The world above is flame and noise and John can taste chlorine, sharp and clean, feels the blue burn of it in his eyes. Sherlock holds onto him, hair twisting and drifting, a head full of black snakes. His eyes are the same colour as the pool; he looks like a pale paper cut out. His eyes are holes John can see through.
They drift in this muffled, suspended world. Sherlock’s legs are so impossible and so long.
When it hurts too much not to breathe, they break the surface. Then it hurts to breathe, air rubbing raw down John’s throat, lungs pinched from holding his breath. They ache as air pours back into them. It reminds him of sexual ache, strangely – the first time he’d had another man inside him – the burn and stretch which had lingered hours after.
Moriarty has vanished. Sherlock, with his long dripping limbs and dark hair, pulls them onto solid ground. John lies, gasping, back to Sherlock’s chest. He can hear wind and blood whooshing in Sherlock like water and air in a cave deep below. Sherlock’s heart slams into John’s scarred shoulder. It’s reassuring.
They help each other to their trembling feet. Eventually, without words, they decide to walk home. The night is chill and John’s clothes stiffen with cold. He’s so numb that he doesn’t feel the stairs as they climb the steps to 221b. So numb the doorknob under his palm is nothing but a vague bit of smooth texture. He’s past the point of being able to shiver.
Without words again, they make it to the shower. John fumbles with the knobs, adjusting, until the water is so hot it blazes a bright pink trail over his hands.
Sherlock seems emptied, a jug tipped over and allowed to drain. His body sags.
‘Clothes,’ John says. It’s the first real sound either of them has really heard. The rest of the world was muted out after the explosion.
Sherlock makes a noise in the back of his throat. He stumbles with his shirt buttons, then trousers.
John pries his socks off and stands under the shower. The hot water beats sensation back into him.
Is it over, he wonders.
Sherlock slips in behind John. His elbows are spires of ice, skin marbled purple and white. He reminds John of Greek statues seen up close. From far away they are breathtaking, full of movement and grace. But up close, the marble is hard and cold, eyes lifeless.
They stand in the shower until they are warm and can their fingertips. When his toes start to wrinkle and the water to cool, John turns off the taps and wraps them in towels.
Their towels are old and ragged, worn a little thin, but so soft, so full of texture. They’re wonderful.
John watches Sherlock, in an unfocused way. If they hadn’t just nearly been obliterated or shot, John would find Sherlock’s naked, white torso beautiful. Would want to touch and stroke and kiss him. Perhaps even more so because John feels he’s not allowed.
Am I? he asks himself again. They stumble silently through the dark, bumping gently into each other and the walls. Each touch a jolt.
Finally they find John’s room. Taking their towels to bed they wrap themselves in the duvet. It’s thick and John feels like it can pad them a little; against noise and touches, against the outside world, barren and too crowded.
Sherlock goes boneless next to him. John listens to his languid trickle of breath. He can smell the burnt ends of Sherlock’s hair.
Was Moriarty right? Am I your heart too? John thinks.
John wakes because Sherlock is gripping him, both arms wrapped tight, like tentacles, round him.
‘John,’ he says into John’s ear. ‘John.’
He says his name like it’s something broken. Sherlock sucks breath against John’s throat, licking his pulse, as if he could taste John’s heartbeat.
‘John,’ he says again, unravelling his arms. He nuzzles and kisses down John’s chest. Sherlock’s hands are everywhere, cupping John as if he is water and will run liquid through Sherlock’s fingers. He strokes John’s shoulders, traces down and up John’s spine. He pauses at each bump as if he’s counting. He does the same to John’s ribs, running his fingers along each one carefully. John feels faint. Sherlock smells like fire and ash and chlorine still, so hot and so near John sees sparks in the edges of his vision. Every point their bodies touch makes the world lurch and expand.
Sherlock runs his thumb over John’s pulse. Then puts his face against his throat, eyelashes a quick, dark tickle.
‘John,’ he says again, name wrung with fear. Now Sherlock sounds like a small child. A child on a busy street separated from his parents, calling for them because he can’t see them.
‘I’m here Sherlock,’ John says.
Sherlock looks at John and his eyes are still transparent. Grey morning light glows against his skin, the line of his throat. He bends down, sucking John’s neck, then the skin under his left collarbone. John’s hard. Sherlock keeps moving down and inhaling, leaving wet, red circles on John’s stomach and thighs.
Shaking, John takes a handful of Sherlock’s hair. He’s pushed back and Sherlock gasps into John’s mouth with his own. He pushes his tongue inside as if he wants to insert himself. Crawl down his throat and nest in John’s belly, tapeworm like.
John thinks, oddly, this does not feel as personal or invasive as some of the ways Sherlock has looked at him. Sometimes it feels like Sherlock holds John in his gaze, like an embrace. Other times the gaze becomes a caress of liquid coloured eyes.
Sherlock relaxes a little. The kiss becomes slow, tender, a contemplation of lips and tongues, the harder edges of teeth. John lies back, letting Sherlock kiss him and touch him.
John can hear someone opening and shutting a door downstairs and feels a red-orange pressure against his thigh. Sherlock is hard too; John forgets to kiss back.
John wonders as Sherlock holds John’s hands in his own, caressing, then sucking a few fingers. He doesn’t do it erotically; more like he’s taking in John’s taste, the texture of his skin. Kissing John’s palm, he rises. A cold rush of air where Sherlock had been and John looks around, dazedly.
Sherlock returns. As he presses John into the bed, his hard edges are all blunted and his skin is white and delicate as eggshells. John hears an aluminium crinkle and his whole body tightens.
In all of John’s fantasies, he never imagined that his first time with Sherlock would be like this. He never even thought he would have a first time with Sherlock, outside of those fantasies.
‘I’m just saying: it’s all fine,’ John had said. And he’d meant it. He’d stayed with Sherlock because, he realises, he loves Sherlock. He’d killed for him. Just a few hours earlier he’d nearly died for him. And that love, even when it had been smaller than the size of a mustard seed in John’s heart, had been most important. Yes, it is love. Love which eclipses sex and his own desires. It is not defined, or tethered, by either desire or sex. Like Sherlock it has no respect for traditional boundaries, instead expanding out like the waters of a great tidal flood.
Every time John stands at Sherlock’s shoulder, or hunts danger with him, he’s diving down into that dark sea of love with Sherlock. He reaches for, but never finds, the muddy bottom of it. It roars and thunders over him, crushes him between waves and threatens to shatter and drown him. John wants to shatter and drown. He wants to shatter and drown for the rest of his life.
Which is why he doesn’t stop Sherlock, and instead, lets him roll his hips back and hook one leg over a jutting white shoulder. John’s other leg slides so his knee is below Sherlock’s armpit and he’s looking at the creases of skin in Sherlock’s elbow as he pushes in.
‘Oh god,’ John groans. Sherlock’s rhythm see-saws jerkily. He seems intent on shoving himself inside and John feels like he’s going to rip. John claws for a hold, probably leaving long red lines over Sherlock’s alabaster shoulders and back.
Sherlock’s rhythm becomes unfocused, though, and he softens. John feels disappointed as he withdraws. Sherlock’s cheeks and lips colour pink, not from the sex.
With one long hand he reaches down between John’s thighs. Sherlock’s gaze is intense and adoring and John is enveloped in it. It doesn’t take long for John to finish, with Sherlock looking at him as if he is the centre of all existence, of all knowing. John is all of Sherlock’s answers.
Lying on their sides, Sherlock holds him, back to chest. Morning light scythes apart shadows. John is wondering what, exactly, just happened. There’s a crumpled condom in the rubbish bin. John squints at it as Sherlock kisses his hairline.
‘Sherlock?’ he says finally.
‘I’m sorry,’ Sherlock says, voice rumbling in John’s back. The way the words take shape and resonate – John knows what he means. Sherlock is sorry for having sex with John, for getting his hopes up.
‘Oh,’ John says and it hurts inside his chest. Like someone has punctured his lungs and let all the air out. John channels his disappointment into a sound, somewhere between a sigh and a tsk.
‘You bloody well should be sorry,’ he says, trying to be brave. ‘That was the worst sex I’ve ever had.’
Sherlock is quiet and then begins to chuckle. It’s such a beautiful sound. It’s a full colour sound, throaty and musical, filling the dull, muted, grotesque world after the bomb. John starts to laugh too.
Tears are sticky and hot against their faces and bare skin and they’re flushed and laughing so hard it aches all the way down to their toes.
Sherlock wipes his eyes and John’s. They hunker down in the blankets, still twined like lovers.
‘What was all that then?’ John asks.
Sherlock shrugs. ‘I . . . I wanted to feel you. To touch you. I needed to be inside you. But it’s not necessarily – sexual. I just wanted. To know you were there.’
They listen to the traffic outside.
‘I didn’t think you got hard,’ John says, absently.
‘It happens, occasionally. I am – aroused by you. Not physically, usually,’ he muses. ‘Usually it’s . . .’
‘Emotional?’ John supplies.
Sherlock shrugs again.
‘I suppose this time, given the circumstances, my – emotions – towards you were strong enough to translate into other areas.’ He pauses. ‘I know it’s not entirely logical.’
John runs his big toe along the underside of Sherlock’s foot.
‘No, it makes perfect sense,’ John says. ‘Do you think it could – happen again? Just – for curiosity’s sake?’
‘Mmm,’ Sherlock hums in John’s ear. ‘Anything’s possible, I suppose.’
John smiles. Taking one of Sherlock’s hands, he touches each of his fingertips to his own.
‘It’s still fine if you don’t.’
‘Of course it’s fine.’
John runs his thumb over and over Sherlock’s lifeline.
‘What are we now?’ he asks.
‘Friends, I think.’
‘But Moriarty said I was your heart.’
‘They aren’t mutually exclusive,’ Sherlock says into John’s scarred shoulder.
‘Oh,’ says John quietly. And then: ‘Oh.’ Like a revelation.