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The Crooked Thing

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          “Sorry, Rosie, love,” John soothed, attempting to comb Rosie’s (desperately in need of a trim) ash-blonde curls up on top of her head while holding a band ready to receive said hair. The problem was that he was dexterous while stitching wounds or handling a gun or cooking or making love, but all thumbs when it came to the dressing of his daughter’s hair. The issue was further compounded by Rosie being a wiggly three year old, having curly hair which he had no previous familiarity with, and the distraction of a cartoon on the telly driving his girl to keep leaning away from him in annoyance.

          Every time he combed the hair up and moved his grasp to slide the hair band down and begin making a tufty ponytail, strands would slither loose, defiantly springing back into coils, curls and waves. John closed his eyes and counted to ten and then said to hell with it and bundled it into two slightly lopsided tails behind her ears and pinned the rest as flat as he could get it. The results were…less than attractive, but Rosie was too young to care, and she was on her way to the nursery school, where, John knew from experience, she would play and sweat, nap, and in general come home looking like a particularly adorable, if grubby, hedgehog.

          John timed their arrival at school as late as possible, hoping to avoid the single mums and hungry-eyed divorcees, and the too-friendly childminders. He had always been a bit baffled by women’s response to him, and the farther past forty he got, the less he understood the avidity he spied in their eyes. Apparently as a doctor, a widower, and with a daughter as cute as Rosie (aside from her hair), John was a catch.

          “Uncle Sherlock will pick you up like always, sweetheart,” John promised, kissing Rosie and sidling toward the door. Some days she was cranky, clinging to him and wailing for him not to go. Today she was already waving bye-bye in a dismissive manner, headed for the door to her classroom. John caught the eye of her teacher, Miss Violet, and nodded, before ducking back out the door. Today he’d been able to get away without being stopped with a vague medical ailment or flimsy pretense at a “play date” being foisted upon him.

          Work was a bloody relief frankly; John welcomed all the pensioners with their lonely lives and tiresome ailments. If it weren’t for Rosie and Sherlock, John knew he’d be in the same boat, a lonely man looking for someone to talk to.

          It had been a relief to move back into 221B, like coming home. He and Rosie had been living there for the last two years, since the final renovations were completed, and in fact, while the building was under repair and refurbishment, Sherlock had stayed with them. It had felt odd to have him there in the generic beige flat, full of flat-pack furniture. Sherlock, although so conversant with technology and modern advancements, seemed more at home in the shabby, homely Victorian surroundings of Baker Street. When the three of them moved in, it had been a relief to see how closely Mycroft’s team of experts had replicated the wallpaper, furnishings and décor. Items small and large had been salvaged, and spending weekends strolling bookshops and markets to replace books and items had been a welcome activity for John, Sherlock and Rosie.

          His shift ended at three, and John took the Tube home, getting off at a stop a mile early, so he could fit in a bit of exercise. There wasn’t really extra weight he couldn’t shift so much as a change in his muscle tone as he got older, and John was seriously thinking of taking up running, as boring as he’d always found it. Except for when he dashed after Sherlock, of course.

          The front door was open, and John jogged the last distance, worry rising. There hadn’t been any trouble in years, but he still felt the spike of fear at the sight of the normally closed and locked door ajar. All was well, however, as he saw when he cautiously approached; Mrs. Hudson was there, calm and smiling in her flowered dress and cardigan as always. She was directing a young woman in jeans, a too-long jumper and trainers, her messy auburn hair tied up under a bandana, in the proper method to clean the old floors. “Oh, John,” Mrs. Hudson smiled, “Leave the door open, will you? Gizela was just about to sweep the stoop before she starts in here. This is Doctor Watson, Gizela.”

          Obligingly, John left the door standing open, and greeted their landlady, “Hullo,” he said to the young woman, who had broad cheekbones and strongly marked brows over greenish-gray eyes. Her hair, he noticed now that he was closer, was the dull bronzy colour of old copper pots, but her eyebrows were dark brown, giving her a striking look.

          “Hello,” she replied, in the careful tones of someone to whom English is not a first language.

          “Gizela’s immigrated from Poland, John,” Mrs. Hudson explained, “and she’s come to help me with the cleaning—it’s becoming too much at my age.”

          “Course, yeah,” John said, although he had his doubts about how well Sherlock would take the idea of having a stranger enter their flat. Not that he was all that thrilled either. With the advent of Rosie as a full-time resident of 221B, they had moved their offices down to 221C, which did nicely as a lab and place for client meetings, once they painted, did the floors and installed a good dehumidifier and air-handling system. It was rare for anyone other than family or friends to enter their rooms now.

          “Mycroft’s vetted her himself,” Mrs. Hudson murmured, patting John’s arm as Gizela moved carefully past him to sweep the stoop. She was a tall, statuesque young woman, several inches taller than John, and something about the roundness of her limbs, the sturdiness of her wrists and broadness of her shoulders was attractive to him. But she was probably no more than twenty-four, obviously wary of strange men; in a relationship unless he missed his guess, and John was most assuredly not looking.

          He could still appreciate the view however, which he did circumspectly before mounting the stairs, mind easier for knowing Mycroft had already done a very thorough background check on Gizela. His thoughts moved quickly on from the young woman as he climbed the stairs eagerly; give Rosie a kiss, hear about her day, chat with Sherlock about his time in the lab, have tea, that was what he was looking forward to.

          However his hopes were dashed, as the flat was empty. John stuck his head back out and called, “Mrs. Hudson! Did Sherlock say anything about taking Rosie for walk?”

          Her low, sensible heels clicked on the floor as she tiptoed across the space Gizela was trying to sweep, craning her head to look up the stairs, “Oh, yes! I forgot, he said he was taking her to the salon.”

          “The salon?” John echoed in disbelief. What on earth was Sherlock taking Rosie to the salon for?

 

          As it turned out, he’d taken her to get her hair trimmed and to purchase products “specifically formulated for her hair type, John.”

          “Hair type?” John looked at Rosie, who, he had to admit, looked almost Cherubic with her hair (now free of split ends and frizz) trimmed and framing her face in shining waves and curls. One orange butterfly barrette ornamented her hair, holding a few curls back from her cheek, but other than that her hair was loose, and well-behaved. She would have looked less like a naughty toddler, however, if the front of her little dress weren’t grubby, and there wasn’t a lolly stuck to the back of her fuzzy cardigan. “I just thought there was curly and straight.”

          Sherlock heaved a sigh and took off his coat, “There are many types of hair, John, just in curly hair alone. Rosie is a type-2C.” He held up the rather exclusive looking silver bag with swirling green writing. “I purchased shampoo, conditioner, leave-in conditioner, and a light styling gel—when she’s older she may need something stronger, but for now her hair is fine in infancy.”

          “Styling gel?” John looked dubiously into the bag at the glossy bottles, which looked far too adult for his child. He’d been using strawberry scented four in one cleanser for Rosie. “Sherlock, I don’t know how to use any of this!”

          “I’ll teach you,” Sherlock said airily. He watched John try to pry the lolly from the cardigan, “Ah…that’s where that went.”

          “Really, Sherlock?” John asked, then sighed, “Don’t know why I’m surprised.”

          “There was…flailing.” Sherlock defended. “She got a bit agitated in the taxi and I lost track of it.”

          “No sugar before tea,” John reminded him. He nodded at Rosie, who was currently bouncing on the sofa, “Case in point.”

          Tea was simple, buttered toast, scrambled eggs, leftover ham from Tuesday’s dinner, and oven chips. John smiled at Rosie, and then at Sherlock, “Her hair looks great, Sherlock, thank you.”

          “I couldn’t allow you to keep tormenting it,” Sherlock shrugged. “It looked like a fright wig when I picked her up from school.”

          John was embarrassed, “Yeah, I had a bit of a struggle this morning and then gave up.”

          “It showed,” Sherlock said, but he was smiling as he cleared the table. John escorted Rosie to the bath and oversaw her armada of toys and her splashings until Sherlock came and stood in the doorway. He watched carefully as his friend shampooed and rinsed, then smoothed the conditioner through, warning John that curly hair became too dry with frequent shampooing, but that the leave-in conditioner would help with the in-between times.

          “Blot, don’t scrub with the towel,” Sherlock instructed, a towel-wrapped Rosie firmly trapped between his thighs as he crouched on the bath rug. “In fact, you should buy a special towel just for curly hair—or use an old t-shirt.”

          “Now, a bit of leave-in conditioner and gel and scrunch with your fingers.”

          Rosie was sleepy, leaning against him, and she put her head on Sherlock’s shoulder. “Time for bed, I think,” John suggested, and they made their way upstairs to Rosie’s little room. While renovating, they had decided to have John’s former room, a rather large space, sectioned off into one larger room for John, and a smaller room for Rosie. It wouldn’t do forever, John knew that, but he was resolutely not thinking too far into the future.

          As far as he was concerned, life was nearly perfect, and he didn’t want to think about ever leaving.

          Bedtime—as so much else about their life now—was a polished routine that went off more or less the same every night. Tucking into bed, two or three stories, sleepy protests for more, out like a light before the first page was done, and the lights turned off so the two of them could steal downstairs.

          John had found co-parenting with Sherlock to be surprisingly easy. The man didn’t sleep most of the night, and had been available to spell John during the nights when baby Rosie would wake, hungry or wet. Within two months of cohabitation he had all of her cries and expressions deduced and knew when she needed a bottle or a change, a cuddle or gas drops. He was skilled at playing the violin and sending her off to sleep; he had endless patience with her questions about everything from why people had different coloured eyes to how the telly remote worked.

          Much had been lost over the last several years, but even more had been gained. Learning the truth about his childhood had been incredibly difficult for Sherlock, but he was adjusting well, finding a new maturity (although not too much, thank heavens). His hours spent with clients was more regular, his acceptance of smaller cases a matter of course (except in the case of cheating spouses, which he considered beneath him), and he’d even accepted a position at St. Bart’s, lecturing to graduate students in the organic chemistry course. It was only part-time, as he still had a certain aversion to too much routine, but all of it conspired to keep him busy, engaged and happier than John had seen him nearly ever.

          There were still times when he sank into dark moods, falling silent and morose, trailing around the flat in his dressing gown. But even those times were fewer and not as bleak; the psychotherapist he had been seeing since Sherrinford had diagnosed him as bipolar, and with medication and regular therapy visits his moods had evened out. He seemed happy with their life as it was.

          John too, had been going to see a therapist—two, actually—one for his rage issues, which had concluded in a course that John had entered into grudgingly, but left feeling actually better about his ability to redirect and channel his temper into something else. The other was an ongoing weekly visit to a therapist who had come on a short-list recommended by someone Mycroft knew. Charles was a straight-talking ex-military sniper who had the ability to cut right through John’s evasion and bullshit. They got on remarkably well together, and John was far more honest with him than he had ever come close with Ella or anyone else.

          They were a bit of an odd family, two men living platonically, celibate, and raising a daughter together. John had given up explaining to people that they weren’t a couple, as no one ever seemed to actually listen…and too, he had decided that it didn’t matter if everyone got it wrong. He wasn’t worried about what people thought, and he wasn’t dating, so it wasn’t likely to wreck his chances with some interested woman. In many ways, Sherlock was the longest, healthiest relationship he’d ever had—now that they were no longer lying to one another, dosing one another or engaging in physical altercations.

          “I’ll show you how to style her hair while dry, in the morning,” Sherlock offered, as John went to start the dishwasher and put on the kettle. He dropped into his chair, “I’ve not got any clients until nearly eleven, and you don’t go into the clinic until ten.”

          “We can breakfast together,” John said, pleased. He brought out two mugs of tea, a packet of custard creams under his arm, “Anything good on telly?”

          “Let’s find out,” Sherlock smiled, moving to the sofa, leaving room for John to join him.

 

          Rosie asked if she had a mummy.

          John had known the day would arrive when his daughter very reasonably asked about her mother. Somehow he’d thought he’d have at least five more years. He was still unprepared with a sanitized version of Mary’s life and death; how on earth would he explain all of that to a three year old? He couldn’t, of course, and honestly he didn’t think he ever wanted to explain any of it to her. Let Rosie grow up thinking her mum had been a funny, independent, intelligent nurse, a loving mum and a good wife.

          Because she had been all those things. Just…so much more that even John still had trouble accepting. It felt dishonest to her memory to lie, but there was no way John was telling Rosie all of the ugly truths. Besides, Mary had chosen her life of lies, and she wasn’t here to disagree, so he would concoct a beautiful story and tell it to Rosie.

          In the meantime…well, there were simple things he could tell her, and wedding pictures and videos he could share. The Mayfly Man had been a surprisingly good photographer, and the young woman who had filmed the ceremony and reception had done a bang up job. John himself had not seen the videos before—he’d found the disc in the television cabinet, still in the mailing envelope, when he was packing up his things. The idea of watching it had been too unbearably sad, then.

          He hugged Rosie to his side and smiled at the sight of Mary’s smiling face—she had been incandescently happy—and his own beaming expression. Sherlock, looking impossibly dapper in his morning suit and top hat kept hovering on the fringes of photographs, lingering in the background crowd. God, he still had trouble believing his friend had been willing to be his best man, to throw himself into wedding planning, to write that beautiful speech.

          “Sherl,” Rosie said in excitement, pointing at the screen and tugging on John’s arm, as if he hadn’t noticed the man standing at his side.

          Sherlock, looking impossibly handsome and suave, was giving his best man speech. John’s throat closed up at the thought of it—he’d known how much he meant to Sherlock, of course, but not quite how much, not until then. His face on screen reflected his slightly embarrassed awe, his body turning more toward Sherlock to watch him. Mary was obviously covering a laugh several times, both at Sherlock’s cutting remarks and John’s befuddled delight. John watched himself turn and share a look with her—a “can you believe him?” look—before he turned back to gaze up at Sherlock. Mary smiled, quick and bright, but when John turned away a look of soft sadness flitted over her features.

          “So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anybody’s best friend.”

          The videographer had panned away to get a shot of the guests. Molly, looking bright and cheerful in her yellow gown was never the less slightly pensive. John watched as she shared a look with Greg, who sat with his arms crossed over his chest, a faint frown crimping his forehead.        

          Although he would have skipped back and watched the odd exchange, Rosie would have none of it. She was watching the proceedings, staring whenever Mary appeared back on the screen, murmuring, “Mummy,” whenever she saw her.

          John shook off the odd feeling and watched the rest of it. He saw himself looking at Sherlock with soft eyes, Sherlock’s face—so serious, so intent—when he spoke.

          “…today you sit between the woman you have made your wife and the man you have saved – in short, the two people who love you most in all this world. And I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that.”

          John, as affected as he’d been on the day itself, nonetheless noticed something he hadn’t been aware of that day. It was Sherlock’s slightly stunned expression, as if he’d spoken more than he intended. He half-laughed, watching their younger selves, Sherlock trying to continue his speech, but being blindsided by John jumping up and hugging him tightly. Still to this day he couldn’t quite believe how emotionally naked his best friend had been that day; watching it now choked him up far more than it had on his wedding day. He knew now how very much they had to lose, how far Sherlock was willing to go to keep him safe.

          There was probably more than a bit of the recounting of their adventures which was too mature for Rosie, but she didn’t seem to be listening to the words so much as gazing at the screen.

          There was a confused bit of editing, probably to cover the deductions and running about after stabbing victims and murderers. Instead it cut to wedding guests being put on the spot to offer a message to John and Mary. John wiped away tears as he listened to the well-wishes for a long and happy marriage, suddenly wishing he hadn’t decided to watch this. It felt like too much.

          The next scene was in the ballroom, Sherlock playing his violin, face serious, intent, as the light from tall taper candles played over his form. The videographer moved around the room, catching him from different angles, and zooming in to capture John and Mary’s delighted faces. Mary, looking lovely, was hugging John’s arm, and John was gazing up at Sherlock as if he’d descended from heaven. John felt his face burn in embarrassment for his younger self. He hoped he didn’t still look at Sherlock like that, such open awe.

          As the deejay cued the music, and the party lights began to swirl, guests poured onto the dance floor, swamping John and Mary, although the tall form of Sherlock was visible as he approached them. The camera moved through the crowd, catching a lot of exuberant dancing and uninhibited smiles, but at last approached the trio. John recalled Sherlock’s bumbling revelations about Mary’s pregnancy, Mary’s disbelief, his own terrified acceptance turning into awe. With a flash he recalled an exchange with Mary during the wedding planning.

          “…you know when you’re scared of something, you start wishing it sooner just to get it all going? That’s what he’s doing.” Mary’s look was searching, as if John was being slow.

          “Why would he be scared that we’re getting married? It’s not gonna change anything – we’ll still do stuff.” It wouldn’t change things—of that John had been stupidly certain. No, more, he’d been determined that it wouldn’t change things…not now that he’d just got Sherlock back. Not even marriage would come between them.  He’d thought maybe he’d finally have everything: a family, domesticity and also the excitement he craved. Of course, he hadn’t known then that in a year’s time he’d be a father, and that six months later he was going to be a grieving widower, pushing away the one person who knew him better than anyone.

          The videographer had caught Sherlock’s revelation, although not the words, and their shocked faces. She also caught the moment John looked at Sherlock, his face open and fucking glowing with love, the hand that came up and cupped the back of Sherlock’s neck, the look that passed between the two of them before John reached out his other hand and touched Mary. Before the camera moved away it captured John turning toward Mary, Sherlock standing with a suddenly empty face and watching them dance away.

          John, world shattered, barely saw the camera pan over the happy crowd dancing, the glimpse of Sherlock ducking out of a side door. He sat next to his daughter, who had fallen asleep against his side and wondered how he had never before realized he was in love with Sherlock Holmes.

 

          No one noticed anything.

          The ground beneath John’s feet, the certainties of his life, had altered massively and no one seemed to be paying any attention. Not even Sherlock.

          John moved through the next few days in a confused state, his entire worldview rearranging to fit into it the fact that he had apparently been in love with his best friend for years. John wasn’t so much shocked that he had feelings for a man as that the man in question was Sherlock.

          When had it happened?

          How in the world had he not noticed?

          Did anyone else know?

          Did Sherlock know?

          It didn’t occur to John until nearly a week later to wonder how Sherlock felt about him. There had been something undefinable in the look he had given him before John and Mary took to the dance floor…had he been saying goodbye to his own emotions? Filing them away…maybe even deleting them?

          The idea of Sherlock being in love with him—with anyone—would have been laughable to John just a few years ago. But he knew him too well for that. The man had tried so hard to hide his emotions, to operate on logic and reason alone, but love and concern had spilled out in odd moments. He loved Mrs. Hudson, cared for Lestrade enough to have considered his life something worth saving. He’d fucking thrown himself off a building, gone through who knows what hell for over two years, alone and hunted, just to eliminate any threats against John.

          He’d been shot by Mary, forgiven her, urged John to reconcile, killed Magnussen to keep her secrets, exhausted himself trying to solve Mary’s problems, grieved for her loss, nearly killed himself trying to bring John back from a dark place. In the years since Sherlock had made serious efforts at being someone John could depend on—someone Rosie could depend on.

          Maybe it wasn’t romantic love, but it was love. Perhaps in its most selfless form. John had never understood why Sherlock had been so insistent on John forgiving Mary, taking her back. The months John had moved back into 221B and cared for Sherlock following his second stint in the hospital had been grim. He was in a near constant state of rage and grief over the revelations concerning Mary’s past and the fucking fact that she shot and nearly killed his best friend. Worry over Sherlock’s compromised health, the infection which had set in, had eaten at John, made worse by Sherlock’s unending arguments for John forgiving Mary and moving back in with her.

          “I just want what’s best for you, John,” he’d finally said softly, looking too pale and tired, bloated from the fluid his overworked and stressed heart had produced. He looked away, into the fire. “That’s all.”

          Was that it? Was it love for John that had made him so insistent? Had he always been trying to make John happy because he loved him?

          Did he love him still?

 

          In an uncharacteristic act of cowardice, John did nothing. Truthfully, he wasn’t sure what he was supposed to do. How do you ask your best friend and flatmate if they’re in love with you? How do you ask and live with the consequences? John wasn’t sure what he wanted to have happen, if he even wanted any kind of physical relationship with Sherlock. Sherlock himself might not want such a thing—aside from his obsession with Irene Adler and Moriarity, and his fake relationship with Janine, he had never expressed an interest in anyone of any sex. If he had no desire for a relationship then the chances of their friendship continuing on as it was were bad. When faced with a thought like that, John had no desire to change a thing.

          So instead of acting, he brooded over his newly discovered feelings and watched Sherlock for signs that he was pining for John. They were disappointingly nil. The man was as he ever was: annoying, complicated, funny, biting, surprisingly generous, and much warmer in his manner than casual acquaintances might suspect.

          There were no heated glances, no lingering touches. He invaded John’s personal space much as he always had, demanded his time as ever, but were those just his normal way of going on or an indicator of something more?

          John was the one who was behaving obsessively, imagining kissing those Cupid’s bow lips, feeling the faint abrasion of stubble, leaning into the press of an angled, muscled body. The thought wasn’t particularly arousing to him, although the idea of being that close to Sherlock, touching him, tasting him, worked quite well. More than once John had to imagine suppurating wounds to get his surprisingly enthusiastic libido to behave.

          As completely as Sherlock had taken over his dull, deadened life when they first met, now thoughts of Sherlock were as encompassing, as  overwhelming to John’s mind. Whenever he wasn’t working or actively engaged in conversation, John found himself thinking of years of loaded glances, meaningful silences. All the times friends and strangers alike had mistaken them for a couple; all the moments big and small when they were considered together. The casual way they’d shared space, shared beds, fallen against one another in cabs, collapsed on the sofa at the end of a long chase, rolled together laughing that time they’d had to escape pursuit by leaping onto a trampoline and nearly brained themselves bouncing into one another.

          Sherlock’s determined reign of terror which drove away all of John’s casual girlfriends; John’s hand on Sherlock’s knee the night of his stag party; patching wounds, sharing train berths, borrowing deodorant and socks and knowing how the other took their coffee, their tea, their favourite meals and favourite shows and all the things big and small they knew about one another.

          John thought about the terrible, lonely, echoing emptiness of life after the Fall. He remembered staring into the drawer which held his Browning and thinking hard, thinking really, really hard about doing it, finally. But the faint, buried hope that somehow, someway, it had all been another of Sherlock’s magic tricks and he was coming back had kept John from doing it. From killing himself and joining Sherlock in whatever Beyond there was.

          And when he’d done it, when he’d pulled another amazing stunt and come back from the dead, John had ploughed into him with rage. Because even though he hadn’t understood it at the time, all he could think was too late, too late. Too late. He hadn’t proposed to Mary that night, but John had recognized that it was too late to call a halt, even if there had been any reason to. With all that had come after, Sherlock had acted out of love to try and save him. When John pushed him away, he nearly killed himself to bring John back to sanity.

          Then too, John worried that a lifetime of thinking of himself as straight was going to leave him too fucked up to have a relationship with a man. If they tried and it didn’t work…it could end everything he held dear. And that was assuming Sherlock would even want a physical relationship. Sure, he was something of a sensualist, for all he would deny himself food or rest during a case. Also, while he had never had (to John’s knowledge) a real experience as part of a couple, he was definitely capable of feeling and expressing love for Mrs. Hudson, for Rosie, even for Mycroft; and his love for John was undoubtable, even if it was platonic in nature.

          John would try to imagine Sherlock dating and laugh. Then he would remember Sherlock reading Rosie to sleep, and actually remembering to buy milk because John was too tired to stop at the shops after his shift. He’d think of cups of tea and the violin in the middle of the night when nightmares kept him from sleep. Perfect silence, because they knew one another so well they didn’t have to fill the quiet with chatter. A steadying hand squeezing his bicep, quiet smiles. Lebanese takeaway and Bond films on John’s birthday, because it was what John liked, not necessarily what Sherlock liked.

          Thinking over their life, John realized what he hadn’t before…he had everything he’d wanted, a family, domesticity, and excitement. Somehow he’d never made the connection that it all came down to Sherlock.

          After a few weeks of this John was driving himself spare. He needed to get out of the flat, away from his own incessant thoughts, away from the sight of an unaffected Sherlock smiling affably at him across the dinner table. Deciding that some exercise would do him good, John threw his workout clothes and a few toiletries in a bag, left Rosie with Mrs. Hudson and headed for the gym where he could get a day pass. After a few sweaty hours, he showered, changed and admitted that he was no less obsessed.

          Forty minutes later he was sitting across from Greg in their usual pub, sipping at an ale and fighting the urge to flag the waitress down for a double order of chips. Greg had been surprised at the last minute invitation, but shown up before John, explaining that he was glad to get out of the house. “Been working non-stop on a domestic in Stepney,” he explained tiredly. “Good to get out and see something besides my office, the morgue or my bedroom ceiling just before I pass out.”

          They talked about the case for a while, just generalities, and moved onto football, which Greg loved and John tolerated. All the while John was thinking about what had driven him from Baker Street.

          “You alright, John?” Greg asked, waving at the waitress. “You seem distracted.”

          “Sorry…had something on my mind for a while.”

          The waitress stopped by and they both asked for refills, and John put in an order for those double chips; he had a feeling he would need them. He picked at his damp beer mat, avoided Greg’s eyes. The man was a good friend, a good ally, but they’d never gotten particularly personal before. Unless you counted the times Greg got drunk and talked too much about his divorce. He couldn’t imagine talking to anyone about this, but Greg was the closest friend he had after Sherlock. “Mate…have you ever had feelings for someone you maybe shouldn’t?”

          Greg looked thoughtful, “Like married, you mean?” His mouth thinned bitterly, “That was always Janet’s area, cheating.”

          “No,” John said slowly, “Just…someone that circumstances make…awkward.”

                   “Not sure I know what you mean,” Greg’s face was creased with concern, clearly he wanted to understand.

          “If you lived with someone, say,” John mumbled, knowing he was giving the game away, “and you didn’t know how they felt…would you say something?” He looked up, face warm, “Or would you just wait for it to go away rather than risk ruining—” everything, he thought. His throat closed up, and he stared at his hands, suddenly horribly miserable. He was stuck; if he said something he could ruin the a friendship that meant more to him than anything, and possibly faced moving out, never seeing Sherlock again, depending on how  he took it. And if he didn’t say anything, could he live with never telling him, never touching him or being allowed to express the love that was leaving him dizzy with longing?

          “Never mind,” John blurted, meeting Greg’s eyes for an instant and then focusing gratefully on the approaching waitress. He salted his chips and generously added brown sauce, shoving too hot potatoes in his mouth, eager for a distraction.

          “John—”

          Silently cursing at his scalded tongue, he shook his head, “Do me a favour, Greg, forget I said anything, yeah?” Laughing shortly, John shoved the plate across the table, “Do you want these? I’m suddenly not as hungry as I thought.”

          Greg stopped the plate from sliding into his shirt-front and looked at John thoughtfully, “Alright,” he agreed slowly, answering both questions. Like a good friend, he changed the subject, following a quick, searching look at John’s miserable face, “Did I tell you some friends of mine are starting a rugby club? Strictly amateur, but it could be a laugh—you interested in joining?”

          Gratefully seizing on the distraction, John asked him questions, guiding the conversation down meandering paths. Greg was happy to go along, and an hour later they parted on the pavement; just before he walked away, Greg turned. “…John?”

          “Yeah?’

          Greg looked awkward, “Know it’s none of my business, but uh…” Embarrassed, he met John’s eyes, “I don’t think it’s one-sided.” Suddenly his expression broke, a smile brightening, “For what it’s worth…I think you should say something to him.”

 

 

          Before John could decide if he wanted to actually broach the subject with Sherlock, a case came up, a five which rapidly escalated to a seven, and at the end of two days he found himself escorting a limping Sherlock up the stairs. Lestrade had dropped them off after swinging by the hospital, where John had insisted Sherlock have his ankle and his shoulder x-rayed. “You boys can come in tomorrow and fill out your paperwork,” he said easily, leaning to look out the back door where John was waiting on Sherlock to ease his way out. He gave John a significant look, “For tonight you should go relax…chat.” His eyebrows were telegraphing his thoughts to John, “Take care of one another,” he said with heavy emphasis.

          After seeing Sherlock settled on the sofa, John handed him a glass of water and a few ibuprofen, and turned the kettle on. “I’m going to pop down to Speedy’s, grab us dinner. I’ll see if Mrs. Hudson minds keeping Rosie tonight, she’s probably already asleep and I hate to wake her.”

          Rosie was indeed asleep, and Mrs. Hudson, already in her dressing gown, assured John that it was fine for the little girl to sleep there. “Is Sherlock alright?”

          “He landed awkwardly and sprained his ankle, bruised his shoulder,” John sighed, “but yeah, he’s alright. He jumped from a terrace onto one of those big rubbish containers but the wheels weren’t locked, and he fell to the pavement.”

          “You take care of him, don’t even worry about Rosie,” Mrs. Hudson tsked, “I’ll feed her breakfast and we can do some baking together. No need to hurry down in the morning.”

          “Mrs. Hudson,” John said in weary relief, leaning in to kiss her forehead, “You’re a gem, you know that?”

          “Too right,” she called, closing her door.

          After paying for two portions of risotto, bread, and salad, John climbed the stairs with relief, aching with exhaustion and looking forward to taking off his shoes for the first time in over twenty hours. Sherlock was on the sofa, although he had moved enough to take off his suit jacket and prepare two cups of tea. The television was on, muted, and Sherlock was sitting with his head back, eyes closed. “Perfect timing, John.”

          “Pills kicking in yet?” John asked, glancing at his wristwatch. It had been just over a half hour, and seeing as neither of them had eaten in hours the pills might have begun to ease the pain and inflammation.

          “Mm,” Sherlock opened his eyes, sat up. “Rosie settled?”

          “Already asleep. Mrs. H is going to keep her til mid-morning.” John sat down on the sofa, handed Sherlock his food and a fork and napkin and began eating out of his own container without ceremony. He was bloody starving, his back ached from hurtling himself onto the suspect and tackling him to the ground in Regent’s Park, and as soon as Sherlock had eaten and showered, John was going to have the world’s fastest shower and crawl into his bed for at least nine hours. Maybe more.

          They were half done before John blinked heavy eyes at the television screen. “Sound?”

          Sherlock grunted and handed him the remote.

          “This or something else?”

          “I don’t care,” he said, wiping his mouth. He looked sleepy, “We don’t have to watch anything.”

          John switched to the Pandora app on the streaming service and turned the sound on low. It was still on the Swing station it had been on last, and the soft sounds of some old standard played as they ate in relative silence. John finished first, and drained his tea, glancing at Sherlock’s plate, “Five minutes and the shower’s all yours, yeah?”

          Sherlock nodded, smiling briefly; the faint shadows under his eyes would have bothered John more if he weren’t familiar with them. He still wished the man would get more regular sleep, even if it were only a few hours a night. However, John could hardly fault him, as he knew of the nightmares which riddled Sherlock’s sleep, made all the worse by the blocked memories which therapy was uncovering.

          Resisting the urge to smooth the frazzled curls, John closed the door, took an efficient shower, brushed his teeth, and dry swallowed some ibuprofen for his back. Clad in his striped toweling robe over pants and a t-shirt, John came out to the lounge to help Sherlock cover his wrapped ankle in cling film and medical tape. “I’ll check that when you’re done. Don’t be too long, okay? You’re asleep on your feet. Call me if you need anything.”

          He disposed of the containers from dinner, rinsed their mugs, and stuck his head in the fridge to see if there was anything for breakfast. Supplies were getting a bit low, but if nothing else they could have oatmeal and jammy toast. Turning off the kitchen light, John made it as far as his chair, slumping down to stretch out his legs and close his eyes. The music was soothing and he was half-asleep by the time he heard the water cut off. It seemed a long time before the door opened, but at last Sherlock came out, dressed in his sloppily tied dressing gown, hair dripping on his shoulders.

          “It was harder than I thought washing myself with only one hand,” Sherlock admitted, yawing hugely. Lowering himself into his chair he sighed, “My hair’s going to look like hell by morning.”

          “Here, let me,” John offered, stupid heart pattering with excitement as he moved around behind Sherlock’s chair and took the damp towel from his hands. Carefully he blotted the curls, absorbing more of the excess moisture, and then offered to put in product for him. At Sherlock’s direction, he mixed dollops from three different bottles and ran his hands through the heavy coils of his hair. Thankful that Sherlock couldn’t see the shake in his hands, John finger combed the strands and then lightly scrunched them. He was afraid to linger too long, but John was aware that despite his tired, muddle state, the elation and desire he’d been suffering under for weeks in Sherlock’s presence were sky-high.

          “Thank you, John,” Sherlock said quietly, as John knelt to unwrap the plastic from his foot and check that the bandages were still dry.

          You’re welcome, he intended on saying. But his fingers were touching the warm, lightly hairy skin of Sherlock’s leg and his guard was down, and instead John looked at his capable hands on Sherlock’s naked skin and breathed out his name. Just that, but his tone was raw and honest and Sherlock’s breath caught, a questioning sound. Rather than play it off, John felt his breathing stutter as he looked up into Sherlock’s eyes.  In a flash of cowardice John thought about letting Sherlock deduce his thoughts from his expression, but then he decided that Sherlock Holmes deserved a damned declaration of love.

          Putting his hand on Sherlock’s knee, John looked up into his friend’s face and let a shaky smile loose, “It somehow took me all these years to realize I’m in love with you.” Heart all the way up in his throat, John waited for Sherlock to speak. Saw the confusion and disbelief, saw his name form on Sherlock’s lips, saw it fade away before being spoken. Then swift on its heels, he saw doubt and then hurt flash over those strange, beautiful features.

          “Don’t—…no,” John spoke hastily, throat closing up at the sight of the gloss of tears in Sherlock’s eyes as he tried to push John away and stand. “Please don’t run away, Sherlock! I meant it—I mean it—I am wholly, stupidly, painfully in love with you.” He sat back on his heels, “I’m not—if you don’t want—if you want me to just never have said…” He brought helpless hands up to his hot face, afraid for a moment he might cry. God. God! He’d ruined everything, wrecked it with his clumsy, idiotic words and his unwelcome revelations. Rubbing hard at his face, hoping to scrub away the empty hurt, John looked away toward the cold fireplace, unable to look at Sherlock and see rejection or pity. “It’s…fine. I’m not. I’m.”

          Before the sobs could force their way out of his tight chest, Sherlock had turned back, lowered himself stiffly to one knee, his face flickering in pain, and looked searchingly into John’s face. John had never felt so naked and exposed in his life, feeling those pale, exotic eyes scrutinizing him. Sherlock’s face was unreadable, but his complexion was paler than usual, and his breathing had accelerated. “You don’t…have to love me back,” John finally whispered, voice broken and damp with tears.

          Sherlock’s expression creased into genuine confusion, and John dared to touch the back of his hand, give it a squeeze. “I’m not…asking for anything. You don’t have to do or be…I don’t want this to change us. Not if you…but I want you to know.” He closed his eyes, swallowed hard, feeling like disappointment and heartache were choking him, “I need you to know I love you.”

          The last thing he anticipated was a kiss.

          It was soft and clumsy and shot his heart back into double time. John sighed against the soft cushion of Sherlock’s mouth and kept his eyes closed, his hands unmoving. He didn’t seek or suggest or beg, just let Sherlock kiss him with gentle warmth and let all the hope he’d been trying to suppress flood him with a giddy rush. The kiss didn’t last long, but it had settled something, because when Sherlock pulled away and John opened his eyes, he saw a look on Sherlock’s face which he had only ever seen a shadow of in moments past. “Oh,” said John, and didn’t even try to stop the two or three tears which spilled over and rolled down his face.

          “John,” Sherlock whispered, and leaned in to kiss one damp cheek and then the other. He pressed his forehead to John’s and breathed in, out. “Did I hit my head?”

          “Wha—no.” The doctor in John had to ask, “Do you think you did? Are you in pain?” He licked his lips, tasted cheese, salt, yeasty bread and Sherlock.

          “I must have done,” Sherlock continued in a dazed voice, hands coming up and resting lightly on John’s shoulders, “But please don’t wake me just yet.” His voice was almost shy, “Let me dream a little while longer…”

          It felt almost surreal to hear that softness in his sometimes biting voice. “Love,” John whispered, framing his face in his hands, feeling a smile break out, “If you’re dreaming then so’m I.”

          The second kiss was longer, not quite as tentative, and John let his fingers slip into damp curls, let his thumbs brush those ridiculous cheekbones. Kissing a man—no, kissing Sherlock—he discovered, was pretty fucking phenomenal. Part of him wanted to coax Sherlock over onto his back, lower his weight on him and deepen the kiss, slip his tongue in, make it filthy, harder, wetter, deeper. But another part of John was dreamily aware that there was no need to rush. They weren’t going anywhere.

 

          Despite going to bed with a rather persistent erection, John had managed to succumb pretty quickly to the drag of exhaustion. He and Sherlock had stayed up for several hours. The two of them had eventually moved their aches and pains to the sofa, which proved too narrow to share while lying down, unless one person was on top. Strangely, neither of them had minded. Although Sherlock had insisted on lying on top of John as well as under him, so he could see which he preferred. His confidence had awoken, leading to decidedly more skilled and enthusiastic kisses, and John had to remind himself several times of Very Unpleasant Things so as not to get too excited. He’d meant it when he told Sherlock that he wasn’t asking for anything; he just wanted the chance to be with him, in whatever way that ended up.

          All of which wasn’t to say that he hadn’t indulged in a stealthy yet vigorous wank once he was alone in his room; unable to stop thinking about pillowy soft lips and hungry moans, big hands touching him with delicate urgency and the press of an unacknowledged cock against his hip as Sherlock pulled him down over him and kissed him breathless. Sleep had come pretty easily despite his fizzing happiness, if only because he was bloody wiped out by the past few days. Following a night of colourful, and occasionally hot, dreams, John woke around nine-thirty, and lay for a while, smiling up at his ceiling. Not wanting to move from the warm embrace of his bed, John stretched and rolled onto his side, looking at the washed out clouds he could see through the curtains he’d forgotten to draw. It didn’t matter what weather London had in store for them; it was a beautiful day.

          His phone was silent, no messages or missed calls, and he debated texting Sherlock to see if he were up, but hesitated for fear of waking him. After lying for a few minutes more, half dozing, half recalling the extremely pleasant hour they’d spent tangled up on the sofa, kissing like teenagers, John finally got up at the demands of his bladder. Knowing there was a good chance Mrs. Hudson and Rosie would be up before long, John put on joggers and an old RAMC t-shirt and descended the stairs as quietly as possible. After answering nature’s call and brushing his teeth, John glanced at the closed door to Sherlock’s bedroom but slipped out into the hallway quietly, resisting the urge to knock. He needed his sleep.

          Only he was already awake. Sherlock was lying sideways in his chair, head thrown back, obviously awake and just as obviously aware John was in the room, although he didn’t move or open his eyes. “Good morning,” John said, breaking into the smile which had been ever-present since roughly ten hours before.

          “Good morning John,” Sherlock said, voice cool and precise. His eyes remained closed, and he missed the falter in John’s steps, didn’t see him halt halfway across the room, face smoothing out into defensive blandness. “You needn’t tiptoe, I’ve been awake for some time. There’s coffee if you want some. There’s a very high likelihood of Rosie entreating Mrs. Hudson into coming up in less than half an hour to greet us, so you may want to be caffeinated.”

          “Ah,” John managed, wondering dumbly if he were having a stroke. His body felt oddly numb, and his hearing appeared to be cutting out. He’d never wanted anything in his life as badly as he wanted to be able to go back in time to the moment when he still believed that everything was going to be alright. Clearly Sherlock had had time to assess everything and come to the conclusion that relationships still weren’t his area. Sherlock’s tone didn’t leave room for doubt as to how monumentally disengaged from his emotions he was.

          Given time to adjust surely John could pull his feelings back inside him and deal with the emotional devastation he could feel looming. John told his feet to turn and carry him into the kitchen; making tea would buy him time to compose his face and steel himself for the impending discussion as to how any kind of relationship between them wasn’t suitable. His damned feet, however, kept him rooted to the rug.

          Sherlock opened his eyes, took a look at John’s face and sat up, face changing suddenly, the coldness dropping away, his eyes warming, glowing, “You don’t regret it.” It wasn’t a question.

          Unable to speak, still teetering on the edge of stupendous loss, John shook his head, and Sherlock muttered, “Thank fuck,” which spurred a laugh out of John. Able to breathe again, John asked, “Were you trying to kill me?” He blinked, “I thought—”

          “I woke up and it seemed—” Sherlock paused, looked abashed, “—impossible that it had been anything but a dream.” He looked at his bare toes, “I was terrified you were going to come downstairs and make tea and eggs like any Saturday morning and treat me as if nothing had happened and John, I would have died.” His eyes were damp when he looked up at John, who had drifted across the room to him. “I can’t go back.”

          “You don’t have to, love,” John assured him, voice husky and shaking, “You and me, we’re only going forward.” Elation filled him; no matter what came next for them, they both wanted it. Leaning in and holding Sherlock’s face, knowing he was grinning like a maniac, John kissed him, sighing unconsciously at the silken sweep of a tongue over his mouth. “God, Sherlock, I would have died too…” The tremors were back in his hands, in his voice, “I can’t go back to never touching you again, hiding how I feel…” He groaned when Sherlock pulled him onto his lap, his legs straddling those long thighs, and kissed him hard, smiling at the chest-rumbling moan it earned him. Pulling back, he smiled, knowing his face was lit up with happiness, “You said a half hour until Rosie and Mrs. H burst in on us?”

          “Approx—”

          John biting into his lower lip effectively shut Sherlock up, “Good,” John mumbled, nibbling on that lush mouth, “That gives us twenty-nine minutes.”

          “John, I don’t think it’s enough time,” Sherlock said seriously, hands gripping at John’s hips as he tilted his head so John could brush his lips down the length of that long neck.

          “Not enough time by far,” John agreed, “I’m personally planning on spending at least that long exploring your neck.”

          “There’s…no rush,” Sherlock said breathlessly, rolling his head and meeting John’s eyes.

          “No, no rush,” John agreed.

          “But then again…we do have a lot of time to make up for.”

          “True,” John breathed, as one of those big hands trailed down his back and with only a momentary hesitation cupped his arse cheek. He shuddered as he recalled the prior night, Sherlock lying on the sofa, looking up at him with hot pink cheeks and dazed eyes, moaning exquisitely as his hands pressed John’s hips to his.

          I want that again, John thought in wonder, as their lips met again, and the world faded away. I want it all, everything he wants to give me. And I want to give it all back, a thousand times over.