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love or something like it

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People don't understand us, not at first, not for a while. He's so cold, and alien-looking, and his voice is all wrong for his face. And then me, well, I look like a real person; my shoulder stiffens up or I laugh at a joke or, you know, understand the basic rules of pub games, and people can relax around me. They just look at him with awe and fear and revulsion, sometimes. The revulsion is the biggest problem. It's easy to stare at him and see his beauty (there's not another word, really, but beauty) and appreciate it, until he opens his mouth.

His intentions are good, most of the time, in his own way. His observations are just…discomfiting. Lestrade understands, sort of, and I try to run as much interference as I can. But there's no good way to shut him up when he starts, besides kissing him, and he gets cranky if I do that too much. Says it cheapens it. He's dreadfully, wonderfully sentimental, you know. Most people miss it, distracted by the apparent sociopathy and the untouchable air around him. But in his own way, he's loyal and honest and all those qualities people attribute to me for whatever odd reasons. And so people don't understand. Because they're not one of the happy few who've nagged and haggled and wormed their way into his life, his real life, and so they don't know that he's capable of any emotions, much less whatever he feels for me; love, or something like it.

As for me, well. I love him, and he knows it, and regardless of all the perfectly logical, absolutely reasonable facts that tell me not to, I'll stay with him until he decides he doesn't want me around. And then I'll still stay, because that's what I do. I stay, and I help, and I force him to remember that he is human, with all the frailties and emotions and fears that come with that state — maybe he has a few less of each, but they are there.

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All of this started with a kiss on the forehead.

After Moriarty, the first time, the bomb and the darkened swimming pool and the sniper, I'd hurt my shoulder again. Well, technically Sherlock and the pool had hurt my shoulder: the hard tackle just as he'd fired into the bomb, the tilted landing at the bottom of the pool, the ricocheting shrapnel I'd come up too soon to avoid. All conspiring together, I suppose, to get me into a hospital bed, doing PT yet again.

This time, though, I had someone with me, someone who argued with the therapists and adjusted my room and diagnosed everyone else in the ward. I was in hospital for two weeks, dreaming and shaking and trying to heal, and Sherlock never left the building. Usually he stayed by me until I fell asleep, then ran off to do god knows what. So I had gotten used to waking up to an empty room; he'd show up a few minutes after my eyes opened, carrying a bag of snacks or a flask or a magazine or a new pillow.

That day, as I slowly came awake, I was suddenly aware of a new sensation. There was something cool and dry, though not unpleasantly so, pressed on my forehead. It couldn't be what I thought it was, but I kept my eyes shut just in case. After a moment, the coolness was gone, and I heard someone settle into his preferred chair on my uninjured side.

I waited a bit, until I heard magazine pages turning. Eyes still closed, I did my best to give him an out, to excuse him for his moment of…whatever. "Well, Sherlock," I said quietly, "I just had the strangest dream."

A heavy pause. "Oh?"

"Yes."

"Too bad." Another tense pause. "I don't tend to dream much."

"Ah." I kept my eyes closed, desperately trying to read his tone — which, as anyone who's met Sherlock knows, is incredibly difficult. Was he saying he didn't need a way to deny kissing me on the forehead? Was he completely unaware of what I was saying? Was he trying to remind me that he was, in his words, "married to his work" and therefore not interested in sex or romance with anyone, much less a far less handsome veteran with a bum shoulder? Bugger this, I thought, anger flaring up, if he wants something to change I'll make it change. "Well, it was rather a nice dream."

Another pause. "Oh?"

Anger again. I opened my eyes, sat up, and — rather proud of this, seeing as my shoulder refused to be of any help — threw a pillow at the man; struck him square in the face, and he flared up to return the throw, to pitch a fit, to do something. Before he could, though, I used the last weapon I had. Held out my good hand, palm up. Waited.

He just looked at it for a while. If I'd asked, he could have told me a million things about myself from that hand alone. I've a scar across the palm from an accident as a kid, a thin shiny burn mark on the wrist from making pizza at an old job, and who knows what he'd deduce from the fingernails? But he just looked, as if my hand was a viper, or a trap.

His voice was quiet and shaky, the way it never was if he could help it. "John, I don't," he took a gulp of air, like a drowning man. "I am married to my work, I'm not good at," he waved his hand vaguely in the air, a silly gesture meant to encompass sex and love and all the rest, "you know. That. And you've got Sarah." He said her name as if forming the sounds caused physical harm to his mouth, as if the act of saying it pained him in more than one way.

"No, I don't," I replied, my hand beginning to shake a bit from the effort of holding it out flat. "I haven't had Sarah since before Moriarty, and I won't have her after. She's not for me."

"Then who is?" he asked in what he probably thought was an even, calm voice. He couldn't look at me, couldn't meet my eyes.

I snorted. Couldn't help myself, he was acting like a teenager, trying to prod and poke me into saying it. I was the adult here, I supposed, and so I had to start acting like it. "Come here, you idiot."

He met my eyes then, a pique of righteous anger, "I'm the furthest possible—" but I suppose he saw my expression, which I can only assume was full of fondness and exhaustion, as that's the way I remember feeling. And he shut his mouth, clambered up on the wide bed, wrapped an arm around me, carefully fit his body to mine, and we fell asleep. And that's how the nurses found us, hands clasped so tightly our knuckles were white.

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And that was that, really. Having never done anything more than a peck on the forehead and a snuggle in a hospital bed, we were…whatever we are. I was madly in love and he, well. He didn't want me hurt, or want me to leave. Which, yes, all right, wasn't a vast change from before. But instead of a passive protectiveness around me, he was telling me to be careful, keeping me in his peripheral vision, measuring out my medications and bullying me through my PT. He was more and more invested, more and more involved. Even Lestrade and the others noticed a difference: they stopped calling him so many names, stopped questioning my involvement, stopped, well, bothering us. Him, I mean. They tended to ignore me, both before and after.

That went on for a few months. Things went mostly as they had been going. We didn't really share a bed, not very often. We didn't kiss or fuck or do anything that anyone would have been embarrassed to walk in on. Sherlock did change some things: he'd let me sit on the couch, suddenly and without warning; most nights we'd watch TV with his head in my lap and my fingers carding his hair. He'd touch my hand with a long, thin finger, trace the scars there, idly, when he was thinking. Once in a while I'd press my luck and take his hand in mine, intertwine our fingers; most of the time he'd squeeze back, then shake loose to do something else. But sometimes he'd stay. Let me rub my thumb along his. For a little while.

Like I said, that went on for a few months. Then Sherlock came to my bed one night. He slid in beside me, cool and skinny and always seeming stretched, like he was taller and thinner than he was meant to be. Half-asleep, I rolled slightly to one side to give him a little more room.

"John, wake up," he whispered, cupping my face gently in his palm.

Couldn't stop myself, his touch was so rare; I butted up against it like a cat. "Hmm?" I murmured, stifling a yawn.

"I need to discuss some things with you, at this moment."

I let my face rest in his palm a moment longer, then gave a good stretch, hearing the joints crackle and pop. Shook my head to clear my eyes. Looked across the bed. He was always so handsome, in such an odd way. Some people don't understand his face, but there's this sort of unearthly quality to it. Right then, in the moonlight, he looked like a fairy tale come to life. If I'd been a little more asleep I'd have said something fairly stupid, something about glass slippers or singing mice. As it was, I propped my head up on my good arm and waited for him to tell me whatever was on his mind. I assumed, of course, he'd had a breakthrough in that safari case with the lion-hunter.

"I want to talk to you about sex."

"Ah," my mouth shot out before I could stop it, "so no lions then?"

He looked flummoxed, a bit, just for a moment. "No, no lions. Are you awake? I asked you to wake up."

"Yes, sorry." I cleared my throat. "Sorry. So. Sex, eh? What about it?" I was dreaming, surely. Sherlock Holmes, the man I loved, the man who for all I know had no sex drive at all — which was fine, really — wanted to talk about sex. Must be a dream.

"I don't, er, do that." Sherlock looked ever so slightly embarrassed. "I mean to say, I am capable, everything…functions. I just haven't ever, ah, had an interest in it. Per se. I'm not a virgin," he rushed, now, his words getting faster and faster, "no, no, I simply haven't ever felt the need to pursue it, as it happens, and my work takes foremost importance, you see, and—"

"Sherlock."

"—well, there's simply no room in my life much of the time for such a—"

"Sherlock."

"—you see, it's an expenditure of energy and time which I don't find—"

I shouted. "Sherlock!"

His face turned its normal color again. His eyes, which had drifted away from me to wherever he looked when he was talking to himself, snapped onto mine. "Rude."

"Sorry." Not a dream, then. "Sherlock, it's fine."

He scanned me, searched me with those eyes. A long pause. "It's fine." It was a question.

"Yes, I…Sherlock, however you'll have me, I'll do it." Half-angry at myself for the effort involved, I pushed myself up to a sitting position, looking down at him. My arm had started to shake, blasted weakness making everything difficult and painful. "If you want to have sex, we will. If you want to kiss, we will. If you never want me to touch you again, in any way," I paused, held back a grimace, "we'll do that. I promise. Whatever you need." I popped my neck, savoring the delicious crack. "It's all fine."

He looked up at me with an unreadable expression. I met his gaze, waiting for what would happen next.

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I waited for him to speak. I'd suspected this, of course; he'd said as much, in the cafe that night, and he'd never shown the slightest hint of sexual desire. Not a bit. And while he understood other people's sexuality — he always knew who was sleeping with whom, always, uncannily precise about it, too — he'd never exhibited even the remotest interest in partaking. Drugs? Certainly. Alcohol? Always. Other vices? Sure. But never sex.

So I wasn't surprised, not really. And I can't say I hadn't wondered what that meant for me. I'm…well, let's leave it at, I enjoy sex quite a bit. With men, with women, with my hand and a good thought. It's all fine for me; I'm not a picky man most of the time, about anything, and a good orgasm is a good orgasm regardless of who's doing the fucking. Anyway. As I said, I'd considered it, come to no conclusion other than that Sherlock wasn't interested in sex and I wasn't going to push it. Nor was I going to actively seek out someone else, at least until I knew what he wanted me to do. Figured that was fairest to both of us if I kept it in my trousers and in my head, until he wanted to talk about it.

"So." He opened his mouth, snapped it shut. Repeated the action a couple of times, like an engine coughing before properly starting up. "That…um. Thing. What you said. That's kind of you, really. But I am aware of your," a pause, his face stayed carefully blank, "proclivities, and I know you'll desire sexual intimacy at some point. So. I understand if. You, er. Feel I'm obliged to, that is, feel you have earned…"

I barked out a laugh. "Oh, god. No. I—" a deep breath, looked up at the ceiling as if the perfect answer was written there. Looked back at him, his fragile, terrified thoughts bubbling under the mask of blankness he always wore. "You are the biggest prat I know. You're so ridiculous. I love you," caught a breath in my throat. "Fuck it, no worries, I do, all right? I love you."

A pause, no movement.

"I've saved your life before. A few times. Ruined my shoulder again knocking you into the pool not even half a year ago. And I've been honest with you from the moment we met, and I pay the bills and keep you fed and let you talk things through at me even though I don't understand a single bleeding word of it." I huffed, so tired of sitting up, my shoulder starting to twinge at me. "Do you trust me, Sherlock?"

Another pause. A tiny, near-invisible jerking of the head. A nod.

I leaned close, bracing myself on the good arm, my face right in his. We were close enough to kiss. "Then what the fuck have I done to make you think I'd do anything you don't want me to do?"

His eyes flickered back and forth, looking at mine. It wasn't fear anymore. I wasn't sure what the emotion in his face would be called.

I leaned away, slowly. Laid back down beside him, hissing at the pain in my shoulder. He turned his head to look at me across the pillow. I smiled, a tight little grin. "Now that we've talked about you, I'm going to be a bit selfish for a moment." The corners of his mouth turned up slightly. "I would love to have you tell me, in exact terms, what you are and are not comfortable with."

His face fell. "So you can decide what—"

"No, dammit, Sherlock," I interrupted. "So I don't do anything you're not all right with. So I know your boundaries. Good god, man, I'm in love with you, I don't want to hurt you, even by accident."

He looked at me again, his face open and hungry; I've only rarely seen it that way when he's not on a case. It's a look that means, on one hand, he's excited and anxious, and on another hand, it means he feels like there's danger all around him, and he's picking his way through it like a minefield.

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"Fine." He took a deep breath. "What we're doing in our current state - sitting on the couch together, holding hands, occasionally sleeping in the same bed. That's all perfectly acceptable. I've no qualms with any of it."

"I was hoping you'd say that."

A crinkle around his eyes. "Really?"

"Oh, god, yes."

A near-smile now. "And I think. Perhaps. Kissing would be all right. In certain circumstances."

"What circumstances?"

A cross look.

"Don't do that, I'm trying to understand. I'd hate to kiss you when you didn't want it, you know. Have you look at me like you were looking at me earlier, like you're afraid of me."

"I'm not afraid of you," he said in a quiet, shaken voice.

"I appreciate that." I reached out a hand to touch his face. Stopped just before reaching the skin. Waited.

He tilted his head slightly, met my fingertips with his glorious cheekbones, made no movement as I stroked the ridge with a thumb. Let out a tiny sigh of contentment. "This is nice, you can do this."

"All right." I smiled, a soft one this time. "Talk to me about the kissing."

He pursed his lips slightly, looked away. Thinking. "Not with tongue," a slight shudder, "not at first. Not for a while." He looked at me again, half-pleading.

"Sounds good. Any locations I should avoid?"

"Anywhere other than the lips or the cheek," he said primly.

"No, I meant-"

"I know what you meant. It was a joke."

My mouth fell open in a mockery of surprise. "Sherlock Holmes, joking? Well, I never!"

He lost himself in thought again. "Not in front of Mycroft, I think, although it likely doesn't matter since he's bugged my rooms since I was sixteen." Another pursing of the lips. "And perhaps not in front of Lestrade and the others? Just for a while."

"All perfectly logical and utterly fine."

He blushed again, a beautiful creeping red. "No sex, obviously."

"Obviously."

"But no. Er. Touching. Either. Not me, anyway. Down there. I mean, no you touching me, no me touching you. With. Ah. Hands or orifices. Of any kind."

"Of course not," I frowned. "You said you weren't interested in sex, I already knew that."

"Ah, well, some people have differing definitions of sex, you see."

"Best to be prepared?" I deadpanned.

"Indeed."

We lay there in silence for a while. My hand rested on his cheekbone for a while, gently tracing it. He has - and no one ever believes this, but it's true - the thinnest skin I've ever seen. Not just metaphorically, although that too. His skin, though, it's like paper just laid over bones. Even in his arms, where the muscle hides all stringy and sinewy, all you feel if you touch him is bone and the tiniest, thinnest layer of paperlike skin. Always cool to the touch, rarely ever damp or sweaty.

I opened my mouth, then closed it again. Felt like Sherlock and an engine again, trying to get started. "You know, I'm happy with this." I peered at him. His face was still calm enough. "Just this, nothing more. If you're not. Comfortable with the rest of it."

He frowned. "No, no. I'm comfortable with everything we've discussed. I am, I assure you."

"Good. Because you can't lie to me about this stuff, all right? Not about this. You have to tell me the truth about it, all right?"

"Yes."

"Good, good." I cleared my throat. "Now. About me dating other people."

"Oh, yes, of course. You're free to date if you choose. Of course, I'll ask you not keep it a secret from me."

"Never."

"Never what?"

"Never keep it a secret. Probably never date, although I won't promise that just in case." I smiled at him, and glory of glories he smiled back. "Ready for sleep?"

Instead of answering, Sherlock Holmes slid forward and kissed me, ever so lightly. Only a brief, delicate press of his lips on mine, but a kiss nonetheless. He slid back to his normal position, closed his eyes, and together we fell asleep with small, secret smiles.

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The next morning, almost anyone would've been shocked to see Sherlock Holmes. He was in a good mood, not smiling all over the place or anything, but pleasant and making his odd little jokes and being kind in his way. He nestled his head in my lap on the couch and we talked and talked; he made me tell him about the military, which I didn't want to do, and I made him, finally, explain to me why he allowed me to join him on that first case, why he let me move in. Why me.

"You're fully yourself, John. And that's an appealing quality."

"What does that mean, 'fully myself'? Like I'm not an actor?"

A huff of displeasure, whether at my stupidity or my brief pause in the head-massage I'd been administering. "Nonsense. Of course you're not an actor, although you did plays in childhood and rather enjoyed them. You were rubbish, though."

"Ah."

"I mean what I said. You are fully yourself. You've never been troubled by self-doubt or indecision, not really, not for more than a moment. That kind of certainty, well, it seemed so foreign to me, and I need foreign to think more clearly and expansively." He sighed, a tiny content noise that filled me with happiness. "And you were impressed by me, which fed my justifiably large ego."

"I was that, wasn't I?" I chuckled. "Not anymore, though. No, no mystery or intrigue left. Now I know all your secrets, Sherlock Holmes."

He turned his head, met my eyes. "You know nothing of the sort."

This, I felt suddenly, was one of those terrifying moments. It could go one of a million ways from here. Either he was bantering, we were joking about it, it was all fun; or he was genuinely insulted and I needed to apologize; or he was about to confess something horrible to me, and I needed to prepare myself. I held my breath.

He quirked his mouth into that smile I loved so much, and reached a hand up to my face. "Don't panic, John."

The tension released from me in an instant, and I pressed a kiss into his palm. "Ah, good. Now. Lunch?"

We sat up, got dressed at last, arguing about the safari case all the while, and traipsed down the stairs.

At the cafe, he didn't eat, of course, and I got twice as much food as I needed, as usual. I knew enough about him now to know he'd starve and starve and then sneak into the fridge to eat just enough to keep him alive — until the case was over, at which point we'd have a huge feast of all his favorite terrible pub food.

We talked and talked, and he had too much beer on an empty stomach and got nauseated, and we took a walk around to clear his head and let me digest a little. As we were walking, not really saying much, Sherlock reached over and took my hand in his, delicately, as if I'd pull away at any moment. I remember that instant more clearly than I remember most of the rest of my life. I don't want to sound as if he, you know, was deigning to touch me, because it's not how it is or was, not at all. It was like…How can I explain it?

When you see something really beautiful, I mean like the Mona Lisa or, I dunno, one of those old tapestries with unicorns on it. That first time you see it, when you want nothing more in your life than to touch it, right? You reach out your hand and, at the last moment, remember that you can't, that it's impossible or disrespectful or rude, and you pull back and take solace in its beauty and perfection. And the untouchableness becomes part of its grandeur. So there are beautiful things you can't touch, and they're beautiful in part because you can't touch them, you'll never touch them, no one can.

But then there are beautiful things like the Eiffel Tower or a Lotus Elise or one of those massive trees they have that are older than the world, almost. And those you can touch, at least a little, and they're just as beautiful as the things you can't. Really, they are. The Elise is a sexy beast of a car, and the trees are ancient and beautiful, but they're no more alluring than a painting in a museum. Maybe they're realer than the sort of unattainable beauty of the things you can't touch. But in the end, both are equally beautiful, right? Just in different ways.

That's what that was to me. Suddenly, the ethereal, unreal, untouchable beauty of that man was made real, earthly, attainable. He wasn't a god or a machine or a bloody work of art, but a person. And that person wanted to hold my hand, in public, after spending the morning talking and having lunch together. He was realer, in that moment, than he'd been to me in the entire previous time of our acquaintance.

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Things went on in that vein for a while. We reached a comfortable semi-schedule about the sleeping thing: Sherlock came to my bed whenever he felt like it, which evened out to about three nights a week. I never went to his bed, because if he wanted to share beds he came to me. That way I didn't intrude where I wasn't wanted. We held hands more, much of the time, really. Sherlock seemed to see it as the ultimate in comfort, in declaration of affection. Kisses stayed rare enough that they were monumental events. And we were whatever we are, and everything was fine.

Then I bumped into someone I'd known before, Mary, and she asked me out. And I didn't know what to say, so I said I'd call her. And I went home to Sherlock and sat listening to him regale me with the answer to the safari case, and tried to figure out how to broach the subject.

Because it's one thing to say "Date whoever you want," and another to actually do it, to go on a romantic excursion with someone other than the person you're in love with. I liked Mary, she was a lot of fun and great in bed, and she was one of the few exes with whom I had anything close to a friendly relationship. But this was Sherlock, and he was more important than any of that, and I didn't…I didn't want to ruin that, or threaten it, or make him feel even for a moment that he wasn't enough for me. But the words wouldn't come, and I couldn't say what I wanted to say.

—-

"Sherlock," I said softly that night as he slipped into my bed, "I have a question for you."

"You've met someone you want to date."

"Um. Well."

He closed his eyes. "I thought you were being awfully quiet this afternoon." Opened them again. "I told you, it's perfectly logical. You feel sexual urges, and you should fulfill them. Go on dates, have sex. I understand."

I wanted so much to say no, to tell him I didn't need anything more than what we did, to find the words to make him see that I wasn't like that, I wasn't going to. But he was right, really, I'd gone without almost a year now and my own abilities were beginning to fade in appeal. "I don't want to hurt your feelings. Or. Um. Our relationship."

"Nonsense." He'd closed his eyes again, his face blank and slack. "Now go to sleep."

—-

Mary and I had a laugh, a dinner, and now she was pulling me upstairs into her room. And I wanted nothing more than for my head to be empty of Sherlock, because he was all I could see: his smile, his hands, his sentimentality about everything we did together. Probably it was all guilt, over not telling Mary anything about my situation. But how was I supposed to explain it to her? I'm living with a man I love with every fiber of my being, but he doesn't do sex and I do, so he told me to get laid whenever I need to and surprise, you're it? That sounds horrible and is completely wrong, and so I just let Mary think I was available.

And so we were kissing, open mouths and hungry, and I hated myself for getting hard. But at some point my brain shut off, as it does during these situations, and I watched myself strip, watched Mary take me into her mouth, watched myself shudder and moan and hold back, push Mary back onto her bed, lower myself to her, bury my face between her legs. I watched her twitch and curl and arch, watched her pull me up to kiss, watched myself thrust into her, again and again and again, do that thing with my thumb that always made her come. And I returned back into myself at the moment I came, thrumming and shuddering and sighing a name.

And then it all went to hell, because of course I said "Sherlock," and of course Mary took it as…well, as exactly what it was, which was me thinking of someone else despite fucking her, and eventually she dragged it all out of me and I felt like even more of a piece of shit. And she threw me out, and honestly I don't blame her at all.

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I didn't know what to do. I didn't have a lick of cash on me, my card had a nasty habit of getting declined when I really needed it, and I'd somehow managed to leave my phone at the pub, all the way across the neighborhood. And it was raining, pouring, really. "Nothing for it," I muttered to myself, turning my coat up against the rain.

Sherlock would read it on me, the moment I walked in. I could hear him, nearly: You turned your coat up against the rain. So you didn't call a cab, then, which means you were out of cash and your card wasn't working. You'd have called me if you could. Did you leave your phone at the pub? You could have used Mary's, but she wouldn't lend it, so you left on poor terms. I take it the night went badly, then?

Huffing, bad shoulder aching from the cold and the night's activities, hands in pockets, I strode through the sheets of water, ducked under lampposts, shook the rain out of my eyes. What was I going to say? What had happened in there? I went over and over it in my mind, speaking both parts. I tried apologetic, belligerent, seductive, all in turn, and a million other variations. When I finally left the pub, still sopping wet and phone safely in an inside pocket, I was no closer to an explanation, a reason, a decision.

"Not a good night, was it, John?"

I was dripping onto the rug. Managed to hold back a near-hysterical giggle. "The worst, love." It was the first time I'd called him a pet name of any kind. He started, ever so slightly, at the word. "I just. Can we not talk about it just yet? Let me get a shower, dry off a bit. I'll make something hot to drink, assuming you haven't poisoned the milk again. Then we'll talk, all right?"

"Fine."

"Yeah, fine." I heard him get up as I went into the restroom, and then the blazing hot water erased all other sound. I'm not sure how long I stood there, eyes closed and head bent, letting the water do its magic. All I know is that I didn't hear the door open. All I heard was Sherlock's voice, suddenly, amplified and echoed by the tile.

"Remain calm, John."

That didn't work at all, of course. Tried to spin around, my leg went out from under me, nearly ripped down the shower curtain. Just missed bashing my head into the wall — thank goodness for the rail that miraculously held my weight, or I'd've been back in hospital.

"Fuck! What the…Why are you in the bathroom? It's a bit occupied, you know."

"I wanted to continue our conversation. And you were in here for quite a long time."

"I was frozen solid, Sherlock! It takes a bit to warm up after all that walking in the rain!"

"Why didn't you call me?" He sounded almost hurt. "You picked up your phone, obviously, and it's not dead. I checked. You could have called, I'd have come and picked you up."

I heaved a sigh, pressed my head to the tile. Suddenly I was far too warm, and the cold tile felt like a kiss on my skin. "You're the detective, deduce it."

A long pause. I took advantage of it to quickly soap up and rinse off, sure I'd be stuck in here for a while. "Well, Sherlock?"

"I haven't any idea. Unless you were upset at me for some reason."

"Not you, no. Me. I was, I am upset at me."

"Why?"

I turned off the water. "Hand me a towel, will you?" The curtain still closed, I dried off and wrapped it around my waist. Opened the curtain and stepped out. "Let's, I don't know, let's just go to bed, all right?"

Sherlock just looked at me. He was fully dressed, and I was in a towel and nothing else, and I'd never felt more vulnerable in my entire life.

"I would prefer to discuss this now."

"Fine, all right, fine. What do you want me to say?"

He looked cross. "Why are you angry at me?"

To answer, I slammed my hand into the wall, swore under my breath, stormed out of the room. "I'm not angry," I called over my shoulder, "I'm just going to get dressed, all right? I'd rather not talk to you about this while I'm naked."

He followed me into the bedroom. And that's when and where it all changed for us.

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"Sherlock, I'm trying to change clothes."

He settled on the bed, his back to me. "Yes, I am capable of understanding that."

"Wonderful. So why are you here? I said we'd talk once I've dressed."

He sounded like a radio announcer. "According to extensive research, it's best to communicate with the person with whom one is in a relationship, and to discuss problems openly and honestly."

I pulled on boxers and a faded shirt. Paused over the drawer in which my trousers sat, neatly folded. "Are we going out tonight?"

"Don't change the subject."

"I'm not changing the subject, I just want to know if I should put on trousers or not."

A pause. "No, I think we're staying in."

"All right, then, you can turn around."

He did, and I sat atop the small trunk across from the bed. It wasn't comfortable, but I wanted to be facing him, not by his side. His face looked weary, exhausted even. He likely hadn't slept at all after I'd left for the surgery at dawn, and it was nearly two in the morning the next day now. "Why was your night bad, John?"

"I don't know. I'm out of practice, I suppose."

He furrowed his brow. "The sexual act itself is the source of your discomfort? I feel certain that it was something more."

"And what makes you assume that?"

He nodded in my direction. "Your body language, for one."

I looked down. Blast, I thought. My arms were crossed, I was leaning away from him, legs angled toward the door. Damn my own stupidity, getting him that book about body language as a gag gift. "All right, fine." I leaned forward. "I'm fine, Sherlock, all right? It's all fine."

He frowned. "You're lying."

"Yes, damn it all, yes. I'm lying. It's not fine, Sherlock, all right?" I'd stood up during that, and started to pace a bit. Strange how my body kept doing things without me noticing. "Look, I just. Mary was a lovely girl. She was funny and good-looking, and great in bed, I mean, really, great in bed, and we had a good dinner and a few drinks and a laugh and it was all good, right? Really nice. And then…" I trailed off, staring idly at the funny mottled stain on my wallpaper, right over the only electrical outlet in the room.

He cleared his throat. "And then?"

"And then it all went to shit, all right? We were in the middle of it, having a good time, and when she came—" I broke off, looked at him; he paled slightly but seemed all right, "she said my name, which is good, bloody good, means she's thinking of me, means I'm doing a good job, means a lot of things." I ran my hand over my face, looked at him again. "And I didn't. Er. Return the favor."

He looked puzzled. "You didn't ejaculate?"

"Ugh, please don't say 'ejaculate,' I hate that word."

"You're a doctor. It seemed the most technically correct term."

"Yes, thank you, I know. Doesn't help. You irrationally loathe the word 'moist,' Sherlock, don't start with me." I shook my head, plopped down on the bed next to him. "Look, I. I said a name, when I came, all right? But it wasn't hers. It was yours."

A stiff silence between us. "Oh?"

Hung my head in my hands. "Yes, all right, see, this is why I didn't want to talk about this with you. Because you don't…it's not that. I know you don't have sex, and I respect you and that and it's fine, it really is."

Muffled — he'd have buried his face in that bloody scarf, like he always did when he was upset. "It certainly doesn't sound fine."

I let out a sigh and laid back on the bed, facing the ceiling. "And that's another reason I didn't want to bring it up. Because there's no way for me to make you see that this isn't your fault, or a problem. It's just me, it's my issue and I'll work it out."

He settled back beside me, not quite touching. "What is the issue, then? If it's not the sexual act itself, and it's not something I've done, what is it?"

Threw an arm over my eyes. "I don't know."

"You're lying again."

"Damn it, Sherlock, fine! Fine. The issue is me, all right, because I can't be in love with one person and fuck someone else and not have that be a problem!" I pushed up, stood, started pacing again. "Some people can, and I applaud them, that's wonderful. I've no problem fucking a few people at a time, when we're none of us serious. But when I'm in love with someone, all right, I don't…I just don't. I can't. Can't separate it out like that, all right?"

Chapter Text

So there we stood, facing each other. My color was up, I was panting slightly; he was the closest he gets to crying: his face was buried in his scarf, eyes glassy and unfocused, breathing shallow.

"But I am wrong, John." He wouldn't look at me. "I'm wrong, do you understand that? Is your dull little brain capable of comprehending the wrongness of me?"

"Shut up," now there was rage, bubbling and searing in my voice. "I swear to god, Sherlock, if you say that one more time…"

He reared his head, those eyes narrowing and focusing, full of his stupid childish petulance. "What? You'll do what, precisely? By the stance you've fallen into, you're spoiling for a fight, and I'm more than happy to oblige."

I didn't have to look down to know he was right: my body'd shifted weight, arranged my center, widened my stance. If he came at me now, I'd have him down and disabled in seconds, his height and my bad shoulder be damned. "You're not wrong."

"I'm never wrong about what I see."

"No, you git, that's not." Heat prickled down my back; I was livid, angrier than I'd been in months, angrier than I'd been since the pool. "You're not wrong, there's nothing wrong with you."

"Of course there is, John," he sneered, I wanted to kiss that look off his face. "Do tell me, if you're so wise and observant, how there isn't something wrong with me refusing to fuck you when you've been—"

It was his use of "fuck" that did it. I understood. Suddenly, stupidly, I understood. "You feel guilty."

"No." He was a shitty liar sometimes.

A sigh. "Yes, you do, don't you? You feel like you, I don't know, you owe me something." The sound that escaped me wasn't strictly a chuckle; it was full of pain and sadness and longing and the edge of hysteria because I was treading on dangerous ground here. "Well you don't, you complete bloody idiot."

"Wrong."

"Not wrong." I peered at him. "You're…there's nothing wrong with you, love. You don't have an interest in sex. Nothing wrong with that. It's fine."

"Stop saying that." He stood, threw his scarf away from him. "Stop, stop saying it. It's not fine, John, it's not, I can't be the person you want me to be." Swung his head to face me; he was close enough to kiss now.

"I don't want you to be anything but what you are."

A sneer again, god I hated that expression. "Liar. You'd fuck me in a heartbeat, if I so much as dropped trou in front of you. Be on me like a jackrabbit."

The noise as I punched the wall must have scared him. I'd spun, turned away, redirected my fist. But he wasn't stupid, he knew my instinct had been to punch him, hit that smirk away, make him shut up. "How dare you," I whispered. "How dare you say that to me, Sherlock." I breathed out, pressed my forehead to the wall. Waited a beat to see what he'd do.

When I turned around to face him, he was even paler than usual. I'd only seen this expression a few times: his face slack, mouth turned down, jaw twitching ever so slightly. It was a look of fear and self-loathing, and it hurt more than the sneer had. His mouth opened once, closed again. "That was untrue, John. I was speaking out of anger."

"Apology accepted." As usual, he started to interrupt, but I talked over him. "But if you ever insult me like that again, I will not be so quick to forgive. You get one chance to say that to me, not another." My eyes searched his face. "Clear?"

"Yes." His voice was low and hoarse.

"Now. Do I need to explain to you, again, that I respect you and your boundaries?" He shook his head. "Do I need to explain to you, again, that I love you, and I don't want to—" I stopped myself from saying it. "To have sex with anyone else while I'm in love with you?" Another head shake. "All right, then. Now let's talk about this guilt."

"It's not guilt."

"Liar."

"I am…unused to feeling this sort of obligation. You are generally good to me—"

"Thank you for the ringing endorsement, love."

"—and I feel obliged to return the favor. What can I do, John?" He sat, heavily and suddenly, on the floor. Dropped like a stone. "I can't…I can't be that person for you, as much as I'd like to. I can't be normal, and it's going to drive you away."

I cursed my back, gingerly lowered myself, sat beside him on the floor. "Really. Because your grotesque experiments, your chasing that psychopath all over England, your utter lack of interest in anything not immediately related to you. Because that wasn't enough to drive me away, you think your sexual orientation will do it." I leaned my head back, stared up at the ceiling. "Do you really think I'm that shallow?"

He didn't respond immediately. Just rested his head on my shoulder, breathed in and out. I cupped his shoulder with my bad hand, pressed a soft kiss to the top of his head. "No, John. I don't." He said it so softly I almost missed it.

Chapter Text

I wanted to do something for Sherlock. I'd been in…well, not this exact situation. But I'd been in love with someone who seemed unsure before. I'd been scared they'd leave me, scared they'd suddenly decide I wasn't worth it anymore. I knew the sickening feeling, the ache and the pain, and I wanted to show Sherlock that he didn't need to feel that way.

The next two weeks, our rare physical contact lessened even more. Sherlock didn't come to my bed, not once. He didn't lay on the couch with me or let me take his hand or butt his cheekbone against my hand to be stroked. It was as if we were back where we started, months and months ago: me madly in love, him pretending not to notice. It was intolerable, really. And the worst of it was, he wouldn't look at me, wouldn't talk to me about anything but the case, wouldn't be the person he'd been for months now.

I'm not stupid. I knew what he was doing — I'd done it myself. Tried to push someone away before they left me. Tried to be the perpetrator so I wasn't the victim. I knew exactly what he was doing, and it pissed me right off. So I didn't rise to it. Didn't let him see that it hurt me, that it broke my heart in tiny ways every time he shook off my hand or refused to meet my eyes or ignored the empty space in my bed.

What had I wanted, then, when I was doing what Sherlock was doing? I'd wanted a guarantee. Some sort of…not a contract, exactly, but some kind of assurance that this wasn't a fling or a phase for them. That there was something real here, something I hadn't invented or misconstrued, that I was correct in thinking that they felt something, anything for me. I wanted a symbol, or a gesture, or something.

So I waited on the couch for him. And he came home, late and dripping wet from the rain, and I handed him a small wrapped package and stood aside.

"What's this," he asked flatly.

"Open it."

Without looking at me, still acting as if I'd handed him a packet of poison or a baby or something, he slowly began to open it. Pulled at the twine I'd used to tie it. Peeled away the layer of cloth around it.

The clink of metal in his hands must have shaken him out of whatever stupor he'd been in. That sharpness, that life in his eyes I'd missed like breathing, was back. In the palm of his hand, he held my old dog tags, still bloodied and sandy, dull and smelling of war.

Before he could look up, before he could react, I'd pressed him to the wall. My lips at his ear, I started to whisper. Things I'd thought for a year, things I'd never told him. Things about just needing him, I needed him, didn't he understand that, I couldn't be without him, I couldn't leave or lose him, it'd break me, ruin me forever, didn't he see it, how my whole world was cued to him, how my eyes and heart brightened and sharpened when he came in the room, how I'd shot a cabbie for him, how I'd kill a hundred people if it'd make him happy, how I'd give up anything, take on anything, how it was him, him, him, that was all for me, never mind the rest.

I felt him shake slightly, and I kept talking. About love, about adoration and respect and how he made me a better person and I wanted to be the person he needed, and about how he was already the person I loved, I'd loved him almost instantly, I'd done everything in my power to improve, to make myself worthy of him, but he was already perfect in and of himself and he could have just ignored me but he didn't and he loved me, too, as much as he could, and it was enough, it was enough to have even the tiniest hint of his heart, he had my whole heart and as long as I had even a scrap of his I'd never leave, never give this up, because what good was I without him, he made me the man I was, he ruined and bettered me and no one else, no sex, was worth that, and if I had to choose now and forever I'd always always always choose him, him over everything, him for always, didn't he see that, didn't he see how I orbited him, how I molded to him? It was him, always him.

And at some point he'd turned his head, rested his lips on mine, and I kept talking, letting him soak in my words as if by osmosis, letting him feel me shape the words I'd held in my heart since the moment we'd met. Soon, too soon, I had to breathe, had to lean away for a moment. And he slipped the dog tags over his head, looked me in the eye for the first time in weeks, pressed a kiss to my lips. We moved to the couch. He tangled my hand in his hair. He laid his head in my lap.

My clumsy, unsure attempt, my stream of words and trying to say the things I felt and thought, it had worked. He saw me, believed me, and it was enough. This, this thing, this relationship, this fragile little moment in time, it was enough for both of us, and when my tears dripped into his hair he turned to meet my eyes, saw my slow crying, touched my face with his delicate hand. It was love, or something like it, and it was enough for forever.