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Stem Ginger

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I think she’s the person you love most in the world.

 

Joan’s eyes fluttered open on their own, and that’s why she remembered.

Mycroft. He’s gone.

Judging by the golden light that flowed like syrup in through her filtering curtains, it had to be nearly ten am. She hadn’t slept in like this for non-case-related reasons in a year or more. The fact that she had been left to her own sloth spoke volumes.

Joan rolled over quietly. Sherlock was breathing evenly, seated in the chair next to the bed, head tilted to the side in slumber. His extended hand still rested upturned on top of her blankets; she must have let it go at some point after she had fallen asleep.

They’d only gotten the news the night before, but there wasn’t much to be said about any of it. Joan had grown so used to Mycroft just plain being gone, probably forever, that it was hard to adjust her understanding from gone to dead. The truth of it had settled as heavily on them both as if the earth had doubled its gravity, and it was hard to find anything to say. Missed chances, unforgiven slights, and unspoken words lay shattered all over the brownstone.

Instead of talking, they’d silently gone about their usual evening routine, but the dinners they had fixed for themselves had ended up in the trash or entombed in tupperware to await Sherlock’s monthly purge. Joan’s tea grew cold in its mug. Sherlock’s eyes had grown intermittently wet, but no tears ever managed to fall.

She thought of Mycroft, absorbing the news that his cancer had recurred in solitude, test results recited by a doctor that didn’t even know his real name. Twisting in pain without anyone’s hand to to clutch at for comfort. Dying alone thousands of miles away from anyone he knew, from anyone that he had ever loved. Thinking about it made her stomach hurt.

Joan had gone upstairs last night and changed into a long sleep shirt before heading into bed. Sherlock had lingered in her doorway long enough that she’d gotten up and pulled a deep, padded chair over to her bedside. Eventually he’d given in and sunk his exhausted, nervous body into it with a barely audible sigh. When she’d taken his hand and rested them together on the coverlet, he hadn’t resisted. Hadn’t stiffened until she pulled away, like he so often did. Instead, he’d apparently fallen asleep as well, eventually.

Joan rose with as little noise and movement as she could manage and made her way around her bed and Sherlock’s chair to go out and use the bathroom. As she walked back to her room, her steps seemed unnaturally loud. The brownstone rang with silence like tinnitus. Sherlock hadn’t moved, and she thought him still asleep. As she crawled back under the covers and laid on her right side facing him, however, she glanced up and saw his eyes were open, reddened and dry. Although not quite as grim-faced as she’d feared, he still looked like he hadn’t slept very much at all. She shifted a little closer and reclaimed his left hand with her right.

They had no place they needed to be. No one called. Joan didn’t feel like making breakfast, or looking at a screen, hearing any new information, or doing anything that involved getting out of bed. She just laid there, feeling empty except for gratitude that she could be there for him, and that he seemed to be allowing her to do so.

Impulsively, Joan pulled back the covers and patted at the sheet-clad mattress under them. She didn’t look at Sherlock, but his aggrieved sigh blew through her like a dust storm. She shut her eyes for a long moment before opening them again as she felt the mattress dip under his weight.

Sherlock crawled into her bed hunched and shameful like a guilty animal and lay down on his side facing her. He was still wearing a dress shirt and slacks from the previous night, but she pulled her hypoallergenic white quilt up over him anyways. His brushed-steel eyes almost glowed in the midmorning light. She watched his throat as he swallowed, but he still didn’t pull away, didn’t let go of her hand.

“Did you sleep at all?” she said quietly.

“A little,” he mumbled, blinking a bit. Joan pressed her lips together; ‘a little’ was usually code for ‘maybe an hour’.

“I’m sorry, Sherlock,” she said yet again, wishing there was more to say. The silence crowded in, louder than ever. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

He looked at her oddly. “Evidence would suggest this incompetent orgy of mourning was more of a mutual affair.”

Joan frowned. “He was your brother,” she replied, confused. “It’s not like we...” she cleared her throat. “I knew Mycroft for less than a year. It’s not the same.”

“Watson,” Sherlock replied, sounding concerned. “You lost your father not half a year past. I’ve yet to see you slow down for even a moment, miss a single case, or shed a tear since then. Perhaps an opportunity to grieve presents itself, regardless.”

Joan’s stomach hurt again. All of her losses seemed to fold into each other like an accordion of undefinable grief; Mycroft, her father, and before that Shinwell, Andrew, her patient, Mr. Castoro… Joan slammed that mental door shut and took a deep breath.

“It’s not like he was really ever a father to me. I got his nose, but not his schizophrenia,” she replied bitterly. “I can be grateful for that, but I don’t...there’s not much there to miss.”

Sherlock gazed at her steadily. “And yet, you lie abed at nearly noon. Uncharacteristically.”

Joan wet her lips. “Maybe I’m just really tired,” she replied shortly.

He squeezed her hand, but otherwise her remark pass.

An hour elapsed silently in the thick golden light. Halfway through, Sherlock got up and she tried not to feel abandoned. Astoundingly enough, she heard a toilet flush and he returned with three minutes. He’d filled a glass of water at the tap and returned with it, and she sipped the water’s metallic city flavor without relish before giving it back. She kept her face impassive as he came to rest again on the mattress beside her in his former position. This time, she took his hand into hers and sandwiched it under her head to rest her cheek on. Thirty minutes later, he spoke.

“One of my mother’s infrequently indulged in hobbies was making preserves,” he said absently, seeming to look over her shoulder and into the golden light streaming through her gauzy curtains. As the sun angled up and over the brownstone, the light diminished but still burnished her wooden doors and moldings, and as she knew from previous experience, left a narrowing rectangle on her floor near the window behind her. She saw it reflected in his eyes briefly as he glanced around, perhaps searching for words.

“After she passed, I took the last jar and hid it away,” he continued eventually. “Mycroft never knew about it." He pressed his lips together. "He’ll never know about it."

“What kind of preserves?” Joan whispered.

“Ginger,” he replied, “boiled in simple syrup.” He sighed, blinked slowly. “I ate it under a bridge on my eighteenth birthday.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had that,” Joan said thoughtfully. What he described reminded her of something, or maybe it just seemed so because he was so familiar to her.

He looked into her eyes and flinched, so slight she almost missed it. “The syrup was the same color as the light in this room, at this time of day,” he finished tonelessly. He met her eyes and went quiet for a long time. She dropped her eyes to the delicate skin exposed by his unbuttoned shirt collar, the pulse beating steadily there. Anything she could say to him now probably meant little; the imagined sin he’d confessed to had been for Mycroft to forgive, not her. She couldn’t absolve him, but she could be there. And so she continued to exist as they let long minutes wash over them in silence.

“A perfect Rembrandt pattern,” he whispered hoarsely.

Joan raised and lowered her eyebrows silently. She stared at his chin, familiar and soothing with its greying stubble-it was omnipresent enough that the skin under the hairs was lighter, even though his cheeks and forehead could hardly be considered weathered. He didn’t even use a razor most of the time lately; just the electric trimmers he kept in a zippered leather case on the ancient little set of shelves under the sink in the bathroom. It had gone untended enough at this point be be an almost-beard. She wondered if it was long enough to be soft, at least along the grain.

“A Rembrandt pattern is lighting setup for three-quarter face portraits,” he continued softly, although she hadn’t asked. “From an open window or a lamp placed to the side and slightly above the face. The shadow cast by the nose connects to the shadow under the cheekbone, creating a triangle of light floating on the shadowed half of the face. The upper eyelid and eyelashes are also illuminated. Named after the old master, but used most often in photography in the past century.”

Joan knew the window was to her own back, and realized he was describing the way the light was flowing golden over his own face. She looked up and met his eyes, realized she could see her own somewhat dim features reflected in his pupils. What he’d seen in her eyes earlier to make him flinch hadn’t come from her, it had been his own face that startled him. A wan copy of himself, an exhausted man with lined but regular features beautifully lit for a portrait. Before she thought, she was tracing a finger along the shadows he’d described; his eyes fluttered to half-mast and her movement froze.

“Is that okay?” she whispered tonelessly. She hadn’t touched him in a long time; he almost always seemed to avoid contact unless failing to do so would be even more awkward. Sometimes even then. His was the face she saw every day, almost as familiar to her at this point as her own, maybe more so. To be touching it now felt dreamlike, almost surreal. Much like everything else this morning, it was as if everything was happening several inches to the left of reality.

His eyes closed the rest of the way, and he gave an almost imperceptible nod against her pillow. Joan indulged her earlier curiosity, and discovered that his stubble was soft when she stroked her palm down his cheek in the direction it grew. It was not as rough as she’d been expecting the other way, almost like terrycloth.

“I like the light in this bedroom,” Joan said softly, gliding the pad of her thumb across his eyebrow. “That’s why I picked it.” She traced under his lower lip, the indescribably delicate edge of it lined with hairs gilded by the late morning sun.

His eyes opened, wide and almost astonished. “Watson,” he said quietly. “If you’re gearing yourself up to what I can only assume you must be...” he cleared his throat quietly. “Rest assured that the sheer perversity of your sense of timing combined with what can only be described as a predilection for the outrageously inappropriate does not go unappreciated.”

Joan’s heart knocked violently against the walls of her chest, she could practically taste her heartbeat as her face heated. She blushed further when she considered he could probably see her pulse hammering in her neck, and wouldn’t miss the blush, either. Of course Sherlock would never allow himself to be relegated to the pedestrian comfort of a silently warm body next to her. Of course he could never pass up the opportunity to call out what he saw as her hypocrisy, especially when both of them were emotionally compromised. She hadn’t missed the ragged edge in his voice.

“It’s not a criticism,” he added in a belated whisper. She felt his words under her fingers, which, despite everything, still lingered near his chin.

Joan wished the mood had been broken, but something inside her collapsed inward and she had to allow that his words stung because there was truth in them. It wasn’t as if Sherlock hadn’t made plenty of unnecessarily provoking comments about every facet of her dating and sex life, especially as it had pertained to Mycroft. When it came down to it, however, she really didn’t care if she proved any of Sherlock’s callous comments correct regarding the direction her attractions took over the years. That maybe she was attracted to him. Maybe she should care, maybe once she had, but she didn’t. The reality and solidity of his presence, being reminded of it by his not-quite-caustic comments, only made her crave, what? Intimacy, she admitted to herself. Connection. I’m so tired of losing people.

“Not a criticism? Just a huge turn off, then,” she lied, trying to sound flippant. She failed.

He quirked an eyebrow at her, but didn’t manage to etch the exhausted, raw expression on his face with anything resembling the irony he might have intended.

“Watson,” he said softly, but nothing else followed.

Joan realized she’d been flustered enough by her own confused feelings that she hadn’t realized how he was looking at her. Suddenly, she really saw what was in his eyes, what the expression on his face meant. Maybe it was just she hadn’t seen it on those particular features before, and never so unguarded. The moment stretched too long, then it snapped.

“This is a terrible idea,” he whispered, then he leaned forward slowly, with intent. Joan was dumbfounded. She didn’t close her eyes, but she also didn’t pull away when his lips met hers. The hand she’d clasped under her cheek when they’d laid down opened further, cupped her jaw gently.

Joan couldn’t stop her unsteadily indrawn breath; his lips were a little dry, spicy and almost sweet. He brought his other hand up to her face and ran his thumb over her chin; Joan allowed her lips to be teased open by his. He smelled like he always did, of libraries and laundry. Home. The familiarity of it, his movement and scent, his eyelashes inches from her own, made her eyes prickle mysteriously.

He pulled back, eyes lowered, but still held her face. “Have you changed your mind yet?” he asked quietly, face relaxed by something like astonishment. She was so used to his pained grimaces, scowling at objects under his scrutiny or just grimacing with the general discomfort being outdoors seemed to cause him, that his expression almost frightened her. Or maybe she was frightened for him. He looked heartbreakingly vulnerable.

“Aren’t you tired of feeling like shit?” she rasped, the bitterness in her voice surprising her a little. “I am. Maybe I just,” she brought her own hands up to hold his wrists as her throat clicked and a tear managed to escape one eye, “Maybe I just want to feel better for a little while. With someone I-” she swallowed. “Someone I trust,” she said instead. “Don’t you?”

“I’m...surprised you would allow yourself that,” he replied, frowning slightly with a catch in his voice. Joan sometimes hated the way he always seemed to see through her, but she couldn’t manage it now. Instead she looked into his eyes steadily, trying to let some of what she couldn’t find words for into her gaze. Neither of them could seem to find a way to grieve for a presence that had already been gone for their lives for years; there was nothing they could say to each other about their losses that they hadn’t already said. What they grieved for were futures that would never happen, second chances that had been shattered forever, distant lights they’d only just noticed winking suddenly out of existence. They grieved everything and everyone that seemed to slip through their fingers, no matter what choices they made.

Joan watched something break behind his eyes. She ran her hands up his arms, gliding over his shirtsleeves as he gave a small shiver, and her palms came to rest on the back of his neck. She applied the slightest pressure to draw him back down to her, and this time he kissed her deeply, almost roughly.

The undercurrent of agitated energy he always seemed to exude made her want to close the distance that lay between their bodies on the bed, and Joan broke the kiss to rub her cheek firmly against his. It still seemed not enough; she burrowed her face under his and made her way under his arm, worming her upper body into his embrace. If this was happening, she wanted it to be happening already. Her arm snaked around him impatiently, and she pulled up the back of his shirt where it still had remained slightly tucked in. She felt him shiver as her hand made contact with the hot, bare skin of his lower back.

Joan turned her face under his a bit more toward the pillow; inhaled like she was trying to draw him into her lungs. His mouth met her neck obligingly, fingers brushing long stray hairs out of the way. Then he surprised her, rolling up and over her, the lengths of their bodies making sudden contact under the coverlet. The slightly rough fabric of his slacks brushed her legs as he entwined them, and the evidence of what felt like near-painful arousal pressed her belly, somewhere between the hipbone and navel. Joan gasped as a rush that was hot and cold at once barreled through her; she wrapped her arms around him and pulled his weight further onto her. Her heart galloped as she nipped at his ear, his face still buried in her neck.

Joan had expected something slow and practiced; his urgency surprised her almost as much her own need flaring up violently in response. She wasn’t sure why she’d thought taking the safety off the loaded relationship she and Sherlock had spent years building careful boundaries around and within would end up in something almost casual. Joan had a feeling neither one of them was going to be entirely in control of what was about to happen, but the longer it went on, the less she cared. It was like a sweet, spicy dish she just couldn’t stop eating, no matter how it scorched her.

A terrible idea, he said, she remembered muzzily. You really biffed it this time, Joanie.

She felt Sherlock’s teeth graze her neck gently, his mouth open and wet against her and making its way toward her collarbone. She heard herself groaning quietly and her hips curled up against him, almost of their own accord. His weight shifted to one elbow, and she almost flinched as he leaned up to look at her, his face a little sweaty, eyes wrecked and desperate under heavy lids. He looked exactly how she felt, and seeing him like that made her feel faint. It felt like something cracked deep in her chest as she reached down to grab his wrist, guiding his hand under the hem of her already rucked-up nightshirt. She shoved one of her bare legs under his, then wrapped both around him to pull him closer to her.

He inhaled sharply through his nose, then buried his face in her chest, mouthing her breasts over cloth as he pulled her nightshirt up. He seemed to reconsider, and leaned up and over her so he could pull it off over her head, a little awkwardly despite her participation. She finished shaking it off her wrist and grabbed his collar, pulling him down roughly to catch his lower lip between her teeth hungrily. She writhed under him, pressed her cotton-clad sex against the straining front of his slacks and found herself moaning into his mouth. One of his legs trembled dangerously; his breath hitched.

He broke the kiss and shifted his weight to his knees, and she almost wanted to scream in frustration. He drew his face down her body, prone but almost sitting on his heels as he wrapped his arms around and under her and just...held her around the waist, his face buried in her side.

“Wait,” he murmured thickly where the bed met her flesh, breathing heavily.

Joan’s hand found the short hair on the back of his head, curled into a fist. Her eyes prickled again maddeningly, and she felt his swift intake of breath chill the heated skin between her ribcage and hipbone. Goosebumps peppered her where his breath touched. “A moment,” he said enigmatically, she she felt his whole body shiver.

Joan waited. Her hand relaxed and let go of his hair, and she laid her palm on the back of his head. Her other hand crept onto his shoulder, and she allowed the tears to leak out of her eyes, down her temples and into her hair. Her side grew wet as she felt Sherlocks’ short, huffed breaths against her. She stroked the back of his head gently as his shoulders shook.

Joan bit her lip in chagrined silence, but couldn’t manage to regret anything. Her frustration was tempered with tenderness, unsure if it was for herself or him. Maybe both. She ached with desire like a wound that couldn’t heal unaided, and they held each other with varying degrees of desperation as storms of unspeakable and conflicting emotions swept through them.

Joan supposed lying here together in her wrecked bed, half dressed and half cocked while they cried all over each other was a fitting end to an unplanned experiment with so much potential for disaster. If nothing else, they had both proved they really could be there for each other in any way that became necessary, even when words ran out. The only thing more surprising than that they’d gotten this far was that she hadn’t been the one to start it. Eventually, her tears slowed but her heart still ached with something like protectiveness, something like….uh oh.

Joan reached for the tissues she kept on her nightstand, glad to be able to reach without shifting much. She wiped and her eyes and blew her nose, and then bopped Sherlock lightly on the back of the head with the box. He raised his head, face a blotchy, sodden mess, and perfunctorily repeated the actions she’d just completed before throwing the spent tissues off the side of the bed unapologetically. She just looked at him, and he met her gaze for a long moment before ducking his head.

Incredibly, he planted a slow kiss filled with intention on her belly, moved down and slid his hands out from under her, but only to place them on her hips. He kissed her inner thigh, and kneaded the outside of her legs firmly with his hands before using them to pull her hips down a bit more; lift them up.

“Sherlock,” she whispered, shocked.

He glanced up, met her eyes, then closed them and deliberately pressed his lips to the wetness soaking through her panties. Joan had craved intimacy, and perhaps what she was sharing with him was a little more intense than she’d bargained for. But she couldn’t pull away from it; she couldn’t turn away from him.

She inhaled raggedly through parted lips, her nose still clogged, but she couldn’t find it in her to make any further protest as she felt his mouth open. She shuddered as his tongue caressed her through the cloth, pressing and releasing with slow deliberateness, then his breath chilled her as he inhaled. She felt his thumb hook into her undergarment, pulling the last bit of fabric separating them aside impatiently, and he pressed his mouth nakedly into her sodden folds.

Joan put the back of her hand against her mouth, then curled a finger and clenched it between her teeth to stifle a groan, but she couldn’t stop the rocking of her hips to meet him. He half-threw the covers back off of himself with one hand. Understandable, considering everything was getting quite humid, and he was still fully clothed. She tilted her hips slightly, and he took the hint, quickly reaching up and sliding her underwear down and off before plunging back between her thighs to kiss her there, deeply and longingly. She felt him gasp for air before his tongue darted inside her; she hoped he could breathe. Then fully formed thoughts ceased as his tongue flicked insistently at her clit, and he panted onto her with his open mouth.

His mouth pulled a white-hot thread of pleasure through her, intensely focused and almost too much to handle. His hands on the outside of her thighs and urged her legs upward and wider, but his tongue drew her along much more quickly than she’d anticipated. The pleasure was groundless and shocking, cutting through her like lightning and suddenly she was there, bucking and biting her finger hard, unable to stop two or three high-pitched noises that burst from her vocal cords. Sensation tore through her and left her feeling yawningly empty; it had been far too quick and not nearly enough.

Joan reached down blindly and somehow found Sherlock’s collar again. She hauled him up and pulled at his shirt insistently; when his hands came up to swiftly unbutton it, she reached for the front of this pants and she felt him tremble against the backs of her clumsy fingers. She sat up to finish getting his fly open and pushed the slacks and his boxers down, then hugged him around the waist tightly in a vain attempt to calm down. His bared erection pressed hotly against her breast, and she felt one of his hands stroke the back of her hair, the other rested lightly between her shoulderblades as they balanced awkwardly.

He bent slightly at the waist, and she let herself fall back, only to be laid down gently by his hand under her. Joan covered her face with her hands as his weight shook the bed, divesting himself of whatever clothing remained. She felt him come to rest between her legs, but his weight was on his hip and an elbow to the side of her. She felt his penis brush the inside of her thigh wetly and shuddered. His stubble tickled her hands as he kissed them, she pulled them from over her face and blinked up at him rawly.

Although Sherlock’s face looked slightly abused, his expression was smooth except for tightness around his eyes. The emotion those steely pale eyes held when he gazed down into her flushed face was something she’d kept herself from seeing for a long, long time.

You were right, Joan realized silently, her heart twisting enigmatically within her. This was a terrible idea.

Sherlock’s expression grew more pained, almost afraid as her gaze devoured his features hungrily. But I’m not sorry, she added to herself, and she brought her hand up again to trace his lips with her thumb before gliding down to grasp his shoulder. The way he looked at her bordered on reverent, and she couldn’t bear it. Couldn’t bear the last few inches of distance between them.

She tightened her legs and pulled at him, rolling him on top of her insistently. She reached down between his legs and touched him there, soft hair and delicate skin over his hard length, drawing another shudder and a sigh out of him. The thrill of touching him so intimately, maybe merely of touching him and having him respond, made her ache with indescribable longing. She rubbed her face furiously against his, bit at his lips and tried to control herself. She wanted to linger, but seeking patience seemed futile. Even as Joan wished they’d waited for some unforeseeable time in the future that would have been less rough on both of them, she also realized she couldn’t wait any more. She panted impatiently and tried to kiss him, but he gasped and hesitated as she tried to guide him inside her. He broke the kiss and pressed his forehead against hers.

“Are you sure?” he whispered against her mouth. “It isn’t-”

“Sherlock,” she hissed passionately. “Please.”

She felt his tension loosen slightly, one arm almost melting around her, the other reaching down between them as he leaned over her. She arched up as he slid down her folds slickly and began to push inside, opening and filling her. There was a bit of resistance, and he pulled back and pushed again, trembling and holding his breath. He pressed his forehead into the pillow beside her, and as he entered her a third time, almost roughly, he let out his breath in a short sob that rang in her ear. Joan’s forehead felt cold for a moment as he penetrated deeply, just short of painfully.

“Sorry,” she heard him whisper, so softly she almost didn’t hear it, even with his mouth right next to her ear. “That was...clumsy.”

Joan blinked, her eyelashes brushing his skin, her forehead against his shoulder. Instead of clutching at him in her former desperation, Joan felt herself relaxing into and around his body. She had pressed the insides of her wrists hard against his sides, as if she were holding him up, or holding them together. She shook her head very slightly as they lay joined, and realized she didn’t want to look for a clever reply. And a lot of the things she was feeling didn’t feel safe to say.

“I like it,” she whispered into the small space between their bodies. It felt like a secret being cradled there between them, the acoustics muffled, yet echoed. “I like it,” she repeated, obscurely excited.

Sherlock made a sound like agreement, if agreement could somehow also be plaintive. He shifted his weight on his left elbow, left hand reaching through her hair to cradle the back of her neck tenderly. His other hand left the mattress and grasped her buttock, kneaded it, tilted and cradled her hip as if he were aiming. His head turned and she felt his lips on her neck, stubble prickling her heated flesh, felt his sharp intake of breath against her skin as he moved inside of her. Then all she felt was him, pushing her open where she was slick and sensitive, his heat and pressure filling her completely, and then a little more. Joan shifted, arching her hips and lifting her legs a little to open herself, accommodating.

Sherlock’s hand held her steady, then slid under her ass toward the junction of her thigh. She felt his fingertips delicately touching the rim of where he stretched her open, and she gasped, shuddering. No one had ever touched her like that; for a moment she wondered if something was wrong. But his fingers didn’t probe or question, they just rested there as if he was seeing their bodies meet with his fingertips. It was shocking for no obvious reason; Joan’s face heated and she felt herself tensing under his fingers as he found a slow, insistent rhythm inside her.

She almost couldn’t bear to look, so she gave herself glimpses instead. His chin, the pulse racing in his throat, the colored ink embedded in his skin, the place where she could see him disappearing into her. Each detail afforded tiny spikes of excitement. She’d never felt so held; his body on top of hers, his hands under her, his heat inside her pinning her in place.

Joan felt her tension mount, and between his deliberate pacing and the unexpected sincerity he’d brought to her, she couldn’t bear staying still any longer. She reached down to take his wrist, pulled up, and he caught his weight on his elbow just in time to watch her turn her head to the side and put his fingers into her mouth. Joan tasted herself and him as she wrapped her legs to pull him towards her sharply, moaned as she tongued the faint texture of his fingerprints. Finally, she turned back to look into his face and his fingers pulled free, leaving a wet trail across her cheek. She tilted her hips down and snapped them up again. She squeezed his body between her thighs, pulling him closer to get the friction she craved, exactly where she wanted it.

But then she saw his face. Flushed, lips parted as his breath huffed between them, knotted eyebrows, looking almost shy. This wasn’t the shameless libertine who categorized sex as exercise; this was the awkward, painfully careful man who to her knowledge, had only brought himself to ask two women on a date in his entire life. That was who’d kissed her, who had held her while he cried. It undid her, it confused her.

“Sherlock?” she whispered hoarsely.

His eyes fluttered shut at the sound of his name, then opened again as he rested his gaze on her mouth. “The possibility arises that this part may be over a bit more abruptly than either of us might prefer,” he admitted breathlessly. His lips pressed together, and she knew that look.

The last thing Joan wanted to hear was another apology.

“Whatever this is, I want it.” She slid her hand up to his shoulders, pulled him down until their noses touched. She could feel him holding his breath.“Whatever you have for me, everything you are, I want that, too,” she admitted throatily.

He pressed his forehead against hers, made the smallest noise possible deep in his throat. He thrust into her sharply, once; twice.

“You’d say such things to me,” he gasped plaintively; she sucked his words into her lungs as he drove into her forcefully. Her head swam, and her eyes fluttered shut as her own control buckled, something perilous uncoiling inside her. “You’d say it now, you’d-” he groaned between gritted teeth, pressing his face into hers. He nipped breathlessly at her lips as his body hesitated, then gave in. He fucked her artlessly, almost fitfully. “Why,” he sobbed brokenly.

“I love you, too,” Joan heard herself say, words torn almost unwillingly from her raw throat. He keened disbelievingly before it choked off; his face rubbed painfully against hers, stubble scraping her cheekbone, her nose.

Don’t,” he begged, hand tightening on her shoulders like he was afraid of drowning. Joan’s eyes had screwed shut; there was only the riptide of sensation, their dangerous whispers, the deceptively soft, wet sounds their bodies made as they crashed together with reckless abandon.

“I love you,” she repeated hoarsely, and then, “I’m gonna come.” Joan pulled her face out from under his as her entire body curled and then arched; her mouth found his shoulder and opened as he drove her over the edge. She sucked his salty skin between her teeth to stop the traitorous flow of words, bit down to try and smother her wail as wave after wave of pleasure hit her violently. There was nothing shallow about it this time; the core of her being rocked on its hinges, tried to slam shut as his body held her open deliciously.

Then he withdrew so suddenly she cried out at the sudden absence, and he fell atop her with his cock pressed into her hipbone, still wet and hot from her body like an internal organ torn steaming from its rightful place. His shout sounded angry as his semen flooded down her side and soaked into the bed, and she shook like a sheet in the wind under him. One of his hands had clasped her wrist. He moaned heartbreakingly and she felt him slide against her a few times as he finished spending himself.

Sherlock’s arm shook and he collapsed awkwardly facedown on top of and slightly to the side of her, trying and failing not to make the mess worse. Joan looked down at him, head turned to the side and eyes shut, panting helplessly. She wanted to stroke his sweaty hair, curl up beside him, but he still held her wrist and he’d actually fallen on her other hand and forearm, pinning it. He finally managed get off of her by lurching onto his side abruptly, allowing her to retrieve her hand.

“Forgive me,” he croaked softly. He curled himself into a comma facing her, but didn’t touch her. She looked over at the top of his head, and he seemed to draw in on himself slightly. “And...for the mess,” he finished in a half-whisper.

Joan blinked, then grabbed her nightshirt where it lay discarded, apparently right beside her head on the pillows. She mopped herself off a little distractedly, tossed the nightshirt vaguely away and took a deep breath, turning onto her side to face him.

“I meant it,” she replied, and saw the moment he stopped breathing. She reached out and touched the top of his head gently. He tilted his head up and straightened a bit, rather quickly, and she let her hand fall away. His eyes blazed in a face that looked wounded, somehow, as he exhaled forcefully.

“It may be the vestiges of traumatic brain injury speaking,” he said in a quietly measured voice, “but even having been the recipient of arguably my worst sexual performance since my own deflowering fails to justify the unparalleled cruelty of a false confession of love at the pinnacle.” His eyes darted toward her and away. “I have never judged you a cruel woman, Watson.” He swallowed dryly, but didn’t turn to reach for the glass of water on the nightstand. “I knew what you meant. I just...” he trailed off.

Joan blinked her way retroactively through his convoluted sentence and considered the implications. She almost added that he would know a cruel woman when he saw one, but realized in time that the central tragedy of his romantic life in general was that he certainly did not.

Sherlock hunched a little as Joan surged up onto her hand and knees, but she merely reached over him to grab the glass of tap water he’d either spurned or forgotten about. She pulled up the pillow and leaned against the wall to take a long drink, then held the glass out to him.

“Maybe your worst, but definitely not mine,” she said with a half-smile.

His eyes grew a little alarmed. “I didn’t mean to imply-” then cut off, coughing. Took the hint and the glass from her, drank deeply and then set it back on the nightstand.

Joan leaned forward to pull the rumpled coverlet back up, to her waist at least. “I liked it. You liked it,” she answered, looking at him a little pointedly, then glanced away.

“There are a lot of things we know and we don’t say. Especially to each other,” Joan said quietly.

You never let me forget I’m full of shit, and so are you, she thought, and kept that to herself, too.

“Sometimes it’s just...really obvious, or we just feel it, and that’s enough. But sometimes maybe we should say it. I...” Joan swallowed, stared at the wall. The light had changed since the morning, and the room had grown dim, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. Which was fine, since she was usually out and about at this time. But not today. She took a deep breath. “And sometimes maybe we need to show it a little more than usual, and I think that….maybe that’s okay.”

She finally glanced back over at him where he’d turned onto his back and stared up at her with gelid, thoughtful eyes. He nodded once, slowly.

Joan sat up and pulled her pillow back down, then looked over at her nude partner watching her and trundled over to him instead. But as she reached out and put a hand on his chest, he stiffened and pressed his lips together. She had to admit it hurt her feelings.

“Do you really not want me to touch you?” she whispered sadly.

His nostrils flared and he sighed. His expression relaxed slightly, and he replied in a terse voice, “I don’t know how to do this.”

Joan opened her mouth disbelievingly, then shut it again. She realized he wasn’t talking about postcoital cuddling, or how to spoon for the appropriate amount of time before leaving. Sherlock operated comfortably within his own habitual parameters and off of existing scripts, but once she thought about it, he’d been off script since he’d crawled into bed with her. Could any sort of script for ‘sexual encounter with my flatmate and business partner because we’re both sad my brother died and we also love each other’ exist? Joan doubted it.

“No one knows how to do this,” Joan replied quietly. “But you didn’t answer me.”

He still didn’t, but he reached up and put his hand on her shoulder, glanced down at his chest and back at her. Joan sighed, grabbed the blanket and pulled it back over them as she settled her head down on him and wrapped her topmost arm around his chest.

Tentatively, but unmistakably, his hand came to rest on the point of her shoulder on top of the coverlet. Squeezed.

It was enough.

As she drifted off, she thought she heard him whisper something. She wasn’t sure, and it didn’t rouse her, but it might have been “You were right, Mycroft.”

***

The kitchen was quiet as Joan opened the weathered wooden cupboards and pushed cans, bags, and boxes aside until she saw the jar, tucked all the way in the back as new items had been added. About a month after the funeral, Lin had given Joan a grocery bag with a logo she recognized from one of the Chinese markets downtown. Lin had said that she’d been shopping for some specific vegetables for a recipe when she found herself wandering the aisles, transfixed by snacks, ingredients, and flavors that had reminded her of their father, when she’d gotten the idea to put together a little care package for Joan. Even though he’s gone, she had said, maybe you can still get to know him.

Most of the noodles, sauces, and other stuff from the bag had ended up in Joan’s usual fare, and a few times she’d even been inspired to create dishes around them. But the sad fact remained that none of the flavors had had any particular associations, emotional or otherwise, for her. In the end, it was just food, and while it nourished her body, it didn’t help her grieve for something that she’d never really had.

The only item that remained form that cache had been something she wasn’t entirely sure fit into her usual understanding of cuisine.

生姜

, the lid of the unlabeled jar read unhelpfully, not particularly elucidating whether the pale yellow irregular orbs floating dreamily in some sort of liquid would be savory or sweet, were pickled or poached. Plenty of recipes called for ginger, but Joan had always used fresh for any application that called for it...not that her cooking acumen was anything to write home about. Was it a seasoning? A condiment? An ingredient for some complex dish she’d never heard of?

Joan pulled open a drawer and retrieved a table knife, slid it between the metal rim of the lid and the glass lip. She twisted and heard the seal break, set the knife back it the drawer and took out a spoon. She unscrewed the lid and sniffed the contents, and something about it seemed...familiar, she wasn’t sure why.
The liquid in the jar was nauseatingly sweet, and a little spicy.

When she bit into one of the orbs, she was sure. This wasn’t something meant to be eaten on its own; it was too sweet, and the texture of the chunks of preserved ginger might have been offputting for some people. But she not only found herself doing so anyway, she was also more certain than ever that she’d had this before. The taste, the texture, the bite of it was an overwhelming sensory experience, and Joan sniffed and swallowed as her nose almost ran.

It’s not that spicy, she thought, confused for a moment. Then she watched a dark spot appear on her loose cotton shirt, and wiped her eyes with her forearm absently.

It was starting to get dark.

Instead of turning on a light, Joan’s bare feet slapped onto the stairs as she ascended them, then she changed her gait to a quieter one as she went up the second staircase back to her bedroom. She leaned against the doorjamb and watched Sherlock sleep like a corpse on his back, same as he usually did. It was weird, but it made him a good pillow. She finally felt rested, at least. She hoped he would, too, but she hadn’t brought the lid of the jar with her, just the jar itself and her spoon.

Joan sat in the chair Sherlock had vacated this morning, tasted a memory unconnected yet achingly familiar, and waited for the fragrance to wake him up.