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In the Still of the Night

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In the Still of the Night

 

It initially began as concern, though Sherlock wondered even then if the excuse weren’t a little thin.

Be easier to keep an eye on you, John had said. Make sure you’re… you know. Sherlock had shaken his head. “I’m clean, John.” And John had fumbled a little more, said that he was just worried, given the circumstances, and trailed off again. Sherlock hadn’t filled them in, hadn’t volunteered the missing wording that perhaps finding out about the tragic murder of his childhood friend, that it was done at the hand of his own sister, that he’d been so traumatised by it to have induced memory damage, might be triggering enough to cause him to relapse. John never had quite understood that it had been deliberately done. The slide, that is. He’d been in control of it. Mostly.

Something of a lie, he knows, but then, truth is always somewhat relative. Truth, then: he’d induced the slide deliberately. Control, though? No. Not really. Sherlock amends the thought: not at all. It was suicidal, enough so that he could see it even when he was extremely high, could recognise someone else’s suicidal tendencies in his own. Perhaps having some company wouldn’t be a bad idea after all.

“You’re welcome at the flat anytime you like, of course,” he’d told John, as carefully polite as he might have been to a complete stranger, then added, “I’ll be fine, you know. I am fine. But you’re more than welcome.” He hadn’t specified to visit or to come back or to live here again, just left the wording vague enough for John to interpret as he liked.

And so, John had: visited, at first. His visits were daily almost from the beginning. Sometimes he brought Rosie; more often he left her with Mrs Whitney or Molly or Mrs Hudson or Harry and her current girlfriend. Or anyone else he could find. Sherlock almost began to wonder at times whether the visits were actually intended for his own care for or John’s. He would speak fondly of Rosie when asked, but nonetheless seemed relieved to have the break, invariably changing the subject back to cases, to getting out and doing something. Next, his possessions began to slowly migrate from the flat he’d shared with Mary in Chadwell Heath into the bathroom, the kitchen, the sitting room. As they took more involved cases, John began sleeping over on occasion, first on the sofa, then shifting upstairs to his old bedroom. Sherlock said nothing, neither challenging it nor remarking upon it in any way. It was what he privately wanted – had wanted very much since before his return to London. He’d more or less successfully shut off that desire, to have their old life back – to have John back in the same way as before in general – and shut down any attempt on John’s part to discuss it, whether to justify his then-current living situation with Mary or to become verbally nostalgic about the past. No point, really, so why bother? John’s plans to marry Mary would not change, so why dwell on it?

It was Mrs Hudson who said it first, with all the tact of a bull in the proverbial china shop, popping in to deposit the post on the kitchen table. “There’s one here for you, John,” she said, with a hoot of laughter. “Seems to me you’d best just change your mailing address and be done with it!”

Sherlock had grimaced inwardly, unable to meet John’s eyes, but risked a glance in his general direction in the chair opposite.

John, meanwhile, shifted in his chair and cleared his throat rather artificially. “Yes, well – I do actually still live in – ”

“Some godforsaken bit of London out in the sticks,” Mrs Hudson interrupted, dismissing this with a contemptuous wave of one thin hand. “But you spend ninety-eight percent of your time here, anyway – why not just move back in and be done with it?”

Sherlock closed his eyes. Leave it to Mrs Hudson to just break it all open, smashing this delicate, unspoken understanding with her well-intentioned but clumsy gestures. John had said something awkward and inconclusive, but thankfully Mrs Hudson’s phone beeped with a text then, distracting her thoroughly and she went downstairs to call the person back. A silence had settled over the sitting room in her wake. Sherlock waited, pretending to read the Times until John finally inhaled to say something, then cut him off. “She’s right, you know,” he said quietly, with as little inflection as possible. “You do spend all of your time here.”

John winced, just perceptibly. “I’m sorry, Sh – I – ”

Sherlock shook out the pages of the newspaper and folded it back over itself as he turned the page, looking across the way at John. “You might as well,” he said, not inflecting it with either a shrug (too dismissive) or too much enthusiasm (could scare John off). “You know your room is always there. Bring Rosie, if you like. Save you all that time going back out to the suburbs to collect her all the time. Move her around and that.”

John’s expression was apprehensive, the wince still lingering around his eyes. “I should really find a more stable arrangement for her…” He was evading the subject at hand, but Sherlock didn’t call him on it.

Instead, he folded the newspaper and laid it on the table beside his chair. “Well, think it over,” he said neutrally, uncrossed his legs, and got up. “I’ll put the kettle on. Indian for supper, do you think? Varma’s has their buffet tonight.”

“Oh God, yes,” John said in obvious relief, possibly at the change in subject. Though he’s always been quite fond of Indian food, particularly Varma’s, the little hole-in-the-wall place around the corner that they’ve been frequenting for years.

Sherlock understood the hesitation quite well: John married Mary largely because (he assumes) of the way he felt about her, but part of it was also defiance – defiance aimed at him. John was angry with him, and went through with the proposal anyone who knew him even moderately well could have recognised was uncertain in its resolve, done with a certain stoicism rather than the eager anticipation of a typical lover in the flush of his ardour. His return had spurred John on, solidified his wavering resolve. He’d done it at least partly out of spite, to punish Sherlock for not having told him he was alive. For having let him grieve. Sherlock understood this quite clearly and silently accepted the blame, and the resulting consequences. He could have tried explaining, but he knew that John’s hurt frequently manifests itself in stubbornness, and once John was speaking to him again, he didn’t care to test how far his tolerance for Sherlock would go. And so he didn’t push John to come back, to move in properly. He simply waited, carefully not adding any pressure, for John to finally give in to what he wanted all along.

It only took forty-eight hours after Mrs Hudson’s instigation. It was mid-afternoon and they were on a stake-out, waiting in a café across the street from the Notting Hill flat they were waiting for their suspect to emerge from following his illicit tryst with his client’s half-sister. John fiddled with his spoon and said, squinting at the window, “The thing is, with a kid around… it would hardly be what you’re used to.”

It took Sherlock a moment to register the change in subject. “What?” He glanced at John, but John was still pretending to study the building opposite.

He cleared his throat. “With Rosie, I mean. If we were to… babies are noisy. Inconvenient. You can’t just chuck them out a window when they’re interrupting your concentration or sleep or whatever. You’d be getting all that, too, not just…” He stopped and cleared his throat again. “I’m just saying.”

Sherlock arranged his thoughts first, careful to leave his face studiously monotone in expression. “Not an issue.” He felt John look at him, or more likely caught it peripherally, but kept his eyes on the window. “As I said: you’re both welcome to come home anytime you like. If we get this wrapped up today, you might as well come tonight. I’m sure my brother has minions to spare that he could loan us. It should hardly take much time.” He nodded at the building across the street then. “There he is. Let’s go!”

John had been spared the need to even respond, and two hours later when the case had wrapped, Sherlock simply texted Mycroft and directed him to send movers to Chadwell Heath, then raised his arm for a taxi. “Where are we going?” John asked.

“To your flat. We might as well effect the move before you collect Rosie from the Huntingtons’. Unless they’re keeping her overnight.” He typed a response to his brother as he spoke and kept his tone brisk.

“They are…” John reached for the door handle of the taxi that had just slid to a stop in front of them and got in, then looked at Sherlock very directly. “You’re sure about this?”

“Perfectly sure,” Sherlock replied, in that same tone of cultivated neutrality, then manufactured one of his slightly insincere smiles usually reserved for clients. “It will be good to have you home again.”

John smiled back then, but something in his eyes remained slightly uncertain. Possibility the artificiality of Sherlock’s smile, but if there is anything that Sherlock dreads, it’s the opportunity for any genuine sentiment to be given opportunity to be aired. That way lies trouble and he prefers to steer clear of it.

As of now, John has been back for three months. Sherlock routinely does not give him grief over the lengths he seems to take to avoid raising his own child. When she is with them, Sherlock also studiously refrains from taking cases for the purposes of avoiding giving John the dilemma between choosing to stay home with Rosie or else finding her a last-minute sitter. He does, however, set alarms and reminders for things like picking her up, feeding her, bathing her, checking her nappy, and often goes ahead and attends to whichever need it is. Sometimes John will spot him doing it and take over; other times he’ll check verbally that Sherlock doesn’t mind, then let him carry on. It’s got easier since a full-time daycare spot opened just a few blocks away. Sherlock did not offer to go along to meet the staff and John didn’t ask him to. Sometimes they go together to retrieve her, but Sherlock always waits outside and thus far John has not questioned this. Much of the time, however, Rosie is then deposited somewhere else. The Huntingtons, friends of Mary’s from a former book club, apparently, take her much of the time, and have now been approved as people permitted to collect Rosie from daycare. It’s a subject which John never broaches from a philosophical standpoint and Sherlock has not taxed him about it.

It’s just another subject on a long list of undiscussed (undiscussable) topics. Among them are Mary’s death in general, the reasons behind the affair John was trying to start, that day at Culverton Smith’s hospital, and nearly everything to do with Eurus and Sherlock’s family history. They simply operate as though none of that happened, water under the bridge. Sherlock is warily aware now that John does not truly let things go; his accusation about Sherlock’s necessarily falsified death has given ample evidence of this, and he is equally aware that John does not care to have a calm, rational discussion of that or likely any of the rest of it, either. When he does talk about things like that, he tends to get angry again, and for the sake of enduring peace between them, all such conversations must therefore be avoided.

This is fine. Sherlock has no desire to create enmity between them, now that the dust seems to have settled and John has come back at last. This is already more than he hoped for. It isn’t that there isn’t some part of him that craves more – deeply craves it – but this is a taboo subject even within the sanctity of his own head. It’s sentiment, base and unfiltered, and he must not allow it to rule his decisions. Or take up space in his mind, rank fantasy that could never exist. It isn’t even that he isn’t aware of some sort of similar desire on John’s part, at least on the surface/physical level, but it is entirely clear to Sherlock that the concept is flawed and no incarnation of what he privately craves would ever resemble the fantasy. They are simply too different, and desire is not enough to bridge that chasm between them, the chasm of noncommunication, misunderstanding, misattributed motive, and hurt that has existed almost from the start. John believing that he had to work to pay his share of the rent, the expenses. John believing him to be entirely without compassion simply because he prefers to focus on the solution than to wallow in distressed inaction. John, who likely continues to believe that Sherlock doesn’t care about him one way or another, when Sherlock has put his very life on the line several times now for John’s sake. He would never say this, of course, but echoes of this fill entire chambers of his own hurt, his own misunderstanding. No: it simply would not be possible, so there’s little point in indulging in childish fantasies of romance, of love.

He is fortunate to have John’s friendship. And he is aware that John feels equally fortunate to have his. They should both be satisfied with that, and leave any other murmurings of discontentment, of a constant yearning to make more of it than would be tenable in the realm of the unspoken. Not every hope needs to be materialised, Sherlock reasons firmly with himself when his own desires stir restlessly within him, when his gaze lingers too long on John’s small, but competent hands, watching him clean his gun or peel an orange or perform minute medical tasks, all of his concentration focused acutely on the subject in front of him. Look away and breathe, Sherlock reminds himself. And let go this foolish nonsense. It cannot happen.

The problem is that John seems to do it, too. There are times when Sherlock feels it, feels that John wants to say something, that he is about to do it, the taboo words hovering like a mirage between them. In alarm, Sherlock will cast about for the nearest reason to break the atmosphere, dispel the mirage before John can do something disastrous. He doesn’t know whether or not John is aware of him doing it, deliberately destroying the moment before it can be made to materialise. The fact is that it would be catastrophic. It would destroy their friendship completely. It doesn’t matter if they both want it, or some fraction of it. They would want different fractions. It wouldn’t line up, be compatible, work. It simply wouldn’t.

***

“Have you seen this?” John asks one evening after supper. He brought home take-out, a gingery beef stir-fry and honey garlic chicken from the new place that just opened around the corner, so Sherlock is just finishing up their few dishes. Rosie is upstairs, asleep in John’s room, and all is quiet.

He glances over at John, who is leaning around his chair to point at something in the paper. “No. What is it?”

John gives a derisive snort. “UFO sightings, apparently. But it’s in the Times, not one of the rags.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes and hangs up the dishcloth. “It’s still nonsense. Probably a satellite or something. There are far more of them than people realise.”

“True.” John lapses back into silence.

Sherlock pauses. “Would you like tea, or is it too late? I can put the kettle on…”

John makes a dissenting sound. “No, I’m all right. Although we do have that bottle of whiskey from that family from the other week. The Robertsons. We could open that, if you like.”

Sherlock shrugs. “All right. Where did you put it?”

“The shelf above the sink.”

Sherlock goes for the bottle. “Ice?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

Sherlock pours two tots of whiskey into heavy-bottomed crystal glasses that he doesn’t remember having bought. Perhaps they were a gift. (It doesn’t matter.) He carries them over to their chairs and hands one to John. “You lit the fire,” he comments.

John looks up at him, accepting his glass. “I did, yeah. Seemed a bit chilly, with the rain. Thanks.”

Sherlock smiles off the thanks and sits down, reaching for the laptop that’s on the table by his chair. “Anything of interest, besides aliens?” he asks, nodding at the Times.

“No, not particularly,” John says. He folds up the paper and reaches for his novel instead. “Anything for us on the blog?”

“I haven’t looked yet. There wasn’t time earlier.” Sherlock opens the laptop and checks the blog first, scanning as John finds his page and ostensibly starts to read, but is really just waiting. “Hmm. Nothing much. A missing cat in Cornwall, hardly worth the trip, or our attention. A dispute with a neighbour over a fence. A stolen iPhone. Dull. Boring. Useless.” He closes his laptop. “Perhaps I’ll read, too.”

“Oh?” John’s eyebrows rise. “What are you reading?”

Sherlock reaches for the heavy tome. “Nothing of particular interest. It’s a doctoral thesis on the ethics of genetic splicing.”

“That actually does sound somewhat interesting,” John says. “I’ll leave you to it, then.”

They immerse themselves in their books and a comfortable silence forms around them, broken only by the sounds of the fire crackling or pages turning. Sherlock has one leg crossed over the other at the knee, his feet bare. John’s socked feet are turned inward, the soles rubbing together in a way that Sherlock secretly finds immensely endearing but would never admit. The ice melts into his whiskey, cooling it and watering it down a little, but it doesn’t matter. It’s good whiskey, the fire of it seeming to echo the glow of the pine logs burning in the grate, warming him. He turns another page.

“Sherlock…” John looks over at him, his book in his lap, an odd tone to his voice.

“I think that was Rosie,” Sherlock interjects, before John can continue.

John frowns a little. “What?”

“Rosie,” Sherlock repeats, getting hastily to his feet. “I’ll just go and check.” He moves swiftly out of the sitting room and starts quietly up the stairs to John’s room, silently cursing the warmth of the silence and whatever John was about to say. Why can’t he just leave it alone? He stops at the landing, not wanting to wake the child, counts out seven minutes, then returns. He throws a wary look in John’s direction before sitting down again, but John’s eyes are downcast, hidden in his book. He does not attempt to speak again, to Sherlock’s devout relief, instead letting the silence win out until it’s time to go to bed. He gets up and, after a cursory exchange of saying goodnight, leaves Sherlock sitting alone by the fire.

Sherlock waits for him to leave the room, then exhales. Another narrow escape. He closes his eyes. How long can this go on before John forces the issue? He wishes he wouldn’t, but it’s beginning to feel rather inevitable.

***

It’s only twenty-four hours before John tries it again, and this time Sherlock cannot head it off. John went out to run an errand of some sort after supper, to Sherlock’s private relief as well as his contradictory wish that they could have gone together, but he knows better than to suggest it right now. It’s after nine when John reappears. He walks into the sitting room without taking off his shoes or coat and stops a few feet from where Sherlock is sitting in his chair with his laptop open.

“Look,” he says abruptly, his face unhappy. “I know you know I’ve been trying to bring this up, and every time I do, you cut me off. But I’ve got to say this, Sherlock. It can’t go on like this. It can’t wait any longer.”

Sherlock’s hands still on the keyboard. He sighs. “Must you?” he asks quietly. He closes the lid and looks at John directly. “Are you certain that this is a good idea?”

John’s jaw tightens stubbornly and he swallows. “I’ve been thinking about it for – weeks, if you want to know. Or – well, much longer than that, depending when you – but that doesn’t matter. The point is, I think it’s just got to be said.”

Sherlock feels his lips part, wanting to say something to prevent this, but can’t seem to come up with the correct words. Finally, he gives up and sets the laptop aside, folding his hands in his lap and keeping his gaze focused on them, waiting for the inevitable.

John comes nearer. “Look,” he says again, his voice less abrupt. “It’s just that – I feel like there’s a lot of unspoken stuff between us, and I just think it’s time to maybe say some of it, so I’m – I know that things have got pretty messed up between us over the years, but now that – that some of it seems to have got out of the way, I thought maybe – ”

He stops, faltering, and Sherlock waits, his jaw set. When he doesn’t speak, John takes a deep breath and goes on.

“I have feelings for you,” he says, his voice low, hands opening and closing nervously. “I – always have, if you want to know. I just – things got so – and I couldn’t ever just – but I am now. I’m saying it: I want there to be more between us, Sher – and I don’t know if you do, if you feel – like that, but sometimes I’ve thought – Christ, this is difficult!”

His last outburst makes Sherlock want to look at him, but he can’t. John’s words are stirring up layers and layers of things that need to be left severely alone and he wishes he could delete them, cause them to never have been said. When the silence lengthens between them, he makes himself respond. “I wish you hadn’t,” he says, very quietly.

He can almost feel John’s wince. “But why?” he asks. “Do you – not – ”

Sherlock looks down at his hands, his thumbs pressing into his thumbnails. “I would prefer us to remain friends,” he says, as quietly as before. “That’s what I want.”

The silence that follows is heart-stopping as John struggles to process his words. “Is that the only thing you want?” he asks, his voice just barely audible.

Sherlock thinks of the dozens of things he could say to this. Yes, John, I have no intention of throwing away the friendship I’ve only just managed to finally regain on a poorly thought-out romantic venture doomed to failure based on the many unresolved issues of our past that would frankly be best left undisturbed, so if you wouldn’t mind please shutting up about this moronic idea, I would really appreciate it! “Yes,” he says, as neutrally as he possibly can. A truer response would have been It’s the primary thing I want, and that’s what matters to me here but he doesn’t say it. The solitary word hangs in the air between them like a grenade.

He knows he shouldn’t look at John, but some uncontrollable impulse impels him to do it anyway, his eyes flicking to John before he can prevent himself. Their eyes meet, and John looks stricken. His mouth opens, then closes firmly, the corners of his mouth set unhappily. The contact lasts uncomfortably long. Then John turns and goes upstairs without a word, leaving Sherlock alone in the sitting room once more.

***

The next several days are miserable. Neither of them makes any reference to the awful conversation, but John’s unhappiness shows in his every action. Their silences are now loaded and awkward, and Sherlock struggles to hide his own unhappiness. This is precisely what he thought would happen, he thinks rebelliously. John never should have brought it up! He has doomed their friendship and made everything unbearable. Sherlock stops offering to go with him to collect Rosie from daycare and John does not comment on this. Without having discussed it, they stop cooking meals together, eating at the same time generally, but not the same thing. Sherlock feels the loss keenly but doesn’t know what to do about it. They don’t speak around the flat unless necessary; otherwise John avoids him. They work two separate cases, solving them with their customary efficiency. Lestrade gives them both odd looks, but doesn’t say anything apart from a muttered, “Everything all right?” to Sherlock, out the side of his mouth one day.

“Yes, fine,” Sherlock says tersely, then changes the subject back to the case.

Six days after their conversation, they’re in the sitting room, John on the sofa in patent rejection of sitting across from Sherlock, who has tacitly agreed to this and placed himself at the desk instead. It’s evening, just after seven. The door downstairs opens, breaking the painful silence, and a familiar step sounds on the stairs.

Sherlock sighs. “It’s my brother,” he says, beneath his breath.

John sighs, too, only harder. “Perfect.”

Mycroft appears at the top of the stairs and takes them in where they’re seated, nearly as far apart as possible. His brow knits a little, but he refrains from commenting on it. “I’ve got a case for you,” he announces.

Sherlock keeps his face impassive. “Is this a request or an attempt at an order?”

“The former,” Mycroft says, with excessive politeness. “Interested?”

Sherlock glances at John, who is keeping his gaze on Mycroft. “What is it?” Sherlock asks.

Mycroft’s lip curls slightly. “You’ve heard of this nonsense about UFO sightings in Tyne and Wear, I presume.”

“What of it?” Sherlock does not react.

“It’s not aliens, obviously,” Mycroft informs him with disdain. “However…”

He stops. John puts his book down and frowns at Mycroft. “However, what?” Mycroft holds Sherlock’s gaze a moment longer, then turns his head to face John. “What is it, Mycroft?” John wants to know.

“We don’t know,” Mycroft informs him. “These sightings have been reported a number of times now, by a reliable number of otherwise unrelated individuals.” He holds up a thumb drive. “The reports are all here. The investigation would be fully paid for, of course.”

“Of course,” Sherlock says pointedly, staring at him. “Where in Tyne and Wear?”

Mycroft places the USB key on the coffee table. “It’s all there,” he says. “Most of the sightings have taken place relatively close to the coast, roughly between Seaham and Easington Colliery.”

“Where?” Sherlock asks blankly.

“A little south of Sunderland,” John tells him in that same, curiously flat tone of voice, devoid of all feeling that he’s been using ever since their conversation. He speaks as though Mycroft is not there.

Sherlock absorbs the information in silence, then fixes his brother with his gaze. “Accommodation?”

“It’s arranged for.” Mycroft nods subtly toward the thumb drive. “I’m afraid it won’t be as luxurious as what you’re used to, but it was what was available at short notice.” There is a trace of sneer to his voice, one which he never fails to employ regarding Baker Street in general. Sherlock ignores it.

John’s eyes are on the thumb drive, too. “When do we leave?” he asks, his voice still oddly uninflected.

“Tomorrow.” Mycroft shifts into briskness. He withdraws an envelope from the inner pocket of his overcoat and lays it on the coffee table beside the USB key. “Train tickets. You’re leaving at half-past nine. Don’t be late, or you’ll miss the connection in Newcastle.”

He turns to go, but Sherlock feels his own face frown. “Mycroft.”

His brother stops but doesn’t turn back. “What is it?”

“Any theories thus far?” Sherlock asks. “Obviously it’s not aliens, but clearly it’s something.”

Mycroft swings around now. “Yes,” he says. “Something which is at least a four-hour train ride from here. Therefore I’m sending you. Check it out. Shut it down, if need be. The usual.”

Sherlock sighs. “All right. Fine. We’ll do the legwork, then. But if you do know something, or find something out, I trust that you’ll share it.”

“Of course. And my rather expansive range of resources are at your disposal.” Mycroft favours him with one of his grimace-like smiles and departs without further comment.

The silence left in his wake is almost eloquent. Sherlock risks a look at John to find him staring moodily at the thumb drive, bent forward, his hands clasped, elbows leaning on his thighs. Suddenly there isn’t enough oxygen in the room and Sherlock needs to not be in it. “I’ll just – be back soon,” he says vaguely, already moving toward his coat. He stops just at the top of the stairs, pausing just in case John has some verbal reaction to this, but he doesn’t say a word.

***

After an agonised hour of pacing through Westminster, Marylebone, and Fitzrovia, Sherlock returns to the flat. John is still in the sitting room, as though he hasn’t moved since Sherlock left.

“John,” Sherlock says, without removing his coat or any other preamble, “listen. I – didn’t explain myself well enough the other night.”

John doesn’t look at him. Instead, his face drops toward the floor. “What’s to explain?” he asks dully. “I thought you made your – feelings quite clear.”

Sherlock opens his mouth, then he looks down, too. “I didn’t intend to hurt you,” he says carefully. “However… I find this difficult to talk about, and question the wisdom of doing so in the first place. What I should have specified is that it’s not necessarily a question of simply having certain feelings or not having them. In a sense I consider that a strictly theoretical discussion, and my focus is on the practicalities of our situation.”

John’s head comes up and he looks at Sherlock with a blend of confusion and frustration on his face. “What is that supposed to mean? The practicalities? It’s a simple enough question, wanting to know if you feel the same way or not, I would think.”

Sherlock feels his lips compress. “I disagree. We have a history of... misunderstandings. Ones which we have not seemed capable of discussing without rancour or of resolving in the years that we have known one another. My priority is on preserving what we have now, and my perception is that examining it too closely would jeopardise it, never mind adding something else – some notion of romance that I feel certain we would each see in different lights, have different expectations of, and that the weight of these added expectations would prove too much for our somewhat tenuous friendship to be able to support.”

John’s frustration deepens. “So you just think it would be better to never talk about any of that stuff that you think is making our friendship so – fragile?” John demands, jabbing at the air with his hands.

Sherlock frowns. “I thought it was your preference not to discuss these things.” He pauses, then adds, “In the past, it’s always proven difficult for you and hasn’t succeeded in resolving anything.”

John gets up and goes to the window. “So you just think we’re beyond hope, then,” he says with his back to Sherlock, his voice bleak.

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say to this and feels helpless.

“Why did I come back, then?” John goes on, still speaking to the window. “I thought you maybe wanted this. Or – something more than what it was, at least.”

“John – ” Sherlock takes an involuntary step toward him, then makes himself stop, find words to fit around these concepts. “It isn’t about wanting it or not wanting it,” he says with difficulty. “It’s only that – this is so important to me. I wanted you to come home. So much. More than I… and I was afraid to say anything that would make you feel pressured to do so, lest I scare you off. I’ve thought more than once since my return that I had lost this forever, and I would do whatever it takes to keep from losing it again. Even if it means – not pursuing this. Do you understand what I’m trying to say?”

There is an edge of desperation to his voice, but it can’t be helped. John turns around. “But do you feel something?” he asks, dogged in his determination to know. “That’s all I’m asking, Sherlock.”

Sherlock hesitates. “If it’s merely theoretical, what does it matter? Not everything needs to be about sex. Just because two people care about one another doesn’t mean it automatically needs to become – that.”

John’s face clouds. “It’s a bit insulting that you think I’m only talking about sex – ” he starts, but Sherlock shakes his head.

“John. Stop. Please.” This is going so badly. “I wish you wouldn’t be so determined to – to be hurt by everything I’m trying to say,” he says with frustration. “I only mean to say that – that I feel incredibly fortunate to have what we have. And I just think that perhaps we should… learn to be content with what it is. Work at making that stronger, if you like.”

John swallows. “I feel very fortunate to have it, too, Sherlock. I just – ” He stops, swallows again. “I mean, do you just not – do this sort of thing, ever? Or is it just me, specifically, that you don’t want this with?”

Sherlock exhales with exasperation. “Of course it’s about you, specifically,” he says. “You’re the only person who matters to me this way, the only person I have this level of relationship with in the first place! There’s no one else in this equation, John. Unlike you, you’re the only one there’s ever been for me!”

Oops. He hadn’t meant to say that. John looks as though Sherlock just punched him in the face. He looks down at the carpet. “I guess I deserve that,” he says heavily. “Having married someone else and all that.”

“John, I – ” Sherlock stops, not knowing how to retract that, take it back.

John shakes his head. “I see what you mean about past misunderstandings,” he says. A hand comes up to pinch at the bridge of his nose, then rub at his eyes.

Sherlock watches him in rigid misery, unable to find the correct words to say. The silence lengthens between them. Finally, he says quietly, “My concern is also that we would have different concepts of a romantic relationship and want different things from it, and then we would lose all the rest of it if that were to fall apart. So – please, can’t we just – keep things as they are?”

John studies the carpet a while longer, then raises his eyes to Sherlock’s face. “What would you need from it that you think I wouldn’t understand, or give you?” he asks.

Sherlock hesitates. “Nothing that would ever be possible,” he says, not wanting to put any of it into words.

John’s mouth twists. “How can you ever know if we never try for it?” he asks, his frustration evident. “Isn’t that tantamount to assuming its failure without even seeing what it could be?”

Sherlock makes a futile gesture. “John… all I’m trying to say, at the end of the day, is that your friendship is everything to me. You are everything to me. I just don’t want to take the risk of losing you. That matters more to me than – anything else I might want it to be. Do you understand?”

“Yes, but I disagree,” John says sharply. “You’re not going to lose me. I know what I’ve – and I know I should – ” He stops, then starts again, more calmly, looking down again. “I know that there’s a ton of stuff I should have done by now,” he says quietly. “I’m – I’m working on that. I can see why you think this might be a bad idea. But would you just tell me, even if it’s strictly theoretical, if you feel anything beyond – this – for me? I understand your reasons and I’ll work on accepting them. But would you just tell me that, at least?”

He looks so unhappy that Sherlock almost wishes he could retract the entire conversation and just go to him. But that would involve an unveiling of himself that he could never take back, a vulnerability that could never be defended, shielded, protected, and there is too much broken between them to allow for that. He looks away. “Yes,” he says, very quietly.

John inhales deeply, then lets it all out again slowly. He nods, then bends to pick up the envelope containing the train tickets and goes upstairs without another word, leaving Sherlock standing where he is, his heart beating uncomfortably quickly, feeling far more desolate than he thinks that saving their friendship should reasonably feel.

***

They meet in the kitchen the next morning without drama, with no reference to the previous night’s conversation, quietly making tea and toast, and John feeds Rosie in her high chair. Mrs Hudson comes up to collect Rosie and Sherlock half-listens to her exchange with John over where the child will be when during the week or so that they expect to be away. “Could be less, but we never know,” John says, and Mrs Hudson agrees immediately.

She goes, and Sherlock goes for his coat. “Ready?” he asks, his tone courteously light.

John nods. “Yeah. Let me just put the milk away.” He comes over and pulls his black coat on and shoulders his bag. “Let’s go.”

They don’t speak apart from minimal exchanges all the way to Sunderland, but their silences are less charged than they were before. It’s a slight improvement, Sherlock thinks, surreptitiously watching John watch the countryside go by across from him. They make the connection and stop to pick up the rental car that Mycroft arranged, then study the map to find their accommodation. It’s a cottage, apparently; the notes in the thumb drive specified a preference for them to be out in the country near the sightings, the better to be on site in case of a repetition. Conversation comes a little more naturally to them as they discuss navigation and how to find the cottage.

“Would you like to drive?” Sherlock asks, more politely than he might have once.

“No, it’s all right. I’ll navigate,” John says, so they put their bags into the back of the SUV and get in on their respective sides. The navigation proves to be simple enough and with only one wrong turn, they find their way onto a narrow country lane. “This looks like farming country,” John comments, the map open on his phone as Sherlock drives.

Sherlock makes a sound of assent. “I suppose UFO sightings would take a certain amount of open area.”

“Right. So where exactly have they been seen?” John wants to know.

“Right around here. Not this road specifically, but another one very much like it. This was the closest Mycroft could find for us that wasn’t right in one of the villages. Ah, this must be it.” Sherlock slows the vehicle and John confirms.

“Number forty-two,” he says. “Wow… it’s… smaller than I thought it would be.”

“He did say it wouldn’t be luxurious,” Sherlock reminds him dryly, but privately agrees. The key is under the mat as promised and turns easily in the lock. They walk inside and stop. It’s a single-room dwelling, an eight-sided room, nicely appointed but unarguably a single space. There is a small kitchen in the far left quadrant, a bathroom straight ahead. To the direct left is a small sitting area, and to the right is the sleeping area, with two twin beds in fairly close proximity. The only other door, to the right of the bathroom, conceals a linen closet. The kitchen is separated from the sitting area only be a counter with two padded stools tucked beneath on the living area side. There is no dining area apart from this. “Well,” Sherlock says, as diplomatically as possible. “At least we’ll be close to the crime scene. Or whatever it is.”

John agrees, obviously also trying to make the best of it. “It’s… nice,” he says tactfully. “Cozy, but very nice. I suppose we should head back into Easington Colliery to pick up some things to eat. Or something. Unless you’d rather check out the sighting areas first.”

Sherlock glances at him, wanting to be accommodating. “There’s no reason we can’t do both. Let’s do a little reconnaissance, then we can collect some supplies.” He looks at the two beds. “Any preference?” he asks, still carefully polite.

John shrugs. “I’ll take the farther one, I suppose.”

Sherlock accepts this and sets his bag down on the closer bed. “Shall we go now?”

“Sure. I’ll just – ” John nods at the bathroom and Sherlock acquiesces and goes back outside to wait.

They drive to all of the sighting locations, or as near as the reports could place them. The only thing the reports have in common are that many claimed to have seen two brief flashes of light, sometimes repeated at ten-second intervals for up to three or four minutes. Other reports only cite one or sets of flashing lights, but the two flashes in sequential repetition is consistent. John reads the reports aloud as Sherlock drives, though he read them himself the previous night. The only commonality between each location of that they’re invariably located on isolated country roads much like the one their tiny cottage is on, and one road located directly on the coast.

“I don’t suppose we’ll see anything while it’s still light,” John says after they’ve visited the last locale. “What’s next? Do you want to question any of the people who made the reports?”

Sherlock has already given this some thought. “No, but I’d like to speak with the local police, see if they’ve noticed anything unusual.”

John gives a snort that proves that he shares Sherlock’s opinion of most police and their abilities, which Sherlock finds rather pleasing. “A station, then?”

“That, or we find some observant locals,” Sherlock says. “In fact, that could prove more useful. Find us a café or something, would you?”

“All right.” John’s still got his phone out from finding each of the sighting locations. He searches a little, making musing sounds to himself, then says, “What about a pub? It’s half-past four now, and there are more pubs than tea or coffee places. And liquor loosens people’s tongues.”

“Brilliant,” Sherlock says briskly. “A pub, then. Where to?”

John directs him back into the village of Easington Colliery and Sherlock draws up beside the tiny place of John’s choosing. “Hmm, doesn’t look like much, but let’s have a look,” John says, so Sherlock gets out of the car.

Inside, the late afternoon crowd is just beginning to gather. They find themselves a small corner table and wedge themselves around it. The table itself is very small and this forces a proximity on them that Sherlock feels distinctly uncomfortable with, given their recent conversations, but endeavours not to notice it, or to notice John noticing it. “What are you going to have?” he asks, keeping his voice neutral as he studies the pub menu scrawled on a board above the bar.

John shrugs, his arms crossed. “A pint of whatever, I guess.”

Sherlock gets up and shoulders his way to the bar. When the bartender asks what he’d like, he looks up and chooses the first beer name that he sees and requests two pints. The other receives this with a grunt and proceeds to discharge two brimming mugs. Sherlock puts down some money and takes them, returning to the small table where John is waiting.

“Thanks,” John says, under his breath. “You didn’t have to.”

Sherlock waves this off, feeling awkward. He generally pays for both of them, though that stopped while Mary was about. John would always pay for the two of them and Sherlock would pay on his own. Now, since he’s come back, Sherlock has silently resumed their own pattern and John only put up a token protest initially. Surely he’s not going to resist this now, just because of their present awkward circumstances. He settles into his seat and samples his drink. It’s fine, he determines, not particularly caring. It’s beer. Never his favourite beverage, but he’ll occasionally drink it to keep John company, or to blend in where it’s the obvious choice, like now.

A new sort of silence settles between them, but this time it’s all right, despite their enforced physical closeness. They’re very much accustomed to stake-outs and long periods of waiting and watching, or waiting and listening. Nevertheless, Sherlock feels John’s proximity tangibly, in a way that has become impossible to ignore, tune out. Now he can practically feel the warmth of John’s body, only two feet away. Ridiculous, Sherlock tells himself. Focus: listen.

For a longish while, the chatter is only of the usual, predictable everyday things: local politics, local crime (all terribly standard and unimaginative), the attractive new server at the restaurant down the road, someone’s son’s academic struggles, another man’s promotion. It takes a change or two of the crowd (and a second pint of beer for each of them) before they hear anything interesting.

“… any of you hear what Joe heard from Alec about what they found down on the beach near the Blackhall Rocks?” The speaker is a man wearing weathered jeans and an ancient knitted jumper.

Sherlock sees John catch his eye and they both listen a little more intently.

“Go on, then, Pat,” another man says. “Don’t tell us – it was some pebbles!”

There is a general wave of raucous laughter at this; Sherlock suppresses his impatience with an inward sigh and waits for the idiocy to settle down and for the speaker to come to his point.

“Yeah, well, he found some of those, too, to be sure,” Pat allows. “But get this: they found something like a parachute, or what was left of it. A parachute! Big white thing, rather dirty. Reckon someone’s been trying to parachute off those little cliffs there?”

Another hoot of laughter follows this suggestion, then the naysaying. “It was probably someone’s kite-surfing kit,” one woman scoffs. “Probably drowned of hypothermia, this time of year.”

This gets another laugh. “Tourist,” one of the men says with derision. “You’re probably right, Kate. That’s not so interesting.”

Sherlock turns in his seat. “Was there a body?” he asks, directing his question at the man called Pat.

The group falls silent, being spoken to by a stranger this way. Sherlock ignores it; standard small village behaviour. He couldn’t care less if they think him odd. “What’s that?” Pat asks, squinting at him as though he didn’t understand the question.

“I said, was there a body found?” Sherlock repeats. “Any time shortly before or after the parachute washed up?”

Pat raises his hands as though to distance himself from this line of conversation. “That, I don’t know anything about,” he says, the merriment of the atmosphere evaporating instantly. “You’d have to ask the police about that.”

“Thank you. I will,” Sherlock says. He glances at John as he stands, and they leave swiftly.

“You think this is really something?” John asks, keeping his voice down as they emerge back into the fading daylight outside.

Sherlock shrugs. “No idea, but it sounds unusual,” he points out. “As the woman said, it’s early in the year for kite-surfing, though a wetsuit would probably make it possible. But the sails used for that don’t particularly resemble parachutes. For one thing, they’re usually a different shape. Secondly, the man said it was white and dirty. Kite-surfing sails are generally brightly coloured and made commercially appealing. The cliffs here are much too low for recreational parachuting, as was also pointed out: hence, unusual.”

John makes a thoughtful sound as they get back into the car. “You’ve got a point there. Where to?”

“The town mortuary,” Sherlock decides. “Where’s the closest one?”

“Er…” John types as rapidly as he can. “Looks like the nearest one is back in Sunderland. What about the police? They’d have all the deceased John Doe reports, wouldn’t they?”

“They should, yes. All right, then: police station,” Sherlock decides. “If we need to go into the mortuary, we can do that tomorrow.”

“Okay.” John doesn’t argue. “In that case, the station nearest to the Blackhall Rocks is the Durham Constabulary. Turn left up here.”

Sherlock’s theory proves to be correct: there was a body washed up only two days prior, three kilometres further up the coast from where the parachute was found by fishermen, mostly submerged but still whitely visible in the early morning light. Only it’s not a John Doe; it’s a Jane Doe. “What do you know about her?” Sherlock asks. “Is there an autopsy report?”

“There is, but it’s pretty short and sweet,” the desk officer tells him, typing into a hulking PC that looks to be at least fifteen years obsolete. “No ID, cause of death was drowning. Estimated age is twenty-three years, no match on either dental records or fingerprints, no tattoos or other visible body markings. No jewellery, nothing special at all. She was dressed in black and wearing low boots with laces. And there’s nothing to connect her to the parachute, except for coincidental timing.”

“I don’t go in for coincidences, unless you’re accustomed to having parachutes and bodies wash up on your beaches in March,” Sherlock says dryly. “Where is the body now?”

“The Sunderland city mortuary,” the officer says, confirming their assumption. “I’ve got the photos, if you’d like.” He hesitates. “You’re working with the MI5, is it? I mean, I know who you are and that, but – ”

“Yes.” MI5, MI6, CIA: it depends on the day, really. “I’d refer you to my brother, but I’m sure you’ve never heard of him. Rather above your pay grade,” Sherlock says loftily. “I can have him on the phone, if you like, however – ”

“We can assure you that we’re just here look into the matter, on behalf of our government and the safety of local citizens,” John says, smoothly overriding him, and it works: the officer calms noticeably. Sherlock experiences a moment of envying John’s greater gift with people once again.

“All right, then,” he says. “You want me to email the photos?”

John gives him a warm smile. “That would be fantastic. Thanks.”

“Email address?” the officer asks Sherlock, so Sherlock spells out the address and they make for the door. “Mr Holmes?” the officer calls, just as they’re about to leave.

Sherlock turns back. “What is it?” he asks, as courteously as he can make himself.

“You going to check out those UFO sightings while you’re here, too?” the officer asks, and Sherlock cannot discern whether or not it’s meant to be a joke.

“Yes,” he says, deciding that it doesn’t matter. “Of course.”

“Come on,” John says under his breath, pushing him out the door.

“Was that a joke?” Sherlock asks, once they’re outside. “I couldn’t tell.”

For some reason, this makes John sigh. “I know, and it was. I’m pretty sure, at least. Although, who knows. People believe in all sorts of shit.”

This makes Sherlock chuckle. “True,” he says. It’s dark now and suddenly he recalls that they haven’t eaten since their toast, hours ago. He checks the time. It’s now after eight. “Hungry?”

“Starving,” John admits. “I was just going to suggest we either go and find some groceries or a restaurant, or both.”

“Restaurant, then,” Sherlock says. “Find us something. You choose.”

John goes back to his map searching. “I’m going to have to charge this soon,” he says.

“Take mine,” Sherlock offers. “Coat pocket, left side.”

John hesitates, then gingerly slips his hand into Sherlock’s pocket with far more reluctance than he’s ever shown before and Sherlock immediately regrets having made the offer. Stupid, he chastises himself. Thoughtless. John clears his throat and Sherlock unwittingly echoes him, endeavouring to keep it quiet. An uncomfortable silence returns as John searches for a place for them to eat. “Italian or Indian?” John finally asks.

“What do you prefer?” Sherlock speaks too quickly, too anxious to smooth over his gaffe.

“I think Indian. This place is closer to where we’re staying, too.”

John’s voice is even, too even, but at least he’s still speaking. Sherlock follows his directions to the restaurant, and the rest of the evening goes a little better after that, though the tension never fully dissipates. Sherlock eats his chicken korma and watches John carefully. He notices that John avoids making direct eye contact with him and wonders privately what he is thinking. His eyes seem to be carrying the weight of those two conversations, bracketed with muted pain because of them, and Sherlock wishes that what he’d said about the importance of their friendship, of John himself, had had more power to ease this pain. It isn’t that he doesn’t want what John asked for. It’s that he cares too much to risk this, as well as the risk of wading into completely unknown waters. He wouldn’t even know where to begin, what it should look like. He faked it well enough for Janine for those three weeks, but this is different: this isn’t for show. It matters, matters enormously. He wouldn’t do anything to risk it, yet it occurs to Sherlock that his refusal may be doing precisely that. He feels helpless to control this, to keep it from slipping through his fingers like water seeping away.

Dinner is quiet on both sides, all conversation kept deliberately light and surface-level. Sherlock pays, then lets John drive them back to the cottage, stopping to pick up a few things for breakfast on the way. The road is now very dark. There are almost no other dwellings on their stretch of the road, and Sherlock can admit to himself now that any manner of unusual nighttime activity would be extremely visible here – should anyone be present to see it. It’s very isolated.

Inside, he takes himself to the small, two-place sofa and opens the desk officer’s autopsy photos on his laptop. “John. Would you care to come and comment on these?” he asks, not wanting to override John in his area of greater expertise. (He’s made this error before and finally learned from it.)

John looks up from unpacking his bag. “Sure, all right,” he says. “I’m going to have a cup of tea, though – mind if I just put on the kettle?”

“Go ahead. I’ll have some, too, if you don’t mind.” Sherlock delivers this with as little inflection as possible; normally John might have just assumed that they would both drink tea if either of them made it. Now assumptions have become dangerous.

The kettle is plugged in and John comes over, sitting down as far as he can, which isn’t all that far. “Hmm,” he says, reaching for the keyboard and scrolling down to read the report. “I agree: cause of death seems obvious enough, consistent with a drowning. No other markings to go on. If there were no matches in the police database for prints or dental, she’s a mystery.”

“I’ll send them to Mycroft,” Sherlock decides. “He’s got access to other databases than the local police do.”

“Good plan.” John gets up and moves off again.

They drink their tea and Sherlock reads through the sighting reports again, for lack of anything better to do. “Do you feel it would be enlightening to see the body?” he asks, more to break the silence than for any other reason.

“Not particularly,” John says, which was what Sherlock would have said, himself. “And as to the parachute itself, the saltwater would have washed off any prints there. And even if we got a positive match, it still wouldn’t tell us anything about the woman except that she and the parachute arrived together.”

“True. She was wearing black, which suggests a desire to avoid detection,” Sherlock says. “And boots as well. Practical, though not for landing in the sea.”

“Clearly she was aiming for the beach,” John says dryly. “But you’re right: it’s definitely odd. Who would parachute into Tyne and Wear in March? Plus it was nighttime; the time of death given in the report is estimated at four in the morning. Obviously she didn’t want to be seen.”

“Which is already suggestive of criminal intent, but why?” Sherlock says thoughtfully, steepling his fingers under his chin.

“I don’t know.” John drains his cup and gets up from the chair he was sitting in, across from the loveseat. “I’m going to turn in.”

Sherlock makes a sound of assent to show he heard and does not comment that usually John would be more forthcoming with his speculations, willing to put a little more curiosity into coming up with theories, but not today, evidently. He suppresses a sigh and occupies himself until John has emerged from the small bathroom. He collects his pyjamas and shuts himself inside after, getting ready for bed and already resenting the awkwardly close quarters. Before their conversations, this would have been fine. No cause for alarm of any sort. They’ve shared spaces like this many times before for other causes. But now, everything has changed and may never be the same again.

Sherlock turns off the lights and gets into the bed which John is not occupying, his back to John. “Good night,” he says, careful not to put any weight or emphasis on the words. It comes out sounding more impersonal than he wanted, but surely that’s better than too warm/inviting, isn’t it? He feels a stab of self-loathing. Why can’t he get this right?

“Good night.” John’s voice is equally expressionless. He turns over the other way, so that his back is to Sherlock, too.

Silence envelops them as thoroughly as the darkness. They lie there, both exquisitely aware that the other person is also still awake. Sherlock can feel, illogical as it sounds, that John is as aware of it as he is. It seems to go on forever before he finally falls asleep.

***

Sherlock wakes before John does and gets up quietly, showering and dressing in the small bathroom, then finds a packet of coffee in the cupboard and puts a pot of it on to brew. John is still asleep, so he decides not to make breakfast just in case John wants to make and eat it together. Sherlock feels a need to be painstakingly careful not to worsen the situation, make John feel even more deeply by hurt by him. He’s the worst person for this, unable to read the situation accurately enough to tell how much damage his behaviour is inflicting. He can only tell that John is hurt, terribly hurt, that he feels rejected in spite of Sherlock’s efforts to explain his position.

He looks over at John’s quietly snoring form and feels a deep stab of longing. He can’t even put into words what the longing is for, specifically, just that it lies beyond the borders of his personal experience, of his expertise, in some forbidden area that he cannot breach. He does not think himself a coward, but there are boundaries that must be guarded, kept secure, and this is one of them. There are many reasons for it, but if he had to put the first and foremost into words, it simply comes down to his quiet personal conviction that what he feels for John is far stronger than what John thinks he feels for him, and that the resultant imbalance would prove overwhelming and uncomfortable for John once he were to realise. And that point, Sherlock would be left without resource or aid, dangerously overextended, all of his most privately feelings laid bare, with no way to regain his own fortress or salvage the ruins of their friendship from that disastrous point to any recognisable extent. It’s the only way to proceed that will leave them with anything.

(His longing for John persists nonetheless.)

Sherlock opens his laptop, then gets up and pours himself a cup of coffee, the end of the brewing cycle making enough noise to wake the dead. He moves stealthily, like a spy, wishing that there was a least a door between the sleeping area and the sitting area. The foot of John’s bed is a mere six metres from where he’s sitting on the sofa, scanning the local news.

John stirs and turns onto his back, his breathing changing. He stretches, blinks, then looks over at Sherlock’s (empty, neatly-made) bed. A slight frown crosses his face, then he props himself up on one elbow and locates Sherlock across the cottage. “Oh. You’re already up,” he says, stating the very obvious.

“Yes, but you don’t need to be,” Sherlock hastens to assure him. “It’s still early.”

“’S fine,” John mumbles, rubbing his eyes and yawning. “I’m hungry anyway. What time is it?”

“Just after eight.” Sherlock keeps his eyes on his screen, doing his best to give John some privacy as he gets up, stretches again, then gathers his things and makes for the bathroom. Sherlock reads through what there is of the local news and determines it all to be boring. He reopens the sightings report and analyses them for patterns in terms of how many sets of flashes each sighting had. There is no pattern to be seen. Next, he looks at how far apart each sighting took place. Two people saw the second sighting and three reported the fourth, but there were only four in total. And… Sherlock skims through the various reports, checking the dates and finally finds something: they took place approximately six days apart. Six days, he thinks, verifying today’s date on his phone. When was the parachuter found? He pulls up the autopsy report again: eight days after the most recent report. That fits: her landing failed; she drowned (likely the boots, Sherlock speculates, or perhaps she became tangled in her parachute), the body washed up on the beach two days later. And that was two days ago. It’s a bit of a wild speculation, but if the so-called UFO sightings have, in fact, been parachuters landing in the local fields, and if this protocol remains in place, then the next arrival should be two nights from now. However, it’s also entirely possible that the woman on the beach and her parachute, if it even is her parachute, have nothing whatsoever to do with these apparent UFOs.

The bathroom door opens, breaking Sherlock’s concentration, and John emerges, rubbing a towel through his wet hair. “Have you eaten?” he asks.

Sherlock looks up. “No,” he says. “I was waiting to see if you wanted to cook together.” It’s the first time either of them has said anything about the fact that they’ve been eating separately ever since their first conversation and he hopes that John won’t flinch away from it.

He doesn’t. Instead, he blinks, then nods. “Yeah, all right. We could do that,” he says.

“There’s coffee,” Sherlock tells him, feeling privately relieved.

“Great. Thanks.” John hangs up his towel, pulls on a pair of socks, then goes to pour himself a cup. “Making any progress?”

“Not really,” Sherlock says, frowning at his laptop. “All I have are theories, not enough information.”

John opens the fridge and takes out the eggs they bought after dinner, then the packet of bacon, and glances back at him. “What would help?” he asks, in his wonderfully direct way.

“I’m not sure,” Sherlock says, troubled.

“Sure you don’t want to go into Sunderland and have a look at the body?” John offers.

Sherlock gets up and goes around the counter separating the kitchen area from the rest of the room. “Let me do something,” he says. John hands him the package of bacon, so Sherlock finds a knife in the silverware drawer and slits it open. “No on the body,” he says musingly, answering John’s question. “I don’t see what more it could tell us, unless they missed something rather obvious.”

His phone pings in his pocket. John glances down at it. “That’s your phone,” he says unnecessarily, bending to retrieve two pans from the stove drawer.

“One moment.” Sherlock lays out four slices of bacon, considers, then adds another four.

John raises his eyebrows. “Keeping up our protein, then?”

“Why not?” Sherlock goes to the sink and washes the bacon grease off his hands. “You like bacon,” he says, careful to keep his tone light.

He catches the flash of John’s almost-smile peripherally, caught before it could fully bloom. “True enough,” John says. “How do you want your eggs?”

Sherlock shrugs. “Fried, I suppose. Are you – ?”

“Yeah, I’ll make them,” John confirms.

Sherlock dries his hands on a tea towel and reads his text, his eyebrows rising. “Well, things just got more interesting,” he remarks, turning the phone to face John as he scoops a bit of butter into his pan.

John squints at the screen and reads it aloud: “Body identified: Marina Gubnitskaia, suspected Russian spy, based out of Moscow, age 23.” He frowns. “She was a spy?”

Sherlock’s eyes glint. “As I said: much more interesting.”

John breaks four eggs into the pan, thinking hard. “So then – she wasn’t just some parachuter who missed the beach. This is a real thing. But why? Why here? Why now?”

“All very good questions,” Sherlock says, with a touch of approval. “I don’t know. But my theory is that perhaps these supposed UFO sightings are in fact other parachuters signalling their arrival or descent. There’s nothing whatsoever to prove this – yet – but having a Russian operative parachute onto the northwestern coast of England right when local farmers are reporting the same type of flashing lights in their fields strikes me as being more than coincidental.”

John nods, salting and peppering their eggs. “Did Marina Gub – whatever it is – have any known affiliations that we should know about?”

Sherlock is already texting Mycroft this very question. “Gubnitskaia. And that’s precisely what I’m asking.” He sends the message, then opens the second drawer in search of a spatula.

“Here,” John says, giving him the one he’s holding. “Just use mine.”

They’re standing rather close together now and neither of them points out that just one of them could have handled both the eggs and the bacon, but Sherlock didn’t want to presume on John given their current circumstances, very much aware that staying in this cottage, working on a case together right now, is already putting a significant strain on John. And at the same time, he craves it – craves their proximity, craves this forbidden domesticity, this closeness, both physical and emotional. It’s dangerous – far too much so, and yet Sherlock cannot persuade himself to take a step away, deny them both this almost-innocent proximity.

They eat at the counter side-by-side, drinking their coffee and discussing the case. “The question,” John says, eating his last piece of bacon with his fingers, “is this: if these sightings are Russian spies parachuting in, who are they signalling to? How many others are already here? And again, why?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock says, surreptitiously watching John lick the bacon grease off his fingers and trying not to be distracted by it. “Perhaps we should go down to the beach, just in case anything else has washed up.”

“Why not?” John asks rhetorically. “It’s not as if we’ve got any other leads to go on so far.”

They leave the dishes for later and get into the car. Sherlock drives again, and John directs them to the pebbly beach at the foot of the Blackhall Rocks. Or rather, they leave the SUV above and walk down the short cliff to the beach below. They are the only people there and a brisk wind is blowing. “Scenic,” Sherlock comments, mostly for John’s benefit. John never fails to respond positively to him noticing beauty rather than strict functionality.

Predictably, John smiles at this, though only briefly, his hands tucked into the pockets of his coat. “Bit nippy for a picnic,” he says in response.

“We are in Tyne and Wear in March,” Sherlock points out.

John squints at the water. “Technically, I think we’re now in Durham, actually.” He nods toward the coastline. “Shall we?”

“Certainly.” Sherlock falls into step beside him, noticing that their footfalls are exactly parallel, despite the difference in the length of their respective legs. He wonders if John has noticed, too, and somehow feels sure that he has. He needs to say something to break the silence that’s fallen between them, audible in spite of the wind. Silences have become dreadful of late, something to be avoided at all cost. He clears his throat. “This isn’t so bad,” he says, after two hundred metres have gone by, their footsteps crunching on the pebbles.

John responds lightly, his hands still in his pockets. “Oh, sure,” he says, his tone a bit flippant. “Who doesn’t love a long walk on the beach. It’s the first thing listed on all of my dating profiles.”

The words seem to hit Sherlock in the solar plexus. “What?” He doesn’t realise that he’s stopped walking until John stops and looks back at him from a few steps ahead. (Oh no.) He didn’t mean to say that, to react aloud, particularly not with the level of hurt even he can detect in his own voice. It sounds like an accusation, this instinctive reaction to the knowledge that John still uses dating profiles. He feels an unreasonable level of betrayal over the fact, but he never should have admitted this in any way. He curses himself inwardly.

John’s lips part, as though to hotly defend himself, several different expressions flickering over his mobile features – hurt of his own, anger, disbelief, uncertainty – and he frowns. “I was just – it wasn’t – ” He stops, clears his throat, looks out at the sea, and tries again. “It was just a joke,” he says, his jaw tense. “Besides, I don’t know what it would matter to you if I were looking. It’s not as though you – ” He stops again, then shakes his head. “Never mind. Never bloody mind.” He turns and strides off again, not waiting for Sherlock.

Sherlock looks down at the beach in frustration, gritting his teeth. If only he could have kept his mouth closed! Now he’s gone and hurt John all over again, deepening his sense of injustice over the entire situation. And it had started so well, too, despite the permanent aura of awkwardness that hangs over them at all times now. What an awful situation. He berates himself over his stupidity and sets off after John, taking care not to catch up with him, giving him his space should he want it.

Two kilometres further, John stops and crouches down. “Sherlock,” he says, his tone different. “Come see this.”

Sherlock hurries to close the gap between them. “Found something?”

“Yeah. Look at this!” John pulls a rubber glove from his coat pocket, puts it on, and picks up the object he’s found. “It’s a flashlight!”

Sherlock feels a thrill of discovery, and sees on John’s face that he feels it, too. “Then our theory is significantly closer to being confirmed,” he says. “If Marina Gubnitskaia was carrying this flashlight when she landed in the sea, then it’s very possible that the other flashes did come from parachuters signalling whoever was waiting to receive them!”

“Quite,” John agrees. He looks around. “I wonder if there’s any way of knowing exactly where the body or the parachute washed up.”

“There could have been significant drift of each object regardless,” Sherlock points out.

“True.” John examines the flashlight, then twists the head of it off and shakes out the batteries inside. His eyebrows rise. “I think I may have just proven your theory even further,” he says, holding them out to Sherlock. “What does that say?”

Sherlock examines the Cyrillic script on the side of one of them. “большая емкость,” he says, sounding it out carefully. He turns it and reads another word. “размер: size,” he pronounces. “No idea what this other thing means. “Possibly ‘high’ something or other.”

“High capacity?” John guesses.

“Maybe. Either way, it’s definitely Russian!” Sherlock beams at him. “Brilliant, John! Now: how do we find rest of them? How many of them are there? Are we looking at a sleeper cell? I can’t think of a better place to put one, or somewhere less likely.”

“I don’t know,” John says. He nods at the batteries. “You want me to bag those? I’ve got an evidence bag in my pocket.”

“Sure. Thank you.” Sherlock surrenders the batteries. “I wonder what our next move is,” he says, but John’s face has clouded over again and he appears not to hear what Sherlock said at all.

***

Mycroft videocalls that afternoon. “What is your progress?” he wants to know.

They’re back at the cottage, Sherlock having laid out a case map on the coffee table for lack of any better place for it: John’s paper map marked with each sighting location, the Blackhall Rocks location, and a timeline of dates, numbers of flashes seen, as well as a printed list of every Russian name John could find in the local telephone directory. John himself is staring moodily at his laptop from the armchair opposite. Sherlock glances at him, then says into his phone screen, “Not particularly far, other than confirming that Marina Gubnitskaia was carrying a flashlight at the time of her landing. It’s suggestive that the other sightings may well have also been parachuters signalling people on the ground.”

“Yes, obviously,” Mycroft says impatiently. “Have you seen the body? Where is Doctor Watson?”

Sherlock turns his phone around to show John. “He’s right there. Why?”

John gets up and comes over, sitting gingerly down on the small loveseat, as far from Sherlock as he can manage. “No, we haven’t seen it. Not in person, at least. Why?”

Mycroft’s lips tighten. “The coroners may have missed something. If Gubnitskaia was in any way connected with the Росомаха, she should have a tattoo.”

“The autopsy report states that there were no tattoos or other markings on the body,” John tells him, his brow creasing. “And what is that, anyway?”

Sherlock glances at him. “The Rosomakha,” he says, anglicising it a little. “‘Wolverine’. It was a secret, inner branch of the KGB.” He looks back at the phone. “But Gubnitskaia is far too young to have been KGB,” he says to Mycroft.

“These things never truly die, brother mine,” Mycroft informs him dryly. He shifts his gaze back to John, his tone becoming instructional. “The Rosomakha were known for their brutality, as well as for their skill with bomb-making.”

John snorts. “What do you think they’re planning here, then? To bomb a lighthouse?”

Mycroft’s expression turns sterner. “This is no laughing matter, Doctor Watson. If Gubnitskaia was Rosomakha, we need to know now whether or not they’re amassing somewhere. Tyne and Wear is perfect for this sort of thing: far enough from any major cities to avoid detection, and on a largely unguarded stretch of coastline, too far north and too early in the year for holidaying families.”

Sherlock casts another quick look at John. “We’ll go into Sunderland and have a look,” he says. “We’ve nothing else to go on. Do you know anything about other operatives in the area?”

“No. The tattoo should be located on the back of her skull, right side,” Mycroft tells them. “It’s a stylised graphic of a wolverine, should be about an inch in diameter. You’ll need to shave her head to see it. I rather doubt that the Sunderland mortuary was that thorough.”

John exhales deeply but doesn’t counter this. “Fine.”

Mycroft surveys them critically. “This is important, both of you. I don’t know what’s going on between the two of you at the moment, but whatever tensions you’re experiencing need to be placed on hold. This case matters more than your private personal dramas. Do I make myself quite clear?”

John glares. “Sod off, Mycroft.” He gets up and storms off toward the tiny kitchen, plugs the kettle in, then leaves the cottage altogether.

Sherlock heaves a sigh. “Bravo, Mycroft. Thank you for that. It wasn’t already bad enough without your ‘help’.”

Mycroft rolls his eyes. “I really couldn’t care less. Just concentrate and get this solved, before there’s a terrorist outbreak in Newcastle or something! Your personal issues can wait.”

Sherlock doesn’t ask how Mycroft deduced the dynamic between them. He supposes it must be obvious enough to an observant eye, and Mycroft is certainly more than that. He scowls and ends the call without responding, then puts his phone down and rakes his hands through his hair. This is a disaster. Sometimes in the past, having a case has saved them when things became difficult. Now it seems that nothing can help. Should he try again, say something else, attempt to make John feel less – whatever he seems to be feeling? Or would that just make it even worse?

The kettle boils, so he goes to it and makes a pot of tea, Earl Grey, both their favourite. When it has steeped for precisely four minutes, he removes the bags and goes outside. John is sitting on the grass, his arms wrapped around himself in the chill air, his coat still inside. He can clearly hear Sherlock’s approach, as well as the door, but makes no sign of acknowledgement.

“The tea is ready,” Sherlock offers, clearing his throat and uncomfortably aware that this is a miserably poor olive branch.

“I don’t care.” John’s voice is stony. “Do you want to go into Sunderland now?”

Sherlock hesitates. “I wouldn’t mind having a cup first,” he says. John doesn’t respond. “Come on,” he says, trying to persuade him. “It’s cold out here. Just come in and have a cup of tea and then we can go.” He wonders if he should add please to the end, or if that would just irritate John. He wavers on the spot for a moment, then turns and goes back inside, leaving the front door open in hopes that John will follow him.

He does, closing the door behind him and shivering. Sherlock silently pours him a cup of tea, adds milk, and puts it on the countertop dividing the kitchen from the sitting area. John takes it without a word and goes to sit on his bed with it. Sherlock takes his to the sofa and quietly phones the mortuary to request a visit. It seems that Mycroft has already smoothed the way; the receptionist lets them know that they’re expected and what time they close. Sherlock says to expect them within the hour and hangs up.

“Are we leaving now?” John’s voice is completely neutral.

Sherlock chances a look at him, but John is looking straight ahead, at Sherlock’s bed. “When you’re ready,” he says, as courteously as possible.

John drains his cup, though the tea must still be quite hot. “Now’s fine.” He gets up, puts his cup down in the sink and shuts himself in the bathroom.

Sherlock watches the door close, then sighs, drinks the rest of his tea as quickly as the heat will permit, then puts his cup in the sink next to John’s and pulls on his coat. What a mess, he thinks dismally. And that’s not even considering the potential Russian terrorist cell being formed all around them.

***

The drive into Sunderland was well-warranted: the city mortuary did indeed miss the skull tattoo, confirming Gubnitskaia’s membership in the Rosomakha. John’s internet searches of locally-based Russians have shown nothing of consequence. Discussing it over a late dinner in Sunderland, they agreed that their best option is to place themselves in the darkest, most isolated part of the countryside they can, possibly at one of the former sighting locations, and hope to catch the next arrival, possibly due tomorrow night.

Dinner was good and Sherlock had hoped, however faintly, that John might thaw a little. They found a seafood restaurant overlooking the water. John had lemon-roasted haddock with garlic mashed potatoes and Sherlock had lobster served with chips and melted butter and the food was good, very good, and talking about it had at least given them another line of conversation. However, unless he could think of something to say about the case the instant they got back in the car and drove the thirty-five minutes or so back to the cottage afterwards, the dreaded silence had returned. They both sought refuge behind their laptops until John announced that he was going to bed.

Now they’re both lying in their respective beds in the complete darkness again, both awake and very much aware that the other is, too. Sherlock wants to say something but has been racking his brain for half an hour already, trying to find the right words. Finally he stirs, opening his mouth. He’s got no clue whether or not it’s a good idea, but he needs to say it. “You’re all I think about, you know. Ever since I came back. Everything else is – secondary.”

There is a long silence following his words. He can all but hear John’s thoughts, his brain trying to process this. Then he says, “Yeah. Same.”

Sherlock blinks and searches for a response to this but cannot come up with one. He doesn’t know whether or not he’s managed to reassure John in any way. Eventually, enough time goes by that it seems evident that he is not going to respond, and John doesn’t say anything else, either.

The silence lengthens between them, flooding the cottage with its recriminating emptiness.

***

Somehow they get through the next day, spending much of it in the cottage digging through local crime and the backgrounds of any suspicious persons on the list Mycroft emailed, not accomplishing much. They go out for lunch in the early afternoon, mainly as a reason to get out of the tiny cottage, but studiously avoid conversation beyond the surface level or the case itself, then get back to work. They do the same for dinner, trying the Italian restaurant John found the other night, then kill time until eleven, positioning the car on the side of the road they’ve chosen for their parachuting stake-out. Sherlock drove, choosing the site of the second sighting, a narrow country road called West Lane, not far from where they’re staying but further inland.

There is no light anywhere. Sherlock switches off the motor and reaches for his cup of coffee. They found travel mugs in one of the cupboards and when John suggested they make and bring coffee along, he agreed. The sightings have all been reported between midnight and three, so they could have a long wait. He doesn’t particularly need the coffee to keep alert but wanted to appear amenable. They’re stopped at the side of the road, a place without any hedge to press up against the SUV. A deep quiet falls over them, but somehow Sherlock senses that, while it’s no less charged than before, something about it is different.

After forty minutes have gone by, John finally breaks the silence. “Can I ask you something?”

Sherlock steels himself a little, but if John wants to talk, then far be it for him to refuse him now. “Of course,” he says, trying to mask the apprehension he already feels.

John appears to be trying to organise his thoughts into words, despite the long stretch of silence preceding this. Or perhaps he’s just feeling apprehensive, himself. “So, you just – never, then. With anyone else.”

Sherlock could ask for clarity, but their context makes the question immediately apparent. “Of course not. Don’t be ridiculous,” he says, a bit shortly. He thought he’d made that clear: he doesn’t. Not ever. Not this.

“You’ve never wanted to?” John’s eyes are on him, a quick, almost guilty look. Sherlock can feel it.

He takes a deep breath. “As I said before, it’s not a simple question of wanting or not wanting. It’s a question of practicalities.”

“Yeah, but – ” John persists. “You said that you might have wanted something more with me, if it weren’t for – for our obstacles, for lack of a better word. Before me, though – was there ever anyone else that you might have theoretically been interested in having that with?”

“No.” The word is a bit clipped, but it can’t be helped. Sherlock looks off across the field they’re parked beside.

“No one at all?” John sounds as though he’s holding his breath.

“No one at all,” Sherlock confirms, his mouth strangely dry.

John does look at him now. “So you’ve never – been with anyone,” he states, though he’s waiting for confirmation.

Sherlock clears his throat and refuses to feel any shame over this admission. “No.”

“No – ”

“No one,” Sherlock cuts him off, the words firm. “Never. As my brother told you in what I thought were fairly unmistakeable terms some years ago, I am, by any definition you care to apply, a virgin. Is that clear enough?” The words are terse, but he can’t help but feel irritated, put on the spot and found wanting.

John sounds apologetic now. “I just – I mean, that was before Irene Adler, and Janine. I – wasn’t sure.”

Sherlock’s jaw clenches. “Well, now you know.”

John hesitates. “Are you afraid of it?”

Sherlock exhales through his nose. “Afraid of what, precisely?” It comes out impatiently.

John refuses to be put off by his brusqueness, though. “Of the intimacy. Of letting someone in. Being vulnerable in front of them.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “You’ve seen me shot in the heart, high as a kite, being suffocated. I fail to see how any of those things don’t qualify as sufficiently ‘vulnerable’ to you.”

John’s mouth purses. “It’s different,” he says, looking straight ahead.

Sherlock looks out his window. “What is?”

“Sex,” John says, not shying away from it. “Love. Physical and emotional intimacy. Giving someone your heart. Letting them become more important to you than anything else. It’s the deepest sort of vulnerability there is.”

Sherlock turns these words over in his mouth. “I thought I’d already done that,” he says, his voice tight. “I’ve certainly given up my life for your sake, at any rate.”

John pauses. “What do you mean by that?”

“Magnussen,” Sherlock says flatly. “I shot him to give you the life you seemed to want then. I shot him in the full knowledge that I would likely lose my own life, or my liberty at the very least. If that doesn’t qualify for prioritising your happiness over my own, for allowing you to have become more important to me than my own life, then I fail to see what could better prove that to you. Or the fact that I put myself directly into harm’s way with Culverton Smith, for your sake. The drug slide.” He looks down at the coffee cup he’s still holding. “Of course, I was also trying to atone for my failure to have kept Mary alive for you.” This is awful. These are the very issues that he vowed to never bring up with John, but now that he’s started talking, he can’t seem to stop. “Or what about Moriarty,” he goes on, reckless now. “I jumped off a building so that his snipers wouldn’t shoot you.”

“Wait, what?” John asks, his voice loud. “Sherlock – what snipers?”

“The ones he had in place to kill you, Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade. Do you think I wanted to falsify my own suicide in front of you? And then live on the run for two years? And what would you call standing by and watching you marry someone else, when I – ” Sherlock stops, aghast at his own words.

The silence that follows them is rather poignant. John seems to be breathing with some difficulty. “You didn’t want me to marry Mary?” he asks, his voice suddenly very quiet.

Sherlock makes a sound that could be taken as either affirmation or negation. “I realise that the rest of this is evidently not equal in worth to my vaunted virginity, as it seems to be the only offering of myself which you would consider adequate, or perhaps it simply fails to balance the depth of my failings with regard to you sufficiently to matter, but – ”

He stops. In the distance across the field on his side of the car, two flashes of light have just appeared in the sky. John sees them, too. “Did you see that?” he wants to know, though he must know that Sherlock already has, as he’s starting the car.

“Where is that?” Sherlock demands. “Find the most likely road!”

“Er, I’m not sure if it’s on a road,” John says. “Yeah, go straight, then turn left at the next place you can. It’s not for a bit yet. Hurry!”

Sherlock yanks the gearshift and presses the pedal down. “What’s the closest you think we can get?”

“I don’t know! It’s probably in the middle of a field!” John twists back. “There was another set of flashes!” He looks back at his phone map, jolted by Sherlock’s driving on the narrow road. “Okay, the turn is coming – here, Sherlock!”

Sherlock veers around the corner, checking regularly out his window for another set of flashes. It comes, but not from the air – from the ground, two flashes in response. “There’s definitely someone waiting,” he says tensely. “I don’t know if we can get there, though!”

“Maybe not in the car, but we won’t get there in time on foot, and besides, we can’t even see well enough to know what we’d be running through,” John points out. “So – turn left just up here. If they’re collecting the parachuter, they’ve got to be getting away in a vehicle of some sort, wouldn’t you think?”

“Who knows?” Sherlock yanks the wheel, the SUV tearing around the corner. Another two flashes appear, closer to the ground this time.

“There! Did you see – ”

“I saw it!” Sherlock floors it, tearing across the gravel road. The SUV is skidding; he’s going too fast. He slows minutely, gritting his teeth with frustration, though John hasn’t protested. The flashes have stopped; the parachuter must be on the ground by now. If that is what it is, Sherlock reminds himself sternly. Just because the theory happens to fit the available facts does not mean that it is correct, after all. They’re approaching the approximate location of the flashes, though distances are difficult to gauge in this unmarked open space. He slows.

“I think it’s about here,” John agrees, pressing his face to the window. “I can’t see anything. Should we get out and have a look?”

Sherlock makes a sound of affirmation. “Did you bring your – ”

“Of course. It’s in my pocket.” John opens his door, not waiting, but Sherlock is right behind him.

The countryside is absolutely, utterly silent. There isn’t a sound to be heard, other than the breeze ruffling the grasses. John looks at him, but Sherlock raises a finger to his lips. If they’re still here, they’re probably hiding. They’ll also have the significant advantage, having heard them coming. Sherlock contemplates the field to the left of the road, the last place they saw the flashes, the potential ambush lying in wait should they venture in. He could try calling out, but that seems like a sure way to get one or both of them shot. If it’s Russian terrorists, though he somehow feels sure that it is. He moves closer to John. “What do you think?” he asks, under his breath.

“You’re right, this is a good place for star-gazing,” John says loudly, his voice carrying nicely. “It’s so quiet out here. Bit chilly, though, don’t you think?”

Their eyes meet and Sherlock nods. Message received. John doesn’t think it wise to venture in, either. “Perhaps another night, then,” he says, careful to let his voice carry equally well. “Let’s go back home, then.”

John gives him a quick, almost amused look and Sherlock wonders if he should have tried to pretend to be female to ‘normalise’ the notion of them living together. This makes him scowl inwardly. Societal expectations be hanged. They are two men who live together, damn it. Not that that’s working particularly well at the moment, but that’s their private affair. John turns and moves back toward the car. “Let’s go, then,” he says, quieter.

Sherlock exhales in disappointment. It would have been easier if there had been a getaway car. They could have followed it. As it is, the darkness is so thick that he can’t even make out whether or not there is another vehicle. He pulls his door shut, waits for John to do the same, then says, “Let’s just drive a little further. I want to see if – ”

“ – there’s a car,” John says, correctly anticipating and finishing his sentence. “Yeah. Good idea.” He checks the map again. “I guess whoever’s receiving them lives locally and knows these fields far better than we do.”

“I wonder if this sighting will be reported,” Sherlock says, driving slowly and cautiously down the road.

“Who knows. I guess we’ll see in the news tomorrow. I suppose they could have parked right in the field, too,” John speculates. “Although, do you feel a bit like we’re sitting ducks here?”

“I do, a bit,” Sherlock admits. He accelerates. “Do you know where this road comes out? I’d rather not double back.”

“Er, hang on.” John checks. “Yeah, actually it is a dead end. Let’s turn around and come back tomorrow. We won’t be able to see any traces of evidence in this darkness, anyway, and they’ve got the lead on us despite us having the car.”

Sherlock stops, does a rapid three-point turn on the narrow lane, then speeds back in the direction they came, almost as quickly as then, too. There’s something distinctly off-putting about being the only vehicle in sight in this open, unprotected, unshielded space that neither of them knows. When they’ve reached the motorway again, he slows and they both take subconscious deep breaths of relief. “We can go back tomorrow,” Sherlock says, though John’s already suggested it.

He nods. “As soon as it’s light,” he promises.

Sherlock checks the time. It’s nearly one. “Well, whenever we’re awake,” he says. “An hour one way or the other won’t erase the evidence. The chances of the host returning to the site is fairly small, particularly if the sighting is reported.”

“All right, then.” John subsides into silence, and everything they were talking about before they saw the flashing lights comes back, hanging over them like a cloud.

Sherlock rather acutely wishes that he could take it all back. It was almost a relief to say some of it, but he knows very well that it’s better left undisturbed. Now he’s just gone and stirred up all of the muck at the bottom of their particular pond, and it would have been better had he not. He sighs.

John glances at him, but doesn’t say anything.

Back at the cottage, they begin getting ready for bed. Sherlock picks up his pyjamas, about to go into the bathroom to change.

“Sherlock – ” John’s voice stops him. “All that stuff you said, back there – ”

No. No, no, no, no. “Not now,” Sherlock cuts him off. “I shouldn’t have said most of that. That’s precisely what I was talking about. The things we just shouldn’t discuss. I shouldn’t have said anything.” He refuses to look at John or give him time to respond, shutting himself inside the bathroom as quickly as possible. He puts his pyjamas down on the back of the toilet, then runs the water at full speed, gritting his teeth in frustration, fingers raking through his hair. Will this never end?? He glares at himself in the mirror, then splashes water over his hot face and brushes his teeth for as long as humanly reasonable. He relieves himself and changes into his pyjama pants and t-shirt, then reluctantly makes himself exit the small room, as John is probably waiting for it.

John tacitly does not tax him, though, allowing Sherlock to walk to his bed unchallenged, then quietly takes his turn in the bathroom, and if he takes his time about it, too, then Sherlock quite understands.

He’s lying on his side, facing away from John when John emerges. He can hear him putting his clothes away, then moving around the cottage to shut out the lights and get into his bed. Once he’s settled into a comfortable position, their now-customary silence resumes, filling the room. Sherlock can feel it prickling against his eardrums.

After a small eternity has passed, John speaks, as Sherlock almost knew that he would. “Just for the record… it’s not even about sex, you know. That thing you said, about your ‘vaunted virginity’. It’s not – that’s not even what I’m talking about, with all of this.”

Sherlock lets the silence spin out a little longer, then says, “How do you mean?”

“I mean that I love you,” John says, his voice quiet but very steady.

The words seem to pierce Sherlock in the chest, and for a moment, the wound left by Mary’s bullet actually throbs. Some part of him very much wants to say it back. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s felt it, wanted to say it. His thoughts go back to the two of them on the tarmac, remembering acutely the way he’d thought it would be the very last time he would see John, as Mycroft had more or less assured him of his inevitable death on the mission. He’d wanted to say it then, finally stop suppressing it. What could it have hurt, he’d reasoned. He would never see John again, and he’d kept it silent for all that time. Never protesting during the months that he planned John’s wedding to Mary, planning everything from his speech to their stag night with painstaking care and attention. Then the shot, forbidding Mycroft to prosecute, demanding that he have the bullet destroyed. Insisting that John stay with Mary, or at least, not overtly leave her, even during the months that he was staying at Baker Street, wanting to keep a closer eye on Sherlock’s recovery.

He’d wanted to tell him, just be honest and open about it for once, now that it was far too late to hope for anything else. He’d never expected it to happen, anyway, and frankly never thought it would work, or that trying it out would be a good idea. But now John has said it, is lying there less than two metres away, waiting for him to say it back, palpably hoping for him to, yet now that it’s been invited, Sherlock finds the words stuck somewhere within him, impossible to articulate or bring forward. There’s too much in the way. The letter that John wrote after Mary’s death. That dreadful day in Culverton Smith’s hospital. Even John’s rather awful urgings that he seek out a sexual partnership with Irene Adler. And some of what they went through at the hands of Eurus, too. Some of those trials are still in the way, such as the fact that John really thought that there was any chance that Sherlock would choose to kill him over Mycroft, when both Sherlock and Mycroft knew there never was. John’s resentment over his two-year disappearance, forced at Moriarty’s hand. There is a forest of obstacles between them now, even more than there were when they were standing on the tarmac and Sherlock saw it in John’s eyes: his suspicion of what Sherlock was going to say, and his reluctance to hear it. The walls in his face that silently forbade it. Mary was there. He’d made his choice. And so Sherlock had relented, said something else, just to make John laugh. Let him off the hook of having to hear about Sherlock’s unwanted, misunderstood love. Disappointment over not having taken the chance had flooded him as he sat there on the plane, pressing the hand John had held to his lips and feeling unreasonably heartbroken over leaving the only person he’s ever loved behind forever. It almost hadn’t mattered about Mary. If anything, he was almost glad for John’s sake that he would have her. He didn’t want to be the cause of John’s grief yet again. And yet, the parting had ached within him like an open wound. He’d wanted to tell him, but it seemed that the sentiment was never to be a welcome one. His desire to express it, just the once, could not be granted, much less returned.

It feels horridly ironic to have John say it now, when things are at their least functional between them, long after Sherlock has given up any hope that their relationship could be the thing he would need it to be. John just said that it’s not strictly about sex, but Sherlock has privately always felt that sex would be rather secondary to what he wants, which is something he entirely lacks the vocabulary to describe. He feels it like a chasm, one which he cannot afford to allow himself to fall into – that if he were to open his heart to John fully, allow him that intimacy John referenced in the car, he would be left naked and defenseless, without resource should John fail to give him himself in the same measure. And John wouldn’t: this, he feels sure of. John, who cannot discuss the mildest of problems without flying into a rage, John who doesn’t trust him further than he could throw him, could never open himself to Sherlock in the same way, and without that, Sherlock would dissolve, helpless and far more vulnerable than John’s notions can conceive of.

He cannot say it back. He should not say it back. It doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true. It simply isn’t possible. John would never love him as much as he loves John, and as long as he does not admit it to John, he can prevent himself from falling into that chasm. It’s self-preservation, nothing more. He lies there, his heart beating audibly in his chest, and wishes that he were anywhere but here. And yet, that would be a torture, too. He doesn’t know what John is thinking, whether he’s despairing or furious or cursing his decision to have said those words aloud, himself. It doesn’t matter, Sherlock tells himself, staring out into the darkness across from him. There isn’t anything he can do about it.

The silence stretches out into eternity.

***

When he wakes, John’s bed is empty.

Panic is his first reaction; surely John hasn’t left. Sherlock throws back his blankets and gets out of the small bed, heart thudding furiously. There is a small, handwritten note on the counter next to the coffee maker, however. Sherlock snatches at it, his fingers unsteady. It says: Just went for a walk. Needed to clear my head. Be back before 10. -J Sherlock exhales in relief, then checks the time. It’s twenty to ten now. There is already coffee made; John got up, quietly made coffee, probably showered, then slipped out of the cottage. Sherlock glances out the front window but doesn’t see John anywhere. The SUV is still parked in the drive. He sighs. Perhaps not having to face each other first thing is better, anyway. He collects his clothing and takes a shower, then dresses and pours himself a cup of coffee. He’s drinking it in front of his laptop when the door opens and John comes back in.

He’s wearing his coat and carrying one of the travel mugs. “Morning,” he says, a bit curtly.

“Morning,” Sherlock says, glancing very briefly up from his laptop before returning his eyes to the screen, careful not to prolong their eye contact. “Thank you for your note. And the coffee. The sighting has been reported. It’s in the news.”

“Is it?” John’s voice is just right, focused on the case. “Good, then – we should be able to go back and look for tracks from last night.”

The words last night are a bit too close to home, but Sherlock keeps his expression completely neutral. “Exactly. Have you eaten?” he asks briskly.

“No. Didn’t want to wake you.” John’s back is to him. “I think I’ll just have some toast,” he says, his choice forbidding any discussion of them cooking together.

They’re back to that, then. “Good idea,” Sherlock says, a bit shortly, but John doesn’t comment. He waits for John to make his toast and take it to the armchair across from the sofa, then gets up and goes to make his own, eating it there in the kitchen, standing. When he’s finished, he puts his plate into the sink. “I’m ready to go if you are,” he says, his tone entirely devoid of inflection.

“Yeah, I’m good,” John says. He gets up and sets his plate down on the counter dividing the kitchen from the sitting area. “Let’s go.”

They go outside, John locking the door behind them. “Do you want to drive?” Sherlock offers politely.

“No, go ahead. I think it would be best if you drove and I navigated so that we can retrace our steps,” John says, squinting out at the empty stretch of field across from the cottage and avoiding Sherlock’s gaze.

“All right.” Sherlock lets it go. He gets into the driver’s seat, waits for John to close his door, and starts off.

“How many people reported this one?” John asks, evidently determined to keep up a steady stream of case-related conversation.

Sherlock can’t help but feel a bit relieved, though it also feel rather dogged on John’s part. Best if they just focus on the case, anyway, he thinks. They haven’t got time to get bogged down in the rest of their issues right now. “Three reports so far,” he says, keeping his eyes on the road. “Two reported seeing lights in the air, one reported seeing lights in the air as well as on the ground.”

“Not bad, considering how deserted it seemed,” John points out.

“Agreed.” Sherlock drives back to the motorway that they drove to from their stake-out point. “I thought I wouldn’t retrace the entire drive, just the place where we got out,” he explains. “It was left here, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” John says. “Good memory. You don’t need – ” He stops, cutting himself off abruptly, and clears his throat.

Sherlock can hear the unsaid words plainly: You don’t need me at all. Should he address it? “Don’t be ridiculous,” he says, his voice low. “You know better than that.” He changes strides before John can respond. “I think it was up here.”

John attempts to clear his throat again. “Yeah,” he says, and it comes out half in a whisper. “Just – up here, a bit. A little further.”

“About here?” Sherlock asks, pulling over to the side of the road.

“It’s hard to say precisely,” John admits. “It was so dark. But according to the map on my phone, I think it was about here, yeah.”

Sherlock switches off the engine and gets out. “Let’s have a look, then,” he proposes. The fields on either side of the road look innocent enough, stretching out in either direction with little to break the horizon save the slight roll to the land itself. There are no hedges or trees bordering the narrow lane, just open field. “Whoever received the parachuter must know this territory well,” he comments. “Obviously it would have been faster to make their escape in a vehicle, yet they must have walked.”

“I think it rained a little last night, so there could be fresh tracks, particularly in the dirt,” John says.

“Yes, but where?” Sherlock asks rhetorically. “There’s nothing to suggest that they came by this road, either to enter the field nor to exit again. Though possibly our presence might have prevented them from wanting to come this way.”

John looks down at his phone again. “The nearest dwelling in this direction is a farm,” he says. “Little Coop House Farm.” He looks out over the field, and nods at a cluster of low buildings in the distance. “I’m guessing that’s it. Do you suppose the farmer had anything to do with it?”

Sherlock surveys the field a tad skeptically. “Someone local is definitely involved,” he responds. “And it’s quite possible that the farm buildings offered some shelter, a place to rest, whether or not the farmer was involved. I suppose there’s only one way to find out.”

“Into the field it is,” John says grimly. He gestures. “Lead the way, then.”

Sherlock could point out that John has the greater field experience, though possibly not literally – the terrain of Afghanistan and northeastern England aren’t noticeably similar, after all. He doesn’t respond verbally, just crosses the lane and plunges into the ankle-high grasses. “Any idea what these plants are?” he asks mildly.

“Not a clue.” John is two metres behind him.

They hike in the rough direction of the farm without talking after that. The crop changes after fifteen minutes of walking, changing for a grain of some sort. Sherlock wishes he had an aerial view of the field. He could look at the map on his phone, but any sort of signal that the receiver might have left wouldn’t appear there, anyway. He finds a deep track left by a tractor or farm machine and begins to follow it, John following silently behind him. Sherlock gauges the distance to the farm and determines that they’re about halfway there. He begins to scan the ground more carefully. If things were normal between them, John would make snide remarks and call him Aragorn, meaning it fondly, but now there’s nothing but their stony silence.

“Sherlock,” John says behind him, breaking it.

He turns. “Hmm?”

John is pointing. “There,” he says. “What’s that?”

Sherlock carefully parts the grain, which is nearly to his waist here, and sees what John is looking at: a section of the crop has been crushed or trampled on, the stalks bent and broken. “Yes,” he says. “It was here. Bravo.”

John ignores the compliment. “But where did they go next?” He looks around. “Do you see anything? A print, maybe?”

Sherlock bends, looking for patterns. The damage leads due south, directly toward the farm. He follows it, then finally finds what he’s looking for: a single patch of unplanted mud, in which three-quarters of a footprint appears. “Aha!” He takes out his phone, crouches, and photographs it. “I’d send this to Lestrade, but the reception here is quite shaky,” he says.

“Interesting. I wonder if it’s only just here,” John says thoughtfully. “I mean, the town of Murton is just on the other side of the road we came from.”

Sherlock shrugs. “Another reason to get closer to the farm,” he points out. “Let’s keep going.” He follows the trail of broken grain back to the tractor ruts.

“Are we going to question the farmer?” John asks.

“I thought we should.”

“Did the news sites say who saw the lights last night?” John is walking closer to him than he was before.

Sherlock shakes his head. “No, or I’d have put them on our list of people to talk to today.”

“Ah.” John falls silent again until they reach the farm.

There are several outbuildings, the house itself visible closer to the other side. Sherlock debates going to talk to the farmer first, or risk getting shot for trespassing, then decides to chance it. He skirts a large barn housing equipment, based on his glance inside, then chooses another at random and tries the door. It’s open. “Come on,” he says under his breath. “Let’s have a look.”

Their search is slow and careful, neither of them sure what they’re looking for, but then Sherlock spots something. He points. “What’s that?” John asks.

Sherlock bends and picks it up. It’s a balled-up piece of plastic wrap, containing bread crumbs and a smear of mustard. “The remains of someone’s snack, it would seem,” he replies. It might not be anything. It could belong to one of the farmhands. He looks around, making a wider circle, eyes alert for anything that might not belong in a barn. Then he sees it: two double-A batteries. “Bingo,” he says, picking them up and holding them out to John. “большая емкость: high capacity.”

John’s eyes meet his. “They’re the same brand!”

“Time to see if our farmer is at home,” Sherlock says, meeting his eyes with grim satisfaction. They’re actually getting somewhere!

They make their way to the farmhouse and ring the bell. A man comes to the door, dressed in an ancient pair of jeans and a ripped and grubby jumper. “Hello,” he says. “Can I help you?”

“Yes, possibly,” Sherlock says, pulling out one of his more artificial smiles. “I’m Sherlock Holmes and this is John Watson. We just happened to be on your premises and found these Russian-made batteries in one of your barns and I’m wondering if you’d care to tell us why.”

“Sherlock,” John says under his breath.

Both Sherlock and the farmer ignore him. The latter frowns. “What’s that?” he asks. “Batteries? I thought this was going to have something to do with the parachute! You’re not with the police, then?”

“The parachute?” Sherlock frowns back. “What parachute?”

The farmer gestures backwards in the direction of the outbuildings. “Yeah, I found a bloody great parachute in one of my barns early this morning! That’s why I’m here in the house, was waiting for the police to come and get it! I telephoned straight away. The wife’s at work, works in an office over in Seaham, or else I’d be out in the fields.”

John glances at Sherlock. “Did you find anything else?” he asks.

The farmer shakes his head. “No, just the parachute. I should think that would be enough!”

“Yes, of course,” John agrees. “Just out of curiosity, did you happen to see anything last night around midnight? Some flashing lights, perhaps?”

“What, those UFO sightings?” The farmer shakes his head. “No, I’m in bed long before then. Up with the chickens, as they say! Not that I’ve got any chickens, mind, but you know the expression.”

Sherlock ignores this bit of uselessness. “It would seem that the parachuter took refuge in your barn.” He checks the time. It’s now nearly eleven. “At what time did you phone the police?” he asks.

The farmer blows out his breath. “Oh, I’m not sure, exactly,” he says. “Must have been around eight, though. Not much later than that.”

“Interesting,” Sherlock says. “Which station did you call?”

“The one in Peterlee,” the farmer says. “Closest one.”

“And what’s your name?” John asks. He’s got his small notebook and a pen in hand. “Just so that we can reference you if need be.”

“No problem,” says the farmer affably. “Name’s Liddell, Graham Liddell.”

“And where is the parachute now?” John asks, scrawling down the name.

Liddell nods with his chin. “Back in the barn where I found it. Why?”

Sherlock glances at John. “Could you show us?” he asks carefully. The parachuter could have ditched the parachute, then eaten his or her sandwich and switched out batteries in another building, he supposes, but it makes very little sense.

“Sure,” Liddell says cheerfully. “Why not? Cup of coffee before we set out? You could just wait for the police to arrive, if you want to talk to them and then we could all head back there together. Save me a trip.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I think we’d best have a look right away,” John tells him nicely.

Liddell takes this with a shrug. “Right you are. Follow me, then.” He pulls on a jacket, then asks, as though in an afterthought, “What was that you said about some batteries? Russian ones?”

John already has them stowed in an evidence bag, but pulls them out. “We found these in one of your barns, along with the remains of what was probably a sandwich,” he says. “But we didn’t see a parachute.”

“Huh.” Liddell sounds genuinely curious. “What would Russians being doing in my fields, I wonder?”

“We don’t know yet,” Sherlock says darkly.

The farmer stops at the doorway to the barn where they found the batteries and the plastic wrap. “Blimey,” he says blankly. “It’s gone! The parachute’s gone!”

***

Sherlock strides into the station, John right behind him, and presents himself at the front desk. “Yes, hello, I need a full list of this station’s employees as well as who was on duty this morning,” he says, then adds with mock apology, “Oh, by the way, I’m Sherlock Holmes, and this is Doctor John Watson. I’ll have that list straight away.”

The desk officer gapes at him. “What’s all this, then?” he wants to know.

John’s arms are crossed. “Just do as he says,” he tells the officer shortly. “Trust me, if you make him get a warrant to search you, things will get unpleasant rather quickly.”

“Start with who was on duty, specifically answering the phones this morning,” Sherlock instructs the hapless officer before he can respond to John.

The man blinks and stammers. “Well – er – it was Pete,” he says. “He was on duty first thing. He’s out on a call, though, and I don’t know when he’ll – ”

“Full name for ‘Pete’,” Sherlock interrupts.

The desk officer seems to remember his computer then, another ancient derelict of similar vintage to the one in the Blackhall station. “Er, full name is Peter Smith. No middle name listed.”

John looks at Sherlock. “Only one of the most common names in England,” he mutters, then turns back to the desk officer. “Look, we’re going to need a full employee roster for the officers assigned to this station, as well as Smith’s current whereabouts. Can you check the call log and confirm that he took a call around eight this morning?”

The officer nods. “Yeah, I can do you for all that, except the current location. Normally we can check another officer’s GPS tracker in their car, but they act up on the regular and his has been off all day today.”

“Radio him, then,” Sherlock orders.

The officer hesitates, clearly wanting to protest, but the words die on his lips on meeting Sherlock’s gaze. “Oh, hell,” he mumbles. “All right, then, one minute.” He reaches for a radio. “Smith, what’s your twenty?” He pauses, static sounding back over the radio. “Smith, come in, please. Do you read?” He frowns at Sherlock, shaking his head. “Could be a faulty radio,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of old equipment.”

“Are any reports from this morning’s call?” John persists. “Have you got that there?”

The officer reaches for his mouse and scrolls, squinting at the screen. “Let’s see here… yeah, I’ve got the call, but there’s nothing logged for reports.”

“Is that usual?” Sherlock asks, his eyes like lasers on the officer’s forehead.

“If it weren’t anything important, yeah,” the officer admits. “And we don’t record them anymore, neither. But I’ll get you that employee list,” he adds hastily, seeing both their faces. He clicks rapidly, then a printer in the corner begins to discharge pages.

Sherlock glances at John and turns away, lifting his phone to his ear. “Mycroft,” he says after a moment, his tone intense. “Need a quick favour.”

“I’m listening,” his brother says.

“Check on name changes anywhere in the country in the past five years for a Peter Smith.”

There’s a moment of disbelieving silence. Then Mycroft says, “That’s something of a needle in a haystack. Have you got anything else?”

“Yes, he’s currently employed as a police officer in Peterlee,” Sherlock says, keeping his voice down and glancing back at the desk officer, who is speaking with John.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Mycroft disconnects.

Sherlock checks his texts again for Lestrade’s response to his partial shoe print. Apparently either the parachuter or the person who received him was wearing some brand of men’s boot called Ridge 6” Air-Tac Mid SZ, whatever that means. A quick search has shown it to be a lightweight tactical boot, ideal for shock absorption upon landing. He turns back to the desk. “Just out of curiosity, are boots provided with your uniforms, or do you buy your own?” he asks.

“They come with it, though we’ve a choice,” the officer tells him, looking puzzled. “Why?”

Sherlock favours him with one of his least genuine smiles. “Just ruling out your men’s footprints. What are they, then?” He nods at the officer’s feet.

“These?” The officer frowns. “I don’t rightly know. You can take a photograph of the bottoms if you like, though.”

“That will have to do. Your foot, please.” Sherlock zooms in and takes the photo. “Thank you.”

John has already cottoned on. “Does, er, Pete wear the same ones as you?” he asks casually.

“Think so,” the officer says, putting his foot down. “They were all out of the others, so most of us have got these ones.”

Sherlock deploys another false smile. “Thank you so much. Do let us know if you manage to track your colleague down, won’t you?”

“Here’s the number,” John adds, scrawling Sherlock’s mobile onto a scrap of paper. “There’s an email, too. Contact us the moment you hear from him or find out where he is, all right?”

“Will do,” the officer says, still sounding bewildered. “He’s – not in any trouble, is he?”

John exchanges a quick look with Sherlock. “That remains to be seen. Bit unusual that he’s just out on some call that you know nothing about, with his GPS and radio acting up, isn’t it?”

That seems to silence the officer, and they leave, getting back into the car. “Well, that was almost useless,” Sherlock says, mainly to prevent the dreaded silence from forming.

“We never know what may come in handy,” John reminds him. “I noticed something, though. Not about the officer.”

“What’s that?” Sherlock turns on the ignition and pulls out of the small parking lot.

“I was looking at the map again while we were in there, and I noticed that the front lane leading to the farm actually comes out on the very road we were parked on,” John says. “West Lane. So if the parachuter and whoever received him or her passed by the farm, there’s every chance they could have come out right in front of us.”

Sherlock exhales. “That’s a frustrating thought.”

“There’s something else,” John says. “Our street, the road where the cottage is: have you noticed that it’s rather similar to these other two that we’ve been staking out? I mean, it just seems like a prime location. It’s closer to the coast, too.”

Sherlock makes a thinking sound. “It is rather similar,” he says. Thinking of the cottage makes him think of last night and John’s I mean that I love you and he almost shudders. He clears his throat. “Are you suggesting that we consider it a possible location?”

“I just wonder if they’d change things up, especially if they get wind of us sniffing around,” John says. “I mean, the farmer found and reported the parachute. If they were watching, they’ll know we were there. And now the police know we’ve been asking around, two stations now. Maybe that will make them want to change up their schedule, their landing sites. Last night’s parachuter was reported by a bunch of people. I’d certainly find somewhere new. Just seems like we’re in a rather likely location, though I’m sure the entire county is covered with equally likely locations. Lots of farmland up here.”

“That’s true, but you could be on to something,” Sherlock muses. “Failing other leads found before tonight, we can certainly try it. With or without the car.”

John acknowledges this, then says, “Where are we going now?”

Sherlock shrugs. “Lunch, I thought. It’s about that time. Can’t be starving you, after all. Plus I’m waiting for Mycroft to get back to us about any Peter Smiths who work for the Yard who have changed their names within the past few years. We’ve checked on all of the other known Russians in the region and they’ve all checked out so far.”

“Ah, that’s who you phoned. I see.” John looks out his window. “Good call on lunch, too. Where are we going?”

“You choose,” Sherlock tells him, keeping his voice as carefully polite as has now become his standard. He hates it, hates talking to John this way, like a friendly acquaintance or distant relation. He misses their jokes and banter. Everything has been put on hold due to John’s words and Sherlock’s failure to respond last night. (How could he, though? It’s not reasonable to ask it of him, Sherlock thinks with frustration.)

John scans his phone map. “Fish and chips or Chinese?” he asks, with that same careful politeness that Sherlock’s been using.

“Your call,” Sherlock tells him, volleying the choice back to him.

“Fish and chips, then,” John says. “It’s more likely to be good right on the coast here.”

“Good decision.” Sherlock’s phone beeps in his coat pocket. “I hope that’s Mycroft,” he says.

John’s hesitation is palpable. “Do you want me to… ?”

Sherlock takes his left hand off the wheel, retrieves the phone, and gives it to John. “Read that, would you?” he requests, ignoring John’s offer.

John says nothing about this, just reads out the text. “You’re in luck: Peter Smith of the Peterlee force used to be Pyotr Smirnov of Moscow until 2014. Checking his criminal record now. Will advise.” John looks up. “Sherlock, this is huge!”

“Where does Smith live?” Sherlock asks. “I think lunch will have to wait.”

“Right!” John shuffles through the pages the desk officer printed for them. “Er, he lives – son of a bitch, he lives almost right at the end of the road we were originally waiting on, West Lane! It’s called Windermere. Turn at the next left!”

Sherlock takes a hard turn and steps up the speed, John guiding him. It’s only a ten-minute drive before they’re pulling up in front of a red brick house on the edge of the village of South Hetton. “Be cautious,” Sherlock warns, opening his door. “Russian spies are not to be underestimated.”

“Of course.” John comes around the car and meets him, arms crossed as they consider the house. “What’s our plan?”

“Knock, I thought?” Sherlock suggests.

“And get ready to duck. Got it.” John follows him over to the door.

Sherlock knocks firmly and waits, then knocks again. “Looking for Officer Smith,” he states loudly. “Officer Smith, I need your help. Are you home?” Another knock. “Officer Peter Smith! Please, it’s urgent!”

Silence. Sherlock looks at John and their eyes meet. John nods at the doorknob. “Lockpicks?” he asks under his breath.

“Of course.” Sherlock reaches for his roll of them from the inside pocket of his coat and selects the correct size on the first try. The door opens silently. They wait a moment for gunfire, but nothing comes. “Officer Smith,” Sherlock calls out again, his tone cautious. “Just looking for your help…”

John follows, his Sig drawn. “Looks like no one’s home,” he says after a moment.

“Agreed, unless he’s hiding,” Sherlock responds.

They explore the house. It doesn’t take long, but their search turns up several items of interest, including a short-range radio not of standard Yard issue, a photograph of a middle-aged woman in the bedroom with the name Tatyana scrawled on the back in handwritten ink, with the addition of Matryushka in another hand. “His mother?” John asks, and Sherlock nods. And finally, they find the remains of a parachute in a plastic, cut into pieces and set outside with the other bags of rubbish.

“Interesting,” Sherlock says coolly. “An odd place to hide it, practically in plain sight.”

“I suppose the neighbourhood isn’t particularly suspicious,” John says dryly. He nods at the bag. “I guess we’ll be taking that with us?”

Sherlock considers. “If we do, he’ll definitely know that we’re onto him. On the other hand, we could just photograph it here.”

“Do we want to draw him out, though?” John asks. He looks at the house. “I mean, we don’t even know whether he’s got surveillance. Or where the parachuter himself is. You’re the one who said we shouldn’t underestimate him… maybe this is a ruse to make us think that he’s not very good at this.”

“It’s a distinct possibility,” Sherlock admits. He, too, glances at the house. “Well, if we’re being played, then the only thing for it is to play along.” He ties the rubbish bag closed again. “Let’s take the parachute,” he decides.

John almost grins. “In for a penny…” he mutters, picks it up, and slings it over his shoulder. He puts it in the back of the SUV and they pull away. “So it’s what you thought,” he confirms. “A Russian terrorist sleeper cell, in the middle of nowhere up here.”

“Close to the coast,” Sherlock points out. “Sparsely populated in places. Lots of fields to land in. I share your curiosity as to where the parachuters themselves are going. It would seem safe to wager a guess that Smirnov is the one receiving them.”

“Can we prove that they came from the farm and went to his house?” John wonders aloud.

“We can certainly try.” Sherlock is driving down West Lane, the road they chose for their stake-out the other night. “Where the lane leading to Little Coop House Farm? You said it came out here, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I did.” John scans his map. “Just a little further up. Slow down. Here.”

Sherlock pulls over and parks the SUV, though the road is quite narrow. “Let’s have a look,” he says briskly.

They get out and examine the road. West Lane is paved, but the lane leading to the sign-posted farm is not, so Sherlock starts there. John wanders down in the direction they came, his eyes on the plant-covered shoulder of the road. “Think I’ve got a tyre track here,” he says. “Yeah, definitely.” He pulls out his phone and takes a photo of it.

Meanwhile, Sherlock bends, squinting. “I’ve got footprints. Just one set. Same as from the field.” He takes the photo, then goes to see John’s tyre tracks.

“Recognise it?” John asks, but Sherlock shakes his head.

“So he landed, made for the farm – with or without Smirnov – then kept going via the farm lane, and got into a vehicle here,” he muses. “Send Lestrade the tread, would you?”

John does, waits a moment, then says, “Okay, he’s on it. He wants to know if we want him to come up.”

Sherlock considers. “Yes, actually. The more the merrier, right? Perhaps it’s time to bring some of the locals out, too. Smirnov’s pals from the Peterlee station, say.”

John snickers. “Like they’ll be so much use.”

“It can’t hurt,” Sherlock points out. “Let’s say we follow your hunch and stake out the road outside the cottage. We can send a team back here to this road, or possibly the one across the field, put another on the beach. We don’t know whether they’ll try another landing tonight, or what they’re actually planning up here. You and I can’t be everywhere.”

“Good idea,” John decides.

Sherlock’s phone rings. Surprised, he looks at it and frowns. “It’s local,” he says, then answers. “Sherlock Holmes.”

“Hello Mr Holmes, this is Deputy Barnes from the Peterlee station,” says the other, hushed. “Just wanted to let you know that Pete’s just walked in. He doesn’t know I’m talking to you.”

“Good, keep it that way,” Sherlock tells him. “I need you to do two things for me. Are you listening? First, I need you to check his footwear. No need for a photo, just let me know. Secondly, I need you to find a way to keep him there in the station, so that you know where he is. Understood?”

“Yes sir,” Barnes says. “I can do that. I’ll arrange for an errand and put him on the desk job. Something like that.”

“And you won’t forget about his shoes,” Sherlock reminds him.

“No, I’ll get right on that.”

“Barnes. One more thing.” Sherlock pauses. “I assume that your security cameras are a closed circuit system?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Barnes replies, waiting.

“I need you to find a way to subtly install another camera that would show anyone entering or leaving the station,” Sherlock tells him. “Can you do that? Once you have, I’ll send you a link to set up outside access, so that we can monitor Pete ourselves.”

“Right-o. I’ll let you know when I’ve got it up and running,” Barnes says, and disconnects.

“The desk officer?” John asks, guessing correctly.

Sherlock nods. “Interesting. Smirnov just reported back. Evidently whatever plan they have isn’t ripe for launching just yet.”

“Which increases the chances that he’s still waiting for other members of the cell to arrive,” John points out. He looks at Sherlock. “You think he’ll leave the station to meet them, don’t you?”

Sherlock looks at him with admiration, but works to keep it from his face. John is the ideal partner in every way, observant, with his own unique skill set, always prepared to jump into action, never unwilling to mull things over, ready to follow Sherlock’s every whim. He cannot say any of this, and swallows it down instead. “It’s a strong possibility. I think that he needs to be monitored at all times. Let’s go and put a tracker on his car and then find something to eat,” he says neutrally. “If Lestrade arrives this evening, we can lay our plans then.”

***

It’s just past midnight. Sherlock and John are lying flat on their bellies just beside the road their cottage is on, three kilometres away from it, the SUV parked two hundred metres away. They’ve both got their binoculars and are scanning the field ahead of them. Behind them lies the village of Easington Colliery, so they’ve focused their attention on this stretch. Barnes and the officer from the Durham station are down on the Blackhall Rocks. Lestrade and his new sergeant Stevens are on West Lane near the gravel lane leading to Little Coop House Farm. All is still with the exception of the wind, which picks up every few moments, then dies away again. The darkness around them is nearly complete.

Beside him, Sherlock can feel John’s warmth. They’re close enough for that, and given their present awkwardness, it should be uncomfortable, yet it isn’t at all.

John shifts. “Anything on Smirnov’s tracker?”

Sherlock checks his phone. “No, nothing. All we know is that he fed a false feedback loop into the closed-circuit system and left the station just after eleven.”

“What time is it now?”

“Ten past midnight.”

John falls silent, and despite the adrenaline coursing through his veins, Sherlock sees and quietly acknowledges with a sensation of blinding obviousness, that his feelings for John have always been a part of this: this bundle of anticipation humming through his nervous system, vibrating in his very tissues, is more than the simple thrill of the chase, as he said to John upon his return, all but pleading with him to come back to him, to more than their hobby of solving cases together, but to their very life together: this life. He did understand it, in a way. He’d said just the two of us against the rest of the world, because that’s what it was. It wasn’t just solving cases, and it was more than having someone to solve them with. It was all of the rest of it: the two of them, together, and above anything else, it was John himself. Obviously. John Watson, you keep me right. Of course it’s only ever been John. If he were to find the right words, clumsily chosen in all likelihood, but perhaps if he managed to stumble onto the right combination of verbalisation to communicate this to John now, could that solve this seemingly unbridgeable chasm currently widening between them? On one hand it feels impossible: their respective words, or lack thereof, have put them on opposite sides of this enormous gulf, particularly John’s unanswered statement from last night. But on the other hand, John is also right there, so close. In a sense it would be so easy to simply… turn to him. Reach for him. (No.) The forbidden thought is cancelled guiltily, a few seconds too late. But maybe if he were to say John’s name, attempt to take the filters and masks and fortress walls down and just – let him see it, let the cavalry run roughshod in without restraint and surrender helplessly to it, maybe then John would simply see it and know, know that what Sherlock feels is every bit as deep or deeper than John’s own feelings, that he is the entire foundation upon which Sherlock’s life is built. Perhaps it isn’t too late to tell him. Perhaps he should, and damn the risk once and for all.

Sherlock opens his mouth and inhales suddenly, but John tenses beside him.

“There!” he hisses. “Sherlock! At one o’clock! Not more than half a kilometre away!”

“I see it!” Sherlock keeps his voice down, his pulse doubling. “This time we’ll have them!”

They pull themselves into crouches, ready to move, and John has his Sig drawn. There is an answering pair of flashes from the ground. “Tell Lestrade,” John says, eyes focused on the sky for the next signal.

Sherlock agrees, reaching for the radio in his coat pocket. “Lestrade, we’ve got a parachuter! Get here, and bring the other two.”

“Got it,” comes Lestrade’s voice, the volume dialed extremely low. Sherlock switches off the audio lest the static carry across the field to where someone, likely Smirnov, is waiting. The next set of flashes comes, twenty metres up. The party on the ground responds immediately this time. “Steady,” Sherlock says under his breath, and John’s hands regrip the Sig in preparation.

They heard the thump as the parachuter lands, and Sherlock catches just a fluttering glimpse of the parachute itself as it briefly moves past some lights on the far horizon, across the field. There are two low voices speaking in what sounds like an urgent tone. They are thirty metres off, Sherlock estimates. He listens hard, and can just hear them moving across the field. However, the wind has just picked up again, whistling through the grasses and sparse nearby trees. It’s muffling the Russians’ progress and making it difficult to estimate how close they are.

Suddenly the two men burst out onto the road, each armed with a heavy automatic weapon, different makes, but Sherlock’s brain doesn’t have time to identify them in that split second. “Drop it!” Smirnov snarls at John. “Hands up, both of you!”

The parachuter is aiming directly at the centre of John’s chest from less than five metres away. John’s jaw tenses, but he very slowly lowers the Sig to the road at his feet, straightening up with his hands above his head.

“Now kick it away, Watson,” Smirnov growls. “You think I was born yesterday?”

John exhales and kicks the gun about a metre and a half away, closer to Sherlock than to himself.

Smirnov’s native tongue is only discernible to a trained ear; otherwise he seems to have mastered the northeastern accent fairly well, Sherlock thinks fleetingly. “You knew we were here,” he says, attempting to stall for time.

Smirnov rolls his eyes. “You put a tracker on my car. So I tracked your rental and put one on yours when you stopped by my station. I saw you at my house. And then you drove right up to my station. But enough talk: say goodbye to your little bodyguard, Holmes.”

It all happens in a nanosecond, a nightmare that he’s had thousands of times now – Sherlock sees Smirnov’s finger tightening on the trigger and barely has time to react – “No!” He careens into John, but the bullet has already fired by this point, and John cries out and hits the ground hard with Sherlock stumbling into him. Rage and panic flood his veins. Both Smirnov and the parachuter are advancing, obviously intending to finish them both, so Sherlock reacts on sheer instinct and dives for the Sig. Some part of his brain manages to focus, direct the shots. He hits Smirnov first, in the shoulder, then the parachuter, successfully getting the upper right quadrant of his chest, then throws himself at John, bent over him on his hands and knees.

“John. John!” John’s eyelids move rapidly and he moans (but he’s alive, Sherlock tells himself fiercely). He checks the Russians, but they’re both down. Lestrade will come soon enough and get them. He doesn’t care. “John,” he repeats, frantically. “Where are you hit?”

John is breathing shallowly, the pain very much evident in every breath. “My side – Sher – you – ”

“Stop trying to talk!” Sherlock unzips John’s coat, which he can feel is wet with blood, then finds the wound with his fingers at the extreme right of John’s rib cage. He reaches around gingerly and finds the crushed shape of the bullet still inside John’s jacket. “It went right through you,” he tells John, heart stuttering within his chest even as he carefully touches John’s ribs. “Might have nicked a rib. You’re losing a lot of blood.” John’s eyelids are fluttering. “John! Stay with me!” Sherlock begs, not caring how it sounds for once. The radio buzzes in his pocket and he grabs at it with bloodstained fingers. “Lestrade! They’re down, but John’s been hit! I’ve got to get him to the cottage!”

He doesn’t wait for a response. Removing John’s coat and shirt here is out of the question, so he yanks off his scarf and carefully wraps it around John’s torso as quickly as his shaking fingers will permit. John is groaning with pain, and while his being conscious is good, Sherlock is frankly frightened by how quickly the blood has already soaked through the scarf. “I’ve got to pick you up now,” he says. “I’m sorry, just – hold on, John!”

John cries out as Sherlock lifts him from the road. “I’m sorry,” Sherlock says, his teeth gritted with agony. “I’m so sorry!” He makes for the SUV at a run, John’s weight heavy in his arms but not at all impossible. “I’m going as fast as I can! We’ve just got to get to the car, and then to the cottage! Hold on!” He’s babbling, breath gusting through his teeth, but at least the car is relatively close. He fumbles for the keys, leaning John’s weight against the door, then manhandles him into the backseat with what must be agonising pain for John. “I’m sorry,” he says again, getting John’s feet onto the seat and clear of the door, then slamming it and diving for the driver’s seat.

He drives the three kilometres like a bat out of hell. “I’m – Sher – I’m sorry – ” John is stuttering, the words half-incoherent.

“Don’t apologise, for God’s sake! You’ve done nothing wrong!” Sherlock swings into the drive in front of the cottage and jumps out, yanking John’s door open.

“Not for – for everything before that – for all of the – and before, at the – ” John is gasping through Sherlock’s teeth-gritted attempt to slide him out with as little jolting as possible.

“Stop,” Sherlock says again, getting John into his arms and making for the cottage door. “Don’t try to talk right now!” He manages the door somehow and staggers inside, kicking the door shut behind him.

“I’ve – got to,” John pants. “At the hospital – that day – I – and when I – don’t deserve you, after – ” He stops, pain coming out in a groan as Sherlock lowers him onto his own bed, the closest one to the door.

“Not now!” He’s still frantic, especially now that he can see how much blood there is in the light. Sherlock pries the coat away, then stops. “Your kit,” he says urgently. “Where is it?”

“Beside – my bed – ” John is grey-faced, sweat standing out on his forehead.

Sherlock scrambles around the bed to grab at it, devoutly hoping that John won’t go into shock. I’ll perform a transfusion of my own blood, I don’t even care, he thinks fiercely. There is nothing I wouldn’t do for him. “Stay with me,” he says again, trying to mask his own panic. There is a face flannel on his nightstand and he reaches for it, then starts unwinding his scarf.

“Have to – say it, just in – just in case,” John gasps, one hand clutching weakly at Sherlock’s coat sleeve.

“Shush. Not now, and there are no cases in which you won’t be able to say it later,” Sherlock says, but his teeth are nearly chattering in fear, his heart in his throat. The scarf is soaked through. He tosses it away and carefully, carefully eases John out of his coat and shirt. To his vast relief, the actual wound is smaller than he expected, having only just grazed John’s side. It’s large enough, though, the edges of the skin in bloodied ribbons. He presses the flannel to it, trying to hide his fear. “I think I’ve got to give you a local anaesthetic and stitch this,” he says, feeling John’s pulse beating through the flannel to the curve of his palm.

“Sherlock,” John says, his voice still weak, but his tone has changed. “Look at me.” He’s calmer now. Sherlock does it, looks John in the eyes, unable to hide his terror when confronted directly this way. “You can do this,” John says, as convincingly as he can manage. “I trust you.”

Sherlock’s lips compress. “All evidence to the contrary, at least based on past experiences,” he says. “But – if you talk me through it, I swear I can do this, I promise.”

“I trust you,” John repeats, more firmly. “And that’s why I – ” His face contorts as a spasm of pain crosses it. “Should have said that – should have said so much more – but then I went and – said the wrong stuff first and I – fucked up the – ”

Sherlock swallows hard and reaches over the arm that’s pressing down on the bullet wound for the medical kit, rummaging for a syringe. “You don’t need to say this now,” he says, his voice scraping over his throat.

“I know I don’t deserve you,” John states plainly. “I know I shouldn’t have – asked for – just needed to – say that – ”

Sherlock shakes his head, refusing to hear this now, at this precarious juncture. “Don’t be ridiculous.” He lets go of the flannel to quickly load the syringe, testing it for air bubbles. He turns back to John, removes the flannel, and positions the needle. “Here?” John nods, and Sherlock depresses it. It takes a moment and some semblance of calm begins to return. “I thought I was the one who would never be good enough in your eyes,” he says, quieter now, though his heart is still pounding. “That you thought I have no compassion, that I don’t know how to care about anyone, including you. That I don’t even know how to love properly. That I am inadequate in every possible way, from emotional to – sexual.”

“What? God, no! That’s – but before, maybe I – ” John is wincing through the injection. “Okay, now the thread, the polydioxanone. I don’t think that now, okay? But I know I never even apologised, or said. And – ”

Sherlock threads the needle driver with slightly steadier fingers. “Stop,” he repeats, and if it comes out rather pleadingly, so be it. “Let’s – come back to that. Tell me what to do here. I need you to help me.”

John nods, a quick duck of his chin. “Okay. Okay. Get the edges of the skin lined up the best you can, where there are defined edges. Don’t let them turn in or down. Then start in the middle and subdivide the remaining space. You’ll need to tie each one separately. Have you got the tweezers?”

“Erm – ” Sherlock reaches into the kit. “Yes.”

John talks him through the rest of it, explaining the knotting, and they agree to try for six sutures in total. By the end of John’s explanation, Sherlock feels white around the eyes with stress, himself. John reaches for his coat sleeve again. “You can do this,” he repeats, his eyes full of something that makes Sherlock’s chest ache to see. “I told you: I trust you. To the end of the world and back, Sherlock.”

Something about this causes whatever was holding the dam gates closed to break open and suddenly Sherlock cannot accept his own choice to go on keeping John in this state of emotional purgatory a moment longer. “John – ” The right words don’t come. Instead, he bends over John and looks intently into his eyes, the tweezers and needle driver still in his hands. John sees it at last, his eyes widening in wonder over it, his lips parting a little. The truth is there between them now, in one look. Then let the cavalry come, Sherlock thinks. He closes the distance between them and clumsily puts his mouth on John’s. John’s lips are warm and he responds with astonishing speed considering the state he’s in, and a dizzy wash of unchecked emotion rolls over Sherlock like a flood. John’s hand is balled in his coat sleeve, and after a moment or two, Sherlock lifts off, touches his tongue to his lips, blinking down at John. He still doesn’t know what to say. “Sorry,” he tries. “The stitches – I should – ”

“Sherlock – ” John reaches for his face now, drawing him back down before Sherlock can pull away and sit back again, and this time the kiss is firmer, more certain on both sides, John’s mouth strong against his, obviously wanting it and having no objection to Sherlock’s utter lack of technique.

He feels breathless and euphoric by the end of it, his heart thumping crazily in his chest in an entirely different way, blinking and lost entirely in John’s starry, painfully emotional eyes. “I – ”

“Maybe – maybe the stitches, yeah,” John says, also sounding breathless. “And then, after – ”

“Agreed,” Sherlock says, too quickly, and it makes John laugh. “Erm – I should wash my hands. Hold on.” He gets up with care and strips off his coat, leaving it on the floor, and hastily, thoroughly washes his hands at the kitchen sink, his entire frame alight with impossible amounts of joy, suffusing him in it, flooding his face with radiant heat. He knows he needs to focus, but the feeling of John’s mouth on his is burning into his lips, unlike any other feigned-for-a-case kiss he’s ever experienced before. It’s searing through him like a comet (and John would be so proud of the reference! Later, he thinks) and it must be all over his face. No façade will ever save him now. The walls are down; the invaders past the ramparts. It can’t be helped.

He goes back to the small bed and perches on the edge beside John’s hip again. “Is the anaesthetic working yet?” he asks, pulling on a pair of gloves and retrieving the suturing instruments.

“Yeah, it’s fine,” John says, not sounding as though he particularly cares. His face looks the same way as Sherlock thinks his must, and he puts one hand on Sherlock’s knee. “You’ve got this,” he says again.

“I could have radio-ed for an ambulance but I thought it would be too slow,” Sherlock says, carefully dabbing at the ragged edges of John’s skin with an alcohol wipe.

“You’re going to be fine,” John assures him, not even wincing at the alcohol, his eyes still so full that they’re making Sherlock’s chest ache. “I only want you.”

Sherlock allows himself to smile, the warmth of it all flaring within him. Of all the terrible times for this to finally make itself happen at last. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care. “I only want you, too. Always, John. It’s only ever been you.”

John’s hand tightens on his knee, but he stops trying to talk at last, stiffening as Sherlock fits his torn skin together and begins his first stitch. John has stitched him up on multiple occasions before, but each time Sherlock more or less ignored it while it was happening, at least the preparations for it, and now it feels as though he’s missed out on monumentally important information. He asks questions throughout where necessary, and John guides and confirms, still grey with pain. The radio goes off once or twice, but Sherlock ignores it. He’ll phone or email later. This is too important.

The stitches take twenty minutes, and by the end of it Sherlock is filled with an entirely new awe for John’s skills, particularly in an active battle zone. War hero, he reminds himself. “I’ll just – sterilise this, or – or wash it, at least, and then I’ll be back,” he tells John. “Do you need anything else?”

John shakes his head. “Just you,” he requests, and Sherlock’s entire abdomen glows afresh.

“Okay,” he says. “Just let me – ” He gets up with haste, anticipation fizzing throughout his nervous system, and goes to deal with the clean-up. He peels off the bloodied gloves, runs the instruments under hot water for several minutes, then wipes them down with rubbing alcohol. John will likely redo it at home, but that’s fine. He washes his hands again, then pours a glass of water, goes back and finds a bottle of paracetamol in the kit. “You’ll want to take some of this,” he says, and gives John the glass as he shakes two tablets out of the bottle. “And let’s cover that with some gauze,” he adds, and John agrees, handing back the glass. Sherlock sets it on the floor and cuts out a large square of gauze. This part is simple, at least. When the last piece of tape is patted carefully into place, John kicks off his shoes.

“Come here,” he requests, shifting over with a slight grimace and patting the bed beside him.

Sherlock hesitates for only a moment. “Okay,” he says, hearing how uncertain he sounds. He takes his own shoes off, following John’s lead, then with the utmost care, fits himself into the narrow space beside John, their heads on the same pillow. John’s arm is under his neck and Sherlock’s right arm is lying on top of John’s torso, bent double and held close to himself, his knees touching John’s right leg. The very intimacy of it is intoxicating, terrifying, yet he couldn’t stop craving it if he tried. It’s tremblingly new, a sensation never before experienced.

John is looking into his eyes, his head turned sideways on the pillow. “I’ve been such an idiot. Blaming Mary’s death on you. Walking out on you, that day in the hospital. After what I’d done. I – do know that, Sherlock. I’ve been meaning to bring it up, but I could never seem to find the right way to do it, just – say it out loud. And then when you said you thought things were too fragile between us – I just got stubborn about it and handled it so badly, right up to last night. I phoned your brother this morning, you know. Before we went to the landing site.”

“What?” Sherlock feels the bridge of his nose crease. “When you were out for your walk? Why?”

“What you’d said about the snipers,” John says. “I had to know. And when he told me, I just – I realised you’ve already done more than enough for me – not just with that, but with so many other things, over and over again. And that I’ve been a complete and utter shit to you, that I had to stop asking you for even more. But I also thought it was a bit late, that I’d said too much to take it back and just be happy to still have you in my life in any way at all. I didn’t know how to act around you today, knowing all that, and knowing I’d already gone and asked you for way too much. And then just now, getting shot – I just needed to tell you that I knew it was my own fault that it couldn’t happen, that I didn’t blame you for not – not thinking that it should, or could or whatever.”

Sherlock gazes into John’s eyes, wracked with self-recrimination and emotion at the same time, and lets go of any residual hurt he might have felt about any of the rest of it. It simply doesn’t matter anymore. “But I always wanted it, you know,” he says quietly, the private, forbidden words feeling practically illegal to utter aloud, even if he did admit it in some form before.

John’s eyes search his. “Did you?” he asks, wanting to confirm it. “Not just in a – strictly theoretical sense?”

Sherlock nods soberly. “Of course I did,” he says. “You’re – you’re my entire universe. You’re – everything. I’ve wanted so much more, but didn’t think it could happen, or would work even if you wanted it, too. But there was never anything question about that part. My wanting it, I mean.”

John blinks and swallows visibly. “Can I kiss you again?” he asks, and Sherlock’s entire being practically glitters with anticipation.

He nods and John closes the short space between their faces, the warmth radiating from his face touching Sherlock’s before his lips do, but then they’re kissing again and it feels better than any hit, any rush, any thrill of any chase or case they’ve ever had. John puts his hand on the back of Sherlock’s neck, shifting so that his face is slightly below Sherlock’s, the pillow out of their way, and Sherlock inadvertently finds himself leaning over, getting closer still. The kiss breaks off, their eyes opening, and then it starts again, Sherlock unaware of who moved to initiate it. It stops and restarts over and over again. Sherlock forgets about phoning Lestrade or Mycroft or anyone else, nearly forgets the wound he just stitched up. The rest of the world falls away, its only meaning condensed directly to the two of them, their mouths, the addictive closeness of them, the way he can feel the heat of John’s body against his own, muffled by their clothing. He grows bolder and presses the flat of his palm into John’s shoulder, allowing his arm to snake out across his chest.

John makes an appreciative sound and his lips part, catching at Sherlock’s lower one, and the explosion of new sensations all attempt to register at once and nearly overwhelm him. Sherlock understands intellectually; he’s certainly seen people do this, but the firsthand sensation of it is nothing like what he expected. It’s far, far better. He follows fumblingly, trying to mimic John, John’s breath in his mouth, and that’s good, yes – he falls into it, his hunger for it nearly drowning out his efforts at getting it right, and the next time their mouths part and come together again, the tempo seems to have increased significantly. When John’s tongue strokes against his, Sherlock nearly comes apart at the seams, the sensation flaring through his veins like wildfire. He reaches back with his own tongue, tentatively touches John’s with it, and after that his thoughts go blurry. They’re kissing fiercely, restraints abandoned, John’s arms around his back, Sherlock’s around his shoulders and dug under him, their knees bumping as their legs tangle together on the tiny bed.

He doesn’t know whether it’s been minutes or hours the next time they part, both breathing heavily. He feels absolutely drunk on this, on John, the ecstasy of this particular high unparalleled. John reaches up and strokes his face. “Have you ever kissed anyone like this before?” he asks, half-whispered.

Sherlock shakes his head. “No. Never.”

“Well, you’re bloody phenomenal,” John says, smiling, his eyes doing that thing again, and Sherlock nearly dissolves.

“Flattering my ego,” he says, his voice unsteady.

“Not at all. Kiss me again.” John is still smiling, his eyes dropping to Sherlock’s mouth.

Sherlock hesitates for a split second, remembering John’s wound. “Do you need to rest? Should I – ?”

“No. All I need is you.” John pulls him down again and Sherlock doesn’t even try to resist it, opening his mouth to John, silently opening all of himself to him, and it’s far more than phenomenal. It’s extraordinary, earth-shattering, astronomical. Sometime he’ll have a chance to say how stupid he was. All of those late-night conversations, first at Baker Street, now here in their tiny little cottage, and he could have had this only by not preventing it any longer. Later, he thinks vaguely. They can talk more later. Right now, kissing John is the only thing he could possibly be expected to do. The rest is – trivial.

***

He wakes with John’s arms still around him, and the sensation is simultaneously foreign, yet instantly familiar. John’s body is heavy and relaxed, his breathing deep and even, on his back with Sherlock curled around him like a growth of ivy on a wall. He loosens himself, slightly abashed at his own daring, but John feels it immediately, stirring and waking.

“Don’t go,” he mumbles sleepily, his hand tightening on Sherlock’s arm.

Sherlock hesitates, then relaxes again. “Okay,” he says, unsure whether he’s to go on feigning sleep, or – or he doesn’t even know what the other alternative would be.

John yawns, then strokes Sherlock’s arm. “I never thought I’d wake up like this,” he says musingly, sounding a little more awake, though his eyes are still closed. He opens them now, turns his head, and presses his lips to Sherlock’s forehead. “It feels unbelievable.”

Sherlock opens his eyes and blinks into John’s. “Does it?”

John smiles, his face looking more tender than Sherlock has ever seen it before. “Yeah,” he says, still smiling. “How do you feel?”

“How do you feel?” Sherlock turns the question back on him. “You’re the one who got shot last night!”

“Right, yeah,” John says, almost as though he’s forgotten. “It’s not great, honestly. If that paracetamol is around somewhere, I’d take some more. But tell me first.” He sees Sherlock’s hesitation, and adds, “Please. I really want to know.”

Sherlock accedes silently. He cannot deny John this – this, nor anything else. Not now, with his arms completely wound around John now, no plausible deniability. All of the barricades are down. “I feel… good.” This isn’t enough. “I feel – a bit – vulnerable, I suppose. There’s no more trying to hide it, filter it. I’ve never felt so exposed.”

John studies him, his eyes searching Sherlock’s face with that same, immeasurable tenderness. “I think I get that,” he says softly. “It’s – it feels risky. For me, too. We’ve been hiding it from each other and maybe ourselves for so long now. But God, I’m happy about it – I’m so happy it scares me, Sherlock.”

Hearing John’s candid statement of fear surprises Sherlock a bit. “Does it?” he asks, curious. “I thought you were the one who – who does this stuff. Feelings. All of that.”

John laughs. “This is different,” he says. “I’ve never felt this much on waking up with someone before. And we didn’t even – and yet, last night was bigger than anything I’ve felt before, too. When you kissed me, or just before it, there, I swear the earth could have stopped and I wouldn’t have realised or cared. It’s like having every wish I’ve ever wished come true at once.”

Warmth flares through Sherlock’s frame at this. “I want to kiss you again,” he says, and it’s not enough; it doesn’t answer what John said at all, but it’s nonetheless true. “Would that – is that – ”

John cuts him off, mercifully, his mouth strong on Sherlock’s, his arms coming more tightly around him again. When his lips part, this time Sherlock is ready for it, frankly hoping for it, and the intimacy of having John’s tongue against his again sends shivers down his spine. It breaks off gently after awhile. “This is incredible,” he says, touching Sherlock’s face again.

Sherlock nods. “I didn’t know it could be like this,” he says.

“It’s never been like this for me, either,” John tells him, his thumb stroking the line of Sherlock’s eyebrow and even this feels exquisitely intimate.

“But this is what you wanted, with us?” Sherlock asks, just wanting to hear it again.

John nods soberly. “For years, though it took me awhile to admit it to myself. Once I did, though, I was forced to see that it had always been there, right from the very start. I’m all in, you know. I have been since I brought it up. So that’s where I was left – all in, and no way to retreat. Take it back.”

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock says, feeling contrite. He moves his legs a little, just to feel John’s all the better against his own, their trousers rubbing together.

“Don’t be,” John says firmly. “It’s my fault that it went the way it did. You were right all along: we needed – I needed to address the rest of that stuff. Work on resolving some of that built-up stuff that we just never talked about. But we’re getting there, aren’t we?”

Sherlock searches his face. “I don’t want there to be any doubt on that score,” he says, frowning a little. “I’m – I’m too far in for that now, John.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” John swears. “I’m afraid you’re stuck with me now.”

“Good,” Sherlock says emphatically. “I want to make you write it in stone, sign permanent contracts, as though that could ever work. I’m – I’m in uncharted waters here, completely lost.”

John’s face turns impossibly soft, his eyes welling with emotion. “Don’t worry. I’ll always be here to navigate,” he promises, and then they’re kissing again, Sherlock finally letting go some of the fear and concentrating on holding John as tightly as he can as he sucks at John’s mouth with something akin to desperation, but John doesn’t seem to mind at all, kissing back just as hard.

A knock the door startles them both and they break apart, their eyes meeting. “I’ll get it,” Sherlock says, only just managing to get off the small bed without falling onto the floor. He feels stiff and dishevelled from sleeping in his clothes. John is lying on top of the blankets, shirtless. Sherlock goes to the door and cracks it open, then sighs upon seeing his brother on the other side. “What?” He sounds impatient and doesn’t care.

Mycroft raises his eyebrows. “You left in the middle of your case last night, failed in every way to report in, or give any of the requested updates. I trust Doctor Watson is all right.”

“He will be, I think, but he’s still sleeping,” Sherlock says, attempting to block the doorway with his body. “We’ll update you later.”

He makes to shut the door, but Mycroft puts a foot out and prevents it. “The case, brother mine,” he says acidly. “It’s not over yet.”

“It is for us,” Sherlock says stubbornly.

“Sherlock,” John says from the bed, very quietly, but Mycroft hears it and treats Sherlock to one of his more poisonous looks.

Sherlock gives in with bad grace. “All right, fine, but you need to give us a few minutes to get up and such.”

“Ten minutes,” Mycroft states.

“Fifteen. Wait outside.” Sherlock closes the door and locks it, then turns back to John, who is smiling indulgently at him. “Are you sure you’re up to any of this? You could sit the rest of it out. Or we both could. I don’t mind at all, if you’d prefer me to stay.”

“Don’t be silly, you know you want to see this through,” John says. “And so do I. Come and help me sit up, though, would you?”

Sherlock goes to him, going to the other side of the bed this time, and leans over to lift John carefully, pulling him upright. “Okay?”

“Yeah – but I’d take that paracetamol now,” John gasps.

“I’ll get it.” Sherlock finds the glass from last night and refills it, retrieves the medical kit from the floor and gives John another dosage. “Should I put on some coffee?”

“Sure. I’d love some,” John says. “And you might want to change or shower… your shirt is covered in my blood. I’ll just put a fresh shirt on for now.”

Sherlock debates, then agrees. “All right. I’ll take a quick shower, then.” He collects a change of clothes from his suitcase and makes for the shower, but John’s voice calls him back.

“Last night,” he says. “You carried me all the way to the car – at a run! You astound me, you know. You’re – phenomenal. Absolutely incredible.”

Sherlock feels another piercing stab of just how deeply into this he’s fallen, how helplessly emotional John’s words are making him feel. He swallows. “You would have done the same thing for me,” he says, his voice low.

He risks a look at John and their eyes meet for a long moment. “Yeah,” John says, and it comes out like a vow. “I absolutely would have.” He swallows again, then lets the intense moment break. “Take your shower. I can handle the coffee.”

Mycroft dutifully waits the full fifteen minutes, then knocks again. This time, Lestrade is with him. “ – sent Stevens down to the Peterlee station to get everything documented there,” he’s saying to Lestrade as Sherlock opens the door, then shifts his gaze to Sherlock. “Morning!” he says. “How’s John?”

“He’s fine, more or less,” John says from the kitchen, where he’s pouring coffee.

Mycroft takes in the scene, his eyes scanning the two beds, the one untouched while the other is still made-up, yet distinctly creased, particularly the pillow, then Sherlock’s coat on the floor at the foot of the bed, John’s shoes on one side, Sherlock’s on the other, and his eyebrows rise. Sherlock meets his gaze evenly, his chin stuck out a bit defensively. “Coffee?” he offers, all but daring Mycroft to articulate a single word of his current observations.

Mycroft shrugs. “Why not?”

“Greg?” John asks.

“Sure, love another cup,” Lestrade says affably. “There’s a ton of blood on the road where you were shot. I’m honestly surprised to see you on your feet.”

“It hurts,” John admits. “Sherlock did a fantastic job on the sutures, though.”

Lestrade shoots a smirk Sherlock’s way. “I’m surprised you let him near you with a needle.”

“There weren’t a lot of available options, given that I was sort of bleeding out,” John says dryly. “He did everything he could have and then some, and it was far faster than waiting for medical service out here in the middle of nowhere.”

Warmed by John’s defense, Sherlock goes into the kitchen and takes two of the coffee cups into the very small sitting room. “You shouldn’t even be lifting that,” he scolds under his breath, meaning the coffee pot.

John smiles at him, his eyes doing that lovely, starry thing again that makes Sherlock’s gut ache. “It’s fine,” he reassures him. “Don’t fuss.”

“You’re my patient. Don’t I get to fuss a little?” Sherlock says, keeping his voice down, and John gives him a look so intense that it might as well be a kiss. Sherlock ducks his head to hide his face and carries the coffee over to Lestrade and his brother, aware that his cheeks are warm. “Coffee with cream – we haven’t got milk, sorry – and coffee with cream and sugar.” He deposits the second cup in front of Mycroft, then goes back for the other two. “So what happened after we left?”

They come out around the corner and survey the seating options. Mycroft and Lestrade have claimed the armchairs, so they take the loveseat, Sherlock careful to place himself on John’s right to avoid aggravating the gunshot wound. John neither leans into him specifically, nor does he keep any particular distance, yet Mycroft takes whatever he’s done as confirmation of what he’s clearly already surmised and sends Sherlock a needling look which Sherlock is careful to avoid intercepting. Mycroft clears his throat in a rather pointed fashion and says, “The two Russians survived. They were taken into Sunderland for immediate surgery and are awaiting interrogation upon their recovery. I assumed you would prefer to be present.”

“Yes, thank you,” Sherlock says. “What else?”

“We recovered the parachute from the field. It’s got the parachuter’s prints all over it, which Mycroft’s identified as another Russian on record with ties to a bunch of unsavoury people, including other members of this Rosomakha business,” Lestrade says, slightly mangling the word. “We left orders at the hospital to have both his and Smirnov’s heads shaved but we didn’t wait around to see what’s what. I assume that’ll be proof enough.”

“In addition to which, your idea to have Barnes install a separate camera was good, as it gives proof of the fact that he rigged the Yard’s internal surveillance system and left his shift of duty,” Mycroft tells Sherlock. “It was risky adding the tracker to his vehicle, however.”

“We were rather trying to draw him out, specifically to lead him to our location,” John points out. “We wanted them to choose our particular bit of field, in order to catch them. It’s just that the wind was so loud that they were able to surprise us. Plus Sherlock was unarmed and they were both rather heavily armed.”

“Fair point,” Lestrade says. He drains his coffee cup. “That was good coffee. You make it?” he asks John.

John actually frowns. “Yes, but Sherlock’s coffee is perfectly good, too. You don’t give him enough credit.”

This seems to startle both Lestrade and Mycroft into temporary speechlessness and makes Sherlock’s face warm again. He clears his throat. “There’s more, if you’d like,” he says politely to Lestrade, suppressing his rather intense urge to be alone with John again.

Lestrade glances at Mycroft, who says, “Well, I was about to propose that we drive up to Sunderland and check on our Russians,” he says.

Sherlock and John agree. “Which hospital?” Sherlock asks, as the three of them get to their feet.

“Sunderland Royal,” Mycroft informs him. “We’ll meet at general admissions.” He moves toward the door, where Lestrade is already waiting, then stops and turns back, his gaze honing in on John. “What we discussed yesterday morning,” he says. “I trust you put the information to good use?”

John clears his throat. “Yes,” he says quickly. “Er – thanks again for that.”

Mycroft glances at Sherlock almost diagnostically, then nods at John and leaves without another word.

They’re alone again and John’s cheeks are flushed. It’s incredibly charming, Sherlock thinks, then realises that his capacity to block out thoughts like these is forever compromised. “The snipers?” he asks.

John nods. “Yeah. That was his ‘subtle’ way of asking if I’ve got my head out of my arse yet, with you.”

Sherlock smiles. “One could really blame me just as much for our delay,” he points out.

“No. This one’s all on me,” John says. “I’ve been an arsehole to you ever since you came back to England. But especially this past whole while, since Mary and all that.” He holds out his hands. “Give me a hand, would you?”

“Of course.” Sherlock deposits the coffee cups on the kitchen counter divide and ignores John’s hands, lifting him from beneath his shoulders, John holding onto his arms. John doesn’t let go after, lifting his chin and meeting his eyes for a split second before his mouth is on Sherlock’s again, his arms folding around Sherlock’s neck, Sherlock’s around his back. It feels like confirmation and euphoria in one, every molecule in his body dancing frenetically, every cell of his frame hyperaware of every place that John is touching him, his arms, his lips, his tongue. It winds down after a moment or two, Sherlock aware that his eyes are dangerously full of what he feels, his pupils likely dilated ridiculously in spite of the bright daylight filtering in past the light green curtains, but John is smiling into his face, his own full of all the same things Sherlock is afraid must be on his own.

“I suppose we should go,” he says. “Interrogations and all that.”

“Right.” Sherlock doesn’t let go of him. “To be honest, I’d rather stay here and do this…”

John’s smile grows. “Me too, and I love that you said that out loud.” He kisses Sherlock again. “After,” he promises. “We’ll finish this out, get rid of your brother and the rest of them, then go for dinner somewhere nice and then come back here. Stay for another night, then go home. I don’t know if I feel up to the train today.”

Sherlock nods. “Anything you want,” he vows, his voice dangerously lacking in filters. He has become utterly transparent to John.

John smiles again, presses his mouth to Sherlock’s one more time, as though he, too, cannot make himself stop wanting to, then finally loosens his grip. “Let’s go,” he says.

It’s a bit cool outside, so John puts a jumper on over his shirt in lieu of his blood-soaked coat. Sherlock’s coat is also covered in blood and his scarf is a ruin, so he makes do with his suit jacket. “We can put the heating on in the car,” he says, as they lock the cottage behind them. “And perhaps tonight, we can turn on that little gas fireplace.”

“Good idea,” John says. “And let’s pick up a bottle of wine or something. We should celebrate, after all.”

Sherlock smiles, almost more to himself than to John. “Yes. I think we should.” He pulls out into their narrow road and drives until John directs him onto the A19 to Sunderland.

At the hospital, they find Lestrade, his sergeant Stevens, Mycroft, and nameless assistant of some sort all waiting for them, and they all make for the separate, private rooms their Russians have been kept in, away from one another and under constant surveillance. The nurse in charge of the ward tells them that the recently-identified parachuter, one Vasily Volkov, has only just regained consciousness, and that he doesn’t appear to speak much English, though he understands it well enough to follow instructions.

“It’s fine,” Mycroft states. “I brought a translator.”

So that’s what the nameless minion is for, Sherlock thinks as they turn to move toward Volkov’s room. John is keeping up, but there is every evidence that he is attempting to hide the fact that he’s in pain. Sherlock drops back. “Are you all right?” he asks in concern.

John tries to smile but it comes out as more of a grimace. “Yeah,” he says, his breath short.

Sherlock hesitates, not wanting to presume. “Need a hand?”

John hesitates, too, then nods. “Okay. Yeah. Thanks.”

Sherlock puts himself on John’s right again and puts an arm around his back, careful to avoid the wound. John leans into him, putting his own arm around Sherlock’s back for support and they follow Mycroft and the others at a distance.

Mycroft takes them in as they arrive at the room. “Would you rather I handled the questioning?” he asks, scanning John rather dubiously.

Sherlock shakes his head. “We’ve got it. He just needs to sit.”

“All right,” Mycroft says dubiously, and they go in.

Sherlock eases John down into a visitors’ chair, then turns to examine their parachuter. Volkov is awake and blinking warily at them, a look of intense dislike on his face. Given that Sherlock just shot him last night, he finds this rather understandable. “Vasily Volkov,” he says. “I’m told you understand English. Do you speak it?”

Volkov glares. “Yes,” he says. “A little.” His eyes go to the cuffs binding his wrists to the bedrails.

“We’ve just got a few questions,” Sherlock says briskly. “If you help us, it may help you in the long run. So let’s get started.” He walks over and lifts Volkov’s shorn head from the pillow to peer behind it. “A member of the Rosomakha,” he proclaims, letting Volkov’s head drop again. “What is your business in England? There’s a translator here if you’d rather explain yourself in Russian.”

Volkov grits his teeth, but begins to speak, in Russian. They learn quickly that he is indeed a member of a sleeper cell, meant to be kept inactive for the time being. Between Sherlock and Mycroft, they ask him about Marina Gubnitskaia and Pyotr Smirnov, and any other members of the cell, as well as others due to arrive. Volkov’s information is naturally compartmentalised and he knows little of the other members, but the information he gives them on Smirnov is helpful: they learn that Smirnov is indeed the leader of the cell, a Russian national with deep ties to the former KGB and a prominent leader of the Rosomakha division. It was Smirnov who gave and confirmed landing instructions, collected them, and drove them to their new homes. He is unable to give information on Smirnov’s vehicle, as they never made it that far the previous night.

“We should be able to get that from the GPS in his cruiser,” John says at this point.

Lestrade agrees. “That tread you sent matches the tyres on the cruisers they’re using up here. It’s very likely he was using that vehicle to collect these parachuters.”

They finish with Volkov in half an hour and leave him to slide back into morphine-induced sleep before visiting Smirnov.

Smirnov is far less forthcoming, spitting on the floor in front of Sherlock as he enters the room, still supporting John, and Sherlock stops out of range in distaste. He finds himself filled with rage at the sight of this man who so very casually ordered that John’s life be snuffed out, like a worthless sidekick or utterly unimportant bit of insignificance, and suddenly knows that this was why he wanted to come – to show Smirnov that despite him, John lived, that he failed to accomplish this snuffing.

“Still alive, then,” Smirnov says sourly to John.

“No thanks to you, yes,” John says coolly. “Pity you are, only we needed your information. That’s the only reason Sherlock would have let you live.”

Sherlock tightens his arm around John’s back and wants rather desperately to kiss him. (Not here. Not now.) “Precisely,” he says, his tone even frostier than John’s. “So start making your worthless life useful. The sleeper cell: talk.”

“Go to hell.”

Sherlock’s gaze doesn’t waver. “Lestrade. Cuff his feet, too.”

“Right-o.” Lestrade moves forward and zip-ties Smirnov’s feet to the rails. “Listen, mate, you’ve got multiple counts already stacked up against you and you’re already under arrest. I’d be as cooperative as possible at this point. You’re in a room with a Detective Inspector, a sergeant, Sherlock Holmes, an army captain you just ordered shot, and the head of the MI5. I’d rethink the attitude, personally.”

“Fuck off!”

Smirnov is glaring and Sherlock suddenly finds himself losing patience. “Mycroft,” he says, venom in his tone, and Mycroft swiftly steps forward and takes over the interrogation.

It takes a great deal longer than Volkov’s did, but in the end they learn of two other cell members that they didn’t know of, both living under falsified English names and papers, as well as of a large amount of bomb-making equipment in a cellar located under Smirnov’s back garden, accessible only by digging at this point. He refuses to divulge when or where it was going to be used, however, and after this point they can get nothing further from him. His skull also bears the mark of the Rosomakha and they leave his room after over an hour of questioning.

From there, it’s time to arrest the other cell members. One is a woman, a cousin of Marina Gubnitskaia’s, currently going by Eleanor Carr, who works in a grocery in New Herrington. The other is a male, currently going by Michael Armstrong, who works as a mechanic in Durham. The other two members are still in Moscow. Mycroft makes a phone at some distance from the rest of them, then announces that these will be taken care of. No one asks him for any details on this. Lestrade squints into the sunlight. “What about the other two? How do you want to do this?”

Mycroft looks at Sherlock, who looks at John. John’s mouth twitches unhappily. “I don’t know if I’m up for it,” he admits. “It’d be nice to ride along, but…”

Sherlock looks back at Mycroft. “Take the lead,” he says briefly. “We’ll come as back-up, and Lestrade and Stevens can take the other one.”

“We’ll get Armstrong,” Lestrade says, heading for his car.

“That leaves us with Carr. Let’s go,” Sherlock says, and Mycroft doesn’t protest.

***

The arrests are done. Lestrade and his sergeant have started on the drive back to London, and Mycroft took a private jet from Newcastle. It’s late afternoon and John has given himself a stronger dosage of painkillers and seems to be doing better. They’re still in Sunderland, having been left to deal with some of the mortuary paperwork in relation to Gubnitskaia’s remains.

“Do you want to find that bottle of wine now?” John asks. “Then maybe take a little walk along the water? I kind of fucked up what could have been a nice walk on the beach the other day…”

Sherlock smiles and makes a right turn in the direction of the coast. “I’m the one who overreacted to that,” he admits. “I knew I’d given too much away, as well as reacted all wrong given that I’d already turned it down. I just didn’t want to lose you, though.”

“I understand now,” John reassures him, putting a hand on Sherlock’s leg and squeezing.

Sherlock swallows, momentarily going tongue-tied at this. “Can you find us a wine store on your phone?”

“Right, yeah,” John says, and they go back to the business of planning their evening. John not only finds them a place to get a bottle of wine, but surveys the local restaurant offerings a little further south in the resort town of Seaham. “Be nice to eat somewhere overlooking the water, since we’re here,” he says, and gives Sherlock a range of offerings.

In the end, they choose something called The Lamp Room and John calls to make a last-minute reservation. They’ve still got an hour left once they’ve acquired their wine (a nice Penfolds Bin 150 Shiraz), so they spend it walking along the waterfront hand-in-hand. It feels surreal to Sherlock, despite the touch of reality lent by John gripping a little too hard for support here and there, or their occasional stops at conveniently-placed benches to take in the view and allow John to rest. They stroll through the green in front of the restaurant and Sherlock is hyper-aware of the looks people are giving them, mostly indulgent. He feels fifteen again, uncertain of himself, kept steady only by his responsibility to John, to caring for him in his wounded state. Then again, protecting John and keeping him safe (from criminals, from his wife, from blackmail against his wife, from himself) has been his major driving force since the day he leapt off a hospital for him, so this is hardly new. The thought is somewhat reassuring.

They arrive for their reservation five minutes early and are seated promptly. They order a sharing platter – lobster with mussels, calamari, fish cakes, prawns, and oysters, served with chips and salad – and savour every bite of it, eating with their fingers and passing sauces and choice pieces to one another. John picks up an oyster, raw and cradled in its shell, adds hot sauce and scoops it into his mouth. “That’s delicious,” he says after. “Though I feel I should tread a bit carefully around these.”

Sherlock blinks. “Why, particularly?”

John’s mouth twitches. “Er – they’re sort of known for having aphrodisiac effects,” he explains, looking a bit sheepish.

Sherlock feels his cheeks heat. “Ah,” he says delicately. “Right. That.”

John reaches for his serviette and dabs at the corner of his mouth. “Sorry,” he says. “It just – I – yeah. I don’t know why I mentioned that.”

Sherlock inhales, wanting to say something to reassure John, feeling that his own awkwardness has now made John feel awkward. “One might think that the pain factor could balance the effects?” he suggests.

It works. John chuckles. “Quite possibly,” he says, then says, eyes in his plate, “though I think you may be slightly underestimating your own effects in that regard.”

He follows this with a slanted glance that hits Sherlock directly in the knees and makes him reach hastily for his water lest he choke. “Really?” he asks, rallying and looking directly across the table at John.

John smiles, avoiding his eyes. “Oh, yes. Very much so.”

Sherlock attempts to hide his own smile. “I see.”

John reaches across the table and touches Sherlock’s fingers with backs of his own, both their hands being rather covered in clarified butter and other grease. “For the record, I don’t have any idea what I’m doing here, either,” he confesses. “This all feels so – delicate. Really, really good. Just delicate.”

Sherlock frowns at him, though he doesn’t move his fingers at all. “I thought you were supposed to be navigating,” he says, though it’s only a mock protest.

John smiles directly at him this time. “I am. I will. I just – need to not fuck it up again. You’re still in the driver’s seat, though, right? I’m just – guiding. I want to do this your way.”

“I thought you didn’t like always doing things my way,” Sherlock states, meeting John’s gaze directly.

John ducks his head a little. “I was – I shouldn’t have said that, that time. I should have known. You always have a plan, and it’s always to my benefit. I know that now, Sherlock, I swear. I’m – I’m doing my best to trust that, change the way I’ve underestimated you over and over and over again.”

Sherlock accepts this. “What about this, then,” he posits. “What if I don’t know what ‘my way’ entails? As I said, and as you already know, everything from last night onward is entirely uncharted territory for me. I don’t know what I – what I want. Or like. Or – any of the rest of it.”

John blinks at him, his lashes looking particularly golden in the light, softening his eyes even more. “Whatever you’ve done or not done before makes absolutely no difference to me whatsoever. And yeah, I know that we’re talking more about things not done than done here. What I’m interested in knowing is what you’d like to try. And – I don’t mean that I want to know right now. Just – as we go. I want to try anything that you’d like to try. As long as it’s with you, I’ll be – well, frankly, I’ll be fucking ecstatic, Sherlock.”

Sherlock feels a slow smile trying very hard to creep across his face in spite of himself. He squints at John. “What if I turn out to be into particularly strange things, like monkey sex or something?”

As he intended, John guffaws loudly, taken by surprise, and hastily attempts to reign himself in, leaning back in his chair and laughing as silently as he can, one arm crossed over his chest, the other hand at his temple, tears leaking from his eyes. When he gets hold of himself, he shakes his head. “Jesus, Sherlock!”

Sherlock grins, unrepentant and pleased by his success at making John laugh that hard. “You did say anything.”

John leans back in again, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “I suppose it would depend on whether you meant in the style of monkeys – which I’m very much down for, whatever that might mean – or with monkeys, in which case, we need to have a much longer discussion.”

Sherlock smiles, somehow feeling as though the footing has become more certain. “It was a joke,” he says. He picks up a particularly delectable-looking lobster claw and passes it to John. “Here. Take this. I had the other one.”

John smiles warmly at him, a smile that has very little to do with the lobster. “All right,” he says. “Thank you.”

Sherlock withdraws his hand and resumes eating, prying another mussel from its shell and dunking it in the white wine sauce that they came in. “Is there an expected schedule?” he asks, deliberately vague.

“For…?” John looks over at him, his expression curious. Evidently he gleans Sherlock’s meaning and cottons on. “Ah. Erm, no, of course not. And it’s all in terms of ‘if’, not ‘when’. If you want to try something, then the right time will be when you want to. No expectations.”

Sherlock turns this over in his head for a moment. “But you want to,” he says. It isn’t a question, but he wants John to acknowledge it.

John seems to be concentrating particularly on extracting the claw meat with a long, narrow fork. “I – well, yeah,” he says. “In the interests of full disclosure, yes. Of course. For me, that’s just how it works. The – emotional simply comes with a physical manifestation, or a desire for one, at least. You know how I feel about you. I was an idiot and blurted it out the other night. And the corresponding component is equally strong. But I want this to be whatever you need it to be.”

Sherlock takes a moment to digest this, taking a long sip of his chardonnay. “I’m only asking in the spirit of information,” he says slowly. “I would very much corroborate what you said, about the… corresponding physical component to the emotional.” He keeps his eyes in his plate, feeling self-conscious about admitting it aloud and clears his throat. “That is to say… I’m very much interested. And you have a substantially stronger effect on me than any number of oysters could, too.”

He can feel his face heating ridiculously even as he says it, but he glances up just in time to see John swallow hard. “Sherlock,” he says, his voice quite unsteady, “that… um. Wow. That – I can’t tell you how much that means to me, to hear. From you, of all people. I – yeah. Okay. When, then, not if.”

“As to when,” Sherlock goes on, making himself say it, “it could be – anytime. As soon as you feel… up to it.”

John swallows again, his eyes round and dark. “If it weren’t for this bloody bullet hole in my side, that could be here and now,” he says, his voice low and intense. “I can’t even tell you how much I want you, Sherlock. I’ve been – stifling it and sitting on it and trying so damned hard to keep it to myself for years now. Years.”

Sherlock feels an edge come into his throat and finds that he can’t speak around it. Instead, he reaches for John first this time, heedless of their buttery fingers, and grips at his hand. “I’m yours now,” he manages around the edge, and John turns his hand over to grip back just as hard, his eyes telegraphing more than Sherlock can even process.

“Let’s hope for a speedy recovery, then,” John says. “Not that there’s any rush – or pressure. I just – yeah. I’ll shut up now.”

Sherlock gives him a slightly tremulous smile. “No need,” he says, still feeling self-conscious. He’s just admitted aloud something he never thought to hear himself say, admitted intense sexual attraction and an overt desire to see it satisfied, with a corresponding emotional attachment. He isn’t even sure which admission is more damning.

They finish the meal and let the server take away the detritus, then decide to share a dessert. John used to share desserts with Mary sometimes, and Sherlock would watch them out the corner of his eye, jealousy consuming him within. He decides to say this.

“I used to get so jealous, watching you and Mary share desserts,” he says, digging his fork into their sticky toffee pudding.

John gives a short, surprised laugh, sounding more pleased than anything else. “Really? You got jealous of puddings?”

“No, not the dish itself. The sharing thereof,” Sherlock states, watching John’s fork. “It’s so intimate.”

John’s eyes flick up to his. “I suppose it is,” he says. “I never even really thought about it that way.”

“That’s because you’re a romantic, though you never admit it. That sort of behaviour just comes naturally to you. I’d be sitting there with my coffee, secretly eating my heart out watching the two of you,” Sherlock admits.

John’s eyes meet his and hold, warm now. “I had no idea,” he says softly. “What an idiot I was. Am. Whatever. All that time I remember thinking that I thought we were dragging the evening on for you when you just wanted to get home.”

“That, too,” Sherlock allows. “The three of us together – it was never easy.”

“No.” John agrees. “It was never the comfortable thing we all tried to pretend it was. I mean, I genuinely thought that you and Mary liked each other, until she shot you. Obviously that called things into question somewhat. I could see it in retrospect, all of her little barbs. Whereas you… instead of being awful to her, the way you so often were with past girlfriends of mine, you were so carefully neutral. That should have told me more sooner, too.”

“What do you mean by that?” Sherlock asks, curious, splitting the last piece of the pudding and dredging it through its sauce.

John shakes his head a little. “I used to wonder why you never saw through Mary sooner. Later, I realised that you must have, but that you kept it to yourself for my sake. For the sake of keeping our friendship intact. You know me so well, know how I would have reacted, and you thought you were doing the kind thing in not pointing it out.”

Sherlock acknowledges this with a slight smile. “You know me, too,” he says, and nods at the remains of the pudding. “Finish that.”

“Yeah?” John smiles at him. “Okay, then.”

Sherlock drives slowly on their way back, keeping to the more scenic, coastal routes. “How are you feeling?” he asks.

“Pretty sore,” John admits. “It was a long day. But a good one. It’s good to see things so neatly resolved.”

“Lestrade emailed, said they got all of the bomb components out and disabled,” Sherlock says. “So it does look rather as though it’s over. The locals will simply stop seeing their ‘UFOs’ and life will go back to dull, everyday normal.”

John laughs. “Sometimes that’s not so bad,” he says.

Sherlock allows himself a smile. “Perhaps not.”

Inside the cottage, they pick up their various bloodied pieces of clothing and put them into a bag to take to a dry-cleaner once they’re back in London. “Do you mind if I just take a quick shower?” John asks. “I’m feeling rather disgusting.”

Sherlock looks over at him. “You don’t look or smell disgusting, but go ahead,” he says mildly.

John smiles playfully. “Thanks, but I’m also covered in butter. I’ll be quick.”

Sherlock waves him off. “Take all the time you like.” John disappears into the bathroom and Sherlock kneels to switch on the small gas fireplace in the sitting area, then uncorks their Shiraz to let it breathe. He feels rather lost, trying to create a romantic atmosphere, but John is trying so hard to get everything right, so it would behoove him to make a similar effort. They’ve never done anything like this before, for all their years of acquaintance, and it’s important to get it correct this time. They’ve both made rather large errors of judgement thus far and Sherlock would hate for it to fall apart now. Things feel so warm and right just now, but it’s still so tenuous and new. He takes off his shoes and suit jacket, then rolls up the sleeves of his shirt and undoes a button at his chest. Is that too much? He thinks they fairly well agreed that John won’t be physically capable of anything particularly strenuous, and the entire thought of it still makes Sherlock’s pulse double in anticipation and apprehension both, so it’s quite possible that not rushing into – that – would be wise for his own sake, too. And yet the impatience for it grinds within him, too, immense, unnameable longing carving out ever deeper wells within him. He wants every manner of physical intimacy with John, desires him acutely, to the tips of his fingers and every cilia on his skin, and now he’s come right out and said so. The water in the shower turns off. Sherlock pours two glasses of wine and carries them to the coffee table in front of the loveseat, then arranges himself on the latter in what he hopes looks like a casual pose.

After a moment or two, John emerges, wearing a fresh pair of jeans and barefoot, holding his towel in front of his bare torso. His hair is damp and sticking up in spikes and Sherlock’s mouth fills unwittingly with saliva at the entire look. John’s eyes find Sherlock where he’s sitting and he smiles. He deposits his old clothes over the footrest of his bed, then comes over. “You lit the fire,” he says approvingly.

“Thought I might,” Sherlock responds, his heart beating tangibly in his chest. “Should we change that bandaging?”

“If you don’t mind,” John requests. “It’s wet, obviously, so I didn’t want to put a shirt on over it.”

“Sit down. I’ll get your kit,” Sherlock says, getting up swiftly to retrieve it. He comes back to the loveseat and takes the towel out of John’s hands, sparing himself a guilty moment to ogle John’s bare chest. He swallows, sets the towel aside, then carefully peels off the gauze taped over the stitches he put in, examining the wound. “It doesn’t look too bad, actually,” he says, dabbing at it as gently as possible with the towel to dry the skin.

John peers but can’t quite see it. “Yeah? Can you take a photo? I’d just like to see it.”

“Sure.” Sherlock takes out his phone, focuses the photo, then shows it to John.

His brows rise. “You’re right, that doesn’t look nearly as bad as it ought to, considering. You did a fantastic job! Not that I’m surprised, but still – it takes a lot of people years to get as good as that. But then, you’re not most people, are you?”

Sherlock feels pleased by this. “I’m glad I didn’t mangle the job, particularly considering that it’s you,” he says.

John’s eyes are full of that same look again, the one that makes his gut ache. “Of course you didn’t,” he says softly. “Now patch me up again so that I can kiss you again. I’m absolutely dying to.”

Sherlock smiles, looking down at the wound. “That makes two of us, then,” he says, as lightly as he can manage it.

They’re both holding their breath as his fingers work as quickly as they’re able, cutting out a new rectangle of gauze and lengths of medical tape, tamping it all into place, John’s fingers trailing after Sherlock’s, checking what he’s done, every touch of them making Sherlock’s pulse accelerate. Finally he moves the medical kit to the floor and falls into John’s reaching arms, their mouths coming together at last, and it feels better than anything, sweeter than their dessert, stronger than the wine, whose aroma is wafting over from the coffee table. It feels like coming home, even without having lost the thrill of novelty, of having crossed this bridge so very recently. It’s only been twenty-four hours, Sherlock dazedly remembers, his concentration set on holding John to the best of his abilities, their knees bumping together, turned inward toward one another. Their mouths are open, lips sucking at each other’s, tongue touching, stroking together, the fire crackling in the background in a convincing imitation of pinewood.

It goes on and on and it’s heady and completely, ridiculously wonderful, stopping only after several long minutes so that they can catch their breath, foreheads leaning together. “I really didn’t know,” Sherlock finds himself saying, the words coming out as dazed as he feels.

John making a humming sound and kisses him again, as though he can’t make himself stop. “Know what?” he murmurs.

“How it – this – could be. How it would be.” Sherlock is incoherent. “Ignore me; I’m not capable of making sense right now.”

“Nonsense. That’s one of the most intelligent things you’ve ever said,” John says, almost crooning, and claims his mouth again. “I – imagined this, fantasised about it,” he says between kisses. “Even – years back, when we – were nowhere close to this.” A longer kiss now. “I couldn’t help myself. But this – ” he pulls back, looking Sherlock in the eyes, one hand on his jawline, “this is far better than anything I could have imagined, too.”

Sherlock swallows, touches his tongue to his lips and attempts to muster his thoughts into words. “But you really did? Imagine it?”

John blows out his breath. “All the time, if I’m being honest. I always knew I shouldn’t. I knew things weren’t like that, or likely to be.” He releases Sherlock slightly, reaches over for one of the glasses of wine and gives it to him, then takes the other. “Cheers to us finding our way out of that maze.”

Sherlock clinks his glass obediently to John’s and sips. The Shiraz is rich and peppered with spicy notes, full-bodied and almost arousing in its headiness. “This is perfect,” he says, swirling it in his glass and sipping again.

“I quite agree.” John leans into him, an arm still around Sherlock’s shoulders. “You told me that you might have wanted something like this the second time we talked about it. When I made you say it,” he adds ruefully. “I’m sorry for doing that, forcing it out like that. But when did you first know?”

“That I wanted this?” Sherlock has to think. “I don’t know. It’s been – ages,” he says briefly.

“Since before you went away?” John asks.

Sherlock nods. “I never wanted to go,” he says starkly.

“I know that now. God, I know it now!” John says emphatically. “When your brother told me yesterday morning, I was just – thunderstruck. And then I felt so badly. I didn’t know what to say to you, how to apologise for having constantly underestimated you or – misattributed your motives. I should have known. I should have realised.”

Sherlock puts his wine down and puts two fingers to John’s lips. “Stop,” he says gently. “You couldn’t have known. I never told you. I – I thought it was too late to make a difference. I knew that your opinion of me just kept falling and I stubbornly refused to try to make you see what I was doing all of that time. Any of it – from the snipers to talking you into not leaving Mary that night, to shooting Magnussen so that you wouldn’t, to getting myself sent away again, and then the whole slide after Mary died.”

“When you were trying to force me out of my slump by making me save you, thanks to Mary’s shitty advice,” John says bitterly.

“Please,” Sherlock says plaintively. “You couldn’t have known that, either. You came in the end. And we survived that, too.”

“Just,” John says. “And then I went and thought you’d forgotten about me in the well, there, when all you were doing, once again, was saving me. I’ve been a complete shit to you, Sherlock. I know that. And I’m so sorry.”

Sherlock feels his lips compress. He wishes he knew how to get out of this loop of conversation and back to John kissing him again. Perhaps it does need saying, however; he was the one who stalled this because of these very issues between them. He looks down and takes John’s wine from him, setting it on the table next to his own, then takes John’s hand with the one that isn’t around his back. “Perhaps you’ll think better of me going ahead,” he says quietly, speaking to John’s hand.

He glances up through his eyelashes and sees that John’s eyes are startlingly wet. “I swear I will, if you’ll give me the chance,” John vows. “It might take me years to catch up to everything you’ve done for me, but I promise you that I won’t stop trying, Sherlock.”

“John…” Sherlock releases his hand and puts both arms around him now, doing something he’s longed to do for years, properly, not like that tentative, ginger hug he attempted during their quasi-reconciliation following Mary’s death, and pulls John into himself, holding him tightly. John makes an anguished sound and puts arms around him, clinging as tightly as Sherlock is. Sherlock closes his eyes and turns his face into John’s hair, stroking it and feeling as though he could drown in this without a single regret. He has never felt so close to another person in all of his life, and suddenly the urge to say the words he could not say back on the tarmac, rise to his lips again. But he is very uncertain as to whether or not the timing is right. He’s never said it before, to anyone. Not and meant it. Eurus forcing him to say it to Molly was awful, particularly with John right there, just behind his shoulder. She made the words both a weapon and a ridicule, making him say it to the wrong person. He cannot make up his mind and chokes it back, pressing his face into John’s hair instead. They shift and Sherlock transfers his hands to John’s face, this face that he’s felt so strongly about for so very long now, the face of the man for whom he would do absolutely anything, regardless of how reckless, of how great the threat to his own life might be. “I forgive you,” he says soberly, and John puts his hands over Sherlock’s and grips them. “Now let it go.”

“Sherlock – ”

Sherlock doesn’t give him a chance to finish, ducking in to kiss John again, as tenderly as he knows how, pouring the unsaid words into it. This time, it feels as though he’s the one steering it, neither acting out of uncertain hope nor emotionally-driven desperation for it, that he’s able to use it to say the thing he can’t quite say in words just yet.

They don’t speak much after that, holding one another on the loveseat and taking breaks to drink their wine. It’s the best Sherlock has ever felt in his life, his heart feeling metaphorically fuller than he could have imagined, and some semblance of balance appearing between them. He doesn’t feel as lost and John doesn’t feel as unworthy. It’s progress, he thinks, his lips on John’s temple, John leaning heavily into him. Around eleven, Sherlock asks if John is tired. “You should rest,” he tells him, lips in his hair. “If we’re going to go home tomorrow, you should get some sleep. I don’t want the journey to wear you out.”

“Mmm. Fair,” John concedes. “I wish the beds here were bigger. Just – so that we could sleep together again,” he adds quickly, lest Sherlock get the wrong idea.

“I suppose it was rather tight last night,” Sherlock says, all the while privately wishing the same. “But you’ll sleep better if I’m not there to disturb you.”

“Possibly,” John admits. “But then we’ll get home, and…” He trails off. “Well. Nothing needs to happen in any particular hurry, or order. We can see what we feel like when the time comes.”

Sherlock smiles, and does not say that he would never willingly turn down the opportunity to share a bed with John again. “All right,” he says instead.

They get ready for bed and John points out the bloodied bedding on Sherlock’s with rue. “Mycroft probably won’t get his damage deposit back.”

“It’s fine,” Sherlock says. “It’s dry now. I’ll pay for the dry-cleaning if need be.” He waits for John to get settled, then goes around the cottage switching off the lights and getting into his own. It’s very small indeed and definitely more comfortable not to be sharing it, yet he wouldn’t trade last night for anything in the universe. “Good night,” he says, and turns onto his back.

“Good night,” John says sleepily.

Sherlock lies awake, listening to him fall asleep, hardly able to believe that the past twenty-four hours have really happened. The case is ancient history; he couldn’t care less if he tried. This is the only thing that matters in any way whatsoever, this earth-shattering, unbelievable thing that they seem to be this now. He can’t stop marvelling at it, prodding at every part of it and examining it for weaknesses and not finding any. Not so far, at least.

He sleeps eventually, long after John has fallen into a gentle pattern of slow, deep breathing. At some point in the night he wakes without knowing why, but he senses somehow that John is awake, too. The silence is deep and poignant, and he thinks of every other brief and poignant silence that’s occurred between them since arriving here, always under the cover of darkness. And suddenly he wants to say it, return John’s unmet statement. The tarmac doesn’t seem to matter anymore. “Are you awake?” he asks, hardly breathing.

John shifts and turns onto his back, unable to turn over fully because of the wound on his left side. “Yeah,” he says, just above a whisper. “I just woke up.”

Sherlock hesitates, then plunges into it. “I – love you, too, you know,” he says, and it’s such a relief to say it at last.

John makes a sound that Sherlock couldn’t define verbally if his life depended on it. “Sherlock – come here!” he chokes, so Sherlock gets up and goes around to the other side of John’s bed. John pulls back the blankets and Sherlock climbs into the narrow bed with him, just like last night, only this time they’re in John’s bed. John seizes his face and kisses him over and over again, feverishly, his mouth hungry, and Sherlock lets himself fall into it and kisses back in kind, holding John as tightly as he dares, given the proximity of the wound.

“I wanted to say it, the other night,” he says after a bit, breathing hard and gripping at John’s soft hair. “I just – I couldn’t. There was another time when I felt I needed to but I couldn’t. It wasn’t the right time, and all I could think of was that moment. I couldn’t get past it.”

John pulls back just far enough to look him in the eyes, just barely visible in the darkened cottage. “Was that on the tarmac?” he asks, already knowing.

Sherlock nods. “Yes,” he says slowly.

John shakes his head. “I knew – I knew it even then, but I couldn’t – I just couldn’t hear it then, not with you leaving forever, and me having made my terrible choice to stay with Mary. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Sherlock makes a sound of negation and kisses him again, again, hands stroking down John’s back, hyper-aware of the wound and making sure to avoid it. Their legs are pushed together and he knows already that he wants John to start sleeping in his bed on a full-time, permanent basis the instant they return to Baker Street. They can convert the upstairs bedroom for Rosie’s sole use. But for now… “I should – I should go back to my own bed and let you sleep,” he says between kisses.

“Don’t you dare leave me,” John murmurs, his arms tightening, so Sherlock abandons the argument promptly, and decides that the size of the bed is perfectly adequate, after all.

***

He wakes to find John curled around him this time, one leg overlapping Sherlock’s, already awake and watching him with a look of unfiltered affection on his face. Sherlock starts a little, then yawns, smiling. “Hello,” he says. “Were you watching me?”

John nods, that same look of immense tenderness on his face. “Yeah. Sorry. Didn’t mean to be weird about it.”

“It’s fine,” Sherlock says, still sleepy enough to allow himself to bask in the sensation of being in John’s arms this way, John’s bed. “Besides, I’ve watched you sleep more times than I can count, as you know.”

John snickers. “That’s certainly true enough.”

Sherlock remembers his wound. “Did you sleep all right?”

John nods and bends to kiss him, evidently much more interested in that than in Sherlock’s question. Sherlock momentarily fears his own morning breath, but John doesn’t seem at all concerned or put off. Their proximity could result in another issue, one which Sherlock would find intensely embarrassing, however, so he breaks away after a little.

“I should get up,” he says. “Have a shower before we leave.”

John smiles, a slow, gentle smile that says he suspects precisely what’s going on, but is too kind to say it. “Okay,” he says, not arguing. But he presses a kiss to Sherlock’s jaw and says, “Was this all right? Waking up in bed with me? It’s not too – ”

Sherlock waits. “Not too what?”

John shrugs. “I don’t know. Too soon?”

Sherlock smiles. “No. I’d already decided to do my utmost to talk you into making my bedroom your bedroom for the foreseeable future, as of tonight.”

A gigantic smile takes over John’s face and doesn’t even try to stop it. “Yeah?” he asks. “You sure about that?”

Sherlock nods. “Quite,” he says firmly, and John bends over him and kisses him again, convincingly. Sherlock’s suspected issue is rapidly becoming a confirmed issue, so he pulls away again. “Shower,” he says, a bit breathlessly, and John groans a bit but lets him go.

“I’ll make breakfast,” he says, as Sherlock rolls out of the narrow bed and makes for the bathroom. “Hurry!”

“All right.” Sherlock shuts the door behind himself in haste, looking with dismay down at said issue, extremely visible in his thin pyjama pants. This is all such unknown territory. Are erections now acceptable subject matter? Is he meant to hide it from John? Or disclose it? Or would that constitute a proposition? Or just be awkward? He closes his eyes briefly. This is overwhelmingly complex. He turns on the shower, makes himself focus on washing his hair, then washes his body and finally gives in, taking care of the matter as quietly as humanly possible. He has some practise in this, at least; it’s the one sexual act with which he has any familiarity. He ejaculates with a singular exhalation of steam, then rinses out his hair, gets the sudsy residue off his skin, and turns off the water.

As he neglected to bring any clothing in with him, he’s obliged to exit in his towel, find some new clothes, and return to the bathroom. John has only just got up, combing his hair in the mirror hanging on the wall. “I’m just about to start cooking,” he says, as though reassuring Sherlock.

“It’s no rush,” Sherlock says. “It’s not yet ten and we were planning to take the noon train from Sunderland. As long as we leave by eleven we should be fine.”

“All right.” John smiles at him in the mirror and Sherlock wonders if it’s silly to dress himself in privacy, considering how soon he plans to grant full access to his physical self to John.

John makes them a bacon and cheddar omelette with their somewhat-limited selection of food, and they drink a pot of English Breakfast with it, then pack up their few things, included their bloodied clothing, and leave the cottage key under the mat again. They make the train with time to spare, and spend the short trip to Newcastle chatting about the countryside and a bit about the case. John falls asleep almost as soon as the second train pulls out of Newcastle station, prompting Sherlock to wonder how well he really slept. Either way, it’s good for him, he reasons. Sleep will help the healing process. Meanwhile, the Huntingtons still have Rosie for another night, so they’re off the hook as far as all that’s concerned. They haven’t even talked much about Rosie, but Sherlock rather assumes that John has surmised that whatever happens will be fine with him.

John wakes a little before they arrive in London, commenting that he’s hungry. Sherlock laughs nicely at him. “What?” John asks, still sleepy.

“I’m not surprised. You slept all the way from Newcastle. There was a tea cart, but you were out like a light.” Sherlock smiles to take any sting out of it. “Let’s go home. We can order in, if you like.”

“Sure, let’s do that. Just have a quiet night in.” John smiles affably, and Sherlock decides not to point out that his hair is completely flat on one side, swallowing down his overflowing sentiment for John.

They get a taxi, stop by a dry-cleaners (it’s late March and they’ll want their coats back as soon as possible, Sherlock reasons), then get back to the flat. Mrs Hudson doesn’t seem to be in and all is quiet. John manages the stairs with Sherlock’s arm behind his back, supporting most of his weight. “Take your time,” Sherlock reminds him as they approach the landing.

John is breathing shallowly. “To be fair, when I imagined us coming home together like this, the way we are now, this is not how I’d pictured it.”

Sherlock smiles at him and puts his lips to John’s temple. “There will be thousands of other homecomings,” he reminds John.

“Yeah, but the first time,” John insists. “It’s special.”

“This is special.” Sherlock eyes the rest of the distance. “Ready for the last bit?”

John grumbles a little, but agrees. “And then some more paracetamol.”

“Definitely. And we still have that whiskey,” Sherlock reminds him. “You could take a shot of that, too.”

“I like the way you think.” John grips him tightly and they get to the top of the stairs. “Thanks.”

“Chair or sofa?” Sherlock asks.

“Chair for now.”

Sherlock eases John down into it, then straightens up. “I’ll just put the kettle on, get the paracetamol, then run down and get the bags.”

John waves him off. “Take your time. There’s no rush.”

Sherlock hesitates, then bends and kisses him on the forehead. “Okay.” He makes to go, but John grabs for the front of his shirt and pulls Sherlock’s mouth back to his, which makes Sherlock snicker foolishly.

John is laughing, too. “Now you can go,” he says.

Grinning to himself, Sherlock organises the kettle, pours John a glass of water and a shot of whiskey and brings it all over with the bottle of paracetamol tucked under his arm. “There we are,” he says. “I’ll be right back.”

“And I’ll be ingesting a lot of fluid, apparently, as you’re also making tea,” John comments.

“Well, you can just take the paracetamol with the whiskey, if you prefer,” Sherlock says, then clatters down the stairs to retrieve their bags from the front entrance. He already asked John if he’d like to stop by a clinic or hospital and have his wound checked, but John declined, insisting that he can see from the photo that Sherlock’s amateur suturing is just fine. He tried, telling John that flattering his ego wasn’t necessary, but John just dismissed this. Now, he deposits their bags just inside the door to the sitting room, takes a moment to pre-arrange the words in his head, then says, as casually as possible, “I’m going to take my bag to my room. Where would you like yours?”

The words come out with the precise amount of levity he was aiming for, but John isn’t fooled for a moment, looking over with eyes full of fire. “Your room would be great, yeah,” he says, imitating Sherlock’s levity, but his gaze is unwavering, his intention unmistakeably clear.

Sherlock swallows down his inner triumph. “My room it is,” he says briskly, and carries them into his bedroom, dropping them and silently doing a leap of sheer happiness, the likes of which he’s not felt in ages. John is coming to stay. Tonight. It will happen tonight!

Once the whiskey and paracetamol kick in, John announces that he’s getting hungry again and asks what they should order. Sherlock comes over with their stack of takeaway menus and perches on the arm of John’s chair as they choose. They settle on Thai, massaman and panang curries with coconut rice and crunchy spring rolls from the best place in the neighbourhood, and Sherlock calls to order it. “We’ve still got the other half of last night’s wine, too,” John reminds him.

Sherlock assents. “Sure you want to be mixing it with the whiskey and paracetamol, though? You usually lecture me about such things.”

“It’s only a small amount of each one,” John says. “I think I can live recklessly this once.”

“Wine it is,” Sherlock says, and goes to pour it. “Best not to leave it for too long, anyway.”

“Exactly. And that’s a nice bottle,” John points out.

He gets up and makes for the bathroom and Sherlock lays the table, his gut positively humming with anticipation. It’s after eight by the time their food comes, and in a way it feels the way it always has, yet the air is also charged with the expectations of later and all that the concept entails. After they’ve eaten, they move to the sofa and watch the news, the television relocated to the coffee table so that they can sit together. They watch their case get discussed, locals being interviewed, Lestrade taking a question or two and showing the handwritten plan of Smirnov’s bomb attack, found with the explosives themselves. The attack was to take place in Edinburgh in four months’ time at an international political event.

“I suppose if we’d stuck around, we’d have received some of the credit, too,” Sherlock says mildly. “Seems only fair, considering that you took a bullet for this one.”

“I’ll blog about it,” John says easily, not sounding as though he cares particularly.

Sherlock’s left leg is tucked under himself, his knee leaning on John’s right thigh, and their upper arms are pressed together, and he is hyper aware of every place that they’re touching. He can tangibly feel John’s awareness and anticipation, too, in a new sort of unspoken atmosphere that’s humming with a completely different sort of tension. They watch the rest of the news, then the end of a documentary about caravans in the Sahara, then finally John casually suggests that perhaps it’s time they went to bed. Sherlock’s pulse immediately leaps into his throat. “Yes. All right,” he says, managing not to trip over his own tongue.

They both make their way down the corridor and weave around one another, taking turns brushing their teeth and getting ready. Sherlock prudently puts his pyjama pants and a t-shirt on, like usual, then wonders if that will seem prudish. He leaves the bathroom and John slips past him, saying that he’s going to take a quick shower. He’s already in his own pyjamas, wearing the same thing. Good, then. That seems all right. Sherlock surveys the bed, his heart thudding, and wonders what on earth he’s doing. This is the last threshold, the one uncrossed line. The inner chamber, truly. There can be no going back from letting John in this far.

(But he wants it. He wants it badly, so much so that he cannot even make himself feel shame over how deeply he craves it.)

He doesn’t know which side John will want, so he hesitates, hemming and hawing as the shower water gets shut off.

The bathroom door opens after a moment or two and John sees him and leans up against the doorframe. “This isn’t set in stone, you know,” he says softly. “You’re not committed to doing anything at all.”

Objections leap to Sherlock’s lips but it feels crude to put any of them into words. “I – know that,” he says jerkily. “But I thought we… more or less decided…?”

“I’m just – offering an out,” John says quickly. “Just in case it’s too soon, or whatever. Nothing has to happen at all. I don’t even have to sleep down here if you think it’s too fast.”

“I want you to stay down here,” Sherlock says firmly, the words coming out a little more forcefully than he might have liked. He clears his throat. “And I want – the rest of it. What was implied.”

John smiles. “In that case,” he says, and switches off the bathroom light. “I just want to make it firmly known that there are no points of no return here. You’re at liberty to change your mind absolutely any time you want to. And you might not even think that that could happen now, but if it comes up, I just want that understood from the outset.”

Sherlock touches his tongue to his lower lips. “I’m only hesitating because I don’t know which side of the bed you prefer,” he says, and that does it: John laughs and the small bit of tension evaporates.

“Normally the left, but I was thinking about it and I want to be able to face you, and can’t lie on the bullet wound, so – the right side for now?” he suggests.

“Good. Okay.” Sherlock comes back to the other side and John passes him. The overhead light is already off; the only glow is coming from the lamps on either side of the bed. He steals a look at John. “Am – is this too much?” he asks. “To be wearing, I mean.”

“Oh.” John sounds surprised, and considers both their attire. “Well… if you like, we could maybe lose the shirts?”

“Okay.” Sherlock strips his off quickly enough to make John grin, removing his own shirt more slowly as Sherlock gets into the bed.

John climbs in with some care, putting himself closer to the middle than Sherlock is, so Sherlock shifts closer. John smiles approvingly at this, then finds Sherlock’s fingers and brings them to his lips. “How do you feel?” he asks, his voice lower and more intimate already, his eyes on Sherlock’s.

“Exhilarated,” Sherlock says. “Vulnerable. Inexperienced. Self-conscious.”

John kisses his fingers again. “You’re absolutely sure you want to do this – now, I mean?”

“Yes. Very. Kiss me,” Sherlock says, and thankfully John stops fussing and leans forward to put his mouth to Sherlock’s at long last. This part is easy now; he knows what to do with this. Sherlock kisses back hungrily, shifting closer and putting an arm around John’s back, careful to avoid the bullet wound. It still astonishes him to find how very good this feels; he used to relegate kissing as a mere overture to the main act, something easily dispensed with, an inessential, mostly-ornamental addition only. He’d no idea how much it could make him feel, the strength of the reaction it creates in him, at least when it’s John doing it. It feels like an avalanche, dangerous in its sheer magnitude, its destructive capability, but he is actively trying for the first time in his life to keep from resisting it, from holding it back. He still overtly fears its power to destroy him in its very strength, but he nonetheless wants this, wants it with every fibre of his being.

John moves closer yet, his knee pushing in between Sherlock’s thighs, his arm tight around Sherlock’s back. “This okay?” he murmurs, tracing down Sherlock’s jawline and neck with his lips.

“Very much so,” Sherlock says hoarsely. “Don’t stop.”

John makes a humming sound of acquiescence and kisses him again, his mouth even stronger this time, with a specific purpose that Sherlock divines was not previously there. If said purpose was to arouse, then it’s doing a fine job: John’s tongue and jaw are moving, kissing Sherlock in a way that he gleans is specifically more sexual than it was before.

He can feel himself turning weak under its influence, his hands clutching John to himself, his breath catching in his throat. John shifts a little and kisses his throat, marking it with his tongue and teeth and lips, his hands on Sherlock’s chest and ribs and arms. Sherlock can hear himself panting, getting his mouth on any part of John that he can reach in attempt to reciprocate. His body is stirring and responding more quickly and more fully than even this morning, and when the thought of panic crosses his mind he reminds himself that this is actually the intended result this time, that his immense attraction to John and overwhelming sentiment toward him is not only permitted now, but welcome. Very much welcome, it would seem; John’s left hand in particularly is currently squeezing at his hip and Sherlock wonders whether he’s hesitating to touch any lower. (Is he waiting for a cue? If so, perhaps Sherlock should give one.) He waits for a break in their next long, drawn-out kiss, John’s tongue stroking his in a way that seems to be connected directly with his erectile tissues, then says “John – ”

“Yeah – what do you – what do you want?” John is ahead of him, his voice all breath, his arousal as apparent from that alone. “What do you want me to do?”

Sherlock struggles with the verbalisation. “I don’t – care, I just – you can – do anything you want.”

John touches his nose to Sherlock’s, rubbing his against it, then kisses him again, their breath mingling. “I want to know exactly what you want. It’s not about what I want.”

“I – don’t know – precisely,” Sherlock says, fighting against himself, his embarrassment over admitting any of this aloud. “I don’t – I don’t even know what the – options are.”

John blinks, studying him for a moment, then seems to grasp his difficulty. “I’m not fussy,” he says, rubbing his hand over Sherlock’s bare back. “I want to touch you, or have you touch me, or both. Yeah. Both. But no pressure. It doesn’t have to be – I don’t want you to feel like you’re under a microscope or on an examining table or something. It can just be like this. And we can make it darker, if you want.”

Sherlock nods, his breath still coming quickly. “Yes. Okay.” He reaches back to switch the lamp off, and John does the same thing.

“Better?” he asks.

In response, Sherlock leans over and puts his mouth to John’s in a kiss that begins slowly, almost tentatively, then builds as it goes. He’s rarely been the first to initiate any part of this, for all that he craves it. Their arms are still around one another and Sherlock is exquisitely aware that he is hardening ever more in his flimsy pyjama pants. John’s hand travels down his side to his hip again, and Sherlock hesitates for all of three seconds, then reaches back to push it down onto his backside. John seems to catch on rapidly then, understanding that he does want this or how much, perhaps, and once he’s doing it, then Sherlock can permit himself to do the same thing. It feels like a guilty allowance, his fingers sliding down to graze the firm curve of John’s arse, then let all five of his fingers settle onto it in a ghostly grip, tightening as he dares.

John groans into his mouth and Sherlock pulls away momentarily. “Fuck, yes,” John says distinctly, his voice rougher already. “Keep doing that!”

Sherlock hears a breathy sort of noise escape his mouth and he leans harder into John, kissing him with more abandon than he’s yet tried, so hungry for this that he can feel a certain desperation driving him. He’s now harder than ever, his penis pushing insistently against the material of his pants, wetting it. Before he can do anything else, say anything, make any desperate request, John’s hand is there between them, touching him through his pants. His palm is rubbing against the underside of it, fingers gentling his testicles, and Sherlock makes an alarmingly loud, overtly aroused noise that he is fully incapable of preventing.

“Yes?” John whispers against his open mouth, and Sherlock makes a long, low sound of feverish assent. “You too, then,” John adds, still whispering. “Just if you want.”

“Yes – I want – ” Sherlock seals their mouths together again, tongues rubbing hard, lips sucking, and reaches for the hardness he’s imagined for years. He finds it and it feels exactly how he knew it would, yet even better. John’s flesh is far warmer than he imagined, and it’s pulsing rhythmically in his hand, tangibly responding to the way he’s touching it. They’re kissing hard and mirroring each other’s movements, stroking through their pyjama pants. It feels better than Sherlock even knew it was possible to feel, the stimulus and pleasure rising in a physical spike standing out from his body, his testicles heavy and full, responding in glittering sensation every time John’s fingers brush over them. He’s panting now, kissing John in fits and starts, breathing against his jaw and neck in between. He’s almost too aroused to feel embarrassed about how very hard he is, how extremely evident it is to John, who is holding his erection through his pyjama pants and caressing it rhythmically.

“God, you’re so hot,” John breathes. “I’m so hard for you, Sher – so hard – ”

This produces another aching sound that Sherlock cannot prevent and then somehow he’s climbing onto John in sheer need, their erections rubbing directly together through their pants now, John looking up at him and panting, both hands on Sherlock’s arse, fingers slipping on the material.

“Can I just – ” John gets out, then puts both hands down the back of Sherlock’s pants to show what he means, and Sherlock feels his entire body tremor.

“Yes – please, I want – ” It’s too bare, too stark, but he can’t articulate well enough to add veneer just now. Suddenly it’s not enough; the pants are too much. He wants to touch John directly, feel the wetness he can feel seeping through their pants with his skin. “Can – can we – ” he pants, shifting to the side and clawing at the waistband of John’s pyjamas.

“Yes!” It’s very enthusiastic and John guides him a little further back so that they can both do it, reaching into each other’s pyjamas to get their hands around one another’s erections. The sensation of both touching John this way and having John touch him like this is very nearly overwhelming, balanced only by his own desperate need to show that he is capable of this, to make it worth his while, make it feel as good as John’s touch is making him feel. The pleasure is coalescing like a planet forming, his entire body jangling with it, reverberating with it, yet Sherlock finds himself utterly fascinated by the progress of John’s arousal cycle, by the fluid leaking hotly into his palm. This is proof, laboratory proof of John’s desire for him. The entire bedroom is filled with the sounds of their kissing, punctuated by moans and breathy affirmations, and then John’s voice suddenly crescendos. “Sh – I’m going to – ahh – ” His hips jerk forward and then he’s coming, hot liquid filling Sherlock’s hand and getting all over John’s stomach and Sherlock’s forearm and the sheets, and witnessing it is nearly orgasmic for Sherlock, too. He grips and rubs throughout it, rewarded by John’s choked-off breath and several more spurts of ejaculate, and then his body relaxes, his breath coming hard. “Fuck, you’re amazing,” he pants, the words heartfelt and unfiltered. “Now you!”

Almost without missing a beat, he resumes what he was doing, his hand curled around this most intimately private part of Sherlock’s body, but while he’s more erect than ever, now that he’s the only one in this position, suddenly the self-consciousness returns with a vengeance. Sherlock ducks his head forward, avoiding John’s face and attempting to mask how hard he’s breathing, his entire body quivering in its need, yet fully abashed by how desperately he wants this. John kisses his forehead, his mouth hot, his hand stroking in the most perfect, pleasure-inducing rhythm, the heel of his palm rubbing over the sensitive head of his penis and Sherlock can feel his orgasm rising within him, about to burst over him like a dam breaking. Panic grips him on all sides; it’s too late to change his mind now, hold back this singular last vestige of himself not already given. His entire body is quivering on the brink of losing control and there is nothing he can do to stop it. “John – ” The name bursts out of him in a panicked blurt, his fingers gripping John’s arm.

John understands, though: John, who understands everything when it comes to this. “It’s okay,” he murmurs. “It’s – you’re so beautiful like this, Sherlock. You can let yourself go.” He stops, his face turning in toward Sherlock’s. “Unless you want me to stop? But I think you’re a bit too far gone for that… you don’t want to stop, do you?” Sherlock manages to shake his head, a mere convulsion at this point, his entire body needing so fiercely that he can barely breathe. John relaxes a bit. “Come for me, then. Please. I promise it’s all right.” He kisses Sherlock again, sucking at his full lower lip, then whispers, “It’s okay. I’m right here. You’re so close. Just – let go.”

He scoots closer and catches Sherlock’s forehead on his shoulder, then licks his palm and goes harder still. It takes only four or five more strokes and then Sherlock’s entire body gives way, spasming hard, his hips pushing himself into John’s hand, and then the pleasure is bursting out of him in spatter after spatter that he cannot stop, cannot apologise for, cannot hide. The pleasure wracks his frame and turns him inside out, hot and very wet and getting all over both of them. He cannot control the sounds he is making, either, ugly and unfiltered and raw, nor can he stop the orgasm, curtail it, reign it in. John’s hand is stroking and squeezing, wringing still more of it out of him and Sherlock feels breath gusting through his clenched jaw in a hard, high-pitched, anguished moan.

Finally it stops and his face is still buried in the crook of John’s shoulder, breath shuddering out of him, his arm gripping John’s shoulder and back. “Hey, hey,” John says, pressing kisses into his hair. “That was incredible – that was so hot! Are… are you all right?”

The only answer Sherlock can make is something one could charitably call a sob, but the term is far too cohesive for the sound he actually makes, his eyes flooding. His fortress is in ruins, the invading army in the throne room, all of the walls crumbled to heaps of rock. He is naked and defenseless, left without so much as his skin, a fragile worm with no carapace. His back heaves and shudders as John stops touching him and puts his arm around his back instead, holding him tightly.

He sounds much more concerned now. “Sherlock… what’s going on? It’s all right, you know. This is – I know it was really big. But it’s all right. I mean… are you… all right? I’m here. It’s okay. I’ve got you.” He strokes Sherlock’s back and hair, murmuring all the while. When he seems to realise that Sherlock is not, perhaps, capable of speech at the moment, he goes on. “I know you must feel like – like that was a big thing to let someone else share in. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever been a part of, you know. I mean that. I can’t even tell you what a privilege I feel like this is. I love you. You’re absolutely phenomenal and I can’t tell you what it means that you were willing to come here, to this place, with me.”

His words somehow slowly manage to restore some semblance of order to Sherlock’s sense of inner order. “I’m sorry,” he says, the words mangled against John’s neck and very wet. “I – I’m so sorry. I didn’t – mean to wreck it by falling to pieces. I’m – I’m not – ”

He feels he can’t even look John in the eye, but John pulls away for that express purpose. “Hey. Look at me,” he requests gently, his hand on Sherlock’s chin. “Please don’t think that anything here, starting with you, is anything less than I’ve ever hoped it could be, or that this was anything less than the most meaningful, beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Sherlock swallows. “Do you mean that?” he asks, feeling as vulnerable as he ever has in his entire life.

John swallows, too, blinking hard. “With every bone in my body,” he vows, then pulls Sherlock’s face very, very gently to his own and kisses him for a long time. As they kiss, the panic slowly ebbs from Sherlock’s being, leaving him with only the warm afterglow of the most intense physical and emotional experience of his life to date, and having John continue to hold him through it, kiss him through it, is making it all the better, reinforcing the intensity of it through his uninterrupted touch. John is a genius: confirmed.

After a long while, Sherlock pulls back a little and looks down at the mess on and between them. “We’re unbearably filthy.”

John smiles. “Sex is messy,” he says, shrugging it off.

The mess is cooling and becoming unpleasant, though. “I’ll be right back,” Sherlock says, not sure whether this is considered substandard, wanting to clean up, but hopefully John won’t mind. He also just feels the need for a moment of privacy, to take stock of the situation and finish collecting himself. He goes into the bathroom in his sodden, stained pyjama bottoms, shutting himself inside to remove them and deposit them in the laundry hamper. He then runs the warm water, wets a flannel, and cleans himself thoroughly. He gives himself a brief glare over his emotional collapse following his orgasm and reminds himself firmly that John is no ordinary man, to put up with that. He rinses out the flannel, thinks for a moment, then shuts off the light and steps back into the bedroom with no overlap, hiding his nudity in the darkness of the room and making quickly for the bed again. “Would you like this?” he offers, feeling slightly awkward again.

“Sure, yeah,” John says, easily enough. “Let’s maybe also get the sheet, yeah? We can put a new one on.”

“Not in your condition,” Sherlock says, frowning. “I’ll do it.”

John gives in. “All right,” he says. “In that case, I’ll just – take this into the loo.” He gestures with the flannel, then goes and shuts himself into the bathroom, circumspectly giving Sherlock full privacy in his nudity.

Sherlock looks after him for a moment, silently loving him more than ever, then quickly pulls the soiled sheet from the bed and replaces it as quickly as possible and climbs back into the bed. “Ready,” he says, and John comes out again, switching off the light.

He gets back into the bed on the far side, immediately finding Sherlock in the middle. “That is better,” he says approvingly. “Now: let me hold you a little more, if you don’t mind.”

Something in Sherlock’s chest unclenches and threatens to come loose. “I don’t mind at all,” he says, and they get their arms and legs fitted around one another’s, their naked bodies pressed together for the first time, and John doesn’t do anything to make it particularly sexual, try to begin a second round or something. Instead, it’s just very, very intimate. Sherlock feels held, protected, and intensely cared about. “I love you,” he says into the silence of the room, remembering that John said it again earlier, while he was in a panic over not knowing whether he could allow or prevent his orgasm.

John’s arms tighten. “I know,” he says softly. “I love you, too. And I meant what I said. I know that was a huge thing for you. It was for me, too, specifically because it was for you.”

Somehow it’s easier to talk about now. “Really?” Sherlock asks, his face inches from John’s on the same pillow.

John nods. “Mmm-hmm. From this on forward, they’re not just your new experiences. They’re our new experiences. I’ve never done what we just did before, either. I can’t tell you how – how much it made me feel, too.”

Sherlock feels another twinge of self-reproach. “I didn’t mean to fall apart that way.”

John smiles and touches his cheek. “I almost found that the most moving part of all, if you want to know.”

Sherlock searches his eyes. “You mean that, don’t you.” His tone is full of frank wonder.

“I really, really do,” John tells him. “I never ever thought to – to be let in this far. I feel like we’re sitting in a castle on top of the world, conquerors of everything. If we can get past our own failings, then there’s nothing that will ever be able to stop us.”

Sherlock thinks of his own, conquered fortress imagery and decides that he vastly prefers John’s version. A castle on top of the world, ruled by the two of them. Together. Not that he’s somehow failed to keep up his own defenses or because he’s succumbed to an invading force, but that John is simply there with him in the command centre. Right where he belongs. “Yes,” he says, searching John’s face. “I like that image.”

John smiles again. “Do you know what else I like?”

“Tell me.” Sherlock waits, feeling every single place where they’re touching and feeling closer to John than he ever realised it would be possible to feel to another person.

“These late night talks of ours,” John says, still smiling. “They started out kind of rough. But we’ve really managed to say a lot in them, under cover of darkness.”

“Maybe we needed the – cover,” Sherlock says, the term feeling slightly inadequate. “Or – perhaps I did.”

“No, I think I did, too,” John says. “I think we did. But we’ll just – get better from here. Expand our conquest into the daylight hours, too. But there’s no rush. I’m quite content to lie here in your arms all night long.”

Sherlock feels a foolish smile stretch out over his face. “Every night?” he asks, for once not trying to filter out the sound of the hope in his voice.

“If you’ll have me,” John says, touching Sherlock’s lips with his fingers. “I think it might kill me if you were to turn me away now.”

“I confess I feel practically surgically bound to you,” Sherlock admits. “I couldn’t bear it if you went back upstairs. So stay. Stay for good. This is your bed now.”

“Our bed,” John corrects him, and kisses him again. Later – much later, he adds, “Okay. Yeah. I’m not going anywhere.”

Sherlock responds by letting himself go completely, wrapping himself around John like an octopus and holding him as tightly as he can, and John responds in kind, almost rocking him in a heady compound of fierce tenderness and a need equalling Sherlock’s own. He was wrong, Sherlock realises at long last: what he feels for John doesn’t outweigh what John feels for him at all. He was just as afraid to show it as Sherlock was. They were idiots, both of them. But now it’s sorted at last, understood and accepted and achingly wanted. This is without a doubt the best night of either of their lives. He doesn’t care whether parachuters land on the roof of Baker Street. There is nothing can could possibly induce him to leave the haven of John’s arms. And if this is only the beginning, then it can only possibly get better from here, Sherlock thinks, his fingers stroking obsessively through John’s short hair as they kiss.

(Let it go on forever.)

*