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Nocturne

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Nocturne

 

Nocturne: a work of art dealing with evening or night, especially: a dreamy, pensive composition.

***

It starts with an event that takes John completely by surprise.

They’re at a crime scene, or running away from one at any rate, pursuing their suspect’s accomplice on foot when the suspect himself jumps out from a side alley behind Sherlock but just ahead of John. Before John can even shout a warning, the man brandishes what looks like an extension cord and lashes it over Sherlock’s back, twice.

It’s a hot day in July and Sherlock is only wearing a dress shirt, the sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and the cord cuts directly through the material. That would be painful enough, but Sherlock goes completely rigid and makes a sound that goes straight to John’s heart, somehow. He’s never heard Sherlock make a sound like that before, the cry torn from his throat. Sherlock staggers to his knees and by then, in the three seconds that it’s all happened, John’s caught up and leapt at their suspect, tackling him to the dirty pavement with a shout.

He wrestles the man’s hands behind his back and has them secured with a zip tie after a brief, sweaty tussle. “Stop it!” he snarls, digging a knee into the man’s spine, but he’s distracted by Sherlock, who is bent over on his hands and knees. “Are you all right?” he asks, out of breath and worried.

Sherlock doesn’t answer. His shirt is sliced open where the electrical cord hit, two long lines across his skin already oozing blood. He’s breathing hard, his eyes closed, back shuddering.

John looks around and sees Lestrade and Donovan jogging toward them from the other end of the alley where they probably left the cruiser. Lestrade frowns worriedly, nodding in Sherlock’s direction, but John shakes his head in warning. “Where’s Brooks?” he asks, meaning the accomplice.

“Hallsey nabbed him,” Donovan tells him. She jerks her chin toward Sherlock. “What’s going on?”

“Leave it,” John says sharply. Trust Donovan to ignore his cue like that. “Take this one. We’re going home.”

Lestrade glances at Donovan, who rolls her eyes and shrugs. Sherlock hasn’t said anything, but his breathing has got worse, ragged and shuddering. John’s never seen him react like this to anything, ever. Usually he acts as though he can’t even feel the pain when he gets hurt at crime scenes – barbed wire slicing through his expensive trousers, pocket knives stabbing him shallowly. He even got winged in the upper arm once and shrugged it off, only letting John do a makeshift bandage and insisting the proper job wait until after they’d gone for Chinese. “Okay,” Lestrade says, evidently deciding not to question this. “Got him, Donovan?”

She heaves a sigh, but goes to collect him from John, all of them ignoring the suspect’s epithets. John waits until they’ve gone with barely-concealed impatience, then goes around Sherlock and drops into a crouch in front of him. “Hey. You okay?” he asks, trying to hide how worried he feels by Sherlock’s uncharacteristic reaction.

Sherlock’s head is dropped forward and he seems to be struggling to breathe at all. He’s breathing in shallow, uneven gasps and can’t seem to answer.

John wants to touch him, but there are about a thousand reasons why he shouldn’t. “That looks painful as hell,” he says, not wanting to pester Sherlock about not responding, but hopefully calm him down, talk normally, reassure him of his presence. “Should we go home and let me take a look, maybe?” He waits, but Sherlock still isn’t speaking. John recalibrates. This is apparently worse than he thought. “Hey,” he says, softer now. “It’s going to be okay. Just keep breathing, okay? Nice and slow. Four counts in, four counts out. I’ll count. Try to breathe with me, all right? One, two, three, four. Hold. And out: one, two, three, four. Again: one, two, three, four. Hold. And out: one, two, three, four. Keep going.” He carries on, talking Sherlock through it, not touching him, but close, trying to just be there with him and not force anything, push for an explanation for his reaction. It works: Sherlock’s breathing gradually regulates itself. Was it a panic attack, then? John shakes his head internally. It doesn’t really seem like Sherlock. Was it just that the attack came out of the blue like that, gave him a bit of a shock? Normally Sherlock’s got nerves of steel, so it does make him wonder. “Better?” John asks. Sherlock nods, his face still down toward the pavement, but at least it’s a response. “Good,” John says, keeping his voice light and brisk. “Come on. Let’s get you home.”

He holds out his hand and Sherlock actually takes it and lets John help him to his feet.

“Come on,” John says again. This isn’t the time or place for questions. He releases Sherlock’s hand but stays close, careful not to touch him in any other way that might cause him pain or retrigger the panic, and gets him to the end of the alley. Lestrade and his crew have gone. John looks around and raises his arm for a taxi, and by some small miracle, the first one he sees actually slows at the kerb in front of them. “Just lean forward,” he advises Sherlock as Sherlock climbs mutely into the backseat. “It shouldn’t be too long. 221 Baker Street, please,” he tells the driver, and notes with worry the way Sherlock winces as the car moves.

They’re not far away and the cab stops at their front door five minutes later. John pays. “Just wait. I’ll come round and get your door,” he says.

“I’m fine,” Sherlock says woodenly, reaching for it himself.

It’s the first time he’s spoken since the alley, and this alone is a small relief. “Sure?” John asks, but Sherlock is already getting out of the cab.

They get inside and John thinks again with relief that Mrs Hudson’s still got Rosie and that it’s not too late yet. She should still be good for awhile. It’s only half-past six. He wants to follow Sherlock up to subtly take a look at his back in advance, but Sherlock gestures, his mouth set in a way that John already knows means he’ll only dig in his heels if John argues, so he goes up first. He gets himself into the sitting room and politely steps back to wait for Sherlock, who is following slower than usual. He gets just inside the flat and stops, seeming a bit lost, so John takes over again.

“Come on. Into the loo,” he says briskly. “Let’s get that washed and taken care of, yeah?”

Sherlock doesn’t answer this, apparently relapsing into a sort of numb silence, but he turns and makes his way down the corridor, pausing only long enough to step out of his shoes, his fingers working at the buttons of his cuffs. He’s already shrugging gingerly out of the torn shirt as John gets into the loo, turning to face the shower rather than either John or the mirror, his head bent forward. “Just sterilise it, if you would,” he says, his voice somewhat muffled.

John pauses, then decides to close the door behind them, just to make the space feel safer. He’s not sure if that makes sense, but it feels right. “Okay,” he says, and it comes out sounding dubious. “I should probably dress it, too, depending… mind if I give it a bit of a clean and take a look?”

Sherlock’s left shoulder twitches in a shrug. “I suppose.”

John accepts this. He busies himself by running the hot tap and crouching to get his kit out from under the sink for some alcohol, a roll of gauze, and some sturdy medical tape. Next, he wets a flannel, then gives his entire attention to the length of Sherlock’s back. The blood from the cord slashes has dripped, drying in thick, dark tracks, but the cuts themselves are still oozing bright red blood. The damage is worst where the plug end hit. The cuts are the deepest there, the skin jagged and torn. “Just keep nice and still,” John advises, and pats as gently as he can. He’s bracing himself not for the fact that the alcohol will sting Sherlock, but for another round of panic, he realises, and forces himself to relax. The panic doesn’t resurface, however; Sherlock inhales a bit sharply, but apart from that he just holds himself still. Too still, in fact. There’s tension in every line of his body, but John supposes that he must be in pain. He dabs carefully at the oozing cuts, trying to clean away enough of the blood to see just how deep they go. It’s not as bad as it could be, he sees, though the deeper wounds where the plug tore into Sherlock’s back are considerably uglier. John rinses the flannel and starts again. A healthy bit of bleeding of the wounds is good for preventing infection, and the mild heat of the flannel could help with the pain, too. But then he sees something else and his hand stills mid-air. “Sherlock…”

Sherlock doesn’t respond, his face dropping forward again.

This doesn’t feel like a good sign, but John decides to persist anyway. “You’ve… got other scars here,” he says quietly.

Sherlock doesn’t deny it. He doesn’t say anything at all, and the silence in the loo grows heavy between them.

Suddenly his reaction in the alley makes a lot more sense. John stands there behind him, his hand still hovering over Sherlock’s back, holding the balled up flannel as his brain makes some rapid calculations. He’s seen Sherlock’s bare back any number of times before – but when was the last time? In fact, he saw a good bit of Sherlock’s chest and torso after Mary’s shot, too – but did he ever see his back, then? He doesn’t think he did. And maybe that’s because Sherlock deliberately engineered it to be that way. John takes a deep breath, wanting to ask but not sure how to.

“Just leave it,” Sherlock says, his voice muffled, the words clipped. “Don’t – just finish cleaning it or whatever else you wanted to do.”

John swallows and nods, aware that Sherlock can’t see him. “Yeah. Okay.” His voice comes out half a whisper. He goes back to cleaning the cuts, but his mind won’t stop. It must have happened when Sherlock was away, then. Someone, somewhere, did this to him: whipped him, maybe? The lines are plainly visible in the direct light of the loo, long and faintly silvery, raking the length of Sherlock’s back in any number of stripes. Thirteen or fourteen, he thinks. They might not even be visible in a dimmer room, but Sherlock has clearly kept him from noticing the scars before. He just wasn’t perceptive enough to even notice his attention being manoeuvred away like that – Sherlock is far too skillful when it comes to navigating matters that way, and this is obviously something he feels extremely private about. John swallows down his curiosity and his concern both, though the latter is even greater than it was when they were in the alley. Was that a trauma response, then? Related to whatever happened that made these scars? John bites back his questions and silently finishes cleaning and dressing the wounds from the electrical cord, placing the gauze and tape as deftly as he can. When he’s done, he clears his throat. “All right,” he says, to let Sherlock know he’s finished. “I’ll just – clean up in here. Er – are you hungry at all?” It’s a bit of a lame gambit, but food is traditionally one of their go-to solutions for nearly anything, but particularly after a case.

It doesn’t work this time. “No,” Sherlock says. He turns and goes into his bedroom without another word, closing the door from the loo firmly behind him.

Message received, loud and clear, John thinks. He clears away the little threads that always end up escaping when one cuts gauze, puts his kit away, and washes his hands. That done, he goes back into the main part of the flat. He checks the time. It’s a little before seven. Rosie is still down at Mrs Hudson’s. He’s got time to make himself something to eat before going down to collect her and put her to bed. The contents of the fridge don’t particularly suggest anything, but he doesn’t want to order in without Sherlock. If he were to order for both of them, it might seem ridiculous and a waste of food when Sherlock plainly said he wasn’t hungry. At the same time, if he only ordered for himself and then Sherlock smelled it and decided he was interested in eating, after all, it would seem both insensitive and cruel that John didn’t get him anything, given Sherlock’s trauma-inducing injury, or whatever it was. He hems and haws for a few minutes, then decides to just make himself a grilled cheese with a big salad on the side. They’ve got to eat the romaine before it wilts, anyway. If Sherlock gets hungry and comes out of his room, John will offer to make him a sandwich, too.

Sherlock doesn’t appear, though, and John eats his supper in solitude. He cleans up the small amount of detritus from his cooking, then dutifully goes down to get Rosie. He finds both her and Mrs Hudson in the kitchen, Mrs Hudson doing the washing up with the telly on in the background, Rosie in her high chair banging plastic cups together.

Mrs Hudson greets him happily, offers tea, and asks about the case. “All wrapped up, then?” she asks brightly.

She’s still pointing at the kettle, waiting for an answer, but John shakes his head. “No thanks, I think I’ll pass this time,” he says. “I should get her to bed. Yeah, the case is solved. Lestrade’s got our man in custody.”

Mrs Hudson claps her hands together delightedly. “Well done! Sherlock must be pleased!”

John hesitates, then decides not to mention what happened. Well – maybe just not the details of Sherlock’s reaction. “I think so, but he actually got hurt just before we caught the guy. The killer jumped out and attacked him.”

Instant worry appears on her face. “Oh no! Is he all right?” Mrs Hudson wants to know.

“I’m not sure,” John says honestly. “I think he will be. He got lashed across the back with an electrical cord.” He watches her face as he says this, sort of hoping she’ll react in some sort of way that might suggest she knows what happened to Sherlock before.

All she gives him is worried indignation, though – there’s no sign of recognition or wariness or anything like that. “Oh no! The poor dear! Should I go up and see him, do you think?”

“No,” John says instantly. “He’s – gone to bed, I think. He’s probably in a good bit of pain. He seemed to want to be left alone.” To put it mildly, he doesn’t add.

Mrs Hudson accepts this. “Of course,” she says sympathetically. She scoops Rosie out of her chair and hands her over. “There we are, then!” She beams at Rosie, who makes happy sounds back at her. They adore each other, which is a frank relief, given how often Mrs Hudson has charge of her.

John accepts his child back. “Thanks, Mrs H. As ever, I’d be lost without your help.”

“Nonsense.” She shoos this away. “You know it’s my pleasure. You just say the word, especially when the two of you have got a murderer to catch.”

John shifts Rosie onto his hip and presses a kiss to her forehead. “Let’s get you into bed,” he says, and she makes an unintelligible noise in response. He half-squints at Mrs Hudson. “Do you know what happened to him, while he was away?” he asks, dropping his voice, though there’s no chance Sherlock could possibly overhear this from his room. He’s almost afraid to hear the answer. He’s never asked Sherlock and he knows he should – he should have done it ages ago, back when Sherlock first came back, but somehow he’s just never found the right moment.

But Mrs Hudson shakes her head. “He would never talk about it,” she says quietly. “I asked once or twice, but all he would say was that you and I and the DI are safe now. That the job was done. He never would explain what he meant by it, either, or tell me any part of it – where he went, all of that. So I left it alone. Can’t have been easy, though. Anyone could see that.”

John thinks of the long, pale lines of scar tissue on Sherlock’s skin and suppresses a shudder. “What did that mean, though? That we’re safe?”

Mrs Hudson shrugs her thin shoulders. “I don’t know, dear. He wouldn’t say.” She bends forward and touches Rosie’s cheek. “Have I got her tomorrow?” she asks hopefully.

John nods almost automatically. “Sure, if you’d like,” he says. “Haven’t got anything on? I mean, we’ve finished the case…”

“Don’t deprive me!” Mrs Hudson scolds. “And besides, if Sherlock’s got himself hurt, he might need you. You know he won’t say. But he depends on you, you know.”

It’s not the first time she’s given him this admonishment, and it is an admonishment. John ducks his chin. There’s a lot more she could say, he knows, but she’s always been kind enough not to. “Yeah,” he says. “I know. In that case… I guess I’ll go on up, just in case, and put this one to bed.”

“I’ll come up and get her up, give her breakfast down here,” Mrs Hudson decides. “Let you have your sleep. I know the two of you didn’t get in until the wee hours last night. I’ll come about nine, shall I? Just nip in and whisk her out? You won’t even know I’ve been there.”

John smiles at her gratefully. “You’re amazing, Mrs H.”

“Nothing of the sort. Goodnight!”

John carries Rosie straight up to the top floor of the house, a trip he’s made more times than he can count in the – what is it, five months now? – since he and Rosie moved back in. She’s already making little fussing noises that mean she’s tired. Hopefully she’ll sleep well. It’s not easy sharing a bedroom with a sixteen-month-old child, but it feels like a small enough price to pay for the privilege of being back here at Baker Street. And it is a privilege. It only took about three weeks, once that whole mess with Eurus finished up. He’d started spending more and more time at Baker Street again, with and without Rosie, hating the long (and expensive) cab rides back out to the suburbs where the flat he’d shared with Mary was. They’d started regular casework again, or as regular as he could swing between juggling Rosie and a shift or two of locum work. They’d just finished a case and Sherlock asked about dinner, but John had checked the time and reluctantly declined, as Molly had only said she could keep Rosie until nine that night and he was going to be cutting it close as it was. He’d explained, and Sherlock had accepted it without challenge, raising his arm to flag down a taxi for him.

“Have you given any thought to moving back home?” he’d asked, not looking at John as he’d said it, and John’s heart had leapt into his throat.

He’d tried clearing it before attempting to answer. He was longing for that very thing, but hadn’t wanted to ask, after… well, everything. All that shit he’d pulled with Sherlock. Blaming him for Mary’s death. That day in the morgue. Not intervening sooner, with Culverton Smith. Thinking of it makes him shudder every time, which is why he usually avoids letting his thoughts even go there. He’d been trying to tell himself that he was lucky Sherlock still wanted him around, that they were still friends at all. That Sherlock was being far more gracious about all of it than he’s ever deserved, letting him off the hook the way he constantly has ever since. “I’ve got Rosie,” he’d said cautiously. “That’s no small thing. You know – to have around her all the time. It’s a lot.”

“I’m aware,” Sherlock had said, a trifle distantly. Maybe thinking John thought him unable to handle it, or untrustworthy when it came to Rosie. “It’s fine.”

A cab was already pulling over. John had risked a look at Sherlock, trying not to wince. “You’re – sure?” he’d asked. “I mean – I’d really like that. If you’d be – yeah.”

Sherlock had smiled a little. “I’m sure,” he said. “We could get your things tomorrow. If you’re free after work.”

“I’m not sure if I am working tomorrow, hang on,” John had said, trying to think.

“You are. The Brentwood Clinic, a one-to-six shift,” Sherlock had informed him.

If that wasn’t Sherlock in a nutshell, too: either forgetting what day it was altogether, or else memorising John’s patchy shiftwork schedule and knowing it better than John himself. John had swallowed hard. “Okay,” he’d said, and Sherlock had nodded briskly.

“I’ll text you in the morning,” he’d said, then nodded John toward the cab, already turning and striding away before John had got in, hands in the pockets of his coat.

And that was that: John and Rosie were installed by the next evening, the few things John had brought from the flat packed away before the Chinese Sherlock ordered them for dinner had even arrived. They never talked about any of the major crap John’s subjected Sherlock to ever since he came back. Sherlock seemed completely content to sweep it all under the carpet and never refer to it. Maybe he was just feeling relieved that their friendship had seemingly recovered, too, John still thinks. That was late January. It’s early July now, five months later, and they’ve been good months. But now something has resurfaced and John feels the recrimination of all the conversations they still haven’t had coming back to haunt him. What happened to Sherlock to make him react that way, today? Is he all right? John feels deeply uneasy, but unwilling to bother Sherlock about it if he wants to be left alone.

He puts Rosie to bed as quietly as he can, then goes down and watches the news with the telly on very low until the drama of the day catches up and translates into fatigue. He switches off the lights and goes up to bed.

***

John wakes with a start, his heart pounding. His first thought is Rosie, but there’s no sound coming from her cot. He listens hard, then hears it again: it’s Sherlock. It sounds as though he’s crying out in his sleep, and the sound brings John’s heart into his throat. Without a second thought, his legs swing themselves over the side of his bed and then he’s on the stairs, running down. He rounds the corner into the corridor to Sherlock’s bedroom and slows down, not wanting to burst in on him. John creeps quietly to the bedroom door and stands there, listening, his heart still beating quickly. He hears it again. Sherlock is having a nightmare, from the sounds of it. He opens the bedroom door, feeling a bit trepidatious about it, but Sherlock would do the same – has done the same, during many of John’s own nightmares, particularly in the earliest years of their living together when the PTSD was still bad.

He crosses swiftly to the bed, where Sherlock’s legs are thrashing, tangling in the sheets. He’s moaning now, no words, just sounds. John’s never heard him sound this way and it’s awful. He bends over the bed a bit. “Sherlock.” Nothing. John tries again, louder. “Sherlock! Wake up!” He touches Sherlock’s shoulder, just lightly, but that does it – Sherlock snaps awake with a shout, jerking away from him. “It’s just me,” John tells him hastily. “You’re having a nightmare. You’re all right. It was just a dream.”

Sherlock’s mouth is open, his eyes wide and panicked, but the words seem to penetrate and his frame goes limp, the tension draining away. His legs still and he swallows, though his heart is pounding visibly beneath the sheet covering his chest, and he’s breathing hard. “John,” he says hoarsely, as though trying to orient himself.

John nods. “That’s right,” he says encouragingly, keeping his voice down. “I’m here. You’re here, at home. You’re all right.”

Sherlock rubs his face and eyes with the heels of both hands. “God,” he says, his voice breaking, and John catches a glimpse of moisture in the streetlight filtering in through the window.

He understands completely; he always used to wake up from his PTSD nightmares in tears, too. Sherlock’s witnessed it more than once, which John always hated – he hated anyone seeing him like that. He doesn’t want Sherlock to feel even worse, being seen this way, but having seen John that way so many times will help, hopefully. “Let me get you some water,” John says, which is what Sherlock always used to do. He doesn’t wait for a response, going into the loo to run the cold tap, wanting to give Sherlock a slice of space to collect himself, but not wanting to go too far, either. As he knows so well himself, just having that time to remember where he is, that he isn’t wherever the nightmare took place, to let the nightmare fade and start feeling less real, less present, is so important. He pours a glass of water and goes back into the bedroom, perching carefully on the edge of the bed.

Sherlock has pulled himself into a sitting position. He accepts the glass from John and drinks, then passes it back. “Thank you,” he says, and while his voice is still hoarse, he already sounds calmer.

John nods and sets the glass on the night table. “Of course,” he says evenly. “It always helped when you would do that for me.” He makes open reference to it, though they never used to acknowledge John’s nightmares by day, back then. Sherlock always tactfully gave the subject a wide berth and John was too angry and humiliated by the whole thing to ever bring it up.

Sherlock doesn’t respond to this verbally, but his eyes are on John’s face now, and John knows that his acknowledgement found its mark.

The moment stretches out a little, their eyes on each other’s in the faint streetlight for a moment before Sherlock drops his gaze. “Do you want to talk about it?” John asks quietly. “In my experience, it does help. Not that I’m any expert.”

Sherlock hesitates, looking down at his hands. For a long time he doesn’t answer. Finally he says, “This was… unexpected.”

“This nightmare?” John asks, and Sherlock nods. “Do you think it’s related to what happened this afternoon?”

A couple of beats pass, but then Sherlock nods again, just once. “Possibly.” His voice is barely audible.

John makes a thoughtful sound. “I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised by your reaction there. Usually you brush off physical pain like it’s nothing. Which was the first clue that there was a good deal more to it than that, for me.” He pauses a little, deliberating, then decides to just ask, straight out. “Do you want to tell me about it?” He sees Sherlock’s brow crease a little and clarifies. “Not today: what happened before. Whatever happened that made those other scars on your back. I’m guessing it was something that happened while you were away.”

Sherlock’s lips press together a little. For a long time, he’s quiet, obviously turning this over in his head, his forehead still lined. “You never wanted to know before. About any of it.”

John accepts this and ducks his face downward. “I should have asked a long time ago,” he says humbly. It's always so painful to admit fault and this time is no different. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to know – I just – everything got so complicated, there, and I just – didn’t want to rock the boat, I guess. I’m asking now. I do want to know, if you’ll tell me.” He hesitates, then gets up and goes round to the other side of the bed, then sits down there, next to Sherlock but at a safe distance, settling himself comfortably to make it clear that he’s in for the duration, in no hurry to go back up to his own bed. “I’ve got all night,” he says, wanting to make it as clear as he can. “I want to hear any part of it that you’re willing to tell me. Both because I think it might help, and because I genuinely want to know. I always have, honestly. It just… I guess it seemed like I’d missed my chance to hear about it. I guess it was never too late to ask, but I should have.” He waits a moment, but Sherlock doesn’t say anything. He swallows. “Tell me?” he requests, his voice coming out low.

Sherlock’s eyes skate over his face, weighing this, then he looks away again. His legs are drawn up and he locks his arms around his knees, his long fingers wrapping around his sinewy forearms. “It was in Serbia,” he says, his eyes focused on the far wall. “I was captured.”

Serbia. Wasn’t that where Sherlock was going to be sent, after Magnussen? John frowns a little, wanting to ask, but thinks better of it. Not now, at least. “Go on,” he says softly. “What were you doing there?” He wants Sherlock to give him context, history – anything to give the nightmare some sort of framework, emotional distance. To set it out in simple, objective facts.

It works. Sherlock takes a deep breath, then starts, his voice already steadier than it was. “It was the last of them, as it turned out. The last of the terrorists connected to Moriarty. I had been tracking them from Shanghai across Asia, across Europe… and finally, to Serbia. I had never been there before, didn’t know very much about the terrain, though I had studied the language on my way there. I was caught.”

John shivers. “Tell me more,” he requests, looking at Sherlock, careful to keep any pressure out of his tone.

“I – ” Sherlock stops and looks down at his knees. He breathes deeply again, measuring it, aiming for control. “I had been… on my own for a long time. It was… my judgement wasn’t what it should have been. I may have become… Mycroft said I had become unstable. Paranoid, even, yet also unable to assess risk accurately. I shouldn’t have been where I was. At this point, the details of the night of my capture are still a bit of a blur, honestly. I remember running through a forest, with their helicopters flying overhead, the search light finding me…”

He trails off. John imagines it vividly, with horror. “Whose helicopters?” he asks. “The terrorists?”

Sherlock shakes his head, not looking at him. “A private militia. I think. Mycroft would know. He infiltrated their ranks. He was… concerned that they would kill me. I think he may have been right. My little ruses would have run their course sooner or later.” He goes silent for a moment or two, then adds, “Apparently they’re still looking for me. I was to be sent back to finish the job, after Magnussen. Mycroft and I both doubted I would escape a second time, particularly without him there on the inside.”

John attempts to process this. “I never knew that part,” he says. “That you didn’t think you’d be coming back. I wish you had said.”

Sherlock’s left eyebrow lifts at a slightly unimpressed angle. “Why?” he asks. “What difference would it have made?”

John feels a bit stung. “Well – ”

“You’re not about to tell me that you would have offered to come with me,” Sherlock interrupts, looking at him now. His eyes are sharp in the streetlight. “Not with Mary pregnant, your marriage freshly reconciled.”

John feels a bit trapped. He decides not to try to deny this, but the truth is that he doesn’t know what he might have said or done. “I – you sort of hinted at it, at not coming back,” he says instead. “But I just figured that you’d pull a you and weasel out of it again. Like you always do.” He watches Sherlock’s face as he turns this over in his head, then adds, “I still would have wanted to know. I never want you to think that I wouldn’t want that. I don’t want you disappearing again. Ever.”

This is more than he’s ever let himself say aloud – maybe to either of them, and it feels dangerous. Sherlock’s eyes flick up to his, as sharp as before, but he seems to believe whatever it is that he sees on John’s face. He nods once, just a duck of his chin, then looks back at his knees. “Thank you for that,” he says quietly.

John wants to get back to the matter at hand. “So – these people, these terrorists – how long were you their captive?”

“Six days,” Sherlock says. “Or so my brother said. I… lost track.”

“They weren’t allowing you to sleep,” John says shrewdly, wagering a guess, and Sherlock nods again. “God. That sounds awful.” He pauses. He wants to ask, but he doesn’t know how to tiptoe around it, other than drawing it out some more.

Sherlock seems to instinctively know what he’s afraid to say. Of course he does. “You can ask,” he says, his voice low. His face is bent forward so that John can barely even see his profile.

John swallows and it’s audible in the room. “They tortured you,” he says starkly. Sherlock doesn’t deny it, so he presses on. “Specifically, they whipped you. That’s what left those scars.” Again, no denial: he’s correct, then. He swallows hard. “How many times?”

Sherlock’s left shoulder twitches in what might be a shrug. “I don’t remember.”

Too many times to have kept track of, then. John feels sick. “What else?” he asks, and it sounds hollow even to his own ears.

“Just the usual,” Sherlock says, his voice a little muffled. “Lack of food and water. Denial of sleep. And I couldn’t sit or lie down.”

John has to think about this to sort out the logistics. “You were in chains,” he says. “Held in a certain position.”

Sherlock nods.

“And they’re still out there,” John says sharply, wanting the confirmation.

Sherlock shrugs. “I presume so.”

For a moment, an intense rage fills John’s entire frame, even his mouth, preventing rational words from forming. He wants to leave right now, demand that Sherlock tell him exactly who and where these people are, and rip every last one of them from limb to limb. But then he looks at Sherlock and remembers why he’s there and what his first concern is right now: Sherlock. What can he possibly do, right here and now? He takes a deep breath and forces the fury back down. Not now. “Have you ever talked about this before?” he asks.

Sherlock doesn’t answer immediately, his brows knitting together. “Mycroft knows about it…”

“That’s not what I mean.” John looks at him. “Like a therapist or someone. I mean, I’m no professional, not in this area, obviously, but it sounds to me like maybe you’ve got some repressed trauma and it’s only just resurfacing now.” Sherlock doesn’t respond to this, so John goes on. “It happens sometimes. A similar event, or something just similar enough to trigger it, bring it back to the surface.”

“I don’t understand,” Sherlock says, still frowning at his knees. “It wasn’t… traumatic at the time. Or at least, I – dealt with it. It was – I was fine. Fine enough. I don’t understand why it should be now. It’s been over a year.”

“A lot was happening at the time, though,” John says. This, at least, he knows. “You probably had so many things to be thinking about and processing that this just got shoved to the back and was never really dealt with. You probably had so much of that stuff, over the two years that you were doing all this. And then you were back in London. I was being a right prick to you and you had the parliament bombing to think about, and after that – I’m just spit-balling here, but – I’m guessing you probably just wanted to settle into your old life as quickly as possible, so maybe you just pushed it aside and the rest of that stuff never got properly processed. And now, maybe, life is just sort of forcing it up to the surface because of that attack today. That’s how trauma works: you squash it down, but then it can just pop up again when you least want it to.”

Sherlock swallows, then swallows again. “I don’t – want to be traumatised,” he says, with evident difficulty. “I just want to be – normal. My normal. Whatever that is. I just want to be – myself.”

“Trust me,” John says dryly, “as someone who’s been through PTSD – who still deals with it from time to time – believe me when I tell you that no one wants to be going through any of that. It just – happens. Like any other illness. The only way forward is to work through it. You can’t hide from it – the trauma nightmares are proof of that. You can avoid thinking about it, but our subconscious will bring it up at night, when we’re at our most vulnerable.” Sherlock is breathing hard, obviously having a hard time with this, so he drops the philosophical tone and lowers his voice a bit. “But I’m here,” he says, gentler now. “I’ll be here with you. No matter what. I promise. Okay?”

Sherlock blinks several times and swallows again, clearly trying to hide how upset he is. “Okay,” he says, and it comes out slightly ragged.

John hesitates. “Physical contact can be, er, reassuring,” he says, trying not to sound as awkward as he feels about saying this. “Touch has a way of grounding people when the trauma takes hold. I – can I, er, give you a hug?”

Sherlock pauses for a long moment, but then nods, so John leans over and gives him an awkward, side-on hug, one arm around Sherlock’s shoulders, avoiding the lashes on his back, the other looped around his arms and knees all together. Sherlock makes no move to hug back, but after a moment or two, the tension fades from his frame and he relaxes tangibly.

“That’s it,” John says approvingly. “Just let it go for now. It’s over. You’re home and you’re safe. And I’m here with you.”

For a long time, Sherlock doesn’t move, just leaning into him and breathing, and their joint breathing is the only sound in the room, and after a little, it syncs together into the same rhythm. When Sherlock starts to feel heavy against him, John shifts, beginning to ease away, but Sherlock stiffens. “Don’t – ” He stops himself sharply, cutting off whatever his protest was going to be.

John stops himself mid-motion. “Don’t – what?” he asks, careful to keep his tone gentle. Sherlock is silent, though, but his pulse has doubled against John’s palm on the back of his shoulder. John tries again. “I sort of thought you were falling asleep again?” He waits. Several times it seems like Sherlock is going to speak, inhaling, but then stopping himself. John tells himself to be patient. He knows all too well that this stuff is really hard, most of all admitting how weak it makes one feel. “What’s up?” he asks, as gently as he can make it.

Sherlock’s hands come up to grip his arms just above the elbow, not returning the embrace in any way, just preventing John from letting go in what feels like an instinctive, almost panicked gesture. “I’m – I don’t want to sleep.”

His voice is muffled but John understands immediately: it’s the fear of the nightmares. “I get it,” he says. “Often, though, being awake for a bit can – reset things, sort of. I mean – I can’t guarantee that it won’t happen again, but…”

“It’s ridiculous,” Sherlock says flatly, his mouth close to John’s scalp. “It’s just subconscious cranial activity. I don’t know why I should – but I’m – reluctant to go back to sleep.”

John attempts a shrug, made slightly difficult with Sherlock’s grip on his arms. “You could stay awake,” he suggests. “Start a new experiment or something?”

Sherlock contemplates this, then sighs, his breath warm in John’s hair. “I’m too tired,” he admits. “There wasn’t much – well, I didn’t – ”

“No, you didn’t get much sleep over the last three nights or so,” John agrees. He hesitates. “Well then… I don’t know what you think of this, but… what if I just stayed here with you, while you sleep? Just – you know, over here. Just so that you know I’m here, in case it happens again?” He says all this, then realises he’s holding his breath, almost cringing away from Sherlock’s potential reaction.

It’s Sherlock’s turn to hesitate, but just when John is sure that he’s about to say something to gently, but very firmly turn this down, mistaking it for something else entirely, he says, “Would you… really do that?”

He sounds as awkward as John feels, and it makes John feel infinitely better. “If you think it might help, absolutely,” he vows.

He feels Sherlock nod. “All right, then. If you don’t – mind.”

John disentangles himself gently, successfully this time. He smiles at Sherlock in the dim light of the room. “I don’t mind.” He looks past Sherlock to the red digital numbers on the clock on his night table. “It’s past five,” he says. “No wonder you’re tired. So let’s sleep. Mrs Hudson will take care of Rosie. She already said.” He doesn’t point out that she’s also bound to notice John not being in his bed when she comes, but with a bit of luck, maybe she’ll think he’s just in the loo or something. Otherwise, that could make for an awkward conversation that he’d really rather not have. He nods in the direction of Sherlock’s pillow. “Go on, then,” he directs. “Get yourself comfortable. And I’ll just – be over here.”

Sherlock obeys with unusual compliance. There’s a bit of slightly-awkward sorting out as John gets himself under the same blankets, spaced as far over as he can get without pulling the bedding off Sherlock, shifting as they both try to get comfortable in this unfamiliar arrangement, and then quiet falls. John lies awake listening for Sherlock’s breathing to slow, aware that they’re both aware that they’re still awake, but eventually it happens. Only once Sherlock has dropped back off to sleep does John allow himself to finally give in to his own fatigue.

***

He jerks awake some time later, disoriented – Sherlock is next to him, shouting, and it all comes rushing back to whichever bit of John’s brain is on permanent watch for trouble. “Sherlock!” He puts a hand on Sherlock’s arm, which is taut with tension and Sherlock flails and would have hit him had he not been on his side, facing away from John.

It works, though: he’s awake and blinking, his mouth open, eyes and hair both wild. Reassured that he’s not about to get struck, John touches his arm in the same place, using the familiarity of his touch to help ground Sherlock again. “John,” Sherlock says hoarsely, his voice ragged.

“It’s all right,” John tells him. “I’m here. There’s still water in the glass, there, if you want…”

Sherlock leans over, reaches for the glass and gulps the water down, his back still heaving, and John watches him with compassion.

He waits for Sherlock to turn back, blinking wide-eyed up at the ceiling. “Was it the same as before?” he asks.

Sherlock nods and swallows. “Not – but similar. The same place. Same situation. Just a different memory.”

Now that Sherlock’s on his back, John just touches his upper arm with the back of his knuckle. He’s no expert in this stuff at all. Psychiatry is a whole other field and not his area, but he’s been through this himself, still has to deal with it at times, and he knows that for him, at least, something as basic as a light touch can help put a person back in the present reality. He doesn’t know what would work on anyone else in their trauma responses, but just in case it helps, what can it hurt to try? “Keep breathing,” he says. “Make sure it’s going deep. It’s hard – you’ve got to work at it when the anxiety’s got you breathing so quick and shallow like that, but getting in good, deep breaths will help control it. Yeah. That’s it.” He watches Sherlock struggle to compose himself. “Did you feel the pain again? In the dream?”

Sherlock nods, his eyes on the ceiling. “It’s already fading, though. Both the dream and the – effects.”

John nods, too. “Good.” He checks the time again. It’s only just after seven. “Could you sleep a little more? It’s still early.”

Sherlock turns his head, his mouth opening to ask, so John hurries to answer before he can.

“I’ll be right here,” he promises.

Sherlock searches his face, then swallows. “Okay,” he says. His voice is ragged with lack of sleep.

John closes his eyes and feigns sleep, but in truth he’s listening to Sherlock’s breathing again. He doesn’t have to wait long this time: Sherlock falls asleep again within minutes.

***

The next time John wakes, he’s alone in the bed and the shower is running. He checks the time: a little after ten. Good: Sherlock actually did get some rest, then. His phone is upstairs, or he’d text Mrs Hudson right away. He gets up, reflecting as an afterthought that Sherlock’s bed is really very comfortable, and slips upstairs to check. There’s nothing there, no messages from her wondering where he is, or telling him something about Rosie. He thinks, then types How’s everything going down there so far?

He waits. Mrs Hudson is usually pretty good about responding quickly, and she doesn’t let him down this time, either. We’re just fine! Watching a bit of telly, or at least I am, and Rosie’s playing. Do you want me to bring her up for lunch or shall I keep her down here? I’ve got nothing on today and I’d love to have her!

This is a bit of luck. If you wouldn’t mind, I think that Sherlock could use the quiet, honestly. He’s still recovering from yesterday. But only if you’re sure… This is the clincher, and he knows it.

Of course I’m sure, you daft thing! Mrs Hudson types back at once. Take care of him, won’t you?

Mycroft once asked him the same thing, and John failed that time, and many times after that, too. I will he types back, meaning it more than Mrs Hudson can possibly know. Thanks, then. Let me know when you want to bring her up, or just come.

Will do. I’ll give you a little head’s up first, don’t worry!

The conversation is over. John strips off his pyjamas and gets dressed. He can shower later on. First, he wants to get a move on making breakfast. Sherlock didn’t eat at all yesterday, and the day before that was half a sandwich that he lost interest in once a bit of new evidence came in. He needs solid basics right now: rest, cleanliness, food. Quiet. A good cup of tea. Some being cared for. John can do that. He doesn’t have a terribly strong idea of how much Sherlock would ever even want from him beyond that, but this time, at least, John is determined to give him whatever he needs right now. How much he would like to give is a very dangerous question, indeed. He knows that quite well. It’s always been more than he’s ever been willing to acknowledge to himself or anyone else. A lot more. And since moving back in, even with the added aspect of Rosie, there’s an almost dangerous openness in front of them. So few obstacles, now. The last time he lived here, it was just after Sherlock was shot – after Mary shot him, John corrects himself – and they both knew that it was temporary, just until Sherlock had healed and John sorted out what to do about his marriage. They both knew that Rosie was coming, though, and that his duty lay with her. If she hadn’t been in the picture, he knows very well that that he would have stayed, that it was over with Mary. Now, though… there’s nothing to stop it from happening, if Sherlock were to ever want that. There’s no reason to think that he might, but the very possibility of it is dangerous in terms of creating hope.

Never mind that. He pulls on a jumper and goes down to start breakfast and see what’s what with Sherlock. A glance down the corridor shows that the door to the loo is open, but Sherlock’s bedroom door is still closed. Maybe he’s getting dressed, then. John goes back into the kitchen, gets out a couple of frying pans and turns on the range, then goes to the fridge to have a look at what they’ve got in. He decides on a simple fry-up: eggs, sausages, mushrooms, buttered toast, and strong tea. Yes: that should be just about right. He gets the sausages and mushrooms organised in one pan, puts the kettle on, and is just cracking eggs into the other one when Sherlock appears.

He looks perfectly turned-out, as ever, wearing a dress shirt, perfectly-tailored trousers, his old blue silk dressing gown over top, his feet bare. His hair is still wet but otherwise styled just so, but in spite of his impeccable appearance, he looks rather unsure of himself, hesitating there in the doorway. John risks a look at him and realises at the same time that he’s nervous, almost. “Morning,” he says, and it comes out too quickly. He knows it’s because he spent the night in Sherlock’s room, that he doesn’t know how to just sound normal now, given that that happened, even if the reason for it had nothing to do with anything remotely sexual.

Sherlock rubs at the back of his neck. Definitely uncomfortable, then. “Hi,” he says. “You’re – should I… do something?” He fumbles to clarify. “Help with – anything?”

Somehow his discomfort eases John’s a bit. “You could make a pot of tea?” he suggests. “The kettle’s already on…”

Sherlock nods and goes automatically toward the teapot, and if he’s relieved to have something specific to do, John understands.

“I’m just making some eggs,” he says, more to say something than because it needs to be said. “If you want to do toast, you could. Or I can – we’ll need plates, too. I should have got some out before I started. I can – ”

“I can do both,” Sherlock says, mercifully cutting him off, and John nods, still too fast.

“Okay,” he says, punctuating it with a vague gesture of the spatula he’s holding.

Sherlock clears his throat and busies himself emptying the teapot and rinsing it out, depositing yesterday’s tea sodden heap of tea leaves in the bin. “English Breakfast all right?” he asks, his tone very neutral.

Shielding himself, John thinks. “Yeah. Of course. Whatever you – yeah.”

Sherlock doesn’t respond to this or comment on his idiotic lack of articulacy, his lips compressed a little as he scoops dry tea leaves into the pot as though concentrating on this very simple task.

Get it together, John orders himself sternly. Sherlock is the one going through something unexpectedly difficult. He’s also the one who opened himself to an unusual degree last night, talking about what happened to him while he was away, acknowledging the trauma for what it was. Is. If he’s feeling a little withdrawn this morning, it’s perfectly understandable. He might also, John thinks belatedly, be having mixed feelings about having admitted to being afraid to go back to sleep, of having accepted John’s offer to stay. It’s just going to be on John to make this aftermath feel okay. He’ll simply have to get over his own awkwardness and make it be okay, for Sherlock’s sake. He needs security, a safe space, even if John detests the clichéd term. Sherlock needs a safe harbour to ride out whatever he’s going through, and John is determined to provide that for him, be that for him. He turns the eggs, shifts the sausages and mushrooms in their pan, and determines that it’s all done. He turns away from the range, his mouth ready to form the question, but Sherlock is there ahead of him, silently holding out two large plates. John relaxes. “Thanks!” he says, taking them. “Did you have a chance to – ”

“Already in the toaster.” Sherlock moves away again, putting more distance between them, and John tells himself not to feel brushed off by this.

“That’s fantastic,” he says, glad to hear that his voice has steadied itself from its jumpy start. “I think we’re about ready here.” He serves them both directly onto the plates Sherlock brought, then carries their breakfast over to the table.

The toaster releases, four slices of French bread popping up at once. Sherlock collects them and deftly transfers them onto their plates, then spirals away to retrieve the butter from near the range before sitting down across from John. “Thank you for making breakfast,” he says, and if it’s a bit stiff and formal, John tells himself not to mind it.

He tries for a smile and it works. “Of course,” he says, deciding to bypass the entire subject of yesterday. Breakfast first. Sherlock has barely eaten in days, so as far as he sees it, this is the top priority for now. He pours the tea and pushes the sugar bowl over to Sherlock before getting up to get the milk.

They eat in mostly companionable silence, only broken to pass things back and forth, and it feels okay. John wants to ask about the bandaging on Sherlock’s wounds, but also doesn’t want to raise the subject and remind Sherlock about any of it. He assumes that the gauze and tape he applied must have come off in the shower, but surely Sherlock wouldn’t have put one of his nice shirts on over open bleeding. Maybe he was able to reach the deepest of the cuts, which was the one highest up on his back where the end of the cord hit. Maybe he should give Sherlock the space to ask for his help if he wants it. John debates inwardly, but decides to leave it for the time being.

Sherlock eats the last bite of his toast, then pushes his plate away. He picks up the teapot and pours the last of the strong English Breakfast into John’s cup. “I don’t know what to do about this,” he says abruptly.

John looks at him at an angle, opens his mouth to ask cautiously, but Sherlock is ahead of him, as usual.

“This. Me.” He shakes his head, looking away. “I can’t – I don’t trust myself to go to a crime scene like this. I’m a mess. I don’t know what to do.”

John thinks of what Mrs Hudson told him about how Sherlock was after Mary died, after his rejection. His godawful letter. About Sherlock flying about the sitting room, shouting Shakespeare with his dressing gown fluttering behind him as he leapt from this piece of furniture to that. Manic, you know, she’d said, fingering her necklace. Never seen him in such a state. If Sherlock hadn’t thought that that state of personal wreckage was enough to keep him from tackling the Culverton Smith case, John would have said he wasn’t sure what would. Then again, Sherlock was only trying to save him, yet again, by following Mary’s terrible advice and putting himself directly in harm’s way. He suppresses the urge to sigh. Sherlock also told him then that he wasn’t coping. I’m burning up, I’m at the bottom of a pit and I’m still falling and I’m never climbing out, he’d said. I’m a mess. I’m in hell. But I’m not wrong. He’d been weeks away from death, Molly’d said. And yet he still wanted to work. Was still convinced that he could, at least with John there with him. John takes a deep breath. “Are you asking for my opinion?” he asks, just wanting to be sure.

Sherlock hesitates, then gives a nod so small it barely registers. “As – a doctor, or just as a friend,” he says, the lines around his mouth tight. “Whichever.”

“I’m not a psychologist,” John warns. “But if you are asking, then I think that’s maybe a good place to start.”

“I’m not going to therapy.” This is quiet, but extremely definite.

John exhales and bites back a rhetorical question about why Sherlock bothered asking his opinion, then. “No?”

“No.” Sherlock won’t look at him.

John studies him for a moment, then changes tacks. “Well, suit yourself, but I think it could be a help to talk to someone. It doesn’t have to be a therapist. It could just be – a friend. Mrs Hudson, if you like. Molly.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Please. Spare me.”

John shrugs, feeling self-conscious. “Or me,” he adds, quieter, and Sherlock glances at him, weighing this. John musters a little more courage. “I mean, you started last night, a bit,” he says, making the first awkward reference to it. “I’d, er, be really interested in knowing more about all of that. What you went through. It’s not about what I want, though. I think it could help to talk about it, and if I can – if I could be a good person for that – I mean, someone you feel – I don’t know, comfortable talking about it with, then I’m more than willing.” He shrugs again. “You can think about it. Meanwhile, I’m also going to suggest that we don’t take any cases for a bit. If you’re worried about how you might, er, be able to handle it, or how it might – yeah. I’d suggest we just take a bit of time away from anything that might re-trigger the trauma response and just let it… I don’t know, settle a bit.” He’s fumbling, but ploughs on anyway. “I’m no expert in this stuff, but I’ve been through it. You don’t know which stuff is going to set it off and which stuff is going to help.”

“But for you, danger helped,” Sherlock points out, and John feels acutely aware of just how deep Sherlock’s inherent understanding of him goes.

He almost shivers. “True, but everyone is unique. The source and circumstances of the trauma matter, I would assume. And maybe it wasn’t always helpful. Sometimes it might have just helped me hide from it, if we’re being honest. Escapism. I mean – you’re right that I craved it. That it gave me a sense of purpose again, and maybe that bit alone was therapeutic for me. There were probably healthier coping mechanisms, but I’m, er, still figuring those out, myself.”

Sherlock takes all of this in, his eyes as sharply observant as ever on John’s face. For a moment, he just turns this over in his head, examining it. “How long?” he asks.

John figures he means in terms of a break from the work. “I don’t know,” he says. “A month, maybe?” He watches Sherlock’s face, but there’s no discernible reaction just yet. “Why not start with that, and see how it goes? We can track the progress and frequency of the nightmares, chart it out and make a study of it. When you’ve gone without one for a bit, then maybe we re-examine and see how you’re feeling. There’s no need to set it in stone. This sort of thing isn’t completely predictable or quantifiable.”

Sherlock actually does look somewhat reassured by this. “A month,” he says slowly. “An entire month.” He’s frowning a little, thinking. “I like the thought of tracking it, I suppose.”

John almost smiles, but manages to hide it. “I thought you might, yeah,” he says lightly. “Really, though, anything that can give it a bit of emotional distance is helpful, I think.”

Sherlock nods. “Yes. All right. One month. And then we re-examine.”

“We can – and should – definitely talk about it as we go,” John assures him. “If it doesn’t end up needing as long as that, we can always re-evaluate.”

Sherlock’s eyes come back to his, missing nothing, as ever. “You keep saying ‘we’,” he says.

John takes it with a canter. “Yeah,” he says, not shying away from it. “I’m your partner in the work, aren’t I? And I’m going to be right here with you as you deal with this stuff. Like I said last night.”

Sherlock’s eyes don’t leave his face, almost piercing into John’s very cranium to test the mettle of this statement. Evidently, whatever it is he sees satisfies him, and he relaxes, just perceptibly. “You did say that, didn’t you.”

This is quiet, almost understated, but John feels the weight of it anyway. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says firmly, and he doesn’t say it exactly, but it’s a promise and somehow he thinks they both know it.

***

The rest of the day is quiet. Sometime during the afternoon, John asks over his laptop if Sherlock would like him to phone Lestrade and just let him know what’s what. Sherlock hesitates, then nods.

“If you would,” he says, and John nods as though it’s nothing.

He goes into the kitchen to make the call, aware that Sherlock can hear him perfectly well from there. He keeps his voice low but as normal-sounding as he can. He explains that Sherlock is going to be taking a bit of time away from crime scenes to recover from his injuries, but that they’ll be back in a little while, just a few weeks. He makes it all sound very matter-of-fact, not giving it more weight than it needs, but also not going into any detail. Lestrade asks a question or two, but accepts it all with equanimity. He asks if Sherlock is all right and John hesitates a little. “Yeah, I think so,” he says, careful not to look at Sherlock as he says it. “It – it will be fine.” He doesn’t say he, even though Sherlock has almost certainly deduced that they’re talking about his state. They hang up then and John puts his phone into his jeans pocket and goes back into the sitting room. “That’s done,” he says. “I thought I’d get a start on supper, if you’re hungry…?”

Sherlock gives him a half-smile that says he knows exactly what John’s doing, but he doesn’t challenge it. “I could be,” he says instead. “What did you have in mind?”

They decide on lasagna in the end. John goes to the shops to pick a few things up, then comes back to find Sherlock in the kitchen organising cookware and setting out cutting boards. There’s a head of Boston lettuce on the table as well as a bulb of garlic and some knives. John proffers his bag of shopping and Sherlock goes to see, making approving sounds at John’s choices. “I got ricotta,” John says. “I know you like it best with that, and the mozzarella was actually on sale for a change.”

Sherlock makes a sound to show he heard and plucks out the tray of minced beef John got, since theirs was all frozen. “I’ll get started on the sauce,” he says.

“I can help,” John says. “I’ll just wash my hands. And then – I don’t know, I can chop the garlic or something?”

“All right,” Sherlock says, busying himself at the stove. He switches on an element, his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and John steals a glance at his sinewy forearms.

Never mind that, he tells himself crossly. Garlic. Focus, Watson. He dries his hands and sets about the familiar task of peeling the cloves, then chopping them finely. “Onion, too?”

Sherlock hums his agreement, opening the door to the fridge and selecting a small container of fresh basil leaves. He gets out an onion from the fridge after and tosses it to John, almost smirking when John catches it, more by reflex than through actual skill. “Good catch.”

John grins, more pleased with himself than he should be. “Good throw.”

They get the lasagna assembled, then build a salad to go with it, layering the tender lettuce leaves with blueberries, aged cheddar, and toasted almonds, and Sherlock concocts a light vinaigrette to drizzle over it. When the timer beeps, John gets the lasagna out and sets it on the counter to cool. Sherlock opens a bottle of Pinot Noir and pours them each a glass. “It feels a bit strange,” he says, sounding like he’s going to explain, but then he doesn’t.

John turns away from the counter. “What does?”

Sherlock shrugs, looking a bit self-conscious. “This. Not having anything on. Having time to cook like this. Nothing on the schedule for tomorrow. The… free time. It’s odd.”

John purses his lips and tries to think how best to answer this. “It is, a bit,” he says truthfully. “Honestly… if it weren’t for the reason why, it would almost feel like the start of a holiday. In a way.” Is this completely insensitive? He forges ahead to cover this somehow. “I sort of wanted to ask earlier how your back is doing. If you needed new dressings after you showered earlier…?”

Sherlock sets silverware next to their plates, not looking up. He shakes his head a little. “It got a bit damp, but I faced the water and so far they’re still where they should be.” There’s a pause. “You can check later, if you want.”

John nods, a bit relieved that this has gone over all right. “Sure. Yeah. Before bed, then.” He clears his throat. “Should I bring this to the table, or does it make more sense to bring our plates over here?”

“Let’s bring our plates,” Sherlock decides, so John serves them each a large piece and they sit down across from each other like earlier.

It’s been awhile since they’ve cooked anything together; either they been taking turns or not even eating at the same time – or at all, in Sherlock’s case – and it feels a bit strange to be doing it twice in one day. John picks up his glass of wine. “Bon appétit,” he says simply, trying not to dwell on the strangeness. Sherlock doesn’t smile, though he does say it back, and after that, they focus on dinner. Maybe that’s simplest, John thinks. Just focus on the immediate and take everything else as it comes.

***

Around eleven, Sherlock yawns and stretches and says he thinks he’ll turn in. He hesitates. “If you wanted to have a look at – ”

John looks up from his laptop. “Right,” he says quickly, remembering. He closes the lid and sets the laptop aside, getting up and gesturing toward the loo. Sherlock turns and goes down the corridor and John follows him.

Sherlock is already shedding his shirt when John slips into the bathroom behind him, unrolling the sleeves and working the buttons out of their holes.

John clears his throat and tries not to just stand there, staring as Sherlock gets undressed. Instead, he busies himself with getting out his kit again and pre-cutting several lengths of gauze and medical tape. A glance shows that Sherlock is bare from the waist up a moment or two later, so he washes his hands well and dries them on a fresh towel. “Let’s have a look, then,” he says briskly, reverting to his doctor voice. Sherlock doesn’t respond, his shoulders a little tense. John tells himself not to be bothered by this and takes a look at the dressings he put on last night. “Yeah, these are a bit damp. Though I’m sure you were careful. Always best to change them frequently, anyway. The last thing we want is for the lacerations to infect.” He gets straight to work while he’s still speaking, peeling off the gauze as gently as he can. He replaces them deftly, taking a long, private look at the deeper cuts while working on others so that Sherlock hopefully won’t notice. Sherlock is silent throughout, though, so it’s hard to gauge what he’s thinking. John gets the last piece of tape in place and lets out a breath he didn’t realise he was holding. “There we go,” he says, feeling oddly nervous. (What’s that about, then?) Oh: it’s what comes next. Right. The entire subject of night. He takes a breath, then stops himself. Should he just say that he’s heading up? Rosie is already up there, sound asleep. Mrs Hudson brought her up sometime in the evening while they were watching the news. But if he says this, will Sherlock assume that he’s desperate to avoid a repetition of last night? He stops, not sure how or if he should ask his question.

Sherlock inhales, too, turning to face him. His eyes skate uncertainly over John’s face. “So – I suppose you’ll – ” He stops, too, maybe also second-guessing whatever he was going to say.

Somehow this puts John much more at ease. “I – whatever you want,” he says quickly. (Does Sherlock want him to stay again?) His heart is beating too quickly and he realises belatedly that this is what was hoping for and afraid to have rejected. It’s about Sherlock, though. It’s got to be what he wants or needs.

Sherlock’s lips purse. “But – you wouldn’t want to – that was just – ” He stops, then tries again. “I assumed that was a one-time offer,” he says, a bit stiffly.

“It doesn’t need to be,” John says quickly, almost overlapping him in his own nerves. “If you want me to stay again, I can stay. I don’t mind.”

For several exquisitely charged moments, Sherlock wavers, his eyes searching John’s face with such intensity that it almost prickles. Finally his shoulders release ever so slightly. “If you would, then,” he says jerkily, and turns and goes into his bedroom.

John hesitates, wondering if he should go up and change first. But somehow it feels wrong to leave Sherlock right now, right when he’s just mustered up whatever it took him to ask for this again. He decides to stay right where he is and just strip down to his shorts and t-shirt. It will be fine. He squares his shoulders as though going into battle and follows Sherlock into the bedroom. Trying his best to look nonchalant about it, he goes round to the far side of the bed and strips off his jeans and socks, then unbuttons his shirt, folds it, and leaves it with his jeans on the chair beside the closet, studiously keeping his back to Sherlock so as to give him some privacy as he changes. (He should have just asked if Sherlock wanted a minute, back in the loo!) John grimaces to himself, but decides that acting as naturally as possible is what will put Sherlock at his ease, and that’s the main thing, here. He would hate for Sherlock to shrink back into himself, regret having asked for any part of this. If that just means that John’s got to be the one to make things feel okay, feel normal, then he can make that happen. Just like at breakfast. He turns around and gets into bed without particularly looking at Sherlock or avoiding looking at him.

Sherlock has already changed, though. He’s wearing pyjama bottoms and an old t-shirt, one with a hole in the shoulder seam on the right side that he once said was from practising the violin. He hesitates only long enough for John to catch it, then also gets into bed. He puts himself on his back and lies there stiffly, barely breathing, his discomfort palpable through the bed linens.

John searches for something to say to make it feel less awkward. “Er, I forgot my – well, I didn’t forget – I was just thinking that I should charge my phone,” he says, for lack of anything better coming to mind.

Somehow, it was the right thing to say, miraculously. Sherlock relaxes visibly. “I’ve got a spare charger,” he says, turning away to reach into his night table drawer for it. He turns back. “Here.”

“Thanks,” John says. “Is there an outlet over here somewhere?” He cranes around, searching behind the night table on his side.

“I’m not sure. I’ve never slept on that side,” Sherlock says, with no discernible attempt at humour, but John finds it funny anyway and laughs.

“I’ll bet,” he says. “Oh, here we are.” He wrestles the plug in, then gets his phone hooked up and scrambles back around, pulling the blankets onto himself and shifting just a little closer to Sherlock. “You tired?”

Sherlock yawns in answer. “I suppose I am.” He pauses. “Why? Did you… want me to talk or something?”

“Not at all,” John assures him. “Not unless you want to. I was just wondering if you wanted me to switch off the lamp.”

Sherlock shrugs. “Whenever. I suppose I’ll turn mine off.” He leans over and does it, so John follows suit.

“Might as well try for some sleep, then,” he says lightly. “If you need anything, or want to talk at all, I’m here. Anytime.”

The room is dark. Sherlock makes a sound that John can’t quite decipher the meaning of. “Thank you,” he says a moment or two later.

“Course,” John says in response. “Good night.”

***

He wakes before Sherlock does, some hours later. The entire bed is shaking. John’s eyes fly open. In what little he can see from the streetlight filtering in, Sherlock’s entire form has gone rigid, his legs locked together as though he’s been bound in ropes, wrists pressed together in the same way. His teeth are clenched, his shoulders shuddering.

John says his name but Sherlock only shakes all the harder. There’s sweat on his forehead. John reaches over and touches him gently on the shoulder. “Sherlock!”

Sherlock cries out, three words in a language John doesn’t understand, and then his eyes open, breath sucking in sharply as though to shout again. His eyes focus, recognising John, the breath caught in his throat and then it floods out again in a rush of air and broken vocalisation that rends John’s heart to hear.

“I’m here. I’m here,” he repeats, holding Sherlock firmly by the same shoulder. “You’re okay. Come here.” He realises even as he says it that it would be easier to just move himself instead of trying to persuade Sherlock to come to him, so he shifts closer and puts his arm around Sherlock. The tension leeches out of Sherlock’s frame, seeming to take all of his strength with it and he sags into John, breath gushing out into his shoulder in a sob. It’s wet and hot but John doesn’t care at all. He rubs his palm over the back of Sherlock’s shoulder, careful not to touch the cuts, trying to give him tangible comfort and ground him back here in their present reality, rather than whatever place Sherlock was dreaming about. “It’s okay,” he says, over and over again. “You’re all right now. It’s all right.”

Sherlock pulls himself together after a bit, his back shuddering as he struggles to master himself. He’s made no move to return John’s embrace, his arms still folded into his own chest. John pulls back far enough to survey him, then reaches back for a tissue and gives it to Sherlock. “Thank you,” Sherlock says, his voice ragged. He blows his nose, then accepts another tissue from John and wipes his eyes. His breathing is still shaky, his heart racing palpably.

John settles himself on his side again, mirroring Sherlock’s position but not touching him. “Where was this one?” he asks. “Serbia again?”

Sherlock shakes his head, exhaling deeply. “There was another time, before that… that I was captured, I mean.”

He stops, so John prompts gently. “Where?”

“Turkey,” Sherlock says, his eyes on his wrists. He turns his palms away from each other as though in active reminder that they aren’t bound. “Near Kümbet, I think.” He shakes his head. “I don’t know why now, why this is all coming back. I haven’t thought of this in years. I was on my way to Europe, coming back from India…”

“Sometimes one trauma can unleash a bit of an avalanche,” John tells him. “It must be frustrating, but maybe it’s better that it’s coming up to the surface so that you can deal with it properly this time.”

“I don’t want to deal with it,” Sherlock says in frustration. “I just want to – be!”

John gives half a smile, though he completely understands. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s how this stuff works,” he says. “I’m sorry this is happening to you. For what it’s worth.”

Sherlock is struggling visibly. “I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t want to – rehash it all, I just want – why can’t I just – ”

John waits, biting his lip a bit. “I know,” he says, when it seems clear that Sherlock can’t find the words to finish whatever he was trying to say. “I know exactly how you feel. I don’t think there are any shortcuts, though.”

Sherlock turns onto his back and rubs at his eyes with the heels of his hands, then glares up at the ceiling. “I don’t want this in the way, slowing me down. I just want to forget any of it ever happened.”

John stays quiet this time, not wanting to say for a third time that he knows from unfortunate personal experience that it won’t work that way. He’s already said it a bunch of times and knows Sherlock doesn’t want to hear it again. He presses his lips together, wishing he knew what to say.

The silence between them is a bit tense. Eventually Sherlock exhales hard, then sits up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. “Sleep is overrated,” he says shortly. He gets up and stalks over to the door, pulling his old blue dressing gown off the gown and onto himself in one swift motion.

John feels even less sure of himself. “Er – d’you want me to – ”

Sherlock glances back at him. “Oh,” he says, a little less abruptly. He shrugs. “It doesn’t matter. You can go on sleeping there, if you’re – ” He stops, looking discomfited, perhaps remembering that he’s the one who asked John to sleep here in the first place. “Whatever you like,” he says instead.

John feels awkward. “What time is it?”

Sherlock looks at the digital clock on his night table. “A little after three. Go back to sleep.”

He turns and leaves the room, closing the door quietly but firmly behind him. John feels his breath let out cautiously, feeling deflated. He doesn’t really know what to do. Sherlock clearly wants to be left alone. Whatever the nightmare in Turkey entailed, it was obviously upsetting enough that he doesn’t want to relive what he went through there, and doesn’t want to risk revisiting it by going back to sleep, either. He’s also physically left the room, a clear enough signal that he wants space. It’s the middle of the night and Rosie probably wouldn’t wake if he went back upstairs… John considers it for several minutes, then decides against it, if only because he doesn’t want to disturb Sherlock in whatever he’s doing being wherever he isn’t, and also because Sherlock’s bed is really very comfortable, and even though John’s brain is fully awake now, his body is still very tired. The shock of the sudden wake-up is fading from his limbs and leaving him feeling drained and heavy. Never mind. He’ll stay here, then. Maybe after he’s calmed down, Sherlock will want to try to sleep again, and feel reassured by John’s continued presence. Who knows, John thinks. He turns onto his side and goes back to sleep.

***

Sherlock doesn’t come back to the bedroom that night. John wakes sometime after nine, the sunlight in his eyes, and hears voices in the kitchen. Slightly disoriented, he sits up on the left side of Sherlock’s bed and listens. It’s Mrs Hudson, talking to Sherlock, her voice going up in pitch sometimes: talking to or about Rosie, then. He feels immensely awkward: if she’s been up to his room to get Rosie, she’ll know he wasn’t in there, obviously, and yet Sherlock is up and about while John is asleep in Sherlock’s bedroom. He grimaces. Will Mrs Hudson have asked Sherlock about it? If so, what on earth might he have told her? It doesn’t bear thinking about. He gets up and pads barefoot into the loo to brush his teeth and splash a bit of water onto his face. He’ll shower and shave later; first he wants to get a lay of the land. Grasp the nettle and see exactly how weird things are.

He squares his shoulders and goes out into the corridor. Luck is on his side, though: Mrs Hudson has already left when he gets into the kitchen. He finds Rosie in her high chair playing with and occasionally eating some sliced up banana and Sherlock drinking tea and reading the papers kitty-corner to her. “Er, hi,” he says, and it comes out as awkward as he’s feeling.

Sherlock turns his head a little but not far enough for their eyes to meet. “Good morning,” he says evenly.

Rosie’s presence provides the perfect diversion. “I see you’ve been stuck with child-minding,” he says, also feeling awkward about this. “Sorry about that…”

“It’s fine,” Sherlock reassures him. He looks up as John goes over to Rosie’s high chair and their eyes connect. “I assured Mrs Hudson that I’m more than capable of watching her on my own. As I have done on numerous previous occasions.”

“I know you are, I just didn’t mean for you to get stuck with it,” John says, bending to kiss his daughter’s cheek and conveniently also hide his face. “Especially not – now.”

He risks a look at Sherlock after this, but Sherlock just shrugs. “It’s fine,” he says again. “And she hasn’t perished just yet.”

“No, that’s not – I know you’re good with her,” John fumbles. “I just meant that I didn’t want you to have to do it. That’s all.” He casts around for something else to say. “Er, have you eaten?”

“Not yet, but Mrs Hudson says she’s making German pancakes,” Sherlock tells him, his eyes gleaming. Mrs Hudson’s German pancakes are the stuff of legend and they both know it. “She said to let her know when we’re ready and she’ll put them in the oven.”

“Oh, wow,” John says, not even trying to mask his reaction to this. “That’s the best thing I’ve heard in weeks! Text her and tell her we’re ready, would you?”

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth quirks. “I thought that would get you looking less grim,” he says lightly, picking up his phone and typing with one thumb even as he says it. “Do we need anything with it? They do tend to be rather filling.”

“True, but I’d love some protein, if only for a softer landing for all that carb,” he says.

Sherlock snorts. “I’m not sure any amount of protein will provide much of a mitigating force, but I could make something. I think we’ve got bacon. I could cook some if you’d like.”

“I can do it,” John begins, but Sherlock is already on his feet, waving him off.

“You made breakfast yesterday. But you could put some coffee on, if you would.”

“Sure,” John says, letting it go. He hesitates, looking at Sherlock’s back. He wants to ask about his back, about his lack of sleep, about what happened last night with the nightmare about whatever happened in Turkey, but it feels very much as though Sherlock is signalling that he doesn’t want to talk about any of that right now. Keep calm and carry on, forsooth. John stifles a sigh and turns his attention to Rosie instead, suppressing the thought that he’d rather be making bacon along with the sigh. He loves her tremendously, but it’s just endless. He dabs a bit of mashed banana off her cheek with a wet cloth and allows himself to feel the guilt he knows he absolutely should be feeling about the unworthy thought. Once he’s got her a bit cleaned up (though he knows he’ll have to repeat the process in two minutes, anyway), he gets up and organises their coffee.

Mrs Hudson appears just as Sherlock is scooping bacon onto a side plate, presenting them with two crisply-puffed, golden German pancakes in cast iron pans with enough pride to inflate a hot air balloon. John’s already set out plates and he hastens to effect the transfer so that she can take the hot pans back down before they start scorching her hands through the thick oven mitts. She likes to keep them in for as long as possible or else they start to deflate, she’s explained. The timing of this works out perfectly to prevent her from lingering to ask awkward questions about why John was sleeping in Sherlock’s bed this morning and the night before, too, and John is profoundly grateful for the fact. “You two enjoy, now,” Mrs Hudson coos, already making for the stairs.

“Mind your step on the stairs,” Sherlock calls after her and she hoots and dismisses him instantly. He looks at John and rolls his eyes. “That’s the last thing we need, to have her falling down the stairs with two hot cast iron pans in her hands,” he says crossly.

“I know,” John says. They listen until the tapping of her kitten heels have reached the bottom, then Sherlock smiles across at him in obvious relief. “Safe and sound,” John says. He gestures at Sherlock’s spot across from his. “Shall we?”

“Let me just get the lemon wedges and powdered sugar,” Sherlock says. “She brought them up earlier, with Rosie.” He retrieves said items from the side table, then takes his seat, eyeing the feast with obvious pleasure that gives John no small amount of private satisfaction. If he’s not sleeping, at least he’s eating. Between he and Mrs Hudson, they can manage that part, at least.

“Let’s eat,” he says, and they dig in with relish.

***

Early that afternoon, John gets a call from a colleague at one of the clinics he’s been working at on and off. A patient’s condition has worsened noticeably and the other doctor doesn’t know his history as well as John does. John hesitates, looks over at where Sherlock is sitting on the sofa, his face looking weary and lined in the blueish light coming off his laptop. “I’m not sure,” he says slowly. “I’m currently taking a bit of a break.”

The other doctor replies, but Sherlock speaks over him. “You can go. I’m fine.”

John pauses. “Hang on a tic,” he says into his phone, then moves it away from his mouth. “Are you sure? We’ve still got Rosie… I was thinking you might end up wanting to sleep a little. And Rosie will need to go for her own nap in about half an hour…”

Sherlock looks up and rolls his eyes at him. “You know perfectly well that I can manage on a lot less sleep than most people. I’ll be fine if you go to the clinic for an hour or two.”

“It won’t be that long,” John says. He fidgets. “You sure you’re – ”

“Quite sure,” Sherlock interrupts, just this side of rudeness. “I think I’ll survive without you for that long.”

This stings a little, especially because John isn’t quite sure whether it’s overtly meant to imply all of those times he’s left Sherlock in the past. “All right, then,” he says uncertainly. He turns the phone back to his mouth. “I’ll be there in twenty minutes,” he says. “Take his blood pressure, if you haven’t already, and get Sinclair started on a basic blood panel. We’ll need to check his iron levels. I’ll be there as fast as I can and then we can decide whether or not to have him admitted.” He ends the call, looks at Sherlock again, but Sherlock is focused on his screen, just enough of a furrow on his forehead to ward John off from asking again. “I’ll be back soon,” he says instead. “If Rosie gets to be too much, or if she fusses about her nap or anything, I think Mrs Hudson said she’d be home. Just – if you need it. Or want it.”

Sherlock barely acknowledges this, still looking annoyed, so John just goes.

He comes an hour and a half later to find the flat enveloped in silence. He creeps up the last few stairs and quietly pushes the door open, frankly hoping to find Sherlock asleep. God knows he needs the rest. Sure enough, Sherlock is stretched out on the sofa, his laptop closed on the coffee table beside him. His brow is knitted, but his breathing is deep and slow. The baby monitor John keeps in the sitting room has also been moved to the coffee table, and John is almost touched to see that Sherlock remembered this. At a year and a half, Rosie is pretty good about her naps most of the time, but it’s always good to be able to keep an eye on her if need be.

He gets his coat off without making too much noise and makes his way stealthily into the kitchen to put the kettle on to make a cup of tea. Once it’s made, he carries it into the sitting room and sits down in his chair, opening his laptop and absorbing himself, close enough to both Sherlock and the baby monitor to keep an eye on the whole situation.

About ten minutes into this, Sherlock’s breathing changes, inhaling sharply. His legs go rigid and a spasm runs through his entire frame, his breath coming out in a moan of pain. The spasming grows worse, his arms shooting out as though to ward someone or something away.

John is on his feet without even thinking about it, his laptop dumped aside. “Sherlock!” He says Sherlock’s name again, bending over him in alarm. Sherlock doesn’t respond, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. John drops to his knees on the floor, kneeling beside Sherlock – he doesn’t want to scare him when he does come out of the nightmare. He isn’t sure what to do. Following some instinct, he bites his lip, a little worried that Sherlock will flail out and strike him if he’s startled, but gently touches his hair. “Sherlock,” he says again, remembering to keep his voice firm and steady this time. “It’s okay. Wake up. It’s okay.”

He strokes Sherlock’s curls as though soothing a wild animal that he’s not sure won’t turn on him, but it works. Sherlock’s breath sucks in hard and his eyes open, lips parting as though about to shout, but then he focuses on John and exhales again.

John nods, still smoothing his palm over Sherlock’s tousled curls. “It’s okay,” he repeats. “I’m here. You were dreaming again.”

Sherlock’s chest is heaving. “Thank you for waking me,” he says, his voice hoarse. He blinks several times, looking around the room without moving his head and taking in his surroundings. “What time is it? How long have you been home?”

John withdraws his hand and transfers himself to the edge of the coffee table. “It’s about half-past four. I’ve been back for about twenty minutes. Rosie’s still sleeping – brilliant that you got her down for her nap, by the way.”

Sherlock makes a movement that might be a shrug. “It was no great feat.” He rubs his eyes but doesn’t sit up after. “Is this going to happen every time I sleep now?” he asks, looking up at the ceiling.

“I don’t know,” John admits. “I was glad to see you were getting some at all. Overrated as it may seem, it’s obviously healthy for you to have it. I could prescribe a sleeping aid, but most of them tend to enhance the possibility of nightmares, not reduce them.”

Sherlock sighs heavily. “I don’t want a prescription,” he says, sounding weary. “You and I both know it would be better to avoid that, anyway. What about – I don’t know, there must be some sort of rubbish homeopathic solution or something?”

“Sure, there are various herbal things you could try,” John says. “Non-hallucinogenic ones, I mean. Magnesium, melatonin, valerian, things like that. In fact, one of Harry’s girlfriends used to swear by Epsom salt baths. That’s just magnesium that you absorb directly through the skin. We could give that a try, if you like. You know you like baths, anyway.” This is a bit of a sly dig; Sherlock used to keep the fact of his private enjoyment of an occasional bath a deep secret from him and it took until they’d been living together for a solid five months before John cottoned on. Sherlock had retorted things about John’s own, unabashed love of a hot bath in turn, and it’s been something of an inside joke between them ever since.

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth twitches, not quite a smile, but it’s progress. “True,” he allows. “‘We’ could try that, I suppose.”

The we is a touch acerbic, but John doesn’t rise. “You know I’m here in this with you,” he reminds Sherlock quietly. “I’m sorry that this is happening. I’d do whatever it takes to help ease it. I hope you know that.”

Sherlock turns his head and looks him in the eye for the first time since he woke. His eyes are dark in the half-light of the sitting room and difficult to read. But then he nods. “All right,” he says, his voice a little strained.

It’s too intense. John clears his throat and pushes himself to his feet. “Cup of tea?” he asks, trying to establish some sense of normalcy between them. “I was just about done mine, but I could do with another. We just got that new box of gunpowder green, if you want to give it a try.”

Before Sherlock can answer, Rosie makes a sound that comes through the monitor. Sherlock nods toward it with his chin. “You get the child. I’ll make the tea.”

John concedes. “Deal.”

***

That night, John decides not to ask and force Sherlock to have to ask him to stay again. He suspects it’s what Sherlock might want, but knows how difficult he finds it to make the request, so he opts to act on the assumption that that’s the plan. If Sherlock doesn’t want him to stay, he would probably find it easier to say that than to ask for it again, John figures. When Sherlock yawns in front of the news, John gives a big, deliberate stretch, then says that he’s going to start getting ready for bed. Sherlock makes a sound to show that he heard, picks up the remote to switch off the telly, and gets up and follows John down the corridor toward his bedroom and the loo. John turns off there and starts brushing his teeth and shaving, acutely aware that Sherlock is surreptitiously changing behind him through the partly-open door.

When he’s finished, he taps the water from his razor and sticks it back into its holder, and finds Sherlock loitering near the adjoining door. John holds it open for him and they trade places, John trying to make it overtly clear that he’s onto the next stage of getting ready for bed, here in Sherlock’s room. Sherlock glances back at him ever so fleetingly, but doesn’t say anything, shutting himself inside the loo. John strips off his jeans, jumper, and socks, plugs in his phone to charge, and gets into bed. He stealthily pre-placed the novel he’s been reading on the night table just after supper, and reaches for it, aiming for a casual manner, but really he’s waiting for Sherlock’s reaction at finding him there in his bed again. Truth be told, John rather wants this to go on indefinitely. He knows it’s not going to, that Sherlock’s spate of PTSD will pass and then at some point, he’ll tell John that he’s okay – for work, for sleeping on his own again, all of it – and John will be forced to agree that it makes sense to return to his own bedroom. What he wants is for Sherlock to come to like having him here, not just because he’s afraid of what will happen as he’s sleeping, what his own memories will subject him to when he lets down his guard and allows himself to slip into sleep. He wants Sherlock to want him here, to come to feel it as their normality. He also, in the meantime, just wants Sherlock to get some better quality sleep.

The bathroom door opens and Sherlock comes out, his eyes going immediately to John. His expression gives nothing away, at least nothing that John can detect from his nanosecond glance up from his book. He comes over and gets into bed, his movements and mannerisms seeming rather studiedly neutral to John. He turns to face the loo, his back to John. “Good night.”

It’s completely unnuanced and impossible to read. John is a bit surprised. “Good night,” he says. “Er – d’you want me to shut off the lamp?”

Sherlock’s shoulder moves in what might be a shrug. “There’s no need.”

John wavers, then deliberately yawns and saves his place. “Might as well,” he says, as casually as he can. He puts the book down and reaches to switch off the light. The room is enveloped in darkness, apart from the streetlight coming in, and with it a slightly awkward silence. John tells himself not to mind it. He knows that this is uncomfortable for Sherlock: having him there without having asked or admitted that he still wants it (if he didn’t, he would have said, John knows), sharing his bed with someone, wanting him there in the first place. Of course he feels awkward. The best thing John can do for him is to smoothly overlook that part and just be there with him. For him. (Both.)

***

He wakes because the bed is shaking. Sherlock is still asleep, the nightmare gripping him. The breath is choked in his throat, making little noises that make John wince to hear. He was sleeping deeply and his limbs feel heavy, wanting nothing more than to go on sleeping. Without thinking about it too much, he reaches over and touches Sherlock’s upper arm, rubbing it reassuringly. Sherlock inhales sharply, but doesn’t flail out or shout. Instead, his breathing holds for a moment or two, then lets out and resumes a normal cycle, the tension seeping from his limbs. John makes an approving sound, his eyes still closed, and goes on touching Sherlock, just moving his thumb a bit over the back of his shoulder. Before he knows it, he’s asleep again.

***

The following day is quiet. They both stay home, puttering around the flat and not talking much. Sherlock buries himself in a long medical tome about infectious diseases that actually belongs to John from his med school days, only emerging to eat lunch when John announces that he’s made it, and again later on when Mrs Hudson comes up with a shepherd’s pie and an offer to give Rosie her bath and get her settled. By the time John finds himself yawning and realising that it’s time for bed, neither he nor Sherlock acknowledge it when he follows Sherlock down the corridor to his bedroom again. He changes the dressings on Sherlock’s back and tells him that the next time they come off, they can stay off, that the wounds are healing well. And that night, for the first time since it all began, Sherlock doesn’t have a nightmare.

***

They don’t talk about this the next day, either. After they’ve had breakfast, Sherlock says that he’s going to go for a walk and might pick up a thing or two. He doesn’t ask if John wants to come, so John just gives him a quick, once-over scan, then agrees. “All right,” he says, trying to get it to come out without tension or charge. Maybe Sherlock needs the space. Maybe he specifically needs it from John, given that they seem to still be sleeping in the same bed in an ongoing pattern now. Maybe he’s feeling weird about it and needs to think. Who knows? “Have a nice walk,” he adds.

Maybe Mrs Hudson heard the door, or saw Sherlock on his way out. Either way, she appears not long after, come to ask after Rosie and her casserole dish from the shepherd’s pie, both of which John suspects were fabricated excuses to catch him on his own. He was right. Mrs Hudson fills the kettle without asking, plugs it in, then turns to face him, leaning up against the counter and crossing her thin arms across her front. “So,” she says, rather expectantly.

John braces himself. “So, what?” It comes out rather confrontationally in spite of himself, and he almost winces when he hears it.

Mrs Hudson smiles, not at all put off by his defensiveness. “So, tell me what’s going on,” she prompts. “Oh, don’t pretend we don’t both know! You know very well I’ve been up in your room to get Rosie more than once the past few mornings, and you’ve not been in there, have you? And I know for a fact you came from the direction of Sherlock’s bedroom the other day, so that’s no secret. Go on, then! Put me in the picture. You know I wouldn’t get anything out of him if I asked, get my head bit off for my troubles, so I was hoping to get you on your own.”

John sighs. He’d rather like to tell Mrs Hudson to mind her own business and keep her nose out of his, but she’s made herself far too important to him and Rosie both to want to offend her, and besides, he likes her and doesn’t want to be a jerk. He nods at the chair nearest to where she’s standing. She grins and takes the reluctantly-offered invitation, pulling the chair out and slipping into it, her gnarled fingers clasped together. John drags the opposite chair out and deposits himself into it. “I don’t know that anything’s ‘going on’, per se,” he says slowly. “That’s the truth. I know how it must look to anyone else, but it’s not – that.”

Mrs Hudson frowns at him. “What’s that supposed to mean? When two people are sharing a bedroom, sleeping in the same bed…”

“No, I know,” John says, hunched over, his fingers twisting together. “But it’s not like that. He’s been having nightmares. Trauma. It was brought on from that case we had five days ago. It’s brought up stuff from when he was away, all sorts of different stuff – really bad stuff, and it’s got so bad that he’s afraid to sleep. I woke up to him shouting that first night after so I went down and we talked, and then he said, when I suggested he go back to sleep. So I ended up offering to stay and he agreed. It was all a bit awkward, as you can imagine. And then I don’t even remember whether he asked or if I offered, but you know him – you know how hard it is for him to admit when he needs anything. So I’ve just gone on staying down here. That’s all it is: just me sleeping there, near him. We don’t really talk about it at all. We’ve talked about some of the incidents that’ve caused it and we talked about him taking a bit of a break from the work, but – ”

“But not about the two of you and what that might mean, sharing a bed,” Mrs Hudson finishes, her eyes both shrewd and kind.

John shakes his head. “I’m not sure that it means anything,” he says. The kettle is boiling, so he gets up to make them a pot of tea. With his back to Mrs Hudson, he goes on. “We’re friends, and I happen to be both a doctor and someone who’s gone through post-traumatic nightmares, too. He can trust me with this because I’ve been there and I know how it feels.” He scoops tea leaves into the teapot, pours the hot water over them, then carries the pot back to the table. “When I first moved in here, I was still having the nightmares pretty regularly and Sherlock would come up and wake me, bring me a glass of water sometimes, just – interrupt it. It always helped. This is a chance to do the same thing for him, more or less. It’s just particularly acute for him right now, so if this helps – ” He shrugs. “It’s what friends do, I guess.”

“Well, you’re more than friends,” Mrs Hudson says philosophically, but before John can panic too much, she goes on. “You’re housemates. You share domestic space. Friends don’t know what goes on behind closed doors, but people who live together do.” She eyes the teapot with obvious pleasure. “Is that Darjeeling I smell?”

“Your favourite,” John confirms. “You take it black, don’t you?”

“Always.” Mrs Hudson smiles at him. “So how will you know when to go back to your own bed? Will you just wait until he asks you to, or tells you that he’s all right on his own again?”

John squirms internally. “I don’t know,” he says honestly. He squints at her. “I suppose?”

Mrs Hudson’s eyes are a little too kind and understanding. “Well, maybe he’ll never say so,” she says gently. “He might come to quite like having you there. I’ll get us some cups, shall I?” she adds, sparing John the need to respond to that particular thing. “Meanwhile, I won’t say anything about it to him. Best not to apply any pressure, isn’t that right? Now tell much how much tea you’d like so I know what size of cup to give you.”

***

Later that afternoon, John pulls himself to his feet and announces that he’s going to start dinner.

Sherlock blinks up at him from over at the desk, his face lit bluely from the screen. “What are you going to make?” he asks.

It’s the first time they’ve spoken in at least an hour. “I was thinking I’d do something with that chicken breast we’ve got,” John says. “Maybe a stir-fry or something.”

Sherlock makes an interested sound and John remembers then that he declined his offer of lunch upon returning from his walk. He must be hungry, then. “Should I come and help?”

The question is oblique, but John recognises the shift: he’s been doing nearly all of the cooking since the incident five days ago. “Sure, all right,” he says, careful to keep it casual. “No need, but if you want to come and chop stuff, that’d be great.”

Sherlock hums his agreement and shuts his laptop, coming over to the fridge. “What do we need?”

John goes over to stand by him, examining what they’ve got in, and together they gather their ingredients: onion, garlic, ginger, red pepper, snow peas, mushrooms, bok choy, the chicken breast, soy sauce. Sherlock suggests they do a peanut coconut sauce, so John agrees and gets the peanut butter and a tin of coconut milk from the cupboard, too. “D’you want to put on some water for rice?” he asks.

Sherlock agrees and bends to retrieve a pot, then adds a precise amount of water and sets it on the range to heat. “What do you want me to chop?”

“Er, garlic and ginger first, I think,” John decides.

They put their meal together in comfortable companionship, moving around each other in shared space that John can’t help but think feels chummier than it used to – no, it’s more than that. More familiar, more intimate, even. They make coconut rice and jasmine tea to go with the stir-fry, then sit down across from one another to tuck in. They don’t talk about anything particularly important, but it’s comfortable, the warm light of the overhead lamp seeming to knit the space between them closer than usual.

Their plates are empty. Sherlock pushes his away and fills both their cups with fresh, hot tea. “So,” he says.

John looks up when Sherlock doesn’t go on. “So?” he echoes, prompting.

Sherlock meets his eyes directly. “After all this time, I should think that you know my ways. My – preferences.” Before John’s heart rate can about treble in speed – surely they’re not actually going to suddenly talk about that – Sherlock clarifies. “You know that I don’t like the unknown. It makes me feel… uneasy.”

(Oh.) John swallows, then nods. “Right, yeah. Of course,” he says, and goes on waiting.

Sherlock looks down at his tea, his brow furrowing a bit. “It’s just that I would rather not spend the duration of this month feeling… feeling in the dark day after day, wondering how it will transpire. What I’m trying to ask is how long you intended to go on sleeping in – sleeping – down here.”

John feels a touch of alarm. “Oh – I didn’t – if you didn’t want – ”

“It’s not that,” Sherlock interrupts. “I’d just like to know how it’s going to go. In advance. I don’t know, and I don’t want to just – spend every day waiting to find out only when the moment comes. I’d like to know if it was intended initially as a one-time offer that you’ve made multiple decisions to renew again, or whether there’s a plan of some sort, or – whether you’re doing this because you think I want it and you don’t know, or – I don’t know. So I’m asking for – clarification.”

John makes himself exhale and aims to keep his voice nice and even. “I wasn’t sure what you wanted, either,” he says cautiously. “I neither want to foist my presence on you if you aren’t wanting it anymore, but I also didn’t – well – want to make you have to ask, in the case that you did. I know – it’s been a bit of an uncertainty for me, too, if you want to know. For me, it’s all about what you feel you might want or need. If you’d like me to go on sleeping downstairs, I’m fine with that. If you think it’s all right now, just – yeah. Say the word.” He specifically avoids making any direct reference to Sherlock’s room or bed, as Sherlock also skirted it, but also deliberately doesn’t mention the fact that Sherlock didn’t have a nightmare for the first time since the crime scene last night, in case it pushes Sherlock toward thinking that he’s fine now, or that John thinks he is.

Sherlock studies him, his mouth a bit tight. “But what about your preference?” he asks. “Surely you have one.”

Not one I’d ever let on, John thinks. “I’m easy either way. Really. What would you like?” Sherlock bites his lip, looking unsure, so John attempts to prod him in the direction he wants. “Would you like me to stay down here?”

Sherlock hesitates. “Not if you would rather not,” he says. “That’s my only reservation, per se.”

John shakes his head, feeling internally relieved. “I would not rather not,” he says, realising how awkwardly-worded it is as he says it. He decides to try lightening the mood slightly. “It can’t be worse than sharing a room with a toddler.” He clears his throat, and hears how it makes him sound even more awkward and the humour an even thinner attempt to cover it. It also, he realises a bit belatedly, still sounds like a not-very-gracious way of agreeing to this. He can do better than that. “What I mean is, I don’t mind,” John adds firmly. “It doesn’t bother me at all, and if it’s helping, then I’m happy to carry on with it. For as long as you want.”

Sherlock pins him with his most penetrating gaze, skewering John to his chair like one of the insects in the cases on the mantel. John tries very hard to just keep breathing and meets Sherlock’s eyes evenly. Eventually, Sherlock’s shoulders drop a little. “All right,” he says. “Thank you. I just – wanted to know. Not… be left guessing every day until night comes.”

John nods, also relaxing. “Right. Yeah. That makes sense.” He reaches for Sherlock’s plate and makes a show of collecting their silverware. “That’s settled, then.”

Sherlock gives him an odd, half-smile, but doesn’t say anything to this. “Do you want to watch the news?” he asks instead, and John agrees, relieved at the change of subject.

“I’ll just get all this sorted,” he says.

“I’ll deal with the food.” Sherlock is on his feet, swift as ever, and the subject is abandoned.

***

The entire evening is vastly less charged than the previous several have been. They’re both more comfortable, John thinks, Sherlock more so than since the entire thing started. His shoulders are relaxed as they watch the news together on the sofa, his elbow slipping down to touch John’s arm very lightly. Later, when they decide that they’ve had enough of the day, Sherlock chats to him as they make their way down the corridor, now that he can be confident that John is definitely coming along, not distracted by the internal question of whether or not he plans to stay. And once they’re both in bed, the conversation continues. Sherlock asks about the novel John’s been reading and John tells him what he knows of the plot so far.

“It sounds interesting,” Sherlock says. “Perhaps I should take up reading fiction again, with all this spare time to fill.”

“You could,” John says. “Feel free to take any of my books, obviously.”

Sherlock looks over and smiles. “I might, then. I’ll have a look, see what you’ve got.”

“I know you usually you just end up reading my old med school texts,” John teases, careful to keep his voice light, lest it sound too flirtatious.

Sherlock makes a sound of hummed amusement, his voice low and relaxed. “They’re so much more interesting than pointless, fictional characters.”

“Possibly, but the escapism of fiction can be therapeutic,” John points out. “Speaking of which: you haven’t taken any baths yet. We should get some Epsom salts. Maybe some essential oils, too. Lavender is good for relaxation, I’ve heard.”

Sherlock snorts. “Oh, yes. And while we’re at it, let’s get some candles and a Ouija board and try for a full-on séance, shall we?”

John laughs through his nose before he can prevent himself. “Stop that.” He’s privately pleased to see a resurgence of Sherlock’s sense of humour, though. “You know very well that there’s real science to support the use of magnesium, and plenty around aromatherapy, too. Don’t knock it.”

“Yes, doctor,” Sherlock quips, but it comes with fondness in the corners of his mouth and John is suddenly swamped with a desire to lean over and kiss him.

He squashes it down and swallows hard. “You’re damned right I am,” he says, meaning about being Sherlock’s doctor. “We can have a look tomorrow, if you’re itching to get out of the house. Or I can go on my own. Whatever you’re feeling like in the morning.”

Sherlock glances at him. “All right.” It’s all he says, but there’s still something of a suppressed smile playing about his mouth, and looking at it (for it) is still dangerous, so John hastily looks away.

“I think I’ll read a bit,” he says. “But just let me know when you’re ready to sleep and I’ll switch off the light.”

Sherlock nods and turns onto his side, away from John. “It’s fine. I can sleep with it on.”

“Sure?” John asks, and Sherlock makes a sound of assent. “Okay, then.” He gives it five minutes, just enough to get his brain sleepy, then reaches for the lamp and sets the room to darkness. It’s good they had the conversation about him staying down here, he thinks, turning carefully onto his side to face the same way as Sherlock without getting too close. It feels legitimised now, almost normal. (It’s good. It’s really good.)

***

He wakes in the dark to one of Sherlock’s nightmares, instantly alert. “Sherlock!” He scoots closer and says Sherlock’s name again, placing a hand carefully on Sherlock’s rigid upper arm. Sherlock shouts out, but wakes, and John lets his hand relax, patting now. “It’s all right. It’s all right. You’re here. You’re home, and safe.”

He keeps up the stream of reassuring talk until the tension bleeds from Sherlock’s frame. He makes a hoarse sound. “Thank God.”

“Let me get you some water,” John says, deciding that it’s okay to leave Sherlock for a moment. “I’ll be right back.” He pushes back the blankets and gets out of bed, hastily running the cold tap and filling a glass for Sherlock. When he gets back, he finds Sherlock still breathing hard, but he accepts the glass and John goes back around to the other side of the bed and gets back in. He gives Sherlock a moment or two, sipping and almost audibly willing his heart rate to settle. “It sounded like a bad one,” he says, not wanting to push Sherlock to talk, but opening the door to it, just in case he does.

Sherlock doesn’t respond right away. He puts the glass on the night table and turns back, hiding his hands beneath the bedding. After awhile, he nods. “It was.”

His voice is rough, even after the water. John is on his side, facing Sherlock, his hands curled under his chin. “Do you want to tell me?” he asks, almost holding his breath.

For a long minute or two, Sherlock is quiet. “We had all these plans, Mycroft and I,” he says. His tone is stark. “Thirteen of them. We were trying to pre-suppose any possibility. But he was always one step ahead.”

The question forms on John’s lips at once. “Who – ”

“Moriarty,” Sherlock says, looking up at the ceiling. “Who else? He’s behind all of this. Every last part comes back to him.”

John thinks of Eurus, then dismisses it. He never bought the notion that she was the true root of it, even if they somehow worked together. Moriarty didn’t need ‘programming’. He didn’t need any convincing to wreak havoc and terror everywhere he went, and John refuses to believe for an instant that he wasn’t in control of every last bit of it. “Plans for what?” he asks instead.

Sherlock swallows audibly. “For the day I jumped,” he says, and his fingers move beneath the blankets.

John feels himself go tense at the very mention of that day. He has to consciously make himself relax, knowing that Sherlock will have felt it. The wounds left by that day are ones he thinks will never heal, but the truth is that he still doesn’t even know very much about it. Maybe now is the time. He represses a shudder. “I could never bring myself to ask,” he says, the words hard to force out. “I know I should have. I always should have and I’m sorry that I haven’t. Like I said before. I – do want to know,” he says jerkily. “How you ended up – doing that. How it came about. What you and Mycroft knew. All of that.”

He sees a muscle in Sherlock’s jaw tense, then release. “Are you sure?” he asks, his gaze still trained on the ceiling.

John takes a deep breath. “Yes.” Good: that sounded unwavering and certain. He waits.

Sherlock takes his time, thinking for a long while first. Eventually, he starts. “We – Mycroft and his people, and I – had come to see just how far Moriarty’s network went. It also became clear after his capture that he was very much fixated on me. After his release, they found that he had scratched my name into the walls of his cell, in the dark, with what they thought was a chip of concrete he’d found on the floor. Just my name. Thousands of times over.”

John can’t help the shudder this time. “That’s disturbing.”

“Rather,” Sherlock agrees dryly. “We determined that he would orchestrate events to lead to a final confrontation between the two of us, one that would only end with either his death or mine. That was our first mistake.”

John waits, but Sherlock doesn’t explain. “What was?”

“Thinking that he would be satisfied with only one of our deaths,” Sherlock says, his lip twisting. “He was always a nihilist. I should have predicted that – that his own death would not only not prevent mine, but be an inherent part of whatever chaos he intended to ensue following that.”

John listens to this, but still doesn’t understand. “I don’t – tell me more,” he requests. “What chaos was that? I still don’t understand why you jumped.”

“Our second mistake was thinking that he would be satisfied with only my death and his,” Sherlock tells him, his gaze still trained upward. He sighs. “For that oversight, I will never forgive myself. It was inexcusable. All the data pointed to it, particularly to – but we didn’t see it. My brother was so certain that Moriarty only wanted me dead that we overlooked everything else.”

John opens his mouth to ask again, but Sherlock goes on before he can.

“The prior evidence was all there: the pattern,” Sherlock says, forestalling his question. “Every part of it, though less directly in terms of Mrs Hudson, but the house – and he’d already sent mail directly to Lestrade’s office, so I should have seen that, too, but I didn’t.”

His voice is rife with vicious self-loathing, but John still isn’t any clearer. “What pattern?” he asks.

“The pattern of targeting people close to me,” Sherlock says, not looking at him. “You in particular. He said it explicitly, that day at the pool, and that was after he’d already had the Black Lotus gang kidnap you – I still don’t believe that he didn’t know it was you all along, that would have just been a bonus to him – and then abducted you again and forced you into that bomb jacket. He said it more than once – called you my ‘pet’, implied your importance to me, said he would ‘burn the heart out of me’. How else could he have meant to make me suffer, other than force me to watch as he made people I care about suffer in front of me? You saw how he delighted in my reaction at seeing his sniper’s rifle sights on your forehead. The fact that I didn’t predict it as his most obvious move is unforgiveable!”

John is startled by the sheer amount of vitriol in Sherlock’s voice. “Are you saying that I was targeted again?” he asks, wanting so much to understand.

Sherlock nods. “You and Mrs Hudson and Lestrade,” he says. “You recall my brother warning you about the snipers who had moved in.”

John nods, too. “Yeah.” That particular, unwanted visit to the Diogenes Club has always been rather unforgettable. The fact that Mycroft had his bank card compromised all just so that his minions could pinpoint his location and abduct him, rather than just phoning him or something did rather leave a lasting memory.

“It was his way of trying to get you to remove yourself from the situation when I refused,” Sherlock says. “I should have tried, too. I was too stubborn, too sure that we could outsmart Moriarty. I hadn’t banked on the public disgrace angle, and I should have used that to persuade you to stop wanting to live with me, stop being my friend. But I couldn’t. Your approval was too important to me. Your friendship.”

John feels the warmth bloom in his gut at this. He thinks of how he thought, all that time, that he was too unimportant to Sherlock for him to have even let him know that he wasn’t dead. “Go on,” he says, hoping his voice will come out evenly. It does, almost.

Sherlock sighs again. “We predicted that he might use the hospital. We tried to force his hand so that we could control the setting, make plans to mitigate whatever he might have come up with. It almost worked. He got me onto the roof, then let me know that his assassins had targeted you, Mrs Hudson, and Lestrade, and that they could only be called off by either seeing me jump, or by him. For a moment, I thought we had won: that as long as Moriarty was alive, I wouldn’t have to jump. I could refuse to play his game, refuse to kill him in his scenario wherein only one of us could walk out of it alive.”

He goes silent, so John asks. “What happened?”

“He shot himself,” Sherlock says bitterly. “And from that moment on, the assassins’ plan was in motion. I was backed into a corner, but even then, it was Moriarty, so it was never going to be even that simple. I had no idea whether there were only three, or if there were many more. First, I had already tried to get you to leave the hospital and back to Baker Street. I wanted you well away from the scene, and I wanted you here with Mrs Hudson. We discovered later that her assassin was right here in the flat, disguised as a repairman. But you saw through it too quickly and came back. So then, we had to move to another plan, the last option that I wanted of all that my brother and I had come up with.”

John realises that he’s holding his breath. “Which was?”

Sherlock swallows. “I had no choice by that point. I had to jump, and I had to make sure that you saw it and believed it. Lest you come to see too quickly that it was a ruse, and put yourself back into danger. I needed for all three of you to believe it. Mycroft put our parents into the know and convinced them to appear to grieve at the funeral. Molly had to be in on it to legally declare me dead, then help me escape from where I was hiding in the hospital. That’s why they knew and you didn’t. And then I spent the next two years eliminating every part of Moriarty’s operation that I could find, because I didn’t know how many assassins he’d left behind to carry out the plan.”

John is stunned. “Jesus,” he says. He feels so much that he doesn’t know what to do with it, how to process all of it. “So all that time – all the time I spent thinking you were dead, that you’d made me watch you commit suicide, and then – the grieving, and then thinking that you hadn’t even thought me important enough to let me in on the fact that you’d survived – that was all just you keeping me alive.”

Sherlock’s jaw clenches again. Instead of acknowledging this, he says, “There was also no guarantee that I would survive the fall itself. We couldn’t know that. Mycroft’s experts gave it a thirty-five percent chance that I would live, a twenty-one percent chance that I would live without sustaining permanent paralysis, and even less that I would be well enough to flee England within the week. It’s… something of a miracle that I did. But I still dream of it: the fall itself. I dream of seeing you shot as you stood there, down on the pavement on the phone with me.” He pauses, then adds, “That’s what it was tonight: it was you, getting shot as I stood there and watched, trapped on the rooftop and helpless to do anything about it.”

John feels as though he can barely breathe. Something in his chest is aching, as though he’s been pinned down beneath an anvil. So it was all real: Sherlock did jump, knowing that he very well might die, but it was never for the reasons John thought. “So you had no choice,” he says, realising as he says it that Sherlock already said it. “You were blackmailed.”

Sherlock nods, his eyes still trained upward. “And I couldn’t let you know until I was sure it was done. It just… took me a lot longer than I had anticipated. Every time I thought I had come to the end of Moriarty’s operation, I discovered another group, another branch. I was beginning to think I would never be able to return, when my brother finally pulled me out.”

“But it was finished, then?” John asks, and Sherlock nods again.

“Yes. The Serbians were the last. Once I was removed, Mycroft sent in a team to finish off enough of them to slow their momentum, at least for the time being. They regrouped later, which is why I was to be sent back.”

He sounds infinitely weary and John understands why. His brain is turning all of it over and over, trying to piece it all together. But then he comes back to the reason for Sherlock’s nightmare. “You dreamt of seeing me get shot?” he asks softly. “Tonight, I mean.”

“Yes.” Sherlock’s tone is clipped. “As I stood there on the roof. It happens the same way every time: I’m on the phone with you, I can just make out your face, and then I see the rifle sight on your forehead a split second before I hear the shot. Always too late for me to say anything, to warn you.” He swallows. “It does help to… have you here immediately on waking from that one, I have to say.” He shrugs a little. “Helps separate the nightmare from reality.”

Somehow this makes John almost choke up. “Yeah, I’m here,” he says, fighting down the roughness in his voice.

Sherlock finally looks at him. “If one of your post-nightmare hugs is on offer, I’d take it,” he says, a bit stiffly, but John gets the awkwardness in asking.

“Yeah. Of course it is,” he says, and scoots over to put an arm across Sherlock’s chest. As usual, Sherlock doesn’t hug back, but he does reach up to put a hand on John’s forearm this time. Something about this very small gesture, along with the rest of the conversation, prompts John to slight recklessness. “C’mere,” he says, tugging, and Sherlock complies silently, turning to face him, arms folded into his chest. It still allows John to hug him a little better, though, so he does. “I’m here,” he says, his eyes closed to spare Sherlock having look at him for this. “I’m not dead and I’m not going anywhere. You fixed it. You got us out of it.”

Sherlock doesn’t respond to this for a long time, his breathing rough and uneven. At last he says, “Thank you.”

It’s very quiet. “Of course,” John says again. He holds a little longer, then gently lets go and shifts back a little, though not too far. “I’ll be right here,” he says again, and it’s a promise.

***

When John wakes, there’s sunlight streaming into the room and they’re both exactly where they were whenever they fell asleep after the nightmare, Sherlock’s face only about a foot away from his. It would be startling if the warmth of the sun weren’t enveloping them both and the contented drowsiness following a good, long sleep weren’t still heavy in his limbs. John yawns and stretches a little, but doesn’t move away, watching Sherlock’s face as he sleeps.

He’s breathing slowly and evenly, the lines around his mouth relaxed in sleep, making his lips look even fuller and softer. In the light, his face looks almost angelic, and John is pierced with a bone-deep desire to kiss him. It feels so much more possible now than ever before. They’re lying in bed, close together, and after last night’s deeply personal revelations, John feels that another layer of misunderstanding has finally been lifted, leaving fewer barriers between them now. Sherlock saved him. Was saving him that whole time that John thought Sherlock had intentionally forced him to grieve, or just didn’t care enough about him to realise that he would. He feels a pang at the thought of how he’s continually punished Sherlock, resenting him for that very grief ever since, when all Sherlock was doing was keeping him alive. He never had a choice, not with Moriarty’s mechanisms behind it all. It was blackmail, pure and simple. Sherlock was caught in the web, too, and he was the one who paid the price so that the rest of them could live. John reproaches himself, then remembers that he didn’t know. There was no way he could have known, had Sherlock not finally told him. It’s so like Sherlock not to have, too – to have just gone on allowing John to resent him, allowing him to bring it up hotly every time some other issue came up, rearing its head like an undefeatable monster. He just went on accepting that from John, probably thinking that he deserved it. Probably, John realises with another pang of self-reproach, because he himself went on enforcing that narrative over and over again. The urge to reach over and wake Sherlock and apologise comes over him. He wants to say it urgently, make Sherlock understand that he gets it now, that he’s so damned sorry for having put Sherlock through all of that, for all of the resentment and anger that Sherlock never deserved. The urge is so strong that his lips part, inhaling, but he also doesn’t want to wake Sherlock and makes himself hold it back.

Maybe Sherlock feels it in his sleep anyway, because his eyelids flutter and his breathing changes as he wakes. His eyes open and focus immediately on John, blinking as his brain comes online again. “Oh.” His voice is scratchy and deep, which John finds simultaneously endearing and arousing. Sherlock yawns. “Hello,” he says after, as though he’s mildly surprised to find John where he still is.

This is reasonable, John reminds himself; normally he’s very careful to keep to his side of the bed. He smiles. “Hello,” he says. “Sleep all right?”

Sherlock nods. “I think so. Yes. What time is it?” He squints into the sunlight. “It must be after ten.”

“Could be. We were awake for a good chunk of the night, there.” John turns onto his back and reaches for his phone. “Yeah. It’s twenty to eleven, in fact.” He rolls back and shrugs. “Doesn’t matter. We haven’t got anything on. Nothing wrong with having a little lie-in.”

“I suppose,” Sherlock says, almost reluctantly. “Mrs Hudson has Rosie?”

“She must,” John says. “She usually does get her up. It’s fine.” Sherlock shifts onto his bed and yawns again, stretching hugely, and John can’t help but let his eyes drift guiltily over the long lines of his lithe torso. He swallows and averts his eyes when Sherlock looks back over at him.

“What should we do with the day?” he asks, sounding more content at the notion of their unencumbered schedule now.

They’ve never really woken up together like this, and this whole lying in bed talking thing is new. Usually Sherlock is up and out of the room by the time John even wakes up. It feels oddly intimate. John punches down the pillow under his head and stuffs his hands under his face to prop it up. “What do you feel like?” he asks. “I mean, we could eat. It’s the perfect time for brunch. We could go out or make it here… and as it seems to be such a nice day, we could go for a walk, if you like. We talked about maybe going round to the shops and picking up some Epsom salts for your baths.”

Sherlock makes an interested sound. “Brunch could be good,” he says. “And a walk, too. Regent’s Park, perhaps. We could take Rosie, if you like.”

John is a little surprised by this, but doesn’t say so. “Sure, if you want,” he says. “Brunch here or somewhere else?”

“It needn’t to be my sole decision,” Sherlock says. He’s also on his side, facing John, his face serious. “What would you like?”

John doesn’t point out that Sherlock is the one in a somewhat delicate state of mental and emotional health these days and that he’s been deliberately avoiding suggesting that Sherlock go out anywhere. “It doesn’t matter to me,” he says, trying to keep from sounding as though he’s treading carefully. “We’re quite good at breakfast. And brunch out is always a treat, too. It’s up to you.”

“Hmm.” Sherlock considers this, his mouth bunching up at the side in a way that isn’t making John want to kiss him any less. “Let’s go out, then. I feel as though I haven’t left the flat in days.”

“Apart from short walks, you haven’t really,” John agrees. “If you feel like going out, then let’s go out. Where should we go?”

“What are some good options?” Sherlock asks, and that opens the pleasant new line of discussion about various local brunch options and the happy situation of having nothing more pressing on their agenda than simply choosing a restaurant. They decide after a few minutes and Sherlock sits up. “Perfect. Then I’m going to have a shower, if you don’t mind.”

“Go right ahead. I’ll shower later on,” John says. “You don’t mind if I come and shave once you’re in?”

“Not at all,” Sherlock assures him. They’ve both done this; asking is just a formality at this point. “I’ll just – get in there, then.”

“Right.” John watches him go, not quite closing the loo door all the way behind him. He can hear the sound of Sherlock stripping off his pyjama pants and the ragged old t-shirt he was wearing with them, and then the water comes on.

They get ready for the day in companionable harmony, and to John it feels like they’re staying very closely in each other’s orbit, as though last night shifted something permanently. Maybe it did, he thinks. Maybe he needed to know about what Sherlock went through for him as much as Sherlock needed for him to know it. Maybe that’s been one of the biggest things blocking them. Well – no, there’s more than that. There’s still all the rest of it. Mary. Eurus. Everything they’ve gone through and never fully processed, though they’ve talked about some of it now. And now they’re beginning to unravel Sherlock’s suppressed trauma and all the things that have caused it, too. Maybe this is the beginning of a whole new phase for them.

Some of this is in his head as they walk the short distance to the brunch restaurant they chose, though John is careful to tread lightly, not wanting to presume anything. While Sherlock seems to be equally cautious, it still feels like there’s a sense of greater ease between them, though John tells himself he could well be imagining it. Nonetheless, as they order and eat their way through a delicious brunch, John can’t help feeling almost like it’s a morning after of sorts. It’s ridiculous; they’ve been sleeping in the same bed for a week now, and decidedly not what he would normally call “sleeping together”. It’s not new. But it still feels different, somehow. It’s a weekday and the normal brunch crowds are mercifully absent. Sherlock orders some sort of fancy eggs benedict with crab and a dill hollandaise. It comes with a heap of fresh fruit, but he steals a chip from John’s enormous full English anyway, which makes John smile.

“Go ahead,” he invites, spearing a roast cherry tomato with his fork. “There’s loads and I’m not going to finish as it is.”

Sherlock smiles, more to himself than to John. “Help yourself to any of the fruit, then.”

John notices a woman at the next table smiling indulgently their way and thinks she must assume they’re on a date. He wishes it were a date, rather than a cautious first re-emergence into public following a major episode of trauma. He reaches over and nabs a blackberry from Sherlock’s plate. “How did you sleep, after all that?” he asks, trying to distract attention from the whole public sharing of food thing.

Sherlock makes a thoughtful sound. “Surprisingly well, given the interruption.” He reaches for his latte and takes a long sip, not meeting John’s eyes. “It must help having you there.”

John presses his lips together, lest he say something he really shouldn’t. “I’m glad,” he says, carefully light. He clears his throat, which probably gives the entire game away. Maybe it would be safer to talk about the food, after all. “You still up for going round to a shop or two after this? The weather’s nice…”

Sherlock nods and puts his cup down. “All right. Why not? As you said, we haven’t got anything else on. Mrs Hudson seemed receptive to the notion of us taking Rosie for a walk later on.”

“If you’re still feeling good about being out and about,” John says. “We maybe don’t want to overdo it right away.”

“True.” Sherlock doesn’t sound particularly concerned, though. He sneaks another chip with his fingers, giving John one of those slanted looks from under his lashes as he does it and nearly making John’s heart stop.

He pushes his plate a little closer. “Go on,” he says. “Try the mushrooms, too. They’re fantastic.”

He wonders if Sherlock can hear his heart beating as loudly as he can, but if he does, he doesn’t say so. Instead, he just blinks and smiles again. “All right,” he says simply, and John can feel the heat flushing into his cheeks.

God, get it together, he tells himself, looking away and breathing deeply. He reaches for his glass of water and drinks half of it in one go, trying to find some semblance of normal before he makes an utter fool of himself.

***

The rest of the day goes on feeling like a date, though, no matter how hard John tries to tell himself that it’s not. It’s just small, mundane things: breakfast out, a few errands, a walk in the park next door with a toddler who fusses and drops her beloved stuffed rabbit in a puddle fifteen minutes in, and yet it keeps feeling special somehow. They stay in and cook, Sherlock volunteering to feed Rosie while John has a late afternoon shower, then after they make spaghetti together. It’s simple enough, but they stopped off at a bakery and bought a fresh baguette, which Sherlock has sliced open, slathered with garlic butter, and put into the oven to warm while the sauce simmers on the range. John steals looks at Sherlock as he concocts a salad from the box of field greens they got. He slices grape tomatoes, cucumber, and spring onion and tosses it all in a light balsamic vinaigrette. It’s nothing fancy, but Sherlock watches and makes approving noises.

“Wine?” he asks. “I think we’ve got a bottle of something or other in the cupboard.”

John glances at him. “Sure, if you’d like,” he says. “I’ll just put the spaghetti together and then I think we’re set.”

Sherlock was right: the bottle turns out to be a merlot, which he pronounces suitable for the spaghetti, not that John cares in the slightest. He sets out glasses and pours the wine, then retrieves the garlic bread from the oven. “Do you need a hand with that?” he asks solicitously, meaning the spaghetti, but John shakes his head.

“No, it’s fine,” he says, setting a large bowl of pasta in front of Sherlock’s plate. “Help yourself. And me too, if you want. I’ll just grab the salad.”

They sit down to their meal, and even with the sounds of Rosie babbling to herself from her playpen in the sitting room, the date feeling from brunch lingers, at least for John. He’s careful not to say or do anything to draw attention to this, obviously, but it’s glowing in his belly. They eat through the simple, homey, delicious meal, the conversation deliberately light. John wonders if Sherlock is feeling it, too, or if it’s just him, but of course he’s not going to ask. He’s blundered enough over the years. He’s not going to smash this delicate new thing that seems to be building. Of course, it could all be in his head, too. The delicacy could just be Sherlock himself, and his precarious emotional balance at the moment. He doesn’t trust his own objectivity enough when it comes to Sherlock. John suppresses a sigh. It’s fine: this is nice. Really nice, even.

“It’s been a nice day,” Sherlock comment, that same, careful lightness in his voice. He picks up his wineglass and swirls the last swallow around in it.

John studies him. “It has,” he agrees cautiously. It sounds a bit like Sherlock hasn’t finished, so he waits.

Sherlock frowns a little. “I wasn’t sure how it would be. Going out and… such. But it felt unexpectedly normal. Better than normal,” he amends. “It was – nice.”

“No, I know what you mean,” John says, hastening to assure him. “And it was. But with trauma – with any injury, for that matter – recovery doesn’t always go in a straight line. In fact, it usually doesn’t. So if there’s another time when it doesn’t feel as – as comfortable or right being out and about, that’s normal. I wouldn’t take today as a false positive or anything, but there are bound to be ups and downs. I’m glad today was an up.”

Sherlock processes this, the lines still there between his brows. “So am I,” he says after a moment or two. It’s clear that there’s more on his mind than that, but he doesn’t say the rest of it.

John doesn’t push for it. Instead, he shifts topics. “And we’ve got those Epsom salts, too. Maybe you should try them out tonight. Round off a good day with a nice, relaxing soak before bed.”

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth quirks. “Maybe in a bit,” he says. “Right now I’m so full of pasta that I’d probably drown. Should we watch something, perhaps?”

John laughs. “Fair,” he says ruefully. “Though I’m putting the blame on your fantastic garlic bread. I should get Rosie organised for bed, but then let’s watch something, yeah. You can pick.”

“I’ll deal with the clean-up in here,” Sherlock says. “Go ahead and take Rosie up, if you like.”

“Sure?” John asks, but Sherlock waves him off, so he goes to scoop up his daughter. “Come on, then, you,” he says. “Let’s get you changed and into bed, shall we?”

They watch two episodes of the new drama series they had started just before the crime scene incident, then Sherlock stretches deeply and yawns. “I think perhaps I will have a bath,” he says. “You don’t mind?”

“Mind?” John repeats in surprise. “Why would I mind?”

Sherlock shrugs. “I don’t know,” he says. “You might have wanted to watch another episode.”

“I’m fine,” John assures him. “Go ahead. Take your time and really unwind.” He smiles up at Sherlock, who’s on his feet now. “Which one are you going to try first?”

Sherlock goes over to the desk where he left the three hefty bags of salts he picked out. “The lavender, I think,” he says, after a moment’s deliberation. “It’s supposed to be good for sleep.” He picks up the bag. “We’ll see about that.”

“Time will tell.” John smiles to himself as Sherlock disappears down the corridor. He tries to tell himself that he’s not listening as Sherlock runs the taps and gets his bath organised, but it’s hard to think of anything but Sherlock, honestly. He clears his throat and tries to make himself focus on his facebook notifications. He can hear the occasional splash coming from the loo, but otherwise it’s quiet. After twenty-five minutes, he gives in and makes his way down the corridor. “How’s it going in there?” he asks through the door.

Sherlock makes an amused sound, his low voice resonating off the tiled walls. “Fine. Were you concerned I had drowned after all?”

“No, just wanted to – I don’t know, check,” John says, feeling a bit lame. “That lavender smells good and strong.”

“Can you smell it from out there?” Sherlock asks curiously, and John confirms. “It’s even stronger in here.” He pauses. “You can come in, if you were wanting to…”

“Yeah?” John cracks the door. “Sure? I wouldn’t want to… I don’t know, intrude.”

“It’s fine.” Sherlock turns his head and quirks a slightly impish smile at him. “I put bubble bath, so you needn’t worry for my modesty.”

John snorts. “Oh, as though that’s ever been a deterring factor,” he says, though it’s been ages since Sherlock’s days of wearing nothing but a sheet around the flat. He’s become considerably more private about all that since his return, in fact. John thinks of the scars Sherlock returned with and wonders if that’s the reason why. He suppresses a shudder. “I didn’t really come for any reason,” he says, trying to explain himself. “Just got bored out there.”

Sherlock shrugs. “You can go ahead and get ready for bed, if you want. I don’t mind.”

“Yeah?” John surveys Sherlock’s face, but he’s closed his eyes and waves his hand in the general direction of the sink, a graceful motion that John can’t help but simultaneously admire and desire, his long arm sinuous, the skin gleaming from the sheen of the soap. There’s also a puff of bubbles on his forearm that’s incongruously cute and John has to bite his tongue to keep from saying anything about it. He swallows. “All right then, I’ll just shave and brush my teeth and then leave you to get out. You know, if you plan to be out within the hour. I mean, take your time, obviously.”

This is part of their running joke and Sherlock knows it. He doesn’t rise to the bait, though, smiling as he tips his head back against the back wall of the tub.

John is left with nothing to do but make good on what he said he’s there to do, so he shaves and brushes his teeth, taking his time but trying not to be too obvious about it. He’s just rinsing off his toothbrush when Sherlock sits up, the water moving noisily. John glances at him through the mirror.

“Oh,” Sherlock says, looking toward the laundry bin, and John spots the issue: there’s a bath towel lying on top, neatly folded, but it’s out of reach. It wouldn’t have been an issue if John weren’t there, but he is.

“I’m done here,” he says hastily. “I’ll get right out of your way.”

“No, it’s fine,” Sherlock says. “I just wondered if you could pass me that towel. Suddenly I’m too hot and I want to get out.”

“Oh – of course,” John says, feeling more flustered than he should. He passes Sherlock the towel. He should go, but… “You all right? Not feeling faint?”

“I don’t think so. Just hot,” Sherlock says. He bends forward to pull the plug, then stands up, holding the towel in front of him, but there’s still a lot of wet, very naked Sherlock suddenly on display.

John swallows and it sounds very loud. “I’ll – I’ll just leave you to it, then,” he stammers, and all but bolts from the loo, pulling the door closed behind him. He stands there for a second, wondering how much of the game he just gave away there, then shakes his head. Get a grip, he orders himself. He goes to the other bedroom door, the one that leads to the corridor, and closes that, too, then strips off his clothes and changes quickly into the pyjama pants and t-shirt he switched out earlier. He needs the loo, but Sherlock is still drying off in there, so he gets into bed for the time being.

It’s a short wait, though; Sherlock appears a moment later, his towel wrapped tightly around his hips, bare from the waist up. “Did you need the – ?” he asks, indicating the bathroom with a thumb.

John nods. “No rush. Just if you’re done.”

Sherlock nods. “Go ahead.”

John slips by him, forcing himself to keep from looking, shuts himself in the steamy chamber and attempts to will his body into a state calm enough to allow him to relieve himself, all too aware of Sherlock’s warm, naked skin just through the door. (Stop it!) He rinses his hands and face in cold water, has a silent but stern mental chat with himself in the mirror, then goes back into the bedroom and gets back into Sherlock’s bed. Sherlock is already in on his side. He reaches over, plugs in his phone, then switches off the lamp on his side, so John figures he wants to sleep and does the same thing. There’s a bit of adjusting and whatnot, but even after quiet falls, John senses that Sherlock is very much still awake, thinking almost audibly. Should he ask…? After a bit, he decides to. “Penny?” he asks, doing his best to keep his voice light. Maybe Sherlock’s anxiety around the nightmares has returned in spite of the bath and he needs to talk.

Sherlock inhales, then stops. John waits. After a moment or two, Sherlock says, carefully, “Today was… nice.”

He already said that earlier, after supper, so John waits to see if there’s something more to come. There doesn’t seem to be anything else, though, at least not that Sherlock seems to want to say just yet. “It was. Yeah. At least, I thought so.” He lets a little more space pass between them, just in case, but that seems to be it.

Sherlock turns fully onto his side, facing away like he usually does. “Good night,” he says simply, and that seems to be that.

(What was that?) John wonders, but the universe declines to provide him with any answers. “Good night,” he says, then lies awake for the next half hour just turning it over in his head.

***

The nightmare wakes John before Sherlock as usual. He’s awake instantly, turning over as Sherlock’s body convulses as though he’s flinching from a beating. Sherlock is lying facing away from him and John doesn’t want to do anything that would make Sherlock feel like he’s being restrained, so he reaches over and touches Sherlock’s hair, smoothing it back from his hot forehead. “Hey,” he says, keeping his voice gentle. “It’s okay. Wake up. It’s okay.”

Sherlock jerks awake with a gasp, like he’s been electrocuted, then the breath comes rushing back out and it’s shaking.

John moves to pull back now that Sherlock is awake. “Let me get you some – ”

“No!” The word sounds almost panicked. “Don’t – just – stay with – don’t go!”

John has never heard Sherlock sound so lost or so broken and he instinctively moves closer again. “Okay! Okay. I’m right here. I won’t go anywhere,” he says, and this time he does put an arm around Sherlock, hugging him closer than he would ever have allowed himself before. “I’m right here,” he repeats, saying it again and again in what’s meant to be a comforting stream of reassurance.

Sherlock doesn’t make any move to return the gesture, as usual, but this time his frame is sagging into John’s as though in desperate need of the physical assurance of John’s presence. He’s still shaking, even his teeth chattering.

“Are you cold?” John asks, but Sherlock shakes his head, just a brief movement on the pillow. John keeps his elbow and forearm on Sherlock’s upper arm, but moves his fingers back to Sherlock’s curls, since he seemed to like that the day he had a nightmare on the sofa. “What was it this time?” he asks, hoping it won’t be too intrusive. Better out than in, Ella always use to advise him.

“It was you,” Sherlock says, his voice wrecked in a way that John finds heartrending.

Sherlock’s hair is soft between his fingers and for a moment he marvels at being allowed to touch it this way, even as he grapples inwardly with what to say to this. “What about me?”

“You got shot.” Sherlock’s eyes are closed. He sounds grieved and weary.

John purses his lips, thinking over last night’s revelations. “By the sniper?”

“No. By Mary.”

John’s fingers go still. He doesn’t know what to say to this. He inhales, but he’s still searching when Sherlock speaks again.

“I knew you wouldn’t want to hear it.” His voice is quiet but steady now, and very definite.

John shakes his head. “No. That isn’t it. I just – yeah. You can tell me.” He pauses. “I want to know. What happened?”

“I wouldn’t want to – compromise your memories,” Sherlock says stiffly.

John thinks for a second of saying that he’s literally in bed with Sherlock, holding him in the aftermath of a dream, and even if it’s not like that, surely this means something, though he’s not sure what. He’s got to straighten this out, though, once and for all. “Sherlock, you’re not – nothing you can say would change anything in terms of my memories of Mary,” he says, then realises how it sounds. “Which is to say that I already knew it was over long before she died. Okay?” He waits, but Sherlock doesn’t respond. He needs to say more, then. He grimaces inwardly, then makes himself bring out the long-unspoken words. “Look,” he says. “By that point, there wasn’t any love left there. Just endless anger and guilt. And shame, too. Shame that I’d gone back to her, shame that I couldn’t figure out a good way to just end it. I felt tied to her because of Rosie and I felt like I had to honour my marriage vows, but she’d also shot you and I didn’t know how to, I don’t know, reconcile any of that. I felt like I was just living in this nightmarish limbo of not being able to move in any direction, that anything I did or didn’t do was wrong no matter what.” He stops, out of breath, his emotions getting ahead of him. Sherlock seems to be listening intently, still not responding yet, so he takes a deep breath and goes on. “Nothing you could say right now will ‘compromise’ the memories of whatever any of that was. It’s over and I’m glad it is. I’m not glad about how any of it unfolded or my own part in how that all went, but it is what it is, and I’m glad I’m here now. Both generally, and – yeah. Right here and now. So – tell me. If you would.”

There’s a long pause as Sherlock almost audibly examines this paragraph in his head, turning it over this way and that, prodding it for weaknesses. Eventually his shoulders loosen very slightly. “It was… like the night when she shot me. But then, when I heard the bullet, suddenly I was off to the side and it was you on the floor. And you were dead. Blood everywhere. Your eyes were closed but I knew you were dead.”

John exhales hard and bends his forehead to Sherlock’s upper back, his fingers still buried in Sherlock’s curls. “I’m not dead. I’m right here.”

Sherlock nods, just a little. “Good,” he says, and the word is tight.

They lie there that way for awhile. John thinks that Sherlock must have been worried about his safety – his safety from Mary, specifically. He thinks of Sherlock all but throwing away his life – certainly his freedom – to protect Mary from Magnussen. But really, him by extension. That Sherlock did all of that just to keep him safe, so that the threat of Mary’s past coming to claim accountability and recompense wouldn’t make her a danger to him or anyone else. But most of all, he thinks of lying here in Sherlock’s bed next to him, the warmth of his long form so close to John’s. After a bit, he asks, “Do you want me to stop this?”

He moves his fingers a little to show what he means, but Sherlock makes a sound of negation. “Not particularly.”

“Okay.” John wonders if he should ask to hear the rest of it, about Sherlock’s nightmares about Mary, but Sherlock’s breathing has slowed and John’s not sure he should deliberately keep him awake. Maybe in the morning, or at some other point.

Either way, Sherlock doesn’t talk about it. There’s a lot more that could – and maybe should – be said, but it’s also the middle of the night. John loses track of the time and falls asleep again.

***

When he wakes this time, he’s alone in the bed, but he can smell food, scents that his brain separates into bacon and coffee after a moment or two. He turns onto his back and stretches, thinking of last night. Sherlock has dreamed of him dying two nights in a row now. What’s driving that? John wonders. He thinks of falling asleep with his arm half around Sherlock, his fingers in his hair, and asking if Sherlock wanted him to stop. Sherlock said no, so he didn’t. Is that why he’s not here now, though? John looks around for his phone, wanting to know the time. It’s half-past ten. Mrs Hudson must have Rosie, then. A pang of guilt strikes somewhere low in his gut. He should make a concerted effort to keep Rosie for the rest of the day, once he’s up. She loves having Rosie, invents excuses to take her, but John is uncomfortably aware of how much he leans into that, depends on it. He’s been waiting for a daycare spot to open in the neighbourhood, and Mrs Hudson has already said more than once that she’s not looking forward to being needed less and he’s not even sure what to do with that. Never mind: they can cross that bridge when the time comes. John yawns and stretches, then pulls himself out of bed. He’d like to shower, but he figures he should go and cautiously explore the lie of the land first.

He pads barefoot down the corridor, rubbing at his stubble, and stops short at the entrance to the kitchen. Sherlock is sitting at the table, his back to the doorway, browsing the Times. Rosie is in her high chair with a book, her stuffed duck, and four or five plastic blocks all scattered over the tray. She’s currently pushing at the blocks and making sounds to herself and seems quite content. John feels wrongfooted, like he’s missed a step somewhere.

Sherlock half-turns. “Good morning,” he says, his tone carefully neutral.

“Er, hi,” John says. He convinces his feet to move and goes over to kiss Rosie on the head, conveniently hiding his face for a moment. “Er – where’s Mrs Hudson?”

Sherlock looks up from the paper and blinks at him. “Downstairs, I presume. Why?”

There’s something set about his mouth and John wonders for an uneasy minute if Sherlock is bristling at some sort of implied feeling that John thinks he’s not capable of handling Rosie, or that he doesn’t trust Sherlock with her. “Nothing – I just – I didn’t realise you’d been stuck with Rosie again,” he says, not sure whether he’s helping or digging himself deeper.

“I volunteered,” Sherlock says, his features composed into a perfectly expressionless façade. “I was already up when I heard her wake. Mrs Hudson came up a bit later and offered to take her, but I sent her back down. It’s fine. I wanted to.”

John studies him, biting his lip. “Okay,” he says. “Are you sure? I just – I mean, I’m grateful that you’re willing to do this. You’re always fantastic with her. I just never want you to feel like you have to. That’s all.”

Sherlock sighs, just a little. “I volunteered,” he repeats. “Is it an issue?”

“No!” John goes and pulls out the chair across from Sherlock and sits down, their eyes meeting intensely. “Please don’t think this has anything to do with my opinion of your skill in handling Rosie. It’s got everything to do with me always feeling a bit like I’ve imposed this on you, that having her here was sort of an extra price on you and me living together again. I’m just always aware of it and not wanting it to be… I don’t know, a burden on you.”

Sherlock’s face doesn’t move at all, except to blink once or twice. Then he inhales and says, very carefully, “It’s not a burden.” John opens his mouth to counter this, but Sherlock cuts him off before he can. “If I can help in the smallest of ways – for instance, in feeding your child and occupying her while you sleep, knowing that the reason you were lacking sleep in the first place was because of me, then I’m… grateful that you have allowed me to do so.” He drops his eyes back to the paper, clears his throat, then adds, “There’s coffee if you want it, and I just started breakfast. But if you’d like to shower first, I can hold it back.”

John swallows. The change of subject says pretty clearly to him that Sherlock doesn’t want to do a deep dive into the thing he just said before that, so he goes with it. “No, I can wait, if you were already cooking… is there anything I can do?” He sort of wants to confirm that Sherlock fed Rosie, but he said he did, didn’t he? It would be a token of his confidence in Sherlock’s abilities with Rosie if he didn’t ask, so he doesn’t ask.

Sherlock shakes his head. “I was just waiting to put on some eggs. Pour yourself some coffee, if you want. I’ve got plates out by the range.”

John tries for a smile and if it comes out a bit tightly, that can’t be helped. “Okay,” he says. Sherlock doesn’t want to talk about last night, clearly. That’s okay. It was a good bit more intimate than any of the other nights have been so far, and John likes the trend, if not the reason behind it. At least Sherlock is willing to allow John to hold him when he needs it, or wants it. That alone is a lot, and he’d rather not say anything clumsy or stupid to risk blowing that very trust. He’s asked for specific direction just now and been given it: get himself some coffee. Right. Good. He gets up and goes for a mug to do exactly that.

***

The rest of the day feels okay. Or not ‘okay’, John thinks, mentally amending this. It feels fine. Just very slightly more careful than the previous day with its borderline-flirtatious brunch and bath time business. Sherlock seems a little more reserved today, but there’s no tension or anything between them. They keep to the flat, except to take Rosie out in her buggy for a walk through the park later on, stopping to watch the ducks, which she shouts at in delight. Sherlock informs her of their species name in Latin and Rosie ignores him. John laughs, glancing around at the people hiding indulgent smiles that are definitely aimed at them. Part of him feels hot around the ears to realise that they all think that the three of them are a family unit, yet at the same time, another part of him puffs out with pride at the same thought. Is it like that for everyone? he wonders uneasily. When they first start being out and about as a same-sex couple? Although that’s rather putting the cart before the horse, isn’t it? The reality is that he’s out with the daughter he had with an assassin, and his flatmate. They’re not a family. Except that they are, sort of. In a way.

Never mind. John swallows and asks if Sherlock wants to stop off at the bakery they often pass on their way home, pick up some pastries or something for after supper, and Sherlock agrees. They choose éclairs and raspberry mousse and a brightly-iced sugar cookie for Rosie and make their way home.

Later on, Sherlock says that he’ll cook as John gets Rosie ready for bed, so he agrees and carts her off upstairs to deal with all that. When he comes down forty minutes later, the flat smells mouth-wateringly divine and Sherlock tells him that his timing is perfect and that dinner is just about ready.

“Suddenly I’m famished,” John says. The table hasn’t been laid yet, so he beelines for a cupboard to get some plates. “What have you made?”

Sherlock makes a humming sound. “I think I’ve invented a sort of meatball. No – they’re definitely meatballs; we’ll just see whether or not they hold together.”

“Mmm. They smell fantastic. I don’t think I’d even care if they don’t hold together,” John says. “But why wouldn’t they?”

Sherlock shrugs, stirring something in a pan. “I didn’t want to put bread crumbs. I don’t like the texture it gives them. So I experimented.”

John sets out the plates and arranges silverware beside them. “With what?”

“Egg and parmesan,” Sherlock tells him. “So I went with an Italian theme. I made a marinara sauce and now they’re just baking in that with some mozzarella. And I made a Caesar salad. We had that romaine.”

He indicates the big salad bowl on the counter with his head, so John interprets that as a hint and goes to get it. “Wow,” he says. “I can’t wait.”

Sherlock smiles modestly, more to himself than to John. “We’ll see how it turns out,” he says philosophically. He bends to open the oven door. “This looks done.” He brings out a baking dish and sets it in the centre of the table where there’s already a folded tea towel waiting. “There’s a bottle of chianti beside the fridge, if you’d like to open it.”

“This is a red letter day,” John says, going for the wine. “And then we have those pastries, don’t forget.”

Sherlock sits down across from him. “Quite,” he says, sounding rather satisfied. “Shall we?”

They eat, and Sherlock’s experimental cheesy meatballs are everything John could have hoped for and more. They hold together just fine and Sherlock explains his decision-making process between cooking the meatballs in a pan or roasting them in the oven. John listens and nods occasionally, but mostly he’s busy filling his face. “They’re fantastic,” he says, more than once. “Next time, you’ll have to show me how to make them.”

“If I remember how much of everything I put in,” Sherlock says, but doesn’t refuse otherwise.

“What, you didn’t add it to some sort of spreadsheet or something?” John digs, having a go at a light flirt.

Sherlock’s lips purse a bit. “No,” he says. “I should have. I agree, they are rather good, if I may.”

“You may,” John pronounces, and Sherlock smiles but doesn’t say anything more.

They eat their pastries with another episode of their drama series on. They talked about saving either the éclair or the mousse for another day, but in the end they eat all of it and neither of them even cares. After the second episode, Sherlock gets up and goes to the desk, opening his laptop and poking at it now and then as John scrolls through his social media rather aimlessly.

It’s Mike Stamford’s birthday, so he types a happy birthday message on his facebook wall. Mike sees it at once and likes it, then comments a moment later: Thanks mate! How’s Sherlock doing? Saw the message on his website, hope all’s well! John thinks for a moment. Sherlock is very rarely visibly active on any of his social media accounts, but John is fairly certain that he’s very much aware of everything that’s going on. He’s doing all right. We’ll have to go for a drink sometime, he types back, leaving the wording of the ‘we’ deliberately vague and steering the topic away from Sherlock and the carefully-worded message John crafted for his website, saying that he’s not currently taking cases.

It’s past eleven. He closes his laptop and stages a yawn, but then it turns into a real one halfway through. “Think I’ll start getting ready for bed,” he says.

Sherlock makes a sound to show that he heard, then adds, “Go ahead. I’ll be there in a bit.”

John tells himself not to feel miffed by this and wanders off down the corridor. He decides to take a shower, since he didn’t earlier. He’d meant to after breakfast, but then thought he shouldn’t go on leaving Sherlock watching Rosie, so he stepped in to play with her and that while Sherlock cleared up in the kitchen. He goes into the bedroom to get his pyjama pants and a fresh t-shirt, setting them on top of the laundry hamper with a towel as he runs the hot water. He keeps the shower short, aware that Sherlock might have decided to come to bed after all. It’s relaxing and he feels better after, towelling himself off quickly and putting his pyjamas on. Sure enough, Sherlock is there in the bedroom when he opens the door and John immediately apologises. “Sorry – I didn’t realise you were waiting,” he starts, but Sherlock waves it off.

“I wasn’t. I only just finished changing,” he says. The corner of his lip quirks. “You’ve steamed up the mirrors, though.”

His humour has been noticeably quiet all day and John is pleased to catch a glimmer of it now. “Deepest apologies,” he says lightly. “You’ll have to get a butter knife to brush your teeth into.”

Sherlock actually laughs. “Don’t worry. I should be able to locate my teeth. And whatever else.”

John feels his eyebrows shoot upward at this before he can help himself. Is Sherlock actually making a rather cheeky reference? He has to bite back the urge to say something along the lines of Let me know if you need any help in that department and clears his throat instead. “Er, good luck with that, then,” he says, and Sherlock gives him the ghost of a grin and disappears into the loo. John clears his throat again and goes round to what’s become ‘his’ side of the bed before he can get himself into any trouble, or his body betray him.

Sherlock joins him a moment, turning to face away from John as usual and switching off the lamp, so John puts his phone down and does the same. “You don’t need to,” Sherlock says, without looking back at him. “Take your time.”

“It’s fine,” John assures him. “I was ready to have it off. I was just waiting for you. Wouldn’t want to hamper your vision any more than I already have tonight.”

He says this lightly, angling to make Sherlock laugh and ease the slight awkwardness that sharing a bed still brings, and it works. Sherlock exhales a laugh through his nose. “Very thoughtful,” he says dryly. There’s a pause, then he adds, “When you have your drink with Stamford, you can pass along my birthday wishes. If it’s still reasonably near the date, I suppose.”

John is surprised. “Oh,” he says. “I thought we would all go together, unless you’d rather not. I thought we’d wait until you felt… ready for that.” He knows he left the wording deliberately vague, neither wanting to assume Sherlock’s presence or imply some sort of couple-hood that doesn’t exist, nor imply that it would only be him, either.

There’s another pause as Sherlock contemplates this. “I see,” he says.

John looks over at him, but Sherlock is still facing the loo. “He’s our friend, not just mine,” he says. “I mean, he’s the reason we met in the first place. I wouldn’t just go off without you, especially not now. I know he and I’ve gone for drinks on our own in the past, but didn’t I always invite you?”

“You did,” Sherlock allows. “It was always me who decided not to come when I didn’t, not…” He trails off. “I made an incorrect deduction. But you should feel free to go on your own, if you want to. I don’t want you to feel tethered to the flat – or me – any more than you already are.”

He turns onto his back and looks at John at last, his expression very serious. John isn’t quite sure what to say. “I don’t feel tethered,” he says truthfully. “This is where I want to be, Sherlock. Here. With you.” He searches Sherlock’s eyes for a moment, then adds, “I’m in no rush to go for a drink with Stamford, or anyone else. I’m completely content. Kind of enjoying this little step back from the rush of ‘regular’ life, whatever that is. Please don’t think anything otherwise, okay? I’m exactly where I want to be right now.” That might be saying too much – especially given that where he happens to be ‘right now’ is in Sherlock’s bed, but maybe Sherlock needs that reassurance. Maybe even including the bed part.

Sherlock’s gaze is intense, but it seems that he finds what he’s looking for. He swallows. “Thank you,” he says quietly. “That… means a lot, John.”

John presses his lips together a bit. “I’m not leaving you again,” he says firmly. “I meant it when I said it before and I still mean it.”

Sherlock opens his mouth, inhaling, then stops. “All right,” he says instead. He hesitates. “Good night, then.”

He turns away without waiting for an answer. John gives him one, anyway. “Good night,” he says, almost holding his breath. “Sleep well.” He wants to touch Sherlock somehow, just give some sort of tangible reminder of his presence, but maybe he’s already said too much. He keeps his hands to himself and turns to face the window.

***

He doesn’t know what time it is when he wakes, but the moon is high and shining in through the window as Sherlock’s nightmare shakes the bed. He turns automatically and shifts over, putting his arm around Sherlock the way he wanted to earlier and holding him, murmuring quiet words meant to still the inner terror, not even sure whether or not Sherlock is awake. Either way, it works: the violent tremors wracking Sherlock’s frame dissipate and his body sags into John’s chest. John leaves his arm exactly where it is and drifts back into sleep.

***

In the morning, Sherlock is still there when he wakes and John is still holding him. They wake more or less at the same time, John withdrawing his arm and trying not to be too awkward about it, but Sherlock doesn’t acknowledge it, anyway. He’s just – neutral. Fine, but rather acting like nothing unusual has happened.

“Would you mind if I showered?” he asks, his tone polite, yet completely opaque.

“Not at all,” John says. “Go ahead. I’ll get a start on breakfast, maybe. Since you did, yesterday.”

Sherlock lifts one shoulder in what might be a shrug. “All right,” he says, and disappears into the loo.

John watches him go, thinking of the four or five thousand things he’d love to say or do but just can’t. He checks the time. It’s still early, just half-past eight – about the time Rosie should be waking. Maybe, for once, he can actually beat Mrs Hudson to it and fulfill some tiny fragment of his parental duties. He puts his dressing gown on over his pyjamas and hastens down the corridor and upstairs. His timing is perfect: Rosie is just beginning to stir. He scoops her out of her cot and gives her a bit of a cuddle, then changes her nappy and gets her dressed. Mrs Hudson might be disappointed; she loves going through Rosie’s morning ritual, but still – he should be doing some of this, shouldn’t he? He chooses an Elmo shirt on that Mrs Hudson gave her a couple of months ago and pairs it with a pair of light green trousers and thinks she looks cute as anything. Hopefully Mrs H will approve. He carries his daughter downstairs and talks to her as he sets her in her high chair and sets about making breakfast for all three of them. He puts some coffee on, mixes up batter for pancakes and puts some sausages on to grill, testing out the heat of the pan on a small pancake for Rosie first. He cuts up a sausage and gives her that, too, and she stabs at all of it with her child-sized fork and makes a mess.

Sherlock appears a few minutes later, sniffing appreciatively. “You seem to have left me nothing to do,” he observes, but John wonders if there’s a slight stiffness there. Awkwardness about last night, perhaps.

“Nothing of the sort,” he says briskly, trying to dispel it. “I haven’t got out plates or anything. You could do that. And pour us both some coffee, if you want?”

Sherlock makes an affirmative sound and crosses the kitchen to the cupboards. “You beat Mrs Hudson,” he says lightly. “She’ll be put out.”

“Possibly,” John says. “I really shouldn’t have her doing so much of the care stuff, though…”

“Nonsense, she loves it,” Sherlock says, waving this off. “You know she does. You needn’t feel you’re taking advantage of her.”

“I don’t,” John says, pushing the sausages around in one frying pan and flipping a pancake in the other. He transfers this to a plate where several others are already sitting. “It’s just me. You know: the constant guilt over being a crap father. I know Mrs H loves taking care of Rosie. I just feel endlessly inadequate.”

Sherlock sets down two brimming mugs of coffee near the plates he put out and straightens, his hands on his hips. “I understand,” he says. “But I don’t think you need to. Feel that way, I mean. If it’s not your… what you feel most suited to, and there’s someone handy who particularly wants to help fill that role or function, then – why worry? That said, I think I understand. I don’t suppose it’s something one can simply decide to be logical about.”

“Not really,” John says. He glances at Sherlock. “Maybe I’ve used up most of my caregiving instincts on you,” he adds, trying for a poor-ish joke.

The corners of Sherlock’s mouth tug themselves in the direction a smile, though. “Possibly,” he allows. “Well: you can always make it up to Mrs Hudson by letting her have Rosie for the afternoon or something.”

John puts another pancake on the serving plate and brings it over to the table. “Maybe we should all do something,” he says spontaneously. “If you feel up for going out, that is. Maybe a picnic in the park this afternoon or something.”

Sherlock nods, letting the smile materialise all the way this time. “Yes. All right. It’s a nice day, at least so far. Perhaps Mrs Hudson could be persuaded to make her egg salad sandwiches…”

Mrs Hudson’s egg salad is legendary, and despite the breakfast he’s just cooked, John’s mouth waters at the very thought. “I like the way you think,” he says, and Sherlock’s smile reaches his eyes now, making John’s gut glow with warmth he can’t even attempt to prevent. He clears his throat. “Shall we eat?”

Sherlock nods and pushes the butter over to him. “Let’s. This looks delicious.”

***

The picnic is a success all around. In the end, Mrs Hudson wasn’t even put out by John getting Rosie up himself, and is delighted at the notion of a picnic. She volunteers to make her egg salad without even being prompted, causing Sherlock to look over at John behind her back, the crinkles around his eyes deepening, his mouth smirking in a way that makes John want to kiss it all the more. Mrs Hudson sends him off to the bake shop around the corner to get a fresh baguette for the sandwiches and says that she’ll pop down and make a batch of brownies to bring along, and instructs them to make a salad of some sort. Sherlock does this on his own while John is out, concocting a tomato cucumber salad that’s easy to eat on a picnic, and puts together a bag of Rosie’s things as well as a blanket he’s found somewhere. They find a quiet spot near the boating lake and John spreads the blanket out under a leafy tree that provides plenty of shade. Mrs Hudson feeds Rosie egg salad and lets her tackle the tomatoes and cucumbers on her own. Later, after she and John have jointly cleaned the remainder of her brownie from her sticky fingers, Mrs Hudson takes her off to visit the ducks she loves so much. Sherlock stretches out on his back on the blanket, his eyes closed, arms folded behind his head.

John looks over at him, feeling pleasantly full from their late lunch and relaxed in the warmth of the sun, and fights a strong surge of yearning to crawl over and lie down next to him, an arm curled protectively around him. If things were different, he could do that. He suppresses a sigh, decides against packing up the rest of the food, and pushes it aside instead to make room for himself to stretch out, too. A comfortable quiet spins out around them, the distant sounds of voices from other groups floating over, yet leaving them in their own little bubble of peace.

“Do you miss the casework?” Sherlock asks, rather out of the blue.

It’s been a moment or two since John lay down and his thoughts have wandered, listening vaguely to the birds chirping overhead in the canopy of the tree above them. “Hmm?”

“The work,” Sherlock says. “Taking cases. I asked if you’ve been missing it.”

John opens his eyes and bends his head upward just enough to sneak a look at Sherlock, but his eyes are still closed. “Why do you ask?” he asks, curious.

Sherlock’s shoulders move a little. “I don’t… it’s not that I’m doubting what you said last night. I just wondered.”

John feels his lips purse. “Are you?” he asks. “Missing it, I mean.”

For a bit, Sherlock appears to be thinking this over. “Yes and no,” he says. “I do, but… I also dread being out somewhere and having a repeat of what happened the last time. Or of making the current thing worse in some way.”

John props himself up on one elbow now. “I get that,” he says, meaning it. “I’d feel the same way, I think.” He thinks for a moment, then adds quietly, “The dread of making it worse must really be… a lot, to balance out the boredom of not working.”

Sherlock drops his head once in a nod, but says, “I’m not all that bored, honestly. It’s been… surprisingly all right.”

John looks over at the lake where Mrs Hudson and Rosie are still visible and well out of earshot. “Is it getting any better, do you think? I mean, I know the nightmares are still happening, but…”

Sherlock chews at the inside of his lip. “They are… I don’t know. It’s slightly better? Having you there helps enormously.”

John frowns a bit. “Are you sure? I mean, they’re still happening anyway.”

“Yes, but they stop as soon as you t – as soon as you wake me,” Sherlock says, not meeting his eyes, and John instantly catches the correction: Sherlock nearly said as soon as you touch me.

He feels his face heat a little. “Then I’m glad I’m not a heavier sleeper.”

Sherlock smiles, but keeps his eyes down. “So am I.”

“Da!” Rosie is back, thumping over to them in her little blue trainers. John sits up and holds his arms out to her. The conversation is over, but that’s probably for the best, anyway, or else he’d get himself into serious trouble by saying something he shouldn’t.

“She’s getting quick,” Mrs Hudson comments, reaching the picnic blanket and setting herself down on it with an air of relief. “I think I deserve another brownie after hurrying after this one!”

John smiles at her. “You do, indeed. I think I’ll have one, too.” He squints at Sherlock. “What about you?” he asks. He’s well aware of Sherlock’s sweet tooth, and Mrs Hudson’s brownies are phenomenal.

Sherlock gives him a careful, private sort of a smile that says that their conversation is still very much at the forefront of his mind. “Go on, then,” he says, and John’s heart thumps stupidly as he passes over a brownie, all too aware of their fingers touching as he does so.

***

That night, John decides to try something, just to see how it will go over. Once they’ve both switched off their lamps, he shifts himself over to Sherlock, not touching, but considerably closer than he would have before. It’s partly an experiment, and partly just that he feels closer to Sherlock than ever, between last night and the picnic earlier. He craves the proximity, feeling pulled into Sherlock’s orbit as though he’s magnetic.

“Good night,” he says, but he’s actively holding his breath in the dark of the room.

Sherlock moves a little, the sheets rustling. “John… what are you…”

(Crap.) “Just wanted to be… nearby. Just in case,” John says, still barely breathing. “I can – I don’t have to – ”

Sherlock thinks this over for a moment or two as John silently grimaces to himself. “It’s – fine,” he says briefly. There’s a pause that feels awkward. “Good night,” Sherlock says, sounding as awkward as the pause felt.

“Night,” John says again, and that’s it for conversation.

He wakes in the middle of the night sometime, his arm wrapped firmly around Sherlock’s middle. His eyes open. Sherlock’s body is still, apart from his chest filling and releasing in the slow rhythm of his breathing. He’s not having a nightmare, but John has seemingly started holding him anyway, in his sleep. He withdraws his arm, feeling chastened and rather embarrassed. How opportunistic he must seem, even if it was an accident! But what if Sherlock thinks that he deliberately went to sleep in hopes that this would happen? John cringes, his heart thumping as he lies on his back.

He needs the loo, now that he’s awake. He carefully peels back the bedding and goes quietly around the bed to shut himself in the bathroom, trying not to wake Sherlock. He relieves himself, washes his hands, then dries them and goes back to bed. This time, he positions himself facing Sherlock, but with a much bigger space between them.

After a moment, Sherlock shifts. (So much for his efforts not to wake him, John thinks guiltily.) “Are you… staying over there?” he asks, his voice sleepy.

Oh. That changes things, then. “I don’t have to,” John says, scooting over. “I was just – I didn’t want to – never mind. It’s all good.” He puts his arm back where it was. “Better?” he asks, just wanting to confirm that Sherlock really meant this, not just having him closer.

Sherlock makes an affirmative sound, then adds, “Yes.”

That’s pretty unmistakeably clear, John thinks. He smiles to himself in the dark, knowing that Sherlock won’t see it. “Good, then.”

***

Neither of them acknowledges this in the morning, or at any other point after that. The day is quiet, just routine things around the flat. Mrs Hudson has Rosie, but brings her up for lunch along with a steaming dish of baked ziti, oozing with cheese, and they all eat together. Sherlock starts an experiment on a moulding apple he found at the bottom of the basket, and John decides to go round to the shops and buy some fresher fruit. He asks if Sherlock would like to come, but he’s immersed in his petri dishes and declines. Later, they cook and watch the news and another episode of their series. That night, John gets himself ready for bed, waits for Sherlock to come to join him, then turns off his light, and moves over to put his arm around him right from the start this time. He makes a questioning sound, and Sherlock makes that same affirmative one he made the night before. And after that, it stops being a question.

***

John goes through the next several days on tenterhooks, trying to keep it to himself that he’s scrutinising every moment of every interaction to see whether or not anything is different, whether there are any new undercurrents of romance between them, any more of that borderline flirting. If Sherlock is different at all. Everything seems the same, though. It’s not awkward because of their new thing of sleeping with John holding Sherlock from the start every night now, but it’s also not anything… more. It is a bit disappointing, John admits to himself. But at least it isn’t worse, or hasn’t made anything strange. And as far as he can tell, Sherlock hasn’t had a single recurrence of his trauma nightmares since this new arrangement started. That’s good, at least.

He’s aware that it must just be a temporary fix. Sherlock’s trauma flare-up will settle down again, and at some point he’ll say so, so that he’ll be fine sleeping on his own again, Thank you very much for all that, but you can go back to your own bed now, John. John is dreading this, and he’s already determined not to be the first one to suggest it. Maybe Sherlock will decide that, trauma or otherwise, he likes this. Maybe he’ll never bring it up, either. But then will they just stay in this limbo forever? John grimaces to himself as he does the washing up, four nights into this new phase. Maybe at some point, something will happen to just… nudge things along, somehow. Maybe.

That night, he wakes up in the middle of the night to the bed shaking in the tremors of one of Sherlock’s nightmares. John’s eyes open, bleary and disoriented. He’s turned away in his sleep, facing the window now, but before he can even wake up enough to turn over, soothe the nightmare from Sherlock’s thrashing limbs, Sherlock is there, reaching for him.

“John – ” His voice is gasping, his throat dry, and John isn’t even sure whether he’s awake or still sleeping, but Sherlock’s arm comes around his middle, clinging to him too tightly for John to even move.

He adapts and goes with it. “Yeah, I’m here,” he says, turning his head back a little but not far enough to be able to see Sherlock. “I’m here. It’s okay.” He strokes Sherlock’s forearm as though stilling a spooked horse. The tremors immediately fade and John pats approvingly. “That’s it. It’s all right. It’s okay.”

He’s half-expecting Sherlock to roll away again, now that the nightmare has faded, but he doesn’t. John lies there in the dark, wide awake, his heart still pounding from the sudden wake-up, waiting for Sherlock to pull away from him. Instead, Sherlock’s tensed muscles relax a little as he shifts back into sleep, pressed up against John closer than John has ever dared hold him, and if it were any other situation, it would be frankly fantastic.

But it’s not that. Go to sleep, John tells himself sternly. It’s only the trauma. It’s something he can do for Sherlock: a good turn for his best friend. Don’t try to make it out to be something it’s not.

(It’s pretty nice, all the same.) He closes his eyes and tries to go back to sleep, savouring the feeling of being in Sherlock’s arms at last.

***

If he was expecting that to change anything, John tells himself that by now, he should know better. In the morning, Sherlock is exactly the same as he was before, making no reference to what happened in the night whatsoever. Maybe that’s partly because Mrs Hudson stays upstairs with them, cooking breakfast for all four of them and then doing the washing up after, too. John doesn’t even get a chance to ask Sherlock about the nightmare until late that afternoon when things are quiet. Mrs Hudson took Rosie downstairs with her after her nap and the flat is quiet. He and Sherlock are in their chairs across from each other, Sherlock reading one of John’s old med textbooks on virology, John poking around on social media on his laptop.

He clears his throat and breaks the comfortable silence. “So, can I ask?” He reaches for the tea he’s nearly forgotten about on the side table and takes a long sip. “What was it last night? The nightmare, I mean.”

Sherlock blinks three or four times and doesn’t look up from the heavy tome he’s got balanced on the green leather arm of his chair. “Mary.” The word is curt. He waits for John’s inhalation of breath, then goes on before he can ask. “Magnussen’s office. The night I was shot.”

John lets his breath out slowly, then nods. “I didn’t realise you had nightmares about that. About your own shot, I mean. Though it makes sense, obviously.”

Sherlock does look up now, his eyes laser-sharp in their focus on John’s face. His lips are a bit set, but he doesn’t speak.

Waiting, then. He needs to say more. John flounders a bit. “I mean, you got shot. That alone would be enough to – and it was by someone you knew. Someone you thought was a friend. Or – I don’t know if you did… did you? I guess I just – assumed, but…I don’t really know, I suppose.”

A muscle twitches over Sherlock’s cheek. “I did, at least to an extent,” he allows. “To be fair, I think we were certainly both trying for the illusion, if nothing else. As long as we both silently acknowledged that she had won the territory battle for you and I had never stumbled onto her true identity, it could have been fine. We could have been friends, to a degree. I didn’t expect that she would shoot me in the heart. That was definitely a shock.”

“And a betrayal,” John says, anger flaring internally again, both at Mary and at himself for having gone back to her after. He thinks of what Sherlock said about the territorial battle for him, but now isn’t the time. “Was this the first time you’ve had nightmares about that, or – ?”

Sherlock purses his lips, then drops his eyes again and shakes his head. “No. That’s been… recurring since the event. Now it seems it’s just become part of the entire menu on offer these days. Or nights, rather.” He pauses. “Though it’s been better lately, of course.”

A ghost of smile plays around his mouth but doesn’t materialise fully. John wants to slip out of his armchair and go to Sherlock, bend over him and feel that hinted-at smile with his mouth and fingers, hold Sherlock in the full daylight and tell him that he’ll never, ever allow anyone or anything hurt him ever again. He chokes back the words and feels them stick in his throat, his heart beating loudly enough that it must be audible across the small space. “I’m glad,” he says quietly. “Do you… want to tell me about the nightmare? Sometimes that helps, I’ve found. Just… helps take some of the teeth out of it, just to – frame it in words, I guess. That’s an Ella thing. She said a thing once about how talking about it can take some of the mystique out of the dream and making it more prosaic or something along those lines.”

Sherlock nods but doesn’t speak for a long time, obviously choosing his words in a drawn-out internal process. “On the actual night, I went into a bit of shock after the shot, but the sequence of images that occurred has always stayed with me. For whatever reason, most of it took place in the house in Lauristan Gardens where you first came to a crime scene with me. The Jeff Hope case.”

“The woman in pink,” John says, remembering it clearly. He feels rather astonished that this particular place has held such a prominent place in Sherlock’s memory, that his mind would bring it up in a very near-death moment like that. He inhales and it’s rather unsteady, at the very notion of what it could mean in terms of significance, that it was their first case together. “Go on.”

“In it, I’m searching frantically for something that could prevent me from dying,” Sherlock tells him, though his gaze is fixed somewhere a little to John’s left. “I knew I had been shot. It was a combination of me essentially trying to deduce the shot and assess solutions, and running into nightmarish spectres that were doing the opposite, as I finally came to see after revisiting the sequence for months after. It was a collection of people who might help save my life very specifically by helping me with the deduction – my cleverer brother, Molly in her role as pathologist, for instance, even Anderson, or at least all of those individuals with abilities that my mind granted them in the moment. Obviously it was all just me reasoning with myself, trying to save myself. But the other two people I saw there were doing the opposite: dragging me down into the depths of myself, pulling me into death.”

John shivers in spite of himself. “One must have been Mary,” he says, thinking aloud. He frowns, concentrating. “The other has to have been Moriarty.”

There’s a decided flash of pride on Sherlock’s face at this, and he inclines his chin. “The devil himself. There, at the very bottom of the stairwell, the bottom of myself, is where I met him. Straitjacketed, mocking me for feeling pain, for fearing death… all the while luring me ever closer toward it.”

John feels his jaw clench. “And Mary?”

Sherlock looks away. “She’s earlier in the sequence. While I’m still running frantically around, before the descent to the bottom. I’m looking for something, anything, and then I open a door and find her there, waiting. She’s wearing her wedding dress and she shoots me again.” He pauses, still looking into the fireplace. “In the nightmare, I feel it again, every time: the shot. The pain. Sometimes I wake up then. Sometimes it keeps going, spiralling down into the abyss.”

John closes his eyes tightly, something prickly lodged in his throat. He had no idea, clueless idiot that he is, that Mary’s shot was so traumatic. Sherlock never let on once, never said a word about it during those months when John was back at Baker Street, looking after him as he recovered. Never threw it in his face when he went back to Mary, or when Sherlock was sent away on a mission he knew damned well was meant to result in his death – as punishment for ridding the woman who shot him from the man who was blackmailing her. Self-hatred temporarily swamps him, holding him so tightly in its grip that he can’t breathe. “I’m sorry,” he says, his voice coming out almost unrecognisable.

Sherlock turns his head and looks at him now, maybe seeing more than he should. “It’s not your fault,” he says evenly. “You didn’t know. I worked rather hard at keeping you from knowing. I didn’t want it to… compromise whatever you felt you needed or wanted to do with regards to your marriage.”

John shakes his head. “But that I went back to her – even if I didn’t know about all this, about how it affected you – I – ”

“We’ve been over this,” Sherlock says, cutting gently – mercifully – into his words. “You did what you thought you had to do. It’s ancient history. We’ve resolved that.”

“Ancient history that’s still haunting you,” John points out.

Sherlock allows this. “Perhaps,” he says. “I meant as far as our friendship is concerned. We’re certainly in a different place now than we were then, and again, I never held you accountable for what Mary did.” He finds and holds John’s gaze for a moment, then deliberately changes the subject. “Let’s go out for dinner, shall we? I could use a change of scenery and I don’t particularly feel like cooking at the moment.”

John is slightly surprised by the sudden shift, as well as Sherlock’s apparent readiness to be out in the world given what they were just talking about. “Okay,” he says, the surprise showing in his voice. “If you feel up for that, let’s. Where should we go?”

For a moment, Sherlock just looks across the short space at him, the barest hint of a smile forming at the corners of his mouth. The next moment he inhales and begins to list off suggestions, but John remembers the look for the rest of the evening, wondering what was in that unspoken moment.

Never mind. If Sherlock wants to tell him, he will. Maybe he’s revealed enough deeply personal and emotional stuff for the time being. John makes himself pay attention and they eventually decide on Indian. Comfort food, John thinks: delicious, deeply-satisfying comfort food. Maybe it’s what they both need after this particular conversation.

***

That night, instead of facing away like he normally does and waiting for John to shift over and put his arm around him, Sherlock stays on his back once they’ve switched off their lamps. John is a bit confused and isn’t sure what to do.

He moves a bit closer but doesn’t reach for Sherlock. “Sleeping on your back tonight?” he asks, trying hard to keep his tone light.

Sherlock makes a sound that might be a negation. “I was just wondering what you prefer,” he says. “I often do sleep on my right, but I wondered if you were only to… accommodate that.”

What he means is about John basically spooning him, John hears. “Oh,” he says, surprised by Sherlock’s consideration. “I don’t mind. It’s fine. Whatever you need. Or prefer.”

“Yes, and I appreciate that, but what’s your preference?” Sherlock asks. “I’d just like to know. Right now, what would your instinctive choice be?”

John blinks and thinks about it. “I don’t know,” he says truthfully. “I sort of alternate between either side or my back. Right now… I don’t know, maybe I would prefer being on my left. It doesn’t matter, though, really.”

“Turn on your left, then,” Sherlock tells him, so John does it, not really loving facing away from Sherlock like this. He’s just about to open his and ask what’s going on here, but then Sherlock moves over and puts his arm around John, the way John usually does to him. “Is this all right?” he asks, his voice rather close to John’s ear.

His proximity, every part of it, makes the hairs stand up on John’s skin and he feels a flush of arousal sweep through him. (Stop that, he tells himself crossly.) “Er – yeah, it’s fine,” he says, unable to keep the surprise out of his voice. “Is this – do you prefer this?”

Sherlock makes a sound that he can’t quite decipher this time. “Tonight, yes. If it’s all right with you.”

“It’s fine with me,” John says, a little too forcefully, and attempts to ignore the fact that his body is definitely too aware of this. He survived it last night without embarrassing himself, so he should be able to manage this. He swallows and it’s too loud in the quiet of the room. “Good night,” he says.

Sherlock just hums in response, his voice already low and sleepy, and somehow it doesn’t help John’s state at all.

It takes him ages to fall asleep.

***

When he wakes, it’s still the middle of the night, and Sherlock is sound asleep. The problem is that John’s cock isn’t: he’s harder than anything and nearly moans as he wakes and immediately realises just how hard he is. It’s unbearable. Sherlock’s arm is draped heavily around him and all he wants is for him to wake up, reach down, and jerk him off. He swallows the load of saliva that’s gathered in his mouth and gets out of bed as quietly as he can. This is untenable; he’s got to take care of this before Sherlock realises the state he’s in, and going back to sleep when he’s this aroused is out of the question. John shuts himself in the loo, turns on the light, and surveys himself in the mirror with slight shame. His pyjama pants are tented so hugely that it’s almost comical. Never mind. He runs the taps and reaches for a handful of the lotion they keep on the counter, shoves his pants down with the other hand, and goes for it, smearing the lotion over his incredibly stiff cock and jerking himself off over the sink. It’s a bit of a job, keeping his breath quiet even with the water running – the last thing he wants is for Sherlock to wake up and immediately recognise the sound of what he’s doing. Somehow, the thought of it only makes it feel shamefully even better. He goes harder and harder and finally spurts all over the sink and counter, hard enough to splatter over the mirror. He takes a second, his chest heaving, then keeps the water running as he gets a tissue and does his best to destroy the evidence and clear away his mess.

He cleans himself up, too, then dries his hands, switches off the light, and goes stealthily back into the bedroom. Sherlock is still sound asleep, though he’s turned onto his back now. John creeps around to his side of the bed, lifts the covers, and gets in. He slides over to Sherlock and stretches out an arm across his chest. What he’d really like is to press himself all the way up against Sherlock’s side, including his gently aching, spent cock, get Sherlock to turn toward him and put both arms around him in turn, but it’s not like that. He’s just there to maintain a steady contact and prevent the nightmares from returning if his presence can possibly do that. His eyes drift closed. It’s fine. It’s all fine.

***

After that, it happens pretty much every night, John waking in the middle of the night or in the early, pre-dawn hours and needing to escape into the loo for a feverish, illicit wank that he’s desperate to keep Sherlock from knowing about. The days follow slowly by, one after another, well into the third week of the month John suggested. He still dreads having all of this end when the month does, of them going back to their regular life, taking cases and being home a lot less often, and in all probability, Sherlock tactfully suggesting that it’s time John went back up to his own room.

So far it hasn’t happened, though, and John silently treasures each day of this odd respite more and more as they go by. They go out more, just to the shops or to take Rosie to a play park somewhere to enjoy the summer sunshine, or for dinner. That part is happening almost as frequently now as it did before Sherlock was injured. The difference is that Sherlock himself is still more subdued than he was, his silences more withdrawn, but he’s still very much present with John. Just quiet. But he’ll listen attentively as John speaks, or bring up topics on his own, just talking over the food or something that happened during the day. And then it’s night again, to John’s private relief – he can stop pretending and just hold Sherlock or silently revel in Sherlock holding him, the heat of his long frame resonating throughout John’s. He tells himself every night that this is probably one of the last, since the month will come to an end sooner rather than later now. Sometimes he’s hard before they’ve even fallen asleep, trying his damnedest to ignore it, and if he’s the one holding Sherlock, to keep his hips well back so that Sherlock won’t feel it. If Sherlock has cottoned on to his middle of the night trips to the loo to deal with his issue, he’s tactfully not let on.

Toward the end of the third week, John wakes in the night, his heart pounding. What’s happening? He’s on his back and Sherlock is asleep, his arm heavy where it’s stretched across John’s chest. He’s pressed up against John’s side and John becomes immediately aware that Sherlock is hard. Very hard. It’s unmistakeable against John’s hip and his mouth very suddenly floods with saliva. He’s hard, too, he realises belatedly, so aroused that his pulse is already jackhammering in his chest. He drags in a lungful of air, not even sure what to do about this, but then Sherlock’s breathing shifts and he stirs.

The moment when he wakes is instantly clear: he stiffens from head to toe, his breath catching sharply, and then he abruptly turns away from John to face the loo. John feels the loss keenly, opening his mouth, but what can he say? It’s the middle of the night, the moon high in the black of the sky outside Sherlock’s bedroom window. He grits his teeth in frustration and decides that the only way to avoid Sherlock getting tremendously embarrassed about this is to feign sleep, pretend he never knew about this. But the knowledge of it, that Sherlock got hard while in bed with him, is resonating throughout John’s frame. (God, he needs a wank!) He makes himself wait until Sherlock has fallen asleep again, but it takes nearly thirty minutes. Sherlock must be in the same state as he is, but neither of them can let on. Finally, Sherlock’s breathing slows again, and John slips out of the bedroom with gratitude, making for the kitchen this time, just in case. He comes as quietly as he can into a paper towel, afraid of running the taps in case they cover the sound of Sherlock coming to see where he went, then fills a glass with cold water and downs it. After that, his body finally quiets enough that he can go back to bed, climbing in and almost gingerly sliding over to where Sherlock is and putting an arm around him again. To ward off the nightmares, he tells himself, hoping at the same time that it won’t make Sherlock’s problem worse. He’s asleep again within minutes.

In the morning, John is careful to give Sherlock some space, going into the kitchen to join Mrs Hudson and Rosie while Sherlock takes a shower, leaving him well alone to do anything he might need to do in there. Mercifully, Mrs Hudson stays to cook a big fry-up for all of them while John makes coffee and gets out some plates, keeping up a light stream of chat with Mrs H and occasionally Rosie. By the time Sherlock joins them in the kitchen, things are just at the point where John can point him to the toaster to retrieve the slices that have just popped up, casually toss a request for the butter over his shoulder as he fills two mugs with coffee and pours a cup of tea for Mrs Hudson. Her presence there keeps anything else firmly at bay, which is a relief at the moment.

They’ve just finished eating when John’s phone buzzes in the pocket of his jeans with a text. He pulls it out, frowning a little. It’s Greg. Got a case here. I know it’s not yet been a full month but it’s a real puzzler and nothing grisly. Thought I’d run it by you just on the off chance? Could really do with the two of you!

“What is it?”

Sherlock’s voice cuts gently into the swirling melee of John’s thoughts and he looks up. Sherlock is watching him, a bit wary, something set in the framing of his mouth. Mrs Hudson has already busied herself at the sink, running the water and paying them no mind. John clears his throat. “It’s, er, Greg, actually. He’s got a case. He knows it hasn’t been – you know – the full time yet, but – well, here.” He turns the phone screen around and holds it out so that Sherlock can read the message for himself. He’s tense, he realises, though he’s not sure why.

Sherlock’s eyes scan the short message twice. He swallows. “What do you think?” he asks.

His voice is quiet, though not just because the water is running. John flounders slightly. “I don’t think it’s my call,” he says, more uncertainly than he’d prefer. “I – it depends on you, really.” He glances at Mrs Hudson, not sure how much he should say with her there. “On how you feel about it, I mean.”

Sherlock’s eyes drop to his empty mug for a long moment. “I don’t know what to feel.” He gets abruptly to his feet and goes to the coffee maker, getting the carafe and bringing it over to pour John a generous refill before filling his own cup. He takes the carafe back and says, with his back to John, “I think I require your professional expertise here.”

Mrs Hudson turns off the water. “Well, that should about do for the moment,” she remarks casually, but her eyes go to John’s and he knows that she’s aware that they’re having a slightly sticky moment. “Why don’t I take Rosie down now, get her ready for a walk? I know I could stand to walk off some of those sausages.”

Normally Sherlock would say something airy about Mrs Hudson’s looks, either something gallant or else accusing her of fishing for compliments, but he doesn’t this time, lines appearing between his eyes and at the bridge of his nose.

John glances at him, then back at Mrs Hudson. He clears his throat again. “Yeah, that’d be great, if you wouldn’t mind,” he says, silently conveying as much gratitude in her direction as he can possibly muster. She’s saved their entire morning from the potential awkwardness of being on their own after last night, and now she’s doubling down on it by tactfully getting out of the way so that they can cross this particular bridge in privacy.

She sends him a knowing, albeit concerned look and goes to collect Rosie, bringing her by so that John can dutifully press a kiss to the top of her head before they go. “We’ll see you two a little later, then,” Mrs Hudson says, and bustles off down to 221A.

Sherlock hasn’t moved, still leaning against the counter near the coffee maker, his long fingers locked around the cup. He’s chewing the inside of his lower lip and waiting for John to answer.

John looks at him and nods him over to his chair, so Sherlock silently comes back and sits down. “I think,” John says carefully, “that there isn’t a right or wrong choice here. I don’t think it’s a question of expertise. If you’re feeling like you’d like to try the case and feel ready for that, then you have my full support and I’ll be right there by your side. And if you’re feeling that it’s not quite time yet, then you have my full support and we’ll stay right where we are. Greg texted me, so you wouldn’t even have to be the one to tell him no. I have no issue with that whatsoever.”

“But do you think I’m ready?” Sherlock asks, the question completely devoid of any sort of façade or pretense.

The eye contact is intense. John shakes his head. “I can’t possibly know that,” he says, as gently as he can. “Only you can know how you feel. I’ve told you what I do know: that recovery from trauma doesn’t go in a straight line. That there are always going to be good days and bad days, progress and setbacks… I can’t know in advance that this case wouldn’t be something that could trigger something and set your recovery back. I also can’t know that it wouldn’t be – I don’t know, affirming in some way, that you wouldn’t get there, find that you still love the work and that it actually helps you get back on your feet. I don’t know. I don’t think you can deduce this one logically. What does your gut instinct say?”

Sherlock looks almost startled by the question. “I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t usually… use that as a metric. I don’t – ”

He stops. John frowns a little. “You don’t what?”

“I don’t trust it,” Sherlock says, the words coming out tightly. “I – it’s… unreliable. That’s why I rely on yours.”

This is very fragile territory. John feels as though he’s walking on ice, that if he says the wrong thing now, it could be deeply damaging, possibly for both of them. Things are so vulnerable and raw right now, with so much else going on under the surface, that he absolutely must not get this wrong. If he tells Sherlock that he thinks he’s not ready, Sherlock might be crushed by it. He might think that he’s making no progress, or that John doesn’t think he is. If John refuses to give an opinion when Sherlock has very directly asked him for one, said that he relies on John’s instinct and doesn’t trust his own, for whatever reason that he doesn’t seem to be willing to share, then that could come off as a rejection, too, a rejection of the very help that John vowed to give in whatever way he possibly could. But if he says that he thinks that Sherlock is ready and then the case re-triggers his trauma and sets him back by months, it would be John’s fault for saying something reckless. He takes a deep breath. “As I’ve said, I don’t have any professional expertise in this area. Just personal experience. And I know that you don’t know any more than I do how ready you are to try another case. This isn’t – I’m not refusing to give you an opinion. I just don’t know what to say. Do you want to try it? If you do, I’ll be right there with you, and we could leave at any moment. I could warn Greg of that in advance. I know it’s not the same as going out for brunch – not the same by a long shot. But the nightmares have subsided for the most part, it seems… I don’t know. Do you want to go?”

Sherlock bites his lower lip on the inside. “I’d… like to,” he says slowly. “I just – ”

He stops again and John nods. “Yeah,” he says. “I know. I get it.” He stops and waits.

Sherlock blinks several times, looking down at his hands on the table. “All right,” he says after a long moment. “Let’s try it. But – ”

“We’ll go the instant it seems that it’s – that it’s too much,” John fills in quickly. “Absolutely.” He stands up. “In that case, let’s get ourselves ready. I’ll text Greg and get us an address.” He’s brisk, taking his cup to the counter and switching off the coffee maker and hoping that his surface of assurance will help bolster the doubt he can tangibly feel radiating off Sherlock. He has doubts, himself – it’s only been about a week since the last nightmare, and possibly only because he’s there in Sherlock’s bed every night, warding them off. But maybe Sherlock needs this, needs to get back into it. He’ll just stay on high alert, watch for any sign at all that the trauma is being re-triggered. Somehow he doesn’t think there would be any warning, but – well, what else can he do but be on guard for it? His lack of knowledge about any of this is frustrating as hell.

He types out a quick message to Greg, with a warning that they might need to leave if it’s too much, then adds a note requesting that no one on Greg’s team mention the trauma or anything else about Sherlock’s mental health in any way, then hits send and goes for his shoes.

Sherlock is watching him almost warily from the door, his coat and shoes already on, in spite of the warmth of the summer day. Maybe the coat is meant to protect his back this time. “Shall we?” Sherlock asks, though his voice is still tight.

John nods. “Let me just text Mrs H, tell her we’re going out.” He doesn’t add that he’s not going to tell her it’s for a case. She doesn’t need to fret about that, and she definitely would.

If Sherlock catches the obvious omission, he doesn’t comment on it. “You have an address?” is all he says, turning to start down the stairs.

John’s phone buzzes and he looks down at it and confirms this. “Let’s find ourselves a taxi,” he says, the stirring of adrenaline almost matching his internal apprehension. Almost.

***

The case turns out to be a proper mystery. Just as Lestrade promised, there’s nothing gory, no body parts or corpses, just a seemingly perfect theft of an invaluable piece of art taken from a seemingly impenetrable vault. Sherlock sparks visibly as Lestrade lays out the case when they arrive at the underground vault. He’s busily probing the case intellectually, looking for weaknesses, but John’s mind is occupied with analysing the whole situation for security risks: for anything that could signal a violent altercation between the victim and the thief, for any historical or cultural factors that might be in any way related to places or people who have hurt Sherlock during his time away, anything. However, the man who was robbed is in his late seventies, tremulous and worried, and so far they know nothing about the potential thief. The case seems airtight, at least to John’s thinking – and to Lestrade and his team’s, too, but Sherlock’s brain is whirring almost audibly.

He’s already fired off at least fourteen questions at Lestrade, who’s answered them all regardless of how relevant or irrelevant they might seem to him, and John shoots him a look of silent gratitude for just going with it. Years ago, he used to argue, push back on some of what Sherlock would demand to know for a case, but it always added up to being part of it in the end, and Lestrade’s obviously learned that by now. The last thing Sherlock needs is to be questioned, to have his abilities doubted. He needs the reinforcement and validation of this case, to prove that he can still do it, John thinks.

Meanwhile, he’s positioned himself to Sherlock’s right, arms crossed, steadily answering his questions or asking his own in return. “What about the security firm?” he asks, in response to whatever Sherlock’s last said. “Any chance it could have been a conspiracy among the guards? I know it would take at least six to get all the combinations for the safes, but with a piece that valuable, it could have been worth the risk.”

Sherlock treats him to a secretive sort of appreciative look and he turns to Lestrade expectantly. “You have the names – ”

“Of every guard that’s worked over the past month, yup,” Lestrade confirms, flipping through a print-out and handing it over. He taps a chart. “Right there.”

Sherlock takes it and scrutinises the page. “What about before last month?”

Lestrade looks over his shoulder at Donovan, who shrugs. “The piece was only in this vault for a month. It was moved.”

Sherlock’s eyes gleam. “From where? Why was it moved?”

From there, they’re off and running. The case is solved before nine that night, and when they’ve got the guard supervisor in cuffs, Sherlock is triumphant.

“Fantastic,” Lestrade tells him, sounding like he means it. “We genuinely never would have got there without you. Both of you. It’s great to see you back on your feet and in this again – or at least, for this one. Thanks so much.”

Sherlock smiles before he can help himself, then looks off to the side, avoiding Lestrade’s eyes. “It was – good,” he says briefly. He hesitates. “Thank you for – contacting us.”

John glances at him, then looks at Lestrade. “Yeah, thanks,” he says. He debates saying something about future cases, but decides against it. “Come on,” he says briefly, to Sherlock, putting an arm behind his shoulders to lead him away, and Sherlock comes without a fuss. John waits a little, then drops his arm as they stride off toward the nearest street to get a taxi. It’s a bit delicate, the whole question of how physical to get with Sherlock in front of Lestrade and the rest. After all, they sleep together now, in each other’s arms, but that’s not only not public information, it’s also not what it would look like to anyone else, and John also can’t go misrepresenting it, much as he’d rather like them all to think that they’re together now. Funny, that – before, he would have – he did – actively squirm whenever people thought that. When did that change, then?

Sherlock doesn’t seem to be aware of his internal turmoil, however, raising his arm for a taxi. “Chinese?” he asks. “I’m starving.”

John looks at him and grins. “Well, this part definitely feels like we’re back to normal,” he says lightly. “And yeah, definitely. It’s traditional, isn’t it?”

A taxi slows in front of them, and Sherlock opens the door and gestures John in first. “We have bucked the trend on occasion,” he says, equally lightly, not acknowledging the whole other bit about things being back to normal, that them sharing a bed hasn’t changed everything, that they’re not both still very much aware of the spectre of Sherlock’s trauma hanging over everything like a shadow. “We’ve gone for other cuisines sometimes.”

“True,” John acknowledges. “But the Chinese on the corner is how this all started. Feels right that we go there after our first case back on the job. As it were.” He lets his eyes sketch quickly over Sherlock’s face, a bit anxious to see how this is landing, whether Sherlock will frown or withdraw at the entire notion of whether or not they’re ‘back’, or if this was just a one-off.

Sherlock doesn’t address it, though. He purses his lips a little, then says, “I think I’ll order the Shanghai noodles. With pork.”

Right: message received. John immediately goes with it. “Perfect,” he says. “And what about their spicy Szechuan chicken? That’s always got to be on the order.”

“Absolutely,” Sherlock agrees, and the slight tension fades.

The taxi leaves them at the restaurant five minutes later, and it gives them the perfect thing to focus on: post-case dinner at their favourite, go-to restaurant. It’s not only safe, John thinks: it’s actively good. There’s no one else he’d rather be having dinner with, at any time of the day or night. It’s perfect.

***

Dinner is good. Sherlock is a bit reserved, but only just noticeably, at least to John. Maybe he’s just hyper-attuned to Sherlock’s moods right now. He’d sort of like to say something about how great it was to be back on a case again, but he also doesn’t want to misstep and say something insensitive. Maybe Sherlock hasn’t figured out where he’s even landed on it, how he feels about it. It’s pretty likely that he doesn’t want to assume that it’s all fine now, say something premature, John reasons. But he smiles now and then and they talk a good bit, mostly about the food, but a few other things from the day. Anderson’s terrible new haircut. Something funny one of the witnesses said that wasn’t intended to be funny. When they finally leave, it’s close to eleven and John is just the right amount of full and feeling very contented. The adrenaline has worn off but the fatigue hasn’t caught up just yet.

He pulls his jacket off just inside the sitting room, hangs it on a hook behind the door, and stretches hugely. “That absolutely hit the spot,” he says.

Sherlock hums his agreement. “Quite. Are you tired, or…?”

“Not quite, but I will be soon,” John says. “Want to catch the late news, or were you thinking you’d head to bed?”

Sherlock considers this. “Let’s watch the news. Agreed: in about twenty minutes, I think it will hit and I’ll want to sleep.”

“Right, okay,” John says, privately delighting that they’re at the point of unofficially deciding to go to bed at the same time, together, that Sherlock specifically asked to know his plans and then made plans jointly.

Sure enough, Sherlock yawns deeply and stretches during the third commercial break. “I think I’m done,” he says, and John’s right there with him.

He switches off the telly. “Me too.” They get up and get ready for bed, John creeping quietly upstairs to look in on Rosie, who’s sleeping peacefully, then joining Sherlock in the loo to brush his teeth. He slips out to change into his pyjama pants and the well-worn t-shirt he usually sleeps in, then gets into bed. The toilet flushes, the taps run, and then Sherlock comes in from the loo and turns the light off behind him.

He gets into bed beside John. For a longish moment, it seems like he might be debating saying something. John holds his breath, waiting, not wanting to step on the moment, but then Sherlock seems to decide against it. John already knows it was going to be about the case, something about however it was for Sherlock to be out there again, but he doesn’t say whatever it is that he’s thinking. “Good night,” he says instead.

John takes the hint and reaches over to turn out the lamp, then shifts over to wrap himself around Sherlock in the safety of the darkness, revelling in being allowed to do this again. It’s already been too long since last night, exacerbated by having to consciously not touch Sherlock too much in front of Lestrade and his crew during the day. The odd, sexual tension from recent nights seems to have faded in light of the case, too, which is good. John doesn’t care about any of that right now, anyway. All he wants is this: to be holding Sherlock exactly the way he is. “Good night,” he says.

Sherlock relaxes tangibly into his arms and against his front. John waits to see if he’ll want to talk about the case or how he’s feeling about it now that it’s safely dark, but he still doesn’t. Instead, the fatigue catches up with both of them and they’re asleep before John has even stopped thinking about it.

***

It’s a different story when he wakes in the night this time, though: as with every other night in recent days, John jolts awake with a gasp, to the instant knowledge that he’s massively turned on and harder than anything, and the reason becomes clear a split second after that. He’s on his back, and Sherlock has turned in his sleep, an arm curled possessively over John’s chest, along with one leg over John’s, and he’s every bit as hard as John is. His body is moving instinctively in his sleep, his erection pressing up against John’s hip. The feel of it is so arousing that he’s got to swallow, and it’s very audible when he does. He turns his head to look at Sherlock, whose head is on his shoulder, face angled downward, his eyes closed, though there are lines between them and at the bridge of his nose. John takes a breath and opens his mouth, not even sure what he’s going to say.

Before he can say or do anything, though, it all changes. Sherlock’s eyes fly open and he inhales sharply. Just like last night, he stiffens with obvious shock as he realises what’s happening, what he’s doing, and he abruptly turns the other way, breathing heavily through his nose.

Maybe it’s partly because he’s still half-asleep himself and not thinking clearly, but all John can feel is dismay at the loss of Sherlock’s touch, of Sherlock’s arms and legs and very-hard cock. He follows instinctively, mirroring Sherlock’s move as though drawn to him magnetically, protesting aloud without even realising it. “No – it’s okay – ” His arm goes around Sherlock automatically, feeling rigid tension throughout his frame. He’s probably embarrassed, John knows, but it’s fine – it’s more than fine. “Let me,” he murmurs, already rubbing at Sherlock’s chest in a way he’s never allowed himself to before. He waits to see whether Sherlock will reject this, push him away or leave the bed or something, but he doesn’t, so John lets his hand travel down Sherlock’s torso to cup between his legs. God, his cock is hard! The heat of it is pulsing through the flimsy cotton of Sherlock’s pyjama pants and John groans at the feel of it. He squeezes Sherlock through his pants, then slips his hand down past the waistband. It’s all happening on some instinctive level, some three-in-the-morning plane of base, not-fully-awake consciousness. He hums a breathy questioning sound all the same, and Sherlock makes a pained sound of very clear want that definitely isn’t a rejection, his bare cock already there in John’s hand, so he goes on.

It’s like a fever dream – a very, very good fever dream – Sherlock panting and bucking in his arms as John strokes and strokes over him, the warm, primal, earthy scent of him, the wetness leaking into his palm and into his senses washing over him and overwhelming him. It’s the most erotic thing he’s ever experienced, getting to touch Sherlock like this, witnessing every minute, agonised sound that escapes his throat, every breath, every moaned exhalation. John’s panting himself, nonsensical murmurings of encouragement in Sherlock’s ear, his lips touching his earlobe as Sherlock’s body ratchets itself closer and closer – there’s a spasm and then he shouts out, just once, his cock filling John’s hand and probably making a complete mess of his pants. There’s another burst, and breath sounding like it’s coming through Sherlock’s clenched teeth, and then his entire frame sags.

The blood is still pounding in John’s ears. He doesn’t know exactly what to do now. He’s got a palmful of Sherlock’s come and he’s absolutely dying to touch himself – preferably with it – but he’s not sure how to behave now, how to handle this. He waits a moment or two, aware that his heart is jackhammering into Sherlock’s back in a way that Sherlock can’t possibly miss, even in whatever post-orgasmic state of mind he must be in right now. Then, carefully, John withdraws his hand, presses his lips briefly to the top of Sherlock’s still-heaving shoulder, and extricates himself from the bed. “Be right back,” he mutters, aware that it comes out as awkwardly as it feels.

He shuts himself in the loo, runs the taps at full blast, and jerks himself off over the sink. It’s quick – he was already trembling right at the very edge – and it’s messy when he comes, spraying out of him with force and feeling better than it’s got any right to, given the supreme awkwardness of both he and Sherlock being fully aware of what’s happening this time for sure. There’s no doubt about it. Sherlock absolutely has to have felt his erection pressing up against him as John was jerking him off, has to know the state he was in, himself. Well, what else was I supposed to do? John silently asks his reflection, scowling as he wipes down the counter and washes his hands thoroughly. Once he’s cleaned up and caught his breath, he shuts off the water, dries his hands, and turns off the light. This is just going to be strange, but maybe they’ll figure out how to talk about it in the morning.

He goes back into the bedroom and around to the far side of the bed. Sherlock is exactly where he was before, curled on his side facing the loo, his back to John. John hesitates, then shifts over and reaches out to put an arm around Sherlock in their usual way, but Sherlock stiffens the second John touches him. Ah. Okay. Then they do have an issue. John retreats immediately and moves away a little, turning to face the window. Sherlock is clearly awake, but maybe now isn’t the time to talk about it. In the morning, then, John thinks, but he’s got no idea what to say when the time comes. Maybe it will just… happen organically. Maybe he’ll just know when the moment comes. Maybe they’ll wake up together and it’ll be slightly awkward and sheepish, but then they’ll both realise that they’re actually pretty happy about it and everything will be fine.

Maybe. John stares out the window for at least an hour, aware that both he and Sherlock are playing a waiting game to see who will fall asleep first. The moon is there, dimmer than the streetlights, but nearly full. (Does that mean something? Probably not.) John closes his eyes.

***

Sherlock is not in bed when John wakes up, and his heart sinks immediately. So much for just waking up and talking about it, then. What time is it? He leans over and checks his phone and it’s already a little after ten. He thinks uneasily about Rosie and hopes Mrs Hudson’s done her usual thing and got her up and the rest of it. He should probably go and check. He gets out of bed and goes to pull on his dressing gown, glancing at Sherlock’s side of the bed. The linens have been pulled down over his place as though he was trying to smooth away any evidence that he was even there. Or maybe he was just trying to leave it looking tidy, John tells himself. No point going and leaping to conclusions or looking for drama where there maybe isn’t any. First things first: Rosie.

He looks in the kitchen and sitting room, but they’re empty. He tries to tell himself that he wasn’t also looking for Sherlock, but either way, Sherlock is also definitely not there. A quick check upstairs shows that Rosie’s cot is also vacant, so he heads down to 221A next. He can already hear their voices inside, Mrs H and Rosie, and that’s a comfort, at least. He knocks, then goes in when Mrs Hudson beckons.

She beams at him. “Well, look who it is!” she announces, for Rosie’s benefit. “Good morning, you!”

“Good morning,” John returns. Rosie is on the carpet, playing with some blocks, Mrs Hudson kneeling gracefully beside her. John goes over and picks Rosie up to give her a hug and a kiss. “So sorry,” he says apologetically. “I should have been up earlier. It was – I didn’t sleep very well.” This is somewhat true, if a bit of a lame way of describing last night.

“It’s no problem,” Mrs Hudson assures him, as she always does. “You know I wanted to have her. And once summer is over and you’ve got her in some daycare somewhere, I know I won’t see her as much, so I’m enjoying it while I can.”

John studies her over Rosie’s head. So this is cropping up again. “I didn’t know you were still feeling that way about it,” he says, feeling conflicted. “I just thought it would be easier for everyone, and good for her in term of socialisation and all that.”

“No, of course,” Mrs Hudson says quickly. “I know that. And it’ll free up my days a little, too. I just mean to say that I love having her. It’s no trouble.”

“Still, though,” John says. He sits down on the floor with Rosie in his lap. “If you’d rather, maybe we can work out some sort of arrangement where she’s only in daycare three days a week or something. Or just the mornings or just the afternoons. Something that would work for you and allow you to see her as much or as little as you like. I was just feeling guilty over you taking so much of the weight of it.”

Mrs Hudson reaches over and pats him on the wrist. “I know, dear,” she says gently. “But you really needn’t. It’s not your main thing, having a little one about, and I haven’t got any grandchildren of my own, so it’s been lovely. And you’ve been busy looking after that man of ours. How is he, anyway?”

John swallows. “Have you seen him today?” he asks, avoiding the question and her eyes both.

Mrs Hudson shakes her head. “No, not since yesterday after breakfast, there.” She eyes him and waits.

John shrugs a bit, not sure what to say. “I… don’t know. I think he’s doing better. I haven’t seen him today, either.”

“Has something happened?” Mrs Hudson asks gently.

John hesitates. “Yes, sort of, but I – I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“Last night?” Her face is too knowing, as always.

John’s face heats and he ducks his chin in a nod. “Yeah.”

She nods, too, obviously having a lot of thoughts but not sharing whatever conclusions she’s coming to. “Well, you’ll just have to talk it out like adults,” she says briskly. “Communication always helps, doesn’t it.”

This last is not a question. John feels his face frowning. “He was gone when I woke up,” he says. “Hard to talk if he’s not even there to talk to. And I’m worried, too. He hasn’t gone anywhere by himself since the whole trauma thing started.”

“That may be, but he’s a grown man,” Mrs Hudson reminds him. “Have you tried texting him?”

“No, not yet,” John says. “I only just woke up. “I haven’t even showered yet.”

“Well, why don’t you start with that?” Mrs Hudson suggests. “Get yourself sorted for the day. Maybe he’s just stepped out, gone to run an errand or some such thing. And if he’s not back soonish, you could give him a call. No point borrowing trouble.”

Somehow, this does actually help and John feels a little better. “You’re probably right,” he says. He squints at her. “You’re still happy watching Rosie?”

“Happy as a clam,” Mrs Hudson assures him.

John gives Rosie another kiss and passes her back. “All right, then. Let me know if you change your mind.”

“I won’t, but all right,” Mrs Hudson says. “Now off you go.”

John takes the hint and gets to his feet. “I owe you, as ever,” he says.

“Nonsense. Just look after than man of ours, and get everything straightened out there. Good luck,” Mrs Hudson adds, and John gets himself out of her flat and back upstairs.

***

Sherlock is not back when he comes out of the loo, freshly showered and shaved. This knowledge brings the heaviness back, but John decides to try to ignore it for now. Instead, he makes a very late breakfast in lieu of lunch, making a pot of strong black coffee and some bacon and eggs and toast, nothing fancy. The food helps, but the thoughts won’t stay banished. Where is Sherlock right now? What is he thinking? Does he hate what happened last night? Was the sound he made in response to John’s questioning one actually a negation that John failed to understand? He didn’t actively put a stop to it, though, John thinks, cutting into his second egg and thinking of that flirtatious brunch they had the other week. (Was he wrong in thinking there was flirtation going on there?) Sherlock definitely could have moved away from him, pushed his hand away, got out of bed, even, but he didn’t do any of those things. Does he just not know how to feel about it now?

Was it his first sexual experience? John has wondered for years about Sherlock’s sexual history. He’s got absolutely no idea there. Sherlock has never said and John’s never had the nerve to just ask him out of the blue. If it was his first time doing anything like that, John can see needing a slice of time to figure out what he thinks of it, especially in Sherlock’s big brain where everything needs categorisation. He just wishes he knew, though.

After breakfast, he decides to send a text. Hey, just wondering where you’ve gone. Everything all right? He presses send, then puts the phone down and does the washing up, trying to tell himself that he’s not actively listening for his phone to buzz with a response from Sherlock. It doesn’t, and when he’s finished tidying up the kitchen, he checks and sees that his message was read, but Sherlock hasn’t answered. His heart sinks again.

The rest of the day is interminably long and bleak. He goes for a long walk in the afternoon, hoping against hope that when he gets home an hour later, Sherlock will have returned, but the flat is as empty as it was when it left. Eventually, supper time rolls around and John still hasn’t heard anything. He’s not going to go texting Sherlock again, though, pestering him when he obviously doesn’t want to talk to him. Depressed, John decides to feed Rosie, whom he collected in the late afternoon so that Mrs H could make herself some supper in peace, then puts her to bed and orders in for himself. The thought of cooking for him and him alone is too much. Where is Sherlock? What can he be doing? Has he eaten anything? What is he thinking? When is he going to come back? Is it time to panic yet?

His thoughts are agonising. Should he try apologising? John stands there in the sitting room, chewing his lip and debating, but without knowing specifically that Sherlock is unhappy with him, he doesn’t even know what to apologise for. He fidgets and kills time until it’s midnight and definitely time to go to bed. He’s been procrastinating in the vain hope that Sherlock might come home before this point, but he hasn’t. And now that it’s come to it, he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do now. If Sherlock is upset with him for what happened last night, or just needs space from him, then how strange would it be for him if he came home and found John there in his bed? Granted, John’s been sleeping there for three and a half weeks now, but to assume his welcome there in Sherlock’s absence, especially after this day of non-communication, seems a bit much. John looks down the corridor to Sherlock’s bedroom, to the place he never thought to ever be granted access to in the first place and never wanted to lose, and feels it slip away like a mirage. No. It’s patently clear: he cannot sleep in Sherlock’s bed without Sherlock, with everything so unknown and unresolved between them.

Heavy-hearted, he trudges up the stairs to his own room and his own, cold, musty-smelling bed. He moves quietly around the darkened room, not wanting to wake Rosie, changes into a different set of pyjama pants and t-shirt, since his favourites are downstairs, and gets into bed. His throat feels tight. He doesn’t want to be here, alone in his old bed, sharing the space with a sleeping child. He wants to be downstairs in Sherlock’s room, with Sherlock in his arms. He wants to have had the chance to talk about what happened last night, to have cleared the air and figured out how things are going to look going forward, and hopefully land somewhere in the vicinity of John being allowed to go on sharing Sherlock’s bed indefinitely, with all that that he wishes that had entailed all along. He yearns fiercely to be allowed to pull Sherlock toward him, feel his arms around him, press his mouth to Sherlock’s perfect, still-unknown lips, let himself finally say all that stuff he’s been holding back and shoving down and sitting on for years.

Instead, it’s this: he’s back in his old bed, staring at the ceiling, alone and miserably unhappy, as unhappy as he was during his brief, turbulent marriage. This is not where he wants to be. The person he’s missing is not here, and he doesn’t know where things stand. Sherlock won’t speak to him, won’t even come home. What if he never comes home? What if John never sees him again? That was how Sherlock left things the last time he disappeared: not a word of explanation, just – gone in a heartbeat. For years. John closes his eyes. He cannot endure that again. He cannot.

His heart is burning within his chest.

***

Keep your eyes fixed on me.

John stands where he is, rooted to the spot and frozen in horror. You could, he wants to say again, but more insistently this time. No, Sherlock: YOU could. I know that. I believe that. Believe in you. What are you doing up there? It can’t possibly be that. Tell me it isn’t that. God, no!!

He’s squinting, but even at this distance he sees the phone get tossed away, sees the tightening around Sherlock’s mouth as he evidently decides that he won’t be needing it anymore.

And then his arms, spread out to the skies like he’s about to take a bow, or let himself get nailed to a cross as he embraces the accusations of fraud, Moriarty’s lies (or was he Richard Brook all along?), and the gaping void that swallows Sherlock as he falls forward into its maw. His coat is fluttering behind him like broken wings and John is still frozen, his mouth agape, watching it happen for the thousandth, five thousandth, millionth time. No!!!!!! He screams, but nothing comes out. His voice is gone, his legs useless, the bottoms of his shoes glued to the ground. It’s the ultimate nightmare: the worst is happening and he is utterly powerless to do a single thing about it, to prevent from happening to him again.

He draws every ounce of oxygen he can into his lungs and tries again, and this time his voice works. “Sherlock!!!!!”

The bedroom door bursts open. “John!” Sherlock is there, covering the distance from the door in a flash, his form just a shadow, but actually here, solid and present and real. He’s on the bed, on his knees, grasping John’s shoulders. He says John’s name again, urgently. “It’s all right. It’s all right!”

John gasps in breath, shaking from head to foot and sweating. His hands seize Sherlock’s arms, his fingers like claws, too fresh from the nightmare to be able to fully understand that it’s over, that it wasn’t real. The air comes shuddering out his lungs in a rush that turns into a sob before he can help it, the sound ugly and humiliating. Sherlock is here. Not dead on the pavement before him, his face dripping blood, and not gone somewhere, out of the house and inaccessible, maybe gone forever. He’s here. In John’s room, on the bed. His arms come around John’s shoulders now, tangible and unmistakeably present. He manages another breath. This one comes out in a sob, too, and it’s even worse this time. He’s full-on crying and can’t do a damned thing to stop it.

Sherlock doesn’t seem to care at all. “I’m sorry,” he says tightly. “I’m sorry, John. It’s my fault. I’m sorry.”

They’re too close for John to see his face, or for Sherlock to see his, but the humiliation is secondary to the swamping wave of relief that Sherlock has come back. “Where have you been?” The question comes out completely plain, just raw and unvarnished and accusatory. If he were more awake or further from the grip of the nightmare, maybe he could soften it somehow, but right now, he can’t.

Sherlock must know better than to try fobbing him off with something vague for once. “Safehouse in Camden,” he says. He passes a hand over the back of John’s head, curling around his neck like he did the night that John told him about the affair he tried to have. “I’m sorry. I should have answered your text. I didn’t know what to say.”

John thinks of six or seven angry things he could lash out with, but the truth is that he’s just so grateful that Sherlock is here at all that he realises he doesn’t want to say any of them. “I’m glad you came back,” he says, his throat tight.

He was expecting Sherlock to loosen his grip, maybe shift back and look at him now, but he doesn’t. “So am I,” he says, his arms still tight around John’s back and shoulders. “I – wanted to come home earlier. I just didn’t… I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.”

John shakes his head, though he can’t really move it much in this fierce embrace that he never wants to have end. “I wish you’d just said something, anything. I was so miserable all day.”

“I’m sorry.” Sherlock sounds guilty. “The nightmare… was that – Bart’s?”

John nods. “Yeah.”

“God, John. I’m sorry.” Sherlock shifts then, but only to put his cheek down on John’s hair, which John loves. “It’s my fault. After all this time you’ve spent, keeping my nightmares at bay and putting your entire life on hold to be here with me, and then I leave and obviously brought this on… and after everything else I’ve already put you through. I’m sorry.”

John closes his eyes and lets himself revel in being in Sherlock’s arms this way. “Why did you leave like that?”

He both hears and feels Sherlock swallow, then take a deep breath. He lets go at last and rearranges himself so that he’s leaning sideways against the headboard, facing John. “It’s… hard to explain,” he begins, but before John can retort something about how he’s already been left hanging all day, Sherlock adds, “but I know that I owe you an explanation. I – last night, I… I didn’t know how to interpret what was happening. What to think, or how to respond.”

John doesn’t get it. “What do you mean?” he asks. “What was… I don’t know, what was there to interpret? Or… what was unclear about it?”

Sherlock takes another breath, but stops and looks down at his hands. “We hadn’t… acknowledged that it wasn’t the first time that that had happened. To me, I mean. Waking up like that.” He grimaces, still looking down. “It was humiliating. I was already painfully cognisant that the planned-for month was – is – coming to an end, and I knew that I was dreading it. I knew that people would probably say that I’ve grown dependent on you to be there with me, to stave off the nightmares. I knew that anyone, possibly including you, would probably say that it was unhealthy, and I was dreading having to have that conversation when the month ended. Dreading having you leave.”

John thinks of about a hundred things he could say to this at once, but it doesn’t seem like Sherlock’s finished saying everything he wants to say. He searches Sherlock’s face, but Sherlock is still looking down, his teeth worrying at his lower lip. “Did you think I was itching to go?” he asks quietly. His heart is still thumping, but it’s not from the nightmare anymore.

Sherlock glances up once, very quickly. “Not – I didn’t know what to think,” he says, catching himself. “But I was afraid to ask, and afraid to do anything that would… make you want to go. End it early, even.”

John still doesn’t understand. “But last night,” he says. “I mean – what did you think I was thinking when that was happening?” he asks, still feeling weird about saying it out loud. “Did you think I didn’t want to, or…? I don’t get it.”

Sherlock winces again. “I didn’t know what to think,” he repeats. “I didn’t know whether you were doing that just because you knew that I was embarrassed and you wanted to make me feel better, or – and I should have stopped you and asked for clarification, but – the truth is that I wanted it too badly to make myself stop it.”

He swallows again, and even by the dim streetlight filtering in, John can see him flushing. “Did you?” he asks softly, just for the sake of hearing it again.

Sherlock’s lips compress and he nods. “I’ve – humiliating as it is to admit, I’ve never experienced anything that felt that good before. And from – ” He stops and shakes his head minutely. “That must sound ridiculous. It feels shameful to actually tell you that. But I didn’t know what to do in the moment. How to respond.”

John makes a mental note to circle back to this whole humiliation thing, but right now there’s still more he needs to know. “But you didn’t – hate that it happened or anything like that?” he asks quickly, wincing a little. “You know, like – feel violated or something?”

“What? No!” Sherlock looks into his eyes at last, with shock. “Nothing of the sort, John!” He shakes his head again. “No – after the fact, when you went into the bathroom, I finally understood why you had been disappearing there all those previous nights. I finally understood that I wasn’t the only one, but as I realised it, it made me simultaneously realise that I hadn’t done anything whatsoever to reciprocate and I was appalled with myself and wondered what you must have thought of me – content to receive, but not to return that way. Oblivious to your condition night after night. I just didn’t know what to say to you come morning, how to proceed or explain my own inadequacy in that regard, especially coupled with the fact that you’ve already done so much for me recently. That I just accepted that from you, too, without even having the decency to return the favour. I – I was humiliated by my own poor behaviour.”

John exhales hard. “Oh my God,” he says, his voice more than a little unsteady. “We are the two biggest morons in the universe. Sherlock – I’ve been dreading this month coming to an end, too. I’ve known since the very start that I never, ever wanted to leave your bed again. I’ve always known that I wanted what happened last night to happened. I wasn’t expecting any sort of reciprocation – all I wanted in the moment was to be allowed to touch you that way. And I was relieved to discover that I wasn’t the only one reacting like that to being in bed together!”

Sherlock searches his face intently. “Do you mean that?”

“Yes – completely!” John says emphatically. “I mean – we can talk about dependency versus support, but honestly, I don’t care. I don’t care at all. It could just be that you like sleeping with me. And I really, really like sleeping with you. I was so depressed last night, coming back up here, but I thought I really couldn’t sleep in your bed without you, when you obviously didn’t want to be around me.”

Sherlock leans over and puts his arms around John again, his breath warm in John’s hair as he says John’s name. “John. It wasn’t that at all. I just didn’t know how to comport myself in front of you when you’ve been nothing but there for me ever since the nightmares started, and I couldn’t even seemingly bring myself to respond properly when the moment came. I didn’t want to sleep without you, anywhere, and it wasn’t even because of the nightmares. I just – didn’t want to be without you.”

John hugs back fiercely. “You should have come home sooner.”

“Yes.” Sherlock doesn’t refute this. “I wanted to. From the moment I left, I wished I were here, at home, but I didn’t know how to come back. I got here about an hour ago. When I saw that the bed was empty, I came upstairs. I could hear that you were sleeping, so I sat down at the top of the stairs, trying to decide if I should wake you, or if that would compound the rest of what I had already put you through by interrupting your sleep, or whether it would make it worse to make you wait even longer to apologise and talk about it all in the morning.”

John understands now. “That’s why you got here so fast when the nightmare came on,” he says, and he feels Sherlock nod.

“The nightmare that I brought on by leaving that way.” Sherlock’s arms tighten. “I’m sorry, John.”

John presses his cheek into Sherlock’s. “It’s okay now. You don’t have to keep apologising. You coming home and us getting all of this sorted at last is the fix. It’s all I wanted: just to find out that we’ve been on the same page all along. I mean, we are, aren’t we?”

Sherlock nods again. “We are.” He pulls away just far enough to look into John’s eyes, his lips pressing together a little. “Let’s go downstairs,” he says. “To our bed.”

John feels his throat grow tight. He searches Sherlock’s face for any doubt. “That’s all I want,” he says, the words somehow getting themselves past the tightness. “I just want to be wherever you are, too.”

Sherlock gives him a crooked little v-shaped smile. “Come downstairs,” he repeats, with a meaningful nod in the direction of Rosie’s cot.

John gets it immediately. “Yeah. Okay,” he says. Sherlock reaches for his hand and he lets himself be tugged out of bed and toward the door. Whatever is going to happen next should happen in privacy, even if Rosie is sound asleep. They make their way down the stairs and Sherlock doesn’t let go of his hand, his fingers curving firmly around John’s, which is enough to make him feel as though he’s fourteen years old again, butterflies swooping through his gut. The relief has cleared away the cobweb tendrils of the nightmare. Sherlock is home, and everything is going to be okay – much more than okay! They’ve sorted everything out and Sherlock wants him to stay down here for good. He just called it ‘their’ bed, not his, and John has secured an invitation to stay permanently. That’s understood now, isn’t it? He rather thinks it is.

In the bedroom, the lamp on Sherlock’s side of the bed is on, but the bedding is undisturbed from when John made it earlier. Sherlock didn’t even try to go to sleep without him, then. He came straight upstairs to find him. John feels his gut glow over this.

Sherlock lets go of his hand and closes the door behind him. He turns to face John, his expression serious. “I knew that it had changed things,” he says. “Sharing a bed: it’s inherently intimate. I didn’t know it would be that way, feel that way, when I first accepted your offer to stay. And the more it changed things between us, the more I wanted it to go on changing, yet I felt that I couldn’t possibly ask even more of you. I was always worried that it was already too much and I didn’t want you to feel that I was trying to take advantage of your willingness to be here with me, try to make it something else entirely. And yet, I’ve been spending every day just waiting impatiently for it to be night again, so that I could come back to this, where I could shamefully hold you, be held by you, all under the safe guise of my recovery.”

John swallows, looking up into Sherlock’s eyes. “It’s been exactly the same for me,” he says honestly. “I kept scolding myself along the lines of not taking advantage of your trauma and taking too much, overreaching the boundaries of whatever just being there for you when you needed might cover.”

Sherlock rakes his fingers through his hair. “I’m glad,” he says. “That’s what I was hoping. I just needed to confirm, before – but you – ?”

John nods. “Yeah,” he says, cutting into Sherlock’s uncertainty. “I want this. I want you. So much.”

Sherlock’s lips part. He inhales, then bends forward, blinking, and puts his mouth on John’s. It’s a little bit hesitant, yet certain enough at the same time, and it’s phenomenal.

John kisses back, his heart thrilling at the fact that Sherlock wanted this enough to make the first move for it. He puts his arms around Sherlock’s back and moves closer, and Sherlock’s arms fold themselves around his shoulders. They stand there for a long moment, lips pressed together, and despite it being rather chaste, John thinks that he’s never felt so much in a single kiss ever before. It makes him feel light-headed, everything he feels for Sherlock rising up around him and nearly drowning him. He lets the kiss break off minutely, just for the pleasure of starting it again, then again after that.

After a bit, Sherlock breaks it off. He opens his eyes and they’ve gone starry, his heartbeat pulsing under John’s fingertips through his shirt. He swallows and touches his tongue to his lower lip. “I’ve never done that before,” he says, a tad uncertainly. “Not – for real.”

John feels his entire heart dissolve in his chest. “I’m glad it was with me,” he says, feeling humbled by it.

“Was it – terribly obvious?” Sherlock asks, wincing a little.

John shakes his head and smiles. “No. It was perfect. The best kiss I’ve ever had.”

Sherlock breathes his name, his voice low, and then they’re kissing again. It grows rapidly, Sherlock’s mouth opening under his, catching on so quickly that it’s breathtaking. John’s heart is pounding after five minutes of this (or has it been ten?), his arms wound tightly around Sherlock’s back. The warmth of Sherlock’s body heat is soaking into his frame and he can’t get enough of it.

The next time they part for breath, they don’t move apart at all. Instead, Sherlock presses the sharp line of his cheekbone into John’s, his exhalation warm on John’s face, their bodies pressed together from their chests to their knees. “John… can we… go to bed?”

John nods, his eyes closed. He’s not sure which sense Sherlock means this in, but the answer is going to be yes, regardless. “Yes, definitely,” he says, his heart still thumping. “Anything you want.”

Sherlock hesitates, just discernibly. “I’ve never… I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says, and his face moves in a way against John’s that makes him think that he must be wincing again. “You must find that so – ”

John waits for a second, but then when Sherlock doesn’t finish whatever he was trying to say, he shakes his head. “I don’t,” he says firmly. “I don’t at all. It’s – it feels like a privilege, if you want to know. To get to be the first person that you do any of this with. To be allowed to touch you, in any way. Every part of this has felt that way to me – to get to sleep in your bed with you, to get to touch your hair, to hold you, to be in your arms – every part of it, Sherlock.”

Sherlock pulls back and looks into his eyes with such intensity that John feels like he’s actually looking directly into his brain. “Then come to bed,” he says, no less intensely. “And – show me what to do for you. Please.”

John almost wants to cry. He nods and unwinds his arms so that he can take Sherlock’s face and pull his mouth back to his own, kissing him for a long, very good moment. Their tongues are moving against each other’s and he’s hard in his pyjama pants and it doesn’t matter for once, because Sherlock actually wants this from him. “We’ll – we’ll figure it out together,” he promises after, stroking Sherlock’s cheekbones with his thumbs. “Let’s get you out of some of this, yeah?”

Sherlock seems to notice then that he’s still fully dressed. “Oh,” he says, sounding slightly dazed in the wake of their last kiss. “Yes. All right. And you’ll – ?”

“Absolutely,” John promises. He smiles, and it seems to settle the flickering uncertainty on Sherlock’s face. He unbuttons Sherlock’s shirt, pulling it out of the waistband of his ungodly-tailored trousers, aware of Sherlock’s eyes on him like lasers the whole time. Sherlock responds by hauling John’s old t-shirt off over his head, which makes him giggle. “Impatient,” he quips, and the corner of Sherlock’s mouth twists into a smirk.

“To be fair, it has been years,” he points out, though John notices that he’s distinctly short of breath as he says it, and that only makes him want to kiss Sherlock again.

“Years?” he repeats, going for the button of Sherlock’s trousers now.

Sherlock nods, his eyes sombre. “Years,” he repeats. “I did my best to hide it. Obviously.”

John nods, feeling the walls of years of his own denial falling away with a massive sensation of relief. “Me too,” he says simply. There’s no need to try to pretend otherwise anymore. This is actually happening. He kisses Sherlock again and it turns breathless as they get Sherlock down to his underwear. John meant to take off his pyjama pants, but his hands find their own way to the mouth-watering curves of Sherlock’s arse and squeeze. Sherlock responds vocally, stumbling backward toward the bed and hauling John along, directly onto himself. He’s hard, too, the feel of him making John moan into Sherlock’s mouth, their bodies arching and pressing together. Sherlock’s erection is hot through the two thin layers of material separating him and he rubs himself unabashedly against that heat.

Sherlock’s hands are on his arse, his long fingers digging into the muscle and gripping, his breath hot on John’s cheek. “John!” he gasps out. “Is this – ”

“This is fine! This is more than fine!” John pants, his fingers in Sherlock’s hair. “I mean – do you like this? Do you want – ?”

He’s not sure how to finish the question, but it’s okay. Sherlock swallows, then says, very directly, “I want to touch you.”

The look on his face is very determined and very clear, and John suddenly has to swallow, too. He nods very quickly. “Yeah. Okay. Yeah. Let’s – get the rest of this off, then.” Sherlock exhales and nods, and John rolls off him so that they can both get their last layers off. John flings his pyjama pants to the floor on his side of the bed, and turns back to find Sherlock’s eyes on him, intense enough to set his skin on fire. Somehow it has the power to make him feel more naked than he’s ever felt before. He lies on his side, facing Sherlock, almost holding his breath.

Sherlock’s eyes travel down his torso and settle on his cock, which is hard enough that the head is completely bared, flushed dark and lying flat up against his lower belly. He reaches over and touches it with his fingertips, almost reverential. Next, his fingers curl around it and John gives an involuntary shudder at how good that feels, which causes Sherlock’s eyes to flick sharply up to his. “Is this – ?” he asks again, not specifically what he’s asking, but it doesn’t matter. John knows.

He nods. “Yeah,” he says, his breath constricted. “That’s – good. It’s really good. Go ahead, if you – whatever you want. Can I – ?”

Sherlock nods, too, so John reaches for him, his mouth filling with saliva both at the feel of Sherlock’s cock in his hand again as well as the sharp intake of breath Sherlock gives, a jolt running through his frame.

“Okay?” John asks, wanting to check, though it’s hard to talk with Sherlock’s large hand between his legs, rubbing over him with his palm and then his fingers again.

Sherlock bites his lower lip and nods, breathing hard. “You?” he manages.

John nods. “It feels incredible,” he says, meaning it. He bends forward and kisses Sherlock open-mouthed, and the addition of feeling Sherlock’s tongue against his again makes everything feel ten times more erotic.

Sherlock’s movements become rapidly more assured, tugging John’s erection even bigger and harder, and after a bit, he breaks off the kiss to experimentally try sucking at a patch of John’s neck, instead.

John moans. Sherlock inadvertently found a particularly sensitive place and he can feel himself leaking into Sherlock’s hand. “You don’t need any guidance whatsoever. This is absolutely phenomenal,” he gets out. Sherlock’s soft curls are brushing against his chin and shoulder and that adds to it, too.

Sherlock makes a pleased sound. “Good,” he says. “But I’m trusting that you’ll tell me if I’m – ”

“I won’t need to,” John cuts in. “Just keep – doing what you’re doing!” He’s still rubbing Sherlock’s cock, too, loving the way it responds to his touch, and he’s wet now, too.

Sherlock lifts his head, his pupils so dilated now that the irises have shrunk to tiny, silver rings around them. “I want to try it with my mouth,” he says, as distinctly as when he said he wanted to touch John. “May I?”

John half wants to laugh and half wants to cry. He can’t remember the last time anyone so very politely requested to go down on him. “By all means,” he invites, his heart swelling as much as his cock at this. He turns onto his back and Sherlock follows, slipping down his body in a swift, graceful move.

He studies John’s erection up close for a moment. “This is everything I imagined and more,” he pronounces, and John’s heart gives an impossibly even-bigger throb.

“You imagined me?” he gets out. “I mean – this, specifically?”

Sherlock smiles up the length of John’s torso, his eyes turning to impish crescents. “Obviously. Everything else, I could see or deduce. More or less.”

John opens his mouth to say something in response to this, but then Sherlock lowers his face and surrounds John’s cock with the wet heat of his mouth and every thought or word flees John’s brain, replaced wholly with instant pleasure flooding his senses. He hears himself make some sort of breathless, non-verbal sound, his hips canting up, fingers scrabbling at the sheet beneath him to grasp at something, anything, because it feels so intensely good. Sherlock finds a rhythm from the start and commits to it, his long fingers splayed out over John’s left hipbone and curled around the base of him respectively. Somehow he already knows to use his tongue, his perfect lips shielding his teeth as they move over the length of him and John is gasping like a fish out of water. Sherlock is sucking the pleasure up from the depths of his balls and it’s circling around him like cords, tightening and tightening, liquid quicksilver running through his veins. “Sherlock – I’m – ” he gasps out, but Sherlock isn’t deterred. Instead, he backs off very slightly, sucking hard at the head of John’s cock, his fist still pumping over him and that does it. John feels himself lose control over holding back his orgasm and it overtakes him, his hips shooting upward, liquid heat rushing out of him, his heartbeat hammering against his eardrums. It feels so intensely good and he can hear himself shouting, the thought that he’s coming right into Sherlock’s mouth only adding fuel to it.

Eventually it passes and John feels his entire body slump weakly against the sheets. Sherlock blinks up at him, releasing his cock and dabbing at the corner of his mouth in a way that has no right to look as hot as it does. “Was that all right?” he asks, looking up from beneath his lashes at John.

Even in his post-orgasmic daze, John doesn’t miss the breathlessness in Sherlock’s voice, or the fact that he can feel Sherlock’s pulse jackhammering even through his palms on his thighs. He nods feverishly. “You’re incredible,” he says. “Come here!”

Sherlock obeys unhesitatingly, placing himself beside John again and allowing himself to be pulled in and kissed thoroughly.

John lets go after a moment to find Sherlock’s cock again and finds it flat-up against his body, leaking profusely and fit to burst. He rubs hard – Sherlock is already so close, he must be gagging for it – and it takes less than a minute before Sherlock’s entire body is convulsing against him, the orgasm juddering out of him in hot pulses that land on John’s belly and chest, his breath gusting onto John’s mouth and chin, his eyes squeezed shut. John catches Sherlock’s forehead with his own and puts his arm around him again, holding him as Sherlock pants, coming down from it.

After a little, he opens his eyes and looks into John’s for a moment before reclaiming his mouth and moving even closer, their legs twining together and moving against each other’s as they kiss. Sherlock breaks it off many minutes later and reaches up to grasp John’s face, his thumb digging into his cheek. “Thank you,” he says, his voice and face intense. “To be able to experience that – with you – there aren’t words, John.”

John finds himself profoundly moved by this. “Same,” he says. “This is all I’ve wanted for so long.”

Sherlock blinks at him, his eyes silver in the streetlight. “I’ve spent the majority of my life thinking that I would never want to do this with anyone. Something so carnal, so base, so… messy. The – vulnerability it would take… it wasn’t until I met you that I ever even wanted to. But you’re the only person I would have wanted to do this with. That I ever could have done this with. I never thought it would happen, though. Not in a hundred years.”

John puts his hand over Sherlock’s, still holding his face. “I know what you mean,” he says, his voice tight. “I never thought we’d get anywhere close to this. Didn’t stop me from wanting it, though.”

“I want more than – this,” Sherlock says, not quite frowning, but the lines at the bridge of his nose have appeared. “I want… all the rest of it, too. That sort of relationship. I want a whole life with you, and not just as flatmates who also do this.”

“Oh, me too,” John assures him. “I’m head over heels, you know. Why do you think I didn’t even miss anything outside of this, of you and me and our home? I’ve had everything I wanted right here.”

Sherlock swallows. “I’m in love with you,” he says, the words so direct and unshielded in any way that John’s heart practically bursts open.

He swoops in to kiss Sherlock, rolling onto him, arms digging under his back to hold him as tightly as possible, and Sherlock kisses back with surprising abandon. “Me too – I’m in love with you, too,” John gets in, between kisses. “You’re everything to me, you know!”

Sherlock wraps his arms around John’s back and holds him so tightly that John’s ribs nearly crack. “Yes,” he says fiercely. “Exactly that!”

It seems like hours later when they finally pull themselves together, lying in each other’s arms, Sherlock’s face reflecting all the same wonder John’s feeling. “How did it take us so long?” he asks softly, his heart feeling so full that he can barely contain it all.

Sherlock’s mouth quirks. “We’re idiots, obviously. But no more.” He strokes a hand over John’s head, twining his fingers into his hair. “I meant it when I said that I wanted a whole life with you. And that includes Rosie. I want you to stop thinking that you’ve burdened me by having her here. I love her, as it happens, and obviously Mrs Hudson is besotted. She’s also breaking her heart over the notion of losing Rosie to some daycare. So I propose this: let me have some share in that part of things, too. Let me help. She can still go to daycare, but maybe just a few days per week. Mrs Hudson can take her for the other days, and we can all spends Sundays together or something. What I mean to say is that I wish you would stop feeling that any part of this is something that I don’t want. I do: I want you, and everything that comes with you. I kept trying to – prove my capability with Rosie, yet you seemed so uncomfortable with it every time. I hope you’ll… let me in on this part of your life, too.”

John searches his face, suddenly regretting all of those times when he expressed his doubt so vocally over Sherlock having to spend any time with Rosie. “I am an idiot,” he says. “I never meant to make you feel as though I didn’t think you were up to it. I’m – yeah. Wow. How did I get so lucky?”

Sherlock smiles now. “If you’re willing to put up with me, after everything I’ve put you through – ”

“Most of which wasn’t even your choice or your fault,” John interrupts. “I do know that, now.”

“ – then having you allow me to fully occupy your life in the way I’m asking for feels rather miraculous to me, too,” Sherlock finishes, undaunted by the interruption.

John shakes his head, his throat feeling tight. “That’s all I want,” he says. “To have this – these nights that we’ve been able to have for the past month expand into the rest of our lives, too. That’s it. The rest is extra.”

“Life,” Sherlock says, correcting him. “The rest of our life.”

John looks at him for a long minute, then feels the smile welling up from his very bones, threatening to break his face open. “Yeah,” he agrees, trying to make his voice function. “The rest of our life. I’m in.”

*