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I didn’t love her.

Words. Echoed. Faded. Revisited a thousand times between lonely nights and a glass filled with Brandy. He didn’t love her. It’s true. He never did, in fact. Maybe at some point, in his darkest of days. When the revolver in his desk would rattle and call him to open the damned drawer. Maybe, then… She might had been a sliver of light pushing through the clouds.

He didn’t love her.

The secret was out. The silence severe. John had finally told him. I didn’t love her. Ten days ago, Friday the 6th of January. His birthday. All because Sherlock Holmes was too trusting and too blind to see the truth. All because Sherlock believes in John Watson. The noble soldier. Always.

He remembers the blank look of utter confusion that he got at those words and he finds himself almost laughing. Pained and sarcastic but it’s still laughter all the same. Naturally, he missed the wince of pain and heartache from the broken figure; sitting unmoving in that armchair before him. Naturally.

They got back to 221B after that. Him and Rosie. Moved in. Needless hassle. Sherlock let them move back in, actually. John doesn’t even remember the look on his face when he showed up with the pushchair and the boxes. He was ashamed, looking at his feet. What an idiot. Coward.

He wasn’t the only one. Sherlock didn’t look at him that day either. But John wouldn’t blame him. He had every right to close off. The oh-so-noble doctor had beaten him to pulp three weeks before. How could anyone be expected to open up after that? Trust? No, that was out of the question. How could Sherlock know when John will snap next? How could anyone? Plus, the former -for the moment- detective wouldn’t even discuss it -or anything regarding feelings- after that day. No. He wouldn’t dare. Even if John wanted him to.

That’s right. Keep good old Doctor Watson calm.

Awkward. That’s what it was afterwards. Awkward and impossible. How could a coward ever find any courage to speak to a man that didn’t even look at him anymore? He had offered tea. Back to normal as always. Pretending nothing happened. Dancing around at the edge of thin rope. Broken hearts, the only resolution waiting at the bottom of the ironically bottomless pit underneath them.

Mm? Yes, sure.

The singular reply. Even if there was already a half-finished mug on the coffee table. John hadn’t stopped to look. All he truly remembers now is the glimpse he got at the tensed up, long figure, contemplating him knowingly. Was it hurt he saw? Surrender? A posture suggesting the simple fact the owner had given up on life itself? John pushed it all away. Yet again. Coward.

I didn’t love her.

One of the less important secrets that were unearthed that day.

John told him, tried to reason with him, shouted at him although it might had been that he mostly shouted at himself. He told him why he reached the hospital in time. How Mrs Hudson had shown them all where to find the DVD with the recording of the woman John did never love. Purposely left there. In 221B for John to find, for John to see, for John to play the hero without being one.

It wasn’t some valiant effort to save a friend. Neither John’s oh-so-caring-and-protective nature. It was a damned DVD left there by his dead wife. A message to send Sherlock to his death. Because maybe she wanted to finish what she started. Because she never truly believed in John Watson. Not like Sherlock Holmes continues to irrationally do beyond all hope.

Sherlock hadn’t known but he didn’t seem to mind either. He was apathetic at best. He should have known, damn it. He should have. How could he not? He had everything planned even with his mind shooting up on drugs. It was Sherlock! Sherlock, who let his chances pass by one after the other and doesn’t care. Sherlock, who is meticulously stubborn on not having any emotionally charged human contact at all. Frankly, John was sick of this. He couldn’t let him do that anymore. So, he told him so. Multiple times. The damned genius just wouldn’t listen.

You are doing yourself a disservice.

No. John wouldn’t take that crap. Sherlock didn’t actually know him anymore. They weren’t the same as before. They never would be. John couldn’t be the same. Not after everything. Not after Bart’s. Ever. He didn’t love her. He never did. If that’s not a clever comeback, then what is? It’s cruel and sharp and painful and he’s shaking with his skin rubbed raw, clawed open bit by bit. He could never be the same with Sherlock looking at him. Just like that. That look. That damned look.

And it was only then that it finally came into view. The truth. His one truth. John Watson’s truth.

The want. The need. John presses his palms inside his eye sockets with a grunt. In the silence of 221B a man could hope. A man could despair. A man could love. He wasn’t that man. He wasn’t the man Sherlock thought him to be. He told him so. But that was the point, wasn’t it? That’s what one should get when pursuing… a relationship? The belief. In each other. Only John hadn’t believed. John had given up. He was a poor excuse of a man beating up his best and only true friend. Or whatever they were.

Called him a junkie. Slapped him. Doubted him. Lost faith in him.

That’s the whole point.

“I didn’t want her. To be my wife. My daughter’s mother. Nothing” Plagued by nightmares, this isn’t the first time or last that John will go over this conversation in his head and with hushed whispers against his pillow just to take his mind off the terror.

Nothing.

“She didn’t want it either but does that make it alright?” His fingers curling up in his hair, tightening around tufts and bite the skin, blocking the sob inside his chest. Guilt clogging up his throat.

I wanted to cheat on her. I wanted something. Something more.

Cold. Frozen. John Watson muffles another sob. Rosie still asleep at the cot beside his bed. He knew the next part all too well. The desperation of wanting to feel. To surrender. For someone. Anyone. No. Not really… Not exactly anyone

I wanted more. I still do.

There it is. The look. That damned look… Sherlock pining him to the spot with his eyes. Speaking without words. Accusing without accusation. Still believing. Still holding on. But now actually asking for an explanation. An action. A relief. Reprieve. Something! As if all this could be erased if John just would…

I never could be… Who you thought I was… Is the man who I want to be…

If John Watson would just go on and be that man. Because he could do that. Because Sherlock believed he could. What the hell was he waiting for? Why hadn’t he got on with it already? Why hadn’t he given in to those blue irises full of promise? Why?

Oh. Yeah. That’s right. One of those irises was looking back at him darkly without meaning to. There was a red stain all around it and the worst of it all was that he could still feel it. His knuckles itching. His fist colliding with soft skin and breaking arteries. His fingers rubbing instantly with stubble. His whole arm vibrating from the impact. Pain travelling up his elbow and bicep, coming to a screeching halt at the numb nerves of an old wound at his shoulder. Sending shrills of anger and weird satisfaction that shouldn’t be there. All over his body. And the look is still there. Steady and resilient. But John can’t be that man… I can’t be anything anyone deserves, he thinks as he collapses into the tears. Not now… Not ever…

***

Ten days. Ten whole days. John thinks it’s fine. It’s all fine. Presses himself to believe it is. Pretends it is. Baker Street is more like… No. Not home. He’s not entitled to call it that. Equally though, the house he got back to ten days ago… was just a house. A place where him and his daughter could live for the time being. It strikes him as weird that they had actually lived there for almost three years. It should have been homely, warm, a place to unwind and relax. Protected. Both of them. But it isn’t.

Maybe it is because a large part of those two and half years was spent between there and here. 221B Baker Street. Either way, Rosie doesn’t like it and neither does her father that got back half-drunk on the 6th of January 2017. He shouldn’t have bought the whole bottle at that cake place Molly got them to celebrate the happy day. Oh, so happy day. The legendary consultant’s birthday.

Apparently, John was the only one not aware of the date’s existence. Birthday… Of course, Sherlock would shrug it off. Of course, it wasn’t important. As expected. Why would he care? Did he ever care anyway? Still, the whole affair irked John. He had spent seven bloody years of his life with Sherlock being the centre of it and him being praised of how he was the only one ever to know the detective so well. He would snort at that if he wasn’t drunk, finishing the half-empty bottle hanging from his hand while lingering on the long unwelcome corridor. His daughter upstairs sound asleep.

In retrospect, he really shouldn’t have done that. The hired nanny that he couldn’t very well afford for long, had given him a wary look. Drunk parent, yeah, he knew. She could easily contact social services next time. Or now. He didn’t care. At that moment at least, she could do as she wished. All that he saw was the booze in his hand and how he couldn’t do this anymore. He had lost his job temporarily because of heavy drinking a couple of months ago. If he slipped again… Fired. Done with. Veteran with a tremor and a hurt shoulder. No more a doctor. They would take his license away. Then his pension. Then they’d take Rosie. His little girl. The little girl that deserved so much more than him as a father.

Still, it didn’t stop him. He had managed to drink his full in that unimportant dinner (which could have been important… for him… If Sherlock just talked to him… If he just as much as looked at him…). It had been dull. Slipping more whiskey in his glass when no one was looking. He wasn’t successful on keeping it a secret of course. It was difficult enough to escape the gazes of three companions that rarely spoke, even without one of them being Sherlock Holmes -exhausted-, the other Molly Hooper and the third an overprotective housekeeper that had taken on the role of his grandma. As much as he’d like to be discreet about his drinking habits, nobody was buying it.

They got back when Molly decided Sherlock was in no fit state for more. John couldn’t forget - even in mid-drunkenness - the rebuking looks he got for that. He shrugged it off, rolled his eyes exasperated. It wasn’t his responsibility to notice the ragged breaths and shivers shaking the detective’s body. Or maybe it was, but he wasn’t fit for it. Poor excuse of a man… Letting himself believe he could actually take care of the damage he’s caused. Just a goal for redemption with no follow through. Look what he has become…

John should have known. He should have seen the signs, diagnosed it himself if he had to. But he kept making excuses, kept holding on false beliefs when awake or just drunk that he could fix this. He should fix it. Kept pretended all was fine. He should have known though… He should have remembered the moment Sherlock got out of Mrs Hudson’s boot and the doctor couldn’t even tell if he was faking drug addiction or not. Evidently, not.

John wasn’t fit to take proper care of the detective and his friend - and maybe something more - that he had almost beaten to death. Yet, he made it his purpose and promise to himself to do so that quiet Saturday morning, after the whiskey had dried from the bottle and the headache it caused came as a welcome reprieve. That’s where it all started, after all. A bad hangover and you suddenly believe you’re thinking straight for once.

***

Movements mechanical. Lifeless. Methodical. The precision of surgery thrown over them even when his fingers are trembling. Three boxes. Two suitcases. The accuracy of each action underlined with impartiality. Every little part of his and his daughter’s life handled as a body on the surgical table, cut off from the reality of it all, overpowered by the need to just finish the act with a certain correctness about it. Auto-pilot.

Eventually all their belongings gathered, all their lives packed away. John called the cabbie, feeling like doom itself. Didn’t even say goodbye to the house he -mostly- shared with his wife and daughter. Three boxes. Two suitcases. The cabbie gives them a sour look but doesn’t mind. They get in.

He doesn’t want to think of what will happen to the house. He hasn’t even figured out if it was legal they stayed there. Bought with Mary’s money, that and all furniture could be sold but most of it is gone since her death anyway. He doesn’t think the authorities would ever let him sell any of it. Illegally obtained money after all. He supposes Mycroft has kept it quiet to give him time to grieve. He scowls. Let bloody Mycroft take care of it then.

He doesn’t think. He doesn’t want to. Everything he needs is with him. Almost as little as he had when he came home from the war. Most of it is Rosie’s. His daughter. Still asleep against his chest. Baker Street. That’s where all his medical journals and books or anything that his wife didn’t fancy are anyway. The upstairs bedroom. He feels like a refugee. A refugee trying to get home. Knowing when he gets there nothing will be the same.

He barks the address. They get on. The road quiet. Cabbie doesn’t ask questions. He kicks the boxes around the pavement later, frown at the fullness of them with his daughter’s cribs and cradle, baby-table and toys. He has no idea how he’ll manage to get them up. If he’ll be allowed to stay. It’s just after 6am. He has no idea if Sherlock’s waiting. Or even if he’s awake. Or if he remembers. Withdrawal can’t be good for sleep. John knows. He hasn’t slept more than two hours himself, despite the whiskey.

Up the steps he goes. Knocks. Then waits.

Chapter Text

Sherlock does not need to know the time. His very skin crawls and prickles with the memory of anticipation. With the memory of his excited heartbeat and clammy palms, at just the sight of him. Just the sight. His transport always was a traitor. What use are an elevated pulse and sweaty hands now -assuming they ever were of any use at all. His legs are tangled in the sheets, and for a moment he is not strong enough to pull his body free, as if caught up in flesh-hungry ropes, coiled, restraining. He kicks and tosses, and at last sits up in bed with a soft grunt. His eyes strain to focus, and then simply close against the rising dizziness. Another wave, and it will pass; again. Again, and again. And then what?

The breaths flying through his lips are quick, frail puffs of air against the darkness. The swell and fall of his ribcage is uneven beneath bruised flesh and cracked bone. He hugs his torso with a steadying arm, traces his own ribs jutting angrily at his fingertips. Breathes. In. Out. In... Out...

When he thinks he is ready, he sets his jaw, and swings his legs off the bed. 

First, he attempts to stand. On unsure as if new-born feet and wobbly knees. It doesn’t work. He slides down, not gracefully, long limbs no use to him, not now. He collects them to him with a soft gasp when he finds himself sitting on the floor. He cradles what is left of him, chest rising and falling like that of a terrified bird. He will try again; there is nothing to it. Sherlock cannot bear to wonder how it came to this. 

He ends up waiting behind the door. He did attempt the alternatives; paced the corridor until his vision blacked out, settled into his armchair until stillness turned eerie and the silence weighing down on him nearly crushed his sternum. Well, he did not have that many alternatives, after all. 5.52 am, according to the watch on his wrist. Sherlock tries to count the seconds. At first it is soothing, something simple enough to do but needing enough of his mind to keep him busy.

5.55. Sherlock begins to pace again, his wine-red nightgown brushing against his heels -counting is forgotten. It can't be that he imagined the words, the promise, however disgruntled it had been, however fed up the tone in which it was delivered ('Looking forward to it'.'Yeah..').

A car door slams, and Sherlock pauses mid-stride, ears perking up like a startled cat's. He is holding his breath, and a small frown forms above his eyes. It softens when the engine jerks into life, and soon has unceremoniously carried the vehicle away. Oh. Well. Sherlock sighs, clears his throat. Remains rooted to the spot for some moments -but sways a little, like a child not knowing what they're supposed to do. When nothing else is heard, he shakes his head of unruly dark curls, and goes back to his circular route (door-stairs-door, door-stairs-door).

It is now 5.57. There is a shot of pain up his ribcage. He needs to stop. His steps begin to drag until he stands behind the door again, like a weary soldier resuming duty. It's not quite six sharp yet, after all.

And then it is. 6 am. Sharp. 'I'm tomorrow, six til ten. I'll see you then'. His brain supplies, for the hundredth time. And then again, 'I'll see you'. 'Six til ten', 'Six til ten'. Nothing happens. Sherlock inhales sharply and glances down at his bare toes, teeth worrying the inside of his lower lip. Right...

Sherlock waits. Keeps waiting. Five minutes crawl by. Ten. It’s almost as if time has stopped. With every second, he finds his body sagging all the more, curling into itself. Duty over, then. He takes a step back, and then another. Slow, as if the floor is molasses.

He is half-way up the first flight of stairs when a vehicle halts on the road, almost directly outside the door. 

There is one... two… No, three thuds -something being unloaded onto the pavement from the boot. Then silence. Sherlock tilts his head to the side, lingers with one hand on the staircase's handrail. A door closes, and the engine revs again. Now there is only the mysterious passenger and his cargo across from him, out onto the street, hidden from view.

There is a knock. He would have missed it was it not for every ounce of his alertness being bent on what could be outside. Sherlock takes the first step down the stairs hesitantly. There comes another knock, louder this time, as if decided. Or perhaps, resigned. It draws him closer.

Yet once there, with a palm on the doorknob, he pauses. Runs a hand through his hair to brush it away from his forehead and eyes, straightens his white shirt, makes sure it's tucked in his black dress trousers meticulously. Sets his jaw, tips his chin up just so. With shoulders squared, Sherlock opens the door. 

He takes it all in at once, blinking slowly in the darkness of the gloomy morning. John, three boxes, two suitcases, Rosie. John. Rosie. Sound asleep against her father's chest in the baby carrier, all bundled up in a little fuchsia coat. Short sun-kissed curls a little riot on her head, small chubby hands curled into tiny fists beneath her chin, dimpled cheeks a lovely shade of pink. They're closed now, but Sherlock knows her eyes are bright and big and blue, like a clear morning's sky. She whines at something in her dreams, and her little button nose -the exact tiny replica of her father's- sniffs like a rabbit's. Sherlock’s brain whirs.

"Morning". It's clipped but barely above the level of a whisper. Impatient, but unsure, too. 

Sherlock jerks back to reality. John's eyes flutter toward him, spare a moment on some unspecified point on his face, and then withdraw again, a pair of startled birds. Sherlock fights the urge to nibble on his lower lip.  "Good morning", he murmurs slowly, and takes a step back and to the side. 

John follows with a step of his own a moment later, dragging one of the suitcases behind him. Sherlock holds the door open. Tearing his eyes away from Honeybee is painful, but he does not want to push his luck. John seems oblivious to this, shifting nervously from one foot to the other -one planted inside, one outside- and glances briefly around, toward the quiet, dimly lit corridor. Perhaps John did not expect to see him. Maybe he did not want to. But then why has he brought his daughter, and five pieces of packed belongings onto the doorstep of 221B? 'I''m six to ten. I'll see you then', is not excuse enough for this. But then again, Sherlock has no idea what this is.

John had not given any indication that he would want to move back in. Perhaps his brother pressured him. But no, John would never do something he did not want to do, would he, stubborn as a pack mule. Especially given the way he treated the prospect of seeing Sherlock again yesterday… Grim chances. Not choice, then. Need. Short on money? John is drinking again, and this can't have left his job unaffected. Leaving Rosie with a nanny often must have strained his income severely, too. Sharing a flat is more affordable. Even so, the sudden appearance at the time when he was scheduled to only visit (to keep Sherlock 'off the sweeties') was puzzling. If John needed to move back in 221B, he could organise it better, or at least, at a more convenient circumstance. Spurious decision based on emotional drive, then. John's house must be a constant reminder of Mary, and a change of scenery was thus necessary.

Sherlock waits, discreetly observing. The creases on John’s forehead have deepened, there are black circles under his eyes, his left hand is tremoring, ever so subtly. His back is stiff, and his leg stiffer. Sherlock remembers other times spent in the threshold and attempts to match this reality with them. But in his mind, the doors have rusty hinges, and he struggles to push them open. Doors amidst ashes and ruins, wombs of life in a collapsing world.  

"Um...". John tries and stops to clear his throat.  His gaze travels from his daughter to Sherlock's chin -and at the last moment turns away again. 

 If only he could pinpoint a specific point in time when their lives drifted apart perhaps Sherlock could mend this. But he does not know. And after that point -if there was only a definite, single moment in time- they seemed to be unable to coexist. They were caught in an intricate, dangerous dance around each other. Sherlock would pretend, John would avoid. But when they would collide, it would be violently, to shouting, a broken nose, and cracked ribs. 

And now John is here, presumably to stay, at least for a while. The thought of John living in 221B again is peculiar. So familiar, at first -two mugs of morning tea in the sink, a good morning and goodnight, someone to share the empty space with, the small sounds that indicated someone was there with him; a running tap, the telly, the clicks on another laptop keyboard. Maybe the odd smile.

But even if there will be a smile, it will be on a different face. There will be no more cases together, or 'us against the rest of the world'. There will be a baby to take care of. John will be grieving. The things that happened will not be undone. 

And Sherlock is tired. Why is then John here -not the cold-blooded, rational reasons, the real one. Is there any such reason? Perhaps... he wants to be his friend again. Or maybe at least wants them to be on speaking terms again. Sherlock is not sure what the knowledge that he would still pick John's presence and the possibility of friendship over nothing means about him.

Sherlock's mind returns to the present, as the nervous impatience wafting from the other man strikes at him in waves. John unstraps the baby carrier and holds it, with some awkwardness before he glances behind his shoulder, almost comically, as if to make sure the boxes are still there. Rosie huffs and gnaws on her fist, whining like an annoyed kitten. It hits Sherlock then; John needs to carry the boxes and second suitcase inside, and obviously cannot do that with a sleeping baby on his chest or arms. Took you long enough, you git. Someone needs to hold her, and the only one available at the moment is himself. Which means… Sherlock could hold Honeybee.

Fear is a black weight at the pit of his stomach. If he asked, John could see it as overstepping. As much as John was concerned, Sherlock was an addict. Pile that on all the other reasons why Sherlock had been deemed unfit of being within a ten-metre radius of a child. Of course, John had seen him interact with Rosie; had let him take care of her, while her mother was on her wild goose chase around half the world. But that was before.

If he were polite, maybe? 

"I could help", he says, and his voice sounds strange to his ears. John's eyes snap to him, finally, not entirely comprehending. Sherlock indicates Rosie with a soft tilt of his head. Willingness expressed, he should now give him a way out of it. A choice. "If you need me to".

Rosie shifts and sucks on her thumb with a content whine. Sherlock smiles.

"It's alright", he adds, almost cooing, when little Bee complains and tries to shift again, not finding comfort in being held like that. 

John's eyes widen. Imperceptibly, but they do. "Thank you".

Sherlock nods and stays still as John walks closer, to lift the precious warm bundle onto Sherlock's waiting arms. "Thank you", John repeats in a hushed whisper. If Sherlock was fool enough to delude himself, he could believe it was almost tender. John makes sure Rosie is safely transferred and then steps back again. He avoids Sherlock's eyes again. But it is alright, now; Sherlock can hold Honeybee. It doesn't hurt that much. 

She's grown, since last he saw her, swaddled in Molly’s arms and kept away. The old image of her swims in his mind. Sherlock has missed seven months of her life, some of her most crucial developmental stages, where she would slowly gain some independence and begin exploring the world. Missed her first words. Missed getting to know her, as she bloomed -from tiny kitten to lively, curious toddler. 

Sherlock does not register the thuds and scrapes of the boxes being pushed and pulled against concrete and wooden floor, or John's heavy breaths and grunting. It's the click of the door closing that spells it out for him, that whatever was about to happen is happening, after all.

John clears his throat. "I should-". Sherlock waits, tilting his head a little to the side. "Would you mind? Me and Rosie, staying", John adds in a steady voice. Sherlock blinks. "I know it's a bit of a rush, but I just-" He shuffles, looks at his shoes as if seeing them for the first time. 

Oh, you utter idiot, Sherlock's eyes crinkle. Treacherous joy stirs feebly in his chest -like bubbles. But he should be careful. "Of course not". There is a pause. "Wouldn't mind, I mean", he hurries to add, when there is no immediate reaction.

He is unexpectedly rewarded with the upward tug of the corner of John's lips. 

"Um… Right. Shall we?" Chewing on his lower lip, Sherlock carries Rosie upstairs as per the indication, hyper-aware of John's heavier steps behind him. 

John makes tea. It should feel more surreal than it does. He lets Sherlock hold honeybee, and Sherlock removes her gently from the carrier to nestle her against his chest, to the sounds of John searching about the almost empty kitchen. He can still picture every movement of John's body behind the screen door. Every single one. 

He could get used to this again. 

Rosie's eyelids flutter, and she sleepily clutches the curls at the back of Sherlock's neck and hides her face in his throat. He presses a silent kiss to her curls, unsteady because of the watery tremors of his chin. 

"Sugar?"

It takes a moment to register the words, and another to reply.

"Um... Top cupboard to the left". I think. His voice sounds like crumpled paper. 

Honeybee mewls and pushes away clumsily with a small fist against his sternum. Her cheeks, puffy with sleep, make her lips form an adorable tiny pout. Sherlock smiles at her, and she whines inquisitively at the new face, tilting her head to the side. Sherlock wants to murmur ‘it's me’. Instead, he leans forward and gently presses the tip of his nose onto hers. "Boop".

He is not sure if it is because she remembers him, or because the gesture always made her happy, or both, but the little one squeals in delight and ‘boops’ him back, little lips kissing his nose messily.

"Hello, Rosie", he murmurs, keeping his voice low. "Long time no see...". She giggles, and pats his cheeks with her palms, before she gives him a loud, childish kiss on the chin, mwah sound and all. It makes him smile. "How are you? Hmm?" She looks at him and pouts even more before hugging his neck tight with a whine. Long fingers trembling, he presses her closer.

She doesn't speak. Not a word. Not a single syllable. Sherlock's blood runs cold. She should have started, she is 21 months old. This is the language explosion stage. Oh christ, no... 

John pauses at the doorway, a steaming cup of tea in each hand. Sherlock looks away. For a moment, there is stillness atop the oppressing silence. The ‘avoid and pretend’ that makes Sherlock’s ribcage seem as if made of lead. 

John takes a few slow steps, leaves one cup on the coffee table and takes a small sip from his. 

"I'll have her cot fixed in no time". 

Sherlock nods. ‘Keep away’. Got it. Rosie's body is still, except for the quick tempo of her breaths, little baby-bird chest fluttering against his own. 

"I mean, you- You must not get tired holding her". 

Honeybee whines, not in protest exactly, but she definitely does not sound happy. She burrows closer to Sherlock, who leans his head against hers soothingly, just a little bit. If John watches, he does not want to see the expression on his face. 

"Right. Should get started, then". 

Sherlock nods again. As if by some sort of secret pact between them, both he and Honeybee wait until her father has gone back downstairs before they look at each other. She is frowning. He can't but smother her in kisses until she smiles in delight. At least he still remembers how to do that. 

He hopes that cot takes a long time to fix. It doesn't. When John takes Rosie from his arms there is a weight on his heart, as if a stone was pressing down on it. When John's steps carry Honeybee away, Sherlock looks at his empty arms, his now trembling hands. Is revisited by that empty feeling in his stomach. It's ominous. It would be only too cruel if his own last hope and dream turned sour again, wouldn't it. Sherlock is sure that it would. And that it will happen to him anyway.

Chapter Text

There’s flashes, heat, images. Red. He can’t move, something coiling around his ankles. Tied up. There’s sounds but not exactly. A scream, a cracked skull, a gun, the sizzle of tinder and gunpowder. Detonation. Explosion. Smoke, dust and fire. There’s skin against his fist. Blood on his fingers. A push. The fall.

Can a falling body sound like an incoming bomb? No. It can’t. It shouldn’t. Yet, it does.

Floor or pavement?

He can’t move. He struggles. Scrambles.

Don’t know, sir.

He gets shouted at.

Don’t know, sir.

He shouts back. He can’t move. He needs to move. There’s something he must do. Someone he must push out of the way of a bullet. Someone to catch before they jump off a building. He doesn’t know. Something. He must do something.

Bang.

Metal. Hollow. Cupboard. No. Fridge. No. Morgue. Oh. The morgue.

His favourite room.

Distorted voices, nightmares. Commands and pleads. Red. Red. Red tile… No. Blood.

Might even put him in my favourite room.

He winces, tries to get away. Fails. No. No, he doesn’t want to, he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to see.

No.

His fault. Everything is his fault. No. He doesn’t want to see. He gets shoved at it, his face above the victim, his eyes water. A lifeless body. No!

Blue. A sea of blue. With not much to see inside of it. Not now. Not ever again. Broken glass. The once sky blue of those eyes in front of him now broken to pieces with such proximity. Precious stones. Sapphires with faces of colours. There’s teal and indigo, warm and welcoming. But no… now most of it all has turned an icy arctic. Lifeless. Beaten. Dead.

No.

Red. Blood. Hints of crimson reflected here and there. Turning the sapphires into rubies. All because of a scarlet pool of blood beside that angled face. Crashed. Down to the pavement.

Pavement?

No.

No, floor. It was a floor. A hospital’s floor. Not tiles but… Not grey but… Rubber. Mint. Lighting the eyes alive again.

Not with life, mind you. With resignation. Acceptance.

No. They are looking back now and John wants to turn away. But no. Invisible hands make him stand there. Above the fallen figure and look. Look. Truly look. He struggles to fight them off and his breaths are ragged but he can’t move. Not pavement. Not a roof. Just a morgue. Just a floor.

Silence.

He’s entitled.

John snarls. No. Just a dream. Is it a dream? No. This is reality. His feet find flesh. His fists find hair.  A yank. A throw. A tuft left between cold fingers. Dripping blood. One lonely ebony curl. No. A step back and he’s on the roof again.

Damned roof. He had been up there once. After. As he is now. Barefoot. Aching. Gravel between his toes, biting in his skin as he runs. Runs to catch the coated figure at the edge. Runs and screams and is happy because he will catch him. He can move again. He won’t let him fall. Oh, the joy. Oh, the anticipation.

There’s a stumble and he loses his footing. Falters. The eyes are looking at him now. Again. Questioning but understanding at the same time. John falls. Body surges forward. He falls and he pushes and scrambles for purchase. Fingers flexing over the edge. Cement edge of a building. No. Not a building.

The building.

Scratches. Hurts. Face looking down the abyss.

And there it is. A flailing body. Pushed over. By him. John pushed him over the edge.

No. That’s not true. That can’t happen.

There’s some version of himself down the road. Shouting. He can feel it in his throat. Hoarse. Dry. He can see the man fall from the ground. And the roof. All at once. All too much. His foot is on the ledge and his mouth is screaming. Muscles stretching. Lips breaking. Throat burning.

He jumps. He’ll catch him. He was going to catch him.

Heat.

A baby face is looking from up above, shocked, crying, reaching a hand. Curls sun-kissed, a halo around the round head. Alone. Left alone. Deliberately. Alone… Betrayed. She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t scream. She’s just looking. Crying.

Heat. Sun. Guns. A gun. He’s at the bottom and he can’t move again. A gun is pointed right at him. A bride on the other side of it. Smiling. Long, messy, yellow -almost white- hair framing the wicked face. A flash. A transformation. The dress now black. Every bit of skin covered, hair hidden.

There’s a gasp and a click and he doesn’t hear the ignition but he’s sure the gun has been fired. He’s not the receiving end anymore though. There’s someone jumping in front of him. Tall and thin and skeleton-like but strong enough to catch the bullet in his chest a second time.

A second time.

He screams.

***

John sweats himself to wakefulness. Uncoordinated legs try to untangle from the duvet. His breathing is erratic and he curls into a ball once again. The clock on the bedside table showing the date and time punctually. The 17th. Same day. Same morning. Right. He must have managed to fall asleep again after all that pathetic murmuring to himself.

Didn’t help much, it seems. Of course, it didn’t. Reliving the worse moments of his life, obviously doesn’t help.

Idiot.

Pressing a palm to his forehead, John resists the temptation of hitting himself on the head. He’d love to. It would be better. He wants to. So badly. Both palms over his eyes now. It would be so, so easy. But he can’t, can he? He’s not allowed. He’s not entitled.

But apparently there are so many worse things he is entitled to do…

Yes, all John Watson remembers anymore every waking moment of his life are those eyes. Looking up at him while the perfectly shaped Cupid’s bow of wanted lips - broken and bleeding - spoke the words that are now haunting his every step.

No. It’s okay.

Yes, all John Watson wants to do is shout at himself, hit his face on the wall. Hard. To scream, inflict pain on his own body, make himself bleed so that he can finally be free of his mind. It’s not okay. It’s not. It simply is not.

Let him do what he wants.

That man. That broken tone. Gravel between his toes…

He’s entitled.

‘No!’ he wants to shout. ‘I’m not!’ Yet, it remains. His own body not following his mind. Not objecting. Not feeling.

He closes his eyes and there he is. The man he almost killed. The man he loves. The man that loves him? In that special way of never saying but knowing it is there… Taking blows, gasping yet not a single cry leaving his lips. Left looking down at his own blood. That man. After everything, that man held him close, comforted him. Touched him.

That kind of love. How could this be love? How could this be anything? They’re broken. Oh, so broken…

I killed his wife.

And the words circulate. Hollow now.

And the images. Haunted and screeching in his mind like an old door.

And John can’t end this. He can’t finish it with a click of a trigger like he once could have. All because of one simple reason. One major development that he hadn’t thought of when he put this off for years. Believing he would get better. He would get a normal family and the best man he ever knew by his side… It would all get better… But it hasn’t… and he can’t do anything about it.

He should have blown himself to bits back then. Before.

A small muffled breath breaks the silence and John turns around with a grunt - his shoulder straining - to gaze at that particular little reason. Why he can’t abandon this world. The pleading of his dreams and nightmares. The epilogue. The result. The little one, curled up in the crib with a leg folded under her small stomach and her bum raised childishly in the air, a finger in her mouth and soft purrs coming out of her lips like a warmed-up kitten. Rosie. His daughter.

His daughter.

John is a father. 21 months and he doesn’t know what that means anymore.

He hasn’t been a father to her for a long while. But that doesn’t mean he can bear the thought of abandoning her in this world alone… or him… The man he is supposed to take care of. How long can John pretend that he is not abandoning them both already? He’s letting them down. How long can he make himself hold on to the belief that everything is fine? Until Sherlock’s lost to him for good? When will he stop being a heartless coward? When?!

***

Why are you staying here again, John?

Oh, Molly. Only if you knew…

Rosie will be happier here.

He hurt Sherlock. John hurt him.

Are you sure?

A pointed look. He wasn’t. He wasn’t sure. Especially, when it became clear. John’s presence was enough for Sherlock never to reach for her, ask for her, show her any affection. John’s presence was enough for his daughter to be silent as the grave and steal glances towards the consulting detective but never reach with her grabby hands like that first day. Rosie wasn’t happy here. Sherlock wasn’t happy here.

And it was all John’s fault.

***

In such a world, the reality of their previous lives together in 221B is bound to dissipate into a struggle of moments, one after the other, without clear cohesion or purpose… There was no possible future where John could see himself facing his fears. Nor one he could ever forget his nightmares. There was only one, instinctive goal. Avoiding them.

That’s all it was now. A world of coping mechanisms. A world of avoidance. And not just for John.

This was a world where Sherlock didn’t dare to touch or speak, approach or even glance at John without being asked. A world where John put up walls around himself to manage. Cope. Avoid and not care. Even if they had touched, they had embraced, they had soothed each other’s souls… Just for a moment… Maybe that could happen again… No. That was something else. That moment in the sea of many existed only because, as always, his-damned-self decided to make the problem his own and start crying. Selfish.

Selfish and a coward. A hypocrite that the beaten-up detective had tried so humanely to soothe, to comfort. Because John was considered his friend. Still. After everything. Or whatever.

But… was he?

Avoidance.

Yet, there she was. The connection. Between them. And the world. Life. Peaking out from the covers of their darkness, silent as ever, picking up the moods of grown-ups. His little rose… Wanting to play, to sleep, to eat, to… To hold… No, not him, not her father… She wanted to be held by her spiritual one. Of course… John can see it every day; how she had missed him. From that first day, he has always seen it. Along with the silence from the other front. Her godfather. Unresponsive in front of John.

Never daring to ask. John longed to hear those words; “May I... can I hold her?”. In any form, they would be enough. But Sherlock never asks. Never indicates his longing to do so either. But he’s always ready. Arms always waiting for when he’ll be granted with the gift to hold her. Equally, no objection left neither of their lips when John leaned close to take her. It was all a game. That’s all it was.

Never asking. Not objecting. Welcoming but not seeking.

Avoidance.

Then, there were moments. Moments running smoothly but nothing was right. Moments when John would enter a room and smiles and hushed whispers disappeared. Moments when the little one would reach for a toy and look up at Sherlock, eyes pleading, and John could see. He could see the flood of emotions and communication in the air. It would fill the room like the soft fragrance of rosemary.

Moments when he caught the glimpse of a fleeting smile or ones when the lack of any reaction was alarming. When John felt ill-prepared for his mind’s tricks. When he would lean close just to smell the man beside him. Let the warmth and homely scent envelop him and scare his fears away just for a moment. Moments when he could hope, that’s what his daughter felt as well. Innocent care.

The doctor excused himself, pretending to pay attention to Rosie, thinking they’ll work it out, Sherlock will work it out, maybe John will finally speak, or the other way around so John will finally have to listen.

Maybe he tried. Once. Twice. Maybe. But no.

There were eyes looking back at him that John couldn’t block. The cold image of lifelessness flashing before him at that internal bruise around Sherlock’s iris. Haunting.

Say something. Fucking do something.

No. Shit. He can’t.

He can’t.

He just can’t.

Please don’t make me.

Who was he kidding? This wouldn’t work for long. Nothing could work in their circumstances.

***

He hates it. Plucking at his hair, John Watson contemplates how much he hates it. Himself. Everything.

He hates having to think about his failing attempts at fatherhood. Realising his daughter has had minimal contact with people who love her. Doubting she will even remember even a faraway scent of her mother’s presence. (‘Mary’ barely even cared anyway.) He hates to watch in this blasted life that he’s locked himself in, while she takes her first steps into this world slower than normal, underdeveloped in certain areas because of his flaws, but too fast for him to change anything he has done wrong.

All will be normal again. We will be back to normal.

Struggling thoughts. Every day. But it’s so not true. John knows that now. It’s not true. Pretending he’s never left 221B of course doesn’t help. Avoidance doesn’t help. He needs to take care of his daughter. He needs to take care of Sherlock. Not to make up for anything. (He can’t make up for anything. Nothing can be undone.) But because he cares. He cares and he’s an idiot not to show it.

An idiot to keep himself drowning in drops of alcohol. Poor excuse of a man… Selfish. Coward. A wreck. Ruminating. Again and again. His mind stuck on loop. That same loop. Sherlock. Rosie. Sherlock. Rosie. The drink.

Rosie.

Oh, how she loves Sherlock. How she wants to be held by him, play with him, interact. Sherlock coos and she gurgles happily and although John had been downstairs then, he knew exactly what was going on. His head falling and his heart clenching. Another pint. Another bottle.

His fault. Always his fault.

He had to stay away those nights. Scared of what he might do. His self-loathing on a high. Tricky to manage. Making him seek the last drop of the empty bottle in his hand. Had to stay at the hall or run to the pub. His half-finished bottles always disappeared the next morning but he didn’t have the energy to pay them any mind on his crazy hangovers. To ask where they’ve gone or who’s taking them. Maybe Mrs Hudson. But no, she wouldn’t meddle like that. Why would she? Why should she? Was he that far gone?

***

Morning, John. How’s he doing?

John? You okay?

Should get yourself together, lad.

Take care of him.

Faceless greetings. That’s what they’ve become. Every time he leaves for work or returns from it. All blurred into one. He has forgotten how these people - Greg, Molly, Angelo when no one else is available, even Donovan passing once – were actually there to take care of both his daughter and check in on the detective in the early mornings. Forgotten to thank them. To express gratitude. He doesn’t know how to do that anymore.

Of course, the strongest point he ignores is himself. They pass by to check on him. Because John Watson can’t be trusted. Of course he can’t. Not anymore. Look at him. He hates every bit of it. He doesn’t talk and he knows. He knows everybody else is doing hell of a better job at helping Sherlock’s recovery from Culverton and drug abuse than he does. But that’s the point, isn’t it?

Compared to John, the mad genius is fine. Quite fine. Isn’t he? He seems to be. Not always but... How many times have John’s eyes not taken in the long figure, straight and tall over the kitchen counter, putting much needed sugar in his mug? How many times has Sherlock not strolled from the bedroom to his armchair, dressed impeccably -almost too much-? How many times has John not paused in the doorway, gaping, the old days flashing before his eyes as if he was leaving them in the here and now?

Yet.

Yet.

John Watson needs to see. He needs to understand. Today, he knows he has to.

Because it’s all until his eyes drift to the empty desk beside the window. The barely filled bookshelves beside the fireplace. The missing music stand over the rubbed off carpet. The non-existent violin. The tidy kitchen with science equipment nowhere to be found. It’s all until he sees...  

Sherlock Holmes. Always proud. Always trying to act normal, quiet, reserved into his own world as if he’s solving a case in his head -but with no actual cases or experiments or anything to think of-, trying to reinforce John’s idiotic fantasy that everything is actually okay. Wasn’t this the definition John had given to his best friend -or whatever- himself?

It’s like your mission.

John wished he could live the lie this time. He wished he never once knew Sherlock’s honesty in order to happily swallow the lies he was fed with every day. But he did. Multiple times, he had been faced with that honesty. Strong like a tidal wave. Before Moriarty, it had all been that. But he had almost forgotten that, hadn’t he? His mind pushing it away, wanting to hopefully stick with the lies. Bringing it on himself.

Until.

Until.

A bullet to the heart and all crazy, loud, overwhelming honesty came rushing in. And John let it all happen, hadn’t he? As much as he tried to block it, blame Sherlock for it, everything found a way back. A way inside. A confession of weakness. A recorded video of a dead person. It was all a problem now. A virus. John’s knowledge. It didn’t match well with avoidance. It never could.

Well. He had managed ten days, hadn’t he? Why couldn’t he manage more? He could surely try.

Ten days of Sherlock barely breathing when John walked into the room. Pursing lips, acting normal, hiding. Lying.

No.

John was the one lying. To himself. He had no right to blame Sherlock. Again.

No fucking right.

You lie all the time.

He mustn’t see. Not after that. He must manage to ignore and avoid. Because he can’t look. He just can’t. He needs to see. But no. Please. There are consequences he’s not ready to deal with...

This doesn’t make sense...

He hates it.

He hates it because good morning and goodnight - rarely spoken but their last hope of communication - just isn’t enough. It’s not enough. Because it’s his fault. He knows what he could do to make it better, but he doesn’t even know if he’s allowed anymore. He could make breakfast. He could wake Sherlock up instead of that bloody alarm John hears every morning, while pretending to sleep after his nausea and nightmares before the dawn. He could really take care of Sherlock – that’s why he’s here, damn it – but he hasn’t been doing any of it.

What kind of doctor are you?

Selfish. That’s what he is. Selfish. Pathetic.

Dancing.

That’s what it’s called. Dancing or, more like, limping their way around what they will never have. In another time maybe… Did they have something anyway? Were they something? Are they anything now? Barely. Yet, John remembers. He remembers how in another time, they would have observed each other better. Reading. Deducing. Seeing. Not able to take their eyes off each other.

He remembers. Yet he doubts it every day.

He had caused this. All of it. He’s bitter.

So back to it. Keeping at it. Silent treatment. Because he’s selfish. Because he’s useless. Because he’s broken. But he cares… He wants to. He wants so much. He wants too much. He can’t do this. But he must do something.

He hates it. So he is the one to change it.

Today will be different.

Because he hates it. He can change it, can’t he?

Getting ready to start another devastatingly desperate day.

No. Today must be different. It must. It should. Oh, please be different. Not talking doesn’t work. Not seeing doesn’t work. Today will be different. Will it?

***

Wake up.

John Watson.

You need to wake up.

Wake the fuck up.

A revelation.

What the fuck are you waiting for?

He gets up. Double and triple and whatever nightmares gone. Gone in a second. He has a purpose today. He has a life. He’s not entitled to it. He should keep his hands off it. Yet, he can’t leave it like this. Because this isn’t living.

He lets it all take over. Not in autopilot, no. But something similar. With a different edge to it. He makes breakfast -pancakes, doctor’s recipe, allowed, Sherlock’s favourite- and doesn’t care about anything but to make his mate eat well. Or at least… well enough.

He sits on his armchair -is it still his?- and waits with a mug of milk warming his shaky palms. He’s not hangover. Not today. But they’ll shake for a while. He purses his lips in contemplation. He doesn’t like it. One more thing he has to change.

For some reason, the corners of his lips curl up. The light coming in slowly from the window registering as surprisingly pleasant. God, he sounds like Sherlock in his head. He feels like him even. Calculating, waiting for an alarm, considering plans for the day -first time in forever that’s happened.

Then, the alarm sounds. He winces. Milk barely escaping from dripping down his trousers.

John. Keep your eyes fixed on me.

The flash comes up unexpected. Skin colliding with the knuckles of a fist.

Wake up.

He scowls and runs to the bathroom, hoping his companion won’t hear until he’s done.

No luck on that front. We won’t be escaping the scheduled upturned insides today, Watson.

Legitimately Sherlock in his head. He likes that change. The door closes behind him and his knees scrape the floor as he leans over the toilet seat.

Chapter Text

Sherlock stares at his reflection in the locked mobile’s screen. He’ll need to shave soon. ‘When was the last time? ‘Tuesday. He sees stubble over harsh cheekbones and sunken cheeks, above a cut lip. Looks strange on you. He swallows and shoves the phone back into the pocket of his nightgown. He hesitates to step out of the relative safety of his still-dark room. You should really let some light in here.

The light of the bathroom switches on, making him flinch. The sound of John retching makes his empty stomach somersault painfully. He swallows again, more forcibly, and takes a deep breath. His mouth is dry. He steps away from the glass door, to not let his silhouette be seen. John coughs, and his breathing comes ragged through the silence. Sherlock winces. It’s not the first time this is happening. Or the first time he did not know what to do.

John has been up for a while now. He could hear him, as he lay on his back in the middle of his bed, eyes glued to the white of the ceiling; the clang of a pan, whisking, water boiling. What was he up to on a… -Friday. ‘Friday. Right’. What was he up to on a Friday morning? Sherlock was sure he had a shift in a while. And anyway, John does not eat in the mornings. Sherlock does not have anything that requires cooking. It was quite a puzzle. A puzzle he was not inclined to solve. He listened, and let his body weigh down into the mattress, and his eyes close.

Curiously, he steps into the kitchen, bare feet cold against the tiled floor. The sink is stacked with bowls, utensils, and a small pan, and the table is, for once, not empty; pancakes are served on a messy heap on a white plate, with the honey jar is placed nearby. There is a steaming cup of chamomile, and one with now cold milk. Sherlock blinks, eyeing the arrangement suspiciously. The possible explanations wash to his mind’s forefront like waves lapping insistently at the shore. He ignores them. He just looks. It takes a moment. Two. Then Sherlock shakes his head -as if agreeing that yes, his eyes are not deceiving him- and shrugs, lips pursing, before he turns to walk to his armchair.

It has been a month since that scum of a human being was arrested. 12 days since Sherlock was released from the hospital. The acute withdrawal symptoms have passed. What is left is insomnia, headaches, and watery muscles. What is left is a stranded immune system and border vitamin deficiencies. His cardiologist wanted to strangle him (he’s not the only one, Sherlock). Right. Any medical personnel that meets him have that tendency, it seems. But there is something deeper than aches in his bones. Even when these let him sleep, it is the nightmares that punch him awake. Nightmares in the form of a void. And these have been left where they are for a very long time.

Some days he can shower. Some days he can get dressed, stand, smile. Get a few bites down, face John, hold Rosie, will his hands not to tremble. Others, his bed is an abyss that won’t let him go. An abyss he has to fight. He does not want to admit those days are more frequent by far. That the good moments fleeting amidst dark waters. He focuses on the immediate action he must complete each time, on reaching the next hour on the clock. Small steps, small victories -that do not even feel like victories, because there is not much to win at all. The effort is to lose as little as possible each day. To not crumble.

And at the centre of it all, is John. Only, he isn’t. Even John is a memory, eroded, chipped away bit by bit. With every word they don’t say, every glance they don’t give. Sherlock had not expected everything to be the same. He had not expected everything to be easy. But he had not expected this, either.

He takes his phone out of his pocket again, and this time does unlock it. Mechanically, he browses through an overflowing inbox. He had forgotten to deactivate the email address provided on the blog, of course this would happen sooner than later. There is a childish email thrown in there too, much like the one about Bluebell, so many years ago. He smiles, inevitably thinks of Rosie sleeping upstairs. His lips freeze, and numbly straighten, and then their edges point down, just so, like drooping flowers. Sherlock turns off his phone, movements slow as if he’s sleepwalking, and cradles his head in a palm. Then two. Then his spine is curled and his knees are up and he is shaking.

***

The kitchen was almost empty of utensils and plates, but they were placed sparsely in the cupboards, with plenty of room being wasted. Rosie’s things will never fit that way. ‘A toddler comes with such a dizzying array of bottles and spoons and bowls and things, it is ridiculous’. Isn’t it?

Sherlock spent that first late-night remedying that. By the time he was finished, one-third of cupboards and shelves and drawers in the kitchen were clean and reserved for Rosie’s little dowry alone.

Since Honeybee was staying with her father in the upstairs bedroom, something needed to be done for the stairs. It was Hudders that pointed it out. You managed to overlook that, you impossible git? Sherlock ordered the best stopper he could find. If Mrs Hudson was surprised to be delivered it at 10pm, she did not let anything show. Sherlock watched her try to reason with John about how to install it the next day. Was not long until she batted John away, exasperated, and did it herself (“How on earth did you serve in the Army if you don’t know how to screw properly, John?”). Sherlock smiled behind his laptop’s screen. ‘Mmm? How indeed, John?’ Sod off.

That had been one of the good moments.

 He also watched as Hudders insisted she and Sherlock were perfectly capable of taking care of Honeybee -at least until everyone is settled. John was reluctant, but eventually agreed. He still has to go to work, and some of the shifts were brutal. He still goes to the bottle, too. Sherlock has not seen him but knows when the reason John is keeping away are the bitter, poisonous drops. Sherlock knows all of them; he keeps finding half-empty bottles. He throws them away and cuts his hands on the glass even though it is perfectly smooth. Why did you have to do that? I understand now, John. I’m sorry.

Sherlock knows that what is happening is not in the bottles, empty or not, and that throwing them away changes nothing. Something is happening, under the surface, stirring, moving. He can’t name it. He doesn’t dare approach it. But he knows it’s there. Eating John alive from the inside. Deepening his worry lines, worsening the tremor in his hand, strangling his words to nods and grunts. There are times his eyes are empty and glassy, transparent like ice.

Sherlock hurts.

It wasn’t like this. No. It wasn’t like this.

He could not have imagined what used to be. Yet now, bringing the fragile memories back, he’s cutting his hands on their edges of their doors, the last doors left standing in his mind.

John giggling beside him at the bottom of the stairs, John winking over the brim of a mug, John dishevelled a three in the morning rushing to get ready for a new case and dash at the morgue, John holding his hand when they bolted handcuffed together, John smiling when he told him he’s his best friend, John giving him his daughter to hold for the first time.

And now.

The John that will barely look at him, barely talk to him. He will leave Rosie to his arms but turn his back before their eyes can meet. He will nod goodnight without raising his head. And he won’t smile. Not to him. Not again. When was the last time? ‘I don’t know, darling heart’.

He remembers nothing, and everything. And not this.

Sometimes he thinks he is going crazy.

Two mugs in the sink, the sounds of someone else sharing the space and the silence. But the more they share it, the more they drift apart.

He rationalises then that it is better to keep away, decides that John is better off without further intervening from him. If he wanted help, companionship, anything, John would have reached out; Sherlock is there, day in, day out, waiting. For him John to, it must mean there is nothing here worth reaching out to. And so Sherlock’s waiting is aimless, his presence unnecessary. The currency conferred to his life is rendered empty. At least, what he can do, is try not to make things worse another time. Every signal reads ‘Keep away’. So Sherlock does. 

***

“Good morning”.

Sherlock sucks in a breath. Slowly straightens out, rubs his eyes as if he were drowsy. His neck is burning. But when he looks up, John is in the kitchen with his back to him, rummaging into a cupboard - standing on tiptoe to reach.

“How are we feeling today?”

Sherlock blinks.

“Made breakfast. Hungry?”

He put his phone away, and his eyes narrow. John turns to him. The deep-sea eyes do not quite raise to him, and the circles under them are still there, like two dark moons. But there is the ghost of a smile on his thin lips. Sherlock’s head tilts to the side.

“Thank you”

John waves a hand dismissively and goes back to making coffee. He’s already dressed for work. Sherlock looks down at his clothes and regrets that this is not a I’m-strong-enough-to-get-out-of-my-pyjamas day. He stands slowly, and it is an agony when he tries to get comfortable on the kitchen chair. He braces an arm around his ribs.

John plops on the chair across from him with his mug of steaming coffee. Sherlock’s eyes rise from the pancakes to him. John gives him a curt little smile and his eyes dart away, fluttering like a butterfly that doesn’t know where to settle. Sherlock looks down at his plate.

Silence stretches between them. It weighs on his chest, freezes the soles of his feet, sweats his palms.

“So…”, John tries.

“So”, Sherlock croaks in echo.

John looks at him, opens his mouth, closes it again. Sniffs.

“Nothing. Just. Um. Yeah”

Sherlock nods, not sure why. He begins to cut his breakfast in small bite-sized portions, right hand spasming a little under John’s gaze. Say something. His jaw is set so tight his teeth hurt.

John clears his throat, takes a sip. Tries to sit more comfortably, changes his mind, crosses his legs the other way. Drums his fingers on the table-top and clears his throat again.

Sherlock’s throat is clogged. It is only the first bite, and he feels like choking.  He swallows, and his stomach lurches, but he does keep it down as he tries for the second bite. John is still looking at him. Sherlock shifts, exhales, reaches for the chamomile. It scalds his tongue, jerks his mind awake a little more. Say something.

“I’ll get Rosie downstairs and then I got to dash”, John mumbles to himself. Sherlock looks down again, and shame begins to burn in his chest.

When John comes down with Honeybee, she is fed and washed, and in her blue onesie. When John is at work, Sherlock keeps her company and reads to her and tries to entertain her insatiable curiosity as best he can. But he can’t hold her for long, cannot take care of her entirely on his own.

“There he is. You two have a lovely day, mm?”, John coos to his daughter, before leaving her in her baby park -which has taken up permanent residence beside the desk and is flooded with toys and stuffed animals. Sherlock bites his lip, tries not to smile too much, not seem over-eager. John pulls his jacket on. Sherlock is looking down at his hands.

“Ah, nearly forgot”

Sherlock flinches (John does not see). He straightens his back a little more and focuses his attention on the shorter man, waiting.

“I got her a new book a couple of days ago. ‘Chemistry for Babies’, or something. It’s hilarious but… You know. Why not. Thought maybe you’d like to read it to her”. John bites his lip.

Sherlock nods, again, and his chest tightens. John takes a small plush booklet from the pocket of his jacket and hands it to him -that John had forgotten a book for babies in his jacket could say a lot. And some of it makes Sherlock smile.

“So… What do you think?”

“I… Um…” Sherlock turns the colourful book over in his hands. His eyes skim over the bright colours and large block letters, but can’t see, can’t read. The booklet is so small it is lost into his palms, and he can only feel its soft plastic.

John steps closer, and Sherlock feels both giddy and annoyed and cornered.

“Want to give it a go?”

“Later. Yes. Thank you”.

It is more curt than it should have been. But John takes a step back. Sherlock breathes.

“Okay. Yeah. Sure. I’ll be back at six, okay?”

John is gone before he can see Sherlock nod, the door closing after him with a small thud.

It wakes him. He shakes his head. What did just happen?

Rosie coos and stands, her pink elephant plushie held tight to her chest. Sherlock can’t help but smile, and gets up. “Good morning, Honeybee”. He walks to her, lifts her up into his arms with a grunt at the strain. Her laughter is worth it, so he spins her around until he is dizzy and panting, and has to sit on his armchair, and clutch her tight to his chest.

She protested, wanting to play more, but he murmured as soothingly as he could. Her lower lip began to quiver anyway. Uh oh. Please don’t have a tantrum honeybee, not now, please, please- Her wailing was not loud as much as it was heart-wrenchingly sad. And nothing would work on her, not even his humming her favourite lullaby, cradling her in his arms, talking to her. Nothing. But why? What was wrong? What has happening? Well, he did not know, and it seemed that was how it had to be, today. Sherlock’s pulse hammered in his throat.

“Please, Honeybee, calm down, please please….”

He got up and began pacing to appease her, low voice rumbling in her ear as calmly as it could. Rosie wailed louder and clung closer to him, inconsolable. This was strange. His voice always did the trick, after a while. Why was she not responding to it now?

His brain short-circuits, and he is left shaking. ‘Oh god, I’m failing at this too, am I not’.

A small fist gets tangled with the curls at the back of his neck and accidentally pulls, as Honeybee snot-weeps into his tee.

‘Why me, why now, why me, why now’- “No, no no, shh, hush, baby, please…”

“What’s going on, Sherlock?”

“Mrs. Hudson, thank god”.

He whirs around and rushes to her, transferring the precious wailing bundle to her. And then finally collapses on his armchair, pressing the heels of his palms in his eyes. “Could you please… take her… for a moment…”

“Is it a headache, dear? Want some-“

“I don’t want anything!”. He is shouting. Rosie stops crying, and fixes her big, blue, clever eyes on him, round as saucers. Mrs. Hudson looks more taken aback than anything else.

His chest swells, and then caves in, and he hides his face in his hands. “I don’t want anything, okay? I just… I just need a moment. I need a moment. Just a moment”.

Mrs. Hudson mumbles something like “Alright, dear”, and focuses on soothing Rosie, bouncing her carefully on her good hip.

Sherlock is clenching his teeth so hard his jaw is sore. His breaths are so shallow they tear his chest raw. The tiniest sound is drilling through his ears to his brain, and he can’t think, he can’t bloody think! He jolts to his feet, hurries past a newly startled Mrs. H. and down the corridor and slams the door behind him. He couldn’t face her. Her, or honeybee. Or John. Especially John. Thank god John isn’t here.

He crawls onto his bed numbly and curls up, arms and legs tucked into a ball as small as he can get it.

The problem is just one, staring him in the face; he can’t do this anymore. Sherlock was never good at this, anyway. Picking the words, avoiding. He could pretend, until his bones shattered. But not this. Not now.

Keep away, all the signs said. And so Sherlock did. And then this. What happened this morning.

Sherlock is angry. He wants to pull at his hair, hard enough until his eyes sting. He wants to break it, this stupid transport, what he has become. But this transport is unnervingly still, and for one otherworldly moment he is sure he has lost any control over it. He can’t move.

He is floating.

Placing importance on him, expectation on him, faith in him, never worked well. And they knew. They all knew. John knew; John choosing another. John pushing him away. John blaming him, ignoring him, keeping up the wall between them. John knew. And John was right.

What was there, suddenly, that Sherlock was worthy or able to possibly offer?

But isn’t that what he wants? Wasn’t it him that was so sure he’d take shards over nothing? The possibility of friendship over not having John in his life at all? This only reads like a joke. There must be a punchline somewhere -possibly voiced by his brother, who will appear showered in the confetti of state files.

Maybe he is going crazy, after all.

He uncoils and lies on his back, hands steepled under his chin -not that this now means anything at all. Not without a mind palace.  

Freak.

There is that peculiar numbness rising in him. And as always, he realises it is here again only too late. It has already caught his feet, his legs, his hips, begun to pull him under. Maybe if he kicked, if he moved again, he could still have time get away. He doesn’t. And it keeps rising, like a dark wave, from inside, and he can see it, and he knows every spot it will go for next. It’s almost like an old friend.

At first, he used to fight against it. Used to fear it. He doesn’t, now. He closes his eyes and just waits for it to spread, for the shivers to come, for the hollow feeling to settle in his throat, that of wanting to cry but being entirely unable to. And then it truly starts. The whirlwind that comes and goes, carrying the memories, the words, the pain.

Sherlock used to be able to wait for this to pass. Now he just lies still.

He is no longer floating. He is sinking, slowly, in the pool of black ink, that feels heavy like lead. His eyes are open as the liquid void flows over them.

Chapter Text

John enters 221 quietly. Long shift.

Long day.

He needs a drink. Just one. A drop of alcohol. Just one. He would give everything to damp it all down. Just a bit. A tiny bit. Tesco at the corner by the clinic had been a challenge. But he didn’t budge. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Not today.

Today he will deal with the mess in his head alone. Thoughts. Feelings. Jumbled. Flying around rampant. The least he can do is give himself a sober today. He doesn’t know about tomorrow. In fact, he is very much sure he won’t be able to resist a sip for long. He is not equipped to do so. Not if he is left to his own devices. But dear god above, he will hold off for one day. Just one day.

24 hours. He’s not that useless.

Jacket off his shoulders, he takes the few steps up the hall, hangs it on the peg outside 221A and takes a tentative step to the door.

“Mrs Hudson?”

He always checks in. Either she is looking after Rosie or not. She’s a perfect grandma, in her own quirky way. John doesn’t deserve her, but she doesn’t care, and he doesn’t tell her off. Most of all, because both of them know one thing; Rosie deserves her. She deserves a big and happy family. She deserves so much John knew he could never give. Since the beginning.

If there was a reason he never wanted children… This would be it.

But now he has one. A little, precious girl.

So, he allows himself at least this...

He allows his daughter to be cared for by a woman who John has failed repeatedly. His thoughts stray. Back to a time when his inability to face her, to call her -even for a goodbye- made her believe he thought nothing of her. But that was so not true. It was just that... Sherlock had... left... He shakes his head. Blocks the dark path his mind was forging. Who hasn’t he failed nowadays, anyway? He’s got nothing left to lose on that front.

Want to try again, do you? One more time? Aren’t we passed that point, hm?

Always more than a landlady, more than a simple owner of the flat he used to be allowed to call ‘home’, more than a housekeeper, always more than. Mrs Hudson always had food ready for them, now, taking care of them these past few weeks. Well, taking care of him. Of Sherlock. Attempting to reintroduce her darling boy to a steady diet that will get his metabolism going. She follows doctor’s orders of course, always cautious. John knew what it was required but hadn’t managed to pay much attention up to now. Treatments for damaged liver and kidneys, ways of battling reflux-syndrome commonly used for people with other eating disorders, were flying over his head, today. And every day since he came to 221B. Too much to take in.

Naturally, Sherlock had been treated well during his withdrawal period. Mycroft had seen to that. No matter if John resented his decision to let them all manhandle the sleuth for three long weeks, he could not argue that Sherlock had moved back to an empty Baker Street in an as good as expected state. Cracked bones could take a double while to heal due to the strain on his body during withdrawal but John hadn’t expected -and hadn’t realised- that his best friend would force his way through his transport with no care if there was need for immobility.

Adding two weeks of recovery. At the very least.

John almost pouts to himself. He needs to amend that -he wants to-, make sure Sherlock stays still and comfortable for those ribs to heal. The internal problems could be at a much better state if he managed to eat.

“John dear?”

Her voice makes him snap back into focus.

“Oh.” He croaks in lieu of any other greeting. His gaze fixed on the bundle of colour in her arms.

His little girl. There she was. For the first time in days, he... he sees her...

“Hello there” He clears his throat -and his mind; banishing the ruminating worries of the past. Momentarily.

Focus. From now on. From now on. He has to do better. You want to, don’t you?

Rosie makes a weird coughing noise, sounding almost like exasperation -the toddler version-, and hides her face in Mrs Hudson’s neck as John reaches to hold her. His hand recoils, rigid on his side, and he offers an understanding disciplined nod, refraining from taking her from such a loving embrace that she has, and wants, from the elderly woman.

“Haven’t we been waiting for your father, little miss?” Mrs Hudson tuts and presses a tender kiss over the golden curls.

“Hm, she seems to be brooding...” John contemplates.

It’s not unlike her to not seek John’s touch, but today... today hurts. John can’t blame her, he’s tense as hell. Toddlers and moods. They are picking them up as quickly as juicy gossip explodes in the media.

Mrs Hudson tries to console a Rosie that tries to clutch onto her like a monkey with a demanding whine. “Oh dear, you all seem-”. John shakes his head. “More off today”, she finishes. Somehow, she manages to splay a palm over her chest and sigh with a roll of her eyes, like a tutting mother when her own children are upsetting her.

“Yeah…” He swallows. “How was, um, Sherlock, today?”, he tries.

It must seem weird. Him, asking. He hadn’t asked any of the previous days when he walked in after work. Bastard. Not having the luxury to even care, do you? Oh, the irony. What could have possibly changed your mind?

Time. They needed time. Time to heal. Time to reconnect. Time to-

Oh, he was selfish, wasn’t he? Needing time for himself. Needing space. Needing to come to terms with everything while everybody else had to tolerate him being stuck. And now that he didn’t need that anymore, expecting everyone to be ready; to talk. To spend time together.

Rosie had apparently gotten that memo. She rejected it. She doesn’t need him- no. She doesn’t want him now. What would Sherlock do?

“I’ve made some light chicken noodle soup. Why don’t you boys take some and talk over dinner? I can keep the little miss for a while more.”

John widens his eyes in surprise. She always pushes the food forward in one way or another as if she didn’t have it all planned already, but she rarely suggests to... she has stopped meddling this way for years now...

It crashes down on him like a ton of lead. Her need to intervene.

Are they so past it? Past the point of no return… Told you.

“Alright”. He shrugs. “Sure”.

Why not?

They do need to talk. Rosie can ignore him, but Sherlock can’t avoid him. They can’t do that. Not forever. John needs to know. He needs to ask. Will it be rejection, indifference or annoyance? Is it decided already? Since this morning? Sherlock discreetly pushed him away, so... Was it the fact that he talked? That he tried? Was it too much? Too little? Too late?

A jumble. Again, it seems.

A tray is on his hands. The smell of homely food filling his lungs and he wakes up.

How many times he has to wake up... how many things he has to realise, before...

“Thank you” He pushes out and leans, reaching. A soft peck for Rosie; met by a whine. Another for their treasured landlady that acts more like a mother.

***

John steels himself. Feet obsessively steady and slow as he steps up the stairs. The flat is quiet. Yet, he is tense. The impression of a soldier waiting for a grenade explosion. Only he doesn’t run from it -nor to it.

Leaving the tray at the kitchen table, covering the plates with a tea towel to keep the food warm, John manages to drag his unwilling body to the corridor. A closed door is all he can see. Definite. Exact. Precise.

A message to stay away.

Maybe this is rejection after all. Maybe for all John tries -Not that you’ve done much yet-, he will never deserve Sherlock’s acceptance. No one would accept anything from the man that almost killed them in an anger fit and that’s that.

But the door has been closed in numerous occasions by now. Leaving John to stare at it aimlessly for hours. Its meaning never crossing his mind.

He is over fixating. Being paranoid. He has to reach out. He promised to try.

Breathe, Watson. Breathe.

Knock. He needs to knock.

Why?

Talk. They need to talk.

But how does one start talking out of the blue?

Just knock, you idiot.

He does. He knocks.

***

“Sherlock?”

John.

John’s home. Why is he home? No. Not home. He’s just back. Back from the shift. Right. Must be six already. Sherlock’s been drifting in his horizontal state for hours, but John can’t see that. He pushes up, palms on the duvet, lips pursing, supressing a grunt. His back is stiff, makes his ribs stretch, pulled steel ropes lodged into his flesh. Inconvenient.

Well. He failed Honeybee today. The inconvenience is him.

John knows. He doesn’t usually come knocking, does he? Yes. That’s probably it. He knows moving back in was a mistake now. He knows Sherlock was a mistake.

That’s why he’s here. To tell him. Announce he’s leaving. Yes. That’s it. That must be it.

He rubs a palm over his eyes. They’re sore, as if they’re puffy, and they hurt when he presses them.

He remembers what happened in the morning. What seemed like an attempt to reach out. Of course it wasn’t. What a ridiculous thought, for something out of the blue…. It could be a test.  The last straw. How could he not have seen this before? Sherlock scoffs.

You’re not making any sense.

‘Don’t. He’s not you. You’re just me’.

He straightens against the pillows, tidies his nightgown about him. There is a tightness in his throat, strangling any words that may try to escape. He feels trapped, like a cornered cat, and what blooms in his mouth instead is panic, a swarm of black moths. He swallows it down.

He settles, grits his teeth, and raises his chin.

On with it then.

“Come in”, in a voice rough from disuse. Unable to conceal an undertone of warning. He winces at the realisation.

***

Despite the tone, John’s chest floods with relief. A single breath leaves him, kept tight by his lungs; unbeknownst to him. It’s a warm puff of air against the relatively chilly wood of the door. The door he stared at for hours, providing him questions or emptiness, is now proving to be solace and refuge as he leans on it, instinctively. He hadn’t noticed that either.

It’s time.

His fingers grab the doorknob tight but tremble all the same. Half a turn. That’s all he needs. He is hesitating, the conclusion as harsh as the impact of a falling body mass on cement. John can’t turn a simple doorknob. It infuriates him.

Not enough. Never enough.

He can never do or be enough. Can never be who he wants to be. It’s forfeit. His ‘destiny’. It has been snatched away for most of his life. Forbidden. Hidden. Never to surface.

A deep breath.

His fingers press and push. The door slides an inch -two- ajar. John pokes his head in from the small opening, blinking, adjusting to the dim light.

“Oh” He swallows, eyes finding the sitting silhouette at the centre of the bed. “Sherlock?”

John doesn’t know why he repeats himself, needing to check this is still real by hearing his own voice, not knowing what else to say. Posture defensive and closed off, it’s obvious even for the stupidest man to realise Sherlock is bracing. He doesn’t want John anywhere near him, especially in a private space that is his room.

There’s bile coming up John’s throat. What if him trying for more good, actually does more bad? What if whatever he offers and does, be it a fist or a kindly offered meal, any attempt at reconnecting, hurts Sherlock more?

“Yes?” It’s soft but bitten off. As if John came here with accusations in his mouth and Sherlock is only waiting to hear them.

Familiar. Memories flood him. Memories of real accusations flying from his pursed lips, showering Sherlock with anything that he might have done slightly wrong. Mundane things. Not too important. In those they used to agree. This is the point when the dismissal usually comes. The mockery, the flick of a hand over a shoulder. Boring. The back tightly wrapped in elegant lines of a shirt suddenly facing the raging John Watson. I have better things to do than to worry about mould in the cupboard, John. Images. From back then. Images John will never be able to erase. Those are the memories screaming at him now to push, stay, talk, be fucking strong for once. Apologise again, oh why don’t you? Be someone Sherlock might actually deserve at some point even when the possibilities are non-existent.

He walks in. Slowly. The door creaks. He watches as Sherlock’s fingers curl on the sheets. Otherwise he’s perfectly still. Poised, with a haughtily tipped-up chin, as always.

“Um... were you sleeping?”

He thinks he sees a dark eyebrow raise imperceptibly. Idiot. More memories flash. Harsher. Shakier. John’s mind spins.

Days and nights. One and the same. No sleep. Just ‘ceiling-watching’. That’s what it had been. For eons, it seemed. Until John met him. That’s what he wishes to have now. Silence in a semi-dark room. Indefinitely. To wound himself, crawl in a ball of covers and stay still, weep or just stare. For eons; again.

Knowing Sherlock is capable of such a state... Half-dead, unmoving, ignorant of any stimuli... Depressed, as John had denied he was himself when confronted with it in therapy - as he is denying again now...

There’s the first thing John needs to change.

His purpose now in mind, he proceeds.

Talk, then. That’s what they’ll do. Just talk. Nothing unusual. Not for them. Not for the ‘real’ them.

“You didn’t eat breakfast, did you?” John simply asks, voice flat, unassuming.

Something changes then. Something that stood between them, like a wall, invisible, intangible. Going down in an explosion of particles. Not so much unlike those constructed by dust, flying through the curtain of sharp sunlight, shooting glimmering like a knife through the room for an infinitesimally small moment. The world slows down.

Sherlock looks straight to the far wall, out the window. His shoulders fall. Just that much. John can almost count the dust.

“No”

The sound makes John’s ears almost prickle. The consonant drawn out, tongue pressing almost lazily against Sherlock’s front teeth. Bringing a spark of the old Sherlock back. The alive one. Wired up in a wave of waiting to burst energy. Electricity. Never you mind that it is dulled by Sherlock’s empty grey gaze. John can lock that away for now; he can ignore. Just something that small. Just for now. For their sake.

“Oh”

He approaches the bed careful to catch any sign of accusation from the piercing grey gaze, flickering back at him. Instead he thinks he gathers resignation. He’s not sure, he can’t be. Not now. He wants to be. John’s knees give slowly, situating himself seated at the edge of the bed. The mattress dips almost reluctant at his weight. Sherlock is eyeing him, more with confused curiosity than anything else.

“Did not like it?” he whispers, testing the waters.

“No..”, there it is, the consonant being drawn out again. “I just wasn’t hungry”

John nods, eyes fixed on a random point of the headboard, somewhere beside Sherlock’s head. Slow. Slow. That’s all he can do. Bringing himself to accept the cold gaze slowly. If he looks now, he’s done for.

“Mm...”

He feels that gaze on him, and yet it does not make him shiver with the ice at its core. There’s an intensity to it. It’s Sherlock looking, seeing, observing. Looking to deduce? Something’s off? John almost smiles when he registers Sherlock’s perseverance as the confusion it is. Sherlock looks away, lips pursed in a way that might indicate a bitten off smile or anger; both.

“I’ve been... meaning to...” John’s palm presses against his kneecap. Pushing, patting, curling. All fidgety but soft motions, silent; not alarming.

Sherlock’s head falls to the headboard with a small thud. John jerks. He’d been phasing out, hadn’t he? The bony profile looks exasperated. Of course, he would be. Ordinary people always were too slow for Sherlock’s mind, and right now John is hitting it off with the worldwide record of the slowest start at an important conversation.

“To talk. To you” He declares. In two breaths. Finally.

Sherlock blinks slowly, his head tilting a little to the side before he speaks, as if John has his full attention. Like it used to be. But then Sherlock looks away again, as if he’s stopping himself from something, and the indifference returns.

“Talk about what?”

“You”

Us. John lies. Their tones seem too much like their latest personal conversation for him to be able and utter the truth. He knows it might all go down a hill he’s not ready to face.

It’s silent. He watches as Sherlock swallows, as the muscles of that sharp jaw work. His lips purse, and their edges droop. He shakes his head minutely, and makes a small grimace, both eyebrows raised, an ironic smile on his lips. His tone is incredulous. Bitter. Trying and failing to act surprised -why? “Me..?”

It’s the first slap. John endures, swallows, presses on. He can almost feel the red on his cheek for a mark that will never be.

It’s not always about you, Johnny boy. Grow up. Freakish. How the voices can get mixed in his mind. Sherlock never called him that… He grimaces.

“Yes. It’s important”

A scoff, bouncing off the walls, piercing John’s ears.

“Sherlock... I know you don’t...” John backtracks. Sherlock’s gaze is telling him to. His voice sounded too much like the ‘old John’ that had the right to give that ‘old Sherlock’ advice. The ‘John’ that had not yet been consumed by guilt, the ‘John’ that hadn’t hurt him.

“I know...” he starts again. Slow. “I know you don’t want anybody to take care of you... but you are not taking care of yourself either...”

Sherlock’s eyes are wide now, filled with a surprise that John isn’t sure if he wants to welcome or feel guilty over its existence.

“I beg your pardon?”

John can see the moment the atmosphere becomes rigid again. The air thick and achingly painful to take in.

“You are pressing yourself more than you should”

“Oh”. That damned irony again. John grits his teeth and prepares to push forward once again. Sherlock cuts him off.

“So?” It’s suddenly quiet. John’s eyes hurry to Sherlock’s face. It’s hidden from him, lowered, a head full of dark curls offered instead; he’s resigned, and that makes it terrifying.

“So… You need time. What you went through… Your body’s defences are burdened enough already”

“Right”

“I just want to be sure you… You have what you need. To heal”

Sherlock’s head snaps, eyes drilling holes in John’s forehead, lips curling to a self-mocking smile.

“Why?”

Cutting. Words eloquently thought of and strategically placed, falling into pieces as John’s whole world does.

“Why what?”

“Why won’t you say it already?”

John’s breath catches with the accusation in Sherlock’s voice.

“Say what?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes in exasperation, but then something breaks his resolve, and he just sighs tiredly.

“Why are we having this conversation, John?”

“Because...” John can’t hold that gaze. He shuffles, stunned. “It’s important. To me”

Sherlock hums. “Where’s the catch?”, he pouts, nose crinkling in that way John would otherwise find adorable.

Now it means only pain. Pain. John gulps for air, pleading it wasn’t audible. He shifts, on the verge of falling to the floor, feeling scorched. He hopes... he had hoped Sherlock would see his concern as care... John knew only too little ways to show him and he was terribly late to start anyway, but-

“There’s always a catch”, Sherlock murmurs, so feebly John is not sure he’s meant to have heard it. He denies any truth in the phrase anyway -he can’t face the magnitude of it, its true depth, not now- shaking his head vigorously.

“No. No catch. Sherlock”

His best friend looks at him again, and this time, even though he still can’t wholly read his face, there’s something rather gentle there, if bewildered.

“It’s just…. Important. To me. I…”. His throat constricts, and his voice gets strangled to a whine before he can continue. “I want. You. To be well”

He hears Sherlock’s breathing stop. Somehow it urges him to keep going.  

“I want to take care of you. If you… If you’ll let me”

He’s met with silence.

“I mean… I’m here anyway. And… It’s… It’s a pain. Pills and physio and a diet and… I know it’s fucking dull, Sherlock. And it’s… It’s, yeah. It’s what I want to do”, he mumbles, and then clears his throat. His hands twist, palms rubbing together, then his left hand curls over the right and squeezes.

“It is?”

He stops, and a soft smile creeps on the corner of his lips.

“Course. Course it is”

Sherlock nods, shuffles, settles anew and nods again.

“That’s all?”

“Yeah. That’s all”

The smile blooms a little more. Hopeful.

“You’re sure?”

“Yup”

It takes hold. Like a sap buried in winter with its life renewed with sunlight, John’s back straightens, his face eases, and he can stand. A purpose. A path.

“Have you eaten anything at all today?”

“No”

“Alright. We could start with that? What do you think? Mrs H. sent up some chicken noodle soup. Dinner and crap telly?”

“Y-yeah. Sure”

Sherlock is looking at him as if one of the eyeballs he used to keep in the fridge returned to haunt him on two legs. But he didn’t say no. He did not send him away. John was the man who had beaten him to death. Who would have. And the man who now asked permission to nurse him back to health. And his plea would be granted materialisation. It was almost too easy. Perhaps these good omens will dissipate if he concentrates on them too much. He turns on his heel, letting Sherlock follow at his own pace.

“John?”

It’s not as stunned-sounding as it was before, but there is a breathy element to it.

“Yeah?”

“Um… Good. It’s- good”

Chapter Text

“Breathe.”

The huff leaving his lips was barely the breath required. He got a nudge on the hip for that. With a stick. Just above his pelvic bone. A dig into the skin. Just enough it would hurt.

“Yeah.”

He resigned into another breathless punch. The red punch bag was blurry, filling his field of vision. Swinging. Back and forth.

Back.

And forth.

Endlessly. Hanging.

He was falling.

Breathe.

Once, he could do this without a second thought. His body well-built, designed and synchronised to breathe accordingly. Trained. Expertly. Once.

Once, it had been easy.

“It’s not supposed to be easy, John.”

He gave a stubborn shake of the head. Another nudge. Between his last false rib (costae spuriae) and his first floating one (costae fluncuantes). He winced.

“Wake up, army man.”

He punched. Harder. His face contorting with pain at the irony of the moniker.

“That’s it!”

Silence. His knuckles cracked. He wasn’t sure if he was the cause of it.

“You were in the army, weren’t you?”

He nodded. The voice was playful, challenging him. Deep.

He hung his head low. ‘Don’t give in.’

Breathe.

‘Take your anger...’

The man was right. He was in the army. Once. When it had all been easy.

‘Wield it.’

When the sound of his first name on another man’s lips didn’t make him long for the unknown. When he wasn’t startled by it, or by the sound of a pan on a kitchen counter, the clutter of spilled cutlery or the backfire of a rusty car engine. When the whistling air between flapping curtains and a crack on pavement hadn’t haunted him yet. When he didn’t double check every sliver of black hair his eyes caught on the street... every flick of a coat... every blue scarf...

‘Focus... It’s yours...’

He had been in the army. He had seen war. He had fought. In a desert and in a city of nine millions population. He had lost battles and won them. He had done his best. But he had lost both wars.

‘Let it go.’

Breathe. A nudge. Pointy. Twisting. Or maybe he imagined that.

“John.”

He shivered.

“Again.”

Another, much more familiar voice, creeping in his mind.

“Again!”

Shake it off. Shake it off, now.

“Yeah, alright.”

“Are you still with me, mate?” this time concern bled through.

“Yes! Okay, yes.” He half-shouted.

A disapproving look. That’s all he got. He breathed.

“Yes, Charlie.” A pause. “I’m ready.”

He breathed.

***

For some inexplicable reason, John has invested in his wellbeing. During the good moments it brings a smile to his face. During the bad, his mouth is aching with bile.

They shared the chicken noodle soup on the kitchen table. As they would share takeaways on sleepless nights, or after the adrenaline of a case; microscope and equipment, pig ears and human digits, pipettes and test-tubes, empty or filled glistening with golden liquids, or blue or purple, haphazardly pushed to the far edge of the table-top to make space for steaming paper cartons of noodles and won-tons and curries, fried rice and eggs and miso soups.

They talked little. Sherlock’s eyes travelling from his food to John and back. The other man would smile at him, tiredly, but his eyes would crinkle softly at the edges, after the way of his true smiles -which Sherlock knew so well, but whose memory had faded, turned foggy and distant. ‘When was the last time?’ I do not know, love.

At eight bites, his stomach rebelled. He kept a straight face when he wanted to grimace, nausea crawling up his throat, scorching. He must have closed his eyes briefly, for he opened them again to John’s soft “Are you alright?”

He nodded again, dismissively, not sure he could speak.

John returned his attention to his plate. Sherlock managed to swallow against the unpleasant tingles at the base of his jaw. He tried for another spoonful. Saw John’s eyebrows knit together, his movements slow to follow his.

“John-”, he started in warning. 

“Please”

He felt his throat tighten. ‘No, I don’t want pity, if that’s what all this is about, thank you very much’-

“You don’t have to”, John said instead, calmly. He indicated the half-full spoon Sherlock was holding. “It’s alright. Just… If it’s heartburn, I think I have something for it”

Sherlock blinked.

“Just let me know if you want me to find it. Alright?” He waited for Sherlock’s numb nod of affirmation before eating some more -if not without visible effort. Sherlock tried not to wince. ‘What am I doing?’

“John?”

“Yeah?”

“Please..?”

“ ‘course”

He watched as John was digging through the second medicine cupboard, and at last -after some rummaging- produced the syrup for Sherlock’s heartburn; pills were even harder to get down when it reared its head. John measured the dull liquid with precision in the little cup and handed it to Sherlock with a gentle nod. Go on.

When he had downed it, shaking his head ‘no’ to the question of whether he could manage more bites, John cleared the table of plates, and Sherlock waited. His eyes took in the emptiness where chaos used to reside, until he could take it no more, and they darted away. Where he was numb with shock and surprise maybe with a sliver of hope too, doubt begun to break through the surface, with its cold, dark hand ready to pluck his heart.

He could not look at John for long each time. If he did, the vision might shatter, and reality around him collapse once again.

John said he’d go downstairs to bring Honeybee. Sherlock excused himself, saying he was tired and a little under the weather. John looked disappointed but did not press him.

Sherlock lay awake, but this time, the void was not after him, although it could easily be. He was confused, and from all the questions, what he needed answered the most, was why.

But John had smiled.

He woke up later than he usually would, to find that he had forgotten to set an alarm. His phone vibrated again instead, and he blinked before he groggily reached for it. The screen popped to life.

Good morning -JW.

He walked in to John making breakfast, already dressed for work, and Honeybee playing with her baby food in her chair.

“Finally found a brand she seems to like for breakfast”, John said conversationally over his shoulder, as a little bee licked her puree-stained palm.

“Oh”

John nodded, scrambling eggs with a wooden spoon, pan tilted and slightly raised from the stove, a tea towel draped over his shoulder.

“Which one?”

It took John a moment to reply, but when he did he turned around to face Sherlock, and his expression was soft, and open. “ ‘Ella’s Kitchen’, I think? Something like that”

“Good”

“Yeah”

“Want tea?”

“Please”

As the kettle was flicked on, Sherlock’s eyes took in the table; two jam jars, bread, butter, the plates set out. Bee was pretending to ignore the grown-ups, but when her gaze locked with Sherlock’s she would give an adorable little pout. Oh. She was sulking. He’d have to fix that, when her father went to work. Until then, realizing there were plenty of things left for him to do, he began to butter a slice of bread.

To his surprise and delight, he was allowed to take care of Honeybee, as he had been doing the past few days, and there was no other mention of the previous day’s incident. Problem was, she seemed to be entirely indifferent to him, or at least to try to be. He had to work his way back to her affection with makeshift little tunes he hummed softly, tickles, hugs, and three different fairytales. Which she rejected all, along with any other plushie or toy he tried to tempt her with. She just kept babbling to her pink elephant and stabbing him with accusatory stares, when she could be bothered to stop turning her face away from him. ‘Stubborn as her father’. He smiled and reached for the small booklet John had left with him yesterday. ‘Chemistry for babies’. If it was as silly as it sounded… He turned the soft fabric book over in his hands. He had felt it yesterday, but now he truly saw it for the first time. A bright green cover, with an image of a test-tube fizzling with colourful bubbles. He sat cross-legged on the carpet beside her and began to read. If she paid him any mind, he was not sure. But after a while, she fell asleep with her head pillowed on his thigh.

It became easier after that. And he would try harder. To not fail her again.

***

“How was your week, John?”

He tucked his hands under his thighs, childishly. When he realised, they came to rest on his middle, self-conscious, fingers tangling together as if in prayer. Imitating casual.

“You seem different.” She prompted.

“Different? Different how?” He deflected. It had taken him a while to master that small trick. She always seemed to back down or rephrase when he showed interest or felt troubled with terminology.

“Happier?” She turned her tone to questioning this time.

He smiled, assured somehow.

“Maybe.”

“How was your drinking this week?”

She didn’t want him to elaborate. For the moment. Good. She wanted to know the cause. His smile fell, just so.

“B-bad.” He stammered, pressed his lips together. It was his homework. To write down everything he consumed throughout the week. He couldn’t. It wasn’t bloody working. If he tried, he could easily end up dead on the pavement, drunk to death, because of his guilt at drinking any in the first place.

She didn’t ask.

He sighed.

“Until two days ago.”

“Mmm?” She glanced up from her notes, put them aside. “Meaning?”

“I stopped.” He breathed. “Yeah, I stopped.”

She didn’t speak for a while. He looked down at his feet. She was watching him.

It had taken them a while to reconnect. He had stopped coming after- after Rosie’s mother died. When he needed this most. He had stopped. She knew him. As well as can be expected. He had only opened up more of himself after Rosie’s birth. He felt safe then. For a while. He had a child. A family. He could let himself heal. But it all came to a screeching halt. When her mother left them. Tried to escape her fate. On her own.

He hadn’t been the same after. His efforts had just... stopped. Ella needed to process the missing pages as much as he did. The gap in communication and... everything else that he had done, before he came back to their appointments. He tried to co-operate. It was only fair.

“Forty-eight hours sober, then?” She knew he wouldn’t go to anyone else to help him.

Trust issues. Getting worse, are they?

He nodded. Curtly. He didn’t like thinking of it that way.

“That’s good, John.” Her tone was clever, encouraging.

He nodded again.

***

“Hello!”

Sherlock looked up, a fed and changed Honeybee in his arms, trying to press the keys on the laptop in front of him when he wasn’t looking.

John appeared in the doorway, two white and red plastic bags of Chinese in his hands. Time slowed, and stopped, and reversed, and the John he saw was six years younger, a careless smile on his lips and his hair messed from the winter breeze, as Sherlock helped him carry the food to the table and announced that they had a new case.

“Thought we could… change it up a little”

Sherlock nodded, large palms cupping Honeybee’s hands as they tried to reach for the space bar.

John was handed Honeybee to put to bed, and Sherlock made the table, opening the cartons to curiously peer what was inside. His stomach growled with curiosity at the spicy, rich scents wafting towards him.

When John trotted down the stairs, they resumed their positions on the kitchen table, the ones they had that morning and the previous night -and many years ago, for every single day. John pushed a container with sticky rice and steamed vegetables his way, light enough for an abused stomach. Sherlock found himself smiling.

He picked his chopsticks, and John his fork. Sherlock kept his unsteady left hand on his lap.

“How was your day?”

A small pause ensued, as he pretended to contemplate a chopped mushroom.

“Good”

John nodded, picking up a piece of orange chicken.

“Food okay?”

“Yes. Thank you”

“Good”

Sherlock found that the silence stretched uncomfortably but was not sure how to find comfort in words either. He cleared his throat a little, and reached for a water glass, before he remembered there wasn’t any.

“Want some water?”, he asked as he got up and to the kitchen sink.

“Yeah, thanks”

Sherlock filled two glasses and returned with careful steps.

“We, um… I read Rosie the book you gave me yesterday”

“Oh!”

John’s eyebrows raised above the rim of his glass.

“And?”

“She seemed to like it”

“Really?”, John asked eagerly, but with self-conscious doubt in his voice.

“Yes. She was sulking, a little. Made her loosen up -and fall asleep”, Sherlock found himself saying.

“That’s good! I’ll know what to use when she’s difficult at bed-time again”

Sherlock grinned.

***

“Now, John, I believe it would be beneficial for me to suggest you visit the support group again.”

John tensed.

“I’m sure they’ll be glad to have you back.” She leaned forward, trying to catch his eye no doubt.

“I don’t need to.”

They had tried that before. All 12 steps and rules and oversharing. He couldn’t manage it. Not with his head filled with Sherlock and Rosie and his drinking and blind rage. Besides, he didn’t need to justify everything he did in life to stay away from his addiction as guidelines and steps he had to take, suggested by a support group or by therapy. He was good at following orders but this... this was something else. Something he had to do on his own. For the right reasons.

“Well, I’d encourage you to think about it.”

He looked away, pulse elevated.

The silence drew on. A rustling of paper was all he needed, to know they were changing the subject.

“How about the anger management seminars? Have you given them any thought?”

He hummed, unsure.

“Look, let’s give it a week, see how it goes?”

She found it difficult to reach him. He knew that tone.

“Not now. Maybe later. I can do without.”

“Very well. Don’t press yourself to do it alone, though.”

He huffed. His expression turning sour the moment she looked up again. She knew she had struck a vein now.

“I don’t” he added quickly.

She sat back. Watching. He swallowed.

“It’s not going to be easy...”

“It’s not supposed to be.” A bitter smile.

“Yes. So, let’s-”

“Leave it.” He almost growled.

She hummed. Not intimidated in the least.

“Let’s just... leave it...” he mumbled, ashamed.

***

“Want to watch something?”

Sherlock nodded negatively, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Sleep?”

“Mmm”

“Okay, then”, John hummed, when the last carton had been cleared away, leftovers in the fridge or microwave.

“Goodnight”

“Night”

It was surreal. Sherlock closed the door of the bathroom behind him, and slowly peeled away his shirt and dress trousers. Entirely surreal.

His eyes caught his reflection in the mirror above the sink. The lines around his mouth hardened.

He pulled his pyjamas on with sharp movements, growing impatient at the way his left hand would not obey him, long fingers wobbly and feeble in their grip.

Teeth washed, he dragged himself to bed, crawling under the covers in its middle and curling up. How probable was what was happening to him? One day ago he had thought it was impossible. John was not interested in being his friend again, there was nothing but a burden he could ever be to the other man. And quite rightly so. The last half of the previous year, Sherlock had been banned from John’s life. He was at fault. A vow-breaker. A little more than a month ago he was a liar. A liar worthy of broken ribs and yanked hair, a cracked cheekbone and blooded eye. What had changed? -assuming anything had. And why?

Save John Watson. He hadn’t saved him, had he? DVD or not, John had returned to his rescue. But Sherlock was not a man for whom anyone would want to fight. The last ten days had proved that. The weeks spent in hospital had proved that. John had saved him because… Because he was John. But Sherlock could not save him because he was Sherlock.

Shivering, he pulled the covers up over his head, creating a small cavern in the dark.

John had said that his wellbeing was important. And John was not known to lie. But why. Why would such a thing ever matter given all this?

Sherlock did not want to face the answer.

***

“Okay.”

He looked up. Startled.

“O-okay?” a whisper.

“Yes.”

He frowned, mouth opening in apology. She just smiled.

“I’ll be here next week for you. Same time.”

It was expectant, but not in a bad way. Never. John almost smiled. She would expect his answer by next week. She didn’t doubt he could stay clean on his own, but she would make him think about other options if he felt like it too. Let him judge when and if he needed it.

He stood, gave a hopeful good evening and turned to the door.

He would think about it. He wanted to.

Be better. For them.

***

Guilt.

That’s what it was. That’s what it must be.

Guilt.

Every ‘good morning’ message on his phone, every breakfast they shared, every evening spent idly with dinner and sometimes crappy telly, every time John let him hold and take care of Honeybee. Guilt. John Watson’s guilt. Don’t be ridiculous.

It made his stomach twist with guilt of his own. John should not feel this way. Oi! I do not! ‘Oh, you don’t but he does.’ This should not be happening this way. Everything that could be true and beautiful was marred. Every kind word and glance made Sherlock feel like the executioner, smiling sardonically over John’s suffering. You’re an idiot.

He did not want anything John did not feel. Anything that was just a means of self-punishment. Do you hear me? It made him feel unclean, too big in his own skin, wrong.

Oh, love...

‘Please, don’t- call me that.’

***

“And, John.”

He turned. She nodded with an encouraging smile.

“Keep up the good work.”

He smiled back. As if he wouldn’t try...

***

“How was your day?”

“Good”

“Any news? From anyone?”

They had just finished dinner but were still on their usual spots on the kitchen table. John is writing down a list of pills and various medicine they were running out of, Sherlock idly pushing a piece of chicken around his still half-full plate, wondering whether he could go for another bite.

“Nno”

“Hm. I saw Sarah today. She sends greetings”

“Thanks”. He recoils inwardly. He imagines John’s tired face, happy to see an old friend. Sees the dismissive flick of a hand as Sarah asked about them, perhaps about him, an upward roll of his eyes that indicated a weary acceptance of fate. He felt sick.

John stands with a small grunt, begins to gather their plates. Sherlock reaches a hand to stop him, but John grabs his plate anyway. “It’s okay. Tomorrow’s your turn. You look tired today. Then it’s evening pills and sleep. Will do you good”

Sherlock takes in the dark circles under John’s eyes, the tired, tight-lipped smile, the way he insists just to be over with it already.

His throat feels tight, as if he had swallowed a balloon.

“You don’t have to”

The sharply cold edge in his voice catches even him by surprise.

“Don’t have to what?” John has stopped mid-motion, both plates in his hands.

“Is this your daily act of kindness, John?”

“What?” There is a frown over the shorter man’s eyes, and the deep seas grow dark, clouded over.

“You don’t have to”, Sherlock repeats coolly.

John blinks at him as if hypnotized. And then his jaw sets. “I have no idea what you are talking about, Sherlock”, he says, very, very slowly. His voice has lowered.

“You don’t need to redeem yourself through me, John. If this is what it is, then please-”

John shakes his head vigorously, but Sherlock puts up a hand.

“I don’t want pity. Certainly not yours”

“I don’t pity you”, John says steadily, stubbornly, with a small defiant smile on his lips.

“Oh, come on. ‘The poor junkie, needing to be nursed back to health. Must have been such a sad sight. Maybe I should do more’”, he scorns. “You are not responsible for me. I am not in need. I don’t want this, John”

“Sherlock-"

“I don’t want it”, he repeats, louder, every sound painfully precise, syllables hurled. It hurt.

Chapter Text

The words stuck. Deep. Twisting in his chest. It hurt. His shoulders fell, but he kept a straight face; glaring. Brow a dark line over his eyes, jaw clenching. He turned to the sink, plates falling from his numb hands in the semi-cold water. His fingers managed to curl on the cold edge; tight. What had he done?

He thought... he thought they were getting better. He thought they were managing. For real this time. They looked at each other in the morning, they talked. A bit. Step by step, John felt getting closer to the real conversations lurking. His stomach a knot at the thought but he knew. He knew it was the right thing to do.

It’s not supposed to be easy, John.

Words. Repeated so many times. Bitter acknowledgements of the world he was living in. With that deep voice. Undoing him from the inside.

‘Is this... is this what “not easy” means?’

If yes, he didn’t know how he could bare it. There were words, promises, memories... in need of discussion, of explanation. He was patiently preparing himself to face it all. Even when his skin itched for a drop of alcohol. That was his goal. He thought that’s what ‘not easy’ meant. Those upcoming and necessary conversations. But this... An elongated, deep sigh left his lips as he leaned over the sink, supporting himself.

I’m sorry, John...

His left hand was shaking. ‘Why, why, why... oh, why?’

“I-I’m sorry.” He turned, facing the cold gaze, palms rubbing impulsively together. “I need some air.” He gestured to the door, frantic, fingers going through his fringe afterwards, trembling. “We’ll-we’ll talk later, yeah?”

Tomorrow.

“Tomorrow.” He corrected. Eyes widened, realising. Sherlock hadn’t spoken. Sherlock wasn’t there. Sherlock had already gone to bed. He shook his head.

He needed a drink.

He got upstairs instead. Shivering. Tucking himself under heaps of blankets. Rosie fast asleep for over an hour now. He got his phone out, bit his lip.

Goodnight. -JW

Not giving up. Not yet. Not yet...

***

Sleep refused to be of assistance that night. Sherlock lay on his back, his hands collected over the hollow valley beneath his diaphragm. His chest was first heaving, unevenly, like a bird’s wing beating viciously against the wind. Then it eased into the low sighs of full-bellied waves. And last it was barely moving at all, and quivering.

Had he meant to snap? Possibly. His anger used to be easy to rise, cold and refreshing when wrapped tight about him like a second coat, a plate of armour. Now it only left him barren, emptied, turned inside out.

At least it had been the right thing to do.

At first, he had doubted John moving back signified anything much at all – at least not with regards to himself. John had given him no indication he wished their relationship to mend, at least a little, towards what it had been five and more years ago. And as much as he was willing to take John’s presence over his absence, even on these terms, it turned out to be impossible to bear. Sherlock could not keep his strength from ebbing from him, bit by bit, from finding it weakened every morning. The drawn-out silences, the bitten off greetings, the punctual avoidance the deep-sea eyes subjected him to. It hollowed him out like an old, gnarled tree-trunk.

And then John seemed to reach out. To care. It gave Sherlock hope. Perhaps, with time, things could be better; the silences could be bridged, the words be less restricted, the deep-sea eyes sometimes dance his way. Then the things, the not-good things Sherlock had done, could stop to matter so much; he could be worthy of something, once again.

Naturally, Sherlock had only been prone to sentimental nonsense, and had overlooked the rational explanation for John’s investment in him. It was not care for a friend, interest for a member of family. No. It was the poor, poor junkie. That John couldn’t but take pity upon. Perhaps feel a little guilty over. The same moral code that prevailed in the end and compelled him to come to Sherlock’s aid in the hospital, the same set of principles would make John look back over Sherlock’s relapse of more than six months and his daredevil bet that the tycoon was a murderer, as another broken thing that he should better fix.

Of course, John had been mad at him for using again, had accused him of being a pathological liar -and rightly so. At first glance, then, it did not seem as if John attributed any worth to him at all in order to feel anything in particular towards his state. (And Mary’s “the man we both love” in that DVD could not possibly have had any weight then for John. John did not believe Sherlock could love anything; only that he hurt whatever and whoever was near him; He had made a vow. He had sworn it… And yet: ‘Anyone but you’). And that was what explained the numbness of the first ten days, Sherlock thought.

But if only that was the case, well, Sherlock’s attributes had not shifted in the least. Ergo, it must be John’s stance that had. The mess they were both in, somehow, made John Watson feel responsible for him. Responsible as a doctor for his patient, a patient he had left maimed after surgery by procedure mistake.

But noble as it may generally be, in its wish to make things better, John’s responsibility hurt. Being ignored was straightforward. Being pushed away, denied, the same. Not-good. Wrong. He could be those things. He could bear it. But being treated as a living reminder of failure, of a situation in need of a fix-up, was worse. He wasn’t even not-good anymore. He was a means to an end. He might as well have had any name, any shape, any face. And so he had none.

His body shuddered with a chilly spell. Sherlock pulled the blanket tighter around him and turned on the side it hurt less to sleep upon. In the dark after the light had been switched off, he blinked, absorbed, for a little, by how his eyes being closed or open made little difference.

Aren’t you going to sleep?

The voice was disembodied, an echo distant from him, heard like he does not truly hear his own voice in his head. But he could imagine it being warm, perhaps over a crooked little grin. Sherlock sighed and let it wash over him like a caress. It brought more shivers in its wake.

Sherlock, John’s voice says. Sherlock. The first vowel short but drawled with the absent rhotic, the curl of the tongue that cradled the ‘l’, the second vowel drawn out, tender, before the precision of the stop. Sherlock.  

When first he’d heard John’s voice, in Serbia, it was when an iron rod was slammed down his back, to warn him of what was to come; of when the same rod would be dipped in fire and fed with flame, to melt away his skin. Frustrated barking crowded him, like a pack of hungry wolves, with eyes burning yellow in the dark. And the voice had only been one thing. The one thing he had not heard for what seemed like forever, amidst dirty alleys, and half-collapsed hide-outs, and people without faces or name. One word. Sherlock. It made the chains that bound his hands to the ceiling rattle, his fallen head to rise; made his lips pull back in a soundless snarl, and his eyes burn like the wolves’.

He hasn’t stopped hearing John’s voice since. It comes and goes as it pleases, as if it has a will of its own. He doesn’t know where exactly it comes from, even though its details and mannerisms stem directly from his memories, from the wing devoted to John in what used to be a palace among the ruins. And it grew so real, that it did not have to say only things he’d heard John say but could say anything at all and it would still be unmistakably John’s voice. It would still be him, too.  It never stopped being quintessentially John, even though Sherlock logically knew it was nothing but a trick his mind played on him. He knew it wasn’t real.

Breaking the stillness, it was now murmuring softly in his ear. 

For me. Sherlock. For me.

He doesn’t know if he can stand even it anymore.

With the last impetus of his fading anger he reaches his phone. It vibrates in his palm. He turns it screen-down before he can see why and presses the home button as if he’s strangling the life out of its helpless plastic body. One. Two. It vibrates again, a last broken whine. And it’s dead.

***

He awoke with a start, Rosie whining persistent in her cot. John got himself up, sweat trickling down his spine, legs tangled with the heavy double duvet he used with hopes the weight would be enough to keep him in dreamless slumber for as long as possible. Reaching for her, he was blind, his vision blurry, making out only the sun-kissed curls of her small head in the dim light.

He clutched her close. She pushed him away. Little weak fists against his chest. He held tighter.

“Shhh... shhh... Papa’s here, little one... I’m here...”

She settled with a sniffle; meaning she stopped fighting his embrace. He whipped a palm over his face with a long suffering sigh. Took it away and found his fingers wet. Thumb, index and middle brushing together in confusion. He felt it all over his cheeks then, frowned and almost heard the dried streaks crack at the edge of one eye. Had he been dreaming? Did he wake her in the midst of a nightmare? God help him if he couldn’t even let his daughter sleep properly anymore.

“Hush... hush, little girl...” he whispered, lips resting over her shiny little forehead. “I’m sorry... Forgive me. I’ll do better.”

He was pitiful.

Eventually, Rosie was back at her cot. John swallowing the fact his hands were shaking too much for him to hold her steady for long. He sat at the edge of his bed, looked straight ahead. The morning light peeked through the light curtains of his window. His fingers were tight fists by then. He didn’t dare look. He could just see it in his mind’s eye already. His wrist shaky, fist aching from the strain.

He couldn’t sleep anymore.

***

“So, you lost a friend?”

A sharp nod. Was the man doubting him? Was it the loss or the ‘friend’ part? John found he didn’t want to know.

“You come here in mourning?”

The disbelief.

“No.” He spat.

The raised eyebrow.

“Not anymore.”

“So...?”

Prompting. Insufferable. Was this going to be just like therapy?

“I’m angry.”

“Ah...”

The knowing look.

John bristled.

“He made me watch.” He whistled between clenched teeth. He wanted to shock. He wanted to challenge. To provoke. “While he killed himself.”

He got a contemplating hum instead.

“How long ago?”

“Nine months.” He responded. Stunned.

***

“Aren’t you being too treacherous for your age?” John tried to smile at her, making another attempt at tempting her with a spoonful of her fruit crème.

She giggled, patting his cheek with a sloppy little palm and sticking her tongue between her lips playfully. He pushed some curls away from her face, sighing. God, he was tired.

“Come on, Rosie... you liked this yesterday...”

She made a face. He stood up, letting her play with the cutlery, filling the table with food. He’ll clean up before work. His shift started later today. It was almost nine in the morning. Sherlock hadn’t shown up yet. John had once again made breakfast, keeping it warm for him.

He grunted in empty space. A palm up his face, sliding. ‘Useless.’ He didn’t know what else to do or say to make it clear that this wasn’t redemption, this wasn’t- he wasn’t so pathetic. He had a basic moral code. ‘Damn it.’

“Dum-dum”

That sounded demanding. He peered an eye open.

“We’ve decided to talk now?”

She threw the spoon on his shirt with a gurgle. At the same time, Sherlock’s door opened with a thud.

“Shit.” He swore, gathering the spoon from the floor and running to the sink, struggling to clean up the cream from the ruined linen.

***

Sherlock was... distant... John couldn’t help again, couldn’t reach; he didn’t know how... His throat itched. Rosie was noisy. Nervous reaction, he’d diagnosed. She felt something was off. Again. How could he keep doing this to her?

‘What the fuck am I gonna do with both of you, huh...?’

Pah... So obvious, John.

His eyes travelled from his daughter -on the floor where he’d just left her, his face covered with the baby food he’d tried to wipe from her hands-, to Sherlock -on his armchair, phone in hand- and back. Both sets of eyes averted their gaze; again.

Again.

He felt like an insect, trapped within four walls, aimlessly fluttering from one to the other, smashing against all of them in turn, not giving up until it dropped, exhausted. Dead.

There was a void where his vocal chords should be.

‘Look at me. Look at me!’

They wouldn’t. Neither of them. Why would they? Failing. Failing. Both. But this time. This time. He felt like a kicked puppy.

‘Please look at me..!’

His breaths were quick, and wet. He pretended to wash up in the kitchen. Last night’s dishes.

The soap was rough against his hands; acid. The water too hot, searing his palms raw and swollen. 

His head was aching. He scratched at his hair, grabbed a tuft from his nape and pulled. A child at the teacher’s office with a stomachache, at the edge of a too-tall chair, tears drying and itching on his cheeks, nose blocked with sniffling, please, call mum, please, I want to go home, call her, call her-

‘I want to go back...’

Back. Back then... before...

Weren’t you angry then?

No. No, he wasn’t, he wasn’t, he wouldn’t be.

Weren’t you? Weren’t you angry before? Even in the army?

Not anymore. Not this time...

Come on, John. You’ve been angry all your life.

A crash. He turned around, startled. Sherlock was curled in the armchair, his eyes on the sight in front of John. He saw his jaw muscles clench. And then the grey eyes had flown away. He let his eyes trail lower. Lower. To the mess a few steps away.

Tablecloth pulled, by its edge hanging off the table, to the floor. And everything on it smashed or knocked down. His fingers curled into fists.

A hiccupped sob. Rosie.

“Great.” He breathed.

Two steps and he got her up, strapping her in her baby chair again.

“Why can’t you just stay in one place for a while?” his tone was more accusatory than he meant it.

Another sob; a punch.

Over gritted teeth, over the tears slowly appearing in her eyes, he got to his knees and started trying to make sense of the destruction.

Pieces. In pieces.

He swallowed a growl, but the next came louder. The shards were falling form his hands as if his palms were soap-water. Scalding, acidic.

A mug, salvaged? No, cracked. The army one. Of course. Plate, chipped. Toast crumbs, everywhere. Everywhere. Too many. He pulled the edges of the cloth together in a bundle, tossed the whole thing on the table.

Everything. Crumbs fell down, shards shattered to smaller pieces.

The eyes that weren’t looking at him were now drilling holes at his back. Bullet holes, metal lodged into his flesh, and yet still moving, pushing, pushing like worms through dirt, to eat away more, to hurt more, tunnels through his body, accusing, biting, chewing. Through him, for a way through him. Everything. And nothing. The eyes. The bloody eyes of sapphire, cracked mirrors, empty, red, red, red-

He resisted the urge to take a piece of broken glass or porcelain and slice it over his anterior forearm right there and then. Just like that. In front of them.

Not fair.

Why? His scarlet for the red, and then maybe the red would be red no more, but sky, sky, and there’d be nothing more, a window, a way out, call, why a call, why that voice, that voice on the end of the bloody line-

“John!”

He froze. Everything froze. Ice spreading through him, from his core and out, cracking as it worked its way, immobilizing, through arteries, veins; solidifying muscle, numbing out nerves. Until what used to feel like his body was only an amorphous slab of mulch and cold.

Rosie left a small sniffle escape the quiet. Her screaming had stopped. John’s hands were coiled at the sink -white, white. A sink brimming with more things broken.

‘What happened?’

You blacked out, John.

 ‘Oh...’

You were shouting.

He swallowed. It melted away some of the ice, at least at his throat. It was painful, like a bite of half-chewed, forced-down food. He raised his head. Looked over his shoulder

To the cold, greying blue eyes of the man that pulled him out of it. With just a call of his name.

He let out a breath. Shuttering.

“Right.”

He had shouted. Sherlock had been there. Rosie had been there. He had... he had lost control.

He had lost…

“I’m going to work.” He blurted out and, grabbing his bag and phone, tumbled down the seventeen steps with his ears drumming, flooded with the blood he wanted to spill out of himself.

***

They both remained still for a moment. He with worry, but Honeybee with fear, crouching low over her baby table behind him, clutching the hand he held for her behind his back. It made the skin at the back of his neck crawl, the way she made no sound until the door downstairs was pulled shut, like the young of prey waiting for the danger to leave. Only then did she wail again, clutching his palm with both her hands.

He bent to pick her up, and she flung herself to him, little arms and legs seeking to wrap around him, her face and sniffles buried in his neck. He rubbed a palm soothingly over her back. “It’s okay, Rosie… It’s okay… It’s okay…”

His eyes took in the haphazard mess in the sink, shards and spoons and pieces of toast dumped in, a construction ready to collapse further any moment. It made him think of abandoned rooms and crumbling walls, their torn wallpaper hanging like a fallen flag, the floor littered with white dust that shone even in the darkness. He clutched Honeybee tighter onto his chest, away from the nightmare within him.

When he’d opened his eyes that morning, his eyelids heavy as if they would have to be peeled open like a second skin, he’d only wanted to let his body sink beneath the crumpled covers, wishing the mattress would open up, liquid and amorphous, and swallow him in. The prospect of facing John, his sunken-in eyes, the hard line of his thin lips, had turned his limbs to stone. Made him wish that, for this once, he could obliterate his pride, gulp down his protests, drown the pain of pity, the fear of being nothing, nothing at all, to just give John what he needed. To keep them going, keep them afloat.

The previous night’s outburst had made him feel transparent, pretentious; he had acted as if he were whole and solid, when in truth under his skin he was only hollow; What else could ever be expecting anyway, so that he had the right to refuse what he was being given? John was not the John he always carried with him, whispering in his ear to lull him to sleep, countless gentle breathings of his name, little moths spun of silence and the night and the raw wound of his heart. John was real, and he was flesh and blood, and he was in pain, with the tide that rises and falls inside him, the failure and the duty. That was the John Sherlock had been called to save. Not the treacherous, smiling voice of his mind.

He hadn’t been able to speak. He had stood up, and walked to the kitchen, and had known at once that the wall between them had been rebuilt and taller than last time, that what he had done could not be undone with a simple word. John’s shoulders were hunched, a wolf nursing and hiding his injured paw, and Sherlock had kept well away, as his mind kept chiming ‘don’t look, don’t speak, for god’s sakes, don’t be annoying’.

But tonight. Tonight, he’d bridge the gap, climb the wall, reach. He’d accept the care, and the duty, and the failure. He’d accept what John needed him to be and do so with his head held high.

For that morning, he would still be angry. He would still be something.

As he had retreated to his armchair, steps slow and deliberate, his eyes sought Honeybee. He had promised her. But Honeybee had been busy playing with her rejected food as John cleaned up in the kitchen. Sherlock had wondered whether she had been aware of his presence, and just, picking up the gloomy mood, had chosen to wait.

Yet she had grown agitated soon, a pout and a frown clouding over the rosy, puffed up cheeks, little rolling hills on the landscape of her face, as she demanded to be free of the baby chair constraints, little fists banging on the table.  John had conceded with a quiet groan, and fought to wipe her face and hands clean, ended up with smears of baby food on one cheek and on the nose. And then he had unstrapped her and placed her gently down at the feet of her chair.

Sherlock, pretending his gaze was absorbed by his phone, could not help but smile at her, and she had cooed excitedly. John had muttered under his breath, and it reached Sherlock’s ears like the undercurrent of an angry, brewing storm wind jostling the leaves on the tree branches. The hairs at the back of his neck had stood on end, and his eyes darted nervously between John’s shoulder blades and the screen of his phone, the ‘Goodmorning. -JW’ message lifelessly staring back at him.

He had not seen what happened. He had heard a crash, and when he had looked, Honeybee was hugging the leg of the kitchen table to stay on her feet, her eyes twin lakes with a stone dropped in their middle, concentric circles reaching out shakily. Half the tablecloth and its contents were strewn on the floor, the jam lid still wheeling away before it had hit the side of the doorframe and collapsed, after spinning around itself like a coin.

John had turned around sharply, and Sherlock’s eyes fluttered away, away from the frightened pools trembling still.

“Great”, John had breathed. He had stepped over the mess and bent down to coax Honeybee from her hiding spot, like plucking a kitten up from a bush. She had been swiftly strapped back in her baby chair, which John pushed to the side of his armchair, safely away. “Why can’t you just stay in one place for a while?”. It had been almost ironic in the small huffed breath that followed it. Louder than it should have been.

Rosie had wailed when her father had stepped away without another word. John had ignored her, kneeling down to pick up shards and breakfast and cutlery. The wind through the leaves growing, sharpening. It wouldn’t stop. It stirred into Honeybee’s belly with painful tingles -Sherlock knew the feeling-, made her coil into herself and wail louder. John’s had knelt down, picking the tablecloth up as one big bundle, and placing it back on the table again. Every wail had made him wince as if it was a physical blow. And then, as he had begun to pick up the rest of the broken pieces of plate and glass and mug from the floor and throw them in the sink, the wincing turned into murmurs and growls, drowned exclamations and hissed curses.

The two voices had stopped moving in tandem. Rosie’s crying got quieter, as John’s frustration blew harder about him. Sherlock flinched when it reached a sudden peak. “Enough! Enough, goddammit! Enough! Stop it!”

Rosie had gulped down a sob. The words struck high and growled, and then fell to murmuring before swelling out again, angry waves lashing and rolling, gathering. John was on his feet now, cracked mug in hand, and his knuckles were as white as the china.

“John”

It had barely left his lips. As in a nightmare; he couldn’t speak, water flooding in his mouth. The mug had been smashed down against the sink, among the rest of the ruins. John had tried to reach for the jam and more of its red innards emptied onto the tablecloth as John picked it up. A snarled sob ricocheted off the walls, and the jar had been sent flying against the pile.

Sherlock had got up on watery legs and rubbery knees and tried to float his way closer.

“John”

 He had reached Honeybee’s side. Her cheeks had been blotched with red, her curls bouncing wild on her head. He had stood frozen with the rage that burned a few feet away, scorching everything in its vicinity. A knot had climbed from his stomach to his chest.

John had bent over the sink, head hanging, palms gripping had enough to crack it. He was shaking. Sherlock’s shoulders had fallen, his back straightened. Fear had gripped tight around his diaphragm and squeezed.

“John!”

The eyes that had looked back at him were open. Betrayed. Terrified.

He had watched him go, watched him run as if he were hunted. Sherlock had watched and every nerve in him had shrank away from his muscles and bones, so that he was only eyes on a statue. He had wanted to reach for him. To make him stop.

Now Rosie threw an arm around his neck and fought to climb even higher on him, as if to reach his shoulder. He balanced her on his other hip and the movement offered him her forehead. His lips pressed against the reddened, hot skin, and kept moving, shushing, murmuring. His left hand was shaking as it reached to card through the golden curls.

“It’s okay… It’s not your fault, Rosie. It wasn’t your fault. Shh… Hush, baby. Hush. It’s okay. I am here”

He trailed to his armchair, sat down, and brought her little hands to his lips, the little hands that had meant no harm, and kissed over them again and again, until her tears dried, and a small shy smile bloomed on her lips. There you go, little girl. There you go. All is well now. All is well.

Sherlock’s breath hitched.

‘What do I do?’, he gasped, reaching.

There was no reply. ‘No, no no no, don’t go now’, he gritted his teeth. Stupid brain. Stupid. Rosie’s hands slipped from his palms and patted his cheeks his nose, his lips. A butterfly’s touch, as it landed here, there, glimmering in the sun. He sucked in a breath, tried to keep his heartbeat calmer than it had been. ‘What do I do. Tell me what to do’.

Rosie gurgled and pressed her index against the tip of his nose. “Boop”

He sighed, and gently booped her back with his lips.

Isn’t it obvious, you git?

‘No. No I’m afraid it isn’t’

Chapter Text

There’s fire in his head and he can’t put it off. He tries, yet again, but it persists. Anger, it’s called. Hot, burning, consuming anger. He’s on his own. Hopeless. Helpless. A mess.

Yet again.

How many times can one person take? When will it finally be too much to start from zero? Everything works in continuous vicious circles and he doesn’t know when it will be the last time he will manage to pick himself back up.

John is a bomb. A ticking device, with countless errors programmed over its core. Waiting to self-destruct and take anyone in close vicinity with him. He always has been, always careful to hide it deep inside. This time his options are running thin.

Isolation -one of his first and easiest solutions before- is unacceptable. He can’t just leave and give everything up. In any case, locking himself away from the world could end much worse for everyone. It’s a somehow comforting thought. The fact that he consciously feels this is crazy. Taking it out on his body, his mind, or washing it away with the bottles that lay down empty, in the abandoned living room last time he overdid it. It is crazy. It puts him off.

For now.

He arrives at the clinic in a rush of coat and product-filled hair, his stride wider than necessary the moment stagnant hospital air and antiseptic fill his nostrils. The more he flees, the more his body and mind try to recreate the familiar image of his companion and friend at his side. Mannerisms, style, body language. It’s all in him. Like it was before, when he wasn’t fleeing from said companion, but from his fake death. This time around, he notices. He halts every movement and every word with a frown, takes a breath and starts again.

And stops.

It all brings him too close to darkened swimming pools and memories of flickering betrayal in stormy grey eyes. The following recognition and then overflowing fear, cutting in soft blue hues. Devotion. Given. Unconditional and never-ending.

So why is it so wrong of him to try and give back? Why is he so wrong at it?

Work takes his mind off the haunted looks in their faces. The two people he loves most in this world, looking at him with wide, terrified diamonds. Trained on him. On his every move. Wary. As if living a nightmare. Waiting for him to burst. Shout. Strike. A jury. To judge his flinching face muscles, predict his every move, deduce his every thought.

He can’t block it out. The rage. At himself. He is quite obviously unworthy of acceptance. Guilty. They find him guilty. He can’t possibly expect for his attempts to matter. He cannot matter. For anyone. Any step towards reciprocation would eventually lead to rejection. His care is not enough. His feelings -unannounced, hidden- can never be enough. He is guilty. A coward. He deserves it.

He was given too many chances. Too many.

You’ve lost them, John. You played your cards.

No. He doesn’t want to believe that. There must be a way. A secret path he must discover. To escape this. Find a way out. Out. OUT.

Just let it go already.

Out. Out of his fucking damaged seflish prick of a brain. Somehow, he can be better, can’t he? Everyone can. Why not him?

Do they want you to be better? Do they need you?

‘No... No, they don’t.’

***

There is whizzing in his ears, as if he were holding his head under water. And with a snap-the bursting to the surface for air-, the ears pop, and the world rushes in, cold, merciless wind. 

The voice does not return.

Sherlock’s every nerve is throbbing.

He breathes, and his surroundings, the whole of 221B, throbs with him.

Rosie blinks at him and then tugs at the lapels of his nightgown, pointing at her pink elephant -perched on the back of his armchair, over his shoulder- with a whine. Slow at first, his hands clumsy, he gives it to her, watches as she clutches it tight. Said elephant is almost anatomically correct -if tusk-less, cartoon-like and pink. It normally decorates her bed -John must have forgotten it here last night. Sherlock wonders if she has named it, and how, and whether she tells it, in her way, babbling like an impatient warbling bee, what she sees trough her eyes.

On his part, his mind refuses to be carried away; a circular code, always returning to the same result. Or, better, a mule tied to a post; that obstinate.

He fishes in his pocket for his phone. There’s little he can do. The option of calling, for one, is beyond consideration. Sherlock doubts John will even pick up. And he would not blame him for it. Last night. Last night was a disaster. He should have just kept his big mouth shut.

But he still sees John hurrying away from him, from them, shaking, curled in on himself, his fists clenched tight enough to be only bony knuckles, milky flesh. His left hand trembles.

He fiddles with the options he has, running through the contact list on his phone. His thumb hovers over two names. One, he hates asking for favours. To hear that voice, coated with sarcasm like the heavily syrupy cakes it’s is so fond of… The other choice, the other name… The one he has let down too many times to count -despite the multiple slaps. He twists his phone between thumb and index, hesitates. Puts it aside. Whatever he does, he’ll have to do alone. Honeybee stirs into his lap and turns to look at him again.

She coos softly, her eyebrows joining together, a child’s drawing of a seagull, two curves joined in a pointy line; this one is golden. Before he can soothe it away, she is pressing her elephant against his chest, and then hugs it, so that the little stuffed animal is sandwiched between them, her little hands splayed onto Sherlock’s chest, not big enough to be able to circle around him in a proper hug; but he knows that that’s what this is.

“Thank you, Rosie”, he whispers, and holds her with both arms around her little body, frail and marshmallow-soft where it is not all bony and angle-y -on the kicking machines of her elbows and knees. Her hair, tight little curls that have grown longer to frame her face, have the same colour John’s used to have. And when he breathes in them, he can smell baby-powder and shampoo, beside her unique baby-scent; something sweet and yet a little tangy-savoury all at once, like a whimsical little fruit. Wild strawberry, maybe. Or mango. He knows there’s a storm brewing here too, beneath the quiet. A storm altogether different, but just as demanding. She’s growing. She understands, and she feels. The world around her she absorbs like a water-hungry sapling. And she needs. She needs stability, and safety. She needs her father. The longing for him, his smile, his praise, his time, his embrace, it almost makes Sherlock’s arms numb every time he holds her. The longing for a father who is drowning, in the same room as her, sinking, away from her reach without her being able to grasp him, to grasp why.

When she looks at him again, her eyes are the sky weighing on his shoulders.

“You haven’t eaten, have you?”, he asks her, his voice warm as a knowing smile  

She nods no; a sharp motion of her head, that makes her curls bounce. Her head buries more on his chest, her cheek flattened against his sternum, as if she were trying to hide.

“It’s okay. We can make something else”, he soothes. “You must eat something. It’s not good to skip breakfast. So we won’t”

He supports her weight with an arm below her bum and stands. “Now… Let’s see what we have, mm?” He finds the packaging of the cream she refused this morning and shows it to her. “We have this. It’s… Ah, peach flavoured”, he holds the colourful small can closer so that she can see. “Would you want to give this another go, Rosie?”. She shakes her head no against his neck and hides again. “That’s alright” He puts the can down and cups her head with his palm. She whines like a kitten, but her body eases against his.

Overlooking the mess in the sink –for now, at least-, he goes through the cupboards in the kitchen, looking for other brands and flavours of baby food. He talks out loud for each of his findings, letting her see the packaging, touch it, explore -along with her elephant, dangling all this while from an ear she holds tight in her hand. Eventually comes across one that is vanilla flavoured, and shows it to her, guessing she would prefer it over the mango and mixed berries. It takes a moment for her to nod and mumble her agreement.

He places her on her chair, her elephant in her lap, and pulls it close to him as he prepares her breakfast, talking to her all the while. How did she sleep, how is she feeling, what would she want to do? Occasionally describing the steps of her cream preparation to her. Even though she does not always reply, he does not stop, keeping his voice warm and steady. He’d do the same when she was younger too, and he was babysitting her. When Mary had decided to run, and left John alone with a 10-month old and no explanation. With no choice. It was this lack of choice that made Sherlock an idiot enough to hope. Two is a family, three is a family, too. Maybe, if Mary was so good so as to evade even his attempts at finding her, then… He forces this train of thought to freeze on its tracks. If it wasn’t for her, he would not be alive now. Not that he’s sure whether that is a good thing or a not-good thing anymore. It is mostly a thing that just is.

He scoops up some of the cream in a bowl, finds a green baby-safe spoon, and sits on the chair beside Rosie’s. “Time to taste-test?”. He places the bowl and spoon in front of her. She eyes it suspiciously, but her puffed up cheeks make her pout; a hungry hawk chick. Demanding. He can’t help but smile, as she clutches the spoon, and brings a small mouthful to her lips for a catlike taste-lick. He waits past the necessary stages of making a face, whining, and then licking again, for a second try, his head pillowed on his forearms against the kitchen table. “Hmm… Not good?”

She babbles something that sounds suspiciously like ‘no’ but goes for the first mouthful anyway. She does not make another face or seems to need another taste-lick. She keeps eating slowly, humming as she scooped up little clumps of cream, her eyes going so wide when the spoon approaches her face that she becomes a little owl.

“That’s good, Rosie. Very good”, he praises with a kiss to her right hand, that she keeps braced onto the table. Left-handed. Of course. She giggles, and offers him a spoonful, waving it to his direction with encouraging whines.

“Isn’t she lovely?”

Honeybee pauses but then waves her spoon in Mrs. Hudson’s direction, and she huffs over a smile, as if unable to believe such an honour. “Why, thank you, darling -but I just had breakfast. All yours”

The rejection just makes Honeybee turn her attention back to Sherlock, and she renews her efforts at trying to feed him.

Hudders drifts towards the kitchen, and Sherlock follows her out of the corner of his eye.

“Sherlock…”, she tuts when she took in the mess in the sink and the kitchen table. “Is this from my good china set?”, she lifts a cracked cup from the top of the pile, keeping it away from her as if it were a dead rat.

“Regrettably”

She gives him a stern look for his sourness, and hurries to place the cup back where it was.

“I heard what happened”

“Of course you did”. He has stopped looking at her and has focused on Rosie once again, praising her with more kisses when she goes for another big mouthful -her cheeks puffing out like that of a chipmunk- before she swallows.

“Sherlock… This is serious”

He tries to ignore her, but she knows and sits on the chair across the table from him, so that he won’t be able to, if he wants to keep paying attention to Rosie.

“Is he drinking again?”

“I doubt he ever stopped”

“You seemed to be getting along better”

“This is our better, then”

Neither of them speaks for a while as Rosie tries to feed her elephant this time, and babbles excitedly when its pink face is slathered with cream.

“It was me”, he admits finally over a sigh.

“You?”

“My fault”, he explains.

Hudders purses her lips to a thin line, the vertical lines around it deep, and black, and spidery.

“Sherlock, you know how I hate to meddle-“

“Obviously”

She puffs her chest out at that, like an offended peacock. Takes a glance of appeasement to make her ruffle her feathers down again. “But maybe it’s neither of you. Perhaps it’s just… The combination. How things turned out, in the end”

He frowns at her beneath a curl that has fallen over his left eye.

“I know. Me most of all”, she says, slowly. “I know” She brushes Rosie’s hair back behind her ear. “But maybe it’s time to let go, dear”

She must have been braced for his look of alarm, because it does not move her. “It’s not your fault, Sherlock”, she croons, and helps Rosie scrape a last mouthful of cream from the sides of her bowl with her spoon. “But maybe it’s just time to let him go”

***

Think.

‘Got to drink something.’

Think again.

There’s nothing to think. He doesn’t need more messed up thoughts running rampant around his stupid brain. He’s unable to handle the patients coming and going. He needs the cold London air, the rush of blood to his temples as he runs behind a tall dark figure with a coat. The crack of a knee or jaw against his knuckles as he wrestles a body to the ground. The soft smirk. The clever praise of iridescent -crinkling at the corners- eyes. He needs...

Bored, are you?

‘More like needy like hell.’

Selfish. He doesn’t think that too loud. The voice hears it anyway. Always.

John.

‘Stop it.’

He needs a distraction. Anything to get his mind off his useless self. Off the people he is disappointing. Over and over.

“Dr Watson?”

He spins around. A nurse. His gut clenches. Mary. ‘Or not.’ He blinks. Shakes his head. Shoves the darkness creeping through his vision aside.

“Yes?”

It sounds annoyed. He knows it.

“I’m sorry, but... would you like a break?”

He narrows his eyes. Brows knitting together.

“It’s just... you seem a bit off, today?”

No. No, no, no. He can’t lose this job. He can’t lose the only thing he does that actually helps. He can’t-

“Are you alright? Dr Watson?”

He’s hyperventilating. ‘Great.’ Stopping himself in the middle of a shaky breath, he forces a smile.

“Quite. Thank you.”

John. It’s alright.

No. It’s not. Again. Yet. Still. It’s not alright. And it’s not going to be. Not anytime soon. He hangs his head low and forces his way through the rest of his shift, leaving the clinic as quickly as he can. Work is not a distraction enough. He’s failing. Falling. Hard.

It’s all gone the moment he walks into an alley, avoiding the main street. The memories, the intrusions in his mind, the flashes, the sounds. Stressful day, as Ella would say. Particularly triggering. Should battle through it, face it, not stay home. Not that he’d have a home to stay to, without it being triggering as hell.

He winces. It’s raining. The fire remains. The teriffying feeling of helplessness. He punches the brick wall. Drags his knuckles over it. Scratches with blund nails. When he reaches the next road, his fingers are stained red. He looks down.

“Not much for it.” He mumbles to himself, gets his hankerchief out and wraps it around his palm with a small shrug of the left shoulder, already itching in tense pain.

A bar. ‘Let’s find a bar, then.’

John. Think.

But he doesn’t listen. It’s not like he has achieved something big. Not even a week sober. So... it’s not technically a relapse. Or is it? He didn’t have much of a problem anyway; not reached the point where his body couldn’t take it. A slight hand tremour doesn’t prove anything.

John.

‘Alright, alright! You-‘ A sigh.

He goes for his phone while walking down the street. The world is blurry. Washed out. His eyes wander over the dull colours of familiar buildings. His feet are taking him where he needs to go. Home. But his fingers are dialing.

***

“Come on, Watson. Harder!”

He huffed, a small smirk playing on his lips, cracked his neck to the side and threw another punch.

“That was pitiful.”

He glared, turned around and kicked, straight up in the air. A steady arm lock was waiting for him, trapping his ankle and folding him in two. He grunted, falling to one knee, fists still trained steady in front of his face, hitting the ground as he lost his balance for good.

“You’re not ready yet. I told you.”

He struggled for freedom, but his ankle was held high by the sturdy blond behind him. He fell on his palms again.

“Too slow.”

“Come ooon.” He whined, like a loser, his lips pursing tight at the thought. He was not a loser. He could prove it.

“What’s the matter, soldier boy?”

“Charlie.” He growled. The man was quite older than him but John particularly disliked that moniker, especially when used to bring him even lower than he’d stooped himself.

“I want you back in the ring in five, Watson.”

John felt his leg fall free, before he could make another attempt at throwing his supervisor’s hands off him. He panted, eyes fixed on the mat under him. Charlie poked his shoulder with a hand, prompting him to stand.

“Too much anger in that brain of yours still.” He sounded concerned. Again.

John couldn’t care less about the reason.

***

“Oh, hello!”

“Harry.” He rasps. “It’s me”

“I know, you moron. Wouldn’t think I’d hear from you again so soon. What changed your mind?”

“Shit” he mumbles. He forgot. Damn.

“What? Couldn’t hear ya!”

Her sing-song voice drills through his brain and makes him see stars. He stops walking. Let’s the rain seep into his clothes. His nape of neck wet.

“Nothing.”

Leaning to the nearby corner building, John presses a palm to his face. He forgot about the fight. Shit.

John. Stop.

‘Not you too.’

He needs to talk to her.

John, not her.

With a grunt into the microphone, he opens his lips to talk. Harry cackles, interrupting him.

“Trouble in paradise, I take it.”

He frowns.

“Are you drunk?”

“Oh, you can’t possibly ask me that, John. Of course I’m not drunk. Just cheerful.”

“Cheerful...” His mind keeps circling, suspicious.

“Alright, what do you want?” She sighs then, facade fading.

Exasperated. That’s what she is. John keeps walking. She is not drunk. But he is going to be. Soon. His lips purse.

“Hoping for your ‘I told you so’ speech?”

She huffs. So like Father. ‘Yeah, right. You wish.’ He can keep his mouth shut. That’s one thing she could never do.

“What do you want?” she repeats. ‘Sherlock hates to repeat himself too.’ John shudders in the cold wind, feels it all win him over. The bar a few misty streets away.

“How did you stop?” he breathes. Hoping she can’t hear.

“I didn’t have a stubborn toddler running around my feet, if that’s what you mean.” Her tone bitter. John refuses to acknowledge any genuine concern. Her wording is just unimaginable. “And if I did, I’d trust my family with her and focused on getting better.”

She’d never understand. Her one-sided view of the world would never change. It’s of no use. Anger boils inside his gut once again.

“Fuck you, Harry.”

He presses the red button with force, widening his stride. He was there for her whenever he could, whenever she let him, but now that she is ‘all-better’ herself, she can’t even let him choose how he needs her to help.

***

“John.”

His head snapped up, eyes meeting the taller man. Blond sweaty hair fell on his face and his posture as always held fimrly. John nodded his acknowledgement silently and kept his gaze on the pavement afterwards, walking lazily down the road, lit by soft yellow streetlights.

“You’re getting better.” There was an edge to the familiar tone. John hummed.

“I hope so.” He spoke in the end, breaking the awkward silence of walking side by side with man he barely met outside of the support group. “I’ve met someone.” He added, flippantly.

Charlie’s faltered a tiny bit. John frowned. His supervisor never falters. Suddenly he felt small, as if he’d made a mistake.

“Oh. Good.” Charlie huffed in the cold air with a pause, head held high as always. “Is that why we’ve missed you at the gym this past week?”

John’s mouth started to form a grin but ended up weirdly deformed into angled lips without any joy or tease -or casualness for that matter. He shrugged.

“A man’s allowed to have fun, right?” he tried. It’s met with Charlie’s subtle roll of eyes. “How about you, mate?”

John winced. Charlie gave him another calculated look of mild disapproval verging on amusement. He really has got to remember how to socialise properly again. But maybe, that’s not it...?

“It’s my daughter’s birthday today.”

“Oh!” John looked at the man with new eyes. “I didn’t know you...” he swallowed. He shouldn’t pry.

“It’s alright.” Charlie just laughed with his head thrown back for a second or two, good-naturedly. “There’s a lot of things you don’t know, John Watson.”

Back to surnames, then. John nodded, feeling his cheeks burning red. He had spent almost every evening for the better part of four months with this man and didn’t even know he had a family. All he ever cared about was his own damn problems and given up life.

“Have a nice celebration, then?” he mumbled, stopping to the bus stop on their right. “That’s my cue.”

“Thank you, John.” Charlie looked him over thoughtful. John felt scrutinised. “Take care... and don’t forget to pass by once in a while, will you?”

John nodded, confused. There was a small sting of regret in the words. He might have lost contact with the world but... he hadn’t forgotten how to read people, had he? Charlie seemed to care... about his wellbeing. Truly.

It surprised him. It always did. John wasn’t used to the imbalance it left him feeling and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. Once... when he had let it grow on him... No. He didn’t need that again. From anyone. That’s why he had agreed to that date with the nurse working in front of his office. She was nice. Slightly. As much as any middle-aged orphan woman could be. It was easy. Comfortable. Didn’t bring him to the edge of sentiment and the uncertainty it created. Who would want to reciprocate that to him anyway...

Nobody. Not since long ago. Not since him. And not for who knows how long...

***

The first gulp is a burning hot snail of lava down his throat. He raises his glass to the barista in mock-gratitude. He’s been a regular to this particular pub, one road away from Baker Street, just enough reassurance that whatever happens he might actually make it home.

His head spins when the second gulp is down as well. He held it in his mouth one second more, making a vain attempt to reconstruct the different tastes on his tongue. He’s much too needy for that to work, it seems.

Stop.

‘Pfft, what’s the point, hm?’

Really, John...?

‘I think about it all day anyway and nothing can take that away, so what’s the point of not doing it?’

He empties the glass of vodka promptly demonstrating. His mind starts to quieten down. Not enough yet, but just so he can order another glass. The fire courses through him one more time, aching muscles are tremoring in its passing, smoke clouds his eyes. He blinks.

The image is gone. The pub TV screen is flickering in the background, the barista empties the last reserves of the newly open bottle of the bar in his glass with an uncaring shrug. John doesn’t even know how much time has passed. He gets up on wobbly legs, eyes trained on a tilted floor. He’s stuck. Stuck in the marshes. Unable to crawl out of the thick paste of water clawing at his feet. Making him heavy, trapping him inside.

“Shit.”

“Hey, man, you alright?”

He waves the kind fellow away with a scowl. Every step he takes is a nightmare. The wooden walls of the bar entrance are transforming into logs now, built for a campfire and the red carpet is consumed by a fiery blaze, flames sliding, brushing their wetly hot tongues against his dried skin, peeling layers of clothes away to drag against melting flesh.

He screams. Or he thinks he does. And the fire becomes transparent, faded in a highly lit white space around him. The cold air of the British capital hits him in the face and his body crawls from wall against wall, fighting to reach his ultimate destination that should have been his first after work. Home.

His throat is tight. He can’t speak, as if in a dream, and the night scenery of a normal busy street is flashing, exchanging its existence and aura for the whiteness of his mind and the transparent fire on a screen in front of him. He knows this is all familiar, he knows he should recognise the place and time and what’s about to happen, but his mind is quiet, only able to fight the vision for enough seconds to carry his body one foot forward at a time.

He hears it though. The screams. The terror in the deep baritone voice. His name. The relief. And again. ‘No, no, no, not again, not again, please, I don’t- I don’t want to again!’ he pleads and struggles but the streetlights can’t keep him close to reality enough for him to take control. Hands on his head, blocking his ears shut, he has to slow down. He’s shifting and struggling but he can’t move, can’t speak, can’t reassure or scream back. It’s distorted, and his eyes are wide as the fire builds and consumes him and a tall figure falls into it with intent, unwavering. Wanting to burn, to sacrifice its own self in order to save... save John from under the logs of the torturing campfire, from under the void...

‘Burn.’

‘Burn his heart.’

And you’ve left him with nothing. Nothing. Finally.

‘Look how he cares...’

John shakes his head, his hands grab a rail of a staircase and he’s up the stairs, forehead against the soft smelling wood and he’s so relieved. Relieved he can smell this above all else. Relieved the unforgiving car engines haven’t washed this scent away. Relieved he is not so numbed by fear and alcohol yet...

His hand is shaking and the flashes of memory that make his heart burn and his body crumble with guilt are not utterly gone. The key is somehow by miracle fitting into the lock. His feet following straight lines are another paradox he doesn’t know how to explain. Maybe they don’t. He leans against the wall, feels trails of wetness over his cheeks but can’t wipe it away. A palm is pressed against his left shoulder. A hiss leaves his lips between clenched teeth.

Up the stairs he goes, head lowered. Falling still. But has already failed now. Not merely failing. He is a loser. In every sense. He’s lost them. The chances. He’s lost them. His daughter. His best mate. The fall, however… it never stops…

Disappointing. He can’t keep up with anything. He’s so far behind that it’s better to let go. Let go, say goodbye and stop grabbing onto life so helplessly. Wouldn’t that be brave to do? Wouldn’t that honour his past? His history? Wouldn’t that appease them? Letting them have a better life without him?

His knees don’t lock anymore. He’s on the cold hard ground. Only it’s tile. Only it’s their kitchen.

Not here. Oh, no, not here. He can’t do this here. Can’t let them see. Can’t let them find out in such a way.

John.

‘Not now.’

He reaches a hand to the counter, grunting. Fighting to get up. He can’t even do this right.

John.

‘Let me be.’

He growls, slams a palm to his temple, trying to pry the voice and everything else away. He doesn’t need his brain to wake up now. No, he definitely doesn’t need that.

John.

Something is different. The voice seems clearer. He pays no mind, grabs at his hair tight and pulls. Helpless. Can’t even be decent and respectful enough to his own self anymore.

‘Go. Away.’

John.

Something freezes.

“John.”

Chapter Text

Sherlock hears the door opening and closing, steps trudging on the stairs. He shoots up from bed, in a flurry of bedclothes flown aside, and rushes to the corridor. It’s a short flight; he pauses just outside his bedroom. When the blood thumping in his ears subsides, what he is met with is silence; there are no more footsteps.

He waits. If John wanted to avoid him he would hear the creak of the second flight of stairs -as John would make his way to Honeybee. And Sherlock wouldn’t care. As long as John was home, he wouldn’t care; it’s been hours, stretching over him, each a dark-feathered crow, a cacophonous addition to the whirlpool his mind has become. At least John will be home.

But as much as he wishes that all this has been is just John ignoring him, refusing to see him on purpose after what happened in the morning, he knows that there is a new danger lurking outside. One that calls to the pain and need within John. And all Sherlock had done was just push him a step closer to the brink.

It was just trying to drill a hole in water. Just all over again.

He hears a thud, muffled against wood. His body stills, straining, to absorb more sounds. Nothing else comes his way. It’s not curiosity, or need, but worry that takes the better of him. A morbid kind of worry. The one that has him thinking the worst.

He steps out into the kitchen.

John doesn’t see him.

He is on his knees on the tiles of the kitchen floor with his back turned to him. He is gripping the counter above him with one hand, as if he were trying to hold on but slid down, fell.  His other hand is fisted in his hair, pulling at it as if it was wheat to be harvested. His teeth show over pulled-back lips. He looks like he wants to eat his own skin raw; and when that does not work, and his hair refuses to be plucked form his skull, his palm strikes his head. Again. Again. And then he grabs new and old strands both and yanks, harder, and that wretchedly strangled sound that tears itself deep from his chest rises and falls with renewed viciousness.

Sherlock has only felt as powerless only once before. When John’s eyes were on him, with the otherworldly under-water blue of the aquarium lighting his face eerily, his entire frame shaking with anger; You made a vow. You swore it.

No worry could be more morbid than this gut-hollowing feeling.

It’s not a single moment in time but their accumulation. Building up gradually like the crest of a wave; this is not them. This was never meant to be them. But this is them now. His skin feels foreign on him; stolen, almost. As if he’s woken up and found himself in someone else’s life, in someone else’s nightmarish dream. And the worst is, that this was happening. It was happening, and he did not stop it, and it became this.

Mrs. Hudson is right. She’s right. Or she would be. If it wasn’t for one thing. But one, life-changing detail -that is no detail at all; Honeybee.

Sherlock has pushed them to the point from which there is no return. But that’s exactly what now makes him take a step forward. And another. There is nothing that he has at stake, anymore. He may have lost John. But he cannot let John be lost.

His blue dressing gown brushes against his bare ankles as he tries to be careful and silent as a cat. It’s only his voice that ventures forward, seeking a path.

“John”

The growled wail is choked off, John’s entire body goes rigid.

Sherlock takes a step back, not wanting to scare the little cornered animal that John has turned into more -at least not more than he already has. He decides to let himself be seen, instead of looming over John from behind, as if he were a threat.

He circles, slowly, until he is in front of John, a few steps away. He kneels, feeling the deep-sea eyes on him, but not trying to meet them. And then they’re both on the floor, opposite each other, and Sherlock feels he has to get to know the man in front of him all over again.

“John”

There is no reply. He was not truly expecting any. He scuttles forward a little. John does not retreat, but the tension in his frame coils, hardens. Sherlock stops, and waits. John lowers his head. His hand is still on his hair, locked around a silver handful. It is still pulling, the knuckles bone-white.

Sherlock chews on the inside of his lower lip. It’s a puzzle, a human puzzle, pieces scattered all over the floor. And he has to somehow put them back together in functioning order. Or at the very least, help them find one. He tries not to think how he has failed already, as he reaches for John’s hand on the counter. It’s bandaged with a cotton white handkerchief, wine-red stains seeping through on the phalanges and knuckles.

Sherlock’s fingers brush over the cloth, letting John acclimatize to the touch that is not a touch yet. When there is no reaction he lets his palm lie atop and envelop John’s smaller one and pulls. The skin is warm beneath a layer of chill from the cold London air. Sherlock’s palm is clammy. John does not resist, his fingers frozen-numb letting go, lets Sherlock’s hand guide his. Sherlock lowers their hands to John’s side. Then lets go. He pulls back. John does not move, his other hand still in his hair. The hand Sherlock just freed has curled into a fist but is otherwise quiet.

John sniffs but keeps breathing through the nose. Sherlock realizes he was panting ever so softly. He swallows. Then reaches for John’s other hand. John jerks, and his eyes blink rapidly before they focus on Sherlock’s face. The pressure in the muscles and tendons of his hand increases; Sherlock can feel it, almost as if it is a live wire, charged up again.

“John”, Sherlock says again in appeasement, stilling mid-motion. He waits until John’s gaze falls, and then reaches for him again.

His heart stops when his fingers curl over John’s. And then his heartbeat is too fast. Too loud. For a moment he is a herded animal, desperate to escape, the white of its eyes showing as it kicks and struggles. He holds tighter.

There is silence for some moments, and Sherlock can almost hear John’s mind whirring, thumping against the confines of his skull. And then John pulls at his hair with more force than before.

Sherlock tries to stop him, tries to match the strength of John’s anger, but he can’t. He can’t walk against the wind of this storm, not this time. His wrist is shaking with the effort, and his breaths turn into short, painful jabs.

“John. Stop”

John snarls at him. Sherlock winces. Neither of them moves.

“John”

The words are swallowed by the space between them. Sherlock feels he is being turned inside out, John’s every violent pull a punch into his abdomen, and his eyes sting with the pressure of it, the unfairness of it, it’s so wrong it’s raw, and lodged in his throat so that he can’t swallow, he can’t get air out of his lungs, he’s just aching, his jaw clenched enough to make his vision swim.

“Please”

John flinches and screws his eyes shut, the upper and lower lids meshed in a riverbed of wrinkles and lines and blue circles.

“Please. It hurts”

John shakes his head, and Sherlock can see a self-mocking grimace of a smile ghosting over his lips.

Something cracks inside him. Like lighting cracks. It’s a storm of his own. He grabs John’s free hand, pulls, so that John is startled enough not to resist, and places it onto his hair, onto the lush black curls. His fingers coil, a blanket over John’s hand so that John’s fingers coil too, and he makes them both pull at a handful of his hair.

“It hurts”, he says, louder, anger a knife in his tone. He pulls again, and it’s vicious.

John’s breath catches. His fingers twitch, his hand goes limp, fighting to escape Sherlock’s grip.  Sherlock does not relent, but brushes over John’s other hand instead, where it is still locked around the silver tufts as harshly as their entwined hands on the raven curls. “It hurts”, Sherlock says again, pulling John’s wrist. “Stop”.

John does.

Sherlock stops holding him.

They’re both breathing hard. John gather his hands in his lap, and Sherlock is not sure what to do with his. They’re tingling with regret, and he’s tired, and for a moment he wishes he could just rip them off.

John’s eyes travel from his hair to his eyes, and back again, and his face contorts.

“Nauseous?”, Sherlock manages to ask.

John hangs his head, and nods, once.

No time to think, now.

Sherlock gets an arm beneath his shoulders and eases him to stand. They both grunt, and John has to heavily lean against him, a reed relying onto another. Sherlock’s ribs protest. Half- pushing, half-dragging, he gets John to sit on the couch, takes his jacket off. John’s eyes are open, but unfocused, and it takes more calls of his name to get his attention.

Sherlock brings iodine and gauze from the bathroom, sits beside John, and removes the handkerchief from his left hand. It’s sticky with dried blood. He cleans the grazed knuckles and phalanges as best he can with a tea-towel soaked in lukewarm water, dabs iodine on the abrasions, and wraps the entire palm up with gauze. The nails are chipped and bloodied too, so he washes John’s fingers carefully, but there is not much he can do there except apply some iodine to the worst of the scratches.

His throat is clogged up. He’s not thinking. He’s just doing. Auto-pilot mode. Switched off.

When he’s done, John grunts and brings his legs up the couch, trying to fit into the small space. Sherlock stands to give him room and helps John turn on his side. He turns the telly on, on mute, to give them some semblance of company, some link to the outside world. John groans when its white light assaults his eyes and covers them with his bandaged palm.

Sherlock sighs, digs his palms into his eye sockets and squeezes until his vision is blurry and black-rimmed. He glances towards the couch, where John’s body lies, contorted into an ‘s’ shape, eyebrows knitted together, lips pursed.

Sherlock does not know if he did good, or not-good. He does not know what else to do, what else he should have done. The overwhelming urge to close and lock all doors, black out all windows, create a cocoon of the warm, familiar darkness of 221B, of what 221B used to be, preserve whatever traces of the past he can find, is consuming him. But the traces are rusty and unreliable. Over five years old. Memories blurry and black-rimmed at the edges.

He decides to wrap John with the blanket that is usually folded at the back of his red armchair, and then places a pillow -the Union Jack pillow- beneath John’s head, too. All he has to go on is instinct. Guesswork. John mumbles at being moved.

Sherlock sits down, huddled a little further away from the couch and John, and waits.

He hears for the stability of John’s breathing, for every sigh or pained moan, for any sign of discomfort or any need.

“Sh’lock?”

It’s grainy, sand falling through his fingers.

He stands, joints creaking, and approaches cautiously.

“How are you feeling?”

John licks over his dry lips with an equally dry tongue. Water. Sherlock rushes to get him some water, supports him as he raises up on an elbow to drink two sips, and then helps him lie down again.

“I’ve been better”, John says, dragging the fricative way too much, his vowels sloppy. Sherlock’s chest swells, and then constricts as if all the air has been sucked out of his body.

He curls up on one of the chairs beside the couch, brings his knees to his chest. The position cuts his breath short, so keep his mind above water. John shifts a little, pulls the blanket tighter about him, and then groans. Sherlock waits until John’s breathing eases out and softens. His body is rocking imperceptibly back and forth as he chews on the nail of his right thumb. His left hand, shaking, plays endless, soundless scales on his ribs, as he has his arm braced around his torso; first position, second, third. And again.

***

The world is foggy as his eyes flutter open to let the dull morning light enter his indecisive irises. He can’t make his gaze focus, his surroundings painted as black and grey shadows in his mind. His temples are aching, and his heart is clenching, skipping a beat every few seconds at small flashes of scorching heat and flames, of dark figures he tries to catch, to follow, to save, before they run into the fire or fall from the precipice.

John curls his fingers tight around the rough texture of a cheap blanket, thumb rubbing the fabric carefully slow, concentrating, categorising, holding on to the sense of touch as all others have seemed to abandon him. His throat tasting only bile and his nose blocked by the smoke of a dream. Holding on to reality, persuading himself he’s not running, not chasing, not burning up.

The flashes under his eyelids slowly come to a stop and he can finally smell the faint scent of brewing bitter lemon tea and honey. All scents of home. Familiar. Safe. He’s home. ‘How did I get here?’ On the couch, he feels. The leather scratching his nape, sticking to his skin with all the sweat. He’s sweating. Too much. He doesn’t want to try and remember last night, lest all the hell comes back. It will be something embarrassing anyway.

There’s a soft cling at his side, creating a chain of echoes in his ringing ears. He dares to peer from one open eyelid, only able to make out the shape of a glass at the table beside him. Two plops and then sizzling. John imagines the small flick of the bony hand that threw the effervescent tablets in. His mind roars and it all crashes down on him at once.

***

He’s looking. Peering through the grey areas of vision. Reaching for something. Someone. Always.

There’s a touch he wants to ease into but he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know how to deserve it. He can’t accept it.

He’s afraid. Afraid it’ll catch. Like yellowish reeds, innocently painting waves with the wind through the peaceful landscape. Until destruction comes. Until the wind gathers the spark and feeds it, blows it into a raging fire and throws it away, discards it, lets it now consume instead of give birth. Gone is the soft grass. Gone is sun, covered by the black smoke. Gone is the innocence.

All that remains, is a shell.

John wrenches. He wants. But he doesn’t. The touch is not for him. It cannot be.

Stay away. Please, stay away.

***

John dropped a heavy palm on his face, muffling a groan into it. Everything seemed too loud all of a sudden. What had he done? The drinking and- Fuck.

“Sherlock?” he mumbled, unsure.

“John.”

The voice was there. John blinked, needing to make sure the physical presence was real too. There he was, as he hoped. The man himself. Blue was the only colour John could see, his eyes still clouded over. There was deep blue, silken, taking him in its waves, guiding him home. The nightgown transferring him to secret chambers, well-hidden memories of the old times. Happy ones. Of blue eyes, shining rainbows like diamonds. Crystal clear and sparkling with excitement. Laughter.

And then there was that last one. Yesterday. More like a dream. John hoped it wasn’t real. ‘Please, God, let it not be.’

“Here. Drink this.” The baritone intervened.

John looked up. Truly. The iridescent eyes were clouded over too. He frowned. Was that worry? He took the glass with a nod and braced for the bitter impact. It came and he swallowed and it was gone. But the aftertaste was worse. He grimaced, his ears throbbing.

“Thanks.” He managed. Grainy. Sandpaper.

The desert shining in front of him, leaving him momentarily at a loss of breath. He recovers, swallows, focuses on the mantelpiece of the far wall, hums to himself, reassuring, making sure this is reality again.

Sherlock is standing a few feet away, eyes fixated on scanning John’s body. Something’s off. John frowns and nudges his way through jumbled thoughts to realise that he can’t see Sherlock’s whole face. The occurrence is so rare that he couldn’t even name it. There’s a hand over his friend’s lips, twitchy, tense. John could guess he’s pressing his thumb against his teeth, maybe mouthing his nails, but... Sherlock doesn’t do that. Does he?

The effort is too much. He needs to close his eyes again, lean back.

“’m sorry...” he whispers.

Although nothing can compensate for having to take care and fend off a drunken fool that lives in your home without asking.

***

He’s being yanked. Forced to not only be touched but to touch. To destroy. He’s being pulled from the world he knows and shot into another. A heavy one. Fear hangs, and he is touching now. His fingers guided to curl, to pull. He doesn’t understand. He can’t.

Red alarms are being lit in his head. Warnings. And he’s back on the void. On the rage he doesn’t want to feel ever again. On the guilt. His knuckles are burning from delivered punches and his fingers are gripping tight against a coat collar, then aa black curled tuft. So much like the ones he’d been yearning to stroke, to brush, to lathe with soap and take care of and touch.

But it’s not that kind of touch now... it’s darker. It’s painful. It’s...

For a single moment his vision clears, and he can hear and he can see and he is in charge of his body and his mind again.

“It hurts.”

“Stop.”

“Please. It hurts.”

And he stops, numb, empty, broken. He didn’t mean to. No, he really didn’t. He’s no longer the man filled with content and self-hatred, channeling it to anger, to hurting others. He isn’t. He doesn’t want to be. He’s changed. He doesn’t want to hurt him again... to hurt Sherlock...

But that’s all he does...

Again. And again.

And again.

***

“What for?”

John hums, unable to reply. Unwilling to explain. It’s all a giant mess after all.

The next time he wakes, it’s to the straight, sharp light of noon falling from the windows. The curtains are drawn and he feels a weight lift when his eyes open to find Sherlock in his armchair, cuddled up, face turned to contemplate the unlit fireplace. John’s mind can find and pinpoint the last time he’d seen him like that, with the trembling shadows of a winter fire on his sharp features.

Now, there are no shadows, no deeply in thought expression. The features are sharper even, accentuated by the almost non-existent diet, the jawline fuzzy from the auburn over-growing stubble, the shoulders slightly fallen, teeth biting on the inside of his lips. John can almost feel them dig into his own, foggy metaphors from last night sure to make their existence known into his subconscious.

He sits up, slowly, swallowing. Sherlock turns to him. Sharp. Surprised, yet... he’s been waiting. Shame builds up and John can feel his cheeks burning. He brings up a hand, carding through his messy hair, sits up more.

“John.”

The tone is determined. Sober. John’s eyes snap, look away, then slide back again. He knows what’s coming. It’s only logical.

There’s tea on the table, warm. New. Sherlock stands and John averts his gaze, swallowing. Again. He accepts the mug before he even notices the tall man has placed it on his trembling fingers. Then, he’s sitting opposite John, with an air of decision around him. Final.

There’s some kind of update exchange on “How are you feeling?”, “Okay, thank you.” But John can’t pay much mind. Simultaneous sighs come from each of their corners. John gathers the tea close to his chest, nestling like a chastened child. His body already twitchy to get another shot at the burning liquid.

“We need to talk.”

“I know...” John whispers, hesitant despite it.

***

He’s been huddled up, cared for, warm. He forgets that he might need to throw up to be in any normal state in the morning. He forgets that he’s made a mess. He forgets that he’s worthless.

All that matters is the steady breathing somewhere near. The heartbeat, racing, that he is sure is imagining or is his own. All he needs is the comfort of one last night near him. One last time.

Things will change in the morning. They need to. He needs to. But he’ll always have this. This comfort zone to return to in his dreams. Instead of hell and fire, dessert and falling void. He can find refuge here.

“Sherlock...?” his mouth feels dry again, tongue almost tied into a knot.

“Mm?”

Mm?

‘Who’s speaking now?’ he would very much like to know. Is the real one already gone? Is the fake one already back? He’s missing both.

“Stay, will you?” he’s sleeping already. Too far gone to solve any such mystery. Taking comfort in whatever is meant to be.

Always.

“Always.”

***

Sherlock looks at him. Blankly, for a moment. John’s chest constricts because he knows that look. It’s all Sherlock. Sherlock trying to control himself, hide something. Is it anger? Disappointment? He sees the black curls fall around the so well-known face, sees the genuine attempt to say what needs to be said and John just can’t let him.

He’ll make it easier. It’s the only -and last- thing he can.

“Sherlock, I-”

“John, I need-”

They look at each other.

“You first” Sherlock mutters.

“I am sorry. For behaving like I did. Twice.” John looks at the mug in his palm. The result of yesterday’s first destruction as the china set is in pieces for the trash. “I know, this is bad. For Rosie and you. I don’t- haven’t figured out everything yet, but I know... I’ve got to... I’ve got to go. For everyone’s sake. I’ll-I’ll see Ella and maybe try rehab-”

“John.” A strangled whisper. It catches John’s attention; he looks up, questioning, his gut feeling heavy. There’s shock in Sherlock’s eyes, in the way his lips are parted just so and John’s eyes follow the curves involuntarily -subconsciously- just to make sure he gets the feeling right.

“What are you-?” Sherlock works his jaw, clearly distraught. “Why would you be going?”

“Who else should? I’m the problem, I need to stop fucking shit up-“

“-me”

“What?”

“Me. It’s me, John. The one to go. It’s me”

They both stop. Startled. Sherlock blinks, his fingers playing with a loose thread on his knee. John notices, frowns, takes a deep breath. Sherlock, too anxious to wait, takes it as a hint, dropping the bomb.

“I owe you an apology -but trivialities are scarcely of any use now. I understand my behaviour two nights ago was immature and irresponsible. It is something you should not be subjected to, especially now, given the burdens you carry. Your requirements for recovery cannot possibly be met while I am sharing your space”

John finds himself distracted by the deep tone and soothing, logical intonation. It reminds him of the old Sherlock. A Sherlock that would stop mid-stream and explain his deductions patiently. But now finds himself at a loss, taking a double take, hurting his neck.

“What?”

“What ‘what’?”

“I just... Okay. You’re saying... What are you saying?” he blinks, tilts his head to the side, shakes it, a little.

“John, I... I do believe repetitions are both needless and tiresome”, Sherlock sighs. There’s something about the way he says it that hurts.

“Sherlock you... You can’t possibly be serious”.

“And why is that?” Lower lip almost stuck forward, the expression of a petulant child. John is incredulous.

“Because... Sherlock, this is not your fault”

Sherlock’s eyebrows dance at the little wobble in John’s voice.

“What happened yesterday morning very much was”

John pauses, closing his mouth with a click. Reconsiders. How could Sherlock have any fault in that? After all, even when he got tense and angry, it wasn’t Sherlock who triggered it. He leans forward, patient. His rational thoughts scream danger. Sherlock believing in his moral code, his noble-ness, whatever, so much to think he deserved a beating, to think it was his fault every time John got angry- John shut the thought down. It was dangerous, yes, but Sherlock would see, right? He would understand.

“No. Sherlock. It was my fault. Okay? You were right. You don’t deserve pity. And that is exactly how I made you feel. I fucked up, okay? There’s no excuse for that”

“I should not have lashed out”

“I should not have lost my bloody temper like a five-year-old!” John’s voice cracks into a higher register as he falls back into the cushions. Unbelievable.

 “You are hardly to blame when I should-“

“-What are we doing?”

Sherlock closes his mouth. Opens it again, changes his mind. Shakes his head and leans back too.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know”, he mumbles. And there’s something innocent at the core of his tone, as if something obvious for one of the cases or experiments was evading him. At least it’s a step toward the right direction.

“Yeah. Me neither”

A pause. A breather.

“I am starting to have the faintest feeling this conversation is only a vicious circle”, Sherlock tries cautiously, dragging the words. It almost sounds funny.

“Yeah. On other news, you’re an idiot” at least he can take pride in saying it first for once.

“Pot, meet kettle”

Idiot.

John sighs, then inhales, sharply. He can’t let this end here. They can’t just… agree to disagree. They need to solve this. Somehow.

“Sherlock?”

“Mm?”

“I don’t pity you. I really don’t.” John feels the corners of his lips being tugged up. Just a bit. Just at the thought of how he had managed to overlook how his Sherlock, his best friend, the man he knows so well and needs to get to know all over again... How he, of course, would take it as pity.

“I only wanted to... To make up for this bloody mess”, he continues, before Sherlock can chime in. “To try, anyway. Because what I said -what I told you- I meant it. I care. I want to. I want to care. Like… Remember?” and he smiles more, feels his very heart wanting to pour into his face, his words, his hands. Because why not? Because why couldn’t they have this? Make this real? Naïve and cheesy, yeah, of course, but… “But I....I make a shitshow out of showing it -repeatedly- so I guess there’s no point. It would truly be better if... If I-”

“No”

It’s so assured and clear-cut it takes him by surprise.

“But... Sherlock-“

“No” A wall.

“But I... This is not good for you. I am not good for you”

“I thought we made my views on that clear” An immovable wall.

“Yeah, and they’re rubbish” God, is he whining?

“Your judgement is not the soundest either”

This is so familiar he doesn’t know if he should laugh or cry.

“Sherlock... I don’t want you to leave -bloody hell, it’s your home”

“Nobody is leaving” Sherlock corrects impatiently; we have changed the subject, John, do keep up. Right. His madman is up to something; has decided, and all John needs to do is wait.

Sherlock frowns; his eyes imperceptibly darker.

“You are free to do as you wish, of course. But having said that, I also need to tell you that you don’t make a shit-show out of anything”

“I don’t?...”

“No. You don’t” The words are soft this time.

“But... I...” He is decidedly unsure.

“Stay. Please”

And just like that, the tether snaps. John’s eyes widen and his whirlwind of a mind clears again. Like it did yesterday. Always. And it’s not casual and self-soothing; it’s not imaginative or too far-fetched. He can hear it. ‘Stay, will you?’ Always. There’s so much more hidden in that word. He can’t not say it back now. He wants to find out. He wants to give back.

“Always.”

***

John did have to be sick after all, a little after their conversation.

Sherlock waited for him as he made some toast to help with the upheaval in both their stomachs.

His pulse was giddy; in his palms, the insides of his elbows, his temple, his tongue, his neck. Something had happened, the scales had tipped, something was happening, changing.

First they’d been running around in circles. John refused to see clearly, how it wasn’t him, how it was Sherlock’s stupid outburst that had caused the nightmare of the previous day. John had spoken about rehab as if he were a dog with rabies that had to be put down. The memory still made Sherlock’s bone-marrow run cold.

But the way John’s eyes had crinkled when he said how he wanted to care, how it had not been pity, how he asked Sherlock if he remembered… Sherlock had seen the chance, the answer, and grabbed it, and held on for dear life.

John needed to feel he could be his good-doctor self again. Loyal, useful, caring, strong, a person to rely on… The thought alone made him glow from within. And if this is what would make John feel better, if this would give John a reason to fend off the monsters that raged inside him, then that is what Sherlock would provide him.

John had spoken as if his addiction was his fault and he could actually control it, its difficulties and outbrusts, as if he were to blame for the darkness he faced, as if his presence was a burden. And Sherlock wouldn’t have that. No bloody way.

He had a purpose now. He had a way. He could save John Watson.

Chapter Text

Sherlock puts a cup of coffee in his hand. Takes a step back.

“Oh.” John looks at the paper cup with wide eyes.

His stomach has finally decided to stop tumbling over every time he takes a step. It’s late into the day and he feels the guilt of not being a proper father for more than 24 hours setting in, eating him up. Sherlock, however, nods with eyes that are steadily encouraging him to go.

“For the road.”

“Thank...” John pauses, taking a careful sip, scrambling for time. “...you”

“You have an appointment, don’t you?”

So small, yet it means so much.

“Yes. Yes, I do.” He sighs, looks at his shuffling feet.

Sherlock lingers close. Not close enough, not close like he used to do, but stays in John’s orbit. His presence is quiet, self-contained, whatever words he means to say lingering on the edges of his fingertips, the tilts of his head, the pursing of his lips. But but it is solid enough to chase away the eerie silence eating away at John’s bones, the ugly whispers it brings with it. Sherlock is becoming his very own moon, binding the caprice of the tide inside him, guiding the waters to push, pull, find a rhythm, turn into waves, breathe.

“John.”

“Mm?”

“She’ll be here. She has missed you.”

John inhales. Holds. Sherlock’s eyes drift to the baby chair. The small head with sunshine curls is resting, blissfully asleep, a tiny frown over the small button nose. The glance is meaningful, making John swallow at his ignorance. Of course Sherlock would understand. John has not stopped feeling the iridescent gaze on him, caressing as it comes and goes in slow inspections; as if it were taking stock that everything in their surroundings is in order. Vigilant but gentle, a bird herding its younglings.

“Oh. Okay.” He can’t help but add: “You too?”

The world may have frozen for a second, but it’s a good pause. A warm freeze. Sherlock’s eyes find his again, stricken, and John only then realizes -Alert, but vulnerable to any tilt of the newly-born balance. That is where he comes in.

“Here, I mean.” He clears his throat. “You’ll be here?”

“Of course.” Time starts running again and John can breathe.

They nod to each other in silent agreement and Sherlock’s starlit gaze is enough for John to pass by the pub he frequents on his way to the bus station without noticing.

***

He skidded down the stairs, quietly. Sherlock had prevented him from getting up yet, but John felt the pit that was about to swallow him getting larger and larger with every passing moment. He missed her. So much.

Fortunately, John had persuaded the detective to take a shower after finishing lunch. John was still nursing his plate, eating less that Sherlock even, due to his hangover stomach. He reached the thin wooden door, hesitating to knock.

Rosie had been with Mrs Hudson since early in the morning, according to Sherlock: she’d been well, but he would be unable to properly care both for her and John’s hungover. John’s guilt had reared its head again, but the way Sherlock had said it -as fact and nothing else- held it in check, a little.

The door in front of him opened and John almost fell backwards by the force. Formidable woman, their landlady, as always.

“John Watson.” She glared.

“I-uh-I’m...” Her gaze was icy. “I came to apologise...”

“As you should.”

Something softened in her wise eyes and old wrinkly face as she stepped back, inviting him in. He heard the small gurgle immediately, his head snapping towards it. Rosie was on the carpet, playing with Mrs Hudson’s silken scarves, spread all around her in a sea of colour. He stood frozen, watching her little happy face from afar.

Mrs Hudson ushered him in the kitchen. He collapsed on a chair without much thought, the last straws of strength he had gathered to get down here dissipating.

“As I am sure, I have mentioned before, John” she started, not giving him space for breath, her tone pointed to a thorn’s edge, hands already dancing into delicate gestures of persuasion. “I don’t expect you to do anything for me.”

He opened his mouth to protest but she cut him off with a decisive raised finger.

“I can overlook my china set. But, for the love of God, you came back into my house, promised me you’ll help my boy get better-” her voice cracked at that. John’s gut burned with shame.

“The least you can do is- oh, John...” She shook her head, her mouth pursed into a thin line, her face turning away; she would keep her emotions at bay if they could overwhelm her, hold her chin up and her dignity intact. She did not do that, now. John wished to never see her look like that ever again, fragile and disappointed. He held his breath, kept his gaze lowered.

When she looked at him again, her eyes were filled with concern. John wondered how she already knew that Sherlock and he had decided to keep living together. If she had spoken with Sherlock yesterday -of course, she had, she knew about the china set. Then what had Sherlock told her? He wasn’t sure he wanted to know.

 

“I really hope you know what you’re doing... for her sake... and his...” Her whispers shattered the silence into icy shards; but if her tone was laced with warning, dark and foreboding, it was tempered by the weariness in her gaze.

He got up then, shoulders hunched but arms open, surrendered to her judgement, and she just slid into his embrace as he numbly held her back, swallowing; her small frame barely half as his. And yet, look at how strong she is... Why can’t he be like that too?

“I am sorry.” It was all he could say. She patted his arm, sniffling for only a moment.

“Apology accepted.”

He smiled, weakly, but before he could start letting go, she held her small trembling hands tighter around him. He felt like a child again.

“And for the record, John Watson, you’re my boy too, you hear that?”

He wanted to laugh, then. Except that she added a frustrated “But don’t you dare wreak any more havoc up there, I am not your housekeeper!”

***

John finishes his coffee on the bus, taking big nervous gulps, but soon his hands are shaking, fidgety with nothing to do except tear his paper-cup apart. He throws it away eventually, when he can’t do anything else. His stomach is calm. Both he and Sherlock had managed to eat some more before he was due to leave.

Thank god for that, or he’d be crumbling by now.

As he walks the last few blocks to Ella’s office briskly, the image of Sherlock’s encouraging smile is pressed onto his mind, keeping everything else banished. For now. He grits his teeth when he wastes energy walking up the stairs to his therapist’s floor. He wonders how she’ll take it. Not that she is supposed to take it somehow, she’s there to listen and probe him after all.

“Hello, John!” She smiles to his bitten off ‘Afternoon.’ and he almost feels like he’s there for a friendly visit. “You seem alright, want to tell me how it’s been going?”

He nods, vaguely fixating on the comfy chair waiting for him at her patient room. It’s old routine by now, him coming in to a gentle, excited, prompting professional therapist and not saying a word until he sits down. She told him once, when he’d asked, how he usually rushes to the chair when he has something important to say and wants to get it over with, how avoiding the typicalities sometimes makes him an open book and others indicates he’s going to stay silent throughout the session. This time he is determined but yet unsure and nervous; and she knows it.

“It’s been a week.” He mumbles, fingers tangling together into impossible knots.

“Indeed, it has.” She’s not pressing but he knows she is expecting his answer and progress.

“It’s... I’ve-” he winces, twists his fingers further.

“Not here to judge you, John, as always.” she smiles. “I know you’re at a point where you can manage this on your own.”

He shakes his head.

“I didn’t.”

If she is surprised, she nonetheless waits.

“I mean, I can’t. Manage it.” He adds, looking at his feet.

“Want to tell me about it?”

She’s not rebuking, not judging. Of course, John. She said so.

“I mean, I didn’t drink for five days.” He bites the inside of his cheek, glancing around nervously. “I blew it yesterday.”

“That’s a good start, John-”

“-’t was bad.”

A pause. She scribbles a word down, giving him time to relax his tensing up shoulders, let him realise he’s being defensive and self-hating at the same time. He does. He sighs.

“Tell me what happened then.”

“I lost my patience with Rosie in the morning. Threw an anger fit. Sherlock was there...” he loses the words, remembering the terror.

“I didn’t- didn’t hurt them, just... was afraid I might had, and so drunk myself to a stupor in the evening.” He clenches his fist, the fresh bandage over his knuckles stretching with the motion. He’s sure she’s noticed but he doesn’t want to talk about that at the moment.

“Sherlock found me in the kitchen. Helped me to rest, and regroup, a little. We talked this morning.”

“What did you talk about?” she asks directly this time. She knows him. He knows she does.

“We sorted out what we want to do.”

“So, you have my answer, I presume?”

He nods. She waits, pen on the notepad. He breathes.

“I want back in. To the group.”

“That’s a brave decision. Knowing what kind of help to ask for and feeling confident about it is a big step forward.”

“And the gym. And the anger management seminars. If that is...” he clears his throat, confidence in his choice being accepted wavering.

“It’s good. It’s doable. You can do that, yes.” She nods, scribbling.

John smiles, hope rising in his chest, and she somehow -like always- sees him and smiles back. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t recognize the flash of pride growing over her features.

“May I- um...”

“We can discuss the hours together, find your right balance, if you’d like?” she anticipates his question, before he has time to finish.

“Yes. Yes, thank you.” He huffs with relief and finally relaxes completely in his chair, back resting properly, feet stretching forwards as if in a recliner. His fingers are pressing against his jeans stronger than necessary still, but it’s progress. His chest feels tight with it as if he needs to shout, his muscles tingling, if still coiled, wanting to run. There is a path opened where none stood before, and all the energy that was contained and sparking inside him now aches to tread it, feel it fly past him, see it through. It can’t be contained now, a dog that broke off its leash, but at least it has a direction now. Purpose.

“It’s all about balance, you know.” She offers as a small point in an ongoing conversation. It draws him back to reality, excitement tempered, a kite slumping to the ground again. 

“I know.” He frowns, just so. “Rosie needs it. Balance. In her life and the people she interacts with” His voice trails off.

Ella hums in agreement. “You need it also. Sherlock does too.” She knows he already knows, otherwise she wouldn’t have said it.

“We do...” he contemplates. They do... John. ‘Yeah, I know... it’s not weird, is it?’

What is?

‘Saying “we”...’

No. No, it’s not.

‘We’re a family.’

A weird one.

‘You berk.’

He is smiling to himself.

“John?”

“Yeah, um, sorry...”

“It’s alright.” She hums as if amused.

He looks up, listening. She was saying something, wasn’t she?

“You have the will to find the balance in your life and mind again, so don’t worry. Rosie will have that balance too, it’s perfectly normal for a family to struggle, but you’re working through it. The last week, despite everything, proves it.”

“Doesn’t feel too much like it...” he grumbles.

“Well, when you need change, you have to work with people around you. You don’t need to press yourself for full recovery immediately. As a fellow doctor, you know that.”

“It takes time. I know.” He feels the edges of his lips tug up again, just a little.

“Time and careful planning. Never put yourself through too much at once. Take a step back, you can spread everything out as much as you need to. And if planning is too much, if you are overthinking, I’m right here. Sherlock is there too. You can ask for help.”

There is something blooming in his chest now. A small sparkle. The key is not to deal with everything alone. Under his nose, all this time. Togetherness. He could ask for help, cooperate. He is not useless, and he needn’t be afraid of needing someone else.

“How’s Rosie doing?” Ella asks after a moment.

He winces; staying silent.

“Hm. We can discuss this maybe next week?”

He nods. It is already too much for one day.

“Would you mind bringing me thoughts about how she’s doing and what she needs? We can work it out together.”

“Yeah, maybe...”

“John, it’s important to note, you’ve been doing very well, despite the circumstances. You need to guide yourself to let go of the blame and focus on her as the person she is once more. You both deserve it.”

He nods, again.

“I think I know how to do that.”

“Good. You’re feeling confident.”

He just shrugs but he does feel better. Masking it is one of his defend mechanisms. Afraid the world will see he is starting on a better road and crush him. Because that’s what fate does. That’s what the world is. Unfair. Cruel. Lurking.

They discuss about his program for now and at the end, as always, she asks if there is something more he wants to put into words. He hesitates, contemplating.

“There is something...”

She looks at him, mildly curious at the change of tone.

“Mind if I sit on it for a while longer...?” he bites on his lip.

“Not at all. I’ll remind you.”

“Thanks.”

And then off to hom. Home.

We...

‘Together.’

He smiles, like he hadn’t for ages.

***

 

Honeybee wakes a little after John goes to his appointment.

This time, she does not throw a pouty tantrum for not having spent half the day at home. She whines and extends both hands, little fists clenching and unclenching in the air in her attempt to hold him, to have him hold her. Sherlock takes her in his arms at once and boops her nose in reassurance. She boops back.

“Papa is okay, Rosie”, he murmurs into her ear. There has been a major change in their lives, and she needs to be updated on it. “You will see him tonight, I promise. He is working on getting better. It will be alright soon”

John just needed the raft of his better self; chances to be who he truly was, and who he wanted to be. It would work. It could work. In the morning, after their talk, things had been… if not normal, then better. Of course, John had been sick, and his body was worn with hangover, his eyes sunken in his face, the skin of his eyelids bluish as if beaten up, his face ashen, thin lips a pale line. But they had eaten lunch together, leftover chicken and rice, sticky and too-hot from the microwave. They sat side by side, and for once, Sherlock did not feel that shame-hot need to talk, to cover that chasm between them; John did not pity him. He was not expecting anything from him. He just wanted to be able to be John again, and Sherlock only had to let him. And he would. Of course he would. Somehow, just when he’d thought all was lost, he had a use again. Not only was John not pitying him, but Sherlock could be useful; he could help John. And he wasn’t about to blow it. Which meant he had to be careful. Very, very careful.

Speaking of, he was apparently still allowed to take care of Honeybee.

He shifts her weight to his other hip and lowers her to the carpet. He fetches her toys and stuffed animals from the baby park, and she happily begins to play with her colorful cloth blocks –the ones that have numbers, letters, and cartoon animal faces on their sides. Sherlock sits beside her. Honeybee stacks three blocks, one on top of the other – a little messily- and tries to place another one above them. The small tower topples over. He praises her on her effort, asks her how many she would like to stack, if she is perhaps trying to match them by color. She babbles to him, explaining, points to the numbers and animals she wants in her new tower. Still she doesn’t speak. Not a word.

Keeping the thought and noting down the urgent need to discuss this with John, Sherlock checks the watch on his wrist. 17.00. So… John will be back in two hours at most. In Rosie’s schedule that means that she will have eaten dinner and will be ready for bed.

He lets her play for a little more before going about that schedule. As he watches her eat –and try to feed him, yet again- he remembers John’s wistful glances toward her as he was preparing to leave for his therapist appointment. Honeybee had fallen asleep a little after he had brought her upstairs from Mrs. Hudson’s, so the two had not had much time to interact –and during the little time Honeybee had been awake, she had been both reluctant and eager to be near John, the mood shifting with his every word, gesture, change in the pitch of his voice. Even though neither Sherlock nor John would mention it, they both knew she was weary of another angry outburst from her father. And those stolen, wounded glances of John towards her before he left bore all his painful knowledge of this.

As seven o’clock comes and goes, Sherlock grows restless again. Honeybee is all swaddled up in her bunny pyjamas and held safe against his chest; his pacing up and down, and the natural rhythm of his heart calm her down and help her dose off. But Sherlock wonders how it’s possible that she can sleep now, with his pulse thrumming in his veins. The memory of the previous night’s fruitless, endless anticipation is still too recent.

It’s not that he does not trust John, or his willpower. Quite the opposite -and so his worry fills him with guilt too. It’s that he fears for him. Every road, every shadow, every stranger outside of 221B is a potential threat. Sherlock’s skin crawls with the need to protect, that treacherous need that refuses to perish.

When John walks in, there is a tired smile onto his face, warm if feeble, a dying ember’s breath. He has bags of groceries in his hands. “We were running out of milk”, he says. It’s all Sherlock can do not to collapse.

***

It feels like a journey is over.

Sherlock waits for John to freshen up a little, and then transfers Honeybee into his arms. With John upstairs to put her to sleep, Sherlock fills the cupboards and fridge with the groceries. John has equipped them with armfuls of vegetables and fresh fruit –and a heap of oranges; Sherlock has a nasty feeling about where this is going.

They eat the last of the leftovers –and a large bowl of salad which John leaves on the table between their plates with no explanation but obvious expectations. They are a little crammed, sitting so close, and their knees almost bump or brush a number of times. Sherlock is the first to notice and move his lanky legs away each time.

“How was Rosie?”, John asks.

Sherlock recounts to him what she did, how much she ate, the precise timings of her schedule.

“Did you eat anything?”

Sherlock blinks, then shakes his head no. He is on the fifth bite now, and the four previous ones are already curdled like acid mothballs in his stomach.

“We’ll work on that”, John asserts. Sherlock’s look must have been one of brief terror, because John chuckles. “That brain of yours requires a healthy transport, remember?”

“John-”

“Yeah, I know. Old bone of contention. Stubborn git” And then John smiles.

Sherlock wants to roll his eyes, but instead he’s smiling, too.

***

They have breakfast together the next morning.

It is, in its routine, quite similar to how it used to be, some days ago, after their initial talk in Sherlock’s bedroom, that day when the dark clouds over his head were full-bellied with their storm.

Only now, there is something freer and more genuine about this. The weight of the unknown expectation has lifted. Sherlock knows what John needs, now; normalcy and stability. A non-hostile, predictable environment. The safety of a cozy routine. This is what Sherlock must ensure, along with letting John feel he can stand on his feet, he can be a father, he can be alright.

It does not feel a burden on him, ensuring these. On the contrary. It was the pity that he despised, John’s guilt. He despised being uncertain, because it also made him prone to hurting John more. Now that he knows what he must do, the boundaries, and the limits he should keep himself in, he, too, feels safe.

Besides, isn’t that what he and John did, back then? At its core it was helping each other.

It is at this point in the comparison that he halts his minds’ wandering; this is the only similarity now. That, and the boundaries.

After everything that has happened, Sherlock is alright with that, too.

Working on John’s healing, not theirs, is the only way forward. All the other bridges have burned to cinders and collapsed long ago.

Sherlock’s ribs are making him uncomfortable, the result of a restless night. John instructs him to straighten his spine but keep it relaxed, that it should help. He notes that they could try purchasing an anatomic mattress and pillow, once Sherlock gets better. He speaks with concern which is genuine, even though Sherlock is poised as a hawk, prepared to trace any sign of self-hatred and guilt. John’s knuckles are still bandaged up. John’s temple still bears a faint, yellowing bruise, from where he had struck at his own head.

John is the one who helps Honeybee eat, and he cleans her up afterwards before he rushes to get dressed for work.

Sherlock watches Honeybee play as he waits for him.

“I don’t have an appointment tonight, so I’ll be home earlier”, John says, reappearing at the landing. The swoop of his silver hair is slicked back. He smells of crisp aftershave and the matching cologne.

“You two will be alright, do we need anything?”, he asks, and the way he does it is so casual Sherlock could get used to this.

It goes on for the next few days, seamless and soft and careful, like a flower trying to bloom beneath the winter soil as spring draws closer.

***

“Sherlock?”

He hums and lifts his head from his phone to meet John’s eyes. Honeybee is asleep, and so Sherlock had not been expecting John to return downstairs, tired as he had been from the day at work and from his appointment. But here he was; and there was a weariness in his features that had not been there for the previous days. Or which he had been hiding; Sherlock is not sure.

“Can we…. Talk?”

“Of course”

John takes a step closer.  And Stops. “It’s serious”

“Okay”

“If you… Want to rest or anything we can do it tomorrow-” John’s voice wavers, and he rubs at his arm.

“No. Now is good”, he says, putting his phone away and uncrossing his legs. He leans a little forward in his armchair, trying to show he is attentive but not worried.

John takes his seat on his armchair.

When was the last time?

He does not have time to ruminate, to ruffle through his memories, because John is speaking again.

“First of all thank you for… Giving me space. About therapy. I needed… I needed to settle with my decisions first before I told you about them and… Yeah, I’m ready to do that now”

Sherlock nods.

“I will have one appointment with Ella per week, on Friday. And…” He swallows. His left hand is coiled into a fist, tight. He shakes his head and tries to exhale slowly. But the fist remains.

Sherlock leans back a little, gives him room to breathe. Waits.

“We have discussed, with Ella. A lot. About… Look, the problem, with me, it’s not… It’s not the drinking. I mean, it is a problem and I will solve it, but… It’s not a cause. There’s… other things to deal with. Deeper than… Than that. I can’t talk about all of them now, I don’t even know all of them-”

“-I am not asking you to”, Sherlock interjects, his voice soft. He thinks he understands. He has known John’s struggles with PTSD, from before. But would not expect him to lay his heart bare. The two of them never worked like that. Not even when they were friends.

John’s eyes rise to his face, again, but the ascend is slow, as if he needs to gather courage for every centimeter up.

“Thank you”

Sherlock shakes his head dismissively.

“No, please. Let me… Let me express this… Gratitude, it... It’s important to me. Especially because… Because of what I am doing now. The things I need to change, they have to do with how I’ve been. Towards you, too”

Ah. John’s gaze falls to his clenched hand. He forces it to flex, with even more tension than when he’d held it into a fist. Sherlock waits.

“I joined a support group”, John blurts out. “For the…” He stops with a sigh, as if something were holding him back. “Might as well name it. We’re not children after all”, he murmurs. “The alcohol issue”

Sherlock nods.

“That’s the one thing. That’s on Mondays. I also… enrolled in a seminar. For anger management. Every Thursday at 5, after work. And I renewed a gym membership. It’s close to here. They have a program, for veterans, initially, but they accept some referrals too. It’s to diffuse anger and stress through exercise -or some other fancy wording” He stops to catch his breath. “Point is… This thing will have the chance to be out of me”

“Okay. Thank you for letting me know”.

Sherlock wonders how come Ella let John try so many things at once, when he has a full-time job, and Rosie. It is a demanding program, a freight train of one. But John seems to cling onto it, to need it. Sherlock tilts his head to the side, observing him. John is nervous putting it into words, even though he has waited for some days to speak about all this with him, has had the time to think his decisions over. Yet with every word he winces, as if he were admitting his faults, his wrongdoings one by one, all over again. Sherlock does not doubt that John has taken up the ‘getting better’ cause like a flag-bearer in war. But he can’t help but worry that some part of John’s urgency stems from the same anger that had him pulling at his hair, striking his head, then speaking of his condition as if he were a leper, and had to be blamed for being one in the first place.

John frowns, as if he were expecting a reaction other than calm acceptance. When he speaks, Sherlock understands he has taken it as doubt.

“I know it’s not easy and all, and that it takes work. And I… I’m prepared to do it. I want to. I have to. It’s… It should never have been like this, and I… It’s not me. I know you’ll be quite right not to believe me, but… That… That fucked up joke is not me. I don’t want it to be. It… It’s my responsibility, and my fault, and I’ll change it”

“You aren’t. It isn’t. But I know you will”

John stops, panting. “Sherlock I…”

“If you want us to name things like adults, John” he says, his voice calm, but not patronizing; stating the facts, not explaining as he would do on the cases. “You have recently developed a mild addiction to alcohol because of a number of difficulties and struggles-”

“-Sherlock, I don’t want pity either, you know” John’s voice is low.

Sherlock looks at him. And when he overcomes the surprise at being interrupted, he truly looks; looks at the way his left hand twitches, how his jaw is clenched, his eyebrows drawn together.

“You think I pity you?”

“No. Right. You wouldn’t”

“I wouldn’t because you don’t deserve pity, John”, Sherlock says patiently. “The situations you have found yourself in would be enough to break any lesser man”

“Yeah, don’t do that”, John shakes his head. His lips are slanted into a fed-up grin.

“Do what?”

“We have talked about this before. I am not the man you think I am, Sherlock bloody Holmes”, he sighs tiredly.

“Okay. Fine. You aren’t. If that will make you feel better”

John was not expecting that. Sherlock can see it in the way he starts a little, his eyes widening. He opens his mouth to object, but Sherlock is already speaking.

“If it helps, I don’t think you are anything other than John Watson”

John sits back in his chair, rubbing a hand across his face.

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“What it says”

“Yeah, but you’re doing it again”

“No. I am only offering you the facts. You are John Watson”, Sherlock continues steadily, “and what you are has quite literally speaking led to us being here, today, having this conversation of how you are taking steps and decisions to improve your life”

John snorts, but he is beginning to yield. The lines on his face soften.

“And just how much does that matter?”, he says, his voice wavering. 

“It matters enough”

Chapter Text

“John, stop.”

He punched harder, the sack kicking back with brutal force for his aching bones. The man behind it held firm, rolling his eyes. He let him have at it until the soldier was spent, doubling over his knees, burning with thrills of energy rushing through his spine. Almost just like he had certainly felt deep in those barricades in the god-forsaken desert.

“You know better than to stop me, Charles.” John’s dark voice chimed in the man’s thoughts, the use of his whole name provoking something dangerous to flash over his gaze.

John straightened up, ready for another round of blows. Charlie backed out and then forward, taller and imposing.

“Sometimes, John Watson, I wonder…”

“What?” John snapped, brushing sweat from his growing moustache with the back of his palm.

“Don’t you know what ‘enough’ means?”

John looked at him. Blank. His knuckles cracked. Charlie smiled with a tilt of his head.

“We’ll work on that.”

***

“I’m home!”

Sherlock looks up from the kitchen table, where he is gathering Rosie’s spoon and two bowls into a small heap.

“Hello, John”, he says softly, turning to deposit the cutlery and bowls in the kitchen sink. Honeybee is in her baby park, babbling as she plays with her cloth blocks and pink elephant.

“How are we, today?” John walks towards his daughter hesitantly. Sherlock washes the first bowl as slowly as he can, watching over his shoulder.

Honeybee again stops babbling when she sees her father; but does not pout this time. She is holding her elephant tight in her arms. John reaches to brush her curls away from her face, and she pushes the elephant against his arm. Sherlock stays still, as if careful not to scare a feral cat and her kit when they are trying to accept each other again after being contaminated with human contact.

John kneels in front of the baby park and smiles to his daughter, patting the small elephant’s head. Rosie giggles.

Sherlock breathes in relief and begins to recount Honeybee’s schedule and activities for the day; when she ate and what and how much, how many times he changed her diaper, with what she played and when, for how long she napped.

“Oh. Lovely”, John says after a small pause. Sherlock moves on to washing the second bowl.

Honeybee yawns and sighs. “Sleepy, are you, little love?”, John coos. 

Sherlock smiles, with the safety that John won’t see.

“Come on. Let’s get to you to bed” John grunts a little as he has just lifted her up and her weight registers on his tired muscles, “-there we go. Say ‘goodnight Sherlock’!”

Sherlock turns around. Honeybee waves, and he waves back. “Goodnight, Rosie”

He waits until John’s steps have reached the landing before he washes the spoon with swift movements.

***

Enough.

John finds the word confusing at best. Such a small, insignificant concept. Why would it matter? How could it ever matter? The first time Ella asked him if he remembered any time he could feel content with himself, he had almost blacked out. Why would he be terrified of such a word? Contentment? Enough?

Frankly, it always scared the shit out of him. Thinking of himself that way. Because he knew the horrible answer to the countless questions. And he also knew all the times that didn’t qualify for them too. Enough was never enough for him. Nobody thought so, so how could he ever? How could he be content with something the world didn’t deem worthy of contentment?

Enough. As much as it is required, needed. Never more and never less. He can’t remember the last time enough was good enough for him. The lines blur and curl and get muddled in the way. Maybe, if he was confident enough -there it is again-, if he learned to feel good in his own skin… Maybe sometimes enough could be good enough. But it wasn’t. He wasn’t.

He wasn’t that kind of man.

Self-assured and mentally steady? Boosting himself up? No. Not at all. He was dependant. He was the kind that could potentially fall into addiction -which he had done-, the kind that couldn’t face his demons.

He was the boy that tried and bled only to get a slap on the cheek and a broken lip. The boy enduring the screaming of his parents and never seeking attention because he knew all he could get was a shouting match an inch away from his ears.

He was the teen getting a punishment for his failings if he hadn’t done enough, indifference when he had done more than enough and a sneer when he did just so. The teenage mind that started blurring the lines and decided that he was never going to be enough, he should never keep himself bound and restrained. The young man seeking freedom without an end, cutting all lines and ropes dropped in front of him and charging for something -anything- that he already knew would never feel enough for him.

Never enough.

Now, that’s a concept he can relate to. Even when he masked it, his life had been about it. Even when he overcompensated to feel better, deep down all one could see were those words in capital letters. He sees it now. Of course he does. But he feels it’s too late. Too late for this knowledge to matter. Too late for him to change.

There were too many freedoms he abused only to find them lacking, to judge himself as a lesser man again and move on. There were too many memories he has blocked and crossed off as his idea of a revolution broke down somewhere between university and army training. They became constant reminders, constant shame, constant opposition of how he had been told the world should be since he remembered existing.

He can remember how surprisingly above-it-all he could act while studying his bachelor. How confident he could show himself be, all about change and being free, considered handsome man of the gang, loving to have fun, take on challenges and be the party animal. He can grasp for foggy details or maybe even remember clearly some of his first experiences, but he doesn’t want to. He leaves it a blur, doesn’t dare to turn back. Not yet. He’s not ready.

It had stopped being fun. He remembers. The façade and his truth merging with slow steps, making him the man he aspired to be. It was too much. He had been scared. He had put an end to it himself. He’d gone to the army. Another man. Rigid.

It had been a nightmare he couldn’t have predicted. John wouldn’t mind the toughness of army training, if only he could stop himself from looking over his shoulder. Mid-twenties, just decided to change his ways, extremely free with them before, a bit too much, addictively, had just landed on a minefield. It was withdrawal. From himself. But also, thrusting him into a past he didn’t want to relive.

With shoulders hunched, careful, calculating, clever gaze, he had been searching for the signs. The blow to come. His childhood repeated. And it came. Many times. Reinforcing the walls around himself, closing the shame and insults deeper than he could care to reach ever again. Because he needed to take it down a notch. Accept orders. Follow the line. A straight line. No more missteps, wrongdoings, breaks for freedom, fun, drinks, friends. Because he needed to behave, man up, endure the pain -as if he hadn’t done that already-, don’t be such a poof, a nerd, educated, a doctor.

He would never be enough. Faced it and done with. No matter the hook-ups he acquired and the power of life, of masculinity, of fluidity. No matter the praise, the good marks, the degrees, the promotions. All he needed was another slip-up to be deemed less.

Of course, the actual war had taken his mind off it. He didn’t have to try and earn this distraction. It was there, every morning, with the ground shaking, the shards flying, the kick of the sniper against his shoulder. It was there. Easier. Accessible. The moment he opened his eyes, he could flee into duty, into racing death to the finish line. Addictive. Once again.

He loved it too much. The cockiness he could pull, the boosts of confidence, of adrenaline, of pleasure. Risking it all while saving another. What could be more rewarding? Bonus, he could feel free again. Be himself. No one cared. It didn’t matter. What mattered now was him as a life, as a human being, as a number among thousands, useful but expendable at the same time. Who he was, how he felt… why would it matter? He wasn’t questioned or ridiculed or mocked. He could be it. He could be John and matter.

Addictive and dangerous. Deep in the desert, with only some drops of water in his dry throat, with death and life so near and so far, in the vast burning landscape... that’s where he realised. And loved it all for it. Fiercely. Unconditionally.

Then, it was over. In an instant, all taken away. All it took was a bullet crashing through flesh and bone. It seemed he had reached one of those high points where life finds a way to get you back down again, balance it all out once more.

The pain wasn’t worse than the heartbreak. The nightmares weren’t but signs of longing. Crippling longing. Crippling desire. He was aching. The feelings of inadequacy quadrupled with its absence. Absence of feeling enough no matter what. Yet, people told him it meant he couldn’t continue.

He had been robbed. Robbed of the only life he wanted. Caged. Unable to walk. Unable to feel. Empty. Alone. As he was always, but in a new world that couldn’t fit him in. Desperate. It was then he first met Sherlock Holmes. Intriguing enough of a mystery to stop him from saying his last angry and painful ‘enough of this’ and shoot himself in the head.

And now Sherlock Holmes is telling him that he is enough. Or what he is trying to do is. Enough. As much as is needed. As much as is required. Just like Sherlock Holmes had always indicated -if not said aloud-, from the very beginning.

Enough.

***

“Morning...”

John turns around, arms outstretched in an attempt to soothe sore muscles. His shoulder pops and he can’t keep back a surprised sigh at the small shot of pain through his old, aching wounds.

“Oh, hey, morning” He mumbles, self-conscious, trying to shrug it off; fighting his urge to raise a palm and rub at the burning spot under his t-shirt.

His eyes take in Sherlock’s form, standing at the doorway, striped pyjamas and silken robe on, pale eyes fixed wide on the heap of breakfast at the kitchen table.

“You know we are just two people?” Sherlock takes a hesitant step inside the room, elegant fingers blushing over a barstool chair.

John huffs a small chuckle, turning to the sink again, scratching a stain on the steel with much unnecessary fervour. Dry kitchen brush clasped so firmly in his fingers that he can see his own knuckles turning white at his frantic movements.

“I woke early.”

Silence.

“Didn’t have much to do. Take your pick.” The hiss of the hard brush against hollow metal continues.

Sherlock doesn’t respond. John can feel his piercing gaze between his shoulder-blades, wonders if it could one day trail lower. He bites his lip, shaking his head, pressing harder against the poor sink.

He wants to talk, to breathe, maybe even explain. But what can he say? The depressing conversation about what recurrent nightmares are plaguing his sleep? Or the itch in his gut and fingers for something stronger than water, tea, coffee or milk? The horror of him fixating over cleansing an already spotless kitchen in order not to relapse or do any other harm, is spread in clear evidence all around them.

No. He can’t talk about any of it. It all had to wait. Had to be left alone for now. Remain words unspoken. A few more to join the rest flying in the air around them. Just for a while longer. Until he was ready.

“Thank you.” Sherlock just speaks; soft, as he sat. As simple as that.

John breathes, grateful he didn’t point it all out right there and then.

“Don’t worry about it.” He pauses, pursing lips as he examines his handiwork, straightening up, hands on his hips. He must make such a sight. He ducks back into it.

“You? Slept well?”  

“John.”

It’s firm. Just there. Thrown into the air from tentative lips. John takes a breath, stops his manic scrubbing, fingers coiling and uncoiling over the brush. He lets it go, tilting his head to glance at his friend.

“Sorry.” An apologetic smile.

Sherlock straightens and gestures to a seat opposite him as if nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. John takes it with a huff of a held back breath. This man will always - always! - surprise him.

“So... slept well?” He repeats, nervousness effectively reined in with a simple utterance of his name by that brilliant mouth. He knows you too well.

In lieu of any proper reply there is an almost comical shrug of the shoulders. Sherlock serves himself some scrambled eggs. John scratches at the jeans he’s already changed into, contemplating, before reaching to take a fork as well.

“Moderately.” comes the delayed response.

They exchange a flitting look. Understanding passing between them. John takes in the dark circles under Sherlock’s eyes, his haunted look of acknowledgement for John’s nightmares even if he doesn’t mention it. He almost reaches up to touch his own face, sure he can feel the taut, dry skin splitting under his fingertips, just like the one of the man opposite him.

It shouldn’t be news, but it hits him like a wave. Sherlock is tired. Not the kind of tired John usually remembers fondly. The kind that has him slopping on the sofa as an adrenaline come-down settles in after a chase in London’s streets. Neither the hyperactive detective kind, not getting enough sleep in the middle of a case, brilliant enough to occupy his mind through endless hours of wakefulness in his early thirties without a hint of slowing down, finally dozing off anywhere he could find with no care for the world. It’s not the kind of tired he was when he couldn’t sleep well because of his body still trying to recover -although that might be part of it even now.

John is frozen. Because Sherlock is having bad nights. Sherlock is having dreams. Sherlock has trouble sleeping and John hates the fact he can’t -for the life of him- think of a single thing to help him. Sleep medication strictly not allowed and all kinds of restrictions and tips of how after addiction the body needs to find its own rhythm again, floating hatefully through his mind.

“Maybe…” he starts.

Sherlock snorts.

“John, please. Tea is the only beverage I can still freely enjoy.”

John unexpectedly chuckles. The low rumble usually joining him -in good days bygone- doesn’t this time, but when he glances over the table, Sherlock is at least breaking a tiny smile.

“Alright, alright. We’re not cutting the tea.”

Sherlock hums as they both dig back into their food.

“I would, if you truly think it will help.” He speaks a while after and John tilts his head, smiling.

“Nah. Don’t think it would.”

Why would they cut their one old mutual shared joy anyway?

***

There is clatter coming from the bathroom as John settles Rosie in her baby chair, making sure she feels comfortable. John glances towards the corridor, but nothing appears to be fairly alarming, so he turns his attention back to his little girl with a smile. She looks away, a pout already set over her tiny -rose like her name- lips.

“Difficult morning, huh?” He kneels down to look at her. “I know, sweetheart, I know.”

She has been brooding all morning. John brushes a stray curl behind her ear and she kicks her little legs excitedly, not rejecting it. ‘Well, that’s progress.’

“Will you eat for Papa, little rose?” he waves the spoon around for a moment. It’s been an hour and she has been refusing to eat since Sherlock left them on their own -which is from the moment John walked it with her.

He stops trying, sitting back on the carpet, lost like a child, biting his lip. One look from his daughter and he’s sure she’s imitating his hurt expression. He relaxes his muscles and tries a smile again. He knows it’s important and he wants to do right by her, but Sherlock…

It puzzles him. John knows Sherlock loves her and he takes excellent care of her when John is gone, occupied at the clinic or any other of his new scheduled responsibilities. On one hand, he’s clinging on the tight program, depending on its efficiency to be able and cope. It’s second nature to him, reminding him of his army days, keeping him intact and never leaving his hands empty while at the same time not letting him spend all hours at home with Rosie, as that would be pressing on both of them.

She pats a hand near her bowl of food petulantly, stealing him away from his thoughts. He raises the spoon again and this time she opens her lips, willing.

“Oh, my girl, that’s it. Very good. One more?” He fills the spoon again and the action calms them both as he ruminates.

Every time John is home, Sherlock retreats, leaving them father-daughter space -or so John supposes. But still, it’s a weird kind of retreat, one that feels forced and accepted at the same time, one that speaks volumes. John worries and he knows, whatever this is, he needs to fix it. They need to. Sherlock is her godfather after all and above all else, he’s family. Rosie’s little family. She’s going to need as much as she can get.

The clatter from the bathroom continues. Rosie twitches, agitated. She’s careful when she looks at him, a little frown over her small nose.

“All is fine, little rose, Papa is going to check on Sherlock, okay?” he brushes her cheek and she nods, making his eyes go wide. Of course she understands, John. Do keep up. “Alright. Um, coming right back.”

***

John’s steps are slow ad tentative over the creaking wood of the corridor. His ears are tuned in for any developments from the bathroom. There’s shuffling and a quiet grunt and John’s feet accelerate, his hand raising to knock.

“Sod. Off.”

John opts to open the door immediately at Sherlock’s whiny voice coming from somewhere closer to the floor than he’d like.

“Sherlock?” he blinks.

Sherlock is kneeling on the floor, arm stretched under the cabinet, buried to the shoulder, his face is flushed pink and he is now biting his lip, wide nervous eyes fixed on John. His curls are a mess again -even though he brushed them after breakfast- and it is obvious as hell that the position he’s currently in, makes his breath hitch.

“Sherlock..?” John’s eyebrows raise. Sherlock huffs, looking down, mouthing at his lower lip with newfound intensity.

“Ye-es.” He tries to drawl but a different intonation, due to his bruised ribs being compromised, makes it through the word.

John gets down to his knees, arm around his friend without a second thought.

“What are you doing, genius? Come on-”

“But, John-”

“Nope. Up you get, first.”

“Ugh…”

“Oof… Christ, how did you manage-”

They manage to stand up, one way or another. Sherlock’s shoulders hunched. John’s aching. One silken belt from Sherlock’s dressing gown suffering an accidental removal. John offers it and Sherlock takes it without a word.

“So, what on earth fell down there?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?” John frowns.

“Just checking.”

“For…?”

Sherlock brings an arm around his ribs and fidgets. John takes a look around, noticing the open higher cabinets, the messed-up pill bottles, the spread-out expedition of a whole lot of them over the sink.

“Looking for something?” his tone soft, John tries to catch Sherlock’s gaze but fails.

“Yes.” Sherlock clips.

“Okay… May I help?”

Sherlock glances up in a mix of surprise and confusion. His gaze aimless, drifts around when he meets John’s.

“It’s my pills.”

John could swear later on that sounded too much like a whine of a wrongly accused child.

“That’s fine. Which ones?”

“Those.” Sherlock points at a post-it note on the mirror.

“Can’t remember where they are?”

Sherlock shakes his head ‘no’. John’s stomach clenches, an unpleasant feeling settling in. How could Sherlock not remember? He wouldn’t delete that information, he knows he needs it.

“I-I need to find them, need them to be in a safe place, Rosie must not-”

John reaches forward, squeezing Sherlock’s bicep, his eyes never leaving the taller man. The touch makes Sherlock to stop rumbling nervously. John attempts a reassuring smile.

“I’ll help you look. It’s all fine. We wouldn’t leave Rosie in the bathroom alone, even when everything is secure.”

John’s steady -doctor- voice takes effect as Sherlock breathes, deep and steady. He nods.

“Okay.”

They find it behind an old box for aftershave in one of the cupboards. Neither have any idea of how it ended up there but now everything is secured at the higher medicine cabinet as always. Sherlock goes to rest alone for a while and John goes back to Rosie, who apparently soothed by the quiet, has been attempting to finish her food. He smiles at her and she responds in kind before focusing on her little spoon again.

John sits on the sofa beside her, concerned. Quite an eventful day already and he still has Ella later.

***

John is pacing up and down the sitting room. Sherlock glances up from his phone -Twitter is being quiet and boring, but at least it’s something to do while Rosie is napping after lunch. John came home from work a little earlier to spend some time with her before his appointment with Ella. Now it’s only half an hour until he has to go.

It has already been a week.

A week since John got drunk and Sherlock found him on the kitchen floor. A week since John asked him, in his sleep, to stay. A week since that awkward conversation, where Sherlock had seen that perhaps this, staying together, was a better chance for John than them going their separate ways just yet.

It has not been easy. John is often nervous. Nervous and sometimes restless, compulsively cleaning, or cooking. Sherlock has hovered a little further away, doing his part, and letting him navigate the new experience of therapy -therapies, actually- with as little to trouble him as possible.

Sometimes, John talks to him about it. Others, he doesn’t. Sherlock accepts words or silence equally and knows not to ask, not to press him about it.

Of course, there is still the issue of Sherlock’s physical recovery. His cracked, struggling-to-mend ribs still hurt, even though the bruises have mostly healed. The stitches on his forehead have been absorbed, as they were that convenient kind of stitches, and the hematoma in the white of his eye has faded to a soft pink. His cut lip has only a small scab left over what used to be a wound. He may be on fifteen different pills daily to keep him going until his immune system has established some semblance of control. But even to his health, there is a routine. John knows what to do, how to care, how to help. Nothing unexpected or serious there to make him worry more. Well, bar that incident in the bathroom earlier today. Which was stupid on Sherlock’s part, really. He feels ashamed at the memory, decides to make sure he is never found in such an embarrassing state again.

Honeybee is a different matter. They haven’t talked about it, but Sherlock can tell that the relationship with her is a sore point for John. He tries, and yet often gets rejected, pouted at, ignored. Progress may be slow, but still it is progress. Like a few nights ago. Her offering her elephant is a sure sign of trust.

John keeps pacing.

Sherlock can hear him breathing through the nose, huffing from time to time, as he walks over and over his solitary route; couch-armchair-couch. His left hand is twitching at his side. John tries to subdue it by flexing and coiling it alternately. It doesn’t help. There is a frown over his eyes, but he tries to make his step purposeful, controlled. Step, step, step, step, turn. Again, and again.

Sherlock stands and walks to the kitchen, without intercepting John’s anxiety parade for one. He flicks the kettle switch on, retrieves two mugs, two teabags from the box on the counter. There is ample space for it, and other boxes of spices, containers for rice and pasta now, without microscope, meth lab and experiments taking up space.

John stops pacing.

Sherlock pours water into the mugs, lets the teabags steep. Adds milk and some sugar to John’s, keeps his plain. He places the mugs on the kitchen table and takes a seat, blowing on his tea to cool it.

It takes a little while, but John steps closer. Takes a seat opposite him and reaches for his mug. His left hand is steady.

***

You made a vow. You swore it.

The aquarium light swept over the agonized face eerily. The voice was low. Breathy. And the pair of deep-sea eyes seared through him, burning his flesh to the bone, leaving behind the empty husk of who he truly is.

He wanted to stop it. To say something, explain, say sorry, say it wasn’t his fault, that he didn’t want to… He tried to speak, but his voice was scattered with his gasped breaths.

He felt small. Warped up. But as much as he tried to shrink away from that gaze, he couldn’t.

And the knowledge that it had all been futile, useless, in vain, grew in him, strangling every other thought. The pretense, the mask, the armor, it was all being stripped away. It was inevitable.

John saw.

Sherlock felt it; the last small, frayed tether that connected them together, snap. And though the bullet had not pierced him, the hole in his chest bled, bled, and bled again.

John saw; and his gaze morphed, and shifted, and hardened until it was just one of all the other gazes. Because now, finally, Sherlock was to him what he had been to everybody else. Because now John saw that everybody else was right.

Redbeard left, Sherlock.

Sherlock’s eyes snap open. It’s dark in his room, dark and silent. Only the small light of his phone charging gives any semblance of contact with some part of the outside world. He can’t move. His own breaths weigh him down, sealing him up as if in a tomb.

For a moment it all stops. It is the moment where the roller coaster ride has reached the highest point and is preparing for the plunge. It crashes down on him; the sound of his heart, his lungs, his thrumming veins. He gasps, scrambles for a way out.

He sits up, kicking and pushing the covers away. He has sweated through his white t-shirt; the winter chill turns into needles against his skin. He is breathing as fast as if he’d run for his life -and he feels that in a way, he had.

He groans, curses under his breath. Brings both palms to his face and squeezes until his vision has swimming black dots inside, tiny tadpoles in the blurriness that fills his eyes.

Sleeping pills are not allowed. At least an herbal soother, then. Something!

He is tempted to sneak downstairs in Hudders’ kitchen and rummage for something of the sort but knows it’s a bad idea. It could offset him. And his body would be unable to handle another relapse.

Sherlock brings his knees up so that he could rest his elbows on them, bone against bone. The high of the panic is beginning to ebb away. Every part of him it vacates is left weary, heavier. He is overwhelmed with the need to do something, to feel that he is still alive.

He gets up on soundless bare feet. Throws his blue dressing gown on, hiding the trackmark scars on his arms.

In the kitchen, he switches on the cooker hood light. It’s a comforting, warm orange. He basks in it, for some moments, closing his eyes. Then settles on the kitchen table, looking toward the sitting room. The curtains are drawn, not letting streetlight in, so the outline of the furniture is only barely there, another layer of shadow.

Sherlock tries to breathe, to concentrate on the rhythm with which his chest swells and falls. It doesn’t work well, because it leaves his mind too much space to wander. Without the rigid constraints it used to have, it is difficult to check where it can go, impossible to rein it in.

It drifts back to the few times his breathing had been joined by a deeper, steadier one. The times he and John had shared a room, or a bed, for a case outside of London. Times counted in the fingers of one hand. All of them times he’d fallen asleep to the lulling comfort of John’s body being so close to his own. Criminals and serial killers might be ruling the world, for all he knew, but in the darkness of the spaces they had shared then, Sherlock had felt safe; as if he were a child huddled in the illusion of the impenetrability of its tent against the vastness of the forest. All these times ended too fast.

He wonders if John remembers these times, too. And what he thinks about them, if he does.

His dream returns, then, as if in vengeance at the audacity of his train of thought. He sees the angry, accusing stare, feels everything the two of them ever were for John drain away from him, and sees John’s eyes cloud over, the world winning inch by inch as they saw in him a stranger, a freak, a psychopath. Because it was his fault. He broke his vow when he had promised. Once again, he was not enough.

He shudders. And he knows then that John does not remember about that handful of nights. And that if he does, there is nothing of importance in the memory to him.

Sherlock’s eyes are hurting, but the tears won’t break through, as if they’re air-bubbles trapped beneath the ice. His face feels disproportionately hot to the rest of his body, the way it burns when he is ashamed. His fingers curl into loose fists -the left has begun to tremble.

Selfish. He is only being selfish (as always).

John is staying with him, after all. Allows him to look after Honeybee (most probably despite being at least that little bit afraid Sherlock could defenestrate her or do something worse). He is helping him with his health, with keeping 221B clean and orderly. He is being kind (remember how he helped you in the bathroom when you were being an idiot?). Shares breakfast and dinner with him (which must be extremely tedious, just think about it). All this despite everything Sherlock has done, despite everything he is. John is not obligated to show interest and offer care. John does so because it makes him feel better. It rejuvenates him, helps him. This arrangement has been created to aid John in recovery, after all (it’s not about Sherlock and said Sherlock should stop acting as if it is already). Sherlock’s role is to accommodate and facilitate this. John and Honeybee are not bound to him. When this arrangement ceases to be convenient (which of course will be soon), another will be sought (And, of course there is no reason for that new arrangement to keep including him)

He feels angry because it shouldn’t hurt, but it does. He should appreciate. It could be worse. Now at the very least John does not pity him and is not driven into this by guilt. So why can’t he just let it go? Why can’t he just be happy?

Besides, Sherlock has accepted John is permanently lost to him (remember?). John was noble enough to save him from Culverton. But not even he could be noble enough to feel Sherlock mattered more than that (no one could be). He did not visit him in the hospital again, for Christmas or New Year’s (why would anyone want to see a drug addict in the throes of withdrawal, anyway). When Sherlock was allowed to return home, John had agreed to have a ‘shift’ in the meagre troop of people who would come to see Sherlock for the first few days to make sure he was doing okay (and was not tempted by the sweeties), but Sherlock does not know how this was arranged, or by whom -or how and why John had agreed (most probably because there was no one else to fill a gap in the schedule).

The thoughts won’t stop. A film stuck on the VCR, rewinding over and over before it reaches the ending, its tapes uncoiling and sticking to the machine like spilled innards. Over and over.

It won’t stop.

The full-bellied clouds above his head release their rain. His chest feels tight, his lungs stiff, and swollen like balloons. He is trapped in his body, his mind. They can only offer him the same knowledge, the same input, time after time, when he’s stuck in a loop and all he needs is to see himself from outside, from above, from somewhere else.

And every time he tries the thoughts are there, beating him back to his hamster wheel.

He can only feel like a child, complaint making his chin tremble. ‘What did I do? What did I do?’

The answer is always there.

Redbeard left, Sherlock.

Chapter Text

Dawn breaks over London. A lazy flicker of light has John waking with a start; his throat too tight to breathe. It’s quiet, the rustle of his blankets as he sits up being the only sound in the room. The morning light has gentled out in the few moments it takes him to orient himself, dulled by the usual London clouds of late January. Rosie’s crib is illuminated by a faint halo, placed as it is closer to the window, giving him some semblance of familiarity.

He closes his eyes, meditating over his breathing for as long as it takes to deem his rhythm normal again, and gets up. There is certainty in his steps as he walks over and places a clinical palm inches above his little girl’s nose and lips. ‘Sleeping fine.’ Good. John brushes his fingertips over the small forehead filled with messy, sunny curls and smiles. Sometimes she’s so quiet, it frightens him, making him long for the sleepless nights of her first months. But he knows, she’ll be alright. He’ll make it so. He’ll always be there for her from now on.

That done, he has no reason he can think of justifying him being so tense. Again. It’s only when he paces around twice -without any particular purpose- he realises exactly how unsettled he is. John looks at his twitching fingers, contemplating. Rosie gives a small but louder sigh. His muscles relax that infinitesimal bit. He rubs his cheek, scratching the stubble that should probably be called a beard by now -because that’s what it is and he is avoiding the admission for days- and it hits him.

Silence.

His body descends into autopilot, battle-weary tension seeping out to be replaced by needles pinching his every muscle into numbness. His mind travels to a time far gone, to 221B empty and silent. Not the silence of impending doom, but the one after it. With dust hanging in the corners of his vision, with a forever unoccupied armchair opposite his own, the one he looked and looked and looked at, trying to will the man who belonged there back into existence.

His mind whirls around.

Stop.

He has stepped down the stairs without noticing. His nails are digging hard into the tapestry of their corridor. Theirs. ‘Ours’. There’s light coming from the kitchen. Faint. Orange. Small. He’s not alone. He breathes. You’re not alone. ‘Of course, you were always there back then. You’d know.’ John.

He steps into the kitchen doorway, eyelids fluttering madly, blinking, trying to distinguish any movements through the shadows. The small light of the cooker looks too much like a fire for his liking, flickering as he blinks again and then looks away, always at the edge of his vision.

“Sherlock?”

Two eyes, shining towards him through darkness.

“That you?”

John reaches for a light switch when the shadowed figure doesn’t move nor answer. He dares hope this is not a dream. That he’s not back... back when anything resembling this would most certainly be a dream. Back when Sherlock was-

The overhead light blinds him. He can hear a quiet grumble from the table’s edge. This isn’t the place or time for his recurring nightmares to be surfacing. Sherlock might need him. There’s pain. So... not a dream. Of course not. John, you have a daughter, how could that be a dream? ‘Right. True.’ He’s bitter. At least they can agree he could never be a father. He never wanted to be one. How could he possibly imagine it? His head is still in the clouds of his dream world, apparently. He needs to shut it down.

“Sorry.” About the light.

Yes, that’s Sherlock, crouched over the table. John looks at his watch, a sigh of pure relief inadvertently escaping his lips.

“Early bird?” He goes for a smile, feels he can breathe again.

“Mmph...” Sherlock looks away.

John takes a step and settles in the nearest chair.

“Hey...” A gentle whisper. “Couldn’t sleep?”

Sherlock glances at him, scowling. Then nods.

“Okay. Alright. That’s fine.”

Silence. Sherlock’s fingers play frantically over his ribs as he curls into himself more. John decides not to comment or rebuke the posture, quenching his worries about Sherlock’s ribs for now.

“Do you mind some company?”

Sherlock’s teeth dig into his lower lip. He doesn’t reply. His eyes cloud over. John pats the table with his fingertips and gets up, casually flicking the kettle on, walking to the living room and opening the curtains, allowing what faint light there is to help with the atmosphere around them. He’s no stranger to Sherlock’s lack of sleep, sulks or silences. He can handle it. He knows how easily bored his best mate can become and frankly, it’s about time, despite Sherlock’s need for recovery. Still, John wants to break through to the reason behind this one. It feels different although John doesn’t know in what way. And in any case, he knows how to give Sherlock space while keeping him close to reality, so if it proves difficult to break through the surface, all John needs to do is what he once did best. Be there for him. Be his friend.

“Sherlock?”

The man startles, turning to the soft sound. John takes in the tightness of his shoulders, the wide eyes. He had zoned out. Something screams at the back of John’s mind. ‘Better not dig in this one.’

“Do you want to come over here?” John points at their armchairs. “Might as well have an early breakfast?”

Sherlock gets up, reluctant and shaky. John is at his side within seconds reaching for his arm but Sherlock takes it away, straightening up, composed, and walks to his chair, to which he flops down with the elegance he always managed to portray. John looks on with a fond shake of his head. Maybe he hasn’t forgotten how to do this after all. Maybe they haven’t forgotten how to be who they were. Or at least, guide themselves back while going forward. Maybe they can be who they want to be now.

He gets on with breakfast, lost in thought. He fries some eggs and scrambles the rest, toasts some bread and leaves it plain, knowing Sherlock likes to spread his own butter. Efficient and quick, John has the tea done and ready along with scones -cut but not buttered, yet again- and marmalade on the tray, by the time the streetlights outside turn off to let the day commence.

“Thank you.”

John looks up. The scents of fresh breakfast and tea have brought some semblance of colour on Sherlock’s cheeks, although his voice is rough with disuse. He’s pleased to note the dark cloud hovering over his friend’s eyes has eased. He just looks tired now. Resigned.

“It’s alright, Sherlock.” John places the tray on the round coffee table before sitting. He takes a sip of his tea, nodding for Sherlock to reach for his cup too, which he does.

They spend some time in companionable silence sipping tea and Sherlock even starts nibbling some eggs, legs curled under his body, plate on his lap. John takes a plate with two scones on, their gazes locking for a fleeting moment. John gives an encouraging nod and they look back on their plates again. Understanding is passing between them with every gesture. Pity is non-existent, as it should be. Companionship and genuine care are highlighted. John hopes Sherlock feels it too.

“Rosie’s lucky.”

“Oh?”

“She’s sleeping like an angel.” John elaborates. His little girl being the only one able to get some proper sleep.

Surprisingly, they both look up from their plates at the same time, both thinking about little rose, peaceful in her cot. John smiles and gets blinded. Because Sherlock’s answering smile is small but powerful. Bright like the sun. Or as he would say if ever commented upon: A mirror of the sun. A mere reflection of light. But for John that’s impossible to believe and has been since forever. Silence descends again, broken only by the soft clings and clangs of cutlery on plates.

“Actually...” John settles back, swallowing a mouthful of egg and toast, taking a split-second decision he’d been meaning to for days. “I have some news.”

Sherlock doesn’t speak, but he lets his fork down, expectant. John gets a faint impression that if he spoke, it would be breathless.

“Nothing bad.” He reassures. “I’ve just been talking to Ella. About Rosie. And her life.”

Sherlock tenses. John merely smiles.

“She’s in a more stable environment as of late.” He glances up, unsure. “She finally can start feeling at home.” Sherlock is owling at him, not saying a word. “I mean... She finally has one. A home. Of a more... permanent nature?”

“Yes. Yes, of course, John.” The deep voice is quiet but sure, almost reverent. If you want.

John swallows. They have already discussed this. This is your home too. Sherlock. His Sherlock, his best friend, had said that. Sherlock wants them here. Both of them. ‘Well, you do love her. I know that much.’ He thinks with a secretive smile.

“John?”

John startles. Sherlock has left his plate on the tray again, his leg twitching. ‘Christ, I’ve been making him anxious. Fuck.’

“Yes, so she can feel she has a home now.” He rushes.

No insecurities. Not this time. His focus should be his little girl for this discussion. Not them. When Sherlock feels better, they can discuss them again if they want to. He looks up. Sherlock’s expression is soft. It’s not how he used to look when John repeated something obvious. His sharp gaze is mellowed and his lips are parted, breathing. He’s waiting. There’s wetness on John’s lower lip. His tongue has decided this to be an appropriate time to feel through the chapped skin apparently. He tears his eyes away with effort.

“My point is... We talked about her being a late talker. You know, she should have started by now.” He can’t hide his nervousness, of course.

“John.” Sherlock scoffs, lounging back, suddenly lively. “I know. But I doubt the issue is developmental. Her processing capabilities are obvious-”

“No, I know!” John interrupts. “I know she understands and- Just, hear me out a moment.”

Sherlock frowns, nods.

“Ah... sorry... um.” John regrets his defensive tone. “I mean, we mainly talked through my own feelings on the matter. My thinking process and guilt... inadequacy as a father and-” He stops.

“Oh.” Sherlock’s expression shows exactly how much that makes sense and John can’t help but smile with a small shrug.

“Yeah.”

“But you’re- as I have told you before, John, you are doing yourself a disservice-”

“Yes. I know.” John’s eyes sparkle with fondness at Sherlock’s matter-of-fact tone of pure belief in him. “Ella is no expert on that field but she suggested going to a child and speech therapist if it would make me feel more at ease. That way we can also be sure...”

Sherlock is pressing his fingertips between his lips, a permanent frown over his nose, muscles so tightly knit together John almost voices the desire to kiss it away. It doesn’t take much else for John to realise how worried Sherlock actually is about Rosie.

“I’m sure she’ll be okay. We can also run some basic check-ups if the doctor suggests we need to.” He gives a reassuring smile but it does nothing to persuade Sherlock apparently, because now he’s biting at his pads.

John leans forward in his chair, eyes kind and intent on his friend’s.

“Hey, Sherlock... everything okay?”

“Mm? Yes. Fine.” Sherlock responds hasty, turning to curl the other way towards the mantle.

John sits back, not pressing.

“You know... Rosie is okay. Finally, I believe she’s beginning to be more than okay.” He pauses to see if he caught Sherlock’s attention again and continues. “And even if there was something wrong, we would always love her, wouldn’t we? We would make sure she had all the support and love she needed. Mm?”

Sherlock is owling at him again. John finds he quite enjoys making him look like that. ‘Adorable.’ Shut up. ‘Cute.’ Especially when it seems to make him stop nibbling at his fingers and fidget, hands now resting on his lap, neat and steady. John is smiling and for the second time this morning Sherlock smiles back, small but blinding, and they are soon back to finishing their early breakfast, John going down to gather the morning paper at some point, Sherlock putting effort in eating a few more bites than usual, waiting for the familiar little murmurs through the baby monitor together.

***

Sherlock finishes the last of his tea. For the first time in a long while, the emptiness in the flat is not absolute. It is the emptiness that will be lifted at the end of the day; with a small smile that will appear at the door, with the deep-sea eyes that will look at him, and see him. It does not matter that such endings to silences are temporary. It does not matter that the presence he longs for is not there for him. It only matters that he is not entirely alone; John is there. Honeybee is there. They are in 221B every night, in the room above his, safe, healing. Sherlock had not fully realized what this could mean, until the early hours of the morning.

He had not stayed up all night in the kitchen for John to find him. John had found him anyway. It was sudden; he was drowning, and then there was a raft, and it guided him to gulp for air and wade to shore. The clouds, the hamster-wheel of thoughts, they were still there, gnawing at him until he was raw. But it was two realities at once, as if his mind was torn in two: one half trapped in the whirlwind of fear and doubt that told him the man in front of him would be better off if Sherlock was dead, the other half reaching feebly for help. 

John had found him and stayed. He had made tea, told him it was alright. He had kept him company and eaten breakfast with him. They had talked. Not about why Sherlock was bluer than blue, which he despised himself for being unable to hide. But they talked about Ella, and Rosie. They talked about something they shared. There was relief in this. As there was relief in the absence of scorn or pity. John had stayed. It was nothing beneficial to him in any way, and yet he did. He had smiled. As if they were friends again.

The prospect alone makes Sherlock dizzy. ‘He’d have me back, you think?’, he dares wonder, treacherously enough. But thankfully there is no reply to continue that dangerous line of thought. He should appreciate what he already has anyway. He has quite a lot. And there is comfort to be found even in the way things are now; a comfort in the realization that as long as John stays, the wakes will have a chance to be broken, the pauses started again, the darkness a reason to be resisted.

Still, this presence of John has left behind an imprint Sherlock can’t fill. He almost did not want to see him leave for work, despite the fact that it meant his time with Honeybee would then begin. He can’t help but anticipate him. Clinging to it, to the wait to see John at the door again as if he were returning home -had he not said so, that Honeybee had found a more permanent home? Perhaps John could feel the same too- kept the endless droning on of his mind at bay, helped him stay afloat. It also makes him restless.

His phone buzzes. His fingers are itchy; it has not done so for a while. With a glance to make sure Honeybee is okay in her baby park and will most probably not need his attention for a little while, he retrieves the device from the pocket of his dressing gown, passes it from shaky left hand to impatient right one. 

It turns out it was only a new email, about a new feature in his email app.

Dull, eh?

Sherlock rolls his eyes in agreement and is about to turn the screen off, when a weird curiosity gets the better of him. He sits back in his armchair, with his free arm bracing around his ribcage to ease the movement, and checks his messages. His lips are pressed, pulled inwards a little, his forehead creased. Turns out there was no need to be prepared; nil. Zero. Nothing at all, an empty list, save for one unread and unanswered ‘good morning’ from a few days ago, when John blacked out at breakfast. Sherlock huffs.

There is a need growing in his lungs, forbidden in its urgency, in how it makes his heart kick. He wants to talk to someone.

But to who?

Not to John, certainly. It could tip the fragile balance between them. Besides, John is at work; the last thing he needs is seeing a message from Sherlock and worrying that something might be wrong with Honeybee (Why else would Sherlock be contacting him). They are not what they used to be. And even when they were, more often than not his messages were unwanted annoyances. Especially during the last couple of years. Invariably answered with “what do you want, Sherlock”. He had soon learned to want nothing. Nothing at all.

The sun that had begun to struggle through the clouds loses the battle and retreats. Sherlock presses the contacts icon, waits as it loads. There is only but a handful of contacts remaining. He chews on the inside of his cheek. Which one?

He recoils from his brother’s name as soon as he imagines the sneer on Mycroft’s face. “Asking for favors now, Sherlock?”, he would think, or type, or both.

The edges of Sherlock’s lips drop. He remembers a younger, chubbier teenager, sneaking into his room, remembers hushed whispering. “You have to help me, Sherlock”. Mummy and Daddy were asleep, so they had to be careful. They must not upset Mummy. He sees Mycroft climbing onto his bed, them huddling together in the small space. Sherlock was maybe seven, then. Mycroft was fourteen. “I have a secret, Sherlock, but I can only tell you. You mustn’t tell Mummy”. There was urgency and fear in brother’s words, always, so he looked at him wide-eyed, and waited. Every time his brother would hurry down the corridor and slip into his room at night, he listened. He listened to how Mummy was not pleased with Mycroft’s grades, to Mycroft’s plans. “Mummy said I should be a lawyer, said I have the mind for it”. He listened to Mycroft’s stories from public school, to how the classes were, to how his classmates were. He listened when Mycroft told him, his breaths catching and his face red with the audacity of saying such a thing out loud, that if he were to be into anyone he would be into boys, “but don’t tell Mummy, she will be very angry, please!”. That was in 1987. Before Redbeard left. Before Mycroft started to think he was stupid. He thinks back at Mycroft’s nervousness, Mycroft’s trust. Their warm bodies cuddled in the dark, and him fitting into his brother’s embrace, his brother’s heart against his ear, Mycroft murmuring into his hair. Sometimes, if Sherlock could not sleep, he would tell him stories. Sherlock never told Mummy. He remembers hugging Mycroft tight and telling him that it was okay, and that he loved him. He wonders if there would be someone with his brother now, reading Mycroft’s texts over his shoulder “I’m not lonely”, his brother had said, after all. Sherlock sees that someone rolling his eyes or grinning at the little brother’s nuisance of a text, as Mycroft would sigh and shake his head, murmuring “The price I have to pay”.

Sherlock folds the memory away, back into the cupboard it came from. Memories like it used to be stored in his old room, which is now buried in debris, bricks and cracked paint, shattered glass and wooden shards. It’s a miracle how this one survived the disaster.

He scrolls further down, lingers on Lestrade’s name. It’s the one he never used to hesitate to contact. The one that would always come rushing to his side if there was need. But Sherlock can’t help with a case now, not even a cold one. Why else would Lestrade want to receive a text from him? Sherlock scrolls down again.

Molly. The name stands out, almost beckons. Sherlock knows she’s not pleased with him, knows he has let her down (four slaps too many, the message got through). But it will just be a text. Harmless. He just needs the safety of the reply’s ping, the knowledge there is someone at some other end of the network and that the two of them are connected a lighthouse’s beam in the dark. She was one of the people who would come check on him, during his first days out from the hospital. Maybe she will understand.

He composes a message swiftly, presses ‘send’; Will you pass by? – SH

He had forgotten how the wait for a reply can feel. Empty, languid time, a snail crawling on a blade of grass that bends with its weight.

Honeybee babbles the way she does when she wants to call him. He hurries to her side, presses a kiss to her chubby, pink cheek. She shows him the new tower of blocks she has made -four stacked this time- and the more he stays the more he is absorbed, until they’re playing together. He hands her the blocks and she stacks them, starting new every time a little tower topples over. Every time she points on the numbers or letters on the blocks and he names and pronounces clearly for her.

He remembers John’s decision. How little bee should be examined, tested, to make sure she is alright physically, to determine the reason why she is a late talker. He swallows. Honeybee giggles as she has managed to stack the fifth block and gives him a wide smile. He whimpers and takes her in his arms, folding them around her like a cocoon, soft inside and hardened outside, against the world. He breathes her in, as if he could never smell her again after this moment, memorizing the way she feels, baby-soft, into his embrace. She is tiny, compared to him. As tall as his knee, maybe. The thought of strangers’ hands on her… of a stranger’s voice describing her, defining her, seeking for something to call wrong in her, a stranger’s eyes looking at her just like any other baby, unable to see her smiles, the way she clutches her pink elephant when she sleeps, how she always tries to feed her baby cream to everyone she sees instead of eating it herself. He shudders, curls his entire body around her. No-one will call Honeybee a freak. No-one.

She whines, not understanding the sudden outburst of emotion. Even though she loves being cuddled and coddled, she now picks up on the strange hue in his mood and is worried. Sherlock hurries to place her on the mat again and smile to reassure her. She pouts, boops his nose in silent question. He boops her back, affirming all is well, and she squeals and rushes to her toys again.

His phone buzzes. He remembers what he had been expecting and fishes for it hurriedly, his pulse galloping in his throat.

Molly has replied.

Sherlock, this is not a good time.

He feels his left-hand tremble; his right is numb. He swallows, reads over the message again. Types.

Then some other time? Whenever is convenient for you, of course. -SH

No, Sherlock. No time is going to be convenient anytime soon.

Cold seeps through his skin, crawls over his stomach. Honeybee demolishes her little tower and begins to search for the cloth blocks that have animal faces on them.

Then maybe a call? When convenient. -SH

No, Sherlock. What I meant is, I won’t pass by, and I really don’t want to see you or talk to you, right now. You have used and wasted too many chances. I do not plan on giving you more. I hope you are getting better, but please don’t contact me – M. Hooper

Sherlock blinks. Shivers spread in his throat, his chest, his arms, his legs, the back of his head. He realizes his jaw is clenched, his eyes narrowed. He breathes, eases the muscles as much as he can. He blinks some more, chews on his upper lip. Time is distended again, the sounds zooming out of focus.

Honeybee calls for him again. He puts his phone away.

He will not delete the message. It is better to remember it. A fresh cut is sharper, stings more. Lingers. Scars can be forgotten.

***

Sherlock jolts awake, his breaths sharp knives into his lungs. He does not want to recall the jumbled images he saw, and thankfully they are already receding from the forefront of his mind, carried away with the tide that leaves behind a rapid heartrate and a constant sense of fear. He blinks, trying to bat away the darkness, and collects his knees to his chest, hugs them close with arms that are like empty logs. He preferred the void. He so preferred the void. 

He sighs, slowly, reluctant to part with so much air at once, afraid it will make him light-headed. His exhale catches in his throat, like a half-formed sob was nestled there and latched on the air leaving him. Sherlock fights past it, through it. Until his breaths flock together way too fast, and his back is shaking, and he is gasping, panic bubbling as it rises in his chest. 

Breathe. Breathe.

He sees John, awake in the middle of the night with him, smiling just a little, just knowingly enough. Feels the warm cup of tea in his palms, the warmth with which it was given. Thinks how maybe if he goes to the kitchen again, John will find him. Will join him there, solid and patient, and wait through the night terrors beside him. There is no time to rationalize the thought. He grabs it and holds on for passage through the storm.

The breaths ease. The heartbeat slows down. The last faded images that haunted him retreat, like hissing snakes scared away by fire. 

When his breaths flow uniformly again, he tries to rationalise what he's doing. He knows that it's insane to give in, even so little, to the same treacherous sentiment that has torn him apart. But he can't help it. He can't. Dignity be damned. He needs him; he needs John. Sherlock knows his place, his role, the pain burning in the second hole in his chest. And he still needs him. Is that being selfish? He’s not making John stay, he does not expect that John getting better will change anything between them. He just acknowledges that truth that has been with him since the start, or at least, since a very long time ago. If that is selfish, he thinks he can afford this type and amount of selfishness. It harms no one, anyway. No one other than him, but that does not matter. He can bear it.

Sherlock gets up, pulls his dressing gown on, and walks to the kitchen. The curtains in the sitting room are pulled to each side of the window; no need for a light then. He perches on his armchair and closes his eyes. There is a possibility John will come. But even if he doesn't, the possibility alone keeps him warm, lulls him with its anticipation. 

When he closes his eyes, he finds himself in that in-between; not awake, and yet not asleep. He is drifting. His body is being rocked gently, as if he were floating on his back at sea. In his dream, his eyes fly open wide, and he flops to his belly with a clumsy splash. His skin is dry with brine, his lips salty. He knows where he is.

Sherlock looks at his body. His arms are his, but then, not exactly, his legs, his head, his body, the same. He is still him, he is still Sherlock, but compressed, smaller. All the energy that now oozes from him like blood from an open wound is caged inside the confines of this version of his body, thrashing against his muscles and bones and blood vessels, vibrating.

He looks around; it's not dusk or dawn, night or day. It's somewhere indefinite, in-between, but the light is enough to twinkle on the shimmering, rolling hilltops of the little waves. There is no shore visible, and the water is a deep, aquamarine blue, the depths unfolding endlessly beneath him, layers upon layers -and yet he does not feel threatened.

Sherlock fills his lungs with air and dives. He swims into a cold current, does not open his eyes as he kicks and pushes and strives to move forward. He does not question where he needs to go; he just needs to move, to not remain here. The water weighs him down, there are bubbles breaking through his lips. He breaks to the surface for breath, his hair slicked back, away from his face.

He keeps swimming, broad, firm strokes, his head turning alternately from one side to the other. He sees the inside of his arms; pale, freshly marked with mauve and green and yellow, with thin red lines, darker, black punctures. He feels his hair sticking to his shoulders. He sees his legs, shins thin as sticks, thighs lean with wiry childish muscle. Then his chest, hairless and free from the bullet hole. Oh. Yes, he is certainly sure about where he is.

He tries to locate the sun, but wherever it is at one moment, he cannot tell. It seems to follow his gaze, making navigation impossible. But Sherlock needs to move. He needs to drift with the current, chase the riptide, seek, chase, find... But with every stroke the water hardens around him and his arms flail, his feet hurt from kicking foam. Instead of being propelled forward he is only fumbling in the dark like a newborn cub, the waves pushing and pulling and prodding him until they have him right where they want him. He struggles against them but grows tired, his muscles screaming with fiery pain. He stops and turns on his back, floating again, arms and legs akimbo. The ocean is not his friend, but not his enemy, either. It's there, every time, there to be crossed and discovered, but every time he tries he does not have what it takes to reach its end, to see beyond its orange and purple horizon. 

Sherlock wakes with a start. Barely half an hour has passed. It seemed like eons to him. When he shakes his head, his is half expecting wet curls to cover his eyes. He scans his surroundings, squinting to recognize the shapes in the faint light. Now that 221B is almost entirely empty of books, of experiments, of equipment of any kind, even of old case files, there is not that much to take in.

John is not here yet. Maybe he will not come downstairs at all. Sherlock rubs at his eyes. The dream has both tired him and unsettled him. There was no falling involved in it, but it feels like a drop to reality now; Why would John come down, anyway?

Sherlock stands on weary legs, wooden knees. Takes the walk of shame that leads back to his bedroom. With the knowledge of the insanity that he will be back here again next night. And the next, and the next. Because that is all he knows how to do. Because that is all he can do. Why fight it anyway? This ocean is stronger than he is, too.

***

“So, tell me two emotions Rosie’s situation makes you feel right now, John.”

“Guilty.”

He didn’t need time to consider. She waits.

“Because I’m not a good parent.”

“Give me a number to a hundred of how much you feel that. Over time or right now.”

John shifted in his seat.

“Whichever you prefer.” A kind smile, as if they were just making small talk.

“Right now... about eighty.” He gritted his teeth.

“And... the other one?” She prompted.

“Inadequate.”

“Why?”

“I never learnt how to be a proper parent anyway.” Fists scrubbed against jeans, then fingers uncoiled and he rubbed them and pulled at them, self-conscious.

“You didn’t have appropriate examples in your own childhood, so you believe you’ll pass it on.”

“Yes. It’s intergenerational, after all.”

“I’m glad you’ve been reading those books again, John.”

John shook his head as a smile bloomed on his lips at his therapist’s intellectual guess. He had been reading them. Again. He remembered the first time, him -anxious- going through stacks of books while M-... Rosie’s mother was pregnant. He remembered the worry twisting his gut while she all but sneered. ‘We don’t need all that crap.’, ‘Can’t we just be parents?’, ‘It’s that easy, you know.’, ‘Just let it be for once.’

John had buried them somewhere. Shame had always been his sore spot. She always knew how to rile him up. Always knew how to manipulate, control, trigger. It was bloody unfair. Especially because she knew. She knew why he had those concerns. She knew why he never wanted children. Of course, after she shot Sherlock... and after he left her alone for almost six months, proving he wasn’t fit for the job... It all became worse. He never looked at a single book again.

“John.” She spoke, an understanding expression on her face. “I’m afraid I’ll need you back here.”

“Yes. Sorry.” He shook himself.

“No need.”

John nodded, taking a breath.

“Would you like to share?”

“I’m not ready yet.”

“Alright. Back to it, then.”

“Yes. Um... I’d say I feel inadequate about... right now... Ninety per cent.” He swallowed.

“So, let’s see what we can do. Would you like to give me three statements on both emotions? Facts, not speculation.”

He hummed, wondering if Sherlock would like this process.

“I feel guilty because I never wanted children. Because I gave up on educating myself about parenthood.”

‘Because I let her mother deal with her while knowing she wasn’t loving or initiating communication or any contact -when she deemed to be there- and it’s my fault. It’s my fault. It’s. My. Fault.’

All this had to wait. He pursed his lips, blocking it out, burying memories and thoughts to the ground. Ella looked at him expectantly.

“Because after her-... her mother died, I left her with anyone that cared enough and didn’t make sure she got the love and care she needed and deserved from me.” He was panting.

Ella gave him time. Precious time he needed. She took everything down with a steady and slow hand on which he focused all his attention to manage his breathing. He was still reading her writing upside down. It made him smile. He hadn’t changed. He was still the man shooting a serial murderer to save a remarkable detective he had just met. Sherlock was right. He could still be John Watson. Who he wanted to be.

“Alright. Go on.” Ella prompted, noticing his tender smile and his faraway gaze going laser focused in a mere second.

“Inadequate. I feel because I have succumbed into alcoholism, just like my father. I think it proves my parenting skills to be non-existent, enforcing the intergenerational theory.”

“Facts, John. Only.”

That’s too bad. He so wanted to talk about Harry proving the whole thing on her own. It would be a welcome distraction. He needed to get it out of him sometime soon. He was pissed with her after all.

“Yes, um... I let our connection as daughter and father deteriorate and most of the time, I don’t know what to do or how to fix it. I feel my-... my nightmares and bad moods and- everything, really, do her harm.”

“Good. Can you identify actions that disprove those feelings? As many as you want this time.”

“Um... I-ah...” He stuttered, taken off guard at the U-turn this conversation suddenly took.

“Take your time.” She reassured him.

***

This time around there was darkness. Void. He blinked, passed a palm over his eyes. No difference. John’s body was numb. Restrained. But free. The sensation all too familiar but there weren’t flickering lights or echoing emblazons around him. Just a veil of thick black.

He blinked, suspicious. He knew this was a dream. Which was strange and terrifying. He was dreaming. Moving made no difference. There were no walls or floor. Nothing to touch. To feel. Only... a faint smell of tobacco. Tobacco ash. Sherlock’s favourite. Although forbidden.

John breathed, taking in scent molecules to last him hours. He hoped they could last him months. Years. It was familiar. It was Sherlock. It was home. He smiled. Chapped skin tugging at nerves as his lips curled. Was this a good dream? He didn’t know, but it was pleasant enough for now.

Of course, the lightness of limbs was concerning but he had forgotten it. Until there was a slash through what he presumed was his dream’s sky and the world was lit.

He ran up stairs. Miles and miles of stairs. Always fixed on one spot. Fire right behind, scorching his feet. Not again. Not again. Not again.

He stood on a ledge. The ledge. Cement one. High up. At least the stairs weren’t for nothing. He panted in smoke, choked, breathed, fell.

Fell. Arms outstretched, like an angel. Falling.

It was fake. All fake. He knew. He could feel it wrong. He could see himself. He could see him. Both. He hadn’t done it. He hadn’t jumped. John hadn’t. He’ll never know how falling is like. That’s why he knows when it’s fake. A dream. A nightmare. But he hasn’t known before. He never knows when he’s dreaming. Not until now.

His hair moves with the wind, tufts slapping his face. The fire falls with him. Follows. All to one goal. All to one point in space.

Sherlock. No.

But he’s dreaming. But he’s awake.

But it’s fake. But this is real.

The fear is real. Engulfing. Asphyxiating.

He can’t breathe and prefers choking on smoke.

He falls on thin ice. He bursts. Water rushing in lungs.

He wakes.

. . .

John muffles his pants, face buried in his duvet, teeth biting his sheets. He’s trembling, aching and the night is quiet again. Oh, so quiet he might cry.

He longs for the constant murmur of excitement, of experiments in the kitchen, pacing over hardwood floors, leather sofa or armchair creaking with a familiar body flopping on them. He longs for, for, for-

Melodies.

Melodies played on a polished violin. Stradivarius. The best sound if wielded by a master. And what a master indeed Sherlock was... Vivaldi, Bach, Paganini, Mendelssohn... John remembers. He longs. For the sweet transformed notes by Sherlock’s hands to guide him to sleep. For the nights he wasn’t afraid because Sherlock would be downstairs scribbling a composition. His repetitions lulling John deep under, well past the point of dreams.

His breaths are quieter now. His chest raising and falling. Steady as he remembers. As he wonders. As he longs... Oh, that sweet Tchaikovsky he used to play more and more over Rosie’s crib those first months and the ones following. When John didn’t appreciate it. When M- “Mary” had left him with a baby alone. When John was angry...

His fingers reach to bat away a certain wetness slipping down his cheeks. He misses it. He misses Sherlock. Steadfast Sherlock that would grab his bow and instrument and play for him in the dead of winter. So sure. So gentle. Why hadn’t John seen ‘gentle’ before now? Who could play such emotion if they did not feel it? Who could write as such?

John wonders. He wonders where Sherlock’s violin is stashed. He wonders if Sherlock has tried, if he feels his hands are steady enough, if he hated himself for not being able to play all those months, to practice, to compose. He wonders if he will play again, if he will fight past the barriers of being rusty, if he wants to. He wonders and he hopes... Hopes to hear those notes again. Floating in the air. Brimming everything they touch with emotion. Maybe he could ask... Maybe for Rosie... Maybe a lullaby... Maybe just to see those shoulders curve just so, shirt stretching as the virtuoso hugs his most precious possession close, places the bow with an elegant hand, and sways...

He gets up, sweaty. He has let his mind wonder too far, too quickly. Brushing a palm over his hot forehead, John tiptoes down the stairs, throat parched for a glass of blessed water. He serves himself in the dark, gulps it down and breathes, standing there in the quiet of late night.

Soon, he discovers a second rhythmic breathing beside his own. The curtains are drawn closed, the only light coming in is from the tiny window at the back kitchen-wall, not even the cooker light is on. John serves two glasses this time. He feels his way to his armchair and sits. He’s not afraid. He knows whose breaths he is hearing. He knows how deep it sounds and how long Sherlock normally holds it.

He can see him now. A faint darker shadow, curls highlighted by a thread of light escaping between the curtains behind him. John offers a glass and Sherlock takes it, eyes more used to the dark than John’s. He keeps a nightlight in his room upstairs for Rosie and has the heavier curtains always drawn open, not to mention Sherlock’s some years younger advantage and constant training to spot everything he ever needed in the dark.

It’s too early for breakfast this time and John can’t find courage in himself to speak yet. Sherlock doesn’t try either, so they sit. Counting breaths in silence. Reassuring each other with their presence, waving goodbye to loneliness, processing dreams and nightmares away, forcing cravings and addictions out the window. Just because they are sitting in the dark together. Just because they have each other.

Chapter Text

“The big ship sails on the ally ally oh, the ally ally oh, the ally ally oh.” John’s raspy voice sounds tender and the tune gets carried through 221B in the quiet hours of a winter London evening. The noise and constant engine hum of the rush-hour gives way to a tentative start of an intense nightlife in particular neighbourhoods while Baker Street itself belongs to the easy and normal closing hours, to Madam Tussauds’ visitors dispersing through the surrounding streets since 4pm, to taxis driving lazily past Speedie’s in an attempt to avoid any late traffic and big roads filled with buses, bursting with people from all ethnicities, looking for potential customers in alleys and late-open pubs.

A small hesitant giggle rings in the air. John enters the living room, hands full with a bundle of his little girl. He sits on his armchair, getting them both comfortable and grins. His eyes shine as if his daughter’s happiness fills the air with sparkles, creating a halo of light around her bouncing sunny curls.

“The big ship sails on the ally ally oh.” John sings and Rosie sits back at his bouncing knees, clapping her thighs on the rhythm like a total expert.

Sherlock is sitting by the desk, laptop on the morning papers. He types slower than John ever remembers him doing before but he has stopped now. John shoots up a glance, curious.

“On the last day of September.”

Sherlock is looking at them with tentative raised eyebrows. John shrugs. ‘Yes, I can sing, you big git.’

Another giggle resonates in the space between them and the sparkles turn into fireworks. John beams, back at Rosie. His sole purpose to be the instigator of that sound again. He’s missed her so much. Missed her happiness. Missed opportunities to make her smile again.

“The captain said, ‘It will never, never do. Never, ever do. Never, ever do.’”

She answers with a high-pitched hum. His ears almost perk up like a dog’s. What was that? Is she singing? ‘Oh, thank god for that!’

“The captain said, ‘It will never, never do.’”

Hum and voice become one as the identical blond and silver heads move from side to side together and John’s heart races proudly. ‘She is singing!’

“On the last day of September!” A pause accompanied by giggles from both, has John’s eyes searching for his friend’s across the room.

Sherlock isn’t looking anymore. John’s brow furrows. But then… he sees it. His eyes. Sherlock’s eyes are sparkling. It doesn’t matter that his face is so close to the screen, trying to appear focused. Soft light is making his pale skin glow, sharp shadows accentuating his hollow cheeks and John can fucking see it. The corners of his lips trembling. Muscles tugging up and down. Alternating. Indecisive on where they need to stop as if getting mixed signals from Sherlock’s big brain. All the signs are there for John to find and devour with pleasant surprise, because Sherlock… his Sherlock. Sherlock bloody Holmes, is trying to hide a smile!

“The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea, the bottom of the sea.” John bursts into a serenade with a smirk, Rosie hopping on his knees again, gracing her father with the delight she’s still inclined to hum with him into higher notes and quicker rhythms.

“The big ship sank to the bottom of the sea.” Their tone too cheerful and their smiles too huge for the song’s lyrics.

“On the last day of September.” He finishes deepening his voice in a tease; dragging long round notes, resembling a poor imitation of Opera.

She giggles -‘Again!’- and he gets her up his chest, stands and throws her in the air. Oh, how such simple joys of fatherhood he has rarely let himself feel before. In fact, he isn’t quite sure he has done anything like this with her. It has surely been ages since she last acted so carefree with him. Like the child she was. Not afraid.

It has been a good day. For all of them. Despite Sherlock’s and John’s early start due to nightmares and insomnia. John catches another glimpse of Sherlock’s gaze drifting towards them. As soon as their eyes meet, it’s gone. Instead, Sherlock appears to examine a point on his screen with intense focus, but truly... John can’t be fooled like that anymore. Not when it comes to Rosie. Certainly not by Sherlock. The man has always been practically smitten with her. It is a wonder John has managed to ignore it before…

“Sherlock?” he calls, tickling Rosie’s toes as he holds her, on their way to the kitchen. “Joining us for dinner?”

Sherlock’s head snaps, surprised at being addressed. John turns, securing his baby girl on her baby seat and she pats his face in a playful manner, trying to get a hold of his nose. He lets her, getting down on his knees to accommodate the angle, and she squeezes his nostrils closed.

“Lala- hmmm!” She nods her head, babbling a tiny melody.

“The big ship sails-ow” He tries with his nose closed, chuckling; snorting. “On the ally ally oh!” John pants a breath, voice getting muffled by the nose-hold.

Rosie releases him with a fit of giggles and he pretends to lean back on his heels exhausted. Sherlock is still looking, a perplexed frown over his straight nose. John smiles, lopsided, and motions his head to the table.

“It is dinner time, isn’t it? Rosie, tell Sherlock, please.”

Rosie grabs her small spoon, already laid there by John earlier, and shakes it through the air like a sword. She babbles and points it to Sherlock’s direction as well as John’s with a questioning sound. John shrugs at him. ‘Can’t ignore that, mate. She’s too cute for you.’

Sherlock glares. Shut up. Then mellows, getting up. John thinks he can still see faint lines around his mouth’s edges, as if he’s trying not to smile, but he’s not sure. He hopes eating together is alright... As it always was. Once.

John serves their food, pleased with himself, ruffling Rosie’s hair and hums their little melody as she keeps waving her spoon around like a proper little maestro. ‘Look at that!’

Sherlock drums his fingers over the back of a chair before deciding to finally sit. John sees -observes- but doesn’t comment or press. He fixes Rosie’s night crème. She has started to eat bigger pieces inside her food so whenever John has the chance, he leaves her fresh fruit crème thickly blended, as well as her vegetables and other food, but at night her meal is mainly consisted of milk and some soft cereal, ideal for her stomach not to be heavy during sleep, so the paste is thinner than her other meals throughout the day.

“More like a pirate ship, innit?” He thinks out loud as she pokes his hand with her spoon, glancing up at his best friend.

“Syllables barely fit in.” Sherlock mumbles, hesitant. His immediate backtracking comes as he fixes his gaze on the table.

John actually stops and considers, a hand on one hip, the weight of his body on the same leg, tilting to the side.

“True. I could never be a poet.” He shakes his head with a huff.

Sherlock peeks up and John sits at the head of their table, beside both his daughter and friend. They eat in silence. Sherlock methodical, bites small and even, arranged and organised on his plate as he kills time between mouthfuls. John watches but doesn’t count; he trusts him. Rosie chaotic at first but quieter as John reaches to help her, taking a bite on and off himself until she’s finished. He goes back to his food then and she plays with the spoon again, less energetic now. She has stopped babbling and he gathers she’s tired and full.

It’s pleasant. Sitting everyday together. Homely. Spreading warmth through John’s chest. He would never give this up for the world. He wishes everyday is exactly like this. He knows it will be soon. They’ll work on it. They are working on it. He believes in it.

He waits for Sherlock to push his plate away. A known signal by now that if he eats anymore, he might be sick. They don’t talk about that. Not yet. John has, once, with Sherlock’s doctor. He was a mess then but he remembers how conversation about it, at the exact point Sherlock tries to fight it, can be triggering. Sherlock has talked with his doctor too, of course, and by mutual unspoken agreement they haven’t breached it between them yet. John wants to leave him time.

When Sherlock does, John gets up and picks Rosie too. She goes willing, nestling at the crook of his neck; sleepy.

“Do you mind..?”

Sherlock has already gathered the dishes and is about to get up and wash them too. John smiles. He knows how Sherlock values being left chores. It’s part of the ‘no pity’ rule.

“Thanks.”

Sherlock looks up, shrugs... and smiles back. John halts a moment. Just to witness such an act is a wonder.

“Alright, then, let’s give you a bath, sweetheart.” He whispers, heading for the bathroom.

And that’s when the wailing starts.

***

“God, sweetheart, please.” John tries in a mumbled whisper.

It’s no use. He knows.

Rosie’s wails can possibly be heard through the whole building. He tries to brush her hair, give her reassurance. She flinches away.

“Love, I know- I know you don’t like it but…” It’s hard to breathe.

They’ve been here for half an hour already. The tub is full halfway so she can sit on the bottom and still be above water. But she doesn’t budge.

“I have to clean you up, little girl. Please…” He begs and she hiccups on tears.

Her face is fear stricken and puffed up, red from exertion. She takes a breath and he draws strength from the momentary silence.

“Please, little one, don’t cry.” He cups her face, holds her tiny bare body on his chest.

He might as well give up now on this whole fatherhood thing. Clearly, it doesn’t suit him. He can’t even calm her down to have a bath. A fucking bath! It doesn’t matter how he does it, she just doesn’t need him right now. He is not helping.

“Shh-shhh… shhh…” He tries to calm his shaky reassurances, focus on his breathing but it’s too tight, too hot in here.

Their breaths are in sync. Quick, rapid, cut off. He can’t even do that. Silence descends like doom, the water is steaming, a lonely plastic duck toy floating aimlessly.

“Rosie… my little girl, please, let me…” He whispers as in prayer, lowering them both down again.

She shifts, sniffs, small fists clutching at his wet t-shirt. When he pulls her away to coax in the bathtub again, she clutches his fingers tighter and the look on her face is pure and utter betrayal. She screams.

“Fuck.” He breathes, looking away and swallowing. “We just- we just need to get this done.” He tries.

She lets the fabric go and starts to kick around wildly, whining. He places her in the tub without another thought. She shrieks, mortified, water splashing all around and John just putting some no-tears soap in quickly. He tells himself the singing in his eyes are from the soap that does not sting.

It takes about ten minutes more of John trying to steady her enough to clean her properly. She gives in eventually, exhausted. She’s sniffling and avoiding his gaze. Avoiding the whole of him in fact. He gives one or two last attempts to ease her sulking by playing with the duck and throwing around some bubbles but they’re half-hearted. He knows he can’t do her any good.

Your interactions earlier this evening suggest-

‘Shut up.’

The song… What of it? She seemed happy. She wasn’t. She can’t be. John can’t make her. He can’t take care of her. He can’t be a father. He was never meant to be. That’s it. Period.

‘Just like Harry.’ He thinks. He’s bitter. Of course, he’s just like Harry. It’s doesn’t matter how their lives turned out. What matters is, they’re heading on the same track and they come from the same childhood. End of story. Neither of them can be parents because of it. That’s why he can’t give her Rosie. That’s why he can’t give up.

Wrong.

‘Couldn’t. That’s why I couldn’t.’

Now, there are other reasons he can’t give up. Rosie is one. But now there’s more…

She whimpers when he rinses her hair. He’s being gentle but he doubts that matters. He has hurt her already. Too much if he can count on her silence and averting gaze to gather how much. He thinks of Sherlock’s hidden smile as he leans to get her out and she fights back as if the water is now preferable to his embrace. That tiny frown and smile… bright and encouraging. Proud, almost. If he can be honest with himself, Rosie’s giggles are not the only fireworks he can see in the air. She’s not the only person whose happiness makes him want to live. That doesn’t sound like pure friendship, does it?

His hands move with measured movements as he dresses her and she’s too weak to protest. She falls asleep there and he stays silent, soaking wet, looking at her. He would give everything he has to know what is wrong with him, to know how to fix it, to know how to… She doesn’t deserve his mess. She needs someone better.

You’d be crazy if you thought fags can raise kids, mate.

He freezes. The flash of memory is so vivid, he can’t breathe. He looks at himself in the mirror, old, silver hair, untrimmed beard, wrinkles around his eyes. Eyes. His eyes are wide. Then a flash passes. He blinks. His gaze is cold. He looks down and sees his hands shaking. It’s gone. His breaths normal again. His heartrate low. Resigned. He has tried, hasn’t he? So, nothing would work for him…

John brushes fingers over her sunny curls, exhaling a shaky puff of air. He holds her, careful not to make her clothes wet by his own and opens the bathroom door. The silence of 221B is deafening. He purses his lips, ducks his head in shame, and makes his way upstairs, settling her in her cot. He kisses her forehead, chest clenching at the reddened skin of her cheeks, raw by her tears even after washing them off. He loves her too much to give up…

His legs guide him to the kitchen again. To Sherlock. John knows he won’t be smiling now… He knows. Because no matter what, he always loses it all. One mistake and it’s all gone. One. Single. Misstep…

***

When Sherlock is getting ready to go to sleep, his head is brimming with images, cut stills of film. He sees John bouncing Rosie on his knees, his voice a little higher when he sings but with the same timbre. Sees Honeybee humming and clapping and giggling, blond and silver heads bent together, identical button noses rubbing against each other. And then the light of that memory dims. He sees John’s tired eyes, after he managed to finish Honeybee’s bath and put her to sleep, the creases on his forehead. Remembers Honeybee’s wailing, supple like a reed in the wind.

Sherlock knew why she was crying; she is afraid of water, of being alone in its warm mass. The first time he had to bathe her because she had gotten her breakfast all over her torso and face, was the second day after John had moved back to Baker Street. When he and John were barely talking, barely acknowledging each other.

It would be Honeybee’s first bath in 221B in more than six months. Sherlock had checked that the water was at the right temperature, gathered her favourite bath toys and arranged them around the tub, found an unopened bottle of baby-safe, no-tears shampoo, which had remained in the cupboard since the previous spring. Rosie, oblivious, was playing on the towels he had strewn on the floor for her. When it was time to carry her inside the tub he did so gently, kneeling to lower her in, even though his not yet fully-healed ribs had screamed in protest. She had clung onto him like a kitten terrified of being drowned the moment her feet touched the water. Sherlock had tried to soothe her with his voice, but she had kicked and whined, burying her face in his chest. He had immediately scooped her up into his arms and cuddled her close, for as long as she had needed. She still needed a bath, but he wasn’t going to repeat the experience; he had to ease her into it, somewhere where she would feel safer, more in control.

In the end he had filled up a large basin Mrs. Hudson found downstairs, and had bathed her when she was ready, after much patient encouragement. Sherlock has no idea how her phobia developed. When she was smaller, the last time he had had time with her, after Mary had bolted for her round-the-world adventure, she loved baths. Something must have taken place during the months John had kept him away, and let Rosie be cared for by any friends that were willing or available. Sherlock does not want to imagine what.

Sitting on his armchair, waiting for John and Rosie, hearing her heart-clenching sobs and John’s please, he thought how he could just tell John; walk to the bathroom, hold Honeybee’s hand, help John navigate this experience with his daughter in a calmer way. Fear, black and heavy in the pit of his stomach, held him back. Maybe John would say his way of caring was wrong, that he was dotting too much (what kind of qualification did Sherlock have for an opinion on Rosie’s matters, anyway). Maybe John would realise just how much time Honeybee spent with Sherlock and decide to put an end to that arrangement (was bound to happen, better not to bring it about sooner). Besides, he did not want to make John doubt of his ability to be a good parent; he was sure that John would notice and cater to his daughter’s needs on his own, without (unwanted, intrusive) prompting. But still when he saw the stretching bitter sadness in John’s eyes, after the ordeal was over, guilt gripped Sherlock’s stomach and twisted, hard.

John had stood with his hands on his hips, puffing out constrained breaths of air. His left hand was coiled into a twitching fist, and as he had sniffed, the lines on his forehead had deepened. Sherlock berated himself over having done all the washing up and tidying; he should have known John would need a let-out. “Tea?”, he had asked, persuaded it was pointless. But John had nodded, and gone about making tea the way he always did, efficient movements, and standing on tiptoe lastly to reach the sugar.

They sipped on their tea slowly, quietly. Sherlock did not ask how John was. John did not speak. Sherlock waited for John to decide he was ready to get up first. John did but lingered.

“You okay?”

Sherlock had blinked at the question. He was almost sure that was something John needed to answer, that John was the one who may need to talk about what had happened. Instead he found himself answering with a sincere “Of course”.

John had not moved, his eyes glued to his sock-clad feet. There was something soft about this; even Sherlock went barefoot.

“Just… Yeah”, John had said, quickly, taking a step back.

“I will see you tomorrow?” It was the only thing Sherlock could find to say that would not trivialise or exaggerate the situation. The only way he could find to keep John with him for a little longer, to catch his gaze in his, offer what solace he could, if he could.

The smile his question had provoked was small, and bitter. But it had been there.

Sherlock begins to wash his teeth; then brushes his curls; changes into pyjamas. He always lets John use the bathroom first for the night, after dinner. As he straightens to put his white tee on, he catches his reflection in the mirror. Pauses. He had trimmed -more than shaved- a few days ago. Now his face looks ragged, his cheekbones stretching his skin and casting oblong shadows over the valleys of his face. Even his temple bones protrude just that little too much. His complexion is an unhealthy pale, that hue which chronic illness or abuse can leave behind. His hair has not thinned, but the now longer curls have lost a lot of their once natural shine, spilling off light rather than absorbing it.

He is hollowed out, a sack of skin and bones. He is barely within the desired BMI range; he was only released from the hospital in the first days of January when he had stopped being underweight. But some twenty days later, there is not much in the way of extra mass on him. He hasn’t been that thin in years; not when he was using the first time, not when John and he had met at Bart’s. Maybe when he was just too small to have been any different, elastic limbs and a tiny tummy over stick-like legs. Now he thinks he looks oddly scary, in his gangly, stern way. He snorts, turns his head the other way, lowers it, scowling at the mirror beneath stray curls of hair over pale eyes. And then it hits him. ‘I am thirty-seven years old’. He shakes his head, the ghost of a laughter’s grimace over his features, turning them even more gaunt than they are.

‘I am only thirty-seven years old’

Any ironic mirth perishes. Sherlock looks down at his bare chest, with the scar at its centre, holds out his arms, sees the bluish-purple marks on the mangled veins, the thin pale scars that lie beneath like swollen latticework. It is oddly quiet, and there is a ringing in his ears. His eyes zoom out of focus, as in his dreams, where he saw himself through his eyes and from far away, too. And still his arms are odd, appendages stuck onto him, and their nerves buzz with stillness, with the fear that he would be unable to move them even if he tried.

‘These are not my arms’.

***

“Take your time.” She had said and he’d taken up on it quite literally.

He really did. Dodging her gentle questions, avoiding buttons she knew how to press to get to him, even wasted time so he’d have a week to the next session. But in the end, it was truly time for him to talk, no matter how he felt.

“Okay. So, yes, I did my homework.” He rolled his eyes, even if she hadn’t asked or rebuked. She never would. It was all him. Him doing it to himself. All the time. Ingrained.

“Thank you, John.” She repeated his previous feelings, the percentages she had noted down, his thoughts. “Let us here it, then.” She finally said and John had never felt so unsure in his whole life. Well… maybe he feels that way constantly, now he thought of it.

“So… I’ve thought about it and…” He swallowed, fingers tangled again. It’s a tell. “Sherlock says I did whatever I could considering the circumstances of… of the family…” his voice turned hoarse. “I think I believe him, when he does that, I- yeah… I feel like maybe I did that.”

“Okay, that’s good, go on.”

“He said… he said I’m doing my best to change how my life has ended now and that matters.”

John caught a curious glimpse in her eyes but it is gone right after, replaced with a smile.

“I think- I believe- I mean… that makes me feel good. I feel it to be real, most of the times, when he- yes, and I feel less- less that.”

“Guilty and Inadequate?” Ella helped.

He nodded, looking away.

“Anything else?”

“I guess I-… er… Rosie has started being more energetic around me. At first, she was always quiet. Now she… well, she might give a smile or reach for me. Not much, just a couple of times. She has stopped actively rejecting me as well. Most of the times.”

“How does that feel?”

“Like I’m going in the right direction?” he huffed.

She knew why. She knew how a feeling like this can fall apart by the smallest act. One rejection can erase all other good moments in his mind. Making him wonder… wonder where he’d gone wrong… in circles…

“You are, indeed.”

“Mm.” He looked away.

***

He cannot open his eyes.

He thinks he does, but ceiling and sun-less bright sky blend into one, indistinguishable, overwhelming. He is adrift, he is asleep. He is lying, he is sinking. He is trapped in the covers, he is taken under by the tide. There is no time to breathe, to cry out. There is only the endless crossing from one world to the other, or rather the interminable lingering on the threshold, neither here, nor there, and so in both places at once. Terror builds up in his arms, his legs, like white, frothy foam; he cannot open his eyes.

He is swimming, kicking, pushing his body forward, he is jolting half-awake, and the light that assaults his eyelids makes him want to close them again, even though where he will go the struggle will melt his muscles into pain and acid. 

A strip of consciousness nudges against his mind. Sherlock clutches it and crawls onto his back again. The blanket has been kicked off the bed, the sheets are a vortex around his legs. His breaths come out in puffs, but they are slow, and even though he is hyper-aware of the way his heart is beating, when he can clench his jaw enough to think past the fear for it, there is nothing abnormal about its rhythm.

A cocoon of black space folds around him. The ocean is gone, its lilting waves being sucked to the centre of his brain. His eyelids remain stubbornly sealed together, but at least now there is no danger of drowning.

There are noises he should be focusing on, until he can open his eyes. He strains for them; for the sizzling and clanging from John’s cooking, for Honeybee’s babbling. Silence greets him instead. Maybe they are not awake. Depends on the time. His watch is right there on his left wrist, he can just raise his arm to the level of his eyes and he will see. But he doesn’t. He can’t. Too far. It’s too far away.

He should get up. Swing his legs off the bed, reach for his dressing gown, tie it at the side. He should walk to the bathroom, splash water onto his face, wash his teeth, comb his hair. Make his way to the kitchen, wait for John, if John is not there, or greet him if he is. They will have tea and breakfast as they do every morning, Honeybee will be changed, fed. In his mind he can see every movement, every detail, orchestrated to perfection. But when he instructs his limbs to move, none is willing to. Roots might as well have sprung from his vertebrae, tying hm to the mattress. Or perhaps he truly did sink, his body hitting the ocean bed, with its colorful corals and plastic bag body of jellyfish. Is that how it would be in reality? Not that he really cares. Even if he did, finding out implies moving. Moving is impossible.

Against the pale light his eyelids are flimsy grey hoods. They make him think of the clouds over his head, and the waves beneath. Sherlock should be thinking of John. Of Honeybee. Of his dreams, even, with their gaping, toothless grins. He ends up counting the beats of his heart instead. Getting up, seeing their faces, talking… He pushes the reality of them taking place further and further away, until they are as out of reach as the source of the ocean in his mind.

No. No. He is letting them down. He asked John to stay, and there is an ‘always’ he must honor. There is the company on sleepless nights which he must repay. Ensure the sharing of time and space over meals and tea, every moment that gives John solid ground beneath his feet. Spend time with his little bee, bask in every minute spent with her. He must appreciate. But he can’t move. It’s as if the gear is all in place and there is no key to turn the ignition, no gas to run on.

‘Get. Up’

Why get up? John will be fine without him anyway. (No, he would be better). Honeybee, too (why would she miss someone she has barely known?). Their worlds will keep spinning. They will forget (and replace). His world has come to a screeching halt and exploded, and now there is only particles floating in the space of his mind, echoing when they clash. He’s only a junkie, anyway. (Freak). Still looks like one. (Will never not carry the marks). He can lie here for as long as he wants, nothing will come of it.

No. No- ‘For fuck’s sake, why can’t you just be happy? Just once. Just once’.

Sherlock shivers. It starts from the base of his neck, spreads to his spine, his arms, his belly, like a flock of birds ruffling their feathers. This is familiar, too. It almost hurts, like he is a live wire forced to stay very, quietly, painfully still, but if he waits a little more, if he lets it… Then just like that, he isn’t. He is nothing but the image his eyes are locked upon. They too, lose focus. He is a blur. A blur of ceiling and beige curtains, ashen winter light.

***

John stands in front of the sink. His stomach is rebelling. He takes another sip of water and fights the urge to retch.

Told you.

‘I know.’

“Christ.” He mutters out loud.

Sherlock has not been up for breakfast yet. John doesn’t want to disturb him in case he’s sleeping, finally. They both had a hard batch of nights. He needs the rest.

That doesn’t mean John isn’t worried though. He had opened the higher cupboards, searching for the bitter taste of alcohol that shouldn’t be there, three times in an hour. Most than he had for a week. Of course, the cupboards were cleared and of course, he has at least that much self-control left to not go to the shops to find some.

Instead, he resists and aches and sweats, ended up on a feast of sweet food. Biscuits, cake, scones, chocolate. It hasn’t really helped but… in a way, it has. John grips the sink hard.

Sugar high-

‘Nope.’

-can be a sort of substitute.

He grunts. Why did he have to do that? He hasn’t eaten so much in ages. He’s been careful with his diet since sobering up along with Sherlock. How could he think he could take this? And he has to fight with his head at the same time.

Told you, told you-

‘Yeah, okay!’

He downs the rest of the water.

Rosie is sitting at her baby chair, moved low to the floor. The grey elephants on it swim in John’s eyes. She’s quiet, stopping whatever she’s doing if she hears him come close. He tried to stand by the mirror in the morning and repeat his anti-guilt, anti-inadequate facts like Ella asked him to but couldn’t. He feels like a child, standing and talking bullshit to himself. He has failed Rosie anyway. Changing his feelings about it is not helping.

She has eaten so he guesses she’ll be alright for a while, play freely on her own, without any looming fears regarding him. He turns to the corridor, taking a breath. He needs to check on Sherlock. It’s not late and John is overreacting but he needs to know. He needs to take care of them both. If he fails one, it’s quite possible he’s failing the other at the same time. Sherlock might as well be sleeping and if he is then John can relax and let him be in peace.

He knocks. A subtle rub of two knuckles against wood.

When there’s no response, John turns the knob, slow and careful; Sherlock’s door tends to creak badly sometimes. The curtains are drawn but John thinks they have been since yesterday so Sherlock must have simply not closed them last night. Grey light illuminates the jumbled covers and John can make out Sherlock’s curled up body under them, turned away from the door, only a lock of hair peeking from the edge of his duvet. He never quite understood how Sherlock could make himself seem so small. It is endearing and adorable and he’s… he’s just so… tiny. Like a child. Waves of protectiveness wash over John, just like they always did, but now he understands them better. His deeper, gentler feelings. He’s a father after all, there’s only so much a repressed soul can avoid and lock away. Not that it would ever matter if he showed this side of him to Sherlock. John can imagine his incredulous face if he ever tried to cuddle him, kiss his curls, maybe feel his warm sleepy skin… No. Yes. That would be ridiculous. He can see the small frown, indicating Sherlock is thinking of how to let him down easy. Still, the sight is just-

The folds of the covers stretch and then fall back down in separated increments. John blocks all other thoughts, his mind screeching to a halt, alarms blaring. Something is off. Terribly so. He tries not to panic, observes the breathing coming from the bundle of bedsheets and blankets. Sherlock is shaking, shivering, just breathing?

John steps inside. He breathes. The door closes behind him. He walks to the edge of the bed, distantly reminded of such a similar situation from days ago. They made it then. Why wouldn’t it work now?

Worthless. Failing. ‘Right.’

He grits his teeth and climbs on the bed, a knee folded under him. He reaches to what he assumes to be Sherlock’s shoulder. His palm rests there, feeling Sherlock freeze but only for a moment. John’s fingers stay still. He’s here to make sure everything is in order, he shouldn’t get caught up in sentimental touches. Not even his daughter wants his touch anyway, no matter how gentle or tender.

But he aches to ask what’s wrong. He has to resist the urge to coddle Sherlock too much at the same time. It would be inappropriate and Sherlock would think it’s pity again. Or guilt. Truth is, all John feels is worry and he wants to show it properly. No matter that he thinks he can’t. He can at least try, can’t he?

So, he doesn’t speak. He stays, touching Sherlock’s blankets, offering a reassuring presence for him to cling on if the night was too bad, if his mind is too much. He doesn’t speak. He doesn’t ask…

***

John. John!

His voice struggles to break through the blockage at the root of his neck, a prisoner rattling his chains, throwing his body against his cell walls. The gates of his eyes remain closed. There is an acid pool in his mind, thick liquid like milk. It drowns any thought that dares approach, throttles it in its abyss-like deep. It has spread over his body like a blanket, and as if in hibernation, Sherlock is trapped into the lull of its familiar humming, familiar, sweet siren’s song.

Distantly, he can tell John is speaking to him, the tender, precise syllables of his name, like the not-real John pronounces them. There is a pressure over what is now the amorphous expanse of his arms.

Guilt shoots through, a beacon in the dark. John has been making breakfast every day, looking after both him and Honeybee, trusting him, not pitying him, getting better. Sherlock should be happy, should be grateful, and yet, all he can give in return is- The light is snuffed out, and there is nothing stretching the surface from beneath once again. Look what a waste of time, the mercurial liquid sings. Waste waste waste.

Why is John even here? This is what Sherlock is. A broken doll, a clock not ticking. Now that John has seen, he won’t be here anymore. He’ll go away.

Sherlock is tired. He is tired of the knot of mangled feelings beneath his breastbone. He’s lost in the labyrinth of it. What should he be feeling? Guilty? Ashamed? Angry? Forlorn? Bereft? Regurgitating the same old tattered memories, gnawing on the same old bones of pain has stopped helping, has lost its ability to jolt him to alertness like a fix.

It all boils down to a very simple fact; there is a stronger fix he needs. A stronger drug. But it’s the one he is no allowed to have, one for which years of half-measures and substitutes have done nothing. He might as well admit defeat;

It’s the man calling his name again.

Sherlock is in withdrawal for a drug he’s never had.

***

“Hey…”

John’s heart is hammering inside his chest. He feels he’s been sitting there forever. His leg has gone numb. Sherlock is breathing. Even and slow. Too even. Too slow. John almost can’t feel it. He gets up and walks around the bed, sitting in front of the bundled-up figure. Nothing moves.

“Hey…” John shakes Sherlock’s shoulder a tiny bit. Withdraws.

His friend remains curled up and silent, eyes closed and fingers resting on the duvet’s edge, slack and unmoving. John had hoped Sherlock would grow accustomed to his touch, his presence maybe? Maybe after a while open his eyes, talk, unfold himself from the asphyxiating covers? But nothing was happening. It was as if John wasn’t there. Sherlock’s face was barely visible, just enough room so he could have fresh air; a practicality. His lower lip was bitten raw and now left to scald. His brow is relaxed but John can make out faint lines created by previous, continuous frowning.

“We missed you at breakfast.” John whispers, trying to reach. Reach. Reach.

A shadow passes through Sherlock’s closed off features but there’s nothing. Nothing more.

“Would you like some? Breakfast?” John’s voice vibrates.

Sherlock’s face is mushed against his pillow. His eyes are not even moving under his eyelids.

“Alright. Maybe later.”

‘Don’t press. Don’t press. Don’t press.’

But he’s worried, damn it. Too worried. He needs to- He wants to- ‘Christ, why is this so hard?’

“You okay?” John prompts, his voice soft. His smile as well, longing for good old times where this question left his lips constantly. Checking, worrying, double-checking. Sherlock always there with a nod, a shrug, a word, a smile.

There is no reaction whatsoever this time. Any strength he has gathered is fading. John watches Sherlock’s face muscles twitch once, his eyelids fluttering but closing again, his lips stuck together as if with glue, only it’s dried blood. John reaches his hand to Sherlock’s forehead, feels his temperature. Apart from getting sweaty, Sherlock is fine. Physically. As fine as he can be… As fine John can see… Maybe there are symptoms… scars… wounds… he cannot see. He’s not allowed to see… Cold water trickles down his spine and he swallows, nodding more to himself, decisive.

“You’re good. You’re good.” A broken whisper.

An image of bloody pavement appears and John is taken by impulse. Physical impulse. Heartfelt. Impulse that has him reach. Reach a hand. He cannot fight it, of course not. He cannot resist it. He can’t allow uncertainty and fear to push him to assumptions. He needs to- to…

His fingertips are on Sherlock’s temple. He catches a tuft between them. A stray one. All alone in the pale expanse of Sherlock’s forehead. He finds it soft. Softer than he could have ever imagined. His sense of touch is overloaded with need. The need to remember… To block his imaginings of years and years, just so he could cherish the real moment, the real memory now that he has one. His heart skips a bit. Slow with palpable sadness. He’s afraid. He can’t lose him. Not now. Not again.

John guides the curl away, lets it rest behind Sherlock’s ear. His movements slow and reverent. A patch of skin brushing against Sherlock’s helix. He draws back, watching him, trying to match his own breaths with his. Sherlock’s eyelids slide open. Slow and unsure. John catches a gasp inside his throat at the empty gaze that despite everything can always pin him in place. He almost curses himself as it travels through the air to find him, focusing for a fleeting moment, resting on him. Deep iridescent, ever-changing blue orbs. John swallows, taking in red-rimmed corneas filled up with years and years of sorrow and sadness. Emotion, that should perplex Sherlock himself, is crashing against John in waves at the eye-contact and John is ready to reach, bridge a gap that has always been there since-

And it’s gone.

Sherlock is looking away. It’s gone. It’s done. That clarity. His gaze now falls somewhere behind John. Lost and without will.

“Sherlock?” John’s fingers curl and twitch and stretch, nervous. This isn’t- it’s not- Sherlock isn’t-…

‘Get yourself together, you bloody idiot, he needs you!’

John stands up, breath catching.

“I’m getting you some breakfast, alright?” He didn’t expect an answer but… one could hope.

He lingers, just the second it takes for him to decide against trying to comfort Sherlock through touch at the moment -possibly ever, it was a mistake, who would want that-, and goes about preparing a quick breakfast. Everything is absolutely the same when he returns with the tray, except his own hand tremor and his bitten lip are worse. If this doesn’t work, he doesn’t know what will.

“There.” He rests the tray on the empty side of the bed. It takes him a moment to realise Sherlock will not sit up on his own. Will not eat on his own. Will not get through this -whatever it is- on his own.

Obviously.

John takes the duvet over Sherlock’s shoulders with a gentle hand. It doesn’t really make a difference; Sherlock doesn’t reach for it or grip it tight. John folds it lower, taking in Sherlock’s skeleton form, only in his too big now striped pyjamas. He makes sure the tray is secure and sighs, heart aching.

“Sherlock?” His hand hovers over Sherlock’s cheek. He doesn’t think his voice is even audible but he’s leaning close to Sherlock’s face, making sure to disturb his field of vision. “Sherlock, I need you to sit up for me, could you do that?”

This is familiar. This is his doctor skills territory, he can do this. Sherlock’s eyes remain terrifyingly blank.

What if you fail?

He freezes.

‘I won’t. I can’t.’

What if I don’t need you.

‘He’s not you. He’s not- He’s not- He’s not!’

“Okay. Sherlock, I will help you sit up then, alright?” Again, there is no reply. John hesitates.

Then, springs into action. It doesn’t matter if he fails. Sherlock needs him so John is going to try. His palm slides under a warm cheek. Sherlock’s untrimmed stubble grazes over John’s skin and he stops. He waits, letting the sweat seep into his pores, suddenly in awe. Then he moves, with fervour, getting his arm under Sherlock’s neck and shoulders. Sherlock barely shifts, turning on his back just by the gentle force of John’s arms.

“Come on, mate. It’s okay.”

John pulls him up, arranging the pillows against the headboard, murmuring. Sherlock’s head leans to his shoulder and he can breathe in his hair for a fleeting moment. John fortifies himself to not lose focus but the smell… The sweet honey and soft bitterness of burning wood… He can’t block that out too. Not when Sherlock is surrendered in his arms like that. Not when the unresponsive muscles remind John of lifeless bodies before the heat leaves them.

He settles Sherlock against the headboard and checks his pulse. Two fingers against warm skin. He prefers to do it on his neck, so he can at least look in his eyes and make sure. Silent diagnoses fly inside his mind but he doesn’t pick one. He can’t possibly know the whole experience of being Sherlock Holmes, not until Sherlock communicates again, but he knows it is mental. John knows it’s something that could have happened to him as well. PTSD patients usually have some kind of unresponsive behaviour, phasing out, closing off. John had been one of the lucky ones where adrenaline gave them life. Others might have ended up empty and numb for the rest of their lives in order not to feel it again. They have to check this out later, but for now all he needs to do is snap Sherlock out of it.

John brings the bedtable above Sherlock’s thighs and steadies the tray on it. Sherlock looks at it; or seems to. He’s not too far gone. He mustn’t be. John serves the tea and pushes warm toast on a plate in front of his friend. Thin, long, elegant fingers grab a butter knife. The gesture familiar, always done by him. Never someone else. Sherlock’s wrist trembles weakly. His fingers try to adjust.

The knife falls.

***

“Sherlock. Sherlock, I’m here, I’m right here, do you hear me?”

Lakes are pooling into oceans. Sherlock’s unfocused gaze is overtaken by something akin to horror. Realisation. John places the knife away, having caught it when Sherlock’s fingers let it go. He’s looking at his plate, breaths deeper, confused. John leans close, sitting close, facing him.

“Sherlock.” His voice is firm.

Sherlock frowns, barely a reaction. His fingers are shaking wild. John inhales through his nose, chest puffing with the effort.

Reach.

John does.

He does need you, John. I need you.

John’s fingers hold, grip, latch. Tight. Squeezing. Steady.

Physical damage touches the mental one.

John’s left hand feels the need to release the pain of his injured shoulder.

Sherlock’s same hand quivers with the loss his brain has endured.

They are locked together.

Sherlock doesn’t pull away.

“Sherlock.”

He is there. He can hear him. John’s sure of it now. He just has to keep him afloat.

Afloat.

Afloat.

Sherlock is not falling from a building this time. He’s falling to the sea.

Yes.

And this time… This time John can reach. John is there on time. John can find him.

John.

This time John can help him swim.

“Sherlock, can you hear me?”

His hand twitches amongst agonised trembles. John holds tighter. Sherlock’s hand twitches again. More. With purpose.

“Thank God almighty!” It escapes. A shaky breath too.

Sherlock’s throat working around a swallow.

“I’m here.”

His eyes slowly glaze over their joined palms.

“Sherlock, I’m here. You’re here. You’re good.” John says fervently.

The world stands still for an indefinite amount of moments before Sherlock nods, straightening to rest back on the headboard. John doesn’t need to do or say anything else. He watches as Sherlock has already picked up the knife again, with his right hand and proceeds to fix his breakfast. John only holds his bread and a scone steady as he butters them up; their hands remaining joined as they were.

Their hands… It’s a connection. A strong one. Despite the tremors. They hold on to each other, Latching on shards of encouragement and hope. John is allowed to feel the heat emanating from Sherlock’s skin. He is allowed to look and touch and… so much more… He can feel details, differences and similarities. He can feel how Sherlock’s bone structure is huge compared to his own, but right now his fingers can circle the thin wrist completely, feeling the veins underneath. There’s a wild beauty to the way Sherlock’s fingers have always moved and John now feels them twitch again under his palm, bony knuckles caressing the carved lines on his skin. Sherlock hasn’t turned his hand palm up, he lets John press there and hold him and hasn’t pulled away either. For John, frankly, it’s a miracle. And he feels and feels and closes his eyes to feel more and more as they swim together to the surface, sharing the same air, twining their fates inside Antarctic waters, searching for the travelling warm current. A miracle.

Chapter Text

“Sherlock?”

They had just finished dinner. John was washing the dishes in the sink, Sherlock gathering Rosie’s toys from the living room. Now he raises his eyes and their gazes lock from across the room.

“Mmm?”

“Fancy some telly?”

The smile that blooms across Sherlock’s face is soft and easy. He nods. John grins in reply. “Unless you’re sleepy”, he adds.

This time the look that passes between them is knowing.

“No… Not really”, Sherlock shrugs, toning down just how not sleepy he is if it means he can spend time with John, beside John. What worth is there in a sleep disturbed as his, anyway. No, where John is, is warmth. And light.

“Me neither”, John grins, and goes back to washing the dishes. Sherlock’s smile only grows. He had not dared imagine it could be like this. Even though the sky is not clear and the clouds are still there, as well as the promise of cracked ice beneath his feet, there is a clearing now, sparse rays of sunshine reaching into the ruins in his mind, caressing them. Making them beautiful again.

It’s more than he would ever dare hope. More than his share, certainly. But this is what it is, this is what John wants it to be. And that thought alone makes his heart swell.

***

The taste of food had not been unwelcome. It was grounding; the savoury toast, the smooth butter. And then the sweetness of the scone coating his tongue. The act of eating, the methodical biting and cutting and chewing, had given him a slow, manageable way through one state and into the other. He got down a handful of bites of each, the toast and scone. Then set his knife down, and kept his gaze lowered.

Left to his own devices, Sherlock would have planned this scene out in a very simple, straightforward way: John would realise something was not right with him. Sherlock just had to cause disruptions, to upset the balance, to set John back, just as things were getting better. Sherlock could not be grateful, could not be happy. John would see that, all of that. See right through Sherlock’s mask, right to the core of how he was just a fake. John would be apprehensive, possibly indignant, and to any questions he might have, Sherlock would be unable to provide the right answer. So, John would go away, again, and take Honeybee with him; take the decision that would be better for the two of them.

That was what Sherlock expected, nothing more, nothing less. That was not to say he would be prepared for it; he had come to understand that in the matters of John Watson, he never was truly prepared for anything, after all. But at least it was a familiar scenario. He would know how it would feel, broadly speaking.

But there was one detail. One detail that changed everything, whose cognitive dissonance was so loud it echoed through his mind, bouncing from one skull bone to the next.

John was holding his hand.

Sherlock had held John’s hand before. When they had fled from the police, the days where Moriarty’s web was closing in around them. When he had tried to make John stop pulling at his own hair and hitting his head, that night when he had been drunk, a few days ago. John had held his hand too; in handshakes, the first and last. Last being when he had turned his hand palm up, and pulled his coat sleeve up to reveal the track-marks blotching his papery skin.

But this was different.

This wasn’t John holding his hand to do something else, or when doing something else. This was John holding his hand. And that was it. And it wasn’t one-off, either. From what he could understand from the heat of their hands together, from the way John’s palm had turned a little clammy, this handholding had been going on for a while. For how long exactly he could not be sure.

The pool of milky siren venom drained to the back of his neck, flowed down his spinal cord, dissipated slowly as it entered the flow of his limbs. His vision cleared, his ears became unblocked, his throat opened, voice springing free with a small cough to clear the silence away. There was a numbness left behind still, but it resembled fatigue, like when he was climbing to the top that apple tree when he was seven. His muscles were boiling with it, but the sensation was not immediate, kept instead at the back of his mind, a constant low droning.

With awareness came the questions about what he had missed, how long it had been. He glanced at his watch. It was almost ten o’clock in the morning. Didn’t John have a shift today, an appointment? Was Honeybee alright? Had she eaten at breakfast, how had she been? Had John eaten anything? His eyes scanned over the man sitting across from him on the bed with one leg beneath his body. This time there were no dark circles under John’s eyes, but there were fading lines over his forehead, and those hugging his eyes were deepened; John had been worried. Sherlock would know, or thought he would know anyway, what to do with that information; if there wasn’t that little detail, that warm palm over his. There was nothing he could explain now. He wasn’t at sea. He wasn’t on solid ground, either. He was stranded. Sherlock decided to opt for the worst-case scenario, even though it did not sit as well as it used to within him. He kept his gaze lowered.

“Sherlock?”

Soft. Tentative. This was the way the not-real John sounded. Feeling the real sounds was a revelation, like adding flesh to barebones. The vowels were livelier and thick, the consonants definite and full. It was heady. It got straight through him, a jolt under his skin.

He hummed in reply.

“Feeling alright?”

He shook his head. It wasn’t yes or no, but it could be whatever John wanted to see.

“Do you want to talk?”

Sherlock glanced up at that. Trap? Rebuke?

“It’s alright. You don’t have to. But if it would help… I’m here. I’m right here

John’s palm squeezed around Sherlock’s. It was smaller, thicker, it couldn’t physically engulf Sherlock’s hand, but Sherlock felt that it did so anyway; that it engulfed all of him.

“I did not want to-“, he started. His voice was gravelly, but clearing it more only gave a layer of coppery tang to the back of his tongue. “-Trouble you. Or miss breakfast”

He saw John’s eyebrows knit together, the creases digging deeper, tiny brooks filling with water.

“You did not trouble me, no”, John shook his head emphatically. “And really, sod breakfast. It’s fine”. He smiled. Sherlock felt it a little weird to be smiled at so much, like being given too many things to hold with only two hands. But John was already speaking again. “What matters is how you’re feeling. How you can feel better”.

Sherlock blinked at him in confusion. John caring was not new; all these days John had been caring for him indeed. But it had been distant. Not in a negative way; in a neutral way. Sherlock did not doubt the noble drive behind John’s actions but saw them as just a natural part of who John was. Ever the good doctor, trying to find his footing, do the right thing. It had nothing personal to do with Sherlock. Sherlock encouraged it anyway, encouraged John’s confidence, no matter how little it did to quench the need inside him, the need he couldn’t stifle. This, however, was invested.

His heart began to beat faster.

“John, I…” The words were there, like a script. Memorised. Perfected. A script which had begun to itch, to feel too tight, alien, like a tattered second skin.

Sherlock cleared his throat and tried again. “I am perfectly fi-”

It was John’s gaze that killed the words in his mouth. It wasn’t sharp, disappointed, tired. It was just sad. As if with every brick Sherlock added to his walls, John curled into himself too, more and more. Sherlock’s mouth closed. Opened. Closed again, helplessly.

“I… I will be. Fine. I just… Sleep. Bad sleep, I mean. That is all. My capabilities are not affected, I assure you. Nothing is amiss” He kept pushing through his words, willing them to flow.

John pursed his lips. Nodded, sniffed. “Okay. Yeah. Okay”, he said. He looked away. His right hand flexed, something his right hand never did. Oh. The left was still curled around Sherlock’s palm. Sherlock felt quite like an idiot, and he wasn’t sure why. Sherlock’s own left hand was shaking, faintly. The weight above it kept it steady.

Just as he had begun to retreat, John turned to face him again. His features had set. “Sod this”, he breathed. The fine hair on Sherlock’s arms rose.

“Look. Sherlock. I don’t… I don’t want to press -or assume. And I know I suck at this. But”. He took a deep breath with his eyes closed, let it out again in a calculated, deliberate way. His eyes rose to Sherlock’s. “I want you to be better. I want to help you feel better. In any way I can. I don’t care if you don’t want to tell me what it is. It’s alright. I mean, what matters is, well, we’ll… We’ll fix it. Just… That. You’re… You’re my…” Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, and his breath crowded into his mouth. “My friend”, John said, his voice a little squeezed out. He swallowed, nodded. “My friend” he said again. And this time it was strong. Definite.

Sherlock’s tongue had gone slack in his mouth.

John’s hand squeezed his again. He still had not let go.

Sherlock was stranded. Entirely. He had not been here before. Or rather. He had. A flash of memory woke in his mind. You are the best and the wisest man that I have ever known. And yes, of course I forgive you.

If he could have it once, forgiveness, the rekindling of friendship, then, maybe… He could have it once again? Maybe he could have it now?

It had been such a long time since last he thought of himself as John’s friend. And he had not considered himself likely to experience John’s friendship again, given what had happened over the last eight months -and possibly since before that, too. But now… Now… It was such a bewildering, mismatched thought among the jumbled-up patchwork of things he had established as set in stone for so long. It was so simple that it was the most intricate thing, so impossible it shone all the clearer, so wanted it seemed like it’d been here all along, so unattainable it couldn’t fit into his mind.

“I’m here for you”, John said, softly. “If you’ll let me”. He inhaled sharply and pulled his eyes away, downwards, to their joined hands. He cleared his throat, shifted a little to settle better. He was nervous. Sherlock shook his head to clear away the shock. John was nervous, as if he felt there was a possibility Sherlock would reject him.

It felt as if they had swapped places. His every fear was being reflected back at him. It was surreal. It made him doubt everything. It forged a new path through everything. It was just a glimpse, and yet it grabbed a hold and would not let go.

“Yes”, Sherlock croaked. “I do. I will”

John’s eyes shot to him, imploringly. He was holding his breath.

“I am honoured to be your friend”, Sherlock said, softly. He felt the weight that lifted off from John’s shoulders, because it lifted from his, too.

***

He had almost forgotten how this worked.

It turned out that nothing changed, and yet, at the same time, everything changed.

A hole inside him had filled, and thought it felt that this had happened overnight, the shift was in truth the movement of a tectonic plate; incremental for years and years, and then suddenly it peaked and transformed the world around it.

They stopped avoiding each other. Before, Sherlock had been careful to keep his body well away from John’s periphery. John was not the old John, his John -not since the wedding, maybe not since Sherlock had come home. Sherlock was not allowed to read over his shoulder, stand too close to him, accidentally brush arms, and knees under the table with him. John had not seemed to notice, much less want to bridge the physical gap between them. Even in the past, he had often complained about Sherlock’s lack of understanding of personal space, on the blog and to strangers, sometimes to Sherlock himself. So, Sherlock thought he had been doing the right thing, since John had never wanted that proximity anyway. But he was surprised to find that now John seemed to orbit him. It was discreet, and small enough a change that it could have gone unnoticed. But it didn’t. If Sherlock drifted to the kitchen, John would follow to perch on the table. If Sherlock returned to his armchair, John was bound to join him a few moments later. The one time their knees brushed under the table, John had not moved away. They had stood side by side to wash the dishes, and John had not pulled away when Sherlock’s movements had accidentally brought him close enough for the side of their forearms to touch as they worked. When both were at 221B, John never left Sherlock’s side for longer than 6.42 minutes. Sherlock counted.

They looked more. Their eyes had shaken off their previous, elaborate dances of chasing each other and yet shying away at the very last moment, of pretending not to notice each other’s movements. Sherlock could now feel John’s gaze on him. When he made tea, when he handed Honeybee her stuffed elephant, when he opened his laptop, when he was eating. At first, he would fight the urge to jolt. He would momentarily stop whatever he was doing, alert to correct anything that had earned him the attention, to protect himself from the chastising that was bound his way. No such thing every happened. John’s gaze blew over him like the caress of a breeze and then drifted away. Sherlock felt almost as if this was part of John checking his surroundings. He imagined him thinking Rosie? She’s alright. Sherlock? Alright too. Taking stock. Protecting, in that subtle but ever-present way. To be seen, to be included… After he got used to having John’s attention, Sherlock felt alive every time it happened.

They smiled more. John had started. With every good morning, every goodnight. Every ‘how are you’, every ‘slept well?’ But also, for random reasons. Sometimes he just saw Sherlock and smiled, and Sherlock would feel a familiar, soft-sweet heat bloom in his chest. It had taken a while, but he began to smile back. He was surprised to find how unnatural smiling so often felt, at first. As if the muscles on his face had forgotten how to do it. Maybe they were reluctant too. So Sherlock’s most smiles were private. When John was not directly looking at him. But they were there, budding carefully on parched, hard ground.

Their cohabitation had turned more conscious. They sat together, one night, to draft a shopping list. They talked about perhaps changing some old furniture. John talked about his economic difficulties, let Sherlock give an opinion on what they could prioritize. Asked him which baby food brand Honeybee had been preferring that week, and whether it would be better to switch things up or keep her on the same brand, what flavour would be better in either case. It was casual, and though tentative, at first, conversation had begun to pulse between them almost in the way it once did. John was the one who initiated it the most, by far, but Sherlock participated. He tried.

John spoke to him more. About his seminars, support group, therapy. He never gave details about exactly what was being said. But he would comment that it made him feel tired, or that it had troubled him, or that it had given him ideas. Sherlock was thrilled to be participating in John’s recovery in this way, to be someone John could confide in. That was a thing that was different to before. Before, talking about feelings like this was sparse. Now, it seemed, John had set their friendship on a new footing. It was still to be tested, but its foundations were there, tiny saplings watered with every moment they spent together. Their late-night kitchen meetings, as Sherlock had dubbed them playfully in his mind, continued.

All positive changes aside, the skies were still dark. There were moments were both faltered, fell silent, could not achieve a smile. Then they just kept company to each other, spent the time over cups of tea and small nibbles, waiting for the storms to weather.

Sherlock’s ocean dreams often made him snap awake with a rapid heartrate, panting, sweat soaking through his tee, as if he had really been swimming. Many a times John’s eyes were punctured with dark circles, and he looked older, so much older. Many a time Sherlock would hesitate to speak too much, be too assertive, to ask for more, to draw attention to him and Honeybee together, would be unsure of what exactly he was allowed to do, would be afraid of screwing things up; it was both habit and active, conscious trepidation, with a twinge of fear at its tail. Other times John would be brooding, impatient with himself. But they held. They tried.

Four days after his brain had shut off, it almost did so again. He was sitting on the sofa, as John was putting Rosie to sleep, and his mind began to drift. He could not be John’s friend again. There was nothing he could possibly offer. This wasn’t like before, and it never could be. The pain that rose with the thoughts, the images, the words, it overwhelmed him, and the buzzing sound and venomous pool of liquid started to build up again. He startled to John calling his name. With awareness came fear, his every nerve paralyzed and cold. He had wanted to scream, or cry, or both. He felt trapped, and yet all he wanted, insanely so, was to be held, to feel his body through someone else’s grip. John understood somehow. He sat beside him, held his arm, squeezed. “I’m here”. It was an anchor. They had ended up talking about the weather, about silly things, that Sherlock would have normally scorned. He wasn’t strong enough to scorn now. John urged him on. Kept his mind on the surface, until the numbness eased away. The next day John had still smiled, and still lingered close.

No-one had contacted Sherlock, during those days. Sherlock had kept himself well away, as instructed. He was still holding on to Molly’s message. Found himself reading it when he felt too close to being happy, when he stopped noticing things that were novel and took them for granted. Almost like a pinch on the arm.

But there was another unread, unanswered message. And every time Sherlock’s fingers itched, and they kept edging close, only to dismiss the possibility at the very last moment.

***

 “It’s good to see you, John.”

“You too, Ella” He smiled an honest full smile then.

He knew it was good. He was nineteen days sober. It wasn’t everything well and back to normal -the normal that hadn’t existed for years- but it wasn’t a small feat either. He didn’t crave it anymore. Not like those first days. He suspected things working out with Sherlock was helping him too. He was in constant movement. Like waves. They were. Both of them. Pushing each other out of darker thoughts and paths. Back and forth. Back and forth.

John’s mind was pleasantly filled. He had his routine, giving him security, protecting his sensitive senses of any pointless worry that might lead him to procrastination and eventual alcoholic drink. Rosie took up most of his time, but Sherlock was always there now, more than he had been. His previous reluctance not gone in its entirety, but less apparent. He had held Rosie in his lap just the other day, when John was doing dishes. John could hear them coo to each other from the kitchen and remembered that first time he’d seen them like this after they moved in.

It seemed a lifetime ago. Long, lean phalanges cupping over small palms, preventing her from typing nonsense on his laptop. John was surprised he could pinpoint such a detail, considering he’d been in constant hangover back then. Or was it after he… in any case, he had been in his first withdrawal then, whole body itching, he could barely remember what he had said to Ella that week -probably some bullshit of being able to do this alone- but that single detail… Sherlock and his little girl together… Was carved in his mind.

Sherlock was speaking to her in hushed tones, tender and careful. He was adamant about baby talk. John remembered from the days when her mother had gone off the grid. Baby talk undermines their intelligence, John. So he could make a whole actual dialogue with her and John, despite his agreement with the statement, could never understand if Rosie had indeed understood anything herself.

This time, he could sit in his armchair, opposite them after the dishes were done, without Sherlock flinching. He had made an immediate motion to transfer her to John, however.

“No, it’s quite alright. Keep her.”

John had watched Sherlock’s irises from eager blue turn to doubting grey. He had stayed silent for a moment, a twitch in his lip John is sure is a tell for when he tries to mask a particularly troubling emotion from the world, and then spoke with utter reverence.

“Sure?”

John had just smiled his obvious yes.

“But you need-”

Rosie interrupted them, reaching for Sherlock’s silken lapels. She quite liked the fabric. John would say it was her favourite. He wondered how it would seem to an outsider if he bought her silken bedsheets, so she would sleep better. They’ll probably think of the riches he was hiding.

“Dawaa.” She mumbled, and Sherlock conceded, and John watched his smooth eyebrows, scarce as they were, softening along with her smile.

Despite her increasing moments of mumbling and blabbing, John was still worried about her. He had caught on the fact she could be quiet with him for days but with Sherlock she was all shouting eagerness. He didn’t mind. He just wanted her to be happy. But he needed to know why. He needed to fix it. To work for her, be better, be what she deserves. So, their appointment with a child speech and psychotherapist was scheduled for next week.

Valentine’s Day.

‘Mhmm…’

Subtle.

‘Shut up.’

“Sherlock doesn’t think she has any hearing problems at all and frankly, I agree, she understands everything I say even.” He paused, bit his lip. “That’s what worries me the most. If I have said or done something -or many things- that she understood without me meaning to… If she’s…”

“Afraid or traumatised?”

He hesitated. He had been relaxed when they started, but…

“She’s been better. With me.” He mumbled, apologetic of not speaking directly about this particular bit before but she didn’t show any signs he should have.

It’s always been like this with Ella. She supported the theory that everything will come on their own time. It’s times like this when he feels grateful for having this with her, a close relationship cultivated through the years he’s been coming for his sessions, never erased even at times he stopped for an indefinite hiatus.

“Better?”

“We had some difficulties -still do- but I suppose… it’s expected?”

“Yes, of course. John, your relationship was going to be a work in progress since the beginning. That’s fatherhood. It’s important that you want to make it better and it is very good that you’ve thought of this already and have been working to achieve it.”

“Yeah, sure…”

“You sound unsure?”

“It’s just… I’ve been reading on it and childhood trauma… it can be anything, any small detail someone wouldn’t notice, and it might never go away…”

“Okay, let’s work against that reasoning now, shall we?”

He found himself smiling. He had passed through those thoughts again and again, ruminating, and only Sherlock could instantly see when he did that. She had learnt to do it after years, but Sherlock… John would bet he could do it since the beginning. God, that man…

John, do you love Rosie?

‘Yes, of course I do.’

Then you can make it go away.

He took a deep breath. As novel as it was to imagine Sherlock asking him about love… He was right. Absolutely right.

“There you are, then.” Ella said when he told her. “I dare say you are already doing so.”

His chest opened up free at the pride he suddenly felt pooling in. Pride in himself. For once. Even for just a tiny moment.

“John, if I may ask…”

“’Course”

She took one good look at him.

“Can you talk to me about Sherlock?”

“What?”

“He’s been a vital part of your life and your recovery and I was wondering… if you’d like to talk about him.”

She’s unphased by his tightly closed knees and tense arms. He’s sitting as if on attention in front of a high-ranked officer.

“Yeah, he… has… I mean, my head is so full of Rosie right now, you can understand-”

She gave him a that’s-a-defence-mechanism-and-you-know-it look. He swallowed.

“I have… been keeping it… for later.” He tried but his façade crumbling was immediate; shoulders sagging, thoughtful.

“So…?”

“He’s… really been there for me.”

“So you’ve said”

He glanced at her, confused.

“That’s the reason I am asking this now, John. You have stated before again and again how Sherlock helps, how he thinks you’re doing, how he encourages you.”

“I have?”

There’s an amused look on her face.

“Oh.” He paused, his mind racing, trying to think of clever alternatives and coming up empty.

“I know we have talked about Sherlock before. Many times. But things have changed and talking about it now might help.”

“I know but… it’s new. He’s…”

“If you’re worried I might judge you or him based on what I already know; I need to remind you that I’m not here to judge anyone.”

“It’s not- No, it’s not that.” John bit his lip. What is it, then?

“I am only asking to know the full picture, John. If you’re not ready, it can wait.”

But John knew. He knew what it was. It was not a question of when. It was a question of why. A why deeper than what he had anticipated, than what he could anticipate. It was a why about himself, not about Sherlock. A why that kept nagging him, teasing him at the corners of his vision. A why that grew bigger every day his nightmares lessened. Every day he sat in the kitchen with Sherlock long before dawn; looking.

He had memorised how the lines of his face changed when the moonlight gave way to sunrise. How sharp shadows turned mellow and soft just when morning dew set on the windowsills and the streetlights were bright only under brick shadows of high buildings. How the perfect bow of his lips was swallowed by the grey light of those early hours, finding them together beside a dark fireplace. John’s feet always sock-clad and warm, hesitating in his need to reach and place them over Sherlock’s bare toes; long and bony and freezing against the carpet.

He had sat for hours, looking, seeing, observing, memorising. All in less than a week.

“I’m worried about him.”

It was a tiny whisper of a thought, but it was enough.

“At times he seems to be doing better and then… I can’t really expect it. I’ve been trying… I-”

“Start with what happened, John.” A small reminder sounded.

“Last Sunday. He was… he had phased out. Bad. I couldn’t reach him.”

“Do you know why?”

“Not really. I know he’s been sleeping bad. It was too familiar to me. The way it happened.”

“How so?”

“I’ve been thinking if it is post-traumatic stress. He’s-” His voice was shaking. “He’s been through a lot.”

“You think it’s because of you?” Her voice was tentative. They had discussed this before, but he can’t possibly be sure anything stuck with him those first times he came back to her, when Sherlock was still hospitalised.

“Not-… entirely. I believe… he’s been really good at hiding it.”

But he wasn’t trying to hide it anymore. ‘Was he? Is he?’ He has opened up now, let John help… ‘Truly?’

“So, you think it has been going on for a while?”

“For him to reach such a state, I think… I think it’s been going on for years.”

‘And I hadn’t noticed.’ It’s what remained unsaid.

“Walk me through what you feel about it.”

“For the past couple of weeks… I feel maybe I can help?”

“Good. Why are you questioning it?”

“Because it goes back and forth. Once we’ve reached a point of progress, it all… deteriorates… I don’t know if me caring matters, if me helping, being there for him changes anything.”

“Do you have any explicit indication that it doesn’t?”

“Nno…” He hesitated. “I mean, except the times I thought he was better and then-”

“John, backtracking can happen with any mental illness, no matter what help one gets, right?”

“I…” A breath. “Yes, I know.”

“It doesn’t mean-”

“It doesn’t erase progress.” He interrupted.

She smiled; proud.

“There you are, then.”

He brought a hand to his lips, snapping a nail between his teeth, thinking.

“So… any indication that you do help?”

“Yes.” He surprised himself by how quick his reply came out. “I mean- maybe… After he felt better. I asked him. He said he does want my help. He had said similar things before… I had reached out before… but now… it feels… more…”

“Yes?”

“Final. He… Before that, I don’t think he had understood that I actually do want to care for him in such a way.” A moment passed and John flushed red at his words and the meaning anyone could derive from them. “I hadn’t realised myself he hadn’t got it. Otherwise, I would have made it clear…er.” He added in a haste.

“What else worries you?”

She’s clever.

‘Damn, don’t I know.’

“I guess… I want to know what is wrong… so I can help him better… But I am reluctant to suggest…” He indicated between them.

“Therapy?” Ella considered and John looked at the wall, nodding. “You think he’d be averse to it?”

“I don’t want to press him.” He tuned to his own feelings on the matter, not wanting to compromise Sherlock’s privacy more.

“Do you think he trusts you?” It was a fine form of reassurance, reminding him all that he’d said himself, making him consider again and come to a logical conclusion, undisturbed by his fears.

“Yes.”

“Then, if anything concerning happens, you know who to turn to. He will trust the people you do.”

Silence descended in the comfy room and John shifted in his chair.

‘Maybe he trusts me too much for his own good.’

An image of a white lit room and the words He’s entitled popped into John’s head but he pushed them forcefully away. It was a discussion many times ran through and better left to be concluded on a later date.

“I suppose it baffles me…”

She didn’t ask for an explanation, so he kept talking, momentary freer than before, zoned out, lost in memory, in the way innocence played through Sherlock’s drilling blue gaze.

“I didn’t know -hadn’t noticed, maybe didn’t care to notice- he could feel things… this way… Now, faced with it, with how important it was to him to know -explicitly- we were actually still friends…” He stopped, focused on Ella again and didn’t continue.

***

“Left or right?” John asks, an ever-present grin straining his zygomatic muscle for which he couldn’t care less.

As if he could ever stop smiling when Sherlock is fumbling to find the TV remote inside forts of pillows. As if the pout of Sherlock’s elegant cupid’s bow isn’t enough to make John’s chest heavy and his lungs constrained, fighting to forge out his laughter, an act which he is currently resisting.

“Anything will do.” Sherlock huffs, getting on with his search.

John coughs, trying to get his attention, the remote already in his palm. He waves it towards Sherlock in an exaggerated movement.

“Oh! You got it.” Sherlock straightens, surprised.

“Yeah.” John shrugs. “You had left it beside your chair earlier.”

“Ah…” Sherlock’s brows knit together in an attempt to jog his memory, then flops on the sofa cushions, wrapping his dressing gown tight around his waist.

John’s eyes stray over silk and pyjama shirt buttons, lingering on the patch of skin showing under Sherlock’s poking out, sharp collarbones. He reminds himself that this is Sherlock Holmes who never had trouble finding a pin in whatever mess 221B might have been and shakes himself, frowning. It’s certainly not the first time this has happened in the last month.

He sits at Sherlock’s right and offers the remote to him.

“Want to choose?”

“Sorry.” Sherlock takes it, trying to arrange some pillows in the process.

John had bought them a while ago, when he saw Rosie playing with Mrs Hudson’s, making forts and such, and decided it would be nice to get her some for upstairs as well. They used them as lava spots just yesterday, since she was too small to jump from one to the other yet, she just had to avoid them this time. Sherlock had watched, amused, until she finally crawled and clang to his feet, giggling, trying to avoid John, who was supposed to be a dragon.

“For what?”

“Making a mess for nothing.”

“Sherlock, those pillows are not supposed to be tidy anyway.”

“I could’ve sworn I had seen it there.” Sherlock presses the power button, surfing through the channels for a while.

“It’s quite alright.” John watches him, catches Sherlock’s fidgeting fingers with his gaze, arm crossed in front of his chest as his other -outstretched as it was, pushing buttons on the remote- rested its elbow on the bony wrist.

They settle on The Voice -it’s Saturday night after all- and stay quiet for a while, trying to catch on. The show has been progressing for a month now. Since the day John moved in, in fact. January 7th. He remembers flicking through it that night, absentminded as he was, a bottle of scotch in hand.

Sherlock’s giggle brings John back to the present, clear as water stream, sparkling in the sun. The battle they’ve been watching has just ended and the contestants speak humorously with the judges and coach.

“I would keep this one.”

“Really?” John smirks, expecting a nice big deduction monologue coming up.

“He’s got a nice range. Plus, the humour.” Sherlock says, shrugging.

John hums, amused, as Sherlock curls his feet up and drums his fingers on his knees, an easy smile settling over his features once more. The golden button is pressed by a judge and Sherlock gets his wish as both contestants stay in.

“They say that’s the strictest one.” John comments on the judge that asked for one contestant to be transferred to him.

“Do they?” Sherlock considers. “We’ll see.”

John notices the lack of another deduction but shrugs it off, determined to have a good night. He takes it as a silent invitation and proceeds to talk Sherlock through everything he knows of this year’s season, blabbing until the next song and laughing in between. There is no other deduction talk other than what John tries and fails to guess, Sherlock only raising a playful eyebrow here and there. John doesn’t mind, but is determined to get to the bottom of this soon.

“I’m hungry.” Sherlock announces about halfway through at a commercial break.

“Are you?” John stares at him, eyes like an owl.

“Mhm.” Sherlock gets up and hops to the kitchen, dressing gown belt hanging loose behind him.

John shakes his head, a fond smile on his face, joy blooming through his chest. This is the first time Sherlock sought to eat on his own and John is sure the words that just left his friend’s mouth haven’t done so for years.

“Would you like me to make anything?” John speaks after him, taking a sip of his tea in the process.

“No, thank you!” Sherlock sing-songs and John manages not to spill everything down on the carpet.

Another surprising experience. John is glad Sherlock is happy today, more than usual even. He waits until Sherlock comes back with his –‘Of course, what else?’- ginger biscuits before serving him more tea.

“Glad you’re hungry.” John praises, enjoying the slight flushed pink Sherlock’s cheeks take on.

He feels much better himself and even more so knowing that Sherlock is free to do so too. A tune plays and John turns rigid.

“Oh please.” He drawls.

Sherlock glances at him curious and John feels his cheeks flushing.

“Just… let this not be messed up.” He adds as an explanation.

Queen. Little else would ever betray John Watson other than dear old Freddie. Throw Bowie into the mix with this song and you’re all set. The battle starts between the two contestants and John’s jaw clenches. It’s a cover of the original, cutting up the pauses between verses to match the competition’s time limit. Still, John’s body twitches with the need to shake and dance and even maybe –just maybe- sing to the rhythm he knows so well.

“You like them?” Sherlock comments.

“Only too much.” John leans back, resting his head against the cushions.

He would still have the albums in vinyl if it wasn’t for-... Anyway… Collective editions they were. If he could have them again, pass his hands over the carved round plaque. Terrible and thrilling reminders in equal parts, transporting him to those years before the army, when he believed himself to be free, breaking through stereotype and the masses. It’s a pity he doesn’t have a record player now, otherwise he’d buy them all, find them from scratch again.

When the song ends, he feels bleeding and raw, cut open for the world to see but luckily for him, only Sherlock’s eyes are watching, sparkling through his shattering world with such joy that it draws John up and up and up through waves and white-water, against any current until he can breathe again.

“I didn’t know.” Sherlock smiles, hesitant.

“I’m glad you do now.” John manages in a tight whisper.

“I’m glad you told me.”

They fall into a companionable silence again, the songs and judging continuing in front of them undisturbed, images flashing and flicking through the screen in various colours with red in the lead as the show’s logo, reflected on the wallpaper, making it seem burned. They are shifting closer together and by the end of the night, knees and shoulders so close to brushing... Only a single pillow stuck between their hips as if to keep up appearances.

***

John stomps down the stairs exasperated; Rosie, a bundle of crying blankets in his arms. He enters the kitchen in a flurry, one baby blanket hanging loose over his thigh.

“Yes, I know, I know, sweet girl.” He says in hushed whispers, flicking on the light and going for the fridge. “But we must keep quiet, alright?”

A wail, muffled against his chest. John flinches visibly. He tries to rock her up and down one more time with no result. She cries louder.

“Little rose, please, please, Sherlock is sleeping well tonight, you mustn’t-” He freezes in place, his eyes blinking at Sherlock’s form, leaning against the mantelpiece.

Rosie is shocked silent, gasping, at the sudden pause of any movement. Sherlock gives a smile, but it wavers just a bit. John had come down a while ago. He honestly thought his friend was asleep tonight.

“Oh. I thought you-” Rosie whines. John tries to keep her moving. “Did we wake you?”

Understanding passes through Sherlock’s eyes as he shakes his head. It’s a no. John hums, ducking his head to check Rosie’s temperature again. Just woken up from a nightmare then. This couldn’t be more convenient. John almost rolls his eyes at the irony inside his head.

“Sorry. She’s been-” A trembling hiccup. “-not sleeping well…” John says anyway, a nervous smile making his lips slant sideways.

Rosie hiccups again and wails weakly, disturbed by it. Learning what a pain your transport is, little one? ‘Oh, god.’ John settles her in her baby chair and brushes her wet from tears curls backwards.

“Been thinking of making her a formula. One of the old ones she’s not eating daily anymore.”

He reaches for the fridge again, hurrying about. Sherlock doesn’t speak. John bites his lip. He turns with the milk in one hand, takes the sippy-cup from the counter with the other and looks right to Sherlock.

“Alright?”

John’s tone is soft but Sherlock has sat on a chair, gaze focused in its entirety on the puffy red-faced Rosie opposite him. Lines of worry are making his forehead fill with wrinkles and he is biting his lip raw in some inner struggle John is not privy to.

“Sherlock?”

John puts the milk in the microwave, pressing the learnt-by-heart buttons to bring it to the exact temperature Rosie needs it. When no reply comes, John turns, standing right beside Sherlock and considers him closely. He reaches a hand and pats his palm over a silken-clad shoulder, letting it rest there while he leans in beside him.

“Sherlock? Alright?”

Sherlock all but jumps to the ceiling. John pulls his hand away, fingers accidentally brushing over the small, sweaty curls of Sherlock’s nape -longer than usual; he hasn’t had a haircut since… who knows- and takes a step back.

“What?! Oh, yes, I’m, um, I-”

“Hey.” John feels his fingers almost burning. “You’re- you’re good?”

“Yes, John, of course.” Sherlock eyes him, taking a deep breath. “Startled, is all.” He mumbles.

John is taken over by a crippling worry working through his bones. His eyes wonder to all sorts of places around the room to avoid Sherlock. Had he done something wrong? Was touching not… His fingers twitch. Burn. He swallows. They had been casual all this while but maybe affectionate wasn’t on the table. Maybe it was forbidden. John is closing in on himself. Maybe Sherlock thought-

Bing.

The microwave. Right. He should get that.

John checks the milk and, satisfied, adds it to the sippy-cup, going round the table and leaning over his little girl, hoping she’ll soon stop crying.

“Come on, sweetheart, there you are, Papa brought you some-”

She pushes it away, lips firmly closed before he can even finish his sentence. He leaves it on the table, straightening his spine with his shoulder aching, trying to restrain himself. He brushes a palm over his eyes, groaning as she wails.

“John-” Sherlock’s voice is drowned by yet another cry.

Then Rosie bites at her blankets, letting tears fall.

“Can’t… do this…” John’s breaths heave for a moment.

A new wave of strength comes over him and he takes her in his arms again, cradling her as slow as he can manage.

“Shhh shh… shhhh hush, Rosie, please…”

An eerie silence falls over them like a veil and it’s so believable that John almost makes for the stairs to put her finally back to sleep but a pained cry starts and grows, drilling into his ears a moment after.

“Oh, god.”

John can’t take this. He can’t and he knows it and he doesn’t have a choice. But he knows he’ll snap if he can’t have one moment to himself. He knows his mind will be run over so much that he might lose it and let her fall down and he can’t bare it, not even the slightest possibility of it. Of hurting her. He’s overwhelmed. He needs a break.

He has no right to be doing this. No right to let her go to the next available person as he always did before. But Sherlock is not the next available person. Sherlock is… Sherlock is Sherlock and he loves her and takes care of her like no one else does and he knows her best and even after a hard night’s sleep when John has no right whatsoever to be-

John takes the few steps to his friend again -Rosie’s family- and holds her to him; face crumpled and pleading.

“Sherlock, please, please, take her, just for a moment, I need to-”

John startles as the weight is lifted of his arms and Sherlock is now standing, tall and firm, Rosie held over his chest already. Sherlock nods.

“I can help.”

“I-I need to-“ John catches on. “Christ, thank you!”

He runs to the bathroom. Fingers gripping the sink.

Breathe.

‘Damn it, what did I do? What did I do?’

Breathe.

‘It was an accident- She’s not sleeping and I was worried and he was-’

Breathe, John.

‘Easy for you to say. You’re in my head, you don’t have to breathe!’

Problem?

John breathes. No, of course not. Not a problem. Sherlock is… John wants him. In his head. In his life. To care for his daughter. He wants him-

Breathe.

‘As if that could ever happen…’ He thinks bitterly and breathes. Again… One more time.

Rosie has stopped wailing and even crying. John frowns.

Breathe.

‘She’s in good hands, isn’t she?’

No reply.

When he tiptoes back to the kitchen, he has managed not to rage on the towels. At least. The sight greeting him makes him stop short. There’s no one there. He takes a few more steps and… there they are. He almost breaks into a purely affectionate smile -like the ones he gives them after work- before remembering what has transpired. John stands there, baffled.

Sherlock is lying on the sofa, settled over their heap of pillows. Rosie is curled over his torso, face mushed against Sherlock’s bare chest. John’s eyes widen. She’s sleeping. Sherlock is humming. John tries real hard to not make a sound. Sherlock’s eyes are closed.

She is sleeping.

John stifles the thoughts saying he was the only reason she couldn’t sleep. Because he wasn’t good enough. He knows it’s not true. He repeats it silently until he believes it a fraction, his head turning to other pressing matters. Matters making his stomach burn.

John tries not to look at any exposed skin, to note at the paleness of pectorals, the hairiness -if any- and the colour. He tries and he doesn’t succeed. Sherlock has unbuttoned his pyjama shirt halfway to let Rosie rest her head over his sternum. Her blankets are untangled, covering both of them, keeping them warm. John can see him breathe with every melodious small hum, can see the lines of his ribs, can’t help but note that his nipples are covered with his shirt’s edges and that Rosie is covering most of the soft auburn curls of his sternum.

He takes a step forwards and breathes more clearly, letting his gaze fall. Sherlock’s feet are pushed under some pillows in a search for warmth. The humming stops. John stops too.

“John?”

John glances at him.

“Feeling any better?” Sherlock’s tone is sweet like honey, deep like a double bass and tentative like the first bird to break into song every morning.

John nods.

“How-how did you-…?” He whispers.

Sherlock shifts, a tad self-conscious.

“I merely… Music. I mean, she needs a rhythm.”

“Oh?” John approaches, inquisitive.

“She likes to hear a heartbeat. Humming a tune adds to it. Vibrations of the chest cavity.”

John presses a hand to his mouth, suppressing a giggle.

“Clever.”

“Mm…” Sherlock quirks an eyebrow. Flattery…

“I’m sorry… for leaving her with you like that, it was-”

“It’s alright. Here, ready for bed now”

John inhales.

“Do you mind-… keeping her for a while? Just to make sure?”

Sherlock tilts his head.

“Yes... Sure.”

John sits at a chair beside them, fingers flexing, legs stretching, tension oozing out of each and every pore of his body.

“Thanks.”

He watches the way Sherlock holds her; different than his own. The way he strokes her hair, pats her back. John observes for the first time this rare occurrence that must happen every day when he’s not home. He realises little by little how much more Sherlock knows her, understands her. He has been her main caretaker for the better part of a month and already knows everything there is about her. John remembers all the times Sherlock has given him a full report of all her activities throughout the day, his tone indicating that nothing was amiss, so much that John didn’t even register the fact that Sherlock knew everything because he did everything with her. John has been thinking of him as Rosie’s family no matter what, but hadn’t actually attributed him all the credit he should get for it. He remembers Sherlock’s young and childish face, all bent on the mission, the work, the next case, chase, the new puzzle, in search of a higher class of criminal he could take down. With a pang of unexpected pride, John realises just how much the image differs from this new, a few years older, countless painful mission later Sherlock. How much Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective, distant, cold and unfeeling could change and mellow through the years. Or was it just the resurfacing of his actual self what was happening…?

***

Sherlock waits as John’s breathing returns to normal. Honeybee’s breaths are soft and even against his skin, warm puffs of air. He had known this way to calm her since a little more than a year ago. She was so much smaller then, almost half in size, a small kitten nestled into his arms. Then, he would play for her, compose little lullabies and tunes, hum to her with the unfurling of the melodies. Her gurgled laughter was chirpy, then, and her eyes quick to shine. But sometimes, even then, his violin did not work. She would whine and whimper and reach small grabby hands to him, with longing enough that his playing withered. Those times, or when she would wake up from a toothache, a bad night’s sleep, a tummy-ache, or just because of some loud noise, those times she needed a warm hug, and the reassurance of a steady heartbeat against her ear to guide her back to sleep. To feel wrapped in a cocoon, enclosed within a seashell’s embrace, it never failed to calm her down. Skin contact helped, and when given the chance she always burrowed close to what meagre warmth his sternum could give. Sherlock tried to give her all the hugs and touches and reassurance she needed. How she lacked them he could feel in his bones, how she needed love, as if she were a starving baby bird. But then Honeybee was taken away from him, and he could not protect her from loneliness anymore.

He can hold her now. For one month he’s fought to give her everything 8 months apart had taken from them both, fearing each day might be the last when he would be allowed to smile at her, to watch her grow, learn, play. To feel her trust, her innocent, pure care for him -ever trying to feed him with her spoon. He did not want to encourage her to bond with him, did not want her to experience another loss a second time. He always felt their time was borrowed. But every time he tried to resist her sunlit smiles, he couldn’t. And now he can hold her.

John has asked him to hold her more. And now it can’t be desperation talking. Maybe it’s just the worried fear that she will start crying again that makes John insist Sherlock keep her. But even so… That means he trusts him to help. John trusts him at a time enough to make him bend.

John sees in him a friend. John trusts him. And that is enough for Sherlock. It truly is. At this moment, with Honeybee asleep and safe in his arms, with John beside him, he feels strong. He feels better, better for once being tangible, real. He knows this will not be enough in the long run, that the hole in his chest is never quite appeased. But that’s alright. For once, he thinks he has found a reality where he can belong without the pain being as sharp.

“Well that was… That was something”, John says, gently, as if testing the silence, whether it will give or hold.

“Well. Three’s company. Or however the saying goes”, Sherlock shrugs with a small smile.

“Oh god, no, don’t encourage her”, John exclaims, his eyebrows shooting up. He looks genuinely horrified, but then his eyes are crinkling.

“Absolutely not”

 They look at each other, settling under each other’s gaze.

“But in case there is a repeat… It’s fine”

John hums, considers this a little.

“You’ll know what to do”, Sherlock adds, to clarify.

John smiles at that. “Get her to you, obviously”.

‘Obviously?’          

Git.

Sherlock doubts John catches how he faltered, there. He is looking at his hands instead, right wringing the left over and over. The atmosphere has grown more serious, as if John’s bent head has been gathering storm-clouds. But as soon as Sherlock is about to sit up and give in to his instinct to worry, John looks up again, and the skies clear.

“Come to her appointment with me? It’s this Tuesday. At 10.30”

Sherlock blinks. Honeybee’s appointment, with the children’s psychotherapist and speech therapist. John had arranged it some days ago and was both intrigued by the fellow doctor’s abundant qualifications and worried about the procedure in equal measure.

“John, I-“

“She needs you. I need you. Please”

“Of course. Of course”

Sherlock is afraid; it just takes a wrong step. But then again, he has taken many, and there was no reprimand, no abandonment. Perhaps this could be the same. This is a responsibility he is not just allowed to share, but wanted to share. And it is Honeybee, after all. Honeybee, and the pleading, deep-sea eyes that turn tranquil again with his reply.

Into battle, then.

Chapter Text

“What are you up to, Honeybee?”

Sherlock kneels on the ground to be on the same level as her in her smaller baby chair. She does not raise her gaze to him, studiously sticking her tongue at her artwork with concentration. Her newfound fascination with her colored crayons has been going on for half an hour now, and Sherlock has been most amused by how she is trying to refine her fine motor skills to grip the crayons better, how she has been focused on a single activity for quite so long on her own, and how she really seems to be enjoying this; giggling as she tests out different colours, as she discovers the freedom with which she can make them flow and clash and transform on the paper.

John left for his shift a couple of hours ago, and for the first time, she seemed a little lost at his absence. After John waved her goodbye, she sat on the carpet with her elephant suffocated to her chest, eyes locked on the door, her lips parted a little in the expression she took when she was troubled. It lasted for five minutes. Sherlock let her have some time, and then approached her with a stuffed penguin, had it nuzzle her cheeks and boop her nose. She had giggled and turned to boop him back with her elephant. And from then on, they had been back to normal.

Now an interesting collection of pink shapes has been assorted, accentuated by some blues and purples, dots and lines. He smiles. Waits for her to finish with her creative frenzy and address him.

When she does, she breaks in a shy smile. And what he does is smile more widely for her, reflecting her expression like clearwater, magnifying it. It does not feel quite as strange a thing, now. Smiling. Not that it was difficult with Honeybee. But now his face feels chiseled into his laughter lines, and the transition does not come with the pain of the thorn in his side, that thorn that reminds him just how much he does not normally smile.

Honeybee pushes the finished drawing towards him. He peers more closely at it. “I like your choice of secondary hues. They really bring out the baby pink”, he praises.

She cannot understand the exact words, not yet. But he makes sure she can understand and feel their tone, their meaning. And to leave no room for doubt, he kisses her blushing cheek.

She claps her hands. “You put a lot of effort into it, and it shows”, he continues softly. “Do you want to tell me what it is?”

She scrunches up her nose, looks down and mumbles. She’s being shy, a flower afraid to bloom too fast. Sherlock can’t suppress a chuckle and another kiss for her. “Show me, then?”, he prompts gently.

She babbles her agreement and glues a chubby finger to one of the grey elephants dotting the navy blue of her baby chair.

“An elephant! One of the most intelligent and intriguing mammals. A very interesting choice. And of course, it is obvious now! Here is the trunk”, he points on her artwork, where vaguely a head shape is drawn by a still-clumsy childish hand, “and these are the ears!”

She claps in agreement as he demonstrates, placing his palms by his head like elephant ears and waves them softly, as the massive creatures do to fend off flies. Then she mimics the movement and laughs.

His chest swells, filling with bright pink and blues and purples. He wants to smother her in kisses, he wants to show and tell the world how she is the most clever, sweet toddler, the brightest most playful little ray of sunshine, the most hardworking bee. No. Not the world -he doubts the world will ever deserve her. He wants to give her an audience of people who love her, of people with warm faces that smile for her, whose arms are ready to hold her and protect her as much as she is. He wants her to have a family, he wants her joy to be shared and multiplied and celebrated. Sherlock wants her to grow and feel that every stage in her life has been important, not only what she will be able to accomplish when older, some day in the future, but everything she has ever done, even, and perhaps most importantly, the seemingly trivial, simple thing of an abstract pink elephant drawing.

Sherlock aches. He aches for her to have that. And he longs he could share his love for her too, with someone who could multiply it, someone who already felt it. He wants to boast about her, to praise her in the company of someone who will agree with the praise, to talk about how incredible she is with someone who sees her as a wonder too. He wants to be allowed to do that, to be recognized as able to do that, as worthy enough to do that. It’s funny how both joy and pain are difficult to carry alone.

“I have an idea. Do you want to put your drawing on the fridge, so that we can see it every day? It will be a beautiful memory. What do you think?”, he blurts out. She makes a soft ‘oh’ sound of interested confusion.

“See how we have some lists stuck on the fridge with these small round magnets?”, he explains pointing the shopping list and John’s appointment and shift timetable that are fixed on the fridge with blue magnets. “We can put your drawing there, too”

Her eyebrows raise in realization, and she nods emphatically, sunny ringlets of hair bouncing up and down on her forehead. “Yes? Okay, come on, then!”

Sherlock helps her out of her chair and walks beside her, as she trots to the fridge, drawing in one hand, pink stuffed elephant clutched tight by an ear in the other.

She stands in front of the fridge and looks up at him. He picks a magnet and gives it to her -she has to let her elephant down at her feet to take it. “You do it, little bee. Place your drawing wherever you want, and put the magnet on it to secure it”

Her concentrated look surfaces again as she turns to the fridge. He takes a step back. He wants to hold this moment in his hand, to feel how it feels, like the soft down on the skin of a ripe peach, orange and warm and sweet and a little tangy.

Rosie chooses a spot, a little above the level of her eyes, and proudly pins her abstract pink elephant in place. The world zooms in at the blue of the magnet.

‘I wish you were here. I wish you were with us’

Honeybee turns to grin at him, the brightest baby-smile, stuffed pink elephant in her arms again, her small nose a cute little button on her face. He is already waiting with his phone’s camera. He snatches the moment, Honeybee’s clear-sky eyes, just like her father’s in shape, the drawing in the background, the soft, rare February sunlight making the photograph bright and pastel both, not letting the life of the moment be left out of its still rendition. Time slows down, even just for a heartbeat’s worth.

‘I wish you were with me’

Honeybee giggles. The moment is broken. She runs to hug his legs, both arms thrown around his knees.

Sherlock feels raw as he bends to pick her up and nestle her into his arms. “I am proud of you”, he says, out of breath. “I am very proud of you, Honeybee”

***

“Yes, Mrs Trevor, your son is just fine. Make sure to take that cough syrup every two hours and watch him. Come back in two days if he’s not improving.”

John’s phone vibrates in his jean pocket. He bids his goodbye to the worried mother persisting her son had pneumonia; to the point John had to mention he had served in the army for her to believe him and pull rank to reassure her.

He slips two fingers in his tight jeans and fishes his phone out. The name on the screen startles him, makes him stand in silence for a handful of moments. He straightens, preparing for an emergency. Sherlock wouldn’t have texted otherwise. ‘Would he?’ Would he not? He tries to contain the joy residing and growing from his chest cavity, making all his limbs tingle in appreciation of such a feeling. If he closes his eyes he can feel seven years younger, can see the incoming text on his phone while he sits on his miserable bedsit, barging in whether convenient or not, changing his life with bright iridescent eyes looking right through him and seeing him all the same. His thumb presses the text clumsily.

- You have been sent an MMS. To open this file, press here. -

Rosie had an important achievement today. -SH

John consumes the words of Sherlock’s small, reluctant caption in seconds and presses the download link with trembling fingers. A grin has spread all over his face and he can’t stop it, nor does he want to.

-file received-

The world tilts on its axis and John’s eyes water. He brings a hand to his mouth, muffling whatever was about to come out of his lips. His little Rose stands proudly in front of their fridge, a wide smile on her face, playful tufts falling over her temples. Her gaze so direct, straight to the camera of Sherlock’s phone -or more accurately, on Sherlock- that John has to steady himself on his examination bed. She’s happy and her small drawing that might seem so childish, amateur and clumsy to anyone else, is a masterpiece on her father’s eyes.

Happy. Happy and confident and loved. She is proof he can fix whatever mistakes he has made, correct every one of his wrongdoings that hurt her. Proof their healing process has started and has actual results. He weeps, quiet and reserved, not pressing the button to his secretary for the next patient to come in, looking at how beautiful, just beautiful she is. He remembers all her firsts he has missed, all her achievements he passed by and never gave a thought because he was angry, mind self-absorbed in everything else going wrong and not caring for the one thing that was there and right. Always.

Sherlock had told him about her first attempt at speaking. Her mother was gone then. They were searching, trying to get ahead of her, every time the GPS showed a new location, signs of movement, anything. He remembers how he came back from work grumpy and irritated, how Sherlock had told him about her blabbing the same syllable all day since John left, how that syllable had been ‘Da’ and how Sherlock believed she was trying to say ‘Daddy’, calling on John. He remembers how he had scoffed, said there were more important things to do than teach her to call him ‘Daddy’ which he would hate no matter when it happened. Sherlock had fallen silent and John hadn’t bothered to tell him that he would prefer ‘Papa’. Sherlock never told him anything else after that.

Then there was Molly. John hadn’t seen her in a month. Since his first week living back in 221B. She wanted to stay clear of the place -of Sherlock- and she had been perfectly clear about it after watching him wasn’t required anymore. John hadn’t had half the mind to object then. Although he should have. Definitely. He should have. But it wouldn’t do any good now… He remembers when she told him about Rosie’s first steps. From her cot to her toys on the carpet. She was careful with the news, respecting his supposed grief, even if it was mere guilt and anger and self-hatred. John hadn’t even taken Rosie in his arms for a well-deserved ‘good job’ that day. Not even a word of affection. Just like his Father had done to him, just like he hated.

Even before that, before the world was a mess John couldn’t possibly understand, he remembers. Mrs Hudson had been the first to witness Rosie’s small toothless smile as an infant. She had been so joyous, so overwhelmed, John brought her a soother just to make sure she won’t be having a heart-attack sooner rather than later. It had been such a big deal and he felt it too. He remembers feeling it. But then… then he only remembers his dry smile at her mother’s flat joke. Not smiling for her mother first huh? Tsk tsk, little devil, some gratitude would be appreciated. He remembers going with it. Not commenting and ignoring Mrs Hudson’s look of shocked disapproval. Christ’s sake, how could he ever believe a manipulative ex(or not so ex)assassin and an army doctor with anger issues and childhood of abuse could ever raise a child together? A child neither of them had said they wanted?

John bit his lip. He had hurt so many people… Especially those he most loved… All because of one woman that couldn’t care less about her own family. His jaw tightened. It was his fault too… A lot of it. But he wasn’t the only one and he couldn’t help feeling angry outside of himself too. There were certain things, all on him, that he needed to fix. But the biggest ones… the biggest ones, dragging him down to the dirt… he carried all his life… and they weren’t his fault. Were they?

The moment of clarity passes and John breathes, reining it all in, keeping the guilt inside once more, saving it for later where he could ruminate at peace, resolve it in his seminar today afternoon. Now it is time for joy, even if he is feeling quite sappy at the same time. He raises his thumbs and types, slow and careful, auto-correct and word-suggestion set to “ON” of course.

That’s my girl.

His cheek muscles stretch and John realises he’s smiling.

You two’ve been busy, I see.

Tell her I’m proud, would you?

He rubs his eyes a bit before snapping a picture with a thumbs up and a genuine grin, but he doesn’t really mind if Sherlock sees how the picture and text made him emotional. Not anymore. He has nothing to be ashamed of. He is a father and he is going to honour it, honour her as she deserves.

-file sent-

John looks at his screen for a minute or two before buzzing the next patient in. He stays efficient and focused until he bids them goodbye too and then he scrambles for his phone.

Most certainly, John. -SH

Thanks.

And after a moment.

How are you doing?

I’m quite well myself. Thank you. -SH

Good. Had anything to eat?

Not yet. -SH

Make sure you do? Please?

Of course. -SH

I’m glad you’re having fun together.

John waits, sees the eclipses, a sign Sherlock’s typing. A knock sounds at the door. John startles.

Shit, gotta go. See you soon.

Much later, after two hectic hours of flu patients and two sprained ankles John feels his phone vibrating again inside his pocket. He hasn’t had time to check but now he does, already smiling at the thought of another text from Sherlock. The letters on the screen make his blood boil. He turns it to silent and buzzes in his next patient.

***

“How?! How can you do this, John?” was what followed his brief text, informing her of him, moving back to Baker Street, a day or two after he had done so. He didn’t remember when exactly. He’d lost track.

“There’s no discussion to be done about it, Harry.”

“Oh, there is!” His sister raged on.

“You don’t get a say in that.”

“You think it’s as simple as that? Right? You think you can get away with it as always-” She gulped for air. “Well, I’ve got news for you, little brother. You’ve been careless before-”

His blood ran cold.

“I don’t need you to pamper me.”

“Don’t you? Look at what you’ve done with your life!”

He knew very well what she meant. Got involved in London’s crime scene. Lost his best friend. Mourned. Proposed. Hit him when he came back. Married. Had a child despite his intentions not to. Lost his wife. Mourned. Got angry. Let his daughter down. Hit Sherlock again. Almost killed him. Let him fall into drugs again. Twice. Was not there for him.

She didn’t know everything, but she knew enough. Those that mattered to her as failure anyway.

“Just because Father made your life hell and now is gone, doesn’t mean I need you to remind me of him.” He hissed. How many times had he told her before? She never seemed to consider it an insult, a warning. Despite her own mentions of their Father being horrendous and disgusting.

“Oh, because you had it so bad yourself, didn’t you?” She snarled and it sounded like a cat scratching at the microphone on her end.

He pursed his lips. Yes, he did. Why couldn’t she ever get that?

“I’m not saying you had it better, Harry...”

Her cackle broke through the line.

“It’s not a competition...”

‘What does it hurt to try gently? What does it hurt to give her a chance to take it back?’ thought John.

“Yeah, right, always the same old Johnny. Always competitive, always better, always the fucking normal one! But ‘it’s not a competition, Harry’! Grow up!” She shouted at him.

A sigh. He closed his eyes even though she couldn’t see him.

“I’m not going to change my mind. I’ve already moved in.”

She snorted then.

“Yeah, right, we’ll see about that, Johnny, we’ll see.”

“Don’t expect me to come running to you for help, Harry. This is over.”

“Don’t expect me to help you when your crazy flatmate decides to take a trip on the other side again.”

“I’ve never asked for your help, Harriet.” His tongue highlighted the last syllable. “Your delusions are better kept to yourself.”

He pressed ‘end call’ before she could reply and hung his head low.

What could he do? She was never going to admit her problem wasn’t only the drinking which she had stopped but also compulsive behaviour. She was proud and that’s why she was never going to get much better.

What could he do? Anger ran in the family, after all.

***

John has twenty missed calls by the end of the hour. His shift is done and he is packing up, getting out of his hospital robe which he wore to examine a patient a couple minutes ago at the hospital ward, giving a second last minute opinion with some MRIs before they took them in for surgery.

He looks at his phone screen, divided. It has to happen at some point. He can’t keep his phone on silent indefinitely. Sherlock might need him. Rosie might need him. Mrs Hudson- The screen lights up. ‘Fuck.’ He answers.

“Yes?” He fights to control his voice with claws and teeth inside himself.

“I see you changed your address.” Her tone is stone cold.

“Yes.”

“Permanently.”

“Obviously.” He smirks with how familiar this sounded to his own ears.

He hears a long-suffering sigh from the other end. He knows she’s trying to make him ask, be curious of what she thinks. He knows the trick. He won’t fall to her trap.

“Are we done?” He leans on his desk, crossing one arm over his chest.

“Johnny... please, listen”

Here we go.

“I’m listening.”

‘I’m ready.’

‘Course you are.

“You’ve made it clear, how I don’t have any say in this... But... I’m worried, you are destroying her life.”

Big words. Little meaning.

“How so?” A storm is brewing.

“You know very well.”

“Enlighten me.”

Atta boy.

“Living with him.” She rushes with an impatient sigh, as if lightning will strike, just by her talking about it.

“He cares.”

I care!”

“You weren’t even at her baptism.”

“You know why I couldn’t-”

“You could’ve made an exception.”

He has startled her to silence. When she returns her tone is full of confrontation and irony, laced with danger, fuelled with hatred.

“Oh? Like you make an exception for me?”

John breathes. She’s got him. Almost. Not quite. But the implication is clear enough and his breaths are stuttering. She doesn’t know. Doesn’t know him. Doesn’t know who he is, how he’s lived, what he’s lived. She’s just his sister who he doesn’t know either. She shouldn’t be allowed to get him like this, so quickly, so efficient. A surgeon pressing his scalpel into flesh.

J-John?

The voice falters in his mind and he’s staggering, slapped by his own hand. What an unfortunate comparison. John closes his eyes. A desperate shout. A fist. Clutching on fabric. ‘Is this a game?’ There is nothing he can do to black out the images rushing to his head. The trembling hands. The scalpel. Thescalpelthescalpelthescalpel. An arm-lock, a hit, a wrist. Fingers opening, John throwing Sherlock backwards. The sound of the surgical instrument falling, hitting the floor, clinging. Once, twice. A bang of a spine against metal. ‘Stop it.’ Again. ‘Stop it now!’ Thrice. Done. Rested on the ground. Shining. Lifeless. Dangerous. Gleaming.

His fingers coil; tight fists. It’s his trigger. He knows it is. John. Wake up. That phrase again. What he has to do. ‘Wake up.’ To himself. John! The voice rasps and he is thrown back to reality, to his sister, to his anger, his slow progress, their home, their healing, their family. Our weird family. His daughter. His little girl. No one has the right to accuse him of raising her like- raising her like-

But how can he prove anyone wrong? How can he prove Harry wrong? She isn’t his exception. But she can’t know that. Not in a million years. He can’t defend himself. Or else he might reveal just too much. There’s a reason he kept his life separate. A reason he ran away, but not after her. He didn’t need any more dictating of his life. He wasn’t going to be one of those poor young adults from abusive homes always needing someone over their head to function. No, no, he hated that foolish stereotype and he wasn’t going to give in. She would dictate his freedom while he needed a clean slate. He hadn’t let that happen. He won’t let her do it now either.

Will he be successful though? Will he be enough? Will he do good?

Yes. You will.

“That has nothing to do with Rosie.”

“Doesn’t it?”

“No.”

“Aren’t you going to tell her someday, mm?”

“Tell her what?”

“Why you don’t let her be alone with aunt Harry?”

She’s taunting you.

“What?!” He’s confused. This is too far.

“How is he better than me, Johnny, mm? Why him?”

He blinks.

I believe in you, John.

“Well, for starters, he doesn’t question my decision to raise Rosie myself.”

“He’s a junkie!”

He pulls the phone away, wincing at her volume.

“You don’t know him.” He growls, stern.

She snorts.

“Your fucking love confession of a blog is enough for me.”

“No, it’s different-” He flushes.

“There we are again. I get it.”

“No!” It’s strangled.

“He’s not like me in that way, is he? A junkie and a psychopath but brilliant and not dirty, not soiled, God’s child, not a sinner-”

“STOP!” He’s the one screaming now.

How can she think he ever believed that shite? After years and years of her proving she’s normal to her own self? In parades and rallies and campaigns. How can she think that little of herself? How can she think her own brother thinks there is something wrong with her? After he helped her every chance he got? Every time she let him?

Do you? Do you think you’re normal?

It’s fucking sad, ya know? Those people. Abnormal beings. Can never be happy.

Don’t you  d a r e  think it will be okay, boy! Do you hear me?

It’s a godsend plague, that. Mark my words. It’s here to kill them all.

‘Oh.’ He inhales.

“Be honest, Johnny.”

Same family. Same upbringing. Same experiences. How can she think she’s normal when he can’t either. The difference is… She’s using it against him and she doesn’t admit there’s something she needs to fix for herself in the process. She is just taking advantage of him feeling like shit.

“Harry, I’m not fucking Dad!” He struggles to keep his voice even.

She might ignore it or take it too lightly when she’s compared to Father but he can’t. He doesn’t. It’s what he’s been running away from for ages. What he’s most afraid, most disgusted about. Then again, if she believes him, maybe they can talk, maybe solve this petty feud between them, bridge the gap, reassure each other they are okay, sibling to sibling. The world is just wrong.

“Aren’t you?”

His fingers flex. He’s standing upright, in attention. Phone pressed against his sweaty earlobe. Any thought of reconciliation vanishes. He’s burning from within. What infuriates him the most is how she’s playing him with words, how she doesn’t even seem affected by the conversation, how she’s reminding him he’s the angry one, the uncontrollable male, the one in power, able to do anything he wants. Privileged. He hates how she makes him be what he hates. How she makes him believe it.

“I-I helped you that time.” He tries, swallowing hard. “I never repeated any of the shite he said.”

“So what? You never really cared to contradict them either.”

No. No. He cared. He had helped her to get away. He had reassured her what Father said wasn’t true and she could be happy, she could have a family, she could- No. It’s not his fault she ruined herself and her life. He’s not him. Rosie will never hear a single shaming or hateful comment from him. Towards anyone. John will not let her life be like his. Harry is wrong. He’s the man, the soldier that whatever power he has, always considers twice before using it. He can be the man he wants to be, the man Sherlock believes him to be. Harry is wrong. He can be a father. A proper one.

Harry is wrong.

“I’m fucking glad Clara had the right mind to dumb you.”

He ends the call and turns his phone off. He’s seething. Anger pooling to every limb of his body. Energy boiling him alive. He can’t go to his seminar today. He fucking can’t. Shame drowns him. His last word outburst doesn’t even come close to make him start feeling any better. He is shaking whole. He can only grab his bag and run.

Home. He needs to go home.

***

221B is sleeping. Honeybee is asleep in her cot upstairs, for a much-needed afternoon nap. Sherlock is curled up on the couch, dressing gown thrown over him as a blanket, dozing off with the baby monitor beside the pillow under his head. He is stuffed as much as he can be with Mrs. Hudson’s roast. She does not cook for them on an everyday basis -far from it- but often shares afternoon tea with him when John comes home late, and sometimes helps with the cooking at lunchtime to give him more time if Rosie is being a little stroppy, or when she is being particularly energetic -like she was today.

Today was a good day.

‘Mm… She will be well-rested for tomorrow’

For the speech therapist appointment. Drowsiness evaporates at the thought, worry taking its place.

It’s okay. She will be okay.

The familiar voice inside his head, now that he has had the melody of John’s real vowels and consonants into his every day, has taken new volume and substance. It has adjusted little inconsistencies, turned warmer and even more realistic, bursting with color.

Sherlock opens his eyes, and scrambles for his phone. When the screen is unlocked, the photograph he took this morning of little bee with her elephant and elephant drawing greets him with its warm light. He opens his messages, breath held in his throat until the conversation loads. But there they are. He scrolls up, fast and then more slowly, each message sending a small jolt of liquid, bittersweet joy to his abdomen, small ruffling shivers at his spine.

He reads again. Tries to feel the words as if they were touches, wonders what they would be; a hand brushing on his, a soft caress on his cheek that wouldn’t mind the stubble there, a gentle kiss on his forehead. John’s words. Words of praise, happy words, caring words; saying he is glad to receive the photograph, that he is proud, asking about how Sherlock feels. Sherlock imagines the words like a soft summer breeze, like gentle afternoon sunlight, and lets them wash over him.

He will be with them tomorrow, at the therapist. He will be with them. Needed. Wanted.

‘I have never been wanted before’

It takes some moments, but he smiles. He is happy, like this. He can be. For as long as it lasts, it is a reality he wants to live.

Even if there are still things he and John have not resolved, things that may as well never be brought up, it’s a friendship on both old and new foundations, and some things are better left alone if they are to move on, to find a new way of being who and what they used to be. But it’s a thrill. It’s a thrill he had said he would choose over nothing, and he was right, after all. He wants John in his life, he needs him. Friendship is not such a big compromise after all: it’s what John has given him before, it’s something given to him in place of nothing. No. It’s not a compromise. It is a gift, and he does appreciate it. He can live with it, and he will be happy to live with it. It is enough. And when it isn’t he will make it be.

At the very least, now some of the pain will be eased. He used to look down and see only his empty hands, and a second hole through his chest. Now his hands can hold Honeybee, and the hole in his chest is worth something enough to grant him relief.

He sets his phone down to the sound of the front door opening and closing with a thud. His ears perk up. Mrs. Hudson wasn’t out, and she wouldn’t go out. Unless she made plans, but no, this is not the way she closes the door behind her. Then the footfalls on the stairs follow, and he has shot upright, pulling his dressing gown on. John. There is no mistaking his bearing, his stride, the way his breaths rise and fall. In a sea of people, a million of them, as intertwined and inseparable as the drops that together make the water, Sherlock would know him, would find him.

The bearing is hunched now, the stride impatient, the breaths shallow. John is heaving at the door, left hand clenched into a stone-like fist, lips drawn inwards, sternly pursed, jaw muscles bulging and disappearing like bubbles poking at the surface.

Because I’ve had a row. With a machine.

Sherlock has seen him like this before. He has seen the calmer version; date gone wrong, frustrating impossible case, frustrating impossible Sherlock. He has seen the deadly one; at his return, at the talk in the empty houses and its continuation at 221B. But altogether, he can feel that whatever this is, it is nothing exactly like every other time he has seen John Watson being angry.

He’s not supposed to be home. For a good four hours more, maybe five, depending on the traffic. He had the anger management seminar today -he didn’t go. And he’s not supposed to be on the verge of tears. His chin is trembling, the left edge of his lips quivering, fist shaking, eyelids blinking too fast but at random intervals. His nose pinched just that little bit at the bridge, as if he is trying to hold his entire body still, in place.

John hates crying.

Their eyes meet. John knows Sherlock knows, or perhaps he fears that Sherlock does. He looks away, gritting his teeth. The fridge stops gurgling, and there are no sounds, then, nothing to fill the empty space between them, so that it grows into a void, an airtight bag. There is a kick in Sherlock’s stomach, his blood surging, as if being drawn to the surface of his skin. Adrenaline.

The fridge’s mechanical purring starts anew, and John walks stiffly into the kitchen, with not as much as a word. Sherlock waits, lets whatever it is break for air.

The cupboard hinges creak, glass chinks against glass, and then a thud. The tap running. Silence. Not for long.

“God fucking damnit. God damnit, enough, enough, enough!”

A fist pounds onto the rim of the sink -metal and hollow.

“Fuck’s sake… Fuck’s sake, fuck’s sake!”

Sherlock stands, slowly. He doesn’t like John’s anger, how it crumples him, shattering his features as if they were a reflection on a broken mirror. How he shuts himself in it, as if it were a cage for a beast.  

The next cry is incomprehensible.

It’s John through and through, seething, more beneath the surface than over it. And yet it’s rough and undefined all over. A molten mass. Sherlock dislikes it at once, what has John feeling like this. What stands between John and his daughter, John and his recovery.

There is another thud, sharper than the last; a punch. And another. And another. A rapid series of them that ends in a crescendo.

Sherlock walks closer. With every impact of fist on metal his ears feel as if they are flinching, but the rest of him is still, immovable. He has faced a raging John before, a John that tried to hurt himself, that growled and trembled like a beaten, stray dog.

John must have felt him, because his shoulder-blades curve inwards, his spine arching above the sink. Now he is all cornered animal.

“You are angry”, Sherlock states. Normally, stating the obvious is criminal offense. He doubts it is obvious this time. In this moment, John is not angry; John is his anger.

John snorts, something that vaguely resembles a frustrated agreement.

“You don’t want to be”. It’s not a question, but not a statement either. An offering, instead. The ground is unsteady beneath their feet, and there are cracks on the ice that spread and grow thicker, like blackened dry branches.

John’s shoulders snap back, as if Sherlock had gotten a hold of them with his hands and yanked them back himself. The only response is a growl.

Sherlock straightens his spine. The last time, John was in no state to argue, drunk and weakened as he was. Now is different. John has full awareness and can -and possibly will- resist any attempt Sherlock can make to reach him. Sherlock is not sure how much he can help, if he can help. They are friends again, alright, but now this is being tested for the first time, and they had set no boundaries, no guidelines for cases of emergency like this one. But there is nothing to it; there are things, achievements, progress that are at stake if that fire is allowed to burn and destroy as it wills. All these days, Sherlock’s mission has been to provide John with a steady home to go back to, a stable environment, safe for healing. This peace is being threatened by whatever has become enclosed within John like an atomic bomb. The least Sherlock can do, is help him diffuse it. He doesn’t know a way. So what? He’ll find a way.

The air around John is crackling. Sherlock leans against the kitchen table, dares it approach. Lets it flow through him and leave him intact. Poison being drawn out.

“You don’t want to be. But you are, now. It’s okay”

“Sherlock” It is guttural, drawled. A warning, but without a sting at its tail.

Sherlock finds more tension oozing out of him, leaving room for more of John’s to flow out of him in the constrained space.

“What happened?”

Another growl. It just ricochets. Sherlock’s body fills out against it.

“Talk me through it”

He sees John’s back twist into a knot, as if the words are being wrestled out of him.

“She called”

“Who called?”

John inhales, sharply. “Harry”. Sherlock waits. John is solid, the way solid flames would be. “I just… I’m really, really mad right now, Sherlock” He sounds tired. “I…. I don’t think it’s a good idea-“

“Tell me how you’re feeling”

John’s fist clenches around the sink’s rim. “Livid. Totally livid”

“Okay”

“Yeah. Fuck, it’s not okay”. His volume has risen.

“Okay. What do you want to feel?”

John’s jaw muscles bulge as he swallows. “Calm. For once. Just… calm. I want to be fucking left alone. Just, just left alone”

There is a note of finality in John’s voice, but Sherlock lets it ring and then fade. “Who was it?”

It drives home. John exhales black fume. “My sister”, he whispers.

“Okay. What did she do?”

“She… Fuck’s sake, I can’t. I can’t, I need to… I…”

“John. What did she do?”

John’s fist rises, just a little, but then just rests on the counter without force. “She called. When I was finishing. At work. She’s mad. Mad that I live here, mad that I’m not letting her see Rosie”

Sherlock nods, even though John can’t see him. John never had the most amicable of relations with his sister. Sherlock has never met her before. She wasn’t present at the wedding, at Rosie’s baptism, and John barely ever mentioned her at all. Sherlock doubts she has ever met her niece.

“Oh. So, what did she want?”

John shakes his head with a bitter chuckle. “I have no idea. No fucking idea. I don’t think even she knows anymore”

“What did she say?”

John coils into himself again, just as he had begun to loosen up at the seams. “Leave it, Sherlock”

“What was it?”

Sherlock”

Sherlock watches as John breathes, tries to work his way through his thoughts. He was not expecting him to reveal more, when he speaks again.

“She said a lot of things. She always does”

“Are you angry because you believe her? What she says?” It is a long shot, and he knows it. It’s a dangerous one, potentially. He is grasping at straws. But he has to get them moving. The air around them is already growing stale.

John looks as if he was punched between the shoulder-blades. “No”, he whispers. “No”. And then “Bloody hell”.

Sherlock waits, his heart hammering in his chest. Did he guess wrong? Did he assume wrong?

“I am angry because… Because she makes me feel that she is right”

Sherlock can breathe again. They both do, John’s breath a prolonged huff.

“What did she say?”

“She…” John’s voice comes out strangled, as if his windpipe was being crushed. “She thinks I’m fucking up my own child. That living here is a mistake. That I am not letting her see Rosie because… Because I’m a freaking brute or something”

Is she right?” His voice is soft.

“Sherlock…”

“Is she?”

“No. Not for… Not for Rosie, I’m not… I’m not keeping them apart because…. Because she’s…” Alcoholic? Gay?, Sherlock’s mind supplies. Both? “-It’s just because she’s Harry. Because we never went along, and I can’t… I can’t deal with her, right now. I can’t deal with Rosie dealing with her, with her dealing with Rosie. I can’t. I just can’t. I don’t want to. I don’t want to do that”

“You’re Rosie’s father. It’s your right to choose who you let into your daughter’s life”

John turns around, then. Slowly, his eyes narrowed in surprise, perhaps in a newly-found discovery. Sherlock greets him with a small smile of his eyes. “What about the other things?”

John’s gaze falls to the table between them.

“I don’t want her to be right. Okay?”, he says, his teeth grinding.

“Yes. Of course you don’t. Your efforts are testimony to that. Nothing her words can change”

John sniffs, his lips twisting into a grimace. “It’s shit anyway”

“It’s nothing that was going to be better in a day”, Sherlock shrugs.

John looks at him again. Warmth breaks through the storm in his eyes, a moment of calm. Sherlock can see the faintest of smiles wanting to form. “You’d almost think she should know about that”.

“But she doesn’t”

“No. No she doesn’t” John’s left hand relaxes from a fist, flexes and coils again. “She doesn’t know anything at all”, he murmurs.

Sherlock nods. Silence envelops them once again. The tension is evaporating, even though Sherlock knows John’s negative thoughts will not disperse quite as easily. He wants to say a lot of things about that. About how John is so, so much better than his sister gives him credit for, that she is outright wrong, of course. But he knows pressing John into anything doesn’t work.

“How are you feeling now?”

John is studying the tabletop, the scratches on its old wood, the cracks where the polish could not hold anymore.

“Still mad”

“Why?”

“Because she got to me. Because… Because she did this to me. I was fine. I was. And then this happens, and her sodding know-it-all fuckery, and-“ John sighs, his eyebrows knitting together. “Because she has no right to do that. I’m not… I’m not who she thinks I am, okay? I’m not like-“ He stops, realizing maybe he has said too much. Sherlock pushes back a chair and sits, palms cupping each other over the table. Who is John afraid of being like?

John looks at him, for a hard, long while. He seems genuinely perplexed. And then he sits on the chair beside his.

“What about you?”, he says then, and smiles bitterly. Sherlock blinks.

“What about me?”

“Do you think she’s right?”

“No”

John huffs in disbelief.

“I have told you what I think”, Sherlock adds.

“But you don’t know everything either, do you?”, John says snappishly. If he means to sound harsh, he doesn’t, not really. He reminds Sherlock of Honeybee, the way she pouts when she can’t get her way.

“I know you

“For real?”

Sherlock raises an eyebrow, a small smirk playing on his lips. “A hundred percent”

John looks away. There’s doubt there still, in that stubborn head of his. But there is something they share now, for a while, a small wave of suppressed, giddy excitement.

“She’s not happy at all that I’m here”, John says, in an ironic tone. “That I am here with you”. This time his tone is serious. Sherlock tilts his head to the side. “She called you things”.

Sherlock feels the boundaries of 221B, its sounds, its colours, the light that tries to reach them, dust particles floating in its rays. There is safety here. There is safety under this roof, where John is his friend, where Honeybee can have a home.

“So?” He wants John to feel the same.

John looks at him, as if he is seeing him for the first time. It looks as if he is searching for something.

“I just want her to leave us alone”, John says. It sounds like a decision.

Sherlock’s chest swirls with greens and oranges. Us.

***

John looks out the window, watching the daylight diminish to a red fiery hue, falling against grey and red bricks, reflecting over windows, flickering behind passing clouds. His fingers brush over his teacup’s rim, feeling the smooth texture, broken only by the bulges of traditional blue and okra coloured shapes, of lilies, sunflowers and citrus trees. He glances down, watches the light play over the shining material as his thumb moves.

The light is gone. John raises his head. Sherlock sits opposite him, patient, his own cup at hand; their customary comfort mugs saved for later, for their usual middle of the night conversations. Nothing was worse than nightmares. They both agreed on it. His tall shape blocking the reflected rays of reaching John’s cup. Instead, they create an impressive but unnerving orange to ruby halo around him. John’s head tilts to one side. He breathes. All chest and shoulders, raising and falling in a wide motion. Deep.

Sherlock appears unmovable, steady as a rock. He has been John’s rock. All day.

John considers.

Sherlock. Today. It is as concerning as the halo of fire diminishing around his friend.

Slow.

Expecting.

John had been afraid. Afraid of Sherlock’s insistence to stay with him, to talk to him undisturbed of John’s anger. Afraid he’ll be out of control. Afraid he’ll hurt him. Again. His mind was and still is filled with memories.

Let him do what he wants. He’s entitled. I killed his wife.

Memories too recent for John to ignore. ‘I hit him.’ Yes.

Memories too far away but in need for remembering. Reconsideration. Itching inside of him. Clawing to the surface. ‘When he came back.’ Yes.

‘I threatened to kill him.’

Yes.

‘I almost did. After years. After he had… risked everything. I almost killed him.’

Two months ago.

‘Yes.’

John had been afraid… afraid Sherlock will take it. Whatever happened. He would take it and still believe he deserved it and still absolve John of all blame and still believe in his ‘noble’ John Watson. John had seen it happen. In his head. Countless times. He had seen it again and again until he was left raw and hurt and empty. John sees it now. He can conjure it up if he wants to. But…

But.

Today Sherlock had been anything but. He had faced John, commanded him in a way John had never seen before. Or he had… What is she? ‘My lying wife.’ No, what is she? ‘And the woman who is carrying my child, who has lied to me since the day I met her.’ No. Not in this flat. Not in this room. Right here. Right now. What is she? John’s nostrils flare, lips draw inwards. He bites them. Hard. Breathes out. Today. ‘Only today.’ He reminds himself.

Today was different. Maybe he had seen it before. Maybe that once. But it was still different. Sherlock hadn’t recoiled. Hadn’t flinched. Hadn’t stopped. Hadn’t pressured. He hadn’t been urgent or indifferent, bored or dismissing. Most importantly, Sherlock hadn’t sat and taken it. Hadn’t attempted to divert John’s anger at him as usual. He simply, knowingly, respectfully, strongly, strictly had been there.

Take my card.

A proud leopard, head held high, king of its territory, mane shining in brilliance against the savanna sun. Paws gentle, feeling the earth’s pebbles, pressing only enough to steady, enough to soothe. Leaving peace and no marks behind, no scars.

‘I trust him.’

You do?

‘I trust him not to let me…’

Let you… what?

‘Let me hurt him.’

Physically.

John sighs, acknowledging. No more half-truths. He doesn’t know what to expect emotionally. He isn’t sure how he could or if he could hurt Sherlock in such a level. Maybe if he left again, which he isn’t going to do. Ever. But at least… physically. Sherlock wouldn’t let him. A weight has lifted. A sea of freedom, relief, affection flooding him. Cautious but there, under the surface, under everything else he has to do, to say…

“Sherlock…” It’s a whisper.

“John.” Deep, drawn, vowel puffing like a bird free to fly home. Steady.

“I need-” He pauses, half-expecting Sherlock to interrupt, tell him it’s not needed.

But Sherlock nods, waits, lets him. As John needs. Never dismissing.

“Just… Thank you.” He presses his lips together, feels the dry cracks and draws them between his teeth, wetting them with his tongue as he considers, looking low at his hands. “Not just for this… when I came back from work… But for this morning. Rosie. It has been a while since I- I had the chance to experience… Her. Her firsts. Her achievements. Something particular she did so I could remind her and tell her how proud I am because of it.”

Sherlock’s gaze feels peculiar on John’s skin, a strange warm tingle. He dares to glance up and he sees why. Sherlock shakes his head, just a bit, the movement infinitesimal, waking him up. His lips are parted and John this time allows himself to think that Sherlock might be surprised. John revels in it, in secret, raising his cup and taking a sip.

“John, I…” He stops, undecisive. “I am honoured to participate in any memory and experience so important to you.”

“As I said this morning.” John sniffs. “I am glad you are.” His cheekbones and nose feel hot by the pressure of emotion and unshed tears.

Sherlock inclines his head a little, a tiny smile playing on his lips; reserved.

They stay silent, two companions contemplating the coming nightfall. A streetlight outside is sending its yellow light inside their windows. The weather is frosty, more than expected in the middle of February. The heat is on high in their bedrooms but the living room was always a bit lacking because of it being connected with their kitchen. Only one heater couldn’t do the job. Especially, when they leave the door to the corridor wide open. John finishes his lukewarm tea first.

“Fancy a fire?” He gets up, tilting his head, glancing at Sherlock’s impossibly pale bare toes.

“Alright.”

John has already gone to the stairs cupboard, carrying wood for the fireplace. He tidies some kindling underneath, is careful when he douses it with medicinal alcohol, and lights a match, pushing it between the dry wood. A flame catches, so quick John’s hand flinches back and he shakes it before bringing a finger to his mouth. He didn’t get burned though.

Excellent reflexes.

‘For how much more?’ He teases himself. He’s forty-one years old…

“John?” There’s alarm in Sherlock’s voice.

John turns, surprised to find Sherlock beside him.

“Oh.” He lets his fingertip slip from his lips. “Nothing much. Really. Barely felt it.”

Sherlock frowns.

“I’m alright.”

John brings his finger between them, holding it for Sherlock to inspect. He nods, satisfied and John sits back on their Persian rug with a smile. The fire’s warmth is floating towards them at a slow pace. The -only a tiny bit- damp wood catches and bursts, pops with the heat, releasing any trace of humidity from inside its cracks. No smoke is coming out to dull the room. A job well done.

Sherlock’s toes are flexing under him. He kneeled to reach John and now stays there, by the fire, sitting on his heels, enjoying the extra warmth, feet spread behind him, curled to maximise their heat, soles wrinkled by the position. John can’t help but look. Look and think. He wants to look higher, pass the affection into something else in its entirety, brush his gaze over the curve of Sherlock’s thighs and behind resting on his calves, the way his dressing gown is engulfing his thin waist, leading to a muscled torso… He wonders if Sherlock would ever look at someone that way, mapping every muscle and bone underneath clothes… if he would ever look at- ‘Ahem.’ Seriously, how could Harry think- ‘Oh fuck it…’

He doesn’t want to bring this back now. Not his thoughts, not his past, not his studies or military, not anything. Not now. Not again. He has a more important matter to address. He averts his gaze, as quick as a hummingbird’s wings.

John hops up. Sherlock, entranced by the flames, snaps his head back.

“Wait right there.”

John strides to their sofa, smiling in reassurance. He takes a handful of pillows and two warm blankets and returns, splaying them between their armchairs, pushing them nearer to the fire. He hands a blanket to Sherlock.

“There you go.”

Sherlock’s cheeks are flushed red and John hopes it’s from the newly-made fire. His lips are a soundless ‘oh’ of disbelief as he takes his offered blanket and settles, resting his back on his armchair. John does the same. Their feet meet halfway as they stretch a tad, the distance too small for their knees to not be bent. Toes, huddled under blankets, stop moving, examining the contact of each other’s with thick fabric between.

All is quiet but of the fire’s crackle, flames playing their game of shadows over walls, tapestry and furniture. All familiar, all the same as years ago; except the baby proofed ones. John’s fingers find a loose thread and tugs at it. Nothing is actual wool anymore. Not with a toddler around.

‘There’s a difference.’

The toddler?

‘The wool, you git.’

And the baby proofed.

And the cupboard locks.

And-

‘Got it.’

Their gazes lock and John almost sees the same conversation running through Sherlock’s mind. He looks at his knees again.

“There’s something- something else, I need to talk to you about.” He whispers.

Waits.

“I’m all ears, John.” Sherlock’s voice rolls intrigued. He’s smiling.

John takes comfort in their shared familiarity, the way their words fall just right and their gazes are never far apart. He knows how to breach the subject. The air is easy between them as it has been since this afternoon. John calm again, had played with his little girl, made sure she knew how proud he was of her little drawing and helped her start some new ones, promised to buy her new pens tomorrow after their appointment. They had made dinner together while Rosie giggled at a BBC Disney singalong, pointing at a few songs with a pout on her baby lips until both of them promised to watch those movies whole together.

“You remember our last case?”

There’s no change in the atmosphere around them. Sherlock’s small inhale of breath the only sign of him acknowledging John’s words. John grips his knees tight. He knows how to do this. What he doesn’t know is if could last to the end.

“You remember… you, coming to find me- well, Mrs Hudson brought you to me but- yeah…” John’s words ring trivial and childish to his ears. He clears his throat, frowning at his calloused fingers.

“Yes…?” Sherlock recognises his hesitation.

“You had everything planned and I-… I was angry. I was angry that you had relapsed, that I had left you alone and wasn’t there when you-” A breath. “I wasn’t sure why-” Was he the reason? The DVD said so but… he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t trust it. He could only trust Sherlock, whenever he was ready to share. But not now. Now he has to finish this.

“John.”

“Yes. Just ah-… Are you- are you okay? Hearing all this?”

“Yes, of course, John.”

“I should have asked. I mean, more specifically.”

“John.”

“What?” John’s speaking through his teeth, dragging his lip in and out nervously.

“Please. I am okay. It’s fine.”

“Okay.” His voice is small. He musters his courage to go on with a deep breath. “I thought-… I was angry. For many reasons I shouldn’t be. I didn’t want to be. I was angry at myself most of all. But I thought… I thought the worst was over. I thought the worst thing I could’ve done was cut you off brutally like that for months.” He ruminated, then with finality. “I had done so and I believed… I truly believed that was the worst of it. So I-I hoped.”

A small silence presses in on them and John can feel Sherlock’s toes flexing under the blankets. He closes his eyes. Breathes.

“I hoped, since you were looking for me, I hoped… you might forgive me. I hoped you wanted this-” He gestures between them, throat tight. “You wanted this back. And if you did… Sherlock, if you did want this back, I wanted it too. I remember… I was angry but I wanted us back. So badly. I didn’t want to divert my anger to you for all the wrong reasons anymore, I didn’t- I-... You didn’t deserve that.”

John gulps for air, snaps his eyes open, pants a little. Sherlock is looking at him, a sharp intensity John can feel to his every bone. His eyes flicker, perplexed. He doesn’t know where this is going. Not yet. But he sees something in John’s eyes, something that makes his widen in surprise. It looks like he’s been searching for it, but not really expecting to find it.

“John.” A breath. A double check. “It was me who needed forgiveness first. At least, I thought so.”

“Ah…” John looks down. “Yeah… it makes sense for you to believe that and I am truly sorry I made you think of it that way.”

“No, it’s…” Sherlock whispers. “Now, it’s… fine.” There’s shock in his voice, shock that makes John rush to go on, heart aching to explain everything, to not leave a sliver of doubt and self-blame in Sherlock’s heart.

“I- I thought I was at the bottom. I saw you. Right there. At the bottom too. Reaching for me and all I wanted was to respond even if I didn’t know how and I still had this… this rage inside me. I always did. My walls were up but… I wanted to reach back. So much.

Deep down, I-… I couldn’t forgive you. For relapsing. I- I wanted you to be well. I wanted you to not care what happened to me, to live your life and never think of me again but…”

“John-”

“No, please, let me say this.”

Sherlock nods. John locks his gaze to his, flickering yellow by the fire. He swallows.

“It wasn’t- isn’t that simple. It never is.”

A pause. It would never be simple…

John.

“John.”

“Mm?”

“It’s all fine.”

“Oh.” He croaks.

“Talk to me.”

He must have been silent for longer than he realised.

“Yes. I- I apologise again for… well, self-absorbed and self-loathing expectations such as these.”

“No, I-…” Sherlock’s lips curl inwards a moment. “I understand. Truly.”

“Okay…” John nods, grateful.

Talk to me.

“Well, I wanted to say… I don’t think you know why- why I left my cane in your hospital room, do you? I mean, you predicted it, of course, but still.” John finds he is smiling at the memory.

‘You cock.’

Yeah.

‘Utter, utter cock.’

Heard you the first time.

Their eyes meet. Sherlock’s are shining in secret glee. John breathes a chuckle. They are of course thinking about the same thing. The same moment of utter relief, utter joy, adrenaline pulsing through them both. The thought everything will be okay after all. It prevailed then, bloomed for the first time in their shared smiles. Before it was gone the next day… Sherlock still at a new hospital. Going through withdrawal alone. Mycroft not letting anyone see him like this. Mostly John. Especially John. John drunk at home, desperate. Thinking of how impossible it would be to have what they once did.

They sober up. Fixing gazes at the flames. John watches the edge of one log becoming ash, dissolving into a pile of black charcoal. Empty. Dead. But able to be resurrected. If used right. Like a phoenix.

“No.” Sherlock whispers, darkness clawing at his throat. “I don’t know why.”

John nods, eyes narrowed towards burning wood. Of course, Sherlock could guess, would have guessed, deduced, knew why John would leave his cane behind. Of course, he should have known the chances of seeing John again after it were minimal. Of course, John knows this now. Which is why he is tremendously grateful at Sherlock letting him say it for both of them. Letting him have his way through this undeterred. Guessing he needed it and leaving him space. ‘Thank you.’

He remembers standing. Rigid. His old cane in hand. He remembers Sherlock. The bruises he had inflicted. He could see them, count Sherlock’s ribs under the hospital gown and guess exactly where they were by the way he breathed. His chest, weak and thinner than ever, trembling or stopping whenever encountering pain. The changes so abrupt, one could wonder if Sherlock needed life-support. John had watched him. Endless time stretching above them. Begging, hoping he wouldn’t have to leave. Ever again. But knowing he should. Convincing himself he should.

“To say goodbye.” John squeezes out. “I came to say goodbye.” He repeats, slower.

Sherlock is looking at him. John knows. Even from the corner of his eyes, John knows. He knows because he feels it. Burning. Relentless. He knows because he feels Sherlock’s pain, Sherlock’s cursed knowledge being validated, becoming truth, spoken by the person that intended to leave him. Again. Forever.

“After what I did to you. After I beat you to a pulp.” His voice is coming out but barely, hoarse and aching with every word. “It wasn’t what I wanted. But I had to. It was necessary. I needed to- to say goodbye. I needed -selfishly, again- to leave you alone.”

“John…” Small. Drowning.

“I couldn’t ask for forgiveness. I couldn’t and shouldn’t expect it. I could never forgive myself either. If I asked and you offered it… Freely. I would hate myself all the more.”

He hears Sherlock swallow.

“I would never believe I deserved it. Not one bit. I would only… I would only think you… you believed you deserved what happened, what I did to you. I knew I couldn’t live like that. I didn’t want you to live like that. Your life would be better without me.”

A pause. Sherlock doesn’t correct him, doesn’t interrupt, just waits, and John is all the more grateful again. Because this is what he has been building up to. What he needs to do, to make sure Sherlock doesn’t believe all that, doesn’t believe he deserved it.

“I was wrong.”

A gasp. Tiny, but there. John turns his eyes to him. This time Sherlock’s gaze is water on his skin, cleansing him whole.

“I was cruel. Sherlock…” John takes a shaky breath. “I knew you deserved someone… someone who would stay. Someone who would fight for forgiveness, to earn it. Someone who would help you get a better life, be brave, face up to what he’s done, be better himself. For you.

You don’t deserve a coward, Sherlock, and at that moment -if not for my whole life-” John chokes on the words again, his fingers dig into his blanket hard. “I was a coward. I had left you alone and intended to do it again. Not for any reason other than myself, not believing I could one day maybe be a better man for you. It was selfish. I should have been brave, waited for my turn to ask for forgiveness and apologise… like a soldier should have done… like a good man.

I do not believe I am that man. I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to be. But I have gone over those days, what I did, what I felt, many times. I know what I was doing and what I didn’t want to do. I know what matters now. The DVD that I kept talking about, my supposed grief that drove me to… well, they don’t matter. I was trying to prove I wasn’t that man, a good man, while not doing anything to change it. I don’t want to do that again. What matters now is that I am ready… I’m ready to ask for what needs to be asked. To do what needs to be done. Honestly. Truly understanding and meaning it.”

John meets his gaze and Sherlock’s lips part in surprise. There’s wonder in his eyes and John feels it prickly inside his stomach. Giddiness? Hope? Anticipation? He straightens, raising on his knees. He bows his head, humble in supplication, gaze fixed on Sherlock’s long, freezing fingers. He almost stops just to affectionately rebuke him of this, that he should keep them under his blanket and near the fire.

“Sherlock. I am sorry. For everything I’ve put you through. All the hurt I’ve inflicted upon you.” He swallows, his voice breaking. “I didn’t want to hurt you.” A whisper, reverent and shaky between the sure words of sincere apology.

It is then, he realises in himself the pride of a soldier born again, his mind elevated with the dignity he always carried in battle, his body recognising the cautious and fair judgement over the use of his power, being returned.

“Sherlock Holmes. Would you forgive me?”

A moment passes. Then another. John doesn’t move. He has laid himself bare, fully accepted his wrongdoings, owning them. He is left on Sherlock’s hands. Entirely. Surrendered even when strong.

“John.” The gentle breeze of spring.

John finds he is not anxious. He finds he is at a plane of utter peace. All because Sherlock sounds so…

“Look at me.”

Look at me.

John does. He raises his head, his eyes. He looks right into deep blue oceans, dark with the shadows of their waves that can surpass anything. And they do.

You are John Watson.

John, you are doing yourself a disservice.

But made few friends and I can safely say-

You are John.

I know you.

‘For real?’

A hundred percent.

You are taking steps and decisions to improve your life.

‘And just how much does that matter?’

It matters enough.

My John.

John shivers. Sherlock is always there, unwavering, supporting, believing. He already believed John is that man, that soldier, brave and facing up to what he’s done. And John did it. He is doing it right now. Proving Sherlock right. Sherlock already believed John was the man he deserved. All along. Always. No matter what.

“I forgive you.”

John exhales. Sherlock is… He is smiling. A sun. A beacon of hope.

“But promise me.”

It comes as sudden as lightning and John is hanging from Sherlock’s lips, words, truth.

‘Anything. Everything.’

“Promise me you will forgive yourself.”

“Yes.”

He doesn’t even consider it. He knows he can do it. He only needs Sherlock by his side. The need has never been more crushing and intense as right now and from now on, it’s only going to grow.

“Yes. I promise.”

Chapter Text

“You’re up?”

“Yes”

“Already?” John’s voice is all soft-sleepy surprise.

“Of course.” Sherlock grins.

He’s barely slept, but there’s no telling John that. Last night when they decided to finally go to bed, they had done so on the mutual promise that they would try to get as much sleep as possible. Before that, they had stayed on the floor by the fireplace, each under his blanket, until John complained that his back had started protesting, and as the ‘old man’ that he was, he couldn’t ignore it. They moved to the couch. No telly, this time. They just sat, side by side, blankets draped over their legs, and watched the silence of the night crawl by. Lastly, they had drifted to the kitchen for their customary late-night cuppa. It’s a relatively new find; John brought home a new, soothing chamomile tea last week. Said he hoped it would help them get some sleep. It normally did, but not that night. Sherlock’s eyes could not stray away from John for long each time. And though their eyes did not always meet, Sherlock felt John’s gaze on him, like a second embrace above that of his dressing gown’s. The words of John’s confessions and apology still hummed between them, comfort in their aftermath. They nestled under Sherlock’s skin, John’s presence beside him more solid than it had ever been before.

They could have parted much earlier than 3 am. But neither of them seemed to want to drift away. Perhaps neither could. Sherlock remembers that it hadn’t been an option in his mind, at least.

“Oh.” John scratches the back of his neck, then passes his palm over his eyes. Rubs. He’s holding his carefully folded change of clothes under his free arm. He’s barefoot, and in pajamas still, the t-shirt so old and worn, its color has changed from grey to white. Sherlock has not seen John so casually disoriented in a long while. Not since… Not since John was last living here, permanently. Before…

You have many ‘befores’ gathering, don’t you think?

‘Shut up.’

“So, you… you go first, right? I-”

“Oh, I’m done already”

John glances up, mouth agape a little, which leads in a muffled yawn. A snorted little chuckle follows. “Ah. Right. Hair”, John points to his own hair for emphasis.

“Hmm?”

“The hair. Your hair”, John explains. “You’re done already. ‘Course. Got it”. John smiles.

Sherlock blinks, then realizes John is referring to his gelled and styled curls. Them being ready, which he always leaves last in his morning routine, signifies he’s done with his turn in the bathroom.

John waits as Sherlock works it out, a small smile forming when Sherlock says “Yes. Yes, of course”, with some delay. An awkward silence follows, until Sherlock understands he’s blocking the door and steps aside, letting John walk past him into the bathroom.

‘Oh.’

Come on, it was obvious

‘Yes but… I didn’t know he noticed that’

Quite a lot you don’t know. For a genius.

‘Hush’

Fine. But you’re still standing here…

‘Fu-‘

“Tea, yeah?”

“Hm?!”

Sherlock whips around to see John standing at the bathroom door, hands on his hips, his entire mouth sculpted into a grin.

“Just tea for me, too. Caffeine won’t be of any use today”

Sherlock’s turn to smile, despite his best efforts not to. “You’ll have regretted that by… 9.45, the latest”

“Yeah?” John’s tongue shoots to dab on the middle of his lower lip. Sherlock’s eyes follow its movement, how it’s slow and deliberate, sharing glistening moisture with the darker flesh pink of John’s lips.

“We’ll see”.

The words startle Sherlock enough for his gaze to tumble down to John’s chest. He shrugs, nods, is unexpectedly extremely aware of his hands and of his inability to think anything to do with them, finally mouths a dismissive ‘pah’ and turns to head for the kitchen, to the sound of the closing door behind him.

Honeybee is not awake yet. Sherlock had discussed with John some days prior and they had agreed that trying to maintain her schedule as much as possible on the day of the appointment could help avoid stressing her out. It had been Sherlock’s tentatively given advice, which John had adopted without question.

Sherlock sets out to prepare breakfast for all three of them, indeed at first reaching for coffee when it comes to John’s mug -and tutting to himself for it.

John has left the baby monitor on the table, and Sherlock automatically tunes to it as he prepares Rosie’s fruit-cream and lets his and John’s tea brew. He procures jam, bread, the fresh fruit he’s supposed to eat -but not the oranges- and pops slices of bread in the toaster. The appointment is at ten. The therapist’s office is not far from 221B, half an hour at worst, so… They’ll have to be ready by… um nine twenty, to have a plus or minus of ten minutes’ extra time in case of any delays. Sherlock checks the watch on his wrist. Almost eight. Not bad.

His morning pills await him on his part of the table, neatly arranged on a napkin. Sherlock stops arranging cutlery and plates, his gaze fixing on the four little tablets paraded like soldiers. He hasn’t thought about morning or evening pills in a long while. He always finds them like that, on the coffee table, or at breakfast. Even if he wakes up first, they’re there. It has been the matter of course since John told him that they are friends. And before that, even… Which means no more fumbling about, or struggling to remember them all, or being afraid to take them alone -he had developed an irrational fear of choking on them, not aided by his reflux syndrome in the least. 

You didn’t deserve that.

He remembers how John did not falter when saying this the previous night. How his eyes had burned with fervent urgency, as if he’d wanted to make his words take solid substance between them. To make Sherlock believe them.

John joins him, and it’s seamless; stream flowing into its river. There’re two sets of hands with coordinated movements, two figures filling the space against the first white morning light.

“Ready?”

Sherlock glances over at the set table, taking stock. “Think so”

John carries their mugs to the table and is ready to settle, when a quick glance of his own informs him of what Sherlock was hoping he wouldn’t notice.

“Uh-uh. Oranges”

“John…”

“Nope”

“But-“

“We’ve talked about this”, John almost sing-songs, as he gets up to fetch three oranges from the fridge drawer. Sherlock plops to his chair with a despairing sigh.

“Quit it, drama queen. Doctor’s orders.” As if he doesn’t know Sherlock is not one for taking orders, doctor’s or otherwise. As if he knows all it takes is for him to say ‘for me’ imploringly.

Sherlock chews on the inside of his lower lip, as John slices the oranges in half and washes them again for good measure. “I can take tablets”

“You’re already taking too many tablets, Sherlock. Of any kind”

He’s right. Of course he’s right. Sherlock props his cheek up on a fist and watches as John, now in a crisp white shirt and dark blue jeans (which Sherlock is sure he hasn’t seen before), is squeezing the four halves of the oranges, one after the other, into their hideous juice.

By some stupid trick of evil fate, orange juice is one of the few things that does not upset or offset Sherlock’s stomach, unlike the much-hated pills and tablets, and as such is one of the things John has been insisting on having him drink every morning.

“There’s definitely more vitamin C to be had from tablets. I can prove it”, Sherlock whines. It’s before he can wonder how he would do that, since there is no trace of his old equipment left in 221B.

It had been Mycroft’s impasse. The entire flat had to be emptied and swept clean before Sherlock was allowed to move back in. Sherlock had agreed that some restoration was required; he had turned the kitchen into a meth lab, after all. But while he was recovering, Mycroft assumed full responsibility and authority over the entire process. Sherlock’s opinion on what to keep had not been required at any point. In the end, it turned out that everything, lab equipment, books, case files, even mantelpiece decorations, had been cleared away. In many cases, only the furniture was left behind. Upon returning to 221B and finding a beautifully polished husk, Sherlock had assumed Mycroft would enlighten him with some explanations, at least. Preferably, first of all, why Sherlock was only left with a handful of clothes, a laptop, and his phone. And a frozen bank account, with only a new Debit Card for expenses and a, he was informed, monthly allowance for it. But no explanations were given, since his brother had not graced him with a visit, text, or call since the evening of January 5th.

“Course you can. But you’re still drinking this”. John sieves the bitter orange liquid. Maybe orange juice is the east wind. Sherlock’s tongue is already retreating further into his mouth.

“Every day?”

“Every day. I know how you hate it. But trust me. The next blood results will definitely be rewarding. These oranges were the sweet ones, I promise” John turns from the sink towards him. His voice is how one would coax a scared puppy from under a car. “I even double-checked. Come on. Bottoms up”

The glass that is placed in front of Sherlock stares back with extreme audacity. There is no way he wants to drink this, no, absolutely not. But when he looks up, there is a warm smile waiting for him, radiant and golden. 

I wanted to reach back. So much.

Sherlock’s entire world has flipped on its head. For ten hours, 47 minutes and 34 seconds, and no one has so far snatched this from him; everything he thought he knew was wrong. Everything! He had wanted to break through the roof, tear down the walls, his own ribcage open with the knowledge John’s words gave him. Maybe he still does.

“Alright”

“Yeah?”

Sherlock takes a sip instead of replying. How can an orange juice have a rotten purple taste? He does try not to wince, but does make a funny face anyway, which makes John giggle. Sherlock goes on to drink some more, and some more.

Just to hear him giggle again.

It’s not that bad an orange juice, after all.

***

"Going to get her ready" 

Honeybee is holding John's hand with both of hers, and is gnawing onto his fingers. John laughs and kisses the top of her head, faking an 'ow'. His other arm is holding her body, all baby monkey now, securely against his torso. 

"Okay. Give me ten"

"You can have fifteen"

Sherlock chews on the inside of his lip. He wants to say something back, something clever, very clever, like he used to do. Wants to leave John speechless, maybe with a hint of that look he used to give him, that look that cheered amazing!, fantastic!, back at him. But now is not then. Sherlock doesn’t care to have the last word that much now, not against John. He lets it slide, smiling to himself as he closes the door of his bedroom behind him.

Now is not then, but there are some things now which they did not have then. Things Sherlock would not change for the world. Honeybee. John's silver hair. And forgiveness. 

Sherlock throws his dressing gown onto his bed, gets out of his pyjamas. He doesn’t spare a second glance on the track-marks on the inside of his arms.

It had felt like waking up on the wrong side of the looking glass. Looking at his reflection in the mirror and seeing that it was another face looking back at him. The words John had spoken weren't at all what he had been expecting to hear. Not from John's mouth. 

John was kneeling before him, gaze lowered, shoulders squared. Apologizing. Asking for forgiveness. Laying his heart bare, like a lamb offering its head to the sacrificial table, trusting it in Sherlock's hands. Sherlock had never been given a heart before. 

Sherlock had thought he was the one needing a forgiveness. That he was the one who wanted, needed, this, them, again, when he sought John out for their last case. It was Sherlock who thought John was better off without him. That thought he was the one to blame. That thought he deserved the punishment of abandonment and loneliness. John's beating was just that. Sherlock had never looked at John to be his executioner, had never wanted the punches and beating to exist between them. How even John could deliver such treatment only signified, in his mind, the beginning of the end. John was his last hope, his last stronghold; the fraying last thread in a rope about to snap. If even John could beat him up, then Sherlock surely deserved whatever painful thing was in store for him. 

But he was wrong.

It wasn't just him thinking all these snake-poison thoughts. John was there too, all these months apart. And he wasn't better, he wasn't happy. He was angry, and lost, was afraid of forgiveness. Thought he was to blame, he was the one who had caused more hurt. He had been there, all the time; reaching. Reaching, even if he had no idea how. Maybe, reaching by aching, reaching by pushing Sherlock away. In retrospect, Sherlock can see him, can see them; like two prisoners in twin cells, scratching at the walls in despair to be heard by the other.

John had wanted to be with him. John had wanted them back. Wanted to be someone Sherlock deserved. To be what… What that day, that hated day of Sherlock’s birthday, he had said was the whole point.

Someone who would stay. Someone who would fight for forgiveness, to earn it. Someone who would help you get a better life, be brave, face up to what he’s done, be better himself. For you.

John said he had lost himself. In his regret, his pain, his anger. That he had never wanted them to become what they had become either. That he had never wanted to harm him. To leave him. He saw Sherlock as someone who deserved better, as someone to care about so much that he’d sink with him. He was sinking with him.

Their actions were different, but their words the same. They were forged out of the same materials, the same clay, blood, tears, the same fears and shadows. And perhaps, the same sunshine rays, same spring flowers, same summer breezes. Where there had been walls, now there was a way. A hand reaching to him, a beacon’s light shattering the night.

Connected. 

They were connected in ways Sherlock had never seen or felt before. Even though somehow, it had all been there all along. Like finding a long-lost precious toy in an innocuous, random hiding spot years later. Like growing into the body one is meant to have, the right skin and bones and vessels of blood. Like returning home.

‘Oh darling, most darling heart…’

In that moment, in the moment John thought he was being judged, Sherlock was being set free. And there was nothing he wanted to give to John more than that feeling, the feeling that made his heart squeeze and his eyes crinkle with fondness, his arms ache to hold, his lips quiver.

Sherlock exhales slowly. It is ten past nine. The battlefield calls, he should hurry.

He looks at himself in the mirror as he passes by it. White shirt tucked in meticulously, black trousers. The same man, a different body, a different face. He raises his chin. The eyes that stare back at him are calm. They know who he is and who he should be.

It’s time.

He passes a hand through his hair, clears his throat, and throws the doors of his closet open.

It’s there.

Amidst the few other items of clothing he has left. It was here, waiting for him when he returned to 221B. He has not put it on since… Since that day. Since the morgue confrontation. And yet it’s here for him. It’s always been here.

Sherlock’s fingers brush over the heavy wool, softly, gently. A smile twinkles on his lips. Just how many ridiculous adventures indeed… And how many not at all ridiculous. How many dangerous. Fatal. Bittersweet. He doubts there’s many without it. He doubts he even is Sherlock Holmes without it. His Belstaff. His armour.

Fingers stilling, he inhales, sharply. Holds the air as he lets his eyes stray to the window and the first moments of clear day through it. They’ll be waiting for him. John, Honeybee. As if not a single day apart has passed. As if… as if it was only ever them. If only for some moments, Sherlock can believe that’s all there ever was.

But no. He’s everything. Everything he’s been through. He is everything and now he’s here.

He pulls his coat from Its hanger and puts it on with a flourish. It still falls right over his body as it settles, hugs his shoulders as it used to, wings fluttering and then folding over his back.

Time to go and be Sherlock.

‘…Holmes’

Just Sherlock. To me.

He shoves his keys in his pocket, his wallet, and phone. Pauses. There is one more thing he has to do.

I should have been brave, waited for my turn to ask for forgiveness and apologize… like a soldier should have done… like a good man.

Molly’s message still hurts, the words angular and steep. Sherlock lets them cut through his skin, and this time, pass through him, and let only him remain.

I will be better. -SH

Sherlock has learned. From the best man there is. He’s still learning. That’s the whole point.

***

“Ready, boys?”

“Yes, Mrs. Hudson, quite. We may be late for lunch, don’t wait for us”

John tries to adjust his scarf with Honeybee strapped on his chest and reaching out to the soft wool with happy hands. Mrs. Hudson coos to her and helps him, efficient and sure, as she speaks. “That’s alright, I wouldn’t anyway. I will have lunch with Mrs. Turner. Her married ones have gone on a mini-trip, given the day it is and all… Oh hello, Sherlock!”

He doesn’t hop down the stairs as he used to do, but he is still quick nonetheless; steady.

“Morning, Hudders”. He smiles at her, and she pats his arm as he walks down the last step. And then takes a step back, eyeing him up and down and clicking her tongue in approval.

“He looks a bit plumper! You’ve been feeding him up, John, haven’t you?”

John falters a little in checking Rosie’s bag is packed with everything they may need -and extras, before he looks. “Yes. Yes, of course”

“There you are. See?”, Mrs. Hudson chirps, rubbing a hand on Sherlock’s barely existent belly.

“Hudders”, Sherlock warns through clenched teeth, but is sure she will have none of that. When did she ever.

“Oh shush, young man. Doctor Watson, keep taking care of him”

Sherlock may have imagined it, but there is something of a warning in her tone, too, and is suddenly too well-aware that he should be expecting a visit of reconnaissance from her within the next couple of days.

There is no telling if John has noticed, but if he has, he doesn’t show anything as he gives Rosie’s bag to Sherlock and helps him sling it over his shoulder.

“Ready?”

“Yeah”

Mrs. Hudson opens the door for them, waving goodbye. Honeybee whines and reaches for her, but John keeps her steady in her baby carrier and instead shows her how to wave back.

“Bye-bye Rosie! Bye-bye now! Good luck, boys!”

“Thank you, Mrs. Hudson!”

“Later, Hudders!”

They walk down the few steps to the street, and Sherlock huddles in the warmth of his coat against the morning chill.

“She’s up to something”, John grumbles.

“…Yes”

“Great”

John falls in step beside him, Honeybee babbling softly in her carrier. She is restless; she hasn't left 221B much either. Sherlock understands. She meets his eyes and he smiles encouragingly. She mumbles and pouts and fights to turn around, so she can nestle in her father's chest. John places an arm around her tenderly and kisses the top of her head. "Hush, little love. It's alright. It's alright".

Sherlock walks with his spine straightened sharply, as if he wanted to slice through the air around him, stride sure-footed, chin slightly raised. He must. For John. For Honeybee. He wants to appear strong and proud at their side. He doesn't want them to be ashamed to be escorted by him. John is already doing him a great honour by taking him with them.

"We'll just need the Bakerloo line. Three stops and we're there", John says, confidently. 

It slices through Sherlock like a knife. 

"Thought we could use the walk", John adds. 

Sherlock can feel the back of his neck prickling with the immediate refusal his entire body needs him to give. He doesn't. 

Before, they always used cabs to get around. Sherlock's stomach flops. Perhaps John has forgotten. This is not before, after all. 'Stupid, stupid Sherlock. It's not about you'. Selfish. He's being selfish. He's allowed to come along, he mustn't press it. 

He hides his palms in the pockets of his coat. A thin sheen of cool sweat has covered them under his gloves. It has made the black leather stick to his skin, so that he's unsure if he will ever be able to remove them. Well. Nothing to it. Into battle, and a battle it is. No turning back now. Jaws clenched, he stares straight ahead and follows John, fighting the urge to gravitate closer to him, to take refuge in the orbit of his body.

"You don't have an Oyster card, do you?", John asks as he flicks through his wallet at the entrance to the station. Sherlock tries to say 'no', but the word gets choked down as a group of people rushes by them. Hearing no reply, John hums and raises his gaze to him, to which Sherlock nods, out of breath. 

Then he realizes that having no Oyster Card means he must pay for a ticket, which means he realizes that he has to use the machines, and that the machines are over there, which is definitely too far away, away from the safety of John's solid body.

Again, nothing to it. With a deep breath, Sherlock begins to brave his way through the crowd of people streaming in and out of the station to reach the machine, wallet clutched to asphyxiation in the pocket of his coat.

How much? Notes or coins? How do tickets work, by journey, route, line? He keeps his gaze locked on the target and pushes through for what seems like an eon until, like a drowning man clutching to a raft, he has reached the first machine. Queue? Scanning the surroundings like a deer at headlights. No queue. Sigh of relief. Surely there is no queue? Blue, sweaty doubt. Okay, no queue. So, no one to watch and copy. What if there is a queue after him as he tries, and they look to him to watch and copy? Sherlock realizes that he may have been standing there like an idiot for too long and begins to follow the directions on the touch screen, feeling that his every movement is festered with crawling ants, that his hands are weighed down by millstones. Is he too slow? Too fast? Should he press confirm here? ‘Think, dammit, think!’ What if they're watching him? Bloke in a long overcoat, collar turned up, sunken-in face of a junkie, of course they're watching him. His eyes flick to the corners of his vision, left and then right, quickly left again. He feels someone behind him, and his left hand convulses. He shoves it into a pocket, worried that someone may call security if they see the tremble. ‘Weirdo’. ‘Freak’. Every whisper and word and laughter around him turn into a storm of crows that flocks around him and pecks at his clothes, his hair, his face. ‘John!’ But John isn’t here, he’s back there, far away, too far away- Come on, print the damned ticket already! There! He snatches it, is very careful to collect all change so that no coin falls to the ground and he'd have to either bend to pick it up or ignore it -and maybe have some idiot run after him to return it, so that he’ll have to face hot, red shame. He turns, breathless, fights to spot John amidst the crowd. Did he leave? Did he not wait? Had it taken so long? But no, god, there he is! He’s reading the Tube map and pointing the stops to Honeybee. Sherlock feels as if his body has been placed in cool, tender water. Now he only has to make it back. He hurries, ticket held tight in his gloved fingers, eyes locked on John's index as it paints an airy map of the Tube lines. 

He's heaving by the time he's reached them, his cheeks a pair of burning coals. 

"Ready?", John smiles as if he had swallowed pebbles, shifting Rosie so that her weight can sit more comfortably on his torso. She whines. "Let's go".

Sherlock follows him through the gates -thankfully there are people in front of him to copy this time, so that he can scan his ticket correctly- and down the escalator. Honeybee is clutching her stuffed elephant tight, and has buried her face in its soft fabric, a feeble whining that threatens to rise into a wail rising from the mush that is the pink toy and her face. John's fingers curl and uncurl spasmodically at his side, on the banister, on the carrier straps. Sherlock feels the black pit in his stomach widen the ugly opening of its maw. It sends his entire body shivers, makes the ground sway under his feet. What did he do? Did he do something? What did he do?

They wait for the train at the platform. John herds them to what at first looks like a quiet spot, which is still swarming with people a little while after. Honeybee stills and falls entirely silent. Sherlock's foot is twitching. He wants to curl up and hide away. Nothing to it. 

They are shoved and prodded, and John is now beside him. Sherlock cannot physically turn so that his eyes can remain locked on him and has to stare ahead to a random point. There are murals and posters on the curved walls, for musicals and ads, and the fonts and colours coil and hiss into his mind. Other, other, he needs to find something else. Breaths flocking in his throat, he looks around him. Lady in the pink hat. Pink... Pink... Baby pink? Blush? She has golden earrings... And... Is that... Is that a promise ring? Heavy makeup. Is that contour?... Where did she come from? High heels. So... not much walking? Her stride is small... Not used to them? Hurts? Uncomfortable? Her dress is ironed... So that means... That means... Other, other! That man in the tuxedo. Tuxedo. It's barely nine forty. Then... required by his job? What job requires the employees to wear a tuxedo? This early in the morning? Maybe an important event? This early in the morning?! Can't be going far -has he sweated? What if he has, if he hasn't? His hands are smooth, so not manual, but then can't be... Can't be... He hasn't shaved! He... He's... His hair is... matted... at the back of his neck, so... Improper grooming? Rest is polished. Someone matted it -no, he did? Other! Focus! ‘Don't be stupid’. That woman in black! Widow -no. Lipstick. Adulterer? What? No- the boy in the uniform. Easy –‘come on Sherlock!’ Which school? Where? How far? 'I don't know'. Stupid. 'I don't know!'. Stupid. Other! The girl the man the one in the green shirt no the white no the tie why too young too old office worker what rank what company don't know stupid don't know don't know don't-

The train comes in, screeching, breaking his line of thought to pieces. Sherlock gulps for air. How long has his head been under anyway? There is a tug on his sleeve and John mouths at him to hurry, and then he's gone, pushing through the people ahead of them. Sherlock beelines after him, feeling more and more hollow. Every elbow and arm and flank that touches him makes him want to shrivel into a raisin, but he keeps his eyes on John, John, John- 

They're in. Nowhere to stand. John reaches up to the plastic loops above them, and Sherlock does the same, his hand cold in his sticky, sweaty glove. He keeps his eyes locked on John, but when John looks at him, his eyes retreat hastily to his shoes. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Honeybee is reluctantly peeking out from behind her elephant's floppy ear. The doors close.

It's a ride in hell. There are too many bodies pressed so close to his, too many strangers haloed in question-marks. John's face is set tight and taught, like stretched clay. A baby is screeching, a woman is chatting away on her phone loud enough for everyone's hearing courtesy, there is a team of schoolboys talking animatedly behind him, a couple bickering to his left. It all goes straight to his brain and squeezes, squeezes, squeezes, until he wants to cry out from the pain of keeping it all in, and it keeps coming and coming, hordes of it, of sound and strangers and question marks and pressure pressure pressure. He wants to go home. He wants home, he needs home, he needs- 

They're there. John pulls at his sleeve again, exasperation in his eyes as he urges him on, and they get off, and then there's an escalator, and another, and another queue and scanning and they're out, out, and there's sun and the scent of the earth after the rain and it's vast and open and no hordes can come at him here, they can disperse, and scatter and he can breathe- 

John is gone.

Sherlock's heart stops. He whirs his head left, right, feels breaths clog at the base of his throat, turn wet like condensed steam.

"Coming?", he hears from behind him, and at once turns around. John is half the street away from him, Honeybee's eyes wide as saucers. Sherlock swallows. John's body is shaking, he can feel it despite the distance.

Oh god. Oh god he has failed him.

"Sherlock?" The spike in John’s voice pierce his feet, his hands, his belly. He is empty. He tries to move, but all he can manage is to sway, tries to speak but nothing will come out of his lips. 

Sherlock wants to crouch away. He's failed him. Oh god he has failed him, it's obvious now, John is-

John is running. Slow at first, and then faster, steadying Honeybee to his chest with both arms.

He’s calling his name.

Sherlock breathes.

John stops only a step away from him. His eyes are storm-set seas, his face lined and lined.

"You okay?", he pants, a hand leaving Honeybee to hold Sherlock’s arm.

“You okay? Sherlock? You okay?”

He’s panicked. He’s pleading. It hits Sherlock through the head, kicks whatever mechanism operates in his brain into working again.

"Y-yes. Of course"

“Did you feel something? Dizzy, light-headed, sick?”

Home. God, home.

“N-no. No”

John nods. Sherlock has forgotten a trembling left hand at his side. John takes it in his. Feels his pulse with two fingers at his wrist. He will find it racing. Sherlock wants to take his hand away and hide it, but he’s not sure why.

John breathes in relief and lets go of his hand. His fingers were warm, and Sherlock can feel their imprint on his skin. Can wonder why the hell he’d ever want to hide his hand away.

"Where's your scarf?" 

He was lost again. He blinks, glances down at his bare neck. Shakes his head. 

"I don't -didn't- have one..."

John’s face relaxes, like clouds travelling away. He loosens the knot of the scarf he is wearing around his neck, checkered brown and orange and yellow, like the forest floor in autumn. Sherlock can only look as John pulls it off and measures it out in front of him, so that it is folded in half. Then he takes a step closer. 

Sherlock's next breath dissipates.

John stands on tiptoe, and passes the scarf gently around Sherlock’s neck, so that it forms a loop at the front. Both feet touching down, he passes the edge of the scarf through the loop and straightens the knot at the front, smoothing it out with both hands. 

Sherlock can feel his heart struggle to beat its way out of his chest.

"There", John whispers, his eyes seeking Sherlock's. "We don't want you catching a cold in this weather". 

Sherlock exhales the breath he's been holding. Feels like an entire wind had coiled up in his lungs.

"Better?", John smiles, a hand giving a little pat on Sherlock's collarbone over his coat. 

"Yes", he breathes. 

"Good". John's tongue brushes over his lower lip, and his eyes fall from Sherlock's face as he steps back. Sherlock can feel the heat of their gaze on his skin.

"Come on"

This time John doesn't walk away. He stays and waits for Sherlock to fall in step beside him. Sherlock feels as if he's walking in space; no gravity. 

"I'm sorry", John murmurs.

"Hm?"

"I didn't know"

Sherlock tries to catch John's gaze, but the deep-sea eyes are looking straight ahead.

"We'll take a cab home", John adds, his voice honey-warm. Reassuring -orange, weirdly enough.

Sherlock's stomach transforms into flesh-eating butterflies.

***

John, you didn’t know.

‘Should have.’

Nno. You couldn’t have.

John walks down Elgin Avenue, hands shoved in pockets, head bent low, the drawn consonants of the voice in his head haunting him. His lips purse.

‘I should have noticed.’

He glances beside him. Sherlock is there. Steady, albeit quick of breath. John’s eyes scan down his figure. The scarf suits him. A pinch of colour. So different from the constant blue and its variations back in the day. He hasn’t been wearing one for ages; John doesn’t think. Since she was killed? Maybe. He should have noticed Sherlock left Baker Street without one too.

Sherlock’s cheeks are flushed, cheekbones sharper than ever. John forces himself not to linger on it too much. After all, the cold morning air of Britain will do that to a man. Even more so, on one recovering from malnutrition, collapsing liver, poisoned kidneys and almost fatal injury. All at the same time. John basks in the way his brain can generate such thoughts without the usual sting of guilt and self-hatred. It is still there but it’s lessened to a manageable scale.

I forgive you.

Sherlock’s eyes dart around the street, searching, dismissing, lightening in recognition or pulling away in confusion. Cars speed past them in the normal hectic morning rush and Sherlock’s fingers flinch every time a loud noise erupts between the monotone hum of the city; tires on asphalt, dinging of traffic lights for the visually impaired, honking. John hasn’t seen him in broad daylight in a while. Hasn’t seen his responses to the city’s overwhelming stimuli. Sherlock hasn’t been out at all. His birthday was spent just downstairs at Speedy’s, in semi-darkness.

Their gazes catch and John smiles. ‘I should have known.’ He smiles. Despite it all. A small tremble at the corners of lips.

“Good?”

Sherlock breathes, lips parted, and smiles back. John is captivated. It’s instant. The sun flickering over ebony curls, shining. Sherlock nods. The doctor/therapist’s office is just five to ten minutes away from the tube station on foot. Sherlock’s gloved fingers come up to fumble with his newly acquired scarf. There’s tenderness in the way he relaxes after pressing the soft threads closer to his skin.

John notices.

“Good.”

We are, indeed.

His next step brings them closer, elbows brushing, just like they used to. John doesn’t try to name what happened on the tube. He can only see Sherlock’s face, lost like a child, fearful, as John ran to him. And then Sherlock turning to him like a gentle flower towards light, reaching for contact, for warmth, for a safety net. John had gotten distracted, given in to worry, to rumination. He had forgotten how Sherlock had always been overwhelmed by the commonly overwhelming world, by his brain, by social contact. He had forgotten how he used to linger close just to soothe Sherlock, years back. How his own PTSD and Sherlock’s mind -running a hundred miles per hour- clicked and settled together. Found their peace. Their balance. Pieces of a puzzle. Halves of a whole.

The two of us…

‘Against the rest of the world.’

John remembers now and doesn’t rush, doesn’t push forward in his worry anymore. It’s normal. To have lost the tender balance they once had. It’s normal to seek to find it again. To test it, modify it, work it to perfection. He knows how it is to lose it. Twice. It cost him everything. There’s no way he’s giving up on it again. Ever.

‘You lost this too.’ He recognises. As if speaking out loud. But it’s just a thought. Leading to another.

He doesn’t know what it cost the first time, for Sherlock. He can imagine but can’t be sure. But he does know for the second. John sees hollowed cheeks and bruised arms, needle marks and broken veins. He sees death by the doorstep and fire on the path to it. He sees blue eyes sparkling with red. Trembling fingers ghosting over the flames. Smoke and bits of wood marring dishevelled darkness of curls.

She said “save John Watson” to him. She said “go to hell”. But was it just that? Was Sherlock sure in his drug-addled brain that John could be saved? That John was worth it? That John would come?

No.

He couldn’t be. He couldn’t have been sure. He couldn’t have known. But he wanted to believe. All it would take was one hit. Then a next. And another. Keeping him going. Putting the hypothesis to the test. Destroying himself with the possibility of John coming back.

Was this what the loss cost Sherlock? The loss of their balance? The loss of John? Was there -maybe- a last twinkling hope holding it all together? Or was it -for the most part- acceptance of loneliness? Acceptance of the end? The end of the joint lives of these two men?

‘The two of us…’ John almost murmurs it, shapes it in his mouth, wants to try it out.

Well, there’s three of us now.

John looks at the positively dazzling figure beside him. He looks and he can see. He can observe. Finally. This is the man running to the fire to save him.

Please, will you do this for me?

This is the man that made his only vow to protect him.

A trick, just a magic trick.

This is the man shooting another in the face just to uphold that vow.

Forgive me, for all the hurt that I’ve caused you.

The man screaming his name when John was ready to be burned alive.

I’m your… best… friend?

The brilliant man who stuttered and stood silent when John declared him his best friend.

With the two people that I love and care about most in the world.

Who travelled the world to find the woman John should love.

The two people who love you most in all this world.

Who took punches and apologised.

But look how you care about John Watson.

Who would protect Rosie to death.

Your damsel in distress.

Who loved Rosie to death.

The man we both love.

The man we both love.

The man we-

‘No.’

No, what?

‘Not both.’

Yes. Not both.

That man. Of course. The over the top, genius, drama-queen of a man. The man John absolutely adores. Of course, he would throw himself under the bridge if he had the simplest inclination that he wouldn’t be seeing John again. Or the tiniest hope he could one day have him back.

I forgive you.

A mantra in John’s mind.

Sherlock’s hand has fallen to his side, fingers flexing, leather gloves squeaking. John’s chest is a bubble of emotion, the realisation stark before him, staring him in the eye, unmoving. He wants to reach. He wants to hold.

Promise me you will forgive yourself.

John promised. John has already started.

***

They stop at an intersection, John pursing his lips in thought, looking over the street names.

“Was it this way or…?”

His shoulders have started to hurt from Rosie’s weight. They should have gotten the stroller. But the tube would have been more of a nightmare if they had, wouldn’t it? Rosie starts to jostle around whatever constricted space she has available. She might be getting heavier but she’s still thin as a stick for a baby of that age, which results in her ability to wiggle around in almost everything. Baby car-seats, strollers, high-chairs and of course, John’s strapped on carrier. Not helpful at all.

He suspects she gets it from her mother. Not that he has any baby pictures or trustworthy memory narrations to prove it. He had been a bulky baby himself but it’s not like she lacks any plumpness and her cheeks are pink and soft and round. She just has this uncanny way of getting places no one expects her to. It’s quite endearing when-

“Oomph.”

-when she’s not kicking at his ribs, for example. John gets his phone out, fingers pressing at the screen with insistence. Sherlock shoots him a glance.

“Alright?”

John waits for the maps app to come up before he jerks his head in a nod. Sherlock hovers close, face turned at any passers-by, his frown from inside the tube returning over his delicately shaped eyebrows. Rosie kicks again. John grunts.

How to help? What to do? It’s too much. Too much. Is this right? Getting Rosie to a therapist. Asking Sherlock to come. Is he doing right by either of them? Or is he failing?

Rosie whines.

“Yeah, right away, little one. I just need-”

She stretches a hand to Sherlock. John bites his lip, tries to ignore, to focus on his phone. He can’t unstrap her in the middle of the street. This is a residential area but even so… His heart is beating wild at the thought. The looks. The judgement. Her eyes. Her hurt. Her whines. All her signs that something is wrong. Asking him to change, to adapt, to help her. More. Too little. Too much. More. She needs more. She needs what he can’t give.

“John.”

Sherlock has turned to him. A kick comes forth. John gasps.

“I-I can’t. Not here.”

Is he doing this wrong? What if he is wrong? Maybe this isn’t the right decision after all. Maybe this won’t help her. Maybe it will terrify her. It’s his fault. He’s not a good father. Can’t be. She doesn’t want this. He’s ignoring her again. Letting the thoughts that have been assaulting his mind ever since they stepped outside the door break him to pieces. Of course, it’s his fault. Of course-

“Tell her.”

John brings his phone up as an excuse.

“Let me.”

Sherlock reaches, his fingers coiling around it. John lets him. Rosie is not going to stay quiet for long after all. Not that quiet is what John wants. It’s his next nightmare on the list. He just wants, needs, hopes for calm. Just calm. Why can’t he help her be calm? John’s fear starts becoming a reality. Of her crying, exposing his incompetence, labelling him. Stupid. It’s stupid. He’s stupid. He shouldn’t think or feel like that. He should focus on her. On her needs. Instead of what he is lacking. He’s not meant to be a father. A proper one. But he can learn. Can’t he? He has learnt over the past years. Has tried. Has given up. He can try again. His failure is not a given. He recognises his wrongs. He can fix them. He is trying. Trying.

He cups her face, strokes her sun-kissed curls with calloused fingers.

Sherlock is with him. Sherlock thinks- no, believes this is right. Sherlock must be right.

Sherlock believes in him.

“Shhh shhhh… hush, little girl.” John breathes over tear-stained cheeks, leaning his head down to her. Creating a protective cave over her. “We’ll be there soon. Promise.”

She stops kicking, whimpers to the sound of his voice.

“We’ll be there. Very soon. Hush, little Rose.”

Tell her.

So simple. So true. John smiles, his eyes searching for him. For it could only ever be him. His Sherlock. Theirs. John just needs to pay attention after all. Like always. He’s starved for knowledge all his life. His brain has proven to be a sponge, always seeking more. Excitement, fear, danger. He can venture to the unknown again. Can learn to be the father she deserves.

Sherlock catches his gaze as he puts the phone away, back in John’s pocket. And he’s close. So close. And he’s smiling. An easy smile. A simple nod of encouragement. A nudge. As if John’s words to his daughter brush over Sherlock’s curls too. As if he already knows the soothing, steady tones and how they work. As if those tones are perfect in their broken imperfection.

“It’s just one street further.”

“Thank you.” John mouths, breath ghosting over the top of Rosie’s head.

Every step is a milestone. Each one bringing them closer to their target. John’s feet hit the pavement with determination now. Sherlock supports his rhythm with his own. Polished shoes and long feet interchanging, seamless over grey stone.

John repeats the doctor’s qualifications in his mind. One with each step. He has memorised them all. The second-best way to soothe his anxiety on the matter; Sherlock being the first. He keeps whispering light words to his little girl as they turn the last corner and another traditional street of Maida Vale comes into view.

He talks of the trees, the park around the corner with the huge playgrounds and waterslides. She starts to smile and turns her little head to watch. Her baby elephant forgotten inside John’s biggest pocket. It’s tentative at first but as he whispers of little dogs and flowers and secret gardens on the back of those houses, right there, Rosie, see?, making up adventures and mysteries on how to find hidden keys and pirate treasure as he goes, she looks over at the black wooden doors, white entrance frames and elegant columns with wide eyes, wondering what they could be hiding.

Maida Vale is in fact a great area for families, now that he thinks of it. Cosy and spacious accommodations with large windows, trees everywhere, private gardens, the customary red brick buildings with white highlights and parking places upfront. Everything shining, polished. Walls and atmosphere clearer than the ones at Baker Street, standing strong and surviving, further away from the polluted heart of London. John takes a deep breath, appreciating the semi-silence of the smaller road that leads them to the doctor’s office.

It is structured as a safe place, suitable for children, schools close-by, amusement parks, a health centre and metro just minutes away from the whole area. He could get a job easily. The pay would be good. The lifestyle better. The air smoother. Their walks longer. Easier. He would have more time for Rosie. Wouldn’t need to leave half an hour earlier due to commute. Would be home early, have more open and cheaper choices of where to do the shopping, maybe find fresher fruits and vegetables and a wider variety of local products.

‘Yes, this could be very nice.’

Not that he’d ever be able to afford it.

He doesn’t want to try either. Not if Sherlock doesn’t follow. There couldn’t be a home without him. Really? John falters a step, a protective palm steadying Rosie’s head over his chest as he regains his balance and strides forward. ‘Yes. Really.’

Sherlock had never shown any indication that he would ever want to move. The last time he was staying elsewhere was before they moved in together and before that, John isn’t sure how many times Sherlock moved places. They don’t really talk about past the point they met. Except John’s military history and Sherlock’s drug addiction, they never asked or started a conversation on anything before Baker Street. John is sure Sherlock has done his fair share of deductions but John himself… He is in the dark. He knows Sherlock studied Chemistry, is a trained boxer and swordsman and fighter in a probably huge number of martial arts, was taught the violin -but could figure out composing on his own maybe?- and therefore has experience with the piano as well, but other than that… John has nothing except the last seven years… and he is supposed to know the man better than anyone.

He knows bits and pieces from random conversations of course, but there were mostly about past cases, no clues on how Sherlock lived back then. What brought him to want to move at that particular time, for example? Besides, it would be impossible for John to remember them all. A plus would be that John has met Sherlock’s immediate family. Most people haven’t. But still… He didn’t even know his birthday up to a month ago.

He knows Sherlock has large amounts of money in his bank account -a family trust fund- but he bets Mycroft has kept him on a tight lease since his first discovered overdose -much more so now- and that’s the most probable reason for Sherlock to be needing a flatmate when they met. He doesn’t like to think of it too much. Of Mycroft. Of how he had been cut off from Sherlock’s hospital recovery as soon as there was a chance. He couldn’t blame him. He was Sherlock’s brother and John had promised to take care of him and hadn’t done so for longer than he’d like to remember. But he couldn’t like it either. Quite selfish, that. He can’t change how he feels for it. At least, not yet.

Doctor Watson, your services are no longer required.

John shakes his head. Back to the matter at hand. Would Sherlock ever want to move? With him? With Rosie? Could Sherlock ever see them as a whole? Does he already see them as such? Or is it a passing thing? Until John can stand on his two feet alone again? At which point, what will happen? They have established their friendship, their devotion to each other, to be better. So, what if John could find his own place again? Would Sherlock want to join him? Could they discuss such a possibility? When they were both better, of course.

He doesn’t know. He has absolutely no idea.

The thought makes him smile. Sherlock sees it and smiles too; arms bumping lightly.

Sherlock Holmes. Always a mystery. John doesn’t mind. Never did. Even if it brought him to the edge sometimes. It wasn’t only Sherlock’s fault. It was their lack of proper communication. They have that now. So, what could possibly go wrong? Besides, Baker Street has proven to be the perfect place for them, time and time again.

“Aweee, woo woo” Rosie babbles, clasping her stretched hand towards a teenager walking his dog at the other side of the street.

“Yes, Rosie. Woof woof. It’s a puppy.”

“Woo?”

“I don’t know what breed it is, my sweet. I’m sorry.”

“Alaskan Malamute.”

John glances at Sherlock. He’s hiding a smile behind his scarf and his eyes are shining. Interesting, they scream.

“That’s it. Say ‘thank you’ to Sherlock, little girl.”

She blinks, hand still reaching for the dog, then beams up at Sherlock and hides in John’s chest again, shy of his obvious adoration for a moment. Sherlock’s gaze slides down with a puff of breath, petulant to have made her hide again. John chuckles.

“Don’t we want to know what are malamutes bred for, little love?” He teases her, arching an eyebrow when Sherlock doesn’t chime in at once. She raises her head, lips pouty in concentration, trying to follow the exact meaning of his words, suspecting a trick by the playful tone of his voice.

“Don’t we want Sherlock to tell us, mm?” He smooths out her worry with a smile and her eyes shine in recognition. She reaches a palm to Sherlock immediately, grabby fingers kneading the air.

John couldn’t resist. His friend looked like an eager high schooler.

“Originally, Alaskan Malamutes were used to transport goods, haul heavy loads with sleds.” Sherlock starts with a small, supposedly exasperated, sigh. Rosie rests her cheek on John’s chest and watches as Sherlock’s hands come to life, gesturing along to help her understand. “That’s why nowadays, they are known as sled dogs. They have huge amounts of stamina, they don’t tire easily and they are accustomed to a cold climate, to snow, bad weather. Their breed is arctic after all.”

“Don’t they have a particular biological characteristic? Helping their muscles heal quicker after and during extensive exercise?” John remembers in a rush of excitement, old knowledge clicking in from who knows how many years ago. He doesn’t, for one.

“I believe so.” Sherlock shrugs, but he doesn’t seem to mind the fact he doesn’t know for sure. “We’ll have to research that bit, I suppose.”

John hums and points at a man fifty yards away, changing the subject, wanting to keep Sherlock talking in that sweet way he does when Rosie is listening, using multiple words or expressions with the same meaning, so she’ll get the childish gist of it all however she wishes and won’t ever feel left out. He’s like a proud sycamore tree animated by heavy wind, it’s one and only love. Tall and strong, at the mercy of the weather’s wishes for when he could have his lover back, ready to be made to dance.

“What about this gentleman, flower?” He kisses Rosie’s temple, getting her attention. She makes an inquisitive noise. “Can Sherlock and Papa guess where he lives, do you think?”

Sherlock stays quiet.

“Hm. Maybe he’s a spy.” John smirks. “Maybe he’s a secret agent sent by the Queen to find which house has the best secret garden, eh?” He whispers tickling Rosie’s ear with his breath, shifting closer to Sherlock on the sidewalk, so he can hear too.

“He’s wearing casual clothes.” Sherlock mumbles, in absentminded observation. His eyebrows knit together.

“Professionally camouflaged for the public eye, don’t you think?” John teases, smooching a loud kiss over Rosie’s cheek and making her giggle.

“Well…” Sherlock shrugs again, looking at his shoes.

“Maybe he lives in an apartment with a secret door.” John continues to nudge, hopeful. “Hiding all the treasures he steals behind it. A cave of hard steal no one could get into.”

“A safe room.”

John sees the beginning of a smirk on Sherlock’s thinning Cupid’s bow, the infinitesimal, trembling stretch of muscle.

“With a secret signal. A password.”

“A numeric combination.” Sherlock corrects again.

“Like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Remember him, Rosie?” John’s been reading her stories. Like he used to. She squeals.

“He does wear an expensive watch.”

“See? He might be hiding riches no one has ever heard of in his secret lair.” John speaks with wonder leaning close to Rosie’s excited little face, holding her palm between his fingers, thumb rubbing gently and smiling with affection.

“Everybody hides jewellery in their homes, John.”

“Exactly!” John bumps their hips together, adrenaline spiking at having made Sherlock’s teasing side be active again. “Anybody could be a hoarder of hidden treasures.”

“Hudders.” Sherlock rolls his eyes.

“What could she be hiding?”

“An extensive collection of authentic jewellery made from exotic stones from all over the world.”

“Ah. My Gran used to have many of those. She never let us touch any of it.” John pauses, grinning. “It was all fake.”

 Sherlock huffs, eyes drifting, used to hiding their shine of joy.

“I used to play with mine’s.” His gaze flickers up to John again, a shadow passing over his blue oceans. Even so, he smiles when he catches Rosie, looking at him in quiet expectation. He tilts his head, curls waving playfully at the motion. “Hers was real.”

They look at each other and their grins reach their eyes. It’s only a matter of seconds before they start giggling, Rosie chiming in with small bursts of high-pitched laughter. John rests his palm over Sherlock’s elbow, steadying himself as they walk and Sherlock’s blush goes unnoticed as John’s eyes close with his wrinkles gathering at the edges, customary of his continuous chuckling.

They’re a few centimetres apart again when Sherlock freezes, going rigid, breath stuttering.

John stops beside him. Rosie pouts, not pleased.

“What?”

“We’re here.” Sherlock whispers.

The easy smile disappears from John’s face and he turns to see the plaque declaring the building’s address beside them on the sidewalk. The world becomes grey.

“Oh…”

John closes his eyes. Swallows.

We can do this.

‘Yes. We can.’

After all, Sherlock’s with him. Sherlock is with him. Sherlock is with him. Sherl-

“John?”

John shoots him a lopsided grin.

“Let’s go.”

‘All well.’

He can see understanding in Sherlock’s eyes. He can see peace. He can see trust. He hopes he deserves it.

They walk up to the black door and ring the bell. Someone buzzes them in. Rosie looks up wide eyed. Is she thinking they’re going to one of the hidden gardens from Papa’s stories? No. Probably not. But… A man can hope.

***

It is the fact this area is so great for children, that makes this appointment so special, John keeps reminding himself. The walls around him constrict, shift, loom over him, like the trenches he used to hide under to escape death, fate, destiny. The sorrowful line of a bullet fired, released from its keeper to the forces of mere luck. The mantra of qualifications rolls like credits in his mind, following the elevator’s small noises and Rosie’s puffy breaths against his chest. She’s nestled, curled up, not looking around anymore, and John can’t reassure her. He can’t even reassure himself.

He had talked it over with Ella when he found the kind of therapist she suggested and he remembers how this particular one is excellent in her field and how he had been enthusiastic when first glancing at her work. She works primarily with ages under 10 years old and she has made her own home into a doctor’s office, because of the amount of schools and families around Northern Paddington in need of support. It was so successful that she now has another two colleagues working with her. John asked specifically for her however.

A door is opened and John has half the mind to let Sherlock go through first, his hand outstretched behind him; instinct in case his friend needs a gentle nudge. Where were the times John was trying to catch up? The times Sherlock always strode forward in exhilaration?

Something tells him Sherlock would never do that to any doctor’s office or hospital. It’s a deduction John knows he should be able to justify but doesn’t. Not now. He must stay well away from triggering thoughts. Must remain calm. Must keep Rosie quiet as they wait, even if that’s the last thing he wants. The last thing she needs. Must appear a particular way, must think, must be kind, smile, show excitement to be here. Must. Must. Must.

Does that make sense? No. Why would he do that? Why would he try? He’s here because he shouldn’t. Why is his mind so fucked up? Why does he care what people say? Why did he ever? Why can’t he just be content with what he has? Just be and not care about the world? Just hold and love and live? Why?

Idiot.

‘Tell me something I don’t know.’

“Doctor Watson?”

Focus.

“Yes.”

He’s standing in front of a small reception desk. The waiting room cosy and brightly lit but warm, not at all resembling crisp clean white corridors of a clinic or a health centre or hospital. A kind, young practitioner smiling at him from over her computer screen, filled with stickers on the back and decorated with plastic toys on the base. Sherlock is standing beside him, gloves gripped tight on a palm, the other hidden under his Belstaff, fidgeting at his side; John guesses. God, he’s doing everything for Rosie. For them. He’s risking everything. Just because they needed him.

“For your appointment of 10am?” She doublechecks, maybe sensing the hesitance in the air.

“Yes.” John’s nod is curt. Rosie is still and silent against his chest. Utterly.

“That’s wonderful. Please take a seat. Doctor Chloe will be right with you.”

John is about to walk away, his chest feeling strangled by chains, but she continues.

“Oh! And you can let your little girl down if she wants to play. There’s a special place over there.” She points to an organised little playground where two other toddlers are strolling. “But everything is clean and sterilised regularly if she doesn’t want to be away from you.”

John surveys the room. Indeed, there are scattered toys everywhere and the floors are made of polished wood, easy to clean and efficient. Easy to evaluate too, for any mistrustful parent.

“Thank you.” He manages and turns to Sherlock with a sharp exhale. “Alright?”

Sherlock nods. They are both sweating. The building is not too warm, to avoid any spread of diseases, being an environment lots of children pass by, but their walking on the February cold outside has made them feel the considerable change in the atmosphere sharper than it actually is.

“How is she?” Sherlock mutters.

There’s soft music playing over their heads, classical but playful, chosen to soothe babies but not bore toddlers enough for them to throw a fit. They walk towards an empty colourful sofa, John already working on unstrapping Rosie off him.

“Not well.” He knows Sherlock can see it too. No need to lie.

John shrugs out of his brown parka and sits himself down. He reaches to place a kiss on Rosie’s forehead but she recoils, curling into herself. Maybe it’s the music, the people -even if quiet and calm and of course significantly fewer than inside the tube-, the lights or John himself. John doesn’t know and this is no time to find out. He knows what she has been asking since that intersection.

“What are you doing?” Sherlock lowers himself beside him, eyes narrowed. Rosie’s bag, a thump, as he places it on the floor.

John’s fingers work deftly. One last pull and his shoulders are free from the weight of the carrier and his daughter. He pulls her out, gentle and slow, not caring if the carrier will fall on his feet, not caring about the world anymore. She pushes against his chest, expecting him to pull her in for a hug, which she doesn’t want. She needs space. A safe space.

“She needs you.”

John watches as Sherlock’s lips part, chin hanging for a moment and then trembling in an attempt to close. His lower lip juts out in a tiny pout before he regains his composure and reaches his arms to Rosie as John raises her towards him.

“Of course. Yes. Okay.”

Sherlock’s grip is sure over her torso and she’s clinging onto his shirt the moment he settles her there. Her eyes are closed tight but her breath eases when Sherlocks huge palms engulf her close. John eases down against the cushions as well, baby-carrier forgotten on the floor. He looks and looks and can’t help but let his smile show. There’s a feeling bubbling inside him. A feeling connected to those lines over Sherlock’s elegant nose, the frown of total concentration as he gives Rosie his full attention. His fingers are brushing sun-kissed curls, drawing circles over her little back, soothing her before he unwraps her from her thick tiny jacket. His curls, black as a raven’s feathers, brush over bright ones and make a contrast so fitting, John would swear was family resemblance. He looks and sees the two people he was always meant to love. Most in this world. The two people he would do anything for. The two people he would be better for. He would die for. Live for.

A set of legs steps in John’s field of vision and he jerks his head up to face the small woman approaching them. Her smile is kind and her eyes are bright, flickering from him to Sherlock and lingering to the little bundle Rosie appears to have become in Sherlock’s arms. John stands, shoulders straight, back tight, stance protective. Her hair is smoothed back in a ponytail but are not entirely compliant with her wishes, tufts escaping unruly here and there.

“Hello.” She speaks with a low, smooth voice, made to communicate with children. “Dr Watson, I presume?”

She offers a hand and John takes it, shaking it once, firmly. He has stepped closer to Sherlock by instinct and now Sherlock’s looking at him, waiting for a signal John knows he should give, but doesn’t know what for. Was he being territorial? Not giving Sherlock space to stand? He just wanted to assess the situation first…

Yes, you were.

“And Mr Watson?” She smiles as Sherlock stands and before he can object in any way, she tiptoes to glimpse at Rosie’s hidden face, without getting close enough to scare her. “And who might you be, little one?”

“Actual-” Sherlock’s baritone starts, his eyes flicking to John, and it kills him… how much fear he can see in that sapphire gaze.

“She’s our little Rosie.” He interrupts.

Sherlock gapes at him. John bounces on his toes for a moment, avoiding his gaze but smiling. Small and secretive. ‘I’m blushing, aren’t I?’ Yes! ‘Oh, you’re aghast too.’ Obviously! ‘Drama queen.’ Idiot. ‘Git.’ Pah.

“Oh! Nice to meet you, Rosie.”

Mesmerised by the expertly cultivated female tone of a clearly top of her field therapist and soothed by Sherlock’s secure embrace, Rosie peaks out of her hiding spot, curious.

“I’m Chloe. I’m going to be your friend, alright?”

Rosie hides again, mistrustful of the new facial characteristics she’s presented with. Doctor Chloe -John is so baffled by his own reactions he can’t even remember her last name, which he repeated to himself more than a thousand times already- steps down from her toes and back to her comfortable modern casual slip-ons and beams at all three of them.

“Ready, my sweets?”

Sherlock’s mouth has still not closed in its entirety. He tries to object once more, but John nods before Sherlock can and she motions them towards her office. A hand flicking back in confident dismissal of any worries one of her patients’ parents might have.

“Oh, don’t worry, we work with all kinds of families here, I assure you we’re not into discriminating. We respect every family and parent and child that might step in here. Our only goal is to help the children be happy.”

John’s face is burning. He looks at his feet as he gathers Rosie’s bag and they walk past the door Doctor Chloe opens for them, ushering them inside like a mother hen. John remembers she’s around their age, late thirties – early forties, but she looks way younger without any attempt to do so. Has working with children all her life taken any part in this? Maybe. He supposes when one knows what to do and has done it millions of times before -a plus for her-, it’s not as challenging as society likes of you to think.

“There, take a seat. Rosie can play around all she likes.” She glances back at Sherlock who stays blessedly silent, intent on his target -a cosy armchair with an elephant pillow ‘Damn, I forgot her own elephant outside’-, and smiles. “She can stay wherever she wishes, of course.”

The room, as its owner, is filled with temperate energy. Colourful and warm, as welcoming as a home, so far from an ordinary doctor’s office that John wouldn’t believe it without witnessing it for himself. Even the ever-present tidiness of a person of such principle doesn’t manage to make it lose a hint of magic.

John’s eyes catch Sherlock’s graceful figure, managing to flop on his chosen armchair without bringing any discomfort to Rosie whatsoever, and he keeps staring, unable to categorise this as a hidden talent or an indication John will be in trouble for his mischief later. He walks to them and sits quietly at the chair nearby.

Doctor Chloe types for two clicks on her laptop and then joins them in an armchair opposite. ‘Familiar enough.’ Her fingers coil over her torso as she looks them over once. John can see Sherlock through the corner of his eyes, giving their slowly emerging budding flower the elephant pillow -so much like her little plushie- to hold close.

“Thank you for having us.” He starts.

“No trouble at all, Dr Watson. Actually, since this is your daughter, we better not confuse the little girl too much. If we’re going to have regular meetings, I will get to know her and you too, but let’s establish this. May I call you by your first names? It will be easier for us, but her most of all. You can call me however you like and Rosie can call me however she likes too as we go on. Doctor Chloe or just Chloe or Miss or anything, I’m okay with most.”

John blinks, bombarded. Ella never had been the talkative kind of therapist. He glances at Sherlock and finds a hesitant smirk over his features -although, it might be directed to Rosie at the moment; she’s unfolding from his tight embrace like a sunflower. ‘Right.’ John is the one to take this on then. Of course. Isn’t he the father? ‘Oh, shit.’

“Er, yeah, yes, of course.”

“So, John.” She nods, encouraging and small, yet commanding at the same time. “And…?”

“Sherlock.”

John breathes, relieved. He wasn’t sure Sherlock was listening so intently, but of course he was. Always. Anything. For Rosie. John’s heart flutters.

“Alright then. Before we start, this is a session for us to assess the situation. It’s collective work but none of you -Rosie included- is expected to open up immediately. For now, general information will do. If there are any key details missing, I will ask specifically. Sound good?”

Are we back in primary school?

John can see it written in Sherlock’s eyes as he turns to check on him. There’s a hidden smile there too. A smile John wants to return and treasure forever. They nod to each other simultaneously.

“Good.” A deep baritone.

“Good.” A soft whisper.

The deal between them is struck in silent communication. There is no going back. At least for the foreseeable future.

“Good. So, let’s start with the basics, shall we?” She clasps her hands together -somehow managing it to be quiet, not to startle Rosie- and rests them on her knees, leaning forward. “Leave Rosie get acclimatised for some moments and tell me what is the reason prompting you to ask for assistance?”

John arches an eyebrow. This is uncanny. She looks fascinated with the situation in front of her, exhilarated in a way that could persuade anyone a mantra of childish, gleeful thoughts is running through her mind. “Oh, this is interesting.”, “This is going to be fun.”, “Yes, tell me more.”. This is too familiar not to be pointed out by John’s eager mind. He stays silent, watching her for some moments, when he feels a gaze sharp as a knife fall on him.

And cut.

Through.

John grows tense, averting his eyes. Sherlock huffs beside him. Exasperation carefully covered by an expertly cultivated shield of indifference only John knows how to break apart. Rosie squeals in a quiet register, squeezing the elephant pillow to her little chest. Still shy, hiding in her shell.

‘Hang on a minute.’ John shoots Sherlock a confused glare.

What?

‘Were you just…?’

Was I… what?

‘Jealous?’

Sherlock -to John’s utmost disbelief- flushes red, looking away. John doesn’t even know if they were thinking the same thing! It’s quite possible, they weren’t, and John is becoming crazy. ‘Fine.’ They’ll deal with that later. John takes a deep breath, looks over at their therapist again, reminds himself why they’re here. He clears his throat.

“Okay. Um, well, Rosie is 22 months old.”

“Big girl already, huh?” She covers up his pause, face eager to listen to everything they have to say, indicating she already guessed the age anyway.

“Yeah, uh… she is.” John looks over with eyes gleaming wet, his mind racing to what he has to say. What he has to live through again by saying it, admitting it. “Her life has been… upside down, most of the time. She hasn’t lived in any steady, loving environments until… until now…”

Sherlock meets his gaze. His iridescent eyes emanating worry and encouragement both.

“Adopted?” Chloe asks, voice tentative. She’s not taking notes.

“No.” John chokes.

“Why don’t we start with what’s easier? I understand no information is mundane concerning one’s child but, please, John, try to start with easy, small, mundane facts anyone could know.”

John gathers himself.

“Yes. Fine. Um, she hasn’t started to talk.” He nods after finishing the sentence, as if saluting his words, steeled with determination once more, looking straight ahead.

“She’s only 22 months, though. That shouldn’t be bothersome for you.” Chloe always addresses both of them, but doesn’t press Sherlock to join in.

“We know. We know. Just…” John breathes in. “Her mother has not been loving, then has been absent and then gone for good through a timespan of months.” He pushes out in a single, quick exhale.

Sherlock’s face has gone pale. John imagines he’s not anything better himself. Chloe takes her time, a breather, two. Then sits back. Slow. Watching them. There’s a flicker in her brown eyes John knows well. His eyes widen a tad before he can contain himself. She knows them. Of course she does. She must have seen them on the news, read about them, maybe for years, maybe his blog, maybe since the start. John swallows.

“So. Back to my previous question. Adopted?”

Why is she pressing it? She needs an answer, John realises. She said so.

“Complicated.” His fingers flex. He won’t say anything more. It’s their pact. His and Sherlock’s. They struck it but a few minutes ago. They won’t break it. They’re not here to talk about her. They’re here to talk about Rosie and Rosie alone.

“Okay. That’s quite fine.” Chloe is smiling. John blinks, confused. “Does Rosie have any hearing problems?”

“I don’t- think so. We did run full tests at her birth. And she understands what we’re saying and when we refer to her or call for her.”

“We can run some. Just in case. I’ll prescribe the tests to you and refer you to a trustworthy clinic.” She tilts her head, waiting for confirmation.

John checks with Sherlock first, making eye contact. Rosie is climbing down his long, stretched legs now and he struggles to keep them and her steady until she reaches the floor, safe.

“Yes. That sounds good. Just to be sure. Yes.”

“Done with that.” She has already reached back to her desk and scribbled something down, a reminder maybe, because she doesn’t extend the paper to them. “So, your main reason for visiting me, however, is that her late-talking is connected to her psychology?”

“Yes.” John doesn’t hesitate. He knows it is.

“How do you figure?”

“She had started babbling away around the expected age. But then she- she stopped.”

Rosie takes a careful step towards John, but his heartbroken tone makes her stop and kneel to crawl back to Sherlock instead, bulky, tiny fingers clinging at his trousers. Sherlock appears to have found no reassuring use of his hands now that Rosie is gone and so he takes the chance to reach and brush her hair as she sits on his shoe, his face serious and muscles stretched at the corners.

“Stopped babbling only?” Chloe’s eyes follow every interaction, assessing. John wants to recoil from it, the feeling of being judged and found guilty clawing at him again, but her eyes, when they find him, are simply observing, kind and modest.

“N-no. She stopped. Everything. She couldn’t- She didn’t even cry. She just looked at the ceiling at night when I got her back from-” He freezes.

“From?”

“It was- It was my fault. That.” The admission doesn’t hurt as John expected it to. He feels lighter. “For a few months. Up to two months ago. She didn’t have a constant parenting figure or caretaker. That’s when she…” Still, his throat is clogged up. He looks over at Rosie, rubbing against Sherlock’s knee to hide from Chloe’s gaze every time the Doctor looks on and smiles, but it’s more bashful than fearful now. Sherlock’s eyes seek his and John lets them meet.

Not your fault.

John nods, grateful.

“I think we can stop there for now. In my opinion, there isn’t any medical condition I can diagnose Rosie with. Abnormal or sudden changes in a baby’s first years of life can cause several psychological imbalances for sure. I can tell you there are babies who have gone through unimaginable difficulties and in the end pulled-through more than well and there are some who have such problems while there was nothing wrong with their life so far. I am going to ask some more questions though, regarding the present. I know how it can take some time for any parent to come to terms with what has been going on and ask for help. So. How is she now?”

They are both listening with raptness, when she stops. And someone has to answer.

“She’s- yeah.” John.

“Yes, she’s doing-” Sherlock.

“Better.”

“Quite better.”

“She’s babbling again.” John smiles at the thought, gazes still locked.

“Yes, she is. She’s not staying quiet when in distress.” Sherlock’s tone sounds proud.

“Except in extremes.”

“Yeah, like-”

“Now.” John nods.

“Now, yes.”

“She hasn’t been out amongst many new people for a while.” And John made the mistake of bringing them through the tube.

“Yes, she’s- well, shy.” Sherlock smiles.

How easily one wants to brag about the achievements of their child. John breaks the contact, a flush gathering over his cheeks. Chloe brings a contemplative finger to her face.

“Hm, that’s good, she’s starting to have confidence again though. It’s good.”

“Yes, yes, she does.” John all but beams.

“That’s wonderful. When did she start getting better?”

John’s head hangs.

“Three weeks ago.”

John looks up at him sharply, gaze hopeful. He hadn’t known. Rosie had been kind of better with him for less than two weeks.

“Can you tell me how?”

“She just… smiled.” Sherlock’s tone is steady but one can hear the emotion behind it. “Truly.”

“Okay, and who is the primary caretaker for the past month?”

Sherlock doesn’t answer and John frowns.

“Sherlock is.” Who else could be? “I’ve been working shifts and attending anger management classes as of late.”

Chloe hums at that extra piece of information. John doesn’t care what she thinks -which is probably something good anyway-, he is proud of his fight to recovery. It’s for his daughter, for his little girl, for Sherlock and for his own self. He should be proud and he is. At his best moments.

“What else has changed since then? Since her first smile?” She treads gently.

Sherlock looks away, over the window behind her office.

“She started babbling again, has been feeding herself -increased appetite-, been playing with new toys, categorising, solving small puzzles, listening to stories and generally books and narrations without falling asleep when she’s not tired, knows when it’s time for her nappy change and started babbling to John specifically about a week ago. She’s not throwing tantrums when she needs attention but she does cry or show her discomfort. Her sleep has stopped being interrupted and her routine does not change almost at all. There was no progress in her dislike of water. She used to love it when she was younger. She’s trying to take care of others, clinging to specific toys and wanting to feed me or John with her spoon, always knows when she’s being called or asked something and her not understanding distresses her. She’s desperate to communicate sometimes and others she settles comfortable with her babbling. She hasn’t said a specific, actual word yet.”

John gapes.

“Wow, Sherlock, that’s quite… more than enough. Thank you.”

“Mm? Oh, yes.” Sherlock breathes. John resists the urge to reach and check his pulse.

‘Genius.’

Sherlock catches him looking like that, utterly lovestruck, and gives a tender little smile, even kind of apologetic. John notes to correct that.

“I would advise you to keep up the good work then. Both of you. It’s working.” Chloe adds.

John hums, sending Sherlock a knowing, grateful glance. If anything is working, it’s because of him.

“I believe Rosie is going to be just fine. Such psychological imbalances before the age of three are not usually sustained or remembered. She might need your careful guidance and some nudges maybe, but I believe she’s already on the way to perfection. As long as you love her and show her. I can help if you want me to. We can keep an appointment every week for a month and then depending on Rosie’s progress, one every other week.”

“Yes, that…”

Sherlock nods.

“That sounds good.” John finishes.

“I want you to know that there will be sessions focused purely on her or on you and then your individual relationships with her.”

They both stay silent.

“You can think about that and next time we can discuss your preferences, alright?”

They nod. They’ll have to discuss what all that means first. The two of them.

“Good. Now, if our little girl is feeling up to it, I have some games I would like her to play with me before you go.” Chloe leans forward with her warm smile and Rosie, having sensed both John’s and Sherlock’s relaxed moods, gives her a tiny smile back.

They talk about the games/tests for some minutes, as they let her establish her comfort zone and then Sherlock picks her up again as Chloe brings what they need. She observes Rosie’s behaviour for about ten minutes more, without either of them interfering, and reassures them again after, all smiles and kindness, bidding them goodbye and sending them a list of helpful books to clue them in on the processes she usually uses, among them some good references for parenting and childcare, language acquisition and psychological trauma or imbalances in early life, along with their hearing tests prescription and the clinic she recommends, all to John’s email address, and leaves them to choose an appropriate date and time for their next appointment at the reception desk.

“Whatever day suits you best, but I want my little Rosie rested, mind you!”

And they leave the cosy space as Rosie waves excitedly at her new Doctor and Chloe sends her kisses at John’s utter shock and amusement and Sherlock’s highly raised eyebrows.

***

“She’s babbling again”

Sherlock looks down at a Honeybee securely strapped on his chest and can’t hold back a smile. She looks up, as if she has felt him looking at her, the back of her head pressing against his sternum. He smiles more.

“Fancy a walk?”, John asks her, catching her little palm in his hand and giving it a kiss. She mumbles and nods what seems to be quite a sure yes.

The weather has decided to grace them with some bright sunlight, a warm exception to the bleak winter days. Most trees around them are leafless, but there are a few among them which have begun to sprout new life, small buds of green clinging onto their branches like tiny creatures in their eggs still, waiting for spring to hatch. It’s nearer than they think.

“So… What did you think of her?” John is walking with his hands in the pockets of his parka, steps slow, matching a sure, but not heavy gait. He is looking at the gravelly path they are walking on, avoiding sticks and larger pebbles or kicking them a little with the toes of his shoes.

“I think she is an accomplished professional”, Sherlock says, holding both arms around Honeybee in a relaxed hug.

He is still awed that there is so much trust and faith placed upon his shoulders. That his opinion, with regards to the issues concerning Honeybee, matters so to John. And he is still giddy over what happened at the therapist’s office. The very specific thing.

Our Rosie.

How to interpret that could have been easy, if the other mistake wasn’t made. The other…

John should have been angry. John should have spoken up. John always corrected everyone on the spot, fiercely, and raised a fence, a wall between him and Sherlock, a fence so dense and tall that Sherlock knew there was no breaking it down. 

He knew. That was what determined everything. Sherlock knew. So when he… when his little problem took flesh and bone and flight, it only crashed against that fence and shattered its wings. Over and over.

But still, today, John hadn’t corrected Doctor Chloe...

‘Dr and Mr Watson’

…Twice.

“She said not to worry”. John lets his words be scattered by the cool stirring of the breeze but avoids Sherlock’s eyes.

“And I believe she is right. Cumulatively -from her experience, the tests, and Rosie’s background- it is overwhelmingly the most probable case that like many children her age, Rosie merely needs more time”

“Children that have not been through what Rosie’s been through”, John retorts. The nonchalance in his tone betrayed by a bitter chuckle.

“There’s children that have been through worse”

John pauses, contemplates while he chews on the inside of his cheek. With a sniff of his button nose, he nods.

“We can consult another specialist, if you want”, Sherlock offers gently.

John shakes his head no. “It’s just that… She wasn’t babbling. She barely made a sound. She wouldn’t even cry”. Sherlock knows. He heard John’s choked off, watery words at the therapist’s office too. “For so long. Too long. That wasn’t normal. And I overlooked it. I overlooked everything….”

“We have plenty detailed guidelines and time to help her now, John”, Sherlock tries to imbue his voice with all the certainty John lacks, and more.

“I should have…” John stops, sucks an inhale of air through his teeth. “I should not have ended up needing them”

Sherlock falls silent. John’s worry seeps through his bones faster than any torrent of cold. Whatever illusion of his strength or ability to help fades.

“What if… What if she… Won’t… Be okay?”, John finally says. His voice is small, smaller than the pods of green on the branches, smaller than the pebbles that strewn the small path, smaller than the constellation of tiny freckles on Rosie’s cheeks. But it is bigger than John himself altogether.

Sherlock doesn’t know what else to do. Somehow, he knows that no fact, no logically sound reasoning, no scientific proof will ease the turmoil in John. But there is not much else he can offer. He can keep trying to be what John used to be for him, before. A boulder to lean against, to take refuge beside. That’s what he wants to be; the shadow of the boulder than makes John feel safe.

“She will be”, he says, turning so that his entire body is facing John. “She will be”.

For once, John doesn’t doubt him. Doesn’t demand why. He stares at him, boring into his eyes so hard Sherlock could topple over. But he holds his ground, not knowing what it is John is seeing, John is taking, but giving and giving and giving it, for as long as John needs. Then he smiles. A small smile, but it’s there. Sherlock smiles back, and he can breathe again.

They are walking side by side again. With Sherlock’s arms around Honeybee, John’s elbow often brushes against his side. It’s like a cat rubbing its cheek softly against him, reassuring. I’m here. Part of their choreography of orbiting, staying. New steps to an old, old song. Sherlock breathes in, the scent of spring waiting, of new lives waiting to begin, rich earth and sharp-clean air. They are alone in the world, then. Just the three of them. Suspended in time, safe, Honeybee safe in his arms, John loosening up beside him. Waiting to bloom too, into the man he wants to be.

For you.

Sherlock hasn’t held the world in his hands before. He does now.

As they near the centre of the park, more people begin to intercept their path or pass by them. Few look, and even fewer linger on what they see if they do look. There are old couples swaying softly with their arms linked, mothers with strollers or toddlers, people walking their dogs, or others jogging by, their feet steady as a metronome as they thump against the ground.

Sherlock’s gaze pauses on a small, Black family. Mother, father, and little one. The father laughs as he throws his giggling son into the air and catches him again safely and spins him around. The mother tuts, but her eyes are kind and warm as she looks at them. The father stops and the little one reaches grabby hands to be held by his mother, who nuzzles their noses together and cradles him close, a palm at the back of his head as the boy hides his face in her neck, back still rising and falling rapidly with excitement. The father, a look of content pride in his eyes, leans close, but instead of a kiss to the lips, he gives his wife a playful peck on her button nose that immediately scrunches up, ticklish.

Sherlock lowers his gaze with respect as they walk past them; there is something about this moment that is so pure and private he does not want to be caught intruding with his stare. Beside him, he can see John’s eyes lingering, too. Sherlock wonders what he is thinking about. If he is longing for the woman that Mary should have been, for the family he was denied. Honeybee clutches his right index finger in a palm, and brings it to her lips, mouthing softly at it, as they leave the small family further and further behind. Sherlock can’t help thinking that she deserves a mother. That John deserves someone by his side, someone who will make him smile, and believe in himself, and be strong. They both deserve to be happy. Something in Sherlock’s chest deflates then, a balloon pricked by a needle, and nothing is as magical as it was a few moments before. The world grows back to its real size and can no longer fit in the cage of his palms. 

A group of younger men walk past, rowdy and loud, pushing each other as they huddle close like a pack. One of them says something and his words are met with a chorus of barked laughter. Sherlock can feel their eyes scanning them as they meet on the narrow path, like the eyes of young animals that don’t yet know how to categorize the world and want to pick and sniff and paw and growl at everything they come by in a useless, arrogant show of strength. He doesn’t mind them, but then John grows rigid, his back straightening, eyes burning two holes through space ahead, hands leaving his pockets to coil into fists at his side. His next step creates a gap between him and Sherlock, raising an impassable fence.

The air around John is crackling until the younger men are out of earshot. Only then do his fists uncoil, his frozen-hard posture melting a little. Honeybee, oblivious to the incident, coos and points at a squirrel that rushes across the path, a grey blur of an arrow. Sherlock pauses to let her observe it.

“We could feed them, maybe?”, John tries to say calmly, but his words are punctured by his uneven breathing. It sounds like a peace offering. But he is still a step away, eyes also following the squirrel as it searches the ground, and then finding what it was after, hopping onto its tree and disappearing amidst the branches.

Sherlock shrugs. The fence may be gone, but not the gap it scorched between them.

They reach an empty playground. Sherlock kneels, letting his coat billow behind him, and unstraps Rosie, who lingers close as he stands again to takes off the baby carrier, rolling his numb shoulders to force some circulation back into them. She’s growing heavier day by day.

John doesn’t object to the break in their walk. He dumps Rosie’s bag onto the bench and stretches his arms over his head.

Sherlock was expecting Honeybee to cling to him, afraid of the new space. But when he looks down, she has already begun to explore the playground, timid at first, like a little fawn, and then with increased interest, all baby fox as she peeks from behind colourful obstacles and tries to crawl on the slide. The pressure around his abdomen decreases.

Sherlock leaves the carrier beside the baby bag. John tries to catch his gaze, but Sherlock keeps it well away until John understands that whatever he wants, well, he won’t get. Sherlock sits once John has walked over to Honeybee. He does not even know why he’s acting up. He’s most probably being irrational, pouty, passive-aggressive. Well, he doesn’t care.

‘You shouldn’t be doing that’

“Want to play? Mm? Where’s my girl? I’ll catch you!” John sing-songs, as he pretends to fail to catch Honeybee in his arms. She giggles and runs in a circle around his legs, convinced that he truly isn’t fast enough for her.

Sherlock watches as John’s silver hair turns messy, as his face heats up, as his laughter lines start to show. He doesn’t really want to act up anymore. But he still feels sore.

Why?

‘There will always be a gap’

“Where’s Sherlock? Go get Sherlock! Come on, little Rose, where is he?”

John’s voice is breathy, in counterpoint to the gurgled laugh of Honeybee. And before Sherlock can process what is happening, a small warm bundle has collided against his calves.

“Got him? Yay, there’s a good girl. Come on, your turn, Sherlock”

“What?”

“We’re just… playing chase. Your turn!”

Sherlock stands, as carefully as he can with Honeybee latched onto his legs. John calls her over to him and she teeters her way there, squealing. For some moments, he’s at a loss as to what he should do and is left standing there, much like a hopeless scarecrow. Until muscle memory kicks in.

Come on, boy! There’s a good boy! Come on, Redbeard! Come on!
A whoosh of shabby red fur barking after a skinny boy with a shock of wind-blown, ebony curls shining ginger in the sun, with scratched, grass-stained knees, and lanky arms raised to his sides; as if he was an airplane, as if he could fly.

He’s chasing Honeybee, and John is laughing, as Sherlock pretends to catch her once, twice, and then John whines that he’s also in the game, that Sherlock can try catching him too. In his ears, blocked by sunlight and barking and the colour-filled wind, it sounds like a challenge. Eyes sparkling, he does try to catch him, long white fingers grasping a jacket sleeve tight. But John pulls away, so fast that Sherlock loses balance and crashes down hard, only his coat softening the impact on the naked ground. The world slows down. But as soon as Sherlock blinks, John is beside him, down on the ground too, head propped up on an elbow, leaning close.

Close. 

“You okay? Sherlock? You okay?”

And he’s laughing. Laughing until he can’t breathe.

A higher-pitched roll of giggles joins his. And then the trees are laughing, their branches, like fingers stretching to the sky, shaking with it, and the sky is the breaths that turn into hiccups in his throat, the sun the waterfall trapped inside him.

“You utter, utter madman. You scared me”

They climb down from their high slowly, like following a slow stream’s flow.

There is no gap now. No fence. Sherlock’s clouds go up and burst and dissipate like bubbles.

“Sorry”, he manages to breathe.

It takes a little while for John to reply, but what he gives is the most tender “’salright” that Sherlock has heard before.

“There’s a canteen, I think, or café nearby”. John’s voice is still panted. “Cuppa?- Oomph!”

Sherlock cranes his head, only to see that Honeybee has landed on her father’s stomach with her knees, hopping up and down and babbling away, a mile a minute.

“Alright, alright you little monkey, alright! We’ll play more, got it! -Ow! Sherlock, Sherlock, help, help!”, and then Honeybee is thrust in his arms, which at once have raised to take and hold her tight. John has rolled towards him to transfer her, and his breaths almost tickle his ear.

“Why don’t you pounce on Sherlock too, hm?”, John pretends to sound offended. Honeybee blinks at him, batting her large fan of golden eyelashes until John can’t but kiss her nose with a loud mwah sound. Sherlock knows the feeling; he wants to squeeze her and smother her in kisses too.

This time, when people are heard passing by -and this time they definitely look, and stare, even- John doesn’t even seem to know they’re there.

***

The café is tiny and crammed. The difference in temperature is felt at once, Sherlock sweltering in his Belstaff, Honeybee’s cheeks, already pink from playing outside, now a flaming red. John’s hair is utterly dishevelled beyond salvation -and Sherlock knows that the riot on his head is in no better state.

John leads the way, manoeuvring through the small wooden tables, and waiters, and queue of people waiting to pay at the till. He spots a table beside the window at the very edge of the small converted log cabin that is the café. It is overlooking the busiest part of the park; plenty of people and dogs and strollers in sight to keep Rosie interested.

John stops and waits for Sherlock to walk in front of him so that he can take the seat against the wall, carving him enough space trough the commotion with the barrier of his body. Sherlock keeps both hands fastened in front of Honeybee, who is strapped on his chest again, as he carefully manages to fit in the tight space.

Once they’re both seated, and have managed to take off coat, and parka, scarf, and Rosie’s carrier, and to fit Rosie’s bag under the table and between their legs, Sherlock begins to settle in the space around him, Honeybee balanced in his lap. The noise levels are relatively down, given how most people seem to want to enjoy their drink and the view of the green calmly, to the quiet hum of jazz music in the background. The café itself has a rustic feel to it, wood and handwritten menus on chalkboards and warm accent tones. Sherlock eases into his chair, holds Honeybee’s hands in his, and she pats his fingers and tries to move them.

“Been here before?” John is still a little out of breath.

“No”

“It’s nice, isn’t it?”

 Sherlock nods. Wonders how John came to know of this place. Who he has come with here before.

“I think it has decent food too. Hungry? I, for one, am famished”

Maybe he just heard about it?

Sherlock glances at the menu chalkboard on the wall to his right. Toasties, scones, pies. He hadn’t paid heed before, but now certainly feels a shy pang of hunger.

“A little”

“Yeah? Good, good. Okay” John smiles before he dives under the table to fish for Honeybee’s bag. “We did pack her food, didn’t we?”

“Yes”

There’s a grumble under the table as John tries to find it among the chaos that always is Honeybee’s belongings.

“Side pocket”. Sherlock smiles.

“Ah, thank you!”

John emerges, more dishevelled than before, but with a Tupperware of Rosie’s food in one hand and her spoon in the other.

“You do it, and I go order, right?”

Sherlock nods.

“Want me to choose for you?”, John asks as he stands, a little comically in the constricted space.

“Sure”

John winks and begins to swim through the current of tables and people towards the till. Sherlock is left blinking after him -until Honeybee bites his finger a little harder and he realizes that she is quite the hungry baby bird.

John doesn’t take very long. “Thank god they bring you your order. I would never have managed”, he grins, and sits down again.

“Got you a whole-wheat, veggie baguette, and tea”

“Thank you”

Rosie has eaten most of her pea puree by then and is attacking the carrot one.

“Hungry, are you, little girl?”

As expected, she thrusts her spoon in his direction. John pretends to eat a mouthful and thanks her.

They wait for their food and drinks, Sherlock listening but sometimes getting distracted by the question-marks floating around people’s heads, clothes, faces, as John talks steadily to Rosie all the while.

A waitress brings their order, at long last. Sherlock looks away, on instinct and habit both, in anticipation of the smile John will flash her, the innuendo-filled comment.

“There you are. Your tea… The baguette?”

“For the gentleman”, John chirps. Sherlock’s plate is placed in front of him, and he murmurs a thank you to the glass window.

“And the panini for you, sir. Anything else I can get you?” Voice honey-coated in glossy pink. Sherlock bites his tongue.

“Some water, please? A bottle?” John’s voice is polite and kind, and, as always, dashing, show-off green. Sherlock wants to pick it apart, to stop it from doing the inevitable.

“Of course”

“Thanks”

Sherlock waits until the no doubt mesmerized waitress has walked away before he looks again. He finds John’s gaze on him.

“You okay?” Deep, calming purple. Sherlock considers this as he pretends to consider his baguette.

“Of course. Looks nice. Thank you”

“No need”

Honeybee slams her little fists on the table and reaches for Sherlock’s baguette demandingly. He pushes his plate away and tries to soothe her, leaning close above her so that he can hear his low, shushing baritone.

“Hey… You have a leaf in your hair”

“Hm?!” Sherlock’s eyes shoot up.

“A leaf. In your hair” John smiles, Sherlock is not sure what for. “Must have stuck when… Oh well. Don’t move. Here. Let me”

And just like that, John reaches across the table. His fingers trail to the side of Sherlock’s head, above his ear, brushing its tip just that little bit on their way. Sherlock goes very, very still. He feels John’s fingers working against his scalp as he parts the curls, and then catches the leaf in index and middle finger. He stops as soon as he has begun pulling it away. Sherlock’s breath stops with him.

“Oh. It’s… Wait-“ John sits up to reach better, frowning in concentration, the way he does when he types, when he makes breakfast, when he reads the paper. Sherlock can see him on the edge of his vision, but can feel his breath in his ear, taste the familiar scent of him, tea and wool, a whiff of his old cologne and a touch of earth and grass and musk. John brings his other hand to steady Sherlock’s head, warm palm cupping his temple as he’s working to remove the leaf without pulling at the messy, still gelled, curls. Sherlock wants to press into the touch, mush his face against the red skin of John’s hand, discover if it’s soft or calloused like his fingers.

“There!”, John finally says, triumphantly, as he sits back down. Sherlock’s spine is tingling, and he wishes he could be the forest floor itself.

John holds up the brown leaf, and then leaves it on the saucer of his cup, grin all green and dashing and show-off. Sherlock’s tongue has turned into a leathery stone.

The waitress’s return is like a referee whistling the end of a game; it all blows away as she leaves a small water bottle on their table. John smiles his thanks without looking at her and begins to fill Rosie’s sippy cup. He’s looking timid, all of a sudden, his movements measured and contained, as if he has decided to barricade himself in barely a half square metre of space.  

“Your daughter has the most beautiful eyes!”, the waitress coos at Sherlock. Honeybee burrows closer to his chest, weary of the new voice.

“Um, she… She’s not… Mine-“, he stammers, unsure of whether his voice is louder than a moth’s beating wings.

“-Ours. She’s ours”, John cuts in.

Sherlock’s entire world cartwheels on the spot.

“Oh”. The waitress looks from John to Sherlock, and back to John again, as if she were given a riddle she needs to solve. Sherlock can almost touch her moment of eureka when it arrives. “Oh! I see! Lucky little girl!”

His head is pounding, as if he just received a blow.

“Thank you”, John has looks up this time. And the smile he gives, to him, Sherlock can swear he has seen before. All proud and content, and yet as if it were tutting at the same time.

Would his nose scrunch up if kissed, you think?

Time stops.

“Well, all the best to you, then!” The waitress says, when she can catch no pair of eyes from neither of them. But she doesn’t sound like she minds. “Happy Valentine’s!”

***

“Sherlock? Sherlock? Are you there?”

Sherlock’s eyes blink open, his body jerking. John breathes a sigh a relief. His palm is on Sherlock’s forehead, feeling his temperature.

“Are you okay? Sherlock?”

“Wha- What happened?”

“You zoned out a little. Are you feeling alright?” John frowns, his fingers brushing down Sherlock’s face.

Sherlock shakes his head. John places a glass of water in his fingers.

“Drink.”

“What? Yes, of course, I’m alright!” Sherlock protects, belatedly, but downs the glass anyway, putting it back on the table in a sharp movement.

Rosie falls silent, cuddling her pink elephant.

“Sherlock?” John tries.

“Sorry.” Sherlock plays with his glass, turning it round and round, gaze fixed on the rim, stained with the shape of his lips. “Tired.”

John glances at their food, half-eaten, going cold. He looks at the time. It’s one in the afternoon. They have been out for hours. More than Sherlock or Rosie have been in months.

“Time to head home, I think.” John murmurs to himself.

‘Real smooth, Watson. Real smooth.’

Did he really think an all-day out Valentine’s after a draining appointment would work? Unrealistic expectations? ‘Huh.’

“That. That would be. Good.” Sherlock frowns, pausing, as if having a problem gathering his words in a way they work together.

John fixes his gaze on his hand on the table, a few inches away from Sherlock’s, debating.

***

Valentine’s Day.

‘Very clever. Freak him out even more. Yes. Right.’

Even if with this and that John had also forgotten.

But does he remember? Does he know? Why would he freak out?

‘Well, he’s you -rather, you’re him. You’re the one supposed to figure it out’

They walk down the park, stopping casually for Rosie to play here and there. Both wanting to restore her previous mood and stall. Not wanting to end the day short, after all. She falls asleep on John’s chest in the end as they sit under a tree, reading one of her favourite fairy tales. Sherlock doesn’t comment on inaccuracies and soon, clouds start to gather above them, taking the decision for them.

“Home?”

“Home…” Sherlock’s face is pale.

John stands and makes sure his scarf is folded warmly around his tall neck. Hands in pockets, a blanket over Rosie, they reach the edge of Paddington Restoration park and catch a taxi. Sherlock leans his head to the cold window, his breath shaping foggy patches over the glass, his characteristics sharp as glass themselves.

“All well?” John breathes.

“Mm?” Sherlock almost doesn’t acknowledge him, lost in thought.

“Everything alright?” John repeats.

“Yes. Yes, certainly.” Sherlock dismisses.

They have managed a few more solid hours outside. It is time for Rosie’s nap time -which she’s taking- and their own tea time soon. Despite the growing days, the sun can do nothing but let clouds and darkness take in since early today. The light makes Sherlock’s eyes silver and bright, shining or deep, menacing blue. John isn’t sure what he’s about to face.

When they step in, Sherlock turns around, blocking John the entrance to the stairs and removes his scarf, slow fingers curling over wool, shaping patterns invisible to the eye but ones John would like to watch forever. Sherlock drags the scarf over his neck, pale skin slowly revealed, John’s eyes transfixed by a bobbing Adam’s apple. He offers it back.

“Thank you.” He whispers.

John is paralysed. It’s not possible for such beauty, miles and miles of refined muscle to be unadorned. Sherlock steps closer, a hint of confusion and exasperation on his features as he presses the scarf on John’s flexing fingers. John shakes himself when the warmth of Sherlock’s breath falls on his forehead, tingling, making his hair stand.

Mrs Hudson hasn’t returned yet and the two tired bachelors climb up the stairs, pulling away wet coats from the rain that had started before they arrived. Rosie is placed in her warm cot, the baby monitor set on the coffee table and John starts preparing their tea as Sherlock changes into pyjamas and curls on the sofa. Their private new custom of chamomile makes them smile again, easy and wide as a bird can spread its wings.

“Exquisite.” Sherlock hums, eyes closed, head resting back, neck exposed and achingly arched.

Touch. Touch. Touch.

John wants to. Sitting beside him, he wants to run a finger over those lines, understand their architecture and strength and grace. Instead, he speaks.

“You’ve been quiet.”

“I believe I’m quite exhausted.” It’s also quiet. But deep. Resonating. Travelling.

“Mm… ‘s alright.”

John wants to kiss that throat, the hollow of Sherlock’s neck, see what he does in response, what he feels, if he feels…

‘Damn’

Today… he didn’t bother with proprieties. With what’s allowed. What’s expected. He doesn’t know about tomorrow, but today… He’s been free.

He is looking straight ahead, sipping his tea in silence, when there’s a shift of leather on silk, and a weight over John’s shoulder. He turns, curious, and there he is. There are his curls brushing over John’s chin. There are the cheekbones he so secretly desires. There’s the pale, freckled face of Sherlock. His Sherlock… His best friend… and devoted companion… and…

“Rest…” John whispers, closing his eyes and reaching. Reaching up and up. Fingers brushing over stubbly cheeks. Auburn. That’s what Sherlock’s hair had once been in colour. Like his facial hair. John would fall in love with him then and now and in between. All over.

A beat.

It’s like he is outside himself but he isn’t, he’s there, and this has been there, for so long, maybe all along. But he sees it, clear as day, he names it, and it only takes a moment for it to settle, to be born, reborn. So simple, painless, winter transitioning to spring, night to day.

And yet his heartbeat has changed, his breaths, his bones.

In love.

He doesn’t stop to think what it means. Doesn’t linger to ask. He only wakes the sleeping beauty beside him when Rosie signals her dinner from the monitor. Only helps a half-asleep figure crawl under the covers of his bed. Only lets him rest as John feeds his little Rose, telling her how proud she made him, for being brave at the doctor, for being a wonderful daughter, the best there is, and then Rosie exhausted sleeps again and Sherlock has stirred and called for a glass of water and John places her in her cot carefully before getting one of his books with him, without being sure why, just having the urge to read. To someone. And Sherlock thanks him for the water and smiles and John sits beside him. It only takes a few gentle words from there. It only takes a memory of “will you stay”s. All the times he didn’t and all the times he couldn’t. It only takes a glance over bleary eyes. Silver, not blue. Bright, not menacing, after all. To look up at him and start to close. It only takes John opening the ludicrous spy novel and starting to read, starting to narrate aloud and add his own interpretations and thoughts -so much practice with Rosie on the road hadn’t gone unused in the end. It only takes the pale face of an Angel from the Moon and the urge of the Sea to touch, to lick with wanting waves over the fragile surface and nestle inside.

It only takes John Watson in love, to stay and count his beloved’s breaths through the night. Because that is what he is. Friend. Companion. Beloved. For him to curl over the sheets and watch as the chest he saw crushed by pavement, bullet, and John’s own feet, makes slow circles of rising and falling. Circles of life. Collarbones accentuated by force of nature. Sternum lined and bony, staying alive by force of will alone.

It only takes John watching over Sherlock’s finally dreamless sleep, for him to close his eyes at the first light of dawn in bliss. And sleep.

Chapter Text

Light, and warmth. The first coherent thought coming to his mind, is that he felt good; both feather-light and solid, well-defined. Arms stretching above his head as his eyelids struggle to open, he revels in the freedom of movement, his body quiet and not protesting with pains, or nausea. As far as he can remember, there had been no dreams either, no brine of saltwater clinging to the back of his throat.

He has not slept peacefully in a long while. It is a sensation he had thought he would not experience again, and it is elusive enough that he was even missing it vaguely, unable to pin it down. And yet, it feels like only yesterday.

With increasing awareness of his surroundings comes the realisation that the anchoring weight of another body lies beside his own. A breathing slow and deep surrounds him. It is so familiar that he can picture the rise and fall of the chest it belongs to.

The cases he and John had solved together that required them leaving Baker Street to stay someplace else overnight were only a handful. But each and every one, Sherlock would find himself falling asleep by counting John’s even breaths. It never failed to persuade his mind to rest, truly rest. But now the time and place don’t match his memories. His eyes finally agree to open, and at once go to the watch on his left wrist. No, it’s all the same; he’s here, and it’s now.

Even though it is early, he can’t remember falling asleep. What remains of the previous afternoon in the forefront of his mind is a content, proud smile and ours, ours, ours…

He remembers the park, the appointment, the way John’s face was filled with horror when Sherlock had not followed him after they had gotten off the tube and out onto the street. How John had wrapped his own scarf around his neck, asking ‘okay?’ more times than Sherlock can count.

The breathing beside him keeps on, even and steady. Sherlock smiles. John is not a heavy sleeper, from his days in the army, of course, and due to his PTSD. But it seems that this time, he is quite at peace. Sherlock wonders if he is dreaming, and what. If the reason for his lack of night terrors is the presence of another body beside his, too. And then almost despite his will, Sherlock wonders if it could be like this; if they could keep helping each other. If they could stay here, under the same roof, sharing their every day, their small frustrations and small victories, share in the fascinating miracle that was every day of Rosie’s life. If then John would keep saying she’s ours as Honeybee grew up, and if then she could perhaps feel it too. If being here with him helped John as much as John being here helped him.

Then Sherlock remembers the gap that opened between them with the slightest indication of danger. A gap they could not cross. Not together.

They are together in this now, in this struggle to mend. But there is no guarantee what will happen after. Camaraderie and friendly loyalty are hardly a life’s commitment.

When John heals, when he feels better, he will seek to rebuild his life. Perhaps he will meet someone, some woman with good motherly instincts and a tender smile. He will move out. Move on. To a nice home in the suburbs, with a white fence and a back garden. To a family. He had done so before, while believing Sherlock was dead. Why wouldn’t he do so now? Of course, Sherlock would be a fool to see himself as being John’s priority in life.

There is no way in the world that he could offer John what he needs.

The light that had filled his body when he woke up ebbs away, taking the weightlessness of his transport with it.

‘Think. Think!’

John probably came to check on him last night. He must have been exhausted so fell asleep without meaning to.

So, what would he do if he woke up now?

There is an important factor in answering this, one Sherlock has been wanting to avoid, but one which will never avoid him: what if the danger is him? If John waking up here, beside him, will have the same effect as everything else that has caused the chasm between them to appear?

Sherlock stands, on careful feet, without making a sound. The tremor of his left hand he hides with disgust in the pocket of his dressing gown.

He leaves the bedroom soundlessly, without once looking at John.

Sherlock never knows where the line is. Cannot be sure when it will appear next. But he knows it is there, delimiting the possible from the impossible. That it is in John’s hands, and John’s hands alone.

In the kitchen, he sets the kettle to boil, then leaves the tea to brew. Every movement is calculated and precise.

At least he has kept the leaf. He snatched it from John’s saucer just as they were ready to leave the café. It is in his small pocket of his wallet now, next to the Rizla papers, a tiny lavender sprig, and John’s old, worn photograph. Sherlock had taken it randomly, in the first year they’d met. They were on a terrace in the City, investigating a triple homicide. He had accidentally caught John smiling while taking a photograph of the evidence. The setting sun was bathing John’s face with its lush light, and he was squinting against it, just a little bit, his golden hair windswept. The photograph lived on in his phone until it was printed, a little while before the fall. To travel with him, in an inside pocket against his chest, to beat to the rhythm of a frightened heart on the run.

But now, he only remembers the leaf. The whimsical brown leaf that had made John reach and cup his face in a palm to disentangle it from his hair. He remembers the heat boiling under his skin, the tingles paralysing him, the breath he had been holding. And he remembers something more. He remembers wanting.

Sherlock pours the tea and settles on his armchair, wrapping his dressing gown tight about him. Dawn has only just broken, and it does not seem like it will be a fair day this time.

Maybe yesterday he crossed a line of his own.

***

John’s eyelids are heavy when he stirs. Stuck together as if with glue, like every time the young hours of a new day seduce him to sleep. The last chance of the night’s tricks to claim him. John is pulled to the surface with a sour taste in his mouth. A soft groan escapes him. His body is not used to sleep exposed to the humid atmosphere of rainy London and it shows; a couple of joints protesting when he stretches them out, his feet freezing cold. He lies on his back, wetting his dry lips with his tongue, wondering why the hell he didn’t bring a blanket with him when he decided to just lie there yesterday night.

There were no nightmares today. No fires. No shadows. None at all. John is contemplative of this when the kettle in the kitchen clicks. So… Sherlock is not here. He’s awake. He’s up and already getting on with the day. He’s not beside John anymore. John, who remembers last night. Who lingers on every detail. Who wishes his memory was as good as his genius’ so that he would be sure to cradle this moment in his mind forever.

Sherlock’s head had been tilting to one side, his lips puffing out full in his blissful slumber, a specific tuft of ebony black straying over his temple. Beautiful.

John came to it then. Admitted it. The truth. His truth.

One obvious conclusion.

He turns his head to the bump in the mattress beside him. There’s no warmth coming off the pressed sheets when John slides a tentative arm over their seemingly endless white. It makes cold water run down his spine. Maybe this was a boundary he shouldn’t have crossed. Especially now that he knows… he knows what he wants.

Do you?

‘Kind of.’

The silence overwhelms him. The kettle has stopped boiling.

‘I’m asking too much.’

Nobody answers.

John should have respected Sherlock’s space. He won’t make the same mistake again. He also left Rosie to sleep alone. Not that it was too unusual for a toddler of her age but John hadn’t done so for more than a month. It spiked his insecurities just enough.

‘Cool down. Take a deep breath. Think it through.’

He gets up. No time for it. He’s anxious enough to see Sherlock and check on Rosie already. His body is a live wire. The bed creaks and he almost freezes, reflexes mandating he shouldn’t make his wakefulness known. It only takes a moment to snap out of it, follow his routine, casually stepping into the bathroom… but it has him aching for bliss.

He had it. He was asleep and he had it. Peace. There’s an underlying current of it. He can feel it. Almost grasp it through the layers of time and space. All colours of the sunset, rippling, reflecting against waves. An indefinite moment before he woke up. Before his mind switched so swiftly to a reality that prevents him from reaching that state again. Not letting him closer anymore. Frustration pools into his stomach as he washes his face, scratching his bearded chin. He almost had it. The now lost bliss. It’s still there, inches away… Still…

The kitchen is silent. Sounds non-existent. Sherlock is listening. Tuning in. Maybe searching for John’s sounds around the flat, just like John does so many times every day. Constantly, in fact. Having lived in an empty Baker Street, with not a pip of sound from Sherlock’s then crazy and manic moods and character, is the worst John has ever lived through. His body is attuned to make sure it’s not all happening again. Programmed to check that Sherlock is there. Alive. Breathing air. The same air John does.

Hot water is being poured in mugs. John gathers himself, watching his face in the mirror. Their silent listening session is done. He finds he looks good, despite the mood. Presentable. He reaches for the hair product but stops midway. Cackles appear inside his head, slurs forming, memories surfacing. Not a good day today. ‘Got it.’ He ruffles his hair with shaky fingers and goes out to the kitchen.

It’s weird. Walking to the room from that angle. With his casual change of clothes, he wears at home. Everything implies where he slept. Reminding both of them.

“Morning.”

Sherlock eyes shift from mug to mug, from teaspoon to teaspoon. He shakes his head to a courteous nod. John doesn’t mind. He doesn’t want to breech the subject either. He pops his shoulder and goes on to bring them biscuits and scones and jam and butter. It’s a sweet breakfast today. He will make sure Sherlock eats something salty later. A ham and cheese melt toastie maybe? They’ve bought a grill he can make it in.

Sherlock’s long fingers remove the teabags and bring their mugs over. His knuckles are only a tad redder because of the heat. John bites his lip, lets it slide free, and strives to reach and help.

“Here, let me get-”

It’s a bolt of electricity coursing through them.

“Got it.”

Sherlock places them on the table. Harder than usual. John isn’t sure if it is because he couldn’t hold them longer or on purpose. His voice was deeper, harder when he spoke. John’s hands have already withheld back to his sides. His fingers are itching.

“Thanks…” He’s careful now. He should be. “I’m gonna-”

Sherlock’s eyes snap up. John’s hands are over the baby monitor, pointing. It’s a spell. Breaking.

“Yeah. Yes, of course.” A tiny exclamation right there.

John’s lips break into pieces.

Relief.

That’s what it’s called. But it’s so much more. It’s a chest being pried open by deft fingers. It’s dried sand ground. Receiving the first rain drops in months. It’s Sherlock’s eyes. Diamond blue. Washing over John’s whole body. It’s butterflies. Monarchs finding their homes, milkweeds, after months of exhausting search.

Butterflies in his stomach.

In love.

Yes. He is in love. But this is better. So much better.

He’s been in love forever.

It’s a flood he can’t sustain.

It’s better.

It’s better.

It’s better.

His head tilts. He pushes a plate to Sherlock.

“Make sure you eat half of that until we come to join you, please?” His cheeks are hurting. He’s beaming. He wants to burst to laughter. His heart is filling. Sherlock is looking. Wide eyed. John smirks. “Be right back. Promise.”

And he’s gone.

***

What… was that?!

John fights the urge to squeal. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t know. There’s only one thing he wants to scream out loud and he has to fight it.

Rosie is tossing and turning in her cot. He is making sure she’s not tangling to her covers when she opens her eyes. He smiles, brushing her cheek.

“There you are, little love. There you are. How are we?”

She sticks her tongue out to him with a grumble.

“Oh, right. Bad Papa took your elephant yesterday, didn’t he?”

She turns around, but she won’t be able to sleep again. John has watched her before. She can’t sleep again if she wakes in the morning. It’s about her time anyway, so that shouldn’t bother her in the long run. He makes a mental note that he left her alone without her elephant and without him either so that he can damper the pounding joy in his heart. He’s a father. He should focus on that. Too.

“Come here, sweetheart. There we go. You’ll have your elephant soon enough.” His lips rest on her temple as he lifts her up, gentle always. She stays silent, sighing into his shoulder.

By the time John brings her downstairs, his phone rings.

‘Damn.’

Sherlock smiles at them. Cautious.

“Will you? Just for a second?” John leans forward. Rosie lets go of his shoulder and leans away too.

Sherlock’s arms are already there to catch her, even if he was nibbling like a sparrow on a scone when they entered.

“Thanks.” John drags his lip between his teeth obsessively and reaches for the phone, pacing to the mantlepiece.

“Hello?”

“Good morning, John. Am I interrupting?”

“Oh! Morning, Ella. No, no, everything alright?” He glances back at Sherlock. The man’s looking at him quizzically.

“Yes, of course. I trust yesterday went well?”

Sherlock rearranges Rosie in his arms, she grabs his spoon, filled with jam. John smiles at the two of them, so harmoniously- ‘Halt.’ He’s daydreaming while on the phone.

 “Um, yes. Absolutely.” His hesitation makes Sherlock look up. Rosie misses her target -his mouth- and now there’s jam all over his chin. John hides a giggle in his palm.

“Good. Listen, I am sorry to call on such short notice but I’ve been called for a conference after Thursday and I won’t be able to make it for our appointment.”

“Oh… okay, yeah, er… We can catch up next week?”

Uh-oh, he was fairly sure he needed that talk. Much, much, much to resolve…

“In fact, I was wondering if you’re up for today? Noon?”

“Oh! That’s… that’s good, yeah.”

Oh! That’s efficient. John nods towards Sherlock, reassuring him. The genius returns his full attention to Rosie, taking the spoon in his mouth as she coos, without realising he has stains over his short stubble. John paces to the window and looks outside just to restrain himself from bursting to laughter.

“Wonderful.”

“Yeah, I’ll be there.” He takes a breath.

“John?”

“Mm?”

“When you believe you need a session, don’t hesitate to ask for it, okay? We’ll find the time.” She always gets it when he’s done a ‘mischief’ like that. He hums, smiling.

“Yes, sorry, yeah. Ta so much, Ella.” He already misses the sight of the two people he loves most in the world. He scans the window in front of him. Maybe a reflection…

“See you soon, then.”

“See you at noon. Yeah. Thanks. Bye bye.” He reaffirms, more to himself.

Much, much, too much to resolve. He snaps the phone closed and turns around.

The scene unfolds in all its glory as Sherlock -always with jam on his auburn-covered chin- opens and closes his mouth in the air, trying to catch the spoon again -filled now with buttered up scone- that Rosie waves towards him like an airplane. John bursts.

Both his daughter and an open-mouthed posh consulting detective turn to him in surprise and John keeps giggling, walking towards them.

“Padada?” Rosie mumbles. John leans and kisses her sunny curls.

“Aren’t you both adorable?”

Sherlock scrunches his nose.

Adorable?

“Awaaa!” Rosie squeals, giggling. Her good mood is back.

“Mmmyeah, you are.” John smirks down at Sherlock, a hand brushing Rosie’s curls and another at Sherlock’s shoulder. ‘When did it get there?’ He flinches as if to remove it but so it stays, persistent, and he doesn’t mind.

“Jooohn.” Sherlock’s voice is sounding almost like a croak, trying to be rebuking and failing in all regards. He has taken the spoon from their little girl’s hand and left it on the table again. He’s blushing.

“Mm?” John pretends not to hear. His eyes stray down to Sherlock’s chin. His hand reaches, his thumb and fingers gentle brush over the auburn stubble that left unchecked could grow into soft curls, cleaning it up as much as he can, cherishing the feel of Sherlock’s chin, the place under it, tracing it, mapping it. So soft. Tingly.

Sherlock is frozen in space and John wishes he could be frozen in time. The hairs prickle his fingertips and he wants to feel them again. And again. He wants to touch. Touch. Touch.

We are all slaves of time though… and time… Time slides.

“There.” He whispers, not meeting Sherlock’s eyes. He moves away, reluctant but feeling like he has to. For now.

The silence is broken by Rosie’s soft giggle and they both look at her, a little bit wide eyed at how much happier than before she sounded; if that is even possible. Then John goes on to fix her breakfast and their routine catches them, letting them dance around each other again but not reveal more. And when John goes downstairs to put in the laundry -a small pink elephant showing at the top of their laundry basket- Rosie follows him with grabby hands and Sherlock rushes to help her get down the stairs. And John’s heart is still giggling with love.

***

“Sherlock, what is going on with you and John?”

“Good afternoon to you too, Hudders”

“Good afternoon”, she replies, not missing a beat. “Sherlock, what is going on with you and John?”

The door to 221B is open when John is not home, letting Mrs. Hudson come and go as she pleases. Even if her hip has been giving her a hard time lately, preventing her from visiting as often as she would have, she always likes to make her presence very much felt. If she is in too much pain, she will shout at him if they need anything from the bottom of the stairs and he will reply in the same fashion, leaning against the banister. Sherlock is grateful for the company when, and however, he has it. There is only so much he can do to spend the time, even with how demanding Rosie’s care is. Mrs. Hudson is a welcome distraction -and another human being to communicate with.

“Since when do I have more manners than you?”, he teases, looking up from his laptop. Especially now, a distraction from his unnervingly fruitless research is most welcome.

“When you are my age, you can be allowed some freedoms”, she says, facing him with her hands crossed over her chest.

“Like… eloping with the owner of the bakery next door?” his lips quirk into a smile.  

“Sherlock Holmes, you are forbidden from deducing my personal life!”

“I didn’t” He shrugs. He only had made a guess, after all. “It’s just… Lately there’s been too many scones… And too little baking”

He hears her tutting and mumbling as she helps herself to a cup of tea, from what little is left from his and John’s breakfast. When Mrs. Hudson returns to the sitting room, Honeybee stands up in her baby park and leans against its safety net, whining rather insistently. She has not yet overcome her temporary separation from her stuffed pink elephant, and was busy brooding over her cloth blocks, destroying the little towers she made more fiercely than usual.

“Oh, hello little darling! Aw, Sherlock, she is lovely, look how she’s grown… Can I hold her?”

“Of course. But if she doesn’t want coddling, please don’t pressure her. Her pink elephant is in the washing machine and she is in a bit of a stroppy mood today”

“Nonsense, of course she wants a hug! Come here, darling, don’t listen to him calling you stroppy”, Mrs. Hudson coos, coaxing Honeybee into her arms.

“So?”, she asks, getting comfortable on John’s armchair.

Sherlock puts his laptop away and joins them. “Well… We have just… said some things that needed to be said. And… That is pretty much all”

She looks doubtful for some moments, trying to pry her fingers away from Honeybee’s mouth. “Has he been doing better? You know… With…”

“Yes. As far as I know. Has regular appointments, a good support network”

“He hasn’t… lapsed at all, has he?”

“Don’t think so”

“Good. That’s good then. You’re both doing well” She says that in that way of hers that lets him know she doesn’t wholly believe him.

“What?”

“Well, I… I thought… Since you have decided to… You know… Live together again, and are working on things together, that you…”

“No. No. That is… No. John doesn’t -isn’t- we…. We are friends. Friends”

“Ah. Well. At least he’s not that silly. Or has stopped being, anyway”, she huffs.

Sherlock’s head tilts to the side with confusion.

“Because all this… situation has been… Horrible”, she closes her eyes, as if the thought alone upsets her.

It dawns on him. “You’re angry?”

“Yes. Yes, of course I am. At least, I certainly was angry with him”

“It… It wasn’t his fault. What happened. I am certainly accountable for my actions and-”

“I know all that. I am angry because he stayed away for the sake of a woman that was hardly worth the trouble”

“Hudders…”

 “I know she was Rosie’s mother. But I know a bad person when I see one, Sherlock” She tuts, and kisses Honeybee’s golden head. The little one has all but fallen asleep on her chest, making soft, sleepy noises. Mrs. Hudson takes a deep, composing breath. “I know the face of my husband even when it is not on him. It was unfair that you have been punished because of the likes of her”

Sherlock pauses, tries to calm the mess that has become of his mind. It is not the first time that someone has told him he did not deserve all he’s been through. John was the first, two nights ago. But this is the first time he hears this in relation to her. That he is compared with her, and she is found wanting.

I did not love her. Did not want her to be my wife, the mother of my child, anything.

“I… It is not as simple as that”, he murmurs, the memory still echoing in his mind.

“Of course not. But I am not only talking about the past nine months, Sherlock…”

Again, that knowing look. The same one as when she saw him dancing alone, almost three years ago. When she saw him give the best man’s speech. When she saw him return from John’s house, the day Molly told him John would rather see anyone, anyone but him.

“So… What of the therapist, then?”

“Oh, she’s… good. Even though her professional tone is… um… not very polished. She seems a well-versed specialist”

“What did she think of the little one?”

“She thinks any symptoms must be due to some psychological response. But she will need more appointments to make a more informed judgement”

“Poor little thing…”, she coos at Honeybee, who whines in response.

“Hudders, she needs proper care, and lots of it, not pity”

Mrs. Hudson smiles at him. “Look at you… Never would have thought you’d make a parent. In your own weird way, even”

Sherlock frowns. He is not a parent. Just a temporary, convenient caretaker. Not that he doesn’t… Doesn’t harbour for this little human being incomparable, unfathomable tender affection, which, he thinks, is at the very least close to what a parent should feel for their little one.  

As if on cue, Honeybee sneezes, and curls closer to Mrs. Hudson with a whimper. Mrs. Hudson holds her closer, but when her eyes meet Sherlock’s, he can see alarm in them.

“Sherlock, darling… She’s a little hot, don’t you think, dear?”

***

“Johnny?”

The door creaks as she enters. The wood old, rustic, its shine scratched at the edges by a cat long gone.

He sits up, against the pillows of his bed, linen sheets a blanched green. She’s sixteen. Hair long and pale, like Mother’s once was. She lets it flow free only in the house. He’s only ever seen her with a neat ponytail out at school.

“Come in, I suppose.” He grumbles, holding a pillow over his lap. Is there no such thing as privacy in this house?

Who is he kidding? Of course, there isn’t.

She’s a head taller, which irritates him. Father says however, he hasn’t gotten his own ‘manly’ growth spurt yet to catch up to her. He is fourteen. He doubts he’ll ever get a growth spurt enough to surpass his sister. Not with both their parents averagely short. Besides, Harriet is taller than Father already, even if she has stopped growing for some years now. All John can hope for is for enough height to just barely reach her.

She comes to sit on the edge of his bed. She looks serious. And slouching. That, at least, is good. He straightens up to appear higher. The small boost of self-confidence will do right now. He’s not in a good place.

‘Teenagers.’ Father would dismiss if John tried to talk about it.

‘Keep your face straight, boy.’ With that accent as if his mouth was full.

John was inclined to believe it full of shit. Then he berates himself for the thought alone.

‘You’re always so grumpy.’ Harriet would say sometimes, when they were alone. Following in their mother’s footsteps but in a much more accusing way.

Mother used to simply ask if he wasn’t happy… Kneeling in front of him, her warm palms at his arms, looking him in the eye as if she already knew. She couldn’t always follow through their conversation; asking him why and finding a solution. But even so… it felt different. John felt different. Like someone cared.

Then, she was gone and nobody ever really cared at all.

“So… can we talk?”

They never have been the best siblings in town. So torn apart by Father’s breakdowns, his mental and physical blows in the midst of drunkenness, to even seek solace in each other. Plus, Harriet has always been competitive, earning all the medals a son should have done. Father never complimented her on it. He just used it as a jab towards John and that’s about it all. The only time she could feel proud was when he was feeling like shit.

They were both ending up floating in the end. Displeasure and jealousy working their childish minds to hard burning coals of anger. He tilts his head. He has nothing better to do.

“Can I trust you, little brother?”

Her tone is so innocent, yet she’s already stating who has the upper hand in what’s about to happen. It doesn’t matter what she’s asking, if she’s in a place of vulnerability or not. John is her ‘little brother’. It’s fixed. He can’t do anything about it but scrunch up his nose and sneer. He doesn’t like her calling him this. Doesn’t like it at all. She knows it. She could cause so much trouble with it.

“’suppose.”

“Stop mumbling.” She communicates her distaste, patting hard at his extended calf.

He draws his foot away, nails digging in the pillow under them. Does she know she’s not Mother? Doubtful.

“Yes.”

“Good. Because I want to tell you something.”

So much for can ‘we’ talk. Still, John was intrigued, and something gentle stirs inside him. This is the first time Harriet wanted to confide in him for years. The first time since mom left. Maybe she doesn’t know how to.

“Okay” He concedes.

Her shoulders are still curved. Inwards. She steals a glance at him and finds something there. Something that makes her curl up her legs and climb on the bed to sit opposite him. John had never seen her afraid. But now she is. She had closed the door behind her and her eyes are darting at it every now and then. He doesn’t know it yet, but he would see her afraid more times than he could count after that.

“So…?”

“I think-” She is picking at her nails, breaking them between themselves. “I will never get a boyfriend, you know?”

He frowns.

“Uh… So, what?”

She rolls her eyes at him. He doesn’t see why it’s important. Father would never let her have a boyfriend anyway.

“You don’t understand, Johnny.”

Oh. He’s too little now. Too ‘Johnny’. Too much of a child. Silly. A little boy.

“Then explain.” He huffs, equally patronising.

She stays quiet, biting her lip.

“I only mean-”

“Out with it.” He’s getting impatient. He had been busy after all.

“I don’t like men.”

It’s a tad more mature than what he’d expected. Her talking. Like that. She’s right. He doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand why she’s telling him about ‘men’. All men. In general. Not boys. Not guys. But men. She’s not excluding boyfriends. She’s excluding husbands.

Maybe she’s heartbroken?

“Well… um, you know, when you’re older-”

“Oh, shut up, Johnny, I won’t change my mind!” She cuts in, glaring at him.

He’s silly, isn’t he? In his baggy clothes and short figure, plump belly and messy haircut, not letting even one of his golden hair touch his forehead. ‘The shorter the better.’ Father had said, taking the razor, looking sharp at his boy’s reflection at the bathroom mirror. A silly teenager.

What else was there for him to say except the commonly heard stereotypes? That she’ll want a family eventually, she’ll want children, she’ll find a proper husband and run away from this hellhole, she’ll make her life and he’ll provide for her and blah di blah di blah. He didn’t know any other possibilities. He wasn’t supposed to. Even if he did, he wasn’t allowed to voice them. They weren’t allowed.

He didn’t know what was wrong, most of all. She hadn’t told him. He only guessed.

Harriet waves his -whatever expression showed on his face- and surges forward, taking his ankle in her bony fingers and gripping tight. He freezes. She’s looking right at him.

“I like girls.”

The penny drops.

John is staring. And staring. And staring.

This is bad. This is bad. This is a nightmare.

His chest fills and fills and fills with bitter nectarines. He wants to explode. The sky is falling. The end of his world as he knows it is coming. He can’t stop it. He can only watch. Watch and prey for his body to withstand the collision. For his mind to find a way to escape.

She slaps his chin. Soft. Just a shake. He realises she’s been calling his name.

“Oh.” He manages.

She frowns at him. As if he’s stupid.

No. No, he’s not stupid. He has seen the papers, has grown up among cartoons and caricatures of dead men on them. Of death by sin and sins that are countless. Of plague and fear and lingering eyes and gossip. He’s still in this world. Still growing up. Still a child. A sheep among wolves. Waiting for their catch of the day. For the herd to part and the lonely small gazelle to stay behind, stay different, stand out among the grass. And the hyenas and leopards to attack. To run faster than he ever could. To snatch. To bite. He’s the one waiting now. Waiting for their teeth to catch. For the end to be a quick break of his neck.

Because he does know of other possibilities.

“Johnny!”

His hand convulses, coming to rest over her mouth, shushing. His eyes are wide. His heart racing.

“You’ll wake him!” He whispers.

She rolls her eyes, as is customary. He lets her go. She retreats to her side of the small bed again, settles her feet bent like a butterfly in front of her, open. They stay quiet. John forces his breath to calm, imagines he’s on a stadium, ready to run a track, ready to outrun them all, and then relax, lie down on the aftermath, never expecting a word of praise. Not once.

“So…”

His eyes snap to hers. She understands now. How it frightens him. How he understands. How he’s not a child anymore. Her gaze drifts.

“I like women.”

There it is again. The mark of her being older, talking serious. Her tone is far, far away. John bites his lips. It’s probably the first time she told anyone. Even herself. That’s why she wanted to talk. She wanted to finally say it. Or she would burst.

He understands. He does. But he doesn’t know how. Or why.

He just knows he’s about to burst too.

“How do you…”

Harriet looks up. He hesitates.

“How do you know…” and just as she’s about to answer, taking her deep breath, preparing her belittling paragraph, he adds, eating half the words up. “that you don’t like both?”

It’s her turn to stare.

“Ah, what?”

He repeats, voice low, head bowed, as if it’s physically impossible to move anything except his lips.

“Pfft!” She scoffs, snappish. “There’s no such thing, Johnny. It’s either one or the other. Whoever says otherwise is an idiot and a cheat.”

She stands up and straightens her messed up hair, running fingers through with sharp movements.

This conversation is decidedly over.

“You won’t tell anyone, will you?”

He’s frozen, breath caught and lost somewhere between his throat and lungs. She jerks her head to him.

“Little brother?”

Poison. Fear. Again.

“No. No, I won’t.” He doesn’t feel his lips move. It’s an out of body experience he has only lived once before.

She nods, turns and leaves; door left an inch ajar after her passing.

He just glares at his feet as if they could spurt wings and fly him anywhere like Hermes. Free of the world and its superstitions. Limitations.

“Oh.”

Small.

Is the breath he’s been holding. Is his hope shattering to pieces.

***

“Thank you for coming, John. Apologies for the sudden change.”

“Nah, it’s alright.” He rubs his index on his jumper, settling. “In fact, I probably needed this sooner rather than later.” A nervous chuckle.

“Mm… Tell me about that, then.”

“Just…” His mind is not cooperating. He shrugs.

“Was it Rosie’s appointment?”

“No, no, that went… wow, that went, yeah…” He looks at his jeans.

“That good?”

“Yes, in fact, thank you for recommending your colleague and going through every little detail with me when I couldn’t decide and felt… you know.”

“Ah, yes, don’t worry about it, John. It’s you that did all the work after all.” She smiles, encouraging.

“Yes. I-I still don’t feel I do my best but… I’m working on it.”

“That’s good to hear though.”

He laughs, once. “I bet.” He rubs a palm to his face, then tangles his fingers over his chest, sinking in his chair.

“You’re a bit tense today?”

“Mm? Yes, she… well, yesterday… we went to the park.” He swallows. He needs to talk about this. Still, silence follows. His foot fidgets. He digs his nails to his knee. “She was happy. Played in the grass.”

The image of her face going red, red, red.

“Her-her pink… elephant plushie was too dirty when we got home. I took it away, as I should have, as I need to and-”

Round and round and round.

“It had leaves and black spots and I couldn’t let her keep it with her of course, I needed to clean it up and make sure she’s-” He stops himself. His pulse is thundering.

Red, red, red. Salt, salt, salt. Tears. Screams. Stubbornness.

“I let her sleep without it. I put it in the washing machine this morning. After you called me.” Control. He needs to have control. Regain control.

“John, it’s alright to let this go. Whatever it is.” A smooth tone. Not the one he wants, needs to hear. The deep baritone one he longs for…

“It just set me off. The way she stood there. Watching. Her world was crushing down on her. I saw it in her eyes. I made her feel it.” He bites his lip to not let a sob fall out.

Tears. Cries. Rage. Despair.

No. No. He wanted her to be happy. He wanted… He wanted…

“Oh, John.” Ella is smiling.

John frowns.

“What?”

Of course, he didn’t let any of it show right then. He took her in his arms and let her weep for a plushie that would soon be with her again. He let Sherlock believe that it was alright. It was just a small incident they could deal with. He delivered her to him when she reached, babbling a ‘dadadadadada’ at her crazy rhythm, before she nestled into him. But he refused to think about it right then. If he had, he would have broken down. Like now.

Her face… her beautiful, round face… distorted to an expression he hadn’t witnessed before. ‘It’s your fault.’ It said. ‘You did this.’

“Nothing, just…” Ella shrugs.

Shurgs?!

“Every parent goes through that at some point quite intensely. I merely wanted to point out how well you’re both doing. Having reactions to each other’s actions, communicating.”

Oh. Oh, that was… different. Than what he expected at least.

“Um… so…”

“Let me explain.” Ella raises a hand. “What happened after?”

“Well, I comforted her.”

“Good. Was she silent?”

“No. Anything but!” John huffs, pressing his eyes for a moment, pushing back tears.

“She communicated how she felt about it with you. Honestly. Openly.”

“Ah…” A light flickered.

“Thoughts?” Ella smiles. The affection is pure in her voice. Of course, she has come to care for his little girl.

“She… wouldn’t have done that before…” His heart opens.

She nods. That’s why it was different. John’s mind strains to process it. That’s why he felt totally lost. Like her. She was actively protesting, putting her foot forward and telling him ‘no’, instead of whining, reluctant or staying utterly and unambiguously silent, closing off.

There are tears in his eyes for a completely different reason now. He wants to share this. With him. With Sherlock. He wants to so much that it’s weighing him down. Even if the genius knew already. She’s going to be happy again in the afternoon, when she’ll have her elephant back. She’ll smile at him and next time he’ll explain her why he had to clean it. Next time she’ll know Papa is going to get it back again.

“Oh, god… that… that means…”

“You’re doing well, John.” Ella assists, voice tentative, leaving him space.

It’s too much. Too much joy. Too much. John wants to, needs to let something out. Jesus, what are you waiting for?!

“We slept together.” He blurts.

***

His beer bubbles are not dissipating as quickly as he’d like. The glass cold enough to sustain them and his inevitable stay at the dance club for longer than expected. He can’t leave without finishing it. A personal bet. A risk, taken to prove to himself something important. He could stand through the length of one beer. He could. He wasn’t- He couldn’t possibly be-

Why did he ask for a cold glass anyway? Was it subconscious? Trying to stay here longer?

He nurses a sip in his mouth and the sour taste makes him wince. It’s not even a strong beer. He doesn’t like drinking. Simple. But drinking is important. Drinking makes him loose. Helps him fit in. Is far more harmless than drugs. He’d rather use alcohol to hide his insecurities than heroin. Besides, it will be just this once, won’t it? He only has to prove he’s not into- He’s not attracted to-

His eyes dart to the girls dancing a few feet away. Short hair, dyed whatever crazy colour there is, revolutionary, wearing baggy jeans or dungarees, hands thrown in the air as they tease each other with their hidden curves, bodies rubbing against one another, eyes locked together, piercing, focused only on the female lips parting in front of them.

Harry is most probably in a similar bar in California right now. A world away. John averts his gaze.

The lights make him blink. Blue, purple, white. Blue, pink. Blue, purple. Pink, purple. Again. The techno music soars. The beat jumpstarts. John swallows another gulp of beer to down the knot in his throat. The bass drops. The barman narrows his eyes at him; shaking a cocktail shaker in one hand. Black, surrounded by a pool of white and enclosed by even darker skin. He’s wearing a fishnet top. John tries a smile, turning to look at the dancefloor to avoid lingering over the man’s pecks and muscles.

He’s too obvious, isn’t he? He doesn’t belong. Anyone can see. He shouldn’t belong.

His view of the half-naked perfectly lined bodies shining with sweat and dancing frantic with the rhythm is blocked. John blinks, frowns. There’s a colourful t-shirt in front of him. Tight against the body it belongs to. In truth, it is only white, but John can only see the reflecting lights on it for now. His eyes narrow as they pass over tiny but showing nipples and he’s ready to get out of the guy’s way to the bar, but…

 There’s a palm resting on the highchair John’s been leaning on. Right beside his thigh. His escape route is blocked. All John can see is a smirk. Pouty and demanding as a child’s about to do mischief but appearing innocent at the same time. A face leaning close to him.

“Buy me a drink, will you?”

The voice electrocutes him. Switching from deep to high-pitched sing song. Camp.

John can’t answer. Can’t speak.

The man rotates his chair to the bar and leans over his shoulder, raising a hand to the barman.

“Pretty boy’s buying me a drink.”

John almost bristles. They are the same age, thank you very much!

“Aren’t you, handsome?” It’s whispered against his ear.

John glares. That’s better, but still. The barman raises an eyebrow. John presses his tongue on the middle of his lower lip. Shrugs. Nods.

The pressure from behind him eases. John turns to look as the man sits beside him. He’s tall. Tall and pale and thin and angled everywhere. He’s striking. John cannot but give him that. He might even be younger.

John’s beer is not even close to finishing. And now he can’t leave. Not until he pays for this guy’s drink. Shit. Tying the knot then. He can play it cool. He can make it through.

Except… their arms are flush against each other and all the previous touches… The leaning. The smirking. The risk. The danger. The longing. The want.

Forbidden.

“There you are, Colin.” The barman.

Colin takes the drink, colourful with a piece of peach on the rim. He drinks with a straw, glancing at John, playful.

John stares.

“You’re not gay, are you?” Colin drawls, a coy barely existent eyebrow arching.

“No.” John croaks.

Colin giggles.

“Experimenting?”

John gives himself a mental slap. He must do better. He’s downing his beer, waving for a refill. He’s not drunk enough for this.

“Whatever you want to call it.” His voice is hoarse. Bitter.

‘Just a phase.’ His mind provides. There’s not much else that can describe him. ‘A cheat.’ Yeah, that too.

“I like a guy with an open mind.” Colin winks at him, his t-shirt hanging from one shoulder, letting freckled skin come into view.

John’s eyes linger. Strange. Wasn’t that t-shirt tight before? He downs his next beer, two shots of whiskey added inside. He winces. Maybe he is drunk enough after all. One more and he’s lost the bet. One more and he’s not thinking about leaving anymore. One more and he’s not straight either. One more and John Watson has failed.

Later, John won’t remember the man’s name. Later, John will scratch his scalp against an alley brick wall, will bite his lip until it bleeds. He will fight the moans coming up his throat, will grunt and writhe and pulse whole under Colin’s deft tongue and mouth. Later, John will sweat himself, resist the urge, the flood burning down his groin. His fingers will catch against the greasy straight hair and pull. Push. Hold on. Out of control. Bursting with truth. His truth. His secret. Which he will have to bear and bury from then on. For far longer than he should.

***

“Beg your pardon?”

John’s ears are heating up.

“Me and Sherlock-”

Ella raises two inquisitive eyebrows.

“No! I mean-” Embarrassment wells up in him. “We didn’t sleep sleep together, I just-”

“Yes, John?”

“I just… I fell asleep. Beside him.”

“Well, why is that a problem?”

John feels like a child. He bites his lips, fidgeting, knees wobbling up and down in rapid speed.

“It’s- I… wanted to.”

“Mhm… wanted to…?” Her pen is scratching a notepad.

John takes a breath.

“It was deliberate. I was… watching over him.”

“Okay.”

“I mean I-”

Why the hell is she so unphased? This is supposed to be a revelation! Well, not about his sex life, that is not going to change for a while, but… still.

“Did Sherlock have a problem with it?”

“Ah…” Different direction helps. “I thought. At first. Then… no. No, I don’t think so.”

“So?”

He’s not going to look up. He’s only looking inwards. Trying to. The words are choking in his throat.

“Where’s the problem, John?” She presses this time.

“Nowhere…? I think. There’s no problem, I- I want this, I… I do.” His nose is scrunching up. He remembers Sherlock’s skin under his touch. His too short facial hair that are never fully shaved to the skin anymore. The jam. The jam.

“What are you referring to, John?” Her tone is patient. How can she do both at once? Press and pull. Negotiation. Interchanging. Bargaining for which emotion will be unearthed more easily. Which trigger will unearth it and how.

“Sherlock. Me. Him. I mean like… I can’t-” His eyes well up. He can’t. He wants to. But he can’t. There’s a knot on his tongue, not letting him say it. Not aloud. Not to anyone. Certainly not Sherlock. Or maybe only Sherlock?

“It’s alright, John. Explain what you can for now.”

“I’ve been feeling this for too long. I hadn’t admitted it.” Breaths, squeezed out of him.

“Alright. Good. Let’s start with something easier, shall we?” She leans forward, hands over her knees. He only looks at her pad. He reads upside down. There’s nothing wrong written on it. There’s nothing saying he’s nuts.

He nods. Expressionless.

“John, can you tell me what you identify as in the sexual attraction spectrum?”

It hits. It’s there. Staring at him. Yet, his brain keeps telling him it shouldn’t be. Defence mechanisms scream at him. Close the walls, they say. Protect yourself. Break them apart, logic says. Get out. Out. Out.

***

“She feels warm to you too?”

Sherlock kisses Honeybee’s forehead again. Her skin feels like a pebble burned by the sun against his lips.

“She is”

“Oh dear”

“Temperature? Do you… Thermometer, something!”

“Let me go downstairs and check, dear-”

“No, not downstairs. In the bathroom, John keeps his med kit in the bathroom”

Sherlock rubs his palm over his eyes, until there are black dots swimming in his vision.

“Alright. I will check. You stay calm, alright? It’s probably just a cold”, Mrs. Hudson soothes, transferring Honeybee to his arms -which raise to hold her without prompting. She sneezes again as he settles her against him, her small body shaking with the effort. She is clinging onto him like a baby monkey, her face mushed in the crook of his neck. She needs reassurance more than he does, and that helps shake him back to reality. He is the one responsible for her in the absence of her father.

“It’s okay, Rosie. It is going to be okay. We will take care of you”

Mrs. Hudson returns with the thermometer, handing it to him before rushing to the kitchen. “Will get started on some chicken soup. Some broth could help”

“Thank you. Come on, Rosie, we’re going to take your temperature now, alright?” If he just keeps talking to her, it will help. She will be calmer. It will be alright.

He sits on his armchair again. His left hand is shaky as he carefully places the thermometer under her arm and holds it close to her body to steady it. “Only for a moment, Rosie, I promise”.

She doesn’t like being constricted, even for so little. Her eyes are huge when she looks up at him, and he can see the strain in them, the trust she is putting in him, by letting him do this. Her fear twists inside him like a blade.

“It’s okay. It’s me, it’s me, little love. It’s okay. It’s going to be okay”

She whimpers, fussing against his loose grip. “Stay still just for a minute, Rosie, please. Just until the thermometer beeps, alright?”

She kicks a little, and he can see the tears beginning to build up, her eyes glassing over, and any belief in him that he can do this, fades. Desperately, he does the only thing that has never failed before; presses their noses together. “Boop”

“Abaaa”, she complains slowly, but her body loses tension, and she quietens down again. When the thermometer beeps it scares her, and she turns to hide in his arms as soon as he has taken it from under her arm.

“How much?”, Mrs. Hudson calls from the kitchen.

“Thirty-eight point…three… Oh god”

“Do not worry dear. She had not been outside in a while, she must have caught some little bug or other. It’s alright”

Mrs Hudson’s voice reaches him as if he were underwater. His head is a whirlwind, he can see doom marching his way, can feel its hand close around his throat. He has to tell John. Has to call John. Who is at his appointment. To tell him that his daughter has a fever, and that it’s possibly serious and that they might need to go to the hospital, and ask him what to do because he has no idea, or rather, does not trust himself to do anything at all. He is going to be a problem again, nothing but a problem, and he should have taken care of her yesterday, and thought about how to protect her better from a cold or flu or whatever this is -please not a flu, please not a flu!- and he has failed, oh god he has failed Honeybee, and if something bad happens to Honeybee, then…

“Sherlock? Good lord, you’ve turned white as a sheet! Here, I’ll take her, and you calm yourself down and call John, alright?”

Honeybee’s weight is lifted from his arms. He sniffs, swallows, and reaches for his phone. No time to waste. It’s not him that matters now. Honeybee needs to receive the best possible care. Honeybee needs to be alright, please, please, please….

He calls John. A message would possibly make him more anxious, and at this state, Sherlock would never know what to write anyway.

It’s a struggle to keep his phone steady against his ear.

It rings, once, twice. Keeps ringing. Sherlock is sure that he should probably hang up and wait for John to call him back, when John picks up.

“Sherlock? Was just wrapping things up with Ella” He sounds calm, casual, even. Oh god, how is he going to tell him? “Is everything okay?”

“Ro-”, his breath is sliced in half. “Rosie has a fever”

Silence.

“How much?”

“Thirty-eight point three”

“O-kay… Other symptoms?”

“S-sneezing. No coughing, so far”

“Okay. Can you do me a favour, see if we have ibuprofen syrup?”

“Where?”

“Med kit”

Sherlock jumps to his feet and rushes to the bathroom. He hits his shoulder against the door in his haste, almost knocks the med kit off its shelf before he can catch it. His breath has turned into something he has to chase, something he can never catch.

“Hey, hey, Sherlock. Calm down. We’re not in a hurry here”

Sherlock doesn’t reply, rummaging through the contents of the med kit instead.

“I don’t see any” His voice is weak, watery.

“Okay. Listen” Sherlock stays entirely still.  “Have her lie down, wrap her up warm. If she gets sweaty change her, and take her temperature again. I’ll wrap things up here and bring home everything we need, alright?”

“Hospital?” Sherlock feels his chin wobbling.

“What?”

“Does she need to be hospitalised?”, he manages.

“If the fever does not go down at all in the next twelve hours, and if it rises above thirty-eight point six, yes. But I’ll be there, alright? Don’t worry. She’s going to be just fine. She was vaccinated for this year’s flu, so it most probably is just a rather nasty cold. Okay?”

Not even relief can pierce through the fog that has condensed around his mind. “Y-yes”

“Sherlock?”

“Yes?”

“I’ll be there in no time, alright?”

“Alright”

“Got to go now, but just for a little bit, yeah?”

“…Yes”

“Sherlock… She’s going to be alright. I promise. We’d never let anything happen to her, would we?”

“No…” It’s barely a whisper.

“See? Will be alright. Got to go now, okay?”

“Okay”

***

John enters 221B with his hands full of shopping bags. He’s been scolding himself for not dressing Rosie in warmer clothes yesterday the whole way home. It’s later than Sherlock would have expected him to be back and he hopes the target of his adoration is not panicking too much. John can imagine him. In fact, he can see him clear as day; pacing over furniture and twitching whole, eating his nails one by one until they’re all done, checking on Rosie and starting over again. John is already regretting his decision of stopping by the shops, but they needed to do the shopping one way or another and since he needed to buy Rosie’s syrup… might as well get done with it all.

His predictions are shattered however by the blinding reality that he faces when he pries the door open with a shoulder.

John stops mid-motion, blinking. He must make a quite comical sight himself, with hands full and body frozen halfway through the entrance. But what greets him is just… heart-breaking. And that is Sherlock Holmes, spread over the sofa, with a toddler on his chest, one of his huge palms resting over her back while her little hands have grabbed tightly between her fingers and crumpled the fabric of his dressing gown. Sherlock’s expression is one of pure and utter concentration, his eyes trained on Rosie’s little head, his fingers -John doesn’t doubt- are checking her pulse while his palm feels the quality of her breaths. The always observant man hasn’t even noticed John come through the door. Something that seems quite impossible since his heavy breath and thumping footsteps with carrying all the shopping must have woken even the least sensitive of beings not from only their reverie but their deepest sleep as well.

John doesn’t want to intervene. As much as he tries to avoid -and he doesn’t even want to try- there is affection rising in him. Affection at what this man will put himself through just to make sure of Rosie’s wellbeing. The always energetic, when upset or anxious, Sherlock has lied there, still, to help a sick toddler sleep. It feels too perfect a moment to break. He has seen him help Rosie sleep like that before but now his expression is simply too open. Strained by worry but overflowing with love as well. ‘Oh, Sherlock…’ They are both lucky to have him…

A strangled tiny noise breaks the silence and at first, John doesn’t know where it came from but it is soon followed by a fully blown out sneeze, and the way their little girl’s body shudders and spasms makes it apparent she is the source of it. John’s fingers open and he runs to them. He can’t bear to be away for longer. The bags are falling on the floor creating such commotion that Sherlock would jump to the ceiling if it wasn’t for the tender weight of Rosie on his chest.

“John!” He gasps, breathless, instead and John is already kneeling beside them on the floor, scraping his knees on the rug at the force his need to be there for them both creates.

You’re home. John hears from a not too distant memory. His hand is shaking, inches above Rosie’s fresh like flowers curls. He looks up at the two colourful orbs.

“Hey.”

Sherlock’s chest deflates with a breath he’s been holding. John watches it, how he lifts Rosie up and down with his every sigh.

“How is she?” He controls his voice.

John can’t help but feel he’s not doing enough again. Not being a proper parent, not being there when she needs him. But he needs to keep his worry back. It’s selfish to think more about it when he has to take care of her. He needs to block it out. And he doesn’t want to worry Sherlock more either.

“Thirty-eight point five. Two minutes ago.”

John looks at his watch. Then the thermometer on the coffee table. He smiles.

“How often were you checking?”

There’s a line appearing between Sherlock’s eyebrows. Faint but present nonetheless, indicating confusion. His eyes are dismissive, like it’s obvious.

“Every fifteen minutes, of course, John.”

John chuckles, shakes his head.

‘Mad. Totally mad.’

Hush, you. He loves her.

‘I love him.’

“John?” Sherlock’s voice is on edge. John makes sure to look at him.

“She’s going to be alright.”

‘You lovable madman.’

He wants to say it, to tease him, to joke, fall back into their playful banter of the first years, the first oh so perfect moments of their ‘association’ as he liked to call it in his own writing. For him, as he quite realises now, better than he did before, it was affection he was trying to mask under the formal title. Love. His knees creak when he gets up to gather the shopping back to a decent state.

“Here. We better wake her up for a moment. She needs to take this. As soon as possible.” John puts the ibuprofen on the table, their gazes catching. He contemplates. “How long she’s been sleeping?”

“Snoozing since I called you.” Sherlock swallows, looking back at the bundle in his arms with a frown. “She had a sneezing fit that exhausted her not twenty minutes ago. A bit of coughing, but not much. John, are you-”

“Yes.” John hesitates for a moment, oscillating between his feet, flowers blooming in his mind until he finally touches Sherlock’s shoulder. He takes a deep breath, leaning over them both, leaving a kiss on Rosie’s little head. A worried Sherlock is looking at him, direct and expecting. John squeezes his fingers over impossibly jutting out bones. God, he needs to take better care of them both… “I am sure. Trust me. She’ll be alright.”

Sherlock sits up, always careful with measured movements, nodding briskly. The worry isn’t gone, his eyebrows are knitted together still, but he seems satisfied for the moment. John goes and tidies all the shopping in the kitchen and fridge. He brings back a spoon. Sherlock is looking at the sleeping little flower conflicted. He can’t bear to wake her now that she’s peaceful again. John sits beside him.

“You okay?”

Sherlock shakes his head but it’s neither negative nor positive, it’s just a shake, a very nervous one. John’s hand rests over the small of Sherlock’s back without even thinking. He needs to reassure, to see the smile break those sharp characteristics and smooth them out. He doesn’t admit the touch exhilarates him more than ever. He doesn’t admit that he is ready for it. He doesn’t admit he loves how Sherlock almost leans in to it before pulling away. He doesn’t, because if he does, he will have to not hide it anymore. He will have no reason to. But that is not his priority for now. Shouldn’t be.

“Sherlock…”

“Yes, yes. Alright.” Is the hushed reply and Sherlock leans a tad forward and the moment is gone.

Just like that.

They wake her with all the love they can carry from their hearts to their touch and it’s rushing through John’s head, how it is collective, how it is both of them doing it, how she coos for both of them, blinks bleary eyes and whines, frustrated when she realises she hasn’t got her promised rest and doesn’t feel better at all.

“Hey, hey, it’s alright.” John whispers.

Sherlock has gone mute, suffering her pain, watching, holding.

“We’ll let you sleep again, little sweetheart, you just need to take your medicine to feel better, alright?” He unscrews the bottle and carefully places half a spoonful on the table spoon.

“She needs to take three of those. It’s one and a half for her weight but I don’t want it to spill.” He explains, just to fill the silence and keep Rosie focused on his voice.

On me. Focus on me. Watson.

Captain Watson, can you hear us?

On me. Please. Please, focus on my voice.

Help! Bill, he’s been shot! Come, help!

You’ve been shot. We’ll get you out of here.

Don’t leave… us.

John shakes the voices away, not understanding where they came from or why. ‘Why now?’ Rosie. Have to focus on Rosie.

She slurps the syrup with a flat face but then grimaces when he offers her the second dose. He hadn’t thought of those memories for ages… There were always ones that he couldn’t decipher. He had been delirious after all. John. ‘Right.’

“Please, little love?” John tries but she keeps her lips firmly shut.

Sherlock is suddenly welcomingly present in the moment. He’s leaning back again, more relaxed, brushing a palm over Rosie’s forehead in soothing motions. She whimpers but with a look at him and a gentle prod and tickle of her chin, she opens up to receive the rest of her spoonful. John breathes in, grateful, and fills the spoon once more. It’s comforting how they exchange emotions and roles with complete synchronisation and as it’s best needed without even talking.

“Just once more, just one.”

She hears him this time, but her eyes are closing, the tiniest frown persisting over her little brow. John bets she has a headache.

“All done.” John hears Sherlock’s immediate relieved exhale. He raises to meet the blue gaze, closing the syrup bottle safely. “Come on, let’s get her to rest. I need to get you fed and nourished too.” He jokes with a soft tone.

Sherlock looks appalled.

“We can’t just-”

“We will have her close, but I’m not having you catching it too by holding her all the time.” John stands up, looking at him sternly but with a small grin.

“But I-”

“You have not even been vaccinated this year, Sherlock.” A sliver of worry breaks through to the surface; even if Rosie doesn’t have the flu.

Sherlock’s jaw clicks into place, letting silence fall.

“I need you to be okay too.” John whispers, fingers flexing at his side.

He had appeared harsher than he wanted. He knows, but he can’t take it back. He can’t let Sherlock get sick. Not with his immune system, they had worked so hard to repair piece by piece.

“Okay.” Sherlock’s voice is small but steady.

John watches as he gets up and settles Rosie with an extra blanket at her small portable bed they kept in the living room. He goes to stand beside him, stiff and remorseful.

“Thank you.”

Sherlock only nods and sits beside the bed, eyes fixed on the bundle inside it, hovering above Rosie without a care in the world for anything else. John breaks a giggle at the endearing behaviour. When Sherlock narrows his eyes at him inquisitively, John shakes his head with a smile.

“Never mind.”

Sherlock Holmes never listened to him anyway. Not when something important was at stake. John is glad this time the value has shifted from criminals to watching over their little girl. Contentment raises in John’s heart and he wants to croon. He can see how Rosie has sneaked behind all those walls and pretences. He can see how Sherlock cares for her. Humanely. Whole-heartedly. With all he has. He can see Rosie always was since the moment she was conceived and always will be important for Sherlock. John is proud of him. And grateful. Even if he is also guilty of not appreciating it as he should have before now, but he hopes he can make up for it. He will do anything in his power to do so.

He knows Sherlock has a big brain. An unlimited intelligence. An extraordinary way of thinking. He knows maybe he’d have to shift back into all of it someday, when they’re all better and ready for it. He wonders if Rosie… if John himself, if both of them would be enough to keep Sherlock safe, keep him occupied, keep his content with life. He can’t help but do so… although he doesn’t mind -actually, he loves- if Sherlock went full back to crime-solving puzzles. Doubt still nags at him however. What would be enough? What would be safe? Would this ever work?

John prepares their dinner with his thoughts running rampant like the free willing horses of old times in the grass planes of the world. Rosie hadn’t always been his first priority. When he learned of her existence he could only think about how and why. When he swallowed that down, it was only concerns about his own life and the changes he needed to make to accommodate a child. Then it was all filtered through her mother’s actions. He wasn’t sure when he finally let himself feel the least amount of love he could spare, closed off all the rest far away, deep inside. He wasn’t sure when that love bloomed and when he managed to treat her as his own child for the first time. As he should. He was sure of all the times he blew it all away however. His memory was perfectly accurate of all the moments he disappointed her, let her go, didn’t make her his first and foremost goal and priority… He’d like to think she had been now. For a while. But what if he’s been starting to get distracted? What if…

Nno. No.

‘Right. Yes.’

Remember, John.

‘Oh, love… Thank you.’

He brings Ella’s words back to his mind. Knowing himself was the first step. He was working on being a good father and knowledge of self would help. It would. It wasn’t a distraction. It was hard work and he had to do it on his own. Well… that last part was all him. Not Ella. But that’s how he chose to do this. He didn’t want to bring more pain. To anyone. If there was something to endure, he would pull through it himself. Tsk tsk. Ever the soldier. The voice in his head tuts but for once, he ignores it.

John serves the dinner in the living room, guessing Sherlock wouldn’t want to move at all from his duty -and he was right- and so they eat in silence, counting Rosie’s small even breaths. There is a whizzing sound coming from her nose now and then and John wakes her a couple of times to clean her up a bit. She catches on with his attempts to teach her how to push air out of her nose to clean it when she feels a bit better, at which point they check her temperature again.

“Thirty-eight point one!” John exclaims triumphantly.

Sherlock’s pleading look identifies him as not at all satisfied.

“Daw, don’t worry, we’ll give her a second dose before sleep.”

And they do. John cleans her up -she had some signs of diarrhoea but not much- and Sherlock prepares her food -a second portion of Mrs Hudson’s healing soup, lots of broth. She accepts the syrup quite easily after some healthy, tasty bites of chicken -welcoming the slight sweetness, John supposes- and then once again closes her eyes without a sound, but overall, she appears to be pleased with her care.

“Alright, time for bed.” John grunts, picking her up with a sigh. Her temperature has been a steady thirty-eight for the past couple of hours, he hopes her second ibuprofen dosage will help the fever down during the night. If not, he will give her some more when he checks her later.

“You’re- You’re taking her up?”

John turns around at once. ‘His voice… that tone…’

“Yes.” He replies carefully.

“I’ll watch over her. You need some rest.” He adds when there’s no reply.

“John, I-…” There’s a tremble there, like a bird learning to sing.

John settles Rosie better over his arms.

“Sherlock?”

“I- I can’t. I-” He almost chokes on the next breath.

John’s vision turns quick and blurry as he rushes beside him. Sherlock had straightened up from the start of the conversation. Now his fingers are digging to his pyjama bottoms and his back is curved inwards with the effort to breathe.

“Hey, hey, it’s, it’s alright, there she is, there we are.” John offers Rosie towards him, eyes wide.

He can’t avoid thinking of the tube. What had he done now to cause this? Because it’s always him. He has accepted that. It’s always his fault, one way or another, and his job to make it better.

Sherlock’s hands don’t move to hold Rosie into them. She’s thankfully so deep into sleep that she doesn’t know or see what’s happening.

“I mean, I-”

John raises his hand. Stops; reconsiders.

“We’re here. She’s alright, she’s here, see?” He reassures. Simple and to the point.

Sherlock heaves a little, then pants, then settles and then he’s motionless. A vein on his temple is pumping, visible in Sherlock’s pale complexion, the rhythm is frantic. Yet, he’s not breathing. He’s looking straight down, burning holes into the carpet. ‘Oh, darling…’ John can see the effort put into containing this. No. No, he just can’t let Sherlock lock it all away again. No. John’s hand raises again, cups Sherlock’s nape of neck, steadying him.

“Sherlock?” A finger brushes a circle over the shorter of Sherlock’s hair. “Sherlock, breathe for me? Please?”

The physical contact has stirred something. Something impossible. John can see conflict in Sherlock’s eyes. There’s silence and then there’s a gasp. Air gushes into and out of Sherlock’s lungs and John’s arms are heavy like lead. Like he just performed CPR.

“That’s it, that’s it. You’re alright.”

“Rosie…”

“She’s here, she’s doing better, she’s alright.” John breathes, slow and soothing.

He doesn’t remove his hand. It seems permanently glued there, on Sherlock warm and now flushing nape. Flushing? A moment passes.

“I’m… I’m so sorry…” He’s embarrassed.

“Oh, no. No, no, Sherlock.” John’s thoughts are rushing in before him. “It’s alright. All well.” He doesn’t want Sherlock to feel ashamed no matter what. Not with him. “All well, I promise.” He lets his hand ease into movement, sliding over Sherlock’s back. “Tell me how you feel?”

“Just…” A stuttering breath. “If I take my eyes off her she’s going to disappear...” The addition causes his shoulders to fall. Apologetic. Again.

A reassuring smile breaks over John’s face.

‘Oh, love…’ He almost says that out loud. He needs to get this right.

“Hey, look at me.”

Sherlock does, as if a current is going through him. John ponders the fact he sounded more commanding than usual.

“She’s going to be okay. We’re taking care of her, aren’t we?”

Sherlock nods, biting his lip. John’s palm brushes over his back, goes round and round and round in circles, tracing patterns. Sherlock’s breath eases a tad more, even though he averts his gaze.

“There you are. It’s alright. Everything’s good. We’re not letting anything happen to her, mm?”

“No.” Sherlock straightens up, a new man coming into view. His eyes are narrowed, his posture rigid, his voice stern. John grins in triumph.

‘That’s my man.’ He bites his lip to contain it for sure this time.

Then Sherlock looks down to their little rose and everything changes at once again. He mellows and melts, like ice cream or maybe hard-edged sugar becoming caramel, eyes bright and lit by the orange glow of their living room lights and fireplace. They are caramels now instead of oceans, steady and thick instead of rippling or cutting like ice knives. John immerses himself to it, undeterred, unnoticed. There’s only one person, Sherlock’s got eyes for right now.

Please don’t take her…

A few tufts are brushed back from her forehead by long pale fingers. John remembers all the months Sherlock and Rosie spent apart, all the times they both must have longed for each other; based on their ever-close relationship on the months her mother was on her world-tour. He remembers Sherlock’s eyes when she didn’t recognise him at first, when they moved back in. He remembers his reluctance to hold her in front of John, to ask for her, to talk to her. He still has it all now. Still fights to not overstep. To not appear too much like the parent he truly is. More than John ever has been. He sees and observes and remembers and he still, still worries. Still has to make such an awful thing as to separate them by one floor. John can’t breathe.

“Sherlock…”

Their gazes lock and there’s such unchecked sadness in Sherlock’s that John fears he’s going to drown for real this time.

“You need rest…”

Sherlock’s face is crumbling.

“She needs her cot and- You can come up and check whenever you want!” John blurts.

The pieces stop falling. They’re frozen in time.

“You mean it?”

“Yes, of course. As long as you promise you will rest as well.”

Now there’s something different all together happening. The broken pieces are back, returning to place, and Sherlock’s lips are tugged, tugged, tugged. Into infinity.

“I promise.” He breathes at once, chest puffing and shrinking with a deep inhale and an equal exhale, like a child preparing for the heavy duty of a promise, ready to fulfil it.

“I’ll watch over her.” John promises in return.

Sherlock nods, eyes lingering on their little girl, unsure. He trusts John. It’s not that. It’s… John extends Rosie forward. She mumbles a little.

“One kiss.” John smiles.

He knows they are risking it, but in all honesty, he can never deny the man anything. He’s still worried and he’ll come down to make sure Sherlock is well fed and hydrated and cared for and in bed after she’s settled upstairs, but he can’t deny him this.

John watches as Sherlock tries to hide a small smile and leans down to place a soft and lingering kiss over Rosie’s forehead. John Watson watches and it’s the brightest he’s felt in his new sober life.

***

“John?”

Sherlock pauses at the door, cup of steaming tea in hand. His voice was hardly more than a whisper, but the breathing pattern of the man in front of him pauses, and then changes with a groan. He watches as John shifts to his back, rubs a hand over his face. The dark circles under his eyes make him look five years older. He pushes his fringe back with sloppy, sleepy fingers. His silver hair, not washed yesterday to remove the gel, is now caked in product. It separates thin strands of tufts into ridges that glisten in the bleak winter sun pooling in from the window as John straightens up in bed, accompanied by the sounds of popping vertebrae as he flexes his spine.

“What time is it?”, he asks in a hushed, gravelly voice.

“Eight”

John nods and yawns behind a palm. Sherlock shifts his weight from one foot to the other, ever staying at the threshold. “How is she?”

“Thirty-seven point eight, two hours ago. Gave her more ibuprofen and some milk”

Sherlock’s stomach clenches, so much so that he almost loses the feeling of the ground beneath his feet. Whatever grimace appeared on his face has John shaking his head.

“If it peaks again, we’ll see what we’ll do. But for now, at least it’s down a little bit”

 “You think it will? Peak again?”

Their whispers are soft as morning dew. John lets his gaze linger on Sherlock’s eyes.

“No. It won’t”

They both try to absorb this, the certainty and reassurance in John’s voice.

“Why are you standing there?”

“Um. Brought tea”, Sherlock raises the cup a little. The fingers holding it are numb and throbbing with heat.

“Oh. Thank you” John gives him one of his rare, warm smiles, the smiles that Sherlock used to wish were only for him.

“Well? Come in”

“I, uh, there’s… more, downstairs?”

“Come here”

It sounds like… Like his John. The old John. The one that rebuked him with a roll of his eyes and a snorted chuckle. Firm, but kind. It was not their every day. Even before the fall. But when it was…

“Sherlock…” It’s in sing-song. “Where’s your mind gone to, again?” John’s voice is thickly warm, honey-like. Fond.

Sherlock takes a step in, and then another. He has not been in John’s room with John in it a very long while. He believed it would be an intrusion, lingering in a place that is not open to him. But its owner pats the mattress beside him inviting him closer. Sherlock meekly sits on the very edge of the bed beside John, and offers him the cup.

“Thank you”

Sherlock waits as John takes a small sip, picking out a loose thread from the beige duvet.

“So… how are you?”

“Me?”

“Yes”, John makes a face that says isn’t it obvious, you git? His eyes are laughing.

“Um… Good. I’m okay”

“But..?”

Sometimes he wishes John wasn’t so good at this. “Didn’t sleep much. I was”, he twists the thread over his index and tugs, “worried”.

He feels John’s gaze on him, and stops, the thread so tight around his finger it hurts as if it were cutting into his skin. He hears the small wooden thud of the cup being placed on the bedside table, and then a warm, reddened palm rests atop his hand.

The feeling is not new; John has done this before. To ground him. To reassure him. But this… This seems like something else entirely. It’s alright, love, his mind wishes it means, the voice in his head smiling and tender. My sweet love. It’s alright.

Sherlock swallows. ‘Shut up. Stop’ His neck is burning.

“What ‘more’ is downstairs? You’ve done something”, John teases.

“Made breakfast”

“God, you’re amazing. I’m starving”

Sherlock stands up to give room for John to do the same, but John does not let go of his hand. His head is turned towards his daughter’s cot, and Sherlock follows his gaze to her sleeping form. Her cheeks are a bright, poppy red, her golden hair sweaty and matted at the nape of her neck. Her breathing is regular, but she has to sleep with her mouth open, her nose too blocked to let her properly rest.

“I’m afraid to leave her”, John murmurs, and his grip on Sherlock’s hand tightens.

Without a second thought, Sherlock squeezes back.

“I could stay with her. If… if you wanted me to”

“You would?” John turns to him, and this time his eyes are open but vulnerable. They make Sherlock’s body rigid with decisiveness, with the will to protect.

“Yes”

“Thank you”, John sighs, body sagging with relief, letting go of tension Sherlock would never have known was there. And then John leans forward, until he can rest his forehead on their entwined palms.

***

“Aaa---chooooo”

“Careful, Rosie. There”, Sherlock wipes her tiny button nose gently with a clean tissue and then places it in a small plastic bag filled almost entirely with the used tissues of the previous day and night.

She woke up a little after John went down for breakfast and to get some rest, and was surprised to see Sherlock’s face instead of her father’s. Not for long. She quickly asked for a hug, little hands opening and closing in need.

Nappy change and morning bottle all done, she nestled into his arms, eyelids droopy with exhaustion. At least her temperature was lower, thirty-seven point three. Sherlock could only hope it would stay low, and not peak again. Every time her small body was wracked by a sneeze or a coughing fit, he ached with the frailty of her, with how delicate she was, all hidden away in his arms in search of comfort, and warmth. He held her head in the cup of his palm, guiding her to rest it over his heart, hoping this could calm her even now.

 “Took the day off”, John he announces, peering in from the door. A towel is draped over his shoulder, and his hair is wet. “Does little dove want to come downstairs? Change of scenery might help -and we should air this room”

“I think she wouldn’t mind. Would you, Rosie?”

She coughs a little, but does not babble a reply.

“It’s not good that, is it? She’s silent”

“Nobody likes having the sniffles, I think”

“Right. True, that. Okay, down you go. I’ll tidy up in here”

Sherlock carries Honeybee downstairs carefully and gets comfortable on the sofa, so that he can lie down and hold her over his torso.

John does not take long to join them. “Look what I have, Rosie! That should make you feel better in no time!”, he exclaims, presenting her with her washed clean pink elephant. At once she whines in recognition and tries to stand on Sherlock’s chest to reach for it, until her father hands it to her with a kiss. “There”

“We’ll have to wash it again when she’s well”, Sherlock grins.

“Oh god. Hadn’t thought about that” John groans. It’s impossible for either of them to forget her heartbroken face when her elephant was not there at breakfast the previous morning.

Sherlock chuckles, helps Rosie squeeze her elephant closer. “It’s alright. Perhaps we could buy a second, identical one. You know, to have a spare.”

John laughs, the clearwater stream laugh, high-pitched and carefree. “Yeah. Yeah, that would be something. Maybe two spares?”

As if she has understood, Honeybee noms her elephant’s ear and mumbles a few definitely possessive syllables for good measure.

“Alright, little one. Alright”, John soothes, but she is not buying it. “Right… Should get cooking, then-”

“Already settled. We have enough food for a battalion in the fridge”

“How?”

“Hudders. And I told you I couldn’t sleep”

“Oh. That’s… Wow. Thank you”

“You need the rest”

“So do you”

“I’ll be alright”

John nods, but instead of going to his armchair, he makes for the couch. “Off…. Off!”, he mock-commands, shoving Sherlock’s legs off it, and then sits in the space they occupied. “Here”, he says, patting his lap. “Bring those here”

Sherlock opens his mouth to protest, but is silenced when John actually takes a hold of both his legs and repositions them over his thighs. “There”, he seems very satisfied with himself. “Stubborn git”.

“I never agreed”, Sherlock tries to appear haughty, but then John is throwing a blanket over his lap, and so his feet, too.

“I don’t want to see you walking around barefoot again. Your poor toes are freezing”

He is…. Fussing. John is fussing over him. Like a…

Partner?

‘Shut up. No. Of course not’

“Isn’t this better?”

Feet wrapped up warm and resting on John’s legs, sharing in his natural body heat, Sherlock can’t but admit that, “Yes. Thank you”

John grins, triumphant, and fishes the remote from the coffee table to turn on the telly. “See how easy it is when you just listen to me?”

Sherlock snorts. “Don’t you think you’ve said enough for one day, Captain?” The word is blurted out before he can think about what he’s doing. His tongue dries up, and he wishes he could disappear in the cushions of the couch, crawl under the rug and just… die of hot-red shame.

It takes a moment, but John raises an eyebrow smugly. “’Captain’, huh?”.

Sherlock tries not to stare at the small swipe of tongue over lips that follows John’s words.

“Hardly. You look terrible”, he clumsily retorts, clinging onto his pride. Onto logic itself. What the hell was he thinking?

“Really?”, John chortles, throwing his head back. “Let me guess. Is it this?”, he rubs a hand over his salt and pepper stubble-turned-beard.  

“Mmmaybe”

“Pity. Was about to say yours looks good on you”

Sherlock instinctively touches a hand to his face, feels the roughened surface of his cheeks.

‘Junkie’

“Flatters your cheekbones”

His heart turns into the beating wings of a butterfly.

***

John has been quite possibly flirting for the whole day. It’s also possible some of his absolutely besotted attitude has been noticed and taken into consideration. He’s giggly and smirking every chance he gets. He’s humming, tapping eager fingers onto surfaces and objects. He’s been touching and touching and touching. When Sherlock threw out a small comment about their room temperature, John had fussed and huffed and did everything he could to fix it and checked Sherlock’s temperature again and again without any logical reason, just to coddle him and be sure and make excuses to make him more tea and even went as far to suggest a heating pad or compress for Sherlock’s toes and fingers one time.

They’ve been relaxing, taking turns soothing or watching over Rosie, anxiously waiting for the twenty-four-hour mark of when her fever started falling. Sherlock is downstairs, waiting for John’s verdict. One more check up and John can safely promise to their little girl that she can sleep peacefully through the night with no interruption. John finds he is sweating, fingers slippery as he grips the cot’s bars, looking over at his little sleeping angel. She should be okay. He shouldn’t be so worried. As long as she closes another twenty-four hours without a fever at all tomorrow, she’s good to go, but he’s quite optimistic that she’s all done with the cold now already. Strong little girl. ‘Our little girl.’ Wonder who she gets it from. ‘Oh, hush.’

So why is he so nervous?

John can’t deny that putting Sherlock out of his own loophole of worrying and worrying and worrying had been weighing on him as well. Since yesterday, Sherlock had been calm and for all eyes quite happy, even if shocked sometimes at John’s almost instinctive advances, but John still worried over both of them. Rosie and Sherlock. He needs both of them to be okay in order to function. He really, really needs some good news.

John reaches a hand, smiling softly. Gentle -even if calloused- fingers brush over Rosie’s bellybutton. She stirs and snuggles her elephant to her face.

“Hey, little love…” John half-whispers, half sing-songs to her. “Hey there… Honey… Sweetheart girl… Come on, just once more, have to check you up.” He encourages. “Beep, beep.” He boops her nose with a finger, imitating the thermometer’s noise.

She whines, not pleased at all. He hums a tune, letting his fingers run over her little torso, which slowly has been losing some of her roundness. Her eyes are open now and she’s nibbling her elephant’s favourite ear. Her eyes are so teasing, taunting him with her secrets. He’s pretty sure she does that look on purpose. She knows exactly why and how and when and she’s perfect at it, because all John wants to do now is get her a thousand pink elephants.

“Clever naughty girl.” John rolls his eyes and leans down, taking her in his arms.

She cries a little and babbles angrily at him for interrupting her nap.

“I’m sorry, love, you’ll go back to sleep soon.” John whispers and secures the thermometer in her armpit.

He starts to sing her a small made-up song about the tiger pirates she usually likes. It’s a good sign her eyes are not clouded over anymore and she’s not too tired even if still recovering. He hears a small grumble in his neck where she’s nestled and realises she’s asleep again already. He stifles a hopeful laugh and waits until the thermometer beeps.

And then it’s all pure joy.

He hops down the stairs, elated, after settling her in for sleep, wrapped up warm in blankets and safe with her plushies. He’s sure she’s having wonderful dreams and he can’t wait to tell Sherlock when-

He stops five steps from the landing. His eyes lock with a tall figure, waiting in the darkness of their stairs and corridor. John pauses, breathless. Sherlock is there, perched on the railing, waiting eagerly, worried instantly by his pause most probably. John’s eyes adjust to the semi-darkness quickly. It wasn’t much different in the room upstairs. Sherlock is looking straight at him, swaying on his toes, fingers on his lips, aching for the news.

John doesn’t know what comes over him. Maybe it’s the simple fact their little Rose is strong and healthy and happy that makes him lose composure. Or their locked gazes, filled with questions and expectation. Or their perfectly mutual love for their tiny little bundle upstairs in itself with no other fact surrounding it. Or just the fact they’re there alive. But John nods. Nods with delight. And when Sherlock’s face shows the first signs of registering the fact, when the first sparkle flies in the air… John just runs down the steps and falls into the very much startled man he loves, arms wrapping around him, momentum pushing them back and back and back until they hit a wall. John’s face mushes against Sherlock’s neck as he oomphs surprised with the wall behind his thin frame and John pushes his palms up to hold him tighter, protective of Sherlock’s back as with every part of him.

Their relief is palpable in the air, tangible and real. John giggles into Sherlock’s collarbone and it is then he finally feels Sherlock’s arms come around his own torso too. It’s then he gasps -and one could think it was the excitement or the rush but it wasn’t, not at all- when Sherlock’s lips rest imperceptible over his forehead, close to his hairline, making the spot burn as if scorched, making John memorise it while holding Sherlock so so close, closer than ever and in desperate need to just memorise all of it, all of him.

Close.

John does never want to let go. But of course, there comes a moment when they have to. There comes a moment when John has to give up this warmth, this feeling he’s like in a bee hive and there is honey dripping all around him, all over him. So he steps back. He lets go. But he hopes… dares to hope… it’s not going to be for long…

“Thirty-six point six.” He whispers deliriously, as if in prayer, looking at that point of Sherlock’s button-downs that is always open and patting his palms over his shoulders, reassuring. Giving and taking comfort. Equally. As always.

There is nothing. Nothing in the world that could change the feelings pouring from their eyes when they look at each other then. And John has never felt anything like it.

***

He has not felt fuller in his life. As much as he should try to stifle the excitement bubbling up in him, it is impossible; how, when John hugged him of his own accord, wrapped him close and squeezed him so tight Sherlock felt that he was being glued back together.

John had held him, and buried his face in Sherlock’s neck, Sherlock finding his lips resting on the top of John’s head, silver hair subtly fragrant and silky-smooth. And he could breathe him in, wool and tea and the cheap-white soap, as if not a day had passed since they first met, since John first moved in with him.

Resistance had ebbed from him gently, easily. Sherlock had just closed his eyes and felt it, felt how it was to be held, to feel John’s solid body against his own, drinking it all in like a parched flower finally getting to bask in the sun. Everything John unknowingly touched, every ruin and scar and flaw, he gentled and smoothed out, gave beauty to. Healing was real, in that moment. Healing, living, wanting, having. So real, painfully real, begging for Sherlock to reach and grasp them, just there, in front of him… But when John had pulled back he just let him go, had not tried to take more than what he was worth, more than was his share.

“Want to watch something? Was thinking… maybe a film, this time? For the special occasion?”, John grins, remote in hand.

“As long as it’s not that horrible agent film… The one who has the number-”

“Bond? Alright, alright, I’ll find something else. Even though, for the record, it’s not one film, and definitely not horrible”

Sherlock watches as John tries to reason with their Smart TV, to little avail, at first, feeling that he does not need to reply to get avenged on his point.

“Preferences?”, John asks, as if it was the most normal thing in the world for Sherlock to watch, or know, of any other films.

“Um… Something… Happy?”

John falters. “Happy? Okay, yeah. Something happy it is”

Sherlock is not sure why, but he has a feeling that he should give John some time and space. “Will make some tea”, he murmurs, retreating into the kitchen.

Maybe… maybe John regretted hugging him, after all. 

With practised movements, Sherlock fills the kettle, flicks it on, fetches two mugs, the sugar, the milk. Routines help. They’re all he has in the place of a mind that could deduce, predict. Having a predictable life is all that keeps him on the surface. Small routines. Small steps. Reliable.

‘Pitiful’

“Sherlock? Was that the bell?”, John calls.

“Hm?”

It rings again, its sound clear, as the door to 221B is open.

“Are we expecting anyone?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Maybe Hudders is”

“I’ll get it”, John has barely reached the landing when Mrs. Hudson’s voice answers to the unexpected visitor.

“I am here to see John Watson”, a female voice demands, angled and pointy like the claws of a cat.

“What is your name? I can let him know you’re here… Though I do not think the boys were expecting anyone-”

“I don’t need your permission”, the woman snaps.

“Alright, see here, just a moment so I can at least tell him to come down-”

But a moment later, the woman is stomping up the stairs, having obviously shoved Mrs. Hudson aside.

“Excuse me, missy, this is my home!”, Mrs Hudson’s exasperated and offended voice tries to trail after her.

Sherlock’s insides are tied into a knot. A tight, angry knot.

John has stopped at the door, his jaw set, both fists coiled at his sides. All the warmth and tenderness has evaporated from him, leaving behind a man preparing for a fight, coiled like a spring. 

Sherlock sees her from the kitchen door first. Impeccably dressed, in a beige suit and pink shirt, gold earrings matching a necklace of tiny pearls. Her hair is cut just above the shoulder, straight, and dirty blond in colour. Her perfume assaults his nose, but her aura is worse; crackling around her, swirling with red, red, red.

“Am I not even allowed to talk to you, now?”, she sneers in a deceivingly sweet voice at John, who gives her his most fake, tight-lipped smile.

Sherlock does not need to see her face to know she will have a button nose, and a pair of the coldest blue eyes.

Harriet.

 

 

Chapter Text

John’s eyes have taken on that murderous glint, his entire body has stiffened in a posture of defence, like a wolf on alert; hackles raised, teeth bared in a snarl with no sound. A warning. You are not welcome here. Until he is provoked. Then he will lash out relentlessly. And to obliterate. In this, John is viper-like. Grants no second chances, aims to kill. At least there is an honesty to this. No keep your friends close and your enemies closer with John Watson. Sherlock knows this. He has seen it all before.

But never with family; not face to face.

She does not seem phased by it, by anything John does. Not because she emits authority, like Mycroft, but because she radiates indifference. As if his spikes and warnings could never hurt her.

Harry. Harriet.

The big sister. The gay, divorced big sister. Recovered alcoholic. And with a history, it seems, of pressing all of John’s wrong buttons.

Sherlock narrows his eyes, flicks the kettle switch off. He is not happy she is here.

This is their home. Honeybee’s home. John’s home -even if only temporarily. And Sherlock has sworn to make it a safe haven, a nest of stability, where they can heal, free from harm. Harriet is as out of place in 221B as a hawk among sparrows.

Sherlock doesn’t want John to let her in. Doesn’t want this illusion of togetherness, of domesticity, to end here, to be poisoned by all the words that wait on her tongue this time.

She’s not at all happy. That I’m here, with you. She called you things.

But he cannot stop her. Cannot read her, cannot prevent her from doing whatever she has set out to accomplish. He is not the man he used to be. He is only a fallen king, in a fallen kingdom. Defending it with sticks instead of swords.

“I don’t want to do this, Harry” John says. His voice is soft; as welcoming to underestimate as a trap.

“You can’t keep avoiding me forever, John” Her tone has calmed down, shifted from that frenetic red. Sherlock only finds it more suspicious.

“I will if I have to”

“John, you are my brother. Can’t we just talk?”

Sherlock can see John hesitating, if only for a moment. She sees the mistake too.

“I don’t want to be part of a broken family anymore, Johnny” Her voice is weary, tormented. Sherlock’s ears strain to discern the deceit -is there any? John exhales a sharp puff of air. His back straightens, shoulders drawing back. He won’t pick a fight. Yet.

Someone broke it”, he corrects ruefully. “And it wasn’t me, Harry. It wasn’t me”

“I know”, she says, emotion colouring her voice a deep purple. “Can we please talk?”

John hesitates once more. Shifts his weight from one foot to the other, pinches the bridge of his nose. Sherlock holds his breath, feels John’s flow through him.

“Be quick”, John says, stepping to the side to let her pass.

Sherlock stays still. Harry does not see him as she walks to the chair beside the sofa. And then she’s lost from view. Sherlock gravitates closer to the fridge on silent feet. He leans against it, and waits. Its monotonous mechanical purring calms him, helps him focus on something other than the gallop of his heart.

He hears John’s steps. But he does not sit. He waits, stiff and still -with his arms at his sides, Sherlock imagines.

“I’m listening”

There is a pause.

“Is… he here?”

“It’s his home”, John cuts in, without explaining further.

“I wanted us to talk… alone”

“Then you could have asked to see me someplace else. Now, will you tell me why you’re here?”

Sherlock hears her sigh her displeasure at John’s commanding tone.

“Alright. Your way, little brother”, she says, as if this is a sacrifice not worth making. With her next exhale, she murmurs “I have only ever wanted what is best for you”

If she expected some melodramatic acknowledgement, she is instead only rewarded with John’s snapped “Likewise”

“Will you please sit? You’re making me nervous”

“Happy now?” John’s voice reaches Sherlock from further away. Other chair. Right. The sofa is no-man’s land, then.

“So…” Sherlock can imagine her animating her words with gestures as she speaks. John’s will be still; one framing the side of his face with index and thumb, the other a fist on his lap. Harry’s voice, when neutral, is not unpleasant. It almost seems like a higher version of John’s voice in its softer tones. “I believe there has been a number of misunderstandings between us, John. I am genuinely worried about you. Since Mary died, and since that scandal in December…”

The scandal in December. Culverton. Sherlock watched all about that scandal from his lonely hospital bed. Of course, the scandal he watched always differed from the mangled nightmare he had lived. Until Christmas, the news was flooded with reports for the fall of the serial-killer tycoon and speculations for the unknown fate of the previously fake detective, the one who was admitted in hospital, after being diagnosed with kidney failure, borderline liver poisoning, severe drug addiction, a cracked ribcage, and a broken nose. The one who-had-faked-his-death some years ago, remember him? And then they would unearth that story and start again. They did like to linger on the details. And on adjectives. Piling them up like balls of hay, like a magpie’s collection of tiny, shiny, stolen things. Gruesome, they’d cackle. Appalling. Abhorrent. Detestable. Repugnant. Nauseating.

Lying there, with a swarm of IVs latched on his arms like flies, his head dense as a swamp, Sherlock would wonder if John watched the news too. If he thought of him. And if he did, which version of him was he seeing. He would wonder why John did not come to see him -just like no one else did, until he was released in January. And he would wonder why still he caught himself hoping that the next time the door opened it wouldn’t be more derisive, faceless personnel. That this, time, just this once, it would be John… He was as hopeless as an abandoned dog waiting for his human behind the door. Because his human was his life and purpose. Because his human wouldn’t leave him.

Stupid dog’

“I want to be in your life”, Harry was saying. “In Rosie’s life. I want us to be a family, Johnny. A real family”

Sherlock frowns, swallows, and scrapes his throat raw. A real family…

“I just… I always feel that you are pushing me away. And I don’t know why”

“Oh you don’t know”, John feigns surprise. Sherlock’s hair at the nape of his neck stands on end, as if bristling with static. He can imagine John smirking, his lips pulled into that mocking half-smile that so many people mistake for approval and take as encouragement.

 “I have tried to approach you. To help you”, Harry continues as if she hasn’t heard. “But you always, always choose him. And I don’t know why”

“Harry-”

“No. No, let me finish. Please” She waits only for a moment before she resumes.I understand that he’s your friend. But is that reason enough to pick him over your sister? For matters as serious as where you’ll live, and you will do with your daughter, with life? If you hold my alcoholism against me, fine, but he is a junkie, barely out of rehab. I have been clean for three years, Johnny. Three. And I am rebuilding my life. I am trying. You see? Something doesn’t add up. I would have cared for you, would have helped you. Ever since I was out of rehab I have wanted to mend things between us. Have tried to contact you, to talk to you. And I am always brushed aside. Fair enough, it’s your choice, but what can he do for you? Are you betting on him taking you on these stupid little ‘adventures’ again? Is that what your life is going to be? You are a parent now, Johnny. You have responsibilities. And after Dad, you should know how it is to be raised by a father that cares more about himself than his children. And yet you are living with a person that can’t even understand all that. If I am so bad because of a divorce, then how about him? He’s… practically a psycho -you’ve said so yourself! You see why it’s not hard for me to be angry? To think that the only reason why you’ve kicked me out of your life is because I am-”

“Harry. Enough”

“What?”, she cackles drily. “What? You can’t even bear to hear the word, can you?” Her voice has softened.

John makes a small choking sound at the back of his throat. Sherlock closes his eyes.

“And then you say you’re not like Dad… Is that how you’re going to bring up Rosie? ‘Don’t want these freaks inside our home, Rosie, do we?’, ‘You can’t see your aunty, Rosie, we don’t talk to people like them’” The way she says ‘them’ is bitter enough that Sherlock can feel it numbing out his tongue.

“You know this is not true, for fuck’s sake!”, John erupts, struggling to keep his voice low. Sherlock’s left hand clenches into a fist.

There is more at stake in this than John will ever know.

“You know that this is not a problem, Harry. This was never my problem!”

I’m just saying. It’s fine. It’s all fine.

“It wasn’t? Then why do you prefer him, of all people, over me?”

“There can be no other reasons for you? Hm? No other reasons?”

“Other reasons than… what?” She is baiting him. Sherlock can see her smile, a mirror of her brother’s mocking smirk.

 “Harry… Please leave it alone. Please. It’s not… that. Okay? I swear to you, it’s not that” John’s voice is small now. Tired. Afraid.

Sherlock’s chest cracks.

“It’s unbelievable”, Harry breathes. “Absolutely unbelievable”

“What is?”

“How you are so, so afraid of a word. But I know why, Johnny. I know why”, it’s her turn to sound tired. “You are terrified of the word when you have it all up there. All up there. For the world to see. Online”

“Harry-”

“You’re just the worst case of a bigoted coward I will ever know, Johnny. Honestly. That’s what you are. And that’s the worst there is. Not one for losing your beard, are you? You can’t even have the decency to make a choice”

“When will you understand”, John’s every word is followed by a pause, sharp and steep, “that this is not about that!” His voice, unrestrained now, bursts free, booms in the flat, slamming from wall to wall, making Sherlock’s bones rattle. He thinks he understands now.

It is fine.

Please don’t tell mummy

 It wouldn’t do if such a thing were… obvious, would it?

Tone it down, will you? 

As long as it is not a thing to threaten what they’ve been taught should never be threatened. The illusion. The anonymity. The silence. Hiding behind a euphemism, a slur, a list of vacant expectations. Hiding behind themselves.

Don’t see it. Don’t talk about it. And it won’t exist.

And what threatens John is the word. The notion. The world’s notion of the word. The world’s notion of who John is, every time he could accidentally be seen as them. As that.

‘Do you care about what people think?’

That is why the line shifts. Why John denied it as fervently as he could, why he always took a step away under scrutiny, why he was so resistant to as small and stupid a trend as product in one’s hair.

And that is why the contact is there, John’s hug, his hand on his hand, his nape, his chin, his hair, removing the leaf, the small, stray leaf, brown and bewitching. Because it is not about that.

And because John doesn’t know about him.

Yet.

It is only clearer now that holding back, was always the right choice. ‘Don’t initiate contact’. ‘Don’t take more than what he offers’. Simple rules. Life-saving. Even barely just. The thought of overstepping alone and being cut down with a cold, vague distancing -not about that, not about that- makes Sherlock cringe in disgust. No. No it’s better like this. It has always been better like this.

“You know…”, Harry chimes, so nonchalantly as if nothing has happened. “What child services would do if they were told a toddler is being brought up by a drug-addict and borderline alcoholic?” It is uttered so casually -with mirth, even. Concealing the danger, the threat, indicating the ease with which this could come to pass. As if it is already a plan being set in motion.

Sherlock’s blood runs cold.

“What are you saying?” John has already lost his calm, fighting over a topic that he could never win anyway. And only now does she reveal the sting at the tail. 

“I am saying, that you should reconsider certain things, Johnny. You really should” Harry lets her voice trail off. It suggests enough.

Sherlock’s mind reels. Honeybee.

The precious, sweet-hearted little one, that tries to feed everyone with her spoon, that babbles to her plushie elephant more eloquently than any adult to another, that boops his nose when he is sad, that falls asleep to the rhythm of his heart, that never forgot him despite spending eight months away from him, that is so brilliant with her puzzles and cloth blocks and drawings that she can achieve anything, anything she sets her mind to. The little girl that makes John smile and laugh, that gives him hope and courage to be the man he wants to be, that gives him a reason. The bundle of joy that has the tiniest dimples on her rosy-pink cheeks and the brightest sun-kissed curls, that blooms and blooms every day. Harry threatened that they could take her away.

Away.

She would use even a child she has never met as a pawn in her silly powerplay.

There is nothing else he feels at the thought alone but anger. Wild, all-encompassing, black, black anger. Roaring inside him, drowning out every other sound, demanding to be heard.

He could tear the world raw with it.

Burn it.

What does it matter, if sticks are all he has? There is no question to what he will do. There never was.

He has bled, and bled, and yet for it he will bleed until there is nothing left of him.

Sherlock knows he cannot do it. That he is not who he used to be. That the halls and walls and floors and staircases are only ruins, that the skill has evaporated, any brilliance crushed to ash. But it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. His mind will do it, one last time. It will find a way, it will remember, find the old footholds amidst the darkness.

He made a vow, after all. He swore it.

***

John’s breath is leaving him.

No!

He wants to scream. Join the voice in his head screaming at him to fight back. And he tries. He tries to muster all his courage, hang on with teeth and nails by every argument, but he’s losing. He’s already lost it.

He’s all out of anger too. Dammit why can’t he be angry at the right people at the right time?

She’s made him disappear. Made him crawl into a cocoon of failure, of guilt and self-blame. Why can’t she leave him alone already? She does not care. She does not care if he’s sober, if his daughter is better. She hasn’t even met Rosie, for fuck’s sake! How can she insinuate that she knows what’s best?

Is it for Rosie’s good to be taken by social services? When she’s not opening up to almost anyone? When she needs constant encouragement? Because John can’t imagine the social services would give her to Harry in any case. Not that she would be a better choice than a home. So, she’d be in a home. Alone. Among strangers. How the hell does Harry think she’s helping exactly?

John’s fingers clench into fists. He’s working up to it. He can’t give her the satisfaction of seeing him defeated. He can’t let her believe she might win her childlike battle for dominance over a child she hasn’t even bothered to meet for years. Sober and all but she wasn’t even in Rosie’s christening and when Mary disappeared… where was dear big sister Harry then? Dear you-can-rely-on-me should-have-come-to-me? Where?!

It’s then that John’s gaze shifts. It is then he notices.

“Now, now, let’s not be hasty.” A cutting baritone cuts the curtain of the world in half and John emerges, blinded by the light. “We all know who needs to reconsider, don’t we?”

Everything is frozen. John’s eyes meet the cold, piercing holes of Sherlock’s, dark and silent as the eye of a storm. It’s a countenance he hasn’t seen in quite a while. All in contrast to what he remembers but still the same. Sherlock stands tall over the line in the flooring separating kitchen and living room. He’s barefoot, dressing gown draped over his shoulders, baggy pyjamas falling over his skeleton-like body and his curls are hopelessly ruffled, but he’s still the same man that stood imposing over criminals and policemen, thieves, adulterers, murderers, detectives and inaccurate forensic scientists. Squishing every bit of juice, they had in them with words and puzzles. With truths they hoped to keep forever buried.

“Ah” Sherlock takes a breath with the confident air of a man who obviously has the upper hand and has purposefully forgotten to acknowledge his surroundings. Reminding himself now of his manners, he offers his greetings to an -of course- eager audience. “Lovely to be meeting you at last, Harriet.”

Harry turns to the side with slow movements, trying to face the object threatening her dominant stance as discreet as she can be, but Sherlock has already walked to his armchair by the fireplace, John’s side of the room, silk waving behind him as he easily flops on it, hands forming a triangle under his chin in intense contemplation.

“I would offer tea.” He gestures to the kitchen. “But I believe the matter at hand is of the utmost importance, isn’t it?” His head tilts an inch.

John snaps out of it with a delayed startle. He shifts in his chair to mask his surprise and incredulity. Sherlock is there. Bursting in just like that. His old self again. Yet John saw it. A flicker of Sherlock’s uncertainty. John read it subconsciously, maybe he observed, maybe he deduced, all in his mind, calculated and built in a unique fashion after all these years to be the only person that can read Sherlock Holmes just so. Nobody else would notice. Harry most certainly hasn’t.

Her shoulders fall and she slouches as if scolded by a teacher. Just as she used to do when younger. She catches John’s gaze and straightens up, eyes burning red with shame and anger. John manages to keep himself from smirking. It wouldn’t do. She would be furious. But she can’t stop him from contemplating how great a team Sherlock and him make. Once again. After so long. Both fit to take care of Rosie. As a team. As they’ve been doing. Only thing they need is to get Harry out of here and dissuade her from alerting social services.

‘How?’ John’s at a loss.

“It’s Harry.” She grumbles, still startled from Sherlock’s sudden appearance, averting her gaze from him.

“Of course. So, Harriet.” Sherlock inclines his head pointedly pushing the ‘t’ like a slap between his teeth, all business-like and serious. She scoffs her displeasure and John watches infinitely more pleased by the minute. “I suppose you have a less flimsy argument to present than the one you have given so far, hm?” His lips curl into an easy fake smile, making his eyes narrow into slits.

It only lasts a second and John tries to tamp down the laughter bubbling from his lungs. He manages only by the thought this might not go down well. There must be something up Sherlock’s sleeve for him to intervene like this. Isn’t there? Not that John wants him to solve all his problems, but Sherlock defending Rosie is… priceless. A warm caress over John’s longing heart.

“I am in complete control over my life, John.” She addresses him in a failed attempt to ignore Sherlock is right there, prying her open for the world to see.

It’s affecting her. She could never stomach his reputation and any thought of being under scrutiny by anyone at all, let alone the great Sherlock Holmes. It unnerves her. John sees it in her clammy palms, pressed together over her lap, a nervous tick they both had adopted from their mother at a young age. She knows she’s losing ground. She knows John is not leaving. Never again.

“So?”

“Yours is slipping, little brother. It’s slipping bad.” She scowls.

John’s shoulders tense. Here it comes again. He feels they are going in circles. She has nothing better to do than to crush his newfound confidence of being able to be a father. She has nothing than words. Threats that will never come to fruition. Why can’t she take one ‘no’ and be done with it? Why does she need to control someone’s life to feel herself accomplished?

“Harry.” His tone has regained his previous warning. “If I may be frank with you, as family is supposed to do. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“John, anyone who assessed you would tell you that you are a high-risk case -or in danger of being one” She pushes forward. “You can do better”

“Oh, but of course, you’re above all that.” John snaps his head to Sherlock. “Funny, isn’t it?” Sherlock flips a dismissive wrist her way.

She’s fuming. A weird sense of triumph overpowers John’s instinct to put this to an end.

“Or is it?” Sherlock sits up on the edge of his chair, seeming immersed, but there are warning bells going off in John’s mind. “Harriet.”

Yes, his fingers are steepled under his chin and his gaze is throwing knives, knowing precisely what he’s doing. His head tilts eerily and his presence, the intelligence, the truth overwhelms the room around them, yes. But John closes his eyes to avoid seeing whatever dreadful thing that is about to happen just because he is too slow to predict it. Too slow to piece together what is wrong, which puzzle piece is misplaced or broken. He sits and listens as Harry is about to be confronted with the problems she’s trying to hide and he hopes whatever is wrong he will be able to solve it afterwards.

“Divorced. Currently single. With a decade-long alcohol problem. Clean now, but- Is that a patch on your arm? Of course it is -The stress levels at your new position are quite heightened, aren't they? You're used to a 9 to 5, not a freelance career and you're scared.” The words fall heavy like stones and quick as lightning bolts. “Your makeup is not the correct hue for your skin tone and yet you have applied copious amounts to it; it is required of you but you hate it. At the very least it hides the circles under your eyes, how tired you are. You are not used to the high-class profile demanded of you, but you have no alternative, given the massive debts you have accumulated over the years. I suppose this alone would be enough to make you just as unfit as a candidate by the social services, don’t you think?”

John works his jaw, eyes slowly opening. Harry is shaking, so pale that her make-up shows now, even more ridiculous than before. She’s a leaf on a tree in autumn and the first wind has just blown. John is sure he is mouthing Sherlock’s name, his lips barely moving. He can’t move. That was it. The ace up Sherlock’s sleeve. Yet, it sits wrong, and it’s not because John didn’t want him to push to the offensive with that furious energy that made Sherlock who he is but because he hasn’t seen him do it for months and now he’s scared. Scared of the consequences. Of Sherlock’s wellbeing. Because there must be a reason he hadn’t. There must be.

“How dare you-”

“Enough.” John shouts, standing up, fists clenched. He wouldn’t have this. Not anymore. “Stop it, Harry. Just stop.” But apparently, he hasn’t shocked her into silence. Even then.

“I might not be a choice for the social services” Her voice cracks as she stands up too with sharp, cut-off movements. “But I think we can all agree that I would be better help than a freak who gets off on other people’s problems.” She gathers her coat around her with defiance.

“Harry.” John growls.

“I just don’t understand you at all.” She keeps on, avoiding his gaze.

“Rosie will not leave my side. Ever again.” He spits in an almost snarl.

 “Why would you forgive him anything and not me?”

“I won’t go over this again.” They’re looming over each other now.

“He’s not even family, John!”

John freezes.

“Sherlock. Is. Family.”

Someone has stopped the world. She takes a step back. Horror in her eyes.

“Now. Get out. Of our. House.”

***

The air shifts the moment Harry is out the door, stomping down the stairs with her short heels. John can breathe again. His shoulders sag as he leaves a long exhale, almost doubling over to rest his palms on bent knees. Instead he turns around, anxious to face Sherlock again. He doesn’t let the tension go. Doesn’t snuff it out. He keeps it. The silence weighs on him. Burying him underneath the waves slowly. Choking him.

“I’m sorry. About her.” John whispers, gaze to the ground, knuckles creaking on flexing fists. He’s still scared. Scared he’ll look up and Sherlock will melt or- whatever.

Sherlock is immobile, back impossibly straight, as he sits poised and posh with eyes straight ahead. His only response is a faint shake of the head, curls bobbing around, dismissing John’s words as an afterthought. Nothing to waste energy on. Harry doesn’t deserve it anyway. His eyes are glassy. John frowns, takes a step closer.

“I pushed too far…”

John freezes. Sherlock’s words come from somewhere far away. As if trapped in another dimension of this god-forsaken universe. Is he blaming himself for Harry’s outburst? Or is it something else? John comes to kneel in front of him on the floor.

“You didn’t.” He objects with a low voice, looking up at the image of a man that is travelling.

John shivers. This is not a dream, is it? Sherlock is real. He’s not a ghost. He’s here. In his attempt to make sure, John reaches -in need- and touches one of Sherlock’s knees. An audible sigh escapes his lips. Sherlock snaps to the here and now, gaze turned to that treacherous reaching hand. John withdraws.

“Are you okay?” His voice comes in pauses.

Sherlock’s fingers, now resting at his thighs are starting to shake. John blinks and makes to reach again, like they both had done once, keeping their trembling hands together. Sherlock buries them in his dressing gown with unimaginable speed, looking pale, eyes flickering from John’s hands to his face, then all around the room, blinking as if trying to block out the light, as if adjusting his focus, as if everything is too much to handle right now.

“Sherlock?” There’s a tone of fear in John’s voice. He doesn’t know what’s happening, but he knew it would happen somehow. He knew.

“Mm?” Sherlock’s eyes widen, focusing on him again, then relax, appearing normal. “Um, yes, yes, I’m good.”

John sits back on his heels with a huff. Still too pale for his liking.

“O-kay, let’s get you something to eat, shall we?”

There’s a slight restrained twitch of Sherlock’s cheek. Revulsion. He turns paler than before, with a hint of green. John worries, worries, worries. Of course he does.

“Later.”

“Maybe…” John pauses. “Some tea?”

Sherlock shakes his head, firm; more in control. John raises a hand to Sherlock’s forehead, suspicious. Sherlock flinches away.

“Sorry, sorry.” John rushes, palms up and hands beside his head in a placating action. He’s lost his breath. His mind is repeating the flinching image again and again. He takes a shaky breath and points at Sherlock’s head. “Just- temperature.”

“I’m fine.” Sherlock snaps but at the same time curls his toes against the carpet.

“Sherlock…” John pleads. “You’ll freeze.”

With this and that they had forgotten the fireplace and tonight was pretty chilly. John stands up and grabs a blanket, folded and deposited on his armchair. Sherlock’s firm gaze trembles and he bites his lip. Just for a moment. He reaches with his right hand and takes it, getting up with a huff and stumbling a bit to the sofa, closer to the electric heater, trying to maintain his I’m fine façade by being stubborn. John gives a weak smile. He goes to make tea anyway.

***

John places the tray on the table and goes to sit beside a bundled-up Sherlock Holmes, bare toes huddled under the edge of the blanket, pushing out to steady the fabric underneath his soles. John smiles with private affection, itching to touch and hold, steady Sherlock’s shivering body against his own and shoo away whatever ailment plaguing him.

“Thank you.” John breathes over his tea, settling under his own blanket.

“What for?”

“Understanding.”

Silence falls. Their communication has deteriorated. John feels cut off the network, unable to get a proper word out of his lips that would make Sherlock feel any better.

“You too.”

The small voice surprises John.

“Mm?” He looks at Sherlock, lips parting after a small sip of murky liquid.

“What…” Sherlock frowns, appearing to be choosing his words carefully. John licks his lip. “What you did… it was good.”

The start of a hopeful smile tugs at John’s lips.

“I meant every word.”

“Did not doubt you did.” Sherlock nods, as if persuading himself.

“Good.”

John lets himself lean over until their shoulders are touching. There might be a hundred unresolved issues but… for once, they have time for all of them.

“Try some? For me?” He offers after a while, prompting Sherlock to munch on his favourite biscuits along with a cup of tea, as careful as if trying to feed a small bird. Usually, it didn’t take much.

“John…”

There’s a moment of hesitance but Sherlock slowly unearths shaky fingertips and takes what John is offering in a small plate over to his lap. John knows he’s succeeded and the result will be Sherlock nibbling truly like a small bird after some moments. He is ready to savour them all when a small whine bursts out of the baby monitor.

“I-I better get to her.”

John erases the tremble in his tone. He will be a good father. He won’t let Harry deter him from the goal. He won’t let Rosie down. He won’t let Sherlock down. Not again. Not ever.

Sherlock nods, putting the gingernut on the plate again. John arches a fond eyebrow.

“Keep eating, will you?”

There’s a small groan and rolling eyeballs but John departs towards the stairs only when Sherlock picks up his cookie once more, sharing soft private smiles together.

***

Sherlock watches the small waterfall that flows from the tap, pouring into the shallow puddle that has formed on the bottom of the tub. It sloshes, at first, to the left, the right. Spreading, all frothy and hissing. But as more and more fills the tub, its tiny roar grows deeper, gurgling, like bubbles blown through a straw.

Family.

Family?

It’s not about that.

…But it is about family.

Sherlock wonders what John would do if he found out. If Sherlock told him, with no preamble, no excusing, no explaining, just told him. He would not lose him. That much is obvious -and that was never the issue. But there is only so far John can go. The touches would stop. The closeness they have achieved, the trust would be destabilised. John would start worrying. Being cautious. Being reserved. Doubting. Avoiding. He would feel guilty, perhaps; for not knowing, for making Sherlock uncomfortable -as he would no doubt see it.

Perhaps, even our Rosie would stop. Because it has been ours, as in… She is your family, too. Not ours in the other sense. That sense.

Of course, John is not stupid. He did not do it out of ignorance -most probably out of genuine emotion. Since he regarded Sherlock as  a member of his family, given his words tonight, he then took it for granted all this while that whatever he said and did had a very specific frame to be interpreted in.

Not about that.

Sherlock breathes in deeply. The next exhalation is slow, strained. Time to take stock.

And first in the list, is of course, his little problem.

He has known since before he jumped. In hindsight, maybe since the start. Though seven years later everything seems to have happened so fast that it’s hard to tell if there was One, precise moment in time when it all began (and he regrets that he does not know that moment, assuming it existed, that he has not immortalised it and protected it from the mundanity of every other dull minute of existence). But when it appeared, his little problem was constantly with him. It was there in the form of thoughts, daydreams. Impulses. In the form of jealousy and anger, longing and wistfulness, bouts of giggly happiness that erupted from nowhere. In the form of trust and pride. In the form of clammy palms and a tingly belly, a wayward brain and a new, brand new, beautiful, meticulously kept and organised wing in his Mind Palace.

Sherlock harboured this little problem in a world where John ever sought a new woman to date. In a world where he was the freak, the provider of adrenaline, the man that wore a coat as an armour, and held his cold arrogance as a sword. In a world where he was terrified. Because he wasn’t supposed to function, like that, to be, like that.

Freak

And then Moriarty returned, the thieving magpie with the glint of insanity in its eyes, and Sherlock could not do anything at all. Because the magpie found out about the heart. John’n, and so his own.

Because the magpie would return.

He’s writing sad music. Doesn’t eat. Barely talks. Only to correct the television. I’d say he was heartbroken. But er… He’s… Sherlock. He does all that anyway…

Sherlock could only jump. Abandon. Survive.

He returned six months too late. To find that the ashes he had left behind had been scattered by the East wind, and that nothing new had sprang from the ground beneath them.

The tub is almost brimming. Sherlock turns the tap off. The last stray drops dive, and their plop landing echoes in the now silent bathroom.

Sherlock watches the steam rising from the mass of water, left hand playing silent scales over his thigh.

Where is the harm in never telling John? In never letting John find out? It won’t be that difficult, after all. Not more difficult than it has already -and always- been. Most probably, it is for the best.

Psychopath.

 ‘High-functioning sociopath’

Unable.

Unable.

‘Unable’ 

He was not planning on telling him up to now anyway. Tonight’s confrontation with Harry, and what Sherlock heard because of it, do not change that.

Sherlock steps into the tub. The water engulfs his legs, greedy. Whispering. He swallows. It feels like it is challenging him. Taunting him. Why is he afraid of forty centimetres of it, of breath-stealing, treacherous water?

He lowers himself until he can kneel. The water licks his hips, his sides. Yes, it hisses. Yes.

Grinding his teeth, he leans back. The surface is slippery, and he loses balance, so that the water rocks him back and forth, legs outstretched, arms hanging from the edges of the tub. Afloat. Until his head washes against the curved edge of the tub and his arms lock and anchor him, and he can stay still. Hot, invading fingers of water weave through his hair, pulling it, dissolving it as it spreads like seaweed around his head.

Sherlock closes his eyes with a shiver.

Addict.

It is hardly unfair an accusation. He was a junkie. Multiple times. On these grounds, Harry’s claim at wanting Rosie in her life is just as good as his could ever be. And she is right. He got off on it. On other people’s problems. Other people’s pain. He liked it. The Work. The jolt of adrenaline. That is how he knew he was alive. What a pathetic little man he has been, indeed.

He feels guilty for treating Harry the way he did. After all… Her fear he could understand. Perhaps it was a, strictly speaking, irrational fear, given her brother’s character. Or rather, it was a fear cultivated from outside as well as from inside. But that did not make it any less palpable, or valid. On the contrary; it would never be only her fault for being poised to find adversaries at every turn. Even in her own family. For this he regrets hurting her further.

Why would you forgive him anything and not me?

There were times when she did sound agonised. Where her tone wavered and she looked genuinely lost. Just as in need of help as she claimed John was. Sherlock wishes he had helped her and John reconcile, somehow. That he had been able to give John his real family. That he could make Harry see that no, that would never come between John and his sister. John was not that kind of man, that kind of human. And perhaps that he could tell her that she wasn’t that kind of human either.

Then again… Harry threatened Honeybee could be taken away from them. Her words had rang with such indifference for the child’s fate, for John’s fate, should such a thing ever happen… Sherlock does not regret defending John over this. He may be unfit to ever be a parent. But John isn’t. John is fighting for his daughter every day. Doubting this, even for a second -when one has no concrete evidence and data, no less- is at the very least a wrong judgement of John’s character. Sherlock is the one who could be a danger to her. A negative influence. A disgusting example. Not John. Never John. But even if Sherlock doesn’t regret protecting John and Honeybee, he can’t help but think that it is his presence that exacerbates the agitation between the siblings. If he was not part of the equation, then Harry would not be feeling the way she is. And John… If Sherlock had never returned from Serbia, wouldn’t his life have been better?

John is stuck with him. Always stuck with him. Only this time… This time he’s stuck with the husk of a man. A pitiful automaton of a man. And he does not even know it.

Sherlock places his feet against the floor of the tub, and his knees poke above the surface of the water. A sack of flesh and bones and ruins… There is no knowing what tonight’s ordeal caused further. Except if…

He braces. It is more difficult than it used to be, calibrating the world in focus, and guiding it inside. The gears are rusty, and his concentration is hanging from a thread; anything could shatter it. Cautiously, he opens his eyes in his mind. For the first time since the collapse, he allows himself to see his body inside the echoing space. He is naked, stick-thin and shorter than he should be. Oh. Oh, of course. His tongue is brine and his hair is seaweed. Droplets of seawater accompany his every step, his feet clearing away dust with their wet imprint, leaving a lonely trail behind him. He knows why he is here. To see the place that is no more. What should have been his guide to navigate the world without sinking, without drowning.

He is standing in a hall. Three walls are still left standing, but the wallpaper is torn and hanging off them, tattered. The spiral staircase with the wooden, carved banister ascends to nowhere; the ceiling has collapsed, and he can see the crumbled walls of the floor above. There is no roof above him, but no sky either. It’s dark, and whatever light reaches eerily from above is white, hospital-like. He looks and looks, the muscles of his neck straining and sore, but the more he does the more his eyes travel aimlessly upwards without finding beginning or end.

The empty maw of a window gapes open in the wall in front of him. The glass is shattered, leaving a jagged zigzag of it only, at the bottom of the windowpane. Perched on it, their tiny, branch-like feet bleeding onto the glass, wait, huddled, a cluster of magpies. Their white is deathly pale, and the black of their iridescent feathers so inky it humbles the darkness. They notice him, small heads turning this way and that as they peer at him with one dark eye, then the other. Sherlock extends his hand to them. Magpies… He knows what they are, the memory almost transparent with age, intuitive in its knowledge. The only life left among the shadows. Seven…

The birds wait until his fingers are but inches away from grasping the, from touching their soft, trembling chest, reaching, reaching… and then they screech in fright and beat their wings and fly away in a cloud of feathers, frail and colourless. The ground beneath his feet grumbles and shifts. Sherlock falls to his knees, to the sound of nearby clatter, and the sound of smashing glass. He, the child he, screams and covers his head as another part collapses, bricks and cement and wood splinters crashing down over him. Another wing is crumbling.

Sherlock opens his eyes with a start. The white of the bathroom is blinding.

He has tried to understand why this is happening. He was not diagnosed as having neurological damage before admittance to rehab. The drugs he overwhelmed his transport with could have idled his memory, left a punch of a black hole of those days in it. And that they did; there are days, even weeks missing. But could that have been enough to strip away an entire mental faculty, his ability to deduce and store, almost every single wing of his Mind Palace? He has researched every article, consulted every paper, every study ever made in search of an answer. Nothing. Every turn he takes is a dead- end.

He still remembers: what he has been through, what has been said, and done. He remembers his life. But not much else. All other information he had painstakingly collected over the years, and the ability to pick pieces from it and slot them together into a case-solving puzzle at lightning speed, the ability to read people like open books, is gone with it. He can make new memories, can remember reasonably well. But not everything. And not nearly enough. He forgets, and does not know what to do with any information he collects, so that he will just keep forgetting. If he tries to build, not a new wing, just a new room, he fails, and whatever he has put together has crumbled by the next morning.

To see the few things he saw on Harry tonight, he had to wreck his brain, scratch it raw, squeeze and squeeze and squeeze it until his vision was swimming with the effort to read, read, see.

Even if he wanted to, he could never again be Sherlock Holmes, the only Consulting Detective in the world. He has outlived his usefulness.

And John doesn’t know. Can’t know.

How many secrets? Sherlock won’t be able to hide it forever. His broken mind, or his little problem. Some day he will not succeed at pretending. And what will happen then?

But if he admits now, one or both of the truths that plague him with the vicious need to be both revealed and concealed at once, the end will only come faster. Sherlock is not ready for that. He is not ready to face the events his truths will unleash.  As much as he may try to excuse himself, at the end of the day, he is lying to John. To the John that forgave him, that trusted him, that wanted to be his friend, his family.

He hates that this is not any better than what she did, than what she was prepared to do. She wanted to keep John with lies. But no… No he does not want to keep John. The idea that he might manipulate or force him into staying somehow turns his skin into cracked, torn leather.

He can’t keep him. He can’t push him away, either. And no matter what he does, now or later, he is destined to lose him.

Sherlock is sinking. From within. Water is flooding his ears, his nostrils, his mouth. His lungs are stiff with it, his limbs fumbling, powerless to push him to the surface. He is trapped, bound to sink because he can’t let go, can’t let anything go; the same walls he built to keep himself safe the chains that bind him to the seafloor, the deep-blue abyss spreading beneath his feet. He needs to breathe. He can’t breathe, he’s choking, choking on his own heartbeat. He needs to force air out of his lungs, out, out, out.

His arms stretch above his head, legs left to float once again, and the movement pulls him down, under, until his face is submerged, and the pressure in his very soul is equal, until his ears truly can hear nothing but the beat of his heart. Slowing. Normal.

One… Two…

He emerges at three, and the world is quiet. The light does not assault his eyes. His mind has gone blank, lulled. A new weight has settled in his stomach, an anchor. Acceptance. Of the things he can say, of the things he can’t. The things he is and can’t be. And of the things he will have to face. It’s eerie, settling over his skin like dew, like a million tiny moths.

That flutter and scatter away in alarm when the door is thrown open.  

***

Rosie is curled up in a small corner of her cot when John enters the room. Her elephant is squeezed tight by her bulky short arms and she’s chewing one pink ear into her mouth. Her blue eyes are wide and pale, her hair so messy John needs to shower her with affection in the next five minutes or his chest is going to explode.

“Hey there.”

She gives a small, hesitant whine. He can almost smell the fear. She must have heard them shouting. She must have picked up their upset tones and now she’s afraid because she whined and drew attention to herself. John leans and picks her up with gentle fingers.

“Shhh shhh, shhh, Papa’s here. Papa’s here, sweetheart.” His palm rubs over her small back as she settles with her face at the crook of his neck.

He backs up, sits on his bed and keeps hushing her with tender whispers. How could Harry think she could ever separate them? No. No, no, John is not leaving Rosie’s side again. He will not abandon her like her mother did so eagerly and thoughtlessly, as if she does not matter.

Well, I’d like to give that a go.

Got a lot to catch up on.

As if she was an afterthought.

“Oh, Rosie, darling…” John’s lips rested over the sunny curls.

Her temperature wasn’t rising again. That was good.

That day… she hadn’t even asked about her own child all the way back to London. Not until John had brought it up. Startling her out of whatever else she might be planning. With something as mundane as bedtime stories. She had looked so startled. So out of place.

Oh! I still have a child, don’t I?

That was her whole face. Screaming it. Constantly.

John avoided to point the blame at her at the time. He hadn’t chosen this either. They hadn’t talked it through. He understood. He tried. He wasn’t made to be a father but he could give his best shot. He would. For Rosie. Her mother had made it clear though… she wasn’t planning to do so herself. Nah, not for her. And then she went and all of a sudden, everything changed. She threw herself in front of a bullet, something John would swear she was incapable of doing mere hours ago. Why the change? Why the sacrifice? Why… He couldn’t understand it. Even now. Couldn’t map it out.

“Pa.” Rosie pokes his cheek, lips puckering up.

John shakes himself and places her on his lap, his half-smile coming into view.

“Feeling better?”

She raises her palms to him and he brings one in front of his chest too. Her nose scrunched up in concentration and then she rested both her little hands against his in double high-five.

“Yeah, there you go. Hooray!” He chuckles, noting how after a month of so, her palms won’t fit both into one of his. He cherishes the moment as it is. Here and now. Hopes to never forget it as he reaches for a hairbrush somewhere on the nightstand.

Rosie’s palms slip and he holds her steady, guiding her hands to rest on his chest. She looks up at him, serious glistening orbs are questioning the significance of the gesture. John’s spine tingles. He holds his palm over hers now. His heartbeat is steady and she feels it. She has obviously decoded that this soft sound that puts her to sleep when she’s crying and Sherlock or John himself sometimes are holding her over their hearts is always available and accessible, always there for her, whenever she needs it. She can always reach and feel it. Now, her plump cheeks dimple and John’s eyes are stinging.

“Booboo, booboo” She giggles to the rhythm of his heart.

“You little rascal.” John lets go, only to squeeze her close and curl his body over her. A small sniff escapes him.

Rosie pushes her palms against his chest more insistently, annoyed at the tight hold. He lets go, returning back to normal, pressing fingers over his eyes.

“Sorry. Sorry, little one.” He responds to her little inquisitive syllables and sniffs a bit more, cupping her face and composing himself, back straightened. Soldier stance; check. “It’s just- your little adventure had us worried and now…”

John tilts his head. She’s humming back to him.

‘Oh.’

Oh.

‘She thinks I’m sad.’

She knows you’re sad, you idiot.

‘Y-yeah…’

She’s putting you to sleep.

‘Lullaby…’

Because that’s what you do.

‘When she’s crying…’

Mhm.

Somewhere downstairs, water starts to run. Sherlock going for a shower probably. John’s smile is slow as he starts humming with her. He takes the small, child-safe hairbrush from the bedside table, slowly combs it through her tangled curls. She doesn’t even object. She’s just humming, looking at the point her fingers are clutching at his chest. The teeth press between curly locks and separate small knots of sweat from the last two days. They’ve been thorough with cleaning her up and keeping her healthy, but they couldn’t risk a bath with the fever and the chilly weather outside, making the inside more difficult to warm up too. They’ll be certainly giving her one tomorrow. In the meantime…

Boo-boop.

John will make sure she’s comfortable.

Boo-boop.

“I will never leave you, little boo.” A whisper. Another knot untangled.

Boo-boop.

Her angel-eyes look at him and hold him to his word.

Boo-boop.

There’s love in them. Deep and all-encompassing.

Boo-boop.

How can someone so young be so wise? Even Sherlock… his eyes sometimes are even younger than John’s daughter…

Boo-boop.

The water keeps running and running and John hasn’t noticed.

Boo… boop.

Her humming slows and slows and stops. And John combs and combs until she’s fallen asleep on his abdomen, little hands full with his shirt, her hold loose; trusting. He moves her to the little cot, elephant having never left her lap, and bends down, lips pressing over her clear forehead. He wishes he could write his love for her on a piece of paper only she could see, hidden inside her tiny head, right there at her soft forehead he hopes will never wrinkle with worry, and every time she doubted, every time they would fight, every time he would fail to be a good father, she could look in the mirror and see it and read it again and again until he was back by her side, showing her for real.

The water stops. Cut off. A tap turned off. John is sighing into a peace that would soon be broken. By his mind.

All is quiet. The room. The house. The road. The wind. Everything empty and haunted by emotions. Hidden ones. John turns to the stairs, perches on the bannister, listening in to the intimate sounds of a home one knows as well as the palm of their hand.

Nothing.

There’s no air around him. Not enough oxygen. His lips are pursed together. His nostrils flaring but he can’t breathe. His insides are burning. Burning lungs as if he’s drowning for another breath, covered by heavy water, waves lapping at his body and sending him barrelling down. To the depths. His body eating itself. Searching for meagre reserves. His throat constricts and he wants to gag but he mustn’t. He mustn’t. If he opens his mouth only water will rush in. Only doom will find him.

He’s down the stairs, thrown by the waves of silence, yet he’s stopped. His only strength, his mind. His will to bring himself back to it. His chest expands to the fullest, but he still doesn’t feel like breathing. His heartrate is spiking, channelling much needed blood to his brain, his muscles, his body. His eyes close. That should bring back the calmness. That always helps underwater, doesn’t it? Letting one’s fate in the sea’s arms. Letting the waves lull oneself into sleep. Hearing but not seeing. Not feeling. Only the coolness of one’s skin and the bubbly rhythmic sound of water. It must help.

Only it doesn’t.

John is back. Back to touching the doorframe, the wood harsh beneath his fingertips, ready to burst aflame by his touch. Back to a grey world where Mrs Hudson floats over the furniture, throwing long white covers over the desk once occupied by John’s laptop and books… his books. Sherlock’s. Long gone. The man. The books. He might as well have thrown them in the fireplace. None of it existed anymore. Not for John.

Back to the void. A black pit inside him, hollow, never filling. Ever again. An armchair remaining untouched. Unoccupied. Indefinitely. Back to screams in his head. Voices telling he’s wrong. He’s a liar. No one is there to hear him. No one to believe him. Only he is left believing. Left hoping for proof of a genius. Of a crushed mind on pavement. John making its brilliance a religion. Because he’s all alone. All done for. And he doesn’t have anything else to believe in. Anything to hang on to. He’s slipping.

Slipping.

Just as Harry said. His life is departing without him. The kitchen is empty. No pig in the fridge. No toes in the microwave. No glass microscope slides filled with samples and immaculately catalogued and organised over the table. Maybe that’s it. That’s reality. Maybe he imagined it all. Maybe John is dead because he’s dead too. Truthfully this time. Maybe none of it was real. Maybe he slipped. Maybe he drank and drank and drank until there was nothing because there was indeed nothing. Nothing else than what everyone said was a lie. Even he said it.

A trick. Just a magic trick.

Suicide of fake genius.

Psychopath.

Look where it got you.

Freak.

You didn’t stay away, did you?

He left you, John. What if he leaves you again?

And John grieves and misses. Misses him. And is terrified in this half-formed universe between past and present. He’s terrified it’s all a lie. It’s all going to happen again. The water was running before, wasn’t it?

John runs. He runs through flames, he runs through walls falling down behind him, on him, melting. Exploding. He runs while his, their home is burned to the brick and he can’t breathe because the ocean around him is filled with smoke and liquid flames, because he’s drowning and the world is burned to ash around him at the same time.

“Sherlock!?”

He doesn’t get any response but he’s not sure he shouted loudly enough. His vision is narrowed down to the white door still standing.

“Please, please, please, open up, open up.”

He’s pleading and knocking and there’s only soft water splashes from inside and John gasps, believing he’s entitled to breath now but not getting it, not being allowed to, the air is still lead in his gut, because 221b is not empty, not grey, not abandoned, not dead, but it might soon well be.

John doesn’t give a care for his shoulder when he bursts through the door, even when he belatedly realises it was unlocked and the force has sent him tumbling to the slippery floor tiles. His palm comes as a shield and he’s fallen, his breath -finally!- whizzing through him and his wrist exploding in a painful sound that doesn’t deter him from his fall.

“Sherlock.” A breathless gasp. A drowning man calling for his saviour, the one he tried to save from the flames in his mind who, it is quite apparent now, is in no real danger.

“Sherlock?” And there is a scrambling John Watson, getting up on his knees and holding his wrist with a clenched jaw at the pain -a sprain, surely-, finally back to the present, back inside his working brain, looking over perplexed at a slick, wet and very much naked Sherlock Holmes, peeking from the filled with water bathtub’s edge.

“John?”

Slicked back curls, skin shining with myriads of droplets caught on stubbly cheeks, tone confused, gaze incredulous. In any other case, John would have laughed.

“Whaaat… are you doing?” In this case however, John is panicking anew.

No bubbles in the tub, no sign of any shampoo anywhere near Sherlock in fact. What could that mean? John’s mind is going frantic.

“What do you mean what am I doing?”

Sherlock sounded… ‘A tad cross?’

Well, you can’t just burst in when peop-

John makes to stand and inspect the situation properly. Sherlock all but shrieks -or did he?- and curls his body to a tight ball.

“Wait. Wait!”

John stops mid-motion.

“I am merely having a bath, John.” Sherlock strives for firm and collected.

John huffs, sinking back to the floor, turning around and collapsing at the tub’s side, head tipping over back, his hair getting soaked but he doesn’t care. Sherlock is fine. Sherlock is safe. Sherlock is here. That’s all that matters.

He lets the silence win, but it’s not empty anymore. It’s companionable. Easy. He is still holding his wrist tight.

“You didn’t… hear me?”

“Uh… nno.” There’s a frown in Sherlock’s voice.

“Didn’t cause enough of a racket then. Good.”

“Good?” Confusion.

“Rosie.”

“Ah.”

They are breathing in sync. The water shifts under John’s scalp. He dares a glance sideways. Sherlock has untangled from his tight ball into a more agreeable position, taking up some more inches of space; more to the normal scale for a person of his height.

“Why did you?” The baritone drills in John’s mind and he wants to nestle there, hearing it on repeat.

“Mm?”

“Cause a racket.”

Sherlock must have realised John is in no condition to stand and give him space to finish with his bath because he doesn’t ask for it and appears to be trying to sound casual, as if they’re only sitting by the fireplace. John bites his lip and raises his head, tipping it forward over his bent knees. Drops of warm water trickle down his spine and he shivers.

“Oh.”

What would it be like if he touched you like that?

‘Fuck. Not now.’

“I just…” He opts for honesty. “I was afraid.”

“Of… what?”

John swallows.

“Of you… l-leaving.”

He expected a snort, of his fears being dismissed as ridiculous, a flick of a hand or a scowl. None comes.

“Why would I leave?” and Sherlock’s tone is deeper -if that is even possible- from before.

“How should I know?”

John is the one to watch for at the end, cringing at his own snappish words, just because Sherlock’s always well-placed questions struck a chord. He sighs.

“Sorry.”

“Apology accepted.” Comes the soft rumble and John almost smiles.

“It was just… too quiet.” He admits finally. “The house. Now. I was scared.”

“Of me? Leaving?”

“Yes.”

There’s a pause of mutual contemplation, understanding and camaraderie for reasons John can’t fathom. Or he can. Because after so many months of John casting Sherlock out. How would Sherlock not feel the same way as John does right now. They’re both trapped. In circles. Of their own making.

“And I… I’ve been… well, I don’t want to be late again.”

“Late?” There’s the perplexed frown again.

John glances over this time. Sherlock is directing his gaze at the idle water.

“I’m… I never knew… why you left, you know, back then.”

Sherlock’s breath hitches. Imperceptible but the tiled walls catch it and echo it all over. John averts his gaze.

“If you need to leave. I don’t want to be late to… to stop you.” It starts small but grows bit by bit, drop by drop. “I know I probably don’t…” The veil of fear overcoming him. “…do enough. I was not-” And here it chokes him again. “…worthy of knowing why you left and still am not now, just…” John is shuddering. “I would like to know.” Heaving. “If you…” Shake. “Now…” Pant. “I couldn’t bare it if…” Sob.

Stop.

John stops, palms over his knees, head bent between them, wrist aching, heart clenching. He would die. He would die if Sherlock left again. Left or… left. It’s one thing to not have him close and another to know he doesn’t exist.

“I won’t.” It slices. Deep and sure.

John doesn’t know how much time has passed. But he knows something else. Sherlock does exist. He does. He’s here. He’s speaking to John. Now. Here. Now.

“But, if you need-”

“I am not going anywhere.”

John’s shaking shoulders still.

“You’re… not?” He is not moving. He can’t.

“No. I am not.” Sherlock repeats for the third time, steady as ever.

John’s breaths are huffs of humid air. He can’t control himself, coming down from the high of intense panic, of mental asphyxiation, of revelation upon revelation. Because of course he could pretend to be confident about all of this in the light of day, in his best moods, but not now. Not now. Now he needs… this. Exactly this. He just needs Sherlock. And Sherlock is here. Giving John all he needs.

“John…” Tentative.

John makes an approximation of ‘mm?’ with his forced-out breath, sounding more like a grunt.

“Can you breathe?”

And John does. A clear breath. Too quick but still better.

“Good. Again?”

Yes. Again.

And they follow a rhythm, John immersed in Sherlock’s softer tones, still in progress of creating that cocoon, that nestling little place with Sherlock’s voice all around him? Yes, that. Until John has melted over the bathtub’s side again, head tipped over once more, breathing slow and steady.

“Mmm… thanks…”

Sherlock doesn’t need to respond, he just watches. John feels his gaze like a caress over him. Gentle and soothing.

“Erm… John?” Sherlock whispers after a while.

“Yes?” John is alerted at once.

“May I have a moment?”

John looks back at him, not catching on. Sherlock raises his shoulders a little.

“I am getting cold, is all.”

Oh. Oh! Yes, right away. So sorry, I’ll-” And he proceeds to mumble unintelligibly, getting himself up and checking there’s a clean towel on the rack and pushing himself out the door with sheer force of will and some ‘I’ll stop fussing now’ comments, more to himself than anyone else, leaving Sherlock behind by avoiding to look or linger too much, noting the amused but still serious and calm expression of his remarkable flatmate - Going back to basics, are we? ‘Oh, alright, best friend I’ve been in love with then. Have it your way.’

He waits outside the closed door, shuffling his weight from one foot to the other. Too nervous to walk away, too giddy to stay. Takes in his surroundings instead. The corridor, just as it always was, smelling of a lavender candle in the one tiny high self just above his eyeline. A picture of a black and white forest accompanying the little flame. Constricted flame. Unmoving. Safe. The kitchen door, a few steps to the left, all in order. The carpet unburned, the wooden doorframes steady as rocks, the walls not crumbling in, their normal tapestries only destroyed where they used to be by none other than the consulting detective himself in his frenzy to avoid boredom. Not smoked. Not black. Not on fire.

John’s lungs expand and this time, well trained and soothed, they actually bring in air for him to breathe.

It settles, slowly. The quiet. The promise. Something has shifted. Inside.

He hears the soft click of the door opening, and turns around slowly to see Sherlock emerging from his bedroom door -of course- with small, finally sock-clad steps for once. He must really have been getting cold in the tub to wear the precious silken devils. He surveys John with pale eyes stormed by green reluctance.

“John, if I may ask…” Sherlock’s voice trails off.

“Yeah?”

“Why would… Why would you think I would leave? Now?” There’s caution in the higher notes of Sherlock’s intonation. Lurking.

Not done then. John straightens up, returns Sherlock’s piercing gaze with his own. He can deal with that. Yes.

“Maybe because of what my hell of a sister said?” A shrug. He can’t really know, as he didn’t know back then… as he’ll never know… But it doesn’t matter, right? Sherlock said he’s not leaving. He said it… He… He promised?

You still fear.

Of course, I do… What else can I do?’

“What people say is of little importance to me, John.” It’s soft and hard at the same time.

John looks at him, expression open, heart open to be enlightened. Somehow, he feels they have slid into another conversation in need to be had instead of the one Sherlock was stirring up.

“Still, you… you’re not what she said.”

“Technically-”

“Don’t.” John’s lips purse.

“But it doesn’t matter, anyway.”

John’s gaze falls on the most honest expression he has ever seen and it is that which unsettles him.

“It does. To me. It does.”

Sherlock is immobile, eyebrows doing that admirable tremble of joining but retracting at the same time, unsure.

“John…”

“I want-” John cuts in. Wrong turn. Stops. A deep breath. What to say? And how to say it? The words are tangled up in his throat, his thoughts are a network of dead-ends.

“You’re the only one that has been there for me. For Rosie. Even when I… when I pushed you away.”

Sherlock’s lips part, eager to add something already said and for which John is grateful for, to the bottom of his heart, but has to gently stop it from being uttered now, because it doesn’t matter. Only Sherlock does.

At the centre of it all.

“Please, we’ve… We’ve resolved all that, now” Sherlock’s voice is kind, almost coaxing. As John would sound himself when trying to appease a Sherlock that was being particularly stubborn.

John shakes his head no, before Sherlock can object.

‘We truly haven’t. We have not even scratched the surface of all there is to be resolved’

Not why Sherlock left, not why John took so long to eliminate the impossible, not how much of each other they have lost, through the days, the months, the years. Not who they are. Who he is. Who he can be.

Sherlock is looking at him. Just looking. Staying. Staying.

Staying.

John thinks of Rosie. Rosie giggling to the rhythm of his heart, pressing her ear against his chest. Knowing it will always be there for her.

He takes a step forward. And another.

His head fits perfectly against Sherlock’s collarbone. Tucked under the auburn-stubbled chin. His body following. Taking refuge. Resting. As close as it can be. A seabird seeking shelter from a storm, huddled up against the shore cliff. Sherlock’s breaths are the ocean’s push and pull, his heartbeat a seashell’s song against his ear.

“I just want you to know that. She’s wrong. They’re all wrong”, he breathes, his face mushed against Sherlock’s t-shirt. He smells of cinnamon. He feels like home. John’s eyes screw shut, and he nuzzles closer. “Please…” There is so much he would ask for, beg for…

“I know”

The warm, deep baritone easing the tide inside him. John does not know what Sherlock means. A mystery, always. Ever just out of his reach. But he thinks he understands. That now they both understand each other, somehow.

He feels Sherlock take a shaky breath. John pulls back enough to look at him, truly look. Sherlock casts his gaze low, hiding its light away. ‘No…’ Two fingers under his chin and he guides him to bloom again, to let the bright skies of his eyes free.

John’s heart clenches with what he sees in them. Wonders if it had always been there, how many layers it was under for him not to have known. Not to have known all along.

His palm cups Sherlock’s cheek, and Sherlock’s gaze turns open, unguarded, shedding its cloudy veils like a flower losing its petals. It is all painted in bittersweet pain, with regret a sharper, deeper hue, and, underneath it all, is fear. It is a lingering, haunted kind of fear, the one only an innocent soul can feel. Sherlock looks both old and impossibly young like this. And despite the feeble light John can see the cracks and chips over his pale skin as if he were made of marble, the cracks where he was broken and yet put himself back together, over and over…

He wants to cure this. He wants to scare the ghosts away, smooth out the cracks with his fingertips, make the depths of these eyes smile again. But… Could he?...Could he?  His thumb brushes over Sherlock’s cheek,  in awe of the strength… The fragility… The discovery and the thought itself… Forbidden. Needed. Unattainable. Like the stars. The moon…

Sherlock’s eyes and lips both quiver. Just so. John can hear his soft, panted laughter in his head, his dismissive comment. Can see him turning away, covering his wounds anew and locking John out again.

No. Not this time. Not now…

A lean and a tug and John stretches as much as his body allows, tiptoeing, bringing both palms to frame Sherlock’s face and… he’s there.

They’re there. They’re both there.

Lips touch. And lock. Slide. Brush.

Cathartic. His entire chest roars with life, with colour, with joy so sharp it feels like pain, relief so overwhelming his knees go weak.

One moment between thousands.

One sliver of life. Small orange peel.

Significant like no other.

One, only one feature of interest.

Always.

Chapter Text

They say it is supposed to feel like fireworks. Like an explosion of feelings, colour, sensations. Maybe it is. Just not now. Now, all it is, is… quiet. The layers of the world fall away, one by one. Sounds evaporate, a crowd falling silent with the first lights that fill a stage. His focus calibrates only on the point of contact between him and John. The rusty mechanism of his mind is irrelevant. There is no questions or doubt, time stops. Truly stops. His chest is light, as if he has breathed in the vastness of a clear night sky. It’s the missing piece slotting into place, the elusive solution found, the end of an ordeal. And for once Sherlock is here, and now, not in what could be, what should be, what hasn’t been. He feels at peace.

John’s lips are warm against his, the pressure he puts into the kiss what has him leaning against Sherlock’s body and standing on tiptoes. Sherlock thinks of the down on a peach, the softest pastel sky-blue, the trembling dew-wet wings of a butterfly.

And then they even out, and settle against each other, John’s lips opening a little against his, and every nerve, down his spine, to his fingers and toes tingles with a firefly’s twinkle. John’s hands frame his face as if turning a sunflower to the light so as not to ruffle its petals.

Instinct is slow to wake. Basking is all he does at first, too stunned, and too starved, to respond. He drinks it all in but as it comes, no rush, no fear. It’s heady, like too-sweet, warm wine, that leaves his tongue only begging to be doused with more, more, please, more.

The presence against him fills in, like the outline of a sketch being pencilled in with colour; from dream to solid man, from unattainable hope to reality. Their stubble catches and rubs and chafes. Sherlock’s breath catches hitches, and then a beam of light buzzes and bursts from his belly to the rest of his body. There’s so much he wants to do, to have, to feel. A whimper resonates in his throat, and now there’s energy to every part of him, energy, and warmth; from John’s lips it travels to the rest of him. Melts him.

He doesn’t know it is over until the warmth of John’s lips has left him. Lost for a moment as to where and why it’s gone, he opens his eyes, only then wondering when he had closed them. John has stepped down, away from reach. But his palm is still cupping Sherlock’s face; John’s index absently scratches his jaw, like one would scratch a cat lovingly under the chin, and his eyebrows join together upwards as the corners of his lips twitch and then curl like that pleased and purring cat’s tail.

Sherlock can hardly breathe, lest the moment breaks instead of dissipating like the changing sunset hues.

John’s hand retreats, and they are apart again, the bridge between them gone. Only then does it truly down to Sherlock in all its magnitude:

John kissed him.

If the world is suspended now, like shards of glass before they hit the ground, it’s for an entirely different reason; this was not supposed to happen. John kissing him belongs to the world in his mind. Not the real world. In the real world, it’s not about that. In the real world, John is the sun, and Sherlock just another planet, a stupid moon, ever orbiting around him. In the real world, John will go whenever he chooses to, and Sherlock will stay behind.

“Sherlock?”

In the real world, there is nothing he has the right to take, because there is nothing he can keep. It would only slip through his fingers like a handful of sand.

“Sherl- um… Yeah, it… You’re doing the thing again” John’s voice is undefined and wrong, as if Sherlock’s head was underwater.

“Yes, it is still scary”, John laughs, but there is no mirth in the sound. Sherlock shakes his head, and the spell of apraxia dissolves. As if a switch has been clicked on, cold water thrown to his face, he’s in his body again, in his usual state of mind.

“You’re back”, John sighs. “Okay. Good. Um” His eyes are glued on his feet, and he shuffles.  “Romantic entanglement…” he mumbles over a sniff. “Got it. You… You meant it. Not good. I’m sorry”.

Sherlock blinks -and this time he knows he is doing it.

“Just… Just please forget it, I…” John takes a step back. He looks as if something has been torn from him, his face carved with lines, his left hand shaking. Sherlock suffers at the sight, as if his own arm was being sliced open.

“I’ll just go upstairs and, uh… See you in the morning, alright?”, John tries to smile. His façade is up, shoulders squared in his soldier’s stance, his chin jutted out in pride. He’s leaving.

Leaving.

 “I don’t understand” Sherlock blurts out. The words are too slow, or maybe too fast, jumbled up with the rest of the trapped thoughts struggling over his knot of a tongue.

John pauses, and when his eyes flick upwards, there is the faintest shimmer in them. “What do you mean?”

Sherlock’s palms are clammy. Cold. “I…” The air above him clamps down his shoulders. The ceiling, the floor, the sky above, it all has him pinned in place…

John scrutinises his face; his expression has turned to one of utmost concentration. He’s there, right there, two feet away, and yet it seems as if there’s an ocean between them he can’t cross.

But John did.

What was impossible mere minutes ago…

‘How can it be true?’

How can it mean anything at all, when John decidedly declared, time and time again, to everyone, that he wasn’t gay, that they were not a couple, that Sherlock was the one that had to go…

We can’t all three dance.

...That it wasn’t about that.

“Sherlock…?” John’s voice is soft, his eyebrow knitted together, tugging that bit upwards. He is afraid. Tired. There is no façade now. It’s only the man that panicked because Sherlock might leave. The man that held his hand to soothe him. That leaned against him, as much as he took care of him. The man that smiled at him when he saw him in the morning, as if the sight truly gave him joy.

Sherlock does not want to lose him. The knowledge aches, turns him raw from the inside. But isn’t he but a fraction of the man he used to be? A liar?

He’s a psycho, you’ve said so yourself.

John’s eyes are begging him for an answer. And Sherlock is tired of causing more pain.

“It was… okay”, he murmurs with a shrug, averting his gaze.

“Yeah?” John breathes.

Sherlock nods.

“Oh…”

At least, let him not lose John over this. Let this not be what will make him go. He will give him a way out: ‘I don’t mind. I can forget it. Delete that it ever happened. Nothing will change’.

But even if John’s initiative can be brushed away, for Sherlock the offence is in his nature. Written into every tiny helix of every cell in his body. And breathing in every beat of the treacherous hole in his chest. He wants to cower away, hide.

“Then...?”

It’s barely a whisper, and has Sherlock start, before he tries to focus.

“Hm?”

“I didn’t… ah… Overstep or… or anything?”

He feels he’s playing a game he lacks the rules for, and with every word John says, the truth he has only just managed to grasp gets twisted and twisted, and incomprehensible again.

“Overstep?” He pronounces every sound slowly.

“Yeah. I mean… You’re okay with … This?”

Sherlock inhales, sharply. But no words come out when he needs them. “I still don’t understand”, his voice sounds like a mouse’s squeak to his ears. He’s so frustrated to be at a loss so grossly that his eyes sting.

John inhales, his chest puffing out like a balloon, and then lets the air go slowly, his shoulders sagging. “Sherlock, I…” He closes his eyes, pinches the bridge of his nose.

He’s… angry?

Instinct kicks in. “I’m sorry”

“No, no, it’s not your fault, it’s just…” John puts his hands on his knees for a moment, as if he is light-headed. He breathes for a few moments, and when he’s ready to face what he wants to face, he nods, and straightens up. Sherlock braces. “I have things I want to say. I’ve never said them and I can’t… I can’t do this anymore. I need to… I need to know. And I need you to know”

Sherlock nods, although he is not sure to what he has just consented.

The muscles on the sides of John’s jaw clench and he purses his lips outwards. Nervous. He is nervous enough that Sherlock is sure he would be electric to the touch.

But his left hand is steady.

John opens his mouth, closes it. Winces at the lack of words, and then, clearing his throat, tries again. “I want… I want this”

Sherlock stares at him, flabbergasted with incomprehension, but luckily John decides this is a point worth clarifying.

“I know… I know you’ve said that romantic entanglement is not for you. And I respect that. I do. And I also know that… there’s… Things I’ve done that will never, never be okay... But I… I need to tell you. I need you to know”

There is no oxygen left in the air around them.

“I… I want us

How can there be no oxygen left?

“And I want to ask you if… If you would want us too

He breathes in, after who knows how long, and the air swelling out his lungs is ice-cold. “Us?”

“Yes. However you want that to be. If you’d want things to be as they have been so far then that’s what we’ll do. I just have to… For me it’s…” John’s voice cracks, but he reins it in, resuming control. As if he is trying to stay strong for both their sakes.

“You’re… asking me if I would want to be…” The word is so odd, inaccessible, almost, “involved, with you…?”

“Yes. Yes, I… I suppose you could phrase it like that, if you want”, John huffs a small smile. “Of course it is fine if you say no. Totally fine. I promise”

If there are alternate realities, then Sherlock has certainly, somehow, been transported into one of them. Perhaps he did drown. Lost his mind, without knowing when. Right. This won’t do.

“Can you pinch me?”

“What?”

Pinch me. On the arm”

John chuckles. Sherlock has no idea why, but it is definitely not helping.

“Mmmwhy?”

“I-”

“I know. I guess it’s a miracle you haven’t told me to shut up already-”

“John-”

“You do not have to decide now. You do not have to decide… ever, really. You can just forget this ever happened if you want, I just needed to let you know. Just once”

“John-”

“It’s a mess. A bloody mess -there’s so many things I’ve never…. I’ve never said, so many…  Things that don’t make sense, I know, so many things I could never give you… Even if you say no… But could I… Could I tell you? Now? Little by little, day by day? I want to… I want you to… to know me. All of me. I want… I want to be… I… Please… Can I try to at least give you that? Please… Will you listen?”

“John”

The indigo eyes waver as they look at him, two glassy mirrors of his own. They mellow the tide in him, ease the cacophony of confusion. They’re the focal point. And he wants everything they would ever wish to give him.

“Shut up”

“Yeah? Yeah, okay, I will shut up now. Got it. I’m sorry” He is mumbling, flushed with embarrassment. And he has never been dearer and more vulnerable and fundamental than in this moment.

“I will”

“What?”

“I will listen. I want to listen”

“Oh god, thank you… Thank you…” John closes his eyes, and leans against the wall for support. Relief, pale green and blush, emanates from his body.

It’s like the end of an era. The final lines of a book. Even if nothing has changed on the surface, everything has; everything could, as when the plates of the earth are shifting. It is a distinct, definite point slicing space and time, and he is watching it being created. There will be a ‘before this conversation’ and an ‘after this conversation’ when this moment is over. Sherlock does not know what the ‘after’ will entail, if it will be for better or worse.

“So are we… are we okay? About what… happened?”

If John does not regret it by morning. If he meant it. Sherlock is doubting what happened even a mere moment ago. John could not really have asked him if he wanted…

“Sherlock?”

Ah, he was doing it again. The tuning out thing. “Yes”

“Sure?”

“Yes. Of course. All fine”

“I… I meant it. It changes nothing you don’t want to change. Okay? And… And you don’t have to decide now, and, and you don’t have to decide at all-”

“John…” He can’t help smiling over the softly reprimanding tone.

“Hmm?! Yeah. Yeah, okay”, John smiles back, as if to say I’m hopeless.

‘Nno. You’re just an idiot’

“Are you okay?” John adds, as if it is a second thought which now becomes an obvious concern.

“Don’t be absurd. Of course I am”

“You looked… shaken. Still do”

 “I… do…?”

“Oh Christ, I’m sorry, I… I should have asked and- gosh I’m terrible

“Nno… It was…”

‘It was all my whole life on your lips’

It’s like missing a beat.

 “OhHesitant understanding dawns on John’s face.

Sherlock cheeks light up with colour. 

Oh” It’s only a breath this time.

Sherlock does not want to see what John saw. He would give too much away if he knew just how much he had been unable to conceal. Tomorrow, he will not be able to put it off for longer. Tomorrow he will have to learn how to navigate this new state of affairs. To understand it, above all -how can he and John always not be on the same page? If John thinks he has understood, even now, he is in for a treat. Sherlock must somehow make a meaning out of this. Because what happened is weird, and confusing, and all he yearned for but seven years late and in the wrong version of reality. But now he wants to cling on to the only things he knows. He wants to feel this moment as it is. Consequences can wait.

“Goodnight, John”, he murmurs. He takes a step back, toward his bedroom, and closes the door between them.

***

There is a certain amount of novelty to the world John wakes up to today. A world where he has felt Sherlock’s lips against his own. A world seeming devoid of any sadness. One where Sherlock doesn’t mind getting involved.

I will listen. I want to.

Where Sherlock wants to.

John thinks he can even hear birds chirping out the window in the middle of sound-polluted London. There is so much energy running through his brain and body, making him almost dance around the room. Cheerful. Covers are thrown away, lips are puckering to a circle, John sits up and starts whistling.

Rosie is looking, curious, holding herself up by her cot’s bars. Then giggles. John doesn’t remember when he last felt such bliss. He smiles at her, wholeheartedly, and strives to hold her up, cradle her on an elbow, blow a raspberry on her rosy cheek; pleasantly cool.

There’s so much to do, so much to think about and clarify and blab about and ask for and do. Do. Do. Show. Tell. Open himself up to. John is almost pirouetting around the room, tidying about as he whistles. Not even the cloudy sky can make this- this urge, this need, the lightning bolts inside him- go away.

Sherlock said he wants to. He blushed. He liked it. He wanted it.

But, of course, that doesn’t mean anything, no. John must let him decide in his own time -if he does. John must not push. No. He doesn’t want that. He wants to reveal what he has never shown before. He wants to talk. He wants to make sense of this. All of it. Because in what world does Sherlock blush like a shy flower bud, uneasy as to how to open its petals and if that should be the right time or not, except a dreamy one?

In what world is John so, so lucky?

“Hop, down the stairs we go.” He sing-songs to his baby girl, his little one, his joy. And he hops. He truly does.

“Hoppity hop.”

She’s giggling.

His lips are over her soft curls at once, grateful to have her, wanting to show her all the love he has taken away from everyone else in his life that always deserved it. Sherlock included.

But John will tell him. He’ll tell him everything. Every little bit that made him lonely, closed off, angry and sad and who he is… who he wants to be… what he feels… It doesn’t matter if he’s brave enough or not anymore. He’s gone and done it. He’s gone and fallen in love. Admitted it. He’s gone and pressed his lips against another man’s. A most desirable lip-lock. What he’s been craving for years. Just once. Just a kiss. And there is was. And here he is. Fussing about in their living room.

And even though Sherlock hasn’t said ‘yes’ yet -or even if he says ‘no’- John is all the happier for it -boy is Ella going to be proud of him.

He glances at Sherlock’s closed door. Remembers the tender affection of his own name on Sherlock’s lips. The scrambling movements and the shy and quick goodnight. The door closing but John not feeling empty anymore.

There is no divide. No wall or ceiling or door or mountain or ocean will ever stand between them anymore. John can’t feel anything of the sort. There are explanations to be made, important matters to talk about from both ends. But John doesn’t feel the rug is being pulled under his feet every time Sherlock is not in the room with him anymore. He woke up feeling as if he had slept beside the man, for goodness’ sake!

It’s a good day for optimism. Not much potential to be crushed down, but John finds he wouldn’t care anyway. John feels him close and judging by the time, his love has also slept late. Great sign, good sleep. John strolls over to the kitchen, places Rosie on her chair, washes the dishes, gathers old trays, straightens blankets, fluffs up the pillows, tidies away toys, lights the fireplace, moves their armchairs closer, fussing, fussing. He starts making their tea. Fussing.

He likes it. He can’t stop it. He enjoys it.  It’s not like he’s the one doing it all the time. Sherlock usually does. Fussing and tea. He’s the one knowing how to treat best the precious herbs, soothing chamomile from the Mediterranean. But John gladly takes on the calming routine, inhaling the soft vapor of the hot liquid, remembering the healing properties of the tiny dried flowers. Sherlock should be up soon. John tries to time it, wonders if he should wake him himself. Sherlock would hate to have his tea cold or re-heated. Because warmed up old tea is abhorrent and a crime towards society, John. Said John smiles at the memory.

It’s as if his heart is wrapped in the honeycomb taste of Sherlock’s lips.

“Ah, yes.” He mumbles to himself, remembering the kind of honey Sherlock used to love in his tea. Years ago. Now it’s only lemon. At the rarest of times, maybe a tiny sweetener or a pinch of some exotic spice or another. He makes a note to buy some text time he’s out shopping. Maybe surprise him.

“Good morning.”

John jumps at the deep tone, startled as he was leaning over a baby purée recipe for Rosie’s high-in-fruit breakfast. Sherlock is in the doorway, almost leaning to one side, drowsy. He looks entirely messy -old white t-shirt and blue striped pyjama bottoms under the blue dressing gown, ever-present stubble- but in an endearing way. It’s just him; no armour, no walls. Just a sleepy, puff-cheeked Sherlock Holmes. John is taken by the ruffled curls once again. How could they always just look so, so, so inviting? His fingers are itching to reach and hold and brush through.

Watson, cat got your tongue?

“G-good morning.” He shakes himself, nods to the counter. “Making breakfast.”

Yes, I can see that. The eyeroll is implied. May I help? ‘Nope, you sit down and let me coddle you a bit. A lot’ Sherlock walks in and gives a soft smile to Rosie who is getting quickly bored at the table, tongue out, blowing small raspberries to her elephant as if to tickle him but losing in intensity by the second.

There’s a yawn while John throws some eggs in a saucepan. He side-glances at Sherlock, stretching his shoulders over at the table, leaning for a small good morning kiss to Rosie’s head. She squeals at him, pushing her elephant his direction.

“Had a good night?”

‘Still okay? You still want to? Can I be yours already?’ John is having a hard time shutting his head up.

“Quite. You both?”

John can hear the tentative tone. Checking, needing reassurance, caring. Rosie’s fever could have come back after all.

“Most certainly.” John smiles and moves the eggs around. Scramble-scramble and flip. Scramble and flip. “In fact, I think we should give her a good bath a little while after her breakfast.”

“We?” a raven’s feathers brushing over John’s skin.

“If you’d like- to, help?” John empties the contents of the pan on their plates, moves the tray on the table, some bacon and cheese and pepper and salt, some beans too and their toasted bread coming. “Last few times haven’t been…” He stirs Rosie’s fruit purée, teeth dragging over his lip in concentration -and a little bit avoidance.

If there’s one thing John knows by now, is that Sherlock will never let Rosie be hurt. Whatever his decision will be regarding yesterday, Sherlock will always be there for her and John believes it, knows it, wants it, hopes for it. Even when he wonders if this is enough, if in a couple of months Sherlock would want to run around London chasing criminals, John can’t ignore what he has seen in Sherlock’s eyes when he looks at her. So, it is indeed no surprise the way Sherlock looks at her now and the way he responds with a definite Yes, of course.

***

John turns on the taps, water at the exact temperature necessary. Sherlock’s eyes shine with a yes of recognition and approval at the same time, and the tub starts to fill. Their little flower’s favourite toys are all around the bathroom, along with the ones inside the water, already starting to get bubbly with a smooth lavender baby shampoo, recommended by Sherlock again, of course. The little flower herself is curled up in Sherlock’s arms, head to the crook of his neck, holding on and whimpering a little in understanding.

“Anything else?” John asks with a steady voice, closing all the nervous energy inside.

“We shouldn’t let it fill too much. So, she can feel the bottom, even sit down on it without the water getting above her belly. She’ll-” The words get swallowed down by the water’s gurgle.

Sherlock’s eyes skitter around, searching the tiles.

“She’ll feel safer, right?”

“Mm? Yes.” Sherlock’s arms rock their little girl up and down as his head tilts to her for some small encouraging coos.

“You okay?”

John tests the water depth with his fingers. It’s all bubbly and colourful now. There’s no reply until he looks back at them both, Sherlock standing tall and the little bundle in his arms, fingers so careful, so soft, not surgical, just tender, soothing over Rosie’s scalp.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

John turns the taps off. It’s ready. He stands and his arms loiter at his sides for a moment before he’s looking up into Sherlock’s iridescent diamond eyes.

“She’ll be alright. You have the magic touch, remember?” He teases even though serious. Sherlock is great with her and she never presented him with the same problems she did with John. Sherlock knows how to calm her, take care of her in the way that she needs. John wouldn’t say it is because of Sherlock’s mind and observations, even though those matter, too. It is mostly pure parenting talent. Instinct.

How could Sherlock Holmes come by that and have nobody notice before? John had no clue.

A smile sweet as the dawn’s morning light, pink and azure painting up the sky in slow brush strokes, grows over Sherlock’s lips. John mirrors it.

Rosie is quiet now but her little face is smudged with tears. When Sherlock lowers her on the baby changer unit, she clings on his dressing gown with significant strength, crumpling the silk in her small fists. John leans in to kiss her cheek, smooth the tears away and he is too close to Sherlock, almost cheek to cheek, moving with speed. Colliding.

“Ow” Sherlock stumbles a small step back.

John grunts, rubbing a hand to his temple. Sherlock’s fingers are pressing over his eyebrow.

“Ugh… sorry, sorry, my fault.” John mumbles.

Rosie giggles, startling them. She grabs her feet with small fingers and giggles again. Sherlock steals a glance at him, and John returns it, pain forgotten for a moment and they are transported back in time, leaning against the hall’s wall, laughing panted breaths, shoulders bumping together. In no time, they start giggling too.

“No, really, let me see-” John tries to reach Sherlock’s eye amidst chuckles and Sherlock almost leans into the touch when it comes before the small pain of a growing bump registers and he winces.

“Ow. That will need some ice.”

“I’ll get some.” John’s ecstatic for an unknown reason. He clears his throat, sobering up.

It only makes Rosie squeal and giggle louder.

“Oh, you little tease.” John tickles her chin. “Trying to get your bath cold, are you?”

Sherlock scoffs in good nature. Their eyes lock and they both look away in a split second.

“I’ll get the ice then.” John declares after a moment of silence. He rushes out of the room, rubbing a hand to the point of collision with a final ‘ow’. Sherlock has already taken over Rosie’s care inside the humid bathroom and John’s heart flutters at hearing him all the way to the kitchen, as he opens the fridge, takes two bags of frozen peas and slowly walks back. He pauses at the door when hearing Sherlock’s voice.

“There we go, there we go, Rosie. I promise you, there is nothing to be afraid of, mm? Look at those bubbles? They are colourful because of the shampoo’s formula. The purple is your lavender, the yellow has citrus fragrances and the blue contains some natural sea iodine. Not enough to make your eyes sting, of course. You have never been to the sea, have you, Rosie? It’s beautiful, like, like- Well, it has the colour of your and your father’s eyes and it is like your bathtub but without the bubbles. Oh, and much, much bigger. Two-thirds-of-our-planet bigger. But see? The water here is shallow. Safe. There you go… Shh shh, I’ll hold you, it’s okay. Yes, that’s it. Very good, Rosie. Very good. You are being very brave. That’s it. Oh, want your pirate ship? There you go. It is not a bad replica, for a toy. It seems realistic enough. Yes, Mr. Duck wants to join in, of course, there he is…”

John is smiling when he comes to sit beside Sherlock on the floor. The man stops talking, instead his face is taking a deep flush of red and he keeps looking away. The water reaches to Rosie’s belly button as she is sitting down in the tub. Her eyes are fixed to the small pirate ship Sherlock holds in one hand and the duck that is floating like a buoy in front of her, as she gathers bubbles around them. Her lower lip trembles, missing the steady countenance of Sherlock’s voice, but John reaches to brush her little arm in reassurance.

“We’re here sweetheart. We’re with you.”

He hands Sherlock his impromptu ice-pack, and they both hold their bags of frozen peas to their heads interchangeably for a couple of minutes as is proper but then focus on Rosie alone. It takes some coaxing and carefully crafted stories for Rosie to let them bathe her properly and wash her hair as well. She scrunches her nose when a bit of foam goes into her eyes but the shampoo is baby-safe for little sensitive eyes, and they just help her to wash it off without much fuss. She’s starting to feel more at ease, making small sounds while playing around her bubbly space with some of her toys and John can’t help but sigh with utmost relief. It was the worst torture to see her suffer because of his own incompetence all those previous bath times. He only ever wished for this. For something to change. And this is it.

Sherlock is it.

“I used to hate baths too.” John whispers. Too aware of his own voice echoing in the tiled room.

Sherlock looks over at him. John is in front of the tub on his knees, but insisted Sherlock use the small stool so as not to strain his back.

“Until I loved them.” He adds, bitterly.

Rosie coos to her duck and has it dive under the water and then splash about.

 “John…?”

“Mm?” A small snap of head to the side and then back forward again, fingers rubbing each other compulsively. “May I… may I tell you?”

“Yes.” No hesitation. “Anything.”

“Hm…”  John is biting his lip. Sherlock’s eyes remain on him, like a caress. John takes a deep breath, his chest puffing. “I loved them because… I could lie down without thinking of… without hearing them… I used to fill the tub and sink in to my ears. The only world I wanted to concern myself with was that one. The silent one. Underwater. No arguments. No screaming matches. No fake, teary apologies. Just… a void…”

Rosie sits down idle, pouting. Her pirate ship half-sunk, the bubbles dissipating. She inspects them with a critical stare. John huffs.

“My parents were a mess”, he dismisses in a heartbeat and gets up, stretching his back.

Rosie reaches up for him.

“Oot. Oot.”

He smiles, bringing her towel. There is a weight lifting off him. Slow but steady.

Sherlock is up beside him in an instant, helping him get their little rose clean from any remaining shampoo, washing her with precisely selected temperature water once again. He doesn’t probe for more. He respects John opening up like that. Slow and incidental, whenever he needs to, wants to. John towels Rosie carefully but she’s not even grumpy, satisfied to be outside on dry land finally, he bets.

“I want her…” John hesitates, then they are facing each other, Sherlock’s head tipped a tiny bit forward to aid his view of John, and he feels so close and so accepting and pure that John’s heart starts losing ground. “I want her to love them because of…” He swallows, voice breathy. “Because of this.” He gestures between them, around them.

Does he mean them? Us? Everything? Together? Friends? Whatever way Sherlock wants them to be? He doesn’t know. He doesn’t even know if Sherlock will understand his meaning completely, but he wants to try. Deep down he always wanted. He wants Sherlock to know him. To have him. He’s got a second chance. He’s not screwing it up.

Chapter Text

Sherlock cradles the washed Honeybee in his arms. Dressed in fresh-smelling clothes, she is now kicking her feet playfully, to keep her father from fitting small blue socks on her tiny feet.

They did not do that before. Talk about their past, their families.  Feelings. Theirs was a world of doing. Of micro-aggressions in the form of toes placed back in the microwave after they had been removed, of milk being bought in reconciliation, of a small violin serenade. In a way, they still do that; do instead of talk. It comes more naturally, in a way. But all the practice they have had means that they understand each other so well in the details but not at the core.

Until John blurted out the small confession about his parents. And then was silent again.

Sherlock keeps his eyes on John, who is biting onto his lower lip with concentration -and when a little foot escapes him again, he kisses its little toes and pretends to nom on them, which has Honeybee squealing with laughter.

Sherlock knows what John’s hand twitching means (anxiety), what it means if he does not finish his tea (tight stomach, nerves), if he flinches at a sound (PTSD trigger), if he smiles when what he is saying is not something to smile about (he is very, very Angry). From these, a mosaic of infinitesimal details he can piece together John’s mood, what he will do next. But not John himself; what he is thinking when he has not said a word for hours, what he longs for when he’s lonely, what keeps him going every new morning, what memories he has that make him happy. In that respect, John has always been a closed book.

And now, Sherlock is offered a way in. A glimpse.

Isn’t that what John had said?

I want you to know me.

With an exclamation of triumph, John takes a step back and admires his achievement of having put both socks on his daughter’s feet. “Right. All nice and clean”, he kisses the golden curls and straightens up. “Don’t tell me it’s already time for her lunch”, he realises with a wince.

“Sorry”

“Dangit” John covers his face with a palm, chuckling in half-hearted acceptance that the toddler they just managed to bathe so pristinely will no doubt be in need of another bath in less than thirty minutes.

“Was nice while it lasted”, Sherlock can’t help but agree. Not that he minds bathing Honeybee again, but he knows she will not appreciate the repeat.

“We must have set a record” John snorts as he leads the way out of the bathroom and into the kitchen. Honeybee begins to mouth at the lapel of Sherlock’s dressing gown.

As Sherlock is strapping Honeybee in her baby chair, John is already halfway through making her lunch, humming to the tune of a song Sherlock does not recognise. Sherlock watches him serve the mashed potatoes and peas in Rosie’s favourite plate, the one with Rapunzel’s smiling face on it, and draw a smiley face with the tip of Rosie’s spoon on the flattened puree, just as she likes. He joins them, still humming, and sits beside his daughter, placing the plate on her table. He helps Honeybee hold her little spoon, kisses her head in praise at the first bite, asks “alright, love?”, in that soft tone he keeps only for her, and then patiently corrects her grip on her spoon again, never losing his temper.

Deep blue swirls in Sherlock’s chest, deep and yet soft like mist, throbbing.

How had it been for John?

Arguments… Screaming matches… Fake, teary apologies…

Voice tight with strain. Painting pieces of a puzzle. Sherlock does not want to guess or deduce. He wants John’s words.

“John?..”

There is a hum before the indigo eyes meet his. Sherlock drums his fingers on the table-top in a silent, made-up pattern, as if they want to bridge the gap between them with every tap. “What happened?” he asks the wooden surface.

“She left. Mum left”, John sighs “I was ten, I think”

Sherlock, who had not been expecting an answer, raises his head. John is wiping a small streak of mash from Honeybee’s cheek with her green cloth napkin, his gaze averted but not guarded. “It was quiet, for a while”, he adds. He is keeping his left hand on his lap, where Sherlock can’t see it. Sherlock’s keeps tapping idly.

“And then Dad was angry and not just drunk, so it was the same thing all over again”. John’s lips twitch in a bitter, rotting green grimace.

Sherlock frowns. There must already have been problems for the fights to occur, and for the mother to disappear. John’s father must already have been an explosive, threatening person. So why she did not take her children with her is beyond him. Beyond John, too, judging by the look in his eyes. Beneath the courage of a soldier, straightening his spine and looking the enemy in the eye, there is the confusion of a child left to cope with a monster. Sherlock shivers.

“I don’t like talking about it”, John grunts, holding the plate tilted for Honeybee as she tries to scoop up the last of the potato mash from the edge of the shallow plate. “There’s only so much fake pity I can stomach, you know?”, he laughs, but it sounds as if he has bitten into a lemon.

Sherlock knows.

‘People are stupid’.

“A ‘broken child’ from a ‘broken home’. This is all I became the moment they knew. Whatever I did was automatically a reaction. I was only a sum of ‘coping mechanisms’ under my father’s shadow”, John spat.

Sherlock wonders what made John want to tell him. If it is because he trusts him enough to not treat him the way he despises. Or because he believes Sherlock will not understand enough about sentiment to do so, anyway.

Honeybee waves the spoon with the last mouthful towards John and he pretends to eat a little before he takes the spoon gently and makes aeroplane noises to entice her into enjoying the last bite herself.

This is why John is afraid of his anger.  Afraid of being a parent.

“Harriet?”

John shakes his head ruefully. “How much did you hear, last night?”

“I… I heard enough”

“Well then. You can imagine” John smiles at him over Honeybee’s golden hair, as he had leaned close to praise her for eating her last bite, with a kiss. “Not that he ever deterred her from being ‘loud and proud’. But it did… bounce back a lot”

It’s not about that. Sherlock understands now. Of course a father filled with hatred would turn on his son like a rabid wolf, for fear of his pride and legacy being disrupted by them, by that.

But John had kissed him. He had gone against all that, and kissed him.

When he’d fallen asleep, he had been thinking of the kiss. And when he’d woken up, there was little else on his mind. With John fussing in the morning, like a busy bee dusted with saffron-orange pollen, Sherlock had not known what to expect. There had been no talk, and no expression or regrets -which he thinks is a good thing. Even though a recap, an anchor to his sanity, would have been much appreciated. Spending all morning trying not to stare at John’s lips, he was beginning to think that he had imagined the incident altogether.

Of course, they probably did not discuss it because John will no doubt change his mind, sooner or later. It was one kiss, after all.  Could not really have meant all that much. Normal people see things like that in ways Sherlock cannot approach.

And, after all…  John is essential. He is someone to orbit. Sherlock isn’t. There is no way he could be the core of someone’s version of a little problem. Much less John’s.

But he was asked to decide, wasn’t he? To say how he wanted them to be.

Us.

But what exactly does John want?

Honeybee babbles to John sleepily, and he takes her out of the baby chair and hugs her against his chest, hushing “there, there”, and whispering to her, kissing her button nose; “want a nap, flower? Hm? With your elephant and blankie?”. He’s so quiet when he talks to her like that, as if he wants to create a world privy only to the two of them.

Sherlock has never seen John be cold with Honeybee. He can imagine him being withdrawn out of fear of hurting her, or so exhausted and wasted that he could not bring himself to look at her in the eye.  But even if there have been ample times where he could lose his temper -and any other parent might have- John only snapped once, when Rosie had accidentally pulled the tablecloth and caused all the contents of the table to spill across the floor. But even then, he had not shouted at her. He had been overwhelmed with therapy, addiction, Sherlock rejecting his care. The John with his feet firmly planted on the ground would not have snapped even then.

It puzzles Sherlock how John learned to be like that, so soft and gentle, if he had no one to show him how. Of course, he is like that with Rosie only, and being a parent is supposed to have the ability to change a person in ways Sherlock would not know. But still. John is, broadly speaking, a man of action, decisions, bluntness, matter-of-fact and potentially coarse with everyone else. Not that John Watson is not a man that never fails to surprise him. But it is a rather remarkable transformation.

“Boys?”

“Hi, Mrs. H.”, John says without looking. Sherlock nods his acknowledgement of her presence.

The elderly woman walks closer to them, her arms crossed in front of her body. “Who was that rude woman asking to see you yesterday, John?”

“Ah. Yeah, that was my sister. Harry. We… figured things out”, he balances Honeybee on his hip, as she mumbles ‘awaa’ to a doting Mrs. H -who nonetheless raises an eyebrow at John’s words. Sherlock can guess what she is thinking: the sister that was absent from the wedding, the sister that was absent from the christening, the sister that I have never seen around and about whom you don’t speak, how lovely.

Sherlock, judging that he has no part to take in this conversation, and wanting to distance himself from what is potentially a line of fire, rises slowly and circles behind Mrs. Hudson and towards his armchair, ready to tiptoe if he must.

“Alright”, John is saying in appeasement. “We did not exactly figure things out. We have established our mutual dislike, and I hope that will be all for the foreseeable future”

“I do not care what you did with your ill-behaved relative, John -she was even worse than you two”

John blinks at her quizzically, mirroring his daughter’s wide-eyed perplexed look.

Someone owes me an apology”, Mrs. Hudson demands, like an exasperated schoolteacher.

“Yeah, ‘course, apologies for that. I did not know she would pass by”

Sherlock watches from the safety of his armchair as Mrs. Hudson scoffs, clearly unimpressed by the effort.

“Should I repeat that I am not your housekeeper?”

“Um, no. No, absolutely not”

“How is our little girl?”

“Ah, the fever’s down. Looks like all’s well”

“Oh, lovely” Of course it does not take long for her to spot Sherlock in his hide-out. “Everything well, Sherlock?”

“Hm? Yes, yes”

Why did she stare at him for a second more than necessary?

He adores her, but nonetheless lets out a sigh of relief when she is downstairs again -and finds that John has done the same.

 When their gazes lock, John clears his throat with a nervous giggle. “Thought that would go worse”

 “I’m not quite sure it is over yet”

“Oh lord” John laughs into Honeybee’s curls, and she mushes her face against his neck in content reply. “Want to come with me to put her to sleep?”

***

Ten.

He had been ten. He didn’t think. He knew. Of course, he knew. It was imprinted on him. In his DNA.

John, if you’ll allow me; there is enough scientific evidence to oppose that logic. Nature versus Nurture has always been-

‘The biggest psychological debate of all time. I know.’

Quite. As a man of science myself, I would encourage you to refrain from-

“Gah…” John turns the other way under his blankets trying to shove the voices away.

He’s just a boy! Just a boy, just a boy, barely ten. Look at him! The sneer, the disappointment. A curled-up ball into huge sofa cushions. Palms on his ears. Pressing tight. He doesn’t want to listen. No. He mustn’t. All bones and skinny. Weak. He wasn’t. He wasn’t weak! She was gone. Gone like the wind that stopped howling over his windows when the frost came. She left him. Alone. A black and white television chattering. Illuminating the darkness. A reality show cackle. A hard sniff of a crooked nose. Dull grey. The colour of his life. The boy standing in the doorway, backpack hanging from a bruised shoulder. Wincing at the flick of a cigarette butt. Of what use could he be? Mocking. Do you have any idea what I’ve done for you? Hm? The sizzle of a match being struck. The closing of a door. You should be grateful. Grateful he had a bed to lie on. Food to eat. Second-rate education to complete. Come on, Johnny, can’t you fend for yourself for once? He didn’t need them. She had left him. You were always too whiny. He didn’t need her. Not bloody Mum leaving him, neither his freaking sister, not Dad. He didn’t need him. He didn’t. Don’t disappoint me, boy. Out into the bright green pitch he went. Shoes scraping into mud as the rain began. Always sensitive. And he ran and ran to get away, far away from them. A collision and he was down, shoulder aching, burning. Dislocated, the doctor said. He’d be alright. But he wasn’t. Not now. He would never be.

Just a boy.

You weakling. What did I tell you? Come back with one of these again and I’ll-

If he was just a boy why did she leave him with that monster?

“Come here, boy.” Silence. “Come here.” Soft. A flick of a hand. A smile. “I won’t bite.”

John winced. Breathed. Shook. Tears brimming in his eyes.

“D-dad.”

Chest fluttering like a hurt little black swallow after the journey home through half the globe. Small tuft of white over its neck, puffed up in fear. He wanted to run to the man’s arms. Pathetically so.

They were too many. Sixth formers. Circling him.

If it isn’t the famous Watson, eh?

Cackling. Loud.

A bang. The ground. Rock? No, sand. Sand blinding him, causing his eyes to tear up. The sun scorching above him.

A poke.

Your sister is quite a catch, isn’t she?

Fingers grabbing his arms. He yanked it away.

“Leave me alone!” He faced them, cornered. The end of the corridor behind him. The wall searing his back like hundreds of leather lashes. He looked up proudly.

Pity she’s exactly like you.

“Come here, boy.”

He went. One step at a time.

“Let’s see what you have there, shall we?” Soft. Soft. Soft.

A touch. A possibility.

“Would you tell me what happened, my boy?”

Did he mean it? Oh, the relief.

“Called me things… something about Harriet being-”

Fingernails against his chin, raising his face up. Sharp. Sharp. Sharp.

Heart racing. Eyes blinking. Wide. Trying to be alert. Trying to clear his vision of the tears. A nail scratched his jaw. When will you grow up? He fought from wiggling away. Only a gasp escaping at Dad’s face coming into view. We’ll need to shave that baby skin off of your cheeks, boy.

Resentment. Hatred. Lips quirked. Tense.

“They- they-…” John swallowed.

A finger poked at his black temple. The boy screamed. Sore.

“Can’t you even defend yourself, you idiot?”

Embarrassment. Hot and liquid. Burning oil flowing over him. Turning him red from head to toe.

“But they-”

“Bu- bu- but t-they…” Hands on hips, tongue between pursed lips, tone high like a girl’s, hips canting to the side, wrists flicking ridiculously. At least the man wasn’t touching him anymore. “What? What did they do to precious little Johnny, hm? Did they steal your manhood? Did they make you cry?” Acting out a role. Exasperated. John’s face burned in the fire.

“I didn’t-” Whipped off. The boy fell on the floor, hand on his cheek, a new bruise forming, the mark of a ring over his cheekbone.

“For fuck’s sake, do you know what you sound like?! I won’t have this here; do you hear me? Not in this house! Man up!”

Don’t be a pussy, Johnny Watson! A sing song. A tease. An insult.

The boy crawled away.

“No, you’re not going anywhere.” A hand to his ear. Gripping. Pulling. John bit his lip until it bled, not to scream. “You’re staying here until you learn your lesson.” Throwing him at a chair. A little bundle. “No acting like one of them gays anymore, do you understand?” A crack of a beer bottle on the table, shards flying. His eyes fluttered closed. He was thrown sideways by another slam echoing in his ear.

I won’t have my son act like some fucked up faggot.

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid to think he could seek comfort, always falling in the trap. He wasn’t a faggot. He wasn’t a pussy. He wasn’t gay. He wasn’t. Repeat. Repeat after repeat and he might mean it in the end. He might even believe it.

A trembling little thing. Hopeless. He deserved pity. A coward. He deserved the blame. He had it coming. He caused it all. Provoked it with his behaviour. He deserved it. They were right. They were all right.

He wiped his eyes fiercely. He would not cry ever again. He would be steel itself. He would learn how to punch. How to fight back. He wouldn’t be a-

Homo.

“What’s this?”

John tilted his head for inspection. A tuft falling from his forehead, loose over a purple mark of a knuckle at his eyebrow. His expression cold as ice. Trained.

“A trophy.” He mumbled.

At the hard gaze of the man that was no taller than him anymore, he repeated with a clear voice.

“I got a hit, sir.”

“Hm…” The sneer was there even when it appeared to signal approval.

“He’s got it worse.” John added, trying not to give anything away. Trained.

Father turned around, dismissive and uncaring, ready to go out for his evening shift at the only pub he hadn’t been yet banned from.

“Shave that ridiculous hair off again, would you? You’re not some girl looking for a fuck.”

“Yes, sir.”

Exhale. Relief. Long. Yet controlled, lest Father hear it. Trained.

Broken. Broken child from a broken home.

How can it not be embedded in his DNA? He can’t erase it. He can’t control it. It is there. It is always going to be there. Intergenerational. Passed from father to son, the son to his daughter. How can it not? Nurture. Yes. Still never leaving. Always a part of him. Always controlled by a man that was long gone. No free will. John’s fingers twitch. He aches for a glass. A bottle. To smash it, crash it, drink it. The burn. The fire of alcohol. To forget. Forget he has a child to raise. Forget he doesn’t know how.

A wail. Rosie. He frowns. Was she trying to get his attention all this while? A grumble leaves his lips.

A knock on the tilted a tad open door.

“Sherlock.” A whisper. A prayer. He raises his eyes, nose brushing the edge of his duvet as he has huddled himself up in a tight cocoon.

The tall slender man stands at the door, perplexed.

John’s eyes close with a groan as Rosie whimpers. He can’t. He can’t. He can’t.

“John?”

“Mmph…”

“I-…” Thinking what to say. “I could take her downstairs… if you’d prefer some rest?”

Forget. Forget. Forget, damn it!

“I’m not- I’m not-…”

“Gay?”

A hard swallow. Shame. Gaze on the ground. Rage rising. It was alright. It should be alright. Why didn’t it feel like it?

“Yes. So you’ve said before. You are not homosexual, John. I wouldn’t have the right to define you as such either. Even if you were, you are not expected to fit yourself into a label. However, what I am asking is-”

“Where I generally see myself on the spectrum.” He blurted.

Ella sat back on her chair, with a clear-cut nod. He sighed.

John shifts on his back once again. Heels of his palms pressing his eye sockets. Why would this all be coming back now? He whines to himself in the semi-darkness.

There’s a soft gurgle beside him and he brings the baby monitor to his ear instead of raising the volume. A smile perks on his lips. Addiction needed to be satisfied is momentarily forgotten.

“Bee? Your bee?”

A high-pitched whine.

Something like ‘oh hush, your father needs—yes, I’ll find the bee alright, let’s—’ following. John turns it off and leaves in on his bedside again.

Sherlock… A saint. He must have gotten Rosie downstairs after all. Maybe John sulked groggily his approval. Yes, that must be it. Letting him rest. Oh, he owed Sherlock so much. He must have heard her on the downstairs baby monitor then. John’s heart spills slowly over his bedsheets. Blissed-out. He would never mind this to be... Routine. Happy routine.

“I guess, I’m-… ah, not so clear-cut as I believed.”

“You believed yourself to be heterosexual?”

He eyed her. She was being more cautious than normal. Hm. He nodded.

“Always?”

“I mean I might have had-” A sharp intake of breath. Fingers rubbing his thighs. “Experiences.”

Sherlock in his head scoffed. Impulses?

John swings his legs out of bed. He had kissed Sherlock Holmes. His head is in need of clearing and he’s not about to let it win by sulking in bed all day. He had kissed Sherlock Holmes. Whatever happens thereafter, he can tackle it. He had kissed Sherlock Holmes.

The man that is making airplane noises to try and get John’s daughter to eat right now. Yes, John is a father. He can be again today. And tomorrow. And forever. Because the little flower scrunching her nose right now is his. Is Theirs. And they are doing great together.

With a deep exhale, John enters the kitchen. He needs the reminder sometimes. Some days. He knows there is darkness lurking in every corner, he knows his mind gets stuck in unhealthy and false patterns. But… it can change… The last few weeks have proved as much.

“Experiences with more than one gender?” An all-knowing smile.

“Um… yes.”

“What kind of experiences?”

“Pardon?” Something in the straightforward way she phrased it made John twitch.

“I mean, were they sexual or romantic or both?”

“Uh…” His knuckles cracked.

“Alright, let’s um…” She bit at her pen-tip, considering her notepad. “So, John, are you aware of how romantic and sexual attraction exist separately as well as together?”

“I… suppose.” He wasn’t getting any more comfortable. Where had the ease of ‘slept together’ blurt out had gone?

“Good. Am I correct to assume you’ve had sexual experiences with men and women?”

He shifted on his seat. No point denying it.

“Yes, yeah…”

“But are you actually attracted to men and women sexually?”

“Yes.”

A small valve broke loose and his brain flooded with memories. A touch. A look. Piercing eyes. Soft curls. All well known. Then… A fair head between his legs, fingers scraping through the scalp of a tall man. Once. Only once. Oh please. He shook himself, startled. That wasn’t- It wasn’t what he remembered.

“And at what level did you connect romantically in those experiences, John?”

He opened his mouth to answer but he refrained from doing so, confused.

“I think-…” He started more careful this time. “I’ve had a bit of trouble achieving that.”

“How do you mean?”

“I-… In the majority of my relationships with a female partner.” He tried. Slow, counting the words. He should work on being respectful about it really. In his head that simply was a mess of thoughts that were surely going to come out the wrong way if he let them. Because his last relationship had been- Nope. Wall. Not thinking about that now.

“And with male partners?”

“I didn’t- I mean…” He looked away.

“John. You are safe here.”

He clenched his jaw. Not too comforting when you’ve been deceived all your life.

“I haven’t had an actual relationship with a man.” He admitted.

“Are you including the sexual factor in the definition for a relationship?”

“Yees?” He frowned.

“What if you don’t have to?”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you ever felt romantically entangled with a man? Even if you haven’t acted on it neither way.”

John took a moment to take a step back, look at the whole picture, lose the tree and find the forest. Flashes passed through his mind again. A club, dancing, grinding, darkness, hiding, fear.

“I’ve- As best I can remember, I’ve had no more than- a couple of sexual encounters with men. With which I- I didn’t have time to work on any… romantic part of- I guess what I’m trying to say is… There has been… a few others… for which I might have felt… very deeply but- but I never… It’s not like I could- I never thought they would- I took it as… friendship, I haven’t felt so- as such for any…” He gasped. “Any woman.”

Ella was watching him, totally still, lest she disturb the precious monologue of blabbing that would lead him where he needed to be. She wasn’t even taking notes. John blinked.

“Morning!” John ruffles Rosie’s curls and she blinks, eyes owllike at him, any sound she was about to emit, crushed into her little throat.

John’s face falls a little. He leans close with care and kisses her pink chubby cheek.

“I am so sorry for this morning, flower, I shouldn’t have behaved like I did, please, will you forgive me?”

She doesn’t respond for a second or two and then she headbutts him with her forehead, a small round cooing sounding escaping her full with breakfast mouth before she swallows. John takes a breath as he straightens up, hands behind his back, glancing over at a very attentive Sherlock making their own breakfast.

“Sherlock?”

“Mm?”

“I owe you an apology as well…”

“Don’t worry about it.” Sherlock’s lips curved to a tiny smile.

“I must have been a grump. I can’t even recall.”

“That’s a bad sign.”

John chuckled. What a tease.

“I am sorry.” He continued sobering. “And thank you for taking care of her.”

Sherlock shook his head.

“The least I could do.” In the deep baritone that John found that exact amount of comforting.

He could have sworn Sherlock must have calculated this effect at some point because he used it non-stop. It can’t be just instinctive, can it?

“Wrl cn wath ake aff tday e ou ont.”

“What?” John speaks, startled from his reverie.

Sherlock turns to place a pan full of scrambled eggs on the table, a spatula held between his teeth. He takes it out and licks his lips before giving John a small shrug.

“Sorry. I said; we can watch Bake off today if you’d like. There’s a rerun of the last season playing all day in Channel 4.”

John almost screeched before starting to giggle. Not only Sherlock remembers one of his favourite shows and knows when it is playing on TV but he tried to tell him while holding a spatula in his mouth. Sherlock’s deep rhythmic ever-increasing laughter soon follows John’s own.

“And you wish to explore that further now? That deep connection?”

John stared.

“You wish to act on it this time?”

He stared some more.

“With Sherlock?”

A light jump, off the chair at the mention of his name. The culprit that had long ago stolen John’s heart and has never given it back since.

“I-…”

“Use your own words, John.” Meaning ‘it’s alright’, reassuring to a tense patient exactly as he needed to be reassured. Message received. And understood. John swallowed.

“I don’t know if he is… if he’d ever want…”

Is -; because there are too many doubts and too many women in John’s mind, haunting his every move. Irene, Janine, Molly… Sherlock always trusted Molly… in times when he wouldn’t trust John… even if John felt the least apprehension about her than the other two.

Want -; because even if there were women (or men), suspicious enough for John to grit his teeth, Sherlock was never one for romance, dating, relationships. He’d repeated himself enough about this that John was filled with genuine surprise every time he thought of it. Because the sleuth of course, hated to repeat himself.

“I don’t want to be presumptuous.” He concluded. “I don’t want to push him.” He added at Ella’s inclined head.

Needless to say, they had been through enough already. Why couldn’t what they were now, how they were now, be enough for John already? Why was he so greedy? So ungrateful?

Before he could throw a fit with his thoughts, Ella interrupted him.

“John, allow me to say, I am sure you know of this, but there is such a term as consent?”

John scoffed.

“Now, I don’t mean to offend you but you could… just talk through it. You could just ask.”

***

He had fucked that up royally, hadn’t he? Because instead of talking, instead of asking, John Watson had gone and kissed the man. And did the rest later. Hadn’t that been a blast. But John can’t regret it for the world. The softness of two Cupid shaped lips, fluttering under his like small canaries trying to initiate flight. Yellow and warm feathers shaping around his own.

This morning has to be the best since that day. By far. John feels ten years younger, waking with the sun that has started to come up earlier as they approach the whimsical March that is sure to bring them some heavy downpours before allowing the temperature to rise -sulky month- and rejoicing at the thought his shift was an afternoon one. Cut in half today, not a full eight hours, arranged so he could attend his anger management afterwards. Making Sherlock a luscious breakfast at the start of a new week and having some time with his baby flower on her most energetic hours of the day were the biggest perks anyone could wish for, even more so; John.

Rosie’s big smile when he raises her over his head and flies her around the room for good morning gives John another cherished moment to be grateful for. This time, he takes it in, no regrets, no hesitation. The past few days have brought a change in him he couldn’t anticipate. It is a burden lifted from his chest. Confession by confession. Word by word. He knows now what made him hesitant to be grateful before. What made him seek for more. It’s not that he merely wanted more. It’s not that he was greedy. It was only an honest wish to be honest. To be carved open. Even if Sherlock decides to not want anything more than what they have in the end, John will be grateful for it. He will be happy. As he already is now. Content.

He puts her on his shoulders, little giggling flower she is today, and hops down the stairs, goes straight for their mail, just to give her the rounds and keep her giggling, uncaring if his shoulder will act up after his shift today. A couple of reminders for bills, end of the month approaching fast, a postcard for Mrs Hudson from the Maldives -how even… who?- and a red confidential envelope for Sherlock. He’s not paying much attention as he climbs the stairs, Rosie tugging at his mess of hair, growing longer than necessary again.

“Ouch, Rose, could you-?” She’s let go already, clutching the hand he extends to her.

With the envelopes thrown over the table, John strides to the bathroom, which is unsurprisingly occupied. John means to knock a teasing greeting and wish Sherlock a good morning but Rosie’s energetic giggles that have turned to slight whines due to her need for nappy change transfer the news inside the thin door before he can move.

“Oh, hello, thought I’d heard something.” Sherlock opens the door, hair sleep ruffled and toothbrush on one hand, no doubt planning to brush his teeth after he has chewed the last of his pills, which John has arranged into the daily and weekly tiny containers, always situated over the bathroom sink now. He has noticed Sherlock would prefer chewing on the harsh taste of his pills than swallow them as they are sometimes, having to do with his throat still maintaining the nasty habit of clogging up at times.

“Awa?” Rosie reaches a hand perplexed at a certain steep peak of Sherlock’s hair on one side.

John hides his grin behind a palm, their gazes falling on each other and retreating in a rush.

“Morning.”

Sherlock nods and as Rosie keeps reaching, he reaches to press a soft ‘mwah’ at her forehead. She’s precisely at his height right now, on John’s shoulders, while her father himself feels small as his face gets almost mashed into Sherlock’s chest.

Nope, fortunately they didn’t touch. That would be-… He longs for it, if he’s to be honest. But he can wait.

“Nappy change?” Sherlock pulls aside to let them in.

“Yup.” John sets to work, first of all getting the little only slightly miffed sunflower down from his shoulders at which movement she squeals. “There’s some mail for you on the table.”

“Mhm” Sherlock has already started to brush off whatever medical taste has remained on his mouth.

He goes out a moment later, giving John some more space to manoeuvre as Rosie kicks and grumbles with his ministrations to get her clean and ready. John is surprised Sherlock didn’t stay to fix his hair, he even seemed to have forgotten, calm and peaceful even though he had to chew his pills today. ‘Look at that…’ John smiled. Their Sunday had been well judged to be spent in Bake Off marathons and relaxation.

When they’re all done and out, he’s confronted by a constantly doting Mrs Hudson. Ah, it’s her day. How could he have forgotten? He owes her for Harry’s visit last week as well. Rosie can’t be deprived of her time with the closest thing she has for a granny either, her little hands are already grabbing at Mrs Hudson’s blouse already.

“Alright, alright, little lady, there you go.” John kisses her forehead and transfers her to the older woman’s arms as she rolls her eyes at his affection all in good humour. “Have fun, will you?”

“We sure will, young man. Sure will.” She rushes downstairs with her wobbly gait and John rolls his eyes. He’s not that young. He hesitates mid-smile to remind her of the pink elephant they left behind as they have already reached the lowest step. Rosie will for sure seek for it later, but he can bring it down himself after breakfast.

A whole morning with Sherlock then. It’s the best he can do not the smirk and rub his palms together in delight. They’ve spent almost all weekend together and John still hasn’t had his fill. As always. He never will.

“Sher-”

There’s a crash from the kitchen and John’s breath is cut short.

One, two, three steps and he’s inside again. Eyes fixed on Sherlock’s slumped figure over the sink. A piece of paper in his hand, the other pulling back from the sink in a tremble. Red staining the tender part of his palm.

John doesn’t hesitate. Is not frozen, not for one moment. He’s beside Sherlock in mere seconds, holding him steady. The man is panting, in a state of panic, pupils wide and respiration rate almost non-existent. John holds the wrist of the injured palm tight. Sherlock makes an attempt to hide it away but it only lasts a second as John turns them face to face. There are shards all over the sink. A broken glass. Water. Sherlock was trying to calm himself when it happened? What happened?

“Hey, hey, it’s alright, I’ve got you.”

Sherlock starts to slump in his arms, knees weak. John quickly guides him to a chair.

“There, I’ve got you.”

He is bleeding a lot. John bites his lip. He has to stop that first. Then they can resolve the reason as well.

“I’ll be right back. Breathe.” John squeezes Sherlock’s shoulders and searches for their closest first aid kit supplies, a hidden batch on the high cupboards mainly to put to good use for kitchen related accidents; extra anti-burn supplies.

Sherlock’s lower lip is quivering when John gets back, fingers soft, calloused but tender over his wrist, guiding his palm open again.

“There, let me see, let me see it, please.”

The elegant thin violinist fingers open, a tad, and a tad more. John carefully shines the light of a tiny flashlight on the wound, holding it between his teeth. There is only one big piece of glass still in there as far as he can see, no other tiny ones shining around. Good. Sturdy glass of water. He removes the flashlight, searches Sherlock’s eyes.

“Sherlock? I’ll need to get that. Be still for me? Just… there you go, just let it rest on the table, can you do that for me?”

The movement is numb but steady. John breathes out softly, reassuring. Sherlock’s apple bobs at his throat as if it is too tight. It probably is.

John’s pinkies rest on the edges of Sherlock’s palm, steady as ever, keeping him steady too. He has the flashlight in his mouth again and a pair of medical tweezers in his good hand. ‘There we go, there we go, you can do this, love.’ He tries to communicate as he nears his target. The tweezers close tight around the shard’s edge and John pulls.

A muffled gasp and a twitch, Sherlock has taken his hand away by instinct, biting on his lip. John lets the flashlight fall.

“Got it.” He murmurs, then is careful to deposit the piece in the sink. He will clean that thoroughly later. The priorities have shifted now.

Sherlock’s gaze is unfocused. John’s fingers brush over his palm like flower petals once more. He extends it forward yet again. Trusting.

“Now, now, all done. All well.” John dabs a wet cloth over the blood, careful and around the wound only, not to agitate the cut. “Hooold your breath.” He demonstrates as he holds the disinfectant patiently, like he does with most of his younger patients.

When Sherlock does, truly as John expected, like a small boy waiting for his vaccine, there’s something shivering behind those blue orbs of light. John applies the liquid to the wound, listening in for the hissing breath but none comes. As they wait for it to work its magic on the open wound for some moments, John reaches with a tentative hand on the white-knuckled grip of Sherlock’s other hand over the crumbled piece of paper.

The mail.

Sherlock’s fingers surprisingly slide open ever so slightly. John tilts his head to read. The prominent logo of the NHS overpowers the top right corner. ‘…to inform you of your hospital general check-up on the 13th of March…’ John mouths the words with a frown. Hospital. Sherlock’s three months clean check-up. He glances up at the man, lowered eyes, unwilling to let the letter go, terrified. John bites the inside of his cheek.

“Mm… I think it’s done its work.” He redirects his attention and so Sherlock’s also. “Let’s put a dressing on, shall we?”

Sherlock looks at him. Lost. John smiles, effective hands working on preparing a proper dressing.

Think of something. Think. Think. Think!

“You know, I never quite understood why you were so obsessed over my middle name.”

Sherlock’s gaze clears for a moment. Genuine interest popping up. John guides his palm to stretch a bit more.

“How you went to all this trouble to find what it was and all.”

John presses the dressing on the wound, starting from the middle of Sherlock’s palm, down to the tender skin just below the thumb. A small wince. John keeps steady, eyes on his work.

“It was my father’s family tradition.”

He keeps it light-hearted, soft. No resentment or hate over this one. Not anymore. It’s connected with some relatively good memories now. Memories to do with… who else?

“To pass it on as a second name to all sons of the Watson’s.”

He almost chuckles, getting some bandage tape from the first aid kit and cutting it with his teeth.

“Hamish… I never quite told you myself.”

John applies the tape over the dressing, keeping it as tight as it should be to breath and rebuild the tissue and not bleed from pressure either.

“It seemed fitting to just… let you know now.” He shrugs, fingers engulfing the cared for palm. “I don’t mind it as much anymore. Thanks to you.”

Sherlock’s eyes flickered and he went loose. Looser than before, when he was ready to collapse, looser than ever. John watched with silent surprise as his shoulders sagged and his body reached and leaned and rested. Over John’s beating heart.

***

Sherlock is enveloped in John’s arms, his head resting over John’s clavicle, and there is no harm that can ever find him here. In this cocoon there is only John’s heartbeat, not a trace left of the rest of the world. John’s palms keep skimming over his back, rubbing; up and down, over his spine, his nape, and then downwards once more, as if he is putting Sherlock back together again. Piece by piece. Gently.

No needles here, no blank-faced doctors and blinding lights above his head, no straps, no pain. Pain.

Pain. Over and over, as if something dark and angry was living under his skin, and was clawing at it to get out, wriggling like a worm. Dangerous to others and himself, the reports read, mental state not properly assessed, in risk in risk in risk. His parents’ eyes dug into their faces, like bubbles on the surface of a muddy lake, their presence a marsh in the room, and he was sinking in it. Mycroft staring him down, a sneer across his delicate lips as he determined just how low his little brother was had sunk. Without anyone knowing why. Why would he do that? Why would he do that, why would he do such a thing, why would he be so selfish, inconsiderate, stupid? Why when he had a sound family, good grades, a dashing intellect, a future ahead of him, why would he throw his life away? Arrogant, they hissed. Junkie. Psychopath. And ever the straps, the pinning gazes, the cackles haunting his every step. People are stupid! It doesn’t matter what they think! It doesn’t. But people don’t like that he doesn’t care about what they think. When he is weak enough for his body to be in their hands, when there is no armour, no wall, no guardian, that’s when they will lash out. To make him care, that he’s not like them. That he never was.

“Shh… Shh… It’s alright”, John murmurs, never stopping the calming movements of his hands.

Sherlock shudders, and the grip tightens in response to steady him. His bandaged hand stings from the cuts, his head hurts, his chest heavy from breathing so hard. John is ever there, ever his soldier, his shield, his anchor.

Sherlock tried to keep things as they were between them, letting John’s small confessions to him be the only change. He did not want to press, overstep, do something Not Good, hope. But there is only so much even he can resist. John is sun-bright, and impossible to reach, and Sherlock longs for him. He is bound to John, dancing in circles around him, a little bee tied on a string. He needs him. A need he has been denying so much that it has consumed it, all of him, so that now, in this very moment, all that’s left of him is need. To hold. To be held. To touch.

John is his home.

And Sherlock has been starved of having a home to return for so long. 

This was what he used to fear. The vulnerability that came with needing John more than he needed air to breathe. The absolute surrender that this entailed; of logic, of matter-of-factness, of anything familiar, of his very transport in the hands of another, if he was but given the choice. But with John’s arms around him, it doesn’t seem that much of a thing to fear. He knows that when John will let go, reality will come crashing down; just how much he let his guard down, just how much he let his armour slip off, how he took more than he was worth. But now it feels like the right thing to do. The only thing to do.

John’s hands trail upwards again, and Sherlock can feel a palm hovering over his hair. “May I?”

He nods into John’s shirt, feels the other man’s shaky exhale. John’s fingers brush the shorter curls at the back of his neck. Without the resistance of gel, they glide easily through the ringlets, separating them, feeling them as they in turn coil back around John’s hand like vine on a trellis.

“It’s alright”, John hums. “It’s alright. I got you, now. It’s alright”

The relief is searing, like hot, hot milk, and it makes his eyes sting.

“It’s alright. Breathe for me. That’s it. You’re good. You’re safe. Shh…”

He had not expected John to be angry or harsh, because he knows this is not who John is. John would take care of him, would help him calm down -he had done so just a few days ago, when he had panicked about Honeybee’s fever. But John cradling him, softly, ever so softly…

“Breathe… Breathe, you git, I can hear you thinking”, John chuckles, and it’s white, and honey-gold.

Sherlock whines in petulant protest against John’s chest. ‘Not thinking’.

“It’s alright. Wanna talk?”

John’s grip does not relax, but Sherlock pulls back a little, just enough to be able to look upwards at him like a cat, his chin resting against John’s diaphragm. John cup his cheek, and it’s reluctant, as if he is afraid Sherlock will be spooked away.

“Is this… okay?”

Sherlock lets the breath he’s been holding out with a small whine. John’s eyes are swirling with emotion and colour both, turbulent sea depths. Sherlock thinks he could see the world in them, if he tried.

“For goodness’ sakes, when will you two decide?”

Both their heads snap to take in a very disgruntled Mrs. Hudson looking at them from the kitchen door, a hand on her hips, Honeybee's pink elephant danging from the other, her eyes wide with incredulity.

Sherlock sees John’s jaw muscles working out of the corner of his eye.

“I am too old for this”, Mrs. Hudson grumbles with a dismissive, frustrated wave of her hand, when neither he nor John manage to say a word. She turns on her heel to head back down the stairs. “Two grown-up men not being able to put two and two together. Outrageous!”, her voice reaches them a few moments later.

Sherlock counts her steps until she reaches 221A safely, and then carefully extricates himself from John’s grip and blinks up at him in confusion.

“Did we just get told off by our landlady?” John asks, without moving away.

“Um…” Yes. Twice.

John shakes his head, a small grin on his face. “Well. I guess we are… Rather… Obvious. I mean-”

“Causing people to talk already?”, Sherlock teases, before being able to rein himself in.

John pauses for a moment but then he smiles. “Mmm yeah. But she was first, I will give her credit for that” He clears his throat, and rolls his weight on his heels and forward again, hands clasped firmly behind his back.

She was first. Obvious. Does that mean John….

“So?”

“So?”, Sherlock echoes with a jolt.

“Could we talk about this?”

“This?”

“The… Um… Physical aspect. Of things”

“Oh” Sherlock leans back on his chair, and motions for John to sit too. The physical aspect of things. His heart kicks like a frustrated horse. What does that refer to exactly? What is things, and what does John want to change, what does he-

“Sherlock?”

“Sorry. Just. Um. Too vague. Could you… um… elaborate?”

“I am trying”, John says, and it’s honest. Painfully honest.

“Me too”, Sherlock appeases. “I am afraid I am worse than you in this.... department”

“It’s okay. We’ll figure it out together. Right?”

Sherlock’s chest warms up. Together. “Yes. I would want that”

John inhales deeply, and Sherlock can feel him mustering courage. It makes him nervous, too. “So… Was this… Was this alright? Me, hugging you? Would that be an okay thing to do, sometimes? And by sometimes, I mean, when you want it?”

“Do you?”, Sherlock murmurs.

“Want it? Yes. I do. Of course I do”, John replies, without missing a beat.

In that case… Sherlock nods a small, hesitant yes.

“And is… Is this… Okay?” John reaches to hold his hand. Sherlock at once parts his fingers, letting John’s slip between his and weave their hands together. John’s thumb brushes over his knuckles, tightening the grip. Sherlock sighs.

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes, John”

“Okay… How about…” With his free hand, John cups his face, just as lightly as before. “This okay?”

Sherlock takes in the press of the warm, calloused palm, its roughened skin. He wonders if John can feel it, every shiver, every moment Sherlock ached for this and thought he would never have it. “Yes” John’s thumb strokes over his stubble, scratching just that little bit.

“Is there… Anything else you’d like?”

Sherlock tries to look away, lest he reveals too much, but John’s gaze keeps him in place, taming the frightened side of him.

“When we sat together on the couch it was… Good”, he says, his voice wavering only a little.

“Yeah? Good. We can do it again if you want to. Is that okay?”

“Yes. Thank you”

“And you can… You can touch me too. If you want”, John adds, but it sounds like something he has been practising how to say.

“Oh”

“It’s okay. I mean it”

Oh”

John’s face expression becomes cloudy, as if he feels ashamed with his confession, but his words are sincere. “It’s okay, do whatever you feel comfortable with. Alright? I will respect your every choice, Sherlock. No matter what”

John thinks this was a no. He was expecting a no, Sherlock realises. He is not hesitating because he is unsure about what he himself wants, only. He is hesitating because he wants something from Sherlock which he is not sure Sherlock will want to give.

“John?”

He… He wants to give.

“Yeah?”

“Will you… Please tell me what you want? You won’t be pressuring me by expressing it, I am just not… Um… If you will be relying on me to discern some nonverbal, nonexplicit cue, I won’t, so… I do not want communication to go awry because of me”

John looks at him for a long moment, his lips open in a soft ‘o’, as if he were about to say something and is not quite sure yet if he will. “Yeah”, he breathes. “Yes, of course. I will be telling you when I want something, and what it is I want, and if you want it too, then… Is that okay?”

“Yes. That is… Much better”

He wants to try.

Chapter Text

He knew he was different. He is not sure how he knew, but he knew. Just as he knew that Mummy was different from all other Mummies, Dad from all other Dads, his brother from all other brothers -and all these other Mummies, Dads, and brothers, from everyone else. And at first, he was happy -yellow, yellow, sun-bright, warm. He did not think it was weird to play with worms, to collect dead insects, to study the corpse of a frog down by the muddy brown pond. It was just what he did -like Mycroft always carried a book, or other children always played hide and seek. Then, the children started telling him it was weird. Mummy and Dad told him to stop it. But the children did not stop playing hide and seek, Mycroft did not stop reading. So he ran after bees to their beehives, and dissected a dead grasshopper -green fading into brown like a leaf-, and brought a mouse home -grey and pink, fur and tail. And they did not like this at all. They did not like it that he could not change, even though they wouldn’t.

He’d try to show his latest discovery to the children, copper snakeskin or shiny silver pebble, red butterfly or chemistry book, and they’d run away, laughing and screaming, pretending to be scared, to be not curious but disgusted. He tried harder, for a while. He tried going to them without his samples, to join their games -hide and seek was not so bad, he’d want to play! They took him in if parents were near, but when the game began, no one would come find him, and by the time he walked out of his hiding spot to see what was the matter, they were already playing leapfrog, and he was all forgotten -he was blue, blue deep and dark. He tried to find things that they would like –a beautiful leaf or shiny beetle, a magpie’s feather or a tadpole- like girls exchanged bracelets and boys exchanged football cards -orange zest laughter and summer-green togetherness. They called him names. Weirdo, they chirped, weirdo, weirdo! But his collections had taken so much effort, his observations so much care. He did not want to let them go. And so they did not stop calling him weirdo.

He stopped trying to join them, stopped caring about their games. He left them alone, pretty much, focused on his own little kingdom, of wind and grass and underground treasure. They did not like it. They did not like that he preferred his kingdom over them. They began to cause him trouble, lurking wherever he went. They started a funny little game; the bravest would touch him, just a tap on his bony shoulder. And then, as they’d become contagious, they’d chase the others with their hand outstretched, to contaminate them as well. Even if they fought amongst themselves, for stupid little reasons, for liking different colours, for wearing different clothes, his different was not like that. It could not be bridged, or overlooked. But then, his different was all he had. He could not trim the edges and change his shape. He did not know who else to be.

It wasn’t just once. It wasn’t just them. Year after year, it happened again. Time after time, he was an island. A circle of empty seats around him in a lecture theatre, Yarders always standing well away from him, drug-numb street-rats like him giving him suspicious glances and huddling together with their backs to him. The knowledge lived under his skin, thickening his armour, advising his compass of the world. It did not hurt. It was ingrained in him, so deeply that he never wondered how else it could be. People did not want to be near him, to touch him -regardless of what he wanted. Just as what they thought was such and such regardless of who he was. And that was just the way of things. Something in him, on him, kept them away, be he in his best suit or the most haggard clothes. He woke revulsion in them, somehow, and he did not know how, or why.

***

“I’m home!”

Honeybee trills an enthusiastic string of syllables and teeters to her father’s legs, hugging them tight. Every day she grows more confident with her father is a victory, a step away from the dark months that have delayed her first words. Sherlock smiles and rushes to scoop her up in his arms and present her to John for her kiss.

“Oh, thank you”, John’s eyes crinkle at the edges and he presses his lips to little flower’s forehead. “Hello, sweetheart. I missed you” Honeybee reaches for him, and Sherlock waits until John’s hands are free to hold her securely before he lets her clutch onto John’s shirt.

Then he steps away to let them have their moment, stealing a glance when Honeybee giggles with a kiss on her cheek.

“Where are you going?”, John calls when Sherlock is halfway to the kitchen. “Come here” His voice all but spells ‘git’, the way it does when he is amused, and fond.

Sherlock returns to him, curious.

“I missed you too”, John smiles. “May I..?” He raises his free hand to Sherlock’s hair.

He does not mind. He never minded. Not when it was John. Instead of replying, he leans closer, offering his curls to be ruffled gently, combed and smoothed again. ‘I missed you too’ it says, and many other things. It speaks of being seen. Of not being stranded anymore. 

John’s lips part in concentration, a breathed whisper on his lips -it could be ‘there’, or ‘hey’. A content tranquillity in his deep-sea eyes. Because he’s home.

Home.

Most often, he is sure that he has misunderstood. Three years ago, he returned to England to see John move on without him. Eight months ago, John shut him out of his life. Two months ago, he called him a liar, hit him hard enough to break him in two. Seven years now his little problem has clang on, stubborn and illogical, with no resolution in sight -and no hope for one. And now John wants him. Them. How and when it happened, Sherlock does not know, and is afraid to ask. It was impossible one moment and his reality the next, delicate as a cobweb.

Perhaps he will never get used to this. His heart will always kick a little when John holds his hand, and smiles, and looks at him just so… Perhaps this is why he is leaning in now, his lips soft and lingering onto John’s bearded cheek. Perhaps this is the thrill of being alive.

“Welcome home”

***

With a dull reality TV show on mute in the background, they share in the peace of the aftermath of one of Honeybee’s rare tantrums. She did not want to go to bed early, tonight, too absorbed in playing with her cloth blocks and baby elephant in John’s lap. It is the first time that she has protested being separated from him so fiercely. Sherlock is sure it will not be the last.

He can’t get enough of them together, either. John’s soft voice and gentle encouragement, his steady way with her. He had watched from the couch, smiling, his eyes leisurely taking in John’s silver hair’s swoop as it turned into a fringe, the salt and pepper beard, the strong, mature face. He could look now, look and observe and no one told him not to. The way John’s eyes shone, waves sparkling with the setting sun, when he laughed was what mesmerised him the most, even after all these years.

“Want to?..”, John pats his thighs and indicates Sherlock’s legs with a small movement of his head -legs which are currently stretched across the coffee table. Despite how novel the freedom of making such requests is, despite the slight tremor in his voice, John’s words ring natural -as if there is no other way for them to sit on the couch together, as if this is the way things should be.

“It’s okay”, John adds, quickly. “Only if you-” Sherlock is happy to shush him by turning his body so that he can lie with his legs resting across John’s thighs; one and then the other.

John exhales slowly, as if he is preparing himself for a rather important task. He raises a hand to Sherlock’s knee, patting once before letting it stay there. Sherlock stretches, presses his toes into the armrest, and John shifts to accommodate him better. They settle.

It is nothing less than a wonder how Sherlock is allowed to have this, that he is included in what John wants. Perhaps he does not know what exactly John wishes for them to be, or for how long. And even though he is not about to assume, or hope, or ask for more than John is willing to give him, he is wanted to communicate now, he is asked to decide. He can try to understand John, his light in the darkness, his Ariadne’s thread.

“Can I ask you something?”, John says absentmindedly.

“Of course”

John sniffs his nose as he contemplates his next words. His thumb is brushing little ticklish circles over the fabric on Sherlock’s knee. Sherlock squirms a little, but does not tell him to stop.

“Your brother… I have not seen him around recently. Has he come when I-”

Sherlock’s nose scrunches up. “No. I haven’t seen Mycroft in more than a month”, he dismisses. His brother had done enough by clearing Baker Street of almost all his possessions and sneering at him on the drive home from the hospital after he was cleared from rehab. It’s an understatement to say he has not missed his presence.

John’s jaw muscles clench. “But the… mail, yesterday. I presume he..?”

“He must have arranged it, yes” He pushes the thought away before it can take hold of him again with icy fingers.

John hums his disapproval. “Molly Hooper has not passed by either since your birthday, has she?”

Sherlock remembers her text, spiky and angry. “She has her reasons”, he replies. They were never friends on a proper basis after all, and she was right; he abused her kindness, in no way can he amend the harm he’s done. He regrets most of all that this is keeping Honeybee away from her godmother. The two were close… He decides to text her later, that if she wishes to pass by to see Rosie, she only needs to text him when and he will make himself scarce.

“Greg?”, John persists. Sherlock is not sure why.

“He passed by last on the… twelfth of January, I believe. I assume he’s busy”

“Cases?”

Sherlock shrugs, his eyes back on the TV screen. “Dunno” Greg had not asked him to help on any, and even if he did, there was nothing now that Sherlock could possibly help with. He does not want to speak of that truth. Not now. He wants to remain useful in John’s eyes. For a little bit more…

“Oh”, John’s shakes his head, but his left hand curls in a loosened fist.

“Why?”, Sherlock frowns.

“It is just… Not fair, is all”, John exhales. Slowly.

“What isn’t?”

“I don’t want you to be alone” It is bittersweet and caring at the same time. “These people they… They are your friends, your family. I wish they’d at least call”

“John, I have Hudders, Rosie, you. I’m quite alright” Why would he expect them to call? Molly is angry, Mycroft is Mycroft, Greg is… He does not know if Greg is angry, but he can understand that, to him, he was just useful.

John shakes his head ruefully. Sherlock’s tilts to the side in confusion. Why is John so upset by the thought of him being alone?

“I want you to be happy. You and that big brain of yours”

‘Oh’

“Please don’t go blinking on me again. It’s scary”

“Sorry I don’t. Um. Always know when I am doing it”

“You and your big brain”, John repeats, chuckling. “I only meant that whatever you need… I will help with. If I can, however I can” He smiles reluctantly.

Sherlock nods, his stomach a helium balloon. “Thank you. I appreciate it”

John hums, and awkwardly, because of Sherlock’s legs on his lap, reaches under the sofa to retrieve a rather hefty book. “Would you want to have a look at this?”, he says, handing it to Sherlock.

Eager eyes take the cover in, the first few pages. It’s a chemistry reference book, and a updated edition. Expensive, new copy… Sherlock’s eyes shoot up to John’s face.

“We’re so empty it’s spooky. I really preferred the toes in the microwave to… this”, John indicates the barren bookshelves, desk, kitchen. Sherlock’s heart swells. “We can start with this for now, if you want it”, John adds, gesturing to the tome.

I want you back, is all Sherlock can hear. I want you to take up space again. I want you here.

Sherlock smiles, leafing through the book like an excited child. “And the toes?” 

“Okay, fine, I was exaggerating about that. But we can go to the shops and see what we find? An occupied genius is a happy genius. Right?”

***

Armchair-sofa-kitchen, repeat. Armchair-sofa-kitchen, repeat.

Honeybee’s eyes, azure jewels, followed him as his feet imprinted the dull route on the floor and carpet, over and over.

He has not been bored all this while. On the one hand, he was hardly at a state where he could think logically, let alone productively. His mind was swamp-dark, and without his Mind Palace, without a way for storing and retrieving information, there was no joy in the thought of using it anymore either. On the other hand, Honeybee’s care is a responsibility and privilege he is grateful to have. If he was made to choose between her and a crime scene, there is no doubt in his mind about which he’d pick. She is fascinating, and clever, and precious, and Sherlock has already lost too much of her life, too many moments, too many smiles. Then, whatever time was left, it was all devoted to John. There are no regrets about that, either.

But now, for the first time in a long while, his brain is well awake and restless, a little busy mouse on the field, little whiskers poised and trembling in the breeze, eyes and ears filled with stimuli and colour.

John’s book is resting on the kitchen table, its spine well-cracked. A hundred pages devoured only last night. When he passes by it, gentle fingers trace its cover as if in a silent kiss.

He has miserably ploughed through a library’s worth of neuroscience articles and journals since January in attempt to find a lead to the problem of his mind. But he does not remember the last time he did something he enjoyed; solved a puzzle, uncovered a mystery, traced a pattern. Or even just reading. Learning. Feeling the rusty gears in his head turn and turn, faster and faster.

He has tired of the problem being him, of the fruitless search for what is wrong with him, and of the fear of what the discovery of his uselessness will bring. Today his hands are prickling with the need to write, to measure, to type. Sherlock does not know how or why. He is not the same, he is not capable of grand feats anymore, is he? It would only be pitiful if he tried to deduce. Yet the thirst, the curiosity, are here again, pumping through his veins.

But what? How?

“Daaala?”, Honeybee asks, pink elephant clutched to her chest, its left ear being mouthed at.

“Yes, Rosie?”, Sherlock responds without missing a beat, now on his armchair-sofa part of the route.

Honeybee blows a raspberry.

“What is it?”, he asks gently.

She mumbles more -non-reduplicated!- syllables to her pink elephant.

Sherlock freezes on the spot, his eyes locking with the little girl’s.

‘Of course! Of course!’

Uh-oh.

“That’s it!”, he whispers, eyes wide like a child’s faced with a present.

What is it, you madman?

He ignores the so real, so tender voice in his head and rushes to kneel by his Honeybee, taking her tiny palms in his. That’s it! She is it! Her speech! Her fricatives, vowels, obstruents, approximants. The pattern to her syllables, their frequency, transitional probability!

Are you trying to freak Dr. Chloe out?

There’s nothing more exciting than to use every last ounce left of his mind to understand and measure and calculate the precise mechanics of Honeybee’s speech, see how it changes, how it improves -perhaps predict her first word?

Woah, slow down.

“Talk to me, Rosie. Tell me everything!”, he exclaims with a loud ‘boop’ kiss to her nose. She giggles and boops him back, and he is already up again, in a flurry of messy curls and blue dressing-gown, rummaging the drawers of the desk for something to write on -something must have survived Mycroft’s stupidity in this house. “Eureka”, he grins, pulling out a journal with John’s initials embossed -routine gift from the clinic for the holidays, most probably, to note down appointments and the such. Finding a pen is easier -Mrs. Hudson keeps some in the top kitchen drawer for her crossword puzzles.

“Now…” he begins, very, very seriously, as he sits on the carpet by the little flower. “Where shall we begin?”

***

When John returns home that day, his mood elevated from a good full day’s work, he finds Sherlock’s eyes glistening. His curls and dressing gown, ravens over ocean, fluttering with a constant wind singing to them. Energy surrounds him, spilling colours to the whole room. The whole flat. Home. Their home. It brings back memories.

Forgotten auras. Moments of pleasant companionship. Of constant working of the genius’ mind. Of John’s admiring exclamations and of walls filled with pins, newspapers and photographs. Of ciphers and locked room murders. Of excitement and danger. Stake-outs and lie-ins.

There is something missing, however. A hum. A tension. Of words unsaid and touches forbidden. Of feelings shut down and hearts broken.

“Ah…” John breathes in this newfound freedom. In their achieved openness that can only now grow.

“Smells good?”

Sherlock has heard him. His tall frame moving in a careful manner over the kitchen counter, a hand stirring vegetables on a pan with a wooden spatula. Lips tugged sideways in pleasurable concentration. John sniffs the air one more time, getting out of his coat -quite chilly out today-, and scratches his bearded jawline.

“Mmm, divine.” He contemplates.

Sweet peppers and onions, paprika and coriander, sizzling chicken and a lemon cut at a corner, the garlic gloves at another, thin tortillas on a plate. Sherlock cooking, preparing their dinner. In his own words The next best occupation after chemistry, John. Kitchen always the chosen laboratory for both activities. ‘Regrettably.’ Naturally.

“What are you up to?” John walks over with an easy smile, fingers brushing the small of Sherlock’s back.

“Nothing fancy.” Plush lips turned thin, returning a smile of their own. “How was work?” His eyes fleeting over John, featherlight.

“Great, I- Fajitas?” He interrupts himself. Sherlock’s secretly favourite take-aways, back in the day.

Still, they have been avoiding anything with strong spices for weeks.

“Mm…”

“Where did you get all the spices anyway?”

“Hudders.”

John inches closer, eying the labelled compartments with suspicion.

“Had to leave the chilli out. And some other things.” Sherlock’s teeth press over his lower lip in concentration, pouring some olive oil into the mix. John watches.

“Basic flavours won’t hurt.”

“No, yeah. Quite right.” John lets him have it, smirking. He can’t deny the man anything. Sherlock’s changed energy quite catching. “Have you made them before?”

“You didn’t think I’d be satisfied with enjoying them only as take-away forever, did you?”

John huffs, presses (brushes) his mouth on Sherlock’s shoulder, resembling the kiss he cannot reach to give on his cheek.

“Hand okay?”

Sherlock leaves the pan over the hob and offers his palm, the healing cut still wrapped immaculately with a fresh bandage. John’s fingertips float over it without touching and then in another impossible daring moment, he brings it to his lips. Soft palm being scratched faintly by bearded cheeks. He has let go a second after, eyes gauzing for a reaction. Sherlock grabs the pan again, face turning away. Is he blushing?

“John, you’re fussing.” He nudges him when he lingers too much.

John walks away with a chuckle, enjoying the vibrations on his throat that only Sherlock can cause. He’s not accustomed to it; to be giggling to himself like a schoolgirl as he climbs the stairs to check on his little girl. Their little flower, taking a midday nap. John’s hours don’t agree too much with hers but he means to amend that the soonest possible.

He watches over her, wondering. Pondering, rather. With relief.

He’s doing okay.

***

“Mmmmm…” John hums. The fajitas are delicious. “Extra’dinary”

He gets a tender eyeroll in response.

He tucked in his food right after stepping downstairs, the spice in the air making it unable to resist. Sherlock opposite him, eating one bite at a time; a cube of chicken, sauté pepper and onion, not even a whole spoonful, leaving the sauce dripping behind, not caring to scoop it up with the rest. He is enjoying every single one though. Like a child and its candy.

John moans again; loudly. Sherlock frowns, and then his eyes widen, only for a moment. He is quick to look away, recomposing himself almost -why and for what John does not know-, and ask “You like it that much?” with trepidation.

“Yes, actually.” John smirks.

It is Sherlock that does the lingering the next time. Hovering close to John’s shoulder when John is washing the dishes. 

“You could-”

John silences him. A finger over surprised lips. It lasts less than a second.

“Thank you for dinner.” John whispers into a smug, besotted little grin, eyelids a little droopy from a full-belly’s warmth spreading over him.

Blue eyes blink at the speed of a hummingbird’s wings.

“It wasn’t-”

“Shush. It was wonderful.”

“But, John-”

“I haven’t greeted you properly today, have I?” John leans against the counter, a hand scratching his nape. Easy, old boy. “May I?”

A small nod. Yes, it says. Yes, yes. Again. Touch me.

John smiles as his fingers reach and brush through lush curls, from Sherlock’s temple to the back of his ear, settling a stray tuft back in place, brushing over Sherlock’s scalp. Over a tender patch of skin; bare. A scar. Causing an imperceptible shiver to rush down Sherlock’s spine.

White.

White floors. White light. Light blue. Cold.

He’s frozen on the spot.

Fingers fisting in oily curls.

His insides coil into knots.

Tufts of yanked, torn hair tangled with blooded knuckles.

His hand falls.

A pool of blood. A fallen man, shaking, lost, pained blue eyes shocked to behold it. A pool of his own blood.

He takes a step back. ‘Retreat’. His mind is screaming. ‘Run’.

Let him do what he wants. He’s entitled.

“John?” Sherlock’s eyes are worried. Huge, innocent orbs. Lost, just as lost as they were then.

John swallows. Swallows ice. Cracked edges, sharp glass, moving down his throat. A disease. A virus. Caging him. Expanding, crackling sudden frost. Bars. Jail bars around his lungs. His heart.

Thud.

Frozen treacherous instrument. Feeding him oxygen. Whatever for? His breaths stutter and stop. A tidal wave of pain. Attacking from the inside. Making him lurch.

Thud thud.

Pulsing through his temples. Like rage. Like that day. Like fists and kicks and bloodied curls. A vicious animal. Growing in darkness. Feeding on fear. Scratching claws and teeth below his iced surface. Trapped underwater in a frozen lake. Freezing and burning itself raw. Ugly.

It’s what he did. It’s what he’s done. It’s him.

“How…” His voice but a hoarse whisper, trapped. “How can you let me? How can you let me touch you?”

He spits the word in disgust. For himself. For being what he is and still wanting to fool the man in front of him yet another time.

How can he ask? Demand? To hold, to nurture, to love… How can he kiss this man, touch him, without poisoning him, without his hands not being the hands that broke his body, without his lips not being the lips that snarled abuse?

And how could Sherlock ever have forgiven him such a thing? How, when it’s inevitable, when it’s in his blood, in his brain, in his bones?

‘Monster’

We are no longer in need of your assistance, Dr Watson.

‘Useless’

He was right. He was right. Staying away was right. It will happen again. He will only do it again. How can Sherlock not see? He has to make him see. He has to.

“John.” Sherlock knows now. He knows what this is about and is ready to reassure. John can read him.

“No. No, how- how can you trust me?”

Let him do what he wants.

Someone should yank his own hair out of his skull-

Snap him out of it.

Hit him.

‘Monster’.

“I will just hurt you all over again.” An icy breath.

“John, no.” Sherlock tries to reach him, takes a step closer. But John is sinking. Sinking. Nothing can reach him.

“Sherlock.” His tone is steel. “I beat you up.”

‘Stay away. Hate me’.

“I know.”

His calmness only drives John further.

“How do you know I won’t do it again?” John snaps. The ice in him, of him, creaking. Solidifying.

“You won’t.”

“You’d let me”

“What?”

“I will turn on you and you’ll let me.” Slow. “Again.” He snarls.

Sherlock shakes his head, not comprehending. Refusing. Denying. In vain. “No. You will not do it and I won’t let you. John. Listen to me.” Sherlock reaches a careful hand.

“No” His face turned away, breaths panting. A wild animal. Constricted in his corner. Stepping away.

Sherlock’s hand falls. A small tremble to it.

“Why can’t you just hate me?”

“J-ohn.” Breath choked. Exhaled. Composure struggling to be maintained “You were at your most extreme limits. Just as I was. You won’t do it again. You are not that kind of man.”

If he’s trusted, if he’s allowed, his true self will only come to the surface once more. Sooner or later. Bursting through the ice. Murderous.

“John. Please”

“No. No. We can’t” Final. Definite. It’s impossible. It’s wrong.

Sherlock does not try again. John is panting. Standing over ruins, the ruins he created, the ruins he deserves. And then he looks up.

Sherlock’s lower lip is trembling. His face, it’s an expression he has not seen before. It’s an old man facing betrayal for the umpteenth time, it’s a child feeling pain for the first. It’s the glance John did not see when he went to that hospital to say goodbye. It’s the knowledge of that glance that hurts the most; of a soul that knows, just knows that it will ever get abandoned.

“I let you touch me because I want you to touch me”, Sherlock murmurs wetly. “I won’t let you do it again. You won’t do it again”

John is abandoning him. Leaving him. All over again. Just when they’d gotten so close. Reached so far.

The ice cracks. A veil being lifted. He can breathe, where he was underwater all this time.

“God, Sherlock”, he looks down, heavy with shame, an ocean of pain inside him. He feels cool fingers brush his trembling left hand, and holds back tight. The only raft to keep him from drowning. And then he’s numb. Defeated.

“I…” He sniffs, eyes glued to the floor. His voice thick with tears, as the breath of a wave. “But I am hurting you. I hurt you. Right now…” Now surely… Now is the time Sherlock will see reason… It’s obvious. Hurting him; that’s all he can ever do.

There’s gentle pressure against him. Soft tufts brushing against his temple. “I forgive you…” Sherlock whispers, lips against John’s ear. Leans into him. Just as surrendered, and weathered as John is. Taking refuge. Trusting. Melting the last of the ice away, into spring.

Together. Survivors among the ruins.  

He is not denying John’s actions. He’s acknowledging them. Knowing them to be true. Yes, Sherlock was hurt. He was hurt then -physically- and now -emotionally- by John’s fists then and by John’s words now. There was a choice to make. Both times. And Sherlock has made it. Offering forgiveness. For now. John might believe he does not deserve it, not even once, let alone twice, but it’s Sherlock’s choice…

“Why?” He whispers, arms shaky going to rest over Sherlock’s back.

“Because you are you.”

An answering pair of arms coils around him.

You. It’s always you. John Watson, you keep me right.

Shivers run down John’s spine and he holds Sherlock tighter, closer. He would do anything… anything at all, to maybe one day truly deserve this. To keep his promise. His own vow…

***

“Jooohn, she threw it away again.” A frustrated whine from the living room.

John slides the glass kitchen doors open, hands on hips, a fond look in his eyes surveying the situation. Rosie has decided to not particularly care for her penguin plushie today. Mrs Hudson washed it yesterday, maybe it has to do with the smell. Yes, that should be it. There is something about it that renders it good throwing material instead of cuddling. Sherlock finds it incredibly upsetting.

“John!” The genius had exclaimed the moment John was inside from his early morning shift.

“Sherlock?”

The man took him by the wrist and dragged him along to where Rosie sat over Sherlock’s armchair on her baby chair.

“Sherlock? Wait, hang on a minute, I-”

“Look!” Sherlock panted and pointed at Rosie’s penguin on the floor.

“Um…”

“Watch!” Sherlock got the plushie back into Rosie’s lap.

She was already giggling with grabby hands towards her father but one look at the penguin and her whole face lit up. She grabbed it by one little wing and threw it over her plastic table. John smiled, giving Sherlock a nervous shrug.

“This has never happened before!” The man huffed, a desperate whine surfacing in his tone, hands thrown in the air; exasperated. “It’s been happening all day!”

According to Sherlock, it had been the fifth consecutive time in an interval of little less than an hour -apparently that’s what ‘all day’ means-, with breaks in between, distractions and sweettalk and an overall good mood. Now, it’s the eighth, and Sherlock has been growing even more concerned by the minute, this time not even waiting a while before offering Rosie the penguin again and of course ending up disappointed.

Rosie’s rolling giggles make their appearance every time, of course. It’s her new small game, seeing Sherlock huff and puff and bend to pick the little penguin up again. She will probably have the little plushie plastered to her side by bedtime, but John deems it wise not to point out to Mr Stubborn Genius that he’s being played at.

Sherlock raises the plushie in front of his face, wiggling its small wings. Cautious, hesitant, shy even. Rosie is thoroughly enjoying herself. She grabs it to her chest, squeezes it tight, makes Sherlock gasp with hope and throws it away again. Sherlock freezes, his chin wrinkling as he tries to calm himself down from his devastated state. Alarm bells go off in John’s mind. Time to troubleshoot. His hyperventilating detective is malfunctioning and in much need of help.

“Alright, you two.” John says picking up the plushie from the floor.

“Awaweee” Rosie kicks her little excited feet.

He can see it in her eyes that she wants to throw it again but one look at Sherlock kneeling on the carpet and John knows it’s not a good idea.

“We need to give Sherlock a break, alright little darling?” He whispers over her head, hiding the plushie behind his back and giving her a serenade of noisy kisses.

She’s content to pick up interest in her other toys scattered around her little table in no time, starting to draw over the plastic with some Crayola markers.

“Good girl.” John ruffles her curls.

She pushes his hand away with a mildly annoyed frown, so much like his, that John’s heart flops.

“Bah.”

“Come on.” John walks to Sherlock’s side, leaning close, hand over his shoulder. “Let it be for now, hm?”

Sherlock stands up with reluctance, taking the penguin from John’s hand and holding it close to his chest. His face is a mask, impassive and pale, hiding so much underneath. It’s not as steady as it would be years ago. John can already see the cracks on the surface.

He guides Sherlock to sit down, palm rubbing small circles over his back. The man huffs. Yet again.

“Hey. She likes you fetching it for her. She doesn’t mean any harm.”

“But- but she…” A sigh. Sherlock crosses his arms over his chest and around the plushie in the process. “She loved it yesterday…”

“She always loves it, Sherlock.”

“Then why…” The words dissipate to silence. Sherlock’s gaze far away.

“Come on now…” John pulls him to rest on his shoulder, wrapping an arm around him carefully. “She’ll want it back in no time, you’ll see. There there…”

The disappointed hum is just so innocent and pure that John can’t stop a soft chuckle from escaping. Sherlock has overworked his mind with anxiety about such simple matters before. John, knowing him, lets him rest quietly as they watch Rosie play across the room. He can’t think, for the life of him, why would Sherlock react in such a strong way about the small penguin. It is usually far above him to worry about how someone or something should be appreciated and loved, or that’s just what John is used to expecting. Because now, Sherlock’s delicate fingers are clutching the little plushie tight as if holding on to life itself.

“Boys! You’ve got a visitor!” Mrs Hudson’s cheery voice breaks John’s thoughts apart.

Sherlock groans, turning to curl the other way, his back stuck to John’s side. John lets him. He still hasn’t gotten out of his head; penguin now hidden under a sofa cushion, John imagines.

There’s shuffling downstairs as doors open and close and there’s Mrs Hudson’s usual tray of tea rattling and a gritty voice with a much familiar accent murmuring, he’ll get it upstairs himself.

“Oh, there’s a happy face I hoped to see!” Greg Lestrade says, reaching the top of the stairs, Rosie visible to him by the propped open door.

Sherlock strains his neck to look over his shoulder, lips pursed insistently closed. John would think he’d be excited but instead there’s a tiny wrinkle between his light eyebrows.

“Already buttering her up, are we?” John grins, peaking with his head from the opening before letting Greg in.

“John! Well, suppose it’s nice to see you too.” Greg says but his eyes crinkle, tentative surprise at the welcoming tease.

John inclines his head and takes the tea from his friend’s hands to leave it on the coffee table. He’s glad his shift changed today, otherwise he’d have missed this, and although he had lost his footing in his friendship with Greg for quite some time now, he hopes to make up for it.

“Hello you.” Greg sing-songs a little towards Sherlock, shuffling on the sofa. “Finding your good old self, I see.”

Sherlock just gathers his dressing gown tighter around him as a reply. Greg shoots a worried glance to John.

“Give him some time.” John speaks softly.

“Not in need of a case so soon, surely?”

Sherlock’s shoulders tense. John sees the wrinkly line over his eyes deepening.

“Nno.” He says, measuring his words, eyes still on Sherlock, calculating. “I think… he’ll contact you when he needs to, Greg.”

“Al’ight, ‘cause this is a social call, you know.” Greg nods and lightens the air again with a wink, going to kneel in front of Rosie’s table, face smoothing out to a fatherly one at once.

John follows him, letting Sherlock have some time to himself.

Rosie has fallen quiet, eyes wide, fixed on Greg. All bundled up restrained curiosity. She has been doing so much better, but she needs some prompting with people she’s not daily accustomed to. He presses a palm at her back, brushing circles. Just like with Sherlock. John smiles privately, glancing back to his grumpy detective.

“It’s alright, little flower. Greg is a friend, remember? He puts criminals in jail, just like Sherlock, mm?”

“Look at you. You’re more beautiful than I remembered, little miss.”

“Booba?” A tiny little daring whisper. A tiny little palm extended, tiny little finger poking at Lestrade’s cheek and withdrawing with a whine, looking up at John with clouded eyes.

“Tsk tsk” John rebukes. “The Detective Inspector came to see us unshaved? Unacceptable.”

“Oi! Wanna look at the mirror for a sec?”

John laughs.

“Mine doesn’t prickle.”

Greg manages to get a small finger(hand)shake in the end, Rosie encouraged by her father and finding Greg’s facial expressions hilarious. John scratches his small beard while serving tea, Sherlock watching with the corner of his eye, mellowed out now with John beside him again. John’s fingers trailing over his arm from time to time.

“Seriously, you won’t trim that? Either of you?”

“Mm, we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?” John steals a glance at Sherlock, conspiratorial.

‘Captain, huh?’ Hardly. You look terrible. ‘Really?’ … ‘Let me guess. Is this it?’ Mmmaybe. ‘Pity. Was about to say yours looks good on you.’ … ‘Flatters your cheekbones.’

Greg’s eyes narrow, gaze going from John to Sherlock and back.

“Better?” John wants to reach and brush Sherlock’s hair, he knows it calms him, but instead he pats and then holds his knee. Sherlock settles sitting properly with a small sigh of resignation.

“Yes.” It’s only slightly cutting.

“Whatever happened, anyway?” Greg inquires.

“Rosie’s been-”

Well-wishes and laughter, smiles and hope, hope. Hope. Plushies and games and onesies. Tiny socks and shoes, a quiet dark figure at the corridor, against a wall.

“Sherlock? Won’t you join us?”

The light from a phone screen illuminating sharp cheekbones, coat still on, scarf as well. A twinge of disappointment, deep inside.

“We, uh… We’ll be opening the presents soon…”

“You alright, mate?”

“John?”

John shakes himself and sits back with mouth wide open.

“Oh god.” He turns to Sherlock, seeking answers. “It was you.”

No one commented. No one expected. Stifled expectations as the last boxes were being unwrapped.

People toasting. Biding their goodbyes. A lonely figure, eyes lowered.

All hope gone. Poof. Poof, poof.

An empty house. A baby sniffling upstairs. An empty basket. He approached, made to clear it of the room.

There it was. Made of white and black and a pinch of yellow. A penguin plushie. No card. No wrapping. Just at the bottom.

Hope, hope, hope.

Sherlock is frowning.

“Greg? Remember that time we held a baby-shower for Rosie and I was asking around about who brought-”

“That damned penguin?” Greg chuckles. “’Course I remember, you were crazy about it, a proper little married life mystery- Hang on, what does that have to do with…”

Sherlock swallows. Greg’s gaze at the little plushie beside him on the cushions.

John is looking at him. Two wide terrified oceans.

‘You mad genius! It’s always you, isn’t it?’

Everything’s about Sherlock.

“It is your gift.”

“So what if it was?”

John rolls his eyes. ‘Come here, you git.’ He pulls him in, pulls him close, presses a kiss over the curly head, totally incredulous by the turn of events, squeezing tentatively until Sherlock grumbles and pulls away free.

“Pah…” soft as a cat’s breath. His gaze on John deadly.

He gets up and goes to spend his time better with the little flower that is currently bored of her markers, face pressed on the table, gurgling aimlessly. He’s accepting the little penguin’s fate for now at least, taking John’s advice, letting go.

Greg quirks an eyebrow but John is just trying to hide his grin under a palm. There is a shifting balance between them for days. Changing from confident to hesitant, easy to awkward, painful to happiest. He hopes this is a point for the positive team.

A cling of a teacup on the table.

“John. A word?”

Sherlock’s attention snaps to them again.

“Just for a moment!” Greg huffs, voice like gravel, stretching to a high pitch with exasperation.

“Just. One.”

John is already up, shaking his head, enjoying the protectiveness deep down. Oh, his overgrown child genius will never get old.

At the hall, one can hear the ventilator bursting little gusts of air into the building. Greg stands firm, eyeing John up and down, carefree composure gone. Discarded for a much more serious, calculating stance. John fidgets, one leg to another and back again. Weight distribution. Alleviates tension. After all, one of the last conversations he has had with this Greg Lestrade, was at an interrogation room. Reporting his own wrongdoings as something Sherlock Holmes deserved. It was Greg’s job to not interfere with his statement. He could not have possibly been there as a friend. He let John have it. All the madness. The miserable ‘shot Magnussen in the face’ excuse. So much pain… all caused by him. John Watson. The man Sherlock Holmes tried to save by that single firing shot. And John had gone and said… He draws back, disgusted with himself.

“Look.” Greg starts, taking a breath, hands at his waist, thumbs under his beltloops. “I just had to say… if you are doing – what I think you’re doing.” A meaningful glance cast his way.

John swallows.  

“I’m glad for you.”

A pause. John is admittedly taken aback.

“I’m glad, but-” Ah, here it goes. “I want to make sure-”

“Lestrade!”

John startles.

“You’ve had enough of your moment.” Sherlock whines.

“I have not finished.” Greg shouts to the door.

“John has a mind of his own.”

“I’m right here you know.” An unsuccessful attempt to bring this fact to their knowledge.

“He doesn’t need to be cautioned by you. He knows me!”

John’s mind -that is ultimately his own, but apparently not- stops. He knows me. He knows me. He knows me.

It’s on repeat. Indefinitely.

“Sherlock, you will let me finish this, ‘cause I’m coming for you next, alright?!”

It strikes right to the point. Stunned silence. Or is that a small grumble? John sighs.

“Sherlock has always been… like a little brother to me.”

Bit much.

“I know he is an adult and he has full responsibility for his choices.”

John nods with military precision.

“I’ve got to ask, are you sure this is going to work?” He brushes a hand over his head at John’s shell-shocked expression.

This was worse than just a warning or a pep-talk.

“I mean, just last December…”

“Won’t happen again.” John deadpans. He’s aching from the inside. If it were to happen again, he would find a way to stop it once and for all. No matter what.

Greg’s eyes scan him doubtfully. He’s right to do so. Both of them have slipped too many times already. Neither of them is perfect. Things went wrong at the most unexpected of turns. Always. When they thought everything was under control. John could offer no guarantees whatsoever.

“Look, I…” John lowered his gaze to his feet, fingers scratching at his nape compulsively. “The past year hasn’t been easy for either of us. We just… We decided to at least try. We are trying. We work better together than apart…”

Silence followed and prickles went up John’s spine, icy fingers, preparing him for defence.

“John, I care about both of you…”

John’s shoulders pull back straight, at attention.

“I don’t want to see either of you getting hurt again.”

“Understood.”

“Your word?” Greg pushes, uncertain.

“You have it.”

A breath, eyes burning a little, looking up, defensive but meaning it. Every part of it.

“You have my word.”

“Lestrade!”

A sigh.

“Yes?”

A figure, tall and imposing, glaring at them from the doorframe.

“Give me my Watson back.”

Butterflies flutter in John’s stomach. Lips tugged into an amused little smile. One that Sherlock returns, wholeheartedly.

***

His heart raced the wind. His chest cavity small. Too small for such a love. Such an emotion. It pulsed through him and out. Around him. Leaking into the air. Molecules contaminated with a love he could never go back from. It was meant to be forever. It was meant to have all of him. All-consuming and overpowering.

Never had he been fortunate enough to feel such a novel emotion of tranquillity. Peace that was broken constantly by the rumble of waves against rocks. An unmoving lake turning to a monsoon, waves as high as the need for touch after enduring starvation of months, years, lifetimes. A colourful sunset splattered with tones of black shadows as the oily waters shiver into millions and millions of rippling fabric. Of miles and miles of skin to walk upon and explore. Of wishes thrown over a bridge and down to the river’s abyssal whirlpools. Destined to be taken away despite their secure weight and thrown into the ocean by the force of it all. The force of that love.

The love that acknowledges, hungry to learn more. The love that doesn’t ignore the hard times, doesn’t put away the shouting matches, doesn’t slither viciously past difficulties only to encounter them as a mountain and flee. It’s knowledge of one’s self. Understanding. Extending to one another, engulfing all of the quirks and triggers. Knowledge of each other. Ever-changing, always new, ever-growing as two people grow together or apart and together again. Made of clashes and truces, circling.

His back against a wall. Tapestry thin and waned. Resting. He needs only ask. Little words whispered. He wishes to not ask. He wants to plea. Because it is fitting. For a man of darkly auburn curls. For a man in command of the ocean that pushes him forward. His own man. Stroppy and pouty as well as steady and soft. Spring’s wind. Changeable.

“Sherlock?”

He’s a step away from his door. One more step and he’d be gone again. Like yesterday. And the day before. One more step and the door will close.

“Mm?” Head tilted, listening.

It won’t be finite. There will be a tomorrow. The possibility and the reality of it. But that one step. That one door when closed… Would spike the longing in John’s gut. The desperate need he has started to witness and feel. The pull that cannot remain unanswered. Only if the man directed towards wishes it to be.

“May I…” He’s the one taking the step closer. The one asking for permission. Any or none. It will do. He needs only ask. To know his footing. To regain it. Prevent his knees from growing weak. “May I kiss you?”

There’s a stunned little silence. The calm before a storm. A deep breath, leaving Sherlock’s parted lips. John is about to turn around. Turn around and leave. Run upstairs and hide in his pillow. Because this isn’t a yes. It can’t be. It’s near impossible to be. Yet, Sherlock turns his way again, tall and proud and a little unsure of himself but there, willing.

“Yes.”

It is an exhale. A single shallow breath that John grabs. He grabs and holds on. To opportunity, to the gracious offering of his one current, urgent desire. He holds on and wants to spill his gratitude all around it. Banishing the doubts that it was too soon. Chaining up the precious words… They work better together.

The next step is taken by both. Bringing to the surface a chest to chest confrontation. A collision. Unplanned, of sorts. Exquisite, however remains. And then there is a tipping head and ten softly pushing up toes of sock-clad feet. A small bump of noses, a sharp angled and a rounded, and then… lips. Petals of roses. Creasing against each other. Locking tiny slits of skin against skin. Not too dry, not too wet. Just a peck. Alright, a little more than that. A slide, a droplet. A word.

And the ripples it creates.

***

Fingers on lips. Back against the closed door. Chest fluttering like a bird’s.

‘He kissed me’

On the lips. A second time. Mouth murmuring goodnight, moonlight-soft against his.

He wants more. He wants to shower him in eternity with kisses, as many as the ocean’s drops. But no. Each kiss will be singular. Savoured. Painfully savoured. Ephemera, wings fickle under the sun, a kaleidoscope of longing.

Angelo’s, the pool, New Year’s Eve, the hotel room, before the fall, at the Landmark, in the fire, by the bomb, at the wedding, at the drug-den, at Appledore, in the airplane, at Rosie’s birth, when he was high, when he was not, when he was lonely, happy, frightened, ecstatic, cold… His life told in kisses he’s never given nor received, a patchwork of moments missed and broken.

He falls in bed, faces the ceiling, listens to London breathing in the dark.

‘He kissed me’

Taste of tea, scratch of stubble. Wool and baby powder, and silver hair, deep-sea eyes and that easy smile, his, all his, as he kissed him.

If he could hide that feeling away, nestle it under his breastbone, wrap it in a cocoon away from the world, away from tomorrow. If he could be open, open, cry out to the night sky of twinkling lights that hardly sleeps.

He writes it, types every letter of the message, slowly, one by one, so that it’s not only him who knows, so that he’ll know he is not dreaming.

He kissed me -SH