Actions

Work Header

Claire-de-la-lune

Work Text:

Claire-de-la-lune

 

John is aware that his hands are shaking a little as he pours the whiskey. Is it the fourth? Fifth? Christ, I’ve lost count again, he thinks, not bothering to put the bottle away this time. Mary doesn’t like to see it, especially not when she was supposedly not able to drink, so he keeps it in the cabinet above the telly, where they keep the DVDs. Only there’s no point now, is there. He remembers that particular conversation rather vividly, early in January. The panic about Moriarty had just died away, the general public none the wiser that it was nothing more than Mycroft Holmes playing games to get Sherlock out of Serbia. Mary had been angry, though. They’d started fighting. A lot. The truth about her pregnancy had come out in one of those fights not long after.

“When were you going to bloody tell me?”

“Tell you what?” The question defensive, like her face, her stance. Everything.

He’d pointed at her mid-section. “That’s fake. You’re not pregnant.”

“What are you talking about?” She’d crossed her arms, though. Even more defensive.

He’d lost his patience then. “For Christ’s sake, Mary, I’m a doctor! I know a real pregnancy belly when I see one. It’s a good fake, I’ll grant you, but all I want to know is why? Why the fuck would you do this?”

“Sherlock – ” she’d started, already lashing out, but he’d cut her off.

“This isn’t about Sherlock or Moriarty or Mycroft or any of the rest. This is about you and me. Just admit it: you faked being pregnant to use as leverage over me. I want to hear you say it.”

Her eyes had filled with tears. “I’m sorry,” she’d said, her voice and chin both wobbling, fingers twisting at themselves. “I didn’t know what else to do. But we’ll be okay, won’t we? We can try again, if you like – for real, this time.”

What’s real?, he’d thought, but grudgingly dropped the entire subject and let her move into his arms, though he’d made her take off the ridiculous belly first. She’d done it sheepishly, then stepped into his arms and closed her eyes for a long time and neither of them had said a word, Mary taking his silence as complicit forgiveness, when he’d never offered that.

And she wonders why he drinks. All that was already three weeks ago and nothing has changed; none of it sits any better than it did. John wanders across the flat, aware that he’s blurring at the edges, bumping his shoulder against a doorframe. Bit tipsy, yeah, he thinks. Better this than the stark, sober reality of his life, at any rate. He’s buggered everything up. Married an assassin who shot his best friend. (More than that – much more. Sherlock is more than there are simple terms to be captured within; Sherlock defies definition and John wouldn’t be able to assign him one if he had to, anyway. All he knows is what he deliberately refuses to allow himself to feel. He’s married, for better or for worse.) An assassin who lied for eight months about being pregnant, stole some other woman’s ultrasound photos, spent hours discussing her thoughts on names. His opinion had remained irrelevant throughout; Mary was punishing him for his absentia during six months of the so-called pregnancy and he hadn’t been able to offer much of an excuse there, so – but he’s endured it all, hasn’t he, because that’s what you do if you’ve got any sort of integrity at all. Standard marriage vows hardly cover what he’s had to stay committed to and it’s not fair, but he said the words, didn’t he.

He’s at the window and there’s whiskey on his hand from where it sloshed over the side of the glass. He hadn’t noticed before, but his hand is wet, clammy against the crystal. Or is it just glass? Probably. Nothing in this flat is real. Out the window a crescent moon is hanging in the clear February sky. Waning, John thinks. He recalls Sherlock having told him about the Mesopotamian goddess Astarte and the way she’s meant to be beneficent when the moon is waxing and harsh when it’s waning. Some sort of sex goddess, isn’t it? he muses. Well: that fits. He hasn’t had any of that since the honeymoon, because after that Mary shot Sherlock and he moved out. And since he’s been back, he just hasn’t been able to. Mary wants to, he knows, but he feels like whatever part of him once desired her died when the monitors went flatline at the hospital the night he’d nearly lost Sherlock all over again. She’s tried tentatively mentioning them getting pregnant once or twice, but he’s squelched it with a look both times and she hasn’t tried again. He does not want to have a baby with Mary. Not any more. Not that he ever actively, consciously did – they’d never even discussed children when Sherlock had informed them, as blindly misled as John had been, that Mary was expecting. John had assumed they were too old for that sort of thing. Mary is forty-two. They’d never talked about whether she’d started menopause or not. It’s irrelevant now, regardless: she would only use children as pawns against him, as currency to keep him inescapably bound to her.

It’s like being a damned prisoner, John thinks irritably, making his way into the loo. He’s got to go again, broke the seal too early. Mary is out somewhere and he’s been on his own at home with nothing better to do than drink and scowl at the universe about his colossal misjudgement and evidently permanent punishment all evening. Truth be told, he doesn’t even know how much he’s had. A lot. Too much, probably. He lifts the lid and seat of the toilet and gets his flies undone, relieving himself with a grunt of relief, the whiskey glass set on the back of the toilet.

He flushes and washes his hands, then turns to reach for a towel. His balance wavers, though, and his elbow catches something on the counter as he grasps the edge, trying not to fall, and whatever it is crashes to the floor and breaks, splashing upward. Immediately an overpowering wave of Claire-de-la-lune fills his nostrils and gags him. Mary’s scent: a scent he will never, ever, ever smell again without thinking of the night of the revelation in Leinster Gardens. He told her that he hates it, yet she still wears it on occasion, perhaps lightly enough that she thinks he won’t notice, but he can always smell it. During those times, he can barely look her in the face, never mind speak to her.

And now it’s all around him, seeping into his pores and filling his very brain with its cloying stench. It smells like deception. It smells like betrayal and grief and nearly losing Sherlock again. “Shit,” John says aloud, and knows that he has a problem. “Shit!” It’s the same problem he’s always had, except now he can’t pretend it isn’t there, not with the perfume soaking into the oxygen he’s breathing, choking him. It feels like all of his errors, all of his misjudgements. It’s the fact that he’s always loved someone else in the first place, but that he made the colossal mistake of believing said person’s suicide and then met someone else and got engaged before he knew that Sherlock was alive. That he stayed married to her even after said person shot Sherlock in the heart. And John knows how he feels, how he’s always felt, but with Mary there, he could hide behind that, hide from it. And he did love her, but it was never – and she shot him. Almost killed him. Another two seconds and Sherlock would have been gone forever, no tricks, no resurrection. And John would have been destroyed.

His throat closes. He gets down on his hands and knees none too steadily and begins gathering the shards into his hands, just the bigger pieces. He dumps them into the wastebasket, wipes his hands on his clothes and starts sopping up the puddle of liquid with toilet paper, which is too flimsy and starts tearing immediately. Suddenly he’s furious: furious with the toilet paper, furious with the perfume bottle, furious with Mary, and furious with himself. Why has he stayed here? Who on earth would have stayed besides him? No one!

John sways to his feet, dizzy, and has to reach for the counter to stay upright. He makes a decision then and there and walks out of the loo, into his coat and shoes, and leaves the flat.

***

Sherlock opens his eyes at the sound of a key fumbling at the lock downstairs. Mrs Hudson must have locked it, then; she often does at night. Mycroft is one of two other people who has a key, and he never fumbles. Therefore: he gets up and goes swiftly down the stairs to open the door, an action which evidently takes John by surprise on the other side.

“John,” Sherlock says, and his eyes track over John’s frame, taking in every detail. “Come in.” He does not ask what John is doing here after eleven on a work night. It will come out soon enough.

John’s jaw works and he swallows, apparently striving for self-control. “I need to stay here for awhile. Can I?”

“Of course,” Sherlock says, because it isn’t even a question, and steps back to usher him in. As John moves past him, the wave of perfume stench hits like a wall, along with the heavy scent of whiskey trailing in its wake like an afterthought. Sherlock frowns and turns from the door to follow John upstairs, noting his unsteadiness. (He’s drunk. That’s the third – no, fourth time in the past month. John, John, John. It was your choice to go back. No one made you do it.) He closes the door of the flat behind himself and decides to try for caution. “What brings you – ”

He gets no further before John turns on him with an unmistakeable look in his eyes. He backs Sherlock into the door and presses his mouth firmly to Sherlock’s, which is shocking and confusing and immediately after he thinks this, Sherlock’s brain adds, and good, very, very good, even despite the stale taste of whiskey, but – He kisses back, but he’s nearly too stunned to respond to the unexpected onslaught, and after a moment John breaks away.

“I should have done that years ago,” he says fiercely, the frustration and anger clear in his voice, his fists gripping the sleeves of Sherlock’s dressing gown. Sherlock’s hands remain at his sides, dangling uselessly.

“What?” Sherlock’s voice sounds blank even to his own ears. “Why?” Not why, perhaps, but why now, is what he realises he meant to say.

John grits his teeth together. “Because I love you. You know I do. You’ve always known, and I’ve always known. And I married Mary anyway, and then she tried to kill you, and I went back to her anyway, even though – and I’m sorry, I’m so fucking sorry, it was such a mistake, and then I compounded it with – ”

“John,” Sherlock interrupts, cutting into the stream of babble. “Tell me what’s going on. What happened to bring this on? And why do you smell so strongly of her perfume?”

“It broke,” John says, and his face crumples without warning, but he’s not crying. It just looks like intense emotional agony and Sherlock doesn’t know what to do with it, how to respond. “I broke it. I was in the loo and I’d been – and the bottle – I – it – everything is – and I – ”

“You’ve cut yourself,” Sherlock says, when he doesn’t finish. His voice sounds too gentle and it’s dangerous; this is dangerous territory. There are so many important things that need to be said now that John has (finally) kissed him. But John is drunk and falling apart and this isn’t the time. (This isn’t how it was supposed to go, the way he’d imagined it happening over and over again in fruitless, pointless fantasy.) But this is reality, which is always a disappointment. This isn’t about him, much as he wishes it were. It’s about Mary, and about John’s crisis. He cannot be the default to Mary’s poison, Mary’s lies. The safety net that John chooses when all else fails him. John has to choose this regardless of Mary, regardless of anyone else. He is supposed to choose Sherlock solely because he loves him, all other factors notwithstanding. But this isn’t that. (Disappointment: decidedly. It feels as though something is dissolving in his chest.) Sherlock clears his throat, looking down, away from John’s face. Concentrate on the practicalities that he can control, then. He forces himself to focus on John’s hands. “You’re bleeding.”

“I don’t bloody care – would you actually listen to me?” John demands. “I’m trying to tell you that I made the wrong sodding choice – I love you. I’ve always loved you. Don’t even try to tell me that you don’t love me, because you must. I’ve seen it on your face, I’m sure of it!” His face falters for a second. “I’m not wrong, am I?”

Sherlock shakes his head minutely, but before he can speak, John’s relief breaks over his face and he says something brief and launches himself at Sherlock again, kissing him with force, his body pressed into Sherlock’s against the door. Sherlock gives helplessly in to it for several (intensely wonderful) minutes, noting his body’s sexual response cycle beginning, that John’s is already in motion and at a more advanced stage, his pheromones swirling around Sherlock as heady as the perfume, only this is the scent he wants, craves – has done for ages now. John’s arms are tight around his back, like bonds, and somehow Sherlock’s fingers have got tangled in that fine silver/blond mix (mostly silver now, but tremendously soft regardless). He can’t think of a time when a kiss felt so good – or anything else, for that matter. He’s never kissed someone he felt this way about. But it cannot happen right now. He breaks the kiss off and moves his hands to John’s shoulders. “John – stop,” he says, trying to make it sound stronger than it does. “You’re drunk. You don’t know what you’re saying. Or doing.”

John dismisses this. “I’m not drunk. Might’ve had a few, but I’m not – ”

“You’re slurring your words and you can’t walk straight,” Sherlock tells him firmly, though it goes against every instinct in his body. “And your hands are bleeding and you reek of perfume. This is no time to be making sudden decisions of any kind.” He lets his own words talk rationality back into his head, not that it does anything about the slight pressure in his trousers. He squares his shoulders and resolves to ignore it. “Come on. Let me run you a bath.”

John looks down at his palms for the first time and frowns at them. “Whoops,” he says.

“Indeed.” Sherlock slips out from under John’s pin against the door. “Come on,” he says. “I’ll bandage those up for you.” He leads the way to the bathroom and armours himself in process, in not thinking about it, in refusing to let himself feel. Not now. Not when he wants it so badly and John is here and in figurative pieces and would throw himself at anyone or anything without a second thought. He bends over the tub and starts to fill it, checks the water temperature, then turns to John where he’s leaning against the doorframe, watching him. “Shirt off,” Sherlock says briskly. “Leave it in the corridor. It stinks.”

John obediently pulls the navy jumper over his head and tosses it behind him into the hallway, then peels off the t-shirt underneath. “Everything else, too?”

Sherlock shrugs. “Might as well. There’s perfume on your trousers, too.” He makes himself not look as John sheds his clothes and leaves them outside, then points at the closed lid of the toilet. “Sit.”

“Sherlock…” John walks into the bathroom, his low voice and persuasive.

Sherlock refuses to hear it and tries not to notice the partial erection in John’s briefs. He feels aware of it on a cellular level and cannot entirely help his own body’s response to knowing about it, and knowing that it’s at least partially for him, despite what he’s just told himself about John being open to anyone at the moment. “I’m going to bandage up your hands,” is all he says, opening the cabinet above the sink to get out tweezers, disinfectant, gauze, and ointment. “Turn your hands palms up,” he orders, and John complies meekly.

“I had a look out there,” he says, meaning in the corridor. “I don’t think there’s any glass in the skin.”

“Best check,” Sherlock says. He sounds mechanical: good. He takes one of John’s hands dispassionately and withdraws his magnifying glass from the pocket of his trousers. After a good look (in a painful silence), he determines that John is correct and makes a speedy job of bandaging the cuts on both hands, wrapping gauze around them both and securing it with medical tape. He straightens up and turns off the bathwater. “Into the tub,” he says firmly.

John gets to his feet unsteadily, his erection more pronounced than ever (so he can’t be that drunk, Sherlock thinks, but still – he’s certainly had enough). He reaches for Sherlock to steady himself and Sherlock permits it. His eyes locked on Sherlock’s, John slowly and deliberately removes his underwear. “You might have to help me into the bath,” he says, barely blinking, and Sherlock’s response cycle skips ahead two stages, his underwear suddenly constricting.

He swallows and nods, and, valiantly doing his best to ignore John’s nudity, half-helps, half-lifts him into the tub. He foresees the next issue immediately; with the gauze on his hands, John will need help washing himself, too. He hesitates, though. “Will you be all right from here?”

The water is too clear. He should have added bath foam or something. John’s knees are drawn up but his wrists are resting on each side of the bath tub to keep his bandaging dry. “I think you’ll have to help with this, too,” he says, his voice still slurring slightly, but the intent in his face is clear enough.

Sherlock forces himself not to react. “Fine,” he says, and kneels beside the tub, tall on its clawed feet. He thinks it might be a bit much if he just uses his hands to clean the toxic-smelling perfume from John’s body and looks around for a sponge or something. A check under the sink turns up a new, unused one. He dips it into the hot bathwater and squeezes out the excess water over John’s chest, adds shower gel and rubs it briskly into John’s skin. Focus, he reminds himself. This is your best friend and he’s intoxicated and running away from his disastrous marriage. This is no time for – shenanigans. The only reason this is happening is because John injured himself. It’s not a time to get opportunistic.

Yet John’s eyes are closed, brow slightly furrowed in what is decidedly not pain, leaning into every stroke of the sponge. Sherlock endeavours not to notice, efficiently cleaning John’s chest and shoulders and arms and back, noting the finally-revealed scar as he pats it gently on both sides of John’s muscled shoulder. The silence between them is intense. Eventually John breaks it. “Sherlock…” he murmurs again, turning his face to the side, his eyes half-closed, looking at Sherlock’s mouth.

And Sherlock wants. So badly. “You’re drunk,” Sherlock makes himself say, his eyes fixed on John’s mouth. “It wouldn’t be right.”

“Sod ‘right’,” John says, opening his eyes now and finding Sherlock’s with them. “Since when do you care about that sort of thing, anyway?”

“Since it’s you,” Sherlock says honestly, and that was the wrong thing to say because now John is kissing him again and he isn’t resisting. Cannot resist. The sponge is clutched against John’s back; John’s got up on his own knees and is pressing himself to Sherlock over the wall of the tub and Sherlock’s shirt is wet and it doesn’t matter. Their tongues are clashing together and Sherlock is aware that his body is in full-response mode, his erection painfully filled out and stiff.

John reaches behind himself after a moment or two, plucks one of Sherlock’s hands off his back and slides it down into the water, guiding it. Neither of them cares about the gauze now, Sherlock’s hand closing around John’s erection, still hard despite the heat of the water. It fills his palm as though it were made to order and with John groaning into his mouth he is powerless to do anything other than stroke it, the sleeve of his shirt wet as he jerks John off, breathing his oxygen, their kissing echoing off the bathroom tiles. It’s noisy and John is even louder, pushing into Sherlock’s fist unrestrainedly, and the only thing he says, between kisses, is “ – wanted this for so long – ” and Sherlock hears himself groan in response to this.

He hadn’t known, he thinks dimly, as John’s orgasm draws nearer and nearer, his sounds growing desperate, his movements feverish and hard. He hadn’t known John wanted this. Wanted him. Hadn’t realised how mutual it was. (Idiot. He has consistently misread John in this area, then.) “John – ” The name leaves his mouth without his having meant to say it, and he doesn’t know what he was going to say next. John gasps against his chin and comes, his abdominal muscles clenching against Sherlock’s forearm, hips jutting forward as he ejaculates into the bathwater, and then he’s sagging forward, his face turned into Sherlock’s neck, arms loose around his shoulders.

“Fuck, you’re amazing,” he mumbles into the collar of Sherlock’s shirt, his body going limp and heavy.

Sherlock is dismayed to find himself so aroused that he is nearly incapable of speech. He clears his throat. “Don’t – you can’t fall asleep in the bath,” he says. He doesn’t want to let go, at all. Not remotely. John hasn’t responded, still breathing hard. “Hold on,” Sherlock tells him. “Let’s get you out.” His arms still around John, he stands, drawing John up onto his feet, and helps him step over the steep side of the tub. He leans him against the bathroom wall and reluctantly lets go, reaching for a towel and beginning to rub John’s skin dry. Between drink and sexual release, John is of no use, his eyes closed, mouth open as Sherlock towels him off. His penis is still desperately hard, his movements clumsy with unsated lust. John’s is beginning to soften already, but as Sherlock kneels to dry John’s legs, he glances at it and wants more than anything to take it into his mouth. (No. Not now. Too much has already been done.) He finishes drying John and steers him into the bedroom. “Let’s find you some pyjamas,” he says.

“Fuck pyjamas,” John says succinctly. When Sherlock looks at him in surprise, he nods toward Sherlock’s mid-section. “Are we just going to ignore that?”

Sherlock swallows. “That was the plan, yes,” he says, not meeting John’s gaze.

“No.” John comes over, still wobbling, but he reaches for Sherlock’s sodden shirt and starts unbuttoning it. Sherlock silently accepts it, despite his better judgement, and even unbuttons his own cuffs to make it easier. The shirt is a mess: wet from John’s hands, smears of blood on the sleeves where John’s fists had curled into the material. “Take off your trousers,” John says. Sherlock hesitates, not responding immediately, so John puts a knuckle under his chin, kisses him on the mouth, and repeats it in a murmur against Sherlock’s lips. “Take off your trousers.”

It’s tremendously sensual and this time Sherlock obeys, his nervous system jangling in anticipation and – is it all just arousal, or is there a touch of fear in there, too? He lets himself be manoeuvred backward onto the bed and then John is beside him, kissing him again, moving down his chest and stomach and then – Sherlock feels all of the air in his lungs suddenly evacuate as John puts his mouth on his penis, fitting himself into the open vee of Sherlock’s splayed-open legs. Sherlock closes his eyes and nearly dies of ecstasy on the spot. The sensation is beyond description. It is literally nothing he has experienced before and it is – there are no words. He hears himself gasping like a fish out of water, his fingers grasping at John’s hair and possibly tearing it out by the roots. He cannot control his body’s reactions, helpless to stop himself pumping upward into the warm haven of John’s mouth – he is in John’s mouth, exquisite thought – and John isn’t protesting, the back of his throat spasming a little around Sherlock’s girth, but never letting up. The wet gauze of his left hand is soaking into Sherlock’s thigh and Sherlock couldn’t care less. His entire body is being bathed in such pleasure that he can scarcely breathe, much less think. John’s tongue swirls around the head of his penis, his bandaged left hand tugging at his testicles and then his mouth is plunging down again and Sherlock hears himself cry out hoarsely and then the pleasure clamps down around him in white heat and his entire body seems to be rushing southward and out into John’s mouth. The orgasm shudders through him like an electrical storm, finally subsiding what feels like hours later.

John crawling up and splaying himself out over Sherlock’s body is the last thing Sherlock knows before sleep takes him.

***

When John wakes, his head weighs at least seventeen pounds, and his mouth feels like the Sahara. He blinks with difficulty; his eyelids are gummed together and his eyeballs feel covered in sand. Rubbing at his eyes, he has the wit to realise that he’s not at home. It takes him a moment to recognise Sherlock’s bedroom, never having woken up there before. And furthermore, he’s naked.

Sherlock’s bedroom. Shit. SHIT. John’s head snaps to his left, but the other side of the bed is empty, the sheets and blanket pulled primly down as though to conceal the fact that Sherlock was ever there. But he was – wasn’t he? Didn’t he stay through the night? John blinks at the ceiling, trying to ignore the wall of pain in his head and focuses on recalling the events of the previous night. He remembers vaguely: the perfume bottle, the cab to Baker Street, the kissing, the bath – and what happened in the bath. Oh, God. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He also recalls what happened after the bath, in this bed, Sherlock’s cock so far down his throat he must have been gagging on it and for it, far enough that he hadn’t even tasted it when Sherlock had come directly down his esophagus. The thought produces a tingle of interest and a wave of shame at the same time. What the hell had he been thinking?! Oh, right: he’d been thinking about his long-harboured feelings for Sherlock, the disaster which is his lie-pocked marriage, and he’d been more than a little drunk. He recalls Sherlock having tried very hard to stave him off, and his own insistence… John’s face heats. No one could possibly lay the blame for last night at Sherlock’s doorstep. It was clearly, obviously, patently all John who had instigated it. All Sherlock had done was take care of him. Washing the perfume, and Mary with it, from his skin.

But this – what a splendid way he chose to compound everything that’s already got fucked up about this entire situation. He’s thought about trying to find a gentle way to end things with Mary, about eventually moving back here, and maybe just waiting to see where things went with Sherlock, see if any of that just presented itself. But to have gone after it as aggressively as he did last night – God, what an idiot he is!

John attempts to sit up, a fresh wave of pain roiling through his skull, the dim daylight filtering in through the curtains much too bright and causing the backs of his eyes to ache. A swell of nausea threatens and he sits very still at the edge of the bed and wills it to pass. It does, but it will return with vengeance, he knows. Water. He needs water. And ibuprofen or paracetamol. Either will do. With a grimace, he pushes himself into a standing position, using the nightstand for leverage and wincing as he presses down against the cuts in his palms. The gauze is still wet from when he soaked it in the bath. John hobbles into the loo feeling twice his age and nearly curses as he switches on the light, the brightness lancing through his brain, but he’ll need to see.

There is no evidence of the previous night whatsoever. Sherlock must have woken early, slipped into the bathroom and quietly cleaned everything. The wet towels are disposed of along with John’s perfume-soaked clothes. John looks around and sees a stack of folded clothing on top of the laundry hamper and recognises some of his old things that never got moved. Hopefully the jeans will still fit; he knows he’s gained weight, even without Mary and Sherlock’s tactless reminders of the fact. There’s a pair of underwear, faded old navy ones, and an old beige jumper with a tear in one elbow, but it was one of his favourites once and Sherlock has obviously remembered that. Or else there just wasn’t much to choose from. There are no socks. John pulls on the underwear, then the jeans and the jumper, and peels off the sodden bandaging and sets about changing the dressing. The cuts are small and will be healed in a couple of days. He finishes this and has a look at himself in the mirror. He could do with a shave but couldn’t be bothered even if he had a razor here. He begins to search the cupboards for a spare toothbrush and has just located one when the nausea returns with vigour. When he’s finished, he rinses his mouth over and over again and then brushes his teeth twice. Another search reveals an anti-nausea medication and he avails himself of it, along with some ibuprofen. He’s aware that he’s stalling, not wanting to see Sherlock. Or… not not-wanting, but not knowing what to say, how to be…

He doesn’t want to go into the kitchen or sitting room or wherever Sherlock is and awkwardly say, So, about last night… sorry and thanks for letting me stay. Do you mind if I go on staying, as long as I don’t start with all that lot again? And it isn’t that he doesn’t want that, but he’s always said he’s not gay, damn it, and he never meant to give in, feelings or no feelings. And even if he had wanted to give in, now is hardly the time. He’ll need to talk to Mary, tell her where he is, and that it’s over. But he has no idea what to say to Sherlock in the meantime.

However, he cannot possibly stay in the bathroom all day, either. He doesn’t even know what time it is. Did he even bring his phone? He goes back into the bedroom and sees it on the nightstand; Sherlock must have rescued it from his discarded trousers and placed it there. John picks it up and checks it for messages. There are three from Mary, wanting to know where he is, probably. He doesn’t open any of them, but puts the phone in his pocket. The jeans are a bit tight, but it’s manageable. Good thing they’d got so stretched out, he thinks.

He still feels terrible. Tea will help, possibly. Nothing for it, then. He opens the bedroom door, squinting against the light, and makes his way cautiously into the kitchen.

Sherlock is bent over the microscope and doesn’t move in any way when John comes in. “Good morning,” he says, his voice so precisely neutral and stripped of any feelings that John understands at once that they’re not about to have some sort of emotion-laden conversation at the moment. Not that he would expect it of Sherlock anyway, but if Sherlock had sat up, turned around to smile at him, or even reached out to kiss him or say something about last night, it would have been terrible. He’s obviously chosen to spare John that, offering nothing but a blank, neutral slate. Letting John choose the tone.

John feels a stab of gratitude, almost lost in his sea of relief that they’re not going to have a Talk about last night, not just now, at least, but he does feel it. The gratitude. He still feels awkward as arse, though. “Er, morning,” he says. His throat is scratchy and hoarse. He looks around for the kettle. “I thought I’d just – ”

“There’s tea in the pot,” Sherlock says evenly, still not looking at him. “Mint. I thought it might… help.”

The nausea, he means. John winces. “Er, thanks,” he says, feeling embarrassed about how intensely hungover he is on top of everything else. He feels guilty, like he should apologise. Sorry for coming over so late last night, even if I knew you’d still be up. Sorry for dumping all my marriage problems on you. Sorry for kissing you and getting blood on your nice shirt. Sorry for making you jack me off in the bath. Sorry for vomiting in your toilet just now. Sorry that I don’t want to talk about any of this now, or possibly ever. Sorry that I’m such a fuck-up and don’t even deserve your friendship. Maybe not. He edges around the table to get himself a mug, then notices that Sherlock already set one out for him beside the teapot. John pours the tea and glances at him.

He still feels it. Everything he felt last night. Only he’s never been able to say exactly whether or not he wants their friendship to become that. He’s about ninety percent sure that he doesn’t. Maybe eighty-five percent. He doesn’t know. He’s always been fairly certain that a relationship like that with Sherlock would spell disaster and leave him heartbroken and ruined. But he’s certainly thought about it – it’s not as though that changes how he’s always felt. But having feelings for Sherlock and thinking that a romantic relationship with him would be a good idea in any way are two entirely separate things. It doesn’t mean he isn’t opening to trying it anyway – God knows he’s never turned Sherlock down before for anything, and if he were to suddenly decide that he wanted that, down the road, once everything with Mary is settled, that could be –

“Mary called,” Sherlock says, as though having heard his thoughts. His eyes are still trained on the eyepiece of the microscope. “Wanted to know where you are. You should call her.”

John sits down heavily on one of the chairs across from him. “About that,” he says slowly, “er… could I still stay for a bit? I asked yesterday, but…” He doesn’t want to finish, doesn’t want to say But maybe your answer has changed since I blew you. He shifts his weight.

Sherlock is silent for a moment. Then he looks up. “Have you left her, then?” he asks, very directly, his eyes piercingly blue in the kitchen light.

John licks his lips and looks at the table. “Yeah,” he says.

There’s another short silence. “And you want to stay here,” Sherlock clarifies.

He tries not to wince. “If it’s all right.”

“Of course it’s all right.” Sherlock’s voice is quiet and his eyes go back to whatever he’s looking at in the microscope. “Stay as long as you like.”

John swallows and feels like the biggest cad in London. “Sure?” The word catches in his throat.

“Of course,” Sherlock says, still very neutrally.

John sort of wants to shrink in his own worthless skin. “Thanks,” he says, very awkwardly. Sherlock doesn’t acknowledge this, so eventually he pulls one of the papers toward himself and begins to read, his thoughts more on Sherlock than on the news. It’s the most awkward morning after of his life.

***

Sherlock shuts his laptop abruptly and gets to his feet. The silence in the flat is nearly deafening. He cannot concentrate, not with John asleep in the bedroom. He’s napping, trying to sleep off the hangover. Mrs Hudson has taken the bedding off the bed in John’s room to wash or something along those lines and the bed is still bare, so Sherlock had offered his room and said something about seeing about some sheets for tonight. He has no idea what Mrs Hudson has done with John’s bedding, but it was partly a test, anyway – to see how quickly John would respond, and the level of his relief that Sherlock wasn’t expecting him to go on sleeping with him.

Sherlock had woken early, John’s limbs still draped over him, heavy and warm. John was snoring lightly, his mouth open, and despite this Sherlock had looked at him for a long time, just taking it in and wondering if he would ever see John that way again. He’d already known then that John would likely regret the previous night upon waking, and he was correct. Three hours later, when John had woken, Sherlock had listened to him shuffle into the bathroom, self-medicating and dressing in the clothes Sherlock had left for him, listened to him hesitating, stalling for time. He could almost hear the regret and shame aloud. He’d steeled himself, barricading himself in neutrality and deliberate emotionlessness for the awkward first encounter, and even so it had been awful.

Sherlock closes the door to 221 behind him and sets off in the general direction of Regent’s Park; too many other distractions on the streets of London and he needs to think. John’s regret is as clear as his desire was less than twenty-four hours earlier. He predicted the regret but the reasons for it remain unclear. There’s the marriage, of course. But he’s always suspected that John was interested, on some level. Since they first met. After having moved in with John, Sherlock had begun to learn what an intensely private person John is and marvelled in retrospect that John had ever let him use his phone, that first time in the laboratory. Immediate attraction, then, followed by the fairly direct probe as to Sherlock’s relational status the following day at dinner. This subtle detail has been a part of their friendship from the beginning, John’s marriage notwithstanding. So is it only guilt? It cannot possibly be, not when he’s just said that he’s leaving Mary. Does it have more to do with his own views of himself as strictly heterosexual? Possible, Sherlock decides. Entirely possible. Or is it more about his inebriated loss of control, over having shown his hand so openly and obviously? After all, it was John who made the first move, and more than once. John had initiated the first kiss, the second round of kissing, the kissing in the bath, and had literally placed Sherlock’s hand on himself. John who had, even sated, even near the point of sleep, insisted on reciprocation. Yes, Sherlock thinks. It’s this: John is a private person and now he feels he has shown too much of himself. Given away too much valuable information.

The question is, then, what to do with it? He sits down on a bench, his hands in his pockets. The early February air is cold but he isn’t uncomfortable. The first question, he amends mentally, is what does he want to do with it? What would the ideal situation be, and how can it be brought about? He can admit freely in the privacy of his own thoughts that he had hoped for a swift end to John’s union with Mary Morstan, though he’d certainly never expected it. Not with a child on the way. But once John told him stiffly over the phone that there was no baby after all, once Sherlock had finished cursing himself for his own gullibility in having been fooled by Mary, he’d begun to let his thoughts wander a little too far into the realm of hopes that he’d discarded the moment Mycroft had shown him Mary’s photo upon his return to London.

The truth is, he’s always wanted it. Always been interested. Even at that first dinner, he’d been intrigued. But he’d never known, had he? Never known how to respond, what to say. He can flirt for a case, never in real life. Not that he’s ever wanted to know how with anyone before John. He’d answered too quickly, albeit slightly facetiously, not that John had seemed to realise. It was partly meant to be a joke, deployed to disguise his sudden nerves at the time. He simply hadn’t known what to do with John’s interest. He hadn’t been uninterested – merely flustered. And after that it seemed to be too late; the parade of girlfriends began and it hadn’t been until the Woman that he’d questioned himself, asked himself whether he should try to re-open that conversation. John always seems to misinterpret him, somehow – thinking he was interested in the Woman, being jealous of Moriarty, taking Sherlock’s drug-induced panic attack in Dartmoor personally and storming off when Sherlock most needed his steady reassurance, his forbearance in light of Sherlock’s genuine fear that night. Perhaps that had been the most critical point: when the girlfriends had stopped and everything was too near the surface, only it had been a year and a half by then and neither of them had known how to talk about it, about them. Who and what they were to one another. John could have done it – clearly he’s had that conversation with many others in the past, but he never had. Had he been waiting for Sherlock to do it? Unfair: Sherlock lacks the related experience and it wasn’t as though there was anyone he could ask for advice. Mycroft would have laughed for ten years and then re-explained to him the fallibility of interpersonal relationships. Lestrade spends more time with John than he does with Sherlock and it wasn’t that he felt that Lestrade would bring it up, but he did steer clear of that option mostly because of this. Mrs Hudson would have oversimplified everything and given him a lot of advice beginning with the word “just”. (“Just tell him, Sherlock!” “Just invite him out to dinner and bring it up!” “Just give him a chance to tell you – it’s not as though you ever stop talking long enough for anyone to get a word in!”) And even he is perceptive enough to know that it would have been cruel to ask Molly’s advice, at least back then. Now he isn’t precisely certain of her feelings toward him, and would prefer not to know if it is, in fact, still like that.

No. There had been no one to ask. And then he’d had to die, disappear, suffer such loneliness that he’d been completely shocked to realise how dependent on John’s company he’d become. His only point of human contact in the field had been Mycroft or the people in whichever operation he’d been working at the time. He’d missed John as much as an amputee misses a limb. It had been more than dull: it had been intolerable. He’d hated the thought of John being equally miserable on his own. Hated the thought of him eventually finding someone to stopgap the wound, fill in the hollows that he’d once occupied in John’s life and possibly heart, though this isn’t certain. Or wasn’t until last night, at least.

Last night had confirmed all of the hypotheses of John’s attraction to him over the past five years. This can now be considered a given. Is it that he will simply require time? Time to dissolve his marriage, time to get used to the idea that they could be… that? The truth is that Sherlock wants it very badly. He’d wanted it before, but John’s lips on his has made the hunger visceral, real, and absolute. There is no one else but John, and the concept of a life without John in it, in that way, is unbearable. He wants John to occupy every space in his own, wants him body, mind, heart, and soul. His own body is still humming in the memory of John’s mouth on it, incredibly, frighteningly intimate, and absolutely right, even if it happened sooner than Sherlock might have wanted. He’s inexperienced and very aware of it, and last night had been alarming in its speed. He knows in his mind that he wants John, loves John, craves John like a drug, but the information is new on the cellular level. His body knows what it wants, too, but the shock of new data, new stimulus, had been nearly overwhelming.

More time. This seems to be the consensus that his mind has provided. Very well: Sherlock uncrosses his legs, stands, and begins to walk back toward the flat. Then he will give John time. Watch the marriage break up, allow for a period of mourning/adjustment, and he will bide his time and wait for John to finally do it: finally come to him and tell him at last that he wants this. That’s he’s utterly certain, that he loves Sherlock and would choose him above anyone else, that his need for Sherlock is as great as Sherlock’s for him.

It will happen, Sherlock thinks, walking briskly.

(It must.) The thought comes with no small measure of despair, of self-doubt. But what choice does he have but to wait?

He loathes waiting. But if it could mean having this, having John – he could wait forever, if he had to.

(He hopes he won’t have to.)

***

The next few days feel normal, sort of. John waits warily for Sherlock to bring up the subject of what happened, but Sherlock deftly avoids it at every turn. He seems slightly more at ease than he did the morning after, so John cautiously relaxes in turn, and things seem… quite usual, actually. Sherlock is between cases, so there’s a lot of time where they’re both at home. Neither of them actively avoids the other, but both are careful to avoid being too close, John notices. Sherlock doesn’t come lean over his shoulder to see what he’s typing, and John doesn’t deliberately get too close to him while he’s at the microscope or cooking or something. It’s amicable and familiar but not one hundred percent comfortable.

Meanwhile, he’s been ignoring Mary’s calls and messages, which are growing increasingly furious. He has to say something. Finally, on the fourth day, he does it. He texts her asking to meet at a café and there, where she arguably can’t shoot him over it, he ends their marriage. Unpleasant as it was, John later thinks that it wasn’t as hard as he’d feared and that he should have done it the day he found out the pregnancy was fake. There’d been tears, certainly, and furious accusations. And she’d brought up Sherlock.

“So, you’re living with him again?” Mary’s face was angry, but her chin was crunched up, her lips unsteady.

John had nodded. “Yeah. Where else would I have gone?”

“Where else?” Mary had echoed. “You have other friends.”

John had opened his mouth, realised he didn’t know how to counter this, then said, “Sherlock is my best friend.”

Mary had mumbled something to herself.

“What was that?” John had asked, turning his left ear toward her.

She’d met his eyes, her gaze hard and cold. “‘At the very least’, I said. Are you sleeping with him yet?”

His fists had balled on the table. “No,” he’d said immediately, probably too fast, but the denial came out instinctively. “And that’s none of your business.”

“None of my – John, you’re married to me,” Mary had said, incredulous, her blue eyes too wide-open.

“For the time being. I want a divorce,” he’d repeated.

Mary had sighed and looked away. “I heard you the first time.”

John stood. “I’ll get a lawyer and be in touch.”

“I’ve got my own.”

“I didn’t mean for you. I’ll still be in touch.” John had gone to the counter and paid for their coffees, then went to the flat and collected his things, knowing that Mary would avoid it as he’d told her he was going there to pack up.

Now it’s evening and he’s back at the flat. He’s been there five days now and it already feels like he never left, in a way. Like all of that time with Mary, and that year and a half of grieving so hard he made himself ill at times, were all just a bad dream. This is his real life. Here. With Sherlock. He’s upstairs unpacking when he hears the door downstairs. Ah: Sherlock’s home, then. John glances at his watch and guesses that it will take less than thirty seconds for him to realise that John is back and upstairs. In the old days there used to be times when Sherlock didn’t even notice when John left, even for days, leaving the entire country. Now Sherlock always seems aware of him. He’s been like that ever since he came back from the seeming dead.

It only takes about twelve seconds before Sherlock is there at the bottom of the stairs. “John?”

“Yeah, in here,” John says. The door is open, though he’s over at the dresser, putting away his socks.

“Can I come up?” Sherlock sounds uncharacteristically uncertain, particularly when John considers all the times he’s barged in unannounced in the past. (“John, wake up, there’s a case! Murder on the south bank. Get up!”)

“Yeah, of course,” John says automatically.

Sherlock does so, stopping in the doorway. His eyes fixate immediately on John’s hands as he stuffs balled socks into the top drawer, then flick around the rest of the room, taking in John’s bags. “You ended things with Mary,” he states.

“Excellent deduction,” John says, though he says it lightly. “The bags give that away?”

Sherlock nods and frowns at the same time. He inhales and his mouth opens, but it takes him awhile for the question to come out. “How did it go?” he finally asks.

John purses his lips. “Not bad, actually. She cried. Got angry. Accused me of being gay. You know.” He picks up the last two sock balls without looking at Sherlock and crams them into the drawer. He can feel Sherlock’s eyes on him but he isn’t saying anything, and John begins to feel self-conscious. “What?” It comes out more defensively than he meant it to, his shoulders squared back, chin lifted slightly, challenging.

Sherlock is still looking at his sock drawer, though his face is closed and John can’t tell at all what he’s thinking. “Nothing,” he says quietly.

John rearranges his face and makes himself relax his shoulders. “If it’s about the way I’m arranging my socks, don’t even start. I’m not going to cross-index them.”

“It wasn’t that,” Sherlock says, but his gaze has shifted to the floor. “I should… I’ll leave you to unpack, then.”

It strikes John that he seems almost hurt, somehow, though why John cannot possibly fathom. “Okay,” he says slowly. “You don’t have to go, though… it was just a joke, about the sock indexing.”

Sherlock doesn’t smile. “I’ll be downstairs,” is all he says, already moving toward the stairs.

“Wait!” John calls after him. He goes into the doorway. Sherlock stops on the stairs but doesn’t turn. “What was it, then?”

“What was what?” He’s stiff.

“You said ‘it wasn’t that’, wasn’t about my socks or whatever,” John says. “So what was it?”

Sherlock’s head drops forward very slightly. Then he says, “It was nothing. Never mind.”

John makes a frustrated gesture that Sherlock doesn’t see. “Obviously it was something,” he insists. He hates it when Sherlock gets like this. “Come on.”

Sherlock starts down the stairs again. “Never mind,” he says again. He crosses the hallway at the foot of the stairs and goes into the kitchen without looking back once.

Exasperated, John goes back into his bedroom. He stops a few steps inside and looks at the room from Sherlock’s perspective. The only things he notices that are in any way different are the bags. His bags. The ones he’s currently unpacking. Then he looks at the sock drawer and an idea occurs, uncurling in his stomach. Is Sherlock upset that he’s unpacking his things back into his old room? Did he think that once it was over with Mary, John would want to share a room? Start a relationship? Is that it? It can’t be, John thinks blankly, still staring at the open bag on the bed. Sherlock has never shown any sign of actually wanting that. The night John had come here, drunk off his arse and much too handsy, Sherlock had certainly seemed into it, but John had been the one to initiate everything. He knows Sherlock doesn’t have much (or any, possibly?) experience with that sort of thing, so maybe he doesn’t know how it works – maybe he thought that the kind thing to do would be to let John do what he wanted, just go along with it. And who doesn’t like a bit of kissing? Perhaps he’d liked it. Perhaps all that was just Sherlock being tactful, or so John had been thinking. Just as he has tactfully refused to ever acknowledge it since that night. He’s being kind. He’s glad that John’s moved back in, glad that their friendship is getting back to what it was before everything went so wrong, with him jumping off a building and John marrying an assassin. He doesn’t want to screw it up. So he’d just gone along with it, humoured John in his drunken whim.

The memory of that still makes his face burn – and other parts of himself, in an entirely different way. He knows that it was a mistake, that fantasising about that sort of thing happening with Sherlock is just that – a fantasy. Real life is their friendship, working together on cases, and normal stuff. He should get a girlfriend again. That would help remind him that he’s normal, that he’s out of the Mary-nightmare, out of the suburbs and back with his eccentric, brilliant flatmate who will say things that annoy his girlfriend that John will later laugh at once the short relationship is over, and then he’ll meet someone else. The usual cycle. It will be fine. They just need to get things back to normal and forget that that night ever happened.

This settled in his mind, John feels much better. He resumes unpacking his things and it’s only much later that he thinks of the sock drawer and realises he still doesn’t know what was really bothering Sherlock about all that.

***

Sherlock waits. And waits. The first week slips by, then the second. John’s lawyers send over the papers to complete the voiding of his marriage to the person they both know as Mary Morstan. John signs them without a second thought and takes them to the post office that night. He’s had several texts from Mary, Sherlock knows, some of which he has sent responses to, others of which he has left unanswered, blinking accusingly on the screen of his phone like small red wounds. Most of the time John doesn’t seem particularly bothered, but Sherlock suspects there is more to this than John is letting on.

This is confirmed one night when John receives yet another text. They’re sitting in their chairs across from one another. John picks up his phone, looks at the message on the lock screen, sighs, and puts the phone down again.

“Going to answer that?” Sherlock asks over the top of his laptop.

John shrugs. “It’s Mary again.”

Sherlock stops typing. “What is it?”

Another shrug. “Just something about the Moriarty ruse. She’s angry about the wording of the voiding where we cite her for fraud. She’s trying to accuse us of fraud. Me, specifically, though of course I had nothing to do with your and Mycroft’s secret Moriarty plan.”

“Nor did I,” Sherlock tells him wryly. “It was all Mycroft. I thought I was leaving just as much as you did.”

John’s mouth purses itself in the way he has that makes his cheekbones more prominent, the hollows of his cheeks stretching out. “She’s also saying that I married her under the false pretences of being straight. Which I am.”

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say to this firm, overly defensive, and patently – well, if not untrue, precisely, then certainly misleading – statement. He chooses not to acknowledge it. What can John mean, though? Surely he recalls that Sherlock was actually present when he kissed him, wanted Sherlock to touch him, when he put his mouth on Sherlock’s body in return. Perhaps he’s trying to drive home the notion that that was a one-time event only, never to be repeated. Sherlock’s heart wilts a little at this thought. But then why did John come home, in the end? Was it just that he had nowhere else to go? (Sherlock despises being made to feel like the default only, never the active choice.) This is wretched. He ends up not saying anything.

John gets up and goes to the window. “The moon is waxing,” he says.

Sherlock doesn’t know what to say to this, either. “Is it?” he says, feeling blank.

John nods, scowling. “She’s even ruined the moon for me. I can’t see it without thinking of her.”

“Claire-de-la-lune,” Sherlock says, comprehending now. John’s clothes had still smelt of it after Mrs Hudson washed them, so he’d put them in a plastic bag, put the bag in a sealed rubber bin, and stowed the bin at the back of the pantry. When it’s been long enough, when John stops wondering where they are, he will burn them.

John doesn’t acknowledge his comment as such, but his chin drops. After a moment, he says, his voice strained and skimming the line between speech and whisper, “The night that I found out she shot you was – one of the worst nights of my life.”

Sherlock understands this, but is unable to distinguish whether this is so because of the impact that night had on John’s marriage to Mary, or the fact that he nearly died, whether it’s both events separately, or both events as directly related to one another, that it was Mary specifically who nearly killed him, specifically. He wishes he could think of a good way to request clarification.

John sighs, his breath making a circle of condensation on the window.

Sherlock struggles to put the question into words for another futile moment or two, then gives up and lets the moment go. His sigh is more internal than external.

The moon rises, a thin crescent that gets tangled in the black branches silhouetted in front of it.

***

He actually meets Natalie by mistake. It’s like something from a terrible romantic comedy, the sort of movie Mary pretended to like. (Maybe she really did. John has no idea, because he has no idea what was and was not real about her. He knew and believed that she loved him, but it didn’t mean anything because he didn’t even know the person who was claiming to love him. Never mind. That’s done now, thanks be.) It’s been three weeks since he signed the annulment papers and he wasn’t specifically looking to meet anyone just yet, but then it happens: a dropped latte, her flurried apologies and checking to make sure it hadn’t got on his shoes (it hadn’t), his merely friendly offer to buy her another one, and just like that he’s having coffee with her.

She’s young, twenty-nine, but smart and ambitious in a moderate sort of way, working on a masters in corporate finance. Only the glasses suggest the intelligence; she’s young enough that she looks like she could still get away with late nights and a busy social life without her grades ever suffering. She’s petite and blond and has interesting things to say and John finds himself charmed. This is what he was looking for, he reminds himself. Nothing serious. Just a romantic amusement on the side. She’s nice. Nothing whatsoever to object to, just an ordinary, regular, rather lovely person. Coffee turns into him walking her to the tube, and when they part ways, he’s got her phone number stored on his mobile and they’ve already exchanged a text, one of those quick, silly things, just to trade numbers.

It’s harmless, he tells himself, walking back to Baker Street. Like he said, nothing serious whatsoever. He’s not even officially divorced or annulled, or whatever one wants to call it yet. Obviously after Mary, he’s not in any hurry to get overly involved with anyone new just yet. But she’s nice and he finds that he’s smiling. This is just the thing to help him feel like normal life is starting again – no more of the nightmare web of lies and deceit and Sherlock almost dying again and Mary’s face in Leinster Gardens, the crescent moon hanging silently, coldly overhead in the sky as the drama below unfolded with the three of them there. All that’s finished now: he’s got a normal job, his old flatmate and best friend, the work they share, and now maybe a Natalie on top of it. Life is good.

John’s good mood evaporates once he reaches the top of the stairs.

Sherlock takes one look at him, one quick, piercing blue look, taking him in and seeing right through him, the way he always does, and for a moment John thinks he looks horribly disappointed, or maybe horribly disgusted; he can’t tell. Sherlock swallows, his throat tightening as though it takes immense effort to force down the saliva in his mouth, and then he deliberately, visibly raises all of his walls and surrounds himself in steel, his face hard and blank. He doesn’t even say a word and John feels judged, stripped, and unaccountably guilty. Which makes him angry.

For a moment he just stands where he is, floundering after something to say. Should he confront Sherlock? That would be his normal course of action, a terse What? But he already knows how futile that would prove. When Sherlock goes ice cold like this, John is lucky if he even bothers to open his mouth. It’s far more likely that he won’t even reply and all that will do is send John into an absolute fury, which won’t help anything. He doesn’t understand – while on the surface, the past month has been fine, great, good to be home again, all of that – below it there’s some sort of awful not-right-ness that they’re not talking about, one that he generally refuses to think about when he’s assessing his life as it stands now. It’s never shown itself as clearly and horribly as right at this moment, though. He doesn’t know what to say, and Sherlock has made it clear that he is in no way interested in speaking to him right now. Three or four minutes of this wretched silence have gone by now and finally John makes himself move, feeling like his feet are rooted to the carpet. Right, then. Fine. He goes into the kitchen without a word to switch on the kettle. The only sounds, as he waits for it to boil and gets himself a mug and a tea bag, are the occasional sounds of Sherlock straightening a page of the newspaper he’s reading, or at least pretending to read. John glances at the paper and thinks that the very pages look angry, somehow. (Why is Sherlock so angry? So what if he met someone? It’s not as though he would care, would he? He planned John’s entire wedding without batting an eyelash. Why should this be any different?)

The kettle boils. John waits four minutes that feel like an eternity for the tea to steep before escaping upstairs to the relatively non-hostile sanctuary of his bedroom.

***

The next three weeks are little better. Sherlock’s overt disappointment in him or disgust or anger or whatever it is seems to settle a little and they even work a case or two. Sherlock is polite but John notices that he never laughs. Not at anything anyone says, including John. After four days of this, he decides to call Natalie. She’s glad to hear from him and says teasingly that she thought he’d deleted her number. This encourages him; he wasn’t sure how keen she’d been to be asked to dinner by a man his age with a broken marriage in the very recent past, and God help her when he gets around to introducing her to Sherlock, if she lasts that long.

He takes her for dinner at a nice Italian restaurant, one that Sherlock would have scoffed at and called dull and predictable. It’s one they’ve never been to together, at any rate, but John can tell from the menu that Sherlock would yawn overtly at it and opt for wine only, if there was one that didn’t offend his tastes too horribly. John realises he is thinking about this and wistfully trying to remember the last time he and Sherlock went for dinner. Sherlock never suggests it, and John, still feeling rebuffed, leaves it alone. He wants that, he thinks. He wants dinners where they bicker and Sherlock is difficult and rude and eats half of John’s dinner even while proclaiming it overly salted and badly cooked in full hearing of the staff. He misses their camaraderie fiercely and feels somehow that he did something to screw it up.

It’s not that one night, is it? he wonders as Natalie chats about a difficult paper she’s writing. Surely Sherlock isn’t angry about that. Or he didn’t mistake it for – well, anything other than a drunken accident. That’s all it was. John was drunk and upset about the baby and Mary in general and he’d just been at a loose end, as it were. Coming apart a bit and Sherlock just happened to be there. And if you can’t have a drunken mistake with your best friend, who can you have one with? But if it means that he’s lost all the rest of it, then John wishes it had never happened. As it is, he just doesn’t think about it. Can’t bear to, if he’s honest about it. He’s dreamed about it once or twice, the memories distorted by time and too much liquor in the moment, but still vividly physical. He can still feel Sherlock’s large hand closing around his cock in the warm bathwater, the sounds their kisses made as it echoed off the bathroom tiles. Remembers coming with a gasp, shooting off in the water, his legs shaky as Sherlock had pulled him over the edge again. And he remembers the taste of Sherlock.

He shivers.

“What’s wrong?” Natalie asks, interrupting her story, a prawn balanced delicately at the end of her fork.

“What?” John is startled. “Oh – nothing,” he says. He makes himself relax his shoulders. “Just a draught, I suppose. Go on with what you were telling me.”

“Sure?” Natalie smiles at him, her dark-blue eyes lovely in the candlelight, and John feels miserable.

“Yeah,” he says, with a smile that he does not feel. “Fine.”

That night, he walks her to her car and kisses her, needing to replace his most recent memory of a kiss with something acceptable, normal, liveable. Natalie kisses nicely. It’s not fireworks, but it’s warm and extremely pleasant and she clearly likes him very much.

“Call me,” she tells him after, her eyes sparkling.

He promises that he will, and he does.

***

Sherlock listens to the downstairs door close and checks the time. Just after nine-thirty. He still hasn’t stayed over, then, whatever that means. (It means nothing. It’s not as though sexual activity is prohibited before the watershed. It could have happened at any point now.) He feels his entire body go tense as John’s footsteps sound on the stairs and wonders if tonight will be the night that John finally tells him that he’s seeing someone.

He already knows. It was obvious from the first. He’s subtly smelled feminine body products on John’s clothing, found her name on his phone, found her online. Logged into John’s facebook and looked at every single photo of her, read years’ worth of inane conversations with her associates. Natalie. What a dull, boring, predictable choice.

He is furious, and knows he’s hidden it badly. The tension between them has been unmistakeable, to the point that he’s wondered if John will have second thoughts about having moved back home and leave again. He tells himself bitterly that he should have expected it – that John would stubbornly refuse to even consider the possibility of the two of them as a realistic option, a choice that he could make in sobriety and live with. That John would, instead of having learned something from the old pattern of cycling through three- and four-week relationships until he finally found one he could commit to – helped, of course, by the fact of his loneliness without Sherlock – and crash land with the closest possibility. Is this it, then? Natalie? Twenty-nine and still in school, blond, not unintelligent, but not particularly interesting, either. And there’s John, forty-one years old and still having no idea what he actually likes or wants in a partner. Telling himself that mundane and normal is what he wants, what he should want, that those two notions are one and the same.

He should have expected it. But the truth is that he didn’t, not at all. He’d thought that giving John time after the ending of his marriage was the tactful thing to do. That one day John would come to the conclusion that the residual bitterness over Mary was finished and that he was ready for this. Sherlock had pre-imagined the conversation dozens of times over, tried to predict how it might go, so that he would be ready and not accidentally say the wrong thing and kill it before it had even begun. He’d thought they were moving slowly – horribly slowly, but nonetheless – toward that, not away from it. Not to this.

John reaches the sitting room and stops in the doorway, and without looking at him Sherlock can tell that he’s going to say it at last. He’s on his back on the sofa, hands steepled under his chin. “What?” he says tonelessly.

There’s a pause. (He’s already reconsidering.) “Er, if you’re busy, never – ” John starts, his body already turning to go upstairs instead.

“I’m not busy,” Sherlock interrupts. Better to just get it over with. “What is it?”

Another pause as John warily reconsiders. “I was just going to tell you that I’ve, er, met someone. Her name is Natalie.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, staring at the ceiling. “I know.”

He hears John swallow. “I… guessed that you’d figured that out,” he says, almost in a mutter. He clears his throat. “Well, I just thought I would tell you. We’ve, uh, been on three or four dates now, depends if you consider the first one a date, I suppose, and I just thought I’d say – I’m thinking about asking her what she thinks about maybe moving in together.”

Sherlock closes his eyes. John’s words feel like a fist to the belly, ice cold and leaving him doubled over with pain. This is it: this is where he loses John all over again. Only this time he doesn’t see how their friendship could possibly survive it and doesn’t know if he even wants it to. (Why on earth, of all the seven billion people on the planet, did his heart have to have made its singular and horrifically strong exception to love for this thick-skulled, compassionless idiot?) With effort, he swings his feet to the floor and sits up. The anger comes first, tightening his jaw. “Are you,” he asks slowly, acidly, “the biggest moron in the universe? Or have you recently suffered a blow to the head?”

John’s posture shifts from uncertain/apprehensive to hostile in under three seconds. “Excuse me?” he repeats, fists balling. “What did you say?”

“I cannot believe you,” Sherlock says, his voice thick with contempt. “You just met this woman a month ago, and you’re already thinking of moving in with her? How desperate are you?”

John’s nostrils flare, his mouth thinning into a flat line, froglike and unimpressed. “How desperate am I?” he repeats, in a tone that suggests that Sherlock is treading on thin ice indeed. “I’m not desperate. This is what peop – what normal people do, Sherlock. They meet people, they move in together, they get married. I’m not saying that I want to marry her. As you so kindly pointed out, I haven’t known her all that long yet. I’m just saying that I can see the relationship potentially going that way.”

“You don’t have a ‘relationship’,” Sherlock throws back, his face twisting to match the ugly, angry words. “You’ve been on three dates since your ‘accident’ in the café. That’s not a relationship. There are job interviews that go into more depth than that.”

“Sherlock – ” John’s voice rises dangerously.

Sherlock is on his feet, just as confrontational, his own fists clenched at his sides. A certain recklessness has come over him, a desperation that is without hope regardless, so there is nothing to lose. He’s already lost the only thing that mattered, and without the hope of it, the danger of all of the wrong words, all of the cruellest things he could think of could come spilling out like toxin. “You don’t even know what you want,” he spits. “You think you want these normal, boring, stupid things, but you don’t – ”

“Natalie isn’t stupid,” John interrupts, his face reddening. “Or boring, I’ll have you know. She happens to be – ”

“For God’s sake, John, this isn’t about Natalie!” Sherlock shouts. “It’s about you and me!”

John’s jaw works, his molars grinding together, and if anything, he’s angrier than ever. “What about you and me?” he demands, his voice quieter but ten times more dangerous.

“Don’t pretend you don’t know,” Sherlock says angrily. “We both know that what you really want is me.”

For a moment John appears to be so angry that he cannot even muster speech. Finally he gets himself under control and asks through clenched teeth, “And what point would there be if I did? It’s not as though you’ve ever shown any signs of being interested in that, have you? And besides, what people want can change, and I’ll thank you not to tell me what I do or don’t want!”

“You,” Sherlock says, seething, his nails digging into his palms, “are either the cruellest or most forgetful man in existence. You told me, the night that you came here, that you loved me. You said that. You didn’t have to, but you did. And you kissed me.”

“I was drunk!” John shouts, scarlet in the face and furious. “I didn’t mean to say that!”

“That’s not something you just say ‘by accident’!” Sherlock shouts back. “You meant it! You said it more than once, and you apologised for having married Mary, too. You wanted me to touch you; you were the one who said that you had wanted it for so long. Have you forgotten that? Or are you really cruel enough to claim you genuinely didn’t mean it, despite having said it repeatedly?”

“We are not talking about this!” John’s chest is heaving, his face dark with anger and humiliation. “That was one night, and it was a m – ”

Don’t say it!” Sherlock cuts in, desperate to block out the awful words. “Don’t deny that. That was real, even if you were inebriated. You wanted it. You still want it. You’re just so anxious to prove to yourself and to some audience you think is watching and judging that you’re not precisely who it is that you are.”

No, I happen to want – ”

“You want me,” Sherlock repeats, speaking over him. He crosses the room, stopping in front of John. John doesn’t move as Sherlock steps into his personal space, maintaining eye contact, though he’s still bristling with anger. Sherlock has him cornered against the wall between the doors to the hallway and kitchen respectively, the same bit of wall he’d once thrown Mycroft up against. John doesn’t make any attempt to escape, but looks as though Sherlock is physically barring his path to leave, which he isn’t. It’s the fact that he knows Sherlock is right, Sherlock thinks. He looks down into John’s face and brings down the volume of his voice. “I suppose I should have said at some point that I wanted it, too. I did. I do,” he says, and it comes out lower and rougher than he’d intended. “But it’s not too late. I don’t care how many of these stupid, wrong women you’ve mistakenly chosen before. It’s always been me you wanted, since the day we met.”

“You sound very sure of that,” John says, and Sherlock can see from the pulse fluttering in his neck that his heart rate is still elevated, though that could just as easily be from his rage.

Sherlock makes a low sound of agreement. “I am. And I want you. I’ve always wanted you.” He unbuttons the top button of John’s shirt. The recklessness is still upon him and he does something he never would have dreamed of doing before this, bending his head to mouth at John’s throat. He feels John’s shiver. “Tell me you don’t want this,” he says, his lips on John’s neck. “Try to convince me. I won’t believe you. But tell me to stop if you truly don’t want this.”

John doesn’t say it, but his breathing deepens and accelerates. “You don’t know everything,” he says stiffly. “You’re not omniscient.”

“No,” Sherlock agrees. “But I know you. And you want this.” He undoes a second button, then a third. Being this close to John again, with the memory of the first time nearly two months ago, awakens every bit of the flame of his desire for John all over again. Touch is so primal, he thinks, lipping at John’s upper chest, fingers splayed out over his clothed rib cage. He wants to taste John’s skin and does, not entirely able to believe that John hasn’t ordered him to stop, punched him in the face, stormed out, any of it. Instead he stays where he is, breathing heavily and trying to suppress it. Sherlock unbuttons the rest of the buttons and pushes back the halves of John’s checked shirt to examine his scar again. “Tell me to stop,” he repeats, and laves his tongue across the ridged skin where a bullet once tore through John’s flesh.

John shivers and doesn’t say it.

Emboldened, Sherlock gets the shirt all the way off him and puts his hands on John’s body in near reverence, marvelling at being allowed to touch it, feel it under his hands, even with John sober, without the veil of inebriation to blur the experience. He touches his mouth to it, moving from one place to another, noting John’s nearly-silent reactions, the way his stomach will clench or go concave as he inhales sharply, the way his breath shakes. Sherlock lays the flat of his tongue against John’s right nipple and feels it peak and tighten against it, stiffening in arousal. John’s gasp makes Sherlock’s own exhalation heavy. He moves back up John’s chest, kissing along it up to his throat and neck again. His lips close around John’s earlobe and he breathes, “Tell me to stop.” It’s becoming a challenge, and John continues not to take it.

Sherlock feels nearly overwhelmed by his own desire, his need to clutch John against himself (at last, at last) and just feel their bodies together. On this wild impulse, he does that, pulls John to himself in a hug, running his hands over John’s back, into his hair, breathing into his neck and kissing it, touching his arse. John finally responds then, something coming unfastened within him and he stops resisting it, stops even trying to pretend he doesn’t like it, his arms coming around Sherlock’s back at last. His grip is tight, somehow still angry, but his lips touch Sherlock’s neck and Sherlock closes his eyes tightly and thinks for a moment that he could die like this, right now. His dressing gown is open and he can feel John's heart beating against his own, skin to skin. He stops telling John to tell him to stop and instead, when he’s regained tenuous control over his emotions, lifts his face and looks into John’s eyes. The kiss is almost brutally violent, their mouths tearing at one another’s, hips pushing together, John’s erection pressing into the one Sherlock’s pyjama pants have no hope of concealing.

They break apart and Sherlock rips his dressing gown and off and drops to a crouch, unbuttoning John’s khakis and yanking them down to his ankles. John wordlessly allows this, stepping out of them and groans as Sherlock mouths the hard outline of his erection through his underwear. “Tell me to stop,” he says, looking up at John. John minutely shakes his head, and Sherlock pulls down his underwear without a second’s hesitation. He looks at John’s penis for three long seconds, memorising it, then puts his tongue out and tastes it, followed by his lips, closing around John’s flesh with such tenderness that he knows he’s given himself utterly away. John groans again, his fingers tangling into Sherlock’s hair, but he isn’t trying to pull him off, Sherlock thinks. He applies himself to sucking John’s penis with intent focus, filing away every miniscule reaction for later examination. His fingers explore the oddness of another person’s testicles for the first time in his life, the hair there soft, and he decides to take them into his mouth to see what they feel like that way. John is moaning softly.

After a little, Sherlock removes his mouth and says, “Turn around.”

“Sh – ” It’s the first time in this that John has said anything.

“Turn around,” Sherlock insists, and this time John does it. Sherlock places both hands on John’s buttocks and squeezes, then pushes them apart and puts his mouth on the hot, forbidden entrance to John’s body. This produces a yelp of surprise on John’s part that gives Sherlock pause. He withdraws his face, having doubts. “Do you want me to stop?” It’s a real question this time, not the angry challenge it was.

“N-no,” John says, though it’s shaky.

Sherlock resumes what he was doing, licking over the surface of the hole, relishing the way the tight muscle responds to his tongue, including when he inserts it directly inside. He reaches around to grasp at John’s penis and notices that it’s as hard as ever, pulsing and twitching in his fist as he continues to ease John’s body open with his tongue. One of John’s hands comes down to close around his own, tightening, encouraging, and they both stroke him this way.

Sherlock can feel that John could attain orgasm from this, but he doesn’t want that to happen yet, and not this way. He gets to his feet and looks quickly around the sitting room. There’s a jar of petroleum jelly sitting on the desk from an experiment weeks ago. “Don’t move,” he says, and moves away from John to dip his fingers into it, returning within seconds. John hasn’t moved. (Good.) He presses himself up against John through his pyjamas, his left hand on John’s belly and chest, and slides the fingers of his right hand into the cleft of John’s arse, rubbing at the hole. He puts his mouth on John’s left ear. “Have you had sex with Natalie?” he asks, his voice still rough and a bit angry.

John shakes his head. “Not – not yet – ” He pushes himself back against Sherlock’s fingers a bit.

“Or anyone else since Mary?”

“No.”

“Good.” Sherlock inserts a finger into John, waiting for the muscle to release again, his left hand dipping to find John’s erection again. It’s wet in his hand. He puts his mouth on John’s ear and says, breathing it like a low promise, “I’m going to fuck you.” The word is crude, yet seems the most direct way of expressing his intention.

John doesn’t respond for a moment, but then his chin drops in what could be a nod.

Sherlock has to be sure. He slides his finger in and out, probing, feeling John. He asks again: “Do you want me to stop?”

“… No,” John says, after a short, yet agonising moment.

Sherlock hesitates, then removes his finger and swiftly sheds the pyjamas. He closes the space between them again, feeling John against him for the first time since they were in bed together that night when John was so drunk. He’s starkly aware that they’re both extremely sober at the moment. His erection is pressed into the place where John’s buttocks meet. “I want to hear you say it,” he says into John’s ear, his left arm clamped around John’s upper chest. “Don’t just let me. Tell me you want me to. If you do.”

John manages a nod. “Yeah,” he says, and it’s breathy and he’s blinking a lot. “Do it. I want it.”

Relieved, Sherlock kisses his ear and moves his arm so that it’s under John’s, rubbing over his belly again, and with his right hand he positions himself. “You were tested after Mary,” he says.

“After she shot you, yeah.” It’s shaky. “And after that we never – what about you, though?”

“Not applicable,” Sherlock says into his hair, and with that he fits himself into position. His legs are shaking slightly. “Yes?” It’s more breath than voice.

“Yes.” John’s acceptance is quiet but firm, so Sherlock pushes into him, just an inch or two, but the sensation nearly ends him.Nothing could have prepared him for this, for the intensity of it, and the immediate emotional impact. He is inside John. He is inside John. Sherlock’s heart rate spikes and for a brief, dizzying moment, he is terribly concerned that he is about to orgasm right then and there. He closes his eyes and wills himself to hold on, to breathe, to give John’s body time to adjust to it. He strokes John’s chest and stomach with both hands, silently loving him harder than he knew he could love another person, even John. He’s drowning in it, completely overwhelmed and feeling more exposed than ever before in all his life, and John can’t even see him. Only feel him. John is breathing slowly, steadily, and after a moment his body relaxes. “Okay,” he gasps. “You can – ”

Sherlock swallows and slowly drives himself the rest of the way into the incredible tightness of John’s body. A choked sound escapes his throat before he can help it and he looks down between their bodies and sees himself buried to the hilt in John and has to struggle against the orgasm again, only just barely holding himself in check. “Are you – ” He can’t finish the question, can’t even speak. His arms tighten around John’s body, his face dropping into John’s hair.

“Yes. Yes. You can – yeah. Like that,” John says, bending forward, his face buried in his arms, leaning against the wall. He breathes heavily, loudly, as Sherlock pulls himself out an inch or two and then pushes back in, careful, yet trembling with the effort it’s taking to go slowly.

“Is this – are you – ?” he gasps, his hips bucking forward, his penis harder than rock inside John’s body. John makes a sound of agreement, so he says, “Can I – ”

“Yes! God, yes!” John’s body is still gripping him fiercely but the muscles are looser now, the slide of Sherlock’s penis aided by the jelly and with this heartfelt invitation on John’s part, Sherlock abandons the effort of holding back and begins to pump himself into John, hard, increasing in speed. The pleasure of it is mounting and he thinks for a brief, stupid moment that he has considerably undervalued sexual intercourse until this very moment. This is – there are no words for it, for what he feels, either physically or emotionally. John takes one of his hands and moves it to his penis again and Sherlock hears himself groan as he grips it, jerking it roughly as he plunges blindly into John, his testicles swinging and touching John’s as their bodies slam together. The pleasure is tightening like a vice clamp, screwing tightly, almost painfully into Sherlock’s body as he attempts to merge himself to John, every thrust going deeper, harder. He can barely breathe; his breath is rasping in his throat and he can’t speak. John says his name, his own voice hoarse and desperate and suddenly his arse is clamping around Sherlock’s penis, tighter than ever, and his body spasms and jerks in Sherlock’s arms, semen erupting in hot bursts over Sherlock’s fist and Sherlock absolutely loses his ability to control himself at all. The next few seconds feel like an eternity and he might be shouting but it doesn’t matter; his body is on fire, ablaze in white heat and his arms might be crushing John’s ribs as he comes uncontrollably, unstoppably, the orgasm pulsing from him in waves, into John, his hips mashed against John’s arse as he spills himself into John, unable to pull out or detach himself in any way until it’s finished. Even then, his penis continues to twitch, the last spurts of his release spilling into John, even as John’s is doing the same in his hand.

It takes a long time before either of them can speak, Sherlock’s heart hammering in his chest. When he finally recovers, he says, “Are you all right? That was – ”

“I know,” John says, his voice raw. “And yeah. I’m fine.”

“Good.” Sherlock reluctantly pulls himself out at last, watches dribbles of his own release trail out and down John’s thighs. “Don’t move,” he says, as he said earlier. There is a box of tissues on the coffee table and he goes to get it, wiping himself awkwardly from John’s skin.

John turns around and doesn’t quite meet his eyes. “Er, I’m going to take a shower,” he says.

Sherlock searches his eyes, then nods. “All right,” he says slowly, feeling that something is wrong. “You’re sure you’re all right?”

“Yeah, fine,” John repeats. “I just need a shower.” He glances up into Sherlock’s face then and gives him a very quick smile that doesn’t reassure Sherlock at all. Sherlock rather wants to kiss him again – seems like the very least thing they should do after having just shared such an intense experience, but John turns away and moves off down the hall toward the bathroom.

Sherlock has put his pyjamas back on and is sitting on the edge of his bed by the time John finishes, wondering what happens next. But John leaves the bathroom using the hall door, not stopping to say good night or – sleep there, as Sherlock was hoping he might. Instead, he goes upstairs to his own room.

Feeling unduly upset by this, and more suspicious than ever that something is very wrong between them, something that he’s at a complete loss to explain, Sherlock takes his own shower and wishes they could have shared that, too. Helped each other clean off after something like that. Is it that it wasn’t as intense an experience for John, given how many other people he’s slept with? Or is it something else, something worse? (Why could he not have even said good night?)

Despite his post-coital fatigue, Sherlock gets into bed but sits up against the headboard for a long time, worrying and trying to piece together what it was that went so wrong. He reaches no conclusions and finally falls asleep close to five.

When he wakes, it’s past nine, and he knows immediately without leaving his room that the quality of the atmosphere in the flat has changed, and that John is gone.

***

John’s hands are shoved as deeply into his pockets as they go, nearly punching through the material, his knuckles clearly visible from the outside. It’s between six and seven in the morning and there aren’t many people out, but the ones who see him swerve instinctively out of his way. He’s been walking for hours. Or maybe only forty minutes. Or maybe it really has been hours. He honestly has no idea and it doesn’t matter in the slightest. He knows he’s reached the crisis point and just needs to be by himself to get himself sorted out.

He’s cold. His hair was still damp when he left Baker Street and the damp cold of February has settled deeply into his bones. He sees a generic chain hotel and decides on a whim to go inside. He asks for a room for three nights and they let him have a fourth for free; there’s a special, the lady at the desk said. John doesn’t care. He goes up to his room on the fourteenth floor and turns up the heat. The curtains are open and he looks out over the city at night. The crescent moon is waning again, almost gone, and suddenly John is suffused with overwhelming amounts of mixed emotion – anger, shame, guilt, and more anger – fury, even. At himself, at Sherlock, at Natalie, who doesn’t deserve it at all, at Mary, who does. Where did this start? When did it all go so wrong?

He’s shaking, either with cold or emotion, he realises belatedly, his shoulders hunched forward. One of his fists pounds against the glass, which makes a loud thunk, probably audible in several other rooms. He doesn’t care. Damn Sherlock. Damn him for having seen the truth all along and for shoving it in his face like he did tonight. If he’d known all along, as he said, that John had felt that way about him, why had he never said anything? For either of their sakes? Why had he just let them go on, circling around each other but never once acknowledging it, never thinking to let John know? The answer comes to him from the other side of the anger: that possibly Sherlock thought the same thing, that John would never go for it, never be interested in that. That he couldn’t interrupt the cycle of girlfriends for anything more than the work he shares with John. He did interrupt that, and freely, but perhaps he never thought he had the right to demand anything more of John. Or never for his own sake, only the work.

And the thing is, John gets that. Gets why Sherlock couldn’t have said it. It’s not as though social skills are precisely his strong suit. So maybe it always had to be John, and the fact is that, aside from that one night of far too much whiskey and far too much truth, he’s never done it, either. Never got up the courage to show his own interest or intent. He hadn’t thought it was even realistic. Just something to fantasise wistfully about, never imagining that Sherlock was thinking about it just as wistfully, or more. And on top of it, John always had someone, hadn’t he? Girlfriends, then Mary, and now Natalie, while Sherlock has always been alone, with the one exception of his ruse with Janine. Alone and silently watching John make disastrous choice after disastrous choice, never doing anything more about it than making snide remarks about them and being rude during their (always brief) visits to Baker Street.

Until tonight, at least, when Sherlock finally got angry enough to call him on all of it. He must have really thought that their friendship was at an end, to finally say all of that, and John thinks it really may be over. He’s buggered everything up hopelessly and repeatedly, and maybe it’s well beyond repair now. Sherlock exposed him, called him out, made him admit that he wanted him, and then they’d had sex and John had been fully unable to even try to deny how much he wanted it. Sherlock could have made him beg. He would have done it. Because it is the truth: Sherlock is the one he always wanted. But it was never supposed to happen like that. John always imagined something a little more romantic than that challenge, Tell me to stop. Never, he could have said. With you, never. I would never. I could never, and even if I could, I wouldn’t.

He’d cried in the shower, for more reasons than he can count. That it happened that way, and not the way it should have, wishing their first time – first two times – could have come about in a better way. That they’ve bungled everything from the start. That wanting each other, loving each other, may not be enough to fix this. He’s knows it’s true, damn it. He knows damned well that he meant it the night he was drunk. That he’s thought it to himself countless times over the years. Looking at Sherlock through the back of the newspaper, thinking it as Sherlock barked out an order to follow over his shoulder, saying to his gravestone. He’s always loved him. And he cried because he’d managed to convince himself afresh of the lie of the life he wanted to want but doesn’t, having cheated on that and Natalie with it, not that they’ve come anywhere close to sleeping together yet – but all of that, and knowing in his heart of hearts that Sherlock is absolutely bloody right and that it’s the only thing John has ever really wanted. And on top of all of that, knowing it’s all been solely his own fault that things are this colossally disastrous between them now isn’t helping anything, either. He wishes he could have changed how it had gone tonight, stopped in the middle and found a way to tell Sherlock that he really does love him and always has, changed their near-violent sex to something that would have made them both happier. He should have done that. Told Sherlock that he loves him and always has instead of getting so bloody defensive about it. Told him that there’s nothing to the thing with Natalie at all – that Sherlock was right and that John was just looking for an in back into so-called normal life. He knows now, belatedly that he doesn’t want that life. Sherlock was right, as he always is. He is precisely what John wants, and all of the life that goes with it.

And he left. Got all weird over it, and walked out the door in the middle of the night without so much as a word to Sherlock. John was profoundly embarrassed, which has translated into anger, and he simply could not, cannot, be with Sherlock while he’s still feeling all of this. It’s awful. There is no reason for him to be feeling that he wants to punch Sherlock when it should be the other way around. Sherlock was right to call him out. John can’t fathom why Sherlock would even still want him after all this. And having left without even saying goodbye, coming out with some sort of lame excuse or explanation was – in a word – unforgiveable.

He leans his forehead against the cool glass. God, what a fuck-up I am, he thinks miserably. What a mess I’ve made of this.

***

Sherlock moves from room to room in Baker Street feeling like a ghost, as hollow and insubstantial as plasma. He doesn’t know what to do with himself, how to escape the cloud of feeling that dogs his every move. He feels terrible, empty and desolate and furiously angry and broken. He’s angry with John for leaving without so much as a word, and he’s furious with himself for having driven John away.

He shouldn’t have confronted John that way. But he’d thought then that if he didn’t, he was losing John anyway. But if he hadn’t done what he’d done, he’d have never known the exquisite, heart-rending experience of being intimate with John in that way, and now he will never be able to forget it, and it seems extremely likely that he will never experience it again. He’d thought that John liked it. He hadn’t said to stop once, of all the times Sherlock had given him the opportunity. He admitted that he wanted it. And he did, his entire body ablaze with arousal, his penis hard and wet in Sherlock’s hand. And he’d insisted he was fine after, though now he can see that that was obviously a lie. He’d disappeared into the shower and that’s the last the Sherlock has seen of him since.

He could text a Where are you? to John but somehow he knows already that John wouldn’t reply, and prefers the assumption to actually seeing John’s non-replies on the screen of his phone.

Obviously, in retrospect, Sherlock can see that perhaps John didn’t actually want it. Or that he might have wanted it, but not at that moment, in the context of that admittedly unpleasant conversation. It shouldn’t have happened that way, Sherlock thinks, looking morosely out the window. The moon is little larger than a finger nail, looking insubstantial and frail. Waning. What was it about Astarte that he always used to tell John? Beneficent when waxing, harsh when waning? Sherlock shouldn’t have pushed it – shouldn’t have deliberately got John aroused, made him admit that he wanted it. He realises that there is a difference between the body’s desires and the mind’s desires. John had not wanted it emotionally, only physically. Or rather than it being about what either of them individually had wanted, it hadn’t happened in the right way, at the right them, for them.

John should have said, then. He should have said, ‘Yes, I am aroused right now, but that does not mean that I want to have sex with you at the moment, Sherlock.’ How the hell was he to have known? He can see that it was manipulative, though, and for the second time in his life, he feels truly sorry for having manipulated John. The truth is that the end of their friendship is on him. It’s his fault. Much more so than any number of flimsy, temporary relationships that John could have found. He shouldn’t have said he was moving in with her, though, Sherlock thinks rebelliously. That shock of fear of loss, that anger is still burning within his heart, but he knows that his own error was the greater one.

It should never have happened that way. He wanted it to happen organically, stemming from their mutual feelings for each other. Willingly, both parties equally enthusiastic, equally hungry for one another. It shouldn’t have had to happen only with tricks and anger and manipulation. That’s not love. And he loves John. Fiercely. Sherlock feels sick, thinking about it. He never should have confronted John about it, or perhaps the confrontation was all right but to have gone on and insisted on proving John’s attraction to him, right then and there – so much for patience, for giving him time. Only he had given him time, and what he’d come back with was Natalie. Still. Sherlock argues in circles with himself throughout the night, thrashing in his blankets as he tosses and turns, coming inevitably back to the same conclusion over and over and over again: this is his fault. And it’s too late.

John is never going to come back. They’ve both learned the lesson now: loving someone is not enough. It has no bearing on whether or not something can work. They’ve both done their part in destroying this, but it was Sherlock who dealt the finishing blow.

Utterly miserable, his chest aching as though his heart has been physically removed, Sherlock finally falls into a restless sleep toward seven in the morning.

***

He sleeps until four in the afternoon, which makes him feel disoriented and out of touch. He checks his phone, but there is nothing. Nothing from John, at least; the rest is unimportant. He checks his email and blog and dismisses it all as completely irrelevant. He discovers that he is hungry and realises as he makes some toast that he hasn’t seen Mrs Hudson in days, not since he snapped at her the day after John left. The day that John left, rather. Upon inspection of his room from its doorway, he saw that John had slept there, or had at least lain in the bed for some time, though he straightened the blankets before he left. The pillow was dented, though. Sherlock had been furious with himself for having slept through John’s stealthy departure, but what does it even matter? What could he have said? All of the words that occur to him sound terrible even just in his head, overly sentimental and useless as persuasive arguments for John to stay. I love you. Please don’t go. I’m sorry. Please stay. I need you. I shouldn’t have said any of that. Please don’t move out. Do you love me? I don’t know any more, whether you meant that or not. I want to know. Please don’t leave.

Now, Sherlock puts down his empty toast plate and goes upstairs. He hasn’t been able to bear the thought of returning to John’s room since his brief visual scan from the doorway. Now he goes purposefully up the stairs and makes himself walk inside. Everything is exactly as it was. Sherlock goes inside this time, feeling as though he’s trespassing in some sort of sanctuary. The entire house is quiet. Perhaps Mrs Hudson is out of the city. It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is this heavy silence hanging over the room, the tangible feeling of John’s absence, its wrongness aching like a wound. Sherlock goes to the dresser and has a look inside. John’s socks and shirts are still where they were. He didn’t pack, then. Hasn’t officially moved out. He’ll have to come back someday, if only to collect his things. Something about this makes Sherlock feel ever so slightly better. He’ll see John again sometime. Not that it’s likely to change anything. Even so, a last glimpse would be better than nothing.

He looks at the bed. Thinks of John asleep there, thinks of the way his face relaxes in repose. He moves toward the bed as though half in a dream, though in no dream would his chest and gut be aching this way. He sits down carefully on the side of the bed where John would have sat in the mornings, before standing up and going downstairs to shower. After a moment, Sherlock bends over and smells the pillow. And there it is – John’s scent. He picks the pillow up and inhales deeply, closing his eyes. For one long, terrible minute, Sherlock experiences the most exquisite pain he’s ever known, like touching a live wire, his heart raw and exposed, and it feels like desperation and hunger and screaming fury all combined. His shoulders shudder and he discovers that he is dangerously close to having a complete emotional breakdown, that if he isn’t careful, he’ll end up weeping into the pillow that he’s squeezing. He breathes carefully, trying to regain control of himself before he loses it in the first place, and makes himself put the pillow down. Enough of this. He’s only torturing himself.

He gets up and goes to the doorway and thinks that once he is absolutely certain that John is never coming back, he will ask Mrs Hudson to clear out the room. He doesn’t ever want to go back inside.

He’s upset and needs to calm himself somehow. The old seven percent solution is out of the question, if only because there is the slightest chance that John could find out and disapprove. It would give him ammunition, a real reason not to want to stay. Sherlock thinks of tea and dismisses the notion. Perhaps a bath. Yes. That would be better. He can’t quite remember when he last showered, anyway. A bath would be good. Sherlock leaves his pyjamas and dressing gown in a heap on the floor of the bedroom as the hot water runs, then slides himself into the tub and tries not to think of the night John first came back. The memory comes to mind anyway, playing itself out insistently in his head in piecemeal patches: squeezing out the sponge over John’s chest, seeing the scar on his shoulder for the first time, and his embarrassing erection painful in his trousers. John kissing him, the sounds echoing off the tiles. The feeling of John’s penis in his hand, of what happened after. Sherlock slouches low in the water, his head leaning back against the high wall of the tub, his elbows hooked over the sides, and feels that this is rock bottom. He has never been this low before. Not even during those two terrible, long years spent without John, knowing or suspecting that John was moving on without him. It has never been worse than now.

There is a minute sound and Sherlock lifts his head, his body tensing. It’s the front door downstairs. (What time is it? After ten, he thinks. Mycroft would never visit this late, and Mrs Hudson always uses the kitchen door.) It’s John, then. He listens, and yes – those are John’s quiet footsteps on the stairs. Oh, God. His heart begins to race. Is he just here to get his things? Will he be relieved to discover that Sherlock is not in the sitting room or kitchen, or anywhere that their paths will cross, forcing a confrontation? (Will he then miss his one last chance to see John before he leaves?)

John’s steps do not continue up to his bedroom, however. They come into the flat and pause. Then Sherlock hears him move into the sitting room, passing through it to the kitchen, then coming into the hallway. The footsteps stop outside the bathroom door. Sherlock sits up, heart in his throat, pulling his knees up to his chest. “Sherlock?”

He doesn’t know what to say. “Yes – I’m in here,” he says, and it sounds stupid. (Of course he’s there; where else would he be?)

He feels rather than hears John’s hesitation. “Um – are you in the bath?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, feeling idiotic. Of all times for John to come over, it has to be when he’s wet and naked and feeling exposed, quite literally.

“Can I come in? I was – hoping we could talk,” John says, sounding a touch apologetic. “Or if you’d rather wait – ”

“No!” Anything to keep John from being put off, from changing his mind and leaving again. “You can come in. It’s fine!”

John opens the door then and Sherlock looks at him, drinking in the sight of him like water in a desert. John. Here. In the bathroom. It doesn’t matter. He’s here. John looks back at him for a long moment, his mouth opening and closing, his eyebrows framing his eyes like parentheses, his eyes full of all the same things Sherlock has been feeling for the past four days. “I’m sorry,” John blurts out, the first to break the silence. “God, Sherlock – I’m so sorry!”

“What?” Sherlock demands. “I’m sorry!”

John’s eyebrows come together in confusion. “What?” He closes the bathroom door behind him and takes off his coat, the bathroom warm from the steam of the bath. “Why should you be sorry? I’m the one who’s fucked everything up.”

Sherlock frowns at him. “I thought that was me.”

John shakes his head. “Not a chance,” he says flatly. “Listen: you were right. About all of it. About me. I’ve wanted, or at least thought about the possibilities of you and I since the very start, like you said. I’ve always wondered if it would be possible someday, and I wanted it, to be. I just didn’t think it was realistic, so I never – ”

“Because I never,” Sherlock interrupts. “I never said anything. You were right. I didn’t know if I should say something, or if so, what or how to say it. I never knew it was an actual possibility for you, that you would even think about it realistically.”

“Christ,” John says, pinching the bridge of his nose. “What a pair we are. We ought to give a course on how not to communicate.” He lowers his hand. “But seriously, Sherlock. I meant exactly what I said when I first left Mary. I love you and I have done for a long time. I – I don’t know why I tried so hard to talk myself out of it. I feel like a massive cock and I’ve spent the last four days absolutely hating myself and I know that it’s probably much too late and that you’re probably completely exasperated with my drama, the ups and downs, me changing my mind every four minutes and all that, but – I just thought that I would come back and just – tell you that I know what an absolute ass I’ve been, and that despite that, I love you and I always have, and if you want me, I’m yours.” He stops and takes a deep breath. “There. That’s it, full stop.”

Sherlock breathes carefully and tries to decide what he most needs to say first. “But – the night that you left – ” He stops, noting John’s wince. “I’m sorry, should I – ?”

“No, go on,” John says quickly, his face still pained.

“I just – I never wanted it to happen that way,” Sherlock tells him. He folds his arms on the side of the tub and rests his chin on them, his eyes on John. “I mean that. I thought that was why you left, because I more or less forced that on you. I’ve been feeling wretched about that ever since.”

John looks confused. “You have? Why? I said I wanted it, didn’t I?”

“Yes, but I was pushing you, manipulating you into it, trying to prove your attraction to me,” Sherlock argues.

“Sherlock,” John states, “you offered to stop over and over and over again, and I never once told you to, took you up on that. You gave me opportunity after opportunity to get out or stop it. I didn’t. Don’t go thinking that was some sort of non-consensual thing that you dragged me into. And for the record, I know when you’re being manipulative and that wasn’t it. Even if it was, I’m quite used to it by now, and I’m perfectly capable of not falling for it. You were angry. I was angry. But we both wanted it. Don’t tell yourself anything other than that. And you had every right to be angry. I was furious with myself, too – at least, later on, I was. You’d been giving me space, I know. Waiting for me to move on from the marriage, and then I turn around and start dating someone else. After, as you so rightly said, I’d told you that I loved you.”

Sherlock plucks at his own arm hair, sleeked smooth from the water. “Are you sure?” he asks quietly. “I thought that was why you left.”

“No.” John shakes his head. “I left because of myself, not you or anything you did. I was all set, in my idiotic thinking, to ask Natalie about living together, and then you showed me exactly how much I wanted you – which is a lot, for the record – and I just felt like – I don’t know, like I didn’t even know myself. I just had to get away and get my head on straight. I’m sorry about how I was after. I’m sorry I left.”

“You didn’t even say goodbye,” Sherlock says, though he knows he should leave this and just accept the apology as it is.

John winces again. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“I thought you were never coming back.” Sherlock risks a look at him again. John is leaning against the towel rack, his arms crossed. He looks guilty and miserable. “I wanted you to,” he adds. “I’ve wanted nothing else but for you to come back. And stay.”

John swallows. “Do you still want me? After everything I’ve – ”

“More than anything,” Sherlock says firmly, and waits, all of his hopes teetering precariously on this moment. “So – will you stay, this time?”

John swallows again, blinking. “You’re sure you – ”

“Completely certain.” Sherlock waits, hardly breathing.

John responds by hauling his jumper over his head, followed by the t-shirt beneath it, then unbuttoning his jeans and kicking them off, and pulling off his socks and underwear, then he comes over and carefully gets into the tub, lying down on top of Sherlock, water sloshing over the sides and gurgling down the emergency drain. “Yes,” he says, obviously not caring in the slightest about the water. The tub is narrow for two people but Sherlock keeps one knee out of the water and John fits himself between his legs, his arms resting on Sherlock’s chest and shoulders. “Yes,” he says again, his lips finding Sherlock’s and brushing against them. “I’ll stay.”

Sherlock puts his arms around John’s back and opens his mouth to the kiss, relief shuddering over him like a wave. Of all the narrow escapes in his life, this was by far the most dangerous. He kisses John as though John is the only thing he needs to breathe, their bodies cradling one another’s in the most intimate and tender of ways. John is here, here in the bath with him, and it’s the most magical, incredible, unbelievably wonderful thing that has ever been. They kiss and kiss and kiss and Sherlock feels precariously emotional again, holding John so tightly to himself that John might not be able to breathe, but he doesn’t seem to care, either. His arms are locked around Sherlock’s back as they kiss, and everything that has ever gone wrong between them before is already fading into nothingness like smoke. “I love you,” Sherlock says, meaning it with his entire being, his hands gripping John’s face hard enough to bruise. “I love you. I love you. I love you. I should have told you. I should have said it every day.”

I should have told you first,” John says, his thumbs on Sherlock’s cheekbones. “I’m supposed to be the brave one. You know – soldier, and all that. It doesn’t matter now, though, does it?”

“No,” Sherlock says, and means it. “It doesn’t matter any more.”

“God,” John breathes. “You’re – ” He stops, his throat choking up.

“Never mind,” Sherlock says, and pulls his mouth back to claim it again.

It feels like hours before they finally untangle themselves and get out of the water. They’re both hard but the bath just isn’t particularly conducive to sex, as it turns out. Not that they weren’t giving it a try regardless. They dry each other, laughing and interrupting themselves to kiss and press themselves together, the laughter turning into moans, and finally John says, “Enough, we’re dry enough – take me to bed, damn it!”

Finally, Sherlock thinks with triumph, hearing himself agree aloud. The bedroom is a mess, clothes everywhere, the bed unmade, but John doesn’t appear to have any objection to it. They fall into bed, John on top of him, kissing and getting their limbs properly entwined again.

After a bit, breathing heavily, John lifts his mouth and asks, “Do you want to do that again – what we did the other day?”

Sherlock hesitates. “Not really,” he says. “I – didn’t like how it happened, despite what you said. I just – ”

“Understood,” John says quickly. “We can do something else tonight, then.”

“Do you want to – ?” Sherlock offers, assuming John will know what he means. But John shakes his head.

“Sometime, definitely,” he says. He strokes Sherlock’s wet hair back from his forehead. “But you know, what I really want tonight is just this – this is plenty.” He shifts himself against Sherlock’s body, rubbing, and Sherlock understands.

“Okay,” he says, and it comes out sounding breathy. “Do we need – anything?”

“Lube would be good,” John decides. He stretches and reaches the drawer of the night table. “In here?”

“Yes.”

John takes out the tube and laughs.

“What?”

“I have the same brand,” John says, quirking an eyebrow. “Just for, er, solo use. You know.”

“Ah.” Sherlock comprehends. He smiles up at John, who is uncapping the tube and squeezing some into his palm. “John – ”

John’s eyes flick to his. “Yeah?” He tosses the tube to the night table and rubs what’s in his hand over Sherlock’s erection, causing him to groan and nearly forget what he was going to say, before he coats his own and wraps his hand around both of them.

The question will sound horribly insecure, he knows, but – “Are you really going to stay?” Sherlock asks. It sounds even worse said aloud, but he has to know. “You’re not – Natalie isn’t – ”

“Oh, God, no, that’s done,” John assures him. “I broke it off with her yesterday. I meant it when I said that I’m all yours. I’m in this for good. Forever, if you want to be formal about it. I’m not going anywhere. Ever. I promise.”

John’s ability to speaking while rubbing his fist over his own penis and Sherlock’s is rather incredible, Sherlock thinks blurrily, arching up into it, the sensation already rather phenomenal. “Good,” he says breathily. “I want you for – forever. Stay forever.”

John stops moving and looks deeply into his eyes. “I will,” he says, and kisses him. And kisses him again, again.

Sherlock curls a hand around the back of his neck and holds him there, gulping down John’s kisses like water, all of his barriers down. Here and now, with his penis nestled next to John’s, John’s hand around both of them, John’s lips on his, he feels as vulnerable as a bit of dandelion seed. John could break him with a breath. But he won’t. John loves him. Sherlock closes his eyes and drowns in it, feeling it from head to toe and thinks that he can’t even distinguish between his love for John and John’s for him: it’s one thing, one entity now.

After a bit, John lets go with his hand and gets both arms under Sherlock’s back, just thrusting against him, and it’s good, it’s very, very good. Sherlock winds a leg around John’s, his foot resting on the back of John’s muscle calf, which is flexing and sliding under the skin. Their bodies are touching all down their torsos, their penises thrusting and sliding against each other’s and they’re both gasping into each other’s mouths, and Sherlock thinks hazily, This is it, this is love, physicalised – I understand now – “John!” he pants, the crest nearly upon him. “I – ” He should warn John that he can’t hold out much longer, but it’s going to happen within seconds –

John opens his eyes. “Yeah?” He gets it at once. “It’s okay – come if you need to – come for me – ”

Sherlock’s eyes squeeze shut and his body shudders and jerks, and then the orgasm slams into him with force, the wetness of it spurting up between them, and then he hears John cursing, his mouth on Sherlock’s neck, the graze of his teeth, and then he’s thrusting, hard, and coming himself, his breath bursting from his mouth in choking gasps.

They lie together, panting, still tightly curled around one another. Sherlock can feel his penis twitching in the aftershocks against John’s, can feel John’s doing the same thing, his stomach heaving against Sherlock’s, and this is more intimate than anything else they’ve done and Sherlock wants it to go on forever, revelling in the intensity of it. He never wants to let go of John again, not ever. Chemicals, he thinks, and dismisses it the thought. Who cares. I have John at last.

A little later, they get up and go back into the bathroom to clean themselves up and laughingly put down dozens of towels to mop up the water flooding the floor tiles. Sherlock stays a moment longer to brush his teeth. John just said that he likes Sherlock’s slight growth of stubble, so he decides to leave it for the morning. When he goes back into the bedroom, John is standing at the window, nude. From behind, the scar on his shoulder is much larger. Sherlock wants to kiss it, so he crosses the room and puts his arms around John’s middle and does precisely that. John’s hands come up to cover his, his fingers weaving themselves into Sherlock’s.

“Look,” he says, as Sherlock kisses his neck. “It’s a new moon tonight.”

Sherlock glances up, his lips still on John’s warm skin. It’s true: there is a faint slice of gleaming white and the ghostly, delicate outline of the rest of the moon hanging above the London skyline. Beneficent while waxing, he thinks, then discards this as well. It’s more than a new moon. It’s a new beginning. The beginning of the rest of their life. “Yes,” he says into John’s ear, his lips catching as the lobe. “It’s beautiful.”

*