Chapter 1: ...In Touch
The older John got, the faster time seemed to go — except when he was on a train. No matter how fast the scenery slipped past, he always felt as though he had been on the train forever and always would be. It was true even when he was headed somewhere he didn't want to go; it was doubly true when he could barely wait to arrive. Right now, he was so eager to reach the end of his journey that he wanted to whine "Are we there yet?" in a manner more befitting a toddler than a man mere weeks from his 65th birthday.
Sixty-five, he thought. How is that even possible?
He'd always thought he and Sherlock would go out in the proverbial blaze of glory — gunned down in an alley, blown up in a car, drowned in the Thames at the peak of their crime-fighting career. But it hadn't happened, and then eight years ago they'd taken one leap too many from one rooftop too high. Yes, the hip replacement had allowed him to walk and even jog a bit without pain, but, well. It had been time.
Now he lived alone on the ground floor of the building Mrs. Hudson had bequeathed to them, turning their cases into true-crime novels that, to his astonishment, people actually bought. Sherlock had left his archives upstairs in 221B for the sake of John's research, but the man himself had decamped to Hastings five years ago. John had always thought his supremely urban friend was joking, but no, he was off in the country. Keeping sodding bees. How Sherlock hadn't expired yet of sheer boredom, he had no idea.
He checked his bag to make sure he had the file Sherlock had requested by text that morning. ("Bookshelf to the left of the bedroom door, second shelf, blue folder." How he remembered that, John also had no idea; he supposed the mind palace now had a librarian.) Usually, he simply dropped the file in the post or set it aside until their next visit, but they hadn't seen each other since John's last book was published. That had been two years ago, speaking of things that didn't seem possible. Time, flying again, except when he most wanted it to.
He twitched his fingers. The screen in his glasses slowly brightened as the letters appeared before him.
How has it been so long? Why can't this train go faster?
A moment later, the earpiece vibrated minutely to signal an incoming reply.
The tyranny of the quotidian. I'll see you in an hour. SH
More than 25 years, and the man still signs his texts as if I wouldn't know who he was otherwise. John smiled with the old, familiar sense of fond exasperation. Texts and emails and the occasional video chat were all well and good, but. Well.
The train couldn't go fast enough.
Chapter 2: ...All Day
The small house on the edge of Hastings was as bright and airy as Baker Street was dim and cozy, but John had felt at home there from his first visit. "It feels like you," he'd said; Sherlock had been visibly pleased by his approval.
It had become even more homey and Sherlock-ish since his last visit. Two red leather club chairs sat in front of the fireplace, one draped with a twin of the old tartan wool throw from 221B. Antique hardcovers and trade paperbacks jostled for space in the bookshelves on either side of the front room. What must once have been a laundry room off the kitchen was now a small laboratory. The kitchen itself was shockingly spotless, a rack of pots and pans hanging over the range. Sherlock was standing in front of it, removing glass jars from a large pot of boiling water and upending them on a rack to dry.
"Of course I won't let you leave without taking some honey," he announced without preliminaries.
"Hello to you, too," John said with a laugh. "You started the conversation without me again, didn't you."
"I trust you to catch up. Here, help me empty this pot and then you can make tea."
"Don't tell me you haven't had a cup of tea since you last saw me."
"Don't be ridiculous. I've had plenty of tea since I last saw you. It's just that none of it was any good."
We never really start a conversation, John thought as he started the electric kettle and found a pair of mugs. It's all the same conversation, the one we've been having since the day we met. We just pick up wherever we left off.
They sat on a bench behind the house, watching bees fly to and from the hive at the bottom of the garden. "Wait until you hear what Mycroft's got up to," Sherlock said, face vivid with delight. "Some retired diplomat talked him into giving up potatoes and bread. He's lost two stone and he says he's in love."
John grinned into his tea. "What, with the diplomat?"
"Ugh, no. The diet."
"Speaking of diets, do you have enough honey for Molly? She says she's almost out."
"More than enough. How are they?"
"Greg is agonizing over his speech for Sally's retirement party, Molly teaches her first class at Barts next term, and grandchild number one is supposed to arrive any day now." John pinched the bridge of his nose over his glasses and shook his head. "Our friends have grandchildren, Sherlock. When the fuck did we get old?"
"Speak for yourself," the younger man said archly, reaching out to rub his fingers along the ever-receding edge of his friend's hairline.
"Oi, a little respect. Just because you still have all of yours." Though he'd never admit it aloud, John was secretly thrilled to see that Sherlock's curls were still as abundant as ever, even if they were now edged with silver. "Remember when you tried to go platinum blond for a disguise and it turned green?"
"That was deliberate," Sherlock protested, but he laughed as he rolled his eyes.
They spent several hours talking, drinking tea, and pouring honey into jars before John's stomach made a sound like a tiny, furious dog. "I could do with a snack before I head back to London," he said.
Sherlock looked abashed. "I haven't been to the shops."
"In how long?"
They looked at each other and snorted, remembering years of disagreements over whose turn it was to do the shopping. During the handful of years that John had lived elsewhere in London — a brief marriage that ended in an amicable divorce — their running joke had been "Well, at least you don't have to buy the milk." The disagreements had resumed when John returned to Baker Street, but Sherlock had won, definitively, by having 50 six-packs of single-serving boxed milk delivered to 221B the morning after his official move to Hastings. John still kept the last empty box on his desk.
"Come on," Sherlock finally said, sweeping toward the front door in his imperious way. "We'll walk down to my local and get something there."
"You have a local now?"
"Really, John. Where else would I find out what's happening in town."
The local turned out to be an old brick building with real ales and an impressive variety of crisps. They chose half a dozen flavours by pointing at random, then sat outside in the late afternoon sun trying to rank them in order of preference. After several pints and much debate, they agreed that they quite liked chilli and lime, could do without chicken tikka, and had absolutely no idea what "hedgehog" was meant to taste of (although they were certain no hedgehogs were actually involved).
John drained his pint and sighed contentedly. I've missed this, he thought. I've missed him. Aloud, he said, "This has been — "
" — good," Sherlock said.
"God, yes." He sighed again and tapped the side of his glasses, activating the screen to look up the time for the next train back to London. "I'm sorry it's been so long, and I promise it won't be so long again. But I should probably go. I have two hours on the train ahead of me, plus a Tube ride back to Baker Street, and these crisps aren't going to hold me much longer than that."
Sherlock huffed impatiently. "There's a London train every hour between now and midnight, and the fish platter here is quite good," he said. "Why not just stay?"
Chapter 3: ...For Dinner
"You can't just write that the knife was at the bottom of the lake," Sherlock insisted. "At least hint at how I deduced that it came to be there."
Sherlock stored most of his old cases in his head. Naturally. His physical files were just backup, handy for corroborating evidence and the occasional colorful detail. That is, it was handy when John was trying to coax an old case into becoming a new novel, but the genius had a damnable insistence on factual accuracy at the expense of a good story.
"Don't worry, I wouldn't leave out your deductions. They're the whole point, remember?"
Sherlock chased the last prawn around the plate with his fork before skewering it with alacrity. "If they're the whole point, why don't you want to hear them?"
"Which of us is the writer, hmm? All I need to know right now is whether the knife was, in fact, in the lake. I wasn't involved in this case until you came home covered in pond scum, and that won't make for much of a plot."
"Don't be so stupid. Where else would I have ended up covered in pond scum if not in a lake?" He waved his hand for emphasis. The prawn flew off the fork, landing on John's collarbone with a damp squelch and sliding down the inside of his shirt.
"Sherlock!" John yelped. Try as he might to school his face into a frown, he couldn't stop his lips from twitching as he unbuttoned his shirt to wipe away the trail of cocktail sauce. Then Sherlock stretched a long arm across the table, lifted the prawn off his sternum, and popped it into his mouth.
My best mate is eating seafood off my bare chest in a pub. This is our version of normal. He gave in to the urge to smirk and watched the lines around his friend's eyes deepen in response. "Right, you've finally gone completely round the twist."
"But John," Sherlock drawled in mock protest, "it was delicious."
The perfect anticipation between them was delicious, too. They looked at each other, savoring what they knew was about to happen, before exploding into laughter. Tenor giggles and baritone chuckles wrapped around each other and fueled each other until the pub's other patrons stared openly. Whenever it seemed like they'd finally settled, one would repeat "It was delicious" and set the other off again.
"Oh, god, that laugh was one for the ages," John crowed as they left the pub. "I don't think you can go back there for a few months, though. How are you even allowed out in public?"
Sherlock bumped their shoulders together companionably as they ambled through the early summer evening. "I thought it was your job to make me behave."
"As if anyone could make you behave. Besides, I don't have that job any more."
"I don't remember accepting your resignation."
John hadn't heard that particular tone of voice in some time. What are you sulking about, you overgrown toddler? I'm not the one who moved to sodding Hastings. "I didn't resign," he protested. "If anything, I was forced into retirement."
"Once I couldn't help you with legwork, you said it was too boring without me, and next thing I knew, you'd scarpered off to Sussex for the bees and left me behind."
"I didn't leave you behind, you didn't come with me."
"What?" It had been years since he'd grabbed Sherlock's elbow and forced him to stop walking, but it still came naturally. "Inviting myself along on your dream retirement would have been a bit…presumptuous."
Sherlock gave every appearance of being fascinated by the horizon before muttering, "We worked together and lived together; I assumed we were retiring together, too."
"Sherlock, you never even suggested it. Or was it one of those times you carried on talking when I wasn't actually there?"
The taller man blinked, ducked his head, and cleared his throat. "I might have done," he admitted.
As they strolled on, John looked around with fresh eyes. Why had his friend chosen this place? It was so quiet compared to London, especially here on the edge of town. No taxis, no Chinese restaurants open at all hours, no throngs of people to deduce for pure entertainment value. Just a lot of tidy little houses like the one for which Sherlock was pulling out his keys.
"I still can't quite believe you left the city. It's lovely here, but — "
" — so quiet?" A quirk of the eyebrow. "That was rather the point. It was getting harder to sort the signal from the noise. I kept going into overload and not knowing where to focus."
"So this…" John waved his hand to indicate not just the house, but the entire town. "This isn't boring?"
"Most of the time, it's restful." Now there's a word that's never passed his lips before, John thought, poking out his own lower lip in thoughtful amusement. Sherlock noticed his expression and added, "I do miss London, you know."
"And London misses you."
"As do you."
Anyone else would have heard it as a simple statement, but John caught the tiny shift in inflection, the infinitesimal lift at the end, the way the pale eyes flickered away and back. "Of course I do, you idiot. Nothing's ever quite right without you."
"So why haven't you visited in two years?"
He snorted and threw a playful elbow. "The train goes both directions, doesn't it?"
Which reminded him: he really did need to catch the next train if he wanted to be home by midnight. Not that he had any pressing appointments in the morning, but he didn't like wandering about the city in the small hours any more. Not alone.
As he filled a small box with jars of honey, Sherlock said diffidently, "You don't have any particular need to go back to London tonight, do you? You could stay."
Chapter 4: ...The Night
Sherlock's couch was a slightly longer, slightly deeper, and immensely more plush version of the now ancient leather couch that John couldn't bear to replace. Sherlock was sprawled out on the slate-grey velour with a throw pillow under his head. John sat at the opposite end with Sherlock's bare feet pressed against the side of his leg.
He'd made the mistake of asking "Why bees?" half an hour ago. Sherlock's response was a multimedia presentation complete with laser pointer and a dramatic recitation of "The Pedigree of Honey" by Emily Dickinson. The man did so love to put on a show. On the other hand, they had brandy and fresh honey for their tea, and John was happy just to sit there and pretend for a little while that they were still sharing a flat, that they might race off for murder and takeaway at any moment, that they would wake up tomorrow to do it all over again.
"Just look at them." Sherlock was waving his hand at the wallscreen, where he'd pulled up a video of bees in a hive filled with a haze of smoke. "Beekeepers have known for millennia that smoke makes them docile. They gorge themselves on their own honey in case the hive is burning down."
John tipped his head back against the top of the couch and laughed. "So all those times when you were ripping the flat apart from boredom or refusing to eat, all I had to do was chuck a bit of cardboard in the fireplace?"
Sherlock sat up and swatted at John with the wireless keyboard. John grabbed it and cradled it against his chest.
"Oh no," he said as long fingers tried to wrest it back. "I might not be as young as I used to be, but I'm ex-military. I can still take you, Mr. Holmes."
"So you say, Captain Watson," said the civilian. He snaked a hand under the hem of John's untucked shirt to wiggle a finger into his side. John squirmed but clung to the keyboard until the rest of the hand joined the assault. Then he dropped the keyboard to the floor, kicked it away, and grabbed for the other man's wrists. A few breathless curses later, Sherlock was on his back again, wrists pinned at his shoulders and a solid weight across his thighs.
"So I say," John said, a bit winded but justifiably smug. He might have an aftermarket hip joint, but he could still bench press 68 kilos.
"Not bad for a retiree. Remind me again why you couldn't work with me any more?"
"I can still do everything I used to, except running." John dropped one leg to the floor and stood with care to swing the other off the couch. "But as you recall, we did an awful lot of running."
Sherlock's answering smirk reminded him suddenly of a long-ago night when he'd forgotten his cane to race through London at the heels of a near-stranger intent on curing him of a psychosomatic limp. Now that no-longer-stranger was pointing toward the other side of the room and demanding the immediate return of his keyboard.
"Manners, you git." John retrieved the keyboard, carried it back to the couch, and handed it over. "Is that the end of the evening's apicultural entertainment?"
"I could get my violin and play 'Flight of the Bumblebee' if you like."
John threw up his hands in mock surrender. "Please, God, no."
Sherlock grinned, not a pro forma display of teeth but one of the full, open smiles John suspected only he had ever seen. It was all eyes and laugh lines, nose wrinkling and mouth stretching out impossibly wide, and John couldn't help responding in kind.
"Look at you," he said, beaming down on his reclining friend. "How do you do that? When you smile, you look just like you did when we first met. You probably look just like you did when you were 20."
The grin ebbed from Sherlock's face, though it lingered in his eyes. "I didn't smile like this at 20."
I know, John thought, imagining for the thousandth time the angry, lonely young genius on the verge of a prodigious drug habit. He wished he could go back in time and tell that young man that if he just hung on a few years longer, he would meet a police investigator who would help him get clean, and he'd have the work, and it would all be brilliant. And I should know, because I was there.
"I guess you'll have to make up for lost time, then," was all he said, and watched with delight as the grin flashed a second time.
"Right." Sherlock sat up and clapped his hands together enthusiastically. "As long as you're standing, fetch me that file I asked you to bring."
The file turned out to be a long-cold case of embezzlement for which he had unexpectedly stumbled on new information in the tiny nearby village of Guestling. "it's coming to a satisfying conclusion, but I needed to cross-reference the files to be absolutely certain. I thought it might make good material for you," he said with a sidelong glance. "We could even visit the village so you can describe it more accurately."
John's eyes widened. "You wanker," he said with pleasant surprise. You actually looked for a reason to get me to come back soon, as though I needed one. Although, to be fair, I guess you had reason to think I would need one. He leaned over the coffee table to examine the paperwork Sherlock was spreading out like a winning poker hand. "You can give me a recap of the story up to the point when the case went cold, then tell me how you warmed it up again. Just give me a minute to grab my netpad so I can take notes."
They sat side by side on the couch reviewing the missing electronics, the doctored surveillance records, the executive assistant with a startling resemblance to a certain Eurovision winner. John found his pleasant surprise increasing. The case had blackmail, mistaken identity, possibly even a romantic subplot — and by solving it not just years after the fact, but years into his retirement, Sherlock was providing a perfect ending. It was as if, instead of merely cooperating with his writing, his friend was volunteering to take a more active role.
Eventually, he set down his netpad and rolled his shoulders until his neck cracked satisfyingly. "This is perfect," he said through a yawn. "Christ, what time is it?"
John huffed out a silent laugh. "We really got wrapped up, didn't we? Good thing I stayed. Speaking of…" He waved his hand to indicate his jeans and shirt. "I don't mind going home in yesterday's clothes, but I'd rather not sleep in them. Do you have…"
"Bureau, second drawer. My t-shirts will probably fit you, if a bit snugly. Not sure about pyjama pants, though."
"Is that a joke about my height?"
"Not a joke, merely an observation."
"Fine, it's a warm evening, and it's not as though you haven't seen me wandering around in my pants anyhow. Beanpole."
"Now that was a joke about my height," John said as he left the room, flipping a two-fingered salute as he went. "Unless it was a joke about my weight." He could hear the taller man chuckling behind him.
Sherlock's bedroom was much as it had been at 221B. He'd arranged the same furniture in more or less the same way, and Edgar Allen Poe still glowered down from the wall, although the old poster of the periodic table had been replaced by a pastel sketch of a bee diving into a dahlia, with SH written in tiny pencil marks in one corner.
John switched on the bedside light, opened the second drawer of the bureau, and grabbed a t-shirt, glancing at the label and noting that they wore the same size. Sherlock wasn't as gangly as he once had been; if not for his ridiculously long arms, they could probably share half their wardrobe now. Pyjamas, on the other hand… He pulled out a pair of lightweight cotton bottoms, held them up to himself, and giggled. He would have to roll both the cuffs and the waistband just to be able to walk in them. Pants it was, then.
As he turned to leave the room, he noticed a framed photo on Sherlock's bedside table. He and Sherlock were at a crime scene with Lestrade, Sherlock's coat swirling around him as he paced and gestured, John standing with head tilted and arms folded in what the DI once called his "what is this fuckery?" pose. John knew the photo well; Greg had presented both of them with a copy at his retirement. What caught his eye was the completely unfamiliar picture, smaller than his palm, that was tucked into one corner of the frame. He pulled it free and held it under the light for a closer look.
The photo was soft and worn around the edges from years of handling. It was a man — it was John — on his back, eyes closed, in a room lit only by the very lamp he was using to look at himself now. His hair was feral, his jaw covered with stubble on the verge of becoming beard, his face drawn even in sleep. His right arm was thrown up over his head, his face turned into the curve of his elbow. His chest was bare. And on the upper curve of his left shoulder, just above his scar, was a bright red mark still too fresh to have bruised.
His breath caught in his chest like a solid object. He sat down heavily on the edge of Sherlock's bed, cupping the photo in his hand as if it might disintegrate. He'd never seen it before, but he knew exactly when it must have been taken. He could pinpoint it to the day — no, to within a few hours. To one specific night. The night Sherlock had returned from the dead.
"Bloody buggering fuck," he whispered.
Chapter 5: ...Right Where You Are
The night Sherlock returned from the dead. They had never talked about it, not once. It wasn't that they'd avoided it, per se. It was more that they'd had so many other things to talk about. Everything about what, ever after, they only referred to as That Day. Everything each of them had done for every excruciating day of the year they'd been apart. Every stage of John's grief and mourning, every step of Sherlock's travels. And once they'd reviewed that, everything they had to do to bring a dead man back to life.
The tyranny of the quotidian, indeed, John thought. By the time they'd cleared away the sheer volume of minutiae involved in that necessary process, they were back to work — and neither of them had ever guessed how effective faking one's own death would prove as a marketing technique. Somehow, the weeks turned into months turned into years, and that night never came up. Not between them, anyway.
John wouldn't have denied, if asked outright, that he'd thought about it. But he hadn't been asked outright, so he kept his thoughts very much to himself. This dog-eared photo, though — it seemed Sherlock had thought about it, too, but how? He knew Sherlock better than anyone else ever had, but the inside of his head was still, and probably would always be, so much a mystery that he couldn't even begin to imagine the other man's perspective.
His own perspective, at a distance of two decades, had fragmented into a kaleidoscope of disconnected emotions and senses. It was spinning in his mind's eye now, split lip bruised knuckles disbelief fury white throat cigarette smoke you idiot closer breathing safe alive closer salt and metal on my tongue I can't breathe closer you fucking idiot I hate you so much right now you're really here —
His eyes slammed shut and the scraps of memory coalesced into a single recollection so vivid it was hallucinatory. Behind his eyelids, he was there, in the sitting room at 221B, opening the door and feeling all the blood leave his head at the sight of his best friend, his best friend who was dead, who couldn't possibly be standing there holding out one hand and saying his name in the most wrecked voice imaginable.
He was there, slamming the door shut in Sherlock's face, literally, and then snatching it open again as his dead best friend yelped in pain because dead men don't feel pain.
He was there, grabbing the man by the collar of his shirt and yanking him into the flat, punching him square in the mouth just hard enough to make him bite his lower lip open but not hard enough to knock out any teeth because he was angry but not that angry, but still angry enough, thank you very much.
He was there, raging with deadly calm as Sherlock stood there, eyes like moonstones and labradorite and other pale chatoyant things, listening like Sherlock never listened before in his goddamn life and waiting until John's voice had sputtered out into random expletives to reach out his hands once again and say quietly, "I'm sorry, John, I'm so sorry."
He was there, crashing into his best friend like an out-of-control lorry, smelling cigarettes on the skin at the hollow of Sherlock's throat where he buried his nose as the tears trickled down it, cursing him for taking up smoking again because didn't the man know it can kill you? And then giggling helplessly at how preposterous that was, and feeling the rumble of his friend's laughter against his chest, and wanting to crawl into the other man's ribcage to live with that laughter because he had missed it. So. Bloody. Much.
He was there, raking his fingers through dark curls as Sherlock pulled him closer and wrapped his ridiculously long arms around him tighter as his shoulders shook and John whispered, "Ssh, ssh, you're home now."
He was there, opening the door to Sherlock's bedroom, and how they got there he couldn't recall, and then he was sitting on the edge of the bed and his best friend, his best friend who wasn't dead, was pulling off John's shirt and dropping to his knees to press his face to John's bare stomach and John was bending over to rest his cheek on the top of Sherlock's head and all he wanted to do was take the man's pulse and blood pressure and listen to his breathing for hours and hours and hours because otherwise how could he be sure he was there?
And he was there, they were both there behind John's eyelids, and he didn't know what to label what was happening but they were trying to dissolve into each other and fill in all the gaps and patch all the cracks and Sherlock was surging up beneath him like a wave with his mouth on his shoulder just above his scar and John was brokenly ordering him never to leave again, never, to stay, right there, god, right there, and Sherlock gasped yes and bit down and the sounds they were making weren't words any more...
John's eyes flew open. He hissed in a long, deep breath. Sherlock must have taken that picture some time after that, because the next thing he remembered, it had been morning. Sherlock had been yelling from the sitting room that he'd texted Lestrade from John's phone and John had better get up or he'd miss all the fun when the DI walked in and discovered Sherlock was looking quite well for a corpse.
And he never brought it up, and neither did I, and I suppose we each made certain assumptions based on the other's silence, John thought. As we seem to do.
He set the photo on the bedside table and headed for the bathroom. He needed a shower.
Chapter 6: ...With Me
The bathroom door was shut. Naturally. He could hear Sherlock on the other side turning on the tap, rummaging through the cupboard, brushing his teeth. It was so unremarkable. How could Sherlock stick to his nightly routine when John had just realized — what had he realized? He wasn't sure. Maybe it was best to stick to routine himself.
He shut the door of the guest room behind him, stripped to his pants, and looked himself over in the mirror on the closet door. The arms were still good, he'd give himself that, but no amount of exercise could abolish the slight pot belly any more. He poked at it, sighed, and reached for the borrowed t-shirt. The sand-colored cotton had been washed and worn so many times that it was nearly transparent. At first, he thought the dark patch on the left breast was a stain, but no — it was a snake's head and one side of a laurel wreath, the last bits of a long-destroyed RAMC badge.
He knew this shirt. He'd lost it years ago in what he'd assumed was one of Sherlock's less successful attempts at doing laundry. Now, as he guessed otherwise, pulling the threadbare fabric over his head was enough to make his throat tighten.
"Sherlock?" he said hoarsely as he stepped into the hall.
"John?" his friend called out at the same time. John squared his shoulders and walked down the hallway.
Sherlock was sitting on his bed exactly where John had been, looking at the photo that was lying on the tabletop instead of in the edge of the picture frame. John looked down at his t-shirt and back at Sherlock, raising his eyebrows quizzically. "So."
"That's the only one I took."
"I didn't mean the shirt," he said carefully as he perched at the foot of the bed. "I meant, have I overlooked something important?"
"Always." Sherlock's lips quirked in a familiar half-smile. "But I've told you that before."
John returned the half-smile and gestured at the photo of himself, a much younger yet more haggard John with the marks of Sherlock's teeth red on his shoulder like a fresh brand. "You know what I mean."
"What do you mean?"
John tilted his head and frowned. Put so bluntly, he wasn't at all sure. "I don't know. I suppose you could start with why you have that picture in the first place."
"Is it a problem?"
"No, I just…" His mouth was dry; he licked his lips. "It seems like it might be important." He waited, watching the other man's hands as they slipped the photo back beneath the edge of the frame.
Sherlock flopped full-length onto the bed and stared at the ceiling. "I wanted to remember," he said.
John stretched out on the opposite side of the bed, curling one arm beneath his head. His eyes traced Sherlock's profile, the porcelain skin turning to worn ivory, the hint of softness emerging beneath the otherwise crisp jawline, the tiny lines stitching the lower edge of the still plush lower lip. Just below Sherlock's ear, he could see the skin twitching minutely over the carotid artery. John was almost close enough to put the tip of his finger on it and feel the blood rushing to that amazing brain.
"I've never known you to need a photograph to remember anything," he mused.
"I didn't say I needed it. I said I wanted it."
The tiny flutter of Sherlock's pulse was hypnotic. John could almost feel his own heartbeat synchronizing with it. Surely he'd read something about that in a medical journal somewhere. "Because…?"
Sherlock turned his head, grey eyes meeting blue. His voice was deep and slow and soft. "Sentiment."
John's brain stuttered. Someone had been an idiot for rather a long time; he just wasn't sure which of them it was. "Oh."
The quiet of the small hours expanded around them like a warm bubble.
"Why didn't you say something?" he eventually murmured.
"You've never been shy about bringing things up if you wanted to discuss them. You never said anything, so I assumed you didn't want to."
"I avoided the subject because I thought you were uncomfortable. Married to your work and all that."
One eyebrow gently mocked him. "The parade of girlfriends might have had something to do with it, too. And your own marriage seemed to be fairly definitive."
"Point taken," John said, conceding the obvious. "Still. You hoped we would retire together? You might have mentioned that bit."
Instead of answering, Sherlock rolled onto his side and slid one hand palm-down across the duvet. John studied it, breathed in deep and slow, and reached out across the space between them until their fingertips brushed. They considered that tiny point of contact in silence for long minutes.
"Now what?" The end of John's question trailed off in a prodigious yawn.
Sherlock extended his long arm farther to run one finger down John's nose and tap the end playfully. "It's late. Sleep."
John smiled and let his eyes drift shut. "Here?" It wasn't a question, not really, and he wasn't terribly surprised when Sherlock's hand squeezed his. "All right," he said, already drowsing. "I'll stay."
He woke up on his back, as he always did. Both his arms were curved loosely above his head, but he could also feel a hand on his chest. For a confused moment, he thought he was back at 221B and wondered whether he shouldn't get up to put the extra hand back in the refrigerator. Then he turned his head and saw a tumble of greying curls, gleaming dully in the muted light of the hour before dawn. Sherlock was sprawled against him, rumpled with sleep, one arm flung out to flatten a hand over John's heart. That heart beat just a bit faster at the sight.
He rolled sideways, curving himself against the other man and soaking in his warmth. Sherlock nuzzled into the back of John's head, then mumbled something incomprehensible and hooked one long calf over John's legs to pull him closer. John was breathless in a way he hadn't been since he'd last pelted across rooftops at Sherlock's heels. The only thing that felt strange was how very not-strange this felt.
"John." He felt rather than heard his name as Sherlock's lips moved against the nape of his neck. He tilted his head to encourage more of the same.
"John." It was a low whisper this time, then the flick of a tongue against his earlobe.
"Yes?" he whispered back, affecting nonchalance but squirming as the hand on his chest began moving lazily until he arched his back, stomach tightening. "Hey," he gasped. "Not fair."
He sat up, tugged the t-shirt over his head, and turned to see Sherlock smiling up at him. It was the could-be-dangerous smile, the we're-unstoppable smile, the smile that drew a circle around the two of them and hung a "keep out" sign for the rest of the world. Sherlock pulled the waistband of John's pants off his hips, skimmed off his own pyjamas, and tossed the lot to the floor.
"Just look at you," John murmured. "It's a good thing everything takes longer when you're older, or this would be over already."
"Shut up and come here."
Better late than never, John said to himself, and he lowered himself against his best friend for a deep, deliberate kiss that went on and on and on. This was bliss — hands fisted in hair and skating across shoulderblades, legs tangled together, tongues and breath in each other's eager mouths.
They wrapped around each other, slotting together like a perfectly engineered machine designed for nothing but pleasure. John licked and nibbled his way up Sherlock's throat to nuzzle the steady tick of his carotid. They rocked into each other's hips, watching each other slowly unravel, until Sherlock dropped his head to John's shoulder. "Please," he panted into the curve of John's neck. "Don't stop, right there, don't ever stop — "
John wondered what the hell he had been talking about when he'd warned about age-related delays. Within minutes, he was practically hyperventilating, beyond speech, beyond sense. When Sherlock gasped his name in a crescendo of pleasure, he grabbed a handful of curls and pulled. Eyes wide and unfocused, cupid's-bow mouth frozen in a perfect circle, tendons straining in the long neck — Sherlock was wild and glorious and John was following him over the edge with tears in his eyes and curses on his lips. Following Sherlock in this as he did in everything. As he always would. All the man ever had to do was ask.
Chapter 7: ...By My Side
When he woke up next, it was morning, the room bright and warm. Sherlock was sprawled face-down next to him, arms wrapped around his pillow and sheets kicked down to his ankles, every visible inch gilded by the sun shining onto the bed through the uncurtained window. John propped himself up on one elbow to trace the uncovered dips and curves, first with his eyes and then — carefully, slowly — with one fingertip. "Hmm," sighed the object of his attention, arching his back to meet the gentle stroke down his spine.
"Oh, you're awake." John straddled Sherlock's lower back and began to map the terrain of his shoulders with both hands, one scar and mark at a time. "Did you sleep all this time?"
"Got up for a bit a while ago to pack a bag. I'm coming back to London with you."
John made a wordless sound of surprise and pleasure. "For how long?"
"A few days — ah — " Sherlock grunted softly as two strong thumbs dug into the muscles below his shoulderblades. "Not letting two more years go by."
John leaned forward and touched his lips to Sherlock's bare bicep, shoulder, temple. The silvered curls smelled of sweat and honey. "I don't want two weeks to go by," he admitted with a soundless laugh. "I can't believe you're letting me do this."
"I can't believe you want to." The smirk on the visible half of Sherlock's face was somehow both mischievous and hesitant. "Shouldn't you be having a sexual identity crisis right about now?"
"Took care of that one night a couple of decades ago, thanks," John replied, shifting his weight onto his knees and making a certain unequivocal motion with his hips. "Still not gay."
Sherlock turned over beneath him in a single economical twist. "Oh?" One hand reached, grasped, stroked, as he smiled and said, "Isn't this evidence to the contrary?"
"You — " John inhaled sharply and grinned. "Fuck, I thought I was getting too old to react like this." He bit his lower lip. "You are the sum and total of my experience with men. And you know it, you nutter."
John repeated that unequivocal motion, this time involuntarily, and they caught their breath in harmony.
"First, last, and only. Because really, what other man could —" John groaned and rushed to finish the thought while he was still coherent. "— keep up with the great Sherlock Holmes?"
"Only you," the great Sherlock Holmes replied in a voice like gravel and honey. He slid his other hand up his doctor's leg and around his hip, pulled him closer, and whispered it again into his mouth. "God, John — only you."
It had taken them three more hours and several false starts before they made it to the train station, but they were finally en route. "There, that covers the rest of the year," said Sherlock, handing over John's netpad with the calendar app open. Every week for the next six months contained a three-day block labeled either "London" or "Hastings."
"Is this what I think it is?" John pointed at a blank week in early November.
"Well, that's when I have to put the bees to bed for the winter, and you do get touchy when you're trying to finish a book —"
John reached over and laid a hand lightly across Sherlock's mouth, feeling it widen into a smile. "I can't believe it," he teased. "After all these years, you're actually being considerate of my time?"
"At least until I can persuade you to spend most of it in Sussex." Sherlock wrapped his own hand around John's and pulled it just far enough away from his mouth to skim the tip of his tongue across John's palm before letting him go. John shivered and darted his own tongue across his lower lip.
"After Christmas, I promised." He selected a day in January, checked their now-merged schedules to make sure neither had any outstanding obligations, and created a red label in capital letters: JOHN MOVES. "There. Now do you believe me?"
"That does seem irrefutable."
"As long as you keep your side of the promise and let us go back to London now and then." John shook his head and chuckled. "I never thought I'd live in the country and have a pied-a-terre in the city."
"You never thought a lot of things. That's my job."
"Shut up, you. I'm sure there's nothing you've never thought."
Sherlock leaned his head against John's and said, almost inaudibly, "I never thought I'd be anything but alone when I got older."
"And I never thought I'd end up spending my life with a mad bastard," John answered just as quietly. "But it turns out that's what I was doing all along."
Sherlock smiled at nothing and reached for the netpad. "If you're not using this, I want to catch up on my beekeeping blogs."
John had a cup of excellent tea hot from the thermos, the wifi hadn't blinked out even once, and every few minutes, his seatmate brushed a hand against his upper arm or his knee or the back of his neck. For the first time in my life, he thought, I don't care how much longer I'll be on the train. I'm already exactly where I want to be.