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The night in Sussex is deep and dark, sort of hushed in a way that London never is. There’s no faraway pulse of music or rumble of lorries or  wails of sirens. There’s no light from the orange streetlamps filtering in and no lingering smell of grease and onion on the air, and it feels smaller, somehow, closer, but also wider and broader, like falling into the sky itself, like being lost at sea with nowhere else to be.

It feels like breathing out, like release. It feels like breathing in.

This must be what Sherlock feels, John thinks, when the case is coming together, when the dots are connecting, when he’s seeing everything laid out before him like so many dominos. This must be what it’s like to see everything in alignment, to see everything combining, consolidating, sorting itself down from a jumble of information and impressions into a picture-perfect map.

This must be what it feels like to know.

Sherlock is watching him, a little, through half-lidded eyes, his gaze hazy and wandering as if he’s not really paying attention. But of course, Sherlock is always paying attention, and John wonders if this is just what Sherlock is like when the map is complete: when there might be more yet to know, but he doesn’t need it yet. When Sherlock is satisfied.

John would like to know more about that. About Sherlock, satisfied.

“What do you think?” John dares to ask quietly, reaching up to flick a curl off Sherlock’s forehead. “Shall we head to bed?”

Sherlock’s eyes focus on him, studying him a little deeper than he had been just a moment before. John looks back as steady as he can, trying to find whatever question Sherlock is still trying to ask, trying to make sure, after all this time, that he knows the answer.

It’s the only answer John can give, where Sherlock is concerned. The only answer John wants to give for the rest of his life.

Yes.

*

There’s the locking of doors, the turning out of lights. John pours glasses of iced water in the kitchen while Sherlock uses the loo, taking them into the bedroom—tiny, wallpapered, lace-curtained, with little blue flowers printed on the sheets—before sliding alongside him in the bathroom to share toothpaste, jostling elbows, watching Sherlock as he inspects some invisible grey hair in the mirror.

They already know how to be domestic like this.

They already know the beats and rhythms of the end of a day together, the way Sherlock likes to take forever in the mirror to inspect his hair, the way John brushes his teeth while humming happy birthday to himself to get the timing right, the way they each look in t-shirts with worn collars and pyjama bottoms that tend to run too short on Sherlock and too long on John. They already know how to move around one another, a familiarity born of late nights stumbling home from cases, of caring for concussions and bullet wounds, of meeting in the hallway drenched in a nightmare’s sweat, too exhausted to care about things like the privacy of sharing a sink.

John knows Sherlock. Knows how to move with him, when to move around him, whether to move for or against him. Knows how to live with the noise and the music and the science in the microwave, the panics and the vague, roundabout apologies, the laughter and the constant running, running, running.

John knows how to live with Sherlock. It’s living without Sherlock that John could never manage.

John knows how to love Sherlock, too.

The time has just come for him to love Sherlock out loud.

*

There’s only one bedside lamp in the bedroom, barely large enough to light the space while they shuffle their way around, fiddling with their luggage, packing and repacking pairs of socks awkward until finally John runs nearly headlong into Sherlock as he reaches for his shoes and they both stop, looking at each other like deer in the headlights, and laughing.

“You all right?” John asks finally, steadying himself with one hand on Sherlock’s arm.

Sherlock has a blush riding high on his cheekbones, but he nods. “Just being—well, ridiculous, I think.”

They’re both being a little ridiculous, but it’s surprisingly comforting, actually, to not be the only one. John nods too. “It’s not like we’ve never slept next to each other before.”

“No, right, it’s not—not even like we’ve never shared a bed, what with that whole case with the paint, do you remember?”

“The Speckled Blonde, wasn’t it?” John teases.

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Maybe I ought to go see about the lilo after all—”

It’s easier, like this: to bicker and argue, to jab at one another and make them laugh at themselves. Sherlock finally puts away his socks; John finally finds his phone charger, sticking it into the single free socket he can find; there’s fluffing pillows and poking fun at the sheets that remind them both of Mrs Hudson.

And then, quite suddenly, they’re in bed together, and Sherlock is reaching to turn out the light.

And they turn to face each other in the dark.

*

Moonlight streams through the lace curtains, milky and sweet in the velvet dark. Outside, the crickets chirp and bullfrogs hum, the breeze rustling in the leaves, but in here, it’s only the sound of Sherlock breathing on the other side of the pillows, and too many years worth of silence.

“You know I love you, right?” John asks, at barely more than a whisper.

More silence from the other side of the bed. Sherlock’s gone completely still under the covers, the absent-minded back-and-forth-sweep of his foot against the sheet coming to an abrupt halt. His hands are curled between them, but he pulls them just the tiniest bit closer, protective, uncertain.

“John,” he says, clearing his throat, eyes darting away into the shadows. “It’s fine.”

John shakes his head. He wants, badly, to take Sherlock’s hands, to pull him close, but instead he only sneaks his own hand across the mattress, waiting for Sherlock to take it on his own. When he’s ready.

“It’s important that you know. Before I go to—well, we’re already in bed, but before I—before I cross this space. Between us. It’s important that you know I’m not just trying this on for size. I’m not just taking what’s on offer.”

Sherlock sniffs. “I didn’t think you were.”

“So you do know.”

But Sherlock doesn’t say anything. He studies John for a long time, there in the moonlight, and then he rolls over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. His profile is pale and soft in the darkness, and John can’t tell what he’s thinking.

“How can I prove it to you?” John murmurs, watching him. “You’re so good at seeing this in other people, when someone’s crossed that line for someone else. Do you want to measure my heart rate? Watch my eyes dilate compared to different people in different light? One of the first things you taught me, even—what do you say? Hesitation on the pavement always means there’s a love affair?”

Oscillation, it’s oscillation, the back and forth—”

“See what I mean? You know how to see it in everyone else, Sherlock.”

John wishes he were more surprised. He wishes he could say he’d never seen this coming, that he’s shocked and hurt and horrified and can’t even think straight for the unexpectedness of it: that Sherlock would accept whatever John gave him.

It does hurt. It is horrifying. But John is neither shocked nor surprised—only determined. He know that Sherlock knows they are in this for good. He knows that Sherlock knows that John will follow him anywhere, whether to bad restaurants or right into bed. And he knows that Sherlock knows that John wants—wants this, wants this life, wants him.

Sherlock has all the building blocks, all the individual pieces that make up the feeling that lives in John’s chest, in the insides of his elbows, the corners of his mouth. He just needs to thread them all together.

John knows that he loves Sherlock. He wants Sherlock to know it too.

“I know this hasn’t been easy,” he finally says, curling his fingers closed and then open again, aware that Sherlock is aware of him even when he’s not looking. “I know I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve said things I didn’t mean and did things I didn’t want to, and I wanted to want them. And I don’t know—I don’t know how to take all that back. Or how to let you see past it. I don’t know how to show you what you need to know, so you’ve got to tell me.”

Sherlock’s jaw works for a moment, like he’s trying on various answers to see how they feel. “What makes you think I need to know?”

“Everyone needs to know they’re loved, Sherlock.”

“Even you?”

He turns his head again to look at John; gets snagged, a little, on the sight of John’s fingers, stretched out between them. His eyes are so blue in the dark, his gaze unwavering, like he’s daring John to say it doesn’t matter—it doesn’t matter if Sherlock never says it back. If he never says so.

And it doesn’t.

It doesn’t matter, because—“I already know,” John says quietly.

The little line between Sherlock’s eyes, right above the bridge of his nose, flares into being. “How?”

“Easiest deduction in the world, isn’t it? If you didn’t love me, I wouldn’t be here. At this cottage, in this bed, I just—would probably still be married off to someone else and struggling to keep my head above water. Or maybe I’d already have drowned. But you love me, so I’m here, and I need you to know this because it’s important, all right?” He waits until Sherlock sighs and nods his head. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love you.”

“You’ve had plenty of partners you didn’t—”

“But not you. I haven’t had you, because this is different. And for a long time, I wasn’t completely sure, and I knew I couldn’t do this if I weren’t sure, not with you. And now I’m sure. I was sure this morning on the dock and I’m sure right now and I’ve been sure, actually, for a while, just—waiting. For the right moment. So eliminate the impossible, all right, and whatever’s left—”

Sherlock breathes out. “However improbable—”

“—must be the truth. Do you trust me?”

John meets his eyes. Wiggles his fingers between them. Knows, in his heart of hearts, that Sherlock trusts him. And slowly, steadily, Sherlock reaches out to take his hand.

“Yes,” he breathes, rolling back onto his side. “John, I—yes. Of course. Obviously.”

“Good,” John says, and kisses him.

I love you, I love you. Whispered without words, exchanged without sound. I love you, I love you. Known, understood, trusted, believed: told in lips and those short breaths Sherlock makes when he’s worked up about something, told in the gentle movement of Sherlock’s jaw and the hard clasp of his hands and the human sound of his heart. I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

*

Loving Sherlock out loud goes something like this:

There are the gentle brush of mouths and the eager grasp of hands against hands, the shift of Sherlock closer and closer across the mattress, calves tangling against calves, knees curling around and hips shifting up and everything pulling close and hot.

There is Sherlock, hands a little shaky and a little tentative, belly a little tender when John reaches out to touch it, breath a little uncertain on all his edges as John slips underneath his sleep shirt to lay a palm flat on the bare curve of his waist, to stroke his fingers along his skin. There’s a scar shaped like a dimple where he’d had an appendectomy before John knew him and a scar shaped like a thumbprint where he’d given his life before John knew Sherlock loved him, and he’s real and warm and alive and right here, right here.

It’s the way the kiss lingers, the trail of John’s mouth down Sherlock’s jaw, down his neck, down his shoulders. It’s in the way Sherlock tilts his head back and gasps, a little, when John bites down where neck and shoulder meet. It’s in the way his curls crush against the pillow and the way his hands pull at John’s shirt and the way his hips rise up and up.

Loving Sherlock out loud is about words, whispered right into his skin, how’s that, how’s this, what do you think? and Sherlock laughing back, do you know, I don’t think I’m thinking at all.

It’s about cataloguing, the careful way he kisses John’s palm and the cautious way he skates his fingers up John’s ribs, taking John’s shirt with him, up and up, over and off, like he’s making notes to go over later, like he’s keeping track of something for himself. Recreating John in his mind’s eye.

It’s about pausing and catching their breath; it’s about rushing forward, shifting clothes out of the way, finding new places of bare skin. It’s about places they have touched before with worry in the place of joy—changing bandages, inspecting wounds—and rewriting a history here for themselves.

It’s about hips. Elbows. Necks. Gasping breaths and parted lips and eyes that focus too hard and on too much and hands that lose their way, beautiful in the moonlight, desperate in the dark.

“John,” Sherlock says like a chant, like a prayer, and John slips his pyjama bottoms down and kisses damp against his navel, against his hipbone, down. “John, John, John, John—”

And it’s fine that he can’t quite keep his hips still and it’s fine that he tastes like salt and it’s fine that he grabs a little too hard at the back of John’s neck because all John hears is I love you, I love you, I love you, right up until he hears, “John, come here.”

John, come here, I love you.

John goes, and it’s about shifting over, it’s about aligning together, connecting to each other like stars, a constellation of this this this now now now I love you splayed across the blue-flowered sheets, sparking up spines and flashing into thighs, drawing tighter and tighter, tenser and tenser.

It’s about their two hands angling for space between them and their two jerking hips chasing and chasing faster and faster, it’s about the thrust and the power and the skittering pleasure that winds and builds and wraps them closer and closer, it’s about wanting, it’s about needing, it’s about every case they’ve ever solved and gone home to go to bed alone, it’s about every dinner they’ve had across the table from each other carefully not touching, it’s about every time they’ve looked for one another and found each other, reaching for each other and finding another hand reaching out in the dark, it’s about the breath in their lungs and the tremble of their thighs and the twist of their hands together, moving in sync, moving as one.

It’s about a heartbeat echoing through both their chests, I love you, I love you, and about knowing, once and for all, that this is it.

This is it.

Sherlock shakes when he comes, clenching down hard around John’s body, arm wrapped tight around John’s shoulder, knee hooked hard around his better leg. He shakes like it hurts, gasping and wrenching John closer, and John follows after him.

I’ll follow you anywhere.

Into the night. Into the dark. Into an oblivion, shining with fire and soothed with kisses more breath than anything else, leading them past the life they’ve lived together and into something totally and entirely new.

Sherlock shakes, and he holds John close, and he says, “I love you too.”

*

It’s quiet. It’s peaceful.

Sherlock is a warm, sticky mess beside him in the bed, sweat-damp and beautiful. He’s staring up at the ceiling, but he’s smiling, so that’s all right.

John wonders if he himself has ever been as all right as he is in this moment, here and now, a little sore and a little clammy where things are cooling down, still spread across his lower belly, his left hand, with Sherlock next to him and the croak of frogs out the window. If he’s ever been as happy—not for the orgasm, although that was nothing to turn his nose up at either, it was pretty bloody brilliant is what it was—but just for the sheer simplicity of it: I love you, out loud.

A hand sneaks into his clean one, huge and loose and gentle. “John.”

“Sherlock. Are you all right?”

“Fine. Trying to, you know—”

“Put me into your mind palace?”

Across the pillows, Sherlock wrinkles his nose. “You make it sound like I’m pinning you out like a butterfly.”

“Are you?”

“’course not. Butterflies are kept under glass, first of all, which seems like a pretty pointless exercise when I’m hoping for a repeat performance. And you’re less—Lepidopteric. Broadly speaking.”

“Broadly speaking?”

“More Vitruvian, if you ask me.”

John laughs, and carefully pushes himself out of bed to trek out to the bathroom, cleaning himself with a wet flannel in the sink before throwing a clean one in to Sherlock. He takes their glasses of water for refills—entirely necessary after the physical exertion of the evening—and then climbs back into bed.

Sherlock curls around him instantly, a pile of limbs, a puddle of loose muscles and bare skin. John’s fingers find the curve of his lower back, feeling through the space where a bullet should have gone through him and didn’t, the place where he should have been ripped apart and wasn’t. The mess of organ and muscle and nerve endings that he would have gladly given if it would have kept John happy.

It wouldn’t have, but this does.

“Stay with me, Sherlock,” John whispers into his dark curls, laying his palm flat so he can feel the beating of Sherlock’s heart, so very like his own. Strong now, beating slow and even, beautiful as the breeze creaking through the eaves.

Sherlock shifts ever so slightly on his chest, and John suspects he’s looking up at him, though he doesn’t look down to check. “For as long as you stay with me,” Sherlock says.

It’s a promise, then, that Sherlock needs. It’s the easiest promise John will ever make.

“Forever, then.”

There’s a curve of a smile against John’s neck, and only a moment later, the press of a kiss to the corner of John’s mouth. “Yes,” Sherlock promises too. “Forever, then.”

It’s quiet. It’s peaceful.

John closes his eyes.