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The Painful Touch

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“Have a heart that never hardens, and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.”

* Charles Dickens, ‘Our Mutual Friend’(1864-65)

 

How exactly did he end up here? Lying on his back with Sherlock spread out on top of him like a discarded ragdoll. His head rests on John’s left collar bone with his hair tickling John’s nose and neck. He can feel Sherlock’s sharp hip digging into his thigh and their legs tangled like wires, fusing them together.

In reality, John feels uncomfortable and a little too hot. And somewhere in the back of his mind there is an occasional throb of pain but he puts it down to Sherlock resting his full weight on it. However, he is too tired to move and lacking in energy to shift Sherlock. If he’s honest with himself, he doesn’t really want Sherlock to move away. These moments, with Sherlock pressed against him without resistance or complaint, are rare and precious.

*

John has always been physically expressive. He was affectionate to the women he dated and enjoyed the feeling of comradeship he shared with his fellow battalion members in Afghanistan. It was his duty as the doctor and the carer to provide comfort and encouragement to the soldiers he tended to, but congratulate and celebrate and get stuck in with them as they battled the front line - the friendly pats, the celebratory hugs, the tussles. John had been missing that companionship since leaving the desert region; he yearned for it. It was a lost factor of his life until he met Sherlock.

In contrast to John, Sherlock is cold and distant most of the time – untouchable, as though encased in a shield of ice. Yet John watches as Sherlock uses his physical form to emphasize his points: how he forces himself claustrophobically into other people’s personal space until they are practically sharing breath to intimidate the person and extenuate his superiority; how he uses his hands to express every little detail. So on reflection, maybe Sherlock is physical, just not with others. He keeps everyone at arm’s length.

However, in those moments that John loves most, when Sherlock is drunk on adrenaline, his eyes glint with excitement and his smile widens with earnest glee, letting slip a capacity to bond. They would laugh after running through London’s streets; John’s hands on his knees with his forehead against Sherlock’s arm, Sherlock’s hand on his back as they greedily gulped lungfuls of air in between giggles; sitting on the floor in Baker Street, legs and shoulders pressed together as they sit side by side, rifling through the growing mountains of paper accumulated through the case; nudging each other whenever something interesting was located in the maze of scribbles. Gentle touches on the arm to pull John in one direction and away from another.

Sometimes words were not needed between them.

He remembers waking up in the hospital after Moriarty, limbs heavy and eyes blurred. In the still dark early hours of the morning the ward is eerily quiet with only a few ghostly voices. It takes him a few moments to understand his surroundings and become aware of the light tickling sensation against his sensitive skin. When he summons the energy to turn his head against the starchy pillow, he sees Sherlock sitting in a chair next to the bed. The detective is wearing the same hospital issue clothes as him. He looks exhausted and the few abrasions stand out starkly against the pale face and neck. But he looks beautifully alive.

Four fingers stroke of his right hand stroke up and down the back of John’s left, in between the paths made by his knuckles and down to his wrist. The gentle sweeping gesture seems strangely intimate but John cannot pull away. Its rhythm soothes him of the aches and pains he knows linger beneath the surface. However, it is too hard to concentrate on those when Sherlock is there. He attracts all the focus to him. Like the best medicine, his fingers shoot to the source of the pain and suppress it.

“Your hand was trembling again,” Sherlock informs, his quiet voice amplified in the silent room.

John nods in understanding. “Thank you,” he whispers, before collapsing into grateful darkness again.

When he wakes the next morning, Sherlock is still there, slumped over the edge of the bed. He lies on one curled arm with the other outstretched towards John, his elegant hand seeking but not quite reaching John’s own. Smiling fondly, he reaches out to touch Sherlock’s temple gently and slide into his hair, sweeping the mass of curls, soft and thick, away from his face.

He hears Sherlock release a small sigh and the dark head turns into his hand, seeking to increase the contact. However, the next second, Sherlock’s head shoots up, disconnecting them as he shoves the chair back. In an instant, the moment powers down.

“Don’t. Not when I’m thinking. Not ever.” His low voice is dangerously hostile.

John feels embarrassed, as if caught handling something he was strictly forbidden from touching. “Sorry,” he says, uncertain of his error as he slowly pulls his hand back. “I – err – I won’t do it again.”

It takes a while before Sherlock pulls the chair back near him again.

*

Nobody touches Sherlock. Nobody had tried until John. And while Sherlock is free to touch John (and John always lets him) Sherlock resists any attempts to have John’s hands on him. Not for the first time, John wonders whether Sherlock ever had received affection as child from family or any friends.

So who initiated this, John wonders, feeling Sherlock’s breath flutter against his neck. Every time John tried, Sherlock pulled away. Gently, he puts a hand on Sherlock’s head, wiping away the dust and grime, sprinkling it onto the floor beside them. He then lets it rest on the dirty clothed back, feeling its steady rise and fall, and thinking about the first time he had touched Sherlock.

*

“Quick, take your shirt off,” John instructs as they clamber up the stairs into the living room.

“John, I assure you, it’s not necessary.” Sherlock stands in the middle of the room, watching John rush about collecting a medical kit, a cloth from a hidden clean stash in the kitchen and some hot water.

John simply gives him a sardonic look. “Sherlock, some maniac just attacked you with a shard of glass he picked up from the floor. And it’s a deep cut. Look there’s a tear in your jacket and shirt!”

Sherlock cranes his head to look at his back unsuccessfully and a forlorn expression crosses his face. “And this is one of my best suits.”

“Then you shouldn’t go around provoking unstable serial killers. Expensive suits aren’t as important as infections. And if you refuse to go to the hospital, then I will have to patch you up instead.” Noticing Sherlock’s wary look, John nods in the direction of his bedroom. “Lie down on your bed; I’ll be there in two minutes.”

Sherlock stands uncertain for a moment, a battle raging inside his head over something he knows is diminutively trivial. Yet he cannot help but feel uncertain at the thought of surrendering control of his person, even John, to his own body. Until now he had always managed to tend to his own wounds and problems. However this cut, harshly etched into his back, is beyond his reach. So maintaining a calm demeanour, he walks into his bedroom, shedding his jacket and shirt before lying on the bed, waiting for the inevitable.

It feels strangely intimate for both of them when John enters with his provisions to sit beside Sherlock’s hip on the bed. The detective’s head is turned away from John so he cannot see his expression but simply from the stiffness of the body splayed out for him, John can sense the discomfort. He has cleaned wounds hundreds of times to hundreds of men in worse conditions and in worse states of undress. Yet in this very moment in time, he feels nervous and uncertain. This is not an unknown soldier or a member of his battalion; this is Sherlock, who does not fit into any neat category that he, as a doctor, can distance himself from.

Apart from the crude line of red oozing droplets of blood down his back, Sherlock’s skin is a flat expanse of white porcelain, standing in stark contrast to the dark curls at the base of his neck. The soft bumps of his spine appear to John as though they have been chiselled by a master craftsman, rising curvaceously in between flat planes of shoulder blades before disappearing beneath the waistband of Sherlock’s trousers. There is hardly a blemish on his skin - not even a freckle - and John wonders if feels as smooth as it looks. He had always thought Sherlock was striking but he had never had the opportunity to explore that avenue. John’s hand hovers over Sherlock’s back, almost too afraid to touch in fear of the shock he would receive from the skin, thrumming with hot anticipation beneath him.

“It won’t take very long,” he finally says tightly, wetting the cloth. “Just relax.”

“It’s not as simple as that,” Sherlock replies regrettably.

Sherlock noticeably flinches as John places his hand underneath the cut and hisses as the first cotton swab of alcohol is applied. He remains stiff throughout the entire procedure. Not even the calming circles that John rubs into his cool skin seem to help; if anything, they only cause Sherlock more distress as the detective clenches his fist and squares his shoulders.

John works in silence, worrying that if he speaks, Sherlock would hear the hoarseness of his drying mouth and correctly deduce the meaning behind this reaction. Having his hands on Sherlock is like pure torture because of the inadvertent affects it has on his own body. With supreme mental effort, he reminds himself that he is a professional; these are urges he should be able to control. What tortures him more is the knowledge that he is causing Sherlock’s current distress. Not from pain, though. No, he knows Sherlock can control physical pains like he controls hunger and thirst. For him, it is simply a case of mind over matter. It is the pain of despising touch and having to endure it.

As he moves his hand to the other part of his back, Sherlock jumps and John bites his lip worriedly, guiltily repeating his apology.

“You don’t need to apologise,” Sherlock says, his voice muffled by the pillow. “It was always going to hurt.”

“So I don’t have the magic healing touch then?” John remarks, trying to break the tension.

“If anything, you have reminded me of how much difficult this can be.”

John wonders if they are both aware that their conversation has nothing to do with the injury.

“Okay, I’m done,” John informs after he has bandaged the cut carefully. In that instant, Sherlock leaps off the bed and walks to the far end of the room opposite John. He pulls out another dark shirt from the dresser and slides into it quickly.

“Thank you,” Sherlock suddenly says, not meeting John’s eye. “That was…not as bad as I expected.”

He disappears and John stands up on shaking legs. Even though the sensation has gone, the memory of Sherlock’s skin is imprinted on his fingers and in his mind. He likens it to the first time he held a rugby ball in his hand, feeling the texture of the hard leather in his hand and the precision of the bulging stitching underneath his fingers. Admiring it through the window of the shop had lured him in. But now that he had touched it, felt it, admired it with his hands and not just his eyes, he longed for it even more.

*

Sherlock’s weight still pins him down pleasantly.

There is a strange smell on wood and dust in the air, earthly and damp, making John cough. As he shifts pain shoots up his leg, de-fogging his clouded mind for a second. The sense of trepidation returns, the feeling that all is not right. Like the moment he was shot in Afghanistan when he was lying back in the heat of the sun, numb from shock and able to hear the continuous thunder of bullets but unable to bring the contours of the world back together again so they fit. Like then, he cannot pull back the curtains to see the real view.

“This way, John!” something echoes in his mind. “We can cut him off if we go through here...”

*

“The conscious mind is only responsible for one sixth of our memory,” Sherlock informs, as if quoting from a textbook. “Somewhere in the back of minds, vital information has always been saved. We just need to retrieve it.”

Sherlock was right; the murderer had not found what he needed in Arthur Castleton’s house after stabbing him and the wife to death. But John finds the returned killer first, interrupting his search through the house. He gives chase, running for what feels like miles, the thud of his steps on the pavement matching the rhythm of the blood rushing through his veins. Until he feels that strange sensation that his upper body is moving faster than his legs and he pitches forward, rolling and landing awkwardly on the pavement. He remains on the ground for a moment, winded and frustrated.

Suddenly, hands haul him to his feet and Sherlock is there, his eyes not filled with the expression that implies John is an idiot, but with concern. “Are you all right?” Sherlock asks, breathlessly.

John nods and begins to pull away. “I’m fine, I’m fine. Come on, Sherlock, he’s getting away.”

“He’s already gone,” Sherlock replies, the light touch on his wrist instantly stopping John. “But you saw him, what do you remember?”

John shakes his head. “I can’t remember anything. It all happened so fast. He shoved and ran…”

Sherlock’s hands are on him again, halting his gush of words. He remembers the last time Sherlock took his head in his hands, on the dark desolate train tracks, those long fingers immobilising him in a harsh, mechanical grip, as if trying to squeeze the information out of him. This time it is soft, gentle, encouraging. Sherlock’s thumbs are on his cheeks and the long fingers sift into the hair by John’s temple, coaxing John to look up into the dark misty-grey irises.

“Close your eyes,” Sherlock orders softly and John does so immediately, trustingly. With the loss of his sight, his remaining senses immediately heighten. He can hear the cars thundering from the busy main road further away. He can hear the echoes of the trains rattling to and from Waterloo station. Somewhere in the distance the heavy pounding of a bass filters through an open window.

Yet even those immediately fade away to the sound, smell and feel of Sherlock so close to him. The hands are surprisingly soft on his face – John can detect the faint smell of moisturiser - with the roughness of calloused fingertips from working with chemicals and sharp instruments. They are cool, as Sherlock always seems to be, a refreshing balm after his case in the warm March sun. Sherlock smells of the London they have travelled around today; of oily grime and dust from the smog that descends on London in the heat. He smells of excitement and adventure.

“Think back, John. What do you remember?”

John screws his eyes tighter and tries to force all thoughts of Sherlock from his mind by putting himself into a bubble, which is painfully difficult when all he wants to do is haul Sherlock closer to him. He remembers leaving Sherlock to investigate downstairs and walking up the staircase, gun in hand. He heard the sounds from the study, somebody rifling through papers; he opened the door, the creak louder than he expected; he interrupted the intruder, a dark figure who hurtled towards him before John could react, shoving him into the door…

“It wasn’t a ‘him.’ It was a woman,” John suddenly says in surprise. “When she pushed me I saw her hands, they were manicured. Pink. She scratched me…”

John opens his eyes and looks down, seeing the thin red line gauged into the back of his hand, which until now, he hadn’t even been aware of.

“Brilliant, John,” Sherlock praises, his smile wide and his eyes adoring. He doesn’t move away, though. He keeps his hands fixed on John’s face but they have slipped lower. His thumbs trace the smooth darkened smudges under John’s eyes and his fingers clasp at the short strands of John’s hair by his ears.

Sherlock doesn’t stop; he is transfixed by the way he can manipulate sounds and movements from John. The easy response he can coax makes Sherlock feel powerful. John cannot help but release a small shuddering breath, unable to restrain the slight the moan of longing, unable to summon the willpower to move away from Sherlock’s orbit. John moves closer, gripping the elbows of Sherlock’s jacket and staring up at him adoringly and slightly open mouthed.

“Sherlock? What’s wrong?” John asks when Sherlock suddenly stops moving.

“Your eyes….” Sherlock remarks, staring at him with a look of rapturous wonder that for a moment, John is convinced the man would bend down to close those last few inches between them. “They have become…dilated.” His voice is low and calm again in a tone which implies he is deducing.

Instantly, John feels the heat rush to his face and he averts his gaze as if to hide from the detective. “Err…Sherlock, you’re still…” He points to Sherlock’s arms.

“What? Oh, right, yes.” Sherlock clears his throat.

In that moment, it is like the spell has broken and the bubble that encased them bursts as they are pulled back onto the harsh and loud noisy plane of a South London street. John detaches himself from the magnetic force field that threatens to draw him further into Sherlock’s embrace as though he has been burnt. In the same instant, Sherlock moves his hands aside to let him go, but they hover in the air before he brings them back down to his side slowly. His expression is thoughtful as he chews his lip and he stares at John.

“We have already met the mistress,” he suddenly diverts, his voice slightly hoarse from a dry throat.

John puts his hands in his pockets quickly. “Yes. Err – Who? Oh you mean Penelope Lyndhurst?”

Sherlock clears his throat to look further down the street where the secretary had disappeared. “Hmm. A woman scorned. The knife as a weapon of choice. Crimes of passion and sex. How positively pedestrian.”

John takes a deep breath and follows Sherlock down the street, the stinging in his hand suddenly very prominent.

*

He did his best after that to avoid gravitating too far into Sherlock’s space. And Sherlock, of course, had noticed: his narrowed eyes tracked John as he placed the tea cup onto the table instead of Sherlock’s outstretched hands; as John walked on the other side of Lestrade to a crime scene and not right by his side; as he sat on the armchair instead of the settee to finish cases. It was over strategic and carefully planned but if he resisted temptation, then it would be easier for the both of them.

Maybe it was John’s imagination but Sherlock’s attempts to touch seemed to increase; a hand on his arm when they walked down the street; head against John’s shoulder as they watched the television on quiet boring, case-less nights; easing out the knots in John’s tense shoulder after a whole day on his feet. It made John’s efforts that much harder to uphold.

“John! Watch out above you!”

Watch out, John remembers. Watch out for what? Something falls beside him, spraying particules of dust and plaster into the air. John coughs again, feeling claustrophobic and panicked. He can’t tell what is happening to him, why he is here? He feels like he’s choking , suffocating with no one here to help…

*

John feels himself falling back, teetering off balance as his wrist is grabbed and wrenched behind him at an awkward angle. Instantly, pain shoots up his arm, incapacitating him and immobilising him against the strong body. The arm of his assailant reaches across to wrap around his throat, pressing awkwardly on his windpipe as he is dragged backwards. The plate he was cleaning shatters against the tiles of the kitchen floor but his military instinct is to escape, however much that might hurt him in the process.

“Sher…” he tries to shout but it’s a quiet hoarse cry. He doesn’t even know if Sherlock is in the flat; the bedroom door is closed but that means nothing. His phone is in the living room, too far to reach.

As he wriggles, trying to break free, he moves backwards, shoving his attacker into the table behind him, hearing a groan of surprise. One of Sherlock’s instruments smashes onto the floor and the chair and table screech along the tiles. John hopes that the clamour is enough to bring Sherlock out of whatever reverie he is in. His attacker, whilst momentarily stunned, has still managed to keep a firm grip on his wrist, wrenching it back further, forcing a louder cry from John.

He tries to manoeuvre them to the living room, out of the cramped kitchen, where he has more space to use his combat skills effectively. But he is pushed onto the kitchen counter, the sharp edge digging into his stomach as the other man towers over him.

“Very good, John,” he hears.

John pauses at this the familiar voice. “Sherlock?” he asks breathlessly, shocked. The whole world seems to have stopped spinning as John tries to understand what is happening. John’s discomfort grows as neither of them move. He feels a greater desperate need to get away from Sherlock than when he believed it was a phantom attacker.

“Try struggling harder, John. I want you to try and break free.” The low silky tone slides into John’s ear and he is ashamed by the immediate impact it has on him. His whole body flushes as he realises just how closely pressed they are: Sherlock’s taut chest against his back, John’s backside rubbing against Sherlock’s groin. They come into contact with every buck of John’s hips answered by Sherlock’s harder shoves. It’s dirtily obscene, made all the more provocative by the grunts, groans gasps and ragged breathing from every exertion. The heat between them is uncomfortably stifling and John can feel droplets of sweat sliding down his back and Sherlock’s clammy hands.

“John,” he hears Sherlock moan quietly, this time slightly more strained and John holds back his own groan at the sexualisation of his tone. “Try harder.

“I can – ” John gasps, twisting his body violently to release Sherlock’s arm from around his throat. He begins to go limp. “Can’t…breathe.”

Immediately, the pressure around his throat is loosens and John takes the opportunity to twist his body, flipping Sherlock round against the table and delivering a sharp jab to the man’s ribs. He feels a sense of satisfaction when Sherlock splutters, holding his chest as John retreats to the living room.

“What the bloody hell was that!” John practically screams. The harsh cry is ripped from his abused throat. He stands as far away as he can from Sherlock, remaining behind the sofa to hide any sign of his carnal desire by merging it with his equal amount of fury.

Sherlock finally straightens. He is also breathing heavily but his eyes are wide and glassy with a touch of red flush highlighting his pale cheek bones giving him a fevered look. His gaze is purely predatory as his eyes rake up and down John’s body a few times. Then it is gone and Sherlock is elegantly running a hand through his hair and adjusting his shirt.

“It’s a form of Brazilian street fighting. Given your pattern of struggling in that hold, it matches the unusual marks we saw on Harrison’s body. Our killer is proficient in martial arts, this was a professional hit. Quick, we must find Lestrade.”

John breathes heavily, hands clenched by his sides as he vibrates with tension. He doesn’t move as Sherlock collects his jacket and his scarf, preparing to leave. “I can’t…do this anymore, Sherlock,” he hisses, trying to temper his voice as much as possible.

“What, the case? I made sure to withhold applying the maximum amount of pressure so as to not cause you too much harm.”

“That’s not what I meant,” John replied sternly. “I meant you…using me.”

“Well, who else was I supposed to try it on? Mrs Hudson would not have had the required strength.”

“You could have given me some warning!”

Sherlock scoffed as he put on his gloves. “That would have hardly been a fair experiment, now, would it? I’m sure Harrison was given no warning prior to his attack.”

John laughs with disbelief and puts a hand to his head. “Experiment. Is that all I am to you? Just part of your fun? What’s next, you going to grope me? Attack me in bed to get your kicks?”

Lifting his chin, Sherlock narrows his eyes and regards John in an inquisitive manner, as though studying an insect. “John, the attack was a test of martial arts skills. I would never dream of forcing myself upon you for sexual purposes, even if you…”

“No,” John replies too quickly, stalling Sherlock before he can finish his sentence, regretting his own statement. He takes a deep breath. “It doesn’t matter what kind of physical attack it is, you can’t go around…manhandling me.”

“Why? Your reactions suggest you enjoyed it.”

John stares him, eyes nearly popping out of his head. “It makes me bloody uncomfortable!”

“Why? You’ve never complained about my touches before.”

“Because I’m just your flatmate and friend.”

Sherlock gaze flickers away, looking almost despondent. “Just my… John, you need to know that I do not consider you to be a lab rat. You are…This is why I need you. I…I couldn’t and wouldn’t do it on anybody else. Do you understand?”

John looks away and swallows with difficulty, his heart sinking slightly at Sherlock’s unconventional declaration of affection. “You broke our last good plate,” is all he can think to say, before he walks as calmly as he can to the bathroom.

*

“Hello?” John croaks in the darkness, shocked by the pathetic sound of his voice. “Hello! Can anyone hear me?”

There is still no response and his foggy mind suddenly realises that he hasn’t checked whether Sherlock is all right. He’s spent so long making a careful effort not to touch Sherlock that he’s forgotten that sometimes, it is necessary. With difficulty, John moves his right hand from where it lies on a beam of wood to trace over Sherlock’s face. His fingers sweep down the contours of Sherlock’s high brow, the sharp cheekbones and prominent nose to a slender graceful neck. He doesn’t have time to indulge, as much as he would like to. The pulse is there against his neck, but it feels slow and sluggish. His skin is cold…for once, too cold.

In the background he hears the faint wail of sirens. And somewhere, in the back of his mind, he has a flash of what it feels like to kiss Sherlock breathless…

*

It’s nearly midnight when John finds Sherlock round the side of the hospital near the A&E department, sitting on one of the metal steps, his fingers pressed together and resting against his lips. He jumps when John sits down next to him, the usual foot of distance between them, but neither of them speaks for a few minutes.

“Sargent Donovan called me. Said Lestrade had been shot in the raid. Is he…?”

Sherlock shrugs. “One shot in the shoulder, another in the arm. To the best of my knowledge it did not hit any major arteries. As usual, it will take twenty four hours of waiting to find out the real extent of the damage.” There is silence for a moment, the warm summer air whipping around the corner of the building, fluttering their hair.

“I should have known!” Sherlock suddenly snaps, hitting the metal railing beside him, startling John. “The trail was too easy, especially for one of Moriarty’s operatives. It must have been a set up. I blindly led him into an ambush.”

“It’s not your fault,” John informs quietly, noticing the tension in Sherlock’s jaw. He wants to reach out, place a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder but he knows it won’t be welcome. “It’s all right to feel guilty and upset, though.”

“It’s distracting to feel guilty and upset,” Sherlock replies with derision.

“Well, I apologise on behalf of the human race for your internal feelings. You know, you can have emotions towards people sometimes. You can even show them. It’s not a weakness.”

Sherlock squeezes his eyes shut and thinks back to Moriarty and the pool and the sheer mental willpower it took not to stir that unfamiliar melting pot of fear, anger and relief that had threatened to pour out of him after their survival. Suddenly John feels too close. Without response, he stands up and begins to descend down the stairs to exit the alley beside the hospital.

“Sherlock, where are you going?” John asks, worriedly, scurrying to catch up.

“I need to continue this case.”

Immediately, John rushes forward to stand in front of him, halting the determined strides by stretching out a hand onto Sherlock’s chest. The detective stops dead, staring down at the outstretched arm. “You haven’t slept for three days. You probably haven’t eaten in longer! Now, I want to catch the bastards that shot Lestrade too. But you won’t work well with four nicotine patches on your arm – yes, I saw them – and a head of anger. Believe me.”

“Actually, I’m beginning to think this is how I work best.” Sherlock begins to walk away again but John grabs his arm, wrenching him back and pushing him against the wall.

“I will not let you kill yourself!”

“John,” Sherlock warns sternly, but his eyes betray a mild hint of panic as he attempts to twist his arm out of John’s vice-like grip. The other hand still keeps Sherlock pinned to the wall. “What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to help you relax.”

“What you are doing now will not produce that outcome, I assure you.”

“So it’s all right for you to manipulate me but not the other way around?” John replies, defiantly, for once feeling as though he was in control of the situation and its direction. “It’s not fair, is it?”

Sherlock’s eyes widen in horror as John moves into his personal space, crowding him back against the wall until their chests are pressed together. “I noticed from early on that you respond well to physical stimuli. But I – I’m not used…,” Sherlock stammers, annoyed at his own ineloquence in this instance.

“I know,” John answers, softly this time, his breath against Sherlock’s neck. “So trust me. It can be good. Close your eyes.” Sherlock looks at him, childlike in his wariness. “Close your eyes, Sherlock.”

Sherlock squeezes them shut and turns his head away as though preparing for a brutal attack. Undeterred, John leans forward to slide the hand which presses against Sherlock’s chest into the thick tangles of dark hair. He massages the scalp running a thumb along his temple to ease the tension out of straining muscles and then cups his neck.

“I shouldn’t have let him go in there,” Sherlock murmurs, shaking his head, eye still closed.

“He will pull through,” John’s voice wafts over him, like a calming breeze.

Then John presses his lips gently to the soft skin of Sherlock’s exposed neck for their first intimate touch. John feels Sherlock’s surprised intake of breath and, if possible, the tightening of his whole body again. But as John works his lips slowly up from his neck to his jaw, planting small butterfly kisses along the smooth shaven edge, the detective begins to relax and sinks back against the wall. He moves his head, allowing John more access to his skin, which John greedily lavishes. Taking this participation as a positive sign, John licks at Sherlock’s lips, taking the first tantalising tastes of Sherlock and teasing the detective with the premonition of what is to come.

Oh,” Sherlock gasps, before their mouths finally fuse together and part immediately. Both their heart beats quicken and their breathing becomes deeply laboured as the slow gentle kiss continues. They move with careful, tentative and exploratory precision, a study using their tongues, paying close attention to each other’s likes. Sherlock tastes divine, like a wonderful fresh cocktail exemplifying his person, minty and acidic and harsh in comparison to the staleness of John’s coffee four hours ago.

John presses flush against Sherlock now, feeling his arousal growing by the second at Sherlock’s increasing bold participation, especially when the detective’s hands rise to rest on his shoulders, neither pulling nor pushing – just anchoring. By now, Sherlock has completely relaxed and has fallen pliantly into John’s steady embrace.

Just as he believes Sherlock will take initiative and haul him closer to deepen the kiss into something more ferocious, he is startled by Sherlock pulling away, that familiar panic on his face. Immediately, his posture stiffens and he pushes past John, leaving the doctor staring at the wall, breathless and tingling with need.

“No,” Sherlock gasps, his eyes wide looking anywhere but in John’s direction and his kiss swollen lips scramble for words. “Unlike you, not all problems can be solved through intimacy.”

Sherlock’s words only make John angrier. “Don’t act like it’s something to be disgusted by. Sherlock…sometimes people need to connect.”

“I don’t,” Sherlock snaps back. And then in a softer voice, “I can’t.”

Sherlock feels as though he’s been burnt and walks a few steps away before turning round. He looks despairingly at John, ashamed at himself for having lost control over his mind and his body. He can feel John’s light touches imprinted on his skin, as if the flames used to mark them are still flickering over his sensitive flesh. Every physical link initiated by John had the ability to render his mind void of any coherent thought. He could feel the control slipping away as body’s urges conquer his rationalism, leaving him open, vulnerable and exposed.

This time John does not try to chase him. “Can’t?” John replies testily. “Won’t? Or just don’t want to? Make your mind up.”

Sherlock shakes head, looking forlornly at the pavement in front of him. “Why do you act as if this is personal?”

John shakes his head, heading to the entrance of the hospital. He needs to put distance between them, for now even being in Sherlock’s presence agonises him. “Because it just is, Sherlock. Don’t make believe it’s possible. It’s not fair.”

*

It does not take much to disintegrate what had been a very successful relationship. From a partnership which could communicate without words, now only words were left.

Now every time he thinks of Sherlock, he feels the despair and regret well up within him, turning to stone in his stomach. How did they get to this point? From spending nearly every waking moment pressed against Sherlock’s side like an extra limb to finding himself unable to stand in the same room with him without their exchanges disintegrating into bitterness and argument. Time and time again, John wonders if he should have just allowed Sherlock those few fleeting touches, however manipulative they were, and be happy with his lot. Now the space between them, literarily and figuratively, is as wide as a cavern.

John feels something wet slide down his face. Even though he is trapped in what feels like an incredibly enclosed space, he manages to wriggle a hand up to his cheek, smearing the substance across his skin. He realises they are not tears. It’s blood. Mingled with soot.

*

The door opens a crack, releasing a small slither of light into John’s darkened room. He doesn’t turn his head because he knows it can only be Sherlock; he has heard the man pacing frantically downstairs for the last three hours, agitation in every contemplative step. Even John himself is frustrated, having marched straight to his room after their fight outside the Hadley home.

He had screamed at Sherlock, outraged at his deduction of the case, of his callousness. So when the detective reached out a hand to try to calm him, John recoiled as viciously as Sherlock would from the offered touch, glaring daggers and spitting venom. Don’t come near me, Sherlock. The detective’s hurt expression did nothing to soften his anger.

“You are angry at me,” Sherlock remarks calmly, standing in the doorway like a berated child. His attempt to hide his concern behind aloof superiority is easily detected by John.

“I think I’m angry at you for about 50% of every day.”

The detective doesn’t respond but shifts on the spot. “I’m sorry to have jaded your view of the world,” he apologies and John almost believes it might be sincere. “But I thought you were used to barbaric situations having engaged in front line warfare.”

John sighs and replies monotonically. “War is meant to be barbaric, it has different rules to the rest of the world. People in their homes, with their families, it shouldn’t be like that. How can you ask two people whose daughter was murdered whether they loved their child? And then be right when it turns out they were the ones who killed her all along? They killed her with their bare hands.”

“Sometimes, those are the best weapons. Love is not unconditional, John. If it cannot exist between blood relations, what hope does anybody else have?” The implication of the question hangs in the air, tempting somebody to reach out and defy it.

John runs a hand down his face and turns his face away from the door. “What do you want, Sherlock, I’m tired.”

“No, you are not. I can hear you thinking from downstairs.”

“Well, I’m tired of you,” John responds quietly.

Sherlock pads towards John and for the first time, he notices that the detective’s feet are bare and he’s dressed in his long pyjama bottoms. With childlike exaggeration, he clambers onto the bed, flopping back with more force than is necessary so the bed – and John – bounces slightly.

“Sherlock, what are you…” John begins to interject but is distracted by Sherlock pulling back his covers and stretching out beside him. “Get out!”

“I need your help to think,” Sherlock replies, annoyance filling his tone as he settles down next to John, their sides touching, from shoulder to ankle. Somehow, it feels different to the times when they used to read over case notes together. “And you need somebody beside you to calm you to sleep.”

John is half tempted to shove Sherlock off the bed for the sheer tenacity of entering his bed uninvited and refocusing his attention on the very person he was trying to distract himself from. But he can’t make himself take that leap. Not when Sherlock is practically offering it…

“What’s there to think about? The case is over. Well done for catching child killers.”

“Not for me,” Sherlock responds thoughtfully, staring at the ceiling. “There are loose ends.”

“Not afraid I’m going to try and use sexual intimacy on you again?”

“I’m never afraid of you, John.”

“So how do I help exactly?”

Sherlock turns his head on the pillow. And even though John can only see the outline of his sharply defined face, illuminated from behind by the light Sherlock forgot to switch off, he can feel the laser sharp aim of his stare shooting straight into him.

“I don’t know,” he replies softly, frustration prickling his tone. “But I focus better when you are near. And seeing as this problem and my thoughts currently revolve around you, I’ve often found that solving the problem is not quickly completed if you distance yourself from the source.”

“Oh yes, I’m the problem, says the sociopath. I don’t understand, Sherlock.”

“Even when you are not the problem, you help me focus.” John does not respond and there is heavy thick uncomfortable silence for a few moments. “I do not understand what changed in our behaviour. I never meant to…confuse you.”

“Sometimes, Sherlock,” John begins sadly, “nothing changes. You just begin to take more notice of the things that were already there. And then you over analyse them. Sometime…we just think too much.”

Sherlock is still watching him and John does everything in his power to keep all those signs and signals – ones he knows Sherlock is looking out for – at bay. He keeps his breathing slow, his heart beat calm and his eyes cold and steady. He yearns for Sherlock when the man is this close that it reaches a level of physical pain to know any action, even at this distance, is futile. Sherlock is untouchable, distant despite his intimate proximity in John’s life.

And even Sherlock knows he is the dark and exotic elephant in the room. Again, it doesn’t stop him from reaching out himself, his hand fumbling under the covers for John’s, unsurprised to find it quivering slightly. Sherlock rests his own rest on top of John’s, his four fingers lightly stroking the back of John’s hand, feeling the tiny tremors fade away under his ministrations.

John takes a deep, shuddering intake of breath and closes his eyes, squirming slightly in the bed. “Why are you doing this, Sherlock?” he demands through gritted teeth, as though Sherlock is scratching, not stroking.

“I want you to remember that this was something that never used to require thought.”

John’s head snaps round to face him. “I’m not the one averse to touch,” he snaps with more ferocity in that statement than he intended and suddenly feeling vulnerable at the raw emotional he had displayed. It’s a tense few moments before Sherlock speaks again.

“It’s not what the touch does to me physically,” Sherlock says in the darkness, “it’s what it takes away from me as a whole. Being touched by another person objectifies the body, transforms me into no more than a sexual object because of the evident attraction you have for me. It takes everything else away from me. And I cannot allow that. Not even for you.”

Sherlock says nothing else for the rest of the evening and falls asleep with his head against John’s shoulder. Eventually John falls asleep too, lulled by the miniscule contact between them. He wishes that Sherlock would leave him to stop this aching yearning whenever Sherlock is near. Yet he doesn’t move the entire night in fear of scaring Sherlock off.

*

A groan disentangles him from his thoughts and he looks back down at the top of curly hair. “Sherlock? Are you awake?” he asks urgently.

Slowly, Sherlock opens his eyes and lifts his head to regard John, the dark depths pale and bleary with confusion.

“There is blood,” Sherlock remarks, his voice thick with confusion, “on your clothes.”

John giggles at the idiotic statement, so high pitched and hysterical that he wonders if he has suffered a head wound as well. He is too grateful that Sherlock hasn’t pulled away. “Yours too,” John answers, reaching his hand up to push the dark curls away. “The building fell on us. You…”

“Jameson,” Sherlock whispers in realisation. “We were chasing him...”

“Yes. You were using this as a short cut. To get to the other side of the street before Jameson could get around the road. It was abandoned but unstable.”

John winces as his leg twinges again and moves his head more to see the source of his problems: a large splinter of wood, sticking of his leg, protruding sickeningly into the air. Why had he not noticed until now? His whole body feels numb.

And he remembers how it happened. How they were running and he had followed Sherlock’s lead, guided by the detective’s tugging hand on his arm. Always following…

“John, watch out above you!”

He remembers Sherlock darting towards him with athletic precision and speed, arms wrapping around his waist. With the grace of a dancer, Sherlock swivelled them round, as the roof that John stood under crashed to that very spot in a cloud of wood and dust. He remembers falling backwards, landing hard on his back with Sherlock on top, blanketing him from the rest of the falling debris of the rotten ceiling. The ceiling that now encases them.

“The ambulance should be here soon.” John whispers. “Are you hurting? Where does it hurt?”

Sherlock does not say anything for a few moments and John wonders whether he has lost consciousness again. He places a hand on Sherlock’s back and hears a small but noticeable hitch of breath but whether it’s a sigh of contentment or of pain he cannot tell.

“Everywhere,” Sherlock whispers. “It used to always hurt when you touched me.” And in that moment John wonders if his heart has evaporated and left a gaping hole. It is one thing to suspect; it is another thing to have it confirmed. He wants to scramble away but trapped beneath Sherlock at the rubble of the former building, John cannot escape.

“But never in pain. It was a different kind of hurt. I didn’t know what it meant. Now it doesn’t hurt at all.”

Then Sherlock’s head shifts again to nuzzle further into the crook of John’s neck. There’s a fluttering feeling against his neck, which, if John isn’t mistaken, is the lightest and gentlest application of lips to his skin. He mimics the pattern of kisses John placed on him all those weeks ago. When Sherlock’s hand reaches for his own, John sighs contentedly at the familiar brush of those long elegant fingers against his skin. In an instant, John forgets about the fear of Sherlock’s rejection and the wood sticking out of his leg. He is happy if he never has to move from this spot again.

John weaves his hand further into Sherlock’s hair again, comfortingly, smoothening back the dusty strands to reveal a bloody wound. Sherlock happily moves his head into the touch, releasing a contended sound, but the rest of him remains pliant and still. Occasionally there is the odd mumbled incoherent word as he threatens to slide back into unconsciousness but John calms the distressed noises. By the time the help arrives, John himself can barely keep his eyes open. Later, he recalls Mycroft’s worried face and paramedics trying to extract them from the rubble, trying to ease apart their hands, which cling and scramble for that contact.

For the first time in weeks, it hurts more to be apart.