Actions

Work Header

Rebuilding Rome

Chapter Text

Rebuilding Rome

PART I

I

 

When the text comes, John closes his eyes and sighs.

His next thought is Kate Whitney. He opens his eyes and dials her number (speed dial five, which is a sad commentary on his life right there) and waits. When she answers, he speaks rapidly. “Yeah hi, Kate, it’s John Watson. Seems I’ve got a case and I was wondering if you could watch Rosie. I know it’s last minute…”

“No, that’s all right,” Kate Whitney’s voice says reassuringly. “I haven’t got anything on. You’ll bring her over?”

“Yes, in about five minutes,” John says, relief washing over him. “Thanks a ton.” He disconnects before she can object, then opens his texts, typing Ok, be there in about thirty. He presses send, then gets up and goes over to the playpen to scoop his daughter up, ignoring her protestations. “Enough of that. I’ve got a case,” he tells her, a bit shortly, not that she’s old enough to understand, at a year and three months. He refuses to call it ‘fifteen months’ like the mums at Rosie’s daycare, who insist on naming their children’s ages in months even well into the double digits. He pops her into her buggy, then looks around for the bag he always sends with her. Did he refill the goldfish crackers? No, it turns out. He unscrews the lid of the plastic container and hastily dumps a fresh supply of crackers inside, adds a few more nappies to the bag, then retrieves several cartons of formula and a squeeze pack of pureed vegetables from the fridge. Kate Whitney will have all that, but at least this way he’ll look a bit less like a deadbeat dad. That done, he pulls on his jacket, shoves his feet into his shoes, gets his Sig from the drawer of the phone table near the door, checks to make sure it’s loaded (it is), and stows it in the waistband of his jeans.

He tries not to seem impatient through the ritual exchange of his child for his freedom of movement, but it’s difficult to hide. “Look, I’ve really got to get going,” he cuts in, belatedly becoming aware (but not particularly caring) that he’s cut Kate off mid-stream. “You’ll be all right?”

She blinks once or twice. “Yes, of course,” she says mildly. “Off you go, then. Say bye-bye, Rosie!”

Rosie makes a sound resembling the word and John says it back, to both of them, already turning away to book it for the nearest street large enough to have taxis. God, he hates living out here in the sticks! At least this time the crime scene isn’t out in Uxbridge like their last one, as far as possible from Dagenham. This one’s just in Stoke Newington, which is still going to take awhile. Thirty minutes was an underestimate, just to keep Sherlock’s impatience at bay.

Easy for him. He’s still living at Baker Street, now that it’s been fixed up, with easy access to most of the city. Though Uxbridge was a long slog even from there.

John turns onto Hedgemans Road and gets a cab after only a minute or two. He gives the address of the crime scene, then leans back in his seat. Of course, all that was a few months ago now. Eurus, that is. The bombing of Baker Street. In the old days, it almost would have been fun, but he remembers recovering in the hospital with Sherlock in the next bed, plotting feverishly with him as to what to do about Sherlock’s mad sister as his sprained ankle and the stitches in his side throbbed. Two weeks later saw them boarding the craft that took them to Sherrinford, dread having replaced the old excitement. It’s over now, John reminds himself: they got Baker Street fixed up again. Sherlock stayed on the sofa at the flat, Mary’s flat, as John still thinks of it, during the days when Baker Street was fully uninhabitable. Once there were floors and ceilings and safe wiring again, they went over and painted, rehung the art, got it back into shape again. And then John went back to Dagenham to take up his cross of single parenthood and part-time locum work where he could fit it around Rosie’s daycare schedule and when a case crops up.

It’s not the life he would have chosen. Then again, he doesn’t know what he would have chosen, either. John watches London go by from the A12 and wonders how everything got to be so bloody colourless.

***

The atmosphere is tense and sober when John (finally) arrives at the crime scene, fifty minutes after having sent his text. He’s fully expecting Sherlock to say something about it, but he barely acknowledges John until he’s walked right up to where he’s standing with Lestrade, Donovan, and Parker, the new sergeant. Sherlock notices him and half-turns, his arms crossed, his expression unusually troubled. “John. Good. You’re here,” he says, managing to refrain from mentioning the fact that it’s taken him nearly an hour to get there.

John clears his throat, wonders if he should address it, but decides not to. What’s the point? He’s always late these days. “So, it’s a murder, you said,” he says, attempting to gloss over his awkwardly late arrival on the scene.

Sherlock glances at Lestrade. “Yes,” he says. “A double homicide, it seems. Would you like to see the bodies?”

He’s being solicitously polite, which John’s come to recognise as a mask for something or other, though what it might be this time is beyond his comprehension. “Sure, yeah,” he says, so Sherlock leads him into the house. Just inside the door, he offers a pair of plastic shoe covers. “It’s a messy one,” he explains briefly. He gives John a moment to slip them on, then nods toward the sitting room. “This way.”

John follows Sherlock into the house. He sees the blood spatter long before either of the corpses, speckling the white-painted walls, the carpeting, and the furniture, even spattered over photo frames and pieces of décor. The body is a male, a gunshot through his forehead doing much to explain the mess. There’s also dried blood trickling from his nose and bruising around the left eye. He’s lying on the beige carpet, face-up, eyes wide open and staring. “Who is he?” John asks.

Sherlock, naturally, has the answer already. “Harris Mills. A mid-level corporate management type, apparently. Worked at a company called Weston Arbour Incorporated. No idea what they do.”

John nods, absorbing this but not particularly caring. “Where’s the other victim?”

Sherlock gives him a slightly odd look, but nods upstairs. “Follow me.”

They go up the carpeted steps, Sherlock pointing out the blood tracks in that same, odd politeness that’s masking something else, and stops just outside a loo. “In there,” he says, and lets John pass him.

John takes two steps and stops. “Jesus,” he says. There’s blood everywhere; the tub is half full of water that’s stained red, and in it a woman is floating grotesquely. Her long, red hair is tangled over her face and wound around her throat. Her mouth and eyes are open, as though she died gasping for breath to shout out. It’s not pretty. “Were there any witnesses?” he asks, tearing his eyes from the grisly sight in the tub to look back at Sherlock.

Sherlock nods. “Some of the neighbours heard shouting.” He hesitates. “And there was a child.”

“A child!” For a second, John is shocked. “Whose child?”

“Theirs, we think,” Sherlock says. “I only just got here twenty minutes ago, myself. I was waiting for you before we start to question the neighbours. Lestrade wanted to know if you wanted to examine the woman before the coroners remove her from the bath. Her name is Elizabeth, also Mills.”

John shakes his head. “The water will only muddy the time of death. Besides, the body will need to be cleaned before any real examination can take place.” He looks back at the woman. “So who killed them, then, and why so far apart? He must have died first, right? Or else how did she track the blood upstairs?”

“Good questions,” Sherlock says. He pauses, then nods toward the body. “Look at her face, John. Bruising, do you think? Older ones, I mean. Not from today or yesterday. The yellowing around the right eye and above the left eyebrow.”

John frowns, seeing it. “Right. And it looks like he took a punch in the eye, too. Only much more recently.”

Sherlock nods, agreeing. “I don’t think this is going to be a simple one.” He starts for the stairs, saying something to the coroner waiting politely aside. John follows him downstairs and out into the fresh air, glad to be out of the oppressively heavy atmosphere of the house. “Lestrade has been rounding up the witnesses,” Sherlock says over his shoulder. “He and Donovan had just started the questioning, but of course we’ll do our own.”

“Of course,” John echoes, not hearing himself. “And you said there was a child?”

Sherlock looks back at him again, scanning his face almost diagnostically. “Yes,” he says briefly. “A girl. Eight or nine years old. Her name is Sarah. The neighbour who called the police found her in her bedroom, just down the corridor from the bathroom. She’s gone nonverbal and is in the care of said neighbour’s wife.”

“She must be in shock,” John says, squinting into the sun. Lestrade and Donovan have disappeared, only Parker quizzing two women in their sixties. “I’m assuming she saw some of it, or at least the bodies. She’s definitely their child?”

Sherlock gives him an odd look. “One assumes, unless the Mills were in the habit of keeping someone else’s child in their house. Though one shouldn’t assume, I suppose.” He scans the scattered group of people standing about in front of the house and indicates a balding man in his forties. “He’s the one who called it in.”

They make their way over and Sherlock starts in without preamble. “I’m Sherlock Holmes and this is John Watson. You’re the person who discovered the crime scene?”

The man nods nervously. “That’s right. Heard a bit of noise, then a gunshot, so I went over and knocked. Didn’t hear anything, but I knew there was a kid, thought I should check… the door was locked, though, so I rang the police. They came here when they found Sarah. She’s inside with my wife.”

John jots this down in his notebook. “What’s your name?” he asks.

“Bob. Bob Singh,” the man tells him.

“And how long after the shot did you call the police?” John asks.

“Must have been about twenty minutes,” Bob says, looking back and forth between them. “I wasn’t sure if I should interfere… but I was pretty sure it was a gunshot I’d heard, and not something else.”

Sherlock fixes the man with his gaze. “Did you know the Mills well? Can you speculate on the nature of the marriage?”

Bob sniffs and scrunches up his mouth. “It wasn’t good, I can tell you that. He was a bit of a creep. Very distant on the surface, polite enough, but cold, you know what I’m saying? But behind closed doors… we could hear him shouting sometimes. Seems like a different side of him came out then.”

John writes this down, but Sherlock isn’t satisfied. “Shouting at who, precisely?”

Bob looks confused. “At his wife. At Elizabeth. They fought a lot. We weren’t trying to eavesdrop, but these houses are close together and the sound carries, especially now that it’s spring and with the windows open… she didn’t usually shout back, though.”

John is curious. “Did you ever see them together, outside the house?” he asks.

Bob nods. “There was a neighbourhood barbeque last year and they came. He was civil, like I said. But he seemed pretty critical. He was fond of correcting her a lot. Straight up contradicting things she’d said. And I’ve got a feeling he was pretty strict with his kid, too. She was always very meek, very quiet. Seemed nervous, almost scared. She hasn’t said a word since they found her. My wife was trying to get her to eat something when I came back out to talk to the police, but it wasn’t working.”

Sherlock looks at John. “I’d like to see her,” he says firmly, with a look that warns John not to protest this, so John keeps his mouth closed.

Bob blinks. “Sure, all right. But go easy on her. She’s just witnessed both her parents getting killed.”

“About that,” John says. “Are you aware of any problems they were having with anyone else? Any enemies or conflicts that you knew of?”

Bob shakes his head. “I really didn’t know them well enough for that,” he says. He leads them up the walk to his house, but as they approach, the door opens and Lestrade and Donovan emerge.

“There you are,” Lestrade says, meaning him and Sherlock. “You’d better get in here.”

Sherlock frowns. “Why?”

Lestrade sticks both hands into the pockets of his trench coat. “It’s… well, you’ll see for yourself. The girl’s talking a bit now. Be gentle, yeah?”

“Of course,” Sherlock says, brushing this off. He goes past Lestrade and up the short flight of steps leading into the Singhs’ house, John right behind him. Lestrade and Donovan come back inside with them, John notices.

Sarah Mills is a small, pale child, seated at the kitchen table and drinking a cup of something hot and milky. An untouched ham sandwich is sitting on a plate in front of her. She shrinks back upon seeing the four of them, and the woman next to her gives them a worried look.

“My wife, Gita,” Bob says, indicating her.

Lestrade bends over, hands on his thighs. “Sarah, I’ve brought someone else to talk to you. Is that all right?”

The girl looks at him with wide eyes and doesn’t respond. She takes another sip of her tea, holding the cup with both hands as though cold.

Lestrade tries again. “This is Sherlock. He’s a very clever man and he’s going to help us figure out what happened with your parents. And this is Doctor Watson. He’s going to take care of you, okay? You can tell him. We’re going to wait outside so there’s not so many people. Okay? Just tell them what you told us.”

He waits expectantly, and Sarah finally gives a tiny nod. Lestrade seems satisfied, and says something under his breath to Donovan, and they go.

Sherlock glances at John, then pulls out one of the kitchen chairs. “Bob, if you wouldn’t mind…” he says, rather politely for him, and Bob gets the gist.

“Oh – sure,” he says, and follows Lestrade outside.

“Please stay,” Sherlock says to Gita, then transfers his gaze to the child. “Where are you hurt, Sarah?” he asks quietly.

John is slightly surprised by the question; he’d thought Sherlock might begin with questions about the parents.

Sarah hesitates for a long time. Then she pushes up the left sleeve of her shirt to show an ugly red burn mark.

Sherlock studies it. “When did that happen?”

Sarah’s mouth moves, but she doesn’t answer, looking mutely at Gita Singh instead. “Three days, she said,” Gita tells them.

Sherlock doesn’t ask where the burn came from. “Where else?” he asks Sarah.

Her lips press together, an inward thinking process taking place rapidly, then she musters speech at last, her voice small. “On my back.”

Sherlock nods as though this is not a surprise. “When?”

“Yesterday.” Sarah’s voice is very small.

“John.” Sherlock doesn’t look at him.

John turns to Gita. “Have you got any medical supplies?” he asks. “I’ve left my kit at home, left in a bit of a hurry…”

“Oh – of course,” Gita says. “I’ll just get it.” She gets up and pats the girl’s shoulder. “Try to eat,” she urges. “I’ll be right back.”

Sarah doesn’t move. Sherlock sits back a little, clearly trying his best to not be intimidating. “Are you hungry?” he asks. “I know you’ve had a big shock today. It’s a lot to take in. But if you’re hungry, you can eat. It’s all right.”

Sarah looks at him for a long moment, her eyes disarmingly direct. “Mummy says no white bread. White bread isn’t healthy.”

John looks at the sandwich. The bread is indeed white, but it looks to be a nicer sort of loaf, something French, perhaps. He wonders if he should say something, but it seems that Sherlock is getting through. Maybe he should sit this one out until there’s something specifically medical to do.

“This one time, it’s okay,” Sherlock tells her. Sarah doesn’t move, looking uncertain. “Are you hungry?”

She bites her lower lip, then nods.

“Then go on,” Sherlock says. He tactfully refrains from pointing out that Sarah’s mother is unlikely to share any negative opinions on the bread anytime soon.

Sarah’s eyes flick anxiously to the door that Lestrade and the rest departed through. Her indecision stretches out over another agonising moment or two, then she sets down the tea and picks up half the sandwich with both hands and eats it quickly, nearly choking on it in her haste. Strange, John thinks. Then again, it’s probably been since at least breakfast since she last ate.

“That’s it,” Sherlock says encouragingly. “Take your time. No one’s going to take it away.”

That connects: Sarah’s eyes go to his again, riveted there, and for a second or two, she stops chewing. Then she starts again, still quickly, her eyes stuck on Sherlock’s.

John doesn’t understand what’s happening. He wants to ask about the injuries, where they came from, only he doesn’t want to interrupt the sandwich, either.

Sherlock waits patiently until the last bite is gone. “Good,” he says approvingly. He leans forward again, smiling nicely at the kid. “Okay,” he says, as Gita returns with a first aid kit. “Now Doctor Watson is going to fix you up. Can you tell me about anything else that hurts?”

Sarah shakes her head, and Sherlock nods.

“Where do you go to school?” he asks instead.

“I don’t go to school,” Sarah says, her eyes flicking nervously to John as he crouches down on her other side and begins to dress the burn as gently as he can.

“Do you learn from your parents?” Sherlock asks.

Sarah nods, her eyes hidden as she watches John’s movements about her arm. “Mummy,” she says, and there are layers to her tone that John doesn’t understand.

Sherlock processes this for a moment. “What about your father?”

“Daddy goes to work.” This comes out calmly, but then Sarah adjusts her words. “Went to work…” She looks back at Sherlock. “He…”

Sherlock doesn’t push it. “Yes?” he asks, after a moment, but Sarah begins to shake her head, trembling violently.

“It’s okay,” John tells her gently. “You don’t have to talk about it. It’s a big shock. We know.” He quickly tapes down the gauze over her burn. “Could I see your back?” he asks, careful to keep his tone light.

But Sarah slips off her chair and rushes to Gita, who is sitting unobtrusively on a chair in the corner. She buries her face in Gita’s chest, arms around her shoulders, and Gita reacts with surprise, yet also immediate comfort. “It’s all right. It’s all right. You can cry. It’s okay,” she murmurs, holding the girl carefully. Over Sarah’s shoulder, she catches John’s eye. “You really do need to treat it, though,” she tells him. “I’m afraid it could infect.” She strokes a hand over Sarah’s hair. “I’ll just pull your shirt up a little so that he can see, all right? You don’t need to look. I’m right here.”

John hesitates, not wanting to treat the child if she’s unwilling, but he also doesn’t know what it is. He glances at Sherlock, who shrugs as though to say that it’s his decision. “Do you mind if I just have a look?” he asks, feeling awkward, the child’s back to him. Going by her breathing, she’s crying, yet she’s making almost no sound whatsoever.

Gita cranes her head a little to look down. “Let’s show him, okay? He can make it better.” Her fingers gently tug the girl’s shirt up just a few inches in the back, revealing a long, jagged cut as well as several smaller bruises scattered over pale skin.

John frowns. “How did this happen?”

“John.” Sherlock is sharp, unusually so.

John looks back at him, not comprehending, but Sherlock’s face is closed, his lower lip pressing into the upper, lines of tension framing his mouth. John doesn’t get the tension, but shrugs inwardly. All right, then; Sherlock’s not going to tell him whatever it is. Did someone attack the kid, too, before killing her parents? Has Sherlock somehow deduced that? But she said that the burn occurred three days earlier. Harris Mills was definitely shot today; the very wetness of the blood splattered all across the sitting room says that clearly enough. He spreads antibacterial cream over the long laceration and cuts out another long piece of gauze to tape over it, working as quickly as he can so as to get this part of the girl’s ordeal over with as soon as possible. She’s going to need years of therapy, he thinks, pulling the shirt back into place. Well, who doesn’t? “There we are,” he says briskly. “All set.”

Sarah doesn’t move or react. Gita pats her hair again. “I’ll take care of her for now,” she tells them. “I think she needs to be left alone now. But she can stay here. We haven’t got any children of our own. We’ll look after her.”

Sherlock nods. “Thank you,” he says. “I’m sure the police will be in touch. Arrangements will need to be made for the long term, but meanwhile, I think this would probably be for the best until her relatives can be contacted, et cetera. John.”

He nods toward the door and John gets up and follows him out. Without waiting to go over any of it with him, Sherlock strides over to where Lestrade and Donovan are talking to a couple in their forties. “Thanks very much,” Lestrade tells them, and they leave. He turns to Sherlock. “Well?”

Sherlock nods. “Yes. I do see. Quite.”

John still doesn’t get it. “What did we see, exactly?”

Donovan gives him one of those looks that says she considers him an absolute idiot. “The kid’s been abused. Habitually, I’d say.”

John boggles. “By who, exactly? How did you arrive at that?”

There’s a slight pause. Lestrade looks at Sherlock. “The two we just spoke with confirmed: the girl was home-schooled, rarely allowed out of the house unattended. And Elizabeth Mills was frequently seen wearing sunglasses, hoodies, scarves… anything to obscure the face.”

Sherlock nods. “So the only question is which parent; however, that seems relatively easy to deduce.”

Donovan is right there with him. “The mother, you think?”

Sherlock agrees. “The difference in tone of voice when mentioning either parent is suggestive of that.”

John feels like he’s missed three stairs going down a flight. “Wait, what? How are you all arriving at this? Maybe the kid was just – I don’t know, injured in literally any other way? How did you all get to child abuse?”

Lestrade glances at Sherlock, who angles his face toward the ground and won’t answer, avoiding John’s eyes. Donovan assumes control. “There are a lot of obvious symptoms,” she tells John, her tone condescending, as though it’s totally obvious. “Being afraid to eat. The other bruises on her back that had already faded – suggestive of multiple past injuries, inflicted at different times. The fact that her injuries were left in places not immediately visible to the public, like the face.” She turns back to Lestrade. “Whereas Elizabeth, on the other hand, also had multiple layers of bruising on the face, upper chest, arms, and back.”

“So she was getting it from Harris and passing it on to the kid,” Lestrade says. He looks at John, who still isn’t convinced. “Come on, mate. It’s all there. Did Bob Singh mention to you two that Harris was constantly putting Elizabeth down in public, too? One of the other sets of neighbours corroborated.”

John shrugs. “What of it? People argue. Married couples especially.” Sherlock clears his throat as quietly as possible, but John catches it. It occurs to him that Sherlock looks intensely uncomfortable. “What?” he asks, wondering privately why he feels so defensive all of a sudden.

Sherlock hesitates for a long moment, those tension lines around his mouth deepening again, then says, “Not all married couples. And there’s a difference between a joint argument and… when it’s only coming from one side.”

John is still looking at him, but Sherlock won’t meet his eyes. Donovan jumps in again. “It’s pretty obvious to the rest of us, John. All the signs say that both the wife and daughter were on the receiving end of abuse, and it looks highly likely that it was the mother who was beating the child. It’s common enough: the person who’s abused turns into an abuser, themselves. It’s a pretty standard pattern. Odd that you can’t see it, though.”

Now it definitely feels like an attack. John can feel his face heating and turning red.

“Donovan,” Lestrade says in rebuke, before he can say anything, and she subsides.

“Sorry,” she says, not sounding as though she means it at all. “But it’s pretty clear to me. We’ll see what the coroner says once the autopsies are done. The child will probably need psychological help, from the trauma alone.”

“We’ll get her some,” Lestrade promises. He turns as the coroner approaches. “What have you got for us, Carl?”

“Just a preliminary before we’ve got them back at the lab, but I thought you’d like to know,” Carl says, looking around at all of them. “Elizabeth Mills had multiple wounds to the upper chest and abdominal area, but when we pulled her out of the water the cause of death became pretty clear: she was shot in the abdomen. The gun was in the bathwater. Forensics says that it’ll be fairly impossible to get a print from it, but they’re thinking that it was the same type of bullet that killed Harris Mills.”

Sherlock looks at John now. “So either the killer shot Harris, then tracked blood upstairs to shoot Elizabeth in the bath, or else – ”

“Or else Elizabeth shot Harris, then tracked the blood upstairs herself, and shot herself in the bath,” John finishes grimly, and Sherlock doesn’t contradict him. He still feels hot under the collar about the apparent fact that the abuse didn’t jump out at him the way it seemingly should have, but at least there’s something else to focus on now. “How do we figure out which it is?” he asks.

“The autopsy will help,” Sherlock says. He looks at the coroner. “We’ll need times of death confirmed as soon as possible.”

“Working on it.” Carl turns and goes back into the Mills’ blood-spattered house.

“The second seems more likely, doesn’t it?” Lestrade speculates. “Abusive marriage, plus she can’t have been happy with herself for turning it on their kid. One day she snaps, kills him, then kills herself?”

“It’s a theory that fits the facts,” Sherlock says, rather soberly for him. “However: we’ll need to prove it. John and I will join the forensics team. Question Harris Mills’ colleagues. Let’s rule out any obvious enemies. And keep talking to the neighbours. I want to know if Sarah Mills had any friends, was ever seen by anyone else.”

“Yes, boss,” Lestrade says dryly, and Donovan smirks, but the humour dies quickly.

The group dissolves. Sherlock is avoiding meeting John’s eyes again. “Come on,” he says quietly. “Let’s see if we can get a match on the bullets.”

***

The case wraps two days later. They were right: Elizabeth Mills shot her husband in the face within minutes of the most recent black eye he gave her, then went upstairs around twenty minutes later, ran a bath, and shot herself in it. The child psychiatrist assigned to Sarah Mills has not yet been able to persuade the girl to talk about what may have occurred within those twenty minutes: all they know is that she was in her room the entire time.

The case was thoroughly depressing and Sherlock remained rather distant throughout. John has no idea if it’s that he’s somehow ashamed of him for having not spotted the abuse right away, or for some other reason. The abuse itself has been confirmed by both the hospital who examined the girl more thoroughly, as well as by the psychiatrist. Once it was all over, Sherlock went back to Baker Street and John brought himself back home. He’s holding his phone and debating – has been for over twenty minutes now – and finally makes himself dial. “Fuck it,” he mutters aloud, under his breath.

The phone rings twice and Ella’s receptionist picks up. “New Pathways, this is Shelley speaking,” she says pleasantly.

John clears his throat. “Yeah, hi Shelley, this is John Watson. I wondered if Ella might have an opening sometime soon?”

There’s a brief pause on the other end. “How soon are we talking about?” Shelley asks.

“Er – as soon as possible,” John says, wincing a little.

Shelley makes a thinking sound. “Actually, she’s had a cancellation for late this afternoon, if that’s not too soon. It’s for half-past five. Her last one of the day.”

“I’ll take it,” John says with relief. “Thanks a lot.”

“We’ll see you later then, Doctor Watson.” Shelley hangs up.

John checks the time. It’s only a little after two, just enough time to figure out something to do with Rosie. She’s at daycare at the moment, but he’ll have to get someone to pick her up and look after her for the evening, or at least until he’s back from his appointment. Molly. He hasn’t asked her for about a week. Luckily Kate Whitney was able to keep Rosie throughout this last case while he kipped upstairs in his old room at Baker Street. No point going all the way home in between. It’s what he usually does, anyway. He picks up his phone and dials Molly’s number, listed right after Kate’s. He tries the lab first and she answers on the fourth ring. He goes through the ritual of the awkward ask, the giving of the details, confirmation of the arrangements, then the relieved thanks. There: that’s one thing done. He checks the time again, then looks up the transit times for getting to Ella’s office. She’s still in the old church, a space that manages to feel dark and gloomy in spite of the stained glass window and the upper storey light coming in. Or maybe he brings the gloom with him; who can say?

***

Chapter Text

II

 

Ella pauses for a moment. So far she hasn’t written anything, John’s noticed. “So if I’m following, you’re concerned because the others at the crime scene seemed to recognise the signs of child abuse before you did?”

“Not just that, but the woman, too. I just assumed they’d been fighting. Both of them, jointly,” John says. “And – just the way everyone was acting, like it was so odd that I didn’t see it just as quickly. I’m not a detective. But Sherlock was the worst of them.”

“How so?” Ella asks.

Her eyes are patient and non-judgemental, as ever. John struggles to put it into words. “I just – I don’t know, exactly. It was like he didn’t want them pointing it out, and he certainly didn’t want to talk about it once the rest of them weren’t around, either. I almost thought he was embarrassed for me that I hadn’t caught it. And when we were talking to the kid in question, he was acting like I was the one being gauche and asking insensitive questions.”

“Whereas usually that’s him, and you assume leadership where social norms are concerned,” Ella comments. “That must have felt like a switch.”

John nods slowly. “I guess I also just don’t get why it wasn’t more obvious to me. It was later, once I saw the autopsy. But I didn’t even notice the older bruises on the woman’s face until Sherlock pointed them out. Donovan – one of the sergeants – read me a whole thing from her phone about gaslighting and how the woman was obviously being subjected to emotional abuse as well as physical abuse, and it just didn’t even… I don’t know. It sounded like a normal married relationship to me.”

Ella’s tone is measured. “Why? Was your own marriage like that in some way?”

John thinks hard, struggling to remember if he ever contradicted Mary in public or put her down in front of other people. “I don’t think I ever treated Mary that way,” he says slowly. He and Ella have barely scratched the surface when it comes to Mary. They’ve talked about the hallucinations and survivors’ guilt, but he hasn’t told her that she shot Sherlock, or any of the criminal stuff. “I mean… we fought, but I always tried to be fair and to treat her with respect.”

Ella’s pen is still. “What about the way Mary treated you?” she asks, very evenly. “Did she extend the same sort of respect to you, fighting or otherwise?”

John opens his mouth, then stops. He can hear Donovan’s voice reading out from whatever article she found online, reading out the headings of the various tactics: They lie, they deny facts, they contradict your perceptions even when you have proof, they manipulate, they confuse you with occasional positive reinforcement, they make you question reality as you know it, their actions don’t match their words, they belittle your actions and question your motives, they confuse you, they align others against you. Suddenly he can’t speak; it feels as though a noose is constricting around his neck. He can think of examples for every single one of the categories Donovan read to him, and the realisation feels like a blow to the solar plexus.

Ella waits, watching him carefully. “Is some of this beginning to connect the dots?” she asks, her voice measured in a way that makes John think that she’s maybe already thought about this.

He can’t make himself look at her. Heat is spreading up his chest and neck and into his face. “Oh my God. Jesus. Fuck.”

Ella lets a moment or two pass, tactfully giving him time to process. “Gaslighting is a very common technique for female abusers to use, though certainly not women alone – as you saw with the case you just solved. Statistically speaking, women tend to be physically weaker than men, so it’s fairly typical for women who are abusive to use non-physical forms of abuse. Though in the particular case that you and Sherlock were just working out, it sounds like the woman involved was using multiple forms of abuse. Your colleague at the Yard is also correct in stating that people who have been abused unfortunately often become abusers, themselves. It’s a way of taking back some sense of power, though an obviously unhealthy and very problematic one.” She pauses, gauging John. “It can be a very difficult realisation to discover that you, yourself, have been at the receiving end of an abusive relationship,” she says gently. “Would you like to say any of what you’re feeling right now out loud?”

“I feel sick,” John says. His voice comes out sounding thick and heavy. “I… it never even occurred to me. I don’t know, I just thought it was normal marital bickering or whatever. I thought everyone’s marriage was like that.”

“Have your other relationships followed similar patterns?” Ella asks. Her voice is calm and still free of judgement. There’s no weight of expectation to it.

John shakes his head. “Other women have definitely got angry with me before, but not that – the stuff with denying perceptions and contradicting you in front of other people on a regular basis – and changing it up with the occasional compliment, just to keep you off-balance and that – no. That was only Mary.”

Ella regards him with her serene gaze. “It can be very difficult for men, especially, to admit to themselves or anyone else that they’ve received abusive treatment, particularly from a woman. The typical thought is that a man can’t be abused by a person who is physically weaker than himself.”

“I’m not even sure that that bit’s true in this case,” John bites out. He looks across at Ella, who’s looking confused by this. “She was an assassin, you know,” he says heavily. “I never told you. I just – I couldn’t bring myself to say it. But she was. It’s – it’s why the whole thing is so complicated to talk about. She shot Sherlock because he found out. He almost died.”

Ella looks down and takes a long, deep breath. “That explains quite a lot, actually,” she says.

For the first time in their many years of knowing one another, she actually looks shocked. “What do you mean?” John asks.

She shakes her head a little and taps her pen against her notebook. “There’s a lot that I can’t disclose due to client confidentiality, but I was aware that Sherlock had been shot. I wasn’t aware of who was behind it. It… does help to clarify some things.”

John feels his face condense even further. “Okay,” he says. What does she even mean about ‘client confidentiality’? Who else is a client of hers that might have known that Sherlock got shot? Surely Mycroft doesn’t see a therapist. “I have no idea how you know that, but all right. So you get why I stopped loving Mary, then. I mean, we’ve talked about that: all that guilt I felt, after she died. It wasn’t because I survived. It was because she died knowing that I didn’t love her anymore. I couldn’t even say it to her while she was dying. Couldn’t make myself lie, because it would have been a lie. But you get it, right? Why I didn’t?”

Ella looks across at him. “Yes, that does help clarify that, too,” she says, very slightly dry. “That would certainly throw a wrench into any marriage.” There’s a pause wherein John is very afraid that she’s going to try to make him talk about Sherlock again, but she mercifully stays on the subject of Mary. “Let’s talk about that. When did you find out that she was – who she was? I’m guessing you didn’t go into the marriage knowing that.”

John shakes his head. “I found out a month and a week after the wedding. Exactly that. We were away for our honeymoon for three weeks and then I was back at work for one. I saw Sherlock exactly one month after the wedding and he got shot that night. One week later, he set it all up so that I could find out. He… I saw why he did it that way after. While he was in the hospital, I had a lot of time to think.”

“You stayed in the hospital with him?” Ella asks. Her tone is light, deftly avoiding any particular emphasis on John’s choice to have done so.

John nods. “Yeah. He left after a week when I stepped out of the room to go and meet our friend, which started a whole thing of everyone looking for him. I guess it took him that long to plan it, and just to be physically able to do it. I’m honestly amazed that he managed to dress himself. He was very weak – weak enough that he had to take his morphine drip with him. I figure he knew that if he told me himself, I might not believe him.”

“Or would blame him,” Ella offers. “We do have a tendency to shoot the messenger.”

“Right, yeah,” John says. He fidgets with his fingers, pressing at his nails with his thumbs. “So he set it all up so that I could see it for myself. There was definitely a risk that Mary would shoot him again, too, but he’d factored that in.”

“Can I ask how?” Ella asks curiously. “First off, tell me more about the circumstances of the shooting itself, if you would. I’m anxious to understand this.”

John sighs heavily. “Little did I know, but the media mogul Charles Magnussen was blackmailing Mary. He’d found out who she was and was threatening to expose her. I don’t even know when that all started. She would never talk about it with me after the fact, and I was pretty angry with her – for so many reasons. Either way, that was going on. He even sent a telegram to the wedding, though neither Sherlock or me realised what it was at the time. Sherlock figured it out while we were on the honeymoon and started investigating Magnussen. Anyway, we broke into his office that first night that I saw him again after the honeymoon. There were a couple of injured people, so I got delayed checking on them while Sherlock went ahead. He stumbled into Mary threatening Magnussen at gunpoint, apparently dressed like an assassin and having just scaled the tower from the outside – while pregnant. It became pretty clear to Sherlock that she was definitely not what we’d thought from the outset. He offered to help her, but instead she shot him, right in the chest. We figure it was because she wanted emergency services to come so that it would get me out of there before I could discover her, but that she meant for Sherlock to die on the way.”

Ella’s face is troubled. “Why do you suppose that?”

“Because it’s the only thing that makes sense,” John says shortly. “Otherwise why not just shoot him in the head, if her goal was to keep him quiet? The instant he was able to move unassisted, the very first thing he did was make sure that I knew. He said once that it was only fair, so that I could make an informed decision. Why shoot him at all, if she meant to accept his help? It never has added up – she left without silencing Magnussen or Sherlock. I never did understand that. And then later, she threatened Sherlock in the hospital, told him to keep quiet about her. He didn’t tell me that until much later, but she did.”

Ella takes another deep breath. “I see,” she says. She looks down at her notebook, though the page is still empty. “So this confrontation took place one week after the shooting?”

John nods. “Yeah. Sherlock lured her to this empty house… it was a long, narrow space and he was talking to her over the phone. I had an earpiece to listen in, and he put me at the end of the corridor in the shadows, so that she’d think I was him. So I saw her face while she was talking to him. The scorn. The contempt. She was also carrying a loaded gun fitted with a silencer, so how can I possibly avoid the conclusion that she was intending to kill him, only properly this time?”

Ella frowns, but doesn’t respond to this. “So why didn’t she?” she asks instead. “If you were disguised as Sherlock, what kept her from pulling the trigger the moment she saw you?”

John catches himself smiling, to his own surprise, though it comes out a bit twisted. “Sherlock projected her face onto the front of the building. From the wedding photos. Twelve metres high. And he pointed out to her that even Scotland Yard would be able to figure it out if they found his body there.”

Ella exhales. “I see,” she says again. “And after that – what?”

“We all went back to Baker Street and Sherlock forced the admission out of her. She had a USB key on her, one that supposedly had all of her history on it,” John tells Ella heavily. “She said that if I loved her, I wouldn’t read it.”

“That’s rather manipulative,” Ella comments.

John nods. “It took me months to look at it, but when I finally did, it was empty, anyway. I never told her that I’d checked.”

“And – were you still living together all that time?” Ella asks. “What happened after the Baker Street confrontation?”

John scowls. “What happened is that Sherlock’s heart needed defibrillating and he had to be rushed back to the hospital. He did such extensive damage to himself in setting up that revelation that it took him nearly four months before he was allowed to leave again, though knowing him, I’m sure he snuck out now and then when I wasn’t watching.”

Ella surveys his face. “And you stayed with him all that time?”

John nods. “More or less, yeah. I… couldn’t go back to the flat. Mary’s flat. I hadn’t worked out what to say or do. She texted me sometimes, usually guilt trips over my missing appointments about the baby. I usually just didn’t even answer.”

Ella frowns a little. “But you went back,” she says. “Why, then, if you already knew that you didn’t love her anymore?”

“It wasn’t that clear, all right?” John rubs his eyes. “I thought I had to. We had a child on the way and I didn’t want to run out on her. And – I mean, I did feel something for Mary once. It can be very hard to know exactly how you feel about someone.”

There’s a pause and John can actively feel Sherlock’s name hovering unspoken between them. It’s been there since the day he told Ella that Sherlock was dead, that he couldn’t say any of the stuff he needed to say. She’s always known, or suspected, at least, but as long as the words remain unspoken, there’s plausible deniability. Or something along those lines. Ella spares him again, though. “That’s fair,” she says, meaning about Mary. “Understanding our own feelings can be complicated. And I can see your point about your daughter.” She checks the time. “Listen,” she says. “Our hour is up, but I think that we should meet again very soon. What’s tomorrow like for you?”

John thinks. “Completely open, honestly. Unless a case comes up.”

Ella scans through her calendar. “Could you come in for two? I’ve got an opening; one of my regulars is sick.”

John nods. “Yeah, okay. Why not.”

“We should talk a lot more about your marriage,” Ella says. She stands, so John follows suit. “Tomorrow, then.”

John nods again and shows himself out.

***

Ella settles herself comfortably in her chair and crosses her left leg over her right. The preliminaries are out of the way. John looks tired, the bags under his eyes rather deep. She wonders privately for a moment whether or not he’s sober and hopes that he is. The drinking he was engaging in following his wife’s death was borderline problematic, particularly his secrecy surrounding it, and the behaviour is a red flag that she’s been watching for. “Let’s pick up with where we left off yesterday,” she proposes. “I’d like to narrow in on the gaslighting. Did it start right from the beginning? Or was that element introduced only after the shooting occurred?”

“Oh no, it started way before that,” John says, scowling.

Ella gestures for him to go on, so he heaves and sigh and does.

“It was – constant,” he says, looking somewhere over her shoulder at the poster of a lake in Switzerland that’s meant to be calming. “Just a steady undercurrent of doubt on her part.”

“Doubt in – you?” Ella clarifies.

“Yeah.” The word is clipped, but at least he’s talking. For John Watson, that alone is a lot, some days. He goes on. “Doubt in my abilities, my motives, my perceptions. She was constantly correcting me, both on our own and in front of other people. It was like there was an unspoken agreement that she was always right and I was always stupid, though I never recalled having agreed to it. She questioned me on practically everything I did, from tiny shit like the way I’d tie a bag of rubbish to my personal motivations for helping someone. I’d comment that it was hot in the flat and she’d inform me that it wasn’t. I’d say that it had been a week since we’d been round to the shops and she’d tell me it’d only been four days, even when I was sure. I’d find a receipt or something, show her, and she’d just shrug it off. She did it to Sherlock, too. Always implying that she was cleverer than us, more talented. She left me once, for awhile, and in her letter she said she couldn’t have Sherlock and me ‘hanging off her gun arm’.”

Ella frowns. “Mary left you?”

John nods, looking at his hands, multiple lines gathered between his eyebrows. “Mm-hm. Someone from her past had caught up with her. Someone from a team she’d been on. She’d left him behind without checking if it was possible to save him, and he spent years getting tortured because of it. Sherlock crossed paths with him on a case and figured it all out. When he told me, I figured Mary would do a runner if Sherlock offered to help her again, so we put a tracking device on something we figured she’d steal.”

“And did she?” Ella asks, fascinated in spite of herself. Though, considering John’s pre-existing history of trust issues, she does worry about the level of damage this marriage will have added to his already-considerable issues.

John gives a short, unamused laugh. “Of course she did. She attacked Sherlock again – drugged him this time – took the thing, and ran off. She took a massively complicated route, but when she got to her destination we were there ahead of her. Then it all blew up and we came back, all three of us. Mary and I were barely talking, but there was Rosie to focus on, I guess. And then the case kept going, and she ended up dying only a few days later.”

“So it was all left largely unresolved,” Ella says thoughtfully. “Yes. I see. It does rather explain the mess of emotions that came with her death. There was far more than simply grief to deal with. And now you’re coming to terms with the relationship in a new light, too.”

John sticks out his chin and looks up at the Swiss lake poster again. “I suppose so. Yeah.”

“Let’s explore that a little,” Ella proposes. “Why do you suppose Mary put you down so frequently? Do you think she was intimidated by your abilities?”

John makes a disbelieving sound and looks even further away. “No. She joked about it, about me being an idiot, but she was serious enough. I mean, the whole thing about me ‘hanging off her gun arm’, like I said. The infuriating bit is that she wasn’t even smarter than us – we were two steps ahead of her from the moment Sherlock caught her in Magnussen’s office. He and I anticipated her every move. But she didn’t think I was capable of anything, not even rescuing our neighbour’s druggie kid.”

“She specifically said she didn’t think you were capable of these things?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” John tells her, sounding irritable. “She’d say things like, ‘why you?’, as though I didn’t serve three tours and can’t handle myself in a spot of trouble, as though I don’t with Sherlock all the time. Like it’s someone other than me who usually keeps Sherlock from getting himself shot by the perpetrators in the crimes we solve.”

Ella thinks of Mary shooting Sherlock, of John not having managed to prevent it, and reassesses her own thoughts in terms of what she’d thought was survivors’ guilt on John’s part: that’s clearly not it at all. The guilt he’s suffering from stems from what he has, by no fault of his own, allowed Mary to do to Sherlock. “So she belittled your abilities,” she says. “How did that make you feel?”

John’s face clouds over again. “Angry.” He thinks for a second, then adds, “Undervalued. Not valued at all. Underestimated in every way. Like she thought I was an idiot. At one point during the confrontation in the empty house, when she realised I wasn’t Sherlock, she actually thought I was a dummy. That pretty much sums up her opinion of me.”

Ella jots down a note or two. “There was never anything positive?”

John exhales. “No, there was. If it had been all negative, I think even I might have seen it sooner. But she’d question me endlessly, then throw me off by giving me a compliment, like on my appearance or something. Or once, the day she died, right after we’d got back from bringing her back, she said something about it not helping that I was so ‘perfect’, which threw me, since it generally seemed like nothing I ever did was good enough.”

Ella nods. “Yes, that’s also typical for gaslighting,” she says.

“You know,” John says, almost belligerently, “I wasn’t looking to start an affair. I went back. I kept my word. But it was just – constant, having her chip away at me all the time. And Sherlock was obsessed with Moriarty, which I never even understood because he’s dead, and I was just left on the edges. In retrospect, I feel like I just – went for it because it was someone, anyone, paying attention to me and thinking I was interesting, worthwhile. I know it was stupid, but – I don’t know. I don’t know.”

“Anger is the first feeling you mentioned,” Ella says thoughtfully. “What did you do with all of this anger? Did it just – build up endlessly, without release? Or did you feel that you could express it around and to Mary, when her behaviour frustrated or hurt you?”

John shakes his head instantly. “No. If I even raised my voice, she got sharp. I always felt I had to apologise for feeling anything other than strictly positive about anything she did. She always had to be right and I always had to be wrong and stupid. It was that same contract that I never remembered having signed in the first place.”

“So where did all of your anger go?” Ella asks, watching him.

John makes a helpless gesture. “Nowhere, I guess. I just… reabsorbed it.”

“Hmm.” Ella regards him. “What about Sherlock?” she asks. “You mentioned feeling overlooked by him just now, too. How does he fit into this? You’ve talked about being annoyed with him for keeping you in the dark in the past. Do you feel that this is similar behaviour from him, in terms of not trusting you with information?”

John frowns, to her surprise. She’d thought there might be an obvious connection here. “No,” he says. “It’s not the same at all. With Sherlock, it is just jokes. He’ll – I don’t know, call me a lump or something, but it’s very clear that he relies on me, on my abilities. That he values them. He jokes, but he also says things like that he’d be lost without me, and is upset if I’m not available to go to a crime scene with him or something. Though he’s pretty understanding when I can’t go because of Rosie. It’s not the same. When he’s kept things from me, I’m starting to get that it’s usually because he’s trying to protect me.”

“What about Mary?” Ella asks, thinking it a fair question. “Perhaps she was trying to protect you when she left?”

John scowls. “Maybe, except her pattern was to run away, wasn’t it? Whenever the going got tough? I mean, she could have accepted Sherlock’s help – either time. But instead she shot him and drugged him – and that’s with her knowing his history of drug use, too. She abandoned her teammates to torture and death and didn’t even seem to think the one survivor had any right to be angry with her over it, just like she didn’t think I had any right to be angry after she shot Sherlock. It was like she didn’t think anyone had any right to actually hold her accountable for any of the shit she pulled, past or present. And she didn’t tell me stuff because she thought I was too incompetent to handle it. Sherlock’s not like that. He values me.”

This is as forthcoming a statement about Sherlock as Ella has ever heard John make. She’s been working at Sherlock to learn to verbalise his own feelings, but he’s surprisingly more willing to do so, at least when she can persuade him to see a point to it. She’s very much aware that the subject of Sherlock is one that will invariably make John wary and throw up walls of defence, so she generally gives it a wide berth. Perhaps today is the day that he’ll be willing to say it, though. “As you value him,” she says evenly, watching John’s eyes.

To his credit, he doesn’t waver. “Yes,” John says firmly. “He’s my best friend.”

Silently, she congratulates him. “Does that mean that you’ve forgiven him for falsifying his death?” she asks gently.

The question catches him off guard. “I – don’t know,” John says, sounding confused. He looks down at his hands again. “I don’t know that I have, if it comes to that. We just never talk about it. Well – I mentioned it once, I guess. Fairly recently.”

Ella thinks of the long story Sherlock told her one stormy afternoon only a few weeks ago, during one of the appointments she cannot, by dint of professional oath, acknowledge to John that are happening, and of the fact that Sherlock admitted that he’s never yet found a way to casually bring up the snipers in conversation with John, his hesitancy to rock the boat, the surface stability they’ve seemingly found in the wake of the events with Sherlock’s unbalanced sister. She sighs inwardly, but keeps her expression neutral. “You’re still angry about that,” she says. It isn’t a question; after all, she knows John rather well by this point.

John frowns, but nods, still looking down.

“And how has that anger been expressed?” Ella asks, conscious to keep her tone even.

John’s mouth opens, his breath drawing in sharply and stopping in his chest. Then, to her surprise, his face crumples. He bends forward as though he’s going to be sick. “Oh God,” he says, the words coming out muffled, his face hidden. “Oh God. Oh God. I – ”

He stops. Ella is alarmed. “What is it, John?” she asks. He doesn’t respond, at least not verbally: instead he moans and covers his face with both hands. She gives him a moment, then prompts. “What’s going on?” she asks. “Can you put some of what you’re thinking into words?”

“It’s true,” John says to the carpet, his hands still obscuring his face and mouth. “What Donovan said.”

He stops again. “What did Donovan say?” Ella prompts.

“About – about people who get abused turning into – ” John makes a sound almost like a gag, then moans again. He’s physically withdrawing into himself, collapsing inwards, arms wrapping around himself as though for protection, knees drawing up.

Ella is very much alarmed; she hasn’t seen John regress to this degree in a very long time. Not since Sherlock’s perceived death, only this is somehow worse still. “John – ” she begins, but he cuts her off, looking up suddenly, his face mottled red and very white.

“I beat him,” he says starkly. “He was literally dying – Molly said – and I beat him within an inch of his life. He was on the floor and I was kicking him. There was blood dripping from his face – ” He stops, choking, unable to go on.

Ella is shocked in spite of herself. She’s heard a lot in the many offices she’s kept over the course of her career thus far, but this was unexpected. Sherlock never said a word about it, either – out of his unshakeable and possibly unhealthy loyalty to John, she already knows. This is very unfortunate and she’s frankly dismayed. Doing her best to keep this to herself, she makes herself take a deep breath. “What prompted that?”

John is shaking his head, humming in negation. “I – everything. He was high and went to attack someone, and I overreacted. A lot. It was just every single thing since I met Mary. I’ve blamed it all on him. Like it was his fault he didn’t see what Mary was. That he let himself get shot. That he almost made me watch him die all over again, all because he left the hospital to tell me. That he almost got himself sent on a suicide mission because of it. I know you don’t – but it’s too long to get into. I blamed him for Mary’s death. All of it. It wasn’t his fault and I knew it, but I couldn’t – it was all too much, so I just put it on him and he just – let me. Just accepted it, then nearly killed himself on drugs over it. And then I beat him to a pulp. I – ”

He stops, actually gagging this time, and Ella reaches hastily for her plastic wastepaper bin and thrusts it at John just in time – she doesn’t think he’s actually capable of unfolding himself from his rigid posture at the moment. He is sick, coughing into the bin, and she gets up and goes to get a glass of water, subtly messaging Shelley at the front desk to cancel her next appointment, due to start in five minutes’ time.

John is crying when she goes back to collect the bin, exchanging it for a glass of water which he accepts mutely. “I’ll just put this outside,” Ella says tactfully. “Unless you think – ?” He shakes his head, though, so she puts the bin outside the door and catches Shelley’s eye, who understands and comes over to get it. Ella shuts the door again and surveys her client. John has drawn his legs up, feet on the edge of his chair, arms around his knees, crying and shuddering. “Have you ever acknowledged this before now – just to yourself, I mean?”

She offers a box of tissues. John takes one and pulls it into the fortress he’s made of himself, shaking his head. “Not since the day itself,” he says, his voice thick. “Our – Lestrade – he saw it on the tapes. I don’t even know what he thought of it. He didn’t say. But I… later, I told Sherlock it wasn’t his fault Mary died. And he seemed grateful that I’d said that. Grateful. It’s the least – the literal least I could have said. I didn’t say any of the rest of it. That none of it had been his fault. That all I’d ever wanted was for him to come back and stop being dead, that none of the rest of it mattered. None of the real stuff ever comes out when I talk to him – it all gets twisted and turned into something else, and I – I’m not even making sense.”

He’s still crying, but at least he’s actually talking. “Does any of that include the things you couldn’t say after he died?” Ella asks quietly. She could qualify it with something like when you thought he died or after his falsified suicide, but it doesn’t really matter: it was a very real death for John at the time.

His head snaps up at this and he glares at her. “Yes, of course it does!” he shouts, suddenly furious. His face turns redder. “You’ve been trying to make me say it for years, so fine: I loved him, okay? He’s the most important person to’ve ever come into my life and I just about fucking killed him! Is that what you want me to say? Are you happy now?”

Ella is startled by the violence of his words and tone. “John,” she says, keeping her own voice calm and reasonable, “I’ll have to ask you to – ”

“Sorry,” John interrupts. “I’m sorry. I forgot I’m not allowed to be angry. Fuck this. Fuck all of this. I can’t – ” He gets to his feet, moving swiftly for the door.

Ella’s mouth is still open when he slams it after himself, gone before she can even protest.

***

Chapter Text

III

 

Molly is peering into the specimen fridge in her lab when her phone rings – not the landline, but her own. She pulls off her gloves and gets it out of her pocket, frowning at the screen as she answers . “Kate,” she says. “What’s going on?”

“Hi Molly, sorry to bother,” Kate says apologetically. “I was wondering if there was any way you could possibly get Rosie from daycare today? A work meeting’s cropped up and I’ve got to be there.”

“Let me just see," Molly says. She checks the time. “Er, I should be able to get to the daycare on time, yeah. Where’s John? Case?”

Kate sounds weary. “Who even knows at this point? He didn’t get her yesterday at all, and when they called him, he didn’t answer, so they called me. Today he called me himself, at least.”

Molly feels a wave of apprehension. “Maybe he’s sick,” she says.

“Maybe.” Kate sounds dubious now. “Anyway, you know where it is and that. If you could just get her and take her home, that would be lovely. I’ll be around if John isn’t there. This meeting shouldn’t go to long. I should be home by five or quarter past, maybe.”

“Okay.” Molly twists the combination lock on the fridge shut – not that it would keep Sherlock out if he decided to take an interest in her specimens, but it’s worth trying for some security, at any rate – and rapidly calculates transit times. “I’d best get going, then,” she says.

“That’s right, you haven’t got a car,” Kate says. “I am sorry. You’re sure it’s all right?”

“I’ll make it work,” Molly promises. “And I’m actually thinking of getting a car, anyway. Looks like it would come in handy, especially these days…” She doesn’t say it, but she knows they’re both thinking it: for the past two weeks, John has got even more erratic than usual, less reliable in terms of Rosie, and less communicative, too. Molly can’t even think of the last time he called or texted her directly; most of the requests for Rosie care have come directly from Kate. She gets out of the phone call, finishes tidying away her things, then grabs her coat and purse and makes a dash for the Tube.

She’s there within the specified window for pick-up times, but she’s the last one to arrive and feels guilty. “I’m so sorry,” she apologises, stooping to say hello to her goddaughter. “Look at you, all ready to go! Thank you,” she adds, to the two workers who are waiting patiently for her to collect Rosie and go so that they can get home.

“Not a problem. We’re just glad someone came,” Maria says, a bit dryly.

Molly straightens up with a dubious Rosie in her arms. “What seems to be going on with John?” she asks curiously.

Maria and Andrea exchange a look. “If you don’t know, we certainly don’t,” Andrea says shortly. “All we know is that he hasn’t even shown up three times in the past week alone. We couldn’t reach Kate Whitney until half-past four last Tuesday. We were practically ready to call the police by that point…”

Molly suppresses her inward alarm at this. “Please don’t,” she says. “I don’t know what’s going on with John, but we’ll… we’ll get it sorted.”

This gets another exchange of looks. “Who’s ‘we’?” Maria wants to know.

“His friends. Rosie’s godparents. Her other caregivers,” Molly says firmly. “We’ll see to it that Rosie is looked after. You have my word.”

This gets her a rather half-hearted response, but it doesn’t matter. Molly carries Rosie out to the kerb, then waves down a taxi. It’s not quite right, taking a small child in one without a car seat, but at the moment she hasn’t got the energy to take a fifteen-month-old on the Tube. She gets a receipt from the driver, resolving to herself once again to make John pay her back for the ride, though the Underground from the hospital was by far the longer part of the journey, then walks down to the garden level door and rings the bell.

There is no answer. Molly waits a bit, then rings again. “Don’t worry,” she tells Rosie, though it’s as much to herself as to the child. “I’m sure he’s coming.” She shifts Rosie’s weight and Rosie makes a loud sound of protest.

John does not come. Molly considers her options, then checks the time. It’s still only quarter to five. She sighs, then carries Rosie one house over and tries Kate’s bell. There’s no one there, either. Molly sits down crossly on the front step and does her best to entertain Rosie for the time being. What the hell is going on with John, then? He’s always been a bit dodgy when it comes to parenting skills, though she doesn’t doubt his genuine love for his daughter, but Kate is right in saying that things have become dramatically worse lately.

Kate arrives ten minutes later, apologising and inviting Molly in, but Molly wants to get home, take a long shower, and make herself some supper. “You’re sure you can keep her for the evening?” she asks, feeling a bit guilty about leaving.

“Oh yes, it’s just fine,” Kate assures her. “If I don’t hear from John by seven or so, I’ll just put her to bed here. I’ve got everything she needs. Trust me, it won’t be the first time.”

Molly thinks of all the baby things she’s got at her own flat and gives a wry smile. “I know it,” she says. “Well – thanks, then. Let me know if you need a hand at all. I’m working tomorrow, but things are generally pretty flexible.”

Kate knows this already and gives her a kind smile. “Off you go, then,” she says, shooing Molly away.

She walks three long blocks to the nearest Tube stop and begins the long journey back to Lower Holloway.

***

She texts Sherlock when she gets home. Seen John lately? Is everything all right with him? He doesn’t text back right away, so she orders a curry from the place down the street and makes herself a cup of tea. In fact, Sherlock doesn’t respond until she’s in the bath she opted for over a shower, and it’s rather short when it comes:

Haven’t seen him. We haven’t had any cases. SH

Molly frowns a little. Taking a break, are you? Perhaps that would explain it. Only, John should be more available to look after Rosie if he’s having himself a staycation, then.

Sherlock’s response comes quicker this time. No. What I should have said is that he hasn’t been available to work with me lately. I haven’t heard much from him. Why do you ask? SH

Molly can feel the prickliness radiating off Sherlock’s words and knows when to back off. I just wondered, she types back. He hasn’t been very available for Rosie lately, either. It’s fine. Kate Whitney and I are looking after things. She sends this, then thinks for a minute and adds, Perhaps you should check on him? I don’t want to interfere, though. Whatever you think best.

She sees the Read receipt, but Sherlock doesn’t answer. Well: she’s done her bit, anyway. Meanwhile, she’ll just go on being there for her goddaughter, regardless of whatever is going on with John. He’s someone she’s never really understood, honestly. He just appeared with Sherlock one day out of the blue, and from that time on, he was there all the time. She was jealous at first – well, maybe that never really stopped, Molly reasons with herself. John immediately managed to occupy a place in Sherlock’s life that was seemingly closed to her, getting closer to him within a few weeks than she’s ever managed. Things have shifted, though; she’s got her own place in Sherlock’s life. She knows that he values her, but it’s in a very different way from how she’s fairly certain he feels about John. It’s okay. Or it is now, at least.

But John himself is still a puzzle in many ways. With Sherlock, he’d retort and never hesitate to pull Sherlock up short when he said or did something that was out of line, but he’d also laugh in a way that Molly’s never seen him laugh with anyone else before, either. Sometimes he’d cuss Sherlock out over something, only for Sherlock to quip back with a side-eyed smirk and John would throw his head back and shout with laughter, Sherlock’s lower laugh joining in – Sherlock laughing in a way he’s never laughed with anyone else, either. They were partners from the start, at least in those first two years. With her, John always tended to be a bit rude, a bit short, though not deliberately unkind. She was just – peripheral. He was there for Sherlock; everyone else was secondary. And when Sherlock died, or at least when everyone else thought he had, it was like John died, too. He shut himself off, fell out of touch with everyone. Greg Lestrade tried several times, she knows. Got John to come out for a pint now and then, but he always reported that John had more or less dried up on the inside. Lost most of his spark and become a shell of himself.

And then Mary came along, and just after that, Sherlock came back, and nothing was as it had been. On the surface, Sherlock and John went back to solving crimes even as Molly struggled with her engagement to Todd and trying to manage her own feelings about Sherlock being around again. But John… he never really went back to the way he had been, did he? Molly finishes the curry she picked up in favour of cooking after all and throws away the container. She pours another cup of tea and takes it to sit down on the sofa, switching on the telly. John seemed happy enough with Mary, but he never laughed that way with her, never countered anything she said with that old fire in his eyes. He was polite and – well, stilted, now that she thinks about it. She knows there was some trouble between them after the wedding, but no one’s ever told her much about it. Mary just said that they’d got separated, but that she was fairly sure it would be temporary. John was back at Baker Street, which gave Molly conflicted feelings. On the one hand, it was nice to think of John back there again, keeping Sherlock company as he healed from whoever shot him, yet John was newly married, with Mary expecting a baby, and he wasn’t there for any of it. Molly had felt rather indignant on Mary’s part. But he did go back, eventually. Six months later. And then Rosie had been born and the restless look Molly had seen on his face ever since Sherlock’s return became much more frequent. He just didn’t seem to be fully engaged in any of it – not his marriage, not parenting his child, not solving crimes with Sherlock – none of it. He went through the motions, said and did all the right things, but it never seemed like his heart was really in it.

And then, after all that, Mary died, saving Sherlock’s life in the process, and everything fell apart. John had called and said he needed some help with Rosie, two days which turned into two weeks. Molly had had to take some vacation days just to make it all work, but it was important. Rosie is her godchild and she’d just lost her mother. It was good for her, too, giving her something to do through the shock of Mary’s death. When there’s a baby, there’s always something to do. John drank a little too much – that, she knows, because Kate said something vaguely worried-sounding about it, though Molly’s never known the details. There was that whole business with Sherlock’s sister, but then after that, Molly thought that things had more or less settled into a better place again, for John. She’s got no idea what’s happened now to change this, but it’s a bit distressing. Just when things had taken a turn for the better.

***

Sherlock comes into her lab three days later, in a hurry and on his own. “Need your mass spectrometer,” he says without preamble, his tone clipped. “A life may depend on it, so please tell me it’s not currently in use!”

“It’s not,” Molly says, slightly taken aback by this abrupt beginning. She waves toward the large machine on the other side of the room. “It’s all yours. Help yourself.”

“Thanks.” He’s still curt, moving swiftly toward it, hands already busy with the sample he’s pulling from his coat pocket.

Molly watches him, not bothering him as he gets whatever it is into a proper test tube and slotted into the machine, punching in parameters. She’s got a cadaver open on the table in front of her (John Doe, found in a park), but Sherlock’s presence is a distraction. She goes on after a moment, taking a sample of bile from the gall bladder. Once the mass spectrometer has begun to whir, Sherlock doesn’t move, standing there and watching it intently. She knows that he’ll know, based on whatever the sample is, about how long to expect it to take, so she decides not to suggest he sit down to wait or something. “Hello, by the way,” she offers, more to break the silence than anything else.

Sherlock makes a noncommittal sound, but doesn’t move, facing away from her as he stares at the machine.

It occurs to Molly that his back and shoulders look rather rigid, even through the tailored coat. She hesitates, not wanting to presume, but then, that’s never really held her back before, has it? “Is everything all right?” she ventures.

Sherlock is silent for a long moment. Then he crosses his arms, drumming the fingers of his left hand against his upper right arm. “Not for the life I’m attempting to save,” he says shortly.

“I meant with you,” Molly says quietly, though she suspects he already knew that.

“No time for a heart-to-heart, I’m afraid,” Sherlock says, almost brutally brusque. “I need a result and then I need to get back to Lambeth as quickly as humanly possible.”

Molly nods toward the machine, though he can’t see her. “What are you testing, there?”

“It’s soil.” Sherlock still isn’t looking at her.

Molly wonders but knows better than to ask how the results of a soil sample could save a life. “Soil could take up to half an hour,” she says, though he must know this. Half of England’s dirt has been run through her mass spec by this point.

Sherlock sighs deeply and finally turns around. “What?” he fires at her. “Why do you need to know how I am?” He underscores the last three words as though they’re both loathsome and utterly ridiculous.

She hasn’t seen him this snappish or brittle in ages. “No need to take my head off,” she says mildly. “I’m just asking, as your friend. You seem a bit… tense. And I sort of wondered why John’s not helping you on this one, if it’s so important.”

Sherlock exhales again, then shoves both hands in his pockets and abruptly sits down on one of the stools by the counter, as though the act of keeping himself so rigidly focused is suddenly too draining. “I haven’t seen him in two weeks, all right? He hasn’t been returning my messages.”

Molly frowns. “At all?”

Sherlock shakes his head, looking away, his heel tapping restlessly against the lower bar of the stool. “At first it was single-word answers, but then he stopped answering at all. I’ll tell him there’s a case, ask if he can come, and I’ll see that he’s read it but then he just… won’t respond. I’ll ask again a bit later, from the crime scene, and the same thing happens. Or he’ll just say ‘can’t’ and leave it at that, ignore any attempt on my part to ask why.”

He looks miserable and Molly’s heart goes out to him. “Oh no,” she says. “What’s happened, then? I mean, I thought that something must have, but – have you two fallen out or something?”

Sherlock shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. The last time I saw him was two weeks ago, at another case… Things had been – I don’t know. Not great, but… all right. Stable enough. But then we had an ugly case where an abused wife murdered the husband with their nine-year-old child there in the house, then committed suicide in the bath with the girl just down the corridor. The wife had been abusive to the child, too. It wasn’t pleasant, and John… was odd about the whole thing.”

“Odd? How so?” Molly asks, feeling curious. The case sounds brutal.

He shrugs again, searching for the right words. “Just… he was somewhat obtuse about the entire subject. He couldn’t seem to recognise the signs of the abuse, which were unmistakeably clear. I don’t just mean to me – Lestrade, Donovan, even the neighbours seemed to have an inkling that something was rather off with the entire situation. John didn’t, though, and he got… I don’t know. Defensive, almost to the point of belligerence, over not seeing it. Donovan pushed it pretty hard, and I just…” he trails off. There’s obviously more that he’s thinking and not saying, but eventually he just says, “Either way, that’s the last time I saw him, when that case finished. It seems to have had some sort of rather bad effect on him and I don’t know how to respond to it. How to get him to talk to me again. I thought… I thought we’d moved past that. That things were all right again. Or – better, at least.”

He finishes and lets out the rest of his breath, looking both deflated and defeated, and his scowl is somehow far sadder than it is angry. “Wow,” Molly says, not sure what else to say. “That does sound rough. I do think that something must be wrong, with him, I mean. He’s forgotten to pick Rosie up from daycare more than once in the past couple of weeks, and Kate Whitney’s had her more often than not, recently. I’m on for tomorrow, since it’s Saturday and I’m free. John’s not usually at a clinic on Saturday, but he asked Kate to take her, and Kate can’t, so she’s asked me. I don’t mind, but I do wonder why he’s been so… unavailable, lately.” Molly hesitates, knowing how dangerous it is to criticise John Watson to Sherlock in particular, but it’s got to be said. “I just hope he’s okay,” she adds, trying to justify what she’s said.

Sherlock is looking at her from beneath his curls, his shoulders slumped forward. “He hasn’t been picking Rosie up? Do you just mean that he’s been late, or… not at all?”

“Not by the end of the pick-up window, at any rate,” Molly tells him, wincing a little. “I went one day when Kate couldn’t, and they told me they almost called the police. That’s the last thing any of us wants, so – we’ll make sure she’s taken care of, Sherlock. Don’t worry about that. I am worried about John, though.”

Sherlock’s face crumples, the mask failing completely. “How can I reach out to him if he won’t even talk to me?” he asks, sounding beyond desolate.

Molly’s heart gives a pang for him. She shakes her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know. Keep trying, though.”

Sherlock opens his mouth to respond, but just then the mass spectrometer beeps. He leaps to his feet, rushing over to the machine to collect the results. “Good. Good,” he says, more to the soil sample or the mass spec itself. “That’s what I needed! Sorry, Molly, got to dash. Er – thank you, though. For looking after Rosie. We’ll – somehow we’ll get this sorted. But I’ve got to go!”

“Go,” Molly says simply, waving him away, and he’s gone within seconds. She looks down at the cadaver in front of her. “I’m sorry, Mr Doe,” she says. “I’ve neglected you awfully. Let’s finish up, shall we?”

***

The next morning, Molly knocks at the garden door to John’s flat. She still thinks of it more as Mary’s than John’s, she realises: John’s home is still Baker Street in her mind. Probably in his mind, too, which was likely part of the problem of the entire marriage right there. To her relief, he comes and lets her in at her second knock.

Molly has to work hard to hide her dismay at his appearance: John looks utterly dishevelled, as though he hasn’t shaved, bathed, or possibly changed his clothes in days, and a scent of stale alcohol is hanging off him like a heavy cloud.

He squints at her as though he hasn’t seen daylight in a long time. “Er, Molly, hi,” he says, disoriented. He seems at a loss. “What… er… what can I do for you?”

“I’m here to pick up Rosie?” Molly says, an edge of reminder to her tone. Has he forgotten?

He rubs his eyes. “Oh. Right. Yeah. I forgot who was coming. Sorry.” He backs away from the door, though it seems less to let her in than to get out of the direct light. He waves vaguely toward Rosie’s room, where Molly can hear her crying. “Go on, then.”

Molly frowns and starts into the flat. It’s in dreadful condition. There aren’t any lights on, so it’s dim, but not enough so that she can’t see how dirty it is. There are used plates and cups sitting here and there, on the coffee table and on top of the telly, a pizza box sitting open on the floor with a half-eaten pizza inside. The smell grows stronger as she passes the kitchen, as though the bins haven’t been taken out in over a week. More alarming than the smell are the empty bottles and glasses here and there. It’s not that many, but it’s enough. From her quick, discreet glance, she can see two empty vodka bottles, at least two dozen empty beer bottles, and a mostly-empty bottle of very cheap whiskey. There’s a beer bottle lying on its side in the hall, a stale, yeasty-smelling puddle staining the carpet. Molly makes her way down the corridor to collect her goddaughter. Rosie is standing up in her cot when she pushes the door open to the unlit room, holding onto the bars and wailing. “Hey, hey, it’s okay, I’m here,” Molly soothes, but the state of Rosie’s room is awful, too.

She picks her way across the floor, wrinkling her nose at the smell of the overflowing nappy bin in the corner, the scent heavy and thick in the enclosed space. Rosie’s face is red and very wet; she’s clearly been crying for a long time already. Molly plucks her from the cot and holds her close, stroking her hair and making soothing sounds. She decides she’d best check Rosie’s current nappy and see what the state of things are there, so she lays Rosie on the changing table and has a look. The nappy is both wet and cold: ergo, Rosie has been wet for ages. Hours. Molly feels a strong stirring of anger that overrides her apprehensive feelings about John’s condition. “I don’t know what your father’s even thinking,” she tells Rosie crossly, getting her cleaned up and changed as quickly as she can. “I’m so sorry, lovey. We’ll get this sorted. I promise.” She changes Rosie out of the rumpled, sweaty onesie she’s got on and thinks to herself that a bath is in order, and the sooner the better. She’s brought her own nappy bag and tucks in several more from the supply under the change table, along with a few changes of clothes, then heads determinedly back into the sitting room to confront John.

He’s sitting – make that sprawling – on the sofa, his hair unkempt. The telly is on and he doesn’t take his eyes from it when he hears her return, though his head turns a little in her direction. “You got her to stop crying. Good. That’s good,” he says vaguely.

There’s a half-full bottle of beer on the coffee table and Molly wonders if it’s a current one. “Yes, I did,” she says. John doesn’t acknowledge this in any way, his face strangely empty as he takes in whatever’s on the screen in front of him. The sound is off, but the blueish light is playing across his face. “John,” Molly says sharply. “She was wet.”

He makes an indistinct sound at this. “Did you change her?”

“Yes, but she’d already been wet for awhile,” Molly says. She shifts Rosie on her hip, waiting for John to react to this some way, but he doesn’t, his expression totally impassive. “When’s the last time she ate?”

John shrugs and gestures approximately toward the kitchen. “I don’t know. Yesterday? What time is it?”

“It’s half-past ten in the morning,” Molly says, sharper still. She nods toward the beer. “Are you drunk?” she asks, angry enough to say it point-blank.

If she was expecting anger in return, she’s to be disappointed. John only shrugs again. “Maybe. Probably. I don’t know. What does it matter?”

For a moment, Molly teeters precariously on the edge of all-out rage, the likes of which she hasn’t experienced possibly ever before. It takes her a moment, but she masters herself. Later, she tells herself. Right now, the important thing is Rosie. “I’m leaving now,” she says, as calmly as she can make herself. “I’ll… be in contact later on.”

John’s eyes don’t leave the screen. “Okay,” he says, and it’s utterly apathetic.

She wants to pick up the bottle and hurl it into his face. She takes a deep breath, her entire frame trembling with anger, and shows herself out the garden door, the nappy bag on her shoulder, and her goddaughter in her arms.

***

Chapter Text

PART II

IV

 

Sherlock ignores the twenty newest requests for his investigative services and closes his laptop with force. Not a one of them is worth his time. Over half were so obvious that he solved them mentally but didn’t bother sending a response. Maybe later. What’s the point, anyway? Everything is dull and pointless without John.

It always has been, he thinks, scowling. Only before, at least, he had the bright spots of John’s presence to shape his weeks around, to give meaning to his otherwise dull existence. There was always the possibility of a case, and therefore John. The work: it was always what saved them, what brought them back together when they drifted. It’s stopped working now: John no longer comes when invited. The old magic has worn off and John is painfully absent.

Sherlock gets up and pads barefoot over to the kitchen to put the kettle on, then wonders idly if he’s eaten yet. No, he decides. Right, then: food, because he’s got to get on with the task of figuring out what to do about John. It’s been six days since he was in Molly’s lab. That was a Friday. The following day, she went to pick Rosie up and, as she later related it, found John drunk and living in filth, Rosie neglected and dirty. After much debate and consultation with Kate Whitney, a decision was made to not return Rosie to the flat. Molly and Kate went on Sunday evening to explain this to John, that they were going to take Rosie in turns for the time being in lieu of turning her over to the relevant authorities.

On Monday morning, Molly called to tell him about it. “It wasn’t safe for her, Sherlock. She’s just a baby, and he wasn’t taking care of her.”

Sherlock felt a flare of anger. “Rosie has two other godparents,” he said stiffly. “Why wasn’t I consulted? You’re not the only one with a responsibility for her.”

“I know that, but I didn’t want to drag you into it,” Molly said, sounding distressed. “I thought – I didn’t want it to compromise your friendship with John. It’s why we didn’t bring Mrs Hudson in, either.”

Sherlock had stared blankly across from himself at John’s empty chair. “I understand,” he said slowly. “I’m sure you acted as your conscience dictated.” He hesitated. “Was he upset?”

“Yes.” Molly paused, clearly choosing her words with care. “There was… a fair bit of shouting, actually. But Kate explained that the daycare would call Child Protection in if we didn’t do something, and he seemed to back down after that. And as far as Rosie is concerned, I had her looked over by someone at Bart’s. She’s fine. She was a little dehydrated and hungry, not to mention in desperate need of a bath, but otherwise fine. No lasting damage at all.”

Sherlock felt heavy at the word damage. “I see,” he said. “Thank you for not turning Rosie over to Child Protection. I appreciate it. And – for your tact, as well.”

He’d hung up then, filled with foreboding and worry for John above all. For John to be drunk at half-past ten in the morning, depressed – at least per Molly’s description of the scene – to the point of not being capable of looking after himself or his daughter, then something must be very wrong, indeed. Sherlock feels certain that it must be the Harris and Elizabeth Mills murder-suicide case that triggered this downward spiral, but he’s not quite sure why or how. After Molly’s call, he tried texting John again, just a short/simple Are you all right? But of course, John failed to respond yet again.

It’s Tuesday now, nearly noon, and Sherlock knows with some certainty that the time has come to take decisive action. Molly’s unspoken indication was that she and Kate Whitney had taken responsibility for Rosie, but the problem of John himself was not one they were planning to take on. He supposes now that it must seem obvious to everyone else involved that this should fall to him. And he would agree. John is his responsibility, whether or not John wants him to assume it. Every decision he has made since the day he leapt from the roof St. Bart’s has been made for John’s sake above all else.

Prior to Molly’s call, he’d thought that it was only him that John was avoiding, and was miserable over it. Clearly the situation is far worse than that, which is oddly comforting in terms of it not being strictly about him, but it’s the sole piece of comfort, because the problem is thereby much larger than he realised. He’ll go over there, Sherlock thinks, though this thought is immediately followed by a wave of self-doubt. Go over there and say what? Do what? History has made it amply clear that Sherlock does not possess the requisite skills to cope with John when John wants to be left alone. Yet he cannot be left alone. That much has also become more than abundantly clear. Sherlock sits down at the kitchen table to eat the toast he’s made for himself and has a long think concerning strategy. If John is drunk, he cannot be reasoned with. In that case, he’ll do whatever it takes to get John back to Baker Street to dry out, then do his best once John is in a fit condition. Whatever happens, the end game is to bring John back from his bleak, beige flat and find some way to pull him out of the pit he seems to have fallen into.

The mental image of the pit reminds Sherlock of the well at Musgrave Hall and he feels a shiver crawl down his spine. It cannot be forgotten that John has suffered considerable trauma over the course of his life, a factor which has only increased in recent years, rather than decreased. When they first met, John was struggling to find a purpose to his existence, trapped in bleak poverty and his post-traumatic war nightmares. Things got better there, but then Sherlock was obliged to force John to watch him jump, falsify his own death so that the snipers watching him in turn would see him mourn, see him believe Sherlock to be dead, and allow him to live. He lived, but he suffered. Sherlock thinks about this, swallowing the last of his toast without tasting it, the bread turning doughy and flavourless in his mouth. John grieved deeply and intensely – was still grieving two years later when Sherlock returned.

And then Mary: Mary who pulled John from that pit before Sherlock could remedy the situation himself. Who built up John’s confidence again by asking him out, pushing for more dates, hinting and hinting until John talked himself into proposing – only to undermine it by constantly chipping away at him. Sherlock hadn’t wanted to see it at first. He’d wanted to like Mary, if only for John’s sake, and he did, at least until she shot him. He buried his jealousy so far down that there were days when he’d all but convinced himself that it wasn’t even there, that he was happy for John. He’d wanted to believe that Mary’s sense of humour regarding John was just like his: teasing with an edge, but with warmth and a genuine value for John’s skills behind it. That they both did it in the knowledge that real, unvarnished compliments make John intensely uncomfortable, or else intensely emotional, that humour is a safer way for John to connect with others, and that he would honestly prefer jokes to genuine, direct compliments. He and John have always shared an odd and inappropriate sense of humour. It’s been part of their bond from the beginning. But Mary’s jokes… were different. Even Sherlock could see that, that there was more bite, and often little or no humour or warmth behind it at all. More importantly, he could see the way John would react to it – scowling, getting angry, lashing back, but never enough to get himself into the doghouse with Mary – her warning looks ensured that. But worse than his anger was the way John would actually flinch sometimes when Mary said something to him, something designed to get under his skin and fester. Sometimes he would retort dryly – Sherlock remembers his Is it too soon for a divorce rather keenly – but more often than not, he received whatever Mary said with grim stoicism, a mere tightening of his jaw and averted eyes. Shame, Sherlock realises now, with the perfect clarity of hindsight. The thought makes him angry. No one should have ever made John Watson, of all people, feel shame about anything that he is or does.

He’d hoped very much that, in light of Mary’s sudden and rather tragic death, John would be able to remember her with fondness and let the rest of it fade into the oblivion of nostalgia. He’d frankly hoped that he wouldn’t see the parallel between Harris and Elizabeth Mills, make the connection to his own relationship with Mary. Even more, Sherlock had wanted rather desperately for John to utterly forget that day at Culverton Smith’s hospital morgue, fail to connect his own behaviour with that of either Harris or Elizabeth Mills. But Donovan just kept at it, reading out definitions of gaslighting and abuse from her phone until Sherlock had wanted to rip it from her stupid, blundering hands and hurl it into the street. John is not the most perceptive person in the world, least of all when it comes to himself, but he’s also far from being an idiot. And if this is somehow responsible for his recent lapse, then Sherlock feels utterly helpless to find anything to say about it that could possibly help, particularly considering that he was the one on the receiving end of John’s behaviour. (Even mentally, Sherlock balks at the use of the word abuse, uncomfortably aware though he is of its valid application here.)

Part of him wants to ask Ella again, I need to know what to do about John. Ella Thompson is probably the only person alive who genuinely understands John. He knows that she would tell him that they’ve got to work this out by themselves, that communication is the first and necessary step here, but how is he supposed to communicate with someone who won’t respond to him? He fired this question at her before, too, only to have Ella shrug and tell him gently that one cannot force anyone else to communicate, to be in relationship if they don’t want to be. She did talk a little bit, as far as she felt her professional confidentiality would permit, about John’s pre-existing trust issues, as well as the two years of grief he’d endured over Sherlock’s supposed death. Sherlock is wincingly aware of how much worse those two years must have made these trust issues, not to mention other aspects of his past treatment of John. And then John married someone who lied to him about everything from her name on up, who left him with their infant child, who shot the man he was still grieving when they met, who left him in a rather permanent way by choosing to die in the way that she did. And then, just after all that had happened, John nearly died several times at the hands of Sherlock’s own sister, which cannot have possibly helped his cause much. John still has nightmares about the well. Sherlock knows this.

And now he’s trapped in a different sort of a well. Sherlock gets abruptly to his feet. Obviously it’s on him to save John. It’s what they do. It might as well be the sole purpose to his existence.

It doesn’t matter that he’s got no idea what to say. He simply has to get to John. Sherlock puts on his coat and leaves the flat.

***

He rings the bell a third time, and John still doesn’t come. Somehow Sherlock feels very sure that John is in there, though. He hesitates, then takes out his keys and selects the correct one. It may not be the wisest choice, particularly in light of John’s manifold trust issues, to start whatever this interaction is to be with a key that John doesn’t know he borrowed and had copied. However, desperate times call for desperate measures. He unlocks the door and walks inside.

John is lying on the sofa with his back to the door, his arms and legs drawn close to himself. He looks small and utterly vulnerable, his hair sticking out in all directions, and Sherlock’s heart gives a painful twist. John does not move or react to Sherlock’s presence in any way. “Hello John,” Sherlock says quietly.

John does not move. “Go away,” he says, his voice thick, mucous membranes loose.

(Is he crying?) Sherlock swallows. “No,” he says, softly but firmly. “I’ve already left you alone for too long. I’m not leaving with you like this.”

“I don’t want to see you. I – can’t.” John’s arms tighten around his knees, his body drawing itself into an even tighter ball.

“Why not?” Sherlock asks, nearly holding his breath.

John’s head twitches in what might be a shake. “I just can’t.”

Sherlock wonders at his state of sobriety, but hesitates to ask. Then again, asking is generally the most direct way to find something out apart from basic deduction. He scans the sitting room, which is in a somewhat appalling state, but while there are numerous empty bottles and glasses sitting here or there, none of them appear to be in active use. “Are you… sober?” he asks, putting it as delicately as he can.

John takes a moment or two before responding. “I am now.” The words are thick.

“Hungover?” Sherlock chances, calculating. John doesn’t acknowledge this or deny it. “Let me get you some water.”

“I don’t want water. I just want you to go. Just – leave me alone.” The words are muffled.

I can’t,” Sherlock says, starkly honest. “I – can’t leave you like this, John. I won’t. I’m not going anywhere.” He goes into the kitchen to spare John having to respond to this, or himself from having to wait for a response to this somewhat soul-baring statement he’s just made, and finds a clean glass. The water pitcher in the fridge is half-full, so he fills the glass and carries it back into the sitting room, still apprehensive. He sets it on the coffee table, then backs away. “Do you want to talk about any of it?” he asks, wincing inwardly. John has already made it quite clear that he does not want to talk, yet his own therapy sessions with Ella have finally succeeded in convincing Sherlock that talking does, in fact, sometimes help.

“No.” The word is clipped. “I need you to leave.”

Sherlock has to actively try not to feel stung by this. This is about issues far beyond just him, he reminds himself. Still, though. It hurts nonetheless. Part of him wants to stiffly gather his dignity and honour John’s dictum to leave, but he knows with absolute certainty that if he walks out of this house now, he will never see John again. “Are we not still friends?” he asks, the words coming out somewhat more tentatively than he would have liked. “I thought that friends… were there for one another. During the bad times as well as the good. Why… don’t you want to see me?”

John appears to be struggling internally, his frame twitching as he searches for an answer to this. “It’s not about not wanting to… I just can’t, Sherlock,” he says to the back of the sofa, his voice dry.

Sherlock looks around, then sits down on one of the armchairs. “I want to understand,” he says slowly. “I hate not knowing what’s wrong. What… caused this.”

“This crash?” John isn’t even trying to hide it, which alarms Sherlock. John always has some sort of filter in place. During the awkward silence that follows, John goes on. “They took Rosie, you know. Molly and Kate. Molly came for her on Saturday, then on Sunday they came and said they’re not bringing her back here.”

“I… I know,” Sherlock says quietly. “Molly told me on Monday. I’m… sorry, John.”

“I’ve failed her. On top of everything else, I’ve failed her, too. Again.” Suddenly, John is weeping, his shoulders wracked, back convulsing as he sobs into the sofa cushions.

Alarmed, Sherlock finds himself on his feet before he realised what he was doing, crossing the room to John in four large steps. He pushes the clutter on the coffee table aside and sits down on it, reaching forward to touch John’s shoulder. “You haven’t,” he says, but John interrupts him, flinching away from his touch.

“Don’t – you can’t – I can’t – ” He isn’t making sense, but Sherlock abruptly withdraws his hand, wincing.

“I’m – sorry,” he says jerkily. “I – ” He stops, not knowing where to start, what to address first. He decides to go back to the subject of Rosie. “You haven’t failed her. You just – need some help right now. That’s all. We all need help sometimes.”

“I was neglecting her, Sherlock,” John says miserably. “I was. You can’t deny that. I used to think I was a halfway decent person, but I’m not. I’m not. I’m – something else entirely. You can’t deny it. You know that.”

Sherlock wishes John would turn around so that he could see his face. “What do I know?” he asks.

John’s shoulders move helplessly. “What I am. I’m a monster. You know it’s true. You keep trying to look the other way, but you know it is. It’s textbook, Sherlock: the cycle.”

“What cycle?” Sherlock suspects he knows, but has to ask.

“The – abuse cycle.” John crunches in on himself even further. “The marriage. Mary. How she was to me, and I didn’t even – I thought it was normal. Just what all marriages are like. And I just – turned it on everyone around me.”

It was the Mills case, then. Sherlock feels himself frowning, frustratingly uncertain as to what to say to address this. “We all have our issues,” he says slowly. “And I’ve – contributed significantly to yours. I’ve left you out. Abandoned you. Made you watch my supposed suicide and let you think I was dead for two years, and never found a way to tell you why. I know that can’t have helped.” He pauses. “In fact… I’d like to tell you now, if you want to hear it.” John seems to be thinking this over, so Sherlock adds, his voice low, “In truth, I’ve wanted to tell you for a long time now. Ella said I should. I just – couldn’t seem to find a way to bring it up. I didn’t want to rock the boat.”

John’s ears seem to prick up. “Ella?” he repeats. He looks back over his shoulder at last, frown lines between his eyes. “Ella Thompson?”

His face is red and blotchy, his eyes deeply shadowed, the bags beneath them full, but Sherlock is so relieved to see his face that he can barely contain it. He nods, his eyes on what he can see of John’s. “I’ve been seeing her since just after Mary’s death, if you want to know. As I said, we all need help sometimes.”

John’s face clouds over again. “Because of me,” he says.

Sherlock doesn’t understand. “What?”

John turns his face back toward the sofa. “You were seeing her because of me,” he repeats dully. “Because I blamed you for Mary’s death. Because I wouldn’t see you.”

Sherlock hesitates. “Because I needed to know how to reach you,” he says quietly. “Because I needed to find a way to save you. I knew it was my fault.”

“It wasn’t!” The words come out with something akin to violence. “It wasn’t, Sherlock – that’s just what I mean! That’s another thing I never should have done to you!”

“John – ” Sherlock can hear himself pleading. “Please – let me explain. Let me start with that day at Bart’s Hospital. I need you to understand, at last. Would you… would you let me tell you what happened that day? I just – I feel that too many years have gone by without us understanding one another. Without really communicating properly. I’d like that to change, starting now. There’s been too much left unsaid, and it’s made everything worse. I’ve had a hand in everything that’s brought you to this, and I want to… to do better. If you’ll let me. I don’t want there to be any more secrets, any more lies.”

John’s head turns toward Sherlock a little at this, but not far enough to look at him. His profile is wary. “I don’t know that I particularly need to live through that day again,” he says, his voice dry. “But in light of what I’ve done to you, I don’t know that I have any right to refuse anything you want to say to me now.”

This is not where Sherlock was hoping John would go with that, but it’s still an opening. “Listen,” he says intensely. “Moriarty had me cornered. I didn’t know which direction he would go. I projected any number of his potential movements and my potential solutions to them, but I couldn’t know where he would go. He was always one step ahead. I didn’t want to involve you because he’d already targeted you at least once before and I was trying to circumvent that. I should have known better.”

John turns over at last, focused intently on his words. “Why?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “Because he always knew the best way to get to me. You heard him say it: he wanted to ‘burn the heart out of me’. He knew that was you.” John’s eyes are incredibly intense, locked to his. Sherlock clears his throat. “He went two steps further this time: he targeted you, Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade. The three people closest to me. In that order. He had snipers on all of you. The deal was that they had to see me jump, or else the three of you would die. And only Moriarty could call them off. He shot himself just to prevent that, and I was left with no option.”

John’s mouth falls open. “What – Sherlock – ”

Sherlock clears his throat again, his hands clasped loosely together between his knees. “I had no way of knowing how long the snipers would watch each of you – how long after my supposed death. So I felt I shouldn’t tell any of you. The only people who could know were you three specifically. That’s why – it wasn’t because you weren’t important enough. It was because you were far too important to me. The first thing I did after that day was track down the snipers, with my brother’s help. But those snipers led to others, and others after that. I realised that I was going to have to take down all of Moriarty’s organisation, if only to ensure that the plan was not still active. It took me far longer than I had hoped. I thought it might be a few weeks. Instead, it was two years. I’m sorry, John. I’m sorry it took me so long to be able to tell you that it wasn’t real. I’m sorry for your pain. For how long you grieved.”

John swallows hard. “Sherlock,” he begins, his voice choked. “Why didn’t you tell me? After you got back, I mean.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “I don’t know. I should have. It just… it never seemed like the right time. I did all of it so badly, the way I came back. I didn’t think it through enough. I just… wanted to see you again. I should have planned it better.”

John’s eyes are so full of emotion that it almost hurts to see. “I wish it had happened with just the two of us,” he says, his throat still tight.

Sherlock nods. “Me too,” he says. “Mary being there didn’t help.”

“No.” John exhales deeply. “God, I wish I had known this a long time ago.”

Sherlock hesitates. “Would it have changed anything?” This is getting dangerously close to forbidden territory.

John doesn’t look away. “I don’t know. Maybe.” His gaze drops then, his fingers pulling at the fabric of the sofa cushion. “Maybe it’s just as well, given… the person it seems I really am at heart.”

“What?” Sherlock frowns. “That’s ridiculous. You’re the best person I’ve ever known.”

“I’m not!” Suddenly John is furious. “How can you even say that, Sh – you know what I’ve done!”

Sherlock is startled by the violence of it, his heart rate accelerating unpleasantly. “What have you done?” he asks, not really wanting to hear John’s answer.

“I – ” John is agonised. He turns forward, hiding his face with his arm. “I took out all of my frustration over Mary on you. I beat you – you were weeks away from death, Molly said, and I – I can’t forget it, ever, the blood dripping from your face, the – feeling of my foot hitting your ribs – ” He chokes and makes a sound very like a gag, his back heaving, face pressed into the sofa fabric.

Sherlock is having difficulty breathing; he doesn’t know what to say to this. “John – I don’t care,” he tries, his heart pounding. “I don’t care at all. It’s – it’s over. It was what it was, but it’s long over now.”

John is weeping again. “It was unforgiveable. After everything you’ve done for me – and now that I know that you were saving me yet again, and I used it to accuse you of being a liar, when I never even held Mary accountable for it, when she never deserved my trust or forgiveness, and you – ”

He can’t go on, crying too hard to speak over his own, jumbled words. Sherlock knows that he shouldn’t ask, shouldn’t press, but he can’t help it. “What about me?” he asks, his voice low.

An odd stillness comes over John, the tears receding. For a long time, he doesn’t speak or move. “You wanted no more secrets or lies,” he says at last, his arm still shielding his face. “Here’s the truth, then: you’re the one person I’ve loved most in all my life. That’s the truth. And I just about fucking killed you that day. I can’t even tell you how excruciating it is to have you even look at me now, knowing that.”

Shock reverberates through Sherlock’s frame – shock edged in something that would be incredulous joy, if he let himself feel it, and if it weren’t for the rest of John’s troubling words. It’s far too premature for joy. He takes a deep breath, composing himself and scrambling after an adequate response to this enormous statement. “John…” His voice is not quite steady, but that can’t be helped. “You’re… you’re the person I’ve loved the most, too. The only person I’ve really loved. Everything I’ve done for the past several years has been for your sake. I can see in retrospect how so many of my choices have made you feel… unimportant. Left out. Disregarded while I pursued something else. But that’s the truth of it. I never would have told you. I didn’t want to – to burden you with it, as I thought it was entirely one-sided. As for that day at the hospital… I’ve long forgotten it. Forgiven it. Put it down to you going through hell, hell that I helped create.” He hesitates. “We’ve both made mistakes. But you’re not a monster. Just – human.”

John shakes his head into the sofa. “I don’t deserve you. I don’t deserve your forgiveness, and I’ll never forgive myself.”

“John – please!” Sherlock hears himself, nearly begging. “Would you just – look at me?”

John makes a sound of negation. “I’m not even capable of holding myself upright, Sherlock. I’m a worm. Beyond dignity. Beyond forgiveness and beyond salvation.”

Sherlock makes a decision. “Nonsense,” he says, his voice as tender as he can make it. “If you can’t hold yourself up, then let me help. Let me hold you up – just for now.” He waits for John’s denial, but it doesn’t come, so he bends forward and lifts John’s upper body, transferring himself from the coffee table onto the sofa, John cradled in his arms. John doesn’t resist in any way, his face pressed into Sherlock’s shirt, his left fist curled loosely against Sherlock’s chest, his body limp but accepting. Sherlock holds him in a way he never dared allow himself to even imagine, bent over him, his right hand stroking over John’s hair. “It’s going to be all right,” he says, realising even as he says it that he’s speaking to both of them. “It’s going to be all right.”

John’s eyes are wetting his shirt. “This isn’t how I wanted this to happen,” he says after awhile, his voice thick.

“I know. Me neither. But at least it’s happening at last,” Sherlock tells him.

John tips his head back and looks up at him. “How can you possibly forgive me?” he asks starkly.

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say to this. “I don’t know. I just know that I can. I already have. I don’t care what any therapist has to say about it. I don’t care about the shoulds and shouldn’ts of how I’m supposed to feel or not feel. All I care about is you. I don’t care that you’ve been drinking. I don’t care about you not feeling up to taking care of Rosie. None of that matters to me one bit. Only you.”

John swallows. “I don’t deserve you,” he says hoarsely.

“I don’t deserve you, either,” Sherlock tells him, looking down into his face. “Yet here we are.”

John blinks once or twice. “Did you mean it when you said you loved me?”

Sherlock nods. “Did I sound as though I didn’t?” It makes him feel exposed and vulnerable, speaking about it so openly, but he knows that now, more than ever, his honesty is of utmost importance.

John pauses, thinking this over. “‘Loved’, as in the past, or…?”

Sherlock demurs, his voice low. “Very much present,” he assures John.

John hesitates a moment longer, then reaches up to touch his face. Sherlock lets him have it, bending over him to look into his eyes. John pulls Sherlock’s face down and their mouths meet. It’s poignantly sweet for Sherlock – his first kiss that’s ever meant anything to him, despite being tinged with the salt of John’s tears, with John’s bone-deep sorrow and pain, and his own painfully awkward vulnerability. Nonetheless, it’s exquisite. He cradles John’s face with the hand not holding him up, his thumb pressing into John’s cheekbone, and savours every precious second of it. When their mouths part again, John surges upward and onto his knees facing Sherlock, having drawn strength from the kiss, perhaps. He puts his arms around Sherlock’s shoulders, hugging him tightly. “I love you,” he says, his voice as tight as his arms. “This isn’t how this was supposed to happen. But I love you.”

Sherlock closes his eyes and lets the words drown him. “I love you, too,” he says, his voice coming out unrecognisably emotional. “And I don’t give a damn how it came about. Just that it did. None of the rest of it matters at all.”

John’s breath heaves and shudders in his back. “You can’t possibly still want me, after all the rest of it. Me getting married. Mary shooting you. Me going back to her, even after – then what you did for me, with Magnussen. Trying to spare me Mary’s past. Having a kid with her, after all that. And then me blaming you, cutting you off. The – morgue that day. I don’t know how you could possibly still want me.”

Sherlock’s eyes are still closed. “The how doesn’t matter. The fact is that I do. Immensely. Unstoppably. Unchangeably.”

John’s arms tighten even more. “Me too,” he swears, his voice fierce. “God, Sherlock, if you only even knew how much – ”

“I’m – rather desperate to hear you say it,” Sherlock admits, his own dignity abandoned. “I never thought I would – ever!”

John pulls back and looks him in the eye, his face as serious as Sherlock’s ever seen it. “Then I’ll – I’ll work on making myself put it into words,” he vows. “You know I’m shit at this – but I promise you, Sherlock – I’ll try, damn it. You’re the most important person to have ever come into my life. I’d be – I am so lost without you!”

“Then don’t be without me,” Sherlock says. “Obvious solution, really.”

John laughs suddenly, the sound surprising both of them. “Okay,” he says, then takes Sherlock’s face and kisses him again, much longer this time, and it’s bliss. The joy Sherlock has been attempting to hold back breaks free of its bonds and floods his being as he fumblingly kisses back to the best of his ability, his arms still tight around John’s back. Eventually the kiss subsides and John leans his forehead into Sherlock’s, his eyes closed. “Please, please, please take me out of this hellhole,” he says, his breath warm on Sherlock’s face. It doesn’t matter that it smells of stale whiskey, just as his mouth tastes. It doesn’t matter at all. “I just want to come home at last.”

Sherlock feels his feelings for John swim through his veins like heroin. “I have no intention of leaving here without you. Let’s go right now.”

He hears and feels John’s huff of laughter, mere breath. “Okay,” he says.

***

Chapter Text

V

 

If the stakes were any lower, Sherlock would almost feel triumphant as he leads John by the hand back into the Baker Street sitting room, but the situation is far too precarious for that. They packed John a suitcase, nothing more. Nothing of Rosie’s. (“Later,” Sherlock said vaguely, stuffing the shirts John placed on the unmade bed into the small case, trying to make good on his claim to take John away immediately.) As it is, they enter the sitting room and into a large and apprehensive blank, a question mark that neither of them knows how to address.

John lets his hand fall from Sherlock’s. “I’ll, er, just take this… upstairs,” he says, meaning to his old bedroom.

Sherlock understands instantly that this is right, that this is where John should re-establish himself. At least at first. He nods. “Yes. All right. Make yourself at home. If you want to unpack, take your time. Or use the shower…” He stops. John does need to bathe, but perhaps it’s less than tactful to say so. “Whatever you like,” he says instead, feeling lost.

John nods, though. “Yeah. No, yeah, that’s a good… I’ll just take a quick one, maybe. Get myself sorted.”

Sherlock feels relieved. “No rush,” he says. “I’ll… put the kettle on, meanwhile.”

“Okay,” John says simply, and takes his things upstairs.

Sherlock looks around the flat, then flies into action, galvanised by the surprise of his success in getting John back here. What needs disposing of, or at least hiding? The alcohol: definitely. Sherlock locates a half-empty bottle of whiskey (gift from a grateful client) and another of crème de cacao that Mrs Hudson once gave them, as well as a dusty bottle or two of red wine. He considers, then stows all of it behind a box on the bottom shelf of the pantry. Perhaps later, he’ll relocate them to Mrs Hudson’s flat entirely.

He fills and plugs in the kettle as John comes back downstairs and heads in the direction of the bathroom, then goes to stand in front of the mantle where he’s got a framed photo of Rosie that Mary gave him just after her first birthday. He puts his hands on his hips and debates intensely. Should he remove it? Will the sight of it give John pain? A daily reminder that Rosie is not with him for the time being? Or would removing it hurt John further still, make him think that Sherlock considers the photo (and thereby the child) unimportant? Eventually he decides to leave it where it is. Hearing John’s step in the corridor, he moves hastily back into the kitchen under the pretext of finding a couple of mugs. “Earl Grey?” he calls, as though everything is completely normal between them.

John comes into sight, leaning in the doorway of the kitchen, his hair tousled and damp, wearing different clothes. “Okay,” he says.

He seems equally unsure of what to do with himself. Sherlock clears his throat surreptitiously and busies his hands with the simple task of making a pot of tea. Perhaps he should give John something to do. “I think there’s milk,” he says, in lieu of giving a directive. In fact, he knows there is; he bought it only last night.

John takes this bait and makes for the fridge. “Let’s have a look.” He opens the fridge and brings it out. “You must have just bought this,” he says, sounding impressed. “It’s not even open yet.”

“Ah,” Sherlock says, as though just remembering. “Yes. I must have picked it up when I went out last night. I was out of pretty much everything.”

“Looks like you’re pretty well stocked,” John says, then pauses. “That – we’re, I should have s – sorry. Sorry. I don’t know what I’m…”

Sherlock looks up at him quickly, fitting the lid onto the teapot. “It’s okay,” he says. “Me neither.”

John gives a rueful smile then, and nods toward the mugs. “Sitting room, then?”

Sherlock smiles back, though it’s a bit tentative. “Yes. All right. Sofa?”

“Sofa,” John agrees, picking up the mugs and the milk, so Sherlock follows him through with the tea and the pot of sugar.

“Are you hungry?” Sherlock asks as they sit down, arranging themselves carefully. Not too close, not too far. “I’ve no idea what time it is, in fact…”

John checks his watch. “It’s not quite four. I don’t think I’ve eaten yet today. You?”

“I had some toast awhile back,” Sherlock says. “I’m not sure when that was. I could eat.”

John looks down at himself as though appraising the situation. “I haven’t even thought about food in – too long. Yeah. I could eat. Actually… that’s a pretty appealing thought. Chinese?”

“Just what I was going to suggest.” Sherlock gives him another quick smile. “What should we get?”

The safety of the selection process, old and familiar as their very acquaintance, makes for safe conversational grounds. Tomorrow, or some other time in the future, they can start sorting out the nuts and bolts of this, Sherlock thinks vaguely. The food comes, and its quality and tangible comfort solidifies this sense of safe haven. Sherlock observes John as they eat, as minutely, yet discreetly as he can manage, and thinks that John seems exhausted. The incredibly heightened tension of their confrontation, regardless of how generally well it ended, has nonetheless taken its toll. Sherlock decides inwardly that it would likely be for the best to keep things as calm as possible while John finds his footing again. He cannot push John in any way – neither to advance whatever this brand new relationship between them is, nor to solve the situation with his daughter, nor even to seek further therapy for his referenced cycle of abuse issues. He needs time to just be, Sherlock thinks. To restore himself. To heal, perhaps.

As evening gathers in the flat, John moves little and says little, sitting there a few feet away from Sherlock on the sofa. Sherlock gets up every so often – to tidy away the remains of their meal, to switch on the television, to put the kettle on again. John only stirs to take himself to the bathroom, then comes back to the sofa. Sherlock carefully refrains from commenting on any of this, keeping any and all observations to himself. “Shall we watch the news?” he suggests, wanting to steer clear of any sort of emotional dramas or comedy that would feel incongruously out of place in light of their current circumstance.

John agrees. “Okay.” His voice is neutral, though fatigue is bleeding into it.

Sherlock gives him a quick, diagnostic look as he switches the channel. He wants to ask if John is all right, but knows better. Besides, he already knows the answer. He sets the remote control between them, in case John wants to adjust the volume, and puts his hands in his lap. They watch the news, which is dull enough, Sherlock far more aware of John than he is of the bland-faced news anchors reading from their teleprompters like robots. When the programme ends, he reaches over and lowers the volume. “I think I may turn in,” he says, with as little inflection as possible. “It’s been – quite a day.”

John nods. “Bit of an understatement, yeah.”

Sherlock switches off the television. He gets up, hesitates, then holds out his hand. John still seems numb, all the strength drained from his limbs.

John looks at his hand, then takes it and lets Sherlock pull him to his feet.

His very delay makes Sherlock think that the way John was kissing him earlier must have stemmed more from sheer relief than any actual readiness to begin this. And that’s all right, he tells himself. All in due course. John’s health, on every level, is far more important. “Good night,” he says, with a cautious smile, then makes himself turn and make for the corridor leading to his bedroom, lest John think that any invitation or pressure is being implied. John says his name before he reaches the room. Sherlock turns, raising an eyebrow in question. “Yes?”

John comes closer, not stopping until he’s right in front of Sherlock. Sherlock’s heart irrationally begins to thud in his chest, not knowing what to expect. John looks up into his face, his mouth opening a little, as though searching for words. Then he leans forward and puts his arms around Sherlock’s back, hugging him. Startled but pleased, Sherlock immediately lets his own arms fold around John in turn. “Thank you,” John says tightly. “I – couldn’t have done this without you. Made myself leave. Taken that first step.”

Sherlock finds himself almost shockingly moved by this. He could deny this, but it seems in better taste to just accept the thanks. “Then I’m all the more relieved that I decided to come,” he replies, his voice low. “I always would have, you know.” John doesn’t move, so Sherlock tells himself to stop anticipating the end of the hug and just allow himself to cautiously enjoy it. He strokes a hand over the back of John’s soft hair, then follows some heretofore unknown instinct and presses his lips to the top of John’s head. “It’s good to have you home again. Get some rest.”

John nods, then finally pulls away. His eyes are wet, but he seems to be in control of himself. He searches Sherlock’s face as though trying to read it. “You too,” he says. “Good night.”

Sherlock echoes this, then stands where he is and watches John climb the stairs to his old bedroom. Only then does he take himself off to the bathroom to brush his teeth and get ready for bed. So far so good, he decides.

***

Sherlock is reading the newspapers and drinking tea when he hears John’s bedroom door open upstairs, his footsteps descending. He’s got everything prepared but hidden, just in case it won’t be welcomed. This is all such new and tenuous ground, and his utter lack of relevant experience makes him all the more apprehensive about missteps. John stops in the doorway to the kitchen, seeing him there, so Sherlock lowers the Times. “Hello,” he says, aiming for a balance between friendly and casual.

“Hi,” John says. He’s in his pyjamas and looks sleepy. “You’re already up. I’m sorry… I should have got up earlier. I didn’t set an alarm.”

He looks a bit wary and Sherlock frowns a little. “Nonsense,” he says. “We’re not on any sort of schedule. I’m sure the sleep did you well.” He pauses. “Are you hungry?”

To his slight consternation, John’s brow creases. “You’ve been waiting on me,” he states. “What time is it?”

Sherlock hesitates. “Just after noon… but it’s fine, John. Really. I’m fine. I just – didn’t want to eat without you. Or – I don’t know.” He rubs a hand over the back of his head. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he admits. “I just – thought it would be… better to wait.”

John rakes his fingers through his hair, which is messy from being slept on. “I don’t know what I’m doing, either,” he says, very frankly and a bit ruefully. “I’m sorry to have kept you. I don’t like that I… was the cause of that. Made that happen.”

“I could have eaten at any point,” Sherlock points out. He tries a slight smile. “It’s really fine. You know very well that I can go for days without food.” He changes the subject to spare John having to acknowledge this. “You didn’t answer my question, though. Are you hungry?”

John takes a deep breath, then lets it out slowly, nodding. “Yeah. I sort of wanted to take a shower, though, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t ‘mind’. This is your home,” Sherlock says, then wonders if it came out too strongly. He fumbles. “That is – I’ve always thought of it that way. As much as you want it to be, it’s – I think I should shut up now.”

This actually produces a smile from John, which is a relief. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Er – I forgot to pack my things from the shower, though. I just used yours yesterday. Do you mind if I just – ?”

Sherlock experiences a fleeting temptation to remind John that there is literally nothing that he wouldn’t give or do to accommodate him, up to and including his very life, and that shampoo should really be the least of his concerns. Instead, he swallows this down and nods. “Of course,” he says again, evenly. “Take your time. I’ll get a start on breakfast.”

John opens his mouth as though he’s going to protest this, but then shuts it firmly and nods again, and sets off down the corridor without further speech.

Sherlock finds his heart racing as he waits to hear the bathroom door close, then gets up to set about making the meal he’s already got laid in readiness. Not too bad for a first exchange, he thinks cautiously, and gets out the waffle iron. Of course it’s going to be shaky at first: unknown terrain for both of them, and John is hardly himself, much less at his best. This is just going to take time. It’s already nothing short of a miracle that he agreed to leave Mary’s flat and come back here. The fact that he kissed Sherlock yesterday – more than once, at that – is still shocking to Sherlock. He feels too full of conflicted emotion over it to even feel capable of fully realising this monumental occurrence, though, as though all the muck and pain of their shared history has been stirred up, muddying the waters and obscuring this rather incredible thing that’s happened between them. John has actually said that he loves him, and kissed him – yet it’s too soon to celebrate. Things are still too delicate.

John takes his advice and has a long shower. By the time he emerges, the sausages and mushrooms are sizzling on the range and there are two large waffles being kept warm in the oven below, whipped cream sitting in a graceful heap in a bowl on the table. Sherlock is just stirring a spoonful of sugar into another bowl of mixed strawberries and blueberries when John comes back into the kitchen, wearing the t-shirt he slept in and a towel around his waist. “Wow,” he says, taking it all in. “You – didn’t have to go to all this, Sherlock. I – ” He stops, swallowing.

Sherlock looks at him, their eyes meeting and holding. He decides to respond casually. “I wanted to,” he says lightly. “As I said, I’d just got the shopping, so we’re well supplied.” He nods toward the upstairs bedroom. “Do you want to go and dress first? There’s no rush here.”

John swallows again, then nods. “Okay. I’ll be right back.”

“Take your time,” Sherlock says, for the second time that day.

John returns within minutes, wearing an older pair of jeans that never made it over to Mary’s flat, along with an older jumper, a navy merino one that he’s had for years. The clothes are slightly rumpled from long storage in the dresser, but they hug his frame perfectly and immediately pierce Sherlock with nostalgia which he is careful to hide. Though it also occurs to him that John is probably wearing them because he hasn’t yet unpacked his things. “Anything I should do?” John asks, sounding a bit awkward.

“Just sit,” Sherlock says. “Unless you’d like to pour us both some coffee?”

“Sure,” John says, and goes to fetch the carafe. Sherlock has already laid the table, so John fills their cups and puts the coffee back. “Everything smells amazing. I still feel like a shit for not helping at all.”

Sherlock opens his mouth to counter this, then reconsiders. “It wasn’t my intention for you to feel that way,” he says instead, wishing he understood the footing here better. “I just thought… being your first breakfast back here, it might be nice? We can… we can cook together after this, if you want. Or take turns. Whatever you want.”

John is still standing behind the chair he usually sits in, as though reluctant to sit before Sherlock has, but now a change comes over his face. He swallows again, then comes over to where Sherlock is standing near the stove. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m being – difficult. And you’re – phenomenal, Sherlock. You really are.”

Before Sherlock can respond, to his surprise and inward delight, John puts a hand on Sherlock’s left hip and leans in to kiss him, just quickly, but on the lips. He pulls away again, smiles a little, and touches Sherlock’s lower lip with the thumb of his other hand. It rather takes away Sherlock’s ability to speak for a moment or two, leaving him blinking and grasping after words. “Should – should we eat?” he gets out, and John smiles again and nods.

“Yeah. Okay. Can I do anything else?”

He clearly wants to, so Sherlock thinks rapidly. “Bring the plates over?” he suggests, and when John does, he reaches an oven-mittened hand into the oven to retrieve the waffles and serves them onto their plates, golden brown and steaming fragrantly.

John’s eyes gleam. “God, you’ve outdone yourself,” he says admiringly, though there’s still an apprehensive awkwardness lurking beneath the surface.

Sherlock smiles modestly, though he’s simultaneously trying not to frown over the underlying tension. He decided to make waffles in the deliberate knowledge of John’s former fondness for them. “I’ll bring the rest to the table,” he says in response, so John goes and sits down at last. Sherlock scoops the sausages and mushrooms onto another plate and brings it over with the bowl of berries, then gets the milk from the fridge for their coffee. “Here we are,” he says briskly, and they set about helping themselves. He watches John scoop berries and whipped cream onto his waffle, watches him cut open a crisp-skinned sausage with hungry, almost disbelieving eyes. John is really here. At last. Some internal instinct wants to utter numerous sentimental things along the lines of welcoming John home, but it’s hardly the homecoming either of them imagined or hoped for. Nonetheless, it’s almost impossible to believe that it’s actually happening. He can still feel the warmth of John’s fleeting kiss on his lips, imprinted there indelibly.

Their conversation throughout the meal is carefully light, focused on the food itself. Once they’ve pushed away their empty plates, their coffee cups refilled, John’s face turns serious. “Thanks for that incredible breakfast,” he says, folding his hands together on the table between them. “Or brunch. Whatever we’re calling it. That more than hit the spot.” He pauses. “But I, er, think we should probably talk a bit more. Figure this thing out a bit. Maybe lay some ground rules.”

Sherlock feels immediately apprehensive. “Have I… unwittingly broken them already?” he asks, bracing himself.

“No,” John says quickly. “I just – you know this whole thing is new. Completely unknown territory. And it’s… I mean, we both know that I’m a mess. I think if we want this to work – and I do – then that’s got to be acknowledged honestly.”

Sherlock nods slowly. “All right. Agreed. And since you mentioned it, I think that honesty is going to be very important in general. There hasn’t been enough of it between us for a long time, either directly or by omission.”

“Particularly the second,” John agrees. “And you’re right: it’s been going on from the very start. So let’s talk.”

“Okay,” Sherlock says cautiously. “What do you want to start with? Where do we even begin?”

“Maybe the first elephant in the room,” John says, looking down at his hands. “My drinking.”

Sherlock blinks once or twice, then nods. “I’m listening,” he says carefully, not wanting to say anything before John’s finished.

John risks a glance across at him. “We both know it was too much. I don’t know whether… whether to call it an official problem, or what… but we both know that it can’t continue like that. Or at all. So I’ve got to ask: is there currently any alcohol in the flat?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “I… relocated all of it early this morning.”

John nods. “Good. Thank you.” He pauses. “I don’t want to put any pressure on you to be the one to keep me accountable about that. I don’t know that that would make for a great addition to the start of any relationship. But in the same way that you asked me to help keep you from buying cigarettes years ago, I wouldn’t mind some, er, reinforcement of the same sort. Only if you’re comfortable with that, though.”

Sherlock takes a deep breath. “Actually… I was thinking about this last night, and I’d like to propose going one step further. I don’t know whether your… behaviour regarding alcohol warrants being called an addiction or merely problematic at this point either, but I’d like to suggest we attend some meetings. Together.”

John looks at him, a bit astonished. “Like – AA?”

“An addictions group, yes,” Sherlock says evenly. “You know as well as anyone my own history of addictive behaviour. It’s also been an issue of some contention between us in the past. This way, it’s not just me supporting you or something, but us facing our problematic behaviour together and supporting one another. Thoughts?”

John’s mouth bunches up, then twists into a small smile. He nods. “Yeah. Okay. I like that. And… yeah. That makes sense, about… I mean, I’ve reacted pretty poorly with you in the past… I’d like that, if we went together. It would definitely make me feel less – inadequate. Or for this to feel less… imbalanced. I don’t know.”

Sherlock wants to address the inadequate thing, but that will come up in the next suggestion he has, once he’s invited to make another. This conversation was John’s initiative, however, which suggests that there must be more he wants to say. “Go on,” he says. “What else did you have in mind?”

John takes another deep breath and looks down again, his brows drawing together. “This doesn’t need to happen all at once,” he says slowly. “But I’d… I’d like to just – talk a lot more. About everything. About everything that’s ever happened between us. There’s so much I don’t understand, especially now that I know how you feel. I need to understand how it started, when it started, whether I was ever reading anything about you right. I feel like if I can’t figure that out, I’ll never be able to figure out the future with you, either, and I want that. A future with you. I want this to work.”

Sherlock nods. This is a monumental statement on John’s part, and he is all the more exquisitely aware that great care is mandated here. “I want nothing more,” he says quietly, glancing across the table at John. “I mean that, John. There is nothing I wouldn’t do to make that work. I’m – very much open to that. To talking. To you and I learning how to communicate properly at last.” He hesitates, then reaches across and puts a hand over both of John’s, and John reacts by drawing it into his and holding it, which is a good reaction, but he shakes his head.

“I’m such a mess, though,” he says quietly. “It’s true, Sherlock. I don’t even know where ground zero is at this point. Just that I’m somewhere vaguely below it and don’t even want to think how much lower I could still fall. And I’m horrible at communicating, especially when it’s about emotional stuff. I mean, you know that.”

“I don’t care,” Sherlock says firmly, putting his other hand around John’s, too. “We don’t need to follow a set schedule, per se. If a question occurs to you, just ask it and I’ll do my best to answer. I think that if we just answer with honesty, that alone will solve a lot.”

John nods. “Yeah. Honesty. And complete answers, too.”

Sherlock agrees. “No more hiding this. That’s caused quite a bit of it.”

John grimaces a little. “Yeah, you’re right about that.”

Sherlock hesitates. “In light of the honesty clause… it could be very fairly said that we both have things to figure out. I have a suggestion or two for proceeding into this, but you’re welcome to disagree, of course.”

John shakes his head. “No, I’m open. What are you thinking?”

“Two things,” Sherlock says. “First, and this may be difficult, but – first, I propose that we temporarily leave aside the question of what to do about Rosie. Pragmatically speaking, you haven’t been yourself lately, to put it mildly. I suggest that we designate some time for you to – to get yourself re-established first, before we attempt to change anyone’s mind about your ability to care for a child. Secondly, and I’m aware that this may sound self-serving, but hear me out. I also think that this particular situation, you and I, is – I don’t want to say unstable, but it’s new. We’re still figuring it out, and I feel that that may warrant a bit of time for us to get ourselves sorted out.” He watches John intently. “What do you think of that? I don’t mean for – well, forever. Just for the time being.”

John’s face is pained, but he nods, swallowing. “Yeah. That makes sense. I… on the one hand, I feel like going straight to Molly’s or Kate’s and demanding her back, but I can see how that would just make me look even less fit to have her. And secondly I know they were right. That their intervention was right. I am unfit to have her.”

“For now,” Sherlock says, as gently as he can. “That will change. But you need time for yourself right now – to process your experiences and learn to live with them. And this is new, as we keep saying. If we want it to work, then I think it needs to be given a bit of time to establish itself.”

John nods, swallowing again. “Yeah. Okay. Agreed. For now, we focus on this.” He raises his eyes to Sherlock’s, his fingers tightening a little. “What was your other suggestion?”

Sherlock keeps his voice very even. “You may think this sounds ridiculous, coming from me, but… I wanted to suggest that we each continue to see Ella. Or another therapist, if you would prefer, but Ella already knows your history. She may be the one person alive who understands you better than anyone else.”

“I really think that’s you, actually,” John tells him, which makes Sherlock’s chest clench in a way it’s never done before. “But you’re right, again. I know I should go back. I just – I left really poorly the last time I was there, and I just… it’s another thing to be ashamed of, which I don’t love. Obviously.”

Sherlock rubs his thumb over one of John’s knuckles. “You know Ella won’t mind. It’s her job,” he says. “I’m sure she’s seen everything by now.”

“True,” John admits. He exhales again, a bit shakily, but nods. “Yes. Okay. I’ll go back to therapy.” He looks up at Sherlock. “Why did you start?” he asks. “First question in a long line. When, and why?”

“A few days after Mary died,” Sherlock says, his eyes on their joint hands. It feels unbelievable to see or to feel, yet there it is. “That’s the when. As to the why…” He trails off for a moment, trying to shape his feelings into words. “I felt – worse than I’ve ever felt before in my life. I felt responsible for Mary’s death. That I had failed my vow to you.”

“Possibly because I accused you of exactly that,” John says, his voice hollow.

Sherlock neither confirms nor denies this. “I also knew that you were in anguish, yet I felt powerless to do anything about it. There have been other times when you’ve been in danger and I’ve been able to take the brunt of it on myself, but this time it was my fault and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do to rectify it. I couldn’t make Mary not be dead. I couldn’t take her place. When I shot Magnussen, I knew it would result in a very long prison sentence or exile, but I wanted you to have that life with Mary without fear of any repercussions from her past. When Moriarty was threatening you, I knew that I could lose my life when I jumped, but there was never any question about my willingness to do it, if it meant that you would live. But this – ” He shakes his head. “I felt helpless. And very much at fault. You wouldn’t even see me and I knew that no apology would ever be adequate. You only just barely forgave me for not telling you that I was alive. I knew that forgiveness was out of the question this time. I only wanted to know how I could make things better for you. So I went to the only person who must, by now, understand you better than I do.”

John grips his hands, his entire face lined with pain. “What did she tell you?” he asks, his voice tight.

Sherlock opens his mouth, searching for the right words, then says, “That you cannot force someone into communication. That there was no help that I could force upon you without your consent. That there was no way for me to engineer your forgiveness, or your willingness to ever see me again.”

John closes his eyes as though the words are causing him physical pain. “Fuck,” he says heavily. “What did you do after that?”

Sherlock gives a short breath of something approaching a laugh. “Well, Mary’s DVD message came then. She gave me an answer: she told me to send myself to hell. I really thought I was already there, but then she explained: that I needed to put myself into mortal danger so as to draw you into saving me. She thought that would force your hand. Not for my sake, but for yours.” He shrugs. “I had already fallen back into heavy narcotic use, so I didn’t precisely have full access to rational wit at my disposal.”

John shakes his head, his forehead still marked with pain. “When exactly did that start?” he asks. “The drugs.”

“After I left my third appointment with Ella, when she said all of that,” Sherlock admits. “I was… in despair. I also need to find better coping mechanisms. As you well know.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” John tells him. “None of it was: not Mary’s death, not my reaction to you after, not her ridiculous message – I mean, was she actively trying to get you killed? I think she must have been. She was always jealous of you, you know. And don’t forget for one second how manipulative she was. Donovan was right – she was a gaslighter. Textbook example.”

Sherlock nods, but says, slowly, “In this particular case, I believe she may have genuinely been trying to manipulate your survival. But I might agree that she wasn’t especially concerned about the inherent risk to me.” He delivers this with a wry smile, but John doesn’t return it.

“I’m sorry,” he says, grimacing. “And most of all because it didn’t even work. I didn’t come to save you. Not until it was very nearly too late. And after all you’ve done to save me, over and over and over again.”

“Neither of us were capable of being our best selves just then,” Sherlock tells him. “It was our perigee. We’ll never descend so far again. Not now.”

“I feel like I keep redefining rock bottom,” John says. “That my previous lowest was the worst I could get. And then go and I set a new bar or something.”

Sherlock surveys him with compassion. “And yet, I still love you,” he says quietly. “None of this changes that. I don’t expect you to be perfect. All I want is for you to feel the same way. To want this.”

John looks at him with wet eyes. “I do. On both counts. I love you, and I want this.”

Sherlock feels his throat tighten. “That’s the bottom line, then,” he tells John, his voice and face intense. “Whatever else happens, whatever bumps come along the way, that’s all that matters at the end of the day. We will find our way. We’ve waited far too long not to.”

John studies him for a long time, blinking and swallowing hard. After a bit, he nods. “I almost think you’ve convinced me,” he says, and when he smiles, it feels like the sun coming out after months of rain.

***

Chapter Text

VI

 

The rest of the day goes unexpectedly well. He and John clean up from their brunch together. Sherlock would have protested this, but the set of John’s jaw speaks volumes in terms of his determination to pitch in, so Sherlock wisely says nothing and they set the kitchen in order companionably. Afterwards John suggests going for a walk, as the sun is out. Slightly astonished by this, particularly given how disinclined John was just yesterday to leave the flat he shared with Mary, Sherlock agreed and they spent an hour walking through the surrounding neighbourhoods in the crisp-edged early spring air. Sherlock takes care to avoid any particular gestures of physical affection, but their arms brush together numerous times, and at one point when they sit down on a bench with a cup of coffee purchased from a vending cart, John sits very close to him, the warmth of his body seeping through the thick layer of Sherlock’s coat and the thinner one of John’s jacket.

The urge to say large, important things seems to have abated, at least temporarily. During the walk, John seems subdued, but peaceful enough. Sherlock monitors him as closely as he dares allow himself and does his best to refrain from losing himself in his own thoughts lest he forget to pay attention and miss something crucial in John.

They stop at a shop on the way back to Baker Street and buy John some things for the shower. Sherlock would offer to have John just continue to use his, but gathers that John would feel more independent having his own. He’s learning, he thinks, but every single step requires forethought and judgement, and Sherlock feels very much on edge. Yet there are immense compensations, too: every so often, John will touch him in some small way – just a brush of his finger over the back of Sherlock’s hand, or the warmth of his palm on Sherlock’s shoulder or back, or the brief kiss on the cheek he leans over to give when Sherlock brings him a cup of tea when they’re back at the flat. Each small thing makes Sherlock’s entire being flare with warmth, nervous apprehension, a spike of adrenaline, and an instant need to process, weigh, and come up with an adequate and commensurate response. Each gesture requires its own filing, its own consideration, and John never seems to repeat the same thing twice, or not in the precise same way. It’s nerve-wracking and mentally exhausting, yet simultaneously thrilling.

Mrs Hudson texts around half-past five to ask whether a lasagna might be welcome, adding that she doesn’t want to interfere. Sherlock told her that morning when delivering his small supply of alcohol into her keeping that he’d managed to bring John home, with a brief sketch of the overall situation, and Mrs Hudson said then that she would be sure to give them their space for the time being, which Sherlock appreciated. The last thing John needs is for Mrs Hudson’s well-meaning, but occasionally tactless remarks on this or that, but having been warned, Sherlock knows that she’ll be circumspect. He looks over at John, sitting across from him in his chair, playing a word game on his phone. “Mrs Hudson wonders if we’d like a lasagna,” he says, breaking the companionable silence between them.

John’s face brightens visibly. “That would be great, actually. I can’t think of when I last had Mrs Hudson’s lasagna.”

Sherlock smiles at his phone. “I suppose she just happened to have a spare one sitting about.”

John snorts. “Yes, funny how that just seems to ‘happen’ sometimes…” His lips purse a little. “Does she… I guess she knows I’m here.”

Sherlock sends his Yes, please! to Mrs Hudson and puts his phone down, meeting John’s gaze evenly. “Yes,” he says. “I told her this morning.”

John hesitates. “Did you… tell her about – me? Or about – us?”

“Not as such, on either count,” Sherlock tells him. “She knows about – what Molly and Kate did. She wasn’t in on it, either. Molly didn’t want it to affect your relationship with Mrs Hudson, same as with me. I… she knows enough. About your situation, that is. As for you and I… I think she just sort of assumes that at least something is going on. She didn’t really ask and I didn’t really confirm or deny. She tends to imply things as it is – she always has.”

“That’s true enough,” John says dryly. He pauses again. “I don’t mind if you tell her,” he says. “About us, I mean. I kind of want her to know. I just – wouldn’t know how to say it, myself.”

“Ah.” Sherlock understands. “Then… when the right opportunity presents itself, I’ll be sure to make it understood.”

John smiles. “You’re phenomenal, you know. You really are.”

Sherlock feels his face prickle with heat. “I don’t know about that,” he says, attempting to brush it off, but John isn’t having this.

He pushes himself up and bends over Sherlock, balancing himself on the green leather arms of his chair. Sherlock looks up at him and John’s face comes closer, their lips meeting firmly. They part, then meet again, then again, and John murmurs, “You are. I still can’t even believe this is happening.”

Sherlock wants to respond, but John is kissing him again. Which is just fine. “Me neither,” he manages a few moments later, his heart thudding in his chest.

John kisses him one more time, then straightens up. “I’m going to make a salad, I think. To go with the lasagna. But first – ” He nods toward the corridor, indicating the bathroom, and Sherlock nods.

“Should I light the fire?” he asks, as John walks away, his entire being already missing him.

John turns even as he’s walking. “Sure,” he says affably. “It’s a nice day, but still chilly.”

The fire is lit and crackling as they compose their salad together. Sherlock simply joined John in the kitchen and John didn’t protest. They slice vegetables and roast nuts and shred cheese in near-perfect harmony, Sherlock privately savouring every second of it – of doing something as basic as sharing domestic space with John again, of preparing food, of the tiny dance of moving around one another, passing a knife, retrieving a kitchen implement, taking something to the sink for the other. Only now it’s all been made exponentially more significant by the delicacy of the situation, by the earth-shatteringly important shift in their relationship. He can glance sideways at John’s perfect mouth and remember with genuine awe that he has kissed it, been kissed by it. The notion is breathtaking, despite it having happened several times already.

When Mrs Hudson comes up, she’s got the lasagna in both hands, and a bottle of something tucked under one arm. It proves to be a sparkling apple cider, non-alcoholic. She is abundantly tactful, letting Sherlock relieve her of her armload, then going to John to give him a gentle hug. “It’s so good to have you back here,” she tells him. “You need anything, anything at all, you just say the word. Though I’m sure that Sherlock will be taking good care of you.”

Sherlock glances at her, then at John, who is still hugging Mrs Hudson. “Yes,” John says, his voice a bit tight. “But thank you. It’s good to be back.”

Sherlock wonders if this would be a good opportunity to make their changed status known to Mrs Hudson, then immediately rethinks this. John wants her to know, but would likely find it excruciating to be present for said revelation. Later, then, he revises. “Did you want to stay and eat with us?” he asks politely, while attempting to telegraph mentally to her that the correct answer is no.

She either catches this or just has the good sense to refuse. “No no, of course not,” she says, waving her hands at him. “I’ve already eaten. You know me, don’t like to eat too late. I had a bit of sandwich with my tea. You two enjoy!”

She disappears, her kitten heels tapping her way down the stairs. John looks at the bottle she’s brought and picks it up to frown at the label. “She does know, then,” he says, and Sherlock can’t quite decipher the precise tone to his voice.

“Yes,” he says carefully. “I thought it best to… just give her the gist. It would hardly have done for her to be giving us wine or something.”

John nods. “Right. Yeah. Though you could still drink it.”

Sherlock feels his forehead crease as he slices into the steaming lasagna. “Of course I wouldn’t,” he says, trying to keep an instinctive sharpness from his voice. “It’s no sacrifice, John. Don’t even suggest it. It’s not on the table. Meanwhile, that cider looks promising. Open it, would you?”

John gives him a look of gratitude and lets it go, to Sherlock’s relief. “Yeah. Okay. I’m on it.”

They each eat two generous helpings of the delicious dish, along with heaping piles of their crisp, fresh salad, and the cider is sweet and bubbly, washing everything down perfectly. John puts the kettle on after and they drink a light herbal tisane in front of the news, John’s knee pressing a little into Sherlock’s. When it’s time for bed, Sherlock lets John use the bathroom first while he changes into his pyjamas. After, John comes into the bedroom, pausing two steps in. Sherlock is just sorting out the contents of his pockets and looks up, raising his eyebrows politely. “All done?” he asks, not sure what’s happening.

John gives a slightly self-conscious shrug. “Just thought I’d stop off for a goodnight kiss?”

“Oh!” Sherlock is surprised but pleased. “Okay.” He hesitates, then goes to where John is standing. It should feel more awkward than it does, but somehow it’s just fine in the end. He puts his hands on John’s shoulders and John puts his own on Sherlock’s waist and then it just happens, John’s mouth on his again, his lips warm. After a moment or two, his mouth opens under Sherlock’s, his breath in Sherlock’s mouth. The amount of adrenaline he’s already feeling doubles, warmth surging through his frame and drowning out his ability to think rationally. He lets go of John’s shoulders and tries out putting his arms fully around them instead, and John makes a decidedly positive sound at this and shifts closer, putting his arms around Sherlock’s back, too. Their mouths are opening wider now and Sherlock figures out breathing through his nose rather than just holding his breath, and this is a great improvement. He kisses John with marked enthusiasm and John responds in kind, his lips catching Sherlock’s lower one and sucking in a way that sends blood rushing southward quickly enough to leave Sherlock feeling light-headed. He breaks away in slight mortification, but John doesn’t seem to notice anything amiss, looking from one eye to the other, touching his tongue to his lower lip.

“Good night,” he says.

Sherlock doesn’t want to let go, but is also feeling intensely self-conscious. He also wants to kiss John one more time, but harbours considerable apprehension about the potential consequences if he does. “Good night,” he says quickly. He hesitates, then leans forward and kisses John on the cheek. “Sleep well.”

John smiles, just a little. “You too,” he says, then turns and walks out of the room, his hands flexing and closing as he goes.

Sherlock watches him go, then closes his eyes for a moment. He opens them and looks down at himself, grimacing at his visible arousal and hoping devoutly that John didn’t notice. Shower, he thinks vaguely. Yes: he’ll need to deal with this if he wants to get any sleep tonight. He closes the bedroom door, then strips off his pyjamas and shuts himself in the bathroom. Safely ensconced in the hot steam of the shower, he touches himself as quietly and furtively as he possibly can, though stealth is a matter of long-enduring habit at this point, particularly when John is home. He keeps his eyes closed throughout, feeling John’s lips on his the entire while, imagining John’s hands travelling further over him, their bodies pressing together – he comes with a choked-off breath and rides out the controlled orgasm as quietly as he can manage, then rinses conditioner out of his hair and shuts off the water, still breathing hard.

***

They go to a meeting the following morning, half-past ten in a neighbourhood church basement. Sherlock found it during an early-morning search as John slept on upstairs, then suggested it over breakfast, which they cooked together today. This was nothing particularly fancy, just a fry-up of eggs, mushrooms, bacon, and tomatoes, with buttered toast and a large pot of English breakfast. Sherlock brings up the idea of going to a meeting and John agrees without objection, to his private relief.

“Have you been to one of these before?” he asks John as they walk the six blocks over from Baker Street.

John nods. “Once or twice, with Harry. You know: I wanted to be supportive. I think it made it harder for her to open up with me there, though, so I stopped going. I know the drill. The twelve steps.”

“It’s somewhat formulaic jargon, but many people do seem to find it helpful,” Sherlock says thoughtfully.

John glances at him. “True enough, I suppose.”

The meeting is fine. They introduce themselves when it’s their turn. Sherlock goes first, stating it without qualm. “My name is Sherlock and I’m an addict.”

The assembled group greets him in unison, then the host looks expectantly at John, who clears his throat. “Er, I’m John, and I… I’ve been drinking too much. I want to change that, so – here I am.”

“Hi John,” the group choruses, and the host smiles at them both before moving on to the next people. Neither of them volunteers to share in any further detail, listening instead to the others’ stories and confessions, to the coaching of the counsellor. When they leave, neither of them says much about it, but Sherlock feels that there is a certain peacefulness between them. He suggests finding lunch, and after some discussion, Sherlock remembers a certain restaurant they discovered years back, before his departure, which they haven’t been back to yet. It’s a little burger joint with only half a dozen tables, despite the constant crowd. They’ve just missed the lunch rush, so they manage to get a table without a wait, settling themselves in the window and perusing the tattered paper menus with pleasant anticipation.

“I remember the chips here being fantastic,” John says. “I don’t remember which burger I had the last time we were here, though.”

Sherlock smiles at his menu. “I do. You had this one here, with the goat cheese and bacon.”

John smiles, too, glancing at him over the single sheet. “I can’t believe you remember that. It’s got to have been four years since we were here!”

Sherlock gives a modest shrug. “I rarely forget anything about you.” He clears his throat, but can feel John’s eyes on him and looks up after a moment. “What?” he asks, self-conscious now.

John’s eyes are doing something that makes Sherlock’s chest ache. He swallows, then reaches for Sherlock’s wrist and squeezes it. “I can’t even get over you,” he says, his voice a bit rough. “What did you have last time? I’m not even going to pretend I can compete with that.”

Sherlock purses his lips a little. “I don’t remember, either,” he admits, and John laughs. Sherlock turns his hand palm-upward to squeeze John’s fingers briefly. “It might have been this one. With the avocado and swiss cheese.”

“That actually does sound familiar,” John says, and releases his hand. He puts his menu down and clears his throat, steering away from the emotion. “I think I’ll just have water with it. I seem to recall the chips being fairly salty.”

Sherlock nods. “They’re also cooked in duck fat. It’s why they’re so delicious.”

John looks happy at this. “This was a stroke of genius, remembering this place. Fantastic suggestion.”

Sherlock smiles, feeling cautiously happy, himself. So far things seem to be going well. He wasn’t sure how John would react to the suggestion of going to a meeting, but it seems that it hasn’t done much damage, if any. The server appears and takes their order, and when the food comes, it’s piping hot and delicious. They walk home after, and on John’s suggestion go slightly out of their way in favour of walking through Regent’s Park. A tenuous calm seems to have established itself between them, yet Sherlock finds himself unsurprised when John clears his throat as they cross a small bridge. He feels his shoulders brace instinctively, as though preparing for impact, and makes himself consciously relax them.

John stops, leaning his elbows on the rail of the bridge. “Was it always this, then?” he asks, looking out over the greenish water below.

Sherlock isn’t sure he understands. “Was what always – what?”

John turns his head to look up at him. “This,” he says. “You and me. Did you always – feel like this? Want this?”

Sherlock feels a little pinned down. He joins John at the rail and looks down at his hands where they’re gripping it. “In a sense, yes,” he says slowly, vowing inwardly to endeavour to do his best to be honest with John.

“But in a sense no?” John looks at him, his eyes disarmingly direct. “You didn’t want this, at first?”

Sherlock struggles. “I – it’s not that simple,” he tries. He’s painfully aware that this is inadequate. “You were always different,” he says, the words coming with difficulty. “I knew that I was – intrigued by you. That I wanted you to move in. That I wanted you there by my side. That I couldn’t have – and wouldn’t have – ever brought anyone else to a crime scene.”

“But I’m a doctor,” John says, his voice coming out a bit flat. “And a soldier. I was useful.”

“No – it was always more than that,” Sherlock says. He is failing at this, disappointing John, who clearly wanted to hear something else. He feels his lips part, inhaling but unsure as to how to continue. “Listen,” he says quietly. “I’ve never – before you, I never felt… anything like this. Not for anyone. When I met you, I lacked the internal vocabulary to give shape to the very notion of the… effect you had on me. In terms of putting into these precise words, no. I didn’t realise from the start that it was this all along. That I – loved you.”

John searches his face, wanting so starkly to be convinced by this that it pains Sherlock to see. “But you did come to see that at some point?”

Sherlock nods. This, at least, he can state with certainty. “It was rather poor timing, but – the night of my return,” he says. He feels rather exposed in admitting this. “At the Landmark, when I saw you sitting there. I’d planned it to go quite differently, but then I saw you…” He hesitates. “I already knew about Mary. My brother had made sure of that. I knew you’d bought a ring. I don’t know what I was thinking, going there. I should have waited until you were alone. I went directly from Mycroft’s office. I just wanted to see you again, as quickly as possible… but then I saw you and suddenly it was difficult to breathe and all I could hear was my heart beat pounding in my ears. It’s why I pulled that ridiculous stunt, playing at being a waiter. I got nervous. I’m sorry. I didn’t know how else to face you again.”

John swallows. “But you knew then?” he asks. “How you felt about me?”

Sherlock nods soberly. “In a sense, it was as though I had always known. It just became… clear, then. It wasn’t a sudden revelation. More of an ‘Oh. Yes. I see.’ It was as though the fact of the matter simply made itself unavoidably apparent. As though it had always been true. But I couldn’t possibly pinpoint the precise moment when it started.” He thinks of seeing John, just beyond the police tape, doing his best to look obsequious and offhand, of his own realisation in spite of that. It may have been that very moment. Or it may have been the instant he first laid eyes on John, standing there beside Stamford in the lab at Bart’s. It’s impossible to say.

John’s face relaxes a little, but then worry creeps into his forehead as he looks back out over the water. “So you realised at the restaurant, and I attacked you. I proposed to someone else, then attacked you and stormed off. Wouldn’t even talk to you again until you literally saved my life. Again.”

Sherlock frowns. “Your reaction was more than understandable,” he points out. “Anyone would have felt the same way. You didn’t have all the facts. Which is my fault. I handled it poorly.”

“You were saving my life. That rather trumps my finer feelings about the whole thing,” John counters. He exhales, then straightens up and looks at Sherlock directly. “That said, I’m glad I do know now. I’m glad you finally told me.”

Sherlock scans John’s face in an effort to gauge whether this particular bump has been cleared or not. “What about you?” he asks, trying to shift the subject. “Was there a certain point when you knew?”

To his surprise, John gives a laugh, just through his nose, but his entire face softens. “I think I’ve always known,” he says ruefully. “More than I wanted to.” He turns and starts walking again, heading for the York Gate exit. Sherlock falls into step beside him, anxious to hear the rest of this. He waits, his face angled toward John as they walk, and after a moment John carries on. “I tried so hard to hide it, even from myself,” he admits. “The attraction was there from the start. That much, I can say now. A specific moment when I knew that I loved you, though?” He shakes his head. “I knew that I was jealous of anyone else you paid attention to. I could have throttled Irene Adler with my bare hands. Moriarty, too. There were thousands of tiny moments, though, where I knew it in my own head. Just small things. Laughing with you at Buckingham Palace, you in your sheet and not a stitch under it. Maybe even laughing with you at Baker Street, in the front hall the night I moved in.”

Sherlock looks at him in astonishment as they turn onto Baker Street. “That far back?”

John looks at him, his expression filling with warmth, and he nods. “I think so, yeah. But there were others, too. Bigger moments, I mean. When Magnussen’s people put me in that fire – seeing your face, after you dragged me out. Everything else stopped mattering. You were all I could see, all I needed to see.”

Sherlock looks at him, not sure what to say to this. “But then you went home, with Mary,” he says, not wanting to question John, yet at a loss to understand this. “If you felt that way even then, that night…”

John sighs. “Yeah, well… Mary was there. The facts of reality came back quickly enough. She just sort of took over, fussing and wanting to get me home – even though she’d left the car at Baker Street. Maybe she saw it on my face, I don’t know. I lay awake that night just thinking and trying to escape my own thoughts at the same time. Knowing I needed to see you again as soon as I could, but also knowing that I’d made such a spectacular cock-up of everything, not sure what I could even say. Plus I didn’t know how you felt.” He unlocks the front door and leads the way inside, waiting for Sherlock to close the door behind him, which he does. “It seemed like I’d made my bed, you know? Nothing for it but to keep doing what I’d always done, just push it down and pretend it wasn’t there, and accept my life as it is. Was.”

Sherlock looks at the wall they leaned against that very first night, thinks of John wanting this even then. And of himself, of the day that John Watson just appeared in his life and changed it forever, not that he was aware of it at the time. But now they both know. The truth is out at last, spoken openly between them. “Was,” he repeats firmly. “You’re not there now.” He moves toward John, backing him into that same bit of wall. “You’re here. With me.”

John’s expression changes, his throat bobbing as he swallows. “Sherlock – ” His hands come up and take him by the face, pulling their mouths together again, and they kiss for a long moment, Sherlock shifting as close as he dares. It’s a good kiss, one that manages to push aside the negative things in their joint history and bring this recent and still incredulous-feeling development to the fore, or so Sherlock thinks as he fumblingly attempts to copy John’s movements and return them in kind, his arms tightening around John’s back as he does. After a little while, it eases off, John looking into his eyes. “Let’s go upstairs,” he says, with a look toward Mrs Hudson’s door, so Sherlock agrees. Before he reaches the landing, John takes his hand and Sherlock looks down at this in surprise. John shrugs a bit sheepishly, but doesn’t let go.

It resumes in the flat, John kissing him in the sitting room for a long while, and time stops registering for Sherlock. He doesn’t know how long it goes on for, but it lasts long enough for him to begin to genuinely relax into it, start feeling that he has some idea of what to do. They move to the sofa eventually, and after a time it eases off again. They sit there with their fingers tangled together, Sherlock still marvelling at the very novelty of being permitted to touch John this way. He voices the thought and John smiles at him and agrees, then decides to make them a pot of tea. When he comes back from the kitchen, he asks about any cases on Sherlock’s blog, so they solve a few together from there on the sofa, still sitting close together. Sherlock shows him some that he solved mentally in the past few days and sends his answers to the people who asked, caring far more about John’s current proximity than about the cases – outrageously more, and finds that he cannot make himself care about this in the slightest.

The afternoon becomes evening. Sherlock suggests they make dinner together, since they were out for lunch and since John seems to feel awkward over being cooked for. John agrees, and they make spaghetti bolognese, good old-fashioned comfort food, as John states. Sherlock omits the red wine he normally would have poured into the sauce and adds a ridiculous amount of parmesan instead. John finds a bottle of sparkling lemon water in the fridge and pours them each a glass, then takes out the half-baguette of garlic bread he made from the oven. Sherlock gives their caesar salad a final toss and brings it to the table, where John is just lighting a candle, and they eat in what feels like relative peace, the need for major questions subsiding temporarily. It’s not until they’ve finished eating that John pushes away his plate and changes the subject, his brow furrowing again.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve got another one. Another question,” he says. He hesitates. “I know you must be tired of me asking.”

Sherlock shakes his head minutely. “Of course not. Besides, we’ve already agreed that we should talk more, ask our questions. What is it?”

“I’m sorry,” John says again, the lines between his eyes not disappearing. “I’m just so used to – to not asking, to not being – well, or feeling like I’m allowed to, I guess. There’s still so much I feel like I don’t know, that I need to know.”

Sherlock nods. “Understood,” he replies, worrying internally at John’s intensity. “What is it? You can ask anything you like,” he adds, just as a reminder.

John takes a deep breath. “Irene Adler,” he says, a bit abrupt. “Was I wrong to be so jealous? I mean… you must have known that I was just eaten alive with it.”

Sherlock frowns in turn. “I did wonder at that,” he allows. “Your jealousy, I mean. Clearly you interpreted my behaviour toward her as flirtatious, though I wasn’t wholly certain as to why.”

“No – I mean, she flirted at you, but it wasn’t so much that you flirted back as you didn’t shut it down, the way you usually did with other people who tried that on you,” John says, sounding defensive now.

Sherlock looks across the table into John’s wary eyes. “And that bothered you,” he says. “Yes. I see why, at least now. She was… a puzzle. Intriguing. I haven’t met many other people like her.”

“Did you sleep with her?” John’s words are clipped, almost brutally blunt. “That’s what I’m asking, Sherlock. I – need to know this. I don’t care if you found her interesting, I just need to know what actually happened. Or didn’t happen.”

Sherlock feels his lips press together a little, self-conscious now. “Didn’t happen,” he states quietly, looking down at the table between them. “Happy?”

If this last comes out a bit defensive on his own part, he thinks he really needn’t be blamed. John hesitates for a moment, then asks, sounding as though he’s wincing a little, “Are you clarifying what I’m asking, or was that – ?” He re-evaluates, deducing it for himself. “You’re answering the question,” he says, before Sherlock can.

Sherlock gives a small nod, examining his fingernails. “So, yes: your jealousy was misguided.” He glances up at John to find that he is indeed cringing, but he also hasn’t finished yet by the look on his face.

“Did you want it to?” John’s mouth is set, asking as though already steeling himself for Sherlock’s answer.

Sherlock searches for the right words, his lips parted, struggling for honesty. It’s obviously very important to John, and he’ll know if Sherlock’s answer is too pat. “I don’t believe I did,” he says slowly. “I also don’t know that I knew precisely what I did want at the time, but I’m… fairly certain that my intrigue, as you put it, isn’t something that would have… manifested itself in a specifically physical manner. Certainly not – not the one you’re imagining. In other words, I believe the short answer is no. I didn’t want that. There was an opportunity, I suppose, and all I can remember at the time is the case itself, and noticing that you had left.”

John almost smiles at this. “I left because I thought I should get out of the way, in case you did want that,” he says, his tone still a bit abrupt. He still hasn’t finished. “What about Janine?” he presses. “I mean, with the papers…”

“Equally misguided, though I certainly intended you to think – what you thought,” Sherlock tells him. He clears his throat delicately. “The same answer would apply to… anyone else you would care to ask me about. Just in case you’d like to… circumvent this entire subject in a more direct manner.”

A rather eloquent pause forms between them as John digests these words. “Meaning… that you’ve never – with anyone?” John chances, his voice breaking the silence.

Sherlock makes himself look John directly in the eye. “No.” He swallows. It feels like a rather monumental thing to admit. Perhaps he should say this. “I’ve… never said that aloud to anyone before. Not ever. It feels… ” He shakes his head, feeling more self-conscious than ever. He lets his gaze drop. “I feel – laid bare.” He pauses, then adds, softly, “Inadequate.”

“Oh God, no!” John’s voice fills with warmth now, and his hands reach out to cover Sherlock’s. “No, Sherlock – never! I’m – I’m sorry for asking. I mean – I sort of think it is something that I should know, if we’re – but I didn’t mean for it to make you feel like – that. You’re not inadequate in any way at all. It’s sort of amazing to me that you’ve never, er, done any of that, but it’s not hugely surprising, either, if that makes sense?”

Sherlock still feels stripped naked and reduced, his shoulders tensed. “I have always maintained that I’m married to my work,” he says, trying to shrug, but it doesn’t quite come off. “You’ve known me for years and never seen me to date, apart from posing for a case.”

“True,” John says, his fingers tightening. “I don’t think any less of you for it. Not at all. You have so many more valid reasons to think little of me – I mean, I’m the one who married Mary, who went back to her after everything she did.”

Sherlock feels his lips quirk a little in spite of himself. “Not to mention your endless parade of women before that.”

John smiles and shakes his head at the same time. “It was hardly endless. And you were always on hand to scare them off.”

“I wonder why,” Sherlock quips, and John actually laughs.

“Or else you were just so much more interesting to me that no one else could even compete,” he points out. “That would be the truer answer. You’ve ruined me for anyone else, you know. Since the day we met. No one else could come close to holding a candle to you, to the life I had with you.”

Sherlock fits his fingers more firmly into John’s now. “Have,” he says firmly, and John nods.

“Have,” he repeats. He hesitates. “I think I need to kiss you again about now.”

Sherlock smiles and feels some of the tension drain from his shoulders at last. “Well then, if you must…”

John gets up and comes around the table and inserts himself into Sherlock’s lap in a manner which is anything but submissive. “I really must,” he says, smiling into Sherlock’s eyes, and it’s the last they speak for a goodly while after that.

***

When evening draws to a close, Sherlock looks at John, next to him on the sofa. It’s been an all right day, he thinks critically. John’s moods seem to flicker and shift at the slightest thing, stability still very much elusive, but it’s been cautiously okay. Things between them feel all right, too. More than all right: things are good, or so Sherlock devoutly wants to believe. Their post-supper conversation has stayed vividly with him throughout the evening, though it hasn’t come up again. They’ve had a quiet evening, watching a documentary that proved more interesting than expected, yet Sherlock feels relatively certain that John has been thinking about it since supper, too. It brings a prickle of heat to his spine, thinking of John’s years of curiosity regarding his sexual history. He’s wanted to ask those things for a long time, possibly agonised over it for a long time. And in turn, as excruciating as he always knew it would be, he has wanted John to ask. Sherlock swallows, then inhales, not certain how to put his current thought into words.

John is sitting beside him, the warmth of him soaking into Sherlock’s arm. He hears Sherlock’s breath and turns toward him, raising his eyebrows. “What’s up?” he asks, his tone carefully light, but Sherlock can hear that there’s much more beneath the surface.

He searches John’s face. “I was thinking of turning in,” he says, equally careful. “It’s getting late.”

“True enough.” John nods. “I suppose I should, too.”

Sherlock hesitates, then makes himself just say it. “I – wondered if you might like to… stay down here,” he says, the words coming out jerkily. He grimaces inwardly. “Not – here, on the sofa. I mean – with – with me.” (God, that was brutal!) Sherlock winces overtly, biting his lower lip.

John takes a deep breath, his eyes raking over Sherlock’s. “Are you sure?” he asks, his expression very serious. “Nothing has to happen, you know. Or – I mean, there’s no rush. And given that you’ve… I don’t want to put any pressure… here.”

On you, Sherlock hears, unspoken. “You’re not,” he points out. “I’m the one who brought it up.” He scans John’s expression. “I’m asking,” he adds. “I – want you to. But only if you want to.”

John holds his gaze, his lips parting, then he nods. “Yeah.” His voice cracks and comes out half-whispered. “I – really want that. If you’re sure.”

Sherlock’s heartbeat accelerates rapidly and he nods. “Very sure,” he says, his mouth dry, and John leans over and puts a hand on his face.

“In that case…” he murmurs, and kisses Sherlock. The kiss begins gently, but Sherlock can sense an electricity to it that wasn’t previously there, one which makes itself fairly rapidly known. It grows in strength, their mouths sucking hard at each other’s, tongues pressing together. Sherlock feels a bit as though he’s been pulled into a hurricane, but it’s exhilarating. John is pulling him to his feet, his arms around Sherlock’s back, holding him tightly as he continues to devour Sherlock’s mouth. Sherlock holds on and kisses back to the best of his ability, arousal flaring in every nerve ending, every hair standing on end, heavy pulses of it pooling in his veins and flesh. John’s hands stroke down his back and pull him closer, but then he breaks away, breathing hard. “I’m – sorry, I – we should talk about this,” he says, in spite of his breathlessness. “I want to sleep with you – in every sense. But it doesn’t have to be – that – right away. What, er – are you – ”

He’s stumbling over his words. Sherlock swallows and scrabbles after a response to this. “I want – all of that,” he tries, though it’s unspecific and wholly inadequate. “What goes with – being in bed together,” he clarifies, and it sounds prim and entirely unseductive even to him. Prudish, even.

John nods, though, his eyes on Sherlock’s lips. They flick up into Sherlock’s eyes. “Okay,” he breathes, and closes the distance between them again, kissing Sherlock twice, three times, before pulling away to add, “If you’re sure.”

“I am – John – ” Sherlock can feel his need rising, not wanting to be reduced to begging John for this, but he already knows that he’ll do it if it comes to that.

John takes pity on him and steers them down the corridor to Sherlock’s bedroom, closing the door behind them, not turning on any lights. “I want you,” he says against Sherlock’s lips, the words mashed between them. “I’ve wanted you for so long – ”

Sherlock gasps; John’s undeniably talented mouth is on his neck, his hands on Sherlock’s arse. He can’t speak – all he is capable of at the moment is feeling, awash in sensation as John pulls their bodies flush together, John’s arousal as apparent in his jeans as Sherlock’s must be to him. He grasps at John, anywhere he can, and doesn’t resist in any way as John’s small, efficient hands peel off his clothing, Sherlock clumsily helping him with his own. He is left naked in the dark of the room, his entire frame on fire with desire for John, desire that’s pointing stiffly out from his body, impossible to hide or deny or downplay.

“Bed,” John murmurs, his eyes opening halfway, his voice sultry, and Sherlock feels his entire being resonating to the sound as keenly as a plucked cello string.

He isn’t even certain how they get to the bed, but then John is tumbling him down onto it, following and turning to face him. They kiss again, and it’s feverish on both sides. Sherlock moves his legs a little against John’s, wanting far more contact still, and John shifts closer, his hand squeezing at Sherlock’s chest, fingers trailing over his skin. Suddenly he stops, going rigid and pulling away from the kiss. Sherlock blinks, taken aback. “John – what – ” He doesn’t know what to say. “Is something – wrong?”

John is looking down at his own fingers, still touching Sherlock’s chest. Sherlock is facing the window, where a shaft of streetlight is shining directly onto his torso. He looks down and sees that John’s fingers are pressing into the circular scar of Mary’s bullet. John is still breathing hard, but now it doesn’t sound like desire to Sherlock. It sounds like something much worse. “I’m… sorry,” John says, his lips barely moving, his tone entirely changed. “It’s just – I actually managed to forget. What she did to you. What I forgave.”

Sherlock feels his lips part, but doesn’t know how to respond to this. “John…” He risks a look down between them and sees that John has gone soft. His own erection hasn’t, however, still pointed stiffly upward between them. Acute embarrassment begins to creep over his skin and he still doesn’t know what to say. “I… does that mean you don’t…” He stops, unable to make himself continue.

John stops touching him. He turns onto his back, looking up at the ceiling. “I’m sorry,” he says again. He sounds miserable. “I – want to. I really do. But maybe I can’t yet. Not with… knowing what I’ve done to you. Allowed to have done to you.”

Coldness settles into the pit of Sherlock’s stomach. He is still on his side, facing John as though silently asking. He makes himself turn onto his back. The sense of rejection is rapidly dominating all other senses, yet his arousal hasn’t gone anywhere. He cannot find a response to this, so he doesn’t speak.

The silence between them is intensely awkward, neither of them looking at the other. After an agonisingly long time, John speaks. “If you want – if you think I should leave, I’ll… understand,” he says, his voice sounding like an empty husk of itself.

“No!” The word leaves Sherlock’s mouth with force, before he can filter it. “That’s the last thing I want,” he adds, less forcefully. “Just – stay.” A moment goes by. “Please.” This last deepens his humiliation, but it was impossible to not say it.

John doesn’t respond to this, but he also doesn’t leave the bed. After a little, he turns onto his side, away from Sherlock and curled in on himself.

Sherlock lies where he is, the flame of his arousal dissolving slowly into a heavy, cold ache in his testicles. He has rarely experienced physical frustration this acute and feels almost sick over the rapid change in the situation, in having the build-up so suddenly deflated. In addition, he feels exposed in having shown his hand in terms of wanting it so much, wanting to have sex with John – the very thought feels audacious to spell out so plainly – and near anger in having had it so suddenly retracted. He feels left hanging, embarrassed and upset, his pulse still thudding in his veins. He cannot possibly get up, shut himself in the bathroom, and relieve his need there. John would know precisely what he was doing, and the knowledge of his awareness would be even worse than this, than lying here in his own bed with his genitals still swollen with unspent desire.

He looks over at John’s still form and divines immediately that he is not asleep, though thirty minutes must have passed by now. He turns back, keeping the movement silent, staring up at the ceiling and wondering if there is to be any coming back from this.

***

Sherlock wakes early. From the quality of the light coming in, he knows already that it’s only just after dawn. He reaches surreptitiously for his phone and confirms this; it’s not yet seven. He’s still tired, his eyes gritty from the poor quality and overall brevity of his sleep, yet he feels restless and doesn’t want to go on sleeping. Not with things as they are. He looks over at John, asleep and breathing deeply, still facing away from him. He exhales and slumps back into the pillows. Things were going so well. Was it a mistake to try – any of this? Having a relationship of this nature so soon into John’s recovery? It seemed inevitable, given their conversation at the flat, yet last night was an unmitigated disaster. Sherlock still feels tender and thinks that his unsated erection, their failed attempt at sex, is rather perfectly symbolic. Perhaps this entire venture was doomed to failure from the start. Too much bad history between them. Too many misunderstandings. Too little communication, their efforts at correcting this now proving to be too little, too late.

He can’t stay in the bed any longer. Last night, the last thing he wanted was for John to leave. Now he finds that he needs distance after all. He needs to think. Possibly recalibrate. Sherlock gets quietly out of bed without waking John and shuts himself in the bathroom, taking a dressing gown with him. He still isn’t entirely soft, which is uncomfortable. Perhaps in the heat of the shower, he’ll be able to sort that part out, at least. And then figure out how he can possibly face John when the time comes, in light of John’s unwilling, yet utter rejection of him last night, and his own anger and humiliation over it.

He turns on the water and stares at it raining down onto the floor of the tub for a long time before remembering to actually get in. This is terrible.

***

Chapter Text

PART III

VII

 

When John wakes, he is disoriented. He blinks at the far wall, where pearly grey daylight is coming in, then realises that he’s in Sherlock’s bedroom. The memory of last night comes to him and pummels him in the gut and he closes his eyes again, grimacing. After a moment, he glances over his shoulder with wincing apprehension, but Sherlock’s side of the bed is empty. This is both a relief and not: Sherlock woke up and got up without him, left him there in the bed without waiting for him to wake. John turns onto his back and tries to make himself breathe, take stock of the current situation. It’s not pretty. He fucked up last night – fucked up hard. He can feel the exact moment when his fingers found Sherlock’s bullet scar and every last one of his doubts about himself, about his ability to be in this sort of a relationship with anyone, let alone Sherlock, of the already-thin chances this relationship has ever had, but particularly these days, came rushing back. He can still feel the exact moment that he lost his erection, the mood completely killed by his own self-recrimination and doubt, by the knowledge of how deeply, deeply unworthy he is of Sherlock’s love or forgiveness. How could he possibly go on touching Sherlock, with his history of having touched him with the specific intent to hurt him between them? How could anyone forgive that?

At the same time, he knows – knew even then – that he was leaving Sherlock high and dry, on the brink of his first time ever being with anyone, and after having put himself out there and asked for it, too. John closes his eyes and hates himself. He knows Sherlock didn’t leave the room, didn’t go and get himself off – just lay there suffering from what was probably an acute case of blue balls, one that John gave him instead of sealing their newfound relationship in physicality to match the words they’ve both said. It was completely shitty, yet if the same situation came up right now, he knows it would go the same way. One more notch to add to their terrible history.

After some time, John checks his phone. It’s after ten. Is Sherlock home? He’s curious, yet also dreads seeing him, as he’s got no idea what to say, how to explain himself. How to apologise. He decides to postpone this by taking a shower, which he draws out for as long as possible, then takes his time shaving and getting dressed. Finally, he makes himself leave the bedroom, trying not to ball his fists in instinctive defense.

Sherlock is sitting at the kitchen table, apparently absorbed in the Times. He makes no move to show that he’s seen John there in the doorway. John hovers, not sure what to say. He inhales, but Sherlock cuts him off before he can speak. “There’s tea, if you want it,” he says, his voice very even and entirely neutral.

It’s Sherlock at his most closed-off, professional veneer firmly in place. John swallows hard. It’s been a long time since Sherlock used this sort of hard-polished tone on him. He makes himself duck his chin in a nod. “Okay,” he says, and it comes out half-whispered. He goes to the cupboard to get himself a mug, then approaches the table from the opposite side, picking up the teapot and pouring out a cup. “Have you eaten yet?” he gets out, managing to keep the question semi normal-sounding.

Sherlock makes a neutral sound, then says, “No.”

John swallows again. “Hungry?” he tries. (God, this is terrible. He’s fucked this entire thing up.) He thinks of their conversation after supper yesterday, of going to where Sherlock is sitting right now and planting himself in his lap and kissing him for ages. Of all the rest of the kissing there was yesterday, and the day before, too. It was going so well. (Too well, an inner voice points out. He should have known it couldn’t last.)

Sherlock makes that same sound. “Not really.” His eyes flick up to John’s very briefly before dropping again. “I didn’t know when you’d be up, so I didn’t prepare anything. Besides, you didn’t seem to like it when I did, the other day.”

John hesitates. “I’m sorry,” he says awkwardly. “It was… really nice of you. I just – I thought I should… help.” Sherlock doesn’t respond to this. “I could eat,” John offers. Sherlock turns a page of the paper as though he didn’t hear this. John sort of wants to die, but makes himself forge ahead. “I could… cook, if you want?”

Sherlock lifts a shoulder in a shrug. “It’s entirely up to you. Whatever you want.”

Or don’t want, John hears, as unmistakeably as though Sherlock said it aloud. He swallows yet again. “Yeah,” he says, his mouth dry. “I’ll – I’ll make us some brunch. Do you – feel like anything in particular?” He sounds as nervous as he feels, desperate to make some sort of amends after his total failure last night.

“No.” The word is flat and comes hard on the end of John’s words, a rejection in its own right, though Sherlock has agreed to let John cook for them.

“Right. Okay.” John tries not to feel stung, though he’s failing at that, too. He goes to the fridge to take a look. He sees sausages, eggs, mushrooms, cheddar, spring onions, and the French loaf that they had for toast yesterday, and decides to make scrambled eggs, with the sausages on the side. It’s nothing particularly fancy, certainly not in the same league as Sherlock’s waffles his first morning back here, but it should fill them up. He gets out a pan to put the sausages on, then breaks six eggs into a bowl, beats them and adds a splash of heavy cream, then cuts a chunk of cheddar into cubes. Has he gone and ruined everything? He feels a sense of utter despair, but doesn’t know what else to do, how to explain himself in a way that would make Sherlock understand that it wasn’t about him, that it was nothing he did wrong. If only there was some way to just magically make this be better! But there isn’t, though. That whole talk aside, about how they were going to approach this thing, make it work. Maybe it was just a soap bubble. Maybe Sherlock didn’t factor in what an enormous fuck-up he is. John turns to get a second pan for the eggs, but stops short because Sherlock is right there, holding it out to him. John takes it. “Thanks,” he says, too quickly.

Sherlock nods, then moves to the other pan to nudge a spatula at the sausages where they’re sizzling.

John slices the mushrooms and onions, hyper-aware of Sherlock’s tall, silent, slightly-forbidding presence there next to him at the range, and feels very wildly unsure as to how he’s supposed to feel right now. Sherlock wordlessly helping him cook must be an olive branch of some sort, right? Or is it? Is he wrong to feel ever so slightly better about things? John has no idea. The silence stretches out as they cook, Sherlock slicing bread and putting it into the toaster without being directed to, and John makes their eggs. They eat across from each other, drinking a fresh pot of tea that Sherlock put on. John asks about cases and Sherlock demurs, then brings up an interesting story in the news instead. John understands without being told that Sherlock does not want to have a deep conversation about last night, and as John still has no idea what to say about that, how to talk about it at all, embarrassed about it and angry with himself, this is a frank relief.

The day passes agonisingly slowly, neither of them going out or talking much. John spends the time wondering what the hell he’s even doing at Baker Street if he wasn’t ready for this yet, but where else would he have gone? Evidently he couldn’t handle being at the flat, either, going by his own behaviour. He avoids looking at the photograph of Rosie that Sherlock’s got on the mantel, tries his damnedest to prevent his mind from even touching on the subject of her at all. Somehow, he’s nonetheless glad that Sherlock’s still got the photo, even if John averts his eyes every time he passes that part of the room. He feels trapped within the prison of himself, awkwardly stuck here in this flat and in his being without being able to be there in the way that he should.

The elephant in the room, of what happened last night is there at all times, tangibly and uncomfortably so. Sherlock throws him the occasional bone, looking up from his laptop briefly to ask for a medical insight or something, but there’s no eye contact. It occurs to John at some point that Sherlock feels as awkward and uncomfortable about the entire thing as he does. Evening falls and they order in, just Thai from around the corner, and John thinks uneasily about the night to come. He eats coconut rice almost without tasting it and wonders if Sherlock is enjoying his food any better than he is. “How’s your curry?” he asks, breaking yet another silence that’s fallen between them.

Sherlock pushes his bowl over to him. “Try it,” he says, in lieu of answering.

“Only if you try mine,” John says, forcing the words and wondering how he managed even that much. Will Sherlock even want him to stay downstairs after last night? It was very much his suggestion yesterday. He made that quite clear. That he was asking for it – for all of it. And John couldn’t give it to him, not any part of the experience he was looking for: to share a bed, as lovers. As people who have told each other that they love each other, that they always have, that they want a future together. And John couldn’t even touch him. The food turns dry and tasteless in his mouth and he can’t swallow. Suddenly he really wants a drink, but that definitely isn’t going to happen. He picks up his glass of water and downs half of it, sweat breaking out on his forehead. His appetite vanishes and he pushes his bowl away, letting his spoon fall from his fingers, which are suddenly trembling. He looks at his right hand, clenches it and stretches out his fingers, but the tremors continue.

“John.” Sherlock’s voice is concerned, cutting through some of the fog in his head. “Are you all right?”

John can’t make himself look at him. Surely he should be past any withdrawal by now. “Yeah, fine,” he mutters. “Sorry.”

Sherlock hesitates, clearly unconvinced by this, but he decides to accept it. “All right,” he says dubiously. He watches John finish his water, and wordlessly refills his glass.

After they’ve eaten, Sherlock is a little less aloof, and John senses that he’s watching him as discreetly as possible. He suggests a film, one they’ve seen before, but it’s been years and it’s playing on the telly, so John agrees. Sherlock doesn’t touch him as they watch, though he’s not that far away. John tries to absorb himself in the plot, and it works a little, but he can’t stop thinking about what happens after, painfully aware that Sherlock is also thinking about it, that this conversation has got to happen more or less as soon as the movie ends. He’s dreading it, dreading having Sherlock send him away, tell him that he’s got to go back upstairs to his own room. Yet he also dreads being in bed with Sherlock again, wanting him so badly he can taste it, yet afraid for both their sakes to even try for it.

It’s inevitable, though: the movie ends and Sherlock switches off the telly. The expected silence falls. “I… suppose I’ll go to bed,” Sherlock says, very stiffly.

John swallows hard. “Okay.” He can’t get his voice to function above a whisper.

Sherlock gets to his feet. (Has he taken John’s response as his decision to not come with him? John’s gut turns in on itself.) Sherlock hesitates, not looking at him directly. “Are you… what will you do?” he asks slowly, his voice still horribly strained.

John’s mouth won’t function. He risks a look upwards and it’s the first time all day that their eyes meet. “I don’t… what do you… want?” His fists clench, open, clench again.

Sherlock’s eyes are on John’s restless hands. “You know what I want,” he says, his voice almost too low to be audible. There’s a pause, then he adds, “I want you… to be with me. But only if you want to.”

It’s what he said last night, only now everything is different. Horribly so. John swallows again. “If you’re sure you – still want me there,” he says jerkily. He manages to make himself look up at Sherlock again, expecting him to say something sharp about it not being him they need to worry about here, but he doesn’t.

Instead, he just nods toward his bedroom, then starts off down the corridor. Relieved, John struggles to his feet and follows him, yet the dread in his gut hasn’t gone anywhere. Sherlock has gone into the loo, so John goes into the bedroom to strip down to his t-shirt and underwear, feeling that he should probably keep them on. He looks at the bed and cringes.

Sherlock comes out of the loo and joins him, crossing his arms. “I never asked if you if you have a preferred side,” he says, his voice sounding almost conversational, but John can hear the tension still there underneath.

He clears his throat. “Do you have one?”

Sherlock shakes his head. “Never having shared a bed before, I’ve… never had to choose. What’s your preference?”

Last night, John ended up on the right, closer to the window. The same side Mary made him move to, so that she could be closer to the door for when Rosie cried. (He cannot think about Rosie right now.) “I actually prefer the left side,” he says, a hard edge in his throat. “If you don’t mind.”

Sherlock doesn’t respond to this. He simply goes to the far side and gets into bed, avoiding eye contact.

John wishes he could figure out how to go to Sherlock, how to break this wall between them, figure out how to touch him again. With love. But he can’t. He just doesn’t know how. His precedent is violence and he is incapable of forgetting it. “I’ll – be right there,” he gets out. “Just going to brush my teeth.”

Sherlock makes a sound to show that he heard this, and John escapes into the loo with gritted teeth. God, this is wretched! He brushes his teeth quickly, then dries his hands and switches off the light. Sherlock has already turned off the lamp on his side of the bed when John comes back into the bedroom. It’s dark, only the streetlight filtering in again. John tries not to think about last night and gets gingerly into bed, feeling like an intruder there. He moves around as little as possible, trying not to disturb Sherlock. As soon as he’s stopped moving, a heavy silence falls between them. It’s perfectly clear that Sherlock is wide awake, and so is he, Sherlock on his side facing away from him, John on his back, blinking at the ceiling and debating with himself about trying to say something right about now. Something that would somehow fix this. He inhales, then stops multiple times when the words don’t come. Sherlock makes no sign of having heard him or noticed, but John knows that he has.

Eventually, John turns carefully onto his side and shifts a little closer. The tremor is still quivering in his right hand, but he reaches out and gently touches Sherlock’s upper arm, barely able to breathe.

Sherlock flinches, hard, his entire upper body jerking.

John snatches away his hand, his heartbeat exploding in his ears, alarmed and humiliated and upset. “I’m sorry!” he blurts out. He wants to die. He should have asked first, asked if it would be all right. Obviously it wasn’t, at all. Sherlock flinched, as though he thought John was going to hurt him. Again. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!!

Sherlock half-turns, though. “No – I’m – sorry,” he says, sounding flustered and upset, himself. “I didn’t – I’m sorry. That wasn’t – I don’t know why that – happened.”

The words are jerky and awkward, and they don’t help. “Don’t you?” John asks dully, though his heart is still thundering. “I do.”

A silence falls again, this time rather poignantly laden as Sherlock considers what he said. “What do you mean?” he asks slowly, as though reluctant to know the answer.

“You know why,” John says, his mouth dry. “You thought – maybe not consciously, but subconsciously – you thought I was going to hurt you again.”

Sherlock exhales hard. “No, I don’t think that’s accurate,” he says stiffly, after a moment. “It’s far more likely to be that I…”

He stops, possibly reluctant to say it aloud. John’s slower brain gets it, though. “You were instinctively afraid I was going to leave you high and dry again, then,” he says. When Sherlock doesn’t counter this, he knows he was right. John turns onto his back again, his chest still thudding. It feels almost as though he’s about to go into cardiac arrest. Maybe he’s having a panic attack. “Fuck,” he says. “I can’t – ” He gets himself into a sitting position, pushing back the blankets.

He feels Sherlock move behind him in what feels like alarm. “John, what are you – where are you going?”

He sounds alarmed, too. John shakes his head. “I can’t be here,” he says heavily. “I shouldn’t.”

“John – ” Sherlock is sharp now. “I don’t want you to leave. Nothing needs to happen. Just – stay here with me. Just be here. Is that really so much to ask?”

John feels his face crumple, grateful that Sherlock can’t see it. “It’s too much,” he says, hating himself for it. “It’s more than I have to give right now.” He lurches off the bed and across the room, stumbling into the bathroom and locking himself inside it like a prison. He runs the taps at full force, bent over the sink and crying. He knows it’s too loud, knows that Sherlock can hear it, but he isn’t even capable of stifling himself at the moment. He sobs and pounds his fists on the counter and wishes he could pummel himself bloody. The way he did to Sherlock that day in the hospital. (In a hospital, yet. His swearing of the Hippocratic Oath should be revoked.)

Eventually, the storm passes and John comes to himself again. He finds that he’s slumped on the floor of the bathroom, his back to the wall beside the laundry hamper. His entire being feels spent, his emotions drained, his body like a limp rag. His face is wet, his nose and eyes still leaking. He doesn’t know how long it’s been. Evidently he doesn’t even need alcohol to put himself into a tailspin and have a total breakdown. How long has it been? An hour? More? He has no idea.

A he sits there, something resembling calm finally returns, leaving him shivering and cold. He thinks of Sherlock, lying there on his side, his shoulders hunched forward in the defeat of another failure between them. Zero for two now. Thinking that he made a mistake in ever admitting his feelings, in having put himself out there. That moment when he said what he said, back at the flat, If you can’t hold yourself, then let me help. Let me hold you up – just for now. Those incredibly tender words, uttered without one shred of concern for how risky they were, and then the way Sherlock held him after, not caring about his weakness, not caring about anything he’s ever done wrong, past or present. All Sherlock wanted was to be there for him, and now John can’t even give him the most basic thing of his presence in return. Sherlock’s asked him twice now to sleep with him. First as a lover, then reducing the request for nothing more than for him to be there, in his bed, and John can’t even get over himself long enough to give him that. Sherlock, who never asks him for anything. Who forgave him for the beating that John will never be able to forgive himself for, who loved him too much to care that he went back to Mary after she shot him, who waded into this whole mess when no one else would. Who nearly died because John shut him out, because the same wife that John left him to go back to told him to send himself to hell – when he was already in it, high and miserable and quite probably suicidal. Because of him.

John looks at his hands. They’re still shaking, but he slowly, carefully gets himself to his feet. He doesn’t even remember having sat down. He looks at himself in the mirror. He looks like shit, but that doesn’t matter. Get in there, he tells his reflection fiercely, contempt for this retreat and breakdown seeping out of his every pore. Get in there and just be there with him. And if he’ll let you, hold him, God damn it. It’s the literal least you could do. John watches his reflection nod soberly back at him. He turns and reaches for a tissue, blows his nose, and gives his face a quick wash. Then he squares his shoulders and goes back into the bedroom.

He gets into bed as quietly as he can, and turns onto his side behind Sherlock’s still form. “Are you still awake?” he whispers.

Sherlock doesn’t answer immediately. When he does, his voice is very low. “How could I not be?”

The words sound desolate and hopeless. John swallows, then makes himself ask. “Can I… have another chance?”

Sherlock doesn’t ask him what he means. A moment goes by, then he nods. “Okay.” This time it comes out in a whisper.

John puts his tremoring hand on Sherlock’s side this time, bracing himself for a flinch, a physical jolt of instinctive rejection, but this time it doesn’t come. Barely breathing, he shifts closer and puts his arm all the way around Sherlock. Sherlock is radiating heat like a furnace, and it begins to thaw something in John’s chest that’s been frozen for longer than he’s realised until just now. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m so sorry!”

Sherlock doesn’t speak. Instead, he finds John’s hand on his midsection and covers it with his own, gripping it fiercely in wordless response.

John hugs him closer, shutting his eyes and drowning in relief and gratitude that Sherlock is even letting him do this. Maybe all hope isn’t lost. Maybe this was the first step forward, into the abyss of navigating a relationship out of such a chequered and difficult past. He’ll call Ella tomorrow, he decides then and there. She’ll help them. But for now, holding Sherlock is the only thing he can possibly do, and he’s grateful that he’s able to do it. He can feel Sherlock’s heart beating, too quickly, just as his was, his chest heaving, and wonders if he’s crying. (Please, God, no!) The very thought makes John’s own eyes wet again and he tightens his arm around Sherlock. Sherlock responds by squeezing his long fingers around John’s, and for now, at least, it feels like acceptance.

***

Chapter Text

VIII

 

Ella’s observations begin from the moment Sherlock and John walk into her office, Sherlock leading and holding the door open for John, John following as his fists open and close in a signature nervous gesture. This appointment came at his request, however; he called early this morning before Shelley was even in. Ella took the call herself, astonished to hear John’s voice after the way he left the last time he was here. That was over three weeks ago and she hadn’t heard a word from him since, though Shelley tried contacting him to see if he wanted a follow-up. John has rarely been the one to initiate appointments in the past; either they had a standard set time, or else Ella suggested follow-ups at the end of a session. Although, that being said, John has also started and stopped his therapy a number of times over the years, and it’s usually been he who’s made the call to start again. Nevertheless, the fact that he requested this appointment was a surprise, albeit a good one. She’s been worried about him – very much so, considering his breakdown the last time she saw him. He mentioned it on the phone, clearing his throat repeatedly. About last time… sorry. I was – in a bad spot. Sorry. But I still – I could use your… help. She hadn’t questioned it, merely checked her daily planner and found a two-hour opening, per his request. John asked about having a longer session, then explained that Sherlock was going to come with him, if it was all right. Ella had blinked, surprised, then calmly agreed to it. “I’ll see you both at two, then,” she said.

Since they were both coming, she shuffled around the seating and put a small sofa in place of the single chair, the one she uses for couples’ therapy sessions. She doesn’t know what their current status is, but she’s only got the one single chair in this office. Now, Sherlock looks around the office, then sits down on the right side and crosses one knee over the other. John sits down beside him, looking visibly apprehensive.

Ella crosses her own legs and folds her hands together over the top knee. “Gentlemen,” she says, keeping her tone relatively light. “It’s been a little while. Why don’t you fill me in on what’s been going on, what’s prompted your return – both of you, at that – and why together?”

They glance at each other. Sherlock nods at John for him to go ahead, so John takes a deep breath. “Er, yeah. Hi. Sorry it’s been… it’s been too long, and I should have got in touch after… after last time I was here. I haven’t been… good. Yeah. That’s a – bit of an understatement, I guess.”

He stops. Ella keeps her gaze non-judgemental. “How so?”

John swallows and looks down at his hands. “I, er… I started drinking. Neglecting Rosie. Which I don’t want to talk about today, if that’s all right. I… shut everyone out and just… spiralled. Couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d done, what I’ve become. And I can’t stop. It’s – I don’t know what to do about it, and it’s been – getting in the way. Wrecking stuff.”

He avoids looking at either her or Sherlock as he says this. “Which stuff?” Ella asks, gazing at him.

John inhales, holds it, then says, “Er, me and Sherlock – he came to the flat one day, and… ” The words get stuck as he debates which ones to use. Eventually he says, “We, er, we talked, and – we’re – together now. That’s the upshot of it. That stuff. I’m – my issues are – getting in the way.”

Ella is careful to conceal how pleased she is about this development, on both their parts. For John to have finally come to a place of admitting his feelings, not only to himself but also to Sherlock, is tremendous. And for Sherlock to have allowed himself to become vulnerable enough to confess his own feelings and allow himself to enter this sort of relationship is also marked progress. “Well, that’s wonderful news, that you’re together now,” she says, offering them a smile. “Can I ask how that came about, with a little more detail, perhaps?”

John looks at Sherlock now, who mutely cedes right of speech to him again, so John looks down at his hands, flexing his fingers, and says, “I guess I’m the one who said how I feel first. It wasn’t – er, particularly romantic. I was a hopeless mess at the time. It seemed like all hope was lost anyway, so there didn’t seem to be much point in keeping it a secret any longer, I guess, so I just – said it. And then Sherlock said he felt the same way, and somehow after that, it just sort of happened.”

Sherlock gives John a quick look at this point, making Ella think that he wants to add something here, but she decides to circle back to that. Based on what John has just said, perhaps she overestimated his progress in this regard. “You’ve mentioned a breakdown,” she says. “The drinking: tell me more about that, please. What did this breakdown look like?”

John’s brow furrows, his fingers gripping at each other now. “That’s pretty much it. It was a lot of me lying around and hating myself, drinking to try to forget it, but obviously that never works. Like I said, I withdrew from everyone. Stopped minding my responsibilities. Et cetera.”

Ella does not ask about Rosie. She’ll honour that request, at least for today. “Is it under control?” she asks, not beating around the bush. “Are you seeking treatment?”

John nods. “We’re going to meetings together. We went to one the other day, and there’s another one tonight at the same place.”

“Good.” Ella is brisk. “If you tell me that it’s under control, then I’ll take your word for it.” She changes tacks. “This hating yourself that you mentioned: I’m gathering that this is related to some of the realisations you made during your last appointment here.”

John nods slowly. “About… having become an abusive person,” he says, the words cracking into a whisper toward the end.

Ella glances at Sherlock, who is frowning but dutifully not interrupting. “There is a difference, though it’s an arguably fine line, between a person exhibiting abusive behaviour, and a person who is a pattern abuser,” she says carefully.

John shakes his head. “I am, though. A pattern abuser, I mean. I’ve had too much time to think about it, believe me. There’ve been things I’ve said that go years back, things that make it sound like all I care about with Sherlock is his ability to solve stuff or know things. And I’ve heavily implied, in jokes with other people in front of him and directly to his face that him being the way he is isn’t okay.”

Sherlock is shaking his head, so Ella glances at him. “Sherlock? Was there something you wanted to say to that?”

Sherlock exhales, then looks at John and says, “I don’t even know what you’re referring to here.”

“Yeah, you do.” John’s voice is flat. “Like when we were leaving to go to Moriarty’s trial, years back. I was trying to tell you how to behave in court and you said something like, ‘I’ll just be myself’, and I said something like, ‘Are you even listening to me?’ I was always doing that to you. Joking around with Lestrade in front of you, at your expense.”

“I do the same thing to you,” Sherlock points out. “I’ve frequently jokingly implied that you’re stupid or something, though I’ve always hoped you did know they were jokes.”

“I did,” John says, looking at him now. “I always did. But did you? Know that I didn’t mean that stuff?”

Sherlock meets his gaze evenly. “Did you not mean it?”

John falters. “I don’t know. I hope not.” He looks back at Ella. “See? That’s exactly what I mean. I mean, when I asked him to be my best man, he was genuinely shocked to discover that he’s my best friend. I’d never even made that clear, that he was that important to me – at least that important. Obviously it was always more than that, but – that’s a whole other thing. What I’m saying is, I’ve consistently been a jerk to Sherlock over the years. I’ve walked out on him, shut him out any number of times now. And that’s all apart from that awful day at the hospital. I just… I don’t know if this is a thing I can change, but I – I want to. I want to not be like this anymore.”

Ella, meanwhile, has been jotting some of this down. “I see,” she says now. She turns a page in the notebook so that neither of them will read it, and turns her attention to Sherlock. “You’ve been quiet,” she observes. “How do you feel about what John has said so far?”

Lines appear between Sherlock’s eyes, but he doesn’t drop his gaze. “Frustrated,” he says, his voice coming out measured, but there’s tension beneath it. “It’s – a very different slant on the person I know. I suppose that we’ve had our issues, but I just don’t see any of them presenting as large a problem as John seems to think. Or at least, I didn’t until… more recently.”

Ella nods. “Okay,” she says. She pauses. “Just because I have to ask, how are you managing your own addiction struggles? Are the meetings helping?”

Sherlock shrugs. “It hasn’t been an issue for some time now. Since before the incident with my sister. But every addict can use the reinforcement,” he adds politely, and Ella understands immediately that he’s going to the meetings entirely out of support for John rather than for his own sake.

She decides not to pursue that one, at least not for today. John requested this joint appointment to talk about their newfound relationship and whatever’s not working with it. “All right,” she says. “So when did this relationship start?”

They look at each other. Sherlock doesn’t speak, so John does. “Five days ago. It was… during that breakdown, like I said. I… hadn’t been taking care of Rosie properly, and a friend – Molly – came and took her away. That, at least, shocked me into sobriety. I was still hungover when Sherlock came over. I hadn’t been answering his calls or texts. He just came anyway, let himself in, and somewhere in there it all came out. He knew they’d taken Rosie.”

Ella glances at Sherlock, but directs her question to John. “Did you discuss that day at the hospital?”

John nods, looking down. “Sherlock said he doesn’t care, that he’d already forgiven it. I just don’t get how he can. I can’t.”

“Let’s come back to that,” Ella says, without impatience. “So somewhere in there, you told him how you feel.”

He nods again. “Without expecting any sort of… reciprocation. It was just… I don’t know, part of my explanation. But Sherlock said he’d always felt the same way. He wanted me to get up, look at him, but I said I couldn’t even do that much, so he came over and just… held me. It’s not the way I ever wanted this to come about, but it – honestly, it feels like a miracle that it did.”

Ella smiles. “Miracles of this nature can happen, particularly when there are deep feelings on both sides,” she tells him. Now she looks at Sherlock. “Whose suggestion was it that John come back to Baker Street? I’m rather assuming this was the case, since you arrived together.”

Sherlock doesn’t deny it. “It was mine, though John also requested that I help him leave the flat,” he says evenly. “Why? Is this a problem?”

It’s slightly defensive. “Not necessarily,” Ella says thoughtfully. “In another circumstance, possibly. However, given your history of having lived together multiple times in the past, in this case it seems a rather natural decision to have come to. Where my concern lies is in the nature of you having essentially provided an intervention, either in John’s drinking or his depression, which is essentially a step in his treatment. Mixing treatment with newfound relationship status can be a… challenging combination. One which has a lot of potential to damage your relationship.”

“That’s hardly the thing damaging it,” John says, his voice very dry. “And given my state at the time, he could hardly have left me there. Especially when I asked him to take me home.”

He’s defending Sherlock, Ella notes, but at the cost of throwing himself to the wolves again. “All right, let’s address that,” she says, deciding to tackle this head-on. “What would you say is damaging your relationship so far?”

“Me,” John says flatly. “Like I said: all my issues are getting in the way.”

“Of what, specifically?” Ella asks. An uncomfortable silence falls and neither of them answers this. Curious. She taps her pen against the blank page of her notebook. “I see we’re coming to the meat of it, then,” she remarks mildly. “Are you open to discussing this? I rather think that we should, but if you have objections, then I won’t proceed.” She studies them both, but neither one objects. She gives them a moment longer, then says, “All right, then: let me ask another question. How far into the physical aspect of your relationship have you progressed at this point?” Their discomfort increases noticeably. Interesting. She tries a lighter, safer question. “Have you kissed, for instance?”

They both nod. “Back at the flat,” John says, clearing his throat. “And a bunch more since then.”

Ella nods. “Good,” she says calmly. It’s always important to keep sex talk as frank and un-charged as possible. “Have you had sex?”

“No,” Sherlock says testily, refusing to look at either of them.

John swallows audibly and presses his lips together, looking at an unspecified spot on the carpet.

Ah: here it is, then: the source of their current contention, and the real reason for their visit. Ella crosses her legs the other way. “I see,” she says. She looks at both of them. “Have there been – attempts?”

John nods. Sherlock examines his fingernails. “Twice,” John says tightly. “They were both… failures.”

“How so?” Ella keeps her tone calm and measured. When neither of them answers, she applies the smallest amount of pressure. “Come now, gents: it’s just the three of us. Problems with sex don’t get better by not talking about them. This is the safest possible place to talk about it, particularly in front of your therapist. So let’s talk, get it all out into the open. What went wrong? Let’s start with the basics: are you sharing a bedroom at this point?”

They avoid looking at each other. “Sort of,” John mumbles.

Ella almost smiles. “Let’s be specific,” she invites.

Sherlock glances in John’s direction. “Yes, for the past two nights, at least,” he says. He clears his throat. “I had – hoped it would… be an ongoing arrangement.”

Ella looks at John. “What about you?” she asks. “Is this something you would like to have happen as well?”

John purses his lips and nods and frowns at the same time. “Is it too soon, though?” he asks abruptly. “I mean, I feel like this entire relationship is happening years too late as it is, but even so – is that – I mean, should we have waited until I’m – better?”

“Going into past hypotheticals would hardly be useful for us at this point,” Ella tells him. “The question is, where do things stand now, how do we make them better, and what do you both want, going forward? The fact is that you have started sleeping together – at least in the strictly practical sense of that phrase – so to stop now would, I think, feel like a regression for both of you. If you both want to be sharing a bed, then let’s assume that as a given and start figuring out how to make it work.” She changes tacks. “So what went wrong?” she asks. “Again, let’s be as specific as possible here. You said that neither night worked. What happened the first night?”

Neither of them volunteers. They’re both avoiding eye contact with each other and her, John chewing at his lower lip from the inside, Sherlock’s nose creasing at the bridge.

Ella decides to nudge things along. “Sherlock? Why don’t you start. What were your impressions of what happened that night?”

Sherlock’s jaw tightens, just perceptibly. He inhales, stops, then speaks quickly and without inflection. “We were on the sofa, kissing. I asked John if he would like to stay downstairs for the night, with me. He agreed. We were… specific about the nature of – of what was going to happen, if not the precise – activity. It got underway, then stopped when he saw my bullet scar from Mary’s shot. He tells me you know about this,” he adds, firing the fact at Ella almost like a bullet itself.

She nods. “Yes. I do now. Go on.”

Sherlock’s left shoulder twitches. “That’s it. It stopped at that point.”

Ella surveys him with gentle eyes. “I do realise that this is very difficult to speak about, particularly in such a candid manner,” she says, directing her words to Sherlock specifically. “It’s not a subject which you’ve willingly discussed before – neither with me, nor, I would presume, with many others. But it would help if we could use very precise terminology here. What started? What stopped? What happened after that? Let’s examine this like a crime scene, shall we?”

This gets her a startled look from Sherlock. He takes another deep breath, then nods. “Yes. I see. In that case, I’ll – try.” He struggles internally for the words, then starts over, speaking slower this time. “It started on the sofa, as I said. We were kissing. We had been doing a fair bit of that throughout the day. We had also discussed my… my sexual history, or entire lack thereof, during dinner. I thought that things were going rather well. It – I didn’t think it was necessarily… out of place to broach the subject of John spending the night downstairs. In my bedroom, that is. So I raised the question and John agreed.”

He stops to collect himself and Ella deftly interjects a question here. “Was that difficult for you?” she asks quietly. “To ask John for that?”

Again, she catches a glimpse of startlement from Sherlock, as though her perception has taken him by surprise. He clears his throat and looks down, nodding. “It… but he agreed, and I was… relieved, I suppose. Apprehensive, relieved, pleased. I don’t know. Any of those, in whichever order you care to choose.”

Ella glances at John, who is breathing with difficulty, lips pursed, not looking at Sherlock. “So you went from there to the bedroom?” she asks. When Sherlock acknowledges this, she presses ahead. “What happened there? Did you get into bed? Did you touch each other? Undress? Go on kissing?”

Sherlock looks down at his hands, his fingers twisting at each other. “No – I – we got undressed before we got into bed. There was more kissing, then John initiated the move to the bed. We were both – aroused,” he says, heat creeping up his face, the word coming out with some duress. “Then he touched my bullet scar by accident, and it – stopped. As I said. He stopped touching me.” He pauses, then makes an addition with painful clarity. “He wasn’t aroused anymore.”

“But you were?” Ella keeps the question as gentle as possible. Sherlock doesn’t deny this, the colour in his face and neck deepening. “I see,” she says. She sets her notebook aside, knowing better than to take notes about this with them there. She’ll do that later. “Can you say how that felt?”

“Humiliating,” Sherlock says, his tone clipped. “Overextended. Exposed.”

This is raw, unvarnished honesty, and Ella silently applauds him for it. “Well expressed,” she says, then turns to John. “John? Can you give us your experience of this event?”

“Yeah, also humiliating,” John says, the words coming hard on the heels of her question, as though he was just waiting to say it. It’s a mix of voice and whisper, but the words and the resentment behind them are clear enough. His arms are crossed over his torso as though in self-protection and he avoids eye contact. “It’s not like I wanted to lose my erection there. I wanted it – the whole thing. I wasn’t – you know, trying to lure Sherlock into a false pretext or something. I wanted it as much as he did and I’ve felt like shit ever since.”

“For – which part, exactly?” Ella asks, studying him.

“For all of it,” John retorts, his eyes meeting hers briefly. “For – for having failed him. Again. I know it was hard for him to ask for that. And I’m horribly, painfully aware of how it must have made him feel, how he still feels. I just – don’t know how to fix it.”

Sherlock swallows and his eyes slide sideways to John. Ella watches him for a moment, but when he doesn’t speak, she goes on, addressing John. “So up until the moment with the scar, you were equally enthusiastic about the idea?”

“I never stopped ‘being enthusiastic’,” John says, with some exasperation. “I just got – distracted. Thrown off by the vividly tangible evidence of exactly what my decisions have put Sherlock through. I’ve obviously been struggling with feeling like I’m worth being forgiven for any of it, and to have that sudden reminder right then was – was like a bucket of ice water.”

Sherlock’s lips twitch. “It’s not as though I can do anything to un-scar myself,” he says, a bit resentful in turn. “It’s sort of the nature of how scars work.”

This barb of sarcasm is stemming from his hurt, Ella knows, but it causes John to flare up. “I know that!” he says, glaring directly at Sherlock now. “That’s half the problem! I know that, because it was my wife who put it there! And then I went back to her!”

“John,” Ella says quietly, and that does it.

He slumps back into the sofa, breathing hard. “Sorry,” he mutters.

She surveys them both. “This incident has left you both feeling raw, exposed, and humiliated,” she says softly. “These are very valid ways of feeling, considering the circumstances.”

Sherlock’s mouth and jaw muscles both move. He looks at John’s left knee, takes a breath, then says, “I know that you didn’t – that it wasn’t deliberate. That you didn’t choose to react that way, and that you couldn’t… have done anything to… to remedy it,” he says carefully. “I am aware of that. I just… didn’t know how to go on behaving around you yesterday.”

“I know,” John says, nodding and not quite meeting his eyes. “I know how awkward it must have made you feel. And I didn’t know what to say either. I should have apologised, but I still didn’t know how to explain myself and it just – it all felt so awful that I didn’t know how to broach the subject at all. Or if I should even try.”

Sherlock shrugs and looks frustrated at this, not knowing what to say, so Ella interjects. “Communication often does help,” she points out. “So what happened last night? You said there were two failed attempts?”

“Last night was even worse,” John says, exhaling hard and looking up at the ceiling.

“Go on,” Ella invites. “Sherlock spoke first last time.”

John shakes his head. “I spent all day wondering uneasily what was going to happen come night time, wondering if I should suggest going back to my room upstairs, whether that would – I don’t know, deepen the sense of rejection or make it seem like I was giving up, or that I didn’t want to stay with Sherlock, especially given that he was the one who asked me to stay downstairs in the first place, or if it would be sort of audacious to assume my welcome in his bedroom given that I’d left him high and dry the night before. And the closer we got to the end of the day, the more I dreaded the conversation happening because I just didn’t know what to say.”

Ella looks at Sherlock, who is listening with his lips slightly parted. “So how did it get discussed?”

John shrugs. “It was… brief. I think Sherlock said he was going to bed, then asked what I was going to do. I think I sort of asked what he wanted, because I couldn’t get a read of any of it, and he said that I knew what he wanted. And reiterated that he wanted me to stay, but only if I wanted to. So I just sort of followed him to his bedroom, more or less.”

“Okay.” Ella nods. “So what happened?”

John swallows, his entire face creasing with tension. “I reached over and touched him, and he flinched as though I’d burnt him. Like he thought I was going to hurt him. I knew it was instinctive, not him trying to make me feel bad, but I was – but then he corrected me, explained that it was more that he was afraid that I was going to start something I couldn’t finish again. Which is just as bad. I – I had to leave the room. He didn’t want me to. He asked if my staying there with him was really so much to ask, and I said it was more than I had to give, and left. And had a full-scale falling apart in the loo. It was… ugly.”

Ella glances at Sherlock, who is swallowing and pressing at his thumbnails, then looks back at John. “How long did it last, and what happened after that?”

John shakes his head. “I don’t know how long. Over an hour. When I came to myself again, I was sitting on the floor, and all I could think about was Sherlock, how much more I must be hurting him. I’ve… rarely loathed myself more. So I made myself get up, pull myself together, and go back into the room.” He pauses and swallows. “I asked if he was still awake, and if I could try again, and he said I could, to my relief, and he let me put my arm around him. And that made things feel… better, at least.”

Ella nods. “All right,” she says. She doesn’t want to ask this, but it does need to be done. “Was there any alcohol involved in this breakdown?”

“No.” John is firm. “Just – me being a disaster in every other respect.”

Ella offers him a wry smile. “Well, that’s one problem averted, at least,” she says. “Sherlock: let’s hear your experience of it.”

Sherlock looks down and away, closing off without otherwise changing his body language. “I don’t have anything much to add. My… reaction was unintentional. The flinch. I – would like to attribute it to having so recently become more… physically… active. Oversensitive, perhaps.” He clears his throat, then adds quietly, “I’m – grateful for the way it ended. That John came back.”

Ella watches him for a moment. “Would you like to say anything else about it? How did you feel when John went into the bathroom?”

Sherlock’s lips compress. “Terrible, if you want to know,” he says, still looking down. “I… hadn’t realised that requesting his presence was… such a large request. I had thought it was already a – a compromise. I assumed that my original request was off the table, and was trying to be grateful that he was willing to stay downstairs again at all.”

Ella nods. “So when he left, it felt like he was denying you even that much. That’s understandable. That said, sometimes people need space to process their feelings. Space, and privacy. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t ever give the thing they’re being asked for, but sometimes it’s just a question of timing.”

Sherlock nods slowly, his brow still troubled, and exhales slowly.

Ella looks back and forth between them. “The two of you have interesting and complex histories, both as individuals and jointly, and that history will affect all of this. John, you have a long history of trust issues, of having people that you trusted break that trust. That’s going to affect this. Sherlock, you have a long history of a fear of intimacy, for equally good and valid reasons. That’s going to affect this. You both have unaddressed and unresolved issues surrounding your sexuality. That’s going to come up, too. Understanding it is going to be key in learning how to live with it, work within it, learn to understand one another and your needs. Sorting out your own history is another layer in all of this, too. Have you begun to talk about this? Any of it?”

They glance at each other, both rather wary. “Yeah, a little,” John tells her. “We’ve started, at least. And we’ve got an agreed-upon policy of honesty.”

“Good,” Ella says. “Sherlock, you mentioned that you’ve also discussed your own sexual history. Have you discussed John’s?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “I hardly need to hear any more about John’s many past conquests.”

“Not helpful,” Ella says mildly. “And that’s not what I’m talking about here.”

A silence falls, John casting her an uneasy look. “What do you mean?” Sherlock asks, looking at her first, then John.

Ella’s eyes are on John, too. “Would you like to tell him?”

He shakes his head a little. “You do it. Please.”

The last word comes out in a whisper. Ella fits her fingers together around her knee and addresses Sherlock. “You’re aware that John has indeed had quite a few relationships in the past. All with women. Very few that were particularly happy or fulfilling, in a multitude of ways, including sexually.”

Sherlock looks genuinely startled. “What?” He directs this at John. “I don’t understand.”

John clears his throat and looks down. “Yeah, well. It’s – hard to talk about.”

“We’ve discussed this in the past, but never quite managed to put it fully into words, I think,” Ella goes on, treading carefully. “You said once that you sometimes felt that the more sex you had, the less satisfying you found it. That some vital element was missing from it. We never did identify that element. Do you think we might be any closer to naming that today, John?”

John swallows hard. “Well, I was never really in love with any of them. Not even Mary. I – tried. I really did.”

“But trying isn’t how love works, or at least not sexual attraction,” Ella points out. She crosses her legs the other way again, shifting her weight. “Shortly before you left your last appointment here, you accused me of having tried to make you admit for years that you loved Sherlock. For what it’s worth, I apologise if you felt I was pressuring you to say it. It was always implied, however. I rather thought it was understood between you and I as something which we both knew to be true, but that you weren’t ready to name as such.”

John clears his throat again, then nods. “Yeah. About that – I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. And definitely not the way I said it, either. But you’re right, of course. Obviously that’s why none of my relationships worked. Hard to make yourself fall in love with one person when you’re trying desperately not to be in love with someone else.”

Ella nods. “Well said. And the corresponding element to these emotions would be the sexual one,” she leads, hoping that John will fill in the rest for himself.

He does, the dots connecting visibly. “Oh. So I also – yeah. I get it. Sex was never going to work when it was with the wrong people, too.”

“Or specifically, not the right person,” Ella suggests. “Certainly not if you already felt so strongly about Sherlock going that far back.”

Sherlock looks at John. “Was it really… that long?” he asks, the framing around his mouth betraying the vulnerability of the question.

John looks back at him, his throat bobbing. “Yeah,” he says, his voice cracking into a whisper again. “It was always you I wanted. So – don’t go thinking that I don’t want this or something. Want you. Because I do. So much.”

Sherlock looks very much as though he wants to say something but doesn’t know what to say, but it’s all there in the intensity of his eyes. Ella gives him a moment, but when he doesn’t find the words he needs, she decides to spare him. “Remember, though, this want has been held back for years, too,” she reminds John. “Suppressed and repressed and denied – it can take some work to unlearn that. To allow yourself to feel it, show it, not hide it. Your family history in terms of how Harry’s sexuality was received, your military background, and even the many comments your mutual friends have made implying that you and Sherlock were a couple when you weren’t, have all entrenched this sense of need to hide and deny it. That doesn’t come undone overnight, even when it’s just the two of you in private. Be aware that that could also come up. And Sherlock, this applies to you, too. You’ve spent years being told and firmly believing that feeling or showing sentiment is a sign of weakness and compromise. You’ve told me that John’s friendship with you puts him in danger, compromises you both. You’ve gone to extreme lengths to rectify that very danger. You will also need to spend some time unlearning that need to hide your heart away, deny yourself the right to love and to show love.”

John gives a dry laugh. “Aren’t we a fucked up pair,” he says, to no one in particular.

Sherlock looks at him with compassion. “Perhaps,” he allows. “But we’re not beyond repair – are we?” This last, he directs at Ella.

She smiles. “No, of course not. Few people are. Individually, or in their relationships. And for what it’s worth, I do strongly feel that the two of you, for all of the negative aspects of your history, do have the power to make each other stronger, to bring out the best aspects of one another.”

John’s eyes flick to Sherlock almost guiltily, as though looking at something that he deeply yearns to have but doesn’t think that he can. “All evidence to the contrary.”

“I disagree,” Ella says firmly. “You said once, within months of having met Sherlock, that he turned your life around, gave you a sense of purpose again for the first time since your return from Afghanistan. Sherlock, you told me at one of your appointments following Mary’s death that your sole purpose since your return from your two years away was John’s happiness – the first time you had ever prioritised something above puzzle solving and casework. You both believe the other to be a better version of himself than the other believes himself to be. You both use superlatives like ‘best’, ‘bravest’, ‘kindest’, ‘cleverest’, et cetera. You see versions of each other that no one else sees, and I think that at your best and healthiest, you do bring out those aspects of one other.”

“For what it’s worth, I believe that,” Sherlock says quietly, looking at John. “I know for a fact that knowing you has made me a far better version of myself than I ever was before that.”

John looks back for a long time, his doubt showing clearly, but his face is open. He wants to believe it, Ella thinks. He just doesn’t think that he’s permitted to. Not yet. “I believe it, too,” he says at last. “I’m not sure I’m w – ” He stops himself from saying whatever it was and clears his throat. “But I want to be.”

“You are,” Sherlock says, before Ella can. “You are worth it. I’m trying to be, too.”

Of course he caught the unspoken word, Ella thinks. “That’s all anyone can do,” she says gently. “Try.”

“I remember having promised you that I would, back at Mary’s flat,” John says. “I’m – I’m going to do better. I promise.”

“That’s why we’re here, aren’t we?” Sherlock returns, and John manages a watery smile at this. He reaches for Sherlock’s hand then, and Sherlock lets him have it, looking visibly, if privately pleased.

He looks at Ella. “What’s the next question?”

She gives him a smile. “We’re not nearly finished with the sex questions,” she says cheerfully. “Apart from Sherlock’s lack of history, do I understand correctly that you haven’t really talked about sex at all? Just attempted it?”

John coughs. “Yeah. That’s – yeah.”

“Not a problem,” Ella assures him. “But talking does help. Would you rather talk about this on your own, or would it be easier to hash some of it out right now?”

Sherlock looks overtly alarmed. “Hash what out, precisely?”

John looks both amused at this, but also concerned, looking back at Ella and waiting for her to answer. “It’s a large topic,” she says. “Have you discussed the particulars of what you would like to try together? What positions, activities, and so forth?”

Sherlock’s alarm is verging on mortification. “No.” The heat returns to his face, staining his neck crimson. He withdraws his hand from John’s and crosses his arms protectively across his torso, and John does the same thing, subconsciously echoing the gesture.

John clears his throat, then does it again. “Not – no.” He squints at her. “You want us to just – say that stuff, right here and now? All of it?”

Sherlock looks at him. “Is there – a lot?”

John’s mouth quirks. “Er… yeah.” He coughs again. “That – okay? I mean – it’s all, er, pending your approval, of course.”

Sherlock flounders for a moment, genuinely lost for words again. Ella comes to his rescue. “There are a lot of options out there,” she tells him lightly. “The idea here is just to get a conversation started, to make it easier for the two of you to talk about in private in the future. For now, I propose we just go through some of the basic categories. It’s not that we’re curating a list to check off here, just a general overview to see what common ground you may have in your sexual interests. How does that sound?”

They exchange a look, then both nod, clearing their throats. John flexes his hands several times and Sherlock surreptitiously presses his palms to his thighs once before locking his fingers together in an iron grip.

Ella smiles. “Let’s start light,” she proposes. “No one’s asking anyone to disclose his deepest, darkest fantasies just yet. I’ll ask questions and you can both answer with a simple yes or no. All right? So: this will seem obvious, but: are you interested in touching each other in a sexual manner?”

John nods. Sherlock looks at him, then says, “Yes.”

“Specifically in manual stimulation of the genitals?” Ella keeps the question as scientifically-worded as possible, if only to reassure Sherlock and take some of the embarrassment out of it for John. They both mumble agreement to this, too. “What about oral stimulation?” Their embarrassment grows as her list of questions go, but by her tenth question, they’ve both still said yes to everything she’s asked about. She’s jotting notes in her notepad by now, if only to allow them to avoid making eye contact with her. She turns a page. “What about in penetrative sex? Are you interested in trying this?”

There is a significant pause here. John, squirming with acute and visible discomfort, says, “I’m not… averse to the, er, to the idea…”

Sherlock’s lips are almost invisible. He nods once, quickly, but refuses to look at either of them.

“This also raises a question about positions,” Ella says. “Do either of you have a position you would rather try? Or one that you would rather not try? Remember there are no correct or incorrect answers here.”

John clamps his jaw shut and looks up at the poster of the lake in Switzerland.

Ella looks at Sherlock, her eyebrows raised questioningly. He swallows. “I would… prefer to… for John to be the one – inside,” he says, barely audibly.

John exhales hard, his nostrils going white. “I don’t think I can do that. I’m sorry. I – don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“Why not?” Ella asks, curious.

John crosses his arms and refuses to look at her. “I don’t trust myself, all right?” His voice is tight. “That other stuff – yeah. Maybe I could do that. But this might… I don’t want to… hurt Sherlock.”

Sherlock looks at John for a long moment. “We don’t have to do that,” he says quietly. “Ella just… asked if there was interest. And we agreed to be honest, so… but we don’t have to, if you would rather not.”

John’s lips are pursed. “It’s not a – lack of interest. It’s – I’m afraid to, all right?”

His tone is a bit hard, but the words are honest and most importantly, on the exterior. Ella studies him for a few moments and decides against making John qualify or explain this. She somewhat assumes that it’s as clear to Sherlock as it is to her, and she would prefer to steer clear of giving John further opportunities to berate himself. “What about the other way around?” she asks. “What if you were the one on the bottom?” She uses the term calmly, trying to normalise it for him.

John’s face turns red. He pinches the bridge of his nose and avoids making eye contact. “Could we… move on, please? I’m – finding this difficult. Especially just because we haven’t even – ” He stops. “Could we just leave it for now?”

Sherlock gives Ella a sharp look, obviously wanting her to agree for John’s sake, so she backs off immediately. “Of course,” she says. “This was just meant to create a safe-feeling context to discuss some of this, because it is hard to discuss, even between people who love one another. Now you have some ideas, at least. All of that said, let’s talk about pragmatics.”

“What do you mean?” Sherlock asks, though he keeps stealing careful glances at John, clearly concerned about him.

“Let’s discuss how to make this work,” Ella clarifies. “These are just suggestions on my part, of course. You can feel free to take them or leave them if something better seems to be working for you. I suggest that you not try to make sex happen. If it happens on its own, fine. Fantastic. If not, that’s also fine. But don’t put any pressure on it. I suggest you give that some space and focus rather on other forms of physical and emotional intimacy. This is a language that you both need to work at, individually and as a couple. I suggest you do go on sharing a bed, as I said, because stopping that would feel like a regression or a disappointment to you both, I think. Work on overtly learning how to express your love for one another. There’s no need for this to be a public thing before you’re ready for it to be. You can figure out together how public you’d like to take your relationship, and when. For now, focus on other forms of showing affection, of learning intimacy. I suspect you’ve already begun, but it takes practise, like anything else. So practise. Touch one another in other ways. Hold hands. Hug. Lie together without making it specifically sexual. Learn how to sleep together.”

They’re both nodding. John already looks more relaxed. “Okay,” he says cautiously. “What else?”

“If or when you do decide to give sex another shot, I suggest you pre-plan a safe word,” Ella says. “If either one of you is in any way concerned about the safety of anyone involved, be it himself or the other person, creating a safe word is a good precaution to take. If anyone is concerned about things getting out of hand, or going into unexplored territory too quickly or in a way that’s in any way uncomfortable, then you’ll have a word to use if need be. It’s not that I even expect you to need to use it, but the knowledge of its existence alone could prove helpful. And not just for sex, either – if anything hurts, doesn’t feel right, whether that’s something physical, sexual, or emotional, you can use it to signal the fact. What do you think?”

John looks at Sherlock, looking a bit dubious, but Sherlock merely looks thoughtful, a crease between his brows and at the bridge of his nose. “What should we choose?” John asks him.

“Obviously something that wouldn’t otherwise come up in casual conversation,” Sherlock says, rather dryly.

John almost smirks at this. He thinks, then says, “What about lentils? You hate those, so we’d never talk about them.”

Sherlock wrinkles his nose. “Lentils are vile. Perfect.”

John looks satisfied. “What else?” he asks Ella.

“This one is specifically for you, John,” she says, her expression turning more serious. “You’ve made numerous references during this session about hating yourself, loathing yourself, not feeling yourself worthy of forgiveness, or of Sherlock. For you, John, this is the one thing I really need to say, and that you need to learn to believe: it is never our job to decide who gets to love us or forgive us. It’s my hope that over time, you will learn how to live with your own past actions, learn how to create new patterns to replace the ones you’d like to see fall away. But it’s not our job to tell the people who love us that they’re not allowed to love us. They’re entitled to, and we’re entitled to accept that love. That’s my underlying lesson of the day, if I’ve got one, gentlemen: that you’re both allowed to have this. To allow yourselves to want this, to love each other, and to allow each other to love you in return. If you can do just that, I strongly suspect that most of the rest of it is going to fall into place. It’s going to take time, though. This is a new way of learning to relate to one another, to be in relationship with each other. You’re not building Rome from the ground up: you’re rebuilding it after a battle, if you will. You have some painful history, both individually and jointly, but you have the power to be stronger together. What it’s going to take is learning new patterns, new ways of speaking, touching, living together. You’ll need to practise this – practise, and talk about it as it’s happening. Check in with each other. Ask things like, ‘do you like it when I touch you this way?’, ‘are you comfortable?’, ‘do you want to keep going?’, ‘can I touch you like this?’, ‘how do you feel right now?’, ‘how did what I just said make you feel?’, and so forth. This sort of direct, open communication, particularly regarding sexuality, and particularly regarding one another, is not going to be easy for you. You’ve both been repressing a lot of this for a very long time, and it’s going to take work and practise to learn new habits.”

They’re both watching her, taking it in. John takes a breath, then says abruptly, “What if I can’t change, though? What if I want to, and I just can’t? What if I’m just – like this?”

Before Ella can respond to this, Sherlock does, turning to John. “Nothing will ever change the way I feel about you,” he says, his voice low and intense. “And I will never leave you, or stop wanting this.” He shoots Ella a look as though daring her to challenge him on this. “Look: I know you’ll want to say things about having healthy boundaries and whatnot, but I’m afraid that in this case, that simply isn’t going to happen. Nothing will ever persuade me to abandon this.” He looks at John again and adds, emphatically, “Nothing. Do you understand?”

John’s mouth opens a little, his eyes sweeping over Sherlock’s face, but he looks anything but convinced.

Ella waits a little, but when John doesn’t seem able to respond, she asserts herself. “That’s a beautiful statement, Sherlock. And while you’re right that I should be saying something along those lines, this is what I’d rather focus on, in two parts: first off, while this is a very selfless gesture on your part, there are a few aspects we need to talk about. First, part of this isn’t about what you need or don’t need – it’s about what John needs from you in order to heal and move into a new space and new relationship with you. One of those things is boundaries. John fears going beyond your boundaries and having you not stop him. For him to feel safe about getting more deeply involved with you, he needs to know that there are boundaries, that you would stop him if things went too far or beyond your comfort. Here’s the second part: the fact of the matter is that you want to do anything in your power to erase the negative history between the two of you so that you can move forward into this new relationship. You would sacrifice any need for resolution on your own behalf in order to grant John this clemency and avoid holding him accountable for his actions by any means necessary. Unfortunately, that won’t work.”

Sherlock’s jaw tightens, his mouth taking on a stubborn look. “Why not?”

“Again, because John needs for you to acknowledge it,” Ella tells him gently. “We can talk about the importance of you acknowledging your own needs and desires, but if that aspect of the situation isn’t speaking to you, I think that this one will. If you want to focus on what John needs, then this is it: he needs to be held accountable, and specifically by the person whom he hurt. This stuff can’t just be waved off and magically made to go away. For your forgiveness to mean something to John, it has to be the real thing, and that means acknowledging your own pain in this – in any part of this where there was an experience of pain for you. Otherwise, it isn’t real. It’s a surface patch job at best.” She picks up her notebook again and turns a new page. “So let’s get right to the heart of it, Sherlock. If you want to issue a blanket pardon to John, in order to help him let go of it and forgive himself, I suggest you take this moment right now to name what in John’s behaviour has hurt you the most.”

Sherlock’s brow creases, every part of his facial expression and body language conveying a deep unwillingness to comply.

John looks at him, equally uncomfortable, and swallows. “I do need to hear this,” he says, his voice low and hollow. “I need you to acknowledge that I did hurt you.”

A muscle twitches in Sherlock’s cheek and he looks down.

“Please,” John adds, his voice very soft.

Several moments go by in silence. Ella doesn’t hurry him, but after a little while she asks, “So which part was the worst for you, Sherlock? What hurt the most?”

“The letter,” Sherlock says, speaking to his knees, his voice barely audible. “The letter he had Molly give me.”

His voice is stiff and Ella immediately notes that he’s reverted to speaking to her only, referring to John in the third person. This does make sense: he has spoken about this letter before, though he never allowed her to read it and only gave her a brief summary of what it said. She watches John’s reaction.

His face crumples and he bends forward, exhaling hard. “Fuck. I completely forgot about that thing. Fuck.”

Sherlock takes a deep, unsteady breath, his eyes still on his hands where they’re cradled in his lap. “That was… far worse than the hospital.”

“What else?” Ella invites. “Name it now, and then it can be resolved for real.”

Sherlock’s throat moves as he swallows. “When… John left the bed last night. I… very much thought it might be over then.”

“I’m sorry!” John blurts out. “Jesus. I’m so sorry, Sherlock! I – I didn’t think you would – think that. I just – I couldn’t handle the thought of hurting you any more and needed to put more space between us, for your sake as much as mine. I – I realise there’s a precedent of my having walked out on you before, a bunch of times now, and with what I said in that letter, too – I should have realised! Shit! I’m so sorry!”

Sherlock swallows, then risks a look at him from beneath his lashes. “It’s… all right,” he says, still stiff. “Ella is correct: I would do nearly anything to – to enable you to stay with me. But since we’re doing this properly and I had to say it, that’s what’s hurt the most.”

John is blinking hard, but doesn’t look away, to Ella’s approval. “Can you actually forgive me for that stuff?”

Sherlock nods, his jaw still tight. “Can you forgive me for all the many times I’ve hurt you and broken your trust all over again?”

Ella is almost holding her breath, watching them, but John nods, too. “Yeah.” His voice cracks. “And I’ll never leave you again, either. I swear it.”

Sherlock reaches over and takes John’s hand again, gripping it hard in lieu of speech, and John accepts it with obvious gratitude, squeezing back so tightly that his nailbeds turn white.

She clears her throat lightly and startles them both, which makes her smile. “Well, gentlemen. You’ve done some very good work today. Congratulations. You’ve taken the first few steps on a better path. Now just keep walking it. One day at a time, step by step.”

***

Chapter Text

PART IV

IX

 

John follows Sherlock up the seventeen stairs to the flat, pulling the door closed behind him. They take off their shoes and coats and John volunteers to put the kettle on. They ate between the appointment with Ella and the AA meeting, and now John thinks they’re both exhausted.

“Sure, if you like,” Sherlock says, meaning John’s offer of tea, so John goes into the kitchen to set about making a pot.

They’re drained, he thinks, but not in a bad way. The appointment with Ella was taxing in ways that it needed to be. Neither of them is good at putting any of this into words, maybe not even just to themselves. Having to drag their sex failings into the light and examine it all, out loud, was excruciating, but he’s perfectly aware that it would have been even harder without Ella’s calm, steady presence to facilitate it. Her pragmatic explanation of their many issues, both individually and together, made sense, too. There are issues there, and they probably should have talked about sex before just jumping right into trying it. Nevertheless, it was exhausting. They took the tube back home in relative silence, each lost in his own thoughts, stopping to pick up Chinese which they ate with the telly on, then left for the meeting. Strangely enough, that part was almost soothing, the anonymity and supportive atmosphere less the additional weight John had thought it might be, and more of a relief than anything else. Only having to think about that one thing rather than all of his problems together was definitely easier. “What do you feel like?” he calls to Sherlock in the sitting room, meaning their tea.

Sherlock appears in the doorway of the kitchen, though, leaning against the frame of the sliding doors, his arms crossed over his slim frame. “Something decaffeinated, perhaps.”

John nods. “Yeah. I don’t think either of us has slept all that well lately.” He gives Sherlock a quick, almost nervous look after this, checking to see how his comment has landed.

Sherlock nods, looking thoughtful, his face semi-closed, but there’s less tension there than John was half expecting. “Indeed. Maybe something from that box of tisanes we’ve got?”

John locates said box and has a look. “What about this: it’s a ‘soothing blend of lavender, licorice root, and wildflowers’, supposedly meant to inspire calm and rest?”

“Perfect,” Sherlock says.

He doesn’t move much, watching John’s hands as he makes their tea. John glances at him once or twice, thinking that Sherlock seems to want to say something, but possibly doesn’t know what, exactly, or how to say it. He fits the lid onto the teapot. “There we are,” he says, and opens his mouth to ask where Sherlock wants to drink this wildflower business, but Sherlock speaks before he can.

“Thank you for today,” he says, his voice rather intense, arms still crossed. He waits for John to look at him, slightly startled as he is by Sherlock’s intensity. “I know it was – a lot.”

John blinks. “It was my idea,” he points out. He leans against the edge of the counter and crosses his own arms. “I mean… yeah. It wasn’t the easiest. For you, either.”

Sherlock’s lips purse a little. “True.” He hesitates. “Worth it, though. That stuff… it would have been even harder to talk about on our own, I think. Though I did think we were doing well in terms of talking more in general.”

John nods slowly. “Yeah, but the sex stuff… That’s… different. Harder.”

Sherlock acknowledges this. “Sofa?” he suggests, indicating the teapot with his chin in one of those endlessly graceful gestures of his that John couldn’t even begin to emulate.

“Sure.” He picks up the teapot and follows Sherlock into the sitting room, two cups in his other hand. He sets this down on the coffee table, then goes back to collect a jar of honey and a spoon on second thought. Sherlock is already sitting, so John sits down beside him, aiming for the right level of proximity.

Sherlock half-turns to face him, ignoring the tea for now, as it’s still steeping. “Do you want to talk about any of that any more?” he asks carefully. “I know it was already considerably thrashed out earlier, but I wondered if there was anything more you wanted to say, now that we’re home and it’s been a little while. Sometimes other things occur after the fact.”

This is rather insightful on Sherlock’s part and John finds himself touched by his perception. “I suppose, yeah,” he says. He pauses, thinking about it. “Do you… I don’t know, feel okay? About what was all said?”

Sherlock looks troubled, but he nods. “I think so. Yes. More or less.”

John feels wary. “What does that mean? The more or less, I mean.”

Sherlock’s lower lip presses upward a little. “It’s hard to separate the notion of our… difficulties the past two nights from a perception of our success or potential for success on the whole. It’s hard to not think about it in terms of blame or self-reproach.”

John nods. “I know,” he says. “I wanted it to work, damn it. I wanted it so much.”

Sherlock swallows and nods. “Me too,” he says, his voice very low. “It’s – hard to be patient, when we’ve already wanted this for so long.”

“Yeah.” John leans forward and pours out a bit of the tea. It’s still pale, but he supposes this weedy stuff won’t ever get very dark, so he fills their cups and stirs a spoonful of honey into both. “All in good time, I guess.” He sits back again, handing Sherlock a cup, and sips his own. It’s not bad, actually. The taste makes him think of summery fields. “Meanwhile, I guess we get to practise that other stuff she mentioned.”

Sherlock nods again, blowing on his tea, his lips making a perfect circle as he does. “I’m rather looking forward to that part, actually,” he says, his voice carefully light as he sets his cup down on the coffee table, and suddenly John wants to kiss him again. They haven’t kissed since two nights ago, since before the last two terrible nights and the wall it put between them, and he feels the loss of it keenly.

He puts his tea down on the floor. “So am I,” he says, looking into Sherlock’s eyes. He hesitates, wondering if he should ask first, but the right words don’t come to his lips. No, wait. That’s bullshit. He’s just got to try, and this is exactly the sort of thing they’re supposed to figuring out how to put into words. He takes a deep breath. “I’d really like to kiss you,” he says. It’s actually easier than he thought it might be. “It’s – been since, er, two nights ago, and I – I’ve really missed it.” He searches Sherlock’s eyes. (Ask, damn it, he tells himself again.) “Would – that be – okay?”

Sherlock’s lips press together self-consciously, but he nods. “I’ve… missed it, too,” he says, his voice barely audible. “I want to believe Ella that we’re not beyond repair,” he says, his eyes doing a thing that makes John’s gut ache. “I don’t think we are. As long as you still want this.” He hesitates, then specifies, sounding self-conscious. “Me.”

John searches Sherlock’s face for any sign of doubt, no matter how small, but when he doesn’t find any trace, he almost shudders with relief. “I – hope we’re not,” he gets out. “Because I do, Sherlock – I really, really do!”

“John – ” Sherlock chokes his name and John knows then that he can do this, that the permission has been given. He leans forward, reaching for Sherlock’s face, and puts his mouth to Sherlock’s at last. Their lips are closed, but it’s warm and intensely intimate and feels so good, so right, that he feels his breath catch in his chest. Sherlock echoes his gesture, putting his hand to John’s face, his long fingers cradling it. Their lips part, just a little, and after their two days of endless tension, it feels like the most poignantly sweet thing that John has ever felt. He really thought he’d wrecked this, that it might never happen again. His throat is tight by the time the kiss ends, but the tightness is accompanied by a swamping wave of relief. Sherlock is still holding him by the face, his eyes inexpressibly tender, thumb stroking over John’s cheekbone. “Just – let me do this,” he says, his voice very low and gentler than John’s ever heard it. “Let me – be here with you, like this. Let me in.”

John swallows, his jaw clamping shut in an effort to rein in his emotions. “I’m trying,” he vows, blinking hard. “I promise you that: I’m trying. I want to, I swear!”

Sherlock’s eyes rake over his face and he nods. “Okay. All right.” He kisses John again, his arms coming around John’s shoulders and John finds himself clinging to Sherlock with a little less dignity than he might have liked, but maybe letting it all out is better than withholding any part of it right now, considering his behaviour the past two nights. Maybe Sherlock needs this from him: his lack of restraint when it comes to how much he genuinely does want this, want Sherlock.

It’s good. It’s a marked improvement over the past two days. Eventually they get their tea drunk, watching the news with their arms around each other, fingers linked on Sherlock’s thigh, and when it’s time to go to bed, John takes a deep breath and makes himself be the one to say it, so that Sherlock isn’t left in the position of asking him for the third night in a row. The breath seems to stick in his lungs. “Would it – be all right if I stay downstairs tonight?” The words come out jerky, all attempts at sounding casual failing horribly, but at least he got it out.

The credits are playing on the news channel and Sherlock looks at him. “If you’re certain you’d like to,” he says cautiously. “I… don’t want you to feel any pressure.”

“I want to,” John says firmly. “I don’t want to go back upstairs. At all. Ever. I want to be wherever – I want to be with you.”

Sherlock studies him for a moment, then almost smiles. “Then come to bed,” he says simply.

They get ready together in an uncomplicated quiet, then get into Sherlock’s bed at the same time. John turns onto his side, Sherlock facing him with very slight apprehension that he can’t quite manage to disguise. Communication, John reminds himself. “Can I – I’d like to hold you,” he says, feeling like an arse, but he thinks that Ella might be proud that he actually said this aloud. “Would that… could we do that?”

Sherlock’s throat bobs in his long neck as he swallows, then nods. “Please,” he manages, the word half-whispered, so John scoots into the middle of the bed and pulls Sherlock into his arms.

They shift a little, finding a position that’s comfortable, fitting their arms and legs and shoulders into the right places, and when they get it, it feels good. It feels right. John lies awake with his arms around Sherlock, trying to remember how to breathe like a normal human being, and thinks that he’s never felt so… full, just holding another person. It’s not just any other person, though. It’s Sherlock. Sherlock, who he never imagined getting to hold this way, not ever. Sherlock, who he’s lain awake aching fiercely to hold like this, so badly that he thought the hole of wanting it would consume him from the inside out. Sherlock, who he’s thought he’d lost forever more than once now. Sherlock, who is obviously still awake, too, also struggling to figure out how to breathe, how to hold John in return. How to do this. Everything feels tentative yet deeply, deeply thirst-quenching in equal measure.

It takes forever for John’s heart to stop pounding, but eventually the herbal tea works. They sleep.

***

The next few days are surprisingly rather nice. Better than nice. John still feels as though he can’t quite gather his scattered thoughts and feelings properly, that every little breath of wind from any corner can stir it all up again, but it’s getting better, just perceptibly. Everything between him and Sherlock still feels a little uncertain, but cautiously good. They go for long walks and pick up groceries and this and that and no one mentions how they’re not taking any cases. If Lestrade has phoned, Sherlock hasn’t said. By unspoken agreement, they don’t talk about Rosie. They go to a meeting every other day. Neither one of them ever shares with the group, but that doesn’t matter. No one pressures them to, and it’s somewhat therapeutic just to listen in and hear that other people struggle with life in general, too. John feels cautiously certain that he’s more or less past wanting to drown his problems in alcohol, but he knows better than to suggest they stop going, and he doesn’t mind it at all, in fact.

And in the meanwhile, they’re obedient to Ella’s suggestion, and practise what seems like must be the very basics of trying to have a romantic relationship with someone: the clumsy attempts at showing each other that they still feel the way they’ve said they feel, confirming it again and again through the most basic of touches. It’s more than a little uncertain on both their parts, but John feels that they’re both trying to encourage the other, never turning each other down. The day after their long session with Ella, there’s a good number of tentatively-begun kisses. As well, Sherlock stops John on his way out of the loo after his shower to cautiously put his arms around John’s shoulders, which confuses him for a moment. When he realises that it’s just a simple hug, he hugs back with something that feels strangely like a mix of relief and happiness. It’s nice, getting to hug Sherlock. Really nice. And not even in a time of trauma, either, but rather for the pure pleasure of getting to do it. They’re not much good at talking about the physical stuff, but they’re both trying there, too.

And in spite of the rocky start to sharing a bed, nights with Sherlock are the best parts. John finds that he loves sleeping with Sherlock in a way that’s never happened with anyone else before him. In the past he’s always somewhat resented having to share his sleeping space, feeling almost territorial about it when it was his own bed, or else uncomfortable and out of place when it was his girlfriend’s, or Mary’s. Their hair would be in his face, elbows poking him in the wrong places, their touch somehow too hot or heavy or tight no matter where on his person it landed. He’d find himself lying rigidly on his back, staring at the ceiling and trying not to listen to the other person’s breathing or snoring or the myriad of weird and unattractive sounds people make in their sleep, unable to think of anything but the stuffiness of the room, the wrong texture of the bedding, the fact that his bladder was just full enough to keep him from being comfortable. He’d want to push her over, shake off her touch, whoever it was. Unless it was a specific precursor to sex, but once that was done, he honestly would have preferred to leave, or have her leave. But this, with Sherlock, is like night and day. He used to sneak furtive looks at Sherlock’s long limbs and aureole of curls and try to imagine what it would even be like trying to share a bed with him, those long legs everywhere, arms awkwardly stuck here and there, Sherlock’s longer form taking up too much space and having no idea how to accommodate the presence of another person there with him.

It’s not like that at all, though. While Sherlock was obviously new to the whole notion of sleeping with someone else, he’s not particularly awkward about it, as it turns out. Somehow his limbs fold up quite nicely, and even when his hair gets in John’s face, John finds himself endeared by it rather than annoyed. He’s a quiet sleeper, occasionally mumbling nonsensical things, but he doesn’t snore or whistle or wheeze. When they’re still awake, Sherlock’s body feels warm against his, not sweaty or hot or intrusive. It feels like comfort, his form somehow melting against John’s. And when John wakes in the night and Sherlock is fully asleep, it’s almost even better, because then Sherlock is completely relaxed against him, his weight heavy against John’s body in a way that’s somehow the opposite of oppressive. John finds himself lying there in something akin to awe that he’s allowed to have this, that his arm tucked around Sherlock’s middle has every right to be there, that Sherlock wants this – that if he were to take it away, it wouldn’t be an ashamed retraction, but rather an act of cruelty. Ella was right, John thinks during one of these moments: they do have to figure out how to accept the concept that they’re allowed to do this, to have each other like this. It’s a source of constant wonder to John, yet he’s still struggling to adjust to this reality, to accept it fully.

They don’t talk about sex or try it again. John’s woken up hard all three mornings since their appointment, but he’s done his best to keep the fact of it hidden from Sherlock, though who even knows what Sherlock is all capable of deducing or detecting. John feels deeply uneasy about the very thought of trying something and not being able to see it through, of leaving Sherlock unsatisfied and embarrassed, and worst of all, hurting him all over again. Making him feel unwanted or rejected, left exposed after having put himself in the position of admitting that he wants it. It’s already like that – he’s already overextended himself that way, and John is still in the red, not having given him what he’s asked for. That part feels awful, and while he’s aware that feeling awful about it won’t change it or make it more possible for him to try to have some form of sex with Sherlock without it failing spectacularly, he’s also equally unable to change the way he feels. He also knows very well that if they started it and John lost the mood again, even if he made sure that Sherlock got there, got off, it would be just as embarrassing for him if it didn’t happen for John, too. There’s a mutual vulnerability that John’s very loss of control in the moment of orgasm would be needed to make it safe for it to happen for Sherlock. He would need to match Sherlock’s level of risk. He’s trying. He is. He’s trying to stop beating himself up, mostly for Sherlock’s sake. He wants to be able to let it go so that they can both move on. He knows that it’s him holding them both back and that feels awful, too. So John does his best to reach out, do small things, gauge Sherlock’s reactions with as much attention as Sherlock pays to him to figure out what he likes, what he wants. Every good interaction between them is another step forward, he tells himself.

It’s been three days since the appointment now and John is typing an email at the kitchen table while Sherlock makes thinking sounds at his website and occasionally asks a question or two. Now he closes the laptop, gets up, and plugs in the kettle. “Are you hungry?” he asks. “I was thinking it might be about time for lunch.”

John looks up. Sherlock hasn’t said anything about any of the cases he’s clearly just been looking at, and for a moment he debates whether or not he should say something about this. Maybe not. Not yet, at least. He knows why Sherlock isn’t taking cases: obviously he thinks it’s too soon, that John still needs some space to get himself sorted before being thrown back into potentially traumatic or triggering crime investigations. He decides against asking, though the feeling of ignoring it doesn’t feel great, either. “I could eat,” he says, striving for a casual tone. “Did you have something specific in mind?”

“Not as such,” Sherlock says thoughtfully. “We did buy that chicken breast… I was thinking along the lines of grilling it and putting it on a big Greek salad, possibly.”

John makes an interested sound. “Have we got – yeah, we did buy feta, didn’t we? You said something about Greek salad at the shop.”

Sherlock nods. “I’m not overly attached to this idea, however. If you would prefer something else…”

John shakes his head and gets up. “No, that sounds really good. What should I do?”

Sherlock opens his mouth, inhaling, then changes his mind about whatever he was going to say. “What would you like to do?” he asks instead.

He’s giving away control, John notices. Not insisting that they do things his way, so that John will feel empowered. It might be psychobabble, but it also happens to be rather effective, if only in that John’s noticed Sherlock’s thoughtfulness again. He swallows and ducks his head for a second, a stupid lump coming into his throat. How did he never notice how considerate Sherlock can be when he wants to? Why did he only ever see or assume the worst in him? “M-maybe I’ll chop the vegetables,” he says, the words coming out a bit strangled-sounding.

Sherlock looks at him with concern, his brows furrowing, those lines appearing at the bridge of his nose. “Are you all right?” he asks, not trying to hide it. He comes around the table and takes John by the shoulders, frowning into his face. “John – you needn’t do any of it, if you’d rather not. I just – I didn’t want to – ”

“No, I know,” John interrupts, hating that he’s made Sherlock doubt himself again. “I just – you’re – you’re fantastic, you know that? Bloody fantastic. I’m – I – ” He stops, unable to put whatever his brain is working on into words, but Sherlock doesn’t seem to mind.

His arms come around John’s shoulders. “Whatever you’re thinking, stop,” he says, speaking into John’s hair, his voice low and gentle. “It’s just lunch. Nothing – earth-shattering.”

John puts his own arms around Sherlock’s back and feels a laugh well up from his gut in spite of himself. “I love you,” he says, and if it’s a moronically large response to what Sherlock said, Sherlock doesn’t seem to mind.

“I love you, too,” he says, the warmth of his voice seeming to turn John’s bones to wax. He presses a kiss to John’s hair. “Tomatoes and cucumbers, then. If you like. And I think we’ve got a green pepper.”

He says this a little more briskly and John recognises it as salvation from whatever idiotic rut he’s managed to fall into again. He nods, grateful for the rescue. “Got it,” he says, and pulls himself out of the embrace.

Sherlock gives him a quick, slightly diagnostic smile, and goes to the knife drawer as John moves toward the fridge to retrieve the salad ingredients. “Red onion, too,” Sherlock adds, so John finds the one they bought from the vegetable crisper. “I’ll do the chicken and make the dressing.”

John smiles at the cutting board he’s retrieved. “Okay,” he says, and just like that, things feel fine again. He wishes it wouldn’t flicker in and out like this, that things could just stay feeling all right all the time. Maybe that will come down the line. He focuses on cutting tomato, cucumber, and green pepper into bite-sized chunks, then minces the red onion. Ella told him once that cooking is therapeutic, that any act of creation is, but that cooking is also useful and comes with a practical application that John should be able to appreciate. Now, scooping his onion into a small dish, he surveys the results of his labour with genuine satisfaction and thinks again that she’s right. “Are we doing a lettuce-based Greek salad, or the purist version?” he asks.

Sherlock gives a laugh, just an exhalation through his nose. “I rather like it with lettuce,” he admits. “It’s up to you.”

He’s doing it again, John notices. He feels the instinct to go to Sherlock, represses it for a second, then remembers that it’s not only allowed, but welcome, and lets himself do it after all. Sherlock is standing at the counter, tipping dried oregano into the small bowl in front of him and John goes to him and slips his arms around Sherlock’s middle, hugging him tightly. “Let’s have lettuce, then,” he says, his eyes closed, cheek pressed into the back of Sherlock’s neck. It couldn’t possibly matter less about the lettuce. “Have we got romaine?”

“Yes…” Sherlock trails off, then dislodges John just enough to get himself turned around in his arms. Their eyes meet and after that it’s easy to kiss Sherlock again. It was just the obvious thing to do, his arms wound around Sherlock’s narrow middle, Sherlock’s around his shoulders. It’s a deeper kiss than they usually go for in the middle of the day like this, but it feels so right that it almost hurts, their tongues finding each other’s, breath and lips warm, the sheer want behind it verging on urgency. John can tangibly feel how very much Sherlock wants this, wants him, and that’s therapeutic, too. After all these years of feeling inadequate, of feeling like he was never going to be good enough – for anyone, not just Sherlock – of feeling like nothing was ever going to feel right or fit, this is balm to the soul.

They separate awhile later, smiling a bit sheepishly, but neither one of them trying to explain it away or take it back in any way. They go back to the simple task of making lunch, John washing and chopping romaine as Sherlock grills chicken breast in olive oil and enough garlic to drive off a horde of vampires. John adds a handful of pitted kalamata olives and crumbles a small mountain of feta over the whole thing. They eat enormous bowls of it, sitting kitty-corner at the table, their hands and feet touching. Sherlock’s dressing is tangy and goes perfectly with the soft chewiness of the feta and the smoky charred bits of the chicken, and by the time they’ve finished, John feels full in every possible way. Sherlock brews a pot of peppermint tea to wash it all down, and they drink it on the sofa with a new episode of the series they’ve been watching on one of Sherlock’s laptops.

Their bodies are touching in multiple places, legs overlapping a little, their arms leaning together. At some point during the second episode, there’s a rather tense love confession that leads to a long exposition on the part of one character, followed by a low, fervent utterance on the part of the other, and John notices that Sherlock’s arm around his shoulders has tightened noticeably. He pulls his attention away from the screen and looks at Sherlock. When their eyes meet, John knows in his gut that he’s going to kiss Sherlock again, that Sherlock wants him to every bit as much as if he’d said it aloud, so John abandons the series and leans over to put his mouth to Sherlock’s. The kiss starts slowly but builds and builds, the episode swiftly fading into the background. John lets himself sink into it, gripping Sherlock’s face with his right hand, his left arm curled around Sherlock’s back. God, he’s wanted this – wanted it more than he’s ever wanted anything in his life, more than any woman he’s ever been with, than anyone he’s ever had a crush on. Sherlock’s death, or what he certainly thought was that, was beyond devastating. A part of himself died that day, a larger part than he could even face, yet the fact of it was there day and night, screaming into the void within him. But now Sherlock is here, in his very arms, and he’s forgiven every single fuck-up John’s made since his return, and is kissing him as though it’s the best thing he’s ever experienced. It feels like nothing short of a miracle. Maybe because it’s exactly that: a miracle.

John moves his hand from Sherlock’s face to his chest, touching him through the fine material of the navy blue shirt he’s got on, unable to stop marvelling at the fact that he’s really allowed to do this – touch Sherlock, kiss him, let it all show. He thinks yet again that Ella was right – it’s difficult to believe it, difficult to let go of the need to hide it away. Sherlock responds in kind, his hand squeezing John’s upper arm, then his rib cage, fingers spread as widely as they can reach, as though trying to catalogue as much of John as he possibly can at once. John exhales hard and bends forward to suck at Sherlock’s throat, leaving marks on his jaw, tongue dragging over the heavy breath beneath Sherlock’s skin. He can feel it catch, and then Sherlock takes a sharp, deep breath. “John – ”

John stops immediately, pulling away in concern. “Yeah?” he asks, opening his eyes and finding Sherlock’s.

Sherlock seems to be fighting to find the right words. “It’s – I’m – is – is there any chance that… that we need to have a discussion about – legumes?” he gets out with difficulty.

John rakes over Sherlock’s face with his eyes, confused. (Legumes?) Then he gets it: Lentils. Sherlock is breathing faster than usual, his pulse clearly elevated. He’s getting aroused and worried that they’re getting into deeper waters than John can handle, asking if John is going to need to use the safe word, put a stop to this. John does a quick internal probe and comes up empty. No alarm bells are going off. He shakes his head. “No,” he says, the word coming out half-whispered. “I want this. Want you.” Should he ask? Probably. Yes. “Do – d’you want to – keep going?” he asks jerkily.

Sherlock hesitates, then bites his lower lip and nods. “Do you?” he asks, so directly that it’s almost stark.

John is certain, though. “Yeah,” he says, his voice functioning this time and coming out warm and low. He leans forward and kisses Sherlock’s throat again, several times, lavishing love and overt desire directly into his skin, because someone like Sherlock needs tangible, laboratory proof and he intends to give it to him. “I really want to,” he says, pulling back just far enough to look into Sherlock’s eyes as he says it.

“John – ” This time it’s a blend of relief and urgency. Sherlock reaches for him and their mouths come together hard. There’s a sense of both of them letting go more than they ever have so far, arms tight around each other, legs fighting into each other’s laps as they kiss and kiss and kiss. Sherlock’s hands are dragging over John’s shirt, pulling it halfway up his back to get at his bare skin and John finds that he’s rubbing over the outside of Sherlock’s long, lean thigh, revelling in the feel of it.

He slides his hand up to Sherlock’s hip and figures he should stop and check in before going any further. He breaks off the kiss. “Can I?” he asks, his voice coming out breathy.

Sherlock doesn’t ask him for clarification, nodding feverishly. “Please,” he says, the word coming from deep in his throat, his jaw clenching and releasing as he swallows.

John kisses him again, mouths closed this time, at least as he starts. He moves his hand to cup the hardness between Sherlock’s legs, hot through the fine wool of his trousers, and Sherlock moans into his mouth, then breaks away again.

“John – please, can I – ?” He doesn’t specify what he’s asking for and doesn’t need to. John knows exactly what he wants.

He nods, too fast, but it doesn’t matter now. “Yes – please, I want you to – ” He attacks Sherlock’s mouth again and now it’s all breath and moans that neither of them can suppress as they touch each other through their clothes, pressing into each other’s palms, hips twisting to get closer. There’s another breathless exchange of nonverbal question and confirmation and then they’re unzipping each other, fighting their hands into each other’s pants. The first time John feels Sherlock’s hand wrap itself around his cock, he nearly dies. From the very first touch it’s immediately the best thing he’s ever felt, the very top of the long list of past conquests that Sherlock’s occasionally derided in the past – out of underlying bitterness and jealousy, John sees now – and this puts it all to shame. That’s why it never really worked in the past with other people: it wasn’t this. It wasn’t Sherlock.

And Sherlock’s cock feels like it was tailor-made to fit his hand. Everything about it absolutely perfect, its length, girth, weight, and heat all as familiar as though he’s always known what it would feel like to touch. As though it’s always belonged to him. John feels emotion swamp through his being, and he channels it fiercely into the dual actions of kissing Sherlock as deeply as he knows how, and touching him the way Sherlock deserves to be touched, stroking and rubbing and squeezing to the very best of his inexperienced ability. It seems to be working – Sherlock is gasping into his mouth, hips jerking instinctively forward to press himself into John’s fist. He’s leaking in John’s hand and John loves it – loves every ounce of Sherlock’s response, every breath and quiver and reaction, while simultaneously dying at the pleasure of Sherlock’s touch in return. It’s like Sherlock knows exactly how he’s wired, how his nervous system works, how the pleasure centre of his brain operates. Maybe he does. John doesn’t know. All he knows is how intensely good it feels. It feels like he’s never actually experienced real pleasure before this. This is the real thing, raw and vulnerable and all-consuming, hitting in deeper places than he’s ever felt before.

The whole sitting room is filled with the sounds of their breath, the sounds they’re both making, the sounds of their hands on each other, and somewhere in the distant background, the episode still playing on Sherlock’s laptop, completely forgotten and irrelevant. John can feel his climax approaching, winding up from his balls like a vice, screwing tighter and tighter through his body, but he doesn’t want to get there before Sherlock and leave him feeling exposed, so he teeters on the edge, trying to hold himself back. Does Sherlock need to know that he’s allowed to let go, allowed to come first? He pulls off Sherlock’s mouth and sucks at his earlobe. “Come for me,” he says, his voice low, something between a request and a directive, just in case Sherlock happens to want that, and it seems to be all Sherlock needed.

His breath shudders and stops in his lungs, then a tremor grips his entire frame. He comes hard, jolts of wetness juddering out of him, small noises bursting from his throat as he does, his mouth open, eyes closed, John’s mouth still on his earlobe. John keeps going, rubbing over Sherlock’s cock and balls as the orgasm works it way through him, but Sherlock doesn’t even take a moment once it’s done. Panting, he bends forward to drop his mouth to John’s neck and goes all the harder, rubbing and squeezing his fist over him and John knows he’s about to lose control of holding the orgasm back whether or not he wants to. He’s gasping for breath, pleasure singing in his veins, and then it all kaleidoscopes into an explosion of colour and sensation, pulsing out of him in waves into and over Sherlock’s hand in wet heat. The pleasure is so intense that he nearly blacks out, coming to himself a few moments later, breathing hard.

His hand is still on Sherlock, mostly cupping the warmth of his balls and softening cock. He turns his face to look at Sherlock and moves to pull his hand away, but Sherlock moves his own and puts it over John’s, wet from John’s release and holding his hand in place. He’s still breathing hard, his face flushed. It takes him a moment before he can speak, and when he does, it’s breathless, his face very close to John’s. “This is our new precedent,” he tells John, his eyes so intense that it hurts. “Nothing that came before matters. Do you understand? Only this.”

John searches Sherlock’s face for a long moment. He does get it, and what’s more, he gets what a gift this is on Sherlock’s part. This moment is the establishment of a new beginning between them, a new way in which John touches him. His statement is meant to truly overwrite the hospital beating, forever consign it to a now-abandoned past in favour of this new path. John nods. “Yes,” he says, his heart pounding in his chest as he says it. “Only this. From now on.”

***

Chapter Text

X

 

The rest of the day is frankly blissful.

John finds himself completely unable to stop smiling, particularly when Sherlock can’t see him, like in the loo, his reflection looking so giddy he can barely recognise himself. It feels as though a weight has been lifted, like he can breathe again for the first time in longer than he can remember. They don’t do anything or go anywhere, ordering in pizza for supper and eating it in front of another episode of their series, after rewatching the second half of the last one. It feels, John thinks, as though they both want nothing more than to reinforce everything inside the safe fortress of Baker Street, now that they’ve miraculously crossed a gaping chasm of their problems, past and present. Holing up inside together is all either of them wants right now, if only for the pure pleasure of getting to do this, each new touch or look or statement another step forward into exhilaratingly new territory.

The pizza they order comes from an Italian restaurant a few blocks away, boasting gourmet toppings and unusual sauces. They choose a fairly tame-seeming one compared to some of the options, pepperoni and sausage with tomato, pesto, and several different cheeses, and it comes on a crust thin enough to practically melt on one’s tongue. They eat with their hands, sitting on the sofa and drinking another bottle of non-alcoholic cider that they picked up at the shops, their legs and elbows touching. Later, Sherlock gets up to dispose of the (empty) box and wash his hands, so John discreetly shuts himself in the loo, washing his own. When he gets back to the sofa, Sherlock takes his hand and pulls him down next to him, their mouths meeting before John’s arse has hit the cushions. They kiss and kiss and it’s phenomenal. John’s dizzy with it, absolutely over the moon that this is working, that Sherlock actually does want him this much, that he’s allowed to have this, do this.

After a bit, John pulls off, almost breathless. He puts a hand on Sherlock’s face, trying to gather his thoughts into actual words. He’s already halfway hard and suspects that Sherlock might be, too, and he wants so much to get this right at last. “Let’s – I want to do this properly,” he says, looking from one of Sherlock’s beautiful eyes to the other. “I want to get this right. More than I can even say.”

Sherlock’s brow furrows a little, the little lines that John’s secretly loved for years appearing at the bridge of his nose. “What – how do you mean?”

John nods toward the corridor leading down to Sherlock’s bedroom. “Let’s go to bed,” he says, his heart half in his throat. “I don’t care that it’s still early. I want a do-over on – on the first time we tried. I want to go to bed with you and touch you the way I should have that time, the way I’ve always wanted to, if only I could’ve figured out how to admit it, both to me and to you.”

Sherlock closes his eyes for a moment, as though the words are almost too much to take in. But then he nods, his eyes opening again halfway through. He swallows, but doesn’t seem quite able to speak.

John’s throat is still tight. He puts his other hand on Sherlock’s face, too, and draws his mouth back to his own, and somehow they manage to get to their feet without interrupting the kiss. Sherlock’s hands on him feel tremulously eager and tentative in equal measure, as though he doesn’t quite know how or where or how much to touch, yet wants to more than anything. John tries clumsily to match him, trying to say with his own hands that it’s going to be safe to give him a second chance at this, that trusting this won’t be a mistake this time. (God, he hopes it won’t be!)

They’ve got precedent on their side this time, though, John thinks fuzzily as they stumble down the corridor to Sherlock’s bedroom. It worked earlier. Surely it’s going to be okay this time, too. He wants it so much he could cry, yet he wants it for Sherlock even more. He can not fuck this up again, leave Sherlock feeling exposed and hurt and angry. (Maybe stop thinking so much, John tells himself. Sherlock would definitely tell him that it’s not his area.) He gets the door closed behind him, then resumes kissing Sherlock on the face and throat and jaw, his fingers going to work on the buttons of Sherlock’s shirt.

Sherlock makes no effort to resist this, his pulse thudding in his throat against John’s lips, lifting his chin to give John better access. It’s racing, actually, John realises, and suddenly wonders if Sherlock is dreading him seeing the bullet scar again and having the same problem as last time. He steels himself. (I am not Mary. It wasn’t my fault. And I came back to him. Took me long enough, but I came back.) He gets the cuff buttons undone, takes a deep breath, and pushes the two halves of the finely-woven burgundy cotton off Sherlock’s sculpted shoulders.

Sherlock watches him almost warily, his chest rising and falling a little as he breathes, faster than normal, watching him take in the marred planes of his torso. “John – ”

It’s audibly nervous. John lays his hand over the scar and feels Sherlock’s beating heart beneath it. He wants to say something corny along the lines of only feeling that, only Sherlock, not the marks of pain left on him by the woman John abandoned him for, either time, but the words won’t organise themselves on his tongue. Instead, he looks up into Sherlock’s uncertain blue eyes, blinks four or five times, then leans up to kiss him again. It’s slower this time, but far more poignant, and Sherlock covers John’s hand with his own, pressing his palm to his heart.

John’s shirt gets pulled off a few minutes later, then after a murmured exchange, both sets of trousers. John hesitates not sure if he should be the one to suggest getting all the way naked so quickly, but on the other hand, he did say that he wanted to do this right. Besides, they have the safe word if Sherlock doesn’t feel comfortable going that quickly. He gets closer first, though, kissing Sherlock as deeply as he can, their bodies touching everywhere. Sherlock is clearly hard against him, which is making John all the harder in turn, and it feels unbelievable to feel this intimately close to him as it is, skin to skin, only their underwear separating them. He pulls off Sherlock’s mouth, kisses him once more because it’s so hard to stop as it is. “I want to feel all of you,” he says, his voice low and a sounding a bit breathless. “Can – can we do that?”

Sherlock swallows, but nods. “Yes.” His voice comes out low and slightly hoarse, but then he adds, “Please. I – I want that, too.”

A warm wave engulfs John. “Yeah? Okay, then.” He’s never seen Sherlock fully nude before and he feels like this is pretty damned momentous. He’s also aware that he needs to be the one to go first, so he does.

Sherlock’s eyes sweep down to his midsection and stop there, his pulse actually visible in his chest now, his lips falling open a little. He swallows again, then bends to step awkwardly out of his black briefs, his cock flushed and hard, bobbing upward, and John’s mouth fills with saliva at the very sight of it. (Jesus. How could he have ever believed for even three seconds that he didn’t want this, wasn’t attracted to it? It was a lie from the very start.) Sherlock says his name, rather uncertainly, and that’s got to stop: the uncertainty. He needs Sherlock to know that he can be certain about this. Needs it for his own sake, too, maybe. And if he can’t quite say it, then at least he can show it, damn it. John reaches for him, pulling Sherlock flush to him, and it works. Their mouths come together hungrily, chests and stomachs and cocks all touching, their hands stroking unabashedly down each other’s back to grip lower, exploring and squeezing and John thinks that he’s never in all his life been as turned on as he is at this very second.

They steer each other to the bed, falling onto it, crawling over each other, mouths never separating for longer than a few seconds at a time, both of them breathing hard as their arms and legs tangle together, heat gathering in every negative space between them. John feels somehow three times more naked than he’s ever felt before. Every single emotion is right there at the surface, his skin throbbing with it, inseparable from his intense desire for Sherlock, desire that’s spiking out of him from every pore. Every place that they’re touching is part of it this time, his entire being part of it. Before, it was always mostly about his cock. This is a full-body experience like he’s never known before, his heart pounding against the flat planes of Sherlock’s perfect torso.

They end up with John on top, or most of the way there, their bodies instinctively rubbing and thrusting together, Sherlock’s leg curled around his lower back and arse cheek in a way that feels possessive to an extent that John never realised he would enjoy as much as he is now, though enjoy isn’t strong enough by half. He craves it like oxygen, wants to crawl into Sherlock’s very skin and live there, occupy every single part of him, know every millimetre of him as intimately as he possibly can. His cock is harder than anything, and feeling Sherlock’s twitching and moving against his is phenomenal. “D’you – have you got – ” he gasps out, and Sherlock’s powers of deduction don’t fail him even now, in the heat of this.

He nods frantically, his lips parted, and he reaches back to claw at the drawer of his nightstand, managing the lid of the lube one-handed. “Should I – ?” he asks breathlessly and John nods.

“Yeah,” he says, and drops his mouth to Sherlock’s to kiss him again, unable to make himself stop wanting to, his next words mashed against Sherlock’s lips. “Do it. Please.”

Sherlock nods and pulls John’s mouth back to his with his other hand, perhaps to give himself some cover as he reaches between them to coat them both in lube.

It feels so good that John can’t help moaning into Sherlock’s mouth as they kiss, the slide of the lube enhancing the sensation ten times over. He shifts onto Sherlock properly, their thighs flexing together as he begins to thrust harder and faster, relishing the way their balls press together at the end of every thrust so much it must be indecent. Sherlock puts both hands unabashedly on his arse now, thrusting up off the bed against him and that’s even better, feeling Sherlock’s unspoken desperation so clearly. They’re both panting and John looks down into Sherlock’s eyes, too far gone to speak, but the look that passes between them feels like a lance through his chest, like Sherlock is seeing right into the very core of his being.

Sherlock gives a sharp intake of breath. “John – !!” It’s all he can manage, then his eyes squeeze shut as a spasm wracks his entire frame. His hands are frantic, squeezing and pressing John to him hard and then there’s a hot gush of wetness between them and John hears himself groan louder than he knew he even could.

His own eyes are closed, rocking hard against Sherlock’s spurting cock and then it’s upon him, bursting out of him, his heartbeat in his ears like a rushing wind as he comes and comes and can’t stop coming.

When he’s aware of himself again, he’s lying slumped down on Sherlock, his legs sprawled limply, heart pounding against Sherlock’s chest in counterpoint with his, his arms askew, and more sated than he’s ever felt in his life. He pulls himself together and raises his head to check in with Sherlock, looking down into his eyes and stroking his face with one hand. He feels overwhelmed by how much he feels, but for the first time in his life, he doesn’t feel afraid of it. “I love you,” he says, the three words conveying more than they ever have before, for him. He didn’t even know what they meant before Sherlock.

Sherlock swallows, his own eyes reflecting every single bit of it back, no holds barred. He reaches for John’s face with the opposite hand. “I love you, too,” he says, his voice still a bit breathless. “And – thank you. For – for this.”

John searches Sherlock’s eyes and wants to tell him that he doesn’t need to thank him for this. But maybe he does, and maybe John should stop telling him what to think or say or feel or any of the rest of it. “Thank you,” he says instead. He could add for the second chance, but decides not to. Sherlock knows what he means.

Sherlock doesn’t say anything. Instead, he just smiles, a long, slow, very private sort of smile, and it has the effect of turning John’s heart to complete mush. He pulls John’s mouth back to his and they kiss until they grow sleepy in each other’s arms. There’s a perfunctory reach for a handful of tissues, then they rearrange themselves a bit. John falls asleep with his arms around the only person he’s ever truly loved, now more than ever before, and knows that he’s never been truly happy until this moment, either.

***

The next several days are the happiest either of them has ever known. The relief between them is very much a palpable thing, but John’s pretty damned sure that the sheer amount of happiness outweighs it, anyway. They wake the morning after that night smiling a bit sheepishly at each other, and this time John doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’s hard. There’s a bit of murmuring, question and assent, then sleepy kisses and touching that rapidly gets less sleepy. Sherlock touches him with a hunger he can’t quite disguise, the eagerness vividly evident in the splay of his fingers, his seeming indecision over where to touch first and how, wanting his fingers to be everywhere at once, and John is charmed as hell by it, and more turned on than ever. They both get there pretty quickly, panting into each other’s cheeks and necks as their hands grope and stroke beneath the blankets until they’re both spurting hotly into each other’s palms, John living for the hot huff of Sherlock’s breath on his temple as he comes. They fall asleep again after, only to wake and do it all again an hour or so later, only that time they don’t even bother asking first.

After, Sherlock says he’s going to take a shower and John doesn’t attempt to join him, thinking that maybe Sherlock is due for a slice of space to process it all. Instead, he tacitly wraps himself in one of Sherlock’s posh dressing gowns and goes down to get the papers and put some coffee on, trading places with Sherlock once he comes out of the loo. They make breakfast together and eat it at the desk with the news on the telly and it seems so very mundane on the surface, yet the happiness is just about bursting out of John at every seam.

“Have you told Mrs Hudson yet?” he asks, as casually as he can manage sometime that afternoon when they’re sitting in their chairs, and Sherlock actually bites his lip.

“No,” he admits. “I just haven’t found a good moment to. I will. I promise.”

“It’s okay,” John assures him. “I just wondered. What should we do with the rest of the day?”

Sherlock considers. “Well, there’s a meeting tonight…”

“Right. Of course. What else, though?” John asks. “Did you have anything in mind?”

Sherlock pauses, then clears his throat delicately. “Not as such,” he says diffidently, his eyes on his laptop screen.

John blinks. “Are you actually blushing?”

“Of course not!” He is, though, and he looks embarrassed to have this pointed out.

John grins. “If you did happen to want… something in particular, or… I’m more than amenable. Just, er, putting that out there.”

Sherlock coughs. “I didn’t have anything… specific in mind,” he says, glancing at John from beneath his eyelashes in a way that’s somehow both playful, yet shy, and the combination is knee-weakening and John overtly feels himself stir.

He clears his own throat. “Well, whatever unspecific thing you might or might not have in mind, I’m there if you want it.” He hesitates, then adds, “I always want to know what you want, you know. I’m – I want to be told, directly. I hope you feel like you can say it. Even if I can’t – if it’s something I – the thing I said I can’t – I still want to know. I want there to be that kind of… I don’t know, safety between us. That you feel like you can say it.”

Sherlock clears his throat again, the colour still high in his cheekbones. He closes his laptop but doesn’t take it off his lap. “It’s – there is,” he says. He glances over at John, their eyes meeting. “There is, John. But I find it difficult to actually – articulate it, as such,” he admits.

John studies him, trying his best to deduce Sherlock. “But you do want – that? Something along those lines?” he asks, wanting to confirm before assuming, and Sherlock nods. “In that case…” John sets his book aside and gets up, takes the laptop from Sherlock and puts it on the table beside his chair. Next, he straddles Sherlock’s lap, settling his weight carefully onto his thighs and stroking the curls back from his forehead, looking down into Sherlock’s eyes with so much feeling that he’s still half-afraid to show it, his throat tightening. Sherlock reaches for his face with both hands and John kisses him with abandon, falling into it with hungry enthusiasm, as though it’s been days or weeks since they last kissed rather than mere hours. John opens his mouth and Sherlock follows it, their tongues finding each other’s swiftly, and Sherlock’s hands travel down his sides and over his back, then slide down onto his arse a moment or two later. John hears himself make a sound into Sherlock’s mouth and presses closer, his fingers gripping Sherlock’s hair at the back of his head. Sherlock makes a sound of his own, surprised but definitely aroused, and it moves quickly after that, all four of their hands fumbling at zips and trying not to stop touching each other or kissing for even a second as they get their cocks lined up between them, half rubbing and half thrusting together. The kiss devolves into breathy moans, hot on each other’s cheeks as the pleasure rises between their hands and bodies, and if it gets there too fast, John doesn’t even care – he’s just grateful that it’s working. He grits his teeth and makes himself hold off until Sherlock’s hips give a jerk that he can’t prevent, his breath sucking in, and the instant John feels the hot gush between them, he groans and thrusts against Sherlock’s cock only twice more before letting himself go, too.

When it’s spent, he finds that he’s still astride Sherlock’s legs and clinging to him like a koala, dignity forgotten. He’s never in his life imagined himself sitting or lying in anyone’s lap, yet this isn’t even the first time that it’s happened with Sherlock now. He would have thought he’d find it somehow emasculating, but it doesn’t feel that way. The first time doesn’t count as a sexual context. He was broken as a person in that moment and Sherlock was the only thing between him and the dark. Holding him that way in that moment was an act of salvation, not of coddling or belittling. And this time, John was the one who chose it. Maybe he needs to stop thinking about things in the black-and-white terms of this stuff diminishing him as a person and just figure out what he likes, he thinks, loving the feel of Sherlock’s hands stroking almost reverently over his back, as though he can’t stop touching him.

John takes a breath, about to attempt to say something rather emotional, only then he hears the sound of Mrs Hudson’s heels starting up the stairs. He pulls back, exchanging a quick look of horror with Sherlock before scrambling to get himself out of Sherlock’s lap and everything zipped away again, Sherlock hastily doing the same. They’ve only just made it when she appears in the doorway with one of her hoots of greeting. “Anyone home?” she asks cheerfully, blissfully unaware that she’s only just missed walking in on them in a rather compromising position.

“Yes, as you can see perfectly well for yourself,” Sherlock says, with an impressively good version of his usual bored drawl, though John can see that his face is still flushed, his curls rumpled.

He’s still breathing quickly, himself. “What’s up, Mrs H?” he asks, as casually as he can manage.

“Oh, I was just wondering if you were home. Thought I’d see what your supper plans were, perhaps make you something. It’s so dull, just cooking for oneself, you know how it is,” Mrs Hudson says breezily, not noticing a thing.

Sherlock sends him a quick, slightly exasperated look. “Yes, I suppose so,” he says neutrally. “We’ve got something on at half-past seven, but we haven’t eaten yet and didn’t have any particular plans that I’m aware of, at least.”

John confirms this. “No, that’s right. What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I might have an extra cottage pie on hand,” Mrs Hudson confesses, as though the extra just happened by stupid accident. “Since you’re home, I’ll just nip down and get it, then, how would that be?”

John tries his best to hide his smile, but isn’t quite successful. “That would be amazing, actually,” he says, telling himself not to be irritated with her interference (he knows very well that she thinks they’re both idiots when it comes to looking after themselves, not that she’s entirely wrong there) and to just be grateful. Mrs Hudson’s cottage pies are legendary, after all.

She brightens visibly. “Splendid! I’ll be back in half a moment, then!”

She goes, and Sherlock looks at him, the lines around his mouth dimpling. Combined with his mussed hair, it makes him look about half his age. “She’s incorrigible,” he says. “It’s a disease. Fortunately, the benefits are fairly nice.”

“They are,” John admits. “That was a bit of a close call, though…”

Sherlock grimaces a bit. “Could have been a bit awkward.” He fidgets, looking down. “I do feel a bit…” he trails off.

John frowns a little, not understanding. “A bit – what?” Was there something wrong with the sex part, or whatever they’re supposed to call that?

Sherlock bites his lower lip, clearly reluctant to say whatever he’s thinking. “I… never mind. It’s fine.”

John feels the lines between his eyes deepen. “No, say it,” he insists. “I want to know. Is – was there something – I don’t know, wrong with – that?” He attempts to clarify. “With what just happened, in your chair?”

“No,” Sherlock says quickly. He glances at the doorway, but they’re still alone. He lowers his voice. “I was just – sorry it had to end so quickly. Not that – I don’t mean that we – ” He stops and rakes his fingers through his hair, which doesn’t improve it, blowing out his breath. “I mean after. I was regretting that that part was – cut short.”

“Oh!” John gets it. Then it sinks in and he finds himself charmed by it: Sherlock’s missing the afterglow. A warm prickle of emotion spreads itself through his chest. “Well, it’s not too late to get some of that back, at least,” he says, going over. Affection for Sherlock swamps him. “Come here,” he says gruffly, and Sherlock steps obediently into his arms, wrapping his own around John’s shoulders and putting his face down on top of John’s head.

“She’ll be back any moment,” he says, the words coming out slightly muffled.

“That’s fine,” John says, closing his eyes. “We can still take a moment. Now or any other time.”

In response, Sherlock’s arms tighten, and they stand there that way, just hugging each other close, deepening the bond of what just happened between them. Neither of them moves or speaks until they hear Mrs Hudson again, a few moments later, and when they separate this time, John feels properly sated in a way that he didn’t even have a chance to notice or think about before. It feels better, and he thinks that Sherlock feels it, too, giving him a small, private smile as they separate, going to relieve Mrs Hudson of her casserole dish. John invites her to stay for dinner and this time she does, drinking a pot of tea with them after until Sherlock says that they’ve got to leave for their meeting at quarter past.

Tonight when they go round the circle introducing themselves, one of the others they’ve seen before gives a nod in their general direction. “You two always seem to arrive at the same time,” he says, not seeming particularly malicious or nosy. Just curious. “You, er, together, then?”

John feels himself tense. He glances sideways at Sherlock, who is sitting with one knee crossed primly over the other, hands folded in his lap. He looks back at John, mouth closed firmly, making it silently clear that the response is John’s to make, however he chooses. John clears his throat and debates denying it for all of three seconds. Flatmates, he could say. Just the single word, terse and clipped like he always used to. Best friends would also work. It wouldn’t be untrue. It just wouldn’t be the whole truth. None of your damned business. That would work, too. His throat has closed. “Yeah, that’s right,” he gets out, the words just barely scraping out. “Problem?”

This is definitely more than a bit defensive, but the other backs down. “Nah, no problem, mate. Just wondered.”

John purses his lips and ducks his chin, retreating, himself, and the introductions carry on. He can feel Sherlock’s tension beside him, but it eases off as the meeting progresses, as does his own. Neither of them shares, as usual, but this time when they leave, John steels himself, then takes care to put a hand on Sherlock’s back as they walk out in a visible gesture of belonging, of demonstrable physical connection.

Sherlock waits until they’re outside to lean into him, his arm coming around John’s back in turn for the briefest of moments before letting go. “You didn’t have to let on,” he says, his gaze directed straight ahead rather than at John.

John’s not sure how to navigate this. “Didn’t I?” he asks uncertainly, letting his own hand drop away. “I would’ve felt like a heel if I hadn’t.”

“I would have understood,” Sherlock says. “It’s – a lot of pressure. Going public about it. Even just there.”

John looks at him as they walk, taking in the vein pulsing at Sherlock’s temple. This matters to him. A lot. “It wouldn’t have felt right to deny it,” he says truthfully. “All those times before… I never felt great about it then, either, and we weren’t actually together then. Even if we both wanted it. It would have been an outright lie if I’d denied it just now, though.”

“I still would have understood,” Sherlock insists, looking at him now. “All in good time. When you’re ready.”

John touches a finger to the back of Sherlock’s hand, trying to convey his affection for him over this as he processes this. After a moment or two he says, “Actually, I don’t mind. That’s the truth. I didn’t mind admitting it just now. I’m – proud of it, if you want to know.”

Sherlock smiles, not looking at him, and touches one finger more deliberately to one of John’s. “I just wish I’d found a moment to tell Mrs Hudson first. Somehow it feels unfair that a total stranger knows and she still doesn’t. That’s my fault. I’ll do it soon, John. I promise.”

John waves this off, more focused on the way their hands keep brushing together. It makes him feel like he’s fifteen again, butterflies stirring in the pit of his belly. “There’s no rush,” he says. “The group doesn’t really count. They don’t even know us.” He remembers something else. “Hey, isn’t it Mrs Hudson’s birthday sometime soon?”

Sherlock considers for a moment, making a thinking sound, low and resonant. “I think you’re right.” He pulls out his phone. “It’s the day after tomorrow, in fact,” he says. “Good memory. Perhaps we should bake her a cake.”

John laughs. “She’d probably be delighted,” he admits. He thinks briefly of Rosie, and feels a pang, grateful that it’s not her birthday any time soon. The very thought of her is still too shattering to even broach, so he swiftly shuts off the path to that entire subject. What he wants to focus on right now is Sherlock, in getting this right. Their hands brush again and it occurs to him that, as fun as this coy game of secretive public touching is, he could also just grow a pair and take Sherlock’s hand. Own it publicly that this man, this incredible man who’s endured so much for him and from him, forgiven so much, literally sacrificed himself and everything he cares about for him more than once, is actually his lover. Their fingers are already touching. All he’d have to do is do it deliberately, move his left hand two centimetres and wrap his fingers around Sherlock’s. He teeters on the brink of indecision for several moments, their footsteps falling in perfect unison as they walk. God, just do it! He takes a deep breath, then manages to make the move. Sherlock’s hand is warm and dry, and his fingers tighten around John’s without hesitation. Maybe it’s even relief, John thinks: relief that John actually managed to get over himself long enough to do this.

His heart is pounding as they walk the last two blocks to Baker Street, feeling like the entire world can see this, yet nothing earth-shattering happens. Not unless one counts the fact that he can feel Sherlock’s pulse through their hands, beating as quickly as his own, saying nothing as they get the rest of the way home. Another bridge crossed, John thinks, digging out his keys when they get home and already planning the kiss he’s got in mind for immediately upon getting into the front hall. There are still so many more bridges to come, but at least this one’s been crossed.

***

The entire flat smells divine.

John pushes himself up off the sofa and decides to go and investigate. Sherlock has been in the kitchen for some time now, labouring over Mrs Hudson’s birthday cake, which is currently reposing in the oven. John wanders in under the pretext of putting the kettle on, but it’s really to ogle Sherlock’s arse where his apron strings are dangling over it and start a conversation. “So what sort of a cake is that?” he asks.

Sherlock half-turns over his shoulder from where he’s standing at the counter. “Just a vanilla butter cake,” he says. “Fairly standard, but she doesn’t like anything she might call ‘fussy’. You know how she is.”

John thinks of Mrs Hudson turning up her nose at any flavour or ingredient that might fit that description and has to agree. “Fair enough. What are you doing now, if the cake’s already baking?”

“I’m making buttercream,” Sherlock says, setting down an electric mixer.

John finds himself intrigued, though not half as much as he is by Sherlock himself. He’s wearing a deep burgundy shirt that must have cost over sixty quid and even nicer trousers, with a ridiculous flowered apron that he clearly filched from Mrs Hudson’s kitchen over top. He goes over to peer over Sherlock’s shoulder. “And what does that involve, precisely?”

Sherlock gives him a look that says that he knows John is baiting him, but it comes off so unintentionally coy that John’s breath catches. “It involves, precisely, butter, icing sugar, vanilla, and in this particular instance, red food colouring.” He sees John’s confusion and clarifies. “To make it pink.”

“Ah.” Something else catches John’s eye. “Been sampling it, have you?”

Sherlock’s brow furrows. “What?”

They’re facing each other now. John snickers. “I’m not judging. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got it right. I understand.”

“Of course I’ve got it right,” Sherlock says, though John can tell he’s not really annoyed. “I just followed the recipe. One needn’t taste it to know that it worked; it’s hardly rocket science.”

“I believe you,” John says gravely. “Only I know you have, because you’ve got a bit on your face. Here, just let me…” He leans in and licks the small pink blob off the corner of Sherlock’s mouth, taking care to keep his tongue very firm.

“Oh,” Sherlock says after, his tone changed. “I didn’t realise… have you got it all, then?”

“Best make sure,” John says, and licks the same place, extending it to include Sherlock’s full lower lip and adding a suck for good measure. He reaches out and dips a finger into the mixing bowl and deliberately dabs it onto Sherlock’s throat. “Shoot, you’ve got some here, too,” he murmurs, closing his mouth over the spot. The buttercream is rich and sweet and he can feel Sherlock’s pulse fluttering beneath the ministrations of his tongue and lips.

“Good – good thing you’re on it,” Sherlock says, exhaling hard.

John straightens up and presses a kiss to Sherlock’s lips. “Always,” he says after.

Sherlock’s pupils are definitely dilated. He bites his lip a little. “Do you… think you might have missed anywhere else?” he asks, the question almost innocent, but not quite. It’s not bold enough to call flirtatious, just diffident enough to make it sound as though he might just be asking a simple question.

John gets it completely; Sherlock has trouble with this sort of thing, of asking for what he wants, and given their difficult start, he understands all too well why it might still be hard for him. But he wants Sherlock to ask, wants to know what he wants. The only problem is that John made a pretty big deal about specifically refusing to even entertain the notion of penetration on either of their parts, so he’s conversely also a bit afraid of what Sherlock might ask for, afraid that it could be… that. The last thing he wants is for Sherlock to ask him for something that he can’t do, can’t give. But they also covered a lot of other ground on that list Ella made them come up with, and there’s plenty on it that they haven’t got anywhere near just yet. They’ve touched each other’s cocks and rubbed themselves together directly, five times in total now, but that’s about it. And here’s Sherlock standing in front of him, actively asking John, however indirectly, to go on doing this. At the same time, John doesn’t want to assume too much, either. “I don’t know,” he says carefully, in response to Sherlock’s question. “Where else do you think I should check?”

Sherlock swallows. Then he unbuttons the top button of his shirt, dips his middle finger into the bowl and deliberately smears buttercream just below his clavicle. “Possibly here,” he says, his eyes unwavering on John’s, but John can see his pulse thudding.

“Oh my, yes,” he says, keeping his voice low. “Let’s fix that, shall we?” He moves closer and applies his tongue to Sherlock’s skin, warm and dynamically alive beneath his lips. He slips the halter of the apron over Sherlock’s head after a moment or two and undoes two more buttons of his shirt, mouth trailing down his chest. “Where else?” he asks, breathing the question into Sherlock’s skin.

“Maybe – maybe here,” Sherlock says, a bit breathless, dabbing pink buttercream onto his right nipple.

It’s silly and sensual all in one and John is charmed and aroused and feels giddy. It’s almost innocent, this, just a playful little sex game, only he’s never actually done much of this before and knows for a fact that Sherlock hasn’t, either, which makes it rather daring on his part. It’s brave – it gives a light-hearted façade to Sherlock asking to be touched, even specifying how he wants it in a way that isn’t even all that sexual – yet, at least. But it’s sensual and incredibly intimate and John loves it. He hums his agreement and puts his mouth to Sherlock’s nipple, licking and kissing and sucking at it, using a light scrape of teeth that makes Sherlock gasp, then he finds Sherlock’s hand and brings it to his mouth, sucking at his long middle finger in a way he very much intends to be pretty specifically suggestive. He’s never done – that – before, not that he’s never thought about it, but in practical experience it’s new territory and makes him a bit nervous.

Sherlock’s intake of breath is sharp. “John – ”

John looks up. Sherlock reaches for his face with both hands and they kiss hard, no one even trying to hide the arousal behind the game now. John gets the rest of Sherlock’s shirt undone and pushes it off him, kissing Sherlock’s neck and jawline with abandon, loving the way Sherlock breathes and breathes through it, like he can’t get enough oxygen. “Where else?” he asks before his lips close around Sherlock’s earlobe, then backs away just enough to let Sherlock answer.

Sherlock paints himself, streaks of pink icing down his chest and onto the planes of his stomach as far as his still-tied apron will allow, then wordlessly meets John’s eyes. There’s colour staining his face and chest, his pulse beating visibly faster still, but there’s no shame in his eyes and John is glad.

He steps closer again, reaching carefully behind Sherlock to untie the apron without getting the buttercream on his shirt. The apron gets set aside and John goes to work on the markings Sherlock has made on himself, dragging his tongue over Sherlock’s phenomenal body, hands stroking over his back and sides. The last streak curls around the left side of Sherlock’s rib cage and John follows the hard line of it with his tongue, half-crouched. He wants to reach into the bowl himself, but maybe he’s got to let Sherlock direct this. On the other hand, he also sort of needs to stand up straight or else get the rest of the way down onto his knees. Maybe doing that would make it clear enough that he’s inherently offering, that it would be safe to ask. He kisses Sherlock’s flat stomach as he sinks onto his knees, using it as a very transparent cover as his fingers get to work opening the button of Sherlock’s trousers, unzipping them over the straining bulge of his erection and easing them down his legs, helping him step out of them. He runs his hands over Sherlock’s muscled thighs as he sits back on his heels, looking up at him. “Where else?” he asks, hardly breathing, not wanting to change the wording or the question lest it break the spell or something.

Sherlock’s cock is pushing out against the confines of his underwear, which are black and look as sleekly expensive as everything else he owns. He swallows, then bends a little and takes them off, his face flushing even deeper. He straightens up, his cock bobbing upwards and stained darker still with his arousal. He dips his finger back into the mixing bowl, hesitates, then touches it to the head of his cock. His jaw is tight, lips pressed together, but he doesn’t break eye contact with John, not backing down from his silent request, and John loves him fiercely for his bravery.

The dialogue of their little game has stopped, and he doesn’t try to restart it. Instead he nods, his eyes on Sherlock’s, then bends forward to lick the pink smear of buttercream off Sherlock’s cock, experimentally closing his lips around the head of it.

Sherlock gasps, immediately trying to stifle it, stuffing the back of his hand into his mouth, his cock jerking in John’s mouth.

John makes a questioning sound in concern, looking back up. Maybe he should check in. He pulls off. “Okay?” he asks, breath punctuating his voice. He’s hard as a rock, too, he notices almost as an afterthought. Sherlock nods, though it’s almost more of a convulsion. He doesn’t seem to be able to speak, though, so John spares him the need and puts his mouth on him again. He’s never in his inhaled the scent of a cock this way or tasted one. Beyond the sweet richness of the buttercream, he can taste Sherlock himself, a taste so uniquely and privately him that it’s actually thrilling. No one has ever tasted this before. And no one else ever will, not if he’s got anything to say about it, at least. Shameful as it is to even admit to himself, John was also half-worried that he might not like doing this, that his own, internalised homophobia might rise up to choke him, that he would do it to make Sherlock feel good, feel loved, but that he might have to hide his revulsion for it. He knows it’s backwards – he’s lain awake fantasising about doing this very thing, jerked off to the thought of it in ashamed secret. He knows damned well that he very nearly tried to do it on the night of his own bloody stag do. Nevertheless, the very conflict Ella talked about, of needing to break out of his own prison of denial could have proven to be a problem. It’s a relief that this doesn’t seem to be the case at all right now.

He goes slowly, not wanting to overwhelm Sherlock, keeping his mouth soft as he lips at Sherlock’s cock, adding a bit of tongue now and then, exploring this himself, his hands stroking over Sherlock’s legs and hips and arse, cupping and squeezing it. He loves the way he can feel every little tremor and reaction, feel Sherlock’s erection get harder and harder as he goes, bringing it back into his mouth and sucking properly, caressing the length of him and making it as sensual as he knows how. Sherlock is breathing raggedly, still trying to silence himself, though he stops trying to cover his mouth in favour of gripping the edge of the counter with both hands. His head falls back and he moans, and John looks up, making a questioning sound without pulling his mouth off. Sherlock opens his eyes and looks back down at him, shaking his head a little. “No, it’s – good,” he stutters out, so John hums his relief into Sherlock’s flesh and keeps going.

He sucks and sucks, his entire body prickling with arousal. He’s got one hand curled around the base of Sherlock’s cock, stroking in time with his mouth now. With the other, he fumbles at the button of his jeans, getting the zip undone and shoving his hand into his underwear to grip at himself, unable to wait and not wanting to make Sherlock feel like he’s got to reciprocate, either. It feels unspeakably good, getting himself off like this, the taste of Sherlock in his mouth. His soft palate is raised about as high as it goes, almost cutting off his breath, but that’s only fuelling his arousal at the moment.

Sherlock is sucking in oxygen as though he’s starved for it, his thighs shaking, hands scrabbling at the cupboards and counter and his own, bare chest. “J – I’m – ” The breath gets choked in his throat, and John glances up just in time to see his eyes squeeze shut, his entire face agonised and then his entire body spasms, flooding John’s mouth and throat as he comes.

John very nearly chokes but manages not to, swallowing it down and jerking himself furiously. He was already so hard when he started that he’s only seconds behind Sherlock – he swallows again, then pulls off and presses his forehead into the place where Sherlock’s thigh meets his body, Sherlock’s cock still half-hard and throbbing gently against his cheek. He pants into Sherlock’s skin, right on the brink of it – the orgasm hits hard and can hear himself splattering the cabinets as it surges out of him, a groan tearing itself from his throat. He pumps his fist over himself as hard as he can, his hand wet with his own come, nose pressed into the soft hair of Sherlock’s balls, the scent of them filling John’s skull as his own race to empty themselves.

It subsides after a minute and looks up at Sherlock, still breathing hard. “C’mere,” he says, and Sherlock’s legs jackknife themselves in half, giving way as he collapses to the kitchen floor, his back pressed into the mess John’s left on the cabinet doors. He doesn’t seem to care, though, grasping John’s face with both hands and kissing him breathless. Spent as he is, John kisses back just as fervently as Sherlock crawls half onto him, their legs twisted around each other’s. They kiss as though the world is ending, arms tight around each other, and it really could for all John cares, except that he wants to go on doing this pretty much forever. It feels almost like they’re doing something illegal, John thinks in a wash of euphoria, just sitting here on the kitchen floor in the middle of the afternoon in a mess of legs and arms, kissing as though the world is ending. (But it’s not illegal. They’re allowed to do this. Have this.)

The oven timer begins to beep some time later, startling them both. Sherlock pulls away at last, but doesn’t move to get up. Instead, he pushes all five fingers of his right hand into John’s hand and looks at him with something very much like wonder. “You,” he says.

John smiles at him, half-dizzy with everything he’s feeling. He doesn’t know what to say to this, though, the right words not materialising to put all the stuff he’s thinking and feeling into the right framing. “I guess you should get that,” he says instead, though his thumbs are stroking over Sherlock’s cheekbones.

“I suppose I should.” But Sherlock kisses him again, their lips closed this time, and that leads to another, then another after that, John’s arms getting themselves around Sherlock’s back again. The timer starts beeping in double time and Sherlock pulls away with reluctance and sighs. “Bloody nuisance. Can’t go burning Mrs Hudson’s birthday cake to a crisp, though.”

“Not really,” John agrees, and Sherlock untangles himself and gets up, nude, to put the oven mitts on and retrieve the cake. “Is it okay?” John asks, more concerned with Sherlock’s incredible arse than the cake.

Sherlock makes a sound of assent. “Should be.” He puts it down on a wire rack, then takes off the oven mitts and reaches for John again, as though unable to compel himself to stop kissing him, and John is more than willing, though he feels very slightly silly with his cock hanging out of his jeans in contrast to Sherlock’s total nudity. Sherlock kisses him for a long moment, then stops, drawing back. “John – that was – no one has ever… done anything like that for me before. Anything even approaching that. I – it made me feel…”

He trails off, looking uncertain. John’s throat grows tight. He strokes Sherlock’s face. “What?” he asks gently. “Say it. Please.”

Sherlock’s lips compress a little. “To have someone – do that – what you did… it made me feel… loved. More than that. Like I was worth… enough to you for you to – do that.” He stops, making an exasperated face. “That sounds ridiculous.”

John is having a hard time with his throat. He tries to clear it and it doesn’t help at all. “Sounds pretty damned accurate to me,” he says, feeling intensely humbled by this. “You are worth that. Of doing that. Millions of times over.”

Sherlock kisses him again in response to this, as hungrily as before, and they stand there for a long, long time, in no hurry to do anything but this, arms tight around each other, hands gripping each other’s faces and backs and it’s so perfect that John could just about cry. They’ve waited so bloody long to get to this point. It barely even feels real, like it could possibly be happening at all, but here it is. He feels so fiercely grateful that he doesn’t even know where to leave himself, and it’s incredible.

***

“This buttercream is divine,” Mrs Hudson pronounces, and Sherlock looks pleased.

“Thank you,” he says modestly. “More tea?”

“Oh, you know me, never say no to another cuppa,” Mrs Hudson says, twinkling at John. “Did you help him?”

“With the cake? God, no,” John says frankly. “It’s better that way, trust me.”

“I don’t think any of us have forgotten those sugar cookies you tried to bake that one year,” Sherlock says, treating him to a very private smile.

John remembers all too well, and Mrs Hudson hoots with laughter. “Took weeks to get the smoke smell out of the curtains,” she recalls, sounding fond. “Ah, well. That’s all right, then. We’ve all got our special skills, haven’t we?” She pats John’s hand. “Now then, how are you doing, dear?”

John feels a little put on the spot. At the same time, he’s also decided that he’s ready to just do this, rather than wait for Sherlock to have to find some sort of secret moment behind his back to do it like he originally wanted. He clears his throat. “Much better, thanks. Actually…” He glances at Sherlock, hoping he won’t think he’s doing this only because Sherlock hasn’t had the chance yet. It’s not that. It’s just that he’s ready to say this, ready to own it. “We, er… we’ve got something to tell you, actually. I was initially going to get Sherlock to tell you sometime when I wasn’t around, but… I think I want to tell you myself.” He looks at Sherlock. “If you don’t mind, of course,” he adds, hoping that he won’t.

Sherlock shakes his head a little, though he isn’t quite able to hide a bit of worry from creeping into his brow.

Mrs Hudson looks outright alarmed. “What is it?” she wants to know. “Don’t tell me you’re leaving again!”

“No!” John says hastily. “Not that – not that at all. It’s – actually, er, what we’ve been wanting to tell you is that…” Somehow this is harder to say out loud than he thought. But it’s so important that he not back down now. It would hurt Sherlock if he did. It turns out this is enough of a motivation to get the words dislodged and out of his mouth. “We’re – Sherlock and me, we’re – together,” he says, and it comes out a little jerky, but the point is that he said it. Mrs Hudson looks confused, though, so he’s got to clarify. “I mean – we’re – we’re a couple now. Officially.”

Mrs Hudson’s mouth falls open. “What!” She looks at Sherlock as though for confirmation, like she doesn’t believe John. “Is he serious?” she demands.

Sherlock gives a small nod and clears his throat. “Quite.” He looks self-conscious, and John realises that this is tantamount to him telling his own mother. Retroactively he realises that it would have been just as hard for Sherlock to have told her, and chastises himself for his lack of insight.

Mrs Hudson’s look transforms into one of delight. “Oh, John! This is wonderful!” she exclaims. “I won’t say I’m not astonished, not after all this time! But better late than never, right?” She looks at Sherlock. “You must be over the moon,” she says, sounding very fond.

Sherlock looks even more self-conscious, but he nods. “I am, rather,” he says, and if his voice is a bit small, that’s all right.

John takes a deep breath, then puts his hand over Sherlock’s on the table. “There’s a lot you could say about now,” he says to Mrs Hudson, trying not to wince. “I’m – I’m aware of all of it. And then some, I think. I know what I’ve all done, how long I’ve held this up, got in the way of it, and all of – ” He struggles, then makes himself say it. “The stuff I’ve – the way I’ve treated Sherlock. I’m – aware of it. Painfully. But I’m – I’m working on it. Working through it.”

Sherlock looks at him, then deliberately turns his hand palm upward under John’s, his long fingers closing around John’s hand. “We’re working through it,” he says, the tension ebbing from his voice. “It hasn’t been all you. We both know that.”

He’s said this before, but this is clearly for Mrs Hudson’s benefit. She looks back and forth between them, her face a bit anxious. “But it’s working?” she asks.

John looks at Sherlock and thinks of the way they were sitting on the kitchen floor just a couple of hours earlier, kissing as though they couldn’t have stopped with guns pointed at their heads, and he smiles. “I think so, yeah,” he says, and Sherlock’s fingers tighten just perceptibly.

“Yes,” he says directly, to Mrs Hudson. It is now, he could have said, but he didn’t, sparing John that much, and John loves him all the more for it.

“Well, good,” Mrs Hudson says emphatically. “As long as you care for each other, that’s all that matters at the end of the day! Oh, I must say, the two of you couldn’t have given me a better gift than that! It’s all I’ve wanted since the day you walked in here with that cane of yours,” she says, directing this at John. “I suppose I lost hope when you told me you were getting married. I thought I’d best just accept it then and be done with it, even though we didn’t think we were going to Sherlock back then. Isn’t that right?”

John nods, swallowing. “If I could have a do-over, there’s a lot I’d change,” he says tightly. “But it seems it wasn’t too late, in the end.”

Sherlock gives him another of those very private looks, his eyes half-hooded, and John isn’t entirely sure what it means. What he does know is that when Mrs Hudson goes back downstairs, Sherlock’s arms and mouth and body will be his again. “Of course it wasn’t,” Sherlock says, his words very slightly clipped, and John recognises that as his self-consciousness again. “Meanwhile, your cup is empty, Mrs Hudson. Let me remedy that.”

Mrs Hudson beams at him, then turns grateful eyes on John. “Of course it wasn’t,” she echoes, her tone gentle. “Another cup would be lovely. And I wouldn’t say no to another slice of that delicious cake, either!”

“Absolutely,” John says, and the atmosphere turns lighter again, his heart lifting within him. After all, it’s a birthday celebration, and they’ve come out on the other side of the long, dark tunnel of their lost years. Why not allow himself to actually feel happy? That’s allowed, too, apparently. (Who would have thought?)

***

Chapter Text

XI

 

As they’re lying in bed that night, naked and in each other’s arms as they kiss, Sherlock bends over him and John pulls him properly onto himself. He’s content as anything to go with it, if that’s what Sherlock wants, but Sherlock makes a sound of negation into his mouth.

“N – I want to do what you did, in the kitchen,” he says, the words a bit vague, but his meaning is crystal clear.

John feels his cock actively move in visceral response to this, and pressed as it currently is to Sherlock’s stomach, he knows Sherlock won’t need telling that he absolutely wants this. Still, though. “Are you sure?” he asks. “You don’t have to…”

“I want to,” Sherlock says, very clearly and very honestly, lifting his face to look at John directly. “You wanted me to tell you what I want. I want to do this.”

Well. That’s pretty unmistakeable. John doesn’t trust himself to speak, his eyes on Sherlock’s so he swallows and nods instead. Sherlock looks somewhat triumphant. He drops his mouth to John’s, then shifts down his body. He copies what John did earlier, pressing kisses to his body as he goes, mouth lingering in certain places that he seems to like especially, his large hands following, cataloguing information almost tangibly, and John finds himself getting breathless and harder than anything, arousal flushing through his skin like flame. He pants at the ceiling as Sherlock’s curls brush against his inner thigh. Sherlock finds his hand, their fingers sliding together, and John grips it mercilessly as Sherlock’s mouth trails up the length of his cock, his lips warm, breath hot.

“I worried a bit, earlier,” Sherlock says, directing his words between John’s legs rather than at his face. “I wondered if you might find it disgusting, doing this.”

It’s such a frank and unfiltered admission than John finds himself stripped down to the quick by it, disarmed completely. “I didn’t,” he says, tipping his head to look down at Sherlock, whose eyes are still on his cock. “Not at all. Just the opposite. I was enormously turned on by it. As the cabinet doors can attest to.”

Sherlock smiles, then glances up through his eyelashes in that way that makes John’s heart skip a beat. He doesn’t say anything to this, though. Instead, he nuzzles his nose into the underside of John’s cock, right where it joins his body, and lips at the hair of his balls. “This scent… it’s so primal,” he says, rubbing his nose along the vein that runs the length of John’s cock, and John can only gasp without control as Sherlock puts his mouth onto him.

It’s mind-blowingly good. It’s so phenomenal that he can’t even speak, gasping in lungfuls of air as Sherlock meticulously searches out every single most sensitive part of him and delivers the most masterful blow job John’s ever received in his life, an act which he adores and hasn’t experienced nearly as much as he might have liked. This feels, in one single act, like payback for years upon years of what he’s internally thought of, with some resentment, as neglect. Lots of his girlfriends barely did it at all, and Mary refused outright most of the time. Sherlock, on the other hand, is sucking him as though he’s been planning it for the past six years now, responding to John’s every tiny reaction with the full weight of his terrifyingly accurate observational abilities, and it’s beyond phenomenal. John can’t even attempt to mask how good it feels and isn’t trying, his fingers clenched in the sheet, toes curling, every hair on his body alive as Sherlock’s mouth works over him, pleasure surging through his veins like a tsunami. He barely manages to stutter out a warning before he comes with a shout, grimacing as he pumps helplessly upward into Sherlock’s mouth and throat, a leg wrapped around his back as his body spasms out shot after shot of his release. “Sorry!” he gasps, his cock still twitching within the tight circle of Sherlock’s lips. “Didn’t mean to – ”

Sherlock pulls his mouth off. “Don’t apologise!” His voice is breathy and he goes on mouthing at the head of John’s cock as it dribbles out the last of it, gentle now that the peak has passed.

John is weak from the strength of his orgasm but doesn’t want to neglect Sherlock. “Come here,” he pants, trying to keep it from sounding like an order. His chest is heaving, but he needs to do this. Sherlock scrambles back up to him, wordless, the flush deep in his face and chest, and John kisses him breathlessly, obsessively. “What do you want?” he murmurs. “Tell me.” Surely Sherlock won’t ask to be penetrated. He’s got to know that John couldn’t possibly get it up again that quick. Surely this offer is safe.

Sherlock is already breathing hard, himself. “I – ”

He stops, then finds John’s hand, bringing it to his body in a clear enough request, but John’s hungry to hear him say it, greedy for the admission. No. Not for his admission. Rather, what he needs to hear is Sherlock’s verbal and very clear consent, as well as his request. (Yes, he thinks. That was it.) “D’you want me to touch you?” he asks, letting his fingers curl around the hardness of Sherlock’s erection. It feels so good in his hand that his balls give a squeeze of ache all over again.

Sherlock nods quickly. “Please – oh – ” His entire body quivers as John strokes him, finding his rhythm quickly now, getting used to the way Sherlock responds, the way he needs it. Sherlock’s mouth is open, sweat gleaming on his forehead, the urgency mounting as John goes, his face practically radiant, it’s so beautiful. His features are like sculpted marble, only he’s alive and sweating and vivid and John can’t stop drinking in the sight of him like this. Sherlock opens his eyes after a bit, seemingly tries to collect himself, then says, “John – would you – ” He stops, then makes himself keep going. “My – would you touch – ”

John searches his face. “Where?”

Sherlock swallows, then takes John’s hand and puts it on his arse cheek. “I – like it when you – do this,” he says jerkily.

John gives his arse cheek a good squeeze and Sherlock gasps and clambers onto him again, allowing John access with both hands. The level of his response is almost surprising, but John goes with it, pleased to have elicited such unfiltered enthusiasm. He squeezes and rubs and Sherlock thrusts against his hip bone and spent cock, which is a tiny bit uncomfortable, but John wouldn’t deny him this for the world, especially not now that he’s come out and specifically asked for this. “Like this?” he murmurs, his mouth on Sherlock’s jaw.

Sherlock’s nod is frantic, but then he turns his face into John’s neck and says, the words coming out muffled, “I – I want you to touch me – inside.”

John’s chest seems to clench. (Can he do this?) He hesitates, then swiftly realises that he cannot possibly turn this down without hurting Sherlock. It’s just that he doesn’t want to hurt Sherlock physically. “You’re – sure?” he asks, hearing his own wince in his voice.

He can feel Sherlock nod. “Please,” he says, his voice absolutely raw with his naked want, his utter lack of having cloaked his stated desire in anything other than truth, and John’s heart turns to lava within him.

He nods. “Yeah.” It cracks, but the word comes out. “Okay. I – I need the – ”

Sherlock grasps for the tube, already out on the night table from last night and puts it unseeingly into John’s hand, reaching behind himself with his face still hidden.

John swallows and gets the lid off. He’s never done this in his life, put his fingers in someone’s arse. It’s probably not that different than some of the other things he’s done, but he doesn’t want to think about that, about anything he’s ever done with anyone else. This is about the two of them only, and if it’s as inexperienced and new for him as it is for Sherlock, then he’s fiercely glad. He drops the lid and clumsily gets lube onto his fingers, probably way too much, but too much has got to be better than not enough. He concentrates on the feel of Sherlock’s erection between them and reminds himself that Sherlock wants this, wants it badly enough to have asked for it plainly. If it hurts, he’ll say, won’t he? “You’ll – you’ll mention the – legumes if you need to, right?” he asks.

Sherlock nods into his neck. “I promise.”

This is reassuring. John takes a deep breath and lets it out. “Okay,” he says, and slides his fingers into the cleft of Sherlock’s arse, his middle finger leading the way. When he touches Sherlock’s hole, Sherlock gasps as though he’s been shocked, his cock jerking hard and John almost thinks he might be about to come, but he doesn’t. Instead, Sherlock pants against his ear now, hips pushing forward. Emboldened, John rubs around the tight ring of Sherlock’s entrance, exploring, and Sherlock’s entire frame quivers like a livewire, hyper-responsive, his cock leaking fiercely onto John’s skin. John rubs and rubs, wrapping his calf around Sherlock’s to give him even more contact, rocking up against him at the same time. Sherlock’s gone nonverbal, moaning and panting, on the other side of his own control, and John loves it, loves seeing him so wantonly wanting it, wanting what he’s doing. It’s like a drug, getting Sherlock off like this. He slips his middle finger all the way inside Sherlock, down to the knuckle, and Sherlock gives a shout and comes like a firehose, the orgasm gripping his body for what must be nearly twenty seconds, not even thrusting, just rigid as his release jets hotly out onto John’s body, and it’s so intensely arousing that John is half-hard again by the time it’s done.

Sherlock is slumped down onto him, panting onto his shoulder, his entire frame gone limp and boneless and sated, and John finds a moment to marvel at this, that Sherlock came that hard from a single finger in his arse, no direct grip to his cock, probably not even any active prostate stimulation. If he liked one finger that much, how much more might he like having a cock there? John’s own gives a strong twitch in response to this, but his own foreboding mixes into it, cold at the pit of his belly. After a bit, Sherlock recovers enough to reach between them, rubbing his palm gently against John’s cock and eventually coaxing out a much milder and very rare second orgasm. “I love you,” he says into John’s jaw as John pants and spurts in his hand, and that alone draws out another squeeze of it.

He says it back, his voice wrecked and gasping, but Sherlock doesn’t seem to mind at all. They lie there in a tangled mess of arms and legs and torsos and it’s the best thing in the universe.

***

The next morning, they’re just finishing breakfast, seated across from each other at the kitchen table. They made crepes with fresh blueberry sauce and crème anglaise with roasted sausages alongside, and John feels very much contented and full. They’re sipping coffee and perusing the newspapers now.

Sherlock clears his throat. “John…”

John looks across at him, feeling the same dizzy wave of warmth that he can’t get seem to get used to wash through him again. “Yeah?”

Sherlock’s gaze is very direct and very serious, though. “I was wondering if it might be about time to start working again,” he says, his voice deliberately even.

John’s instinctive reaction is uneasiness, which cuts into the warm wave considerably. “Wh – do you mean I should – ” He stops, not sure how to put it. Is Sherlock trying to tell him that it’s time he got off his arse and went back to the clinic?

“I mean our work,” Sherlock says quietly, scattering John’s first bout of uneasiness and ushering in another sort altogether. He waits a moment, gauging John’s face, then adds, “I wondered if it might be time. If you think you… if we need more time, that’s fine. I just – I thought that perhaps a conversation about it might be warranted.”

John thinks of their last case, of Sarah Mills and the way he didn’t recognise the clear signs of her abuse, the way Sherlock did. The way everyone else did. He thinks of the way his deep unwillingness to see Mary’s treatment of him for what it was biased him against recognising the same behaviour as abusive in another instance and blinded him to seeing his own actions for what they were in turn, to the point that Ella’s gentle probing blew the lid off the entire thing and reduced him to a dysfunctional, alcoholic, child-neglecting mess. His stomach knots. “Do you think that’s a good idea?” he asks tightly, hating how bleak he sounds. “Me back in a situation I can’t judge accurately even on a strictly medical basis, never mind – ” Is this it, then? Is he backing out of all of it, their work – their very life together? If he refuses to go back to casework with Sherlock, will it destroy everything between them?

Sherlock doesn’t react for a moment, his face kept carefully composed. “I don’t know about that,” he says after a moment, his tone thoughtful. He doesn’t seem at all perturbed by John’s response, which is in itself a relief. “There were… understandable reasons why you didn’t see what I saw immediately. I don’t see it as a question of your competence, in light of those considerations.”

John’s throat is tight. “Yeah, but I didn’t see any of that, either. I just – pushed it all to the back of my head and refused to see any of it for what it was. What my relationship with Mary was. What I’d done to you. I mean, I knew. The second part, at least. But – ” He stops, unsure how to finish his sentence.

Sherlock surveys him with overt compassion. “The reasons for your anger at the time are also quite understandable,” he says, his voice so gentle that it almost hurts. “You know now that some of it was misplaced. We both know that some of it was justified. We’re learning, or so I’d like to believe. Awareness is the first step, or so Ella has said. Your newfound awareness will presumably better inform you going ahead.” He pauses, visibly weighing John’s dubiousness, then says quietly, “Regardless, I was thinking that perhaps we might wade back in with considerably lighter fare, anyway. A house robbery or something. Just to get us back on our feet.”

He’s doing it again, making it sound like it’s their joint problem and not John alone that’s been holding things back. John tries to swallow around the edge in his throat. “I don’t recall you ever having not been on your feet here. You’re not the one with all the problems.”

Sherlock’s lips compress a little. “Of course I am,” he says. He slides his right hand across the table and touches the back of John’s finger. “Beyond all the many issues which I’m sure that Ella could list, I’m without my conductor of light. I’m useless without you. You know that.”

“Bollocks,” John says, though the words warm him nonetheless. “You know your deductions don’t depend on me being there.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “I’m afraid it’s entirely quantifiable. I’ve got a chart.”

John frowns at him. “You haven’t.”

“I have.” Sherlock gets swiftly up from the table and goes to retrieve one of his laptops from the desk, bringing it back. “One moment.” He types rapidly, then turns the screen to face John. “It’s all there. The first chart shows cases I took before I knew you. The second shows cases I took after you moved in. The third chart is cases I had while I was away, the fourth is cases we took during your engagement, not living together, but still working together. and the fifth, here, is cases I took following Mary’s death. The case solving is twelve percent more efficient when you’re there. It tracks through all five charts. I also factored in the time it took to solve the solved ones and it applies there, too: the questions you ask, your own not-inconsiderable deductive abilities, your superior people skills and personability, your combat and defensive abilities, and your very presence in terms of inspiring my own deductive abilities prove quite unmistakeably that together we as a team are twelve percent more efficient than me on my own.”

John blinks, staring at the charts. “But it’s not like you’re total crap on your own,” he says, though he can hear his certainty wavering. Sherlock is right: it is all right there in his graphs.

Sherlock smiles now. “Not total crap, perhaps,” he allows modestly. “But you do see why it’s vastly preferable to have you there, from a strictly scientific standpoint, let alone my personal desire to have you with me.” He pulls the laptop back and closes it, folding his hands on top. “That said, if you feel we need more time, I’m entirely amenable. I’ve been leaving the subject well alone and just thought it might be worth checking in on. That’s all.”

John hesitates. “House robberies?” he says, half-squinting at Sherlock.

“Or something along those lines, I was thinking,” Sherlock says evenly. “When you’re ready.”

The hesitation doesn’t evaporate. John bites his lip. “Did you ever find out what’s happened with the Mills’ daughter? Sarah?”

“Yes.” Sherlock’s gaze is very blue. “She’s in foster care now. And receiving trauma therapy, both for the abuse and to help process the death of her parents, not to mention the respective manners in which both came about. Her foster family has previously taken in children in similar situations. Early reports suggest that she is doing remarkably well.”

John thinks of Sherlock monitoring the girl’s case and keeping his findings to himself, not wanting to upset him, and his throat tightens again. “I’m – glad,” he gets out. He puts a hand up to his eyes, digging his thumb into his temple. Then he drops it, looking across the table at the person he loves more than he’s ever known he could love, and thinks of him quietly putting his entire work on hold just to wait for him, refusing to carry on without him or leave him behind. “Is there anything on the blog?” he asks.

He sees Sherlock’s shoulders release, dropping by half an inch. He turns the laptop back to John and pushes it across the table. “Plenty,” he says. “You choose.”

***

The first case they take isn’t even as dramatic as a break-in; instead John chooses something even tamer, just a missing dog. In the end, it wasn’t even anything criminal, just a dog who got out of its garden and wandered off. He was waggingly grateful to be returned to his tearful owners, and John felt so pleased by the entire thing that he immediately agreed over dinner to take another case. It was amusing to see Sherlock take the case as seriously as any other, putting all of his deductive capabilities to use, going on things like dog hair trails, the home surveillance system, and pawprints in the nearby mud. He’d almost forgotten what a turn-on it is to see Sherlock in the throes of the work, too, and after dinner they raced up the stairs to the flat, laughing and pulling each other’s coats off to push each other up against the walls leading to the bedroom in turns, the laughter getting interrupted by kissing and moaning. It was good. It was just the two of them, too: no Lestrade, none of the rest of them. Just a practise case to cautiously ease back into it.

Their next case is a house robbery, in fact, and it’s a biggish one involving the theft of a rather expensive diamond-and-sapphire necklace from a locked safe in an upper bedroom. This time, it was the Yard who called them, rather ironically just as they were going through Sherlock’s blog and trying to choose a worthwhile case. Sherlock took the call, listened for a moment or two, told Lestrade to wait, then moved the phone away from his mouth and said, “Jewellery theft at a private residence. It’s rather valuable. Interested?”

John had felt his old interest spark. “Yes!” he said, and saw Sherlock’s eyes light up in turn, not bothering to filter his own intrigue.

“We’ll be there in twenty,” he’d said. “Text us the address!”

They’re in the kitchen now. Sherlock wanted to examine the perimeter of the building first, looking for tracks, prints, and probably the specific composition of the soil or something, John doesn’t know. It’s been two hours and Sherlock has made them go through several rooms in great detail, detail which so far hasn’t turned up a damned thing. Now they’re all in the rather nice kitchen of this rather nice Hampstead Heath place and Sherlock is going through the cupboards and drawers, occasionally uttering a single word, as though to himself, but John is duly jotting them down in his little notebook, just in case.

“Paperclips,” Sherlock mutters, and Lestrade gives John a look.

“What’s he on about?” he asks out the corner of his mouth.

It’s good to be back, honestly. John’s missed this, missed the adrenaline of having a big case to solve, missed Lestrade and his team, missed feeling… normal. Even though this part is a bit dull, it’s just good to be back. “Yeah, I don’t know,” he says, in response to Lestrade’s question.

“Did he say ‘paperclips’?” Lestrade asks, still under his breath.

“Yeah, that’s what I’ve got,” John confirms, pointing at the word in his notebook with his pen.

“What on earth does that mean?”

John shrugs. “Who ever knows, with Sherlock?”

Lestrade gives a snort of laughter. John thought his comment was too low for Sherlock to catch, but he was wrong. Sherlock straightens up quite suddenly, his back stiff, and John immediately feels his gut knot itself. Shit. Was that – ?

“John,” Sherlock says, without looking at him, his tone even stiffer than his back, “perhaps you could do me a favour and check the pantry for lentils.”

Lentils. Shit. He did fuck up. Sherlock heard the exchange, and thinks that John’s gone back to his old habit of joining in with other people in poking fun at him and his methods, and has actually come out and used their safe word for the first and only time so far, explicitly indicating pain. John opens his mouth. “Sherlock – I – ”

But Sherlock strides out of the kitchen without a word, his coat sweeping behind him, not even looking back.

Lestrade frowns at John. “What was that?” he wants to know. “Lentils? What?”

John curses himself inwardly. “Never mind,” he says, more upset than he wants to let on. “I just – go and help him. I’ll – I’ll check.”

Lestrade gives him an odd look, but good-naturedly agrees and wanders off after Sherlock, the rest of the forensics staff following him.

John waits until they’re gone before putting a hand up to his brow. “Fuck!” It’s a whisper, but a shouted one. He paces around in circles. Sherlock’s actually done it, actually come out and said that something John did has hurt him. And it wasn’t anything physical. John didn’t hit him or tear his flesh open in a clumsy, unpractised sexual act – it’s worse. John’s gone and hurt him in a deeper way, made him feel teamed-up against, mocked. That’s John’s been disloyal in the most basic of ways, not taking his side in a social situation, regardless of how mild John himself thought it was. The point is that he’s hurt Sherlock and he hates himself for it. It occurs to him that his action was probably far more hurtful than not holding Sherlock’s hand in public would have been. He keeps getting it wrong.

For several moments, he gives in to a black despair, hating himself and thinking that it’s just unfixable, that he himself is profoundly unfixable. It’s just his way, to hurt Sherlock over and over and over again, unable to teach himself new patterns of behaviour, new ways to be with Sherlock, in private or in public. And on their first case back with the rest of the team, too! He’s gone and proven himself completely unable to not only let on to Lestrade and them that they’re together, that they’re a proper couple, lovers in every sense, but has gone and made fun of Sherlock in a way that obviously stung, hurt him more deeply than John’s thick, insensitive skull ever even imagined it could. He knows there’ve been some comments in the past, little remarks and jabs aside to Lestrade, but he didn’t think that something so seemingly small could hurt Sherlock, but obviously it did. He thinks of the way Sherlock asked him to touch him the other night, John’s finger inside him, of how incredibly vulnerable he made himself to be able to ask for something like that in the first place, and John closes his eyes and loathes himself.

Suddenly he recalls Ella having said that hating himself won’t do anything to fix anything. She probably said it better than that, but the point is to not get stuck in this loop, not doing anything proactive to make reparations, make it better for Sherlock. He’s got to go to him, got to apologise. Fix this. Whatever it takes. John unballs his fists, shakes out his hands, then sets off after Sherlock with determination.

He finds them all in the master bedroom upstairs, Sherlock gesturing at the safe with one hand and holding an evidence bag containing a single paperclip in the other. He’s solved it, then, John thinks numbly. Without him. (The thought hurts.) Sherlock’s eyes slide over John’s face when he arrives in the doorframe, but he doesn’t stop explaining. “There was a paperclip on the desk in the dining room,” he’s saying to Lestrade. “It’s not an inside job, as you thought, not a case of insurance fraud. The Wrights were genuinely robbed: the thief used a paperclip as a makeshift lockpick. The clip itself is too small for prints, but if you check the box on the desk, you may get a partial.”

Lestrade gives him a grateful look and rushes off downstairs again, the rest of his team straggling after, leaving John alone with Sherlock in the bedroom.

Sherlock is looking down at his hands, now empty of the evidence bag, which someone has relieved him of.

John takes a deep breath, then lurches into his apology. “I’m sorry,” he says, the words jamming on his tongue in their rush to get out. “So sorry, Sherlock. I don’t know why I – I’m an idiot. I didn’t mean to hurt you like that. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Sherlock swallows, his lips pressing together a little. “Don’t you?” he asks, a bit pointedly, giving John a sharp glance, half-hidden beneath his lashes. “You specifically mentioned this with Ella. This sort of thing.”

John doesn’t know what to say to this, because it’s true. He inhales, but the words don’t come. “I – know, I – ”

Maybe Sherlock thinks he said no, not know. He shakes his head a little. “It’s not as though I was expecting you to – to kiss me in front of them or something along those lines. I just… that hurt. And I feel… disappointed by your… choice.”

This hurts more than a fist to the gut and John’s entire being seems to reel from it. “I’m sorry,” he says uselessly, the words coming out tight. He is such an idiot. “I – fuck, Sherlock, I’m sorry. I wish I could take it back. I just – old habits, or something. And – I guess I never realised how much all the rest of it really did hurt. I hate that it did. Hate that I caused that, made you feel – that. I’m – I’m glad you said, though. I feel – humbled by your – your willingness to explain. To tell me how and why what I did wasn’t – good. I’m so sorry.”

Sherlock considers this, his brain chewing over John’s words almost visibly. Finally, he says, “No touch of yours has ever hurt me, you know. Not in any way that mattered. Only the intent behind it. That’s the part that hurts. I trust you. Trust you in a way that I’ve never trusted before. Trust that you meant it years ago when you said you knew me for real. And now – ” He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, shaking his head, then looks John directly in the eye. “You are uniquely capable of causing me damage, now more than ever before. You are far closer to me than any other person ever has been or ever will be. I realise that this is a monumental overreaction on my part. What you said was barely even – it was the principle, not the action itself. Regardless, you wanted to be told if you hurt me, and that did.”

John feels both lowlier and more humbled than he’s ever felt in his life by this. “I’m so sorry,” he repeats, his lips feeling numb. “I’ll – I never want to do this to you again. God. I want so badly to deserve your trust. I’m sorry, Sherlock.”

Sherlock swallows again, then looks away. “It’s all right,” he says quietly.

“Is it, though?” John asks, almost desperate for the confirmation. Without thinking, he crosses the thick beige carpeting to where Sherlock is standing. “I would do anything to be able to undo – that. What just happened. My fucking thoughtless comments.”

Sherlock glances at him from under his lashes again. “It wasn’t what you said, per se…”

“No, I know,” John says firmly. “It was that I said it at all, that I didn’t stand up for you, no matter how – how mild I thought it was. I get that. I really do.”

“Do you?” Sherlock studies him intently, his lips parted a little, the corners of his mouth tight.

John nods. “Yeah, I really do. And I get why it hurt. I would’ve been hurt, too,” he says.

Sherlock looks somewhat mollified. “Thank you,” he says, sounding self-conscious.

John takes another step toward him. “Can I…?” he asks, not wanting to overstep, or presume his own forgiveness too much, but Sherlock nods. John puts his arms around him and holds him for a long moment, closing his eyes with relief when he feels Sherlock’s arms fold around his shoulders. He fucked up. Probably not for the last time, either. But at least he’s managed to fix it, sort of. Nothing can ever really undo the harm once it’s been done, but at least Sherlock has forgiven him. “I love you,” he says, his voice low but fierce. “I’m sorry.”

Sherlock’s arms tighten. “I love you, too,” he says, still self-conscious. “Stop – thinking what you’re thinking. It’s all right.”

John pulls back a little, looking up into his face. “Yeah?”

Sherlock nods. “Yes.” He puts his lips to John’s forehead, just a brief, warm press, then says, “Suppose we go and catch a thief now?”

John laughs. “I almost forgot,” he admits. “Yeah. Let’s go and do that.”

Sherlock smiles for real this time, and John’s gut finally unknots itself. “Good. So far I haven’t the faintest clue who it might be. I need you, John. Come with me and conduct your light.”

“I’m right here,” John vows, meaning it with all his being.

***

They solve the case two hours later, following John’s pragmatic suggestion that they check the postman’s shoe size (which he actually suggested half as a joke) and found themselves not only their perpetrator, but also a serial thief. His thefts were spaced out too far to look suspicious for one’s average neighbourhood thief, but his route was a wide-ranging one and lined up with several other unsolved house robberies, albeit of items of lesser value than the necklace they’ve now recovered.

“It was hardly your colour, anyway,” Sherlock says to the cuffed and surly postman. “That blue would make you look sallow.”

Everyone (apart from the thief) laughs, Lestrade clapping Sherlock jovially on the back. Seeing anyone else touch Sherlock, even in this simple way, makes John feel unreasonably jealous. For a moment, his shameful desire to keep their entire situation hidden wars with his other desire to lay a very public claim to Sherlock that will leave no doubt in anyone’s mind as to their status and mutual claim on one another. It’s Sherlock’s half-apologetic glance at him that pushes John to the (correct) side of the equation, though. Sherlock specifically said earlier, in a statement that probably let on more than he meant to in terms of his subconscious and unspoken wish, that he was hardly expecting John to kiss him in front of everyone. Well. Maybe he should just do exactly that, then! Lestrade is still patting Sherlock’s back in a way that’s wholly platonic, nothing to get jealous over, but it helps bolster John’s resolve.

He strides over and puts his arm around Sherlock’s back, looking at the thieving postman. “He’s quite right, you know. It really wouldn’t have suited you.” Then he turns to Sherlock. “Brilliant,” he says, his admiration unfiltered. “And from a paperclip!”

He leans in and kisses Sherlock on the cheek, chaste enough not to embarrass him, but unmistakeably clear about what they are to each other now, and when he pulls away, he sees that Sherlock’s turned a bit pink. He’s smiling, though, just a little. “It was you who suggested we check the postman’s shoes,” he reminds John, more fondly than he might have previously, though he does sound a bit self-conscious.

Lestrade gives a loud throat-clearing. “Well!” he says. “Colour me surprised! Although, not really, either. It’s been years coming. Hasn’t it, Donovan?”

Donovan glares at them both as though they’ve offended her personally. “Took you long enough,” she grumbles.

“Don’t mind her, she’s just testy because she owes me fifty quid,” Lestrade says easily. He nods at the sergeant holding onto the postman. “All right, take him away, Dennis. We’re finished here.” They watch the thief get loaded into the back of the cruiser, then Lestrade adds, “It’s time for a pint, I’d say. On me.”

Sherlock begins to protest, but Lestrade chuckles and shakes his head.

“That wasn’t an option,” he says, still easy, but it’s clear to John that he’s not about to give in. “Come on: I want the whole story, you two. Let’s find ourselves a pub.”

***

That night, they’re in bed following the mountain of Vietnamese rice wraps they consumed with after their pint with Lestrade, bulging with grilled pork, lettuce, fresh mint, and dunked in peanut sauce. They walked home after, the walk far enough that John wasn’t grotesquely full by the time they got home. They had a cup of mint tea to wash everything down, watched the news, then John started yawning and Sherlock suggested bed.

They took quick showers (there was a lot of running earlier, as they chased down their thieving postman), and now they’re facing each other under the blankets. Sherlock touches the backs of two fingers to John’s. “Thank you for that, today,” he says quietly. “The – bit with the kiss, in front of all of them. And then talking about it so freely with Lestrade after. You didn’t have to do any of that, or not so soon, at least.”

John feels his eyebrows rise. “I kind of think I did, after the kitchen, there. Seems like the least of compensations.”

“You don’t have to keep apologising,” Sherlock says patiently. “You just wanted to be told, so I told you. Now what I want is for us both to move forward and not keep rehashing it.”

John bites his lip. “Right. Yeah,” he says, nodding. “I’m – I’m trying, Sherlock.”

Sherlock slips his fingers between John’s now. “I know you are.” The caress feels both more affectionate and more sensual than John might have imagined it could, and he moves his own fingers against Sherlock’s, craving more of it. “Are you… too sleepy?” Sherlock asks obliquely, but his meaning is clear enough and John loves that he’s asked explicitly.

He smiles. “For you? For this? Never. What, er, did you have in mind?”

“It’s not all about what I want,” Sherlock counters. “Is there anything you’d particularly like to try, that we haven’t yet? Or that we have? I’m… open.”

“Me too,” John tells him. “Although…” He trails off.

Sherlock’s fingers move against his almost obscenely. “Say it,” he says, his voice compelling John.

John swallows. “Well – the other night, when you asked me to – to touch you…”

Sherlock nods, mercifully sparing John from having to spell it out. “Yes.”

“I’m curious,” John admits, feeling a touch of heat come to his face. “I mean… you seemed to like it a lot, and it’s – I’ve never really… I don’t know if I would like it, but now I’m – yeah. Curious, I guess.”

Sherlock swallows audibly. “Do you… want me to?” he asks, his eyes searching over John’s face.

John hedges. “Do you want to?”

“That wasn’t the question.” Sherlock studies him, his gaze serious. “I want to do anything you want to try. And remember, you’re supposed to be getting better at saying what you want directly, too. That wasn’t only my task.”

“True,” John concedes. He hesitates, then nods. “Yeah. Okay. Yeah. I’m – I’m curious to see what that’s like. But maybe we could, er, ease into it?”

Sherlock nods. “Yes. Of course,” he says. He looks into John’s eyes for a moment, then leans forward and kisses him.

It’s a long, slow, deliberate kiss that feels particularly tender, and for the first time in one of these times in bed together, it feels a little like Sherlock is taking the lead. It’s something John has rarely experienced before, and makes him feel less secure than it maybe should. It takes a lot of trust, more than he’s used to giving. Sherlock’s hand is stroking sensually down over his back and arse and thigh and John is touching him back, but it feels very clear that he’s made his request and Sherlock is running with it, helping him ease into it. With everyone else he’s ever been with, John’s always felt like he had to very specifically take the lead, prove himself, make it good for the other person. He’s never thought he even could just – relax and go with what the other person was doing. He knows that they’re both new at this, but he’s certainly blindly followed Sherlock into any number of other situations, ones that were a lot more overtly threatening than just a new sexual experience. He can let himself trust Sherlock with this, too, can’t he? Because the truth is that he does trust Sherlock in all that other stuff. He always has, since the day they met. Reminding himself of this makes John suddenly feel ten times freer, and he feels himself consciously relax into Sherlock’s touch, letting himself enjoy it without wariness, without hesitation.

Sherlock feels it, too, and makes an approving sound into John’s clavicle as he mouths over it, his palm coming around to stroke over John’s cock. “That’s it,” he murmurs. “Touch me. If you want.”

“Oh, I want,” John assures him, his voice coming out breathy. He grips at Sherlock’s arse and then finds his cock, relishing its hardness in his hand. There’s a pause as Sherlock locates the lube, a murmur of exchange as he smears some into John’s hand, too, and then they’re touching each other again, mouths sucking at each other’s before ducking in to taste a patch of throat or neck or chin as they go, hands twisting at each other’s erections.

Sherlock’s long fingers are on his balls, his forearm subtly nudging John’s thigh up higher and out of the way, and John reminds himself to keep trusting, and shifts closer to allow Sherlock easier access, still touching him in turn. It feels good, the way Sherlock is pressing into the bit just behind, and then his middle finger slips a little further back. “If you change your mind, just say,” Sherlock says, pausing for a moment, pulling his face back to look into John’s eyes. “With – the word, or – other words. Whichever.”

John swallows, then nods. “Okay. Yeah. So far so good. You can – ”

Sherlock studies him. “Sure?”

John nods again. “Mm-hm.” He bends forward and kisses Sherlock again and Sherlock lets him have his mouth, all of it, their breath mingling, tongues tangling, and Sherlock moves his arm so that it’s pressing up against John’s balls, and his finger finds its way to the entrance of John’s body, just rubbing a little, the way John did for him. It’s a shock to be touched there nonetheless, and John fights the urge to reject it. It’s almost embarrassingly primal – he’s rarely even touched himself there, never mind let anyone else do it. It also embarrasses him a bit that he doesn’t want to reject it, that he’s still curious enough to want it to go on. He manages to hide his dual reaction in the kiss, kissing Sherlock a little harder than he was a moment ago, but they were already kissing pretty hard, so maybe Sherlock won’t even notice. He inches his knee up a little higher in unspoken signal for Sherlock to go ahead, and Sherlock gets it. His fingers are well coated and the middle one slides easily into John. And while there’s still the squirming sensation of being touched in an incredibly personal way, it doesn’t feel bad at all. In fact – John closes his eyes and exhales hard into Sherlock’s jaw – it feels rather good. Somehow Sherlock’s already got his finger all the way into him now and there’s a warm glow of pleasure gathering somewhere deep within him. John’s harder than a flagstaff and panting raggedly.

It seems to be having a similar effect on Sherlock, whose erection is actively throbbing in John’s somewhat inattentive hand. “Okay?” he asks, his own breathing shot to hell.

“Yeah!” He didn’t mean it to come out quite that enthusiastically, but there it is. “That’s – yeah. I’m – I’m getting why you – liked it,” he gets out, making himself say it.

Sherlock’s huff of laughter is warm on his ear, his voice warm and low and sensual. “There’s something else I’d like to try on you, if I may…”

“I’m extremely open to suggestion right now,” John pants, which makes Sherlock chuckle.

“Turn onto your front,” he says, not removing his fingers. “On your knees.”

The slightest edge of worry creeps into John’s steaming arousal, but he does it anyway. Surely Sherlock would ask about – that – first, wouldn’t he? Although at the moment… he might even be open to that.

“Don’t worry,” Sherlock says, as though reading his mind. “Not – that. And if you don’t like this, just – just tell me. I just – I wanted to try this, in case you do.”

“Okay,” John says, hearing his own dubiousness, but he does trust Sherlock. “What are you…?”

“You’ll see,” Sherlock promises. He’s kneeling behind John, his finger still moving gently within him, the pleasure not abating at all, and now he’s bending down, his breath hot on John’s skin. He bites at John’s arse cheek.

“Oh!” John’s surprise comes out quite vocally, but it also feels good. He hears himself give a breathy laugh. “Dirtier than I expected from you…”

Sherlock makes a sound that makes John think he’s smirking. “Good,” he says, and does it again. After a moment or two, he removes his fingers, then says, “I’m going to lick you. Okay?”

John opens his eyes, fleetingly glad that Sherlock can’t see the alarm on his face. “Are – are you sure you – want to?” he gets out, cringing at his own awkwardness.

But Sherlock makes a sound more like a purr now. “Very sure,” he assures John. “May I?”

John squeezes his eyes shut. “Okay,” he says, half-hating that he isn’t denying this, though perversely he’d also hate to deny Sherlock. But he can’t deny how very badly he’d like to feel this, either. He feels Sherlock’s breath first, and then his tongue, first pressing up against his hole, then slipping inside him in the dirtiest way possible and John actually shouts. Sherlock interprets it (correctly) as a reaction of pleasure, though, and mercifully doesn’t stop – he does it again, then again, essentially fucking John with his tongue, and it’s the best thing John’s ever felt in the whole entire span of his life. It’s so good that he can’t believe he’s ever lived without feeling this. He’s making a lot of noise, he can tell, but he can’t help it in the slightest – Sherlock’s tongue is so, so, so bloody good, and on top of it, he’s reached around to take John’s leaking cock in hand again, fisting it roughly as his mouth works over John’s arse, his tongue stabbing deeper and deeper into him, and when John comes, it’s without warning or even his conscious volition. He comes wailing, his cock spurting out stream after stream, hitting himself in the neck and face and chest, his arse clenching, and Sherlock doesn’t let up until he’s completely spent, licking and licking until the last spasms have passed.

When it’s over, John is weak and shaking from the strength of his orgasm. “Holy shit!” he gasps, crashing inelegantly down onto his front. Sherlock, though – he’s got to see to Sherlock. He twists around to find Sherlock facing him, having crawled back up into his former position.

“Good?” he asks, though he looks both pleased as well as turned on as anything, his pupils flooding out the blue of his irises.

“Fucking phenomenal! You’re incredible. Let me do you,” John insists, already pushing Sherlock back by the shoulder.

“What are you – ?” Sherlock goes willingly, though, not resisting John, and John sees that his cock is flushed dark and lying flat up against his torso, it’s so hard.

“This,” John says briefly, shifting down Sherlock’s body to take his cock in hand, and very shortly after that, his mouth. Sherlock gasps and writhes above him as he sucks and sucks, not trying to draw it out or prolong the torture. Sherlock is already so hard that at this point, he must just want to come pretty badly, so John is determined to bring that about. Although maybe he could also swing a bit of the other thing, too. Without breaking his rhythm at all, he finds the lube and gets some onto his fingers, all the while swallowing down the salty traces of what’s leaking into his mouth. He rubs his slickened fingers over the soft hair and skin of Sherlock’s balls, already feeling dozens of times freer than he did the first time they did this, then rearranges Sherlock’s legs so that they’re over his shoulders and slides his finger into Sherlock’s body. His other hand is jerking over Sherlock’s length, his lips and tongue working hard over his head and leaking slit, and Sherlock comes less than twenty seconds later, his entire body spasming and then flooding John’s mouth with his release. John swallows, swallows again, his finger buried to the hand inside Sherlock, his tongue running around the head of his cock. He loves this, he realises with a thrill of happiness. He absolutely loves making Sherlock feel good, getting to touch him this way, getting this kind of reaction out of him. “I love you,” he says, looking up the length of Sherlock’s still-heaving body at him. “I love you so much.”

“John – ” It’s just a breath, but Sherlock’s hands are grasping at him, pulling him up. “I – ” He stops. “Maybe you shouldn’t kiss me, given… let me just – ”

John is dying to kiss him, to bond after what just happened, but he knows that this is completely reasonable, and nods. “Okay, but hurry,” he says, and Sherlock stumbles on unsteady legs into the loo to rinse his mouth.

He swipes at the light and comes back, crawling directly onto John, his arms and legs around him like a cage. “I love you, too,” he says, his face as intense as it gets. “You’re – everything.”

John seizes him and pulls him down, kissing him with every ounce of energy he’s got left, and knows for a fact that he’s never loved this hard before and never will again. This is it: as Sherlock said, it’s everything.

***