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Everything else is just transport.

That's what he'd told John, and he meant it. But it wasn't comfortable, this transport of his. It might get him where he needed to go, but sometimes he just needed to get off.

Sherlock allowed himself a small smile at the pun, savouring the bite of the gag against the corners of his mouth. He could feel himself tensing. This part was always hard—the closed-in feeling of anxiety as his tools were taken away from him, one by one; the stream of input shutting down, each successive denial stripping away a layer of his hard-won control over himself until it was all he could do not to squirm in the bindings, whimper into the gag, before he'd even been touched.

Sometimes he couldn't stop himself. Sometimes he didn't even try.

He ought to find it humiliating. Doubtless would have, if he were really Sherlock in these moments that stretched and folded into hours. But no, this wasn't the self he'd so carefully constructed, this was just—

Just the slow in-out of breath through his nose and absence of the need to analyse, to choose, the sweet knowledge that there was nothing--nothing--in his world except what was given.

The first time had taken him by surprise. It was an experiment undertaken reluctantly—no, that wasn't the word for it; sardonically—to spite Mycroft. Show him he wasn't afraid? He preferred to think of it as spite. You have the nerve to offer, brother dearest? I'll have the nerve to accept. He'd hated it, at first—almost safeworded out in the first three minutes, likely would have if not for his pride—but as soon as he felt the first touch of a fingertip along the sensitive skin below his ankle, he'd understood.

Yes. This. Just this.

It usually started in the aftermath of a case. Observation required opening his senses, but the necessity of sorting the data into relevant and irrelevant made it all manageable.

Sometimes he could shut it down, afterward, but not always. As the initial high started to fade the suffocating excess would overtake him, making Sherlock feel as though his skin were too thin, wrapped too tightly around his bones. The feeling would make its way upward, forming a lump of sensitivity that settled, heavy, at the front of his skull.

The constant stream of data wouldn't stop, but without an outlet it would just turn over and over in his brain like rocks in the surf, gradually pulverising itself into sand. Abrasive. His brain scrubbing itself raw from the inside out.

Ordinary sex did nothing. It was as a whisper against a sea of static, the sensations of arousal lost amongst the interminable pinpricks of everything else, wave after wave of relentless intrusion breaking against his consciousness. It was overwhelming, the very molecules of the air assaulting his skin, tiny explosion of input demanding his constant attention.

Then came that precise moment, the tipping point, at which it all passed from unpleasant to objectively unbearable. Sherlock would sweep out of the flat (morgue, restaurant, wherever he happened to be), with or without an excuse. Gathering his coat about himself, the wool heavy and dampening enough that it acted as a temporary retaining wall, just enough to keep him from vibrating to pieces.

He'd endure the world's last, desperate attempt to break him as he made his way there, able to withstand the sensorial assault only because he knew it would soon end. He'd slip through the doors (real wood, oak, painted dark green and needing a new coat in the lower right-hand corner near the hinge; it didn't quite hang straight, the wood was warping) of the club (brass of the knob cold against his fingertips, worn slightly slick and lighter on the right side than on the left). The light in the foyer was too bright (scuff mark on the floor by the desk, two corners only, a slight adjustment to the angle made in the last few weeks since it was polished), the receptionist's smile a bit too bright (a slight flaw in the lenses of her new glasses, that would have necessitated the shift) for the atmosphere, which was intentionally clinical, at least out here, just past the first barrier against the world outside.

Sherlock knew for a fact that they didn't have his name but they knew him nonetheless. He didn't need to explain what he was seeking. Could hardly access coherent speech in that state, in any case. It would have been unnecessary; the receptionist always knew what he needed, and on her nod of acknowledgement he'd proceed back to an inner room where an attendant would be waiting.

Then it would begin.

It was never quite the same, this process, though it felt like a ritual nonetheless.

The blindfold always came first, a heavy affair with a soft lining. It would be pressed against his face by a second attendant who stood behind Sherlock and, thus, was unseen; it was easier if he had no mental image of the person obscuring his faculties, allowing him to focus on the effect rather than the act itself.

After that it might be the earplugs, or the gag—its leather thick and heavy against his tongue, wide enough to bite between his teeth on either side—or the scented oil that obscured all other scents. The order varied, but always all three, until only his skin remained as a conduit between himself and the outside world.

Only then was his clothing removed, slowly, by more than one set of hands, and with each successive layer peeled away Sherlock would become more and more restive. This part often made him anxious to the point of anger. He hadn't yet settled into his mind and the sense of being pared down even further, his skin still too thin and prickling, couldn't have been more complete had they been peeling the flesh away from his very bones. They had yet to provide him with an anchor and the subsequent disorientation, combined with the exposure, was infuriating.

Then the anchoring would start. The form it took varied, depending largely on how violently he'd reacted to the stripping of his clothing, whether he'd been successful in willing his body to accept the process or whether he'd lashed out, trying to jerk his limbs away from the steady fingers.

Sometimes they'd guide him to a standing position, binding his arms either above his head or out to the sides, his ankles either left free or slightly spread. Most often he would be placed on a padded table, the extent and positioning of the restraints any one of a seemingly infinite number of possibilities. He could have calculated them, of course, but the choice wasn't his, and for once he could allow himself to leave the possibilities as mere possibilities. Unexamined.

Had he been asked to articulate his need, it would have defeated the point of the whole exercise. But there was nothing for him to articulate, because they knew; here, in this dark, quiet place, his only task was to simply let them.

They'd leave him alone while the last echoes of reaction worked their way through his muscles. He was sure they watched him as he twitched and tested his range of movement in the bindings—they were professionals, after all—but with all his senses blocked he felt so blissfully disembodied and alone that he couldn't have cared less.

They would wait until his body began to accept its new limitations, until heavy, blanketing stillness began to settle over him. Then there would be a touch, a single point of contact that sparked against his brain and brought his focus slamming earthward.

Now. There.


Sometimes, like tonight, Sherlock needed something a little more.

They'd just wrapped up a particularly trying case: kidnapping of a young girl (two distraught parents, two siblings, constant background distraction after the initial interview) that dragged on and on for weeks. Sherlock had made the observation that cracked the whole thing wide open (John: How do you see these things? Sherlock, with a sigh: I see everything, John.), and the family had wanted to thank him.

He was physically exhausted, his defences long since worn down, but John and Lestrade both insisted he humour them. Smiling face after smiling face (extended family present, too), and he couldn't help but see-hear-observe it all. One of the cousins was only a half-cousin, unbeknownst to the relevant uncle, and it had almost slipped past his teeth before John shot him a warning look.

But then John had left—shift at the surgery, he said—and Lestrade was occupied with post-case paperwork and Sherlock was trapped, the sea of faces going on and on, assaulting him with words that swirled around his head and he couldn't shut any of it down.

His skin was crawling, crackling as though with electricity. When the thought crossed his mind that it might have been worth it to let the girl go unfound if it would have meant not subjecting himself to this onslaught (bit not good, yeah), he knew he needed to get out of there. Knew where he needed to go instead.

It felt like a lifetime later when he finally pushed his way through the familiar door, taking a deep breath as it closed behind him.

But there would be no easy acceptance for him, not tonight. He jerked his head away when the unseen thumb spread the oil under his nose, pushing in slightly to line his nostrils. He struggled violently against the attendants when the undressing started, unable to stop himself from pulling away from them altogether at one point, feeling unmoored and lost in the suddenly featureless space until he felt their hands on him again.

It was when he seemed to want it least that he most needed the peace this place could provide. It had happened before, and he no longer worried that they would misinterpret the involuntary rebellion of his body as a withdrawal of consent. They understood.

He willed himself to stillness. It didn't work. It didn't need to; that wasn't his role to play, not here. The burden of choice, of input-analysis-action, was not his to bear.

This time, as when he had arrived in a similar state previously, they used harsh rope—more tactile, more grounding—instead of the usual wide leather restraints. Understanding that he wasn't yet ready to be secured to a fixed point they simply bound him to himself, neck tied fast to his drawn-in knees, curling his body into a close knot, hands mitted before being drawn together and secured at his lower back.

He needed something to fight, and they gave it to him, the burning contact between the rope and his skin serving as a place for his consciousness to rest as it came down to earth. The sensation grew, spread, became one with the cramps of his muscles, diffusing until it was a gentle thrum in time with the in-out of his breath, with the movement of his blood in his veins.

Then it all faded and he was floating, back in his head, needing nothing. Accepting.

His body finally subdued, he stilled, breath growing even once again; when the touch came—a single fingernail, drawn lightly up from his instep, over his bound ankle and farther up his leg, slowly tracing the indent at the edge of his calf muscle—the force with which his mind focused on the single point of contact was nearly enough to put him over the edge.

"Doctor, we'd like your supervision with a client in Studio C."

The attendant was impersonal and polite, as always, and John smiled, setting aside the medical journal he'd been skimming. "Blood?"

The attendant shook her head. "No, not this time. The client was feeling a bit anxious when he arrived, and under similar circumstances he's responded well to mild stress positions. It's not essential, but as you aren't needed elsewhere right now, would you mind poking your head in?" She winked at him. "Besides, he's signed a full waiver, and he looks like your type."

Jesus, John thought. He'd never understand the "full waiver" blokes (and they were always men). The staff referred to it as the "whatever-by-whomever" clause. As far as he'd been able to gather, just signing that piece of paper was a kink in itself; the staff were professional enough that they wouldn't take advantage. It's not as though they'd just pull someone in off the street; it just seemed as though some of the clients got off on the thought that they could. They mostly used it to tease one another, actually, as Amy was doing to him now.

He'd only been working there for a couple of months, and not regularly, just filling in for Mike Stamford when he needed a break. At first he'd been a little unsure—"I'm sorry, Mike, it's a what sort of club?"—but he could always use the extra cash and his experience so far hadn't been that dissimilar to his time in the army, really. Loads of waiting around punctuated by the occasional unmanageable freakout (some actual injuries but mostly clients who didn't know what they wanted and made requests they weren't prepared, psychologically, to handle; the kit in his office was full of sample packs of sedatives as much as anything else). Sometimes he'd stand in the corner or just outside the door if any of the staff thought the planned activities seemed particularly risky. After some of the things he'd seen bored soldiers get up to, most of what went on here seemed downright tame. Harmless, really.

Amy pushed open the door to C and John slipped through, positioning himself against the wall out of habit. The first time he'd been called in to witness a session he strode into the room as if he were entering an exam room at the surgery, and had narrowly avoided kicking the client in the ear. Altogether more folks rolling about on the floor here, and he tried to be mindful of it after that.

Amy followed behind him and joined Ethan, the other attendant, who was sitting in one of the two chairs against the other wall. The client was curled up in a ball on the table; his breath was coming fast and he was moving a bit, but didn't seem to be in any distress.

"It's the rope on his neck," Ethan said with a shrug. "He seems fine, but we don't usually do anything really risky with this one. He can be a bit hard to read, and he let things go too far once. He's on full blackout," he added, by way of explanation for the way they were speaking about the client as though he weren't even there.

"Could pinch the artery, I suppose," John said, leaning in a bit closer, eyes on the pale neck bent forward at an awkward angle, "but I don't see anything to be conc—" He stopped. "You have got to be joking," he said to himself. He ran his hand over his face, turned back to the attendants. "I know this man."

Amy laughed. "Know him, do you?"

"No, I mean, he's my—" John couldn't really explain, not without violating the club's strict policy of anonymity. "Not like that." He waved it away, and they accepted it without question.

Sherlock seemed to be tiring himself out, on the table; his movement had slowed, even in the brief time since John had been there.

"What's his— what does he want?" John felt it was probably wrong to ask that, but he couldn't help himself.

Ethan laughed. "Nothing, mate. It's kind of his thing. Full blackout and then just…" he shrugged. "Anything. He responds well to the little stuff. Taking it slow."

"Yeah," John said slowly, and he found he couldn't take his eyes off Sherlock. He'd stopped moving altogether, and it might have been the stillest John had ever seen him. Now that John's initial surprise had passed, he was finding the whole thing rapidly moving into obvious territory. He wouldn't have guessed without seeing it—why would he—but now that he had, it fit, slotted neatly into place alongside the other things he knew about his eccentric flatmate.

Amy was watching John carefully. "He's probably ready for something now, if you want." Her voice was perfectly even, conveying no expectation whatsoever.

John swallowed, reached out, carefully pressed his thumbnail against the inside of his foot and then around, ran it slowly up the outside of Sherlock's leg.

The effect was electric. John had never seen—or felt, for that matter--anything like it: someone capable of such an intense shift without actually moving. The sound that came from the gagged mouth was long, somewhere between a sigh and a groan.

It felt, to John, as though every bit of Sherlock's attention were running straight up his arm and down his spine to settle as warmth in his own groin. He made it as far as the rope at Sherlock's bent knee before he simply couldn't take it anymore and had to pull his hand away. "Oh." Even he could hear how breathless it sounded.

Amy was at his shoulder, her eyes on his face. "I've got him," she said to John. "We should move him anyway, but he's definitely fine, if you want to—"

"Yeah," John heard himself say. He was already at the door. He needed to get out of that room before he did something he'd regret, needed to sit and think. A cold shower wouldn't go amiss, either.

By the time he made it back to his office and closed the door, he thought his heart rate had at least slowed to something approaching normal. That was… extraordinary. And it was nothing, really, nothing had actually happened.

Full waiver. And from what he'd been told, Sherlock wouldn't even need to know it was him. (Would he figure it out? Maybe. Maybe not, in that state.) Might not want to know, if John understood correctly what the attendants had said.

It might be a violation of trust.

It might not.

He'd always supposed… well, Sherlock had said he was married to his work, and John liked to take men at their word on things like that, as much as he would have like to pursue the issue further. It certainly didn't seem that Sherlock had much interest in sex, at least outside any purpose it might serve as motivating factor in an interesting case. Then again, that might not even be what this was about; he hadn't actually witnessed anything overtly sexual (other than the nudity and bondage? There was definitely something wrong with his brain. Then again, with Sherlock, one could never truly be sure).

But maybe it was just that this—this thing, whatever it was (and John thought he might be starting to understand it already) that he came here for—wasn't something Sherlock knew how to negotiate, in another setting. Maybe Sherlock would be glad for it, if he knew he got to bypass the fussy talking parts, jump right to what he needed.

John just knew that, whatever it was he had witnessed, had reached him in a place he hadn't even known he possessed.

He needed to see it again.

When they saw each other saw Sherlock again the next morning, Sherlock gave no indication that anything unusual had happened. He didn't seem to find anything unusual in the way John was acting, either.

It was a relief. It gave him time.

With the conviction of both his professional training and his personal experience, John knew it simply wasn't his place to broach the subject with his flatmate. He wasn't intentionally hiding it from him, or not exactly; had Sherlock asked him directly, he would have been honest about his presence there that night. It was more that the whole situation felt personal and vulnerable in a way John wasn't used to attributing to Sherlock. It all felt fragile, and he didn't want to rush in and shatter the space Sherlock had created for himself.

And if he had to leave it there, John decided—simply never mentioning it, letting Sherlock keep this outlet as something private—he could do that. Wouldn't even mind, really (or could convince himself he didn't, which was almost the same thing). It wasn't, after all, that far removed from the expectation of confidentiality between a patient and his doctor. It wasn't even that unlike other elements of their unusual partnership. Sherlock's life was a physically dangerous one, and the frequency (and outright creativity, John thought, laughing to himself) with which he sustained injuries meant that John was on terms of greater physical intimacy with Sherlock than he'd ever been with anyone, including the majority of his former sexual partners. John wasn't about to violate that trust, so he compartmentalised. It was fine.

But this. This was something new. This changed things, or had the potential to, and John couldn't shake the feeling that it wouldn't be a violation. That it might be exactly what Sherlock (what they both?) wanted.

It was almost six weeks later when circumstances aligned themselves again.

Mike was out of town for his niece's wedding, and it was the second consecutive day John had filled in for him. It had been an uneventful few hours and John was just contemplating trying to sneak in a nap in his office when Amy knocked on the door.

"Your 'not like that' is here again," she told him with a smile. "We're just getting him started. I thought you might want to know."

"Right, thanks."

Amy was looking at him closely. "You know, after last time…"

"I know," John said hastily, trying not to feel disappointed. "That wasn't very. Um. If you need me, I'll—"

"No, no, that wasn't what I meant," Amy interrupted. "I think you should come join us." She looked around and shrugged. "They'll know where to find you, if you're needed."

When they got to the room, Sherlock was lying on his back on the low table. A wide leather strap ran across his hip and another just under his armpits, holding him on the table. They had bent his legs at the knees, securing his ankles to his upper thighs, but otherwise left them untethered.

John shot her a puzzled look. "Easier on his back, with his arms straight up," Amy explained. "We did his arms like that because he's got a burn on his wrist, see? Didn't want him rubbing it on anything."

Sherlock's arms had been pulled overhead and secured with palms facing upward. On the inside of his right wrist, extending halfway up his forearm, was the chemical burn John had bandaged just a few days before, the result of an experiment that turned out to yield a slightly more volatile result than either of them had anticipated. The idiot had, of course, removed John's carefully-applied dressing. The injury looked dark purple and angry in the low light.

Sherlock was shifting and making small noises into the gag. "He always does this for a while. He'll settle down soon," said the other attendant, a young man John didn't know. "Do you mind if we duck out? This might be our best chance for a smoke break; we don't get many as want their smell blocked, and this way it'll be gone before the next comes in."

The positioning of his arms extended Sherlock's rib cage slightly, the pale skin stretched taut, and his slight movements were making the shadows dance along the hollows between the bones. John realised he was staring, and it took more discipline than he would have liked to admit to turn his eyes away.

"Sure," John said, hoping his voice sounded steadier than he felt. "Just leave him?"

"Wait until he calms," the attendant said. "Let him be for a bit. Then just touch him." He indicated a cabinet in against the wall. "There are some things you can use in there, if you'd like, but he mostly likes skin. Go slow."

"You can just leave him alone 'til we get back, if you'd rather," Amy added. "Sometimes he likes that." She gave him an encouraging smile, then they were out the door, closing it behind them.

John turned back to Sherlock. He was still pulling against the straps, and the sight was mesmerising; Sherlock was always graceful in his movements, and the fact that they were now constricted seemingly made him more so, not less. Between the gag and the blindfold his face was largely obscured, his dark curls disheveled and poking up at odd angles.

John found himself staring at the dip where the long column of Sherlock's throat met the sharp peaks of his collarbones. He didn't dare let his eyes stray below Sherlock's navel. Not yet, at least, he thought, feeling suddenly grateful for the way Sherlock's legs had been bound, because it meant he could choose to close his knees. Meant that the fact that they remained open could be interpreted as permission.

John took a deep breath, let it out slowly.

Sherlock had finally grown still, and John watched him for long minutes. It was peaceful. In his experience of Sherlock Holmes the man was a lot of things, but peaceful had never been one of them.

John walked around to the top of the table. He reached out slowly and ran his finger up Sherlock's uninjured forearm, feeling the twitch and quiver of the muscle under his touch.

Sherlock didn't move, but John felt it anyway, that electric shift of attention. Simply extraordinary, he thought.

When he reached the palm of Sherlock's hand he took his time, lightly running his fingertip up each finger in turn, then back down, before proceeding to the next one. The muscles of Sherlock's hand tensed and relaxed in reaction, and John could hear the breath coming faster through his nose. It was an incredible, heady feeling, knowing he was eliciting such a response from this small amount of contact, and he bent down to lightly kiss the tip of Sherlock's fourth finger.

There was a strangled moan from behind the gag and Sherlock pressed his hips up into the strap, arching as much as he could, and it was all John could do not to give in, take both hands and grab Sherlock roughly and— he didn't even know what he would do, just that he wanted to be touching more of that pale skin.

"Slow," he whispered to himself, trying to remember that this wasn't about him. He was achingly hard, and the quick glance he allowed himself confirmed his suspicions that he wasn't the only one.

He repeated the process on Sherlock's other arm, skirting the edge of the chemical burn with his fingertip, unable to turn off the part of his brain that told him it was healing nicely. He pressed very, very lightly at its outer edge and Sherlock huffed into the gag, but didn't try to pull his arm away.

He moved around the side of the table, increasing the pressure from his fingers slightly as he traced the shape of Sherlock's skeleton beneath his skin, one bone at a time. His hand skimmed along one collarbone then dipped lower, tracing the outline of each rib. When he reached the last rib on that side he moved down the linea alba as the muscles on either side jumped and twitched, pausing to dip his tongue briefly into Sherlock's navel, then brushed his nails over the sharp jut of Sherlock's hip.

Sherlock had his head thrown back, his breath coming fast through his nose, and was moving in a way that John could only describe as squirming, but there was somehow a lack of urgency to it.

Trust, John thought.

Sherlock let out a low moan when John brushed his fingers across the lower part of his abdomen, and then proceeded to retrace the same path on the other side of Sherlock's body, moving in reverse across the iliac crest and up his stomach to his lowest rib.

When he reached his collarbone John allowed his finger to linger for a moment in the dip at the base of Sherlock's throat, then pressed just a bit harder as he ran it up over his adam's apple to his chin. The motion left a faint red line against the pale skin, and when John leaned in to trace it with the tip of his tongue Sherlock suddenly tensed under him, giving such a compact little shudder that John thought he might be about to come, despite the fact that John had yet to touch him below the hips.

Then there was a hand on his shoulder and Amy's voice was in his ear. "Doctor, you're needed," she said quickly. "Studio E. A couple."

John pulled back abruptly, startled. Sherlock gave a long whimper of distress at the loss of contact and Amy extended both her hands, placing them lightly against the sides of his ribcage and splaying her fingers, stroking in toward his centre in a soothing motion.

John blinked hard several times to clear his head. "Right," he said finally, "thanks."

Once in the hallway he rested his forehead against the wall and took five deep breaths, counting slowly as he drew the air in and out, fighting to regain his composure before hurrying off to grab his kit.

The abrupt removal of the touch on his skin was one of the most disorienting moments of Sherlock's life, the sudden lack of connection making his head spin. So intently had he been focusing on that single point of contact that, when it disappeared, his first dizzying fear was that it was he who had been obliterated.

They'd played games before, confronting him with teasing bursts of stimulation that came and went, leaving him to swim in a void, keeping him guessing. It was enjoyable and distracting, and when it happened again he'd accept it as he accepted everything else.

It was also not what this was. Or, he didn't think it had been. That intense, sustained connection hadn't been teasing at all, it was… exploratory. Communicative. Then it was severed and he called out for it, biting down hard on the gag between his teeth, once again grateful for the anchoring presence of the leather restraints. Just this, he thought, here, and the pressure of the straps against his skin was the proof he needed.

Then there were hands on his torso and he remembered that he needed to breathe, that he could relax. Not the same touch, and he could analyse that, catalogue the ways in which they were different (softer, less blunt) but he for once didn't have to.

He let it go.

John came down late to breakfast the next morning. He hadn't been home when Sherlock arrived back at Baker Street the night before, which was just as well; the cab ride home hadn't been long enough to finish coming down and he was still floating on reaction when he fell, still clothed, into bed.

"Late night?" Sherlock asked from his place on the sofa. At John's uncharacteristic answering grunt, he opened his eyes and regarded him coolly as he stood at the sink with his back to Sherlock. "Did something happen?"

"What?" John's head jerked as he turned to face him.

"You have blood on the back of your neck."

John lifted a hand and rubbed idly at the spot. "Oh, yeah. Took four shards of glass out of some poor bloke's foot last night. His wife had thrown a— well. Bled like a bastard. I had to give him twenty-five stitches."

"Mmm." Accident. Not John's. Dull.

"How's your arm?" John asked.

It was an attempt to distract him, which was interesting, but Sherlock didn't call him on it. He pulled up the sleeve of his dressing gown, though he didn't hold it out for John to see. He'd humour him, but only to a point.

John made his way over to the sofa and bent down to examine it. "Want me to put a new bandage on?"

The way John's eyes were moving over his skin was sparking something in Sherlock's brain. Whatever it was, though, he couldn't quite interpret it. He'd always hated that. It made him fidgety.

He swung his feet off the edge of the sofa and stood, suddenly full of energy and needing to get out of the flat. Molly had mentioned something about severed toes; students' failed attempts at reattachment surgeries, and what kind of idiot would go to a teaching hospital for something like—

"Sherlock." John was standing in the doorway of his bedroom. The expression on his face was the one he wore when something was troubling him. No, that wasn't it; when he was worried. Worried, specifically, about Sherlock.

Well. That was all right, then. He was fine.

Better than fine, actually. He felt wonderful, energised and interested. It happened, sometimes, the day after. He didn't want to stop to explain, didn't want to waste it.

He spun past his flatmate and already had his coat halfway on. "I'm fine, John. It's fine, it's lovely, it's perfect, I'm off to Bart's," and he was out the door.

He knows, John thought. He knows, and it's fine.

He all but collapsed into the chair. He'd hated having to rush out the night before, but he hadn't been lying to Sherlock about the man needing stitches. The place was a mess, blood and glass shards everywhere, and it had taken ages to get everyone calmed down enough to treat the injury properly. Afterward he'd helped clean up and waited out the rest of his shift, hoping Sherlock would be gone or asleep by the time he got home. He'd been… what? Embarrassed? Nervous?

A bit of both, most likely, he admitted to himself.

And maybe they weren't going to talk about it any more than this. Maybe that would be it: that brief acknowledgement to assuage his guilt, an unspoken agreement. It might be enough, John thought. Or it might not. It wouldn't be simple, but few things in John's life were, these days.

But Sherlock knew, and it was fine, and if John wasn't sure just what exactly to do with that information, what he did know—that it made him feel a bit breathless with relief and anticipation—was more than enough reason to take the time to sort it out.

Mike Stamford was in the lab when Sherlock arrived at Bart's.

"Bit unusual for you to be here this time of day, isn't it?" Sherlock said. He would have preferred to have the lab to himself; it really was quite the lovely collection of toes, and he wanted space to spread them out and do some proper observation.

"Oh, I let class out early," Mike replied. "I'm still a bit morning-afterish, I'm afraid. Niece's wedding. Tell John thank you very much for covering for me, by the way. Sounds like he had to clean up quite a mess last night."

Sherlock stared at him. That half-formed thought was squirming in his brain again.

"A couple had a row at the club," Mike continued, oblivious. "Blood everywhere, from what I heard."

Sherlock could feel the tightening of the muscles around his eyes. "Twenty-five stitches in his foot," he offered, and his voice sounded distant and distracted, even to his own ears.

"Yeah." Mike shook his head. "Does he know that's where we met? That night they had to call me in because you wouldn't use your—"

Sherlock waved his hand at Mike to silence him. "Stop talking, just shut up, I need to think."

Mike was quiet for a long moment. "Right, okay," he said finally, standing slowly. "I'll leave you to it, then. I've got a stack of exams to grade for the little bleeders tomorrow."

Sherlock didn't even acknowledge him as he left.

Obvious. So obvious. It was obvious, wasn't it? Maybe not. Might just be a coincidence.

His mind playing tricks on him, perhaps. But the way John had looked at the burn on his arm….

Wishful thinking? He wasn't usually prone to such indulgences. And yet, he had to admit the thought had a certain symmetry to it. It was comfortable. He liked the way it felt, sitting in his brain.

Pointless to speculate without all the facts.

He'd need to set up an experiment.

The experiment Sherlock eventually devised wouldn't have passed the scrutiny of the scientific community, given that it had a sample size of precisely one and its single metric of success was, for several reasons, rather biased. Still, if his hypothesis were confirmed, he hoped to compensate for the lack of rigour in the initial trial through extensive repetition.

It took a long time before conditions were right. It wouldn't work at all if he conducted his trial at a time during which he himself really needed a session—he wouldn't be able to maintain the necessary focus, for one thing, and it would render the whole experience useless, for another—and John couldn't know he had arranged it, for obvious reasons. As it happened, both he and John ended up going to the club several times in the intervening period, though they didn't, so far as Sherlock knew, encounter each other there.

He did manage it, though. It was early on a Tuesday evening, and John was filling in because Mike was proctoring some pointless examination or other for his students.

Sherlock waited for over an hour after John left before setting out himself. By the time he closed the heavy door behind him, he'd worked himself into a state of barely-contained anxiety. This was the most aware he'd ever felt on entering this place, and he was suddenly worried that he wouldn't be able to go through with it at all, that he didn't need enough to submit himself, wouldn't be able to force it.

He felt impatient as they applied the blindfold, forced himself to remain still and compliant as the scented oil was spread below his nose, opened his mouth obediently to accept the heavy leather of the gag.

Then a long pause, one set of steadying hands on his shoulders. He didn't let himself turn his head to try to follow the footsteps of the other attendant, but he could tell he was moving away, and he was both relieved and anxious at the thought that they'd forgotten the earplugs.

No, the footsteps were returning, and there they were, soft foam ones this time that expanded and gave his head an unpleasant full sensation. These were different than any they'd used previously, less effective; he could still hear muffled sounds, though he could no longer pinpoint their location. Annoying.

Then, something completely new; his ears were covered by a heavy set of headphones that cupped his ears firmly. He didn't like the pressure against his skull and was considering registering a protest when the noise started.

It was a sharp, humming buzz, like a faulty electrical circuit, its dissonance instantly drowning out all other sound and cutting straight to a small, unprotected place in his brain. He could feel his head twisting back and forth, and it was only when the hands began leading him forward that he realised his clothing had been removed. He hadn't even felt it.

He'd never come in with an agenda before.

They knew.

Of course they knew, they always knew, and he'd been a fool to think he'd be able to keep any secrets here.

His fingers were curled into fists and encased in stiff mittens which were then buckled firmly together and suspended a few inches above the top of his head.

Then he was alone.

Just his useless hands overhead and the noise in his ears and nothing, nothing to hold onto, and he stood and swayed and fought down a feeling of outright panic. The sound was too much and the restraints not enough and his brain was folding and twisting against itself. He was anchorless in a space that felt simultaneously vastly empty and as though it might close in on him at any moment and he couldn't seem to get enough air through his nose, the smell of the cloves suddenly unbearably overpowering and they couldn't leave him like this, they wouldn't, he couldn't stand it, there was nothing to cling to, his world a featureless blank except for the obliterating hum in his ears and the pressure in his head and he couldn't endure one more minute of it but time wasn't behaving properly and it just went on and on.

Finally, blessedly, it stopped.

The hum in his ears was replaced with static, plain radio static that his addled mind instantly blanked and interpreted as silence. The wave of relief he felt was so great that his knees buckled dangerously for a moment.

But then there were steadying hands unbuckling his own and bringing them to his sides, guiding him backward a few steps and down onto a seat, helping him lean against the cool surface of the wall at his back, fastening his still-mitted hands to the seat near his hips. His ankles were anchored, too, and he was grateful for the firm pressure there as he focused on the in-out of breath through his nose.

As his mind began to spin out into that blissful, comforting blank Sherlock thought vaguely that there was something he was meant to be remembering, but he couldn't. It didn't seem to matter.

Doesn't matter, doesn't matter, doesn't matter, echoed his thoughts as he floated away. Whatever it was, they'd know.

"How long's he been like that?" John asked, trying to keep his tone one of clinical interest. Sherlock was standing on the other side of the room, and even with the blindfold and gag obscuring most of his face John thought he'd never seen him look so lost. He was pulling at his arms overhead and swaying alarmingly, making a continuous strangled noise into the gag.

"Five, maybe six minutes," Amy said. "It's probably the headphones; we haven't used them on him before."

John imagined he could see the pulse jumping in the pale throat, though he knew he wasn't actually close enough to do so. "What's he listening to?"

"Mains hum," she explained. "We'll switch it soon; most can't stand it for very long. But he was different when he came in today. He was… thinking too much. You could practically see it."

"Yeah. Yeah, he does that."

"He was just in a few days ago. That's likely why. I thought it might be a good chance to try something new." She shrugged. "Then when I realised you were here….."

John frowned at her, turning his gaze away from Sherlock for a moment. "And you're trying to… what, set us up?"

She smiled. "No. Well. Sort of. Anyone can see it's… well, he responds well to you. He's one of my favourite clients—I've asked to work with him whenever he comes in, if I'm here—because he's responsive and easy and it's… even more so, with you. A lot of our clients, it's just about playing games, but with him it feels more like therapy. I like helping him, and I think you're good for him, and… and I'm babbling, now."

"You're very observant," John told her, impressed.

"Have to be, to be any good at this." She gestured at Sherlock. "I think he needs to come down now. Why don't you stay here today? I'll get you set up, then go man your office in case you're needed." She winked at him. "Let's hope you won't be this time."

There was a radio transmitter on the nearby table. Amy twisted one of its dials and Sherlock's whole demeanour changed instantly, the tension sliding from his frame as he breathed a long sigh down his nose.

John was at his side in a moment, steadying him on his feet and separating his hands from the suspension hook. At Amy's wave he helped guide Sherlock to a seat against the wall where she anchored him at wrists and ankles. John could smell the unaccustomed tang of stress underlying the more familiar scents of Sherlock's body, sweat and soap and the harsh snap of chemicals, as well as the cloves that were all Sherlock could smell himself.

He could map Sherlock's life by smell alone when he's like this, John realised, and wondered if this was what it was like for Sherlock when he read things about John's history from the unconscious artefacts of his own body. To be this close to someone, able know so much about them, while they could read nothing about you… it was both heady and isolating and John thought that, too, might be part of the reason why Sherlock needed this place.

John resisted the urge to run his hand through the dark hair, turning back to Amy as Sherlock began to relax against the wall, still breathing heavily. "I'll just fetch something, then leave you to it," she told him.

While she was gone, John watched Sherlock, to all appearances still peacefully unaware. The headphones bulged ridiculously, making him look a bit like some sort of pale, overgrown insect. His breath had evened out, the long lines of his muscles relaxed despite his exposed position. He looks gorgeous like this, John thought, vulnerable and trusting and peaceful and… extraordinary.

Amy returned with a tray bearing a bowl of ice and a mug full of water in which rested a small acrylic cylinder. She placed the latter on a small warming disc which she then plugged into the wall. "Cleaner and safer than wax," she explained, "and while you can do anything you'd like, this is one thing he likes quite a bit." Then, following John's gaze, she grinned. "It's amazing, isn't it? I don't get the sense that he's at all like this, other times."

John shook his head. "You have no idea."

"My best advice is not to overload him," she said. "Lots who come here do it because they like to have their boundaries pushed, but we learned pretty quickly he just doesn't have any. It's sort of the opposite problem, with him."

John nodded. "Boundaries, yeah. Not really his area."

She laughed. "Well, that's what we're here for, then, isn't it? Call me if you need anything."

As the door closed behind her, John turned back to Sherlock and took a long, carefully-controlled breath. He was unaccountably nervous.

Well, no, it wasn't just nerves, as he was reminded by an increased pressure in the front of his trousers. He tried to put that out of his mind—best of luck to you there, John, he thought wryly—because there were some things about which he just wasn't comfortable making unilateral decisions, waivers be damned. Sherlock wasn't even hard; in fact, for all John could tell, he might easily have been asleep.

Right, okay.

He reached down carefully and grasped the front of the seat between Sherlock's parted knees, pulling toward him so that the whole base of the chair slid forward as the back reclined. Sherlock didn't give any indication that he'd even felt the slow shift, simply allowing gravity to settle him into the padded surface at this more relaxed angle.

It seemed scarcely possible that this was the same man who, just hours before, had leaped up from the sofa and practically stomped the coffee table through the floor in his haste to stop John from moving a series of petri dishes a foot and a half away from the kitchen sink.

A wave of warm affection spread through John and he reached out to place his thumb just under Sherlock's ear, running it slowly around the front of the pale throat.

And oh, there it was, that jolt as Sherlock's entire body fixated on that one point of contact, and the two men drew in matching sharp intakes of breath, John chuckling softly to himself as he let his out again a moment later. He let his fingertips brush gently down the other side of Sherlock's neck, over the shoulder and down his arm, scraping the backs of his nails lightly on the forearm just above the cuff of the mitten. When he drew his hand away a moment later Sherlock tried to follow it with his arm, his breath catching.

Sherlock's hips shifted slightly, and when John looked he was both mildly surprised and gratified to see that Sherlock had already gone from limp to almost fully erect. He ran two fingers along the inside of Sherlock's knee, putting almost no pressure on the skin, and Sherlock responded by pressing both knees out as far as the ankle restraints allowed him.

Jesus, John thought. We've barely started.

He shifted his attentions upward, tracing the planes of the lean frame. Sherlock made small noises and shifted under him, trying to prolong the contact by shifting his body to follow John's hands. John found this provocative in a way he hadn't anticipated and found himself reacting by deliberately teasing Sherlock's skin, reaching out for quick strokes before pulling away just as quickly, enjoying Sherlock's inability to predict his movements.

Even like this Sherlock somehow managed to be graceful, and John had a sudden urge to paint the long lines of his frame onto Sherlock's flesh. He could imagine a paintbrush in his hands, tracing the bones of Sherlock's skeleton onto his skin. He could see it, the contrast of the lines (dark blue, his mind's eye decided for him) against the pale flesh, and without really even intending to he found he'd tipped his head forward to dip his tongue into the crease just below the jut of Sherlock's hipbone.

Sherlock snapped his hips upward, turning his head to one side, teeth clenched around the gag, and John had to practically throw himself backward to avoid an awkward collision. He sat back, breathing heavily, as Sherlock moaned and twisted in the restraints, attempting to find John's touch again.

If they didn't do something different soon it would all be over too quickly. John pressed himself to his feet and cupped the side of Sherlock's head briefly, twining his fingers in the dark curls. Sherlock stilled, more or less, though he was still breathing heavily and John could see small twitches run along the muscles of his abdomen. John couldn't blame him, really; from the look of things it wouldn't take much to put him over the edge.

Even so, Sherlock was much calmer by the time John retrieved the bowl of ice and mug of hot water from the other side the room, setting them carefully on the floor.

He resumed teasing Sherlock's torso with his fingertips for a while, just long enough that he hoped Sherlock would forget that he'd stopped. It was still Sherlock, after all, and John imagined the deductions that might be taking place inside the dark, quiet space his mind occupied, wondering if he'd figured out what John had been doing in his brief absence.

John wouldn't ever get a coherent answer to that question—which, he suspected privately, meant no, Sherlock hadn't had the slightest idea, though he'd never admit it—but the first touch of ice against the inside of Sherlock's wrist made him shout into the gag and squirm, pulling fruitlessly at his bound hands.

John grinned. This might be for Sherlock's benefit—okay, mostly for Sherlock's benefit, he admitted to himself ruefully, and was perhaps being a bit generous even then—but he was having rather a great deal of fun.

He moved the ice, touching it to Sherlock's ankle and running it slowly up the inside of one leg and down the other, carefully avoiding contact with the place Sherlock most wanted him to touch, enjoying the sight of the gooseflesh raised in its wake.

When the cube was about halfway melted John set it carefully into the hollow at the base of Sherlock's throat and left it there. Sherlock inhaled sharply and shuddered as John plucked another ice cube from the bowl. He leaned in to give Sherlock's navel a quick swipe with his tongue before settling the new ice cube there. It began to melt almost immediately from the heat of his body, the incline of the chair causing the little rivulets of melted water to run down over his abdomen. Sherlock positively whimpered as the first trickle hit the base of his erection, and it was all John could do not to simply grasp him with both hands and end it then.

Instead he took the cylinder from the mug and pressed it against the inside of his wrist experimentally; it was very warm to the touch, but nowhere near hot enough to burn. It was heavy in his hand and he began using it to chase the tracks of gooseflesh from Sherlock's limbs, running it along in the wake of the cold water, touching it unexpectedly to the skin low on his abdomen and the high creases of his thighs.

He'd meant it to go on longer, he really had. But Sherlock's hips gave a jerk and what was left of the melted water spilled from his navel, and when John bent in to catch it with his tongue it was suddenly absolutely, objectively absurd that he hadn't yet taken Sherlock in his mouth. He paused for just a moment, breath hot on the base of the shaft, and the sound that forced its way from Sherlock's throat was just too much for John, and he couldn't wait any longer.

The effect was immediate. He barely had time to hollow his cheeks before Sherlock convulsed, then John was swallowing and silently blessing the gag because he didn't think anyone overhearing the noise Sherlock was making could come to any conclusion other than that he'd just been murdered.

John sat back, finally, watching the heaving of Sherlock's ribcage and the fine tremors of reaction making their way through the pale body before him, and realised he didn't have the slightest idea what to do next. He didn't know whether Sherlock were the sort that liked to be held afterward, or couldn't stand it, whether he would prefer to come down in darkness or grow immediately restless at the continued imposition on his senses.

Water first, he decided, and stood slowly. He was feeling a bit shaky himself, between one thing and another, and it took him a long moment to register the bottles sitting on the floor by the doorway. Those weren't there before, he thought dazedly, and thought it probably should bother him more than it did that he hadn't noticed someone slipping them in. The lights were already low but he dimmed them further before returning to Sherlock's side.

It took only a moment to realise he'd made a mistake. Sherlock's chest was still heaving and John cursed himself for not removing the gag immediately so Sherlock could breathe properly. Of all the people not to know better, he berated himself angrily as he lifted Sherlock's head gently to undo the straps.

When it fell away, though, Sherlock merely took in a long breath, let it out with a sigh, and smiled. The skin at the corners of his mouth was red but he was fine, obviously so, and John stroked his hair as he propped him up for a sip of the water before taking a long swig himself. He removed the headphones and earplugs, then knelt to remove the restraints at ankles and hands, pulling off the mittens and massaging the fingers out of their curled position. As soon as he was able Sherlock turned on his side and curled in a ball, pressing his back against John's leg.

Sherlock seemed content enough, so John was surprised when he turned his head to remove the blindfold and saw the lines of a frown creasing his forehead. He reached out to smooth them with his thumb and one of Sherlock's hands reached up to circle his wrist.

John froze, and Sherlock twisted his body so that his other hand could snake out, seeking John. It eventually connected with his belly, where its fingers twisted somewhat awkwardly in the fabric of his jumper. Then the frown lines disappeared as Sherlock's face lit with a wide grin.

"John," Sherlock said dreamily, his voice unfocused and hoarse. "Yes. You were what I was meant to remember. But see, I didn't have to, because you did it for me."

"I don't have the slightest idea what that means," John murmured to him as he removed the blindfold.

The pale eyes blinked open slowly and found John's immediately. "Yes you do." Sherlock allowed his eyelids to close again as he lay back down. He kept his grip on John's wrist and pulled him down so that they ended curled together, John's chest pressed to Sherlock's back, his arm resting protectively across the narrow waist.

"Of course you know," Sherlock said again. "You always do. I mean this," and pulled John's arm tighter as he drifted off to sleep.


"Yes!" John snapped, whirling on Sherlock. "You and your—"

"I don't know what these idiots expect me to do, I already solved the case for them." He was pacing—why was he pacing? Nothing left to solve—in the small space, speaking too fast. Couldn't stop himself.

"'These idiots' include me, Sherlock, and we can hear you. Lestrade just needs you to write down, on this piece of paper, how you know it was the cousin's employer. Then we can all get home in time to catch the second half of the football match."

The room was too crowded, all the officers smelling of their days and their previous cases and their revolting lunches, and how does John not know that the match is already half over, it must be playing on every telly in the district, can't he hear that? The room had been painted recently and there were four—no, six counting the ones behind the fern, and that had just been sprayed with an insecticide, only two options possible, maybe three, if he could just taste--

Sherlock made a low growling noise in his throat and turned on his heel, striding out the door and down the stairs into the street. He could hear John behind him, trailing apologies to Lestrade and Donovan and Anderson—Anderson, of all the—but he didn't wait, didn't care.

He made it as far as the next alley up. John found him there, forehead resting against the rough brick of the bank, trying—and failing—not to identify the provenance of said brick from the shade and texture of it pressing into his skin. Stack of boxes for recycling, too many for one week, new stock boy isn't doing half the work he should be.

"Sherlock. Hey. Hey. Look at me."

John's voice was quietly insistent and Sherlock forced himself to open his eyes as he turned to face him. He didn't bother trying to hide it anymore, not from John, and he knew what John could read on his face.

"If we can get this case wrapped up, we'll go straight there, okay? I've got nothing on tonight, I don't care a whit about the match, actually. Just this one last thing."

Sherlock was still staring. Couldn't stop himself. John had snagged the sleeve of his jumper on the brick and he reached out to touch it, not even really meaning to.

John grabbed his hand. "One last thing, then you're done. Okay? Here." John kept his grip on Sherlock's wrist, turned his hand palm upward. "Close your eyes."

It was exasperating, this amateurish behaviour. "John, if this sort of thing worked, do you really think I—"

"Don't talk," John interrupted, and Sherlock felt his jaw snap shut. "Eyes closed. Now, please."

He pinched his lips together in irritation, but complied. He could feel the debris of the alley beneath the soles of his boots, smell two-possibly-three Chinese takeaways within two streets and one of them really ought to take the pork off its menu or there would be a mass food poisoning case demanding his attention.

"Stay with me," John said, and Sherlock tried to force his attention to settle on the words. It almost worked. "It's okay, it's okay," John was murmuring, and his finger was moving across the surface of Sherlock's palm. "It's okay," he was saying, and he was… tracing something. Letters. "Focus. Come on, Sherlock. Stay with me. It's okay."

He could feel his brow furrowing as he tried to keep his attention on the sensation of John drawing on his hand: I - K - N

His other hand was jammed tightly into his pocket and a cinderblock had fallen and crumbled, that was what he could feel under the heel of his left foot.

"Sherlock. With me. Again. Come on."

He was trying, he really was.

Finally his brain managed to funnel itself into enough of a shape that he could read what John was tracing into his palm, the same five letters over and over.

I - K - N - O - W

Yes, Sherlock agreed silently, you do, and for that moment it was enough.