and his confused feelings about rough intercourse - it all adds up to make him feel exhausted. The thought of getting dressed and going home now is distinctly unappealing, and sleeping next to a couple who obviously love each other deeply seems somehow safe . Their love is not for him, Sherlock knows, but for some reason it feels soothing to be in its presence.

He lies down on the other side of Patrick and falls asleep within minutes.

In the morning, he gets treated to a luxurious, decadent blowjob, courtesy of Sam while Patrick kisses him lazily and plays with his nipples. Neither of them want Sherlock to return the favour, though - Sherlock assumes that they intend to reaffirm their connection to each other once he’s left. He takes a shower (even their bathtub is big enough for three people, he notes) and then finds them in the kitchen, cooking breakfast together and wearing matching dressing gowns. They both grin at him.

“Omelette, Scott?” Sam says and Sherlock startles - he’s almost forgotten that he introduced himself as Scott again. He’s not really sure why.

He shakes his head. “Thank you, but I have to get going.” He doesn’t have anywhere to be, but he wouldn’t feel comfortable intruding on their domesticity.

“Coffee to go, at least?” Patrick offers, lifting the pot of freshly made brew that smells too amazing to resist.

“Black, two sugars.”

Patrick pours coffee in a disposable paper cup (clearly, Sherlock is not the first of their one night stands leaving without breakfast) and then he and Sam exchange a meaningful look. Sam raises an eyebrow, and Patrick nods.

“Listen, Scott,” Sam says as Patrick turns to face Sherlock too. “We really enjoyed our time with you and if you wanted, we’d love to see you again.” He pulls small piece of paper out of the pocket of his dressing gown. “These are our phone numbers. Text if you feel like it.”

Sherlock stares, first at the two of them and then and the scribbled phone numbers (same handwriting, no telling which is whose - it’s clearly meant to be a group conversation). He’s flattered, he supposes, but not at all sure if he wants to take them up on their offer.

“Thanks,” he says awkwardly and puts the paper in the pocket of his tight jeans, unsure what he’s supposed to do or say now. He takes his coffee from Patrick and he’s about to say goodbye, but something stops him.

“I… Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” Patrick says.

“Last night, at the end,” Sherlock forces out, feeling his cheeks heat. “That looked… very rough.”

Patrick and Sam exchange a look again.

“Yes, but that… we would never want anything like that of you, giving or receiving,” Sam tells him, misunderstanding Sherlock’s reasons for asking. “We’d never ask you for anything you’re not one hundred percent into.”

Sherlock nods - he was already pretty sure about that, but Patrick speaks before Sherlock can say anything.

“We do that because we trust each other completely. He’s not hurting me, if that’s what you’re worried about. It’s completely consensual. More than consensual.” He takes hold of Sam’s hand. His face is about as red as Sherlock’s feels.

“But it must hurt,” Sherlock points out, unable to stop himself. He know he must look stupidly naive and he’s clearly making both Patrick and Sam uncomfortable, but he wants to understand.

“Yes,” Patrick admits. Sam jerks next to him and Patrick squeezes his hand, leaning even closer to him. “But it’s… it’s a different kind of pain. And it’s not really about that. It’s about… giving myself over to him completely and knowing he’d never go too far.” He tears his gaze away from Sherlock then and meets Sam’s eyes briefly, giving him a look that makes Sam visibly relax. It’s evident that Sam hates even just the thought of actually hurting Patrick.

Sherlock looks at them, still mostly confused but knowing without any doubt that he wants that . To to trust someone so completely to be able to lay himself at their mercy. Let them have their way with him, not because he doesn’t care what happens to him, but because he trusts them to always have his well-being in mind. And he knows with equal certainty that he can never have that, because the only person who could have earned this kind of trust has broken it, and never actually wanted it in the first place.

“Sorry,” he mumbles, shuffling his feet. This is an incredibly personal topic of conversation. “I didn’t mean to pry. Sorry. Thanks for the coffee.”

He’s almost out of the door when Patrick stops him.

“Scott, wait.” His face is still red with embarrassment, but he looks earnest. “I can tell you’re -- intrigued, but I just wanted to say… You don’t want to try that kind of thing with a stranger. I mean, people do , I think, and obviously I don’t know you and it’s none of my business, but… be careful, okay?”

Sherlock nods. “Thanks. I will.” He would never dream of doing this with a stranger. He couldn’t. Not even with Robert. He knows that everything that he’s witnessed between Patrick and Sam - the roughness and the love - will always remain in the realm of fantasy for him.

He goes home on foot - it’s a long walk, but he doesn’t feel like being cooped up in a cab. He thinks about his unexpected captivation by very rough sex, his general need to let whoever he’s with take the lead. Has he always had that inclination, or is it a consequence of what happened with John - he’s had control forcibly taken away from him, so now he needs to give it away willingly? Has he always had a submissive streak, or did John beat him into submission?

He thinks, suddenly, of The Woman. She would know. It’s her job to know. What did she deduce about him when they met, about his deeply buried sexual desires?

He takes out his phone and scrolls through his conversation with her (or, more precisely perhaps, her conversation with him, since she’s responsible for ninety percent of it). He’s not going to actually ask her - that would be mortifying. But he could text her. It’s a novel thought - he never does that. He replies, sometimes, when she says something that needles him enough, but he never actually texts her first. Now, though, he no longer sees a reason why he couldn’t. He used to be intimidated by her, by her brazen sexuality, but he realises he isn’t anymore - now that he’s no longer afraid of his own.

Heard you were gallivanting around Europe. Let’s have dinner if you’re ever in Paris.

That’s the last text she sent him, back when he was in Switzerland. He didn’t reply. He realises now that he’s probably been very wrong about her. He assumed that her constant offers of dinner meant she was flirting with him, and maybe at the beginning, she was, but what kind of woman would keep propositioning someone for literal years, someone she had to know was unavailable for more reasons than one? Not Irene Adler, at any rate. She was probably just trying to be friends, as a thank you for the fact that he saved her life. Friendship was probably not her forte any more than it was Sherlock’s.

Back in London now. Let’s have brunch. SH

He feels rather odd when he sends the text and quite a bit silly - he imagines her face when she sees his unprompted text. She won’t know what hit her. He smiles to himself at the image, but his thoughts turn progressively more gloomy as he approaches Baker Street. What is the point of discovering new aspects of his sexuality if it can never lead to anything deeper? He can never have anything like what Patrick and Sam have. Even if he never sees John again, which is looking like a distinct possibility right now, he can’t imagine ever eradicating him from his heart. He’d never be able to form this kind of connection with anyone else.

He really needs to get a dog. Maybe the affection of a dog will be enough and he’ll stop craving anything more.

“Oh, Sherlock!” Mrs Hudson cries when he opens the front door, rushing towards him from her flat. “There you are, finally! John’s here.”

Sherlock’s heart skips a beat. John’s here.

“Upstairs?” he asks, his voice sounding embarrassingly squeaky. For the first time in his life, he doesn’t like the idea of John coming and going to his flat as he pleases. It’s supposed to be Sherlock’s safe space. John moved out.

“No, Speedy’s,” Mrs Hudson says and Sherlock feels his shoulders relax. “I told him you were out and he said he’d wait, so I invited him for tea but he said no!” She sounds offended. “Have you seen him since you’ve been back? He doesn’t look very good.”

“I know,” Sherlock says, not really listening to her anymore. John’s here. He came. That means… something. Something good. He wouldn’t be here if he thought it was best to cut all ties with Sherlock. He wants to make an effort. Doesn’t he? Surely he must. Oh, let that be true! Sherlock could be there for him, help him. They could do it, if they both try. They could fix things. The two of them.

Buzzing with nerves, Sherlock considers going upstairs to change into his normal clothes, but eventually decides against it. If John deduces from his get-up that he went to a gay bar last night and didn’t come home until the morning, so what? Sherlock has nothing to be ashamed of. In a strange way, he wants John to know - that Sherlock has a life that doesn’t revolve around him.

Bracing himself, he walks back out to the street and turns immediately to enter the café next door, certain that what he finds there will determine the rest of his life.

 

Chapter Text

His eyes find John as soon as he enters Speedy’s and John’s find him equally unerringly. They just look at each other for a long moment and Sherlock doesn’t know what it means. They used to be able to communicate so clearly with just a look, but not anymore. John doesn’t look much different than he did the day before, but there is a subtle air of determination about him now, and Sherlock hopes fervently that it’s a good sign. He steps closer, his heart hammering.

“Sherlock,” John says, standing up from his table hastily. His voice sounds croaky and hesitant. Sherlock says nothing – what is he supposed to say? They stare at each other some more, oblivious to the bustle of the coffee shop around them. Sherlock sees John’s sleepless night in the bags around his, the struggle of feeding Rosie this morning in the baby food stain on his collar, his apprehension in his clenched fist, his resolve in his carefully close shave. He sees John taking him in in turn, and he realises now that deducing how Sherlock spent the night is beyond John’s abilities. To John, there’s only one reason why Sherlock could have been out all night wearing uncharacteristic clothes, and sure enough, John’s eyebrows draw together.

“I’m clean,” Sherlock blurts, taking an unconscious step back, putting more distance between them. “Have been for months.” His voice sounds unexpectedly steely even to his own ears, and John shrinks back a little.

“I know, sorry!” John speaks quickly, lifting a hand in a placating gesture. “I didn’t mean… sorry.” He drops his gaze, runs a hand over his face. “This isn’t a good start.”

“Start again, then,” Sherlock says, more gently now. He doesn’t want to make things unnecessarily difficult for John, but he also sees no need to make them easy.

John nods, more to himself than to Sherlock, and looks up again.

“I want to apologise,” he says, looking Sherlock in the eye even though it clearly costs him a lot of effort. “And… explain some things, if you’ll let me. Not to try to justify what I… there’s no justifying that,” he adds hastily, “but you said… yesterday it sounded like you were willing to give me another chance, but you can only do that if you know the whole truth.”

He breathes hard and finally allows himself to break eye contact. Sherlock swallows.

“Come up, then,” Sherlock says.

John startles. “What?”

“Do you really want to do this here?” Sherlock asks, gesturing to their surroundings where people are already sneaking glances at them. John looks around, blinking owlishly, and nods.

“Okay,” he says, and it occurs to Sherlock that John probably thought Sherlock wouldn’t want to be alone with him, after what happened. But Sherlock has no reason to be afraid of him: there seems to be no anger left in this shadow of his John and if there was, Sherlock trusts himself now to put a stop to it.

They climb the seventeen steps in silence. Sherlock thinks about the first time he brought John here. How excited he was, how eager, even then, to please John, make him like him, make him stay. Everything was so much simpler then. So much less pain and heartbreak.

It’s clear, however, that John’s not thinking of the first time he was here but the last. As they enter the flat his eyes move immediately towards the kitchen and he appears to be fighting back nausea.

“Tea?” Sherlock offers out of desperate need to do something, anything, to make this situation seem more normal. He doesn’t wait for John’s answer before he moves to the kitchen and starts filling the kettle. He hates everything about this.

“I’m so sorry, Sherlock,” John says in a strained whisper as Sherlock flicks the kettle on. He’s standing in the entrance to the kitchen, his eyes fixed on the counter just a few inches from where Sherlock is currently standing. Sherlock shivers – he can vividly remember how the edge of the counter felt pressing into the top of his thighs.

“You’ve said,” Sherlock says, aiming for matter-of-fact and achieving it perhaps a bit too well. “You don’t have to keep repeating it. I know you mean it.” It’s the only saving grace in this mess.

He doesn’t say he forgives John, and he knows John hears him not saying it.

He drops two tea bags into mugs and pours hot water over them. He wants to retreat to the relative safety of the living room, but he forces himself not to. This is where it happened, so this is where they will discuss it.

“I don’t mean just that,” John says heavily. “There’s also… the mortuary. The way I treated you ever since you came back.”

Sherlock hands John his cup of tea. He doesn’t know what to say, so he says nothing. John takes the mug and looks at it intently as if looking for answers, or inspiration.

Sherlock’s phone pings in his trouser pocket, startling them both.

“You can read it,” John tells him when Sherlock makes no move to reach for his phone.

“It can wait.”

“Might be a case,” John points out, clearly hoping that it is, that something will distract them from this conversation, that like so many times before, they’ll somehow be able to sweep things under the rug without ever actually addressing them. Sherlock won’t let that happen, as much as he hates this.

“It can wait,” he repeats. Besides, he’s fairly sure it’s just Irene’s reply. He changed her ring tone after the fiasco in January, but he feels no inclination to read her text in front of John.

John nods, clearly understanding that avoidance won’t help. He looks at his tea a while longer and then sets the mug on the table when the hand holding it starts shaking.

“There’s nothing I’m more ashamed of than the I treated you after you came back. I was angry with you because it was easier than being angry with myself and I blamed you for things that were my fault.”

Sherlock frowns. “Mary’s death wasn’t your fault.” How could John even think that?

John makes a terrible noise that sounds halfway between laughter and a sob. He shakes his head. “The thing is that it was never really about her death. I told myself I blamed you for that because it seemed like a justifiable reason to be angry, but the real reason… the real reason was that I didn’t mourn her enough and I didn’t love her enough and all the time I was with her I regretted not being here with you instead.”

Sherlock pulls out a chair and sits down heavily. What is John saying? Sherlock sacrificed everything for John’s marriage because it was supposed to make him happy.

John takes a few shaky breaths, then continues.

“Mary… she was here when you were dead, and she… she saved me, in a way, and I was so grateful to her and at the time it seemed like that was enough. But then you came back and I realised that it wasn’t, that I was just fooling myself, except I was hurt and angry with you for leaving and I just… I wanted to have a life separate from you even though what I actually wanted was to go back here and for everything to go back to the way it was before. So I convinced myself to go through with it, go through with the wedding, and suddenly I was a husband and a father and I hated myself for not wanting to be either and so I turned the hate on you. It made me feel better, somehow, to be awful to you.”

Sherlock can’t speak. He can’t hardly breathe. He sits there, motionless, and it feels like every single cell of his body is screaming in agony.

John’s head hangs even lower. “You never deserved any of that. You… you did so much for me, I didn’t want to see it but I do now, you were willing to give up your life for me, several times, and instead of thanking you I… did things to you I wouldn’t do to my worst enemy.” He exhales shakily, swallows. “I’m not asking for your forgiveness, but I… I want you to know I’ve never regretted anything more in my life.”

There is a moment of silence when the only sound to be heard is John’s wet, shaky breathing, and then Sherlock unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth and forces himself to speak.

“Why didn’t you just hit me?” he asks, and he realises suddenly that he’s fighting back tears. He cannot bear to look at John. “Why did you have to… why not just hit me?”

John breath in sharply, and Sherlock can tell, even just by the rhythm of his breathing, that he was hoping they would never address that. Well, too bad. Sherlock doesn’t want to talk about it either, but he needs to know. In his peripheral vision he sees John’s fist clench, his weight shift from one leg to the other.

“Because I… because I was a closeted homophobic arsehole,” John says, and it’s so far out of the realm of things Sherlock could have expected him to say that he actually lifts his head to look at him. John meets his eyes briefly, a world of pain and shame swimming behind a sheen of tears, and then looks back down at the table. “I am – bisexual.” The world is clearly new and alien on his tongue, but he says it firmly. “I always knew this, but I never accepted it. Pushed it down, buried it… let it fester. I congratulated myself on being supportive of my lesbian sister, but anytime there was a man I was attracted to I found a way to punish him for it. And when you… when you said that you… loved me,” he says the words low and quick, like something that could explode if given too much room to exist, “it was like you were forcing me to look at a part of myself I spent most of my life pretending didn’t exist. Something just… snapped in me.”

Sherlock’s heart is cracking down the middle. This is all so much worse, so much more painful and complicated than he expected. He never suspected John having any sort of attraction for men, but now that John had said it it seems so obvious. A part of him aches for John living in self-hatred and self-denial, but another part is angry at him for turning that hate outwards on innocent people… on Sherlock.

“I’m… my therapist is helping me deal with all of this,” John continues in a low voice. “I have… a lot of issues to work through but I’m getting better, I think. I don’t want to be that person anymore. I don’t think you really want to have anything to do with me anymore but I want you to know that I am working on it and I want to be the sort of person you believed me to be.”

Sherlock thought that would be enough – John being sorry and determined to be better would be enough, but now everything that John has said seems insurmountable. He came back so willing to let John win back his trust, wanting to trust John again, but hearing John say all this, hearing the man he’d given his heart to say that he used Sherlock as a punching bag to take out his frustrations, his inability to accept himself… maybe there’s nothing to salvage. His earlier determination to fix things between them suddenly seems stupidly naive. He thinks John’s probably hoping for him to say something, but he can’t. What is there to say? “It’s okay, John, let’s be friends again”? He thought he could do that, but he can’t, at least not now. He takes a sip of his tea. It’s oversteeped.

John sniffs a little and clears his throat. “So… that’s what I wanted to say. Thank you for hearing me out. I’m sorry. I’ll get out of your hair now. Just...” he hesitates. “Before I go, please, just tell me… how are you? Not right now, but… how have you been? Are you… are you okay?”

How on earth is he supposed to answer that question?

He shrugs one shoulder. “I’m fine,” he forces the words out. “You didn’t break me, if that’s what you’re asking,” he specifies, perhaps a bit too harshly. “I just needed… some time for myself, as they say.”

John just looks at him and then nods. “I hope… I hope you can believe me that I wish you the best.”

It’s evident that John is about to leave now, and Sherlock suddenly feels something like panic rising in his chest.

“John,” he says, because the only thing he knows for certain is that if he doesn’t say anything now he’ll never have another chance.

“Yeah?”

“Could I see Rosie sometime?” Sherlock asks. It seems like the only possible way to maintain a tenuous link to John under the circumstances.

John’s face goes soft. “Of course,” he says, a little incredulous. “Anytime. Molly has her on Tuesday afternoon, you could join them, if you want? I think they were planning to go to the zoo.”

Sherlock nods, grateful that John suggested Molly rather than himself. “Yes. That would be… acceptable.”

Something that looks like the beginning of a smile flickers on John’s face. “I’ll let Molly know, then.”

“Thank you.”

Saying goodbye is impossible, no standard phrase applicable to their situations. They hold each other’s gaze and just nod instead, both desperately clinging to their composure. Then John faces about and leaves. The cup of tea Sherlock made for him is untouched.

Some indeterminable amount of time later, Mrs Hudson comes up. She finds him still sitting there, not having moved a muscle, and for once she doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask questions, just pulls his head to her chest and holds him.

*

Sherlock can barely wrap his head around what he’s feeling about the whole thing, but it helps to relay it all to Ella in impersonal, dispassionate terms. Ella isn’t like Dr Schneider, her gaze isn’t so piercing, she doesn’t make Sherlock feel like she already knows everything about him so there’s no point in hiding or pretending, but she knows John, she knows their history, and that makes it a bit easier. She tells him she’s pleased with the progress he’s made since the last time she saw him – and Sherlock knows that she’s right, that he’s so much more self-aware, more conscious and less afraid of his own emotions now, but at the same time it feels like all of the sense of peace and clarity he cultivated while he was away has crumbled into dust. Ella says that was only to be expected, that coming back to what made him go away in the first place was bound to be a setback, but that he should be able get back on track much faster now.

Sherlock spends a lot of time after his first session with her wondering what he really feels about John now, if he actually wants to see him again. The answers are less clear and less forthcoming than they were when he was far from London, far from John and everything was much less immediate and he didn’t know anything about John’s own feelings.

Pretty much everything that John revealed to him came as a surprise. He knew that John still harboured resentment about Sherlock’s faked death, despite the forgiveness Sherlock had forced out of him, and he knew that John’s desire for a domestic life was something he forced himself into rather than something he actually wanted, but he didn’t realise to what extent the two were linked. That John wanted to resume their old live but simultaneously didn’t want to give into that desire because of how Sherlock had hurt him. Sherlock’s betrayal was clearly, clearly at the start of John’s spiral into anger and drinking and violence, and Sherlock cannot help feeling guilty about that. On the other hand… that didn’t give John the right to treat Sherlock the way he did, he knows that now.

He has no idea what to do with the knowledge that apparently John didn’t love Mary as much as Sherlock thought he did. Sherlock liked Mary, truly, and considered her his friend in her own right (even though, in hindsight, he thinks that a friend probably shouldn’t have shot him in the chest), but he’s well aware that most of his appreciation came from the fact that he believed that she made John happy, that she was what John wanted. And now it turns out that none of that was true.

And the revelation of John’s bisexuality… the feelings it has produced are so different from what he thinks they would have been if he’d found about it Before. Before, he probably would have allowed himself a little hope that perhaps he might have a slim chance. Now, it makes him almost nauseous. He has sympathy for John, he does, he can imagine how hard it must have been for him to live his life without being true to who he was. But the truth is that this is what led John to doing what he did to him, and it hurts.

He tries to take Ella’s advice to heart and to give himself time to figure out how he feels and what he wants. It feels like giving himself time is all he ever does these days and he wishes he could be done with it now, that he could stop with the constant self-examination and uncertainty and just know what to do, but it’s clearly not to be. So he just… waits, and hopes he’ll be able to settle into a sort of normalcy at some point.

Molly texts him the day after John’s visit, excited that they’re about to babysit together. They arrange to meet before the entrance to the London Zoo and Sherlock arrives a bit late just to be sure that he’ll avoid whoever brings Rosie. He doesn’t think it would be John, but he’d rather not risk it.

The afternoon is perfect. Rosie doesn’t remember him, naturally, and she’s a bit shy at first, but she gets over it quickly. She seems like a happy, well-adjusted child and not at all affected by anything that happened around her in the first months of her life, and Sherlock is grateful for that. She looks a lot like John.

“How are things between you and John?” Molly asks him carefully as they walk side by side between the exhibits.

Sherlock shrugs. The truth is that  he’s now less certain than ever if there’s anything between him and John at all.

Molly takes a deep breath. “Listen, Sherlock,” she says, and Sherlock can tell by her flustered tone of voice that he’s not going to like what she says. “I’ve been wondering.... I mean, I talked to Greg, after I saw you in Bristol, and he told me – something that I didn’t know before. About – about how exactly you got those injuries in Culverton Smith’s hospital.” She lets out a shuddering breath, her knuckles white where she grips the handle of Rosie’s pushchair. “And I’ve been wondering if the reason you left was… more of the same. You don’t have to answer, or tell me anything. I just want you to know that I’m here for you no matter what and so is Greg. You – you’re not alone.” She gulps. “Rosie, look, elephants!”

Sherlock’s grateful that she doesn’t look at him and busies herself with Rosie instead, letting him take in her words in relative privacy. He doesn’t like her knowing, and he’s certainly not going to share any details, but at the same time, it’s a weight off his shoulders that there’s one person with whom he doesn’t have to pretend and obfuscate the reasons for his distance from John, and her support warms him unexpectedly.

“Thank you, Molly,” he says quietly, watching the elephants with single-minded attention. “You’re a good friend.”

*

That evening as he’s getting ready for bed, he receives a text from John, the first in many, many months.

Rosie adored you.

Just three words, but Sherlock can read them for what they are: John reaching out, carefully, in a way that doesn’t require Sherlock to respond, that would be easy to ignore.

Does he wish to respond? Sherlock considers it for long minutes, then texts back.

The feeling was entirely mutual. SH

He sends the text with his heart racing, knowing that it’s not just a text – that by sending it he’s permitting John to re-establish contact between.

That’s great to hear. She’s been talking my ear off about ‘Shock’ all evening, I think you made a greater impression than penguins :)

A longer text this time, a bit of flattery… John’s trying, obviously. Making an effort to talk to Sherlock without scaring him off. Sherlock can appreciate that – he remembers very well how hard it was to find the right words when the felt like John didn’t want to hear from him.

Her taste is clearly impeccable. SH

I’m sure she would love seeing you again, if you wanted.

I’d like that. SH

They start texting more or less regularly after that. It’s nothing of import, mostly about Rosie, always with John initiating and always painfully polite, but it’s something. Baby steps. Sherlock continues to spend time with Rosie, a few hours here and there, mostly with Molly and sometimes with Mrs Hudson, and he loves every minute of it. He never imagined he’d be any good with children and he certainly never wanted any of his own, but he likes spending time with Rosie. Perhaps it’s just because she’s John daughter, but Sherlock has known ever since the day she was born that he would do anything for her.

He lets things develop naturally. He gets closer to Rosie, the conversations with John grow longer and less stilted. He continues to see Ella regularly and he thinks it helps him feel a bit more grounded. He solves a few cases. He eventually decides to take Sam and Patrick up on their offer and spends another night with them, and then another, and another. He’s intrigued by their dynamic and since it’s clear he can’t have anything like that himself now (or perhaps ever, but he prefers not to think about that), observing their relationship seems like the next best thing. He still doesn’t really understand why they like having a third person there – he’s certain he wouldn’t want to share in their position – but he’s glad that they do. Seeing their love and trust for each other up close somehow makes Sherlock feel better about the world, gives him hope for he’s not sure what. They never get quite as rough with each other as they did the first night (Sherlock thinks he probably made them a bit uncomfortable with his questions) but there are still clear traces of that dynamic of their interaction – the way Sam sometimes manhandles Patrick who turns into putty in his hands, the way Patrick scrambles to obey when Sam tells him to do something in a particular tone of voice, the way everything Sam does seems to be driven by the need to make sure Patrick’s enjoying himself. Sherlock wonders what they’re like when they’re alone together and yearns to have something like that for himself one day.

Sometimes when he’s alone in his bedroom with just his hand and his small but choice collection of toys, he imagines himself with a man who uses him and cherishes him at the same time, who claims him as his own but simultaneously makes him feel safe and loved. His partner in these fantasies is no one specific, just a blurry shape with kind eyes and firm hands and a big hard cock, but somehow by the time Sherlock comes all over his chest, the faceless man has invariably morphed into John. It makes Sherlock a bit ashamed and angry at himself that despite everything, he still really only wants John, but there’s no point denying obvious facts.

Maybe that will change in time. A few months ago, he could never have imagined considering masturbation something more than just a necessary evil, let alone enjoying and even craving the sweaty messiness of sex. Maybe he just needs more time. Maybe in a few months or years, he’ll be able to learn to love someone else.

Then Sherlock meets Jack, and that convinces him that anything is possible because despite his previous conviction, love at first sight does in fact exist. It only takes one look into Jack’s deep, soulful eyes and he’s lost. Jack looks at him from his kennel at an animal centre in Battersea, his ears floppy, his tongue hanging out and his tail wagging, and Sherlock falls in love instantly. Jack is a cross between a Dachshund and a Cocker Spaniel, with soft black fur, a slight limp due to an old injury and a very cuddly disposition. Mrs Hudson is not best pleased when Sherlock first brings him home because she specifically said she’d only allow a short-haired breed, but she soon softens because Jack is simply too adorable to resist. Sherlock doesn’t take any cases for a week and spends his time helping Jack adjust to his new home. By the end of the week, they are well on the way to becoming best friends. Sherlock marvels at what a profound effect Jack has on his well-being. He’s not alone anymore, and that gives him back some of the confidence he’s lost since returning to London – simply because there’s someone who’s excited when he gets home and wants to cuddle with him on the sofa and benefits from having Sherlock in his life.

Jack makes him happy. He feels better – good enough that he starts texting John unprompted, like he used to do back in the day. He sends him a close-up photo of a dead man’s hand and texts, What do you think could have caused this rash? SH. It’s only after he’s sent the text that he realises he’s effectively asked for John’s help with a case. It seems like years since the last time he did that, but it doesn’t feel as unnatural as he would have thought. John offers some valuable insight and Sherlock ends up updating him on the progress of the case via text. When he gets back home to Jack, Sherlock finds himself smiling and feeling truly hopeful for the first time in weeks.

Then, several weeks after the day at the zoo, Molly comes down with a cold the day before they’re due for another of their now habitual outings with Rosie, and Mrs Hudson is unavailable (a date – Sherlock prefers not to think about that or his mind palace might get irrecoverably corrupted). John texts him to let him know that he trusts Sherlock to take care of Rosie on his own, but Sherlock realises that this is an opportunity.

You could join us. SH

He drops his phone immediately after sending the text as if it could explode at any moment. There. He’s done it. It was up to him to extend an invitation – he knows very well that John would never try to force himself back into Sherlock’s life, Sherlock had to ask him to. And he thinks he might be ready now – for some sort of face-to-face interaction with John, at any rate. A brief outing with Rosie. Perhaps that’s just what they need.

It takes John a five minutes and thirty three seconds to reply.

You sure?

It’s the first time either of them has acknowledged that they are not, in fact, just polite acquaintances. Sherlock swallows. Is he sure? He looks at Jack, dozing next to him on the sofa, and gathers his courage.

Would I ask if I weren’t? SH

There is another long pause. Then:

I would really like that. Thank you.

They meet by the pond in Regent’s Park to watch ducks. Sherlock wanted something simple and close to his home so that he could easily escape if it proved too much, and he takes Jack with him for support even though he really can’t be trusted around birds, but in the end… it’s okay.

Rosie shrieks with delight when she sees him and Sherlock greets her with the sort of exuberance he reserves only for her, picking her up and spinning her around, but all of his senses are acutely aware of John standing right there, at parade rest, seemingly calm but actually nervous. He looks… better than the last time Sherlock saw him. A little less thin, a little less tired, a little less like a man on his way to the gallows. He offers Sherlock a small, careful smile. Sherlock smiles back.

It’s all right. They have a dog and a toddler there who are enough of a distraction. They talk mostly to Rosie and Jack rather than to each other and they always maintain respectable distance from each other. They are both careful and wary and polite, John especially so, as if he expected Sherlock to storm off at any moment. But they are there, together.

“You’re really good with her,” John points out when they sit down on a bench, Rosie on Sherlock’s lap with a pouch of baby food while Jack pesters John for head scratches.

“Thank you. I try,” Sherlock murmurs, feeling the subtle flush that can only be caused by John’s praise creep up his neck. He didn’t know he could still feel that. He tries to come up with something more to say. “It’s amazing how quickly she’s learning. I’m sorry I missed so much of her progress.”

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, he realises it was the wrong thing to say. John bows his head.

“I’m sorry I pushed you away from her.”

“I told you to stop apologising. Your self-recrimination doesn’t help anyone,” Sherlock says stiffly. “Just… do what you said you’d do. Get better. Treat me better,” he adds. It sounds unnatural and artificial to say a thing like that, but Sherlock feels like it needs to be said – for his own sake more than for John’s, perhaps.

“Sherlock,” John says with so much urgency that Sherlock turns his head to look at him as if obeying an invisible force. John’s eyes are intense and fierce. “I promise you – I will never lay a hand on you in anger ever again, or… or take my own issues out on you. I promise you.”

Sherlock holds his gaze for a long time. He knows that John means it with every fibre of his being, and perhaps that’s enough. He’s filled with a sudden feeling of profound relief: this is what he needed, to see John determined to do better by him. Only time will tell if John will keep his word, but for now, the intent is enough. They can work through the rest.

He nods. “Thank you.”

The intensity of their eye contact makes him feel rather awkward, and after a few more seconds he has to clear his throat and look away, occupy himself with wiping Rosie’s mouth. He feels lighter than he has in weeks.

“You look better than the last time I saw you,” he says lightly, trying to pretend that this isn’t one of the most significant conversations they’ve ever had.

“Not that that’s saying much,” John says ruefully. “But I… feel a bit better, I think. I’m… so glad that we’re talking. Texting.”

Sherlock glances at him. “Me too,” he says truthfully, and he finds himself smiling a little. Tentatively, John smiles back.

“So… are you very busy with cases?” John asks. He’s still hesitant, careful, but some weight seems to have lifted off his shoulders.

“Not at the moment,” Sherlock says. “But I have a client scheduled for tomorrow morning who thinks his wife is a vampire.”

John huffs out a laugh and Sherlock’s heart lurches in his chest. He loves that sound. He’d forgotten how much he loved that sound.

“A vampire, huh? And you willing to give him the time of day?”

Sherlock shrugs. “The case has some features of interest. And you know how it is – anything to stave off boredom.” It’s not entirely true, not anymore. These days, Sherlock would rather die of boredom than face another master villain, another terrorist plot, another criminal network. He wants something… not simpler, certainly not easier… but smaller-scale. Less likely to end in a world of pain.

He hesitates for a fraction of a second, then says quietly, “I could use your assistance.”

He can hear John’s breath catch, see his Adam’s apple bob.

“Afraid of vampires, are you?” John asks, trying for a light-hearted tone and failing miserably.

“One cannot be too careful,” Sherlock says, and he is at that moment being extraordinarily careful, and so is John, ke knows. It feels like they’re trying to dismantle a bomb together.

“I have therapy at nine,” John says slowly. “I could come by afterwards, if that’s okay?”

Back in the day, John would ditch therapy in favour of a case in a heartbeat. It means so much that now he takes it seriously enough not to do that.

“All right,” Sherlock says. They smile at each other tentatively again. It should be hateful, this sort of cautious, reserved interaction, but instead Sherlock is just relieved, happy that they can manage that now. Baby steps. “How’s the therapy going?” he asks, hoping that he isn’t overstepping a line.

John shrugs, looking down at Jack. “Good. I mean, it’s awful and I hate it, but I’m making progress, I think.” He laughs self-deprecatingly. “Turns out that for therapy to work, you actually have to make an effort.”

“Yes,” Sherlock agrees slowly. “I – I go to therapy too, you know.” He means it as an expression of solidarity, to let John know that he’s not alone in trying to get better, but John looks stricken. Sherlock winces internally – perhaps he shouldn’t have said that. But no, he checks himself immediately. John should know. He has to know, if they are ever to recover. “I started when I was in Switzerland and it helped me a lot, so now I see Ella.”

“Oh,” John says, obviously at a loss for what to say. Sherlock hates the awkwardness and tension, but they’ll just have to bear it and face reality, otherwise they might as well say goodbye forever. “That’s… good. I’m glad you’ve had someone to help.” He frowns at his knees for a moment and then looks up at Sherlock, earnest and determined. “Sherlock… thank you for being so nice to me, I know I don’t deserve that and I really appreciate it. And if you… if you can give me another chance to be your friend I promise I won’t let it go to waste this time.”

Sherlock looks into John’s stormy blue eyes. Nothing is magically solved, but hearing John say he wants to be his friend is everything to Sherlock.

“I’ll hold you to that.”

Chapter Text

Jack starts yapping as soon as he hears someone climbing up the stairs, but Sherlock ignores him – he’s trying to teach him it’s not okay to interrupt Sherlock while he’s playing the violin unless it’s an emergency, and this is just John. This is the fourth time they’ve arranged to meet after the day in the park – there was the vampire case (which naturally didn’t turn out to involve any actual vampires), a small matter involving a lost family heirloom and another outing with Rosie. It’s been… good, Sherlock thinks. They’re nowhere near their previous rapport, but the atmosphere between them is getting less strained and awkward. It’s progress.

This time, John has agreed to come over to help Sherlock go through some cold case files, looking for a possible link to a new string of stolen paintings. He continues playing even as John enters the flat, letting the piece reach its end. It’s essentially finished now and he’s rather pleased with how it has turned out.

“Hello, John,” he says when the last notes die down. He turns to face John and smiles, happy to note that once again, John looks a little bit better than the last time Sherlock saw him. It’s a very pleasant trend to witness and it feels incredibly right – they should benefit from each other’s presence, like they used to in the past.

“Hi. That was lovely. One of yours?” John asks.

“Indeed.” Sherlock loosens the strings and places the violin back in its case. He’s surprised John was able to tell, his knowledge of music is rather abysmal.

“Well, it was beautiful,” John says, and when Sherlock looks at him he’s smiling, making warmth bloom in Sherlock’s chest. Will he ever be immune to John’s praise? Probably not. “Does it have a name?”

Sherlock hesitates for a second, wondering if it would be best to keep this to himself for now, then says, “I call it The Beekeeper’s Sonata.”

“Beekeeper’s?” John repeats, predictably. “Unusual name.”

“I dabbled in beekeeping while I was away. I – I had a neighbour who taught me.”

“Oh? He must have made quite an impression, if it earned him a sonata.”

“Yes.” Sherlock stands there looking at John, considering. He didn’t expect this. He didn’t expect to play this particular piece, and he didn’t expect John to come early enough to hear it, but now… Maybe it’s an opportunity he should use. “We were lovers,” he says before he can think better of it. He’s not sure why he’s telling John. To show John he’s not broken and capable of sexual relationships like anyone else, to see if John cares, see how he’ll react? All of the above, probably.

John gives a full-body jerk, as if someone had just jumped at him from behind a corner and scared him half to death.

“L-lovers?” he stammers, staring at Sherlock, as if he wasn’t quite sure what the word meant.

Sherlock shrugs, feigning nonchalance, and begins gathering up his sheet music. He doesn’t look at John. “Friends with benefits. Whatever you want to call it.”

“But not boyfriends?” John asks slowly after a moment. Sherlock can’t quite interpret his tone.

“No,” Sherlock admits, finally daring meet John’s eyes only to find there’s no need for his courage because John is studiously avoiding his gaze. “But… he was very kind to me. I needed that,” he adds after a moment. And why shouldn’t he, really? Why shouldn’t he let John know about all of this? Robert was important to him. The fact that he has a sex life now is important to him. There’s no reason why he should keep it a secret.

“Yeah, I can imagine you did,” John sighs. He seems rather rattled by the news. Sherlock can clearly see his internal battle, trying to decide whether he should ask for more details. John has always been… weird about the idea of Sherlock and love, Sherlock and sex (but then again, Sherlock used to be weird about it, too), and recent events obviously haven’t improved matters. John clears his throat awkwardly. “And now? Is… is someone being kind to you now?” he asks, even though he doesn’t seem to particularly want to hear the answer.

“Yes,” Sherlock says firmly. He thinks it might give John a heart attack if Sherlock told him he has regular threesomes with a married couple, but he’s not going to pretend to be celibate. He has sex now. He likes it. Deal with it, John.

John nods, looking everywhere but at Sherlock. “Good… that’s good,” he says but he looks vaguely nauseated, and that makes Sherlock bristle unexpectedly. Is this still John’s latent homophobia? The only man he’s ever had sex  with (for a given definition of sex) continues having and actively enjoying sex with men. He’s gay, gay, gay. Does that still disgust John on some level? Or is it more specific, more personal – does John disapprove of the way Sherlock has chosen to cope with what happened? Does he think it would be more normal if Sherlock had decided to abstain from sex instead? That thought annoys Sherlock even more, because John has absolutely no right to judge him for that. He opens his mouth to reply with something ill-advised and venomous, yes, John, it’s very good, I fuck and get fucked regularly and I love every minute of it, what’s it to you, but he changes tactic at the last second.

“And you?”

“Hmm? What about me?” Slightly panicked.

“Is there someone?” Sherlock asks, pleased how in control he sounds.

“Oh. No.”

“No men, then?” Sherlock presses, despite the twinge of fear in his gut. This is a dangerous topic, he knows, but he can’t help poking the wasps’ nest to see how John will react. They’d have to cross this bridge at some point, anyway, so it might as well be now. John looks up at him sharply and for a second Sherlock’s entire body freezes in anticipation of attack, but there’s no anger in John’s eyes. Just… sadness.

“No,” John says quietly. “That part of my life is over, I think.” Sherlock wants to point out that that part of John’s life hasn’t even properly begun, but John continues. “I really don’t think I can be… intimate... with anyoneever again. Just thinking about… makes me want to throw up.”

His face does look a bit greenish, and Sherlock’s anger deflates. It’s odd to think that the same event that kick-started Sherlock’s sex life ended John’s. It seems to have pushed the two of them to the opposite ends of the sexuality spectrum; Sherlock’s libido speaks loud and clear to him now, demanding to be fed at regular intervals, while John “Three Continents” Watson seems to have become more sex-repulsed than Sherlock had ever been. Sherlock isn’t sure how he feels about that. Before, he would have been pleased if John decided not to pursue any more relationships, but now it makes him feel uncomfortable – one more indication of how wrong things have become.

“Maybe you just need more time,” he suggests, surprised at how gentle his voice comes out, repeating the mantra he’s lived by the last few months.

John shrugs noncommittally, but it’s clear that he just doesn’t want to discuss this further and doesn’t actually believe Sherlock could be right. He glances at Sherlock from the corner of his eye and it’s obvious that this conversation has brought something else to his mind.

“Sherlock… why did you never try to defend yourself?” he asks, sounding miserable. “Did you really think I was entitled?”

The change of topic catches Sherlock off guard. His throat constricts, but he forces himself to speak. This is another thing they’d have to discuss at some point anyway. “Yes,” he says simply, because it’s the truth.  “All I ever did after I came back… was just a way to try to make up for all the pain I’d caused you. In a way, I was glad when you…” he lets John fill in the bits he’s unable to articulate, “because I felt like if only you hurt me enough, then we’d be even and I’d have… done my penance. Earned your forgiveness.” It’s unbearable, thinking about what he felt then, what he believed, especially when he knows these feelings aren’t all that far away. He blinks back tears.

John doesn’t. A tear runs down the side of his nose, unimpeded. He lifts a hand and reaches to touch Sherlock’s shoulder and Sherlock flinches involuntarily, his whole body jerking away from John. John withdraws his hand immediately as if Sherlock were made of fire, and with a sudden rush of disappointment Sherlock realises that despite his body’s unconscious reaction, what he wants more than anything is for John to touch him. A kind, comforting, affectionate touch from John. What would it be like, if he hadn’t flinched? John’s hand, coming to rest on Sherlock’s shoulder. The weight of it, warmth seeping through the fabric of Sherlock’s shirt. And then -- John pulling him closer, wrapping his arms around him, holding Sherlock close to his chest.

A fantasy, but his skin screams with the need for it.

In two quick strides he reaches his chair and sits down, letting Jack jump to his lap. It’s not the same at all, but it’s nevertheless a warm, living creature willing to provide Sherlock with its comforting presence, and Sherlock takes what he can get.

“Sorry,” John murmurs, even though it’s unclear what exactly he’s apologising for. Sherlock strokes Jack’s head. “I shouldn’t have made you talk about it.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “But we have to talk about it, don’t we? We can never get past this unless we talk about it.”

John watches him intently as Sherlock continues petting Jack. This is emphatically not how he expected today to go. They were just supposed to work on a case.

John slowly crosses the room to the chair opposite Sherlock’s, the chair Sherlock keeps trying and failing not to think of as John’s chair, and he sits down slowly, gingerly, as if expecting Sherlock to shout at him that he has no right to sit in that chair anymore.

“You’re right, of course. But you understand -- please tell me you understand now that it’s not true. There’s nothing you did or could ever have done that would give me any right to treat you the way I did.”

“I know.” I’d still go to hell and back for you, Sherlock wants to say but doesn’t,  I just won’t let you be the one who pushes me there. The intensity of the feeling surprises him – to what extent he still wants to be there for John, help him, do everything in his power to make John’s life easier, better. Is that wrong? Should he not feel like that anymore? He trusts himself to put an end to things if necessary, he won’t let himself be mistreated anymore, but he still wants John’s happiness more than anything. He still wants John to touch him – with kindness. With love.

Sherlock continues to think about his need for John’s touch even after John has left. It’s even stronger now than it used to. He’s wanted John’s touch for as long as he can remember, before he was even able to put a name to his feelings, but now it’s a visceral need: he wants John’s hands to heal the wounds John’s hands have inflicted.

Is it possible? Could they ever reach a point where they would be able to touch each other affectionately? As friends, of course, only as friends – a simple pat on the shoulder would mean so much, a hug would be miraculous. Still, Sherlock’s treacherous brain doesn’t hesitate to supply images of John touching him in ways that are not platonic at all. It’s strange, because in the same way that he flinched from John’s touch earlier despite wanting it, his skin crawls now at the thought of John kissing him, stroking his bare skin, reaching between his legs, but at the same time it makes his breath hitch with need, he yearns for it, craves it.

John making love to him. Rewriting the memories of the assault with tenderness, erasing bruises with caresses, dissolving anger and pain with mutual desire and care.

It can never happen. Even if they somehow manage to reestablish their old level of trust and friendship, nothing has changed about the fact that John doesn’t want him like that. They might be able to hug one day, but that’s it. Everything else Sherlock will have to look for elsewhere, and that will have to be enough.

The pain and loneliness of that thought is crushing.

He thinks about giving another chance to the dating app he downloaded a few weeks ago. He’s used it for two hookups so far – he slept with the first man but not with the second, whose level of personal hygiene turned out to be quite alarming at close range and it’s rather put Sherlock off trying to meet random people off the internet. He twiddles with his phone in his hand, considering his options. He’s not in the mood for a quick fuck with a stranger, that’s clear, but he’s not sure Patrick and Sam can give him what he wants, either. He remembers the first time he let Robert penetrate him. He was so caring and gentle and focused entirely on Sherlock. That’s what he needs right now. He wants to be made love to. And if that’s not possible, then at least something soft, gentle. And Patrick and Sam… they see Sherlock to have fun, not to care for him. They always make sure Sherlock enjoys himself and they’ve proved themselves to be very willing to accommodate Sherlock’s wishes, but what Sherlock wants now seems so much more… intimate than anything they’ve done so far and Sherlock isn’t sure if it’s appropriate to ask for it. But on the other hand, what other options does he have? Sit at home moping because he doesn’t have anyone to give him what he needs? Unacceptable. Jack is a great source of comfort, but the conversation with John unsettled him, and he needs more than that.

*

Less than an hour later, he stares at the front door of Sam and Patrick’s house and feels like an idiot. What on earth is he doinghere? He didn’t even text in advance, and it’s Saturday afternoon, what right does he have to show up unannounced? And for what? It’s not like he can ask them for what he wants, even if he were able to put it into words. He could have asked Robert, maybe, but not them. There are rules to what they do, and he’s sure this would be breaking some of them. Patrick and Sam have made it very clear that they want an occasional sex partner, not anything resembling a polyamorous relationship. And that’s fine, it’s not like Sherlock wants that, but he’s certain that the sort of tenderness and intimacy he craves right now is something they reserve for each other, and asking for it would be crossing a boundary he’s not supposed to cross.

What are they doing right now? Cleaning up after lunch, maybe, having coffee together, sitting in companionable silence as each of them does his own thing. Sherlock has no right to intrude on their domesticity – he leeches on their privacy as it is. They invite him, yes, but they don’t know that the sex is only a part of why he comes, that he watches voraciously for all the little ways that show how much they love and care for each other, touches and looks and gestures that they’re probably not even aware of, little glimpses of a healthy, loving relationship that are the next best thing to having one himself. How could he possibly ask them for anything more?

He’s about to turn on his heel and leave when Sam opens the door.

“Scott, what are you doing here?” he asks, clearly having spotted Sherlock through the window. “Are you all right?”

Sherlock wishes the ground would swallow him. “Sorry. I’m fine. I’ll just go.”

“Don’t be stupid. We’ve been watching you standing here for five minutes. Come in.” He opens the door wider and steps aside.

Feeling like a fool, Sherlock obeys.

“Hey, Scott, are you all right?” Patrick asks him as soon as Sherlock steps inside their unbearably domestic living room. He really must look awful, if they both immediately ask him how he is.

“I’m fine, and I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to intrude, I was just…” he trails off, not sure how to continue. What can he say? In the area so I thought I’d pop in?

“It’s okay,” Sam says softly as he takes Sherlock’s coat and Patrick ushers him to sit down on the sofa. They both look at him with slightly worried expressions, and who can blame them? Sherlock just spend several long minutes just standing in front of their house, staring at their door like a madman.

“I wanted some company and I… ended up here,” Sherlock says lamely. “I know I shouldn’t have, I should’ve texted at least…”

“Scott, it’s okay,” Sam repeats with a little more emphasis. “We don’t kick friends out just because they showed up unannounced. We just want to know what the matter is because sorry, but you don’t look fine to me.”

Sherlock looks at him and then at Patrick, who’s sat down next to Sherlock, looking at him with an earnest expression.

“But I’m not your friend,” Sherlock blurts out. “I’m just…”

“What, our sex toy?” Patrick asks. He places a hand on Sherlock’s jittering thigh and leans forward. “Scott. Surely you agree that we’ve spent a bit too much time together, not to mention too many orgasms, to pretend we’re still just strangers who don’t give a damn about each other. So maybe our activities have been a bit monothematic so far, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care if you need something from us. Which seems to be the case right now.”

Sherlock is speechless. Of course he’s developed a sort of fondness for them, they’re the only people, discounting Rosie, with whom he has any sort of physical contact on a regular basis and they’ve always been good to him, but it never occurred to him that theycould see him as anything more than someone who’s sexual desires happen to mesh well with theirs, someone to get off with when they want a bit of variety.

Patrick and Sam do the thing where they have an entire conversation just with a look.

“Let me tell you what I think,” Sam says slowly, turning back from Patrick to Sherlock. “I think that something happened that upset you – I don’t know what, you can tell us if you want, or not, that’s up to you – and you were feeling… lonely, and you came here because you wanted something from us, but you didn’t think we would want to give it, and that’s why you didn’t text, or ring the bell.”

Sherlock stares. Did Sam just deduce him? Sam, whom Sherlock appreciates for being a caring person and an attentive lover, but whom he otherwise sees as gym rat with more muscles than brains? He’s suddenly ashamed of himself.

Sherlock nods, heat rising in his cheeks. Sam crouches at his feet, places one hand on Sherlock’s knee and finds Sherlock’s downcast eyes.

“Well, try us,” he says firmly.

“I…” Sherlock glances back at Patrick, who smiles at him encouragingly. He could tell them.  He wants to tell them, even, but the words don’t come. “I want…”He’s able to ask for things in bed – where he wants to be touched, how he wants to be fucked, what he wants to do to the others – but this? How can he say that he wants to be made love to, that he’s come here to beg for affection? He realises suddenly that unless he does something right now to stop it he’s going to start crying, right here on Patrick and Sam’s sofa.

“Edinburgh, I think,” Patrick says illogically. It’s a complete non sequitur to Sherlock but it seems to mean something to Sam, who nods. He reaches up to cup Sherlock’s cheek.

“Would you like us to take care of you?” he asks softly. Sherlock’s breath leaves him in a rush of relief.

“Yes. Please,” he murmurs weakly, and for some reason Patrick and Sam beam at him.

After that, everything happens as if in a fog. He doesn’t have to do anything, just acquiesce when Patrick and Sam ask if what they’re doing is okay, let them undress him, kiss him, touch him. It’s the most passive he’s ever been in a sexual encounter. He’s often let his partner (or partners) take charge, certainly, but never like this, never feeling like his only job is to let himself be pampered.

Sam and Patrick touch him with gentle hands and lips and tongues, careful and almost reverent, and Sherlock soon loses track of who is where and doing what. The only thing that matters is that he’s safe, with people who care about him enough to do this for him, give him the best approximation of what it feels like to be loved and cherished. He lets himself succumb to their gentle ministrations as he’s guided to the bedroom and spread out on the bed and every single inch of him is kissed and stroked and caressed. Eventually he ends up on his front, getting a sorely-needed back massage that lulls him into a strange state between sleepiness and arousal, and then whoever isn’t loosening his trapezius muscles trickles massage oil down his crack and starts fingering him open in the most teasing way imaginable, until Sherlock is trembling with want and humping the sheets. Then Patrick gathers him in his arms and Sam settles between Sherlock’s legs, swallowing him to the root while pushing two fingers inside, and its bliss.



Afterwards they lie in bed, Sherlock sandwiched between the other two, feeling warm and comfortable and greatful. He’s really been very lucky in his choice of partners so far. And maybe this luck will hold. Maybe he can find a stable partner all. Maybe it won’t matter if they’re not in love with each other as long as they’re willing to take care of each other. Patrick and Sam have just shown him that it’s possible to make someone feel cared for and wanted without being in love with them. Maybe there’s no reason not to be hopeful that he could find a deep, meaningful relationship despite what he still feels for John.

He stretches, enjoying the lassitude in his muscles. Patrick gives him a sleepy smile. His arm is thrown over Sherlock’s chest, the tips of his fingers stroking Sam’s shoulder.

“Feeling better?” he asks.

“Much,” Sherlock says, and it’s the truth. He doesn’t know how he could have lived without physical affection in the past. “What happened in Edinburgh?” he asks.

“What?” Patrick murmurs. “Oh, nothing. It’s just a codeword. When we first got together, I was…”

“Not very good at asking for what he wanted,” Sam supplies.

“Yes. So Sam came up with this system where every act was a different city, and then he’d just ask me where I wanted to go,” Patrick grins at Sam with so much love in his eyes it takes Sherlock’s breath away.

“Clever,” Sherlock says, but what he means is thoughtful and romantic and sweet and I wish someone would do something like that for me one day. Maybe someone will.

“Trouble is you develop a sort of Pavlovian reaction to random city names,” Sam says. “Pretty inconvenient when planning business trips.”

They all laugh. How amazing, laughing in bed, relaxed and comfortable.

“Thank you for today,” Sherlock says seriously.

“We were happy to be of service,” Patrick smirks cheekily and he turns his head to give Sherlock a sloppy kiss. He’s cheerful and relaxed, but Sherlock still senses something he isn’t saying.

“But?” he prompts.

“Nothing. No buts,” Sam interjects, and this time Sherlock doesn’t need to by privy to their special means of communication to hear the tone of warning in Sam’s voice.

Patrick glances at him, then shrugs. “We were happy to do it and we’ll be happy to do it again if you need us to, Scott,” he says, looking Sherlock firmly in the eye. “But I think you’re wasting your time with us. Don’t get me wrong, we adore you and we’ll be devastated once you get fed up with us, but it’s obvious to me that you need something that we can’t give you. You want more than this, you want…”

“What you two have,” Sherlock murmurs. “Yes.”

“And you deserve that!” Patrick says earnestly. “But you’re not going to find by wasting your time with us, is he, Sam?”

“No, but I don’t think it’s our place to point that out, especially when he’s naked in our bed!”

“It’s all right,” Sherlock says, and honestly, it sort of is. He’s less ashamed about being so transparent than he would have thought. “He’s right. I’m just… not ready.” It’s infuriating, to want something so much yet know it’s too soon to look for it. He’s starting to believe that even though his heart is likely to remain John’s for the rest of his life, he may be able to set a part of it aside for someone else, but he knows that before that can happen, his relationship with John must reach some sort of resolution. They need to stop walking on eggshells around each other, find balance. He knows he wouldn’t have the emotional capacity to develop a new relationship when things with John are still so fragile.

Patrick leans in and kisses him again, this time soft and chaste in a way that somehow manages to feel more friendly than sexual.

“Well, when you are, just remember that I know exactly who I’d introduce you to,” he says smugly.

Sam groans. “God save us from Patrick on a matchmaking spree.”

Sherlock smiles. He feels surprisingly okay about all of this, he realises. He let Patrick and Sam see him in a moment of weakness, let them help him, let them know that what he truly craves is a loving relationship. And it’s fine. It’s good to be known and understood. And if Patrick knows someone who might be a good fit for Sherlock when the time comes, why should he protest? He’d certainly trust Patrick’s judgment more than the algorithms of a mobile app.

He relaxes more fully against the pillows. He’ll have to get up soon and go home to Jack, but there’s still time to enjoy the afterglow and the company. “You know, I might take you up on that offer.”

*

His improved mood continues the next morning, which is good, because the time has finally come for his brunch with The Woman, and that is certainly something he’d rather do while he’s feeling confident. He finds Irene sitting in the restaurant where they agreed to meet, already sipping a mimosa and looking as flawless as ever. Time seems to have barely touched her.

“Well, well, well,” she drawls when he joins her, looking him up and down. “This a surprise.”

“We arranged this meeting several weeks in advance. I don’t see how it can possible come as a surprise.”

She shrugs one shoulder, smiling at him infuriatingly. “True, although I still had doubts whether you’d actually show up. But that’s not what I meant.” Her gaze drops to his throat. “I was referring to the fact that you either need to keep your scarf on, or invest in some better quality make-up.” She smirks at him, and Sherlock freezes as he vividly remembers Patrick’s lips latching onto his pulse point last night. He covered it up, but the make-up he stole from Mrs Hudson must have rubbed off on his collar. It takes all of his willpower not to touch the spot that suddenly seems to be burning and try to hide it, and he immediately loses some of his confidence.

“I assume that means no one calls you The Virgin anymore these days,” Irene says, looking absolutely delighted. Sherlock wants to die.

“And I assume no one calls you The Woman anymore, either,” he retorts, and he’s pleased to note his voice sounds passably cool, like he doesn’t care at all that he’s having brunch with a dominatrix while sporting a hickey. He doesn’t think he fools her, however.

“They still do, sometimes,” Irene says lightly. “But it’s true I’ve mostly moved to the management side of things now.”

“I suppose your wife prefers it that way,” Sherlock says, determined to keep the focus away from himself for as long as he can.

“Oh, she never minded. Surely even you must have noticed that she really didn’t mind.” When Sherlock doesn’t immediately react, she elaborates. “You’ve met her. My assistant, Kate?”

Sherlock frowns. She had an assistant?  “I must have deleted her.”

Instead of being offended, Irene just laughs. “Well, I certainly never deleted your assistant. It’s good to know that dear old Dr Watson has finally seen sense.”

A waiter comes to take their order before Sherlock can ask what she means by that. Irene raises an immaculately groomed eyebrow when Sherlock orders chocolate chip pancakes, evidently under the impression that it’s an order fit for a five-year-old. Sherlock doesn’t care – he loves pancakes.

“So,” Irene smiles dangerously once the waiter has gone, leaning forward a little. “That’s why you’ve finally deigned to meet me, is it? I’ve been wondering.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, let’s not pretend it didn’t take you literal years to finally accept my invitation.”

“Technically, I invited you,” Sherlock points out. Irene ignores him.

“So naturally, I was curious as to what finally changed your mind. I thought there were only two possible reasons: either you needed my expertise for a case, or you’ve finally stopped being afraid of me because you’ve stopped being afraid of sex.”

“I was never afraid of you,” Sherlock says immediately but Irene gives him a look that clearly means she doesn’t believe a word he says.

“And clearly,” Irene continues with a pointed look at Sherlock’s collar, “it’s the latter. I must say I’m pleasantly surprised; when Dr Watson got married, I was beginning to fear he’d never come to terms with his feelings for you.”

An ice brick lodges itself in Sherlock’s stomach. Why on earth did he think meeting her would be a good idea?

“You’re wrong,” he says dully.  Irene leans back in her chair as if the shock of Sherlock’s statement threw her backwards.

“I’m wrong?” she repeats and for the first time she looks less than completely on top of everything. “This isn’t Dr Watson’s handiwork?” she asks, gesturing to Sherlock’s neck. It seems like the mere idea is beyond her comprehension.

Sherlock shakes his head stiffly.

“Then I was wrong about more things than one,” Irene says, her eyes wide as she looks at Sherlock as if she was seeing him for the first time. “It seems I was mistaken in my assessment of you when we first met.”

Sherlock takes a breath and lets it out slowly. “And what, pray tell, was you assessment of me?” he asks, stifling down the painful feelings Irene’s assumption has awakened. This is, after all, why he wanted to see her in the first place. She’s the only one who could possibly give him an indication of which parts of his sexuality are him, and which are a result of John’s actions.

Irene inclines her head to the side, narrowing her eyes slightly, clearly trying to figure out the reasons behind Sherlock’s questions. “That you were afraid of making yourself vulnerable and would only sleep with someone you trusted completely. That deep down, you were a hopeless romantic and would only give your body to the one who already had your heart, and it was obvious who that was.”

There’s silence between them, interrupted only by the ambient sound of the restaurant. Irene’s beautiful eyes seem deeply sad.

“You weren’t mistaken,” Sherlock says eventually. His tongue feels heavy. “Circumstances changed.”

Their food arrives. Sherlock looks down at his plate of fluffy pancakes, but he has no appetite anymore.

“I’m sorry, Sherlock,” Irene says once the waiter has deposited her smashed avocado in front of her and left.  “I really thought Dr Watson would get over himself eventually.”

Of course, she must have noticed John’s buried bisexuality.

“Oh, he has,” Sherlock says dryly. Honestly, this brunch was a bad idea. “But being bisexual doesn’t magically make him interested in me.”

Irene shakes her head with conviction.. “He was. It was obvious.”

“You just admitted you got some things wrong. Maybe this is one of them,” Sherlock says through his teeth.

“No. This I’m certain about. He was in love with you, he was just too busy being not gay to notice. That night in Battersea, I had no doubt about it. I thought he understood it then, but clearly I overestimated him.”

Sherlock opens his mouth automatically to point out that Irene’s insistence is absurd and not helpful in any way, that John could never feel anything but friendship for Sherlock and pretending otherwise is unkind if not downright cruel, but then he hears John’s voice in his head, and the world stops: Anytime there was a man I was attracted to I found a way to punish him for it.

And suddenly, it all starts making perfect, stomach-turning sense.