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for all that bitter delights will sour

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“I’m not gay,” John said into the darkness.

Sherlock rolled over, facing away from him. The skin of his cleft slid uncomfortably against itself as he moved, the lubricant becoming tacky as it began to dry. He re-adjusted the pillow under his head. “I know.”

*

The first time it happened, it happened so quickly Sherlock wasn’t even sure it was happening until John was wrestling him out of his trousers, mouth hot and wet on his lower belly and thighs.

Baker Street, two in the morning: just getting home from the crime scene circus. John was furious. Had been ever since he’d had to shoot the kidnapper holding a knife to Sherlock's throat three hours prior. Sherlock's neck was red and raw; the kidnapper was dead. They fell into the flat, nerves still riding high, and before Sherlock could begin to apologise, John attacked, more teeth than lips against Sherlock’s mouth, hands crushing into his curls.

Sherlock scarcely had time to respond--kissing, this is kissing--before John was pulling at his scarf, exposing the area threatened by the blade, using his grip on the detective’s hair to tug his head to the side and lave the area with his tongue.

The noise in Sherlock’s throat rose unbidden, high and embarrassing, at the unexpected rush of blood in his ears, in his groin. John groaned. “Shut up, how could you, he’d have killed you, how could you do that."

Sherlock swallowed around his name, John John John John, and lifted his hands tentatively to rest on John’s waist, feeling the contact ripple through his muscles. “How could you,” John demanded, “shut up, shut up. Say yes.”

“Yes,” Sherlock returned, against John's mouth.

He didn’t particularly remember the journey from the sitting room wall into his own bedroom; only that by the time John pushed him backwards onto the bed he had already lost his shirt and his shoes without knowing how. John’s hands were firm and callused and everywhere, and when he leaned down to suck a mark over the left side of Sherlock’s ribcage and started tugging at the zip on his trousers, Sherlock suddenly understood.

Oh. This was the question John had wanted an answer to. It was about sex. It was sex.

“God, yes,” he gasped, and John growled again and shoved Sherlock’s trousers and pants down in one swoop, freeing his erection. He didn’t even pause, didn’t hesitate for a single millisecond, only licked a stripe up Sherlock’s inner thigh and then slipped his mouth over the head of his cock. Sherlock writhed. No amount of theoretical knowledge and manual self-stimulation could have prepared him for the feeling of John’s tongue flickering over his glans, his slit, tracing down along the underside.

John pulled off as quickly as he'd begun, releasing Sherlock’s cock with a wet thwap as it landed heavily on his stomach. “Yes, fuck, shut up,” he panted, and finally began tearing his own clothes away. God, the bulge in his pants was obscene.

“Slick, do you, is there any,” John asked, pushing down the pants without ceremony and climbing onto the bed, cock hard and thick and flushed. Sherlock scrambled over for lubricant, a half-used but mostly forgotten bottle at the bottom of the drawer in his bedside table. As soon as he closed his hand around it, John was on him, flipping him onto his back and mouthing along his jaw and neck and back to his lips, caressing and holding, hot palms and smooth skin.

Sherlock was very much aware that for once, perhaps even for the very first time, he wasn’t keeping up. He didn’t have the practical knowledge--he barely had the theoretical knowledge--to even anticipate, much less respond. John was a hurricane; Sherlock was barely clinging to earth.

He didn’t expect the sudden slick fingers, massaging his perineum. He didn't expect them to slip back and circle his anus. Sherlock made another truly embarrassing noise as a distinct curl of pleasure unfolded within him and John took it as a cue to push a single fingertip inside. "Oh god," he breathed, and John pushed in further, gliding the fingertip along to find the sensitive gland inside. Sherlock had tried this before, on his own, but it had lacked the fire that washed over him now.

He could barely form a thought in his head, unable to keep track of anything except the slippery slide of one finger, then two, stretching and pushing. He'd never been so hard in his life; he'd never wanted anything so badly and he wasn't even sure what it was he craved.

He was full of John, who was groaning and whispering, desperately, “shut up, shut up, shut up, he’d have killed you,” into the crook of his neck.

“Please,” Sherlock gasped when he regained control of his vocal chords for a moment, and despite John’s admonishments to be quiet (was he even aware he was saying it?) it seemed to be what he was waiting for. He moved, pushing Sherlock's knees back to his chest and slinging his left leg over his shoulder. There was the briefest pause as John applied lubricant to himself, and then he pressed the head of his cock against Sherlock’s hole, rubbing it along the loosened rim.

“Oh god,” John said. He found the angle and pushed, pushed, and he was inside. “Oh god, oh Christ.”

“John, John, John--” He was afraid to say anything else. Sherlock’s hands fluttered, grasping at shoulders and neck and forearms and waist, unsure where to put them to ground himself against the feeling. It hurt, but it felt dimmed; burned a little at the stretch, maybe, but even with just the head of his cock inside John felt enormous and foreign and strange.

After a pause but before Sherlock was really used to the feeling, John rocked forward, just the littlest bit, sliding inside a tiny bit further. Then he did it again, and again, rocking in until he was fully seated and Sherlock was keening. “He would have killed you,” John gasped, half-frantic and half-angry, leaned over to capture Sherlock’s lips, licking into his mouth, and Sherlock wondered if it looked as circular as it felt, to have John in his mouth and his arse at the same time.

When John finally pulled nearly all the way out and thrust back, deep and long, Sherlock fell. Into oblivion, maybe. Into darkness, lit only by pinwheel fireworks and sparks of metallic flame.

The power of John’s hips was intoxicating, snapping forward, meeting Sherlock’s body with force. His hands, pinning Sherlock down at the hip and waist and shoulder and bicep, felt raw and primal. Time strung out and narrowed down to the base of his spine, to his cock trapped between their bodies, to the slap of skin against skin. He wanted--he needed--being filled repeatedly, nerve-endings lit up like Christmas, building and building, something had to give--

Then the angle changed, and the thrust changed into short and hard and now, and John finally-finally-finally wrapped a hand around Sherlock’s cock. Two strokes was all it took, and Sherlock's orgasm flooded him like a volcano, erupting over John's fingers. For a brief moment he couldn't breathe as John wrung his orgasm out of him, feeling more like relief than achievement.

Inside him, John throbbed--“Jesus, fuck, fuck,”--and stilled, throwing his head back, gulping down air, and Sherlock could feel it, could feel John coming where he was buried in Sherlock's arse.

After John had collapsed on the bed, after they both got their breath back, John cut off the questions beginning to rise in Sherlock's throat by rolling away and wiping a hand on the duvet. “Shut up, Sherlock,” he said, closing his eyes. “Go to sleep.”

Sherlock did not sleep. Instead he laid in bed and tried to commit everything to memory, waiting for John to wake up and explain some of the finer details he didn’t quite understand (including, why did it happen, and, what did it mean?)

*

When John woke up the next morning, that first morning, he looked over to find Sherlock watching him and frowned, like finding him there was unexpected and, even though it was Sherlock’s bed, a little unwelcome. “I’m not gay,” he said matter-of-factly.

The abrupt dismissal shriveled each and every question that had been formulating on the back of Sherlock's tongue. He shrugged, constructing disinterest like a wall between them. “Okay.”

John got out of bed.

*

After that first time, Sherlock assumed that would be the end of it. John didn’t try talk about it and certainly didn’t try to explain it. Sherlock thought they were going to pretend it hadn’t happened.

But then it happened again.

And then it kept happening.

It happened whenever they escaped danger by the skin of their necks. It happened whenever they were threatened, most frequently by various criminals but once by Sally Donovan, who had barked at Sherlock to “stop mucking with our evidence or I’ll ring the chief superintendent, see what good that does you.”

It happened every time they went to St Bart’s, where John always paused on the pavement, examining it as though he were expecting to find it bloodied.

It happened once after Sherlock stood up from the sofa and swayed, vision crawling away from him as his blood pressure dropped: the result of dehydration and too many skipped meals for a man in his mid-thirties. (“Eat this,” John had said, shoving an apple into his hand, and he had almost choked on a bite of it when John hollowed his cheeks around Sherlock’s cock.)

It happened again a week later when Sherlock made spaghetti carbonara for dinner. (“Is this what you were after?” John had muttered into his ear as he thrust into Sherlock’s arse, reaching around to tug on his cock, letting Sherlock shout out into the pillow beneath him. “Is this what you wanted?”)

It happened when John’s divorce was finalized, and it happened when he got the blank postcards from Russia, and Hong Kong, and then Thailand. It happened when Mycroft informed them the operative known as Mary Morstan-Watson had finally been captured and neutralised. It happened on what would have been the baby’s second birthday, had the baby ever been born.

The longer time went on, though, the less certain Sherlock became about why it was happening, and the more it seemed like it was happening simply because it could happen.

*

It went without saying, of course. That is, neither of them said anything about it, ever, and on it went.

*

Daylight. Warm. Muted grey light filtered in around the curtains--drizzling. There was a chill biting at his exposed fingertips and nose. Felt nice. It was unusually warm under the covers. Too warm.

John was in Sherlock’s bed again.

Sherlock was almost getting used to waking up with John. He always stayed after it happened, even though Sherlock had never actually invited him to. But then again, Sherlock hadn’t actually ever asked him to leave, either, so why shouldn’t John stay?

Because Sherlock hated it, that’s why.

He hated feeling like he couldn’t get up and walk away, hated the awkward idea of leaving John alone in his own bed. He hated waiting to fall asleep, lying silently next to each other, both aware the other was still awake but pretending not to be. He hated that after John fell asleep he always unconsciously crept a hand or an arm across the mattress to wrap around Sherlock’s arm or waist or thigh. He hated that John ran so hot, hated waking up sweating.

He hated when John woke up before him, because John waited, making sure that Sherlock knew when he was leaving, that Sherlock knew he stayed all night.

Most of all, he hated how casual John was about it, as though they were in some kind of relationship, as though it meant something when it didn’t.

John’s hand was curled around Sherlock’s hip, fingertips dangerously close to Sherlock’s groin, like he would be okay with it if Sherlock were to turn back toward him, using the rotation of his body to push John’s fingers over his cock in the light of day. He wouldn’t be okay with it at all. Sherlock didn’t have to run that experiment to know that John would snatch his hand back as soon as he realized what he was touching and flinch away as though Sherlock were made of fire.

Sherlock hated that he never asked John to leave, because when John stayed, he could imagine that John might wake up, and kiss him, and let his hand linger on Sherlock’s body. He could imagine that John might have stayed because he couldn’t bear to leave.

Foolish.

John wasn’t gay.

Sherlock slipped out from underneath John’s fingers, not trying terribly hard to be sneaky, not particularly caring whether he woke him up. He was getting up--it would be better if John did too.

As he was fishing a fresh pair of pants out of his drawer, he caught John watching him from the pillows, eyes half-open and sleepy. Good, he’d not be long and they could--

John smiled.

Sherlock stared. It was a soft, sleepy, pleased sort of smile, incongruous with John's typical surly morning demeanor.

He didn’t smile back. Instead he escaped into the bathroom, locking the door behind him. John had never once lay awake in his bed, curled under Sherlock’s blankets, and watched him in the mornings. John had never once smiled at him, not then, not the morning after.

Don’t, he thought, broadcasting the words fiercely into the next room where he could hear John getting up. Don’t do that.

Sherlock started the shower and got in, letting the hot water soothe his jumbled thoughts and sore muscles. He listened as John shuffled through the bedroom, no doubt trying to find enough items of yesterday’s clothing to be half-decent when he emerged, just in case Mrs Hudson or Mycroft were there.

Of course, he strongly suspected both Mrs Hudson and Mycroft were well aware of what he and John got up to anyway--Sherlock was not particularly quiet and Mycroft was particularly nosy--but John seemed to care about that sort of thing. John seemed to care quite a lot that no one else knew what went on between them. The thought strengthened his core a little.

John has obviously just gotten mixed up a bit about the whole thing, Sherlock reasoned. He would be used to smiling at his partners, trying to come off as gentle and trustworthy and kind the mornings after so they’d invite him back. It hardly mattered that John hadn’t had a partner other than Sherlock since Mary, who had left over a year ago, and it didn’t matter that it had been happening (secret, reckless, shameful) between them for nearly two months; old habits die hard.

*

At best, Sherlock knew, it was dysfunctional.

At worst, it was--John, taking Sherlock to bed again and again, month after month, forever mumbling, “shut up, shut up, shut up,” into his neck, never talking about it, never asking Sherlock what he wanted except for permission, “say it, say yes,” and taking, rough and hard and frantic, and afterwards, reminding Sherlock that whatever this was, he wasn’t gay.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t that.

And Sherlock, allowing it, letting John strip him down and crawl against him, thrusting mindlessly, thrusting back, wanting it, for letting John open him up and fill his body, overwhelm his mind, and saying yes, every time, and meaning it, for never asking, never directing, never protesting, instead memorizing the details of John’s face as he finished, hoping he wouldn’t stay, but never asking him to leave.

He didn’t want it to stop.

*

John didn’t always say it. I’m not gay. Not every time. But he said it often enough that Sherlock couldn’t forget, often enough that Sherlock couldn’t consider the idea that John might be in his bed because he wanted to be.

As it was, Sherlock didn’t actually know why John was there.

*

A smile.

By definition, it is a facial expression intended to portray pleasure, happiness, or amusement. Synonyms included grin, beam, look pleased, look amused, look fond.

Two months into it, whatever it was, John began smiling at him the mornings after. The first time, Sherlock dismissed it as an accident. The second time, he dismissed it because in all fairness, John was coming down with a bit of a cold and probably wasn’t thinking clearly. The third time, he spent three hours trying to think of a reason John might have repeated it, but by the fourth time, he had to accept that it was more likely than not that John was doing it knowingly and intentionally.

“Alright?” John asked one morning, instigating the first morning conversation while also displaying a brilliant ninth morning smile and unabashedly enjoying the nude view as Sherlock retrieved a fresh set of clothes.

Sherlock glared. He had always hated that John stayed; now John seemed to be gathering a new set of things to do after staying that Sherlock could hate. Smile. Watch. Converse. “Fine,” he said shortly, punctuating the full stop by slamming his wardrobe door shut.

The smile faded. “Are you?” John pressed, sounding concerned.

“Get up. We’re due at the Yard in half an hour.” Perhaps it was time to address the staying. Was three months in too late to put an end to it? If Sherlock stopped letting him stay, would John stop wanting it?

A great deal of the chemistry involved in sexual intercourse--oxytocin, vasopressin, dopamine--argued the importance of continued post-coital closeness in promoting affection and pair-bonding.

But neither Sherlock nor John was trying to promote affection or pair-bonding, so theoretically, whether or not John was allowed to stay shouldn’t effect whether or not John would want it to keep happening. Practically, however, Sherlock knew John was often unpredictable and irrational when it came to tradition and relationships. Although there was nothing traditional about their current convoluted relationship, so it really shouldn’t matter.

Sherlock finished getting dressed and stormed off, leaving John sitting in his bed with a confused expression. They were going to be late.

*

Sherlock didn’t initiate.

That was Sherlock’s only rule: he wouldn’t ask for it. He didn’t care about when, or where, or why, or even how, but he didn’t ask for it. He didn’t want to need it. He wanted to be above it.

John had rules, which they followed without discussion. They didn’t touch casually--no brushing up against each other in the small kitchen, no hands on shoulders, no sharing the sofa. It only ever happened in Sherlock’s bed; it only ever happened at night.

It wasn’t always penetrative. That wasn’t actually a rule. But John did seem to prefer it and Sherlock was inclined to oblige, even though they did not switch. The one time Sherlock had dropped his fingers from fondling John’s testicles mid-fellatio and ran them back to his anus, John had launched himself off the bed and pulled Sherlock up, crushing him back into the mattress. “No,” he’d said, and he’d held Sherlock down by the wrists until they’d both finished.

*

"I'm not gay," John said, sounding lost and troubled in the dark.

Sherlock rolled away. He was tired and sore and empty, sick to death of listening to John defend himself. He re-adjusted the pillow under his head. "I know."

Somehow he was the one that sounded cruel.

*

Sherlock should have seen this one coming all afternoon, really. He should have known as soon as he looked down at the body in the morgue and said, thoughtlessly disappointed, “Ugh, suicide. Dull.”

John dropped the file he’d been holding. “Sorry, sorry Molly.” She waved him off, crouching to gather the papers. “I’m sorry, did you say dull?

“Mmm. Yes. Mr Collins’ flat indicated there’d been a struggle.” He looked up toward the ceiling, thinking the scene back into his mind. “Clearly the side tables had been moved and everything knocked off, you saw it, the place was a mess. Single gunshot wound, shot to the side of the head at point blank range, and here we see on his own hand--his dominant hand, no less--the powder burns, residue, even blow-back, but the pattern is unusual, like it’s been rubbed off. Obviously he fired the shot himself, but he wasn’t found holding a gun. Possible he was forced, we’ll have to look for--and what’s this?” He leaned in, using his gloved fingers to pick up a small grey hair. “Was there a cat? John, was there a cat in that flat?”

John stared. “Dull. This man’s put a bullet through his head and you think that’s dull.”

“Sherlock,” Molly said from the floor, apparently trying to warn him off saying what he said next.

“Compared to the execution I thought I was investigating, yes, it’s dull. Call Lestrade, tell his incompetent team to look under the sofa for the so-called murder weapon--the cat likely knocked it out of his hand sometime after he died by licking the fingers, that’s what caused these patterns. Flat’s a mess, sure, but most of the debris can be explained by chasing a cat that doesn’t want to be caught and the rest can be attributed to a cat left to its own devices for the several days it took for his boss to phone the police. The same boss, actually, who reported paranoia and guessed Mr Collins had been justified, but instead it seems the paranoia was the result of severe depression, which you’d be able to confirm if you opened that medical record instead of dropping it all over the floor, do you need a hand, Molly?”

“No, got it,” Molly answered, standing. John looked at Sherlock for another several seconds, as though trying to decide what to say to him, before giving up, turning on his heel, and walking out.

Molly laid a hand on Sherlock’s elbow and shook her head. “Maybe suicide isn’t dull,” she said quietly, “when someone you love has done it.”

Sherlock snorted. That was ridiculous, because John didn’t know anyone who’d committed suicide except Sherlock and Sherlock’s suicide was a sham, and it should be obvious even to Molly that John did not love Sherlock, except perhaps in some vague filial way, no matter what their current habits might suggest (and anyway, Molly didn’t know about that).

Ignoring John’s pointed absence, Sherlock called Lestrade himself, and spent the afternoon back at the crime scene looking over the patterns in the mess as well as a grey and white cat with blood matted in the fur of his feet and around his nose. Grotesque.

*

By the time he got back to Baker Street, night had fallen, though all the windows of the flat were dark. Sherlock entered cautiously--just because the lights were off didn’t mean John wasn’t there, napping on the sofa or taking a shower, and if John were there, they were probably going to have a row.

John’s coat was still on the hook: home, somewhere. The sitting room was empty, save for a half-drunk cup of tea on the desk. So was the kitchen, and the shower wasn’t running. It was early, but Sherlock supposed if John were upset he probably had gone up to his room to have a strop.

Might as well go to bed himself, then. No point in sitting around to see if John was going to stay up there fuming on his own or if he was going to come down to fume at Sherlock. He brushed his teeth and splashed some cold water on his face before going into his room and clicking on the light.

John was sitting on his bed.

Sherlock blinked. “What are you doing here?”

John didn’t answer, just sat looking at his hands. He seemed very small, then. Usually he filled the space, he expanded and blotted out the light, even, until the only thing Sherlock could possibly see was John, but just then he seemed like almost nothing at all.

“I was very angry with you, for a long time,” John said finally, and Sherlock understood that John didn’t mean he was angry that day for a long time. He meant he was angry for a long time after Sherlock left. After the faked suicide. “I thought I was never going to forgive you for it. For killing yourself. For making me a part of you killing yourself. I thought I would hate you forever.”

Sherlock came further into the room, shedding his suit jacket and throwing it over the back of the chair before sitting to take off his shoes. “I know,” he said, picking at his shoelaces. “You still hate me sometimes.”

John nodded. “Sometimes.”

They sat in silence for a moment, looking at one another. “Is that what this is about?” Sherlock asked, waving a hand to indicate the bed, to indicate everything that had been happening between them for the last four months.

“No,” John answered. “No. That’s the very last thing this is about.” And he clicked off the light.

In the dark, he disappeared, his dark jumper and denims fading into blackness, absorbing the remnants of light from the streetlamps outside. Sherlock felt like a beacon: pale blue shirt, pale white skin, and apparently John thought so too, because it didn’t take long for him to come over to stand between Sherlock’s knees, tilting Sherlock’s chin up to kiss him.

So very rarely did they do something as simple as kiss. It was such a little word, a small, innocent sort of word, that made the act seem clean, guiltless. They almost never did such a thing. Snogging, yes: a mouth-to-mouth precursor to something more, a promise made in tongues of something else to come. More frequently, it was closer to devouring one another--lips, yes, and tongues, but also teeth and hands and pulling and tugging and trying to be one inside the other.

This, though, this could only be described as kissing. John’s lips on his, chaste, just that small pressure, his fingers carding through Sherlock’s hair and mussing up the curls. Sherlock’s heart pounded in his chest, uncertain.

“Let me take you to bed,” John whispered. “Say yes.”

It was so easy to respond; it didn’t take any thought at all. He couldn’t imagine a situation in which the answer might change, even when things were different, or new, or strange. “Yes.”

Any minute now, any second, it was going to switch on. John would stop this slowness, this gentle sort of touching. He would take his hands from their places in Sherlock’s hair, on his jaw, and he would plough ahead, dragging Sherlock in the dust behind him.

“Come here,” John said instead, putting his hands on Sherlock’s elbows and guiding him to his feet. John’s hands were warm, leaving trails of heat behind where they traced over his shoulders, down his chest, before beginning to undo his buttons, still kissing, only just then dipping his tongue between Sherlock’s lips to taste inside.

Even the now-familiar twist of Sherlock’s lower abdomen seemed to be decelerated, curling around itself lazily as his cock began to respond. He was grasping at straws, trying to find the analogies between this kind of slow burn and everything in the past several months, which had been frenzied and ruthless. It felt like drowning, more, instead of burning.

Sherlock thought if he moaned now it would come out like a whimper, pained and confused, and resolutely kept his noises locked in his throat.

John didn’t seem to notice, though, if Sherlock was floundering. He steadily removed Sherlock’s shirt and moved to his belt, fumbling with the latch a little as he tried to take it off one-handed, using the other to stroke Sherlock through his trousers.

“Do you know,” John mumbled into his throat, “do you know, when you left, what that was like? It was like implosion. Like caving in. I thought I should’ve been able to stop you.”

“John, John. It was never--mmm--it was never like that. It wasn’t like that.” Sherlock pulled John’s shirt out of his denims and set to work immediately on the rest, helping John out of his clothes.

“I know, you said. But that doesn’t mean, that doesn’t stop the way it felt. It doesn’t go away just because you came back.” John finally succeeded with the belt and moved on to the buttons and zip. Sherlock stumbled as John abruptly pushed his trousers down with his pants, both garments catching on Sherlock’s knees and throwing his balance. John caught him around the waist, steadying him before carefully licking across one of his nipples.

“Off,” Sherlock tried to say, fumbling at the shirt John was wearing. He chuckled, and stepped aside to finish stripping down and then helped Sherlock out of his remaining clothes. John’s rough hands slid across his hips and around, kneading his buttocks and pulling their bodies close.

“I should’ve been able to stop you,” he repeated, and Sherlock didn’t know what to say, so instead he pushed him toward the bed, gently. It seemed like gentle was happening. Might simply continue happening.

Hands slipped over the curves and planes of bodies. Tongues left wet trails over skin. Sherlock felt his arousal simmering, like a pot of water left with the heat turned low, deep and unrelenting, yet cautious. John touched him like he were breakable, like he might crumble under his hands.

Stop it, Sherlock thought, suddenly, unease rising in his belly as John laid soft kisses in a row down his collarbone. What are you doing?

Before Sherlock could settle his nerves, John produced the bottle of lubricant--a new bottle, the first already gone and replaced and replaced again--and drizzled a good amount over his fingers. He bent to kiss Sherlock again and slid his fingers over Sherlock’s cock, briefly, before pausing to stroke his testicles, then slipped back. “Say yes,” John breathed into Sherlock’s mouth, rubbing a fingertip over the furled muscle.

Sherlock hesitated.

I could say no. He’d stop if I said no.

John looked up to catch his eye and, not getting a response, began to sit back.

The panic in Sherlock’s belly lurched. No, they had to finish this, to change this back into what it usually was. “Yes, please, oh god yes,” he managed, and John reached for him again, sinking a finger inside as he kissed the words out of his mouth.

He’d stop if I said no.

But Sherlock didn’t say anything, and after a few moments John pushed in a second finger, searching momentarily for Sherlock’s prostate--sparks and fuse and flame--before sliding and twisting them, loosening the muscles. He could feel John against his hip, hard and hot, and Sherlock reached for him, relaxing with the heft of him in his palm.

John’s cock, such a natural, routine-feeling thing, was leaking at the tip, and Sherlock gave it a small squeeze and ran his fingers lightly down to the base. Beside him, John shuddered, and inside, his fingers twitched, so he did it again, and in retaliation John added a third finger to the group stretching his hole.

Too much, that--Sherlock’s back arched as he lost his grip on John and a whine began building in his throat even as he tried to swallow it away.

“Shh, shush.” John moved to cover Sherlock’s body with his own, slipping his fingers out, leaving Sherlock both anxious and bereft and he closed his eyes, hiding the disquiet. Achingly empty, yet apprehensive: What is this, he thought wildly. What is happening here?

The line was all blurring in his head, the very careful line he’d drawn, the one that made him hate that John stayed the night because of all the things it didn’t mean. To do it this way, without John being fierce and stormy, almost vicious, strong and brutal against him, felt too much like the things they didn’t have between them.

Oxytocin. Vasopressin. Pair-bonding.

“Shh, shut up,” John said, sliding one arm under Sherlock’s waist and using the other align his cockhead to Sherlock’s loosened hole. John paused. “Look at me.”

Sherlock did. John was looking down at him, almost scrutinizing, but when their eyes met his expression softened, and he eased himself inside. For a moment he was still, waiting for Sherlock to get used to the feel of him; when he finally pulled back and gave the first thrust, he was, even then, tender and soothing, and Sherlock wanted desperately for it to stop, and to keep going, and to never, ever end.

John kept the rhythm smooth, and slow, letting the crest build and ebb--the pull of the moon at the tides. Sherlock clutched at him, digging his fingernails in wherever he could reach, hoping to spur John on into the more familiar rush, but John only rolled his hips at the same even pace, leaving Sherlock adrift in the sensation, gasping for air or release.

John was never like this in bed and it was reverence, soft eyes under heavy lids, gleaming like starlight in the darkness, and it was damnation, the twisting echo of the last few months in every move, written over with words like affection and tenderness and sentiment.

“John,” he finally gasped, “please,” and even he knew it sounded more like help me than fuck me, but John shifted back and the movement changed to harder, shorter thrusts, right against Sherlock’s prostate, brushing Sherlock's hand off his own cock to fist him roughly. This, at least, was familiar; John always wanted Sherlock to finish in his hand. The orgasm had previously been building slowly at the base of his spine, but now it rushed forward, a sudden tidal wave, and Sherlock came jerking and crying out, and John followed, grimacing, as if in pain.

Pain. Yes, it hurt, didn’t it? The orgasm was its own explosion but more than that, John was heavy on top of him and warm and gentle and careful, and it hurt, that did. Mockingly tentative, ironically tender: a farce.

When John finally stopped shaking, he withdrew but instead of moving away he crawled further up Sherlock's body, pressing their foreheads together and letting their panting breaths mingle. He kissed him, gentle and lingering. "Next time, I'll be able to stop you," he whispered, tipping to the side and settling next to Sherlock without giving him a chance to respond. John slid his hand over Sherlock's stomach, as though the mess did not bother him at all.

John kissed his shoulder.

Sherlock felt sick.

*

When he woke, John was curled around him, the whole of his arm slung across Sherlock's filthy stomach.

Okay. Right. John was going to wake up any minute and wrench his arm back. He would almost certainly say it, “I’m not gay,” to re-establish the correct parameters.

Although. Maybe it was time for Sherlock to be the one establishing parameters. John apparently couldn’t be trusted with them, and Sherlock couldn’t be trusted with himself if John didn’t respect the boundaries.

Behind him, John made a snuffling noise and nuzzled at his shoulder.

No, Sherlock thought, not anymore. He slipped out from under John's arm.

*

Sherlock did not move from the sofa all day. Lestrade did not text. Mycroft did not call. Mrs Hudson fluttered in and out, but she was easy to ignore and if she said anything important, she’d have to repeat it later.

John did not appear bothered, as if he didn’t know there was anything the matter. He left Sherlock alone and instead read the paper, washed some dishes, then ran some errands, and finally, as night set in, turned on the telly to some romantic comedy drivel.

Don’t do that, Sherlock thought, watching the actors smile broadly through their movie-magic-moment kiss. Don’t kiss me like that. Don’t smile at me like that. Don’t take care of me like that.

What he said, four months too late, was, “You never asked if I was clean.”

John didn't look at him, but Sherlock could see the flare of his muscles tensing in surprise. “No,” he agreed slowly. “I didn’t.”

“Well, I am,” Sherlock informed him, harsh and sarcastic. “I’m sure you’ve figured that out by now.”

John cleared his throat. “Yeah, I--uh. I had a test done.”

Sherlock had not known that. He should have known that. Why didn’t he know that? “When?”

“Right after the first.” He shrugged. “Came back clean.” He didn't sound particularly regretful of having engaged in some spectacularly unsafe sex with a recovering drug addict.

“Were you going to tell me?”

John licked his lips: nervous tell. “Uh, no, I guess I wasn’t,” he answered. “It didn’t seem like it mattered, being that it was clean.”

Sherlock pushed himself to sit up, staring incredulously across the room. “There are infections the results don’t show up, if it's in an incubation period. I could’ve been with other people since then, I could’ve been using again. Pretty irresponsible for a doctor. Don’t you think I’d have liked to know?”

John sighed an exasperated sigh, as if Sherlock were being rude and childish. “Sherlock, I think I’d have noticed if you were doing any of it. If you cared so much you’d have had one done yourself, and that alone tells me you haven’t been doing drugs or having sex with other people. So yeah, I figured you weren’t and it was fine.” He went back to the telly.

Of course, if Sherlock really didn’t want John to know he was getting up to something behind John’s back, John wouldn’t have noticed at all, but he didn’t argue the point. Instead, he thought about the things he’d already managed to hide and said, “you’re right, I wasn’t.”

“I know, I just said--”

“Never had before.”

There was a long pause and John turned the telly off. “What do you mean?” he asked, sounding a bit strangled. “Never had what before?”

“Hm? Never had done. Sex, I mean.” John looked stricken at this. Sherlock felt very highly amused deep in his chest, in a way that hurt a little bit.

“You’d never had sex before me?”

“Nope,” he said, popping the p dramatically. “Thought you must’ve known that. Honestly, I thought you liked it, that I’d not had anyone but you.” Sherlock smirked. He knew very well John did not think that because he knew very well that John had not known any such thing. Mycroft was too subtle.

John stood and took a step toward the sofa, clenching his left fist before shaking it out. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Sherlock laughed. He could tell this conversation was hurting John, and it felt like vindication. It was revenge for changing the pattern, making it different last night, for turning his stomach with want, not for the fuck, but for the sentiment. “Because all you ever say is shut up.

John made a movement not unlike stumbling while standing still. “You said yes. You say yes every time.”

“I did,” he acknowledged. “I always do. Would it have made a difference? If I had told you?”

John looked unsure and not a little sick to his stomach. “Yes. I don't know. I wouldn't have done it, okay? I don't think I could have.”

“Really? I was consenting; I know what sexual intercourse entails. I don’t see how my level of experience makes a difference to--"

“Of course it makes a difference,” he snapped, his voice starting to raise. Angry, then. Sherlock had suspected he would be. It felt like winning. “I trusted you to say if you didn’t like something, or if you didn’t want something, or if something wasn't going right, and I didn’t think--I didn’t think you would--you’d think by now I’d know better than to trust you with something like this. And now it’s my fault again, isn’t it, and this isn’t even what I wanted!” He ran a hand over his face and turned half away. Sherlock sat back against the sofa, surprised, and John began pacing the sitting room, suddenly breathless. “This whole thing, the last couple of months, this isn’t what I wanted.”

Something hot unfurled in Sherlock’s chest, something that had been festering since that very first morning. It rose up his throat, gagging him briefly before spilling out of his mouth in barbed words. “No, of course it wasn’t, because you’re not gay and let’s be honest, the last four months have been very gay of you, what with all the fucking me up the arse.

“Shut up, just shut up, that’s not it at all--”

“Stop telling me to shut up!

It was as if Sherlock had cut a cord that was tying them together. Maybe he had. John felt very far away, standing in the middle of the sitting room, chest heaving, fingers clenching and unclenching. His eyes slipped closed. Sherlock rose from the sofa and navigated around the coffee table. “For months, I’ve been following your lead, doing this your way,” he said, voice low and dark and dangerous. “Now we’re going to do it my way. You’re not gay. Okay. So we’re not doing this anymore. No more touching, no more snogging, no more fucking.”

He spit the word across the sitting room. John flinched visibly and it was hateful, that he would shy away from it. That’s what they’d been doing, that’s what it was. Fucking. And last night, last night hadn’t been fucking, it had been something different, and Sherlock wanted to be well clear of it.

“We’re going to go back to not talking about it and pretending it didn’t happen, and it won’t happen again," he said with finality. He crossed his arms to indicate how very done he was with this conversation. "Now, we’ve got that sorted, so let’s have some tea.”

John took a shaky breath and nodded, then shook his head. “No, sorry.” His voice was funny, like he was trying to talk around something in his throat. “I can’t. I’ve messed this up so badly, Sherlock, and I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I love you.”

I love you.

When John looked up, his eyes were shiny and red. I love you. Sherlock’s skeleton was splintering into a million pieces, puncturing his lungs and heart and liver. Surely, at any moment, he was going to turn into sludge on the floor.

He shook himself, gathering himself together to be able to walk away before he couldn't. “Oh, for god’s sake. Don’t be an idiot,” Sherlock sneered, and he turned straight around and stalked off to his bedroom, locking the door behind him.

*

Sherlock went immediately to bed, and immediately regretted it--the sheets still smelled like John, so he got up and stripped it and laid down again on the bare mattress. The whole thing was ridiculous. Bloody ridiculous.

He shouldn’t have picked that fight. God, why, why did he pick that fight?

But it would be fine. He’d go to sleep, and John would too, and in the morning they’d not talk about it and go back to pretending none of it happened, it hadn’t happened, and John hadn’t said that.

They’d just get up in the morning and go on as they always had, with tea and toast and perhaps Lestrade would call. Or maybe Molly would have an interesting body. He could check on his homeless network, if nothing else. John would order out for dinner, probably Chinese, god, they ate a lot of Chinese, and then that episode of Top Gear that John had wanted to see but missed the first time because of that crime scene in Camden was going to be on. It would be a normal sort of day and the day after would be too, and that would be it.

Everything would be normal and it would be fine and John hadn’t said that.

Why would John say that, though? It obviously wasn’t true. He had gone to great lengths, in fact, to ensure Sherlock knew it wasn’t true: not gay, not gay, not gay.

Of course, John didn’t actually ever say he was straight, either, but given the context, it didn’t need saying. If John were bisexual, presumably he wouldn’t need to defend his sexuality against sex with Sherlock. Instead, John had repeatedly reaffirmed the idea that he was not romantically or sexually attracted to those of the same sex.

Well, he was at least marginally sexually attracted to at least one person of the same sex, but that was irrelevant. Hardly relevant. No longer relevant.

I love you.

Was that love? Being rough and fierce with one another, never touching outside of bed, never talking about it, pretending it weren’t happening, hiding it from everyone else? Making sure one’s partner knew, explicitly, that it would be impossible to have feelings for them? So many of the crime scenes he frequented were built on notions of love, painted with blood in the name of love. Violence. Fear. Confusion. Misery.

Last night, it had been different--like light. Brilliance. Radiant. When John had touched him it had felt incandescent; when John had kissed him it had felt luminous. Usually the fires John lit in him burned dark and savage, but last night it had been more like the light in a church when all the candles were lit: reverence and devotion.

It had felt the way Sherlock sometimes felt when he looked over and the sun had caught in the gold and silver strands of John’s hair, or when he looked behind him for help and John was already there, or when John looked up at him from where he was kneeling beside a body and grinned, proud and confident as he relayed information in confirmation of Sherlock's theories.

Sherlock rolled over onto his belly, burying his face into the mattress and yelling out. No words, just noise. This was ludicrous; why was he being so stupid?

Reverence. Devotion.

Tenderness.

I love you.

*

Sherlock wanted: kisses on his temple in the morning during the making of tea, a thumb caressing his ankle where it laid across a lap on the other end of the sofa, falling asleep in the same bed curled around one another and whispering about their lists of suspects and groceries, laughing against each other, watery grins and are you alright? after the danger passed.

Sherlock wanted: slick bodies pressed together in the shower, hands creeping up under jumpers, deft fingers stripping off socks and belts, hot tongues soft at the creases of thighs, laughing into each other’s mouths, struggling to be quick and quiet in darkened alleys and public restrooms, hot, hard cocks sliding against each other, sliding into him.

Sherlock wanted: for what John said to be true.

Sherlock wanted: for no one to ever know he wanted anything at all.

*

The next morning, John was gone.

Sherlock knew without even having to emerge from his bedroom: the flat was cold and empty and vast, without John to fill it up. The air was different. The light was different.

But in the bathroom his toothbrush was still standing at attention next to the sink and in the kitchen his favourite mug was set out next to the kettle and upstairs his overnight bag was still stuffed under his bed, so Sherlock made a cup of tea and threw himself onto the sofa to clear his mind out. He couldn’t delete John in his entirety, no. Not practical. But perhaps he could delete some (all?) of the last several months. He closed his eyes and concentrated.

Ugh, forget it. Sherlock couldn’t even delete which brand of frozen meatballs John preferred (Sainsbury’s). He’d never be able to delete the touch-taste-feel-smell-sound of him. Or, for that matter, the resonating declaration, stapled to the end of the argument, hanging on the back of an apology: I love you.

The door opened, surprising him out of deep thought, and John stepped inside, coat half-off his shoulders already. “Oh,” he said, “I didn’t realise you’d be up already.”

Sherlock glanced at the clock on the desk to hide his relief at John, gone but now home. Not yet half past seven. “I couldn’t sleep.” He peered up, letting the question write itself across his face.

John read it right off him like he were a page in the newspaper: effortlessly. Sherlock wondered what that might say about them. “We were out of tea, I just went over to Tesco Express.” He held up a grocery bag in demonstration. “Are you, er, alright?”

Heaving himself up to a sitting position, Sherlock looked carefully over the picture John presented: cheeks turned red and hair tousled by the wind outside, casual trousers and shirt but both mussed along the usually neat creases, left shoulder held half an inch shorter than the right. Properly upset, didn’t sleep well, not moving around easily.

“Yes,” he answered cautiously.

“Cup of tea, then?” John offered, turning into the kitchen and busying himself with the kettle. “Anything on today?” His voice sounded like there was something caught in his throat.

This was awful. Just horrible. Could they really just go on, as if it had never happened? It was awkward and strained and perfectly wretched. No, he couldn’t do it. It wasn’t worth it. Not now, not anymore, not when John had said that.

Sherlock made his own voice deep and even. John could read a question off his face. Could he read intention, resolution, determination, in Sherlock's voice? “Stop.”

John’s breath caught in his throat before expelling it shakily. Yes, he could read it. “Might go down to the clinic and catch up on some paperwork, do a proper run to Sainsbury’s, but really I’m feeling Chinese tonight, what do you think? Too early to say?”

“John. Stop.”

The kettle clattered against the sink. “Damn it, Sherlock, I’m trying here.”

“Trying to what?” Sherlock demanded, springing off the sofa and barging into the kitchen after him. “Is this really what you want, to just pretend it never happened?”

“That’s what you said, that's what you wanted,” John pointed out, without turning to face him.

“Sod what I said. What do you want? What do you want, John?”

John sighed, letting all the fight out of him with it, and braced himself on the worktop. He hung his head for a moment, letting the quiet draw out between them before he started to speak. “I wasn’t really ready, you know. I hadn’t finished working it out properly, but I couldn’t stop myself. That was the case with the kidnapper, got you by the throat with that knife? And he would have killed you. I don’t know, I guess I just thought it was now or never.

There was something very big and very prickly in Sherlock’s chest. Yes, Sherlock knew what it was to not have been ready that first time. He knew what it was like to think now or never.

“I want to fix it,” John continued as he turned around to look at Sherlock. He looked afraid. Sherlock felt afraid. “I want to go back, yeah, to that first night, and do it properly. I want to go back to that first morning and I want to have said, yeah, all right, I love you, and these last couple of months we could have been happy, or something, and instead it’s been all wrong. I tried to do it right, a few times, but it wasn’t--you didn’t--I’d already messed it up.”

All the air had gone out of the flat. Possibly, Sherlock was going to vomit if he didn’t move, or maybe scream. He strode forward instead, trapping John against the worktop. “You--you said that wasn’t possible. You’re not gay. You’ve always said that.”

John lifted his hands tentatively, as if he wanted to grab onto him but couldn’t manage it. “Yes. I said that. It’s not true. It is, but it’s not, I mean. Christ, Sherlock, I’m forty-three years old, just now trying to figure out whether it meant anything that my first crush was on James Bond instead of the girl! I watched gay porn for the first time some three weeks ago! And I liked it, I got off to it!”

John stopped himself and visibly tried to re-collect his thoughts, his hands still hovering between them. “The thing is. I wanted to wait until I had it all figured out. But that case, with the knife, he threatened to kill you, and I couldn’t wait any longer. So I thought if I did it like it didn’t matter, it wouldn’t until I was ready for it.”

Sherlock stared at him, searching his face. Yesterday’s stubble, the lines in his forehead, the downturn of his thin lips. His downcast eyes, anguished and honest and exposed. Every bit of John was so terribly, achingly familiar.

“My god, you’re an idiot,” he said quietly. “Of course it mattered.”

“I know. I know, I’m--”

Sherlock kissed him.

John sucked in a breath, surprised. Sherlock would like to kiss him this way every morning, soft and affectionate and a little domestic. It seemed that just because he hadn’t spent the last four months kissing John this way, it shouldn’t mean he couldn’t start now.

“Good morning,” Sherlock said as he pulled away, finally catching John’s hands in his. “Are you ready now?

It was so clear, so obvious. John didn’t regret that it had happened, he regretted the way it happened. Sherlock himself didn’t hate that it happened--he hated that certain things didn’t happen. The solution was simple: do it a different way.

“Are you serious? John asked, incredulous. He tried to pull his hands away, but Sherlock only tightened his grip. “After all that, after everything I’ve got wrong, after everything I’ve said, you’re just going to forgive me and say, what, start over?”

Sherlock nodded. He was strangely confident: he knew, he knew, he knew. John had said it, and he had said in the way that meant it was true and it hurt, and it hurt because it was true and because he didn’t even want for it to not be true. And Sherlock knew without doubt. “After everything you’ve said, John, I think it’s best if we give it one more shot, don’t you?”

“After everything I’ve--oh.” John flushed with realisation, from his neck through his cheeks and to the tips of his ears.

Sherlock stepped forward again into John’s personal space, pressing their thighs and chests together and looking him directly in the eye. He'd spent far too much time avoiding looking into John's eyes because all he could see was cobalt shot through with gold, and that was too romantic for the last few months. “Good morning. We’re both idiots. I should like to start over with you, but this time without all the dramatics. I’m sorry. I love you, too. Say yes.”

John's lips trembled and for a split second, Sherlock thought he was going to say no. Instead, he very quietly protested, "It isn't that easy, Sherlock. What we've been doing, it's not--it wasn't--"

"I know. Say yes anyway." John had stopped trying to pull away. His breath was hot on Sherlock's cheek, and Sherlock nudged at John's cheekbone with his nose. He wanted to kiss him. He wanted to take him to bed. He wanted to curl against him on the sofa until the very coldest parts of him were warm.

Pressed up against him, John held himself still. Sherlock slipped his hand around his wrist to try to take his pulse, and John let him: elevated, but not racing. John turned his face up, speaking against Sherlock's jaw. "Okay. I have been an absolute coward, Sherlock. A good man, a better man, would say no, and hope to God you'd find someone who could only ever do right by you. But I'm a bloody selfish bastard and I haven't got it in me. Yes, all right? Yes."

Relief stuttered through Sherlock's gut--despite his confidence in John's answer, confidence was not certainty and there was always the possibility of being wrong. But here John was, hair honeyed in the morning light streaming in through the windows, saying yes.

"Oh, thank god," he said, and when John surged forward and kissed him he could feel the corners of John's mouth tilting up to grin against his lips, an echo of the morning smiles that had once so disconcerted him.

He had spent hours trying to deduce why John would do such a thing as to smile at him in the mornings. Now the answer was utterly clear: because it mattered.

Because he could only get to Sherlock's bed by giving in to desperate, frantic need. Because Sherlock couldn't bear to ask him to leave. Because when John woke up next to him, they each could taste the burning suggestion of the greater, deeper thing they each wanted but were too afraid to reach for.

Sherlock was not certain of very many things where John Watson was concerned, but he was certain of one: if he could wake up next to John and give him back that smile, the rest would follow.