He was finally back home. And here was the punchline: it was all wrong. Someone, while he was gone, had covered London in a layer of dust and grime, everything muted, distasteful, unsettling. In Afghanistan, the sounds of the night outside his tent and the heavy, prickling heat were an assault on his senses, shocking as a new colour. An explosion. He couldn’t capture that shock again, sitting in a London bedsit with rain hammering on his windows. He didn’t know why he wanted to. It returned to him vividly enough in nightmares.
He tried to write a blog entry about the strange, uneasy quiet once, and blanked out after one sentence. When he re-read it afterwards, it made his stomach clench, as uncomfortable truths always do. He stopped trying after that, and continued to go through the motions of normal everyday living, a constant mantra of nothing happens to me dogging his steps.
He watched telly, he read books, he dragged himself out to the shops, slept when it became inevitable. He existed, consciously, deliberately, painstakingly, as though he might blink out of existence if he let himself think too hard. John dealt with boredom the way he dealt with pain, bad weather, and conversations with Harry. He gritted his teeth and endured it; let it wash over him, tried to function through it, and hoped he’d still be standing afterwards.
He was waiting for something to happen. Day after day his shoulders tightened with the wait.
A few months after his return to London, he met Sherlock Holmes, and his first coherent thought was that this man was impossible. Sherlock sat in the back of a taxi and expounded casually and thoroughly on the twisted mess of John’s past as though it were predictable, as though it made sense. It was irresistible. So, the next time John found himself engaged in a staring contest with his laptop screen (Sherlock is the sun around which I revolve, he typed, then deleted it, giggling), he wrote about Sherlock, because he didn’t know where else to begin.
Living with Sherlock (John changed his mind about what living with Sherlock was like at least once a month) was sort of like travelling through space. People thought it was all excitement, but between cases and events alien as a science fiction film, there were expanses of vast silence. John never wrote about the in-between times in his blog, though they seemed vital sometimes, moments for John to breathe- to assess how the everyday madness had changed him.
John tried not to unsettle whatever it was that had settled between them during those periods, afraid that before the next case they might lose the fragile accord that allowed John to trail in Sherlock’s wake, stepping out of his real life and living Sherlock’s stories. John didn’t mind following two steps behind: two steps behind Sherlock was still miles ahead of everyone else.
So John nobly endured pathological rudeness and bullets in the wall and body parts in the fridge. He’d made a career of rolling with the punches.
Not that he was silent about Sherlock’s flaws. They had plenty of fights, some more serious than others, but the fights never felt quite real. His words never pierced Sherlock’s skin. He felt as though he had been drawn into playing a role of Sherlock's making, as though Sherlock knew how every conversation would end and was waiting impatiently for John to catch up.
Once, during a particularly explosive argument (Sherlock had left entrails in the bread bin again), John clenched his fist, a voice in his head he’d almost forgotten saying, viciously, I’ll show you. Sherlock watched him carefully, unsurprised. John felt momentarily sick that he had anticipated even this. Sometimes, John wished he could do something outrageous, impossible, and watch their carefully constructed reality bend and adjust in his wake.
Sometimes he remembered Sherlock looking at him and saying I’ve disappointed you, eyes calculating, speculative, as though mentally adjusting his image of John to allow for this new discovery. The memory gave John an adrenaline rush that should probably worry him.
Sometimes, in the space between cases, John thought about astronauts: about floating, silent and weightless, in a vacuum. He wondered if the quiet made them feel safe or terrified.
He tried to write about Harry, once.
When Harry was a child their parents had worried about her. John remembered the hushed conversations with her teachers about her wide-eyed, solemn inability to relate to other children. She was always afraid of offending, flinching from everyone except John.
John had been fiercely protective of her. He would listen patiently over lunch break as she talked about whatever fantasy she’d constructed for herself that day, alone in the corner of the playground, content in her remoteness.
After school one day, she opened her scuffed schoolbag to find someone had scrawled obscenities on her books, crude sentiments like “bitch” and “shit head” and, somehow most damaging of all, “freak.” When John had found out, he’d bristled, demanded to know who was behind it. She’d just shrugged, her eyes glittering, and said,
“Could’ve been anyone, really.”
He’d reluctantly promised not to tell their parents: it would only make it worse, she insisted. Deprived of his role as protective big brother, John had bought her a new book- The Little Princess. She’d read the inscription inside- “To Harry, from your brother John”- and smiled at him, watery but sincere.
Harry went from being a silent, unreadable child to being a silent, unreadable teenager. She learned to be polite, she got good grades, she never gave their parents any trouble. Harry did everything she was supposed to. She was always where she was meant to be. Their parents had mostly stopped worrying about her, after that. She was just quiet.
He didn’t get past the first sentence of that entry either.
“Do you know how to play actual music on that, or just screeches?”
“Of course I do. But it takes effort. Concentration. I have more important things to worry about.”
“Ah. And here I was thinking that the chemical burns on our kitchen table meant you had too little to worry about.”
“Oh, I see, you’re attempting to domesticate me- channel my more destructive impulses into artistic pursuits. Good effort, though pathetically transparent.”
“Well, you know. Anything for a quiet life.”
Living with Sherlock was like learning a new language. Communicating wasn’t easy, but as time passed John grew more adept. He learned early on when to tease and cajole and berate and when to keep his head down.
He learned to parse the ebb and flow of Sherlock’s moods: they would change whether John was there or not, and Sherlock’s histrionics didn’t offend John. Trying to stop them was like trying to stop the tides. John had protocols worked out for each mood and everything in between: he had survived his time in the Army, and his time in a grey, musty block of flats, and he could bloody well handle a stroppy Sherlock Holmes.
After a week of living with Sherlock, they had settled into an understanding of sorts. After two weeks, John had all but given up trying to explain to Sherlock how civilised people behaved. After six weeks of living with Sherlock, he wasn’t quite sure he trusted himself to judge what was civilised and uncivilised anymore.
There were eyeballs in the microwave, for Christ’s sake.
The blog seemed easier now that he could write about something besides what he'd had for breakfast. He hadn't seen the appeal of putting that kind of life into words. Sherlock, on the other hand, virtually demanded to be written about, and since John was present for many of Sherlock’s cases, he supposed he was technically writing about himself too. He felt useful for the first time since he’d returned to England, and if he was honest with himself, he felt more needed, more vital, now than he had even in Afghanistan. He was part of Sherlock’s life now, one half of the world’s most exclusive army.
But living with Sherlock hadn’t quite stopped the nightmares, or the silence pressing down on him when he awoke. (The silence was more disconcerting than the dreams, sometimes, the sudden contrast.) Living with Sherlock didn’t quite conquer the insidious dust and grime that had leeched the life out of London. He still felt colourless sometimes, even in the wonderful cluttered madness of Baker Street.
He still felt some days like he was lost and Sherlock was his only landmark- even when the man was being infuriating. So when Sherlock beckoned him to follow, John followed.
It was a skull.
It sat on the mantelpiece, surveying the room blankly. A tiny detail, really, compared to the many absurd things that had happened since John moved in with Sherlock. Still, he found himself staring at it sometimes, bone yellowed like a sepia photograph, perched incongruously next to a mug of tea and Sherlock's Blackberry. He wondered whether there was a story behind it. Art? Anatomy experiment? Sherlock’s last flatmate? (Friend of mine- well, I say friend.)
He nicknamed the skull Wally, and started hiding it around the flat to see how long it took Sherlock to find it. Sherlock never mentioned it, but always found it irritatingly quickly and replaced it on the mantelpiece at increasingly jaunty angles. John wasn’t sure if he was annoying Sherlock or if his flatmate found the whole game amusing, but either way, he found it amusing, so he kept hiding the skull.
This went on for about a month. One night, after a hard day, John fell into bed to find himself face to face with a pair of cavernous eye sockets and a toothy grin. He yelped and slid backwards, landing gracelessly on his arse while still entangled in the duvet. He decided to deduce from this experience that Sherlock found the game amusing after all. That week alone he found Wally lurking in his sock drawer, the bathroom cabinet, and his box of teabags. He felt they’d grown very close.
Once, Harry and John got drunk together- Harry was seventeen, then, and John was home from university for Christmas. They stayed up in John’s room, giggling, wearing the paper crowns they’d gotten in their crackers at dinner. He was afraid to ask how school was in case he ruined the fragile, giddy happiness in the air: whenever he asked, she smiled vaguely and changed the subject.
“So...” he began, once they finished tittering about their aunt Una’s low-cut Christmas outfit, “How are you? Generally speaking?”
Harry was sitting cross legged on the ground, examining John’s CD collection. She hiccuped out a laugh and answered,
John laughed obligingly with her.
“Well, that’s... good. That’s good.”
“Yeah.” she smiled distantly, tilting the bottle in her hands. “That’s the goal, right?”
“That’s a pretty fundamental one, yes.”
“Course, sometimes I feel like I’m doing it wrong.”
John furrowed his brow, attempted to sit up to see Harry’s face, and fell back onto the bed.
“Doing what wrong?” he asked, when she’d finished laughing at him.
“Just, existing.” She swallowed, seeming a little uncertain of her own melodrama. “Everyone’s going on about the A levels, about uni... but there’s no class in how to be a proper person. Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m qualified.”
Methodically, she began to shred her cerise crown. This was the most John had heard Harry talk about her feelings since she was too young to know better.
“There are no criteria you need to meet, Harry. You’re just yourself. There’s no wrong way to exist.”
“Course there is,” she said, with forced lightness. “There are loads. What about serial killers, psychopaths, stuff like that?”
“You’re neither of those things,” he replied with the offhanded ease of someone for whom those words still represented abstract, faraway concepts.
“I’m just saying...” she fidgeted while John waited patiently, then tossed the remains of her crown on the carpet. “I’m just saying, some people are wired wrong.”
It bothered John, years later, that he couldn’t remember exactly how he’d responded to that statement.
It was one of those strange and contradictory things about Sherlock, that despite his unholy reliance on technology, he preferred to keep all his case notes on paper. Books, case files, and the odd chemistry set constantly dotted the sitting room, and there were relevant notes from their recent cases pinned in chaotic patterns all over the cork board on the wall. John thought they looked like a physical manifestation of Sherlock's thought process: a Frankenstein’s monster of cobbled-together information. Throw in Sherlock languishing like a Romantic poet on the sofa and Wally the Skull presiding over the whole scene from the mantelpiece, and you had a picture that made John seem neat and well-adjusted.
One day, John decided he’d had enough of the sitting room looking like a map of Sherlock’s brain. Sherlock moaned and thrashed melodramatically from the sofa when John politely suggested that they tidy up before they were buried in an avalanche of case notes. It took forty five minutes, the prospect of tea and biscuits, and a promise not to disrupt the highly disturbing experiment fermenting in the sink to get him reluctantly to his feet. John cheered inwardly and said as patronisingly as possible,
“That wasn’t so hard now, was it?”
Sherlock pressed his lips together and cast him a look usually reserved for Anderson and/or Donovan when they were being particularly obtuse. John grinned.
Of course, the thing about Sherlock, John reminded himself a few minutes later, was that he did nothing by halves. He watched, dismay warring with amusement, as Sherlock lugged a battered tin chest into the sitting room.
“What on earth is that?”
“Box.” Sherlock answered succinctly, flipping open the lid with a creaky flourish. John fought the urge to roll his eyes.
“Yes, I had observed that much, thanks. What’s it for? And what is it doing in our flat, instead of say, a Victorian landfill?”
Sherlock looked at him witheringly from his position kneeling before the box.
“It is for storing my case notes and paraphernalia,” he said. “I assume your second question was a misguided attempt at wit and therefore doesn’t require an answer.”
John settled next to him on the floor with a grunt. His leg didn’t so much as twinge, even though the day before it had all but given out on him in the supermarket. He wondered if being around Sherlock somehow shamed his psychosomatic ailments into submission. He was struck by a sudden, disturbing image of Sherlock facing off against John’s inner demons, John himself sitting bemusedly in the middle.
Sherlock, seemingly oblivious to his part in banishing the psychological monsters under his flatmate’s bed, was now sitting cross-legged in front of the box. His long limbs were folded bizarrely, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up to reveal pale forearms. The dingy chest had left a smudge of dirt on his face. John peered inside, leaning over Sherlock’s shoulder. It contained various papers, photographs, newspaper clippings, and odds and ends: a couple of memory sticks, a bunch of keys, and, oddly, a blonde wig. Sherlock began to sift through the contents carefully.
“Enlighten me, then,” John leaned comfortably back against the sofa. “Is there some kind of filing system at work here, at all?”
“Everything has its place, and I know where everything is.”
“Don’t you keep any reliable case files? You know, ones that would be legible to other human beings?”
“Dull. That’s what Scotland Yard is for. And of course, I’ve recently acquired a blogger.” He smirked, and John rolled his eyes when he turned back to his work. “And there’s always Mycroft. He records everything.”
“Oh, yes. He’ll definitely have a file on you. Records of your medical and military careers, observations on your behaviour towards him and towards myself, family details, personal quirks, romantic history...”
“...and anything that might have any bearing on your level of trustworthiness,” Sherlock concluded absently, apparently completely unmoved by the idea of Mycroft keeping no doubt meticulously annotated notes on John’s sex life. “Oh, what’s this?” he murmured, lifting a small wooden box out of the mess of papers. He opened the box and placed the contents-- a piece of paper, a tarnished ring, and a dusty compass-- in a neat line on the carpet. He exhaled slowly.
“I haven’t thought about this for quite a while. Pity it happened before I met you, John. It would have been ideal blog fodder.”
John struggled for approximately three seconds against this distressingly obvious bid to distract him from cleaning, then gave in.
“What happened, then?”
Sherlock grinned widely.
“Your tidying spree didn’t last very long, did it?”
John bit back a smile at Sherlock’s childish triumph.
“Are you going to tell the story or not?”
Sherlock leaned back against the sofa beside John, stretching his legs out.
“Have I ever mentioned a bloke I knew from university by the name of Reggie Musgrave?”
Going to the shops with Sherlock was one of the most bizarre experiences of John’s life. More bizarre than invading Afghanistan, or chasing taxis through London. Seeing Sherlock standing in an aisle at Tesco’s, imperiously surveying different brands of easi-cook rice, was like watching two worlds collide. He wondered if he should immortalise this moment in his blog. Lestrade would probably get a laugh out of it. Truth be told, he had managed to drag Sherlock out with him only by holding one of his experiments hostage over the sink. (He had tried not to look too closely inside the Tupperware box, but he thought perhaps ears had been involved somehow.) Sherlock had looked at John with comical surprise and betrayal writ large on his features, as if John was a previously obedient dog that had suddenly turned on his master. John merely handed him his coat and herded him out the door. He suppressed a grin at the memory. Sherlock would probably deduce what he was laughing at, somehow.
In the toiletries aisle, Sherlock sidled up slowly beside him while John was deciding which shampoo to get (and trying not to be too obvious about it in case Sherlock mocked him for the rest of the day). John felt a prickle of uneasy anticipation. Quiet, sneaky Sherlock never boded well.
“See that woman, there.” Sherlock whispered, leaning in so as not to be overheard, and trampling all over John’s personal space with supreme unconcern. John sighed and obediently followed Sherlock’s gaze.
“Yes. What about her?”
“She’s worried that she’s pregnant and that it’s not her husband’s.”
John looked back at the woman, who was in her thirties, well dressed and impeccably made up, carrying a basket containing a magazine and a gargantuan bar of chocolate. She was examining different brands of moisturiser. He waited for her to move into the next aisle before he answered.
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Simple, really. She’s been browsing in this aisle for ten minutes but hasn’t bought anything. She keeps glancing towards the pregnancy tests, but won’t pick one up. She’s nervous. She keeps fiddling with her wedding ring, she’s fretting about her marriage. She has walked up and down this aisle at least four times, but hasn’t put anything in her basket, which suggests she’s trying to hide the fact she’s buying a pregnancy test from other shoppers. Why would she do that? She clearly doesn’t know either of us, or that badly dressed bank clerk who was deliberating over condoms for longer than I suspect was necessary given the likelihood of his pulling anyone in that suit. Her prevarication in front of strangers suggests paranoia and a guilty conscience. She’s ducked into the other aisle to give herself a pep talk. She’ll be back.”
John said the only thing he could think of. “How do you know she was looking at the pregnancy tests? Maybe she’s nervous about... buying condoms?”
“She has a copy of Cosmo in her basket. She’s an enlightened, modern woman. And she’s married. Why would she be nervous about buying condoms? Also,” Sherlock pressed a finger to his lips thoughtfully, a faraway look in his eyes and John suppressed a flicker of affection, “from the faint yellow stains on her fingertips she’s a smoker, and from her irritable twitchiness it’s been a while since she’s had a cigarette. She’s laying off, just in case. Hence the family sized chocolate bar. Got to fill the gap somehow. Together, all the evidence points towards one conclusion.”
“I dunno,” John selected a shampoo and chucked it into the trolley, “that sounds a lot like guesswork to me.”
Sherlock whipped around to shoot John a scandalised look, coat whirling dramatically, and John burst out laughing.
“I’m just saying,” he forced out between chuckles, “you don’t know she was cheating on her husband. I imagine buying a pregnancy test is pretty unnerving even without the infidelity.”
“I am right.” Sherlock delivered this sentence as though he was speaking an immutable truth.
John grinned. “Well, how convenient that you can’t prove it.”
At that moment the woman ducked back into the aisle and strode in a determinedly casual manner up to the pregnancy tests, grabbing one and dropping it in her basket. She deliberately ignored Sherlock and John as she turned to leave. Sherlock flashed a grin at John, turned to the woman, and said pleasantly,
“Oh, hello, Jen.”
He then wandered into the next aisle before she had a chance to answer, leaving “Jen” staring at John with barely concealed panic. John smiled politely at her and hurried after Sherlock. His flatmate was reading the back of a bottle of oven cleaner with an air of detached interest.
“How did you know her name?” John hissed.
Sherlock looked at him pityingly. “She was wearing a necklace that said “Jennifer”. Really, John, even Anderson might have picked up on that one.”
“Oh. That was quite mean, what you just did. You frightened her.”
“She’ll forget about it soon enough. It’s not as though I’m actually a long-lost acquaintance who’s going to report to her husband.”
“That’s not the point.”
“Then why are you about to laugh?”
Sherlock put his hand patronisingly on John’s shoulder.
“Don’t worry, John,” he said, smirking, “you did well. You didn’t get any of the answers, but you’re starting to ask the right questions.”
As they left Tesco’s to go home, Sherlock explaining to John how he had deduced that the checkout girl was having an affair with her brother’s girlfriend, John realised, with a jolt of surprise, that it had been two weeks since Sherlock had had a case. And all he’d had to put up with was some complaining and ears in the kitchen. Could have been worse.
John was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at a cold cup of tea and willing Harry to come home. He looked at the clock. Part of his brain was running through all the worst case scenarios, remembering young girls in the A&E at Bart’s, car accidents, muggings, and worse. Another part of his brain was chiding him for acting like such a mother hen. Harry was eighteen years old, she could do what she liked. Going out drinking with her friends every night of the week was par for the course the summer after A levels.
He glanced at the clock again. He sighed and got up to make himself another cup of tea.
About an hour later, just as John had almost talked himself into going to bed, he heard the faint noise of a key in the lock, then hushed footsteps stumbling down the hallway. Now, his worry for Harry's safety fading, he began to panic. What was he going to say to Harry now she was home? It wasn’t as though he’d never come home late himself. Why was he waiting up for her? He forced himself to sit still.
Harry lurched into the kitchen, barefoot, holding her high-heeled shoes in her right hand. She blearily took in John sitting at the table and smiled uncertainly.
“Hello,” she said hoarsely, practically falling into a chair.
John smiled tightly. “Hello.” He cleared his throat. “Good night, was it?”
She shrugged. “Alright.” Her limbs were loose and relaxed, but her eyes continued to wander around the kitchen, settling on John and then darting away.
They sat in uncomfortable silence for a few minutes before she stood up abruptly, swaying slightly.
“I’m going to bed,” she announced.
John nodded. “Okay... alright, yes. See you in the morning.”
She turned to leave and he cursed himself for a coward. No. No, he was not a coward.
“Harry- is everything... I mean, are you...” Are you alright? That was what he wanted to ask her. He wanted to know why his sister spent all day staring listlessly at the television, glancing at the clock, biting her nails down to stubs, so distant. She’d never been distant from him. He licked his lips nervously. Harry was looking at him expectantly.
“Is there anything wrong?” he settled on, finally. She blinked at him as though he’d said something completely ridiculous.
“Of course not,” she answered, not even making an effort to sound like she wasn’t lying to placate him. “Everything is perfect.”
She turned and left the room, leaving John staring into a half-finished mug of tea, thinking, coward.
John was woken in the middle of the night by a crashing noise from downstairs. He sat up, heart thumping, and fumbled for the lamp, wondering if Sherlock had blown up the toaster again. He squinted at the clock. 4am. Of course. He sighed and swung his legs out of bed, yawning.
When he managed to make his way downstairs, he found Sherlock sitting on the sofa, cradling his left hand and panting heavily. He was still wearing his coat, and his hair was ruffled and his cheeks pink from the night air. John blinked.
“I didn’t know you’d gone out. What happened to your hand?”
Sherlock jumped at the sound of his voice, twisting his head around to stare at him, and John began to feel uneasy. Sherlock hadn’t noticed him entering the room.
“For a case.” Sherlock attempted to stretch his fingers and hissed. John moved towards him automatically, reaching out, and Sherlock shied back, clucking impatiently. “I’m fine. Had a run-in with a thug in a tracksuit. Or, rather more accurately, my hand had a run-in with a brick wall. Dull.” He made to stand up and immediately pitched forward into John, who grabbed his upper arms to steady him.
“Alright, that’s it.” John pushed Sherlock firmly back onto the sofa. “You’re not going anywhere until I’ve had a look at you. When was the last time you slept? Or ate anything? And no, tea and biscuits don’t count.” He attempted to peer into Sherlock’s eyes.
Sherlock sighed the sigh of the long-suffering, which John thought was a bit rich under the circumstances, and subsided, leaning his head against the back of the sofa and closing his eyes.
“Fine, perform your doctorly duty.” He held out his hand for John to examine, obviously trying to appear disinterested. John looked more closely. His hands were trembling, and there were bruise-like bags under his eyes. This was what an exhausted Sherlock looked like, he realised. He gently turned over Sherlock’s injured hand in his own, trying not to think about what Sherlock had been doing these past few days without him. John hadn’t been involved in this case- he’d had to work some hours at the clinic, and Sherlock had said that it was an open-and-shut case, anyway, nothing that needs to be blogged about. The bloody liar. John, whose natural sense of self-preservation was far too high to let Sherlock’s digs at his blog bother him anymore, had simply rolled his eyes and gone to work. Now he suddenly felt sick with guilt. How had he failed to notice this?
He looked up from Sherlock’s bruised hand and found his flatmate staring at him, head still resting against the sofa. His eyes, usually sharp and focused, were wandering all over John’s face, and John swallowed uncomfortably.
“I’m not your responsibility, John.” Sherlock’s voice was even deeper than usual, his words slow with tiredness. John didn’t let go of his hand.
“Yes you are, you daft git. Now sit still while I go and get the First Aid kit. And no more midnight jaunts without me.”
Sherlock sighed and let his eyes drop closed again. He was smiling.
Sherlock did bring John along on his next case, which John counted as a win. He realised he had actually missed haring around London with the world’s only consulting detective. At this rate, he was vaguely beginning to worry that one day he’d find himself using Tupperware for body parts instead of salad. But coming down from their latest success, still in awe of the force of nature that was Sherlock on a case, and bouncing with adrenaline, he found it difficult to worry too much.
It was as they were walking down a street that was just starting to fill with commuters, Sherlock rhapsodising about a new Italian place that they must try right now (even though they hadn’t slept for two days), that John saw Clara. Sherlock noticed him tensing (of course he did) and stopped speaking abruptly, following John’s gaze. John held his breath until the clicking of Clara’s heels had faded into the noises of the street behind them. She hadn’t noticed him. He exhaled slowly, anti-climax and defeat settling over him.
“Who was that?”
John glanced at Sherlock, then looked back at his own feet rising and falling steadily against the pavement. “No one.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes and put on his deductive face. John hated that even through the harsh memories, he couldn’t help but feel the familiar thrill that he had somehow surprised him. He suddenly wasn’t hungry anymore.
John had only met Clara once. It was shortly before he shipped out to Afghanistan, and Harry and Clara were having a fancy engagement do at their house. He remembered a general impression of grandeur and discomfort, though the discomfort may have just been him. He remembered that Clara had been sharp, brilliant, and Harry had hung on her arm and on her every word. He had felt suddenly very small next to Harry, who was wearing heels again, and much more makeup than usual, chattering away to guests like a strange, heightened version of his quietly pretty sister. His strongest memory of the evening was Harry taking him aside, hair and lips glossy, cheeks flushed and eyes bright with wine, and whispering, “John, I’m so happy,” like it was a secret.
The first night they went on a case together, when John was still learning not to be surprised by anything Sherlock did, he had laughed at the idea of Sherlock taking drugs. It had sounded ridiculous to him. Sherlock had seemed so controlled, so clinically above any kind of physical vices. After four months of sharing a flat, after Moriarty and homicidal cabbies and even trips to Tesco, his perception of Sherlock as superhuman had somewhat shifted.
He still wasn’t prepared.
In the anti-climactic manner thoroughly typical of most of John’s personal life, and yet thoroughly atypical of Sherlock Holmes, the revelation wasn’t very dramatic. In fact, Sherlock was asleep at the time.
John arrived back from spending the weekend with his parents, exhausted from the travelling and from the conversational acrobatics, and found Sherlock curled up on the sofa. He grinned to himself: from this angle, Sherlock looked like an oversized child.
It took him a second to notice the syringe sitting beside a small wooden box on the coffee table.
When he had managed to stop his hand from shaking, he walked over to the sofa, checked Sherlock’s pulse and breathing, and rolled him over so he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit. He then, calmly, set to work clearing everything away.
When Sherlock woke up the next day, John was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the paper and drinking a cup of tea. He heard a groan from the sitting room, and the faint rustles and whispers of Sherlock attempting to sit up and stretch his muscles. He could pinpoint the exact moment Sherlock’s brain came online, when he froze, realising he wasn’t alone. He started to count to ten, turning the page of his newspaper deliberately, to give Sherlock time to realise that John was in the kitchen and to notice that his cocaine was gone. He had just gotten to six when Sherlock appeared in the kitchen doorway, looking wary.
“Where is it?”
He was trying to sound bored. His voice was as rough as it had when he had been exhausted and run ragged, and John had patched him up. His skin looked translucent and terribly delicate.
“Somewhere you won’t find it.”
“Why? What does it matter to you?” His tone was flat, but John could sense the anger just beneath the surface. He tried to keep his own temper under control, but he could feel himself slipping. This was not the same as a skull on the mantelpiece, or using the wall for target practice. This was not a game.
“It matters to me a lot. I’m not going to judge you for your addiction, but I’m not going to sit by and obligingly keep my mouth shut while you take that stuff.”
“I’ve told you before, I am not your responsibility.” Sherlock was angry now. Very angry. John braced himself.
“I am not your responsibility,” Sherlock repeated, stepping closer to the table. “and you are not mine. I am not going to save you from a life of banality. I am not a tragic hero, John, nor am I your sister. This doesn’t concern you. Now, give it back.”
Of course Sherlock knew exactly what buttons to push. Of course. John stood up slowly, leaving his mug on the table.
“I can’t give it back. It’s gone.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes at him, and John could tell he was trying to figure out if he was bluffing. For once, he felt no pleasure in having Sherlock’s full attention. He looked back steadily. He was not, as a rule, a bluffing man.
Sherlock exhaled sharply. “You disposed of it.”
“Yes, I did.” He took a deep breath. “Toss me out of the flat if you want, insult me, whatever. I’m not turning a blind eye to this. I won’t.” He had scoured the flat, but he hadn’t found any more. He had even, in a moment of poetic paranoia, looked inside the skull. If Sherlock had hidden it, though, he probably didn’t have a chance.
Sherlock took a step closer to him. “It is not your choice.” He spoke, softly, dangerously. “You cannot fix me, Doctor.”
“Don’t you understand?” Suddenly John was shouting, and he couldn’t remember deciding to do that. “It will ruin you!”
There was silence. Sherlock leaned against the counter top, breathing harshly, frowning at the linoleum. He looked as though it would hurt him to look at John’s face.
“I’m going to work,” John said, the most ridiculous end possible to such a conversation. He slammed the door behind him.
On the last night John had seen Harry, before he’d met Sherlock, he’d been sitting in his flat, staring at a tiny blinking cursor. The knock at the door was a shock, and he waited for his heart rate to slow down before he heaved himself out of the chair, blinking to clear away the blank blog document burned on his retinas. He wasn’t expecting his sister.
John stared at her stupidly. “Harry. What are you doing here? Is everything alright? Come in, sorry, come in.”
He stepped aside, trying to hide the way he favoured his bad leg, and Harry walked in slowly. She was very pale. Her eyes looked as wide and sadly astonished as they had when she was a child, looking to John to protect her from bullies, but she was more self-assured now. John could tell at a glance that she was sober, although her wrinkled clothes still smelled of booze.
“What’s happened?” Harry was in his flat, so he thought it was a fairly safe bet that something had happened. She had only been here once, a couple of months ago, and she had shivered and called it depressing. She’d offered to help John pay for a new place, but he’d politely declined. He hadn’t wanted to live off of Clara’s money, and they both knew it, but he didn’t say it and neither did Harry. She hadn’t set foot in the flat since.
She looked at him now, uncertain under the layer of careful blankness.
“I’ve left Clara.”
“Right.” John tried vainly to conceal his delight at this news. Gloating wouldn’t do anyone any good right now. “Well, do you, I don’t know... want to talk about it? Maybe I could put the kettle on.”
Harry snorted and covered her eyes with her hand. “That’s your solution to everything, John.”
He made the tea anyway, of course. They sat, sipping, Harry on his only chair while John sat on the bed. He wasn’t sure if he should ask what happened, afraid anything he said would sound judgmental, so he waited for her to speak. He felt a sudden twinge of deja vu as he stared down at the mug of tea that he was clinging to like a lifeline. His chest ached from seeing Harry like this. He wished, pointlessly, that he could go back to being her childhood champion, could take control and somehow be more than she expected him to be. Stupid. He was in no fit state to look after anyone right now.
“You were right about her.”
John looked up, startled. Harry wasn’t looking at him, instead focusing on a point on the bland carpet between them. He asked, cautiously,
“Right about what?”
“She...” Harry paused. “She wasn’t really there. I thought she was. It was nice, to think someone was. But she was never really with me.”
Harry stood up, leaving her mug on the table. “I’m going to stay with a friend for a few weeks, until I get myself sorted.” She reached into her pocket. “I want you to have this.” She held out her phone, a fancy affair with add-ons and slidey bits that would probably take John hours to send a text on. “I don’t want any of the things she gave me, but I’d like to think it’ll go to some use.”
John took it slowly, and stared at the engraving on the back. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. I can’t carry her name around in my pocket.”
She turned in the doorway as she was leaving, kissed John on the cheek and said, “Ring me if you need anything,” like it was her duty. John almost flinched, but smiled tightly instead. Before she closed the door behind her she said, again, “You were right about her.” She didn’t need to add that she’d never forgive him for it.
When John got back to the flat the night after his shouting match with Sherlock, he was almost as shocked by what he found as he had been the last time. The kitchen was clean, there was a piping hot takeaway waiting for him on the table, and Sherlock was sitting, fully dressed in the sitting room, watching Diamonds are Forever. John almost laughed. He wondered if Sherlock had a list of scientifically tested solutions to pissing him off. Reconciliation method #1: Buy takeaway. Effective in making reparation for leaving heads in fridge. Reconciliation method #2: Let John watch his favourite films. Appropriate response to leaving insulting comments on John’s blog and/or stealing John’s laptop. Reconciliation method #3: Clean the kitchen. Only to be resorted to in emergencies.
John walked into the sitting room with his takeaway and sat in his usual chair. Sherlock looked away from the telly when he sat down and nodded hesitantly. Seeing Sherlock hesitant about anything was so rare that John wasn’t prepared to take the risk that it was faked. He nodded back. Sherlock was still even paler than usual, and the rings under his eyes seemed permanently dyed into his skin. John stopped himself staring and looked back at the TV. He could feel Sherlock watching him.
That night, John dreamed that he was shouting Sherlock’s name, his voice muffled over ten yards and two sheets of glass. Sherlock’s back was to him, and the cabbie was holding one of the pills and Sherlock was holding the other. John yelled until his voice was hoarse and fired the shot when he realised that Sherlock wouldn’t hear him, the bullet shattering the glass between them. All the time he was thinking I’m too late. He woke up gasping Sherlock’s name, shaking like he was still in a nightmare.
Since he had met Sherlock, John had come to a lot of startling realisations about his flatmate and himself. These realisations ranged from “This man is completely insane,” and “He’s right- I need the danger,” to “I will never have a girlfriend again,” and “The skull is in the bread bin.” One morning, about five months after he’d moved in, he came to a terrifying and yet utterly inevitable realisation about his own feelings for Sherlock. It also happened to be his birthday.
He was in the kitchen, eating his toast standing up because he was late for work, when Sherlock entered with his usual aplomb.
“It’s your birthday,” he announced, placing a tattered linen shopping bag on the kitchen table. John blinked, unsure whether “Thank you” was an overly optimistic response to that statement. Perhaps Sherlock thought he was dim enough that he’d forgotten. He risked it anyway.
“Thank you,” he said, wiping toast crumbs off his jumper.
Sherlock smiled and gestured grandly at the bag. “You’re welcome,” he replied, magnanimously. John stared at the bag, then back at Sherlock, then back at the bag. Then he looked back at Sherlock. Just to be sure.
“My God, did you finally buy milk?”
Sherlock frowned. “No. Just look in the damn bag, John. I haven’t all day.”
“Yes, you do,” John muttered, checking his watch and opening the bag with a sigh. He was going to be late. He took in the contents of the bag and went still.
“I...I don’t understand,” he said, slowly.
He looked up at Sherlock, who was looking at him with determined nonchalance.
“It’s everything. Everything you didn’t manage to find last time. Can’t blame you, I’d hidden it quite well, although I was more thinking of Lestrade at the time. It was before I met you.”
John gaped. “Why are you giving it to me?”
Sherlock leaned back against the counter, folding his arms and tilting his face towards the ceiling before he continued, as if he’d decided that this was something unpleasant he’d just have to get over and done with. “I’d been doing quite well, before. I replaced the drugs with cigarettes, and I replaced the cigarettes with nicotine patches, and when I could, I replaced the whole lot with cases, and...” he paused, not lowering his gaze from he ceiling, “it was fine.”
The fingers of Sherlock’s right hand tapped hypnotically on his left arm. John was afraid to breathe.
“What you witnessed was simply an unfortunate relapse.” he looked back down at John, looking determined again. John fought to repress an almost physical ache from seeing Sherlock talk honestly about himself. He felt dazed. Just when he thought he’d seen everything in his repertoire, the sneaky bastard hit him with the truth.
“In the interests of keeping the peace,” Sherlock intoned the words slowly, condescendingly, as though he’d read them somewhere and decided, dubiously, to try them out, “I thought I would show you that this won’t be an issue in future.” He unfolded his arms and pushed the bag across the table, a little closer to John, and John picked it up, clutching it helplessly.
“Thank you,” he said, again. Sherlock smiled at him the way he’d smiled at John right after he’d shot a man to save Sherlock’s life, when he’d said Dinner? like it was something they did every night. John felt the same mad urge to laugh, to follow Sherlock anywhere he wanted to go.
Sherlock swept out of the room, leaving John with the most bizarre and illegal peace offering he’d ever received in one hand, and a half-eaten slice of toast in the other. He was dimly aware that he was grinning like an idiot. He looked up and saw Wally the Skull staring at him gleefully from between the microwave and Sherlock’s chemistry set. He was wearing a birthday party hat.
“Damn,” John told him, realising.
Living with Sherlock was like life turned up louder. It didn’t make John happy, and it didn’t make him miserable. That would be too simple. It made John more. He was never annoyed with Sherlock: he was furious. He was never happy: he was delirious, gasping with laughter and adrenaline. It wasn’t always good, and it definitely wasn’t easy, but John had never trusted smooth sailing. Living with Sherlock had all but eradicated the man that John had been, a crippled ex-soldier without a thing to say about his own life. John didn’t think Sherlock would save him, no matter what Sherlock said. But he could admit that sometimes, he thought that living with Sherlock would help him save himself.
Acknowledging his feelings for Sherlock didn’t really change much. Living with Sherlock had already altered John’s life almost beyond recognition, so that the horrifying, slow-motion realisation that he was beyond help was not as monumental as it could have been. John felt that he couldn’t really be blamed for failing to recognise his feelings for so long. Most of the time, he wasn’t even sure if he liked Sherlock. A fair amount of the time, he actively wanted to strangle him. He remembered Sherlock letting him down easy the first night they’d met, and his own perplexed response, and wondered if this was another thing Sherlock had known about him before he’d known himself.
That was just depressing, he thought, his elbow on the arm of his chair, chin resting on his hand, watching Sherlock experimenting. (His utterly loopy flatmate was carefully turning up a Bunsen burner under a beaker of what John fervently hoped wasn’t human blood.) He had learned, since he moved in with Sherlock, not to expect much in the way of privacy, or even the illusion of privacy. But he felt he was seriously lacking in self-awareness if he could be preemptively rejected by someone he didn’t even know he fancied.
“I’m going out to get some food,” he announced, standing up and stretching. “How likely is it that the flat will be on fire when I get back?”
Sherlock grinned at him; pale, mad, and unrepentant.
“No more likely than any other day.”
Beyond help, John thought, grabbing his jacket and keys. Utterly beyond help.
A week later, John went to see Harry.
“So, how did it go?”
John blinked and looked up from his paper. Sherlock had been engrossed in updating his website (on John’s laptop) all afternoon, not speaking a word except to complain that John turning his password off took all the fun out of things.
“How did what go?”
“Your lunch with your sister at her flat.”
“It was...” John paused, the word “fine” hovering on his lips. “There was a lot of shouting.”
Sherlock looked up from the laptop and inspected him. He frowned.
“You’re... happy about that.” he said slowly.
John grinned and went back to reading his paper. He could feel Sherlock’s baffled scrutiny from across the room, and he thought, Now.
He carefully folded up his paper, put it aside, and returned Sherlock’s gaze. Sherlock immediately sat up a little straighter.
“What?” he asked, his eyes darting over John’s face.
John looked back at him evenly. “What do you mean, what?”
“You’ve got that face.” Sherlock set the laptop aside entirely and leaned forward in his chair. “That face you do that says, ‘I’m just boring, average John Watson, owner of many jumpers.’ The last time you used it on me you were trying to persuade me you hadn’t shot a man. You’ll recall it wasn’t particularly successful.”
John smiled at him beatifically. “I fancy a cuppa. Do you want one?”
He got up and walked into the kitchen without waiting for an answer. He heard Sherlock following, but ignored him, taking two mugs from the cupboard and setting them on the counter.
“Is it something to do with your sister?” Sherlock sounded frustrated that he had to ask. John fought to wipe the smile from his face before he turned to face him.
“No,” he said. “No. This isn’t about Harry. This is about me.”
Sherlock raised a sardonic eyebrow. John noted, offhandedly, that the fact that he was anthropomorphising his flatmate’s eyebrows might once have concerned him somewhat.
“You said ‘dangerous’,” John said, “and here I am.”
He stepped forward, put his hand on the side of Sherlock’s neck, and kissed him.
Later that night, John was watching telly when the front door slammed and he heard Sherlock barreling up the stairs. He looked away from the screen briefly when Sherlock crashed through the door. His flatmate looked sharply around the room before his eyes settled on John, sitting in Sherlock’s chair. He’d deliberately chosen that one so he’d be facing the door when Sherlock came in.
“Alright?” he asked, looking back at Fawlty Towers. Sherlock didn’t answer, simply swept across the room and settled himself in John’s usual chair. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and steepled his fingers under his chin. John sighed and hit the mute button on the remote.
“Alright, you’ve got questions.” He saw Sherlock purse his lips at having his own words parroted back at him, and almost felt a little guilty for enjoying himself so much. Almost.
“You kissed me.”
“That’s... not a question.”
Sherlock narrowed his eyes. Good. John thought. Stop holding back.
“Why did you kiss me?”
“Because I wanted to.” John didn’t even have to think before he said it.
Sherlock looked at him dubiously. “You’re attracted to me.”
“Every moment of every day.” He added, for good measure, “Even when I want to punch you,” because Sherlock would never accept an incomplete truth.
Sherlock straightened up and leaned back in the chair, not saying anything. He showed no outward sign of confusion, but his silence was indication enough. He looked, John thought interestedly, like he was mentally running through a list of prepared responses and finding them all inadequate. No contingency plan for this, then. That was the problem with Sherlock. He wasn’t used to having to revise his plans. They almost always worked the first time.
“And what did you hope to achieve from it?” he asked, visibly forcing himself back on track.
“Well, ideally, some reciprocation. But I’m not going to force anything. Honestly, it just seemed like...” John paused, mulling over phrasing, “like the most efficient method of getting my point across. Neither of us are much cop at talking about our feelings, are we?”
Sherlock tapped his fingers absently against his lips. He picked up one of the papers littering the room, and abruptly put it back down again.
“It wouldn’t change me,” he said.
“Do you really think you can handle it?” Sherlock’s gaze was still focused on the papers. “Most of the time I won’t notice you’re angry with me, or understand why. I still won’t speak with you for days on end.”
“We’ve done alright so far.” John said, truthfully. He felt calm. His hand was steady.
Sherlock frowned, looking for all the world like he was contemplating John’s words with all the deductive powers at his disposal. “That’s true,” he murmured, fingering one of the files he'd picked up from the ground. “By and large.”
“If you really don’t want this...” John felt it needed saying, “I won’t bring it up again.” Sherlock looked up, his eyes searching John’s face. John could almost see the cogs turning in his brain, and he fought not to hide anything, to give freely the information Sherlock seemed determined to extract from him.
Sherlock suddenly dropped the file and jerked out of his chair like an oversized marionette. He knelt carefully between John’s legs, his hands resting on John’s knees. John inhaled, the shock of the touch reverberating through his whole body. The chair was so low that Sherlock was still a little taller than him. He licked his lips unconsciously and Sherlock smiled faintly, eyes darting between John’s eyes and mouth. He leaned closer, the familiar lines of his face blurring.
When Sherlock’s lips touched John’s, his fingers tightened on John’s knees.
Sherlock kissed him softly, which he hadn’t anticipated. It was careful: paced. But, John thought, cupping his hand around Sherlock’s jaw, that was just Sherlock. He had always believed that instinct was an illusion.
When they stopped to look at each other, breathing heavily, Sherlock rested his forehead on John’s and flexed his hands unconsciously on the fabric of John’s trousers. It felt as though they’d just survived an explosion.